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The Druid's Lament

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Hunith rarely, if ever, made impractical decisions. The eldest of four children in a poor peasant family, her parents raised her to be hardworking, practical, and shrewd. She remembered their lessons well. She kept a constant correspondence with her siblings. Her sister Mairwen still lived in their home village in Camelot, and her brother worked as a physician in the king’s own household. Her youngest sister Sefa died in childbirth at only age twenty.

Her first practical decision was to marry William, a farmer out in Ealdor. He often came to her village to trade with farmers there. Ealdor was perhaps twenty miles away from the Essetir-Camelot border. While she was reluctant to leave her family and country behind, William—or Liam, as she called him—was kind and could offer her a safe future. So when he asked for her hand in marriage at age twenty-one, she agreed. It was practical, after all. Her parents were overjoyed; their daughter had found a decent match, and they had one less mouth to feed.

After getting married in her home village, she made the fifty-mile journey with Liam to Ealdor. It was the same as home—surrounded by forest, derelict hovels, and fields. Liam’s father, also named William, had a bit of land he farmed. Liam did most of the farming, as his father suffered from terrible arthritis. Hunith, Liam, and William settled into a fine routine. Hunith cooked breakfast, and she and Liam worked in the fields all day. William brought them lunch and did whatever chores he could manage. At night, Liam tended to the livestock, cut firewood, and fished. Hunith cooked dinner, weaved, and did the cleaning.

After seven months, Hunith told Liam she was about four months with child. He was overjoyed, and they prayed for a son to help them in the fields. Hunith secretly wanted a daughter, but decided she could wait. A son was more practical, after all.

Her birth was long and hard, but she bore a son. The midwife and several neighbors helped her through it. The midwife had a bit of magic, and she cast a spell to relieve Hunith’s pain. Just a year later, King Uther of Camelot would outlaw magic in his kingdom and the midwife would run away into the night. Anyway, when the women allowed Liam into the bedchamber, he held his son in his arms and his eyes glistened with tears. The babe was an ugly, squalling creature covered in womb-water and other grime, but he had an endearing quality about him. Hunith fell in love on sight.

They named him William, after his father. He came to be called Will. Hunith did not want for every other person in the household to have all the same name, but she kept her mouth shut. All firstborn sons in Liam’s family had that name, so it was only practical. The babe grew to be strong, with brown hair and hazel eyes like his father. Hunith wanted the next child to have blue eyes, like her.

Grandda William died unexpectedly ten months after the birth of little Will. Liam and Hunith were devastated. Hunith had grown to love William as much as she did her own father. They spent a good deal of their savings to buy him a nice headstone in the village graveyard. That was a little impractical, but they felt they owed it to the man they both had loved so much.

 Just before Will turned one, soldiers came through the village. They were looking for men to fight in a war against the Saxons. They took a dozen men, including Liam. Hunith begged and begged for the soldiers not to take him—she was unable to tend the fields by herself, and she feared her husband would never come back.

  The soldiers laughed at her. “Your son can help in the fields,” the commanding officer said, pointing at the baby in Hunith’s arms.

 They at least let the men have one last night with their families before they left. As soon as they walked into their shack, Liam gave her a long, passionate kiss before he cupped his hand against her face. “If I don’t come back—“

 “Liam, don’t say that!” Hunith cried. “You will come back. You must.”

“Listen to me, my love. Gilanders has seven sons. I have spoken to him; the second and third eldest will help you in the fields. You will house and feed them. They are fine  young men—you know this. If I don’t come back, you must remarry, for your sake and our son’s. Do you promise?”

 Tears streaming down her face, Hunith nodded. “I promise, Liam. I love you.”

He tried to smile, and failed. “I love you, too, darling. Make your husband happy before he goes off to war, now.”

So they put Will in his cradle and shared one last night together as husband and wife. That seemed practical—they might never see each other again.

Liam’s fears came true. Matthew, another man pressed into the army alongside Liam, came back bearing a battered sword and chain mail. Solemn and missing two fingers on his left hand, he offered the sword to a heavily-pregnant Hunith. “He went down fighting,” he said. “It—it was a good death.”

She sobbed in the middle of the town green. Gilanders’s wife Lani stayed with her for a week. Hunith did not know what to do. She could not run a farm by herself until Will came of age, and employing farmhands was not a long-term solution. She remembered her promise to Liam, and cried all the harder.

 Lani first suggested that Hunith sell the farm and return to her home village and her parents. “Surely you can find help there,” she said.

 “My family can barely feed themselves, much less support me and two children,” Hunith hiccupped, red-eyed and exhausted.

 “You could rent out the land to my son Young Gil and his wife, until Will is old enough to inherit the land. You could come and work for us, as a field hand.”

 Hunith felt that was the most practical option, and agreed. She worked in the fields alongside Lani, Gilanders, and their fourteen children. One of their daughters minded her little siblings and Will during the day. It was a sound arrangement. The midwife-witch had already left, so the experienced Lani and her eldest daughter Arwen coached her through the birth. Selfishly, Hunith prayed for a daughter with blue eyes. Out of her womb came a son with green eyes like his paternal grandfather. Sons were more practical, she reminded herself.

 She named her son Gilanders, after the man who had showed her so much kindness. Gilanders was honored. Will, nearly three, was fascinated by his little brother. He called him Gilli, and the nickname stuck. Gilli was adored and spoiled by Gilanders’ family and his own.

 She received word from her village that her sister Sefa had passed away, which devastated her. She could not attend the funeral, as harvest season was in full swing and every able-bodied person was needed to bring the crop in. She mourned on her own, in private. Just a week later, she got a letter from her brother Gaius:

Dearest Hunith,

I am sure Ma and Da have sent word of poor Sefa’s death. She lost her child, too. How is it that the baby of the family was the first to leave us? Poor Norm is devastated. I was so sorry to hear about your husband William’s passing; he was a fine fellow, husband, and father. Death seems omnipresent, these days. I hope William the Younger is doing well. In Camelot, Uther slaughters magic users like animals. He burns them at the stake; I cannot escape the scent of burnt flesh. I have a friend called Balinor who needs a safe place to stay. I believe Ealdor is remote enough that Uther cannot find him, so I am sending him your way. He can work as a field hand, for free if necessary. So sorry if this is inconvenient.

Your loving brother,

Gaius

Hunith was enraged by her brother’s tactless letter. He mentioned Liam’s death only in passing, and did not even know she had borne a second child. She could barely provide for herself and her children. How did Gaius expect for her to take in a man she did not even know? Life in the city had clearly made him forget what village life was like. She wrote him back:

My dearest brother Gaius,

Mairwen sent a letter explaining the details of Sefa’s passing. I am still mourning our darling sister’s death, and that of my husband. I now work as a field hand for generous friends who have become like family. Their eldest son and his wife will rent my farm until my sons come of age. That is right, my sons. Before Liam my husband William left for war, I was pregnant. I now have two sons—William the Younger and Gilanders. You assume much by sending this Balinor to me for charity and help. However, the situation in Camelot sounds terrifying, so I will arrange for him to work as a field hand for my tenants. I can only pra he knows his way around a farm.   

Your loving sister,

Hunith

Balinor arrived two weeks after she sent her reply. He was a hulking man, with a strong nose and long black hair. When Lani discovered he had nits, she cut it very short with a pair of sheep shears. He looked almost handsome after that. He stayed with Young Gil and his wife, at Hunith’s farm. He did his work efficiently and kept to himself for the most part. Sometimes he came to Gilanders’ for dinner. Dinner was always chaotic, as they had so many mouths to feed. They barely noticed Balinor’s presence sometimes. He was quiet and his eyes were haunted.

Eventually, he opened up a bit. He knew a few magic tricks, he said, which had made him a target of King Uther’s witch-hunt. He refused to perform any magic, no matter how much little Will begged him. The child became extremely fond of the man, sometimes sneaking over to his mother’s farm to follow him around in the fields. Hunith eventually agreed to let Will accompany Balinor to work for a few hours a day. At three, he was old enough to scare birds away from the fields.

Soon Balinor came to dinner every night. Will hung onto his every word, but Hunith kept her distance. She knew her son needed a father figure, but she would have preferred Gilanders taking Liam’s place in Will’s life. One morning, Balinor and Hunith both happened to get water from the well at the same time. Hunith had Gilli strapped to her chest with a sling. The infant slept soundly.

“Gilanders is a lovely child,” Balinor commented as he filled his buckets. Despite Hunith’s protests, he filled hers up as well. “Reminds me a bit of Gaius.”

“He’s much cuter than Gaius was as a baby,” Hunith said.

 Balinor laughed, and Hunith realized with a jolt it was the first time she had heard him do so. “So, Balinor, how do you know my brother? You never said.”

 “I saved his life one day, when he was traveling at night through the city. A group of four or five jumped him, since they thought he was a rich doctor type. I drove them off. We’ve been friends ever since.”

You drove off five men?” Hunith’s eyes widened. “Did you use your magic?”

 Balinor immediately tensed. “I may have used…alternative means. Do not mention that word, Hunith; talk like that can get you killed.”

 “This is Essetir, not Camelot.”

 “Cenred does not care if Uther’s men stray into his lands and kill a few sorcerers. He’s ruthless, and he doesn’t care if Essetirian peasants live or die. You would know. He sent your husband to be slaughtered like cattle, didn’t he?”

Hunith felt a surge of fury at his mention of Liam. “Don’t mention him, or act like you understand what he went through. You have no right to, not with the son he never got to meet in my arms.”

Taken aback, Balinor held up his hands. “I apologize if I caused any offense. You’ve been very generous to me.”

“Just don’t talk about Liam. That’s all I ask.”

 Balinor bowed, as if she were a lady. “I will not discuss him. I have much I would rather not talk about myself.”

Their early morning well meetings continued almost daily after that, and he started coming to dinner every night. Balinor was a fantastic story teller, and very educated. He did not speak like a peasant or act like one, but he had callused hands and worked hard. Hunith suspected he had served as a servant in the king’s or another noble’s household. They were often better educated.

Balinor and Hunith started spending more and more time together. He learned how run a farm efficiently from Young Gil. Hunith suspeted he used magic to help the crops grow, as Ealdor had one of its more bountiful harvests ever that year.

 After Balinor had been in Ealdor for a little over a year and a half, Lani started hinting to Hunith that it might be time to consider marriage. She and Balinor were very close, and her children adored him. They spent almost all their evenings together, and Balinor had started to reveal more bits of his past to her. The stories he told her broke her heart.

 “I don’t know if I’m ready,” Hunith admitted to Lani one day, as she nursed Gilli.

 “You promised Liam you would remarry. I know you did,” the much older woman reminded her.

 “It’s been just over two years! I’m not ready, and I don’t need a husband. I get by just fine, and have two sons to support me when I grow old.”

“I know you’ve always wanted a daughter, Hunith. You watch my seven girls with such longing in your eyes. You have the same look in your eyes when you are with Balinor.”

 “Lani, you’ve been so good to me. Why?”

 “Your husband was a dear friend of ours growing up, and you became a dear friend as well. If I had been widowed young, I would have wanted someone to help me and my children out. So, will you marry him?”

 “If he asks, I will say yes.”

It was probably no coincidence that Balinor asked for her hand in marriage on a walk through the woods a week later. It was very romantic, and she cried and said yes. It reminded her of when Liam proposed to her. Balinor had no money for a ring, but he presented her with a beautifully carved wooden dragon.

 They got married after a five-month betrothal, as was the Essetirian custom. Young Gil, his wife, and two daughters moved back in to Gilanders’ home to help them tend the fields. Hunith and Balinor took control of the farm again. Young Gil had kept it in excellent condition. With the wooden dragon placed on their mantle and Liam’s armor and sword on display, the little one-room hut felt like a home again. On the night they got married, Will and Gilli stayed at Gilanders’. 

 About six months into their marriage, Hunith conceived. She was extremely excited, and Balinor looked troubled for a moment before grinning widely. Will and Gilli were excited to have a new sibling. “I want a bruver, Ma!” Will exclaimed when he heard the news.

“You could have a sister, too, Will,” Balinor said. “Wouldn’t you like that?”

“I want a bruver more,” Will decided after a long time. “I want another Gilli to play with.”

Chapter Text

Will’s wish came true. In the dead of night, Lani and her daughter Arwen helped Hunith through a horrible birth. Two babes slithered out of her womb. One was sickly, and the other seemed strong. Lani and Hunith did everything they could to help the ailing little one for the next week. Balinor tried a few spells and told them that there was something wrong with the child’s heart.

They named the twins on the third day. The sickly one was named Balinor the Younger, as he had been born first. Hunith wanted to name the younger, stronger twin Merlin, after her sister Mairwen. He had her sister’s big blue eyes. Balinor suggested Emrys, and they argued for quite a long time over this. They finally decided on Emrys. They took to calling the babe Em. Hunith called him Merlin as a pet name on occasion.

Young Balinor died at just a week and a half old. They buried him next to old William. Balinor scarcely talked for a month, and Hunith cried herself to sleep for weeks. They pulled themselves together, though, for the sake of Will, Gilli, and Em.

When Merlin was about one, he was playing with wooden soldiers Balinor made for him when suddenly they started levitating off the ground. Gilli immediately ran to get his parents. Hunith started screaming, but Balinor placed a hand over her mouth. “This is normal,” he said.

“A baby making his toys float is not NORMAL!” Hunith snarled. “You better have a good explanation, Balinor, by the gods.”

“Get Will from the fields, please,” Balinor told Gilli. The child obeyed.

When the family was assembled, Balinor plucked the floating toy soldier out of the air and hoisted Merlin onto his hip. “I did the same thing at his age,” he began. When his wife opened her mouth to ask a question, he held up a finger. “It will be easier if you let me explain.”

Hunith nodded, giving her silent go-ahead.

“I have not told you this before, because I thought ignorance might save you from the pyre if Uther tracks me here. Anyways, here goes the story: my mother was a Druid. When magic was still allowed in Camelot, Druids were renowned for their healing and nature magic. My father was a Dragonlord—he could speak and work with dragons, and I inherited that from him. A union between a Dragonlord and a Druid is quite uncommon, as they have very different cultures. Anyway, the children borne from such marriages bear both their parents’ gifts. I have a great capacity for healing and fire magic, while also retaining my father’s abilities. I am not quite sure how to put this humbly—I am perhaps one of the most powerful sorcerers in the realm.

“I will pass my magic onto my children; I have passed it on to Em. He has the same magical ability that I do. He may possess more talent than I do. I did not show signs of telekinesis—moving stuff with your mind—until I was three. He shows great promise.”

Hunith’s eyes widened. She could not bring herself to be angry with her husband. He had kept his past hidden only to protect them from execution. “What were your parents’ names, my love?” This was the first time he had willingly talked about his parents.

“My mother is named Emerald, but all call her Emry. I-I named Emrys after her. My father was George. He died when I was very young. I was raised amongst the Druids until age ten, when the Dragonlords summoned me to complete the rest of my training.”

“Your mother is alive?” Hunith whispered.

“Yes, she and my elder half-brother Iseldir live in the Feorre Mountains. I planned to join them eventually, but…”

“You married me.”

“I wanted to stay and earn enough money to continue the rest of my journey. It played out a little differently than I expected.”

“Will, Gilli, go outside and play in the garden for a bit,” Hunith told her two eldest sons.

“Maaaa,” Will and Gilli groaned.

Now, William and Gilanders. Or do I have to ask a second time?”

“No, Ma,” they murmured, going outside to play in the vegetable garden. Hunith immediately kissed Balinor. He kissed her back, intensely. They continued like this for a minute, and Balinor pulled away.

“Are you angry?” he asked, brow furrowed.

“Hurt, yes. Angry, no. You never told me you had any family left.”

“I wanted to keep you safe from my past. Then Em’s powers manifested.”

She sat down on their bed. “Can you tell me about them now?”

Balinor glanced towards the door. “We really ought to get back to the fields, love…”

“If only for fifteen minutes? We can have a really quick lunch,” Hunith pleaded.

“Very well. Where to begin…” Balinor stared at his callused, dirt-blackened hands and sighed. “I’ll start with my mother. She is named Emerald for the color of her eyes. Her first husband was a Druid as well. She had three children with him—Iseldir, Maud, and Emlyn. Emlyn died as an infant. Iseldir is eight years my elder, and Maud six.” Balinor grinned a bit. “After my mother was widowed, the Dragonlords sent one of their sons to study with the Druids. They fell in love, married, and had me. My father was slain fighting the Saxons. I’m told he was a good man; he died when I was four.”

Hunith took his hand. “Tell me about Iseldir and Maud.”

“Iseldir’s a Seer, like his father; he sees the future in his dreams. He’s very skilled. He’s quiet, but there’s this sense of power about him. Mother’s the closest to a leader the Druids have; I assume one day he will take over for her. Now, Maudie is a healer, like Mother. Somehow, she is a blonde in a family with jet-black hair. She has a son named Cedran, but she never married.”

He laughed at Hunith’s surprised expression. “Druids don’t really mind when a woman has a child out of wedlock. We consider all children blessings.”

 “It’s not that, really. No one bats an eye if a woman has a bastard or two, so long as she gets married later. I’m just baffled how she’s managed to get by without a man. Having a husband makes providing for children so much easier.”

“The community always provides for each other. It’s how the Druids have managed to survive Uther’s Purge.”

“Is your brother married?”

“Iseldir never married. He’s never managed to find the right woman.” Balinor grinned. “I never thought I would have, either.”

Sensing he was ready to be done, Hunith stood up. “You’re such a flirt, husband.” She took his hand and kissed him, gently. “Thank you for sharing that with me. It means so much. Now, we best be off to the fields. There’s much to be done.”

Balinor did not mention his family again for a long time.

 

* * *

 

Over the next six years, every third year, two more children were born. Hunith’s fourth pregnancy produced another son. Hunith called him Mordred after a lullaby her mother used to sing to her, even though Balinor told her she could name the child Merlin if she wanted. Hunith just shook her head. Mordred’s eyes were an icy blue, one that Balinor said ran in his father’s side of the family. She had only wanted to name Emrys after her sister because they had the same colored eyes. Merlin just simply didn’t fit her fourth son. It fit her third like a charm, though. She sometimes regretted letting Balinor name him Emrys.

Balinor was still very tight-lipped about his past, and rarely used or talked about his magic. However, he taught little Em how to control and disguise his powers as soon as the child was old enough to understand. He still displayed extraordinary magic—he healed her with a touch of his hand when she burned herself badly when cooking one day. Balinor later explained that Em’s magic saw that she was in pain and just acted.

“Em loves you, so his magic does as well. It’s almost a separate entity from him, with a will of its own. He will need to learn to get a handle on it,” Balinor explained when she asked him about it.

They learned to live with having a child sorcerer in the house, and life went on as it always had. When Mordred’s powers manifested, he received the same lessons from his father that Em had. “Hide it or die,” was the chilling idea Balinor drilled into his sons’ heads.

They finally had a daughter three years after Mordred’s birth. Hunith cried tears of joy, and felt as if Liam had intervened on her behalf and given her the daughter she had always longed for. She named her Sefa. The girl would grow up to have an uncanny resemblance to her dead aunt. Sefa showed signs of magic as well—objects floated, she repaired a shattered bowl just by staring at it, et cetera. 

In the years since Balinor’s escape from Camelot, the Great Purge, as many called it, continued on ruthlessly. Magic had been outlawed in all of Camelot’s holdings, and any magic user who came across a Camelot soldier was killed on sight. Hunith began to fear that eventually Uther would find her husband and children.

They kept their youngest three away from the other villagers most of the time. Em could only go play with the other village children when he was four and hadn’t had a spontaneous magical incident for six months. Hunith thought the Gilanders’ clan suspected that something was special about Balinor’s children.

One day, when Sefa was barely one, Young Gil raced into their hut. “Matthew’s son Creel spotted soldiers bearing the Camelot badge about five miles out. You have to leave now, Balinor!”
                Seven-year-old Em’s eyes widened in fear. “Are they gonna kill Da?”

Frantic, Balinor dug up their money and ordered them to pack what they could carry. They each packed their two sets of clothes, all the food they could carry, blankets, a fire kit, and a map that was a prized possession of Gilanders’. Hunith strapped Liam’s sword to her hip, and Balinor donned her late husband’s chain mail. Balinor’s wooden carvings that were light and easy to carry were put in Will’s pack. Young Gil agreed to take the family dog, their three cats, and the goats the children adored. He offered his two geldings to aid in their escape. Balinor got their two horses as well. He started chanting, and his eyes glowed gold. Hunith rode with Sefa in a sling and Mordred secured to her lap with her girdle. Merlin rode in Balinor’s lap, and Gilli sat behind Will. They used the fourth horse as a packhorse, and tethered him behind Balinor’s. As the family galloped hard out of Ealdor, they looked sadly at the graveyard where William and Balinor the Younger were buried, and rode off into the forest.

The spell Balinor cast hid their trail. They rode hard for hours. Mordred and Sefa cried, confused and exhausted. It broke Hunith’s heart, and she did her best to comfort them. Will had tears streaming down his face silently as he rode. He loved life in Ealdor—working the land, raising livestock, their friends and neighbors. Hunith felt the same. She had lived there for over a decade. That one-room, drafty hut had become a home to her. Ealdor held fond memories of her marriage to Liam.  There she buried her father-in-law and infant son. There she married Balinor, and bore six children. She was heartbroken that she needed to flee from Ealdor.

They stopped when it grew too dark to continue. Will watered the horses, and Hunith prepared a meagre meal of bread and salted fish. Balinor refused to light a fire. He feared the Camelot soldiers might see the light of it and follow it in the dark. As they scarfed down their food in the pitch black, wrapped in thin, ratty blankets and shivering, they discussed where they could go.

“We could join my family in the Feorre Mountains,” Balinor suggested.

“My parents and sister Mairwen may take us in. Going to Camelot rather than deeper into Essetir could throw them off.” Croyton was Hunith’s home village.

 “Could they support seven additional people, when they can barely feed themselves?” Balinor pointed out. “I feel going to my mother’s people may be our best bet.”

“What about the Dragonlords, Balinor?” Will inquired.

His stepfather’s face darkened. “They are too scattered. The Druid encampment in the Feorre Mountains gets by well enough, and it is well hidden. We must go there.”

It seemed practical, so Hunith agreed. Thankfully, it was early spring and they did not need to worry about journeying through the mountain range in winter. It was about a two weeks’ trek to the foot of the mountains. Balinor sent a magical message to his brother and Iseldir agreed to meet them there.

So a harrowing, stressful two weeks passed. They rode most of the day and slept fitfully at night. They only stopped to rest if the horses really needed to. Hunith thanked the gods for Young Gil’s gift of his two geldings. The Camelot soldiers did not seem to be pursuing them, but Balinor continued to disguise their trail with magic. The children, bless them, did not complain and faced each day with courage. Finally, they reached the foot of the mountains that had grown closer and closer each day. As promised, a dark-haired man with kind eyes and Balinor’s face structure waited for them, sitting atop a delicate white mare.

“I meet my family at last!” Iseldir called, cantering to meet them. Balinor dismounted immediately and Iseldir practically leaped off his horse to embrace him. They hugged for a long time before pulling apart.

“It’s been too long, Ejred,” Iseldir said thickly.

“Ejred?” Hunith inquired.

“My father’s kin called me Ejred. I prefer the name my mother gave me,” Balinor explained.

Iseldir urged them all to dismount. “We must be introduced properly,” he insisted. “Balinor, be polite like Ma taught you.”

“May I present my dear wife, Hunith. Hunith, this is my insufferable brother Iseldir,” Balinor said, shooting a glare at Iseldir.

“Hunith! You are even more beautiful than Balinor described.” Iseldir hugged her and kissed her cheek.

“Hunith’s eldest, William the Younger, named for his father. I’m told he was a very brave courageous man, and Will certainly proves that,” Balinor said next. Iseldir hugged him and told him he was very glad he was a part of their family. Hunith’s heart swelled with her pride. Will loved Balinor like a father, but he also wanted to maintain his connection to Liam. Balinor had managed to acknowledge both Liam and himself as integral parts of Will’s life.

“This strapping lad is Hunith’s second son with William, Gilanders. Gilli’s a hard worker, and is so good with animals I think he may be a Druid in secret. He’s a good lad.”

“Hello, Uncle,” Gilli said quietly as Iseldir gave him a hug and welcomed him.

Balinor gestured to Em. “My eldest son, Emrys. He’s extremely gifted; his powers manifested when he was just a baby. He’s all raw power, though; he’ll need a teacher, to show him the ropes.”

“I would be glad to fill the position, brother.” Iseldir ruffled his nephew’s hair.

“This is my second son, Mordred, who’s all of four. I sense he may be a great healer, in time.”

As Iseldir fussed over Mordred, Hunith came forward with the baby. “This is our youngest and only daughter, little Sefa. She’s just over a year old. She has the sweetest disposition, and is such an easygoing child.”

Iseldir held out his arms. “She must take after her mother, then. Balinor was a horrible baby, always crying and fussing. May I hold her?”

“Certainly.” Hunith was impressed by how expertly he held the children. At her pleased expression, her brother-in-law grinned.

“I minded Balinor when he was little. Our sister has a son, as well. Cedran’s almost thirteen, though.” Iseldir handed Sefa back to Hunith. “We’d best be on our way, it’s dangerous to linger for too long.”

He turned to his younger brother. “Balinor, renew the trail-hiding spells on your horses’ hooves and mine. We’ll reach camp in a few hours.”

“I cast one four hours ago, when we stopped for water.”

“These are powerful lands. Do it again.” Iseldir’s tone left no room for argument. Muttering, Balinor recast the spells and they remounted their steeds. Iseldir kicked his horse into a gallop, and they headed towards the mysterious Druid encampment.

 

Chapter Text

After three hours of hard riding through narrow trails in the forest at the foot of the Feorre Mountains, Iseldir led them into a valley. "Just a bit more," he promised

"Now I see why Uther's never managed to find this place," Balinor said with a little chuckle. Em rode behind him on the saddle, clinging on tightly for dear life.

Iseldir led the party through the deep ravine, navigating boulders, bushes, and fallen trees with ease. Finally, he found a little uphill stream that flowed into the ravine. It was wide enough for one horse at a time. It was a narrow squeeze, with steep stone sides. He coaxed his horse to follow the stream. Balinor, Hunith, and their children exchanged dubious looks but followed. They followed the stream for about thirty minutes. The land began to flatten out, and the steep sides eventually dropped away. They ended up on the shores a fast-flowing river surrounded by more woodland.

"We are still at the base of the mountains, but this is a fairly deserted area. The shortcut we just took is the only way to make it from Essetir without going through the mountains. You also have to climb the mountains from the Northland side to access it from there. In Camelot, you have to go through the Valley of the Fallen Kings.

"We call that the River Temperance. It flows into a small lake." Iseldir led them north, following the river downstream.

"How many Druids call this place home?"

"Nearly fifty families. Most camps have no more than a dozen." Iseldir looked troubled for a moment, but grinned. "They'll love you, and will be eager for the fresh blood. We've even set up farms."

"How did so many people find out about the camp? It's very…" Hunith struggled to find the right word.

"In the middle of nowhere?" Her newfound brother-in-law glanced over his shoulder, smirking.

"I was going to say isolated."

"Through telepathy, of course."
"Telepathy?" Hunith repeated the strange word. In the villages, most children learned their letters and simple arithmetic. She felt very uneducated, at that moment.

"Talking with your mind, love," Balinor told her. He didn't sound condescending at all, which was one of the reasons she loved him. He was very modest about his intellect and extensive education.

"Surely Balinor and your youngest three do it. All the magic-born can, once they are taught."

"Da never taught us to do that," Em muttered.

"Balinor!" Iseldir exclaimed in shock. "At least Emrys should know how to!"

"I focused on teaching them to mask their powers!" Balinor growled.

"That is the complete opposite of what an instructor of magic should be doing. Don't you remember the lessons of our childhood?"

"This is a different time. Our people were not hunted like animals by Uther and his men. My lessons focused on survival."

"Well, now they will get proper lessons." Iseldir's tone left no room for argument.

"Can we get lessons as well, Uncle?" Gilli asked, almost timidly.

"Have you magical blood, my lad?"

Gilli looked to Balinor. "I don't believe so," the boy's stepfather said, as gently as he could.

When Gilli's face fell, Iseldir said cheerfully, "There's still much to learn. I can teach you sword fighting, the healing craft, and mental defenses against possession and other magical attacks. Will, would that interest you as well?"

"No, thank you. I'd rather stick to what I know, Uncle. Have you any farmland?" Will inquired.

"We have a few fields. We always need extra hands. Your help will be greatly appreciated."

Iseldir suddenly turned his horse towards a steep hill on their left. "Follow me!"

"This camp is awfully hard to get to, brother," Balinor grumbled, urging his horse into a trot.

"You could always go to Camelot," Iseldir said sweetly.

"Iseldir?"

"Yes, little brother?"

"Shut up."

Iseldir shook his head, clucking his tongue. As they reached the top of the hill, Hunith's jaw dropped. "It's not a camp… it's a village!"

Below them lay a larger version of Ealdor. The hovels were slightly bigger, and the people looked a little more haggard than the peasants in Ealdor. Yet it was still surrounded by lush green forests, and they had carved fields out of them. Chickens and hogs wandered the village green, and women did laundry in their front yards. Children played in the dirt, laughing and clapping. Hunith's eyes welled up with tears.

"We call it Sábháilte," Iseldir said.

"It means 'haven' in Druidic," Balinor whispered.

That's when Hunith really started crying.

When Iseldir led them into Sábháilte, the other Druids watched them with a mix of suspicion and interest. They talked amongst themselves in low, worried tones. They spoke Druidic, so Hunith had no idea what they said. Balinor did not seem offended, so she tried not to make assumptions.

Iseldir took them inside a hut with a roof badly in need of new thatching. Once they were inside, it appeared to have two rooms; there was a narrow doorway covered with a ragged curtain on the wall opposite the front door. On a crude stool sat an older woman with the greenest eyes Hunith had ever seen. The woman dropped the cup she was holding when she saw Balinor walk in the door. He immediately went to her, and she latched onto him.

"My son, oh, my son," she kept saying. After a minute, with teary eyes, she fixed her green gaze on Hunith and the children.

"You must be the woman who has bewitched my Balinor so," Emerald said. She put her hand on Hunith's cheek and kissed it. "I lost a daughter, many moons ago. It seems the gods have sent me another."

"Hello, Emerald," Hunith said a bit timidly. "It's so good to see you, at long last."

"Very good," Emerald hummed. "Call me Emery. Everyone does." She turned to the children. "And these must be my lovely grandchildren!"

As she was introduced to each child, she kissed them and held them close. Will squirmed a bit, but submitted to the attention. Gilli, who was an affectionate child, seemed to greatly enjoy the doting nature of his step-grandmother. He had never known any of his grandparents. Em watched the woman he had been named after carefully, his wide blue calculating and serious. Mordred hid behind his mother's legs at first, but Emery managed to coax him out.

When Sefa was handed to her, Emery started crying. "I always wanted a granddaughter," she said tearfully. "She's so beautiful, Hunith. My little Sefa. I adore her name."

"She's named after my youngest sister, who died during childbirth."

Emery cupped her daughter-in-law's face. "You've suffered greatly, child. The healer in me can sense it. You will be safe here, you and your children." She straightened, and suddenly her tone became much more commanding. Later on, Hunith would come to know it as Emery's "leader voice". "Now, you all are clearly exhausted. Get some rest. There are blankets in the back room. I'll have Maud get Cedran's old cradle for Sefa."

Ushered off to bed like children, Balinor, Hunith, and their brood wrapped themselves in the old blankets and practically collapsed on the straw-littered floor. Sefa was placed in a cradle that a beautiful, golden-haired woman hauled over. The woman, Maud, simply seized Balinor in a hug and then left them be. "We can talk later. Get some sleep," she said. Her voice sounded like wind chimes.

They awoke a few hours later. Emery and Maud gave them bowls of pottage flavored with onions, turnips, oats, and salted fish. Iseldir was nowhere to be seen. "He's off at my place, sleeping," Maud told them with a fond grin.

"Where's Cedran?" Balinor asked. "I haven't seen the boy since he was in diapers."

"Where's Cedran?" Balinor asked. "I haven't seen the boy since he was in diapers."

"He's hunting, bless him." Maud glanced at her nephews and niece. The boys sat on the floor, eating, while Sefa was on Balinor's lap. There was only room for the four adults at the small table. "William, my Cedran's only a year older than you. He'll be grateful to have another boy his age around."

"Are there not many children?" Balinor asked.

"Of course there are. We are Druids," Maud chuckled. At Hunith's confused expression, she laughed. "Our people are known for having many children. I found one to be enough, personally."

"I really wanted a girl," Hunith murmured.

"Ma, I'm hurt!" Will said dramatically, clutching his chest.

"Oh, hush, you," laughed Hunith.

"She's always favored Sefa. I understand now," Balinor whispered loudly to his mother. "It makes so much more sense."

Everyone burst into laughter. It warmed Hunith's heart to see her children fed and happy. Maybe, just maybe this isolated and safe place would become a home to them.

They slowly integrated themselves into the community. The men spent two months constructing a little two-room hut next to Emery and Maud's hut for the family. When Hunith stepped inside after they finally finished it, she cried her eyes out. Hunith, Balinor, and the children who were old enough pitched in with the field work during the day. At night, Hunith helped cook and Balinor instructed the children of the community.

"Lessons are very important. It's how Druids learn their culture and develop their magic skills," Balinor explained one night.

All the children began learning to speak and write in Druidic immediately. The oldest three struggled the most with it. Mordred took to it like a duck in water, and Sefa's first word was the Druidic word for Granny, Móraí. The children adored Móraí Emery. Eventually, as the year wore on, they spoke Druidic as if it were their native tongue.

Em's magic proficiency soon became apparent to all. He was put in lessons with children in their late teens, and it quickly became apparent he was mastering the spells with little trouble at all. Iseldir eventually began teaching him one-on-one. Mordred was simply content to babble spells that conjured pretty pictures in fire or water.

They also made new friends. Mordred played with the little children. He was especially close with a little girl named Kara. As Maud had predicted, Will and Cedran soon became inseparable. Gilli bonded with a couple boys. Em, however, struggled to make friends. The other children were intimidated by his "freaky" magical abilities. His brothers and elder cousin let him in on their fun, though. Balinor reconnected with Druids he knew from his youth, and Hunith soon became fond of them as well.

Hunith and Maud became very close. Maud reminded Hunith of her sisters—she was fun and carefree. She wore breeches, declaring that she found skirts too cumbersome. She specialized in healing magic, and had an extensive knowledge of herbs. She often sent Hunith into the forest to fetch her herbs.

When Hunith was on one of her many herb-collecting forays, Balinor accompanied her. Five months later, she discovered she was pregnant. Balinor and the children were overjoyed; the whole community was. Hunith would soon discover what Balinor meant when he said Druids "consider all children blessings" all those years ago. All the women in the village took Hunith into the forest and prayed over her pregnant belly. They hung dried flowers from the ceiling for good luck. They gave her an amulet that "guaranteed" a safe delivery and a healthy child. A kind man named Aglain built a cradle for the baby. Maud gave her herbs to ease Hunith's morning sickness and constant headaches.

On the night of the birth, Hunith was moved next door to Emery and Maud's hut. They kicked Balinor, Iseldir, and the children out. About three dozen people lingered in the village green for a good part of the night. After ten hours of labor, Hunith and Balinor welcomed another baby boy into the world. He was strong, healthy, and fat.

Two-year-old Sefa was besotted with her baby brother. She doted on him and called him "her baby". William, now fifteen, assumed the dutiful role of big brother that he had had since age three, when Gilli was born.

They struggled with a name for four days. They threw around a great variety—George, Gaius, Iseldir, Merlin, Ejred, Sage (Hunith's favorite flower), et cetera. Finally, Maud said while preparing lunch one day, "If I had another boy, I would have named him Daegel. It means 'from the dark stream'."

Hunith turned to her. She was nursing the child at the table. "That's it! His eyes as dark, like river pebbles. Daegel!" She turned to Maud. "Get Balinor from the fields, and tell him our son is named Daegel!"

That night, Emery, as leader of the community, called everyone together for the naming ceremony. There were about two hundred Druids assembled in the village green, quietly talking amongst themselves. However, when Hunith passed her son to his grandmother, they immediately fell quiet. A sacred event was about to take place.

Emery spoke in Common for the sake of Hunith; her Druidic was rudimentary at best. "Today, we are gathered to celebrate a new life. Our people have been persecuted—beaten, murdered, and burned. We have been reduced to outcasts, lingering on the edges of society. Even in the darkest hour, we remain strong. We hold onto what is ours, and we cherish it. The great circle of life continues, and the Druids lost to Uther's genocide will slowly be replaced by the children our women bear—like this child in my arms right here.

"We must continue to rebuild, to fight for our right to practice magic and teach it to our children in peace. One day we will not be outcasts anymore. Druids will be able to rejoin society and be equal to our non-mage brothers and sisters.

"This child has been given a very traditional Druidic name—Daegel. May he stand as a testament to the fact that our culture and people can never be wiped out!" Emery lifted the child above her head. "Fáilte, Daegel!" she yelled.

"Fáilte, Daegel!" the Druids chanted.

When Balinor nudged her, Hunith finally joined in. Seeing her tiny little babe, surrounded by his kin and his people, she felt a renewed sense of hope for the future. Perhaps one day she could return to Ealdor, and maybe even Camelot to see her parents and siblings. She would be able to bring her magic-born children with her, not just Will and Gilli. They could meet Balinor, and Gaius would be able to see his old friend again. What a blessing that would be.

The Druids then sang a few songs in their tongue that Hunith was unable to understand. Balinor and the children hummed along. Emery was horribly off key, but she tried her best. Maud, though…

Maud had the voice of a goddess. It was a hauntingly beautiful soprano. Her voice seemed to caress Hunith's ears, and she felt as if she were in the realm of the gods, hearing angels sing. Hunith could listen to her sister-in-law sing forever.

After the singing was over, everyone returned to their homes for supper and bed. Like the peasants back in Ealdor, the Druids in Sábháilte rose and went to bed with the sun. It had just started to sink on the horizon.

Maud, Iseldir, Emery, and Cedran joined Hunith and her family for dinner in their hut. Emery had made honey cakes for the event. They had their usual pottage of onions, turnips, oats, and salted fish. Sefa kept trying to say Daegel's name and butchering it with her little toddler lisp. "Diggle, Daegall, Daegee," she kept repeating.

Everyone laughed and offered a toast to the child's future.

Chapter Text

When Daegel was five months old, Emery suggested to Hunith that they officially make her children Druids.

"They already are Druids," Hunith said, confused. "Their father's a Druid."

"They don't bear our mark," Emery pointed out. She tapped the triskel symbol on her throat. "Every child gets it once they turn two years old. Emrys is eight, Mordred is five, and Sefa is three. It's high time they got their marks."

"If Uther finds this camp and they bear the mark of a Druid, he will kill them," Hunith whispered. "I refuse. Balinor doesn't even have the mark. Why should they?"

"Balinor is a Dragonlord first. It is his birthright."

"So they are Dragonlords first, too!"

"No, only Emrys is. The gift passes to his eldest child. And Emrys has shown interest in receiving the mark. Balinor never did."

"I refuse," Hunith said again.

"Why don't you let the children decide, Hunith? You've been here for almost two years already. It's only proper that they become official Druids."

Hunith eventually submitted to her mother-in-law's request and the children were asked. Almost immediately, they agreed. To Hunith's great surprise, Gilli asked to receive the mark as well. Sixteen-year-old Will refused. "I'm not even magic-born," he said.

So one wintery night, Maud recited a spell and the mark appeared on her children. Em's was on his collarbone (just below the neckline of his shirt), Mordred's on his right bicep, and Sefa's on the back of her left knee. It was a painful process—Sefa and Mordred bawled. Em stayed dry-eyed and stony-faced.

Hunith watched her third eldest in a mix of fear and awe. He sometimes frightened her. He seemed too wise for his eight years, with his advanced magic and soulful gaze. He always wanted to save the world—he cried for hours, inconsolable, when Iseldir told them a small camp of four Druid families had been found and slaughtered by Uther's men. "I wanna stop it, Ma, I wanna stop it," he told Hunith when she tried to comfort him. "How do I stop it?" He constantly helped animals, too. He nursed a little starling that fell from its nest the previous summer, and the bird would come and perch on his shoulder even now. He also had a shepherd puppy who had been the runt of a litter.

Although she knew little about magic, she did know something was different about her son. Not when he could master a spell in five minutes that Balinor said took him four months to. Not when, as Em sang the lullaby she named Mordred after, a ring of roses grew around Mordred's feet. She sensed something primordial in her son and his magic—something as old as the stars.

She knew the other Druids in Sábháilte noticed it, too. Iseldir spoke to the boy as if he were a colleague, not his nephew. The elders treated him with great respect, when it should have been the other way around. "There goes Emrys," the Druids murmured to themselves when they saw the boy walk by.

He was just little Merlin in his mother's eyes.

Shortly after Em turned ten, Iseldir sat Balinor and Hunith down at his table after fieldwork was done for the day. "I've taught Em all I can," he said.

Balinor thought for a moment. "He can study with Mother next, he has much to learn in regards to the healing arts—"

"His talent is wasting on healing," Iseldir cut in sharply. "Healing spells teach him discipline, yes, but his magic is suited for more powerful spells. I am a Seer. Yes, I have an extensive background of healing and esoteric magic, but ultimately I am a Seer. I am not suited to teach Em. He needs a more powerful sorcerer as his teacher."

"But you're the most powerful sorcerer in the camp," Balinor said. His eyes widened. "You're suggesting we send him away?"

"No," Hunith growled. "We are not sending him away."

"What about his Dragonlord training? He can focus on that now, now that he has three years of rudimentary instruction under his belt."

"His instruction is far from rudimentary, Balinor," Iseldir chuckled. "And I want to send him to a Dragonlord. A Druidic one, of course."

"I am the only half-Druid Dragonlord left," Balinor ground out.

"What about Ruadan?"

"Ruadan is one-fourth Druidic. His mother came from a distinguished Dragonlord bloodline, and his father was a half-Druid Dragonlord. He's hardly a Druid. I don't even think he speaks Druidic."

"Ruadan does speak it, brother, and quite well. He also bears our mark. Ma cast the spell herself."

"When was this? I was never informed!" Balinor said in shock.

"When you were in Ealdor, shortly before you married Hunith. It was a sign of good faith and unification of two magical peoples during this dark time."

"I should have been told."

"Ma did not want you backing out of your betrothal and coming here. She knew how happy Hunith made you, and knew if you found out Ruadan was elected as the Dragonlords' ambassador to our people—"

"WHAT?" Balinor roared. "I should be the ambassador. I am neutral. Ruadan will always be loyal to the Dragonlords first. It is my duty!"

"I have no doubts about Ruadan. It is you I should worry for, brother. You fail to see that your duty lies with your family!" Iseldir yelled. When Balinor froze, Iseldir shook his head. "I did not mean to raise my voice, Balinor. But my point is, I believe Em should be sent to live with Ruadan. He teaches a small group of the most powerful Druid children in a secret place a few days' journey away from here."

"Em won't want to go," Hunith whispered.

"He does," Iseldir said. "He wants to learn, and to serve his people to the best of his ability. This is the only way."

Reluctantly, Hunith and Balinor agreed to send Em to study under Ruadan. After the shedding of many tears and Em promising to scry every night, the boy and his uncle began their journey to Ruadan's hideout.

"It's not very… comfortable," Iseldir said when they settled down for the night. He cast a magical shield around their camp that put a glamour over them and masked the light of their fire.

"What's not comfortable, Uncle? Your bedroll?" Em asked, confused.

"Ruadan's little school. It's even more isolated than Sábháilte, and with even less people. Do you think you live with the same four people for the next year or two and not go insane?"

"It'll just be like living with my family. It won't be bad at all," Em said dismissively. "Besides, they're more like me, aren't they? Ruadan's students?"

"They're very gifted, yes," Iseldir murmured.

"That, and they're kinda different, right? They don't exactly fit in?"

"You fit in, Em! Your family adores you."

"I know they do, Uncle," Em said with a sad little smile. He would miss his parents and siblings. "Good night."

"Good night, Em," Iseldir said. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Em stayed awake, mulling over the possibilities of what this new period in his life might bring. He hoped he liked Ruadan and the other three students. He was terrified of not "fitting in", as he had said before. In Sábháilte, the other children kept their distance. Em was the boy who got his own special lessons with Iseldir and knew more spells than the teenagers. His siblings kept him company, sure, and he was never lonely, but he had never made any close friends there. Even in Ealdor, his mother had kept him isolated to hide his magical gifts. He hoped the three others would be like him. He hoped they were warm, and accepting, and kind.

He hoped.

With dawn came increased anxiety and nervousness. Em fidgeted the entire journey, worrying away at his bottom lip with his teeth. Finally, the stream Iseldir and Em had been following emptied into a tiny little lake. There was a great view of the mountains. Near the shore of the lake was a small hut and stables. As they came closer, Em saw there was an apple tree directly between the hut and the stables. At its base stood a massive stump. Three smaller stumps formed a semicircle around it. He furrowed his brow in confusion and pointed it out to his uncle.

"Ruadan always teaches outside. He feels students learn more when they are surrounded by Nature and Her beauty."

Em hummed in agreement. "This truly is a lovely place."

When they were five hundred feet away from the hut, a massive dog raced from inside the stables, snarling and snapping. When he saw Iseldir, he stopped. His feathered tail started to wag.

Alarmed by the commotion, a man in his thirties ran out of the hut with a sword in his hands. Iseldir waved, and the man lowered his sword. "It took you long enough, Iseldir!" the man called.

The hut's door opened and a little girl poked her head out. She spoke softly to Ruadan, and the man nodded. She stepped outside, and was followed by a taller girl and a preteen boy. "My nephew here slowed us down," Iseldir said with a chuckle. He dismounted, and Em did the same.

"I did not, Uncle!" Em exclaimed. "You were the one who stopped every four hours for a break."

Ruadan laughed and clapped Em on the back. "I like the lad already, Iseldir. Now, be polite and introduce us." He spoke Druidic, and quite well. Em was impressed.

Iseldir rolled his eyes. "Emrys, meet my old friend Ruadan. He's a Dragonlord like your da. Ruadan, meet my nephew, Em."

"So Em's an Initiate, eh?"

"What's an Initiate?" Em inquired.

"It means you're a future Dragonlord," the little girl said. She had long black hair and dark brown eyes.

"Thank you, Freya," Ruadan said, smiling fondly at the girl. "I shall introduce you to my other students, Em.

"This is Freya. She's seven and a Shifter." Freya waved and offered him a shy smile. Em smiled back.

"This is Alvarr. He is thirteen." The preteen boy simply inclined his head. He was handsome, with sparkling eyes and an easy grin. "Alvarr is training in defensive and healing magic."

Ruadan jerked his chin towards the last girl. "Meet Adelina. She's eleven. She's a fire mage."

Em squinted. "What's a Shifter?" he asked.

"You don't know?" Alvarr scoffed. Ruadan glared at him, and the boy shrank back a little, ashamed.

"A Shifter is a magic-user whose power is changing into an animal or magical creature. A Shifter has only one alternate form. They are very rare these days, which is why you probably haven't heard of them."

"Are they only Druids?"

"No, Shifters are found amongst a variety of magical peoples. Freya herself is a rarity; Druidic Shifters are few and far between."

Em turned to the girl. "What is your 'alternate form'?" he asked.

"A Bastet. It's—"

"A winged panther. Wow, I can't believe you can turn into a magical creature. That is so awesome!" Em's eyes lit up.

"You can all talk later. Let's go inside, I have supper cooking on the hearth." Ruadan ushered them all inside. Before he shut the door, he commanded the large dog to guard. It went back to its post at the stable.

The hut was a single room, but the hearth and the flowers hanging from the ceiling made it feel cozy. Em was surprised to see the Druidic custom of flower hanging in a Dragonlord's home. Straw lined the earthen floor, and five pallets were rolled up and stacked in the corner. A rickety table and benches took up about a third of the space. Three massive chests were shoved against one wall. Em surveyed his new home with a mix of excitement and nervousness.

"Supper smells good. What're you cooking, Ruadan?" Iseldir asked. He sat down at the table. Em took a seat next to him.

"Rabbit stew."

"Who killed the rabbit?"

Little Freya smiled. "I did."

Alvarr propped his hands on his hips. "You did not! I set the snare."

"I broke its neck."

Alvarr rolled his eyes. "If you say so, Freya."

"Alvarr, Freya—stop squabbling," Ruadan said sternly. No one could deny the fondness in his voice, though. "Be thankful we even have this food; so many go hungry every day."

"Yes, Ruadan," they muttered.

"Well, I'm quite excited for stew. The most meat we get back home is fish. My mother does not believe in eating game, except on special occasions," Iseldir declared.

"I share the same belief. However, I figured Em's arrival to be a special occasion," Ruadan answered. Em smiled a bit.

"We look forward to having a new face around here," Adelina added eagerly.

"I look forward to getting to know all of you," Em said politely but genuinely. He really was excited. He missed his family, sure, but the prospects of furthering his magical studies and making new friends lessened his sorrow.

After they finished eating, Ruadan and Iseldir wanted to catch up. They sent the children outside for some privacy, and Em was left alone with the children who could make his stay here enjoyable or miserable.

They all stood there for a minute or so, eyeing each other nervously. "What magic can you do?" Alvarr finally asked.

"I've got the basic Druidic spells mastered. As for specialization, Uncle taught me fire spells, and my grandma's a healer so I've gotten lessons from her, too."

"Emerald the Banríon's your móraí, innit tha' righ'?" Adelina asked in Common. She spoke it with a heavy Camelot peasant's accent. Em recognized it because his mother sometimes spoke like that when she was tired.

Em laughed a bit. "My móraí is no banríon," he said in Druidic. Banríon meant queen. His Móraí Emery, a queen? She'd worn the same faded blue dress all the years he'd known her, and her fingernails were permanently stained black from dirt. She had rough, callused hands. She was the farthest a woman could get from being a queen.

"Everyone calls her that. We used to have a royal family, you know, back when there was a Druidic kingdom. They all had green eyes. Their eyes were like emeralds, they say," Adelina said in a hushed whisper. How odd, Em thought. She spoke Druidic with no trace of a peasant accent.

"She's one of the elders, sure, and she always takes charge, but she's hardly a queen…" Em trailed off.

Alvarr rolled his eyes. "Adelina likes the old tales too much. She dreams of a Druidic kingdom, and thinks your granny should be its queen."

"Is my móraí well-known?"

"She's a legend!" Alvarr stared at him incredulously. "She saved hundreds of our people during the Purge by setting up most of the hidden camps. She's loved by all."

"Oh," said Em, dumbfounded.

"How did you not know?"

"I wasn't raised with the Druids. My father rejoined his mother's people when I was seven. This is the first time I've ever left my camp in years."

Alvarr slung his arm around Em's shoulders. "We'll teach ya, Emrys. Wait, you prefer being called Em, right?"

"That's what most people call me. It's a family nickname that stuck," the boy admitted.

"Em," Freya said. "It's different. Not weird, though."

"You have to show us some of your spells, Em," Adelina said. "You said you know fire magic?"

"A bit," Em confirmed.

"Show us!" Freya pleaded. "Ruadan won't let me do fire spells until I'm ten."

Em grinned a bit and held out his hand. A small tongue of blue-green flame appeared on his outstretched palm. His eyes glowed gold.

"You can conjure your own internal flame?" Alvarr demanded. "Only the most talented fire-magicians can do that. Adelina can only do it for ten seconds, and it exhausts her. She's said to be one of the most talented fire-mages in a generation, too."

Adelina ducked her head in embarrassment. "I'm not that good."

Em let the flame go out. He held his hand above the ground. "Watch this." Again, his eyes turned gold. A small stream of water surged up from the ground, swirling in the air.

"You're an elemental mage," Alvarr suddenly said. "You have to be."

Em shook his head. Elemental mages were the stuff of legends. Cedran told him tales of them one night. They were conceived by a union between magic and Nature Herself. They were the most powerful mages, drawing their power directly from the earth. Their magic was basically limitless in regards to spells regarding the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—since their source of magic came from the earth itself. "My cousin said they were just bedtime stories."

"Ruadan said theoretically they can exist. In times of great evil, Nature sees the need to send an elemental mage to bring balance back to the earth. So through a sheer force of will, she combines with the earth's magic and brings one into being. She chooses a worthy couple to be the mage's parents, and places the child in the woman's womb."

"Nature will do anything for balance," Em said, echoing what Iseldir once taught him.

The Druids treated Nature as a deity, referring to Nature as 'Her' and practicing a form of magic based on Natural philosophy. At the center of Nature was balance, and the desire for good. That was why the Druids excelled in healing and prophetic magic. When someone hurt another, the evil act created an imbalance in the world. A healing spell countered it with good and therefore restored the balance. Druid Seers could try to prevent great acts of evil they glimpsed in their visions, thus preventing the balance from being disturbed. If people were brutally murdered, the Druids had funeral rituals that helped appease their restless, distraught spirits.

The concept of Nature daunted Em. Most peasants did not follow any particular religion, the extent of their spirituality being old superstitions passed down for generations. In the years since the Great Purge, most had come to associate organized religion with magic and evil. Those who practiced them found themselves on the pyre, burnt alive. They were best to avoid. Along with this, Em had been raised this way by parents who taught him from birth that his magic would lead to his death if discovered. Even once he became a Druid, he had a hard time accepting and understanding the Druids' veneration of Nature. He sort of just nodded along during religious activities, there but not really participating.

"That's right! It's been proven throughout Druidic history and legend. So why couldn't She will an elemental mage into existence?" Alvarr asked.

"She could!" Freya said eagerly.

"My air magic is rubbish, and there are no living experts on earth magic," Em said. "So I don't have mastery over the four elements."

Alvarr mulled over this. "Even if you're not an elemental mage, you're still quite powerful. That's why you're here, right?"

Em gave a slight nod. Alvarr clapped him on the back. "Don't be bashful, Em! We're just like you. We won't get jealous or scared of you. I promise. Right, girls?"

"Right!" Freya and Adelina chirped.

"So folks back home didn't like you either?" Em asked quietly.

Alvarr shrugged. "My power was seen as a gift, not something strange or bizarre. It did me no good. My parents, my sisters, and my brother were killed by Camelot knights when my camp was attacked." He set his jaw.

"I'm so sorry," Em whispered. "I hate Camelot, and her king."

"We all do," Adelina said. "People thought I was weird. I struggle with the most basic spells but I can put out a forest fire with a wave of my hand." She looked down. "I think Ma was glad to see me go."

Alvarr shook his head. "She sends you messenger birds all the time, Lina!"

"It's my sister's writing, I know it," Adelina muttered.

Shooting her friend a concerned look, Freya said, "My ma's a Shifter, too, but she's spying right now so I can't stay with her. My da wanted me here for my protection. He says I'm too valuable to our people to stay with him."

"Is Shifting painful?" Em's eyes were bright with curiosity.

"No. It's natural." Freya answered his unspoken question when she asked, "Do you want to see?"

"Yes!" Em said excitedly.

Freya turned to Alvarr. "Put the charm on my clothes, Al!"

Rolling his eyes, Alvarr touched her dress sleeve and muttered an incantation. His eyes glowed.

Em watched intently. "What does that charm do?"

"It will allow her clothes to return to their original form. It keeps her from shredding every outfit she owns." Alvarr rolled his eyes. "Go for it, Freya."

Freya's eyes glowed, and began to transform. Her nose elongated into a muzzle, and her hands turned into paws. Her torso contracted, and her arms and legs shrank. Two wings grew from her back, shredding her dress. Finally, a Bastet cub stared up at them. Freya chirped and put her paws on Alvarr's legs. Her paws barely reached his knees. Her wings flapped.

Pick me up! Freya demanded, speaking mind-to-mind. You all look so big up here.

Em didn't often use mind-to-mind speaking. It made his mother and older brothers feel left out, as they could not do it. His father only really used it when he was fighting with his siblings or his mother and didn't want his wife to overhear. Almost all of Em's lessons had been taught out loud in Druidic to help him master the language. I thought you'd be…bigger, Freya.

I won't reach my full-size Bastet form until I'm fifteen or sixteen, Freya explained as Alvarr scooped her up. She scrambled up to perch on the older boy's shoulder.

Alvarr winced when Freya's little claws dug into his shoulders. "Ouch, Freya!" he cried.

Sorry! she squeaked.

Can you fly? Em asked.

Not yet. I can glide, kind of. Freya suddenly leaped off Alvarr, causing him to groan as her claws once again dug into him. She spread her wings and glided through the air. She landed delicately on her paws. She looked up at Em smugly, waiting for his reaction.

He applauded loudly, whooping. Adelina and Alvarr joined in, laughing.

Em had the lingering suspicion he was going to like it here, in this little hut by the lake.

Chapter Text

Iseldir stayed for two days before he had to go home. He hugged Em, told him to behave, shook Ruadan's hand, and galloped off. Em watched him go with a sinking feeling in his chest. The boy realized he had never been anyway from his family before.

Ruadan set him to work quickly. He sent the others outside with books to study. He and Em remained inside. He began with having Em read out loud to him in both Common and Druidic to make sure the boy was sufficiently literate. He had a large number of books stored in three chests. Em had never seen so many before—he wanted to read all of them. When he told his new teacher this, Ruadan laughed. "Half of them are written in languages you don't understand."

"Then teach me."

"In due time, lad. For now, I want you to show me what you can do." Ruadan pointed to the hearth. "Adelina will have to start preparing lunch soon. Can you light the fire for me?"

Em looked at the hearth, eyes glowing, and the fire blazed to life.

"Very good. Now can you hang the pot on the spit?"

The pot, freshly scrubbed by Alvarr, levitated in the air and floated over to the hearth. It hung itself on the spit. Em's eyes glowed the whole time.

"And fill it with water?"

The pail of water floated in the air and dumped itself into the pot.

"Well done, lad." Ruadan looked at him. "Do you say any spells in your head?"
"No. I just think about it, and it happens," Em explained.

"So it's not even silent magic, just raw power?"

The boy nodded.

"You're a special one indeed, then."

"My little brothers and sister could make stuff float as babies, when they didn't know any spells. I'm not that special," Em pointed out.

"Young magic-borns can perform limited instinctual magic. That's why magic-born babies can make objects float or perform small feats of magic. They are incapable of reason or communication, so they have to have instinctual magic. However, once they get older, this fades as their intelligence grows and they learn more spells. Yours, however, never went away and is extremely powerful."

Em's blue eyes were wide, and Ruadan realized he might have dumped too much information on the poor boy at once. "Your uncle taught you your spells, didn't he?"

Em inclined his head. "All the ones he knew. My da and my móraí taught me some, too."

"You learned all you could from your teachers in Sábháilte, yes?"

"Yes."

"A Druid usually stops their lessons around age eighteen. That places you eight years ahead of most Druidic magicians."

"I know."

"That means I won't be teaching you much Druidic magic. Instead, we will be focusing on your ability to amplify the power of your spells and starting your Dragonlord training. You're older than when the average Initiate begins his training."

"How late am I?"

"About five years." At Em's distressed expression, Ruadan sought to soothe him. "You'll learn fast, lad, don't fret. It won't take you long to complete your Dragonlord training. Then you can go home to Sábháilte."

"How long do you think it will take?"

"Three years."

"That's a long time!"

Ruadan stared at him levelly. "It took your father fifteen years to complete his training, lad."

Em blinked. "Oh," he said.

"Yeah." Ruadan stood up and went over to the middle chest. "This is where I keep my Dragonlord materials. The other children do not study from these since they are Druids."

"I'm a Druid," Em pointed out.

"You're a Dragonlord Initiate first and foremost. We're a scattered order, but an ancient and powerful one."

"My da calls the Dragonlords a people, not an order."

"The Druids are truly the only magical people left, in the fact that they possess their own language and culture. The Dragonlords are a group of magic-born families with a special gift passed from the oldest male in the family to his closest male relative. These men make up the Dragonlords, not their families."

"I didn't know that. My da never told me much about the Dragonlords."

Ruadan sighed. "Balinor prefers the Druids' way of life. His father died when he was young, so he always felt closer to his mother's people." He reached into the chest and grabbed a red, leather-bound book. "The Dragonic alphabet is on the first page. There's a quill and ink on the table over there, along with some paper. Copy it three times and try to memorize the sound each letter makes. I'll be testing you on it at the end of the day."

Em clutched the book to his chest. "Can I join the others outside?" He didn't want to be stuck inside this stuffy hut on such a beautiful spring day.

Ruadan chuckled. "You may. Don't let Alvarr distract you, he's very chatty."

"I won't!" Em raced outside with his book, ink and quills, and paper in hand.


 

Iseldir, son of Enjorran and Emerald, had always taken after his father. The man had died when he was six, along with his infant sister. Still, Iseldir remembered a great deal about Enjorran. They had the same icy blue eyes, tousled brown hair, and face structure. Many women found Enjorran handsome.

His best trait had been his ability as a Seer. The best in one hundred years, many had said. He did not sleep without having at least one prophetic dream. From the time he was five, Enjorran had kept a journal with all the details of his visions. When the Seer died, he left behind nearly fifty. Iseldir kept them locked in a chest in his hut. In another chest he kept his own vision journals.

Iseldir, as Enjorran's son, was expected to be a great Seer. And he was. His visions began at age five as well, and while his were not as frequent as his father's, he still had them quite often and they often came true. Iseldir constantly had to tell the camp's dream interpreter about what he dreamed, and she did her best to decipher them. Often, one Druid in each camp specialized in the art of dream interpretation. It was an ancient practice, and required extensive training and knowledge. If Iseldir dreams of five horses, it could mean five knights could try to attack the camp. If the sky was green and Iseldir saw five horses, a plague was about spread. Different numbers, colors, and situations symbolized different events and outcomes. Since Seers already had to deal with having the visions, dream interpreters were rarely Seers, just typical Druids.

By the time he was nine, they managed to prevent three attacks on Druid camps due to his visions. He was hailed as a hero, as all Vates—Druid Seers—were.

It was a lonely life, though. He could never keep any of his dreams secret, and his ability was uncommon enough that he had no teacher to guide him besides Enjorran. Iseldir had to navigate the art of Seeing by himself when Enjorran died. Iseldir grieved his father's death heavily, perhaps even more so than Emery and Maud. He lost a mentor, too, not just a father.

Visions mostly came in dreams. Sometimes, powerful ones suddenly took over when the Seer was awake.

As Iseldir headed home towards Sábháilte, a golden light suddenly appeared, and everything went black. He toppled off his horse.

His Sight was taking hold.

A giant golden throne dominated a large hall decorated with rich tapestries and beautiful stone work. The golden throne bore a red dragon seal on it. On it sat a King, but Iseldir could not seem to make out the details of his face. Behind the throne stood a hooded figure clad in green Druidic-style robes. One could not tell if the Druid was a man or woman. Iseldir just stared at the motionless King and Druid, mouth hanging open. Suddenly, the door to the throne room opened, and in poured dozens of knights. They bore the badges of many different kingdoms, fiefs, and estates. As one, they all bowed to the King and the Druid. Iseldir felt the need to bow, so he did as well. He did not know why, but he sensed deep within his bones that this pair deserved his respect and loyalty.

Iseldir returned to reality as swiftly as he had been pulled away from it. He was on the ground, on his back. He looked around frantically, and saw his faithful old white mare chewing dandelions about ten yards away. "Good girl, Snowflake," he managed to croak.

He sat up slowly, so that the blood wouldn't rush to his head. He put a hand to his forehead and felt a small gash running across it. He had also scraped his arms and hands when falling off his horse. Luckily, he did not break any bones.

What the hell just happened? Iseldir wondered. That vision was so vivid… It felt as if all the knights from all corners of Albion had been pledging fealty to the King and his Druid—what was the Druid to the King? The Druid wasn't a consort—there would be a throne for him or her too, then. It had to be a Druid advisor.

Th Druids were once sought by Albion's elite for their wisdom. To have a Druid's counsel was a great honor. Iseldir teared up at the thought of his people being restored to such a high place in society. He barely dared to entertain the notion. He wanted his niece and nephews to grow up in a world where their people were not hunted like animals. Gods, he wanted that.

Iseldir got to his feet when his head stop hurting. He needed to get back to Sábháilte as soon as possible, and sit down with the dream interpreter. This vision was important. He could feel it in his heart of hearts.


 

Aisling, the dream interpreter, sat down heavily after Iseldir told her about his vision. She was in her late forties, with graying brown hair and kind hazel eyes. Her triskel was the back on her hand. When she massaged her forehead and put her head on the table, it was all Iseldir could focus on.

"What does it mean, Aisling?" he asked quietly.

Aisling looked up at him with unshed tears in her eyes. "Iseldir, your vision is almost identical to one your father had nearly thirty years ago."

"That's impossible. I've read my father's journals dozens of times. I would have remembered it."

"Enjorran did not write this one down." Aisling's hands shook. "Get your mother, Iseldir."

"My father wrote everything down. It was the first lesson he taught me!" Iseldir practically shouted.

"Not this. Now will you go get Emery, or do I have to do it myself?" Aisling growled.

Iseldir stood up and stormed out of her hut. He slammed the door behind him, making the whole rickety structure quiver a bit. He had the decency to at least feel a little bit bad about that.

He stormed down the village center, swearing under his breath. Balinor was whittling a wood scrap into a rose carving in the late evening sun, sitting cross-legged directly in front of his front door. Daegel and Sefa played in the dirt, cackling to each other. Balinor's thick brows pulled together into a frown when he saw his brother.

What troubles you, Issy? he asked.

I'll explain later.

How was Em when you left? Hunith cried for two days straight, poor girl. Mordy's missing his big brother, too. All the children do

Happy, fine. He likes the other children and Ruadan well enough, Iseldir said shortly before rushing into his mother's place. He could practically feel Balinor's hurt feelings through the telepathic connection. Great—there was another thing he was going to have to fix.

His mother and Maud sat at the table. They appeared to be intensely studying some scrolls. Iseldir peered over their shoulders and saw that it was written in an ancient form of Druidic. He could barely understand it.

Emery set her bright green gaze on her eldest son. "What is it, Iseldir?"

"I need you to come with me to talk to Aisling," Iseldir said in a rush.

Maud looked annoyed. "We are in the middle of something, brother—"

"I can almost guarantee this matter is much more important, Maudie," Iseldir interrupted. He tried to sound as kind as possible. "Ma, can you please come with me?"

Sighing, Emery stood up and gestured to her son. "Lead the way, my boy, lead the way."

Maud stood up as Iseldir opened the door. "Issy, wait."

Trying to hide his impatience, Iseldir turned around. "Yes, sister?"

"How our Em doing?"

Iseldir's gaze softened a bit. "Emmy's good. He was already chummy with the other students when I left, and he follows Ruadan around like a hound follows its master. He will be extremely happy there."

"Does he miss us?"

"Of course. He's always been a bit of a homebody. It's Hunith's doing, she dotes on her children."

Maud smiled fondly. "That's good. Tell Aisling I say hello."

"I will," Iseldir promised. He ushered his mother out the door and shut it. He led her down the village green. Sefa squealed in delight when she saw her móraí, and ran out to meet her. Daegel immediately began to wail, as he could not yet walk and he wanted to go say hi to Emery as well.

Shaking his head, Balinor abandoned his whittling and picked up the muddy baby. "He's terribly spoiled, Ma," the father of six complained. "It's your doing."

"It's Issy's fault," Emery said, scooping up Sefa and pressing a kiss on her head. When Iseldir scowled, she patted his wrist. "Don't frown, Iseldir. One day it won't go away."

"It never does," Balinor muttered. Iseldir scowled.

Emery gave Sefa one last kiss and let Daegel grip her finger for a moment. "I must be off, my darlings. Iseldir has important business to attend to."

"Ah, so that's why you had a bee in your bonnet earlier," Iseldir's insufferable brother chuckled.

"Poor Uncle Issy, every'un's mean to 'im!" Sefa said. She patted Iseldir's knee. He looked down at his niece fondly. "Thank you, darling. Now, you must excuse Móraí Emery and me. I'll stop by before supper. Sound good?"

"Perfect!" the girl chirped.

Iseldir patted Daegel on the head, scowled at his brother, and continued leading the way to Aisling. Surprisingly, no one else stopped them. In small Druid communities, everybody knew everybody and one always got stopped for "a chat" at least twice in a stroll down the village green. Luckily for Iseldir, people had just left the fields and were beginning their evening chores. Children had lessons to go to, supper needed cooked, gardens weeded, animals fed, huts cleaned—the list went on and on. The village green was practically abandoned.

Iseldir walked into Aisling's without knocking. "I'm back," he said.

It's almost as if I don't have eyes or ears, Aisling remarked dryly. "Hello, Emery. How are you?"

Emery, with the aura of grace and power only she possessed, practically glided across the dirt floor and sat down next to the dream interpreter. "Hello, Aisling. My son tells me we are here on important business."

"He saw the Unwritten Vision on his way back from Ruadan's."

Emery gaped at her. "I… I thought it wouldn't come true for at least another century. Why is my son seeing it now?"

"It must mean the prophecy will come true in our lifetime. It has to be, being glimpsed by two Seers only decades apart from each other," Aisling whispered.

"What is the Unwritten Vision, Ma?" Iseldir asked his mother.

"It an ancient prophecy. The dream interpreters believe it foretells the unification of Albion under one King, with the help of a Druid advisor. A very powerful Druid advisor." Emery shook her head. "Enjorran saw it throughout his life. The elders advised him to burn all records of it the first time he glimpsed it. Only the most powerful of the Vates can see it, Iseldir. One Seer every one hundred years is able to glimpse it."

"Why burn it, Ma? A Seer's visions are to be shared and discussed."

"It's revolutionary, my dear son. The whole continent under one King? How can this possibly be achieved? If our people knew of this legend, every Druid sorcerer of great power would fancy himself the Druid in the prophecy. It is not to be shared until the time is right."

"One thing is new, Emery," Aisling said softly.

Emery cocked her head. "It hasn't changed in hundreds of years."

"The golden throne has the symbol of the Pendragons—a red dragon—on it, Emery, and the Druid wears emerald-colored robes."

Iseldir's eyes hardened at the mention of Pendragon. He despised the King of Camelot. "What does it mean?"

Aisling gripped the table with both hands and closed her eyes. "I believe it means a united Albion will occur under the rule of someone of the House of Pendragon."

"Uther will never unite Albion. He is a coward and a mass murderer," Iseldir spat. Emery put a hand on his shoulder.

Hush, my son, she said, and heed her words.

"What do the emerald-colored robes mean?" Emery asked.

Aisling looked her straight in the eye. "Your bloodline has produced some of the most powerful sorcerers amongst our people. Balinor, Iseldir, Maud, Emrys, Cedran—even young Mordred and Sefa show great promise in the healing arts. I believe the emerald robes signify that the Druid in the prophecy is one of your kin."

Iseldir stood there shocked for a minute.

Finally, he said, "There is no way in hell any of my kinsmen and –women would serve a Pendragon willingly."

They sat there in silence for a bit, pondering on the gravity of Iseldir's words. It seemed extremely unlikely that a Druid would choose to get close to a Pendragon, much less one of Emerald's progeny. Balinor had been forced to flee his home twice because of Uther's Purge, and his children had grown up in fear of being killed for their magic. Cedran's mother had raised him to fanatically despise King Uther Pendragon and Camelot. Iseldir knew for a fact that he could never help a Pendragon, even to fulfill a great prophecy.

"Who would be a powerful enough magician to fulfill the prophecy?" he wondered aloud.

Emery rolled her eyes. "Let's be logical about this, Iseldir. Who did you just drop off to be personally tutored by one of the finest sorcerers in the realm? He happens to be one of your kinsmen as well."

Iseldir's eyes widened. "Emrys? Our little Em, a great advisor to a King?"

"Iseldir, you know how deep and ancient his power is. It is unlike any we have ever seen."

Iseldir buried his head in his hands and groaned loudly. "Only time will tell, I suppose."

Aisling chuckled a bit. "Perhaps your visions will. You are a Seer, after all."

"I know, I know," the Vates grumbled. "Sometimes I wonder if you would make a better Seer, Aisling."

"Your gift of Sight was deemed by Fate, Iseldir." Emery now used her "leader voice". "It is your birthright and your destiny. Do not be ungrateful."

Iseldir felt his anger flare up as his mother scolded him. He wasn't a damn child, for Nature's sake! He was forty-seven. Taking a deep breath, he stood up and said, "I'm off to go have supper at Balinor's. Goodnight, Ma. Goodnight, Aisling."

The two women exchanged a look as he left. Emery sighed. "My boy has a lot on his shoulders, and I feel that he has no one to talk to about it. Sometime I wish he had taken a wife."

"Our people's Vates walk lonely paths," Aisling murmured. "Iseldir has a loving family, but some burdens must be carried alone."

"I wish Enjorran were here. He'd know what to do." Emery felt tears come to her eyes. "I'm so lost, Aisling. I try to lead, I try. But I do such an awful job. My son Sees the Unwritten Vision, and all I can do is stand there with my mouth hanging open in surprise. Then I'm told my grandson may be the sorcerer in the Vision, and I feel even more lost. My Enjorran would know what to do, he would."

"You would not have that grandson of yours if he were alive," Aisling said gently. "Balinor, Em, Mordred, Sefa, and Daegel would not exist, had he lived. You lost much, but you gained greatly."

Emery shook her head. "I wonder about her, you know. My little Emlyn. I don't even know what happened to her." Her voice shook. "It's been almost forty years, and it still hurts so much."

"To lose a child is sad indeed," Aisling murmured, holding Emery's hand.

Emery patted the dream interpreter's hand and stood up. "Self-pity isn't good for the soul," she said in a shaky voice. "I will join my sons, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren for dinner."

Aisling nodded in approval. "That's a good idea, Emery. It'll lift your spirits."
Once the older woman had left, Aisling pulled a leather-bound notebook from under her straw mattress. She dipped a quill in ink, and began to write…

I suddenly feel as if Fate is strangling us slowly. She started with King Uther banning magic in his kingdom, and forcing his allies to follow suit. My people were slaughtered by the dozens, burned at the stake and decapitated and run through with swords. We have spent the last dozen or so years in hiding, living no better than the poorest of peasants. Now, we have hope—a little boy named Emrys. Train him well, Ruadan, train him well…

Chapter Text

Alvarr hefted the sword and immediately began to swing at Em. Barely dodging him, Em parried his blade and backed up a step. After recovering, Alvarr charged again. This time, Alvarr managed to parry his strike and tap his side before he could recover. "You're dead," he said.

Em scowled. "Hell's teeth, I could've won that!" he growled.

Ruadan rolled his eyes. "Enough, you two. Em, Alvarr's been working on his swordplay for nearly six years, and you only have for two. He's bound to be more skilled. Still, you held your own against him. Good job, lad."

Em brightened at his teacher's praise. Ruadan was prickly and strict sometimes, but he cared for his charges like a father. Em wanted nothing more than to please him.

"Now, how can magic help in a swordfight?" Ruadan inquired.

"You can put up a magical shield to block an opponent's parry," Em said.

"Or use defensive spells and your sword at the same time," Alvarr added.

"You could also use magic to snap tree branches, use sticks or roots to trip them—anything to help you win."

"Why might using magic whilst fighting be counterproductive, Alvarr?"

"You could get distracted more easily, and lower your defenses," Alvarr said after carefully considering for a moment.

Ruadan grinned widely. This was exactly what he wanted from his students. He wanted them to think critically and analytically, not just memorize and parrot back information they barely understood. He wanted them to think for themselves.

"Warrior-magicians are quite rare, just because of the amount of concentration and training it takes to become one. Magic-users, at least the practitioners of good magic, tend to favor pacifism, especially the Druids. The Dragonlords will go to war when necessary." Ruadan looked right at Em when he said this. "So most Druids will never learn to fight with a sword like this."

"Except our generation, and those born after it," Alvarr muttered.

Ruadan raised his eyebrows. "Why do you say that?"

"Many of Druids my age, myself included, watched as Camelot slaughtered their families like dogs. If their families knew how to fight, they might still be alive. So they're going to want to know how to fight."

Ruadan shook his head. "Your people have always practiced pacifism—it is the very center of Druidic culture. I hope Druids never feel that have to learn how to fight."

"They already do. I'm sick of having to cower in the shadows. One day, we will fight back," Alvarr said. Em's eyes widened at the vehemence of his friend's words.

Ruadan pressed his lips together. "You're entitled to your opinion. Now, resume your positions and try to disarm your opponent."


Ruadan had stormed off into the forest to hunt after lessons were finished for the day. Em and Adelina were in the stables, tending to the animals. Em milked the cow, and Adelina was feeding their three goats.

"Why is Ruadan so mad?" Adelina asked. She scratched the billy goat under the chin.

Alvarr was being difficult during training today, Em said.

I wish Ruadan would let me train with you two.

You're a fire mage. You have to focus on honing your magic, not your fighting skills.

It's because I'm a girl. I know it.

Em sighed. "Adelina, you know that's not why. Has Ruadan ever denied you any opportunities?"

"Learning how to use a sword."

"It's not even that fun. My muscles always ache afterwards, and I usually end up covered in bruises from it."

From what? Freya, in her Bastet form, sauntered into the stables. She reached Em's hip, now. Her glossy black wings were tucked against her back.

"Weapons training," Em said. "Why are you Shifted?"

Felt like it. Freya bumped her head against Em's leg. See if you can still pick me up!

"No! You're almost as big as Bear!" At the sound of his name, their guard dog wagged his tail. Adelina went to go pet him.

Alvarr would have said yes. The nine-year-old was trying to guilt trip him.

"Alvarr's fifteen, and a lot bigger than I am. I didn't even pick you up when you were tiny," Em argued. "You have sharp claws."

They're not that sharp.

"Oh yes they are!"

"Quit squabbling, Em, there's work to be done," Adelina sighed. Em rolled his eyes and returned to milking. Freya watched him, her bright blue eyes boring into him.

"Freya, please, that's creepy," Em practically begged.

I'm practicing my intimidation skills!

"Apparently they're working." Adelina giggled.

Em groaned. "Not you too, Lina!"

They continued their banter for a while, Freya following them around as they did the chores. Freya got off because she did most of the cooking and cleaning inside these days. Alvarr tended the garden and chopped the wood.

They all flinched when Ruadan suddenly screamed through his magic. WHERE ARE YOU?

Freya, Adelina, and I are in the stables, Alvarr's taking a nap. What's wrong? Em asked frantically.

What is it? Alvarr yelled.

Adelina and Em, saddle the horses. Alvarr, grab all the weapons and food. Freya, you get the bedrolls and clothes, and load up as many books into that spelled bag of mine. We have to leave now, I spotted bandits roaming the woods. We depart when I get back. Give me fifteen minutes, I'm moving as fast as I can.

Freya sprinted outside and into the hut. Adelina put the bridles on the horses, while Em put their saddles and pads on them. He slung the saddle bags over their backs. When he finished his task, he saw Adelina crying.

What's the matter?

The animals. We're going to have to abandon them. They'll starve.

Em whistled to Bear. "Follow," he commanded. Then he opened the gates of the goats' and cow's pen. The chickens just roamed around the yard by themselves. "If there's an attack, they can escape."

"What about Iris?" Adelina whispered. Iris was a kitten Iseldir had brought from Sabhailte as a birthday present for her.

"Make a sling from your shawl and carry her in it." Em tugged her outside and into the hut. Adelina immediately went to grab the kitten. She wrapped her shawl into a sling and gave Em a watery smile. Em went over to where Freya was dumping Ruadan's numerous books into a bag spelled to hold a large amount of objects and not become weighed down. Em picked up books from the Dragonlord chest by the armful. In about five minutes, they had managed to dump all three hundred into the bag. When Em slipped the pack on, he marveled at its lightness.

Alvarr went outside to strap their bedrolls to the horses' saddles. Freya helped him lead them out of the stables and to the front of the hut. Em and Adelina stuffed the saddle bags with food, medicine, and clothes.

By then, Ruadan sprinted out of the forest. Mount up, now!

Em mounted his horse and then gave Freya a hand up. She clung to him, trembling. Alvarr hoisted Bear onto the back on his saddle and mounted up. When Em raised his eyebrows, Alvarr simply took a leather strap and used it to secure the dog to the saddle.

"I won't leave that dog behind," was all the older boy said.

Just as Adelina got on her horse, two men on foot appeared behind Ruadan. The Dragonlord swore and ran even faster. They must have spotted my trail. Leave, now!

We won't leave you! Freya cried. Let me Shift, Ruadan. I can kill them.

And risk Uther hearing about a Shifter in these parts? It would lead to the death sentence to all the Druids in the area. Ruadan finally reached them. He swung into his saddle and dug his heels into his horse. "Go, Ward, go!" The gelding whickered and broke into a gallop. Alvarr, Adelina, and Em did the same.

The men on foot stopped when they realized that the Druids had a lead on horseback. They ran back into the forest.

They gave up, Em said.

No, they went back to get reinforcements. Ruadan urged Ward to go even faster.


They stopped hours later, sheltering by a little pond Ruadan had set up as a hideout just in case. There was a cave big enough to hide four children, a man, four horses, a dog, and a kitten. Ruadan cast a glamour over the cave, and Em made thick plants grow around the entrance. Freya and Adelina prayed to Nature to shield them from harm.

It was an awful, terror-filled night. Eventually, the bandits found their tracks and spent three hours searching the area around the pond and the cave for them.

"They've gotta be here, they gotta," one bandit yelled after the first hour. Freya sobbed in silence. Alvarr wrapped his arms around her, rocking the tiny nine-year-old back and forth, back and forth.

How did they find us? Em asked Ruadan. This area is practically impossible to get to.

They must have come over the mountains.

Will they find my camp?

No, it is too well hidden. We must make our way there, in the morning.

What if they don't leave?

Then we fight. Ruadan's hands sparked with magic and he looked away, troubled. Try to sleep. It will be a long day tomorrow.

None of them slept a wink.

The main group of bandits—Ruadan estimated there was around a dozen of them—broke off in the early morning and went to search in other places. They left three men behind, in case their targets reappeared. One slept, while the other two seemed pretty alert despite being up all night. Knowing they would have to battle their way out, the Druids prepared for a fight. Ruadan silently unsheathed his sword. Em let his magic flow to his fingertips, and Alvarr's eyes burned gold. A tongue of flame appeared in Adelina's palm. Freya Shifted, and Bear bared his teeth.

You must fight to kill, Ruadan ordered. All of you. Our lives are at stake. Forget what your people have taught you right now. You must survive.

Adelina blanched. Ruadan—

Lina, you have to, Alvarr said. He placed a hand on the girl's shoulder.

Shaking, the girl gave a tiny nod.

They crept to the entrance of the cave. Ruadan nodded once, and then gave his signal. Bear was the first out. He appeared out of the thick underbrush Em had grown last night, tail wagging. He approached the bandits slowly.

One raised his sword. "What's this, Olaf?" he said to the other one.

"Some mutt. Don't let him get too close, Aldred."

Aldred rolled his eyes. "His tail's a-wagging away. Cummere, boy." He patted his knee, and Bear came even closer. Just when the bandit was about to pet him, Bear lunged and seized the man's arm with his teeth. The bandit yelled in pain, and Olaf got ready to swing his sword. The third bandit started to wake up.

Em stepped out of the cave and threw a ball of magical energy at Olaf. The man grunted as the ball shocked him. Ruadan charged out, yelling, and cut the third bandit down before the man had time to react.

Alvarr lunged at Aldred. The bandit still had a very angry Bear hanging off his arm. When Alvarr's sword sank into his gut, he finally stopped screaming and dropped to the ground. Bear kept tearing at the corpse until Adelina told him to stop.

Em and Freya saw to Olaf. He threw another "energy ball" at the man, shocking him again. Freya used this opportunity to seize the man's neck between her jaws. She slashed his jugular with her teeth, and he bled out.

When all three were finally dead, Ruadan signaled to the children. "Mount up. We must get out of here."

They spelled their horses' hooves to hide their tracks this time, and headed in the general direction of Sábháilte.

Chapter Text

They reached the Druid camp in the predawn hours after a few days of hard riding. The bandits kept on their trail, but they always lost them. Em felt himself choke up when he saw the oh-so-familiar thatched hovels and village green. They had been intercepted by two guards who were alerted by the group passing a magical barrier. Once they determined Ruadan and his students were not foes, they welcomed the party warmly.

"Take me to Emerald," Ruadan said immediately, and so they did.

Em thought he could burst with excitement when they dismounted and went to knock on Emery's door. He heard quiet murmuring in Druidic inside—

"Whoever could be knocking this time of night?" Aunt Maud wondered.

"Whoever it is, they bear bad tidings," Cedran grumbled as he moved closer to the door. He yanked it open. "By Nature! Ma, Móraí, it's our Em!" He seized his younger cousin in a tight hug. He did not let go for a good forty seconds. When he finally did, he gripped the boy's shoulders. Emery and Maud appeared in the doorway behind him. "Why are you here, Emrys? You don't complete your training for another year or so."

Ruadan cleared his throat. Emery frowned. "What brings you here, Ruadan?"

"Bandits attacked us. We managed to lose them, but not after an ugly skirmish," the Dragonlord said gravely. "I came here looking for shelter. I promise they did not follow us."

"I know you wouldn't have come if that were not the case," Emery said. She wrapped her arms around Em. "You poor children. Let's get you to bed."

"I want to see my parents and my siblings, Móraí," Em protested.

"It's half-past three, my dear. Sleep now and you can see them in the morning. Your young friend there is asleep on her feet." Indeed, Freya leaned against Alvarr for support, blinking tiredly. "I have extra blankets in the back room. Cedran, see them to bed."

"Yes, Móraí," Cedran said, rolling his eyes. "Just back here. Follow me." He ushered them inside and into the back room. Indeed, there were a mess of blankets on the ground. Em grabbed one and wrapped it around Freya's shoulders. The little girl yawned widely. She curled up next to Alvarr when the older boy lay down. They were asleep in seconds. Adelina cocooned herself in a couple blankets and soon crashed as well. Em just stared at his cousin.

What's wrong, Em? Cedran slung an arm over Em's shoulder.

This reminds me of when we first came here. I spent my very first night among the Druids in this room.

That is kind of ironic, isn't it? Cedran agreed. Don't trouble your mind too much, cousin. Go to sleep, you'll feel better in the morning. He pointed to an open patch of ground on the floor. Wrap yourself up and sleep there. I'll be nearby, if you need anything.

Okay. Em grabbed a blanket and lay down. He didn't even care he had nothing to pillow his head with. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the ground.


Em awoke to the sounds of hushed, excited voices in the front room—

"You gotta let us see Em, Móraí!" Was that Mordred? His voice sounded a lot deeper than it had when he was seven.

"He needs his sleep, he's been terrified out of his mind for days—"

"We have a right to see our child, Emery." That was his mother. She spoke with steel in her voice.

"As a healer, I can say a long rest in the best thing for Emrys's and the rest of the children's mental health right now. You can talk to him when he wakes up."

At that point, Em got to his feet. He had missed his family like crazy these past two years. Iseldir came to visit every three months or so, and he always sent messenger birds back and forth, but it just wasn't the same as seeing and talking to them every day. He tiptoed around a sleeping Alvarr, Adelina, and Freya. He drew aside the ragged curtain that hung in the doorway. His parents, Maud, and Emery sat at the table, drinking mint tea. All five of his siblings sat on the floor nearby, fidgeting anxiously. Judging by the dim light coming through the shutters and the smoke hole, Em guessed it was barely after six. Ruadan had taught him to estimate the time using the sun.

Everyone rose to his feet when he walked in. All at once, seven people came charging towards him and wrapped him in a giant hug. Even tiny Daegel wrapped his arms around Em's legs. That made his older brother's heart swell—Em had worried his baby brother would not be affectionate towards him, as he had left home when the boy was under a year old.

Sefa and Hunith started to cry, and Em thought he saw Will's eyes get a little misty.

Mordred stared up at him in awe. "Are you a Dragonlord now?"

"No, not until Da dies, which won't be for a very, very long time," said Em. "I just learned all the stuff I need to know when I do become one."

Balinor stared at him. Em thought his da looked tired and aged. A few gray hairs had started to appear in his thick black hair, and his face had a lot more lines on it. He seemed too young to be the father of a two-year-old boy. When his father embraced him, Em tried not to cry.

Em heard a low bark. He looked at the ground and saw a sleek shepherd dog wagging its tail furiously. "Bandit!" he cried. He knelt on the ground and wrapped his arms around his pet's neck. "I've missed you too, boy."

"That's one heck of a dog you brought back with you, Em," Gilli said. He was now fifteen, and practically a man. He was almost a head taller than his younger brother.

"Bear? He's not really my dog, he's Ruadan's. I am fond of him, though."

"He as big as a miniature horse," Balinor said with a shake of his head. "Bear's a good name for him."

"Where's Ruadan?" Em asked.

"Sleeping at Iseldir's. Didn't want to wake you kids up. He cares for you a lot, Em, I can tell; he told me about how you four helped him fight off bandits, and you could just hear the pride in his voice."

"He's a good man," Em said a bit thickly.

"Em fought off bandits?" Sefa exclaimed. "Tell, Emmy, tell!" She hugged his legs, and Daegel joined her.

Those two are as thick as thieves, Balinor told Em. He smiled.

So Em, Will, and his parents sat at the table, while his other four siblings sat on the floor. Em told the story with dramatic hand motions. Daegel and Sefa tried to reenact it using wooden spoons as swords. Sefa shot a spark out of her palm, which led to Hunith and Balinor telling her off. Even after two years, they fell right back into the same old routine again. Em hadn't realized how much he had missed his family.

Em realized their carrying on must have woken up his friends, because Alvarr drew aside the curtain and walked out, followed closely by the girls. Freya shyly waved. Adelina, the most extroverted out of the trio, went up to Hunith and shook her hand. "Hullo! You must be Em's ma. He's told us all 'bout ya!"

Hunith's eyes widened in surprise momentarily, but she quickly recovered and shook Adelina's hand. "That's right, dear. I'm Hunith. It's very nice to meet you."

"I'm Adelina," the girl replied.

"I have to ask, Adelina—do you hail from eastern Camelot? I am from there, and I recognize a hint of the accent in your voice."

Adelina's eyes sparkled with delight. "Why, yes, I am. A little camp called Raven's Crest in Common. I ended up with Ruadan after the Purge, so that I could study fire magic."

Hunith clasped her hand. "We will have to talk more about this later; I haven't been to my birthplace in nearly twenty years."

"Nor I in six, but I will try my best," Adelina promised.

Alvarr went up to Balinor and shook his hand. "I am Alvarr, sir."

"Em's wrote to us about you in great detail, son. Call me Balinor," Em's father insisted. He turned to little Freya. "You must be Freya, Finnlagh and Declan's daughter! Your mother is a childhood friend of mine."

Em raised his eyebrows in surprise. Freya had told him a lot about her mother, but he had never realized Finnlagh had known his father.

"That's right!" Freya chirped. "Mama's off on an assignment I'm not allowed to know about and Da wants me to stay safe so I have to stay with Ruadan."

"She's a very brave woman, and dedicated to her people. I'm sure she's serving Nature to the best of her abilities, wherever she is," Balinor said kindly. Freya grinned widely.

Em had a feeling his friends were going to fit right in with his family.


Ruadan surfaced mid-morning. Em spent the rest of the time catching up with his family, telling them about everything he hadn't managed to squeeze into his letters. He promised to teach Mordred to read Dragonic, and to show Gilli some of his sword-moves. Alvarr and Gilli made a pact to spar every morning for as long as Alvarr was in Sábháilte.

Ruadan came into Emery's hut without knocking. Serenely, he nodded to Balinor. "Hello, Ejred," the younger man said to his fellow Dragonlord.

"Greetings, Ruadan. I prefer Balinor when I among my mother's people."

Hunith stood up and shook the man's hand. "We meet at last. I am Hunith, Em's ma. Thank you for looking after my son."

Ruadan grinned. "He's been a pleasure to have as a charge. All of them have." He turned to his students. "In fact, I need to talk to them. Would you mind if I borrowed them for a few minutes?"

"Of course," Hunith said.

"Thank you. Come with me, now." Ruadan gestured to his students. Exchanging bewildered glances, they followed him. The other Druids eyed them with a mix of curiosity and suspicion; the Purge had made them all wary of strangers. Ignoring them, Ruadan took his students into Iseldir's hut, which was empty. They sat at his table, and Ruadan folded his hands.

"I have to leave," he said.

Alvarr's jaw dropped. "Pardon?" he said.

"I have to leave," Ruadan repeated.

"Why?" Freya's eyes well up with tears, and Ruadan reached across the table and took her hand.

"The Dragonlord Elders have wanted me to return to the order for a while. They think I've played Druid for too long. When I scried them this morning, they said now was as good as a time as ever to leave."

"You aren't playing Druid, you bear our mark!" Em cried.

"Emrys, you know as well as I do that I am a Dragonlord first. I may not know why, but my brothers need me. I depart in the morning."

Adelina started to cry. "Who will take care of us?"

"Em's kin has promised to look after all of you, my sweet Lina," Ruadan said. "They're good, kind people."

"We can go with you," Adelina begged. "Please don't leave."

"Lina, you know I love you as a father loves his daughter; as your parents should have loved you. But, ultimately, you belong with the Druids, just as I belong with the Dragonlords."

Alvarr stared at his hands. "You can't just abandon us."

"I'm not abandoning you, Alvarr. I'm leaving you in the care of a very loving family."

"You're our family, you dolt!" Alvarr yelled. Ruadan recoiled, shocked. "And you're leaving us."

Em was shocked by his friends' reactions. He knew they loved Ruadan, but he had not realized how devoted to him they really were. It made sense, though. Adelina's parents had abandoned their daughter; they feared her power. Alvarr had no family left. Freya's parents had been gone for three years. Em loved Ruadan fiercely, too, but he also had a very supportive and loving family. The other three did not have that consolation.

Em thought he saw the Dragonlord blink away tears. The man never cried. "I have to leave, Al."

Alvarr sighed in resignation. "You'll come back?"

Ruadan leaned across the table and hugged him. "Yeah, son, I will."


He departed early the next morning. After embracing each of his charges, and giving Bear a good scratch, he said his goodbyes and galloped off into the forest. The girls cried and cried and cried, and Alvarr refused to talk for the rest of the day. Em made them mint tea, and Hunith released Sefa and Daegel on them. The pair's antics were silly enough to make anyone laugh.

That night, they ate dinner in Em's hut. Bear, Iris, and Bandit cuddled together on the floor. As Alvarr, Adelina, and Freya ate their pottage, Balinor folded his hands. "Alvarr, Adelina, and Freya, can I have your attention?" he asked.

They all looked up, and Balinor's heart broke at their miserable expressions. "As you know, Ruadan has left you three in the care of my wife and myself. I just wanted to let you know you are now as much a part of the family as Will, Sefa, or Em. You're stuck with us."

Adelina suddenly sprang to her feet and wrapped her arms around Balinor. The man laughed and ruffled her hair. "Welcome to the family," he said.


Chapter Text

Time passed slowly for Em. Life seemed dull in Sábháilte after two exciting years spent under Ruadan's tutelage. While he was ecstatic to be home with his family, he had forgotten the stares the other Druids sent his way and the large amount of manual labor required to keep the camp running. He woke at dawn to swordfight with Alvarr, Adelina, and Gilli before heading to the fields. When the fieldwork was done, he studied with his father and filled in the gaps in his Dragonlord training. Sometimes he still had an hour or two to play with his younger siblings, Adelina, and Freya. Will, Gilli, and Alvarr thought they were above such antics, and did not join in.

The camp also seemed much more crowded. Fifty families called Sábháilte home. Druids typically begat large numbers of children, so there was always small children underfoot. Chickens and dogs roamed around the village green. Fences made of lashed-together tree trunks had also been erected behind each hut. It looked more permanent and less like a refugee camp. Gardens grew, and people had planted flowers and berry bushes.

Em, Alvarr, Adelina, and Freya all received new clothes. Hunith mended one of Gilli's outgrown shirts and gave it to Alvarr, and a Druid named Fabry who had dabbled in cobbling before the Purge made Em and Alvarr sturdy new boots. Older girls in the camp embroidered and mended their old dresses to give to the girls.

The older children took turns minding the younger ones. Em, Adelina, Alvarr, and Gilli switched on a daily rotation. At eighteen, Will fancied himself a man and insisted he was too old to be a babysitter. So, every fourth day, Em found himself in charge of his younger siblings and Freya. He often took them to a small pond in the forest to splash around in. He took a lap loom to spin thread for weaving. He always took his sword and the dogs for extra protection. One never knew what might be lurking in the thick mountainous woods.

One day, two months after Ruadan left, Freya was paddling in the pond in Bastet form, Sefa and Mordred on her back. Daegel watched mournfully from the shore; he was too young to swim. Bandit kept him company, while Bear paddled in the water with the other children. Sefa used a ratty old shift to swim in, and Mordred wore a castoff pair of trousers. Em was bored and tired.

Em, get back to camp! Cedran yelled excitedly. Em held his head in his hands.

Mordred tilted his head. Is something the matter?

No, no, not at all. You gotta come back, though. Something really exciting is about to happen.

The children got out of the water and changed into their dry clothes. Em put the lap loom in his bag and put Daegel on his hip. They made the short five-minute walk back to camp. There, a group of around thirty Druids stood in the village green. Of course, Emery was right in the center, along with a dark-haired woman Em had never seen before.

Freya froze in her tracks when she saw her.

"Mama, Mama!" she cried, pushing through the crowd. The woman wrapped her arms around the girl and they stayed like that for a good minute.

Is that Finnlagh? Alvarr joined Em and his younger siblings.

She must be. Look how happy our Freya is.

I see where Freya gets her looks from.

Em stared at Alvarr. You think Freya is pretty?

Freya will be a lovely girl one day. Alvarr laughed. She's like a sister to me, Em, and about six years too young for me.

Can we end this conversation now?

Yeah. Let's go introduce ourselves to Finnlagh.

Em and Alvarr shoved their way through the crowd. When Freya saw them, she grabbed their hands and pulled them over to her mother. "Mama, meet Alvarr and Emrys! Emrys likes to be called Em, though."

Finnlagh embraced them both. "Freya talks about you in every letter. It's like I know you boys already. Freya, darling, where is Ruadan and Adelina?"

Freya's face darkened. "Ruadan's gone back to the Dragonlords."

Finnlagh frowned and was about to speak when Balinor pushed his way through the crowd. "Greetings, old friend!" he called.

"Balinor!" Freya's mother exclaimed, delighted. She hugged him. "I've been told that Ruadan has left."

Balinor looked around at the other Druids. "Let's get you inside and fed first. Hunith's pottage is to die for." He put her hand on her shoulder and guided her back to his hut. Alvarr and Freya followed, while Em went back to collect his younger siblings. By the time Em walked through the front door, Hunith, Will, Gilli, and Adelina were there too. The small front room felt cramped with twelve people squeezed in it.

As Finnlagh ate, starved, Freya sat on her lap. Em thought he saw tears in his friend's eyes.

Balinor finally broke the silence. "Why did you come back, Finnlagh?"

Finnlagh swallowed her mouthful of food. "I got a messenger bird from Ruadan, saying bandits had attacked his little hideout and he was headed towards Sábháilte with the children. Then I got another saying they were safe and taken care of.

"Then I realized it's been years I've seen my own daughter." Finnlagh wrapped her eyes around Freya. "I couldn't bear it anymore. After Emery and the other elders granted my request to return home, I chose a suitable successor for my assignment, and I set off to get my daughter."

"What were you doing, Mama?" Freya asked quietly.

Finnlagh took a deep breath. "I was our people's eyes inside Camelot. I worked as a barmaid at the tavern. It's a good place to pick up gossip."

"And what of Declan?" Balinor inquired. Declan was Finnlagh's husband and the mother of Freya.

"Still holed up in a miserable camp in the Darkling Forest. I'll send for him as soon as possible. Our family needs to be reunited. I cannot let Uther keep me from them any longer," Finnlagh said with vehemence.

"Agreed!" Alvarr cried. "We cannot let the Pendragon King control us any longer!"

Balinor pounded on the table. "May Nature grant Her children freedom once again."


Life changed a bit after Finnlagh's arrival. Iseldir let her and Freya move into his unused back room. Em knew his uncle appreciated the company; he was often lonely, especially at night. Although he usually ate supper at his mother's or brother's huts, he went to bed in a silent home and woke up to one too. Iseldir, Freya, and Finnlagh took to having dinner in their home rather than going to Emery's or Balinor's. It made dinner less hectic in Balinor's home at least.

Still, everything remained quite the same in Em's life. Sword fighting, fieldwork, lessons, and bed. Over and over. For months.

He missed Ruadan.

Adelina took to calling Balinor and Hunith "Ma" and "Da". That was new. The first time she did it, it reduced Hunith to tears. The girl still received letters from her older sister in some isolated Camelot camp, but her parents remained as silent as ever. Em wished he could find them and throttle them. How could they not appreciate their own daughter? She was sweet, loyal, funny, and the most gifted fire mage in a generation!

He tried to ask his adopted sister about it once, six months after they came to Sábháilte. "I just don't fit in with them," was all she was willing to say.

"What about Arabella, Lina? She writes you every week. She clearly loves you." That was her older sister.

"Bella's the only one who got me," Adelina finally said. "Can you just drop it, Em? I don't want to talk about it."

"Okay," he muttered.

Alvarr never did call Balinor and Hunith his parents. Em knew Alvarr felt he would be disrespecting his parents' memory if he did. He did call Adelina, Em, and the rest of Em's siblings his brothers and sisters, though. Em was proud to call Alvarr his brother.


Declan came in middle of the night, a year after Freya arrived at Sábháilte.

Freya was a lovely girl of ten now, with large green eyes and a curtain of black hair. She had charmed everyone in the camp with her sweet personality. In Bastet form, she even managed to kill the fox that had taken over a dozen chickens. That earned her celebrity status amongst the Druid wives for weeks.

When Iseldir led a man with her green eyes and pale hair through the door, she almost didn't recognize him.

She remembered, age six, her father telling her that her parents were sending her away. "You'll be safe, Freya. Mama and I can't give you that right now."

She cried and cried and cried. Yet they still sent her away.

A bit older now, she had come to understand and even respect their decision. It was a hard decision, and one most parents would not have to guts to make. Her time with Ruadan had helped her become a better Shifter and spell-caster. Still, she missed them terribly.

Living with Finnlagh again was awkward at first. Her mother, so used to being child-free, had to learn to be a mother again. Freya had been a daughter to Ruadan, and then Hunith and Balinor. That was easy. But she had forgotten how to be the daughter of Finnlagh. It took time to re-learn that.

Now she needed to re-learn what being the daughter of Declan meant.

It meant big hugs and warm conversations and spells that made pictures dance in the fire. It also meant getting yelled at for disappearing into the forest with Em and Mordred for four hours and confined to their hut for a week. Declan hugged her and told her that he loved her afterwards, though.

It meant watching her parents remember how to be married again. Four years was a long time to be apart.

"I made your favorite tea!" Finnlagh said to Declan one night, a month after his arrival. With a wide grin, she placed the steaming earthenware mug in his hands.

"Rosehip?" Declan looked up at her with genuine excitement.

"It's mint," Finnlagh said. She looked at Freya in alarm. The girl shrugged. How was she supposed to know what her father's favorite type of tea was? "You love mint tea, darling."

"I love all tea, especially mint," Declan said, recovering quickly. He kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, love."

Finnlagh never made mint tea again.

As time went on, they learned to be a family again. Conversation no longer felt forced. Finnlagh learned they liked turnips in their pottage, but not onions. Declan learned that when he brought flowers to his wife, he couldn't bring daffodils as they made her sneeze. Freya learned it made her parents happy to hear her sing, so she did it as often as she could.

She was now the daughter of Finnlagh and Declan, again.


Emrys felt his life was quite stagnant, but eventually he came to prefer it. Constant letters bringing news of Druidic conflict with non-mages reaffirmed this. Sábháilte was boring, but it was safe. And, honestly, life wasn't too bad. The Druids did their best to make fieldwork fun; they always sang and joked around in the fields. Everyone pitched in and worked together to keep the camp running.

The children of the camp still found time for recreation. Adelina, Em, and their younger siblings often went on adventures into the forest, swimming in the ponds, or playing hide-in-seek in the fields. Almost always, Freya joined them. While his older brothers teased him and Adelina for participating in "children's games", Em thought it was better than their idea of fun. All they wanted to do was kiss girls and shoot arrows at targets they carved into trees.

He and Adelina had an awkward age gap of a year and a half. It meant that, for part of the year, she was two years older than him rather than one year. Right now, it was early spring. Em was still fourteen, and Lina was barely sixteen. She constantly rubbed it in his face.

They were walking in the woods after a long day of field work. Balinor had a fever, so he couldn't teach lessons that night. The younger children went to study with Iseldir for the night, but Adelina and Em had been given a break.

What a blessing that would turn out to be.

They were maybe three miles from camp. They both had their swords, and of course their powers.

"It's so quiet and peaceful," Adelina sighed. "I wish it could be like this forever."

"I don't like the quiet," Em said, wrinkling his nose.

"It makes you think," his sister acknowledged.

That's when someone dug a knife-tip into her back. She twisted around, and saw that Em was in a similar situation. His thug was masked, and clad in raggedy and foul-smelling clothing. Judging by the stench, she figured her man was too.

On the count of three, Em said. One…Two…THREE!

Adelina's palms ignited with the hottest flame she could summon. She pressed her hand against her captor's leg and he screamed. It was a haunting sound. He immediately let go of her. Meanwhile, Em used a spell that made his thug's knife turn hotter than a blacksmith's forge. He dropped his weapon with a yelp.

The pair unsheathed their swords and stood back-to-back. The man Adelina burned lay on the ground sobbing. The smell of burnt flesh filled her nostrils. She almost felt bad for him. Later, she regretted not slitting his throat when she had the chance.

Their odds suddenly seemed bleaker when a dozen more masked men appeared from the forest. Adelina summoned more fire, ready to burn them alive. No one messed with her or her little brother.

One of the men, clad in a ragged blue cloak, began to sing in a language she did not recognize. Blue sparks of magic danced in his outstretched palms. The world seemed fuzzy… instead of a dozen men, she saw two dozen. Em suddenly had a twin.

She heard Em and his twin calling faintly, "Cover your ears, Lina, cover your ears!"

She was out cold before his warning could register.

Chapter Text

trigger warnings for implied/discussed sexual assault, and torture


When Em came to, he didn't dare open his eyes. He kept his breathing easy, steady. He listened closely, as Ruadan had taught him to do. Water dripped, and he heard faint footsteps and shouting. They were being kept underground somewhere, then. Perhaps a cave…?

He recognized that his captors spoke the Saxons' tongue, but he had never learned it. So that offered him no help.

He felt a warm presence pressed against his left side. It had to be Adelina. Em felt a heavy, cold presence on his wrists as well. They had chained his wrists. With a sinking suspicion, he reached into his magic and tried to use it to warm himself. Nothing happened.

The cuffs had dampening spells on them. They must have cost a fortune.

He felt no pain. That was something, at least.

Knowing he had learned all he could without his sight, he tentatively opened his eyes.

Adelina was indeed huddled close to him. She slept fitfully, twitching every now and again. Her dress was torn and filthy, and she wore no shoes. Looking at his own feet, Em cursed. How had he not noticed that his brand new boots were missing? Those bastards. He was going to kill them.

They were in a small side chamber off a larger cavern. Someone had fitted crude iron bars across the entrance. Twisting around, Em saw that his cuffs connected to chains padlocked to rings screwed into the cave wall.

A boy around Gilli and Alvarr's age stood guard on the other side of the bars. In Em's humble opinion, it seemed like a useless job. They were chained up and locked in a cell, for Nature's sake. The boy locked eyes with Em. He was dark-eyed and wild-haired. His brown-black locks reached his chin. His face was bruised—his lip was split and his eye blackened.

Em scowled at him, and the boy merely smiled.

"The Druid boy's awake," the boy called in Common. Em was at least grateful for the fact that the boy spoke in his native tongue.

"Is he now?" A large redheaded man, followed by the blue-cloaked mage, came to join the boy by the cell bars. "He's a scrawny, dirty urchin. Hardly what I'd expect of a mage-boy. He's more of your stock, Gwaine."

The boy set his jaw and said nothing. Em almost felt bad for him.

"So, Druid"—Em hated the way he used it as an insult—"what do they call you?"

Em said nothing.

The redheaded man rattled the bars. Adelina stirred a bit at the harsh sound. Lie still, Lina, Em said. She did. "Are you dumb, boy? What do they call you?"

Em remained silent.

The man repeated his question in the Saxon tongue. At least, that's what Em figured he did. He didn't understand a word of the language.

"Perhaps he only speaks the Druid tongue, sir," Gwaine suggested. The redheaded man glared at him, and he shrank back a little. It seemed the redhead did not inspire loyalty from his followers then. No surprise there—he was a hulking, smelly brute. All Em could smell was the man's stench.

"Mr. Jarl," the mage said in a high, reedy voice. "The boy could be right. He was definitely born after the Purge. He probably grew up isolated in Druid camps. He would have never had any reason to learn Common, or the Saxon tongue."

Jarl clicked his tongue. "Then he's stupid." How eloquent, Em thought. "So, Druid boy, can you understand me?"

Em maintained his blank stare. He let his eyes widen.

Jarl suddenly kicked the bars. He wheeled around to face the mage. "How the hell are we supposed to get answers from a whelp who can't even understand our language?" he roared.

Em pressed himself up against the wall. Perhaps feigning ignorance hadn't been the safest route to take. If the man found out Em was lying… The consequences could be dire.

"My name is Merlin," Em spoke with a faked Druid twang in his voice. Finally, his mother's pet name for him was being put to good use.

"So you aren't a lackwit," Jarl said, pleased. "What of your companion—what's her name?"

"Emlyn," Em lied smoothly. He hoped his father's long-dead half-sister wasn't mad he was using her name.

"Do you know why we have brought you here, young Merlin?"

Em shook his head.

"Information."

The sarcastic side won over the self-preservationist one. "And here I thought it was because you needed someone other than that sniveling rat at your side to cast spells for you."

The mage's face turned very, very cold. He held his tongue, though.

"There's a man I'm looking for."

Em rolled his eyes and tucked his shaking, shackled hands under his legs. "There're lots of men in the world. I'll need you to be more specific."

"A Dragonlord."

Em went still.

"Ah, so you know him."

"I've met a few Dragonlords in my time," Em said slowly. He was going to be one.

"He's called Radley."

Em shrugged, secretly relieved. "Never heard of him."

"I believe your people call him Ruadan."

He tried not to react. "Ra—Ruadan," he repeated, as if the name seemed strange to him. "Never heard of him, either."

"I heard rumors he had a little group of students holed up in the forest somewhere for years. You see, I have some unsettled business with ol' Radley, so my lads and I went to investigate, and they were gone by the time we got there. We pursued them, but lost the trail. That bastard and his students killed three of my lads. Do you happen to know anything about that?"

"No," Em said breathlessly.

"His students…Two boys, and two girls, I believe. The younger boy and elder girl are around the ages of you and your girlfriend here."

Em's face reddened. "She's not my girlfriend!" he hissed. "And I don't know any Radley or Ruadan whatever the hell his name is!" Adelina shifted the tiniest fraction. Lie still, Lina.

Jarl laughed. "Very well, young Merlin. I'll give you until the morning to decide whether or not you want to cooperate. Tell your girlfriend she can stop faking sleeping." With that, he turned around and went to the larger part of the cave. The mage followed close behind, like a well-trained dog.

Em cursed silently. Adelina opened her eyes and sat up. Tears welled up in her eyes. What are we going to do, Em?

Em wanted to say he had a plan, or that Will and Balinor and Alvarr and Iseldir would come and save the day. But he didn't like lying. I don't know.

She closed her eyes. I'd rather die than tell them anything about Ruadan.

We may not have a choice. Besides, Lina, we don't even know that much—only that the Dragonlord Elders wanted him to return.

Let's not tell them unless they force us.

Force us?

You know, torture it out of us. I think that Jarl bastard would enjoy it.

Em shuddered. That's gruesome talk, Adelina.

It's the truth, Emmy. We have to be prepared for the worst.

Em was about to reply when he realized… He and Adelina had been mind-speaking this whole time and he hadn't tried to call for help telepathically yet. He shared this with Adelina, who looked equally pissed with herself.

Em tried to send his magic out searching for his family members' magics, but he couldn't get it to extend beyond the bars of the cell or the cave walls. He had a second realization—the magic cuffs would not let him mind-speak over long distances.

As that last glimmer of hope died, Em felt bitter tears rise into his eyes. How had he let this happen? He was fourteen, practically a man. He should have been able to protect his sister. He was an extremely powerful sorcerer, and had been trained in sword-fighting. A short sob of despair escaped from his throat.

The youth standing guard shot him a look. Of pity or disgust, he couldn't tell.

"It's Merlin, isn't it?" he asked softly in Common.

Em just stared at him.

"I'm Gwaine," the boy said. "You're a Druid. I've never talked to one before. Where I'm from, you would've been killed on sight."

"That's probably why you've never talked to one of us before," Em said as dryly as he could. "You're from Camelot, I presume, Gwaine?"

"No. I hail from Caerleon."

"How'd you end up so far from your motherland, Carleonian?"

"It's hardly my motherland. It's a stinking cesspit, full of murderers and thieves. I wish I'd left sooner."

"Yet somehow you ended up among more murderers and thieves," Adelina said in a low voice.

"Don't assume you know anything about me," Gwaine warned.

"I don't, nor do I want to," she replied sweetly.

"I just wanted to tell you… Jarl, my master there, he won't do anything to you. If you tell him what you know, that is."

"How generous of him," Em drawled. "So you're his slave, then, since he's your master?"

"I'm his servant," Gwaine said. "Are you an idiot? Only savages have slaves these days."

"My point exactly," Em said.

Gwaine scowled. "I shouldn't even be talking to you. You're a prisoner, and too cheeky for your own good."

Em glanced past the boy, watching Jarl and his goons drink in the main cave chamber. "What are you gonna do, run and tell Master?"

Don't agitate him too much, Emmy, Adelina said. It could turn out really bad.

Gwaine only chuckled. "I have no cause to seek Jarl out."

"Why? Is he the one who knocks you around?" Em jeered.

Gwaine's bruised face tightened in anger. "I won't be the only one getting knocked around if you don't shut up, Druid."

Em rattled his chains deliberately. "If I didn't have these, I would smite you where you stand."

Gwaine laughed. "Go ahead, kid, go ahead."

Em opened his mouth to issue another swift retort, but Adelina said, Don't anger him! Her pleading, desperate panic made him stop. Sighing, he simply moved as close to her as his chains would allow and settled on the ground to sleep. She did the same. They fell asleep like that, pressed together and fearful for the next morning.


Banging against the cell bars woke them up. Em tried to spring to his feet, bleary-eyed and groggy, only to have his shoulders almost dislocated from the force of the chains resisting the motion. He landed hard on his rear. Raucous laughter sounded out, and he screwed his eyes shut in shame.

When he finally opened his eyes, he saw Jarl, a couple of his thugs, and the mage staring at him. Gwaine was nowhere to be seen, thank Nature. They grinned at him, leering.

"Ready to answer my questions, Merlin?" Jarl practically purred.

"Go to hell," Em spat.

One of Jarl's men unlocked the door. Jarl and his mage strode in. Em cast his magical sense out and was disgusted to find out his power was far greater than that of Jarl's mage. If only he could remove the cuffs…

Jarl removed Em's cuffs from the chains using a key. One of the thugs hauled Em up by the collar of his shirt. The man gripped his shoulders firmly; for all his struggles, he could not escape his grip. Jarl walked right up to him, until they were nose-to-nose.

"Ready to talk, Druid boy?" he cooed.

Em spit in his face.

Jarl roared in anger. He backhanded Em across the face. Adelina pleaded for him to stop. Jarl's fist collided with Em's chest, knocking the wind out of him. The Druid saw stars and tasted the iron tang of blood in his mouth.

"What do you know about Ruadan?" Jarl asked.

"I don't know him," Em said.

"Bullshit," the mage growled.

"I'll repeat, what do you know about the Dragonlord called Ruadan?" Jarl spoke a bit louder this time. His voice hurt Em's throbbing head.

"Nothing, I swear!" Em insisted.

Jarl shook his head. "It seems young Merlin here has decided to take the difficult route here, lads. You know what that means."

Em started writhing to try and escape the thug who held him up. What were they going to do to him?

They yanked his shirt off his back and chained him to the wall again. Em heard a swishing sound. He twisted his head around to find Jarl holding a leather strap. Em felt his stomach drop. After each strike, Jarl would ask him what he knew about Ruadan. Em said nothing. It happened over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over—

Until finally he collapsed, only held up by the chains. Jarl came closer and tilted his chin up so that their eyes met. "This could stop if you tell me what you know."

Tell him, Em! Adelina begged. Please!

It will get Ruadan killed if I do! Em knew it in his gut.

We don't even know where he is.

Lina, I learned in my studies that the Dragonlord Elders have a keep in the Mountains of Asgorath. If I tell Jarl the Elders called Ruadan back, he'll know exactly where Ruadan is.

Adelina screwed her eyes shut. Nature help us and Ruadan.

When Em still stayed silent, Jarl hauled him back up on his feet and resumed beating him with the strap. After what Em guessed was the fortieth lick, he stopped. He unchained Em from the wall and attached his cuffs to the original chains. Still shirtless, Em could barely keep himself sitting up. Crying softly, Adelina cradled his head. She looked up at Jarl and glared at him. "You monster," she growled. "He's only a boy."

Jarl grinned. "I'd be careful, sweetheart. Your lover boy isn't the only one who has to answer my questions."

Adelina remembered what Em had said about Ruadan possibly dying if they revealed his location to these outlaws. "I dare you to try."


Em wasn't sure how long he and his sister had spent in this living hell. In the morning, Jarl woke them up by banging on the cell bars. He or ones of his thugs would beat Em after the boy inevitably answered their questions. Then they would go off to drink and Nature knew what else. About an hour after his beating, Gwaine would appear with a bucket, rag, some herbs, and a bit of food. He would treat any open wounds. He barely said anything, and Em didn't have the energy to bait him.

In the afternoon, it was Adelina's turn. Em felt his resolve chip away day after day, watching them beat his sister like a dog.

On what he guessed what the ninth day, Em finally broke.

That morning, the mage had used a knife to carve five deep cuts on his arm. He'd been stitched up by Gwaine, and cried from the sheer agony of it. Em was hunched against the cave wall, cradling his arm, when he heard the cell door creak open. He jerked himself up into a sitting position and saw them grab Adelina.

They dragged her out of the cell, kicking and screaming. Em yanked at his chains, demanding for them to bring her back. They ignored him, of course. Em was confused; they always tortured them in the cell, in front of each other. It was part of the mind games their captors tried to play on them.

His head almost exploded when Adelina started screaming across their mental connection. HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY

Over and over and over—

HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY

He rocked back and forth, tears streaming down his face—I CAN'T LINA I CAN'T I'M SORRY I LOVE YOU

HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY

LINA LINA LINA

EMMY

(He wished she would just be quiet.)

HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY HELP ME EMMY—

And then it cut off.

Em screamed her name for what felt like hours. She never responded. He slumped against the cave wall, crying even harder. Was his sister dead? How could he have wanted her to shut up when they were killing her? Poor, poor Lina, who had never had an easy life-

Perhaps he'd be dead soon, too.

He must have fallen asleep, because his eyes snapped open when he heard the cell door open. He looked up hopefully—

There she was, slung over the shoulder of a cross bandit. His precious older sister—not of his blood, but of his heart—alive, safe. Her eyes looked almost glazed over. Her dress, already ruined, was torn even more. She didn't look like she was seriously hurt. Just sluggish, and tired.

Was she… drugged?

"What did you do to her?" Em snarled.

The thug dropped her on the ground and fixed the chains to her cuffs. Silently, he yanked up one of his trouser legs to reveal a disgusting, purple scar in the shape of a hand. "Boss said I could have her for a bit, since the wench burned me leg so bad."

Have her…?

Em's eyes blazed in fury. "What did you do to her?"

And the man told him. Every excruciating detail. Her clothes hid the damage beneath, the man said with pride. He spat on her and said that the sorry whore loved every second of it; she was begging for it.

"She's sixteen," Em whispered.

"Old enough to be my wife," the man sneered. "Now, this is a message from the boss. We'll leave you alone from now on. Instead, I'll get to have my playtime with your special girl here every day. Of course, this little arrangement can be negotiated."

He watched his sister, drugged and shivering and filthy in a jail cell. His sister, who loved her cat Iris, and playing tag with their younger siblings. Who had just had her innocence brutally ripped away by a monster.

Old enough to be my wife… Every day… Can be negotiated…

"I'll tell your boss everything," Em blurted. "On the condition my sister never gets touched again."

The man whistled. "Your sister? I would've never guessed, you two don't look anything alike."


True to his word, Em told Jarl everything.

About Ruadan, his lessons with the Dragonlord, their secret hideout in the woods. How he, Alvarr, Adelina, Freya, and Ruadan had killed three of his men, and then fled to Sabháilte (Jarl already knew the location of it anyway). How the Dragonlord Elders had called his mentor back.

"He never mentioned why they wanted him back?" Jarl demanded. He held a knife to Em's throat.

"No."

"The Dragonlord Elders have a keep in a mountain range to the north," the mage mused. "That would offer the next clue to Radley's whereabouts."

Jarl raised his hand. Em flinched, expecting a blow. However, Jarl only patted his cheek. "Good lad," he whispered. When Em finally sighed in relief, Jarl dealt a crippling punch to the stomach with his fist. "You killed three of my men, though, boy. That calls for some punishment."

"I'll slit his throat," the mage offered. "Or I can burn him alive."

Jarl shook his head. "We'll let him live for now, Thorn. Let him live in fear for a while. However, before we part, I'll give him a little reminder to tell him I will return someday."

He turned to Gwaine, who had been lurking in a corner of the cave. The youth had fresh bruises on his face. "The axe, if you please."

Gwaine grabbed an axe lying on the ground near his feet. He handed it to Jarl silently. Em saw the remorse and silent plea for forgiveness in the youth's eyes. Em offered the tiniest of smiles—I forgive you, he said mentally.

The boy had no magic, though, so he didn't hear Em's silent absolution.

Jarl brought that axe down on his right hand, chopping off most of Em's left pinky finger. A scream tore its way out of his throat, and Jarl shoved the convulsing boy into Thorn's arm. "Heal him and the girl a bit, so they're healthy to travel back to their miserable camp." He crouched down to get to Em's eye level. "I look forward to seeing you again, young Merlin."

Shortly after, Em passed out from the pain.


Gwaine and Thorn drugged him and Adelina after the mage healed their most serious injuries. When then finally came to, they found a piece of parchment with directions how to get back to camp, and a small bag of food and a waterskin. It would take about a day and a half to get back to camp.

They said nothing. They just trudged for hours and hours, only stopping briefly to rest because of their extensive injuries. Adelina's face was more purple and yellow and blue than flesh-colored. Em kept staring at his mangled hand and trying not to cry.

Finally, they must have crossed the magical warning boundary because Em heard horse hooves in the distance when they got closer to the camp. Adelina was almost on the verge of collapse. Em had her lie down in a small clearing. He sat on a fallen log, waiting for the riders.

The riders were no other than Will and Alvarr. They cried out when they saw their siblings, and their wretched condition. Alvarr picked up Adelina like a baby, and Will swung Em over his shoulders. "He's much too thin, Al. He's so light," Em heard his brother mutter.

"I—" Em tried to say.

"Don't talk, save your energy," Alvarr said hoarsely. He sounded close to tears. "I'm glad you're alright. We thought you were dead."

Em closed his eyes. I almost wished I was.


Later on, Em couldn't remember much about his and Adelina's return to Sabháilte. Emery healed them, and Iseldir questioned them for hours about their time spent in Jarl's clutches. His uncle quickly sent a messenger bird to the Dragonlord Keep. Their parents and siblings and Aunt Maud and Cedran cried for hours after they recounted their harrowing tale. Hunith comforted them when they woke up terrified in the night. Freya hardly left their sides.

Things eventually got a little better.

Five months after their capture—Em was now fifteen—Hunith made a comment about how Adelina's stomach had swelled up quite a bit. "It's rare for a farm girl to have such curves, Addy," she teased. That was her special nickname for the girl, rather than 'Lina' as everyone else called her on occasion. "You lucky lass."

It was just them, Em, Sefa, and Maud in the hut. Everyone else was getting ready to watch for the lunar eclipse Iseldir had predicted. So Adelina felt comfortable enough to say, "Yeah, I've been feeling like I've been going through… changes, recently. My bleeding hasn't happened in almost four and a half months."

Maud looked alarmed. "That's not normal, dearie." She laughed when she saw Em blanch. "Don't look so scandalized, Emmy. It happens to all women. You ought to know a little about it, too."

"Will explained it to me when I was twelve, Aunt Maud," Em said with a grimace. "Ain't it supposed to be every month?"

"Yes. That's why I'm concerned." Maud clicked her tongue. "Four and a half months ago, shortly after you got back…" Her eyes widened.

"What, Aunt Maud?" Adelina said in alarm.

"Emmy, go get your móraí." When Em didn't move right away, she glared at him. Em got out of there faster than a bat out of Hades.


After a quick examination and spell, Emery whispered something in Adelina's ear. The girl clapped a hand over her mouth as tears came to her eyes. "Why?" she whispered.

"All children are blessings," Emery said softly.

"Not this one!" Adelina snarled.

Em suddenly understood. He wrapped his arms around his sister, and they stayed that way for a long time.


When Em was a few months shy of sixteen, and she of seventeen, Adelina gave birth in the dead of night. She insisted Em and Alvarr stay with her, despite the Druidic tradition that banned men from the birthing chamber. For ten hours, they and her adopted female relatives and her precious Freya and Finnlagh coached her through the birth.

At long last, Adelina held a tiny little girl in her arms. "She's so beautiful," she said, over and over. One would have never knon she had sunk into a deep depression for months after finding out she was with child. "Look, Ma! She has my sister's eyes."

"Arabella's, or Sefa's?" her adoptive mother asked mischievously.

"Bella's, silly! Although Sefa has the loveliest eyes. I love hazel eyes. Brown's a good color, though."

"Do you have a name for her?" Freya asked, bouncing up and down.

"Little Maudie?" her aunt said with a twinkle in her eye.

"No!" Though exhausted, Adelina let out a little giggle. "All the girls in my family…" She looked around at the people crammed into the small hut, who all wanted to support her—her little Freya, her parents, her six brothers, her little sister, her aunt and uncle, her grandmother. "All the girls in my birth family, their names start with 'A'. So I thought I'd keep the tradition going."

She paused for a moment, and then said thickly, "My girl's name is going to be Astryd—the name of the last Druid queen. May she lead her people to victory and freedom one day."

Everyone erupted into cheers.

 

Chapter Text

In the years since Em came back from his tutelage with Ruadan, Iseldir had watched his nephew closely. He was the prophesized Druid of the Unwritten Vision, after all. He would need guidance, protection, and help in the years to come. If he was the Druid in the Vision. Iseldir often worried Aisling had misinterpreted his dream.

He sometimes wished she had misinterpreted it. He didn't want his nephew to carry the burden. Em had a unique brand of optimism and an undying belief in the inner goodness of humanity that many Druids his own age did not possess. The younger generation of Druids had grown up in the time of Uther, after all. Who could blame them for their cynical outlook on life?

Iseldir feared this optimism would be his nephew's downfall if he was the Once and Future King's advisor. The rulers of a nation typically did not have a high regard for the flawed race known as mankind.

Then Em came back from his time with Jarl and his men. Those monsters had beaten and whipped and maimed him, and then did the same to his sister and forced him to watch it. Iseldir expected Em to harden afterwards, to adopt his peers' outlook on life.

Instead, he was Adelina's rock throughout her pregnancy. He talked excitedly about the baby, and eventually his undying enthusiasm led to the girl's qualms about being a mother slowly disappearing. Even if her child was the daughter of the man who would haunt her dreams for years to come.

That wasn't to say Em was unaffected by Jarl's torture. He had nightmares aplenty, and sometimes he would just stare at his right hand for hours. His back was covered in crisscrossing whip scars. Emery rubbed spelled oils and lotions on them to make them less severe, but nothing she ever did could make them go away. For the first three months, he flinched whenever someone touched him or made a sudden movement.

Things slowly got better, though.

And the core things that made Em himself never went away. He still loved his family, going on walks and swims in the woods, swordfighting, and his studies. He loved his dog Bandit and that stupid sparrow he saved as a nestling all those years ago. Most importantly, he expected the majority of people to treat him decently and follow a good set of morals—except for Uther and his soldiers, of course. The common, everyday Joe—was he a good man? In Em's eyes, of course he was a good man—he hadn't done anything yet to prove he hadn't, so therefore he was.

If Em still had that mindset after Jarl's torture, Iseldir knew serving the Once and Future King would not break the boy.

It would give him resolve, a purpose. He would not get burned out, or cave under the burden of a heavy destiny.

Serving the Once and Future King would glorify Emrys.


A week after the birth of Astryd, Iseldir was getting ready for bed. He kept his mattress in the front room, while Freya and her parents slept in the back room. The temporary arrangement of Declan and his family staying with Iseldir had turned into something permanent. There weren't enough homes in Sábháilte to justify Iseldir having one to himself anyway, and he really did enjoy his housemates' company. They were a nice family, and Finnlagh was a wonderful cook. Iseldir loved Freya as much as he loved his nieces and nephews.

Finnlagh was sipping tea at the table from an earthenware mug. Declan was already asleep after drinking a bit too much of the spirits Iseldir brewed as a side hobby. Freya and several other Druid girls were sleeping over at Balinor and Hunith's in celebration of Sefa's birthday. The girl was now eight. Nature, did time fly.

Iseldir had changed into his sleeping shirt and the worn trousers he had slept in for the last ten or so years. He was getting ready to flop down into his straw mattress when suddenly collapsed on the floor. Finnlagh yelled his name.

He tried to tell her before his vision went black—

His Sight was taking over.


He saw bright golden lights, and a beautiful woman in a rocking chair. She had his mother's eyes and Enjorran's blond hair. She sang to a baby, holding her tightly. The child had those same green eyes and a dusting of raven hair.

The vision shifted. It was the same woman, standing on a rocky beach. The woman's child was gone. She looked at Iseldir, piercing him with those eyes.

"You look like my parents," he said, confused. The very fact he could talk to her was confusing; he had never spoken to someone in a Vision before. He frowned. "Are you Emlyn's ghost?" He still remembered his deceased infant sister fondly. She had been the sweetest child, and her disappearance had left a hole in his heart that had never been filled.

The woman watched the ocean waves. "I do not know who Emlyn is. All I know is that it is time, and you must tell him."

"Tell who?"

"You know who. Tell him this: he must go to Camelot, the future of your people depends on it."

"Who are you?" Iseldir took a step forward, staring intently at the woman.

She looked away. "I will be dead soon. It does not matter. Only the message does."


He woke up to Finnlagh dumping a bucket of cold water on him.

"FINNLAGH!" he yelled, sputtering. "Why the hell did you do that for?"

"You were comatose! I couldn't wake you up," she yelled right back at him. She helped him up slowly. "Are you alright? Declan went to fetch your ma."

"I was having a Vision! I am a Vates, remember?" Iseldir snapped. He saw her eyes widen in realization. "I told you Visions can happen when the Seer is awake."

"Yeah, a year ago. How was I supposed to remember right away? I got caught up in the moment." She grabbed the kettle off the table. "I'll make you tea to warm you up, you're soaked. Go change into Declan's extra shirt and trousers. They may be a little small on you, though."

"Are you calling me fat?" Iseldir roared as he went into the back room to do exactly as she had suggested.

"No, you two are just, umm, built differently," Finnlagh said quickly.

A minute later, Emery and Declan burst through the door. "Where is Iseldir?" Emery said frantically.

"In here, Ma! I was having a Vision, and my intelligent housemates freaked out," Iseldir called from the back room. "Finnlagh dumped a bucket of water on me, though. I think I may have hypothermia."

Emery grinned at the couple and rolled her eyes. "Good work, Finnlagh. I'm going back to bed. Goodnight, everyone." With that, she walked out the door.

"Love you, too, Ma!" Iseldir yelled.


Iseldir sought out Aisling at dawn. He barged in without knocking. She was eating porridge at her table.

"I had a Vision last night," he announced.

"Did you copy it down in your dream journal?"

"Of course," Iseldir said, mildly offended. He held it up.

"Don't be so prickly. Give it here." Iseldir obliged, and took a seat opposite to her. She only had three chairs.

She frowned when she got to the part about the woman looking like his parents, and it only deepened when she found out Iseldir had been able to talk to her. She looked up from the journal and rubbed her forehead with a callused hand. "Are you thinking the same thing I am thinking, Iseldir?"

"That the 'he' the woman in my Vision spoke of is my nephew Emrys?"

Aisling sighed heavily.

"I think it's time we told the boy."

"We can't send my nephew to Camelot. It would be a death sentence. His mark is right on his collarbone!"

"There are spells to remove it."

"It would be as painful as losing a limb."

Aisling raised her eyebrows. "He already has."

That shut Iseldir up.


Iseldir convinced Aisling to tell Emery about his Vision, and ask for advice on what they should do about it. After supper that night, his mother cornered him next to the chicken coop, where he was scattering the dinner scraps for the wretched birds.

"Why did you not tell me yourself, Iseldir?" his mother demanded.

"Aisling is more eloquent than I am," Iseldir began, only to be cut off by his mother—

"Why didn't you tell me you saw my Emlyn?"

"We don't know if it was—"

"Aisling said she had blonde hair and green eyes, just like your sister did." Emery's hands shook. "She had a child, Iseldir. Oh, my heart longs for what could have been…"

"Ma," Iseldir said, grabbing one of his mother's shaking hands and holding it tightly. "Emlyn aside, what do we do about Emrys?"

Emery looked at him in confusion. "Send him to Camelot, of course."

"Hunith and Balinor would never agree to that," Iseldir pointed out. "I don't want to send him to Camelot. It's a death sentence."

"It's his destiny," Emery said. "You cannot fight what Nature wills, my son."

"If I had to wager money on a war of wills between Nature and my sister-in-law, I would choose Hunith, Ma."

"You called sending him to Camelot a death sentence just now. Aisling told me you said the same thing to her."

"I did," Iseldir said, frowning. Why was his mother repeating something he'd just said seconds before? Was her age catching up to her?

Emery smiled sadly. "That boy stared death in the face and came out of the experience stronger. If Jarl did not break him, how could Camelot break our Emrys?"

Iseldir had to think on that. He pictured the boy with the mangled hand and scarred back. The boy who barely slept through the night sometimes. He also pictured the boy's ever-present smile, his undying enthusiasm for everything.

The boy was destined to free the Druids from Uther's oppression. How could Iseldir interfere with destiny?

Iseldir closed his eyes. "We'll talk to Hunith, Balinor, and Em in the morning."

He prayed to Nature the boy's parents would say no. Or, even better, that Em would say no.

For the first time ever, he wished Nature had not given him the Sight. His stupid Visions could lead to his nephew's downfall.


A/N: Hello! Long time no read. I am in the middle of running tech for a musical, and I haven't had time for anything. I love the work, but I am absolutely exhausted. I wrote this little chapter over the course of three days, I'm soooo sorry it is really short and crappy. I apologize for any grammar mistakes. I just wanted to get some content out for my lovely readers. It's written in Iseldir's point of view because he is my favorite character (besides Merlin/"Em", of course!).

Also in response to some of the reviews I got on chapter 9-

Jarl letting Adelina and Em go was not a poorly thought out plot point. When I write, I write thoughtfully and deliberately. It may not make sense now, but it will make sense later on as more is revealed in the plot.

As always, thank you to everyone who reviewed, followed, and favorited. I love reading reviews!

Chapter Text

Iseldir approached Em when he was feeding the chickens. He watched the skinny youth for a bit, not sure how to start this conversation. His nephew had his back turned to him, so he did not see Iseldir. The birds were gobbling up that night's scraps and a bit of grain, practically swarming the poor boy. The rooster, a particularly devious bird, pecked the boy's ankle. Em muttered under his breath and a short blast of wind blew the rooster about a foot back. It squawked in alarm, and Iseldir laughed out loud.

Em flinched in surprise and whirled around. "Oh, it's you! Hi, Uncle."

"Hi, Em." The Vates shifted nervously. "I hate that old bird. Your mother should cook him for Midwinter dinner."

Em laughed. "We don't have enough of 'em to be eating 'em, Uncle! But if we did, I'd kill that one. Anyway, what are you doing out here? I thought you were eating dinner at Aisling's and then talking Seer stuff."

"How'd you know about that?" Iseldir frowned. "Did your móraí tell you that?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Em grinned. "In a camp this small, are you really surprised I know? Is Aisling going to be 'Aunt' Aisling, soon?" He waggled his eyebrows.

"Emrys, you little scoundrel, Aisling is my friend and dream interpreter! Nothing else," his uncle exclaimed, flushing.

"If you say so," said Em dubiously. "So, like I said, do you need anything?"

"What do you know about Camelot, nephew?" Iseldir blurted.

"I know it's where my mother is from, and that Uther Pendragon is King. He's the reason we had to leave Ealdor. Ma says it's beautiful and not much different from Essetir. I think she misses it, sometimes."

"Would you ever want to go there?"

"Uncle, they'd kill me on sight!" Em pulled his shirt collar down a bit and tapped his triskel. "But if magic wasn't, probably. Ma says the capital city is beautiful, especially the castle. She went there when she was little, to sell surplus crops with her da. You ever been to a city?"

"Amddiffynfa. My father took me there when I was very young. It was the first time I ever saw the ocean."

"That's in Caerleon. It's a port city. Is Caerleon a nice place? I heard it was full of murderers and thieves."

"It's a lawless place, run by wicked and corupts nobles, sure, but its peasantry is hardworking and kind. Times are hard, so banditry is rampant. Who told you that?"

"Read it in one of Ruadan's books."

"Oh. Well, you shouldn't go there. The king there has outlawed magic as well, even though Uther is his enemy."

Em asked, "Why'd you ask about Camelot?"

Iseldir froze. Then he took a deep breath, and began to explain. "Y'see, Emmy, on my journey back from Ruadan's after I first dropped you off there, I had a powerful Vision…"


At the same time, Emerald caught up to Hunith and Balinor just as they about to go for a walk in the woods. However, judging by the coy glances Hunith kept giving her husband and the look in her son's eyes, Emery was beginning to regret her decision to talk to them at this particular moment.

"Hey Ma!" Balinor said when they turned around. They had probably heard the sound of her footsteps on the forest floor. "Are you joining us?"

Don't sound so disappointed, lad, Emery said dryly. Aloud she said, "Oh, I just wanted to ask you about something." She thought starting off casual would be the best way to begin this conversation. "You might want to sit down."

Hunith sat on a fallen tree near the edge of the treeline. Her husband and mother-in-law joined her. "I'm all ears, Emery."

"I—Well…"

Balinor chuckled. "It's rare to see you at a loss for words, Ma."

"Have either of you ever heard of the Unwritten Vision?" Emery said.

The couple exchanged a look and shook their heads.

"It's an ancient prophecy that promises the coming of a powerful sorcerer who will free the Druids from oppression and suffering. Only by uniting with a king, called the Once and Future King, can this freedom be attained."

"Imagine that," Balinor mused, taking his wife's hand.

"Enjorran was the first sorcerer in a century to see the Vision. That's typical. He informed the council of elders, and they told him to burn any records he had made of it. We keep it secret so as to keep knowledge of it from falling into the wrong hands."

They nodded, and Emery continued.

"Five years ago, Iseldir Saw this Vision. For two Seers, especially a father and a son, to see it so close together must mean the time of the prophecy's fulfillment must be soon. And…" She took a deep breath. "We have reason to believe Em is the Druid in this prophecy."

"Em?" Hunith repeated. "Our son Em?"

"Yes, dear. I can't give very many details, but all signs in the dream point to Emrys. As for the Once and Future King, we believe the King to be—" She hesitated.

"Who, Ma?" Balinor said in a low voice.

"A member of the Royal House of Pendragon."

"Uther?" Balinor practically snarled. "Uther?"

"King Uther has a son, Prince Arthur, who is Em's senior by five years. We believe it to be him."

"Why are you just telling us now, Emery?" Hunith sounded hurt. "He's our son. We have the right to know."

"Prophecies are fickle things. We wanted to make sure, beyond a doubt, that Em is indeed the Druid in the prophecy. We now know for sure. Iseldir had another Vision, one of a woman who said 'He must go to Camelot, the future of your people depends on it.' I know in my heart of hearts that this woman spoke of our Emrys."

Balinor's face was pale. "I would rather die than send my son to Camelot. He has a triskel; he'll be identified as a Druid, and killed on sight!"

Tears welled up in his wife's eyes. "I won't let you," she said. "I won't be parted from him again—three years is too long, and he is only a boy."

"The future of our people depends on it! It is Nature's will he goes there!" Emery urged them. Her eyes stung with tears.

"If Nature wills it, then I say blast Her!" Hunith retorted.

"You must listen to your common sense, Hunith," Emery pleaded. "Your boy will save our people."

Balinor stood up, pulling his wife up with him. "We won't listen to you any longer, Ma. Go away, you've done enough." He wrapped his arm around Hunith's shoulder and led her deeper into the forest, leaving his mother standing by herself in shock.


Dejected, Emery wandered back to Iseldir's hut. To her utter amazement, she found her grandson and son sitting at the table drinking mugs of tea. They appeared to be in deep conversation. Freya and her parents were nowhere to be seen.

"Ma!" Iseldir said in delight when he walked in. His grin turned into a frown when he saw his mother's reddened eyes and drooping shoulders. They didn't take it well?

Not at all. Iseldir hugged her tightly, and she held him close. Iseldir had always been the most affectionate of her children.

A second pair of arms—skinnier, longer—wrapped around her. "Did my ma and da get mad at you, Móraí?" Em asked.

"So you know?"

He nodded.

"How do you feel about it?"

"I… I have a duty to my people, and I will do what is necessary," Em said after dwelling on it for a moment. "So, Móraí, this Arthur fellow is the Once and Future King, then?"

"Possibly. There are only two members of the House of Pendragon left—Uther and Arthur."

Em wrinkled his nose. "Why is his name so similar to his da's?"

Emery laughed. This boy, who had just been told he was the sole hope for his oppressed people, chose to focus on that, of all things? Nature bless him—nothing could break Em, nothing. "Says Emrys, the grandson of Emerald," she teased.

"That's different. Emerald and Emrys are nice names. Arthur's a good name, but Uther is a gross name. It doesn't have a nice ring to it."

Iseldir spoke up. "Em is willing to go to Camelot."

"You are?" Emery wrapped her arms around her grandson again. "You brave lad. What do you think you could do there to help our people?"

"Finnlagh says we have eyes in Camelot. I figure I could get help from them if I get in trouble. And my Uncle Gaius, my ma's brother, he's Uther's court physician. Ma says he saved my da, so I'm sure he doesn't mind magic users. I could stay with him."

Iseldir watched the boy with pride. "And, if he lives in the castle with Gaius, he may run into Arthur! Even princes get sick. I'd give him my old scrying mirror so he could keep in touch and give us updates."

"Even making the journey to Camelot will be dangerous," Emery warned.

"Cedran, Alvarr, and Uncle Issy could accompany me there, as long as they hide their Druid marks. With our magic and our swords, we should be safe."

Emery wrung her hands. "Now, if only we can get your parents to agree."


The issue of sending Em to Camelot turned into a month-long battle—Em's parents versus his grandmother and uncle. When Adelina, Alvarr, Will, and Gilli found out about it, they sided with Em, Emery, and Iseldir. Mordred, Cedran, and Maud initially opposed it, but Em eventually won them over. Sefa, stubborn as a bull, sided with her parents. Daegel was too young to understand—he was just upset that his family members were fighting. "Just love each other!" he would wail.

Long talks with Aisling, letters from other Druid Elders, their children's badgering—nothing could change Hunith and Balinor's minds.

Em and his mother were in the forest digging up wild onions to go in a stew. Quietly, Em asked, "Can we have Uncle Iseldir and Móraí over for dinner, Ma?"

She sighed. "Don't start, Emrys. Please—today has been so peaceful."

Yeah, because you avoided me, Uncle, and Móraí in the fields all day today and barely spoke to me during breakfast or lunch, Em mentally yelled. His mother, as she had no magic, could not hear him.

Em, who loved his family above all else, was heartbroken by his mother's distant behavior. He wished she would just understand that this was his destiny—his sacred duty to his people.

"What's Camelot like?" he asked.

"Emrys, please," she snapped.

"I just wanna know. Tell me about the village you grew up in, Ma."

"There's not much to tell, and what there is to tell I have already told you."

"Please, Ma!"

She sighed. "It's a bit miserable, looking back on it. The homes were little better than hovels, and sometimes we didn't have enough food. There were no more than one hundred and twenty-five people. We didn't have much, but we shared what we did have. Sometimes we traded with people from other villages, or traveled to other villages to trade with the people there."

"What were those villages like?"

"Some were nicer than others, but still dirt poor. The capital, though…"

"What is it like?"

"The castle is made of white stone and it overlooks the whole city. It's on the top of a hill, and just thinking about it now takes my breath away. There's a marketplace and a Lower Town. The Upper Town is very small, mostly nobles but a few wealthy merchant families dwell there too. It's magnificent," she sighed.

"I'd love to see it," Em said.

She closed her eyes. "Son…"

"Ma, I must."

"You must? Says who?"

Em thought long and hard about this. Finally, he said, "I say. It is my destiny. I know it in my heart of hearts."

"You always were the bravest and kindest person I had ever met," Hunith murmured, pressing a callused hand against his cheek.

Em felt tears come to his eyes, and blinked rapidly. "Really?"

Hunith closed her eyes again. "Promise me one thing."

Heart fluttering, Em whispered, "What do you want me to promise?"

"Promise me you'll come home."

"I promise." Em hugged her tightly and they stayed like that for a long time.


A/N: Hey, long time no update! The musical I ran tech for is officially over. While I am very sad about it (it was a fantastic production with a talented cast and crew!), I am excited to finally have some time to write. Who's excited to meet Arthur (FINALLY, you all must be saying!)?

As always, a huge thank you to everyone who followed, favorited, and reviewed. I love you guys and reading reviews! Much love~

Chapter Text

When Hunith finally relented, Balinor soon followed. Em felt that his parents could never truly oppose each other—they loved each other so much that their feelings, motivations, and beliefs had morphed into that of one person's. How was that even possible? He wished he could love someone that much. Scratch that—it probably wasn't healthy to love someone that much. His parents had been to hell and back, though. It made sense.

When Balinor caved, only Sefa opposed Em going to Camelot. While her opinion did not "matter" in the decision, ultimately, Em still wanted her to not oppose his decision. He loved his little sister dearly, and it broke his heart to see the ten-year-old so upset and scared for him.

So, two days after he convinced his mother to let him go to Camelot, Em took Astryd and Sefa out for a little picnic after work in the fields finished. Adelina, exhausted from her endless nightmares, was thrilled to be relieved of her motherly duties for a few hours. Sefa only agreed to go once Em said he was bringing Astryd.

Hunith gave them a bit of bread, some cheese, and strawberries. She wrapped the food in a bit of cloth and told them to have fun. Sefa, bitter about her mother's betrayal, simply stomped out the door. Shaking her head, Hunith helped Em place Astryd in the sling. Adelina, a young but fretful new mother, hovered nearby.

"She likes walking at a steady pace, Em," Adelina reminded him. "It helps her fall asleep. If she fusses, hum 'The Huntsman's Lullaby,' it puts her right to sleep."

"I know, Lina," Em said with a chuckle. "Don't fuss—I know how to take care of babies. I have three younger siblings, remember?"

"I do, Emrys. And as your older sister, that is precisely why I'm worried."

Hunith rolled her eyes. "You better go and catch up to Sefa. She's not in the best of spirits, the poor girl."

"She has to learn to accept things for how they are," Adelina muttered. Her eyes were locked on Astryd when she said that.

"Sefa hasn't been in a situation like that yet, praise the gods. She was only one when we had to flee Ealdor. Things are safer here, but hoe distant the threat of Uther really is here makes it less real for her. She doesn't understand why Em has to go," Hunith sighed.

Em opened the door. "I'm gonna go catch up to her, Ma. Try to make her see sense." With that, he left, slamming it shut behind him.


Em found Sefa tucked amongst the branches of a weeping willow at the edge of the forest, her head resting on top of her drawn-in knees. "You look like a faerie princess, up there on a willow throne," he called.

"I look like a Sefa," was the terse reply. "I'm no princess."

"Says who?" Em challenged.

"I dunno."

"Some say that Móraí Emery is a queen, y'know. The Banríon of the Druids. The ancient banríons, they had eyes as luminous and green as emeralds. And Móraí Emery, why, her eyes are greener than any banríon! Her name is Emerald, for Nature's sake. Since your móraí is a queen, that makes you a princess."

"You're just pulling my leg."

"Am not."

Sefa crept to the edge of the branch to peer down at him. Her freckled face was suspicious. "You promise, Emmy?"

He held up his maimed hand. "Cross my heart and hope to die."

"Stick a needle in your eye?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye."

"You got the food?"

Em held up the parcel. "I got the food. Come down and eat it."

Sefa yawned. "I'm hungry."

"All that climbing gave you an appetite," her older brother said. "Now come down."

"I am!" Swiftly, she scurried down the tree and took a seat next to Em on a mossy log. They ate in silence for a bit.

"Sefa, you can't be mad at Ma," Em said tentatively.

"I mad at her, at Da, at everyone—but mostly you," Sefa growled. "You don't have to go to Camelot, but you still are. Why?"

"It's my duty."

"You have a duty to your family! You're my big brother, you're supposed to look out for me! You're the most powerful sorcerer in well, forever, and you're ditching your family to go help out a bunch of dirty, stinking murderers!" Sefa yelled.

Astryd began to fuss. Em took her out of the sling and rocked her back and forth. "You have four other big brothers and a big sister to look after you, Sefa."

"Will and Gilli don't have magic, Alvarr's not really my brother, and Adelina's not really my sister and she's too busy with Astryd nowadays—"

Taken aback, Em interrupted her. "I know you don't mean that. Alvarr and Lina are your brother and sister. They would do anything for you."

She didn't say anything. Em continued on, "And, Sefa, I don't want to leave you. I have to—the prophecy wills it. I'm not forsaking our family by going to Camelot—I go to Camelot so that I may free our people from oppression one day. I would never help Uther Pendragon. I would only help the Once and Future King, his son Arthur. And I would only help him so that I may help our people. Does that make sense?"

Sefa nodded a bit. She blinked back tears. "I don't want you to leave, Emmy."

"I don't want to leave, either."

"So don't."

"You know I can't."

She sighed, and the tears spilled over. "Yeah, I know."

"It will be okay, Sefa. I promise." Em tucked Astryd into the crook of his elbow and drew Sefa close to him, like he used to do when she was a baby.

Sefa closed her eyes. "I guess you can go, since you're helping the Druids and everything. But you can't help Uther, Em, you can't."

"I won't," Em said, crossing his heart.

She let out the tiniest of smiles.


Over the course of two weeks, Iseldir gathered supplies for the trip and plotted out their route. Cedran and Alvarr agreed to accompany him and Em on the way to Camelot. Will and Gilli wanted to go, but Iseldir refused. He needed magic-users on this expedition—spellcasters powerful enough to take on several of Uther's men at once.

Adelina listened, enraptured, as Iseldir explained this over dinner one night. She stared at her palm, and a blue tongue of fire appeared. "If I didn't have Astryd, I would go," she said, her eyes blazing with a cold golden light.

Iseldir patted her hand. "Your duty is here, my sweet."

The flame went out, and Adelina drew her daughter closer to her. "I know," she murmured.

Sparks danced between Cedran's fingertips. "This will be fun," he said with a sinister smile.


Mordred, Sefa, and Daegel hardly left Em's side as the day of his departure came closer. He was taken on endless trips to the swimming hole and subjected to many games of bandits and soldiers, hide and seek, and tag. Will and Gilli took him hunting and worked by him in the fields. Adelina sat next to him at dinner and insisted he hold Astryd as much as possible.

"We can't have her forgetting her favorite uncle," she said one night at dinner. This immediately started an argument between Will, Gilli, Alvarr, Mordred, Em, and Daegel over who the favorite uncle was. It made Balinor and Hunith cry. Em could not tell if they were tears of mirth or sadness.


Finally, the day came for Em and his companions to depart for Camelot. The whole village gathered to see him off. In the predawn light, almost all the villagers hugged him, whispered prayers to Mother Nature for protection and guidance, or wished him good luck. Finally, all but those closest to him remained.

Emery approached him first. Her fingertips sparked with the blue fire that was healing magic. "Are you ready?"

Em swallowed nervously and nodded. He knew his grandmother had to remove the Druid triskel on his collarbone. He removed his shirt, revealing his muscular and scarred upper body.

Emery put her hand on his collarbone. "This will hurt. I am told the pain is tenfold when it gets removed."

Sure enough, as her magic flowed from her fingers and began to burn away the triskel, Em yelled and sank to his knees. Daegel tried to run to him, but Alvarr held him back. Em felt tears streak down his cheeks as he gazed up at his grandmother. Her emerald eyes blazed gold, but she murmured no spell; the triskel-removing spell was known only to the Druid elders. It was one of the few bits of silent magic the Druids practiced.

She said to him, It is done, and the pain faded almost immediately.

Em looked down and saw an awful burn scar on his chest where the triskel had once been. He felt as if a piece of him was missing; that mark connected him to his people—it showed that he belonged. Was he even a Druid without the mark?

As if he read his mind, Balinor said, I am a Druid, my son, but I bear no mark. Do not despair.

Balinor strode forward and helped his son to his feet. He represented him with a small dragon talisman, hung on a cord. It was carved from an oak tree. Em wrapped his arms around his father's neck and did not let got for a long time.

"You are a Druid, my son, but never forget you are a Dragonlord as well," Balinor murmured in Dragonic, putting the necklace on him.

"I won't, Da," Em replied in the same language.

Hunith produced a saddlebag full of clothes. "Your Aunt Maud and I sewed you some new shirts and neckerchiefs. You can't go to Camelot looking like a country bumpkin." She winked at him.

Em buried his face in her chest.

One by one, his siblings came forward with little things he would need in Camelot. He got a shaving kit (Will), a short-sharpening kit (Gilli), a scabbard that one belonged to Ruadan (Alvarr), a dagger (Adelina), a new pillow (Sefa), another dagger (Mordred), and new boots (Daegel). When these precious gifts were all stowed away safely in his saddlebags, he felt someone punch him in the shoulder softly. He turned around to see Freya. She shoved a bracelet woven from strips of leather.

"So you don't forget me," she said.

Em hugged her tightly. "How could I forget you, Freya?"

She cried.

Cedran went to a thicket of bushes where he had hidden a large piece of leather molded so that it almost looked like a bowl. Silently, he strapped it to Em's horse's saddle so that it hung firmly on one side. He whistled, and Em's shepherd dog, Bandit, appeared.

Em felt like he was going to start sobbing. "I… I can take Bandit?"

"If you help me get his fat ass on this saddle thing I had Aglain make, then yes," Cedran said irritably.

Iseldir placed a scrying mirror in his hands and looked up at the steadily rising sun. He motioned to Alvarr, Cedran, and Em. "We are losing daylight. We must get going."

After a few more tearful goodbyes, Em and his companions (including Bandit) mounted up and began their perilous journey to Camelot.


A/N: Long time no write! You're probably saying, "EnchantingWriting, why the h*eck isn't Em in Camelot yet? WHERE IS ARTHUR?" And, as I have been saying for like the past FOUR chapters, Arthur will definitely appear in the next chapter (along with Gaius, Gwen, Morgana, and Uther!). I'm sorry I suck so much. Thank you for bearing with me and my irregular updates.

I dedicate this chapter to my dog. If she was a boy, her name would have been Bandit :) And my cats, too, because they can't be left out.

As always, a huge thank you to everyone who followed, favorited, and left a review on this trashy fic. I love reviews-they literally make my day. Much love~

Chapter Text

Em stared up at the massive gates that led into the city of Camelot, and felt he was staring Death in the face. Just two brief hours ago, he had hugged his uncle, brother, and cousin goodbye before making the final leg of the journey to Camelot by himself. The whole trip had been extremely stressful—they had a few close encounters with Camelot soldiers on patrol, including an experience that led to them hiding in a cave for half a day. That had been fun.

He was in the damn city now, at least. Well, almost. He still had to walk through the gate.

He did not want to, though. Despite its white stone walls, magnificent castle, and cozy little cottages whose chimneys let out puffs of smoke, he could not shake the feel that death was imminent. How could a Druid not feel that way in Camelot?

How had Finnlagh been able to stay undercover here for years? He'd been standing outside the gate for about ten minutes and he was ready to leave.

At least he had Bandit with him. The shepherd pressed against his leg comfortingly, tail wagging. Em buried his fingers in his dog's thick fur and closed his eyes. He muttered a quick prayer to nature and moved forward with resolve. Bandit followed him like a shadow.

To get through the city, one had to state their name and reason for entering the city to a guard. Iseldir had coached him on what to say, but Em still worried that he would somehow come off as a Druid to the vigilant city guards.

He waited for about fifteen minutes—there were half a dozen people ahead of him, mostly farmers looking to sell their crops in the city market.

Finally, it was his turn. A guard in his mid-thirties beckoned him forward. He wore chainmail, the Pendragon coat of arms, and a battered helm. A well-used, sheathed sword hung on his hip. "State your business here, where you come from, and your name," the guard said gruffly. He eyed the sword that hung on Em's own hip.

"My name is Merlin, sir, and I am of Essetir. I came here to seek out my uncle, who is the court physician."

"How does an Essetirian have family in Camelot?"

"My mother hails from this land, but she married an Essetirian and moved out there to reside with him."

"What's the dog for?"

"Protection and companionship on the road."

"And the sword?"

"Same reason as before, sir," Em said, trying to sound confident.

The guard's lips twitched in the tiniest hint of a smile. "Is the sword a better companion than the dog?"

"It depends," Em said with a laugh.

The guard finally nodded. "You may enter the city. Go to the palace gate and tell them you wish to speak to the court physician."

"Thank you, sir," Em said. He hurried into the city.

He forgot some of his worries and fears as he walked through the city's Lower Town. Though it was a slum, the dilapidated cottages were far nicer than the huts back home. They had actual chimneys, rather than holes cut into the roof to let smoke out. The dirt streets were bustling with people selling wares and trading. Women did laundry and sewed on front their stoops, chatting with one another. Children played in the streets. Chickens, pigs, cats, and dogs roamed everywhere. It was equally overwhelming and fascinating. As he moved deeper into the city, heading closer and closer to that big white castle, it became a lot nicer. The cottages were not so rundown, and the dirt beneath Em's feet eventually gave way to cobblestone. Finally, he found himself in a square just outside the castle. A big crowd was forming around a raised platform.

When Em got closer, he realized something was terribly wrong. Four men stood on the platform—one bound and beaten, a masked man, and two guards with spears pointed at the bound man.

This was an execution.

Em stood at the edge of the crowd. He knew he shouldn't be watching this, but…

He couldn't draw his eyes away from it. Bandit whined a bit, and Em stroked his silky ears.

A man's voice boomed out, so loud that Em thought it was amplified with a spell. Then he remembered that this was Camelot, and all spells were illegal. Em looked up to see the source of the voice. A man swathed in a fine tunic and scarlet cape stood on a balcony jutting out of the castle. Half a dozen guards surrounded him. Em recognized him immediately as Uther—Iseldir had conjured the likeness of the man in a fire last night. A faint scar sloped down one side of his face and, though he was now aged, one could tell he used to be handsome. Just the sight of him made Em wish there was a spell that could whisk him away to Sábháilte.

A few other people from inside the castle watched, too. A girl clad in a fine blue gown, no older than eighteen, peered down from an open window, her elbows propped up on the sill. Her lovely raven hair hung in elegant curls, and Em could see the glint of piercing green eyes, even in the square below. He wondered who she was. Perhaps the daughter of some knight or lord? She was old enough to be married, he supposed.

Uther glared down at the gathered people below. Em focused his attention on the king. "This man, Thomas Collins, was discovered last night by our esteemed city guards, practicing the dark art of sorcery. Since the Purge, I have worked tirelessly to cleanse Camelot of the disease of magic. Sorcerers are a blight upon this land—they would have destroyed this realm if not for the Purge. Therefore, I can only do one thing: sentence this man to death."

Thomas Collins only clenched his jaw. The guards forced him to kneel down and place his head on a raised block. Em swallowed nervously as the headman hefted the axe. It came down—by Nature, the sight of it…

It was like watching Will and Alvarr cut the wheat with scythes during harvest season. The headman leaned down and held up the head victoriously. Em wanted to barf. Sure, he had killed those bandits in the forest all those years ago with Ruadan and the others—he'd stabbed a man in the stomach, watched him bleed out. But that had been a life or death situation.

This was the murder of an innocent man whose only crime had been practicing magic. Em wove his fingers into Bandit's fur. His dog whined again, smelling the blood. Em listened in horror as the king announced a celebratory feast to mark the twenty-year anniversary of the Purge. The bastard

An anguished cry came from one of the onlookers. Em saw a pockmarked and gray-haired woman beating her breast in sheer agony. With pure hatred on her face, she looked up at Uther and spat, "Sorcerers did not destroy this realm, Uther Pendragon. You did—you slaughtered thousands of innocents when you conquered these lands." She pointed to the headless corpse. "You will share my tears. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth;"—she took a deep, shuddering breath—"a son for a son*."

Uther's eyes blazed in fury at her words. "Guards, seize her!" he yelled.

As the two guards on the platform moved to grab the woman, she gripped an amber talisman on her throat and began to whisper something. Em reached out with his magic and sensed a dark, dark power unlike any he had felt before.

The woman disappeared in a swirl of dust and rags. Uther's guards bustled him into the palace. The girl watching from inside the castle shut her window and disappeared. The guards in the square ordered the crowd to disperse immediately. Em stood there in shock for a moment. He had lived among powerful sorcerers for years—hell, he was the most powerful sorcerer amongst the Druids—but even he was not able to cast a disappearing spell. Those were the thing of legends. Then again, there always was some truth in legends. Perhaps those with the ability to cast such spells were so rare that they have become legends themselves?

Em could not wrap his mind around it. Sighing, he whistled to his dog and approached the palace gate. Two burly guards stood in front of it, armed with nasty spears. Em's hand wanted to seek out the comforting weight of his sword hilt, but the Druid knew it would only aggravate the guards and motivate them to use those spears on him.

"What's your business in the palace, boy?" The one guard sneered at him.

"I am seeking the court physician," Em said with feigned confidence.

"Whoever's sick in your family, you won't be able to afford his treatments. Be on your way, boy," the guard said, eyeing Em's clothes and his slightly grimy face. The boy straightened.

"I'm not sick. I'm Gaius's nephew."

"Are you, now?"

"There's sommat of Gaius in his nose, Edon," the other guard said. He was younger, no more than nineteen.

Edon tilted his head. "What did you say your name was?"

"Merlin. I'm his sister's son," Em said.

Edon elbowed the younger guard. "Hudde, show him to Gaius's chambers and report back here as soon as you are done."

Hudde nodded. Edon let them inside the palace and Em was blown away by the intricate stonework and many stairwells and passage. Hudde took him down one hallway, and then another. They went up another set of steps, down another hallway, and finally a staircase that led to a plain oak door with a sign that read Court Physician. "Here we are," Hudde said. With a final wave, he trotted back down the stairs and went on his way.

Em stared at the door for a minute before he mustered up the courage to knock. Finally, he brought his knuckles to the door and rapped firmly on it. He heard a muffled shout of, "Come in!"

Em hoisted his pack and opened the door. He stepped in and was faced with a white-haired man who looked startlingly like his brother Gilli.

Gaius was faced with a raven-haired, blue-eyed, grimy-faced youth dressed in worn clothes. A pack was hoisted on his back, and a shepherd dog stood beside him, tail thumping. He wore a sword belt with a battered scabbard. The boy was barely sixteen, if that.

"Who are you?" he asked, tilting his head.

The boy fiddled with his hands. "I-I have a letter," he managed. He reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a worn piece of parchment sealed with beeswax. He handed it to Gaius silently.

Perplexed, Gaius took the letter and went to his worktable to grab his spectacles. Tearing the seal open, he began to read. He teared up when he recognized the handwriting:

My dearest Gaius,

I believe it has been nearly ten years since I last wrote to you. We had to flee one night for reasons I am sure you are aware of and have been in hiding since. We are safe, and happy. (Magic, Gaius surmised) I have sent you your nephew. He is the third eldest. You may call him Merlin. (The name of Hunith's third child was Emrys, he was sure of it! And "you may call him Merlin"—what an odd way to word that. He would have to question the boy on it later.) He is much like his father. He's a good lad, and a hard worker. Please keep him safe.

Your loving sister,

Hunith

Gaius's hands were shaking. "You are Hunith's son?" he asked. "Which one?"

"The third one." The boy swallowed nervously. "I am Merlin."

"But my nephew was named—"

"Call me Merlin," he said, almost pleadingly.

Gaius let the matter drop. "It says here you are much like your father. Do that mean…?"

"Yes," the boy whispered.

Gaius stared at him, stricken. "Why would she send you here?"

"I—" Emrys, or Merlin, or whoever the hell he was, shook his head and held a finger to his lips. He opened the door and disappeared for about two minutes. Gaius thought about going after him, but fed the dog some leftover bread from his breakfast instead. When the boy returned, he looked much more self-assured.

"I set an alarm spell at the bottom of the stairs and a spell that seals in all sound from this room," he announced. "Now we may speak freely."

"You what?" Gaius's mouth opened and closed several times, like a fish's. "You cast spells in the king's palace? That could get you killed, my boy."

"I know. I just can't get caught." The boy sat in the chair across from Gaius. "Let me properly introduce myself, Uncle. I am Emrys, the son of Balinor and Hunith."

"I gathered as much." He tried to think of some logical explanation, some reason as to why Hunith and Balinor would endanger their son like this. "Why are you here? Where has your family been all these years?"

"Uther's men came for us one night, and we fled. We joined the Druids," Emrys said shortly. "My family is safe and happy. I was sent here to fulfill a prophecy."

"What prophecy might that be?"

Quickly, Emrys explained to him the Vision his uncle—"my father's brother, not one of yours"—had Seen, and the strange warning from the woman in the dream. All of it was very precise and to the point, like it had been rehearsed. Still, Gaius saw the doubt and the terror in his nephew's eyes. He wanted to hug the boy, but he did not know him well enough to do that.

"While I conduct my mission here, I need a place to stay. My mother hoped that you would be gracious enough to let me stay with you."

"Yes, of course." The boy would not be much a burden. Gaius had plenty of money saved up, and the lad was so skinny. He probably did not eat very much.

"You also must call me Merlin. We have a story prepared—I am the bastard son of your youngest sister Sefa. To keep her reputation, she sent me to live in Essetir with your sister Hunith. When I became old enough, Hunith sent me to Camelot to find work. I do not know who my father is."

"But Sefa had no bastard son, only the child she died giving birth to. That boy died as well," Gaius said in a low voice. "If anyone from my home village came to Camelot, they would be able to disprove that story immediately. Furthermore, my brother-in-law Norman lives in Camelot. Most of the people acquainted with me know he was married to my deceased sister. Surely he would have mentioned a son if he had one?"

"He would not mention a bastard stepson," Emrys insisted.

"Say you are the son of my sister Hunith, her bastard son if you must."

"What if someone from Ealdor comes to Camelot—"

"Do you ever see that happening?" Gaius countered. "Ealdor is a small, isolated village in another nation. My home village is a two-day's journey away."

Emrys sighed. "I suppose you are right. So, I am the bastard son of your sister Hunith. We'll say she got impregnated by a trader selling his wares in her village after her husband died in a war. I have two older half-brothers, Will and Gilli."

"Why must I call you Merlin, Emrys?"

"Just as an added precaution. Pseudonyms help maintain your cover. In private, if you'd like, call me Em. That's what everyone back home calls me."

"Where's home? A Druid camp?"

"Yes." Em's face crumpled a bit.

"Where?"

"I can't tell you. I'm sure you understand."

Gaius reached across the table and gripped the boy's hand. "I understand." He released the boy's hand, and released he was missing a pinky finger. The scarring around the stump was fairly recent, no older than a couple of years. "What happened to your hand?"

Em yanked his hand back. "I lost it in an accident."

Gaius almost asked him to explain further, but the look of deep unhappiness and perhaps shame in his nephew's eyes stilled his tongue. "How unfortunate," he said instead. He stood up. "I'm sure you are exhausted from your journey. I'll show you where you will be staying. Does your dog have fleas?"

Em looked almost offended. "No, my mór—grandmother puts a fleabane tincture on him every month. His name is Bandit." The dog wagged his tail.

Gaius took him to the little storage room off the main chamber. It was tiny, with a few boxes scattered around, a small wardrobe, and a narrow bed he kept for his patients. Em stared at the straw mattress for a long time.

"Something the matter, lad?" Gaius asked.

"No, I just—back home I sleep on the ground. I have a couple blankets, of course, but we never have enough money for more than one mattress. Thank you," Em said, his voice thick.

Gaius felt stricken. He sometimes forgot the bleak poverty peasants in the outlying villages—or Druids in isolated camps—faced. City life had softened him. "I'm glad you like it," he managed.

Em unrolled a blanket stuffed in his pack and spread it out on the ground. "For Bandit," he explained when his uncle titled his head to the side, confused. He set his pack on the bed and headed back to the main room. The dog followed him like a shadow.

Gaius sliced some bread for his nephew, and they sat back down at the table. "What does your mission entail, exactly?"

"We don't know. The prophecy does not give us much to go on. My uncle suggested that I observe the royal family as much as I can, and go from there," Em said.

"This uncle of yours, is he Balinor's brother?"

"Yes. Well, Uncle Iseldir is his half-brother."

"Have you any way to contact him?"

"Of course. I have a scrying mirror that is a twin with one in my grandmother Emerald's possession. I could scry her right now if you wanted me to," Em said.

Gaius's head was spinning. He was suddenly yanked back to a time when such matters could be discussed openly, when his nephew wouldn't be killed for possessing a harmless spelled mirror. Looking at his nephew's dark hair and angular face, he was reminded of a much younger Balinor. He wondered what his old friend looked like now—was he still well-built and brooding, or was he fat and cynical now?

"Perhaps later," he said. "I want to get you set up with work first."

"I'm willing to do whatever," Em said. "I'm skilled with a sword and I know my way around a farm."

"You're too young to enter the guard, and farm work can only be found in the villages. Besides, you need a way to interact with the royal family…" Gaius snapped his fingers. "I've got it—I could find you work as a servant in the kitchens. You would serve at royal feasts and banquets, along with regular kitchen duties."

Em frowned. "Is it hard work?"

"I would say it is easier than field work," Gaius said. "You'd mostly be washing dishes and bringing meal trays for nobles. The pay wouldn't be much, but you aren't here to make money anyway."

"I wouldn't want to burden you," Em said carefully. "I'll pay you for my room and board."

Gaius waved a hand. "Don't be ridiculous. The king pays me well enough for my services, and I have saved quite a bit over the years. I have no children or wife to spend my coin on."

"Uncle Issy says the same thing. He has no wife or children," his nephew said with a little grin. He finished his bread. "I think you would like him, Uncle."

Gaius stood up. "I'll go speak to the cook. She owes me a favor or two—I make a potion that relieves her indigestion. Cook's an unpleasant woman, but she's fair and runs the kitchen efficiently. Meanwhile, you can deliver a few potions and medicines to some of the nobles. Address the women as 'my lady' and the men as 'my lord'."

"I—I don't know my way around here," Em said. The palace was a miserable rabbit warren.

"There's signs. You'll be fine." Gaius grabbed a shoulder bag from one of his worktables and placed a labelled few vials and small bottles in it.

Sighing, the boy took the bag and whistled to his dog. "If I get lost, it's your fault, Uncle," he warned.

Gaius laughed for what felt like the first time in ages.


A/N : Hey, long time no write. I am so sorry it took me almost a month to update. Things have been crazy lately-you know, the usual excuses. I am SO FREAKING EXCITED. Em is finally in Camelot! Sorry Arthur wasn't in this one, we were already to 3400 words and this seemed like a logical end to the chapter. But we have finally met Gaius, Uther, and Morgana. At least I fulfilled part of my promise? (Please don't hate me.)

As always, a huge thank you goes out to everyone who followed, reviewed, and favorited. I especially love reviews, they really do make an author's day. A 100+ followers is mind-boggling! Much love.

Disclaimer: the asterisk marks dialogue I took directly from the show, and is in no way mine. That is probably the only time I will ever do that. I just felt that it was too heartwrenching to leave out. Please don't sue me, BBC.

Chapter Text

Now

Em sat up and stared at the thatched ceiling of the hut. Every bone in his body ached. Sighing, he eased his bruised body out of bed and stumbled into the front room. There, a beautiful girl with green eyes and raven hair was boiling water for tea and porridge. He stared at her, wide-eyed.

"What are you doing here?" he burst out. "Why aren't you at Móraí Emery's?"

"I'm just being a good cousin, cooking you breakfast," she replied with faux sweetness. Em's eyes narrowed. He threw open one of the shutters, hoping to let in a breeze to dissipate the sticky heat inside the hut. More warm, humid air spilled in. Em groaned.

"Where's Freya and the children?" was his next question.

"With Aunt Maud. Freya says her morning sickness is awful. Aunt Maud's trying to figure out a way to ease it," the girl responded.

"But why are you cooking me breakfast?"

"Alvarr said he pummeled you in training yesterday, and I figured you probably wouldn't be up to it."

He raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "Are you poisoning me? I don't trust your cooking."

"Don't be such a girl, Merlin," she said, rolling her eyes. When she glanced up, she saw how stricken he looked and quickly apologized. "Sorry, Em, I didn't mean—"

"No, Morgana, I get it," Em managed. "Old habits die hard, right?"

"Just like we did," Morgana mused. When Em stared at his boots, she reached for his hand—the four-fingered one—and intertwined it with hers. "I'm a tactless fool," she declared.

Em fidgeted a bit. "You're good, Annie. It's been nearly three years. I should be over it. Sometimes, I just feel like we betrayed him, that I was selfish." He shook his head.

"We did it to protect ourselves," Morgana said fiercely, gripping her cousin's hand tightly. "Don't you ever doubt that."

He offered her a crooked grin. "I'll work on it." He let go of her hand. "Now, assuming you aren't tryin to assassinate me with your awful cooking, what can I do to help?"

She laughed brightly, in a way she hadn't been able to do back in Camelot. Em found himself laughing too, despite everything.


Then

Gaius stood up. "I'll go speak to the cook. She owes me a favor or two—I make a potion that relieves her indigestion. Cook's an unpleasant woman, but she's fair and runs the kitchen efficiently. Meanwhile, you can deliver a few potions and medicines to some of the nobles. Address the women as 'my lady' and the men as 'my lord'."

"I—I don't know my way around here," Em said. The palace was a miserable rabbit warren.

"There's signs. You'll be fine." Gaius grabbed a shoulder bag from one of his worktables and placed a labelled few vials and small bottles in it.

Sighing, the boy took the bag and whistled to his dog. "If I get lost, it's your fault, Uncle," he warned.

Gaius laughed for what felt like the first time in ages.

Em read the labels on the medicine—Lady Morgana, Sir Leon, and Lord Brutus. He had to ask a liveried servant the directions to the nobles' wing of the palace. The plain gray stone interior of the servants' wing soon gave way to decadent marble passageways decorated with artwork and plush rugs. Down some halls, ornate tapestries decorated the walls. Em stopped to stare at them for a bit. He probably looked like a slack-jacked country bumpkin, but he did not care. In a sense, that was what he was.

Em soon realized it was one thing to get to the nobles' wing, but another thing to actually find each noble's individual chambers. The rich wooden doors were not even labelled or numbered. He grumbled under his breath in Druidic and went to search for a servant or guard to ask.

He was turning a corner when he ran directly into a knight who just happened to be turning the corner at the exact same time. He bit back a curse as his forehead clunked against the knight's armored chest. He backed up a step, and was forced to look up to get a good look at the slightly taller knight. He took in the knight's blond hair, blue eyes, scowling face—

Wait—this was no knight, this was…

"Sorry, milord!" Em practically squeaked, bowing a bit to Prince Arthur. He adjusted the way the messenger bag that Gaius gave him sat on his shoulder to hide the slight trembling of his hands.

The prince simply eyed the terrified boy for a long moment. Bandit, who loved meeting new people, brushed past Em, tail wagging and tongue lolling.

"Watch where you're going, boy," Arthur glanced down at the dog and wrinkled his nose. "What are you doing with a street curin the nobles' wing, you crooked-nose knave?"

Em fought the urge to scowl. "I'm delivering medicines for my uncle—the court physician—, sir," he muttered.

"'Sire'," Arthur said.

"Pardon?"

"You call a prince 'sire,' not 'sir,'" Arthur said loftily. "Well, either way, be about your business and never bring that filthy mongrel back here again." He brushed back Em and Bandit.

"Yes, sire," Em called after the prince. He sighed in relief.

He waited until the sounds of the prince's footsteps faded until he said to Bandit, "What a clotpole."


He eventually found a guard positioned by a window overlooking the square in front of the palace. "Can you tell me how to find the chambers of Lady Morgana, Sir Leon, and Lord Brutus? I'm new here, and I'm completely lost," he said with a sheepish grin.

The guard was able to point him in the right direction, and he even petted Bandit. "Handsome dog," he commented.

"Thanks." In a low voice, Em added, "Prince Arthur called him a filthy mongrel no more than ten minutes ago."

The guard simply shook his head. Em thanked him again and managed to find Lord Brutus's chambers. He bowed and scraped and milorded, and managed to complete the task without embarrassing himself. Feeling confident, he headed towards Lady Morgana's chambers.

He rapped on the door three times. He heard shuffling inside, and a pretty girl with dark skin and curly hair opened the door. Her dress seemed much too plain for a lady's gown, but who was he to judge? "Can I help you?" she asked.

"I have your medicine from Gaius, milady." Em bowed and held out the vial.

She laughed when she took the vial, and the bright sound made Em want to laugh too. "Oh no, I'm not Lady Morgana! I'm her handmaid, Guinevere. Everyone calls me Gwen. You must be new here, since you haven't seen milady. I don't think I recognize you, and I always remember faces."

"I'm Merlin, the court physician's nephew," Em said with a wide grin. He shook her hand. "I have instructions for how to take them. Would you mind explaining them to the lady?"

"There's a quill and parchment in here. Would you mind writing it down? We're both terribly forgetful. Gwen, bring him in," a voice called from inside the chambers.

"Yes, milady," Gwen said with a fond smile. "Come in," she said to Em. Em ordered Bandit to sit. He followed her inside, impressed by the decadent four-poster bed, ornately carved furniture, and richly woven rugs.

On the bed a young woman in a green dress lounged, reading a book. Em immediately recognized her as the lady who watched the sorcerer's execution from the window. Her green gaze settled on him, and he bowed.

"Are you new? I haven't seen you before, either, and Gwen and I know most of the people who work in the palace," she said.

"I arrived just this morning, milady. My uncle is the court physician," Em explained.

Bandit chose that exact moment to start whining about being left in the hallway. His pathetic whimpering reached Morgana's ears, and she tilted her head. "What might that crying sound be? It sounds like some sort of animal. Gwen, go take a look in the hall and see," she said to her maidservant.

Em said softly, "That's my dog, milady. I told him to sit in the hall—I know I shouldn't have taken me with him to this part of the castle, but I saw folks with dogs trailing after 'em in other parts of the castle so I didn't think it'd be an issue, honest"—what a lie that bit was—", and he's well-trained, he'll quiet down when I tell him to—"

Morgana held up a hand. "Gwen, let him in." She grinned at Em a bit. "I love dogs. What are you two called?"

"Me and my dog, milady?" Em asked. He realized the stupidity of his question, and said before she could confirm her request, "I'm Merlin, and I call my dog Bandit."

By then, Gwen had opened the large oak doors and Bandit came trotting in. His plumed tail wagged. Em was annoyed when Morgana got off the bed to pet him, when she hadn't even done that when he walked in. But she was a lady of the court, and he was only the most powerful sorcerer in centuries a servant of peasant birth. She could do whatever she liked, he supposed.

This train of thought was cut off when Morgana started to chuckle. Her green eyes sparkled, and Em, he thought of—

He was probably seven. His móraí was teaching him his Druidic alphabet and each individual letter's pronunciation. He liked the sound of her lilting voice. It soothed him. Emery uttering a simple sentence sounded like a lullaby to him.

She pointed to the first letter on the piece of parchment she had neatly written the alphabet on. "Say this five times, acushla."

He tried saying it, over and over, but he couldn't make him tongue obey him and say it the right way. Frustrated and angry, he kept repeating his garbled attempt at pronouncing the sound until Emery was half keeled over from laughing so hard. Her emerald eyes sparkled with amusement—

By nature, Em thought, this noblewoman was the spitting image of his grandmother.


A/N: ARTHUR IS HERE! I am so, so excited to introduce the new story format. I have decided to write in two different timelines, one labeled "then" and the other "now". "Then" follows Em's adventures in Camelot, and "now" follows Em and the rest of the gang three years after he fakes his death. I hope this isn't too confusing. I've always loved this style, but I know it isn't everyone's favorite thing. Let me know what you guys think!

Also I'm really sorry I took forever to update. Basically, life happened and the craziness of it all gave me a bit of writer's block. However, I have a lot more free time and hope to publish a chapter later this week. That will be the last update in June, as I am going on a long trip. I am very excited and I hope to draw inspiration for this story from the places I am visiting.

As always, thank you to everyone who favorited, followed, and reviewed. 114 follows is CRAZY! Also reviews put a big grin on my face.


A list of Hunith and Balinor's kids (someone asked for it lol):

William (Will)

Gilanders (Gilli)

Alvarr*

Adelina*

Emrys (Em)

Mordred

Sefa

Daegel

(* after the name indicates an adopted child of Hunith and Balinor)

Chapter Text

Then

After bidding good day to Lady Morgana and her servant, Em's head was still spinning from his sudden realization. How did a Camelot noble, a lady of the court, somehow manage to resemble his móraí? Perhaps their faces differed in structure, but the important features—eyes, nose, hair color and texture—were virtually the same. Em sent out his magic tentatively to find Iseldir's; it had been a day since his uncle had left, so surely he was not out of Em's range yet.

Uncle? he called.

The reply was immediate. What's wrong? Are you in danger?

What do you know about the Lady Morgana?

Why do you ask?

Just tell me, Uncle. Em paused. Please, he added.

Not much. She's the ward of the king. Finnlagh told me her father, a knight, died defending Uther in battle, so the bastard king took her in and raised her alongside Prince Arthur.

If only his generosity extended farther, Em remarked drily.

Now, why do you want to know, Emrys? You're draining my magic by communicating with me from such a long distance.

That's a lie, Em said with a laugh. I had to run some errand for my uncle, and I ran into her. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Móraí. Black hair, emerald eyes.

Odd. I'll discuss it with Finnlagh when we get back. Good work. Iseldir was quiet for a moment, but then he said, Stay safe, son. Em could hear the raw emotion in those three words.

I will. Stay safe, Uncle. Tell Alvarr and Cedran I love them.

With that, the comforting presence of his uncle's magic drained away. Em resisted the urge to seek it out again. He trudged through the halls of the castle sullenly, Bandit scampering ahead, blissfully unaware of his master's troubled thoughts.

Em completed the rest of his errands and was trying to find his way back to Gaius's chambers when he turned a corner and smacked into a solid wall of plate armor. He glanced up and saw the blue-eyed glare of the prince again. He backed up a step and stared at his feet, resisting the urge to swear in Druidic. Em wondered if Nature had cursed him. How had he managed to literally run into the Crown Prince of Camelot twice in one day?


Arthur's head hurt.

The newest crop of squires from Camelot's nobility was turning out to completely useless. They were sixteen already, and not even half of them could hold a sword correctly! He had mastered that at age seven. He and Sir Leon had run the squires through their daily drills that morning mercilessly. Arthur needed to turn those boys into men who could one day defend their kingdom. The Knights of Camelot were an elite, highly-trained group tasked with protecting Camelot. They answered directly to Arthur, their crown prince and future sovereign.

So, as he stormed down the hall to seek the break he so desperately needed in his chambers, he was in a foul mood. When that untidy peasant boy from before ran into him again, he seized the boy's upper arm and shook him, growling, "Is there no brain between those big ears of yours, you stupid urchin?" Arthur's eyes widened in surprise when he felt rock-hard biceps. The boy's thin frame and baggy clothes belied the power of his body. Arthur released the boy roughly. The boy murmured, "My deepest apologies, sire."

Ignoring the boy, Arthur glanced down when he heard a low growl. The boy's shepherd mongrel was crouched low to the ground, teeth bared.

"Quiet, Bandit," the boy said. The dog whined, and let out another growl. "Quiet. Down." The dog crouched lower, but did not lie down. "I said down!" The dog lay down.

The boy glanced up for the briefest of moments, his icy blue eyes nervous. "Sire—"

Arthur interrupted and said, "Bandit?"

The boy blinked. "Pardon, sire?"

"The dog's name is Bandit? Does he have a habit of robbing people?"

"His name is Bandit. Only thing he's ever stole is bread off the dinner table. I was just a kid when I named him," the kid muttered. "Sire," he added hastily.

"What might you be called, boy?"

"Merlin, milord."

"No family name? Just Merlin?"

"Where I'm from, milord, we don't have family names, just our first names."

"Where's home?" What Arthur really wanted to know was which country backwater somehow managed to whelp scrawny youths with iron musclesso he could go there and recruit those youths for Camelot's army. Preferably taller ones with more meat on their bones.

"Ealdor, sire," Merlin said. When rthur furrowed his brow in confusion—he knew the names of all of Camelot's notable villages-, he added, "It's in Essetir."

That explained the boy's funny accent. It also made it impossible for Arthur to recruit boys from Ealdor for the army. Well, damn.

He looked the boy up and down once more. Merlin's hands were clasped behind his back, and he stared resolutely at his worn boots. His raven hair was close-cropped, with the barest hint of curls. He wore trousers that had obviously been mended over and over again. His red shirt was of obviously better quality, sewn from sturdy fabric and recently washed. He wore a blue neckerchief tied around his neck, a style favored by mountain people. Perhaps Ealdor was in the Feorre Mountains of Essetir? And around his hips was a belt with an empty scabbard—

"You're a swordsman?" Arthur curled his lip. No matter how muscular this boy was, it looked like a light breeze could knock him over. There was no way he could pick up a sword.

"Just as a hobby," Merlin explained.

That set the gears in Arthur's mind whirring. "Well, how about this, Merlin—since you've managed to run into your Crown Prince not once, but twice, you get the honor of dueling him. Be at the training grounds tomorrow at noon." That would give him and the other knights a good laugh.

Merlin looked up at him in pure horror. "Milord, I—"

Arthur slapped him hard on the back. "I'll provide the armor and helm. See you tomorrow, Merlin," he chortled, heading back to his chambers. He couldn't wait to tell Leon about the entertainment he had arranged for tomorrow.


In a blind fury, Em raced back to Gaius's chambers, Bandit close at his heels. He burst into his uncle's chambers, growling, "Some cabbage-headed prat told me I have to fight him tomorrow because I bumped into him on accident! You'll never believe who—"

Gaius turned away from his worktable, where a shirtless, muscular young man sat. His torso was littered with bruises. Gaius arched his brows, and Em immediately shut up.

The man grinned a bit when he saw Em. "Who's this young brawler, Gaius?"

"My sister's boy, Merlin. He arrived from Essetir this morning," Gaius said. "Merlin, this is Sir Oswald, a Knight of Camelot."

"How do you do, Merlin," Sir Oswald said.

"How do you do," Em echoed. He came to stand by Gaius. "How'd you get those bruises? They look pretty severe." When Gaius coughed pointedly, Em added, "Sir knight."

"Training," Oswald explained. "You should see the other fellow."

"Were you training with staffs or wooden swords?" Em peered at the bruises.

"Wooden swords."

"Well, it's nothing a compress of arnica and comfrey can't fix. Arnica for the pain, and comfrey for the swelling. Uncle, I don't know my way around, where is the arnica and comfrey?"

"The boy's a physician as well?" Oswald looked impressed.

"Oh, no, sir knight. My grandmother has extensive training in the healing arts, so I've learned a trick or two from her over the years."

"Your uncle as well, I'd imagine. He's a brilliant man."

Em shook his head. "Uncle will doubtlessly teach me many things in the future, but I've only just met him today."

Gaius let out a deep sigh. "Merlin, boil water for the compress. I'll get the herbs and linen."

The two got to work. After a minute or two of silence, Oswald asked, "So who's the 'prat' who asked you to fight tomorrow? What'd you do to him?"

Em looked up from the kettle he had placed over the hearth to boil. "All I did was run into him! Well, I ran into him twice, but the second time wasn't my fault, honest. And I wouldn't call him a prat, that was just a slip of the tongue, really—"

"Who is it, Merlin?" Gaius asked sharply.

Em mumbled something.

"What was that?"

"Prince Arthur…"

"PRINCE ARTHUR CHALLENGED YOU TO A DUEL?" Gaius roared. At the same time, Oswald burst out laughing. Em's ears turned pink and he turned back to the kettle.

"Hand-to-hand or swordfight?" Oswald asked.

"Swordfight, thankfully. I know how to handle a sword."

Oswald nodded to the sword on the table. Em had placed it there before he delivered the medicines for Gaius. He had figured it was not wise to carry a sword thorough the royal palace. "Is that yours?"

"Yes, sir knight."

"Bring it here, lad." Em obliged. Sir Oswald weighed the sword and tested its sharpness. Finally, he handed it back to Em. "It's a fine piece of steel, Merlin. Where did you get it?"

"My…stepfather was a soldier in Cenred's army. It was his, originally."

"Well, either way, the prince has been trained to kill since birth. Don't expect to win tomorrow."

"I don't, sir knight." Em groaned. "All I did was run into him."

Sir Oswald chuckled wryly. "For the prince, that is enough."


Now

After eating Morgana's surprisingly decent breakfast, Em found himself in the fields with Alvarr and Mordred. There had been no rain for over a week, and the crops were starting to wilt in the blistering heat. Em had been summoned by his brothers so that he could call water from deep within the ground.

Em began speaking the language of magic, and his eyes blazed gold. He crouched low to the ground, his palms hovering inches above the dry earth. He slowly rose to his feet and sent his magic deep within in the earth. When he felt his magic slosh against the water the underground aquifer held, he threw his hands up. The water surged towards the surface and rose from the ground in two swirling spouts. A wind mage called Sayre sucked one spout into a funnel of air. With a few deft flicks of her wrist, she used the air to scatter the water and make it fall in tiny droplets all over the fields. She repeated the same process with the second funnel.

The Druids working in the fields all stopped to clap and whistle. Em and Sayre gave joking little bows. Alvarr clapped them on the back, and they got back to work.

Around one, when they all stopped to eat a quick lunch, a girl with big brown eyes and dark brown hair raced out of the forest and tugged at Em's shirt sleeve. "Uncle Emmy, Mama said you need to come quick!"

Em looked down at his niece. "What's wrong, Astryd, what's wrong? Is it Freya?" Nature, did she lose the baby…

"No, Auntie Freya's fine. It's something else. Uncle Alvarr, you should come, too." She tugged at Em's sleeve some more. "Come on, Uncles, we gotta hurry."

Em and Alvarr stood up. "All right, Astryd. Take me to your ma," Alvarr said.

Em's niece grabbed his hand and pulled him through the forest. They broke into a steady jog. Despite only being a girl of eight, Astryd was able to keep up. Em's sword scabbard thumped against thigh. After ten minute of weaving through the thick woods—Em knew them like the back of his hand—, they found Iseldir, Adelina, and Declan standing in a clearing.

Adelina smiled fondly at her little daughter. "Thanks for getting your uncles, sweetheart. Now, you head back to Mormháthair Emery's. I heard she was making honey cakes." She winked.

With a delighted squeal, Astryd hugged her mother and headed back to camp. Emerald's honey cakes were legendary amongst her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Adelina waited until her daughter was out of earshot to speak. "Em, as you know, we've been sending scouts out to scour the area for any signs of enemies, especially since we got captured." She tried to not let her voice shake.

"Did our scouts find signs of Jarl and his men, after all these years?"

Iseldir spoke up. "No, son. But…" His voice trailed off.

"Tell me, Uncle." Em did not think he would like what they were about to tell him.

"About two leagues from here, Aglain's son Carraig spotted what appears to be a patrol of Camelot knights. He was on foot and able to stay hidden. He warned us as soon as possible."

Em's heart immediately began to pound. "Why haven't we sounded the alarm and start preparing for battle?" When he was met with silence, he closed his eyes. "There's more, isn't there?"

"Yes, there is. The knights appear to be in bad shape—all bruised and bloody and ragged—and they are led by no other than King Arthur himself."

Em looked stricken. "Arthur?" he whispered. "Arthur's here? I never told him about this place, I told no one, not even Uncle Gaius! Arthur never suspected I have magic. He—he thinks I'm dead." He practically had to choke that last sentence out. The bitter truth of it cut him like a sharp dagger.

"Carraig thinks they need medical attention," Adelina added. "What we brought you down here for, what we want to ask you, is this: do you think we should assemble a patrol and bring them here to camp?"

Em opened his mouth to reply, but found that he could not get any sound out.

Chapter Text

Then

Em found himself woken up by Bandit licking his face just after dawn. Sighing, he rolled out of bed and headed out into the castle to find a place where his dog could do his business. Finally, a guard directed him to a servant's entrance that led out into a spacious courtyard. Bandit galloped off into some bushes while Em took a look around. The courtyard was clearly meant for the staff's use. There was a wide door that, judging from the aromatic smells coming from it, led to the palace kitchens. They probably used it to unload deliveries of food and drink. On the end opposite to the kitchen door was a small stable that Em assumed was there to house the palace's workhorses and mules. Chickens roamed the courtyard. Thankfully, Bandit was trained not to chase and kill them. Em winced at the amount of trouble that could get him into. He was in enough trouble already.

Em kicked at a stone. Last night, he tried to get ahold of his family telepathically, but they were all out of his range. He tried contacting them with the scrying mirror out of pure desperation, but that had not worked, either. Finally, he turned to his uncle Gaius for advice. Emrys was torn between letting Arthur beating him to a pulp, or actually utilizing his training and putting up a hell of a fight.

Gaius told him it was his decision to make. "Go with the choice that will not jeopardize your mission here," he said.

Now, Em still did not know what to do. His chest ached for his family and their wisdom. Hunith would make her famous mint tea, and they would sit at the table and talk it through. Will would tell him to "raise hell and damn the consequences," and Alvarr would tell him to kick Arthur's ass (ignoring that this actually happening was highly improbable). Balinor would state some old proverb in Dragonic and tell him to go with his heart. Iseldir would tell him to lose.

Maybe he hadn't been ready to leave Sábháilte—

Em's train of thought was cut off when he heard yelping and a child crying. He turned to see a man and a small boy holding a puppy at the stable entrance. The boy was crying, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Please don't kill her, Pa, she's only a baby—"

"Rak, we have three dogs at home already, and my wages don't make enough to feed you and your siblings, let alone another pup," his father snapped. He patted his son on the head and said, much more gently, "Drowning it is the merciful thing to do. She won't feel a thing."

Em, not even pausing to think, jogged over to the father and son. "Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing. Is this your pup?"

The boy clutched the puppy to his chest and nodded tearfully.

His father said, "It's some stray my son found dying in the gutter. We haven't a use for it, so I'm going to put the poor thing out of its misery."

"I'll take it." The words were out of Em's mouth before he even knew he intended to say them.

"You sure?" The man cocked his head. "It's a scrawny thing, won't be of much use."

"My other dog is getting old. A pup might keep him young," Em lied. Bandit was reaching seven, but he was by no means elderly.

"Alright. Raf, give this lad here the pup. What did you say your name was, son?"

Em stuck out his hand. "I'm Merlin, the physician's nephew."

The man shook it. "I'm Alwyne." He turned to his son. "Raf, give Merlin here the pup."

The boy shook his head, holding the puppy close. Em crouched down to his eye level. He whistled softly. Immediately, Bandit appeared from the bushes and came to join his master. His feathery tail thumped against Em's legs.

"Raf, this is my dog Bandit. In my home village, he was the runt of the litter. But I knew one day he would grow up to be a big and strong guard dog, so I took him in. And look at him, now—isn't he glorious?"

Raf gave a timid nod. Em continued, "I promise to take good care of your puppy. She'll get to be best friends with Bandit. Doesn't that sound nice?" Raf nodded again. Finally, he held the squirming puppy out and Em gently took it. The poor thing was emaciated and filthy.

Thank you, Alwyne mouthed. "Well, we'd best be going. It's about to be a busy day."

"Tell me about it," Em said wryly. He said his goodbyes to the father and son.

Sighing, he headed back inside. Gaius is going to love this, he said to Bandit wryly.


 

Gaius did not love the puppy. He immediately began listing the reasons as to why Em should put the dog back "wherever he found it." One dog was enough, he said. Did Em want to turn his home into a kennel?

"Some stablehand was going to drown her," Em blurted.

Gaius blinked. "Why didn't you say that in the first place?" he grumbled. "Come here, put the poor thing on the table. Give it some stale bread and cheese."

The puppy scarfed it down and began scratching herself. She appeared to be red-colored, with feathery fur and delicate, floppy ears. Em dunked her in a bucket of soapy water and scrubbed her clean. The water was black with dirt. After he dried her off with a rag, he let her go explore a bit. Bandit followed her, interested in the small scrap Em had brought home.

"It needs a name," Gaius muttered over his morning gruel.

Em scarfed his food down. "I thought Sionnach, since she's red. It means 'fox' in Druidic."

"You'll have to take her out often and train her not to chew my things," Gaius warned.

"I know, Uncle. I trained Bandit. I can train Sionnach."

"Bandit is very well-behaved," Gaius admitted.

They watched the puppy explore under Bandit's supervision while they ate breakfast. Finally, Gaius said, "I talked to Cook. She said they need extra help in the kitchens for a feast tomorrow. You'll help serve at the feast, probably the lesser nobles," he said.

Em clenched his fists. "You mean the feast celebrating twenty years of suffering?"

Gaius set his spoon down. "I take it you heard?"

"I saw Uther announce it after they executed that poor sorcerer," Em muttered.

Gaius's eyes widened. "You saw that?"

"Yep. During my first hour in Camelot. The mother cast a teleportation spell after she told the king he would share her tears. I have never seen or heard about such a spell in all my years of study," Em said. "I could ask my uncle Iseldir. He specializes in esoteric mag—"

"Don't say that word!" Gaius hissed. Both dogs turned their heads at his outburst. Gaius sighed. "Sorry, lad. I just worry."

"I know. I should be more careful. I haven't had to hide this part of myself for years, now. It will take some time to adjust," Em admitted.

"Speaking of worrying and being careful, have you thought about your fight with the prince?" Gaius changed the subject, and Em blanched.

"I'm going to put up a fight," he said. "I'm a good swordsman, I've been training since I was eight. First with Uncle Iseldir, and then with Ruadan."

"Ruadan?" Gaius frowned.

"He shares my father's gifts, and taught me them," Em explained. He saw the understanding on Gaius's face. "Not that I've ever seen a dragon or been to the Keep."

Gaius scowled.

"Sorry," Em muttered.

Gaius hesitated, but then said, "Twenty years ago, Uther began the Purge by locking the Great Dragon up in a cavern deep below the castle."

Em dropped his spoon. It clattered loudly, starting Sionnach, Bandit, and Gaius. His eyes gleamed gold as he reached out to his uncle. Uncle Issy!

Iseldir's magic entwined with his own. His voice sounded faint. Emrys, are you alright?

Did you know Uther locked up the Great Dragon beneath his palace?

He could hear Iseldir mentally sighing. Finnlagh alerted us of this several years ago. We passed it onto Ruadan, but he said the Dragonlords already knew and that they hadn't been able to come up with a plan to free the Great Dragon.

I have to talk to him! Em's mind was racing at a million miles an hour.

It's too dangerous! You are there to observe. Leave that to our other spies in Camelot. With that, Iseldir disappeared. Em sent feelings of annoyance and irritation down their magical connection before severing it.

"What just happened?" Gaius narrowed his eyes.

"I spoke to my uncle," Em said.

"What did he say?"

"They have known. My father's…friends could not devise a plan and the dragon remains a prisoner." Em shook his head mournfully.

"Back to the fight. However good you may be, Arthur has been training since he was five, and is nearing twenty now," Gaius said. "Do not expect to win."

Em offered his uncle a crooked grin. "I don't," he said.

Gaius stood up. "I will wash the breakfast dishes. You go run that tonic"—he nodded to a vial on his worktable—"to Lady Helen. She's going to be singing at the feast tomorrow, and she requested it to soothe her throat."

"Yes, Uncle." Em tied his blue neckerchief around his neck and pulled his old boots over his socked feet. He stared at his battered shoes before sighing and running back up the stairs. He reemerged from his tiny bedroom with the new boots Daegel had given him, a clean red shirt, and his brown jacket. He wore Freya's bracelet on his wrist, and he smiled fondly at it. He missed his best friend. His face was freshly scrubbed and his untidy hair combed. When he caught Gaius staring, he explained, "I figured I should try to look nice when I make deliveries to the nobles."

"You look like a proper servant," Gaius chuckled as the boy left.


 

Em found the lady's chambers and knocked politely on the doorframe, as the door was open. He called out softly, but no one replied. He strode softly into the opulent room, intending to just leave the vial on a table. He saw a vanity with the largest mirror he had seen in his life. He peered at his reflection for a bit before setting the vial on a nightstand next to the four-poster bed. In the corner of his eye, he spotted something. It was a small doll with a couple pins in it. He picked it up and frowned deeply. Just holding it made his skin crawl. He sent out his magic, and it recoiled immediately. He dropped it in shock. What was this thing?

Before he could do anything, he heard footsteps coming down the hall. He put the doll back where he found it and raced towards the door. He skittered to a halt when he saw an elegantly-dressed woman standing in the doorway. "What are you doing in here?" she asked suspiciously.

"I'm the physician's assistant, milady. I was dropping off the tonic you requested. I put it on your nightstand," Em said with a slight bow.

She drifted past him. "Be on your way, then."

"Yes, milady." Em hurried out and shut the door behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief, and headed back to Gaius's chambers.


 

He immediately went to his bedroom to get his scrying mirror. He locked the door and mumbled the password. A few minutes later, his grandmother's concerned face appeared in the mirror. "Em!" she cried in Druidic. "Mo chara uain! How I've missed you."

"Hello, Móraí Emery," Em said in Druidic. Nature, he had missed speaking the tongue of his people these past two days. "I have a question and not much time. In a lady's chamber—I was making a delivery for my uncle-, I saw a doll with pins sticking out of it. I sensed something very dark in it with my magic. Have you any idea what it might be?"

She frowned. "I haven't the faintest idea, Em. I'll ask the other elders. Perhaps ask your mother's brother about it, your father said he is a learned man."

"I will," Em said. "I love you, Móraí Emery."

"I love you, too," Emerald said. Her image disappeared from the mirror. Sighing, he shoved it back under his straw mattress and went back downstairs.

Gaius was mashing a bunch of herbs up with a mortar and pestle. "Do you know where the training grounds for the knights are?" he asked.

Em frowned. "I don't suppose I do. What time is it?"

"Just a little past eight. I'll show you now. We can take the dogs. Can the pup walk off leash?"

"Bandit will keep her with us. He used to help herd sheep back home, he'll do the same with the pup," Em promised. "I've never leashed a dog in my life."

So they walked through the castle with Sionnach and Bandit trailing them. The pup trotted along eagerly, sniffing everything. Bandit would nose her along if they got too far behind, and he even nipped her when she tried to urinate in the hallway. Em doubted he would even need to train the pup at all; Bandit would do it for him, at this rate.

They ended up in the courtyard where Em saw the execution the day before. Gaius took his nephew to a green space off the courtyard. There was a large storage shed for training dummies and weapons. Gaius pointed to a door leading to the castle armory. A few knights sparred. The metal of their dull practice swords rang out and they glistened with sweat. Em had to admit that they looked impressive in their chain mail and red cloaks.

"Gaius, Merlin! I thought Merlin wasn't expected here until noon," a familiar voice called out. The uncle and nephew turned and saw Sir Oswald. Bandit's tail thumped loudly on the ground.

"Sir knight!" Em bowed a bit. He offered the knight a wry smile. "No, Uncle was just showing me how to get here. I'm still learning my way around the palace."

"Would you like to spar?" Oswald asked.

Em's jaw dropped. "With you, sir knight?" Even though the man was a Knight of Camelot, sparring with a knight would still be awesome.

Oswald pointed to the shed. "Go find a dulled training sword and a helm," he told the boy. Nodding eagerly, Em raced off to the shed. Bandit and Sionnach galloped after him. The knights looked at them curiously.

"I want to see how good he is," Oswald explained to Gaius.

"Maybe give him a few tips, Sir Oswald. I'm…worried about later. He's only a boy," Gaius sighed. He looked to Oswald. "After you're done with him, sir knight, would you mind telling Merlin to go to the kitchens and introduce himself to Cook?"

"Of course." Oswald patted Gaius's shoulder. "Prince Arthur will not go too hard on him."

Gaius had his doubts, but he did not voice them. "Good day, sir knight."

"Good day, Gaius," Oswald echoed.


 

Arthur stood in the armory as a servant named Morris fastened his training armor on him. It was made of leather, as it only needed to protect him against a dulled training sword. Sir Leon stood beside him, along with Sir Magnus, who had been born in the same year as the prince.

"You spread the word?" Arthur asked Leon.

"I did. I still don't know why you are going through all this trouble for a peasant boy," Leon replied.

"Lighten up, Leon. It will be funny. The knights deserve a good laugh," Arthur said. "You should see the lad. He's ridiculous. Biggest ears I've ever seen. They're probably bigger than his brain. He's called Merlin, I believe."

This drew a snigger from Magnus. "I bet he goes down after one hit. Who is this boy, anyway?"

"He's some servant who ran into me. Not once, but twice. What an idiot," Arthur scoffed.

Magnus poked Morris in the ribs, who frowned but stayed silent. "Do you know this Merlin, Morris?" he asked sharply.

Morris put on Arthur's gauntlets. "I heard he's the physician's nephew. Word is he's going to work in the kitchens."

"A skivvy!" Magnus snorted. "Arthur, I bet he keels over just when he sees you."

Morris finished putting on the gauntlets and handed Arthur his practice sword. "All done, sir," he murmured.

"Dismissed," Arthur said to him. Morris practically fled. "He's such a nervous thing," he commented.

"You and Magnus have been tormenting him since you two were twelve and him nine. How could he not be nervous?" Leon pointed out as they walked out the door that led to the training grounds. There, about two dozen knights were gathered. They welcomed their prince warmly, clapping him on the back and mockingly wishing him luck. By the storage shed, a boy in drab clothes lurked with Sir Oswald of all people. He held a dulled training sword in one hand. A black shepherd dog and a reddish pup sat at his feet. Now the boy had two dogs?

"Are the fleabags for your protection, Merlin?" Arthur called jeeringly. He strode to the middle of the field and waved the boy forward. Merlin murmured something to the dogs. Oswald clapped the boy on the back—did he know the boy?-, and Merlin stepped forward to meet the prince in the middle of the field.

"Just for company, milord," Merlin said. He assumed a swordsman's stance, and the knights whistled and shouted mockingly. His neck and face reddened. Arthur thought he heard the black dog growl a bit. He couldn't remember its name. It was something stupid; he knew that.

Arthur assumed a similar positon.

"Begin!" Leon shouted.

Arthur immediately swung at the boy, who dodged the blow nimbly. Arthur frowned and went in for another strike, which the boy parried. When Arthur thrust a hanging left—his best move—the boy danced out of his range. Arthur was starting to get mad. He stopped playing around and began more vicious strikes. The boy continued to parry and dodge.

"Can you only defend yourself, Merlin?" Arthur taunted. Em stopped for a second and stared at him blankly. That's when Arthur surged forwards.


 

Em raised his sword at the last minute when he realized Arthur was charging towards him. The two swords collided with a loud clang, making Em's arms ache. He shuffled a few steps back, constantly on the move. Never keep your feet still in a swordfight, Emrys! he heard Ruadan yell.

Arthur went in on the offensive again, going in for a feint, parry, and then attempting to disarm him by swinging with sheer force. Em nimbly deflected each of the prince's advances. When he saw the prince favoring his right side, Em went for a close left shot, managing to strike Arthur's side. The prince looked shocked. The knights began murmuring amongst themselves. Em used his surprise against him; he struck at the prince's thigh—he only wore padded breeches—and threw all his weight into the strike. The prince got knocked down, and Em pressed the tip of his sword against the prince's chest. He immediately threw the sword to the side and offered the prince a hand up.

"Good match, sire—" Em gasped when the prince yanked his arm down, sending him toppling towards the ground. Em managed to land on his stomach rather than his back. The prince got to his feet and dug his sword into Em's back. Em bit back a groan.

"You were saying, Merlin?" Prince Arthur sneered. "I should have you thrown in the stocks for that."

Em's hands curled into fists, but said nothing. He twisted his head around when he heard Oswald say, "For dueling with you, just as you had asked, milord?"


 

Arthur whipped around to glare at Sir Oswald. He threw aside his sword and stalked over to where the younger knight was standing. "What did you just say?"

"The boy dueled with you after you challenged him, sire. How does that merit time in the stocks?"

"He concealed the fact that he was a skilled swordsman. He could have been an assassin, for all we knew!" Arthur's argument sounded weak even to him.

The training ground grew silent. Arthur saw Merlin start to sit up. Magnus strode over and knocked the boy back down on the ground again. Merlin groaned. Several of the knights snickered, but that stopped when the black dog lunged towards Magnus, teeth bared and snarling.

"Heel, Bandit," Merlin yelled. Still growling at the knight, he heeled to his master's side.

"The dog ought to be killed for attacking a knight of the realm!" Magnus roared. Merlin got to his feet quickly.

"What did you expect, you brazen bully?" he growled. "Can't take what you dish out, milord, can you?" He whirled around and bowed mockingly to Arthur, his icy blue eyes blazing with a fury apparent to all in the training yard. "I believe I will take my leave, sire. It was a good sparring session, despite that cheap trick you pulled at the end."

Arthur sneered at the boy. "Now that is the sort of comment that will get you thrown in the stocks, boy. Guards, take him." While two members of the palace guards dragged Merlin away, he turned back to the knights. "Who wants to go to the tavern for a drink?"


 

Now

"Emrys, what should we do?" Adelina said.

Em blinked. "I… They are hurt badly?"

"He said one looks close to death. Carraig says he has long brown hair," Declan reported. His eyes were glowing, as Druids' did when they spoke mind-to-mind at long distances. Em assumed he was speaking to Carraig.

"We can't turn a blind eye to suffering," Em said. "Those men are my friends. I will lead a patrol to bring them back to camp."

"Those friends of yours have slaughtered our people by the dozens," Alvarr hissed. "How can you help him? What did he ever do for you?"

"I served him for four years. He's like a brother to me," Em snapped, whirling around to face his older brother. "The Purge was Arthur's doing. He has not executed a single Druid or attacked a camp in three years of his reign. I will not turn my back on him."

Alvarr straightened. "As the head of camp security, I will not allow you to let those monsters into camp," he said.

"As a Druid elder, I override you," Iseldir said.

"Uncle!" Alvarr glared at Iseldir.

"You are too young to be so full of hate. Go home to your wife, Al," Iseldir said. "For generations, our people have been known for their peaceful ways and for accepting all who seek aid from them. I will not let twenty years of darkness change this. Drink some whiskey and think on this."

Alvarr stalked off into the forest.

Adelina cleared her throat. "So, has anyone got a plan on how we are going to bring them back to camp?" she asked.

Chapter Text

Then

Em slumped in the stocks, his back aching from being hunched over the past two hours. Bandit paced around the stocks angrily, baring his teeth at anyone who even looked at Em wrong. Em knew he should call off his dog, but it was nice to not get pelted with rotten fruit by bored peasant children. Sionnach actually was playing with several small children about a hundred yards away, yapping happily. Em was glad people in Camelot enjoyed playing with puppies more than they enjoyed publically humiliating someone. He had almost dozed off in the mid-afternoon heat when he heard a voice say, “What you did was awfully brave, you know.”

Em started. He turned his head and saw Gwen standing to his right. Bandit, who recognized her, let her pass. “What did I do?” he said with a slight grin.

“You stood up to Sir Magnus! He’s a bully. Prince Arthur is one, too, but Magnus is worse,” Gwen said with disgust. “It’s the talk of the servants’ hall. We are all looking forward to hearing your side of the story after the banquet. Gaius said you are serving tonight. I’ll be there to serve Lady Morgana and the other members of the royal family.”

“Just the lesser nobles. I’m too inexperienced for them to let me near the big dogs,” Em chuckled. “So all the servants are talking about me?”

“Not in a bad way!” Gwen assured him. “I guess I—um, I mean we—find you admirable. Um, as in you I meant your actions. Not to say that you aren’t admirable of course, it takes an admirable person to perform admirable actions—“

“I think I understand,” Em said with good humor.

“So how much longer are you in here for?”

Em looked up and squinted. “About another hour, I think. It was around eleven when they put me in here, and the guard said it was a three hour sentence, and now it’s one, so…”

“How can you tell the time?”

“I’m looking at the position of the sun in the sky. My brother taught me to do that when I was small,” Em explained.

“Would you mind showing me one time? That seems really useful,” Gwen said.

“Of course.” Em watched in amusement as a teenage boy with a rotten tomato in hand crept forward. Bandit bared his teeth, and the kid dropped the tomato. He practically fled. “You better get going. Don’t want to associate yourself with the town ruffian, now.”

Gwen grinned. “I suppose not. I’ll see you tonight, Merlin.”

“See you tonight, Gwen!” Em called after her.


 

After a guard released him from the stocks, Em went back to Gaius’s chambers. Gaius quizzed him on his knowledge of the healing arts and was quite impressed. After Em had rested for a bit, Gaius set him off to make several deliveries. When he got back, he had to mop the floor and prepare some herbs for drying. Soon, it came time to prepare for the banquet. Em polished his boots, changed in a clean shirt, dusted off his trousers, and washed his face. He donned a clean neckerchief. He ate a quick supper Gaius prepared and rushed off to the kitchens. The cook lectured him for about ten minutes, telling him not to spill any wine on the nobles and to be respectful. His job was to pour wine for a table of barons and ladies with modest land holdings in outlying parts of the kingdom. They weren’t terribly important, but still had enough influence that Em had to be careful around them.

Finally, the time for the banquet came. Em was given a jug of wine and tucked away in a doorway with Morris, who was pouring wine for another table of nobles. They were near the raised dais where the royal family sat. The next few hours were tedious for Em; he constantly had to be alert, as he needed to be at the nobles’ beck and call. The food the other servers smelled delicious. He had never seen so much food in his life—quail, rich soups, delicate pastries, venison, and various other delicacies. His rebellious stomach rumbled in envy. Em tried not to dwell on the thin vegetable soup that had been his own supper.

Finally, King Uther announced, “It is time for our guest of honor to sing. I welcome Lady Helen, the greatest performer in all the land.”

The woman from earlier—the one with the strange doll in her chambers—stepped onto the raised dais. With her arms outstretched, she began to sing. The melody was haunting, and the words were of a language Em did not recognize. Em frowned as he noticed the guests begin to grown drowsy. Gaius, who sat with other higher-ranking palace staff, slumped over into his plate. Cobwebs as white as his hair began to creep over him. People began dropping all around the room. At first, Em thought they were all dead, until Morris collapsed. Em saw the other servant’s chest slowly rising and falling. They were only sleeping.

Lady Helen kept singing. Em sent out his magic; clearly, a spell was causing this. His magic was powerful enough to shield him from it, thank Nature. His magic sensed a dark, ancient power and recoiled immediately. Em watched in horror as Lady Helen drew a dagger from her sleeve and drew her arm back, preparing to throw it. She was aiming it towards Prince Arthur…

You will share my tears… A son for a son…

Em did not have time to utter a spell he knew. He simply reacted.

He shaped his magic into a double-edged sword. Frantically, he looked around the room and his eyes landed on the chandelier Lady Helen stood under. He thrust his sword out and sliced through the rope securing the chandelier to the ceiling. With a sickening thud, it landed squarely on Helen. She shrieked, a haunting sound that made Em flinch.

Everyone began to stir immediately. Morris sat up, tearing the cobwebs that had covered him. Prince Arthur, King Uther, and Lady Morgana rose shakily. Many gasped in horror when they saw the chandelier and the dying woman trapped under it. For Helen was still moving, her cries growing weaker and weaker—

Yet when Em looked, he did not see Helen anymore. He now saw an old woman—the mother of the executed sorcerer. She still clutched the dagger in her hands. Before she took her last breath, she drew her trembling hand back…

Em sprinted to the high dais. Prince Arthur stood at the left side of the table, on the outside. Em tackled him to the ground seconds before the dagger whizzed over their heads and embedded itself into a wall tapestry. Em rolled away from the prince, his chest heaving with exhaustion and anxiety. He screwed his eyes shut; using his raw power to defeat the sorceress had drained him.

He felt a hand cup his face. “Are you alright?” Blue eyes bore into his. The prince stood over him.

“I’m fine,” Em managed. He almost gasped in horror when the king joined his son and offered Em a hand up. Em accepted, and Uther pulled him to his feet. “Thank you, milord.”

“It is I who should be thanking you. You saved my boy’s life,” Uther said. “Name any reward, and it shall be granted. You have performed a selfless act this night.”

Em sputtered, protesting the need for an award. He did not need to attract the king’s attention in such a way. He wanted to turn tail and flee.

“No need to be so modest,” Uther said. “You shall be rewarded a position in the royal household as the personal manservant to the prince.”

Em grabbed the back of one of the chairs at the royals’ table for support while Arthur cried, “Father, you can’t—“

“What is your name, my boy?” Uther asked.

“Merlin,” Em stuttered.

“Merlin, serve my son dutifully and faithfully. Arthur, be a fair and just master to your servant.” With that, Uther turned away to go check on Lady Morgana and to examine the sorceress’s body.

Em and Arthur just stared at each other in complete horror.


 

Em fidgeted. “Sire, may I?”

Arthur waved a hand. “Speak,” he mumbled around his mouthful of bread and cheese. Em tried not to wrinkle his nose at the haughty prince’s manners. This was going to be the worst job ever. He had gotten up before dawn to get the prince’s breakfast. He wanted to make a good impression on his first day. He now stood before the prince as Arthur sat at his table, eating.

“There’s a few things you should know about me before you hire me.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “I hardly need to know your backstory, Merlin. We aren’t going to be friends. And my father already hired you. There’s not much I can do to change that.”

“I know, sire,” Em tried to say as evenly as possible. He lowered his eyes, trying to act ashamed. Nature, he was a bad actor and an even worse liar. But this was necessary. Iseldir had insisted he craft a believable backstory if he was to be employed to the prince. “My mother had me out of wedlock. Back home, it wasn’t a big deal, it happens all the time in the villages, but Gaius told me such things matter in Camelot. I figured, as my master, you should probably know that.” He finally looked up. Be convincing, he heard a voice that sounded annoyingly like Ruadan say.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “So you’re a bastard, then, Merlin?”

“Yes, sire.”

“It matters little to me, you’re only a servant. If you were a noble, now that would be a completely different story.”

Em wanted to ask why, but kept his mouth shut. He did say, “My hand will not affect my duties, either, sire.”

“What about it?”

Em held up his right hand, with its missing pinky. “How did that even happen? Surely not in a battle.” Arthur chuckled a bit, and Em’s blood practically boiled.

“It was an accident. Um, I cut it chopping wood, my lord.”

“Chopping wood?” Arthur repeated. “Too bad.”

Em nodded, reddening slightly.

Arthur waved a hand. “Well, that’s enough chatter. I had the steward draw up a list of your daily duties, along with weekly tasks you will be expected to complete. It’s on the desk over there. Are you literate?”

Em had to stop himself from scowling. “Yes, sire,” Em walked over to the desk and picked up the list. It was a list of chores he had expected to do as a prince’s manservant—polishing armor, keeping the chambers tidy, laundry, et cetera. Some of the tasks seemed unpleasant, like mucking out the stalls of the prince’s personal mounts. One job in particular actually sounded exciting…

“You have dogs, sire?” Walking the prince’s dogs morning and night, the list read. Em figured Sionnach and Bandit would enjoy the company on their strolls around the city. Then he realized the prince’s dogs would not be permitted to leave the castle grounds. They were probably too valuable.

“A couple of hounds. The best huntsman in the realm bred them,” Arthur said after a moment. “So you really can read. Many peasants cannot.”

Not rising to the bait, Em simply nodded. He folded the list and slipped it into his jacket pocket to memorize later. When the prince returned to his food, Em opened the narrow doorway that he assumed was a closet to look for cleaning supplies. To his surprise, he found a little room with a narrow cot and a small wardrobe. He did not realize the prince had a room for a manservant off his chambers. Thank Nature Gaius had offered him free lodging. Em found what he was looking for; the cleaning supplies were strewn across the cot, along with several boxes. The room was probably only used for storage now.

Em grabbed a feather duster, a broom, and a dustpan. He dusted all the surfaces that needed it—the desk, bedframe, wardrobe. After that, he swept the entire room. He felt Arthur’s eyes on him, but refused to acknowledge the prince’s staring. By Nature, he would not lose this job. He was the most powerful sorcerer in the realm—he could deal with this pompous ass. He was here to free his people. He would not let Prince Arthur get the chance to sack him.

As he dumped the contents of the dustpan into the ash bucket, Em heard Arthur put his fork down and stand up. Em glanced over his shoulder to see the prince staring expectantly at him. “Yes, sire?”

“I have weapons training from ten o’ clock to noon every day.”

“Very well, sire, I’ll use the time to get your chambers in order, and get acquainted with where things go—“

“You’re to accompany me.”

Em paused, and just nodded.


 

 “Now, you put on the g—“

“The gorgets,” Em finished, before he realized he had just interrupted the prince. Instead of looking angry, Arthur almost seemed impressed.

“How’d you know that?”

“I know how to dress someone in armor, and myself,” Em said.

“You do?”

“Yes, sire.” Em had to stop himself from sighing.

“Well, finish strapping it on, we have a long training session today to prepare for the tournament.”

We? What tournament?”

“Knights from all over the kingdom are traveling to Camelot to determine the best swordsman in the land0. I need a sparring partner. All the knights I usually train with will be fighting in the tournament, so they are all training on their own. That leaves me with you.”

“What about one of the palace guards?” Em finished putting Arthur’s armor on. He grabbed the prince’s sword and helm. He offered it to the prince, who grabbed it without so much as a word of thanks.

“They have their own duties. Don’t be such a girl, Merlin.” The prince clapped him on the back and chortled when Em grimaced.


 

Em grabbed a dulled practice sword off the rack, testing its weight. It was a bit too heavy for him. He moved on to the next one, and the next, and the next—

“Hurry up, Merlin!” the prince yelled.

Em rolled his eyes and grabbed the lightest of the four swords he had picked up. It still felt too heavy to him, though. Was it just him, or did all the swordsmen in Camelot have ridiculously strong arms? He jogged to the prince’s side. Em wore light padded armor, a helm, and thick leather gauntlets. He backed a few paces away from the prince and levelled his sword. His lips curled into a small smile when he remembered the countless sparring sessions with Alvarr—

“You’re just mad someone three years younger than you managed to disarm you, Al!”

“I am not,” the older boy growled. He snatched up his sword and slashed it through the air. “Shall we go again, Em?”

Em shrugged, smirking. “I mean, if you in that big of a hurry to lose again…”

Alvarr charged him, roaring, and Em assumed a defensive position—

He pushed the memory away. This was no casual practice with one of his brothers or sisters, which always entailed plenty of laughter and good fun. He was training with a man who would kill Em without a second thought if he knew Em’s true identity.

With that sobering thought, Em went several rounds with the prince. He won two, and the prince won three. He even offered tips to Em a couple times. Em dared not voice his own tips; many of his moves were ones Ruadan had based on an ancient Dragonlord fighting style, anyway. Arthur would not be familiar with them.

 After Arthur knocked Em to the ground after a particularly intense round, he pulled the boy to his feet.

“Explain.” The prince’s blue eyes bore into his.

Em looked at his new master suspiciously. He was confused by Arthur’s behavior. For someone who had been pretty awful to him since he arrived in Camelot, the prince now treated Em with an almost begrudged respect. Sure, he made a few jibes here and there, but that was it. Why was the prince acting completely different when it was just them on the training ground? “Explain what?” Em asked.

“How you got to be so good at sword fighting. I don’t understand.”

Em took a deep breath. “I’m from Essetir, y’know, and old Cenred’s always getting into a bunch of wars—“

King Cenred.”

“Yeah, that’s right, sire, he’s the King of Essetir, and anyway—“

“Of course I know who the King of Essetir is! He’s an ally and friend of Camelot.”

Em blanched. “Why? He’s an awful bloke, honestly—“

MERLIN!”

“Oh yeah, so y’see, my brothers’ da died in one of the King’s wars. His sword was always lying around, and one day I picked it up and starting swinging it around. A couple of the men knew how to fight, and they gave me lessons in exchange for work.”

“Your brothers have a different father than you?”

“I was born out of wedlock, sire, remember? Their da was around when William, my oldest brother, was born. He got Ma pregnant before he went to war and died. Then Gilanders—we call him Gilli—was born. Some trader came through and left, and I was born.”

“Either way, you are uncommonly good for a peasant. Of course, you would be unremarkable if you were a nobleman,” Arthur said. “And your style looks ridiculous, even if it is effective. Now go get your sword.”

Em inclined his head a bit and went to go grab the sword.

“Oh, and Merlin?”

“Sire?”

“If you tell anyone I said you were a half-decent fighter, I will feed you to the dogs.”

“Yes, sire!”


 

Muscles aching after sparring with Arthur and doing chores all day, Em looked forward to a nap. Instead, he was greeted by an insane Sionnach and an annoyed Bandit and Gaius. “Take that dog out for at least an hour, and don’t come back until she is exhausted,” his uncle snapped from his worktable as he crushed herbs with a mortar and pestle. Em immediately whistled to his dogs and left.

They strode down the castle hallways, Sionnach trailing behind him and Bandit walking by his side. Em kept looking over his shoulder at his little scrappy pup. How could she be as good as gold when he was around, but turn into a little terror as soon as he was gone?

His eyes widened when he remembered he still needed to exercise the prince’s dogs. He hoped they were nice hounds.

After asking a serving girl for directions, Em made it to the royal kennels. He told Sionnach and Bandit to heel. He heard dogs barking and saw sleek, sharp hounds prancing around in fenced-in yards connected to a building similar to a horse stable. He asked a barefooted servant boy carrying a bucket where the head hounds-man was.

“Mr. Beckett’s inside,” the boy said. “What d’ya wan’ wi’ him?”

“Oh, y’know, I gotta talk to him about walking the Prince’s dogs.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “You was the one who brawled wi’ His Highness in the Lower Town Marketplace! I was there, runnin’ an errand for Mr. Beckett.”

Em grinned a bit. He held out his hand. “I’m Merlin,” he said. “Who’re you?”

The boy shook his hand. “Holt.”

“Good meeting you, Holt.”

Holt reached down to pet Bandit. “This is one good-lookin’ shepherd. That pup’ll be a pretty girl, too. They yours?”

“Yeah. The shepherd’s Bandit, and the puppy’s Sionnach.” Sionnach shoved her nose into Holt’s other hand, demanding to be pet. Holt obliged with a laugh.

He looked up at Em. “Mr. Beckett, sometimes he don’t like mutt dogs bein’ brung into his kennels. ‘Fraid they’ll get the royal bitches knocked up.”

“I’ll leave Bandit out here, then,” Em sighed. He ordered the shepherd to stay, and Sionnach to heel. He strode into the dog stable, or whatever they called it. On the inside, on either wall, were kennels that connected to the outside yards. The dogs all immediately started barking.

A man was training a hound pup at the other end of the kennel. He was well-dressed and in his mid-twenties. He yelled, “Quiet!” The dogs immediately shut up. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Em. “Who’re you, boy?”

“I’m Merlin, Prince Arthur’s servant,” Em called.

Beckett—that’s who Em assumed he was—strode down to shake his hand. Sefa would find his thick brown hair and dancing brown eyes handsome. Em shook it. “I am Beckett, the head hounds-man. You must be here to walk the prince’s hounds. I have to tell you, they’re a difficult pair.”

Em laughed, and gestured to Sionnach. “If I can get this little lassie to heel, I can get them to mind me,” he said. “What’re their names?”

“The prince never named them. My assistant calls them Pike and Trout. His Highness would probably have him thrown in the stocks for it—imagine naming royal hounds after fish!” Beckett laughed.

“Holt, right? I just met him a moment ago.”

“Yeah, that’s him. A lad from the Lower Town. He’s great with the dogs.” Beckett walked off. “I’ll go get the hounds.”

He returned with two gorgeous brown-and-white male dogs. They had actual leashes and collars. They were pure muscle. Beckett said the larger one was Pike, and the smaller one Trout. Sionnach sniffed the dogs curiously, wagging her tail. They growled a bit at her, but once they were acquainted they calmed down.

“They’ll get along famously,” Em said. He grabbed the leashes and whistled to them. They followed obediently.

The hounds went nuts when they saw Holt outside. Their tails wagged furiously and they kept licking his hands. Holt laughed a bit. “They’re nice dogs.”

After introducing the hounds to Bandit, Em got the walk started. He really wanted to go home and eat supper. He figured a forty-minute walk would suffice. He took his small pack to the courtyard behind the palace, where he heard servants and other palace staff congregated after work to hang out. He wanted to scout it to see if it was worth going there tomorrow evening. After spending the last week few days with just Gaius and the prince, he was ready to finally try and make friends in Camelot.

Sure enough, a group of lads were kicked a leather ball. They had two barrels placed on either end of the courtyard to serve as goals. Em wished he could join in; he missed playing games with his siblings and friends back in Sábháilte. Bandit whined a bit, wanting to chase the ball. He quieted down when Em shot him a look.

The men smoked pipes and played cards. Women did needlework, sitting on the stairs, gossiping.

Em just planned on taking a quick stroll through the courtyard. He did not count on Gwen waving to him from across the courtyard. She stood with Morris. He took his small pack over to them. “Greetings!” he called. “Have you two finished your duties for the day?”

Gwen’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, we have. Seems like the prince is working you hard.” She nodded towards the dogs.

“I don’t envy you the job,” Morris said wryly.

“It’s alright, I guess. He’s not too bad,” Em said in a low voice, glancing around to make sure the other servants weren’t in earshot. “He’s all amped up about some tournament.”

“A Pendragon is always expected to win the tournament. Part of its purpose is to prove to the people that Arthur is worthy of succeeding his father one day.  It would send a really bad message if he were to lose,” Gwen explained.

“I hope, for your sake, that he wins. It would be unbearable to work for him if he lost, he’d become so ill-tempered,” Morris said.

“It sounds as if you know him fairly well,” Em observed.

Morris shrugged. “I’ve served in the royal household since I was a small boy. I basically grew up with Arthur. Not that we’re friends, of course. I just know his personality pretty well.”

“I heard there may be a knight who can measure up to Arthur’s skill. He is called Knight Valiant, I believe. He arrived here this afternoon,” Gwen said. “He hails from Bard’s kingdom.”

“Let’s pray Arthur can beat him, so Merlin’s life can be a bit easier,” Morris said with a laugh.


 

Valiant sat in the guest chambers he had been offered, drinking a tankard of strong mead. He watched his shield, transfixed by the image of the entwining snakes. He muttered a few words in the language of magic, and three adders slithered out of it, hissing and writhing.

“You’ll do very nicely, very nicely indeed,” Valiant muttered to himself.

He would beat the Pendragon bastard. How could a weakling--a powerless prince--beat a powerful sorcerer, after all?


Gaius stared at the body of the sorceress. Uther had ordered him to perform an autopsy on her. He had removed her clothes, and now he saw a strange symbol tattooed onto the corpse's right hip. He traced it. He had never seen the like of it. A series of intricate triskels formed the shape of a wolf. A Saxon phrase read, "The Lupus Order." He just stared and stared at it. Finally, at a loss, he whispered, "What the hell?

Chapter Text

Then

Em bid farewell to his new friends—at least, he was starting to consider them his friends—and continued his stroll around the palace grounds with his small pack of dogs. He wandered near the royal stables and henhouses, as he wanted to expose Sionnach to other animals. After about an hour of aimless wandering, he left Pike and Trout in the capable hands of Holt and Beckett. Sionnach whined as they left her new friends behind. Em laughed, telling her, We will see them tomorrow, little fox.

When he arrived back at Gaius's chambers, he found his uncle poring over a dusty leather tome. Gaius scribbled on a sheet of parchment already covered in his illegible handwriting. On a slab of wood placed over two sawhorses lay the naked body of the dead woman. Em stopped dead in his tracks; he had seen dead bodies before, sure, but it was another thing to see a body at a funeral. It was another thing to see the dead body of someone you killed in your own home. "What's she doing here, Uncle?" he said in a strangled voice.

"The king ordered me to do an autopsy. I did not cut the body open, as it is clear she died from getting crushed by the chandelier. However, I noticed the most peculiar tattoo…" Gaius got up and gestured for his nephew to follow. Em obliged, and together they peered at a tattoo on the woman's right hip. Em recognized the triskele immediately; the intricate wolf pattern it formed, however, was an arrangement he had never seen before. He had never heard of the Lupus Order before, either. He relayed this information to his uncle, who sighed heavily.

"I was hoping you would know," he muttered. "Em, do you know the implications of this tattoo?"

Perplexed, Em shook his head.

"The triskele is a known Druidic symbol. The king has always suspected that the Druids are working against him, which led him to order the raiding of your people's camps and the subsequent slaughter of many Druids. However, this fervor has lessened over the years. His knights no longer actively hunt down Druids. However, if I showed this symbol to Uther, he would launch a campaign against the Druids again."

Em went still. "Don't show him, Uncle. That is no Druidic symbol. My people are not behind this; my grandmother is one of the elders, and she has never mentioned an assassination plot against Uther. That is not our way," he pleaded.

Gaius held up a hand. "I will not show this to Uther. However, I need you to find out anything you can about this tattoo. Will you speak your relatives and see what they know?"

Em nodded fervently.

"You go do that. I will start supper. Shoo."


Em raced up the small staircase. He pried up the floorboard he had hidden his scrying mirror in. He whispered the password. A few minutes later, a familiar face appeared. Em grinned widely. "Freya!" he exclaimed.

"Are you alright, Emmy?" she said frantically.

"I'm fine," Em assured her, grateful for the chance to speak Druidic. "Is my uncle there? How are things back home?"

Freya launched into a two-minute rant. Astryd seemed to be getting bigger and bigger every day, Daegel started sword training a few days ago, Declan and Finnlagh went on a romantic picnic and ended up killing a deer instead, Aglain's daughter was pregnant, Iseldir's visions predicted a plentiful harvest, et cetera. Em showed her Sionnach and told her about Arthur. Freya promised to kick Arthur's ass if the prince did not stop being a "dratted bully" to Em. Finally, Em asked Freya to get his uncle, father, or grandmother. "It's important I speak to them," he explained.

She nodded and disappeared for a few minutes. Finally, he saw his father and grandmother's faces in the mirror. Em endured another round of questions, updates, and stories. He gave them his own update. It was basically what he had already told Freya, just with less swear words. They congratulated him on defeating the sorceress. Em's heart swelled when he saw the pride in his father's dark eyes.

"Why did you scry?" Balinor asked finally.

"Have either of you ever heard of the Lupus Order?" Em quickly told them about the sorceress's strange tattoo. Emery's eyes widened.

"They exist only in legend," she told her grandson. "At least, I thought they did."

"Tell me about them, Móraí," Em implored her.

"Bí foighneach(Be patient), Emrys," Emery said fondly. "The tale is more of a cautionary one. It goes back to the ancient times, when the Druids still had their own nation and the banríons (queens) still reigned. A group of belligerent Druids who disagreed with the banríon's peaceful ways broke off and headed to the land of the Saxons. They proclaimed themselves the Lupus Order, after the beasts that prowled the cold wastelands they choseto dwell in. The Lupus Order's stronghold was in a series of caverns in a mountain. They wore blue cloaks and marked themselves with the wolf triskele in the manner of Druids. The order never existed, Em; it is simply a tale told to children to warn them of what befalls warlike Druids."

"What happened to them, in the old tales?"

Balinor spoke this time. "The Lupus Order attacked the Saxon villages at the base of the mountain. The survivors begged the banríon for help, as their own king was a selfish man who refused to help them. He feared magic. The banríon sent the last elemental mage in existence, a capable woman named Maud, and a small band of Druids to defeat the Lupus Order. After a series of battles, Maud defeated the leader of the Lupus Order. The Order scattered and its members were never seen again. However, Maud succumbed to the wounds she sustained in battle and died shortly after."

"Is that who you name Aunt Maud after, Móraí?" Em grinned.

Emery smiled. "I did indeed." Her grin faltered. "Does this information help, Em? Did the sorceress wear a blue cloak?"

"Her magic was a dark and corrupt one," Em said slowly. "She never wore a blue cloak…" Suddenly, his hands started shaking and he dropped the mirror. It mirror clattered to the floor; thankfully, it was spelled against breaking. Em's breath came out in heaving gasps and his vision started to blur.


As Emery and Balinor called Em's name, Gaius raced up the stairs when he heard the noise the mirror made. He found Em sitting on the floor hugging his knees and trembling. The dogs were working themselves into a frenzy. Crouching down next to his nephew, Gaius picked up the mirror and saw a familiar face.

"Balinor!" he exclaimed, his terror over the state his nephew was in overriding his joy about speaking to his long-lost friend again. "What is going on with Em?"

"He's having an anxiety attack, Gaius. He's been getting them ever since… Never mind. I don't know what caused it… I asked him if the sorceress was wearing a blue cloak—"

"She wasn't—" Em gasped out, his chest heaving. Gaius wrapped an arm loosely around him, and was shocked when Em buried his face his chest. Em finally hiccupped, "He was."

"Who is he, Em?" Gaius said gently.

"He had a blue cloak," Em said miserably. "That mage. Jarl and his men spoke the Saxon tongue, too, Da. They kept me and Lina in a cave. It was so cold." He shuddered.

"You think Thorn was a member of this modern-day Lupus Order?" Gaius could hear the heartbreak in the old woman's voice. He assumed she was Balinor's mother and Em's grandmother. "Oh, Emmy."

"Who are Jarl and Thorn?" Gaius demanded, running a soothing hand through Em's dark locks. "Are they Druids?"

"Hardly," Balinor spat out. "They're part of a group that captured Em and his sister. They tortured them for information about Em's Dragonlord mentor."

Bandit nudged Em with his nose. The boy left his uncle's embrace and wrapped his arm around his dog. Whining, Sionnach crawled into his lap. Slowly, the tension left his body and his rapid breathing slowed down. Balinor said something in the Druidic tongue, and Em responded shakily in the same language.

"Em said it's fine if we go off and talk in private for a bit. The dogs will help calm him down," Balinor said.

Gaius protested, "I don't think it's best to leave him—"

"Please, Uncle," Em muttered. "I'd prefer some space, if that's okay with you."

"Okay, son." Gaius squeezed his nephew's shoulder before he left the room, still holding the spelled mirror. He went down the staircase, bolted the door to his chambers, and sat down on his narrow bed. "Tortured, Balinor?" His heart broke for the nephew he still barely knew but was beginning to love dearly.

"They had them for around two and a half weeks. Em and Adelina were probably only conscious for about nine or ten days of it. It was hard for them to keep track," Emery explained.

"Adelina is the girl you adopted, Balinor?" Em had been telling Gaius about his siblings and extended family in the Druid camp. The fifteen-year-old steadfastly refused to reveal the location of it. Nevertheless, Gaius still enjoyed his nephew's stories about his Druidic upbringing. Outside of Balinor, he had not interacted with many Druids in his life. Em offered a unique perspective into a culture people rarely acknowledged or talked about in Albion.

"She is. Her damn parents fear her fire magic and sent her off to study with a Dragonlord. When he had to return to the Keep two years ago, they refused to take her back. She's been in my care ever since." Balinor hesitated. "She… Nine months after Jarl let her and Em go, she became a mother. She was only sixteen."

"Did one of them violate her…?" Gaius felt sick.

"We love her daughter Astryd, but Adelina has never been quite the same. Em, either. Have you seen his scars?" Balinor inquired. When Gaius shook his head, Balinor went on, "They whipped him and carved him up with knives. It left behind some brutal scarring. He tends to be very private about it. If you see them, don't acknowledge them. It makes him feel less self-conscious. If you can, avoid his missing finger—"

"I asked him about it, and he said an accident caused it. Was it that Jarl bastard?" Gaius asked, his voice rising.

"Yes. I find it deeply concerning that this 'Lupus Order' has made itself known in Camelot so soon after Em's arrival, especially since Jarl may be involved with them. What I always found the most disturbing about Em and Lina's ordeal was that Jarl simply let them go after he tortured the information out of them. He said he wanted them to 'live in fear for a while.' He even gave them directions and rations for the return trip." Emery shuddered.

"Do you think they intend to harm Em?" Gaius frowned.

"We can only assume." Emery wrung her hands. "I will get in touch with other Druid camps and get in contact with the elders. They may have additional information or books about the Order. Balinor, have Aisling examine Iseldir's dream journal in light of this new discovery—"

Balinor took the mirror from his mother. "What she's saying, Gaius, is that there is much to do. Do you mind if we go…?"

"Not at all!" Gaius assured him. "I want to go check on Em, anyway."

"Leave him. Bandit knows how to deal with these situations." Gaius wanted to laugh, as Emery spoke about the dog as if he were a human; however, his laughter died in his throat when he saw the seriousness in her emerald orbs. Her eyes were truly remarkable.

"Gaius," Balinor said before he ended the scrying spell. "At sunrise tomorrow, have Emrys scry us. I know Hunith would love the chance to speak with you." As Gaius's heart leapt with joy at the thought of getting to see his sister for the first time in years, his friend's face faded and the mirror appeared to be just an ordinary mirror again.


Em eventually wandered into the main room. He ate a quick dinner, washed the dishes, and went back to bed. He felt physically drained. He meditated, simply spending time in the presence of his magic. It was a habit he had acquired from Ruadan, and he still did it five years later. Finally, he flopped down on his bed, eager for sleep. Sionnach slept at his feet, while Bandit curled up on his blanket on the floor.

Just when he was on the brink of consciousness, he heard a voice whispering, Emrysssss. Emryssss. He jolted awake in bed. Who in Nature's name had the level of power to break through his mental shields and detect his magic? That was the only way another sorcerer could speak mentally to him, and that was nearly impossible. Em had spent years honing his shields. Tentatively, Em called out, Who are you?

No one ever said the strongest sorcerer born in a generation was an eloquent speaker.

All he heard was a voice whispering, Emryssss.

He felt a strong tug, the call of an ancient magic singing to him. Em sprang to his feet immediately. He did not know who or what was calling to him. All he knew was that it felt right; he needed to answer this call.


Em and Bandit prowled the corridors of the castle. The dog had refused to leave Em's side, so Em reluctantly let him come. He had used a spell to ease Sionnach into a deeper sleep, though. He did not need to drag a tiny puppy into a potentially dangerous situation. The boy and the dog had no trouble sneaking past Gaius and out the door; the man slept like the dead. Em let the tug of the ancient magic guide his footsteps. He dodged the palace guards easily enough, ducking into alcoves and side hallways and behind columns. He even hid Bandit behind a curtain at one point. Finally, they ended up at a dark staircase, the entrance of it yawning open like a dark, hungry mouth. Morris and Gwen had told Em about an extensive system of catacombs ran underneath the palace; he assumed the creepy staircase led to it. He snatched a torch off the wall and descended into the catacombs, Bandit right by his side as always.

The pull of the magic made Em's fear melt away. He eventually strode into a stone tunnel. He and Bandit walked down that for several hundred feet. They reached a dark opening. When Em held the torch out, the flames revealed a narrow ledge. It opened up to a huge cavern that seemed endless. Em could not see much in the gloom. He did not leave the tunnel. He lingered at the edge, not wanting to step onto the ledge.

Emrys, the voice said. Suddenly, the beating of wings could be heard. Em saw something shimmering in the dark and he remembered what Gaius had said about the dragon locked under the palace…

"I am a Dragonlord Initiate, Great One," he cried out in Dragonic.

A beautiful golden dragon entered the range of the torchlight. It settled onto a crag, balancing delicately. Bandit cowered behind Em's legs; his master murmured reassuring words to the frightened dog. Em's triumphant grin faded when he saw the thick chain and shackle around the dragon's hind leg. "What has Uther done to you, Great One?" he lamented.

Stop this 'Great One' nonsense. It's a habit you picked up from your father, I'm sure, the dragon snapped. His wide amber eyes focused in on the boy and his dog. You are small for one with such a great destiny. The Unwritten Vision promises that you and Arthur will accomplish great things together.

"You believe Arthur is the Once and Future King? My uncle was right?" Em's eyes widened.

The one who is the king's healer or the one who I see walking in the dream realm?

"The one in the dream realm. His name is Iseldir; he is a Vates," Em said. "You said you knew my father? How?"

Many moons ago, I did. Have patience, young one. The dragon almost seemed amused. You should heed both of your uncles' wise words. Fate has placed them in your life for a reason.

"How can Arthur be the Once and Future King?" Em blurted. "He's an ass."

Do not dismiss him so lightly, young warlock.

"How can a Pendragon be the one who frees my people from oppression? How can he save the Druids?"

The Unwritten Vision is only a small part of a much greater prophecy: that 'ass' you speak of is the ruler who will unite all of Albion. It can only be accomplished with your help, though.

"My help? All I do for him is pick up after him, walk his dogs, and spar with him!" Em protested. "Surely you've got the wrong Prince Arthur. He doesn't… He can't be the King in the prophecy."

I tire of all these questions. I've forgotten how impatient you Initiates are. The dragon began to flap his wings.

"Don't go, I have so many questions—"

Even the most powerful warlock to ever walk the earth cannot escape destiny, Emrys. You are to shape Arthur into the Once and Future King. With that, the dragon disappeared into the depths of the cavern. The clattering of his chains faded, and Em was left shouting in the dark.

After a couple minutes, Em gave up on hoping the dragon would return. He looked down at Bandit and sighed. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?" he asked the dog.


Em ended up doing nothing. His uncle was already too involved in this whole magic situation already, and his Druid side of the family had forbidden him from going near the dragon. Em wondered why they wanted to keep a Dragonlord Initiate away from a dragon, especially one who had never gotten the chance to travel to the Keep and see a dragon before.

Instead of scrying his family or talking to Gaius about it, he woke up at dawn and walked the prince's hounds and his own dogs. When he dropped off Pike and Trout, Holt said he could leave his dogs at the kennels during the day. Sionnach could play with the hound pups, and Bandit could be turned out in Pike and Trout's run. Em, who knew his uncle got frustrated with dealing with Sionnach's antics during the day before, thanked the younger boy profusely. Holt waved it off.

He got the prince's breakfast from the palace kitchens. He knocked once on the door before entering. Arthur was still snoring and tangled up in his bedsheets. Em went over to the red velvet draperies and yanked them open, letting the sunlight pour in. He hid a vindictive grin when Arthur groaned and buried his face into a down pillow. "Rise and shine, sire," Em said cheerfully as he lay the prince's breakfast out at the table. His stomach grumbled at the sight of the sausage, cheese, fruit, and warm bread. He had eaten a thin gruel to break his fast that morning.

"What are you doing here? Where's Morris?" Arthur said blearily as he eased himself out of bed. He lumbered over to the table, sitting down heavily.

"Your father hired me as your manservant, remember?" Em figured the prince was too sleepy to notice his cheekiness.

"It's too early to be dealing with this," Arthur muttered. "Go lay out my clothes for the day. I need one for training this morning and another for my council meeting later." Em complied and began to rummage through the prince's wardrobe for suitable outfits. Arthur ate his breakfast quickly. He criticized Em's choices when the manservant held them up for Arthur to examine—

"That shirt does not match those trousers whatsoever. I know you only wear the same trousers, jacket, and shirt every day, Merlin, but some of us have options."

"I have options!" Em protested. "I have two shirts, a red one and a blue one. I also have two neckerchiefs. Sometimes I don't even wear a neckerchief."

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Sure, Merlin. You ready to go spar?"

Em scratched the back of his neck. "I'm kinda sore from yesterday, sire, maybe Sir Leon or Sir Magnus would join you? Or we could take a day off"

"The tournament is tomorrow! Stop being such a girl. Let's go to the armory, so you can dress me in my armor. Have you found a suitable practice sword yet?"

"No, sire. They're all too heavy." Em's hand drifted to the empty place on his belt where he usually strapped his sword scabbard. That sword was perfectly balanced and the right weight for him.

"Perhaps your arms are too weak?" Arthur's tone was more teasing than sardonic.

"Perhaps I just need to look more," Em said mildly, clearing away the breakfast dishes.

Arthur looked at Em thoughtfully. "If you can't find one, we'll need to see if Tom the blacksmith has an old sword he can dull for you."

Em just nodded.


After another whirlwind day of sparring, endless chores, and learning tournament etiquette, Em looked forward to walking the dogs. He picked the four of them up from the royal kennels. Just as he did the day before, he met up with Morris and Gwen in the courtyard. A few of the younger children began playing with the dogs, which tired them out even more than a walk did.

An hour later, he handed Pike and Trout's leashes to Beckett and headed back to his own chambers. He ate a watery stew Gaius prepared, washed the dinner dishes, and read up on tournament etiquette.

"These nobles are ridiculous. Why must Arthur risk his life to beat up a few inbred knights to prove that he is worthy of the throne?" Em groaned, putting the book down.

"Inbred?" Gaius arched a brow.

"These noble bloodlines seem to mix in with each other a great deal. Queen Ygraine was the king's third cousin…"

"How on earth do you know that?"

Em got up and plucked a book called The Noble Genealogies of Camelot off one of the bookshelves. "I read this last night. A bit boring, but at least I have a better idea of who the top dogs in the palace are now. This said that the Lady Morgana's mother was a baroness named Vivienne, and her father was a knight called Gorlois. How did she end up in Uther's care?"

"Her father was slain in battle when Morgana was ten; he was a close friend of Uther's, so he took her in as a ward. Lady Vivienne died of childbed fever not long after she prematurely gave birth to a daughter when Morgana was two," Gaius answered. "Why do you ask?"

"You saw my grandmother in the mirror, right? The green eyes and black hair? It's creepy, how similar they are."

"I'm sure it's just a coincidence. Many people have green eyes and black hair, Em."

"Only Druid queens had such green eyes," Em insisted.

Gaius ruffled his nephew's hair. "She may be a king's ward, but she is not a princess or a Druid, Em. Your imagination is running wild."

Em shrugged and stood up. "I'm going to go prepare the prince's armor for the tournament tomorrow, Uncle. Don't wait up on me."

Gaius yawned loudly. "I might just go to bed early. Minding a teenage boy is more exhausting than I thought it would be. I can't imagine how your mother takes care of eight children."

"She's a sorceress in her own right; it takes a special kind of magic to have as much patience as she does," Em said with a laugh. He gave the dogs a quick pat and headed out the door.


Em was polishing the prince's gauntlets in a secluded corner of the armory, wedged between a rack of wooden staves and the wall. He hummed the tune of an old Druidic song, his thoughts drifting back to Jarl and Thorn and the sorceress and the Lupus Order. He knew deep within his bones that they were connected. Yet he still doubted his gut. Plenty of people wore blue cloaks, he reasoned. Thorn might not have any connections to the mysterious order. What if the old woman was a Druidic lore enthusiast and decided to tattoo herself with the symbol of the Lupus Order just for the heck of it? He was probably being silly. Probably…

Ruadan always insisted that there was no such thing as coincidences. Em was inclined to agree with his old mentor.

Where did that leave him, though? Truthfully, all the young warlock had to go off was an ancient and confusing prophecy, his grandmother's old tales, a weird tattoo, and a couple of conspiracy theories.

Em pushed those thoughts aside and focused on his work. He let himself drift into the comfort of his magic, that inner fire that soothed him and felt like home. He opened himself up to the magic around him, letting his shields drop momentarily. He wanted to feel the magic of the dragon that roamed beneath the palace…

His magic recoiled when it brushed up against a dark, disgusting presence. Em's eyes snapped open. "What the hell?" he muttered. He put Arthur's armor back and began to search for something that would create such a dark presence.

The knights who had come from all over the realm to compete stored their own gear in the armory. Em peered at swords with jeweled pommels, battered armor, sound leather boots, and shields. He dared not touch any of them; he just looked.

He was looking over a shield embossed with three intertwining green snakes. He was thinking about how creepy it would be to have snakes as your coat of arms when he saw the painted red eyes on one of the snakes blink. He bit back a Druidic curse and kept staring at the shield. The snake blinked again. Em's jaw dropped.

A voice boomed behind him, "What do you think you're doing, boy?"

 

Chapter Text

Em flinched when a rough hand grabbed his arm. He yanked out of the iron grip and whirled around, snarling in reply, "What do you think you're doing?" He was faced with a dark-haired man in a sweaty tunic. Even his short beard was glistening with sweat. Em resisted wrinkling his nose.

"Keeping a sorry urchin from taking off with my prize shield," the man snapped. Em took a step back. Shit, he just mouthed off to a blasted knight.

"I was only looking, sir knight." Em tried to keep his voice as mild as possible, but he struggled to contain the low rumble of anger in his tone. "I wouldn't dream of touching a lord's things."

"You're a servant?" The knight looked him over. Em straightened his shoulders.

"Yes, I am," he confirmed, forcing any shame out of his voice.

"Who do you serve?"

"Prince Arthur," said Em.

The knight sneered in a way that made Em's stomach twist. "If I find you near any of my things, boy, I will send word to your master immediately and order you flogged. Is that clear?"

Em's hands curled into fists. He took a deep breathe. He smirked back at the knight, his lips curling into a dangerous smile and his icy blue eyes full of daring and mettle.

"Crystal, milord," he bit out. With that, he marched past the knight and out of the armory.


The next morning, Em got up before sunrise to review tournament etiquette. He found it all so confusing. Why did great warriors, already proven in real battle, feel the need to stage fake ones to prove they were worthy? Why couldn't Camelot concentrate all the money and talent pouring into the competition on more worthy causes, such as defending the outlying villages from bandits or helping the street children in the Lower Town? Druids did not host magical duels or competitions because they viewed it as wasting and abusing magic. The more Em spent in the non-magical world, the more he criticized it.

When he grew sick of reviewing, he walked the dogs to clear his head. When Pike and Trout gazed longingly at Bandit and Sionnach running ahead to chase each other, he muttered, "Blast it," and let the prize hunting dogs off their leashes. He hated leashing dogs; he felt it restricted their freedom. He knew city folks did it to protect their dogs, but he was a farm boy at heart and could not bear to do it. He trusted the hounds' training and knew they would come back as soon as he called.

He encountered Holt when he turned Pike, Trout, and Bandit out in their run. Sionnach was frolicking in the puppy pen, her feathered tail beating back and forth furiously. Holt watched the pups with an amused grin.

"Do you got the day off, Merlin, with the tourney happening and all?" Holt asked Em.

"Not when my master's fighting in it," Em chuckled. "You do, I'm guessing,"—the younger boy nodded—"so does that mean you will be watching it?"

Holt shrugged. "Yeah, there's not much else to do. It's cool, seeing the great folk duke it out. Makes you wish you could use a sword, y'know?"

"I'm decent with a sword. Let me know if you want to ever practice after work," Em offered.

Holt's eyes widened. "Really? That would be amazing!"

Em saw Beckett, who was giving the dogs their morning meal, look up and smile at him. Thank you, he mouthed. Em inclined his head the tiniest bit.


"Do you know what you're doing?" Arthur narrowed his eyes when Em entered the tent with his arms full of armor. Em frowned at the prince.

"I've been studying like crazy, sire, I'm practically an expert at this point," Em promised. He quickly dressed Arthur in his armor. He handed the prince his sword and helm. He could not prevent his lips twitching into a proud smile. That smile faded when Arthur stared expectantly at him.

"My cape, you buffoon!" he barked out.

Em picked up a red cape embroidered with the Pendragon coat of arms. He shook it out, examining the red clothing item. "The capes seems a little impractical to me. Don't you worry about getting tangled up in it or your enemy grabbing it in a fight?"

"Merlin," Arthur half-roared.

Em put the cape on the prince's shoulders, fastening it with a gold dragon brooch. He took a step back and surveyed his work. "I did a great job," he whispered. "You nervous, sire?"

Arthur brushed past Em as he headed out of the tent. "I don't get nervous."

Em jogged after his master. "Sure you do, sire. Everyone gets nervous. Heck, I sometimes get nervous collecting the eggs back home because we have this really mean rooster. My brother calls him Diabhal (Devil), because he really is a diabhal—"

"What are you even saying?" Arthur interrupted.

"The rooster's name is Devil," Em said softly, realizing his mistake. He mentally kicked himself; he could not go around saying Druidic words in Nature-blessed Camelot. "My point is, sire, it's okay to be a little scared, these are some of the best knights in the realm—"

Arthur whirled around. "I am not nervous, you dolt! I am the strongest and most capable knight here; I am the reigning champion. Just because you are scared of a chicken and used to being surrounding by spineless peasants does not mean your betters get nervous. Is that clear?"

Em's checks reddened slightly and he nodded stiffly.

Arthur turned around again and continued his march to the arena. "Good."


Em lurked in the mouth of one of the tunnels the competitors entered through. Many knights, Prince Arthur included, stood before King Uther. Hands clasped behind his back, the King of Camelot paced up and down the orderly rows. Not a person in the arena spoke. Em could feel the excitement, nervousness, and tension sparking in the air as Uther opened his mouth.

"Knights of the realm. You have come from all corners of Camelot to prove your talent before your people and your king. As in years past, the winner of this competition will win one thousand gold pieces." Em's jaw dropped at the thought of that enormous sum. His family of ten (eleven, counting Astryd) survived on less than one-tenth of that sum a year. "In each young knight's life, the time will come for him to prove himself. This tournament is meant to mimic real situations that you may encounter in battle. Remember the knights' code. All glory to Camelot!" Em saw Uther catch Arthur's eye. The prince gave his father an imperceptible nod, his blue eyes glinting with determination. Em knew his new master would do anything to win the tournament.

"Camelot, Camelot, Camelot," the crowds chanted.

The roster was announced. Arthur was fighting a knight from the west of Camelot in the fourth match of the day. Em watched the first two with rapt attention. They were brutal; the knights did not use dulled swords, and they fought as if they were in real combat. He wished he could ask them about certain moves or maneuvers they used. He wanted to try them out himself. Even though he still found the tournament silly and pointless, he loved getting to see the knights fight. They were the best swordsmen he'd ever laid eyes on.

Before the third match, Em heard a servant announce, "Knight Valiant of the Western Isles." Em watched as the knight with the snake shield emerged from the tunnel opposite the one he was standing by. His hands curled into fists when he saw the bastard's smug face. He wanted to wipe that look off Valiant's face with his fist, or maybe turn his nose into a mushroom. Mordred did it to Sefa all the time as a small child. Em was always the one who reversed the spell.

The match ended swiftly. Valiant was deft with a sword. Surefooted and swift, he employed clever maneuvers that allowed him to best his opponent. Despite taking quite the battering from the other knight's sword, his shield remained unscathed. Em's mind drifted back to the blinking snake eyes of yesterday. Despite having long since dismissed it as a trick of the light, the shield still made the boy uneasy. Snakes were crafty creatures of unease and mischief, not unlike Knight Valiant. Em's blood boiled when he thought of the knight's threat. He was sorry to see the bastard win.

After Valiant and his opponent left the arena, Arthur and a knight from a fief in the east faced off. Em's own hand drifted to the hilt of his sword, itching to taste the glory of the competition that, minutes before, he had found useless. Em used the tournament as an excuse to strap it on his belt. He insisted to Arthur that the prince might need a second sword if his own got damaged during the fight. Arthur promptly rolled his eyes but did not comment any further. Em took it to mean that the prince of Camelot would not mind using his servant's battered old sword. Even though he was not fond of Arthur, some small part of him still craved the prince's approval. Em chalked it up to being the holdover of a childhood of being one of six brothers.

So, he watched with a hawk's concentration as Arthur raised his sword and charged forward to meet his opponent. The two swords met with a singing of steel that reverberated in Em's bones. The match continued for a good minutes, until Arthur dipped his sword and then wrenched it upward when the other knight tried to go in for a close jab. The sword clattered out of the knight's hand. Arthur placed the tip of the sword on the knight's breastplate. The announcer declared him the winner. Uther's only acknowledgment of his son was a slight dip of the head. Em saw the prince's face fall for a moment, but he quickly recovered and turned to face the cheering crowd with an arrogant grin and cocky tilt of his head.

So the prince was not just an emotionless lump after all. Arthur headed out of the tunnel and Em hurried to catch up. He took the sword from Arthur. Em held it reverently; it was the finest piece of steel he had ever held, with its ruby pommel and ornate hilt carved with dragons. At the thought of the dragon, Em let his shields drop. He sought out the comforting presence of the dragon and let his magical presence wrap around him—

"Merlin, are you even listening?"

Em's shields snapped back into placed automatically. He winced, as it hurt just a bit. "Come again, sire?"

"Before the afternoon matches start, you need to sharpen my sword, polish my armor, mend my tunic—"


Em waited in eager anticipation as Valiant took to the arena again later that afternoon. He wanted the knight to lose. The fact that the bastard had threatened to have him flogged—

"Sir Ewan facing Knight Valiant," the announcer shouted. Both knights bowed to Uther and assumed their fighting positions. Ewan came at Valiant with a fierce battle-cry, his sword flashing in the sun. Valiant nimbly dodged the attack, oddly light on his feet for such a large man. Ewan recovered, turning swiftly on his heel. Valiant went on the offensive again—

And so it went. After years of sparring, Em was able to pinpoint the exact moment when Ewan began to gain the upper hand on Valiant. Even though the Druid knew it was wrong, he swore to Nature he did, some dark part of his soul sang with joy as Ewan knocked Valiant to the ground with his shield. Valiant raised his own shield to defend himself as Ewan's sword came down to strike at him. The knights were inches apart, making it difficult to see what happened next. However, Ewan took a stumbling step backward. Valiant sprang to his feet and knocked Ewan down with one strike of his shield. He placed his sword-tip on Ewan's heart.

"Knight Valiant wins!" the announcer declared. The crowd broke into wild cheers. Sullen, Em watched as the announcer tried to help Ewan up. The knight was struggling to get to his feet. Even from the distance he was standing at, Em could see how ashen Sir Ewan's face was. Something was seriously wrong with him.

Gaius hurried from the main entrance tunnel where he had been lurking just in case a situation like this occurred. Not even thinking, Em raced forward to meet his uncle. He was not needed by the prince. Arthur had won his both afternoon matches, making him one of the two finalists for tomorrow's victory match. He would not mind if Em helped Gaius out.

His uncle was crouched next to Ewan, checking his pulse. "I need a stretcher!" he yelled. Several members of the palace guards grabbed one. Gaius and Em lifted Ewan onto the stretcher.

"We need to get him back to my chambers. Hurry!" Gaius said, the very picture of calm. It reminded Em of his grandmother. The skilled healer was always calm during medical crises.


"He's battered and bruised, but that shouldn't cause these symptoms—slow pulse, swelling, unconsciousness, fever." Gaius examined the knight while Em held a cool cloth against Sir Ewan's forehead. Gaius grabbed a knife off his worktable and cut the knight's tunic open. On his collarbone—just where Em's triskel used to be, in fact—were two puncture holes. The area around it was swollen and pussy.

"Snakebite?" Em whispered. "That's impossible. He hasn't been around any snakes, unless you count Valiant—" His eyes widened.

"What is it, Emrys?" his uncle demanded.

"Valiant's shield has snakes on it. In the armory, I swear I saw one blink at me! I thought it was just a trick of the light, but…"

"Are you saying Valiant's shield bit him?" Gaius looked incredulous.

"No!" Em ran a hand through his hair. His eyes darted to the bookshelf. He raced over to it and yanked a book off it. He flipped through it urgently until he found the page he wanted. He slammed the book, titled A Guide to the Magical Weapons of Albion, down on Gaius's worktable. "Look at this! My uncle has this book, except it was written in Druidic… See this? There's a type of dark magic where you trap the spirit of a dead creature within a weapon. It either gives it special abilities, or you can use the weapon to summon the creature. Valiant killed snakes and trapped their spirits within his shield."

"Animals don't have spirits, Em," Gaius said, his eyes real nervous.

"Yes, they do. The entity my people worship as Nature, She gives each one of her children a spirit. Read it!" Em shoved the book in his uncle's hands. Gaius read the book quickly. His eyes seemed to bug out of his head.

"We need an antidote to the snake's venom, Em. Ewan will not make it without it."

Em grabbed his coat and strapped his sword scabbard to his belt. "Leave that up to me, Uncle!"

"Don't do anything rash, nephew!" Gaius called after his nephew as Em tore out of the chambers at a dead sprint. The door slammed ominously behind him.

Gaius looked up at the ceiling. "Em's Nature, if you're out there, look out for that boy. Please."


Em skittered into the armory. It was abandoned. He found Valiant's shield leaning against the wall. Em narrowed his eyes and took a few steps back. What spell could he even try to summon the snake? Maybe he should have scryed his family first…

No. He needed to stop being so dependent on them. He was a highly trained master sorcerer. He could figure this out on his own.

He tried a few summoning spells, simple tricks that could open a door or make bedsheets in the morning. He needed a spell that tugged, that could yank the snakes out of the shield. Well, the spirits of the snakes. The snakes had been killed in some creepy sacrificial ritual. It made Em shudder to think of it. All he could picture was Valiant holding a bunch of dead snakes—

Wait. The snakes were dead.

The problem with A Guide to the Magical Weapons of Albion was that it failed to mention the spells that were needed to operate the weapons. The author had designed that way, as he wanted to keep the information from falling into the wrong hands. Which spell could make a bunch of snakes pop out of a shield?

His grandmother used to whisper a spell to dying patients and to babies just before they left their mother's womb. Suaimhneas (Peace. Rest).

"Suaimhneas," he whispered.

Em bit back a scream when three of the largest snakes he had ever seen sprang into existence. They pulled against the shield, as their back ends were fused to it. Em unsheathed his shield and took a step forward. When one snake struck at him, he swiftly cut off its head. The other snakes disappeared into the shield. Em waited a minute before he dared to retrieve the disembodied snake head.

"What the hell just happened?" he whispered to himself.

Em paced around the room as Gaius prepared the antidote. "Will he get better, Uncle?" he asked anxiously.

"Only time can tell," Gaius said sadly. He looked at his nephew in that serious way of his. "What are you going to do about Valiant?"

"Tell Arthur, I guess," Em said after a moment.

"It's a serious thing for a servant to accuse a knight of a crime."

"But it's not a serious thing for a knight to threaten a servant or beat him or accuse him of a crime, is it?" Em shot back.

Gaius blinked in surprise at Em's vehement reply. "I never said it was right, my boy."

Gingerly, Em picked up the snake head. "This will be proof enough."

Gaius still looked doubtful but he wished his nephew luck.


"Enter," Arthur called when he heard a knock on the door. His big-eared manservant appeared, clutching something behind his back.

"Sire!" He was panting.

"Please tell me that is my dinner you have with you."

"Um, no?"

"So what have you been doing these past few hours? You disappeared after the match. Have you completed any of your duties?"

"I was helping Gaius tend to Sir Ewan. I know quite a bit about healing," Merlin said indignantly. "I asked Morris to fetch dinner for you, don't worry. I'm here about another matter."

"Oh, are you?" Arthur crossed his arms and tilted his head. This should be great.

"Sir Valiant is using magic. His shield is magic; it has snakes trapped inside. He used it to take Sir Ewan down. Ewan has two puncture marks on his collarbone and he displays all the signs of a snakebite! He was winning that match, you saw. Valiant used the shield to gain the upper hand." Merlin pulled a snake head from behind his back. "Here's my proof."

Arthur hid the disgust on his face when he accepted the snakehead from his servant. "Where did you get this?"

"I went into the armory to look at his shield, and the snakes attacked me. I killed one with my sword."

Arthur massaged his temple with his free hand. "Merlin, this is insane."

"I know I'm only a servant, and my word doesn't count for much, but I swear on my mother's life that Valiant is using magic. You're the better fighter; he'll use it to kill you in the match tomorrow."

Arthur went still. "You give me your word?"

"I swear on my honor," Merlin said solemnly.

Arthur began pacing around the room. "We'll have to alert Father. Perhaps we need to accuse Valiant in the throne room, in public, where he cannot deny it." He looked Merlin dead in the eye. "You better be right."

Merlin looked him dead in the eye. "Oh, I am."


The knights were greeting Lady Morgana and King Uther in the throne room. They wore their full armor and shields. Many of the greater nobles and council members were there. Arthur strode in, holding the snakehead. Em strode behind him, his hands clasped behind him in what he thought was a servantly way. Uther looked up to greet his son, but went still when he saw the urgency in his son's step.

"Arthur?" he called.

Arthur offered a short bow to his father. He presented the snake head. "Knight Valiant is using a spelled shield to win the competitions. The snakes on his shield come to life. He had them bite Sir Ewan in order to win the match." His voice boomed out across the throne room. There were audible gasps in the crowd.

"With no disrespect meant towards the prince, I must say this is an outrageous accusation, my lord," Valiant exclaimed. He even let Uther examine the shield. Em had to admit, the bastard was a good liar.

Uther turned back to his son. "This is a grave accusation, Arthur. Have you seen Knight Valiant using magic?"

"No, but Sir Ewan will soon awake to testify against Knight Valiant. In the meantime, I present this snakehead. A skilled swordsman I can vouch for fought one of the snakes when he strode into the armory and they attacked him. He beheaded it and brought the evidence to me." Em's heart might have swelled at his master's praise. Might have.

"Tell this knight to come forward."

Em stood still, waiting for Arthur's summons. He saw the prince hesitate.

"Erm, Father, it's not a knight who killed the snakes—"

"Who is it, then? One of the palace guards?"

"My servant, sire." Arthur's voice was softer now, more uncertain.

"You base your accusations on the words of a servant and on the anticipated but unconfirmed word of a dying man?" Uther snarled. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Em came forward. "Milord, I give you my word—"

Uther turned on him. "How dare you interrupt, boy! You are nothing but a servant. Your word means nothing in this court."

Valiant turned to Em and sneered. Em went still.

"My lord, I underwent a long journey to compete in this competition. To be faced with such baseless, false accusations from a servant is gravely insulting. Now, I understand if Prince Arthur worries about facing me in the finals tomorrow. I can withdraw myself from the competition. However, I do wish to see the boy punished. I cannot stand for such disrespect."

Both Em and Arthur opened their mouths to protest, but a fierce look from Uther shut them up. "I'll have the boy soundly beaten. Shall it be done in front of the entire court?" Valiant nodded. "Guards!"

Em looked at Arthur in horror. The prince looked helpless and pissed off all at once. Now was the time for Em to say the spell. He stared at his feet to hide the golden flashing of his eyes and whispered, "Suaimhneas." Nothing happened. Em said it again. Same results. He grew even more frantic when it happened again and the guards seized him. One forced him to his knees. Another pulled off his jacket and tossed it aside. His shirt was being pulled over his head. His chest started heaving.

Jarl's cronies were pulling Em's shirt over his head. It was about a week into their abduction. Em's shirt was in rags, tattered and filthy. He yelped when they pulled the shirt off the parts where it had stuck to his back, which was coated in dried blood. He could feel the stripes from yesterday start to bleed again—

Em tried to force himself to think as a guard went to fetch a whip. He dared to look at Arthur, who was staring at him in complete horror. Shit. He had seen Em's scars—the whip scars crisscrossing his back, the messy lines on his torso from Jarl's knife, the five thick scars on his arms. He saw how pathetic Em was, how disgusting. How he had let a monster torture him and his sister—

He had to stay rational. Think, Em. Dammit. Why wasn't the spell working? It had worked when he said it to the shield in the armory, before he killed the one snake.

The snakes probably didn't trust him anymore. He was just like Valiant, who had enslaved their spirits and used them for their own gain. He hurt them. He killed one of them.

"Tá brón orm (Forgive me). Suaimhneas. Slán agus beannacht (Farewell and a blessing)." He hoped the snakes understood the language of Nature's children.

Two snakes slithered out of Valiant's shield. Morgana screamed. Uther and Arthur grabbed their swords, and the guards let go of Em. Valiant was swearing as the snakes turned their gaze towards Em.

They nodded to him once and then melted into mist. Valiant's shield clattered to the ground. He was in shock. He did not even fight back as the guards who were just about to whip Em on his behalf arrested him instead.

Chapter Text

Em found himself alone in the throne room with Gwen, Morgana, and Morris. Once Valiant had been arrested, Arthur rushed off to oversee the interrogation of the man. Uther called an emergency council meeting in his own personal chambers. The noblewomen went off to go gossip with their friends. The news of the arrest of the handsome knight from the Western Isles would spread around the palace like wildfire. The guards had gone to fortify the dungeons, and the servants followed after their masters.

Em looked his companions over. It was a strange mix: the pretty young noblewoman, her devoted maidservant, and cynical Morris.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Morgana looked at him with her familiar green eyes and asked, "How did you figure out Valiant was a sorcerer?"

Em grinned really big. He was going to get the chance to show off to not one but two pretty girls. He would have to leave all the magical bits out of his tale, though. Impressing girls wasn't worth the risk of execution. "See, it started when…"


After a couple hours of hanging out with Gwen, Morgana, and Morris, Em headed to the kennels to pick up his dogs and then made his way to Gaius's chambers. The people he passed in the hallway all stared at him as he passed, their eyes full of curiosity and admiration. He had to resist the urge to puff his chest out and stick his nose up like Arthur did. Their admiration did please him greatly. Even if he could not receive the recognition of being one of the most powerful sorcerers of his time, he could still receive recognition for his bravery and quick thinking. He could practically hear Ruadan telling him, Don't let it all go to your head, my boy.

He opened the front door, the dogs squeezing past him to get inside. Em gagged when he saw a dead body with a cloth draped over it on Gaius's worktable. "This is the second time this has happened in a week, Uncle!"

Gaius arched an eyebrow. He was bent over a medical textbook at the dinner table. He stood up to pet Sionnach and Bandit. "Aren't you even going to ask who it is?"

Em's cheeks tinged red with shame. As reviling as it was to have a dead body in their chambers, it still did not erase the gravity of the situation: a human life had been lost. "Who is it?"

"Knight Valiant." Gaius pulled the cloth off the body. Em stared at his uncle in shock. "He killed himself right before his interrogation started. He swallowed a vial of oleander extract he hid in his clothing. By the time they got him to me, he was dead."

"Nature," Em breathed. "I suppose that business is over."

Gaius shook his head. "Look at his hip."

"You're kidding me." Em yanked up Valiant's shirt. Sure enough, a Lupus Order tattoo was inked on the sallow skin. "What the actual hell?"

Gaius stroked Sionnach's silky ears and sighed heavily. "Go contact your family, Emrys. Update them and ask them for advice."

Em nodded and pounded up the stairs, the dogs at his heels. Before he shut his bedroom door, Gaius called to him, "And Emrys? What you did, that was very brave."


Adelina rocked her daughter back and forth, her eyes damp with tears. A low-grade fever had kept her confined to the hut. Idle hands allowed for her to wander to dark places, to memories of a man whose face she could only remember through a drugged haze. She saw no trace of him on Astryd's face, thank Nature. Still, it was not difficult for Adelina to connect the precious bundle in her arms with the man who had so savagely violated her. She loved her daughter, she did, but she hated her daughter's father so much. Sometimes sparks of flame danced on her fingertips just thinking about it.

Anger was not useful, though, so she just drank in the sight of her daughter's peaceful face and tried to appreciate her.

She heard a faint rattling coming from the front room. Cradling Astryd to her, Adelina rose to her feet and drew aside the curtain they had hung in the doorway. The scrying mirror was rattling on the table; Em was trying to contact them!

She picked up the mirror with one hand and whispered the password. Her precious brother's face appeared. Adelina could breathe again. "Emmy," she practically crooned. "Emmy!"

He let out a startled laugh. "Hey, Lina." His grin became even wider when he saw his niece. "How is my darling Astryd doing?"

"Good. She's the happiest baby, so sweet and easygoing," Adelina reported.

"I'm glad to heart that. She definitely didn't get that from you… Adelina, are you crying?"

"No," she said stubbornly, even though her face was blotchy and her eyes tearstained.

"Lina," Em said with a shake of his head. "Are you alright?"

"I don't do very well when I'm by myself, Emmy," she confessed.

"Thankfully we have five brothers and a sister to keep your company, not to mention our adoring parents, aunt, uncle, cousin, and friends. You don't have to be alone," Em said in that soothing way of his.

"I know," she said, dismissing the subject. She did not enjoy discussing things that made her acknowledge her feelings head-on. "Why did you scry?"

"Nature above, Lina, get a load of this—"

She let herself get lost in her brother's tales of Camelot. They were stories of danger and fear, of a new puppy and a kind-hearted uncle who was a stranger no more, of an irate prince and his tyrannical father, of courage and strength. She found the mysterious Lupus Order to be terrifying. "Be careful, Em," she begged him.

She let herself get lost, and forgot her own troubles.

It took Em over an hour to remember his original reason for scrying.


Em came down the stairs about two hours later. "I need to go check on Arthur, Uncle. The poor clotpole can't even undress himself or fetch his own supper."

"Clotpole?" Gaius shook his head. "What did your family say?"

"Da and Ma send their love. My grandmother said will take a couple more weeks to dig up more information on the Lupus Order. My people are scattered all over, and so are our books. My niece is getting so big. She's growing as fast as Sionnach, it's insane."

"The Druids have books?" Gaius's eyes widened.

Em laughed. "Of course we do, Uncle. There were hundreds at my camp alone. My grandmother says we probably have thousands. We value them greatly."

Gaius sank into a chair. "You're kidding."

Now concerned, Em tilted his head. "Why would I be kidding…?"

"Uther burned all the magical books in the library. Thousands. Centuries' worth of history, gone in an instant. Yet now you tell me the Druids have thousands more. You just gave an old man a rare gift, my boy: hope." Gaius swiped at his eyes. "Now go see to your prince."

Em saluted and skittered out the door.


He found Arthur pacing in front of his desk, running a hand through his tousled blond hair. He turned and stared at Em when the younger boy eased the door open. "Just came to get the dinner dishes and to prepare you for bed," Em said.

"Very well." Arthur watched Em as he grabbed a nightshirt and sleeping trousers from his wardrobe. He draped them neatly over the changing screen. As Arthur stepped behind the screen and changed, he asked, "Did you hear about Knight Valiant?"

"Hardly a knight," Em snorted. "I did. His corpse is currently laid out on Gaius's worktable. I believe supper shall be a splendid affair. So he knocked back some oleander?"

Arthur tossed his dirty clothes over the screen. Em picked them up and put them in a basket in the closet. It was filled with other dirty clothes; Em would have to do laundry tomorrow. Perhaps after sparring? He was distracted when Arthur said, "He died a coward's death. A fitting one, I might say. I am just angry I did not even get the chance to get any information out of him."

"A pity," Em said, not really listening as he gathered up the dinner plates on the tray Morris had left. "If that's all sire…?" He jerked his chin towards the door.

"You're dismissed," Arthur said, heading back to his desk. Before Em left, he said, "Merlin, wait."

Em glanced over his shoulder.

"You… It was good you figured out Valiant was a sorcerer. Could have ended badly for all of us." Was that gratefulness in his eyes?

It wasn't quite a thank-you, but Em figured it was the best he was going to get for now. He bowed as best as he could with the dinner tray before heading to the kitchens to drop the dirty plates off.


He decided to make a visit to the dragon. He figured the dragon would appreciate the update. As it was now dark, he easily snuck around the watchmen and ducked into the catacombs. He lit a torch with a quick fire spell. He descended into the darkness and soon found himself staring into the depths of the dragon's cavern.

"Great One, I have returned," he called in Dragonic.

The dragon emerged from the inky darkness with the flapping of his wings and the rattle of his chains. He looked amused when he saw Em standing on the ledge. Hello, young warlock. What did I say about this 'Great One' business?

"Last time, you said I reminded you of my father when I called you that," Em remembered. "What did you mean by that?"

Balinor and I go back a long time. I knew your grandfather George, and George's father Balinor, and Balinor's father Balinor. And so on.

"How old are you?"

The dragon seemed to sigh, letting out a puff of smoke from his nostrils. Too old. What have you come for now?

"Have you heard all that's happened?"

There is rarely anything that happens that I do not already know.

"Do you know anything about the Lupus Order?"

Nothing but whispers in the wind, rumors from my brethren in the Keep who escaped Uther's culling. They are not dragon business, they are Druid business.

"They're not Druids. They're extremists, insane people."

They split off from the Druids centuries ago, but they still remain Druidic in a sense. Their symbol is just one example of that. Those original Order members, the same blood that flowed through their veins is flowing through you right now. Or half your blood, at least.The dragon levelled his gaze at Em. You identify too strongly with the Druids. I can still sense the presence of your triskel. You miss it, feel lost without it. Balinor should have sent his son to be raised in the Keep. You are an Initiate first and foremost, not a Druid.

"I was raised amongst them. I speak their language, bear their mark. Ruadan educated me in Dragonic and the ways of the Dragonlords. I can walk the path between Druid and Dragonlord."

The Druids' love of peace will only hinder you in the future, young warlock.

Em frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

The dragon only laughed. He flapped his wings and alighted in the air. Until next time, Emrys.

Em sighed. Knowing it was futile to try to get the dragon to come back, he turned around and reentered the catacombs.


The next day, Arthur found himself wandering to Gaius's chambers. He gave Merlin a long list of chores after their sparring practice, so hopefully the boy would not show up during his visit to the physician. He rapped on the door. When he heard a soft, "You can come in," he opened the door and stepped inside. Gaius looked up from his mortar and pestle. He inclined his head slightly before returning to work. As Arthur had known the man since he was a child, he did not take offense to this.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, sire?"

"What happened to Merlin?" Arthur blurted out.

"Did he not show up to work this morning? He woke up at dawn to walk the dogs and then fetch your breakfast—"

"No, he showed up to work. He's currently performing his duties." Arthur chewed the inside of his cheek, a nervous habit his father always nagged him about as a child. "Merlin's back has severe…marks. His torso and arms are littered with scars. What did that to him? Who did that to him?" He could not imagine torturing someone in that way. He had no doubt in his mind that Merlin's scars were marks of torture.

He could see the walls Gaius was putting up. The court physician was clearly protective of his nephew. "It's not my place to say, Arthur. It's a sensitive topic for the boy, as you must understand. He's a private person."

Arthur blinked, not expecting Gaius's refusal to answer his questions. He channeled his frustration into something more useful: curiosity. He could get the answers he desired; he was sure of it. All he needed to do was ask a few carefully-worded questions. "Merlin's not a private person. He wears his emotions on his sleeve."

"The boy's better at hiding his feelings that you think."

"Not at all. He's abnormally cheerful, a bit stubborn, willful, and easily distracted. Not the most coordinated, either." Merlin tripped on his own feet that morning when sweeping the floor.

"A prince should know better than anyone that people are rarely that simple," Gaius chided Arthur in the way only he could.

That was true. Sometimes it was the most skilled squires who could not keep it together during a battle, while the ones he was sure would wash out were the ones who kept their cool. And hadn't Arthur underestimated Merlin's handiness with a sword when he first met the boy?

"He said he's your sister's son. One of three boys, I believe he said? Do you see them often?"

Gaius sighed. "William and Gilanders are his half-brothers. They live in Essetir. I've never met them. I have not seen Hunith since she married her Essetirian husband. He's long dead, but she never left his village to return home."

"What of Merlin's father?"

"Did he not mention it? I told him to." Gaius narrowed his eyes.

Arthur recovered quickly. "He said he was a bastard, yes, but I was wondering who his father is."

"Merlin said he was a travelling tradesman who never came back from one of his journeys. A woodcarver," Gaius said, his eyes taking on a distant look. "Hunith said in one of her letters that Merlin greatly resembles him, both in character and looks. I think she planned to marry him, the poor girl."

"Do you think he left them?"

"No. I think he died." Gaius turned back to his mortar and pestle. "Sire, any questions you have, you should ask Merlin himself. It's not really my place to say."

"Okay," Arthur said. "I also wanted to ask about Valiant's autopsy. Did you notice anything unusual?"

"He died of oleander poisoning, as I suspected. There was nothing unusual."

"He showed no signs of being a magic user?"

"Magic users look just like you and me. There is no way to identify them until they start casting spells."

"Which makes them even harder to catch. They are a bane upon this land. Thankfully there is one less of those scum wandering around this kingdom wreaking havoc. Merlin did a good job sniffing him out." Arthur headed towards the door. "I must go attend a council meeting to give my side of the Valiant affair to my father and the lords. Good day, Gaius."

"Good day, sire," Gaius called after him.


When Arthur returned to his chambers from the council meeting, the door was ajar. Merlin was laundering his shirts. His sleeves were rolled up to his bicep, revealing the five thick scars on in his arm. Arthur stared at them as he came up behind his servant. "What happened?" he blurted out.

Merlin whirled around and yelped in surprise. "You scared me!" he squawked.

"Don't be such a girl, Merlin," Arthur automatically responded. "But Merlin… what happened to your arm? In the throne room earlier, I saw your back. What were those marks from?"

Merlin's face tightened. He fiddled with the damp shirt he held. "I… It happened a while ago. It was years ago," he mumbled.

Arthur stared. Was his snarky servant, the one who always had a comeback ready, stuttering? He felt his concern grow. "Did someone whip you?" he half-snarled.

"Sire, I've never committed a crime. I swear. I've never done anything that would be a whipping offense," Merlin said. It almost sounded as if he were pleading for mercy.

"I don't understand, Merlin. What happened?"

"I have work to do, sire," Merlin said stiffly.

Arthur ran a hand through his hair. He had to stop himself from groaning. "Okay. Um, I'm going to go train with Leon. After you finish laundering my shirts, beat out all the rugs, I see you haven't done that yet." With that, he headed towards the door. He felt bad, but he needed Merlin to be occupied for a while.

Chapter Text

Em poured all of his frustration into beating Arthur's Nature-damned rugs. He pictured the finely woven Mercian rug as Arthur's smug face. The thick red one was Jarl, and the blue runner Thorn's backside. He beat the rugs until his sides heaved and tears of frustration pricked in his eyes. He had strung the rugs up on a line in the back courtyard where he sometimes took the dogs to play. Even now, Pike, Trout, Sionnach, and Bandit tussled in the dirt with Holt. Beckett let the kid out from work early. Seeing the scruffy kennel boy wrestling with a royal hound worth its weight in silver was an amusing sight. It certainly distracted Em from his frustration with the prince.

How dare that conceited, pompous son of a murdering psychopath ask him about his scars! Perhaps he only wanted to mock Em. Feign concern, and then tell all his knights friends about the skinny serving boy with the big ears and funny scars. Em did not spend almost two weeks under Jarl's whip and Thorn's knives just so he could tell the story to anyone who felt they had the right to know. He might owe Arthur his labor and time (and magical protection, according to the dragon), but Arthur had no right to Em's story or his suffering. As someone whose people had been systematically murdered and oppressed over the past two decades, Em felt he at least deserved the right to keep his past private. It did not interfere with his work or pose a threat to the prince in any way.

Arthur could shove his questions where the sun didn't shine, for all Em cared, just so as long he never asked them again.

"Arsehole," he muttered.

"Are you done yet, Merlin?" Holt called.

"I am," Em said, giving the blue rug one last whack with the carpet beater for good measure.

"Can you show me how to fight?" Holt stared at his bare feet, fidgeting nervously.

Em broke into a huge grin. He felt a sudden tug in his heart when he realized how much Holt reminded him of Daegel and Mordred, with his big hopeful eyes and skinny frame. "'Course I can, nitwit. Ain't that what I said I was gonna do?" he said in that Camelot peasant way. His mother and Adelina occasionally spoke to each other in Common that way. They came from the same region in Camelot.

He found two sturdy sticks in the woodpile. Em preferred sparring staffs, but he did not want to go to the training grounds in fear of running into Arthur. He showed Holt how to grip the staff and deflect blows. They focused mostly on form, with Em constantly adjusting Holt's footwork and hand placement.

"It may not seem important now," he said to the younger boy, "but in a fight it's handy if the basics are second nature to you. You can just focus on your opponent." He found himself reciting the advice Ruadan gave him all those years ago.

Holt clumsily deflected a blow from Em. "This is harder than I thought," he panted.

"I thought so, too, when Ruadan first started showing me—" Em cut himself off. "When my neighbor started showing me how to fight. He was a soldier in Cenred's army."

"Ain't he a bit of a bastard? The king, I mean, not your neighbor."

"He's a tyrant. His men pressed my brothers' da into service for the army, and left my mother a widow with two young children to care for," Em said.

"That ain't how it's done here in Camelot, if it's any comfort to you," Holt said. "Folks join up willingly. Army pays better than fighting, so they go to make their fortunes."

"Would you ever join?"

"Me? I ain't no fighter. Naw, I'm happy here with my dogs. A position in the Royal household pays better than any job I could get in the Lower Town, anyway, an' it would break my mum's heart if I took up soldierin'."

"So you live with your family in the Lower Town?"

"Yeah, in a side street off the marketplace. Our cottage's small and rundown, but that's every peasant's house, I reckon." Holt looked at Em nervously, as he did not know much about the older boy's background. With a wry smile, Em nodded in agreement. His hut at home was miserable, with drafty walls and dirt floors and a mud-and-straw roof.

Holt deflected another blow, but continued talking. "It's me, Mum, an' a gaggle of sisters. Four of 'em, each one more annoyin' than the next. My dad went to war an' never came back, too. Mum's an herbwoman an' midwife. She needs my pay, though, 'cause what she makes ain't enough. What about you?"

Em startled at the question. "I'm from a small village in Essetir. It's me, Ma, and two older brothers. Will and Gilli aren't too bad." He paused as he thought about what life might have been like if they remained in Ealdor. "We have a plot of land my ma inherited from my brothers' da. My ma's friend, her son Gil and his wife and children help us farm it. I was the third son and I didn't want to be a farmhand, so I came to join my uncle and study under him."

"How do you have an uncle in Camelot if you're from Essetir?"

"Ma's from Camelot. She met my brothers' da when he came to her village to trade. He moved her out to Essetir when they married."

"Makes sense." Holt hesitated. "So, uh, you seemed to go a little crazy on the rugs. You good?"

Em forced a smile and dealt a blow with more force behind it. His grin became real when Holt deflected it perfectly. "'Course I am. That was good!"

The boys kept at it until both of them dripped sweat. They parted with a handshake and the promise to have another sparring lesson tomorrow. Holt took the sticks home with him for safekeeping. Em dropped the hounds off at the kennel first before going back to the courtyard to haul the rugs back to Arthur's chambers.


Leon lounged on his luxurious feather mattress, which felt heavenly after a long bout of training. Arthur wanted the knights in tiptop shape, as the prince had just received word from his father that a Mercian delegation would be coming in a few days. When knights from another realm visited Camelot, the two kingdoms' knights usually engaged in informal sparring sessions to size each other up. Many referred to the Knights of Camelot as the best in the Albion. Arthur wanted them to actually be the best in the realm. Being the best meant countless training sessions, high qualifications, and endless patrols.

Despite Arthur's young age, Leon greatly admired his commander and prince. He was a brilliant strategist, warrior, hunter, and leader—

"Leon!" He heard someone pounding on the door.

Sighing, Leon stood up on his aching legs and made his way to the door. He yanked it open. A certain prince stood in the threshold.

"I need advice, Leon," Arthur said.

Leon inclined his head. "Come in, my lord."

"So you upset your servant?" Leon inquired after hearing Arthur's account of pissing Merlin off.

"Yes! And I am…" Arthur hesitated. "I am not sure how to mend the relationship. There must be a certain element of trust between master and servant, you know. I can't have the boy who scrubs my chamber hating my guts."

"Of course not, sire. So you wish to soothe the boy's… hurt feelings?" Leon chose his words carefully.

"It doesn't matter if his feelings are hurt. I just need him to be able to do his job. He can't do that if he's upset."

Leon hid a grin. "So this is more for your sake than his."

"He's only a servant," Arthur said with more force than necessary. As if he needed to make himself believe it.

"Apologize," Leon said.

"Apologize! The boy would not let me hear the end of it—"

"My lord, apologize for prying into his personal life. That's all you need to say. The boy will cool down on his own. I remember when you were that age, you needed to go off on your own and burn off some steam. Kids don't hold grudges for long."

"He's not a kid."

"He's fifteen. He is most definitely a kid. You wouldn't even let him join the knights as a squire, yet."

Arthur looked pensive. "I suppose that is true."

"Besides, he's a peasant from a farming village whose been thrown into an unfamiliar city. Oswald told me Merlin did not even know his uncle before moving in with him. So he's in an unfamiliar place with no friends and practically no close relatives. He's under a lot of pressure as being the personal manservant to the prince. His scarring implies an unfortunate past as well. I'm surprised his reaction was as mild as it was. Treat him gently, Arthur."

Arthur scoffed at Leon's words, but his eyes shone with a new light of understanding.


Em was unrolling the last of the rugs—the blue runner—when Arthur barreled into the chambers. Em looked up at him, eyes hard.

Arthur opened his mouth. Em expected biting sarcasm, or a comment about him being as sensitive as a girl. Instead, the prince said, "I apologize for prying into your personal life. I will refrain from asking questions in the future. What has happened to you has not prevented you from performing your duties, so I have no need to know." With that, Arthur turned on his heels and walked out again. Were his cheeks reddening?

Em sat on the rug for a few minutes in absolute shock.

Chapter Text

Hi guys I’m so sorry if you thought this was a new chapter but I just needed to give you the reason as to why my fic has not been updated.

My laptop is broken (its nine years old, I’m proud that it lasted this long). I am getting a new laptop hopefully in the next month, it depends on when paychecks come in since laptops are super expensive. I am not comfortable writing chapters on my phone (which I’m using right now) because I am horrible at using the phone keyboard. I don’t want to upload a chapter full of grammar errors just for the sake of putting a new chapter up.

I think about this story constantly and I write bits and pieces in the notes app in my phone. I am also trying to process the unexpected death of a close family member. I am so thankful for everyone who has kept up with this fic and continues to ask for updates, as it shows there is still interest in the story. Thank you for being patient with me.

Much love~

Chapter Text

Now

"Emrys," Adelina repeated when Em failed to respond. "Do you have any ideas?"

"We can't just let them stroll in here," Alvarr interjected, speaking over Em.

Em shrugged helplessly. His head pounded, thinking about coming face-to-face with the prince—no, he was the king now. Would Arthur look different? Did Em look different?

Iseldir rolled his eyes. "You young people are so dramatic. Just hit them with a simple sleeping spell. Fetch your grandmother and Mordred, Alvarr; they have the strongest healing magic. Em can serve as a channel for them to amplify their magic."

"I'll knock myself out, putting a whole patrol into a magical sleep," Em said.

"You can just wake up when they do," Iseldir said with a grin, clapping his nephew on the back.

Adelina could tell Em faked his returning smile. It did not reach his eyes.


Then

The next day, Em went about his normal routine—fetching Arthur's breakfast, walking the dogs, the daily chores that needed done. At ten, Arthur told him they were heading down the yard to train.

"Can I go get my own sword? I hate the practice swords," Em begged.

"You better be there in ten minutes," was all Arthur said. Em took off at a sprint.

He met the prince down at the training yard, flanked by Sionnach and Bandit. The puppy crawled all over Bandit as he tried to laze in the sun. Arthur quirked an eyebrow at Em. "Can't go anywhere without your mongrels, can you, Merlin?"

"Beckett needed to take Pike and Trout on a royal hunt today with the king. That means Holt is in charge of keeping the kennel running smoothly, so Bandit has no one to play with today. Sionnach threw a fit when I tried to leave the kennel with just Bandit—I was just gonna leave in the puppy pen—so I had to take her with me."

"Who the hell are Pike and Trout?" Arthur said in bewilderment.

"It's what the kennel master's assistant calls your hunting dogs. You never gave them names, and every dog deserves a name."

"Their names are Augustus and Alexander, after kings of old!"

Em wrinkled his nose. "Those are pretty awful. I like Pike and Trout better. Besides, they respond to those names."

Arthur groaned loudly. "I am not continuing this conversation. Get in position, Merlin."

Em assumed a loose fighting stance, a form from an ancient Dragonlord sparring style. Arthur called him lazy, but Em only offered him a crooked grin and an eye roll. He nimbly danced around Arthur, darting in and out of the prince's range. When Em did come into range, he delivered light blows meant to startle his opponent rather than actually inflict damage. The two of them wore heavy mail, but Em had a lighter build so he moved more fluidly.

"Damn it, Merlin, stop playing around," Arthur grunted.

"Yes, sire," Em said. He switched out of the sparring style and took up a more traditional approach. The training field rang with the sounds of two steel swords colliding against each other. Em matched Arthur blow-for-blow, but the prince eventually disarmed him.

"Why did you fool around, at the beginning? You should have focused your energy on beating me—not that you can, of course," Arthur said.

"I wasn't fooling around. I just use it when I spar, to loosen up. My brother and I used to spend hours sparring that way. It helps improves your coordination and foot placement during a fight without driving yourself to exhaustion."

"You used to spar for fun?"

"When I didn't have lessons or I wasn't needed in the fields," Em said. "Or explore the woods with my friends and siblings. There's not much to do."

"That explains how someone as scrawny as you got to be somewhat muscular."

"I am wiry, sire. I am not scrawny."

"If you say so." Arthur resumed a fighting stance. After they began trading casual blows, he said, "A delegation from Mercia will be arriving tomorrow to seal our treaty. You'll be expected to serve at the feast tomorrow night. We'll keep you at a table for the lesser nobles. We can't have you spilling wine on the king and causing another war."

"Isn't the Mercian king called Bayard?" Em inquired, even though he already knew the king's name. Ruadan made sure his students knew the influential political players of each kingdom in Albion.

"King Bayard, yes."

"Thank you for emphasizing his important title, Prince Arthur. I would have never guessed that King Bayard was to be addressed as such." Em took advantage of Arthur's exasperation—he thought he saw the prince roll his eyes—and struck a vicious blow that sent Arthur's sword flying out of his hands. At the very same moment, Sir Magnus was coming out the palace entrance to the training guards.

Em had the privilege of hearing Magnus mock Arthur for over twenty minutes. Despite his dislike of the bothersome knight, hearing someone else take shots at Arthur was sidesplitting to listen to.


Arthur told Em he needed to look less like "an untidy street urchin from the Lower Town" and more like a "proper manservant who actually deserves his wages" for the royal banquet. After he finished he duties for the day, Em sought out Gwen to enlist her help.

She found a spare servant's uniform in a storeroom for Em to wear for the banquet. As a personal manservant, Em did not have to wear the typical uniform the other servants of the royal household wore. However, for an official royal banquet, Uther wanted a cohesive uniform amongst all the servants. The uniform itself was not bad. It consisted of a red, sleeveless tunic with the Pendragon crest on the chest and a charcoal gray shirt worn underneath the tunic. Em would wear his own trousers and borrow a pair of dress boots from Gaiuis's younger days. Gwen even gave Em a haircut in preparation.

"You'll be as well-dressed as a nobleman tomorrow," Gwen told him. Em failed to notice her blushing.

"What will you wear?" Em asked.

"One of Lady Morgana's castoff dresses. It's a style from a couple years ago, but much finer than anything I could ever hope to afford on my own. She gives me all her old dresses," Gwen said. "I bet Prince Arthur would let you take his old clothes. Custom dictates a servant gets the master's castoffs."

"I couldn't imagine owning as many shirts as he does. I have three and I feel like that's so many. Two are my older brothers' hand-me-downs," Em said.

"I usually sell the dresses Morgana gives me," Gwen said. "She knows," she added when she saw Em's eyes widen.

Em blinked, cursing himself silently. "Sorry! I was just thinking about how smart that is. It probably brings in a lot of income for your family."

"It keeps us out of severe poverty. It's just Dad and me, anyway. My brother's moved away and my mother died when Elyan and I were young."

"I'm sorry," Em said. "I never knew my father. It's just me, Ma, and my brothers. Will and Gilli are idiots."

Gwen grinned, just the tiniest bit. "Elyan's an idiot, too."

After his morning chores the next day, Em went back to Gaius's chambers to change into his banquet clothes. He polished the boots with a muttered spell and smoothed out the wrinkles in his trousers with a simple cantrip. He burrowed himself in his magic for a minute, resting in the dragon's comfortable presence without the magical creature noticing. He wanted to go and chat with it, but after their last encounter, he figured he should only seek it out if he desperately needed help.

He went to Arthur's chambers to help his irate master change for the banquet, next. Arthur had been grumpy all morning, chucking spoons and goblets and articles of clothing at his manservant when he did something to piss him off. Em dodged easily, which only made the prince angrier. Em did not take the bullying personally, as the king had put Arthur in charge of the delegations with Mercia. Em worried that Arthur would crack under the pressure of it all.

"Took you long enough," Arthur muttered from his desk when he heard the door open.

"Had to get ready myself, sire. I don't wake up every morning looking like this," Em said.

"So you purposely make yourself look untidy and scruffy? What do you do, rub dirt on your face or wrinkle your clothes—" Arthur stopped speaking when he turned around and clasped eyes on Em for the first time. "You actually don't look half-bad. I knew there was a civilized person under there. Your wrinkly clothes and overlong hair were just hiding it."

"Very funny," Em said dryly. "Your outfit for greeting the delegation is hanging on the hook behind your folding screen. And yes, before you ask, I washed it and ironed out the wrinkles." He may have completed Arthur's last-minute task with magic, but what the prince didn't know wouldn't kill him.

Arthur emerged from behind the changing screen a few minutes later, looking resplendent in a polished set of golden ceremonial armor. His cape was a rich wine color and embroidered with an intricate pattern of golden dragons and phoenixes. His breeches and boots were of the finest quality. Em handed the prince his best sword belt and bejeweled ceremonial sword. A servant arrived from the treasury with the golden circlet befitting of a prince who had not yet come of age. Arthur examined himself in the mirror for a long time. Finally satisfied, he swept out of the chambers with Em trotting behind him.

"Nervous, sire?" Em asked.

Arthur shot his servant a withering look. "Do you live for the sheer joy of pissing me off?"

"Um, no?" Em feigned confusion, but his eyes glittered with amusement.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "As I've told you before, I do not get nervous. Anyway, for the welcoming ceremony, Morgana and me will be standing at the bottom of the stairs to the main entrance, flanked by armed guards on both sides. Behind the guards will stand the royal steward, the head housekeeper, the royal cook, and several other high-ranking servants. You and Gwen will join them. Say nothing and do nothing. Stand with your hands clasped behind your back and look straight ahead."

"I don't have to help them unload?" Em asked.

"I haven't finished yet!" Arthur snapped. "After I have exchanged pleasantries with King Bayard and the nobles in the Mercian delegation, the royal steward will show them to their rooms. You and Gwen will show the Mercian servants to their rooms after you have helped them unload their masters' luggage and take it to their rooms in the nobles' wing. Any questions?"

"Will I be required to do anything else before the banquet?"

"Sir Leon, a handful of other knights, and myself are going on a hunt with Bayard and the Mercian knights. I'll need you to help the head of the kennels with my prize hounds and to prepare my horse for the hunt. You'll need one as well"

Em bristled with excitement. "Awesome! Will you need a spear or a bow and arrow?"

"Both. We are not sure what game we will encounter."


After a boring hour of listening to Arthur kiss King Bayard's ass, Em was needed to help unload the Mercian delegation's luggage. Nobles sure brought a lot of stuff with them for a week-long visit. Em had just hauled a ridiculously heavy chest that belong to a knight's wife when he turned a corner and ran into a handmaiden carrying a bundle of clothes. She dropped the bundle with a grunt of surprise. Em stammered out an apology as he helped her gather up the scattered clothes.

"I-I'm sorry, I didn't see you there—"

"It's alright," the girl said with a slight Mercian inflection to her voice. She had the bluest eyes Em had ever seen. "You're the prince's servant, aren't you? It must be such an honor. I don't believe I caught your name…"

"Oh, you know, the prince knew he needed someone he could trust, someone reliable," Em said nonchalantly. "I'm Merlin."

The handmaiden shook his hand. "I'm Cara."

"Good to meet you. Really good," Em said.

"Well, I better get back to work. It was nice meeting you, Merlin." With that, the pretty handmaiden continued down the hall, the fabric of her skirts swishing.

"Nice to meet you. Really nice!" Em called after her. He waited until she turned the corner to groan out a Druidic expletive. Nature, he was awkward.


The hunt took placed at one in the afternoon. Arthur had changed into hunting leathers and Em wore his usual clothes. Beckett and Holt took all the prize hounds from the royal kennels, including Pike and Trout. Holt snuck Bandit in with the rest. Em nearly fell off his horse when he saw his black-coated shepherd loping alongside the pack of well-muscled hounds.

After Beckett gave him a nod, Holt pulled his horse over to ride alongside Em's in the party. Arthur, Leon, and three Camelot knights accompanied Bayard and his cadre of three knights. The nobles seemed to posturing, comparing horses and weapons as they mounted. It was slightly tense and awkward, but it made sense; the two kingdoms had previously been at war for years. Em, Beckett, and Holt hung a few paces back, the hounds going ahead to look for game. Bandit trotted alongside Em's horse happily, his tongue lolling.

"You brought weapons?" Holt said to Em, his eyes wide.

Em nodded. He had a bow strapped to the saddle in front of him, a quiver on his back, and his sword at his hip. Arthur laughed when he saw his servant, but Em wanted to prove that he could hunt just as well as the nobles. He shot game with a bow all the time back in Sábháilte. "Arthur told me I'm fine as long as I don't shoot any Mercians."

"So Sir Leon and Sir Magnus are fair game?" Beckett said in a low voice, so the knights would not hear. The three servants chuckled at this, but quickly shut up when the nobles shot them annoyed looks.

Ten minutes into the hunt, Em saw a rabbit standing still in the underbrush about ten yards away. He strung his bow and released the bowstring. The arrow flew true, hitting the rabbit right through the eye. Bandit obediently went to retrieve his master's kill. Ruadan would be proud of him.

"Good shot, young Merlin," Leon called to him.

"Thank you, sir knight," Em said as he tied the rabbit to his saddle.

"You do know we are planning to go after big game, Merlin?" Arthur said condescendingly.

"Thought I might as well get my dinner for tonight, sire."

Even the Mercians laughed.


The hunt ended with King Bayard killing a large stag. Beckett, Holt, and Em hauled it back with the help of a few manservants fetched from the castle. Em had to take a bath to scrub off all the blood. As Em changed into his finery again, Gaius made a hasty stew with the rabbit for Em to eat before he went to serve at the banquet.

Em scarfed down the stew before skidding out the door to meet Arthur at his chambers. The dogs tried to follow him. They whined piteously when their master slammed the door in their face. Gaius stood up to scratch Bandit's and Sionnach's ears.

"You two really are attached, aren't you?" he said with a wry chuckle. "Don't tell anyone, but I'm pretty fond of the boy myself."


Arthur wanted to stab Bayard. If the man droned on for one more second, Arthur would break the peace treaty on the grounds of him trying to talk the Crown Prince to death.

That probably would not fly with the Council of Lords and Uther, though.

His eyes drifted to Merlin. His big-eared servant stood in a corner with Gwen, the two of them looking like gossiping court ladies. Their heads were bent low together. Merlin's eyes drifted to a pretty handmaiden of Bayard's, a coy thing with big blue eyes. Oh no, the poor boy was going to get his heart broken before the week was over. Arthur would find the whole situation amusing if he did not know he would be the one dealing with the emotional fallout from it. Him and Gwen were going to have to nip this crush in the bud—

Was the wine getting to Arthur? When did he get so involved in a servant's personal life? Arthur shook his head and turned his attention back to Bayard's speech. Bayard had just presented Uther a fine set of golden chalices—one for Uther, one for Arthur. A Mercian servant poured spiced wine into both glasses. The two kings began a series of toasts that bored Arthur to tears.

When he looked in the corner again, Gwen stood by herself. Merlin and the handmaiden were gone.

Arthur grinned. Who knew Merlin had it in him?


Cara's hands twitched nervously. "He'll kill me if I tell you," she said in a low voice. "But I don't think he's up to anything good. Bayard wants Camelot for himself."

Em's magic twitched in response, begging to be released. Em could take down the entire Mercian delegation with a few simple spells. Em felt on edge ever since Cara pulled him out of the banquet hall, begging for help.

"What is Bayard planning? I can protect you," he said.

"He's giving King Uther and his son two chalices. The one for his son… I saw him put something in there last night."

"What was it?"

"I wasn't supposed to see. We're supposed to knock before we go in, but I forgot. I saw him put a vial of some liquid into Arthur's chalice."

Em gulped. "Poison?"

She nodded, looking terrified. "Uther wouldn't recover if his son died. Camelot would be vulnerable to a Mercian attack."

Em's eyes widened. "Nature help us," he whispered. He did not notice the way Cara's eyebrows rose at his words. "Stay here, I have to go save the prince."

He rushed down the hall and flew past the guards stationed at the main entrance. He dashed past lords and ladies, knights and barons, maids and manservants in his effort to get to the royal banquet table. He needed to protect Arthur, he needed to save his people's only chance at freedom.

"Don't drink it, Arthur!" he roared. "The Mercians poisoned it!"


Arthur hearded Merlin's shouted warning just as the goblet was about to touch his lips. He set it down carefully, as the shock registered. His eyes flicked to Uther and then Bayard. The red-faced king and his men drew their swords. The Camelot knights responded in turn. The firelight from the chandelier danced on the steel of their blades.

"This is an egregious insult from a servant," Bayard fumed.

"Put down your sword, Bayard. You're outnumbered," Uther said flatly.

"I would not jeopardize a hard-won peace treaty," Bayard insisted. "What proof does this boy have? Merlin, was it?" He sneered at the manservant.

Merlin froze up. Without pausing to think, Arthur stood up and went around the table. "Merlin!" he said loudly. "Have you been at your cups again? He's only a boy, the mead makes him do crazy things—"

"Someone saw Bayard putting poison in the prince's chalice," Merlin said steadily.

Uther's question was a single word: "Who?"

Merlin hesitated. "I cannot say."

The Mercian delegation shouted angrily, their cries of protest drowning each other out. Bayard's voice rose above the rest, "This is an unfounded and outrageous accusation! I won't listen to this for a second longer."

Uther grabbed the chalice off the table. He held it out to Bayard. "Drink it, then, if you are so sure," he said with raised eyebrows. Then his gaze hardened. "Actually, since young Merlin seems so eager to protect the prince, he should drink it. I will want to kill you myself, Bayard, if the boy is right."

"He will die!" Arthur shouted.

Gaius appeared out of the crowd, his eyes wild and desperate. "He's only a boy, sire, he does not understand."

Uther flicked a dismissive hand at the physician. "Your nephew is nearly a man, Gaius. Let him face the consequences of his actions like one." He beckoned Merlin forward.

Merlin grabbed the chalice. "I'll do it," he said in a wavering voice. His eyes were as hard as flint, though. He took a gulp.

Nothing happened. Uther was telling Bayard that he would have the boy flogged when Merlin collapsed to the ground.

Chapter Text

Arthur paced anxiously while Gaius thumbed through a dusty tome about the poisonous plants found in Albion. Arthur had found a flower petal at the bottom of the chalice. Gaius needed to figure out which flower the petal belonged to in order to develop an antidote.

Gwen fussed over Merlin, pressing a cool cloth to his brow and whispering to him softly. Gaius had stripped off his shirt in an effort to keep the feverish boy cool. The younger of Merlin's two dogs curled up on his bare chest, while the black one was pressed against his side. He licked his hand anxiously. Arthur strode over to the bed to stand beside Gwen, peering down at Merlin's chest. The crisscrossing scars were thick and knotted. His fingers ghosted over Merlin's chest, before he felt the five thick scars on his servant's arm. Whoever tortured him must have cut Merlin almost to the bone.

"What happened to him, sire?" Gwen whispered to Arthur. She looked at Merlin's chest with wide eyes.

"Merlin doesn't like to talk about it," the prince said with a shrug.

Gaius opened to another page and let out a joyful shout. "It's the Mortaeus flower. There is a cure, which is obtained by the leaf of the very same plant. It grows in the caves of the Forests of Balor."

"Those caves are infested with Cockatrices," Arthur said. "I'm always up for a good battle." He stood up.

"Arthur, it's too dangerous," Gaius said.

"How long does your nephew have?" Arthur countered.

Gaius's eyes seemed watery. "Five days, at the most."

"He wanted to protect me," Arthur said. "A master is supposed to protect his servants, and a prince has a duty to his people. I'll get the cure, Gaius. Tend to him until I return."

Gaius bowed. "Yes, sire. May whatever gods that are watching grant you a safe journey."


Arthur left to go find his father.

"Father, the boy needs the plant or he will die!"

Uther turned away. "You are the Crown Prince of Camelot, Arthur. I cannot allow you to throw your life away on a suicide mission for your manservant."

"He saved my life!"

"As is the duty of every citizen of Camelot. Your life is infinitely more important than any peasant's."

"A king's duty is to his people. I have a duty to him as his master and as his friend," Arthur said hotly. "Let me take a half dozen men, sure-footed horses, and our best weapons."

"No," Uther said.

Arthur turned away from his father, his blood singing with fury. He stalked out of the king's chambers, his shoulders thrown back proudly and his chin stuck out with determination.

"Stop acting like a child, Arthur," Uther called after his son.

"Start acting like a king, Father," Arthur responded in turn.


"He's forbidden me from going, Morgana." Arthur ran a hand through his hair.

"Arthur, that poor boy is dying on the other side of the castle," Morgana said.

"Do you think I don't know that?" Arthur said miserably.

"You want to know what I think you know?"

"What's that?" Arthur turned to face his foster sister.

"That sometimes you've got to do what you think is right, and damn the consequences."*

Arthur put a hand on his sword belt. "Can you get Morris and Gwen to get three days' worth of provisions and hide them in the stables? I trust them the most, out of any of the servants. They are Merlin's friends."

Morgana nodded.

"This evening, you are to get Windracer from the stables and tell the grooms you are taking him for a trail ride. The guards' shift ends at six, so the new shift will not know you left the city with a horse and will not be suspicious. Windracer won't be discovered missing until tomorrow night."

"You'll meet me outside the city, in the forest?"

"In the clearing we used to picnic in as children with the governess you tortured for years."

"Poor woman," Morgana chuckled. "Who will grab the provisions?"

"I will," Arthur said. "I'm good at sneaking around."

"Gods know that you sure did a lot of sneaking around in your youth," Morgana chuckled.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Gods?"

Morgana shrugged. "Something my mother used to say."

"We may need your mother's gods tonight. Stay safe, Morgana," Arthur said. They clasped hands, in the ways knight do, and Arthur hurried out of Morgana's chambers.


Gaius waited until Gwen left to attend to Morgana before grabbing Em's spelled mirror. As the boy writhed and moaned feverishly on the bed, he whispered the word that activated the contacting spell. Em taught it to him in case of emergency.

A girl with dark hair and piercing eyes picked up almost immediately. Gaius wondered if his sister and her in-laws always had someone watching the mirror, just in case. "Who are you?" she growled. "Where is my brother?"

Based on her age and appearance, Gaius figured he was speaking to the elder of his sister's two daughters. Adelina, a fire mage of unparalleled skill and the mother of Astryd. "I'm your Uncle Gaius, my dear. There was a plot to kill Arthur, but Em ingested the poison instead. It was from the Mortaeus flower…" Gaius quickly filled her in on the situation.

"Have you sent someone to go to the Forest of Balor?" she interrupted. Gaius raised his eyebrows, impressed. The Druids were renowned for their skill in the art of healing, he supposed.

"The prince aims to go, but I do not know if Uther will let him—"

"We have someone who will be able to get the medicine to you in four days. Em will hold out longer than most, his magic will do its best to fight off the poison and its effects. I would say he has seven days," Adelina said.

"How do you know this for sure?" Gaius couldn't help but ask.

"A High Priestess of the Old Religion had a feud with my daide—my birthfather—and tried to poison him with the Mortaeus flower. My birthmother , a healer, had my sister and me assist her with nursing him. Magic-borns can resist the poison for up to seven days."

Gaius froze. "A High Priestess? By the name of Nim—"

"You know Nimueh?" Adelina's voice turned into a snarl.

"Years ago, before she turned out the way she did." Gaius hesitated before continuing on. "Niece, there was Mercian servant girl Em was enchanted with, with dark hair and blue eyes. Em said someone warned him about the King of Mercia trying to poison Arthur. He would not give the person's identity."

"You're saying Nimueh orchestrated this?"

"It's not unlikely. She hates Uther for killing hundreds of High Priestesses and followers of the Old Religion. Destroying our peace treaty with the Mercians would be a sweet, sweet revenge for her."

"I hate that bitch," Adelina said, half to herself. "I'll alert my relatives. We have a Shifter who can travel far distances in a matter of days. She will be able to get the flower to you. My grandmother will contact you soon, she is a skilled healer and may have some tips for treating Emmy."

Gaius's eyes welled up with tears. "Thank you, niece," he said fervently.


TWO DAYS LATER, AT DAWN

Arthur took a sip of water from his canteen, leading his exhausted stallion after a brief three hours' worth of sleep. He had arrived at the entrance to the caves a few hours before the sun rose. Rather than face the night, he opted for a few hours of sleep to regain his strength and recover from the strenuous journey. He'd be no use to Merlin dead.

Arthur froze when he heard the sounds of faint, breathy sobs. With a hand on his sword hilt, he crept through the trees, willing Windracer to stay silent. As he picked his way through a particularly thick copse, he saw a woman with a ragged dress and greasy hair sitting on a log. She wept softly, her face buried in her hands.

As she possessed no weapons, Arthur approached her. He held up a hand when she let out a startled gasp. Her torn dress revealed pale skin peppered with cuts and bruises. She seemed underfed, the same way Merlin did when he first came to Camelot.

"I won't hurt you," he said.

She nodded tentatively. "Will—Can you help me?" she asked.

Both froze when they heard something stirring in the underbrush. Arthur drew his sword. A reptilian beast that came to his shoulders emerged from the trees, hissing softly. Ordering the girl to stay back, he assumed a fighting stance. The beast roared.

Cockatrice, Arthur suddenly remembered. A large reptile native to the Southlands, an ancient king had brought it over to guard the Forest of Balor and its caverns. They survived by spending the winter and particularly cold nights in the caverns, which were warmed by fires deep within the earth. The reptiles were well known for their taste for human flesh.

He circled the lizard, desperately searching for any weak points. It moved nimbly, its intelligent eyes tracking Arthur's every move. Arthur took the first strike, going for a blow to the head. Enraged, the Cockatrice dodged it. It charged at Arthur, but the prince managed to dodge the attack and use his sword to carve a shallow cut in the creature's side.

The Cockatrice wheeled around and pounced at Arthur, teeth bared. Arthur rolled out of the way, breathing heavily. He rose to his feet and saw the beast charging towards him. He drew the long knife strapped to his belt and threw it. The knife embedded itself into the Cockatrice's chest. It shuddered and collapsed, twitching. Arthur let out a sigh of relief. He turned to face the girl, still huddled on her log. She flinched back.

"I won't hurt you." Arthur gestured to her ragged clothes and injuries. "Who did to you?"

"My master," the girl said. "I ran away, but I got lost. Can you help me?"

"I can take you to Camelot for healing. We'll be able to find a job for you in the kitchens, I'm sure."

"Oh, thank you, sir knight," the girl said.

Arthur pulled the knife out of the Cockatrice's chest and handed it the girl. "I need to do something first. Take this knife and climb the tallest tree you can. I'll be no more than a few hours—"

"Have you come to the caves for a reason? I've roamed them since I was a girl; my master often took me here," the girl said.

"I'm looking for a particular flower that grows in them."

"The Mortaeus flower? I know where a patch of them grows. I can take you to them."

Both the girl and the prince failed to notice the shadowy figure that followed them into the caves.


After a half-hour of navigating the winding caverns, the girl led Arthur to a spot where the sunlight filtered in through a hole in the cavern roof. A chasm with a narrow ledge separated Arthur from a patch of yellow flowers that grew on the other side.

"Stay back," Arthur warned the girl.

He crept onto the ledge, moving carefully and testing his weight before he took a step. He heard the girl muttering under her breath, but he ignored it. However, the ledge began to groan under his feet and her muttering turned into chanting.

"What are you doing?" Arthur snarled, twisting around to see the girl's eyes glowing. "You filthy sorceress! Who are you?"

"No more than the last person you will ever speak to. I expected more, Pendragon," the sorceress sneered.

The ledge collapsed. Arthur blindly jumped, scrabbling for footholds and handholds. He clung to the edge of other side of the gap, his muscles straining.

Arthur heard a faint hissing coming from his side of the gap. "It seems we have a visitor," the sorceress sneered.

"I expected more from you, Nimueh," a faintly accented voice rang out. It sounded like a woman's voice. "You never could kill cleanly. You always relied on Nature's creatures and your dark magic to do your dirty work for you."

"I would think one of your kind would want a Pendragon dead, Shifter." Shifter?

Arthur heard the hissing creature come closer. He clung tightly to his handhold on the stone with one hand and used the other to draw his sword. He waited until he could see a tangle of legs and a black, black body to strike. The creature moaned and fell still. Arthur drew himself up to his elbows and was faced with three giant spiders. Holding his sword in a threatening way, he scrabbled onto the ledge and got to his feet.

"Killing this boy will not bring the dead back. It will only fuel Uther's crusade," the other woman said.

"I always found Derwydd* pacifism revolting," Nimueh said.

"That is not a name I have heard in a very long time, Priestess."

Suddenly, the other woman shouted something in a language Arthur did not understand. Bolts of electricity shot out and the three spiders joined its dead fellow. Arthur whirled around, shocked. He was faced with a woman in blue robes, her dark hair braided and pinned to her dead. Brown eyes looked up at Arthur, and the woman offered him a catlike smile.

"Did that look like pacifism to you, Nimueh?" she said mockingly.

"I've had enough of this conversation." Nimueh drew her hand back and began to chant.

The woman simply smiled as a wave of blue fire shot towards her. She flapped a hand and uttered a single word. The fire was sent back towards Nimueh with a strong gust of wind. The sorceress roared in frustration.

The other woman, meanwhile, seemed to undergo some sort of physical transformation. Arthur could only watch helplessly as the woman's face elongated and her fingernails turned to claws. Fangs sprouted. Pale, freckled skin was replaced by glossy black fur. Her blue robes shredded as black-feathered wings sprouted from her back, growing rapidly. A winged black panther faced Nimueh. Was this what Nimueh meant when she called the woman a "Shifter"? Arthur shuddered as the beast roared in Nimueh's face, fangs bared.

Nimueh stood, frozen in terror. Keen yellow-green eyes bored into hers, waiting for her to make a single move.

"You win this time, Shifter," the sorceress said. She glanced over her shoulder. "Until next time, Arthur Pendragon."

"Rot in hell," Arthur snapped.

"I will, but only when your father is there to meet me," she said with an air of finality.

The large black cat let the woman past, growling lowly. She snapped at Nimueh as the sorceress strode by her.

"I'm leaving, I'm leaving," Nimueh said before sprinting into the darkness.

The beast roared into the dark in reply. It turned around to face Arthur. He held out his sword threateningly, even though he trembled at the thought of facing a beast that made a powerful sorceress flee in the opposite direction at the first opportune moment.

Instead of gouging Arthur's eyes out, the beast began to turn back into a human. Claws retracted, fur melted away, the spine straightened and the beast began to stand upright. The blue robes, somehow restored to their former condition, reappeared. In a matter of seconds, the same woman from before faced the prince. Her lips twitched into what he thought might have been a smile.

"What do you want, sorceress?" Arthur snarled.

"My quarrel is with Nimueh, not with you, my boy," she said. She spoke Common in a strange way—as if she knew the words well enough, but she was loathe to speak them. As if she was forced to speak them. "What brings you to these parts, Pendragon?"

"The flower," Arthur said finally.

"What use do you have for it? It's a powerful poison."

"It's also a powerful antidote," Arthur said, failing to mask the bitterness in his voice.

"Ah. Someone close to you was poisoned."

Arthur nodded. "My manservant. He's only a boy. I need to return to Camelot with haste, he only has a couple days before the poison kills him. His uncle, the court physician, needs the flower to cure him."

"Not many princes would risk their lives for a servant," the woman said.

"He's risked his life for me, several times. It's no more than any man would do in return," Arthur said.

"Ah, so the prince is valiant and bashful. You impress me, young Pendragon. I see courage in you that is hard to find these days. Your serving boy is in Camelot, you said?"

Arthur gave her a single nod.

"In my alternate form, I can fly to Camelot in less than a day. Give me the flowers and I will leave them somewhere for the physician to find."

"Why would you help me? You're a sorceress, an evil woman," Arthur said.

"And you are the son of a murderer, but you are still a good man. I can be a sorceress and still be a good woman," the woman responded. "I'll help you, because it will save an innocent, a mere servant you risked your life for. Do you trust me?"

Instead of responding, Arthur grabbed a handful of flowers, bundled them together with a bit of twine, and tossed them to her.

"Your servant will be as good as new by the time you return," the woman promised. Before she left, Arthur called out a question.

"Nimueh said you and your kind would want me dead. Did she mean Shifters?"

The woman laughed. "Shifters are only a type of sorcerer, my dear boy. We are few and far between, as it is. My people are more than a mere class of mage." She paused. "All you need to know about us is that we will support you should the time come, Prince Arthur. However, beware—our allegiance lies not with the House of Pendragon, only its scion. We hate Uther Pendragon as much as the rest of the magic-born. Should you ever need our help, we will be there."

"What is your name?"

"Shifter will do for now. Some call me the Fair Warrior, though." With that, the woman turned her back and left the same way Nimueh had fled.


Gaius picked up the spelled mirror when it began rattling. He had sent Gwen to look for a length list of herbs in the forest as he watched over Em, so it was safe for him to answer. Emerald's weathered face appeared from within the mirror's reflective depths.

"Go to the forest, where the patch of lady's bedstraw grows by the willow. There you will find the flower needed to cure our boy," she said.

"I don't know how you did it, but go raibh maith agat (thank you)," Gaius nearly shouted.

Gaius found the bundle of flowers laid in the shadow of the willow. He found two notes next to the flowers, scribbled in a narrow hand. The first read:

You will know what to do with this, physician. Hunith sends her love and thanks you for taking care of her son as if he were your own.

The second read:

Stay safe, Emmy, for Freya's sake. She misses you more than you can imagine.

With love,

Finnlagh

Gaius clutched the flowers to his chest and ran back to the castle as fast as his legs could take him.


Two days later, Arthur approached the main gate to the city, holding the flower for show. He knew Merlin had already recovered, but he needed to convince his father that he did not already know. The guards, instead of letting him pass, levelled their pikes at him.

"What are you doing?" Arthur shouted, cross. "I am your prince. Let me pass."

"I'm dreadfully sorry, my lord," the older guardsman said with regret, "but I am afraid you are under arrest."

"By whose orders?"

"Your father the king."


Uther approached the door to Arthur's cell, his face set with a scowl and his arms crossed. Arthur's face had a scowl that matched his father's.

"Release me at once! I need to get the flower to Gaius," Arthur said with faked urgency.

"The guards said you threw quite the fuss when they arrested you," Uther said instead, ignoring his son.

"Father—"

"The boy is fine, Arthur," Uther said in a low, dangerous tone. "He recovered on the fourth day of his illness, seemingly pulled from the brink of death with a rare herb that Gaius found in the forest. It acts in the same way the Mortaeus leaf does. I saw him myself just hours before, streaked with sweat and calling out in his sleep. It's a miraculous recovery."

"Merlin's fine?" Arthur let his jaw drop.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't leave you in here for the rest of the week," Uther snarled.

"I fulfilled my duty as prince. I only disobeyed you to do what I felt was right," Arthur said in reply.

Something shifted in Uther's face. "Fair enough. You'll remain in here for a couple days rather than a week."

"Father!" Arthur shouted at his father's retreating back. "I need to tell you about someone I encountered on my journey. A sorceress. Her name was Nimueh."

Uther turned around.


When Arthur stumbled into Gaius's chambers, he found a bright-eyed Merlin eating soup in bed.

"You got the cure, I take it? You look a little bit better than the last time I saw you," Arthur said gruffly.

"Thank you, sire," Merlin said, putting his soup aside. "I heard your da locked you up when you came home."

"Only for a few hours. He was furious I risked my life for a servant that recovered all on his own," Arthur said.

"Not quite," Merlin said with a crooked grin. "How'd—how'd you get the flower to the forest? Who put it there?"

Arthur looked behind him, to make sure no one was listening. "A woman… She had a talent that made it possible for her to travel long distances."

"Magic?"

Arthur nodded. "I was loathe to do it, but I wanted to make sure you made it. I will never consort with one of their kind again, though. The very thought of what I did still makes my skin crawl. I lied to my own father."

Merlin's face fell momentarily.

"I don't regret doing it, though. I need someone to clean my chambers after all."

"You could get anyone to do that!"

Arthur appeared to contemplate this for a second. "True, but then I would also need to find a servant that could spar with me as well. It's easier just to keep you on; even if you are the most irritating creature I've had the misery of interacting with."


"What did you tell Uther?" Morgana asked Arthur after he informed her of everything that happened. They sat at the bay window in her chambers, drinking hot tea. It was still the night of Arthur's return. Uther buzzed with anger, so the two of them had Gwen fetch them dinner from the kitchens and they ate in Morgana's chambers.

"I told him that Nimueh left me for dead, but I fought off the spiders and killed them all. I took an alternate route out of the caves with the flowers in hand and headed back to Camelot. I made no mention of the sorceress at all."

"I wonder who her people are."

Arthur gnawed his lip. "Me too, Morgana, me too."

"I worry about the Mercians. Uther received word of a large battalion coming to get King Uther. He wants to send out the cavalry to meet them in battle."

"Then I will lead the charge, if I must," Arthur said heavily.


Uther was about to send the cavalry out to fight the oncoming Mercian army when Gaius informed him about his suspicions of Nimueh involving herself in the situation. Combined with Arthur's testimony about what went down in the caves, the evidence seemed to indicate that the entire situation was orchestrated by the sorceress to drive a wedge between the two kingdoms.

He visited the dungeons and explained the situation to Bayard. While still enraged, the Mercian king shockingly seemed to understand that Nimueh manipulated Uther into doing what they did. They signed the treaty in secret. Bayard sent out a few trusted men to tell the army to head back to Mercia.

War had been averted.

Chapter Text

"So Nimueh is a High Priestess of the Old Religion? That cult who follows the Triple Goddess?" Em sat at the table, shoveling the soup he made for supper in his mouth. He always made a large pot with too much water in it. Gaius suspected that growing up in an impoverished family with many children might have something to do with it. Gaius's mother used to do the same in an effort to make their meagre food supply last longer.

"I wouldn't call it a cult. Their priestesses and Seers were as highly renowned as a Vates or a Druidic elder, in the days before the Purge," Gaius said.

"But they morph and twist Nature into something She is not," Em said. "They think that Nature—or the Triple Goddess—created the earth to serve humanity. She wants all of Her children to coexist and take care of the home she provided. They think magic is a tool meant to serve humanity. That's wrong, it's—"

Gaius held up his hands. "Em, you know I do not align myself with any particular faith. Theological discussions go right over my head."

Em slumped back in his chair, taking another spoonful of watery soup. "I know. It's just, back home, everyone thinks the same and believes the same thing. It's—I miss that. Makes you feel a part of the group, you know?"

Gaius knew. He felt the same way when he was surrounded by courtiers and knights and noblewomen. Sometimes he just wanted to be around other commoners, people who knew what it was like to spend hours working in the fields or going to bed with an empty stomach. It was mankind's temptation, to cling to the familiar and create a group identity. For Druids like Em, having a group identity meant the difference between life and death. Their common culture, language, and religion bound them together during Uther's genocide. To be yanked away from his tribe and thrust into an unfamiliar lifestyle had to be earthshattering for Em.

"So you believe in Nature, the way the Druids do?" Gaius asked.

Em shrugged. "I guess. I mean, when I was younger I thought my móraí and the rest of my relatives were using the hallucinogenic mushrooms my cousin Cerdan said Vates imposters used to use. But then, after Jarl,"—he held up his four-fingered hand for emphasis—"I started thinking that something or someone had to be looking out for me."

"Does Arthur ever ask you about that?" Gaius gestured to Em's hand.

"Told him I cut it off chopping wood."

"You cheeky scoundrel, you didn't!" Gaius's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "Oh, Em, you really did."

Em laughed so hard that he choked on his soup.


When Em went to pick up the hounds on his first morning back to work, a small form crashed into him and wrapped his bony arms around him.

"MERLIN! Beckett said you were dyin' an' him an' Ma thought it would be too traumatic to see you, but I was gonna sneak out an' visit you anyway. Then you got better! Beckett nearly fell over, he was so happy when Morris and Gwen told him—"

Em returned Holt's hug with a wide grin. "I'm here, pal. No need for you to worry."

Holt looked up at him happily. "I knew you were strong enough to pull through. I knew it!"

"It's having friends like you that makes me strong," Em said. "Say, do you want to take the dogs for their walk and then have our sparring session?"

Holt nodded energetically, turning his attention to Sionnach and Bandit. The two dogs vied for his attention shamelessly. "I think the hounds missed you. Pike won't even play fetch. It's the saddest thing I've ever seen."


When Em returned home from work, Gaius waited with a guilty expression, a scrap of parchment, and a battered bag.

Em groaned. "You want me to collect herbs at this hour? I sparred with Arthur for two hours, did laundry, polished his armor, scrubbed the floor of his ridiculously large chambers, changed his sheets, dusted, fetched his meals—"

"I saved your life," Gaius said.

"Uncle, that is beside the point!" Em said.

"Is it really, though? I mean, as my favorite nephew, you should do this for me regardless—"

"I'm your only nephew."

"No you're not, you have five brothers. And your aunt Mairwen has two sons."

"Who you've never met! So, I'm your only real nephew."

"Your logic is extremely flawed."

"I know; I'm just trying to stall so I don't have to go collect herbs." Em grabbed the basket from his uncle. He went upstairs to strap on his sword belt. "Bandit and I shouldn't be too long. Make sure there's something hot on the table when I get home."

"I'm making my mother's old pottage recipe. Can you not smell it on the hearth?"

"I'm too exhausted to smell anything."

"Now you're just being dramatic."

"Bye, Uncle!"

After Bandit and Em left, Gaius scratched Sionnach's ears. "This is between the two of us, my dear: I really don't know how I got on before, without the young scamp in my life."

Em strolled through the sleepy forest, enjoying the cloying smell of midsummer flowers and basking in the sun's heat. Bandit loped ahead, his tail wagging happily. Despite receiving two longs walks a day and spending all day wrestling with the royal hounds, he still had boundless energy. He really was a handsome dog. Muscle rippled under his glossy black coat. One would hardly know he was nearly eight years old.

"You're a good lad, Bandit. D'you know that, a chara (my friend)?" Em murmured in Druidic.

Bandit let out a low growl in return.

"That's a strong reaction, madra neamhghnách (ungrateful dog)—" Em yelped in surprise when he saw a dark shape swooping down from the sky. "Nature! Bheith ag gabháil (run), Bandit!" Bandit turned tail and darted into the safety of the brush, baying with fear.

Em drew his sword, but he knew it would do little against such a strong foe. He had an acute sense of wrongness about the creature. His magic wanted to both flee from it and destroy it at the same time. What Em could only describe as a giant eagle with paws landed on the ground. Em threw up a shield, one invisible to the naked eye. From the way the creature roared, it had the ability to see magical barriers. It was some sort of magical creature, then.

He swore under his breath as the creature advanced. He threw a quick fireball at the creature. It melted away when it made contact with the creature's feathers. Shit. This thing was impervious to magical attacks. Would his shield hold?

It advanced past the shield, flapping its wings. Em tightened his grip on his sword. He could not possibly fight this thing without backup. He was a skilled swordsman, but the beast was at least twice his size. His magic seemed to do nothing. He knew he was out of options. So, when the creature was only a few yards away from him, he turned and ran for it. Weren't birds supposed to be slow on land, anyway?

From the sound of footsteps behind him, apparently not.

Em dodged between trees, panting furiously. His foot caught on a root and he fell face-first into the mud. He rolled on his back and held his sword up. The creature was only paces away. He was getting ready to pull water from the ground to disorient the bird, but a man emerged from the forest. He held a battered broadsword and a roughly-hewn shield. He struck the creature from the side. His sword bounced helplessly off the creature, but the blow distracted it long enough for Em to scramble to his feet. Em muttered a spell to heat his sword and attacked with a newfound ferocity. His own strikes and blows did nothing.

Em made eye contact with the man. The man's eyes flicked to the right. Em's gaze followed his line of sight. A narrow path with dense thorn thickets on either side led deeper into the forest. If they distracted the beast long enough, they could escape down the path. Em nodded slightly. The man grinned. He charged headlong towards the beast, stabbing its impenetrable chest. His sword shattered. The beast roared, rearing onto its back paws. Em and the mysterious man took advantage of this by darting down the path. The beast followed, but the thorn thickets slowed its progress. The path made a bend, becoming slightly wider. A log had been moved to the side. Em jumped over the log and hid himself behind it. The man joined him.

They huddled together, cradled between the log and the thorn thickets as the beast trampled past. After a couple minutes of fruitless searching, it roared in frustration and took to the air. Em waited until the sound of flapping wings faded to introduce himself.

"You saved my life," he said with gratitude. "I'm Merlin."

"Lancelot," the man said. They clasped hands and emerged from where they had hid behind the log. Em saw the man clutching his side. Blood seeped through the faded blue fabric of his shirt.

"You're hurt?" Em said.

The man nodded. "That…thing gouged me with a claw."

"My uncle is a physician. He'll be able to help."

Lancelot shook his head. "I haven't the money for a doctor."

"He doesn't charge people for his medicines. Even if he did, I'd make him heal you for free. You did save my life, after all," Em said.

Lancelot smiled slightly. He looked to be around Arthur's age, nineteen or twenty. Under a curtain of dark hair, his face seemed sallow and thin. He reminded Em of the people back home in Sábháilte—underfed and overstressed. "Thanks, friend. Do you reside in Camelot?"

Em nodded. "We better head back before it gets dark…" He glanced around at the forest expectantly. Rolling his eyes, he stuck his pinkies in his mouth and let out a loud wolf whistle. Seconds later, Bandit emerged from the undergrowth, trembling. Em wrapped his arms around his dog, not caring if the man judged him. He was just glad his old mutt was safe.

"That your dog?" Lancelot asked.

Em nodded. "His name is Bandit." He saw Lancelot's pale, sweaty face and tried not to panic. "C'mon, let's get you to my uncle. He'll get you fixed up in no time."


"You're a bit feverish, but that will pass by morning. The calendula and feverfew should clear up both the fever and any lingering infection," Gaius said to Lancelot.

Lancelot was propped up on the cot that Gaius kept in case he had an overnight patient. Sionnach curled up in the crook of his arm. The little reddish-gold pup seemed to have an affinity for comforting Gaius's patients.

"Thank you, Gaius. I really do appreciate it," Lancelot said. His eyes flicked to Em. "And to you, Merlin, for bringing me here for healing."

"No big deal," Em said. "Just rest up for the morning, yeah?"

Gaius yawned. "It's late. I am positively knackered. How about we all hit the hay and resume things in the morning?"

Em nodded. "That works for me. Arthur is away tomorrow on some assignment from the king. He said I cannot accompany him, for whatever reason. I still have work to do, but I can sleep in a little at least."

"Arthur as in Prince Arthur? You know him?" Lancelot said in astonishment.

Em nodded. "I'm his manservant. It's crummy work, but it's infinitely better than working on my family's farm. The pay isn't half-bad, either." His weekly wages were enough to pay for food and possibly a new blanket if he tightened his belt a little. Em felt like a king whenever the steward handed him a small stack of coins.

"You'll have seen the Knights of Camelot, then?"

"I know quite a few of them," Em said. "You could take them on in a swordfight. I'd bet my money on you."

"Do not sell yourself short. You are extremely talented, Merlin, especially for one so young." Lancelot sighed. "It's been a dream of mine to join the Knights of Camelot, ever since I was young."

"Arthur's always complaining about how they need more squires. I bet I could talk to him, give you a recommendation." Em felt a surge of excitement. Druids took life debts seriously. How awesome would it be if Em could help his new friend achieve a lifelong dream of his?

"You'd do that for me?"

"Absolutely, it's the least I could do."

"Thank you, Merlin. Truly."

Gaius shook his head in exasperation. "This is all very touching, lads, but can you let an old man get his sleep?"

"Sorry, Gaius," Lancelot said meekly.

Em, trying to smother his laughter, blew out the candle and made his way up the stairs to the little storage room he called his bedroom.