Actions

Work Header

Inktober Prompts

Chapter Text

A life on the run was the last thing he had wanted for the woman he loved. Never being able to stop looking over their shoulder. Never staying in one place for too long for fear of discovery. It wasn’t fair to ask it of her. Not after she’d risked so much just opening her home and her heart to him in the first place. But once Hunith had learned she was with child she had insisted on leaving with him, barely stopping long enough to gather a precious few things from their tiny home.

It just was the logical thing to do she’d said. Ealdor was too close to the border of Camelot. Patrols had been known to “accidentally” stray over that border whenever so much of a whisper of magic had reached the ears of the mad Uther. Balinor shook his head. A year had passed and the betrayal of his king and friend still had his heart in pieces. Hunith had been good for him, but it would be a miracle if he could ever forgive, let alone forget.

So they left. And now, many leagues and many, many days into their flight they’d found refuge in a small village at the base of the white mountain. It wasn’t comfortable, and it was far from friendly, but that was fine with them. Friendly people talked, and if they talked to Balinor’s family, then they would also talk about them and that was the one thing he couldn’t allow.

Despite its many faults, one thing the village did possess was a competent midwife and a number of herb woman, a fact Balinor thanked whatever gods might be listening for. Hunith’s pains had begun at midnight the night before, as such pains always seem to do, and now it was approaching evening. There hadn’t been one complaint or shaking of confidence from any of these women during that time.

Banned from attending her himself, Balinor paced the ground outside their home. He fretted, listened, resisted the urge to poke his head in the room and ask if they needed more water or to offer to build up the fire again for the thousandth time, then started the process all over again. Why is it he could put down a dragon with nary a thought and yet the reality of his wife’s suffering made his blood run hot and cold at the same time?

At last, just when he thought he’d lose his mind if he waited one minute longer, one of the young women attending the birth cracked the door open and waved him inside with a stern order to watch his step and be quiet.

Following her instructions to the letter, he entered and made his way to where Hunith was lying half propped up on pillows cooing softly at the small bundle in her arms. She smiled when she saw him approach. Despite a pale face and eyes ringed with dark circles brought on by a sleepless night and many hours of labor, Balinor thought she’d never looked more beautiful in her life.

She murmured a greeting and turned the bundle so he could look upon the pink faced child lying snuggled inside it. The baby - a boy Hunith informed him smugly, having referred to the the child as a son from day one - was small. Smaller than Balinor expected, not that he’d really known what to expect. He’d been too young to remember his brother’s birth and Arthur had been secreted away before he’d gotten so much as a glimpse of the infant prince.

Still, Balinor thought as he cradled the boy - his son, he thought with pride and trepidation - the baby had the right number of fingers and toes and all his facial features were in their proper places. He seemed to have inherited his ears from his father’s side, a fact the dragonlord hoped his son would forgive him for one day. Aside from that and the thick layer of raven black hair on his head, their boy was all his mother. Balinor didn’t mind that, he’d fallen in love with her after all.

The resemblance was furthered when the baby’s eyes slowly cracked open for the first time, little puffy lids lifting to reveal slits of summer sky blue identical to the woman’s who’d birthed him. The sight made Balinor’s own eyes swim with emotion, so much so that he almost missed the brief flash that turned those blue orbs molten gold.

“What?” Hunith yelped at his gasp. “What is it? What’s wrong with him?” She reached for their son and cradled him to her breast, eyes searching him desperately.

“Nothing’s wrong my love,” Balinor hurried to reassure her. “It’s just.. his eyes. I thought I saw them change color.”
Hunith frowned. “They shouldn’t change this soon. When he’s a few weeks-” her voice died in an equally startled gasp as the gold appeared again. “Wha how?”

Sending up a silent thank you that the midwives had already left to give the new family some privacy, Balinor knelt by the bed taking his beloved’s hand in his.

“Hunith, you know there is only one explanation. Our son has magic.”

“But...but how can he... this soon? He’s only just left the womb!” Her hands began to shake disturbing the child who let out a whimper of discontent.

Balinor stroked the infant’s cheek with his little finger and he quieted. “I’ve known others who’s magic has been a part of them their entire lives.”

The words calmed her a little though still she insisted, “So you’ve told me, but they still couldn’t use it their whole life. What does it mean that he can use it without any training? He can’t even talk for heaven’s sake!”

He nodded slowly slipping his finger into his son’s tiny hand. “I might know someone who could give us an answer.”

“The druids?” She asked, looking relieved by the idea.

“No, well maybe,” he hesitated. “I was actually thinking of someone else. Someone who-”

“No.” Hunith interrupted flatly, all traces of exhaustion and worry vanished from her tone. “I don’t care what’s happening, for as long as Uther Pendragon is on the throne no one in this family will step one foot inside of Camelot.”

“Hunith, think of our boy-”

“I am thinking of him. He’s been given a gift, one that may take years before he learns of the reason for it. But until the day comes that reason appears, we will need to keep him safe. The only way our...” she hesitated studying the child for a moment, “our Merlin, will ever see what the future has in store for him is if his family stays by his side. His whole family.”

“We’ll need answers if we are to protect him,” he tried one last time.

She lifted one hand to caress his face. “And we will find them. But given the choice between solving a mystery that may never be solvable and risking my son growing up without his father, I’ll take my chances on the mystery.”

All thoughts of further arguments vanished when Balinor felt a sudden tightening down by his hand. Glancing down he saw that despite the fact he’d fallen sound asleep while his parents debated, baby Merlin’s tiny fingers were clutched securely around the one Balinor had rested in his palm. Clearly their son agreed with his mother. Of course knowing that, the dragonlord had no choice but to give in, hoping against hope this wasn’t a sign that he would be outnumbered in all arguments for the rest of his life.

He wondered how soon was too soon to ask Hunith about having a second child.

Chapter Text

“Elyan tell me what’s wrong. You’ve been distracted and half panicked all day. That’s not like you. Even Arthur’s noticed and you know how he is.”

“It’s nothing, I’m fine,” the knight sputtered.

Merlin rolled his eyes and stepped closer. “Please, I want to help.”

Elyan paled and his eyes fluttered about the armory as if expecting someone to leap from the shadows unexpectedly. Merlin did the same, then poked his head out the doorway to check the hall. He turned back and gave the knight an encouraging nod reassuring him they were well and truly alone.

Finally Elyan swallowed hard and met Merlin’s gaze, a pleading look in his dark eyes.

“It’s Gwen,” he whispered.

“What about her, is she alright?”

Merlin’s reaction relaxed the other man a bit and he continued hesitantly. “Ever since she left, I’ve.. I’ve kept in contact with her. I know I shouldn’t have, and I know what will happen if Arthur finds out, but I can’t help it. She’s the only family I have left. And I’m not..but no I shouldn’t say it.”

“What Elyan?”

“No..I..I can’t. I know what Arthur means to you.”

Merlin moved closer and grasped his shoulder.

“Whatever Arthur means to me, Gwen means nearly as much. She was my first friend in Camelot and I will not abide those who try to brand her a traitor.”

The conviction in his voice loosens the last of the tension in the other man and he continued with increasing steadiness. “I’m not convinced what happened with her and Lancelot wasn’t her fault but I’m not convinced it was either. I offered to break ties with the kingdom and go with her but she wouldn’t hear of it. She practically ordered me to remain in Camelot and said she better not hear of me speaking a word against the king. She said she couldn’t bear it if I lost everything I’d worked for because of her. We argued all night but eventually she won. But told her I refused to break off all contact, and that if I hadn’t heard from her within a month I was coming after her if I had to give up my knighthood to do it.”

Merlin smiled slightly, relieved at this show of devotion on Elyan’s part. In truth the servant had been a little concerned about the knight’s seemingly mute acceptance of his sister’s exile. He should have realized it was just Gwen’s way of protecting those she loved. Merlin would have done the same.

“Obviously that hasn’t happened, so she must have gotten word to you.”

Elyan nodded. “She wrote to a childhood friend of ours in the Lower Town saying she’d reached a village just over the border.”

“You mean Abigail, the cobbler’s daughter?”

“How’d you know that?”

Merlin looked away slightly flustered. “It uh, it hasn’t escaped people’s notice that you uh, visit her every other week on your free afternoon. Some of the other knights have started a pool on when you’re going to announce your courtship.”

Elyan startled, then blushed, then sighed, “I should have known.” He shook his head. “There’s no interest of that kind between us. The visits are just the arrangement she and I worked out for me to get Gwen’s letters. I read them at her house, write a letter back and then burn the ones she sent. Abigail writes her own letter to her cousin who lives in the same village and sends my letter wrapped in her own. It’s been that way, every two weeks all through winter. But now...”

“Now?” Merlin prompted, worry beginning to pinch at his gut.

The dark skinned knight took a deep breath and began to gnaw on his lip. “Now I haven’t heard from her in almost a month. I tried to tell myself it was nothing to worry about. That she just got too busy, or the road between us was washed out, or her letter got misdirected - anything. Then two days ago Abigail got a letter from her cousin saying some mercenaries raided the village and took Gwen away with them. She hasn’t been heard from since.” Elyan buried his face in his hands. “I have no idea what to do. Arthur’s been...unpredictable ever since he broke things off with the Princess, I can’t ask any of the other knights to help me look for her, and if I disappear without permission..”

“Gwen would never forgive you,” Merlin finishes for him. Elyan nodded helplessly.

Now it’s Merlin’s turn to look around for shadows with ears. After a long moment he pastes a reassuring smile on his face. “She’s alright Elyan, you don’t have to worry anymore.”

Elyan snorts. “Thank you for the optimism Merlin, but you have no way of knowing that.”

Merlin’s smile grows and he tilts his head to catch the knight’s gaze. “I do so, seeing as I saw her with my own two eyes a week and a half ago.”

With eyes just slightly smaller than dinner platters the knight grabs both his arms.“What!?” He hissed. “Where was she? What happened? Is she safe?”

“She’s fine, truly. It was during the hunt for the festival of Ostara.”

Elyan nodded in remembrance. He had been on border patrol those few days but when he’d returned he’d heard some of the other knights complaining that the king had called a stop to the hunt barely an hour after it had begun. With no explanation.

“What did the hunt have to do with Gwen?”

“Nothing much,” Merlin hedged. “I thought I caught sight of her during it, so later that night I went back to investigate and I found her. She’d been injured in the leg, and was cold and scared. She didn’t give me details of what had happened or where she’d been, but I treated her wound and she’d recovered completely by the time we parted ways. I tried everything I could to get her to come back to the castle with me, I promised that I could protect her but…” He shook his head with a sigh. “She was finally convinced to head toward Ealdor so that in case we needed her she wasn’t far. I wasn’t sure she made it until yesterday when got a letter from my mother informing me that if I came to visit anytime soon I should expect a crowded house. She said an old friend had just arrived and would be staying with her until further notice.”

Elyan’s knees went weak at hearing this and he sat down heavily blinking back tears of relief. “You have no idea how I needed to hear that. I’ve been so frightened, it was like being eaten alive.”

He shuddered and Merlin quickly moved to crouch by his side.“I would have told you sooner but I had no idea you’d been keeping up with her. I’m sorry.”

The other man smiled and clasped his shoulder. “It’s alright Merlin, thank you. You’ve done a better job looking after her than I have. I can’t thank you enough.”

Merlin smiled back. “Well now you can reestablish contact. I write to my mother at least once a week, so you can give me one of your letters to send along at anytime. Or if you just want to say hello or tell her a joke I can include it in my letter so no one will notice. And I see you almost everyday so I’ll be able to give you her replies without you having to make a special trip anywhere.”

“If you’re sure it won’t put you in danger…” the knight was cut off by a snort.

“Contrary to what Arthur may think, I do know how to look out for myself and I am capable of keeping a secret. I’ll be fine. And like I said, Gwen is my friend too. We’ll bring her home soon I have no doubt. In the meantime I know she misses you as much as you miss her.”

Elyan smile was warm and bright as the afternoon sun. “You’re the best Merlin.”

The servant blushed and looked away. “It’s nothing really,” he paused then gave an impish grin, “this way I get to help you and make a bunch of money at the same time.

The other man frowned. “What do you mean?”

Merlin arched an eyebrow.“I told you about the wager remember?”

Elyan nodded.

“Well all along I’ve said there was never going to be a courtship announcement because you and Abigail were just friends. When the other’s confirm you’ve stopped going to see her, I’ll win.”

The corridor rang with the laughter of the two men for several minutes following that gleeful confession.

Chapter Text

“Arthur!”

The sound of him calling the prince’s name echoed off the silent surface of the lake. Merlin examined it closely looking for any sign of movement outside the motion of his treading arms. Not so much as a ripple answered his call. Forcing down the sense of desperation that bubbled inside his chest, he took another lungful of air and returned to the depths of the water.

The panic continued even there, a fact that was surprising enough to distract him momentarily from his single minded mission. Merlin had never felt fear underwater - quite the opposite actually. He’d known how to swim his entire life, couldn’t even remember learning. Being surrounded by a body of water had always calmed him, helped him focus when he has out of control.

Now though everything about this place was just magnifying his fear. The cold, the pressure, the murkiness that not even the prat’s obsessively polished armor was able to show through. Even the magic that had always been cradled and soothed by watery surroundings was feeling agitated and sapping his energy. Or maybe that was the lack of air in his lungs. He could feel numbness in his fingertips and the edges of his vision were beginning to go fuzzy but he couldn’t go up for air. Arthur had already been down for too long, if he went up now, he’d never find him.

Reaching out with everything he had he forced himself to sink just a little deeper until… There! His hand brushed something long and unmistakably metallic. An arm if he had to guess. Following along it Merlin’s hand found the hollow beneath Arthur’s shoulder. Slipping his arm underneath, he managed to turn them both enough to get the same grip on the other side as well. Summoning what little strength and accessible magic reserves he had left, he kicked against the water beneath his feet and launched the two of them to the surface. Gulping in a breath that was the best he’d ever known in his entire life, he slowly swam to shore pulling the unconscious prince along with him.

Collapsing on the edge of the sand, he shoved Arthur over onto his side and gave him a hearty thump on the back to expel whatever water he’d inhaled. That done, and a thumb to the neck confirming the prince’s heart still beat strong, Merlin dragged them the rest of the way out of the water. 

He took some minutes to catch his breath - all that work saving Arthur would be pointless if he blacked out on him now - then turned his attention to the prince. More grateful than ever for Gaius’ lessons he carefully monitored Arthur’s breathing and temperature, listening for any sounds of fluid trapped in his lungs. When he was satisfied all was well on that front, Merlin wrung out his neckerchief and heated it with a small fire summoned to his palm. He then dried off Arthur’s face and hands inspecting them for damage. Chewing his lip thoughtfully he decided any more would have to wait until they were safely back in Camelot.

The idea of lugging the waterlogged prince all the way back to the citadel was decidedly unappealing. All the armor would make him twice as heavy as he normal was and Merlin’s back and head were still smarting from being thrown into a wall. But Arthur wasn’t showing any signs of waking anytime soon, and the chances of him developing a fever or infection from any hidden scrapes or cuts would only increase the longer they stayed out in the elements. Plus it would only be a matter of time till someone noticed their absence and he really didn’t want to explain what happened to anyone but Gaius. And maybe not even him.

Rolling his shoulders Merlin hauled himself up on two already exhausted feet, he spared a minute to stash the Shide staff in the undergrowth. It would be safe enough there until he could return for it. He then returned to the shoreline and gathered up the prince. It took some creativity but he eventually got them situated well enough for him not to collapse the minute he tried to take more than three steps.

That done he turned back toward the castle, taking one last look at the lake he would come to see far too often in the coming years. The sunlight reflecting peacefully off its glittering surface gave him pause.

No one would ever have a clue about what transpired here, but those few moments he believed Arthur lost would haunt him as badly as the memories of what followed Edwin’s attack on Gaius. How quickly something that had always meant safety and security could become the stuff of nightmares. Merlin wondered how long it would be until he could look at the water without shuddering. But no matter, he reminded himself. He had given up all thoughts of personal safety by this point. What happened to him didn’t matter as long as he could remain at Arthur’s side.

Sparing a glance for the blond man currently sound asleep and drooling on his shoulder, Merlin smiled almost fondly. He’d saved his future king’s life, defeated a dark threat and earned a powerful new tool in the process.

A few nightmares were worth all that.

Chapter Text

When Arthur was a boy he’d sworn to himself he would never run away from anything. It would be cowardly he’d assumed, and he was not a coward. Then at the age of twelve he’d faced his first true battle. A pack of bandits had set upon the patrol he’d finally convinced his father to let him join. The attack had been swift and wholly unexpectedly, and the prince had realized he hadn’t had a clue what fear did to a person.

The boy had frozen, thoughts gone blank, body consumed with nothing but the urge to flee. He’d resisted it somehow - albeit just barely - and had survived the fight, actually taking down the ringleader of the group and prompting the others to withdraw. But his initial reaction had left him sullen and ashamed. Hearing his men offering praise for his bravery and skill had just intensified his feelings of unworthiness keeping him silent and withdrawn the entire ride home.

The feelings hadn’t faded when surrounded by the comforts of home and the young man’s shame had grown with every repetition of the tale. His father had even praised Arthur when he’d heard the story! And in front of the whole court no less - something the prince had never even imagined happening. He’d barely been able to smile in recognition of the courtier’s applause, the urge to run once more creeping down his spine as he considered what a sham the whole event was.

After that he’d taken to sequestering himself in a corner of the armory night after night, drilling himself repeatedly with the training swords and picturing in his mind every threat, human or magical, that he could imagine Camelot encountering. If people noticed his newfound obsession with perfection - and noticed they must have - no one bothered to ask him about it. That is until he was found by the first of only two people he’d ever meet who would master the art of telling him what he needed to hear, without making him feel any less of himself while doing so. Not that he’d known that at the time.

“My lord it’s very late, surely training is over?” a soft voice spoke from the doorway.

The prince startled at the interruption of his mock fight. Dropping his shield and fighting a blush he’d stared up the knight who’d spoken. The mix of concern and faint amusement on the older man’s face was almost as embarrassing as his reaction.

“Sir Lionel! I was.. Just..” Arthur stuttered but then recovered quickly. With the beginnings of what would one day be semi-lovingly referred to as “pratishness” he’d attempted to cover his reaction by raising himself up haughtily and informing the knight that “it was none of his concern what the prince chose to do.”

Sir Lionel, with the all the wisdom raising three sons and mentoring a lifetime of young soldiers gave a man, merely raised an eyebrow at the prince. Then he’d waited, his demeanor neither remorseful nor scolding. Giving the boy a chance to unburden himself without saying so.

Much as it had countless times before, that non-judgemental approach soon had the prince deciding his actions were very much the older man’s business and he promptly spilling out everything that had really happened that afternoon. He confessed all the fear he’d felt, and the guilt and shame that fear was causing him now. That he couldn’t stand the idea of it happening again and the lengths he was going to to try to banish all traces of fear once and for all. The lad had then - much to both of their embarrassment  - all but begged Sir Lionel not to repeat anything he had said. Especially not to the king. Not ‘his father’ the older man noted sadly, just ‘the king.’

Sir Lionel finally broke the tormented silence that followed. “Prince Arthur,” he said, careful to keep his tone more matter of fact than compassionate, “your actions were by no means those of a coward.”

Arthur snorted. “How can you say that? When the battle started I panicked. I wanted to run awa y!”

“And did you?” Sir Lionel asked mildly.

“Well... no.”

The knight held out his arms, palms up. “And there’s your answer.” Seeing the confused look in the prince’s sky blue eyes, Lionel allowed a gentle smile. “The desire to run from danger is nothing more than your body’s instinctive desire to protect itself from harm. It’s not cowardly or weak, it is simply human. And it is merely the first instinct my prince, not the only one. Tell me, why didn’t you give in to it?”

Arthur blinked. “Because…well because..I don’t know, it all happened so fast. I mean after a minute I saw that the men were attacking the others and I just moved against them. I couldn’t let them hurt the knights.”

Lionel smiled again, this time proudly. “Your desire to keep them safe was stronger than your fear.”

“I suppose.”

“I hope you always feel some measure of fear my lord. Fear holds you accountable for the dangers you put your people in. You must not be reckless with their lives or your own. The fear you feel will remind you that while they may be willing to die for you at a moment’s notice, you must love them enough not to demand it too often.”

Arthur wrinkled his nose at word choice but the knight didn’t back down.

“Don’t be afraid of the word love my prince, in fact you must come to value it above all else. Fear may keep you safe, but love is what will keep everyone else safe. Don’t forget that.”

And Arthur never did. Sir Lionel was gone before the prince’s next birthday and the memory of that night faded little by little but those words about love being worth more than fear had stuck with him. In fact they were all that boy, now the king, could think of now as he watched the knights joking by the fire.

Sir Leon, second in command of the army and the youngest of Lionel’s sons, laughed at something Arthur’s manservant said and reached over to ruffle the younger man’s hair. Despite his inner ruminations, the king smiled. Merlin reminded him of the old knight sometimes. He was another person who would speak his mind even when Arthur didn’t want him to and rarely come out the worse for it.  

Arthur should have listened to his warning days ago. Then none of them would be here. None of them deserved to be here, having to risk their lives through no fault of their own. And worse yet, though every one of them knew that, not one would even think of abandoning him. They would fight and they would die, and all because of his misguided attempt to prove he was strong. Arthur couldn’t let that happen.

After long hours of thought he’d finally decided on a plan of action. It was risky - some might even call it foolish - and frankly it terrified him, but he’d see it through. He had too. At last he understood what his knight had meant all those years ago. Arthur’s love for his people, was stronger than he could put into words. And if his love for could keep them safe then he wouldn’t run from anything.

Not even his own mistakes.

Chapter Text

“Do a lion.”

“It’s Emmy’s turn, my prince. What animal do you want to see Emmy?”

“Bunny.”

“That’s all she ever wants Uncle Merlin,” the four year-old Pendragon heir whined. “There are two of them up there already. Do something better. Do a dragon, that’s my favorite. Tell him to do a dragon Emmy.”

“No! No wan dagon! Wan bunny!”

“But Emmy I want-”

“BUN-NEY!”

The prince sighed sadly. “Fine.” Even he knew better than to argue when his sister took that tone. The princess may have been just barely two years, but no one doubted her ability to make a royal command. Merlin liked to joke she had her father’s pompousness down better than he did and it served him right too.

Problem was, unlike Arthur - whose demands Merlin had no difficulty in ignoring - the baby girl had her adopted uncle’s heart well and truly captured. One little tear in her big brown eyes and he was putty in her hands. Arthur had tried to tease him about this once, but then Emmy had whimpered in her sleep and the king had been by her cradle in an instant to soothe her. Needless to say it was a good thing her mother was mostly impervious to her charms or else she might end up owning the kingdom itself - and before she was even old enough to ride a horse.

Of course her wish being her uncle’s command, Merlin’s eyes flashed gold and the three watched as one of the lazy clouds drifting above their heads morphed into a fluffy cotton tailed creature complete with a carrot which it promptly munched. The princess let out a belly laugh and clapped her chubby hands at the scene.

Her highness placated for the moment, Merlin turned his attention to his little curly haired nephew who was currently lying dejectedly on his stomach with his chin in his hands.

“Ector.” He poked the the boy’s ribs and the prince turned to pout at him. Smiling Merlin pointed up and Ector followed his finger to where another unobserved eye flash had produced a dragon cloud displayed in all its radiant glory. There was even a knight cloud standing next to it. As they watched the knight raised its sword and took off running across the sky while the dragon spread its wings in flight, spewing vaporous flames down at an imaginary enemy.

Even the princess was silent watching the two vanquish their cumulus opponents and then come to a stop side by side once again. It was a sight Merlin never imagined he’d get to share and it warmed his heart to see the children of his best friends accept it with such joy.  

A few more requests and impressive displays of animated water vapor soon had both children rubbing tired eyes. Emmy was the first to surrender to the enticement of that unrelenting foe who went by the name of ‘afternoon nap’, curling herself up on a corner of the blanket next to her uncle without complaint. Ector put up a stronger, more valiant, and - thankfully - quieter fight, but even he gave in in the end. Although not before tucking his dark head of hair firmly under Merlin’s chin and clutching a handful of the grown man’s jacket possessively in his small fist.  

If the children’s wonder over the cloudy battle had filled Merlin’s heart with joy and love, it overflowed now with the affection and trust expressed in those simple gestures. He settled his head back in the grass and closed his eyes in gratitude.

He wasn’t tired really. The magic he’d expended to entertain the children was nothing to him. But the breeze was cool and the little body pressed to his side was warm, its’ breathing soft and regular. He yawned. Arthur and Gwen would be back soon and then they’d have to pack up and go home. The area was secure, he’d made sure of that when they arrived. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to just rest his eyes for a minute...

And that was how the king and queen of Camelot returned from their private walk to find two toddlers and one adult in body but child in heart royal guardian sound asleep on a picnic blanket in the middle of the clearing they’d left them in.

The king thought it would be amusing to pour the remainder of the water skin over said guardian’s face - only as a joke mind you.

“You do and you’ll wake the children,” the queen informed him, her tone making clear the idea did not meet with her approval. “And if that happens, Your Majesty, the only sleep you’ll be getting is in the infirmary.”

He accepted her warning without protest and they simply watched as the three most dear people in the world to them got caught up on some much needed rest. Completely ignorant of a whole troop of creatures created by atmosphere and imagination that drifted freely along far above their heads.

 

Chapter Text

“If you had to, Arthur or Lancelot?”

“Well I don’t have to and I never will.”

 

Gwen wished she wasn’t having to eat those words just now. Wasn’t having to sit here, next to the fire and between two men who held pieces of her heart. Well to be fair they all did but Merlin wasn’t an option for her. Their love was as a brother and sister. If only she could say the same for the other two.

Never in her life had she imagined there would be more than one man who’d at least imply he wanted a life with her. Or that that life would be under such drastically different circumstances.

On the one hand Arthur had changed so much for the spoiled bully of a prince she’d grown up around. For nearly 10 years, from the time she’d entered Morgana’s service until these past few months, he had never looked her in the eye. Never looked at her period for that matter, save to give an order or inquire after her mistress. Now not only would he speak to her, she would sometimes catch him quietly watching her work out of the corner of his eye. It made her smile every time.

The week he’d stayed in her home had been something of a revelation. Since her father’s death she would always stay at the castle as late as possible, tending to Morgana or helping with the last minute washing or polishing. Anything to avoid coming home to an empty house. During the time he was there she actually looked forward to going home.

They’d gotten off to a very rough start but as time went on he’d tried to make it up to her. Had even listened to her scolding without argument. And despite the on the surface impropriety of the arrangement she’d felt perfectly safe with him there, even during the nights they were alone. He’d never made a hint of trying to take advantage of the situation, as she knew others of the crowd he’d run with in the past would have.

In those days she’d first began to see signs of a good future king in him, signs Merlin insisted were there all along. Their kiss had been so brief but so full of hope that even though she knew nothing would come of it, it had at least made her feel for a brief time that anything was possible. She’d told herself not to get her hopes up, especially later on when he seemed to be purposely putting distance between them. She knew he wouldn’t purposefully lead her on but he had so many expectations to live up to and none of them would allow for marriage to a woman with no rank and no family.

The total opposite was true with Lancelot. Where as with Arthur everything was whispers and hints, and secret smiles, with Lancelot everything was an open book. He made no secret of his regard for her.

The previous year when they’d first met, he’d treated her with nothing but respect and appreciation. He hadn’t given a second thought to the fact she was a serving girl and he had the nobility of a knight even if he didn’t have the bloodline. Perhaps she’d felt the beginnings of something for him even then. She was sure Morgana had thought so although her lady was discreet enough not to say anything about it.

His appearance in Hengest fortress and pledging to rescue her or die trying, were exactly like the actions of a hero from a storybook. No matter how she’d begged him not to stay behind, in that moment nothing had mattered to him but her safety. It wasn’t fair to ask for that kind of devotion and sacrifice from Arthur and she knew no one else who would even think about offering it. Not for someone of her status.

And there was another difference. Lancelot was born a peasant just like she was. No one would so much as blink if he desired the daughter of a blacksmith as a wife. The two of them could have a home, a family, and he could still fight for others amongst the villages and highlands of the land. Or, if she asked it of him, he would devote his honor and nobility in tilling the ground and raising children. The prince of Camelot would never give up his kingdom to become a farmer, she was sure of that.

The thought of making a life for herself in a far away part of the world was frightening she had to admit. She had no family ties to Camelot any longer but she did have friends, and it was the only home she’d ever known. Still, she reasoned, it wouldn’t have to be forever. Arthur would be king someday. If he saw fit to allow them to return, then perhaps Lancelot could still have his dream of serving as a knight and she could always find work in town even if she was no longer welcome in the palace.

So…. Arthur or Lancelot?

Shutting her eyes tight she tried to convince herself it really was an equal choice, that she could be happy with either man despite the uncertainty and obstacles surrounding one of them. She almost left the answer up to fate but then decided that was cowardly. It was her life, she needed to put her all into it.

Taking a deep breath she opened her eyes, a name forming on her lips and caught sight of the warm, steady gaze meeting hers. She knew without asking that it hadn’t moved off of her from the moment they had sat down. Rather than disturbing her she found that only reinforced her decision and, heart at peace she smiled at the owner of the look.

Perhaps there had only been one choice all along

 

Chapter Text

For all her 21 years of life the first thought Princess Mithian had on any subject usually formed the basis for all her interactions with said subject from that point forward. In hindsight her first thoughts on the subject of Camelot and it’s king really should really have been a clue about the outcome of the whole experience.

From the start Arthur’s behavior had been contradictory. He was awkward around her which was to some extent expected. He tripped over his words, (she secretly found that endearing) and was almost over cautious in scheduling activities around what he thought she would enjoy. That was all very collected and proper. But some of his other behavior was quite the opposite. He was klutzy in his manners at the dinner table, spilling soup on himself in front of the court. Then on their picnic he’d repeatedly belched with no attempt at discretion. She wasn’t offended, quite the opposite, but it was so far removed from the royal household she’d grown up in that she wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

One thing she was sure of was Merlin didn’t like her. The reason for his dislike took some contemplation on her part. Was her specifically or just the idea of there being a future queen making a disruption in Arthur’s routine?

The more she thought about Merlin, the more of a puzzle he became. He was a servant, and yet so much more. Her presence was an irritation, but not that of an overworked man who now had an additional burden to care for. He’d been happy to fetch her things and take her places, to do anything for her really - as long as it kept her away from Arthur.  

His manner whenever the king and her were together was almost protective. If Arthur wasn’t clearly the older one, she’d almost believe Merlin to be filling the role of disapproving parent. But no that really wasn’t it either.

Role of jealous younger sibling perhaps? Not pleased with someone new showing up and interfering with the bond he’d formed with his king? That Mithian could understand. She shuddered to remember how she treated her older brother when his betrothed had come to visit for the first time. Thankfully her brother had had the good sense to ignore her actions until she could get a grip on herself.

She wasn’t sure Arthur would be able to do the same. Merlin’s disapproval, whether it was of her, him, or their betrothal in general, seemed to be cutting him deep, for all she could see he was trying to push it away. In just the first two days of her visit she’d witnessed three angry staredowns between the two men. Her presence had interrupted one of them, but for the other two Arthur had been the one to break eye contact - the first time in annoyance, the second in more genuine abashment. If that was what Merlin could do with a look, and he decided to switch to verbal disagreements, she couldn’t help but wonder about the end result.

Sometime later while they’d been prepping for the hunt, she’d taken it upon herself try to placate him a little. She’d wanted to show him she understood how much Arthur meant to him. And to let him know the king would always care for Merlin too, that she wouldn’t let him lose the appreciation he obviously had for his servant. She’d poured every ounce of sincerity into her efforts but they didn’t seem to have any real effect. He’d relaxed a little when he noticed she wasn’t angry about his attitude but the moment Arthur’s opinions had been brought up the stiffness had returned. He’d verbally agreed to give her a chance but she still couldn’t help the worry that curled her stomach. Somehow she was unable to shake the feeling that it was his support that was needed if there was ever going to be a chance of her marriage working out.

Then came the strange scene during the hunt itself. One moment they were savoring the thrill of the chase, worries forgotten or so she thought, the next Arthur was oblivious to the rest of the party. He’d been hunting for tracks when he’d gone still and silent as a statue, staying that way for some minutes before abruptly called an end to the festivities and retreating to his chambers, his face alight with a look of complete and utter loss. Far more than simply losing out on a deer should cause. She’d sought Merlin’s eye for explanation, but he’d been occupied with looking anxiously about the forest and had not shared what, if any, insight he’d had. Utterly mystified she’d returned to her horse and ridden in silence back to the castle.

She heard very little of what happened during the rest of that evening. Rumor had it Merlin disappeared that night and when he’d returned he and Arthur had had their worst fight yet. Although from what she could tell this one hadn’t revolved solely around her. It must have been enough though for the next day Arthur had come to her, contrite but resolute in breaking their betrothal.

A small piece of her had known it could happen, perhaps had even been expecting it. But she’d been unprepared for the pain hearing his carefully worded apologies had brought her. To just send her away after everything her kingdom had given up to make this possible?  It had taken all her training - and pride - to stop from using that hurt as an excuse to lash out at him in return. Instead she’d coldly refused his polite offer of a proper send off, informing him in no uncertain terms that her party would be gone before sunset.

She’d intended to not have another word pass between them but when he’d stopped her on the steps she’d been unable to hold back her question. Who could have such a hold on his heart that he’d turn down the opportunity to marry a woman who was already royalty in her own right? He tried to deny the allegation and a small part of her was hopeful she’d misjudged, that there was no one else, only for him to concede the point moments later.

The pain returned doubly hard. Real love in a royal marriage was as much a matter of luck as it was hard work but she’d had hopes that, at least after a few years had passed and an heir or two had been produced, the rapidly warming regard she felt for him would one day grow into something deep and immovable. But now it was clear it all would have been for naught. The man she had willingly pledged her life to had already formed that unfailing devotion with someone else and she couldn’t deny how badly that hurt. Especially when he acted like, for all his beloved was a commoner and penniless, she was the one out of his reach.

Even then he wasn’t through surprising her though. A minute of awkward silence later and a scroll containing title to the lands of Gedref -  the whole point for this marriage arrangement in the first place - was placed in her hands. She’d reluctantly accepted it for the peace offering it was, knowing full well that if he was willing to give it up then the only relationship they would be salvaging was political.

So it was with a heavy heart and a fleeting desire to simply forget everything, that she returned to Nemeth and her father’s court. Her father had been exceedingly kind about the whole matter, not blaming her for a moment for the failed match. In fact, she thought with faint amusement, one might get the impression he was pleased with how things had turned out. It was no secret she was his favorite, so her returning to his home unmarried - and bringing the rights to lands that had been in dispute since his grandfather’s reign - well then that was enough to satisfy him. It was not however enough for her.

When the invitation arrived some months later announcing the the marriage of King Arthur to one Guinevere Thomas she’d secretly thought it in rather poor taste. Sure, not inviting the Nemethian royal family would have been a poor oversight given the fragile state of things between the kingdoms, still sensitivity clearly wasn’t one of Arthur’s strong points. Refusing to attend could be an equal risk but, although she was pleased enough that her dismissal hadn’t been in vain, she’d always found the act of hiding her true feelings behind a false smile to be an exercise in futility.

Still, the wedding wasn’t to be held for a fortnight yet, she had time to decide what to do. Given enough time to think she eventually decided that, bruised heart aside, she had on the whole enjoyed her time in Camelot. She need only stay for the ceremony not the week of celebrations. And, she mused, perhaps Merlin would be more than stiffly polite to her now that he’d succeeded in his goal of maintaining Arthur’s faithfulness to his first object of devotion (for now she was convinced that had been the issue that rattled him).  

Maybe a return was warranted, she decided. No need to shun the whole kingdom on the actions of one person. There was an atmosphere of mystery to the ancient land and she wanted to see more of it.

After all she did rather like a mystery.

Chapter Text

“You’re the last man in the world I would expect to come offering condolences.” Arthur states taking in the tall roughly dressed man standing ill at ease in his chambers.

He looks well, Arthur thinks. Still a bit on the wild side, and his long black hair was now more than half shot through with gray. ‘Probably from spending 11 months with no company but that son of his, he added idly to himself.

The thought brings a whole new wave of pain crashing down on him. If that idiot had been here would Uther still be alive? Could he not have saved Arthur’s father the same way he had his own? Would he have even been willing to try?

Something of this questioning must have shown on his face, as Balinor’s expression darkens with obvious regret. “I’m afraid I’ve come more to apologize than anything else,” he says, voice quiet but strong. “We didn’t get word of the attack on Camelot until it had already begun. Merlin managed to sneak us down to the catacombs where we destroyed the Rowan Staff but…”

Arthur nods, knowing the rest.

Gaius had recognized the power fueling the skeleton army, but the prince had been too preoccupied with the frontal assault to locate where it was coming from. They’d been pinned down by Cenred’s forces, and, with his father blind determination to lead their forces, the call to retreat went out too late. Uther had taken a bolt through the stomach and by the time he’d made it the infirmary along with a dozen other critically wounded men it was already too late. Arthur had barely even noticed when word came through that the skeletons had fallen and the living army was in retreat. Shock, Gaius had called it.

It must still be afflicting him as it’s almost a full minute before he can give the reply the other man must be waiting for. “I don’t blame you. What you did destroyed the army and saved hundreds of lives. If you want recognition for what you’ve done-”

Balinor snorted. “I want nothing of the sort. Even if I did this is not the time. It’s not the time to thank you either but I feel I must.”

“For what?”

“For sparing my son your pain. I..” the Dragonlord swallowed hard. “The power within me is a burden passed from father to son. It came upon me when I was not much older than you. I was prepared for it, I knew what to do with the responsibility when it came. Still it nearly destroyed me. Merlin didn’t have any of what I had. If you hadn’t allowed him to heal me he would have been the one to face the terror of inherited authority alone. No father would wish that upon their son.”

“Are you trying to make me feel better or worse?” Arthur queried not at all comforted by older man’s words.

Balinor sighed. “And now you see any wisdom my son has with words comes from his mother.” He half smiles at Arthur’s snort. “I’m trying to say we’ll be here for you, both of us. In whatever capacity, whether the rest of the kingdom knows of our existence or not. It’s the least I can do.”

Arthur believes him. He doesn’t know how or why but he’s more touched by the pledge of this stranger who the prince - the king some bleary corner of his mind reminds him - only has a connection to by means of a wacky, loudmouth former servant, (who Arthur hasn’t yet seen and doesn’t want to admit he misses desperately), than any of the others, peasant and noble alike, who have done the same.

“I..I’ll have to think about it,” he manages, rapidly losing control of his emotions.

Again Balinor’s perception saves him from having to say any more. The man bows slightly and exits wondering if he should send someone to check on the boy - for of age or not a boy was really what Arthur still was - in an hour or so. He’d be safe enough doing that. In all the mess of the castle restoration an order from a random authority figure to attend the king won’t be thought about twice.

Arthur thought the Dragonlord leaving would make things easier. Instead the room feels too still and oppressive and he has to fight the urge to call the man back. Or calling anyone really, he suddenly didn’t want to be alone. But his legs were shaking, and his vision was blurring, and his voice seemed to have forgotten how to work. Quickly casting about for a chair he lowered himself down, struggling for breath and stuffing equally shaking hands beneath his arms. Somewhere off to his left is a meal brought to him hours ago that he hasn’t touched. Thinking it might be of some help he reaches out a hand and grasps a leg of what he thinks is chicken. Bringing it to his mouth his nostrils are assaulted by the aroma of his favorite spice rub. The same one that had been used the last dinner he ate with--

In that minute his control snaps. Years of training in hiding how he feels disappear. It’s all too much and all he wants to throw everything - the chicken, the table, even himself - out the nearest window.                                                                                                 


Some time later, after he’s screamed, cried, thrown things and many other actions he can’t even remember, Arthur finds himself lying curled up beside his bed, face buried in his arm, idly wondering if burning every sprig of herbs in the kingdom would do anything to ease the ache in his chest. Half of his mind tells him that’s not a healthy way of coping with his problem. The other part, invaded by dark humor he never knew he possessed, answers back ‘better herbs than people .’

He’s jolted from this contemplation of his own insanity by the sound of footsteps picking their way carefully through the damaged room. Not having bothered to open his eyes, Arthur’s other senses nevertheless register the owner of those steps coming to a stop and crouching by his side. For a moment nothing happens then, with a sigh that sounds nearly as devastated as Arthur’s earlier ones, the person reaches down and gatherers the young king into his arms.

Not expecting the sudden change in position Arthur’s first instinct is to fight, to push the arms away from himself. Then, slowly, whether triggered by smell once again or some other subtle sign, the tiny part of his mind that’s not overwhelmed by terror and heartbreak registers just who they belong to.

He’s been in contact with many arms over the past 24 hours. The knights and noblemen have clasped hands with him in support and solidarity, Morgana has hugged him in professed sympathy and shared sorrow - Arthur doesn’t want to listen to the tiny doubt in his gut over whether or not she’s sincere about that - but he knows a lot of the kindness is a front. He may be surrounded by people but none of them truly understand his feelings. In fact he’s pretty sure a few are secretly rejoicing in this turn of events. For all they compliment him on his stoicism, expressing pride at the way he’s bearing up under loss, they are secretly wondering how they can manipulate the situation - and him - to their advantage.

None of that is the case here, Arthur knows. These arms belong to the one person who can see the leader of the kingdom curled up on the floor sobbing like a small child and react with compassion, not derision. These arms want nothing more than to provide solace and protection. These arms pull him close, but without the intention of trapping him, or stroking him, or making any other gestures that might be intrusive or demeaning. These arms are just there. And, as much as he’d be humiliated by the action any other time, Arthur can’t help but sink into them.

No words are spoken and the arms continue their steady embrace until the uncrowned king slowly starts to lose his battle with his emotionally induced exhaustion. The arms leave him then, but before Arthur can fully register their loss they return. Coaxing him to rouse just a little, they ease him out of his formal attire and into his night clothes, as quickly and efficiently as if they hadn’t missed nearly a whole year of this very action. They then help him stand and guide him into bed. Arthur follows their lead willingly although the normalcy of the gestures cause a few more tears to slip down his cheeks. The other man leaves them be, a fact Arthur is grateful for.

He almost pries his eyes open as he lays down, just to look at the friend who’s been close and yet too far away for far too long. Arthur wants to thank him, to apologize, to beg him to stay by his side as much as he hates the thought of how weak that will make him appear. There will be time for all that and more though in the coming days, weeks, years. For now he’ll just cherish the cleansing feeling this moment of grieving has brought him. He knows 1000 sunrises won’t take away the pain he’s feeling tonight.

But at least, come the next one, he’ll no longer be alone.

Chapter Text

“All the supplies are gathered, and it won’t take long to get three horses prepared. We can leave at first light…” Merlin trailed off. “Arthur did you hear me? Arthur?” He snapped his fingers in the prince’s direction.

“Hm?”

“Have you been listening to a word I’ve said?”

“Have you been saying anything worth listening too?” came the surly, half distracted retort.

“No not really, just things you need to know about our mission to rescue Gwen’s brother. You know the one being held captive by Cenred as bait to lure you to your untimely demise?”

“I haven’t forgotten the mission Merlin,” Arthur said, finally looked up with his best condescending expression set on his face. “It’s just that I have thought of a last possible obstacle to our being able to leave the castle without hassle.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows in an ‘and what is that?’ manner.

“My father will want to know why I’m leaving,” Arthur informed him.

“Do you have to tell him?”

“He’s the king, Merlin. I think he’d notice if I just disappeared.”

Merlin frowned. “You’ve done it before. Can’t you just say you’ve gone hunting or something?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Just when I think I’ve seen the limits of your stupidity. Merlin, my father has not been on a hunting trip in many years but even he hasn’t forgotten that such trips do not require the use of maidservants. And someone will be bound to notice Guinevere accompanying us.”

“Ah.”

“Ah. That’s all you have to say?”

“We’ll need another excuse.”

“Brilliant deduction,” Arthur’s voice dripped with sarcasm, which Merlin either didn’t notice or else just ignored, “you have any suggestions as to what that might be?”

Merlin pondered the problem for far less time then Arthur thought was fair before he spoke up. “Gwen needs to get something for Morgana and we’re escorti…” his bright expression faltered. “No, he’d never go for that.”

“I couldn’t be seen doing something as a favor for a servant.” Arthur reminded him, annoyance coloring his tone. “But you may be onto something with using Morgana. Heaven knows she can do no wrong in his eyes.”

“Don’t I know it,” Merlin muttered. “But you don’t typically do favors for her either. Not without a fight or-”

Arthur’s eyes lit up. “Or a wager. We disagreed on something, both bet we were right and she won.” He threw up his hands in a ‘problem solved’ gesture.

“Don’t you think you need just a little more detail than that?” Merlin asked worried this was sounding too easy. “What if he asks what you have to do for her to settle the wager?”

Arthur looked annoyed at having to put more thought into the matter but he accepted the point. “I’ll tell him losing the wager requires that I get her something can only be gotten outside the city. What can we use? Jewels? No there are plenty of fine jewelers within in the city. Clothes?”

“Silk,” Merlin suggested. “The best silkworm farm is two days ride north of here, near Andor. They have weavers and everything there.”

Arthur frowned at him. “Do I want to know how you know that?” he asked.

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Undyed single silk fibers can be used to a fancy type of bandage. Gaius uses it for people who have skin irritations. It helps infections heal faster too. But they’re expensive and fragile so he tries not to use them that often. Last summer one of the lord’s wives scraped up her arm. It wasn’t bad but it needed to be bandaged up to prevent infection. Linen would have done fine but she demanded silk. Don’t ask me why. All I know is Gaius only had a couple of pieces left so he had to ride out and get some more and I was the one who had to placate the two of them until he got back.” He shuddered at the memory.

“Anyway tell your father your wager was for enough silk for Morgana to have a new dress made. That way our trip looks straightforward enough, Gwen comes too, and it doesn’t look strange. Besides everyone knows she has infinitely better taste than you do and she knows what Morgana likes. She has to come to make sure you don’t end up in a bigger hole than you already are in.”

Arthur’s glare was enough to show what he thought of Merlin’s opinion of his tastes but he put the thought aside to consider the probability of there plan working. Finally he nodded slowly.

“Good enough. Although,” he pursed his lips, “it is Morgana. I better make it silk enough for two dresses. Come on,” he clapped Merlin on the shoulder, “my father usually arrives at the counsel room for a half hour before meetings to review the agenda. If we’re quick he should be sufficiently distracted not to make a fuss over my interrupting. Let’s get this over with.”

Chapter Text

“The king would have your head…

Stick to girls who are more... on your level.”

Arthur barely withheld a cringe as he uttered those words. He knew full well how hypocritical they made him sound. But if they were the only way to get into Merlin’s thick skull just how dangerous the circumstances he’d put himself in were, then they had to be said. If Arthur’s seeing the signs then Uther would be able to as well. He can’t allow that to happen. Merlin’s braver than he gets credit for, but this was a battle neither he nor Morgana would win.

Merlin sputters at Arthur’s words, trying to evade the conclusions his master had come to, distract him the way he has in the past. Arthur understood the worry and confusion the attempt at casualness was covering up, he couldn’t even help having a bit of sympathy for the situation. Morgana is a beautiful woman and she’s always been especially kind to Merlin. His servant wouldn’t be the first to fall for her. Arthur wouldn’t even have been that concerned but for the fact that lately Morgana seemed to be forming an attachment to Merlin in return.

Arthur knew from experience how much pain came from falling for a person you couldn’t have. And he didn’t have the added danger of getting banished - or worse - if it’s found out who the object of his affection was. These two could never be together. His father wouldn’t allow Morgana to marry a servant any more than he would allow Arthur to. And given Merlin’s background and lack of any truly useful skills there’s little chance of his status ever improving enough to change that. The sooner those facts are accepted, the faster the pain will go away. At least that’s Arthur’s theory.

Knowing the first step in dealing with the problem would be getting Merlin to admit to it, Arthur had tried dropping hints about their behavior earlier that week. He’d called Merlin out on the flowers he’d picked for her, hoping it would clue the boy in that his actions wouldn’t be seen by the majority as simple kindness, the sort of thing a friend would do for someone.

Not that a servant could even be friends with the king’s ward - as he informed Merlin quite candidly. No one would approve of it, and to force the issue was simply not safe. Arthur’s allowed Merlin more freedom then he should in the way the two of them interacted - mainly because it was such a refreshing change from how everyone else treated him. But for many of the other nobleman all it would take is one show of insolence, be it in word or action, and Merlin would be lucky to leave Camelot with his skin intact.

For the first time in his life Arthur found that a bit unfair, but there was nothing he could do save keep the situation from ever getting to that point. Someday when Arthur became king - if Merlin managed to still be around then - perhaps that would change. There were a lot of things Arthur would change when he was king... Shaking his head he forced his thoughts away from Guinevere. He didn’t need to be fighting his own feelings right now. Trying to sort Merlin’s love life was taxing enough.

Scolding complete, and Merlin quiet if not cowed, Arthur gave him a not unkind clap on the shoulder and moved away from Morgana’s rooms back in the direction of Gaius’. Hearing the younger man fall into step behind him he breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

The prince was going to have to be even more diligent in keeping his servant occupied and away from that part of the castle, especially at late hours of night. He shuddered at the thought of what would have happened of someone besides him had seen Merlin enter and leave Morgana’s chamber unattended.

Moving on automatic Arthur spent the journey back musing on how he could guarantee keeping the two of them apart. Reluctantly he came to the conclusion his best chance would just be to keep as close an eye on Merlin as possible, even though that meant having him underfoot even more than he already was.

Many of his chores could be done in Arthur’s chambers so that part would be easy enough. As long as he could manage a way to keep him quiet while Arthur was doing serious work. The prince snorted - like that would happen. Maybe he could get a hold of some cotton to stuff in his ears.

As for the chores that would require him to be out of sight… Arthur supposed some of them could be assigned to others temporarily, (not that he wanted Merlin getting used to that) and the rest would just have to be meticulously scheduled for times when the king’s ward was wholly occupied elsewhere. Preferably in full sight of those who would consider it quite suspicious if someone who wasn’t her regular attendant was accompanying her.

Just thinking about how much of his time would be involved in all this made Arthur want to groan. He’d managed long campaigns before - on paper anyway - but this one was already giving him a headache. Perhaps he should ask for a tonic when he dropped his servant off.

Arthur’s best hope was that being out of the woman’s orbit for a while would be a quick enough cure for his servant’s infatuation. In the year they had known each other, Merlin had either bounced back from things right away or not bounced back at all - he still couldn’t say Will’s or Lancelot’s names without flinching. Arthur just prayed this was one of the former.

He’d do whatever it took to get Merlin through this (although he didn’t want the younger man getting any idea he cared that much) but he still didn’t fancy doing so for a moment longer than necessary.

As he pushed his servant through the door to the physician’s quarters - with the strict understanding that if he wasn’t on time in the morning he would find the consequences extremely unpleasant - a new thought occurred to Arthur.

When force wasn’t an option, a good strategist would implement diversionary tactics. He couldn’t exactly force Merlin to give up on Morgana - not when he could have his feelings for someone of a different station thrown back in his face - but there was always the possibility of getting him interested in someone else. Setting people up was definitely not within Arthur’s scope of dealings so he definitely wouldn’t be handling that personally, but if he could get Guinevere on to the task…

Arriving at his chambers with a much lighter load on his mind Arthur chided himself for getting worked up about the matter. What was he always telling Merlin about his having been trained to fight since birth? This was nothing he couldn’t handle.

Now if only his own feelings could be so easily sorted... Ah well, that was a battle for another day.

Chapter Text


 

Morgana was properly scared out of her mind even before Merlin burst into the room she hid in. The worried scowl on his face did nothing to reassure her. Though his face did brighten when he saw her unharmed. She quickly pressed him for what he knew of the situation.

He and Arthur were the only ones to survive an attack by the knights of Medhir, he told her. Soldiers had been on their heels the whole ride back, and they’d arrived to find everyone unresponsive and the citadel open and vulnerable to attack. There was no obvious reason as to why and they’d split up to look for anyone who might still be awake.

Her heart sank when he said he was in the dark as to the cause of the people’s condition. She’d really hoped she’d been wrong.

Taking a deep breath she met his eyes. “Merlin I need your help. I think.. I don’t know how but I think I know who is causing this.”

“Who? Tell me,” He urged.

“Do you remember the woman who came to Camelot disguised as a knight and challenged Arthur to a duel?”

Merlin’s jaw tightened and she swore she saw his eyes flash briefly. “You mean Morgause. Yes I remember her all too well.”

She was taken aback by the anger in his tone and swallowed hard before continuing. “She came to see me then. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew her from somewhere, but she denied it. She was kind to me, gave me something to help with my...my dreams. And when she contacted me a few weeks later I didn’t see any harm in continuing the association.”

“No harm?” Merlin hissed. “She nearly tricked Arthur into murdering his father.”

“Would that be so wrong?” Morgana snapped. At Merlin’s shocked expression she hurried on. “Uther’s murdered thousands of innocent people, he’s cruel and has no mercy for those who contradict him, it doesn’t matter who they are. Have you forgotten the week Arthur spent in the dungeons for daring to save your life? The world would be a better place without him and you know it.”

Merlin’s eyes flashed with anger but he shook it away. “Even if that were true, what does it have to do with all this?”

“Morgause visits sometimes. Despite what you think of her she’s helped me where no one else has. She called for me last night, out in the Darkling Woods. I went to her we talked for a few minutes. Something was off about her manner. She was just as friendly, said she would take care of things, but it was like she was keeping something back. Then..” She shook her head. “I don’t remember what happened. It was after midnight when we spoke and the next thing I knew it was morning and I was still in the middle of the forest. When I got back to the castle, everyone I spoke to was exhausted. Then one by one they fell asleep. Everyone, the townspeople, the guards, Gwen, I tried to find help but everywhere I went it was the same thing. Then I heard someone coming and I panicked. That’s why I was hiding. This can’t be coincidence, I..I think..”

“Morgause cursed Camelot, and she used you to do it,” Merlin finished. “It’s perfect really. You’re the king’s ward, you go everywhere about the town and castle. And anyone who gets near you falls asleep. With you doing her dirty work she can march her soldiers right in and no one gets in her way. Well, no one except me and Arthur.”

“And me!” She exclaimed. “I mean it. I didn’t know, I swear I didn’t ask her to do this! I didn’t know she was planning an attack!”

“Innocent people are going to die because of this! Have died actually. She’s got a pack of immortal soldiers out there!” He was leaning in close to her and his anger was disconcerting to say the least. It took her a minute to settle her own.

“Merlin please, I didn’t want this!” She stated calmly albeit still shakily. “I’ve only ever wanted Uther to pay for what he’s done. She told me he would pay for the crimes he’s committed against his people. She didn’t say anything about killing anyone else.”

Merlin pinched his nose but said nothing.

“You have to believe me!” she pleaded. “I don’t want Arthur or Gwen or anyone else to suffer for my mistake. I’ll do whatever it takes to stop this Merlin, I will!”

The young man in front of her sighed and shook his head slightly. “As will I,” he said. Turning around he headed toward the door.

“Where are you going?!”

“Gaius has a book about everything. Now that we know a spell’s causing this, there may be a potion or a stimulant of some kind we can make to wake people up. At least that way they can find shelter.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No.” Merlin thought quickly, “The longer I’m around you, I can feel the spell starting to work. Besides the further into the castle you are when the attack starts, the safer you’ll be. Arthur’s gone to look for the king. If I see him I’ll tell him where you are. Stay here until one of us comes for you.”

“You won’t tell him about..?” she asked tentatively.

“Not unless I have to,” he answered. “You got played Morgana, but that doesn’t mean this is any less your fault.” She flinched prompting him to soften his tone, “Make up for it by helping out now. And you have to promise me that if we live through this you will never seek Morgause out again.”

Morgana frowned, “Merlin she’s my family.”

"So is Arthur,” he retorted. “He loves you and trusts you, and he would never betray that trust by tricking you into becoming a pawn to be used against the people you love.”

Tears filled her green eyes but he didn’t take back his words. Their gazes locked for a long time before it finally became clear to her he wasn’t going to budge. If she wanted to fix things between her friends it would have to be on his terms. A few of the tears escaping down her cheeks she nodded, “I promise.”


Arthur had come for her soon after Merlin left, saying he needed her to guard the king while he tried to fight off the soldiers who’d made it into the citadel. That’s when the strangest thing happened.

Left alone once again, Uther completely at her mercy, Morgana found she had a strong reluctance to kill him. It wasn’t from a fear of punishment, she was safe enough there. Merlin would know she’d done it of course, but it’d be his word against hers and Arthur would never stand for the accusation. No it was more than that...

Before her agitated pacing could come up with an answer Merlin returned. He was unhurt but looked as though he’d been through a battle nonetheless. He stared at her for what felt likehours, a question burning in his red rimmed eyes. One of his hands rested subconsciously in his pocket, as if he had an answer there he didn’t know if he wanted to use. His gaze drifted over to where the king was sitting slumped against the table, unconscious but alive. Morgana thought she saw a flicker of relief in his blue eyes but it was gone before she could fully register it.

“Well, did you find an answer?” she asked impatiently.

“There’s no way to wake everyone while the curse is still active. We have to lift it or everyone will be stuck like this.”

“How do we lift it?”

Merlin looked away unable to hold her gaze. “This has happened only twice before that I could find. The first time the sorcerer lifted the spell on his own, the other-” his voice choked off.

“What?” Morgana moved to his side, taking his arm in an effort to understand his distress. “Just tell me,” she murmured.

He sniffed and finally looked at her. “The other time-” he cleared his throat, “the other time the person anchoring the spell had to die.”

She quickly seized onto the first option he mentioned. “So when Morgause comes, I’ll tell her I didn’t agree to other people getting hurt through her plan to stop Uther. I’ll ask her to remove the curse, she’ll do it if I’m the one to ask it of her.”

He wasn’t convinced. “I hope so, otherwise…”

“You’d kill me?” Morgana was incredulous.

“No! But deceiving her and getting away with our lives is going to be tricky. She’s going to have to believe her actions have put you in danger,” he explained. “If we can get her to think you’re dying or will die because of the curse she might lift it to save you. I have something that might work but you’ll have to be convincing.”

He finally pulled his hand out of his pocket and held it out to her, a tiny glass vial just visible in his fist. It takes her less than a minute to decipher what he’s not saying. Morgause will have to believe Morgana will kill herself if she doesn’t do what her sister asks.

She swallowed hard. “You’re asking me to choose Uther over my sister.”

“I’m asking you choose what’s right over what’s easy. The Morgana I know would understand that. She’d do the right thing, never mind the consequences. How can we judge Uther for letting innocents die if we’re willing to do the same?”

She wished he hadn’t put it so bluntly but couldn’t argue the point. Squeezing her eyes shut against more tears she tried to think of what to say to Morgause while Merlin got the king out of sight.

It wasn’t not long before they heard the pounding of several sets of boots on the stone floor outside. Merlin grabbed a spare sword and tucked himself behind the curtain leading to the room’s antechamber. They both knew the sword will be useless against the Knights of Medhir but he privately thought it might prove adequate cover for his magic. At least for a few seconds.  

“Remember I’ll only have 20 minutes to get the antidote in you,” he said watching her spin the vial in her hand. “Don’t take it unless you have to.”

“Antidote?” She asked.

He gave her a half smile, at last looking a bit like his usual self. “I don’t want you to die Morgana. I believe you’re wrong but I don’t turn my back on my friends. Not if they don’t turn their backs on me.”

She met his eyes, the beginnings of gratitude on her face when the doors fly open with a bang. Morgause strode in, blonde hair and blue cape flowing freely, flanked by two of her knights. Her brown eyes swept the room eagerly, stopping when they come to rest on Morgana standing pale and determined in the middle of the room. A triumphant smile played on the sorceress’ lips as she moved forward arms outstretched.

“Ah, I’ve found you at last sister. How are you enjoying the fruits of all our hard work.”

Morgana shook her head stepping back from her embrace. “This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to end Uther’s tyranny Morgause. Innocent people are suffering from this plan of your’s.”

The older woman’s smile didn’t falter. “You have a kind heart sister. But I assure you if there were another way it was lost to us long ago. Sometimes we must do things that are..distasteful in order to get what we deserve.” 

“Distasteful?” Morgana arched a brow as her sister moved away from her toward the window. “Does that include making me the basis for a spell without my consent? Tricking me into harming those I wish no harm to come to.”

Morgause turned back a slight frown creasing her brow. “Sister I assure you I meant you no harm. The sleeping curse needs an anchor it’s true, but there is no need to concern yourself with the details. And anyway this is the best way to save lives. My knights and I entered the city with no resistance, no one stood in our way so no lives needed to be lost.” Morgana didn’t answer and Morgause took her hands again. “I see I have frightened you, and I’m sorry for it.”

“But people are resisting Morgause. I’ve heard sounds of battle even from this room. Arthur is still out there, he will not give up his kingdom willingly.”

“The prince is no threat to us,” the blonde sneered. “My knights will crush any petty resistance he comes up with. All you need do is be around him a few minutes. No one can resist the spell for long, once he’s asleep putting an end to him will be easy.”

From the corner of her eye Morgana could see Merlin beginning to sway on his feet, giving credence to Morgause claims. He was well hidden but if he collapsed now the others would be sure to hear. And they’d show him no mercy. She had to end this now.

“We don’t need the spell to kill Arthur,” she said, praying the disgust she feels over those words doesn’t bleed through to her voice. “No one is strong enough to defeat your army. We’ve accomplished our goal, you can lift the spell.”

The frown returned to the older woman’s face. “Morgana, it can wait.”

“No it really can’t.” Her frustration made her tone harsher than she intended.

“Sister we are too close to our goal-”

“Your goal Morgause. I don’t want to be a part of this any longer. I want Uther gone but I want peace for Camelot, not oppression. I need you to lift the spell.” She forced an appealing smile on to her lips. “Please? For me?”

Morgause looked uncertain for a moment, then she sighed. “I hoped you would be stronger. I care for you Morgana, I do. But I can’t let you interfere with my plans. One day you will understand why such measures are necessary.” She gestured over her shoulder and the two soldiers moved toward Morgana.

One reached for her and Morgana jerked away, snatching the vial from the sash of her gown. “You’re wrong Sister, that is the one thing I do understand.” She lifted the vial to her mouth, downing the poison in one gulp. Immediately a fire began to burn in her throat and her vision blurred. Feeling her knees go weak she slowly sunk to the floor.

The last thing she heard was a crash and the sound of someone screaming her name.


Morgana awakened slowly to a pounding head and the sound of soft footsteps. Slowly she lifted her head enough to look around. She was in her own room, Gwen puttering about cleaning and setting the room to rights. She turned just as Morgana started to sit up and immediately rushed to her side.

“My lady! I’m so glad you’re alright. I was so afraid!”

“What happened?” Morgana tried to ask.

“You’ve been unconscious for an entire day,” her maid answered arranging a pillow behind her.  

Morgana frowned. “What happened, where is everyone? Are you alright? Arthur and Merlin?”

“We’re fine. Everything is alright. The sorceress is gone as are the knights. Everything is ok.”

“What happened? I don’t really remember...? Morgana trailed off not sure what story Gwen’s heard.

“Merlin said Morgause attacked the two of you and-” Gwen’s cut off by a knock at the door. At her mistress nod she went to answer.

“Prince Arthur.”

“Guinevere.” Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly and peaked around the door. “Morgana, I only wanted to see if you were alright.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Morgana answered. “Come in.” He did so as Gwen slipped out to get Morgana some supper. “Is Merlin with you?”

“I’m here.” The man in question said as he entered the room on his master’s heels.

“My memories are a little fuzzy, what happened?”

“Merlin tells me you two were reckless fools taking on the sorceress without backup,” Arthur answered.

“I most definitely did not say it like that,” Merlin huffed.

Arthur ignored him. He spoke with a scolding edge to his voice. “He says you managed to catch Morgause off guard when she broke into the room and in return she knocked the two of you on your heads with her magic. You know you could have been killed Morgana.” He looked at her expectantly and she managed a nod as though confirming his words.

“The bright side,” Arthur continued after a moment, “is that what you did managed to wound her badly enough that she no longer had enough strength to support the spell. By the time I got to you the soldiers had returned to death and she had fled.” He gave her a half smile. “Father’s calling you a hero and I can’t disagree with him. As much as it pains me to admit it.”

“I helped,” Merlin quipped. “Did he call me a hero too?”

 “Shut up Merlin.” Arthur retorted. Merlin rolled his eyes behind the prince and Morgana smiled, then yawned.

“You’re tired still,” the prince acknowledged. “We’ll leave you to rest. Come Merlin.”

“Merlin wait.” They both turned to look at her and Morgana thought quickly. “I would like some water.”

“My chambers when you’re done.” Arthur ordered. Merlin nodded and he went out.

Merlin poured a cup of water from a pitcher on the table and brought it to Morgana’s bedside. She accepted it and took a long grateful sip, grabbing his wrist when he started to step back.

She rested the cup on her nightstand and looked up at him. “What really happened?” she asked her voice low and urgent.

 "After you…” he cleared his throat, and matched her tone. “After you swallowed the poison, Morgause panicked. It was as if she couldn’t process what was happening and didn’t know whether to be heartbroken or furious.”

“That’s strange, she always seemed so collected before.”

Merlin shrugged. “I can’t explain it. Between losing control of her soldiers and trying to heal you with her magic, she was distracted enough for me to get a piece of her with one of the swords. She’s strong enough for it not do any permanent damage,” he added seeing the conflicted expression on her face. “But seeing me just added to her confusion. We could hear others coming by that point and Uther was starting to stir. I think she realized she was outnumbered. She called a whirlwind of some kind and vanished. I had to rush to get the antidote in you before the others arrived. It started working, but you were still unconscious so I had to make up a story as to why. Everyone swallowed it, especially when Gaius told them you’d be fine with enough rest.”

“So Gaius knows everything now?” she asked somewhat bitterly.

“No, he doesn’t. He knows what poison you took just so he could confirm that you’d have no more trouble with your recovery. But I won’t tell him why we did what we did.”

Her frown turned questioning. “Why would you keep it from him?”

He sighed. “I’ve kept things from you too, and he’s kept secrets from both of us. Right or wrong we make choices. Mine haven’t always been the best, his haven’t always been the best, helping Morgause definitely wasn’t your best.” He shrugged again and squeezed her hand. “You do something, and if it’s wrong you do what you can to fix it. You’ve made up for your mistake. Why should I hurt everyone by blabbing about it? That’s not how friends should behave, and I meant it when I said you’re my friend.”

She looked at him for a long time before smiling softly. “I’ll never take that for granted again.”

He smiled back, then turned to go. Once at the door he hesitated, looking back over his shoulder, “Morgana?”

“Yes?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again shaking his head a little. “I’m glad you're back.”

The familiar words settled something inside her. They were simple and at the same time not, each one holding a little regret for the past and simultaneously a promise for the future. She wasn’t quite sure if hers said the same thing to him but she repeated them anyway.

“Thank you Merlin.”

Chapter Text

“I’m not back 5 minutes and you’re already needing me to take care of you.” Merlin teased, taking in the battered looking king standing at the entrance to his private study.

“Merlin,” said king groaned.

Shaking his head, the dark haired warlock set down the bag he was unpacking and came around the table to help Arthur sit. He then carefully removed his friend’s upper armor and whistled at the condition of his back and shoulder.  

“That’s some pretty spectacular bruising. You want to tell me what happened?”

“A new pair of recruits happened,” Arthur sighed. “We’ve been working on tag team attacks, one of them acting as distraction while the other attempts to sneak in from behind. These two managed to pull it off.”

“Mmm,” Merlin moved to collect supplies, “and where was your partner, taking a nap?” At Arthur’s silence he glanced back over his shoulder. “Arthur?” The king wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“You didn’t have one did you?”

“We’re shorthanded.” The other man tried to protest.

Merlin crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow in the manner of a scolding parent. When Arthur broke eye contact with a contrite murmur, he let a huff and returned to the king’s side. “Your lucky I keep medicine on me at all times,” he said crossly.

Dipping a cloth in warm water, Merlin carefully cleaned the sweat off Arthur’s back then lightly dabbed something cold and smelly over the injured area being careful not to press too hard on the already abused skin. “You know I’m only concerned,” he murmured more gently. “You have much more valuable things to live for now than just the kingdom. I don’t fancy raising the future king all over again.”

Arthur tried to whack him for that comment, but it ended up as barely a tap. Merlin chuckled and handed him a vial. “Drink this, it’ll help keep it from getting inflamed.”

Arthur downed the potion in a gulp, grimacing at the taste. He had to admit though, what Merlin said was true. Not for the first time, Arthur found himself musing on how much their lives had changed over the last 18 or so years. Marriages - first his then Merlin’s - followed by the births of soon to be five children between them, had all contributed to an almost complete overhaul in their interactions.

Merlin had given up his manservant duties some years before (not without protest) and finally taken a place at court (not without almost violent protest) meaning their constant, almost joined at the hip, time together slowly settled into a calmer routine. They still saw each other every day but the vast majority of the time it was at a meeting, or when their families met for dinner. Rarely do they have time for anything more.

But Merlin’s just returned from a visit to his wife’s family, and Arthur doesn’t have anywhere to be that can’t wait. He has a sudden nostalgic urge to just talk to his friend. Like they used to.

Merlin cleared his throat, bringing the king back to the present. “So,” he said.

“So?” Arthur asked.

Merlin did the eyebrow again.

“Oh, right. Um, thank you.”

“Oh. You’re welcome.” Merlin answered, a slightly puzzled look on his face. “But I meant ‘so’ as in ‘so are you going to tell me what’s wrong’? Is someone ill? Or did Ector shirk training again while I was gone?”

Arthur sighed. “No everyone’s fine. Emmy had a slight cold but Gwen gave her your special syrup and she perked up again within a day or two. And Ector… well he went when he was told to but..”

“He did well?”

“Oh yes. In fact when he puts his mind to it, he’s exceptional - and I’m not just saying that as his father - but getting him to practice feels like a chore. Nothing I try holds any appeal for him. It seems he’s more interested in reading the dusty old books his uncle sends him then being outside on the training fields.”

Merlin hid an unrepentant grin. “Give him time Arthur. He’s only eight.”

“What does that matter? I had to drill every day when I was his age.”

“Exactly, had too . You didn’t have a choice, right now Ector does.”

”It wasn’t a chore for me, I loved it.”

“And you want him to love it too which is why you need to give him time . What does Gwen say about it all?”

“The same thing you are,” Arthur admits sullenly. “That if I force him to train the way I did he’ll just find new ways to evade me.”

Merlin’s quiet for a moment then says thoughtfully, “Maybe..maybe find a way to teach the way he learns. Don’t make every day just a repetition of what he already knows. He loves to learn new things. See if he’ll read books on fighting styles or strategies.

“You can’t learn to fight from a book Merlin.”

“Says you, I did,” Merlin informs him. “My point,” he continued before Arthur could speak, “is that maybe it’ll get him excited about training. If he reads about something that appeals to him, have him tell you. You can work on it with him on it until he gets it right. That may spark him to want to learn more. Then you slowly work in learning more exotic techniques with his regular training. Make those a reward until he loves both?”

Arthur nodded slowly, impressed. “You’ve really gotten good at this.”

“Had to, it’s become clear to me children do not automatically follow in their parents footsteps. You should remember how long it took to get William to be willing to even get within 100 yards of Aithusa.”

Arthur winced sympathetically. No one would ever have imagined that the son of a dragonlord - and future dragonlord himself - would suddenly at two years of age develop an unhealthy terror of the creatures. No one was really sure as to why although his parents tried everything they could think of to ease his fear. Eventually they accepted that they had to let him work it out in his own time. Thankfully the older he got he seemed to do just that. Now at five and a half, he was ok with having them nearby, just so long as he could stay within the safety of his parent’s reach the entire time.

“Maybe you’re right.” Arthur finally conceded. If Merlin could adapt to his son’s tricky needs, than he could too.

“‘Course I am.” Merlin grinned at him, playfully smug.

Time passed leisurely as they continued to chat about everything and nothing and, as Arthur eventually pulled himself to his feet, he realized that he no longer felt any pain from his injury. In fact he felt lighter and more at ease than he had in months.

Merlin stood too, rattling off some directions about Arthur’s shoulder that the king only half listened to. Reaching over he instead pulled his friend into a tight hug. Truth be told, Arthur still wasn’t all that fond of hugs so they were a rare thing for the two of them, but this occasion seemed to call for one. The warlock startled briefly, then returned the embrace.

Arthur pulled away carefully and gave Merlin a smile before turning to leave.

His friend’s annoyed voice stopped him.“You going to do something about all this?” he asked, gesturing to the king’s armor that lay in a pile beside the bench.

“I’ll have someone bring it to my chambers later.”

“By "someone" you mean me, and by "later" you mean after my boys decide to see which of them can levitate more pieces and get themselves in a tussle,” Merlin translated.

“I thought they weren’t allowed up here.” Arthur commented.

Merlin gave him a look. “They’re my children, telling them not to do something is as good as daring them to do it. You should understand.”

“Sadly I do,” Arthur sighed. “And to think I can’t even console you with the thought that the next one might be a girl.”

Considering the amount of trouble the princess had caused in her six short years of life, Merlin had to agree.

The two men stood in silence, ruminating over the joys and frustrations of having children who were a little too much like them. Arthur soon smiled again though. “Merlin?”

“Hmm?”

“Thank you old friend.”

“For the armor or for patching you up, again?” Was the cheerful retort he received.

Arthur quirked an eyebrow and Merlin’s eyes softened in return.

“Anytime.”

Chapter Text

It was a day for opposites Gwaine decided.

It was the beginning of winter so naturally the sun was baking the whole valley to a crisp. His newly acquired horse was “the pride of the lot” and “had thrived under the best care” or so her previous owner had claimed. So naturally the filthy nag threw a shoe after less than 3 miles and now fancied itself lame, leaving him walking just the same as he had been before - only rather poorer. One your average day Gwaine himself was an outgoing, extroverted, love to chat up anyone and everyone type of person, today he wanted nothing more then to be left alone.

He’d finally collapsed in the shade of a giant oak tree on the outskirts of the sole village in this part of the wilderness. There’d been a big enough patch of grass to amuse the insolent animal for a while and Gwaine decided he might as well catch a nap. Perhaps the break would improve both their spirits.

He was just drifting off when a loud crunch sounded nearby. Startling upright he saw a small boy no older than six crouched nearby, staring at him curiously. His light brown hair was sticking up every which way, and he had juice running down his chin, no doubt from the brightly skinned apple he had clutched in his hand.

The boy tipped his head at him. “Who are you?”

“No one.” Gwaine answered shortly.

The child was unfazed by the grumpy reply. His eye wandered over to the sword lying next to Gwaine. “Are you a knight?”

Shaking his head at the irony, the man in question answered, “Haha yeah Sir Gwaine, that’ll be the day. No, I’m just a traveler.”

“Your name is Gwaine?”

“Yup. You got a name?” The boy nodded. “Well can you tell me what it is?” Another nod. Gwaine couldn’t help but laugh, “Like the direct approach I see. Very well. What’s your name kid?”

“Jonah.” The boy said after a moment.

“Quite the treat you have there lad.” Gwaine nodded to the half finished apple which the boy promptly hid behind his back. “Hey now. I’m not going to take it from you.”

“Do you like apples?” Jonah asked quietly.

“Indeed I do. Do you know where I could get some?”

The boy stared at him for a long minute then abruptly nodded and started walking off. “This way,” he called over his shoulder.

Sparing a moment to retrieve his horse - he had spent good coin on the thing after all, it wouldn’t do to have her stolen - Gwaine followed after the kid.

Within a short time they reach their destination, a large, low branched tree practically sagging under the weight of it’s crop. Gwaine marveled that it hadn’t been picked over by more than just one small boy.  

Jonah shrugged when he asked the question. “It was papa’s tree, he took me to it. I come by myself now.”

“Ah.” Was all Gwaine could think to say. He briefly pondered mentioning his own lack of a father but the boy had clearly decided he’d had enough of talking and had instead pulled himself up and onto one of the fuller branches. Grabbing one of the larger apples with both hands he gave it a twist and a yank. After a quick inspection of the fruit, he gave a satisfied nod and offered it to the errant wanderer.

Gwaine accepted it and settled back down on the cool grass at the base of the tree. A heartbeat or two later and the boy shimmied down from his perch to sit next to him. They stayed there together eating and talking - the boy didn’t get Gwaine’s sense of humor but did enjoy a few of his stories -  until the sun was burning low on the horizon.

Then Jonah pulled himself to his feet. “Momma said be home before dark.”

“You’d better hurry then.” Gwaine told him.

“I don’t want to walk back by myself,” the child pouted.

“You walked out here by yourself,” his companion countered unable to completely hide his smile.

The boy merely held out his hand and stared at him endearingly.

Conceding defeat - because what else could he do? - Gwaine sighed and got to his feet. Untying his now perfectly content horse he gestured for Jonah to run ahead and followed him at a leisurely pace.

They reached the village in just a few minutes and Jonah didn’t venture very far into the main square, instead turning toward what appeared to have at one time been a small inn. He marched up to the entrance and pushed his way inside with all the confidence of a child entering through his front door, which led Gwaine to believe that was exactly what he was doing. It also left him with something of a dilemma. He didn’t want to just assume his task was accomplished but at the same time it would be most improper to to enter a stranger’s home unannounced. He’d learned his lesson about that more than a time or two.

He was saved by the sound of an exasperated woman’s voice approaching him. “Jonah Mathias what have I told you about leaving the door open! You never know who- Oh!” The woman broke off with a start at seeing a stranger on her front stoop. “Can I help you?” she asked, a wary look in her gray-blue eyes.

Jonah’s small head poked it’s way between her and the door frame. “This is my Momma,” he informed, just in case Gwaine hadn’t been able to figure that out for himself.

Putting on his best charming smile, the visitor sketched a half bow in her direction. “Apologies ma’am, your son was kind enough to show me where some of your neighborhoods best late season apples could be found. In return he requested I act as escort for his trip home.” He offered his hand, “the name’s Gwaine.”

She stared at him for a moment before taking the offered hand. “Nell.”

“A fine young lad you have,” Gwaine said sincerely. “Quite the sense of adventure.”

She smiled slightly worriedly, “Thank you.”

“Well, uh” he cleared his throat. “I must be off.”

“You can stay for dinner.” A little voice interrupts the awkwardness only to add to it.  

“Jonah!” Nell hissed, shooing her son inside much to his protests. She shut the door behind him. “I hope you don’t think me ungrateful,” she told Gwaine, “but I’m afraid I don’t have enough to cook for company. We’re barely making it as it is. Boys eat a rather a lot, I’m sure you know.”

He laughed. “I do indeed. And I’ve no wish to intrude. I shouldn’t have dallied as long I have, but your boy is quite persuasive.”

She smiled again, fondly this time. “He is at that. Well, I wish you luck on your journey. Er, wherever that may be.”

He shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine at this point. But I thank for your well wishes.”

She nodded and turned to go inside. The door had barely cracked open when Jonah squeezed his way through the opening to wave goodbye. He looked so sad at the thought of his new friend new friend leaving so soon that Gwaine crouched to look him in the eye.

“Tell you what little man, if I’m ever back this way I’ll come look you up.”

“He’ll hold you to that.” Nell warned him, her son nodding vigorously.

He nodded back with a chuckle then started leading his horse back along the road. “I like him momma,” was the last thing he heard before he was out of earshot of the house. The words made him pause in his tracks.

Gwaine was no fool. For all his boisterousness and revelry, he knew wasn’t the type of person that was “liked”. On the best days he was tolerated, and even then often only because he had a skill someone needed. Merlin had been the first in many years not to care about the facade he worked to put up around others. But Merlin was in Camelot, and living for survival made it difficult to remember people like him existed. Now though it seemed they did, at least in the form of one little fatherless boy.

Reaching inside his tunic Gwaine rubbed his father’s necklace between his thumb and first finger. Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t lost for good after all.

Late that night a mother and son tucked themselves into bed by a dying fire, one of them at least going to sleep with a lighter heart due to receiving their own small reminder that there was decency still left in the world.

Whether either one would ever see their new acquaintance again remained to be seen. But finding a basket full of crisp, ripe apples on their doorstep the next morning did much to ensure he would never be forgotten.

 

Chapter Text


 

The steady sound of his sword being cleaned and polished had been playing in the back of Arthur’s head for some time as he endeavored to slug his way through the pile of reports on his desk. The familiarity of it was comforting, so much so that he actually found the silence a little jarring when the sound finally ceased. Before long the silence was replaced with the sound of a faint whisper and a small whoosh of air.

The prince raised his head to see Merlin sitting cross legged on the bench at the end of Arthur’s bed. The sword he’d been tending to lay forgotten across his lap as he stared at a small fire flickering in the palm of his hand. His appearance was of a man closed off to the world so absorbed was he in making the flames dance and play across his fingertips.

The sight was rather mesmerizing, Arthur thought, and for the first time since he’d begun witnessing the free use of magic in his private chambers, it didn’t make him queasy. Rather this time there was a spark of curiosity inside him.

Merlin - after the initial shock had worn off for both of them - had practically begged him to ask questions about his magic but Arthur had hesitated up to this point, too busy trying not to worry himself over the matter to learn more about it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know everything in any case. The more he knew, the harder it would be to wait until he was king to start working on the laws.

Still he couldn’t rightly demand his servant be truthful and reach out to him when he wasn’t willing to do the same. So gathering his courage he asked a question that, in all honesty, he’d wanted the answer to for some time.

“Does being here ever frighten you?”

“Here?” Merlin asked glancing about the room.

Arthur had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. “Not in my room dimwit, I mean Camelot in general.”  

Merlin looked over and frowned at him, unsure of the meaning behind the question. “I told you I trust you Arthur,” he said slowly. “You said as long as I behaved you’d see to it no one found out my secret. I believe you’ll keep your word.”

“No, I didn’t mean were you afraid of me I just...” Arthur almost gave up, not wanting to have to explain, but then cursed himself for being a coward. Gesturing with his quill to Merlin’s hand he clarified, “You are literally playing with fire. In fact I’ve never seen you hesitate around it. And yet you… you know what happens to any sorcerer found in this kingdom. You risk death by fire every day. I guess what I mean is how can you go day by day surrounded by people and things that would kill you in moment if they knew who you were?” ‘Nice going Arthur, are you trying to drive him away?’

Thankfully Merlin didn’t seem offended although his lip quirked just enough to suggest the suppression of a laugh.

“Fire’s not the only way to kill a person,” Merlin reminded him, a shade too cheerfully. “I could end up run through with a sword, doesn’t stop me taking care of yours,” he gestured to the one still occupying his lap. “Or theoretically, I could fall down a well somewhere and drown. It’s happened ,” he added when Arthur gave a snort. “But I still draw water.”

He shrugged. “Lots of things could kill me. If I let myself think about it, I’d never have the courage to do anything. I won’t stop living my life just because of what might happen.”

Arthur chewed his lip. “But why take the risk? Why stay here when you could go somewhere else, at least until things are safer.”

Merlin smiled a little sadly. “I’m not sure anywhere is truly safe and I would never betray my responsibilities like that. It’d be like you sending your knights out to fight an opposing army while you stayed tucked in the citadel nice and secure.”

Arthur nodded reluctantly, accepting the point. “Still, you can’t say you’re never afraid.”

“All the time,” Merlin agreed, the truth of that statement painfully clear on his face. “But no more than you are.”

“I beg your pardon,” Arthur sputtered.

Merlin smirked briefly. “I can read between the lines you know. You once you told me there’s no shame in admitting to yourself you’re afraid,” he reminded the prince. “It’s what you do with the fear that shows if you’re brave or a coward.”

“That comes from years of training Merlin. From knowing exactly how much people are depending on you keeping a clear head, and exactly what consequences they will suffer if you don’t.”

“My point exactly.” Merlin informed him. Arthur looked at him in disbelief but his serious expression didn’t waver. Finally the prince broke eye contact, a conflicted look on his face.

Thinking the conversation over Merlin turned his attention back to the fire in his hand, distracting himself by forming it into a series of little animals. He didn’t notice any sign of Arthur crossing the room and so was startled when a blond head suddenly inserted itself into his line of vision. Moments later a set of curious blue eyes met his own.  

“That really doesn’t harm you?” the prince asked.

Merlin shook his head. “Not a bit. Actually it’s cool to the touch.” The room was quiet for a moment then..

“OW! MERLIN!”

“I meant MY touch you clotpole!”

If it was a very embarrassed looking prince who showed up at training the next morning with his left hand bandaged from a mysterious burn, and dragging his loaded down - but secretly amused looking - manservant along with him, no one was willing to risk the “training session”  that would come from asking him about it.

Chapter Text

“I’m tired of being able to do nothing but react to these situations Gaius. The two of them are throwing scheme after scheme at us and it’s all we can do to stop them before they destroy the kingdom. And everyone else is blind to the Morgana’s deception at every turn. Sooner or later our luck with run out and we won’t have time to clean up the mess they’ve made of things. Or we’ll get caught trying.”

Gaius’ heart clenched with pain as his beloved ward paced agitatedly back and forth across their small quarters. Merlin had been out in the woods all night, trying to disrupt yet another scheme of the sisters. He’d barely made it back in time to escape the notice of the patrols. The physician shuddered to think what would have happened if he’d been caught. There was no good explanation for what he’d been doing (aside from the untellable truth) and Uther had been especially volatile this past month. Even the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing had been met with harsh consequences, putting the entire royal household on edge from Arthur on down. Gaius knew last night’s close call had left his ward badly shaken. He needed to give the boy some kind of plan - and fast - before he lost his head through some rash act.

“Hm.”

“What’s hm?” Merlin asked looking up from where he had a hand pinching the bridge of his nose.

“It just a thought that occurred to me. You want to go on the offensive against Morgana and Morgause?”

“That would make for a welcome change of pace. You have any idea as to how?”

“Well the two of them together are powerful enough to make it virtually impossible. And anything you plan against one could easily be discovered and sabotaged by the other.”

“I know all this Gaius. Why are you-”

“Let me finish,” Gaius interrupted, gesturing him closer. He waited until Merlin sat across from him and leaned in over the table. “Are you familiar with the old adage ‘A house divided itself cannot stand’?”

Merlin cocked his head to the side. “It’s seems self explanatory but I don’t quite see the application.”

“Morgause once attempted to split Arthur and his father apart. If she had managed it, whether Uther lived or died, it would have been the end of Camelot as we know it. The kingdom would have been torn in two and nothing either of them tried to do would have been successful. Perhaps we might be able to do what she failed at.”

“How Gaius? Morgana’s enthralled by her sister. And it’s not like any of us ever truly did anything to help her.”

“We do it the same way Morgause did. Using the truth, or at least one version of it. It’s perfectly possible to tell someone things that are accurate and yet have a completely different meaning than what that person believes them to be.”

“But what truth can we possibly use to turn her from the only person she believes has her back?”

“I’m not sure, but we must be on the lookout for an opportunity.”


“Where are you going?”

“To see Morgana.”

“Merlin you are the last person she’s going to want to see right now, you just stopped her from murdering the king.”

“Which is why I can’t afford to wait. This last attack was far too bold. She’s acting without thinking and more people always die when that happens. I have to end this now.

“And how exactly do you plan on doing that?”

“By doing what you told me to do. I needed a version of the truth to divide her from her sister, well this whole debacle has given me one.”

“Merlin it’s not worth the risk.”

“Was smuggling my father out of Camelot not worth the risk? Is lying to everyone on my behalf day in and day out not worth the risk? I know she’s dangerous Gaius, but if I don’t do this that danger is only going to grow.” He looked earnestly into his mentor’s eyes. “This was your idea.”

“I never really believed it would have opportunity to be used.”

“Well now it does and I can see it through. I need you to trust that.”

For a moment it looked like the old man was going continue arguing but then he sighed and looked down at his feet. Giving a slow nod, he lifted his head simultaneously drawing Merlin in for a hug. “Be careful,” was all he said but the meaning behind the words was beyond clear.

“I will be Gaius,” Merlin assured him, “try not to worry. This is my responsibility. For once in my life I’m not afraid of that.”


“Morgause is the only one who cares for me,” Morgana sneered. “Nothing you say will convince me otherwise.”

“Then where has she been these last few days?” Merlin asked, leaning casually against her bed frame. “You were dying, why did she do nothing to help you? She’s powerful, she could have slipped in and out of Camelot unnoticed. You certainly do it enough. Why didn’t she? Why didn’t she make an attempt to heal you? Or at least taken you away to die in her protection. She did nothing. Three days and not so much as a single unconscious guard between the gates and your room. And don’t,” he cut off her interjection, “tell me she had no idea you were in danger. She’s one of the most powerful magic users alive and you are her precious younger sister. If she can awaken undead armies and teleport across whole kingdoms she could have been here if she truly had wanted to be.”  

He was pleased to see her green eyes flicker with unease before she regained her haughty demeanor. “Why should I listen to you? You tried to kill me.”

“And I saved you.” he retorted. “You are only standing here because of my actions.”

She laughed. “What could you possibly have done to heal me?”

“That’s not important.’ He dismissed walking over to stand by her chair. “What is, is the fact my debt is repaid. From now on I will not be guilted into silence. I have proof of your treachery Morgana, you know I do.”

She leapt to her feet putting a little distance between them. “You’d never convince Uther to turn on me.”

“Are you sure about that?” he whispered stepping forward again. “I told you, I owe you nothing. You’d be amazed what that does for a person. At what someone can do when they have nothing to be afraid of. And no one in your family scares me Morgana. Not you, not your sister, not your father.”

She sucked in a sharp breath as he leaned in close. “I don’t even have to implicate you to get what I want. All I have to do is hint to your father that the sorceress who once tried to turn Arthur against him and held you hostage for a year, has aligned herself with Cenred against Camelot. And that she’s been spotted in the woods outside the castle. Do you really think he’s going to allow you your freedom to walk about unaccompanied? It would take no effort to convince him that you are her true target. That she knows of your connection to her birth family and thinks she can exploit that to get you on her side.”

“He’d never believe that,” she sputtered although her eyes betrayed the lie in that statement.

“Oh I think he would. He may see me as a fool, but in this...in this he would take even my word. Did you know he once called me a trusted ally in the fight against magic?” His laugh was tinged bitter. “Ironic seeing as he’s not shy about using it to get what he wants.”

“I’ll tell him you’re a sorcerer,” her voice rose with the beginnings of desperation. “I’ll tell him you poisoned me.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow looking almost bored. “Do you really think he’ll believe a person who risks the king’s wrath to warn him of a magical threat is going to be one himself? To accuse me of such a thing would do nothing but put your word in doubt.

“And as for the poisoning, the fact you’ve been back for six months and not breathed a word about the matter to anyone wouldn’t exactly give credence to your claim. If he insists I offer an explanation…” he trailed off then smirked at her. “I’ll tell him in your distress your memory is confusing me with the sorceress. That she was the one who poisoned you, for it was the only way she could steal you away. I’ll say I do share the blame for your kidnapping, but only because I was helpless to stop her. ”

He wasn’t entirely safe there he knew. Uther was blinded by his love for Morgana, she could twist him to believe practically anything. But she’d lost a great deal of advantage now and it was obvious that frightened her. As much as it made him sick inside, Merlin could use that fear to his advantage. Twisted or not he did have most of the truth on his side, and he wouldn’t shed a single tear if Morgause got what was coming to her.

She’d completely lost sight of the true purpose for magic and had warped her sister into a perverted shadow of herself. The way the two of them used their gifts was despicable. He didn’t even feel the disgust he probably should at the thought of using Uther as the instrument of the blonde witch’s demise. At least he knew the man would not rest until he’d accomplished his goal. He said as much to the woman in front of him.

Her once beautiful face took on a cold smirk. “If there is one thing my sister is not afraid of it’s Uther Pendragon. There would be nothing left of him to bury if she ever got her hands on him. Arthur too for that matter.”

“That’s funny, because she did have her hands on Arthur. Twice. Both times she tried to use him to do her bidding she failed. It’s only after that she tried to kill him. You’ve had three times as many chances to succeed in his place. How long until she decides you’re no longer worth the effort she’s put into you? How long before you’re put out of the way in favor of taking matters into her own hands once again. After all if you want something done right do it yourself. And if everyone here is prepared for just such an action how long do you suppose she’ll last?”

“My sister is a high priestess,” Morgana informed him smugly. “No mortal blade can kill her.”

This time it was Merlin’s turn to smirk and the sight of it chilled her to the bone. “Is that so? I wondered. Thank you for providing me with that last link I needed. Now Camelot truly has nothing to fear.” Pulling away from her, he sketched a bow. “Now I’m sure I’ve disturbed your rest long enough my lady. I bid you goodnight.” He turned and left the room before she could say another word.

Safely out in the hall he heaved a heavy sigh. That had gone nothing like he’d planned but the thought of playing Uther against his daughter’s evil sister was a flash of inspiration he was both thrilled and disturbed by. He hated the idea of continuing all this plotting and scheming - it was uncomfortably close to what Morgana spent her days doing.

But no, he told himself. He was nothing like her. She plotted to kill and destroy for nothing but her own selfish gain. He was doing it to save his home and as many lives as was humanly (and magically) possible. If that meant putting a few cracks into the lives of people he used to care for than so be it.

One way or another, he’d see their destructive house crumble. If it was the last thing he did.

 

Chapter Text

It was too early to be having this kind of conversation, Arthur thought as he paced across his room trying to subtly rub the lack of sleep from his eyes. Gaius didn’t notice, too busy explaining the potion he wanted the prince to drink, and what the hoped for results would be.

The idea seemed simple enough once he finally wrapped his head around it. Gaius claims about how said potion would break the troll’s enchantment of Uther was a little hard to follow at first with how little Arthur understood magic, but eventually he got it. Merlin was attempting to be his own brand of helpful - piping up with ‘it’s going to be fine’ after every other word, which the prince didn’t want to find reassuring but still kind of did.

The whole solution was a bit unconventional but at least it was a solution, and his father was clearly beyond conventional reason anyway. Finding out that Uther’s actions were the result of the troll’s enchantment made sense, but nothing they’d tried so far could get his father to believe that. Arthur wasn’t normally the type to resort to extreme measures but he was running out of time to come up with another idea.

Finally he gave his agreement to the plan.

Then, instead of that being that, the two had to keep talking. Had to keep explaining. Had to let the word poison slip out.

The instant that happened Arthur jolted to a stop and stared at the old physician in exasperation. He hadn’t meant to say it, that much was clear. The prince couldn’t help but wonder if there was even more the cagey old man wasn’t telling him. Gaius didn’t help that impression when he started babbling something about it being the only way and that Merlin would have a full half hour to give him the antidote. There was an antidote now?

Gaius promised a single drop of it was all that was needed and that there was no need to worry. Arthur wasn’t too sure about that last bit.

Sure, he understood the urgency of the situation - better than anyone - and he’d made up his mind to do whatever it took but… half an hour? Did they have any idea just how many things could go wrong in half an hour? What if his father refused to be disturbed, what if he was resting or in council? Normally Gaius would be one of the few people who could interrupt the king and not risk losing his head over it but with Lady- with the troll’s presence, who knew anymore.

Not to mention that, despite Gaius’ reassurance, Arthur wasn’t sure if Uther would really feel any concern if told his son was in danger. His father was a hard man who rarely changed his mind and never admitted he was wrong. Normally Arthur could accept that. But asking a king like that, who’d recently gone out of his way to humiliate his son and had tossed him aside in favor of a woman he’d just met, to sacrifice his pride and weep over that son’s supposed death? He had his doubts.

A glance at Merlin presented him with another concern. The young man was such a klutz. You give him a glass vial and 10 to 1 he’s going to drop it and destroy the contents. Arthur had seen it happen more than once.

These two did realize that his death would bring major strife and possible destruction to the kingdom whether it sorted his father out or not? In the back of his mind Arthur heard Merlin’s voice ‘Thinking a little much of yourself Sire?’ Perhaps, but that didn’t make it any less true.

The sound of a throat clearing brought Arthur back to the present. Mentally he shook himself. Sole heir or not he had a duty to do whatever it took to protect his kingdom. This wasn’t putting his life on the line any more than he did every day. He fought for Camelot, bled for Camelot, been willing to drink poison for Camelot in the past. Had even tricked Merlin into letting him do just that less than a year ago. (Ok so it turned out to be a sleeping drought but he hadn’t known that at the time). He could do this.

The plan was sound, he had to have faith. As he’d told his father, Merlin wasn’t stupid and neither was Gaius. They had suffered from his father’s actions just as he had. That they were still willing to search for answers to the problem at hand despite all that deserved his gratitude. And if they trusted him enough to come to him with those answers then the least he could do was return the favor.

Meeting his manservant’s eyes he nodded once. “Don’t be late.” He told him.

“Am I ever?”

Despite the somewhat cheeky reply, Merlin wore one of those rare serious expressions that somehow managed to put the prince at ease. The kind that said Arthur wasn’t wrong to put faith in him and that he’d die before he let his friend down. Which was good seeing as Arthur was quite literally putting his life in the other man’s hands.

Taking the vial from Gaius, he hesitated for only a moment before swallowing the pale, unassuming liquid in a single gulp. There was barely time to grimace over the taste before his awareness slipped away and he felt himself falling forward. Arms caught him and lowered him slowly to the floor.

His last conscious thoughts were of a murmur of voices and a hand gently cradling his head on the way down.

Chapter Text

Never in all her life was Annis so tempted to take a sword to someone as she was when Arthur Pendragon was led into her tent held securely in her soldiers grasp. Just the sight of the man, knowing his cold, unforgiving face was the last thing her husband had seen enraged her. The slap she gave him did little to cool her temper, no matter how some might consider it to be the gravest of insults.

She held back none of her contempt of his meaningless apology although in truth the fact he bothered to give one surprised her slightly. She’d never met King Uther but his reputation was well known. He'd never apologized for his wrongdoings and was sure to have raised his son to do the same. So the very fact that the man in front of her was admitting his cowardly act, let alone seeking her out in order to do so, was something that was surely going against the persona he would naturally be putting on.

He did not seek forgiveness he said. Good because he wouldn’t be getting any. Still his suggestion of single combat held merit. A way to get what she wanted without losses on her kingdom’s side. Yes, she could work with that. And she knew immediately who she would choose as her champion. Still, a queen never walked away empty handed. What he do if her man was victorious?

“Then half of all Camelot is yours.”

Talk about making amends! Annis kept her regal mask in place with an effort. She could barely believe how easy this was becoming. What years of her husband’s tricks, scheming, and attacks couldn’t bring into their control would be given to her out of the king's own hand.

Her pleasurable musings were interrupted by more of her guards entering the tent, dragging along a thin, innocuous looking young man. Just what she needed an incompetent spy to add to drama of the evening. She really thought the Pendragon’s were smarter than that. At least this was one decision that was easy to make.

Meeting the eye of the young king who’d been staring dumbfounded at the man who smiled sheepishly up at him, she gave the order to dispose of the intruder. Surprising her yet again, Arthur immediately jumped to his defense, claiming the man was his servant, that he was ignorant of his actions, and that neither of them meant her any harm.

The borderline pleading intrigued her. Fool or not, the man on his knees on front of her clearly meant something to Camelot’s king. She briefly toyed with the idea of keeping him prisoner until the battle was over, but dismissed it as an unnecessary complication. If the boy witnessed any part of the plan brewing in her mind she would obligated to kill him, and that might sour her victory.

She enjoyed the sight of their sweating it out, before eventually granting her consent to the Pendragon’s request for single combat and ordering them both out of her sight. As he yanked his servant to his feet and the two of them left her tent, she allowed herself a moments glee before paying a visit to the small tent set on the far outskirts of her camp.

A few days prior to their march out Uther’s other child, the sorceress Morgana, had pledged her assistance in aiding the queen’s vengeance. Annis wasn’t sure if the woman’s power was all she claimed it to be, but considering Camelot’s defenses in that area were so weak as to be practically nonexistent, it was safe to say their champion would be in for quite the surprise when he stepped foot on the battlefield tomorrow.


That smug feeling carried her through the night and into the next day. The beginning of the fight did little to shake it. Her husband might have been leader of their forces but Annis was a knowledgeable warrior as well as queen. On any other occasion she would have been appreciative of the artistry and skill Camelot’s king exhibited fighting an opponent twice his size. But this was not any other occasion.

Morgana slipped stealthily up to her side, in time to see her half brother roll away from a blow and slice Gwynedd's champion across the face. When she declared it time for her to step in Annis allowed it. In truth she was almost eager to see a demonstration of the witch’s power. The dark haired woman’s eyes flashed gold and Annis intense gaze saw the effect take hold instantaneously.

The two opponents traded one last blow before Arthur cried out in pain, his sword falling from his grasp. He struggled to retrieve it but it would not budge. It was as if all the king’s strength had fled from him. Abandoning the sword he attacked with his body instead, taking advantage of his opponent’s checked strike. But it was a foolish move. Even if her champion hadn’t had magic as a support Annis would have laughed at the idea of such a strategy defeating him. This was proven correct when Derian easily gained his feet, kicking Arthur’s out from under him. The king hit the ground stunned and Annis nearly beamed in anticipation. One swing more and all would be well.

It didn’t come.

The sword was poised in perfect position, time seeming to slow as it began its descent. Then, inexplicably her champion froze, the sword dropping from his hand in much the same way as Arthur’s had.

Annis watched in astonishment as the two fighters positions were reversed in the blink of an eye, Arthur retrieving the fallen sword. He held it over her man’s face and she knew Camelot had won this day, for his intent was clear for all to see. Then, after a quick glance up at the ridge line where his men stood watching, he appeared to change his mind and instead drove the sword into the ground, sparing his opponent’s life even though he would have received no such mercy a moment before. It was the last outcome the queen expected, and it gave her more than a little pause.    

Applause broke out on Camelot’s side and her own men began to retreat back to their encampment. Morgana disappeared in a huff but it no longer mattered to Annis. She worked her way toward Arthur slowly, for the first time unsure as to how she should feel. When they shook hands her fellow monarch’s expression held relief and satisfaction but no gloating. His eyes read nothing but sincerity in his pledge for peace. As they parted ways she fell to thinking, and thinking hard.

Perhaps...perhaps she had been too hasty in her judgement. He’d made a mistake - one that cost her husband his life it was true - but he wasn’t a ruthless killer. In not realizing that, she’d nearly made a bigger mistake by immediately declaring war. Still, better to have learned wisdom late than never to learn it at all.

If she knew what was good for her, that would be something Morgana would ponder as well. The woman was so consumed by her quest for revenge she refused to acknowledge it was turning her into the very person she claimed to hate the most. Annis privately shuddered to think what she would be like in a few years time if something didn’t make her come to her senses.

The journey home was a much more subdued, although for most of the men far happier, affair than the journey to the border had been. It was the second night on the road before Annis finally pieced together what it was that had nagged at her about the change in Arthur’s fortune during the battle. Morgana had called it mere luck but there were too many signs that said otherwise.

Someone else had had a hand in play during the fight, she was sure of it. It was the only explanation for the tide turning in Camelot’s direction so suddenly. She’d cry foul if it wouldn’t mean admitting that she’d been attempting to gain an unfair advantage herself. That wasn’t the only reason though.

Whoever the anonymous ally was their power was immense. Morgana was not weak by any means and yet this mystery person had overridden her curses, seemingly with ease. And had used their power in behalf of a Pendragon, a fact she found significant.

And one that only reinforced her decision to keep a close eye on what became of the ruler of Camelot in the coming years. Perhaps all would be well in time. At least she had hope where he was concerned, a hope she hadn’t had about another ruler in a long time.

Chapter Text


 

Companionship

It was almost from day one that Arthur knew Merlin was always going to be by his side. The idea was planted in his mind (albeit unconsciously) during the debacle that was their first tournament as master and servant. The one that turned up the impostor knight Valiant.

Merlin had adapted to the routine of tournament training quicker than Arthur expected for a peasant boy who had probably never even seen a sword up close, much less cared for a knight’s equipment. He had also shown remarkable bravery and determination throughout the whole ordeal, even when faced with the brunt of the prince’s embarrassed wrath.

Arthur had been sure he’d seen the last of his servant the moment he’d fired him. That Merlin would have thrown up his arms and left him to die in his arrogance. But the opposite was true. When Arthur exited the arena after the final duel it was to see the dark haired younger man lurking around the corner grinning proudly at him. He hadn’t been able to resist giving the idiot a thump on the shoulder as he passed and at the feast, when Morgana had done her usual routine of getting under his skin in less than a minute, Arthur had immediately found himself drawn to Merlin’s side. He’d mostly wanted someone to complain to true, but there were plenty of his other associates he could have done that with. Instead he found himself apologizing to the boy for his earlier reaction (not that he’d phrased it quite like that).

Again he was surprised by the response he got. Instead of trying to demand money or some other formal compensation, Merlin had brushed off his apology with a casual request for a drink. A chance to share something simple like two ordinary people would. It could never happen of course but Arthur hadn’t found the idea distasteful, as he likely would have if some other servant had suggested it.

Merlin had rolled his eyes and walked off when Arthur started rattling off the list of chores he needed to have done but that didn’t bother the prince too much either. It’d only been a week since they met but somehow he knew Merlin would turn up the next day. Late and complaining perhaps, but he’d be there.

Arthur didn’t want to consider why he found that thought so reassuring.

 

Friendship

He’d stopped caring about the whys and just relished the fact it was true by the time Uther had died. The two of them had been through so much by that point and still Merlin had stuck with him. Arthur hadn’t made it easy. He’d ignored, insulted, and flat out bullied the younger man on numerous occasions and still Merlin refused to leave.

Not that the servant couldn’t give as good as he got, but there were some lines he never crossed. Nothing deliberately cruel or demeaning ever left his mouth even when Arthur deserved it. The now king couldn’t even remember hearing an ‘I told you so’ from him - at least not before he’d said it himself.

It was strange to consider looking back, but that was the year he’d needed Merlin the most. So much loss and betrayal bombarded them from the day Arthur sat on the throne for the first time to the day he sat with his queen by his side. So many of the events had Arthur feeling like a fool. The betrayals (both real and deceptively staged) hit him in the pride as much as in the heart, and attempting to salvage that pride did nothing but drive him away from the one person who was trying over and over again to alert him to the real issues at stake.

When the truth had finally come out, and Arthur had sat staring into a campfire in the middle of nowhere, glumly trying to put his thoughts in order, that same person had sat by his side. And instead of passing judgement - as he would have had every right to, in Arthur’s mind - Merlin had done everything in his power to comfort his king. To convince him he was worthy of the trust Camelot had put in him, and to give him hope that he had the ability to make the kingdom his once again. The look in the other man’s blue eyes, the one that said Arthur could lead him to his death and he would follow every step with a smile, was almost enough to make the exiled king weep.

He’d had many associates over the years, some who’d genuinely admired him - if only for his wealth and title. Some who had only tolerated him for the prestige of being seen with the crown prince. And some, it was now clear, who’d only meant to use him as a stepping stone for their own rise to power and eliminate him once that had been accomplished. The sad part was he’d cared for all of them, and to some extent had believed they cared for him. Perhaps some of them had, but not enough for them to put him above their own loves and desires.

Merlin did.

Arthur would have to wait a few more years before he discovered just how deep his friend’s loyalty ran and how often he’d sacrificed what he wanted in behalf of his king, but those few days planted the seed for that discovery. In that moment nothing was certain in Arthur’s mind, nothing but the fact he had his one true friend beside him.

In that moment, that was all he needed to know.

 

Citizenship

The papers were signed, the council had approved the action - not that it would have stopped Arthur if they hadn’t - all he had to do was make the formal announcement to the people gathered in the square below. Riders would then leave immediately to carry word of the final change in laws to all corners of the kingdom. This was a day months in the making, and the king had been alternating between dreading and eagerly anticipating it. Today the ban on magic would be formally repealed.

In all honesty it had been unofficially lifted the day of their victory at Camlann. They would not have survived the battle against the combined might of Morgana, the Saxons and a dragon without magic’s help. Well, without one special magical idiot’s help to be exact, a fact Arthur still wanted to pinch himself in disbelief over.   

He’d known of Merlin’s magic for a few weeks prior to the battle (having learned through a drunken, feverish, half hysterical confession that the other man still didn’t remember making), but witnessing the amount of power contained in that young, seemingly unassuming puppy of a person, was more than a little overwhelming. It had taken a while for him to reconcile what appeared to be two distinct halves of his servant’s personality.

He was pulled from his musings by the sound of a clang followed by muttered curse.

“You’d think after 10 years of coming down this hallway I’d know to watch where I was going,” Merlin grumbled as he came to stand by the king’s side. Arthur smiled briefly but said nothing. “Are you alright?”

“Hmm? Oh yes, just thinking.” His tone was more serious than he’d intended and Merlin must have noticed because he made no teasing reply.

“I’m proud of you,” he said instead. He’d said that many a time over the past year, in both word and look, but the words never failed to warm Arthur down to his toes. Not that he’d admit that.

“I couldn’t have changed things without you,” the king told his friend, pleased with himself for finally having made peace with that fact. “How does it feel, being free after so long?”

Merlin turned to lean forward over the battlement next to him, eyes sweeping over the town. “Not as drastic as I thought it would be. I mean, it’s a big relief knowing that I’m no longer classified as a criminal just for existing but...well it’s been coming bit by bit for some time. Not much more is likely to change.”

Arthur stifled a laugh at the other man’s willful naivete. “Merlin a lot more is going to change. For us and for the people. All magic users within Camelot’s borders will officially be free to call themselves citizens. We could very well be facing a massive influx of those who want to use their talents to set up homes and businesses and entertainment here. They’ll have my blessing so long as the follow the law, but they’re going to need help. You know as well as I do growing pains are going to be unavoidable. You are the best person to provide a solution to them. To do that you need to be beside me, not behind me.”  

Merlin closed his eyes as if in pain. “I know, I know, and I want that. I guess I just didn’t want to have to make a trade for it. I’ve been your servant and your protector for so many years, I hate the thought of giving that up.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and gave his friend’s shoulder a friendly nudge. “You don’t need to be so dramatic, you’re not getting replaced just yet. I’m sure I’ll be having to put you out of my room every night for a while yet.” Merlin scowled at him and this time Arthur couldn’t hold back the laugh. “You know it’s true. And anyway, even when I have found someone else to scrub my floors and wash my socks” - “Poor devil” Merlin interjected - “you still will share the honor of calling yourself the king’s servant along with every single other person in the kingdom. So you really have nothing to complain about.”

“And here I thought you’d taken all those little lessons in humility to heart,” Merlin sighed. “Only you would demand a body of servants the size of Camelot to look after you.”

The king ignored the jibe. Today was a day of new beginnings, and if Merlin thought that included insulting his sovereign ruler without any fear of reprisal... well Arthur would allow it this time. He could always get payback tomorrow. Straightening up, he put a hand on his longtime comrade’s shoulder. “I know you’ll never be ready, but we shouldn’t keep the people waiting any longer.”

Merlin took a deep breath then mimicked his posture. Shoulders back and chin firm he gave a nod. He gestured for the king to precede him like always but Arthur stayed put, contemplating him.  

He was momentarily struck by the quiet confidence the other man was showing. This wasn’t a self-effacing servant standing here, or an omnipotent power house of magic deigning to take on human form. This was simply a man who’d accepted his own worth and for once was allowing himself to own his equality to those around him.

Arthur couldn’t be prouder.

 

Ambassadorship

Arthur watched Merlin’s constant shifting out of the corner of his eye. They’d been on the road since early that morning and it was clear the warlock was getting saddle sore.

“You’ll be on your feet again soon,” he told him, “we’re nearly there. You should be honored. Lord Rigby requested your help specifically.”

His companion merely grunted in reply.

“Don’t be like that Merlin. Just because the man said he didn’t foresee magic being of any practical use on his estate, doesn’t mean he’s hostile.”

“Maybe not. But let’s just see how agreeable he is if magic is the only solution to his problem.”

Arthur didn’t argue with that but he kept a sharp eye on his friend as they continued. Merlin’s expression was calm but they both knew they were facing a new, and potentially sticky, situation.

Rigby was a minor lord, holding title to only the bare minimum amount of land required for someone of his station. That land had recently fallen prey to several disasters, chief among them the soil of his largest field becoming, in his own words “a soupy mess.”

No explanation had yet been found for the occurrence, and his tenets were growing frightened, wondering if they were living on cursed land. He asked that Arthur come see the problem for himself, bringing along whoever could help him put their fears to rest. Even if (he’d reluctantly added) that someone was “the king’s sorcerer.” Arthur made a mental note to see the man used the proper form of address around Merlin when they got there.

They arrived at a manor house just after midday to find the lord and his entourage waiting outside to greet them. He came forward as they dismounted.

“My king, I can’t thank you enough for coming.”  

“Lord Rigby. I wish our arrival found you in better circumstances.”

“My sentiments exactly your highness. But your arrival does much to restore my hopes that a solution may be yet be found to our problems.”

“Indeed.” Glancing over his shoulder Arthur beaconed Merlin forward. “You’ve met Camelot’s chief adviser on magic.”

“Ah yes,” Lord Rigby nodded at Merlin stiffly in welcome.

Merlin returned the greeting, privately amused at the other man’s appearance. It was approaching mid-summer and yet no one seemed to have informed Lord Rigby of the fact judging by the heavy formal attire the man had donned. Merlin could feel himself sweating on the other man’s behalf.

A polite cough drew their attention and Lord Rigby introduced his steward Donovan (who was dressed far more suitably for the season Merlin noted). The two of them led the way to the field in question, explaining both the condition of the field, and their attempts at a solution along the way.  

“I’m afraid we’ve tried everything we can think of. Nothing helps for long. That’s why...well I wanted to know if we had a bigger problem.”  

Arthur turned to Merlin who was frowning over at the narrow river flowing a few yards away. With a thoughtful expression, the warlock crossed the distance and crouched by the water. Bemused the others followed him.

“The river was one of our first suspects as to the cause of our difficulties.” Donovan explained. “We had to rebuild part of the east bank after the last major rainstorm. But the water level returned to normal and we haven’t had any flooding.”

“Merlin?” Arthur queried.

“The course is off.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Merlin turned back and met the lord’s eye. “How long ago did the soil begin its change?”

“A month ago exactly.”

The frown on Merlin’s forehead deepened. He rested one palm flat on the ground. “Have you had any earthquakes lately?”

“A very minor one,” Donovan answered after a brief pause. “About two days prior to the first signs of change in fact. You think they’re connected? We barely felt it.”

“Perhaps it was minor on the surface…” Merlin muttered.

“My lord-”

Arthur cut the man of with a gesture. “You asked for his help Lord Rigby.”

“The river’s course has shifted.” Merlin told them pointing downstream. “It’s practically invisible to the eye but my magic can see it clearly.”

“One minor earthquake couldn’t possibly have been enough to divert the river’s course.”

“No. There must have been a series of them. Aside from your field there are no signs so they must have been deep underground. The best I can guess is that the earthquakes broke up the harder soil layers under your fields and has let the water seep up into them. Now there’s not enough solid ground for crops to root into.”  

The lord and steward stared at him in astonishment. Arthur was impressed as well but also a tiny bit smug as he watched the other men process what Merlin was saying.  

Rigby recovered himself first. “What can be done about it?”

Merlin glanced at Arthur, an almost question in his eyes. The king took his meaning immediately and gave a nod in reply.

“As I see it you got two options. Either tear out the all the dying vegetation, lets the land rest for a season and see what happens. Or… I might be able to harden the soil back into something salvageable. It won’t fix it completely, you might be having to plant different crops in the future, ones that are better suited to this soil. But it would help the ones you have here already.”

Donovan, who’d gone morose at his first suggestion perked up. “You can do that?” he asked. Rigby glared at him and he flushed. After a moment though the steward’s chin lifted and he met his master’s gaze firmly and evenly.

The king and warlock watched in fascination as the two had a stare down that could have rivaled one of their own. Not knowing either man well they could only guess the gist of the argument, but judging by the way Lord Rigby paled, whatever threat Donovan had silently issued was serious enough to have him acquiescing in short order.

A few muttered words and a bit of hard concentration soon had the others in awe of the results of his handiwork.

“Don’t suppose you could take a look at the orchard before you go?” the steward asked him.

That was just the start. On the way back to the house, he peppered Merlin with questions as to how to solve various other agricultural problems. Not completely insensitive to Lord Rigby’s feelings Merlin offered a few tips, doing his best to emphasize that they would best saved for when traditional methods proved ineffective.  

“And it would be best if you consulted your local druid clan before making a final decision,” he added. “They’d know what magic wouldn’t cause more problems than it would solve.”

“It’s going to be some time before there are enough crops to give a profit,” Rigby spoke up. “I won’t have anything to spare in payment for their help.”

“Your faith in them is all the payment they would need,” Merlin told him. Arthur gave him a look but Lord Rigby took the subtle rebuke with good grace.

“I’ll be sure to find out where they are currently staying,” was all he said. But considering what Merlin knew of the man’s attitude previously, he was going to count this encounter as a win.

 

 

Chapter Text


 

Merlin had been staring out the window pensively for ages now and Gaius couldn’t take it anymore.

“Merlin for heaven’s sake, what’s troubling you?” He asked for what must have been the fifth time in the past hour. This time the younger man finally answered him.

“Next week is the anniversary of my coming to Camelot,” he said.

Gaius perked up that statement. “Oh, that it is. Four years gone, who would have thought.” He smiled cheerfully. “We should plan to get something special for dinner. That is, unless you wish to return to Ealdor. I’m sure Arthur would grant you a few days leave. Or perhaps Hunith could come for a visit.”

“It’s too short notice for that.” Merlin replied. “And if I’m right, I don’t dare leave Arthur’s side right now.”

“If you’re right about what?”

Merlin’s brow pinched and his eyes grew troubled. “It’s just... I’ve noticed a pattern in these past years I’ve been here. Aside from your general mischief, what with Morgana making trouble or Uther in one of his chop everybody's heads off moods, each year has had twelve major crises. Exactly twelve - no more, no less.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been keeping track, every year exactly 12 major problems. I can name them,” Merlin began ticking events off on his fingers. “Year 1: The sorceress who impersonated Lady Helen, Valiant and his shield, the Alfinac, the Morteus flower, the Griffin, Edwin Muridan, the outcast Shide who tried to drown Arthur and re-enter Avalon, the druid boy, the black knight who happened to be Arthur’s dead - or undead - uncle, the attack on Ealdor, the famine curse, the conspiracy to kill Uther, and the Questing Beast. There you have it - twelve disasters.”

“Merlin-”

“Year 2: Sigan, the assassin at the tournament, Morgana’s magic showing for the first time, Gwen getting kidnapped, Uther marrying a troll, the witchfinder, Morgause, Fr-” his voice choked and he quickly turned away from his mentor blinking away his clouded vision. “You get my point,” he added hoarsely.    

Gaius disbelieving look had faded as his ward’s distress increased. “I do. And it’s quite a disturbing pattern I agree. But why is it troubling you so much at this particular moment?”

“Because it tells me we’re not done yet.”

“What do you mean?” Gaius asked softly. “We’ve had more than more than our fair share of troubles this year. Everything from an undead army to that boy with the magic ring who competed against Uther.

“Yes but if this pattern holds true we haven’t had enough. I triple counted everything that’s happened this year and we’ve only had eleven.”

“Only eleven?”

Merlin swallowed. “Eleven down and less than a week to go. Something’s bound to happen, any day now and I...”

“Merlin there is nothing to be gained by expecting the worst.”

“If it’s a choice between expecting the worst and getting blindsided by the worst I prefer the first one.”

The old man sighed. “Perhaps you are right. But what can we do?”

“I don’t know! I thought if I knew it was coming I could prepare for it but-”

“Gaius!” The disheveled head of a palace guard bursting through the door silenced their conversation.

“What is it?” The physician snapped.

The young soldier swallowed hard. “The prince has sent me to you. You are both required in the throne room immediately.”

Merlin paled slightly, dread pooling in his stomach. He opened his mouth but Gaius got the question out before he could, and in a much calmer tone. “Has someone been injured?”

The guard shook his head, still panting from his run. “He didn’t say so, just something about a message that the king needed to hear. And he wanted you there too.”

“Then we best not keep him waiting. Tell him we’re on our way.” Nodding in response the man withdrew. Merlin waited until his footsteps had retreated then leaned close to his mentor.

“This is it, this is number twelve. I bet you anything this is number twelve Gaius.”

“I hope you’re wrong. The kingdom can’t take much more of this.”

“The kingdom? Gaius, I can’t take much more! If I didn’t know better I’d say Camelot is cursed. How many times is the same scenario going to play out? Villain attacks because they hate Uther. Uther blames everything on magic and banishes every genuine help that comes along simply because they weren’t born to parents he deems worthy. Arthur’s acts like a competent warrior defeating a soldier or two until he goes and gets himself knocked out. Morgana pretends to solve problems she created, smirking the whole time. Then, somehow, working on very little solid information, I conveniently manage to work everything out just in time for Arthur to wake up, take the credit, and then lecture me on how useless I am. And the best reward I get is to make him sound like a donkey for a few hours. How long will it last? How long do we have until someone forgets the part where we win?”

Gaius sigh was a mixture of amusement and sorrow. “We never know when our end is going to come Merlin. Some men live long past their purpose has been concluded, others are taken while they still have many times and seasons left in them. It’s one of life’s great unfairnesses. The best we can do is take the good days and file them away in the safest corner of our memories, and do everything in our power to see to it they last as long as possible.” He looked at his ward significantly. “Now come, we’ve tarried long enough. If this is your twelfth disaster, we want to know exactly what it is we’re dealing with.”

Merlin nodded, following the old man from the room. With every step he felt his resolve strengthening. He did have the power to ensure they made it out of this and it was time he used it.

He’d get his happy ending if he had to write it himself.

Chapter Text


Merlin held himself still with an effort while one of the guards reluctantly knocked on the door of the king’s chambers. Despite it not yet being his hour to retire, Uther’s servant must have already been dismissed as he merely called out permission to enter. The guard opened the door just far enough to fit his body in the opening.

“I gave orders not to be disturbed,” a cold voice from inside stated. ‘Great, glad he’s in a good mood,’ Merlin thought. Unfortunately there was no other time to do this. Had to “strike while the iron was hot” as he’d once heard Gwen’s father say.

“Apologies my lord,” the guard explained. “But Prince Arthur’s servant is insisting on speaking to you immediately. He says it concerns the Lady Morgana.”

That got the king’s attention, as Merlin had suspected it would. “Send him in,” the king ordered.

The guard bowed and moved aside gesturing Merlin inside, then closing the door firmly behind him.

Merlin had only been in the these chambers a handful of times, and the seeming contrast of both tremendous wealth, and cold-hearted practicality in the room’s furnishings did nothing to soothe his nerves.

Nor did the fact Uther was staring at him an impatiently. “What is it, did Gaius send you? Has she had a relapse?”

The serving boy shook his head quickly. “No Sire, she’s fine. Well fine physically that is. Um. It’s just I...I overheard something earlier. Something that leads me to believe she might be in danger and first I thought I’d tell Ar-Prince Arthur but he’s already been put in danger by the same person and-”

“Make sense or get out!” Uther snapped his initial worry now replaced by irritation.

Merlin swallowed hard, the nervous feelings he projected not entirely faked. He answered the king with his eyes on the floor. “A few hours ago I was in the Darkling Woods to get some plants Gaius was looking for. One of them only grows at the...never mind. Point is, while I was there I overheard a woman conversing with some men in dark cloaks. The leader told hold her they were growing impatient with her. That she had promised them a share in Camelot’s destruction and she needed to deliver. She told them to be patient a while longer. They could have what they wished but only after Morgana had been safely removed into her care.”  

Uther leaned forward in his seat. “Who was this woman?”

“Morgause, Sire.”

Silence followed this revelation. Long enough for the servant to risk looking up at the king. Uther’s stately mask hadn’t slipped but by the candlelight Merlin saw a flicker of fear in his green eyes. Eyes so like Morgana’s, he thought idly.  

“You’re certain?”

“I am Sire. The man she was talking to used her name, and when she turned to leave later there was just enough light left for me to get a clear view of her face.”

“Did you hear anything else about this scheme?” Uther asked after a moment.

“She didn’t go into detail about what attack she was planning. I think her allies must know that part already. She only said that she was being delayed finding a way into the palace unobserved. The guards knew what she looked like, and the servants and so on were too wary of strangers to help her despite the disguises she’d tried. No one would show her anything beyond basic courtesy. And there was something else…,” he added quickly, to distract Uther’s thoughts away from arresting any unlucky persons he thought might have unknowingly had a conversation with a sorceress.

“Yes?”

“The man asked why she was risking so much to abscond with a member of the king’s household. She said…” He took a deep breath and looked Uther in the eye for the first time. “She said her sister was worth any risk and that she wouldn’t stop until Morgana knew just what family really was.”

To his dying day Merlin would never forget the protective rage that filled the king’s face in that moment. He’d only seen it once before, when some in Ealdor had accused him of tampering with village well. They’d stormed en masse to where he’d been playing outside his mother’s home and she’d shoved his six year old self behind her with a look so dark he’d been a little frightened. He didn’t remember a word of what she’d said to his accusers but he’d never forgotten her anger that someone would dare say such a thing about him.

This night was no different, and a small amount of pity stirred inside him for Morgause. If she had truly been trying to snatch Morgana without her consent, Uther’s fury would be an obstacle of overwhelming proportions.

As it was the king’s sharp gaze turned back to him, and with a tone that dared Merlin to toy with him, asked “Just what do think of her claim of relation to my ward?”

Contrary to every thought screaming at him Merlin managed to hold eye contact, licking his dry lips with an equally parched tongue. “I think she’s lied about everything else Sire. There’s no reason for me to believe she’s telling the truth now.”

The answer visibly relaxed Uther and he nodded quietly to himself. Merlin lowered his head then, not wanting to give a hint of his disgust, both with himself for manipulating the situation, and with having to once again play the subservient condemner of magic to this tyrant.

He was so embroiled in his thoughts that a hand entering his field of vision caused him to flinch back. The hand hesitated then grasped him by the shoulder. Startled, he risked a glance up at the king who was now standing way too close for comfort. Uther’s face was a web of emotions but chief among them seemed to be gratitude.  

“You took a great risk in bringing this information to me, you understand that?” he asked. Merlin nodded, looking down again. The room was quiet, and he could feel the king’s gaze boring into the top of his dark head. “It seems your loyalty extends further than just to my son,” Uther finally added. “For that I should thank you. If your information should prove correct I won’t forget your role in protecting my household.”

Dropping his hand he continued in his usual brisk tone. “Until then I trust I don’t have to make you understand how critical it is no one else hears of this?” Merlin shook his head quickly, breathing a silent sigh of relief when the king exited his personal space. “If you should hear anything else about this matter you will bring it directly to me just as you did today. And you will take no actions aside from those expressly ordered by myself or Prince Arthur.”

“Yes Sire. Um..” he deliberately hesitated, as if a question had just occurred to him. It wouldn’t do for Uther to think otherwise.

“What is it?”

“I won’t tell him but...but should Arthur find out I came to you about something, he’s going to want to know what it was. What should I do if..if he orders me to tell him?”

Uther gave a familiar sigh at being reminded of an inconvenience he’d overlooked. Familiar because Merlin had often Arthur do the same. He decided it must be Pendragon tradition.

“Inform him that I have ordered you not to discuss the matter and if I feel he needs to know will tell him. Now go, it's getting late and I need to think.”

‘Because that will go over well’ Merlin thought, but he accepted the dismissal, hurrying to the door. He stopped short at the sound of the king calling his name.

“Yes, Your Majesty?” Uther was giving him a considering look and he wondered if he’d pushed a little too far.

“You know I have little regard for you outside of the devotion you’ve shown Arthur. I’ve already stated coming to me directly was a risk. You could easily had him, or even Gaius relay this information. Why didn’t you?”

Merlin put on a frown for show (and to cover how unnerved Uther’s statement made him) but in reality this was one answer that required no thought. It wasn’t even a lie really, regardless of the other untruths he had said. “If someone were threatening my family I wouldn’t want to hear about it third hand. Why should you not feel the same?”


Uther sent for Gaius late the next morning, as they fully expected him to. Entering the royal chambers, the old man’s heart sank a little at the obvious signs of a sleepless night written on the king’s face. Signs privileged few would ever see.

He stood silent and grave as the story his ward had invented was repeated back to him, making sure to react as a person naturally would were they hearing it for the first time. Showing concern for his old friend’s distress was not difficult, and not for the first time Gaius contemplated what going through with Merlin’s plan could mean.

He acknowledged the wisdom in the boy’s actions, especially in having Gaius be the one to handle giving Uther an answer that would both satisfy him and further their objective, but he regretted having to tell such a blatant lie to a man who once held his loyalty without question. But as both men present could attest to, age - and love - did funny things to a person, and a choice between lying to his king and risking his surrogate son’s life was no choice at all.  

When prompted for a means of protection against their possible intruder, Gaius was ready with a reminder of tales Uther had banned many years prior. Tales of swords powerful enough to slay the dead.

The other man frowned. “But surely such weapons were all destroyed.”

“Not all of them Sire. You once used one to defeat the wraith of Tristan de Bois.”

Uther’s face cleared, then darkened. “Your boy told me that sword was forged by Tom the blacksmith.”

Gaius shook his head. “It was found buried in one of the partially excavated tunnels. He thought it would make a nice coming of age gift for the prince, but your approval would be required for anything presented at the feast. Merlin was actually rather annoyed the black knight appeared before he could get it. Turns out that was rather a blessing in disguise.”

“Gaius,” Uther repeated slowly, a dangerous glint in his eye. “I asked him where that sword came from. Are you saying he deliberately lied to his king?”

Gaius held up his hands appealingly. “Sire please. I must take the blame for this matter. It was out of concern for the prince that the sword’s true origin was hidden. You’ll remember that Arthur was the one who was planning to fight the wraith. Once I got a closer look at just what sword it was Merlin had found, I knew it would be the one weapon that could ensure his victory. But I also knew Arthur would refuse to use any blade suspected of being magical in origin, thus putting his life in jeopardy. We couldn’t allow that to happen. You’ll remember Merlin wasn’t present when you came to inform me that you would be taking Arthur’s place in the fight. He wasn’t aware where the sword came from was a moot point.”

Uther nodded slowly. “So when I came to the armory that morning…”

“When you asked where the sword came from, Merlin didn’t know what to do. The only thing he could think to tell you was the same story he was going to give to Arthur. I assure you everything else he said was quite sincere. He is bound to Arthur, and would do whatever it took to protect him. Even from himself.”

“I understand.”

If Gaius relief at the king’s words was visible, Uther’s mind was too occupied with other questions to register offence. The chief among these he put to his physician. “You now think that sword should be used on the enchantress?”

“I do my lord.”

“Are you sure such measures are necessary?”  

“When Arthur had his... encounter with Morgause, I thought I had better research just what it would take for her to have constructed her scheme. What I found was disturbing to say the least. The attack she lead on Camelot the beginning of this year only reinforced my conclusions.”“And what conclusions are those?”

“She shows all the signs of having skills only masterable by the high priestesses of the old religion.”

Uther paled slightly. “That would mean…”

“That in the absence of a sorcerer equal or greater in power, she is, in practical terms, impossible to kill. Unless…”

“Unless one uses a weapon forged by magic to attack her,” Uther finished. He closed his eyes tightly, mind awhirl with the implications of his old adviser was saying. Eventually he sighed. “Where is the sword Gaius?”

“When the wraith was defeated and I realized that all of Camelot had witnessed the sword’s power, I feared it would not be safe left in the vaults. I sent Merlin to... an old friend. One who is, let us say incapable, of doing anything but standing guard over it. I prayed we would never again face a foe who’s defeat required its use. But I fear that, in Morgause, we have just such an opponent.”

“Then we must see to its retrieval. Who else knows where it is located?”

“Just Merlin and myself.” Gaius answered. “It’s less than a day’s ride from the city.”

“You will give the location to a patrol that I select. I’ll send them out at first light.”

Gaius’ eyes widened in alarm. “Sire, I assure you that is not necessary. Merlin is fully capable of retrieving it on his own.”

Uther shook his head decisively. “He’s little more than a child Gaius. Maybe of use in some small matters, but I will not risk placing something so vitally important in his hands alone.”

“Even if it means other people learning of your plan?” Uther looked at him sharply but Gaius continued as if he hadn’t seen. “I assure you, Merlin’s discretion more than makes up for any other faults he may possess. You know as well as I do that on more than one occasion he’s willingly taken the blame for some of Arthur’s more...spirited actions so as to save the prince embarrassment.”

“He’s caused him enough embarrassment to make up for it,” Uther grumbled but there was an amused edge to it. However a moment’s thought had him serious again. “I see your point about secretiveness, but someone must accompany him in case of trouble.”

Walking to the window, he stood rubbing a hand across his mouth for some time. Gaius remained silent, unsure of what decision his king was pondering so deeply.

“How much of this do you believe Arthur should be informed of?” he asked finally.

A bit thrown, it took the physician a moment to respond. “That’s not for me to say Sire.”

“I’m asking you Gaius, it is your duty to answer.”

The old man contemplated carefully, caution and protective instinct warring with what he knew of Arthur’s personality, and how many times he’d been hurt by his father’s shutting him out. “I think Arthur cannot learn what it means to be king if he’s never made fully aware of what is going on around him.”

Uther nodded slowly as if Gaius had just confirmed what he had thought, but been too afraid to say. “Perhaps you are right. If Morgana’s injury has taught me anything, it is that life can be gone in an instant. I shouldn’t waste what opportunities I have left to guide him.”

He turned from the window, the mantle of king once more firmly across his shoulders. “Inform the prince I wish to see him at once. After I have given him direction in this matter, he will relay my instructions to his servant. Do not speak of this, even amongst yourselves. I will not tolerate so much as a rumor that the use of magic is being rationalized. One day Arthur will be king, and as such will learn which chances must to be taken on behalf of the greater good. But that is as far as it will go. Once this witch is dead and the kingdom secured you will ensure this incident becomes another you take to your grave. Am I clear?”

Years of hiding his feelings kept an understanding, but neutral expression on Gaius face, but he could only bow in acknowledgement of Uther’s words. It seemed there was almost no middle ground left in his old friend’s mind. He could go from grateful friend to bitter enemy in an instant. It was just this kind of borderline mania that Merlin was risking being turned on him the further he continued with this plot to eliminate the danger Morgause posed.

Their best chance, he thought as he left to carry out the king’s order, would be if her kind of trouble stayed away long enough for Uther’s wrath to cool slightly. They needed him aware of the danger, but the more time that went by, the better their chances of not needing to work with him directly to put an end to it permanently.

And still the hardest part was yet to come. Gaius shuddered to think what would happen if Arthur didn’t connect with the sword the way Merlin was sure he would. If he gave it up to Uther freely, or worse, if Uther demanded it and Arthur refused to part with it, they would be in for a whole new mess of trouble.

There wasn’t much he could do about it at this point though. For the first time in more than three years, his precious boy’s fate was in his own hands. He could only pray Merlin was capable of handling that fact.

Chapter Text

Sabella couldn’t help but wonder if this visit would come to mean anything special for these two.

They weren’t the first of Camelot’s knight hopefuls to appear in her camp. King Arthur had a habit of sending the more...troubled, (and occasionally troublesome), amongst them to the druids, in the hope that spending time with a people who made peace their way of life would remind the impressionable young men just what the goal of knighthood service was.

So far she has seen an almost even split in the number of those who understood the lesson and those that did not. She can’t help but hope that, despite this, the king still gave them all an equal chance when they returned. Some lessons took time to sink in.

The problem, Sabella muses, is the age of some of these recruits. They had been born long after the purge. Some were even too young to remember a time when magic was banned. Those born in a time of equality didn’t always find it easy to understand why it took so long to reach that point.

Such was the case now as one of the two currently sitting and dining with them asks, rather incredulously, why the druids never took up an active campaign against Camelot’s war on magic. Why they just let it happen.

The elders try their best to explain that as horrible as those actions had been, it was known they would not last forever.

“You can slaughter all the people you want,” one says. “It’s simply impossible to destroy something woven into the fabric of the earth.”

“But how could you possibly know that?”

There’s nothing malicious about the question. In fact these boys are more genuine than any Sabella had seen in many years. Therefore, after a long moment’s thought, she decides to show them what none of the other visitors have seen.

Getting carefully to her feet, she signals to questioner and his companion. “Come with me.”

A short walk into the forest brings them to a small clump of trees. Three of them to be exact. Tall, strong, and joined at the root. The boys look at them curiously then at her, seeming to sense a story coming.

Seating herself on a nearby stump, she begins:

“More than half a century ago there was a group of rare and powerful magic users. Nine of them. They had trained together for so many years that each one’s magic had begun to mirror that the others. They could act on their own or in tandem with masterful results. Overtime they gained command of a skill long thought to be impossible. It would allow, if all were in agreement, one sorcerer to gift control of their magic to another. If it became necessary, as few as two or three amongst them could even meld the power of all nine.

“It was a dangerous idea, and it would be unlikely that the ones wielding the combined might would survive, but in those years they never dreamed they would have the need to actually use it. Of course during the purge there was every need.” Pausing to clear her throat, she makes sure the eyes of the young men keeling on the ground are entirely on her.

“Now I need you to understand something. These ones could have escaped Uther’s wrath with ease. They could have disappeared any time of the day or night and no one would have been able to find them. Instead they chose to stay nearby and help others escape. Not many, for every soul that they saved half a dozen were slaughtered, but still they counted every one as a victory.

“Then one day Uther announced he was going to hold a grand execution. One hundred people accused of sorcery were to burn on the same day. Men, women, even children. They were already in the dungeons, ready to die by fire. As you might imagine this group immediately made plans to get them out. It was almost certainly a trap, but they had to help. Had to save the ones Uther held, as they knew them to be innocent. In fact it was doubtful even half of them had magic in the first place.  

“Despite heavy security in the citadel the first part of the plan, getting the prisoners out of the cells and into underground tunnels, was successful. But one of the guards who pledged to aid them, for reasons that were never discovered, failed to keep his word. He was meant to have an exit gate unlocked and torches darkened on the east wall facing the forest. The delay in correcting these problems lead to them getting spotted. Uther’s forces struck fast and they struck hard. Soon it was clear someone would have to stay behind and make a stand so as to give the others their best chance of escape. Three of the nine choose to do this.”  

A smile works its way to her face, prompted both by memory, and by the metaphorically spellbound faces of the youths in front of her. “Even individually they were a sight to behold. An ordinary opponent would have been beaten back within minutes. But Camelot’s soldiers were relentless. Injured and losing ground, the three finally had to concede their only chance was to do that which they had never imagined necessary. Summoning the last of their strength they called to their brethren, blended their might and magic together and well... that was that. Or rather, it should have been.”

Gesturing to their stately companions she concludes,“In the last moment fate, or magic, or perhaps just the earth itself, stepped in and embraced their dying bodies. Transformed them into the trees you see here. Three joined as one until the end of time.”

“Did the others get away?” The boys want to know.

“Most of them. The rest of the nine were severely depleted of energy, both magical and emotional, but as I am living proof, the ones they helped escape went on to live long and happy - if not entirely safe - lives.”

The two squires contemplate that for a few minutes, sharing relieved smiles. One then asks what happened to Uther’s men.

“Oh, the majority of them lived,” she answers. Their shocked expressions bring another smile to her face. “The goal of the three sorcerers was never to kill the ones attacking them. Stop them from catching up yes, but what good would it have done for the people of Camelot to have their loyal defenders slaughtered in a magical rage. Would it not have played directly into Uther’s charge that magic brought only evil? Oh no, the goal of the nine was always to protect life, not destroy it.”

“No one’s ever talked about this before.”

“Which is not surprising. It was Uther’s one great defeat. Those who returned home after the battle was over were told that if they talked about that night to anyone, they and everyone they loved would be charged with treason and executed. This part of the forest was declared off limits for nearly a decade, and the incident was buried under the king’s mad glory of himself.”      

Again the younger squire starts to say something, then hesitates.

Sabella smiles encouragingly at him. “Please, ask your question. You are here to learn are you not?”

Staring up into the tree he wonders, “Are they still..alive? I mean, that is, are they aware they’re a tree?”

She follows his gaze, appreciating the depth of thought in the inquiry. “It’s difficult to say, but I’m inclined to think they are not. They were granted this continued existence as a reward for their sacrifice, but it’s only reasonable to think their human lives ended that day.”

The older boy speaks up for the time. “Isn’t it hard seeing them like this? Having such a constant reminder of the harm caused to your people?”

“We don’t think of it like that,” she corrects him gently. “To us they are a reminder of what we have gained not what we have lost.

“Consider this: Trees can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Uther Pendragon sought to make magic disappear, to brand it as a malignant force rather than simply a part of life. And yet it surrounds us here, not just present but thriving. During those long dark years we saw these trees as a sign of hope. For no man is eternal. We knew one day the empire he built would fall. One day there will come a world that does not even remember his name, and yet still these trees will live on. I can think of a no more perfect justice.

“Don’t you see? We don’t have to fight, don’t have to burn the Pendragon’s kingdom to get revenge on any wrongs they may have done us. We just have to live.”

Chapter Text

“When I accepted the offer to negotiate with these people, being pinned down under a magically conjured shield while they hit us with everything they had was not how I imagined it ending. Remind me again, how it came to this?”

“We didn’t like what they said, they didn’t like what we said, we decided to leave, they decided to attempt murder.” Merlin summed up. Rather succinctly he thought. The look he received seemed to indicate otherwise. “Oh, was that another one of your ‘rhetorical’ questions? Because I think those were one of the things they didn’t like so much.”

The annoyance on the king’s face only grew the longer his companion talked. “Did it ever occur to you,” he finally interrupted, “that perhaps the energy you’re currently devoting to this summary of events I was there for would be better spent in finding a solution to our predicament?”

The good natured humor vanished from Merlin’s face. “There’s not much I can do since they pushed us out here. There are too many innocent people around, anything I do to counter their attack is only going to get them hurt.”

“What about us? Can’t you just get us away?”  

“I’m open to suggestions as to how!” Merlin snapped back, instinctively throwing more power into the shield as another fiery volley was launched at their heads.

“What about doing the teleporting thing.” Arthur offered after a moment.

“Teleporting thing?”

“You know,” Arthur waved his hand in the vague way he usually did when suggesting something he didn’t understand but assumed Merlin could do anyway. “Summoning a whirlwind that comes and sucks you away. I’ve seen lots of sorcerers do it.”

“Oh. I’ve never learned that.”

Why not?! Of all the things magic is capable of, why wouldn’t you want something that useful?”

“Oh sure, why wouldn’t I want to tear my body into little tiny pieces, scatter them on the wind, and have to pray they reassemble in the proper order? I’ve always dreamed of experiencing breathing out of my toenails.”

“What? Surely you’re powerful enough-”

“It takes more than power to summon magic like that. You have to be willing to- look it’s too complicated to explain right now. Let’s just say it’s dangerously close to a very dark road that I don’t want to get anywhere near, and leave it at that.”  

Arthur raised an eyebrow but gave in when Merlin stayed silent. The man knew more about magic than Arthur could ever dream to, and he’d learned a long time ago to let him take the lead in such things. Still they needed a solution - and fast.

“So what is there that doesn’t skirt the dangerous road?” he urged.

Merlin muttered a series of things under his breath - half of which Arthur had no clue what they were - but dismissed them all immediately. At last he paused thoughtfully and the king pounced before he could talk himself out of whatever idea he’d struck upon.

“What?”

“I have something but it’ll mean splitting my focus. If I can stop time around me long enough I can sneak around to their stables and snitch us a ride. But I’ll have to leave you here which means leaving the shield up and- why are you looking at me like I have three heads?”

Arthur blinked at him. “Did you just say stop time?”

Merlin shrugged as if to say ‘what of it?’ “It’s not stopped exactly, but that’s the easiest way to put it.”

The king shook his head at his friend. “Every time I think I’ve seen your limit… alright I want the long story later. Right now just tell me how hard it is for you to do that.”

“To do it instinctively, it’s well...instinctive. I’ve been freezing time since I was a child. Helps me stop things from falling, push people out of the way of daggers, reach places in half the time it would normally take. Stuff like that.”

“So basically everything and everyone else is frozen, but you can move freely?” Arthur clarified.

“Yes.”

“Any chance of adjusting that so someone else can move along with you?”

Merlin frowned in thought. “Theoretically I suppose but...” It took his brain less than a minute to correctly interpret the look he was being given for what it was, triggering an emphatic shake of the head. “Oh no. No. Not a chance! I’ve haven’t even begun to practice something like that. There’s no way to know what will happen. It might not even be possible!”

“We won’t know until we try.”

“This is no time to experiment.”

“Merlin you can’t keep this shield over us forever.  If it falls before we have a way out, we’ll be overrun in two seconds flat. I say this is the perfect time to experiment.”

“No I won’t risk it. Not with you.”

Arthur exhaled slowly through his nose. Really Merlin? You have to pick now of all times to exhibit that stubborn loyalty? Reminding himself that most of the time he loved the idiot for it, the king locked eyes with his friend.

Whatever he was going to say was rendered unnecessary as their discussion had momentarily taken Merlin's concentration away from his magic, allowing the barrier surrounding them to weaken. As a result some of the next blast slipped through causing them to narrowly avoid being scalded before Merlin could hastily stabilize the shield once again.  

“Sorry,” the warlock muttered, brushing hot ash from his hair. “Are you all right?”

Arthur caught the hand he tried to use to wipe off the king’s shoulders. “One more hit like that and we’re dead.”

“We’ll find some other way.”

“Such as?”

Digging his teeth into his lip, Merlin thought hard. At last his shoulders slumped. “You sure you want to risk this?”

“It can hardly be more dangerous than the alternative.” Arthur said drily. That was the wrong thing to say if his friend’s wince was anything to go by. Burying his fatalistic humor - and his nerves - he gave the younger man a squeeze on his shoulder. “You can do it, I know you can. I trust you,” he tacked on for good measure, praying it would be enough of a reassurance.

Merlin closed his eyes for exactly 11 seconds (no Arthur didn’t count them) before nodding and carefully standing up. “Take your glove off and come here,” he said.

Arthur did so as Merlin turned his back on their opponents. “Now what?”

“Give me your hand.”

“What??” He seemed to be saying that a lot lately. But then Merlin did love saying the last thing  he expected to hear.

The warlock turned to lock eyes with him. “I’m not taking any chances. You want me to do this, I’m doing it the best way I can think of. I’m only going to have a split second to drop the barrier and start moving. I’m not going to risk losing track of you.”

“Merlin-”

“You want to die?”

“Now who’s asking rhetorical questions?” Arthur grumbled, but he grabbed hold of the hand being held out to him.

A moment later the world around them shimmered and spun in a dizzying array, then all was still. Too still. At least, Arthur thought it was that the world was still. Maybe they were just running faster than it felt like they were. Squinting, he tried to focus beyond the blur of light and color that had settled around the two of them. His stomach immediately protested that move, and Arthur quickly returned his gaze to the man sticking close to his side, before the little he’d managed to eat before everything blew up on them had the chance to exit his body.

The queasy feeling only increased the longer they stayed inside their little magical bubble. After one particularly jostling move, made to avoid becoming up close and personal with a tree, he shut his eyes tight and just focused on not getting sick.

Finally, after minutes or hours he couldn’t tell, he sensed them slowing them to a stop. Opening his eyes, Arthur took a moment to let the world right itself before quickly noting his friend’s condition. Merlin was leaning face forward against a tree in front of them, head resting on his free arm.

“Are you alright?”

The warlock held his finger up in the universal gesture for ‘wait a minute.’ Breathing deeply he at last lifted his head, his manner cheerful once again even if his face was still pale and sweaty. “I’m fine, magic just needed to settle that’s all. Now let me look at you.”

Knowing argument would be useless - physician Merlin was three times as stubborn as any other Merlin, and twice as dangerous - Arthur held still while Merlin give him a once over, asking a few probing questions about how he felt, before he was finally satisfied the experience hadn’t left the king any worse for wear.

That finished, Merlin smiled down at the death grip Arthur still had on his wrist. “We’re perfectly safe,” he commented, “you can let go of me now.”

The king jerked away, and started straightening his chainmail and belt. “We’re never speaking of this again, you understand?”

Merlin rubbed his released hand on his trouser leg and gave his old friend a smirk. “I give my solemn word that I will never tell anyone how much your palms sweat when you’re anxious.”

Said friend scowled at him. “How far away did we get?”

Taking a look around for the first time, the warlock called on his magic to help coax his overworked and exhausted mind to think. It had been some time since traveling like that had been necessary. He’d forgotten how difficult it could be to measure distances afterwards.

“Three leagues or thereabouts.”

“What? That far?”

He shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry it’s not more. I wasn’t sure how much longer either of us could hold up.”

Arthur let out an astonished chuckle. “I’m not mad. You’ve given us at least a two hour head start in a matter of minutes. You my friend are amazing.”

Merlin blushed and looked away. “Just don’t expect to be moving a whole army that way anytime soon.” He wiped his forehead, leaning back on the tree again. “Or even a patrol for that matter.”

The king clapped him on the shoulder which did nothing to stop the world from spinning. “Understood. You good to move? Three leagues ought to have put us past the border but I don’t want to chance that. We should get as far as we can before nightfall.”

Merlin nodded, starting to move off in the direction Arthur was pointing. He got two steps before the king caught his arm, blue eyes bright with gratitude.

“Thank you,” Arthur said.

“No sweat. Well, some sweat actually. But it wasn’t... you know what, I’m just going to focus on walking.”

“That’s probably for the best. I don’t want to have to carry you.”

“It’d serve you right.” Merlin muttered.

“Something to say Merlin?”

“No Sire.”

“That’s what I thought.”          

Chapter Text


 

“It’s perfectly natural, don’t you agree Merlin?”

“Yes Sire.”

“Alright, that’s it.” Arthur pulled on the reins in his hand, bringing his horse to a stop.

“What?” Merlin asked.

“That’s the third time you’ve answered without having payed attention to a word I’ve said. What is wrong with you today?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” his servant answered. Too quickly if Arthur’s raised eyebrow was any indication. When it became clear his master wouldn’t move without an explanation, Merlin attempted a casual shrug. “I’m just anxious to get this done. Your father gave permission to retrieve this sword over a week ago.”

“Yes well, we didn’t count on a doddery old sorcerer making trouble now did we?”

“Didn’t count on you and Gwen getting caught canoodling in the storeroom, you mean,” Merlin scowled, kicking his horse into motion again.

“I know what it is.” Arthur announced a few moments later.

“What?”

“Your problem. I know what’s got you so tightly wound up. It’s so simple, I can’t believe I didn’t see it from the beginning.”

“Have me all figured out do you?”

“In general? Absolutely not. In this particular instance though, yes I do. What’s more, I understand completely.”

“Care to share your brilliant conclusion?”

“You’re afraid of this ‘old friend’ Gaius is sending us to.”

Merlin hid his snort with an effort. “Is that so?”

“It’s obvious. The man probably used to dabble in magic of some sort, and you’re scared he’s going to curse you or something. Well you’ve got nothing to fear, as far as I’m concerned there’s not one thing he could do to make you any worse off than you already are.”

Merlin stared at him over his shoulder torn between being offended and bursting out laughing. Everything about what Arthur said was so terribly off that he couldn’t even decide where to start. Finally he settled on the most ironic part of the prince’s statement. “So I’m afraid of magic am I?”

“Oh yes. Actually I’ve suspected that to be true for some time, but this incident with the old man just proved it. You weren’t around once the entire time he was in custody.”

Merlin choked. He’d hoped Arthur had been too distracted to notice that little fact. “I...I saw him. I did. You know, from a distance.”

Fortunately, rather than making Arthur suspicious, the stuttering brought him amusement. “It’s alright Merlin. I guess I should be glad you have some brain in that head of yours, but really you would pick the one sorcerer who couldn’t harm a lamb. In fact,” he lowered his voice in a confidential manner. “Between us, if it weren’t for the way his little game almost got Guinevere executed, I wouldn’t be too upset about losing track of him. Oh what’s the matter now?” He asked seeing the frown on his servant’s face.

“Just thinking.”

“Don’t bother. You’ll only-.”

“There was no game,” Merlin interrupted, ignoring the half formed insult. “You weren’t enchanted, neither one of you. What purpose could that old man possibly have for claiming you were?”

Arthur shrugged. “To annoy my father? I don’t know. Probably felt bad he got an innocent girl sentenced to death for something she didn’t do.”

“But that’s just it, no one did anything. If he wanted to annoy your father it’s a simple spell. To cast that is, breaking it is as hard as-” Merlin cut himself off, quickly adding, “so I hear from what happened with Lady Vivian anyway. Why would a sorcerer step in and lie about doing something when he knew it would only mean his death? Especially on behalf on two people he didn’t know? One of them the prince of Camelot?”

Instead of dismissing his words, Arthur appeared to actually ponder them seriously, leaving Merlin to worry he’d said too much. His mind was running overdrive trying to find a way to distract the prince when the trail they were on opened up and he caught the first glimpse of the lake.

“We’re here,” he breathed out.

Pulled from his own inner musings Arthur looked up. Glancing around, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the beauty of their surroundings. “I can see why someone would want to live here,” he commented.

Merlin nodded, old memories attempting to fight their way to the surface. He slipped off his horse and started toward the water. “You should wait here.”  

“How many times do I have to tell you I give the orders?” Arthur grumbled, as he dismounted and caught up.  

“I mean it.” Merlin said sidestepping to get in his way. Looking the prince in the eye he explained, “Gaius’ friend won’t be expecting you, they may not trust that you aren’t claiming the sword for some nefarious reason.”

“Oh I see. But he’d trust you instead?”

“One of these days it won’t be so unbelievable that I can- what are you staring at?”

Arthur gaze was locked on something over Merlin’s right shoulder, an expression of shock and disbelief on his face. Turning his head the same direction the dark haired man quickly understood what had drawn his attention.

Freya - his Freya - was standing at the edge of the lake, the image of a whole and happy woman ankle deep in the water, the sword resting in her hands.

Even from a distance he could feel both his magic, and that of Kilgharrah, calling to him from deep within the metal. Arthur was clearly feeling something too from the way he was bouncing ever so slightly on the balls of his feet. One of the prince’s hands was on the hilt of his own sword, but the fingers of his other were flexing and closing as if itching to take hold of the dragon blade. And he hadn’t even seen it up close yet. Merlin smiled inwardly, maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all.

Not wanting to keeping Arthur waiting he moved over to the water and carefully took the sword from his love, smiling sadly at her. “I can’t thank you enough for this.”

“I told you I’d find a way to repay you,” she murmured.

“Merlin?” Arthur’s voice interrupted the tender moment, “Who is this...woman? Do I..?” He looked at Freya quizzically. “Why do I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere?”

“You might have seen me once before Merlin rescued me.” She told him, her voice low and quiet, but with an undercurrent of power that raised the hairs on Arthur’s arms. “I was brought to Camelot with the intention of profiting from my curse.”

“What do you mean? How did Merlin rescue you?”

“I was-” she broke off when Merlin put his hand on her’s.

“Let me,” he murmured.

Taking a deep breath he met his master’s gaze. “Remember back when that bounty hunter accused me of harboring a girl he’d had prisoner?” Arthur nodded, pieces beginning to connect. “Well... I was. In a way.”

The prince closed his eyes. “Merlin-”

“I know what you’re going to say, but I’m not going to apologize. Not now. Freya never chose to become that beast. None of what happened was under her control. When I was around, things were better. If I could have gotten her out of Camelot no one would else would have been hurt. But....”

“I didn’t believe we had any chance,” Freya interjected, “and I didn’t want him risking his life or his home trying to find one. So I ran. And the beast took over. I never wanted to attack you, or your people. But like Merlin said, it was out of my control.”

Merlin took back over the story, blinking back tears. “After she was wounded, I got her back underground. I tried everything I could to heal her, but her wound was fatal.”

“Across the flank almost always is,” Arthur murmured.

The confused look Merlin turned on him immediately had Arthur wishing he could sew up his mouth. Too late now though. He could see the suspicion forming in his servant’s mind, could see the way he was trying to fight it.

“Arthur,” Merlin said slowly, “please tell me you only know where she was struck because you saw one of your men do it.”

It would be so easy. Just a nod and the whole subject would be closed. Arthur could see the way those cerulean eyes were pleading with him. ‘Say it wasn’t you. Please for the love of everything, just say it wasn’t you!’

The dark haired man swung his head back and forth between his shimmering love and the too silent prince. “No. No, no, no.” It wasn’t true, it couldn’t be! “Did you..?” The words forced their way out of his rapidly closing throat, “Arthur tell me you weren’t the one responsible. Please!”

The blond merely shook his head, though whether it was in denial or disbelief Merlin couldn’t tell. He backpedaled immediately when Arthur took a step toward him.   

“You...you killed her?”

“Merlin I-” 

“Shut up! You just...how could you?”

The prince raised his hands in helpless gesture. “A beast was killing the citizens of Camelot! How was I supposed to know it was the same as a helpless girl. That she wasn’t doing it on purpose? I didn’t know Merlin!”

“Would it have made a difference if you did?”

Arthur winced at the bitterness in his tone. “That’s not fair.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Look just-”

“Merlin!” Freya interrupted, surprise and awe lacing her sweet voice.

Both men looked down in surprise at the sword clinched in the younger’s fist. That he was holding it that way wasn’t the surprise, no. The fact the blade had taken on an unearthly glow - one that seemed to be growing exponentially brighter the longer it was in his hand - that certainly was. There could be only one cause for such a thing, however much either man might wish to deny it.

‘Why not, what do I have to lose?’ Merlin thought and allowed his eyes to flare, matching the aura of power surrounding the dragon sword. The blade burned brighter still, until for one shining moment the whole clearing was bathed in golden light. When it faded both men were flat on their backs staring rather stunned at the cloudless sky above them.

“What was that?” Arthur asked as he regained his feet.

Merlin let out a humorless laugh. “You know for someone who always claims to know magic when he sees it, you are awfully blind.”

“You can use magic?” Despite the phrasing it wasn’t actually a question.

“Brilliant. Really, you’re a genius.” Sarcasm probably wasn’t the best way of dealing with a shell shocked Pendragon but in that moment Merlin couldn’t care less.

That’s not...I would’ve, is that what this is about? Is that the real reason you brought me here? Did you want the sword to..to…” Now Arthur was the one fighting for breath. “What is it you’re after?”

Merlin blinked at him in what Arthur would have once thought was genuine confusion. “Do you really think,” he asked quietly, “I needed you here to get my hands on this sword? Especially since I was the one who forged it for you in the first place. Do you really think I would spend three years saving your neck and losing everyone I love in the process, just to turn on you now?”

‘Well when you put it like that.’ Arthur shook the thought away. “Sorcerers always have an agenda.”

“That’s Uther talking,” Merlin told him bluntly. “Although,” he threw up a hand to forestall argument, “in this case he’s right. My ‘agenda’ as you say, has been to keep both you and Camelot safe from an ever growing list of opponents. Most recently a pair of ferociously determined witch sisters.”

“Pair? Last I checked Morgause was one of a kind. You’re telling me she’s had an ally this entire time?”

“Oh yes. You didn’t think dead guards, armies that show up inside the castle, your father’s bouts of temporary insanity, and I could go on, were all the work of an outsider now did you?”

Arthur mulled that over for a moment. “I’m not saying I believe you. But accepting for the moment that what you say is true - and only because it makes sense strategically - tell me who this so called inside help is?”

The look Merlin gave him filled the prince with dread. “Who has she had at her side recently? Who’s always spoken out against Uther’s persecution of magic users? Who returned to Camelot almost to the day when things started going wrong? Who-”  

“Enough!” Arthur shouted. “It’s bad enough you’ve admitted to lying to me from the day I met you. Don’t think I’m going to let you sit there and accuse the woman who’s grown up as a sister to me of being in league with a lying sorceress.”

“I’m afraid the situation is far worse than that,” Freya cut in.

“And why should I listen to anything you have to say?”

“The dead are past the need for lies Arthur Pendragon,” she said simply. When he stayed silent she continued, “Morgause is hunting for the Cup of Life.”

“That was destroyed.” Merlin protested.

“I’m afraid not. And it has uses far beyond restoring one soul to life. A high priestess once harnessed the power of the cup to raise an army of the living dead. They were unstoppable. If Morgause were to do the same, only you Merlin, and the sword, would stand in the way of Uther’s daughter seizing the throne for herself.”

“Morgause is not my father’s daughter.”

“No,” she answered. “But Morgana is. His firstborn in fact. She’s only recently learned of that fact, and Uther’s refusal to acknowledge her has destroyed the last vestige of love she carried for him. Now there is nothing but a desire to see him destroyed. And to eliminate anyone who stands in the way of that.”

Arthur turned back to where Merlin was sitting, not looking the least bit surprised by his ghostly lover’s words. “You’ve known of this and yet you’ve said nothing. How long Merlin?”

“How long have I known and said nothing, or how long have I had proof and said nothing?”

“What proof could you have?” Arthur asked, more desperate than cynical.

“What Freya just said wasn’t enough?” Merlin’s voice took on a dangerous edge. “Fine,” he snapped when Arthur hesitated, “if you won’t believe the word of my love, believe the word of your own.”

Finally pulling himself to his feet, he put his slight height advantage to use, staring balefully into Arthur’s eyes.

“Ask Gwen about what she saw when she was being dragged off to the dungeon. Take a minute to think about how it was that the two of you could have gotten caught in the first place. I was helping Gaius in town at the time you were found. The castle servants are either too happy about your relationship, or too afraid of your father, to dare go behind your backs and report you. How did Uther find out where you were? Why did he go from being amused at your behavior to suddenly accusing Gwen of enchanting you? Why did the accusation come exactly two hours after you told Morgana and I the two of you were going to run away?  

“If you’ll remember I had just gotten through making your bed before she showed up. There was no poultice there then. Why did the guards find one after we left the room? Why did she do nothing to defend Gwen like she did every other time she was falsely accused? And why-”

“The sorcerer,” Arthur interrupted. “I knew I recognized him. How did you..?”

“Aging spell. Then I couldn’t get it to reverse in time to avoid getting caught.” He let out a bitter laugh. “In a cruel twist of fate, I almost burnt at the stake because I tried to save the love of your life.”

‘And you didn’t think twice about slaughtering mine’, was the unspoken addition that Arthur heard loud and clear. His chest contracted painfully.

“Why would you...?” the words caught in Arthur’s throat.

 “Why would I step in to save my friend from being ruthlessly murdered because she was a threat to someone else’s plans? Because I’m not evil. Magic isn’t evil, however much those other two might be doing all they can to perpetuate that delusion. But you’ll never believe that will you? Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve used it to save you, or Camelot, or your father.” Merlin looked down at the sword then abruptly tossed it over to the prince, who caught it on reflex.

The second the pommel settled in his hand, Arthur wanted to never let it go. Magic or not, taking up this sword was like greeting an old friend. One that was meant to stay by his side always. He’d never thought an object could give him such a bone deep impression of safety and purpose.

Wanting to share the feeling he glanced up at Merlin only to be both stunned and confused by what he saw. All the fight seemed to have drained from the younger man. Where moments ago his eyes had burned with anger and heartbreak, now there was nothing but emptiness.

Catching him staring, his servant halfheartedly pulled himself upright. “You get one shot Arthur,” Merlin informed him. “You haven’t even begun to hear what I’ve done in your behalf. But if what you’ve heard up until now truly has you believing I deserve to die, then strike. It’s the only chance you’ll have. Let’s see what your ‘one blow’ can really do.”

The deadness in his voice tore at the prince’s heart. “You wouldn’t fight?” he choked out, barely above a whisper. “You know what I’m capable of...”

Merlin shrugged, tears in his eyes as he gestured to where Freya was watching the scene with a face full of fear. “Best case scenario you can’t do it, worst case scenario I get to be with her. I don’t see any way I lose here.”

That statement brought Arthur’s thoughts to a screeching halt. Did Merlin really want to..? But why not? Only now that he was experiencing what it was to be truly in love did Arthur have even the barest inkling of what the other man must be feeling. Sure he’d had interest in others before, had felt mild disappointment when nothing had come of said interest. But there had never been anything close to the fear and pain that afflicted him when he thought he’d lose Guinevere forever.

Even so, that was nothing compared to what Merlin went through. What he was still going through. Arthur couldn’t imagine it. Suddenly the fact his only (sort of) friend was a sorcerer didn’t seem so important. Of all the sins a man could commit...nothing was unforgivable compared to what he had done.

And yet Merlin hadn’t killed him. Instead he had risked his life to warn him of a danger to his home. Sure he’d lied and manipulated in order to get to this point, but, now that the initial hurt was wearing off, it was easy to see that was all he could do, knowing he’d never be believed otherwise. Strangely, the knowledge of the extremes his servant was willing to go to actually made Arthur more inclined to trust him, not less. He just wished he knew what to do with that trust now that that bundle of loyalty expected to be lying dead at his feet any moment now. That he knew how to ensure their bond wasn’t irreparably severed.

Without a word he swung his new sword clumsily (or as clumsily as he could with a blade that practically molded itself to his grip) at the sorcerer and pretended not to notice the flinch on Merlin’s face when it missed him be a mile. “There,” Arthur said, “I attacked.”

Merlin blinked twice then frowned. “That was pathetic.”

The comment was so ordinary compared to the rest of the day that Arthur couldn’t help it, he burst out laughing. It was delirious, and short lived, and had half-turned into a sob by the time he could breathe again, but it provided some relief for him nonetheless.

Merlin watched the prince struggle to get himself under control for a brief moment before leaving him to himself and moving back to the water, looking earnestly at Freya. She was so small and ethereal in her purple gown, every bit the princess the warlock’s then teenaged mind had envisioned her as. The urge to protect her returned a hundredfold despite the knowledge she was nearly his equal now.

Smiling kindly, she took his hands in hers. “All is not lost,” she told him. “You don’t have to pretend it’s okay, or that it ever will be. But don’t give up hope, on yourself or Arthur. Promise me that.”

“I don’t know, I..I”

“Just, give it time.” She gave him a sad smile. “I have to go now - no it’s alright. You concentrate on standing guard inside Camelot. Learn all you can about the cup. I will keep watch on the outside, and if I find signs of anything, be it help or hindrance, I will alert you.”

“How?”

She pulled a teardrop shaped bottle from her sleeve. “This is water from Avalon’s depths. It will allow you to contact me from anywhere. But I’m not certain how many times it will work, so use it sparingly.” She handed it over to him, then cupped his cheek with her free hand.

Turning his head he pressed a kiss into her palm. “I’ll miss you.”

“And I you.” Leaning forward she brushed her lips against his brow. “But we will see each other again. You must believe that.”

Turning from him, she looked to where Arthur was standing off to the side, carefully not watching their private goodbye. He met her eyes now, taking in the mask of cold authority that settled on her face.

Who exactly she was and what role she now played he wasn’t sure, but clearly it was a powerful one. The fact that she hadn’t used that power to seek revenge was comforting, but that could easily change were anything were to happen to Merlin - by his hand or another’s. He bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement of her silent warning as to the dreadful consequences of such an act, grateful he had no intention of carrying one out.

With a nod, and a final smile for Merlin, she stepped back and vanished from sight.

After what felt like hours, Merlin finally tore his gaze from where she last stood. “We should get back.”

“What makes you think you’re returning to Camelot?” Arthur asked, his instinctive need to take charge rearing its head. Merlin stared him unflinchingly in the eye until the prince looked away, shoulders slumped. “Why would you want to?”

“I don’t. As a matter of fact, it’s the last thing in the world I want to do. But I have friends to protect. People who don’t deserve to be abandoned. Others may count life as worthless, but I have no intentions of sacrifice anyone else - including myself.

“Morgana’s been warned not to cross me. Uther knows I’ll go great lengths to protect you, although he might be slightly misinformed as to what fuels my actions. Know that I can protect myself from them, and I can protect myself from you. We can defeat Morgause and Morgana, and I will do everything in my power to help make that happen but…”

“But beyond that you don’t want anything to do with me.”

It was a sign of how badly Merlin was hurting that he didn’t make a remark about Arthur’s newfound perceptiveness.

“Can you blame me?” he asked instead.

Arthur could barely think through the cloud of confusion, anger, and devastation lingering in his brain, but eventually he shook his head. He couldn’t blame Merlin for anything right now. They were halfway to the horses before he got up the courage to ask, “Do you think you’ll ever forgive me?”

‘Probably’, Merlin thought because the opposite seemed impossible, however much he’d like it to be true. Though he wasn’t exactly inclined to let Arthur know that just now. Keeping his back turned, so as to not see the contrite, hopeful face staring back at him, he answered the question with one of his own. “Do you think you can promise me something?”

“I’ll try.”

Merlin sadly looked back at the lake where Freya vanished. “You stole one dream for the future from me. I want your promise you won’t take another one. I have a life in Camelot, and I have people I love, who don’t deserve to be punished for my choices. What you found out about me today stays between us. Even after this is over. You won’t tell your father what I am, you won’t punish Gaius, or send knights after my mother. Even if we choose to part ways later, no one will be the wiser as to the real reason. Agreed?”

Having expected Merlin to demand the sword back, or a pledge to help sorcerers, or Uther’s head even, asking to deal with his magic between them alone wasn’t a hard thing to agree to. Arthur had little desire to discuss the matter with anyone right now anyway. He had enough to process with the revelations about his father and Morgana.    

He nodded agreement and Merlin climbed on his horse without another word.

Having obtained his desired promise, Merlin was perfectly content to leave the prince to his thoughts as they rode silently back into town. They’d gotten the sword as they’d needed to, and, for all he hadn’t yet intended to show Arthur so much of the truth, he’d taken it better than expected. Not that those facts did anything to mend the gulf between them.

Merlin couldn’t help but wonder if the now splintered nature of their friendship would be an obvious thing to those around them. There was a high probability of danger if they did. However, like so many other things in his life right now, he simply couldn’t bring himself to care.

Chapter Text

The break of dawn saw Gaius already up and about, putting the finishing touches on the usual breakfast he and his ward shared every morning. Well, every morning that said ward wasn’t dashing from pillow to door too fast to put anything in his mouth.

That wasn’t likely to be the scene this morning what with the poor boy having been rather harshly and, Gaius thought, unfairly kicked out of his job two days prior. He knew a part of Merlin was still reeling from the ruthless way Arthur had dumped all the blame for the disastrous confrontation with the cheating knight on him.

When Merlin’s accusations had been proven true later on Gaius had felt no small amount of pride. Still, if decades of service in the royal court had taught him anything it was that there would be no going back from this, and he had better enjoy the few quiet days they would have until Merlin could find another paying job.

It was thus to his great surprise that Merlin stumbled out of his room not five minutes later, hurriedly poured himself a cup of water, and begin scarfing up the bowl set in front of him even faster than usual.

“What’s your hurry?” Gaius asked.

“I have to get to work,” Merlin answered around a mouthful of porridge.

“We have time Merlin. The sun is barely up, and I only have two patients who require my attention today.”

“Not work here, Arthur. He’s given me a list a chores as long as both my arms.”

Taken aback Gaius cocked his head. “I thought you said he fired you after what happened in court.”

“Yes well, at the feast last night he told me I was ‘rehired.’” A faint smile played on Merlin’s lips. “Actually he admitted it wasn’t fair to sack me in the first place.”

“Merlin are you sure you didn’t drink too much last night?”

“I didn’t drink a drop Gaius, he quite clearly said he made a mistake.”

The surprise on the old man’s face gave way to shock and he stared at his ward in silence. Merlin was on his feet, scrambling for his boots and jacket, so it took him a minute to notice his mentor’s reaction.

“Gaius? Are you alright?”

“Wonders never cease around you do they?”

Merlin frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Arthur rarely admits to being wrong about anything. And even then it’s only to his father. I haven’t heard him apologize to anyone else in many years.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m very serious.”

Merlin sighed. “I wish I could say I don’t believe it. I knew he was impossible but that...really?”

“Well I must say he doesn’t deserve all of the blame. Arthur’s been raised to believe appearances matter more than anything else. According to that reasoning, admitting to having made a mistake would result in him appearing weak, especially to another person of a vastly different rank than he is.

“He also values his father’s opinion above everyone else’s, and Uther has always been a very proud man. Growing up in such an environment as Arthur has, it’s no surprise he’s made it something of a personal mission to always act as if he’s done the right thing even when he knows that to be untrue. For him to admit to being wrong and to a servant no less... You may not think so but his bringing you back into his service is truly unprecedented.”  

“Unprecedented or not, do you really think this is a good thing?”

“I’d say it’s the best you’re going to get. I would be grateful.”

“Hmm, we’ll see if you’re still saying that when I come home reeking of manure,” Merlin huffed on his way out the door.


Merlin soon found, much to his dismay, that he hadn’t been exaggerating the workload he’d have to face. Arthur started spouting off reminders of his chores before he’d even dragged himself out of bed. In fact, he’d taken great pleasure in lounging around for most of the day. Only when Merlin had trudged blearily into the prince’s chambers that evening, balancing a tray of food on his aching arm, did he find said prince actually doing something that resembled work.

“Dinner,” he announced.

“Just put it down.” Arthur gestured vaguely to the right side of his desk.

Merlin frowned at the papers littering the top of it. Using one hand he tried shifting some of them into something resembling a stack, nearly losing his grip on the tray in the process. He just managed to save it although the resulting clatter the dishes made was surely heard throughout the castle.

“Are you always such a klutz?” Arthur asked, exasperated.

“I try not to be.”

“Try harder,” the prince replied but without any real heat.

“You should eat sire. Before your food gets cold.”

Rubbing his forehead Arthur looked between the tray and the report he was trying to decipher. Deciding the latter could wait, he put it aside and gestured for Merlin to set up the meal. Somewhat bemusedly Merlin did so, surprised at the patience Arthur showed even when he had to move things three times to get them all to fit.

When at last everything was set, Arthur tucked into his meal with a gusto that would make one think he’d been on the training fields all day. Merlin found it fascinating and annoying all at the same time. He hadn’t stopped moving since daybreak and would likely get nothing more than a bowl of soup and a crust of bread whenever he finally made it back to his room. That fact left him tempted to sulk, but then remembered it was better than some years in Ealdor. At least here he was guaranteed food every night, even if it wasn’t anywhere near the delicacies royalty got indulged with.

His stomach decided to take that moment to rumble it’s displeasure at being kept from even a simple meal. The prince startled at the sound and looked up. “Are you still here?”

“Er yes?” Merlin said. “Why?”

“Why? You’re asking why?”

“Obviously.”

Arthur sighed. “After bringing meals most servants ask if they’re needed for anything else and then leave. Or at the very least stay out of sight while their master eats.”

Suppressing his temper with an effort, Merlin snarked, “Am I needed for anything else Master ?”

He watched a bit puzzled as Arthur winced at his tone. And not in an ‘I’m the prince how dare you speak to me like that’ kind of way. “No,” he said quietly, “go home and eat.” Then as Merlin moved away he added in a louder voice, “Just be back in time to help me get ready for bed.”

Merlin half bowed to hide his rolled eyes. “Be back in an hour Sire.”

“Arthur.”

“What?”

The prince sighed. “Look, for someone who clearly doesn’t understand the honor they’ve been given to serve in the royal household, you’ve been remarkably loyal.” He rubbed his neck awkwardly, “You do deserve a reward for warning me about Valiant. So, when it’s just the two of us, and only when it’s just the two of us, you can address me by my name.” He pointed his fork at his servant. “Understand?”

“Yes Sir- Arthur.”

Arthur nodded with a half smile. “Go.”

The words of the dragon played in Merlin’s mind as he hurried back to Gaius. The ones that said it was up to him to make the prince into a better man. He wondered what his guardian would think of what the creature had to say. Not that he intended to reveal he’d been talking to it, he’d had more than enough lectures for the time being.

And he didn’t yet fully believe that in destiny bit himself. The idea of having a purpose for his gifts was appealing, and in moments like the one that had just passed he was willing to acknowledge that maybe Arthur wasn’t as awful as he’d been that first day. Still the thought of being stuck at the prat’s side for however long it took to do whatever it was the dragon thought they were supposed to do…

He shook his head. Worrying about riddles could come later.

Right now, food.    

Chapter Text


 

“What if one of them was your son?”

‘That would be another story. Unfortunately…’ “I don’t have a son.”

Was it his imagination or was there grave disappointment in the young stranger’s eyes when Balinor said that?

The look reoccurred when he turned them away for the last time. The Pendragon prince was outraged of course but Balinor couldn’t have cared less about his anger. As far as he was concerned that family was receiving retribution long overdue.

The other boy though...he was a puzzle. It was as if he expected better of the dragonlord. That the suffering of Camelot’s people should be enough to overcome Balinor hurt. That he should help them simply because it was the right thing to do. Once upon a time he had believed that as well. And in return for his belief - indeed because of it - he’d lost everything he’d loved. One day that boy - Merlin he’d said his name was - one day Merlin would learn the same. And Balinor did not care to be there to witness the loss.

And yet the way he’d said Gaius name, as if the old man had told him of the dragonlord, had built an expectation in his mind and Balinor was failing miserably to live up to it, it tugged at the fugitive. There had to be something very personal in their relationship, why else would Gaius have risked revealing the truth of how he’d helped Balinor escape. And where he had escaped to. The boy knew the name Ealdor, no one else would have bothered mentioning that detail. Why?

Well whatever reason the words did their job. Balinor was on his visitor’s trail less than an hour after they left. They were on horseback and him on foot so it was unsurprising he didn’t catch up until they stopped to make camp for the night.

He made sure to make sufficient noise as he approached so as not to take them by surprise. The prince at least had the appearance of a trained warrior and Balinor didn’t want to end up at the wrong end of a sword.

“You’ll return with us then?” the prince asked once he’d announced himself.

Balinor ignored him, keeping his eyes on the dark haired young man in front of him. “You were right Merlin. There are some in Camelot who risked their life for me. I owe a debt that must be repaid.” ‘ And I want to know why that old goat thinks he can get away with spilling my darkest secrets to little more than a child!’

Pendragon accepted that explanation and headed off to collect them something fresh for dinner, ordering Merlin to go gather firewood.

Merlin obeyed although it was a minute before he took his eyes off the dragonlord. Something about the look of pride in them teased at a memory in the back of Balinor’s mind but when nothing more formed he dismissed it to focus on the task at hand.

Agreeing to their request didn’t mean he was at peace with it. A battle raged within him over the best way to approach dealing with Kilgharrah. The innocents he was attacking deserved rescue, that much he conceded. But to outright killing the last dragon went against everything he’d ever believed.

Without anything better to do Balinor wandered a short distance away to collect some wood himself. A hot meal at least would be welcome should the prince manage to catch anything after all the commotion they’d been causing. Merlin joined him before long.

There was an excitement to the young man’s manner, one he was doing a poor job of playing off. He tried to make small talk for a while, commenting about the dampness of the wood and asking questions about Balinor’s healing skills. The dragonlord tried hard not to be short with him, seeing as the boy was rather painfully trying build up his courage for something.   

“You mentioned Ealdor.” He started off, shuffling a little.

“Yes.” ‘ And I wish I hadn’t.’ God only knew what lengths Uther would go through to eliminate all traces of Balinor’s existence when all this was over with.

“I grew up there.” Alright that might explain why he knew of Balinor’s presence there. Gaius might have told him thinking it would instill some sort of favorable connection. Or perhaps...

“My mother’s name is Hunith.”

“I see.” It took all his strength to force those words out in anything but a heartbroken tone. ‘ It wasn’t like you would have any chance of going back after all these years’, he reminded himself.  ‘Better for her to have forgotten me and started a family of her own.’

Merlin was bouncing slightly on his feet, as if begging him to say something else - anything else. When he didn’t the boy took a deep, shuddering breath and added. “I’m your son.”

‘Oh…’

The analytical side of Balinor’s mind took over momentarily, trying to quickly calculate how much time had passed since he’s left. Adding the age Arthur must be now with the months required for a full term pregnancy...Oh who was he fooling? The child is Hunith’s, that much was clear from a thousand little signs. Ones only a man who still loved her as he did could see. And if she told her son Balinor was his father then who was he to doubt her word? Still that didn’t mean he had a clue what to do and his son was clearly waiting for him to speak.

“I don’t know what it is to have a son,” he said, praying his boy would understand the implication. ‘ Please don’t expect too much. Don’t expect me to know how to care for you when you’ve grown up without me.’

Those blue eyes so much like his mother’s glistened brightly. “Nor I a father.” ‘ I’m not asking you for anything,’ those eyes said. ‘ I’m just happy I found you.’  

A lump half laugh, half sob caught in Balinor’s throat and he just managed to nod and smile a little at the young man who’s now drinking in the sight of him with an openness lost to the dragonlord long before his son was even born.

Arthur wandered back within earshot minutes later, muttering crossly to himself and Merlin’s expression turned panicked. “He can’t know. We can’t tell him.”

It took everything Balinor had not to laugh. As if he’d ever expose his child to that kind of risk. No, if Merlin had a death wish he could tell Arthur himself. His father’s lips were sealed.


Late that night, after Arthur had consumed the majority of the simple meal Merlin cooked up - something a critical look over his son’s lean frame told Balinor was a common occurrence - and fallen fast asleep, father and son got a chance to speak freely again.

The talk was more subdued and far more meaningful as far as Balinor was concerned. He explained the sacred bonds between dragon and dragonlord and how such connections formed while his son hung on every word.

Again the thought of that Kilgharrah’s death would make him the last one to experience such a kinship tore at him. Perhaps he could stomach it more if he’d died alongside the dragon as he had been half convinced would never mind the prince’s promise of a reward. Balinor was well acquainted with Uther’s idea of rewards.

But fates curse him if he let that happen now. Not when he had a chance at regaining a small part of what had been stolen from him.

It wouldn’t be easy, but a deception might be possible. One that left his son safe and the prince ignorant. Balinor’s power over the dragon was not something that had faded with time. If he put his mind to it Kilgharrah would bow to his will. Arthur had asked for the dragon to be stopped and stop him Balinor would. What did it matter if dragon and dragonlord were living or dead after that, so long as they disappeared for good?

Now to convince his son to leave with him.

He pondered that problem late into the night as his hands took comfort in the familiarity of carving, shaping a block of wood into something unique and watching the firelight play across his son’s features. His boy was almost grown and he seemed attached to Camelot. Would he be willing to put his (up to this point absent) father’s wishes above his friends?

Finally with his carving finished - a small dragon, as if that should surprise anyone - and eyelids heavy, the dragonlord laid down to rest. He could get a better idea of where he stood with his son in the morning.  


 It would figure wouldn’t it, he thought as the soldier’s sword pierced his gut. Just when he had something to live for something like this had to happen.

That was the last coherent thought he formed for some time. What followed was a blur of pain induced hallucinations. The sound of his son crying out in rage assaulted his ears followed by another voice yelling with almost equal force.

The voices grew closer and hands pressed themselves to his wound. Merlin’s face appeared above his and Balinor’s lips part. Apology, advice, assurances of affection that should have been given the boy’s entire life, he’s not sure what words his brain would have tried to force out but nothing escaped but a painful moan. It was doubtful Merlin would have heard him anyway over the sounds of arguing and pleading going on between him and the prince.

The world’s gone half dark when at last a sigh and a murmur come from the Arthur’s mouth and Merlin’s eyes changed. At least he thinks they do, it might just be him slipping. It certainly looked as if those beautiful eyes flash from blue to gold. A brighter gold then even the most brilliant dragon scales.

The air above Balinor vibrated as the healing words he’d muttered over the Pendragon boy’s shoulder were repeated over and over again until at last the pain in his stomach is all but gone. Whether that was good or bad he couldn’t decide but it mattered not as his eyes drifted shut and there was nothing but darkness.    


 ‘If this is the afterlife I could do without it.’ They say first impressions are everything. Well Balinor’s first impressions were his stomach hurt, his throat was parched, the ground he was lying on was damp, and the view above him looked entirely too much like the place he’d been killed.

After some minutes of lying still gathering his strength he pushed himself up to a sitting position. The pain in his midsection flared fiercely with the movement before settling down to a dull ache. It then growled, reminding him of the paltry meal he’d consumed the night before and his lack of breakfast. Being dead was going to be mighty inconvenient.  

“Father!”

Or, maybe he wasn’t dead. The armful of trembling young man he now had seemed to be dispelling that notion. Merlin pulled back and gripped Balinor’s head between his hands, studying him earnestly.

“Do...can you... are you alright?”

Balinor shifted slowly, considering. “Given what happened, I suppose I can’t complain. Although I’m rather curious to find out exactly how I’m alive.”

“Um..well..” Merlin rubbed at the back of his neck. “You know how you said you can’t be taught a certain something, you either have it or you don’t..?”

Half formed impressions started clicking in Balinor’s mind and he didn’t like the picture. “Tell me,” he said slowly, “you didn’t openly use magic in front of a Pendragon.” The look on his son’s face was all the answer he needed. “Are you insane child?!”

“No more insane than you with what you did!” Merlin protested.

Balinor shook his head. “I am your father. Pretty sure it’s written somewhere that it is my job to do insane things for you.”

“Once,” Merlin’s voice choked a little. “It’s your job to do insane things for me once.”

A chuckle escaped the dragonlord as he wiped a tear off his son’s cheek. “So it’s true. Gods boy, what are we going to do?”

“Maybe say thank you?”

Balinor blinked, “What?”

“Arthur, he didn’t stop me, well he tried and then I said who you were to me and...I don’t know but I think...I think he’ll be ok with it.”

‘That’s going to take a minute or two.’ Balinor rubbed a hand across his beard, unsure whether he should be questioning his son’s sanity or his own. He was saved from having to decide by Arthur’s reappearance.

The prince watched the two of them in silence for some minutes, holding up a hand to forestall Merlin speaking. His expression didn’t appear angry, just anxious and sad. Looking Balinor in the eye he asked, “Are you recovered enough to kill the dragon?”

Seemed now was as good a time as any to state where he truly stood on that subject. “I won’t be killing him.”

“You said you’d help-”

“And I will.” Using his son’s shoulders as leverage, the dragonlord pulled himself to his feet. “Camelot will be spared. Is there still a circular clearing about mile east of the citadel?”

“Yes. We used to use it for training.”

“So did we. Kilgharrah knows its significance. He will come if a call him there. My son and I will take him away. You won’t be bothered by him or us again.”

He felt Merlin tense under his arm. “I’m not leaving,” the protest was sharp in his ear.

“Son do you have any idea the risks you’d be taking if you stayed?”

“I always have been. They’re my risks.”

“Not anymore they’re not. The prince knows who you are.”

“He’d never turn me in!” Merlin sounded so certain Balinor found it difficult not to believe him. That wasn’t the only problem though.

“But he’ll be powerless to help you if you’re caught. He’d never convince Uther to spare your life. And even if...even if he happened to be looking the other way and you managed to escape,” Balinor let out a bitter laugh. “Let’s just say being hunted the rest of your life is not the part of me I wish for you to take after. And think of the friends you’d leave behind. Are you so selfish as to let them be executed for associating with you? Ignorant or not?”

Merlin’s wince had turned into a bristle by the time his father stopped talking. “For your information if I was as selfish as you say I never would have stayed this long. I have a duty to Albion and to Arthur. You expect me to believe he’ll be safe if I leave?

It was clear the princely side of Arthur wanted to scoff at the idea of Merlin being the one keeping him safe, but something stopped him. Maybe it was concern for the dragonlord’s reaction, or maybe he had inherited some brains from his mother and was now putting pieces together from things that had happened previously. The latter seemed to be the case as he eventually sighed and gave Merlin a look of almost gratitude.

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” he said. Merlin turned the mutinous look on him but Arthur didn’t back down. He gestured to edge of the clearing opposite to the dragonlord’s bedroll. “Come here a minute. Please?”

Every inch of him screaming unwillingness Merlin followed. They stopped too far for Balinor to catch more than a few scattered sentences of the conversation, usually when one raised their voice to cut the other off. What he could hear gave him a surprisingly positive impression. Things like:

“No you’re not banished! It’s only temporary…” “Write, visit, whatever you want…” ...If I could promise you’d be safe sooner than that I would but you know….”  

“But that could take years!” Merlin finally snapped.

“Merlin you have a chance to be with your family, your whole family!” Arthur replied, apparently having given up on hiding their words. “Are you really going to throw that away? Do you have any idea what I’d-”

“Arthur-”

“You know I could just knock you out right? It wouldn’t take much. I’ve said so from the day we met.”

Merlin snorted. “I’ll have you know it’s actually very difficult to render someone unconscious with a single blow.”

“I assure you I’m quite capable of it.”

“Are you? Because in two years I’ve never even seen you come close.”

“You really want to take the chance?”

“Do you?” Merlin asked gesturing with his eyes to where Balinor was standing. Half of the dragonlord was tempted to intervene like a protective parent should, the other wanted to laugh in bewilderment at the free, almost casual way his son was arguing with Uther’s.

Albion Merlin had said. Seemed Kilgharrah hadn’t given up on that despite decades of it not happening. If this semblance of a bond between these two young men was real then maybe there was a chance.

“Shall we see to first things first?” He finally asked interrupting the stare off. Arthur nodded in agreement and moved to collect the horses.

“We’re not done talking about this,” Merlin insisted to no one in particular. He didn’t acknowledge the other two’s sighs of exasperation.


A rustling in the bushes sent Balinor’s sense of self preservation sky high. It had been two days since his near fatal encounter with a sword. Noise - any noise - now immediately put him on guard.

After a moment’s tense study of his surroundings he realized the disturbance was only Merlin fighting his way through the undergrowth, one hand holding tight to the reins of a jumpy horse.

When they finally reached him Balinor was torn between chiding his son for being late - it was long past sundown, the hour at which he’d said he would meet up if he decided to come - and wrapping him in a relieved hug.

“Sorry I could only bring one,” Merlin preempted the decision, gesturing to the animal. “People would wonder otherwise.”

“The prince gave you a horse?”  

Merlin shrugged off his surprise. “I’m the only one he doesn’t bite. Besides that he’s a good horse, mother will appreciate having him. For the time we’re borrowing him at least.” He stressed the fifth word ever so slightly.

Balinor shifted his feet. “I feel I should apologize. I know how upset leaving is making you.”

“You think it shouldn’t. Don’t think I’ve haven’t always dreamt of having you with me I just...”

“You had a life here. I understand.” Fine words but practically meaningless now. He really should have thought this whole thing through better. ‘ Some fatherly wisdom would be good right about now. Come on think!’  

“I know you’ll find-”

“I’ve sent a letter on ahead. Mother will be expecting us.”

‘Alright, scrap the wisdom.’ He’d have to let Merlin lead the conversation for awhile, until they got their feet under them so to speak. Right now the boy clearly didn’t want to talk about this .

“We’re not putting her in danger going back there?”

“No. Nearly all the people who’d remember you are gone now. And as far as anyone knows I’m taking a leave of absence to help her through a rough patch. So there’s nothing odd about my being home. Arthur wouldn’t let anything happen to her in any case. He’s almost as protective as I am.”

“Arthur Pendragon is protective your mother?”

“Oh yes. So much that he once defied Uther’s ruling and came to help Ealdor fight off raiders. Snuck out and everything.”

“When was this?”

“About a year ago.”

Taking the horse’s lead, Balinor raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like an interesting story?” he prompted.

Merlin smiled a little hesitantly and fell into step next to him. “Well it all started when…”  

Chapter Text

The still wood awakened in much the same manner as it did every day, to the merry tune of a bird’s whistle echoing freely. The tranquil sounds of the bubbling stream and nocturnal creatures shuffling home to sleep away the day were usually all that greeted its morning song.  

This particular morning however it was not only greeted but joined by a sort of cheerful, off key harmony issuing from a pair of human lips. This oddity was then followed by the steady beat of horse hooves traipsing along the loose earth of the forest floor. Despite the jolt they were given, the natural surroundings decided the new sounds were not an entirely unpleasant addition to their daily refrain.

The human whistler seemed to appreciate the polyphony in return. His companion appeared too engrossed in his own morose thoughts to even notice the symphony of sound surrounding them.

“How many times do you reckon we’ve done this sort of thing?” the whistler asked, trading his out of tune melody for the speech patterns native to his kind. “I mean first there was the trident, and then the cup, and the ice ghosts, and then rescuing-” he cut off, considering the other man. “Are you in there?”

“What?” was the short, sharp answer he received. The forest didn’t have much experience with defining human noises but this one closely resembled the growl of a unfed bear. It was safe to assume that the speaker was unhappy.

The first human did not take offence at his companion’s attitude. His voice took on the low, coaxing timbre used by the mother beasts to soothe their agitated young. “He’ll be alright you know.”  

The unhappy man let out a hard exhale - what the humans called a sigh. “So you’ve told me the last three days.”

“And so you’ll find I’m right,” the first man - the forest decided to call him Whistler for simplicity's sake - said, baring his teeth in the way humans seemed to think pleasant.

Unhappy’s (for so he would be called) brow wrinkled. “You’re awfully confident for someone who didn’t even realize he was missing.”

“Oh come, come. None of us realized the danger the delegation posed, and he was happy joining their little adventure. You’ve got to let him off his leash once in a while.”

Unhappy fixed Whistler with a look that could scorch even the newest of vines. “I don’t have him on a leash. He’s the one constantly spouting about duty and obligation. And I have every right to worry. This land would be nothing without him.”

“Or you,” Whistler said, still in tune with the relaxed atmosphere around him. “You’re as bound to your subjects as he is to his.”

“I don’t have subjects.”

“Could’ve fooled me. Come to think of it I’m surprised we haven’t encountered any of them on this little jaunt into the unruly part of the woods.”

“Unruly?” The forest had half a mind to catch up his head mane in its branches for that comment.

Unhappy’s face brightened ever so slightly as this thought rippled around them. It was as if he could feel the annoyance carried on the breeze and understood its source.

“Seriously,” Whistler was continuing, “they could have at least reached out with that mind speaking stuff you do.”

“What makes you think they haven’t?”

“Have they?”

Unhappy eyes made a circle in their sockets. “You think we’re headed in the opposite direction of the other search parties just for fun?”

“Wellll.”

“Shut it. One of the clan scouts saw a group of suspicious characters head this way about 12 hours ago. They had an unconscious man with them that matched Arthur’s description exactly.”

“You wouldn’t know it to look at this place,” Whistler commented. “A group that large, trying to abduct someone like him... I doubt they were taking their time. Must be pretty good to get through here without leaving a sign.”

The forest turned its thoughts to the group being spoken of. It had indeed been making no efforts at concealment. In fact those who made it up had torn through sacred land with a vast deal of disrespect. Not even a moment’s consideration was spared for the new life sprouting in the undergrowth, and the savages had carried away a vast majority of the young rabbits and ground birds fresh from their nests - far more than was necessary to sate the human need for food.

The woodland considered whether anything had been amiss about a particular individual amongst them. It was tricky, few of the trees in this tract of land had lived enough years to become accustomed to the ways of men. But there was enough collective knowledge to pick out that one in the group had not behaved like the others. A large man, his head covered in a coat of hair the color of the midday sun. He’d been slumped across his beast of burden, his limbs secured to it, stains of his life force dry upon his brow.

The greenwood felt a stab of remorse considering the trouble now facing those who sought to recover this man. Had it been known the importance it appeared the missing human carried the powers at be in this place would not have put their efforts into closing the gaps the former invaders had made through their home. It seemed these two men had been put at a disadvantage because it.

Or perhaps they had not. For in that moment something happened that left even the air breathless. It was this:

Unhappy pulled his horse to a stop and gave his surroundings a considering look, as if truly seeing them for the first time. He hesitated, then closed his eyes. When he opened them they blazed with flames fiercer than ones even the ancients among them had stood witness to. The very air around him shimmered with the pulse of his power and everything - from the trees to the leaves and insects - were parted in his sight. The forest trembled with the sensation that those eyes saw into the very depths of its soul.   

After a moment the fire passed and the previously unhappy man’s face smoothed out before taking on an expression of determination and purpose. “He’s this way,” was all he said.

His companion shifted on his animal, watching the change in his demeanor thoughtfully. “You’re sure?” he asked with care.

The man of magic (and a magic such as that young wood had never felt before) nodded almost serenely. “I couldn’t see the path before. But it’s clear now. We won’t have anymore trouble.”

The other man startled slightly, his dark eyes flickering between the... could he be a warlock?.. and the foliage ahead of them. Then he shrugged. “Still wish you’d teach me how to do that.”

“Not today.”

“In that case,” Whistler inclined his upper body in the other man’s direction, “after you my friend.”

With a deep breath and a determined nod the men resumed their pursuit. In a very short while they would come across their quarry and the resulting clash would be a spectacle such as these woods would remember throughout this age and the next.

And then, almost before it was missed, calm would return to this corner of the earth. Deer and hare would return to their methodical foraging. The bird’s would sing out once more, their song peaceful and uplifting. And the trees would rest anew, left to themselves to ponder once more on the diverse ways of men.

Chapter Text


The warm sunlight shining through the window pulled a genuine smile from Isolde. It was a welcome change after the last week of rainstorms. Her thoughts uplifted, she took a cautious sip of her steaming tea only to flinch when it burnt her tongue.

Setting the cup down on the counter she scowled down at her temperamental midsection. She didn’t want to drink the foul brew in the first place, but lately it had been the only thing to settle the rolling in her stomach. It also made her small bursts of energy last just a little bit longer. Necessary evil she decided, trying another sip.

One month more the healer had said, then she might be able to get back to her ordinary routine, although he’d insisted she take to eating large meals just as soon as she was able. She had a lot of weight to regain.

As much as she hated the fact her condition had rendered her basically useless in terms of their old lifestyle the timing was rather convenient. The battle for Camelot had ultimately been more blessing than curse and in light of the generous sum of money - and official pardon for the charge of smuggling - King Arthur had given her and Tristan as a thank you for their assistance in regaining his kingdom, they’d promised to at least make an attempt at a less illegal existence.    

Doing so was hard on her love. Not so much the legal side of things - he’d been a perfectly law abiding citizen once upon a time - but the putting down roots bit. A life on the road had called to Tristan long before they’d met and at times he felt trapped by the four walls surrounding them, even if they were the nicest walls that had ever done so. She could only hope his uncanny ability to adapt to circumstances at the drop of a hat (or an ax as the case may be) would pull him through this. Especially as their lives were only going to get far more complicated from here on out.  

Finishing the disgusting concoction, she let her eyes wander outside to where Tristan was kneeling in the damp grass trying to uproot a stubborn sapling that he’d evidently decided didn’t belong where it had been planted. He had done something of this nature about once a week since they’d bought the house. It was rather annoying, this was the wrong time of year to be planting in the first place much less replanting. But it was mostly her own fault so she really couldn’t say anything about it.

In an effort to provide the man with a distraction, mostly so he didn’t pester her over her recovery, she’d shooed him out of doors with the proclamation that the outside of their abode was his to do with what he liked.

Now he practically lived there working on innumerable projects from making a kitchen garden space behind the house to digging their own private well - as if the half mile walk to the village one was too much for the woman who’d crossed the whole of the kingdom on foot over the course of the past decade. Although, she thought as another wave of nausea assaulted her, maybe the well was a good idea for the time being. Still, regardless how long it took her to get back on her feet she would not be treated like an invalid.    

Once she was sure she could make it across the room without her stomach acting like she was taking a journey on the windswept sea, she moved to the stack of logs in the corner and carefully lifted a couple to add to the dying fire. Placing a cook-pot on its hook above the flames she headed down to the cellar to see what could be spared from the winter’s store.     

Hearty meals were not an appealing thought in the least. But if eating that way was going to be her lot for the foreseeable future she’d better start getting a taste for them now. They may not do her a lot of good just yet but others would benefit and that’s what she had to think about.

Sounds of a door closing and boots stamping their way across the stones above brought her out of her musings.  

“Isolde where are you? Isolde!” Tristan’s voice grew alarmed. “Come here, hurry!”

Grabbing the first two jars in sight she hurried up the stairs as quickly as she was able. “I’m here, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“This blasted pot you left here is boiling all over the floor!”

Suppressing a laugh at how startled he looked, she set the jars on the table and took a mop from its rack. “You had me thinking the house was on fire,” she scolded. “You’re not one for panicking Tristan.”

“It surprised me is all,” he huffed. “And here,” he set the now near empty pot to the side and tried to snatch the mop from her. “You should rest.”

“Oh you’ll get a chance to clean up don’t worry. And far more than a spilled pot.”

“What do you mean?”

“Take a look at yourself.”

No matter how he spent his time outside Tristan always returned carrying a healthy amount of dirt on his person. This went beyond that. Clearly the displaced sapling, or possibly the hole it had left behind, had gotten the last shot in. His right trouser leg was coated in black mud from ankle to thigh. The hems of his jacket and both sleeves were dark too, the latter also damp from where he’d tried to wash the offending mud off his hands.  

The point of her words was clear if the grimace that crossed his face was any indication. Glancing between himself and the trail left along the floor behind him he gave her what he thought was a winning smile.  

“My dear, it’s a simple matter to clean it up.”

“I’m glad you think so.” She handed him the mop. “Because it’s been said children learn more from example than they ever do by being told what to do. If you don’t have a care they’re going to be exactly like you, making messes of their own all day long. And you, my dear, are going to be the one cleaning them up.”

“What do you-” He broke off, disbelief shining in his eyes. “Are you?”

She gave him a soft smile and lightly brushed a hand over her tunic. She’d been wearing loose ones for some time so as not to cause any unnecessary irritation to her scars. Now though they’d be useful for concealing the small bump growing out from her middle until such a time as they wanted the world to know of its existence.

Tristan’s eyes, the ones she’d loved since she was fifteen years old, sparkled with confusion and wonder as he took a cautious step toward her, breath increasing as hope began to win out over the other emotions he was feeling.

Her coy smile broke into a laugh as he swept her up in his arms, setting her down again almost immediately.

“Are you alright?”

She laughed again. “I’m fine. You know I’m made of tougher stuff than a little jostling can break. Our child will be too.”

“Our child,” he repeated. “And here I was afraid our life of adventure was over.”

“Never. It’s a new adventure now. And there’s only one person I want to spend it with. ”

“Can I guess who that is?”

“I hope so.”

“Is it me?” he asked leaning in close.

She smiled sweetly. “It’s a you who is not currently stinking up my clean home.” Pulling away she tapped him on the nose. “You know where the bathwater is.”

“Hang on now-”

“Out. And don’t come back until you’re clean.”

He sputtered for a moment but listened as he always did.

“He’s a mess but I love him,” she said after he’d closed the door behind him. Rubbing her stomach gently she continued to speak aloud to her unborn child. “And we’ll both love you, no matter who you turn out to be. Although,” she lowered her voice to conspiratorial whisper, “if you turn to be a meticulous neat freak I would not be upset in the slightest. Just something to think about if you know what I mean.”

The tiny flutter she felt at that moment told her she was understood.

Chapter Text


“Arthur? What is it? I saw the messenger leave-”

“Close the door Merlin!”

Chastised, the warlock did as ordered. The minute he did Arthur, who’d been maintaining his royal bearing by sheer stubborn will, slumped dejectedly in a chair by the fireplace.

Deciding not to comment on that Merlin took his time adding a couple of logs to the dying blaze burning beside the prince, knowing Arthur would need the warmth. Winter was still some months away but with his father’s kidnapping and Morgana’s defection, Camelot’s de facto ruler hadn’t had a moments rest. Sickness was inevitable if he didn’t start taking care of himself. Not that it was Merlin’s duty to worry about that, as he’d tried - and only partially succeeded - to convince himself several times before now.

“Any word?” he finally asked.

“More of the same,” the prince answered dejectedly. “Freya’s last lead came to nothing. The patrol found signs someone had been performing some kind of ritual at the cave, but they’d picked up and left at least three days before they got there. If it was Morgause we can assume she accomplished whatever she set out to and has probably retreated to Cenred’s castle. In the meantime no communications we’ve sent to Escetir’s king have been replied to. Well they have been in the form of another torched village but you know what I mean.”

Merlin nodded sadly.

Arthur sighed. “I just wish I could be sure I’m making the right decisions. For all their so called  years of experience the council is very little help. Did you hear what they tried to pull this morning?”

He got a head shake in reply.

“They tried to override protocol and declare my father dead so I could officially be appointed as king. Can you believe it? He hasn’t been gone for a month and they’ve already written off all hope of finding him. Half of them are convinced he was killed the second Morgause got her hands on him.”  

“No, she wouldn’t do that,” Merlin reassured him. “He’s her bargaining chip.”

“But what’s the bargain?”

“The throne I can only assume. It’s what Morgana wanted even before she knew Uther was her blood father.”  

Arthur winced a little at the reminder of his familial connection to the woman who had betrayed them. “But why not just say so? Why not march her army to the gates and demand I surrender Camelot to her?”

“They tried that with raising the skeletons remember? She’s guarding her hand better this time. She doesn’t just want Camelot, she wants you to suffer. Leaving you in the dark about your father’s fate is part of that.”

The blond broke eye contact and stared unseeingly at the flames crackling and popping. “Will I ever see him again?” he murmured, so quietly Merlin barely caught it. The firelight briefly reflected an unwelcome moisture in the prince’s eyes.

As much as things had been...difficult between them for some time, Merlin’s chest still tightened at witnessing the depth of Arthur’s suffering. Those tears weren’t springing from exhaustion or a plea for sympathy. Someone he’d loved his entire life was viciously and methodically picking Arthur’s world to pieces, and it infuriated Merlin that Camelot’s senseless destruction of anything magical had left them with very few resources for any reasonable defense. At least ones they understood.

Well, at least there was one thing Morgana wouldn’t see coming.

Coming to stand by the chair he ventured, “I did have another idea. And before you get angry when I tell you this, I reached out to him ahead of time only so I wouldn’t be giving you hope that could come to nothing. I just got a reply back yesterday.”

Arthur gave him a wary look. “Go on.”

“We need eyes inside that castle. Whether Morgause finds the cup or not, whether she knows what to do with it or not, this will be the hardest battle Camelot has ever faced. If someone can sneak in they can get an idea of how much time we have until she’s accomplished her goal, and what our best chance of prevent her doing just that is. At the very least they can find where your father is being held and bring back word of his condition.”

“None of that is a new thought to me Merlin, the problem is protecting those that go. And deciding who to send. It would have to be a small party, moving in secret. The knights are trained in reconnaissance of course but…” he trailed of as Merlin shook his head.

“All the best ones were caught in that trap she triggered at the shrine,” the warlock informed him. “Gaius says it will be weeks before their burns have healed enough to be of any help again. And that’s with his... ahem.. assistance.”

The prince ignored the implication. “Who do you suggest then? And don’t say you.”

“Arthur-”

“No! You heard the Fisher King. If we’re going to survive Camelot’s great trial, we can’t be separated. And I can’t...I’ve wanted to storm that castle from the minute I heard my father was prisoner there, but I can’t risk it. He’d never forgive me if I got captured too. We have to stay here.”   

Merlin blew out his breath and answered cautiously. “I have no intention of going anywhere without you. Lancelot has all the skill and qualities of a knight yeah?”

The prince blinked in confusion at the seeming change in subject. “Yes.”

“You trust him?”

“Yes...but how-”

“Well it just so happens,” Merlin continued, “that he’s been forced to spend the last several months...on the run you could say. Don’t look at me like that, he hasn’t broken the law or anything, despite what Lord Pelles might think. The point is, he’s learned how to get in and out of places without being seen. I wrote to him to see if he’d be willing to take on a mission as risky as this, and he said he’s at your disposal. He even mentioned some allies of his who would be ideal help, one of them being Gwaine as a matter of fact. Although how the two of them crossed paths I have no idea.”

“My father would not approve of outlaws being featured in his rescue.” Arthur felt the need to object.

His still sort of servant glared at him. “Unless you’re ready to be fitted for a new crown I’d say what your father would approve of is a little irrelevant right now. If it bothers you that much, rescind the banishment. It’s only Gwaine affected by it anyway, Lancelot chose to leave because he didn’t feel right taking credit for killing the griffin.”

“But didn’t he?” Arthur sputtered. “I thought-”

The scowl on the other’s face deepened. “Creatures of magic can only be fought with magic, or have you never listened to a word Gaius has said?”

The prince colored but didn’t argue. If anything the defeated slump to his shoulders increased. “So Lancelot knows of your magic then.”

Merlin’s cheeks burned a little as well. “Yes,” he answered quietly.

“Do any of the others?”

“He wouldn’t have told them.” The warlock swallowed, “And I won’t unless we both agree it’s right.”

“I don’t know what’s right anymore.”

Just like that Merlin felt like dirt. As valid as he could claim his anger was, he needed to let it cool before it absorbed his entire life. He could still see Freya in some capacity although the barriers between them were heartbreaking.

On more than one occasion he’d sequestered himself in his tiny room to stare at the bottle of lake water she’d given him. Mindful of her warning that its was only a matter of time before its power ran out, he’d only used it twice, but every drop gone did nothing but add to his pain. Arthur knew to avoid him those days.  

Beyond that though Arthur had made it obvious he still cared for him, and he’d listened to Merlin more in the last month than in all the years they’d known each other prior to that day at the lake. No matter how guilty the prince may have felt over Freya’s death, guilt alone wouldn’t have been enough to keep a secret like his. Not for three months, and not from Uther. On some level Merlin knew how much doing so was costing him, he deserved a little support in return.

Crouching down to eye level he waited for Arthur to look at him.

“Saving your father’s life and eliminating a threat to thousands of innocent people, that is what’s right. Name a time and I’ll take you to where Lance and the others are. They are ready and willing to help you in any way, whether you’re able to reward them or not. It might take time and more than a little luck, but they will get us a way to help Uther.

“And once he’s safe,” Merlin stood and retrieved the dragon blade from its hiding place. Holding it out he met Arthur’s gaze firmly. “Then we eliminate Morgause once and for all.”


 “How old would you suppose this place is?” Percival asked, his voice full of all the wonder appropriate for an average village man seeing the still dignified (if crumbled) remnants of an era long past.

“From how little is of left of it I’d say more than 500 years.” His leader and companion answered. “Built as a refuge for the ancient kings most likely. They had four or five scattered around the lands, supposedly this was the most secure of them.”

“Secure it may have been, but there’s certainly not much in the way of splendor,” chimed in the dark skinned man who was busy sharpening what they had in way of armaments. “I wonder if any of the current rulers of the five kingdoms could handle such austereness. I’m having a bit of a tough time myself, and I’ve spent the majority of my life in less than ideal living arrangements.”

“As have I,” the big man agreed. “I’ve never wished for luxury, but five straight nights of sleeping on solid stone is not doing my back any favors.”

“Nor mine,” Gwaine concurred, stretching his bruised shoulder muscles carefully. “You were right to send your lady on to Camelot mate. Even a humble village home would better for someone in her condition than this place.”

This last was directed to Lancelot who scowled at him from his place by the window.

“What have I told you about calling her ‘my’ lady?”

“Well unless you two got married while I was unconscious I can’t call her your wife, and repeatedly referring to her as ‘the mother of your child’ gets tedious.”

“You can refer to her as Lady Elaine. And be so good as to remember that she is not a mother by choice.” Lancelot’s eyes were dark with warning, and the other two in their group silently pleaded with Gwaine not to push it. Naturally he ignored them.

“We all know the story my friend. But if you’d be so good as to remember the way her face lights up every time your babe so much as twitches inside her, then perhaps you’ll realize that what she didn’t chose was to conceive him. She has chosen to be his mother. Question is, what are you going to choose?”

Lancelot’s response was cut off by the sight of two men on horses making good speed over the rolling hills. He had a reasonably good idea who they were, but still gestured the others into what defensive positions they could manage until the prearranged signal with these visitors was repeated not once but twice. They then headed down to meet the new arrivals at the gate.

All were cognizant of the need to limit exposure (there was always the chance Morgause was watching their movements as closely as they were attempting to watch her’s), and the group forwent initial pleasantries in favor of re-entering the keep as quickly as possible. Lancelot lingered a moment or two longer to be sure the entrance was secure before joining them.

He arrived to find that Gwaine had seemingly forgotten the fact he’d spent the better part of the last week barely able to stand, and was wrapping Merlin in an enthusiastic and breath stealing hug. He shook his head fondly.

The other man was the complete opposite of himself and Lancelot couldn’t help wondering if they hadn’t bonded over a mutual need to escape a precarious situation - and then discovered a shared attachment to a certain prince and servant - would they have managed not to strangle one another by now?

After Gwaine released Merlin, and pouted a little when Arthur offered a firm handshake and nothing else, the group finished off introductions. Elyan’s surprise at being recognized by Arthur was obvious. He had grown up in Camelot of course, but he’d rarely crossed paths with the prince and the two had never truly interacted. Still, he gratefully acknowledged Arthur’s message from the blacksmith’s sister and exchanged a polite greeting with Merlin, as both men also did with Percival.      

That out of the way, Arthur moved the conversation onto more important things, outlining the gist of his plan.

“I want to thank you all personally for your willingness to aid in this time of crisis. You know the threats Camelot is facing, to say this mission comes at great risk is a gross understatement. So I want to be clear you are under no obligation to follow through. Gwaine, I know our plea for help came through when you were rather... insensible. Camelot hasn’t done you any favors so if you wish to rethink taking part in all this I would not hold you to the commitment others made on your behalf.”

The rogue smiled grimly. “Cold feet are Lancelot’s affliction Princess, not mine. My pledge to help you and Merlin out came ages ago and I’ve no intention of changing that now.”

Each of his compatriots nodded in turn and Lancelot summed up their feelings with a solemn vow. “We’re yours to command my lord.”


For as much as he had no trouble relying on his friends when the situation called for it, Merlin couldn’t help but acknowledge the satisfaction that came with accomplishing something that was beyond the ability of anyone besides himself. Using his magic to to complete the journey to the castle hideout in less than half the time it had taken him and Arthur two days prior was one of those things.

He made sure the fact he could do such things was well concealed by the time he was in view of the watch being kept from said castle of course. Arthur had been reluctant to share that information just yet and Merlin couldn’t blame him. The goal was to get Uther back alive. Should they be successful, he didn’t want to suddenly have a roomful of people risking their lives by having to keep his secret safe.

He approached the derelict building cautiously, waiting for the sentry (even from this far out he could tell it was Percival) to wave the all clear before he lead his horse inside.

The big man clapped his shoulder in a friendly way before returning to looking out over the landscape in front of him. When asked he directed Merlin to the other side of the fortress where Lancelot was monitoring things in the southwest.

He found the knight (it was unofficial but Arthur had said since the men were risking their lives to do a knight’s work they should at least be rewarded with title) staring pensively over the battlement.

“You’re all ready to move out?” He asked as he approached.

Lancelot looked over his shoulder and gave a nod. “At first light.”

“I have a message from Elaine. She said to tell you to be careful and that she’ll be waiting for you to come home.”

Lancelot’s expression grew closed off and he turned away without a word.

“When are you going to make things official with her?”

“I don’t… there’s a lot to consider.”

“You’ve been ‘considering’ for months,” Merlin reminded him. “You’re running out of time.”

“Yes but rushing never solved anything. If I marry her now and down the road someone else...”

Ah so that’s what this was about. “Gwen won’t be changing her mind.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean something won’t happen to-”

“She’s faithful to Arthur. And if something ever happens to him, she’ll be faithful to his memory. You two had your chance, you were the one to walk away from it. So stop blaming other people and focus on what you have. Maybe it wasn’t what you would have initially chosen, but would you really be happy being someone’s ‘I don’t want to be alone so I’ll take you’? Elaine loves you, and she’s stuck with you despite how you’ve tried to put her off. The Lancelot I know wouldn’t take that for granted.”    

“Does she really love me?” Lancelot retorted. “She didn’t before, otherwise her father wouldn’t have forced this scheme on the two of us. And even if that’s changed, would she be happy knowing she was my second choice? I admit I care for her a great deal but… No matter what I do, one of us is going to suffer.”

Merlin sighed, turning to look at the mountains. “Look, I know what it’s like to know you’ll never be able to be with a person you’ve loved. But I also know what it’s like to grow up without a father. So does Gwaine for that matter.”

“Don’t think he hasn’t been on my back practically every day.”

“Because it’s something you never truly get over. And the two of us have the comfort of knowing our fathers never chose to leave us. What’s your son or daughter going to have? All I’ve heard is how you and Elaine have suffered from what her father did. Maybe you should consider the fact that unless you change your attitude the only one who’s truly going to suffer is your baby. Take it from someone who knows, if you won’t be a father to your child no one will. No man is going to marry a woman with a child who isn’t unquestionably a widow.”  

Lancelot bowed his head for a long time. Finally he exhaled deeply and looked up at his friend. “I’ll talk to her when we get back. Right now I have to focus on the mission. Speaking of which, did you just come to lecture me about my parental responsibilities or are you going to stay and see us off tomorrow?”

“Lecturing you was one reason. I also came to give you this.” Reaching into his pocket Merlin pulled out a gold cylindrical object about six inches long. The autumn sunlight glinted off the metal as he passed it over. For such a small object it felt abnormally heavy in Lancelot’s palm.

“I’d ask if this was more of your old tricks but something is telling me that’s not the case.”

“No.”

“What is it?”

“A prong from the trident of the Fisher King.”

Lancelot looked up curiously. “Who is the Fisher King?”

“The ancient ruler of what are now the Perilous Lands. For centuries he wielded a powerful magic which was enhanced and preserved by his kingdom’s symbol, the trident. It tied him to his land, so much so that when he began to die so did his kingdom, leaving it the wasteland it is today.”

“You speak as if he still there.”

“He was up until a short time ago. The magic that connected him to his land acted to preserve his life until such a time as a worthy successor came along to claim the trident.”

“That successor being you?”

“Me or Arthur. Or me and Arthur. Not sure, he was rather vague about it.”

“How did you come across him?”

“Long story short, Arthur had to choose a quest to complete, something about proving his worth as Camelot’s next leader. Going after the trident is what he said was revealed to him.”

“Revealed? As in a vision?”

“He spent all night on midsummer’s eve in a sort of trance, undisturbed by anyone. Supposably so the quest he chose would be the one he was destined to complete.”

“Sounds suspiciously close to several, shall we say... forbidden rituals I’ve encountered in other lands.”

Merlin gave a bitter chuckle. “Oh yes, the closer you look at Uther’s reign the more you see the hypocrisy his policies are built on. Fortunately Arthur’s beginning to recognize that fact. He didn’t argue when I caught up to him and said I was staying, even though tradition says the quest can’t be considered successful unless it’s completed by the heir and the heir alone.”

“What made you do that?”

“Freya warned me. Said something had gone wrong and he needed my help. Turned out she was right. Morgana had given him a cursed bracelet as a good luck token. He’d had enough sense not to put it on, but even being in his saddlebags it was sapping his strength. If I hadn’t gotten there when I did…”

“I’m glad you helped him.”

“Yeah well anyway, when we got to the Fisher King’s castle we found what was left of him.” Merlin shuddered at the memory. “He told us some things about the trident, and with Gaius help we’ve been finding out more.”   

“How will this piece of it help us on our mission?”

“Each of the three prongs of the trident gifted the king with a unique magical ability. It’s how he was able to keep his kingdom shielded from invaders, make sure his people always had the provisions they needed, and so on. This one,” Merlin nodded to the prong in Lancelot’s hand, “allowed him to hide his presence from his enemies. It’s not invisibility exactly, but if someone happens to spot you it will allow you to pass as unimportant so long as you aren’t doing anything blatantly threatening at the time.”

“And it’ll work on its own, separated from the rest of the trident?”

“It’s power will be reduced to some extent, so it’s imperative you avoid Morgause. But Morgana is not nearly as strong as she likes to pretend she is, and Cenred is smart enough not to put any sorcerers as underlings in his army. It’ll do its job against them.”

Lancelot nodded once. “Thank you, we’ll be sure to use it.”

Merlin nodded in return and offered his hand. “Safe journey.”

Lancelot grasped his hand and pulled him into a brief hug. “Hang in there old friend. This will work out, you’ll see.”


If he’d had lucky stars Merlin would have thanked them that he was with Arthur when the report came in. It had been nearly a week and the prince was driving himself mad with worry, when Elyan rode into town - alone - and per Arthur’s instructions was brought straight to the acting ruler.

Upon his arrival, Arthur immediately ordered everyone but Merlin out (he’d been in middle of yet another debate with the council over their next course of action) and beckoned Elyan close.

“What news?”

“The king lives Sire.”

Arthur closed his eyes in undisguised relieved. “How is he?”

Elyan’s expression was not encouraging. “We weren’t able to actually get eyes on him ourselves, but Gwaine and Percival overheard two guards discussing a vial of blood one of them was holding. He said he’d had a...difficult time subduing the king long enough to get it.”

Arthur jerked and Merlin put a steadying hand on his shoulder. That could be a promising sign. If Uther still bothered to put up a struggle when the guards showed up then perhaps he hadn’t been broken entirely by his daughter’s betrayal.

“What did the guard do with the blood?” Merlin asked.

“We saw him he take it to Morgana. She held it out and repeated something over and over. From her tone whatever it was didn’t seem to have any effect. Finally she barked at one of the soldiers and ordered him to take the vial to Morgause. Then Cenred showed up…”

“My army has assembled, when can they expect to receive this power Morgause has offered to them?

“When she says they will.”

“She’s had that rusted old goblet for weeks now. I’m beginning to doubt she has the ability to fulfill her promises. She needs to answer for what she is doing.”

“You speak of things you do not understand. The rituals are long and ancient and must be done in the proper way or else they will not be effective. That is the only answer she chooses to give.”

“And one only offered when the giver is stalling for time. She doesn’t want to admit that your complete inability to be of assistance to her has put us all at a severe disadvantage. That if all had gone as she had assured me it would, Camelot would have been ours by now.”

“You best be careful Cenred. One does not speak that way to a queen if they wish to keep their head.”

“Ah, but you are not a queen Morgana. And unless this blasted plan of yours shows signs of life soon, you can give up all hopes of ever becoming one. I am taking more than my share of risks keeping Uther hostage for this long. I’d hate to have to negotiate his release on my own. Don’t forget, the price to ransom a king is generally exacted from his entire bloodline. Best start considering how much you’re willing to pay.”

Arthur was quiet for a long time after Elyan finished. Worry and despair fought to gain dominance over him - over all of them - but he resolutely tamped the feelings down. At least now there was chance for their side to gain the upper hand.

Fortune may have favored Morgause’s scheme up until this point, but now it seemed the scales were on their way to balancing out. The prince wasn’t going to waste time wondering why, and as much as Merlin wanted to scream at him to be cautious, setbacks had cost them too much time already. They needed to use this to their advantage.


Four days.

If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, Arthur wouldn’t have believed how fast things had come together for them. He’d been told all his life that the kingdom would one day be his to command, and that when he gave an order it would be obeyed without question, but he’d never seen the truth of those words so aptly demonstrated.

From first word of what was going on to standing outside the gate of Cenred’s castle in less than a week ,” he thought. “ Now to make sure I don’t screw it up.”

The bulk of the army was encamped along the border between Camelot and Escetir. Cenred may have committed an act of war by his compliance in Uther’s kidnapping and subsequent imprisonment, but Arthur still held onto a hope that this could be resolved without bloodshed. The other king was a coward at heart and he’d already suffered one defeat this year. If he no longer had faith in his ally’s ability, then the strength of Camelot’s fighting force should be enough to have him conceding to her demands.

That didn’t mean a dozen of Arthur’s best knights (and Merlin) weren’t all crowded within arms reach of him, eyes and magic alert to even the smallest shift in their surroundings. The minutes dragged on like hours as they waited for the return of the messenger who’d carried Camelot’s demands inside the citadel.

Arthur wished more than anything that he had accompanied him, but he’d had to bow to the reasoning of those who’d argued against that idea. Hostage threat aside there was no guarantee Morgause wouldn’t simply kill him on sight.

Moments later the sound of soldiers exiting the castle gate signaled the arrival of Ecetier’s king. Pushing his thoughts away the prince straightened and immediately clamped his hand on his sword, taking comfort in the hum that resonated from it even inside its sheath.

Instead of the thin, leather clad man Arthur expected the identically clad guards to be leading, Morgause herself appeared. She wore no armor, only the same ornate red gown from the previous times he’d encountered her. It was a fitting choice considering all the blood she had on her hands.

Her gaze swept over the group gathered in front of her, hardening a fraction as she noticed Merlin, before coming to rest on Arthur.

“Cenred sends his regrets at being unable to meet with you,” she said. “However he did authorize me to release the man you requested.”

Two more men came forward and tossed a bruised and bound Lancelot to the ground.

“I assume this is who you meant? We caught him sneaking around the grounds this morning. I thought you were a good strategist Prince . Are you so desperate as to sacrifice a man’s life to such a poorly executed plan?”  

In your dreams Morgause. Arthur cocked his head with a board expression. “Whoever this man is, he is not here by my orders.” Technically true. “You know very well I am here for the release of a hostage not a trespasser.”

Surprise flushed across her face, a look identical to the one Morgana always gave when she was about to attempt making him look like a fool.

“You must be mistaken, I assure you we are holding no other prisoners.”

It took every ounce of his self control not to stab the witch in the heart then and here. Drawing in a breath, he fell back on years of courtly training and smiled politely at her. “I came for the release of Cenred’s guest .”

The surprise morphed into a frown. “Guest, guest. Surely you’re not wanting your sister? Not when she was-”

“Enough!” He immediately cursed himself for his anger but she merely nodded.

“Yes I agree, enough games. I’ll state this plainly, there is no one here who is not a loyal soldier dedicated to our cause. I’ll prove it.”

Turning partially she gestured to a broad shouldered man in the black and red uniform of Cenred’s army. He stepped forward and inclined his head to her. She smirked in return.

“Why don’t you show Camelot just who it is we have on our side.”

The soldier lifted a hand and tugged loose the black cloth covering the bottom half of his face. It fell slowly to the ground as he raised his head to look Arthur in the eye.

“Father?”

Chapter Text


 

If Merlin wasn’t such a terrible liar he might never have guessed the truth.

He wasn’t lying about helping the boy, or about being ambushed by Morgana - who’d tried to kill him in an underhanded and exceedingly painful way. Or that the boy had returned to save his life only to lose his own stopping the Sarrum’s assassination attempt on Arthur.

Those events were excruciating and infuriating to hear about, but the king had no doubt they were true. He believed so even without being shown the sores around his servant’s mouth and the wound on his leg.

No, the lie came when Arthur asked why he would tell Guinevere he was leaving to see a girl rather than tend to a child. Merlin had hesitated and said it was the first thing he thought of.

“But why lie at all?”

“The boy claimed he was a druid Sire.”

“What does that matter? I have no objection to rendering aid the druids.” His servant avoided his gaze. “Merlin?”

“The Sarrum felt otherwise. In the event my absence became an issue I couldn’t count on him not being present when the queen revealed where I had gone. It shouldn’t even have come to that. I intended to be back before you’d even noticed I’d left. It was not my intention to deceive you.”

“It is of no consequence,” Guinevere interjected with a smile. “We are only glad you made it back to us in one piece.”

Even Arthur could see the constraint in Merlin’s manner as he smiled back at her. “You’re too kind your majesty. I know how distasteful lying is to you, especially to your husband. I thank you for your lack of malice this time around.”  

He’d taken leave of them after that, with orders to go to straight to bed. Guinevere returned to her meal but Arthur was too consumed with guilt to take another bite of his. He knew he should try to talk out his feelings but the disturbed atmosphere in the room lingered on and his wife soon plead the need for fresh air, exiting his chambers without even acknowledging his offer to accompany her.

The king lingered a while longer before he finally gave up on the wine he’d been sipping and moved to his desk, trying to banish the sight his servant’s exhausted eyes and limping gait from his mind. No sooner had he succeeded, when the last words uttered to the queen came back to him, and he sat replaying the entire conversation in his mind.

Too many things were off about Merlin’s reasoning. He didn’t expect to be gone long enough for Arthur to notice, but he still took the time to think of a lie that wouldn’t cause a potential controversy should the Sarrum hear of it? Not likely. Merlin was a make up an excuse on the spot kind of person. In the 9 years Arthur had known him that excuse had been one of three things, and a woman had never been involved. No way would that be ‘the first thing he thought of’ now.

But that brought him back to the original question. Why would his wife say that’s where he was? Did she really have no clue where he had gone and was just trying to avoid Arthur punishing him for disappearing without a word? That was the kind of thing Guinevere would do. But why wait so long to say anything? She’d been just as mystified as him and Gaius at first. It was only when Arthur said he was going to send out a search party that she’d presented the excuse, taking pains to reassure him that Merlin was fine and no one had to worry.

In reality he’d had every reason to worry. If not for that boy’s change of heart and Merlin’s rather remarkable constitution he would have died. And Arthur would have had no idea. That thought struck more fear in him than the sight of the bolt that had been intended for his heart that afternoon.

The longer Arthur thought the more worrisome pieces of the conversation he picked up on. The fact Merlin had addressed her as ‘your majesty’ for one. In fact he hadn’t said her name at all that evening which just didn’t happen. She’d never demanded use of her titles from him. It had taken nearly a year for her to stop blushing every time any of their close companions called her that, or ‘my queen’, or anything befitting her station - even jokingly. And lastly - and this was one the king really didn’t want to think about - why the gratitude for her lack of malice “this time”?  

That could only be in reference to the time she’d accused him of poisoning Arthur, something that was still so ridiculous he had a hard time believing it had happened. Afterwards the two of them had had words over the matter (to be fair he’d had words with everyone involved) which she’d promptly brought to a halt by bursting into tears and saying she was so worried, and scared, and she’d never think of it now but at the time it was the only thing that made sense, and other such things until he’d apologized. He’d let the subject alone after that, privately vowing to make it up to Merlin somehow, something he’d yet to accomplish.

A servant tapped at the door pulling him from his thoughts. Upon entering they relayed a message from the queen saying she had some things to tend to and he didn’t have to wait up for her.

This was another semi common occurrence that he hadn’t questioned. He knew keeping busy was the only way she had been coping with the loss of the last of her family, and he applauded how strong doing so proved Camelot’s queen to be. But now that his mind was hyper focusing on her words and actions the absences were starting to line up a little too closely with some troubling occurrences.

The last time, if he remembered correctly, had been during the matter with Tyr. The night of the trial Merlin had come to them saying the young man was now willing to tell Arthur who he’d seen in the stables, and that the king should go to him quickly before he changed his mind. But Guinevere had argued against it. Why?

In all the years he’d known her she’d never tried to stop him from learning the truth. In fact more often than not she’d pushed him towards it when he’d be reluctant to learn what was going on. Merlin hadn’t agreed with her reasoning, in retrospect his worry had been plain as day. But Arthur had consented to his wife’s suggestion of waiting and ignored his servant’s argument. And the next morning Tyr was found stabbed through the heart.

Did Merlin know who killed him? Had he been set up to take the fall for Arthur’s poisoning because he was a danger to someone? Did Guinevere know who? Was she being threatened as well or was something worse going on?

More and more thoughts, gestures, and inconsistencies crowded into his brain before he finally fell into an exhausted sleep hoping the morning would bring clarity to his now muddled mind.

It didn’t, but affairs of state kept him too distracted to return to thinking on the problem. That is until the queen joined him for dinner that evening. Merlin was absent as he had been all day, and the servants who served the meal didn’t know enough to interject comments or observations whenever the conversation died down or grew cold.

Arthur made up his mind then and there that he couldn't allow this to go on. Somewhere along the line he’d remembered that Merlin only got abnormally formal and correct around those whom he considered a danger, Agravaine being the most recent example. The last thing the king wanted was to cast blame on the one who deserved it least, but if something was wrong with his wife he couldn’t afford to be blindsided by it.

After eating as little as he could without arousing suspicion Arthur aided his queen in settling down with a book and excused himself, saying this time he would be the one pulling the late night so he wouldn’t be disappointed if she was already asleep when he got back.

She gave him a stiffly sweet smile and nodded acknowledgement.  

He immediately headed to Gaius chambers, arriving to find Merlin looking as tired as he felt. He’d given his servant the day off to allow him to recover from his ordeal, but the stress and pain lining the corners of his mouth, along with the fresh dirt staining his clothes showed the man hadn’t been idle.

“A day off means a day off Merlin. You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Thank you Sire,” Gaius chimed in with a pointed look at his ward.

“You wanted to give Daegal a proper burial as much as I did,” Merlin retorted.

Right, that figured. The boy conspired to kill him and instead of saying he got what he deserved Merlin put his own health at risk to see to it he was taken care of even after death. The man was far too forgiving for his own good. Which, if Arthur didn’t have a suspicion about the truth, would make his cold attitude toward the queen even more puzzling.

“Morgana wasn’t alone in trying to kill you was she?” Arthur blurted out.

Any hopes he’d had of his suspicions being unfounded evaporated when Merlin gave him a slow blink and answered in a voice that was steady but guarded. “No, I told you she used Dagael to lure me to her.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Crossing his arms Arthur began to pace the small room. “You may mean it as a joke when you accuse me of being slow but in this instance I will admit you were right. But not anymore.”

Taking a seat on the steps leading to Merlin’s room he continued, “At the table, after I was poisoned, you said you had something important to tell me. I ignored you then, and I’m getting the distinct impression doing so might have nearly cost me both of our lives yesterday. I’m listening now. What’s going on, and what role is the woman currently sitting curled up by my fireplace playing in it?”

Perhaps it was a bit cruel, to be so demanding when the other man was clearly longing for bed. But for Camelot’s sake and his own, he needed answers. He could only hope that this time he’d be strong enough to act on them.

Chapter Text


A serving boy having the gumption or the stupidity to argue with the crown prince was such a foreign idea that if Uther hadn’t heard it with his own ears he would never have believed it. It was on the return to his chambers late one night when the cross words arrested his attention.

“No way, not again. I remember what happened the last time I did you a favor.”

The chamber door was partially open and he could see Arthur sprawled across the end of his bed, chin resting on his crossed arms. His servant was out of sight but his words reached Uther loud and clear.

“When was that?” Arthur asked.

Irritation colored the servant’s reply. “Back when you thought a pretty girl you’d literally just met was more important than attending a ceremony, or going on the patrol you’d been assigned. You didn’t have the nerve to tell your father so to his face so you had me do it for you.”

“All I said was-”  

“Was ‘I can’t order you to lie to the king, but you’ll be a friend for life if you do.’ Had I known three days in a row in the stocks was the reward I’d receive for covering your butt I’d have told you you were on your own. Especially when I didn’t even get a thank you out of it. I’m not making that mistake again, you can deal with this yourself.”  

“It’s important Merlin.”

“I don’t care.”

Uther couldn’t decide which was more surprising: That Arthur was tolerating being spoken to in that manner or that for all his grousing the servant didn’t actually seem angry. Unhappy yes but not angry.

He probably should be angry himself although... he had been Arthur’s age once and several weeks had passed since the encounter with the young lady in question. She’d disappeared and Arthur seemed to have forgotten her existence. He could afford to overlook his son’s actions this time.

Still it did leave him to wonder about the supposed ineptness of the boy servant. If he was telling the truth, if hadn’t been as stupid or careless about Arthur’s schedule as he’d appeared, then he was a rather good liar. Uther had wanted to throttle the idiot every time he’d fumbled out his excuses for Arthur’s absence but he hadn’t once doubted the truth of what had been said. That would be something to keep in mind in the future.

Deciding not to get involved here and now (he had no doubt his son would get what he wanted out of his servant in the end, and Uther wanted to be able to approach the inevitable aftermath with as much ignorance as possible) he continued on his way, passively wondering how much of the boy’s other inanities could be a mask.


Not one to suffer from short term memory loss he was nonetheless surprised by the cracks he observed in said mask a month or so later.

Arthur was laid up in bed, recuperating from a wound he’d collected in an unsuccessful attempt to quell turmoil along the Mercian border. An assignment that he never should have been leading in the first place.

The alliance between the two kingdoms was still rather fragile, and if a conflict was sparked he didn’t want Arthur in a position of being held for ransom (or worse) when even accomplishing his objective would bring a negligible improvement for Camelot. Uther had explained these facts to his son quite clearly, and had seen them utterly fail in convincing Arthur to change his mind about going. 

While as a father he took no pleasure in being proven right in his opinion no problems would be solved, especially as he knew his son really needed to recover before they could discuss the ramifications of his failure, as a king he was anxious to get on with the consequences. Arthur was heir first and son second. Lessons had to be taught regardless of his condition.

The suffocating scents of herbs and tonics pervading the room spoke of Gaius having completed his examination. The physician was nowhere to be seen, but Arthur was still sitting up against a pile of pillows listening with a half board expression to his servant reciting the times he needed to take the various potions littering his nightstand. Or rather the times he would be making the prince take them.

The boy’s cheerfully impertinent attitude abruptly vanished when he caught sight of the king, his demeanor turning formal to the point of stiffness. He drifted back from the bed at Uther’s gesture but didn’t leave the room. The slight defiance didn’t go unnoticed by father or son but Arthur got words out first.

“Merlin run down to the kitchens and fetch more of that soup you brought me for lunch. I’m finally feeling an appetite again.”

“Yes My Lord,” the boy answered, dashing from the room with barely a glance at the king.  

That was skillfully done Uther had to admit. Merlin seemed to know he and Arthur would be at odds, and was clearly willing to risk receiving his own dose of the king’s wrath by inserting himself as an eyewitness to whatever berating the injured prince would receive (something that would only stir sympathy for Arthur should the servants or court hear what happened).

Arthur had seen his determination, and being aware of the consequences that would result from it, had sent him away. But only to run an errand, something that would ensure he’d be gone long enough to defuse the tension, but at the same time would only force the prince to pass a few minutes alone with his father.

It was an impressive collusion. Irritating, but impressive.      

Equally impressive was the stubborn silence Arthur maintained following the servant’s departure. He drew himself up as firmly as he could in his state and met his father’s eye respectfully, but made no move to offer explanation or defense of his actions. His face clearly said he knew he’d made the wrong choice but also that he didn’t regret it.

After too brief a time for Uther to think of a way to make himself heard without starting an argument, there was a hasty knock at the door and the other boy re-entered - almost before being given permission to. He was clearly out of breath and clutched a steaming bowl in his hands.

Throwing an awkward glance at the king he squeezed past where Uther stood and handed the requested soup to Arthur who sipped at it eagerly. Merlin then retreated to the other side of the room, politely pretending he didn’t notice Uther’s displeased expression while he completed some unnecessary chore.

Weighing the situation carefully the king conceded defeat. One stubborn young man was a trial, two was a crucible. Briefly thankful that Arthur was the only one that belonged to him, he wished his son good night and informed him they’d finish (more like start) their conversation later. Withdrawing with all the grace he could manage, he paused just outside the door when he heard Arthur speak in a low voice.

“That was record time. How’d you manage it?”

“I’ve always been a fast runner.”

A small choking noise escaped the prince. “You ran with a full bowl of soup? Great. I suppose I can expect a stack of reports detailing a dozen people’s having slipped in the trail you left from the kitchen to here?”

“I didn’t spill a drop,” the serving boy retorted, the playful indignation returning to his tone.   

Uther watched as he returned to fussing over the prince until Arthur got annoyed and started making weak attempts to hit him with a pillow.

“Any special reason for the hurry?”

“You told me to run.”

The silence following that poor attempt at a joke had the boy shuffling his feet awkwardly. Finally he added hesitantly. “I couldn’t be sure, er..you didn’t seem to want me to.. I just thought the sooner I got back the better.”  

To Uther’s great surprise Arthur smiled slightly at that admission, shifted the bowl into his left hand and lifted his right to ruffle the other’s hair, something very like gratitude showing in his eyes.

Must have been the fever.


Eavesdropping wasn’t the reason he was once again loitering in the same hallway once again, for that was a habit that had been reprimanded out of him at a young age. He could think of no other reason for his action though except for perhaps that it was fate’s way of reminding him he was making the right decision.    

Arthur couldn’t be allowed to fight this duel with the dark knight. It’s appearance was Uther’s failing, a consequence of a mistake he’d made before his son first drew breath. Two knights had already died trying to pay that price on his behalf. He wouldn’t let his son do the same.

But persuading the first knight of Camelot to withdraw from the fight had proved a fruitless endeavor so now Gaius was hard at work on another solution. He’d bring it to Arthur later on - alone. No hint of deception or trickery would be aroused on the prince’s part, Uther could trust the old physician on that. He just had to find a way to say goodbye without doing the same.

As if cast back in time the sound of shouting rang clear through the heavy wooden doors. The words were indistinct, but both voices were equally forceful. He gathered enough to understand that Merlin (for it could be no one else) was discovering he’d pitched himself against an indomitable foe, but was endeavoring to stand his ground anyway. Whether he was too much of an idiot to know what Arthur would do to him if he pushed too far or he simply didn’t care, the servant seemed determined to prevail where the king had not.  

Minutes later however the verbal contest came to an abrupt end - for what reason Uther couldn’t quite discern - and Merlin burst from the room. The king watched in dumbfounded silence as emotions cycled across the servant’s countenance. Anger, frustration, pain to the point of having to rapidly blink back tears, he hid none of it.

A few heartbeats later and he opened his tightly closed eyes, his expression having morphed once again. Not back to that of the mentally afflicted idiot it commonly appeared as, rather it took on the look of a battle hardened soldier. More than a soldier, a leader. Chin up and jaw set, he was now someone who’d decided on a plan of action and was determined to see it through no matter the cost.  


“I thought Arthur needed a better sword.”

A woefully inadequate description for a beauty such as the one he beheld.

Any knight, for that matter any king, would pay handsomely for a blade of such quality. Where would a serving boy possibly have found the money for such a commission? If he’d saved every coin he’d ever earned then perhaps, he was old enough to know better than to spend all his money in one place. For all that Arthur’s relationship with this boy wasn’t a typical one, he was still just a servant. Uther was well aware of the reputation his son had with his servants. Before Merlin had come along it was rare he kept one a month and now it was going on six? Seven? He’d lost count.   

At any other time mere curiosity wouldn’t have been enough motivation to raise the question but in this moment he had to ask. Had to know what drove the actions of this boy who took everything Arthur threw at him and on occasion sent it right back.

There was a long pause and Uther wondered if he was capable of standing up to more than just Arthur. There was a calculating look in the child’s eyes, as if he were weighing the consequences of not answering versus revealing something the king might disapprove of. The expression tugged at a distant corner of Uther’s mind. He had the vague idea he’d seen it before on someone else, but it hardly mattered at this point.

“It’s my job to be loyal to him,” the boy’s mask finally claimed. Unconvincingly he might add. Uther waited to see if silence would make it slip and moments later it did.

A bond had formed between them, Merlin admitted. He seemed convinced it was mutual and the king found himself hoping it would continue to be so after he was gone. A lifelong (if somewhat unsuitable) companion would be good for Arthur, much as Gaius had been for himself.

“Look after him,” he requested - for request it was as even Uther’s heart was aware that kind of commitment could not be made on command.

Surprising him yet again the boy merely nodded once in response, seeming to discern all that simple statement was meant to include. Arthur’s life, his heart, his principles, they all would be in need of safeguarding. He would need someone unafraid to tell him he was wrong but at the same time still be willing to do as he commanded. It was a tricky balance, and one that didn’t allow for a personal agenda. This boy might just be able to handle it. He wasn’t the guardian angel one would typically desire but he’d proven his courage would rise when the situation called for it to.

Of course there would never be enough time to fully evaluate those he was entrusting his son to. Even now as he tried (and failed) to get Uther to relinquish the blade he was holding, the blade he insisted was meant only for Arthur, the boy’s attitude was reverting. In seconds the glimpse of the man he might someday be was gone and his mask firmly reset.

Uther couldn’t afford to worry about that though. If everything went as expected today that mask would be his son’s problem. One he had to believe Arthur capable of dealing with.

Chapter Text


Ten days

Ten days to accept the invader’s proposal or Camelot would be destroyed. It had taken her no time at all to decide to do whatever it took to spare her people. But deciding her course of revenge had delayed things until this night. Her last night as a free woman. 

She should feel afraid, she thought, standing here on the shore of the lake waiting for permission to cross. The council would be furious if they knew what she was here to request. She would be furious herself if anyone else had dared suggest it. One did not attempt to take their fate into their own hands without understanding the consequences. But understand them she did.

All had been arranged. The de Bois family histories had been painstakingly copied and sealed in a vault room under an enchantment only her family’s blood would undo. They would be smuggled out in Tristan’s and Agravaine’s belongings when she ordered them gone the night of her wedding. She had enough confidence in her negotiating skills to secure their safe removal to their mother’s estate in Tintagel.

That took care of the past and the present. Now all that was left was the future. Straightening her spine she stepped onto the ferryman’s vessel with all the grace of the queen she would be on the morrow.


“Your Highness are you sure this is your wish? The potion once ingested can never be reversed but at the cost of your life.”

“I appreciate your concern but I’ve made my choice.”

The grey haired woman in the crimson robe surveyed her visitor carefully. The soft blond curls framing her fair face contrasted sharply with the girl’s raised chin and set jaw.

“Your choice may change in a few years my lady. Perhaps you should not judge this man too soon. A warrior he is yes, but warriors bring strength and at times prosperity.”

“But no justice or compassion. I will not carry the child of a man who has slaughtered dozens of them. All to prove himself worthy of a crown he murdered his own brother to inherit. No,” she vowed, cupping the goblet in front of her in her soft gloved hands. “I will play the game he has put before me. I will surrender my throne and my body. But I will not surrender my kingdom’s future. The Pendragon line dies with Uther.”

Tears filled the priestess eyes as she watched the young ruler swallow the liquid that would close her womb forever. 

Tears of sorrow for the joys this girl would never experience - for girl she was, all of only nineteen, far too young for this kind of choice.       

Tears of anger at the man that had robbed her of her family and by sunrise would rob her of her freedom.

And tears of fear for the defiance of her act. She had put herself in fate’s debt. And fate always collected.