“Scildan,” Merlin whispered from behind a tree as the creature charged towards Arthur.
The creature, a giant purplish bull with a giant humped back and two long golden horns, was a graphorn, according to Gaius. Lived up north, usually, the physician had said. They often migrated for the winter, but he sincerely doubted one would ever come this far south. The fact that it was there before Merlin, however, indicated that the graphorn cared little for Gaius’s doubts.
The graphorn’s enormous horns deflected off Merlin’s invisible shield, veering just inches short of Arthur’s face.
Merlin breathed again—that had been so close. He gripped the tree for support and tried another spell. “Forp fleoge.”
He winced as the graphorn shrugged his spell off with a snort. Gaius had further warned him that graphorns’ hides deflected most magic, but that was turning out to be more true than Merlin had hoped. Every spell he’d thrown at it so far had failed to kill or even do real damage to the beast. At best, he had only made it slower and thus easier to stab.
Not that Arthur or any of the knights were having any luck with stabbing the thing. In addition to deflecting most spells, the graphorn’s skin seemed to be thick enough to absorb glancing blows, and the knights had been too preoccupied avoiding its horns to properly attack.
“Surround it, men!” Arthur called, twirling his sword. “We need to find its weakness.”
The six other knights—Gwaine, Percival, Elyan, Leon, Vidor, and Caridoc—began to form a circle around the growling graphorn, which lowered its head and stomped, clearly preparing to charge again. Its head rotated from knight to knight as if deciding which one to gore first.
“Slowly, steady…” continued Arthur. Behind his tree, Merlin tensed, eyes trying to catch every single movement, magic ready to burst from him at any moment.
The young king made a running leap and lashed out with his sword, managing to stab the beast’s hump. The graphorn reared back, but it was not weakened, just angered. Unfortunately, Arthur’s sword was still embedded in its flesh, and when it reared back, the sword left Arthur’s hand with it. Arthur himself fell flat on his back and rolled just in time to avoid being impaled by golden horns as the graphorn charged.
Great, Merlin thought bitterly. Now he had to protect six knights and an unarmed Arthur. This wouldn’t have happened if Arthur had just brought the perfectly nice magical sword Merlin had told him to take everywhere, but no, his wife had to go give him a sword. Why Gwen had wanted to give Arthur a sword for their one-month anniversary when the king already had one—nay, several—was beyond Merlin. He really needed to have words with Gwen when he got back about giving Arthur replacements for magical, unbeatable swords…If he could get Arthur back in one piece, that is.
“Reform! Surround it!” Arthur ordered, leaping back as the graphorn lunged at him again. The creature missed only because of Merlin’s hastily whispered shielding spell that knocked it off course.
“Oi! Beef-brain!” Gwaine shouted as he threw a rock with pinpoint accuracy straight at the graphorn’s eye. Roaring, the graphorn whirled and blindly charged towards Gwaine.
“Feoll firgenholt!” Merlin hissed. A large branch snapped off the tree above, crashing down just as the graphorn’s head passed beneath. The beast halted at the impact, stunned for a moment, until Elyan snatched Arthur’s sword by the hilt and yanked it out.
“Here, sire!” he shouted, tossing the sword back to the king, then running as the graphorn charged at him.
Arthur caught his sword by the hilt and pointed it at the graphorn. “Keep confusing it!”
The knights didn’t need the order. The graphorn roared as it veered from Elyan to Vidor, who jabbed it in the foot with his sword, then switched to Leon as he grabbed the fallen branch and tossed it at the beast’s head.
Merlin’s eyes darted between the fight and Arthur, who was slowly circling until he stood in front of the thickest tree in the vicinity—the one Merlin was currently hiding behind.
“Send it over to me!” Arthur yelled as the graphorn barely missed Percival.
Caridoc, who stood between the king and the graphorn, obediently sliced at the beast’s haunches with his sword, then threw himself out of the way as the graphorn whirled to see its latest attacker. Its beady eyes fixed on Arthur, who crouched in anticipation.
Peeking from behind the tree, Merlin watched as the graphorn charged at Arthur. Realizing what Arthur intended, the warlock tensed, ready to shove Arthur out of the way or cast a spell if the king’s plan failed…
A second before he was impaled, Arthur dived out of the graphorn’s path. The graphorn’s enormous horns slammed straight into the tree behind him instead; Merlin, who was leaning against the tree, nearly fell over as the tree shook with the impact.
The knights let out a whoop, but Merlin’s eyes widened as he saw the graphorn start to pull back—its horns hadn’t lodged in the tree tightly enough.
Tucking himself further behind the tree and out of sight of his friends, Merlin frantically pushed his magic into the bark.
He smiled to himself as the graphorn let out a snort of frustration—its horns were no longer pulling free.
A moment later, he heard the creature’s body collapse.
Merlin circled the tree in time to see Arthur triumphantly holding his bloody sword in the air over the graphorn’s decapitated body. The knights gathered around him, breathing hard but beaming, congratulating each other on a job well done.
“I sure hope that’s not dinner.” Merlin said with a grin.
Arthur sheathed his sword and clapped Merlin on the back. “Merlin, there you are! I was beginning to think you’d run all the way back to Camelot.”
“Nah, you would have missed me.”
“Missed your ceaseless prattle? Never. Get the creature, will you? We’ll deliver it to the villagers.”
Merlin stared at the graphorn corpse in horror. “How am I supposed to carry that? It’s huge.”
Arthur, who had already started to walk off, called over his shoulder, “Just the head, then. Better get it out of the tree!”
Merlin gingerly wrapped his hands around the bloody head and gave an ineffectual tug.
“Need some help?” asked Gwaine brightly, taking hold of the other side.
Merlin beamed back at him. “On three, then.”
He lowered his gaze to hide the flash in his eyes as he and Gwaine popped the head out.
“Ugly thing, isn’t he?” Gwaine asked cheerily, giving it an experimental toss. “Bit heavy. Sure your bony little arms can take it?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Just give it here.”
Gwaine looked at it again, then tossed it over. “Think it resembles the princess a bit?”
Merlin caught the head and managed to not bend over with the weight. It was heavy. He smirked at Gwaine and raised his voice. “Nah, Arthur’s head’s too empty to be this heavy.”
“I heard that!” Arthur yelled from across the clearing.
Merlin and Gwaine both traded a grin before scamping off after the rest of the knights.
Arthur relieved Merlin of his burden just as they reached the formerly threatened village, where the king grandly lay the head at the village leader’s grateful feet, assuring the village that the beast would trouble them no more. The villagers wanted to throw them a feast, but Arthur turned them down. Instead, the knights would be heading back to Camelot immediately.
Merlin beamed at Arthur as he made his speech to the village, telling them to not hesitate to send for the knights should anything else bother them. Arthur was tired and hungry, Merlin knew, but the king also recognized these people would need their food for the fast-approaching winter. And the fact that Arthur was offering assistance to a village even at the furthest reaches of Camelot—almost not even within its borders—spoke volumes to the warlock.
Although, Merlin thought wistfully as he helped the knights prepare their horses for the journey back, he could have used a feast. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast several hours before. They wouldn’t be able to make it to Camelot until at least tomorrow afternoon, but when they did, maybe Gaius would have something already made. Or maybe he could nick something from the kitchens…
Something prickled at the back of the neck, like a breeze, except that there wasn’t any wind today.
Merlin peered over his shoulder suspiciously. He could see the knights, laughing and clapping each other on the back, but none of them were looking at him. Shrugging, he turned back to his own horse and adjusted the saddle. Must have just been a chill. Winter was creeping up on Camelot, after all.
His horse tossed its head and whinnied fearfully, looking over Merlin’s shoulder. He turned again, but there was nothing there, just the forest beyond.
Still, Merlin frowned. His magic was drumming in his veins at full alert, warning him that something, somewhere was wrong. Great, just what he needed, something else trying to off the prat on the way home. The prat who’d decided that no, he wasn’t going to bring the nice magic sword Merlin had given him. Not that Arthur knew it was magic, but still.
Trying to ignore the creeping feeling gathering in his gut, Merlin mounted his horse along with the other knights. Yes, he was definitely going to need to do something about the sword situation when they got back.
Arthur knew it was still at least another day’s ride before they would reach Camelot, but he thought longingly of his nice, warm bed and Guinevere, possibly together. After Merlin got him a bath and some food, of course.
Speaking of Merlin…He looked over his shoulder. There was Merlin, right behind him, like he always was. His horse seemed a bit jumpy, likely because its rider was. Merlin’s whole body was tense as his eyes darted about, squinting into the trees and up the slope on their right.
Arthur cast his gaze around as well, but saw nothing unusual. Just trees and boulders and the occasional rabbit. And looking behind Merlin, none of the other knights were showing the slightest bit of concern. He frowned, examining Merlin closer. The servant’s hands gripped the reins tightly as his head swiveled, as if fully expecting the monster they’d defeated to pop out from behind a tree.
Arthur smirked. Well, he couldn’t have that. He jerked his horse to a stop so suddenly that Merlin’s horse nearly ran into his.
Startled, Merlin came up even with Arthur, peering around more frantically. “What? Did you see something?”
“Yes.” With a swift, calculated movement, Arthur smacked the side of Merlin’s head. “A servant who’s jumping at leaves. Stop it before you scare the horses.”
“Oh, right, because they haven’t already been scared by a great fat prat—”
“I am not—!”
“Yelling,” Merlin finished smugly, rubbing the back of his head as they continued on. Well, at least he was smiling now.
“What are you looking for anyway? There’s hardly ever bandits in this part of the forest, and we’ve already defeated the…” What was that thing called? It had a gr sound in it.
“Graphorn. And…” Merlin hesitated, then leaned towards him slightly and lowered his voice. “Don’t you feel it?”
Arthur resisted the urge to groan. Not another one of Merlin’s funny feelings. Superstition, that’s all it was. And Arthur was not in the mood for it. “No, Merlin, all I feel is sick of listening to you complain. What is it this time? Too hungry, too scared, or too tired? Although I hardly see how you’re tired, since you hardly did anything.”
“Too cold, since you’re asking,” Merlin shot back before going all quiet and solemn again. “I think we’re being watched.”
“By what, the rabbits?”
“I don’t know. But I think…”
“Well, there’s your problem.”
“Perhaps we ought to stop and check the woods?”
“You mean camp? Now? If we stop now, we won’t make it back to Camelot until tomorrow night instead of tomorrow afternoon. I don’t want to spend an extra night out here in the cold; do you?”
Merlin slumped in his saddle, the tension beginning to leave his shoulders. “Yeah, I know. I’ll just feel better when we’re back.”
“Really?” said Arthur in mock bewilderment. “I had no idea doing my laundry and polishing my sword meant that much to you.”
“You didn’t even bring your sword; how can it need polishing?”
“Actually, I did. You may have missed it while you were cowering like some maiden, but it was big and sharp and did a very fine job of removing the griphook’s—”
“Yeah, but what was wrong with the other one, the one you pulled out of the stone?”
Arthur paused. Thing was, while fighting the creature, he had started to wish he had brought the sword from the stone. The sword he had brought instead, the one Guinevere had given him as a one-month anniversary present, was a perfectly good sword: perfectly balanced, perfectly sharpened, and a perfect fit in his hand. But the sword from the stone…he couldn’t explain it. The blade almost seemed to sing while he held it, like it belonged in his hand as surely as the sun belonged in the sky.
But that was nonsense, and Arthur knew it.
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” he replied back to Merlin with a casual indifference, “But I have loads of swords. It doesn’t matter which sword is wielded in battle, it’s who’s wielding it. And as I’m the one wielding it—LOOK OUT!”
He spotted the archer releasing the arrow at the same moment he tackled Merlin off his horse. Both men hit the ground with a grunt just in time as the arrow plunged straight past where Merlin’s shoulder had been a mere half-second earlier, straight into his horse’s neck. The horse reared in pain and panic, nearly trampling both king and servant as it fled.
“AMBUSH!” Arthur yelled unnecessarily. Around them, mercenaries were suddenly charging through the trees and from behind boulders. He yanked a slightly dazed Merlin upright, shoved the servant towards the relative safety of a nearby tree, drew his sword, and charged along with his other knights into the fray.
The battle, like all others before it, seemed to pass both in an age and a blur. His thoughts were disjointed as years of training took over, possessing his mind and body as he dodged, lunged, parried—strike, block, strike, parry, strike, block—where had that one come from?—block, block, strike…
He managed to defeat all the men nearby and quickly surveyed the battle to check on his men. Percival was fine, Gwaine was fine, Elyan was fine, where was—
Something large crashed to the ground behind him, and Arthur whirled to see one of the mercenaries sprawled on the ground as if he’d tripped, although the ground was clear of obstacles. Arthur stabbed him before he could regain his footing, then ducked as another sword whistled in the air above his head. Another stab and he was free to go help one of his knights…
At the edge of the battle, Arthur spotted one of the mercenaries atop a horse, overseeing the attack, and his eyes narrowed. That one must be the leader. If he could kill him—
He blocked an attack coming from his left, strike, parry, block, strike and finish, and ran full speed towards the man atop the horse.
Obviously the mercenary leader saw him coming, because he stretched out his hand toward Arthur. The king watched in horror as the leader opened his mouth and his eyes flashed gold—
Arthur was blasted onto his back. He dived for his sword and rolled back up to his feet, even more determined to kill the mercenary leader. They were already outnumbered, but if magic was involved, his men might not last for much longer. He needed to end this, and quickly.
He charged again, running full speed at the leader at the same time the thought occurred to him that it might not be wise to blatantly charge a sorcerer a second time.
But to his surprise, the sorcerer actually turned his horse and galloped uphill, away from the fighting, and Arthur felt a surge of perverse satisfaction. He wouldn’t let him get away that easily.
Arthur thought he might have heard someone, perhaps Merlin, yell his name over the din of battle, but the king was already chasing after the retreating sorcerer, the thrill and rush of the fight urging him onward. He could feel his heart pounding in his fingertips as he started to gain ground on the sorcerer, who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get away—who was actually getting off his horse—
Arthur realized his mistake too late as the sorcerer smirked and, with a string of words and a wave, summoned a towering wall of fire, cutting himself and Arthur off from the battle. Beyond the wave of crackling heat, Arthur could still make out the sounds of his knights fighting, but it was obvious none of them would be able to get through the flames anytime soon.
The king set his mouth in a line and gave his sword a quick twirl. Just him and the sorcerer, then.
But the next second obliterated even that notion as a wave of at least fifteen more mercenaries erupted from behind the trees and quickly surrounded him. An ambush within an ambush, Arthur realized, to lead him away from the rest of the battle. Clever.
Before he could think any further, he was fighting again in a rhythm drilled into him since childhood: block, lunge, parry, block, block, block—
But even Arthur couldn’t fight off fifteen men at once, and soon there were hands latching onto his arms, yanking at his hair, knocking the sword from his hand, pulling him farther away from the flames and his friends beyond. Arthur writhed in their grip, elbows and legs flying, but it was no use. He was dragged towards the sorcerer and then forced to his knees.
“Well, look at that, boys,” the sorcerer said, grinning wolfishly. “Looks like we’ve found ourselves a king.”
“Who are you?” Arthur snarled up him.
“Name’s Trent,” he replied, eyes glowing gold as he held a small ball of fire in his palm. He looked as if he was contemplating whether to throw the fire into Arthur’s face. “And you’re the king I’ve heard so much about. Arthur, isn’t it?”
Arthur glared. “If you’ve heard of me, then you know that my knights are some of the finest in the land, and they will find you.”
Trent shrugged, letting the fire in his hand extinguish. “Bit busy now, aren’t they? And I doubt they’ll make it through that fire for awhile.”
Arthur refused to let his fear show, but he knew Trent was right. Nobody would be coming to help him.
Arthur nearly groaned. Of all people…
Trent turned around and moved aside, providing Arthur with a clear view of Merlin. The servant looked a bit singed but determined as he ran towards the swarm of mercenaries, a sword clutched precariously in his hand. How had he gotten a sword? More to the point, how had he gotten through the fire?
Merlin spotted Arthur and came to a stop. “Let him go!”
“Well, look who’s decided to join us,” Trent said.
Arthur jerked in the mercenaries’ grip. “He’s a sorcerer! RUN!”
But Merlin was just standing there, hesitating. What was he doing?! Why wasn’t he saving himself?! Why wasn’t he running?! Of all the absolute idiotic things—
“Run, you idiot!” Arthur yelled. “That’s an order!”
But Merlin didn’t turn. He seemed to have come to some sort of decision. The hand not holding the sword reached forward, fingers splayed open, and Merlin opened his mouth as if to speak—
Arthur stopped struggling as a something cold and sharp pressed against his throat. A voice yelled from behind him, “Surrender or we kill your king!”
Merlin froze in place. His eyes met Arthur’s, then darted to the mercenaries, then back to Arthur, his mouth set in a grim line. Arthur glared back at him, urging him to run and save himself. But Merlin didn’t seem to notice. His head was tilted to the side, not in fear, but as if calculating the odds. As if there was any chance a battle between Merlin and fifteen mercenaries didn’t end with a skewered manservant.
Run, Arthur mouthed, since apparently Merlin was too stupid to understand a glare. Merlin frowned at him, but made no attempt to flee. Arthur cursed in his head. Why couldn’t Merlin listen to him just this once? If the mercenaries were planning on killing him, they would have done so already. More likely they had been instructed to capture him alive, probably for ransom or even interrogation. None of which they needed Merlin for, so if the idiot wanted to live, he needed to get out of here right now.
Trent stepped out from behind Arthur. The king watched in horror as he advanced towards Merlin, who warily lifted his sword a bit higher.
“Let him go,” Arthur said, wincing when his throat pressed into the blade as he spoke. “He’s just a servant. He’s harmless. And too stupid for his own good. You don’t need him, you’ve got me. He can’t do anything, he’s useless, so just let him go…” The forced calm in his voice was giving way to panic as Trent neared Merlin. Arthur was babbling, he knew, and kings don’t babble and he needed to shut up now, but he didn’t have a sword and Merlin was going to die and why wasn’t he running?
But Arthur’s babbling didn’t matter. The mercenaries ignored him. “You deaf?” Trent called, gesturing back towards the captive Arthur. “Surrender, or we kill him!”
Merlin let the sword drop to the ground, and Trent took another step towards him. Arthur’s heart was pounding, but Merlin still didn’t look even remotely afraid. His gaze passed between Arthur and the slowly approaching Trent, before finally scowling in apparent annoyance.
Arthur was beyond furious with his idiot of a servant now. Didn’t Merlin realize these men weren’t going to care about capturing a servant? They were just playing with him before they killed him. Why wasn’t he running? Did he have a death wish?!
“I will come willingly if you just let him go,” Arthur tried again. Trent was pulling a sword from its sheath at his belt, and Merlin wasn’t moving, and Arthur’s veins were suddenly flooded with terror. “Please. Please don’t hurt him. I promise I won’t try to fight back if you leave him alone. He’s innocent, he’s harmless, just let him go…”
His pleas went unheeded. The distant part of his brain not panicking registered Trent leveling the sword’s point at Merlin’s face.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Merlin spoke finally. His voice was low, with a tone of authority Arthur had never heard from him before. “And I would let him go right now.”
“Oh?” said Trent, pausing almost within arm’s length of Merlin. “Why’s that?”
“Because if any harm comes to Arthur Pendragon, I will kill every last one of you.”
Arthur made a sort of choked hysterical sound in the back of his throat. How in Camelot’s name did Merlin think trying to bluff instead of running was a good idea? Why did his friend have to be such a complete idiot and not run and save himself, because Arthur was going to have to watch him die, and that would absolutely destroy him.
But to Arthur’s great surprise, Trent didn’t laugh. Instead, he sheathed his sword and drew out a bottle from a pouch on his belt. He held it out towards Merlin. “I’ve got a better idea. You drink this, and your precious king keeps his head.”
Now Merlin did look frightened; he recoiled from the bottle as if it were a poisonous snake.
Trent grinned. “Now he gets it.” The grin turned to a menacing glare as he waved the potion in front of Merlin’s face. “Drink it, or we kill him. You might be fast enough to get some of us, but I doubt you’ll be fast enough to get all of us before he dies.”
Arthur remembered Merlin wearing a ridiculous hat, drinking from a goblet meant for him, how Merlin had collapsed to the floor, and Arthur struggled anew. He felt something hot drip down his neck, and heard one of the men holding him swearing and adjusting his grip, but Arthur didn’t care. “Merlin, don’t be an idiot! RUN! Just RUN!”
Merlin’s eyes met Arthur’s, and Arthur watched his friend’s fear morph to resignation. Merlin reached out to accept the bottle, uncorked it, and gulped its contents down.
The effect was instant. Merlin’s face paled in seconds. The bottle tumbled from his fingers as he gagged, fell to his knees, and made retching sounds, although nothing came out.
“We got him, boys!” Trent crowed, clapping him on the back. Merlin collapsed and seized, his hands clutching at his throat.
“Merlin!” Arthur felt the blade leave his neck and scrambled frantically to reach his friend, but there were just too many hands holding him to break free. Something hit his head hard, making Arthur black out for a moment. By the time he regained his vision, he’d been dragged into the back of a prison cart.
He hit the floor with a grunt, started to get up, and was knocked back to the floor when Merlin was tossed in after him. Arthur had barely rolled out from under him when the door shut and the lock clicked. Seconds later, the cart started moving.
Arthur immediately turned Merlin onto his back. The servant was still shaking, though not as severely, and he was still gasping.
“Breathe, Merlin, breathe!” Arthur ordered. He resisted the urge to hit him. “You idiot. Why didn’t you just run? Or at least not drink that poison?! You are by far the stupidest—Merlin? Merlin, breathe, you’ve got to breathe, just breathe. Breathe, you dollophead—”
He smacked Merlin’s chest hard, and Merlin coughed weakly and blinked up at him. His eyes looked oddly glazed, and a thin sheen of sweat covered his pale forehead. “Arthur,” he whispered with a faint smile, “You prat. That’s my word…”
He broke into more coughing, so Arthur scooped an arm behind his back to help him sit up. “And when—if you ever show at least some modicum of intelligence, you can have it back. What were you even thinking? Oh, let me guess, you weren’t!”
“Protect me? Protect me? If you had run when I told you to, only one of us would be captured! You could have run for help, but no, you had to try to take on fifteen men with a sword that you can’t even keep from dropping every two minutes—Merlin, are you listening to me?”
Merlin wasn’t. His face was scrunched in concentration as he reached out a hand towards Arthur’s face, but the king batted it away. “Focus, Merlin, I’m talking to you!”
“You’re wounded…Had to…have to…” Merlin murmured, placing his hand on Arthur’s neck. Merlin’s eyes drifted shut, and his mouth moved soundlessly.
Arthur, still furious with his idiotic manservant, tried to pull the hand away. “I said, focus, Merlin! You idiot, open your eyes, don’t you dare pass out on me! Do you hear me? Merlin…!”
But Merlin only scowled and muttered some more, his hand staying firmly on Arthur’s neck no matter how much Arthur tried to move it. The king had to pause to take a breath to continue his furious tirade before Merlin’s blue eyes fluttered open.
“It’s not working,” he said, sounding as if he was about to cry. “It’s fading…I can’t…But you need…I have to…”
“Stop being such a girl. You’re going to be fine, you hear me?...Merlin?”
Merlin closed his eyes again and sucked in a breath, hand not budging from Arthur’s neck. When Merlin finally let his hand drop, he seemed even weaker than before. His eyes only half-opened. “Hurts.”
“Of course it hurts, you idiot, you drank poison! You’re going to die, and I’m going to have to watch, because you were too stupid to run when you had the chance.”
“Not gonna die. Just…hurts.”
“Oh, what a shame. And here I thought I’d finally be rid of the worst servant in all five kingdoms.”
Merlin grinned weakly. “ ’S okay. Wear off soon…Then we can…I’ll get us…Oh…” His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he slumped in Arthur’s arms.
“Merlin?” Arthur shook him gently, then viciously. “Merlin! Wake up! Wake up right now or I will make your life a living hell. Merlin? Merlin!”
But Merlin didn’t budge. Arthur pressed his palm to Merlin’s chest and felt the steady pulse there, watching the steady rise and fall of the servant’s chest. After a long moment, Arthur let out a breath he didn’t realized he’d been holding. Merlin was fine. Just unconscious, not dead. And stupidly loyal, emphasis on the stupid—trying to take on all those mercenaries at once, what was he thinking?—but alive. For now, at least.
He slowly lowered Merlin to rest on the floor before removing his cape. He tore a strip off with his teeth, folded the rest in a neat pile, and carefully slid the pile under Merlin’s head. Then he took the torn-off strip and pressed it to his own neck with a grimace. If the blood he could feel caking on his chainmail was any indication, he’d been cut rather badly. But when he pulled the cloth away, it was barely spotted. He prodded his neck with his fingers and realized the wound was much shallower than he’d originally thought, so shallow it had already closed off.
Trust Merlin to worry about a scratch, Arthur thought in fond irritation. If they ever—When they got out of this, he was going to force Merlin to rethink his priorities. In the stocks. Every day for a week.
He ran through his mental tally of things to do in case of capture. He’d done all he could for Merlin, and he himself was alright. Next step: get out. Trying not to fall over from the jostling of the cart, Arthur tested the door and the walls. His eyes stayed carefully averted from where Merlin lay, pale, clammy, and horribly still.
His inspection was fruitless. The door and walls all held, and there was nothing inside the cart that could be used as a tool. No way out, then. Certainly no way he could get out and carry Merlin.
He’d have to wait until they stopped, then launch an attack on whoever opened the door. Obtain a sword. Overpower as many men as it took. Grab Merlin and run for it.
He plopped down next to Merlin with a sigh. Not much of a plan, but he would have to make it work. And if he failed, he had faith in his knights. They would find him and Merlin…hopefully sooner rather than later.
He looked back at his motionless manservant. As much as Arthur hated himself for thinking it because it meant they were both in mortal danger, a selfish part of him was glad Merlin was here with him. Because they had both been in worse situations together before, and they had always survived, and Arthur wasn’t about to let that change.
Although, he thought with a sigh, Merlin was being useless, as usual. Obviously, it would be up to him to escape.
The graphorn is a creature from J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
At least a few hours passed before the cart stopped, waking Arthur from his light doze next to Merlin, who had still not moved.
Arthur could hear voices and footsteps, indicating someone—several someones—nearing the door, and he was up in a second. He got into position by the door and crouched, ready to tackle whomever entered.
The voices died as they reached the front of the door, except for one. “Trent?”
And another voice, of the mercenary leader who had poisoned Merlin, came: “Openes bord, gehaeftan aldfrith withinnan.”
Arthur barely had time to spare a scowl at the sound of magic before the door began to open, and Arthur prepared to charge—
But suddenly couldn’t move. An invisible—magical—force shoved him to the side, against the wall of the cart, and pinned him there. He struggled, but it was like pushing against solid stone.
Merlin seemed unaffected by whatever spell was keeping Arthur still, although he did seem to be stirring at the sound of the door opening. Arthur thrashed against the invisible force; he needed to move, he needed to protect Merlin…
Trent peered through the doorway, flanked by guards, but he quickly stepped aside. “Here you are, my lord.”
Another man, this one wearing a cloak, stepped forward. He held himself with the confidence of a leader, although Arthur could tell from his stance he was not a fighter. Likely a lord who ordered stronger men like Trent to do his fighting for him. The man’s hood lowered to reveal a bald head with dark eyes. He surveyed Arthur, who glared back venomously, for a moment before diverting his attention to Merlin, who had still not quite fully woken.
“Good work, Trent,” he said, eyes not moving from the servant.
“Who are you?” Arthur demanded. “Declare yourself!”
The man gestured to the guards behind him. “Hurry with those. The potion will wear off soon and he’s waking up.”
“Is that the manner of men you are?” Arthur asked furiously as two guards stepped up into the cart. “The kind that poison men who already can’t fight back?”
Merlin groaned, eyes fluttering open. “Arthur?” When one of the guards snatched his arm, Merlin gave a cry of surprise and twisted in an attempt to get away, but not fast enough. A guard pinned him facedown to the floor with a foot and wrenched his wrists behind his back, while the other guard quickly closed them in shackles.
The moment the shackles clicked on Merlin’s wrists, he sagged as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and Arthur yelled curses, insults, and threats, all of which went completely ignored.
Apparently, they still weren’t done with Merlin. The bald man nodded at the guards impatiently and tossed in another long, thick strand of chains. Arthur watched with no small degree of fury as what little color Merlin had regained faded once again at the sight of them. He tried to wriggle away, but one of the guards yanked him to his feet and held him in place while the other wrapped the chains around until the servant’s arms were pinned tightly to his sides. Throughout the whole ordeal, Merlin’s struggling became weaker and weaker until he finally just stood there, looking dazed.
“—you bunch of cowards!” Arthur seethed at them, having long given up trying to leave his position on the wall.
“Will you shut up?” snapped the bald man, finally turning his gaze towards Arthur.
“I order you to let him go, or you’ll have all of Camelot to answer to.”
The man raised a patronizing eyebrow. “Seeing as I’ve already gotten away with taking their king hostage, there’s really not much I think your knights can do.”
“Then you don’t know my knights. I’ll say it again: declare yourself.”
“Name’s Gwil. And you’re King Arthur.” His nose scrunched up slightly as he sized Arthur up. “Not quite as impressive up close, but I suppose you’re still young. You could grow into it. Or, rather, would have.”
“Leave…him…alone…” Merlin croaked. His initial daze seemed to have faded; his eyes had taken on a fierce sharpness, even if the rest of him looked ready to faint.
Gwil glanced back at Merlin and smiled warmly. “Ah, hello. How are you feeling? Not well, I know. Sorry about that. But if all goes well, this,” he gestured towards the chains, which the guards were now locking, “won’t be necessary for long.”
Having secured Merlin, the guards let go and moved over to Arthur. Merlin swayed without a guard to support him and toppled forward onto his knees—not surprising considering how very top-heavy he was now, encased in rows of chains.
Trent waved his hand and muttered something. Arthur felt the pressure keeping him at the wall falter and lunged towards Gwil, but the guards had apparently anticipated this; the one closest immediately kicked him in the stomach so hard Arthur wondered if the man was related to Percival. Before the king could recover, they’d wrenched his arms behind his back and were tying his wrists with rope.
Rope? Arthur had fully expected the same treatment Merlin had gotten. They’d chained his manservant so heavily he could barely stand and they were tying him, Camelot’s king and finest knight, with rope?
“Look…just let him go,” Merlin said from the floor, voice slowly strengthening.
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur ordered. The idiot needed to draw as little attention to himself as possible. If Arthur could just keep their captors’ focus on himself, then maybe they would at least leave Merlin unharmed.
Unfortunately, Gwil seemed already quite focused on Merlin. “Set him up in the workroom. Make sure he doesn’t pass out; I need him conscious. I’ll be along shortly.”
Arthur drew himself up as high as the guard holding him would allow. “If you don’t release me and my manservant this instant, my knights will find you and they will kill you. Let us go now, and I may offer you mercy.”
Once again, neither the guards nor Gwil reacted at all to his pronouncement. Instead, one of the guards hooked a hand through a loop of Merlin’s chains and dragged him out of the cart. Merlin scrambled to get to his feet, but ended up tripping over himself and crashing back onto his knees. He twisted his head to look back, and Arthur’s eyes met Merlin’s for a brief moment. The king’s own eyes were full of suppressed panic, but Merlin’s had a steely determination that Arthur had never seen in him before.
And then Merlin was gone. The remaining guard pulled Arthur to the door of the cart and shoved him out. Arthur caught a brief glimpse of a clearing surrounded by woods before he tumbled forward, only his well-trained sense of balance keeping him from sprawling flat out on his face. The moment he hit the ground, Arthur whirled, intending to run, but a swift kick to the center of his back knocked him over. Someone, probably another guard, quickly yanked him almost, but not quite, to his feet, and Arthur had to struggle to regain his footing as he was half-dragged, half-marched away from the cart.
He saw a brief glimpse of Merlin up ahead, just as the servant was dragged inside a small stone house that was falling apart. The guard holding Arthur seemed to be taking him that way as well. His heart beat faster; such a tiny, dilapidated structure would make a poor prison; it should be easy to escape.
But once inside, his hopes were dashed: the house was empty save for a small set of stairs leading down into a dimly lit tunnel. No, Arthur realized as they proceeded down the stairs, a series of tunnels. These men, whoever they were, had somehow found this string of underground passages and built the hovel on top to hide the entrance.
At one of the forks in the tunnels, Gwil, who was at the head of their small procession, turned left with a wave and the words, “Trent, accompany the king to the cell. Make sure he can’t escape.”
“I’ll see to it personally, my lord,” Trent said, eyes gleaming at Arthur.
“No revenge, Trent. Not yet. That’s an order.”
Trent’s eyes narrowed. “You said…”
Trent nodded sourly. He grabbed a hold of Arthur, who was just regaining his footing, and kicked the king’s feet out from under him. Both Trent and the guard took the opposite fork from Gwil, dragging Arthur as he struggled anew. Arthur tried to keep his eyes on Gwil—Merlin was that way—but the men holding him turned the corner, then another, then another, and Arthur realized with a sinking heart that even if he got free, he would have a hard time navigating his way to wherever Merlin was.
They finally stopped in front of a door. Trent pressed his hand against it and chanted, “Openes bord, gehaeftan aldfrith withinnan.”
Arthur had just gotten his feet under him and made to lunge away when the door opened and the guard hurled him inside so hard he slammed into the wall opposite. The remains of his cape were tossed in after him. And then the door shut with a clank of finality.
Ignoring the pain radiating through where the back of his head had hit the wall, Arthur charged the door. Unable to bang on it with his fists tied behind him, he slammed into it with his shoulder and kicked it instead. “Come back here! What have you done with Merlin? I SAID COME BACK HERE AND FACE ME!”
He kicked for a long time before finally collapsing to the floor. Then he twisted his legs at an awkward angle, managed to slide his boot off, and maneuvered himself so he could dig through it with his bound hands.
He felt a surge of grim satisfaction as his fingers closed around the knife concealed there. If this Gwil thought he could imprison the king of Camelot and take his manservant without consequences, Arthur would only be too happy to prove him wrong.
Merlin was groggy, nauseous, worried, and above all, annoyed. Annoyed at being captured, annoyed that he had been subdued so easily, but mostly, irrationally annoyed with Arthur.
He’d wanted to walk tall, proud, and defiant as he was marched away, but no, he had to trip and leave Arthur with the parting impression of a clumsy idiot. As usual. Merlin’s last image of Arthur, on the other hand, was of a king full of righteous fury. Tied up, perhaps, but at least he’d managed to hang onto his kingly dignity. How did he manage to pull that off? How was that fair?
Ah well. Some people were born to be kings, others…Well, Merlin had his own special talents. Although right now, he wished one of them wasn’t tripping over his own feet while being manhandled to wherever Gwil had ordered the guards to take him. And it certainly didn’t help that in the aftermath of that awful potion his thoughts slugged through his fuzzy brain at the speed of Arthur getting out of bed in the morning. He really needed to focus on how he was going to get Arthur out of here. Or what they were doing here in the first place.
Who was this Gwil, anyway? Merlin ran through lists of potential enemies. Lord from a neighboring kingdom? Rogue druid? His appearance sort of reminded him of Alator—a Catha? Someone related to the Catha? At the very least, he was someone who knew Merlin had magic, that much was certain.
The guards stopped in front of a door at the end of the hall and pulled him inside.
Merlin wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Some sort of cell, maybe. Filled with fire or torture devices or even a snake-like creature—Morgana seemed overly fond of those.
But the room was not a cell. It looked ordinary, almost homey: cozy, but not small. There was a fire, but it was warm and peaceful as it gently crackled in the hearth, its light reflecting off the dozens of glass medicine bottles lining various shelves throughout the room. A small table with two chairs was in front of the fire, as if a hearty meal might be served any moment. The whole room smelled of some pleasant herb that made Merlin feel vaguely relaxed.
It reminded him painfully of Gaius’s chambers.
The guards sat him in the chair nearest the fireplace. One of them grabbed a waterskin on the table and thrust it in Merlin’s face while the other one was busy wrapping rope around him, chains and all, to tie him to the chair. Because clearly, he wasn’t tied up enough.
“No thanks,” said Merlin to the guard with the waterskin. He was deeply suspicious of captors bearing food or drink, especially as the last thing he’d drunk had interfered rather painfully with his magic. “I really don’t want—”
Except then the guard took hold of Merlin’s hair, yanked his head back, and poured the water in, which made him gag and sputter all over himself. Someday, he’d be able to pull off some sort of dignity, but today was not that day. At least it was water, he supposed, and not more of that awful magic-crushing potion.
“Are you trying to drown me?” Merlin demanded. “Was that the plan? Let’s kidnap the sorcerer and drown him?” The guard did not respond, so Merlin tried a different line of questioning. “Where’s Arthur?”
Nothing. The other guard finished tying the ropes, and both guards left without a word, leaving Merlin alone.
He wiggled, but the chains weren’t giving. Not that he expected them to, but he wanted them off. The weight of them was staggering, not to mention the fact that they were physically keeping him from moving. But worst of all, they were stifling his magic.
Gwil hadn’t only known Merlin had magic—he’d known he was powerful enough to warrant two different sets of chains, on his wrists and wrapped around his torso, rather than just the one. One set would usually be plenty to stop any normal sorcerer, which meant Gwil had known he was powerful enough to need more magical suppression than an average sorcerer. A lot more.
Even so, he must have still underestimated his power. Merlin could still feel his magic, although it was flailing against the chains like his body might have struggled for air. He wondered if this was what drowning felt like.
But his magic was still there, Merlin had to remind himself. It wasn’t gone. He didn’t just have magic, he was magic, so he could never lose it, not really. The fact that he’d been able to push past the potion to heal Arthur’s neck was proof enough of that, even if the effort had severely drained him. These chains felt even stronger than that potion had been. Pushing enough power through to unchain himself would definitely at least force him unconscious, might even kill him.
Merlin couldn’t risk that now, not while they had Arthur. And if he was knocked unconscious after forcing his magic through the chains, Gwil would surely realize what he’d done and do something about it, give him more of that potion or put yet another set of magic-binding chains on him, and Merlin wasn’t sure he’d even be able to survive his magic being crushed any further.
So he tried to force his panicked breathing under control, and steeled himself for the interrogation he was sure was coming.
He didn’t have too long to wait before Gwil swept into the room. “Emrys.” He sat across from Merlin at the table with a sort of casual, friendly demeanor that seemed at odds with the fact he had kidnapped an all-powerful warlock.
Merlin fought to keep his racing heart under control. Well, that answered that question. Gwil knew exactly who he was.
“What am I doing here?” Merlin asked, trying to keep his voice level.
“Ah, straight to the point. Officially, you’re here so that I can torture Emrys’ identity out of you by order of the Lady Morgana.”
Merlin’s stomach clenched. “Morgana knows…?”
“Oh, no, no! Sorry, she doesn’t know who you are. And I assure you, I have no intention of telling her,” Gwil said, smiling reassuringly. Merlin did not feel reassured in the slightest. “She hired me to find Emrys, and since torturing your friend Gaius didn’t work, she suggested I try you instead. Then, once I’d extracted Emrys’ identity from you, I was supposed to capture him. Those chains are courtesy of her. I understand they were quite difficult to procure.”
The chains seemed to tighten at the mention of Morgana’s name, and Merlin swallowed. “Then why haven’t you handed me over already?”
“Because I don’t want you dead, and you certainly will be if she gets a hold of you. I’ve been searching for you for months, after a…friend of mine, you could say, Alator of Catha, mentioned he’d met you in passing. Wouldn’t say where you were hiding, unfortunately. So I’ve been searching. Accepting Lady Morgana’s offer gave me a way to contain you once I’d finally found you. I haven’t got any magic of my own, you see. And being a High Priestess, she has the resources.”
Gwil leaned back, surveying Merlin the same way Gaius looked at an interesting herb before he crushed it to powder. “You’re a hard man to find, you know. The servant act was very clever, threw me off your trail for longer than I’d care to admit. I knew you had to be in Camelot somewhere, but I wouldn’t have ever considered you until Morgana pointed me in your direction. Even then, it took quite a while of watching you and waiting for an opportunity before I made the connection. And then to top it off, you don’t even use your true name. Would you prefer I use ‘Merlin’? Your friend keeps shouting it, so I assume that’s what you prefer to be called.”
“I’d prefer to be let go, actually.”
“Sorry, but I really can’t do that. Perhaps when we’ve grown a bit closer.”
“Then just let Arthur go. You’ve got me; you don’t need him.”
“Not quite yet, sorry. Not until you’ve heard me out.”
Merlin tried very hard not to yell. “Then what do you want?”
“It’s quite simple. I want your loyalty, and I want your allegiance.”
Merlin stared at him. After all this—the ambush, capturing Arthur, the potion, the chains—Gwil thought he’d just, what, abandon Arthur and skip off with him into the sunset?
“I’ll need it, you see,” Gwil went on, “If I want to rule Albion. The prophecies are very clear: The Once and Future King must have Emrys by his side in order to be successful.”
Merlin’s mouth ran dry. “Wait, you…you want…”
“Power. To rule over all of Albion. To become the Once and Future King. Precisely.” Gwil nodded, looking pleased that Merlin had grasped the idea so quickly. “And I’ll need you, Emrys, to do it. With you serving me, I will be powerful enough to conquer all the five kingdoms. No one would stand a chance against me—not with you there to destroy any who try.”
“What exactly makes you think I’d ever serve you?”
“Well, for starters, in return for your services—”
“And by ‘services,’ you mean destroying the other kingdoms.”
“You make it sound so harsh. I only mean you overthrow those who opposed my rule.”
“Let me finish,” Gwil said irritably, “Once I’ve conquered all the lands, I will make you my Court Sorcerer. I’ll ensure you receive the highest of honors at court in my new regime. You can practice your magic freely. You will want for nothing.”
“You think you can buy my loyalty with a cushy job being your personal weapon?” Furiously his magic flared within him, ready to blast Gwil through the opposite wall. But before it could, the chains seared blazing hot, and Merlin let out a sharp cry at the sudden pain.
Gwil sighed. “Hurts, doesn’t it? They’ll turn your magic against you if you try to use it or escape. I assumed you’d be at least intelligent enough to figure that out before actually trying.”
Merlin gasped hard as he forced his magic back down. The pain stopped.
“As I was saying,” Gwil continued, clearly annoyed at the interruption, “Of course I’ve got more to offer than a job. I’m offering you a chance at a better life. Appreciation for all you’ve done. The recognition you deserve. The prestige your power calls for. Because I’ve been watching you for quite a while, and you are being wasted, Merlin. A man of your talents cleaning armor and running errands? It’s like keeping a pureblood horse locked up in a stable and never riding it. Ally yourself with me and I’ll see you rewarded.”
Merlin did not appreciate the horse analogy, nor was he thrilled with the phrase conquered all the lands. “Not interested,” he repeated flatly.
“There’s also your life. I’ll grant you that as well. I can’t say I will if you don’t swear allegiance to me.”
Merlin gritted his teeth. “And what exactly happens to Arthur?”
“It’d be much simpler to kill him of course, but if you insist, I’ll let him live as part of our bargain. I can’t banish him, of course; he’d only return and try to usurp me. Not that he’d be successful with the great Emrys by my side. So perhaps the dungeons—you could visit him whenever you like. Or, I know! I could make him your personal manservant. I’d have to break his mind somehow to keep him from causing trouble, obviously, but it could be done with the right ingredients. Would you like that?”
Bile rose in Merlin’s throat. “Go to hell.”
Gwil tutted. “Now, now, Merlin, that’s no way to talk to your future king.”
“You’re not my king,” Merlin snarled. “Arthur is. I serve Arthur, and only Arthur.”
“Because you believe Arthur to be the Once and Future King?”
Gwil shook his head and smiled a little, as if Merlin had said something particularly silly. “Do you even know what the prophecy says? What if I told you the prophecy never mentions Arthur at all?”
Merlin’s words died in his throat.
Gwil, sensing his confusion, leaned forward. “Your destiny is to serve the Once and Future King. You, Emrys, are specifically mentioned by name, but the King is not. It doesn’t have to be Arthur. It can be anyone who Emrys decides to serve. Anyone you choose.”
For one moment, Merlin’s mind whirled. Had the dragon been somehow mistaken? Was Arthur not the one after all? Could he have chosen all these years ago to support someone else, to serve someone who wasn’t opposed to magic?
Would magic already be restored to the land if he had?
He stopped. No. Gwil was lying; he had to be. Merlin knew Arthur. He knew Arthur’s bravery, his courage, his leadership, his mercy, his goodness, his friendship. For all Arthur’s faults, Merlin knew who he was, what he was still becoming. A great friend. A great man. A great king. The king.
It didn’t matter if what Gwil said was true, Merlin realized, didn’t matter if the dragon had told him the wrong person. The dragon might have set him on this path, but he was walking it of his own accord. If destiny let him choose who he would serve, if he could go back and start over with someone who wasn’t prejudiced against magic, who wasn’t such a prat…
“Then I choose Arthur,” said Merlin out loud. “I will always choose Arthur. He’s my friend. He is the Once and Future King. He will be the greatest king to ever rule the land—already is a great king.”
“Oh, come now, Merlin. Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King? You can’t seriously believe he’s cut out for it. He hardly appreciates your talents—doesn’t even know about them. If he did, he’d kill you, just as his father would have done. You’re the most powerful warlock that ever has or ever will walk the earth, and you’re wasting your gifts on him?”
“Arthur’s different from his father. He wants peace, not conquest. And he will restore magic to the land.”
“You think so?”
Every doubt Merlin had ever had bombarded his mind at once, making him hesitate a split second. “Yes.”
Gwil raised an eyebrow. Clearly, he’d noticed the pause. “Sure about that, are you?”
“Yes,” Merlin repeated firmly, holding his head high.
“Oh,” said Gwil, disappointment evident. “Well, if that’s really the way you feel…” He sighed sadly and ran his finger slowly over the bottles on the table. “We’ll just have to make you feel differently. Make you feel a bit more…open-minded about who you want to serve.”
Merlin did not like the sound of that. His heartbeat thrashed in his ears and the chains suddenly seemed to be far too tight.
“I’m quite renowned in my field, you know,” Gwil said lightly, “It’s why Lady Morgana hired me. I can be quite convincing when I want to be.”
Merlin lifted his chin and fought to keep his voice from faltering. “Go ahead and torture me. I’m loyal to Arthur, and no amount of convincing is going to change that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to torture you. I need you in one piece when this is all over. Besides, I don’t possess the magic Alator has, so I have to be a bit more…sophisticated about getting what I want.”
Gwil stroked the nearest bottle lovingly. “Alchemy. The greatest and most neglected of arts. Not magic enough for the magical to study, too dark for the average physician to employ. I, however, find it incredibly useful. I am a master at my craft, particularly of potions and poisons. Give me a couple days with a man and the right ingredients, and I can do anything.” He paused. “You know, you should be grateful. I could still turn you into Morgana.”
“And I could still turn you into the cockroach you are. At least Morgana’s harder to squash.”
Gwil’s lips pressed together in a tight line. “I see you need some time to think about my offer. Guards!”
Two guards entered, their faces utterly impassive.
“Show our friend Merlin to his chambers.”
“Oh, I’ve got chambers, have I? That supposed to be a taste of life as Court Sorcerer?”
“And gag him,” Gwil added.
The blow to his jaw was quick, painful, and distracting. By the time Merlin had snapped out of the daze of pain, he had been successfully gagged. The gag tasted sickly sweet and was soaked with something that made Merlin feel even more dizzy.
“I’ll show you the light, Merlin,” Gwil called as the guards dragged him out the door. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Openes bord, gehaeftan aldfrith withinnan. = Open door, restrain the king within.
Chapter 3: The Contract
Arthur had already inspected every inch of the cell looking for weaknesses by the time he heard the footsteps approaching. He tensed, wishing he had a sword to face whatever was on the other side of the door.
The second the door opened, an invisible force slammed him straight back into the wall. His head smacked painfully, and he had to wait until the stars faded before he saw who the guards had brought in.
“Merlin!” Arthur’s heart leapt in relief; the terror in the back of his mind that he would never see his friend again quelled. Merlin was alive and even looked unharmed, although he was still staggering under the weight of the chains wrapped around his wrists and pinning his arms to his sides, and he was gagged. At the sound of his name, Merlin’s eyes darted to Arthur. A similar look of relief to Arthur’s own passed over his face.
The guards threw him hard. Merlin twisted as best he could to land on his shoulder rather than his face and winced as his shoulder slammed into the ground.
The door closed, the force on Arthur released, and the king rushed towards Merlin. He yanked him up to a sitting position and pulled the gag down.
“Thanks,” Merlin managed. He sounded out of breath.
Arthur frowned as he inspected Merlin closer. The servant wasn’t completely unharmed—a thin line of red trickled from the corner of his mouth. Arthur wiped it away with the gag now hanging around Merlin’s neck. “Got into another tavern brawl, did you?”
“Oh yeah, took on a good dozen of them. That Gwil’s a nasty piece of work, though.”
“Did he hurt you anywhere else?”
Merlin shrugged. “Not really. Not yet.”
“Yet? You think he’s going to?”
“The truth, Merlin. Is he going to hurt you more?”
Merlin hesitated, lips pressed tightly together a moment before finally speaking. “Yeah. I think so.”
Arthur’s fist clenched involuntarily on Merlin’s shoulder, and he had to force himself to relax when he saw Merlin grimace.
“This is low,” Arthur fumed, “Positively low.”
“Hurting my servant to get to me. Chaining you up like this to mock me.” He ran his thumb over one of the links and scowled.
“Oh, right, to mock you. Of course. Well, he’s done a right poor job of it—clearly, he’s never seen one of your stupid hats. Think I’d rather show up at a banquet with these than one of those—Ouch, what are you doing?!”
Arthur had hooked his fingers through some of the chains and was yanking up as hard as he could, trying to slide them up and over Merlin’s head like a shirt.
“What’s it look like? I’m trying to get these things off you! Unless you like walking around like that!”
Merlin closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and made no further sound as Arthur pulled. Much to the king’s frustration, the chains almost seemed to shrink the harder he tried to remove them, even pinching his fingers.
“Arthur, stop! Stop!” Merlin finally burst out as Arthur gave another frustrated tug. “I don’t think they’re going to budge. We’re better off not moving them.”
Arthur realized in alarm that Merlin was gasping for air, and a bit of sweat was starting to gleam on his forehead. “What’s wrong?”
“Look, if you can’t get them off, just don’t touch them, alright?” Merlin snapped.
“I’m the king, Merlin, I give the orders.” Arthur crawled around to Merlin’s back. If he couldn’t get rid of the chains, maybe he could get rid of the shackles on Merlin’s wrists.
He reached Merlin’s back and froze. The flesh on Merlin’s wrists around the shackles was pink and raw.
Merlin was trying to scoot around on his knees to face Arthur. “Right, because I always listen to you—”
“Would you sit still, you’re burnt!”
“Funnily enough, I knew that, you clotpole!”
A horrible thought occurred to Arthur. “It was burning you just now, wasn’t it? When I was pulling at them.”
Merlin went strangely silent. Arthur took that as a yes.
“These chains are magical.” Somehow, this made Arthur even angrier. It wasn’t enough for Gwil to chain a helpless servant as if he were an animal. Oh no, he had to use giant magical chains that burned with contact on bare skin. On Merlin, of all people. Innocent, loyal, stupid Merlin, who hadn’t said a word while he was being burnt because he didn’t want to make Arthur feel bad. The idiot.
Arthur mentally cursed; Merlin had stiffened in that way he always did whenever magic was mentioned. Arthur should have known better. He could never quite tell how Merlin would react to magic. Sometimes Merlin would follow him into battle against some terrifying magical threat with the confidence of a man who believed it was impossible to lose. But then other times Arthur would just mention the word and Merlin would get ridiculously defensive and twitchy, like just the thought of magic was enough to set him fighting or fleeing—which was why Arthur had long since learned to avoid the topic around Merlin whenever possible.
Well, it looked like Merlin’s fear wasn’t unfounded this time; they were dealing with a magical threat, after all. Arthur started to tear off another piece of his cape. “Honestly, Merlin, you’re such an idiot. Normal chains don’t burn the person they’re chaining. Obviously, they’re magical.” He started to tuck a piece of the red cloth between the metal and Merlin’s wrists, being careful to put as little pressure on the burnt skin as possible.
Merlin’s tense shoulders relaxed and he twisted his head, trying to look behind him. “Right. Obviously. Wait, are you…is that your cape?”
“Well, it’s hardly yours. Don’t worry, you’ll be fixing it later.”
“Oh thanks, can’t wait to get out of here and get right on that. Because your clothes are obviously the most important thing in my life.”
“Good.” Arthur clapped his hand on Merlin’s shoulder, then tilted him sideways.
“What are you doing?” Merlin demanded again once he was laid on the ground. He lurched in an unsuccessful attempt to sit back up, and Arthur shoved him back down.
“Get some sleep. I’ll take first watch.”
He draped the rest of his now rather tattered cape over Merlin, who wiggled indignantly. “You want me to sleep at a time like this? And what do you mean, keep watch? It’s not like anyone’s going to sneak up on us. We’ve already been captured. Isn’t keeping watch a bit pointless now?”
And Merlin did, for a moment. Then… “Aren’t you going to sleep too? You’re exhausted. You should probably—”
“Keeping watch!” Arthur yanked the cape up so it covered Merlin’s face.
“Fine,” came Merlin’s muffled voice. “Prat.”
Arthur waited until Merlin’s breathing deepened into sleep before letting himself sink to his knees and drop his head into his hands. This was all wrong. It should have been him in those chains. He was king, he was a knight, he was trained for this kind of thing. They should have been hurting him, not his friend. Merlin shouldn’t even be here. But he always was, wasn’t he? Right there, by his side, because Arthur had long forgotten what it was like to not have a chattering, clumsy oaf following him.
Had this sorcerer that captured them, this Gwil, had he known that? Known how much Arthur depended on his servant? Known that Merlin was the one constant in his life? Known that he was his confidante, his advisor, his guide, his best friend, and if Arthur lost him…
Arthur took a deep breath and rubbed his face. Right. Merlin should be pretty deeply asleep by now.
He lifted the cape slowly, listening for any change in Merlin’s breathing. Hearing none, he looked closer at the chains.
They looked fairly ordinary: dozens of thick iron links, wrapped around several times and locked together. Although…Arthur scowled. The lock had something etched into it. Some funny symbols. What did Gaius call them…runes.
He wondered briefly what they said. Probably something like “Burn the stupid, helpless manservant.” That’d be just Arthur’s luck, wouldn’t it?
Merlin was still deeply asleep, so Arthur carefully drew his knife and wedged the point into the lock. Keeping a section of the cape between his own fingers and the metal to keep himself from being burned, he dug at the keyhole with his blade.
Merlin’s breathing hitched; although still asleep, his whole body curled defensively. Arthur flinched back, then frowned. Yes, he’d had a bit of cape between his skin and the metal, but he hadn’t felt even the slightest heat at all. Why had Merlin reacted like that? Carefully, he adjusted the cloth he’d put on Merlin’s wrists to check on the burns.
The burns were redder than they had been a moment before.
Arthur cursed. Messing with the chains in any way would harm Merlin, then. They must be enchanted to burn only the chained person or something—that’s why Arthur hadn’t felt the heat.
He stuck the knife back in his boot and slumped against the wall, defeated. He’d only managed to hurt Merlin worse.
What on earth was he supposed to do now?
He leaned his head back against the wall. Conserve energy. This Gwil person would probably be coming for him next, likely intent on torturing Camelot’s secrets out of him. He’d need his strength to withstand…whatever was going to happen.
It was a long, long time before Arthur finally managed to fall asleep.
Merlin awoke to a cricked neck and the sound of loud, pounding footsteps. He blinked and sat up in alarm when Arthur was flung to the wall with a shout as the door opened.
That was definitely magic, Merlin decided, as he quickly looked Arthur up and down for injuries. It had to be.
Arthur was unharmed, but looked murderous—not surprising since it also looked like he’d just woken up. Merlin nearly snorted. Keeping watch, his foot. Although…Merlin vaguely recalled something similar happening in the prison cart earlier, and felt a fresh prickle of worry. Had they enchanted Arthur, done something to him while Merlin was unconscious?
Trent filled the doorway. “Gwil wants to see you.”
“Right, well, I’m a bit busy at the moment,” Merlin snapped. “Tell him I’ll see him somewhere in between counting the stones on the ceiling and eating breakfast. Oh wait, you haven’t fed us.”
“Merlin,” Arthur hissed from the wall.
Merlin didn’t care. He was tired, hungry, thirsty, burned, and worried about Arthur, not to mention his magic was boiling in his blood, screaming to get out. So no, he didn’t feel like paying any respect to the man who’d poisoned him. He half-hoped the mercenary would rise to the bait, hit him hard enough to knock him out, and force Gwil to wait until later for questioning.
But Trent only stepped inside the cell and grabbed a handful of Merlin’s chains. “It’s not optional, toerag.”
Merlin scrambled to his feet just as the mercenary started to pull. This time, he managed to not trip and to walk out rather than be dragged out. He looked back at Arthur, wondering if the king would have some retort ready for his accomplishment later, but Arthur was still pinned to the wall, looking absolutely livid and beyond terrified. What on earth did he have to be worried about; Merlin wasn’t going to let anything happen to him—oh. Arthur was terrified for him.
Merlin felt oddly touched. He tried to send Arthur some sort of reassurance, but Trent shut the cell door before he could, and then he was being dragged away. They did not return to the room that reminded Merlin of Gaius’s chambers, but instead ended up in a much smaller room, just large enough to house a table and a few chairs.
This room had a definite chill. Merlin tried to repress a shiver, missing the fireplace from the other room already. Having loads of metal covering his body really wasn’t helping him to stay warm. He wondered if this was how Arthur always felt, covered in chainmail. No wonder the man owned a dozen sweaters.
Of course, if Merlin used any magic, the chains would make being cold no longer a problem.
Gwil was already there, seated at the table, which held a variety of darkly colored bottles, a slightly steaming pot, two goblets, and some candles. Trent shoved Merlin into the chair across from him before reaching for the rope piled on the floor next to it.
“Thank you, Trent,” said Gwil as Trent secured the knots, “And do be careful. We want Merlin to be comfortable.”
Merlin bit back a retort. He needed to be convincing.
“Trent, you may go. Stay outside in case I need you.”
Trent cast a scathing look at Merlin and left, closing the door behind him.
“Tell me, Merlin, have you reconsidered my offer?”
Merlin schooled his features into the very image of subservience. For Arthur, for Arthur, for Arthur… “I have, my lord. My king. I thought over what you said, and you’re right. Arthur’s been a waste of my talents. I apologize for my…outbursts. I wasn’t thinking straight. I would be honored to serve you.”
“You’ll swear fealty to me?”
Merlin bowed his head. “Of course, my lord. Would you like me to kneel?”
“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary,” Gwil said, extracting a piece of parchment from his robes. He laid it on the table and pushed it towards him. “I’d like you to read this out loud to me.”
The parchment was old and yellowed, with a jagged edge as if it had been torn from a book. Merlin started to skim it, confusion quickly giving way to anger. “This is magic.”
“A magical oath of enslavement.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s quite accurate, Merlin,” said Gwil, smiling winningly. “More like…an agreement of loyalty. You bind your magic to my will so that it follows my orders and can’t do me harm or do anything contrary to my wishes. It’s not like it would change anything for you, Merlin—not unless you were planning to betray me.”
Merlin sucked in a deep breath, maintaining an image of calm. “Alright. Of course. Just release me so I can perform the magic needed for the spell—”
“The magic’s in the words themselves. It won’t require any magic from you. All you have to do is read it out loud ‘without threat of life or bodily harm,’ and the contract will be in effect. And as soon as I know it’s working, I’ll release you.”
Merlin glared and rattled his chains as much as he could. “You don’t call this a threat? Bit overkill, don’t you think?”
“Well, you are very dangerous. The great Emrys and all that. As for a threat, tell me, have I actually attempted to kill you?”
“Arthur’s still alive, isn’t he? Against Morgana’s orders, I might add. And Trent’s not happy at all.”
“Then let him go! You don’t need him!”
Gwil sighed. “Actually, I do. You see, you don’t want to swear fealty to me. Not yet. I can see it in your eyes. Which is why I’m going to have to erode your…not your will, per se, more…your conviction. Make you more pliable. More willing to serve me. But that will take time. I can’t directly hurt you, because the spell interprets that as a threat. I could make you choose between Arthur’s life and swearing loyalty to me as well, but unfortunately he’s so important to you that it’s possible the spell might construe that as a threat as well, and I’m not desperate enough to risk it. But for less severe damages…Well, then the rules governing the spell get a bit murkier. Particularly, I think, if the less severe damages are delivered to someone other than you. I take it from the look you’re giving me right now that you’re not interested in my contract?”
Merlin gritted his teeth in a combination of rage and pain as the chains scorched him.
Gwil’s smile didn’t falter as he lit the candles on the table, then pushed them closer to Merlin. The warlock tried to breathe shallowly through his mouth as the smoke wafted towards him, but the foul smell was unavoidable.
“Tell me, Merlin, would you like something to drink?”
“What, so you can poison me? No thanks.”
“I sincerely hope you don’t think of me that poorly, Merlin. Are you sure you don’t want any? It’s a personal recipe. Very good for the humors. I used to be a physician, you know. Like your friend Gaius.”
“If you go anywhere near him—”
“Goodness, you’re tense. There’s no need to bring Gaius into this, is there? After all, I already have Arthur. I’d just like to ask you a few friendly questions.”
“I’m not telling you anything about Camelot.”
“That’s perfectly alright, because I’m not interested in Camelot. At least, not its defenses. You’ll be flattening them when I take the city anyway. No, I’d like to start with you. I’d like you to tell me about yourself.”
Merlin’s head was beginning to feel unpleasantly fuzzy as the foul-smelling smoke reached him. “What?”
“It’s early in our friendship, Merlin, but I know so little about you. I’d like to get to know you better.”
“This may surprise you, but friendships don’t usually begin with one party tied to a chair.”
Gwil waved a hand dismissively. “Who says friendships can’t exist with constraints? Take your supposed friendship with Arthur. You’re tied to him, aren’t you? They’re class restraints rather than physical ones, but you’re tied to him all the same. The only difference between your friendship with him and your friendship with me is the constraints I’ve placed on you are physical. Either way, you’re forced to be there.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh, right. Well, being kidnapped and being employed, if they’re really the same, I think I’ll quit and go home now, thanks. And I’m taking Arthur with me.” He paused, then wriggled a bit. Naturally, both chain and rope prevented him from leaving, and he glared at Gwil pointedly. “Nope, still here. Because friends don’t keep friends locked up in dungeons.”
Gwil finished another sip of tea. “Really? Then you agree with me. Arthur isn’t your friend. Because if he knew about your magic, Merlin, that’s exactly where you would be: locked up in a dungeon. If not worse.”
Merlin’s breath caught as the many, many scenarios he’d imagined over the years flashed through his mind. “Of—of course he wouldn’t.”
Gwil raised an eyebrow at him. “Care to test that theory? I could tell him right now, give him a sword. See if he’s as determined to protect you then—or if he just runs you through.”
Merlin’s insides turned to ice, despite the heat simmering on his wrists. He’d spent years at Arthur’s side, and he knew Arthur better than he knew himself. Arthur wouldn’t kill him. He’d never go through with it. They’d been friends for too long, and no matter how much the king denied it, Merlin knew perfectly well that Arthur cared about him too much to kill him. But at the same time, he knew Arthur would feel betrayed, and a betrayed Arthur was an angry Arthur, and an angry Arthur was hard to predict. No, Arthur wouldn’t kill him. But there was so much else he might do.
“…Or I won’t. I’ll keep your secret, Merlin. Because that’s what friends do. They keep each other’s secrets, and they don’t lie to each other. Which is why we are going to become very, very good friends.” Gwil relaxed back in his chair, slurped the last of his tea, and put the goblet back down again.
Merlin tried not to think of the thirst and the smoke burning his throat or the horrible fog that had taken root in his brain, but it was difficult to focus on anything else.
“Now, Merlin, I could just leave you here to breathe for a bit, but I’m sure you would rather have some company. So like I said before, I’m going to ask you some questions. You will answer them all, and you will answer them truthfully. Be aware that I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“And what exactly are you going to do if I do?” Merlin demanded, shifting slightly in his chair. He had a horrible feeling about this; his magic was absolutely screaming at him, and the chains pulsed in a light, steady burn.
“Let’s just say any lies you tell will have consequences, as will not answering a question.” Gwil poured himself another cup of tea, and Merlin tried not to stare at it as he sipped. “We’ll start with an easy one. Where were you born?”
“Camelot,” Merlin answered immediately. He was not letting this man anywhere near his mother. “Down in the lower town. My parents are dead, though, so if you’re planning on hurting them—”
“Oh, I wasn’t. I assumed Arthur would be motivation enough. Although apparently, not this time. Trent!”
Trent entered immediately and bent his head in a sort of sarcastic bow.
Gwil nodded to acknowledge him before saying, “I’m afraid our new friend Merlin here has lied. Go hurt Arthur.”
Every muscle in Merlin’s body went rigid, and his voice cracked. “What?”
Trent looked positively gleeful. “Thank you, my lord.”
Merlin twisted uselessly in his chair. “You said—”
“I said I wouldn’t make you choose between the contract and his life. I said nothing about the rest of him. Just a warning, Trent, ought to do it for now.”
Trent scowled, but nodded. The door closed behind him with a sound like the cracking of a bone.
“You can’t! Hurt me instead!” Merlin begged, looking frantically from the door to Gwil. His magic flared inside him instinctively, roaring in Arthur’s defense, but then he cried out and shuddered as spots danced before his eyes and the chains binding him radiated scorching heat. His shirt and jacket mostly protected him from being burned by the larger chains, but the still-healing burns on his wrists seared anew.
Gwil put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as if to comfort him, ignoring how the warlock flinched away. “There, there, Merlin. It’s only a warning blow. Arthur will recover. He’s much more use to me alive at the moment. I should warn you, though, that every additional lie you tell will result in a more severe punishment. If I were you, I really wouldn’t lie again.” He sat back down across from Merlin and smiled at him, as if he had just made a comment about the weather.
Merlin swallowed and tried to take deep breaths, forcing his magic to calm, and ended up choking on the smoke. The fog in his brain thickened, but the heat through his jacket and on his wrists eased.
Gwil waited a moment while Merlin struggled to get his breathing under control. “I’m sorry you have to go through this, Merlin, but it will be for the better in the end. You’ll see. I’ll ask again: where were you born?”
“Why do you want to know?” Merlin shot back, trying to ignore the raw pain in his wrists and the horrible, disjointed images flashing through his mind of what a “warning” to Arthur was.
“I want you to confide in me. To trust me. And I want to keep you busy while I wait for my potions to erode you away. If you want to defeat a man, you’ve got to wear him down first.” He pressed his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Now, remember, Arthur will pay for your lies and your silence. So I ask you again: where were you born?”
“Ealdor,” said Merlin threw gritted teeth. He could feel his magic churning within him, and he wanted so badly to lash out, to let the magic explode from him and rip through his chains, shatter the bottles and rain broken glass on Gwil’s head, crush the light from Gwil’s eyes as he brought the entire ceiling down upon them…
His wrists prickled painfully at the thought, and he winced. Gwil smiled and nodded, as if Merlin were a dog that had performed a trick. “Good. You’re learning, Merlin. It feels good to tell the truth, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Absolutely liberating.”
Gwil tutted. “Really, Merlin? Is that the truth? And here I thought you were trying to protect Arthur.”
“Isn’t that what you want to hear?” Merlin said, hating himself for sounding so desperate.
“No, don’t, you can’t, please—”
A different guard entered and bowed.
“Tell Trent to hurt Arthur again. With a bit more feeling this time.”
“No, leave him alone!”
The guard nodded and left, and Gwil sighed at Merlin, who was struggling not to scream while the chains seared him again.
“You don’t need to worry just yet, Merlin. Arthur’s still alive. And probably not permanently damaged. Although if you keep up this nasty lying habit, I can’t promise he’ll stay that way for long. Now, doesn’t it feel nice to finally have someone you can never lie to?”
“No,” spat Merlin. “And if you think I will ever trust you…”
“You’ll have to eventually, if you want to keep Arthur safe,” Gwil’s grin spread horribly wide. “And eventually, I think your answer might change.”
It was hours before the guards returned Merlin to the cell.
As they had before, they gagged him with a rag soaked in something—something that Merlin now realized was to make him more willing—then threw him in. Merlin just managed to twist enough to land on his sore shoulder instead of his face. Terrified of what state he might find Arthur in, Merlin thrashed around for a few seconds like an upturned turtle before managing to swing himself onto his knees and glance frantically around for Arthur.
The king was lying sprawled on the floor by the far wall of the cell, unmoving.
Trying not to fall on his face, Merlin scooted on his knees as fast as he could towards Arthur, afraid of what he might see.
His first feeling was a flicker of relief—Gwil hadn’t been lying when he said Arthur wasn’t too badly hurt, especially compared to some of the scenarios that had been going through Merlin’s head. Although he was clearly unconscious, Arthur was still in one piece, still breathing steadily, even still wearing his armor.
But Arthur was hurt. The center of his face was a mess of dried blood, and a huge purple splotch was spreading over his left eye. Merlin wasn’t sure which blow had landed first, but it was clear one of the blows had been to Arthur’s nose and possibly broken it—It was hard to tell under that much blood. The other blow had knocked him unconscious. Merlin hoped the blow to knock Arthur out had come first so that he wouldn’t have felt the pain of his nose, but the pessimistic side of him doubted it. Arthur’s armor had hurt him more than it helped—Merlin suspected both blows had been to Arthur’s head because Trent had been too lazy or eager for blood to be bothered to deal with the armor’s ties.
For the thousandth time, Merlin cursed the stupid chains keeping him bound. Not only could he not use magic to heal Arthur, but with his hands behind him, he couldn’t do anything for his injured friend at all. He couldn’t check to see if the king’s nose was actually broken, couldn’t wipe away the blood covering his face or feel for a fractured skull, couldn’t shift him into a more comfortable position, couldn’t even whisper words of comfort, because he was gagged as well as chained.
He carefully bent over, lowering his ear to press over Arthur’s chest, but he couldn’t hear a heartbeat through the thick armor and chainmail. He didn’t necessarily need to hear a heartbeat right that moment, because if Arthur was breathing, then his heart was probably fine too, but the warlock found himself fighting tears of frustration anyway. He couldn’t think of a time when he had felt so useless.
Arthur was injured because of him, and he could do absolutely nothing about it. And Gwil was going to take him away and make him breathe more of that horrible smoke that made his head ache and force him to answer more questions and if he didn’t answer them Arthur was going to get hurt again and his magic was gone and how exactly was he going to get them out of this and this was all his fault…
Merlin took several deep breaths through his nose until he stopped shaking. Arthur was going to be fine, he told himself. Arthur was going to be fine, Arthur was going to be fine…
But not if he didn’t get Arthur out of here, and soon. The knights would surely be looking for them by now, but he had no guarantees he and Arthur would be found anytime in the immediate future, or if the knights would be able to even do anything if they found them.
He thought about calling Kilgharrah, but he wasn’t sure the dragon could be much help—they were trapped in an underground cavern of some kind, out of even Kilgharrah’s reach. Besides, there was still the matter of his being gagged. Not to mention Merlin wasn’t even entirely sure if the chains would try to keep him from using his dragonlord abilities. If he ever managed to get Arthur above ground, he would call the dragon, but for now, Merlin decided he was probably better off not risking death for nothing and keeping this secret to himself, especially as Gwil didn’t seem to know he was a dragonlord.
Although Gwil did seem to know an awful lot about him. It seemed that Gwil had not only been watching him for some time, but that he had heard a lot from Morgana as well. Answering the questions about himself had been humiliating, but after the second time Gwil had ordered Arthur hurt, Merlin didn’t dare lie again.
Fortunately, it seemed Gwil was primarily interested in Morgana. He wanted to know her hideouts, her weaknesses, what sort of magic she knew. Merlin had no idea if Gwil was testing him for honesty or if he genuinely wanted to know, but either way he still didn’t dare lie. It felt wrong, somehow, to tell Gwil about Morgana. It hurt to think of Morgana—the old Morgana, the pretty, compassionate girl he remembered—telling Gwil everything she knew about him. But it felt even worse to tell Gwil everything he knew about her. Was it possible, Merlin wondered, to betray someone who was now his enemy—who was, in fact, the reason he was in this predicament in the first place?
Merlin turned away from his motionless friend still lying on the floor. He didn’t think Arthur would have done what he’d done—Arthur was too noble, even about his enemies—but either way, there was nothing Merlin could do about it now. He’d done the best he could to protect both Arthur and Camelot, and now he’d have to live with the guilt that came with it, like he always did.
Trying not to trip, he scooted on his knees over to the door and examined it. There was a food slot, Merlin noted, although his stomach reminded him it hadn’t been used, and likely never would. The slot seemed barely large enough to accommodate a tray, never mind an arm. The food slot, he concluded, was useless for escape.
The door itself was thick and sturdy, although the hinges looked slightly rattled, as if they’d taken on a great weight. Merlin glanced back at Arthur guiltily. The king had probably thrown himself at the door.
But it wouldn’t have done any good. The door had something magical on it; Merlin could sense it. For sturdiness, perhaps? He leaned his cheek against the door and closed his eyes, ignoring the warning heat creeping painfully onto his wrists and through his jacket.
His brow wrinkled slightly as he concentrated. Not for sturdiness. For binding. He wondered if this was what kept Arthur from moving when their captors came to the cell. Activated when the door was open, most likely. He could have taken care of it with some effort were his magic not nearly strangled by these wretched chains…Would it be worth a try anyway?
He cast around in his mind for a suitable spell. “Ic al—”
But after barely a few syllables, the pain emanating from the chains encircling him flared. He let out a muffled scream and clenched his eyes shut, burying his magic back down.
Maybe he could take the spell off the door, but the effort would probably kill him. He was willing to do it if it meant Arthur got out of here safely, but doing it now, while Arthur was unconscious and injured, would not bode well for the king’s chances of survival. On the other hand, what if he were in worse condition tomorrow? Gwil claimed he wasn’t going to kill Arthur, but Merlin knew that guarantee wouldn’t last long. He had no doubt Gwil would kill Arthur if he didn’t swear loyalty soon enough. And there was no way he could ever let someone like Gwil control his magic.
Merlin stared at the door, weighing his options carefully. Should he sacrifice himself now and hope Arthur would be able to make his way out alone when he woke up? Should he wait for Arthur to wake up, urge him to run for it, and then remove the spell from the door? Or should he bide his time and wait until an opportunity with a higher chance of Arthur living through this presented itself? Would such an opportunity ever actually come?
A slow moan came from behind him, and Merlin whirled away from the door, his whole body lighting up with hope as he scrambled to Arthur’s side.
“Mer…Merlin?” Arthur’s eyes cracked open. He raised a hand to his head, then winced as he touched the ugly bruise forming on his temple. “You forgot breakfast again…Wait. We—” The king sat up quickly, then swayed and pressed his hand to his head again.
Don’t sit up that fast, you prat, you might have a concussion! Merlin wanted to yell, but all that came out was a muffled mess.
Still holding his head and cringing, Arthur waved his free hand blindly in Merlin’s direction until his fingers found the gag and yanked it down.
“—absolute dollophead, stay down and sit still!” Merlin ordered.
Arthur blinked at him as if not quite sure what he was doing there.
“Look at me, Arthur. That’s right, look at me…” Merlin stuck his head into Arthur’s face to block the limited light and stared into his eyes before sitting back, satisfied. “Alright, I don’t think you have a concussion. How do you feel? Any ringing in your ears? Any nausea? Too bright? Too dark? Too loud? Too—”
Arthur finally pulled his hand away from his face and sat a little straighter. “Shut up, Merlin.”
Merlin sighed in relief. “Good to see you’re no more touched in the head than usual. How’s your nose?”
Arthur touched it gingerly, cringing as he felt the blood caked there. “Hurts. But I don’t think it’s broken…Does it look crooked?”
“Oh, yeah, like it’s been twisted right off. Gwen’ll never be able to look at you again.”
Arthur’s eyes widened for the briefest moments in panic, but then he scowled. “I’ll have you know, she appreciates me for more than my nose.”
“You’re right; there’s also your dollop-shaped head and prattish charm.”
“You could go to the stocks for that.”
“Not while I’m in here, I won’t. What happened?”
“I should be asking you that.”
“Well, how should I know? You were like this when I got here.”
“The sorcerer, the one who gave you the poison, Trent, he came in here. Didn’t say a word, just punched me straight in the face, and I was stuck to the wall, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even duck…”
“That’ll be the door. It’s got some kind of binding spell on it.” Merlin clamped his jaw together before he said anything else. Whatever was in that smoke was making it harder to think before he spoke.
But Arthur, as usual, didn’t seem to notice. “And then he turned to leave, and then someone else came in and said something, and then he just marched back in and next thing I remember is waking up to see your stupid face. And I know this has got something to do with you, Merlin, so what happened?”
“I…Gwil asked me something. And I didn’t answer, and you…this is all my fault. I’m sorry.” He could feel his voice growing thick.
Arthur looked at him a long moment, and Merlin was sure he was about to accuse him of acting like a girl. But instead, Arthur put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “You did the right thing, Merlin. Protecting Camelot comes first. Camelot is far more important than any one man, even her king—especially her king. And you’ve shown incredible loyalty and bravery and…And I hate that you’re here, but I’m glad you’re here with me.”
“Now I know you’ve got a concussion.”
Arthur gave him a light shove. “Shut up. I mean it.”
Merlin felt warmth settle inside his chest.
Arthur hesitated a moment. “Is he using magic on you?”
“What? No.” Sensing from Arthur’s confused expression that he had answered too quickly, Merlin added, “He hasn’t got any magic. I think that’s why he needs Trent…”
“No magic? Then how do you explain the door and these?” He gave the chains a small tug.
“Pretty sure the door is from Trent. The chains are from Morgana.”
“Morgana? Then she’s behind this?”
“Sort of. She’s like…Gwil’s sponsor or something. They’re working together.”
“Then she’s here.”
“I don’t think so. He’s double-crossing her; he’ll be trying to keep her from showing up.”
“Double-cross her how?”
“Er…I don’t know, it’s just sort of…an impression I got.”
Arthur was silent for a long moment. Merlin knew he didn’t like talking about Morgana. That was fine with Merlin, as he didn’t much like talking about her either.
“I don’t understand,” Arthur said finally.
“Oh, that’s a surprise.”
“Be serious, Merlin. Gwil’s barely even glanced at me since I got here. He’s captured the king of Camelot, and yet it’s you he’s focusing on. What does he want from you, exactly?”
Merlin tensed. What was he supposed to say? “Nothing.”
“The truth, Merlin.”
Merlin flinched and blurted, “He wants me to swear allegiance and serve him.”
Arthur stared at him as if he had just said something incredibly stupid. Merlin cursed in his head. How was he supposed to explain that away?
“He wants you to serve him? But you’re a horrible servant!”
Merlin deflated. “I know.”
“You’re clumsy and late and spend all your time in the tavern!”
“Yes, I get it.”
“And even if you were a decent servant, no one goes to these lengths for that! There’s more to this than that, Merlin. Tell me.”
“Arthur, please don’t.” Merlin didn’t know when his voice had started to sound so small. “Please…not now.”
Arthur stared at him incredulously. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again.
Merlin wondered if he should just tell Arthur everything. He was so close. It was on the tip of his tongue…But his head hurt and he felt so, so weak, and he didn’t think he had the strength to go through all that with Arthur just now. If his gamble went wrong…if Arthur rejected him now…It would absolutely shatter him. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep going.
But he should tell him. Arthur needed to know. And it was only a matter of time before Arthur realized what was going on anyway.
Merlin took a deep breath, ready to spill his deepest secret at last. “Arthur—”
“How’re your wrists?” asked Arthur at the same time, peering around him.
Merlin closed his mouth and frowned. He really didn’t want to think about them. He couldn’t see behind his back, but based on the way his wrists screamed at the slightest movement, they couldn’t look good. Arthur’s sharp breath confirmed his suspicions.
“Bloody sorcerer,” Arthur muttered, voice filled with venom, and Merlin’s heart sunk. Arthur would hate him if he told him now. Just a little longer.
“Is the other one, the big one, is it…?”
Merlin bit his lip, debating on how much to tell him. “Yeah, the big one’s burning too. I think my clothes are protecting me from most of it, but…yeah.”
“Do you think if I put the cape on it again…?”
Merlin glanced at the ratty cape. “Better not. It’ll infect it.”
“Oh…Well…If there’s anything I can…can do to make you feel better or…something…”
Merlin looked back in surprise. “I’ll tell you.”
Arthur settled back against the cell wall, nodding. “Good. Good. Glad that’s settled then.”
The warmth in Merlin’s chest spread all the way to his toes, and it felt a little bit like magic that not even the chains could suppress.
Through some maneuvering, he managed to scoot to sit next to Arthur, shoulder to shoulder. They sat there in companionable silence for a few moments before Merlin, thinking of Gwil’s tea and how thirsty he was, smacked his lips.
“Don’t do that.”
“...Oh, you mean this?” He smacked them again.
“Yes, Merlin, I meant that!”
“But I’m thirsty.”
“So am I, but I am trying not to be an annoying idiot about it.”
“Well, there’s the difference between you and me.”
“The fact that you’re an annoying idiot? I agree.”
“The fact that I’ve got a destiny, Arthur. A very important one.”
“You don’t say. And what, pray tell, is that?”
Merlin grinned and smacked his lips again as obnoxiously as possible. “It is my destiny to annoy you until the end of time.”
Ic alaete… (beginning of Merlin’s spell) = I release…
It wasn’t long before they came for Merlin again.
Arthur didn’t remember falling asleep, but he was jerked awake by approaching footsteps. He gave Merlin, who had fallen asleep on his shoulder, a shove.
“They’re coming back.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, blinking away sleep. “You’d better move. When they open the door, you’re going to go flying.”
“I am against the wall, just not that one. It’ll be fine.”
“I really think you should move…You’ve had enough blows to the head to last you the rest of your reign. ”
Arthur was about to retort when the door opened. Immediately he went soaring across the room and crashed face-first into the same wall he’d been pinned to before. He barely managed to not hit his nose by turning his head and bracing himself with his hands, but his cheek still hurt.
“Told you, prat.”
With his cheek pressed to the wall, Arthur could barely see out of the corner of his eye that Trent was shuffling in. Arthur’s back felt incredibly exposed, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t leave the wall.
“Come on, toerag,” came Trent’s voice.
Merlin said nothing. Trent let out a sigh, and then Arthur heard him moving across the room, heard Merlin wince as the chains clanked, heard Merlin’s feet skidding across the floor.
The door shut and Arthur fell backwards from the wall. Merlin, of course, was gone.
Arthur kicked the door once half-heartedly, but didn’t really expect anything to happen. The door wasn’t going to give. He pressed his hand against the wood. Perhaps whatever spell was on the door kept him from kicking it down?
He took his knife back out of his boot and stabbed the door repeatedly. The blade barely even pierced it. Stupid spell.
He peered hard at where the door met the wall. He’d made a slight gouge in the wood directly next to the hinges. Were the hinges really part of the door? Because if they weren’t, maybe the spell wouldn’t extend to them. Or perhaps the hinges were a weak spot. Either way, he could pick away at the hinges, see if he could weaken them or carve them out of the door.
His face fixed in a determined grimace, Arthur set to work.
Hours went by, long, numbing hours. Arthur debated attempting to get his armor off, but most of the ties were in the back. He might be able to manage it, but part of him felt better with it on. Like he was ready for battle, better prepared, a more formidable force. He was surprised their captors hadn’t taken his armor, but then, it wasn’t as if he posed any threat.
Being confined with no one to talk to, not even Merlin with his prattling, was driving him absolutely mad. His thoughts kept drifting back home, to Camelot. He wondered where his knights were, if they had all survived the initial attack and if they were looking for him. He thought of tables bursting with feasts and goblets of wine. He thought of his bed piled with pillows and a nice, hot bath. He thought of Guinevere, and the way she smiled at him, and the smell of her hair, and how much he missed her.
He thought of all the horrible things Gwil was probably doing to Merlin right now, and all the horrible things he’d do to Gwil if he ever got out.
Why Merlin, anyway? There was something Merlin wasn’t telling him, something about what Gwil wanted. But what on earth would anyone want from Merlin? Why would anyone go to this much trouble for a servant?
But Merlin wasn’t an ordinary servant, was he? He was more than that; he was brave, he was steadfast, he was loyal, he…
He had that something, that something that Arthur had never quite had a name for.
Arthur was not a superstitious man, but secretly he had always had this sort of feeling that things just always went right when Merlin was around, as if the servant’s very presence ensured success.
He hadn’t even really noticed the overall pattern until Gwaine had commented about it once, when he and Arthur were both looking for Merlin after he’d been hit with a mace and lost in a rockslide. “We’ll find him, princess,” the knight had said. “Because things always go right when Merlin’s around.”
“I’d hardly call what happened yesterday ‘going right,’” Arthur had snapped back.
“No one else died, did they? And I’m telling you, we’ll find him.”
“Even if he escaped the bandits, he was wounded. Badly.”
Gwaine had shrugged, indifferent to Arthur’s thinly veiled concern. “He’ll turn up. He always does. It’s those ears of his—they bring good luck.”
Arthur had scoffed, but then Merlin had turned up, covered head to toe with mud but alive and well, with a tale of escaping the bandits, finding an old woman in a hovel to tend to his wounds, and getting lost in a bog on the way back.
Arthur had thought then that it wasn’t Merlin’s ears, it was more like…his loyalty. A sort of burning, determined loyalty that gave Merlin the ability to follow his king into battle and emerge without a scratch. Merlin’s loyalty was almost a tangible shield, like he—and by extension, Arthur—were always protected just through Merlin’s sheer willpower that they be safe.
Arthur remembered the first time Merlin had come with him on patrol. They’d barely known each other then; Merlin had been working for him perhaps a couple weeks. Arthur had told him to have his horse ready to depart by morning for a two-day patrol, but when the prince had arrived at the courtyard, he’d found two horses waiting.
“What’s this?” he had demanded.
“Well, I can hardly keep up with you if I haven’t got a horse, can I? So I borrowed one of yours.” Merlin had said reasonably, adjusting one of the saddles.
“Merlin, you’re a servant.”
“Yeah, and you’ll be needing food on this little patrol, won’t you? I packed some lunch. And dinner and breakfast and lunch again and dinner again and breakfast again. And snacks. I know how cranky you get when you haven’t eaten. You’re going to get fat if you keep this up, you realize that?”
Arthur remembered staring at Merlin incredulously. He hadn’t quite yet realized how big an idiot Merlin could be. “As much as I appreciate you finally taking an interest in your duties, you do realize we may encounter bandits?”
“Oh, yeah,” Merlin had said, nodding without any concern whatsoever.
Merlin had just kept nodding, raising an eyebrow as if not sure where Arthur was going with that.
“That they’ll be trying to kill us with,” Arthur had emphasized.
“Yeah, and you’ll be exhausted, I bet, so won’t it be nice to have someone there to, you know, set up camp, get the fire going, cook dinner, clean up, and all that?”
And it was a rather nice idea, Arthur had been forced to admit. It would be nice after a long day’s ride to just rest and eat and not do any work. It would be good for the knights, too. Good for morale. And besides, it wasn’t like this particular route was very dangerous. Truthfully, they weren’t likely to run into anything more life-threatening than a frightened deer.
So he’d let Merlin come. And then one patrol had turned into two, then three, and then four. On the fifth patrol, they’d been set upon by bandits, and Arthur had fought like a madman trying to find Merlin, terrified that he would be responsible for an innocent man’s death because he hadn’t wanted to be uncomfortable.
But then the bandits had been defeated, and Merlin had popped his head out from behind a tree, perfectly safe and not even particularly fazed that he’d been witness and survivor to a bloodthirsty bandit attack. He had even looked pleased with himself, as if the fact he was alive wasn’t sheer dumb luck.
Arthur had been determined that that was the last time he brought a helpless peasant along on patrol, but when the next time came along, Merlin already had two horses ready. When he realized Arthur was reluctant to let him come, Merlin had outright begged to be allowed to follow, because if he didn’t, then Gaius would make him clean the leech tank, and he hated the leech tank, and it made him break out in contagious boils, and as he’d be doing Arthur’s laundry afterwards…
So Arthur had let him come again.
More patrols came and went, with Merlin right behind him at every one, until eventually, Arthur didn’t even consider not bringing him. Merlin had charmed and connived and made excuses and weaseled his way into following his king so many times that Arthur finally just assumed that wherever he was going, Merlin was going with him, like a second shadow.
Years later, Arthur had asked him once, jokingly, why he kept coming.
“You’d all be dead without me,” Merlin had said, before grinning and calling him something vaguely insulting.
Arthur wondered when he had almost started to believe it.
How many times had he lost consciousness, sure he was going to die on the battlefield, when he would wake up to see Merlin’s stupid face beaming down at him? How many times had his timing been just right, his enemies just slow enough, for him to win where so many others had failed?
Gwaine called it luck, Arthur called it loyalty, but whatever it was, it had kept him and Merlin alive through things that neither of them should have survived.
Did Gwil somehow know about Merlin’s whatever-it-was? Was that what he was after? How would someone even find out about such a thing, much less control it?
Arthur rubbed his temples and sighed, fully aware that none of what he was thinking made sense, but at the same time sure that Merlin’s something was involved. But he couldn’t ask Merlin about it, because he knew the words would sound stupid if spoken out loud. Say Merlin, is Gwil interrogating you because you’re inexplicably lucky?
It sounded stupid, even in his mind.
So Arthur kept picking and picking at the hinges with his knife, and hoped that whatever usually kept Merlin safe was keeping him safe now.
Merlin was not safe.
Or maybe he was. It was hard to tell, really. His thoughts came and went like the wisps of foul-smelling smoke that kept drifting into his lungs from the candles in front of him.
But he was so, so exhausted, drained, and he had a hard time remembering exactly why, nor could he remember how long he’d been sitting here.
“I’ve done so much for you, Merlin. I’ve kept you safe. I’ve accepted you. I am your friend. Wouldn’t you like to repay me? Wouldn’t you like to prove your loyalty to such a friend?”
He wanted to agree, to say anything so that Gwil would leave him alone to drift into oblivion, but something kept niggling at the back of his brain. Something important, something to do with…Arthur. Arthur was still counting on him, counting on him to stay alive and save him.
“…No,” Merlin mumbled.
Gwil shook him by the shoulder, but it felt as if a stranger’s shoulder were shaking, not his own. He almost felt like he was floating in a dream, not quite present, and he thought that it would be nice if he just floated away, leaving his sore and burned body behind…
A sharp pain bit into his shoulder as Gwil’s nails clenched into it, and the pain brought clarity as Merlin remembered, briefly, where he was.
“What do you mean, the Lady Morgana’s here?” Gwil demanded furiously.
The name rang through Merlin’s mind like a loud bell, sending a few jolts of panic through his sagging form. If Morgana found him like this…If she found Arthur…
“As in, on her way to this room. Looking for you. About Emrys.” Trent said delightedly, tilting his head toward Merlin.
Gwil scooted his chair back so fast the chair flew over. He hurried to the door, hissing at Trent, “Did you tell her about him?”
Trent’s voice glistened with disdain. “Of course not, my lord. I can’t go against your orders, remember? Even if you still haven’t kept up your end of the deal.”
Gwil fumed, one hand on the door. “We’ll talk about this later. For now, keep him quiet. Don’t let her see him. If she knows we’ve got Emrys already, she’ll take him.”
Trent grinned, eyes gleaming at Merlin. “Wouldn’t want that, would we?”
Seconds had barely passed after Gwil left before Merlin, now fully awake, could hear his voice calling loudly through the slightly ajar door. “Lady Morgana! I wasn’t expecting you so soon!”
A female voice responded, though Merlin couldn’t quite distinguish the words.
Then he realized Morgana was not the most urgent of his problems. Trent had strode across the room towards him, so close Merlin could smell his stinking sweat.
The mercenary shot his hand out to snatch Merlin’s chin, wrenched his head up so far Merlin thought his neck would snap, and squeezed.
“Say a word,” Trent breathed. “And I’ll break your jaw.”
Merlin distantly thought that was a bit redundant, as he wanted Morgana to find him less than Gwil did, but obligingly bit back his scream.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Trent murmured.
Merlin couldn’t have responded if he wanted to; he was finding it harder and harder to breathe, especially with the air polluted by that smoke.
“Maybe you remember my brother, then. Slave trader. Name of Jarl.”
Merlin’s eyes watered as he let out a strangled sort of whimper.
“I was there that day when we had the prince. Didn’t know who he was, though. He escaped before we found out. And my brother was killed for letting him.”
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU DON’T HAVE HIM?” came Morgana’s distinctive screech from somewhere outside. “I NEED HIM BY TOMORROW!”
Trent squeezed harder, and Merlin saw spots dance in his vision. “I blamed the prince for my brother’s death for a long time. Only read that halfwit’s stupid contract because he said he’d help get me my revenge on the royal runt. But you were there too, weren’t you, you magic little toerag? And I’m betting it wasn’t the prince who started that fire, was it?”
Merlin felt his magic surge, making a desperate bid to free his airway, but it moved too sluggishly, like running through a bog at a thick wall. Its attempt was so weak that the chains didn’t even burn him in retaliation.
Trent’s free hand drew out a knife. Slowly, almost tenderly, he pressed the blade into Merlin’s cheek. The tip was so close to Merlin’s eye he could actually see it. Through the haze clouding his mind, he realized that if his head so much as twitched, he’d lose his eye.
“If it weren’t for that contract, I could do this faster, with a lot less mess…” Trent murmured, applying the slightest amount of pressure.
Merlin suppressed a shudder, afraid the movement would impale his eye. His heart thudded hard in his chest, like it was trying to fit in as many beats as possible before the end.
“But then, the mess is half the fun, isn’t it?” Trent continued, pressing down. Merlin could barely feel the sting over the general din of pain clouding his mind, but he felt warm blood trickle down his cheek.
Gwil chose that moment to walk back in. “What are you doing? Stop!”
Trent withdrew the knife and released his grip immediately. Merlin’s head snapped back down with another stab of pain and a gasp.
“No threats. I forbid it. He’s not much good to me maimed.”
“Apologies, my lord,” Trent said with a scowl.
“You’ll be punished for that. I'll figure out how later. Now get out.”
Trent cast one more hateful glare at Merlin before finally leaving the room.
“Look, Merlin,” Gwil said as he seated himself and steepled his fingers. “I know we haven’t had the best of times together. But I don’t think you understand how much I’ve done for you. I told Morgana you—that is, you the servant, not Emrys—died without telling me anything, and that I haven’t found Emrys yet. I’ve kept you safe from her—Arthur too, just because I know how much you care about him—”
“ ’S not why,” Merlin shot back hoarsely, still unable to lift his head. “You need him. Leverage.”
Gwil’s usual friendly facade dropped into an icy glare. “Listen, Emrys, Lady Morgana is returning tomorrow, and if I don’t have you under control by then, if I don’t have a warlock to give her, she’ll kill us both. That’s not a threat from me, Emrys, that’s a promise from her. And I doubt Arthur will escape unscathed either. You can stop this. Swear to serve me. Bind your magic—”
A vein in Gwil’s forehead throbbed. “Fine. We can do it the hard and risky way. I didn’t want to do this, but desperate times…” He drew a large bottle from inside his robes and from it poured what looked like tea into a goblet, which he placed on the table in front of Merlin.
“Are you thirsty, Merlin?” Gwil asked, slipping back into his almost friendly voice for a moment before his gaze hardened. “Don’t lie.”
“Yeah…” Merlin murmured through dry, cracked lips.
“Louder, Merlin. And look at me when I’m talking to you. It’s only polite. Are you thirsty?”
Slowly, painfully, Merlin pulled his head up to look at Gwil. “Yes.”
Gwil looked at the tea pointedly. “Would you like a drink?”
Merlin blinked at the goblet in front of him for a moment before answering. “No.”
“Because you’ve poisoned it.”
“I’m afraid that’s a lie, Merlin.”
Merlin’s head jerked, eyes wide with panic.
“Calm down, Merlin. I understand. You didn’t know it was a lie. I forgive you. Now, would you like a drink?”
“That surprises me. We’ve already agreed it’s not poisoned. So, would you like a drink?”
“Hmm. That seems rather odd, doesn’t it? You’re terribly thirsty—I might even go so far as to say you’re dying of thirst. So why don’t you want a drink?”
The corner of Merlin’s mouth twitched. “I’ve got a mental affliction.”
Gwil smacked the goblet aside, sending the liquid splattering to the floor, and Merlin flinched. “I said tell the truth.”
“I have!” Merlin protested, “Gaius said so. He said he’d look into it. Hasn’t found anything yet.”
Gwil took a deep breath, then fixed that pleasant smile on his face that made Merlin’s guts clench in fear. Gwil picked up the goblet, then refilled it with the brown concoction. “Alright, Merlin. Let’s try a different approach. I’d like you to drink this. I’d like you to drink this very much. And you will drink it, because if you don’t, I will let Trent hurt Arthur again. Much, much worse than last time.”
Merlin stopped breathing for a moment. His jaw clenched as he stared at the goblet, then looked up at Gwil. “Your turn. Tell me the truth. As…” he swallowed. He needed a straight answer. “As a…friend.”
Gwil nodded, clearly pleased. “Of course I will, Merlin.”
“What is this going to do to me?”
“I’m very glad you asked. I won’t lie; I can’t be entirely sure what it will do to you. It reacts strangely when mixed with magic, particularly the more powerful that magic is. I do know, however, that it will not be pleasant. It may very well break you. I can only hope you’ll be sane enough to follow my orders afterwards. A bit of a desperate measure, perhaps, but then, I’m getting quite desperate.” He took the goblet and pressed it against Merlin’s lips with malicious glee, and the warlock shuddered as its rancid smell reached his nose. “Drink up.”
Merlin didn’t dare open his mouth, but jerked his head to the side as far as he could.
Gwil sighed like a parent with an irritating child. “Merlin, drink it, or I’ll have Trent bring me Arthur’s hand. His sword hand. And just his hand.”
Merlin’s stomach dropped. Arthur would never be able to recover from a blow like that. Even if he survived from the blood loss, his entire identity hinged on his swordfighting skills. Without his hand, he’d never be able to compete in another tournament, wouldn’t be able to defend his people, wouldn’t be able to lead his men into battle, wouldn’t be able to wield the sword forged in a dragon’s breath, would feel utterly helpless. He would be crippled in more ways than one.
Gwil pressed the drink harder against Merlin’s lips, and Merlin drank. He gagged, both body and magic rejecting it, but Gwil took a firm hold of his already-bruised jaw to keep him from jerking away.
When Merlin had swallowed down all of it, Gwil let go, and Merlin felt his whole body quivering violently. His head began to pound as the few colors in the room swirled.
“I’ll make it stop if you just swear to serve me,” Gwil promised, eyes gleaming with interest.
His magic was crawling, trying to stab its way out through his skin like a million needles. It felt like he’d swallowed fire, like a pyre was scorching his insides, like he was being cauterized from the inside out. The room stretched like a twisted nightmare, drawing the air from his lungs, and he took in big gulping breaths of the candles’ smoke.
“I’m saving you from a threat, Merlin. Isn’t that what friends do?”
“N-n-no…No, please…No, make it stop. Make it…”
He opened his mouth and heaved, but no matter how much his body lurched, he couldn’t expel anything. He was burning, burning…and Morgana stood in front of him, her once-gentle eyes giving way to a wicked smirk as his insides charred. He was choking, gagging on flames and smoke, and Morgana sauntered towards him, her emerald gown from innocent years ago darkening to black, her skin paling like a corpse, her elegant curls tangling like cobwebs. Her eyes glowed with the light of a thousand suns as she snarled, “That’s what you get for betraying me.”
He clenched his eyes shut and trembled, guilt biting at him as he remembered the look of panic on Morgana’s face as he held her in his arms while she choked on poison. Had she felt like this? “No, no, Morgana, I’m sorry, please, make it stop, it hurts, it hurts, please…”
“Merlin, you need to read this,” came a calming, familiar voice.
Still shaking, Merlin opened his eyes. Morgana was gone; Gaius stood in her place with a horribly grave expression on his face. “My boy, I beg you, read the parchment. It will heal you.”
Merlin looked down at the parchment in front of him, struggling to read the words through his blurred vision. “Ic i…Ic i borgfaeste min miht drycraeftes oth…” He stopped. The next word was wrong. Lord of the parchment. Binding his magic to the lord of the parchment…Something wasn’t right.
Gaius’ forehead creased past concern and into anger, as if Merlin was doing something extraordinarily stupid. “You must read, Merlin. It is vital.”
“Ic i borgfaeste…” He stopped again. He was forgetting something important.
Or someone. Who was he swearing to? Arthur?…Why did Arthur have a magical parchment? Arthur didn’t have a magical parchment; Arthur…hadn’t Arthur been in danger?
“Go on, Merlin, read,” urged Gaius. “I implore you.”
“But…Arthur…” Another wave of pain wiped out all thought as he gasped for air that didn’t come. The flames were all around him, pushing to get in, and inside him, pushing to get out and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe…
“G-Gaius, I can’t. Help me, I can’t…make it stop…”
“You must read it, my boy.”
Gaius shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid this isn’t working. You are beyond help now.”
Ic i borgfaeste min miht drycraeftes oth… = I bind by pledge my powerful magic to…
For those of you who don’t remember who Jarl is, he’s that slave trader who captured Merlin, Arthur, and Gwaine at the end of season 3. He tried to get Arthur and Gwaine to fight to the death to save Merlin, but then Merlin burned the place down and they escaped. Later, Morgause killed Jarl when she found out he had Arthur but let him escape.
Chapter 6: Fealty and Food
Arthur heard the approaching footsteps and quickly shoved his blunted dagger down into his boot. He backed away from the door towards his spot on the wall, just in time for the door to swing open. The force came as it always did, rendering him immovable. He watched anxiously for Merlin to come back through the door, tired but alright like before.
Instead he saw Merlin held limp between two guards, the servant’s feet dragging on the floor. He was shockingly pale again, shaking and sweating. A long, bleeding cut ran down the left side of his face, pointing to dark bruises on his jaw and neck that trailed under his neckerchief.
“What did you do to him?!” Arthur demanded.
As usual, he was completely ignored. The guards dropped Merlin in the middle of the cell and turned back without a glance at the king. When the door was shut and he was released from the wall, Arthur threw himself at the door, pounding on it furiously. “I said, what did you do to him?! You cowards! Come back here!”
Merlin’s whimpering forced his attention away from the door. “Arthur…Arthur!”
Arthur hurried over to Merlin’s side and helped him sit up. Merlin’s eyes were bloodshot and frantic; his breath was coming in great, heaving gasps.
“Arthur…have to save…tell him…not going to…Arthur. Go get Arthur!”
“I’m right here, Merlin,” Arthur said, trying to keep his frustration out of his voice. He wanted so badly to punch something, to hack something with his sword, but he didn’t have a sword and there was no one here but Merlin, who was looking at him with absolute desperation and struggling and coughing and gasping like all the air in the world would never be enough.
“Gaius…Need Arthur. Tell him I…Arthur. Where’s Arthur?”
“I’m right here, you clumsy…” Arthur took a deep breath. Merlin was panicking and delirious and needed him to be calm. He could be calm. Of course he could. He was a king, and kings calmly handled things.
He covered Merlin’s eyes with his hand. Merlin thrashed like a trapped animal, trying to regain his vision.
After a moment, Arthur removed his hand, and Merlin stilled. Recognition and relief flashed in his eyes. “Arthur.”
Arthur swallowed. “I’m here, Merlin. What did he do to you? Why?”
Merlin tried to sit up, and Arthur helped him maneuver onto his knees. He wondered if he shouldn’t force Merlin to lie down, because the servant was still shaking. “Want me to…but I won’t…I’m loyal to you. Only to you.”
“I know, Merlin. I know. You need to lie down.”
“I’ll prove it, I’ll…swear fealty.”
“You want to what?” Arthur asked, alarmed as Merlin clumsily lurched into a bow, bending over on his knees as much as he could without toppling over. Quickly, Arthur tried to pull him back up. “Merlin, you don’t need to. I hardly doubt your loyalty. And besides, that’s for nobles. And you’re clearly unwell—”
“No!” Merlin shouted, twisting out of Arthur’s grip and bending back down in front of him. “I have to…I need to…I swear…I swear to serve you the rest of my days. I swear my loyalty and my life and my powers, everything, to you and Camelot and no one else.”
As prince and then as king, Arthur had had many people kneeling and bowing before him, but this, having Merlin at his feet like this, swaying dangerously with his nose almost touching the floor…this was all so wrong. Arthur cleared his throat, which felt much thicker than usual. “Merlin, stop this. You’re delirious.”
“I swear to protect you till the day I die,” Merlin continued, looking as if he would pass out any second. “You and yours. And I swear, Arthur Pendragon, that I will get you out of here alive or I will die trying.”
“Merlin, that’s enough!”
“Merlin!” This time, Arthur yanked him up and shook him. “Stop it. Just…stop.”
Merlin sagged as if he’d lost the will to sit up. His eyes glazed over, then started to drift shut. Arthur realized what was going to happen a split second before it did and lunged to catch Merlin just before he dropped to the floor.
Arthur shook him a couple times and called his name, but Merlin didn’t move. Fuming, Arthur pulled Merlin over by the wall, draped the dirty cape over him, and stormed back to the door, which he kicked with all his strength.
“WHAT—DID—YOU—DO TO HIM?!” he screamed. He screamed and pounded and kicked the door until his voice was raw and his skin cracked and bled. Then he sank down to the floor, head in his hands, and did not cry because kings did not cry, they kept their servants (friends) from getting hurt and they fought their way free of dungeons and they did not sit there useless while the people they loved were tortured.
He would do anything, absolutely anything, to get Merlin out of this hellhole.
Arthur sat a little straighter with the realization. Maybe that was what Gwil wanted. Maybe he was after the king, after all. Maybe somehow Gwil had found out that Arthur cared about Merlin far too much, and hurting him was the only way Arthur would even consider spilling any of Camelot’s secrets.
Forget secrets—if Gwil walked in right now and demanded half the kingdom in exchange for Merlin’s release and the end to his suffering, Arthur would grant it.
The thought stopped him short. No. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even consider that. He could not let Camelot, his people, suffer under the rule of a tyrant to save one man, even if that man was Merlin. Merlin himself wouldn’t want him to. Merlin would tell him Camelot was more important, and he would be right.
Merlin was dying, tortured by something Arthur didn’t understand.
He reached back inside his boot for the dagger, stabbed it into the groove he’d made at the hinge, and kept sawing. He refused to turn around and look at Merlin, refused to acknowledge the rawness in his fingers. All that mattered was chiseling through so he could get Merlin out of here—
The dagger, dulled by constant use, snapped in half.
Arthur stared, uncomprehending, at the ruined remains of the weapon in his hand, then at the chunk of blade in the door. He ripped the piece out of the door, nicking himself, and tried to piece the dagger back together.
It fell apart in his fingers.
Arthur’s face twisted with rage. He flung the broken pieces across the room and threw himself at the door once, twice, and again, before finally sagging against the door and burying his head in his hands. Useless. He was useless.
He would never be able to get through the door now. They were both going to die in here.
Hours passed and Arthur didn’t move, even when something near the door cranked. He tensed slightly, waiting to be pressed against the wall.
But the door didn’t open. Instead, unbelievably, the food slot opened, admitting a tray with…was that bread?
Arthur inspected the tray. One small loaf of bread barely enough for a few mouthfuls, and two bowls of dark brown soup. Not much, but that was probably for the best—Arthur didn’t know exactly how long they had been in here without food, but it had to have been at least two days. At this point, their stomachs probably couldn’t handle a great amount of food. He’d seen what happened when starved men ate too much, and he was not eager to make the room smell of sick.
“Oi!” He yelled weakly at the food slot, “What is this?”
But the food slot had apparently revealed all it was going to, as no voice came through it.
His hunger roaring in his belly, Arthur reached for the bread…and stopped. What if it was poisoned?
But surely if Gwil wanted to kill them, he’d have done so already? And not like this.
He glanced at Merlin, who was twitching slightly in his sleep, and remembered the poison the servant had been given when they were first captured. Not all poisons were fatal. Better not.
But his stomach growled in protest, and Merlin looked horribly thin and frail. Neither of them had eaten in at least two days. Arthur was starving, but he’d always been well-fed with rich foods, and his body would probably still last a while yet. Merlin, on the other hand…
Arthur made up his mind. They needed to eat, Merlin especially. At the very least, they should both have some soup so they didn’t die of thirst. Arthur would taste the food and wait. If enough time passed to tell he wasn’t poisoned, then he would feed some to Merlin when he woke.
Warily, Arthur ripped off a small chunk of the bread and nibbled it. It wasn’t even a full mouthful, and it was dry and flavorless. But he wasn’t in pain—or at least, not in any further pain—and his stomach was clamoring for more.
He looked at the bowls. Those were more likely to be poisoned, he supposed. It would be easy to just slip in a few drops. But there were two bowls. Were they both poisoned? Only one of them? Should he taste both?
Arthur thought of a memory from long ago, of a unicorn, of two cups on a table at a beach, all with the fate of Camelot on the line. His faint smile turned into a grimace as he poured the soup from one bowl into the other. There. If one of them were poisoned, he’d be sure to drink it now.
Merlin had always given good advice.
He pinched his nose and tried to think of anything but the unidentifiable dark liquid he was sipping. It was lukewarm and tasted vaguely like rabbit, if that rabbit had been dunked in horse dung and then lit on fire.
Even the little he’d drunk sloshed unpleasantly in his stomach, but it felt so good against his dry throat that Arthur still had to force himself not to drink more. He poured a little more than half the soup back into the other bowl—that one would be Merlin’s, assuming Arthur survived—and waited.
He sat silently as the minutes stretched, watching Merlin for signs of consciousness. Beyond breathing and the occasional twitch of his fingers, the manservant was utterly still.
“You know, I bet this is rat,” Arthur said out loud. “Wouldn’t surprise me. Even you couldn’t cook this bad, Merlin.”
Merlin said nothing, motionless except for his slow, shallow breathing.
“Or maybe it is poison. Made from some stupid, poisonous plant that you’d probably natter on about and I’ll have to fetch.” He elongated his leg and nudged Merlin’s shoulder with his foot enough to make the man’s head loll over to face Arthur. “If I do die from this, Merlin, I think I’ll issue a royal decree that you’re not allowed to eat anything but rat-based foods for the rest of your life. And I know you’re going to tell me that’s petty, but really, I call it justice. And I’m the king. I can do whatever I want.” He paused, then nudged Merlin with his foot again. “Come on. Say something. I give you permission to prattle.”
“Oh, alright. You only have to eat rat for a week. Guinevere would have my head if it went on any longer than that anyway.”
Merlin still didn’t move. Another long minute passed. Arthur sighed, running his fingers over his blond hair. “Merlin. I’m your king and I order you to wake up right now.”
Merlin’s face scrunched ever so slightly. Arthur held his breath, waiting for Merlin’s eyes to open. But in the time that passed before Arthur was forced to breathe again, Merlin remained still.
“Alright, fine …Please. As your…friend, I’m asking you, please wake up. I…I need you. I don’t know what to do. And you always know what to do. Or at least what to say.”
Merlin’s foot twitched as he murmured something, and Arthur shut up immediately. He crawled over in time for Merlin to groan and finally open his eyes.
“…Sorry, ’m sorry…Please…”
Merlin blinked up at him. “Ar…?”
Arthur grinned in relief. “Slacking off as usual, I see. You and your lie-ins. If you were any lazier, you’d be dead.”
“I…I think I am…”
“Good, that means I can eat your breakfast.”
“Break…what?” Merlin lifted his head, then winced.
Arthur slid an arm under his back and propped him up. “Food, Merlin. Surely even an utter simpleton like you knows what food is?”
Merlin stared up at him blankly. His pupils were startlingly large. If Arthur couldn’t feel Merlin’s shallow breathing, he would have wondered if Merlin had died right there, he was so motionless.
Arthur’s grin faded, but he pressed on. “Well, you’re even more of an idiot than I thought, then. I suppose I’ll have to educate you. This,” he reached for the bowl behind him and waved it under Merlin’s nose. “is soup. Soup is gooood. Now have some soup.” He touched the bowl to the servant’s lips, and Merlin finally moved, whimpering and turning his head to the side at the last moment.
“No. ’M not gonna eat that.”
“Yes, you will,” Arthur replied firmly, shoving the bowl at him again. “I’m not having you die on me.”
“No. ’S poison. Gonna hurt me.”
“No, it won’t. I tested it, and I’m fine.”
Merlin’s brow furrowed. “You…tested…wait, you WHAT?!” He jerked away from Arthur furiously, chains clanking as he tried to balance. His eyes were still a bit unfocused, but they were more lucid than they’d been since he had returned to the cell. “How could you?!”
“How could I? How could I not? Look at you, Merlin, you’re half dead, and you need food, and I had to make sure—”
“Oh, so you tried it yourself?! What if you had died? Camelot needs you—”
“Oh, fat lot of good I’m doing Camelot right now! Camelot can get a new king, Merlin!”
“No it can’t!” Merlin’s eyes started to slide further out of focus, and his voice lowered. “Needs you. Once and Future King. And if you die now, everything I’ve done, it’ll all have been for nothing, you got that? All those years wasted.”
Arthur blinked. Years? What? He peered harder at Merlin. The servant was swaying again. Merlin was going to pass out again very soon if he didn’t do something.
“Alright, Merlin,” he said tersely, inching closer. “I’ll do my best not to die if you just lie down and eat a bit.”
“No, ’m fine…It’s you that…” Merlin’s eyes shut as he pitched forward.
Arthur caught him and leaned him back, cradling him with one arm while he shook his good shoulder with the other. “Merlin? Don’t you dare fall asleep on me again.”
Merlin’s eyes flickered open. “You don’t know what it would have done to me to wake up to find you dead. I can’t lose you. I can’t.”
“I’m touched,” said Arthur, burying the sentiment with contempt. He snagged the bowl of soup again and thrust it in Merlin’s face. “Now eat.”
Merlin shook his head weakly, trying to jerk away. A splash of soup splattered on the floor.
“Don’t wannit, ’s poison.”
“No, it’s not. I already had some, or have you forgotten already?”
“Well, ’s not gonna hurt you, issit? You’re different.”
“Poison can’t tell the difference between royalty and peasant, Merlin. A bit like you. Now eat it.” He jammed the bowl to Merlin’s lips and poured it down. Merlin fought back a moment before finally going limp and swallowing. Arthur eased up, letting him sip slowly instead, and tried to ignore the guilt worming its way through him.
When Merlin finished the bowl, he glared up at Arthur. “I hate you, you absolute…cabbage head.”
“Not to your satisfaction, then, Merlin?”
“But it’s not poison.”
“Told you so. Don’t you trust me at all?”
Merlin paused a long moment, his eyes glazing over. Arthur set the bowl down, afraid he’d lost him again, but then Merlin spoke.
“I do trust you. But sometimes…you don’t see everything. You don’t see things, and if you saw them, saw the things I do, then things would be different. You’d be different. But you’re not there yet, not ready, so I’ve got to see things for you. And you don’t always listen…”
Arthur wondered if the soup had been drugged somehow after all. “Merlin, what are you talking about? See what?”
“…Exactly,” said Merlin sagely before his eyes drooped shut. They opened again when Arthur shook him.
“No sleeping. How about some bread?”
“Do you ever stop complaining?”
“No. ’S one of my many talents, which you fail to appreciate.”
“Sit up, then.” Arthur dragged Merlin a short way to lean him against the wall, then brought over the bread. He ripped a chunk out of the tiny loaf and held it out to Merlin.
Merlin shrunk away. “You’re sure ’s not…”
“Honestly, Merlin!” Arthur stuck the chunk in his own mouth and chewed as obnoxiously as possible. “It’s fine. If you’re not going to eat it, I certainly will.” He ripped off another chunk and looked at Merlin as if preparing to chuck something at his head. “Open wide.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t y—mmfph!”
They took turns eating chunks until the loaf was finally gone. Arthur watched with satisfaction as Merlin regained the slightest bit of color and stopped slurring, although his pupils were still enlarged and his breathing was still shallow. He regarded Arthur as if on the verge of sleep.
“Is that it?” he said petulantly.
“Of course not. There was loads more, but as I’m king and you were too lazy to wake up, I decided to eat it all.”
“Oh…that’s good, that’s good. Keep your strength up.”
Arthur’s grin fell. “For what?”
“For when I break you out.”
“Yeah. Gotta protect you.”
“Merlin, between us, who’s the king?”
“And who’s the knight?”
“And who knows how to actually fight with a sword?”
“Good. Then who’s responsible for getting us out?”
Arthur threw up his hands. “You know, every time I think I have finally discovered the limits of your idiocy, you always manage to surprise me. How exactly do you think you’re going to be able to get us out of here?”
“Dunno. Haven’t figured that out yet.”
Arthur gave a little snort.
Merlin kept going, his eyes faraway. “But I will…just not both of us, maybe. I think I could get just you out. I was wrong to wait. I should have done it earlier…”
“Done what earlier?”
“So I should…I should do it now, while I still can. Because it’s carving me out from the inside, it...I don’t think I can hold on much longer…”
“Shut up,” said Arthur sharply. “You’re going to hold on for as long as I say so. You said you’d be my servant till the day you die, and I’m not going to let you skive off early.”
“Look, just…know that I’m your friend, Arthur. I always was, no matter what it looks like. And I was proud to serve you. And I’m sorry I’m not going to be there to see the kingdom you’ll build. Tell Gaius he’s going to have to fulfill my destiny for me, alright? He’ll understand.”
“Destiny? What?” Arthur stared at him incredulously. “You’re not going to die, you twit, you’re absolutely fine! You’ve eaten, you’re talking—in complete sentences, no less!—and you’re sitting up on your own. You’re hardly at death’s door.”
“Just—when it’s over, just run. Leave me here, alright? I’ll only slow you down, so just leave me...Well, you might want to just leave me anyway after I…Anyway, if I’m still alive, I’ll get rid of as many guards as I can with whatever I have left.”
“You haven’t got anything in the first place!” said Arthur in exasperation. “Just rest, and if we’re lucky you’ll regain at least some of your limited wits.”
Merlin closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Alright. Please, please don’t hate me…Ic—”
“Quiet!” Arthur snapped. Both men stared at the door for a moment, hearing the faint sound of footsteps on the other side.
“I’m too late. They’re coming back,” Merlin said in a hoarse croak.
“No.” Arthur snarled, grabbing a handful of Merlin’s chains, “They’re not taking you again.”
“Arthur, what’re you—” He cut himself off with a hiss as Arthur pulled him up and hauled him to the opposite wall. Arthur winced at the sound of his friend’s pain, but this had to be done.
“Sorry.” He pushed Merlin up against the wall, then turned to face the door, positioning himself in front of Merlin with his arms spread protectively.
“An apology? You’re in rare form today, sire. Exactly what do you think you’re doing?”
“Protecting you, idiot.”
“I don’t think hiding behind you’s going to work…Your waist’s not that big.”
Arthur turned his head back slightly. “Look, whatever sorcery’s going on, it pins me to the wall in this spot. So, I’m going to pin you to it with me. They’ll have to release me if they want to get to you.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea…”
“Just trust me.”
The door opened, and Arthur felt the familiar force immediately propel him backwards. He heard Merlin grunt behind him as Arthur squashed him against the wall. Arthur tried to move, but as usual, he couldn’t. Merlin’s chains dug into his back.
Gwil himself entered this time, flanked by Trent and three guards. The alchemist did a double-take before finally spotting Merlin, sandwiched between Arthur and the wall.
“Oh, look who’s decided to be clever. Feeling a bit tricky, do we?”
Arthur glared. “I don’t know what you’ve done to him, but it stops now. Whatever you want, you’re going to get from me, and you’re going to leave him alone. Is that clear?”
“Arthur…” Merlin said quietly.
“Shut up, Merlin, I’m handling this,” Arthur growled back.
Gwil cocked his head to the side, but Arthur did not back down or lower his gaze.
“I wonder what you’d be willing to trade for him,” Gwil said lightly.
Arthur didn’t hesitate. “I am willing to negotiate some sort of deal if you leave him alone and release him.”
“Arthur!” Merlin hissed behind him, clearly horrified.
Gwil looked mildly surprised. “Really. Interesting. Ah, well, too bad for you, Pendragon. I’m playing for all or nothing.” He gestured to the guards and Trent. “Take them both.”
“No,” Merlin whispered as Trent muttered something and Arthur felt the force release him. “No, no, nononono…”
Arthur threw the first guard to the ground and kicked a second in the stomach before hearing Merlin cry out. He whirled in time to see that Trent had circled around him in order to grab Merlin. Arthur’s distraction gave the other three guards enough time to hit him hard, making lights flash in his vision, and take hold of his arms.
“Let go! Merlin? MERLIN!”
Trent was yanking Merlin along by his chains, which were for some inexplicable reason actually emitting a golden light. Merlin’s jaw was clenched tight enough to make a tendon pop out of his neck; his eyes were scrunched shut and tears were forming at the corners.
They dragged both Arthur and Merlin into a smaller room filled with a thin haze of foul-smelling smoke. Arthur held his chin high, trying to show no fear whatsoever as the guards forced him into a chair and painfully tied his arms behind it. Across from him, Merlin too was tied to a chair. The servant gasped and opened his eyes, and the chains dulled.
The guards backed out silently as Gwil swept into the room, but Trent did not. The mercenary’s eyes were gleaming in anticipation.
“Get out,” Gwil said smoothly.
Trent’s face twisted in fury. “You said—”
“I said I’d punish you. This is it. You’ll get your revenge, but you don’t get to do it yourself. Now get out.”
Trent’s spine jerked unnaturally straight as he obeyed. He glared murderously at Arthur as he left.
Arthur, however, was too busy processing Gwil’s next words to care.
“Are you ready now, Merlin? Because I’m sure you can figure out what I’m going to do next.”
The pain must have made Merlin more lucid, because he was shaking his head, although none of what he said made sense to Arthur. “You’re bluffing. You can’t kill him. You told me yourself, the contract won’t work if you threaten me with his life.”
“I said might. I’m running out of time for mights. Especially since I’ve realized something—there can’t be a threat if he’s already dead. Threatening implies I offer you a chance to save him. No, you’re just going to watch him die. I have a feeling that will be enough to break you. Men with no motivation are a lot easier to work with.”
Arthur’s chest tightened. So he was going to die. “Killing me would be considered an act of war. Do you really want to go up against Camelot? Because I guarantee you, you will lose.”
Gwil turned to face him with slight surprise, as if he’d forgotten Arthur could speak. His head tilted to the side for a moment, then he grinned savagely back at Merlin. “I think I’ll send his queen his head. What do you think, Merlin?”
Merlin glared at Gwil with a venom that shocked Arthur. He’d never seen his manservant so…angry. “You can’t hurt him. I won’t let you.”
Arthur gaped at his manservant. He’d never heard Merlin sound so deadly serious and knew that Merlin meant every word, although how Merlin of all people expected to do anything, Arthur had no idea.
But whatever chills Arthur felt at Merlin’s pronouncement, Gwil seemed unimpressed. “Now who’s bluffing? I think we both know you can’t do a thing right now.”
“I’ll find a way.” Merlin’s eyes burned at Gwil; his breathing came in quick, heavy heaves. His whole body was trembling with rage; the chains around him kept flickering with glowing heat.
It was obvious to Arthur that something was behind the glares Gwil and Merlin were shooting at each other, but he hadn’t the faintest clue what was going on. He was missing something—one last puzzle piece that would make everything fall into place. He tried to catch Merlin’s eye, but it was almost like the servant didn’t even register Arthur was there. All of his attention seemed completely focused on Gwil.
Gwil’s lip curled into a sneer as he turned to Arthur. “Enough of this.” He drew out a sword. His other hand grabbed a fistful of Arthur’s hair and yanked his head back.
Arthur gritted his teeth as Gwil held the sword inches from his neck. “Anything you’d like to say, Merlin? Last chance.”
“No, it’s yours. Leave. Him. Alone.”
“Merlin…” Arthur croaked. He wanted to look his friend in the eye before he died, say some sort of farewell. But Merlin still refused to return his gaze, was still watching Gwil, and Arthur felt so…abandoned.
He had never expected Merlin to let him die alone.
“You can’t very well serve a dead king now, can you?” said Gwil.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur watched as Gwil reached the sword back, and braced himself for death.
Then Merlin’s eyes finally met Arthur’s, and Arthur saw not helplessness, not fear, but determination and…shame?
“Scildan!” Merlin screamed, and Arthur gaped as his friend’s eyes turned gold—
The sword stopped an inch from the king’s neck as if meeting a solid wall.
Gwil’s face screwed up in fury. “No!” He swung again and again, and Arthur flinched as the sword stopped an inch away from his neck, his head, his chest.
And then he realized…“Merlin!”
After the first strike, Merlin’s golden eyes rolled into the back of his head; with every further stroke of the sword, the servant’s whole body jerked as if it had been physically struck. Blood started to trickle from his nose. The chains around his arms and wrists glowed sizzling hot, branding his skin as Gwil swung fruitlessly at Arthur’s head again and again and again…
“TRENT!” Gwil yelled as he continued to hack, “GET BACK IN HERE AND KILL HIM!”
Trent burst through the door, needing no further instruction. He shoved Gwil aside and pointed his palm at Arthur’s chest. “Akwele!”
A bright red flash exploded with a crack, and Trent was slammed back into the wall, where he crumpled and didn’t move.
Gwil bellowed, face contorted with fury as he prepared to swing the sword at Arthur’s head again.
“Stop it!” Arthur begged. “Stop it, you’re killing him! MERLIN!”
Gwil whirled to see Merlin slumped in his chair, painfully still and smoking slightly. Gwil cursed and flung the sword away, rushing over to Merlin’s side. He pressed two fingers to Merlin’s neck and cursed again.
A guard poked his head in and Gwil gestured wildly to Arthur.
“Just—just get him out of here!”
Arthur couldn’t tear his eyes away from Merlin as the guards cut the ropes and yanked him to his feet and out the door. Merlin was pale and unmoving and bleeding and lifeless…
Chapter 7: A Test of Loyalty
Arthur didn’t know what to feel. He wanted to shout and scream and throw things and weep and stab a practice dummy until it was nothing but a pile of straw. And above all, he wanted to shake Merlin—servant, liar, friend, traitor, sorcerer—and demand why. How could he?
Merlin had seen what magic had done to Morgana, to Camelot. He’d seen countless sorcerers executed. He’d known that magic was against the law, against everything Arthur’s father had stood for. And he’d gone and learned it anyway.
Everything made a horrible, twisted sense now. So much sense that Arthur was dumbfounded that he hadn’t seen it before. Merlin did have some sort of supernatural force guiding him and keeping him safe—magic. Magic that he had lied about. Arthur had trusted Merlin with everything and Merlin had lied to him.
How long had this been going on? How long had Merlin been lying to him? Since his wedding to Guinevere? Since Agravaine’s betrayal? Since his father’s death? Since Morgana had turned? How long?
All the years he’d spent with Merlin flashed through Arthur’s mind, seen with a new light. Had Merlin had something to do with the army of skeletons? With his father’s brief bout of madness? Or had he had magic longer than even that? Had he been involved with that spell that made everyone sleep? Or even longer? Had he been part of the magical plague that had nearly stolen Guinevere’s father?
The last incident brought to mind a memory he’d almost completely forgotten: Merlin, bursting through the council chamber doors, crying that he was a sorcerer.
Oh, but he was thick! Merlin had come right out and admitted it! And what had Merlin said to him, just hours ago? Swearing loyalty, and what had he said? Powers…Arthur hadn’t really concentrated on what Merlin was saying, dismissing them as delirious ramblings, but now…
Merlin was dead right now. Dead trying to protect him with his magic. Arthur could still see in his mind’s eye the way Merlin had slumped over, the way his body had spasmed, the bright red dripping down his face…
And that was just like Merlin, wasn’t it? Dying to protect him. Merlin was stupid that way. Arthur had always known Merlin had some idiotic, inexplicable desire to try to protect him. Merlin had said as much to Arthur before, and the king had seen it—Not only just now, but several times over the years. Following him to face a dragon. Jumping in front of the Dorocha. Drinking poison for him—twice now.
And that was the one thing, Arthur realized, that overshadowed whatever lies Merlin had told him: Arthur could not question Merlin’s loyalty. Merlin had dragged him away from battle when he was injured, accompanied him on every quest, stayed up all night for him when his father had died, and just been there when Arthur had needed him. And hadn’t he even thought before that Merlin always seemed to do these things through sheer force of loyalty?
Not just loyalty. Not luck, either. Just a little magic.
Merlin had magic, and for some inexplicable reason, he’d decided to use it for Arthur. He’d sworn it to Arthur just hours before, along with his loyalty…and his life.
Merlin was dead.
Merlin was dead. Dead, gone. Taken from him. He would never call him a prat, never give him unexpected but surprisingly good advice, never give another half-baked excuse, never grin that stupid grin, never make him the butt of a joke again. Merlin was gone, and Arthur could not follow and drag him back.
And that hurt even worse than the thought of Merlin’s lies.
Arthur sat there for hours, unable to sleep with his thoughts swirling around his head in a continuous cycle of betrayal and rage and grief. He was so distracted that he missed the approaching footsteps, and so was thrust back into the wall without warning when the door opened. He smacked his head hard enough to see stars, and he could have sworn he heard Merlin’s voice admonishing him. Careful, prat. You’ve had enough blows to the head to last you the rest of your reign.
Gwil entered the cell, and Arthur felt a fresh surge of fury overcome him. He knew it was futile, but he clenched his fists against the wall anyway, and imagined the things he would do if he were free and had a sword.
Gwil stopped before him and stroked his chin, studying Arthur for a moment. From the bags under the alchemist’s eyes, it looked like he hadn’t slept either. “What is it about you? Of all the people he could have chosen, why you? What have you done to inspire such loyalty?”
Arthur didn’t answer, partly out of defiance, but mostly because he had absolutely no idea. He’d been asking himself the same questions for hours.
“I mean, he certainly doesn’t do it for the glory…You haven’t offered him power or riches or even recognition for anything he’s done—I mean, he’s still your servant—yet he’s so sure you’re the Once and Future King and he’s completely, unswervingly loyal to you.”
Once and Future King. Merlin had called him that before, Arthur thought with a pang. Earlier, when they were eating, but long before that as well. He had always suspected it was a longer, more elegant way of calling him a prat. Now he wondered if it meant something else.
“However did you manage to convince him so thoroughly to do so much for you? What sort of hold do you have on him?”
“Maybe if you hadn’t killed him, he could have told you,” Arthur said bitterly.
“Ah, but he’s not dead.”
Arthur’s heart soared within his chest, and he could barely feel the wall behind him. “He’s—he’s alive?”
“Oh, yes. Just barely. And let me tell you, it took no small amount of skill to keep him that way. Not awake yet, but that’s probably for the best until I’ve finished preparing the draft. But you haven’t answered my question.”
“Why Merlin?” Arthur demanded. “If you needed a sorcerer, why go for one who clearly wants nothing to do with you?”
“Because I don’t need a sorcerer. I need Emrys.”
“What’s an Emrys?”
Gwil sighed and drew out a knife. Arthur tensed. Gwil was here to kill him, then.
The knife pressed into Arthur’s cheekbone, just short of drawing blood. “Explain it, Pendragon. I want an answer. He knows you hate his kind. He knows you would have had him killed if you had ever realized what he was—”
“I would not.”
Gwil’s lip curled into a sneer. “Banishment, then. Exile.”
Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but suddenly he thought of Guinevere’s face on that night. He remembered the fury that had twisted his soul at the betrayal. He had banished her. He’d regretted it immediately, but he had still banished her. Would he have done that to Merlin? Could he have banished his best friend?
He didn’t want to know the answer.
“Or something else, maybe,” Gwil mused. Arthur felt the blade slide up his cheekbone, past his eye and forehead and into his hairline. “Imprisonment? That would work far better…”
Arthur swallowed. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it.”
Gwil flicked his wrist, making Arthur flinch. But no blade had pierced his skin—instead, Gwil snipped a lock of hair from his head.
“Don’t worry, Pendragon. That comes later.”
He pulled the knife away and strode towards the cell door without looking back.
Arthur eased himself off the wall as soon as the door shut and he was freed. He hurried to the door and leaned next to where he had made deep grooves next to the hinges in what seemed like another lifetime ago.
He had no knife. But he had to find a way to escape. He had to find Merlin and get him out of here and tell him that he forgave him for all the lies.
And then beg forgiveness for himself. Because he knew now that he owed Merlin so much. He had no idea exactly what Merlin had done for him, but he didn’t need to know specifics. Merlin was his friend, and he needed him, and that was enough.
If he could just get through the blasted door…He pounded on it with his fists, more to feel like he was doing something than anything else. If he only had another knife, or a sword, or something…
He looked at his own arm against the door. More specifically, at the armor on his arm and shoulder.
Minutes of awkward bending, pulling, twisting, and wrenching later, Arthur’s armor was off and wedged into the grooves he’d made earlier in the door.
He was going to find Merlin and get him out of here, or so help him, he would die trying.
Arthur had no idea how long he’d been sitting there, grinding his way through the door with the pieces of his armor, but eventually, he weakened it enough for the hinge to creak so loudly, the whole building must have heard. Arthur cursed, then stood and flexed his raw fingers. Hopefully, that was enough.
It had to be. Merlin was counting on him.
He braced himself on the wall opposite from the door. Then he charged, threw his shoulder at the door as hard as he could, and tumbled with it across the threshold.
Arthur grunted at the impact, but he didn’t need to worry about anyone hearing him. No, the crash of the heavy door hitting the ground covered his grunt quite nicely.
Adrenaline pumping, he got to his feet as quickly as he could. Someone would have heard that. Which way should he run?
Left, probably. That was the way both he and Merlin had been taken before. It stood to reason Merlin was still somewhere in that direction. He headed left, bracing himself for when he inevitably ran into a guard.
He turned the corner in time to meet his first opponent. The guard drew his sword, mouth opening to shout—
Arthur launched himself forward feet first, slamming straight into the guard’s solar plexus. The kick sent the guard crashing into the wall, where his head snapped back into the stone with a horrible crack.
Blood pounding from the exhilaration of a fight, Arthur plucked up the fallen man’s sword and twirled it around experimentally. His mouth set in a grim smile. It was good to have a weapon again.
Merlin woke gradually, with an odd taste in his mouth and a voice in his ear.
The air stung his throat, and his head felt curiously fuzzy. He lifted his head slowly, and opened his eyes slower still. A gut-wrenching moan passed his lips as the light hit him.
“Merlin, wake up.”
Shapes formed, blurry at first, then sharper. And in front of him was…
Merlin jerked to attention in his chair, a rush of giddy hope overcoming the dizziness from doing so. It didn’t matter that the world was spinning or that his insides felt like they were tearing him apart or that his magic was contorting as it tried to escape. Every pain was forgotten, every trace of despair gone. There was nothing but pure, unadulterated joy, because Arthur was alive.
“Arthur, you’re…I thought…”
“Then I did it.” Merlin felt light and unburdened, buoyed by the knowledge that he hadn’t failed, that Arthur wasn’t dead. “I did it, it worked, I saved you. You’re alive!”
“Yes,” Arthur said shortly.
Merlin laughed out loud, a dry, raspy laugh that quickly turned into a cough and sent spikes of agony through his head and down his chest, but that did not dampen his elation. He’d done it—he’d saved Arthur, kept the prat alive through one more danger, and on top of that, he’d even managed to survive as well.
Then something occurred to him. “But, wait, how…?”
“Quiet, they’ll hear you,” Arthur hissed. He looked pointedly at the door.
Merlin obediently took several deep breaths to try and calm himself, then had to stifle his coughs as he choked on the smoke.
“I said quiet. Now hold still.”
Arthur moved around to the back of the chair, and Merlin could hear jangling. That was good. The jangling was good. It meant keys. How had Arthur gotten keys? There was something missing here, something important, if he could just think through the aching fog in his mind…
All thoughts were immediately driven from his head as Arthur unlocked the shackles on his wrists. Merlin, clinging onto Arthur’s last order to be quiet out of happiness that the king was alive to give it, barely restrained himself from screaming. The shackles blazed excruciatingly hot for a brief moment, then were gone. Blinking away tears, Merlin flexed his fingers. A gentle power started to trickle through them, pulsing with excitement.
He only had a moment to appreciate it before Arthur was unlocking the larger chains. He nearly bit his lips clean off trying not to make a sound, and still let out a huge gasp when the chain finally came free, like his whole being had been holding its breath and was just now able to let it out.
His magic thundered through him, pouring out of his skin in a rush of golden light, warming his fingers and toes and rushing to fight the fuzzy wrongness in his head. He tumbled out of the chair onto his hands and knees as the chains released. Then his magic slowed to something like a limp, as if it were injured. It probably was—being suppressed like that couldn’t possibly be healthy.
Merlin stayed there in a crawl for a moment, trying to remember how to breathe without enormous weights wrapped around his chest. He felt…not quite whole again, but so much better. Hurt, yes, damaged, yes, but hopeful. Arthur was alive and as soon as Merlin got them both out of here, he could sleep and recover and everything was going to be alright.
Arthur moved in front of him, and Merlin started to push himself to his feet—
Only to have Arthur’s boot crash into his shoulder, sending him sprawling back to the floor with a grunt.
“Did I say you could rise, you idiot?”
There was no relief, no fondness, no concern, no teasing, no trace of friendliness in Arthur’s tone.
Merlin started to get up once more, rubbing his sore shoulder where Arthur had kicked him. “Arthur, what—”
Arthur kicked him again. Shoulder throbbing painfully, Merlin gazed up from the floor in absolute bewilderment.
Arthur towered over him, looking down at him with a regal hint of disgust. “You will address me properly, sorcerer. Did I say you could rise?”
The words hit Merlin like a physical blow. His euphoria at seeing Arthur alive, at feeling his magic again, died in an instant. He swallowed, shakily got to his knees, and directed his stinging eyes to the floor. “N-No, my lord.”
Arthur said nothing, but Merlin could feel the king watching him, as if waiting for him to try to get up again. Sobs were forming in the back of his throat. Arthur knew. He knew, and he hated him.
Merlin raised his gaze, but didn’t dare look straight into the king’s face. “I’m—I’m sorry. I tried to tell you so many times—”
“You betrayed me.”
He flinched and looked back at the ground. His voice wobbled as he tried his hardest not to cry. “I didn’t…P-please, I only wanted to p-protect you. I still do. That’s wh-what it’s f-for. For you. And for Camelot. Everything…Everything I did w-was for you, Ar—sire.”
“So you confess, then? You confess to using sorcery in Camelot?”
Merlin’s throat was closing, and his voice came out as barely a whisper. “Yes.”
Merlin didn’t dare look up at Arthur’s face, but he knew what it looked like. Hardened, detached. Judging him. Tears were spilling down his cheeks now, no matter how badly he’d wanted them not to, and he realized Arthur was probably sneering at him, despising him for his weakness.
The only sound for several moments was Merlin’s quiet, ragged sobs. He had imagined how this conversation would go so many times, and now all the worst of them were coming true. There was no sign of his friend in Arthur, just a cold, wrathful king. Arthur wouldn’t forgive him. Arthur hated him. Arthur was alive, but Merlin had still lost him in every way that mattered.
“Am I your king, Merlin?” Arthur asked finally.
“Y-yes, Ar—my l-lord.” Because despite it all, despite the fact that Merlin was sure Arthur hated him, he couldn’t bring himself to hate him back. He had seen too much good in Arthur before, paid the price for him so many times, saved him over and over. He’d dedicated his life, his magic, his soul to serving him. He’d bound himself so tightly to Arthur that even now he knew he’d still do anything the king asked of him.
“I’m not going to kill you.”
Merlin hadn’t expected him to. Arthur was a good man, beneath his prejudices. Still, hearing it confirmed made hope catch in his throat. Maybe, just maybe, Arthur would still forgive him.
“At least, not yet. Seeing how…effective you can be at least warrants some more thought. So you’ll remain alive as long as you remain useful. I’ll work out where to keep you once we reach Camelot. For now, you can be useful by getting me out of here. You may rise.”
Whatever relief Merlin felt turned numb. Keep him? Arthur was going to…keep him. Like a pet. Locked in the dungeons, like... Like what Uther had done to the Great Dragon. Keep him locked up and alone, to be summoned only if Arthur needed advice on defeating a sorcerer. Or maybe Arthur would actually let him out to fight whenever magical attacks came, then send him back, like a sword being put neatly away in the armory. Or maybe he’d just leave him there, in the dark, chained and cut off from his magic and everyone he loved.
Something inside Merlin broke. He stayed kneeling on the floor, unable to move, his entire soul consumed with grief.
“I said rise, you incompetent idiot. You said you wanted to protect me? Well, get on and do it! If you even can.”
Slowly, as if every movement cost him dearly, Merlin rose to his feet and turned to the door. He could feel despair threatening to overwhelm his exhausted body, but shoved it aside. He could mourn later, when Arthur was safe. Protecting Arthur always came first.
“Go on, sorcerer,” Arthur hissed in a merciless taunt. “Prove you’re worth keeping by my side.”
Merlin listlessly stretched forth his hand. The cell door blasted off its hinges.
Merlin took in a deep, sucking breath, ignoring the burn at the back of his throat. “This w-way, sire,” he whispered, trying to keep his voice steady as he stepped through the doorway.
Behind him, Arthur’s lips twisted in a cruel smile.
Arthur strode through the darkened halls confidently but cautiously. If Merlin was still nearby where Gwil had taken them before, then he should be getting close. On the other hand, finding Merlin probably meant encountering more guards. The king’s grip tightened on his stolen sword, all his pent-up rage from the last few days churning in his stomach and broiling in his blood. He almost hoped he ran into Gwil on the way.
He heard shuffling feet around the next corner, and tensed in anticipation. But it wasn’t Gwil or a guard who turned the corner.
Arthur felt sick just looking at him. Merlin’s skin was deathly pale, and he swayed unsteadily, chest heaving with the effort to breathe. Patches of his jacket and even parts of his shirt had been burned straight through so Arthur could see raw, scarred flesh underneath. But worst of all were his eyes, dulled and almost lifeless. As if Merlin had lost the will to live.
“Merlin,” Arthur repeated in disbelief, stepping towards him. Merlin’s breath hitched, and he raised his hands in front of himself threateningly. His sleeves slid up and Arthur could see bubbling burns wrapped around his wrists as if he were still bound.
“Stay back,” Merlin warned. Although the rest of him looked weak, his voice came in strong. “I’m taking Arthur and we’re leaving and you can’t stop me.”
Arthur lowered his sword and held out his free hand. “Merlin—”
“Move,” Merlin said coldly. His palms glowed.
Behind Merlin, Gwil turned the corner, stopping just behind Merlin’s shoulder. His eyes landed on Arthur and lit up. “Ah. So you managed to escape. Too late, I’m afraid. Well, we can test him out here just as well as in the cell, I suppose. Oh, this is going to be fun.”
Alarmed, Arthur raised his sword again and rushed forward. “Behind you!”
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold and Arthur was slammed back into the wall with a shout. His sword clattered to the floor.
“Very good, Merlin,” Gwil said. “Looks like I was right to let you live.”
Arthur staggered, trying to ignore the way his head was spinning. “Merlin, what are you doing?”
“Fulfilling his destiny,” Gwil informed him delightedly. “Protecting the Once and Future King. Me.”
Arthur stared in horror at Merlin, who looked utterly defeated. Then the king reached for his hair, the truth dawning on him. “The hair…you made him think you’re me.”
“Who do you think you are, questioning the king of Camelot? The king of Albion?” said Gwil with a smirk that confirmed all of Arthur’s suspicions.
“What have you done to him?”
“Nothing. He’s the one who’s sworn to protect me. My own personal pet guard dog.” He put a hand on Merlin’s bad shoulder and squeezed possessively. “Or should I say, pet warlock.”
Merlin flinched, and Arthur seethed. He bent to retrieve his blade. “I’ll kill you.”
Merlin adjusted himself so that his body was fully blocking Gwil from Arthur. “No! If you’re going to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first.”
Gwil peeked around Merlin’s shoulder, grinning wickedly at Arthur. “Finish him off, Merlin. Your king commands you.”
Merlin extended his palm out, straight at Arthur.
“Merlin, stop!” Arthur cried desperately. He dropped his sword and raised his hands in surrender. “Listen to me. You’re…enchanted or something. He did something to you. It’s me.”
The glow collecting in Merlin’s palm and in his eyes faded, and the warlock blinked. “Ar…Arthur? But I…”
“What are you doing, you imbecile?” Gwil snapped. “I gave you an order. Now kill him!”
Merlin hesitated, blinking hard in confusion at the real Arthur. “But he’s…but you’re…”
“I’m starting to fear you’re not as loyal to me as you claimed. Kill the imposter, sorcerer, or I’ll keep you somewhere worse than the dungeons when we return to Camelot.”
“You’ll do what?” Arthur said, words dripping with quiet rage.
“Ak…” Merlin trailed off. He was trembling, staring at Arthur with almost, but not quite, recognition. “Akwe…”
Arthur felt a burst of hope. Merlin was fighting whatever Gwil had done to him, even if he didn’t realize it. He had to get through to him somehow.
The king swallowed hard, and slowly lowered himself onto his knees, hands still up in surrender. “Merlin,” Arthur said, his voice breaking. “Please. I’m your friend. I understand why you lied, and I forgive you. I am so sorry. I swear, you will never have to live in fear again.”
Merlin stared back at him, tears falling freely down his face. “That’s…That’s everything I ever wanted to hear you say.”
Arthur’s heart leapt. He’d gotten through to him!
But then Merlin’s gaze hardened. “And Gwil knows that. The real Arthur would never say that.”
Arthur recoiled as if Merlin had physically punched him. “Merlin, no, I…”
“Bael onbryne! Akwele!”
Arthur rolled as enormous fireballs scorched the ground where he’d been less than a second before. He barely had time to recover before he was forced to dodge another blast. He bolted without any destination in mind besides away from the flames Merlin launched after him, licking at his heels, sending sparks flying as it hit the wall directly behind him.
Merlin was trying to kill him.
Merlin was trying to kill him.
Because Merlin was trying to protect him. Even when he thought Arthur was treating him like dirt.
Maybe he had.
His heart galloping in his chest, Arthur screeched to a halt as a wall of fire cut off his way forward. With another quick blast, Merlin blocked his way backward as well.
Surrounded by flames on his sides and the wall at his back, Arthur turned to face Merlin, who stood with hands outstretched, eyes blazing gold. The king gasped smoke-filled breaths as he felt the crackling heat on his face. He was going to die without a sword in his hand, die in a fiery inferno, burned like the countless sorcerers his father had put to death. Like Merlin would have been.
Suddenly, Merlin’s golden gaze jerked upwards. Arthur didn’t have time to see what he was looking at before the wall and ceiling collapsed on him, pummeling the breath straight from his lungs as he fell to the floor in a mess of dirt, stones, and rubble. Something landed hard on his leg, and he screamed soundlessly, choking on dust.
When the collapse stopped, Arthur moaned. Sharp pain spiraled up his leg, and he wasn’t sure if he could move his toes. Of course, buried as he was up to his chest, he couldn’t move much else right now either.
He coughed on more dust before he looked up to see Merlin looming over him, hand pointed directly at his face.
For a long moment, Arthur and Merlin both looked at each other, Arthur shaking with pain and waiting for death, Merlin standing tall and impassive.
But then, Merlin lowered his hand, and his golden eyes dimmed back to a familiar blue, although their usual brightness was dimmed by despair.
“This way, my lord,” Merlin said quietly as he strode away from Arthur.
Arthur stared up at the warlock’s retreating back incredulously. Merlin had spared him. Why? Did he realize who he was attacking?
Gwil, who had been watching this entire exchange with utter glee, looked as surprised as Arthur. He glared at Merlin furiously. “Well? Aren’t you going to kill him?”
Merlin’s voice sounded lost as he shuffled around the rubble. “This…doesn’t feel right. And we need to get out of here—”
“I’ll decide what feels right, sorcerer! I want him dead!”
“Something’s telling me we shouldn’t…Besides, he can’t hurt us, and the exit’s close; I can feel it. We should leave before more guards come—”
“I give the orders!” Gwil spat. “And I want him dead!”
Merlin flinched as Gwil pointed his sword at him. “No, Arthur, this isn’t you, you don’t want to be like this—”
“And who are you to tell me what to do, sorcerer?” Gwil demanded. “I want him dead, do you hear me? I want him to pay. I want him to writhe on the floor at my feet. I want him to suffer for all the trouble he’s caused me. Now kill him!”
Merlin bowed his head, sucked in a deep breath, and took the smallest of steps forward. “Arthur, you’re better than this. I know you’re better than this. Please. Don’t throw away everything you’ve become. Don’t let your hatred consume you. Don’t be like Uther—”
Arthur saw the punch coming, and he knew Merlin did too. Merlin simply made no attempt to move out of the way as Gwil’s fist connected with his cheek.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled instinctively as the warlock hit the ground. Arthur reached out towards him, but he was still pinned under a mound of rubble. The movement sent a fresh jolt of pain up his leg.
Merlin rolled onto his side but did not rise. One hand gently touched the new bruise already darkening on his pale skin.
Arthur didn’t think about Gwil stepping toward him or the blade glinting in the fading fires. All he saw were Merlin’s eyes, empty and devoid of all hope.
Arthur looked into those eyes and said firmly, “Merlin, I am not my father.”
He saw Merlin’s eyes flicker before Gwil stepped in front of him. The king craned his neck to look up as the sword swung down at him.
“Obrinde, cume mec.”
An invisible rope yanked Arthur out from under the rubble like a tablecloth yanked out from under a stack of dishes. He zoomed straight between Gwil’s legs with a cry of pain, only stopping when he collided with Merlin.
Gwil’s sword planted in the rubble where Arthur’s head had been a moment earlier, making the alchemist overbalance. The room trembled at the impact as the already unsteady section of the cave collapsed even further and swallowed Gwil in an onslaught of stones and dirt.
Gritting his teeth with pain, Arthur pushed himself over Merlin to shield him from the collapsing ceiling. Dust rained down upon them, but the ceiling itself did not crumble completely.
Arthur pulled away, keeping his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “Merlin.”
Merlin didn’t respond, still staring past him at where Gwil had vanished, as if not quite comprehending what had just happened.
Arthur shook him gently. “Merlin?”
Merlin’s eyes snapped towards him, and they were filled with terror. “Ar-Arthur?…Arthur, please, I’m sorry I lied, I…please don’t kill—”
“Merlin, I could never kill you. You’re like the brother I never had.”
“But…But I lied. I lied to you for years…”
“I know.” Arthur swallowed. “I understand. I forgive you.”
In response, Merlin shoved him away, rolled over onto his hands and knees, and vomited all over the floor. Arthur flinched, then after a long moment awkwardly patted his back, waiting for him to finish.
When the sorcerer—warlock, Gwil had called him, he’d have to ask about that later—was done, there was a black goo all over the stone, pulsing like a dark heartbeat.
“What is that?” Arthur demanded, as Merlin pushed himself away from…whatever it was.
“Poison,” Merlin said, chest still heaving, “Whatever he gave me, mostly, I think, plus exposure to all that smoke…Oh, my head…Arthur, are you alright?”
“Am I—Am I alright?!” Arthur repeated incredulously.
Merlin squinted at him. “It…It is you, right? Yes. It has to be you, the poison’s gone, my head’s clear, it has to be you, please let it be you…I think I almost killed you. Oh, fie, I almost killed you, you must hate me, you do hate me…”
“Merlin? Merlin, I told you, I don’t hate you, alright? Just…calm down. Shut up and calm down…”
Merlin nodded, still muttering to himself. “Yes. Him. Found the prat. Has to be. Get outside…Arthur, we’ve got to get outside.”
Arthur shut his eyes and tried to flex his toes. The motion made him bite back a scream. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. He wasn’t going to be going anywhere.
“Alright, Merlin, listen to me. I can’t walk—”
“What do you mean you can’t—”
“—So you’re going to have to leave me here and get yourself out. I want you to run away from here as fast as you can.”
But Merlin had stopped listening about halfway through. “Your leg. What…Did I…”
Arthur grimaced. “Crushed in the cave-in. You know, if you were trying to kill me, you did a very shoddy job.”
Arthur waved a hand. “So if you won’t listen to me as a king, then listen to me as a friend and please, just go. Save yourself.”
Merlin pursed his lips and crawled over to look at Arthur’s leg. “No, don’t be thick. I’m not leaving. Protect you or die at your side.”
“But I don’t want you to d—AAUGH!”
“Sorry, sorry!” said Merlin hastily, removing his hand from Arthur’s leg. He hesitated a moment. “And…and sorry about this. Ic haele thina throwunga, gehalge.”
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold. Before Arthur could say anything else, he shouted as he felt his leg snap. Then Merlin’s hand was on his face, and he was whispering more words, and Arthur tried to jerk away—
Merlin’s hand rested on his shoulder as gold faded to blue. “You alright?” he said worriedly.
“I…Yeah.” Arthur curled his toes in amazement. His leg hadn’t snapped; it had snapped back together. And the dull pain that had been radiating through his head since Trent had hit him had vanished.
“Oh, good. Glad that worked. I’m usually rubbish at healing spells.”
“You, rubbish at something? I’m not surprised.”
Merlin grinned and actually laughed, the kind of unhinged laugh that Arthur recognized. The same kind of laugh he himself had laughed after he slayed the Great Dragon, borne of relief, exhaustion, and hysteria.
Arthur thought of how bizarre all this was—Merlin, fixing him with magic after magically throwing fire at him—and started to laugh too. It was just so absurd and they’d both almost died and this was all ridiculous.
Merlin’s laughs had just started to turn to sobs when he pitched forward, and Arthur lunged to catch him.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked, panic edging into his voice.
“Sorry…sorry…I’m a bit…”
“Are you injured?” Immediately Arthur realized what a stupid question that was—Merlin was covered with burns and bruises and blood and who knew what else.
“Sort of…my magic’s…Can’t believe I’m talking to you about this…”
“What do you mean ‘sort of’?”
“I think my magic’s injured. The chains were sort of…crushing it and…We need to get outside.”
Arthur could tell Merlin was avoiding the subject, but he also knew he was right. Guards could be by any second. He quickly got to his feet, then pulled Merlin up.
Merlin swayed, but did not fall. His eyes were fixed on some unseeable point in the distance, and lit up gold.
Arthur, who had neither the time nor energy to fathom what Merlin was doing, hurried over to the mound of rubble and prodded the pile with his fingers.
“What are you doing?” asked Merlin, apparently returned from his magical…whatever.
“The sword…” Where had he dropped the blasted thing? He needed something to defend them with.
A hand burst from the rubble and snatched his wrist. Instantly, Merlin’s hand was on Arthur’s shoulder, yanking him away and out of reach.
Both men watched in horror as Gwil’s head emerged, spitting dirt and screaming, “Guards! GUARDS!”
“Merlin, shut him up, shut him up!”
Dirt slid to cover Gwil back up, but it was too late. Arthur could hear the stomp of approaching boots.
Merlin tugged Arthur away from the rubble. “Arthur, we have to go—”
“We’ll never outrun them! I need a sword!”
Merlin shoved Arthur in front of him down the hall. “That’s what I’m for, you prat, now run.”
“You’re not in any condition to fight,” Arthur protested.
Merlin proved his point a moment later by collapsing. Arthur wrenched him back to his feet.
“Just…get…outside.” Merlin begged.
“Fine, but you’re coming with me—”
“Astrice!” Merlin shouted as three guards blocked their path. All three men went flying, but Arthur didn’t bother waiting to see if they got back up again. He wrapped Merlin’s arm around his shoulders. Leaning on each other, they both staggered down the hall, fighting their way through mercenaries. Or at least, Merlin fought. Arthur just concentrated on half-carrying, half-dragging Merlin down the hall.
“Forp fleoge—Door—that way—” Merlin gasped. His face was almost gray. Even the gold in his eyes didn’t seem quite as bright as it had been before.
It didn’t even matter, Arthur wanted to scream at him. Just because they set foot outside didn’t mean the guards would stop pursuing or that they’d be any less dead when the guards reached them. But without a weapon, there wasn’t anything else he could do except keep Merlin standing, keep Merlin fighting, all the while watching as Merlin’s spells grew less and less effective, as his head struggled to stay up. Soon he was not uttering any words at all, although the men chasing them bounced away when they got too close.
“Almost there, Merlin, just hold on…”
At last, Arthur spotted what looked like the set of stairs leading up, guarded by a line of men armed with crossbows. He didn’t even pause, just charged straight towards them, Merlin in tow.
Sure enough, although Merlin didn’t utter a word, all the arrows spun around in midair and flew back at the men who shot them. The door at the top of the stairs popped open at Arthur’s touch, and Arthur was blinded for a moment by the light of the setting sun—
Merlin stumbled over the threshold and went crashing down, bringing Arthur down with him. Letting loose a growl of frustration, Arthur hauled them both back upright and away from the hovel hiding the cavern.
Merlin’s eyes were barely open and his feet were barely running, so Arthur almost dropped him in surprise when Merlin suddenly let loose a loud, guttural bellow.
“O drakon! Boedromeo, oxupetes! Hupeksaoo Artur, abaskantos! Soo koiranos, soo Artur, soo hee!”
And with that, Merlin’s eyes rolled into his head, and his legs finally gave out.
Arthur tripped over Merlin’s suddenly limp legs and went sprawling. He spared a glance back to see the swarm of guards pouring out of the door, and his heart sank. He’d assumed a spell of the length Merlin had just uttered would have done something drastic, but apparently nothing had happened. And now the warlock was too drained to fight, just dead weight.
Arthur gritted his teeth. Well, he’d keep the “dead” part untrue, at least, for as long as possible. Dragging Merlin along from under the armpits, Arthur half-ran, half-crawled away as fast as he could towards the shelter of the trees a short distance away. But he didn’t get very far before his own legs collapsed from underneath him, the days without food or water finally taking their toll.
He shoved himself between his friend and the dozen mercenaries a stone’s throw away and for the thousandth time wished he had a sword. He had maybe twenty more seconds to live, and he intended to spend every one of them defending Merlin.
A shadow passed over them, blotting out the shrinking sun, and fire rained down from the heavens.
Wondering if he was already dead, Arthur shielded his eyes and looked up.
A dragon—a dragon—was descending from the sky, eyes glittering with golden wrath as it roared.
Arthur threw himself over Merlin, trying to shield his friend from as much of the flames as possible and covering his own face as the dragon scorched the earth black.
Heat crackled at the back of his neck. He heard mercenaries screaming as they roasted where they stood and braced himself to be cooked alive.
But the last scream faded, and Arthur heard the gentle flapping of wings. He cracked his eyes open to see if it was safe to move.
The dragon landed next to him, looking down its long snout at him as if it had encountered a bug in its soup.
“Climb on,” the dragon ordered tersely in human speech.
Arthur clung to Merlin, unwilling to budge from his spot between his friend and this new threat.
“I’m waiting, Pendragon.”
Arthur’s hand reached reflexively at an absent sword. “Stay—Stay away from him,” he said hoarsely.
The dragon huffed through its enormous nostrils. “I have orders to rescue you, and I will follow them. Whether you cooperate or not is up to you.”
“The warlock,” the dragon added.
Arthur’s grip on Merlin tightened. “You’ll have to kill me before you touch him.”
“Do not speak of that which you do not understand!” the dragon snarled.
“Explain it, then!” Arthur demanded with a touch of hysteria. He was arguing with a dragon. How was he not dead? He wondered if he had actually gone mad. Maybe he had hit his head again, one time too many. Maybe he was still locked up and Merlin wasn’t magic and a dragon was not actually talking to him.
Suddenly, the dragon reared its head with a roar that seemed to make the very earth tremble. But the dragon was not looking at Arthur.
The king followed the dragon’s gaze to the other end of the clearing, and his throat went dry. “Morgana?”
Morgana gawked at the dragon open-mouthed before her gaze landed on Arthur. The two siblings stared at each other for a moment before Morgana noticed Merlin in Arthur’s arms. For a split second, she looked bewildered, almost vulnerable at the sight of him. Then her whole face lit up with fury and sudden understanding. “EMRYS!” she shrieked.
The wind swirled with thunderous force as Morgana advanced towards them, her mouth curled up in a snarl and her eyes like two burning pyres in the fading light.
Arthur weighed his options, and hurriedly dragged Merlin onto the dragon. The beast hurled fire in Morgana’s direction, but she dissipated the flames harmlessly with a wave as she screeched harsh syllables Arthur didn’t understand.
He had barely wrapped the arm not clinging to Merlin around one of the spikes on the dragon’s back when the dragon took to the air.
The ground rushed away from them, the dragon’s powerful wings beat in a steady rhythm, and Arthur could think of few times when he’d been this utterly paralyzed with terror.
A bolt of red light shot towards them, and the dragon curved elegantly to avoid it. Arthur lost his grip on the dragon and nearly slid off, bringing Merlin down with him. Lurching desperately, he locked his arms in a hug around both Merlin and the spike. Merlin’s head lolled on his shoulder as Arthur squeezed his eyes shut.
Morgana’s shrieks echoed in his ears as the dragon flew them into the darkening sky.
Old English / Spells
Bael onbryne! Akwele! = On burning fire! Destroy!
bebyrge = bury
Forp fleoge = fly forth
Obrinde, cume mec = Bring in, come to me.
Gehalge = Heal together.
Ic haele thina throwunga = I cure your sufferings.
Ancient Greek / Dragonspeak
O drakon = O dragon
boēdromeō = run to a cry of aid, hasten to help.
oxupetēs = flying speedily
hupeksaoō = save from under/ rescue
abaskantos = secure against enchantments, free from harm
soo = save/preserve
koiranos = king
hee = him
O drakon! Boedromeo, oxupetes! Hupeksaoō Artur, abaskantos. Soo koiranos, soo Artur, soo hee! = O dragon! Hasten to help, fly speedily! Rescue Arthur, free him from harm/secure him against enchantments. Save the king, save Arthur, save him!
Many thanks to Leahelisabeth of Fanfiction.net for helping to improve the Greek.
Chapter 9: The Guiding Light
Arthur didn’t know how long it was before the dragon finally landed, but it was with great relief that he slid off its back to the ground, Merlin in his arms. He would never take the earth’s solid presence beneath his feet for granted again.
He carefully laid Merlin on the ground to inspect his injuries. The warlock was still unconscious. His jacket had been burned through in so many places that it had disintegrated during the flight, but his shirt and neckerchief were still holding together. In the dim moonlight, Arthur could still see the scorched red marks seared into Merlin’s skin through the threadbare spots in his shirt, even darker in contrast with his deathly pale, almost ashen skin.
The dragon, Arthur abruptly realized, was still behind him, watching him curiously with those eyes gold enough to pierce the darkness, as if waiting for him to say something. Arthur turned to face it. He could feel his knees shaking, and briefly wondered whether it was with fear or exhaustion. Probably both.
“I thought I killed you.” Immediately he winced at what a horrible conversation-starter that was, but it was too late to take it back now.
The dragon snorted. “Whatever gave you that impression?”
“Merlin told—” Arthur swallowed. Merlin had told him he’d defeated the dragon. Of course he’d lied. Merlin had lied about a lot of things. How had Arthur never realized? Of course he’d known before that Merlin lied—but badly, about where he’d been or what he’d been doing. Not big things. Not important things.
Ignoring the twinge of betrayal, Arthur asked, “Why are you helping us?”
“Because you both have a great destiny before you that has yet to be fulfilled…and because my lord ordered it.”
“…But…But I didn’t…”
“I am not referring to you, Pendragon.”
Arthur glanced down at Merlin for a moment, incredulity creeping back into him. “Merlin? But…” How in the name of Camelot had Merlin become a dragonlord? And if he was, why hadn’t he kept the dragon from attacking Camelot sooner?!
Arthur took a deep breath. He could deal with that later. Right now, he needed to focus on getting Merlin to safety. And if he needed this dragon to do it, so be it. Gathering his courage, Arthur spoke to the dragon again. “He needs help. Take us back to Camelot...Please.”
The dragon shook his head slightly. “I cannot. Though I have been ordered to defend Camelot, I am forbidden from returning without direct order after my…regrettable behavior.”
Arthur’s fists clenched at his sides, and he forgot he was facing a dangerous magical beast, forgot that he needed this creature. “You killed my men!”
“I did, and I apologize. It was Uther I meant to kill.”
“Do you know how many men died? How many citizens? Innocent people!”
“I’m aware. Merlin…lectured me quite thoroughly.”
Arthur’s anger increased with every word, the thoughts he’d shoved down quickly returning to the surface. “Why didn’t he stop you sooner?! He and I left Camelot to go find a dragonlord, do you realize that? We wasted days trying to find one, and all that time he could have just—”
“He could not. Dragonlord abilities are passed from father to son, and are only inherited upon the father’s death.”
Arthur felt the wrath bubbling inside him collapse. It had been years since the quest to find the last dragonlord and most of the details had long since faded from his mind, paling in comparison to the vivid memories of the havoc wreaked on Camelot, but one puzzling image had stuck through all that time: Merlin, holding the dying dragonlord in his arms, looking like the world had ended.
Arthur found it difficult to speak. “But he…that was his…but I told him not to cry.”
Merlin was a better liar than he could ever have guessed. Arthur went over what he remembered from the dragon’s attack years ago, and despaired at how little he recalled of anything that might have been important. He remembered the relief at the dragon’s defeat, the weeks spent repairing the castle and lower town, the funerals he’d spoken at. But of Merlin? Had he seemed sadder, more distant during that time? Had he snuck off to mourn? Arthur couldn’t remember. All he could remember was that Merlin had thrown himself into the reconstruction effort and had stayed by his side, comforted him after he’d lost so many men. Comforted Arthur, after his own father had died right in front of him…
Merlin made a funny, wheezing sort of sound, and Arthur immediately turned his attention toward the unconscious man. Merlin’s chest rose slightly, lowered, rose, lowered—
And didn’t rise again.
“Merlin,” Arthur said panickedly. He sunk to his knees and shook him. “No, Merlin, you magic idiot, I can’t lose you, not now, breathe—”
For the first time, Arthur saw the dragon look concerned. “Stand aside, Pendragon.”
Arthur curled protectively around Merlin. “I’m not letting you kill him.”
“He is the last of my kin. I do not want him dead. Now let me see him.”
Fighting every instinct, Arthur inched away. He eyed the dragon warily. “Can you save him?”
“I can heal his wounds, yes. Stand back.”
Arthur reluctantly retreated back a few more steps, eyes flitting between the too-still Merlin and the dragon. Merlin he trusted, trusted even though he knew it was foolish to trust such a liar, but this dragon…who was to say it wouldn’t take advantage of its master’s weakness? And why was the dragon opening its mouth?
Arthur realized what the dragon was going to do a split second beforehand. “NO!”
But in the moment before Arthur dived, Merlin was entirely engulfed in glittering flames. The king threw his arms in front of his face to protect against the blinding heat that was obliterating Merlin—
The flames stopped, and Arthur lowered his arms, bracing himself to see what was left of his friend.
But Merlin was not ash; he was still lying there, unconscious but breathing.
Arthur rushed over to kneel by his side. The bruises around Merlin’s neck were gone, the cut on his cheek and dozens of small nicks had vanished, and the slightest bit of color had returned to his face. The burns were still there, but they had faded, as if they had been there for weeks instead of days.
Merlin’s body suddenly seized with coughing, dark smoke spurting out of his mouth as if he’d swallowed a pyre.
“Merlin? Merlin?” Arthur tried, but Merlin’s eyes remained shut. When the last of the smoke dissipated, his body took a deep, shuddering breath, and his chest resumed a slow, steady rise and fall. He looked almost asleep now, rather than dead. Arthur gently brushed his fingertips near the edges of one of the healing burns.
“He’ll live,” the dragon said. “Those are injuries of dark magic. They should fade as he rests and his magic recovers.”
“So he’ll get better?”
“I said he’ll live,” the dragon said sharply. “How did he get into this condition?”
Arthur swallowed. “We were captured…they bound him with these chains that burned him and had some of those magic symbols scratched into it.”
“So they cut him off from his magic.” The dragon looked utterly furious.
“…But he could still use it. He saved me, he blocked a sword.”
“Of course he could still use it! Magic is a part of his very essence. It can hardly be stopped by something as primitive as runes.”
“But then why didn’t he just…magic us out?”
The dragon gazed down, golden eyes fixed on Merlin with a tenderness that seemed disturbing coming from a beast that had slaughtered so many of Arthur’s people. “Stopped, no, but slowed. A sheathed sword can still do damage, but it takes far more effort to do so. Effort that cost him dearly.”
Arthur scowled. “What does that even mean? Cost him how? You mean like…” He trailed off, remembering Merlin slumped in his chair, face coated with blood.
The dragon turned, great wings slowly rising. “The dark magic on him reeks of the witch. I fear her power is growing. I must return to my search for Aithusa. It may be even more important than I realized. A missing dragon and an injured dragonlord does not bode well for Camelot, and the two may be connected...”
“Missing—there are more of you?!”
The dragon’s wings beat down, lifting the creature a few feet in the air. “Farewell, King Arthur. Merlin is in your care now. Remember you will need both sides of the coin to fulfill your destinies.”
“Wait, you’re leaving? You can’t leave him like this. He…” Arthur thought frantically, then pointed towards Merlin. “He ordered you to rescue us, and—and do you call that rescued? Look at him!”
“There is no more I can do for him. And he did not order me to rescue him. His orders specifically were to save you. Now again, farewell. Our paths will cross again.”
“No, don’t leave, you stupid dragon, you need to fix him!”
But the dragon’s great wings beat, kicking up enough wind to make Arthur cover his eyes.
“Come back!” Arthur shouted as the dragon flew away. “He’s your lord or something, you can’t just leave! Come back, you stupid…dragon.” He murmured the last word, because by then the dragon was only a speck in the night sky.
Stupid dragon. Stupid Merlin, who wasn’t awake to order it to stay. Who apparently hadn’t even ordered the dragon to save him. Idiot. Had he just forgotten? Had it somehow slipped his mind that perhaps he should order the blasted dragon to make sure he didn’t die?!
Actually, yes, Arthur realized as he started to pace. Merlin had been in such a state that he had probably not thought beyond getting Arthur to safety. That was so bloody Merlin.
Arthur was going to kill him. That is, if the idiot hadn’t killed himself already.
Arthur’s fingers tangled in his hair as he tried to calm down. Kings always handled situations calmly, even when abandoned by supposedly dead magical beasts in bandit-infested forests at night with an injured, possibly dying, suddenly magical-and-yet-not-traitorous friend. So Arthur would be completely calm.
He was exhausted to the point of lunacy, Arthur realized dimly. He hadn’t eaten in days except for the bit of soup and bread given to them in their cell earlier, and he’d been without water for even longer. He had no idea how long it had been since he’d slept, but he estimated it had been at least a day. All the rush of the fight, all his anger and rage and full-blooded terror fueling him as he had escaped with Merlin were gone, leaving him more tired and sore than he had any right to be, the leg that Merlin had healed especially. Merlin had said that he wasn’t the best at healing spells, but Arthur wondered if the lingering pain was simply the result of overexertion on a recently healed wound.
Still, physical exhaustion was something he could deal with, something with which he had plenty of experience. His exhaustion was as much emotional as it was physical. He’d spent the last few days feeling enraged and helpless, and then there had been the waves of alternating betrayal, grief, and fear. Even now, Arthur was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Merlin actually had magic. Half of him wanted to rip Merlin limb from limb for lying to him for so long, and the other half wanted to get him back to Gaius and make sure nothing ever touched him again. And more than anything else, Arthur wanted to go back to Camelot and curl up in his bed in his castle, with Guinevere and a cocoon of a ridiculous amount of pillows, and go back to when life was simple.
But that wasn’t an option. Having finally gotten his breathing under control, Arthur took stock of their situation. Daylight was several hours away. He and Merlin were out in the open, exposed to the bitter beginning-of-winter cold, from which Merlin’s only protection was a threadbare shirt peppered with holes. They were also exposed to any bandits they happened across, not to mention Morgana if—when—she decided to come looking for them. And to top everything off, Arthur had no weapons.
Alright. First step, get Merlin somewhere more easily defendable.
Carefully, he lifted Merlin onto his shoulders, hoping the movement wasn’t somehow hurting him. If it was, Merlin made no sign of it, and his breathing was still steady.
What was Arthur supposed to do if Merlin stopped breathing again?
Arthur pushed the thought away and looked up at the stars. Camelot was…that way. He staggered off in that direction into the trees, cursing how slowly his feet were dragging. Either he was more exhausted than even he himself had guessed, or all those times Merlin had called him fat was him projecting.
Definitely the latter, Arthur decided, because his body was not allowed to give out until they were somewhere safe.
The problem was, the trees were blocking out even more of the limited light, so much that Arthur felt as if he were walking through a cave. Actually, a cave would be brilliant, he thought. A nice, hidden cave where no one would find them, packed with blankets and weapons and food and pillows…
He trudged on through the darkness, trying to keep from bolting like a startled stoat. Every rustle in the trees was an enemy, every movement was Morgana or Gwil. And all of them were after Merlin, because of Emrys…Emrys the dragon apparently. Arthur realized now that must have been what they’d wanted from Merlin. A dragon would be incredibly useful in battle—Morgana could simply sit back and let the dragon destroy Camelot before coming to conquer the remains. After all, the dragon had done an exceptional job of bringing Camelot to its knees before. If Merlin hadn’t been able to stop it last time, Camelot would have been destroyed. Arthur himself would have been dead. He’d gone against that dragon fully expecting to die, only to wake up to find it defeated. Except Merlin had lied about its defeat. Merlin had lied about so much—his magic, the dragon, his father. Had everything Arthur ever known about him been a lie?
No. It couldn’t be. This was Merlin. Merlin who lied all the time, but badly. Except, apparently, about his magic. But even now, looking back, it had been so completely obvious that Arthur wondered if him not noticing was less due to Merlin’s lying abilities and more due to Arthur’s determination that magic was evil and Merlin wasn’t.
And Merlin still wasn’t, Arthur decided. He couldn’t be, because he was Merlin, and if he was evil Arthur would have to kill him, and Arthur could no more do that than chop off his own sword arm.
No, Merlin wasn’t going to die. At least, not if Arthur had anything to say about it.
On his shoulders, Merlin suddenly started to tremble, as if he could sense what Arthur was thinking. Arthur grappled with him in the darkness, trying to keep him from falling off his shoulders.
“Merlin, if you’re just not saying anything because you’re too lazy to walk, I will make you muck out every stable in the castle and the lower town. Without magic.”
“Did you even do your chores with magic? Did you do all of them with magic? Because if you did…”
More silence. Merlin was still trembling—no, shivering. Was that a good sign?
“Fine, then, you lazy buffoon. Have it your way. Off we go.”
Yes, it was a good sign, Arthur decided determinedly. Any sort of movement was a good sign. It had to be.
He traveled farther and a bit faster. Merlin was heavy on his shoulders, reminding Arthur with every step how much he needed to get them somewhere safe now. His speed backfired, however, when he tripped over a tree root in the darkness and went sprawling. Merlin landed on the forest floor with a heavy thud and rolled, and Arthur scrambled to keep him from rolling any further.
At Arthur’s touch, Merlin’s eyes flew open, burning in that alien gold. For the first time, Arthur’s heart leapt at seeing Merlin’s eyes like that, because it meant he was still alive—
But Merlin’s eyes shut again, and Arthur was plunged back into darkness.
“Merlin?” Arthur tried again, trying to pull the warlock back up.
A small ball of blue light swirled into existence in Merlin’s palm. Arthur stared at it, not caring if he ruined his night vision. He recognized that light…
An identical orb started to glow just above Arthur’s head. He looked between it and the one in Merlin’s hand, yet another revelation sinking in. That had been Merlin, back then. Merlin had been there from the beginning, helping him, protecting him, being his friend. Magic or not, that couldn’t have been a lie.
Arthur tried to pull Merlin back onto his shoulders, but then let out a curse as he nearly dropped him again. Finally, he just hefted Merlin up piggyback style and kept staggering on. The night seemed endless, but the ball of light guided him onward through the forest, floating slowly and pausing in its journey often, as if waiting for him to catch up. When he looked down to check for roots, he saw Merlin’s arms dangling over his shoulders, the other blue orb in the warlock’s hand illuminating the ground.
It also let Arthur see the raw skin around Merlin’s wrists, reminding him how badly Merlin was hurt. He wondered if Merlin should even be using his magic right now, although Arthur saw no way to stop him. The dragon had said that Merlin would need time for his magic to recover…
What had Gwil done to him? How exactly did you injure magic? Because that implied that it was part of Merlin, something that could be hurt just as much as an arm or a leg. Hurt or tortured. And Merlin had been tortured, Arthur was sure. Or was the dragon lying, like Merlin had lied about so much else?
Arthur knew he should hate Merlin for all the lies and the magic, but he just couldn’t. Because as much as he didn’t want to, he understood why Merlin had lied. He understood completely, and it hurt.
Merlin shouldn’t have had to lie in the first place. He’d saved Arthur’s life with his magic—and Arthur suspected the glowing ball of light wasn’t the only time. How could it have been, with all the years of battles and attacks and miraculously lucky escapes with Merlin at his side?
And if Merlin really had done all those things, he hadn’t sought any credit. How could he? Uther, if he were still alive, would have had Merlin killed. Arthur’s council now would probably still want Merlin killed, and Arthur felt sick just thinking about it. He’d have to talk to them, change the law…but he couldn’t make an exception for just Merlin. What if there were other people out there like him, people who used magic to protect instead of destroy? People who would have helped the kingdom had Uther not had them executed?
Arthur shuddered as he thought of how many executions Merlin must have witnessed over the years. Arthur had never enjoyed executions the way his father had seemed to; he had just accepted that they were necessary to make the kingdom safe. And though magic was still illegal, Arthur hadn’t actually executed anyone for magic since becoming king. But still…he had never thought seriously about legalizing magic. It went against everything his father had taught him. He remembered how Merlin’s eyes had glowed that unearthly gold. That gold had saved him, but Arthur still found himself involuntarily repulsed.
Merlin and magic just still seemed like such a contradiction, one that Arthur was far too exhausted to reconcile. Merlin was good, and his magic was keeping him alive, and that was good. Everything else they could deal with later. That is, if Merlin made it that far.
The sphere of light hovered a moment by a large tree, then slowly plunged down. Arthur peeked down after it. Where the light had gone, the ground dipped in a sharp slope. The light seemed to go under Arthur’s feet. There must be a hollow of some kind in the side of the cliff, Arthur realized, not visible to anyone standing where he stood now.
He found a less steep slope over a little farther and carefully picked his way down to see his suspicions confirmed. In the blue light, Arthur could see the roots of the massive tree above jutting out of the ground, forming a small, secluded space just large enough for two people.
Gratefully, Arthur set Merlin down on his side in the hidden space. He called his name softly a few times, but the warlock didn’t stir. The small blue sphere in Merlin’s palm glowed steadily, flaring slightly with every inhale, proving that he was still alive.
His shivering had still not stopped, and Arthur could feel the chill himself through his chainmail. In his exhausted haze, Arthur started to collect a few twigs for firewood before realizing that a fire would just draw in Morgana or bandits. But what else was he supposed to do? He didn’t have any blankets, and his cape was in tatters back in the cell…
Suddenly, he got an idea. After a bit of awkward twisting, he managed to get his chainmail off. Underneath was a dark red quilted jacket, used as padding for his chainmail. He took off the jacket and wrapped it around Merlin as tightly as he could manage with his own trembling fingers. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could do.
He tried to bury his chainmail under dirt and leaves to hide it from passing bandits. He felt horribly unprotected now, down to just a shirt with no chainmail or armor or sword, but he didn’t have the energy to put the chainmail back on. The metal probably would have chilled him further anyway. Still, he wished he had something to defend them with.
As he finished hiding the chainmail, his hand bumped into a large stick. He lifted it a moment and gave it a half-hearted swing. Not a sword, but it would do.
Weapon in hand, he sunk to the ground to the left of Merlin—facing out so any would-be attackers would have to go through Arthur first—and curled up against him, back-to-back.
The blue glow pressing against his eyelids dimmed to darkness, sensing it was no longer needed, and Arthur let the exhaustion take him.
Chapter 10: Steel and Spell
Merlin woke up almost…warm and wasn’t sure why. Something was around him, but not those chains…cloth? Had he gotten free of the chains then? Did Arthur—
Merlin’s eyes opened as he tried to get up, then widened in panic as he couldn’t. He was trapped in some kind of tunnel with something pressed up against his back that shifted a little as he twisted to see behind him…a body? Arthur?
Merlin wiggled for all he was worth, not caring if he woke Arthur, not even caring where they were. He just needed to breathe, and he needed to breathe now.
He gasped as he squeezed his way out from between Arthur and the wall of what he could now see was a hollow space in the side of a small cliff. Fresh, cold air rushed into his lungs as he sunk to the ground and took in great, heaving breaths.
When he finally calmed down, he surveyed the area. They were in the middle of the woods somewhere, not very close to Camelot, but neither did it seem they were near where Gwil had kept them either. Merlin guessed it was a few hours after dawn—a thin layer of frost covered the ground, but he could tell most of it had already melted. He shivered. How had he not frozen to death?
He cast his eyes around until they landed on the dark red cloth that had fallen off in his attempt to reach fresh air. The padding jacket for Arthur’s chainmail. Suddenly Merlin realized his own jacket was missing. He must have lost it somehow during the escape.
He bent down to pick up the jacket and glanced up at Arthur, who was down to only a shirt and was shivering in his sleep. Merlin tucked the jacket over him, gaze softening. Arthur looked almost vulnerable in sleep, with no armor or chainmail, clutching a thick branch like a child would clutch a blanket.
Merlin frowned. Arthur also looked utterly exhausted. Had he been injured during the escape? Merlin didn’t really remember much. It was all sort of a jumbled up mess in his head—But he remembered Arthur kicking him, Arthur hating him…
No. No, Arthur didn’t hate him. Arthur had given him his jacket; he hadn’t wanted Merlin to die. Unless Arthur just wanted to keep him alive so he could be properly executed in Camelot…
No. That wasn’t Arthur. Merlin massaged his aching head, trying to piece together what had happened from the fuzzy fragments floating in his mind. Arthur had hated him, but it wasn’t actually Arthur, and then he had tried to kill Arthur, but he hadn’t realized it was Arthur, and then he’d let Arthur-who-wasn’t-really-Arthur be buried under rubble, and then he’d healed Arthur-who-really-was-Arthur, and they’d been running…
He shivered, but not just with the cold. He’d come so close to killing Arthur, closer than he’d come when he was possessed by the Fomorrah, so close it terrified him. And now…Arthur had not only seen him using magic; he had seen Merlin using it to kill. And not only to kill, but to kill Arthur. How could Arthur ever forgive him?
But…Merlin strained to remember. Arthur had forgiven him, hadn’t he? He’d said so.
Merlin was going to be sick if he thought about it any longer, so he rubbed his eyes and then hugged himself, patting down his arms. His arms prickled, as did the rest of him, like when he sat on his foot funny, but over his entire body. It wasn’t quite painful, but it was unpleasant. He was sure it was his magic, churning inside him wanting to do something but not quite ready to do anything.
But at least his magic was back, he repeated to himself as he tried to rub some warmth back into his arms. His magic was back and he was fine and Arthur was fine and everything was going to be fine…
But the mantra didn’t stop his hands from trembling as he gathered as much firewood as he could without letting Arthur out of his sight. He started to fumble with some stones to light the fire, but then cast them away. Tentatively he stretched forth his hand at the small pile of wood, and hesitated a moment. His body prickled more than ever, ready to release the magic, but what if it didn’t work? Finally, he took a deep breath and whispered, “Forbearne.”
A fire roared to life in his small wood pile, crackling with relieving warmth. Merlin let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding as the heat washed over him. His magic really was back. And the tingling in his body had started to subside.
Out of habit, he cast a quick glance at the sleeping Arthur to make sure the king hadn’t seen the fire spring to life by magic.
Arthur’s eyes were open, studying him thoughtfully.
Merlin knew that Arthur already knew about the magic, but a lifetime of secrecy made him jolt to attention, lies leaving his lips without thought. “I can explain—”
The corner of Arthur’s lips twitched. “Can you now?”
Merlin’s heart pounded. There was no denying it now. He was going to have to tell Arthur everything. And he would. Because Arthur deserved to know that much, and Merlin didn’t think he could lie anymore.
“Arthur, I have magic.”
Arthur gave him an incredulous stare as he sat up.
“I know you know already,” Merlin continued, trying to keep the words from pouring out too fast in terror. “But I just…I wanted to tell you. I didn’t want you to find out like that. I meant to tell you. There were so many times I almost did, but…”
Arthur lumbered over to the fire, pulling the jacket off his shoulders. “Shut up. And put this back on.”
“No, I’m fine, you—”
“Put it back on.”
Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur just huffed and yanked it around Merlin’s shoulders himself, then plopped down to sit next to him.
Merlin forced himself not to scoot away as he watched Arthur rubbing his hands before the fire. “Why give me this?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow disbelievingly. “Are you really asking me that question?”
Merlin shrunk further inside the jacket, not trusting himself to meet Arthur’s eyes.
“Well, at least I know the idiot part wasn’t an act. I gave you that, Merlin, because you’re my friend and I don’t want you to freeze to death. And what are you even doing, making this?” Arthur gestured at the fire. “Bad enough you made that light last night—”
Arthur repeated slowly, as if speaking to a simpleton, “The light. The big, blue one. The same one I saw when I went after that Mortaeus flower. That you made.”
“…Oh.” Merlin felt his cheeks reddening. “Erm, was I dying then? Because last time, Gaius said he thought it was because my magic was trying to protect you. Like a last resort, survival instinct sort of thing.”
“You conjured a ball of light because you were dying,” Arthur said flatly.
“Because you were in danger and I couldn’t help. So was I?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you were. Your…dragon did something to heal you and said you were supposed to rest. So what are you doing magic for?”
Merlin’s throat went dry. He didn’t remember calling Kilgharrah, but apparently, he had. “You talked to him?”
“Well, I tried. It flew off before I could get a straight sentence out of it. And we’re going to have words about that bloody beast later, but you still haven’t answered my question. Why aren’t you resting?”
Merlin cast around, trying to relate the magic to something Arthur would understand. “It’s like…starving. When a man goes too long without food, his body can’t take too much and you have to give him just a bit of food, a little at a time, or he’ll get sick. So before, I’d only just gotten it back and then I used so much of it…”
Relief washed over Arthur’s face. “So you’ll be fine as long as you don’t use too much.”
“Until I get better. Using it is actually helping, just not, you know, all at once.”
Arthur stared at him in puzzlement, and Merlin squirmed under his gaze.
“It’s really part of you, isn’t it?” the king said.
Merlin nodded, trembling slightly. He couldn’t believe he was sitting here, having this conversation. “It is me. I’m not just a sorcerer, I’m a warlock. I was born with it.”
“Gwil called you that. Warlock.”
At this, Arthur looked even more puzzled. “Sorry for saving my life?”
“No, never that! Just…sorry for everything else. Sorry I lied to you for so long. Sorry you were captured. This was all my fault, and I almost got you killed. I almost killed you.”
“I didn’t mean to. I’d never hurt you, Arthur, you have to believe that. That’s what the magic’s for, you and Camelot and I—”
“Merlin, will you ever learn to shut up?”
Merlin cast his eyes at the ground and pulled the jacket a bit tighter around his shoulders.
“You have nothing to be sorry for.”
Merlin’s voice sounded hoarse to his ears. “Oh, Arthur, I have so much to be sorry for.”
“Then I forgive you. I’ve already forgiven you.”
“But you don’t know what I’ve done.”
“It can hardly be worse than lying to me for this long.”
“I released the Great Dragon.”
“I figured you did.”
“He told you?”
“No. But he told me about your father, and he told me how you sent him away. So really, you’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Your father’s dead because of me. I killed him.”
“You—wait, what? Don’t be ridiculous, you weren’t even there! It was that old sorcerer—”
“I was the old sorcerer. I used an aging spell.”
“But you—but you…You were gone when I questioned him.” Arthur’s face flashed from comprehension to shock to anger in quick succession. No hatred, not yet, but Merlin knew it was coming. “But you were in the woods, you were…”
“Peeing?” Merlin said in a hollow laugh. “For that long?”
“But you…but you’re good. You wouldn’t…”
“I did,” Merlin said miserably. He braced himself for the inevitable moment when Arthur turned on him.
But instead of shouting abuses, Arthur was quiet. “No, you wouldn’t. You had every reason to kill him before, but you never did. You even stopped me from killing him once. And even if, for some reason, you didn’t have the courage to kill him yourself, all you had to do was let him die. Why go to all that trouble of disguising yourself and making false promises unless you were actually trying to save him?”
Merlin couldn’t move. His breath bottled inside his chest, even though he knew he couldn’t dare hope Arthur would understand.
“You tried to save a man who would have had you killed for doing so. Why?”
“I thought…Maybe if I healed him, you would see the good magic could do. And he was your father. You would have been devastated. You were devastated. And I was so close. It almost worked…”
Arthur nodded, his face pained with the memory. “What went wrong?”
“Morgana. There was an amulet around your father’s neck that reversed the effects of my magic. Probably Agravaine’s doing, now that I think about it.”
“You healed him,” Arthur remembered, “He was getting better…”
“But then the amulet kicked in.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Merlin jerked his head up to glare at him. “How was I supposed to do that without telling you who I was, what I am? You would have killed me! And…and it was my fault. I should have sensed the amulet. I should have stopped it.”
“No. If what you’re saying is true, and I believe it is, then none of it was your fault.”
“Morgana is my fault. You think she really was held in some cell for a year?”
Arthur’s eyes widened. “You think she’d already turned against us?”
“She’d turned against us long before that. She was the anchor for the spell that made everyone sleep. Which is why…” Merlin struggled to keep his voice level. “Which is why I poisoned her that night. I traded the poison to Morgause in exchange for the knights stopping their attack. If there was any trace of the Morgana we knew left, she died after a year of Morgause’s influence. Morgana’s hated me ever since then…and I don’t blame her.”
Arthur was silent for a long while. Merlin couldn’t bear watching him and finally just closed his eyes and tried to keep his breathing under control. He could hear Gaius’s voice in the back of his mind, worriedly telling him off for being such a fool, for not softening the blow of this revelation. But while most of Merlin was terrified and on the brink of pleading for forgiveness, a part of him, the part that still flinched if Arthur made a sudden movement, was more resigned. He had lied to Arthur and nearly killed him. And as many times as he had saved Arthur, his mistakes had hurt Arthur in more ways than one. Everything he’d ever done wrong hadn’t just blown up in his face; it had blown up in Arthur’s as well. Arthur had every reason to hate him, and Merlin knew he had to brace himself for Arthur to hate him…again. It had hurt so much the first time when it had been Gwil disguised as Arthur; Merlin didn’t dare let himself hope for fear he’d be crushed again.
Arthur finally broke the silence, making Merlin nearly jump. “That was her, wasn’t it.”
“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific.”
“Guinevere,” Arthur said, as if that was enough explanation.
Merlin gave him a look that clearly said Elaborate, you clotpole.
Arthur rolled his eyes briefly. “The poultice under my pillow. My father was going to have Guinevere executed for enchanting me, and then the old sorcerer—you—turned out to be behind the poultice. I always thought it was strange, because I was never under any enchantment. But it makes sense now. Morgana framed Guinevere, and you took the fall for it.” Merlin couldn’t bring himself to say anything, but Arthur seemed to take that as confirmation. “I almost burnt you at the stake.”
Merlin shrugged. “Almost. Best word in that sentence, wouldn’t you say?”
“I almost killed you! You’d just saved Guinevere and I almost…How do you not hate me?”
Now Merlin just stared. “Hate you?”
Arthur buried his head in his hands. “No wonder you never trusted me. I don’t deserve it.”
“I do trust you. I trust you with my life.”
“But not with this. Not with what you could do, what you have done for me.”
“Look, it’s not…” Merlin made a frustrated sound. “It’s not like that. At first, no, of course I didn’t tell you, because you would have had me executed. And then I didn’t tell you because I wasn’t going to make you choose between me and your father. And then I always thought I’d tell you when you became king, but I couldn’t tell you after Uther died like that. And then…And then I didn’t tell you because I was a coward.”
“A coward? You’re the bravest man I know. Braver than me, even.”
Merlin swallowed. “A compliment? Who are you and what have you done with Arthur?”
Arthur flinched, and Merlin’s eyes widened a split second later as he realized why. “Sorry, that wasn’t funny.”
The tension left Arthur’s shoulders as he gave Merlin a shove that nearly knocked the warlock over. “What have I told you about being funny?”
Merlin’s lips twitched into the beginning of a smile. “I shouldn’t.”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence for a moment, letting the fire as well as the ascending sun warm their frigid limbs. But the warmth spreading through Merlin’s chest had nothing to do with the fire or the jacket, no matter how much he tried to keep his hope from swelling.
“I am a coward, though,” Merlin said finally. “I was afraid that you’d hate me and banish me. And I can’t protect you if I’m banished.”
“If I banished you, why would you even want to?”
“Because you’re my friend. The best. You really don’t hate me?”
Arthur’s lips curled in a half-smile. “Of course not. But you’re an idiot. Really. The worst idiot I’ve ever come across.”
“Worst idiot, but best friend. So I think I’ll take you anyway. Just…I hope someday you’ll be able to forgive me.”
“Already done, you prat.”
Arthur let out his breath in a whoosh. He sounded relieved. “I’ll make it up to you. I’ll…I can’t legalize magic. I mean—” he backtracked quickly as Merlin’s face fell. “Not immediately. I don’t know if Camelot’s ready for that. I’ll have to ease them into it. But I will repeal the ban, Merlin, I promise you.”
Merlin heard the words like cymbals crashing in his ears. His legs felt weak, and if he hadn’t already been sitting, he surely would have collapsed to the ground. “I…thank you, Arthur. Thank you.”
“Don’t. I’m the one who owes you thanks.”
“…Sorry, could you say that again?”
“I mean, thanks and compliments in the same day? This moment will be remembered throughout the ages...”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
“Of course, sire. You shan’t hear another word. I shall leave you to the blissful silence of your own dollopy thoughts—”
“Well, how else would you describe what goes on in a dollophead?”
Before Arthur could retaliate, his stomach suddenly let loose an embarrassingly loud growl, which of course only made Merlin unsuccessfully struggle to choke back his laugh.
Arthur’s cheeks flushed slightly. “That was you.”
“No it wasn’t!”
Arthur drew himself up with as much kingly dignity as he could muster. “Of course it was. You’re skin and bones. Obviously, you need food.”
“Might do. Do you suppose there’s an apple pie around here somewhere? I could eat a pie. Or dumplings. Or pork.”
Arthur scoffed in disgust as he got to his feet and brushed himself off. “More like rat.”
Merlin’s limbs protested as he started to get to his feet too, but he ignored them. “Still bitter about that, are you?”
“Merlin, what are you doing?”
“No, you’re staying here. I’ll get the food.”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because you’re injured.”
“But I’m fine now, look!” Merlin took off the jacket and waved his arms around a bit. “See? Fine. Absolutely—” He tried to take a step, overbalanced, and nearly fell flat on his face.
Arthur pushed him back to sit on the ground and rewrapped the jacket around him with a smirk. “Sit. Stay. And try not to fall over like the swooning maiden you are.”
“Don’t tell me you’re going hunting with that?” Merlin waved a disparaging hand at the stick Arthur had been reluctant to let go of since last night. “That thing’s going to be useless.”
“Well, unless you can—unless you can—”
“Magic me up a sword—”
“I can’t just magic you up anything, it doesn’t work like that!”
“Some sorcerer you turned out to be. Idiot.”
“I’m not the one trying to take down rabbits with a branch.”
Arthur pointed the branch at him in a mock threat. “Stay there. Don’t move. Rest. That’s an order. I’ll be right back with food. And hopefully water.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yes sire, whatever you say, sire. Just go kill us something, sire, and hurry back, will you, sire?”
Arthur was already wandering off into the woods as he called back, “Think you’re missing another ‘sire’ in there somewhere.”
“Try not to get yourself killed, clotpole!”
Arthur laughed and twirled his stick around once, like he’d forgotten it wasn’t a real sword. “That’s better.” And he turned and strode off into the forest.
Merlin watched Arthur’s retreating back until the king disappeared. Then he rubbed his stiff fingers in front of the fire. His feet tapped at the ground, itching to run after his friend, but Merlin forced himself to stay put, trying not to think of the many ways in which Arthur might get hurt alone and practically unarmed in the woods. Oddly familiar woods…hadn’t he run into serkets around here somewhere once?
No. He shoved the thought from his mind. Arthur was fine. Arthur was perfectly capable of handling himself.
And besides, Merlin didn’t want to worry so much when he suddenly had so much else to be happy about. He didn’t have to hide from Arthur anymore. Arthur knew about his magic. He was going to repeal the ban. Merlin was free.
He pointed his hand at the fire, and the flames surged higher, radiating blessed heat. Unable to keep the grin off his face, Merlin twirled and twisted the smoke into shapes, just because he could. The flames danced at his word, breathing fire out of his smoke dragon’s mouth.
A twig snapped behind him. The dragon vanished as he whirled, his heart pounding as he inspected the trees.
Nothing. The tension left his shoulders as he scolded himself. He’d been scared for so long that now he was jumpy. It must have been an animal or something. If it got close enough, perhaps he’d be able to catch it with magic. He doubted Arthur was having any luck hunting things with a tree branch, after all.
He peered harder into the trees, but didn’t see a deer or a squirrel or anything edible, and sighed in disappointment. The things he would do for some food…not to mention water. His throat burned from thirst.
And for the love of Camelot, was his body ever going to prickling?
He curled the jacket tighter around himself and turned back to the fire, composing an insult for Arthur about the length of his absence.
That was when the attackers swarmed from the trees.
As Merlin had predicted, Arthur was not having much luck with hunting.
He trudged through the forest, swinging his stick aimlessly, testing its weight in his hand. He dearly wanted to clobber something, because clobbering was simple and satisfying. His thoughts, on the other hand, were turbulent.
He’d meant every word he said to Merlin—he did forgive him, and he would repeal the ban. But now that some sense of normalcy had returned, now that Merlin was no longer on the brink of death and Arthur felt the security of a weapon in his hand again, he was beginning to realize what he’d gotten himself and his kingdom into. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, and Arthur would have to deal with the consequences of bringing a known sorcerer—warlock—back to Camelot. How would Camelot react?
For starters, Arthur knew that his beloved Guinevere, despite her gentleness, had a healthy wariness of magic. Like Arthur, she had blamed Morgana’s descent into darkness on magic. And magic had indirectly caused her father’s death, as Uther had had him executed for sorcery. Still, Arthur was sure she would support him in his decision to repeal the ban, especially if he revealed Merlin’s magic. She was always the first to tell him to rule with a kind and trusting heart, and how could he possibly do that if there were good, innocent magic-users being killed in his kingdom?
On the other hand, the majority of his council would be outraged, and likely remind him that Uther would have had Merlin banished if not outright executed, regardless of what the warlock had done for Arthur or the kingdom. Arthur knew his father would have said he couldn’t tell the mind of a sorcerer, but that had always seemed a flimsy excuse—and never more flimsy than it did now. If Arthur knew one thing, it was that Merlin was too loyal for his own good. And what he’d told Merlin was true: he was not his father, even if he was just beginning to realize that that was a good thing.
Most of all Arthur worried about Camelot’s people. How many of them truly believed in the magic-hating falsehoods Uther had preached for the last two decades? Would they revolt for fear that their king had unleashed a wave of murdering sorcerers upon them? Or perhaps they would welcome magic back into the kingdom. If Merlin could hide right under both Pendragon and knights’ noses for years without being caught using magic, how many peasants in the outer villages or even in the lower town of Camelot itself might have managed to hide? Perhaps Arthur would lift the ban only to discover that he had been living amidst a slew of sorcerers.
That thought unsettled him more than he wanted to admit. After all, he had been taught since birth that magic was evil. And though he knew without a doubt that Merlin was not evil, the way Merlin’s eyes had glowed and the unfamiliar words falling off Merlin’s lips just felt so…not normal. Normal wasn’t Merlin lighting fires with a word. Normal wasn’t seeing Merlin’s eyes glow that unearthly gold. Normal wasn’t Merlin conjuring balls of light when he was dying. Normal wasn’t riding on a dragon or speaking to one. It just seemed so unnatural for something Arthur had always thought of as so evil to be coming from someone he’d always thought to be so good. And to imagine a whole kingdom, his kingdom, teeming with sorcerers filled his gut with dread.
But he’d have to overcome that, wouldn’t he? Merlin deserved that much. His people deserved that much.
Arthur was torn from his thoughts by a rustle in the distance. Instantly his body reacted, crouching behind a tree. He held his branch at the ready. His stomach roared with anticipation. Breakfast had arrived.
But he hesitated as the rustling soon gave way to quiet voices.
“…Sword’s getting dull. Think I need a new one.”
“Quiet, we’re getting close.”
“Oh, what’s the point? Got them surrounded, don’t we? Not like there’s anywhere for them to run.”
Arthur’s grip on his stick tightened. Bandits. Bandits on the verge of attacking a camp. And the only nearby camp was…
Arthur’s stomach dropped as he thought of the fire, made with Merlin’s magic. How could he have been so thick? He’d been so distracted by the way the fire had been started that he’d forgotten what it might bring. And he’d left an injured Merlin right next to it, alone and undefended except for his recovering magic. More than left—he’d ordered him to stay there, with a smoke signal attracting the attention of every bandit out for blood like wolves to a limping doe.
And he called Merlin the idiot.
The voices were coming closer. Arthur didn’t think, just reacted. He leapt out as the two bandits passed, clobbering one from behind and shoving him into his fellow, then running straight for the campsite. He could hear the shouts behind him, but he was desperate to reach his injured friend and even lighter than usual with no armor or chainmail, so he quickly left them behind. It didn’t matter if they followed him; they already knew where he was headed. Where Merlin was.
“Merlin!” He careened back into the campsite and froze, open-mouthed at the sight before him.
Merlin stood by the extinguished fire, bodies scattered around him. He turned his head to look back at Arthur, and his face lit up. “Where have you been, you prat?!”
“Behind you!” Arthur yelled, snapping from his daze and dashing towards Merlin, stick raised.
Merlin whirled in time to see a sword swinging straight at his face. He threw his hand in front of him to block the blade, and the bandit was blasted backwards into a tree. The bandit’s sword flew elegantly from his hand and into Merlin’s. The warlock held it out to Arthur as he reached him.
“I got you a sword. Do you like it?”
Arthur snatched the hilt and whirled to stab a man coming up behind him. “Needs a polish.”
“Why can you never just say thanks?”
Another wave of bandits raced towards them, enraged at the loss of their fellows, and Arthur felt the ever-familiar surge of energy rush through him, ready for the fight. At his back he felt Merlin there, present as ever. Arthur’s sword flashed as he swung with trained precision, felling enemies with ease and knowing without looking that Merlin was doing the same right behind him. Without conscious thought, both men fell into step, as Arthur whirled to stab an oncoming bandit and as he saw arrows divert their course from the corner of his eye. Approaching bandits howled as they dropped their weapons, the hilts of their swords inexplicably glowing red. The forest came alive, tree roots snaking out of the ground to snatch unsuspecting ankles.
And through it all, Arthur fought, dodging and attacking in practiced rhythm, and he sensed that this…this felt unmistakably familiar, despite the fact that it was magic surging through and around him. He felt fear, yes, but the normal fear that always came when his life was in danger, of near misses and almost fatal mistakes, not of the magic. This felt completely natural, Arthur realized, blocking a blow aimed for his side, as if he and Merlin had always fought like this. As he and Merlin circled back-to-back in perfect sync, defending against the oncoming horde, Arthur suddenly understood. They had always fought like this, king and warlock, in the bloody dance of battle, but Arthur had never opened his eyes wide enough to notice he had a partner. The magic defending him felt as familiar as the footwork he’d practiced since childhood, as normal as the heft of a sword in his hand. It acted for him, like an extension of his sword.
That was what they were, he and Merlin, Arthur decided. Magic and sword, two halves of one double-edged weapon.
And it felt right.
The last bandits finally retreated with frightened yelps, leaving Arthur and Merlin standing alone in the campsite-turned-battlefield.
Arthur pressed a hand to his heaving chest, realizing belatedly what they’d just done. “We just took on thirty men. Two against thirty.”
“That many?” said Merlin, putting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. He frowned in concern. “You alright? Any injuries?”
He wasn’t even winded, Arthur thought with a sort of exhilarated annoyance. “You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”
Fought with him. Defended him. Battled at his side so perfectly, it had almost felt like Arthur had been wielding the magic as much as Merlin. Arthur had only just learned that Merlin had had magic all along, but now it seemed like he had always known.
“It’s just—it’s always been you, hasn’t it?”
Merlin looked outright alarmed at the king’s giddiness. “Arthur, are you—”
He threw his arms around Merlin and just laughed and laughed.
“I—what?” Merlin nearly squeaked. A moment passed, with Arthur just laughing into his shoulder, before Merlin tentatively hugged him back.
“So, does this mean you didn’t get breakfast?”
Merlin stood awkwardly in the midst of the felled men as Arthur hugged him, laughing his head off at something Merlin didn’t quite understand. But, then, at least Arthur was clearly not angry or scared of him, and Merlin could deal with that.
Eventually, though, his stomach prodded him to repeat, “So, no breakfast then?”
Arthur’s laughter finally started to subside. He broke the hug and clapped Merlin on the back hard enough to make the warlock stumble. Apparently satisfied that Merlin at least hadn’t tipped over, Arthur moved away, bending over the nearest body.
“What are you doing now?” Merlin asked in exasperation. He still didn’t understand exactly what was so funny.
Arthur moved on to the next body, nudging it with his foot. “If they’re traveling through the woods, they must have had some sort of provisions…Aha!” He tore the pouch off from the man’s belt and shook it. “There you are,” he beamed, pulling out some strips of dried meat, “Breakfast. Eat up.”
Merlin accepted the food Arthur gave him and nibbled on it. It was dry, but he didn't care. His eyes were fixed on the dead man’s face.
“I recognize that one. He’s one of Trent’s men.”
Arthur frowned. “So not just bandits, then. They were looking for us.”
“Gwil might have put out some sort of bounty on us.”
“Then there may be more of them out there. We need to get back to Camelot.”
Merlin nodded and took another bite, wincing as it touched his painfully dry throat. “If we start walking now, we should run into a patrol eventually. I can try to hide our tracks so no one else finds us.” His knees nearly gave out on him and he concentrated on keeping from wobbling. He felt exhausted, but it was a good kind of exhausted, the kind that indicated his sore magic was getting stronger, like a freshly exercised muscle. And he would not, could not give up now. He could rest when they got back to Camelot.
Much to his embarrassment, Arthur appeared at his elbow to steady him. “What, you mean we’re going to walk?”
“Well, unless you found a horse for us to ride on your pathetic failure of a hunting trip…”
“Why don’t we just take your dragon?”
Merlin couldn’t help but smile a bit. Arthur Pendragon, son of magic-hating Uther, wanting to ride a dragon.
Arthur scowled and gave him a tiny shove, although he still kept a firm grip on his arm. “No need to be so smug about it. I still don’t like that thing. Just call it.”
“He’s not a horse. Plus, we can’t just go flying a dragon into Camelot, not unless you want to reveal I have magic and start a panic. And you said he healed me…He usually sticks around after doing that. If he left me, whatever it is must be important.”
“He did say something about missing enthusiasm.”
Merlin, who had been about to take another bite of the dried meat, lowered the food as his stomach clenched. “Aithusa’s missing?”
“Hold on, ‘usually?!’ As in, he’s had to heal you before?”
“Yeah,” said Merlin distractedly, mind whirling with worry. “These woods, in fact. Got stung by serkets. Almost died.” He needed to get Arthur to Camelot first, he decided. Kilgharrah was searching for Aithusa, and probably had a better idea of where to find her. Merlin’s priority, as always, had to be Arthur. And he himself probably needed to see Gaius, judging from the way spots danced before his eyes when he moved too quickly. He pushed thoughts of the missing dragon from his mind. He would worry about that later.
“Merlin, don’t lie to me. You don’t have to anymore.”
“It’s not a lie. I’ve still got the scar on my back.”
“When did this happen?!”
“Right after Morgana came back. Ran into her and her sister plotting in the woods. They chained me up and left me for the serkets. My magic didn’t work on the chains—probably would’ve died if I hadn’t called him.”
“You were gone for two days,” Arthur realized, a comical look of comprehension dawning on his face.
Merlin smirked. “Told you I was dying.”
“…We’re going to have a lot of conversations like this, aren’t we?”
“Best get started, then.”
Hours of walking passed, until Merlin’s voice had gone hoarse from talking. At first, Arthur had demanded Merlin start from the very beginning, but soon he accused Merlin of glossing over some instances—something Merlin admitted. He’d simply saved Arthur too many times over too many years to possibly remember every single occurrence.
Instead, Arthur took to asking him question after question on every strange thing the king could remember happening to him over the past few years. Arthur already knew that Merlin had been behind the blue light in the cave and the disappearance of the dragon, but he guessed there had to have been more instances than that. And sure enough, there were plenty. Merlin told him tales about Agravaine’s treachery, about the Questing Beast, Nimueh, wyverns, the troll, Cornelius Sigan, and a dozen other men and creatures he’d defeated. He told him of people he’d saved and people he’d wanted to but couldn’t. He told about Morgana’s discovery of her magic, of the night he’d poisoned her, and the year of waging silent war that followed her return.
The parts about Morgana were hard to tell and, Merlin guessed from Arthur’s silence as he listened, the hardest to hear.
“I don’t think that Morgana is your fault,” Arthur said when he’d finally finished.
“But maybe…if I’d just told her about me, maybe…”
“Maybe,” Arthur agreed. “But I’m not sure how much that would have helped. From what you told me, she’d already turned against us even before you poisoned her. She stole the Crystal of Neahtid, a weapon she knew would be used to destroy Camelot.”
“Maybe she didn’t know exactly what it was,” Merlin said half-heartedly.
“Maybe. But she must have had at least an inkling. And when she came back…She didn’t just try to hurt my father, or even just you. She brought an army of the dead down on everyone in Camelot. She tried to kill Guinevere, who’d done nothing to her. And when she attacked a month ago…that wasn’t Morgause who tortured Elyan or slaughtered innocent people.” Something else occurred to him. “When we took Camelot back, her magic didn’t work. Was that…”
“Me, yeah. And the sword. And—”
“Wait, what about the sword? Bruta’s sword from the stone?”
“Erm, not from Bruta. Gwen’s father made it, actually.”
“I knew you made that story up, I knew it! But then how did it get in the stone?”
“I put it there.”
“…So it doesn’t belong to true king of Camelot, then.”
“It belongs to you. I forged it in a dragon’s breath for you, so it’s meant to be yours, and yours alone. Although I may have borrowed it a few times to kill those undead skeletons.”
“…I have a magic sword that can kill the undead?! You made me a magic sword that can kill the undead?!”
“I thought it’d come in handy.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yes, Arthur, I lied.”
Arthur smirked. “No, I mean recently. You said you couldn’t magic me up a sword.”
There was really no way to tell Arthur everything Merlin had done, not in the space of a few hours and all at once, but at least Merlin felt like Arthur had a grasp of the basics. The rest would come in time.
As time passed and the scanty meal faded from their bellies, their conversation turned to more pressing matters than exactly how Merlin had spent the last couple years.
“Where are all the knights, sleeping?! At the tavern?!” Arthur demanded, swinging his sword at passing trees. “How have we not run into a single search party? We haven’t even seen so much as a patrol! When I get my hands on them—”
“Make them muck the stables for a change,” Merlin mumbled. His magic had recovered enough that he walked steadily, and Arthur was no longer hovering near his side. But at this point, his feet ached so much he would have been perfectly content to let Arthur carry him back to Camelot.
His stomach roared its disapproval of their situation. The dried meat hadn’t lasted long, and though they’d stopped at a creek for water neither of them had wanted to stop again to hunt and risk not getting back to Camelot by nightfall—especially after a narrow escape from another group looking for them. Instead they’d settled for chewing some leaves Merlin had recognized as edible, although those were not very filling either. Their primary concern was no longer starvation, but the slow progression of the sun in the west. Merlin doubted they could make it through another cold night with only the chainmail padding jacket between them. Still, just because he knew he wasn’t quite literally starving didn’t mean his stomach knew.
“I could eat a horse right now,” he said miserably. “Or roast. Or pie. Or roasted pies. A whole battalion of roasted—”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur snapped. The warlock cast him a scathing look, but complied. Arthur was hungry as well, and Merlin knew from years of experience that a hungry king meant an irritable king. And Merlin was quite happy to listen to him rage at his missing knights instead of his manservant for once.
Merlin didn’t mention the worry he could hear in Arthur’s tone, but he shared it. Arthur was right. Camelot’s king was missing; there should have been dozens of search parties out looking for him. The chances of two men heading straight for Camelot not running into any of them, not even so much as a patrol, seemed highly unlikely. Yet here they were.
Uneasy feelings crept from the back of his mind on the fate of the other knights during Trent’s initial attack. He had barely given the knights a second thought once Trent had conjured the wall of fire; his only concern had been getting to Arthur. But the knights had been outnumbered, he knew. Were the knights—his friends—were they dead? Had their entire group been killed and he and Arthur counted among them? Was that why no one from Camelot was searching for Arthur?
But there still should have been patrols. No, something else had to be going on.
“They’re fine, you know,” Merlin said at last. “They were all still fighting when I left.”
“Then where are they?” Arthur scowled up at the darkening sky. “It’s nearing nightfall. If we pick up the pace, we just might make it before the sun sets. Come on.”
He seized Merlin’s elbow and jerked him forward. Merlin barely had a moment to register the sudden momentum before he was falling flat on his face.
“Oh, for—Merlin, are all warlocks this clumsy or is it just you?”
Merlin shoved himself up and brushed the dirt off his cheek. His fingers came away red.
“Merlin?” The worry in Arthur’s voice intensified.
He batted Arthur’s arm away. “I’m fine, I’m fine, look…Thurh-haele braed.” He winced as he felt a sting on his cheek, then looked at Arthur expectantly. “Better?”
Arthur just stared at him, his head tilted a bit to the side.
Merlin flushed. “What?”
“It’s just it always seems…strange. Convenient though, I suppose. I’m not quite used to it yet. Must be nice.”
Merlin shrugged. “I guess. Usually I’d have to leave it, you know. If I healed anything too quickly, someone might’ve noticed.”
“Didn’t seem to bother you when you were healing me all those times.”
“Well, no one was going to suspect you of sorcery. And usually when I healed you, I didn’t have a choice. You were dying.”
“Yes, well…The magic, it’s not hurting you, is it? You are feeling better, right?”
Merlin was about to answer when a voice echoed softly in his head. …telling you, it’s just an animal. There’s nothing here.
“Merlin, no need to look so surprised. I’m only going to ask you how you’re feeling once…”
It could be the knights, came a second voice, trying to smuggle the queen out. Merlin felt the color leave his face.
“…And I fully expect an answer.”
I don’t see anything. We should just get back. If anyone thinks we’ve defected and reports it to Morgana…
“What’s with you, anyway? This last hour you’ve been all quiet and not insolent.”
Or we deliver the queen and get titles in the new Camelot.
“Merlin, are you even listening?”
“Arthur, shh,” Merlin ordered.
“…Did you just shh me?!”
“Shh!” Merlin repeated urgently. He yanked Arthur with himself down low to the ground behind a tree.
Did you hear that?
Arthur promptly shoved himself away. “You can’t just—”
“Gestillan,” Merlin whispered in frustration, trying to force Arthur back down.
Arthur’s mouth kept moving, but no sounds came out. His face screwed up in indignation, ready to launch into a tirade, when a few twigs snapped on the other side of some undergrowth. He froze a moment, then quickly rejoined Merlin near the ground. The hand not gripping his sword pushed down on Merlin’s shoulder protectively, and the warlock barely kept from rolling his eyes.
Both men stayed perfectly still as the two figures emerged on the other side of the undergrowth. Merlin felt Arthur shove him down just a bit further as the two druids came closer.
I could have sworn I heard someone.
There’s no one here. Now can we please get back before someone realizes we’ve gone?
The voices in Merlin’s head began to fade as the figures moved further away, toward Camelot. Arthur made to get up once they were out of sight, but Merlin shook his head at him. Only when the voices had gone did he let himself relax. But the moment the tension left his shoulders, Arthur yanked him up by the arm.
What was that?! Arthur mouthed, before stopping and glaring at Merlin with a look that promised multitudes of chores and tortures.
Merlin sighed. “Edniwe hleothor. Before you say anything—”
“You used magic on me!”
“I told you, I’ve used magic on you before—”
“Yes, well, I didn’t realize it at the time. But now I do! And you used magic on me!”
Arthur folded his arms in front of his chest. “Enjoyed that, did you?”
Merlin watched him warily and decided to go with the truth. “…It wasn’t entirely horrible.”
Arthur gave a what-am-I-to-do-with-this-imbecile look to the sky.
“Look, I didn’t exactly have time to say, ‘Pardon me, sire, but druids working for Morgana are nearby and have heard us, so it would be really great if you could shut up right now,’ did I?”
Some of the anger in Arthur’s face morphed to worry. “Morgana? How do you know?”
“Er, I sort of…Druids can speak only in their heads. With magic. And I can hear them…also with magic.”
Arthur stared at him in pure horror.
“Oh! That doesn’t mean I can hear whatever you’re thinking. It only works for magical conversations, I swear!”
Arthur visibly relaxed. Then he frowned. “The druids have sided with Morgana? But I thought they were peaceful.”
“Most of them are, but they’ve been hunted for years. It’s a testament to how peaceful they are that every clan’s not out for the downfall of Camelot. My guess is Morgana’s only got an odd few on her side.”
“But Camelot has left them alone since my father’s death. I’ve no quarrel with them. I’ve let them live in peace.”
Merlin sighed. “And if one of them were to show their face in Camelot? What then? Would you have executed them?”
“No, of course not. I’ve sworn that they would be treated with respect.”
“And if they used magic?”
Arthur hesitated, not quite meeting Merlin’s eyes. “I’ve really messed things up, haven’t I?” he said quietly.
“You did the best you could.”
“My best wasn’t good enough. I’m not the king those people deserve. I haven’t been fair to you or…your kind. Perhaps Morgana—”
“No,” Merlin said firmly. “Arthur, you’re the true king of Camelot. You have tried, above all else, to bring peace to this land. You protect your people in whatever way you can, and you thought magic was a threat. Even so, you questioned your father’s decisions on magic so many, many times. When you took the throne, you didn’t start another Purge, despite thinking a sorcerer killed your father. You demanded fair trials for those accused with magic. You left the druids alone. You haven’t so much as actively looked for magic since becoming king. And…And you didn’t turn on me when you found out who I was. You may have inherited your father’s prejudices, but you have not fallen prey to them. You feared magic, but you did not hate.”
“That’s Morgana’s problem, isn’t it? I always thought it was magic that corrupted her, but it wasn’t.”
Merlin shook his head. “No. Magic does not corrupt, but hate and power do. And Morgana has both. She’s let it twist her soul. More so than even Uther, I think.”
Arthur nodded, a far-off look in his eyes. “Their mistakes do not excuse my own.”
“Perhaps not. But I know that unlike them, you will do everything in your power to right your wrongs.”
“You have an awful lot of faith in me.”
Arthur didn’t answer, but he seemed to be thinking hard as they kept walking. A minute passed. Merlin was on the brink of demanding Arthur answer the question when the king stopped short. “Those druids, if they were working for Morgana, what are they doing so close to…”
“Camelot,” Merlin finished grimly. He’d had his suspicions after hearing the druids’ conversation, but he was hoping to put off dealing with that for a while longer. Sensing the king was about to make a bolt for the castle, Merlin snatched his shoulder. “Don’t attract attention!”
“I’m not!” Arthur protested, but he still slowed down.
They both crept closer to the castle, careful to step quietly. Soon the castle turrets came into view, then the city wall…And so did the army of mercenaries and sorcerers camped outside the walls.
Camelot was under siege.
As Arthur and Merlin crouched just out of sight of the camp, Arthur’s guts clenched in fear as he surveyed the city walls. The castle itself, at least, did not look damaged. Clearly, Morgana’s forces had not yet attacked, although likely they planned to attack soon. He thought of the last time he had seen Morgana, just before pulling Merlin onto the dragon. She had screamed “Emrys” when she saw them—the same thing Gwil had said he was after. Morgana must have come to collect Merlin and his dragon before attacking. What would she do now that she had neither? Call off the attack?
Somehow, Arthur didn’t think so.
“How many do you think there are?” Merlin wondered.
“A couple thousand,” Arthur replied, surveying the army for a passage through. “Not as large a force as ours, but it looks like only half or so are mercenaries, which means the rest of them are probably sorcerers. That’ll even the odds. The castle’s in siege mode; that’ll make it harder for us to get in…What I don’t understand is, why attack now, so soon after her last failure?”
“Morgana thinks you’re dead,” Merlin reminded him. “She told Gwil to kill you and take me; he only kept you alive for leverage on me. What better time to attack Camelot than right after the death of its king?”
“But now she knows I’m not dead. She saw me.”
Merlin’s head swiveled away from the army. “What? When was this?!”
Arthur kept his eyes on the campsite. “Just after your dragon arrived, so did she. She saw me and started attacking, so I pulled you onto the dragon and we flew off.”
Merlin’s voice sounded slightly panicky. “Did she say anything?”
“She yelled ‘Emrys’ and something magic,” Arthur said without really paying attention. The campsite was thinnest at that spot there…If they could sneak through undetected, then somehow climb the wall…?
“Then she knows…She’s not attacking because she thinks you’re dead,” Merlin said as if he was just realizing something. “She’s attacking because she thinks I’m dead. Probably was her plan all along to get me out of the way first…”
Arthur scoffed. “I’ve seen that dragon in action. Trust me, it can do plenty of damage with or without you.”
Merlin broke from his reverie to look utterly bewildered. “…What?”
Arthur sighed. At least Merlin really could still be an idiot. The thought was oddly comforting. “Emrys. Your dragon. What Gwil and Morgana were after. They wanted you so they could control the dragon.”
He expected to see Merlin nod sheepishly, or even look impressed that he had figured it out, but instead Merlin looked guilty.
“What?” Arthur demanded.
Merlin averted his eyes and said reluctantly, “Emrys isn’t the dragon.”
Well, Arthur certainly hadn’t been expecting that. “Then what is? Morgana’s not the only one who said it. Gwil mentioned something, said he didn’t just want a sorcerer, he wanted Emrys. Is it some sort of warlock thing?”
“…Sort of.” Merlin still wasn’t looking at him. Merlin was still hiding things, Arthur realized with a pang.
“Sort of,” he repeated coolly, “That’s all you’re going to say.”
Merlin looked like he wanted to speak, but swallowed instead.
Arthur felt a flash of irritation. After everything he’d learned, everything he’d accepted, everything he’d forgiven, Merlin still didn’t trust him.
He turned his back on Merlin and returned to studying the campsite below, trying to bury his hurt. “That area looks like it has the lowest concentration of sorcerers. If we sneak through there and climb the wall—”
“You know that wall’s too sheer to climb, especially in the shape we’re in,” Merlin rebutted quietly. “And even if we could, there’s no way they wouldn’t spot us. They’d shoot us right off.”
“Then what would you suggest, since you obviously don’t trust me to figure it out?”
Merlin flinched as if he’d been kicked, and Arthur regretted his words immediately. He took a breath to apologize, but Merlin spoke first.
“I do trust you. I do. It’s just I’ve spent my whole life lying—I had to, if I wanted to live, especially once I came to Camelot—and it’s against every instinct I have to just…say it.”
Arthur felt his face soften. “You don’t have to lie anymore. Not to me.”
“I know. And I want to tell you. It’s just sort of complicated.”
“Come on, give me some credit. If you can understand it, it can’t be too complicated.”
Merlin let out a shaky laugh before taking a deep breath. “Just…I’m still the same person, alright? Don’t think of me any differently.”
“Merlin, in the past day I’ve learned you’re a warlock and a dragonlord, and yet somehow, you’re still the same loyal idiot. Whatever you’re about to say isn’t going to change that.”
Merlin’s lips twitched in the beginning of a smile. “Thanks. Alright…” He took a deep breath, looking as if stopping now would make him lose his nerve. “The druids have a prophecy. A prophecy older than the dragons, a prophecy known to all those of their clans…a prophecy about Emrys, the most powerful warlock to ever walk the earth. Emrys is destined to help the greatest king in all of history, the Once and Future King, who will unite the five kingdoms and create the land of Albion. Emrys protects him, defends him, guides him, until the Once and Future King restores magic to the land and brings peace to all that live there.”
“So that’s where you got that name from! You know, I thought that was just you being supercilious…”
Merlin stared at him hard, and Arthur faltered as everything he’d just said sunk in. “…You can’t be serious.”
Merlin kept staring.
“You’re Emrys, aren’t you.”
Arthur’s head spun. “And you think I’m this…”
Merlin’s voice did not waver. “I know it. I keep telling you, you’re going to be the greatest king in history. It’s your destiny. And my destiny is to get you there.”
Arthur’s head was swimming. The Once and Future King who was supposed to restore magic to the land? Him? But he’d only just even considered the idea magic wasn’t entirely evil in the past day or so. And at this very moment, hundreds of magic-users were camped outside his castle ready to attack him and his people because of that.
But at the same time…Albion. It sounded wonderful, almost familiar, sounded like the kingdom he had always dreamed of creating. A kingdom united in peace.
There could never be peace in the kingdom while magic was outlawed. Not while innocent people lived in fear of execution.
This didn’t really change anything, Arthur realized. He’d already decided to repeal the magic ban. He would have worked to create Albion with or without the prophecy.
But Merlin, on the other hand…Merlin wasn’t even from Camelot. Merlin had left behind his home and his mother to live in a place that executed people like him. Merlin had served and protected him for years because of this prophecy.
“So…you only helped me because it was your job,” Arthur said finally, trying to ignore the empty ache in his chest.
“No,” Merlin said firmly, “That’s not why. At least most of the time. It’s like…” He trailed off a moment, looking frustrated. But then, his face grew solemn, with that look in his eyes that Arthur had seen before, like Merlin understood things that no one else could possibly fathom.
“It’s like being king. You were born to be king. It’s shaped every facet of your life, leading up to that moment when you were crowned. And maybe you feel trapped, maybe you wonder why you, why this. Sometimes you can feel the weight of it all crushing you, and you wish you were anyone else, that you could just leave and let someone else worry about it. But at the same time, Arthur, at the deepest part of yourself, you do want to be king. Not because you want the power, not just because you’ve been told that’s what you were born to do, but because you want to help your people, want to protect and lead and defend them, because you’re Arthur and that’s who you are. So you were born to be king …and I was born to be Emrys. So yes, it’s my job to protect you, but I do it for so much more than that. I do it because you’re my friend, and because I believe in you.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say. Merlin just looked so earnest, so sincere, with every word ringing with absolute honesty. And Merlin had described exactly how Arthur always felt, though he’d never had the right words.
Destinies are troublesome things, he remembered Merlin saying once. It had described how Arthur felt then, and it described how he still felt every day.
Merlin understood him. And now, he understood Merlin.
“Read that in a book, did you?” he said finally.
Merlin smiled. “Read it? I practically wrote it.” He looked back down at the army and back at Arthur. “So what now?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Now, we break into Camelot.”
“Ah, yes. The reckless but noble approach. How?”
Arthur considered for a moment. “We’ll circle the castle and see how well the rest of it is guarded, then we’ll try to sneak through the least guarded gate. Can your magic disguise us?”
“I can age us, but I need a potion to reverse it. We’d be old until we could reach Gaius and then we’d have to wait for him to make it.”
“The castle’s on high alert, and as I’d rather not be executed by my own guards…”
Both men jumped when something exploded in the campsite below. Arthur flinched and covered his eyes as a brilliant orange flame burst from behind one of the tents.
“What was that?!” he demanded.
“Aithusa,” Merlin breathed in horror.
“What is that, a spell? Are they attacking?”
Merlin stayed rooted to the spot, still staring at where the tent had caught fire. He rubbed his jaw, and Arthur could see his indecision. “We need to get you back to Camelot,” Merlin said finally. “And then I’ll come back and deal with that.”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief. “You’re doing it again. Tell me what that is and if my kingdom’s in any danger from it.”
Merlin nodded and took a deep breath. “Right, sorry. Remember that time we went after Borden and the dragon egg? And I told you the egg was destroyed when the tomb collapsed?”
Arthur gaped. “You didn’t.”
“Her name is Aithusa. She’s only a baby.”
“That’s what your dragon was looking for when it left.”
Merlin nodded miserably.
Arthur pressed his lips together. Just what he needed, another dragon. Then he realized the implications behind Merlin’s statement. He intended to get Arthur back to Camelot and then come back on his own to rescue a dragon?
“Right, then, change of plan. We rescue this…Aithusa, then we break into Camelot.”
“Arthur, we can’t. She’s my responsibility, not yours. You need to get back to the castle—”
“It’s my duty as much as yours to see that dragon goes free,” Arthur said determinedly, “It’s my father’s doing that there are so few dragons in the first place. If I want to make up for all the wrong he’s done, that I’ve helped do, what better place to start?”
Merlin still looked conflicted, so Arthur added, “And Emrys or not, you’re my friend and I am not letting you face that alone.”
“If Morgana finds you—”
“Yes, because I’m the only one she’s after.”
“I’ve faced loads of stuff alone—”
“Yeah, well now you don’t have to. And I’m the king, and I say we’re both going.” And with that, Arthur stalked off, not even turning his head to check if Merlin was following, because he knew he would.
“Prat,” Merlin muttered behind him, but Arthur could tell from the way he said it he was smiling.
Edniwe hleothor = restore voice
Gestillan = Be still / Be quiet
Thurh-haele braed. = Heal thoroughly the flesh.
They ended up deciding on not using magical disguises. After all, Arthur pointed out, they both were filthy, half-starved, exhausted, and wearing tattered, dirty clothing. Unless they actually ran into Morgana or someone else who knew them well, or gave anyone reason to study their faces closely, they probably could pass off as peasants or sorcerers. A bit more mud in their hair and on their clothes—the chainmail padding jacket in particular, which Merlin was still wearing at Arthur’s insistence—and they looked even less like the king of Camelot and his manservant.
That didn’t stop the knot of apprehension in Arthur’s stomach as they neared the edge of the camp. He tried to keep his open palm steady so the flame burning there didn’t die out.
The flame had been Merlin’s idea. The light helped keep them from tripping in the darkness and, if held right, cast shadows that helped obscure their faces. Plus, Merlin’s theory went, if Arthur looked like he was casting a spell, no one would ever consider he might actually be the king of Camelot. It was for the same reason Merlin insisted he leave the bandit’s sword behind—the less anyone associated Arthur’s face with swordfighting, the more likely no one would recognize him. It was actually a good idea, Arthur admitted, though he was loath to leave the sword behind.
It had been extremely disconcerting when Merlin had lit Arthur’s hand on fire. The flames appeared to be stemming right from his palm, but there was no flash of pain, no sign of burnt skin. The flames drizzled out of his cupped hand like he held liquid fire. It felt a bit like the ball of light that had guided him in the darkness—warm, comforting, and beautiful.
Merlin held a light of his own as he walked just in front of Arthur, leading the way towards the sentry. His movements grew quicker and more agitated the nearer they got. “Do you remember the word?” he asked for the millionth time.
“Forbaerne,” Merlin stressed. “You’ve got to get it right.”
“Why do I even need to know the word for it if you’re the one making the spell?”
“In case I have to make it again and make it look like you did it.”
“Won’t they hear you saying ‘forbaerne’?”
“I don’t always need spells. I didn’t even learn one until I came to Camelot.”
Arthur would have asked what that meant—wasn’t all magic spells?—but the sentry had noticed them now. He was young, barely the age of Merlin when he’d first came to Camelot, and unarmed, but Arthur knew that that was certainly no indication of threat. Not when magic was involved.
The boy held out a hand, making both Arthur and Merlin stop. Arthur could feel Merlin shift more in front of him ever so slightly.
“Who are you?” said the sentry. He reminded Arthur a bit of some of his younger knights—trying to sound older than they really were to prove themselves.
“Will and Gilli,” Merlin said, pointing at himself, then Arthur. “We’ve come to help restore magic to the land.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place. Always glad to get some new recruits. Especially volunteers. Especially with magic.” He eyed the flames in Arthur’s hands enviously. “Wish I had some.”
“You don’t have magic?” Arthur asked before he could stop himself. Merlin shot him a look, but it was too late to take it back now.
“No, but my mother did,” the boy explained, “She got caught healing with her magic, and Uther killed her. I’ve been on my own since then.”
A heaviness lodged in Arthur’s chest. How many times had he heard that story, or a similar one, while his father ruled? And yet he’d never questioned it when he was younger. Magic-users had broken the law; people who broke the law must be punished accordingly—Uther had been sure to teach him that early.
He wondered where this boy would be now if not for the Purge. Some quiet farm in some quiet village? A smith or a shop in some town? Perhaps he, too, would have trained to be a healer. Surely he wouldn’t have been out here, laying siege to a castle without so much as a means to defend himself. And how many more in this camp were like him, with lost loved ones and missed opportunities?
“Uther killed my mother too,” he said. Merlin jumped a bit at that statement, and Arthur nearly snorted. Maybe Merlin had skimmed over the truth behind Morgause’s story, but Arthur wasn’t stupid. Now that he had all the pieces, it was easy to put them together.
The boy nodded sympathetically. “I’ve got a friend staying in one of these tents, said he had some extra space. You’re welcome to it.”
“That’s very generous,” said Arthur.
“It’s that tent, fifth on the right. Tell them Daegal sent you.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, stepping around the sentry and dragging Arthur with him.
A few campfires were lit here and there, surrounded by people talking quietly, but for the most part, the camp seemed to be asleep.
“You seemed sympathetic,” Merlin commented when they were out of earshot of anyone awake.
“You said so yourself: sorcerers aren’t all evil. It’s just I wish…” Arthur lowered his voice even further. “How can I ever make up for what was done to them?”
Merlin gave him a small grin, and Arthur could see something like pride in his eyes. “You’re starting to already.”
They fell back into silence as they walked as fast as they dared without attracting attention. A few heads turned their way as they passed, and their expressions broke Arthur’s heart. They were tired, wary, depressed, but in many he saw a spark of hope in their eyes, and he knew that hope was from the thought of his death, of his kingdom falling to pieces around him.
Their freedom should not have to be bought with blood—his or theirs. These were his people, and he had failed them.
And he would have to keep failing them. He would still have to fight these people when they attacked, because he could not bear to see Morgana, who had slaughtered many during her last brief stint as queen, on the throne again. And though he accepted that many of these people were not the monsters his father had painted them, there were mercenaries in this camp as well, and Arthur definitely did not want them loose in Camelot either.
But when this battle was over…
He shook his head to clear it. Regardless of what he planned to do after he returned to Camelot, it did not change the fact that he was now walking through a camp full of hundreds, if not thousands, of hostile sorcerers who wanted him dead. He needed to be alert and ready for anything, even if all he could do at this moment was follow Merlin, who seemed to know where he was going.
Merlin paused by a tent and peeked his head around it for a moment, then turned back to Arthur, his expression grim. He closed his hand, making his flame wink out of existence, then waved Arthur’s away, plunging them both back into darkness.
Merlin’s voice was so quiet, Arthur could barely hear it. “She’s here, but there’s three guards…”
Arthur frowned. “Armed?”
Merlin nodded. “Only one, I think.”
Arthur nudged him aside so he could survey the situation. As his eyes adjusted to seeing by the stars and distant torchlight, he picked out three cloaked figures talking quietly. He caught the glint of metal on one of them. Another white gleam shone just behind them, and Arthur focused on it.
His breath caught. There was the dragon, shimmering in the faint starlight like a string of pearls. It was about the size of a colt, and it reminded Arthur a lot of one, with its spindly legs and long snout. Unlike a colt, though, it had two wings, disproportionately large for its body, that gave a half-hearted flap. The dragon nibbled on something near its ankle, then made a sad, mewling sort of sound, to which its guards paid no attention.
Arthur tore his gaze from the dragon and pulled his head back behind the tent, cursing himself for his careless gawking. He needed to keep his head. “You’re right; only one’s got a sword. He probably doesn’t have magic.”
“Just because he carries a sword doesn’t mean he needs one,” Merlin pointed out.
“It’s a risk we’ll have to take. Although perhaps it would be best if we knocked all three out quickly. The last thing we need is the whole camp on high alert.”
“Which they probably will be anyway once we release her. Problem is, if I knock one out, the others will recognize the magic. They’ll know they’re being attacked and be that much harder to defeat.”
“Can you distract them, do you think?”
“I can try, but they’ll know it’s magic. It might put them on their guard instead.”
“Then we’ll just have to charge. I’ll take the one with a sword, you take the sorcerers.” Arthur thought a moment. “That silencing spell you used on me—could you use it on them without them noticing?”
“Perhaps if I got them when they weren’t speaking…Are you ordering me to use magic, sire?” Merlin asked, his lips quirking.
Arthur elbowed him. “Yes, you idiot.”
Merlin slid past Arthur to poke his head and one hand out from behind the tent. “Gestillan.”
Arthur felt the slight whisper of magic in the air as Merlin repeated the spell for each man, so faint he knew he’d have only noticed if he were looking for it. When Merlin got the last man, the conversation fell silent. He ducked back behind the tent and met Arthur’s eyes.
The king nodded. “On me.”
Then he charged.
Two of the men were staring in silent bafflement at the third, who had been cut off mid-sentence. They noticed Arthur two seconds later, when he was almost upon them. By the time the nearest man raised his sword, Arthur tackled him to the ground, knocking the weapon from his hand. Both men grappled and rolled, trading punches. Arthur landed one blow, two blows—
And was blasted off his feet with explosive force. He went flying off the swordsman, straight towards a large shadow he took to be a tree. He tucked his head in, bracing himself for a bone-shattering impact, then looked up in surprise as he slowed to a gentle stop instead. He caught the gold fading from Merlin’s eyes just before the warlock ducked to avoid a fireball.
Merlin waved his hands and the offending sorcerer’s knees buckled.
Arthur had no time to thank him. The swordsman had recovered enough from his daze to spot his sword a few feet away. Both Arthur and the swordsman made a mad dive for it, but the swordsman snatched it from right under Arthur’s fingers, and the king was forced to roll away from the falling blade.
He got to his feet as soon as he could, but the swordsman was already swinging at him. Arthur darted back as the swordsman swung once, twice. On the third swing, Arthur shifted his weight to his heels and curved his body, and the blade just skimmed his stomach. Once the blade had passed, Arthur dived forward. Taking advantage of the swing’s momentum, he used one hand to press the arm with the sword against the man’s chest, then tucked his other hand behind the man’s neck. In one swift motion, he shoved the head down as he brought his knee up. Nose met knee in a sickening crunch, and the man collapsed, unconscious.
Job done, Arthur turned to see how Merlin was doing. Only one sorcerer was left standing; Arthur could see the other lying a few yards away. Merlin pushed his hand forward, and the sorcerer ducked to the right, lips moving and eyes glowing gold.
Merlin stumbled and made a sort of strangled grunt. Arthur rushed to his side, brandishing his fallen opponent’s sword, but by the time he reached him Merlin had already raised his fist and tightened it, and the sorcerer collapsed as if his bones had turned to mush.
All three guards down with barely a sound. It was the quietest fight Arthur had ever taken part in.
Arthur clapped a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, and received a nod from the warlock in return. Then both men turned their attention to the dragon, who was still frantically mewling and gnawing at something near its ankle—a chain, Arthur realized as they moved closer.
Merlin fell to his knees besides the dragon and stroked its neck. “Shh, shh, Aithusa…”
The dragon quieted immediately. Its vivid blue eyes stared at Merlin, and Arthur could have sworn they were full of recognition.
“Come on,” Merlin murmured, gesturing to Arthur to join him on the ground.
Reluctantly, Arthur did. “We should hurry,” he said, “Someone might have seen the fireballs.”
Merlin nodded, scowling as his fingers ran over the chain. “That witch chained her. Like a dog.” Aithusa whimpered, sensing her dragonlord’s anger, and Merlin quickly shushed soothingly again.
“Can you keep her calm?” he asked Arthur, “Only she’s scared and I’m going to have to focus on breaking the chains.”
“Well, unless you’ve learned to open magic chains…”
“I’m the king of Camelot; I don’t know any dragon-talk!”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Don’t be such a prat! Just talk to her. She’ll need to learn to speak to humans soon enough, anyway. Here.” He snatched Arthur’s hand and laid it on Aithusa’s snout. “Arthur, Aithusa. Aithusa, ton depote kai ton proso ton koiranon.”
Then he left Arthur’s hand there and started muttering angrily at the chains.
Arthur stared at Aithusa, not daring to move. Aithusa stared back, blue eyes unblinking.
“Er…hello,” Arthur said finally. This, he decided, was the strangest thing he had ever done. “You’re very beautiful, for a dragon. Very…shiny. And you’re a lot smaller than I expected. I guess I never really considered…I mean, dragons obviously aren’t born that large, but…”
Aithusa continued staring as if she could see straight into Arthur’s soul. Maybe, the king thought as he shuffled uncomfortably, she could.
“I do hope you don’t turn out as bloodthirsty as the other dragon. Or as thick-headed as Merlin.”
The dragon tilted her head in a motion that reminded him oddly of said warlock. He got the distinct impression that the dragon was unimpressed with that statement.
Having run out of conversational topics appropriate for speaking to baby dragons, Arthur tore his gaze away. “Merlin, will you hurry up?”
“—Un clyse! Sort of busy. And stop corrupting my dragon.”
“King,” came a small voice.
Both Arthur and Merlin turned as one to Aithusa.
“King,” Aithusa repeated, nuzzling into Arthur’s hand.
Merlin beamed like a proud father. “Oh, very good, Aithusa, your first human word!” He stroked Aithusa’s neck, but the dragon only curled closer to Arthur. Merlin’s face fell. “I don’t believe it. She likes you better.”
“Clearly she recognizes a brilliant man when she sees one.” Arthur patted Aithusa’s head, suddenly feeling very smug.
“King Rrrt…King Wart,” Aithusa said proudly.
Arthur felt his cheeks flush as Merlin pitched forward, biting on his fist to keep from letting his laughter escape. It was a close thing.
“Didn’t you say you were busy?” Arthur said pointedly, elbowing him.
Merlin gasped and managed to sober enough to stop shaking. “Right, yes, yes…” He rubbed his forehead as he concentrated for a moment. “Ic bebeode tha bende thaera dracan, onlucap!”
The chain snapped open. Immediately Aithusa yowled, kicked it off, and began jumping around excitedly.
Arthur and Merlin both shushed her frantically, and she finally sat there, preening for both of them.
“Ithi!” Merlin murmured, “Dee Kilgharrah, antinouthetee hee.”
Aithusa looked put out, but obediently started to flap her wings. Instead of flying away, however, she hovered a bit nearby, her head cocked to the side and looking at something beyond them.
“Aren’t you going to tell her to fly off now?” Arthur asked impatiently. “Someone will spot her.”
“I did! Maybe she doesn’t understand? But then why—”
All at once, Merlin cut off with a cry as he was blasted away. Arthur lurched for him in the same second that Aithusa roared, sending a jet of flame soaring over his head.
Arthur whirled, sword at the ready. There before him, parting Aithusa’s fire with his hand and some bellowed words, was Trent. Aithusa stopped her fire as she flew past Trent and began circling for another round.
Arthur gazed around wildly for where Merlin had landed and spotted him several yards away, sprawled facedown. Arthur’s chest tightened. Merlin wasn’t moving.
“Stupid lizard rat,” snarled Trent, lifting his palm skyward.
Arthur froze in mid-step towards Merlin. Something was tugging at him, some instinct that demanded nothing happened to that dragon, and instead of running toward Merlin, he launched himself at Trent in a flying tackle.
Trent’s spell went wide as both he and Arthur tumbled to the ground. Somewhere above them, Arthur could hear Aithusa shrieking, and he cursed. They’d made so much noise in the last few seconds, it wouldn’t be long before the whole camp swarmed on them.
His grip on his sword had slipped in the tackle, but before he could grab it firmly enough to stab, Trent shouted an unfamiliar word and Arthur felt his whole body lift off the ground. He kicked, but his legs met nothing but air.
“Well, well, looks like the king’s come home. And with Emrys, too.” The mercenary laughed. “Suppose I should thank you. If Emrys hadn’t escaped, the Lady Morgana wouldn’t have killed Gwil and freed me from my contract. Oh, you should have heard the screams…”
Arthur spotted Aithusa flying back. The baby dragon was a streamlined missile, mouth open to spew more flames. But before she could, Trent wrenched Arthur into her path. Aithusa stopped in her tracks, flapping in midair and growling. She started to circle, but Trent spun to keep Arthur in her line of fire. Arthur thought flying on the Great Dragon had been terrible, but now he was sure he was going to be sick. And thinking of Merlin’s current state certainly didn’t help.
“Your greed’s been your downfall, Pendragon,” Trent continued gleefully, “You weren’t satisfied with taking the Lady’s magic little prisoner. No, you wanted to make off with her dragon as well. She’ll be pleased to know I’ve recovered both. You, she’ll want to kill herself, but perhaps I can convince her to let me have him.”
Arthur thrashed in midair, trying to crane his head to catch a glimpse of Merlin. He couldn’t see him, but he did see signs of more fires being lit, of shadows emerging from tents. The camp was waking up.
Trent kept spinning, keeping Arthur between himself and Aithusa as the dragon flew around, roaring her rage. “Bael onbryne! Akwele!” Fireballs blasted from Trent’s free hand up towards Aithusa. The dragon twisted to avoid them, swooping in an arc.
“Leave…that dragon…alone,” came a raspy voice somewhere behind Arthur. The king swallowed his relieved sigh; Merlin was awake, but sounded injured. Arthur struggled in vain to turn around to see his friend, but Trent still had him facing Aithusa.
“Call it off or the king dies.”
“Drakon, nun de ge dei s'eikein kai emois epe'essin hepesthai! Dee Kilgharrah, antinouthetee hee. Ithi!”
Aithusa looked mournfully at Arthur for a moment before finally starting to fly away. With the dragon gone, Trent spun the king around as a shield against Merlin instead, and Arthur finally got a good look at his friend.
He stood still and tall, his hands at his sides and making no move to attack. He would have looked harmless if not for the bloody gash streaming down his temple and the dark simmering fury in his eyes.
“There,” he said. “Now let him go and leave. Last warning.”
But Trent made no move to lower Arthur back to the ground. “Oh, I’m not leaving, not when I’ve got a bargaining chip over the great Emrys.”
Merlin shook his head grimly. “You attacked my dragon and you’re threatening my king. You’ve got nothing but three seconds to run.”
Trent sneered. “The whole camp knows he’s here now. You really think you’ve got a chance in—”
Merlin raised a hand, and the sword Arthur had dropped earlier shot through Trent’s gut like a javelin through a bursting waterskin. The mercenary collapsed instantly and did not get up.
Arthur fell to the ground like a rope holding him there had snapped. He hit the leg Merlin had healed earlier hard, and a sharp pain jolted through it.
He could already see sorcerers gathering around them as Merlin hurried to his side to offer him a hand. Arthur winced as he stood and tested his leg, but the pain was bearable. They glanced at each other for a moment, silently communicating thanks and you’re welcomes and reassuring themselves they were both alright, then turned together to face the gathering throng.
“Where’s the dragon?” someone shouted.
“They let it go!”
“He killed one of us, did you see?”
“Hold on, is that…? That can’t be…”
“It’s the king! Arthur Pendragon!”
Merlin pushed his hand forward, and an entire swath of the crowd was blasted aside. Then he snatched Arthur’s arm and shoved him towards the freshly emptied space. “Run!”
Ancient Greek / Dragon
ton depote = once (once upon a time)
kai = modern Greek “and” (because I couldn’t find an ancient version)
ton proso = future
ton koiranon = king
Ithi = go
Dee = find / meet with
Antinouthetee = warn in return
Nun de ge dei s'eikein kai emois epe'essin hepesthai! = Now you must (it's necessary that you) obey (give way) and you must follow towards [...]!
(This is one of the stock phrases Merlin uses a lot in the show for both dragons and wyverns. Seems like it’s a phrase he uses to reinforce a command, sort of remind them who the boss is)
Old English / Spells
Un clýse! = Open!
Ic bebeode = I command
þá bende þæra dracan = these chains of the dragon
Onlucap = release
Ic bebeode tha bende thaera dracan, onlucap! = I command these chains of the dragon, release!
Although Arthur liked to say that knights of Camelot never ran from a fight, he knew that sometimes retreating was the best strategy. So long as the kingdom was not at stake, if his knights were heavily outnumbered and outmatched, there was no shame in ordering a retreat. Still, Arthur could count on one hand the number of times he had made such an order.
In one of those battles, he and his knights had been faced with an army of archers. Arrows had swarmed down from the sky like bees kicked from their nest, felling men left and right before any could get close to the enemy. Arthur had been much younger then, and not as battle-hardened, and the images of skewered eyeballs and punctured lungs still populated his nightmares. That battle had barely begun before Arthur had issued a retreat, recognizing that his knights were not shielded enough to have a chance at succeeding.
This moment felt much like that battle.
Arthur ran through the camp like he had never run before, Merlin on his heels. Spells zipped past them, burning holes in tents and trees like acid, and Merlin occasionally shouted back ancient-sounding words that made Arthur shiver. They dashed through the camp in a mad zigzag as more people joined in the chase, their spells forcing Arthur and Merlin to veer around them.
They were never going to make it to the gate, Arthur thought desperately as the ground exploded near his feet, sending showers of debris at his face. The achingly familiar wall of Camelot loomed just ahead of them, but the gate was still ages away. Sorcerers were hemming him and Merlin in on all sides, driving them towards the wall and away from the gate.
They were not too far from the wall when Merlin tripped spectacularly, somersaulting twice before sprawling flat on his face. Arthur turned around and hauled him back upright, only for Merlin to knock them both back down to avoid a wave of something dark soaring just above their heads.
By the time both men returned to their feet, they were completely surrounded. There must have been at least two hundred in the crowd now, a few swinging weapons, most with flames in their hands. Arthur saw their faces—faces of desperate men, weary women, battle-worn youths, all of them with anger or hatred or both in their eyes—and knew that they would settle for nothing less than his blood.
At Arthur’s side, Merlin was leaning on his knees, gasping for air. The gash on his head dripped down his face as he shook his head. “No, no, no, no…”
Arthur’s voice came out in a heavy croak. “Merlin, promise me you’ll take care of Guinevere—”
“No. You’re not going to die. Stay back!” He called the last bit out to the crowd, stepping in front of Arthur—and wasn’t that just backwards, Arthur thought hysterically—and holding out his arms.
The mob either didn’t hear him or didn’t care. Dozens of spells left dozens of lips, and Arthur braced himself, thinking at least he had died within sight of Camelot’s walls.
“Scildan!” Merlin roared.
Arthur’s ears popped and he nearly fell over as the onslaught of spells crashed into something he couldn’t see. The earth trembled and the very air seemed to be rocking around him, quivering under enormous pressure. Spells fizzled out of existence at the edge of whatever magical barrier Merlin had created, dissipating like smoke touching water.
And at the center of it all stood Merlin, shoulders bowed as if carrying a boulder on his back, arms held straight out to either side, eyes blazing brighter than any of the spells thrown at the shield. Arthur could see his knees buckling. He put a hand on the Merlin’s shoulder, unsure if Merlin even knew he was there, but wanting to do something to help him. Merlin stood a little straighter at the contact, so it must have helped, but all Arthur could do was numbly watch as Merlin kept death away from him.
After a minute or so, the barrage of magic came with less ferocity, until finally the last spell sputtered away. Merlin gasped a ragged breath as his eyes faded to blue and immediately swiveled to check on Arthur. The king squeezed his shoulder, and Merlin’s eyes closed in relief.
“Emrys,” someone cried, and the crowd erupted into a buzz of conversation. While some in the crowd did not react to the name, more than half did. Of those, some faces twisted in confusion, some in awe, while yet others just looked furious.
Merlin did not deny or confirm his identity, just took a deep breath, stood a little taller, and faced his palms forward. “You can’t have him. Let us pass.”
Some kind of green flames streaked through the air towards Merlin’s shield. This time, Merlin’s hand jerked to the side, and the flames ricocheted off in the opposite direction. The original caster threw his arms up to protect his face and yelled as his own flames seared him.
“I said, let us pass!” Merlin cried, his voice hitching as he raised his palms higher. “I don’t want to hurt you!”
But he would, Arthur saw. Merlin would take on every single one of these people for Arthur if he had to. And he might even win. He would hate himself for it, but he would.
This was all wrong.
Arthur pulled at his shoulder. “Merlin, stop.”
“They’re trying to kill you, I can’t let them, I’ve got to do something...”
“Not like this. They’re my people, and I’ve failed them. Let me speak.”
Merlin hesitated, but must have seen the determination in the king’s eyes, because he finally took a respectful step back. Arthur nodded his thanks before taking a deep breath and stepping forward to address the infuriated mob. He could tell from the way the air rippled that Merlin’s shield was still there, but that did little to quell his thundering heart.
“I’m King Arthur of Camelot,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “And I don’t want to fight you. I am not your enemy.”
The crowd filled with scoffs and jeers.
Still, Arthur pressed on, encouraged that at least none of them had tried to attack. “I have not attacked you unprovoked. I have not executed anyone for magic since ascending to the throne. I have not conducted raids on druid settlements.”
“You’ve killed our kind!” a voice shouted. “You and your father!”
Arthur swallowed. “I know. I know my father persecuted you. And it was wrong. I was wrong. For all you have suffered, I am truly sorry. I know that nothing I can do may make up for what has been done to you and your people, but I intend to at least try. And that is why I am going to repeal the laws banning magic, so that peace and prosperity can be extended to all of Camelot’s citizens.”
Every eye in the crowd was on him now, and the silence was absolute.
“Ever since I became king, I have striven to build a kingdom where its people could live without fear. But I know now that I have failed that in every respect, because I have failed you. My father raised me with the belief that all magic was evil, and growing up I saw no reason to doubt him. I have seen magic used for great evil…”
He glanced quickly at Merlin, who was standing as rapt as any in the crowd, “But now I know that I have also seen it used for great good. I ask for that goodness now. If you destroy Camelot, you would be justified. I know Camelot has hurt you. But if you do, know this: there will never be peace in this kingdom. You attack, and maybe you’ll win, or maybe you’ll lose. Either way, the people within those walls, the people that believe as I once did that magic is something to be feared, not respected—they will only have those fears confirmed. They will not accept you, the Purge will rage on, more will die, and you will be forced to attack again. This entire land will spiral into an endless cycle of vengeance and bloodshed.”
A few murmurs emerged from the mob—his audience, now—but all stood completed riveted.
“I don’t want that. Instead, I want to build a kingdom where no one is persecuted, regardless of their abilities. A kingdom where magic roams free once more. A kingdom where its citizens are united in peace and loyalty. But I can’t do that without your help.”
An older woman with a hardened face stepped forward. A series of swirls was painted on her neck, and Arthur recognized the druid symbol. “A Pendragon’s word is worth nothing. How do we know you aren’t just trying to save your own skin? That you won’t just turn on us the moment you’re back behind your walls?”
A couple of shouts agreed. Arthur held his head high, ignoring the way his stomach twisted. He’d been afraid of that. “All I ask is that you give me a chance to build the kingdom I spoke of. If you truly think killing me now where I stand will bring a greater peace, then go ahead. I offer myself for Camelot. Just let my friend live. Merlin, lower the shield.”
Behind him, Merlin choked. “What?! Arthur—”
Arthur did not dare look back at him; if he did, his resolve might waver. “Lower the shield.”
“No! No, I can’t—”
Arthur braced himself, then turned to face his friend. Merlin’s breath was starting to come in short, shallow gasps as he shook his head disbelievingly. He looked more terrified than Arthur had ever seen him, and Arthur hated himself for what he was about to do.
“You said you trusted me with your life. Now I’m asking you to trust me with mine.”
“Arthur, please don’t…”
Merlin stared back at him for a long time, and Arthur wondered if Merlin, like he always did, knew what Arthur was thinking: That he had to make this right, even if the cost was his life. That he knew now what that would do to Merlin, and he was sorry.
Slowly, painfully, Merlin lowered his arms, and the air stopped shimmering.
Arthur turned back to face the shocked woman and the silent crowd around her. “I do not ask for forgiveness. I only ask for a chance so that I can make this right. Do you accept?”
He held his palms out in supplication, and waited.
The next few seconds were the longest Arthur had ever experienced as he waited for someone, anyone to answer. The faces around him studied him intently, looking for deceit, but no one moved. He could hear his own heart pounding like a hammer on armor. Somehow he knew without turning his head that Merlin was wringing his hands and trembling.
Ten seconds passed, then fifteen, then twenty, with not a sound. Arthur lowered his hands and exhaled.
Then an orange streak flashed before his eyes. Arthur felt his lungs seize, heard Merlin scream his name, knew his friend would be too late—
The spell veered to hit the earth with a boom inches from Arthur’s feet, scorching the ground black. Arthur sprung back out of instinct. Merlin was still reaching for him; his eyes held a strange mixture of terror, fury, and relief. Arthur knew from that look that Merlin had not caused any of the magic.
Someone in the crowd had attacked the king, but someone else in the crowd had deflected it.
The next moment seemed to unleash a maelstrom of spells, as the members of the crowd shouted and pointed and countless pairs of eyes flashed gold. Arthur could not tell who was friend or foe, but it seemed to be at least evenly divided, because somehow not a spell touched him.
Within these seconds of absolute chaos, Merlin snatched a fistful of Arthur’s shirt and yanked him into a dash towards the castle wall. Somehow they were moving faster through the crowd than Arthur thought possible, as if time itself had slowed to a crawl around them. He thought Merlin might have been yelling something, but the entire world seemed to be moving too quickly to process. Arthur barely registered the motion of his own feet or the dazzling lights exploding all around him. All he knew was Merlin propelling him straight towards the great stone walls of Camelot.
The enormous wall towered above them and Arthur realized with a detached sort of terror that Merlin was not slowing, so neither was he. They were going to crash into the wall, and Arthur braced himself for impact—
They smashed through the wall like it wasn’t even there, stones crumbling around them as they tumbled to the ground.
Arthur laid there a moment, too winded to budge, but Merlin was already back on his feet, arms spread and frantically murmured words on his lips. The rubble around them launched through midair, flying back towards the hole in the castle wall too quickly for the eye to follow. By the time Arthur returned to his feet, he could only watch as the last stone magically slid back into place.
Then Merlin pressed his hands up against the wall and began to chant. “Wyrth gatu faest, agaele hie thurh minum gewealde ond minum maegen. Gestrenge me nu thaet ic beo swithe mihtig hie to forwiernan. Wyrth gatu faest, agaele hie…”
Arthur watched as a blue glow swept from Merlin’s hands and radiated through the stones. He could almost feel the magic whispering, pulsing through the air like a tangible force. And through it all, Merlin stood there, chanting quietly but confidently. At that moment, he looked every inch the most powerful sorcerer to walk the earth.
Then the incantation ended, Merlin staggered away from the wall, and the moment was broken. Arthur reached out a hand to steady him, and Merlin all but collapsed.
Arthur gave him a shake, equally awed, worried, and exasperated. How he’d never noticed Merlin doing magic when it seemed to make him swoon at every turn, Arthur had no idea. “Merlin?”
“You absolute clotpole,” Merlin mumbled. His eyes had been sliding shut, but they blinked open as Arthur shook him. The faraway look in his eyes quickly sharpened to anger. “You absolute clotpole. You nearly died.”
“I noticed, Merlin.”
“If you ever do something that stupid again…”
“You’ll turn me into a toad, I suppose.”
Merlin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “…Just don’t do that again.”
Arthur managed a weak smile as he wrapped Merlin’s arm around his shoulders. “Can’t make any promises. Besides, I thought I existed to make your life difficult?”
“You do. You really, really do...”
Arthur and Merlin both flinched; Arthur was sure if Merlin hadn’t needed to lean on him the warlock would have bolted. Slowly, they both turned to face the small group of knights gathered not ten feet away. They must have been patrolling and hurried towards the racket of Merlin smashing through the wall.
Arthur only barely registered a flicker of relief as he took in which knights they were: Leon, whose eyes were bulging; Percival, who was blinking owlishly; Elyan, whose mouth was open; Gwaine, who looked as if he’d been punched in the gut; and Owain, an older knight on the brink of retirement who nearly dropped his sword in shock.
It was Leon who had spoken; he softly repeated, “Sire, what…what is this?”
Arthur drew himself up as much as he could while still supporting Merlin. “An excellent question, Sir Leon. Merlin?”
Merlin’s voice was faint and jittery. His eyes darted from side-to-side. “A shield. Wards. I’ve warded the wall. Sealed it shut so no one can enter.”
Arthur’s kingly demeanor slipped for moment. “What, the whole thing? All around Camelot?”
“That’s…impressive,” Arthur said, reeling a bit at Merlin’s power while fishing desperately for a way to convince his knights to accept Merlin—or at the very least, not harm him.
“It’ll last until morning at least,” Merlin added in a desperate tone bordering on hysteria. “Maybe even longer. Morgana will break through eventually, but at least you’ve got till morning. It’s meant to last longer but I’ve only been working on the wards for a month and it usually takes years—”
“Sorcery,” Owain murmured, raising his sword a bit more. Merlin shrank back as much as he could.
“Yes,” Arthur snapped, “Sorcery. Sorcery that has saved my life countless times tonight. Sorcery that is right now protecting this entire castle and everyone in it. Sorcery that I intend to make legal as soon as possible. In the meantime, any man who lays a hand on Merlin will lose it. Do I make myself clear?”
The knights all stared in silence for a moment. Finally, Gwaine sheathed his sword and stepped forward. “Perfectly. And I’ll do the chopping-limbs-off bit myself. Alright there, Merlin?”
Merlin seemed to sag under the weight of so many stares. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it, mate.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin repeated stubbornly. He looked very much like he was considering making the street swallow him.
One by one, the knights all sheathed their swords with varying degrees of shame and wariness.
“Right,” Arthur said briskly, “Owain, Gwaine, and Percival, gather our forces and relay my orders. I want scouts patrolling the walls, but no one is to attack their forces unless the wall is actually breached. Anyone not absolutely necessary for patrolling is ordered to rest until morning. Tell them a sorcerer is protecting Camelot, but tell no one it is Merlin.” He glared at each of the men in turn, emphasizing that last bit as much as he could. Merlin was hardly in the shape to defend himself right now, and the last thing he needed was some well-meaning knight trying to kill a sorcerer so close to the king.
“You want them to sleep, sire?” Owain repeated incredulously.
“Merlin says no one can enter the city until morning, and I believe him. If the men are to fight in the morning, they’ll need their rest. Now go.”
Owain, suitably chagrined, quickly rushed away. Gwaine looked ready to protest leaving Merlin’s side, but Percival placed a hand on Gwaine’s shoulder and shook his head. Both knights reluctantly followed after Owain.
“Elyan, run ahead and tell the kitchens I want two enormous plates of food delivered to Gaius’s chambers immediately. Then find Guinevere and tell her of my safe return.” Elyan nodded, spared a worried glance at Merlin, and took off.
Arthur turned to the final knight. “Leon, with me. I want a full report of everything on the way to Gaius.”
Leon led the way to the castle as Arthur staggered on, supporting a far-too-quiet Merlin, whose head was drooping. Leon offered to take him, but Arthur shot him down. He knew they were safe now, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to let go until Merlin was officially back with Gaius. Besides, he’d gotten Merlin this far; he could carry him a bit longer.
As they climbed the castle steps, Leon explained how a few days earlier, after the fire was out and the bandits had retreated, the knights—all of whom had survived—had frantically scoured the forest for their missing king. After a day, they had decided to return to Camelot for reinforcements to widen the search, but by then the sorcerers were already starting to gather. They were led by Morgana, who arrived with a dragon in tow. The knights had barely made it back into the castle in time to avoid being scorched.
“We haven’t been able to leave the castle since.”
“Is Morgana still around?” Arthur asked worriedly. Merlin had said Morgana might be able to break through the shield around the city.
Leon shook his head. “She arrived with the dragon, but she left soon after. The scouts say they haven’t seen her return. It’s my belief, sire, that the dragon was sent to fetch her.”
No Morgana. Arthur supposed if Gwil was dead, then the groups searching for him and Merlin in the woods were probably working under her orders. Morgana must have still been leading the search, scouring the woods. With luck, perhaps she would not realize they’d made it to Camelot for a long time. And perhaps enough of the sorcerers camped outside would heed his words and abandon the siege before she returned.
“The dragon is on our side now,” Arthur said. Then he added pointedly, “Merlin’s side.”
Merlin did not respond to the sound of his name; his eyes had that faraway daze in them again. Arthur wondered if he had a concussion. His head wound from where Trent had thrown him was still bleeding. Or…perhaps he’d used too much magic?
“Sire, may I ask…” Leon glanced at Merlin, than lowered his voice. “What happened to him? Is he alright?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur said grimly. “I wasn’t there for most of it. But it wasn’t good.”
“Was it magic?”
“The opposite. They took it away from him.”
Leon looked dumbfounded. “So he’s always…?”
Arthur nodded. “He’s saved my life—all our lives, several times over. And I don’t even think he’s told me about all of them yet.”
“Then I owe him a great debt,” Leon said solemnly.
“Believe me, we all do.”
Leon went on to explain how the castle’s defenses had fared under Guinevere’s command, and Arthur couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride for his wife. She’d evacuated civilians from the lower town and outlying villages into the underground caverns beneath the castle in anticipation of the battle, organized and distributed Camelot’s food stores to last the whole of Camelot for weeks, posted sentries at the most strategic locations along the walls, rallied the knights with Leon’s help, and had managed to do all this while reassuring the people and preventing a panic.
He knew Guinevere would be a good queen.
Camelot would pull through this, Arthur thought determinedly, trying to ignore his own exhaustion. For the moment, he was safe, Merlin was safe, and his people were safe. Now he would just have to wait to see what the morning would bring.
Wyrth gatu faest! = Intelligent and closed gates! (from the show)
Ágæle hie = keep them out / hinder them
Gestrenge me nu þæt ic beo swiþe mihtig hie to forwiernan! = Now strengthen me so that I will be fiercely able to hinder them!
Thurh minum gewealde ond minum maegen = Through my power and my strength (from the show)
Wyrth gatu faest, agaele hie thurh minum gewealde ond minum maegen. Gestrenge me nu thaet ic beo swithe mihtig hie to forwiernan. Wyrth gatu faest, agaele hie… =
Intelligent and closed gates, keep them out through my power and my strength. Now strengthen me so that I will be fiercely able to hinder them. Intelligent and closed gates, keep them out…
Chapter 14: The Eye of the Storm
Merlin had been flagging all day, but his bone-deep exhaustion only intensified once they returned to the city, giving the entire trek to the citadel a dreamlike haze. He could feel every ache reflected in each heavy footstep as they neared Gaius’s chambers. He was still leaning on Arthur, who had started to favor the leg Merlin knew he’d healed earlier. Despite his injury, though, Arthur had refused to let go of him, and Merlin was grateful. He tried numbly to listen to Leon explaining the defense efforts, but his mind kept straying back to the shield.
The wards he’d cast over the city were built on a foundation of protection spells he’d been casting every week in the last month since they’d retaken Camelot from Morgana. The basic idea, so he’d read in his spellbook, was to store magic in a tangible object—in this case, the walls of Camelot. His own body would naturally replenish his magic, much like it would replenish his blood after a nasty wound, and the magic he’d left in the walls would lie there, dormant, until he activated it. In this way, he could save up an immense amount of power, enough to fuel a shield around the entire city, and use it without being weakened himself. All he’d had to do was sneak to the walls every week—twice a week if he could manage it—and infuse as much of his magic into the walls as he could manage without passing out. He’d gone at night, so that he’d be less likely to be seen, and so that he’d have an excuse if he were caught. After all, if anyone saw him stumbling incoherently and only half-conscious back to Gaius’s chambers, he could simply say he was heading home from the tavern.
Building the shield left him physically and magically exhausted the next day, but Merlin thought it was worth it. After all, another couple months of casting and he’d have a passable shield; give him a year or two and he doubted anything in heaven or earth would be able to get past the shield when it was activated. Then if Morgana or an army of the dead or anything else tried to charge at Camelot, Merlin could activate the shields without draining himself, allowing him to fight the invaders off and protect the city at the same time.
However, the shield was nowhere near that point now. He had activated the shield too early. Fueled by his single-minded panic of protect-Arthur-protect-Camelot, he’d poured his magic into it. Now instead of drawing power from layers of protective spells built over time, the wards were drawing their power directly from Merlin himself, severely weakening him. Perhaps on a good day, he might merely have felt ill at supplying so much power to such an enormous sustained spell, but after the last couple days of abuse his body and magic had taken, he was surprised he was able to conjure it at all. As it was, he could feel that the wards were spread too thin to last longer than a day. They might not even last that long if Morgana threw everything she had at it, which she undoubtedly would. But it should last the night, and hopefully it would buy enough time for Aithusa to reach Kilgharrah and for he and Arthur to rest.
And for him to figure out what to do about everyone who knew what he was now. Somewhere in the back of his mind was threaded a constant stream of panic, of his mother’s voice drilling into him since before he could remember, Keep the magic secret. Keep the magic secret. Keep the magic secret.
But he could no longer sustain a sense of true panic. After all the times he had been completely terrified for Arthur’s life today, he was far too drained to feel anything other than exhaustion. Besides, if he were to panic, it would be over how he planned to defeat a thousand sorcerers, including Morgana, by morning. Already he could feel hundreds prodding at the shield, like curious children poking at a tired animal’s cage to get it to react.
He snapped back to reality as they reached Gaius’s door, which opened at Leon’s knock. Despite the late hour, Gaius was not in his nightclothes. Heavy bags dipped below his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept well, or at all, in days. He looked older than Merlin had ever seen him, but when Gaius’s eyes landed on his ward, years seemed to drip off at his palpable relief.
“Oh, you foolish, foolish boy,” Gaius cried, snatching Merlin away from Arthur and burying him in a hug. “You came back.”
“I’ll always come back home,” said Merlin with as much of a smile as he could manage. Dimly he could hear Arthur issuing orders to Leon—something about guarding the door and not being disturbed, under any circumstances—but he didn’t care. He just wanted to close his eyes and fall asleep right there in Gaius’s arms, standing up or not.
Until he smelled food. He finally broke from Gaius’s hug, his mouth watering as he turned to see Arthur taking a large tray of food from an arriving servant and shutting the door.
The food was barely set on the table before both Merlin and Arthur were stuffing their faces without any thought to etiquette whatsoever.
“I take it wherever you were, you weren’t fed,” Gaius said with a sigh, gathering bandages and herbs from his workbench. “Do remember to chew.”
Merlin and Arthur both grunted in response, but did not look up from their plates. Merlin nearly gagged on how rich the food tasted—even before he’d been starved, he didn’t usually eat food meant for royalty. He should probably appreciate the fact that he was eating food meant for a king, but right now, he could have eaten weeks-old rat stew and still been happy.
“Slow down, both of you,” Gaius scolded as he neared Merlin with a wet rag. Both men complied, taking huge swigs from their goblets. Merlin pushed his plate away, unable to stomach more than half its contents. Still, the food made him feel a lot more solid and coherent.
“No, get Arthur’s leg first,” he said as Gaius started to prod his head with the rag. “And check his head, will you?”
Arthur wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ignore everything that idiot says and fix him.”
“Thank you, sire. Merlin, hold still.”
Merlin hissed as the rag touched the wound. “It’s fine, Gaius, really, it’s just bleeding a lot.”
Gaius tugged the padding jacket off. He paled at the patchy state of Merlin’s shirt and the wounds visible beneath. “Yes, perhaps that’s not serious, but the rest of you…What happened? Where did you get these burns? They can’t be this old; you’ve barely been gone a week. And what else is there?” He skirted a finger around the edge of one of the burns on Merlin’s arms, making the warlock flinch away.
“Nothing. Really, I’m fine. My magic was pretty bad, but it’s mostly fine now, and Kilgharrah healed—”
He cut off with a cry as Gaius, eyes bulging in fear, jabbed him in the head with the rag. “Oh dear, I’m afraid you most definitely have a concussion. He’s clearly delirious, sire; the wound must be infected.”
“Gaius, stop!” Arthur interrupted in alarm, “I know. About everything.”
Gaius did not falter. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, sire. Once the fever sets in, patients often spout absolute nonsense.”
Merlin ducked beneath the rag, fingers tenderly rubbing his head. “Gaius, he knows about me. About the magic, dragons, Emrys, everything.”
Gaius blinked a moment, then sat down heavily, his hand on his chest. He looked between Merlin and Arthur. “You…you know?”
“It was a bit difficult to miss.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you,” added Merlin, resting his head on the table. Something hit his forehead, and he opened his eyes to blink at a very indignant Arthur preparing to chuck another grape at him.
Gaius gawked between the two of them, speechless. “I…I don’t believe it. Does anyone else…?”
“A few of the knights saw him casting a shield around the city. But I’ve forbidden them from saying anything. No one is going to harm him.”
“I…Thank you, sire, I…I don’t know what to say.”
“You could tell him to stop being infuriating and wake up,” Arthur suggested, and Merlin again opened his eyes as another grape hit his forehead.
“’M awake,” he said, rubbing a hand up and down his face and silently cursing. Now was not the time to fall asleep.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Alright there, Merlin? ”
Merlin sat up a little straighter, carefully trying to obscure his weariness. “Much better. Not all of us have king-sized stomachs.”
Arthur snorted and chucked another grape at him. This time, Merlin stopped it with a flash of his eyes and a smirk. Seeing the annoyed look on Arthur’s face was immensely satisfying, even though that simple bit of magic sent a powerful wave of nausea through him that nearly made him buckle.
When Gaius finally gathered some words, they came out sharply. “Those burns were from something restricting your magic, then?”
Merlin nodded wearily as Gaius seized his arm and inspected the burn closer. Merlin could see the familiar tightness in Gaius’s face that the physician got whenever Merlin returned home worse for the wear. Usually such a look foretold a shouted lecture, followed by a hug. This time, Gaius did not shout, although Merlin would have preferred that to the pure worry shining from his mentor’s eyes.
“You say you cast a shield? You don’t mean—”
“Yeah,” Merlin said, cutting him off. He had told Gaius about the shield project when he’d started it, and he was sure Gaius knew full well what activating the shield so soon was costing him. He tried to plead with his eyes not to say anything to Arthur. Arthur had enough to worry about already.
Gaius peered at him with a stern eyebrow, and Arthur looked up from his food at Merlin suspiciously. Merlin resisted the urge to lay his head on the table again. Arthur and Gaius were both going to want him to sleep, which he didn’t have time for because he needed to figure out how he was going to fight a thousand sorcerers. And Arthur still needed his help; he couldn’t just sleep.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Merlin argued. “I’m only sorry it’s not going to last longer.”
“You’re sorry,” Arthur repeated flatly. “You’ve kept Morgana and who knows how many sorcerers from breaking in for the rest of the night, and you’re sorry?!”
“You really are a total idiot, aren’t you.”
Merlin gave the slightest of shrugs. “Still putting up with you, aren’t I? And I am sorry.”
“No. You don’t need to apologize. Far from it. I don’t often say this, but…You’ve done a brilliant job, Merlin. Thank you.”
Merlin’s lips twitched. “You did a good job, too. Nice speech; surprised I didn’t write it.”
Arthur’s voice was quiet and sincere. “You did.”
Merlin swallowed hard. “…They listened to you, you know.”
“Oh, sure. Before or after they tried to kill me?”
“I mean, not all of them, but…I think you got through to a lot of them. You made a lot of allies today.”
“So long as they’re still allies tomorrow. I’ll fight them if I have to. I can’t let Morgana seize control again.”
“No, you can’t. And you won’t. You will succeed, Arthur. I know it.”
Gaius looked between the two of them in amazement. “Sire, you spoke to the army outside?”
Arthur squared his shoulders. “I did. They’re hardly an army; they’re citizens who only want to live in peace. They deserve that as much as any other man.”
Gaius’s eyebrows seemed permanently attached to his hairline. “Perhaps the time of Albion is upon us after all.”
“Perhaps it is,” Arthur agreed thoughtfully.
Merlin couldn’t stop himself from beaming. At that moment, Arthur looked every inch the king Merlin always knew he could be, speaking of the golden future he’d always longed for. Albion had never seemed so close.
“I’m just not sure how to make the rest of Camelot see that, especially with a…well, yes, an army of sorcerers camped outside. I’d like to lift the ban on magic as soon as possible, like I promised, but…”
“Deal with the impending attack first,” Merlin advised him. “I want magic to be restored to the land as much as they do, believe me. But now is not the moment. If you repeal the ban now, while we’re under duress, the council will think the sorcerers outside have enchanted you or something, and either they won’t listen to you and we’ll waste valuable time, or worse, the validity of the ruling will always be in question. Not to mention people with magic will be suspected and hated even more.”
Arthur considered that for a moment. “Alright, then. How do we deal with the impending attack?”
“For starters, I’ve told Aithusa to send Kilgharrah—that’s the Great Dragon. It’ll probably be a long while before she finds him and he gets here, but that might help.”
“Are you mad?” Gaius protested. “The Great Dragon this close to Camelot? People will panic.”
“Yes, well, better panicked than dead.”
“And what does the king have to say about all this?” Gaius whirled to Arthur.
“Good. We could use the extra defense. And perhaps that will help people realize that magic can be used for good. If we can get the knights fighting alongside it…”
Gaius blinked. “Sire, while I commend you for accepting alternative methods to defending our kingdom, how do you propose to explain why a supposedly deceased dragon is protecting the city?”
“The knights at least know Arthur’s allied with a sorcerer,” Merlin pointed out. At Gaius’s look, he quickly added, “They don’t know the sorcerer’s me; they just know there is one.”
“So I tell them the truth,” Arthur decided. “I’ve allied with a sorcerer, who’s also a dragonlord. And perhaps having a magical creature come to our aid will help people realize the potential good of magic. The council may be impossible to convince, but if the people’s hearts are swayed…”
Merlin braced himself against the table while another wave of nausea churned through him. No. No, Arthur still needed him. He could hold on a bit longer.
Merlin continued to nod and tried to follow as Arthur kept talking, something about battle formations of knights and council meetings and legalities, but his head doggedly refused to stay up. Arthur’s voice sounded far away and muffled, but every time Merlin tried to concentrate on listening, his head started to tingle with dizziness. Something touched his shoulder and shook him, called his name…Gaius?...
Merlin’s vision suddenly went dark as a chill surged through him, squeezing as if a giant fist was clenched around his chest. His magic pushed behind his eyes like a dam holding back a raging river, and he heard a distant, infuriated shriek…
Merlin opened eyes he didn’t remember closing and realized he was on the floor. Gaius was kneeling beside him, hand hot against his brow. Behind Gaius, Arthur was pacing in short, jerky steps.
“Wha…?” Merlin started, trying to push himself back up.
“Don’t move too quickly,” urged Gaius. He turned to Arthur, who snapped to attention. “He’s freezing. Get him up to his room, gently; I’ll fetch more blankets.” Gaius hurried over to the far side of the room as Arthur eased Merlin back to his feet and guided him towards the stairs.
“What’s wrong with you?” Arthur demanded. “I thought you were better. You said you were better!”
“I am,” Merlin mumbled, “ ‘Better’ is a relative term. And I’m better than I was before…”
But that was not enough to reassure Arthur. “You should have said. I would have let you rest.”
“But I’ve got to figure out how to fight off all those…” Merlin waved his hand listlessly. “By morning.”
“I’m not expecting you to fight them all by yourself! Especially when you’re like this! You’re injured, and you’ve done more than enough; now I expect you to rest and let the knights take care of it. That’s what they’re for, so injured idiots like you don’t get killed! I mean, what were you planning on doing if you collapsed in the middle of the fight?!”
Merlin hadn’t really considered that. He’d never had the option of sitting out a magical attack. Either he dealt with it or Camelot fell. Simple as that. “Knights won’t be any good against Morgana. I’m the only one who…” But thinking of Morgana made his eyes widen a fraction as he remembered. “Arthur, she’s found it. Morgana, she’s...”
Arthur’s brow furrowed. “She what?”
Merlin could feel his knees giving beneath his weight as another howl of fury suddenly crescendoed in his head. His vision swam as invisible blows rained upon him with all the fury of a vengeful god. By the time Merlin could breathe again, he was lying on his back on his bed, and Arthur’s pale, blurry face hovered over him.
“Merlin? Gaius, he’s shaking…Merlin!”
Merlin hadn’t understood a word that Arthur had said, but he recognized the tone of panic. His stomach roiled as he tried to sit up and summon some magic against whatever was scaring Arthur.
“No!” Gaius replaced Arthur at his side, pushed him back down to lie on his bed, and draped some blankets over him. The weight of them made Merlin feel more tired than he had ever thought possible. “No more magic, Merlin. You must sleep.”
“But I’ve still got to…”
“You’ve done more than enough, my boy.”
“Arthur is safe. Now sleep.”
And finally, Merlin did.
When Merlin’s eyes, which had been glowing nonstop since his initial collapse, finally closed, Arthur leaned against the far wall and slid down to the floor, hands clenching his hair. He’d known Merlin wasn’t in the best of shape—neither of them were, after being imprisoned, then spending the day traipsing through the forest and the evening freeing dragons and facing down sorcerers, but how had he not seen that Merlin was this ill?
Better? If Merlin called staring into space and twice falling to the floor in some sort of magical fit better, what had he felt like before?
Arthur watched Gaius stroke Merlin’s forehead until the warlock’s tense breathing slowed and evened. When at last Merlin seemed truly asleep, Gaius turned to Arthur, bags stark beneath his eyes. “Come along, sire. Let’s have a look at that leg.”
Arthur wasn’t sure if he had the strength to stand; all of his energy seemed to have drained with Merlin’s collapse. Still, his leg was aching, and he couldn’t bear to stay in Merlin’s room with sure proof that he was too much of a prat to notice that Merlin had been on the verge of… whatever magical condition this was.
“He will be fine, sire,” Gaius reassured him when he did not move.
Arthur pushed off the wall he was leaned against and grimaced as he placed weight on the leg. “I never want to hear the word ‘fine’ referring to Merlin again.”
“If you like, sire.”
Arthur stumbled back down the stairs, gritting his teeth against the twinging leg. Gaius kept a hand on his back, and Arthur felt a flash of irritation. He’d practically carried Merlin all the way up these stairs; he could certainly get himself down them.
Except apparently, he couldn’t. His leg gave out near the bottom of the stairs and he would have fallen on his face had Gaius not seized his shirt with a surprisingly strong grip for someone of the physician’s age.
Gaius settled Arthur back on the bench at the table, picked up the abandoned salves and bandages from Merlin’s seat, and rolled up Arthur’s tattered trouser leg. His brow furrowed as he gently probed it.
“What’s wrong with him?” Arthur demanded. “He told me his magic had recovered.”
“His magic is fine. It’s his body that’s given out, I’m afraid. It probably gave out quite a while ago.”
Arthur winced as Gaius started to rub some salve on his leg. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve long suspected that his magic keeps him going when his body no longer can, and I’m afraid this confirms my theory.”
“Then why didn’t he just say something? I pushed him all day to reach Camelot by nightfall. If he was in that bad of shape, we could have rested.”
“His magic is part of him, completely instinctual. He wouldn’t notice his magic fueling him, just as you or I wouldn’t notice our bodies digesting food.”
Arthur winced as Gaius prodded a painful spot on his leg. “So what, he just…ran out?”
Gaius sighed. “Not entirely. The problem is that shield—he conjured it too early. It’s a spell that’s meant to grow stronger over time, with the power of several hundred castings spread out over the course of several months, so that the casters—there’s meant to be at least a dozen—can provide a great deal of power without being drained. Unfortunately, Merlin has only been working on it for the past month, starting just after Morgana’s last attack, and he has been working on it alone. I’m afraid with only a month’s worth of spells behind it, the shield is not powerful enough to stand independently. Therefore, it must depend directly on Merlin’s power to maintain itself instead. Such a large shield would take an immense amount of magic to sustain under attack.”
“He said something about Morgana before he passed out…”
Gaius bowed his head gravely. “Then the shield is likely under attack from Morgana as we speak.”
“But then…Is the shield holding?!”
“I believe so. That’s why it’s best that he sleeps for now. Instead of being diverted to keeping his body awake, his magic can now be fully focused on maintaining the shield. He should reawaken when his body recovers or when the shield falls and his magic is rediverted back to him.”
Arthur pulled his leg away from Gaius and stood up. “So if I can stop Morgana, then he’ll recov—” He hissed as his leg throbbed.
“Sit down!” Gaius yanked him back down onto the bench. “Don’t aggravate the injury. This leg needs to be reset entirely! How have you been walking on that?”
“I don’t know!” Arthur shot back, gritting his teeth as the pain radiated up through his body. “It didn’t hurt this much after Merlin healed it.”
Gaius looked thoughtful. “You say Merlin healed you?”
“Yes, just before we escaped. And my head.”
“Did this sudden increase in pain come on just after he fell unconscious?”
Arthur blinked. “…Yeah. Are you saying…His magic was keeping me going as well?”
“Indeed, sire. His magic is now diverting from himself and from you in order to fuel the shield. It is my guess, sire, that that is also why you are feeling such exhaustion now. I told you his magic is instinctual, and Merlin’s proven time and again that his first instinct is to protect you, even when he himself can’t.”
Arthur frowned as pieces came together in his head. “Where we were held…this man somehow made Merlin think he was me, and told him to kill the real me. And Merlin was about to, but he stopped. Said it didn’t feel right.”
Gaius nodded grimly. “That doesn’t surprise me. He’s done something similar in the past.”
“What are you talking about?”
Gaius hesitated, but finally said, “Morgana was once able to capture him. She infected him with a Fomorrah, a creature that enslaves men’s wills. His mind was completely consumed with the command to kill you, but in all his assassination attempts, he never used magic. Not only that, but all his attempts failed. He has no memory of the time he was under its control, but I’ve always suspected his magic not only refused to kill you, but actively tried to keep Merlin himself from doing so.”
Arthur’s throat ran dry. “He didn’t tell me that.”
Gaius smiled weakly. “It’s not one of his finer moments. And don’t take him not mentioning it as a sign of mistrust—I suspect he doesn’t tell me everything either.”
Something thumped outside Gaius’s door. They both jumped a bit as the door crashed open.
“I said, no disturb—” Arthur cut off as soon as he saw who had entered.
“Arthur!” Guinevere cried, running towards him. She was dressed in a tunic, vest, and trousers. One of Arthur’s swords was slung around her waist. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her grimy skin shone slightly with sweat.
She was the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen.
“Guinevere,” he breathed as she reached him and pulled him into a tight hug. He looked over her shoulder to see Elyan, Percival, Gwaine, and Leon file in behind her. Leon shrugged apologetically and mouthed, She’s the queen.
“I came as soon as I heard!” Gwen said breathlessly, “Elyan had trouble finding me; I’ve been just about everywhere at once today. Oh, you’re alive! I mean, I knew you couldn’t be dead, I just knew, but …are you alright?”
“Much better with you here.”
“I missed you.”
“And I you, more than I can say…Leon was telling me how you’ve managed. You’ve done beautifully, Guinevere. I knew I could count on you.”
“I just did what was needed.”
“You’ve been the queen the people can look up to. And I couldn’t be more proud to be married to you.”
Gwen beamed—it hurt how much he’d missed her smile—and kissed him.
“Yes, yes, we’re pleased for you both, but where’s Merlin?” Gwaine asked sharply.
Gwen broke off, eyes darting around the room before returning to her husband. “Arthur?”
“He’s alright,” Gaius assured them all. “Just sleeping upstairs. He’ll make a full recovery with some rest—and so will you, sire.”
“He’s not injured, is he?” asked Gwen, her brow creasing in worry.
“He looked like he was cooked, chewed up, spit back out, and used as a training dummy,” Gwaine said angrily. “And I want to know how he got that way.”
“Does it have something to do with his…” asked Percival, making a vague gesture.
“Yes,” Arthur said quickly, glancing at his wife.
Gwen was now looking between the knights in bewilderment. “His what?”
The other knights shifted awkwardly.
Elyan lifted his hands defensively. “Gwen, I can’t say—”
Leon wouldn’t look her in the eye.
“Arthur?” She whirled to her husband, a warning implicit in her tone.
“He’s…Merlin, he’s…” Arthur trailed off. He didn’t want to just spring Merlin’s magic on her quite yet—And it felt wrong, talking about it without Merlin there. It was Merlin’s magic, and his prerogative to explain it to her. She’d been Merlin’s friend long before Arthur had loved her, and it should have been Merlin sitting here, revealing his secret, not Arthur.
But Gwen needed to know, and Merlin wasn’t here to tell her. And if the infuriated look on Gwaine’s face was any indication, he’d be blurting it out to everyone in a minute.
Arthur sighed and rubbed his pounding head, then took hold of both his wife’s hands. “Guinevere…I need to tell you something.”
Chapter 15: A New Day
When Merlin awoke, his headache was gone. For a while, he lay there, contemplating the ceiling and processing that he wasn’t in a dungeon or in the woods. He was home at last, in his own bed, with the familiar scent of medicine and herbs wafting from downstairs. He let his eyelids sink back shut, contentment filling him for the first time in days. Home. Safe.
He let out a small groan as he rolled over. The faintest rays of amber sunlight peeked in through his window, indicating it was dawn. Arthur would be wanting breakfast soon…
Oh, he remembered sleepily. Arthur knew about the magic now. He could just send it from the kitchens to the royal chambers without leaving bed. That sounded lovely…
A voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Gaius’s admonished him to get up. But Arthur was safe now, so why would he…No, wait, Arthur wasn’t safe; there were a thousand sorcerers outside trying to get in and kill him. And the shield was…the shield was…
Fully awake now, Merlin bolted upright, groping for the shield with his magic. He calmed when he immediately found it, pulsing at the edge of his senses. It was still there, and completely intact. It was just…lighter, somehow. Like someone was helping him to carry it. Had Kilgharrah arrived, perhaps taken some of the load? Merlin hadn’t expected him this soon, and the dragon didn’t feel like he was near, but then, Merlin supposed, he wasn’t exactly running at full strength and had spent the night unconscious. Kilgharrah could have arrived without him knowing.
If so, he’d better get out of bed. Arthur and Kilgharrah might bite each other’s head off—in Kilgharrah’s case, perhaps literally. And Arthur was going to need help explaining what a dragon was doing in Camelot.
Merlin’s body felt stiff but not painful as he emerged from under the blankets. The air felt even colder than he’d expected, but then he realized someone had taken his shirt and wrapped bandages around all his burns, which explained why he didn’t hurt so much. Rubbing his face, he could tell someone had scrubbed it free of dirt and blood. The gash on his head had been treated and bandaged as well.
His skin twinged a bit as he pulled a fresh shirt over his head, but not too badly. Whatever Gaius had done to treat his burns was working wonders. The bandages wrapped around Merlin’s wrists peeked out of his sleeves as he adjusted his neckerchief, and he tugged the sleeves down to hide them. There. He looked just about normal now.
He hadn’t expected anyone to be downstairs except Gaius, so when he opened the door and three voices cried, “Merlin!” in unison, he jumped and nearly bolted back inside the bedroom before realizing it was Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival.
Still, Merlin hesitated at the top of the staircase, remembering the looks of shock on the knights’ faces the previous night when they’d seen him use magic.
Keep the magic secret keep the magic secret keep the magic secret KEEP THE MAGIC SECRET…
“Alright, there, Merlin?” Gwaine asked, starting up the staircase in concern.
“We’re just about to have breakfast,” Elyan said. “Percival’s cooking.”
“Gaius said you’d need food when you woke up,” Percival added. “You should eat.”
Gwaine reached the top of the stairs and gently tugged at Merlin’s elbow. “Come on, then.”
Merlin pushed down his instinctive fear—this was ridiculous; these were his friends—and followed Gwaine down the stairs to sit at the table. All three of the knights were sagging slightly with tiredness, he noted. Had they been up all night?
“How’re you feeling?” asked Gwaine. “You look loads better.”
“Feel loads better,” Merlin said. His voice came out hoarse and raw, so he cleared this throat. “Where’s Gaius?”
“Asleep,” Elyan answered, pointing with his head toward a lumpy blanketed figure on the cot in the far corner of the room. “He was up all night with you, finally went down about an hour ago. First time I think he’s slept in ages. He’s slept right through every noise we’ve made.”
“Sleeping, too,” said Elyan, suppressing a yawn. “And Gaius fixed him up, so he’s fine.”
“Might be up by now,” said Percival, placing a bowl of soup in front of Merlin. “The knights have all been ordered to report to the wall at dawn.”
“Except us, of course,” added Gwaine. “Apparently Merlin-guarding trumps city-guarding. Good to know the princess has his priorities straight.”
“What did Arthur tell you?” Merlin said guardedly, picking at the soup.
“Didn’t need to tell us much, mate. Told us you’d had magic all along, that you’d been using it to protect him, us, Camelot—and I don’t know why he felt he needed to tell us you were using it for good, I’d have thought that was completely obvious—”
“Gwaine,” huffed Elyan as Percival handed the other knights bowls.
“And he told us that you were single-handedly keeping Morgana out with that shield we saw you casting—and can I add, that was about the most amazing thing I’d ever seen?”
Merlin let a spoonful of the soup drop back into the bowl. “So you don’t…you don’t hate me or anything…?”
“No, of course not,” said Elyan, “I mean, Gwen’s probably the most wary, and even she—”
Merlin grabbed the table and choked. “Gwen knows?”
“Princess sort of had to tell her,” Gwaine said carefully. “And I don’t even know if wary is the right word. She was just shocked, especially because she hasn’t actually seen you doing any magic. She didn’t believe it at first—said someone must have enchanted Arthur to think you had magic in order to turn him against you—”
Elyan cut in. “And then we all had to tell her we’d seen you doing magic, too, so she believed all of us. And Arthur assured her that he wasn’t going to turn against you, and that you were the one who’d kept her from getting executed both times. And that you saved our father when he was sick. I can’t thank you enough for that, Merlin. My family owes you so much.”
“Anyway,” said Gwaine, “Then she said something about you being in disguise and burst into tears. And Princess was quite exhausted by that point, so Gaius ordered him to go to bed. Wouldn’t go at first, but Gwen managed to convince him. Then he said he wanted at least three of us guarding you at all times in case Morgana got in or anyone put two and two together and came after you. So the three of us volunteered, and Leon’s been our go-between, bringing us news.”
Merlin swallowed. “So none of you, you’re not…afraid or angry or…”
Percival, who had sipped his soup quietly as the others talked, spoke up. “Are you afraid of us?”
Merlin thought a moment. He’d imagined their faces twisted in fear or hatred before—not nearly as much as he had Arthur’s, but enough—but he didn’t see that now. He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not really.”
“There’s your answer.”
Gwaine and Elyan nodded in agreement.
Merlin felt the tension roll off his shoulders and a warm sense of acceptance flood him. He couldn’t speak for a few moments. Finally he said, trying to keep his voice light, “Well, then I’ve got to tell you, this soup could use a bit more salt.”
He held out his arm and let his eyes flash, and the small bottle of salt zoomed through the air from Gaius’s cupboard into his hand.
He accidentally dumped too much in when Gwaine clapped him on the back, laughing uproariously, but the salty soup was worth it.
A few minutes passed of eating and laughing before a series of five knocks in an odd rhythm rapped on the door. Merlin stiffened, but Gwaine squeezed his shoulder. “Not to worry, that’s Leon.”
Elyan unbolted the door, letting Leon in. The knight had bags under his eyes to match the other three knights’. Clearly he’d been up all night as well.
“Don’t have much time. The king’s called a war meeting and he wants an update on Merlin before it starts. How is he?”
Elyan grinned and waved grandly towards Merlin. “See for yourself.”
Leon peeked inside, saw Merlin, and beamed widely. “Merlin! How are you?”
“Much better, thanks. Did you say Arthur’s called a war meeting?”
“Yes, he’s got to. The sorc—I mean, the magic—I mean…” Leon fumbled awkwardly for a moment, clearly nervous Merlin might take offense.
“What are the sorcerers doing?” Merlin said patiently.
Leon looked slightly flustered at the ‘s’ word, but maintained most of his composure. “It appears they’ve abandoned the siege to attack the countryside.”
Merlin slurped the last of his soup and set the bowl down, thinking. Perhaps Morgana had decided she couldn’t get through his shield and had sent her forces to attack the people outside the citadel, trying to lure Arthur out. If that was the case, they needed to act quickly.
He was yanked from his thoughts when Leon spoke again. “If you’re awake, you’ll be needed at the war meeting. I’m sure the king would want you there.”
“I better go then,” Merlin said, getting up from the table.
Gwaine grabbed him by the arm, making him turn back. Gwaine didn’t seem to know what to say, though. “Just…be careful, Merlin, alright?”
“Do you want an escort?” Percival asked.
Merlin shook his head. “I could get there in my sleep. And you lot look like you could use a rest.” He stopped at the door, and cast one glance at the sleeping form on the cot in the corner. “Take care of Gaius for me?”
“Don’t worry, we will,” promised Elyan.
“He’s excused from the war meeting, at any rate,” Leon added. “Poor man hasn’t slept in days. Better he rests now before he’s needed for the wounded during the battle.”
“Now go on then,” said Gwaine, obviously trying to hide his worry. “Better not keep the princess waiting.”
Merlin surveyed the knights, who were all looking at him with various degrees of worry. “Yeah, he’s liable to start throwing things at my head again.” He hesitated a moment, but then he grinned conspiratorially and added in a stage whisper, “Little does he know I can send them all back.”
He headed for Arthur’s chambers with their laughter in his ears.
When Merlin reached the royal chamber, he didn’t bother to knock, just barged right in. “Arthur, has Kilgharrah—”
He froze when he saw who else was in there. “Gwen.”
The queen paused in the midst of straightening the pauldron of Arthur’s armor and whirled to look at him. Abandoning Arthur completely, she crossed the room and stopped just in front of Merlin. She grabbed his hands in her own and squeezed. “Merlin, I’m so glad you’re alright! Arthur told me—I mean, he sort of said, about the—you know—and I want you to know that it’s fine. I mean, of course it’s fine, it’s you, and you’re always fine—I mean, better than fine, but…but not like that!”
She blushed, and took a deep breath. Merlin, meanwhile, just tried to look reassuring and follow whatever she was saying. He hadn’t seen Gwen babble this much since before she became queen.
“It’s just…” Gwen continued. “I think I knew. I mean, I didn’t know, but…there was always something about you. And I always trusted you to bring Arthur home. And I knew that was silly and didn’t make sense, but I did anyway. And I guess I’m just trying to say that I still trust you, Merlin. And…Arthur told me what you did for my father, for me, for him, for Camelot, and I just…thank you. Thank you so much. I don’t know how you did all that alone, and I’m so sorry I wasn’t there…”
Merlin put his hands on her shoulders. “Gwen, you were. You were always there. Thank you.”
Gwen pressed her lips together as if trying to hold back tears and hugged him. Over her shoulder, Merlin could see Arthur waiting not-so-patiently for his wife to finish. The king was dressed in full armor and wearing the sword from the stone at his waist.
When Gwen broke from their hug, biting her lip, Arthur marched over to stand beside her.
“Merlin, what are you doing out of bed? You’re supposed to be resting.”
“If you say, ‘better’—”
Arthur pointed a warning finger at him and raised skeptical brows.
Merlin sighed, took a step back from the royal couple, lifted a hand, and let his magic loose.
He heard Gwen gasp at the sight of his eyes changing color. Then she covered her mouth with her hands as the room erupted into a cleaning frenzy. A broom in the corner flew out and started sweeping on its own. Every rug on the floor at once hovered, gathered near the window in an orderly line, and took turns beating dust off themselves out the window before settling back in their proper places. The ashes in the fireplace collected in a neat, tidy pile, then chucked themselves out the window when the rugs were finished. Meanwhile, as Arthur clung to his wife with wide eyes and Gwen shrieked with delight, the royal pillows fluffed themselves and the bedcovers straightened. Arthur’s stray weapons, clothes, and dishes on the floor marched back to where they belonged. Guinevere’s dresses floated out of her wardrobe, rearranged themselves in midair by season, level of formality, and color, and tucked themselves back inside.
The broom was the last to skid back to its place, where it leaned against the wall lifeless once more. The royal chambers were now completely spotless, and the entire ordeal had taken thirty seconds.
“Ah,” said Arthur, looking as if he had been hit by a runaway cart. “Better.”
“Merlin, that was amazing!” Gwen gushed.
Merlin shrugged, but grinned at the praise. “Not really. I’ve been able to do things like that since before I could talk.”
“Really? Oh, that’s so useful! No wonder you always finished your work early! Imagine how that would help you with corners!”
“It’s dead useful with corners.”
“Morgana’s chambers always had this one corner up by the window where cobwebs always gathered, and I could never quite reach.”
“Oh, yeah, Arthur’s got the same. Never noticed how clean that corner was thanks to me, the clotpole.”
Arthur seemed to snap out of his daze at the sound of his name. “You…You did cheat at your chores!”
“Arthur!” Gwen admonished him with a light shove.
Merlin, meanwhile, rolled his eyes. “Yes, sire, I cheated at my chores. Anyway, I’m better. How’s your leg?”
Now it was Merlin’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“I could kick you with it, if you need proof.”
Merlin took the slightest of steps back. “Fine, better. Now, war meeting? What’s going on?”
Arthur sobered immediately. “It’s…not good. Come on, I’ll tell you on the way.” He started for the door, but Gwen put a hand on his arm to stop him.
“If there’s going to be a battle, we ought to have the hospital up and running. I know Gaius hasn’t gotten that organized yet, but I thought I might start it for him. And I’ll need to make sure the citizens we’ve evacuated are all seen to.”
Arthur leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “Brilliant idea. Get Elyan and the others to help you.”
As the couple murmured their usual farewell sweet nothings, Merlin hurried over to the table and seized a pitcher. He shook it. Empty. Ah, well, nobody needed to know that.
Arthur noticed him only when Gwen had departed. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked in absolute bewilderment.
Merlin looked between the pitcher and Arthur. “I need an excuse to be in the throne room. I can be giving you water.”
Arthur blinked at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t need an excuse, not anymore. Leave it and just come on.”
Merlin shrugged and tossed it over his shoulder, where it floated back to the table gently by magic. Then he followed his king out the door.
“Leon kept tabs on everything while I slept and brought me an update,” Arthur started as they walked briskly toward the council chamber, “For starters, the sorcerers are leaving in droves. At least three-quarters of Morgana’s forces have left the siege. Morgana tried to stop them—even tried to put up a shield of her own to fence them in, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as yours. They all left anyway.”
Merlin couldn’t help but flush a bit with pride at the indirect compliment. “But, wait…isn’t that good? They listened to you. They’re leaving Camelot alone.”
“Except before they leave, they’re…well, I don’t know what they’re doing exactly, but they’re doing something. They all keep walking right up to the walls and sort of pushing against it, like they’re trying to get in. And then after a while, they sort of give up and leave.”
“And they’re all doing that?” Merlin asked in bafflement. Why would so many of them go right up to the walls of Camelot and then leave? If it were a few, he might have guessed they were testing his shields, realizing they were too strong, and giving up on attacking. But why would so many of them feel a need to test it for themselves? Surely word would spread how strong it was.
Anxiously he tried to reach out towards the shield to check it again. It didn’t feel damaged or diminished at all. Oddly, he still didn’t sense Kilgharrah anywhere near, either…
“Most of them,” Arthur continued. “And then after they started leaving, we’ve been seeing these green flashes all over the countryside. You can see them from the battlements. I thought maybe Morgana was switching tactics, getting her forces to attack the rest of the kingdom. She knows I’ll have to leave the city to protect the surrounding villages.”
Merlin nodded. “But she tried to stop them from leaving. So maybe they’re just doing it on their own?”
Arthur groaned in frustration. “I don’t know how I’m going to fix this. I want to help these people, but how can I justify legalizing magic if they burn down every farm in the kingdom?”
Something clicked in Merlin’s brain. “Hold on, did you say farms?”
“Yes,” Arthur replied miserably. “The green flashes are all near farms, as far as the scouts can tell. I can’t just let them get away with destroying our crops; I have to do something…”
Merlin halted in the middle of the hallway, mind whirring. “Green flashes? Green flashes near farms? But that’s—oh and the shield, of course!” Kilgharrah had not arrived yet after all—the sorcerers were adding their own strength to the shield! Arthur must have gotten through to them—they must have spread his words throughout the whole camp. And how many had Arthur said, three-quarters? Three-quarters of Morgana’s forces—almost all the sorcerers!—were willing to take Arthur at his word and give him another chance.
Oh, this was wonderful.
“What are you so giddy about?” Arthur scowled, turning back towards him.
“Arthur, they’re not attacking,” Merlin said, sure his cheeks would burst from grinning. “Don’t you see? They’re helping. They’re not only abandoning the attack on Camelot—they’re helping to protect it. That’s why I got better. They’re contributing to the shield, taking some of the burden off of me.”
“But…but the farms…”
Merlin shook his head, still beaming. “We’re going to have a great harvest next season.”
Arthur stared dumbly at him for a moment, then let out a whoop of laughter. “But that’s…Merlin, do you know what this means?”
“It means they listened to you! You’ve got your second chance!”
Arthur grabbed his shoulders and shook him in excitement. “It means this isn’t going to be a war meeting discussing how to retaliate against their attack—it’s going to be a peace meeting! They’ve given us a peace offering. And...And if we’re not under duress anymore, if they’re not attacking…That many people, a large group helping the kingdom with magic…If I tell the council, if I tell the people…”
“You could…you could…” Merlin’s knees suddenly felt like giving out.
“I can justify legalizing magic.”
Merlin felt utterly numb. He’d dreamed of this moment for years, and now that it was finally here, it didn’t seem real. He fell back against the wall, a hand pushing his hair up.
Arthur beamed at his reaction. “Look. I’ve actually made you speechless. I didn’t think it was possible, but I guess this is just a day for the impossible, isn’t it?” Moments passed with Merlin still standing there, too busy processing that this wasn’t a dream, that everything he’d ever worked for was actually happening.
Apparently, the time stretched on too long, because Arthur’s grin started to fade to alarm. “Merlin? Say something.”
“Thank you,” Merlin whispered. His throat was starting to close. “Arthur, thank you so much for doing this.”
Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. “No. You shouldn’t thank me. This isn’t some favor I’m granting you; this is what’s right. You should have had this your whole life. And I’m sorry you didn’t.” He hesitated a moment and said, “And I’m sorry, but the council doesn’t know about you yet. No one else really does except Guinevere and the knights who have seen you. Until magic is officially legal—”
“It’s alright. I’ll stay hidden a bit longer.”
“You shouldn’t have to, but…”
Merlin shrugged. Really at this point, when freedom was so achingly close, he felt like he could do anything. “I know. But I’ve been hiding my whole life. For you, for Albion, I can wait a bit longer.”
“No man should have to hide his face when he serves Camelot proudly.”
“No man should. But for now, this one does.” Arthur frowned, so Merlin nudged him on towards the throne room. “Come on, you’ve got a law to repeal, and we’re late.”
“I blame you for that,” Arthur said, lips twitching.
Merlin grinned, his footsteps light as they neared the throne room. “Of course you do, sire.”
Chapter 16: Destiny and Doom
“My thanks for coming on such short notice,” said Arthur as he swept into the throne room, where the council waited at the round table. Merlin trailed in a step behind his king, trying to ignore the councilmen’s eyes boring into him. The fact that he suddenly had the entire room’s attention confused him a bit. Yes, servants weren’t usually present at war meetings, but was it that unusual to see him with Arthur?
Merlin suddenly understood when he moved to stand behind Arthur’s chair after the king sat down.
Arthur pointed to the empty chair at his right—the chair, Merlin abruptly realized, that was the only empty one at the table.
“No, Merlin. Sit.”
Merlin blinked. “What?”
Arthur sighed, snatched him by the arm, and dragged him closer. “Sit down.”
Merlin sat. The chair was a lot harder and not quite as comfortable as he had imagined—no wonder Arthur always looked so unhappy during these meetings.
The fact that all the lords were still openly gawking at him did not help matters.
“That’s the new Court Advisor you wanted to announce?” asked Lord Dichan blankly. Merlin had never really liked him. Not only had the man always insisted his cup never fall below three-quarters full at feasts, but he had also agreed with Uther on just about every matter. Merlin knew Arthur didn’t care much for the man either, but Dichan was an expert in law, and his wife’s family controlled an important trade route.
“Yes,” said Arthur, raising an eyebrow in a challenge.
Merlin fought very hard to not shrink into his seat and to keep his face completely nonchalant, but it was a struggle. Court Advisor?!
“I apologize, your majesty,” Lord Dichan said delicately, “It’s just that when you said you’d be appointing a new advisor to deal with this crisis, I assumed it would be someone more…qualified.”
Arthur’s jaw tightened ever so slightly, but his voice remained level. “Lord Merlin,”—Merlin choked on air—“has been training as Gaius’s apprentice for years, and as Gaius is unable to attend this meeting, I thought he’d make a fine replacement. As for the promotion, you might be aware that I was held by agents of Morgana for the days prior to this siege. Lord Merlin was instrumental in my escape. I’d have an official ceremony, but I believe we have much more pressing matters to discuss.”
And instantly, Merlin was forgotten.
“Are the rumors true, sire? Are our lands under attack?” one lord asked.
“We can’t let those sorcerers go unpunished!” cried another.
“We should send our forces against them!”
“With that many mercenaries at our gates? We can’t!”
Arthur cleared his throat, and silence enveloped the room immediately. “First, let me clear up a few things. The rumors you’ve all heard were partly true—Morgana’s forces, most of which possess magical abilities, have indeed left the siege. Many of them did indeed appear to be casting spells on the shield created by our sorcerer ally—”
The council broke into whispers. From across the table, Merlin spotted Geoffrey of Monmouth eying him suspiciously, and his stomach squirmed as he carefully arranged his face into a well-practiced look of simple-minded innocence. Nope. No magic here. Just a plain, ordinary, lowly…lord. Arthur had made him a lord. Arthur had made him a lord and then apparently forgot to tell him.
He was going to words with that prat later.
“Pardon me, sire,” said Lord Dichan over the whispers, his tone indicating it was not a request, “but how do you know this supposed ally is working in Camelot’s interests and not for some other dark purpose?”
Arthur cleared his throat again, rather obnoxiously Merlin thought, but the council quieted obediently. “Our sorcerer ally has my full confidence. As you can see, the shield has held the entire night, despite Morgana’s attempts to get in. May I remind you all that if not for the sorcerer protecting us, Camelot likely would have fallen by now—or at least suffered severe casualties. We owe him our lives.”
Merlin desperately hoped that the heat he could feel in his cheeks wasn’t visible.
“As I was saying, it is true that Morgana’s forces approached the shield, and it is true that those who have left are casting spells on the surrounding farms. However, the sorcerer protecting us has informed me that far from being an attack, the sorcerers leaving the siege have used their magic to help protect Camelot by strengthening the shield, and that the spells cast on farms will increase our harvests.”
“Excuse me, sire,” said Lord Wymond, a usually soft-spoken man who ruled over a town on the western border, “Are you saying that the sorcerers are helping us?”
Arthur nodded, clearly pleased. “Exactly. They are not only leaving without attacking, but they are actively helping to protect this castle and ensuring this kingdom’s continued prosperity. As it stands now, Morgana’s forces are severely depleted, and as far as we can tell, almost all of those that are left are mercenaries, not sorcerers.” He paused to let that sink in.
Merlin twitched as something brushed on his mind. Kilgharrah? He didn’t care enough to check, not when Arthur was so close to his destiny, not when his own magic was thrumming inside him at the sheer weight of this moment.
“Tonight, those who use magic have protected us,” Arthur continued, “They have fought off our enemies. They have strengthened us in our time of need. And they have done this despite the fact that we have hunted them, killed them, and tried to purge them from our lands. Now…” He rose from his chair, and somehow managed to fix his gaze on every man in the room. “Give me one good, solid reason why I should not grant these people—our people—their freedom.”
Silence. Merlin didn’t dare breathe, already feeling so light that he thought filling his chest with air might actually make him float.
After a long moment, though, Lord Dichan did speak up. “My lord, while their help now is commendable, magic has nearly destroyed this kingdom before.”
Arthur nodded. “So it has. But tell me, then, what do you plan to do about Caerleon?”
“Caerleon?” Lord Dichan repeated blankly.
Something nudged at Merlin’s mind again, stronger this time, and his fists clenched underneath the table. Not now, not now, please, one more minute...
“Caerleon,” Arthur repeated. “has also nearly destroyed this kingdom before. I believe we were at war with Caerleon when I was born, were we not?”
“Then in that case, why should I not lead an attack on Caerleon immediately?”
Geoffrey of Monmouth spoke up, his mouth curled in a half-smile. “Because now they’re our ally, my lord.”
Arthur leaned on the table, staring pointedly at Lord Dichan. “Exactly. Despite our years of war, despite my foolish execution of their king, our kingdoms have allied and been able to live peacefully, which has benefitted both our kingdoms. Now why can’t we do the same for our own citizens? Because that’s what they are—citizens of Camelot. What we have been fighting is not a war on evil, but a civil war upon our own citizens based on the actions of one individual, Nimueh, nearly thirty years ago. I say it stops now. As of this moment, I’m declaring an end to the Purge. From this time forward, the use of magic is legal.”
The words rang in Merlin’s ears like thunder. He couldn’t breathe.
“I expect you all to help me put that in writing as soon as these mercenaries are taken care of…”
No, he really couldn’t breathe. Something was constricting his chest, clawing at his mind, sucking him into a furious, determined darkness…
Then something shattered, and he pitched forward with a gasp, bracing himself on the table as glorious magic—his magic—poured back into him in a steady, pounding stream. There was no inch of him not utterly saturated in magic as it wove back through his blood, lined every fiber of his skin, sank deep into his bones. Everything he saw was a dazzling gold.
He opened his eyes to find that his knuckles were white around the table’s edge. He relaxed his grip as the magic settled back inside him. The whole world was now a lot less fuzzy than it had been a minute ago. Everything seemed clearer now, sharper, more focused. For the first time in a week, he felt truly well and whole.
Oh, and the entire council was staring at him yet again. Merlin hoped he hadn’t interrupted Arthur’s speech. It was a historical moment after all.
Arthur’s hand squeezed his shoulder, and Merlin looked up at him. The king’s face was grim. “It’s fallen, hasn’t it.” It was not a question.
Merlin nodded absently, still reeling from Arthur’s ruling on magic moments before and reveling in how good he felt. “Morgana’s through. You need to get out of here.”
“Are you alright?”
“Absolutely brilliant. Now really, you all need to get out of here. She’s on her way.”
Arthur turned back to his court, who were giving both him and Merlin odd looks. “My lords,” Arthur began, “I have a battle to win. You lot can discuss the best ways of re-integrating the allowance of magic into the laws while I’m gone—”
“No, Arthur, you don’t understand,” said Merlin, the pleasant feeling becoming frantic as the full realization of what had just happened sank in. He could taste the witch’s magic on his tongue, so very close, too close, but he couldn’t pinpoint her exact location. She was too much like a shadow, present everywhere yet not tangible enough to touch, but most definitely near. “She punched a hole straight through it with a teleportation spell. She’s in the castle.”
Arthur’s eyes widened, but he faced his council with an eerie calm. “Right. Evacuate the council room immediately. Make sure the hospital and the tunnels leading to the citizens are secure. Get some knights up here now—not all of them; if the shield’s fallen, there’s sure to be some mercenaries breaching the walls—”
Lord Dichan banged his fist on the table. “I beg your pardon, sire, but am I to believe you are honestly going to base decisions on the ramblings of a serv—”
The doors exploded off their hinges, and the entire council rose as one, drawing their swords to face the threat. Morgana sauntered in, chin held high.
Merlin’s magic tingled in his veins with dread. He’d known since the last time Morgana attacked Camelot that he would have to face her someday. And face her he would, because he was tired of watching her destroy everything he’d worked for, of witnessing her squandered potential. Morgana had so much power—he’d felt it when she broke through his shield—magic so huge and breathtakingly beautiful that she could have done so much more, been so much more than this wild-eyed witch before him.
His fists clenched at his sides. Not today, she wouldn’t. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. It didn’t matter now. She may have been his greatest mistake and his deepest regret, but he knew that she had to be stopped. And if she didn’t back down…
Then today, Morgana was going to meet her doom.
As Morgana entered, Arthur’s throat ran dry the way it always did when his mind tried to match up the compassionate woman he’d grown up with to the witch glaring at him now with murderous glee.
“Oh, by all means,” she simpered, stretching forth her hand. “No need for such a warm welcome.” With a flash of her eyes, the councilmen’s swords all tore themselves free of their owners’ hands. Arthur’s hand moved to the pommel of the sword from the stone on his belt, but didn’t yet draw it. His was the only sword that remained where it was; he’d rather Morgana not notice his advantage.
“Hello, brother,” Morgana continued. Her mouth twitched in a mocking smile. “Pleased to see me?”
Arthur spoke with a heavy heart. “There was a time I’d have said yes, but those days are long past.”
“I’d say I’m terribly sorry for my lateness, but then…” Morgana’s smile dropped to a snarl as her hand lifted. The swords above the table all rotated slowly to point at Arthur’s heart. “I think you’ll be sorrier about yours.”
She threw, and the swords all hurtled towards him with the speed and precision of arrows. Arthur drew his sword in defense—
Merlin leapt onto the table in front of him, hand raised and eyes glowing. The swords all jolted to a stop a hair’s width from the warlock’s fingers. Shocked cries and gasps echoed through the throne room.
Morgana took the slightest of steps back before her face twisted in hatred. “Merlin.” She pulled at the air and the swords spun on the spot and shot out, each blade pointing at its original holder.
Merlin flicked his wrist, and the blades all halted just short of the throats of the terrified councilmen. “Give it up, Morgana.” His voice rang through the chamber with absolute authority. “You’ll not be hurting anyone today. Just stop. You have nothing left to fight for.”
“I have everything left to fight for!” Morgana spat. She clawed at the air, apparently trying to wrench full control of the swords back from Merlin. Merlin clenched his jaw and raised his other hand, and the swords budged no closer to their intended victims.
“Arthur’s just repealed the ban on magic,” Merlin said, a sense of wonder in his voice, as if he couldn’t quite believe it himself. Then his voice bittered, making him sound decades older. “Isn’t that what you wanted? Or is that not enough?”
As he spoke, Merlin slowly moved across the table towards Morgana, arms outstretched and palms out. All around the table, the councilmen silently stared wide-eyed at their exchange, helpless against the swords hovering near their quivering flesh as the witch and the warlock struggled for control.
Moving very, very slowly, so as not to attract attention, Arthur crouched until he was just below chair height and began to make his way around the table, keeping a close eye on his friend and his sister’s exchange as he went.
“Of course it’s not enough. I want my throne. I want my rightful place as queen!”
“Listen to yourself! That’s not what the woman I sent to the druids wanted. All she wanted was to no longer have to live in fear.”
“And how much I had to fear! I couldn’t even trust my own kind. All this time, Merlin, you could have helped me. We could have taken Camelot together years ago. But instead you poisoned me!”
Merlin gritted his teeth as Morgana’s fury made the swords inch closer to their targets, but his voice remained calm. “Because it was the only way to break the sleeping spell. And I knew that you were trying to kill Uther. You would have tried again.”
“You poisoned me for something I might have done?”
“Tell me, how many times did you try to kill Uther before I poisoned you?”
“Of course I tried to kill him! You know what he did, how many people he killed! He would have killed me! He would have killed you and you still defended him! Why?!”
“Because Arthur wasn’t ready to be king. Because if he lost his father to magic, he’d be turned against it forever. And because he’s my friend, and that would have broken him.”
Morgana sneered back at Merlin. “You did it to spare Arthur’s feelings?”
“Why not?” Merlin said coldly. “That’s why I let you live. Haven’t you wondered yet why I let you live in the castle for a year? I have magic; I could have killed you. In fact, I nearly did. I pushed you down the stairs.”
Behind the councilmen, Arthur swallowed. He remembered the emptiness that had lodged in his chest when he’d thought Morgana was going to die. Somehow the memory hurt all the more now that he knew she’d been working against them even then. He took a deep breath and continued his slow lap around the table. He was just past the halfway point to Morgana now, and she was still distracted.
At Merlin’s admission, Morgana’s eyes widened, and her grasp on the swords faltered. “You—”
“And then I healed you. I knew you were a murderer and I let you live because I hoped that somewhere in there was still the woman I knew, someone with compassion left in her soul, someone who Arthur and Gwen, at least, could still call a friend. And that’s how I know that you have no sense of friendship or loyalty, Morgana. Because I understand you trying to kill Uther, I understand you trying to kill me. But what did Arthur or Gwen ever do to you? They were your friends and you tried to kill them.”
“Arthur’s just like his father.”
“But he’s not. He never was. And you knew that. You saw him save a druid boy. You saw him protect a village at the edge of the kingdom from bandits. You saw him fight to knight commoners, risk his life to find a cure for a dying servant, and rescue a maid from your kidnappers, and you saw him do all those things against Uther’s direct orders. Arthur wanted so badly to be like his father, but he never could, because he is a better man than Uther could have ever hoped to be.”
Arthur’s grip tightened on his sword as he neared even closer to where Morgana stood. The amount of faith Merlin had in him was still staggering. And it was odd, hearing his deeds the way Merlin put them. Since his father had died, his thoughts had always centered on how hard he’d tried to make his father proud of him. He’d forgotten how often he had tried to defy him instead.
“And even then, you went after Gwen. Gwen, Morgana. You tried to kill someone who had only ever tried to be your friend.”
“She was going to steal my crown!”
Merlin bowed his head sadly, voice filled with pity. “So you tried to kill her for something she might have done?”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you, Emrys!” Morgana screeched. The swords wavered, then disintegrated into ash. Every councilman in the room exhaled at once, although their relief was short-lived as Morgana’s eyes blazed.
Like a ship cresting above a wave, the entire round table soared up into the air, taking Merlin up with it.
Ignoring the terrified scattering councilmen, Arthur lunged for the table. His fingers managed to curl around the table’s edge, but his added weight made the table tip, and he slid right off. The table wobbled violently in midair, and atop it Merlin’s eyes flickered with fear as he lurched to and fro, struggling to keep his balance.
Her face aglow with vindictive triumph, Morgana flung the table—and Merlin—across the room. The table slammed into the wall with enough force to shake the castle. It cracked in half on impact and tumbled back to the ground, showering splinters and chunks of the wall raining down on the thrones below.
“MERLIN!” Arthur screamed. He couldn’t see his friend anywhere in the rubble.
Morgana whirled to see the king feet away, the sword from the stone clutched in his hand. She smirked. “Why, Arthur,” she said sweetly, “Did you really think you could sneak up on me?”
Arthur wrenched his attention away from where Merlin had fallen and jabbed his sword in Morgana’s direction.
Her lips twisted into a sneer. “Not so invincible without your little guard dog.”
Arthur raised his sword higher, trying to shove away panicked thoughts of Merlin’s broken body.
Morgana laughed, eyes sparkling cruelly. “You think you can beat a High Priestess with a sword? Oh, Arthur, that’s so like you. It’s a wasted effort. If Emrys can’t stop me, you certainly can’t. Nobody can now.”
With a cry of frustration and fury, Arthur charged, the sword from the stone pointed at Morgana’s heart.
The witch threw her hand forward, and Arthur squinted as a red bolt of light hurtled towards him—
The light hit the sword with a colossal crack like thunder. Power radiated through the blade and painfully up through Arthur’s arm. At the same time, he felt himself skidding backwards like he’d been shoved.
His chest heaved as he regained his balance, now halfway across the room away from Morgana. What was that?
Morgana, however, seemed just as confused as he was. “What is that thing?”
She was glaring at the sword, which, Arthur noted, was completely unharmed by the spell. In fact, it almost seemed to gleam brighter, thrumming in Arthur’s hand like it was all the better for the attack.
Kills the undead, Merlin had told him. And apparently, it blocked spells as well, absorbing their magic like lightning to a rod. Arthur twirled the sword grimly, and half-crouched in anticipation of another attack. “Gift from Merlin.”
Morgana’s jaw clenched for a brief moment. “Then I suppose it’s too bad he’s dead. I’m sure he’d have enjoyed watching me kill you.” She started to walk around him almost leisurely, and Arthur followed her with his sword so as not to give her another opening for attack.
Focus, Arthur ordered himself, because his hands had started to tremble. Merlin could not be dead; Arthur wouldn’t allow it. Merlin had to be alive, and Arthur needed to end this quickly, before Morgana tried something the sword might not be able to handle, like setting the entire room on fire.
“It was going to be quick, you know,” Morgana continued smoothly as she circled him. “But since Merlin’s seen fit to get in the way again, I’ll be sure to kill you slowly, to honor his memory.”
They were at an impasse, Arthur realized with dismay, with neither quite able to kill the other. Except that Morgana could attack at a distance, while he could not, and she could easily choose to attack the surrounding councilmen, who were now all unarmed and pasted to the walls in terror.
He was just preparing himself for another charge when he heard a slight cough and the sound of shifting wood at the end of the room. It took every ounce of Arthur’s self-control to not turn his head to look at the broken wood at the far wall. Merlin!
Morgana’s head started to turn towards the sound, and Arthur quickly said, “I bet you can’t. Because seeing how well off this sword is, I’d say his magic’s more powerful than yours.”
Now he had her attention. “Hardly. I am the last High Priestess, and he was nothing but a servant, Emrys or not.”
Something toppled over at the far wall, accompanied by the sound of a man’s groan. Many of the councilmen were staring obviously in Merlin’s direction, and Arthur cursed inside his head. Morgana shifted, twisting to look towards the sound—
“FORBEARNE!” Arthur yelled with perfect pronunciation.
Morgana whipped back to face him, eyes bulging in complete shock at the sound of Arthur Pendragon casting a spell—
Which meant she didn’t see the largest remaining chunk of the round table swing around to slam into her side, catapulting her straight through the window and into the courtyard below with a cacophony of shattered glass.
Arthur finally let himself turn to see Merlin crawling out from the rubble, dusty and breathing hard but unharmed. The king sheathed his sword and rushed towards him, dragging him out and up to his feet.
“You idiot, what were you thinking?” Arthur admonished, hitting off some of the dust.
“I was thinking I didn’t want you impaled, you—”
Merlin cut off as his body whipped out of Arthur’s reach, half-bent like an invisible rope tied around his waist was yanking him away towards the gaping new hole where the window used to be.
“Merlin!” Arthur shouted, running after him, but there was nothing he could do. Merlin flew backwards, eyes wide and hands scrabbling for purchase as he blew out the window after Morgana and into the courtyard below.
Chapter 17: Woven Paces, Waving Hands
Then, in one moment, she put forth the charm
Of woven paces and of waving hands,
And in the hollow oak he lay as dead,
And lost to life and use and name and fame.
— Tennyson’s “Merlin and Vivien”
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Merlin thought he should have been used to flying by now, what with all the times he’d been thrown into walls. He hadn’t had much time to think when he felt Morgana’s spell yank him out the window and into the courtyard below. All he could do was frantically shove his magic out of himself like water from a capsizing boat. Soon he could feel himself start to slow as he hurtled towards the hard ground.
That said, there was nothing that could prepare him for the whack he felt as he hit the cobblestones and bounced, rolling quite a few feet before stopping. When he finally came to a halt, Merlin stared up at the sky, gasping as it spun above him.
He should be dead, he thought hysterically. At the very least, he should have broken bones. Clearly his magic had acted once again to protect him, because though every part of his body certainly felt bruised after flying into the wall of the throne room and falling out a window, nothing seemed to be broken except his dignity.
He lifted his head, trying to ignore the way the world lurched at the motion, and saw Morgana on the other side of the courtyard. The witch had landed on her feet no worse for the wear, still as beautifully terrifying as ever. Obviously, the ability to appear composed no matter the situation ran in the Pendragon line.
Merlin forced himself to refocus and stand up as Morgana advanced towards him, her hand outstretched and a snarl on her lips. She had been aided by magic as well in surviving her fall, but she didn’t appear to be disoriented at all. She had probably used a spell instead of relying on raw instinct like he had.
That was his major weakness, Merlin realized. He had more power, but little access to education and even less time to train. Now that magic was legal, maybe he’d finally be able to fix that.
Of course, first he had to survive.
Morgana screamed words Merlin wasn’t even sure he recognized, and a blast more blinding than the sun shot towards him.
“Scildan,” Merlin said firmly. He took a step back as the spell slammed into his shield, and he nearly fell over backwards with the force of it.
Morgana blasted him again. “You took everything from me! My sister, my throne, my vengeance, my dragon—”
The blast dissipated upon meeting his shield as anger blazed through him. “Your dragon? Dragons are meant to be free, not chained up! Astrice!”
Morgana gasped as she threw her arms in front of her face. “Geealge!” The spell suddenly diverted into the ground instead, taking out a chunk of the street. She lowered her arms and smirked. “You’ll not be my doom today, Emrys.”
Merlin took a full, shuddering breath and forced his fists to unclench. “I don’t want to be. But I can’t let you hurt this kingdom. Leave Camelot. In the name of the woman you used to be, I’m asking you to leave. I’ll let you go.”
“Not without what’s mine,” Morgana snarled as her eyes glowed and she made a tight fist in midair.
Merlin suddenly felt a noose tightening around his throat, tighter, tighter, and a raging something in him snapped. Morgana skidded back a few feet as the pressure on his throat released.
He glared into her bloodthirsty eyes, voice lowering darkly. “It’s not yours. It never was. Not the throne, not the castle, and certainly not the dragon. Now leave this kingdom and everyone in it alone or I will kill you.”
Undaunted, Morgana stepped forward. Red electricity danced at her fingertips. “Not if I kill you first.”
Arthur caught himself on the edge of the hole in the wall of the throne room, watching frantically as Merlin hit the ground and rolled. The warlock finally came to a stop after several feet and rose, looking a bit dazed but once again unharmed, and Arthur let himself breathe.
Then he bolted from the room, only vaguely registering the councilmen’s cries of shock. The warning bell started to ring as he pounded down the stairs. Arthur had no idea what he’d do once he got down there—what good would he be, except to be another target for Morgana’s spells?—but he knew he had to do something.
So fast was his speed as he neared the hallway leading to the courtyard that he would have bowled Leon, Elyan, and Gwaine over had Percival not been standing behind them.
“Oh good, you’ve already heard,” said Gwaine cheerfully. “Save us a trip upstairs.”
“What are you lot doing here?” the king demanded. “I told you to help Guinevere!”
“The queen ordered us to get you and join the fight, my lord,” said Leon. Out of the four of them, he looked the most out of breath, probably because he’d run to fetch the others. “Whatever Merlin did that was protecting the city, it’s gone. The enemy’s at the gates, and a couple of them are scaling the walls with grappling hooks.”
“We’re on our way to help the rest of the knights,” added Percival.
Arthur mentally groaned. Of course. He had been so preoccupied with Morgana’s entrance to the throne room and Merlin’s near-death that he’d nearly forgotten she had left an army of mercenaries at Camelot’s gates.
“Hold on, where’s Merlin?” demanded Gwaine, tilting to look behind Arthur as if he fully expected the warlock to pop out of the ground behind the king.
“Merlin’s…busy,” Arthur improvised, running a hand through his hair. “Come on.” He continued his dash down the hall towards the courtyard, knights at his heels.
Though Gwaine followed with the others, he clearly wasn’t satisfied with Arthur’s answer. “What do you mean, busy? Wasn’t he with you?”
“If you must know, Morgana threw him out the window,” Arthur snapped. He was not in the mood to deal with Gwaine right now, not when his mind was whirling with jumbled thoughts of Merlin fighting for his life and Morgana’s men on the verge of breaking into Camelot.
“Threw him out the window?” Elyan repeated incredulously.
“How’d she even get in?” asked Percival.
They rounded the corner, and Arthur pushed a bit more speed out of his legs, leaving his knights lagging behind. “To be fair, he threw her out the window first.”
Gwaine huffed, “Merlin? Our Merlin?”
They reached the top of the stairs leading down to the courtyard, and the sight that greeted them silenced them all.
The courtyard was littered with rubble and glass from the shattered windows. Craters dotted the cobblestones. Merlin stood at the foot of the stairs with his back to them. His attention was entirely consumed by the red lightning streaming halfway across the courtyard between him and Morgana. Both witch and warlock were leaning into their spells, legs locked as if pushing against a strong wind. They bellowed over each other, but Arthur could hardly tell whether they were shouting cries of frustration or actual words.
Then Merlin roared, and the red light all converged upon Morgana in an explosion so brilliant that the watching knights had to hold up their arms to block the light.
Merlin lurched and fell over backward onto the stairs as the red lightning released him. He sat there sprawled over the stairs a moment, gasping for breath. Then, as if he had some sort of sixth sense attuned to Arthur’s presence, his head tilted up to see the king and the knights rushing down the stairs towards him. They gathered around Merlin’s crumpled form.
Arthur yanked him up by the shoulders. “Merlin, are you alright?”
“Fine,” Merlin answered between heaving breaths. “What are you doing here, you clotpole?! Camelot’s being invaded and the battle’s on the other side of the city!”
“I noticed,” Arthur snapped back. “Some of us can’t teleport there or take the window, Merlin.”
Merlin’s head jerked up and he lunged, shoving Arthur out of the way and sweeping his arm in front of him. Arthur whirled to see the cobblestones rip themselves from the ground to absorb another blast of red lightning. Morgana, apparently, had recovered.
As one, Arthur and the knights drew their swords, although what use mere blades would be against that much lightning, Arthur had no idea.
Merlin’s brow furrowed as he pushed the cobblestones against the spell. “Go!” he shouted at them. “I’ve got her! You need to deal with her army! Get out of here! Go! GO!”
Suddenly, the air seemed to thicken around Arthur, squeezing him and making his ears pop. He had a quick glimpse of Merlin’s eyes glowing gold and rocks flying at the warlock’s head before his own vision went black. When it returned, Arthur saw not the courtyard, but one of the gates clear on the other end of the citadel.
Arthur stumbled. He barely had time to process that the knights had landed next to him with varying cries of surprise before he was lifting his sword to defend against an oncoming swing.
He blocked it more out of instinct than anything else, then stopped when he saw his attacker. “Sir Caridoc?!”
“Sire!” Sir Caridoc jumped, lowering his sword immediately. “You just—appeared!”
Arthur cursed. Merlin, the idiot, had just teleported them all across the city to the edge of the battle, instead of protecting himself from Morgana’s spell. Stupid, useless, idiotic excuse for a manservant! If Merlin wasn’t alive by the time Arthur got back to that courtyard…
Arthur took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and steeled his face to fit the calm, commanding, kingly persona the situation demanded. He took one quick survey of his surroundings. At the top of the battlements, grappling hooks were dangling; below them, skirmishes erupted all along the street between the knights and the mercenaries who’d managed to get over the walls. The majority of Camelot’s knights, however, were gathered in a swarm around the northwest gate, which was quaking in a steady rhythm as if being knocked on by a giant fist.
“Never mind that,” Arthur ordered, “Give me a status report. What’s their strategy? How many are inside?”
Caridoc shook himself and straightened. “Since the army’s numbers have diminished, particularly the level of sorcerers, they can’t surround the city and they’ve lost most of their magical advantage. They tried to send men over to open the gates. A couple dozen made it over, my lord, but our men atop the battlements have shot down almost all of them. But now the army’s got some sort of battering ram, and as far as we can tell it’s reinforced with magic. They’re focusing on the west and northwest gates. The west gate is holding, sire, but the northwest—”
The nearby northwest gate crumpled with a crash, and Morgana’s forces began pouring in.
Well, Arthur thought sourly, at least they couldn’t all charge at once. They’d have to come in a bottleneck through the gate. All Arthur’s men had to do was drive them back.
“MEN!” Arthur shouted, wielding his magic sword high in the air, “KEEP THEM OUT! FOR THE LOVE OF CAMELOT!”
And whether they heard their king or not, Camelot’s forces screamed and charged at the enemy.
Mercenaries poured through by the dozens, axes, maces, and swords clashing with Camelot knights’ steel, and Arthur soon lost track of Caridoc and the knights who’d arrived here with him. He had his own fights to win. And win them he did, because he was back in his element. He moved his body in perfect rhythm, feet positioning without thought, the sword he’d pulled from the stone glistening in the morning sunlight as he swung with practiced precision.
Still, no matter how many more dents his armor suffered, how many of his knights he aided, no matter how many enemies he slew, Arthur could tell Camelot’s forces were slowly being driven back as more of the enemy funneled through the gate. The first row of homes nearest the gate were already demolished, and Arthur silently thanked his wife for evacuating the people deeper into the castle.
As Arthur ducked beneath a mace aimed at his head, he found himself thinking in frustration that all of this would have been a lot easier with magic.
At that moment, a swiftly moving shadow cut across the ground in front of him, and the mace-wielder Arthur had been fighting was snatched into the air by a long claw.
Arthur shielded his eyes as he gazed up at the sky and let out a relieved laugh. Merlin’s dragon—the bigger one, the Great Dragon—had arrived.
But far from the relief Arthur felt, Camelot’s knights were now openly panicking. They now faced mercenaries and sorcerers below and, it seemed, a dragon from above. Morgana’s forces, however, were pushing forward with renewed confidence, apparently certain the witch had summoned it to aid them.
“DO NOT ATTACK THE DRAGON!” Arthur bellowed, hoping his men could hear him. He spotted the nearest knight, who despite looking petrified was preparing to chuck a fallen mercenary’s spear at the creature. “NO! THE DRAGON’S ON OUR SIDE!”
The dragon seemed to sense the problem. Having plucked up a couple mercenaries in his claws, he flew around to the other side of Camelot’s wall. He dropped the screaming mercenaries from high in the air, then dipped down to the ground. Arthur felt the earth shake as the dragon landed next to the horde still outside and pushing to get through the gate.
Then the world outside the wall erupted into flames. The very air seemed to crackle and shake with the heat, enough that everyone within the walls, knight, mercenary, and sorcerer alike, dived for cover.
The flames went out, and all was silent. Arthur raised his head from the ground where he’d fallen, anxiously surveying the battle. Beyond the gate, outside Camelot’s walls, there was now nothing but ash. More than half of Morgana’s army had been utterly obliterated.
The dragon flew back into the air, hovering just above the startled warriors below. His golden eyes met Arthur’s, and he inclined his head slightly in a bow. “Your majesty.”
Then he dived back down, plucking up more mercenaries in his claws and leaving the knights untouched.
His actions sent the battlefield into an uproar as every man suddenly realized which side the dragon was on. Instantly the knights surged forward, heartened at their new ally if a bit confused. Meanwhile, some mercenaries flat out turned and fled back through the gate in a mad dash for the woods beyond; others wagered their chances were better sticking close to the knights, apparently with the idea they were less likely to be roasted. The few sorcerers present started to gather in clusters to attack the dragon, but gathering in groups made it easier for the dragon to blast them with fire without fear of harming the knights.
“DRIVE THEM OUT!” Arthur shouted, and he heard the command repeated by others along the battlefront. Arthur swept the sweat dripping into his eyes away and gave his sword a triumphant twirl. This battle was theirs.
Merlin groaned as he pushed himself up from the ground. Blood clotted in his hair where a large stone had slammed into the side of his head.
But Arthur and the knights were safe, and that was what mattered. Or at least, as safe as they could be at the edge of the battlefield. That was, hopefully, where Merlin had sent them. He’d never really done anything like that before—hadn’t even really planned to do it. He’d just wanted them all away from Morgana, and then they were.
“What’s the matter, Merlin?” Morgana crowed. “Why didn’t you let your little friends stay? Afraid you can’t protect them?”
Merlin winced as his head throbbed. She sounded nearer, and if he squinted he could just make out a dark form coming closer through his blurred vision. He felt himself leaning too far to the left, overcorrected, and nearly fell down. He pressed a hand hard against the bloody wound on the side of his head and muttered, “Thurh-haele braed.”
The throb in his head dulled only a bit, and Merlin repeated the spell, concentrating hard. This time, some of the dizziness lessened, and his vision sharpened enough to see Morgana moving towards him, palms filled with flames.
“You can’t, you know,” Morgana continued. “When this is over, I’m going to hunt your little friends down, one by one. I’m going to execute them in this very courtyard. Let them taste the flames, like so many others did…Except for Arthur. I want the crows to be able to feast on his entrails when I’m done with him.”
“You’ll have to get through me first before you touch any of them,” Merlin retorted, sounding much braver than his quailing stomach felt.
Morgana’s lips quirked. “But you can be beaten. After all, I see prison treated you well.”
Merlin resisted the urge to tug his sleeves down further to cover the bandages on his wrists. He widened his stance, bracing himself for her next attack. “I won’t let you hurt them.”
“And still you defend them! How many of our kind have they persecuted? How much blood is on their blades?”
“I know how much,” Merlin said quietly as they started to circle each other. “I cleaned it off. And I can tell you that the blood they spilt was that of your kind—people trying to destroy the kingdom. And even then, it’s not nearly as much as the innocent blood, magic and non-magic alike, that you’ve shed in your lust for power. At least they tried to defend their kingdom, Morgana. What did you kill for?”
Morgana recoiled as if he’d slapped her. “You’re worse than they are. You should burn with them! Torr windraes sweolothat!”
Merlin covered his eyes as the wind blasted around him, swirling into a whirlwind that soon caught fire. A fire tornado. Morgause had used one once too, Merlin remembered.
“Miere torr sweolothat!” he cried. Morgana smirked savagely at him as the fire tornado grew.
Merlin backed away as his burned skin cried in protest at the fire tornado’s heat. His thoughts jumped around frantically. Morgana’s spell must be more powerful than the spell Morgause had used. How to stop it?
“Aetstande!” he tried, but it only grew larger and blew closer to him.
“Abric Emrys,” Morgana returned gleefully, “Spraede, milt hine!”
The tornado advanced, widening to a fiery inferno thick enough to obscure Morgana on the other side of it. Tendrils of flame reached out from it towards him.
A lesson from long ago sprung to Merlin’s mind, of facing a creature of earth and water. Gaius had told him he needed fire and air to defeat it. This spell was made of fire and air. Perhaps water and earth…?
The fire tornado was nearly upon him, and his flesh was beginning to singe. Merlin was a bit short on water, but he had plenty of earth. “Eorthe ac stanas hiersumath me!” he shouted desperately.
A wall of earth shot up through the street between him and the fire tornado, and the relief from the heat was instant. Merlin shoved his hand forward, and the wall tumbled over on top of the fire tornado, smothering it.
“Eorthe, beswelge hie!” Merlin ordered.
The ground rippled and bubbled like water around Morgana. She shrieked as the earth swirled, surging up and over her, blocking her from Merlin’s view. He heard her shouting spells, but the walls of cobblestone and earth kept rising, until they had enclosed her completely in a small, sealed cave.
Silence enveloped the courtyard except for the distant sound of the battling at the gate. Merlin exhaled and leaned on his knees, heart pounding as he tried to catch his breath.
The cave exploded, dirt and rocks shooting out like startled birds and taking chunks out of the surrounding houses and the castle. Merlin tripped as another stone grazed his head, sending him to the ground.
Morgana stood in the center of the rubble, breathing hard. Dust rose in a cloud around her, catching in the folds of her tattered dress and in her tangled curls. Anger and hatred radiated off her in waves.
“You thought you could trap me?” she screeched. “Me, a High Priestess?! I’ll show you trapped! Ic bebiede treow foldan bosme astigath ge. Firgenholt hine wreoth! Becling aefre Emrys!”
Merlin struggled to get to his feet, but he couldn’t. As Morgana chanted, vines burst through the cobblestones, binding his ankles and wrists to the ground. No, not vines, he realized with horror, roots. The roots kept growing, slithering further around his legs, his arms, his chest, his throat…
Merlin tried to croak out a spell, but he could barely get air. And still the roots kept pushing, tightening around him as they lifted him up higher and higher, hardening into the thick trunk of a tree around him. He thrashed, but his legs were already encased in solid wood, and the rest of him would soon be following.
Morgana’s eyes were lit up with magic and delight as she watched him struggle. “Ic thin sawol beluce! Weorc untoworpenlic!”
The tree kept creeping higher, carrying Merlin with it to tower above the nearby houses.
“Onbrinde mec,” he choked out. He felt his magic flail inside him, but his spell did nothing. “On…brinde…”
He cut off as the wood covered his mouth. He couldn’t move; his limbs were all surrounded by wood as if the tree had formed a man-shaped mold around him. The wood crushed his chest as it continued to expand. He was no longer ascending, but the tree continued to rise as it grew around him, pressing against him at all sides. The wood covering his mouth spread to cover his nose, his ears, his eyes…
Darkness fell. Merlin was utterly trapped inside the tree, unable to move, with no light, no sound, and no air.
And then Merlin felt the tree shudder, and if he were able to draw air into his lungs, he might have screamed at the sudden heat scorching below him.
Morgana had set the tree on fire. He was going to burn alive.
Scildan = shield/protect/defend
Astrice = I strike
Geealge = protect/defend
Torr windraes sweolothat = Tower, windstorm, burning hot!
Miere torr sweolothat = Disturb that burning hot column!
Aetstande = stand still/stay
Abric Emrys = Destroy Emrys
spraede = grow/expand/stretch forth
Milt hine! = Consume him by fire
Eorthe ac stanas hiersumath me! = Earth and stones, obey me!
Eorthe, beswelge hie! = Earth, swallow her!
Ic bebíede tréow foldan bosme astigaþ ge = I command a tree to rise from the womb of the earth.
Firgenholt hine wreoth! = Cover him with mountain wood.
Beclings aefre Emrys = Enclose/bind Emrys forever.
Ic thin sawol beluce! Weorc untoworpenlic! = I shut in your soul! Inviolable suffering!
Onbinde mec = Unbind me
Merlin had often dreamed of burning. The fear had always been there during Uther’s reign, masked under layers of quiet subservience and pretended ineptitude. He had always been twice as clumsy whenever Uther was in the room, because no matter how deeply he’d tried to bury it, even from himself, he could never quite shake the primal fear that somehow, someday Uther would find out what he was. Merlin had had other nightmares too, of his head on a chopping block, of a noose around his neck, of water closing in over his head as weights dragged him down, down, down. But no nightmare had ever terrified him as much as being burnt alive.
This was worse than all his nightmares combined.
Even in his nightmares, Merlin had always at least been able to see his friends—even if in some of those dreams, they’d been eager to watch him burn—and he hadn’t died alone. He’d always had air, enough to shout spells to attempt to free himself, to call for Kilgharrah, or to murmur his last words. He’d at least been able to move, even if it was just to struggle against whatever kept him captive. Merlin had always dreamed he’d die fighting, trying to escape, perhaps even casting as many protective spells on Arthur as he could manage before death stopped him.
His nightmares had not prepared him for being unable to so much as twitch a finger, for sensing nothing but the searing pain creeping closer to his skin, for bashing on his prison with his magic to no avail. He wanted desperately to scream for Gaius, for Kilgharrah, for the knights, for Arthur, anyone, but he couldn’t make a single sound. All he could do was thrash motionlessly against the unyielding wood physically and magically, all the while feeling more and more light-headed as his air ran out.
Just when he was on the brink of unconsciousness, the wood suddenly cracked, and the pressure around Merlin gave ever so slightly. He could feel a small tingle just near his nose, and breathed as deeply as he could manage—which was not very much. The air smelled of sawdust and smoke, but it was still air. Even the slight breath helped Merlin clear his head, if only a little bit. Enough to realize that he couldn’t die here, because Morgana was going to kill Arthur and take Camelot, and he could not, would not let that happen.
Then the cool feeling vanished, replaced by more heat, and Merlin had to concentrate to not be overwhelmed by panic again. He forced himself to breathe more slowly, taking in what little air he could. The wood was cracking under the heat of the fire. Maybe he could help it along. An eerie sort of calm overcame him as he concentrated on his magic and blasted it at the small crack.
The wood split wide open, and Merlin’s heart soared as he glimpsed light. As more air flowed towards him, he gasped shallowly, his chest too compressed to inhale any deeper. He wriggled and managed to crack it open even more, enough to get in a good, solid breath. He could see a bit of the clear blue sky and hear the flames licking at the bark around him.
He could also hear an indignant female shriek from somewhere below.
Suddenly he felt Morgana’s magic weave through the wood, resealing the bark shut around him. His magic pushed back, but he had not yet gotten enough air to recover, and his flailing magic collapsed. Merlin tried to shout, out of frustration if nothing else, but the cry was strangled in his throat as the wood crushed the air back out of his lungs.
No, no, Someone, anyone, help me, please—Please—Arthur—
His last feeling before the wood enveloped him once more was a desperate rush of magic shooting into the sky.
By the northwest gate of Camelot, the enemy’s numbers were falling fast. Almost none of the bodies littering the streets bore the Camelot crest. In many cases, the few mercenaries left faced two knights rather than one. Even now, Arthur could see a few more stragglers fleeing back through the gate, deciding to take their chances with the dragon rather than continue fighting with diminished numbers. Camelot was the clear winner in this fight.
So why did Arthur have a sinking feeling something was horribly wrong?
He dodged a blow from his opponent’s mace, then surged forward, sword knocking the mace from the mercenary’s hand. The now-unarmed man glared at Arthur in fearful defiance.
Arthur twirled his sword and assumed an attack stance. “I’d take my chances with the dragon if I were you.”
The mercenary couldn’t run away fast enough.
Arthur whirled around, spotted Leon some distance away, isolated from the rest of the battle by one of the few sorcerers still present. Arthur hurried to join Leon, ducking as one of the sorcerer’s fireballs flew wide.
The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed as he spotted the king. A second later, Arthur was blasted backwards, sword dropping from his hand.
“Sire!” Leon cried, charging at the sorcerer with his own sword. The sorcerer whirled to face him and Leon, too, was launched into the air.
Taking advantage of the sorcerer’s distraction, Arthur threw himself towards his fallen sword. His fingers wrapped around the hilt, but the sorcerer jammed his foot on top of it before Arthur could lift it.
“Your pretty little lies aren’t going to save you now, your majesty.” the sorcerer sneered, pointing his palm at Arthur’s face.
But before the sorcerer could utter a spell, a glow burst into being between the king and the sorcerer. Both men froze and watched, Arthur with relief, the sorcerer with bewilderment, as the blue light quickly coalesced into a ball.
Then the sorcerer lurched forward with a cry and sunk to the ground as Leon’s sword embedded in his chest. Leon pulled his sword out and was extending a hand to his king when he noticed the blue light bobbing slightly in the air.
“Sire, what is that?” he asked, startled.
Arthur took Leon’s hand, and the knight pulled him up. “It’s this thing Merlin does. But I don’t understand, it’s the middle of the day, I don’t need a light…”
As if taking the king’s words to heart, the light suddenly sputtered, like a candle in a breeze. Sparks tumbled off the ball only to disintegrate as they reached the ground.
“Merlin?” Leon asked, staring at the ball more closely. “But what does it do?”
Was it supposed to be flickering like that? Arthur wondered. The ball was quivering erratically, as if it was all it could do to hold itself together. And the ball had always seemed so bright before. Perhaps it just seemed dimmer because of the daylight. But still, why would Merlin send him this now?
Arthur shook his head to clear it. “He said…It’s to help me when I’m in danger, I think…”
The ball of light fizzled to nothing, leaving one lone blue spark to fall to earth like a wingless bird.
The moment the ball vanished, Arthur’s hair ruffled as a breeze suddenly picked up, whistling across the battlefield. The shutters of a nearby house slammed shut with the force of the wind. Storm clouds began to sweep across the sky, blotting out the sun, and within moments the city was plunged into shadow. Around the battlefield, shouts of surprise echoed at the sudden darkness. Sporadic drops of rain began to fall.
Arthur gazed back at the ground where the last spark had fallen just in time to see it go out completely. A nasty chill went through him that had nothing to do with the drop in temperature as his own words came back to him: You conjured a ball of light because you were dying.
Arthur wasn’t dying; Merlin was.
But then…Arthur felt a swell of panic. Then what did it mean when the light went out?
“Sire?” Leon repeated.
Arthur grabbed a tight hold of Leon’s shoulders. “Get the knights, the dragon, anyone we can spare to the courtyard. Go! Hurry!”
Leon nodded, and Arthur released him, taking off for the courtyard as fast as his feet could carry him.
The rain began to pour in earnest as Arthur ran. His boots sloshed in every puddle and slid across the slick cobblestones, but Arthur didn’t slow down. His thoughts were jumbled in all directions, flailing for a plan, any sort of plan, of what he’d do once he actually got to the courtyard. All he had was step one: Get to Merlin.
Above him, the storm clouds raced ahead, churning in a spiral that centered around a pillar of smoke wafting from the courtyard. Arthur could see a glimmer of orange glow above the tops of the houses around him in sharp contrast with the gray sky, and his stomach twisted.
He spun around the corner into the courtyard, Merlin’s name rising in his throat, and froze at the sight before him.
The courtyard was torn to shreds, more rubble than street. In the center stood an enormous, flaming tree whose base was already heavily charred. Huge cracks ran all along the length of the trunk, but they were repaired by pulsing, deep purple tendrils of magic that wrapped around the tree like climbing ivy. The tree’s trunk was stretching, reaching higher towards the sky; it was already nearly as tall as the castle wall, with a trunk wide enough to fit a few horses inside.
Or a person, Arthur realized in horror as he frantically scanned the courtyard for an absent Merlin. Morgana’s shrill laugh rang through the courtyard, and Arthur spotted her not too far away from where he stood, her gaze fixed on the flames with an almost childlike joy.
“A little rain’s not going to stop me, Emrys! Forbearnan firgenholt!”
The flames billowed higher in a towering plume, making Arthur cover his eyes and even forcing Morgana to stumble back. He could feel the heat radiating off the tree from halfway across the courtyard, even through the pouring rain.
Morgana broke into another peal of laughter. Listening to her laughing, sounding so jubilant while Merlin was trapped and burning and dying, made all of Arthur’s initial grief morph to rage. He would not, could not watch this any longer. He’d never be able to destroy the tree, not even with a sword that could kill the undead, but Morgana was within easy reach.
And so, he charged straight at her.
Morgana’s laughter morphed to shock as she whirled at the sound of his footsteps. She jerked to the side in an attempt to avoid him, a spell forming on her lips, but Arthur was already upon her. All she managed to do was let his sword slice through her side instead of stabbing straight through her gut.
Morgana screamed an unearthly wail, and Arthur went flying. He landed hard on his back in a huge mud puddle, but he scrambled to return to his feet as quickly as possible.
An invisible force shoved him back down. Arthur sputtered as he tried to push himself back up, but the force pressed on him harder.
Morgana glided towards him, a dark shadow outlined by the roaring flames. She held one hand against her injured side, the other aiming the spell at him. “You,” she hissed, “are finished, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur’s body wrenched itself up against his will to kneel. He swung his sword at her in a wide arc, but Morgana was just out of his reach. She smirked down at him. “There. Right where you belong. On your knees before me.”
Arthur swung again, and Morgana tutted. “Now, Arthur, that’s no way to treat your queen.” Her eyes glowed, and Arthur’s arm bent backwards at the elbow until he heard something crack. He dropped his sword with a howl as his right arm broke.
Morgana leaned in as Arthur gasped raggedly with the pain and cradled his useless arm. With the hand not pressed to her side, she seized a fistful of his hair and jerked his head to face the tree serving as Merlin’s pyre. “Pay close attention. I want you to watch him burn,” she whispered as if savoring every syllable.
At that moment, the whole world cracked open as lightning split the sky down the middle. A flash streaked through the tree, obscuring everything in blinding light. Then the wind rushed towards the tree with a sucking boom loud enough to shake the very castle foundations.
The tree shattered. Morgana shrieked and Arthur shut his eyes as every inch of exposed skin was bombarded by thousands of charred splinters.
He opened his eyes, heart leaping in his chest as he saw the blackened, gnarled stump that was all that remained of the tree. Atop it, still half encased in wood, was a gasping figure coated with ash.
“No. No, no, no, no, no!” Morgan’s grip slipped from Arthur’s hair. She seemed to have forgotten the king completely.
With a couple hard kicks, Merlin split the wood enough to slide himself out and climb down. He leapt the few remaining feet to the ground and stumbled around a moment, chest still heaving for air. His eyes darted around, landed on Arthur, then raised back to Morgana. He started towards her, his face edged with utter fury.
“No,” the witch spat. “No, you’re not taking my victory from me. Akwele!”
Merlin did not even flinch. His eyes simply flashed, and Morgana’s spell veered around him.
“Merlin!” Arthur lunged for Morgana, his weight crashing into her knees as he wrapped his unbroken arm around her calves. The witch toppled over, kicking wildly. Reeling pain erupted through the left side of Arthur’s face as her foot struck his cheekbone, and he was forced to let her go.
Morgana clambered back upright and hugged her bleeding side with one arm. Her gaze switched between the warlock striding towards her and the king on the ground near her feet, and her lips curled. Arthur tried and failed to bite down a cry as she stomped hard on his injured arm.
“Not any closer, Merlin!” the witch ordered.
With great difficulty, Arthur muffled himself by clenching his jaw shut and lifted his head to see Merlin. The warlock had halted, eyes shifting between Morgana and Arthur.
“That’s right,” Morgana said in an almost sing-song tone. Her heel ground into Arthur’s broken arm, and it took everything the king had to keep most of his scream in.
“Morgana!” It was a threat and an order all in one. “Leave him.”
Through his vision blurred by either tears or rain, Arthur spotted his sword a few feet away. He reached out his unbroken arm for it, but his fingers fell over a foot short.
Morgana lifted her chin. “I’ll be giving the orders. Unless you’d prefer me to kill him right here?”
Arthur stretched as far as he could, pleading to be able to just brush his fingers on the hilt, but the sword didn’t budge. Awash in despair and pain, he dragged his gaze to Merlin.
Merlin’s eyes flickered with understanding. He bowed his head, and took a deep breath. “Arthur, I’m sorry.”
Morgana smirked with triumph, not seeing the sword fly to the king’s outstretched hand. Arthur gave Merlin a nod of thanks, gritted his teeth, and stabbed the sword straight through the witch’s leg.
A piercing scream ripped from Morgana’s throat. But before she could retaliate, Merlin’s head jerked up, eyes blazing. Arthur’s stomach lurched as he felt himself launch off the ground like he’d been fired from a catapult. The air whooshed past him as he zoomed through the air in an arc, and he braced himself to crash—
He landed with a chorus of oomphs on the heads of a swarm of knights that had just arrived at the far end of the courtyard. Arthur’s head spun as he heard a jumble of concerned shouts. Hands hauled him back to his feet, and Arthur hissed as another wave of pain blocked out all thought when his broken arm was jostled.
Elyan’s face came into focus as the pain started to subside. “You alright, sire?”
“Arm,” Arthur managed, gingerly clutching the injured limb. He took in the faces around him quickly. Elyan had brought about a dozen knights with him, including Percival and Gwaine. Although each knight looked relieved to find their king alive, their faces were quickly turning one by one to gape at the scene in the courtyard.
Arthur turned his attention back as well when Morgana’s screech ended with an enormous explosion, carving a crater out of the ground where Arthur had lain a moment earlier. With a half-sob she wrenched the sword out of her leg and dropped it as if it had burned her. Then she stood there, trembling slightly, although it was impossible to tell if it was from pain, fear, or sheer rage. Whatever it was, she directed it all at Merlin.
“Swelte!” she screamed in a voice that didn’t sound human. “Swelte! Swelte!”
Merlin stood impassively, eyes two golden beacons shining through the rain. Morgana’s spells vanished before they reached him.
The knights, meanwhile, had their swords raised, but looked uncertain on who or if to attack. Arthur felt the weight of his knights’ stares as they all looked to him for direction.
“You’re to defend Merlin at all costs,” Arthur ordered. “But for now, stay back.”
Gwaine raised his sword. “But we’ve got to help him!”
“No,” Arthur ordered, moving in front of Gwaine to block his way. He had been foolish to bring the knights here. It would only be a matter of time before Morgana tried attacking them instead of Merlin.
On the other hand, he was with Gwaine. He couldn’t possibly leave Merlin to face her alone.
“Hold,” he ordered again, “And get into as tight a formation as possible. If Merlin falters, we attack.”
“Swelte! SWELTE!” Morgana’s shrieks became more and more unhinged with each pronouncement.
Merlin stood his ground as Morgana hammered him with spells. He could feel how powerful her magic was, but all of a sudden it no longer seemed insurmountably immense. Once he’d conjured the storm, it felt like some sort of dam inside him had shattered, like every spell he’d bottled inside him over the past week was clamoring to escape his body.
So he let it out. His magic stretched through the earth and up into the air, free at last, and he could feel every pebble on the ground, every drop of water falling from the sky. He could feel Kilgharrah’s comforting presence not too far away, and he sensed more than saw Arthur nearby, safe and surrounded by knights.
While his magic seemed to be climbing an upward peak, however, Morgana was tiring. Her spells blasted at him with less and less intensity. Her voice sounded broken, almost sobbing, and despite the things she’d done, Merlin felt more pity than anger.
“Why won’t you just die?!” Morgana demanded.
“Why won’t you?” Merlin shot back, sending her spell spiraling into the wet rubble. “We don’t have to do this.”
Morgana’s heaving chest slowed. Her jaw clenched as she regained her composure. “Is that what you think? You think I’ll give up just like that? Well, I won’t! Swelte!”
Merlin caught her next bolt of magic effortlessly in his hand. He was close enough now that he could hear her frustrated growl as he poured her spell harmlessly into a puddle at his feet. “Enough, Morgana.”
“No, it’s not! Nothing could ever be enough. Not when it comes to defeating you.” Her arm swiveled to point at the knights, and Merlin took a sharp breath. “You can’t protect all of them! Ic, seo heahsacerd, the acwele…”
“Hold!” he heard Arthur order over the din of panic bubbling on the knights’ end of the courtyard.
Merlin spun to face them only to see that Arthur had already anticipated Morgana’s attention. The king had gathered the small force of knights into one tight circle. Arthur stood at the front of them, standing tall and determined with his broken arm pressed against his chest. His eyes locked with Merlin’s, and he gave the warlock a quick nod.
In that fraction of a second exchanged between them, Merlin understood. Arthur had made his men a smaller target to make it easier for Merlin to defend them.
An overwhelming sense of calm control came over him. His low, steady voice carried through the courtyard as he chanted, and he could feel the magic pulsing around and through him. The words were unfamiliar, yet they sprung to his lips like he had always known them, like they belonged there, like they were his to say as much as the tongue of dragons. “Ic i gebene byre ond tidrenas. Lyft, waeter, folge min bebod. Forhienan se thas yfel. Flíeh faegth.”
“…eower gebæne behwierfest yslan.” Morgana finished at the same time. Her spell streaked across the courtyard towards Arthur and the knights at the same time Merlin felt his spell complete. He raised his arms as his magic exploded out of him.
The rain stopped in midair. Every individual droplet hung above the battle, suspended like crystals frozen in time. All was silent in the absence of rain pattering on the ruined cobblestone. Merlin held his breath, fearful a single move would shatter the moment, then pushed.
As one, every droplet darted towards the knights, melding together to form a solid sheet of ice between them and Morgana’s fast-approaching spell.
“Hold!” Merlin heard Arthur’s muffled order again as the knights looked ready to flee.
The reverberation of Morgana’s spell bursting on the ice rattled in Merlin’s bones, but the ice did not give. As Merlin concentrated, the wall of ice continued to thicken as more falling rain diverted towards it.
Morgana whirled back to him, eyes flashing. Her arm swept before her in a cutting motion. “No! Oferswinge!”
Merlin’s concentration broke as he zipped through the air, slamming face-first into his own shield. Grimacing, he pushed himself around to face Morgana, only for her to bash him back against the wall. Dimly Merlin thought he heard Arthur banging on the opposite side of the thick ice, calling his name, but Merlin knew the king was never going to break through, not with the amount of magic he’d poured into it.
Merlin was only dimly aware of Morgana’s shrill voice as she pounded him back into the wall again and again. “You—will—not—defeat—me!”
As the back of his head crashed against the ice one last time, Merlin reached inside the ice for the magic he’d trapped there, and hurled it at Morgana.
The ice behind him melted in an instant, and Merlin dropped straight down as the wave of rainwater speared past him towards Morgana, elongating into a straight, solid point—
Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and for a moment, his world dulled. He could sense nothing but the magic in and around him, solidifying the water into a long, sharp icicle that stabbed through Morgana’s chest. He felt rather than heard her gasp as the ice passed through.
I’m sorry, he thought back.
All this time, you…We could’ve been…
The next moment, the smothering of his senses vanished and everything was a wash of light and colors and cold and hands gripping him and the clamor of voices trying to talk over each other. Something was squeezing and shaking him, calling his name in a cross between an order and a plea.
“—lin! Merlin, you idiot, get up!”
Merlin blinked as the colors solidified into Arthur’s half-terrified, half-furious face. Behind Arthur were the rest of the group of knights. Half had taken up station between Morgana and the rest of the group; the rest were watching in varying stages of concern and shock. Then Leon started issuing orders to check on the body and report on the last of the battle at the wall, and the knights split off in different directions. Gwaine marched over to where Morgana’s body lay, sword swinging murderously, his every gesture indicating that if Morgana wasn’t dead already, she would be in a minute.
Merlin snapped back to reality as Arthur started to shake him one-handedly. “Merlin? Merlin, can you hear me? Merlin!”
“Course I can hear you, you prat.”
Arthur let out his breath slowly. “Oh. Well, alright then.” He hissed as Merlin poked his broken elbow. “Will you stop that?”
“Abir lithwaerc,” Merlin muttered. He watched with some degree of perverse satisfaction when Arthur yelped. “There you are.”
Arthur scowled, rubbing at his arm tenderly. “It’s still not healed.”
“You’re never happy, are you? Trust me, you’d rather have Gaius look at it. I’m still fairly rubbish at healing spells. That’ll hold until you see him.”
Arthur stared at him a moment. “You, rubbish? After all…” He waved his hand wordlessly towards the ruined courtyard.
Merlin sighed. “I mean, if you want, I could try, but—”
Arthur hastily snatched his arm back. “Gaius it is.”
Merlin pushed himself to sit up and gazed around at the scattering knights nervously. “Are they…”
“You saved all our lives and I told them to defend you at all costs. I think they’re adjusting.”
“Oh, good. I just tried burning to death. Don’t recommend it.”
Arthur didn’t smile. “Merlin…that was…that was just…” He hesitated. “Is she…?”
Arthur closed his eyes and bowed his head a moment. Then he put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Careful. I might just start to take you seriously.”
“Shut up. Are you alright?”
Merlin glanced over where Morgana stood limply, hunched over the blood-stained icicle. He could feel the remnants of her magic in the air already beginning to fade. The knowledge of her death lodged inside him, and although his regret still prickled, he could not mourn. She’d been lost a long time ago. No, what he felt now was a numb relief.
“Yeah,” he answered finally, “I’m alright.”
Arthur’s lips pressed together, and his voice sounded very strained. “I take it that includes the hole in your head? And the fact that you, oh, I don’t know, were inside a tree that was on fire?!”
Merlin touched the half-healed wound on the side of his head and winced. “I forgot about that.”
“You nearly died.”
“So did you.”
“I didn’t…Not like…” Arthur took a deep breath to compose himself, then gave Merlin a shove with his good hand. “Don’t do that again. At least, not until I’ve got a replacement court sorcerer.”
“Oh yes, I’d hate to put you in such an inconvenient—wait. Court sorcerer? You said advisor. You said Lord Merlin, Court Advisor, I heard you.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Well, I couldn’t very well have a court sorcerer before magic was legal, could I?”
“You could’ve told me, you know.”
“No, you didn’t!”
“I did! I’m sure I did. Just because you weren’t listening again, Merlin…”
“You did not.”
“…Well, this was more fun anyway.”
They both looked up as a shadow loomed over them and the knights scattered around the courtyard gave a cry. Above them, Kilgharrah swept in a graceful arc, folding up his wings as he landed. A few of the knights cautiously began to approach the dragon, only to leap back when Kilgharrah tossed his head and snorted. The dragon fixed Merlin with an irritated glare eerily similar to Arthur’s whenever he’d thought Merlin had just returned from the tavern.
Merlin winced. “He’s not happy.”
“Is he ever?”
“On occasion. Remember your stepmother the troll?”
“I wish I didn’t.”
“I asked him for help with dealing with her. He laughed.”
Arthur considered this a moment. “I don’t think I want to picture that.”
Merlin’s lips twitched. Then he noticed the rest of the knights started to trickle in after the dragon, weary but triumphant from defending the wall. They all gaped at the state of the courtyard, and Merlin winced again.
Leon broke off from this group and jogged toward Arthur and Merlin. “Sire,” he gasped. Blood and sweat covered his face, contrasting with the dark circles still under his eyes.
Arthur nodded. “Good work.”
Leon glanced sheepishly at Merlin. “The men are all starting to ask questions about…well, magic. And the dragon. What should I tell them?”
Merlin and Arthur glanced at each other. Arthur raised an eyebrow at him as if to say, Well?
Merlin shrugged back. It’s not like his magic was a secret anymore. Arthur might as well explain to the knights what was going on.
The king turned back to Leon. “I’ll talk to them. It’s about time I inform the populace of what’s going on. We’ll start with the knights, and they can help spread the word amongst the citizens as they return to the city.”
Merlin let his eyes drift shut. “Good, you do that, and I’ll just—”
“—Be coming with me. Unless…” Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Unless you need to see Gaius?”
Merlin snorted. “Believe me, I’ve had far worse.”
Arthur frowned at that, then turned back Leon. “Gather the knights. Tell them they’re to hear from their king and his court sorcerer shortly.”
“Yes, sire.” Leon winked at Merlin before taking off to follow orders.
Merlin yelped as Arthur used his shoulder as leverage to push himself up.
“Well, Merlin, enough sitting around,” Arthur said, dusting himself off. “Albion’s not going to build itself.”
A thrill surged through Merlin’s spine as Arthur said the name. “There’s a lot to do, you know,” he said carefully. “Laws to create. Meetings to sit through. Wrongs to right. Everything’s going to change.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’ve got you, now, isn’t it?” Arthur held out his hand. “Come on. Are you with me?”
Merlin half-smiled at him and took it. “Does this mean I get a day off?”
Arthur grinned as he pulled Merlin up and clapped a hand on his back. “Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin.”
“You’re right, sire, one day’s not nearly enough. Maybe three?”
“Surely not a month? That’s far too much, my lord, I couldn’t possibly…”
Sunlight began to break through the dissipating clouds as king and warlock strode together to face the gathering throng of knights.
After all, destiny was waiting.
Forbearnan firgenholt! = Burn mountain wood
Swelte! = Die violently!
Ic, seo heahsacerd, the acwelle… = I, the High Priestess, kill you…
Ic i gebene byre ond tidrenas. Lyft, waeter, folge min bebod. Forhienan se thas yfel. Flíeh faegth. = I command/summon the wind and rains. Air, water, obey my command. Defeat/cast down this evil. Fly, imminent death.
…eower gebæne behwierfest yslan = …that your bones turn to ash.
Oferswinge! = Strike him!
Abir lithwaerc. = Remove/take away pain in the limbs.