Chapter 1: Lost and Found
Arc I: Lost and Found
“I’m telling you, Arthur. That isn’t how it works.”
“Because that’s not how it works!”
“Yes.” Arthur said slowly, quickening his pace down the hall. “You said that already. That doesn’t explain why it doesn’t work.”
“Why it doesn’t…” Merlin let out a short huff, struggling to keep up with the King. “It just doesn’t. Why is the sky blue? I can’t give you an explanation for that. It just is!”
“Yes, but this isn’t the sky. This is my son.”
“The laws of magic don’t care about personal connections.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Arthur shook his head, turning to Mordred, who was walking beside Merlin. “Back me up here.”
“That isn’t how it works.” Mordred said, parroting Merlin’s earlier words back to the King.
Arthur let out a frustrated sigh. “Surely if anyone could do it, it would be you, Merlin.”
“I can’t put a tracking spell on your son.”
“You’re telling me in all your books of magic, there are no tracking spells at all?” Arthur asked incredulously.
“Of course they exist .” Merlin had to stop himself from rolling his eyes at the King’s insistence. “But in order to place a tracking spell on your son, I would need one very important thing: your son. Even then, the spell would fade within a few days.”
“What’s the point in a tracking spell if you already have the person you want to track?!”
“Traitors, for example.” Mordred pipped in. “If you want to follow someone without getting too close, you can place a tracking spell on them first.”
“What about scrying?” Arthur questioned after a moment, conceding to Mordred’s point. “Can’t you scry for him?”
“Your son has been ‘missing’ for less than ten minutes, we know for a fact he hasn’t even left the front gates, and you’re already resorting to tracking spells and scrying?”
“Well, I wouldn’t have to if he didn’t go running off every chance he gets!”
It was true that Thomas had a nasty habit of disappearing, but he had never been missing for too long. Sometimes he went to the caves. Sometimes he went to the physician’s chambers. When those two locations had been checked without luck, that was when Arthur’s panic would begin to set in.
“He gets bored, sire.” Mordred said. “Did you not explore the castle at his age?”
Thomas, despite being Arthur’s son, had always been a rather well behaved boy. Merlin had always claimed his more favorable traits to have come from his mother. He knew he wasn’t supposed to run around unattended, but Mordred was right. He did get bored. He was still a child, first and foremost. Sometimes the knights were too busy to escort him wherever it was he wanted to go. Sometimes he just wanted to go off by himself. If it was any consolation, he did always seem to regret the stress his disappearance had put on his father (and his mother, on the few occasions where she was made aware). It didn’t stop him from doing it again the next day, though.
“It’s not the same.” Arthur retorted.
The threats that had come in when Thomas was first born had caused Arthur more anxiety then he was likely to ever admit to. Just because Arthur had repealed the ban on magic didn’t erase the horrors of the past. People would still want revenge, and if they took it through the life of an innocent child, then so be it.
Nothing ever came of the threats, however. There were never any attempts to maim him. Whether this was because no one was actually willing to do it or because of the protective measures Arthur had put in place, no one would know for sure. It didn’t matter. It did, however, make Arthur incredibly worried each and every time his son escaped from his protection.
It wasn’t uncommon for Arthur to drag Merlin along on these searches. As Merlin’s quarters were one of the places he naturally checked, it wasn’t as if Arthur had to go out of his way to get the man. It just so happened that Mordred was with Merlin at the time, forcing the druid to come along with them.
Merlin turned his head to the courtyard as they passed by an open window, letting out a short breath. “Found him.”
Arthur stopped in his tracks, backing up towards the window until he, too, saw the small child sat on the steps that led to the castle. “I checked there.”
“Perhaps he moved around?” Mordred suggested.
At this point, it would have been acceptable for Mordred and Merlin to leave, but neither had any desire to leave the boy to Arthur’s rage alone.
“Thomas!” Arthur called out.
The boy turned to look at the King, his eyes appropriately wide. “Father-”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Arthur asked, walking down the stairs. “You cannot go wandering around without telling someone first. Especially by yourself!”
Thomas looked down guiltily. “I was just waiting for Aithusa. I wanted to go down to the field, but the guards wouldn’t let me leave.”
And if they had, Arthur would have had them executed. Or not. At the very least, they would have lost their jobs.
“So you wanted to go down to the fields by yourself?” Arthur closed his eyes, forcing the frustration bubbling inside him to settle. “Thomas. You cannot keep doing this. If you wanted to go to the fields, all you had to do was ask someone to take you.”
“But you and mother have to go to the council meeting.” Thomas mumbled. “And the knights are all busy.”
“Yes, and now I’m going to be late for said council meeting.” Arthur ran a hand over his face. “Just go inside.”
The disappointment on Thomas’s face was enough to break Merlin’s heart. “I’ll take him out there.” He offered.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be at the council meeting, too, you know.”
“Yes, because the Court Physician is such a vital role in the new tax agreement.” Merlin clamped a hand on Mordred’s shoulder. “If you want someone there so bad, just take Mordred in my place.”
“What?” Mordred turned towards him. “I don’t want to listen to the tax agreement anymore than you do.”
“Please, father.” Thomas made his way to his feet. “Aithusa said she’d come back early today, and I want to wait for her. I promise I won’t leave without asking again.”
That was most certainly a lie, even if Thomas was able to convince himself it was the truth in the moment.
Arthur sighed. “Very well.” He looked to Merlin. “Don’t go past the treeline.”
“I won’t.” Merlin promised, taking Thomas by the hand and leading him towards the gate. With Merlin at his side, the guards allowed them to pass without issue. Thomas probably thought the guards hated him, but the truth of the matter was, if they hated him, they would have let him leave.
“Thomas.” Merlin called out as they approached the field, the boy running ahead of him. “Don’t enter the forest.”
“But there’s another field just a bit that way that-”
“Nope.” Merlin grabbed at his arm, not ungently, and tugged him away from the trees. “You heard your father.”
“But why not?”
“Because there were bandits sighted on the last patrol through this area.”
Thomas crossed his arms. “You can defeat bandits. I’ve seen you.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows in incredulous confusion. “What? When?”
“Two years ago.” Thomas answered. “When we went riding.”
“Ah.” Merlin nodded. He could vaguely remember such an event. “You have a better memory than me.”
Despite his protests, Thomas made no move to reenter the forest. Yes, Merlin could protect Thomas from bandits, but he’d rather not take any chances. Accidents happened. Plus, if Arthur found out, he’d be skinned alive.
After a few minutes of silence, the sound of a twig snapping in half made Merlin’s head swivel back to the trees. The origin of the noise wasn’t immediately apparent. Bandits wouldn’t come this close to the castle. It could be a deer, but they didn’t usually come that close either.
It was probably nothing, but something didn’t feel right, and Merlin had learned a long time ago to trust his instincts when things didn’t feel right.
“Thomas, head back to the castle.”
The boy turned towards him. “What?”
“I said go!” Merlin didn’t raise his voice often to Thomas, and it was enough to make the child reluctantly begin walking towards the castle. He’d have to make it up to him eventually, but right now, his safety was far more important.
Merlin himself didn’t move, instead continuing to stare into the woods. Nothing was there. No one. It was a deer, probably. He still wasn’t taking any chances.
Then there was a sharp prick to his neck. He barely had enough time to register it as a blow dart before falling into unconsciousness.
Thomas turned at the sound of the body hitting the ground, his eyes widening upon seeing the three men walk out from within the forest. He turned back towards the castle, his walk turning into a sprint. It wasn’t fast enough, however, as soon a large, bearded man had an arm hooked around his waist dragging him back towards the forest. Thomas cried out, trying to wiggle his way out of the man’s grip. It was no use, and a hand clasped over his mouth, silencing him.
“What do we do about this one?” One of the other men asked, prodding Merlin’s limp form with his boot. He had a long scar across his cheek, and Thomas couldn’t help but wonder where he got it.
Thomas bit down on the hand covering his mouth, and it pulled away in shock. “Merlin!” He tried to wriggle away once again, but the grip on him only tightened. “Merlin!”
“Merlin?” The scarred man repeated, looking back down to the man. “I’ve heard that name before. This is the King’s pet sorcerer, ain’t it?”
“It would seem so.” The third man said, his eyes narrowing. “In that case, we’ll take him with us. Might as well get some extra profit.”
“Merlin!” Thomas cried out once more, desperate for him to awaken, but the man didn’t even twitch.
A sharp pain began on the right side of his face, and it took Thomas a moment to realize he had been hit. Moments later, a cloth was shoved between his teeth and tied behind his head. The bearded man pinned him to the ground, shoving his face into the dirt. The scarred man approached with a length of rope, and bound his hands behind his back. Again, Thomas tried to struggle, but his strength was nothing compared to that of the men.
Finally, the grip on him loosened slightly, and he glanced up. The third man, who was clearly the leader of the group, held a collar of some kind in his hands and made his way towards Merlin.
“We’d been warned about sorcerer’s running around in these parts.” The leader said, mostly to himself. “It’s fortunate, too, that we came prepared for such a thing.”
The man placed the collar around Merlin’s neck, locking it shut. Merlin gasped, giving Thomas hope that perhaps he was waking up, but he made no other movements.
A group of horses were brought out of the forest, and Merlin was thrown across one- his arms and feet tied down to prevent him from falling off. Thomas was lifted onto another one of the horses, and the bearded man, already sitting in the saddle, wrapped an arm around him. Thomas tried to move away, but his grip was too tight.
“As a fair warning, you won’t always be getting the luxury of a horse.” The leader said, hopping onto his own steed. “But we need to get some distance, and we aren’t going to let you slow us down by having you walk.” He turned towards the scarred man. “Get that false trail started.”
Thomas let out a choked sob, trying to get a better look at Merlin who was, to Thomas’s anguish, still asleep. The horses started into a gallop, and he couldn’t help but turn and watch the castle slowly disappear as they got further and further away.
“Take a good, long look.” The bearded man said. “Because you won’t be seeing it ever again.”
Thomas hoped more than anything that it was not true, but he feared it was quite the opposite.
Chapter 2: False Trails and False Hope
Merlin blinked awake slowly, rolling his head across the dirt ground. Ground? His eyes snapped open. It was night, he could plainly see from the stars shining above him, but far more concerning was the rope around his wrists.
“Look who’s awake.”
Merlin jerked his head towards the small fire several feet away with three men he didn’t recognize sat around it. Thomas was there as well, his hands clearly tied behind his back. Beyond that, he was gagged with dry tear tracks across his face.
“Hleap on bæc.” Merlin nearly growled the spell out, but nothing happened. His bound hands came up to grab at the collar circling his throat. Not again.
“I’m afraid that won’t work.” One of the men said, standing up. He grabbed Thomas by the back of his neck, and dragged him towards the warlock. Once in range, he chucked the boy into him, and Merlin did his best to wrap his arms around his with his hands bound in front of him. “Perhaps you can get him to shut up. Prove your worth and all.”
Merlin reached behind Thomas’s head, undoing the knots that held the gag in place. Once that was released, he went down to his hands, and untied those knots as well. He was sure the men would try and stop him, but they did nothing. Thomas buried his face into Merlin’s shoulder, but not before he saw the swelling bruise on the boy’s cheek.
Merlin looked up at the other man, fury swelling within him. “What do you want? Why did you take us?”
“We only came for the boy.” The man admitted. “You just happened to be there with him. Bad luck for you, I suppose.”
“What do you want him for?” Merlin asked again. “Ransom? Because I can guarantee the King will not let this go easily- especially considering you’ve already hurt him.”
“No. Not ransom.” The man said simply.
Merlin received no response to that question, and the man turned back towards the others, returning to the fire. Merlin thought about running, but they were still watching them. Without his magic, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
Merlin pulled Thomas’s face away from his chest, brushed his thumb against the purple bruise. Thomas clenched his eyes shut and let out another sob.
“Shh.” Merlin pulled him close once again, running a hand through his hair. “It’s alright. Everything is going to be fine. I promise. We’ll be fine.”
Thomas didn’t say anything. Instead, he pressed himself against Merlin even harder. He had never seen the kid so shaken before. True, nothing like this had ever happened to him before, but it was still a jarring change. The kid had always been on the shy side, but he had never been like this.
It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes later when the man returned, this time followed by the other two. The bearded man reached forward, taking Thomas into his grip.
“No.” Merlin tried, tightening his hold. “Don’t.” The scarred man grabbed at Merlin’s arms forcing him to release the boy. “Stop! Leave him be!”
Thomas struggled but was vastly overpowered. The rope binding Merlin’s hands in front of him was cut. He was dragged backwards until his back hit bark, and soon his hands were tied behind him and around the truck of the tree. Thomas was placed against his chest, and more rope bound him to Merlin.
“Happy?” The other man asked.
Merlin was not, in fact, happy, but he was at least glad to have Thomas near him. The rope around the boy’s chest was tight, but it didn’t seem to be giving him any trouble breathing.
“I suggest you try to sleep.” The man, who Merlin realized must have been the leader, said. “You have a long day tomorrow.”
Merlin didn’t bother responding to that comment. Thomas leaned his head back against Merlin’s chest, letting out a shuddering breath. At least the boy wasn’t alone. They had taken Merlin with him. That was their first mistake. He would get him home. That, he was certain of.
“This way.” Arthur called out, spotting another footprint in the dirt. The trail had been easy enough to spot- the only silver lining in this entire situation.
When he saw Aithusa flying into the cave rather than landing in the field, he had been confused. When Aithusa claimed the field to have been empty, he had been concerned. When the guards told him the prince had not reentered the castle, he had been terrified.
“Did you not see Thomas waiting for you in the field?”
“I flew over the field. He was not there.”
“That can’t be right. He left over half an hour ago with Merlin.”
“Perhaps they went back inside.”
There had been no sign of Thomas anywhere. He wasn’t in the physician's chambers- where he spent an unfortunate amount of time. He wasn’t in his bedroom. He hadn’t gone down to the caves. Mithian had no idea where Merlin was. The guards hadn’t seen either of them reenter the gates.
Gwaine had tried to find an explanation, but nothing made sense.
“Maybe they went into the forest?”
“I told Merlin not to take him past the treeline.”
“The kid can be pretty convincing.”
“No. There have been bandits spotted nearby- Merlin knows this. He wouldn’t have endangered Thomas like that.”
Aithusa was flying overhead, trying to see if she could spot them, but had no success so far. They had obviously managed to get quite a lot of distance in a short period of time.
“Sire.” Leon began pulling his horse up to Arthur’s. He hesitated, seeming reluctant to say whatever it was that was on his mind. “Merlin wouldn’t have let them take Thomas. If they did so, then it means…”
“It means Merlin is probably dead.” Arthur said stiffly. “Yes, thank you, I am aware of that.”
Merlin would have fought tooth and nail to protect his son. He would have rather died than let Thomas be taken. And if they took Thomas…
“There was no body.” Mordred spoke up.
“That doesn’t mean anything.” Elyan said dejectedly. “They could have moved it. Hidden it.”
Arthur had been forced to tell Guinevere what had happened. She was, of course, beside herself. So was he. If Thomas was gone… No. No, he couldn’t think like that. It was probably a ransom situation. Even if they didn’t find him, they’d get a message soon enough asking for a large sum of money in exchange for his son. And he would be willing to pay whatever it took to get him back. They could have the entire treasury if that was what they wanted.
That didn’t help Merlin, though. True, he’d be willing- more than willing- to pay for Merlin as well, but who could kidnap Merlin? Who could hope to hold him captive? Who would dare? The Sarrum had once, but he had ways of keeping Merlin powerless. These men did not… unless they did.
Magic binding items had become more and more prevalent in recent years. They required magic to make, but there was always someone willing to sell out their own kind for the right price. Arthur had even had Merlin make him some, but they were kept under lock and key. Most sorcerers could be held easily enough in the cells if arrested, but stronger ones could not.
But in truth, it would be much easier to kill Merlin than it would be to hold him.
Arthur searched for the next footprint and found none. He furrowed his eyebrows, looking farther down the path, but there was nothing. The trail ended here. Did they finally learn to cover their tracks? If they were on foot, as the tracks implied, they couldn’t have gone much further.
If they could cover their tracks well enough to just disappear, why did they wait so long to do so?
Arthur’s eyes clenched shut. “It’s a false trail.”
It had to be, and they had wasted an entire day following it. Night would fall within the hour. By the time they backtracked their way to the field to start over, it would be too dark out to see anything.
When they begin their search again in the morning, whoever took Thomas will have had a full day on them. A lot of distance could be made in one day, and if they were good at covering their tracks…They would scour the entire forest if need be. He would find his son.
And if Merlin was still alive, he’d bring him home, too.
“Let’s head back to the field.” Arthur tried to hide the waver in his voice, but he wasn’t sure if he was successful. “We’ll… we’ll start fresh at first light.”
The first thing Merlin noticed when he next awoke was the pressure against his chest. He looked down at the sleeping prince still bound against him. The swelling in his cheek had gone down significantly, but the purple bruise still remained. There was a small cut, meaning the man who hit him must have been wearing a ring of some kind. Merlin made a mental note to figure out who exactly had done it- so he knew which to kill first.
It was barely light out, but the others were awakening as well. They clearly wanted to get moving as early as possible. The scarred man began walking towards them- knife in hand. Merlin would have moved away, but in his bound state, there wasn’t much he could do but wait for the inevitable. He tried to reach for his magic out of instinct. He could feel it bubbling inside him, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not release it into the world. The collar made sure of that.
The knife cut through the ropes holding Merlin’s hands behind his back, and he immediately pulled them forward, shrugging away the cramps that had formed for the prolonged position.
“I wouldn’t bother running.” The man said, still holding the knife. “We have plenty more of those darts left over.”
He set a quarter loaf of bread on the ground, along with a canteen of what Merlin could only assume was water. Merlin took a short sip, waiting to see if there was any drug concoction mixed into it, but it seemed safe.
“Thomas.” Merlin whispered. With his hands now freed, he was able to unwind the rope binding them together.
The boy’s eyes opened slowly, first looking confused, then terrified. His head swiveled around the camp, all the memories from the day before returning to him.
“It’s alright.” It wasn’t alright. They both knew it wasn’t alright. Merlin picked up the bread placing it into Thomas’s hands. “Eat.”
The boy did so with little argument. He had never had the appetite of his father, but after not eating much the day before, he was starving- and it showed. The small amount of bread wouldn’t satisfy him for long, but it would have to do for now. Merlin handed him the canteen, and he took several large gulps from it.
The scarred man returned, grabbing Thomas’s arm, and pulling him into a standing position. “Get up.”
“Don’t.” Merlin stood as well, pulling Thomas behind him. “Don’t touch him.”
Not even a moment later, the man’s knife was at his throat. “Getting bold, are we?”
“You will not touch him.” Merlin said again, feeling the blade against his neck as he spoke. “He’s already been harmed once as your captive. I will not allow it to happen again.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a say in the matter.”
The bearded man came towards them with a length of rope. Merlin tried to struggle against them, but the odds were not in his favor. Just minutes later, both Merlin and Thomas had their hands bound in front of them. The rope continued out for several feet, tied to the back of two of the horses. As they began to ride, Merlin and Thomas would have no choice but to walk or be dragged.
“I said you wouldn’t be getting to ride after yesterday.” The leader said to Thomas as he hopped onto his horse. “From now on, you’ll walk.”
Once the men turned away from them, Merlin began to tear at the hem of his shirt until a thin piece came off in his hands. Not for the first time, he was grateful he hadn’t accepted Arthur’s offer of finer clothing. The threadbare fabric of his own clothes was much easier to rip apart. To be fair, he had never thought of that as a good thing before today. He looked around briefly, but there was no way he could get away with tying the strip to anything. Instead, he let it fall to the ground, hoping the wind wouldn’t carry it away.
Merlin continued to quietly rip and drop a piece every hour or so. Arthur was a good tracker- a great tracker, really, though Merlin would never tell him that to his face. That was all he would need to find them. Even one piece might have been enough to get Arthur in the right direction, but there was no harm in helping him a bit more along the way.
Arthur would find them. He had to.
Chapter 3: To Be Brave
Thomas stumbled over a piece of root, barely stopping himself from face planting on the ground. He had gotten slower and slower throughout the day. The rope dragging him along was the only thing that kept him from stopping entirely. He hadn’t any water since that morning, and it had been hours since then.
“Stop!” Merlin called out, the parchedness of his own throat making his voice weaker than he would have liked.
To Merlin’s surprise, the group did stop, and the leader climbed down from his horse. He walked towards Merlin, looking both annoyed and humoured by the interruption. “What?”
“He can’t go any further.” Merlin said, glancing at Thomas. “He needs water. Rest.”
“He will have water tonight.” The man responded. “And we aren’t stopping, so he will not be resting.”
“He won’t be able to keep this up for much longer.”
“Well, he’s going to have to, or he can get dragged across the dirt.”
“Look. I’ll carry him, if you just…” Merlin held up his hands.
The man stared at him for a moment, clearing thinking about the offer. “Very well.” He reached forward to undo the ropes. Instead of dropping it, however, he formed it into a noose, and wrapped it over the collar around Merlin’s neck. He yanked the rope, forcing Merlin to move forward or be choked. “I hope you can keep up, because we aren’t slowing down.”
When the man released the rope and headed back towards his own horse, Merlin began to kneel down next to Thomas to undo his own rope.
Merlin looked up. “What?”
“Don’t untie him.” The leader repeated, glancing back at him. “You can hold him. Do not untie him.”
Merlin shook his head, giving Thomas an apologetic look the boy didn’t even notice. He picked Thomas up into his arms, and the boy pressed his face into Merlin’s neck. The horses began to move, making Merlin do so as well.
“I’m tired.” The boy mumbled, only loud enough for Merlin to hear. There was a slight tremble to him that had been there the night before as well. He was clearly terrified, and Merlin couldn’t exactly blame him. Merlin had been in worse situations, of course, but he had not been a child at the time.
“I know.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair. “Sleep if you can. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Merlin reached back down to the hem of his shirt, tearing off another piece the best he could with the child in his arms. He dropped the fabric onto the ground, watching it land in the dirt path.
The search had begun fresh the next morning, but it wasn’t as if they had any more information that day than they had before. The false trail was the only trail they had. Whoever had taken them knew what they were doing. They were professionals, and they knew how to cover their tracks. The only option was to scour the entire forest, but the forest was large. Even with Aithusa flying above them, the chances of just happening upon them would come down to luck. And Arthur wasn’t feeling particularly lucky at the moment.
Going back to Guinevere that night empty handed had been harrowing.
“Did you… did you find him?”
“No, but we will. We will, I promise.”
“Arthur.” It was Gwaine who spoke up, walking towards him. In his hand was a small, blue piece of cloth. “I found this just a bit that way.” He gestured in the general direction he had just come from.
“This is Merlin’s.” Arthur said, gathering the attention of the other knights.
“Are you certain?” Leon asked, looking at the cloth skeptically.
“Yes. I’ve been trying to get Merlin to throw away this shirt for years. It seems I might finally get my wish.” Arthur felt some renewed hope flow through him. “They’ve passed through his area. Spread out. See if you can find a trail. Anything.”
It wasn’t long before another piece of his shirt was found.
Arthur couldn’t help but smile as he held the fabric in his hand. “Merlin. You beautiful, beautiful man.” This hadn’t been a case of a torn shirt. Merlin was leaving them a trail. Merlin was leading them straight to both him and his son.
And beyond that, it meant Merlin was still alive. While the search for his son had never ceased, he had begun to accept that his friend was almost certainly dead. He should have known better than to doubt the man.
“This way!” Arthur shouted. They’d follow the trail Merlin left, and they would find them.
Merlin glared but otherwise said nothing as he sat down to the ground, Thomas still curled against his chest. Night had begun to fall, and the man were clearly preparing to make camp. He wasn’t sure if Thomas had managed to fall asleep, but he had remained quiet through the rest of the trip. Merlin’s own arms had been shaking by the end of it. Thomas was far from the infant he had once been, and along with the lack of food and water, it had begun to take its toll.
Merlin unwound the rope around Thomas’s hands, wincing at the angry, red marks that circled his wrists. He reached towards his own neck, loosening the noose, and pulling it off when the other men made no move to stop him.
After a while, a bowl of stew and a canteen on water were placed on the ground next to them. By this point, Thomas was definitely awake, though he hadn’t spoken at all.
“Thomas.” Merlin whispered, grabbing the bowl. “It’s time to eat.”
Thomas turned his head away from Merlin’s chest and towards the food. There was no spoon, so Thomas made do by drinking straight from the bowl. He stopped after a moment, offering it to Merlin.
Merlin shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
Thomas’s eyes darkened ever so slightly. “I’m not a child.”
Yes, Merlin thought. Yes, you are. “I’ll be alright, Thomas.”
“Please.” The boy said, quieter this time.
Merlin stared at him for a moment, sighing. He took the bowl from him, drinking a portion of it. It wasn’t enough to satisfy his hunger entirely- the entire bowl wouldn’t have been able to do that- but it did curb the pain.
He handed the bowl back to Thomas, who took another sip as well. They shared the water, but the thirst was not as bad after the broth.
The bearded man walked over to take away the bowl. Thomas clearly didn’t see him coming as he violently jerked away and into Merlin’s chest.
“I’m sorry.” Thomas whispered as the man left once again. “I’m sorry.”
“Shh.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair. “You have nothing to be sorry for. This isn’t your fault. None of this is.”
“I’m ‘sposed to be brave.”
“You are.” Merlin pressed his forehead against the top of his head. “You are being very brave, but this is very scary. It’s okay to be scared. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m scared, too.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.” Merlin said softly. “I am, but I also know that everything is going to be fine. You’re father is going to find us, and he’s going to take us home. And one day, this will all just be a story.”
Thomas looked up, a doubtful look on his face. “A story?”
“Yes, a story.” Merlin nodded. “Like… remember that story I told you- about how your father, your mother, and I went to rescue your uncle. We were all captured, and we escaped. You always liked that story.”
“With the King Cenred.” Thomas mumbled.
“Yep.” Merlin confirmed. “And soon, you’ll have your own story like that. I know it’s scary right now- it was scary with Cenred, too- but it all worked out in the end. Now it’s just a story. An adventure.”
Thomas didn’t have a chance to respond when the scarred man approached with a length of rope. “You know the drill.”
Merlin sighed. There was no point in fighting them. He let go of Thomas, allowing the man to tie his hands behind the tree. The man grabbed at Thomas, roughly reorienting him so his back was flat against Merlin’s chest.
“Careful with him!” Merlin tried, knowing he would certainly be ignored. The man only gave him an unapologetic sneer as he wrapped the rope around the two of them- far tighter than it needed to be.
“Where are they taking us?” Thomas asked quietly once the man retreated.
“I don’t know.” Merlin admitted. “But hopefully we’ll never have to find out.”
From the distance they had already traveled, it was clear the men intended on taking them out of Camelot. That would definitely make Arthur finding them a lot more difficult- not that it would stop him. Arthur would not rest until his son was found, and with the land united as it was, it wouldn’t be overly difficult for him to get permission to search just about anywhere.
The next morning went about the same as the previous. They were given a small amount of food and some water. Merlin took a bite to appease Thomas, forcing him to eat the rest. He knew what it was like to be hungry. He had grown up hungry. He could deal with it. Thomas had never been hungry in his life. Thomas didn’t know what real hunger felt like.
“Do you intend on carrying the kid again?” The leader asked, stalking over towards the two of them.
Merlin stood. “Yes.”
The leader watched him for a moment before shrugging. “Alright.” He grabbed the noose that was still on the forest floor from the night before and tightened it around Merlin’s neck. He grabbed the other end, tying it to the back of his horse.
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows as the men all hopped onto their horses. They hadn’t bound Thomas. Did they forget, or was it intentional? Merlin wasn’t taking any chances. He picked Thomas up into his arms, keeping his hands tucked against his chest. Perhaps if they didn’t see them, they wouldn’t realize their mistake.
Thomas wasn’t bound. Thomas wasn’t bound. It was a risky move- a very risky move- but Merlin couldn’t just let the chance go by without at least trying. The consequences could be disastrous… but he had to try.
Merlin waited a few minutes after they began walking. The men glanced back once or twice, but they either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“Thomas.” Merlin whispered. “I need you to listen to me, alright? Listen very closely.” The boy didn’t respond. “Thomas, are you listening?” Thomas nodded against his chest. “Okay. In just a minute, I’m going to put you down. When I do, I need you to run. Run as fast as you can. Don’t stop. Whatever you do, don’t stop. No matter how tired you are, no matter how much your legs hurt, you need to keep running. Run all the way back to Camelot.”
Thomas didn’t speak for a long moment. “I don’t know where Camelot is.”
“That’s okay.” Merlin assured him. “That’s okay. Just keep running. You’ll find it. Or they’ll find you. One of the two.”
Finally, Thomas looked up. “You’re not coming with me?”
“No, I’m sorry.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll find my own way back. Don’t worry about me. Just get home. Okay?”
Thomas looked down, nodding ever so slowly. Merlin couldn’t help but stare at the boy for just a few seconds longer. The longer he waited, the worse his chances would be… but this was also likely to be the last time he would ever see him.
Merlin tightened his hold on him for several moments, pressing his lips against the top of his head. “I love you.” He closed his eyes. “Now go.”
He set Thomas onto the ground as quietly as he could, and Thomas took off. Merlin had to stop himself from turning around to watch him leave. He needed to keep walking. The longer it took for them to realize Thomas was gone, the better. He could take off his own noose easily enough, but they would notice if the rope was suddenly being dragged across the ground. He had to stay. He had to buy him time.
Thomas would be safe. That was all that mattered.
It was the scarred man that finally turned around, his eyes widening when he realized what was wrong with the picture in front of him.
“He’s gone!” The group halted at once. The scarred man was the first off of his horse, running past Merlin.
But Merlin wasn’t done yet. He reached out, pulling the knife from the sheath at the other man’s waist, and plunged it into the scarred man’s chest. The bearded man was there next, and Merlin began to swing towards him as well. But then the noose at his neck was pulled taunt, forcing him backwards and away from his target. Soon he was on the ground, one foot on his wrist, the other on his neck.
“Go after him!” The leader yelled, and the bearded man ran off to obey. The leader knelt down, peeling Merlin’s fingers away from the hilt of the knife and yanking it from his grasp. “If we lost that kid, you’re dead.”
“Yeah.” Merlin said, words coming out harsh from the pressure on his throat. “I figured.”
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. As long as Thomas got home safe, he was happy. Arthur would miss him, but he didn’t need him anymore. He had other allies with magic to protect him. Hell- he even had a dragon. Aithusa would keep him safe.
Mithian… there was guilt in that. Leaving her after she had sacrificed so much to be with him was cruel, but there wasn’t much he could do to change that. She would understand. She had to.
Merlin heard Thomas long before he saw him. He clenched his eyes shut as the bearded man dragged the child back into the clearing. Thomas was struggling against him with all his might, but he was no match for the larger man.
The leader looked down at him. “So it was all for nothing, eh?”
“Look what I found along the way.” The bearded man handed the leader a piece of cloth. A piece of Merlin’s shirt.
“Leaving a trail, are we?” The leader reached towards Merlin, ripping off his neckerchief. He handed it to the bearded man. “Tie up the kid, then get another trail going. Tear that up. Lead them in the other direction.”
“What about him?” The bearded man asked, gesturing towards Merlin on the ground. “Then we kill him?”
The leader looked him over, hesitating. “No. Not yet.”
The bearded man looked incredulous. “He killed Milos!”
Merlin glanced backwards towards the scarred man. He was, in fact, dead. Merlin couldn’t bring himself to feel any remorse for his actions. He’d do it again. He’d kill them all if given the chance.
“I know.” The leader said remorsefully. “But if they come across his body, they’ll know the trail is fake. If he’s been leaving that trail for a while, they won’t be far behind. We need to get them off our tail.”
The bearded man was clearly not satisfied, but he did as he was instructed anyways. Meanwhile, Thomas was tightly bound with his arms tied behind his back.
“Don’t think this means you’re getting away with this.” The leader said, increasing the pressure on his throat. “You’re going to regret killing one of our own.”
Thomas was put on the now spare horse, his legs tied to the stirrups. At least it meant he wouldn’t have to walk anymore. Merlin was still being dragged by the noose, but now his arms were tied behind his back as well. The bearded man had disappeared to make the new trail, meaning it was just the three of them riding along. The odds were in his favor now, but he had no way of acting upon it.
Thomas glanced back at him every few minutes with tears in his eyes. It had been a long shot. He knew it had been a long shot, but he still had to go for it. If there was a chance Thomas could escape, no matter how small, he had to take it.
He could only hope that Thomas wouldn’t be the one to take the brunt of the punishment.
Chapter 4: The River and Sea
Arthur and the knights continued to follow the trail left for them. Arthur was certain that, without that trail, they would have never been able to track them down. It was just another thing to be grateful to Merlin for. At one point, the man clearly switched from using his shirt to his neckerchief- yet another clothing item Arthur had been wanting to burn for a long time.
But then the trail stopped.
Arthur looked down at the river. The last piece of Merlin’s trail led straight to it, and there were no more pieces beyond it. No. No, they wouldn’t… they wouldn’t bring them all the way out here just to kill them. To drown them. What would be the point? Why?
“S-Search the river.” Arthur called out. He didn’t want to look himself- he didn’t know what he would do if he found his son’s body floating down the stream- but he had to. He owed them that.
“Sire?” Mordred approached a few minutes later, holding what Arthur immediately recognized to be Merlin’s neckerchief in his hand. “I found this in the water just downstream.”
Arthur took it from the knight with shaking hands. Merlin had been alive. He had left them a trail. But now he was dead.
“We found a body, sire.” Leon said, walking towards the two of them.
“Merlin?” Mordred asked quietly.
Leon shook his head. “No. From the looks of it, he was a mercenary of some kind.”
“How did he die?” Arthur questioned after a long pause.
“He was stabbed in the chest with a small blade. A knife, most likely. Or a dagger.”
Why bring Merlin all the way out here just to kill him? Why not just kill him in the field? Why drag him all this way?
“If Merlin…” Arthur began, hesitating. “If Merlin managed to kill one of the men that took them…”
Merlin killed one of their men, so they killed him. They dragged him to the river, drowned him, and let his body get taken away by the stream. Merlin was dead.
Arthur took in a deep breath, turning to Mordred. “But… there was no sign of Thomas? Anything from him? His clothes?”
Mordred shook his head. “No, sire. Not that I could find.”
Arthur nodded. “Then we keep searching.”
He may have lost Merlin, but he would not lose Thomas as well. Merlin had been killed trying to protect his son, and that was not something he would ever forget.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The words rushed out of Thomas’s mouth so quickly, Merlin could barely even understand them.
“Shh. Shh, it’s alright. Thomas, It’s okay.” Merlin wanted to wrap his arms around the boy, but his hands were firmly tied behind the truck of a tree. He did his best to hold back a grunt of pain as Thomas pressed himself against his almost certainly broken ribs.
“I tried to run. I tried, but I wasn’t fast enough. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Merlin said gently. “I knew there was a good chance you wouldn’t be able to get away. I knew that. I know you tried your best.”
“I couldn’t…” Thomas let out a choked sob. “I couldn’t stop them. I tried to make them stop… they wouldn’t… they wouldn’t listen.” Making Thomas watch as he was beaten had been the cruelest part. That wasn’t something the kid would forget anytime soon.
Merlin pressed his forehead against the top of Thomas’s head. “I’m alright. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“They hurt you.”
“I know, I know, but I’m alright.”
In the end, the escape attempt had been a bad idea, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret it too much. At least he had killed the one.
The bearded man approached with a bundle of ropes, lashing Thomas to Merlin’s chest. Merlin gasped at the pressure, but the man didn’t seem to care. If anything, he pulled the ropes just a bit tighter.
“Maybe next time you’ll think twice before crossing us.” The bearded man said, crouching down next to them.
“You kidnapped us.” Merlin argued, despite knowing there really was no point in it all. “I think you’ll find my sympathy for you is lacking in the moment.”
The man stood, his boot swinging towards Merlin’s side. He cried out, curling in on himself as much as he could. The man just sneered at his pain, walking back to the small fire that had been built. Thomas leaned his head back against Merlin’s chest, tears still streaming down his face.
“We’ll get you home.” Merlin said in an effort to calm the boy. “I promise, you’re going to go home.”
“You’re coming with me.” Thomas said as if that was a fact.
Merlin hesitated, unable to bring himself to contradict the boy. “Of course.” He knew the chances of him surviving this was slim to none. Thomas had value to them. Thomas was their target. He was just brought along for the ride.
“I mean it.” Thomas turned his head in an attempt to look at Merlin, but it was not particularly successful. “You lied before. You said you were going to come back home, too, but you weren’t. You knew you weren’t. You lied to me.”
Merlin looked down at him. “I did. I’m sorry. But I needed you to leave me.”
“I’m not leaving you again.”
“No.” The boy said firmly. “I’m… I’m the Prince of Camelot. You have to do what I say, and I say you are coming with me.”
Merlin smiled despite the circumstances. It wasn’t often Thomas tried to throw his rank around, but the Arthur in him did tend to come out more during times of stress. “I’m afraid your orders don’t have much power here.”
“Please.” Thomas let out another sob. “Please don’t leave me again. Please… please…”
Merlin closed his eyes, letting out a soft sigh. “I won’t. I won’t leave you.”
When morning came, Thomas was tied back onto the spare horse. Merlin was once again led by the noose with his arms tied behind him. Every step sent pain shooting through his legs and chest, but he couldn’t stop. If he tripped and fell, he wouldn’t be able to get back up again, and he would be choked to death by the noose as he was dragged along. That wasn’t something he wanted Thomas to witness.
The horses came to a stop several hours later. Merlin furrowed his eyes in confusion as the noose was cut and Thomas was untied from the horse. It wasn’t yet night, which meant they couldn’t be preparing for camp… unless they had arrived to wherever it was they were being taken.
Merlin walked towards Thomas, wishing he could pick him up, but with his arms still tied behind his back, it merely wasn’t possible. They walked for only a few minutes when the smell of the sea hit Merlin’s nose. No. No. No.
They passed through the treeline, leaving the forest and revealing a boat docked on the shore. Merlin stopped walking, but the leader took his arm in a firm grip and began pulling him forward once again.
“No.” Merlin said, struggling against the hold. “Don’t. If you want ransom, the King will pay whatever you want for his son. Whoever hired you- Arthur can top it. He will. He-”
“If we betray our client, we will not receive any more jobs.” The leader said, still walking forward. “I’m sure your King would pay a hefty amount, but a one time payment isn’t worth a continued salary.”
A third man walked out from inside the boat. He furrowed his eyes in confusion. “Who is that one? And where is Milos?”
“Milos is dead.” The leader responded. “This one is just extra. We’re taking him along. Fendrel can decide what to do with him.”
The boat man looked shocked at first to hear of the other man’s death, but recovered quickly enough. He stepped aside, and the two of them were dragged onto the ship. Thomas must have noticed Merlin’s panic, as his breathing had quickened substantially. They were taken to an empty room in the lower part of the ship, both of them thrown roughly onto the wooden floor. Then the door was locked behind them.
“Merlin!” Thomas immediately ran towards Merlin, who’s ribs had protested greatly to the jostling movement.
“See if…” Merlin took in a shallow breath. “See if you can untie my hands, alright?”
Thomas nodded and made quick work of the rope around his wrists. Merlin let out a sigh of relief as he brought his arms back in front of him. He reached out, wrapping his arms around the shaking child and pulling him close. Thomas accepted the comfort without question, burying his face into Merlin’s shoulder.
“Are we going to die?” Thomas whispered so quietly that Merlin nearly didn’t hear him.
“No.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair. “No, I don’t think so.” Why bother going through all the trouble of kidnapping the prince and bringing him all the way across the sea just to… “No, you’ll be fine.”
“This isn’t like the story.”
“With Cenred.” Thomas mumbled into Merlin’s shirt.
“Oh.” Right. The story. “Well, you’ll just have a far more exciting story to tell.”
“You weren’t hurt in that story.”
“No…” Merlin conceded. Despite being taken captive, Arthur, Gwen, Merlin, and Elyan had all returned to Camelot with minimal injuries. “But there are other stories, stories I haven’t told you, where I get hurt.”
“Like…” Merlin hesitated, trying to figure out how exactly he was going to word this. He was hardly going to tell him everything. “Like one time, I was kidnapped. I was a long way from Camelot, and I was hurt. But then I was rescued. I came home. It’s how I met Mithian, actually.” He paused, furrowing his eyebrows. “Well, not how I met her, but how…” Merlin trailed off, unsure of where this tangent was heading.
Thomas pulled back slightly, and his eyes were bloodshot and tired. Merlin couldn’t help but wonder if his own eyes looked the same. “Why did you never tell me this story?”
“I…I suppose it’s not one I really like to talk about.” Even after all these years. He could, if he wanted to. It wasn’t as painful a memory now as it was then, but it still wasn’t something he liked to dwell on.
“Why?” Curiosity had begun to take over some of the fear in his voice. It was the only thing that kept Merlin talking.
Merlin took in a long breath. “Because it was scary. Very scary, and… and it isn’t a very fun story.”
Thomas frowned. “This isn’t going to be a fun story, either.”
“Perhaps not.” Merlin agreed. “Not all stories are fun stories.”
Thomas nuzzled deeper into Merlin’s chest, his fist wrapped tightly in the man’s shirt. His knuckles were white from the tightness of his grip. His voice was soft and scratchy as he spoke- so unlike the boy he had grown to know so well. “I want to go home.”
“So do I, Thomas.” Merlin closed his eyes. “So do I.”
Arthur wouldn’t be able to find them now. They were on their own. But he would bring his son back to him. That much he was certain of. Thomas would not die out here, so far away from Camelot. He would go home.
Chapter 5: A Foreign World
Merlin snapped awake as the door to the small room opened up and light flooded in. Thomas squinted, hiding his face in Merlin’s shirt to block out the rays.
“Stand up.” The leader said, walking towards him.
Merlin glared for several seconds, but the man merely raised an eyebrow. Finally, he stood, still holding Thomas in his arms. The man didn’t attempt to restrain either of them, instead allowing them to walk freely from the room and out of the boat. They were clearly in a town of some kind, and there was a large castle in the distance.
“Come on.” The leader said, taking hold of Merlin’s arm.
The bearded man joined him, while the third man stayed behind on the boat. The leader led them through the town, passing through the gates and into a courtyard of some kind. Standing in the courtyard was a dark haired, middle aged man wearing a crown. The guards on either side of him wore a crest he did not recognize, only sementing the fact that they were no longer in Albion. A tall, thin woman with long, straight hair stood behind the King as well.
The leader took a step forward, offering the King a short bow. “ I bring you the prince. ”
The King looked at Thomas, clearly pleased by what he saw. “You have done well .” He gestured towards Thomas, this time speaking to the guards. “Bring me the boy.”
The guards began to walk towards them, and Merlin took a step back. “No.” One of the guards attempted to pry Thomas from his arms, which only made Merlin tighten his hold. “No!”
Another guard stepped forward, and they each grabbed hold of one of Merlin’s arms, wrenching them outwards. A third guard yanked Thomas from him, setting him onto the ground. Thomas just ran back towards him, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s waist. The third guard ripped Thomas away from him once more, setting him down before the King.
The King looked down at the boy, smiling widely. “ Welcome to Aeridia. ” He crouched down, putting himself at eye-level with Thomas. “What is your name?”
Thomas tried to glance backwards at Merlin, but the guard blocked his vision. He looked back at the King, clearly unsure of what to do. Finally, after a long pause, he spoke. “Thomas.”
“Thomas.” The King repeated, still smiling. “ Welcome to Aeridia, Thomas.”
The King reached forward, making Merlin jerk in the guards grasp. “Don’t touch him!”
The King paused, looking up at the interruption. He turned towards the leader. “ Who is that?”
“No one.” The leader seemed to hesitate, though Merlin had no idea why he would. “Just a sorcerer we found with the boy.”
The King made a dismissive gesture, turning back to the guards. “Take him away.”
The guards holding him still begin to walk, forcing Merlin to walk with them or be dragged.
“Merlin!” Thomas called out. He tried to run towards him, but the guards held him back. “No! Please! Merlin!”
“It’s okay.” Merlin tried as he passed by him. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.” Merlin had spent nearly ten years in Camelot hiding who he was from everyone he knew, but never before had he felt like such a liar.
Merlin could tell, even as he was dragged away, that his words had not quelled Thomas’s fear. He continued to struggle against the guards, to get away from the King, to get to Merlin, but failed in every respect.
The interior of the castle seemed similar to Camelot’s- not that Merlin got a chance to see much of it. The guards took Merlin straight down to what was clearly a dungeon of some kind. They opened a cell door, threw him inside, and locked the door behind him.
He should have been expecting this. They had never wanted him, after all. All they wanted was Thomas, and now that they had arrived, there was no reason to keep him around any longer. If they executed him, that would be it. Thomas wouldn’t be able to escape on his own, and Arthur would never be able to find him. Without his magic, there was no hope in Merlin being able to escape the cell on his own… but he would have to find a way. For Thomas’s sake.
Thomas watched in horror as the guards dragged Merlin away from him. He tried to get past the men surrounding him- to get to Merlin- but they blocked his path. No. No. No, no, no, no, no, no.
“Where are you taking him?” Thomas asked, his eyes flickering from Merlin to the King.
The King waved his hand through the air. “The sorcerer does not matter. Follow me.”
The King turned, and began walking towards the castle. One of the guards prodded Thomas’s shoulder when he did not move. No. No, he didn’t want to go with this man. He wanted to find Merlin. He wanted to get back to only other person he knew in this strange land.
Thomas let out a short cry and arms began to circle around him, lifting him from the ground. “No! Please!” He tried to wriggle away, but the guard’s hold remained firm. “I’ll walk. I’ll walk, please.”
After a moment, the guard released him, setting him back onto the ground. Thomas begrudgingly began to walk, following the King as he led them through the halls.
The King opened a door deep within the castle walls. “These, Thomas, are to be your chambers.”
The King gestured for Thomas to enter the room, and he did so after a pause. It was nothing like his room in Camelot, but at the same time, it was fairly similar. There was a large bed, a table, a wardrobe… a room fit for a prince.
Thomas turned back towards the King. “Where is Merlin?”
The King’s smile dropped for the first time since Merlin’s exit. He didn’t look angry, so to say, merely… exasperated. “Do not concern yourself with him. He is gone.”
Thomas’s blood ran cold. No. No, he couldn’t be gone. Thomas took a step back, shaking his head. “No. Please. He can’t be.” Please. Please don’t let him be alone here. “He… He… No, please.”
The King looked confused more than anything else. “We have other sorcerers you can associate with if you so desire.”
Thomas began backing away as the King walked forward. “No. Stay back. Please.”
The King didn’t stop. “Calm yourself, Thomas. I am not going to hurt you.”
“ Please .”
This time, the King did stop, taking in a long breath. “Thomas. There is no need to be frightened. Talk to me. Tell me what I can do to help you.”
He sounded so genuine that it hurt . “I want to go home.”
The King smiled slightly. “This is your home.”
“No.” Thomas shook his head vehemently. “No. No, I want to go home . Please. Please, just let me go home.” He had backed himself into a corner of the room by this point, and he had no where else to go. He couldn’t run to the door- the King stood between him and his goal. And there were surely guards right outside. “Please.”
The man sighed. “You are home. This is your home now. You will be happy here. Anything you desire, you may have. All you have to do is name it.”
“I want Merlin!”
The guards came back for him far sooner than he would have expected. He had hoped to have more time, but the King was apparently keen to have his execution done with as soon as possible. Or perhaps they merely intended on throwing him from the castle. If they did, the King was more of a fool than he originally thought. If he was released, he would get the collar off, and he would reign vengeance upon this castle.
He clearly wasn’t being taken to the courtyard, but perhaps that is not where they did executions. In Camelot, private executions were done in the dungeons, but they had since left them.
“You.” It was the King from before, stalking towards him. “Calm the child.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow as the King gestured violently towards the door beside him. Merlin wasn’t willing to take any chances, opening the door before the King changed his mind, and shut it behind him.
Thomas was not immediately visible, and Merlin had to search for him in the large room. Tucked away in the corner, with his head buried in his knees, was Thomas.
“Thomas?” Merlin called out, but the boy didn’t respond.
He kneeled down next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Thomas flinched away at first, but then he opened his eyes.
“Merlin!” Thomas uncurled himself, wrapping his arms tightly around him. His injuries from before were still painful, but Merlin managed to stop himself from crying out. “I thought… I… they said you were gone. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought you might be dead. I thought… I thought I was alone.” Thomas let out a short sob.
“Shh.” Merlin hushed, running his fingers through Thomas’s hair. “I’m fine. See? I’m alright. I’m okay.”
“I thought you were gone. I thought… I thought…”
“I’m here.” Merlin promised, squeezing Thomas against him. “I’m always here.”
For now. Whatever reason this king had for wanting Thomas, he clearly wanted him happy- or at least content. The chambers were of high quality. He had even been willing to bring Merlin from the cells to calm him. Despite kidnapping him, he had not been overly cruel to Thomas since his arrival.
“Listen.” Merlin said quietly, making Thomas look up at him. “They’re probably going to try and take me away again.” He could feel Thomas stiffening in his arms. “No. It’s alright. It’s alright. There’s something I need you to do. Okay?”
“Okay.” Thomas mumbled against him.
“When they try to take me away, I need you to cry.” Merlin said, considering the plan even as he spoke. “Cry. Scream. Throw the biggest tantrum you’ve ever thrown in your life . But.” Merlin leaned closer to him. “But- listen, this is important. If they try to hurt you, or if you think they might hurt you, do whatever they say. Give them whatever they want. Don’t worry about me. Just do what they say.”
“Are they going to hurt me?” Thomas asked into Merlin’s chest, and Merlin could hear the tremble in his voice.
“I don’t think so.” Merlin pressed his forehead against the top of Thomas’s head. “I’m not sure what’s going on yet, but I don’t think so.”
It was a long time before the door opened and the King reentered the room. Merlin was sitting his with his back to the corner of the room, and Thomas was curled in his lap, one hand clenched tight in his shirt.
“Good. Very good.” The King looked pleased to see Thomas’s crying had stopped. He gestured to the guards. “Remove him.”
Merlin felt Thomas once again stiffen in his arms. The guards pulled Merlin to his feet, taking Thomas once again from his hold.
“No!” Thomas cried, and Merlin couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was pretend, and how much was genuine terror. “No! Don’t! Please! Don’t!” The guards continued pulling Merlin towards the door, Thomas working himself up into the same state he was in when Merlin first arrived. “Stop!”
Merlin had seen Thomas cry before. Well. That was a bit of an understatement. Merlin could even hope to count the number of times he had seen Thomas cry. It had decreased over time, as it does with all children, but it did still happen on occasion. He knew what Thomas looked like when he cried. What he sounded like.
This. This was not what Thomas sounded like when he cried, but the King didn’t know that.
“Stop.” It was the King that spoke, and the guards halted.
He stared at Merlin, growing visibly more angry with each moment that passed. For a second, Merlin feared that he might try to hit Thomas.
“Release him.” He said at last, and the hands on him began to loosen. The King’s hand shot out towards him, grabbing Merlin’s jacket in his fist. “I expect you will not cause any trouble.”
“I would never dream of it.” Merlin responded, yanking his jacket free of the man’s grip. He didn’t mean it. The King knew he didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter- not as long as Thomas was the one with the power.
The King let out a huff as Thomas latched himself onto Merlin. With one last glance at them, the King left, the guards with him, leaving Merlin and Thomas alone once again.
Merlin let out an audible sigh of relief, and Thomas’s crying stopped the moment the door clicked shut. It was one victory won, and if they had any power at all here, it meant there was hope. At least for now, he would be able to keep Thomas close, and he had no intention of giving that up anytime soon.
Chapter 6: Settling In
Merlin turned as he heard the sound of the door knob turning, and a vaguely familiar looking woman entered the room.
“The King thought the young prince might be hungry after his long journey.” The woman said, setting a covered tray down on the table.
Journey? Yes, that was one word for it. Thomas was still exhausted from said journey, and had managed to fall asleep in the large bed despite the sun still shining in the sky.
Merlin looked back towards the woman, the recognition finally clicking in. “You were with the King when we arrived.”
The woman nodded. “Yes. The King has chosen for me to serve the prince.”
“Then perhaps you would be able to tell me what’s going on?” Merlin ventured, taking a step towards her.
She responded by taking a step back. “It is not my place to speak on those matters.”
Merlin sighed. “I just need to understand what’s happening here.”
“Please.” He tried once again, the desperation in his voice finally beginning to show. “Thomas… he’s been stolen away from his home, dragged along for days, terrified out of his mind. Anything you can tell me, anything at all…”
For a moment, Merlin thought she would merely refuse once again, but the hesitation was clear. Finally, after a long pause, she spoke once again. “The King desires an heir. Prince Thomas is to be that heir.”
“An heir?” Merlin questioned. “What? He goes through all this trouble for an heir?”
“The Queen is dead.”
“Okay.” He said, stretching out the word. “But can’t he just get a ward? Make them his heir? Some nobleman’s son?”
“The King desires an heir of royal blood.” The woman looked distinctly uncomfortable by the conversation. “There was rumor of a young prince in the land of Albion, so men were sent to retrieve him.”
Merlin scoffed. “He can’t just remarry? Get a true heir?”
“King Fendrel’s last marriage ended… poorly.” The woman said after a beat. “He will not be remarrying.” She took in a deep breath. “I will leave you to your dinner.”
“Wait.” Merlin called out, making her pause. “Sorry. I never caught your name.”
“Eva.” She said after a moment, before evacuating the room as quickly as she could,
Merlin could only bring himself to feel a little bad about forcing the information out of her. An heir. The King wanted an heir. He wanted Thomas to be his heir. It explained why the King wanted to please him. Fendrel. It was the same name the leader had mentioned to the man on the boat, and it wasn’t a name he would be forgetting anytime soon.
“Thomas.” Merlin walked over to the boy, placing a hand on his shoulder. “There’s some food here if you’re hungry.”
Thomas’s eyes blinked open, and he sat up at the mention of food. There was no question that he was indeed hungry. It had been well over a week since they were first taken, and Thomas had had very little to eat in that time.
It was similar food that one might see in Camelot. Meat. Cheese. Some fruit and bread. The people here also spoke English, meaning they couldn’t be that far away from Albion.
Thomas seemed much more relaxed now than he had when he first arrived. Perhaps it was the food, or the bed, or just being in relative safety for the first time in quite awhile. At least if they were being held against their will, they were not locked away in some cell. To be fair, the only reason that wasn’t Merlin’s fate was because of Thomas.
Merlin walked towards the door, turning the knob as gently as he could. The room was not locked. That was a good sign. He pulled the door open slowly, letting out an inaudible sigh of disappointment when he saw the guard stationed right outside. Escape would not be an easy feat.
Thomas let out a yawn, his eyelids flickering shut. Despite the short nap, he was still completely exhausted.
“You can probably go back to bed, if you’d like.” Merlin said when it was clear Thomas was finished eating. “I don’t think anyone else will be disturbing us for the rest of the night.”
Thomas nodded slowly, trotting back towards the bed. Merlin pulled open the dresser drawers- they had clearly been prepared for Thomas’s arrival, as they were filled with clothes. They weren’t his exact size, but they would fit. Finally after a moment of searching, he found what resembled sleeping clothes.
“Here.” Merlin said, pulling the clothes out of the drawer. “Let’s get you into something fresh.”
Thomas peeled the dirt streaked shirt over his head, accepting the clean shirt without argument. He was still dirty himself, but there wasn’t much to be done for that at the moment. Perhaps they could get a bath for him in the morning.
Merlin winced as the rope burns on Thomas’s wrists became visible once more. The longer sleeves of this old shirt had hidden them well enough, but now they were clear for the eye to see.
“Let me take a better look at those.” Merlin said, taking his wrists in a gentle hold.
The wounds weren’t serious, and there was no sign of infection. That was good as he had nothing to treat it with. Merlin took some of the water left over from dinner and washed the injury as well as he could without any other supplies. The bruise on his cheek had nearly faded. If he hadn’t known it was there before, he probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
Merlin brushed his thumb across it. “Does it hurt anymore?”
Thomas shook his head. “No.”
“Good.” He looked back to the wrists. “What about these?”
The boy shrugged. “A little.”
“I’ll see if we can get a salve for them tomorrow, alright?”
Thomas nodded, pulling back the covers of the bed, and laying himself down as he had before. Merlin began picking at the leftover food. Thomas had always been a lean child, and as such, had barely managed to eat even half of the platter brought for him. It was more than he would have normally eaten, but that was to be expected given the circumstances.
Once Merlin’s stomach was settled, he sat himself down in the chair, positioning himself between the door and Thomas.
“What are you doing?” Thomas asked, clearly not yet asleep despite Merlin’s assumptions.
Merlin glanced back at him. “Keeping watch.”
There was an antechambers attached to the room. That was almost certainly where he was meant to sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen. If someone came in the room, he wanted to know about it.
Thomas rubbed at his eyes. “You should sleep in the bed.”
Merlin smiled slightly. “I’ll be alright, Thomas.”
“Please?” Thomas had seemed so calm before that Merlin had nearly forgotten just how terrified the child was. The shake in his voice was audible from a mile away.
Merlin relented, making his way towards the bed. Thomas scooted over, giving Merlin enough room to lie down. The boy curled up next to him, resting his head on Merlin’s chest.
“Father isn’t going to find us, is he?”
Merlin let his eyes slide shut. “Probably not. But you know what that means? We’ll just have to find our own way back to him.” He ran a hand through Thomas’s hair. “You know, I bet your mother and father are going to be so relieved to see you, that they’ll finally let you have those meat pies you like so much for breakfast- like you’ve been asking.”
“Hm.” Thomas hummed into his chest, smiling for the first time since their capture. “How many?”
“Let’s see.” Merlin paused, pretending to be in deep thought. “How about three?”
“Now you’re pushing it.”
“Only if you share one with me.”
Thomas furrowed his eyebrows. “But that means I only have three.”
Thomas let out a short laugh, and for just one moment, Merlin was confident that everything would be alright.
There was no sign of him anywhere. Merlin’s trail had been the only thing they had, and now even that was gone. The ransom note would come soon enough. It had to. They were just waiting a bit- to make him anxious. The more worried Arthur was, the more he would pay. Or, at least, that’s what they might have thought.
It wouldn’t bring Merlin back. Once his son was safe in his arms, he would hunt down and kill everyone responsible.
Guinevere had told Gaius, which meant he didn’t have to. He was grateful for that. He didn’t want to see the look in the old man’s eyes when he found out Merlin, who was like a son to him, was dead.
In the end, he hadn’t needed to actually tell Mithian. She had seen him carrying the neckerchief, and she had known what it meant. He hadn’t seen her since. Guinevere told him later that Mordred had spoken to her and explained what had happened in more detail. Again, he was just glad he didn’t have to do it.
He couldn’t grieve yet- not when his son was still out there. Once Thomas was found, once Thomas was home once again, then he could mourn.
What if Thomas had watched it? What if Thomas had been forced to watch as they drowned him? Thomas loved Merlin. Merlin had helped to raise him. Merlin was a part of his family. He had been there when he was born. He had watched over him as an infant and played with him as a toddler. As he got older, Thomas had always tended to go to the physician’s chambers whenever Arthur and Guinevere were otherwise occupied. Merlin had never minded. He had always been happy to have him around.
Even when Thomas returned, he would not be alright. But, in time, he would be. Arthur would make sure of that.
“Sire.” A voice broke him out of his thoughts. “Do you have a moment.”
No. No, he didn’t have a moment. Not while his son was still missing.
“Yes, of course, Sir Carac.” Arthur turned towards him.
The knight hesitated. “It’s about your son.”
And suddenly, he had all of Arthur’s attention. “Is there any sign of him?”
“No, sire.” Carac shook his head, and disappointment flooded through him. “But I feel there is one scenario you have not yet considered.”
“And that would be?”
“Merlin was the only person with your son at the time. And anyone could tell you that Merlin is not an easy man to be bested.”
Yes. Yes, he knew this. “Your point?”
“Doesn’t it seem far more likely that Merlin took the prince as opposed to someone overpowering Merlin and taking them both?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry. I must have misheard you. Are you accusing Merlin of kidnapping my son?”
The knight backtracked slightly. “I merely think it’s a possibility that should be considered.”
He should have known this would happen. Camelot had come a long way in the past few years. A kingdom that had once abhorred magic now welcomed it. It had taken time, and Merlin, as well as Mordred, had faced their fair share of bigotry through the years. In the end, however, most had come to accept magic as a part of their lives.
But not all.
There were some, even now, who believed magic to be a dark art. There were some who still believed Merlin to be playing a game. They believed he would turn on him and betray him. Arthur had thought he had made himself aware of all those who thought that way, but apparently he had not.
“Merlin would never endanger Thomas like that.” Arthur’s voice was low and dangerous. “And at any rate, it makes no sense. Why would he leave a trail for us if he was the kidnapper all along?”
“Perhaps he wishes to make it look as if both of them were kidnapped, so that he can return the prince and be hailed a hero.”
The knight was grasping at straws. His attempts to defame Merlin only served to anger Arthur further. Merlin had given his life to protect his son. Merlin had saved this kingdom time and time again. He didn’t need to return Thomas to be hailed a hero. He already was one.
“If you think Merlin capable of such a thing, then you didn’t know him.” Arthur took a step towards the knight. “If I hear you speak one more word against him, I will have you banished. Do you understand?”
The knight grew quiet. “Yes, sire.”
“And if I hear anyone else speaking of this theory of yours, I’ll know exactly who to blame. The consequences for such will be the same.”
“Now go .”
The knight nodded once before walking away. Arthur hadn’t been able to change his mind. He knew he hadn’t. There were some people who would never change, but as long as he kept his opinions to himself, he could deal with it at a later time.
For now, he would find his son.
Chapter 7: The Wrath of a King
Eva returned early the next morning. Merlin had already been awake for over an hour, but Thomas was still asleep. Not wanting to wake the exhausted child, he had remained in bed with Thomas’s head still resting against his chest.
“A bath is being prepared for the prince.” Eva said to Merlin after entering the room. “Then he is to be taken to the King.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows, slowly moving himself into a sitting position. “What does the King want with him?”
“His majesty wishes for Prince Thomas to join him for breakfast.”
The door opened once again, and a large basin was brought it. One by one, the servants came in to fill the bath with steaming water.
The noise was enough to wake Thomas, who seemed at least a little bit startled by the number of people in the room. They all filed out one by one, until only Eva remained. After a few more moments, she left as well, leaving the two of them alone.
Or, at least, he thought they were. Finally, Merlin noticed the thin man- clearly a servant- standing against the wall of the room with his hands behind his back.
“Can I help you?” Merlin said when the man still did not leave.
“I am here to assist the prince in bathing.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Uh, yeah. I’ve got that covered, actually.”
This didn’t seem to be what the man was expecting him to say, as he suddenly seemed quite flustered. “The King has told me to-”
“I don’t really care what the King has told you.” Merlin interrupted. “I’ll take care of it, thank you.”
His tone left no room for argument, and the man seemed to realize that. Still, he appeared reluctant to leave. He was clearly torn between performing the tasks asked of him and evacuating the premise before Merlin rung his neck. After several seconds passed, he directed a deep bow towards the barely awake Thomas, and fled.
That probably wasn’t the smartest thing for him to have done. He should have been trying to make allies, not scaring the servants, but no one was going to touch Thomas but him.
Getting the dirt out of his hair was the first priority. Beyond that, it was merely a matter of washing his also very dirty face and scrubbing down the rest of his body. With the boy finally clean, Merlin wrapped a towel that one of the servants must have brought around him and went to search for clothes.
“I’m hungry.” Thomas mumbled as the shirt was pulled over his head.
“You’ll be eating breakfast soon enough.” Merlin hesitated. “With the King.”
Thomas’s shoulders hunched over. “I don’t want to eat with the King.”
“I know.” Merlin said sympathetically. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to get you out of this. I doubt he’ll allow you to decline this invitation.”
Thomas looked up at him. “Will you come with me?”
“Believe me.” Merlin scooped him up into his arms. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
There was a knock on the door before Eva entered once more. She looked Thomas over, nodding mostly to herself when she saw he was ready. “The King awaits you.”
Merlin let out a sigh. “Very well.”
Eva led them through the halls until they entered a dining room of some kind. It wasn’t uncommon for Arthur to share breakfast with Thomas. It didn’t happen all the time- it was more common when Arthur had a very busy day before him and wanted to make sure he got to spend at least some time with his son- but it did happen. But even then, they had done so in the privacy of one of their chambers, not surrounded by servants.
“Thomas!” The King greeted eagerly, already seated at the head of the table. “Please, join me.”
Thomas looked at the chair, but made no move to sit in it.
The King gave Merlin a half glance. “Leave us.”
“No.” Merlin countered immediately. “I will not be leaving.”
The King’s face grew furious, but Thomas just latched onto him, arms circling his waist. After a long moment, the King went back to his jovial mood from before. There was something behind his eyes, however, that showed the anger was not yet gone.
“Very well.” The King said. “Take a seat Thomas. You must be hungry.”
Thomas slowly walked towards the table, and Merlin went to stand next to Eva against the wall. He hadn’t been a servant in so long; it was more than a little odd to stand as one would. It brought back memories that were far more pleasant than the current situation.
“Did you sleep well?” The King asked, and Merlin had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Was this really what he was trying to do? Casual conversation? As if his guest hadn’t been kidnapped and dragged across the sea.
Thomas nodded slowly, taking a bite of the food laid out before him.
The King didn’t seem off put by Thomas’s lack of enthusiasm. “How do you find Aeridia so far?”
Thomas glanced hesitantly at the King before looking back down at his plate. “My room is nice.”
“Ah, yes.” The King waved his hand through the air. “You haven’t really had much of a chance to explore. Perhaps I could take you out some time and show you what this beautiful kingdom has to offer.”
Thomas looked towards Merlin, who tried to give him a comforting smile. It surely didn’t work.
“Where did you get those?” The King asked, his voice growing cold.
“What?” Thomas asked, suddenly fearful.
“Those marks on your wrists.” He clarified. “Where are they from?”
Thomas hid his hands under the table. “The rope.”
The King took in a deep breath, turning to the guards stationed at the door. “Bring me Lenin.”
One of the guards gave a short bow and vacated the room, clearly to go and find the Lenin man, whoever he was. He returned just a few minutes later, and Merlin immediately recognized the man brought with him.
“Sire?” The leader- Lenin- said, obviously confused as to why he was summoned.
“When I sent you to fetch the child, what were my orders?” The King asked, standing from his chair.
“You told me to go to the land of Albion and locate the young prince that had been rumoured to exist.” Lenin said slowly. “I’m afraid it took us quite a while to do so. We didn’t even know what kingdom he was from. If you are unsatisfied with the time-”
“I don’t care about the time.” The King interrupted. “I ordered that the child be brought to me unharmed .”
“Yes?” Lenin said, stretching out the word. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the problem.”
“The child is wounded.” The King took a step towards him. “There are burns around his wrists he claims to have gotten from rope. I can only assume that it was you who injured him.”
“Sire.” Lenin tried. “We had to restrain him. Those kind of injuries are unavoidable.”
Perhaps the rope of unavoidable, but Merlin doubted the faded bruise across his cheek had been.
“Unavoidable, you say?” The King raised his chin. “So is this. Arrest him.” Lenin didn’t even have a chance to reply before he was pulled away by the guards.
Merlin leaned towards Eva. “What just happened?”
“King Fendrel does not like to be disobeyed.” Eva said with an edge of concern to her voice. It wasn’t much of an explanation, but it seemed to be all he would be getting for the moment.
The King sat himself back down at the table. “My physician will see to your injuries. He will make sure they are tended to.”
“Merlin is my physician.” Thomas said without missing a beat.
“Indeed?” The King looked towards him, as if appraising him. “Perhaps there will be some use for him after all.” He turned back to Thomas. “Now where were we? Ah, yes. Would you care to join me for a tour of the town?”
Thomas melted back further into his chair. “I want to go home.”
“You are home. This is your home now.” The King took another bite of his food. “But you are right. Perhaps you would like a few more days to settle in.”
“How long am I to stay here?” Thomas ventured once more.
“Forever, Thomas.” There was an edge of impatience in the King’s voice, and Merlin could only hope that Thomas wouldn’t push him too far. “As I said before, this is your home now. You are to be the Prince of Aeridia.”
The boy didn’t say anything for a long moment, but when he did speak, there was an audible waver. “Please, can I go home?”
“No.” The kindness in his voice was gone. “You will stay here.”
There were obviously limits to how far Thomas could push his new found power. Leaving the kingdom was not something the King would ever allow- not that that surprised Merlin.
The King attempted to engage in conversation throughout the rest of the meal, but he only got short, monotone answers if any at all. It was a relief when they finally returned to their chambers.
“I- I don’t want to be the Prince of Aeridia.” Thomas said in a panicked rush. “I don’t want to stay here forever. I- I-”
Merlin crouched down, wrapping his arms around the boy. “We won’t be here forever. I promise you. I’ll get us home. I swear to you.”
Thomas let out a choked sob. “I want to go home. Please, please, I just- I just want to go home.”
“I know.” Merlin closed his eyes. “I know. We’ll go home. We will.”
A knock at the door silenced Thomas’s cries, and Merlin pulled back to identify the intruder. Eva entered once again, holding a small basket.
“The King has ordered that you be given basic medical supplies to care for Thomas’s injuries.” Eva said in way of explanation.
Merlin turned back towards Thomas, who’s eyes were red-rimmed, but no longer filled with tears. “Let’s get you taken care of, shall we?”
Thomas hopped up onto the bed when Merlin gestured towards it. He opened the basket, finding what looked to be the correct salve, and placed a thin layer upon both wrists. Both were then wrapped with a white bandage. The wounds weren’t serious, but there was no reason to risk it festering when they had the supplies.
Despite the situation, there was something comforting about caring for Thomas’s wounds. It was familiar. Merlin had done it so many times before- too many times to count. Thomas had met Gaius, of course, but as far back as he could remember, Merlin had always been his physician. If they forgot about where the wounds had come from, they could almost pretend everything was back to normal.
“Can you fix yourself, too?”
Eva, who Merlin had nearly forgotten was there, looked up at that. “Were you hurt as well?”
Thomas beat him to the answer. “They hurt him. Kicked him, and…” He trailed off, clearly not enjoying the memory.
“I’m afraid there’s not much that can be done for that.” Merlin said, reaching forward to ruffle the child’s hair. Broken ribs take awhile to heal. No salve was going to speed that up. Magic could, but magic was in short supply at the moment.
“Your wrists should at least be tended to.” Eva said, taking a few steps forward to get a better look.
Merlin hadn’t even noticed his own rope burn. It was worse than Thomas’s, as he had spent more time with his wrists tied, but it was still just rope burn.
“I’m fine.” He waved off her concern, but it was clearly not enough.
“Nonsense. There’s no reason to ration the supplies.” Eva said, walking towards the table. “Come. Sit. I’ll help you.”
Merlin begrudgingly sat down across from her, holding out his wrists so they could receive the same treatment that Thomas had. He looked out the window directly next to the table, glancing at the courtyard.
“What’s going on out there?” Merlin asked, and Eva turned to look. There were men carrying wood to the center of the courtyard. Something was being built.
“They are building gallows. Bors is to be executed.” Eva said without looking up.
“Lenin’s… associate.” Eva looked back towards him. “You’ve met him. He was with Lenin when you were taken.”
“Ah.” The bearded man. “I didn’t know his name.” Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “Why?”
“Thomas was injured.”
“He’s killing a man over rope burn?” Merlin asked incredulously. It wasn’t as if he was defending the man. He couldn’t care less if he was executed, but the reason seemed a bit ridiculous.
“For disobeying him.” Eva corrected. “The King did not wish for the prince to be harmed, and they did not fulfill that order.”
“What about Lenin? Is he to be executed, too?”
Eva shook her head. “The King finds Lenin useful. Executing his friend is his punishment.”
Merlin glanced at Thomas, glad to see the child was far too engrossed looking through the rest of the medical supplies to be paying attention to the conversation. “Did you know them?”
“We’ve met.” She didn’t speak for several seconds. “It’s strange. I haven’t seen Milos since their arrival back.”
Milos. That’s was the bearded man- Bors- had called the scarred man. “He’s dead.”
Eva looked up in shock. “What?”
“I killed him.” Merlin said slowly, watching for her reaction. “You weren’t friends, were you?”
“No.” Eva said quickly. “No. We’ve only met a few times. Same with Bors. And Neal.”
“He usually stays with the boat.”
“Ah.” Merlin nodded once. “What about Lenin?”
“What about him?”
“Do you know him?”
Eva seemed hesitant to answer, but did so after a moment. “Yes. We’ve… we’ve met quite a few times.” She paused. “He’s not too bad, once you get to know him.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Well it’s true.” Eva finished wrapping the bandage, standing from her seat. “I’ll be back to bring you some lunch in a few hours.”
“Thank you.” Was all Merlin could say before Eva was gone.
“Do I have to eat lunch with the King?” Thomas added once he realized they were alone.
“It doesn’t seem like it.”
Merlin smiled slightly. Good, indeed.
Chapter 8: A Child's Protection
For four days, they were dragged across the whole of Albion. They spent six days locked up on a boat. The three days after, they had been forced to play nice with the man responsible for it all.
But this? This was going too far.
“No.” Merlin shook his head, his arms crossed in front of him. “No, that’s not going to happen.”
“You don’t have a choice.” Eva said apologetically. “The King has requested it.”
“Thomas doesn’t want to see that!”
“I understand.” The woman tried to placate Merlin, but it did little to quell his rising anger. “But there’s nothing that can be done. You cannot disobey the King.”
Merlin uncrossed his arms. “I want to speak to him.”
“That is not a good idea, Merlin.”
“I don’t care.” Merlin glanced back at Thomas, who was growing concerned despite his ignorance of the topic. He wasn’t going to let this happen. He looked back to Eva. “Will you take me to him?”
“I could…” Eva hesitated, clearly uncomfortable. “But you need to think this through.”
“No.” Thomas interjected. “Don’t leave. Please.”
Merlin felt guilt roll in his gut. He didn’t want to leave Thomas here alone, but he wasn’t going to bring him to the King. “I will be right back. I promise.” He crouched down in front of the boy, taking hold of his shoulders. “Stay in this room. Don’t leave. Alright?”
“This will not end well, Merlin.” Eva tried once more, but it was no use.
Eva let out a sigh as Merlin went through the door and past the guards. It was not a long route to the King’s quarters, and as such, they made it there within just a few minutes.
“Where is Thomas?” The King asked upon spotting Merlin without the boy.
“He’s not here.”
“I sent for him, not you.”
“Yes.” Merlin agreed. “And he’s not coming.”
The King’s eyes narrowed, and he took a few steps closer to Merlin. “You don’t get to speak to me like that.”
“And you don’t get to kidnap children from their homes, but it seems we’re both doing things we shouldn’t.” Merlin forced himself to take a breath. This wasn’t getting him anywhere. “I know you want him to like you- it’s pretty obvious- but forcing him to watch an execution will not get him to like you.”
The King raised his chin. “I am executing a man who harmed him. He will be grateful.”
“He will be horrified.” Merlin corrected. “He’s a child. He’s never seen an execution before. Unlike you, his father doesn’t have a tendency to execute every other person that comes through his kingdom.”
“Thomas is to be the prince of this land.” The King’s voice lowered with every word he spoke. “He will stand by my side.”
“No.” Merlin shook his head. “I will not allow you to traumatize this child more than you already have. Don’t you think you’ve caused him enough harm?”
“I wish for Thomas to know he is safe here. By executing the man that hurt him, I am showing that such a thing will not be tolerated. He will feel safer.”
Merlin wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. “No he won’t! He’s already terrified of you. Watching you have someone killed isn’t going to help that. It’s only going to make him wonder if he’s next!”
The King stiffened. “You don’t know how he will react any more than I do.”
“Really?” Merlin asked incredulously. “I’ve cared for that child since he was born. There isn’t a day he’s been alive that I haven’t been by his side. I know every single detail of his life, because I have been there through all of it. So tell me then, great king, which of us do you think knows him better?”
The King didn’t say anything for a long moment, his fury obvious. When he did speak, his voice was nearly trembling with anger. “I have only allowed you to live to please the child, but I can find other ways to please him if need be. Perhaps where you come from, you think it appropriate to speak to your betters as you do me, but I will not permit it to continue.”
“Don’t make him watch the execution.” Merlin forced himself to relax slightly. Continuing to anger the King would not work to his advantage. “He’s scared. I’d think that in your position, you would want to avoid causing him any more fear, and I am telling you, this will cause him fear.”
“Go back to the boy.” The King ordered.
“Will you make him watch the execution?”
The King leaned forward until their faces were only inches apart. “I don’t believe that’s your concern. Now go, before I execute you alongside the mercenary.”
Merlin stared at him for a second longer before letting out a long breath and turning from the room. Eva was there waiting for him, clearly having heard the entire conversation. Anyone within ten feet of the room would have been able to hear their yelling match.
“That was incredibly stupid, even if it was a bit impressive.” Eva said as they walked back towards Thomas’s chambers. “I’ve never seen anyone win an argument against him.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “I won?”
“Yes.” Eva nodded, so certain that Merlin couldn’t bring himself to doubt her. “No one ever speaks to him like that.”
“Well, he’ll just have to get used to it.”
“No.” Eva said firmly, concern bleeding into her voice. “Merlin, you can’t. The King is a prideful man. Thomas’s protection isn’t indefinite. You must be careful. Don’t push him too far, or the consequences will be painful.”
He had faced worse before. “I’m not afraid of him.”
“Be that as it may, you will hardly be doing Thomas any favors by getting yourself killed.”
Merlin pulled open the door as they reached the room. Panic began to spread through him as he looked around, searching for any sign of the child.
“Thomas?” Merlin tried, looking desperately around the room.
Then a blonde head popped out from underneath the bed. “Merlin!” The boy crawled out, running towards Merlin and wrapping him in a relieved hug.
Eva gave him a long look, and Merlin sighed. “Fine. I’ll be careful.”
“That’s all I ask.”
It was made clear just an hour later that Eva was correct: Merlin had indeed won his argument with the King. It certainly hadn’t felt like it at the time, but the King didn’t call for Thomas again. The execution had come to pass without his presence needed. Merlin had still watched the execution from the window, but Thomas, fortunately, had remained oblivious to the whole thing.
The King didn’t call on him later that night either. Nor the next day. Or the next. Merlin had begun to wonder if he had pushed the King too far. Thomas was far more content staying in his chambers than he was anywhere else in the castle, but it was still odd. The only visitor they had besides Eva was a tailor who had come to take the boy’s measurements.
“There is to be a celebratory feast later tonight.” Eva said as she entered the room.
Merlin had gotten so used to her sudden appearances that it took a moment for the words to register. “What for?”
“To celebrate Thomas’s arrival.” Eva laid a set of clothes down on the bed.
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “That was a week ago.”
“The King wanted to give the prince a few days to settle before then.” She explained. “The King has also requested that he wear these traditional garments.”
Merlin took a long glance at the clothes. They were a dark navy blue and were clearly of high quality. At the very least, they would fit better than the other clothes provided for him. “When is this feast?”
“In two hours. In the meanwhile, Thomas needs to wash.” She turned to look at the boy. “How are his wrists?”
“Almost healed.” Merlin replied. “Why?”
“The King does not want him in bandages, nor does he want the wound to be visible.”
“Well, what does he expect me to do about it?” Merlin let out an irritated sigh. “I can’t just make it go away.” Not without his magic, at any rate.
Eva approached Thomas, taking his hands into her own. “They are mostly faded. Perhaps the sleeves will cover them.”
“Perhaps.” Merlin agreed. “Why does he need to hide them anyways?”
“This will be the lord’s first interaction with their new prince.” Eva released his hands. “Many of them have come some distance to meet him. The King wishes for Thomas to make a good impression.”
“Yes.” Merlin couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Because Thomas being harmed by others should certainly reflect poorly on him.”
“What will happen if the lords don’t like me?” Thomas asked, wringing his fingers together in his lap.
“It is the lords who will have to be careful. They will have to pretend to like you, at the very least.” Eva brushed a stray hair out of his face. “Do not worry, child. It will be over soon.”
Eva was probably the only person in the entire kingdom- besides Merlin, of course- who Thomas seemed at all comfortable around. Besides the King, she was the only person he had spent any significant amount of time with.
A handful of servants entered a few minutes later, filling a basin with water.
“Have you worked for the King long?” Merlin asked as Thomas got settled in the bath.
“Nearly twenty years.” Eva replied. “I was fifteen when I first got hired into the royal household.”
“How did you end up assigned to Thomas?”
Eva paused for a moment before answering the question. “I lost my previous position four years ago. I suppose the King thought he had finally found a use for me. I’ve had experience with children in the past, so I was well suited for the role.”
“So it would seem.” Merlin agreed. “What was your previous position?”
“I was the late Queen’s maid.” She straightened out the outfit on the bed, careful not to form any wrinkles. “She had only married the King a few days before I was assigned to her.”
The late Queen. It wasn’t the first time someone had mentioned her. All he knew was that she was dead.
“What happened?” Merlin couldn’t help but ask. “To the Queen.”
“She died.” Was all Eva said.
“I’m sorry.” It was clear that was all the information he would be getting out of her, but it was curious how the whole thing seemed to be so secret. Perhaps she was not allowed to speak of it.
“So am I.” She said softly. “She was a kind woman.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Seems like a strange match, then. Her and the King.”
“He didn’t used to be like this.” Eva turned towards the window. “Don’t get me wrong- he was never a particularly merciful man. He’s always been cold. He’s always been willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted, but I never thought he’d go this far.” She finally looked back towards him. “I am sorry about what has happened to you. I do hope one day you will be able to return to your own land.”
“We will.” Merlin said certainly. “I have no doubt of that.”
“I hope it’s soon.” Thomas mumbled more to himself than anyone else.
“We’ll be home before you know it.” Merlin ruffled his wet hair. “Until then, we have a feast to prepare for.”
Merlin never thought he’d see Thomas disappointed by the idea of a feast, but these were strange times. Anything could happen. Anything at all.
Chapter 9: A Risky Deal
The Great Hall was filled to the brim with lords and ladies. The feast hadn’t officially begun yet. Instead, the people were speaking amongst themselves. This was not unlike Camelot’s feasts. Not everyone had arrived yet, but it would begin soon enough. Merlin had hoped that Thomas would be allowed to wait until the feast had actually begun to arrive, but that was not the case.
The King kept a hand on Thomas’s shoulder as he spoke to the different lords. The boy looked distinctly uncomfortable and tried to back away from the King multiple times, but the man’s grip on him only tightened. The move always served to make Merlin’s blood boil.
“There’s no point.” Eva whispered to him, clearly noting his distress. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“He’s showing him off like a prized stallion.” Merlin forced through gritted teeth.
“Better than the alternative.” She sighed. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
Eva walked away to assist the other servants, and Merlin turned back towards Thomas. The lords weren’t talking to him directly at the very least, but many of them seemed just as wary of the King as Thomas did. There was no hope in any of them calling him out on his wrongdoings.
“Lenin tells me your name is Merlin.”
Merlin turned towards the voice. It belonged to a younger man- perhaps twenty five, though Merlin couldn’t be sure. He only nodded in response, searching the room for his kidnapper, but he was nowhere in sight.
“I’ve heard of you. You’ve made quite a name for yourself in Albion.” The man continued. “How did you end up all the way out here?”
Merlin turned back towards him. “We were kidnapped.” He would have thought that to be obvious.
“Yes, yes. I’m aware of that.” The man said, exasperated. “I want to know how Lenin managed to grab you. If what I’ve heard is true, I would not think you an easy man to catch.”
Merlin let out a long sigh, no longer interested in the conversation. “Blowdart. Collar.”
“It’s that easy?”
“So it would seem.” Merlin paused for a moment, before curiosity got the better of him. “How is it you’ve heard of me, then? The King certainly hasn’t.”
He let out a short laugh. “The King has never step foot out of this kingdom, much less made his way across the sea. I’ve been to Albion many times. I have business there.”
Merlin glanced towards Thomas for a moment, before looking back at the man. “Ever go as far as Camelot?”
“Occasionally.” The man shrugged.
Merlin hesitated for a long moment. “Would you be able to get a message there?”
The man smiled, raising an eyebrow. “Are you asking me to betray my king?”
“I’m asking you to think of the welfare of a child.”
The man only rolled his eyes, destroying any hope Merlin had left. “I couldn’t care less about the needs of a sniveling kid.” He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, as if considering something. “That being said, there is little I will not do for the right price.”
Clearly this man was not someone to be trusted, but he had little choice. “There is no amount of money King Arthur will not be willing to pay for his son’s location.”
“I believe that.” The man nodded slowly. “But I’m going to need some compensation now.”
Merlin raised an incredulous eyebrow. “I’m a prisoner. I don’t exactly have a purse of silvers with me.”
“What a shame.” The man gave him another sickly smile before walking away.
“Wait.” Merlin called out at the last second.
The man turned back towards him. “Yes?”
Merlin gave the rest of the room a quick glance. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. Letting out a short breath, Merlin reached around his neck, bringing a thin chain that had been hidden under the collar into view and pulled it over his head. The chain itself was unimportant. It was the ring looped through the chain that held the true value.
“It’s a signet ring.” Merlin explained. “It’s made of pure gold. It will also serve as proof to the King that you speak the truth.”
“Where did you get this?” The man asked curiously.
“Does it matter?”
Arthur had given it to him years ago after sending him to an outlying village to deal with a sickness that had killed four already with no sign of slowing down. It was meant to be used if he was captured and needed to prove his worth. Better to be ransomed than killed- never mind the fact that Merlin was a powerful sorcerer and was being escorted by two knights. He wasn’t exactly in any danger from roaming bandits.
Thomas had one, too, of course, but that was also the last connection he had to his home. Merlin wasn’t about to start bargaining with that.
“I suppose not.” The man said after a moment, reaching out to take the ring.
Merlin pulled back at the last moment. “Swear to me you will take it to Camelot.”
The man had the audacity to look offended at that. “I am no conman.” No. No, he was just a traitor and a sell out.
Merlin reluctantly handed over the ring. “How long will it take for you to get there?”
The man slid the ring into his pocket. “A few weeks, but don’t worry. I’ll get to your king is due time. Anything specific you want me to tell him?”
“Just tell him where we are and what’s going on.” Merlin took in a long breath. “Tell him we are unharmed at the moment and relatively safe, but we won’t be able to return without some help.”
“Very well.” The man said. “Good doing business with you.”
Merlin watched as the man walked off with his prize. He could only hope that the man would honour his side of the deal.
Unlike the breakfast where Thomas had sat across from the King, he was instead forced to sit directly next to him at the long table. This did little to make the situation any more comfortable for the kid. Everyone slowly took their seat at the table, and the King made to stand, holding a goblet of wine in his hand.
“Thank you,” The King began. “For joining me on this fine occasion. We celebrate the arrival of my son and a new era for this great kingdom.”
His son? Merlin couldn’t help but raise an incredulous eyebrow, and Thomas hunched his shoulders at the words. His son ? Did these people really think Thomas was his own child? Thomas was his prisoner. His hostage. Fendrel was no father to that boy- only his captor.
“The emergence of a new prince is an omen for what will come next. This kingdom will continue to prosper and stand against all those who would oppose it.” The King looked down to the seated boy next to him. “Prince Thomas of Aeridia, we welcome you. A toast- to the new prince.” The King raised his glass as did everyone, Thomas excluded.
“Is he serious?” Merlin said without turning towards Eva. “Do these people actually think Thomas is his son?”
“No.” Eva shook her head. “While I doubt they realize where exactly the boy is from, I don’t think any of them actually believe him to be the King’s true son.”
“Why does no one question it?”
“You’ve seen enough of him at this point to know why it would be a bad idea to question him.”
As the feast progressed, so did Merlin’s anger. Thomas kept sending Merlin distressed looks, but Merlin was unable to do anything about it.
“If he touches Thomas one more time, I am going to throttle him.” Even as he said the words, the King placed his hand back on Thomas’s shoulder. The boy did his best to shy away, but he could only move so far away.
“You can’t kill the King over such a minor offense.”
“Be careful of your words in public, Merlin.” Eva chided. “If anyone heard you-”
“I really couldn’t care less right now.”
The King leaned in towards Thomas, making the child stiffen slightly. “You have not eaten much, my boy.”
“I’m not very hungry, sire.” Thomas responded quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Are you feeling ill?” The King asked, suddenly looking at him in concern.
“No, sire.” Thomas shook his head very slightly. “Just… tired.”
The King let out a short breath. “You have done well tonight. You may retire if you so wish.”
Thomas nodded only once before vacating the seat and nearly running towards Merlin. “The King says I can leave.” He said once he was close enough.
“Well, let’s not wait for him to change his mind.” Merlin grabbed Thomas’s hand and led him towards the door.
The halls were surprising empty. Usually there were guards patrolling, but there didn’t seem to be many at all.
“This isn’t a good night for an escape attempt.” Eva interjected. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”
“What?” Merlin asked, as if that wasn’t exactly what was on his mind.
“There are many guards stationed in the great hall, which means less patrolling the halls, but the King has stationed guards at every exit for that exact reason.”
Merlin let out a short huff. “I can take out a few guards.”
Eva raised an eyebrow. “Unarmed and with your magic bound? You would do best to go under the radar. The less the King suspects an escape attempt, the easier it will be to succeed.”
Merlin shook his head slowly. “I have to get him back to his father.” Arthur would see his son again. He would make sure of that.
“Yes.” Eva agreed. “But you must be smart about it. The King has a temper, and he will not be afraid to take it out on you.”
She was right. He knew she was right, but it didn’t stop him from feeling hopelessly frustrated with the situation.
Merlin opened the door as they reached Thomas’s chambers, the three of them entering.
He turned towards Eva. “For someone who is apparently loyal to the King, you seem to have no problem with the idea of our escape.”
“I am a citizen of Aeridia, which makes Fendrel my king.” Eva let out a short breath. “That does not mean I approve of everything he does. Taking Thomas was… crossing a line.”
“He seems to trust you at the very least.”
“It’s not trust.” Eva walked towards the wardrobe, pulling out the clothes Thomas wore to bed. “As I told you before, I was the Queen’s maid. I have known him for a long time. Perhaps longer than anyone else here.” She handed the clothes to Merlin, shaking her head. “I must return to the feast.”
“Of course.Thank you.” Merlin said genuinely as the servant exited the room. He turned back to Thomas, concern bubbling inside him. “Are you alright? You’re looking a little pale.”
Thomas only nodded, though he was clearly feeling worse than he was letting on. “I’m just tired.”
“You’ve had a long day.” Merlin agreed. It was barely even dark out, but there was no harm in letting Thomas go to sleep early- especially if he was sick. “Let’s get you ready for bed.”
Thomas allowed Merlin to get him dressed, and within moments, he was asleep- not even under the covers. Merlin reached forward, placing a hand to his forehead. He had a very slight fever, but nothing too concerning. By morning, he would have a better idea of what ailed him, but for now, it would be a matter of waiting.
Chapter 10: Close Calls
Merlin laid a hand against Thomas’s forehead. It was still warm- warmer than it had been the night before. He had hoped that morning would bring better news, but it seemed that would not be the case. He had clearly picked up some illness- perhaps at the feast, though he was a bit quick to be showing symptoms in that case.
Merlin wiped at the sweat beading the boy's pale forehead, not even turning as the door opened. “Eva, do you know if the kitchens have any sage?” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Or even some chamomile might help.”
“I would not know.” The voice responded, making Merlin stiffen. “But I’m sure a servant could bring some should you need it.”
Merlin turned slowly to face the King. “Sire.” He forced a polite tone into the words, though the King would have almost certainly seen past it. “What can I do for you?”
The King ignored him, instead turning to Thomas, who was struggling to sit up in bed. “I would like you to join me for a ride this morning.”
“He’s sick.” Merlin grounded out.
“You would take any excuse to keep him away from me.” It was true, but this was not one of those occasions.
“Just look at him.” Merlin gestured towards Thomas. “He’s clearly ill. You don’t need to be a physician to see that.”
The King seemed to concede to that point, but it didn’t stop him from pushing further. “It’s probably just from being inside all day. Some fresh air would do him good.”
As if the King had any idea what would be medically sound advice. “He needs to rest.”
“A gentle ride through the lower fields will not exert him.” The King snapped. “Get him dressed. I will be back in a moment.”
Merlin let out a huff as the King left, shutting the door behind him. Even if Thomas wasn’t sick, he wouldn’t want to go, but his added illness would only make the trip even more unpleasant.
Merlin ran a hand through the boy’s hair. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can get you out of this one.”
Thomas only nodded before slowly getting dressed. He should be in bed. He should be resting, but instead, he was being dragged off to go ride horses. If the King truly cared about Thomas as he claimed, he would not put him in these situations.
“Well,” Merlin began. “If you’re sick on him, he might just leave you alone for a few days to rest.”
The comment made Thomas’s lips quirk ever so slightly.
The King stepped through the door once again, looking straight at Thomas. “Let us be off, Thomas.” Thomas reluctantly made his way towards the door, Merlin not far behind him, but the King held out his hand, stopping Merlin from coming any further. “Not you.”
Merlin raised one eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re not coming.”
If the King wanted to force Thomas to go riding, that was one thing, but this was something else entirely. “He’s not going anywhere without me.”
The King didn’t give his words any notice, simply turning to look at Thomas. “Come, Thomas.” But Thomas didn’t follow him. Instead, he slowly began to back away until he was behind Merlin. The King let out a short sigh. “You must know I will not harm you, my boy. I only wish to spend some time with you- just the two of us.”
“I-I don’t want to.” Thomas whispered, taking Merlin’s jacket into a tight grip. “I want Merlin to come.”
The King took in a long breath. “Very well. If that is what you want.” His eyes snap onto Merlin. “You will not speak to Thomas. You will not speak to me. You will not cause any trouble. If you do, I will burn you like the sorcerer you are. Do you understand?”
The King’s view on magic would continue to confuse Merlin, but that was less than important at the moment. Merlin allowed an obviously fake smile to cross his face. “Of course. I would not wish to cause a disruption.”
Merlin helped Thomas into his saddle before climbing onto the third horse that had been brought out for him. Two horses had already been prepared when they arrived, but obviously that had not gone to plan. Fortunately for Thomas, their pace was indeed quite slow. It didn’t stop him from leaning forward in the saddle, looking the epitome of sickness.
“Have you ever gone hunting before, Thomas?” The King asked, glancing at the boy riding beside him.
Thomas nodded. “Yes, sire.” Sort of. He had gone along with Arthur on a few trips, but he had never actually killed anything. He was mostly there just to spend some time with his father and the knights, as he often enjoyed doing.
The King nodded. “Very good. Perhaps we can go hunting together.” If the King noticed the flash of dread on Thomas’s face, he said nothing. “Are you much of a swordsman?”
A swordsman? Thomas was barely old enough to be a squire, much less a knight. He had used a sword before, of course- he was Arthur’s son, after all- but it had only ever really been for fun and to get a feel for the blade.
“Not yet.” Thomas answered slowly. “But my father is.”
The King seemed torn between wanting to avoid all conversation focused on Thomas’s ‘old life’ and wanting to engage the boy with whatever he could. In the end, it seemed the latter won out. “Is that so?”
Thomas gave the King another single nod. “Yes.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll be just as good one day- if not better.” The King smiled, looking back towards Thomas. “You’ll have plenty of time to master your skills here. Your training will begin soon enough.” If the King was wise, he would think twice before putting a weapon in that boy’s hands after what he's done to him. “I think you’ll make a fine knight.”
Yes, Merlin thought. Yes, he would be. A fine knight of Camelot.
Thomas didn’t acknowledge the comment. The boy’s head began to dip forward, his hands loosening from the reins.
“Thomas?” Merlin called out, ignoring the King’s previous orders.
Thomas didn’t respond, and soon he was falling from the saddle, landing hard on the ground. Merlin jumped down from his own horse, rushing towards the unconscious boy.
“What happened?” The King questioned, kneeling down next to Thomas as Merlin had.
“I told you he was sick!” Merlin placed two fingers at Thomas’s neck, feeling the thready pulse. “Something’s wrong. This is no ordinary sickness.” He placed his ear against the boy’s chest. His heartbeat was irregular- dangerously so.
“You’re a physician. Heal him.” The King demanded.
“I’m not exactly well prepared for this at the moment!” Maybe if he had his supplies, he could do something- even if he had no idea what it was he was dealing with.
Soft wheezing noises began to escape Thomas’s mouth, making Merlin’s blood run cold.
“He can’t breath.” Merlin whispered. He placed his hand against the boy’s nose and mouth, feeling very little air against it. “He… He can’t breath. His throat is closing up.”
The King straightened, and Merlin couldn’t quite tell if it was panic he saw in the man’s eyes. “He must return to the castle. My physician can treat him.”
“He doesn’t have that kind of time! He would never make it there.” No. No. Thomas would not die here. He would not die so far away from home. Not so young. Not Thomas. Merlin’s eyes snapped towards the King. “Take off the collar.”
“Lenin must have given you the key!” Merlin began clawing at the collar, knowing it was entirely useless. He had spent long enough doing the same thing all those years ago to know there was no point. “Take it off!”
The King’s eyes narrowed. “Your magic was bound for a reason.”
“He is going to die, Fendrel. Don’t you understand! He is dying!” Merlin forced himself to take a breath. “I can save him. With my magic, I can save him, but you have to take the collar off. Please!”
At first, it seemed as if the King would do nothing. It seemed like he would let Thomas suffocate. But finally, he tucked his hand inside his jacket, pulling out the key from an inner pocket. The moment the collar was removed, Merlin placed both of his hands against Thomas’s chest. He didn’t know what sickness it was that affected him, but any general healing spell would help. It had to. Or at the very least, it would ease the symptoms enough for him to get back to the castle in time to receive proper treatment.
“Ahlúttre þá séocnes. Þurhhæle bræd.”
Merlin’s eyes flashed gold, and the magic flowed through him and into the child. For several seconds, nothing happened. The boy continued to choke on his own throat, fortunately unconscious to his own suffering. But then Thomas took his a stronger breath. Then another. His throat was opening. He may not have cured the sickness entirely, whatever it was, but he could breath. He could breath.
“Will he live?” The King asked warily.
Merlin nodded, a relieved smile crossing his face. Arthur would never have forgiven him if his son died out here. Hell, Merlin would never have forgiven himself. But he was fine. He would be fine. “Yes-”
Then the pommel of the King’s sword hit the back of Merlin’s head, leaving only darkness.
When Merlin’s eyes snapped open, the first thing he noticed was the slight ache in the back of his head. It was hard to ignore. He reached out to touch the sore spot, wincing when he made contact. Wherever he was, it was dark. Not so dark that he couldn’t see anything, but the only light came from underneath the door.
Merlin struggled to his feet and made his way to the door. Thomas. Thomas was sick. He used magic to heal him. Then nothing. Merlin grabbed at his neck, closing his eyes in resignation when he felt the collar reattached to his throat.
He turned the knob of the door, a little surprised to see it lead to Thomas’s chambers. The antechambers. That’s where he was.
The King glanced backwards at Merlin for just a moment before turning back to the bed where Thomas laid. He was still unconscious, or perhaps only asleep.
“My physician says he was poisoned.” The King said softly. “He would have died without your assistance.”
Merlin rubbed at his head. “Yet you still found it necessary to knock me out?”
“Can you truthfully say you would have let me put the collar back on you if I had not?”
It was a fair point, because no, Merlin would certainly not have let him. Merlin would have grabbed Thomas, flung the King aside, and began his slow trip back to Camelot. He would not have allowed the King to bind him once again.
“If he was poisoned, then who is responsible?” It made sense, as far as symptoms go. It was too fast to be any normal sickness. The idea of anyone poisoning Thomas had seemed so outlandish that he never even considered the possibility. That was his fault.
“That is what I plan to find out.” The King said simply. He turned away from the bed and began walking towards the door.
“What happened to his arm?” Merlin questioned as he got a better look at the child. His left arm was bound in a tight splint, holding it straight.
“It is broken.” The King answered. “Most certainly from when he fell off his horse. My physician says he will heal well.” He grabbed the doorknob, pausing for a long moment. “Look after him.”
Merlin didn’t get a chance to respond before the King left, closing the door behind him. He let out a short breath of air, moving sit down on the side of the bed. He raised his hand to the boy’s forehead. It was not as warm as before, but still warm. It would take time for him to recover from this.
If he had just realized it was a poison, he could have healed him entirely. Instead, he had used a spell for illnesses. It helped to alleviate the symptoms, but the poison had remained in his system. He would have to heal the old fashion way, as Merlin doubted the King would remove his collar for a second time just to quicken his recovery.
He didn’t like the idea of another physician treating him, but his meager supply of bandages and salves would do Thomas little good in this instance.
A knock sounded on the door, and Eva entered moments later. “I heard what happened. How is he?”
Merlin forced himself to look away from the child. “He-” His words caught in his throat when he eyes the bruises circling Eva’s throat. “What happened to you?”
Eva shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“It really isn't.” Merlin stood, walking towards her. “Eva, who did this?” He said it as if he could do anything about it. He couldn’t stop it, and he couldn’t endanger Thomas by trying.
Eva hesitated for several seconds before finally answering. “The King believed I was responsible for Thomas’s condition.”
“You?” Merlin raised an eyebrow. Eva was the last person he would have accused. Over the past few weeks, it was clear she had grown rather fond of Thomas. She was really the only person in the entire kingdom that Merlin was willing to put any trust in. “Why would the King accuse you?”
“It is not the first time I have been accused of treason.” Eva said softly.
But why? It didn’t make any sense. “If the King thought you poisoned Thomas, then how are you here?” Why wasn’t she, well, dead?
“He was angry at first.” Eva took in a long breath. “But once he realized I had no motive for hurting the child, he released me.”
Merlin looked back at Thomas. If the King was angry enough about Thomas’s condition to attack Eva, then it surely meant he would make sure it never happened again. At the same time, Merlin really didn’t want Thomas to be around someone who lashed out so easily. The child had yet to be in the crossfire of his anger, but only time would tell.
And if that man laid a hand on Thomas, he would lose his hand.
“Do you have any idea who it might have been, then?” Merlin asked. “I don’t know any of the lords from the feast, so I have no idea who might be inclined to do something like this.”
“You believe it happened at the feast?”
Merlin gave her a half shrug. “That’s when he first started to feel sick.” He looked back to Eva. “If it was one of the lords from the feast, perhaps they wished to leave before Thomas fell ill.
Eva didn’t say anything for a moment. “A handful of the lords have already left.”
“I can guarantee you it is one of them.” Merlin said certainly.
The real question was why. Why kill Thomas? Did they not want some foreign prince taking the throne? Was it an act against the King, or against Camelot? Did they even know the prince was from Camelot? Merlin had told the one, of course, but… surely he didn’t do this.
“Can I ask you a question?” Merlin spoke after many minutes of silence.
“In Albion,” Merlin began. “Magic was outlawed on pain of death. In more recent years, things have changed, but what is the view on magic in this land?”
“It is not forbidden, so to say, but very few choose to practice it.”
“Why?” Merlin asked, his curiosity only increasing.
“Sorcerers have become a coveted good. Ones of little skill are mostly left alone, but the stronger ones are enslaved and used for their powers.”
Merlin closed his eyes for a brief moment. He had heard of some kings, like Cenred, doing this in Albion. He was fortunate enough to have escaped such enslavement while in Ealdor. “Does the King ever buy sorcerers?”
Eva nodded. “On occasion, yes. He has a small selection.”
“Why have I not been enslaved?" His magic was no secret from the king. That much was obvious.
“He only takes sorcerers of immense power.”
“And what if I told you I was a sorcerer of immense power?”
Eva’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but she quickly recovered. “Then I suggest you make sure the King is never made aware of that.”
Merlin nodded slowly. “But there’s one thing I don’t understand. Lenin knew who I was. He knew I was a powerful sorcerer. Why didn’t he try to sell me?”
“He brought you will him, so he must have considered it.”
“What made him change his mind?”
“I do not know.” Eva paused for a moment before speaking again. “The King said you healed Thomas with magic. Was it powerful magic that you used?”
Merlin shook his head. “No. Not really. Just a basic healing spell.”
Eva gave him a single nod. “Let us hope then that the King continues to believe you to be a basic sorcerer.” She took a step closer to him, her voice low and serious. “Tell no one of your powers, Merlin. If you are as powerful as you say, Thomas will not be able to protect you from your fate.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Eva nodded once again, turning to look at Thomas. “He will be alright, though, won’t he?”
“Yes.” Merlin said. “He will recover in time.”
“Good.” Eva walked towards the door. “I will bring you something to eat in a little while. Perhaps Thomas will be awake by then.”
Merlin gave her a half hearted smile. That wasn’t likely. “Thank you.” He turned back to Thomas once she left, running a hand through his hair. He would be fine. No more harm would come to him. None at all.
Chapter 11: Dwindling Hope
If the antidote had been administered soon after Thomas ingested the poison, he would have been fine. Instead, the poison had churned in his system for over twelve hours. As such, it would take him time to recover.
It was two days after receiving the treatment that he finally awoke .
“Thomas?” Merlin asked, watching his eyes slowly peel open. The boy looked blearily around the room until he finally focused on Merlin’s face. “Thomas, are you with me?”
“Where’s…” Thomas’s dry mouth did little to help him speak. “Where’s mother?”
Gwen. She had a tendency to never leave his side on occasions where he fell ill, even if there was no doubt of his recovery. It’s a mother's job, she would say, to comfort their ailing child.
“Your mother isn’t here. You’re stuck with little ol’ me.”
“I want my mother.”
“I know.” Merlin sighed. He wished she was here, too. “I’m sorry. I wish you could see her.” He grabbed a cup of water sitting on the bedside table. “Do you think you can drink something?”
Thomas nodded and took several long sips when Merlin held the cup up to his mouth. “What’s wrong with me?” He asked after finishing the water.
“You were sick.” Merlin said gently. “Do you remember that?”
The boy didn’t say anything for a long moment, as if trying to recall anything through the blur that had been the past few days. “Was I sick on the King?”
“No, but you did fall off your horse. “ Merlin brushed some of the child’s hair out of his eyes. “Either way, I think you’ll be getting all the time you need to rest without the King bothering you.”
Thomas leaned forward, pushing himself into a sitting position.
“Be careful.” Merlin said, reaching out to steady him. “Don’t move your arm too much.”
Thomas finally seemed to look down to his arm, which was wrapped tight in a splint. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “I don’t… what…”
“I said you fell off your horse, didn’t I? You were lucky to not have broken your neck.” Thomas had broken his arm once before after tripping in the stairwell, but Merlin had been able to heal it with magic easily enough. This time, he’d have to heal the old fashion way. “It’ll stay in a splint for a little while longer, then we’ll put it in a sling, so long as you’re careful with it.”
Thomas was still staring down at his arm. “It doesn’t hurt as much as last time. I can’t really feel it.”
Merlin smiled fondly at him. “That’s because you’re drugged up on painkillers. The highest of quality, or so I’ve been told.”
With his questions answered, Thomas looked back up to Merlin. “Did I get you sick?”
Now it was Merlin’s turn to be confused. “No, of course not.”
“You don’t look good.”
“I’ve just been worried about you. Nothing to concern yourself with.” He had stayed all night in case Thomas awoke or, heaven forbid, his condition worsened. “I’m supposed to send word to the King when you wake up, but he can wait if you want to go back to sleep.”
Thomas stifled a yawn. “Don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“Let me worry about that, alright?” Merlin poured a bit more water into the cup. “Do me a favor a drink a little bit more, first.”
Thomas drank the water without argument before leaning back onto the bed. He was asleep within seconds.
It was nearly a week later when Thomas was invited to dine with the King. The boy had seen the King only once in that time. Briefly, after he awoke for the second time, the King had come by, but he had not stayed for long. Once he confirmed that Thomas was well and recovering, he left. Perhaps he knew he was not wanted there. Perhaps it was something else. They would likely never know for sure.
“How are you feeling, my boy?” The King asked conversationally.
Thomas was once again sat across from him. Thomas was used to the King enough at this point to be a bit more relaxed around him. Merlin wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. He didn’t want Thomas to be afraid, but he also didn’t like the idea of him acclimating to his ‘new life’. This was not his life. This wasn’t his home.
“Better.” Thomas said quietly. His arm was still in a sling, but he had recovered entirely from the poison.
“Good.” The King replied. “I can assure you nothing like that will ever happen again. Your food and drink will be tested before it comes anywhere near you- as it always should have been. I should have known someone would try something like this.”
“My food?” Thomas looked visibly confused by this.
“Well, that’s certainly how the poison got to you.”
“Poison?” The boy turned to Merlin, standing against the wall several feet away. “You said I was sick. You never said I was poisoned.”
Merlin gritted his teeth. “As I trusted the King would take measures to make sure it never happened again, I saw no reason to alarm you.” His eyes flickered over towards the King. In all fairness, the King hadn’t known that Merlin had kept that particular secret from Thomas, but that didn’t stop him from being supremely annoyed.
The King looked unsure for a moment- not a look Merlin was used to seeing on the stern man’s face. “There is no need to worry, Thomas.” He said at last, bringing the boy’s attention back to him. “Those responsible have been taken care of. No more harm shall come to you.”
That perked Merlin’s attention. He had heard very few details around Thomas’s attack. He hadn’t even known there was a suspect, much less a guilty party. There was a sense of relief knowing they couldn’t hurt Thomas again.
Thomas nodded silently, picking at his food. Merlin could only hope that boy wouldn’t be too upset with him for his continued secret keeping.
“Eva.” Merlin said as the meal came to a close, and Thomas began walking towards him. “Can you take Thomas back to his chambers?”
“Merlin?” Thomas questioned, concern obvious in his tone.
Merlin crouched down, forcing a smile onto his face. “I will be right behind you. I just need to speak to the King for a moment. Alright?”
Thomas seemed very reluctant to leave without him, but he eventually nodded, allowing Eva to take one of his hands into her own.
Eva leaned over slightly, he voice dropping into a whisper. “Be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?”
Eva was clearly not convinced, but she took Thomas from the room nevertheless. The King, despite not arguing against what Merlin had said, looked very much annoyed.
“I did not know you kept the truth from him, if that is what you wish to lecture me about.” The King said shortly, standing from the table. “Had I known that was what you intended, I would have not brought it up.”
Merlin doubted that. If he had a chance to make Merlin look untrustworthy in Thomas’s eyes, he was surely going to take it. “That’s not what this is about. You said you took care of those responsible for Thomas’s poisoning.”
The King raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“So you know who it was then?”
“I have a rough idea.” Now it was Merlin’s turn to be confused. “I had all the lords that remained questioned. I found no reason to believe any of them guilty, so I had men go to hunt down the lords that left in a hurry.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “You think they were working together?”
The King shook his head. “No. I find that unlikely, but it had to be one of them.”
He had to be misunderstanding the situation. “You killed all the lords because you knew one of them was guilty?”
“No, not all of them. Just the ones I found most suspicious.” He glanced towards Merlin. “I don’t understand why this would bother you. I thought you cared for the child, yet every time I punish those who would do him harm, you disapprove.” Not that Merlin’s approval meant anything to the man.
“I couldn’t care less if you killed the man who poisoned Thomas. Have him tortured, for all I care. Hell, I’d give you a hand.” Merlin let out a short breath. “But how many of those men were innocent?”
“There was no way to figure out who exactly did it.” The King said, exasperated. “It was either kill them all or let them all live. I made my choice, and it was a simple one. You have no say in this.”
“Obviously.” Merlin responded, mostly to himself.
“Go back to the boy, sorcerer.”
There was no room for argument in his tone- not that Merlin had any desire to stay. He had the information he needed, and the less time Thomas was out of his sight, the better.
When he finally made it back to Thomas’s chambers, Eva was still in the room, as he knew she would be.
“Are you aware the King sent men to hunt down all the lords that had left after the feast?” Merlin asked once he entered the room.
“It wasn’t all the lords.” Eva said slowly. “But yes.”
“Do you know if any men were sent beyond the border?”
Eva paused for a moment, as if to think. “I believe there was one lord who traveled that far, but the men sent after him have yet to return.”
“Do you know which lord it was?” Merlin realized a few seconds too late that it didn’t matter. He didn’t know the name of the lord that took his signet ring. Even if Eva did know the answer, it would do little to identify him to Merlin.
“Not off the top of my head, no.” Eva replied. “I can probably find out if that matters to you.”
“No.” Merlin said softly. “No, don’t bother. It’s…” They were so close. He had left for Albion as soon as the feast was over, meaning he likely was going to keep his word, only to be hunted down and killed.
He might have survived. Perhaps the King’s men were never able to track him down. Eva had said that they never returned. Perhaps they were still searching for him. Maybe he’d make it to Camelot in time. Maybe… Maybe they would go home.
“Thank you for looking after Thomas.” Merlin said after a long pause.
“Of course.” Eva looked at him for a long moment. “Take care of yourself, Merlin.”
Thomas spoke for the first time as Eva exited the room. “You lied to me. Again.”
Merlin sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to scare you.”
Merlin reached out to touch Thomas’s shoulder, but the boy pulled back. “I’m not a coward.”
“I know.” Merlin let out a huff. “Believe me, I know. I just want to protect you, and right now, that’s been very difficult for me to do.” Without his magic. Without any authority. It was like being a servant again, except this time, his didn’t have an ally in Arthur. “I don’t like to see you scared, and if that was something I could protect you from…” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry, Thomas.”
“You keep trying to keep things from me. To protect me. But this isn’t about you.” Thomas looked away. “It’s about me. I’m the reason we’re both here. I should know what’s going on.”
“This isn’t your fault.”
“I know!” The boy sat down in one of the chairs at the table. “I know that. I’m just sick of being lied to. You lie to me more than anyone else here. All those times you told me we were going to go home… was that a lie too?”
“No.” Merlin said firmly, taking a step closer. “Thomas, I’m sorry, but I swear to you, I will get you home.”
“But how ?”
Merlin closed his eyes once again, his head tipping forward. “I… I don’t know. I had a plan, but it may have fallen through. I’ll figure it out.”
Thomas didn’t say anything for a long moment. “We’re never going home, are we?”
“We will.” Merlin promised, though the words felt like ash on his tongue.
Thomas was right. How could they possibly escape. Arthur was never going to find them across the sea. He had no magic. Even if they did manage to escape, it could take years to pull it off. Years. No. Thomas needed to go home. He would.
“Right.” Thomas said tightly.
The clear disbelieve of Thomas’s words shattered Merlin’s heart. They would go home. In time, Thomas would return to his father. That much, he was certain of.
Chapter 12: To Ease the Pain
“Sire?” It was Leon who spoke, making Arthur raise his head from his desk slightly. The King didn’t otherwise respond. “Our patrol found a man dead by the border.”
“So?” Arthur said without much care. It was not uncommon to find victims of bandits along patrols. It certainly wasn’t noteworthy enough to get the king involved.
“He had this on him.” Leon left the doorway and approached the desk, setting down what was clearly a signet ring- fitted with Camelot’s own seal. “We believe it may have belonged to… to the prince, sire.”
“No.” Arthur shook his head, picking up the ring to get a closer look. “Thomas’s ring has a special marking there at the top. This is Merlin’s.” He back up at Leon. “Where exactly did you find this? Who was the man? A bandit?”
Leon shook his head. “He wore fine clothing. A lord of some kind would be my guess. But there’s more.” Arthur perked up once again. “We found a group of soldiers making camp not far from the body. We can only assume they were the ones that killed him.”
“Soldiers?” Arthur furrowed his eyebrows. “From what kingdom?”
“That’s the thing, sire. We have no idea. The crest was not one we recognized.”
“Did you question them?”
“We never had the chance. They attacked us as soon as we made contact. Two escaped. Three were killed. We did capture one, however. He is being locked in the cells as we speak.”
Arthur stood from his desk. “Take me to him.”
They reached the cells in record time. The man inside was average looking with no immediate standout features. The crest sewn onto the breast of his jacket was one of a bird of some kind- certainly not one even Arthur recognized. It was clear why this would have confused Leon and the rest of the knights.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked after a moment. “What kingdom are you from?”
The man remained stoic. “That is not your concern.”
“That’s far from true.” Arthur reached into his pocket, taking out of the signet ring. “You and your men hunted down and killed someone who had this ring in their possession. Who was this man?”
The man remained eerily silent.
“This ring belonged to a man who went missing well over a month ago. Along with him was my son.” While the man said nothing, there was a flash on recognition in his eyes. He tried to hide it, but it was too late. “You know of whom I speak? My son?”
“I am not from these lands.” The man said at last. “Why would I know your son?”
“But you do.” Arthur made a motion for the guards to unlock the cell and stepped inside. “You know of my son. Where is he?”
“He’s dead.” The shortness of his words nearly made Arthur flinch.
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “No, he’s alive. Now tell me where he is.”
“There is no where you will find him in this world.”
“That’s not true.”
“Believe what you’d like. It doesn’t change anything.” The man stood, leaning towards the King. “Your son is dead.”
His fist made contact with the man’s face long before Arthur even knew he had swung. No one dared to pull him back as the man fell back down to the ground.
“You’re lying.” Arthur growled out.
There was something wrong about the King being in Thomas’s chambers. It was the only place in the entire kingdom that had at all began to feel like home- not that that was a good thing by any means. It was safe there. That was their space.
But now the King was sat at Thomas’s small table, across from said boy, playing a game of some kind. It was not one Merlin, nor Thomas, had ever heard of- Tabula, the King had called it- but the rules were simple enough, and the kid had picked it up without much trouble.
“You learn very quick, Thomas.” The King noted, moving one of his pieces.
Thomas moved his own piece in return, speaking quietly. “Thank you, sire.”
“Tell me,” The King began. “Have you spent much time with knights before?”
Thomas nodded slowly. “Yes, sire. My father’s knights.”
The mention of Arthur made the King stiffen very slightly, but Merlin doubted Thomas even noticed. “Ever sparred with one?”
“Not with real swords, but we did it a lot with sticks.” Thomas paused for a moment. “Once I used a wooden sword, but it broke.”
Yes, Merlin remembered. The whole thing had splintered off, giving Thomas some nasty, but not too serious, cuts on his hands and wrists. Gwen had refused to let Arthur have another one commissioned, instead insisting that he use a broom handle instead. Arthur had, reluctantly, not pushed the issue any further. Gwen was not someone to be trifled with when her son was put in harms way.
Merlin could only wonder what state she would be in now.
“I want you to meet one of my knights.” The King said. “He’s going to begin training with you. Nothing too serious, I can assure you- especially while you’re still healing. Just some very basic techniques.” The King reached forward to take a sip of his wine. “It will be good for you to get to know them. You will command them one day, after all.”
Thomas’s shoulders fell ever so slightly. “Can Merlin come with me?”
The King’s eyes flickered towards him. “Yes, of course. Whatever makes you most comfortable.” He looked back towards Merlin a moment later. “So how does a sorcerer become a physician?”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. Personal inquiries? Seriously? “I don’t see how me being a sorcerer would prevent me from becoming a physician.”
“In my experience, sorcerer’s tend to become warriors. Soldiers. Not healers.”
“Then I suppose things are different where I come from.” Merlin crossed his arms in front of him. “Magic can just as easily be used to heal as it can be to fight.”
“Are you adept at that then? With healing magic?” The King seemed genuinely curious, which immediately put Merlin on edge. Was he gauging how powerful he was? To enslave him?
“No.” Merlin said slowly. It wasn’t entirely a lie. Despite what he had only just said, he had always been better at fighting magic than healing magic. “Not particularly. I tend to use the herbal remedies my mentor used with some magic to help along the way.”
The King nodded. “I suppose that brings me back to my original question. If you have no great healing capabilities, how did you become a physician?”
Merlin let out a sigh. The last thing he wanted to do was tell this man his life story, but it would probably do more harm than good to refuse. He didn’t want to anger him more than he already had. “I was an apprentice to one for nearly fifteen years. When he retired, I took over the position as I was the most qualified person to do so.”
“I see.” The King moved another piece on the board. “I had heard rumors in the past of Albion’s stance on magic. I had always believed it to be unwelcome there, yet that it clearly not the case.”
Merlin shook his head. “Not anymore. Thomas’s father ended the slaughtering of my kind many years ago.”
Thomas was aware of Camelot’s past- it would be hard for him not to- but he didn’t know the details. He didn’t know just how brutal it had gotten. He didn’t know that his own father had killed many innocent people with magic. He didn’t know how close Merlin himself had gotten to being burnt at the stake on more than one occasion. Thomas had never lived in a world where magic was banned, and with Merlin as a constant magical presence in his life, he had always been very accustomed to it.
“What does he do with them instead, then?”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed. “He doesn’t do anything with them. They live as anyone else would.”
“Hm.” The King looked away from Merlin. “What a waste.”
When the two finished their game, Thomas came out victorious. Merlin was fairly certain the King had let him win.
“I will see you for dinner tonight.” The King said as he stood to leave.
The King spared Merlin a half glance before closing the door behind him.
“What did he mean?” Thomas asked just seconds later.
Merlin looked towards him. “About dinner?”
“About it being a waste.”
“Oh.” Merlin sat down in the chair the King had only just vacated. “Things are different here, Thomas. People with strong magic are… enslaved. They’re turned into weapons for the King to use against his enemies.”
Thomas’s head shot up, alarm clouding his eyes. “Is that going to happen to you?”
Merlin shook his head. “As far as the King is concerned, I’m not a very strong sorcerer.”
“But you are!” He argued. “You’re the strongest sorcerer I know!”
“Yes.” Merlin agreed. “And you must not tell the King this. Ever.”
Thomas nodded rapidly. “I won’t. I promise.”
Merlin smiled ever so slightly. “Good lad.”
“I won’t let him enslave you.” Thomas murmured, and Merlin wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear the words. “I won’t.”
Arthur leaned back against Aithusa. He didn’t spend much time in the caves anymore. Thomas would often venture down there late at night to spend time with his favorite beast, but of course, he hadn’t done that is quite a while.
“If I hadn’t sent Merlin with Thomas, he’d still be alive.” Arthur said without prompting.
Arthur could feel Aithusa’s chest vibrate as she spoke. “You cannot blame yourself for that. You could not have known anything would happen.”
Arthur shook his head. “You misunderstand. I’m glad he went. I’m relieved, and that’s horrible, I know, but at least…” He closed his eyes. “At least it means Thomas didn’t have to die alone.”
“You cannot know for certain if that is Thomas’s fate.”
“I know.” Arthur took in a long breath. “But it’s been six weeks, Aithusa. If it was going to be a ransom, it would have happened already. We have no idea where they might have taken him. There’s been no sign of him anywhere.” He brushed away the tears that had begun to form in his eyes. “I don’t want to believe it. I don’t want to believe what the prisoner told me, but at this point… I don’t want to imagine what state he would be in if he was still alive. Something tells me it’s better off he’s dead.”
“I wish I could save him. I wish that more than anything. I wish I could save both of them, but I… I can’t.”
“You can’t save everyone.”
“I’m a king.”
“That does not make you a god.”
“Mithian won’t even look at me.” Arthur said, looking down at his hands. “I don’t know if she’s angry at me, or… Guinevere says she’s just grieving, but I can’t tell anymore. Perhaps Guinevere's just angry at me, too. I wouldn’t blame her. I promised I’d bring our son home, and I…”
Aithusa wrapped a wing around the King. “No one is angry at you, Arthur. Guinevere is right. They are grieving, as we all are. No one blames you for what happened.”
“I let him go.” Arthur curled his fists. “I didn’t want to. I just had this feeling. But Merlin was going with him, and I thought he’d be safe.”
“No one else would have thought any differently.”
“I thought that, after all these years, all those people who wanted to hurt him were gone. All those threats- nothing ever came of them. I thought it was over. I let my guard down. I let him out of my sight. And now he’s dead .” Arthur’s voice cracked on the final word as the tears finally came. “You say it’s not my fault, but I’m his father. I was supposed to protect him, and I didn’t. I failed him. I let him die. It will always be my fault.”
“Please.” Arthur let out a choked sob, pressing his face into Aithusa’s side. “I just want my son back. That’s all I want. Please. Please .”
“I am sorry, Arthur.” Aithusa nuzzled her face against his chest. “If there was anything I could do to take this pain from you, I would.”
“Please.” Arthur whispered, more to himself than anyone else. “I just want him back.”
Chapter 13: A Step Too Far
It was not long before Thomas was taken to meet the knight.
Many weeks had passed since the injury to his arm, and while it was nearly healed, it was still in a sling. Luckily, he had landed on his off arm after falling from the horse, so Thomas was still able to hold a sword. Or perhaps unluckily. It would have been a good excuse to get out of training, but as long as it was only basic maneuvers as the King had said it would be, it wouldn’t cause him any trouble.
“So you’re going to block my swing, alright?” The knight said.
Both Thomas and the knight had, fortunately, dulled swords. Merlin would have had to argue if the swords were sharp, which could have ended up badly for everyone involved- including Thomas.
They were away from the rest of the knights on the training grounds, instead opting to train by the stables. While Thomas had never properly trained with Arthur or his knights, he had spent many afternoons watching them. None of the techniques were entirely new to him.
Thomas raised his sword in preparation for the hit. The knight brought his sword down, and Thomas blocked it successfully. It didn’t come down that hard, so the boy didn’t have much trouble.
“Good.” The knight said. “So this time, you’re going to block and swing.”
The knight showed Thomas how the move would go. He’d block the attack and use the opening to strike forward. They ran through it a few times until Thomas got the hang of it.
The knight nodded at the boy’s progress. “Okay, so you’ve got that down. Now I’m going to try and counter your swing, so watch out for that.”
Thomas nodded, raising his sword again. He blocked the hit and swung outwards, only for a boot to hit his chest, sending him to the ground.
Merlin ran forward towards Thomas, who had clearly gotten the breath knocked out of him and was wincing in pain.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Merlin asked, glancing at the knight who was hovering above them.
The knight ignored Merlin entirely, speaking directly to Thomas. “Just because it’s a sword fight doesn’t mean you can’t expect other forms of attack. You must be prepared.”
“He’s already injured.” Merlin argued. “You can’t hit him that hard. You could have hurt him even further.”
“Stand boy.” The knight took a few steps back, gesturing to the space in front of him. “We aren’t finished yet.”
Thomas struggled to his feet, but Merlin took a step in front of him.
Finally, the knight looked at him. “Leave us.”
“No. He’s done.”
The knight’s eyes narrowed on him. “I have been ordered to train the boy, and that is what I am doing.”
“You were ordered to teach him basic moves. If he’s covered in bruises when this is over, then you’re pushing him too far.”
The knight scoffed. “He isn’t an infant. He can handle it.”
“And what if he lands on his arm?” Merlin questioned. “What if it breaks again? What then?”
“That is not your concern.”
Merlin let out an incredulous laugh. “I am his physician. I’d damn well say that’s my concern.”
The knight took a step towards Merlin. “You will not speak to me like this.”
Merlin took a step of his own. “You will not harm this child any further.” He turned to Thomas with the intention of leading him away, but the knight's hand shot out, grabbing Merlin’s arm in a tight grip.
“The prince is not leaving.” The knight growled out. “You, however, will.”
“I’m not going anywhere without him.” Merlin tried to jerk his arm out of the man’s grip, but it was too strong.
“You will do as I command.”
“I will not.”
“Should I perhaps have the King come join us?” The knight questioned. “I do wonder what he will think of your behavior.”
“Please do. Because this isn’t going to be a matter of me versus you. This is going to be you versus Thomas. You’re the one who attacked him. Whose side do you think the King is going to take?” Merlin leaned in slightly. “I do wonder what he will think of your behavior.”
The knight grabbed Merlin by the neck, slamming him against the stable walls. “I will not be spoken to in this manner. Do you understand?” His fist continued to tighten, giving Merlin no chance to breathe, much less respond.
“Leave the man be, Rodrick.”
The knight turned slightly to find Lenin standing just a few feet away. “I don’t see what authority you have here, mercenary.”
“I don’t have any.” Lenin agreed. “I just know the King will be out here in a few minutes to check on Thomas’s progress, and I doubt this is what you’ll want him to see.”
The knight scoffed. “The King doesn’t care about the sorcerer.”
“No, but you're upsetting the kid, and he will care about that.”
Merlin glanced towards Thomas, who was staring at the scene unfolding in front of him with tears in his eyes. The knight looked as well, reluctantly releasing Merlin from his grip.
Thomas ran towards him as Merlin took a few steps away. “Are you okay?”
Merlin only nodded in response before glancing around the field. Lenin was walking away, but if he spoke the truth, then the King was on his way. He never thought the day would come when he’d be grateful for either of those men’s appearances.
“Pick up your sword.” The knight commanded, but Thomas hesitated. It was obvious to anyone who saw them that he didn’t want to spar with the furious man. “I said pick it up!”
Merlin pushed Thomas behind him. There was no way in hell that man was going to get anywhere near his boy- especially with a weapon.
“I am losing my patience, sorcerer.”
“You will not touch him.” Merlin said slowly. He took a step back, forcing Thomas to do the same. “We’re leaving.”
The knight rushed forward, pushing Merlin to the ground. His head hit the dirt hard enough for black spots appear before his eyes. The knight grabbed Thomas by the arm and dragged him towards his fallen sword.
“Pick it up.” The knight demanded.
Thomas looked to Merlin, his eyes wide with fear and concern. It was enough to force Merlin to his feet. He didn’t have a concussion, that much he knew, but it didn’t stop the world from spinning ever so slightly.
“Fine!” The knight yelled. “You don’t want to pick up the sword? Then you can see what happens when you don’t arm yourself.”
He wasn’t actually going to…
The knight began to swing at Thomas with the dulled blade. The blow wouldn’t kill him, but it could certainly break a few ribs. Merlin ran forward, grabbing another training sword from the rack, and hit the knight hard across his back- hard enough, hopefully, to knock him off balance. Merlin wasn’t nearly as skilled with a sword as any knight, but Arthur had trained with him enough to be able to hold his own.
The knight cried out, falling to the ground. He reacted far more to the blow than Merlin had anticipated, but there wasn’t time for him to wonder about that. Thomas ran towards Merlin and away from the fallen knight.
“It’s alright.” Merlin said, pulling the boy close. “It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you.”
“What have you done?!” The King said as he approached, making Merlin’s head snap towards him.
Merlin looked at the still fallen knight… who was covered in blood. The sword wasn’t a training sword after all. It had been real. “I- I didn’t realize. He was about to attack Thomas-”
The King grabbed Merlin’s shirt, pulling him away from Thomas and towards himself. “Your inability to know your own place is one thing, but attacking my first knight is another entirely. You’ve gone too far.”
Merlin shook his head. “You don’t understand. That’s not what happened!”
“I suppose you mean to tell me it was Thomas who wounded him?”
“No!” Merlin cried out. “Of course not! But-”
“Guards!” The King shouted, his eyes still locked onto Merlin’s. “Take him.”
“No!” Thomas ran forward as the guards grabbed at Merlin, but the King held him back. “Please!”
“Stay out of this, Thomas.” The King said, keeping a firm hand on the boy’s arm.
“Merlin!” Thomas called out once again, trying and failing to get free from the King’s iron grip.
The King turned to another group of guards. “Fetch the physician. You, take the prince back to the chambers.”
“Listen to me.” Merlin tried again, but the King was done.
“Take him to the dungeons.”
Two guards began to drag Merlin away, while another picked Thomas up into his arms and began to walk in the other direction. The boy was crying, screaming, but this time it wasn’t fake. This time, intentionally or not, Merlin may have gone too far.
Look after him, Eva. Please.
Chapter 14: To Stand Against A Tyrant
Merlin let out a low groan as he slowly dragged himself into consciousness.
“Shh, it’s alright. Don’t move.”
Merlin forced his eyes open, but it took a full minute for everything around him to come into focus. He was on his stomach, on a cot of some kind. He was not in a room he recognized, but it also seemed very familiar in a way.
“Merlin? You with us?”
Merlin turned his head to see Eva sitting in a chair next to the cot. “Thomas?”
“He’s with the King.” She said, as if that was reassuring in any way.
Merlin’s eyes widened, and he attempted to get up from the cot, only to cry out as he did so.
“Lie still, Merlin.” Eva ordered, pressing him back down onto the cot. “You’re badly injured.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “I don’t…”
The knight. He had attacked the knight. He was thrown in the dungeons. The King was going to have him executed, but first he had him flogged. Apparently he had pissed the man off enough to warrant torture before death.
“Why am I alive?” Merlin finally asked.
“You only attacked the knight to protect Thomas.” Eva answered, but Merlin shook his head.
“The King doesn’t believe me.”
“He does now.” Eva brushed a bit of Merlin’s hair out of his eyes. “Lenin saw the whole thing. He told the King what really happened.”
Merlin let out another soft groan of pain as he adjusted himself on the cot. “He couldn’t have done that before I got lashed?”
“He did.” Eva assured him. “But the King didn’t believe him either. It wasn’t until Thomas told him the same exact story that he relented.”
“Where is Thomas?”
“The King is looking after him while I’m here with you.”
Merlin let out a breath. “I’d rather you were with him.”
“The King won’t hurt Thomas.” Eva said gently. “Even you must know that.”
The door to the room opened, and another man Merlin didn’t recognize walked in. “Ah.” The man said. “You’re awake. Good.”
Physician. The man was a physician. He was in the physician’s quarters. No wonder it seemed familiar. They all smelled the same.
“Your bandages will need changing. We’ll do that in just a moment.”
Merlin looked to Eva. “So does this mean I won’t be getting my head chopped off?”
“No.” Eva shook her head, a small smile forming across her lips. “You’re safe for now, but if you keep getting yourself into trouble, that isn’t going to last.”
“Gods, you sound like my wife.”
The physician came towards him and began to unwrap the bandages. Merlin had to clench his teeth against the pain. A new layer of salve was placed on the wound, and new bandages were wrapped across his back.
“There we are.” The physician said, taking a step back.
“Thank you.” Merlin gritted out, still breathing through the new onslaught of pain.
“You have a wife?” Eva asked as the physician walked away.
“Oh. Yeah.” Merlin glanced at Eva, furrowing his eyebrows together. “What is it?”
“I guess I just never realized how much you had left behind.” Eva let out a short breath. “You’ve always seemed much more concerned with getting Thomas back to his home than yourself.”
“I want to go back, of course.” Merlin said. “But Thomas will always be a priority.”
“Have the two of you always been so close?”
“I’ve known him since he was born. He’s like a son to me.”
“So you have no children of your own?” Eva questioned, and Merlin shook his head.
“No. We’ve talked about it, but no one really knows we’re married. If she were to get pregnant, people might talk.” Merlin sighed. “If she really wanted children, we could work around it, but it’s never been something she seemed particularly interested in.”
“Do you want children?”
Merlin paused to think. “I’ve always liked the idea of it, but even if I never have any, I still have Thomas.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. “How did we even start talking about this?”
“Just making conversation to distract you from the pain.”
“Are you using my injury as an excuse to weasel information out of me?”
“No, of course not.” Eva said seriously. “Now why is your marriage a secret?”
Merlin stared at her for a moment before rolling his eyes. “It’s not so much that it’s a secret as it is… very few people know about it. I’m not sure her father even knows. Let’s just say she outranks me substantially.”
“She’s a noble?”
“Yes.” Merlin nodded once. “And I was still a servant when we first met.”
“Does Thomas know then?” Eva asked. “About the two of you?”
“He knows we’re together.” Merlin answered. “I’m not sure if he knows we’re actually married. His father knows, of course. And his mother. Some of the knights do. My mentor. That’s about it.”
“I would have thought the King would be the person you’d be most likely to try and keep it from.”
“He was the first one I told.” Merlin let out a breath. “Now that I think about it, my mother knows as well. Sort of. She knows we’re married. She doesn’t know she’s a noble.”
“You know the King well then?”
“I was his servant. I started back when he was still a prince, and the Queen was a good friend of mine long before she married him. She was a servant, too.”
Eva didn’t have a chance to respond before the door opened once again. Thomas ran into the room, straight towards the wounded man on the cot.
Merlin wanted to hug to boy, but with him still lying on his stomach barely able to move, it wasn’t really an option. Instead, he reached up to place a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “Hey there, kid. What’s new?”
Thomas didn’t respond to the playful question, and it took Merlin a moment to realize he was staring at the array of bloody bandages covering the course of his back. He wasn’t sure how many lashes he had received. Considering the plan was to have him executed afterwards, they probably didn’t care too much about accidentally kill him.
“Thomas, it’s alright.” Merlin tried, but he was ignored.
The boy instead turned to face the King, who had followed him into the room. “You hurt him!”
“Thomas-” The King started without much luck.
“You were going to kill him!”
“He attacked one of my knights.” The King said slowly.
“Your knight was going to attack me!”
“I didn’t realize that-”
“You didn’t listen!”
“Thomas…” Merlin interjected, trying and failing to get the boy’s attention. Please don’t incite the King’s anger. Please don’t get yourself hurt. Don’t make him angry.
“I told you Merlin was protecting me, but you didn’t believe me!” Thomas continued.
“I did believe you.”
“No! No you didn’t!”
“If I didn’t believe you,” The King began, speaking far more gently than Merlin would have expected. “Then I would have gone through with the execution. I even let my physician treat his injuries.”
“You… You tortured him. I told you right after what happened, but you didn’t stop it!”
Thomas’s eyes narrowed, and his voice lowered. “If you hurt him again, I will never speak another word to you.”
This was it. The King was going to snap. He was going to kill Merlin, and who knows what he would do to Thomas. He had pushed him too far.
“Thomas…” The King took a step back. “I- I’m sorry.”
“I will do everything I can to ensure no more harm comes to either of you.”
Thomas said nothing to this response, continuing to stare the man down until he finally retreated, leaving them in peace. Thomas’s anger seemed to melt away the moment the King vacated the room, turning back towards Merlin with tears in his eyes.
“It’s okay, Thomas.” Merlin said, and Eva wrapped an arm around the boy since Merlin was unable. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
In the two months since Thomas had gone missing, not once had he entered his son’s chambers. Guinevere had many times, Arthur knew, but he had never- could never- join her.
Arthur took in a long breath before slowly turning the knob and pushing the door open.
The room had remained untouched. A maid had come by the morning of his disappearance- before he had even disappeared- to make the bed and tidy the room, but other than that, it was exactly how he had left it.
It was familiar… but not comforting.
Arthur made his way into the room and lowered himself onto the bed. He didn’t understand how Guinevere could do this. How could she come in this room so often? How could she spent hours surrounded by him? His memories.
He couldn’t do it. This was the first time he had entered the room, and it would surely be his last.
Until Thomas returned, of course.
Part of him so desperately wanted to hold onto that hope. He didn’t want to accept the truth, but it was the truth nonetheless.
Thomas. His son. Was dead.
It had only been two months. He was wrong to give up so quickly. But he wasn’t giving up. Not really. Patrols would continue to be sent out for him. Any and all tips would be investigated, even though all the previous ones had led to nothing. The search would not end, but with every day that passed, his hope dwindled into nothing.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur whispered, and even he wasn’t sure who exactly he was supposed to be talking to. “I- I should have protected you.”
His son had depended on him. He had promised to protect him from the day he was born, and he had failed. Thomas hadn’t even lasted long enough to become a knight, much less a king, like he was supposed to.
He would have been a good king. Better than him. He didn’t have the same blood on his hands that Arthur did. He could have been so much more.
“I should have protected you. I- I…” Arthur closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Thomas. I’m so sorry. I love you. I love you so much. I should have told you that more often. I never did it enough. I’m sorry.”
He should have been a better father. Thomas had deserved so much more. So much better. Guinevere hadn’t deserve to lose her only child. Merlin hadn’t deserved to die trying to protect him. That was Arthur’s job. It should be Merlin sitting here. Not him.
Hopefully it was quick. For both of them. They never found the bodies, so they’d never know for sure. Please, don’t have made them suffer. Please. Oh, gods, please.
Please. Don’t be dead. Please, just come back. Just come home. It didn’t matter if all evidence pointed to the contrary. Please be alive. Please be okay. Please come home.
“I just want you back. Please. Please, just come back.”
Chapter 15: A Spark of Hope
Arthur had never replaced Merlin as Court Physician. He wasn’t holding out on some hope that he would return to them- Arthur knew he wouldn’t- but it had felt wrong. Doing it right after his death had just seemed tasteless, but there would never be a time in which it didn’t feel like a betrayal. Merlin had earned that position. He deserved it more than anyone else. To give it away like it was never his to begin with…
It wasn’t until a plague hit the inner city that Arthur had begun to wonder if his grief had doomed his people. The last thing he expected was to find Mordred in the physician’s chambers, working on creating a cure for the mysterious ailment.
“It’s what he would have wanted me to do.”
With some help from Gaius and a bit of magic, Mordred was able to cure all those who had taken ill.
“We all miss him, sire. Both of them. I’m not as skilled as he was, but if I can do something…”
If only Arthur could do something. Anything. Anything at all.
But he couldn’t.
Arthur glanced behind him to see Mordred running towards him, and he rubbed away the tears that were left over from his visit to Thomas’s room. “Now isn’t really a good time, Mordred.”
“It’s important, sire.” Mordred said once he finally caught up to the King.
“Is Camelot under imminent threat?” Arthur asked, continuing to walk away.
“Then it can wait.”
Part of him felt bad for so clearly pushing the man away, but he didn’t want to talk. He couldn't care less about the matters of state. He just wanted to go back to his chambers- to his wife. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. Not really.
“It’s about Thomas, sire.”
Arthur halted in his steps, turning to face Mordred completely. “What?”
“He’s alive.” Mordred said. “Or, at least, Merlin is. But if Merlin is alive, then surely Thomas is as well.”
Arthur took a step towards him. “What are you talking about?”
“I…” Mordred glanced around the empty hall. “Just come with me.”
Arthur let out a short breath and followed Mordred as the man led him to his chambers. Inside, much to Arthur’s surprise, was Mithian. She sat at Mordred’s table, and it was obvious that she had been crying at one point, though she was not currently.
He had never seen Mithian cry before.
“Mordred.” Arthur said more forcefully. “Tell me what’s going on. Now.”
He was running out of patience. If Mordred knew anything about his son, then he had better start talking.
“Many years ago,” Mordred began. “Long before I was a knight, I snuck into Camelot in hopes of stealing this.” The druid held up a familiar looking crystal.
“The Crystal of Neahtid?”
“Yes.” Mordred nodded. “Alvarr believed I might be powerful enough to scry with it, though we were never able to confirm it. After Merlin and Thomas went missing, I broke into the vaults and took it.”
“You…” Arthur shook his head. It wasn’t important. “Never mind. Can you use it?”
“I couldn't at first. I’m not as powerful as Merlin, and it’s a very powerful tool.” Mordred set the crystal back down. “But, I figured out that if I used someone with a strong enough connection to the person I’m searching for as a conductor, so to say, I can amplify the signal.”
“I’m not following.”
“Basically, with Mithian’s help,” Mordred gestured to the princess. “I was able to scry for Merlin.”
“You…” Arthur tried to stop the hope from overwhelming him. “You saw him?”
Mordred nodded. “Yes. He’s alive.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” Mordred admitted. “It doesn’t give me a location, and the environment around him didn’t give us much to go on.”
“What about Thomas?” Arthur asked, suddenly frantic. “Were you able to scry for him?”
“Not without a conductor. That’s what I need you for.”
Arthur still wasn’t sure what Mordred was talking about, but it didn’t matter. If Mordred could find his son, nothing else would ever matter. “What do you need me to do?”
“Just sit there.” Mordred pointed to an open seat at the table. “Place a hand on the crystal. You just need to be touching it when I scry. Then I’ll be able to look for him.”
“And what if you can’t find him?” Arthur forced himself to ask.
“Then…” Mordred hesitated. “Then it means he may be... dead. Or warded. Or…” He took in a breath. “With Merlin alive, I’m hopeful that he is as well.”
Arthur sat down with no further argument, placing his hand on the crystal as Mordred sat down across from him. Nothing happened for awhile. Mordred’s eyes didn’t flash gold, nor did there seem to be any image in the crystal.
Hope was dwindling by the moment. It was one thing for his son to be possibly dead. It was another thing entirely for it to be confirmed.
But then it appeared.
“We’ve got him.” Mordred said, a smile forming over his face. “Arthur. He’s alive. And from the looks of it… he seems alright.”
How? How could that possibly be? Arthur leaned forward to get a better look. Thomas was asleep. In a bed. A nice bed, from the looks of it. He wasn’t covered in bruises and blood, chained to the wall of a dungeon. He was in a room. In a bed. Asleep. If Arthur didn’t know any better, he’d think Thomas was back in Camelot, in his own room.
“Is there any chance this could be wrong? Any at all?” Arthur had to ask. He had to know.
Mordred just shook his head. “I’ve never heard of scrying doing anything like that before.”
Thomas was alive. Thomas was alive. Thomas was alive.
“Can…” Arthur started. “Can I speak to him?”
Mordred reluctantly shook his head once again. “I’m just not strong enough to make this a two-way interaction. I’m sorry.”
“No.” Arthur said firmly. “No, thank you, Mordred.” He gave his child another long look before slowly removing his hand. “I have a prisoner I need to speak to.” Arthur paused as he reached the door. “When you scryed for Merlin, how was he? Was he the same as Thomas?”
Mordred didn’t respond at first, making Arthur’s blood run cold.
“He was being tortured.” Mithian said, speaking up for the first time.
Oh, Merlin. Not again. No wonder she was so upset.
“We don’t know how long it was going on for.” Mordred said quietly. “We can check back later. See if it’s… over.”
There didn’t seem to be much point to it all, but Arthur found himself nodding anyways. He looked to Mithian. “We’ll bring him home.”
“I know.” She said nothing else, turning away from Arthur and towards the visionless crystal. “I know.”
Merlin went back to their chambers the next day. Even if he wasn’t healed completely- not by a long shot- he was well enough to leave the physician’s chambers. That in and of itself was a relief. Being kept away from Thomas was only putting him on edge.
“You need to rest.” Eva said.
Thomas had gone to bed early that night. He had stayed up nearly all night with Merlin the previous day and needed to catch up on his sleep.
Merlin waved her off. “I’m alright.”
“You’re really not.” Eva chided.
“I’ve had worse.”
This made Eva pause for a moment. “I dread to think.”
Yeah. So did he. “Whatever happened to that knight I, uh, attacked?”
“He survived.” Eva answered. “If that’s what you’re asking.”
“Is he going to stay that way?” Merlin couldn’t help but ask. “I mean he did attack Thomas- or was going to anyways. I know how the King can be with that sort of thing.”
“Sir Rodrick is his first knight. The King cannot afford to execute him. The other knights would surely rebel. Many already disapprove of how he dealt with the lords.”
Merlin huffed. “You’d think they’d be used to it by now.”
“Like I told you before, he didn’t always used to be like this.”
Yes, but how different could he have been? What had made him snap? Or was Eva just in denial? “What happened?”
“It’s a long story.” Eva sighed softly. “In truth, I wish you had killed that knight. There’s little I wouldn’t do to take power away from the King.”
Merlin stared at her for a moment longer. “Sometimes I feel like I know you. Other times, I’m not so sure.”
Eva rose one eyebrow. “Sure about what?”
“Where your loyalties lie.” Merlin shrugged. “You serve the King. He keeps you close, yet you seem to despise him. Yet you have never betrayed him.”
“That’s not quite true.” She said quietly. “Even if he doesn’t know it.”
Merlin didn’t say anything for several seconds. “Why do you stay?”
“Because…” Her hand tightened on the laundry she had been collecting from the basket. “Because if I were to leave, he would have me hunted down and killed.”
Merlin sat up in his chair, wincing at the pain it caused him. “What? Why?”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
Merlin gave her an incredulous look. “Then why not just kill you?”
Eva turned to look at him. “Like I said before, it’s a long story, and not one I would like to share.”
“Hm.” Merlin slowly leaned back down against the chair. “You said you’ve betrayed him before. In what way?”
“I…” Eva hesitated. “It’s probably not what you’re expecting. I haven’t given out patrol routes or anything. I don’t even have access to that information. I only do what I can to take away his power whenever I can.” Her voice grew soft. “Even when I’m not proud of it.”
“I never took you for the deceitful type.”
“I do what I must.” She set down the laundry. “It’s getting late. Do you need help-”
“I’ll be fine.” Merlin assured her. “Goodnight, Eva.”
Eva smiled very slightly, grabbing and basket and heading towards the door. “Good night.”
“Where is my son?”
The prisoner raised his head, eyeing the King beyond the bars. “I’ve already told you everything.”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “You’ve told me lies. You told me my son was dead, when I know for a fact that he is not. So tell me where he is. Now.”
The prisoner didn’t speak for a moment, as if evaluating his choices. “Why should I?”
“Because if you don’t.” Arthur said slowly, his voice low. “I will kill you.”
“My King will kill me if I do tell.” So it was a King holding them hostage. That made some sense. Magic bound or not, no group of mercenaries could hold Merlin for that long.
“Fine, then.” Arthur said, leaning towards the bars. “If you don’t tell me where my son is, I will burn you alive. Do you understand? No one in this kingdom has been burnt at the stake in many years, but I am more than willing to bring it back just for you. Now tell me where my son is .”
Chapter 16: A Traitor in Friends
Arthur and Mordred both looked up from the pile of maps laid across the desk and to the woman entering the room.
“Arthur, what’s going on?” Guinevere asked, her eyes narrowing on the two of them.
“We’ve found Thomas.” Arthur said at last, and a mix of shock, confusion, and hope flashed across her face. “We found him, Guinevere.”
“Where is he?” Her voice was beginning to sound frantic as she approached the desk.
“He’s in some kingdom to the East called Aeridia.”
Guinevere tilted her head slightly. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Nor have I.” Arthur agreed. “Thus the maps.”
“But none seem to have the kingdom on it.” Mordred murmured.
Arthur sighed, glancing back down to the maps. “I’m beginning to wonder if the prisoner was just lying. I thought maybe there was some small kingdom just off the coast, but there’s nothing.”
Gwen paused, furrowing her eyebrows. “These are maps of Albion.”
Arthur looked up once more, raising an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“What if he’s not in Albion.”
Arthur blinked. “Of course.” His eyes fell shut. “That complicates things. Camelot doesn’t exactly have a fleet of ships at our disposal.” He forced himself to look back up at Guinevere. “We’ll bring him home.”
Guinevere smiled at him, and Arthur thought he could see specks of tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “I know you will. I’ve never doubted that.”
“Would the prisoner be able to direct us to the kingdom if we took him with us?” Mordred asked.
Arthur shook his head. “I was barely able to get him to speak at all. He believes the King of Aeridia will kill him for telling me anything. He won’t be willing to go back- certainly not with us.” He glanced back towards Mordred. “Did you and Mithian ever get another look at Merlin?”
“Yes.” Mordred confirmed. “It was a bit hard to tell what was going on, but at the very least, he didn’t seem to be in the dungeons any longer.”
“They took him out of his cell?”
“It seemed like it.”
“You’re scrying?” Guinevere asked, turning to look at the druid.
Mordred nodded. “Yes. It’s how we were able to figure out they were alive to begin with.”
“So Merlin is alive, too, then?” It seemed too good to be true, but it was. It was true.
“Yes.” Arthur said, not elaborating. There was no need to alarm her about the state they had found Merlin in. It would only make her worry more. He turned to Mordred. “I want to check back in on Thomas again soon. Guinevere will join us.”
They didn’t know where he was. Not really. They only had a vague idea, but it was so much more than before, and it would be all they needed.
I failed you once before, Thomas. I will not do so again.
“Can I ask you a question?” It wasn’t much of a greeting, but it was still early, so that was excusable.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you awake so early.” Eva commented. “I’d have thought those draughts the physician gave you would have knocked you right out.”
“I didn’t take them.”
Eva looked visibly confused by this. “Why not?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
Eva gave him a gentle smile. “That’s sort of the point of the draught, Merlin. To help you sleep. I can’t imagine it would have been easy to in your current state.”
“I was thinking.” Merlin said, simply.
Eva set down the tray of breakfast, making sure not to wake Thomas as the metal hit the table. “What about?”
“I believe I know what poison was used on Thomas.”
“I had been limiting myself to poisons that took about twelve hours to kill.” Merlin said slowly. “But I couldn’t think of any poisons like that with the symptoms Thomas had. The poison given to him- ricin, I believe- doesn’t show symptoms for days in advance. This can only mean that the poison was given to him before the feast.”
“Perhaps they used a poison you aren’t familiar with?”
“Nobles aren’t stupid.” Merlin paused for a moment, taking in a breath. “Don’t get me wrong. They can be arrogant and condescending, but they are generally well educated. They don’t tend to go through with dangerous plans without thinking it through all the way first.” With some exceptions, of course.
“And lords especially.” Merlin continued. “Strategy is something they are taught from a young age. They don’t make stupid decisions. Selfish decisions? Sure. Bias decisions? Ill informed decisions? Absolutely. But not stupid. Never stupid.”
“Merlin.” Eva said, concern bleeding into her voice, but he continued anyways.
“Why would a lord poison a child and flee the scene? Anyone could piece together how suspicious that would be. And I doubt this was a spur of the moment decision. They had time to think about it, and no lord would do something so stupid and suspicious. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Eva’s mouth opened as if to respond, but nothing came out for several seconds. “Merlin…”
“Even the King thought you were guilty, though you managed to convince him otherwise.” Merlin struggled into a standing position, his back straining from the effort. “Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me this is all a great big misunderstanding, and I will believe you.”
“Why…” Eva started. “Why would you think that?”
“You’ve had access to all of Thomas’s food. You didn’t even seem surprised when you found out he had collapsed. You chose a poison that would put the lords in the line of fire instead of yourself.” He took a few steps closer to her. “You told me last night that there was nothing you wouldn’t do to take away the King’s power. If everything went to plan, both Thomas and many of Fendrel’s allies would be dead. Now tell me the truth.”
He was wrong. Eva wouldn’t. Of course she wouldn’t. She was his only ally in this godforsaken kingdom. She wouldn’t betray him like that. She wouldn’t poison a child.
“I’m sorry.” Eva’s voice broke on the last word, and Merlin took a step back.
Merlin shook his head. “How could you? I trusted you. Thomas trusted you.”
“I didn’t want to. You have to believe me-”
“I’m having a hard time believing anything you have to say.”
Eva’s head fell. “I regretted it as soon as I did it. I was relieved when I found out you had saved him.”
“He’s an innocent child.”
“Yes.” Eva nodded. “Yes, I know that. I never wanted to hurt him.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed on her. “But it sure as hell didn’t stop you from trying.”
“I’m sorry, Merlin.” She said again. “I… I just couldn’t stand the idea of the King replacing his heir. He killed the Queen. She didn’t die a natural death. He executed her. And he thought he could just fix everything by bringing in a kid from a foreign land-”
“That wasn’t Thomas’s fault.”
“I know.” Eva agreed. “I’ve never blamed Thomas for any of that.”
“Yet you tried to murder him.” Merlin shook his head incredulously. “We had a way out of here, too. One of the lords- one of the lords that was hunted down and killed because of your stunt- was going to Camelot. He was going to tell Thomas’s father where we were, and you destroyed that. We could have been home by now. Thomas would have been gone anyways if you hadn’t resorted to the cold blooded murder of a child.”
She clenched her eyes shut, a tear escaping. “I’m sorry.”
Merlin glanced backwards to make sure Thomas was still asleep before looking back at Eva. “I want you to leave. I don’t care what excuse you have to give the King for why you aren’t serving Thomas anymore. If you come anywhere near him, I will tell the King what you did, and I will leave you to your fate. You must know the King would believe me if I made an accusation like that against you of all people.”
“I didn’t want to kill him, Merlin.” Eva whispered after a moment of silence.
“I thought he was safe around you, but he obviously isn’t. Leave, and stay away from him.”
Eva nodded slowly. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care.”
When the door shut behind Eva’s vacating form, leaving Merlin and Thomas alone in the room, it felt far more empty than before.
Arthur made a habit of checking in on Thomas and Merlin as often as he could. Much to Arthur’s relief, Thomas remained unharmed, and he saw no more harm come to Merlin either. It raised questions on why he was hurt in the first place. In fact, everything seemed to raise questions, yet there were few answers to be found.
Why did that king want Thomas? Why was Merlin still alive? Why were either of them alive? How many times has Merlin been hurt since they went missing? Has Thomas ever been hurt? Merlin wouldn’t have let that happen without a fight. Perhaps that’s why he was hurt to begin with.
Be careful, Merlin. We’re almost there. Just hold on a little bit longer.
They couldn’t hear anything that happened. It was only visual, but it was so much more than they had before. Just to see them- to know that in that moment they were okay, was worth so much. The relief Arthur had felt when he saw them together- Merlin and Thomas- was palpable. Merlin would look after him. He always had, and he clearly had been for months.
The collar around Merlin’s neck was more visible now than it had been in the endless dark of the dungeons. It wasn’t identical to the one he had worn all those years ago, but its purpose was the same. Seeing it made Arthur’s nails dig into his palm, and Mordred seemed to nearly flinch away from the image of it. They had bound him like a dog. Just like the Sarrum had.
They had made him powerless, and despite that, Merlin was still protecting his son. It wasn’t a surprise. Arthur knew Merlin would look after Thomas no matter the cost. Losing his powers wouldn’t change that, but the stakes were so much higher. He’d continue to protect Thomas, even if his means of doing so dwindled away. He owed the man a raise when he returned.
No. He owned him far more than that.
You can have the whole kingdom if you want it, Merlin. You just need to come home first. Both of you. Just come home.
Chapter 17: The Key to Freedom
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows, staring out the window of their chambers with nothing less than overwhelming bewilderment. “What...”
“Where’s Eva?” Thomas said, interrupting his thoughts.
Merlin paused for a moment. Usually Eva would have come by at some point already, but instead it had been another nameless servant Merlin didn’t recognize. “She’s not coming anymore.”
This only seemed to confuse the boy. “Why not?”
Merlin reluctantly turned towards him. “She’s not as much of a friend as we thought her to be.”
It was lonely without her. Thomas was fine company, but she had been the only friend he had. She was his only ally. A source of information. Someone to confide in. It would have been better if she had just disappeared. To know that she had been playing him all along was just painful.
How many times had he entrusted Thomas to her? How many times had he left him alone with her? Trusting her- anyone in this kingdom- would be Merlin’s downfall, and he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“But I like Eva.”
“So did I.”
Thomas walked towards the window Merlin had just been looking out of. “What happened?”
If Thomas found out Eva had poisoned him, it would break his heart. Eva wasn’t just Merlin’s only friend here. She was Thomas’s, too.
“We just can’t trust her.” He placed a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “If you see her, even for a moment, you must let me know, alright?”
Thomas nodded slowly. “What is that?” He asked, peering out into the courtyard.
“That’s just what I was wondering.”
There was a cage of some kind being pulled through the courtyard. An angry creature thrashed inside of it, but it was hard to tell what it was exactly from the distance. It almost looked like a… but it couldn’t be. Aithusa was the only one left. There weren’t anymore.
Unless there were.
There was only one person that would be able to answer their questions now.
“Thomas.” Merlin said at last. “When you dine with the King tonight, I need you to ask him about the creature. He’ll tell you, I’m sure.”
The King wouldn’t give up an opportunity to start a conversation with Thomas. The King would try and fail so often to engage the child. If Thomas started it, the King wouldn’t be able to resist.
“Is it a dragon?”
“I’m not sure.” If it was, it was a young one. The collar would prevent him from using his dragonlord powers, but if there were more out there...
“I hope it is.” Thomas said, a smile growing across his lips.
“So do I.”
This could change everything.
“There’s a festival coming up in a few weeks to celebrate the harvest.” The King commented, glancing across the table to Thomas. “It’s not something I would generally partake in, but I think you may enjoy it.”
It felt odd for Merlin to stand against the wall by himself. The King made no comment about Eva’s lack of entrance. He could only wonder what excuse she had given the man.
“Yes, sire.” Thomas said.
The King paused, watching Thomas for a moment. “Is there something on your mind, my boy? You seem distracted.”
“I’m sorry, sire. I just…” He glanced towards Merlin for a moment before turning back to the King. If Fendrel noticed, he said nothing. “I saw something in the courtyard earlier today, and I was wondering what it was.”
“Ah. Yes.” The man smiled. “The dragon.”
Thomas sat up straighter at his words. “So it was a dragon.”
“Indeed.” The King confirmed. “Rare creatures. Have you ever seen a dragon up close, Thomas?”
Thomas nodded. “One.” Though, ‘seeing up close’ was a bit of an understatement when it came to Aithusa.
It wasn’t often that Thomas said much to the King besides ‘yes, sire’ or ‘sorry, sire’ or ‘no, sire’, so it wasn’t that surprising that the man would take it as an opportunity to gain the boy’s favour.
“Would you like to see another?”
In most circumstances, Thomas would look to Merlin for help before answering a question like that. This time, however, Thomas just nodded. He’d never pass up an opportunity to meet another dragon.
The King smiled, eyeing Thomas for a moment. “We can go tonight, if you’d like. It’s being kept in a holding area for the next few days. I can take you there.”
Thomas nodded once again. “Yes, sire. “
There had never been a time in Thomas’s life when he didn’t know Aithusa. She had spent a lot of time with him as a child. Even when he was an infant, Aithusa had taken to guarding his chambers by sleeping on the floor in front of the crib. As far back as Thomas could hope to remember, Aithusa had been there.
“You must remember.” Merlin said to Thomas as they made their way down to the courtyard. Walking still sent shocks of pain up his back, but it wasn’t as bad as it once was. “Not all dragons are like Aithusa. Don’t get too close. It may not be friendly.”
“It’s just a dragon, Merlin.” Thomas said, as if that would ease his concern.
Thomas had never seen a dragon rain down fire from the skies. The dragon he knew was gentle and kind. That dragon would never hurt him- would never dream of doing him any harm. She would play with him and allow him to nap against her scales. She would protect him, no matter the cost. Thomas had never seen what a dragon’s fury could do to a kingdom, and it showed.
The King led them through the courtyard and into a building towards the back of the castle. It was well out of the way, so it was obvious why Merlin had never noticed it before. The King pulled out a key, inserting it into the lock, and pushed the doors open. In the center of the room, still trapped in the small cage, was the dragon.
Thomas stared at it with wide eyes for several seconds. “You were right.” He glanced back at Merlin. “Not all dragons are white.”
The boy was clearly referencing some conversation they had long ago that Merlin no longer had any recollection of. That, in of it and itself, was not uncommon. At any rate, it was true. And this dragon was far from white.
It’s scales were a dark red, and it was small- a little smaller than Aithusa had been when Arthur first met her, while also much larger than a hatchling. Up close, it was clearly a dragon, but it was not the same kind of dragon he had gotten to know so well. It was the same… but different.
“Thomas, be careful.” Merlin called out as Thomas took a few steps closer.
“It’s okay.” Thomas said gently, and Merlin wasn’t sure if he was talking to him or the dragon. He reached a hand out towards the creature.
Merlin hardly had any time to react as the dragon reared back, barely managing to pull Thomas out of the way before flames filled the spot the boy had been standing in not moments before.
At first, Thomas just seemed shocked, but then it morphed into concern as Merlin pulled him back and away from the dragon.
“Are you alright?” The King asked as he rushed forward, glaring daggers into the beast.
“Why is he in a cage?” Thomas asked, frowning.
“After what it just tried to do to you, I’d think that would be obvious.” The King said matter of factly. “It can’t be trusted.”
“He’s angry.” The boy countered. “He doesn’t want to be locked up.”
“Well, that’s where dragons belong when they aren’t in use.”
Thomas shook his head. “Dragons should be free.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple, my boy.” The King laid a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “Dragons are powerful weapons. They can hardly be allowed to come and go as they please.”
“My dragon does.” He mumbled. “She always comes back.”
“Then it must be trained quite well. Come.” The King took Thomas’s hand into his own. “Perhaps soon you can spend some time with one of our better trained dragons.”
Thomas stared at the dragon, who was snarling against the bars, for several seconds longer, turning very reluctantly when the King pressed for him to do so. Thomas loosened his hand from the King’s hold and made his way back over to Merlin.
“I don’t like this.” Thomas whispered as they began walking back into the castle.
“Neither do I.” Merlin agreed.
“We can’t just leave him locked up. He wants to go free.”
“Believe me.” Merlin said, glancing back towards the dragon. “I have no intention of leaving him there.”
That dragon would be their key out of the kingdom. They would go home at last.
Chapter 18: Familiar Faces
For days, they began to horde the food. There was no point in trying to save the meat and cheese- it would only go bad- but the bread and some of the fruit was hidden out of sight where the servants, nor the King, would see upon entry. They would need it for their trip after all.
They would need to travel lightly. Too much stuff would only lead to their inevitable capture. Merlin grabbed one of the thicker jackets from the wardrobe, wrapping it tightly around Thomas’s torso. It would be cold at night, and it wouldn’t be safe to start a fire. If they were lucky, they’d find a cave to sleep in. If not, they’d just have to make do.
The plan was simple. First, they needed to get out of the castle and get as far away as possible. Then they needed to hide. Hide and make sure the search parties don’t find them. Stay hidden and out of sight for as long as necessary. Then lastly, they needed to find a way to get passage onto a boat that would take them back to Albion. Once they were there, the hardest part would be over.
It wasn’t a new plan. Merlin had been thinking on this for awhile. It was the obvious solution- the only solution- but before there had never been a way to get past that first step. Get out of the castle.
The guards inside the castle were not a problem. The King had long since stopped putting guards on their door, and Merlin could avoid the guards patrolling the halls with little issue. The problem was the guards in the courtyard and at the gate. Without his magic, he had no way to get past them.
And then the dragon appeared to solve all of his problems.
They waited until dark. With the bag of supplies slung over his shoulder. Merlin peered out the door to find the hall empty. Good. He had an excuse prepared, but it was better not to be stopped at all.
After spending over two months in the castle, he knew how and where the guards patrolled, and he knew how to avoid them. That was a skill he had learned long ago- back in Camelot. Who knew it would have no much use in the future?
Skirting around the edge of the courtyard, they used the night to their advantage. Fortunately for them, there was only one guard by the door to the dragon. Any more, and their entire plan could have crumbled to dust.
Merlin grabbed a rock from the ground, tossing it into the grass a few yards away. This was enough to perk the guards attention. As he went to investigate, Merlin grabbed him from behind, pulling him into a chokehold. The guard was stronger than him, but he had the element of surprise. He’d have to thank Arthur for those training sessions he had put him through despite knowing about his magic.
“I have magic. I don’t need to know how to do this.”
“And what if that isn’t an option? Hm? What if you lose it again?”
“In that case, I doubt hand to hand combat would do me any good anyways.”
“Let’s do another round.”
Merlin grabbed the guard’s sword as he slumped, unconscious, to the ground. He glanced behind him, checking to see that Thomas still standing close by. It took a few good hits to break the lock on the door, but eventually the lock opened, and Merlin swung the doors open.
“Stay back, Thomas. Go and stand on the far end over there.” Merlin gestured towards the back of the room. “Whatever happens, don’t come any closer, alright?”
Thomas nodded, backing away from Merlin and towards the wall. Merlin took a few steps closer to the dragon, jumping backwards as flames escaped its mouth.
“Hey, hey, hey. It’s alright.” Merlin raised both of his hands in a surrender motion. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He took another step forward, the dragon’s eyes narrowing on him. “I’m going to release you now. I just need to break the lock on the cage. Alright?”
The dragon, obviously, said nothing. At the same time, he didn’t attack Merlin as he continued to approach, so that was a good sign.
With a few hard hits, the lock of the cage broke. Merlin backed away as the dragon nosed the door open and left the cage.
Then he turned to Merlin, and began stalking towards him.
“I’m not your enemy.” Merlin said in a rush. “I don’t want anything from you. I’m just releasing you, alright?”
It didn’t stop the dragon’s approach as it continued to make its way towards Merlin and, in turn, Thomas.
“You’re angry. I get it. You have every right to be, but we had nothing to do with your capture. We are not your enemy!”
Merlin did his best to block Thomas from the flames as they escaped the dragon’s mouth, but it was little use. The fire would turn him to ash and do the same to Thomas. No. No, no, no, no, no. This couldn’t be how Thomas died. Not here. Not in this foreign land. Not at the hand of a dragon. Not with Merlin to blame for all of it.
He would have been better off with Fendrel. Merlin had gotten him killed.
But the fire didn’t burn.
Merlin reached towards his neck, feeling as the collar turned to dust in his hands. He took in several gulping breaths as his magic returned to him once more.
Very slowly, he turned to look at the dragon. “Thank you.”
The dragon didn’t respond, merely turning and flying out of the room.
“Come on.” Merlin took Thomas’s hand into his own, running back into the courtyard. Just as he had hoped, the dragon was on a rampage. He was too small to do too much damage, but the guards would be distracted at the very least.
And Merlin had his magic. He had his magic. That wasn’t something he had expected, but it would make this so, so much easier.
They rushed towards the gate, Merlin sending the few guards that noticed them flying backwards.
They were out. They were out. They were out.
And Merlin was not waiting for a boat.
There was a part of him that wanted to turn around and use his newly returned magic to make the King pay for everything he had put them through, but they had a different king to return to.
“O drakon, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!"
“Is Aithusa coming?” Thomas asked, the hope in his voice clear for anyone to hear.
“Yes.” Merlin nodded. “But we need to wait for her. Let’s keep moving.”
With the amount of distance that needed to be traveled, it could take more than a day for Aithusa to arrive.
“Léoht.” Merlin raised his hand, and a soft, blue light began to glow in his palm. Using magic again after it was bound for so long felt far better than he could have imagined.
It would take time for Aithusa to arrive. For now, they would need shelter and a place to hide for the night. With any luck, the King would be forced to wait until morning before he sent out search parties to find them. With even better luck, perhaps he wouldn’t even realize Thomas was missing at first, what with all the commotion from the dragon. That would give them at least a bit of a head start.
But if the King did find them, Merlin had no qualms about using his magic to destroy the man that had held them captive for so long.
“Here.” Merlin gestured towards the opening of a cave. They had been walking for what must have been at least three hours. Surely that had made enough distance by now. Surely.
Thomas followed Merlin into the cave, settling himself onto the ground.
“Are you hungry?” Merlin asked, grabbing his bag, but Thomas just shook his head. Merlin furrowed his eyebrows, sitting down on the ground next to him. “What is it? I thought you’d be pleased. You…” Merlin hesitated. “You didn’t want to stay, did you?”
Please. Please don’t have wanted to stay. Please don’t have had the King brainwash him into not wanting to leave. Please.
Thomas shook his head. “No, I don’t want to stay. But… what happens if they find us?” He looked up to Merlin. “The King will kill you, won’t he?”
“He can certainly try.” Merlin said. “I have my magic back, remember? And I’m not going down without a fight.”
Merlin wasn’t about to let the King get Thomas back under any circumstances. And if the King wanted to kill him to get to Thomas, he wasn’t going to make it easy for him.
Merlin leaned back gently against the rocks, doing his best not to aggravate the wounds. He opened his arms, gesturing towards himself. “Come on in here. I’ll keep you warm.”
Thomas shuffled towards him, collapsing against his chest. “I want to go home.”
Merlin closed his arms, holding the boy close. “We will. Soon. So soon. I promise.”
Thomas managed to fall asleep, but Merlin stayed awake. On edge. Prepared for the worst. They got some more distance the next day. There wasn’t another cave for them to hide in once nightfall came, but they found a small ravine that would help conceal them.
Even Thomas could see how exhausted Merlin was, what with not sleeping for two days, but it was all for the best. They couldn’t be caught. Not when they were so close.
When the time came, Merlin never thought the sound of wings flapping could bring such joy.
“Merlin.” Aithusa’s familiar voice sent waves of relief through him as she landed on the ground next to them. “Thomas. I feared the worst.”
A grin filled Merlin’s face. “It’s so good to see you, you have no idea.”
“I think I just might.”
Thomas’s eyes blinked open at the noise. “Aithusa!” He jumped away from Merlin wrapping his arms around the dragon’s neck. “I missed you so much.”
“And I you, little one.” Aithusa said, nuzzling the boy with her nose.
Merlin stood, his head snapping to the side at the sound of soldiers.
“They must have seen me in the sky.” Aithusa commented, taking a more protective stance around the humans.
Merlin nodded. “Aithusa. I need you to take Thomas and get back to Camelot.”
Thomas turned to Merlin, confused. “You’re coming with me.”
Merlin shook his head reluctantly. “Aithusa can’t carry us both.” He looked to the dragon. “Come back for me if you can, but get Thomas back. Please.”
“I’m not leaving you!” Thomas protested once again.
“You have to.” There was no time to argue. “I’ll take the long way if need be. Remember what we discussed? Get some coin. Get on a boat.”
“You promised me. You promised you wouldn’t make me leave without you.”
“I know. I’m sorry, but we haven’t the time.” He picked Thomas up, sitting him on Aithusa’s back. “I’ll make it to Camelot, Thomas, but you need to go.”
“I will come back for you.” Aithusa said firmly, and there was no doubting she spoke the truth.
“Thank you.” Merlin looked back at Thomas. “I will see you again. Now go.”
Aithusa took off into the air, Thomas watching him with tear filled eyes as they left the man behind. Aithusa would take care of him. That much he knew for certain. Aithusa wouldn’t let any further harm come to him.
An arrow shot into the tree inches from Merlin’s head, and he turned to sprint away. He could fight them. He would have to. But he was still injured, and he was vastly outnumbered.
“Ástríce!” Merlin threw up his hand, sending several soldiers flying backwards.
Another arrow shot out, this time hitting him straight in the shoulder. Merlin let out a cry, falling to his knees before forcing himself back onto his feet.
Even if he did die here, Thomas would be safe. That was enough to take an edge off of his fear.
Another arrow, this time in his leg, sending him back to the ground.
“Forbærne yfel!” A line of fire erupted from the ground, separating Merlin from his attackers.
Merlin reached down, muffling his own yell as he ripped the arrow out of his thigh, then doing the same for his shoulder. Removing arrows was usually a far more delicate activity, but there wasn’t time for them. They needed to get out, and get out fast, or he wouldn’t be able to run.
“Oferswing!” So much more Eva’s warning about not letting the King know how powerful he was.
He took back off into a limping run, black spots dancing in his vision. He was losing blood. Far too much blood. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so rushed to pull out the arrows. It would have only increased the bleeding.
There wasn’t much time to think about it before the darkness surrounded him entirely.
End of Arc I: Lost and Found
Chapter 19: Familial Reunions
Arc II: A Dragonlord's Power
Arthur let out a sigh of relief as he watched Aithusa fly into the caves. There was a twinge of annoyance as well, but his concern had far overridden that. He couldn’t lose her too.
“Where have you been?” Arthur asked as he finally made his way down the steps and into the cave. “You just took off out of nowhere. It’s been days. Mordred and I tried scrying for Thomas again, but he couldn’t do it. Same with Merlin. I’m worried that-” Arthur’s throat closed up as he finally spotted the familiar mop of blonde hair sat upon Aithusa’s back. “Thomas?”
Aithusa lowered herself, letting Thomas jump down form her scales. He took off in a run towards his father, and Arthur scooped him into his shaking arms, pressing his face into the top of the boy’s head. Thomas. It was Thomas. He was alive. He was here. He was safe. He was home.
“Merlin has long since warded himself and those around him, Thomas included, against scrying.” Aithusa explained. “When his magic was taken from him, those wardings failed, but with it returned to him, Mordred would not have been able to find Thomas- even with you as a conductor.”
Arthur pulled Thomas back from him, taking the time to look him over. He hadn’t seem injured when they scryed for him, but he had to make sure. He had to see for himself.
“Are you alright?” Arthur asked, his voice wavering. “Are you hurt?”
“Father…” Thomas squeezed his eyes shut, and a few tears escaped.
“It’s alright.” Arthur pulled him closer. “It’s alright. Everything’s fine. It’s over now. It’s all over. You’re safe.”
“But Merlin!” Thomas’s head shot up, eyes wide with concern. “We have to get Merlin!”
“Of course.” Arthur reassured him. “We’ll get Merlin. Do you know where he is?”
“He’s still in Aeridia.”
Aeridia. So the prisoner had been telling the truth.
“I could not carry both of them.” Aithusa stretched out her wings. “Merlin told me to return Thomas to Camelot. If you would give me a moment to rest, I will go back to retrieve him as well.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes. Of course.” He had his magic now. He’d be fine.
Thomas grabbed the fabric of Arthur’s shirt, holding it tight in his fists. “They’ll kill him, father. If the King finds him… he said he’d burn him.” The boy’s voice went quiet at the end, making the last few words barely understandable.
“Merlin will be fine. He’ll be okay.”
He had to be. If it weren’t for Merlin, he would never have seen his son again. He owed that man more than he could give. He couldn’t go off and get himself killed before Arthur paid him back for everything.
Arthur ran a hand through Thomas’s hair. “Everything’s going to be fine. You’re home. That’s all that matters. You’re home.” He looked to Aithusa. “Thank you.”
“I am just glad to see the boy safe once again.”
“Still.” He let out a breath. “I need to take him to Guinevere. When you’re ready, go back for Merlin, and I swear I will never ask you to do anything for me ever again.”
Aithusa raised her head. “I would never abandon my dragonlord, Arthur.”
“I know. I just…” He clutched at Thomas a little tighter. “Thank you.”
Some of the servants stopped to stare as they saw their king carrying Thomas through the halls. He couldn’t blame them. The presumed dead prince had returned to them.
His son was alive. He son was home. And he was never letting him out of his sight again.
Even after Mordred had scryed for him, it had seemed so unlikely that he would hold his son again- certainly not so soon. He had been forced to accept that worst, and to have that shattered completely… it was overwhelming.
“Guinevere?” Arthur called out as he opened the door to their chambers, still holding Thomas in his other arm.
Guinevere turned towards them as he entered. “Arthur-” She froze, her eyes widening. “T-Thomas?”
“Mother…” Arthur set Thomas down, and he ran towards her, wrapping his arms around her- a sentiment she mirrored. “Mother.” Thomas let out a choked sob.
He was safe. He was home. Thomas was alive and well and home .
“I-I don’t understand. W-What…”
“Aithusa.” Arthur smiled fondly at the two of them. He never thought he’d seem them together again. “Merlin got his magic back and called for her. She brought him home.”
“Merlin’s here too then?” She looked up at Arthur, but she seemed reluctant to release her son. Arthur couldn’t find it in himself to fault her for that.
“Not yet, but he will be soon.”
His family would be back together soon enough. Guinevere would no longer walk the halls like a ghost. Mithian would no longer isolate herself to her chambers. Mordred would no longer have to fill the role of a dead man. Gaius would have his son back. The knights would have their prince and their friend. And Arthur… Arthur would be king again.
“There don’t seem to be any obvious injuries.” Mordred commented, looking to Thomas. “Is there anything I’m not seeing here?”
“I hurt my arm.” Thomas raised said limb. “Broke it. But it was a little bit ago. I stopped wearing the sling a few days ago ‘cause it was itchy, but I don’t think I was supposed to. Merlin kinda forgot about it, though, so he didn’t make me put it back on.”
“Your arm was broken?” Arthur’s blood seemed to run cold. His son… was tortured?
Thomas nodded. “I fell off a horse. Well, Merlin said I fell off a horse. I don’t remember it.”
Arthur let out a short breath of relief. It had been an accident. Probably. Possibly.
“Does it hurt?” Mordred asked.
“It stopped before, but now it kinda does.”
“Holding onto Aithusa for as long as you did could have stressed the injury if it wasn’t healed all the way.” Mordred said, more to himself than anyone else.
Guinevere placed a hand on Thomas’s arm. “Can you fix it?”
“Yes, of course. Especially with it as healed as it already is, there shouldn’t be any issue.” Mordred took Thomas’s arm into a gentle grip. “Wel cene hole.” His eyes flashed gold, and after a few seconds, he let go. “How’s that?”
Thomas smiled. “It’s okay now.”
“Good.” Mordred smiled back.
Arthur let his eyes roam over him once again. “Were you hurt anywhere else?”
“Merlin fixed my wrists, so they’re better now.”
“From the rope.”
Arthur could see Guinevere clenching her teeth. It wasn’t surprising to hear that Thomas had been restrained- Arthur would have been surprised if he hadn’t been- but it didn’t make it any better. His son had not deserved that.
“Well,” Arthur began. “I’m glad Merlin was able to help you.”
He wouldn’t have had access to his magic, but Merlin had been using non-magical methods to heal for years. He could hardly use magic back when it was still illegal. And some patients- even if they allowed a sorcerer to treat them- did not want magic to be used on them directly. It was mostly people who had grown up with Uther’s laws that felt that way. Those old enough to remember what it was like before and those young enough to have never seen the laws to begin with had little issue with magic. It was those, well, Arthur’s age, that seemed to have the most trouble.
“Thomas.” Arthur placed a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “I need to ask you some things, but if it gets to be too much… if you don’t want to talk about, you only need to say so, and we’ll stop, alright?”
Thomas nodded. He didn’t seem particularly traumatized by the events, and Merlin was surely to be thanked for that, but it was better safe than sorry. Even if he hadn’t been tortured, he had still been kidnapped and held against his will.
“You were in a kingdom called Aeridia, right?” Thomas nodded once again. “Do you know why you were taken?”
“The King wanted me to be the prince. He…” Thomas hesitated. “He called me his son.”
Merlin likely would do a much better job of explaining everything, but for now, they would have to make do.
“Was there a queen?” Arthur continued, and Thomas shook his head. No queen. No heir. They wanted an heir. Seemed like a lot of trouble to go through for an heir, but at least it explained why he was mostly unharmed. The King would likely not go through all the trouble of kidnapping a child to make him his heir, only to torture and kill him. Merlin, it seemed, was not granted the same protection.
“What about Merlin? What did they want from him?”
Thomas shrugged. “Nothing. The King didn’t like him, but he let Merlin stay with me most of the time.”
“Did the King ever hurt Merlin?” He knew the answer to this of course, but if Thomas was unaware of it, then there was no reason to tell him.
“Yes.” Thomas looked down to his hands. “They hurt him two times.”
It was better than it could have been. Arthur had been picturing Merlin being tortured every day. To hear it only happened twice… it was two times too many, but it was still a relief. Merlin could handle that. He’d be alright. He’d been through worse.
“He tried to help me escape, but it didn’t work. They beat him.” Thomas continued, his voice shaking. “Then one of the knights was trying to hurt me, so Merlin hit him with a sword, and the King had him flogged.” He sniffed. “The King told me he’d never hurt him again, but I don’t think… with me gone… I don’t think he’ll keep that promise.”
“Probably not.” Arthur mumbled.
“He said cause he has his magic back that he’d be fine, but…”
“Hey.” Arthur cupped the back of Thomas’s head. “Aithusa is going to bring him home. He’ll be alright.”
“I didn’t want to leave him.
“You did the right thing.” Arthur said. “There was no point in you staying behind as well.”
Thomas closed his eyes. “I just want him to come home.”
“He will.” Arthur assured him. “I promise.”
Merlin let out a muffled groan as his arms were yanked above him. Something was wrong. He tried to open his mouth to speak, but found himself unable to even unclench his teeth.
Thomas. Where was Thomas? He was… he was safe, right? Aithusa. She took him home. Thomas was safe.
Where was he?
“I really never would have guessed it. You. A dragonlord.”
Merlin forced his eyes open at the sickly familiar voice. It was dark, wherever he was. The dungeons. It had to be. Except something was different. This wasn’t like the cells he had spent time in before.
The King stepped forward, grabbing Merlin’s jaw with his hand. Merlin tried to speak, but once again, he was unable to open his mouth. There was something covering his mouth and jaw- preventing him from speaking.
“To think I thought you useless for so long. A pest.”
Merlin looked up at him the best he could. His arms were chained above his head, his feet only just touching the ground.
“Well, now that I know how valuable you are, I’m hardly going to risk you escaping again, now am I?” The King wrapped a hand around Merlin’s neck. “You got that old collar off somehow, but this new one is better anyways. They’re made specifically for people like you. My weapons. This won’t block your dragonlord abilities- we will need you to use them eventually, after all- so for now, you’ll stay muzzled.
Merlin kicked outwards, missing completely as the King merely took a step back. Merlin let out a short cry from the pain the movement caused his back and the still healing arrow wounds.
“Dragonlords are quite rare here.” The King continued, as if nothing had happened. “They’ve all gone into hiding, I’m afraid, but they are necessary to control the beasts. There’s little point in a weapon if there’s no one that can wield it. My last dragonlord met an unfortunate end, and ever since then, I’ve been searching for a new one. I had begun to give up hope before you appeared.
“Yes. You did release my newest dragon, but I have more. Many more. Locked away.” The King turned away from him. “And of course, there is the matter of Thomas. He’s gone for now, but he’ll be back. In fact, I’m going to have you command the dragons to reign fire down on that kingdom of yours and steal him from the flames.”
Merlin wanted to refuse, but with his mouth clamped shut, only a low growl escaped.
“Not yet, of course.” The King ignored him entirely. “You’re not yet trained, but you will be. In due time. Until then, you’ll remain here.”
Merlin let out another muffled cry as the King walked away from him and towards the entrance of the cell, not even bothering to look back as the door slammed shut, leaving him in darkness.
Chapter 20: A Lost Brother
“Are you feeling alright?” Arthur asked, watching Thomas poke at his food. “Want me to have Mordred take another look at you? You could have picked up some illness from the foriegn land. I’ve heard about-”
“I’m not sick.” Thomas said without much enthusiasm.
“Not hungry then? I can have the kitchens bring up something else. What about those meat pies you like so much?”
Guinevere gave him a long look, a fond smile forming on her lips. They had both been very reluctant to let Thomas leave their sight. The boy had also not seemed to like the idea of sleeping alone. Fortunately for all parties involved, the bed in their chambers was plenty big to fit another small person.
“You’re worried about Merlin, aren’t you?” Guinevere finally said.
Thomas nodded slowly. “I hope he’s okay.”
“He is.” Arthur assured him. “And Aithusa will be back with him soon enough.”
As if on cue, the form of a white dragon could be seen from the window, heading straight down towards the cave.
“There we are.” Arthur took Thomas’s hand into his own. “Let’s go say hello.”
Thomas was plenty eager now, nearly running to the cave with Arthur at his heels. “Merlin!”
Arthur looked to Aithusa as soon as they entered, eyebrows furrowed in confusion as he took in the empty cavern. “Aithusa? Where is he?”
The dragon lowered her head. “I’m afraid I do not know.”
Arthur took a few steps closer to her. “What do you mean?”
“I went to where we had last spoken and searched the surrounding area. He was nowhere to be found.”
“No…” Thomas shook his head. “No, he found him. The King found him. The King…”
“Merlin is alive.” Aithusa said. “That much I know for certain.”
Arthur swallowed. “How?”
“I attempted to speak to him through our bond in order to locate him. I know he could hear me, but he didn’t respond. Something was preventing him from doing so.”
Four days. He had been on his own for four days. It took Aithusa two days to fly Thomas back to Camelot, and another two to get back to Aeridia. He should have been fine. He should have been able to take care of himself. Something happened to him. Again.
“Where is he?”
Arthur turned at the voice. He should have known Mithian would come. She would have been waiting for Aithusa to arrive with Merlin. Of course she’d come to see him. And, of course, he wasn’t here.
“He’s alive.” Arthur took in a breath. “We know that much.”
“But you don’t know where he is.” The disappointment in Mithian’s voice was obvious, but she didn’t seem that surprised- as if she had known something would go wrong. They weren’t exactly known for their good luck.
Arthur hesitated. “No. But we’ll find him.”
Mithian turned away from him, towards the entrance of the cave. “How exactly do you expect to do that?”
She had lost him once before- believed him to be dead- only to be told he was alive and in pain. Then, right when she thought she had him back, he was ripped from her once again. She was clearly in no mood for further false hope.
“Tomorrow morning I’ll head to Aeridia.” Arthur looked at Aithusa. “I know you’ve made the trip many times now, but would you be able to take me?”
“I would,” Aithusa confirmed. “But I will not be able to carry the both of you back.”
Arthur nodded. “When we find Merlin, you’ll take him home, then come back for me.”
“Father…” Thomas looked up at him. “No. Please.”
“He’s been there long enough.”
Thomas pressed his face into his father’s shirt. “Please don’t leave. What if the King hurts you, too?”
Arthur ran a hand through Thomas’s hair. “That won’t happen.”
“If Merlin was unable to remain safe with his magic, how do you hope to?” Aithusa narrowed her eyes.
Arthur shrugged with false nonchalance. “Discretion isn’t Merlin’s strong suit. Get some rest. We’ll head out in the morning.”
He took Thomas by the hand and walked past Mithian, heading up the stairs.
“Arthur…” Mithian began. “As much as I want Merlin to be brought home, I know he would never want you to endanger yourself like this. Especially when you have Thomas to look after.”
“I won’t leave him there.”
Mithain closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. “Thank you, Arthur.”
Breaking the news to Guinevere would be much harder.
“Arthur, no. No, you can’t.”
Arthur took a step closer to her. “I don’t have a choice, Guinevere. He’s in danger, and after everything he’s done for me, I can’t just abandon him.”
“Then send one of the knights!”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “You expect me to put my life above the life of my men?”
Guinevere hesitated for a moment before speaking. “You are their king. They would all gladly die for you.”
“So you want me to send men to their deaths to protect myself?”
Guinevere sighed, her head falling forward. “No, of course not. It’s just… We just got Thomas back. We just got our family back, and I don’t want to lose that.”
Arthur cupped her cheek with his hand. “You won’t. Thomas is safe, and he will stay that way. I’m going to find Merlin, and we’ll both come home. Alright?”
Guinevere nodded, tears filling her eyes. “Please. Please, just be careful. And bring him home.”
In twelve hours, he would be gone. He’d be heading to a foreign land he had never even heard of before with a dragon as a means of transport. What had the world come to?
“You shouldn’t be going alone.” Gwaine said as Arthur approached the dragon waiting in the field after her morning hunt.
“Aithusa can’t carry more than one.”
“Then send one of us in your place.” Elyan tried with little success.
Arthur shook his head. “I appreciate your loyalty, but I must do this. Look after the Queen and the Prince. Protect them at all costs. I doubt Aeridia will be sending men after him anytime soon, but if they attempt to retrieve Thomas…”
“We will protect them with our lives.” Leon promised.
Arthur nodded in response. “Thank you.” He turned to the dragon. “Will you be able to carry me with my armor and supplies?”
Aithusa looked over the chainmail and bag, mostly filled with food and some medical supplies Mordred had prepared for him. “I’m afraid we have little choice.”
Accepting her answer as the truth, Arthur swung himself onto Aithusa’s back, settling himself onto her scales. He had never actually ridden Aithusa before, so this would certainly be a new experience. With one last nod to his knights, Aithusa took off into the air.
The experience of riding a dragon was far less enjoyable than Arthur would have thought. He leaned forward, trying desperately to find something- anything- to hold onto. He had flown with the Great Dragon, Kilgharrah, or whatever his name was, but that had been a very different experience. For one, that beast had been much larger, and he hadn’t even been on the creature’s back. Instead, he had been trapped in his claws. He couldn’t have fallen out even if he wanted to.
This was far more consensual, while also seeming far more dangerous. Thomas had held on fine. Merlin had never ridden Aithusa either, but he knew for a fact the man had ridden Kilgharrah more than once. How different could it be?
Arthur let out a surprised cry as he briefly lost his grip and slid a few inches back on the surprisingly slippery scales. It had taken Aithusa two days to reach Aeridia, right? He could last two days. He really should have had some kind of saddle constructed, but they had not had enough time to spare. Plus, he had a feeling it would be a little more than insulting to the dragon.
“They aren’t horses. They are ancient creatures of the old religion.”
Merlin used to go on about that all the time. Apparently Kilgharrah had chastised him quite severely after asking for a ride one too many times.
“Maybe… maybe if I hadn’t asked so much of him so often… he would have lived a bit longer.”
“Are you alright?”
Arthur could barely hear her over the wind. “Yeah. I’m great! This is… great!” Maybe simply tying him down would have been a better approach.
“I didn’t realize the Great King of Camelot was frightened of heights.”
“I’m not-” Arthur cut himself off as he got a glimpse of the ground beneath him, or rather, the lack of such. “I’m not afraid of heights.”
“That much is clear.”
“Maybe if you flew a bit straighter, we wouldn’t be having so many issues.”
“Thomas had little issue with my flying.”
“Yeah, well, Thomas is much smaller than I.”
“I thought you disagreed with Merlin’s comments on your weight.”
Arthur kicked at Aithusa’s side, which was likely not a wise move so high up in the air. “I am not fat!”
“Then we shouldn't have any problems, now should we?”
Arthur didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Shut up.”
It was dark when they finally landed.
Aithusa lowered herself, allowing Arthur to climb off of her. “We will arrive in Aeridia by tomorrow.”
“What if we continue through the night?” They sooner they got there, the sooner Merlin would be saved.
Aithusa shook her head. “I cannot continue for so long.”
Arthur glanced back at her. Even in the dark, it was obvious just how exhausted she was. She had made the trip four times already, and Arthur was asking her to make it another four times with full grown passengers.
“Of course.” Arthur said at last. “Thank you, Aithusa. I know this hasn’t been easy.”
“It is necessary.”
Arthur could guess that they were on the edge of Albion- a trip that would normally have taken days to complete. Tomorrow Aithusa would need to cross the sea. She had clearly done it before, but it would still be difficult.
“Get some sleep.” Arthur laid a hand on her scales. “I imagine you’ll want to hunt in the morning before we set off.” While Arthur had packed himself food, it just wasn’t feasible to do the same for Aithusa.
“Indeed.” Aithusa agreed.
Arthur didn’t go far to collect the fire wood, and by the time he returned, the dragon was fast asleep.
Tomorrow they would arrive in Aeridia. Tomorrow they would begin their search for Merlin.
Chapter 21: Royal Salvation
When the cell door finally creaked open, Merlin couldn’t stop himself from letting out a muffled sigh of relief. It had been days since the King had first visited him, and no one else had come to see him. Given the amount of time that had passed, as far as Merlin could tell, he would have expected dehydration to have done him in. He was beyond thirsty, yet here he stood, still alive.
The hunger could be dealt with, but he was just so thirsty .
Would the King be willing to take off the muzzle to allow him to drink, or would he be far too concerned about him using his dragonlord abilities to risk it? Surely the man wouldn't want him to die- not when he was apparently so important. Unless he had found another dragonlord. If that was the case, he was disposable.
Of all the ways he could have died, dehydration was a bit disappointing.
It wasn’t exactly easy to sleep with his hands chained above him, and with his wounds still causing bouts of agony, rest was hard to achieve. Because of this, Merlin could barely keep his eyelids open as a man he didn’t recognize walked towards him.
The chain holding his wrists snapped, and he fell to his knees, barely being caught before he face planted on the ground.
Merlin blinked a few more times, looking up at the man. Except ‘man’ probably wasn’t the best word to describe him. He was a boy. Older than Thomas, but young nonetheless.
“Can you walk?”
Merlin tried to speak but still found himself unable. He reached up with his still chained hands to pull the gag off, but it wouldn’t budge.
“We’ll get that off, but can you walk?”
Merlin tested his legs beneath him, giving the boy a shaky nod. With one arm over the boy’s shoulders, they walked out of the room. The guard that had been standing outside the door was nothing but a pile of ash.
“Berlian.” The boy hissed, and a small red dragon made its way into view. It was the same red dragon, Merlin realized, that he had freed a week before. “I said not to wander off.”
The dragon didn’t seem particularly fazed by the boy’s berating. He merely turned and began walking towards the exit. The boy huffed, following in suit.
Merlin struggled along, more than once reaching back up towards the gag. The boy didn’t stop him- not that it mattered. All attempts to remove the muzzle were frustratingly unsuccessful.
The boy opened a door at the end of one of the halls, pushing him inside.
“Siege tunnels.” The boy commented. “There’s an opening right outside the city walls.”
Merlin let out another muffled noise. He had far too many questions and no way to ask them. It was beyond infuriating.
“Ah. Yes.” The boy looked to the dragon. “Berlian, could you…?”
The dragon opened his mouth, filling the tight area of the tunnels with flames. Like before, they did not burn. Instead, the collar, chains, and muzzle turned to dust.
“There we are. There’s better, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Th-” Merlin let out a hoarse cough. It burned to speak- his throat far too dry.
“Here.” The boy said, and then there was a water canister in Merlin’s hands.
Merlin lifted it to his lips without a second thought, taking in several long gulps. He couldn’t even bring himself to care if it was poisoned or drugged. He needed something. Anything.
“Not too fast.” The boy warned, but he made no move to stop him. “You’ll make yourself sick.”
Merlin reluctantly paused for a moment, resigning himself to long sips. “T-Thank you.”
“Thank you for freeing Berlian.” Merlin looked up slightly as the boy’s words. “We cannot stay here long. We must keep moving.” The boy pulled Merlin’s arm back over his shoulder, and made his way down the tunnel.
“W-Who are you?” Even with the water, his voice was still hoarse from days of not speaking.
“I’ll explain everything when we arrive. Save your strength for now.”
After several minutes of walking, they finally reached another door. The boy pushed it open, leading Merlin out into the grass. It was dark outside, the only light coming from the full moon in the sky.
“We must hurry.”
The small dragon took the lead, heading straight into the forest.
“Where are we going?” Merlin asked once again, struggling to see anything in the darkness.
The boy didn’t respond, instead continuing to drag the wounded man along. He wasn’t particularly tall, nor was he short, with a mop of light brown hair atop his head.
“We need to reach camp by morning, or the patrols will surely find us.” The boy said, though he seemed to be talking more to the dragon than Merlin.
“What camp?” Merlin asked, forcing himself to keep walking. “Who are you?”
“My name is Andor.” The boy said, looking forward. “There’s a camp not too far from here. You’ll be safe there.”
“Why?” He croaked. “Why would you help me?”
“I wasn’t about to let the King get his hands on another dragonlord. With that kind of power…” Andor grew silent for a moment. “And Berlian told me what you did for him.”
Merlin eyed the dragon. “I didn’t think he spoke.”
“He doesn’t- far too young for that- but I have a translator of sorts. He told me you set him free.”
“It wasn’t an entirely-” Merlin coughed once. “-selfless endeavor. I needed a distraction to escape.”
“Doesn’t seem like it got you very far.”
Merlin shook his head. “Thomas is gone. That’s all that matters.”
“Ah, yes. The child. I heard about him.” Andor commented. “Aeridia’s new prince.”
“Not anymore.” Merlin straighten slightly. “He’d be home by now. Fendrel will never see him again.”
“We can only hope.”
They reached a mostly empty field within a few hours, the sun only barely peeking out from beyond the horizon. It wasn’t much of a camp. No one else seemed to even be there, but if Andor said it as safe…
The boy lowered Merlin to the ground, leaving for a moment, only to return with a half loaf of bread.
“We’ll have some proper food in a bit,” Andor began. “But I imagine you must be hungry. The collar may keep you alive, but it does little else.”
Merlin took a bite, lowering the bread in confusion seconds later. “What do you mean the collar keeps me alive?”
Andor grabbed an arm full of wood, placing it down on the ground several feet away. “The King spent many years creating special collars for dragonlords. Since many have magic, they needed to be able to control that, while also not binding the dragonlord abilities themselves. They also have another enchantment, however, that keeps the wearer alive.” Andor backed away from the wood, allowing Berlian to approach it, lighting it with his own flames. “It’s not perfect. The wearer can still die. It’s not an immortality spell. It just makes it so the muzzle does not need to be removed very often for food or water. Doesn’t mean you won’t be thirsty or hungry, but I’m sure you know that.”
“Does it block some dragonlord abilities?” Merlin asked, taking another bite of the bread. “Just a day or so ago, a dragon I know spoke to me in my head. I tried to respond, but I don’t think she could hear me. I felt… strange.”
“That would be the enchantment on the muzzle. It silences all of your voices.”
Merlin nodded slowly. He hadn’t realized the gag had been enchanted at all, but it explained why he had had so much trouble getting it off. “How do you know so much about this?”
Andor grabbed a pot, setting it up above the fire. “I once lived in the castle. Secrets were rarely kept from me.” It wasn’t much of an answer, but it was likely the best one he was going to get for the time being. “Iamyr will be here soon enough.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“A friend.” Andor said shortly. “Also my translator.”
Someone who could communicate with dragons that could not yet speak to humans… Merlin had never heard of such a thing.
“I have to ask.” Andor began. “If the child escaped, why didn’t you?”
“The dragon that came for us is not large enough to carry two, even when one is still quite small.”
Kilgharrah would have been able to, but that wasn’t an option anymore. Merlin had no idea what the growth rate of a dragon was. For all he knew, it could be hundreds of years before she was as big as he had been. She had grown fairly fast at first, but since then. She had slowly down quite a bit.
“So you stayed behind?”
Merlin nodded. “She was supposed to come back for me- and she did, clearly- but it was too late. I had already been captured.”
The sound of wings made Merlin’s head snap up. Speaking of Aithusa. Except… it wasn’t Aithusa.
The large dragon landed on the other side of the small field. Pale brown scales covered his body- his own size rivaling Kilgarrah’s. Merlin struggled to stand at the entrance of the creature, but Andor didn’t seem particularly alarmed. If anything, the boy seemed relaxed.
“Iamyr.” Andor greeted.
The dragon peered over at Merlin. “Is this the dragonlord Berlian spoke of?”
“Yes.” Andor looked at Merlin. “It’s alright. He won’t hurt you.” He paused for a minute, giving Merlin small smile. “You’ve never seen a dragon this large before, have you?”
“No, I have.” Merlin said slowly. “I just wasn’t expecting it.”
“Iamyr is a good friend of mine.” Andor said, approaching the dragon.
There were definitely some physical differences, color aside, that could differentiate Kilgharrah from Iamyr. His head seemed slightly wider, much like Berlian’s, but not obviously so. The scales seemed to follow a similar, yet different pattern. They were clearly dragons, anyone could see that, but there were minute difference. These were not Albion dragons.
“I thought the dragons were enslaved.” Merlin took a step closer to him. “Isn’t it dangerous to hide out so close? What if the patrols stumbled upon him?”
“Oh, the patrols know he’s here. They just don’t know I’m here with him. There isn’t much the King can do about it. They try to attack, and he’s just going to turn to all to dust. They try to capture him, and it’s going to end about the same.” Andor shrugged. “He’s never caused much trouble for the King anyways, so he gave up trying long ago.”
“Had Andor and Berlian not freed you,” Iamyr began. “Fendrel would have attempted to use your powers to control me.”
“Thus another reason why I couldn’t leave you with him.”
Merlin shook his head. “Okay, but why would the patrols care if your here? You still haven’t told me who you are.”
Andor looked away. “Yes, I did.”
“You gave me a name. That’s not exactly much to go off of.”
“It would be enough for anyone from this kingdom.” Iamyr said, his deep voice resonating through the field.
“Well, that’s all fine, except I’m not from this kingdom . Hell, I didn’t even know it existed until a few months ago! So if you’re some famous vigilante, I’m sorry, but I haven’t heard of you.”
“It’s not that simple.” Andor said, his back still turned to him.
“Then explain it.” Merlin let out a short breath. “Until a week ago, I had no idea there were any other dragons left- much less dragonlords. I thought Aithusa and I were the last of our kinds. I doubt anything you say could surprise me anymore.”
“The King,” Andor said after a long pause, turning slowly to look at Merlin. “Is my father, and no matter how much he may wish to replace me, I am the Prince of Aeridia.”
“Well then.” Merlin said, blinking several times. “I take that back.”
Chapter 22: Stories and Explanations
It was long past nightfall when Arthur finally arrived in the foreign kingdom. He slipped off of Aithusa’s back, beyond grateful for the solid ground beneath him.
“I’m going to look around, see if I can get an idea of where we are.” Arthur said, laying a hand on one of Aithusa’s wings. “Stay here and rest. I won’t be gone long.”
Through the leaves of the trees, Arthur could just barely spot the tops of turrets a good distance away. The castle wasn’t so close that they were in immediate danger, while also being near enough that they could get there in good time. He’d likely have to walk. Any closer, and they would surely spot Aithusa’s form in the sky.
Getting into the castle would not be easy- and he didn’t have an army to force his way through. Stealth would be the key. It was his only option.
Arthur’s head swiveled at the sound of a twig snapping. He drew his sword, walking in the direction the sound had come from. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for.
There was a man and a woman, both near his own age. The man was holding a sword as well, standing in front of the woman.
“We don’t want any trouble.” The man said, eyes wandering over Arthur. “You’re not an Aeridian knight. Who are you?”
“No one.” Arthur said shortly. “Why? Are the knights after you?”
“Something like that.” The man let out a huff. “If you plan on running to the King for some reward, I can promise you we’ll be long gone by the time he comes out here. Then you’ll be the one who has to deal with his disappointment.”
Arthur lowered his sword slightly. “No. No, I wasn’t planning on doing anything like that.” His gaze flickered over to the woman, who was watching him warily. “I don’t suppose either of you know the best path to the castle?”
“I wouldn’t recommend heading that way.” The man said, bringing Arthur’s attention back to him. “The King won’t take too kindly to any strangers entering the city right now.”
“Why is that?” Thomas’s escape perhaps? Could that have caused such a commotion?
“You’re not from around here, are you?” The man squinted at him. “You’ve got a bit of an accent.”
Arthur hesitated. “No. I’m not.”
“Then I’d suggest you head back the way you came.”
Arthur shook his head. “That isn’t an option.”
The man sighed, finally lowering his own sword. “Well, if you must know, the King lost two very valuable prisoners. He’s scouring the forest for them. Anyone acting suspicious is going to be questioned.” Tortured, more like, from the sound of it.
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows. “Wait. He lost two prisoners? Not one?”
“Yes.” The man said, stretching out the word. “Why?”
“You’re speaking of the boy, right?” Arthur asked. “The, er, foreign prince?”
“Yes. Him and the sorcerer. Though I think he’s more focused on the latter at the moment.”
“I had heard that the sorcerer was recaptured.”
“You’re from Camelot, aren’t you?” The woman spoke up for the first time. “That accent. It’s the same as Thomas’s. You came here to find them.”
“You know them?” Arthur asked, taking a step forward.
“I- I did.” The woman stuttered. “Before they escaped. I have no idea where the prince is. He hasn’t been seen since they first escaped.”
“Thomas is in Camelot.” The woman looked visibly relieved by this. “I’m here about Merlin. Do you have any idea where he is? I was under the impression that he was the King’s captive.”
“He was.” The man spoke up. “But only a day ago, he disappeared. We don’t know where he is now.”
Arthur eyed them for a moment, letting out a short sigh when it was clear they were telling the truth. “Why are you being hunted then? What did you do?”
The woman closed her eyes. “The King believes I helped the two of them escape.”
“Shame.” Arthur put his sword back into his scabbard. “I must go then. Thank you for the information.”
An arrow pierced through the air, barely missing Arthur’s head as it hit the bark of a tree just a few feet behind him. Arthur drew his sword out once again, turning to find the attacker.
Soldiers with the same crest as the prisoner still in Camelot came out from behind the trees. They were greatly outnumbered. It wasn’t impossible odds if the other man was skilled at all with a sword, but it was incredibly unlikely.
“Drop your weapons.” One of the soldiers called out, stepping forward. “Surrender yourselves. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”
“Easy for you to say, Gerrick!” Whoever this man was, he had clearly been an integral enough part of the castle to recognize the men hunting them. “The King will kill us anyways. Or worse.”
“If you do not surrender, we will take you by force.”
A blast of fire came from the sky, scorching the soldiers. Arthur raised a hand to cover his eyes as screams rang out among the armoured men. Aithusa landed by him, watching as the armoured men turned to ash.
Both the man and the woman took a step back, their eyes wide. The man’s sword was still raised, ready to defend despite their clear disadvantage.
“It’s alright.” Arthur reassured them, placing a hand on Aithusa’s side. “She’s with me.” He turned to look at the dragon. “Thank you.”
“Are you a dragonlord, then?” The woman asked. “You have a dragon at your command?”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “I am no dragonlord. Aithusa is a good friend of mine. She will not harm you.”
“You are friends with this beast?” The man asked incredulously.
“Yes.” Aithusa replied for him. “He is.”
The man’s eyes widened even further. “I… I didn’t know dragon’s could speak.”
“Well, they can.” Arthur said, putting his sword in its scabbard once again and turning to look at Aithusa. “They say Merlin has escaped again, but they don't know where he is.”
“At least that means we won’t have to go inside the castle to find him.” Aithusa commented. “I will try to contact him tonight.”
Arthur nodded. “Good. Until then, we’ll need shelter.”
“Come with us.” The woman interjected. “His friend has a safe house of sorts nearby. It’s where we’re headed. He can protect you.”
The man leaned in towards her. “One man, yes, but a dragon?”
“I can take care of myself.” Aithusa added.
The man looked unconvinced, his voice lowering. “I’m not so sure this is a great idea. You’re only in this mess because of that sorcerer.”
Arthur’s fists clenched, but he said nothing.
“And that sorcerer is only in this mess because of you .”
“And why is that?” Arthur asked, his eyes narrowing on the man.
The man glanced towards him for a moment before looking away. “It’s a long story. Are you coming or what?”
Arthur took in a long breath. “I’d be grateful for whatever help you could give me.”
“Very well.” The man sighed. “But only if you keep that dragon of yours close by. Being able to take out an entire patrol is reassuring to say the least.”
“I will remain close.” Aithusa said.
The man nodded once. “Great. I guess we best be off then.”
“Wait.” Arthur called out, making the two pause. “I never caught your names.”
“Eva.” The woman said. “My name is Eva. And this,” She gestured to the man beside her. “Is Lenin.”
“So let me get this straight.” Merlin said, glancing between Andor and Iamyr. “You’re Fendrel’s son.”
“But I don’t understand. I thought the whole reason Fendrel kidnapped Thomas to begin with was because he needed an heir.”
“If I were to show my face to him, he would have me executed, or at the very least, locked away until the end of times.” Andor stirred at the stew cooking above the fire. “He doesn’t consider me his heir anymore.”
“Are you illegitimate?” Merlin asked, the questions piling on top of each other.
“No.” Andor shook his head. “I was raised as his heir until he killed my mother for adultery. I only barely managed to escape before he did the same to me.”
Merlin paused for a long moment. “Was she guilty?” He knew as well as anyone else that the King was quick to punish those who had committed no crime.
“Yes.” The boy said quietly. “I don’t approve of what she did, nor do I believe she deserved to die for it. And I certainly didn’t deserve to be hunted down because of it.”
Merlin crossed his arms. “I don’t understand how your mother’s unfaithfulness translates to killing you. You did nothing wrong.”
“I wish I knew.” Andor let out a soft sigh. “He was never a particularly loving man, but we were still happy. After he found out about my mother… he changed.”
“How long ago was this?”
“About four years ago.” Andor answered.
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “How old are you?”
“You’ve been on your own since you were thirteen years old?” It didn’t seem possible that the boy would still be alive, but here he was. And, given the circumstances, he seemed well enough.
“Not quite.” The boy glanced up at the large dragon. “Iamyr found me half starved and dying from an infected wound I had picked up during my escape. He cared for my wounds and has looked after me ever since. I would be dead many times over if it weren’t for his mercy.”
Merlin smiled slightly, before it faded. “Your father seems to have quite a twisted view on dragons. I’m surprised that didn’t rub off on you.”
“Oh, it did. I always thought dragons were these terrible beasts. It was all my father had ever taught me. They were weapons to be used, nothing more.” Andor looked down. “It took me awhile to look past that, but I know the truth now.”
“My king was the same way.” Merlin said. “His father hunted down and killed nearly all of the dragons and dragonlords in Albion. Now only one of each remain. Arthur has put a lot of effort into protecting that remaining dragon. He’ll be thrilled to hear that she is not the last of her kind.”
Merlin raised a hand to his head, clenching his eyes shut.
A hand touched his shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Merlin’s head snapped up to see Andor staring down at him. “Aithusa. She’s here. She’s trying to speak to me.”
“The warding around the camp could be interfering.” Andor said, pulling Merlin to his feet. “Come with me.”
Merlin stumbled through the camp, letting out a breath of relief as the pressure in his head finally released.
“Are you alright?” Andor repeated, and Merlin only nodded in response.
“It is I. Where are you?”
“I’m, uh, in a camp of sorts. Don’t come to me. If the patrols see you flying around here, the King will know they’re harbouring me.” Scared of Iamyr or not, Merlin doubted the King would hesitate to send out men. And if Andor was captured…
“Are you well?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I’m safe for the time being. Is Thomas back in Camelot?”
“Thomas has returned home. He is concerned for you.”
Merlin let out an audible sigh of relief. He had assumed that Thomas was home, but to have it confirmed was something else entirely. “Thank you, Aithusa. Things are more complicated than I initially anticipated. Where are you?”
“Near the coast.”
Merlin nodded despite Aithusa not being able to see him. “You might want to get some distance. Stay out of sight. They aren’t too kind to dragons here. I’ll try to make my way towards you if I can.”
“Stay safe, Merlin.”
The connection broke, and Merlin’s eyes slowly opened.
“What is it?” Andor asked, still holding his arm. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Merlin shook his head. “Aithusa. She’s here. She wanted to talk to me.”
Andor nodded. “Are you going to her?”
“I don’t want her to stay here any longer than she must. I won’t risk her being captured.” Merlin glanced around the forest. “Which way is the coast?”
“It’s west from here.” Andor said slowly. “But it’s pretty far, and you’re in no state to go wandering around by yourself. You’ll be captured for sure.”
“I have magic.”
Andor raised an eyebrow. “And how did that prevent your initial capture with the boy, or your recapture a week ago?” Merlin grew silent. “Listen. I’ll help you get there, but first you need to eat and rest. We’ll take a look at your wounds, too. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. What happened to you anyways?”
Merlin let out a sigh. “I was flogged. Then I got hit with a couple of arrows.”
Andor winced. “Was that before or after your recapture?”
“Before.” Merlin answered, allowing Andor to drag him back towards the safety of the camp.
“I can’t imagine everything that’s happened since then to have helped.” Andor let go of Merlin, walking back to the pot of stew.
“I need to get back to Aithusa.”
“You will.” Andor scooped some of the stew into a bowl. “We can head over that way tomorrow, but you aren’t going by yourself.”
“Why?” Merlin said after a moment, taking the bowl Andor handed him. “Not that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done, but why does it matter to you what happens to me?”
“I’m not particularly worried about you getting killed.” Andor answered. “No offense. I mean, I don’t want you to die, but I’m far more concerned about my father getting his hands back on another dragonlord. The damage he could do…”
“What would he do?” Merlin asked. “If he found another dragonlord.”
“He’d do everything he could with an army of dragons at his command.” Andor looked towards him with piercing eyes. “I fear no one would be safe then.”
Chapter 23: The Boy Who Would Be King
“Neal.” Lenin called out as they approached a small house on the edge of the forest. The door opened, and a man Arthur didn’t recognize stepped out.
“Took you long enough.” The man- Neal- said. His eyes roamed over the group until they landed on Arthur. “And who’s that? I thought it was would be you and Eva.”
“That’s Arthur.” Lenin answered. “He’s from Camelot, and he has a pet dragon. He’s here for the wizard.”
Neal’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“You’re already harbouring two fugitives. What’s one more?” Lenin shrugged. “And that dragon wiped out an entire patrol. I say it’s worth the risk.”
“And where is this dragon?”
“Nearby.” Arthur interjected. “She doesn’t want to give away our location, so she’s keeping some distance. But she’ll come if there’s any trouble.”
Neal hesitated before nodding. “Very well.” He opened the door further, allowing the group to enter the house.
It was small and modest, but most importantly, out of the way.
“Are you sure the King won’t find us here?” Arthur asked, glancing around the house.
“Yes.” Neal said simply.
Lenin sighed. “The King’s never met Neal. As far as he knows, I don’t have anyone left who’d be willing to help me.” His voice went a little quiet at the end, and Arthur got the feeling this fact pained him quite a bit.
“How do you know the King then?”
“I work for him.” Lenin said, waiting a moment before shaking his head. “Not anymore, I suppose.”
“What kind of work?”
Lenin hesitated, and Eva gave him a wary look. “I’m a mercenary.”
A mercenary. Not the most noble line of work. “I see.”
“And you mean to tell me you’re not?” Lenin asked, a hint of anger laced in his voice. “Your king hired you, didn’t he? Or are you just some vigilante on a mission?”
“I’m a knight.” Arthur clarified, crossing his arms. “I am here on behalf of Camelot to bring Merlin home.”
“I don’t see why you’d bother.” Lenin huffed. “The man clearly doesn’t match the legend. He’s been captured twice now by people without any magic themselves. Tell your king to get himself a new sorcerer. It’ll save him a lot of trouble.”
“Lenin.” Eva snapped. “That’s enough.”
“Why are you defending him?”
“He’s a good man, Lenin.”
“Are you really going to say that after he threatened to get you killed?”
“That was my own doing, and you know it.” Eva took in a long breath, closing her eyes. She glanced over towards Arthur. “I’m sorry. Everyone’s quite stressed right now as you can imagine. “
“Of course.” Arthur didn’t look away from Lenin as he spoke. “But just so you are aware, Camelot doesn’t just value Merlin for his magic. While he is a skilled sorcerer, he is also the court physician and the last dragonlord. And he is our friend. We will not abandon him.”
Lenin, Eva, and Neal all seemed to freeze, though Arthur wasn’t sure exactly sure what he had said to set them off.
“Shit.” Neal mumbled.
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows. “What?”
Eva took a step towards him. “Arthur. Did you just say Merlin is a dragonlord?”
“No wonder the King didn’t just kill him.” Lenin ran a hand over his face. “A dragonlord. The King is never going to stop looking for him now.”
“Why?” Arthur questioned. “Why is that so important?”
Lenin looked at him incredulously. “Why? If the King gets his hands on another dragonlord, then he can control all the dragons. He’ll take the neighboring kingdoms by force. He’ll swoop into Camelot and take that prince of yours back. There will be no stopping him.”
“He will not touch Thomas.” Arthur said, his voice low. “And even if he did get Merlin, there’s no way he would do anything the King said.”
“Not yet, perhaps.” Neal said. “But everyone breaks eventually. If he recaptures the sorcerer, we’re all doomed.”
“But there’s only one dragon!” Arthur threw up his hands. “Even if Merlin was recaptured, and even if he did use his powers on Aithusa, there’s only so much one dragon can do!”
“Have you gone mad?” Lenin turned towards him. “One dragon? There isn’t just one dragon. There are hundreds. Thousands, perhaps. And with all the other dragonlords in hiding, Merlin is the only one who would be controlling them.”
Hundreds… Thousands of dragons?
“Merlin told me once that those with magic were hunted down in Albion.” Eva added quietly. “Was that true of dragons as well?”
Arthur nodded. “I was led to believe Aithusa was the only dragon left.”
“The King has at least five that I know of.” Lenin began to pace the floor. “Perhaps more. Probably more. Then there’s that giant dragon in the forest that the King’s just given up with. You’ll see them in the wild every now and then, but they’re usually captured pretty quickly if they don’t flee.”
Aithusa wasn’t the last of her kind. There were more. So many more.
“Then we must not let the King get his hands on Merlin again.” Arthur said with a tone of finality.
“We?” Lenin interjected. “I’m sorry, man, but we’re hitching a boat and getting as far away as possible from this godforsaken kingdom.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “After everything you just said, you’re just going to run?”
“I didn’t sign up for this!” Lenin shouted. “I just want to get away before all hell breaks loose. We’re leaving in the morning.”
“I’m not leaving.” Eva said softly.
“What?” Lenin looked at her, his eyes wide. “What do you mean you’re not leaving? All of this was to get you out of here, and you want to stay?”
“You remember what happened the last time the King got his hands on a dragonlord.” Eva pressed. “He went on a rampage. Every person who refused to bow to him burned. Children… We can’t let that happen again!”
“Not my problem.”
“If you remember correctly, it is.”
Lenin eyed her for a moment. “Well, why don’t you take care of it the way you did last time?”
Eva straightened. “No. No, I won’t do that again. Not to Merlin.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow towards Lenin. “What are you suggesting?”
Lenin huffed. “Last dragonlord the King had met a swift end after one of his rare meals was poisoned.”
Arthur turned to stare at the young woman. “You killed him?”
“He was being tortured everyday- forced to use his powers to slaughter innocent people.” Eva looked away. “I couldn’t let it continue.”
“I’m going to be honest with you, Lenin.” Neal leaned back against the counter. “I’m not particularly invested in the whole ‘run and watch the world burn from afar’ thing.”
Eva nodded. “We need to find Merlin and make sure the King doesn’t get to him first.”
“You realize Merlin will kill me, right?” Lenin argued. “He will- He will murder me.”
“Just because you worked for the King doesn’t mean Merlin is going to try and kill you.” Arthur interjected. “He’s not the vengeful type.”
“Yeah, tell that to Milos.”
“That’s enough.” Eva grabbed at Lenin’s arm. “If you want to leave, then leave, but I’m staying.”
Lenin stared at Eva for several seconds, growing visibly more frustrated with every moment that passed. Finally, he closed his eyes, letting out a sigh. “Fine.”
“What did you do? Rip them out?”
“Yeah.” Merlin grunted. “Pretty much.”
Andor sighed, leaning back on his haunches. “Well. That wrapping should help.”
“Thank you.” Merlin reached down to touch his injured thigh, pulling back with a hiss.
“I though you said you were a physician.” Andor chided. “Don’t touch.”
Andor rolled his eyes. “Enough of that.”
“It is not inaccurate.” Iamyr chimed in.
“Oh, don’t you start with that again.”
“You are the rightful heir to the throne.”
“That doesn’t exactly count for much right now.”
“Would you give it a rest already?”
“What?” Merlin interjected, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
Andor sighed. “Iamyr’s always going on about me taking the throne. He wants me to be the King of Aeridia.”
Merlin pondered this for a moment. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea. Even with as young as you are, you’d still be a better King than Fendrel, and the people would likely support it.”
“It’s easier said than done.” Andor scooped himself some stew, sitting down to eat. “I don’t have a problem becoming king, but my father sure as hell will. And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s the one with the army.”
“Yet your the one with the dragons.”
“I will not have Iamyr fight for me.” Andor took a sip of the stew. “He is old. I will not risk him injuring himself.”
“What about the other dragons?”
Andor looked towards the smaller creature. “What- like Berlian? He’s hardly going to be enough, and they’re all I have.”
“No.” Merlin shook his head. “You have all the dragons. Because you have me.”
Andor raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting we use your dragonlord powers to command all the dragons in the land to attack the castle?”
“I will not force them to fight.” Merlin said with finality. “But I could gather them at the very least. I could bring them together, and you could convince them to fight for you.”
“And why would they do that?”
“I assume dragons would no longer be hunted under your reign.” Merlin waited for Andor’s nod before continuing. “They’d be free at last. Surely that would be worth fighting for.”
“Hm.” Andor leaned back. “We don’t exactly have enough time to do this, however.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Well, you’re leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“I don’t have to.” Merlin said after a moment. “I can send Aithusa back to Camelot, and she’ll let them know what’s going on. Then when we’re finished, I’ll call her back.”
Andor didn’t say anything for a while. “You’d stay to help me?”
Would he? He had wanted to return home for so long, and now that opportunity was here. But he couldn’t just leave. He couldn’t allow the dragons to continue to live in fear if there was something he could do about it. And he couldn’t leave Fendrel on the throne.
“I don’t want Fendrel to be able to hurt anyone ever again.” And he would. He most definitely would. “I’ll sleep a whole lot better at night knowing your king instead of him.”
It wasn’t as if he knew what kind of king Andor would be. He was a kid. But he couldn’t be worse than Fendrel. Surely.
Andor nodded slowly. “Alright. We can… we can try to figure this out.” He looked to Iamyr, who was staring at him, looking rather pleased with himself. “Would you stop it already? We haven’t done anything yet.”
“But you will.” Iamyr said confidently. “You are the true King of this land, and soon all shall know it.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Even if this does work… I don’t know the first thing about taxes.”
“I’ve been in court for many years now.” Merlin said, a smile crossing his lips. “And truth be told, neither do I.”
“So what your saying is I don’t need to know about taxes to become king?”
“I’m saying there are far more important things for a king to know about than taxes.” Merlin leaned forward. “That’s what advisors are for anyways.”
Andor let out a short laugh. “I don’t have advisors.”
“Ha.” Andor closed his eyes for a moment. “We’ll see.”
Chapter 24: To Start a War
“I am here, Merlin.”
“There’s been a bit of a change of plans. I’m going to be staying here for a little while longer. There’s this prince that… it’s complicated. I don’t want you hanging around here, though. If they found you, it wouldn’t be good. Head on back to Camelot for now. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to return.”
“I’m afraid it won’t be that simple.”
“What?” Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Meet me at the edge of the forest, before the docks. We need to speak in person.”
The connection cut off, and Merlin let out a short breath. “Great.”
Andor looked towards him. “What is it?”
“Something’s going on.” Merlin shook his head. “She still wants me to meet up with her. I’ve got to go.”
“Okay.” Andor nodded. “Berlian and I will come with you.”
“You really don’t have to.” Merlin insisted, holding up his hands. “I can make the trip by myself.”
“I’m not risking you now.” Andor said firmly. “Not when this entire plan rests on you.”
Merlin sighed. “Very well.”
Andor ran back to the camp, returning only minutes later with Berlian at his side. He was small enough to walk through the trees like the rest of them, unlike Iamyr, who would have had to fly above them.
“Where exactly are we heading?” Andor asked a few minutes into their trip. “You said she was by the coast, right?”
“She said to meet her by the edge of the forest before the docks.” Merlin answered. “This is the way to the docks, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Andor confirmed. “Why exactly couldn’t she just tell you what she needed to in her head?”
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t say.” That was kind of the point.
Aithusa was the first thing he spotted once he reached the treeline- it was hard to miss her- but there was someone else standing next to her. It took Merlin a moment to realize who exactly it was.
The King’s eyes locked onto his own, and the man ran towards him, wrapping his arms around him in a rare show of affection. “Merlin. Gods, Merlin. I thought you were dead.”
“I’m alright.” Merlin tried to pull back, only to be held tight. “I’m fine, Arthur.”
“I thought you and Thomas… I thought I had lost both of you.”
Merlin sunk into the hold, guilt churning in his gut. “Arthur…I…” What could he even say? It had taken him two months to get his son home. He had allowed his son to be captured in the first place. How could Arthur ever forgive him for something like that? “I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m so sorry.”
“Shut up.” Arthur said, more harshly than Merlin was expecting. “Shut up, Merlin. You brought him home. You… You brought him home. That’s all that matters.” Arthur pulled back at last. His voice. His demeanor. It seemed so different from the last time he had seen him. Raw. Hurt. How long had he believed his son, his child, to be dead? How many nights had he stayed up, hoping for Thomas’s safe return, only to be disappointed when it never came? “And now it’s time to get you home.”
Merlin closed his eyes for a moment, looking down to the ground before forcing himself to look back up at his King. “Arthur… I can’t. I can’t leave.”
Arthur’s eyebrows furrowed together. “What? Why the hell not?”
He was angrier than Merlin remembered. He had gotten better about that.
Merlin grimaced, gesturing backwards to the boy that had come with him. “Arthur. This is Andor. And that,” Merlin pointed to the dragon. “Is Berlian. They were the ones that got me out of the cells. I was-”
“Recaptured. Yes. I know.” Arthur eyed the dragon.
“Yeah.” Merlin scratched the back of his head. “So, uh, there are more dragons. I don’t know if Thomas told you or not-”
“Thomas didn’t. But I know.” Arthur looked back at Merlin. “I don’t understand what this has to do with you staying here.”
Aithusa was watching the other creature with curiosity, but said nothing. If Kilgharrah had known nothing about these dragons, then surely Aithusa wouldn’t as well. Unless Kilgharrah had only been speaking of Albion dragons.
“Andor is Fendrel’s son.” Merlin continued.
“The King.” Apparently there were still some things Arthur didn’t know. It was oddly comforting. “He organized Thomas’s kidnapping.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes. Thomas mentioned. But I thought the whole point of his kidnapping was because the King… Fendrel… didn’t have a son.”
“As far the King is concerned, I am no longer his son.” Andor spoke up for the first time since Arthur’s appearance. “My father would see me dead.”
“Why?” Arthur narrowed his eyes on the boy.
“He blames me for my mother’s sins.”
“But he’s still the heir. Technically.” Merlin turned the attention back over to him. “Meaning if Fendrel were to be dethroned, Andor would become king.”
“Merlin.” Arthur said sternly. “You are not staying. I won’t risk losing you again. You’re going back to Camelot.”
“Fendrel isn’t going to give up on Thomas. He already told me.” Merlin clenched his teeth at the memory. “If he gets a dragonlord, the first thing he’s gonna do is burn Camelot to the ground and take Thomas for himself once and for all.”
Arthur’s eyes darkened. “He will never get Thomas again.”
“If he gets a dragonlord, there will be nothing you can to do protect him.”
“Exactly!" Arthur nearly yelled. “You are a dragonlord, in case you’ve forgotten. Not just that- you are the exact dragonlord he is looking for. If we get you out of here, he won’t be getting a dragonlord.”
Merlin said nothing for a moment, before turning to Andor. “What are the chances that your father will find another dragonlord, myself excluded?”
“Merlin is the second dragonlord he’s found in three years.” Andor answered simply. “There’s no guarantee he would find another, but it’s far from impossible.”
Arthur just shook his head. “Merlin-”
“Arthur.” Merlin interrupted gently. “Take Aithusa. Go back to Camelot. I’ll make sure he can never hurt your son again.”
Arthur continued to glare at him. “I don’t know where you got the idea that I’d ever consider leaving you here alone.”
“I’m not alone. I-”
“Either we both go back, or we both stay.”
“No.” Merlin argued. “No, no, no. You don’t need to stay. This isn’t your problem.”
“Not my problem?” If Arthur wasn’t angry before, he was now. “Thomas is my son. You keep saying all of this is to protect him, and yet it isn’t my problem? You think I can’t even protect my own child?!”
“Well, maybe you’re right! Clearly I can’t! But I’m not going to run now because you think my own son’s safety isn’t my problem!”
Merlin took a step back, holding his hands up in a placating manner. “No. Arthur. That’s not… All I meant was that this is between me, Andor, and Fendrel. You don’t need to get involved.”
“If it involves you, then it involved me. Two sides of the same coin, remember?”
“No.” Arthur crossed his arms. “If you want to be an idiot and stay, then I am as well.”
“Camelot can’t lose her king.” There didn’t seem to be much of a point to arguing. When Arthur had his mind set on something, there was little point trying to dissuade him.
“Oh, so you’re planning on dying now, are you?”
“So you just think I’m going to die?”
“You don’t have magic to protect you!”
“Not that that’s done you much good.”
“Do you really want to go there, Arthur?”
“Only if you keep insisting on trying to protect me when you can’t even protect yourself!”
Merlin took in a sharp breath. “Fine. You want to stay? Stay. But if you get yourself killed, so help me-”
“Yes, yes. I cower in your very presence.” Arthur huffed. “What is your plan anyways? I assume you do have a plan.”
“Yes.” Merlin sighed. “I have a plan. I’m going to call for all the dragons, and Andor will convince them to help him take the throne. He’ll have an army of dragons. Fendrel won’t stand a chance.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? That’s your plan?”
“Dragons are hunted here. Enslaved.” Merlin pressed. “Tortured. If they can replace the King with one more sympathetic to their kind, surely they would want to help with that.”
Arthur just shook his head. “That won’t work. They have no reason to trust anything Andor has to say. Just because he claims to be against the violence of dragons doesn’t mean he actually is.”
“Andor has dragons that will vouch for him.”
“Yes, and I had you. It didn’t mean those with magic trusted me after I abolished the ban.” That much was certainly true. It had taken years for those with magic to come out of hiding- even with Merlin there to reassure them that they wouldn’t be burnt at the stake for it. “Those who live in fear will not be quick to trust those different from them. It doesn’t matter if all logic would dictate otherwise. It’s just the way of things.”
Merlin shook his head. “Then what do you suggest? I can’t just leave them, Arthur.”
“Perhaps I could speak with them.” Aithusa said. “If they will not trust the word of a human, then perhaps they will trust another dragon.”
Merlin thought on this for a moment. “That might work. You and Iamyr could convince the others, surely.”
“Iamyr?” Arthur asked.
“Another dragon.” Merlin clarified. Andor had said he didn’t want Iamyr to fight, but this wasn’t fighting. This was negotiation. “I’m sure he’d be willing to help. Plus, I’d guess he knows where all the dragons are hiding out. Or at least some of them.”
“I think I know some people who might be willing to help us.” Arthur said after a moment. “You should meet them. Or, I think you may have already met them.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows together. “What?”
“I ran into some people after I arrived.” That Merlin knew? That could be trusted? “They definitely know who you are.”
“Yeah, well, I’d say most people in that castle know who I am at this point.” Merlin mumbled.
“Come on.” Arthur gestured a little ways away. “I’ll show you where they’ve been hiding out.”
Following Arthur, they ended up at a small house not too far away. Andor followed them but chose to wait outside while the others entered. If they weren’t trustworthy, and they recognized Andor at all, all could go to hell pretty quickly.
“There you are.” An eerily familiar voice called out as they entered the house. “I had wondered where you and that dragon ran off to-” The man froze the moment he came into view.
He was scared. Good.
“You.” Merlin growled.
It took Lenin a moment to say anything. “Nice to see you, too.”
“Go to hell.”
Lenin took in a long breath. “Good to see your mood has improved.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, and he took a few steps forward. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand right now. After everything you’ve done.”
Lenin’s eyes flickered over towards Arthur. “Because I can help you.”
“Can you now?” Merlin tilted his head. “As far as I’ve seen, you’re nothing but a coward with some strong-arm louts to do your dirty work.”
Lenin seemed to darken at his words. “I lost those ‘louts,’ thanks to you. And I saved your life, in case you’ve decided to conveniently forget that particular piece of information. If it weren’t for me, the King would have had you burnt at the stake after you attacked Rodrick!”
“And you want me to be grateful?” Merlin asked incredulously. “I wouldn’t have even been in that situation to begin with if it weren’t for you! None of this would have happened if you weren’t out for some damn coin!”
“Merlin.” Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back a step. “I know they worked for the King, but they aren’t our enemies.”
“Merlin…” It was another voice who spoke this time, and slowly Eva turned the corner to come into view. “Merlin, we-”
“Eva? What are you...What are you doing with him of all people?” Merlin asked, continuing to stare at her.
She lowered her head slightly. “There are some things I never told you that-”
“Yeah, I’m sure there are plenty of things you didn’t tell me.”
“Merlin.” Arthur tried again. “They want to help us.”
“If you knew what they’ve done to your son,” Merlin glared at the two of them. “Then you wouldn’t want their help.”
Lenin’s eyes widened slightly. “Your son?”
Eva sent Merlin a terrified glance that he ignored.
“Yes.” Arthur said after a moment. “I am the King of Camelot, and Thomas is my son.”
“I should have known.” Lenin shook his head. “I knew that name sounded familiar. And you have a pet dragon. Of course you aren’t just some knight.”
“He does have that whole royal look to him.” Another man Merlin only vaguely recognized added.
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Merlin asked, sounding not at all apologetic.
“With all due respect,” The man crossed his arms. “If you don’t remember who I am, then I’m not particularly inclined to remind you.”
Merlin let out a breath. “Fair enough.” He glanced at Arthur. “If this is what you were talking about when you said you knew people who would help us, I’m not interested.”
“We need all the help we can get.”
“Not from them.”
“No!” Merlin let out a frustrated sound. “I won’t do it. I don’t know what they’ve told you to make you trust them, but you really shouldn’t. You don’t have the first idea of who they are. They are cruel and cowardly, and they will betray us the first chance they get.”
Merlin turned and left the house, not even bothering to wait for whatever response Arthur would come up with next. If only he knew. If he knew what they had done to his son...
“What is it?” Andor asked as he approached the man. “What’s going on?”
“Arthur.” Merlin began. “He’s somehow managed to befriend the man who kidnapped his son and the woman who poisoned him.”
“Is Arthur aware of this?” Aithusa asked, her eyes narrowing.
“So Arthur is the King of your land? The father of the prince?” Andor tilted his head slightly, as if trying to figure out some riddle.
“Yes.” Merlin confirmed. “Now he wants me to work with them, but I won’t. I can’t.” The door to the house opened once again, and Merlin let out a sigh. “Arthur, I know you-”
Merlin turned, his voice cutting off when he realized it was not Arthur who left the house, but Eva. “Merlin-”
“What?” Merlin stood a little straighter. “What do you want?”
“I do want to help you, Merlin.” Eva assured him. “After everything that happened… if there’s anything I can do…”
The woman looked behind Merlin, her eyes widening as she spotted the young boy. “Andor?” She ran forward, wrapping him in a hug. “Oh, gods, Andor. I… I had hoped you were still alive, but everyone else seemed to think you were gone.” She seemed to hold him even tighter, if that was even possible. “I was so worried about you.”
Andor pressed his head into her shoulder. “And I you. I was never certain what my father did with you.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “You know her?”
Eva look back towards him. “I was his mother’s maid. I’ve known him ever since he was born, Merlin. I…”
“And you never thought to mention that the King had a son?”
Eva at least had the decency to look ashamed. “He is forbidden to speak of. If the King ever found out I had told you, he would have killed me.”
“He also would have killed you for poisoning Thomas, but that didn’t stop you.”
“Do you have any idea what Arthur would do to you if he found out?” From Eva’s reaction, she knew exactly what he would do. There would be no mercy.
The door opened once again, and this time, it was Arthur who came out. He glanced over at Andor, looking mildly confused at the interaction, but otherwise ignored it. “Merlin. We need to talk.”
“I’m not sure there’s much to talk about.”
“ Merlin .”
“Fine.” Merlin huffed, allowing Arthur to lead the way as they put some distance between themselves and the others.
Arthur let out a long sigh. “Look. You obviously don’t like them, and there’s clearly something going on between the three of you, but if you seriously want to overthrow the King, then you’re going to need all the help you can get.”
“I don’t trust them.” Did Merlin genuinely think Eva would betray him again? No. But he also had never expected her to be able to poison a child, so that wasn’t saying much. And Lenin? He only cared for himself. How Eva and Lenin ended up here together was still a mystery, but it didn’t matter enough to bother finding out why. “They aren’t good people, Arthur”
“Eva won’t be taking no for an answer.” Arthur argued. “Lenin really couldn’t care less about you, but Eva wants to help.”
“Eva is a coward.” Merlin nearly growled out. “She’ll go behind your back and do whatever it takes, no matter the consequences.”
Arthur started at the low sound that came from beneath him. Berlian had, Arthur now realized, followed them, pressing his head into Merlin’s side as if to quell his anger. Merlin reacted by rubbing his hand down the dragon’s neck, seemingly not even noticing his own actions.
“What happened?” Arthur asked at last. “What did they do to make you hate them so much?”
It was tempting to tell him. Arthur certainly wouldn’t want to work with them after everything they’ve done. In fact, Arthur was far more likely to go into that house and slaughter everyone inside. It wasn’t a pleasant image.
He couldn’t do that to Arthur. He couldn’t turn him into a monster.
“It doesn’t matter.” Merlin rubbed a hand over his eyes. “If you want them to help, then fine. Do whatever you want.”
If Arthur wanted the help of mercenaries and murders, then that was on him. It wasn’t worth the fight.
They had a war to win, after all. A war that had yet to even begin.
End of Arc II: A Dragonlord's Power
Chapter 25: New Plans and Sanctuary
Arc III: The Prince of Dragons
“Aithusa?” Arthur peered through the now open door. “What are you doing in here?”
“Guarding the child.” The small dragon said, lying on the ground no more than a few feet from his son’s cradle.
“Oh?” Arthur entered the room fully, closing the door behind him. “You know we have guards for that.”
“Guards can be defeated.” Aithusa laid her head down on the rug. “They can be tricked and deceived. I cannot be.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, a soft smile crossing his face. “Is that so?”
The King sat down on the rug next to her. “You’ve gotten quite good at speaking, you know. You picked it up pretty quick.”
“Modest as ever, of course.” Arthur let out a short sigh. “He’ll be safe in here. There are guards on the door- even if you don’t trust them. Merlin put wardings in the room. No one else aside from the knights, and Guinevere, of course, is even allowed to enter. He’ll be fine.”
“Then why are you still so frightened?” Aithusa placed her head in his lap. “I can feel your fear, Arthur. You are so afraid all the time.”
Arthur opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out for several moments. “I- no. No, that’s not…”
“You cannot lie to me, Arthur.” Aithusa said gently. “Or perhaps, you should not have to.”
Arthur dipped his head forward. “Alright. Okay. But there are people who want to hurt him. Because of me. And if they succeed…”
“They will not.” Aithusa assured him. “I will protect him. Your son will come to no harm.”
Arthur knew this was not a lie. Aithusa, like so many others, would protect Thomas at all costs. Merlin. The knights. They would never let anyone hurt him. It didn’t make it any easier to be away from him.
“Maybe we should move him back into our chambers.” Arthur clenched his fists. “He’d be safer there. We could keep an eye on him. And-”
“I will watch over him here.” Aithusa interrupted. “You cannot expect to keep him within your line of sight in every moment of every day. There are times when he will be away from you. You must accept that. You must know that he will be protected nonetheless.”
Arthur looked up from Aithusa towards the sleeping infant. “Why… why would they hurt him? I- I tried so hard to make things right. I wanted to fix things. I wanted to fix everything my father had done. I know I can’t take it back- the things we did will forever scar this land- but I did everything I could to make it better.” Arthur closed his eyes. “I can understand them hating me, but why would they hate him? He’s done nothing.”
He was the monster. His father was the monster. But his son? His innocent child who had done no wrong? Thomas was not a monster. So why did they treat him as such?
“You must realize that those who think that way are not the majority.” Aithusa tried to reason. “While there are many who still distrust you, it is not hate in their hearts. They are confused and hopeful that you mean what you say. Those who still speak of hatred and harming your son are but a few.”
“I can’t lose him, Aithusa.” Not him. Not his son. Not his child. “I- I can’t. I don’t know what I’d do if… I just can’t. He is everything to me. I can’t…”
“You won’t.” Aithusa pressed her head into his chest. “You will not lose him.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You seem to be taking all this quite well.” Arthur commented to Aithusa as they made their way through the forest.
For most of the trip, the trees had been too thick to allow Aithusa to walk alongside them, instead forcing her to fly above. Now, though, as they got closer to the camp, the forest thinned out, allowing her to join them more discreetly.
“Taking what well, exactly?” Aithusa asked, pulling her wings in to avoid hitting the trunk of a rather large tree.
“You no longer being the last of your kind.” Arthur eyed Berlian, who was walking aside Merlin some distance in front of them.
“I was apparently never the last of my kind.”
“You know what I mean.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “It must be a shock.”
“It was when I first found out.” Aithusa agreed. “But I’ve had some time to adjust to the idea.” She continued at Arthur’s confused look. “Thomas mentioned it to me on our trip back to Camelot. He told me of a dragon he had seen that matched Berlian’s description. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was indeed the dragon he had been speaking of.”
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows. “You knew about the dragons and didn’t tell me?”
“I would have, in time.” Aithusa assured him. “It never seemed appropriate, however, what with the situation at hand and all. By the time it became important, you had already been made aware.”
Arthur nodded. He wouldn’t have cared too much about the dragons after being reunited with his son and Merlin being recaptured.
“I hope you are not upset with me. It was not my intention to keep information from you.”
“No, no.” Arthur shook his head. “Of course not.” She had been right anyways. She usually was.
They reached the camp hours later. The large dragon, which must have been Iamyr, seemed far less confused by their appearance than Arthur would have expected. Instead, he watched them enter the field with a rather pleased look on his face.
“Iamyr.” Andor greeted.
The dragon raised his head. “You’ve brought company.”
“Yes.” Andor nodded. “They wish to help me dethrone my father and end his reign.”
Iamyr turned, spotting Aithusa. “Ah. The white one. I have heard much of you. Are you to fight with us?”
Aithusa stretched out her wings. “I will fight for my king until my last breath.”
“I sense it is not Andor you speak of.”
“No.” Aithusa confirmed. “Arthur is my king, but as he has chosen to align himself with the young prince, so shall I.”
None of this was a surprise to Arthur. He knew Aithusa was loyal to him. She was as loyal to him as any knight was, but he had never heard her announce it out loud before. He was her king. It was moments like this that made the anxieties settle, even for a moment. If Uther’s son could earn such loyalty from a dragon, what else could he achieve?
Iamyr’s attention was brought onto Arthur at last. “So you are the foreign King. The father of the misplaced prince.”
It wasn’t a question, but he answered it anyways. “Yes. I am.”
“You have come far then. For what purpose?”
“For Merlin.” Arthur spared the man a glance. “I came to retrieve him. By the time I arrived, however, he was already free, and had managed to get himself involved in quite a plot.”
“Do you know where the dragons are hiding?” Andor asked. “Would you be able to find them?”
Iamyr hesitated. “I have sworn to never bring a human to their sanctuary.”
“We do not ask that you bring a human anywhere.” Aithusa took a few steps forward. “Only myself.”
“Arthur fears the dragons would not listen to me.” Andor continued. “They may listen to other dragons however. If you and Aithusa spoke to them, perhaps they would listen.”
“You do not believe you would be able to convince them?” Iamyr tilted his head to the side. “You seemed more optimistic of this before.”
“I am human.” Andor said quietly. “My species is the very thing that enslaved them to begin with, and my father is one of the worst offenders. I fear they would not help me- if only for that fact alone.”
“Very well.” Iamyr said. “I can take the white one to the sanctuary. We will do our best to convince them to help your cause.”
Andor closed his eyes for a brief moment. “Thank you.”
Iamyr looked back at Aithusa. “Are you prepared, young one?”
Aithusa nodded once. “I am.”
“Then let us be off. There is little time to waste.”
“Aithusa.” Arthur called out, resting a hand on her scales. “Be careful. This is a dangerous place for you.” It wasn’t as if Aithusa didn’t already know that, but he felt the need to say it anyways.
“As it is for you.” Aithusa nosed his hand. “We will be back soon.”
Sensing their farewells coming to an end, Iamyr lifted himself into the air, and took off towards the South. Aithusa followed soon after, disappearing into the sky. Arthur half expected Berlian to take off with them, but instead he stayed behind, still at Merlin’s side.
Arthur leaned towards Andor, lowering his voice. “I thought Berlian was your dragon?”
“He is no one’s dragon.” Andor said.
Arthur backtracked, realizing his mistake. “I didn’t mean it like that. Not like a slave. Just…”
“I know.” Andor glanced at him. “Berlian has never met a dragonlord before, and Merlin did free him. He’s a bit… in awe, I should think.”
Arthur had seen plenty of druids fall to their knees in front of Merlin- and he had seen many children watch him with wonder in their eyes after performing some large feat of magic- but he had never seen a dragon do such a thing. It was odd, if not a little endearing.
Merlin had always found the druids to be a bit overwhelming once they were allowed to openly recognize him as Emrys. He had never minded the children much, but there were times he had become visibly embarrassed. With Berlian, however, it just seemed different.
There was a time, many years ago, when Merlin had seemed… not jealous, but… disappointed, perhaps, that Aithusa had chosen Arthur over him. He was overjoyed, of course, that Aithusa had bonded so closely to the King, but at the same time, he had been her dragonlord. He was supposed to have been the one to raise her and teach her the human world. Instead it had been Arthur.
He had never blamed Aithusa for this, or Arthur for that matter. If anything, he had clearly blamed himself. Berlian looked about the age Aithusa had been when Arthur first met her, if not a tad younger. Perhaps Merlin saw him as another chance. Or perhaps Merlin had not realized any of this, and was only reacting unconsciously to the young dragon’s attention as any dragonlord would. Perhaps he would never know.
“And I wouldn’t call him my dragon by any reach.” Andor continued. “I’ve only known him for about a year. I’m not sure why he isn’t with the other dragons at the sanctuary Iamyr mentioned. Iamyr only told me that he was looking after him, but he tends to wander away from the camp quite often. It was how he was captured in the first place. I have no idea where he came from.”
“Not much else is going to happen tonight.” Merlin turned towards the group. “Do you have any idea how long it’ll take them to return?”
Andor shook his head. “No. I’m afraid I don’t.”
“That would have been useful information to find out before the left.” Lenin grumbled, crossing his arms. “It could be weeks before they get back.”
“It took Aithusa four days to get from here to Camelot and back again. It won’t take her weeks to travel across the country, no matter how far it is.” Arthur argued.
“Yeah, well, she’s a lot younger than the other one, isn’t she? Can he keep up?”
“Iamyr,” Andor began. “Is not that old. He can fly perfectly well, thank you.” He let out a sigh. “I’ll get something cooking for us.”
“I’ll help.” Eva walked towards him, and the boy didn’t shrug her off as she remained close.
The rest of the evening went without issue. Lenin seemed reluctant to spend much time around Merlin at all, which was probably for the best, considering Merlin looked ready to strangle the man every time he spoke. As such, Lenin chose to keep his distance, occasionally saying something to Neal that was simply too quiet for Arthur to hear.
Even with everything that was going on now, Arthur had to let out a breath of relief. Merlin was safe. The last missing piece was returned to him. Even if he wasn’t in Camelot and wasn’t out of harms way entirely, he was alive and well and safe.
His nightmare was finally over.
Chapter 26: Risky Maneuvers
“Nadia let you off early then?” Lenin asked, crossing his arms as the woman came into view.
“The Queen got sick of seeing you loiter in the courtyard.” Eva said simply. “You’re making the guards nervous.”
“The guards have a nervous disposition towards anything and everything that moves.” Lenin waved off her concerns. “Don’t worry about them.”
Eva huffed, reaching down to straighten her blouse. “I haven’t had a chance to change yet.”
“You look fine.” Lenin grabbed her arm, not ungently, and tugged her forward. “Let’s go.”
“And where are we going exactly?”
“To Neal’s place. Bors and Milos are probably already there.”
Eva raised an eyebrow. “You’re taking me to hang out with your drinking buddies?”
“They’re not my-” Lenin sighed. “We just got back from our trip and wanted to celebrate. Rumor has it, the King heard about our last job for Lord Mackey. Apparently he’s thinking about hiring us on for himself.”
“You want to work for the King?”
Lenin shrugged. “I don’t know. He probably pays better than Winnie- that snob. You’d think with all that money he could do a bit better. That’s the last time I do a job without agreeing on a payment upfront.”
Eva followed Lenin as he made his way to the gate. “Doesn’t the King have knights to do those kinds of things anyways?”
“I’m insulted.” Lenin raised a hand to his chest. “I’m far better than any of those swordsmen. They’re all brawl. Not exactly the most strategic bunch.”
“Are you calling Bors strategic?”
“Perhaps not.” Lenin relented. After a moment, he glanced back towards her. “I know it’s been awhile. We were gone longer than I expected. If you’d rather do something else…”
“What about your friends?” Eva gave him a knowing look. “Moris will be awful upset if you ditch him.”
“Screw Moris.” Lenin stopped and turned, placing both his hands on Eva’s shoulders. “I’ve spent the last month with those guys. I think I’m allowed to spend one night with you. Wherever you want.”
Eva smiled slightly before ducking her head. “I wouldn’t have the first idea of where to go.”
Lenin thought on it for a bit. “Well. What if we go to Neal’s, and then when it gets dark out, we ditch, steal his boat, and go out for some midnight sailing. What do you say?”
Eva looked back up at him. “Alright.”
Lenin grinned. “Okay. Let’s get going then.”
“You said it took the white dragon- Aithusa- two days to get from your own kingdom to Aeridia, did you not?” Andor asked, turning to Arthur. It was barely morning at this point, and the dragons had been gone for nearly eight hours.
Arthur nodded. “Yes.”
The night had been rough, but Arthur had slept in much worse places. Even if the ground had been hard with few blankets to go around, it was far from Winter, and the fire built in the center of the camp was enough to keep most of the chill away.
“The distance from Camelot to Aeridia would be much greater than across Aeridia alone.” Andor said quietly. “I reckon it would take them a day to reach their destination. By the time they returned, I doubt less than three days will have passed.”
“Yes.” Arthur said once again, stretching out the word. “I imagine that would be about right. They’ll probably not spend much time at the sanctuary itself.”
“Surely that won’t be a problem.” Merlin added, watching Andor with a hint of confusion. “Fendrel isn’t going to find a new dragonlord in three days time.”
“That’s not what I’m concerned about.” Andor said after a moment. He looked hesitant, as if he was already regretting what he was about to say. “I plan on venturing to the castle tonight.”
“What?” Merlin raised an incredulous eyebrow, and Arthur couldn’t help but agree. “What are you talking about?”
“I can’t just kill my father without giving him a chance.” Andor reluctantly met Merlin’s eyes. “I know he has hurt you, and I know you want him dead, but he’s still my father. I need to talk to him first before I do anything.”
“Andor.” Arthur said slowly. “He’s already made it clear that he will kill you, has he not? If you go there, you will be captured and executed.”
“Yes.” Andor agreed. “But he won’t do it immediately. If I leave tonight, two days is all I would need him to wait. And he will wait. Executing me will not be a quick process.”
“That’s assuming that Aithusa is able to convince the other dragons in the first place.” Arthur was quick to point out, though he had little doubt in Aithusa’s ability to negotiate. It was still a possibility that needed to be considered.
“If they cannot, then we’re all doomed anyways.”
“You can’t.” The group turned towards Eva, who was looking rather distressed by the idea. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I have to speak to him.”
Arthur wanted to argue, but there was a part of him that understood. His father had been a tyrant as well. Not always. Not on every occasion. But his cruelties far outweighed his kindnesses. Yet despite that, the idea of killing him in cold blood was horrifying. He had nearly done it once before, only to have Merlin stop him with a lie of his own. And by the time Arthur learned the truth about his father’s legacy, the man was long gone.
But if he had still been alive… he would have wanted to give him a chance, too- even if there was no point. Because he was his father.
Merlin sighed, looking incredibly exasperated. “Fine. But you’re not going alone. I’ll come with you.”
“Yes, because handing the dragonlord over to the King is a great idea.” Lenin crossed his arms. “You of all people can’t go with him. It’s suicide- and not for you.”
“I’m not going to use my dragonlord powers for him of all people. No matter what he does to me.”
“Lenin’s right.” Arthur interrupted. “We can’t send you back into the castle. We’d only be giving him what he wanted.”
“You really think I’d-”
“No.” Arthur said firmly. “I know you wouldn’t. But I won’t have you put in harms way again. Not when you’re the one thing he’s looking for right now.” And if he were captured, his magic would be bound once more. Arthur would not put his friend through that again. It had already happened far too many times.
Merlin crossed his arms. “Then what do you suggest? Send the kid in alone?”
“I’ll go with him.” Arthur glanced at Andor. “With you there, he’ll likely not give me much attention. And it would give me the perfect opportunity to get into the castle.”
“And by get into the castle, you mean get captured and thrown in the dungeons.” Lenin huffed. “This is a bad idea.”
“You can’t go in there Arthur.” Merlin protested. “You can’t. He’ll kill you.”
“Why is it,” Arthur snapped his eyes onto Merlin. “That every time something dangerous comes up, it’s perfectly fine for you to throw yourself into it, but not me?”
“Because.” Merlin took a step forward. “You are a king. You aren’t as disposable as me, and you know it. And like you said, he wants me. He wouldn’t kill me. But you? He doesn’t care about you. You’re nothing to him.”
“There’s no point in anyone coming with me.” Andor interjected. “I’m going in with the intention of getting captured. I don’t need an escort.”
“Well, you’re getting it.” Arthur said, still staring at Merlin. “We’ll leave tonight, like you said.”
“That’s not…” Andor let out a sigh as Arthur walked away from him. “Necessary.”
“Arthur.” Merlin tried, following him towards the far end of the camp. “You realize you’ll be killed, right? Fendrel will execute you.”
“He’ll be far too invested in Andor to pay me much attention.” Arthur finally stopped, turning back towards his friend. “Like he said, we only need to wait two days. And this way, I’ll be inside the castle.”
“And why do you need to be inside the castle?”
Arthur’s eyes darkened. “That man kidnapped my son. He made me think he was dead. Andor doesn’t need to worry about killing his father because he won’t be the one to do it.”
Merlin let out a breath. “You don’t need to endanger yourself like this. If the dragons come, then he will perish. There’s no need for you to be the one to do it.”
“I want to do it, Merlin.” Arthur argued. “I didn’t come here with the intention of even meeting your captor, but if we’re going to stay, then I’m not going to let go of the opportunity. He took everything from me. For months, I thought… I thought Thomas was dead. Because of him. I will not let that go. He will pay for what he did.”
“Yes.” Merlin agreed. “But not at the price of your own life.”
“This needs to stop.” Arthur said firmly. “You saying your life is worth less than mine- it’s nothing new, okay? You’ve said things like that before. But this is my son. You can’t stop me from righting the wrongs done to him.”
“He needs you, Arthur. You can’t die here.”
“And you can?”
“Yes!” Merlin closed his eyes when Arthur’s seem to widen ever so slightly. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t even protect him. You trusted me to protect him, and I couldn’t. It’s not that I want to die, but he doesn’t need me, and neither do you.”
“I don’t need you?” Arthur shook his head. “There’s two of us, remember? Two sides of the same coin. That’s what you told me. Two. Not one.”
“That time has come and passed. Before… I had been the only one with magic willing to protect you. It didn’t matter if I was good at what I did or not. It was all you had. But now? There are so many with magic who are loyal to you. You don’t need me. Camelot doesn’t need me. If someone is going to die here, Arthur, it sure as hell shouldn’t be you.”
“You’ve saved my life far more times than I could hope to count!”
“Yet I couldn’t even stop your son from being kidnapped. It took months to bring him home, and if it weren’t for Aithusa, it would have never happened. You thought your own son was dead, and that’s on me. I was the one that was supposed to protect him, and I failed. I couldn’t stop them. With all my magic, I was bested over and over again, and your son was the one who paid the price for it.
“I’m sorry, Arthur.” Merlin let out a sigh. “Gods, I’m so sorry. I tried. I really did. But it wasn’t good enough. I can’t protect you. I can’t protect your son. How am I supposed to protect Camelot if I can’t even protect one child?”
“You’re an idiot.” Merlin’s head shot up at the comment. “You are such a-” Arthur went silent for a moment, running a hand over his face. “You’re right. I thought Thomas was dead. I thought I’d never see him again, but I did. He is safe and alive because of you. Do you think I’d just forget that? Everything you did for my son?”
“I let him be taken in the first place.”
“And you think any other man would have faired any better?”
“I’m not supposed to be any other man!” Merlin was nearly shouting at this point. “I’m supposed to be Emrys. I’m supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer to ever live, yet I continue to fall to much weaker foes. I’m useless, Arthur. I’m absolutely useless to you.”
“Has it ever crossed your bone-idled mind that perhaps your magic isn’t the only reason I keep you around?” Arthur’s hand shot out, grabbing Merlin’s wrist. “You are my friend, Merlin, believe it or not, and I’d very much like to bring you home. Your ability to throw people around with your mind isn't exactly what gives you value, you absolute knob.”
Merlin tried to peel Arthur’s hand off of him, but the King’s grip was far too tight. “That’s not what I meant.”
“You brought my son home. You kept him from harm. He told me how they hurt you. You did everything you could to protect him, and no one else could have done any better.” Arthur grip loosened slightly. “I feel nothing but gratitude towards you, Merlin. Overwhelming gratitude. And I will never be able to live with myself if you go off and get yourself killed because you don’t think you’re good enough for me.” Arthur finally released Merlin’s wrist, letting it fall to his side. “Just, stop. Okay? You don’t need to be sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for. There was nothing you could have done, and please, please, don’t think I’m angry with you for anything that happened. No one blames you.”
“I do.” Merlin whispered.
“Well like I said. You’re an idiot.” Arthur let out a sigh. “I’m going with Andor, and I’m not going to die. No one is going to die. We’re all going to go home. Alright?”
Merlin didn’t answer for a long moment. “Alright.”
“Good.” Arthur nodded. “Let’s get started.”
Chapter 27: The Prince Returns
“What even is this?” Merlin lifted up the item of clothing, eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
“That,” Mithian yanked the garment out of Merlin’s hands. “Is a corset. Now stop going through my wardrobe.”
“ That’s a corset?”
“You can’t tell me you’ve never seen a corset before.”
“I’m from a very poor village. We didn’t exactly have a lot of noble women coming through.”
“You’ve lived in Camelot for over ten years.”
“Yes. As Arthur’s servant. And despite what he may think, I don’t spend a great amount of time going through Gwen’s clothing.”
“But you do spend some time engaged in such an activity?”
Merlin’s head shot up. “Well. No. I mean. Not exactly. There were some occasions where I… it’s not what it sounds like.”
Mithian raised an eyebrow. “Should I be jealous that you do not spend as much time going through my clothes?”
“You could, but you yell at me every time I do.” Merlin pointed out. “So you can either let me rummage through your clothes, or accept that fact that I have more experience with another woman’s wardrobe. The choice is yours.”
Mithian paused, placing the corset back in the drawer. “So does Guinevere not mind that you rummage through her clothes on a regular basis.”
“She doesn’t really know. And I wouldn’t say it’s on a regular basis. It’s happened on a few occasions for some very good reasons. I don’t just make a habit of going through her stuff.” His face grew pale. “Oh, please don’t tell her. No, no, no, please don’t tell her.”
“I don’t know, Merlin.” Mithian turned back towards him. “I don’t think it’s very appropriate for a married man to be going through another woman’s garments.”
Merlin waved his hands in front of him. “No, no, no, no. That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t going through her clothes! Not like that I mean! I just- well, Arthur never gave me a chance to explain-”
“So Arthur is complicit in your undergarment snatching?”
“You do it alone, then?”
“Yes!” Merlin’s eyebrows furrowed together. “No! No, there is no garment snatching of any kind! I wouldn’t…” He trailed off at the sound of soft laughter coming from Mithian. “You’re messing with me.”
“Yes, Merlin.” Mithian said, rolling her eyes. “Now tie the back of this, would you?”
Merlin obediently walked forward and began pulling at the ties on the back of her dress. “Where’s Lydia anyways? Doesn’t she normally do this? Not that it’s an issue- I mean, I’m happy to do it. I don’t mind. I just-”
“I gave her the night off.” Mithian interrupted. “Her father has been feeling unwell. She wished to care for him.”
“Her father’s sick?” Merlin perked up in concern. “I can head over there after the feast and take a look.”
“If you treated every person in the kingdom with a cough, you’d never have any time to rest.” Mithian turned towards him as he finished the ties. “For now, the illness is minor. I’ve already told her that you’d be happy to help if it gets any worse.”
“There’s no need to wait. You should always nip it in the bud- that’s what Gaius says.”
“You should really wait. It may not even be necessary.”
“I’m not that busy right now anyways. I’ll head over after the feast and take a look at him. I’m sure there’s something I can do to help.”
“Merlin…” Mithian closed her eyes for a moment before looking back at the man. “Igor doesn’t want you treating him.”
It took Merlin a moment to catch up to what she had said. “But I thought Lydia was fine with magic… I thought…”
“She is.” Mithian assured him. “But she told me… she said that her father doesn’t want magic to be used on him.”
“Okay. I can treat him without magic.”
“Or a sorcerer… to treat him.”
Merlin fell silent, blinking several times. “Okay. Yeah, okay. I can, um. I’ll let Gaius know. He can, um, he can take a look at him.”
“It’s fine.” Merlin waved her off with a grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “It- It doesn’t matter. It- Gaius can treat him. That’s fine. If he doesn’t want me to… it’s fine.”
“I’m sorry, Merlin.” Mithian pulled him closer to her. “I didn’t want you to know.”
“It’s not a secret.” Merlin shrugged, still smiling. “I mean, most people… a lot of them still don’t… you know. They don’t like magic, and that’s okay. It’ll take time for them to adjust. It hasn’t been that long since the ban was, uh...” Merlin clenched his eyes shut, rubbing at his eyes before any tears at the chance to fall.
“There are some people that will always live in the past.” Mithian ran a hand through Merlin’s hair. “But you have you remember everyone that loves you. There are so many people who love you despite your magic. You have to think of them.”
“I wish it wasn’t ‘despite’.” Merlin looked down. “My magic isn’t a sickness. It’s a part of me. It’s who I am.”
“I’m sorry. I misspoke. I don’t think of your magic like that. I’ve never thought of it like that.”
Merlin nodded. “I know. But it’s easy, isn’t it? To say things like that. To think of magic as part of the darkness everyone has.” He sighed, rubbing both hands across his face. “Never mind. It’s not important. We need to get ready for the feast. If we’re late again, Arthur will skin us both.”
Mithian watched him for a moment longer before finally nodding, her eyes never wavering from Merlin’s. “Alright. Let’s go.”
“How has Camelot been?” Merlin asked as the sky grew darker. “I assume nothing major has happened since we… left.”
Arthur shook his head. “No, everything’s stayed pretty stable. With you gone, I half expected an attack, but it’s possible the news hasn’t gotten that far out yet.”
“What about Gwen? Losing Thomas couldn’t have been easy on her.”
“It wasn’t.” Arthur agreed. “But with him returned, she’ll be fine. I doubt he’s left her sight since I left.” The King paused for a moment. “There was actually a sickness that came through the town, but Mordred handled himself pretty well. He took care of it. With Gaius’s help, of course.”
“He’s a good healer.” Merlin smiled, but it faded quickly. “What about, uh, Mithian? How she’s been?”
Arthur looked away. “I haven’t seen her much to be honest. I should have looked after her better- I know you would have looked after Gwen had our positions been reversed- but with everything that was happening…”
“You had lost your son, Arthur. You can’t be at blame for not thinking of others.”
“I’m not sure anyone really saw her.” Arthur admitted. “She spent a lot of time in her chambers. I suppose you were really all she had, and with you gone…” Arthur sighed. “I know Mordred checked up on her now and then, but I never asked him for any details.”
“She’s strong.” Merlin said after a moment. “She’ll be alright.”
“She will be. Once you return.”
“Arthur.” Andor said, approaching the two of them. “It’s time for me to head out to the castle- if you still plan on accompanying me.”
“Yes. I’ll be right with you.”
Merlin clamped a hand on Arthur shoulder as Andor retreated to the far end of the camp. “Stay safe, Arthur. Please.”
“I’ll do my best.” He glanced around the rest of the camp. “You’re not going to end up killing anyone if I leave you alone with those three, will you?” Arthur gestured to Eva, Lenin, and Neal.
“I’ll try not to.” Merlin let out a breath. “Are you sure you don’t want to take Berlian with you?”
“We’re going with the intention of being captured.” Arthur explained once again. “There’s no point in giving the King what he wants.”
“Alright.” Merlin agreed. “Just come back alive.”
Arthur didn’t respond with anything other than a nod with a thin smile gracing his lips. He turned to Andor, who was waiting, prepared to leave, at the edge of the camp. It was time to go. It was time to meet the man that had ripped his son from him. It was time to end it all.
“Sire. We have two prisoners being escorted to the cells.”
The King lowered his wine, turning towards the soldier. “The dragonlord?”
It had been days since his disappearance, and there was no sign of him or his accomplice. He couldn’t have escaped on his own. It simply wasn’t possible. The dragonlord had help, and they would be put to death once they were found.
“No.” The guard shook his head. “But-”
“Then don’t waste my time.” Fendrel huffed, lifting the cup back towards his lips. “If they were acting suspicious interrogate them. You know what to do.”
“If it’s one of the traitors, just kill them. They aren’t worth the public execution.”
He should never have spared the maid in the first place. Why Lenin turned on him, he would never know, but it didn’t matter. He was a traitor to assist in her escape. They would both die.
“No, sire.” The guard hesitated, which only added to the King’s annoyance. “It… It’s the prince.”
The goblet nearly fell from the King’s hand, and the man barely stopped himself from spilling it across the entire table. “Thomas? He’s back?” He came back for the dragonlord. It was the only possible reason for the boy to return. Fendrel had yet to win him over when the two of them escaped. Thomas would not have come back without reason.
“No, sire. Not Prince Thomas. It’s Prince Andor. He turned himself in- said he wanted to speak to you.” The guard paused. “There was another with him as well, but none of us recognized him.”
Fendrel froze completely at the words. “Andor is here? In the castle?”
No. No, that wasn’t possible. Andor wouldn’t have just come. He knew what awaited him. He was not stupid enough to return. Not Andor.
He took in several long breaths. “B-Bring him here.”
Well. It was time to see the boy once again.
Chapter 28: Truth and Ordeals
“There we are. We’re alright. No need to cry.” Merlin bounced the crying infant in his arms while pacing the length of the room. “There’s no need for any of that. No crying here. No sir.”
Despite his best efforts, the crying seemed to only increase.
“No, no, no.” Merlin pulled the baby against his chest. “I am not waking up your mother for this. She’s had far too long a day already. You and me- we are going to do this.”
Ever since they had moved Thomas into his own room, he had become significantly more fussy. He was used to sleeping mere feet away from his parents. But now, he was alone.
“You are far too much like your father for your own good, little one.” Merlin sighed. “We had high hopes for you, you know? I mean, you are cute, so you’ve earned quite a few very undeserving points there, but this? This is something else, my friend.
“I know you aren’t hungry, as Gwen specifically told me you were fed less than an hour ago. Though with Arthur’s genes, that doesn’t mean much. I know you’re clean because you were bathed- by me, in case you’ve forgotten that- just this afternoon.
“There is one other reason why you could be crying though.” Merlin paused for dramatic effect. “You are tired. Which is actually what I am attempting to assist you with here. You see, this here crib, as I’m sure you are aware, is a mighty fine place to sleep. It’s more comfortable than my bed for sure. If you lay down in said crib, you will fall asleep quite quickly, I guarantee you. Now if you fall asleep, this will do wonders to solve your whole ‘being tired’ issue. And as you are too young for me to morally drug into an unconscious state, it’s really your best and only option.”
Merlin waited, furrowing his eyebrows as the baby continued to cry. “What? What do you want? I’m not getting Gwen, so you’re going to have to suck it up.”
Several minutes went by before finally, finally… Thomas stopped crying.
“See? Isn’t this nice?” Merlin walked gently towards the crib, slowly pacing Thomas down onto the padded surface. “That’s good, isn’t it? Nice and comfy. It’s the highest of quality, or so I’ve been told. Perfect for little prince babies.”
Merlin took a few steps back, tiptoeing towards the door. This time it would work. This time, Thomas would stay asleep. He would sleep peacefully and not start crying again.
And then the child started crying once more.
Merlin let out an audible groan, turning to glare at the baby. “Thomas. My lad. My boy.” He reluctantly walked back over to the crib, taking the child back into his arms. “You know. I’m quite tired as well. I thought maybe tonight I’d get to go to bed as a decent time, but… perhaps not.”
Thomas stopped crying fairly quickly after being picked up, but setting him down only set off his crying once again.
“This is going to be a long night.”
When Arthur finally came to check in on Thomas in the morning, he was alarmed to find the crib empty. That alarm faded fairly quickly when he looked over towards the chair in the corner of the room to find Merlin asleep with his son folded up in his arms.
Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder, jerking him into consciousness.
“Arthur!” Merlin eyes blinked open as he looked around the child’s room. “I- uh.”
“It’s okay. I’ll take Thomas.” Arthur placated. “Go get some proper sleep. In a bed.”
Merlin looked mildly confused for a moment until he seemed to realize where he was. “Are you sure? I said I would-”
“Yes.” Arthur pulled Thomas from Merlin’s loose arms, careful not to wake the sleeping infant. “I’ll look after him.”
“But the council meeting-”
“Is over. You slept through it.”
Merlin’s head jerked up at that. “Oh, shoot. Arthur, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Merlin, it’s fine. You’ve clearly had a long night. It was nothing that would have concerned you anyways.”
Merlin closed his eyes. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep here. He just…”
“Go sleep, Merlin.” Arthur pulled the man from his chair and towards the door. “Believe it or not, I am capable of taking care of my own son.”
Merlin let out a short breath. “Alright. Thank you.”
“Go.” Arthur ordered, cradling his son in one arm while the other shot out to point down the hall.
“Yes, sire.” Merlin mumbled, trudging down the fortunately empty hall.
“This whole thing is a bad idea.” Lenin grumbled, crossing his arms. “The kid’s just going to end up getting himself killed.”
“What does it matter to you?” Merlin shot back. “You clearly don’t care much for him. What does it matter if he dies?”
“I don’t hate him.” Lenin argued. “I just don’t really know him, but if he can get Fendrel off the throne and prevent me from fleeing the country, then I’m all in.”
“So you’re using him?”
“And you aren’t?” Lenin raised an eyebrow. “Face it. You want Fendrel gone as much as I do- probably more- and you’re more than willing to use that kid to get it.”
“I’m helping him.”
“He’s fulfilling the role you want him to.” Lenin raised his arms in surrender as Merlin turned to glare at him. “Hey. I’m not saying your wrong. I’d do the same thing.”
Merlin huffed, shaking his head. “Forgive me if that isn’t comforting.”
“Why didn’t you tell Arthur the truth?” Lenin asked, watching Merlin with curiosity. “You could have told him who I was. He would never have wanted me to come along if he knew I kidnapped his son.”
“He would have killed you.” Merlin said simply.
“Yeah. Probably. Why stop him? I mean, it’s pretty obvious you want me dead. You just don’t have to guts to actually kill me yourself.” Merlin clenched his fists tighter at that. “Why stop someone else from doing it for you?”
“Why didn’t you tell Fendrel the truth about me?” Merlin finally said in response. “If you had told him how powerful I was, you could have sold me into slavery, but you didn’t. Why?”
“Because…” Lenin sighed. “Because I’ve seen what those slaves go through. I had already stolen you from you home. It didn’t seem necessary to put you through that as well- even if I would have gotten some good coin from it.”
“The King was going to execute me.”
“Death is a better fate.” Lenin didn’t say anything for a moment. “In truth, I should have never taken you in the first place. The kid was the only one I was supposed to grab. I didn’t think about it. Once we got there, I couldn’t bring myself to put you through that when you were never meant to have been involved at all.”
Merlin stared at him for several seconds. “Are you trying to convince me that you have a heart or something?”
“You asked.” Lenin rubbed his hands over his eyes. “I’m going to collect firewood. You do… whatever it is dragonlords do.”
Berlian rubbed up against Merlin’s leg as the other man went past the treeline and out of sight.
“It’s alright.” Merlin placed a hand on the small dragon’s head. “Andor will be fine. Both of them will.”
The halls were familiar- which was unexpected. It had been so long, and so much had changed, that they very idea that these halls would remain the same was… jarring.
The doors to the throne room opened, and the guards brought him inside.
“Leave us.” Fendrel didn’t look towards him as he spoke, still facing the wall.
The guards did as they were told, releasing the prince’s arms and vacating the room.
“Father.” Andor said after a moment of silence.
“I didn’t expect to see you here.” The King finally turned towards him, though there was a distinct lack of eye contact.
“Nor did I, if I am to be honest.” Andor let out a slow breath. “I never thought I’d return while my father still hunted for my blood.”
“It brings me no pleasure. You must know that.”
Andor raised his chin. “Yet you still would. You would kill your own child. You would commit filicide, a crime denounced by all, because of my mother’s sins.”
“If I knew for certain that you were my son, you would be spared.” Fendrel finally looked at him. “But I cannot take any chances. I cannot allow the bloodline of my lineage to be spoiled.”
Andor furrowed his eyebrows. “But I am your son.”
“That is what you have been told.” Fendrel agreed. “It was what I was told. But many years ago, I suspected your mother of adultery. She assured me that it was not true, and that you were indeed my child. I believed her at the time, but ever since I caught her in the act, I cannot be certain of her promises. You could be my son, but you could not be. I will not take that chance, no matter how much it pains me to do so.”
Andor clenched his teeth, forcing in slow breaths. “You would rather bring a foriegn child into your court than your own possibly illegitimate child?”
“Thomas has royal blood. There is no denying that.” Fendrel reached down to the goblet of wine on the table, taking a long sip. His hand looked as if it could be shaking slightly, but it was hard to tell. “It would be best to have an heir of my own royal blood, but that is not an option.”
“That is an option.”
“Your mother was a noble, but not a royal. If I am not your father, than you are not royal.” Fendrel set the wine back down on the table. “I wish this were not so. I wish your mother had not betrayed me. I did love you, Andor.”
“Did?” It was not a surprise, but it still hurt.
“I cannot allow myself to be weak. You know this.” Fendrel gave the boy a long look. “You’ve grown so much. Part of me always hoped I’d never find you. After three years, I began to think I would get my wish, only for you to walk straight to me.”
“I didn’t come to reconcile.” Andor looked down, refusing to let the tears building in his eyes fall. “I have come to warn you. If you do not change your ways and end the enslavement of dragons and sorcerers alike, you will be forced to pay the consequences.”
Fendrel raised an eyebrow. “Threats? That’s why you’ve come?”
“They are coming, father. And you won’t be able to stop them.” Andor looked back up. “If you stop your persecution, then I will spare you.”
The King’s eyes darkened. “You will not threaten me, boy. I am the king, and whatever army you’ve managed to scrounge up will die alongside you. Guards!”
The doors to the room opened once again, and two guards entered.
“Take him back to the dungeons. We are finished here.”
“Father.” Andor called out as the guards grabbed his arms. “This won’t end well for you, and I don’t want to see you dead.”
“Take him.” Fendrel repeated, and the guards began dragging him from the room, letting the doors slam shut behind him.
Chapter 29: With Honor Out of Play
“Eva, we can’t do this. What if someone sees us?” Lenin whispered back. “The King doesn’t know about us, and it’s safer if it stays that way.”
“Safer for you, you mean.”
“He killed her, Lenin. He… she’s dead. And Andor will be next.” The alcove managed to hide them from peering eyes, but it would do little to help them if anyone came to investigate.
“Andor is long gone by now.” Lenin argued.
“But he’s still searching for him.”
“What would you suggest I do?”
“Find him first. Get him on that boat of yours and sail as far away as possible. Get him away from here.”
Lenin shook his head. “Eva. I can’t. If the King finds out, he will kill me.”
“He’s a child! You can’t just let him die.”
“I can, and I will.”
Eva took a step back. “What?”
“It’s not-” He let out a rough sigh. “I don’t want the kid dead, okay, but I’m not getting involved in this. If the King finds him, then so be it.”
“If the King finds him, I’ll be dead, too.” Eva said quietly. “I was her maid. He already suspects me in aiding him in his escape. The only reason he hasn’t executed me already is to have leverage against him. Once Fendrel finds Andor, he’ll just kill me, too. Do you care about that?”
“I won’t let that happen.”
“If you won’t even help Andor, then what hope is there for me?”
“I’ve barely even met the kid!”
“But I have! Andor is- he’s a good kid. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“I never said he did.”
“Yet you won’t help him?”
“I’m not risking myself for some kid I don’t even know.”
Eva took a step back, raising her chin. “Then I suppose we’re done here.”
The sound of wings flapping was the first thing to spark Merlin’s attention.
“Aithusa!” Merlin called out as the two dragons approached. “You’re back!”
“Indeed.” Aithusa lowered her head. “We went to the sanctuary. Many, though not all, of the dragons have agreed to assist us.”
Merlin let a smile cross his lips. “Great. That’s great.”
“Where is Andor?” Iamyr spoke, his eyes wandering across the camp.
Merlin winced. “He went to the castle. He wanted to confront his father before the dragons attacked. As far as I’m aware both him and Arthur are in the King’s custody.”
Aithusa’s eyes narrowed on him. “Arthur?”
Merlin let out a sigh. “He refused to let Andor go alone.”
“You should never have allowed Andor to leave.” Iamyr said harshly. “The dragons will attack the castle, and they could be hit in the crossfire. You must get them out before then.”
“Okay.” Merlin nodded. “I’ll get them out. How long until they get here?”
“Less than an hour.”
“Can’t you just tell them to wait?”
“They will not be inclined to do so.”
“Great.” Merlin said with less enthusiasm. It wasn’t a very long amount of time, but it would have to do. Berlian pressed his head into Merlin’s hand, and the dragonlord relented. “Alright. Berlian and I will sneak into the castle.”
“There’s no way you’ll be able to sneak in.” Lenin crossed his arms. “You’re the most recognizable person here. The second you cross the gate, you’ll be seen.”
“I have no intentions of going through the gate. There are some tunnels that lead straight into the dungeons. It’s how Andor got me out to begin with.”
Lenin paused for a moment before nodding. “Alright. Sounds like a plan.” He turned to Neal. “Stay with Eva. Get her out of here if any trouble comes your way.”
“Lenin-” Eva started, but was interrupted.
“You wanted me to help, so here I am. Helping.” Lenin turned back to Merlin. “Let’s go.”
The dungeons were not unlike Camelot’s. It was more disconcerting then comforting. Any and all similarities between Camelot and this wretched kingdom were not to be applauded.
Was this where his son had been for the past two months? No. No, he had been in a room, right? Not a cell. Not in the dungeons. Merlin had been in the dungeons at times, but not him. Not Thomas.
“What happened?” Arthur finally asked. He had been watching the boy since his return to their cell. Andor had not said a word since then, only curling up in the corner silently. “Andor, what happened?”
“We talked.” Andor said after a long moment. “He… he said that I may not even be his son, and that’s why he wanted yours. At least yours is royal. He doesn’t- He doesn’t know if I am.”
“That’s not your fault, Andor.” Arthur tried with little luck. He wasn’t sure what he would have done in the boy’s shoes. There had never been a doubt in his mind that he was his father’s son- even when there were times he wished he wasn’t.
“How can I take the throne?” The boy pressed his head into his knees. “How am I supposed to take the throne if I’m not even a legitimate heir? I have no right to it.”
“These people are being ruled by a tyrant.” Arthur argued. “Blood matters very little in these situations. All that matters is that you lead them. If you can give them hope, then birthrights means nothing.”
“They won’t support me.” Andor mumbled into his own legs. “Even if my father is killed, they will never accept me on the throne.”
“I think you’d be surprised.” Arthur said softly. “You were their prince for many years. They watched you grow up. They watched as your father turned on you and hunted you like an animal. Seeing you alive after all these years could give them hope for the future. They’ve lived under a tyrant for so long, legitimate or not, all they may need is a bit of hope.”
Andor’s head slowly lifted towards Arthur. “You really think so?”
The sound of metal hitting the ground clanged through the air, and Arthur jumped to his feet. Merlin appeared in front of the bars, raising his hand towards the lock on the door.
“Tóspringe.” Merlin whispered the spell, and the lock fell, allowing the door to swing open. He looked up at the two occupants, concern clearly written across his face. “Are both of you alright?”
“Yes, we’re fine.” He looked down the hall to the two unconscious guards now on the floor. Or, at least, he could only assume they were unconscious. This place seemed to make Merlin do things Arthur never thought he would.
“The dragons are on their way.” Merlin explained, and both Lenin and the red dragon came into view. “They will be here soon. Very soon. We all need to get out before they arrive, or we’ll be burnt along with everyone else.”
Arthur nodded. “Very well. Take Andor. Get as far away as you can.”
Merlin furrowed his eyebrows. “What about you?”
Arthur looked up to where he knew the throne room would be. No two castles were all that different. “I have some unfinished business to take care of.”
Arthur pushed open the door to the throne room, letting it fall shut behind him. There was only one man inside. He didn’t particularly resemble Andor. Instead of Andor’s light brown hair, this man’s was dark. Black. Though there was something similar in the eyes. Perhaps he was Andor’s father. Perhaps he wasn’t. It didn’t matter.
The man turned towards him, eyebrows furrowed. “Who are you supposed to be?”
“Arthur.” He said simply, but it did nothing to ease the other man’s confusion.
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
Arthur raised his chin ever so slightly. “King Arthur. Of Camelot.”
Fendrel looked him over for a moment. “Never heard of it.”
Arthur nodded. “That’s fair. In truth, I’d never heard of your kingdom before either. That’s what happens when you’re separated by seas. Though, I’m surprised that Thomas never mentioned it.”
Something like understanding seemed to sink into the King’s features.
“Yes.” Arthur confirmed the silent question. “The child that you kidnapped from his home and held as your captive for two months is my son .”
Fendrel didn’t speak for a moment, watching Arthur with cautious eyes. “The boy is gone.”
“Yes, yes. I’m aware.” Arthur waved him off. “Thomas is safe and sound back home. I didn’t come here for him. In truth, I didn’t come here for this either.” He gestured to the two of them. “I came for Merlin. You know Merlin, right? The other one you kidnapped.”
“I never asked for him.”
“It didn’t stop you from torturing him.” Arthur said sharply. “But Merlin, and your son for that matter, are long gone. If he’s following orders, they should be out of the castle walls by now, though that isn’t saying much. Merlin doesn’t like doing what he’s told.”
“Yes.” Fendrel grounded out between clenched teeth. “I am aware of that.”
“It’s a lot worse for you than it is for me, though.” Arthur shrugged. “I mean- you’d be a lot better off if the outraged sorcerer was far, far away. I suppose we’ll just have to see. But that’s not important. Right now, I want to talk about dragons.”
“Dragons?” Fendrel raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“Yes. Dragons. We’ll get back to my son. Believe me, we-” Arthur smiled in a way that was far from joyful. “We will get back to my son, but for now there are other things to discuss.” Arthur began circling the room, and Fendrel struggled to keep him in his line of sight. “You see, you’re going about this all wrong.”
“Oh, am I now?”
“Yes.” Arthur nodded. “In Albion, all the dragons were hunted down and killed. All but one, that is.”
“What a waste.”
“Indeed.” Arthur agreed. “But you didn’t hunt them down. You captured them. You enslaved them. The result of such is all the dragons going into hiding. That is until one day they band together to rebel against you.”
Fendrel shook his head. “They are weapons, nothing more.”
“Weapons that will turn on you.”
As if on cue, fire began to rain down from the sky. Fendrel turned towards the window, his eyes widening. “What-”
“You see, Fendrel.” Arthur walked towards him until they were side by side, both watching the dragons’ destruction. “You don’t enslave dragons. You don’t capture them or torture them.” Arthur paused, turning to look Fendrel in the eyes. “You earn them.”
“What have you done?” Fendrel said, the horror obvious in his voice as another burst of fire hit the castle. “What have you done!?”
“Nothing.” Arthur assured him. “I’ve done nothing. But you remember that one dragon I mentioned? The one that survived the slaughter? She’s mine .”
“One dragon will not bring down this kingdom.”
“No, you’re right. She can’t do that. Not single handedly.” Arthur nodded. “But all those dragons you forced into hiding- they’re coming for you.”
“You think they’ll stand with you?”
“No. They don’t know me. I’m just a human, after all.” Arthur looked back out the window towards Aithusa. “But they will stand with her. And there is nothing you can do to stop them.”
“With a dragonlord, I can-”
“You mean the dragonlord you lost?” Arthur questioned. “Because here’s the thing about him.” He leaned in closer until they were nearly touching. “He’s mine, too.” Arthur took a few steps back, pulling his sword from its scabbard. “Arm yourself.”
“What?” Fendrel took a step back as well, though certainly for different reasons. “Guards!”
“I’m afraid your guards are a bit too busy with the dragon attack to help you now.” Arthur growled out, the calm pretense gone. “Now arm yourself.”
“And if I do not?”
“I’ve never been one to kill an unarmed man.” Arthur raised his sword. “But I thought my son was dead. I’m afraid honor isn’t in play at the moment. Now arm yourself .”
Fendrel did nothing for a moment before finally pulling out his own sword and raising it in front of him. “Thomas told me of your apparently legendary swordsmanship skills. I’m inclined to think of it as nothing but a son admiring his father.”
“Then I will be quick to disappoint you.”
Arthur swung down, Fendrel meeting his blow head on. Part of him wanted to make this last- to make him suffer. But there wasn’t time. They would both burn if he strung this out too long.
Fendrel was not as unskilled with a sword as Arthur had initially presumed. He was a soldier. He seemed perhaps a bit out of practice, but able to hold his own nonetheless.
After a few close calls, it was time to finish it.
Fendrel let out a gasp as the sword slid through his chest. Arthur held it there for several moments, saying nothing, before pulling it out and letting the other man fall to the ground.
Chapter 30: The Light of the Sun
“Arthur, it’s fine.”
“No. No, I can’t… I can’t.”
Merlin ran forward, grabbing Arthur’s arms as the man’s knees seemed to fail him. Arthur leaned against the brick wall, and with Merlin’s help, made his way to the floor.
Merlin sat down next to him, placing one hand on his shoulder. “Arthur. Everything’s going to be fine. Gaius knows what he’s doing.”
Arthur’s breaths only seemed to quicken. “Gaius delivered me, too. It didn’t stop my mother from…”
“Gwen is not going to die.” Merlin promised. “You know what happened to your mother. Your father made a deal. You didn’t make a deal. There is no balance that needs to be restored, and Gwen is strong. She’ll be alright.”
Arthur head fell into his legs. “I can’t lose her, Merlin. I can’t. I can’t.”
“You won’t.” Merlin’s grip tightened. “Listen to me. Your wife is going to be fine. Your son is going to be fine. Everything’s going to go perfectly.”
Arthur’s head peeked out of his arms. “My son?”
Merlin winced. “Oh. Shoot. Sorry.”
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows, shaking his head. “Wait. How do you know…”
Merlin sighed. “Okay. So. I may have used the Crystal of Neahtid to look into the future. It’s just, I know they’re going to be fine. Of course they will be. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be. But I knew how much it would destroy you if both of them, or even one of them… so I wanted to double check and make sure nothing bad would happen. So I looked a little bit into the future, and I saw them, and it’s a boy, and I didn’t mean to tell you. I figured you want it to be a surprise, but now I’ve ruined that. I’m sorry, Arthur, I-”
Strong arms wrapped around his shoulders, surprising Merlin into silence.
“They’re going to be alright.” Arthur whispered into the other man’s shoulder. “You saw them? Both of them?”
“Yeah.” Merlin assured him. “Yeah, I saw them both. The delivery went as it should. Gwen will be exhausted but otherwise fine. There’s going to be a bit of bleeding, but nothing Gaius can’t take care of. Your son will be a perfectly healthy little boy who you are going to say is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, and all your concerns are going to fall away because everything is going to be fine.”
Arthur surprised Merlin once again by letting out a choked sob. “They’re going to be okay. They… they… they’re going to be okay.”
Merlin finally reciprocated the hug, wrapping his own arms around Arthur. “Yeah. Yeah, they’re going to be okay. And you are going to be an amazing father.”
“You saw that in your vision, too?”
“Nope.” Merlin shook his head. “I just know.”
“Merlin?!” Merlin turned at the familiar voice, and Arthur rushed towards him. “What are you doing here? I told you get take Andor and leave!”
“Lenin took him!” Merlin yelled back. It was hard to hear anything over the rampaging dragons. “I couldn’t just leave while you were still here!”
“Every guard here is looking for you!”
“They’re a bit preoccupied at the moment!” Merlin and Arthur both ducked to avoid another onslaught of flames. “What about Fendrel?!”
“Dead!” Arthur confirmed, making Merlin nod.
Screams caught the attention of both men as a family struggled to escape the dragon’s attack. The woman had a child in her arms, while a younger boy stood by her side. There was not one among them not covered in soot and ash.
Arthur ran towards then, gesturing towards the house behind them. “Go inside! Stay out of the courtyard!”
A dragon Merlin didn’t recognize flew down, raining fire down upon the wooden house. Within moments, it was up in flames.
“No! Don’t-” Arthur turned the woman towards the gates. “Leave the city! Go to the forest!” They did as he commanded, and Arthur turned back to Merlin. “The dragons! They’re attacking civilians!”
Another dragon swooped down onto another part of the town, and Merlin raised turned towards them. “Ithi!” The dragon stopped in its attack, but others did not. He tried once more with the same effect.
“I can only control one at a time!” Merlin shouted at Arthur.
“How many are there!?”
“I don’t know!”
A dragon appeared above them, preparing to engulf to two men in flames, but then Aithusa appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and rammed herself into the other dragon, knocking it off course. It was quick to retaliate, hitting Aithusa hard enough to nearly send her to the ground. She recovered at the last second, barely saving herself from the impact. Berlian flew up into the air to aid her, but was easily knocked back down.
“Aithusa!” Arthur cried out, but there was nothing he could do as more dragons began to attack her. He looked to Merlin, eyes wide. “Why are they doing this!?”
“They’re angry!” It was the only conclusion Merlin could come to. “They’ve been hunted and enslaved for years! They want revenge!” Merlin raised his hand towards one of the dragons attacking Aithusa. “Ithi!”
Once again, the single dragon paused in it’s attack, but it did nothing to stop the others as they continued their onslaught. Aithusa was one of them, but she was standing in their way. They weren’t going to let her stop them.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled, desperation clear in his voice. “Make them stop! They’re going to kill her!”
“I’m trying!” He had never commanded more than one dragon before. He didn’t know how. It was far more difficult than he would have thought. Being a dragonlord- it had always come naturally, but this… this was something else entirely.
“You are the last dragonlord now. You alone carry the ancient gift. Deep within yourself, you must find the voice that you and Kilgharrah share, for your soul and his are brothers. When you speak to him as kin, he must obey your will.”
One of the dragons swooped down dangerously low, knocking Merlin off his feet. He hit the ground hard, his vision blurring for just a moment.
They were dragons. There were many of them, but they were still just dragons. And he was a dragonlord. He could control them. He had to control them.
He may not be the last dragonlord, but he was still a dragonlord.
And they would obey him.
Merlin bowed his head for several seconds, taking in a long, deep breath. He could feel it deep inside him. It was intertwined with his magic, like it always had been. Even before his father’s death, it had been there, waiting until the son would be able to wield it. His eyes turned gold as he let the power flow through him.
He was a dragonlord.
And they would obey him.
“O drakons! Non didlkai! Kari miss, epsipass imalla krat! Katostar abore ceriss! Katicur! Me ta sentende divoless! Kar krisass!”
The dragons ceased in their assault, clearly not happy to do so. They halted in the air, looking down upon the humans below them.
Merlin turned to the remaining soldiers, who were watching the dragonlord with a look of pure bewilderment. “The King is dead! Prince Andor has returned to take the throne! You will stand down and pledge your allegiance to your new king, or I will reign the fire of dragons down upon you! Are there any who will resist!?”
After the display the dragons had just shown, it was a surprise no one when none walked forward.
Then a sharp pain buried itself in Merlin’s side, and he let out a cry of pain.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
Merlin turned towards the voice. Rodrick. The knight was still clearly wounded, holding a dagger as opposed to a sword. The dagger, Merlin noticed, was covered in blood. His blood.
Rodrick stood a step forward, and Merlin prepared his magic, ready to send the man flying back.
“You were never worth the trouble. Fendrel should have had you executed the moment you arrived! You should have burned like the sorcerer-”
A sword pierced through the knight’s chest. Once removed, Rodrick fell to the ground, revealing a familiar form behind him.
“I never liked him.” Lenin said, pushing his sword back into his scabbard. “He’s always had a bit of a temper.”
Merlin shook his head. “I told you to take Andor back to the camp.”
“I did.” Lenin argued. “Well. I got him out of the gates. He can handle the rest of the trip on his own.”
Merlin huffed, holding his side as he struggled to find Arthur in the still remaining dust clouds that covered the courtyard. He was gone. Where had he gone?
He limped deeper into the courtyard, where he finally found the King.
Arthur’s hand laid upon the cold white scales- covered in blood. Merlin could see a slight tremor in his arm, and it was obvious as to why.
“Help her.” Arthur demanded. “Save her. Use your magic and heal her.”
Merlin slowly began to shake his head. “I can’t. It’s not possible.” Even with all his magic, dragons were made of so much more. “Arthur-”
“Just don’t.” There was a shake in his voice- one Merlin hadn’t heard in a long time. “Please. Just don’t.”
Merlin fell quiet. Aithusa was still- far more still than she had ever been before. She did not wince in pain, nor did her chest move for breath. Her pale, white scales seemed dimmed almost, as if the light had left it.
The light of the sun.
“Thank you, old friend.” Arthur whispered, barely loud enough for Merlin to hear. He grazed his hand across her face, pushing the eyelids shut. Arthur bowed his head, shutting his own eyes as he did so. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
The light of the sun was gone.
They returned to the camp slowly, one of Merlin’s arms strung over Arthur’s shoulder. Andor, as Merlin expected, was waiting for them there, along with Neal and Eva.
“Merlin! Arthur!” Andor called out as they approached. His eyes narrowed at the blood stained on Merlin’s shirt. “You’re injured.”
“I’m alright.” Merlin waved him off. “It didn’t hit anything major. It’ll heal.”
“I’ll wrap it.” Andor said, running over to his meager supply of bandages. “It’ll only take a moment.”
Arthur walked Merlin over to a nearby tree, and set him down against it. Andor rushed over, lifting the shirt to inspect the wound.
“Fendrel is dead.” Arthur said after a moment of silence.
Andor paused, his mouth opening for a moment, then closing, then opening once again. “I- I see.”
“It’s better off that way.” Lenin briefly placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Andor nodded. “Yes. Yes, I know.” He took in a long breath. “Where’s Aithusa?”
“Dead.” The King looked down at Andor. Despite Merlin having been the one stabbed, Arthur seemed far paler.
“I- I’m sorry. I didn’t realize-”
“Your kingdom is your own. They await for you to take the throne.”
Andor hesitated for several seconds before meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Thank you.”
“We must return to our own kingdom now.”
“Of course.” Andor nodded. “Well, I’m sure some of the dragons would be willing to assist you in-”
“I don’t want their help.”
Andor seemed stunned by the response and was clearly unsure of what to say.
“I can take you home.” Iamyr spoke up for the first time.
Satisfied with the wrapping, Andor stood. “I’m sorry about everything that happened- everything my father did to the two of you. I hope-”
“It doesn’t matter.” Arthur said stiffly. “Now we must return home.”
Andor nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you for your help.”
Arthur walked past him towards Iamyr without another word.
Merlin let out a sigh, turning to the former prince. “I’m sorry. Aithusa… she…”
“I understand completely.” Andor closed his eyes. “I do wish the price for this had not been so high. I know how much she meant to you.”
“It’s not your fault.” Merlin laid a hand on Andor’s shoulder. “This land will prosper under your rule. I am sure of it.” Andor didn’t look as convinced, but smiled anyways. “You must be careful of these dragons, however. They’ve been under threat for too long. They will not be quick to trust.”
“I will act with caution.”
“Good.” Merlin let out a breath. “You will do great. I know you will.”
“Merlin…” Eva approached hesitantly, barely meeting his eyes.
“I will never forgive you for what you did. Either of you.” Merlin glanced at Lenin, who was standing just a few feet behind her. “But this is another chance for you. Don’t let go of it.”
“I will not.” Eva finally looked at him. “Thank you, Merlin.”
Berlian brushed against Merlin’s leg, looking up at him in a way Merlin didn’t quite recognize.
“I think Berlian would like to go with you.” Andor said after a moment.
“I- I can’t.” Merlin shook his head, and Berlian took a step back, as if hurt. “No, no, you don’t understand. You’d be the only dragon in all of Albion. You’d be alone.”
Iamyr raised his head. “Berlian is no stranger to being alone. I am the only dragon he has ever known.”
“And I can’t take him away from you.”
“I am old. Nature will do that soon enough.” The dragon tilted his head ever so slightly. “He would be better off with a dragonlord, would he not?”
Merlin looked back down at him. Aithusa was gone. She would not have wanted him to leave Camelot unprotected. “I… I suppose.”
Berlian rubbed up against the man, clearly pleased by the turn of events.
“Good luck, Merlin.” Andor said at last. “And thank you for everything.”
Merlin nodded to the new king. “Same to you, sire.”
Iamyr lowered himself once more as Merlin approached, allowing Merlin to pull himself onto the large beast.
“Are you ready?” Arthur asked as the man situated himself behind him.
“Yeah.” Merlin said softly. “It’s time to go home.”
For some reason, he had expected Camelot to look different. In the grand scheme of things, he hadn’t been gone that long. What was a few months, really?
Iamyr, not knowing better, or perhaps simply not caring, landed in the middle of the courtyard, frightening away most of the civilians going about their day. At the very least, they wouldn’t need anyone to announce their arrival.
“Father!” Thomas appaeared at the top of the stairs and ran out into the courtyard, his eyes widening upon seeing Merlin. “Merlin!”
The boy ran towards him, and Merlin jumped down from the dragon, pulling the boy into his arms.
“Hey. I’m here. I’m home- just like I said I would be.” Merlin said as Thomas clutched at his shirt.
“I thought you… I thought you were…”
“I’m home.” Merlin repeated, running a hand through Thomas’s hair. “I’m safe. I promise. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
Merlin could see Gwen approaching from the corner of his eye, looking relieved, and wrapping her arms around her husband. Still- it was almost as if she could tell something was wrong. Gwen could always tell.
“Woah.” Thomas looked up at the much larger dragon- as if noticing him for the first time. He didn’t seem to even see the small, red dragon just behind him. “You’re big.”
Merlin reluctantly put Thomas down as the knights approached. Gwaine was the first in line, giving Merlin a far too tight hug.
“We thought we lost you.” Gwaine said, a grin covering his face.
“It’s going to be harder than that to get rid of me.” It was good to be home. Gods, it was good to be home.
“Father? Where is Aithusa?” Merlin froze when the boy spoke, turning slowly to look at the King’s pale face.
Arthur went down to one knee, placing both hands on his son’s shoulders. “Thomas. Aithusa… she…”
“Did she go to the caves? Why didn’t she come to the courtyard with everyone else?”
“There was a battle, Thomas.” Arthur’s grip on him tightened. “And Aithusa fought. She fought very bravely, and she…” Arthur was unable to finish the sentence, but Thomas seemed to understand what he was going to say anyways.
“No.” Thomas shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no.”
Arthur pulled him into his chest as sobs began to wrack the child’s body. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Thomas.”
“No, no, no.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. “No. She can’t be. She- She can’t be.”
Thomas’s tears were reflected in Merlin’s own eyes as well. This was just one more time Merlin had failed his white dragon. And this would be the last time as well.
Merlin slipped away the group. With all the attention now on Thomas, it was easy to do so. Arthur would know where he was going.
He needed to see Gaius. He would see Gaius. Today. He would make sure to see him today. But right now there was someone else he needed to see.
He didn’t bother knocking as he entered the room, thought he was mildly surprised to see Mordred inside.
“Merlin?” Mordred asked, face slack with shock. He walked forward, wrapping Merlin in a hug. “I knew you were alive, but… but still, I didn’t think…” He let out a laugh. “It’s good to see you.”
Mordred glanced behind him, quickly letting go of Merlin. “I’ll see you soon.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Mordred looked behind him once more before leaving the room and shutting the door behind him. Mithian stared at Merlin, remaining unmoving- as if she didn’t know what to do.
“Mithian.” Merlin said quietly. “I… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
“No. Don’t.” She ran forward, wrapping her arms around him. “Just… be quiet.”
“Okay.” Merlin nodded. “I- I can do that.”
She smiled, pressing her face into his chest. “Just never, never leave me again.”
“Okay.” Merlin said once again. “I can do that, too.”
“Aithusa?” Arthur called out as he finally made his way to the top of the turrets.
The white dragon turned her head towards him for a moment before looking back out to the lower town. “Hello Arthur.”
Arthur walked towards her. “What are you doing up here?”
A snuff of air escaped the dragon’s nostrils, appearing foggy in the cold winter air. “I like the view.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “You can fly.”
Aithusa didn’t seem inclined to respond to that particular comment.
“It’s cold.” Arthur said instead, shuffling closer to the dragon. “You’d be warmer in the caves.”
“And out of sight.”
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, wincing. “I’m sorry about earlier. Merlin told me what happened. I wish I’d been there.”
“There was nothing you could have done.”
“I would have told them to stop.”
“They would not have listened.”
“I’m their King .”
Aithusa turned towards him. “And will you use this power to instill fear into your citizens? Will you force them to accept what they cannot?”
Arthur sighed. “That will change in time. People aren’t used to seeing dragons flying around.”
“You’ve said that for three years.” Aithusa rested her head on the cold stone. “I know that is what you believe, but with every day that passes, I have less and less faith in it.”
Arthur nearly flinched at the words, looking away. “I- I’m sorry. I…”
“It is not your fault.” Aithusa said, forcing Arthur to look at her once again. “You have done everything in your power to bring acceptance to my kind. The simple fact of the matter is that it may never come. Sorcerers will one day be welcomed with open arms- I am sure of that- but not dragons. That’s a step too far for many.”
“That’s not true.” Arthur shook his head. “That time will come.”
“Perhaps.” Aithusa let out a breath. “But not in my lifetime. When my time comes, I fear there will be far more people cheering than grieving.”
Arthur continued to shake his head. “No. No, that’s not… that isn’t true.”
“It’s alright.” Aithusa said soothingly. “It does not trouble me. I do not need their praise. I do not need their grief. I have my family, and that is all that matters.”
Arthur leaned against her white scales. Whether it was an attempt to warm her or comfort her, even Arthur didn’t know. Perhaps it was both.
“You know we love you, right?” Arthur said after a moment. “You’re a part of our family.”
“Yes.” Aithusa nodded. “I know.”
“Good.” Arthur smiled. “Now are you sure you don’t want to go inside?”
“I will. Eventually.” Aithusa glanced at him. “There is no need for you to remain out here with me.”
“I’ll leave when you leave.”
Aithusa wrapped a wing around the man, blocking out the worst of the wind. “Then I suppose you would do well to get comfortable.”
Arthur did so, pressing his head against her side. “You are loved, Aithusa. Never forget that.”
“As are you.”
And nothing else mattered.
Hey guys. So. Here we meet again. At the end of times.
This is almost certainly the end for this series, but who knows. Maybe one day I'll pop back into it. But probably not.
If you want to be updated on up and coming works and probably my cat, this here is a link to my tumblr. I am the least social media savy person you will ever meet, so just keep that in mind. ;)
I hope I see ya'll soon.
"By the way." Arthur glanced at Merlin across the table. "What did those two ever do to make you hate them so much?"
"Eva and Lenin?" Merlin questioned, making Arthur nod. "Well, Lenin was the mercenary that kidnapped us to begin with. And then Eva poisoned Thomas, but it all fairness, I think she felt pretty bad about it."
Arthur opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out for several seconds. "They what?"