As Arthur was frog marched into Annis’ tent his only hope was that he wasn’t making a grave mistake. But he had to try. He couldn’t let his Knights and the soldiers of Caerleon’s army to pay for his mistake with their lives needlessly.
The slap he received on arrival was not a surprise, but it stung all the same.
“Your highness,” Arthur started to speak again, feeling the stinging of his cheek keenly. “I know you feel nothing but contempt for me. You feel I’ve done you a grievous wrong and you would be right. I’m ashamed of what I did. It was cowardly. It was unjust, and I’m deeply sorry.”
“Sorry, does not bring back my husband,” Annis shot in harshly. It took all Arthur had to stand tall and look the Queen in the eye as she spat at him. “Sorry does not give my people back their king.”
“I realise that. I know there is nothing I can do to repair that loss.”
“Then what are you doing here Arthur Pendragon?”
Trial by Combat. It was the only thing he could think of to fix this mess. Arthur should be the one to fight. He should be the one on which the future of two Kingdoms rested. Not some nameless knights. It should be Arthur, and Arthur alone, who paid for his grave mistakes.
“And why should I grant you this favour?” the Queen asked, derision colouring her face.
“There has been blood shed enough already your highness. Many hundreds of lives will be saved this way.”
At the nod of the Queen’s head Arthur’s arms were released and Arthur felt the first fissure of relief run through him… That was until Merlin stumbled in.
Annis’ gaze shut down again as soon as Arthur’s servant was dragged into the tent and thrown to his knees.
“You know him?” she asked accusingly, and Arthur fought with his response. If he said no Merlin would surely be killed. If he said yes it would look like he brought a spy to their negotiations. He glanced back down at his servant who was looking up at him with wide, shocked eyes.
“He’s my servant,” Arthur admitted in the end with little other choice. “He must have followed me here. I knew nothing about it.”
With little more than a glance the Queen flicked her wrist. “Kill him.”
“Wait!” Arthur called to the Queen’s retreating back. “Let him go. He’s just a simple-minded fool.”
“That is two favours you have asked of me this night Arthur Pendragon.”
The Queen turned, walking back to her throne in thought. Arthur dare not speak lest he break the tension of this precipice they were on, and he sent a silent prayer to the gods that Merlin stay quiet. When she looked back up she looked straight at Arthur, her gaze holding some kind of victory Arthur was not aware of. It sent a shiver of fear down his back.
“Very well,” the Queen said slowly, leaning back in her chair. “You shall have your trial by combat. And there is your Champion.”
She nodded to Arthur’s right and it took a moment for the meaning of Annis’ words to become clear. It wasn’t until he registered Merlin’s sharp intake of breath and the smug expression on the Queen’s face that he realised who she meant.
“Merlin?” he asked, not holding back the ounce of incredulity that entered his tone. “He isn’t a warrior! He can barely lift a sword!”
“Then he dies. And Camelot forfeits. You asked for two favours. I will only grant you one. It is your choice Arthur Pendragon. The life of your servant of that of your army?”
Arthur opened his mouth to protest and closed it again. He came here to argue for Single Combat. He could hardly leave without it. But… he couldn’t. He couldn’t so clearly trade Merlin’s life away, as much as an idiot as he was. Arthur was trapped, in a circle of his own making, and he couldn’t see a way out.
“What are the terms?” Merlin asked quietly from Arthur’s feet. The Queen’s gaze swivelled down to the servant, as calculating and piercing as it had been on Arthur.
“Merlin, shut up!” he barked, sending him a sharp glance.
But as usual the boy didn’t listen to him. Merlin sent him a warning look, as if Arthur were the idiotic one here, and turned back to face Queen Annis, shoulders back, spine straight, even as he knelt in the dirt at her feet.
“A fight to the death,” she said simply.
“And the weapon?”
She looked down at the servant with a begrudging respect in her cold gaze. “Noon tomorrow.”
Merlin nodded and the men at his arms let go, allowing the servant to rise. “Thank you, your highness,” he said with a small bow before turning to leave.
“Queen Annis, please!” Arthur interjected, half torn between his servant and the Queen.
“Enough!” Annis snapped, cutting off Arthur’s objections. Her eyes held no warmth, no offer of mercy as she stared him down. “You killed my husband, my people’s king. You claim to parlay for peace yet bring a spy. You will have your single combat. And you have your champion. Now go.”
There was no arguing with that tone and Arthur could do little else but turn and leave.
Soon the trees thinned and the vast plane of white Camelot tents opened up before him bringing with it the cries of his most trusted knights. Their faces were harried and worried as they saw Arthur emerging from the trees, with Merlin trailing behind as always.
“Arthur! Sire,” they called. “Where have you been?”
Slowly Arthur schooled his face back into his kingly façade, battling down his rolling anxiety and worry and fear until his face became hard and impassable.
“Merlin,” Arthur called. Quickly his servant swam into his peripheral vision but Arthur daren’t look at him. “Go to the tent.”
Merlin opened his mouth, no doubt to complain about being ordered around, but something in Arthur’s face must have changed his mind as his mouth closed and he simply nodded, quickly disappearing into the folds of Arthur’s tent door.
Leon stepped forward, glancing from Arthur’s stony face to where Merlin had obediently and uncharacteristically seconded himself into the tent without comment.
“Arthur what’s happened?”
Arthur took a deep breath and looked his knights square in the eyes. “I went to Queen Annis to plead for an end to the battle. We agreed on a single combat to settle the score. The winner takes half of the kingdom.”
“But sire we can win this battle-” Leon started but Arthur held up a hand to silence him.
“But at what cost?” Arthur said shaking his head.
He didn’t quite know how to share the rest of what had occurred within that tent to his knights; his knights that loved Merlin as if he were a brother. But he should have known that they wouldn’t have given him the chance to brood. Gwaine quickly sensed there was more to the story.
“What aren’t you saying?” the knight asked, his hand instinctively coming to the hilt of his sword as the hint of danger lurked in the shadows.
“We were in the middle of negotiations and then Merlin blunders into the tent and she thinks I sent a spy,” Arthur paused and took a breath trying to even the anger bubbling up into his voice. “She ordered that Merlin be the champion for Camelot in the fight tomorrow.”
“Arthur!” Gwaine exhaled, his face paling and showing the worry that Arthur dare not show.
“Sire you cannot let Merlin do this,” Leon counselled, his calm and wise voice helping to steady Arthur’s heart. “Not only will he surely die but half of the kingdom will be lost.”
“There must be another way,” Elyan said with conviction. Arthur looked upon his knights, all looking at him with such surety that he would find an answer. But try as he might he could not think of a way to end this. He could not think of a way to save Merlin.
“I am going to speak to Merlin,” Arthur nodded and hoped that it reassured them. Because as he retreated back to his tent he still had no idea what he was going to do to fix this.
His tent seemed to glow white from the light of the fire already set alight inside and a strip of light emitted from the gap of the canvas door. As Arthur lifted back the fabric screen the warmth inside engulfed him.
Merlin was pottering around the room, lighting candles and clearing away scrolls. The domestic sight churned Arthur’s fear into anger as his servant – his clumsy, skinny, loyal servant – set about readying Arthur’s room for the night all the while the boy’s life hung in the balance.
“Merlin what do you think you’re doing?!” Arthur snapped.
Merlin paused, a jug of wine poised over Arthur’s goblet at the table. “Um,” he murmured looking back at the cup, “pouring you a glass of wine?”
Arthur grit his jaw and kicked out a chair at the table, grabbing Merlin’s shoulder and shoving him hard down into the seat.
“Sit,” he barked unnecessarily considering his manservant was already sat awkwardly at his table, the jug of wine still in hand.
Arthur couldn’t sit. Energy thrummed through his veins with nowhere to go. It was the type of energy that spurred him through battles when there were the lives of his people at risk and a kingdom to save. It was the type of energy that kept him going through the night and allowed him to push forward through pain.
But this time his kingdom needed saving and one of his people was in grave danger and Arthur had no idea what to do.
He paced back and forth around his tent, fruitless ideas and strategies running through his mind and being struck off in quick succession. When he could no longer stand it, when all available avenues for thought had been extinguished and he still had no idea what to do for the best he did what he normally did and spun to shout at his servant.
“What the hell were you thinking!?”
Merlin started, obviously caught unawares by Arthur’s shout, but he quickly rallied sending his own glare in Arthur’s direction.
“The King disappears into the forest on the eve of battle?” Merlin asked with a sardonic eyebrow. “I was following you to make sure you weren’t about to do anything stupid. Which, of course, you were.”
“I am a King doing what I think is best for my people. You are my servant who is supposed to clean my armour and serve me dinner. Not bumble along after me into enemy territory.”
“Well I’ve done it often enough before.”
“Merlin do you not understand? I cannot get you out of this!” Arthur raged, finally losing some of the control he had gained over his fear. “Tomorrow you will have to fight the Caerleon champion to the death and there isn’t anything that I can do!”
Arthur slumped slightly, his fight slowly seeping out of him as his thoughts came to a dead end. He couldn’t interfere in any way or Queen Annis would surely call him out and he would have to forfeit, half his kingdom falling into the hands of an enemy sovereign. There couldn’t be even the slightest impression that he was trying to interfere. But… Arthur rallied as a new plan started to form in his mind.
“But if you did not arrive at the battle field tomorrow…” Arthur spoke his half formed thoughts out loud. But Merlin always seemed to know exactly what Arthur was thinking. He looked up to find realisation and shock to manifest on Merlin’s face.
“You are asking me to run?!” his manservant shouted, coming to his feet in protest.
“Of course not. I can’t ask you to do that but if you were to slip off in the night-“
“Do you take me for that much of a coward?”
Merlin stared back at him with that dogged determination that Arthur so often admired but tonight made Arthur growl in frustration. He turned away, his hands gripping in his hair, not wanting Merlin to see the turmoil in his eyes. “Merlin this isn’t just your life on the line but half of my kingdom!”
Merlin was silent for a long time. So silent that Arthur hoped the boy had taken his advice and run. But when Arthur had composed himself and turned back Merlin was still stood in the King’s tent, still beside the grand table in the centre of the space.
His servant was stood staring into the flames of the small fire, a frown of contemplation marring his otherwise unmarked face. Arthur couldn’t help but marvel at all the wars and skirmishes that Merlin had fallen headlong into with Arthur and his knights that he was still here, standing and relatively unscathed. But that was all about to change and Arthur couldn’t do anything about it.
After what felt like an age Merlin’s form slowly straightened from its usual half slump, his shoulders rolling back like a man that had made a decision. It made Arthur’s skin grown cold.
“What are the rules?” Merlin asked, still staring into the flames.
“To the challenge,” Merlin rolled his eyes, giving Arthur an insolent glare from the corner of his eye. “I wouldn’t want to… I don’t know… besmirch the honour of Camelot or something by cheating.”
“What rules Merlin? You fight. One of you dies. You can’t think that I am letting you do this?”
“From where I am standing you don’t have a choice,” Merlin shrugged. “Queen Annis made it pretty clear. You pull me out of this fight and you will be going back on your deal. That means war. You don’t want that Arthur.”
“And you think I want you splattered all over the battle field instead?”
Merlin smiled at Arthur then, small and warm. “Arthur – are you worried about me? I knew you liked me really.”
“This is not a joking matter. You need to take this seriously!”
“Believe me Arthur,” Merlin said, his voice more sombre. “I am taking this seriously… More seriously than you know.”
“Good,” Arthur murmured, glad that Merlin was coming around. ”Good then we need a plan.”
Arthur swirled around the tent and sat down at his table where he wrote missives, read war maps and made plans. And at this table he would make the plan that was going to get both Merlin and half of his kingdom out of this alive.
Worry and panic were lacing through Arthur’s heart. Yes he had the safety and future of his kingdom to consider, and consider it he did for that was his duty as King. But Merlin… he had seen talented swordsmen slaughtered without mercy in single combat, their skulls smashed in, their insides spilling out. It was a grisly and undignified end.
Arthur couldn’t imagine that being the end for Merlin. It did not seem right somehow. And Arthur didn’t know if he would be able to stomach watching it.
As Arthur mused Merlin had wandered off to the side of the tent, placing the wine jug he still had in his hand on the side table, gathering a selection of fruit and bread onto a plate.
Arthur watched as Merlin brought the laden plate over to the table where Arthur sat, placing it before his king before clasping a strong hand to Arthur’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry Arthur. It will be alright,” Merlin nodded, before he turned as he made to leave the tent.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled.
Merlin couldn’t leave. If he did he would be going to bed and go to sleep and then the morning would come and Merlin would… and he still didn’t know how to fix this.
Merlin paused by the mouth of the tent, looking back at Arthur with that look he got. It was the look he got when the world was falling down around their ears, when Arthur felt progressively more panicked with each passing moment and Merlin seemed to become progressively calmer.
Arthur could not see what about this situation would not cause panic yet there Merlin stood looking at Arthur as if Arthur was the one going crazy and not his errant manservant.
Clenching his jaw Arthur took a breath. “If you lose...” he couldn’t even contemplate finishing that sentence and just let it hang there between them.
“I know. If I lose you will lose half of Camelot,” Merlin nodded, not understanding the entirety of Arthur’s stricken grief. “I won’t let that happen Arthur. Now get some sleep. It’s a big day tomorrow.”
And with that he was gone.
Gwaine had watched, sat by the fire sharpening his sword, as Merlin had calmly exited the King’s tent a few moments ago. For a man that had just been condemned to certain death he seemed awfully calm and collected. It made Gwaine nervous. What was the man planning?
Not long after Arthur emerged from the tent, his brows drawn and turmoil in his eyes.
“Arthur,” Gwaine greeted, jumping to his feet.
Arthur stared after Merlin who had wandered over to the other side of the campsite. He was being greeted heartily by the group surrounding the campfire and handed a flagon of wine.
“He is determined to see this through,” Arthur said, his voice gritty and low.
Gwaine shook his head in denial. “You have to speak to him.”
“I tried Gwaine!” Arthur hissed, his eyes darting around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “He wouldn’t hear of it. He accused me of thinking him a coward.”
Gwaine sighed. Well now there was no chance of convincing Merlin to back down, not if Arthur had called into question his bravery. For everything that Merlin was a coward was not one of them.
Both Gwaine and Arthur stared over to Merlin, his face illuminated in a laugh beside the campfire.
“Watch over him tonight Gwaine,” Arthur said, giving one last look over his shoulder before disappearing back into the folds of his tent.
Merlin spent the night surrounded by laughter and friends. Their mirth and ability to find amusement at even the smallest thing gave Merlin heart as he prepared himself for what he was planning to do.
It wasn’t until later that night, once all the men were asleep, that Merlin’s restraint broke. He wanted and needed to speak to someone; to tell them what he had planned and hear in response that he was making the right choice.
When everything had fallen silent Merlin slowly removed himself from his bed roll and silently tiptoed past the sleeping men into the wild forests that surrounded them. Slowly the greenery encased him as he crept further away from the camp, the blackness of the night surrounding him and his magic easily guiding his way.
Soon he was running, the ancient language of the Dragonlord’s spilling from his lips. Kilgharrah was waiting for him in the clearing when he broke through the foliage.
“Evening young warlock,” the great dragon greeted him with a small bow of his head.
“I think-” Merlin tried to speak through panting. Thickly he swallowed trying again. “I think it is the time.”
“Yes,” the dragon murmured in agreement. “That time has been circling for a while now. The time of your great destiny is almost upon us. Side by side with Arthur you must stand for Albion to have a hope.”
Merlin sighed shakily. That was what he had thought the old dragon would say.
“If Arthur reacts badly…”
“He will be shocked Merlin I am sure, you have been practicing magic to protect him for many years. He will see soon enough who you truly are. A half cannot truly-“
“Hate that which makes it a whole,” Merlin finished for the dragon with a roll of his yes. “Yes you’ve said that before.”
The great dragon harrumphed, kernels of black smoke puffing from his nostrils. Merlin just laughed. Soon he sobered as the day that lay before him came closer and the uncertain future ahead of that day remained even more uncertain.
“I hope that I am making the right choice.”
“One thing I have learnt about you over these many years Merlin is that very often you do. Do not doubt your choices now.”
Merlin stared up into Kilgharrah’s amber eyes.
“If things with Arthur do not go as planned I may have need of you.”
“I will stay close young warlock but I have hope. As should you.”
The ancient dragon gave one last bow and with a great heave of his wings he took off soaring into the lightening sky. Merlin stood back and watched for a moment until Kilgharrah was just a speck on the horizon.
“So that is how you are going to do it then?”
The rough voice startled Merlin and he swung around, arm stretching out before him until he came face to face with-
The knight stood before him, shock painted over his weathered face. Merlin stood still, his arm slowly lowering down to his side with no idea as to what to say.
“Magic Merlin?” the knight whispered, his eyes widening. “Magic! Do you have a death wish?”
Gwaine took a step forward, his sword still in hand. Merlin took an automatic step back. “I can explain-“
“Then explain how you think you are going to save your hide by winning the battle with magic?” Gwaine exclaimed. “Even if you manage to survive this battle what do you think that Arthur will do when he sees how you plan to do it?”
“I hope…” Merlin swallowed and straightened his shoulders, eyes still glancing warily at the sword in Gwaine’s hand. “I hope that Arthur will see that I have only ever wished the best for him and for Camelot. That I have used my magic for good.”
“And you think that King Arthur - the man whose father was just killed by magic - is going to have a cool enough head to realise that before he runs you through?”
Gwaine huffed and half turned away, running an agitated hand through his hair. Merlin watched him cautiously.
“…I didn’t mean to kill Uther.”
“Gods Merlin!” Gwaine exhaled, swivelling wildly to look directly at Merlin. “That was you?”
“Morgana placed a charm on him!” Merlin pleaded, wanting, wishing and hoping that Gwaine understood. “It reversed any magic that I tried! Instead of healing him like I was trying to do he died!”
Gwaine just stared, his normally smiling face a wash of pale skin and hopeless eyes. After a moment of silence Gwaine shook his head.
“We are getting you out of here,” Gwaine mumbled coming forward to grab Merlin’s arm. “Right now.”
“No Gwaine! I must stay and fight!”
With a quick tug Merlin pulled himself free of Gwaine’s grasp backing up a few steps.
“Why?” Gwaine shouted, worry tearing through his voice. “You are not a knight Merlin! You have no obligation to die for Arthur or his kingdom. Please just run. Save yourself.”
“I do have an obligation,” Merlin shouted in a matched response. “I have a destiny that places me at Arthur’s side to protect him. I cannot get out of this fight and I cannot hope to win it without my magic so…” Merlin shrugged. “Magic it will have to be.”
“Well Merlin,” Gwaine forced through a gritted jaw, “the flaw in your plan is that I am not going to let you willing throw your life away so you will be coming with me away from this madness.”
Merlin looked at Gwaine with wide eyes. The knight had straightened up and out to his full and intimidating size. His sword was still in his hand, glinting dangerously in the moonlight and he stood steadfastly between Merlin and his passage back to camp.
“Gwaine,” Merlin pleaded. “Please just let me do this.”
Gwaine shook his head and readjusted his grip. “This is for your own good Merlin.”
Merlin’s mind raced trying to think of a way past this obstacle and back to camp, back to Arthur’s side where he needed to be. Before he could so much as formalise a plan Gwaine stepped forward and Merlin reacted instinctively.
A blinding light discharged from Merlin’s fingers making spots dance in front of his eyes. Distantly he heard a shocked shout come from Gwaine and a dull thud as the man’s sword dropped to the ground. When the light had dissipated Merlin blinked and stared.
Gwaine was sat against the base of a nearby tree. Lengths of vines, grass and stretches of tree trunks protruded from the tree wrapping around the limbs of the fallen knight. The knight stared back at Merlin, his wide eyes the only thing Merlin could see over the leafy vine covering the knight’s mouth.
“Sorry Gwaine,” Merlin mumbled stepping over the knight’s fallen sword. “No hard feelings yeah?”
Gwaine glared and struggled against his binds. Merlin was sure that if the knight could speak he would be shouting some very inventive obscenities.
“Don’t be like that,” Merlin pleaded with wide eyes. “I have to do this.”
Gwaine’s glare morphed into a dangerous scowl that promised Merlin all kinds of hurt.
“I’ll buy the first round at the Rising Sun when we get back to Camelot,” he promised with a hopeful smile. All he got back was a muffled yell and a renewed struggle against the tree that was holding him.
“I’ll come back and get you as soon as all this is over.”
With a heavy sigh Merlin turned and disappeared into the forest.
Arthur came to wakening slowly in the morning. As his mind drifted from sleep to wakefulness it took him a moment to place where he was and why he was here. As his mind became aware of the day and its significance his body rushed to alertness.
His eyes snapped open on a sharp inhale to see the canopied roof of his tent overhead. A small shuffling noise drew his attention to the centre of the tent where his servant was busy laying out food on the table.
“Merlin,” he sighed, swinging his legs out of bed. “You’re here.”
Merlin glanced at him from the corner of his eyes and offered Arthur a smirk as he continued laying out the king’s breakfast. “You sound disappointed my lord.”
“It’s…” Arthur stammered trying to get his thoughts in line. “I just thought-“
“You thought I would run off into the night,” Merlin interrupted with a weak glare in Arthur’s direction. “You thought I was a coward.”
Arthur took a deep breath and walked forward to the table. “No, of all the things you are Merlin a coward certainly isn’t one of them.”
Merlin smiled at him then, small and proud, before he pulled out the chair at Arthur’s table.
“Have some breakfast sire.”
There was no way that Arthur was sitting down at that table and have Merlin serve him, not when later today the boy was going to be sent into battle for Camelot and its people. Instead he marched forward, picking up and apple from the table for himself and shoving a roll into Merlin’s hands.
“No time for that, we have to get you ready.”
“Ready?” Merlin asked in confusion, frowning at Arthur as the king stormed passed and buried his head in his armoury chest.
“Yes,” Arthur huffed pulling out a hauberk and inspecting the strap. “What were you planning on wearing for this battle?”
Glancing up Arthur raised his eyebrow at his servant who simply shrugged and looked down at his tatty travelling clothes as if to say ‘I was just going to wear this’. Arthur simply gave that thought the attention it deserved and turned back to his armour with a grunt. There had to be something in here that would fit Merlin. Finally he found his spare chest plate which had been made for him a few years ago and would perhaps be slim enough to cover Merlin’s chest yet allow him free movement.
When Merlin saw what was in his hands the servant backed away a couple of steps. “I’m not wearing armour.”
“Of course you are,” Arthur grunted advancing on Merlin with the best plate held out before him.
“No Arthur I’m not,” Merlin said, his voice hard, as he backed away a few more steps.
“You’ll be ripped to shreds!”
“Not if I’m fast. Which I won’t be if you make me wear that,” Merlin stated, pointing at the armour in Arthur’s hand. “How many battles have I gone head first into with you and the knights – without armour – and come out unscathed?” Merlin paused and gave Arthur a significant look. “Exactly,” he pronounced when Arthur couldn’t think of a rebuttal. “And that is because I can move. You make me wear armour and not only will I look ridiculous, you’ll take away my one advantage!”
Arthur stared back at Merlin and couldn’t think of anything to argue in return. His servant was right. He wasn’t used to wearing armour, or moving in it. Sticking him in metal plates was only going to slow him down.
“Fine,” he snapped, dropping the breast plate back into the chest. He stood over the open wooden casket for a moment, hands on his hips and trying his best not to scream. When he got himself under a modicum of control he grabbed his small hip sword and walked over to Merlin where the servant was clearing away Arthur’s unwanted breakfast.
“Here,” Arthur huffed, carefully avoiding Merlin’s gaze as he thrust the small sword forward towards his hands. Merlin blinked at it for a moment, his hands still occupied by a plate and goblet. “Take it,” Arthur grunted. Slowly Merlin put down the cutlery and grabbed the hilt of the sword from Arthur’s hands. “Remember that the champion Annis chooses is likely to have been picked to intimidate you,” Arthur explained, examining Merlin’s grip on the weapon. “He will likely be large and heavy and slow. Use that to your advantage. Remember to block and keep an eye on the sword. At all times. Even a hit to the leg can be deadly if-“
“Arthur,” Merlin interrupted Arthur babbling. “Arthur it will be alright.”
Reluctantly Arthur looked up then into Merlin’s eyes; eyes so wide and bright a blue. And soon they were going to be snuffed out with a single blow and there wasn’t anything that Arthur could do about it.
“Merlin…” he tried to speak but his throat closed up. Instead he grit his jaw and stared at the floor trying to will the burning from his eyes.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, sure and strong and gripping him tight.
“Do you trust me?” Merlin asked.
Arthur, his head still lowered, just shook it once. “Now is not the time-“
“It is a simple question,” Merlin interjected. “Do you trust me?”
Slowly Arthur lifted his head, staring straight into the eyes of his servant and long-time friend. “Yes,” he said surely. “Yes of course.”
Merlin shot him a broad smile then, only Arthur would have been able to read the nervousness at the edges, and gave Arthur’s shoulder a firm shake.
“Then why are you still worrying? I told you that I will win for you.”
Arthur huffed out a breath of laughter that he didn’t truly feel but Merlin’s eyes warmed slightly at it so Arthur swallowed down the ‘but…’ that he wanted to add onto the end of that sentence.
With a final smile and shake of his shoulder Merlin let go and Arthur felt adrift for a moment.
“Now I am going to see to your horses,” Merlin was explaining as he pottered around the tent. “I’ll be back before it is time to go to the field. Please at least try to eat something?”
Arthur nodded mechanically when it was clear Merlin was waiting for some kind of response and then his servant left, and Arthur was alone with his thoughts once more.
Arthur’s stomach dropped as he gazed down at the battlefield and took in the opponent that had been picked as Queen Annis’ champion. The man towered above his fellow soldiers and was at least twice the width of a normal man. He hefted the sturdy metal hammer in his hand as if it weighed nothing and his eyes held no warmth, no offer of mercy.
Taking a deep breath Arthur glanced at Merlin from the corner of his eyes, seeing that his servant was watching his opponent with a similar level of disbelief.
“One of your genius plans would come in handy right about now Merlin.”
“How about I win and we all go home?”
“Excellent plan Merlin,” Arthur scoffed. “Do you wish to offer any useful suggestions into how we make sure you keep your head?”
There was a pregnant pause and Arthur turned to look at Merlin then. He saw none of the abject terror that was pulsing through his own veins. Of course there was a hint of nervousness but thickly layered above that was visible determination and strength.
Merlin turned his head too, staring straight into Arthur’s eyes. “Just leave that to me.”
Arthur didn’t have time to say anything else before Merlin was striding forward, picking his way down the rocky path to the battle field below. Just when his servant was nearly out of earshot Merlin turned and looked back at Arthur.
“Arthur,” he called, his voice wobbling slightly. “Just… for what it is worth I am sorry.” Arthur frowned in confusion and took a halting step forward at that. What was the idiot apologising for?
“And,” Merlin was continuing, “I hope you at least give me a chance to explain before… well…”
“Merlin what are you talking about?” Arthur shouted across the space between them. “What are you planning?”
Merlin huffed a small laugh and turned back on his path. “That would spoil the surprise sire!” he called over his shoulder as he briskly walked down the hill into the fray.
Merlin picked his way carefully down the rocky incline towards the battleground. He felt shaky and wired, adrenalin coursing through his veins at the thought of what he was about to do. Many times during the night he had questioned himself, questioned his decision. But in the end he could think of no solution that would get Camelot out of this mess that he had created.
Queen Annis’ champion stood still and imposing in the centre of the ground. If Merlin thought the man looked giant from up on the hilltop it was nothing compared to the view of the man up close. As Merlin came forward his eyes travelled up, and up, and up. He gulped taking in the breadth of the man, as well as the gleaming axe in his hand.
Merlin stumbled then, tripping over a protruding rock in the floor. He winced, cursing himself for his lack of attention and a blush stained his cheeks. This certainly wasn’t the impression he wanted to give Annis. For the first time in a long time Merlin let go of the tight control he constantly maintained on his power. He felt its warm glow fill his limbs and broaden his shoulders. He allowed it to guide his feet over the uneven ground, his steps becoming surer and steadier with each stride.
Soon enough he was stood before the Champion.
Merlin tightened his grip on the short blade in his hands and watched as the Champion did the same on his own deadly weapon. With a deep breath Merlin stepped forward, it was now or never.
With a swift downward trust Merlin pierced his sword into the earth before him, the metal blade crunched against the stone covered ground. The Champion flinched and took an aborted step forward before Merlin stepped back, leaving his only weapon sunk into the floor before him. When he spoke he let his power seep into his voice, sure it would be heard on all corners of the battle field.
“Queen Annis!” Merlin called, peering over the shoulder of the champion to the huddle of Caerleon delegates behind. “I do not wish to do your Champion any harm. Nor does King Arthur want strife between our kingdoms. Let us retreat from the field and discuss this matter amongst ourselves. There is no need for further bloodshed.”
The Champion glanced over his shoulder at his Queen. Merlin watched Annis regard them for a moment before lazily waving her hand. Merlin felt his shoulders slump. He had seen enough fights between knights to know what that meant.
The Champion turned back to Merlin then, his stance surer and somehow larger. Steadying with a deep breath Merlin braced himself. It had been worth a try but he hadn’t truly thought that would work. As he stood before the beast of a man before him Merlin was suddenly clutched with fear. What if he couldn’t do this? He had never truly battled in this way with his magic before. Not only would he surely die but so would Camelot and Arthur’s destiny along with it.
His fear only had one more moment at the forefront of his mind before a very large axe was swinging in his direction. Quickly, and with no room for planning, Merlin dove to the side, crashing heavily into the stony ground.
The whistling of air was Merlin’s only warning as the axe swung down on him once more. Merlin rolled across the ground, his forearms and hands scraping painfully on the floor. The axe came down with a sickening thud right onto the ground where Merlin’s head had been a moment ago. As the axe lifted Merlin stared at the stone ground in disbelief and the crack that had appeared in its surface. That could have been his head.
A startling cry of “Merlin!” pierced the air and Merlin blinked back to the present, and to the axe once more barrelling down towards his head.
With speed Merlin lunged forward from his prone position on the ground and barrelled straight underneath the axe and into the champion’s legs. His weight was not enough to ground the larger man but it was enough to unsteady him. The champion wavered and went down onto one knee, his axe swinging wildly to try and swat at Merlin who was scrabbling to his feet behind him.
When the champion finally regained his footing he turned unsteadily and faced Merlin with such annoyance in his face Merlin almost laughed.
Taking a steadying breath Merlin let his gaze wander past the heaving shoulders of his opponent to the jut of rock behind him.
He could see his friends and Camelot’s knights up on the crest of the stone above him. He could feel their gaze. He could feel their anxiousness. He could taste their fear. With a deep fortifying breath Merlin straightened up from his crouched ready stance and stood tall. He looked up at the gathering of men on the hill and focused on the blond head at the centre. It was too far away to see Arthur’s face clearly but Merlin imagined he could.
And as the champion’s axe swung for Merlin’s head once more he imagined that he could see the king’s blue eyes widening in fear, panic and a base level of frustration that Merlin was just standing there, not lifting a hand to protect himself.
With a quirk of his lips Merlin focused back at the champion, and the very heavy axe swinging in his direction. He let go and let the rushing power of his magic come forward. He felt his eyes burn gold with power and he lifted his hand lazily before him.
“Stop,” he muttered and with barely a caress of his power the champion did so, and then promptly flew backwards through the air, landing on the floor with a crunch.
The world seemed to hang in statist for a moment and the enormity of what Merlin had just done seemed ready to overwhelm him. With great effort Merlin kept his focus away from the cluster of Camelot’s knights on the hill and watched the sprawled mass of the champion in front him rising clumsily to his feet.
When he finally did rise he considered Merlin with wide and shocked eyes. He looked over Merlin’s shoulder at his Queen for a moment. Merlin didn’t dare move but whatever the Champion saw there it was obvious the Queen wanted the battle to continue.
He hefted his axe and bravely dove forward. Merlin didn’t even bother to raise a hand this time as his eyes swirled gold and the Champion found himself flat on his back on the floor again.
With a growl of frustration the Champion clambered to his feet again and strode forward. Merlin let a rush of magic wash forward again but this time something got in its way. The Champion stumbled but didn’t fly back as Merlin had anticipated and Merlin had to dodge the swing of the man’s axe.
Panic clawed at his heart then as the man lunged forward and Merlin scurried backwards out of the path of his swinging axe. Something had blocked his magic.
With wide eyes Merlin turned back to the Caerleon delegation. There was someone there, he could feel it. He could feel their magic clawing at him and tainting the air around him. He sent his magic across the expanse of earth, searching, probing. There… he gasped and almost stumbled when he found her. Morgana.
A scream from the line of Camelot men had Merlin ducking instinctively and he felt the rush of wind over his head as the axe missed its target once more. He threw his magic out making the weeds from the ground come up, wrapping their lengths around the Champion’s ankles. The man grunted in surprise and fell forward in a sprawl, hitting the ground with a thud.
With his attacker suitably distracted Merlin turned back to the lines of Caerleon men and the tent under which Queen Annis stood. With Morgana by her side. Across the divide he could feel her tumultuous anger and rage and beneath it all… betrayal.
The force of her pain floored him for a moment and then suddenly it was gone and was replaced with a force of anger so strong that Merlin staggered back a few paces. And then she was on him.
Her magic clawed at his limbs drawing him back, holding him in place. Merlin struggled and fought but with every tendril he broke free of two more latched on in its place. He looked up and saw the Champion had broken free from the tangle of weeds and was striding forward, axe raised ready for the final swing.
With a battle cry Merlin wrenched himself - mind body and soul – away from Morganas magic. He didn’t have the words for it, there was no spell that he could think of. He just pulled with all his magical might and finally the tendrils broke and he went tumbling to the ground on his knees.
The Champion swung, missing his skull by mere inches. With his magic free Merlin swiped his hand and sent the Champion flying into the rocky ground once more.
“Morgana!” Merlin screamed across the field. “Stop this! If you want to fight me come out from the shadows and face me!”
Merlin’s power zeroed in on the dark force he could feel cowering behind the Caerleon lines. He felt the indecision in her as shock and anger battled over her magic. For a moment he was sure that the anger and pain would win but then it subsided and shock and fear won. In a whirl of sickening twisted magic he felt Morgana flee the battlefield and felt her cloying magic go with her.
He breathed a deep sigh, letting the untainted air fill his lungs. But then a tickling at the back of his neck alerted him to movement behind him. With a glance over his shoulder Merlin took in the towering form of the Caerleon champion barrelling down on him again, axe held aloft.
Merlin didn’t even bother to whisper a command as he let his magic surge forward and the man was once more thrown into the air and landed on his back on the hard earth.
Carefully Merlin walked towards the felled man who seemed to be half-heartedly trying to stand. With an easy grace Merlin knelt on one knee beside the man’s head and stared into his eyes. He saw fear but an overall sense of resigned acceptance. This man knew that he had been beaten and was ready for the ending. Carefully Merlin reached forward and removed the axe from the man’s grip.
“Do us both a favour and stay down yeah?” Merlin asked the man breathlessly. The Champion said nothing but gave a small nod of his head before slumping back to the ground with exhaustion.
Gracefully Merlin stood, axe in hand, and faced Queen Annis and her party.
“Camelot has defeated your Champion,” Merlin called across the field. “He has surrendered. I see no need to end his life pointlessly!”
Merlin held his breath. He truly did not want to kill this man and did not know what he would do if Queen Annis demanded that he do so. Slowly Queen Annis lifted her hand and Merlin felt a rush of relief.
He looked down at the crumpled man on the floor, his face covered in sweat and grime, and offered the man a smile.
“I didn’t catch your name champion,” Merlin addressed the man kindly.
“Brutas,” the man wheezed through laboured breath.
Merlin grinned down at the man. “Fitting,” he said offering his hand down. “I’m Merlin.”
Sluggishly, and with only a small amount of trepidation, the man lifted his own armour covered arm to grip at Merlin’s. With a tug, and a small amount of magic, Merlin helped the man to standing. Brutas swayed slightly and Merlin grabbed a hand to the man’s shoulders to steady him.
“Careful,” Merlin admonished. “You took a good few blows to the head there. Have your physician make you a tincture and rest. You should be as right as rain come morning.”
Brutas looked down on Merlin with a confused frown between his eyebrows. Merlin had a small moment to worry that he had done the man permanent damage before he spoke.
“You fought with honour Sir.”
“Oh not Sir,” Merlin said quickly, waving his hand in front of him as if he could remove the title from the air. “Just Merlin.” Over the champion’s shoulder Merlin caught the retinue from Caerleon coming closer with Queen Annis at the head. “Ah,” he mumbled, gesturing towards the approaching group. “I had better go and…”
Brutas just nodded. Just as Merlin was about to leave he remembered the axe in his hand. “Oh,” Merlin mumbled in embarrassment. “This is yours.” He held the axe out before him. Brutas lifted a slow hand and gripped the handle as Merlin offered it, confusion still evident in his face.
With one last look of concern Merlin left him stood in the centre of the battlefield. Merlin attempted to pull himself up to his full height as he approached Queen Annis and her knights. He could feel the fearful stares of the men and couldn’t help but notice the tight grip each one of them had on the pummel of their swords. But Queen Annis strode confidently forward towards Merlin, leaving her men behind.
“You fought powerfully,” she said in greeting. “Tell me; what is your name again?”
“My name is Merlin,” Merlin responded with a slight bow of his head. “But the druids call me Emrys.”
The Queen’s eyes widened fractionally and Merlin could tell that she knew of the name and the legend. Slowly the shock faded from her face and she considered Merlin, her clever eyes taking in every part of his being. Merlin did his best not to squirm.
“Lord Emrys,” she said with a small amount of amusement in her voice. “What a clever disguise. No one would expect the prophesised being of the old religion to be a servant.”
“It is no disguise,” Merlin was quick to correct. “I am King Arthur’s servant and proud to be. The position of Legendary Warlock doesn’t exactly put food on the table.” He added cheekily on the end.
Queen Annis’ laugh was a pleasant surprise and Merlin found himself smiling in return. Naturally Arthur chose this moment to arrive. Any amusement Merlin had felt fled instantly at the look on Arthur’s face.
“Ah King Arthur,” Queen Annis greeted with a smile. “You have been hiding a great ally in your kingdom. I was not aware that your draconian laws on magic had changed so dramatically. ”
Merlin saw the tightening of Arthur’s jaw as the King tried to get himself under control enough to answer.
“A great many things in Camelot have changed Queen Annis. It is a different kingdom to that which my father ruled. In many ways.”
Merlin almost smiled proudly at Arthur’s diplomatic tone. It was a far cry to the prattish young prince Merlin had met all those years ago.
“I can see that,” Queen Annis responded with a nod. “Well your champion won the challenge. And what a champion you have.” She said gesturing to Merlin. Merlin wished she wouldn’t as all it did was turn Arthur’s furious eyes back on him.
Arthur’s jaw muscles jumped several times and Merlin saw him consider many a response before he finally bit out a curt response.
If Queen Annis noticed the broiling atmosphere between the King and his servant she did not let on. Instead she gestured for her men to retreat. She offered Arthur a nod in farewell and turned her sharp gaze to Merlin.
“Lord Emrys,” Queen Annis nodded in farewell. “I hope my knights never have to face you on the battlefield again.”
“That is my fervent wish also Queen Annis,” Merlin responded with a small bow.
For some reason that was amusing to Queen Annis who parted from them with a tinkling laugh. Merlin watched her as she left and the retreating Caerleon army. Anything to put off looking back at Arthur who he could feel glaring daggers into the side of his head.
Merlin swivelled around at the angry growl and came face to face with a very angry, and very bedraggled looking Gwaine.
“Gwaine,” Merlin whispered, his eyes widening as he remembered where the knight had been forced to spend the night. “I said I was sorry!” He took a few fumbling steps backward as the irate knight advanced and grabbed the front of Merlin’s tunic in his hands.
“You,” Gwaine repeated with a snarl seemingly struggling to form a sentence. “Never do that again!” he said, punctuated with a shake of Merlin’s body.
“Sorry!” Merlin squeaked.
“You,” Gwaine whispered once more. Merlin was pleased to note that the panic and anger in his voice was starting to recede. Then Gwaine blinked and he took a glance around at the retreating Caerleon troops and the waiting Camelot knights. He blinked again and looked back at Merlin with disbelief in his eyes. “You already did it didn’t you?”
“Um, yeah,” Merlin said with a small shrug, as much movement as Gwaine’s current grip allowed him.
Gwaine’s grip on his chest loosened and Merlin’s feet were able to touch the floor again. “So… how did he take it?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Merlin shrugged. “We were about to get to that before you interrupted.”
“Right,” Gwaine mumbled. He looked over to the side and seemed to notice a fuming Arthur for the first time. “Hey Princess,” the knight said with a smile, throwing a friendly arm over Merlin’s shoulders.
“Gwaine,” Arthur hissed, advancing. “You knew about this?”
“Of course I did,” Gwaine said. Merlin distinctly heard a smug undertone to his voice and Arthur’s face clouded dangerously.
Merlin stepped on Gwaine’s foot in warning and freed himself from the man’s clutches. “He found out last night,” Merlin said to the King, holding out a placating hand to stop Arthur throttling Gwaine… or him… or both.
“Though I can’t say that I am shocked,” Gwaine continued, disregarding the danger in Arthur’s eyes and Merlin’s subtle attempts to shut him up. “There were always too many happy coincidences when our Merlin was around. Falling branches, flying plates, immortal armies that spontaneously burst into dust…”
With each item on Gwaine’s list of strange occurrences Arthur’s stare at Merlin became ever more incredulous and ever more piercing. Merlin lowered his head and shuffled his feet. He hoped that he successfully portrayed the image of a perfectly non-evil, loyal subject of Camelot and not (as he feared Arthur would see) an all magical warlock with the power to bring down mountains.
Arthur opened his mouth. Then closed it again. Then opened it. All the while his hand gripped convulsively around the hilt of his sword. Merlin tried, he really did, but he couldn’t stop his eyes from flicking to the weapon.
“I asked you for time to explain,” Merlin reminded the King, wincing at the pleading tone to his voice. He wished for more courage but he had spent it all on the battlefield and before Queen Annis. And here, in front of Arthur with his magic exposed and Arthur’s hand on his sword, Merlin felt as if this was the most important conversation of his life.
Merlin watched as Arthur visibly pulled himself together and then suddenly the King turned and stormed away, back up to the line of Camelot knights on the hill. Merlin turned helplessly to Gwaine who offered a sympathetic shrug.
“Merlin!” the King barked without looking back.
Scampering to obey Merlin tripped over his own feet and felt the eyes of the entire Camelot army on his back as he trudged after his King.
Arthur ground his teeth in a desperate effort to hold himself together as he walked through the throngs of Camelot soldiers and back to his tent.
His servant had just used Magic to defeat Queen Annis’ champion. In front of the entire Camelot and Caerleon army.
Arthur shoved open his tent’s flaps and stormed inside, not pausing to see if Merlin was following.
He bit his tongue against the scream that wanted to escape. He crunched his knuckles and went to put his hands on his hips, only for his scabbard and cloak to get in the way. With a growl Arthur tugged at the clasp at the front of his cloak. But it wouldn’t come loose. He tore his gloves off with his teeth, spitting them to the floor, and tried to get his fingers around the clasp again, but he couldn’t get it free.
“Arthur stop,” a soft voice called from behind him then swift hands darted over his shoulders and deftly lifted his cloak’s clasp, pulling it away in one fluid motion. It was almost if they had been doing it for years.
Arthur startled back to the present at the feeling of tugging at his waist. He looked down to see those same capable hands quickly unclasping his sword belt and pulling it away. He turned in time to see Merlin lay the scabbard carefully on the table, something reverent in the way he tucked the leathers straps up under the casing.
Merlin lifted his eyes carefully, meeting Arthur’s with a trepidation that he never had before.
“Are…” his servant started before swallowing thickly. “Are you OK?”
Was Arthur OK? It was just such a Merlin question. Arthur couldn’t help the slightly hysterical laugh that escaped his mouth. He probably sounded deranged. And from the worried frown on Merlin’s face he probably looked it too.
“Am I Ok?” Arthur asked shrilly. “I just watched as one of my oldest friends, someone I trusted, someone I thought I knew, use magic to win a battle. In front of a foreign Queen and army. In front of the entire Camelot army. In front of me!”
“I know,” Merlin said quietly. He stood before Arthur, his king, with his hands tucked behind his back, his head down, his shoulder’s slumped; the very stance of a proper servant. Arthur twirled away from the sight, his gut clenching.
He went back over the past day; Merlin’s stoic determination to fight, his strange confidence, the traces of fear layered beneath it all. And then to what Gwaine had said. There had been an unlikely number of ‘lucky’ incidences in Arthur’s life since Merlin had appeared; seemingly unkillable creatures that died, plagues and illnesses that disappeared, bandits that tripped… it was all too much to be a coincidence.
“Magic,” he whispered, almost to himself.
“I’ve only ever used it to help you Arthur,” Merlin said from behind him. “You must know that. You know that I would never do anything to harm you. Or Camelot.”
“You used magic,” he said out loud.
Magic was evil; that much he had learnt in all his years. Magic had killed his mother. Magic had just killed his father. Magic had been the source of every woe Camelot had ever faced.
“I said I would win for you,” Merlin said, his voice stronger and more determined. “And I did. Does that not prove that I am loyal to you? To Camelot?”
“Loyal?” Arthur sneered twirling back around. Merlin startled back a few steps under Arthur’s fury. “You have just broken the law. My law! And you have been for years! How can you-”
“I used it to protect you!” Merlin shouted back. “That’s all I’ve ever done; try to protect Camelot and keep you alive, not that you make it easy for me!”
“Well how else would you suggest I do it?”
“How about you leave protecting me to my knights and you do… whatever it is that you do!”
“This is what I do Arthur,” Merlin shouted back, an edge of pleading entering his tone now. “I’ve been able to wield magics since I was born. And I’ve protected you with magic and from magic since your father made me your servant.”
“Sorcery is illegal!”
“It shouldn’t be!”
They were standing chest to chest now, both heaving breaths, locked in a stalemate of wills. Arthur was the first to give, taking a step back and away. He just couldn’t combine the two ideas in his head; Merlin, his idiotic, ridiculously brave, strangely wise manservant, and the man who fell a giant of a warrior on the battlefield today with barely a flick of his wrist.
“How can you say magic isn’t dangerous?” Arthur asked with a pleading edge to his voice. “It was just used to fell a man twice your size and you came out without a scratch on you!”
“I wouldn’t exactly say that,” Merlin mumbled churlishly, holding out his hands.
His palms and forearms were littered with scratches and dirt, evidence of his quick dives to the floor during the fight. Arthur remembered with a lurch the sight of Merlin stood down on that battlefield, small and slim compared to the beast Annis had put forward. He remembered the hurtling fear through his veins as the champion swung forward with his axe and Merlin could do little more than dive to the ground, rolling to miss the blows. He remembered how a cry of ‘Merlin’ was torn from his throat when he saw the Champion bearing down on his servant who hadn’t made it back up off the ground.
“You idiot,” he said thickly through the tightening in his throat. “Aren’t you supposed to be a physician’s assistant? You need to clean those.”
Without further thought Arthur grabbed the bowl of cleaning water and cloth on the table (laid out by Merlin this morning) and approached his servant. Upon closer examination some of the scrapes were quite deep and still had dirt embedded into them. Merlin held still and let Arthur examine his arms and didn’t utter a word as the King dipped the cloth into the water and started cleaning the dirt away.
“You have every right to be angry with me Arthur,” Merlin said quietly as Arthur moved onto the second arm. “You are my friend and I kept something from you for years. But it is the fact that I kept a secret which is wrong. Not the manner of the secret I kept.”
Arthur swallowed, not looking up from his task.
“As much as you might not want to hear this magic has been by your side all these years. Magic has helped you defeat every evil we have come across in our years together.”
“Every evil?” Arthur asked hesitantly.
“Yes. You are quite the trouble magnet,” Merlin said, sending Arthur a playful smirk.
‘Feeling’ bubbled up in Arthur’s chest then. He wanted to tell his servant that he was angry at him, that the one person in the entire world on which he thought he could rely on had lied to him. He wanted to tell him that he fought well today, and bravely with honour; he had not pushed his advantage, he had not killed unnecessarily, he had given Annis and her Champion every chance to walk away with their pride intact… and when that hadn’t worked he had won and saved Camelot. He wanted to tell him that he was happy his friend was alive, that Camelot would have been a darker and sadder place without his sunny smiles and wisdom. But he didn’t say any of that. Instead he cleared his throat and stepped away, dropping the cloth back into the water bowl with a splash.
“You should put something on these scratches,” he said gruffly with a wave of his hand.
“I will. I have some salve from Gaius in my bags.”
Arthur turned and busied himself with unclasping his wrist guards, placing them neatly on the table beside his sword. The tent was quiet with the sounds of metal on metal as the clasps were undone but something heavy hung in the air, something that Arthur wasn’t brave enough to broach. As always Merlin had enough bravery for the both, propping Arthur up with it when he faltered.
“What… what do you want to do?” his servant asked.
Arthur heard shifting and could imagine his servant moving from foot to foot in that shuffle he always did when nervous.
“Are you going to banish me?” There was a pause and Arthur heard Merlin’s deep swallow. “Are you going to execute me?”
“Execute you?!” Arthur said loudly and turned around. He wasn’t sure why that idea was such a shock to him. It seemed Merlin agreed as he shrugged and stoically attempted to be nonchalant.
“It is the punishment for sorcery in your kingdom Arthur. And I just performed it in front of the entire army. What are you going to do?”
What was Arthur going to do?
What could he do?
Magic was illegal in his kingdom. The law stated that the mere act of using it was punishable by death. But…
Arthur looked away again.
It was Merlin. His ridiculous bumbling servant. The man that had been at his side, supporting him, helping him, guiding him for five years. He was the man Arthur was closest to out of all the great advisors and knights he had.
“I want to know,” he said eventually. At Merlin’s confused look he continued. “I want to know everything magic has done… that you have done… to protect Camelot.”
“I can do that,” Merlin said earnestly with a nod. “It might take a while.”
“I have time. Or did you have some pressing engagement this evening Merlin?”
“The only thing on my to do list today was to save a prat of a king and his kingdom. But I did that this morning so I’m all yours.”
Arthur couldn’t help the huff of laughter that escaped his lips then. When it did something in Merlin’s countenance loosened, a tightening in his expression that Arthur hadn’t even noticed before gave way and he looked back at Arthur with that small, soft smile that made Arthur feel like he could do anything, be anyone and achieve everything.
“Go and get us some food then,” Arthur said imperiously. “And wine. I have a feeling I am going to need it.”
Night had truly fallen when Arthur and Merlin sat side by side at the table. The sounds of the camp outside filtered through the thin fabric of the tent, alive with laughter and cheers and songs. Arthur thought he had caught a voice, sounding very much like Sir Gwaine, start a bawdy song of a servant and a giant. There was also something about a dragon in there too.
When he had heard it he had turned to Merlin who swiftly turned a dusty shade of pink and mumbled something about ‘drunken knights’ under his breath.
But now they sat side by side in silence, the candlelight flickering through the tent around them.
“Queen Annis,” Arthur started, staring into the flickering flame, “she called you Lord Emrys.”
It wasn’t a question, but Merlin heard the query none the less. He sighed, leaning back tiredly in his chair.
“I think that is a story for another night Arthur.”
Arthur breathed out a sigh. He hated to admit it, but Merlin was right, his brain simply couldn’t handle any more revelations this night. Even now as they sat in silence the new truths he had learnt of Sidhe and Dragons and plots and magic threatened to bore a hole through his brain. He settled further back into his chair and let the sounds of his men – alive and joyous – soak into him.
“We may have another problem.”
“What?” Arthur asked warily, perturbed by the dark tone of Merlin’s voice.
Merlin shifted in his seat, glancing up at Arthur from beneath his lashes. “Morgana was there.” The shock and pain that came hand in hand with his sister’s name had waned over the years but he couldn’t help his flinch at the mention of her. “She knows I’m magic now,” Merlin explained. “I’m afraid she might not be best pleased with me.”
That was most definitely a problem. If Morgana had been a terror before now that she knew there was a magic user at the heart of Camelot… well Arthur could only imagine the rage his sister would rain down upon them all. But the night was late. Arthur was tired. And if the drooping eyelids of his servant told Arthur anything it was that Merlin was exhausted.
Arthur took a deep breath. “That’s a problem for tomorrow.”
For now, they would drink. Eventually they would sleep. And then tomorrow would emerge, a new day, and Arthur would go back to Camelot having lost absolutely no men and having gained an ally.
All else could wait.