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From the Shadows to the Light

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In the legends that were passed down in years to come, storytellers throughout Albion would say that all of Camelot knew it, the moment that Arthur Pendragon died. His death was marked with signs and portents that could not be mistaken for anything natural. Not only did it seem as if the very heavens themselves lamented his passing, but the torrential downpours sprang up out of nowhere, towering thunderheads filling skies that had been clear only moments before, and they covered the whole of the kingdom. The temperature plummeted; animals screamed and ran, and chickens hid in their coops. As if that were not strange enough, there was a horrible, ringing, agonized cry—some said it was a banshee—that echoed throughout Albion. Even people as far away as Northumbria would claim that they’d heard it, the day that Camelot’s King Arthur died.

Other storytellers would argue that these tales were wrong. Not because the reports of storms were false, nor of the sheet lightning that blasted trees and open land alike, nor even of the despair that gripped many men’s hearts all in an instant. No, these storytellers would claim. No, it was that scream, shredding the air and terrifying women and children, that heralded not Arthur’s death, but his rebirth.

Who died, then, grandfather? the children would ask around the fires. (And so did the men in the tavern, sitting around the table as the torches flickered and the ale flowed freely.) If it were not the king, then who died?

It was Emrys, the storytellers would reply. Emrys, the great sorcerer, screaming as he fell into the underworld, seeking after the soul of his king.

Neither group of storytellers, as is the way of things, got things quite exactly right.

Arthur was dead weight in Merlin’s arms. They had tumbled to the ground together, Arthur no longer able to go on, Merlin no longer able to keep him on his feet. Merlin, however, refused to give up, refused to allow himself to fail.

“It’s only a little farther, Arthur.” They were so close, Merlin could almost smell the lake water. The Lake. Avalon. Where the Sidhe would heal Arthur, because there was no other option that Merlin was willing to accept.

“Not… not without the horses.” Arthur’s voice was weak, thready. It filled Merlin with a terror that he refused to acknowledge. “We can’t, it’s too late. It’s too late.”

“No.” Merlin would give anything to see Arthur safe. To see him healed.

“All your magic, Merlin… y’can’t save my life.”

“I can,” he grunted, still trying to shove Arthur upright. “I’m not going to lose you.”

“Just… just hold me,” said Arthur, resting his gloved hand on Merlin’s bare one. “Please.”

It was the please that did it. Merlin sank back against the grass, panting, propping Arthur against him. For his part, Arthur was barely breathing at all, his words coming in fits and starts.

“There’s some… something I want to say.”

“You’re not going to say goodbye.”

“No. Merlin… everything you’ve done. I know now. For me… for Camelot. For the kingdom you helped me build…”

“You’d have done it without me,” Merlin interrupted.

Arthur grinned suddenly, so weary, so pale, but he still had a smile for Merlin. He still had energy. There was still hope. If only Merlin could get him up “Maybe,” Arthur said. “I want to say… s-something I’ve never… said to you before…” He turned his head just a little farther, meeting Merlin’s eyes for the first time in what seemed like days. For the first time since Merlin had told him about the magic. “Thank you.”

Then his gaze went distant and unfocused, his eyes closing as his hand fell away.

“Arthur. No!” Merlin shook him, but there was no response. “Arthur!” he shouted, and the king’s eyes opened as if startled from sleep, but they slipped shut once more. “Stay with me.” He couldn’t find a pulse. “Arthur! Arthur. Come on.”

His breathing was coming faster now, faced with the death that he’d worked so hard to stave off, that he’d ignored was coming through sheer effort of will before now. But there was no denying it anymore.

Merlin had run out of time…


“No.” Merlin gasped, his vision blurring, feeling the magic well up in him that he’d unleashed in the Crystal Cave. “No! No!

The energy burst out of him, and all fell silent as time itself froze. Merlin looked around him, panting, tears welling in his eyes, but the birds hung midair, paused in flight, and the breeze had fallen silent.

Time. He’d needed time, and now he had it. All the time in the world. But what to do with it?

Merlin looked down at Arthur, hanging on the very precipice between life and death.

Life and death…

Merlin’s eyes grew wide. It had been ten years, but he had harnessed the power of life and death. He knew how it was done.

“To give a life, a life must be taken,” he said into the unnatural stillness. “My life. I give my life.” Nimueh had been the one to decide, all those years ago; Merlin was pretty sure that the Old Religion, the old gods, didn’t care, as long as the balance was kept.

He crawled out from under Arthur (not Arthur’s body, never Arthur’s body, not while there was breath in Merlin’s), and picked up Excalibur from where it lay in the grass. The blade resisted his pull somewhat, the natural world still frozen in time and wanting to stay that way while he held the spell, but Merlin persisted, and slowly, the sword moved.

“Whatever gods are listening,” he began, and then paused. He turned his face to the sky and took a deep breath. “Gods!” Merlin shouted. “Old Gods! An Cailleach! Keeper of the Gateway between the living and the dead! I have power over life and death! To give a life, another must be taken! I give my life for Arthur’s! My life, no one else’s! Do you hear me?” When only silence followed, Merlin pushed magic into his voice, and screamed, “Do you hear me?!

“We hear you,” came a sneering voice. Merlin whirled in place, Excalibur still resisting his motion and dragging behind. Before him stood a Sidhe lord, glowing faintly, wings buzzing in agitation. “Why should we grant your bargain?”

“Because I will it,” said Merlin. “I have power over life and death.”

“And yet, we stand between you and what you want.”

“Are the Sidhe gods?” demanded Merlin. “Can the Sidhe heal Arthur? Do you have that power?”

“We have the power to bargain with you,” said the Sidhe. “Give us what we want, and you may have what you want.”

“And what is it you want from me?”

“Your power,” said the Sidhe with a leer. “All that magic. We want that.”

His power. Merlin had only just gotten it back, it seemed; and yet, if he were about to die, what use did he have for it? “And you will save Arthur?”

“We will make the attempt.”


“He was stabbed with a blade forged in a dragon’s breath,” the Sidhe reminded him; its voice reminded him of Agravaine, all oily and ingratiating. “It’s powerful magic. The outcome is uncertain, even with all our lore and art.”

“Then why should I even bargain with you? Why not the gods?”

The Sidhe smiled as if Merlin were a dim child who had just asked an unexpectedly bright question. “Do you see any gods here, Emrys?” His smile grew wider, showing too many teeth. “You have offended them too many times. Your arrogance. Your stupidity. Your failures. They will not hear you today. Only we have the power and the willingness to give you what you ask.”

“You’ve tried to kill Arthur in the past,” said Merlin. “You brought a changeling to his court to wed him under false pretenses. Why would you want to heal him now?”

“You will trade your life for the mortal king’s, correct? Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” said Merlin. He felt the fear, fluttering in his gut, but it was nothing compared to the terror he’d felt when he’d revealed his magic to Arthur. He’d faced fear before, and battled past it. It would not hinder him now.

“Then he will be without your hindrance, once you are dead,” said the Sidhe. “We can create the alliance between magic and mortal that you never succeeded in creating yourself.”

An alliance on their terms, not Arthur’s, Merlin knew. They would make Arthur a puppet king, if they thought they could get away with it.

“I won’t let you do that,” said Merlin.

“You won’t be there to stop us,” said the Sidhe. “If he lives, then you die. Or did you want to live in his place?”

“No,” said Merlin. “No, he has to live.” It was an impossible bargain. He’d faced such choices before, and he’d always chosen wrong. Releasing Kilgharrah. Leaving Morgana in the hands of Morgause after poisoning her. He would fail in this, too, unless he could think of another solution. “He has his knights,” he said, half to himself. “His queen. They can protect him. Arthur can make peace in Albion without me.”

The Sidhe scoffed, seeming viciously amused at the thought. “You really think so highly of him. You think he can stand against us.”

“I do,” said Merlin. “He is the Once and Future King.” That had to be enough. It had to.

To his surprise, the Sidhe began to laugh and back away. “No deal.”

“What? You want him to live just as much as I do!”

The laughter cut off abruptly, and the Sidhe hissed, “If he is the High King, Once and Future, then you can only be Emrys. Immortal. You cannot die. You demand a false bargain.”

“What? No!” said Merlin. “I will die in Arthur’s place. It’s what I want. I’ll do it, as long as you heal him.”

“You cannot promise that,” spat the Sidhe.

“A blade forged in a dragon’s breath,” Merlin reminded him. “It was enough to kill Morgana. It will be enough to kill me.”

The Sidhe lord considered, its wings stilling for just a moment. “You cannot die as long as you have your magic,” he said finally. “Give it to us. Then we will perform the ritual.”

“You promise,” said Merlin warily. “You give me your word that you will kill me and only me, and heal Arthur.”

The Sidhe lord hissed again, clenching its fists. “You will give us your magic before you fall on that blade, and we will make the attempt,” he said. “There is no guarantee. If you die, he will regain his strength as you lose yours. He will watch as you take your last breath.” Then he smiled again, showing too many teeth. “This pleases us.”

Merlin thought of something, then. “I… I don’t know how to give you my magic.”

The Sidhe’s smile faded into a scowl. “Then we will take it as you die. It makes no difference to us.”

Merlin prayed that he was making the right decision. If he failed, if he lived and Arthur died, it would be worse than death. If he succeeded, if Arthur lived and Merlin wasn’t there to protect him, anything could happen. The Sidhe could do anything with that much magic at their disposal. The magic of Emrys was limitless.

But Arthur had to live.

“So be it,” he whispered, and the Sidhe grinned in triumph.

“Release your hold on time,” he said, “and fall on the blade. We will do the rest.”

He had been floating away, there in the warm dark, comforted that his time of pain would soon be over. He hadn’t been alone before entering the dark; Merlin had been with him. They had said everything between them that needed to be said, and it was all right. He wasn’t afraid anymore.

There was a light in the distance, and he found himself moving toward it. So this is dying, he thought… it wasn’t so bad, really.

And then something behind Arthur reached into his gut and pulled him backwards with a strength he was helpless to resist. The light vanished, the dark grew cold and oppressive, and then he knew no more of that place.

Arthur thought he heard a woman’s voice, familiar and yet not, whisper into his ear. You must see, she said.


You must see.

With a gasp, he opened his eyes, weak, the terrible pain of his wound beginning to return. Arthur turned his head, only to find himself lying on the grass—

—and Merlin kneeling, facing away from him, speaking to thin air. “A life for a life,” he said. “To give a life, another must be taken. I give mine. For Arthur.” He was holding Arthur’s sword, Arthur’s sword, and as Arthur watched, he turned it so that the point was resting against his stomach.

Arthur felt his eyes grow wide, and he tried to speak, to reach out, to stop Merlin from what he was about to do, but he was too weak. His hand barely even twitched on the grass. No, he tried to say, but his breath was too shallow and no sound passed his lips.

Merlin pulled Excalibur forward, and gave a great jerk as the blade pierced his flesh. There was a choking cry, and Arthur could not have told anyone in that moment whether it was his own or Merlin’s.

Cruel laughter echoed in the air around them, and a… man… appeared out of nowhere in front of Merlin, if he could be called a man. His—its?—skin was blue, and it had no hair but a pair of antennae sprouted from its forehead, and a pair of insect-like wings behind its shoulders. The creature laid one hand on Merlin’s forehead and began to chant, and Merlin sagged sideways onto the ground with a little moan.

Merlin, Arthur tried to say, but again, he lacked the strength to form the sound.

The being, whatever it was, pulled its hand away from Merlin’s forehead, and a, a streamer of golden light stretched between the two points. Merlin convulsed, then threw his head back and screamed. The sound was like nothing Arthur had ever heard, except perhaps when the dorocha had roamed, those horrible nights a few years back. It was not just sound, but an echo of pure pain and despair that reached into Arthur’s heart and soul and twisted.

A shockwave burst from Merlin then, making the very earth tremble; the skies darkened in an instant, and a cold wind blew as rain began to fall.

And the shard of Mordred’s blade, still buried in Arthur’s side, moved.

Arthur’s face twisted in agony and his back arched outside of his control; he would have cried out, but the pain was so great he couldn’t even breathe.

Arthur opened his eyes, blurred with tears and rain, and looked up to see what might have been the shape of a woman in the rain, standing just at his feet. Was she made of the falling drops themselves, or was Arthur imagining her? The woman, if she were not an illusion, looked down on Arthur with what he thought might have been compassion, but it was hard to read an expression in a being made of water. Then she turned her head, or seemed to, gazing at Merlin and the creature that was torturing him, and the temperature grew even colder. The wind picked up, and the rain lashed at Arthur until he could barely see what was happening only a few feet away.

And then the lightning began.

The first strike blinded Arthur, landing so close that he heard the ground sizzle after it, and felt his limbs twitch involuntarily. The second, third, and fourth hit in rapid succession, all so close that Arthur thought surely the trees would explode, or that he would be struck himself. The noise was deafening, and if Arthur weren’t so close to death, he was sure he’d be terrified for his own life, and Merlin’s.

For the fifth lightning strike, Arthur’s eyes were already closed, but behind closed lids he saw the light flicker so bright that he thought he would be blinded all over again. It seemed to build slowly, and the sound of it ripping the sky apart was something he was sure he would never forget, if he lived through it.

And then it struck him, square in the chest; Arthur convulsed, tasting blood as he bit his tongue, and feeling agony rip through his side as the shard of sword blade moved again.

He felt the world fall away, and all grow dark and silent, and did not know if he were only passing out, or dying once more.

The last word on his lips was “Merlin.”

Chapter Text

All was still. All was silent, and dark. He felt neither pain, nor hunger, nor thirst. He was neither warm nor cold. He floated, bodiless, unsure whether he was sleeping or awake, unsure where or even who he was, but also unsure whether the answers to any of those questions really mattered. It was peaceful here, and while he could remember nothing, he thought perhaps it was a relief to be at peace for a change. As if he had, possibly, not been at peace when he was elsewhere.

He set the thought aside as unimportant.

In the distance, there was a light, and he wondered whether he should try to move toward it or not.


It was… mildly surprising to find that he was not alone. It was mildly surprising to find that he had a name, for that matter… and yet, even as he thought this, the memories attached to that name began to return.

“Merlin,” came the call once more. Yes. Yes, he was Merlin. And…

“I died,” he said. Or perhaps he only thought it, bodiless as he was. It didn’t seem important, either way.

“You tried,” said the… presence. Merlin was unsure whether it was male or female, or both, or neither. He was unsure where her or its or their voice was coming from, as it seemed to surround him completely, coming from all directions at once. Perhaps he was inside the presence, whatever it was.

It didn’t matter; he was unafraid.

You tried, the voice had said. “Did I?” he asked, and then the waves of memory surged once more, and he was filled with awareness. Still unafraid, but aware, now, of what had happened. The sword. His stomach. The Sidhe. Arthur. “The Sidhe,” he realized. “Did they stop me?”

“No,” said the presence. “I did.”

“But Arthur needs to live.” The peace of this place, wherever it was, was beginning to fade, replaced by worry for his friend. His king. “He cannot live unless I die. A life for a life, that was the bargain. Why did you stop me?”

“Fear not,” said the voice. “Arthur lives.”

If he’d had eyes to weep with, Merlin would have shed tears out of simple, pure relief. Arthur lived. He hadn’t failed.

For once, he hadn’t failed.

“Arthur lives,” repeated the presence, “but the Sidhe elder spoke the truth to you. You are Emrys; magic incarnate. So long as there is magic in the world, you cannot die.”

“But… if I can’t die, what does that mean for Arthur?” Arthur had to live. Merlin was meant to die for him. Had someone else, someone innocent, died in their place?

“Why do you not ask what it means for you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh, Merlin.” His awareness of the presence began to coalesce, until it seemed that he or she or they no longer surrounded him, engulfed him, but instead stood before him. It almost seemed lonely, being separate from whatever this presence truly was; at the same time, however, he felt more himself and aware, as the presence separated from him.

The light in the distance was just enough to illuminate a Being before him; Merlin tried to look directly at… Her?… but She radiated a sense of immense power, far deeper and greater than his own. That power was hidden away, not out of any ulterior motive, Merlin sensed, but because, if it were to be revealed in its entirety, it would obliterate him.

Merlin had felt such a thing only once before in his life, when he had stood in the waters of the Cauldron of Arianhrod and invoked… “You’re a goddess,” he said.

She reached out and caressed his cheek with one hand. “I am,” She replied, and in those words Merlin heard multitudes. The creation of all that ever lived, and the inevitable ending of every life. The balance that kept creation and destruction separate from one another, and allowed time to flow and life to exist.

“You’re—you’re the Goddess…” If Merlin had had a body, he would have knelt before Her.

She seemed to smile at him then. “I do not demand obeisance, Merlin. Only understanding.”

“I’m sorry,” said Merlin. “There’s so much I don’t know.” And, because he knew She would already know this, and hopefully not judge him too harshly for it, he added, “I’ve failed so many times because of it.”

“What would you do, then, if you had the chance to correct your failures?”

“I don’t think it matters,” said Merlin. “A second chance like that? I don’t deserve it.”

“It’s not about what you deserve.”

“Then… I don’t know. Kilgharrah said that we, Arthur and I, were destined to bring magic back to Albion, but he also said that Arthur would die. He always urged me to kill Morgana, and even Mordred, before they could become a threat. But I couldn’t do that to a child. And Morgana was my friend, before I betrayed her. Even with a second chance, I don’t think I could do that. I just… I’m sorry.”

“You have a kind heart, Merlin, despite everything you have been forced to do. All the choices you have been forced to make, with no one to rely upon.”

“I don’t know if that’s true anymore. About my heart, I mean.”

“Do you doubt Me?” Merlin was almost afraid, but the Goddess seemed more amused than offended.

“I’m sorry.”

She shook Her head. “Go on,” she prompted.

“You know all this already, don’t You?”

“I do; I want to see if you know it.”

A test, then. Merlin thought carefully. “I saw Arthur die in the crystals,” he said slowly. “And everything I tried to do to prevent that only brought it about faster. I couldn’t trust Mordred when he came back. I made him our enemy when… when he didn’t have to be. I failed to tell Arthur the truth when he faced the Disir, and I sealed his fate then. Keeping him alive was more important to me than our supposed destiny.”

“Love is often like that,” said the Goddess kindly. She reminded him a little of his mother, and he wondered if that were intentional on Her part.

“It seemed like a terrible mistake, once I realized that Mordred lived,” said Merlin. “I was so… obsessed with making sure he wouldn’t kill Arthur.”

“You tried to orchestrate his death, at the expense of the truth.”


“It is good that you understand this,” said the Goddess. “You are wise, for one so young.”

“I don’t see how you can say that, given all my mistakes.”

“You understand that they are mistakes,” She explained. “Many men fail to ever reach that level of self-awareness.”

“Still… I don’t think I’m a good person, not anymore. I used to be, but. I mean, I poisoned Morgana. I’ve killed without remorse. I’ve lied to Arthur, gone behind his back. Made decisions that affected the entire kingdom, when I’m not the king. That’s… none of that is the behavior of a good person.”

“Only a misguided one.”

“But I thought I could trust what I saw in the crystals! I thought they showed the future. And Kilgharrah—”

“Kilgharrah is old, but not as wise as he likes to think he is,” said the Goddess. “And I think you’ve realized he is not as trustworthy as he first seemed to be to you. That he has his own motives, like any other sentient creature.”

“Yeah,” said Merlin sadly. “I have.” Too late, but he had.

“As for the crystals, they show possibilities. The futures you see in their depths only come true if you let them, or if you make them.”

“I tried to prevent the future I saw, and instead made it happen,” said Merlin. “How could I have stopped it from coming true?”

“It is difficult to say,” replied the Goddess, “but I have often found that those who are ruled by fear make more mistakes than those who are ruled by love. When you began to fear Arthur’s death more than you loved Arthur himself, you set yourself on the path toward failure. When you became obsessed, as you said, with that possible future, that is when you began to walk toward it, despite how you wished to take any other path.”

Merlin considered this. “It doesn’t matter anymore, though,” he said. “I’m here. And Arthur did almost die. It’s only because of You that he lives now, isn’t it?”

“Not quite.”

I don’t understand, Merlin almost said, before he remembered what She had told him. “Will you explain it to me?”

“Yes.” Merlin had never heard a straight answer to such an important question in all his life.

“Please,” he said.

“Your bargain, Merlin, was to trade your life for Arthur’s, to maintain the balance. In order to give a life, another must be taken. Although you are untutored in many things, you have at least learned this much about the balance that I must maintain between all things.”

Merlin thought about the sense of the Goddess’s power that he’d felt when She had touched him. Without the balance that She maintained, the forces of creation and destruction would cancel each other out, and all life—all of existence—would be annihilated. “Yes…” he said hesitantly. “I think I understand.”

“But you paused time before Arthur could truly die,” explained the Goddess. “He was not yet dead when you tried to bring him back.”

“But he’s about to die,” said Merlin. “I’m trying to stop that.”

“And yet, you yourself cannot die,” explained the Goddess.

Did that mean he would fail after all? “Wha—but, but Excalibur. It can kill anything. Even the dead. It killed Morgana…”

“The blade itself is powerful magic, Merlin, you are correct; but even Excalibur cannot kill Magic incarnate.”

“So this is because of my magic?” Merlin asked bitterly. “I tried to give that up, to the Sidhe.”

“And that is why I intervened,” said the Goddess. “The Sidhe have their own motives for what they do, Merlin. Desperation for Arthur’s survival may have driven you to them, but they are not your allies, as you well know. They would disrupt My balance out of greed. Even what you were to have given them would not have satisfied their lust for ever more power. But with your power in their hands, conquering Arthur, and Albion, and all of humanity, would have been very easy indeed. There would be no balance anymore… and I think you have sensed what might have happened if I had permitted your sacrifice to continue.”

Merlin felt cold at the very thought. “But Arthur has to live,” he said, a little desperately. “He… he has to. If my magic is the only thing stopping me from dying in his place…”

“No,” She replied. “It is not because of your magic that I require you to live. It is true that, without you, Arthur would remain unprotected, and unable to fulfill his destiny, but more than even your magic, he needs you, Merlin. As a friend, and a guide.”

“Well, if I can’t die, I’m not going to sacrifice someone else just so Arthur can live!” Merlin might be many things, but he was no Uther, willing to foist off the price for what he wanted onto some unsuspecting innocent.

“No.” The Goddess seemed to smile again, but Merlin wasn’t comforted.

“Then I don’t understand what You want me to give You, to keep the balance!”

“What else do you have, that you would be willing to offer me?”

Merlin considered. “I tried to give my magic to the Sidhe, but…”

“But you knew, even then, what they would try to do with it. Or part of it, anyway.”

“I didn’t think I had a choice,” said Merlin. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Her. “Not if Arthur is to live.”

“But you could give it to Me.”

“I could,” he countered, “but I thought You said I needed to protect him. Without my magic… I’m nothing. I’m just a servant.”

“You are so much more than that, but let us set that aside for now. What else do you have?”

“Well… I can’t die. I’ve been almost killed before and my magic keeps bringing me back. I thought Excalibur would be enough to make the sacrifice work, but here we are.”


Merlin thought hard. “The Sidhe lord said I was immortal?”

“He was correct.”

“So even after everyone I love dies, I would still be alive, trapped in the world, unable ever to rest?” The thought of it made Merlin feel sick. “That sounds like a curse. I don’t want it.”

“You would give up your immortality, for Arthur?”

“It’s supposed to be a life for a life, right? To hear you tell it, I’ve got too much life. What’s wrong with giving up some of that in exchange for his? Or all of it? I don’t want to be in the world if he’s not there.”

“You love him very deeply.”

Merlin would have taken a deep breath, if he had had a body. He wanted to deny it, and yet, he was certain that the Goddess already knew everything there ever was to know about him. “I do,” he confessed. He might never admit it to another living soul, but he felt his secret would be safe with Her.

“And so, back to my earlier questions. First: If you cannot give your life in exchange for Arthur’s, or your magic, what can you give?”

And Merlin realized then what She wanted. “Myself,” he said quietly. “I can give You myself. My immortality. The rest of my life, such as it is. My magic, if it’s even of any use to You.”

“And if I were to use that life, and that magic, to grant you a second chance, what would you do with it?” Merlin felt something like the gentle contact between two friends taking hands, if he had still had hands to take. The Goddess was wrapping Her power around his, he could feel it, and realized that She was preparing to pull it all into Herself.

It would leave him with nothing, but he’d been prepared to give everything for Arthur anyway. And he could at least trust the Goddess not to try to ruin Arthur’s life.

“What would you want,” She asked him, “if you could use your power to repair your mistakes? What is your biggest regret?”

“I just… I’d want to make things right,” he said helplessly. He was almost certain that the Goddess was trying to lead him to a specific answer, but he didn’t know if he was giving Her the right one. What would the consequences be if he got it wrong this time? “I’d do them differently. I’d try to trust my instincts more, I think, and maybe rely less on what Gaius and Kilgharrah kept telling me to do instead. I’d worry less about destiny and more about helping Arthur become the king he’s meant to be. You said that my being ruled by fear instead of love was what set us on this path. I could do better.” He paused, then nodded decisively. “I would do better. I’d tell the truth. I’d… I’d try to fix my failures. There were so many failures.”

“Lives lost?”


“Then that is what we shall do,” said the Goddess. “But first, there is a matter I must rectify.”

Light blossomed suddenly, and Merlin found himself in a grassy meadow. There were raindrops hovering in the air, unmoving, and a fork of jagged lightning stretching across the sky overhead; looking down, Merlin saw Arthur (not his body; the Goddess had promised he would live), lying nearby. Near him, Merlin’s own body lay crumpled, curled around Excalibur where it pierced his belly.

The Sidhe lord was still there, baring his teeth as he pulled Merlin’s magic from his body; his eyes were alight not with sorcery but with hatred, so much that Merlin would have shivered if he had been more than a ghost right then.

The Goddess touched the Sidhe on the shoulder, and he jolted into motion, spinning in place until he spotted Her and froze.

“And what sort of spirit are you, to interrupt me?” he sneered.

“You have offended Me, bogle,” said the Goddess, and the Sidhe lord flew backward in shock, wings buzzing. He did not seem to see Merlin standing there, but his eyes were wide as She went on. “You lead your people to ignore their true purpose as stewards of nature, and seek to upset the balance instead. You have tried to rule over humans in addition to the fae. I have warned you many times, and you have not listened. You think that because I have not punished you before this, you have no cause to fear Me.”

“We seek to restore what the mortals have disrupted!” exclaimed the Sidhe; Merlin thought he had never heard one sound afraid before. Defiant, but afraid all the same. “The Pendragons must be brought to heel! We can accomplish more than—”

“That is not yours to determine, bogle,” said the Goddess. “Have you anything else to say for yourself?”

“My—my Lady, forgive me, I did not know—” Merlin thought he might have trembled, but the Goddess was unmoved.

“You did know. I warned you, repeatedly. Yet you did not listen. You have offended Me for the last time.”

With a wave of Her hand, the Sidhe was back in place, pulling power from Merlin’s body. His eyes were wide as he stared at Merlin’s fallen body, and he seemed to struggle to pull his hands away from the energy that flowed between them.

The rain that had hovered silently in the air began to fall heavily. The Goddess moved to stand behind the Sidhe, and placed Her hands upon his shoulders. The fae’s breath began to come in terrified gasps, and he shook his head frantically, but otherwise could not seem to move.

“Draw near to your body, Merlin,” She said, glancing up at him, “and open yourself to Me. Concentrate on what you would want to make right, if you had that power, and I will make it so.”

“What I would make right…” Merlin turned his awareness inward, closing his eyes, and felt the Goddess’s power surround him once more. He was floating within Her, a single drop contained within the ocean, and it was bliss, but he had to concentrate.

What would he do, if he could go back and fix it all?

Lancelot. He’d bring back his friend. He’d save the people he couldn’t save before. Freya. Will. Balinor. Gwen’s father.

The Goddess began to pull, and Merlin felt a thread of heat within himself, his magic, beginning to uncoil.

Among the druids, there were people who had helped him and then paid with their lives. The thread uncoiled a little faster. It didn’t exactly hurt, but it wasn’t comfortable, either. Merlin firmed his concentration, shutting out the distraction as best he could, but it wasn’t easy.

What about the people Merlin himself had killed? Some of them had not been innocent. He’d needed to protect Arthur. But there had been others who had died on their many adventures: Isolde, for example. Arthur’s knights.

Or what about others who had been set against them, who never would have been adversaries if it hadn’t been for the Purge? Mary Collins. The spirit of that druid child… Mordred himself, if it hadn’t been for Merlin’s mistrust and paranoia.

Merlin’s eyes opened involuntarily; around him, within him, he could feel the Goddess, yet with his eyes open he saw Her before him, with Her hands full of glowing golden energy. Between them, the Sidhe lord, his expression a combination of terror and agony, as Merlin’s magic flowed from Merlin’s dying body through the fae and into the Goddess. The Sidhe lord was glowing, an icy blue that grew brighter and brighter, and began to shift to gold as his own energy was subsumed into Merlin’s. It was too much for the Sidhe to hold, Merlin realized.

Only moments later, the Sidhe threw his head back with a scream, then disappeared in a burst of gold and blue sparks, and lightning struck the ground where he had been standing.

The pull on Merlin’s magic increased exponentially, and the discomfort he felt gave way to pain. Merlin tried to shut it out, tried to keep his concentration, but he felt his control beginning to falter.

Druids. He’d been thinking of druids. Of Mordred. Mordred as a child. Druid children. Merlin’s concentration slipped, as the thought of one druid child led him to think of all the druid children.

All the children. All the lives lost, when Merlin had released Kilgharrah. All the mistakes he’d made, trying to protect Arthur, but letting fear guide him rather than love.

So much fear. So much hatred. The thought entered his mind: If the Purge had never happened, Arthur would never have been turned against magic in the first place… Everyone innocent that Uther had slaughtered. Men, women, children, dead at Uther’s command.

If Merlin could just make things right

The pain grew as the pull on his magic continued. Merlin felt himself weaken, and concentrated with all his might on just that one thought. What did he want the Goddess to do with his power? Make things right.

Make things right.

Make things…

The pain became agony, and cold, and if Merlin had had a body, he would have struggled reflexively to get away. But the Goddess was everywhere, and there was no escaping what he had promised he would give.

He would give himself to the Goddess.

He would give everything. His life, if She would have it. His immortality. His magic.

All of it, if only Arthur would live.

The pain ceased abruptly; Merlin’s final thought, before the darkness and cold overwhelmed him, was Arthur.

Chapter Text

Pain in his side pulled Arthur back to wakefulness; he flinched to feel cold water dripping on his face and groaned, before awareness returned fully. Merlin. Excalibur. The blue creature that had made Merlin scream.


Arthur’s eyes shot open, only to squint them shut again as he got rain in them. He turned his head away, blinking the water out, and eventually focused on Merlin’s… on Merlin, lying curled up on his side, facing away from Arthur. The blue, winged creature he had seen before was nowhere to be found. Merlin himself was soaked to the skin, and unmoving. He should at least have been shivering, Arthur thought, not lying there so pathetically like a… like he was…

“Merlin,” Arthur called, but his voice was still so weak. He wasn’t sure Merlin would have been able to hear him, even if he were conscious.

Arthur swallowed back the tears that threatened to rise, and reached out. Whatever Merlin had done (he’d said a life for a life, oh God, did that mean what he thought it did), it had left Arthur feeling stronger than before. Still weak as a kitten, but no longer quite so obviously on the brink of death. Before, he could hardly move, barely lift his head; now, though he still lacked the strength to turn over or sit up, he stretched out his arm, trying to rouse Merlin; but the other man lay just out of his reach on the soaked earth.

“Merlin.” A life for a life, he’d said. Arthur remembered it clearly. “Merlin, what have you done?” He was too weak, still, to fight off the tears. They mingled with the rain, and dripped down his cheeks.

“He tried to give his life for yours.”

Arthur turned his head again to see a woman, standing in the rain at his feet. He thought of the figure in the water that he’d seen before, and frowned. “I remember,” he said. “I was dying.”

“You were,” said the woman. She was hard to look at, somehow, and Arthur wasn’t sure it was entirely because of the rain. “But you had not yet passed through the Veil. With Merlin’s power, I was able to bring you back.”

“Did you kill Merlin?” A life for a life. First his mother, and now Merlin. And how many countless knights and citizens had laid down their lives for Arthur, over the years? He’d borne that guilt his entire life, despite his father telling him that it was merely everyone else’s duty to die in his place. But this loss, this trade for Arthur’s soul, was too much to bear. “Did you kill him? Can you bring him back?”

“I did not kill him, young king,” said the woman. “For a life to be given, one must be taken. But you were not yet dead. His sacrifice has set you on the path to healing, but he will not die in your place.”

Arthur had not been king for ten years only to miss it when someone was hiding something with their words. “If he didn’t give his life, what did he give?” he asked warily.

The woman seemed to smile sadly, although with the rain still falling it was hard to be sure. “Everything else.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Merlin’s magic made it impossible to give his life for yours. So he bargained with the Sidhe to give up his magic, instead.”

“The… Sidhe. Was that the creature I saw, hurting Merlin?”

“It was.”

“It was taking his magic,” Arthur realized. “You said his magic made it impossible for him to die in my place. Without his magic—” Merlin would be… actually, what would he be? He’d told Arthur he’d been born with his power; that he used it only to protect Arthur. What would he be without it?

“Merlin believed that he would be able to die in your place, if he gave his magic to them. He did so willingly, but the Sidhe had ulterior motives for their bargain. They would have become your enemies, and you would have been defenseless against their might, without Merlin to protect you. So I intervened, and he gave his magic to me, instead.”

The thought stole Arthur’s breath for a moment. How could he wrap his head around such a thing? “He gave it all up… for me?”

“He thought so, yes,” said the woman. “He believed he was giving all he had to me, for you. But the well of his power is so deep, young king. He would have had to give up only the merest fraction of what he had in order to save you, but he did not know that.”

“But he tried to heal me before,” said Arthur. “And Gaius said that the blade had dragon magic in it, stronger than Merlin.”

“Nothing will be stronger than Merlin, once he has truly come into his power.”

“I don’t understand.”

The woman seemed to sigh, a little. “Merlin has never found the limits of his power before now. He has never emptied that wellspring deep within him, given everything he had, until today. The only barriers that stopped him were his own lack of knowledge about his magic, and his own lack of faith in his abilities.”

“All right…”

“Merlin believed he would die in your stead, and willingly gave me all that he was, asking me to direct the power on his behalf, in order to bring you back. But he gave much, much more than was needed, young king.”


“And all that power had to go somewhere; Merlin’s final wish was simply to make things right, to atone for his mistakes; to undo all his failures, and take a second chance to be better. His wish pleased me, so I directed his energy toward fulfilling it.”

“I still don’t know what that means,” said Arthur.

“It means you will return to a changed Camelot,” said the woman. “How you respond to the changes you find will determine the sort of king you are, and the fate not just of your own people but of all Albion. And one day, far into the future, Albion’s fate will shape the fate of the whole world.”

Arthur shivered, and winced at the pain in his wound. “How am I to face such a future without Merlin by my side?”

She smiled. “Look for old friends, and fear not.”

Before Arthur could ask what the hell that was even supposed to mean, the woman had vanished, and Arthur was left lying alone in the rain.

Look for old friends, Arthur thought, as he struggled to move. What the hell did that even mean?

He reached out toward Merlin, but the other man remained stubbornly out of his reach. Stubbornly corpse-like, his brain helpfully provided, and he stamped the thought viciously out of his head. The woman, the sorceress, whatever she’d been, she’d said Merlin wouldn’t die. That he had too much magic to die. Speaking of incomprehensible things, what the hell did that even mean?

What had Merlin given, if not his life? What did it mean to give his magic away to someone else? How powerful was Merlin, anyway?

Well, Arthur more or less knew the answer to that one. He’d seemed pretty strong while he’d tried to get Arthur to the Lake of Avalon, after all. But then that woman had said that Merlin had never reached the limits of his power. That nothing would be stronger than Merlin, once he came into his own.

Would Arthur have to keep an eye on Merlin after this, to make sure he wasn’t corrupted by all that power?

Did Arthur even understand magic and its influences on a person in the first place? Did it actually corrupt a person, as he’d always been taught?

He didn’t know, and hated the fact that he had no choice but to lie in the mud and think about it. He still lacked the strength to do much more than lift his head; even his arms were heavy. He couldn’t help Merlin right now, couldn’t even crawl over to remove the sword from his gut (and didn’t that thought leave him feeling sick to his stomach). The rain had died down somewhat, thankfully, no longer a terrifying storm but a steady drizzle that would leave them both soaked and shivering come nightfall. Actually, they were already soaked; Arthur had water in his ears, for God’s sake. Neither of them was in any sort of shape to make a fire, or seek shelter. Maybe Merlin could conjure that sort of thing, if he were conscious, but he wasn’t. They were helpless.

Just as Arthur was beginning to wonder if they’d been saved from their wounds only to die of exposure, he heard hoofbeats. “Sire!”

He lifted his head as best he could to see Percival, of all people, pulling up his horse and dismounting. He hurried toward them, water and mud sloshing up from every step. “Oh thank God,” Arthur breathed, dropping his head back down. “Thank God.”

Percival came to a halt only a few steps away from them, his eyes wide as he took in the state of them. “Merlin,” he began, then froze. “Sire?”

“Tend to him first,” said Arthur. “He needs it more than I do, at the moment.”

Immediately, Percival knelt by Merlin’s side, wincing as he took in the sight of Merlin’s wound. “Who did this?” he asked. “I don’t see any other bodies here. Will they be back, or did they take you for dead already?”

“Long story,” said Arthur. “But no. There’s no one else around as far as I know.”

“We need to get you to shelter,” said Percival. “Morgana, she—”

“Is dead,” Arthur interrupted. He took a moment, to let it sink in. His sister, gone mad, turned to evil; his greatest enemy, despite his love for her. “Morgana is dead.”

“You’re sure?”

“I watched the light go out from her eyes myself. Merlin killed her.”

“Merlin?” Percival looked him over, before standing up. He went back to his horse and unbuckled a pack, then started rummaging through it as he returned to Merlin’s side. “He looks more than half dead himself,” he said, pulling out a roll of bandages. “What happened to him?”

“Magic,” said Arthur, a little bitterly. It always came down to magic, didn’t it? “He brought me this far. He planned to take me to the Lake of Avalon, to heal me. The sword, Mordred’s sword, it was enchanted, and Merlin thought he could make some sort of bargain with the, the fairies, or the spirits, I don’t know. Nearly killed himself in exchange for my life. Idiot,” he finished with feeling.

“We’re not far from the lake,” said Percival. “If you still need it, I can bring you there, sire. One at a time, but…”

“There’s no one else around. It should be safe.” Look for old friends, and fear not. Was this what the woman had meant?

There was a wet, horrible sound as Percival pulled Excalibur free from Merlin’s belly, then immediately got to work bandaging his stomach. Merlin himself barely even stirred; Arthur thought he saw the other man’s head loll, just a little, but it could have been his imagination. Just a bit of motion from Percival moving him about. Throughout his work, the other knight said nothing, only pressed his lips together tightly. He seemed upset, but that was only to be expected. Merlin was a friend to all the knights, by this point.

“You came alone?” Arthur asked. “To find us?”

Percival’s hands stilled for a moment. “Gwaine came with me. We were going to waylay Morgana, keep her from finding you.” He swallowed, and a drop of rain dripped off the end of his nose. “She outwitted us, captured us. Morgana, she… she tortured Gwaine into giving up your location. Same thing that she killed Elyan with.”

Arthur’s face fell. “Where’s Gwaine now?” Surely Gaius could save him, surely, if they got him back to Camelot in time…

“Dead.” Arthur shut his eyes. Another good man, a good friend, gone because of Morgana. “I only escaped after she had already left. She’d—she’d left Gwaine tied like a dog, and I couldn’t—I cut him down, wrapped him in his cloak, and came after her as fast as I could.”

“We’ll go back for his body,” Arthur promised. “Bring him back to Camelot for a proper funeral.”

Percival shut his eyes and nodded; after a moment, he seemed to shake himself, and got back to work bandaging Merlin. “You’re sure she’s dead?” he asked quietly. “We stabbed her and she only laughed. Said no mortal blade could kill her.”

“Remember how I said that Mordred’s blade was enchanted? It turns out, according to Merlin, mine is too. She wasn’t laughing when Merlin ran her through.”

The knight finished his work and sat back on his heels, studying Merlin’s slack face. “Good for Merlin,” he said quietly. Finished with his ministrations, he turned to Arthur next. “Can you sit up?”

“Maybe,” Arthur admitted. He was still in pain, but the horrible creeping wrongness he’d felt, as the shard of sword lodged in his body made its way toward his heart, was gone. “I’m doing better than I was.”

“I’m glad. We’ll go slow.”

Arthur nodded, and Percival got behind him. With his hands under Arthur’s shoulders, he began to lift Arthur upright; Arthur waited for the stabbing agony, but it didn’t come. He could feel blood trickling down his side from his wound, and looked down at it carefully…

And then blinked in surprise. “Percival, wait a moment.” His gloved fingers were stiff with cold, but he still could reach down and pick up the shard of metal, coated in blood, that lay on the grass beside him. It was unmistakably the end of a sword blade, a few inches long. Sharp.

This thing had been crawling toward his heart only a few hours ago. How did…?

Magic, of course. Whatever Merlin had done, it had worked. He was already feeling stronger, after all.

“What is it, sire?”

Arthur still was wearing his belt pouch, so he tucked the shard away. Just that little activity seemed to weary him. “Nothing,” he said. “Let’s see if I can make it to the horse.”

It took effort, and there was a good deal of pain on Arthur’s part, but he was able to lean against Percival and make the few steps needed to bring the knight’s mount closer. Percival, of course, was stronger than Merlin had been, so getting him into the saddle went a little more quickly, but not any less painfully. He was shaking by the time he settled into the saddle, hunched over his wound.

“Now Merlin,” he grunted, trying to catch his breath.

Percival did not answer, only nodded; he’d always been a man of few words, but now, with the loss of Gwaine, Arthur feared the big man would stop speaking altogether.

Percival carried Merlin, reminding Arthur of the last time he’d seen Merlin so badly injured, with the dorocha. He’d survived that, somehow; probably more magic, looking back on it, Arthur thought. The point was, if he could survive the spirits of the dead trying to suck his soul right out of him, surely he could survive a mere sword wound to the stomach.

The three of them made their way slowly across the meadow, and through a thin bit of forest that had blocked the lake from view. The rain fell still in a steady drizzle, but it was better under the trees. Percival was the one to spot a likely clearing, and set Merlin down under the shelter of a bush. It was still wet, but at least Percival could put a cloak over him and keep him from freezing in the night, even if he couldn’t get a fire going.

“Will this do, sire?”

“It’ll have to,” Arthur replied. Percival helped him down from the horse, and Arthur’s legs buckled immediately. “Just… prop me up against a tree or something. Dunno how long I was lying there in the mud with Merlin.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t make it here sooner.”

“It wasn’t your fault.” He meant more than just the timing, and from the look of sheer grief that passed across Percival’s face, he was pretty sure the other man realized it.

“I’ll… set some snares,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think we’ll have any luck with a fire tonight, but maybe tomorrow. And there’s a little food in our—in my pack.”

“Thank you, Sir Percival.”

They got a little water into Merlin, though he didn’t rouse, and a little of Gwaine’s whiskey into Arthur to help him warm up. Percival rigged a shelter and put the two of them under it, then sat between them, using his own body heat to make sure they would last the night.

For the first time in days, Arthur fell asleep without the fear that he would never wake up.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke to the sound of birdsong, and the echo of a woodpecker hammering into a tree somewhere not too far off. The rain had finally stopped sometime in the night, and a low fog crept among the tree roots and underbrush. He didn’t think the sun had risen quite yet, but the sky was light and he knew true dawn was not far off.

“Did you sleep well, sire?” asked Percival.

“Better than I expected to,” he replied, and it was true; he was still in pain, but could already tell that his strength was returning, more than he’d had yesterday. Then again, having nearly died, almost anything would have been an improvement. “What about Merlin?”

Percival slid out of the way so that Arthur could get a better look. “No change,” he said. Merlin lay unmoving, deathly pale, only the shallow rise and fall of his chest giving away that he still lived at all. He was bundled under Percival’s cloak, looking unbearably small and frail.

“Reminds me of the time the dorocha got him,” said Arthur quietly. He glanced away, blinking rapidly. With false cheer, he went on, “If he recovered from that, a little scratch on the stomach isn’t going to slow him down.”

“I hope you’re right, sire,” said Percival.

Arthur paused, then said reluctantly, “Yeah. Me too.”

The sun broke through the trees, and the dawn chorus of birdsong grew louder; it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. If they weren’t days from home, Arthur thought, in territory infested with Saxons, and desperately wounded and under-supplied, everything would be fine. Perfect day for a hunt.

He only wished Merlin were awake to see it.

Percival had shared out his supplies, then gone to look for the horses that Morgana had frightened off the day before. The skittish creatures didn’t tend to wander far when spooked, preferring the safety of familiar humans once they settled back down again; while it had taken a couple of hours, Percival had been able to track them down and bring them back. Arthur and Merlin weren’t yet in any condition to travel, but if nothing else, they had their supplies back, and they could rig a better shelter until Merlin regained consciousness.

Percival looked exhausted already; one man caring for two, spending all night on watch because the others couldn’t, and clearly grieving the loss of Gwaine. Arthur knew they’d been close, especially after Lancelot had died… the first time.

Arthur reached up and rubbed his forehead tiredly. It didn’t seem to matter what he thought about; something would always turn his musings back toward magic, again. Just how much had it permeated his life, despite his father’s best efforts to eradicate it?

Did it truly corrupt people the way he’d always been taught? Or did it simply… emphasize what was already there? Morgana, for example, had always had a vindictive streak, even before she’d turned to sorcery. Maybe it wasn’t the magic that had corrupted her, after all.

Arthur decided that he’d keep an eye on Merlin, once Merlin woke up; maybe that would tell him what he needed to know about magic’s influence on a person…

As long as Merlin woke up.

They spent the early morning in relative silence; Arthur was still too weak to do much more than rest his injury, Merlin was a lump on the forest floor, and Percival was either on watch or lost in his head, grieving over Gwaine. He spent a lot of time grooming the horses and, Arthur noticed once, burying his face in their manes, his shoulders shaking.

Yet another man lost in Arthur’s name. He was so sick of losing good people to this war. Now that Morgana was dead, maybe peace really would come to the Five Kingdoms at last. Maybe no one else would have to die for Camelot.

A rustling in the underbrush pulled him from his half-dozing, half-musing, and Arthur opened his eyes to see Percival on alert. Silently, the knight drew his sword and positioned himself behind a tree, peering around to see what might be coming their way. If it was Saxons, Arthur thought, then he would have to pray that Percival would be able to hold them off on his own. Arthur himself lacked the strength even to lift their only crossbow, much less aim and fire it.

The crashing stopped, and they heard a moan that had Arthur and Percival trading a glance in confusion. Were they under attack, or not?

The footsteps started up again, coming closer, but making no attempt at stealth. The steps were uneven, and now they could hear heavy, panting breath under the birdsong. A wounded Saxon, perhaps? Or if they were fortunate, maybe even a man of Camelot, someone who had survived the battle and gotten turned around on their way back to the city.

Whoever it was paused again, then retched, the sound of vomit spattering the earth making Arthur curl his lip in disgust. When it subsided, they heard another moan—definitely a man’s voice—and more staggering footsteps. They stopped just at the edge of camp, and then Arthur heard only that heavy, ragged breathing for several long moments.

“Show yourself,” called Percival.

The man staggered into the clearing wearing armor and Camelot red. Arthur took a deep breath in surprise, then flinched at the pain in his side; his soldier, though, only took another step before he halted with his back toward Arthur, so that Arthur could clearly see the absolute shock on Percival’s face. His expression slid through horror, then grief, then hardened into resolve.

“You died,” he said.

The man swayed, and said nothing.

“You died,” Percival repeated. “I saw you. You were dead.”

“I know…” It was Arthur’s turn to feel his eyes widen and his jaw drop. Even as hoarse and weakened as it was, he recognized Gwaine’s voice.

Gwaine?” he breathed.

The man—Gwaine—turned, stumbling over nothing, and stared at Arthur. He looked terrible; filthy and bleeding, with wrists that were bruised and raw. His face was pale, with horrible circles under his eyes, and he clutched at his stomach in a way that suggested he was going to be sick again very soon. “Sire,” he croaked. “Arthur. Morgana…” His eyes rolled back into his head for a second, then he opened them again, clearly struggling to focus. “She’s on her way. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Morgana’s dead,” said Arthur; it seemed to take a moment for the words to sink in, then Gwaine swayed dangerously before dropping to his knees. He grunted in pain when he landed, and swallowed convulsively around another moan.

“Thank every god,” he said, once he’d gotten himself under control. He tipped his face skyward, and Arthur saw fresh tears on his cheeks. “Thank god.”

“Gwaine?” Percival came around, his sword still drawn, getting between Arthur and the other knight. “I know you were dead. I checked. I wouldn’t have just left you there.”

“No, Perce, it’s all right,” said Gwaine. “You were right. I… I died. Dunno how I’m back.”

“And you’re not—you’re still you?”

As hurt and exhausted as Gwaine looked, he still managed to dredge up a smile. “Far as I know, yeah.” Then he grimaced and doubled over, grunting in pain as he clutched at his stomach with one hand, and his shoulder with the other. His breathing grew harsh; Percival wavered, visibly torn between helping his friend and protecting his king from whatever supernatural thing Gwaine might have become.

The other knight curled over, catching himself with one hand that tightened into a fist against the soil, clawing into the damp earth. He heaved, and Arthur waited for him to vomit again, but nothing happened.

“Gwaine?” asked Percival.

“That’ll be the snake venom, I reckon,” said Gwaine, not lifting his head. His voice was thick. “Worse than any hangover I’ve ever had.”

“I can imagine…” He glanced over his shoulder at Arthur, and Arthur nodded. Whatever had happened, Gwaine didn’t seem to be any threat to them in this condition. Percival sheathed his blade, and knelt down beside his friend. He placed a gentle hand on Gwaine’s shoulder, and when Gwaine looked up, pushed his hair back from his face with the other. “Let’s get you seen to.”

“Yeah,” sighed Gwaine. “Let’s do that.”

His eyes slipped shut, and he sagged into Percival’s grip. Percival was shaking, but Arthur didn’t think it was because of the effort of holding the other man up.

“Set him over here,” he said. “With me and Merlin.”

Percival sniffed, and wiped the back of one hand across his eyes. “Yes, sire.”

Since he’d been sick once that they knew of, Percival laid Gwaine out on his side, facing away from Merlin, and shoved a saddlebag under his head for a pillow. He checked the other man’s pulse, and pulled his hair out of the way, before he noticed that Arthur was still watching, and backed away.

“He was dead, sire. I know he was. I wouldn’t have just abandoned him like that, I swear it, but—”

“But you wanted to get here before Morgana. I understand. It’s all right, Percival, you did the right thing.”

Percival shook his head, studying Gwaine’s face with anguished eyes. “He said he knew he was dead. How can that be?”

“I don’t know.” Arthur shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe you were both wrong. Men don’t come back from the dead.”

But he thought of Lancelot, and himself; glanced over at Merlin, and wondered.

There were three of them, now, for Percival to take care of, and no one to send for help. Four men and three horses, and barely enough supplies for two of them to last for another day or so.

“At least tonight I should be able to set a fire,” said Percival, adding another armful of wood to the pile he’d begun gathering. “Maybe that would keep you safe while I looked for help.”

“No,” said Arthur. “We’ll wait for Gwaine to get the last of the poison out of his system; then it’ll be easier. In the meantime, you should stay here.”

Percival took that in, his expression thoughtful. “Sire,” he said slowly, “yesterday, you said Merlin was trying to get you to the lake. Was there someone here that was supposed to help?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur replied. “Merlin said something about the fairies, I think. Or maybe they were spirits. Magical help, anyway.” He frowned, remembering what little he could of Merlin and Gaius’s conversation. “The Sidhe, I think he said they were called. But we also have reason to believe that they weren’t allies, and might refuse to do anything.” The woman in the rain had made it clear that they were not to be trusted, but Arthur wasn’t quite prepared to tell that story just yet.

“Might be worth looking to see if anyone else is there,” offered Percival. “Though I do wonder why Merlin would look for magical help when he knows how you feel about sorcery.”

“The blade was enchanted,” Arthur said. “Even Gaius said there was nothing he could do.” He’d said there was nothing Merlin could do, either, but that had turned out to be wrong… more or less. Merlin was near death because of whatever he’d managed, but it had succeeded in expelling the shard of metal from Arthur’s wound.

“Do you think there might be some other healer here besides these Sidhe?”

Arthur shook his head. “Merlin never said.”

Percival shrugged. “Might be worth it to check.”

“Maybe. We can’t—” Arthur was about to go on when he heard something, faint, some distance off. He stilled, and raised his hand to stop whatever Percival had been about to say.

Voices. A young woman, from the sound of it, answered by a man, their words indistinct over the distance. Arthur listened with all his might, but didn’t hear anyone else. Their footsteps were quiet, but they didn’t seem to be trying to muffle them, and while they weren’t shouting, neither were they attempting to keep their voices down. Actually, for a war zone, they seemed remarkably carefree, and Arthur wasn’t sure whether that spelled trouble for them or not.

He and Percival waited, Percival scanning the underbrush to see if he could spot the approaching pair before they saw him.

Finally, they got close enough that Arthur could make out the words.

“Are you sure they’re nearby?” asked the man. He sounded familiar somehow, but Arthur couldn’t place where from.

“I can always sense when he’s near,” said the woman. A sorceress, then. Arthur pressed his lips together. They would be powerless against her. “We’ll find them, and give as much help as we can. As much help as his king will allow.”

Help? That made no sense.

“You’re sure they’re still together?”

“The Goddess said they would be,” came the woman’s reply. “And that they would need our help. But King Arthur… I admit I’m afraid.”

“I’m not sure how he’ll feel to see me, either,” said the man, and why did his voice sound so familiar?

“We’re getting close,” said the woman, and indeed they were, judging from how clear their voices sounded. “There should be a clearing just over there, if I remember right.”

To Arthur’s horror, one of the horses chose that moment to nicker, the sound carrying through the forest.

There was a pause, and then, “Let me go first,” said the man. “Just in case.”

“You don’t think they’d just attack at first sight, do you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to risk you. You’re their best chance at survival, if things are as dire as you were told.”

“But if you go alone,” said the woman, sounding fretful, “with everything that’s happened, I don’t know how they’ll react to that. And—”

“I know. But if they do attack us, better me than you,” said the man.

“No,” the woman retorted. “No, we should go together.”

Arthur held his breath, waiting, and then the man said, “All right.”

One of them parted the underbrush to let the other step through into the clearing, and Arthur saw immediately why they had been so hesitant to approach before. His eyes grew wide, and in an instant, he understood what the woman in the rain had really been referring to.

Look for old friends, and fear not.

The young woman had long brown hair, pulled back into two braids, and met his eyes fearfully. Not what he would have expected from a sorceress, to be sure. He didn’t recognize her, but the man…

Oh, the man. He stepped forward slowly, both his hands raised to show that he held no weapon, but Arthur wasn’t sure that would actually matter, all things considered.

“Sire,” said the man. He glanced sideways. “Percival.”

Arthur felt his eyes narrow in suspicion.


Chapter Text

“What is this?” asked Percival. He looked absolutely stricken, glancing quickly back and forth between Arthur and Lancelot. “How…?”

“It’s a long story,” said Lancelot—or at least, the man who bore his appearance. “Will you let me explain, or should we go?”

The woman flinched at that. “We can’t go yet,” she said fretfully. “Merlin—”

“I know,” Lancelot cut in, “but if they don’t let us near him, there won’t be much point in staying.”

“Speak,” said Arthur. “Tell us how you’re back from the dead for a second time.” He clamped his jaw shut around the questions that wanted to burst forth, and around the threats he wanted to make, but couldn’t physically keep. If they hurt Merlin… if they went anywhere near Merlin…

“This isn’t the second time, technically,” said Lancelot carefully. “But I… have some memory of what you’re talking about. Morgana used dark magic and raised something called a Shade, bound to her will. It looked like me, and had some of my… essence, in it. But it wasn’t me, not really. The Shade could only know and remember those things that Morgana knew. And she sent that Shade to Camelot to sow discord. I don’t remember much of that time—”

“How would you remember it at all, if it wasn’t you?” Arthur’s eyes were narrow, and his wound was beginning to ache with tension.

“I’m getting to that,” Lancelot said with a nod. “What Morgana did, it… pulled a piece away from my soul, for her use. If she’d pulled too much of me into the spell, I would have been able to defy her, or remember more of who I really was. But she only pulled a piece, a small piece. Merlin figured it out, I think.”

Merlin. Of course, if it was magic, he’d probably been involved in putting a stop to it somehow. “So what did he do?”

“After Morgana’s mission was accomplished, she ordered the Shade to destroy itself. I… I was dead, so it’s hard to explain. We don’t feel pain, ordinarily. We’re at rest. But what Morgana did damaged me. Whatever Merlin did, to lay that body to rest, it… it healed me. Put the missing piece back where it belonged. I remember taking a breath, just enough to be able to thank him, before I departed beyond the Veil again.” As if in echo, Lancelot took another deep breath, and blew it out slowly. “With the missing piece restored to the rest of me, I can remember now what happened to it; to the Shade. But the rest of me is here too.”

“How can we prove that?” asked Percival. “How do we know you’re really you?”

“What happened to bring you back this time?” asked Arthur.

The woman spoke up then. “It was the Goddess,” she said simply, as if that made any sense. “We were both dead. We were both dear to Merlin. He laid us to rest here, in the Lake of Avalon. Now the Goddess has returned us to life, to help you.”

“I’ve never seen you before in my life,” said Arthur. “If you were close to Merlin, I would have known.”

The woman—not much more than a girl, really—bit her lip and looked down. “Would you have?” she asked gently. She met his gaze once more, and went on, “There was much of Merlin that he kept from you. You know that now.”

Arthur took a breath at that, and refused to answer.

“Sire?” asked Percival. “What is she talking about?”

There was a long silence, while everyone waited for Arthur to answer. “Magic,” he said finally. “Merlin… he’s a sorcerer.” A sorcerer of almost limitless power, according to the woman in the rain.

“Did he finally tell you,” asked Lancelot, “or did you find out on your own?”

“He told—” began Arthur, then stopped. “Wait, you mean you knew?”

Lancelot nodded. “It was not my secret to tell, sire. If it’s any consolation, Merlin never told me himself, not directly; he aided me with magic, once, and I promised to protect his life as he had protected mine. I’m glad he finally revealed himself to you.”

“He only did it because I was dying,” said Arthur, unable to help the bitterness.

“You’re not dying now,” retorted the woman. “His life is in your hands. After saving you countless times, how will you repay him?”

Arthur stared at her. “Who are you?”

“No one of importance,” she said. “But I won’t let you harm Merlin.”

“I’m not going to harm one of the truest friends I have in this world!” Then he winced, pressing a hand to his side. He really didn’t have the strength to try shouting just yet, it would seem.

“Sire—” began Lancelot, stepping forward, but Percival cut him off.

“No,” he said, looking ready to cry. “No, you don’t get to just… just be here. You were dead! You were my friend, and then you died! I’ve lost you twice, you don’t get to just… just walk back from the dead like that. It doesn’t work that way!” His breath hitched once, and he scrubbed his hand across his face. “I’m no druid, but I know the Old Religion well enough to know you can’t do that. There was a price to be paid to bring you back, if it’s even really you.”

“You’re right,” said Lancelot; “there was a price, and Merlin was the one to pay it.” He nodded to where the other man lay, still unconscious and oblivious to all that was happening around him.

“What, he brought you back from the dead, while he was trying to help Arthur?” Percival’s breath came quickly, and he looked as though he were only barely holding himself together. “Why would he have done that? Why direct his magic toward you and not him?”

“I told you,” said the woman, “the Goddess brought us back.”

“Then how is Merlin involved?!”

“Enough, Percival,” said Arthur. “I think I might know what happened. I don’t pretend to understand it, but… Lancelot’s story matches what I was told. Merlin gave his own magic to try and heal me, but… if what I was told is accurate, he gave too much. The power had to go somewhere, so this Goddess or whoever she was used it to bring people back from the dead. Like Lancelot.” He gestured toward where Gwaine lay, sleeping beside Merlin. “Maybe like Gwaine, too.”

Percival shook his head, over and over. “It’s impossible.”

“I know,” began Lancelot, but the woman cut him off.

“And yet, here we are.” She glanced over at Percival for a moment, then back to Arthur. “Will you let me help Merlin, or not?”

“What about Gwaine?” asked Percival.

She shrugged. “I can try to help him as well. I didn’t think you would want me to, though.”

“You’re going to use magic,” guessed Arthur.

The girl nodded, and spread her hands. “What ails Merlin is magical in nature. It will require magic to help him. As for your other friend, I don’t know what’s wrong with him yet, but if you want me to help him too, I can try.”

Arthur shared a long look with Percival; the other knight looked positively wracked with indecision, torn between wanting to help Gwaine and Merlin, and between wanting to reject sorcery altogether. Arthur couldn’t really blame him; everything he’d ever been taught about sorcery, all the horrible things that had happened to him over the years, indicated that it was an evil influence. And yet, there was Merlin, saving his life and serving him, being his friend for all those years, and using magic in secret.

“Merlin first,” he said finally. The woman seemed unlikely to harm him, from what he’d heard her saying on her way through the woods. If Merlin improved at all, he’d consider letting her near Gwaine. “And tell us your name.”

“Of course,” she replied, stepping past Lancelot for the first time, and kneeling by Merlin’s side. “You can call me Freya.”

Percival crossed the clearing to kneel down beside Arthur, keeping himself between Lancelot and the rest of them the entire time. “What do we do about him, sire?” he asked quietly.

Arthur opened his mouth to answer, but Freya beat him to it. “He’s your friend,” she said, not looking up from where she was untying Merlin’s bandages. “The Goddess can be trusted.”

“I never saw a goddess,” retorted Percival. “And I have seen Lancelot back from the dead before. Trusting him then didn’t end well for anybody.”

“That was a Shade, not your friend,” she said quietly. “But I don’t expect you to believe me. I’m only a druid, after all. Or I used to be.”

“Before you died?” asked Arthur, unable to help himself.

“…Something like that,” she replied. “Oh, Merlin.”

“Is it bad?” asked Lancelot. Percival turned to glare over his shoulder at the other knight; for his part, Lancelot had stayed on the other side of the clearing, seeming to understand that they weren’t ready to trust him quite yet.

“It’s not good,” replied Freya; Arthur found himself struggling to sit up to get a better look at the wound. And then he did, and regretted it immediately.

Merlin had stabbed himself high in the belly, a little off center. The wound was clearly deep, and still oozed blood when Freya pulled the bandage away. The area around it was dark and bruised-looking, and beginning to swell with infection.

Arthur had to swallow twice before he could even speak. “Can you help him?”

“I can,” said Freya. “I wasn’t much of a healer before I died, but the Goddess must have wanted me to be able to help Merlin once I came back. I know what to do now.”

She laid her hands on either side of Merlin’s injury—it looked even worse, contrasted with her fair skin and clean hands—and spoke words in a language Arthur couldn’t understand, but did recognize. “Ic the thurhhaele thinu licsar.

Arthur wasn’t sure what to expect, but to his astonishment, the wound began to close right before his eyes, visibly shrinking and growing less angry. The skin around it lightened, and the swelling went away completely. It didn’t close altogether, but Freya took a clean edge of the bandage and wiped away the fresh blood, and no more seeped out.

“That’s all I can do for now,” she said; Arthur looked away from Merlin for the first time, and saw that Freya’s brow and lip were dotted with sweat, and she was breathing as if she’d just run from one end of the castle to the other. “I’ll try again tonight, or else tomorrow morning, depending on how quickly I recover.”

“Recover from what?” He hadn’t meant to sound suspicious, or accusing, but no sorcerer had ever answered his questions before without mocking him for his ignorance.

Freya blew out a breath, then sat back on her heels and looked Arthur in the eye. “Using magic takes a certain amount of strength and focus, to direct the energy where you want it to go as it passes through your body. There’s also a kind of wellspring that each person has inside them, that helps determine how powerful they are. I was never very strong, before I died.” She reached out to brush some of Merlin’s hair away from his forehead. “I’ve given him everything I can for now, and I need to rest before I can try again.”

“What about Gwaine?” asked Percival, but Freya shook her head.

“I’m sorry. I don’t have anything more right now. I can sort of look inside him and tell you how badly off he is, but I won’t be able to heal him without rest.”

“Please,” said the knight. He almost seemed to have forgotten that Arthur was there, but Arthur chose not to draw attention to himself. He was exhausted just from the conversation they had already had, and in pain from trying to watch what the sorceress did to Merlin. At least it seemed to have helped.

Freya moved around until she could rest one hand on Gwaine’s forehead, and closed her eyes. She grimaced, and even hissed a little. “Poison,” she murmured, “and a lot of it. He’s working it out of his system already, but he’ll be weeks recovering.”

“Can you do anything to speed it along?”

“A little, maybe. It might be best just to let his body handle it, and to help him keep his strength up while he does the rest.”

“But you can do that?”

Freya nodded. “Once I’ve rested, yes. I should be able to.”

It wasn’t much of a guarantee, but it looked to Arthur like that was all the promise they were going to get.

If there were a plot to harm him in all this madness, Arthur certainly couldn’t figure out what it might be. Befriend him, perhaps, before betraying him? That had certainly seemed to be everyone else’s preferred strategy, over the years. Except that Arthur would have to trust these two, first, and he wasn’t sure that he’d be likely to do that ever again.

Lancelot, who had nearly destroyed his marriage to Gwen, and a druid sorceress named Freya, both claiming to have been returned from the dead. How could they possibly expect him to welcome them with open arms?

And yet, they didn’t seem to expect trust from him. Not yet, anyway. As the day went on, Lancelot stayed on the far side of the clearing, wrapping his own cloak around himself for warmth as night fell and the air grew chill. He didn’t offer to go off into the woods where Arthur and Percival couldn’t keep an eye on him, he didn’t try to talk to Arthur to persuade him that he was a friend… he didn’t even seem to be carrying a knife, to skin the rabbits that Percival brought back from the snares he’d set the day before.

Freya at least seemed harmless, despite the magic, and it seemed hypocritical of Arthur to allow her to use her magic on Merlin and Gwaine and then kick her out of their little shelter; she was curled up in an uncomfortable-looking huddle, with Merlin’s head in her lap, and stroking his hair sleepily. Arthur wondered how Merlin had known her, before she’d died.

Had she really died?

What did Look for old friends, and fear not even mean?

It was Percival who got the fire going, and Percival who prepared supper from the rabbits he’d caught. Arthur was still weak, but he managed a few bites before he waved off the other knight’s help; meanwhile Freya picked at her meal with delicate fingers and ate half a rabbit by herself. Arthur wondered if it was being dead that made a person so hungry, or just the work she supposedly had put into her healing spell.

She nodded off eventually, not long after the sun set, and Percival studied her for a long moment before he sighed and looked across the fire to Lancelot.

“Fine,” he said tiredly. “The rest is yours.”

“Thanks,” said Lancelot. He stood and stretched, then accepted the offered food slowly, as if any sudden moves might get him run through. He went back to his spot opposite them to eat, and pitched his bones into the fire the way he’d always used to do before… before.

Before he’d died.

Arthur sighed, weary to his bones. He was pretty sure he’d live, and almost wished he wouldn’t, just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the immense headache and all the weighty decisions that were facing him already. Lancelot’s return; Merlin’s magic.

His eyelids were heavy, and they slipped shut before Arthur could even begin to figure out what the hell he was going to do about either of them.

Chapter Text

The next day dawned far too early for Arthur’s taste, but he couldn’t sleep any longer no matter how much he wanted to. Whatever Merlin had done to heal him had worked; he could feel his strength returning, and with it a familiar restlessness. He needed to get up and move before he went mad.

A groan on the other side of the pallet caught his attention, and he leaned forward to see Gwaine stirring finally. He curled up at first, visibly uncomfortable, and flung one arm up to cover his head before Percival appeared at his side and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Gwaine, can you hear me?”

“Nngh. Gonna be sick.”

“Right, then,” said Percival, and hauled him to his feet and across the clearing, away from their little shelter. Arthur swallowed convulsively a few times himself, listening to the poor knight retch and heave. He hadn’t been conscious to eat anything yesterday, so Arthur didn’t imagine that Gwaine would have much to get rid of in his stomach today.

“Worst hangover I’ve ever had,” muttered Gwaine as he spat.

“You said that yesterday,” replied Percival, passing him his water skin.

Gwaine drank carefully, then swished his mouth out and spat again. “Still true today.” He grunted and went tense all over. “Everything hurts,” he said, once the fit had passed. “My hair hurts.”

“You’ve been through a lot,” said Percival.


They were silent long enough for Percival to move him back to their shared bedroll, such as it was, and Gwaine sat heavily, looking to Arthur like he wished he was dead. His hands shook as he massaged his forehead, his eyes shut in an expression of pure exhausted misery. The motion woke Freya with a start, and she stared at the knights fearfully before she seemed to recall where she was. Awkwardly, she climbed out of their shelter over Merlin, then made her way past a still-sleeping Lancelot and toward the latrine.

“Who’s the girl?” asked Gwaine. “And who’s that?”

“You won’t believe me if I tell you,” warned Percival.

“I was dead for a few hours yesterday,” said Gwaine. “Try me.”

“The girl knows Merlin somehow, and she’s a sorceress, and she says she’s here to help heal him. And that, supposedly, is Lancelot… and according to them, they were both dead too, until yesterday.”

Gwaine’s eyebrows went up as Arthur watched. “Huh. Well. That is pretty unbelievable.” He shifted his gaze downward, to where Merlin lay, still and pale. “And what happened to him?”

“To hear Arthur tell it, Merlin made some sort of magical bargain for Arthur’s life. He says Merlin’s a sorcerer.”

“Huh,” Gwaine said again. “Although that makes more sense than just about everything else in the past few days.”

“You think he has magic?”

“I think it explains a lot about our friend,” said Gwaine. He reached over and rested one hand on Merlin’s forehead, but the younger man didn’t stir. “Explains quite a lot, indeed,” he added quietly.

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s Merlin. You’re not going to try and convince me he’s evil, are you?”

“No, I suppose not.” Percival leaned in close, and lowered his voice. Arthur wondered if they knew he was awake yet. “According to Arthur,” he said, “Merlin doesn’t just have magic. He has so much magic that it spilled out when he tried to heal Arthur, and a goddess had to step in and use the extra magic to bring people back from the dead.” His voice was full of doubt as he added, “I didn’t think magic could even do that.”

“I suppose Merlin would be the one to tell us, once he wakes up,” said Gwaine.

“If he wakes up,” countered Percival.

Freya returned, pausing to wake Lancelot before crossing the clearing to their little shelter. It wasn’t much, just a low canopy tied between tree trunks to try and ward off the worst of the rain, but it was better than nothing. She knelt down to crawl inside, and froze when she saw the three knights awake.

“Good morning, Freya,” said Arthur. It didn’t hurt to at least be polite, and she did look actually frightened. Then again, he supposed, as a sorceress who had already died once, Arthur could imagine she had reason to be afraid of Camelot knights. “I trust you slept well?”

“Well enough,” she replied after a moment. She hesitated at the edge of the shelter, clearly torn about whether or not to climb in beside them, now that they were all conscious except for Merlin.

Arthur made the decision for her. “Percival,” he said, “help me up. Need to…” He waved in the general direction of the latrine, somewhere past where Lancelot sat yawning and scratching his head.

He still had to lean against the larger knight, and barely managed to keep upright long enough to make it to the latrine and do his business, but even so, Arthur could tell he was already much stronger than he’d been. Not that that was saying much. It was really unsettling to know just how close to death he’d come, before Merlin had jumped in front of him and taken the arrow, so to speak, once more.

When they returned, Freya and Gwaine were talking quietly, the girl actually smiling tentatively at him as he no doubt related some outlandish tale or other. That was how you’d really know Gwaine was dead, Arthur thought; when he stopped flirting, it really would be all over. The man still looked like he’d been dragged through hell backwards, with dark circles under his eyes and bedraggled hair, but he was gesturing tiredly with one hand and saying something that actually made Freya cover her mouth and hide a giggle.

“How about you?” Arthur heard him say as he approached. “Any funny stories about our Merlin?”

“Oh,” said Freya, looking demure. “Not, not really.”

“Really? Nothing about how the two of you met?”

“It wasn’t exactly a funny story,” said Freya, looking at her clasped hands. “Merlin saved me.”

“He does that,” nodded Gwaine. “He’s kind. Or he was. The past couple of years, though… he’s more sober than when we first met. More closed off. I always wondered why.”

“Perhaps if you ask him, he’ll tell you, once he wakes.”

It was Percival who interrupted them as he sat Arthur down near the fire. “You really think he’ll wake?”

“He has to,” she replied simply. “The Goddess sent me to make sure that he would.”

The conversation grew stilted and awkward after that, unfortunately; Gwaine drifted off mid-sentence, talking to Freya, and Arthur mostly just wanted to doze off and rest himself. The tension in their little clearing, however, was keeping him awake. Percival wasn’t sure what to say to a sorceress, couldn’t bring himself to trust Lancelot, and was exhausted besides.

To be fair, it had been a long few days for all of them, except possibly Freya and Lancelot. Lancelot, for his part, was keeping to himself on the far side of the clearing, but it was obvious to anyone who knew him that it was killing him not to be able to help.

Did Arthur know him, still? Was this really Lancelot?

Arthur trusted too readily; he knew that. It had gotten beaten into him rather painfully over the years that he trusted when he shouldn’t, when Merlin thought he shouldn’t… although, come to that, could he trust Merlin’s advice not to have some hidden agenda too?

But Lancelot had given them no reason to distrust him… the Goddess, if that was who she really was, had advised Arthur not to be afraid, and Percival was on his last legs, staying awake through the night to keep watch and then caring for Arthur during the day.

Time to put things to the test. “Get some rest, Percival,” he said finally, noting how Lancelot sat up straighter. “You’re exhausted.”

“Sire,” Percival tried to argue, “what about Lancelot? What if he isn’t who he says he is?”

“Then all he has to do is wait for you to collapse before he makes a move anyway,” Arthur pointed out. “We’ve already let a sorceress get near us and nothing bad has happened.”

“Sire, I don’t—”

“I know,” said Arthur. “I understand your concerns, and frankly, I share them. But we have to make a decision sooner or later. I’ve made mine. Even if he isn’t trustworthy, you’ll be of no use when you’re too tired to wield your sword in my defense.” Percival didn’t answer, his expression one of upset and indecision. “Get some rest,” he repeated. “That’s an order.”

Finally, Percival sighed. “Yes, sire.” He got up, swaying a little on his feet, and staggered across to their little shelter, before crawling in next to Gwaine and wrapping himself in his cloak.

He was snoring quietly in less than a minute.

“Thank you for trusting us, sire,” said Lancelot, about a minute after that.

“I don’t,” Arthur retorted. “You were dead, and she’s a sorceress.”

“Merlin’s a sorcerer, too.”

“That’s different.”

“Why?” countered Lancelot. “Is it because you know him?”

“He’s done a lot to save me. To save Camelot.”

“So the magic isn’t relevant to whether or not you think he’s evil?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “What are you getting at?”

Lancelot only smiled tiredly. “Just that you used to think all magic was a corrupting influence. That it didn’t matter what a person used it for, it was evil, in and of itself. Now, though…” He shrugged, and gestured at Merlin. “You at least seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“I’m not so sure about the magic,” Arthur admitted tiredly. “He lied, to my face, for ten years. I thought I knew him.”

“You also know why he would have had to lie,” said Lancelot.

Arthur pressed his lips together and sighed through his nose.

“I only point out that your views on magic have grown,” said Lancelot gently. “You aren’t your father, and you’ve had time to move beyond merely following in his footsteps. You’ve become your own man, with your own opinions. That’s a good thing.”

“Is it?” asked Arthur. “Is it good for the kingdom?” Was it really good for him? How he wished Merlin were awake to advise him… except he was no longer certain he could trust Merlin’s advice.

“I guess that’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own,” said Lancelot.

The day passed slowly; Arthur dozed, waking once to see Freya try her healing spell on Merlin once again. He didn’t wake, but Freya seemed satisfied with whatever progress she was making as she tended to him. Gwaine slept fitfully, waking only to crawl off into the trees and be sick every few hours or so. Percival slept the sleep of the truly exhausted, hardly moving at all. Freya caressed Merlin’s face like a lover might, making Arthur wonder again just who she’d been to him before, and when they might have known one another. Arthur was sure he’d have noticed her around Camelot before all this, if she were in Merlin’s circle of friends.

Lancelot mostly left them alone, content to maintain his silence while the others rested. He tended to the horses and gathered a little more firewood, checked the snares Percival had set, and generally made himself useful like he always had, but it was still hard to be at ease in his presence. The man had been dead for years before he’d come back the first time.

Arthur’s eyes were shut, but he wasn’t quite asleep, when he heard the other man ask Freya, “Do you think he’ll wake soon?”

“I hope so,” she said. “He’s probably the only one Arthur will listen to about whether or not we can be trusted.”

Lancelot hummed thoughtfully. “If he’ll still trust Merlin. With the magic…”

“I know,” Freya sighed. “Still, he hasn’t ordered his knight to run me through. That’s something.”

“I think he’s learning. Or at least, he’s willing to keep an open mind, rather than jumping to conclusions. Maybe Merlin has helped him see the good that magic can do.”

“Was he like that before, when you knew him? When you were alive?”

“Less so,” admitted Lancelot. “He was taught from childhood that magic was evil. I suspect it’d be hard to just set that aside and try a different perspective.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

Arthur wasn’t sure why that thought stayed with him, but it did. A new perspective. Was he really ready for that? Did he want to be? He turned the notion over and over in his mind, like a smooth river pebble, but gained no insight from doing so.

Arthur wasn’t sure when he’d finally drifted off, but he woke to the smell of dinner cooking, and the movement of his camp mates around him. Percival and Lancelot were eying one another warily, but the giant knight seemed willing enough to accept the food that Lancelot was ladling into bowls for everyone to share. For his part, Gwaine still looked like death warmed over, but he sat up and accepted a bowl of broth from Percival with shaking hands.

“Best not to try anything heartier just yet, aye?” he said, sipping at the bowl carefully. To everyone’s pleasure, he managed to keep everything down, and finished the broth before lying back down and going back to sleep almost immediately.

“This is really good,” said Freya quietly, as she sat by the fire. “Thank you, Lancelot.”

“Of course.”

They ate in relative silence, but the tension Arthur had noticed before seemed to have faded. Percival watched Lancelot, but his expression seemed to hold more hope and longing than it did suspicion now. Arthur had a feeling that Percival would at least start a tentative conversation by tomorrow.

“How’s Merlin?” he asked, as Percival collected his half-empty bowl.

Freya stood and brushed dead leaves off her dress. “I should check on him. See if the spell will help any more.”

“I want to watch,” said Arthur, and Freya nodded. She allowed Percival to help Arthur into the shelter, before crawling in after them and settling beside Merlin once more. Underneath the bandages, Merlin’s wound already looked much better; several days, maybe even weeks into healing, rather than fresh and infected. There were only a few spots of dried blood on the bandage itself, and nothing seeping from the cut on his abdomen.

Ic the thurhhaele thinu licsar,” whispered Freya, her eyes flashing gold in the shadows under their canopy. It still sent an unnerved shiver down Arthur’s spine to see—that eerie, unnatural shine in a person’s eyes usually heralding death or destruction, in his experience—but the spell worked. Merlin’s wound finally closed over completely, and he took a deeper breath than Arthur could remember seeing in the past couple of days.

Since he’d stabbed himself. Arthur would have to throw something at him for that, once they were both recovered.

To his surprise, Merlin took another deep breath, then stirred, just a little. He swallowed, smacking dry lips, then his face twisted into a grimace of pain. He brought one hand up to his stomach before Freya caught it in hers and squeezed gently. “Merlin?” she called softly. “Merlin, can you hear me?”

Merlin rolled his head to one side, settling when Freya caressed his forehead. It was dim, under the canopy, but there was still enough light left in the sky that Arthur could see him struggling to open his eyes.

Chapter Text

“That’s it,” said Freya; her voice was so tender, Arthur thought they had to have been lovers before she’d died. “That’s it, Merlin, open your eyes. It’s all right.”

His eyelashes fluttered against his cheek once, twice, before he managed it. He didn’t seem able to focus on anything just yet, but Arthur held his breath anyway. He hadn’t realized how worried for Merlin he’d truly been until now, until the moment when it finally looked like he was going to live.


He blinked tiredly, and for a moment Arthur thought he was simply going to fall back under without answering her, but after a moment he swallowed, and his lips parted. All that came out, however, was a pathetic rasp.

“Here,” said Lancelot, suddenly at his elbow, passing her Percival’s water skin. “But only a little.”

Freya dribbled a few drops of water onto Merlin’s lips, and waited while he licked them off, before letting him drink properly. He managed a few swallows before turning his head away feebly; Freya wiped away the water that trickled across his cheek. Merlin looked back up at her, seeming to Arthur as if he were struggling to focus, or possibly to recognize her. “Hello,” she said with a smile.

One corner of Merlin’s mouth quirked up, as if he wanted to respond but didn’t have the energy. He didn’t try to speak, just looked up at the girl with an expression akin to wonder.

“It’s all right,” Freya said softly. “It’s all right, Merlin. You can rest.”

It was if he had been waiting for her permission; Merlin’s eyes fell closed and he sighed as if the mere act of drinking a little water had exhausted him. Within a few moments, his breathing had grown deep and even, and Freya was brushing Merlin’s hair back from his forehead once more.

“Bit anticlimactic,” muttered Arthur, hiding his worry.

Freya, however, didn’t seem to appreciate his commentary. “He nearly died for you,” she said, glaring at Arthur with more fire than he’d yet seen from her. “A blade forged in a dragon’s breath can kill anything. Even high priestesses; even creatures of dark magic. It is a miracle, literally a Goddess-given miracle, that Merlin is still alive right now at all.” She turned away from him, gazing lovingly at Merlin’s face once more. “I’m not surprised to see him like this. I’m only grateful that I can help him recover.”

“You healed the wound, though,” said Arthur with a frown. “Why isn’t he better?”

“He is better, physically,” said Freya. “But he used more magic than any mortal man should be able to hold onto without it killing them. Burning them to ash from the inside. If his magic is damaged somehow, well, I can’t heal that. And if he’s just exhausted, I can’t do much for that either. He’ll just have to rest and recuperate the old fashioned way.”

The next day was much the same; Gwaine woke long enough to be sick in the bushes, and take a little broth, and talk with the others in between resting or dozing like Arthur. Merlin, however, would rouse just enough to take a little water before sinking back into unconsciousness. Percival, Freya, and Lancelot looked after Arthur and the rest of them.

Lancelot was the one to bring up what they were all thinking. “We can’t stay here much longer, sire,” he said, poking at the remains of their fire. “We’ve been lucky that the remaining Saxons haven’t stumbled across us before now.”

“We’re not exactly in much shape to go back to Camelot,” Percival pointed out. “Two horses, six of us?”

“I can walk,” said Gwaine. They all looked at him dubiously. “Give me something to lean against, and I can walk. Riding would probably just make me sicker than I already am.”

“I don’t actually know how to ride a horse,” said Freya. “So I will walk.”

“That leaves the horses for Arthur and Merlin,” said Lancelot.

Percival looked doubtful, still. “Are they fit to ride?”

“I rode all the way here, until Morgana spooked our horses,” said Arthur. “And we’ve tied Merlin to his horse before now.”

Freya gasped, appalled. “You what?”

“It was the dorocha,” Lancelot said gently. “He jumped in front of one, and it didn’t kill him, but it left him… a lot like this, actually.” He nodded to Percival. “We could make it work.”

“But can we get all the way to Camelot like this?” asked Gwaine. “It wouldn’t have to be Saxons. An old lady with a couple of cantankerous grandsons could take us right now, as we are.”

“I think I can handle an old granny,” said Percival, with the first smile Arthur had seen from him in days. “And the grandsons.”

“Save one for me,” said Lancelot; Percival’s smile faded as he looked over at the other man, but eventually he huffed a little breath and shook his head.

“Maybe,” he said. “If you’re quick.”

Lancelot’s answering smile was full of relief as much as it was good humor.

“Should we leave today, or wait until morning?” asked Freya.

“Could make a few miles today,” mused Gwaine. “Probably best to save our strength for a full day tomorrow, though.”

“Do we want to make straight for Camelot?” Percival glanced at Arthur and shrugged. “There are closer villages. Might be able to rest there, send word ahead. Get Gaius to come to us.”

At that, Arthur had to shake his head. “It’s a good thought, but Gaius is old. I won’t risk him when the land is still so unsettled from the war. But resting in villages on our way back to Camelot is still a good idea.”

“Plus we can pick up a wagon or something, so we can make better time,” said Lancelot. “No offense, Gwaine, but if you and Freya could ride, we’d definitely be able to go faster.”

“None taken. I’m not sure how many miles I’ll be able to make in a day as it is. I only know we can’t stay here.”

The next morning saw Arthur back in the saddle, wincing as the motion pulled at his wound. It was still better than having a shard of metal inside him, though, and he made a point of refusing to complain. Merlin had barely roused, even when Percival had bodily lifted him into the saddle, and Arthur could feel his worry for his friend return.

Of course, that worry was immediately sidetracked by the notion that his friend had lied to him for ten years. Did he really know this Merlin at all?

It’s all part of my charm,” Merlin had said. Was it?

Freya walked beside Merlin while Percival led his horse, and Gwaine leaned against Percival for stability. Lancelot took the reins for Arthur’s horse, and off they went, at an amble that would have driven Arthur mad with impatience if he couldn’t see that Gwaine was incapable of going any faster. The poor man staggered and wove, half collapsing against Percival after only a few hours, but to Arthur’s admiration, he refused to complain or to quit.

Now, if only they wouldn’t find any Saxons between here and their next stop.

Actually, that reminded Arthur of something… “Freya.”

“Yes, Arthur?”

“Merlin told me that he could use magic to see the path ahead of us, when we were traveling before. He used it to see whether there were Saxons or bandits out there, either ahead or behind. Is that something you know how to do?”

The girl bit her lip and thought for a moment. “I probably won’t be able to see very far, but I can try,” she said finally.

At Arthur’s nod, she stopped in her tracks and turned to face behind them. Her eyes flashed gold, and Arthur held back the reflexive shiver. He had never imagined he would ask a sorcerer to help him ever again, after Dragoon had killed his father. And yet, Merlin had been helping him in secret for years.

Freya blinked, her eyes turning back to brown, and she shook her head a little before turning to face forward; Arthur couldn’t see her face, but he presumed she was doing the same thing to the path ahead.

“I think it’s all clear,” she said, “but I don’t know how far out I went. And if there’s anyone hiding off the main trail, well…”

“It’s better than nothing,” said Lancelot. “Thank you.”

Freya looked away demurely, a little smile playing across her lips.

Whatever the limitations to Freya’s magic, their path remained clear… and sometime after they’d stopped for a noon rest, they got a very good guess as to why.

A heavy whooshing sound, accompanied by gusts of wind through the treetops, made them all look up, just in time for an enormous shadow to pass overhead. The shape was unmistakable: a dragon. The horses startled, but both Percival and Lancelot were able to bring them under control quickly.

“I thought they were all extinct,” said Lancelot, after it had gone and the horses had settled back down.

“There was one at Camlann,” Percival replied, still looking up. “I think that one was smaller than this one, though.”

“Merlin was the one to tell me I’d killed the Great Dragon,” said Arthur bitterly. “Only we never found a carcass, and I was unconscious for at least a minute after we fought it.”

Percival looked over the horse’s neck at Arthur. “You think Merlin lied? You think that was the Great Dragon?”

“He’s lied about a lot,” Arthur admitted. “Let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me if this were another one to add to the list.”

An hour later, however, a second dragon passed overhead, the sunlight shining through the membranes of its wings. If anything, it was even larger than the first one. The horses certainly took longer to settle after it was gone; Arthur wasn’t sure if he had the strength to stay in the saddle if they were to shy again.

“Two dragons?” asked Percival.

Lancelot did not answer, but glanced meaningfully at Freya, who only shook her head and shrugged.

“What is it?” asked Arthur, narrowing his eyes at the exchange. “What aren’t you saying?”

“It’s nothing,” tried Freya, but Arthur cut her off.

“Don’t say it’s nothing. You’re not a very skilled liar compared to Merlin.”

Freya drew herself up with dignity. “I was going to say that it’s nothing I can be sure of,” she retorted. “I have an idea, but nothing certain and no proof.”

“What’s your idea, then?” Arthur sighed, already sure he wasn’t going to like whatever it was.

“The Goddess used Merlin’s leftover magic to bring back me and Lancelot,” she said. “And your friend Gwaine, too…?”

“Aye,” mumbled Gwaine tiredly.

“Well, it’s only… what if the magic—the Goddess—what if She brought back more than just us?”

Percival and Arthur both froze and looked at one another for a long moment before turning to stare at Freya. “You think Merlin’s magic brought back dragons,” said Arthur.

“I don’t know,” said Freya with a shake of her head. “But he has… a lot of magic. And he thought he’d have to give all of it to save you.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Arthur, a little desperately. “I remember… there was a priestess, a sorceress, once, who told me that in order to give a life, you have to take a life in balance. That the only reason I could be born was because the magic took my mo—my mother.”

“That’s true,” said Freya. “The Old Religion teaches balance in all things.”

“Then how could the dragons come back to life, without someone else dying?” The thought of losing more of Camelot’s people, in exchange for dangerous magical beasts, nearly made Arthur sick. “Who’s died to bring them back?”

Freya gestured helplessly. “I don’t know. But they’re here.”

“It’s possible that the sacrifice wasn’t a life,” offered Lancelot.

“Oh, and I suppose you’ve become an expert in the Old Religion while you were dead?” Arthur snapped.

Lancelot didn’t take the bait, though, only sighing heavily. “No, sire. I’m only suggesting that perhaps Merlin’s magic was the sacrifice. Maybe that’s the reason he’s so weak now.”

“He’s weak, because he decided to stab himself with Excalibur!”

Percival stopped in his tracks. Gwaine, staggering, managed to turn himself around to stare at Arthur.

“He did what?”

“I saw it,” said Arthur. “I was almost dead, thought I was dead, and then I woke up long enough to see him shove my sword into his gut. A life for a life, you said? He tried to give his life for mine.”

“God,” breathed Percival. “You hadn’t said that before.”

Arthur shut his eyes. “I shouldn’t have said anything now. But there are three extra living people who shouldn’t be here—no offense,” he added, opening his eyes, “and dragons in the skies, and Merlin still hasn’t died for any of us. So what was the sacrifice that brought us all back?”

Lancelot shook his head. “I don’t know. I can only speculate, like Freya. And our guess is that Merlin’s magic was the offering that the Goddess accepted.”

“And where does that leave Merlin?” asked Gwaine.

They all looked at Merlin, draped unconscious across his horse’s neck and held in place with straps and rope. No one had an answer.

They made camp for the night near a stream, shallow and swift, with plenty of fish. It was a welcome change from the rabbit Arthur had been eating for the past few days, though he supposed he didn’t have much room to complain given how close he’d come to dying and never tasting food again. Freya and Percival foraged for edible plants and herbs to supplement the dinner, and it was nearly the best thing Arthur had ever tasted.

“Better than broth,” agreed Gwaine. “God, I’ve missed solid food.”

“Hopefully you’ll be able to keep this down,” said Percival.

“It’s mild enough,” said Gwaine. “Even Gaius couldn’t complain about a meal like this for a poisoned man.”

“Speaking of…” Percival turned to Freya, cautiously. “Now that you’re not casting spells on Merlin all the time, do you think you’d have enough energy to help Gwaine? Or Arthur?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d want me to,” she replied. “And I’m still not much of a healer. But I can try.”

“Who do you want to go first, Princess?”

Arthur shook his head. Gwaine could barely sit up on his own right now, exhausted from their travels so far, and still he was making jokes. “Flip a coin,” he said. “Although I think you’re worse off than I am.”

“Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.” Gwaine gestured for Freya to come sit beside him. She rested delicate hands on his abdomen and forehead, and closed her eyes.

“You are doing better,” she said after a moment. “The poison is leaving your system slowly. Your liver is overtaxed; I think you need to drink a lot of water to help flush the poison out, and you may not be able to drink anything stronger than tea after this.”

“No mead?”

“I’m not sure,” said Freya. “It’s just the impression I get. The magic tells me that your liver is responsible for getting the poison out of your blood. It’s probably damaged from soaking up so much of it. Liquor might make you sick rather than anything pleasant.”

“Huh.” Gwaine thought about that for a moment, his expression sober. “What can you do to speed up the process?”

“I can try to heal your liver, but I don’t know if it will work. And drinking a lot of water—I mean, a lot—will probably help dilute the poison in your blood, too.”

“All right, then,” replied the knight, pushing himself upright. “Does it hurt?”

Freya frowned. “Does what hurt?”

“The spell.”

“It shouldn’t.” She moved her hand off of Gwaine’s forehead and rested it on his ribs instead, then recited the words that Arthur was beginning to recognize.

Gwaine took a deep breath, then sighed, his eyes falling shut in an expression of utter contentment. He was even smiling a little, which Arthur had not expected. He also hadn’t realized until then just how sallow the other man’s skin had been, yellow and jaundiced, until his coloring began to improve. A healthy pink flush came to Gwaine’s cheeks, and he took another deep breath before his eyes opened once more.

“Oh, now, that is an improvement,” he said, stretching luxuriously. “Didn’t think I’d ever feel this good again.”

“You’ll still need to rest and drink lots of water,” Freya warned, wiping the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. “The poison is still in your system; I’ve just strengthened your liver’s ability to handle it.”

“Still,” said Gwaine, sitting up, “I thank you.” He kissed the back of her hand, making her blush. Arthur remembered what he’d thought the other day; as long as Gwaine was flirting, he’d be fine.

Chapter Text

To Arthur’s eternal relief, they were able to follow the stream to a village, arriving about an hour after the sun set. The villagers were all shut up inside their homes at first, and unwilling to come out to see who had ridden into town. Arthur couldn’t blame them, considering that they’d likely had to weather more than a few waves of retreating Saxons over the past few days.

And then Percival shouted, “Open for the king!” and it was like someone had put a stick into an anthill.

“The king?” an elderly woman demanded, throwing her door open wide. “The king lives?” On either side of her house and across the road, people were coming out or putting lights in their windows to see what was going on.

“He does,” said Lancelot, indicating Arthur atop his horse with a gesture. “We seek lodgings, if you have any. The village barn will do, otherwise.”

“I’ll not put the King of Camelot in a barn,” said the woman. “Rachel, get your lazy husband out here to help the king!”

Everyone was coming out now, surrounding the group, and kids and dogs were starting to make noise that added to the din of excited voices. Arthur watched as Freya shrank back against Merlin’s leg, not that Merlin was in any condition to reassure her. She hadn’t seemed so fearful before all this. It had made sense that she would be nervous around Arthur and Percival, being a sorceress, but she’d gotten over that. Why would she be afraid now?

Arthur didn’t really have time to wonder about it, though, because now he was surrounded by men who were reaching up to help him off his horse. Unfortunately, one of them tried to brace him by putting a hand directly over his wound, and Arthur couldn’t stop the cry of pain as he doubled over.

Immediately the rising clamor of voices fell silent… but only for a second, before the women took over, speaking in hushed voices, some scolding their husbands or sons, others giving instructions to lead the horses away, or sending someone to fetch herbs, or who knew what. Arthur could barely focus on them, struggling as he was to simply breathe through the pain and not panic as he felt blood well up from the wound once more.

The next few moments were a bit of a blur, but eventually there were hands leading him indoors and helping him to sit beside a cheerful hearth fire. The sound of heavy footsteps made him look up in time to see Percival carrying Merlin in and laying him on the room’s only bed.

“No, truly, the barn is fine,” he heard Lancelot saying. “The hayloft will be warm and dry, and a better bed than we’ve had in too long.”

“If you insist, Sir…”

“Lancelot,” he replied. “Though I am only a commoner, not a knight.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” slurred Gwaine, half-collapsing into another chair. The hut was a spacious single room, from what Arthur could see, with a bed, a table, and three chairs for furniture. “You were a knight before all this.”

“Things have happened,” tried Lancelot, but Gwaine dismissed that with a rude noise.

“If I’m still a knight, you are too. Tell ‘im, Arthur.”

Fortunately, Arthur was saved from having to make a decision on that front by Lancelot himself. “The king has more important things to worry about right now,” he said. “Getting his wound seen to, for one.”

“Freya can help him,” said Gwaine. “She did wonders for me.”

“Gwaine…” This time it was Percival speaking up, a warning in his tone. “Freya may need to… rest. Elsewhere.”

“Elsewh—oh. Right. Rest.”

And just like that, Arthur realized, they had all mutually agreed to hide Freya’s magic. To protect her, as they no doubt would protect Merlin.

Arthur… wasn’t sure how he felt about that. They were knowingly harboring a sorcerer, two sorcerers, and Arthur couldn’t bring himself to be angry about it, only troubled. The law would see them both dead, and in his father’s time, anyone who had knowingly given them aid or associated with them, too. Everyone in this room could have been killed, just for talking to Freya, even if they hadn’t known she had magic.

He’d always known his father’s laws were harsh, but he’d always thought there was a legitimate reason behind them. Now, however, he wondered if that were really true.

For the first time since the battle, Arthur was helped out of his armor so that Freya and the village midwife could see to his wound. God, the smell as his clothes came off, of stale sweat and dried blood, was almost as bad as the battle itself had been. Arthur had had other things to think about for a while now, but suddenly he found himself longing for a bath.

Once they were back in Camelot, he’d probably climb into his tub and not come out for a week.

The midwife pronounced him free of infection, and offered to stitch him up, “Or I could just poultice the wound and bind it well, Your Majesty. The bleeding has stopped for now, but it might be best to leave it open and let it drain, if any infection does set in.”

“Best to bind it for now, I think,” said Arthur. “I’ll have the Royal Physician stitch it if he deems it necessary.”

“Of course.” She worked in silence, and when she finished, glanced over to where Merlin lay asleep. “And your companion?”

“His wound has already been treated. We were told he mostly suffers from exhaustion. He is to have water and broth every time he wakes.”

“I can see to that, Your Majesty,” promised the midwife. “But where will you sleep?”

“I’ll take the bed beside him,” Arthur said with a tired shrug. Indeed, the bed was looking more inviting with every second that passed. “It won’t be any trouble.”

“If you’re certain…”

“I am. I haven’t slept indoors in too long. I doubt you’ll wake me.”

“I’ll have one of your knights post a watch outside, then,” said the midwife, before helping him to lie down, head-to-foot with Merlin. “Not that anyone is likely to disturb you, but I’m sure it will set your mind at ease. Soldiers always seem to sleep better knowing someone is on guard.”

One corner of Arthur’s mouth turned up. “That we do.”

“Well, then,” said the midwife as she stood. “That is all I can do for you tonight. Come with me, girl, and we’ll see about finding you a place to sleep as well. I can send you to Birgitta’s house, she has room.”

“I can stay here on the floor,” offered Freya timidly, but the midwife waved that off without a thought.

“Nonsense. It isn’t proper for a lady to sleep in here with the men.” The midwife had her by the elbow and was gently leading her toward the door, but Freya resisted, looking back over her shoulder.

“But Merlin…” she said.


“Good midwife,” said Arthur, “let Freya reassure herself that we’re safe, and bid us goodnight, and then she will meet you outside.”

The old woman raised an eyebrow at that, but then looked between Freya and Merlin and smiled knowingly. “Ah, to be young again,” she said with a smile. “Very well. Mind you don’t take too long, though. They need their rest.”

Freya nodded, and waited until the older woman was outside, before coming to sit on the edge of the bed. She brushed Merlin’s hair back from his forehead, then rested one hand on his chest as her eyes fell shut. After a moment, she opened them and gave him a little kiss on his brow.

“Everything all right?” Arthur asked.

“He’s resting,” said Freya. “And the midwife said she would give him water and broth?”

“That’s right. You can sleep easy tonight. We’re in good hands.”

Freya nodded, but did not stand up. “I haven’t tried to heal you yet,” she said, biting her lip. “If you wanted…”

Arthur considered it. She hadn’t done any harm to Merlin or Gwaine, but all the same… “If the midwife sees the wound healed over by morning, she’ll grow suspicious,” he reasoned. “Perhaps later, when we’re closer to Camelot.”

“All right.” He didn’t think it was his imagination that Freya seemed relieved by his refusal. “And thank you. For protecting me.”

She slipped out the door, and Arthur saw Lancelot close it behind her.

He was asleep before the midwife returned.

The villagers let him sleep late the next morning, but eventually Arthur woke, hungrier than he could remember being since before the battle. Another sign of his healing, and he turned his head to watch Merlin as he slept. It didn’t look as if the other man had even moved in the night, the blankets still smooth across his legs.

Had he really brought dragons back, alongside Freya and Lancelot?

“I wish you were awake right now,” he said softly, resting one hand on Merlin’s shin, but Merlin did not stir. Of course not. “Just like you to be contrary,” he added, a little sadly.

He still lacked the strength to stand without leaning on someone, but he was celebrating being able to sit up on his own when Freya and the midwife came in. “Good morning, Your Majesty,” said the midwife. “Although it is nearly noon. I trust you slept well?”

“I did,” said Arthur, running a hand across his face and feeling the stubble growing on his chin. “Is there anything to eat?”

“In your condition, only barley gruel, I’m afraid, but we do sweeten it with apples.”

“That will be fine.”

Once the food was delivered, Arthur ate with as much gusto as he could muster, remembering other peasant porridges he’d eaten over the years. It was about the sort of bland sickroom food he could remember Gaius insisting he eat whenever he was ill or injured, but the apples at least gave it some flavor.

“Did Merlin wake in the night?” he asked between bites.

“I was able to rouse him enough to take some water, but no, Your Majesty, apart from that he did not wake.”

Arthur nodded absently, studying Merlin’s face. The shadow of a three-day beard made his skin look even paler than usual, and accentuated the circles under his eyes. He’d always been thin compared to Arthur’s build, but days with only water or broth to sustain him had started to take their toll as well, drawing his skin taut over his cheekbones. His knuckles stood out on the backs of his hands, where they lay folded across this chest.

“Hopefully Gaius can do something for him,” he said eventually.

“I hope so as well, Your Majesty.”

The farmers had a spare wagon they were willing to loan to the king, along with plenty of food inside, and sturdy horses trained to pull it. Arthur’s charger and Merlin’s palfrey weren’t suited to the job, but they were more than adequate for Percival and Gwaine to ride. Lancelot drove the wagon, with Freya sitting up front beside him; bags of grain and sacks stuffed full of straw cushioned the ride for Arthur and Merlin. It was almost comfortable, thought Arthur, but he would insist on riding his own horse once they got closer to Camelot proper. He could not afford to be seen as weak in front of his subjects.

They were about an hour down the road when they saw people walking up ahead, a group with only a few adults that Arthur could make out, and quite a large number of children. As soon as the group heard the rattle and squeak of their wagon, however, they looked over their shoulders, then immediately began herding the children into the trees.

Arthur got a good look at their faces and realized he was wrong; there wasn’t a single adult among them. The taller people were adolescents, no older…

…and every last one of them looked terrified when they saw Percival and Gwaine, in their red cloaks. Some of the smaller children even started to cry, though they were quickly hushed by the older ones.

The two knights frowned at one another, then without speaking seemed to come to an agreement; they rode ahead a little way, and began to search the ground for the children’s footprints.

Percival dismounted and stepped toward the edge of the road, as the wagon pulled up beside them. “Hello?” he called. “It’s all right. You can come out.”

A child wailed in pure fear, and Arthur heard the branches rustling as the group moved further into the woods.

Percival looked back at Gwaine and the rest of them, perplexed. “Why would they be afraid of us?” he asked.

Freya coughed, and said dryly, “I can think of a few reasons.” Arthur forced himself to sit up straighter.


She turned to look at him incredulously. “A war just finished. Knights are death to an unarmed peasant. Plenty of knights don’t care if you’re sworn to their service or not, they’ll demand it of you and beat you if you don’t give it to them. The penalty for magic is death. The penalty for defying a noble is usually a beating, or death. The penalty for—”

“All right, all right. I get it.” Arthur was scowling, and couldn’t make himself stop. “It isn’t like that in Camelot.”

“It was like that before I died,” she said. “What proof do we have that it’s changed, other than your word?”

“I haven’t executed a sorcerer in years,” snapped Arthur, already knowing what she was referring to. “Unless they were actively being malicious to Camelot. And anyway, these are kids. They’re not an army of bandits or sorcerers.”

“Where are their parents?” asked Lancelot.

“I was wondering the same,” said Gwaine. “If their village was attacked and they’ve escaped, they’d have good reason to be afraid of us. Any grownup, really.”

It was a good point, even if Arthur didn’t like it. “Lancelot, I want you to go and see if you can find them,” he said. “If they’re frightened of knights,” and the very words left a sour taste in his mouth, “then we’ll keep Percival and Gwaine back.”

“Do you want me to try and bring them back to the road?”

“No, I doubt they’d come. But tell them that we’re safe, and see if you can get a story out of them. What village was attacked, what happened to them. Something.”

Lancelot nodded and climbed down out of the driver’s seat. “They probably haven’t gone far.”

He’d barely gotten a few paces into the woods when they heard a young voice cry out, “Stay away!”

…and Lancelot stumbled backward as if shoved, and landed flat on his back in the middle of the road.

“Sorcery,” warned Arthur, but Lancelot was already slowly getting back up, dusting himself off with a grimace, and Freya was hopping down from the wagon herself.

“It’s all right,” she called. “We’re not going to hurt you.” She held her hands out in front of her as if she were cupping something delicately, and then released a globe of light that rose into the air. In the brightness of the afternoon, it glowed only feebly, but it was still clearly magical and not natural.

The stillness stretched, until an older boy, perhaps thirteen, appeared from behind one of the trees like some kind of wary forest spirit. One by one, more of them emerged, until Arthur counted at least twenty of them, ranging in age from perhaps fifteen at the most, to barely toddling. Most of the smaller ones were being carried by the older ones, but there were still far too many of them and no adults. They were all barefoot, which struck Arthur as strange. At least a few of them should have had shoes, or sandals. Even the poorest beggars could usually make sandals for themselves out of twisted cord.

“You have magic,” said the first boy to appear.

“I do,” replied Freya.

“Are they taking you to kill you?” piped a little girl with a gap in her teeth. Arthur felt his eyes grow wide and his stomach drop.

“Hush, Audrey,” said the boy, but he looked at Freya expectantly until she shook her head.

“They’re not,” she said. “My name is Freya. What’s yours?”

The boy shared a significant look with his companions, before he hesitantly offered, “Harald.”

“It’s good to meet you, Harald. Tell me, have you and your friends eaten today?”

Harald gulped, glancing at the wagon and back to her. “No.”

“Not since we woke up,” said Audrey. Several of the older girls hushed her at that.

“Woke up?” asked Lancelot. “You mean, this morning?”

No one answered. Arthur got a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Gwaine, Percival,” he called. “Let’s find a place to camp.” The wagon was stuffed full of bags of grain, under the straw. “I think we have some children to feed.”

Chapter Text

Wary and mistrustful, the lot of them; granted, Arthur was not familiar with very many children, but even so, he had never seen one so hesitant to speak, or even to approach and sit near him. They all gathered around him and the knights and their wagon, and the fire that Lancelot got going just off the side of the road, but they stayed out of reach of all the adults except Freya.

Soon enough, part of a bag of grain had been emptied into a pot of water, and was cooking into a thin gruel. It would be virtually tasteless, thought Arthur, but at least the little ones would have had something to eat.

How long had they gone without food?

How many of them had magic? Were they druids? If they were, why would they be traveling along the road instead of through the forest, and where were their parents?

How could he make them stop staring at him, Gwaine, and Percival like empty-eyed ghosts?

Freya tried to engage them in conversation, first Harald and Audrey, then the others, but not one of the teenagers would speak to her, and the smaller ones all followed the bigger ones’ lead.

Finally the gruel was ready, and Lancelot filled the bowls and passed them around to the children. There were only six bowls, and at least twenty children, but the older ones got the smaller ones to sit in circles around them, and they shared out the porridge a bite at a time. The littlest ones fussed a bit until it was their turn to eat, but there was plenty to go around.

Harald still eyed them suspiciously, even as he ate his share. The girl who had spoken before, Audrey, stared at Freya with open curiosity.

“Are they gonna throw you in a dungeon?” she asked finally.

“Audrey!” exclaimed an older girl.

“She said they weren’t gonna kill her!”

“Tell you what,” said Gwaine, and the squabbling fell silent. “How about we take turns? You ask us a question, and then we ask you one.”

Harald scowled, but after a moment he relented. “Fine.”

“You go first,” said Gwaine.

Harald paused, clearly looking for the trap, but eventually demanded, “Why are you being nice to us?”

“We’re knights of Camelot,” he replied with a shrug. “Helping people is what we do.”

Harald snorted. “No it isn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

Harald clamped his mouth shut, but Audrey piped up in his place. “You throw magic kids in the river,” she said, eyes huge and expression solemn. “Are you gonna put us back there?”

Arthur gaped.

“Back there?” asked Lancelot gently.

“You don’t get to ask us a question until we ask you one,” said Harald. “You said.”

“Fair enough.”

But Harald didn’t seem to have another question ready; the silence stretched again, awkward and tense, until finally another older girl asked quietly, “What will you do with us?”

“Well, that depends,” said Gwaine easily. “Our first thought was that maybe Saxons or bandits had attacked your village. We were going to ask what happened to your parents, and see if you needed help. But it sounds like maybe something else has happened, instead.”

The girl nodded, and glanced sidelong at Harald. He shook his head adamantly, but the girl still responded. “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m not sure I believe it myself.”

Lancelot nodded. “A lot of strange things have happened lately,” he said. “Unbelievable things. I saw dragons in the sky, just the other day. I had always thought they were extinct.”

“Extinct?” frowned the girl. “They’re not extinct—”

“Yes, they are,” said Harald. “The Mad King killed them all.”


“It’s true,” said Lancelot. “At least, it was.” He glanced toward the sky and shook his head. “I’m not sure if it is anymore.”

The girl frowned again, but didn’t say anything.

“It’s our turn, isn’t it?” Gently, gently, Lancelot leaned forward. “Why do you think we’d put you back in the river?”

“Because that’s what the Mad King does to anyone with magic,” said Harald bitterly. “Or even if he just thinks you do. Or if you’re weird. Or different. Tobias doesn’t talk, and he likes to rock back and forth when he’s sitting alone, so they put him in the river too.”

A cold feeling of dread crept over Arthur, making his stomach churn. “Drowning,” he said. “You’re talking about drowning children who have magic.”

Tears sprang up in Harald’s eyes, and he dashed them away with the back of his hand, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes.

Percival, Gwaine, and Lancelot all turned to stare at Arthur.

“I never saw it,” he said. “But I’ve heard stories. During the height of the Purge…” Once, years ago, his father had been forced to hallucinate, and he’d said he saw the ghosts of those he’d killed.

The children he’d murdered.

“My God,” breathed Lancelot.

“The Mad King,” nodded the older girl sadly.

“Are you gonna put us back in the river?” asked Audrey again.

“No,” said Arthur. “No, I swear it.” God, they were just children. “I have one last question for you, if you’ll answer.”

The girl shifted uncomfortably, but nodded.

“You said we wouldn’t believe what had happened to you,” Arthur said slowly. “Did… were you all dead? Before a few days ago?”

Harald curled up, rested his elbows on his knees, and hid his face away.

“It’s all right,” said Lancelot. “I was dead too. And so was Freya,” he added, nodding toward her.

“Really?” asked Audrey.

Freya nodded. “The Goddess brought us back. We thought we were the only ones, but then we saw the dragons. And now you.”

“Why, though?” asked the older girl. “And how long have we been dead?”

“I don’t know,” Freya replied. “It was a few years for each of us.”

“Do you know when you died?” asked Arthur.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Harald. “The Mad King will find us and kill us again.”

“He won’t,” said Arthur. “Uther is dead. He’s been dead for about ten years now.”

Harald’s eyes grew wide, along with a number of the other children who were old enough to understand. “Are we really safe?” asked one of them.

“That depends,” said the older girl. “Did the baby prince take after Uther, or did he grow up to be more like Ygraine?”

Arthur blinked. “You knew the queen?”

“Pff. I was thirteen when the prince was born.”

“How old are you now?” he asked carefully. “And, what’s your name?”

“It’s Olwen,” she replied. “And I was fifteen when I died.”

Arthur would have been only two when his father had her killed for possessing magic. “I’m sorry.”

Olwen shrugged. “You didn’t kill me. Anyway, depending on how long it’s been, I’m hoping that my parents are still alive and I can see them again.”

Arthur nodded; it was a good idea. “Were you from the city proper, or a different town? Perhaps we can help you find your parents.”

A ripple went through the gathered children at that. “You’d do that?” asked Audrey. “You’d help us find our mums and dads?”

“If they still live, yes,” Arthur began, but Harald scoffed.

“You can’t promise that,” he said. “Only the king would be able to do that, and there’s no way he’d help us.”

“It’s not Uther the Mad anymore, though,” said Olwen. “If the prince grew up all right, then maybe he’d do it.”

“He did grow up all right,” said Gwaine with a smile.

“You’re a knight, you have to say nice things about the king,” said Harald.

Gwaine actually laughed at that. “He’d be the first to tell you that I don’t,” he replied. “In fact, I usually call him Princess to his face.”

Harald blinked. Olwen, and even Freya, looked scandalized.

“It’s true,” said Percival. “We call Gwaine the knights’ fool.” Gwaine laughed again.

“You only call me that when you know I can’t come after you on the training field.”

Olwen shifted uncomfortably, glancing at the other children before returning her gaze to the knights. “Do you really think he’d help us? Uther’s son, Arthur?”

Lancelot, Gwaine, and Percival all smiled, and Gwaine indicated Arthur with his chin. “You’re looking at him.”

“What do you think, sire?” asked Lancelot, as Olwen’s eyes grew wide. “Would you help these lost children find their parents?”

Arthur wasn’t completely sure how he felt about having been revealed, given the children’s reactions. Some looked awed, while others seemed terrified to be in his presence. Harald had leaped to his feet and looked ready to run if anyone so much as looked at him the wrong way. “I’ve already said I would,” he answered. “But we have to return to Camelot before we could begin.” He sighed, then winced as the motion pulled at his wound.

“What’s wrong?” lisped a boy who hadn’t spoken yet. He cocked his head and stared at Arthur strangely, as if he could see through him somehow.

“There was a battle,” Arthur replied. “I was wounded, and it still hurts a little.”

“Are you gonna die?” asked Audrey. Harald scowled at her, and some of the older girls exclaimed at her again. Olwen merely rolled her eyes and seemed to be hiding a smile.

“I’m going to be fine,” said Arthur.

“What about your friend?” asked the boy. “Was he wounded too?”

Olwen frowned at him, and so did Harald and a few of the others. “What friend?”

“The one in the wagon with him,” said the boy, pointing. From his angle on the ground, it should have been impossible to see Merlin where he lay, yet the boy’s finger was aimed unerringly at him. He stood up and came closer, still with his head cocked, like a curious dog, or as if he were listening to something no one else could hear.

“You shouldn’t get any closer,” warned Harald, but the boy ignored him and came around to the back of the wagon. He stared at Merlin a moment, then before Olwen or the others could stop him, he climbed up and rested one hand on Merlin’s ankle.

Merlin gasped, and his eyes shot open. “Berthold,” he whispered.

“That’s enough,” exclaimed Olwen, and pulled the boy back down out of the wagon.

“Merlin?” Arthur leaned over and promptly regretted it, grunting as he put strain on his injury. “Merlin, can you hear me?”

Merlin did not answer. He blinked at the sky once, twice, but seemed unable to focus on anything.

“Berthold,” admonished Olwen. “What did you do?”

“I just wanted to ask him if he was okay. He was sleeping too long, and too deep. So I woke him up.”

“What do you mean, ‘too deep’?” asked Arthur.

“He wasn’t going to wake up on his own,” said the boy. “He doesn’t want to be awake.”

“Why not?”

Berthold shrugged.

Frowning, Arthur looked to Freya, but she seemed just as confused as he.

Merlin did not answer Arthur, nor Freya, and his eyes fell closed after only another minute; now, however, he sighed in his sleep, and smacked his lips, and turned his head before he settled. Whatever Berthold had done, it seemed to have helped.

“Thank you,” said Arthur, and Berthold smiled.

“I want to be a healer when I grow up,” he said.

Arthur wasn’t quite sure if Camelot was ready for magical healers, but… “I think you’ll do a fine job.”

“Sire,” asked Lancelot, “I don’t want to ruin the mood, but… what are we to do with these children? We haven’t the supplies to feed them all on the way back to Camelot; they have no shoes and cannot travel without risking injury. Even the wagon isn’t large enough to hold all of the smallest children.”

“We can walk,” said Olwen. “We can take our time.”

“But you have no food,” said Lancelot.

“And the battle only ended recently,” said Gwaine. “There may still be Saxons in these woods, or bandits. It isn’t safe for you to go alone.”

“I... could ride with them,” suggested Percival slowly. “Or Lancelot.”

Lancelot frowned. “Ordinarily I would be glad to go with them,” he said. “But… I think the Goddess may have meant for me to protect Merlin and Freya.” He shook his head helplessly. “It is a choice I don’t think I can make.”

“What about the next village?” asked Gwaine. “We all go together, just a few more miles if I remember right, and have someone there escort the children the rest of the way. They’d be fed and clothed and sheltered for a night, at least.”

“They have magic,” said Percival. “Will they be safe with the villagers?”

“They will be if Arthur announces that they’re under his protection.”

His knights fell silent, and so did the children, until the only sound was the birds in the trees. “Very well,” Arthur said finally. “Until the next village. And I will tell the headman that you are under my protection.”

“Will we have to hide our magic?” asked Olwen. Harald nodded emphatically. “At least, those of us who have it?”

“How many of you do?” asked Lancelot.

“Fourteen of us, as far as I know,” said Olwen. “The other eight don’t.”

And Uther had killed them anyway. “If you’re able to hide it, that would probably be best,” said Arthur. “For your safety. Uther’s war against magic is thirty years old; there will be many who are fearful of you, even though you are children.”

“They were fearful when I died,” said Olwen simply. “Though I wonder now if they were more afraid of me, or of the Mad King.”

They put as many of the toddlers into the wagon as they could fit, and the older children carried the rest, on their hips or backs or shoulders. The ones in between seemed content to walk by the sides of the road, in the verge where the grass was long and soft on their bare feet, and that was how they made it, at a snail’s pace, to the next village.

It was nearing evening, but the sun had not yet set, when they finally arrived. Some of the middling children cheered and hopped up and down, while others started to cry and clutched at the teenagers in the group. Half of the littlest ones had fallen asleep in the wagon.

“Who is the village head?” called Lancelot to the gathering crowd.

“I am,” answered a portly fellow with a long beard. “I am called Albert.” He looked at the travelers and frowned. “Whose children are these? Are they refugees from the war?”

“Something like that,” said Lancelot. “We also have the king with us, and he has a request for you.”

Albert’s eyes were wide by the time Arthur’s tale was finished. He’d left out the part about them having been dead, and carefully did not say where they had come from. Albert drew his own conclusions that these were druid children, displaced by the Saxons and the war.

“I know the druids are peaceful,” he said cautiously. “But the sorcery, Your Majesty… is it safe to be around them?”

“They’ve used magic in my presence,” said Arthur. “To heal bumps and scrapes, and to entertain one another with harmless lights. I think one of them knows how to talk to birds.” He shrugged, as if it were of no importance to him, rather than a wonder. “And remember, quite a few of them have no magic at all.”

Albert took a slow breath. “All right, then,” he said. “I will find those who are not afraid, and who will not disobey your order of protection, and we will escort the children safely to Camelot. Besides—” He cut himself off abruptly, and blinked down at his clasped hands.

“Besides?”prompted Arthur.

“It is nothing, Your Majesty,” tried Albert, but Arthur simply lifted his eyebrows and waited. After a moment, the older man wilted. “I was only going to say, it would not be the strangest thing we have seen, in the past few days.”

“Since the war ended, things have been very strange indeed,” agreed Arthur. “Did you have something specific in mind?”

Again, Albert hesitated.


“Dragons, sire,” he whispered. “Some of the men have claimed they saw dragons in the sky. But I know that is impossible! You yourself slew the very last of their kind.”

“No, I’ve seen them too,” said Arthur, watching as the headman’s shoulders dropped in relief. Perhaps he’d been expecting something like Uther’s old rages. “I don’t know what new thing they may portend, but I have seen them. Have they attacked anyone?”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“I will put the knights on alert as soon as we return to Camelot… but you see now why we must leave these children in your care, even if it is only temporarily. As king, I cannot afford to delay any longer.”

“Yes, Your Majesty, I understand.”

Chapter Text

Arthur didn’t speak much the next day, as they continued their journey toward Camelot. He was definitely recovering, but still weaker than he wanted to be, and sat hunched over his wound as the wagon creaked and rattled along the rough dirt road. Next to him, Merlin still lay silently, still unconscious, although now he would occasionally stir when they hit an especially bad bump in the road; his brow would furrow, or he would sigh.

“When do you think he’ll wake?” he asked Freya finally, when they stopped to eat.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “His wound is healed. He was exhausted but I think he’s gotten enough rest by now. I don’t know what else could be keeping him asleep.”

“No spell of yours, then?”

Freya frowned in annoyance. “No.” Her expression softened, became more thoughtful. “The boy, Berthold, was able to wake him, but only for a minute.”

“He said Merlin didn’t want to be awake,” Arthur pointed out. “What does that even mean?”

But Freya could only shake her head. “I don’t know that, either.”

Gwaine was looking poor again, and barely ate; Freya cast another of her healing spells on him, and he nodded in gratitude, but his face remained pale. “I suppose it’s just being full of snake poison,” he said, when Arthur asked if he was all right. “Enough to kill a man likely takes a while to get out of the system.”

“Just remember what I told you about drinking lots of water,” Freya reminded him.

“Aye.” He smiled at her tiredly and held up his water skin. “Got it right here.”

Later on, they spotted another dragon, flying low, nearly brushing the treetops as it flew across the road. Not long after that, Arthur thought he heard men shouting, somewhere off in the forest. Both Gwaine and Percival looked grim, hands on the hilts of their swords, but no one appeared to attack them.

“A camp of bandits,” said Freya with a wince, as the gold faded from her eyes. “They’re already fleeing.”

“Our good fortune, then,” said Lancelot.

She nodded, and twisted in her seat to study Merlin’s sleeping form. “I wonder if they’re protecting us, somehow,” she said, half to herself.

“How do you mean?” asked Arthur, but Freya only shrugged and turned back around.

“It’s just a thought. Maybe the hand of the Goddess is keeping us safe, because of Merlin, and since the dragons are creatures of magic, maybe they’re part of that protection.” She shook her head, and added, “Again, I have no proof, only guesses.”

“The Goddess doesn’t speak to you?”

At this, Freya smiled sadly and glanced over her shoulder at him. “Not since we were brought back.”

That evening, Merlin finally woke.

They’d just finished dinner, and the knights were settling down to sleep in their cloaks on the ground; Freya and Arthur took the wagon, along with Merlin, of course. Arthur’s wound was paining him, and he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Freya had been curled up into Merlin’s side, one arm across his chest, for several minutes.

And then they heard Merlin moan. More of a whimper, really, a pathetic little noise that made Arthur’s heart clench.

“Merlin?” whispered Freya. He stirred, his head moving toward her voice as his lips parted. “Merlin, can you hear me?”

“Nn… cold…” Merlin’s teeth started chattering, and before long he was in a full-body shiver, despite the mild evening.

“Does he have a fever?” asked Arthur, struggling to sit up.

“No,” said Freya. “May I have the spare blanket?”

Arthur passed it over and watched as Freya tucked it in around Merlin, then pulled more of the straw-filled bags close to help insulate him further. With a whispered word, a light appeared floating over their heads, like the one Freya had conjured for the drowned children. It was enough to see Merlin’s face, fretful, but with his eyelids flickering as if they might open at any second.

“That’s it, Merlin,” she said softly. “Open your eyes for me. Let me see you. That’s it.”

It took a few seconds, but Merlin managed it, to Arthur’s immense relief. He couldn’t stop the grin, or the whoosh of breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

Freya’s smile was equally bright. “Hello, Merlin,” she said softly.


“I’m here,” she nodded, caressing his face.

Merlin seemed to be drinking in the sight of her, his eyes widening just a little. “Am I dead?” he whispered.

If anything, Freya’s smile grew, and tears stood in her eyes. “No,” she said joyfully. “No, you made it.”

But this news did not seem to please Merlin; to Arthur’s surprise, his face fell. “Arthur?” His eyes searched Freya’s, looking as desperate and worried as Arthur had ever seen him. “Arthur?”

“I’m here, Merlin,” he answered. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

With an effort, Merlin turned his head, and the emotion in his expression nearly took Arthur’s breath away. “Arthur,” he breathed. “You’re alive.”

“You saved my life. Again,” said Arthur. “Thank you.”

“You’re alive…” Merlin closed his eyes, then opened them again. “Who died?”

“I don’t understand.” Arthur glanced at Freya, hoping she might explain, but the girl only looked sad.

“Who died?” asked Merlin again. “I was… s’posed to die. For Arthur. Who died?”

“Merlin, it’s all right,” Freya hushed him. “I don’t think anyone died. The Goddess took a different sacrifice instead. A great sacrifice. Arthur is alive, and you didn’t have to die, and… and I’m alive too.”

Merlin didn’t seem to have the strength to respond to that, only looking up at Freya with an expression Arthur couldn’t read. There was desperation there, and longing, and maybe fear, and maybe love. Hope? Arthur had never been good at guessing such things.

“I’m alive, Merlin,” she reassured him. “And… there are others, too. The Goddess wrought a great miracle, for you. For Arthur… for Albion.”

“Others…?” He swallowed, and blinked again slowly. “Thirsty.”

“Of course,” said Freya. There was a water skin in the front of the wagon, and she knelt up to fetch it. Merlin drank greedily, only coughing a little when the water came too fast. “I’m sorry.”

Merlin shook his head, visibly drained from the effort. “S’okay.”

“You should rest,” said Freya. “We’ve been traveling, while you slept. We should reach Camelot by tomorrow.”


“Rest, Merlin,” said Arthur. Merlin turned his head again to study Arthur’s face, but his eyes were already drooping. “It’s all right. We can talk more in the morning.”

Merlin turned back to Freya. “You’ll stay?” he whispered.

“Of course,” she said, caressing the side of his face once more. She lifted the blanket and climbed in beside Merlin, pressing up against him with her head on his chest. “I’ll never leave your side.”

With that, her light winked out, and both of them fell asleep easily.

Arthur stayed awake, watching them, for much of the rest of the night.

Finally, finally, they reached the main road back to Camelot; the stone cobbles, maintained by law to a distance of a half-day’s travel in every direction, were a welcome sight indeed. Arthur and Gwaine switched places, the knight resting in the wagon while Arthur took Merlin’s horse. He was growing stronger by the day, but he was still fairly sure he lacked the strength to manage his own charger if anything were to startle the beast.

The road itself seemed more crowded than Arthur would have expected, though; the farmers with their own wagons he expected, along with the occasional peasant on foot, but instead these folk made up a steady flow of traffic that only got heavier as they got closer. Were they displaced refugees, perhaps, coming to beg sanctuary in the city? Saxon spies hidden among the crowd, looking to avenge their mistress? Arthur couldn’t be sure; for all he knew, the dragons they’d seen had gone on a rampage and these were all people fleeing for their lives from that.

It looked as though he would barely get the chance to rest and recover from his injuries, before he had to rule the kingdom once more. Arthur sighed, but then he glanced over to where his closest friend lay resting. At least Arthur would still be alive to rule, thanks to Merlin.

Merlin, whose magic had brought back not only Arthur himself, but at least two dozen people that he knew of, most of them children, and an unknown number of dragons. What did that mean? How powerful was Merlin anyway, and should Arthur be worried?

Or perhaps it hadn’t been Merlin at all, and instead was only the whim of this Goddess that Arthur had never heard of before. That possibility presented its own set of questions, none of which Arthur had answers to, and therefore its own set of headaches… headaches which, Arthur decided, he did not want to contemplate right now. Riding was making his side ache in ways it hadn’t since just after he’d been stabbed, and as they got even closer to the city, he and Percival were having to pick their way through the throngs making their way to the city gates.

And then they got a good view of the city walls, and Arthur stopped dead in the road. The entire siege field outside the walls was covered in tents, except for an area to one side that held what looked like enormous livestock pens. Only, Arthur couldn’t hear any animal noises from here, nor could he see drovers or shepherds, or even swineherds, driving their animals into the pens.

“Percival,” he called, as the wagon drew to a halt beside him. “What are those? Can you tell from here?”

“No, sire,” came the reply. “Shall I ride ahead and find out?”

“Do so,” said Arthur. “And notify the guards at the gate that we’ve returned, see if they can clear a path to get us up to the citadel before we’re mobbed.”


Percival was able to return at a faster clip, the crowd before him parting like water as people heard horseshoes on the cobblestones, looked up, and spotted his red cloak. Many followed him with their eyes, Arthur noticed, staring behind them at the knight on his errand.

“The guards are clearing the road now, sire,” said Percival. “And Sir Leon will have a report on the pens. They…” He shook his head, and looked past Arthur to where Lancelot and Freya sat, still in the driver’s seat of the wagon. “All I could get from the man at the gate was that the people in them—”

“People? There are people in those things?!”

“That’s what he tells me, sire, and they only began arriving about a week ago. He said he couldn’t confirm it, but there’s a rumor that many of them have magic.”

Arthur breathed deeply, sitting up straighter in the saddle. “Were they dead too, do you think?” he asked in a low tone.

Percival pressed his lips together, and looked uncomfortable. “The timing fits,” he said after a moment. “Those children came back around the same time. Lancelot, Freya…” He glanced back at the wagon once more, then met Arthur’s eyes. “Just what did Merlin do?”

Arthur had no answer.

The noise was deafening as they approached the city; Camelot often seemed loud to Arthur whenever he returned from a trip to the forest, but this was on another level entirely. There were people everywhere: on the road, camped around the walls, and in those godforsaken pens. They reminded Arthur far too much of raids he’d made on slavers’ camps, with their human livestock stuffed into miserable pens that stank of sewage and despair. At least these pens didn’t stink, and as they approached, Arthur could see men and women distributing bread and water skins to the people trapped inside… but it was still a disturbing thing to witness.

Then Arthur reached the gates, and the noise redoubled. The guards began ringing the bell, announcing that the king had returned, and citizens leaned out of their homes and shop windows to cheer. Others tried to block his path, beseeching, all Your Majesty and Sire, please, and I beg an audience until the city patrol began to shove the men and women out of the way to clear Arthur’s path. He winced as one man was knocked down when he didn’t move quickly enough.

“Guard! Go gently about your business. These are citizens of Camelot.”

It seemed to take an age before they reached the citadel proper. Arthur’s head was pounding along with the ache in his side, but at last they passed under the arch, and the unbelievable racket seemed to cut off abruptly. He shut his eyes and sighed with relief.

Then Sir Leon was at his side, and he and Percival were helping Arthur out of the saddle. “Sire,” said Leon as Arthur’s knees threatened to buckle. “It is good to have you returned to us.”

“It’s good to be back, Sir Leon.” Then he winced, and leaned heavily against Percival, and watched as Leon’s face fell.

“Sire? Gaius said you were wounded, and that there was sorcery at work… He said you and Merlin were going to seek a cure. Did you not succeed?”

“We succeeded. Merlin saved my life yet again. But the wound itself is not completely healed over.” He shook his head, waving it off as unimportant. “Magical weapons, magical cures… I’m tired of magic, at least for the moment.”

“I understand, sire.” His expression was solemn. “I’m sure you saw the strangeness at the city gates.”

“I did.”

“Do you wish to hear about it now, or would you prefer to rest and wait until morning?”

Arthur sighed, already feeling the mantle of responsibility fall on his shoulders once more. “Are any of them dangerous to Camelot?”

“I… I’m not sure,” said Leon. “None of them have attacked… but a great many of them are recognized as sorcerers, and—” He cleared his throat in obvious discomfort. “A great many of them are known to have been executed, here in the courtyard. In fact that is where they first began appearing.”


“If I tell you much more now, sire, it will negate the need for a report in the morning. We don’t know much.” He stopped, looking over his shoulder for a moment, and then smiled. “Besides, I don’t want to keep the queen waiting any longer.”

“Guinevere…” Arthur felt relief and exhaustion sweep over him in equal measure, and then she was in his arms. “Guinevere.”

“I thought I’d never see you again,” she cried. “I hoped, but I didn’t dare hope, d’you know what I mean?”

“I do.” He buried his face in her hair, just taking in the scent of her, and felt weary tears prick at his own eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I’m so glad Merlin saved you. Merlin—” Gwen looked up, then frowned. “Merlin?” The wagon was only just now entering the courtyard, and of course Merlin was still lying in the back. She met Arthur’s eyes worriedly. “I know about the magic,” she said, low enough not to be overheard. “I figured it out. He was meant to cure you somehow; you didn’t banish him, did you?”

“No,” said Arthur, as one corner of his mouth turned up. “No, and even if I did, I don’t think he’d go.”

“Then where…?” Gwen got a good look at the wagon and who was driving it, and clutched at Arthur’s arm hard enough to hurt, as her eyes grew wide. “Is that… Lancelot?”

Chapter Text

Arthur sighed, inescapably weary. He was finally home, yet it looked as though he would not be afforded any rest. There were too many strange occurrences, too much tension, too many questions, too much… everything. God, he almost wished he were still dying, and it was just him and Merlin, alone in the wilderness.

Then he cursed himself for a coward, for even thinking such a thing.

Guinevere was still clutching his arm, hard enough to hurt, and as strong as he’d always known her to be, she looked as though a strong breeze might knock her over at the weight of this shock. “As far as we can tell,” he said carefully, “it’s really him. Back from the dead. It’s a long story, and I’m not sure I believe all of it. But I gather something similar has been happening here, as well?”

Gwen, his Gwen, pulled herself together, tearing her eyes away from where Lancelot was climbing down from the wagon. “At first we thought it a ploy of Morgana’s,” she said, searching Arthur’s face. “But none of them has really tried to attack. Some of them have used magic, but so many of them just seem… frightened. Confused. We didn’t have room for them in the dungeons, there are just too many, so…”

“So you built the pens outside the city walls.”

“It was all we could think of to do,” said Gwen. “We’re giving them food and water, of course, and there’s a latrine in each pen so it won’t get too foul, but…” She shrugged helplessly. “It was all we could come up with on such short notice. And I’m sure a great many of them have already escaped in the night. We don’t have any way to stop their magic, but… none of them has really tried to attack us, as I said. If this is some sort of strategy of Morgana’s…”

“It isn’t,” said Arthur. “Morgana is dead.”

Gwen fell still, and looked up at him solemnly. “You’re certain?”

Arthur nodded, tired, so tired. “Merlin killed her himself. Apparently my sword is enchanted and can kill creatures that wouldn’t die otherwise.” Creatures like his own sister, whom he’d loved once.

Gwen read the emotion on his face. “I’m sorry that it was necessary,” she said, and he knew she meant it. “I loved her too.”

“I know.”

Gwen refused to look behind her as she and Percival led Arthur to Gaius’s chambers. She could hear the shuffling footsteps as Lancelot carried Merlin, and Gwaine stumbled along bringing up the rear with a woman whom Arthur had introduced as Freya, but none of them really spoke, and Arthur himself was clearly too tired to make conversation, even with his wife.

Perhaps Gaius could give him something for the pain, and he could sleep peacefully, once he was safe in his bed. Gwen had a feeling that Arthur could sleep for a day and a night straight through, if he were allowed. If the demands of the kingdom didn’t pull him awake and force him to get back to work.

She would do her best to carry that burden for him, as long as she could.

When they reached Gaius’s chamber, Gwen pulled away from Arthur with a little kiss to his cheek, then pushed the door open for them all. The smell of food reached her, and it broke her heart a little: Gaius had been cooking the same meal each day for the past week, ever since they’d returned to Camelot without Merlin and Arthur. He’d said it was Merlin’s favorite.

Well, at least he would have to worry no longer. “Gaius,” she called. “We have someone to see you.”

“Of course, my lady, of course,” he called from the back. “I heard the bells and was just gathering my things to bring to Arthur’s chambers…”

“No need,” replied Arthur. He sounded so exhausted it made her heart hurt for an entirely different reason. All the men in her life that she cared about had been through so much recently. It wasn’t fair, to any of them.

She thought of Lancelot, seemingly back from the dead a second time, and wondered what further unfairness the gods had in store for them all.

“Sire!” Gaius, at least, looked as though his burdens were lifted, as he laid eyes on the king. “And Merlin?”

“Here, Gaius,” said Lancelot, bringing him in. Merlin was awake, but barely able to hold his head up; he was folded almost in half in Lancelot’s arms, his lanky legs dangling precariously as Lancelot stepped forward into the room.

“Lancel—” Gaius shook himself visibly, and stepped aside. “Set him here,” he said, gesturing to the patient cot. “What has happened to him?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” said Arthur, sinking down to rest on the bench at Gaius’s work table. “Something to do with a magical sacrifice and a goddess, if these two are to be believed.”

The physician looked up from checking Merlin’s pulse to take in Freya for the first time. “And you are?”

“A friend of Merlin’s,” she replied. She looked timid to Gwen’s sight, but she held her chin high, even if her hands kept clenching and opening in nervous fists, over and over.

“One of the dead?”

Freya paused, then nodded. “I am.”

“I don’t recall Merlin ever introducing us,” said Gaius skeptically, but the girl only pressed her lips together in annoyance.

“I remember you telling him not to let me out of a cage, because it would only draw trouble.”

Gaius blinked as if astonished at such defiance, then seemed to deflate. “The bounty hunter. Halig.”

“Yes,” said Freya.

“You were a druid? Halig brought you to Uther for a bounty.”

“Halig was a disgusting man, and more of a monster than I ever was.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Arthur; Gwen couldn’t blame him.

“The first time I was alive, I was cursed,” said the woman with a sigh. “I defended myself and killed a man who was attacking me, and his mother cursed me to turn into a bloodthirsty creature every night at midnight, doomed to kill for the rest of my days. Every night, someone died because of me. Merlin didn’t know that when he freed me. But he was the first person to show me any kindness at all in over a year, and when he found out what I was, what happened to me every night, he still wasn’t afraid. I tried to make him leave me, so that I couldn’t hurt him too, and instead he offered to run away with me, where we could be free together.”

That sounded very like Merlin, or at least, the Merlin he’d been several years ago. Gwen hadn’t missed the way he’d changed, hardened, as time went on. “What happened?” she asked gently; Freya blinked, looking away from Gaius, as if noticing them all for the first time.

“Arthur and his men cornered me in my other form, my cursed, monstrous shape, and dealt me a mortal blow. Merlin got me out of the city and took me away, and held me as I died.” She looked over at where he lay, pale and sad, and smiled with such love that it took Gwen’s breath away. “I broke his heart, and he was so sorry that he couldn’t save me then… but I told him then, and it’s still true. He did save me. He loved me when no one else would, and I’ll never forget that. When I came back, I promised myself I wouldn’t leave his side, ever again.”

“Are you still cursed?” asked Arthur. Freya looked at him a bit as if he were an idiot. “I have to know.”

“Have you seen me turn into a creature at night?” she asked tiredly. “Have any of you died under fang and claw?” When Arthur glanced away, abashed, she gentled her voice. “My curse was broken with my death. Even if it hadn’t been, I think the Goddess would have cleansed me of it, so I could be with Merlin now.”

“You care for him very much,” said Gwen.

“I do.”

“I am glad to hear it,” interrupted Gaius, “but for now, I must ask that everyone who is not a patient please give me room to treat those who are. My lady, of course you may stay; as for you, Freya, if you know anything about Merlin’s injuries, I will permit you to stay as well.”

“Sir Gwaine needs to be seen to as well,” she said. “He was poisoned.”

Gwen gasped. “Poisoned!”

The other man nodded wearily, but it was Percival who answered. “We went after Morgana, alone. We hoped to draw her away from Merlin and Arthur’s quest. We didn’t realize that you had been feeding Eira false information.” He hung his head. “Instead she captured us. Tortured Gwaine.”

“That snake thing, that she killed Elyan with,” said Gwaine. His eyes were shut, and as Gwen watched, he reached one hand up to scrub at his face. “It was my fault. I couldn’t… it hurt so much.”

“None can withstand the venom of the nathair,” said Gaius solemnly. “You did well to survive it. You must not fault yourself for giving Morgana what she wanted.”

“I didn’t survive it,” said Gwaine, and Gwen felt her heart skip a beat. “I died too. I know I did.”

There was a long silence, until Freya bravely broke it. “I’ve done what I can to bolster his strength,” she said, “but what’s left of the poison is still leaving his body. I don’t know what kind of damage it might do. I’m no healer; I only know the one healing spell.”

Gwen blinked to hear it admitted so blatantly, so fearlessly. “You’re a sorceress,” she said.

“Not terribly strong, but yes,” said Freya. She seemed to anticipate Gwen’s next observation, because she went on, “I don’t see much point in pretending I’m not, after having used my magic in front of the king. If he were going to have me killed for it, I think he’d have done it by now.”

“Nobody’s having anybody killed,” began Arthur wearily, but Gaius stepped in before he could continue.

“Sirs Percival and Leon, and… Lancelot… I think it best that you give me room to work now. If you could wait outside while I treat His Majesty and Gwaine, you may each help them back to their respective chambers when I am finished.”

“The wound is healing well, Your Majesty,” said Gaius, some time later. Gwaine had already been looked over, questioned thoroughly, looked over some more, and sent on his way; now Gaius was just finishing up on Arthur, who sat with his shirt off and the old man’s hands on his side. Gwen could barely stand to look at the wound and know how close to dying Arthur had really come.

Freya sat at Merlin’s bedside, running fingers through his hair. From the way Arthur and the others paid her no mind, Gwen got the impression that she did that often.

“It remains deep, of course,” Gaius went on, “and I would recommend that you allow me to stitch it. Nothing strenuous for a few weeks while it finishes closing, and then for a few weeks after, just to be certain. However…”

“Whatever Merlin did to heal it is working,” finished Arthur. “Yes. I feel a little stronger every day.”

Gwen thought to the way her husband had leaned on Percival in exhaustion, needing help to walk at all, and bit her lip. If this was ”stronger”, she didn’t want to know what “weaker” had looked like. “I am glad to hear it,” she said instead.

“Just so, sire,” said Gaius, standing up with a grunt. “Now, I think you should have Percival and Leon escort you back to your rooms, where your lovely wife can tend to you while you rest and recover.”

“Don’t you need to know what happened to Merlin?” asked Gwen.

“I had thought Freya—”

“No,” said Arthur, “Freya wasn’t there until after… whatever Merlin did.”

To Gwen’s surprise, Merlin spoke up; his voice was barely more than a feeble whisper, and his eyes were mere slits. Only the sparkle under his lashes gave a hint that they were open at all. “I tried to trade my life for Arthur’s.”

She had thought nothing could surprise her anymore, after the past few days, but this made Gwen gasp. “Merlin…”

“Oh, my boy,” said Gaius sadly.

“It didn’t work,” fretted Merlin. “It was supposed to be me. Who died in my place, Gaius?”

“I don’t know,” he began, but Freya interrupted.

“I’ve already told you, my love,” she said. “No one died this time.”

“But something went wrong… Lancelot is back… and Gwaine said he died too? But he’s back, now…” A tear slipped free from the corner of Merlin’s eye and trickled across his temple. “What happened?”

“Don’t you remember?” asked Arthur. They all turned to look at him, but Gwen didn’t miss the look of desperation on Merlin’s face. “What do you remember?”

Merlin swallowed. “What do you remember?”

As exhausted as Arthur was, he still smiled. “I asked you first.”

“I tried to give my life for yours. Excalibur, it… it can kill magical creatures. Like me.”

Gwen shuddered. Don’t say such things, she almost begged, but Merlin was still talking.

“The Sidhe elders at Avalon said that I had too much magic to die; not even Excalibur would be enough to end me. So he, the elder, he said they were going to take it, and then the sword would be enough.”

“Take your magic?” asked Gwen. Merlin nodded.

“My God, Merlin,” muttered Gaius.

“But then something… there was someone else, there, I think. But I don’t really remember. She… it was a woman? I think she did something to stop the elders, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t know what she did, if she did anything.”

“It was the Goddess,” said Freya.

Gwen had no idea what she might be talking about, but Gaius’s eyes grew wide. “The Triple Goddess of the Old Religion?”

The other woman nodded. “I wasn’t there, but I know it was Her. She spoke to me before I returned and told me it would be my duty to take care of Merlin. To help him heal.”

“Is that why there is no wound on Merlin?” asked Gaius, lifting Merlin’s shirt. Sure enough, his skin was pale, but unblemished. Only a faint old scar on his chest marred the smoothness.

“I healed it,” said Freya, “but he still did not wake for a couple of days. I don’t know why.”

“I saw a woman in the rain,” said Arthur. “And a… blue man with wings. Wings like a bug. He hated Merlin, I could see it. The way he smiled when he tried to take Merlin’s magic…” Arthur shuddered. “Merlin stabbed himself, and fell over, and then this blue man pulled golden light out of Merlin, and he screamed. And then there was a woman in the rain. Then I think I was hit by lightning.”

Gwen covered her mouth with one hand.

“I woke up, though, and the rain had let up a little, and she was still there. She said that…” Arthur frowned and thought back. “Merlin tried to give his life for mine, but since I wasn’t all the way gone yet, he didn’t have to die. She used Merlin’s power to bring me back. I asked her, if he didn’t give his life, what did he give, and she said, ‘Everything else’. She said… she said the blue man, the Sidhe elder I suppose, was an enemy and would have misused Merlin’s power, and upset the balance. So she stepped in, I think.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember it clearly anymore. I think she said that she had to direct the power according to Merlin’s own wishes, and his final wish was to make things right. To undo his failures and have a second chance, to do better.”

“But what does that mean?” asked Gwen, turning to look at Merlin. Merlin, for his part, looked just as lost and confused as she felt. “Merlin, what failures?”

“So many,” he whispered. “Too many, over the past few years. Everything I tried to do just made things worse.”

“That’s enough now, Merlin,” said Gaius. “You must rest.”


“No,” said the physician. “I know you don’t like to listen to me, but Merlin, this is a mystery that can wait to be solved until you are better. You left to try and heal the king, and you succeeded, my boy. You’re home now, and you’re safe. Everything else can wait.”

And it must have been a mark of just how completely exhausted Merlin was, how tired both men were, that Merlin only looked once more at Arthur, before closing his eyes with a mumbled, “Yes, Gaius.”

He was asleep within seconds.

“Now, then,” said Gaius, in the gentle but firm tone that Gwen had heard so many times. “Let’s get Your Majesties back to your chambers as well, and then you both can rest. Heaven knows you’ve earned it, I should think.”

“Thank you, Gaius,” said Gwen. She checked outside the door; Percival was still gone, and Lancelot (and she breathed a hidden sigh of relief at that), but Leon was waiting. At her nod, he stepped inside, and helped the king to his feet. They shuffled to the door slowly, Arthur leaning heavily on Leon for every step.

“Of course, my lady,” said Gaius. “And Arthur,” he added.

Arthur did not turn around, but he did stop and look back over his shoulder.

“It is very good to have you home.”

Chapter Text

Gwen waited until Arthur was asleep, her kiss still lingering on his lips, before she stood up from his bedside. She took a shaky breath, and beckoned Leon to join her out in the hall.

“He will make a full recovery?” asked the knight, as they walked.

“Gaius says yes.” The sheer relief made tears prick at her eyes, but Gwen couldn’t afford to fall apart quite yet. Merlin had done it; he’d saved her husband’s life. She couldn’t begin to imagine how many times he must have done so over the years, in secret, with his magic. They would have to talk while he recovered. “Gwaine and Percival?”

“Back in Gwaine’s chambers,” replied Leon. “They both looked exhausted. I’m not sure whether Percival will make it back to his own bed, or if he’ll sleep in Gwaine’s chair.”

Gwen smiled, perhaps for the first time in days; she had her own private thoughts about where else Percival might end up, but they were no one else’s business. Then her smile faded as she asked, “And Lancelot?”

Leon sighed. “In the dungeons, with the rest of them,” he said. “It seemed the safest place, all things considered.”

Gwen nodded, but thought back to Arthur’s words. “Did he offer any sort of resistance?”

“No. If anything, he seemed… resigned. As if he’d been expecting it.” They walked in silence for a few more paces. “My lady, if this is some ploy by Morgana to weaken our defenses, I can’t imagine what she might be hoping to achieve.”

“Nor I,” said the queen. “But according to Arthur, Morgana is dead.”

Leon stared at her. “Is he certain?”

“He said that Merlin had killed her himself.”

“Merlin!” Then he leaned close, and lowered his voice. “With his… sorcery?”

“No. Apparently Arthur’s sword is something special; a regular weapon wouldn’t have been able to do it.” Then she thought back to the story that Merlin had stabbed himself, with Arthur’s own blade, and blinked back tears once more.

Leon, bless him, pretended not to notice. “I suppose that would explain why she kept coming back,” he said carefully. Then, “I am sorry, my lady. I know you cared for her, once.”

“I did,” said Gwen. “But that was a long time ago.”

More silence, as they both thought back to the woman they’d known. Morgana had been a fixture in the castle and the city for many years, before she’d disappeared, gone mad, and betrayed them all again and again. Gwen hated herself for it a little, but she couldn’t find it in herself to feel anything but relief anymore, now that the other woman was dead.

“May I ask you something?” Leon broke the silence tentatively, cautiously.

“Yes, of course.”

Leon paused his steps, looking more uncertain than she had seen him since they’d been children. “What will you do about Merlin?”

“Merlin?” Gwen tilted her head, unable to tell which way Leon might want her to fall. “I expect I shall thank him, for everything he’s done.”

“Of course,” said Leon, but he still looked troubled.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he tried, but Gwen gave him a look she’d perfected many years ago, and he wilted. “It’s only…” He glanced away, sighed, took another deep breath, before he would meet her eyes again. “I know that you have a kind heart. It’s something I’ve admired in you for a long time. And I know that you have more strength than many of the nobles think you capable of. But I fear that you’ll face resistance from the council, over this.”

“Over showing gratitude to a man who has saved the king’s life?” She raised on eyebrow, and Leon flushed red.

“You know I’ll support you no matter what,” he said. “And I’m sure most of Arthur’s inner circle will as well. Merlin deserves that much, I think. But… Lancelot was dead. To hear Percival and Gwaine tell it, Morgana killed Gwaine, too. We’ve seen no sign of Elyan—”

“Please,” she stopped him. “I’m not ready to talk about Elyan yet.”

“No, I understand, and I’m sorry,” Leon pressed. “But don’t you see? Those who are most supportive of Arthur and his aims, too many of them are either missing, or they’ve come back from the dead. The council won’t want to trust anything they have to say. They may say that you’re being swayed by your…” He frowned and rolled his eyes. “Your womanly instincts, or something equally ridiculous. They may demand that you make an example of Merlin, or of Lancelot, in some fashion, to prove that you haven’t been swayed somehow.”

“The council have been trying to undermine me since the day I wed Arthur,” said Gwen. “They haven’t succeeded yet.”

“That’s true,” acknowledged Leon, “but we’ve also never lived through anything as drastic as this. Even the dorocha only killed. People aren’t meant to come back from the dead. It isn’t natural. Those who haven’t been brought back are frightened… and that likely includes the council.”

Gwen lifted her chin. “Then we will just have to show them that there is nothing to fear.”

Leon left her with a bow, and a kiss to the back of her hand; afterward, however, as Gwen sat alone in her chambers, she thought about his words. And her own: how could she know that there wasn’t anything to fear?

The last time anyone had returned from the dead, it had been Lancelot himself, and he’d caused havoc with her, with Arthur and Camelot, before taking his own life. Now there were hundreds, possibly thousands of people, all claiming to have been dead and known it, seemingly all converging upon Camelot. To do what?

And why wasn’t Elyan among them?

Gwen’s lip quivered, and she turned away from her mirror, bringing a hand up to hide her face even though there was no one to see.

No one had yet dared to come into court and claim to recognize lost loved ones, not when those loved ones had died for having magic (or sympathizing with it, or harboring those who had it, or even just associating with it unknowingly, and oh God, where was her father?), but she had heard the rumors from the lower town, as if they’d been whispered into her own ear.

Men, women, children, back from the dead. Some were calling it a blessing; others called it Camelot’s punishment for Uther’s purge. Those who feared magic were terrified that their day of reckoning had come, divine judgment to be carried out by those they’d once executed.

And yet, days had gone by, and none of those cowards had seen anything like retribution from the sad, confused people confined in enormous pens outside the city.

Then there were those in the tents, which had sprung up like mushrooms, appearing in the dark almost overnight. No one was completely sure who they were. Druids, perhaps, come to see a wonder, some said, to explain what it all meant. Druids come to punish, or gloat, claimed others. Ordinary peasants, come to gawk like this marvel was just another performance at a market-day fair.

Ordinary peasants, come to look for lost loved ones.

Privately, Gwen suspected that that was the most likely option. If she weren’t queen, she’d be out there herself, wandering from pen to pen, ignoring the glares of the city guard, asking in whispers whether anyone had seen her father. Her brother.

If she weren’t queen… but she was.

She loved Arthur, and though she had never sought it out, she loved the power she had as queen, to protect Camelot’s people, to make things better. But there were so many things a queen couldn’t do, didn’t dare. She couldn’t go out to the pens herself, nor send a servant to do it for her. Couldn’t ask after her own beloved dead, to see if anyone had seen them.

Everyone, or at least, everyone else with power, would see it as a weakness, as Leon had already hinted. Some of them really would expect her to ignore Lancelot at the very least, or banish him for what he’d done when he’d first returned from the dead. As if the way he’d first died were meaningless. Only that second, shameful suicide mattered to them.

Vultures, she thought angrily, the lot of them. Circling constantly, looking for anything they could swoop in and tear apart without having to fight for it. Pretending to be friendly faces only because they weren’t attacking openly. Half of them had never approved of the peasant queen, or the common-born knights, and while they knew which way the wind blew when Arthur was present, they wouldn’t hesitate to undermine her when he was gone. How could she possibly know how to think like a ruler when she had no royal blood of her own?

But now Arthur was back, and it had once again been his common peasant manservant to save his life. You’d think they’d have learned after Agravaine, she thought with a grim smile. Noble blood was no indicator of trustworthiness. Agravaine had been a snake in their midst, and none of those aging knights or greedy barons had seen it. Merlin was as common as dirt, and the most loyal man Gwen had ever seen. The council members who couldn’t see that were idiots, and power or not, Gwen knew how to handle idiots.


Gwen took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. Merlin did indeed bear thinking about, unfortunately. Gwen trusted him; she’d been his first friend in Camelot, had fancied him once, even, and she couldn’t begrudge him his secrets when knowing about his magic could have gotten them both killed. No. He loved Arthur as much as she did, maybe even more. She would never question that. But…

How common was he, really?

Gwen had been in the medical tent at Camlann, right there with Gaius. She had watched from the sidelines of the battlefield as that white dragon had come, and the sorcerer on the hill had roared at it, driving it away. She’d seen the lightning bolts he commanded, tossing them wherever he wanted as easily as swatting at flies.

She’d seen the way he’d protected Arthur, and the faith that Gaius had had in him, and she’d known.

Whatever else he was, Merlin was no mere hedge-wizard, of that she was certain. On their journey back to Camelot, she’d made Gaius tell her a little about him, and the things he’d done for king and kingdom; the old man had held his tongue about a lot of things, she suspected, but he had at least made clear that Merlin was strong. Possibly the only one strong enough to defeat Morgana.

Could that kind of power come from common stock?

Then Gwen smiled and shook her head for foolishness. Did it matter? She was the daughter of a blacksmith, and queen of Camelot. Merlin could come from any background at all, and he’d still be the most powerful sorcerer Gaius had ever heard of. Most importantly, he was a good man. If the council wanted her to turn on him in order to prove that she wasn’t swayed by him, well, they’d have to learn to live with disappointment.

She only hoped that Merlin’s magic was still a secret, and that rumors hadn’t spread since the battle. Everyone had seen the sorcerer on the hill, of course they had. But how many had figured out who he was?

Leon knew, because he was Camelot’s first knight and he needed to know. Gaius knew. Gwen knew. That might be two people too many, if it came to the law and protecting Merlin. From the look of things, whatever he’d done to save Arthur’s life, he was no longer in any shape to protect himself.

Well. She supposed she’d just have to see about changing the law, then.

As for Lancelot and the rest of the returned dead, perhaps he or Arthur might be able to tell her more in the morning.

She slept more soundly than she had in weeks, knowing that Arthur was returned to her. Gwen woke at dawn, and made her way to Arthur’s chambers as soon as she was dressed. She didn’t bother to call for her maid or pin up her hair, only twisted it into a simple knot at the nape of her neck, as she’d done in her servant days.

Arthur was still asleep, as she’d expected; no doubt simply having a bed felt like luxury to him after all he’d been through the past several days. She sat on the edge of the bed, simply watching him for a while, reveling in the healthy color she could see in his cheeks, and the way his chest rose and fell. Alive, alive, alive, she chanted to herself, and thanked Merlin in her heart once more.

Eventually Arthur stirred, and Gwen smiled as he opened bleary eyes. “Hey, you,” she said softly.

“Hello,” he responded with a smile. Then he shifted, and his expression became a grimace as one hand drifted to his side. “Nn.”

“Here, drink this.” She offered him the potion that Gaius had sent up with them the night before. “Willowbark.”

“There are days I wish he had something stronger, but those all knock you right back out again,” said Arthur as he knocked the vial back in one go. “Bleah. That taste never gets any easier to deal with.”

“You’ve had worse,” she countered, remembering some of the stories he’d told.

“Mm. True enough.” He sighed and settled back against his pillows. “I’m going to go mad with boredom over the next few weeks, aren’t I,” he mused. “Strong enough to stay awake, but not to get out of bed.”

“I’d rather you bored and alive than the alternative,” said Gwen, leaning forward to give him a kiss on the forehead. At the last second, Arthur tilted his chin up so that she caught his lips instead, making her giggle. She kissed him again, then, as a reward for his cleverness. Then again, simply because she could. She felt his hand come up and tangle in her hair before they were done.

“God, I’ve missed you,” he said, heartfelt, when she pulled away.

“And I, you,” she replied. The tears sprang up in her eyes again, and she shut them, pressing her forehead against his rather than letting him see. “I feared you would die and I would never see you again,” she whispered.

“Merlin would never let that happen,” Arthur assured her, and she pulled away to look into his eyes. He seemed uncomfortable, as if he’d said something he hadn’t meant to.

“Is something wrong?”

“No,” said Arthur. “At least… maybe. I don’t know.”

“This is about his magic, isn’t it?” she asked.

“You know about the magic?” He frowned at her, and she cut him off before he could say anything stupid.

“I guessed, at Camlann,” she said. “Gaius confirmed it for me, although not in so many words. I made him spell it out after, on our way home.”

“So he didn’t tell you. Merlin, I mean.”

“Arthur, I don’t think Merlin has told anybody in his entire life about his magic. Who could he trust to keep that secret, when revealing it would mean his death?”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” said Arthur, but he still looked troubled.

“Are you going to tell me what’s on your mind, or am I going to have to guess?”

“This… thing with the people coming back from the dead. All that magic. The possibility that a goddess was involved.”

“I’m sure you must know more about it than I do,” said Gwen.

“No,” Arthur mused. “No, I told you everything I know already. What happened here?”

“About a week ago, a day or two after we’d returned from Camlann, there was a tremendous storm,” said Gwen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The dogs were howling, horses panicking in the stables. Then lightning struck everywhere, Arthur, in the streets, in the courtyard itself. Some claimed to have heard a man screaming in agony.” Arthur flinched at that, and Gwen wondered why, but she went on. “When the storm died down… fog rose from the ground, as it sometimes does after a storm, but then, out of the mist, people started… well, they started appearing. As if arriving from a great distance. When the fog cleared, the courtyard was full of people who simply hadn’t been there before. They looked around them as if they’d never seen Camelot before, or at one another as if they’d never met. And then they seemed to realize where they were, and many of them ran away. The more people fled, though, the more appeared. A never-ending flood of people, Arthur, coming from the mists in the courtyard. The city guards dropped the portcullis before they could all escape. Guards in the lower town managed to catch a few of them, and questioned them, where had they come from, what was their business, that sort of thing. They all, every last one of them, said that they had been dead.”

“So many,” said Arthur. Gwen wasn’t sure if he was asking or not.

“I don’t know why, but yes,” she replied.

“I do.” He looked up at her, his eyes full of dread. “We met some children on the road, near a river. They told us, they’d all been drowned for having magic.”

Gwen gasped, immediately seeing where he was going. “So the courtyard, all those people…”

“They’re coming back from the places where they died in the first place.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, God,” Gwen whispered. “I mean, I always knew that Uther’s Purge had taken … many people, and there were rumors that many of them were innocent of any real crime other than having magic. And sometimes not even that,” she said, thinking of her father. “But to see it like that, to see so many… Arthur, there were hundreds. Possibly thousands.”

“Thirty years’ worth of death and revenge,” said Arthur, his gaze faraway and desolate.

She frowned, not understanding. “Revenge?”

“I was once given a vision of my mother, by a sorceress,” said Arthur. “Morgause, if you can believe it. My mother explained that she and my father had made arrangements with a priestess of the Old Religion in order to be able to conceive, because my mother was barren. But the Old Religion demands balance. A life for a life. When I was born, my mother died.”

“You can’t blame yourself for that,” Gwen said, half a question in her voice.

“I did, for a long time.” Arthur focused on her face, though. “I came back ready to kill my own father, for what he’d done to my mother. And to all those innocent lives. All they ever did was have magic, not even use it against Camelot. Merlin tried to convince me that Morgause lied, but I think really he was just keeping from from committing patricide and regicide.”

“Brave of him, to put himself between you and Uther.”

“He’s always been brave, I’ll give him that. Or maybe he just thought his own magic would protect him. He’s lied to me, so many times.”

“And you know why he had to.”

Arthur sighed. “I do.”

Gwen pulled back the blankets and settled in at Arthur’s side; he let her in willingly, only shifting a little in care of his injury. “What are we going to do about all the returned dead?” she asked. “And why have they come back now?”

“We’ll probably have to release them,” said Arthur. “If they’ve never committed a crime, if all they did was speak to a Druid or something equally harmless… but some of them have been dead a long time. They won’t have lives to go back to.”

“Some sort of restitution, then?” asked Gwen.

“If we can afford it. Even if it’s only one or two gold pieces per person, it’ll add up. I’ll have to find out what the treasury can sustain.”

“Mm. That’s one question answered, at least.”

Arthur wrapped one arm around her and stroked her hair thoughtfully. “As for why they came back now… I think it has to do with Merlin.”

“I thought I heard that girl, Freya, say it was a goddess,” said Gwen.

“A goddess using Merlin’s magic,” said Arthur. “Merlin… Merlin tried to sacrifice himself for me. As if he’d think I would be okay with him dying in my place. But he has so much magic, Gwen. The Goddess told me that she needed somewhere to put his extra power, and I really think this is the result.”

“All these people have come back, because Merlin tried to save you?”

Arthur nodded. “It’s not natural, certainly… but that’s not what bothers me the most.”

“What is it, then?”

There was a long pause before Arthur spoke. “I don’t think any one man should have that much power,” he said slowly. “And I don’t know what to do about it.”

“You mean, about him?” Gwen asked.

He seemed reluctant to admit it, but he did. “About him.”

Merlin dreamed of a cold, empty sky; clean, like the aftermath of a storm, with clouds scudding across the stars in a strong wind. He was alone, and shivering, and had no idea where to go. He kept expecting a voice, somehow, a whisper of This way, or You can handle this, come on… but nothing came, and somehow that was the most frightening part of his dream.

Hello? he tried to call, but the wind stole his voice away. Anybody?

There was no answer.

Merlin opened his eyes with a little gasp, confused at first to find himself indoors, with light streaming through a little window above him. There was no wind, and he was covered in a rough but serviceable blanket, but the empty cold still lingered inside him, somehow.

A bed. His bed, in Camelot. The door to his room was open, swinging just a little, as if someone had been with him until only a moment ago.

Camelot. Arthur.

Arthur was alive. The relief from that was nearly overwhelming, to know that Merlin hadn’t failed. But there were a host of other people who were also alive that… weren’t supposed to be, and Merlin wasn’t sure what to make of that. Unless he’d been hallucinating, Lancelot had carried him into Gaius’s chambers, and Freya had held his hand and caressed his face. Gwaine had said he’d died, but he’d been there in the chamber too. Gaius had been looking him over for signs of poison, if Merlin remembered correctly.

What did it mean? Why couldn’t he remember this Goddess that Arthur had spoken of? He remembered the Sidhe elder, and his malevolent glee at finally having access to Merlin’s magic. Arthur’s side of the story certainly seemed accurate as far as that went, and it wasn’t as if he had cause to lie and bring up some goddess, given how Arthur felt about sorcery in general.

What did it mean that a Goddess had heeded Merlin’s wishes, of all people, to “make things right”? Make what right?

Not that he hadn’t had plenty of failures over the course of the past ten years.

Merlin struggled to sit up, needing to use the chamber pot, but he lacked the strength to so much as lift his head. He managed to get one foot to the floor, but that was more the result of falling half out of bed than it was any controlled motion on his part. His arms felt like lead; he might as well have been tied to the bed for all the movement he was able to accomplish.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to struggle for too long; his door creaked open, and Freya poked her head through, beaming when she realized he was awake. “I wondered how much longer you would sleep,” she said.

“I need…” Merlin didn’t think he was able to blush, but his embarrassment must still have showed on his face.

“I’ll get Gaius to help,” said Freya. “Just hang on.”

The effort of sitting up, even with help, and staying upright long enough to use the chamber pot, exhausted Merlin. He leaned against Gaius with his eyes half-closed, listening to the old man explain that he needed to eat something if he wanted to get his strength back.

“I know I promised you your favorite,” he said, the affection thick in his voice, “but for the time being I’m afraid it’s broth and gruel for you, until you can stand on your own long enough to walk to the table.”

“I know, Gaius,” sighed Merlin. “And I need to know what happened.”

“No, you do not. Not yet.”


“Merlin, I know you,” said Gaius gently. “You’ll chew on this problem, refuse to rest, and make yourself even more unwell than you already are.”

“Gaius, I need to know.”

“And you will find out, I assure you, my boy. No one is better at ferreting out a mystery than you are. But not yet. Give yourself time to heal, first.”

Merlin was too tired to scowl, but he tried anyway. “Can I at least find out whether anything has happened to my mother?”

At this, Gaius chuckled. “My dear boy. As soon as we returned to Camelot last week, I sent a letter to your mother. I daresay she’s on her way here, or will be soon.”

“As long as she isn’t dead,” said Merlin.

“I’m sure we’d have had word by now,” Gaius tried, but Merlin was not comforted.

“Gaius, I need to know. It’s my mother. She nearly died the last time I tried to give my life in trade for Arthur’s. If anything has happened to her, I couldn’t bear it.”

“And I am quite certain that if anything had happened to her, someone from Ealdor would have sent word by now. But if it will set you at ease, I will see if we can’t send a messenger that way.”

“Please,” whispered Merlin. It had been only a few minutes, but already he could barely hold his head up. Whatever had happened to heal Arthur, it had taken much more out of Merlin than he had ever had taken before. The only time he could remember feeling so horribly weakened had been when he’d thrown himself in front of a dorocha for Arthur. And even that, he’d managed to recover from, albeit not without help.

Gaius noticed, of course, and helped Merlin to lie back down. “Rest, Merlin. Recover your strength. Your friend, Freya, will grow bored if you don’t.”

Merlin smiled tiredly, but his eyes were already falling shut.

The next few days passed in much the same fashion; Merlin slept, waking only to eat or drink, or use the chamber pot. Freya sat with him, and used a healing spell to try and lend him strength, but it seemed that whatever had happened to him had left a void inside him that her magic alone could not fill. His physical wound was healed, and it seemed as though the spell could not latch on to anything else that was wrong with him.

“Where’s Arthur?” he asked once. The king had not been to visit him, but there could have been any number of reasons for that.

“Arthur is in his chambers” said Gaius, “recovering from his own wound. He grows a little stronger every day, thanks to you.” The old man seemed determined that Merlin should not worry about the king, his best friend, but he couldn’t help it.

“Does he hate me?”

“Hate you! My dear boy…”

“I thought he forgave me for hiding from him all these years; all the lies, and going behind his back. All the things I’ve done, even though I haven’t told him about most of them. But that was when he was dying. It’s a lot easier to forgive someone when you know they aren’t going to be your problem for much longer.”

Gaius shook his head, as if to dismiss all of Merlin’s worries, but he didn’t say anything, and Merlin feared that his silence said all that Merlin needed to know.

“You haven’t told me what happened to bring you back,” he said later, talking to Freya. She had found a drop spindle and some wool somewhere, and had taken to spinning yarn to pass the time. Merlin supposed that sitting and watching him sleep couldn’t be very interesting, even if a person had been recently dead.

“It was the Goddess,” said Freya simply, but Merlin shook his head.

“That’s all you’ve said, and I need to know more.”

“I’m sorry, Merlin; I don’t know much more. I know that She came to me in the lake and said that you would need me. She gave me the knowledge of the healing spell I’ve been using on you, and a little more besides, but I was never a very strong sorceress even before I was cursed. I know I want to be by your side, so that you don’t feel as if you are alone anymore. You’ve done so much for King Arthur, for Camelot, and you’ve had to do it all alone with almost no one to turn to. I want—I know I can’t help you fight powerful enemies, but—I want to be someone you can talk to, when you feel alone. Maybe I can help you solve puzzles, or something like that.” Then she smiled impishly. “Or maybe I can convince you to run away with me to somewhere with a mountain and a couple of cows.”

Merlin felt his heart grow warm. “You remember.”

“Of course I remember. Merlin, you were kind to me when no one else dared. Plenty of people will take up a sword and go kill people, that sort of bravery doesn’t really impress me. But what you did, for me… that takes a kind of courage that is very rare, in my experience. The courage to be soft, when the world wants to beat that softness out of you.”

His smile faded, as he thought of the things he’d done. “I’m not sure I’m that soft anymore,” he said. Would he have released a terrified girl from her cage, if he had encountered her in the past few years? Or would he have passed her by, obsessed with protecting Arthur instead? Merlin didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t be sure. “I’m not the same person I was when we first met.”

“I know,” she said. “But I know that bothers you, too. And maybe, maybe that’s what the Goddess meant when she said you needed me. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do for you. Help you remember how to be gentle again.”

It was an effort, as weak as he still was, but Merlin reached over and took her hand, and squeezed as best he could. “I think I’d like that,” he said.

It was nearing sunset when Hunith reached the city outskirts. She had set out from Ealdor days later than she had wanted to, but there had been strange things afoot, things that needed to be put to rights before she could set out. Even now, she wasn’t sure the villagers wouldn’t do something foolish while her back was turned.

The journey had taken longer than expected, but she’d gotten a surprise escort on her second day of travel, and they’d passed the time amiably enough. Now, though, they both stopped, looking across the plain at a hundred tents or more, glowing in the light of the setting sun, and the enormous… livestock pens? set up just outside the city walls.

“Does Camelot have a fair at this time of year?” she asked her companion.

“Not that I’ve ever heard of,” he said.

They took the road a bit more slowly despite the late hour, taking everything in and wondering whether or not to be worried.

There was a hastily-built shack alongside the road, just outside the tent city. It was manned with guards in uniform, who stopped them and asked their business.

“I’m here to see my son,” said Hunith. “He works in the royal household, along with Gaius, the physician.”

The guard nodded, then turned to her escort. “And you?”

The man drew himself up, tired but still proud. “I’m a knight of Camelot.”

“Uh-huh,” said the guard. “The knights all went with the king to Camlann. You’re a bit late coming home.”

“I was on a different mission,” said the knight.

The guard still looked skeptical. “Are you one of the dead?”

“One of the what?” asked Hunith, turning to the man. Her escort, the knight, only sighed.

“I take it there’s been more than one, then,” he said.

One of the guards hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the pens and tents. “Just guess where they’ve all come from,” he said.

“So many,” breathed Hunith.

“What about you?” asked the first guard. “Were you dead, too?”

“No,” she said, dragging her gaze away from the throng. “No, I’m only here to see my son. He was hurt, trying to save the king.”

“Fine, then,” said the guard tiredly. “You can pass. Mind you go straight to the castle. Don’t go trying to gawk at the people in the pens.”


“Long story,” said the guard. “As for you, Sir…”

“Elyan,” said the knight.

“Sir Elyan, you’ll need to come with us.”

“Where,” said Elyan warily, hand on his sword.

“Look, don’t be like that, all right,” said another guard. “We’ve got our orders to follow, same as you. And you’ll be in good company, there’s plenty other knights back from the dead besides just yourself.”

“I’m not going to stuff myself into some livestock pen—”

“No, them’s for the sorcerers,” said the guard, making both Hunith and the knight blink in surprise. “Look. His Majesty is still recovering from the battle, and Her Majesty and the first knight are just trying to keep everything from going mad before they can get it all sorted, right? The knights what died and came back are being put in the dungeons, just until the queen or Sir Leon can get things squared away, all right?” He eyed Sir Elyan’s sword nervously, and went on, “I mean, you’ll get three meals and a bed, it’s better than most of ‘em are getting right now. It’s just, there’s a lot of you come back, and no place to put you. Dungeon at least is safe, for you and for us, in case you turn out to be evil or whatnot.”

“And how many of these knights have done that?” asked Elyan.

“Well, there was one old guy who said he was a knight and a sorcerer, and he stirred up a bit of a ruckus, but other than that, so far, it’s been pretty calm. Thank every god,” added the guard with a mutter. “Just… surrender your sword and come with us, and we’ll get word to Sir Leon that you’re here.”

“I’d rather you get word to the queen,” said Elyan. “She’s my sister.”

There was a pause as the guards took that in, exchanging glances and shrugs in the fading twilight. “At least he didn’t try to say Ygraine was still queen,” said one of them lowly.

“Sir… Elyan, you said?” asked the first guard. When Elyan nodded, he sighed. “Right. I remember your memorial service. We’ll get word to Her Majesty, you’ve got my oath. But you have to come with us, before they close the gates for the night. Otherwise you’ll sleep out here, and it will be the pens, because there ain’t no place else to put you.”

Hunith’s escort scowled, but he surrendered his sword. Then he, she, and their new escort of guardsmen made their way into the city proper, and from there to the citadel.

“I’ll be sure to tell Gaius you’re here,” said Hunith, just before they parted ways—she to go up to the physician’s tower, and he presumably to be taken below ground to the cells. “If anyone can get word to the queen quickly, he can.”

Elyan nodded. “It was a pleasure to travel with you,” he said, and then they led him off.

Chapter Text

The cells under Camelot’s castle were just as dreary and boring as any other cell Elyan had spent time in, it would seem, and even having recently returned from the dead did nothing to change that. The only real difference between this and other times Elyan had been captured—by bandits, by a city watch, it made no real difference—was that the cells were full to the brim with men, ten to a cell or more. Some were older than Elyan, some younger, some in armor, some not; but all of them claimed to have once been knights of Camelot themselves.

The conversations were more than a little strange, as well. Instead of hearing people boast about whatever they’d done to be arrested, trying to prove which of them was the toughest, Elyan overheard men asking one another how long they’d been dead, how recently they’d come back, who was king now.

For his part, Elyan had no idea how much time had passed since he’d died, but listening in, it didn’t seem that many of the others had any inkling, either. Only a few, who had been recognized on sight, had gotten an answer to that question.

They all seemed to have resurrected at the same time, perhaps ten days ago now by Elyan’s reckoning. He wondered what that meant, and who would have done such a thing, and for what purpose. Obviously it was sorcery; the question was whose, and whether they were to be put to some evil use before they were allowed to die once more.

For the most part, though, the knights didn’t speak much. Those who recognized one another shared greetings, and caught one another up a little on what had happened between one mans’ death and the other’s, but other than that there was little to say.

“At least I don’t hear anyone putting up the scaffold in the courtyard,” muttered one.

“Can we even be killed a second time, now that we’ve been brought back?” asked another.

Elyan certainly didn’t know.

The evening passed; they were brought bread and broth and water, typical prisoners’ fare. A slops boy came to empty the chamber pots, but wouldn’t speak to or even look at any of them, seeming frightened of what they might do. The guards at least did not seem frightened, but they were certainly uneasy, and he was unable to get any sort of information out of them. Elyan had only been here a few hours, and already he was bored half out of his mind, and worried for Gwen. Had Morgana made a move while he’d been dead? Was his sister all right?

One by one, the imprisoned knights settled down to sleep in their cells, mostly seated along the walls although one or two did try to make themselves comfortable on the floor in the middle. Elyan sighed, again, and looked for a spot to put himself for the night.

He was interrupted when a guard came down the corridor, going from cell to cell. “Right,” he said. “Which of you lot is called Sir Elyan?”

“I’m Elyan,” he answered, stepping up to the bars.

“This way,” said the guard. Another one rattled the keys at his belt and unlocked the door, while two more stood ready with spears in case the other men tried to escape. They didn’t, but Elyan had to wonder what had them all so on edge…

Well, besides the obvious.

They led Elyan to an interrogation room, with a table, a single chair, and a whipping post, and he clenched his fists, wondering just what the hell they thought they could do to him. Then the guards let the extra torches in the sconces, and he saw who was waiting for him.


“Elyan,” she gasped, and in the next breath she was in his arms.

He embraced her just as tightly as she was squeezing him, feeling the tension he’d carried since he’d awoken begin finally to uncoil. “Oh, Gwen,” he breathed, taking in the scent of her hair, the perfume she was wearing. “God, I’ve been so worried about you.”

“You? I thought I was going mad, wondering if you would return like all the others.”

“I wanted to ask you about that,” he said, pulling back just far enough to look into her eyes. “I woke up, and when I found myself alone—”

“I’m so sorry—”

“—don’t be, I know I was dead. I figure you all must have left me there, or had a funeral or something. It was too far to bring me back to Camelot.”

Gwen nodded, but she was still sniffling, tears in her eyes.

“Anyway,” Elyan said, “I decided the best thing to do was come back to Camelot, so I did, only… there are more people back than just me?”

She nodded again. “We don’t know why,” she explained. “They all just… woke up. Appeared out of the mists, after a terrible storm about ten days ago.”

“It was raining where I was, too,” said Elyan. “I don’t know if that means anything, though.”

“I think it must,” replied Gwen. “The lightning struck right in the courtyard, and then after the storm began to fade a little, that was where people started appearing.”

“Here, in the castle courtyard?”

“As far we’ve been able to guess, everyone who came back, did so in the place where they died. Arthur found some children near a river…” She shuddered and looked away. “Anyway. A lot of people have been killed in Uther’s courtyard over the years, you know that.”

“And I died in the Dark Tower,” said Elyan.

“I suppose that explains why it took you so long to come home,” she said, with a watery smile.

“Didn’t have a horse,” joked Elyan. It wasn’t that funny, but Gwen laughed anyway, and then she was in his arms again, weeping, and all he could do was hold her.

“Shh, Gwen, Gwennie, it’s okay,” he said, over and over. “I’m all right. I’m here now.”

“I just wish Papa was here too,” she said. “Not that it isn’t amazing to have you back, because it is, but so many people came back that Uther killed, and I haven’t seen him anywhere, and I don’t know why.”

“I saw those pens full of people outside the city,” said Elyan. “Could he have ended up there without you knowing?”

“It’s certainly possible,” said Gwen. “I just don’t know. And I can’t ask. The queen can’t appear weak,” she added bitterly, pulling away from him.


“I’m taking a risk even coming to see you,” she said. “Half the council, the nobles especially, still haven’t gotten over the fact that I’m common-born, and if they think I’ve been compromised somehow, if they think I’m being swayed by unnatural forces or whatever other nonsense they’ll come up with, then they’ll stop listening to me. Not that they listen to me very much as it is.”

“That’s terrible,” said Elyan.

Gwen sighed. “I shouldn’t sound so ungrateful, I know,” she said, “but that’s how things are right now. They hoped to be able to gain more power after Uther died and Arthur took the throne, but they haven’t, because Arthur is a strong leader. Now he’s been wounded and recovering, they’re all maneuvering and scheming behind closed doors, as if they think I won’t notice.”

“I’m sorry,” said Elyan, and he was, but… “You said Arthur was wounded?”

“There was a great battle, only about two weeks ago now. Arthur took a wound from an enchanted blade, it was killing him. Merlin took him on a quest to see it healed… and it worked! Arthur is going to make a full recovery.”

Elyan heaved a sigh. “I’m glad. The kingdom does not need the upheaval that a new king would cause, even if he named a successor ahead of time.”

“You forget I’m queen,” she said, but she was smiling.

“You know what I mean, though… if the nobles are being idiots, the kingdom could be weakened by his death.”

Gwen tilted her head a little. “Yes, you’re right; but even though he lived, he’s got enough upheaval already, with the dead returning.”

They talked for another hour or so at least, filling one another in on all that had happened, especially since his death. Elyan didn’t have much he could offer, but he listened to Gwen, and shared her speculations about what it all might mean. He got the feeling she wasn’t telling him everything, but that was all right. He was a knight, and he’d been a member of the Round Table, but he’d been dead for half the year, to hear her tell it. He’d be suspicious of anyone coming back under such unnatural circumstances, too.

“Is there anything I can do to help you, from down here?” asked Elyan, as they prepared to part. “I won’t ask to be released, I know you can’t afford to show favoritism right now.”

“You’re right, but… I don’t know,” she answered. “I’ve been told by Leon that anyone who claimed to have been a knight has been placed in the dungeons, for everyone’s safety. It would be dangerous to have men who can fight in the pens with everyone else,” she explained. “I suppose… you could talk to them? Find out where they’re from, or when they died. Learn what killed them, maybe.”

“I could do that.”

“Arthur and I are hoping that he’ll be recovered enough in a few days to hold court,” said Gwen. “So you shouldn’t have to sit down here for too much longer. You could report to us, if you wanted, give us more information than we already have. Lord Geoffrey is searching the records of knights who’ve died, and he’s got assistants going through the chronicles of executions, but anything you can tell us would only be a help, adding to what we already know.”

“Of course.” He smiled at her then, and added, “Look at you, being all queenly and such.”

“Oh, stop,” she retorted, swatting him on the shoulder. Then she started to cry again.


“I’m sorry, I just… I thought I’d never get to do that to you again, and now I can, and you’re back, and…”

“I understand.” Elyan wrapped her in his arms again, and rocked her gently from side to side. “Shh. It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.”

Arthur leaned on Sir Leon’s arm as they made their way to the throne room, but he was able to walk under his own power the entire way there. He’d recovered amazingly quickly over the past few days, and even though his injury still hurt from time to time, it was so much better than it had been that Arthur could almost feel as if he weren’t in any pain at all.

He was ready to hold court, to start sorting out what had happened to his kingdom (what Merlin had done), and to try and find a way forward with a populace that had suddenly increased dramatically. Gaius was against it, of course, saying that Arthur needed more time to regain his strength, but Camelot needed a leader right now more than Arthur needed a lie-in. If he stayed in bed recuperating much longer, not only would he go mad from boredom, but he suspected the nobles and merchants would start scheming to replace him. He’d already heard from Gwen that they were still trying to undermine her in his absence.

One would think they’d have learned, after all this time, that Gwen was a force to be reckoned with all on her own, even without the Round Table backing her up.

He’d also learned from Gwen that the castle had two more occupants: Merlin’s mother and Sir Elyan. Hunith hadn’t made her presence known beyond finding the queen and passing on a short message; she’d spent the rest of her time, so far as Arthur knew, in Gaius’s chambers tending to Merlin while he recovered. Arthur was glad that someone was helping Gaius, but he refused to really contemplate how he felt about her caring for Merlin while he couldn’t visit himself. It shouldn’t have bothered him as much as it did; he liked Hunith, to be sure, but now that Arthur knew what Merlin was, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. She’d knowingly sent her son, a sorcerer, to Camelot, all those years ago. Why on earth would anyone do that? If he didn’t know for certain that she wasn’t anything other than a peasant farmer, Arthur would have found himself wondering what sort of agenda she had had in doing so.

The thought was unpleasant. Hunith had mothered him just as much as she’d mothered Merlin, when he’d first met her. She’d been kind and caring, and he couldn’t bring himself to think of her as any sort of threat. Peasant farmer, he reminded himself. A remarkable woman, but certainly not one who was plotting behind Arthur’s back.

The thought of seeing Elyan again twisted something inside Arthur’s chest. Guilt, mostly likely, regret over his death. Would his knight forgive him for having allowed him to die, and then leaving him so far from home? They hadn’t had a choice but to hold the funeral there, at the foot of the Dark Tower itself, before making their way back to Camelot. Would Elyan understand that?

The dungeons were full of men claiming to have once been knights of Camelot. At least one of them, according to the guards, had demonstrated that he was also a sorcerer; Arthur had no idea how the man could possibly expect anyone to believe his claims that he was both. Uther would never have knowingly employed a sorcerer in his ranks.

But then, where did all the dead knights come from?

Arthur settled into his throne with a sigh. This court was the beginning of his attempt to find out the answer to that question, and many others.

Lord Geoffrey sat to one side of the dais, at a small table with scrolls and books piled high around him. He had two assistants standing at his shoulders, ready to help him rifle through the records to find any mention of the people being brought up from the dungeons today. Past him, running down either side of the room, long tables had been set up for a few of the merchants and noblemen to sit, as well as Gaius, Leon, Percival, and other members of the Round Table.

He’d even allowed Gwaine, with some trepidation; the man claimed to have been dead, but he couldn’t have been gone for more than a day, if that. He’d come to their camp before Lancelot and Freya, even. It was possible, just barely, that he hadn’t really died at all. In any case, none of the others apart from Percival and possibly Leon knew Gwaine’s story, and Arthur was not inclined to share it.

Finally Arthur was ready; he nodded to Gwen, who returned his smile nervously, then to Leon, who opened the throne room’s great doors and allowed the rest of the Round Table and the merchant’s council to enter. A few of the merchants and nobles came up to offer their good wishes on his recovery; Arthur only nodded solemnly as he thanked them, and they soon got the hint that he was not in the mood to socialize.

“Bring in the first,” he said, once they were all seated.

The guards led in Sir Elyan.

There was a murmur up and down the long tables as his men recognized their fallen comrade; Arthur raised a hand, and they fell silent. Elyan stopped and knelt before the king.

“Sir Elyan, it is good to see you returned to us,” he said formally. “I want to be clear to the assembled court that you are accused of no crime, and that we parted on honorable terms. This is an inquest, not a trial. However, as I’m sure you’ve seen, there is a matter before us that requires your assistance.”

“I will give it as best I can, sire,” said Elyan.

Arthur nodded. “Will you answer questions for the court and help us get to the bottom of what has happened to you and your fellows?”

“I will, sire.”

Arthur nodded again, then indicated Lord Geoffrey, who stood and cleared his throat. “If you would, please state your name for our records,” he said.

“I am Elyan, son of Thomas, of Camelot.”

“And what were your arms, or your family name?”

Elyan frowned. “I had no arms save those of Camelot; my father was a smith.”

“You were one of Arthur’s common-born knights, then?”

“I was, yes.” He glanced toward Arthur and added, “And I will be again, if my king will have me.”

Chapter Text

“A number of people have come to Camelot claiming to have been dead until very recently,” said Lord Geoffrey. “Some of these dead, we have been able to verify in our own records. You are one of them, are you not?”

“I am,” said Elyan. “I died rescuing the queen, my sister, after she was held captive by Morgana.”

“Do you know how long ago this was?”

“I’ve been told it was about half a year ago that I died.”

Geoffrey hummed. “I see… before you were told, did you have any idea how long you had been dead?”

“I did not.”

“Can you describe the circumstances in which you returned to the living?”

Elyan frowned. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“We know of at least one person returned from the dead who claims to have received a message from some unknown source,” explained Geoffrey. “This woman claims she was given instructions, for what she ought to do upon returning. Have you received any such instruction or message?”

“No, I haven’t,” said Elyan.

“Then if you would, please describe how you returned, with or without such communication.”

The knight shrugged; a little helplessly, to Arthur’s eye. “I died, as I’ve said. I remember it clearly. I went…” He shook his head. “I no longer have any memory of what happened after that. But I awoke, and knew I had been dead. I looked around and found myself alone, at the foot of the tower where Morgana had held Gw—the queen. It seemed the sensible thing to do to return to Camelot, see if I could find anyone who could explain what had happened. I walked here, and,” he shrugged again, “you know the rest.”

There was a pause, the silence broken only by the scratching of Geoffrey’s pen against the parchment. Finally, he finished jotting down his note and looked up. “Do you know of any dark magic which might have been involved in returning you to life?” he asked.

“I know nothing of sorcery,” said Elyan. “I mean, I can only assume that was what caused me to come back, but if you’re asking me about specific spells, no. I can’t answer that.”

Gaius spoke up next. “Do you have any memory of speaking to anyone, immediately after you returned?” he asked. “Any person who might have given you instruction to return here?”

“No,” said Elyan. “As I said, I was alone when I woke.”

Gaius squinted at a little piece of parchment he held. “How much of your past life in Camelot do you remember?”

“I… suppose I remember all of it,” said Elyan. “But then, if I had forgotten something, I don’t think I’d realize it, would I?”

Gaius nodded, as if acknowledging the point.

Lord Geoffrey picked up the thread once more, asking, “What have you been doing in Camelot, since your return?”

Elyan huffed a little laugh. “I walked until I found a road, met a woman and accompanied her for her own safety, and came to Camelot proper. We were met outside the gates, which is where I learned that I was not the only one to have been dead. Then the guards explained that the knights who had come back were being kept in the cells, while the civilians were being kept in the pens I saw outside the gates. I’ve been in the dungeon ever since.”

“And how long has that been, in your reckoning?”

“Two or three days, at a guess,” he replied. “Hard to keep track of time below ground, but the meals came twice a day.”

“Thank you, Geoffrey,” said Arthur. “Gaius: What are the possibilities, magically speaking, for Elyan’s return?”

“Ordinarily, sire, I would suggest that a sorcerer had created a type of magical construct called a Shade, which would bear the form of the deceased person and some of its personality, but not all its memories. Such a thing would be beholden to a master and have specific instructions it was meant to carry out.”

He frowned, remembering Lancelot’s words in the forest. “Has Camelot ever seen such a thing?”

Gaius looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Yes, sire, we have.”

There was a ripple of unease, a murmur that passed through the assembly. “When?” asked Arthur.

“When Lancelot first appeared to return from the dead, over a year ago now,” said Gaius, confirming Lancelot’s story. “The Shade of Lancelot was conjured by Morgana, and sent here to prevent Guinevere from becoming queen.”

Arthur took a sharp breath, and Elyan’s eyes grew wide. He hadn’t known that part.

Gwen cried out. “I couldn’t understand why I felt so drawn to him,” she exclaimed. “What happened?”

“The bracelet that the Shade gifted you was enchanted with a powerful love spell, my lady,” said Gaius. He would not meet her eyes.

Arthur scowled. It all matched or filled in gaps of what Lancelot had told him, and yet… “Why did you not tell me of this?”

“I had believed I was unfaithful to the man I loved,” added Gwen.

Gaius, however, only sighed. “And if I or Merlin had come to you with this knowledge, what then?” he asked. “You would have demanded proof of these enchantments, which itself could only be obtained through magic. And that proof would also have implicated Agravaine, against whom, at the time, you would hear no ill word.” Gaius looked up then, and shook his head sadly. “There was no safe way for anyone to inform you of Morgana’s plot, not then.”

It almost sounded as if Gaius were blaming Arthur for the way they had kept secrets, and he set his jaw angrily. “And after? I had a right to know.”

Again, Gaius would not meet his eyes. “That is true, sire,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Sorry,” said Gwen. “For an entire year I have blamed myself for what happened between us. For an entire year, we have believed that Lancelot had dishonored himself, after dying heroically at the Veil. We had a right to this knowledge, and you did not come forward even after Agravaine’s treachery was revealed.” She drew herself up. “And all you have to say is that you are sorry?”

“My lady, I will not deny that there are many things that have been hidden from you and His Majesty, but I will also say that I was protecting the life of one who is very dear to you both. If he or I had come forward with magical solutions to your problems, either of us could have been executed.”

It was Arthur’s turn to look away, as he met Gwen’s eyes, and Elyan’s. Gwen’s reputation had suffered dearly after her supposed infidelity with Lancelot, and now Gwen and the rest of them knew that it had never been Lancelot at all, and that Gwen’s actions had not been her own. Arthur ought to feel better about that, about seeing his wife and his knight vindicated, and yet… how many times had he ordered Merlin to shut his mouth about his suspicions? How readily had he believed that Gaius was a traitor, after decades of serving him and his father faithfully?

“I see,” he said, knowing that Gaius was probably right, and hating himself for it. “Lord Geoffrey, do you have any further questions for Sir Elyan?”

“I do not, sire.”


“No, sire.”

“I have a question,” said Gwen. “I spoke with you in the dungeons, the night you were first brought here. Do you remember what I asked of you then?”

“Of course,” said Elyan; he seemed to visibly relax at the change in topic. “You said it might be helpful to learn more about the people in the dungeons, where they came from, that sort of thing.”

“And what have you found?”

“Being restricted to only my cell, it was difficult to learn too much,” he replied, “but every man I spoke to, or every conversation I overheard, suggests that all the men below claim to be knights of Camelot. Some of them I recognized, and they served under Arthur. Others have never met him, and claim to have died during Uther’s reign.”

“And is it true that there are some who claim also to be sorcerers?” asked Arthur.

“I’ve only seen one for certain, but yes, sire,” said Elyan. “He mentioned other men by name, and spoke to them or about them, but he is the only one I’ve actually seen perform sorcery.”

A mutter went down the table, especially among the merchants and noblemen. The Round Table knights looked uneasily at one another, but kept their own counsel.

“What was his name?” asked Arthur.

“He called himself Bruenor, sire.”

“Lord Geoffrey?”

“A moment, sire,” said the old man; he and his assistants shuffled scrolls and books back and forth, until Geoffrey opened one and ran his finger down a long column of names. “Ah, yes. There is a Sir Bruenor listed here, sire. He was…” There was a pause as Geoffrey reached for another scroll; then, when he found nothing, he opened another, then a third, and finally stopped with a frown. “It would appear his record has been erased from the rolls of nobility, sire. However, I recall the name, myself, even though I cannot find it except among the list of those executed by Uther.”

Arthur felt a chill; why would his father have executed a knight? “And what do you recall?” he asked.

“Sir Bruenor was first among the company of Knight-Mages, sire, and responsible for their training, much as Sir Leon is First Knight now.”

“Knight-Mages,” sputtered a nobleman. “This is nonsense. Uther would never—”

“Uther did,” interrupted Lord Geoffrey, “although he would prefer that there be none left alive to remember it. There was a time before his son’s birth when the Knight-Mages were a respected company in Camelot’s forces. Sir Bruenor was among them. First among them, if my memory is correct.”

“Then he is a powerful sorcerer with a grudge against our king, and he should be dealt with!” said the nobleman.

“It would appear he already was,” said Geoffrey dryly. “As to whether or not he has a grudge against the current king, that is only speculation.” He turned to Arthur and went on, “I would suggest he be brought for questioning next, or at least very soon, sire; it is possible that, with his magic, he may have some insight into what has happened that the other knights will not.”

“You’re suggesting that we rely on the word of a sorcerer?!” asked the noble. He rose to his feet and gestured expansively. “Sire, surely you’re not going to consider—”

“What I consider is my own decision, and not yours,” said Arthur. He took a breath, hiding his flinch as the pain shot through his side. “Sir Elyan; what sort of magic did you see this Bruenor use?”

“When it grew dark, he created a light in his cell,” said Elyan. “And I think he did something to chase the vermin away so that the straw wasn’t full of fleas or rats. He offered to do the same for the other cells that he could see, but many of the knights there were against it and refused.”

“And that was all?”

“He… may have implied that he could have broken out of the cell but chose not to. When I asked, he said he saw no reason to upset the guards. He also said that if he had to fight his way free of another execution, then he would make that choice when the time came.”

Another ripple of conversation swept the tables, but Arthur couldn’t say that he blamed them. He wanted to ask Elyan more, but it would probably be better to get those answers from Bruenor himself. He and Gwen shared another glance. “Sir Elyan,” he said finally. “It is my judgment that you be released from the dungeons, effective immediately. You will not be permitted arms and armor until such time as we can determine with certainty that you are not a Shade. We will as a precaution not accept gifts from you whose origins cannot be verified.”

Elyan nodded in acceptance, though he didn’t seem terribly happy with the decision. “What am I to do, then, if I cannot be a knight?”

“Your father was a smith, was he not?” said one of the nobles smugly. “Perhaps you could return to your forge.”

Elyan’s nostrils flared in annoyance, but he glanced to where his sister sat on the throne, and nodded. “Perhaps I will,” he said. “It would be a good way to keep my strength up until my king calls me to return.”

Chapter Text

After Elyan was dismissed, the inquest continued; three more knights were brought in, all men that Arthur recognized on sight. Two of them had been killed at Camlann, facing Morgana’s dragon, while the third had met his end in a druid raid some years prior. They were all listed in the rolls of nobility, and all their deaths had been recorded in another scroll, which Geoffrey produced easily.

None of them had any idea what had happened to them, save that they had died, and now were returned. None of them had spoken to anyone but one another, in the cells, or on the battlefield where they’d been slain and then reawakened.

None of them had magic.

Finally, Sir Leon called a recess; most of the council of nobles and the Round Table knights dispersed, while servants brought food and drink for those who stayed behind. Arthur didn’t think he’d have the strength to make two trips to his chambers and back, so he remained in the throne room, hobbling down to the long table to pick up some bread and cheese, and sip a little watered wine. Gwen followed him, resting one hand between his shoulder blades comfortingly. God, it was good to have her here.

“How are you holding up, sire?” asked Gaius. Arthur forced down the first spike of annoyance; whatever he may have felt about the physician’s revelations about Lancelot and Gwen, Gaius was still the physician, and it was his prerogative to ask such questions.

“Well enough, thank you,” he replied. His voice was more curt than he’d intended, but he could not bring himself to regret it as the man bowed and backed away. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gwen press her lips together before she looked away, taking a deep breath. They would have to talk later, and he would have to apologize for how he’d treated her. Arthur hadn’t known, hadn’t realized such a thing was possible, but he felt like he should have had greater faith in the woman he’d wanted to make queen.

Perhaps if Gaius or Merlin had ever come forward, he’d have been able to earn his wife’s forgiveness sooner.

Leon came up to them, as Arthur finished a bite and reached for his drink. “What do you think of Geoffrey’s recommendation?” he asked. “To bring in this Sir Bruenor and interrogate him about the magical side of what has happened?”

“I think we have little choice, if we want to learn anything at all,” said Arthur. “None of the other men we’ve interviewed has any notion of magic, no idea at all what may have happened to them. I suspect no one will, except for Freya, and even then, she claims she was only given information that would help Merlin to recover.”

“Do you think Bruenor will have insight into what Merlin did?” asked Gwen.

“No idea.”

Soon enough, it was time to reconvene; Arthur sat, with Gwen at his side, and took a deep breath. He was pretty sure he had the strength to face Bruenor, and perhaps one more knight after him, but after that, it would be time to go back to his chamber and rest.

Gwen laid her hand on his wrist, looking at him in concern, and he smiled at her tiredly. He would be all right, and if not, he could trust his queen to take up the slack.

Naturally, when it was announced that Sir Bruenor would be the next knight brought in, some of the older council members, none of them knights themselves, began to fuss.

“Sire, please, I must object,” said one of them. They were like gnats, Arthur thought; a constant irritation, and completely predictable when the weather was right. “A sorcerer, a known sorcerer, being brought before you without any precaution! Uther must have executed him for a reason!”

“Most likely, that reason was having magic at all,” interrupted Lord Geoffrey, before Arthur could speak. “Just because the Purge benefited you personally does not mean it was just, or right.”

The man sputtered, while Arthur hid his surprise. It would seem that Geoffrey, a man he’d always assumed to be as dry and unassuming as the parchment he wrote on, had forceful opinions of his own, and had simply held them back before now. He did not seem to fear any retaliation from Arthur for sharing those opinions; he might be a valuable addition to the Round Table, if Arthur could figure a way to draw him out.

“What do you mean, the Purge benefited him?” asked Gwen.

“It’s quite simple, My Lady,” said Geoffrey. “Nobles who were executed during the Purge had their lands confiscated by the crown, and often redistributed as a reward to those who had turned in their neighbors. It remains an open question, even after all these years, how many of them truly had magic, and how many of them simply were betrayed by political rivals looking to climb in status at court.”

Arthur felt sick. As much as he might wish to think his father hadn’t known of such a thing, it was altogether more likely that he had, and had encouraged people to turn on one another in order to speed the Purge along.

“Magic is evil!” cried the noble, falling back on the tired axiom that Arthur had grown up with all his life.

“I would venture to say that the abuse of any sort of power is where evil resides,” said Geoffrey. “And magic is only one source of power. When did you say your family rose in station, Lord Archibald?”

The nobleman’s face grew even redder, then paled when he saw that Arthur was watching him. He sat back in his chair, muttering, but did not answer the question.

“Enough of this,” said Arthur. “Bring in Sir Bruenor.”

There was a bit of a commotion outside the door, and the assembly all clearly heard a man say calmly, “I said, take your hands off of me,” before they entered. The man, presumably Sir Bruenor, was flanked by two guards, each holding him by the upper arm; however, before they got more than three steps inside, his eyes flashed gold as he muttered a word under his breath, and both guards yelped and let go of him quickly, one of them shaking his hand as if he’d been burned.

Several knights in the room leaped to their feet and drew their swords, as did the guards.

“I told you to take your hands off me,” said the man, still calm as could be. “I have committed no crime, and will not be treated like a common thief.”

“Sorcery is illegal in this kingdom,” squawked Lord Archibald. “How dare you use it so openly, and in the presence of the king?”

“If you think I give a damn what Uther thinks of me, after he’s already executed me once, then you’re an idiot. My lord.” He strode boldly up the center of the throne room until he reached the halfway point. He’d been looking at either the guards or Lord Archibald until then, and as he got his first look at Arthur, he stopped in his tracks.

“Except you’re not Uther,” he said slowly, before glancing to Gwen. “And you are definitely not Ygraine.” The knight—if he was one—tilted his head in consideration, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. “You’ve the look of Ygraine about you, though,” he said. “You have her eyes.”

Arthur tightened his grip on the arms of the throne. “She was my mother,” he acknowledged.

The man took that in with a slow nod. “And Uther?”

“Dead,” said Arthur. “Ten years past, now.”

“I see…” He set his weight on his back foot, and crossed his arms. “If you are who I think you are, then I died when you were only a few months old.”

“For sorcery,” hissed Lord Archibald.

Arthur gestured, and Lord Geoffrey spoke up. “This is an inquest into the matter of the sudden return of many thought dead, not a trial of one man’s alleged use of magic,” he began.

Alleged! We all saw him use magic just now, against guards of Camelot!”

“Lord Archibald, thank you for stating the obvious,” said Arthur, at the end of his patience. “You are here to observe during this inquest, not to question, unless I ask for it. If you cannot keep silent until I call upon you, you will be ordered to leave. Do you understand?”

The nobleman took a sharp breath in through his nose, clearly ready to snap a retort, but Arthur stared him down until he sat, sulking like a toddler. “I understand, Your Majesty,” he muttered.

“Good.” He nodded to Lord Geoffrey. “Continue.”

“If you would please state your name for our records,” said the man.

“I am Sir Bruenor of Eltenham,” said the knight, “second son of Lord Garamond of Eltenham.”

There was a pause as Geoffrey and his assistants looked through the scrolls. “Again, Your Majesty, I can find no record of Sir Bruenor’s parentage, but the Eltenham seal of nobility was bequeathed to another family, in the fifth year of Uther’s reign.”

Gwen leaned forward in her seat, eyes narrowed. “Do we know who holds it now?”

“I could look, if My Lady wishes it,” said Geoffrey.

“Perhaps later,” said Arthur. “Thank you, Geoffrey, you may continue.”

Bruenor spoke up, though. “Geoffrey?” he asked. “Lord Geoffrey of Monmouth?”

The archivist raised his eyebrows. “I am,” he said.

Bruenor huffed a disbelieving laugh. “You cannot be so old,” he said. “And you… are you Gaius? The royal physician?”

“I am,” said Gaius, tucking his hands into his sleeves.

“Well, I suppose we all know why you’re still alive, despite everything,” said Bruenor.

Arthur very much wanted to know what that was supposed to mean, especially given the way that Gaius’s expression closed off, but now was not the time. “Back to the topic,” he commanded. “Geoffrey, if you could continue.”

The questions were the same as they had been for Elyan’s interrogation, as well as the other knights’: “A number of people have come to Camelot claiming to have been dead until very recently. You are one of them, are you not?”

“I am,” said Bruenor.

“And how did you die?”

“I think you already know,” said Bruenor.

“Even so, if you could confirm it for our records,” said Geoffrey.

Bruenor pressed his lips together, but held his head high. “I was executed unjustly, by Uther Pendragon.”

A murmur went down the tables once more, but at least Archibald kept his opinions to himself.

“Do you know how long ago this was?” asked Geoffrey.

“I can only guess,” replied Bruenor. “It did not feel as though any time at all had passed, and yet, you are greatly aged, and a man claiming to be the son of Uther and Ygraine sits the throne now, where before it was Uther himself.”

“And what is your guess?”

“I died in the fifth year of Uther’s reign,” said Bruenor. “The king before me looks no more than thirty, and would have been only an infant when I was killed.” He paused, and for the first time, his confidence appeared shaken. “Can it really have been thirty years since I was murdered?”

Geoffrey pulled out another scroll and ran his finger down the column. “It is now the tenth year of the reign of King Arthur,” he said, “and the fifth year of Uther’s reign was… indeed, thirty years ago. Nearly thirty-one, now.”

“So long,” murmured Bruenor.

“Before this moment, did you have any idea how long you had been dead?”

“No,” he replied. “No, I just told you that it seemed as though no time at all had passed. I died, and I was… elsewhere, I think. But when I awoke once more, it seemed to me to have been only a day, at most, that I had been gone.”

There was a pause as Geoffrey wrote that down, nodding to himself. “Can you describe the circumstances in which you returned to the living?”

“It was storming,” said Bruenor, his eyes faraway. “I remember that. The rain was cold, and the mists were thick. I opened my eyes in the courtyard, where Uther had had me murdered.

“And then what happened?”

“Realizing that I was alive, and unarmed, I tried to flee the courtyard. There were many others there with me, perhaps hundreds. It was chaos. The palace guards dropped the portcullis and pulled out their crossbows, but before they could shoot us, someone gave the order to stop them. I don’t know who, since Uther certainly would not have hesitated, but then again, he is dead.

“After that, some used sorcery to escape, but most of us were questioned as to who we were and where we had come from. Many were rounded up and taken outside the city, I know not where, and the rest of us were brought to the dungeons.”

“And you did not attempt to escape?”

Bruenor lifted his chin. “I am no coward.”

“But you do possess magic,” said Geoffrey.

“You know that I do,” replied Bruenor. “Yet no one employed it against me, nor attempted to harm me after the order was given not to fire into the crowd. I also realized from overhearing many people’s answers to the guards that I was not the only one to awaken from the dead. I chose not to attack anyone who was not attacking me, and to wait and see what would happen.”

Geoffrey nodded. “We know of at least one person returned from the dead who claims to have received a message before being awakened,” he said, just as he had asked Elyan. “This woman claims she was given instructions, for what she ought to do upon returning. Have you received any such instruction or message?”

“No, I haven’t. I simply awoke. I don’t know why, or to what purpose.”

Geoffrey and Gaius traded a glance, before the physician handed the archivist the little slip of parchment on which he had written his questions for Elyan. Given the way Bruenor had responded to Gaius, Arthur supposed that only made sense.

“You are knowledgeable in sorcery,” Geoffrey began. “Do you know of any dark magic which might have been involved in returning you to life?”

“I’m not knowledgeable in all the schools of magic,” said Bruenor, which made Arthur blink in surprise. There were schools? “I only know enough of dark magic to be able to combat against it; my first thought was that the returned dead might be Shades, but I have seen nothing to suggest that would be the case.”

“How do you mean?” asked Arthur.

Bruenor turned to face him with a little bow of his head. “A Shade consists of a recreated body and a shard, a sliver, of that person’s soul. Just enough to animate the form, but not enough to fight against the spell that brought it from beyond the Veil. Shades have no memories, no personality, except what their master gives them. It often takes days to shape a Shade so that its behavior will be useful at all beyond mindless servitude.” Beside Arthur, Gwen shuddered, and he was hard pressed not to do the same. Morgana must have worked on Lancelot’s Shade for a long time, to make his behavior so convincing to the rest of them.

If Bruenor saw their reactions, he did not comment. “As you may have seen from speaking to others who have returned, our memories are intact. Our personalities. We know that we were once dead, where Shades have no such awareness. And speaking for myself, I feel beholden to no master,” he added with a wry smile. “Whatever has happened to bring us back, we are not Shades.”

“So you remember all of your past life, prior to your execution?” asked Gaius.

“As far as I know, yes,” said Bruenor. “Although if anything were taken, I don’t know how I’d be able to miss it.”

Elyan had made the same point.

“And since your return, you have been in the dungeons, is that correct?”


“How long has that been, in your reckoning?”

“Perhaps ten days, perhaps a fortnight. I haven’t kept track as well as I could have.”

“And still you did not attempt to escape?” pressed Geoffrey.

Bruenor sighed, then gave a little shrug. “We were not mistreated,” he said, “and if I had tried to escape, either some of the guards would have died, or I might have. Had I survived, I would be a wanted man. I was executed and my family’s ancestral lands rendered forfeit to the crown. Where would I go?”

Geoffrey nodded, and made more notes on his parchment; as he wrote, Arthur spoke. He could feel himself flagging, and from the look on Leon’s face, it was starting to show.

“This concludes today’s session of the inquest,” he said. “Bruenor, it is our judgment that you will be returned to the dungeons, and brought back for further questioning tomorrow. You are charged with no crime at this time; we simply have nowhere else to put you, as I’m sure your guards have explained.”

“So I’ve heard…” Bruenor looked him over with narrowed eyes. “You are unwell.”

Several knights got to their feet slowly, hands on the hilts of their swords; Arthur wasn’t quite sure why, but he stayed them with his hand. “There was a battle recently,” he admitted, “not long before you were returned. I am recovering from a wound.”

“And Gaius hasn’t seen fit to heal you? He was certainly capable of it, when last we spoke.”

“I renounced my magic, and kept my life,” said Gaius. Arthur didn’t think he was mistaken in hearing a note of defensiveness in the physician’s voice.

Bruenor refused even to look at him, but his expression was curled in disgust. “And what else did you renounce, I wonder,” he said. “Or should I say who?”

“Enough,” said Arthur. “Bruenor, your insights are appreciated. Until tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“Do you think Bruenor was telling the truth?” asked Gwen, once they had returned to Arthur’s chambers.

Arthur had definitely pushed himself to his limits, and hoped he would be able to continue the inquest tomorrow. He sighed as he sat on the edge of his bed, letting his wife undress him, piece by piece. “I don’t think he had any reason to lie,” he said. “And if he had lied, I think what he said would have fitted more what he thought we wanted to hear.”

“He wouldn’t have admitted to magic, you mean,” said Gwen. “Or to having been executed for it by Uther.”

“What did it even mean, that he was a knight and a sorcerer, in my father’s army?” asked Arthur. “Father hated magic. Why would he have had an entire company of magic users in the ranks at all?”

“I hate to bring it up, but… wasn’t it magic that killed your mother? Perhaps before that, he hadn’t had reason to hate magic so much.”

Arthur frowned, remembering the story now. It had been years since he’d thought of it. “Morgause once summoned something that she claimed was the spirit of my mother,” he said slowly. “And this spirit told me that it was actually a bargain gone wrong that Father had made, in order to conceive an heir. In order for a life to be given, another life must be taken. According to Morgause and my mother’s spirit—if it was really her—he knew this and made the bargain anyway.”

“And then the spell took your mother,” Gwen realized.

“And instead of blaming himself, or even the sorceress who cast the spell, he blamed magic itself.”

“That’s horrible,” said Gwen. “So many people died who had nothing to do with—well, but you already know that. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

Arthur sighed. “Merlin was there, and he said Morgause lied, but… now I’m not so sure.” There was a lot Merlin had done that Arthur couldn’t be sure of, anymore, and he hated it. “I was ready to kill Father for what he had done to my mother. That was likely what Morgause wanted, as Merlin said, but now I suspect she manipulated me with the truth, rather than a concocted story. Father never really denied it when I confronted him.”

“In order for a life to be given, another life must be taken,” said Gwen thoughtfully. Arthur looked up at her, a question on his face. “Oh, it’s nothing, only… isn’t that what Merlin tried to do, to save you?”

“Yes,” he sighed. “And it isn’t even the first time. Idiot has no sense of self-preservation.”

“But that’s why he’s been so worried, isn’t it?” she asked. “Why he asked who had died, when you first returned. Because you’re here, but he still is too.”

“And so are a lot of other people,” agreed Arthur. “Freya says it was the hand of a goddess, using Merlin’s power, that brought everyone back, but I can’t help but feel that something went wrong with whatever he was attempting. That there will be a price to pay we can’t even fathom, for having all these people returned to us.”

Gwen sighed, and helped him to lie down. “Perhaps having all these dead magic users return is the price,” she suggested.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, your father tried to eradicate magic, and all he really did was slaughter—sorry.”

“Slaughter innocent people,” Arthur finished for her. “You can say it. But all I’ve ever been taught is that magic is evil. All I’ve ever seen, until Merlin, was one sorcerer after another, plotting to kill me.”

“Of course,” said Gwen simply. “People with magic have nothing to lose anymore; Uther took it all from them, their lives, their homes, their families… my father was killed for associating with a sorcerer, and he hadn’t even known the man had magic in the first place. Of course they’re going to want to put a stop to all the horror they’ve endured. Even if they’re wrong to blame you for it.”

“I’ve done my share,” said Arthur quietly.

Gwen nodded, acknowledging the point. “So that’s what I mean,” she said, “when I say that perhaps having them back is the price. If a goddess of the Old Religion was really involved in bringing them back, perhaps it’s because she wants something from you with regard to how they’re to be treated. You can’t just kill them all again. Or, I suppose you could, but it would make your reign a very bloody one indeed. Uther killed them all over the span of your lifetime, but now we have them standing before us, and the sheer number of them is awful. How many of them don’t even have magic? How many of them have it, but never used it to any harm?”

Arthur sighed again. “I don’t know. And I don’t know what to do with them, either.”

“Well, you can’t leave them in the pens forever, or the dungeons.”

“I know.” He closed his eyes, but he had a feeling sleep would not come easily to him tonight. “I know.”

Merlin had graduated to staying awake for a couple of hours at a time, and even being able to sit up on his own, but that was about it. He still grew exhausted after the least exertion, and had to have help walking even the few steps from his cot to the table to eat. He’d never been so weak in his life, and though he wouldn’t admit it even to his own mother, he was frightened. Was this to be his life now? Was his health the sacrifice he’d had to make in exchange for Arthur’s, rather than his life?

Freya said no, but he wasn’t sure Freya knew what she was talking about. She was endlessly supportive and encouraging, and Merlin was glad to have her with him, but at the same time… she’d been dead. For years. And now she was acting as though her return was nothing to fret over, that everything was fine, that Merlin had nothing to worry about.

He sighed. Usually Arthur was the rotten patient when he’d been injured, not Merlin, but it had been days and he still had no answers to any of his questions. Worse, he had heard no word from Arthur at all. All he had was Gaius’s report that the king was recovering well and quickly. Arthur had even begun an inquest, speaking one by one to the people who had returned from the dead, trying to find out what had happened and what to do about them.

That had been a shock, for Merlin to learn that Freya and Lancelot were not the only ones to come back. Two people whom he trusted and who knew about his magic, well, that almost made sense, a “gift from the Goddess” as Freya had tried to frame it. But more? Strangers, knights, people who had been dead for decades, people Merlin had never heard of? According to Gwaine and his mother, there were hundreds of them camped outside the city gates, or held in the dungeons because there was nowhere else to put them all.

Freya said that the Goddess had used his power, and his wish to make things right, and channeled it all to this, whatever this was. But how could they have all come back without hundreds more dying in their place? Where was the balance?

“You’re thinking again,” said Freya, coming up to sit on the edge of his bed. She smoothed her fingers across his forehead. “You’ll give yourself wrinkles like an old man.”

“I just don’t know where they all came from,” said Merlin. “To bring back even one person from the dead, it’s nearly impossible. The price to be paid is enormous. Now there are hundreds of them, thousands maybe, if they’re spread across Camelot, and I don’t know what that means.”

“It means that the Goddess favors you,” Freya tried, but Merlin wasn’t having it.

“Why? Why would She? I was handed a destiny to protect Arthur when I was too young to even understand it, with more magic than any one person should have, and neither the Goddess nor anyone else gave me any training in how to use it, and no idea how to go about any of it. All I did until the moment this Goddess stepped in was fail Arthur, one way or another. Or myself.”

“What do you mean?”

Merlin sighed. “Arthur is supposed to unite Albion, but I never pushed him to reconsider his stance on magic. I never told him about myself, I never told him the truth. All I did was try to keep him safe even if that meant taking away his free will and his choices, or lying about… everything under the sun. And on top of that, everyone I loved died while I turned away from them and toward Arthur. Except my mother, and honestly that’s probably only because she wasn’t in Camelot to be put in danger. I turned the dragon loose and he nearly destroyed Camelot. I poisoned Morgana. I couldn’t kill Mordred when he was only a child, but then I couldn’t trust him when he came back. I as good as created every enemy Arthur ever faced—”

“Now I know that isn’t true,” said Freya sternly. “Uther created those enemies, not you. Uther imprisoned the dragon in the first place. Uther made Morgana live in fear of what she was.”

“What about Mordred? He was destined to kill Arthur, and I couldn’t prevent it. Everything I tried just made it more inevitable.”

“By then you had stopped trusting your heart,” said Freya. “And you were so wrapped up in Arthur’s safety and wellbeing that you were willing to do anything to keep him safe.”

“He was my friend,” said Merlin. “Is my friend.” He hoped that was still true. “But you’re right that I stopped trusting myself. When Mordred was a child, there was no way I could have brought myself to kill him for something he would supposedly do someday. When he came back, I should have known better than to change that. But the Crystal Cave… I saw horrors there that I couldn’t get out of my mind.”

“You did your best.”

“But that wasn’t enough, don’t you see? I had to eventually kill Morgana myself, and I made her what she was. Mordred nearly did succeed in killing Arthur, I thought he was dead. I’m not some, some favored being just because I have magic, so I don’t see why the Goddess would have taken my power or my desires to undo Uther’s entire purge!” Merlin sagged back against his pillows, panting for breath and hating it.

“Sometimes the gods move as they will, and leave the explanations up to us to figure out,” said Freya after a moment. “All I know is that I’m here for you. I was brought back because I wanted to care for you. Everyone else… no, Merlin, I don’t know why the Goddess saw fit to bring them back. But She did.”

“But what about the balance? What about the price?”

“Maybe there isn’t one,” said Freya. “It was the Goddess’s own whim to bring them back in the first place.”

“No, the Old Religion follows rules, and that’s the biggest one of all,” said Merlin. “Even I know that much.”

She leaned forward to kiss Merlin on the forehead. It both soothed him, and annoyed him that he found it so soothing. He didn’t want to be mollified like an angry toddler.

“If there is a price—and I’m not saying there is—I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” said Freya. “But give yourself time to recover rather than exhausting yourself hammering at the problem until it gives way.”

Merlin sighed. “The thing is, I don’t know if we have time for me to just lie here like an invalid, before that price makes itself known.”

“All things happen in their own season,” said Freya. “The Goddess has already favored you once. I can’t imagine that She will suddenly turn around and curse you for not understanding whatever it is She wants you to understand.”

“I hope you’re right.” But privately, he doubted it. After all, that had certainly never been his experience in the past.

Gwaine stopped in every day after each session of the inquest. Elyan had been among the knights brought back to life, he’d mentioned, as well as others that were killed at Camlann, and still more whom Merlin had never met.

“This Bruenor seems like someone you’d want to keep an eye on,” he said with a wry smile. “A knight with magic.”

“Does he seem like he wants to get revenge on Arthur?”

“Not that I’ve seen.”

“What about trying to ingratiate himself and win Arthur’s trust?” Because the gods all knew that Arthur had a hard time trusting the right people, especially if he was feeling uncertain or insecure.

Gwaine leaned in close and lowered his voice. “The first day he came in, he as good as accused Gaius of selling out his friends in order to save his own hide during the Purge,” he said. “I don’t think he’s there to make friends… or enemies, though. It’s odd. As if… he’s already died once and it doesn’t frighten him anymore, so he doesn’t care about the consequences of speaking the truth, no matter what other people might think of it.”

“So you trust him,” said Merlin unhappily.

“Please,” said Gwaine. “You know damn well I trust the wrong people most of the time. You’re one of the few exceptions in my life. Just because I think this Bruenor might be all right doesn’t mean he is, and I’m at least smart enough to know that.”

Merlin nodded, but didn’t really have an answer for him. That was the nice thing about Gwaine, though, he didn’t push Merlin to talk when he didn’t want to. “Do you know if Lancelot will be released from the dungeon soon?”

“I know Arthur wants to speak to him, and so does Gwen,” said Gwaine. “On the first day of the inquest, Gaius talked about Shades.”

Merlin grimaced. “I bet that went over well.”

“Some of it, I think Lancelot had already told him, because Arthur didn’t seem too surprised. But then the bit about the enchanted bracelet came up. Arthur and Gwen were both pretty angry that no one came forward to tell them anything.”

“I know I should have,” said Merlin glumly. “But…” He sighed. “Arthur would have killed me.”

“You really think that poorly of him? You’re closer to him than almost anyone else.”

“I know,” said Merlin, “but you know how he gets when he’s angry. He nearly killed Lancelot—or Lancelot’s Shade, anyway—when he caught Gwen kissing him.”

“You really think you couldn’t have talked him down?”

“I don’t know,” said Merlin with a sigh. “And it’s too late now anyway. Just another of the many ways I failed him. He had a right to know all that. People are constantly keeping secrets from him, and I’m just as bad as any of the rest of them.”

“He said the same thing,” said Gwaine.

“About me?” The stabbing feeling Merlin felt shouldn’t have come as a surprise, all things considered.

“No, twit,” said Gwaine, ruffling his hair. “Just about having had a right to know what had really happened. Anyway, he’s at least as angry at Gaius as he is at anybody else.”

Merlin nodded. “I just know what it feels like. I should have come clean, no matter the consequences.”

“You’re really in a mood to torment yourself lately, aren’t you?” Gwaine asked, squinting at him. “Should I bring some mead by the next time I visit, help you forget your sorrows for a while?”

“No,” Merlin replied, huffing a tired laugh. “Probably a mistake. I’m not sure I have the strength to get drunk anyway.”

“If you say so.”

“I definitely do.”

Chapter Text

And so the days passed; Merlin fretted and did his best to recover, and Arthur managed his inquest. On the advice of Gwen and the rest of the Round Table, the king alternated between speaking to people from the dungeons, and people from the pens. The former knights were generally braver about it than the resurrected peasants; some of the nobles scoffed at the peasants’ obvious fear, but Arthur knew where it came from.

“It’s not as if I can blame them,” Arthur would mutter in the evenings. “My father apparently had no qualms about getting answers from them by any means necessary.” It was disgusting. They didn’t even have records for some of the executions beyond a single line in a ledger, because the people who had been murdered weren’t deemed important enough to make a note of. Of those who were in the records, there were entire paragraphs about who they associated with in business, who their friends were, where they met to perform their rituals… and how long it had taken before they’d confessed, and what methods had proven most effective in breaking them.

For some, execution had come as a mercy.

Gwen had likely guessed, though Arthur hadn’t told her; he’d forbade Geoffrey from reading each person’s entire record aloud during the inquest, but he made a point of reading them himself every night. It was important to know who among the returned dead might hold a grudge and be dangerous to speak to, although so far, very few of them had shown him anger at all. Most of them were only afraid, lost, and confused, even after so many days to settle down and have their fear transform to anger. It’s what Arthur thought he might have done, in their place.

Some of the knights and former nobility did come in blustering and full of bravado, but when they saw that Uther wasn’t on the throne, the same lost confusion took over. When Arthur refused to threaten them, when he made clear that he was only trying to get to the bottom of all the resurrections, they mostly became cooperative, if wary. And apparently word was spreading among the people—he hated to call them prisoners—because more and more, the peasantry came in looking at him with wary hope, rather than terror or despair.

“It also helps that they are not being treated as prisoners,” Gaius explained. “Your guards are showing them respect, or at least basic courtesy. No one is being dragged before the throne in chains.”

“I’m not going to chain them up when they haven’t done anything!”

“Forgive me, sire, but some of them are known users of magic. They’ve even admitted it to you during the inquest, and sorcery does remain illegal in Camelot.”

Arthur narrowed his eyes at the old physician. More than one of the returned dead had been visibly unhappy to see him sitting among the court, rather than among their number. On one memorable occasion, a man had spat on the floor in front of Gaius and cursed him, though he’d refused to say why.

“Speak plainly,” he said.

Gaius sighed; he’d been doing that a lot lately, as if realizing that long-buried secrets would finally be coming to light, and that his reputation would be tarnished forever once they were known. Long-lost chickens, Merlin or Gwen might have said, finally coming home to roost. “I only mean, sire, that they know full well what their fates would have been under Uther, and so far, you have not enforced his law against any of them. You have members of the council who will likely begin clamoring for you to take a stand one way or the other, before much longer.”

“One way or the other,” snorted Arthur. “You mean follow in my father’s footsteps.”

“It does seem likely, yes, sire.”

There was no “other” path as far as some of these greedy, self-serving bastards were concerned. Arthur was tempted to find out which of them had benefited from the Purge, from the torture and murder of innocents, and revoke their titles, so he could give their lands back to the rightful owners, magic users or not. Unfortunately, he’d risk a civil war if he did, there was no doubt about it. “And I suppose you’d like me to overturn the ban effective immediately.”

“I believe that there is a middle ground, sire, where magic may be regulated for the benefit of all, as it was before the Purge began.” He sighed again. “But yes, it would be good to know that neither Merlin nor myself were in any danger from the law anymore. Nor our families. Nor anyone who had ever knowingly associated with us.”

He glared, annoyed; Gaius was belaboring the point a bit heavily, in Arthur’s opinion, even if he was exactly right that Uther would have gone after all of those people without a second though. “Merlin is not in any danger, and if he thinks he is, he’s an idiot.”

“I think he’s been too concerned with other matters to fear for his own safety,” said Gaius.

“What other matters?”

Gaius paused. “Perhaps if you visited him, sire, he might be able to tell you himself.”

“I can’t,” Arthur retorted. Probably too quickly, given how Gaius’s expression changed to one of skeptical disappointment. “Just… tell him I am recovering myself, if that’s what he’s worried about, and to hurry up and get better. My chambers won’t clean themselves.” Then more quietly, he added, “And I only promised him two days off anyway.”

Gaius bowed and left, and Arthur ran a hand over his face tiredly.

Gwen had been waiting in the doorway, no doubt listening to everything but not wanting to interrupt. She came in now, sitting beside Arthur at the table and taking his hand. “You’ve already made a decision, haven’t you?” she asked, once they could no longer hear Gaius’s shuffling footsteps in the corridor.

“I know what I want to do,” he admitted. “I just don’t know if it’s right. Or if it’s even possible, without destroying Camelot.” In the past, he would have gone to Merlin to bounce ideas, or just complained and then let Merlin’s opinion soothe and guide him; now, however, he wasn’t sure he could do such a thing.

“And what is it you want to do?” asked Gwen.

“Free all those people in the pens,” said Arthur promptly. “Figure out who is in that tent city outside the walls and what they want.” He glowered at nothing for a moment before adding, “Throw half my council out on their ears and replace them with people who have Camelot’s interests at heart, rather than just scrambling for more power for themselves.”

“And the laws on magic?”

“…I don’t know,” Arthur sighed. God, he was tired. “I don’t think I can just overturn the laws overnight. As irritated as I am with Gaius right now, he makes a good suggestion about creating a middle ground where there are laws regulating and governing the use of magic, just as there are with everything else. But the people who have lived in Camelot all these years without being returned from the dead are still afraid of sorcery, and they have good reason to be.” He shut his eyes, not wanting to see Gwen’s expression as he admitted his weakness. “I don’t think I know what’s right anymore.”

“Arthur!” Gwen leaned in closer, taking his other hand as well. “The man I know and love always knows what’s right, in his heart. There may be complications, it may be a hard road to find a way to do it, it may take more heads than just yours and mine to pull it off, but when you trust your heart to guide you, when you’re not trying to please Uther or appease some arbitrary rule the nobles have, you’ve never been steered wrong. It’s that heart that I love about you, along with your bravery to see it through and make the right thing happen. That heart and that bravery are what make you a great king.”

Arthur smiled painfully. “You sound like Merlin.”

“Good,” she retorted with an answering smile. “He’s not here to get you thinking straight again, so I’ll do it for him.” Then she sobered. “Or you could go visit him, let him do it himself. He misses you.”

“I can’t,” he said, just as he’d told Gaius.

“Why not?”

Arthur opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. How could he tell her the shameful truth? It had been easy to forgive Merlin everything when Arthur had been facing death. It had been easy to set aside his anger in the face of Merlin’s grief. Now, though, he’d survived against all odds, and even though that was at Merlin’s hand, he now had to pick up the pieces that Merlin had scattered in front of him and try to figure out what he could do with them. Merlin had lied to him for so long, and even though logically Arthur could understand his motives, in his heart, he couldn’t help but feel betrayed. He and Gaius both had hidden things from Arthur that he’d had a right to know. Did they really think him so untrustworthy? Did they really think him so foolish and stupid and childish that he could not handle the truth?

“It’s complicated,” he said finally.

“Well, I suggest you un-complicate it, before too much longer,” said Gwen. “As I said: he misses you. He’s worried that you’re not speaking to him anymore.”

“I hardly have time for the inquest on top of the day-to-day running of the kingdom,” said Arthur, though he would not meet her eyes. “I can’t be expected to drop everything and—”

“Arthur Pendragon.” Gwen pulled her hands away from his, pursed her lips, and glared at him, and he remembered the fire he’d fallen in love with. “If the next words out of your mouth have anything to do with him being ‘only a servant’, I will sleep in my own chambers for the next month.”

“Fine,” he sighed, suddenly exhausted. “I won’t say it. But I can’t go see him, either. Not yet.”

“When, then?”



“I don’t know, all right? It’s not that easy. He lied to me for years. How do I know he won’t do it again?”

Gwen stood up, then leaned over to kiss him. “I guess you won’t know until you speak to him.”

Merlin, meanwhile, couldn’t stop worrying. Logically, he knew it was probably stupid; Mordred and Morgana were both dead, the war was over, and according to Gwaine the Saxons had been impossible to find except in small groups fleeing the country. Even bandit activity had been down, the men either dead in the war or licking their wounds elsewhere.

But there were dragons in the skies, now and again, and thousands of potential sorcerers and men with grudges returned from the dead. Merlin couldn’t help but think that the worst was not yet over.

He also knew how unhealthy his mindset was, even without Gwen and Gaius and his mother harping at him every day about it. He’d been caught up in protecting Arthur for so long that he’d turned his back on everything that made him himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d really laughed, not since seeing the visions that Mordred and Morgana would succeed in killing Arthur. Not since he’d told Arthur there was no place for magic in Camelot, damning himself forever in an attempt to let Mordred die.

Not since that failure had set into motion the chain of events that had nearly killed Arthur.

And now… Arthur lived, yes, but what was the price? Why could no one tell him that?

If he hadn’t paid it yet, when would it come due, and just how horrible a sacrifice was it going to be?

Gwen, in one of her visits, had floated the idea that perhaps the returned dead were the price; that in order for Arthur to live, he had to confront all these magic users personally and make things right with them. It was a good idea, but Merlin still felt that something was missing. Why should Arthur have to pay the price, when Merlin was the one to cast the spell in the first place? What did the Goddess want with Arthur?

Would Merlin be able to protect him from it, if that was what it came down to?

…If he did, what other part of his soul would Merlin have to carve away to do it?

Not that it mattered; at the moment he could barely walk ten steps from his bed to Gaius’s table, and that only with someone strong to lean on. Gaius could barely manage Merlin’s weight, at his age. His mother could, but Merlin hated to make her. She’d taken care of him long enough when he was a child, she shouldn’t have to be forced back into that role now just because Merlin was too weak to stand on his own. Gwen could, and did willingly whenever she was there, but she was the queen, she shouldn’t have to either.

And then there was the magic.

Merlin hadn’t used any magic at all since saving Arthur; he couldn’t feel it, neither flowing in his veins nor warming his heart. He was often cold, and while his mother wrapped him in blankets and Gaius stoked the fire, he didn’t have the heart to tell them that the cold was on the inside, where their methods couldn’t touch it.

Actually, Merlin had attempted to use magic, but only once. He’d woken in the night after a nightmare (Arthur dying, his weight in Merlin’s arms, his eyes rolling back in his head as his lips went blue and his face went gray), and instinctively reached out to light the candle at his bedside.

Agony had ripped through Merlin’s entire body like being struck by lightning. Merlin thought he must have screamed, but no one had woken; when the pain finally subsided and he caught his breath, he had opened his eyes to see that it was light out, with birds singing outside his window. It had seemed to Merlin that only a few seconds had gone by. He still wasn’t sure if he’d passed out or not.

He hadn’t tried to use it again.

Perhaps the loss of his magic was the price Merlin had paid to bring Arthur back. Freya said that Arthur had told them about a creature who could only have been a Sidhe elder, trying to take Merlin’s magic, before the Goddess had intervened. Had he given it to Her instead?

If he had, how could he protect Arthur?

In the Crystal Cave, the ghost of Balinor had said that Merlin’s magic could not be taken from him, that it wasn’t something he had but something he was. But Merlin wasn’t so sure that was true if a Goddess was involved. Or maybe it was true and it explained why he was so weak. He’d told Gaius once, when they’d barely met, that he was nothing without it his magic. Perhaps that was more true than he’d realized, all those years ago.

Merlin didn’t tell them about it. Growing up, his mother had always worried whenever he’d used magic, and had originally sent him to Camelot to learn control. If anything, she seemed relieved that Merlin hadn’t done anything inadvertently while she was visiting. Perhaps she thought that Merlin was truly safe now.

As for Gaius… well, he had his own problems to deal with, and Merlin didn’t want to burden him. The inquest had apparently done him no favors, with secrets like Lancelot’s Shade coming to light, and numerous dead sorcerers coming back to tell him exactly what they thought of him for not having saved them during the height of the Purge. Merlin couldn’t imagine what it must be like for him, although, if Mordred and Morgana ever returned to accuse Merlin, publicly, of all his failings, then he thought he might have an inkling of what Gaius was going through right now. So he couldn’t tell Gaius, either.

There was Freya, but… Merlin was beginning to suspect that Freya loved an image of Merlin, rather than his true self. She had only known him a few days before she had been killed, after all. She said he had made her feel loved, when all he’d done was show her basic kindness. How could he make her feel loved now, when he was an invalid and powerless?

So, no, there was no one Merlin felt safe talking to about his magic being gone. Gwaine might have helped him go find the Crystal Cave again, no questions asked, but Merlin was pretty sure he was in no condition even to sit on a horse, and he didn’t want to risk his friend’s life in the Valley of the Fallen Kings anyway. Gwaine pretended he was okay, but Gaius said there were still remnants in his body of the venom from the creature Morgana had used to torture him to death. Merlin didn’t want to risk him when he might not want to admit he wasn’t yet strong enough to go an a quest.

Lancelot, maybe, would have been a listening ear, but he was still in the dungeons as far as Merlin knew. Anyway, he didn’t have magic either. Would he really understand what it was like? Would he be able to grasp just how scared Merlin really was?

Arthur still hadn’t been by to visit, but maybe that was for the best. Merlin had no answers for him, no way to protect him, and nothing to say for himself after all the lies he’d told.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed, and the inquest dragged on, but one thing was becoming all too clear to Arthur and his council: the magic Uther had worked so hard to eradicate was back, and there was nothing any of them could do about it.

Two weeks in, according to the ledgers, they should have been running out of food for all the people in the pens and in the dungeons. And yet, whenever workers were sent to the granaries, they were full. A discreet inquiry (Elyan, in commoner’s clothes) revealed that some sorcerers in each group were multiplying the food given to them by the guards, and rationing it.

“It’s not as nourishing as if it grew from the ground, o’course,” explained one woman. “But it’ll get us by until we’re freed.”

“They really think they will all be freed?” asked a councilor; Arthur would have glared, but the man at least was not sneering the question at him or Elyan. “But… they’re using sorcery.”

“But not to harm,” Gaius pointed out. “Sharing food and ensuring that there is enough for all is hardly a malicious act.”

“But sorcery remains illegal!” exclaimed the man. He sounded worried, and glanced at Arthur as if fearing what the king might say in response.

For his part, Arthur was not sure that he would be able to keep it illegal for much longer… but what the consequences of that decision might be, he had no idea.

That was hardly the only memorable event to come out of the inquest. There was the first nobleman to come in for questioning, who took one look at Lord Archibald and said, “You look just like your father. I should kill you for that alone.” There was an uproar, until Arthur had to stand and shout for silence.

His name was Gwyllim, and he’d been executed for harboring sorcerers, according to the records.

“Druids, sire,” said Gwyllim. “They often passed through on their way to one holy place or another, and blessed our crops in thanks for our hospitality.”

“I hadn’t known such a thing was possible,” admitted Arthur.

“The Old Religion allows for many blessings from their gods,” he replied. “I wasn’t a follower myself, but I would have been a fool to turn them away.” He sighed and shrugged a little. “I said as much to Uther once, and he sent me back to my lands. Not long after, Archibald’s father whispered in Uther’s ear that I was in league with the enemy, allowing them to practice dark magics on my lands. Or perhaps he said I was plotting to overthrow Uther, who knows what. I wasn’t here to defend myself. I was summoned to the capital and informed that my lands were forfeit, and so was my life. I was executed the next day.”

“So you were not a sorcerer yourself.”

“No, sire.” The man laughed bitterly. “Had I a drop of magic in my veins I’d have used it to fight for my life, but I didn’t then, and I don’t now.”

Arthur gestured to Geoffrey, where he sat at his table full of scrolls and books. “I believe Lord Geoffrey has a map of the kingdom here; if you could show us where your lands were once located—”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Gwyllim. “Ask Archibald there for the extent and boundaries of his family’s territory. His father kept his own, and added mine, as a reward for revealing my evil intentions to Uther.”

“You lie!” shouted Archibald, leaping to his feet.

“And you dare to call me a liar, when I died for your father’s greed.” The man wore the same plain clothes he’d been executed in, a white shirt and brown trousers with no ornamentation, yet he drew himself up tall and Arthur had no doubt of his nobility. “If I still owned even one gauntlet, I would cast it at your feet now for the insult, and see if you were brave enough to pick it up.”

Archibald turned red, quivering with anger, then turned to glare at Arthur. “Surely you will not allow this, this pretender to call a duel in front of you?”

“Pretender?!” Gwyllim stalked forward, but Arthur raised a hand and he stopped.

“There will be no duels for the duration of this inquest, no,” said Arthur; but before Archibald’s face grew too smug, he added, “However, I have not yet decided what to do with the lands of the people who have been brought back. It may be that they have legitimate claims to those lands, after all. They may not deserve to be stripped of everything that was once theirs.”

“My lord,” began Lord Archibald, but Arthur’s patience was wearing thin.

“Enough, Lord Archibald,” he said. “This is not a matter to be dealt with until the inquest is complete.”

There was the peasant woman who came into the throne room trailing a dozen children. “There’s no one to speak for them, sire, and I know you wanted to see only me, but I could not abandon them.”

“And what would you have me do with these children?” asked Arthur.

“Find their parents, if any still live.” The woman looked at him imploringly. “I know if I had the chance to be reunited with my own son, I would move heaven and earth to do it.”

“Do you know your son’s whereabouts?”

She shook her head, an expression of pure heartbreak on her face. “How could I? He was killed in front of me for the crime of taming the wild birds to his hand, and when I screamed and fought the guards, and tried to get to the headsman, Uther had me dragged to the block and beheaded too.”

Arthur shut his eyes for a second, feeling Gwen’s hand reach for his. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“You didn’t do it,” said the woman. “But now my son could be anywhere, in one of the other pens or escaped, and I’ll never know.” Her lip quivered, but she drew herself up. “But I still have these children to care for, sire, and I beg you, if you have any mercy, help us to find their parents.”

“I was a midwife, sire,” said a woman named Agnes. “But yes, I suppose you could call me a sorceress. For over twenty years I used magic to help women through their pregnancies, ease the pain of childbirth, bless the babes to grow strong and healthy. Even during the worst of the Purge, my village protected me, looked the other way, denied knowing anyone with magic when Uther’s men came to round up sorcerers.” Her expression saddened. “And then a babe was born too soon. You can ask your physician, if you like, the mother was barely six months along, the infant was the size of a kitten. There was nothing anyone could have done. They just don’t live when they come too early… but I was blamed for the death.”

“So they turned you over to Uther’s men?” asked Gwen sympathetically.

“Oh no, milady, nothing so simple. They took matters into their own hands and stoned me to death in the village square.” Tears rose in her eyes. “Over twenty years, more than a hundred babes safely delivered, women I helped bring into the world growing up and having babes of their own under my hands… yet Uther’s hatred infected them and turned them against me.”

“I’m so sorry,” breathed the queen.

Arthur had to swallow before he could speak. “Why do you tell us this?” he asked.

“Because eventually you’re going to have to decide what to do with all of us, Your Majesty,” said Agnes. “And if you’re sending people back to their old lives, back to the villages they grew up in, or their ancestral lands or… or whatever you decide, well. I don’t want to go back.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Arthur faintly.

“Shades are created through necromancy, sire,” said one crusty old man. He called himself simply Trefor; the record of his execution read that he’d been deemed too old and weak to withstand torture, so he’d merely been burned along with all his books and magical paraphernalia. “The school of magic which deals with death and the dead.”

“Dark magic, then,” said Arthur.

“Often, but not always,” said the man. “Sometimes necromancy allows us to speak with the beloved dead, to hear their voices one last time. Sometimes a bargain may be made with the spirits to heal a patient on the brink of death. There are often heavy prices to be paid for such a thing, but it can be done.”

“A life for a life,” said Arthur.

“Just so, sire. But as for the supposed Shades… there is a simple test that could be done to determine whether any of us returned dead are tainted with dark magic, even though we show none of the signs. It is necromancy as well—like calls to like, after all, and it would be possible to use one instance of the art to identify traces of the same art in the people you choose to test.”

An astonished murmur went through the throne room, though Arthur wasn’t sure if it was for the existence of such a test, or the audacity of the old sorcerer for suggesting it.

“How would such a thing be done?” asked Gwen.

“A charged pentacle,” said Trefor promptly. “A circle and other symbols drawn or painted on the floor with certain special materials, which are then charged with magical energy. Anyone who stepped into the circle would either glow with the vitality of true life, or be revealed as a false likeness thereof.”

“And that’s it?” asked Arthur, his voice full of doubt. “It’s that simple?”

“Well, the spell does take a sorcerer of considerable power,” said the man, coughing delicately. “The price for such magic is a little bit of the life force of the sorcerer. I myself could perhaps manage to test three, or even five, persons, before I would have to stop and rest for a few days to recover the lost life force.”

“But would it permanently harm you?” asked the queen.

“No, my lady,” Trefor smiled. “It is only a test, and even though one might think of it as being very close to the border between neutral magic and dark, it is not dark magic itself. So long as I am able to recover afterward, rather than being pushed to test too many at once, then I would be fine.”

Gwen and Arthur shared a long look, and he knew she was thinking of Lancelot. Then he remembered Gaius, and Merlin, and looked at the physician instead. “Gaius,” he called. “Does this man speak the truth?”

“He does, sire,” said Gaius after a pause.

“Could this test have identified Lancelot, when Morgana brought him back as a Shade?”

There was a longer pause. “It did, sire,” he said finally.

Arthur gritted his teeth; he and Gaius had yet to really speak privately about the matter, but he had a feeling Gaius’s words would be the same as they had been in public. Arthur had a right to this information, but Gaius and Merlin didn’t feel they could share it without risking their own lives. It was infuriating, and the worst part was that Arthur wasn’t sure whether he was angrier at them, or at himself.

“We will arrange the test in two days’ time,” declared Arthur. “Will that give you time to acquire the materials you need?”

“As one of the returned dead myself, I am afraid I have no money or belongings of my own,” said the man. “I shall have to consult with your esteemed physician and make the necessary arrangements.”

Arthur risked a glance toward Gaius, but if the man felt any discomfort at the notion, he masked it well. “That is acceptable,” he said.

“Did I make the right decision?” he asked Gwen, later that night. He would be using magic publicly in a land where it remained outlawed, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d done so. He’d relied on magic to rid Gwen of her enchantment, and that at least had worked out well. However, he’d also hoped for magic to save his father’s life, and that hadn’t.

“I think you did,” said Gwen. “I… well. I don’t want to influence your decisions. You’re the king, after all.”

“Gwen, as queen, you of all people are uniquely qualified to influence my decisions and help me see the path ahead.” He reached for his goblet and took a sip of wine. “If you have any thoughts, I would like to hear them.”

“Well,” she began, “it’s only… you’ve used magic before, haven’t you? You used it to save me.”

“Yes, but I also tried to use it to save my father.”

“I wonder if there isn’t more to that story,” said Gwen thoughtfully, “but now isn’t really the time. It’s only—well, I think it’s like you’ve already said. The magic users have returned and there’s not a lot you can do about it. You could slaughter them all again, like Uther, but that isn’t you. You could use their magic but have it remain illegal, which would make you—” She stopped abruptly, and looked at her lap.

“A hypocrite, like my father,” said Arthur tiredly.

“Yes.” Gwen rallied, though, and met his gaze once more. “But that isn’t you either, I don’t think. I know magic can be used for good, someone once tried to save my father’s life from that magical plague that struck the town, do you remember?”

“I remember you were accused of sorcery yourself,” said Arthur.

“Yes, but it was for healing magic. Not all sorcery is evil, Arthur, and I think you know that. Or if you didn’t, you’re beginning to see it. This is an opportunity for you, the likes of which you’ll never again have in your life.”

“Opportunity for what?”

“An opportunity for you to learn about magic, without any biases for or against it. Just honest answers from sorcerers who have nothing to gain by lying to you.”

“They have everything to gain,” said Arthur morosely. “Everybody wants something. Even Merlin—”


Even Merlin wants something from me. I thought he was my friend.”

Gwen glared. “He is your friend, and if you’re too blind to see that, then you don’t deserve him.”

“But he didn’t trust me with his magic.”

“Can you blame him?”

He could have taught me all this years ago!”

“Could he have?” asked Gwen. “Could he really? Would you have listened?”

Arthur took a deep breath. Merlin himself had said, to his face, that he honestly believed Arthur would have chopped his head off. God. “If I’m such a terrible human being, why does everybody think I’m going to be some great king?”

“No one thinks you’re a terrible human being.”

“Merlin told me he thought I would kill him if he ever revealed his secret,” said Arthur. “I asked him, before he healed me. When we were traveling to Avalon to find a cure. He really believed that.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him I wasn’t sure what I would have done.” He scoffed. “And then he said he never wanted to put me in that position, where I’d have to make a choice. That was what worried him. Never mind that it was my choice to make, and not his,” he muttered bitterly.

There was uncomfortable silence for a long moment, and Arthur reached for his goblet again. Finally Gwen spoke up. “You asked before for my input on what to do about all these people,” she said. “The way I see it, you have three options before you, and two of them are terrible and would make you just like Uther.”

“Kill them, or use them but keep magic illegal,” said Arthur. “But I’m guessing that your third option is to legalize sorcery, and I don’t know if Camelot can survive the chaos that would cause.”

“It was legal before you were born,” Gwen pointed out. “Maybe… maybe you should look into the old laws that were on the books before Uther banned magic, and see if any record exists to support his claims. I served Morgana during those dinners, you know, I remember the things he used to say. He always claimed that Camelot was virtually lawless and that magical people preyed upon those without magic, and that he brought balance and peace to Camelot with the ban. You know he lied about magic being evil in the first place. What harm would it do to look into the histories and the records, to see if any of his other claims were true?”

Arthur rubbed his eyes, already suspecting what he would find if he were to go look. He’d called Uther a hypocrite and a liar once, and nearly killed him for what he’d done to his mother; the odds were very, very good that everything Arthur had ever been taught about magic had been a lie. “I’ll have Geoffrey search the archives in the morning,” he said. “In the meantime, we have the chance to test three to five individuals, out of all these hundreds, to determine whether or not they’re Shades. Who should we pick?”

“Lancelot and Elyan,” Gwen said promptly. “You could bring them back to the Round Table if they prove to be themselves. That’s two knights from the dungeons, so then, perhaps two people from the pens outside the city, for balance. And one more, if Trefor has the energy for it.”

“Bruenor,” said Arthur, after a moment’s thought. “I’d like to be able to ask him questions without worrying that he’s got some other agenda.”

“Then there you are,” said Gwen decisively. “A plan, and now you can go to bed—or else go to visit Merlin.”

“I’m not ready to speak to Merlin,” said Arthur, standing up before Gwen could start on that topic yet again. “I’ll see him when I’m ready. From what Gaius says, he’s still recuperating anyway.”

“That’s a flimsy excuse, and you know it,” tried Gwen.

“Maybe, but it’s my answer for now, and I’m not changing it.”

Chapter Text

He stood at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the sea. The horizon was farther away than he’d ever witnessed before, blue fading into blue in a distant haze. Below him, far below, waves crashed against the white stone, the sound barely audible over the wind in his ears.

There was something the ghost of Balinor had told him. Something about the earth, the sea, the sky. Merlin couldn’t remember what it was, but here he was where they met, and it seemed important that he be here, even though he was alone.


A woman’s voice, one he thought he recognized, even as he was sure he’d never heard it before. Merlin turned, hyper-aware of the long, long drop at his back, but there was no one there.

“Merlin,” said the voice, closer this time, but still he could not see her.

Who are you, he asked, or tried to. The wind stole his voice away, and the crashing of the waves grew louder.

“Come to me…”

I don ’t know where you are.


The wind made him close his eyes, or perhaps a gust pushed him backward. Perhaps not. Perhaps the stone crumbled away beneath his feet. Perhaps it was both. Gracefully, with the infinite slowness of dreams, Merlin put one foot behind him onto thin air, and then he tipped onto his back and was falling.

In the way of dreams, Merlin opened his eyes and he was already facing the water, falling and falling, yet never quite seeming to reach the surface. Stones from the cliff fell beside him and struck the water, sending up great splashes, yet still he fell through the air. The waves crashed against the cliffs, almost silently, and the wind that whistled in his ears was no louder than his own breathing. Merlin wondered if he were truly falling, or if he could change the dream and fly instead.


He looked up, and saw only the horizon. There was a flicker, and it was almost as if a cloud scudding across the blue became the flutter of a woman’s dress, but then both were gone once more.

Merlin opened his eyes, his heart pounding even though nothing really frightening had happened in the dream. Falling, that was nothing compared to some of the nightmares he had had. The light from the window at his shoulder indicated that it was barely dawn, and all seemed peaceful. He could still feel himself floating the way he’d been in the dream. It was kind of nice.


Merlin’s window wasn’t at eye level.

And yet, as he turned his head, he was able to look outside… a bird flew past, and smoke was already rising from the chimneys in the bakers’ district. Merlin frowned for a moment, still only half awake, before he realized. His eyes grew wide—

—then he, his bed, and all his furniture came crashing down to the floor, as the magic let go of everything at once.

Merlin hit the bed hard, bounced, and then smacked hands-first onto the floor; his cupboard tipped over as it landed, and only striking the end of the bed kept it from hitting his feet instead. The wash basin smashed and sent water everywhere.

“Merlin!” Someone flung his door open, or tried to, but it thudded against the fallen cupboard and stopped halfway. “Merlin? Are you all right? What happened?”

Merlin squinted up at Freya where she was peering through the doorway. Behind her, he thought he saw his mother, and he definitely heard Gaius. “’M fine,” he muttered. He hadn’t struck anything especially hard other than his palms, but he was rapidly developing a wicked headache behind one eye. He sat up, pressing the heel of his hand against it, but it didn’t really help. “Had a weird dream.”

“And… weird dreams make you do magic in your sleep?” asked Freya.

Behind her, Merlin heard his mother chuckle. “Oh, my dear, you have no idea,” she said, amusement plain in her voice. “Merlin, can you at least set things to rights so we can come in?”

“Just a second…” He honestly wasn’t sure he could. This was the first magic he’d done since saving Arthur’s life, nearly a month ago now, and he hadn’t even been conscious. Still, he could at least tip the cupboard back where it belonged, right?

He glanced up at it, and concentrated, but nothing happened.

Merlin swallowed. He reached inside, feeling for his magic, but there was nothing there except the cold that had been his near-constant companion these past few weeks. He shivered, as he’d been doing off and on, and tried again.

The pain behind his eye exploded, and he cried out as the cupboard slammed upright and into the wall. He heard a crack as part of the wood splintered, then one of the cabinet doors fell forlornly off its hinge and onto the floor at his feet.

“Oh, Merlin,” said his mother. When had she come in? Her gentle hands were on his head and hand, tilting his chin up gently. “Come, let me see.”

He dropped his hand and hissed as light struck his eye, squinting them both shut until Hunith tutted and he opened them again, carefully. She turned his head this way and that, feeling for bumps and prying his lid open.

“Did you hit your head?”

“No. I woke up and everything was a few feet off the ground,” he said. He hadn’t done anything like that since he’d been about eight, but he still remembered his mother’s exasperation when they had to put their house back to rights in the mornings. “Sorry.”

“Nonsense, my dear.” She kissed his forehead, and Merlin shut his eyes and leaned into the touch. “It was an accident… wasn’t it?”

“I wasn’t even doing magic in the dream,” he said with a sigh. “I was falling. Into the sea.”

She was quiet for a moment, helping him to his feet and then down the stairs to the main chamber. “And after?”

Merlin sighed. He hadn’t wanted to say anything, hadn’t wanted to worry them, but… “That’s the first I’ve been able to do anything since I woke up,” he admitted.

He heard all the activity in the room stop as Gaius, Freya, and his mother turned to look at him. “And you’re only mentioning this now?” asked Freya.

“Didn’t want to worry you,” he said, refusing to meet her eyes. “Any of you.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” Gaius scolded, but Merlin could still hear the affection in his words. “Now. Tell me what’s been happening. Or not happening, as the case may be.”

Merlin sighed again, feeling more tired now than he had last night, but knowing he owed them an explanation. “Yeah. All right.”

They weren’t Shades. None of them were Shades.

Arthur paced a nearly empty council chamber, still slower than he was used to, but improving every day. Gaius had said he might be able to resume light physical activity in only another week or two. He’d also implied, rather heavily, that Arthur owed his life to Merlin’s magic and that perhaps he ought to visit Merlin to say thank you.

Merlin’s magic, which had resurrected the dead, none of whom were Shades. They’d conducted a magical test to make sure of it.

It had been with some trepidation that Arthur had allowed Trefor to proceed with his test; however, it really had proven to be as simple a thing as the old sorcerer had promised. He had used chalk to mark a circle on the floor of the throne room, which he’d then filled with a rough spiral and surrounded with a few other symbols that Arthur couldn’t read. With that finished, Trefor had stood, taken a deep breath, and spoken a few words in the tongue of magic, and the symbol had begun to glow.

And that’s it?” asked Arthur warily.

That is all, Your Majesty,” said Trefor. “Now the creature or person you wish to test simply steps into the circle, and we will see whether they have been marked by necromantic magic.”

And how do we know it’s working?” Gwen wanted to know.

Trefor smiled, and bowed to her slightly. “I thought you might ask that, which is why I brought this.” He indicated the chicken in its cage with one hand. “If I may?”

You’re not going to get blood on the stones,” began Arthur, but Trefor only laughed.

Not at all, sire; it’s nothing like that. With your leave?” Arthur nodded, and the old sorcerer reached into a belt pouch and scattered some grain within the circle, then opened the cage and shook it gently until the chicken hopped out. She looked about in confusion for a moment, before stepping across the boundary of the circle and beginning to peck at the grain.

Both the seeds and the bird herself shone with a golden aura.

There, sire, you see the glow of vitality that indicates that our subject is truly alive. Any person who is not a Shade will look the same, to our sight.”

The test didn ’t seem to be harming the chicken, either, who finished the grain and began looking for more, clucking contentedly until she stepped back out of the circle. The glow vanished from her, but she seemed otherwise unchanged. With practiced ease, Trefor picked her up and put her back in her cage, scratching her affectionately and offering her another handful of grain once she was inside.

Arthur took one last deep breath, then nodded to the guards at the entrance. “Bring in Lancelot.”

They had tested five people that day, and then, a few days later after Trefor had rested, another five, taken at random from the pens and the dungeons.

None of them were Shades. It would be impossible to test everyone, but according to Trefor and a few others who admitted to being sorcerers, it was safe to assume that not a single one of the returned dead were touched in any way with dark magic.

“So what does that mean?” asked Arthur now. Only Gwaine, Gaius, and Leon were there to hear him, the official session having ended for the day.

“It means you can’t simply kill them off as undead monsters,” said Gwaine, leaning back in his seat with his arms folded.

“You’re biased, you were one of them,” grumbled Arthur.

“And I’m still not a Shade,” the other knight countered. “Just a person who got extremely lucky.”

“It wasn’t luck,” Arthur pressed, but turned away when he couldn’t find the words to continue.

“According to Freya, sire,” ventured Gaius cautiously, “it was the hand of a goddess. As for Her purpose in doing such a thing, I could not begin to say.”

“Even if it was a goddess, She used Merlin’s magic to bring back the dead,” said Arthur. He sighed, clutching the back of his chair with both hands and hanging his head low. “That’s too much power for any one man to have.”

Gaius bristled. “If you’re about to imply that Merlin is somehow dangerous, to you or to Camelot…”


“Then what are you implying?” asked Gwaine, in a lazy drawl that Arthur knew meant he was seconds away from becoming truly angry.

“I’m not,” said Arthur tiredly. He pushed away from the chair and started pacing again. “I don’t know.”

“Why not just let them all go?”

“Because we still don’t know if any of them were actually a danger to Camelot or its citizens,” said Arthur. “I know at least a few of them did try to kill us, after all, even if the rest were innocent of any real crime. On top of that, magic remains illegal, but if I lift the ban, then the people who weren’t resurrected will revolt.”

Leon spoke up then. “Will they?” Arthur turned to look at him in confusion. “I only mean… sire, you know I served your father faithfully. And I thought I was doing right. But so many of the people who have come to us have given their stories, and they were innocent. Some of them were executed only for the crime of knowing a sorcerer, not for having magic themselves. They still have living spouses, friends; parents… children. Wouldn’t those people be relieved to have their dead returned to them, with a promise that they would come to no further harm?” He glanced nervously away and then back. “I’m not saying that magic shouldn’t be regulated in some fashion. We’ve all seen how it can be misused. But… merely knowing someone with magic? Giving birth to one? I can’t…” He shut his eyes. “I can’t condone what Uther taught us any longer.”

There was a respectful silence before Gwaine spoke up. “You know I’m not from Camelot,” he said quietly. “The kingdoms that didn’t get rid of magic hid it, so as not to risk war with Uther, but it still exists. Those kingdoms might not be in alliance with you anymore, but I bet they’d still have laws on the books.”

It was a worthy thought, and Arthur frowned in consideration.

“There may also be old records of our own laws, sire,” Gaius said. Still tentative, still careful, as if he expected Arthur to get angry at him at any moment. “Lord Geoffrey might have more information for you, if you do not wish to reach out to other kingdoms quite yet.”

“It may be wise not to alert the other kingdoms to what has happened here,” Leon put in. “It would be all too easy to attack us now, while we’re still recovering from war with—with Morgana, and the Saxons.”

“Assuming their spies haven’t told them everything already,” Arthur sighed. He sat down, and rubbed tiredly at his forehead. “But no. I’d rather seek answers from within Camelot for the time being. We’re already weakened enough by all the chaos, as it is. The nobles…” He stopped and shook his head, too exhausted and irritated with the wealthy landholders to want to dwell on them.

“The nobles are like nobles everywhere,” said Gwaine for him. “Greedy for land, money, and power. They pretend to care for Camelot and its people only as long as they benefit from doing so.”

“Yes,” said Arthur. He hated it, but it was true. Too many of the people whom he’d trusted to lead Camelot forward were instead trapped in the past, bent on pursuing Uther’s purge and clutching to their holdings for as long as they could get away with it. He didn’t think any of them were traitors yet, but if another king offered them a better deal, the chance to expand their lands and continue to harass magic users, it was a safe bet that at least one or two would consider it.

“So what will you do?” asked Leon. “About them, I mean.”

Arthur shut his eyes. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

With the approval of his queen and knights, and the disapproval of several of his nobles, Arthur began to release people from the pens and dungeons. Many were people who did not demonstrate any magic, or whose “crime” had been only associating with a magic user in some fashion; others had been executed for using it harmlessly. They accepted their fate with relief and gratitude, for the most part, which was a relief. Some of the people left Camelot, presumably to return to their old lives as best they could; others didn’t seem to have anywhere to go, and lingered. The tent city beyond the walls grew, although Arthur still couldn’t say where all the people were coming from. Some of them were released from the pens, but the rest?

His intent for now was to ease the ban on magic gradually, release those who posed no threat to Camelot, and hope that the kingdom could move forward and put the insanity of the past month—the past few years—behind them. However, the situation did not seem to be improving to any noticeable degree. If anything, it seemed as if everything in Arthur’s life was determined to grow even more complicated.

Just having a bunch of resurrected dead people running around the kingdom wasn’t enough, no. Instead, as king, Arthur had to open his court to parents who were desperate to find their murdered children; on the other side of the equation, he had to look for adults to care for children who in some cases were so young that they couldn’t even say who their parents had been, before they’d died. There were resurrected nobles who wanted their lands and titles back, and non-resurrected nobles who didn’t want to give up what Uther had handed to them. There were sorcerers escaping from the pens outside the city and vanishing before Arthur could speak to them, either into the tent city or to who knew where else. Finally, to top everything off, there were people without magic threatening to attack the ones who did, or those whom they merely suspected of having magic. Arthur had to throw two teenagers into the dungeons for a week after they beat up a vegetable seller, whom they claimed was using spells to disguise rotten produce and sell it as fresh.

It was madness, and from where Arthur sat, it looked as though it would remain madness for the foreseeable future.

Arthur was doing everything in his power to keep up, to try to put his kingdom to rights, and it didn’t look as though it was ever going to be enough. Gwen kept looking at him in concern, and telling him he needed to rest, while Gaius offered sleeping draughts and his opinion on Arthur’s recovery, but no longer dared to suggest that the king slow down, or visit Merlin, or anything else.

Gaius… Arthur sighed. There had been so many people brought into court who had looked at the physician with open contempt, that Arthur had finally ordered him to explain why, one night when they were alone in his chambers. Gaius’s hands had stilled where he’d been packing his medical bag, and he’d kept his back to Arthur, but after a moment he’d obeyed.

They believe I did nothing to save them,” he replied wearily. “Or worse, that I traded my life for theirs, betraying them to Uther in an attempt to save myself.”

And did you?”

The question seemed to hurt the old man, given the way he stiffened, and when he turned to face Arthur, there were tears in his eyes. “No. But there are far too many whom I promised to help, and then could not. They died believing I had lied to them, given them false hope so that they would not resist their jailers and executioners.”

You meant to help them?”

Where I could, yes. At first,” Gaius admitted. “After a while, Uther grew suspicious, and I could do no more. Some of those that Uther tortured, I brought poison, either to end their suffering or to protect their loved ones. I was—I am—a healer, yet dozens died by my own hand rather than the king’s. Or through my inaction. And they know it.”

How many did you manage to save?”

The old man sighed, the weight of too many years on his shoulders. “Not enough.”

But how many?”

Gaius shook his head. “I truly do not know. A few dozen, perhaps, out of all the hundreds that Uther sent to their deaths. Merlin’s father was one of them, so I suppose that must count for something. One of the last, before I had to stop completely. Until Merlin came along, sire, I had not lifted a finger to save a sorcerer in many years… and that is a regret I shall take with me into death.”

Merlin’s father… Arthur had meant to ask, but Gaius had looked so broken by memories of his past that he hadn’t had the heart to press. Instead, he’d nodded in dismissal, and watched as Gaius had bowed and left the room.

They all had blood on their hands, thanks to Uther, it would seem. There were so many people that Uther had ordered killed that even Gaius had ended lives, even if his murders had been acts of mercy. But the guards, the knights, they’d all slaughtered men, women, and children without cause. Even civilians were not absolved of guilt. Citizens of Camelot had stoned witches, turned in their neighbors, and who knew what else? All in the name of Uther’s obsession.

And then there was the blood on Arthur’s own hands. There were plenty of people whom Arthur had seen executed personally. People he’d done nothing to save. People he’d killed himself, following Uther’s orders like a dutiful son.

Just the other day they had brought a man in from the pens who bore a druid tattoo, to learn his name and see if he could be released. He had come willingly, having heard that he was in no danger, until he’d seen Arthur on the throne.

You,” he gasped, his eyes growing wide. “You led the raid that destroyed my family.

And really, Arthur should have been prepared for this eventuality, but somehow it had never occurred to him that he might face some of his own sins while speaking to the returned dead. He could feel the blood draining from his face, and the impulse on the tip of his tongue to beg forgiveness, but he was king, he couldn ’t appear weak. He couldn’t beg anything from a druid. He couldn’t even offer an excuse that he’d only been following Uther’s orders, or that the knights had ignored his command to spare the women and children.

And yet, he couldn ’t walk away and let Gwen handle this stage of the inquest, either.

That raid was a mistake, one which shall not be repeated so long as I live,” he said. His voice trembled only a little, enough that hopefully no one else noticed.

A mistake?” The druid was breathing quickly, as the guards closed in on him. “Thirty-six men, women, and children. Druids, who swore an oath to preserve life. We don’t even eat meat if we can help it. You and your men, your Blood Cloaks, slaughtered us all, and you call it a mistake?

King Uther’s command—”

“Damn King Uther’s command!” cried the druid. “And damn you.” He whirled to leave, but the guards grabbed his arms and he began to struggle frantically.

Stop!” ordered Arthur, remembering how he’d ordered his men to stop so many years ago, how they hadn’t listened. He shot to his feet before he’d even realized it. “Unhand him!”

This time, at least, the guards obeyed his orders. The druid looked over his shoulder, a mix of panic and anger on his face. He must have seen something in Arthur ’s expression, though the gods could only guess at what it might be, because he said nothing more.

Release this man,” Arthur said, his voice hoarse. “Camelot has no quarrel with the druids. Uther did, but Uther is dead. Only tell us your name, and you are free to go.”

Alain,” said the druid. “Though I doubt your father bothered to make a record of it. We were only druids, after all.”

Alain,” repeated Arthur. He held out a small pouch, and a servant stepped forward to take it to the druid. “Go in peace. Take this gold, in recompense for what my father did to you. Tell every druid you meet, Camelot has no further quarrel with the druids. I seek only peace.”

You did not seek it when I died,” said Alain.

I was not king when you died. Uther did not listen to me, nor to anyone who spoke on your behalf. I know gold is not enough for what you and your people have endured, but it is all I have to give. That, and the promise that your people will remain unharmed so long as they do no harm themselves.”

Now it was morning. Arthur had barely slept, his rest disturbed by memories of those he had slain and those he had watched his father execute. He’d also dreamed of his own near-death, of Mordred’s blade sliding home and everything Merlin had done to try to save him. What did it mean that a goddess had had to intervene in order to bring Arthur back to health? What did She mean by bringing back so many murdered magic users?

Well, that seemed clear enough. She wanted magic back in the land. But what was Arthur to do about it? He knew next to nothing about the Old Religion.

Arthur sat at his desk, breakfast only half-eaten, when the knock came at the door.


Elyan and Lancelot stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Arthur had sent them down to the tent city a few days ago, asking them to move through it and speak to people, share their meals, and sleep in a tent themselves to see what they could learn. “Sire.”

“Come, sit,” said Arthur. He sighed. “And please tell me you’ve found something.”

“We did, sire,” began Lancelot, “but I’m not sure you’re going to like it much.”

Arthur frowned, but waited for them to give their report.

Elyan spoke up first. “Our suspicions were correct that there are druids in the tents, at least in some of them. I don’t think the entire population are druids; I didn’t believe there were that many left in all Albion.”

“All right,” said Arthur. “I suppose they could be resurrected and come from somewhere else.” It made sense; if they hadn’t died in the courtyard, there was no reason for them to have ended up in the pens. “Why are they here, though? Why come to a land where—as far as they know—their lives are forfeit if they show their faces?”

“From what we’ve gathered, sire,” said Lancelot, “they’ve come to see the miracle of the resurrection themselves. There are also rumors that they’re looking for a man they call Emrys.”

“Who is he?” Morgana had mentioned that name, at least once that Arthur could recall. Not even Emrys can save you now, she had said.

Elyan and Lancelot traded an uneasy glance. “We’re not certain, though Lancelot has his suspicions,” said Elyan. “The druids refused to answer our questions. I tried to press once, and they said that no knight of Camelot would hear the secret from their lips.”

That was odd. “How did they know you were knights?” Arthur knew they had not worn armor or cloak, or any other sign that they were Arthur’s men. Indeed, he had not even officially instated them back into his ranks yet, despite how eager they both were to serve.

“We don’t know, sire,” said Lancelot. “Perhaps it was just because we were two men acting as partners.”

“In any case, they said they would speak only with you,” Elyan went on, “and even then, only if you come to them. They refuse to set foot in the castle… but given the way they’ve been treated in the past, I can’t say I really blame them.”

“Neither can I,” admitted Arthur.

“Will you go out to speak to them?” asked Lancelot.

Arthur sighed. God, why did everything have to be so complicated? “I don’t know when I’ll be able to, even though I know I must.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing at tired eyes. “Lancelot, you said you had an idea of who Emrys was?”

“I… yes.”

Arthur waited, but Lancelot didn’t say anymore; he opened his eyes and stared at the other man, surprised at his caginess. Usually he was one of Arthur’s most forthright men. “Well?”

“I don’t know for certain, sire, but… I think it may be Merlin.”

Not even Emrys can save you now, Morgana had once said. Arthur sighed. “Of course it is.”

Chapter Text

For Merlin, things did not improve over the coming days. Physically, he regained his strength, but only slowly, so slowly; he still tired easily, and often needed help to do things that used to be effortless. Mentally, he couldn’t let go of the idea that something terrible was going to happen, even though it had been nearly a month, and he’d heard nothing from Gwaine or any of the others that sounded even remotely worrisome. Everyone seemed to be getting used to the idea of a bunch of resurrected dead people wandering around as if it were the new normal, but Merlin wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to let his guard down far enough to join them.

He knew perfectly well how unhealthy that was. Morgana was dead, Mordred was dead; no one should be able to hurt Arthur anymore, in theory. In theory, Merlin had thwarted destiny and saved Arthur’s life, and now the golden age of Albion could begin.

In theory.

For all he knew, Morgana had been resurrected along with everyone else, and was even now plotting in the shadows, waiting to strike when they least expected it. And this time, Merlin wouldn’t be able to do a thing to stop her.

The magic that had returned to him felt like it wasn’t even his.

He had no control over it; sometimes he woke up floating, as he had that first day it had returned. Trying to use it, deliberately, was agonizingly painful, and if anything had ever encouraged Merlin to give up magic entirely, it was the stabbing pains that struck behind his eye, in his joints, and up and down his spine and limbs. Some days it was only the feeling of a knife in his eye, and others it was more like what he imagined being struck by lightning must feel like.

Even then, half the time that he tried to use his magic, nothing happened at all. The other half, something completely unpredictable happened. His mother had put out half a dozen fires throughout Gaius’s chambers in the past two weeks, and swept up countless shattered vials and pots. Merlin’s bed was going to be reduced to kindling if it was dropped from midair one more time, and his cupboard was already a lost cause. He could probably afford to have it repaired with the money he’d saved up, but Merlin didn’t dare bring anyone in and try to explain just how it had gotten broken so badly in the first place.

Gaius had taken to suggesting that Merlin go for short walks outside, partly to recover his strength in the fresh air, and partly to prevent him from causing any more damage indoors. Gwaine accompanied him sometimes, or Lancelot. Gwen was usually too busy during the day, although she always made a point of visiting a little before dinnertime if she could.

Of course, being outside didn’t mean that the magic stopped misbehaving; it only found new and interesting ways to do so. Some days the earth sprouted flowers in his path, or if he sat down for too long, the weeds grew until his legs were tangled in them and Gwaine had to laughingly pull him free. Other days, the birds screamed and flew away frantically at his approach.

He dozed off once, out in the sun, and dreamed of Arthur dying, too late for Merlin to save him; in reality he’d just managed to skirt the edge of death, but in his dreams, Arthur fell off that edge and into the abyss… and when he woke, the earth around him was trembling.

“Your eyes are glowing,” said Gwaine, but he couldn’t make it stop. Merlin’s breath went faster and faster as he panicked, his magic out of control in a way that it had never been in his life, not even when he was a child…

…and then, abruptly, it did all stop. Merlin blew out a breath in relief, glancing at Gwaine with a sheepish smile on his face, only to realize that, in fact, everything had stopped. Gwaine knelt in front of him, expression frozen in concern, while a pair of crows hung motionless in the air overhead. The breeze was utterly still, and the only sound was Merlin’s breathing.

Merlin waited, and pushed, but the world around him remained suspended in time, and nothing he tried would get it to start moving again. He got up to try and find Gaius, staggering fearfully across the courtyard and up the steps to Gaius’s chambers. Seeing his mum and his mentor trapped like statues, caught in the middle of preparing herbs together, was even worse than the empty frozen garden, so Merlin made his way all the way back, and even after he returned to his spot, exhausted and in pain, still everything remained still and silent, except for him.

It was peaceful on the surface, but ultimately the thought that Merlin’s world might remain that way forever was terrifying. His magic wouldn’t respond to his call, and Merlin began to fear that he’d been locked away from it forever, as his heart beat, and beat, and beat, and time itself stood still.

“Help?” he whispered, tears rising in his eyes. “Anybody? Kilgharrah?”


It took perhaps another hour, subjectively of course, and then Merlin finally felt all the magic that had rushed out of his body come roaring back in, like a wave crashing into the shore, tumbling him backward and bringing the entire world back with it, vibrant and deafening.

Gwaine clearly had no idea why Merlin was crying, or why he was clinging to Gwaine’s shoulders so desperately, shaking like a leaf. For him, only an instant had passed, and in that instant Merlin had gone from reasonably cheerful to half-mad with panic and tears. Merlin couldn’t bring himself to tell him either, so Gwaine simply assumed that it was another bad dream, which was close enough.

The experience could definitely be called nightmarish, if nothing else.

After that, Merlin was almost afraid to go outside again, or to sleep for fear of what his magic might do when he wasn’t awake to control it.

Mum, can I have some more porridge?

It ’s over the fire, dear, help yourself.

Merlin opened his eyes, confused. Who was talking out in Gaius’s chambers, asking for more porridge?

He’s not getting any stronger, and I don’t know what to do. Was that Freya? But no, she was asleep next to him, sitting in the chair by his bed with a blanket pulled up around her.

Merlin sat up, wincing a little as he pulled a shirt on over his head, careful not to wake her. He’d had a relatively uneventful night, at least, but he was a little annoyed that whoever was out in the main chamber was speaking loudly enough to have woken him.

I can’t believe you ripped your good shirt, after all the trouble I went to to make it for you! Someone, Merlin couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, absolutely seething with anger, like they were on the point of striking someone.

I said I was sorry!

A man’s voice, moaning. By the old gods, I’m never eating three day old stew again…

Merlin stepped out into Gaius’s chambers, frowning at how crowded it had to be, only to stop on the steps in bewilderment. There was no one there, and indeed, Gaius and his mum looked to still be asleep in their own respective beds, behind the curtain Hunith had put up for privacy.

Who’s there? A man’s voice, sharp enough in his ear that Merlin jumped.

What? he replied absently, but the connection fell away, just in time for a new one to take its place.

Ah, ah, ah, love you, I can’t, I’m going to— Merlin blushed as he realized what he was overhearing. Thankfully, that voice faded as well, before it was replaced by another.

Gwaine had told him there were supposedly druids camped outside the city walls in a kind of tent village that was growing by the day. Druids could communicate without speaking, using their minds and their magic. Merlin must be listening in…

listening in, came another voice. I know he is and he won’t go away even when I ask him nicely. I know you’re there!

I’m sorry? said Merlin, but the connection was already shifting, faster now.

Where did Arwen put

ugliest yarn I’ve ever seen—

is Emrys even real, papa?

As soon as Merlin heard that name, it was if the floodgates opened. It was like standing in a crowded marketplace, people shouting at him from all sides, some happy, others angry; kids, women, men, and they were all in his head and they wouldn’t get out, he couldn’t shut them out, and it was getting louder and louder, putting his hands to his ears did nothing to block the noise.


the Pendragon claims—



you, get out of my head—

they all burned—

Arwen, have you seen my—

did you see the dragons over—

is it true that Emrys is—


eavesdropping little—

too early in the morning for this—


Louder, and louder, and Merlin thought he might go mad, he was vaguely aware that his knees stung, and had someone taken hold of his shoulders, where was he, where was Merlin in this maelstrom, this cacophony of sound, this bedlam that was all in his head and wouldn’t get out—


Pain ripped through his body, and he heard several cries of fright, children among them, before all was blessedly silent.

Well, nearly silent. “Merlin? Merlin?!” He opened his eyes to see his mother in front of him, shaking his shoulders with a frantic expression on her face. They were both on their knees; when had that happened?

“I’m here,” Merlin gasped. “I’m back.”

“Back,” she said; “where did you go?”

“I don’t know,” he said, still breathing as if he’d just run a mile in Arthur’s armor. “Druids, I think. I could hear them. All of them, all at once, I couldn’t—”

Emrys? A man, a woman, several or just one; Merlin couldn’t tell.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Please don’t.

“Shh, Merlin, it’s all right.” Hunith said; Merlin really wasn’t sure if that was true.

“I can’t block them out,” he said. “I can’t control any of this.”

“I know,” she replied, wrapping him in her arms.

“I’m scared,” he whispered, ashamed to say it aloud.

“I know, my heart,” she replied, just as soft. “It’ll be all right.”

But Merlin couldn’t bring himself to believe her, even as her touch soothed him and he buried his head in the crook of her neck.

It came and went, his magic, without rhyme or reason. The only time it didn’t hurt to use it was when he was sleeping, and there was a part of Merlin that wasn’t even sure it was him doing anything, then.

Freya kept talking about the Goddess, whoever She was, and that it was She who had used Merlin’s magic to bring back Arthur and all the others. Maybe She was trying to tell him something in his sleep, but if She was, the messages were even more vague than Kilgharrah’s had been. He didn’t even remember his dreams half the time, anyway.

There were the aches and pains throughout his body, which Merlin could almost deal with because they were invisible; they didn’t frighten his mother or Gaius or Freya, or anyone else. After the burst of telepathy from the druid tent city, though, he’d gotten a nosebleed that wouldn’t let up for nearly an hour, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Hunith wringing her hands, even as she kept her voice calm and soothing, for him.

She had done so much for him, been frightened for him and his magic, ever since he’d been born. Merlin wished he had it him to just stop, for his magic to go away, so he could stop scaring his poor mother for once in his life. Without his magic, there would have been no reason for him to come to Camelot in the first place. No grand destiny, no lives to lose or to save, no lies or murders…

No Arthur.

Of course, it looked as though he had no Arthur now, anyway. Over a month had passed, and still Arthur had not come to visit, not even once. Gwen did, and after Lancelot and Elyan were released, they did too. Percival came with Gwaine sometimes, and even Leon had visited once, although he had seemed apprehensive now that he knew Merlin had magic. Merlin couldn’t blame him, really, knowing that Leon had been brought up under Uther’s reign, fighting against sorcery and magical creatures every chance he got. It must come as something of a shock for him to realize that it was even possible for magic to be used for good.

Arthur, though… Gwen smiled sadly at him, and promised that she was still pushing to make Arthur see reason. It was just that the inquest was taking so much of his time, and the nobles were being difficult, and Merlin understood, didn’t he?

Of course he understood. Arthur was king, and Camelot would always come first. The entire reason he’d needed to save Arthur in the first place.

The fact that they were friends, well… with his magic revealed, Arthur may not want to be as close to him anymore. And it hurt, but Merlin understood.

At least, that’s what he told himself. At night, when he lay in bed afraid to fall asleep, alone but for the worried voices murmuring outside his door, he missed Arthur with an ache that was almost as painful as the magic that refused to obey him.

Chapter Text

Arthur sighed as he glanced at the angle of the light streaming into the throne room. The inquest seemed to be dragging on forever, weeks and weeks, and yet he knew that they were moving almost as quickly as it was possible to go. There was a hearing session every day, with hours spent in each session, and the time spent on each person brought in had been whittled down to barely twenty minutes each before they were moving on to the next. It was just that there were so very many people to speak to, in the dungeons and the pens.

There had only been about a hundred fifty knights or former knights in the dungeons, so going through and finding their names in the records, then discovering how they’d died, had been a simple enough matter. They had almost all been released on their own recognizance, and if Arthur remembered them from his own lifetime, they were welcomed back into the ranks of knighthood. If they were from Uther’s time, it was a little more difficult to decide what to do with them, because many had possessed magic and been part of Bruenor’s corps of “knight mages” or whatever he’d called them. It was hard to trust that they would be loyal to the crown, after knowing how the crown had previously repaid that loyalty.

And of course, there was only so much room in the castle, and funding in the treasury, to support them all.

Still, Arthur had been able to at least extract promises from them that they would not use magic, except in self-defense or defense of the kingdom, and most of them had seemed content to accept their new status. A few of them had expressed their trust that the situation was temporary, and that Arthur would figure out a better use for their skills soon enough.

That was the knights more or less squared away. Now, Arthur was bringing people in from the pens outside the city, one after the other in a steady stream, learning who they were and whether it was safe to release them, trying to decide if he should allow them to start their lives over in Camelot if they could, or if he needed to banish them to live elsewhere.

So many—too many—had no magic at all. They had been murdered for harboring sorcerers that were trying to flee Camelot, or for associating with known magic users, which he learned was another way of saying “failing to betray their friends and family members”. It was sickening. Some of them had tried to flee Camelot themselves and had been hunted down like animals, dragged back by knights and bounty hunters alike, just so they could be executed in the courtyard. God, thought Arthur, it was a wonder the blood soaked into those stones had ever washed away.

The ones who did have magic were just as upsetting to talk to. They had been sentenced to death because they could encourage flowers to grow, or had healed a farm animal of sickness or injury, or were known to make shapes in the fire. Some of them could stare into pools of water, or fall into a trance while spinning yarn, and see things that happened far away or in the future. Some had simply refused to renounce the old gods and the Old Religion, even under torture. Some could hear the whispers of the spirits. One memorable man had demonstrated his ability to shift his shape into that of a fox, and back again; however, he assured Arthur, that was the extent of his abilities, the only spell he had ever learned.

Some of the “magic users” weren’t actually sorcerers, but had been the victims of spells or curses that had caused strange effects. Some of those curses had made the victims dangerous to others, but others had simply lost the ability to speak without flowers falling from their mouths, or they had become malformed in some way, growing horns or hooves, or gaining snakes for hair.

“A skilled enough sorcerer could have cured our curses, possibly,” said one woman, “but who would dare to come forward to help us? And then, once Uther exterminated them all, there were none left to cure us. We were unnatural enough on our own… that was enough to seal our fates as far as Uther was concerned.”

“Are you still afflicted by these curses?” asked Gwen, with compassion in her eyes.

“My lady, I could not speak for anyone else, but I know I myself have not suffered from mine since returning. Perhaps death cured us, or the old gods themselves.”

“Magic remains illegal in Camelot,” Arthur told them, although he did not know how much longer that would be the case. “As long as you do not use your magic to cause harm, I see no reason not to release you. Even so, I would prefer that you not use it at all, for your own safety.”

“Your majesty, forgive me, but that may not be possible,” said one woman. She wrung her hands together nervously.

“What do you mean?”

“Magic flows all around us, and we are as connected to it as we are connected to the sky by our breath. For many of us—not all, but many—trying not to use magic is like trying not to breathe. We can manage it for a little while, but… I’m sorry, your majesty, but as time passes, it becomes more and more difficult. Painful, for some of us, depending on our strength.”

Arthur hid a sigh. Of course it would not be that simple. “Then if you must use magic, I command you to do no harm with it. If you do, I cannot be lenient, even knowing what you have suffered already.”

“Most of us had no interest in doing harm even before Uther arrested us,” said the woman. “It will be no hardship to return to our old lives, as long as no one tries to harm us in return.”

It was no more than Arthur had suspected; so many of these people had simply been living their lives before Uther had cut them brutally short. He nodded, and said solemnly, “Go in peace.”

Finally Gaius gave Arthur his blessing to return to physical activity, “But light activity only, sire, and I mean it. Your wound is still healing, even if it is doing so much faster than an ordinary injury would. Aggravating it could set back your recovery by weeks, or worse.” He lowered his voice, visibly hesitant. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how close you came to death. It would be a shame to undo all Merlin’s hard work to save you.”

Arthur drew in a sharp breath; Gaius had largely stopped bringing Merlin up in conversation, and he wouldn’t meet Arthur’s eyes now, rearranging the things in his bag as a pretext. Arthur wondered whether the old physician was expecting him to blow up at the mention now, and winced internally at how his behavior must have looked, these past few weeks.

“How is he?” he asked, trying for nonchalant.

Gaius paused in his rummaging. “Recovering,” he replied eventually. “Not as quickly as you. There have been some after effects from what he did to save you.”

“After effects?” he asked, concerned. “Like what?”

“Speaking as his physician, sire, that is not my place to say. You could always ask him yourself.”

Ah, there it was. “The inquest,” Arthur tried, closing his eyes.

Gaius, however, had always been more stubborn than the king. Arthur wondered if that was where Merlin got it from. “He misses you, Arthur,” he said softly. “He thinks that now that you know about his magic, you want nothing to do with him.”

“That’s not true.”

“Perhaps not, but it’s an easy thing to believe, from where he’s sitting.”

Arthur sighed. “It isn’t the magic,” he said haltingly. “God knows I’ve had more education about sorcery in the past few weeks than in my entire life up to now. I’m… getting used to magic, which is something I never thought I’d hear myself say. It’s not that he has magic, it’s…” He stopped, unable to explain in a way that he thought Gaius would accept. Gwen certainly hadn’t seemed to. “How do I know he won’t keep secrets from me after this? How do I know he won’t lie to protect himself?”

“You know why he had to,” said Gaius.

“He told me he thought I’d cut his head off,” said Arthur bitterly. “Or that he thought I’d choose my father over him, and he didn’t want to put me in the position of having to make that choice.”

“Can you blame him?”

It was Arthur’s turn to look away, clenching his hands into fists. “Was I really that untrustworthy?” he asked. “Merlin… Merlin saw everything I was, the good and the bad. I trusted him. I gave him everything. To find out that he gave me nothing in return, it’s…” He shook his head, tipping his head back to look at the ceiling. “It’s hard to swallow.”

“Well, as I’ve said, sire, this is a conversation that would be better had with Merlin himself. I’m afraid I make a rather poor messenger. And an unwilling one,” he added, raising one eyebrow. His voice was gentle, however, and he looked at Arthur affectionately as he hefted his back. “I will say that he considered you his closest friend, even if there were things he believed he had to hold back from you.” He glanced toward the door and sketched a shallow bow. “By your leave, sire…?”

“Thank you, Gaius. If anything pains me, I’ll be sure to send for you.”

Arthur was down on the training ground as soon as he could get into his gambeson, taking in the fresh air with a deep breath. It felt as though he’d been cooped up in the throne room or the council room, dealing with this inquest, for years instead of weeks. The sunlight hit his face, along with a fresh breeze, and Arthur shut his eyes, just basking for a few seconds.

“Sire!” Leon called. He was approaching with a smile on his face, and when he got closer, he asked, “Has Gaius cleared you to come train, or are you sneaking out?”

“I’ve been cleared for light activity only,” he replied, curling his lip a little in distaste that was mostly feigned. It would have felt good to spar, but Arthur liked to think he was a bit wiser now than he used to be. After nearly dying, it wouldn’t be smart to dive straight back into full gear or full-force training. Besides, if word got back to Gwen that he’d done such a thing, he’d never hear the end of it. Or Merlin, but he shook that thought off with a pang. “I thought I’d start with the pell,” he went on. “Basic warmups, practice my form.”

“Of course, sire,” said Leon. “I’ll find a squire to attend you.”

Arthur nodded and made his way over to the posts and straw dummies, where a number of recruits and knights were already hard at work. He accepted their greetings with a nod and smile, then stood expectantly as he waited for them to clear a space at one of the pells.

There were more fighters on the pitch than he’d seen in some time, and he realized with a start that many of these men had been killed in recent years, and were newly back from the dead. He recognized the faces of knights who had fallen in service to Camelot, and felt a little surge of pride that they’d chosen to make their oaths once more, renewing their fealty to king and kingdom, even knowing now exactly what it might cost them.

A squire trotted up to him with a practice sword in his arms, and bowed as he took it and made a few practice swings. It was one of the lighter blades, with less heft than Arthur usually chose, but that was exactly right for his purposes today. Leon must have chosen it for him. He nodded in satisfaction, and the squire moved off into the shade and sat on the bench, attentive to whatever the king might require.

Arthur started slowly, loosening up his shoulders by swinging at shadows, going high then low, shifting his feet as if dodging an imaginary opponent. Bit by bit, the stresses of the past few weeks fell away, and he allowed himself to slip into that state that he so loved, where the only things that mattered were blade and breath, footing and foe. It was the easiest thing in the world to gauge his strength and his endurance, to tell when he was properly warmed up, and before long he was stepping up to the pell and striking at the wooden post, feeling the impact reverberate up his arm. It was clear to Arthur that his strength had slipped over the past weeks of enforced inactivity, but not as much as he’d feared, and he knew he’d be able to gain back what he’d lost without too much trouble.

And only a month and a half ago, he’d been lying in Merlin’s arms and whispering his goodbyes, too drained of strength to do anything but beg for Merlin to hold him, so he wouldn’t die alone.

The thought struck out of nowhere, and Arthur’s movement faltered before he braced himself and slipped back into the pattern. Still, it was hard not to follow that line of thinking, once he’d begun. He’d really been that close to death, hadn’t he? He hadn’t let himself dwell on it, but Arthur remembered the quiet dark, and the peace he’d felt, and the woman in the rain who had called him back.

Called him back, to watch Merlin try to kill himself in Arthur’s place.

Had that really been a goddess, speaking to them both?

What did she want of Arthur?

What had she taken from Merlin, in exchange for Arthur’s life? Why was Merlin so afraid, when he’d awakened to the sight of Freya and Lancelot, and learned about the other returned dead?

A life for a life, that was supposed to be the bargain. Everyone he’d spoken to about it had made that clear over the past several weeks. But instead of one man’s death for another one’s life, there had been thousands of lives restored.

Was Gwen right, that the price for Arthur’s life was that he reverse all that Uther had done to destroy the magical community? It made sense; Gwen was certainly an insightful woman, and she might well be correct. It had only been this year that he’d gone to hear the judgment of the Disir, and they had wanted him to embrace the Old Religion themselves. At least, that’s what he thought they’d wanted. At the very least he was supposed to allow it back into Camelot.

Arthur frowned and struck the pell a little more forcefully. Merlin had been there; Merlin always had magic, so why would he have told Arthur not to allow magic back into his kingdom?

Mordred had been at death’s door, after their first visit to the Disir’s cave; Mordred had been the one nearly to kill Arthur at Camlann. Had Merlin’s decision, his advice, had something to do with that? Had he somehow known what was to happen, and kept it from Arthur?

Why would he do that?

That was easy; he hadn’t trusted Arthur. Not with his magic, not with his secrets, not even with information that could have kept Arthur alive during the battle. If Arthur had known that Mordred planned to betray him, he might have been able to take precautions to prevent it. Instead, Merlin had kept his mouth shut.

Arthur scowled. Merlin hadn’t even come with him to the battle. What was that all about? Every encounter, every adventure, every quest, Merlin had been by his side, even when Arthur hadn’t wanted him there, back in the beginning of their relationship. Eventually he’d come to depend on Merlin’s steady presence by his side, and then, when he’d needed Merlin most, he’d vanished. Why?

There was that dream, though; the night before the battle, Arthur had been so certain that Merlin had warned him about the trap he was about to walk into. Knowing what he did now about Merlin’s magic, that might really have been him, and not just Arthur’s intuition. So what had Merlin really been doing, away from Arthur’s side?

If Arthur asked him, would Merlin confess? Would he explain? Or would he just come up with another lie, some other rambling story that said much and revealed nothing?

Arthur struck the pell once more, then felt himself yanked off balance as his sword refused to rebound off the wood. He blinked, panting for breath, and realized that he’d struck so hard the blade had gotten stuck. He grimaced, then worked it free with a grunt and stepped back, hiding his embarrassment even though it didn’t seem as if anyone was really watching him. His side was beginning to twinge; he’d probably overdone it for his first day back.

He made his way across to the shade pavilion, where his borrowed squire was waiting. The boy jumped up eagerly, at that age where boys seemed to be all knees and elbows, and traded Arthur’s sword for a cup of water from the nearby barrel. With his free hand, Arthur tugged at the laces on the collar of the gambeson, ready to cool off and go inside. The squire was quick to respond, untying the rest of the laces and stepping behind Arthur to catch the heavy padding as he shrugged out of it. Arthur’s side twinged again, and he covered a wince before catching Leon’s eye.

“All finished, sire?”

“For today,” he admitted. “It’s been too long since I was able to check up on you; how goes the training with the rest of them?”

Leon smiled. “Better than expected; the new recruits and the… returned ones, they’re integrating well.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll have to come out and watch, make sure you’re not slacking off,” he teased, relieved when Leon returned his easy smile. It was nice to think about something that wasn’t Merlin, or resurrected dead, or that damned inquest with those damned nobles, balking like startled donkeys at everything he or Gwen said.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sire,” said Leon. “In fact, there are a few of them that I’d like you to look over especially; they’re coming along, and might be ready to spar with you, test their progress.”

“It’ll have to wait until I’ve recovered a bit more,” Arthur said with a grimace, “but I can at least come out to watch. How does tomor—”

They were cut off by the sound of a man crying out, and Arthur whirled just in time to see a man in armor fly through the air and land heavily on his back.

Arthur had seen that effect hundreds of times; he didn’t need the cry of, “Sorcery!” to confirm it.

Chapter Text

Arthur hurried over to the fallen knight, as fast as his injury and the gathering crowd would allow. Leon kept by his side, and Arthur was grateful for his foresight. As much as Arthur might hate it, he knew he was in no condition to fight, if it came down to it; if Leon were calmer, he’d likely be trying to convince the king to get to cover inside the castle before a sorcerous attack could fell him, rather than escorting him into the gathering crowd.

Before they arrived, however, another man stepped forward from the same direction as the man had come flying, and held out a hand to hoist him up. “You almost had it that time,” he was saying. “Just brace that back foot a little more, and anticipate the gesture. Most of the time, if they’re using ‘astrice’ they’ll be pretty obvious about it.”

The first man, back on his feet now, opened his mouth to say something, but Arthur beat him to it. “Just what the hell is going on here?” he demanded, and the crowd of gathered knights and recruits parted before him like water. The two men turned to face him, and Arthur’s eyes widened as he recognized Bruenor, from the inquest, as the apparent instructor of the other man. “Are you attacking my knights?”

“Apologies, sire, but I’m not a knight yet,” said the one who had gone flying. He pulled off his helmet, revealing sweat-dampened red curls and a sheepish expression. “I’m called Gareth, sire.”

“The point stands,” snapped Arthur, glaring at Bruenor. “Why the hell are you using sorcery on the training ground?”

“Because Gareth asked me to,” said Bruenor calmly. “We were sparring and I mentioned that I had been a Knight-Mage before Uther had me killed. He wanted to know how to defend himself against a sorcerous attack.”

Arthur pulled up short, wrong-footed, and opened his mouth twice before he could get any words out. “You… wanted him to use sorcery against you?” he asked.

The younger man, Gareth, nodded fervently. His hair was drying rapidly in the breeze, and stood up every which way, reminding Arthur somewhat of a startled owl. “I know there aren’t many sorcerers left in Camelot, or at least, there weren’t before… all this,” he said, gesturing expansively. “But the ones that are still here are either decent people trying to hide their abilities, or… angry and looking to hurt Camelot. We don’t have anything to fear from the ones who are hiding, but the angry ones, well, they really don’t have anything to lose. They join up with bandits, they attack patrols, they infiltrate the city… well, I’m sure you know that already, sire.”

“I’ve seen it,” said Arthur.

“I just figured, well, if we knew how to defend against sorcery, that might be a good thing for a knight to know,” said Gareth. “And I know I’m not a knight yet, but I hope to be, once you open the ranks again.”

That was… actually, it was a very good thought, and Arthur was impressed. “Gareth, you say?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Do I remember seeing you in the inquest?”

Gareth ducked his head. “I’m afraid so, sire. My sister had magic; our whole family was executed for refusing to give her up to the king. But I had been a recruit before that, in training. I reckon I was maybe a month or two away from my final test, though of course the first knight would have had final say as far as that was concerned. I was in no real hurry. I’ve been told I’m not very ambitious, but really, I just want to serve.”

Arthur nodded, taking that in. And entire family of good people, murdered because they loved their daughter and sister. “Have you found the rest of your family?” he asked, fighting to keep his voice even.

“Not yet, sire, but I have hope. They might be in the pens outside the city, or since Uther traveled to our estate to kill them, they might be on their way here from there, instead.”

Arthur had to take a breath to steady himself before he replied. “I hope you find them, or they find you,” he said sincerely. “Bruenor.”


“Was this a common thing for you, when you were first alive?” he asked, choosing his words carefully. “Did you often spar with magic against the other knights?”

“Of course, sire,” was the reply. “The Knight-Mages were expected to integrate magic with our other weapons, just as a non-magical knight would practice combining sword and shield so that one didn’t get in the way of the other.” He shrugged and nodded to Gareth, who was picking his practice blade up off the ground. “We also taught the non-magical knights how to defend against some of the more common attacks, or how to defeat a sorcerer before they had a chance to cast something really dangerous. Not all of them can be defended against, of course, but many can.”

Arthur glanced over at Gareth, but the other man didn’t seem unnerved by any of this information. If he was nervous at all, Arthur suspected it was because he was in the king’s presence. “Show me.”

Bruenor looked to Gareth, who simply nodded and put his helmet back on. The gathered men and boys all moved back to clear space for them. Arthur noted that about half the crowd looked wary and uneasy, while the rest were simply alert, as they would be if any pair of fighters were about to perform a potentially dangerous demonstration. A valuable learning opportunity, and no one wanted to get hurt, but they still wanted to study carefully what was happening.

Leon was one of the less comfortable ones; he leaned down to speak to Arthur, so that no one would overhear. “Sire, are you sure you want to remain for this? If Bruenor’s intentions are not honest…”

“I think they are,” said Arthur, although he moved back along with the rest of them. “And if they are not, I have many here to defend me.”

“Sorcerers are… difficult to defend against,” Leon reminded him.

“I know. But this may be valuable for all of us to see.”

Bruenor was already speaking, moving to the center of the circle. “The most common attack you’ll see, one that is nearly instinctive for most sorcerers, is called astrice,” he said. “It means something like ‘throw back’ in the language of the Old Religion.”

“It’s a language?” one man spoke up.

“Of course,” said Bruenor. “The energy of magic flows all around us, but it must be shaped and directed by the magic user. The language of the Old Religion developed because those sounds seem most attuned to the energies. It’s possible to speak full sentences in that language; the more elaborate the spell effect, the more complicated the spell that must be spoken.”

“I’ve seen sorcerers that didn’t use words,” countered another fighter.

“If a sorcerer is accustomed to using a spell often enough, they may simply ‘speak’ the words inside their head. Very rarely, a mage may use the energy instinctively. That is usually reserved for children or those whose emotions have gotten out of control, though, and just like their emotions, the magic is usually not directed at a specific target.”

Children… Arthur thought of Morgana, then, with a pang. Many years ago, they had thought there was a sorcerous attack on the castle, targeting her specifically, because all of the windows in her room had shattered; could that have been a result of her own magic, out of control due to one of her many nightmares? It seemed likely; yet Uther had simply leaped to a conclusion and ordered that the guards round up suspects to slaughter.

God, there was so much of his father’s legacy that Arthur needed to undo, if he ever wanted to have a clear conscience again.

“In addition to words,” Bruenor continued, “many mages use gestures to direct the energy. For astrice, the gesture looks like this.” He held his arm out, the fingers of his hand spread wide, as if he had just flung something away from him. Arthur’s skin crawled to see the familiar pose. “If you see the gesture, or hear the word, you can know what’s coming before it hits you, and defend against it. Gareth?”

“Ready, sir.”

Bruenor stepped back to the edge of the circle, knights and squires moving out of his way hurriedly. He turned to face Gareth, raised his arm slowly, and said clearly, “Astrice.

Gareth braced and raised his shield, and though they could not see the magical energy, they all saw the moment it hit him. He staggered back several steps, but did not fall down. As soon as he regained his balance, he raised his sword and closed with Bruenor, tapping him on the shoulder in what would otherwise have been a fatal blow.

“Well done,” said Bruenor, as the surrounding knights clapped, impressed. “Now, I went slowly, and announced the spell pretty obviously that time; do you think you’ll do better if I speed it up a bit?”

“I’m getting a little closer each time,” said Gareth with a grin. “Let’s go.”

The two men squared off again, and as they watched, Bruenor flung his arm out with a shout.


Arthur couldn’t help the shudder, having been on the receiving end of that spell so many times, but Gareth seemed fearless. He didn’t fare as well this time, landing once again on his back, but he seemed unharmed. In fact, they all heard him laugh breathlessly. “Damn.” He sat up, thumping a fist against his breastplate a few times. “You hit harder that time.”

“Probably best if we stop for the time being, then,” said Bruenor, as he hoisted Gareth to his feet. “I’m about played out anyway.”

“Played out?” asked Arthur.

“Aye,” said the former knight-mage. The crowd dispersed as he and Gareth came over to stand in front of Arthur. “Directing the energy takes concentration and a kind of… inner strength. It’s not a muscle, not something like an arm or leg, but it can still tire out. Eventually, a magic user has to take a rest. Which is another way to defeat them, of course,” he added. “If they wear out to the point they can’t cast anymore, it’s like an archer running out of arrows. The smart ones will run away, pull a knife, or let someone else take over while they head to safety.” He held out his hands, and Arthur noticed that they were shaking. “If it were life or death, I could still fight in this state,” said Bruenor. “But for sparring, it’s best I stop. My control gets sloppy the more tired I get, same as any swordsman, and I don’t want to actually hurt my partner.”

“I see.” There was so much Arthur didn’t know about magic; it had always seemed terrifying before, mysterious and unknowable, but here was a man explaining it in clear terms, making sorcery understandable in a way that Arthur hadn’t thought was even possible. “Did you spend a lot of time explaining this sort of thing to people before?”

“Before I died, you mean?”

Arthur hid a grimace, but nodded. “Yes.”

Bruenor smiled, not unkindly. “Of course. It was a large part of my job to do so, after all.”

Arthur considered, then cast his gaze around the training field; everyone he saw was training with some sort of mundane weapon, whether it was the sword, mace, or crossbow. A few people were engaged in “dirty tactics” knife fighting off to one side, or wrestling without armor, but he saw no other magic users. “Were there other… knight-mages, brought back from the dead?”

“I presume so,” said Bruenor, “but…” He sighed. “Uther managed to kill us all off by getting into our heads. A whisper campaign, convincing us not to trust one another. You’re fine, Sir So-and-so, but we’re certain there’s a traitor in the ranks, keep your eyes open…” He shook his head and added, “We turned on one another until there were so few left that the non-magical knights were able to clean up the rest of us. There’s not a lot of trust among us right now. The few knight-mages I’ve seen haven’t wanted to reveal their magic, and they’re not here on the field with their mundane weapons either.”

“I suppose I thought they would all be here,” said Arthur. “Their ranks were revealed in the inquest.”

“The ones you had in the dungeons, yes,” agreed Bruenor. “But you’ve told them they’re not to use their magic anyway. I’m not sure how many of them would come back to the corps, even if you were to invite them.”

“You’re using your magic,” said Leon suddenly. “Despite the king’s command.”

“I swore not to use it to harm Camelot, and I haven’t,” said Bruenor, his voice hardening just a little. “I wouldn’t have used it today except that Gareth asked me to specifically. If I had known it would raise such a fuss, I’d have said no.”

“Peace,” said Arthur to both of them. “I’m… not as upset about this as I thought I would be,” he admitted. “You are a skilled teacher. I learned much just from watching.”

Bruenor tipped his head respectfully. “As I said, it was my job before. And to be honest, I don’t have anything better to do with my time. I told you that at the inquest. I don’t seek your pity, but with nowhere else to go, this seemed the best place for me to spend my days. At least, until you decide what you’re going to do with us all.”

Arthur considered. “Would you be amenable to explaining magic to me, in the evenings, perhaps, when I have time?”

Bruenor blinked in surprise, but answered respectfully enough. “I would have thought Uther would teach you enough about magic to be able to defend against it already.”

Arthur sighed. “My father taught me that sorcery was evil, that it corrupted the souls of even those with the purest of intentions, and that no sorcerer was to be trusted. Ever. As for defense against it…” He shook his head. “I think he was concerned that learning even that much about magic might have made me sympathetic toward magic users. Seen them as human, rather than monsters.”

Bruenor pressed his lips together and looked away for a moment; Arthur let the man regain his composure, wondering how ignorant he must sound to someone who had served the kingdom in the capacity that he had. According to the records and his own testimony, Bruenor had fought for Camelot long enough to become a First Knight, even if he had used sorcery as part of his fighting technique. He would have been responsible for making sure that no one under his charge turned out as misinformed as Arthur clearly was.

“Well. None of those things are true,” said Bruenor evenly. “Though I see you are beginning to learn that, which is at least a start.” He paused, then added quietly, “Uther has much to answer for. Forgive me for saying so.”

“No need,” said Arthur, just as quietly. “I don’t disagree. But he is no longer here to… to further harm the kingdom. Let us move forward from the place he left us.”

Bruenor and Leon both nodded, Bruenor smiling as if Arthur had just said something especially wise, but Arthur had to wonder whether he was committing himself—committing Camelot—to a path he’d later regret.

Chapter Text

Merlin was standing at the cliff’s edge again, facing the sea, when he felt someone behind him. In the way of dreams, he knew who it was before he even turned around.

Arthur, he tried to say, but the wind stole his voice away.

Arthur seemed to hear him anyway; his eyes never left Merlin’s, and his expression was solemn. Just hold me, he said, or perhaps the wind stole his voice, too. Either way, Merlin knew what he meant.

You ’re not going to die.

Just… just hold me. They were slumped together on the ground, Arthur in Merlin’s arms, and there was blood welling up from the wound under Arthur’s tunic, staining the fabric, staining the ground, staining Merlin’s hands. So much blood on his hands, all for Arthur’s sake, and now the blood belonged to Arthur himself. And it was all Merlin’s fault.

You’re not going to die! he cried, but Arthur only stared at him with bleary eyes in a face gone gray and slack. The face of a man who wouldn’t be coming back.

His lips didn’t move, but still Merlin heard his voice. I already did.

The dream changed, Arthur disappearing from Merlin’s arms despite Merlin’s best efforts.

Your magic for Arthur’s life, sneered the Sidhe elder.

Anything, said Merlin. I’ll give anything.

Yes, you will.

But Arthur did not come back; Merlin knelt on damp ground before a Sidhe elder who looked at him with the utmost contempt, and no sign that Arthur had ever been there. There was no cliff; instead there was a lakeside, and Freya standing in the water with tears on her cheeks, and blood erupting from a wound in her side, just as it had from Arthur’s.

What will you give? Merlin couldn’t be sure whether it was Freya or the Sidhe asking. Maybe it was both.

For Arthur, anything, Merlin replied, but somehow that seemed to be the wrong answer; Freya’s face twisted in grief, then she turned to water and disappeared into the lake with a splash.

And for Albion? For yourself?

The dream changed again; now there was no Sidhe, nor Freya, nor Arthur. Now there was neither cliff nor lakeside. Now there was only darkness, and a silence that seemed to be holding its breath waiting for Merlin’s answer.

Myself? He waited, but there was no explanation forthcoming. I don’t understand.

And that is why you fail.

Merlin opened his eyes with a gasp, feeling the residual ache in his body as if he had tried to use magic again. He looked around the room frantically, still catching his breath and feeling cold sweat prickle on his skin as it dried, but there was nothing out of place. He wasn’t floating, and nothing was on fire… which, given how things had been going for him recently, was a pleasant surprise.

He sat up, glancing outside the window as he dragged his fingers through sweat-dampened hair. It was after noon; he had taken a walk that morning, eaten his lunch with his mother, Freya, and Gaius, and then taken to his bed in exhaustion. He still tired far too easily, although Gaius claimed he was improving a little every day. Merlin wasn’t sure how he could tell.

His nightmare was already fading, wisps and fragments of memory dissipating like fog in the sun. Freya had been there, and Arthur, but he couldn’t recall the details. Hadn’t they had something in common? Merlin frowned, chasing down the wisps, but they eluded his grasp until he was left only with the unsettling feeling that he’d failed someone somehow.

Well, he mused, that was nothing new. He’d failed Arthur so many times. Failed Freya. Failed Will, and Lancelot, and Morgana. Failed Camelot.

And what of Albion? The thought entered his head, but he couldn’t say where it had come from. Merlin sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, before resting his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands. God, he was tired.

Albion. According to the prophecy, Arthur was supposed to bring magic back and unite Albion. At least, that was as much of the prophecy as Merlin had heard. Knowing the druids and the dragon, there was probably some important aspect missing that no one had bothered to tell Merlin, because he was Emrys and Emrys was supposed to know all this stuff already.

Had Merlin failed Albion?

He sighed and thought, Probably. Merlin had chosen Arthur’s wellbeing over the demands of prophecy too many times to count, now. Arthur was his friend, destiny be damned.

Maybe that was the problem… although if it was, Merlin couldn’t completely see how. Every time he tried to follow the prophecy, he ended up doing things that made him hate himself. On the other hand, every time he tried to turn his back on the prophecy and be there for Arthur, something terrible happened. Usually, someone ended up dead, as if the universe itself were punishing Merlin for trying to do the right thing by his own conscience.

What was he supposed to do? Who was he supposed to be? Emrys protected the Once and Future King, and the King united Albion; was there even room in the prophecy for friendship, or were he and Arthur supposed to just mechanically follow the rules and the demands of destiny, and then go their separate ways?

Perhaps that was what was happening now; Arthur was prophesied to die at Camlann, yet Merlin had somehow managed to save him against all odds. Maybe now, it was Arthur’s turn to fulfill his part of the prophecy, and Merlin was no longer needed. Maybe he’d played his part and could rest now.

Maybe that was why Arthur was avoiding him; maybe he simply didn’t need Merlin anymore.

“You did what?” Gwen asked flatly, staring at Arthur with her hands on her hips.

“I asked Sir Bruenor to come and speak to me about magic in the evenings. When I have time,” he added. “Not every night.”

“When you have time,” she repeated. “Time that you could be using to visit Merlin, and ask him about magic.”

“How do I even know he would tell me the truth?” Arthur muttered, but Gwen heard him, if the sudden fire in her eyes was anything to go by.

“That man has been your friend—your best friend, sometimes your only friend—for ten years,” she flared. “And this is how you repay him? By turning your back, and leaving him to rot?”

“I’m not leaving him to—”

“You’ve not been to visit him even once,” she cut him off, “not once in the entire time since you’ve returned from Camlann! He saved your life, Arthur! Saved it again and again, worked in secret to protect you, endured your scorn and your mockery while you refused to listen to his advice, and now, now, the very gods themselves have intervened to bring you back without him having to die in your place, and all you can come up with are excuses to avoid him? I’m tired of it, Arthur. I’m tired of watching you act like a coward—”

“I am not—”

“You are, yes you are, you’re avoiding your best friend because your feelings about his magic are complicated, only you haven’t got the guts to go and talk to him rather than sit here and sulk and tell everyone about how he’s betrayed you! He’s probably the only person you’ve ever met who hasn’t! God knows, even I have, even if I didn’t want to.”

“Gwen,” Arthur began. “Gwen, those weren’t your fault, you were enchanted,” but she shook her head, with tears rising in her eyes.

“You didn’t know that at the time. All you knew was that I broke your trust, too, and it broke your heart. But you forgave me. Why can’t you forgive Merlin? Why can’t you even give him the chance to explain himself?” She blinked her tears away, refusing to meet Arthur’s gaze. “Merlin was the one to convince you to give me a second chance. Now I’m trying, Arthur, I am trying, to convince you to give him a second chance. The second chance he deserves, and you know it.”

Arthur shut his eyes, feeling tears prick behind his eyelids and hating himself for it. “What do you think he’ll have to say for himself that he hasn’t said already?” he asked quietly.

“What, that he couldn’t tell you about his magic because he thought you’d behead him? Or that you’d be forced to choose between him and your own father?” Arthur gaped at her, and she huffed something too sad and angry to be called a laugh. “Unlike you, I do go visit Merlin, and we’ve already talked about all this. Can you really blame him for making the choices he did?”

“No,” he tried again, but again, Gwen cut him off.

“Then why won’t you let him explain?”

“Because I’m afraid, all right?!” he exploded. Gwen startled, and he lowered his voice, but he couldn’t hide the pain he felt. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid our entire friendship was a lie. I’m afraid to learn that he had some sort of hidden agenda, I’m afraid that the person I thought I knew was just a, a mask, someone I was wrong to trust, and if that turns out to be true, it’ll break me, Gwen. I won’t be able to forgive that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust anyone else, ever again. Everyone I’ve ever tried to care about to any degree past, past mild acquaintance, has broken that trust somehow, from my own knights to my own uncle. They get close to me, they claim to have my best interests at heart, and then it turns out they were only using me, all along. Or plotting to kill me. If Merlin was just using me…” His voice broke, and this time to his shame, he couldn’t stop the tears from spilling over. “Merlin’s always been the one to get me through it when someone else stabbed me in the back. If it turns out he was never my friend to begin with…”

“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen said gently. She stepped forward and reached up, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “Doesn’t that show you that he’s been your friend all along?”

“He never showed me who he really was,” Arthur tried, but Gwen only shook her head.

“He never showed you all he was. That’s not the same thing. And you already know why.”

Arthur sighed, and she stepped into the circle of his arms and rested her head on his chest. He remembered a snippet of conversation that he and Merlin had had in the forest:

So you’re not an idiot. That was a lie, too.”

Nah. Just part of my charm.”

“I do,” he admitted. “I just… it was easy to forgive him when I was dying. It didn’t matter that he’d hidden so much from me, and after a few days I was able to see why he’d hidden it. Now that I’m all right, and I have all this to contend with, all these people resurrected from the dead…” He sighed again. “God, it’s such a mess. Why does everything have to be so complicated?”

“If it were easy, you’d be bored,” quipped Gwen, startling a smile out of Arthur despite himself.

“Probably.” She squeezed him once, then stepped back, looking up at him expectantly, and finally he said it. “All right. I’ll try to visit him within the next day or two. No promises—God knows something will probably come up—but I’ll try.”

Gwen beamed at him. “I’m going to hold you to that,” she said. “And I’m going to tell him, too.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t get his hopes up,” said Arthur. “Like I said, anything could happen.”

“It’s called keeping you accountable,” she retorted, still smiling. “If I tell him you’re coming, you’ll have to keep your word.”

Arthur smiled wryly. “You’ve learned this insolence from him, haven’t you,” he said, not really asking.

Gwen smiled wider, and leaned up to give him a peck on the lips. “Probably.”

“Anyway, I have to admit I feel a bit better without all those knights and sorcerers in the dungeons,” she said to Merlin, the next evening. They had walked together out to the kitchen gardens, and were sitting on a bench, leaning against the sun-warmed stone while Gwen worked a little bit of embroidery. The talk had meandered between them the way it always did, from Merlin’s health and the health of his mother, to the latest gossip from the nobles, to heartbreaking stories from the inquest Arthur was still leading.

“Hard to imagine the King of Camelot letting sorcerers leave the dungeons, without them escaping on their own,” Merlin agreed.

“Well, he has you to thank for that, doesn’t he?”

Merlin frowned. “For what?”

“Changing his views on magic, silly.”

“I don’t know that I did anything,” he said, shaking his head. “I mostly just hid my magic, until those last few days, when I thought—” When he’d thought Arthur was dying. “—anyway, I’m sure it’s the people themselves, the ones in the inquest, who are really changing Arthur’s mind.”

“But those people wouldn’t even be there, to speak to Arthur, if it weren’t for you.”

“Gwen…” They’d had this conversation before; every time, Gwen tried to insist that Merlin had done more than he had, and every time, he countered that it had all been the work of this Goddess that Freya talked about. Merlin himself couldn’t remember a thing from the moment he’d stopped time, at the point of Arthur’s death, until he’d awakened several days later. Whatever had happened, he doubted he’d had much to do with it.

“All right, I won’t push. Oh, I know! Do you think I could persuade the cooks to give Lord Archibald food poisoning, if I complained about him loudly enough?”

Merlin laughed despite himself. “Is he really that bad?”

“Oh, the worst. You have no idea! Everything Sir Gwaine has ever said about rotten nobles, it’s like Archibald took for a set of instructions. You really must get well again soon, just so that you can sit in during the inquest and see for yourself.”

“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.” His smile faded. “Besides, I don’t know that Arthur would want me there.”

Gwen sighed. “This again.”

“Gwen, I mean it. I’m only a servant—”

“A servant who saved his life! Saved Camelot!”

“Be that as it may, Arthur has every right to be angry with me after I lied for so long.”

“He doesn’t have the right to ignore you like the dirt under his shoes. And I told him that, just yesterday. Finally made him promise he would come and see you soon.”

That brought Merlin up short, his earlier argument forgotten. “He did?”

“Well. I say promise… With one thing and another, he says he can’t guarantee that he’ll come in the next couple of days, but he did say he would try. I told him, it would be far better that he talk to you about magic than to this Sir Bruenor.”

“Bruenor…” With a sinking feeling, Merlin realized he recognized the name; Gwaine had mentioned him more than once. “Wasn’t he a knight that used magic, or something like that? Part of a whole group of sorcerer knights?”

“He called them ‘knight-mages’, yes,” said Gwen. “And Bruenor was like Sir Leon is now; First Knight of the Knight-Mages.”

Merlin nodded, but wouldn’t meet Gwen’s eyes; the weeds growing around his boots seemed much more interesting just now. “It makes sense that he’d want to talk to a knight, though,” he said, trying to ignore the pang in his chest. He’d always thought that he would be the one to teach Arthur about the beauty of magic, and help him usher in the supposed golden age that Kilgharrah had always talked about. Albion. It would seem he was wrong. “And anyway, there’s still a lot I don’t know about magic. Not a lot of chances to really study it, growing up.”

“Then how did you learn magic, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Merlin looked up then, but Gwen’s face was only lit with simple curiosity, and the compassion he’d always loved her for. “Didn’t,” he said with a shrug. “I was born with it. Mum could tell you stories. It’s a wonder I didn’t scare her hair white before I was five.”

Gwen giggled. “Tell me.”

“Nope, no, you can’t make me,” Merlin began, grinning.

“I’m the queen, I most certainly can make you!”

“No, I’d rather go to the stocks. Ask my mum for embarrassing stories, I make a fool of myself often enough without adding to it on purpose.”

“I bet you were an adorable baby,” she said, leaning into his shoulder.

He couldn’t help but groan. “Aw, Gwen…”

The sound of the queen’s laughter filled the little garden.

Chapter Text

Gwen’s visit lifted Merlin’s spirits for a few hours, giving him enough energy that he was able to stay awake a little longer and put up a fuss, while she and his mother traded stories about some of the more ridiculous things Merlin had done, whether it was growing up in Ealdor, or over the past few years in Camelot. Eventually, however, his fatigue caught up to him, and it was time for bed; Gwen hugged him, Freya kissed his cheek, and Hunith did both, before they all left for their respective quarters. Gaius bade him goodnight and went to his own bed, and then Merlin was left alone, in the still and the quiet. The tower was too far up in the air to hear the crickets hidden in the stones of the courtyard, but there were night birds calling, and a soft breeze moving through the window.

It should have felt peaceful, and for the first few minutes it was; despite how tired Merlin’s body was, however, as the quiet grew, his thoughts would not still.

Before Uther’s Purge, there had been knights who used magic in defense of the kingdom. Spell and sword, side by side, from what Gwaine had told him. Of course Uther would have had them killed, despite their loyalty to Camelot, despite the oaths they had taken. Merlin hoped that Arthur was beginning to realize just what a monster his father had been.

On the other hand, as much as Merlin hated to agree with anything related to Uther, now these sorcerer knights were back, and no one seemed worried about them. No one seemed concerned that they may want vengeance for what was done to them. Arthur was going to speak with their leader, this Bruenor fellow, about magic… privately. What if Bruenor had ulterior motives? What if he was plotting something?

Lancelot had never seen the man, but Gwaine claimed that he seemed all right. Gwaine also admitted, though, that he wasn’t the best at reading people’s motives.

Merlin sighed, rolling over in his tiny bed. It hardly mattered; Merlin wasn’t there to tell Arthur it was a bad idea, or meet Bruenor himself. Arthur probably wouldn’t listen to him anyway, even if Merlin were to meet Bruenor.

Arthur had finally promised Gwen that he would come and visit soon, but Merlin didn’t expect him to really follow through. Arthur had someone to talk to about magic now who hadn’t lied to him for ten years. He didn’t need Merlin.

The first day after his argument with Gwen, Arthur did not go to speak to Merlin. Arthur had overexerted himself in training the day before, despite trying to keep to light activity, and was too sore to move by evening. Gwen tended to him with salves and balms, and kissed him goodnight before chivvying him off to bed, an hour earlier than he would have otherwise gone. She slept next to him, though, which made the experience much more pleasant, all around.

The second day after their argument, the inquest had Arthur nearly tearing out his hair. It wasn’t the victims so much; processing the returned dead by this point had become almost routine. Find out who they were, find out how they had died, then discover whether or not they had magic. Release the ones who didn’t, with a small pouch of gold and silver to help them rebuild their lives. Release the ones who did, if their magic had been non-harmful, after extracting a promise that they would not use it except in an emergency. Magic remained illegal, nominally, so this was the best offer Arthur could give the magic-users, and they seemed mostly content to accept that.

No, it was the nobles that Arthur was ready to collectively exile. Most of them were not troublemakers, but the ones who were more than made up for it, with their demands and their complaints and their incessant whining. Lord Archibald was about to lose all his lands, if he kept it up much longer. The resurrected Lord Gwyllim was not the only one to mention that his lands and wealth had been confiscated and redistributed to other nobles as a reward for betraying their fellows to Uther; but to hear Archibald and the others tell it, they were the victims, who stood to risk losing everything if Arthur dared to so much as suggest that those lands be given back to their rightful owners. Resentment was growing by the day, both among the lords on Arthur’s council, and among the resurrected nobility who were waiting for Arthur to make a decision.

On the third day after his argument with Gwen, Arthur wanted to go and visit Merlin; he truly did, had even planned for it that morning… but then they found Gwen and Elyan’s father.

Elyan had taken to prowling the tent city just outside Camelot’s walls like a hunter; he spent most days there, with Lancelot by his side, and even slept there some nights, in a nondescript little tent of his own that he’d owned since before returning to Camelot. He couldn’t say what it was he was looking for, but with the resurrected knights all released from the dungeons below the castle, Elyan had no one to listen to and report back to Arthur about. He found himself at loose ends, and decided that continuing to collect rumors for the king was better than idling his time away in the Rising Sun (which would have been difficult to do anyway without his knight’s stipend).

There was much to learn, and rumors aplenty to be had, in the tent city. Most people inside Camelot’s walls were convinced that it was a lawless place, and indeed the guards refused to go there. Elyan wasn’t sure if they were afraid, or if they simply were too lazy to expend their energies outside their official jurisdiction. It was generally accepted that problems within Camelot were for the guards to handle, and problems outside Camelot were for the knights to deal with. The tent city was outside the walls, even if some of the lean-to shelters that had cropped up were propped right against the wall itself, so the guards were not likely to bestir themselves to go there, for love or money.

Elyan rolled his eyes, thinking about them, but the rivalry between guard and knight had been longstanding and wasn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

The tent city, though, was not what Elyan had been led to expect. It may not have been patrolled by any sort of official watch, but it was far from lawless. After the first few weeks, when it became clear that the tent city was only going to grow, the leaders there had taken the time to roughly organize the layout of the tents along clear pathways. The long paths that paralleled the city wall were marked with colored strips of fabric at the intersections, while the shorter paths that crossed them were marked by symbols or pictures of various creatures. If two people wanted to meet somewhere, or find a particular tent, “near Yellow Griffin” was an easy bit of direction to follow.

The leaders had also left an open area to serve as market space (between Blue and Green, and Triskele and Dragon), and set aside another district not far away to serve as an infirmary. Elyan hadn’t been sure how such a thing would work, but apparently there were plenty of herbalists, midwives, and even magical healers who were brave enough to set up their tents in the district, and let the sick, injured, or pregnant come to them.

Public latrines and wells had been dug; designated areas for midden heaps had been established. The place was almost cleaner and tidier than Camelot within the walls. When it rained, yes, the paths turned to mud and muck, and there was little anyone could do about it, but the rain didn’t float sewage or garbage back into the camp. Even the location of fire pits was regulated, one every four or five tents apart, which the families shared for cooking by day, and gathered around for stories and songs by night.

That was not to say the rumors Elyan had heard within Camelot were completely false. On the one hand, there was little theft, and Elyan had not heard of a single instance of violent crime, beyond a few fights being broken up here and there. On the other, magic was everywhere. As far as Elyan knew, Arthur had not repealed Uther’s ban on sorcery, but no one in the tent city seemed to care overmuch about following that law anymore. And there was no one inclined to stop them, either.

It wasn’t just the magic-using healers in the infirmary district; there were storytellers who punctuated their tales with images in the flames by night, or in the smoke by day. Entertainers made colored lights and bubbles for children to chase around the camp. There were people who brought water from the wells and purified it with magic before they drank it or cooked with it, and others who kept the paths lined with thick green grass, so that the mud didn’t spread in the rain. People mended clothes or toys with magic. Whenever Elyan went to use the latrines, or take his garbage to the midden heaps, he noticed that the breeze never seemed to blow the smell back into the camp. It seemed there was actually a standing spell over the area, which the magic users would reinforce whenever they came by, directing the wind gently away from the city—at least, that was what Elyan thought they were doing, when he caught the glow of magic in their eyes. At night, there were lights at every intersection that never extinguished, even in the rain.

All in all, Elyan hadn’t been sure what to expect, but this sort of… harmony, this carefree integration of magic into the society, had not been it. Everywhere he looked, Elyan saw children talking to birds who chirped in response and followed them about, or women making flowers grow in front of their tents, or musicians whose tunes could be heard clearly as far as the next intersection without being deafening as Elyan got closer. Closing his eyes, Elyan heard the sounds of peace; laughter and song, and voices that rose in excitement rather than fear over the general hubbub. Chickens clucked contentedly in some encampments, while goats cropped the grass in others. There were even a few donkeys put to work hauling heavier loads, and everywhere, everywhere, the song of wild birds.

It was certainly not the chaos and destruction that Uther had claimed used to plague the kingdom. Elyan wasn’t sure if that was because the people here were mostly druids or not, but it certainly spoke to the possibility for a better way of life.

Elyan had asked, more than once, why everyone had come, but the answers varied, if got an answer at all. Some had come to look for lost loved ones. Some had been resurrected themselves, and were trying to figure out how to return to the lives they had lived before Uther had killed them. Others claimed to be here to witness the miracle for its own sake, or were searching for “Emrys”. No one would tell him who that was, only that they had had visions of him or heard his voice in their dreams. A few claimed they were simply merchants, who had come from outside Camelot to provide their wares to potential customers. Oddly enough, though they seemed to have no magic at all, Elyan trusted them the least; the odds that they were spies for foreign kings was much too high.

Every day, representatives from the tent city went to Camelot’s gate and waited; as the inquest went on, Arthur released more and more people from the pens, and since most of them had nowhere to go, they often ended up in the tent city themselves. They were mostly more magic users, struggling to rebuild their lives, but at least here they had support. Shelter was provided readily, and food, until the newcomers could figure out a way to support themselves and contribute to the camp. No one went hungry, that Elyan could see.

The familiar sound of hammer on metal caught his attention, and Elyan looked up to see smoke rising into the air, perhaps a few “streets” ahead. The forge hadn’t been there the last time he’d patrolled this part of the tent city, and he was curious to see if magic was being put to use there as well. There was also the hope, which he rarely voiced even to himself, that he might find his father soon. Whatever miracle had brought all these people back from the dead, the one thing they seemed to have in common was that Uther had had them killed in the first place.

It was probably for the best that Elyan had not been in Camelot when that had happened, or Gwen might have lost two loved ones, instead.

Elyan approached the forge and saw the familiar sight of children gathered around the bellows, watching a man pound red-hot metal and then dip it into the barrel of water by his side. Steam hissed into the air, and some of the younger ones murmured in amazement; the man grinned at them and returned the metal to the coals.

Hanging in front of him on a rope were several S-hooks, fire pokers, and triangles with beaters. Elyan also recognized a few trivets resting on a table nearby, and tripods for hanging cooking pots over the fire. There were no weapons like his father would have made, though, and Elyan felt his shoulders drop in disappointment. These were all utilitarian things that would be needed in a large camp, so it made sense that the smith would make them, but Elyan knew from his own time as his father’s apprentice that they were also mainly considered projects for a beginning blacksmith. His father had been a master; he wouldn’t be wasting his time on things like these.

The sound of a second hammer joined the first, and Elyan looked up, noticing another smith hidden in shadow under the awning. The sound of the metal under his hammer was a different pitch: brighter, clearer. Better quality, fewer impurities, or maybe just a smaller piece chiming higher. He held up his piece, and Elyan recognized a blade; it was no sword, just another utilitarian thing, but still…

The second smith turned, quenching the knife blade in his own barrel, and Elyan forgot to breathe. He must have made some sort of noise, because the first smith stopped and glanced up at him with a frown.

“You all right?” he began, then followed Elyan’s gaze to where the second smith had gone back to work, his back to them both. “Ah, I see,” he said, a grin widening on his face. “Oy, Tom! Someone to see you.”

“Be right out,” called the smith, and the familiar sound of his voice brought tears to Elyan’s eyes.

“Can I…?” His voice was hoarse, and he had no idea how the other smith heard him, but he must have, because he nodded to the rope and Elyan immediately ducked under it.

“No need,” the man called, glancing over his shoulder at Tom. “He’ll come to you.”

“Fine,” grunted his father.

In a heartbeat, Elyan was under the awning, by his father’s side, close enough to touch, and he couldn’t wait for the other man to look up, couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer, but words seemed to have deserted him. He cleared his throat, swallowing hard enough that it hurt.

“What can I do for you?” asked Tom absently, still not turning around.

Finally Elyan found his voice. “Papa…”

His father went rigid, then whipped his head around to see Elyan standing there. His eyes went wide for one heartbeat, two; then, in one smooth motion, Tom plunged the blade into the water barrel with one hand, and reached for Elyan with the other.

Then their arms were around each other, hugging hard enough to hurt and neither man caring, as tears slid down Elyan’s cheeks.

Chapter Text

Tom wouldn’t walk away from his unfinished work, but that was all right; Elyan was more than happy to catch him up on where he’d gone after he’d left Camelot, and all the mad things he’d done since coming back.

“Knighted,” Tom exclaimed, when he got to that part. “And Arthur the king. I guess a lot’s changed in the past ten years.”

“That it has.”

“It took a bit, but I eventually figured out how long I’d been gone. It’s so strange, because it feels like I was killed only a month ago, and then I blinked my eyes and I was alive again. I’m glad that didn’t happen to you.”

“Actually, it did,” said Elyan with a wince. “It’s why I’m not on official knight business right now. Arthur is being cautious about everyone who was dead.”

Tears sprang up in his father’s eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be. I saved Gwennie’s life, and I was serving Arthur when I died. I was happy to do it.”

Tom shook his head, but blinked his tears away and returned to pounding on the hot blade. “You’ve changed,” he said after a moment. “Grown up.”

“I still have my temper, I’m sure,” Elyan laughed. “But I like to think I’ve gotten better at finding somewhere to direct it. There have been foes aplenty, these past few years.”

“Is it true what I heard, that the Lady Morgana betrayed the king?”

Elyan sighed, tipping his head back as he thought. “She had magic, in Uther’s kingdom. I know Arthur never stopped loving her… it’s anyone’s guess whether she betrayed Uther or he betrayed her first. God knows she never would have felt safe living here. I wasn’t here for most of that, though; I came back in time to help retake Camelot from her, after she’d already turned.”

Tom nodded. “It’s just hard to believe; she was always so passionate about standing up for the innocent. She stood up to Uther more than his son ever did, that I saw.”

“Well, that’s something that’s changed too. Arthur is a good man, and a great king. Better than Uther by far, from everything I’ve heard.”

“He’d almost have to be,” muttered Tom, quenching the blade in the barrel of water and letting the steam hide his expression. “But what about our Gwen?” he asked, once the cloud had cleared away. He glanced up at his son, but his expression was troubled. “I haven’t seen her out here, but I haven’t wanted to go into town, either. Haven’t known who to talk to, to get word to her that I’m here.”

“You haven’t been part of the inquest?”

“No. They rounded up a bunch of people and put them in those damned pens, the day we all returned, but they didn’t get all of us. I hid in the forest, until the druids started coming and setting up tents. They let me stay with them, but I was only just recently able to barter for enough tools to set up shop, and a space at Hector’s forge, here.”

“I thought the forge was new,” said Elyan with a nod.

“Only been here about four days, yeah.” Tom gave his son a sidelong look. “You still haven’t answered my question about Gwennie.”

Elyan smiled, then it widened into a grin. “How’d you like to go see her now?”

Tom didn’t answer right away. “Last time I was in Camelot, the guards killed me,” he said uncomfortably.

“But that was ten years ago,” Elyan reminded him. “And they’re under orders not to harm anyone right now unless they absolutely have to.”

Elyan waited while his father thought it over, but before long he nodded decisively and set his tools aside. “All right,” he said. “But you’re going to tell me how she is on our way there.”

“She’s fine,” said Elyan with another laugh. “Anything else I tell you would spoil the surprise.”

They passed through the gates easily enough, and made their way up through the city to the citadel. “She still works here?” Tom asked.

“Something like that,” said Elyan.

“If Lady Morgana is really dead, though, then what does she do?”

“Oh, don’t worry, she’s not in the scullery or anything like that.” The guards nodded at Elyan, and they passed without a second glance into the castle proper. Tom shivered a little, glancing at the stones of the courtyard, and Elyan squeezed his shoulder in sympathy. “It’s all right, Papa, I promise.”

They stopped outside the throne room, a page slipping inside at the sight of them, and Tom clenched his fists nervously. He’d taken off his leather apron, and of course he’d cleaned up a bit, but he was still in simple peasant clothing, and couldn’t help but feel the difference in his station and that of everyone else on the other side of that door.

“Are you ready?”

“Are you sure we have to go speak to the king just to see Gwennie?” Tom whispered.

Elyan smiled. “We aren’t speaking to the king.”

Tom only glared at him in obvious consternation, but just then the doors opened and they heard Arthur say, “All right, send him in.” The page trotted up to Elyan and nodded, then bowed, and then they were stepping into the throne room. There was a long table on one side sat with nobles in their finery, sparkling in the sunlight that came through the tall windows. On the other, another long table hosted knights in their red cloaks, all seeming to stare at them as he and Elyan entered.

“Elyan,” began Arthur, “what—”

“Papa?” whispered Gwen.

Tom halted in his tracks and stared up at her, forgetting all propriety. He should probably bow, or acknowledge the king, or something, but… “Gwen? Is it really you?”

Guinevere—the queen!—glided down the steps of the dais as fast as her gown would allow, resplendent in purple satin; distantly, a part of Tom’s mind recognized the embroidered trim as her work. “Papa!” she exclaimed, and then her arms were around him. Tom smelled perfume and lavender soap and her hair, his Gwennie, and his arms came up to return the embrace without even thinking.

Both his hands and his voice were shaking when he pulled back to stare at her. “You’re the queen? My Gwennie is queen?”

Her cheeks were wet as she nodded, beaming at him through her tears. “I am, Papa.”

“And my son a knight. I am the proudest father in Camelot,” he said, pulling her in for another hug. Outside their little bubble, Tom heard someone dismiss the gathered nobles and knights; whatever they’d been doing, he hardly cared. There was a shuffling of footsteps, and whispered voices passing them by, but Tom ignored them all until it fell silent. He was too busy kissing the top of his daughter’s head, inhaling the scent of her hair, and simply reveling that she was here, and alive, and he was here, and all was right with the world.

Finally, someone standing nearby cleared his throat, and Tom pulled back, wiping his eyes. Prince Arthur—King Arthur, now, of course—stood there, looking less like the ruler of Camelot and more like an awkward young man. He smiled tentatively. “Welcome back,” he said. “I am sure you would like to catch up with your daughter. Would you be willing to join us for dinner? You too, Elyan, of course.”

Tom nodded, hardly believing it. He sniffed, catching his breath as he looked at the empty throne room. “I interrupted your… meeting,” he began, but Arthur only shook his head.

“We were finishing for the day anyway. Please, join us.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“You’re the father of the woman I love. Call me Arthur.”

He led the way to what Tom presumed would be their chambers, and they followed together, Tom’s arm around Elyan’s shoulders and his hand clutching Gwen’s tightly.

A family, reunited.

Over dinner, they discussed where Tom had been, why he hadn’t appeared during the inquest, and what life in the tent city was like. They touched on some of the adventures Gwen had lived through, and how magic had both harmed and helped them both.

“I admit I don’t hold much with sorcery,” said Tom; “hard to trust it, I suppose, when you don’t have it. But I am old enough to remember a time when things were different.”

“Well, you remember my friend, Merlin? I’m sure I told you about him.”

“The prince’s—the king’s—manservant?” Tom glanced around the room, but it was only the four of them. “Bit surprised he’s not here.”

“He’s been ill,” said Arthur. It looked to Tom like there was more he wanted to add, but he only said, “It turns out he has magic, too.”

“Here, in Camelot?”

Gwen smiled. “That’s what we all thought, when we found out. But he’s saved Arthur’s life, and mine… and yours, too, even.”

Tom blinked at that. “Mine? When?”

“Do you remember when that plague struck Camelot, and you got sick, but then you got better?”

“I remember you were accused of sorcery for it,” said Tom darkly.

Gwen sighed. “Merlin made a magical poultice that drew out the sickness, but your recovery made Uther suspicious. You know the rest of that… except that you don’t know that Merlin actually confessed to sorcery, right to Uther’s face, to try and save me. He’s always been a good friend.” She threw a significant glance Arthur’s way, but what she might have been trying to convey, Tom could not guess.

“How did he live?” he asked. “I mean… how was he not executed?”

Arthur coughed. “I covered for him… and later, Gaius found proof of the real cause of the plague, a magical creature poisoning our water reservoir. I suspect Merlin probably had something to do with defeating it, too. We were both there. I never suspected at the time.”

The talk turned to other things as the evening wore on; some of Elyan’s crazier adventures before returning to Camelot, or some of the oddball things Merlin and Arthur had done together, had them laughing together until it was hard for Tom to remember that he was in the presence of the king. (And the queen! His daughter, the queen!)

Finally, after they had eaten their fill, and after Tom had had perhaps one glass of wine too many, it was time for them all to retire. Elyan offered to walk Tom back to the tent city, and they all stood for their farewells. “Long live the queen,” Tom said, just to make Gwennie giggle and blush.

“Stop that, Papa,” she said, but he only shook his head and kissed her on her brow.

“And you, young man. You treat my daughter well, and I’ll have no quarrel with you.”

Arthur’s eyes grew wide for a moment, then he straightened, and Tom was afraid that he’d overstepped, for just an instant. “My only regret is that I was never able to ask you for your blessing to wed her,” he said solemnly.

“Well, you have it now,” said Tom, and to his wonder, the king himself blinked and looked away, clearly moved. Tom was reminded of old memories of Ygraine, standing on the balcony or walking through the market with her attendants. She had cared so much for the people, or at least it had seemed so to him. “Your mother would be so proud,” he said, half to himself, then covered his mouth when he realized he’d said the words aloud. “Forgive me, sire. I’m afraid I don’t usually get the luxury of wine, and it’s gone right to my head.”

“No, it’s… it’s all right,” said Arthur. “When my father was alive, everyone was afraid to speak of her.”

“In that, he did you a disservice, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Gwen smiled, and took her husband’s arm. “Perhaps that will change, now that so many people have returned who remember her,” she said gently. “Perhaps you’ll be able to learn more about her.”

“I’d like that.” Then he seemed to remember that he was in company, and shook himself, adding, “But that will have to wait for another day, I think. Tom, it was very good to meet you. I’m glad you are well.”

The fourth day after Arthur’s argument with Gwen, there was a dragon.

Gwen had promised Merlin that Arthur would visit in the next few days, but he hadn’t. Merlin had thought he’d known better than to get his hopes up, at least, but here he was, still feeling sad and moping about the castle like a lonely, useless ghost.

Merlin snorted, shaking his head, as he made his way to the kitchen gardens where he and Gwen liked to take the sun. The self-pity was getting old, even for him, but he was in no shape to do anything about it. He couldn’t exactly stomp up to Arthur’s chambers and demand that they hash everything out; he’d be exhausted and need a rest before they even got started. He wouldn’t humiliate himself by looking for Arthur on the training grounds, nor did he think he had any right to invade the inquest, when his own magic was still so messed up. They’d be just as likely to question his own role in everything, and Merlin simply didn’t have answers to give.

Still, it was hard not to feel down about everything: his health, his magic, his apparent importance to Arthur. Even Gwen hadn’t stopped by last night, and she almost always did. No doubt something important had come up and the queen had been needed, but the timing was just right to set Merlin spiraling into a miserable mood.

Maybe if he lay down in the grass, his uncontrollable magic would take over and cover him in weeds and he could just lie there and not have to get up again.

By every god, he was getting maudlin.

Gwaine would have smacked him upside the head by now, if he’d seen him like this, but Merlin had deliberately chosen to head to the gardens alone today. He just… didn’t want to be around anyone. Gaius and Gwaine were at the inquest. He hadn’t seen Lancelot in a while, so he was probably off with Elyan somewhere. Freya had offered to accompany him, but he had only smiled at her sadly, and made up something about wanting to build up his strength a little, and not wanting to bore her. Hunith, of course, had seen right through his story, but she’d let him go with no more than a worried glance and a kiss to his forehead. It felt some days like he didn’t deserve her, or Freya, or any of them.

Merlin made it to the gardens, nodding to a servant or two along the way, and finally pulled the gate closed behind him, leaning on it for a moment while he caught his breath. The rows of culinary herbs and vegetables were nice, buzzing with bees and butterflies. A bird swooped low for a moment before disappearing into one of the quince trees, all in a row along the back edge of the garden. There were benches under those trees, in shade for most of the day, and he made his way to one of them on legs that were only a little wobbly.

Rather than sitting down, Merlin decided to lie flat, one leg on either side of the bench, with his hands on his stomach. The sunlight dappled its way through the leaves and onto his face, but Merlin could still get a good view of the sky beyond just by turning his head a little. He and Gwen liked to watch the clouds together, and make up stories about the shapes they saw there. Merlin only regretted that he could not use his magic to stir the clouds themselves, the way he had done as a child. She would have liked that, he thought.

A shadow passed over the sun, larger than usual, and Merlin looked up to see a dragon—and it wasn’t Kilgharrah, he could somehow tell—gliding past, high in the sky. He had heard from Gwen that there had been sightings, but he’d never caught a glimpse of one himself until now.

The sunlight caught the membranes of the dragon’s wings, lighting them up red against the silhouette of its body, and Merlin wondered what color it really was. He wondered where it was going. Wondered whether it had companions, or a mate, or a dragon lord who cared for it. He thought of Aithusa with a pang of guilt and sorrow, and Kilgharrah with sadness. The Great Dragon was old, and had heavily implied that he would not see Merlin again before the end of his life. He’d been a right bastard sometimes, but the two of them were kin, and Merlin could not bring himself to hate the creature for all that he’d done.

“O dráko, pós éfchomai na boroúsa na petáxo mazí sou,” he said softly. Oh dragon, how I wish I could fly away with you.

He hadn’t realized he had spoken the tongue of the dragons, nor even that he could possibly have been heard, until the dragon above him wheeled, spiraling and growing larger as he watched.

No, not larger, Merlin realized, sitting up, his eyes growing wide. Closer. It was directly above the kitchen gardens, and it was coming in for a landing.

Chapter Text

On the other side of the castle, faintly, Merlin could hear the alarm bell beginning to ring as the dragon approached. It was not quite as large as Kilgharrah, but easily twice the size of Aithusa, if not bigger; its scales were a rich, mottled red-brown along the sides, and pale on the belly and throat. Merlin could feel the wind from its wings as it spread them wide and beat hard, tossing the plants in the garden to and fro in the sudden gust. For all that power, however, it touched down almost delicately, the claws digging into the ground between the rows of plants and disturbing almost none of them.

It—no, she, Merlin suddenly knew, though he couldn’t say how—ducked her head under one wing, then the other, before she spotted him and leaned in close. Merlin had sat up, of course he had, but he was still on the bench under the quince trees, gaping up at only the third dragon he’d ever seen as she’d come in. She stared at him, seeming equally curious, and did not speak.

He wasn’t sure his legs would hold him, but he still stood and took a tentative step toward her. “Y-you can’t stay here,” he said. “If you stay, the knights will come and kill you.”

“They can try,” she said. Her voice echoed the way Kilgharrah’s had, as if she were speaking into both his ears and his mind simultaneously.

“I could make you leave,” he warned. And then prayed that that was true, that he hadn’t lost his dragon lord powers along with his magic.

“Rude,” said the dragon, sounding amused. “You would seek to command me, little dragon lord, when we have not yet even been introduced?”

“I—” Merlin stopped, blinking. “My name is Merlin.”

“And I am called Kisheer.”

“Okay, it’s nice to meet you… Now will you leave?” he asked.

Kisheer tilted her head, looking at him with one enormous golden eye. “I suppose I could,” she said. “But then why did you summon me?”

“I didn’t realize I had,” said Merlin. “I hadn’t meant to. I just saw you flying overhead, and thought—”

“Thought that you would like me to carry you away,” she interrupted. “Yes, I heard.”


At least the dragon didn’t seem too offended; she looked around the garden for a moment, listening to the ringing of the alarm bell and the growing sound of men shouting. “Camelot,” she mused. “I wonder if they even still know how to slay dragons, with all their dragon lords gone. Except for you, of course,” she added.

“I’d really rather we not find out,” said Merlin fervently. “Please, won’t you take off before they get here?”

“Too late,” she replied, still sounding amused; she lifted her great head and swiveled her neck until she faced the garden gate, which even now was crashing open as men charged into the clearing, armed and armored, and led by… oh god, led by Arthur.

He looked good, Merlin thought distantly, in the corner of his mind that wasn’t frantic with worry; the past month and a half had given the king time to recover from his wounds. He seemed a bit thinner in the face, a bit tired, but nothing worse than that.

The men stopped short, some of them taking a step back as Kisheer bared her teeth. Her tail swung once, slowly, and Merlin thought perhaps that was another signal that she was becoming agitated. He got up and staggered out from under the shade of the trees to stand at her side.

“Stop,” he said, with nowhere near the strength in his voice that he wanted. “There’s no need to attack her. Everything’s fine.”

“Fine?! Are you out of—” Arthur began, then stopped. “Merlin?

“Kisheer is just… stopping for a visit,” he said, a little desperately.

“And how do you know that?” demanded Arthur. “What, are you telling me it talks or something?”


“Yes, it does,” said Kisheer, causing all the men to stagger back a few more steps until they were pressed up against the wall. Their eyes were so comically wide under their helms that Merlin could see them even from where he was standing.

Arthur’s mouth opened and closed a few times, but he rallied admirably. “And what is your business here, dragon?” His voice shook only a little; Merlin was impressed.

“It is as your dragon lord said,” replied Kisheer. “I was passing by, and he invited me to come and speak to him.”

“That… that’s not precisely true,” Merlin tried, but it was clear that Arthur was fed up.

My dragon lo—shut up, Merlin.” He turned to the dragon. “Do you plan any harm to Camelot?”

Kisheer actually chuckled, and Merlin really couldn’t tell if he should be worried by that or not. “Do you think you could stop me, if I did?”

Well, Merlin thought, there was the matter of Excalibur… “Actually, he probably could—”

“Shut up, Merlin. I killed the last dragon to attack Camelot, and he was bigger than you.”

“No, you didn’t,” said Kisheer. “But fear not: your dragon lord sent him away. He will never trouble Camelot again.”

Arthur’s eyes grew very large, and then his expression grew very angry as he glared at Merlin. “And how do you know that?” he asked, his voice even and low.

“I have spoken with him recently. I had thought Uther and his men slaughtered us all, but Kilgharrah was kept as a trophy to the tyrant’s pride. Over twenty years, a creature of air and fire was locked away under the earth, under this very castle. A creature of magic, trapped as a testament to one man’s hatred of the same.” She blew hot breath from her nostrils, making the men flinch and raise their shields. “His vengeance was justified.”

Merlin expected Arthur to explode in a rage at that, but instead, to his surprise, the other man only grew solemn. “I have been hearing that a lot lately,” he said.

Kisheer tilted her head as if contemplating the king, but before she could speak again, there was a commotion behind the men, outside the gate. “Let me through!” someone was saying. “Damn you, stand aside!”

The dragon lifted her head high on her long neck, looking over the gate. From what Merlin could see from the ground, her eyes grew wide, and she shuffled her leathery wings once before stilling.

A man burst through the crowd, panting, shoving a knight to one side as he staggered to a stop. He was heavyset, with streaks of gray in his beard, and he rested his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. “O dráko,” he began, looking up, but then he stopped.

“Colgrevance?” asked Kisheer, bringing her head low. Only the stranger and Arthur stood their ground, as the rest of the men rushed out of the way. “Is it really you?”

“Kisheer,” said the stranger. He was still panting, but he smiled widely, and brought one hand up to touch her snout. “It is good to see you, old friend.”

“And you, as well. How did you survive the slaughter?”

“I didn’t,” said Colgrevance. “Uther caught most of us at the banquet, if he hadn’t already murdered us in our beds. All but one, from what I’ve heard.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Kisheer, and Merlin felt tears prick his eyes at the genuine emotion in her voice. “I was too late to warn you.”

“It wasn’t your fault, agapité mou fíle,” said Colgrevance. “Let the blame fall where it is deserved.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Am I to assume you are a dragon lord?” he asked.

Colgrevance straightened, and turned to face the king. “I am, Your Highness.” He lifted his chin. “What will you do with me?”

Arthur sighed. “Nothing, yet. But we’ll need to talk.”

“Why?” asked Kisheer; her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she glared at Arthur. “He has done nothing to you.”

“Because, as king, I need to know what happened during my father’s purge of magic and magic users,” he explained. “I’ve been speaking to everyone I could who has returned from the dead. I’m trying to find out whether my kingdom is in danger.”

“It will not be magic that threatens your kingdom,” said Kisheer, and Merlin was suddenly reminded of Kilgharrah and his penchant for being cryptic. “At least, not magic alone. You would do well to seek closer to home for danger, rather than casting your gaze far afield.”

It was Arthur’s turn to narrow his eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It is not my place to spell out your fate for you, young king,” said Kisheer. “You will succeed or fail based on your own choices.”

Arthur opened his mouth, visibly irritated, but Merlin cut him off. “I think dragons all talk like that,” he said. “At least when it comes to fate and destiny.”

“There are matters of balance to consider,” Kisheer explained. “As creatures of the Old Religion, we may advise, but we cannot direct. We can suggest, but cannot interfere. It is a fine line to walk, sometimes. I have been as straightforward as I am capable of being, and given your king all that I can. The rest is up to him.”

“Kilgharrah helped me in the past,” Merlin told her, carefully ignoring the look of disbelief Arthur leveled him.

“Did he come to you, or did you ask him for aid?”

“Er… a little of both? I mean, I didn’t know he existed when I first came to Camelot. He’s the one who called me, and told me about my destiny. But after that I went to him for help when I needed it, to protect Arthur.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Arthur close his eyes in seeming weariness, but he had no idea how to interpret what that might mean. “On the other hand, some of the advice he gave me was terrible, and I regret having followed it. There are a lot of things I should have done differently.”

Kisheer actually brought her head around to rest the bridge of her snout against his shoulder for a moment; somehow, the gentle touch of a dragon was the most comforting thing he’d felt in a long time. “Kilgharrah almost certainly had his own motives, as Uther’s prisoner,” she said. “But we can discuss that another time, if you would like.”


When you wish it, young dragon lord, she said into his mind, call for me, and I will come.

Merlin shook himself, a little dazed with the power of her sending. “Right,” he said, blinking until he could focus his eyes properly again. “I’ll… I’ll do that.”

“Do what?” Arthur muttered, but Kisheer was already speaking over him. “Colgrevance. It has been too long. Will you stay in Camelot, or leave?”

“The king has asked me to stay, but I have sworn no oaths,” he replied. “On the other hand, he has a reputation as a fair and just man. I will see what he wants, and then make my decision from there.”

“Very well. I look forward to the day when we may meet again.” With that, Kisheer opened her enormous wings, shading the entire garden as the assembled armed men milled about nervously. “You may want to shield your eyes,” she said to them, then gathered her haunches beneath her and made a mighty leap into the air. Her wings beat the downstroke at the top of her arc, sending a mighty gust across the garden, and then she was flying, above the treetops and away from them all.

Colgrevance looked Merlin over with a critical eye. “So you’re a dragon lord too,” he said. Merlin hid a cringe, and very carefully did not look at Arthur, or any of the other assembled men. “Who was your father, if I may ask?”

“Balinor,” said Merlin. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Arthur.

“Balinor,” said the other man, shutting his eyes. “Ah, damn.” When he opened them again, he looked at Merlin with a sad expression. “He was a good man.”

“You knew him?”

“I mentored him, after his father died and he came into his powers. Not that Ambrosius wasn’t a good teacher, because he was. But I admit, I had hoped he’d escaped Uther’s slaughter.”

Ambrosius. Merlin had had a grandfather, once, a lineage. A connection to someone’s legacy besides just his mother’s.

It took a moment, swallowing the painful lump in his throat, before he felt he could speak. “He did,” he said finally. “He, uh… from what I heard, he escaped Camelot and met my mother, and well, here I am.” He smiled tentatively, but the expression felt wrong on his face. “Only Uther’s men hunted him across the border into Essetir, and he had to flee. We never knew each other. He didn’t know he had a son until we went looking for him, a few years ago.” His voice only shook a little as he added, “And then he died protecting me, only a couple of days after we met.”

“Gods,” said Colgrevance. Merlin wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard Arthur muttering the same thing.

“It’s fine,” said Merlin, wondering if that were true. “It’s been a few years, as I said. I’ve had time to come to terms with it.”

“But he was the last, wasn’t he? Until we all returned?”

“I hadn’t known that any dragon lords had returned,” Merlin admitted. “I thought I was the last, after I inherited his powers.”

“And Kilgharrah?”

“Was the last dragon, for a long time.”

Colgrevance took a deep breath through his nose. “Uther had much to answer for,” he said evenly. “If he weren’t already dead… well. I suppose it’s too late for that.”

“What about his son?” Merlin asked. Beside them, Arthur shifted uncomfortably. “A lot of people have tried to get vengeance on Arthur for the sins of Uther.”

But Colgrevance shook his head before Merlin had even finished speaking. “I have no quarrel with you, Your Highness,” he said, turning to Arthur. “At least, not yet. By all accounts, you’re doing the best you can in extraordinary circumstances. I only hope you’ll make the right decisions, where magic and magical people are concerned.”

“Thank you,” said Arthur. Once again, it struck Merlin how tired Arthur looked, and he wondered if his king were really doing as well as he’d first thought.

With a gesture, Arthur dismissed his guards and knights, who began filing out through the garden gate behind him. Only Sir Leon remained behind, observing everything silently. “Where are you staying?” Arthur asked, once they were gone.

“I’m in the tent city,” said Colgrevance. “Near the intersection of Orange and Spiral. I’m easy enough to find if you go there and ask around.”

Merlin frowned, wondering what that meant, but Arthur seemed to understand it. “I’ll send for you when I’m ready to talk,” he said. “Are you the only dragon lord there?”

“The only one I’ve seen,” said Colgrevance slowly. “I expect the rest of us fled if we were able to, but even if there were more of us here, I wouldn’t be inclined to tell you who they were, if they didn’t want to be revealed. We have good reason to be wary of you, Your Highness, even if you have not yet invited our enmity.”

“I’ve no interest in making an enemy of men who can command dragons,” said Arthur.

One corner of Colgrevance’s mouth turned up. “You’re wiser than your father, then,” he said. “Although Uther had his own ways of keeping us all in line.”

“What did he do?” asked Arthur, but then he held his hand up. “Actually, no. You can tell me that another time.” He gave Merlin a significant glance. “For now, there is another conversation I need to have. Thank you for coming to try and stop the dragon, even if it—she—didn’t need to be stopped.”

“It is my sacred duty as a dragon lord, to protect both humans and dragons from one another when there is a conflict,” said Colgrevance. “Although, I suppose you would have no way to know that, with all of us gone except this one.” He nodded at Merlin, and added, “If you ever want to hear stories of your father, I’d be honored to share them.”

Merlin nodded, blinking rapidly. “I’d like that.”

Colgrevance looked between the two of them, before he nodded knowingly. Merlin had no idea what he’d seen, but it was clear that he understood something that Merlin didn’t. “If there is nothing else, Your Highness…?”

“No, nothing else. I look forward to speaking with you further.”

Colgrevance bowed, nodded respectfully toward Sir Leon, and left, leaving the three of them standing awkwardly in the kitchen gardens. Birds were singing overhead, and the breeze was blowing through the herbs; only the claw marks in the grass showed that anything unusual had happened there at all.

“Merlin,” said Arthur evenly. “I think we need to talk.”

Chapter Text

“So,” said Arthur. “A dragon lord.” Now that the dragon and everyone apart from Sir Leon was gone, Arthur took a moment to look Merlin over. He looked… not good, actually. Thinner, paler, and tired. He didn’t have the usual spark in his eye that Arthur was used to seeing, and he didn’t hold himself as tall. He looked like an older man hidden in a young man’s body, somehow, and also as if that older man had been kicked around by life a few times too many. “Are you all right?”

Merlin sighed. “Not really.” He made for the benches in the shade of the quince trees, along one side of the garden. With a nod, Arthur sent Leon to guard the gate, just out of earshot of whatever conversation they were about to have, and followed Merlin. Even the other mans’ walk was unsteady, like Gaius when his joints were paining him, again reminding Arthur of someone much older.

“What happened?” he asked, once they were seated.

“About the dragon?”

“We’ll get to that,” said Arthur. “I meant… all this.” He gestured at Merlin, from head to toe. “You look terrible.”

“I tried to trade my life for yours,” Merlin began, but Arthur cut him off.

“I know that part. What I meant was, why haven’t you recovered? Why aren’t you better?”

Merlin could have snapped at him then, or looked at him like he was an idiot, but instead, all he said was, “I used your sword, Arthur. Excalibur was forged in a dragon’s breath. It can kill anything, even the dead.” He looked down at his knees and added, “I had it made when the wraith came and threatened you. Remember, the raised corpse of Tristan du Bois?”

Du Bois. Arthur swallowed, uncertain how much of this story he wanted to hear. “I hadn’t known it was my uncle,” he said.

“From what Gaius told me, he challenged Uther after your mother died, and then Uther killed him in single combat. Nimueh brought him back as a wraith, because his spirit was too angry to remain at rest. She sent him against your father. Nothing would have destroyed the wraith until it had achieved its purpose, or it were cut down with a dragon-forged blade. That’s how I was able to kill Morgana, too. Your sword can kill anything.”

“So it was supposed to kill you, too,” Arthur said, following along, and hating the thought of it. Merlin dead… it couldn’t be borne. Then he frowned, wondering why he hadn’t died, and thought of the supposed Goddess he’d seen not long after. “Is that why you’re still so…”

“Probably,” said Merlin. “I don’t really know why I’m still alive. It was supposed to be a life for a life, and instead… instead we have all this,” he finished, gesturing aimlessly.

“I never would have asked you to exchange your life for mine,” said Arthur. “Not like that. Not ever.”

“I know.” Merlin looked up, a little crease in his brow like the thought was obvious to him. “But you’re a great king, Arthur. I’m just a servant. I told you, I’m proud of that, I’d be happy to serve you until—”

“That doesn’t mean you get to just throw your life away! And you were always more than a servant, you idiot, you were my friend too. Where would I have been if you died?”

“Alive,” said Merlin simply. “If it were in my power to save you, then I’d do it.”

“You’ve done too much, in the shadows,” said Arthur. Then his mood soured, as he thought of what that really meant; why he’d really been avoiding Merlin all this time. “Most of it you’ll probably never even tell me.”

“I’d tell you,” Merlin replied immediately. “I just… it might take a long time. And there are things I’ve done that I regret. Terrible things.”

“Would you tell me all of it, though?” asked Arthur, scrubbing one hand down his face, resisting the urge to bury his face in both hands and just ignore the world for a minute. “You’ve hidden so much, God, and even if you’ve given me your reasons why, how am I to know that you’d really tell me everything if I asked? How do I know you wouldn’t just make something up to appease me, or hide the full truth, or lie again? How many times have you lied or hidden things from me over the past ten years, Merlin?”

There was a long pause before Merlin spoke. “A lot,” he admitted. “Too many times. But I wanted to tell you, every single day.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

“Because you’d have had to pick a side, Arthur. Me or your father. Magic, or everything you’d ever been taught about it. And you loved him. I couldn’t do that to you, I couldn’t ask you to pick me over him.”

“That would have been my choice to make!” Arthur took a deep breath, fighting for calm, then got up to pace off some of the tension. “You took that choice away from me when you decided not to let me make it,” he went on, more quietly. “You could have taught me differently, taught me the truth, and instead you let me stew in my own ignorance. How many wrongs could I have righted, or prevented, if you had just told me?”

“Arthur, I’m sorry,” said Merlin, and there were tears standing in his eyes.

“Sorry doesn’t fix it. Sorry doesn’t—did you really think I was that stupid, that untrustworthy? Was I really that easy to fool, all these years?”

“No!” Merlin struggled to his feet, stumbling a few steps forward to catch Arthur’s forearm. “Arthur, never. You were my friend.”

“How could I have been? You never let me be.” Merlin flinched as if he’d been slapped, and Arthur hated himself just a little bit more for the look he’d just put on the other man’s face. “If we had really been friends, you would have trusted me, Merlin, as I trusted you,” he said. As relentless as he might have wanted to sound, instead it came out pleading, begging for Merlin to understand. His father would have had a conniption, hearing such weakness from Arthur. “You would have told me about yourself, about your magic. You would have told me Balinor was your father—”

“And if word of that ever got back to Uther, I’d have been dead,” snapped Merlin.

“So you think I couldn’t have kept a secret for you? You think I wouldn’t have had your back?”

“I think there was nothing you could have done if Uther had decided he wanted to execute me!” Merlin was breathing quickly now, with bright spots of color high on his cheeks, and Arthur almost worried for him. “You were going to fight that wraith, and I had that sword made for you, and then he had you drugged and locked up in your rooms! You tried to save my life when I drank poison for you, and he put you in the dungeon for a week! Even Morgana could only stand up to him so far before he’d threaten her safety, he locked her up at least once that I know of, and he doted on her! What do you think he’d have done to you, if he found out you were harboring a sorcerer? I was not going to put you at risk.”

“So instead you kept me in the dark and fed me lies,” said Arthur bitterly.

“It was the only way to keep you safe!”

I had a right to know!” Arthur bellowed.

“You did,” Merlin agreed, and the tears broke free to spill down his cheeks. “My God, you did, Arthur, but what was I to do? How else was I to balance keeping you safe, and keeping my head?”

Arthur made a sound of disgust and turned away, flinging his arms out wide and wishing fervently that he had something he could throw, or hit. Merlin had treated him like a child, he thought angrily, then quashed the thought with even more rage. He’d had his reasons, good reasons, and yet Arthur couldn’t find his way toward forgiveness. Perhaps he really was as childish as Merlin must have thought he was.

“How do I know you’ll tell me the truth when I ask it?” he said, voice trembling. “How can I ever know you’re not just lying to me again?”

Merlin was silent, and that almost felt like answer enough. Arthur rubbed at his chest, feeling as if he’d been stabbed all over again, and turned to look at Merlin. The other man looked just as stricken; it was all Arthur could do not to take him by the shoulders and tell him everything would be all right between them. He wanted it to be, God, how he wanted that! But what would Merlin say?

“Ask me anything,” he said finally. He hiccuped once, and smeared the tears across his face with the back of his hand. “I swear I will speak the truth to you.”

“Like you always have?” Arthur muttered.

“Like I always tried to. Like I always, always wanted to.”

“How can I know?”

At this, surprisingly, Merlin’s expression hardened. “You’ll know because it will be what you don’t want to hear,” he said. “You know I’ve never just spoon-fed you happy lies.”

“What, like, ‘You dealt the dragon a mortal blow’?”

Merlin flinched.

“That dragon that was just here, Kisheer, it said that you were a dragon lord. It said you sent the Great Dragon away from Camelot. Why would you have lied to me about that?”

“Because Uther had all the dragon lords slaughtered, remember? And I didn’t want you chasing after Kilgharrah to kill him, after I sent him away.”

“Why didn’t you kill him?”

Merlin sighed. “Because he was the last of his kind. I couldn’t be responsible for eradicating all dragons. And I’m—I was—the last dragon lord. We were kin. I just couldn’t.”

It sounded like something Merlin would say. Then again, he hardly knew if what Merlin would say had ever been the truth. “Why didn’t you send it away before it destroyed half the city?”

“Because a dragon lord’s powers are inherited only on the death of the father,” said Merlin. He hobbled back over to the bench and sat down, looking as if every joint ached. “What I told Colgrevance was true. I never knew Balinor, never even knew his name until Gaius told me right before we left. He never knew I existed until we went to find him. The fact I was his son was the only reason he changed his mind and decided to help us. And then he died for it—for me! I got his powers, when I would rather have kept him instead.”

Arthur worked his jaw from side to side, mulling that over. “What did you mean when you said if it were true I wouldn’t want to hear it?”

“Agravaine comes to mind,” said Merlin sharply, with a lift of one eyebrow. “I tried to tell you he was a traitor, and you threatened to banish me. You listened to him when he said Gaius was the traitor, and ignored everything you knew about Gaius in order to hear what Agravaine wanted you to hear. Gaius, who you’ve known since childhood. Gaius, who was like a father to me. If Agravaine had succeeded in killing him, I don’t know if I’d have ever come back to Camelot.”

Arthur was silent.

“You say we’re friends, but you’ve only ever believed me once. Once, when I told you Valiant wasn’t to be trusted. But after that? I was ‘only a servant’, as far as you were concerned. By the time Agravaine came along, I had been by your side for years, saved your life more times than you ever knew—”

“And who’s fault is that—”

“—and had a seat at the Round Table in the Castle of the Ancient Kings,” said Merlin, talking over him. “Where you talked about equality, where you knighted men you barely knew, where you made Gwen your queen even if you didn’t marry her till later. And those knights are by your side still, and Gwen is your wife so you listen to her, but Gaius and I are still just commoners and you still ignore us when we tell you things you don’t like. You were willing to throw Gaius away like yesterday’s garbage on Agravaine’s say-so, even when I told you he’d been kidnapped, and even after we proved it, you still never apologized to him or to me as far as I can remember! How long had it been since you’d even seen Agravaine, before he came to your court? But you listened to him anyway, because he’s a noble and I’m not.”

“He was family,” Arthur said, “that’s supposed to mean something.”

“Didn’t mean much to Morgana or Uther, apparently,” said Merlin. It was a low blow, and Arthur bristled almost against his will.

“Is that what you want?” he snapped. “To be elevated to nobility? Is that your agenda?”

“Agenda? Are you out of your mind? Why the hell would I want to be noble?”

“Then what did you want?!”

To protect you!” Merlin bellowed, then doubled over, clutching his chest. Before Arthur could even move, however, he sat upright, baring his teeth in either pain or anger. “To see you become the king you were destined to be.”

“So you only wanted to be around me for my rank, is that it? Same as everyone else?”

“Don’t you dare,” seethed Merlin. “Don’t you dare try and tell me I gave a damn about your rank. I cared about you because you were a good man, and you know it. You were a good man, and you were destined to be the greatest king Albion has ever seen, and my job was to keep you alive until you got there.”

“So you wanted to see me as king over Uther—”

“Arthur, literally everyone in Albion wanted to see you as king over Uther! He was a monster and a tyrant, and he slaughtered actual thousands of innocent people in a mad rage rather than take responsibility for his own actions. I know you know this, you’ve been holding this inquest every day for six weeks, and Gwen tells me some of what you talk about. Some of what you’ve seen. You know he was a horrible person. Of course I wanted to see you as king over him, but if you think I had some sort of agenda to force that to happen, you’re out of your damn mind.”

“Then why stay, if you hated him so much? Why not just be like all the other sorcerers who tried to kill him, or me, or all of us?” Arthur clutched at his hair, his eyes widening as he realized something. “Why tell me Morgause lied, when I could have ended all the suffering and bloodshed right then and there?”

“Because your reign could never have survived if it started with you murdering your own father! By every god, you might have been in a rage, but you loved him, even if he was a monster.”

“Don’t you talk like that about my father!”

“Why not, it’s true and you know it! But you never would have forgiven yourself if you had killed him. You could have found some other way to overthrow him.”

“I could have, if I had realized that Morgause had shown me the truth!”

“I was trying to protect you!”

I don’t need protecting!

The hell you don’t!” They were both on their feet now, nose to nose, breathing each other’s air, red-faced and fists clenched, and if Merlin weren’t so bloody frail Arthur would have knocked him into the dirt by now.

And then suddenly Leon was there, a hand on both their chests. Arthur barely moved at his nudge, but Merlin staggered back, never breaking eye contact with Arthur. “Come on,” he was saying, “that’s enough. Both of you, you can’t carry on like this.”

“You’re right,” said Arthur. “You’re right, I don’t know why I thought I needed to talk to Merlin.”

“And I don’t know why I thought I needed to see you. You’re alive and still as arrogant as you always were. I did my job. Go be king.”

And that hurt, but as always, Arthur transmuted hurt to anger. The words slithered out before he could even think to stop them. “Maybe I will. I’ve got Bruenor to talk to about magic and I’ve got Colgrevance to talk to about dragons. You go be Gaius’s apprentice!”

Merlin went even paler, if it were possible, the color draining from his lips as he swayed on his feet. But he still had the balls to say, “That’s right, trust someone you’ve only just met over me. Again.”

“Let’s go, Leon,” growled Arthur, turning his back and stomping toward the other side of the garden. He had just about made it out when he heard Merlin call his name; he almost ignored it, as Leon left ahead of him, but he never had been able to ignore his servant, insolent as he was most of the time.

“Told you you wouldn’t want to hear it,” he said softly.

Arthur snarled, and slammed the gate shut behind him.

Chapter Text


Arthur stomped down the path that led away from the kitchen garden, around the perimeter of the castle until he reached the courtyard, then stalked toward the stairs and up. Leon was hot on his heels, the one to catch his words as he raged. “Insolent, stubborn, treasonous—”

“Sire,” said Leon quietly. When Arthur turned to glare, Leon indicated the crowded corridor with his eyes; there were servants leaping out of their way and bowing, and those of higher rank staring at Arthur fearfully. “Not here.”

“No. Not here,” muttered Arthur, slowing his pace. He kept his mouth shut, but the expression on his face was completely beyond his ability to bring under control. No doubt his eyes were blazing like a sorcerer’s with the way people got out of his way.

People who recognized Arthur’s rank like they were supposed to, and deferred to it in a way that Merlin had never done. Now he knew why. Bloody sorcerers thought they were above everyone else…

A little voice in his head that sounded like Gwen whispered, You’re being unfair. And he was, he knew he was; he had told Merlin the truth, that Merlin was his friend and not allowed to throw his life away for Arthur’s, but damn it all. Merlin had made choices for Arthur that were not his to make, as if Arthur were too stupid to be trusted with the truth, and Arthur hated how that made him feel.

“Sire!” called a woman. She looked nervous but brave, approaching him at a hurried walk. Margaret, one of the senior servants.

Arthur clenched his jaw, schooled his expression as best he could, and stopped. “What is it?”

“Sire, the council request your presence. They convened as soon as the dragon sighting was reported, and they are waiting to hear what happened.”

Arthur shut his eyes for just a moment, already at the end of his patience. “Thank you, Margaret,” he said evenly. “Tell them I’ll be there momentarily.”

He had been heading toward his chambers, but now Arthur turned and marched toward the armory, Leon still on his heels. Dealing with a roomful of panicky nobles was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do in his current mood, but there was no way out of it; the least he could do was get his armor off and be comfortable while he faced them. Self-serving cowards. Not a single one had put on armor and gone to face the supposed threat of the dragon with him, but he was probably being unfair again to expect such a thing.

Unfair, that was Arthur. He could feel his lip curling up into a sneer, and fought it down. Now was not the time for an outburst.

Luckily, Leon read his mood and his needs, and immediately started unbuckling Arthur’s armor as soon as he checked that the armory was empty. The other knights must have had plenty of time to come in and get out of their gear after the dragon had disappeared, while Arthur and Merlin had been having their little conversation.

Not the time, he reminded himself. He stood silently, working his jaw, his gaze on the far wall, focusing on his breathing and on getting himself calmed down to the point that he would be less likely to have any of the waiting nobles banished or executed.

He was beginning to understand why his father had never seemed able to relax except on the rarest of occasions. The rest of the time, he had a kingdom to run, and it was simply not the time to show any other emotion, no matter how much it might be killing him to hold all of that back.

Merlin had always been good at getting him to let go…

Not the time!

Finally he was out of his armor; Arthur decided to keep the gambeson, rather than face the council in a wrinkled, sweaty tunic. Besides, it might remind some of them that he actually knew how to use the sword he kept at his side always.

The sword Merlin had given him…

Arthur sighed. Apparently, reminding himself that he had other things to focus on was not going to work today. Just wonderful.

Merlin wasn’t sure how long he sat there, face in his hands, mentally and emotionally exhausted from the fight he’d just had with Arthur. He hadn’t meant to get angry, and hadn’t wanted to make Arthur feel bad about anything. The guilt was entirely Merlin’s, after all; everything Arthur had said had been completely true. Merlin had kept secrets, he had lied, and he had done terrible things in the name of protecting Arthur, things he didn’t want to talk about and maybe never would. He had made decisions that were not his to make. He wasn’t a god, and he certainly wasn’t the king of Camelot. Arthur had had every right to hear the truth, and Merlin had kept it from him, out of fear.

How many wrongs could I have righted, or prevented, if you had just told me?

Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose, willing himself not to break down and cry. Yes, he was upset, and weary down to his very soul, but he was tired of weeping. His tears never won him anything, never solved anything. There was no point in giving in to them… no matter how much he might want to.

It didn’t help that he could feel pressure behind his eyes the way he sometimes did when his magic was about to go and do something he couldn’t control. It almost felt like a headache from a stuffy nose, except for the way the hairs on his arms kept standing and then settling again.

The sound of slow footsteps caught his ear, and he looked up to see Lancelot moving toward him across the garden, picking his way between the rows. He had a an open expression on his face, a look that might have been simple understanding and a willingness to listen, or might have been pity. Merlin was inclined to think it was pity, but then, he was at least aware enough to know he’d been horribly maudlin the past few days. He was seeing everything in a negative light, and he knew it.

“I heard there was a dragon,” said Lancelot, when he finally made it to Merlin’s side.

“There was,” said Merlin.

“Anything to do with you?”

“Not on purpose,” said Merlin.

“Not on—” Lancelot cut himself off with a chuckle. “I’m not sure I even want to know.”

“Probably for the best.”

“Ready to get out of here?” Lancelot asked, offering his hand.

Merlin took it and hauled himself painfully to his feet. “Definitely.”

They walked slowly, Merlin leaning on Lancelot’s arm, enjoying the silence even though he knew it couldn’t last. Still, Lancelot didn’t say anything until they’d rounded the corner of the castle and come down into the courtyard. There were servants gossiping at the pump as they took turns filling their buckets, and two or three men in armor crossing leisurely, chatting. No one really paid them any mind, and Merlin was grateful for it.

Lancelot had been studying Merlin’s face the entire time, and now he asked, “Everything all right?”

“No, not really.” When Lancelot didn’t reply, he went on, “Arthur came to see if the dragon was a threat. She wasn’t, but after she left, then Arthur and I finally talked.”


“Yeah. Oh.” Merlin sighed heavily. “A month, I’ve been waiting for him to come see me, and then he finally did, and we fought. It was… pretty bad. And mostly my fault.”

“I doubt that. Arthur has always had a temper on him.”

“And I’ve always been stubborn. Anyway, everything he said was the truth. It’s just that everything I said was the truth too, and he didn’t like that.”

“Makes it hard to give away your secrets when you know he is likely to react badly to them,” offered Lancelot.

“He’s been lied to so many times, though. Betrayed by people he trusted. And now he thinks I’m one of them.”

“He doesn’t,” said Lancelot firmly. “You saved his life, and you showed him your… gifts,” he said, with a glance around the courtyard. “He finally saw you for who you were.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s wrong to be angry at everything I hid from him for so long,” said Merlin. “And if he ever finds out all of it, I’ll be lucky to keep my head.” The pressure in his head increased and he shut his eyes against it, once again feeling the hairs on his arms stand up. Hopefully the magic would hold off until he was asleep, and Gaius, Freya, and his mum could help take care of the fallout afterward.

“He hasn’t lain a finger on any of the people to come through the inquest,” said Lancelot. “At least, not that I’ve heard.”

“He still hasn’t given you back your place at the Round Table?” grumbled Merlin.

“To be fair, I was dead.”

“So was Gwaine, didn’t stop Arthur then.”

“No one really knows that, though; as far as the council knows, Gwaine left around the same time Arthur did, and came back with him. Whereas I was gone for… rather longer. There’s no denying what happened with me.”

“I suppose.”

“Anyway, I’m sure most of his anger doesn’t have anything to do with you,” Lancelot said. “He’s under a lot of strain with this inquest, and the nobles all pressuring him to do something about the refugees outside the city.”

“To hear Freya tell it, this inquest is my fault, too,” said Merlin. “It was supposedly my power that brought them all back. And no one seems to realize that there had to be a price paid for that. I’m dreading the day it comes due.”

“What if there isn’t?”

“There has to be!” Merlin’s magic surged and he pinched the bridge of his nose hard, fighting to get it back under control.

“Merlin?” Lancelot reached out, but Merlin shook him off, not wanting the distraction. It was taking all his concentration to hold onto the energy, and it was fighting him in a way that it never had when he was younger. He gritted his teeth and held on, struggling to take one step and then another, up toward Gaius’s rooms.

He made it to the stairs, then reached out carefully, carefully, for Lancelot’s arm to steady him. Concentrating hard, he took one step…

…and then startled as his mother called his name from the top of the stairs. “Merlin?”

He jumped, looking up reflexively, and the hold on his magic slipped.

The stairs cracked, with a sound like thunder and a split that shot up the steps, toward—


—who lost her balance, as the stairs tipped outward and away from the center, out from under her, and began to fall.

“Mum!” Merlin screamed, throwing his hand out reflexively to catch her, but of course nothing happened. Of course the magic wouldn’t obey him when he most needed it to. Instead fire ripped through his veins, and he dropped to his knees, vision almost completely whited out from the pain.

Hunith tumbled down, the heavy stone of the steps falling with her, and Merlin braced for the sickening thud he knew he would hear when she landed—


—only it never came. A spell shot past over Merlin’s head, one he recognized, and he forced his watering eyes open, forced himself to focus.

The stone of the steps hit the cobbles of the courtyard and smashed to pieces, shrapnel from the rubble flying everywhere, but Hunith was surrounded by a glimmering bubble and held aloft; she was only a foot or two above the ground, but it was enough. Somewhere behind him, the sorcerer who had cast the shield spoke more words in the tongue of magic, and the bubble lowered gently to the ground.

Merlin could not seem to climb to his feet, weaving and stumbling, until Lancelot grabbed him by the arm and hauled him upright. Even then, the pain and aftershocks still shooting through Merlin’s body made it hard to move with any kind of grace at all, and the blocks of stone in the way didn’t help.

“Mum. Oh, Mum, I’m sorry, please be okay, please be okay…”

The shield dissipated as Merlin and Lancelot reached Hunith’s side. She was beginning to stir already, eyes wide and shaking, a little bit of stone dust smeared across one cheek and in her hair. She sat up, and Merlin dropped painfully down next to her, taking her face in his hands and staring into her eyes, looking for any sign of head injury. “Mum, oh gods, I’m so sorry, it was an accident… Where, where are you hurt?”

“I don’t think… I think I’m all right,” said Hunith wonderingly. She was breathless and clearly shaken, but her pupils were the same size and responding to light, and her speech was clear. Then she grimaced, her breath coming in a little hiss. “My knee,” she said. “And maybe my ankle. But definitely my knee.”

“I’m sorry,” gasped Merlin, heedless of the tears streaking down his face. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Merlin, my boy, it’s all right. Your shield protected me.”

He shook his head miserably. “It wasn’t mine.”


“It was mine,” said an unfamiliar voice, and Merlin jumped again, only now realizing that they were drawing a crowd. Servants and passersby had stopped to watch, shocked by the collapsing stairs and the near-miss of Hunith’s fall. The courtyard was the worst place possible to have a magical accident. Everyone would know he had magic, everyone would see

He looked up to see a man he’d never met before standing over them in armor, looking at them with concern on his face. He met Merlin’s gaze and his expression turned a little annoyed, though not terribly so. “You need to get those powers of yours under control, young man,” he said. His tone wasn’t unkind or malicious, but it was still more than Merlin could really handle. He looked down, ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but he wasn’t sure if anyone heard him.

The stranger and Lancelot helped Hunith to her feet, then Lancelot turned and did the same for him. Together, they picked their way through the rubble of the destroyed staircase and back around to the part they could still use. It looked like about a third of the stairs had been split away from the rest, collapsed into a heap on the other side of a line that was as neat as an axe cut.

Merlin shuddered. He could have killed his own mother.

The four of them limped up and into the castle proper, Merlin feeling the eyes of too many people boring into his back.

When word of this got back to Arthur, he would be furious. Bad enough that Merlin had lied, but now his magic wasn’t even under control—now he had turned destructive, damaging part of the castle itself. Arthur would never believe this was an accident. He was too fond of lashing out in a temper himself, so of course he’d believe Merlin had done the same.

He and Lancelot made their way up to Gaius’s tower in silence. Ahead of them, Merlin could hear his mum conversing quietly with the stranger—the sorcerer who had saved her life when Merlin couldn’t—but Merlin was too miserable to even try to listen in.

The stranger pushed open the door to Gaius’s chambers, and led Hunith to sit at the bench where Gaius always treated his patients. Merlin made to follow her, then changed his mind; with a nod to Lancelot, he hobbled past them all and up the steps into his room.

As he closed the door, he heard his mother say, “I’m sorry, I never asked your name.”

“Bruenor,” the stranger replied. “My name is Bruenor.”

Of course it is, thought Merlin, and he collapsed on his cot and shut his eyes.

Chapter Text

It had been hours, and Arthur was absolutely at the end of his patience.

“Sire, are we completely certain that the dragon did not pose a threat to Camelot?” asked one council member.

“Of course it posed a threat,” snapped another, “it’s a dragon, eating people is what they do!” He would have sounded authoritative but for the high, panicky pitch to his voice.

“Magical creatures,” muttered another. “Sorcery. None of this would have happened under your father’s reign,” and Arthur decided he’d finally had enough.

“All this is happening because of my father’s reign, in case it had escaped your notice,” he growled. Something in his face must finally have registered with the bleating sheep, because they all shut up and stared at him nervously. “Dragons co-existed with humans for centuries before my father decided to slaughter them all. If allowing sorcerers to live had really led to the chaos my father described, then our kingdom would never have been brought into being. Other kingdoms manage to survive just fine with sorcerers among their populace, so I don’t know why you think they’re such a dire threat here.”

“Your father—”

“I am not my father,” Arthur snapped, slapping his hand hard against the table. Half the council jumped in their seats as if they hadn’t expected him to show a temper. “Uther had his time as king, and now he is dead. I am not going to blindly follow in his footsteps like a child. You would do well to remember that.”

“But, but sire,” tried one of them, “he led the kingdom—”

“To slaughter,” finished Arthur flatly. Had his father been alive, he would have been speaking treason, and from the looks on their faces, many of the councilors still feared Uther’s opinion even though he’d been dead for years now. “He murdered innocents. He tried to eradicate entire populations from the kingdom, and courted war by hunting those people into other kingdoms. The bulk of his treaties with those other lands consist of frightening and threatening their kings to do as he did, and persecute people for nothing more than having magic, even if they never did harm with it.”

“Magic is harmful,” tried another. Querulous old man, trying to get a petulant boy to see reason.

“Please explain to me how healing a goat is a threat to this kingdom,” suggested Arthur, tipping his head sarcastically. “Do, I insist, inform me on the dangers of a ten-year-old girl who can make the plants grow by singing to them. By all means, justify for me the drowning of a three-year-old child because its parents had magic and there was a chance that it might have magic too, later in life.” He was leaning over the table, now, both palms spread flat, and daring any of them to meet his eye. None of them would. “You can’t. Is Camelot really so weak that such things are truly a threat to us? We are not, and those people, those children, pose no danger. But by all means, if you would like to attempt to drown them all in the river again, I’d like to see you try. Only you’ll have to come with me to the pens, and pick the children out with your own eyes, and push them under the water with your own hands. Watch them flail and kick and try desperately to escape, to live, while you hold them down.” The room was completely silent apart from Arthur’s voice, echoing to the rafters, and many of the council members looked pale and sick at his words. “If none of you have the guts to do it yourselves, I will not hear of you suggesting it again. And if you do think you have the spine to try it, I will tell you this: those are Camelot’s citizens you dare to threaten, and I will stand between you and them with my dying breath.”

Lord Archibald was the only one to dare to open his mouth after that, and he only said quietly, “Sire, you are talking about protecting sorcerers.”


“Children who will grow up to be a threat to Camelot.”

“Only if we threaten them first!” said Arthur, utterly sick of this argument. They had been going around in circles since he’d first entered the chamber, equating the threat of a dragon to that of an innocent child. “Have you learned nothing from this inquest? Have you not seen how many of these people were just living their lives, peacefully going about their own business, before my father decided he had to eradicate them? Have you not seen that those who did attack us did so because my father left them with nothing to lose? He ripped away their homes, their families, their livelihoods. Their parents, their spouses. Their children. He created enemies out of peaceful people, and saw threats where none had ever existed, and you sit here acting as though this was a good thing, when in fact his madness endangered and weakened Camelot at every turn!”

Another man, balding, whose jewels gleamed in the light from the windows, cleared his throat. “Perhaps not the children,” he said tentatively, and Arthur fought the urge to growl. “But there remains the dragon…”

“Who came, spoke, and left, causing no harm to anyone.”

“If a dragon lord had commanded it to attack us—”

“I am reliably informed that dragon lords have a sacred duty to prevent that very thing,” said Arthur. “As I’ve already told you.” Repeatedly. For the past three hours.

“And yet, our histories tell of the destruction of Daobeth, long ago,” said Archibald. “The dragon lords must have commanded it.”

“And if we eradicate the dragon lords, we have no one to prevent the dragons from deciding to do so again,” said Arthur. “And if we eradicate them, if we begin a second Purge with them, then where will we stop, hm? Where will we draw the line? How will we prevent all those sorcerers from turning against us and becoming our enemies once more? In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a few thousand of them camped outside the city just now. And they haven’t done anything.”

“The law—”

“The law stands, as I’ve commanded it. The resurrected sorcerers are to avoid using magic whenever possible, but when it isn’t possible to prevent it, then they are forbidden from using magic to harm. It’s not a complicated concept to understand.”

Archibald scowled, but Arthur couldn’t bring himself to care. What was the point of being king if he couldn’t put an idiot in his place once in a while? The council had all seemed to forget that just because he chose to be diplomatic with them, and seek their advice, that did not mean he was obligated to follow it.

“The threat you convened to discuss has passed. As it turned out, there was never a true threat to begin with. We have no reason to still be sitting here discussing it hours later.”


“You are dismissed,” said Arthur, stepping back from the table and waiting. He folded his arms over his chest and glared at them all, until they began to gather their things and go. He did not miss the significant glances some of them traded with one another, and he knew that the politics stemming from this moment would come back to haunt him. There would be scheming and whispering in the corners, bargains and alliances and coalitions, all in an effort to undermine his commands, and Arthur was heartily sick of it.

Once they were gone, Arthur turned and stalked out of the chamber and headed to his own rooms, flagging down a passing servant and ordering a meal brought there. The dragon had arrived around lunch time, and Arthur had been pulled away before he could eat, and now it was nearly time for supper. Merlin would have told him it was no wonder he wanted to chop off all their heads, since he hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. Arthur would have told Merlin that no, it was not his hunger, but their incessant wheedling and whining that was getting under his skin.

He dismissed the thought of Merlin angrily; thinking of the other man would only anger him further, and he was trying to get his emotions under control.

Cowardly old men, only interested in their own wealth and their own safety, from what Arthur could tell. Sure, there were some good men on the council, but it seemed like their voices were drowned out by those who didn’t have an ounce of true leadership in their entire bodies. Who didn’t give a damn about any of the people they were supposedly sworn to protect. Arthur was genuinely unsure how some of them had received land grants in the first place; most of them had likely inherited from worthier ancestors, but it would seem the Purge had made quite a few new nobles out of conniving backstabbers instead. The rest of them didn’t seem capable of thinking for themselves or coming up with any useful plans, either; they could only tell him that his ideas would not work, but not present any alternatives of their own.


Arthur would definitely need to see about changing the makeup of his council in future, if he didn’t want to end up murdering them all in their sleep.

Bruenor didn’t stay long, from what Merlin could tell, which was a blessing. He listened as the other man, the other sorcerer, told Gaius what he’d seen, and heard his mother and Gaius reply, too quietly for him to really make out the words. Eventually, he heard the main door open and shut, and then just his mum, Gaius, and Freya and Lancelot talking.

He must have drifted off to sleep without realizing, because when he next opened his eyes, the light from his window indicated that it was close to sunset. He lay there, feeling the deep inner cold that followed a magical outburst, and wondered if he wanted to even bother going down to join Gaius for the evening meal.

Before too long, the door to Merlin’s little room opened; Merlin’s back was to it, and he didn’t turn over, but from the shuffle of slippered feet, he knew it was Freya behind him.

“Is she going to be all right?” he asked.

Freya came and sat on the edge of his bed and slipped her fingers through his hair. “Gaius thinks it’s just a sprain,” she said. “What about you?”

“I didn’t get hurt.” No, the magic that had lashed out had only harmed his mother, might have killed her if not for Bruenor’s intervention.

“Lancelot told me you and Arthur had a fight.”

Merlin sighed and shut his eyes for a moment. Of course Lancelot had said something. No doubt Merlin had worried them all, coming in like he had with an injured mother and covered in rock dust from the collapsing stairs. And then not to stay and speak to them… but he couldn’t bear to be in the same room with them, not after what had happened had been his fault. Couldn’t bear the humiliation of speaking to Bruenor, who would certainly have asked him what happened, or else just known. Merlin honestly wasn’t sure which would have been worse.

“We did,” he said. “He blames me for lying and keeping him in the dark, and he’s right to do so.”

“And what were you to have done, then?” asked Freya. “It was your life if anyone ever found out your secret. At best, he would have sent you away, out of Camelot.”

The thought sent a pang through Merlin’s chest. “I know, but he’s still not wrong. Some of the things I’ve done…”

“You did for him.”

Merlin rolled over, careful not to shake off her hand from his hair, and looked her in the eye. “Some of the things I did, I did because a dragon told me to, and I ignored my conscience because Arthur was more important. Or I did them because crystals showed me a possible future and I was convinced it was a destined path—only fighting to avoid what I saw made it come true. I’ve kept Arthur in the dark, and I’ve lied, and I’ve killed, and I’ve betrayed… he has every right to be angry with me.”


“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve done unforgivable things. And now, I can’t even atone to make it right with him. I can’t protect him without my magic. I can’t serve him because I can barely walk a hundred paces without needing to rest. He’s found other people to talk to, people he can trust… people whose magic isn’t going to lash out and hurt people without any warning.”

“Oh, Merlin.” Freya lay down beside him, wrapping her arms around him when he shivered at the cold. “You are not the evil person you seem to think you are. You have a good heart.”

“But the things I’ve done—”

“—were mistakes,” Freya finished. “Or done because you were operating on the only information you had at the time, which was often incomplete. You still probably don’t know the full depth of the prophecies written about you and Arthur, do you?”

“Do you?”

Freya actually chuckled, and nuzzled her nose into the side of his neck. “No. I’m not a scholar, and that’s exactly my point. There are druids who spend years studying the prophecies and trying to interpret them. You were given a vision and no time to do anything other than react. No guidance. Just… all these expectations on your shoulders, that of course you would be the savior everyone needed.”

“You say I have a good heart,” Merlin tried.

“You do. I know you do. You were kind to me.” Merlin didn’t answer, and she propped herself up on one elbow to look down at him. “What is it?”

“I think I used to have a good heart,” he said slowly. “But sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed too much since you and I last spoke. If I’d seen you in that cage only in the past year… sometimes think I would have been so wrapped up in Arthur that I would have just ignored you and left you there. I’d have felt bad about it, but that wouldn’t have been enough to save you. You didn’t have anything to do with keeping the king safe, so I’d have left you.”

“You don’t mean that,” said Freya.

“I fear it,” whispered Merlin. “God, Freya, who have I become, out of love for Arthur and fear for his safety?”

Freya didn’t speak at first, but she did lie back down and wrap her arms even more tightly around him. They lay together in silence, Merlin still shivering occasionally, until finally she took a little breath.

“What will you do?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

She huffed a little laugh. “I mean, what will you do? You’ve spent so much time only being able to react, barely in time sometimes, to the things that fate has thrown at you. You’ve been beaten down until you’re at such a low point that you think you’re some terrible monster, when I know you’re not. Now, you’re sick, you’re lonely, your magic isn’t behaving, you feel like Arthur will never forgive you, and you think there’s no way out. But that can’t be true. As long as you’re alive, things can still change. So what will you do?”

Merlin took that in, blinking. It was true, he realized. He’d always faced a problem by trying to solve it, but lately it had seemed as if all his usual avenues, his usual solutions, were not open to him. So he’d felt helpless and depressed, when really he just needed to find another way.

What would that other way be?

“I think there’s someone I need to talk to,” he said thoughtfully. “After dinner. After dark, and everyone has gone to bed. Will you help me?”

Freya leaned up and kissed him; Merlin kissed back, still shivering with cold, but her affection warmed him inside. “Always.”

Chapter Text

Arthur was almost irritated enough to lose his appetite, but not quite. He scowled and tore his bread into little pieces, and stabbed and hacked at the rest of his meal with his utensils, effectively throwing a tantrum that was entirely contained by his plate. It was a little ridiculous, but there was no one to see and it made him feel better to have something he could take out his anger on.

Council members. Most of them were a waste of his breath, and Arthur was ready to throw at least half of them out on their ear.

Of course, then he’d have to decide who to bring in to replace them, and there was the whole mess with the law that required a seat be given to every land-holding noble in the kingdom, whether he thought they deserved it or not.

Every land-holding noble… There was a thought. Arthur had been considering giving lands back to some of the resurrected nobles who had spoken at the inquest, people like Gwyllim, who had committed no crime, unless one counted hosting druids and allowing them to bless the crops on his lands. Arthur didn’t.

It might also be wise to include a dragon lord on the council, except he wasn’t sure what role they might play; could dragons be persuaded to serve as a kind of military unit for a kingdom? Or would a dragon lord serve perhaps as a representative of all their kind, sort of a diplomat role? Had dragon lords held lands? Arthur would have to check with Geoffrey at some point. There was so much he didn’t know.

He sighed, leaning back in his chair, and reached for his goblet. There was so much he didn’t know, it was hard to fathom. So much knowledge that his father had tried to erase, not just in terms of books burned but in wisdom and experience slaughtered, all to ease his own conscience. All to assuage his guilt over Ygraine’s death.

Arthur shut his eyes against the pain that accompanied that thought. If he had never been born, none of this would have happened. His mother would not have died, and none of those people he’d spoken to would have been murdered. There would have been no Purge, Morgana would have been able to grow up without learning fear and hatred at Uther’s knee, there would have been no war… and Arthur would never have come so close to death, so many times, at the hands of magic-users with a justified vendetta against the throne.

On the other hand, if he had never been born, he’d have never met Merlin, either.


I had a right to know!” Arthur bellowed.

You did,” Merlin agreed, and the tears broke free to spill down his cheeks. “My God, you did, Arthur, but what was I to do? How else was I to balance keeping you safe, and keeping my head?”

Arthur had been so angry at the secrets kept, at the lies, and he’d fully expected Merlin to try and justify them. And Merlin had, but could Arthur really fault him for keeping the single greatest secret that he had, when it would have meant his death if anyone had found out? Merlin hadn’t even tried to argue that Arthur wasn’t entitled to the rest of the knowledge that Merlin had kept from him. You did. My God, you did.

How could Arthur forgive all the lies and secrets?

How could he not?

He sighed, opening his eyes and tipping his head back to look at the ceiling, and the way the light slanted across it from the windows. It didn’t help that Merlin had looked like hell, either. Exhausted and beaten down, worried and sad. Looking back, Merlin had grown more and more solemn, more closed off, over the past few years, and he’d never breathed a word to Arthur has to why. It was easy to feel like he’d never truly known Merlin at all, when Merlin had hidden so much from him.

Then again, Arthur had not really noticed the changes enough to do anything about them, or even to ask about them and insist on an answer. And yet, Merlin had served Arthur faithfully, despite his obliviousness and his attitude toward sorcery and sorcerers in general. He had seemed genuinely baffled, during their argument, when Arthur had demanded to know what his agenda was. Had seemed utterly convinced that protecting Arthur was his duty, and that dying in Arthur’s place would have been just and right.

Merlin hadn’t died, but whatever he’d done, whatever bargain he’d made with the Goddess to save Arthur’s life, it had clearly taken a heavy toll on him. It didn’t seem fair to Arthur, thinking of all that Merlin must have given up in his service to Arthur, hiding in the shadows, for the Old Religion to demand such a sacrifice on Arthur’s behalf. He was a king, yes, but ultimately just a man. Merlin had been the one to show him that, over the years, show him that he wasn’t miraculously a better class of person just because of his blood and birthright. So why would he put Arthur on such a high pedestal that he would be willing to throw his life away in Arthur’s stead?

It made no sense, and it vexed Arthur to no end that he couldn’t fathom Merlin out, even after all this time. (Did I ever really know you at all?) But then, he’d always been like that, hadn’t he? Always mysterious; there had always been just a little bit of a riddle about him. Arthur had often noted that there were things about his wayward manservant that he couldn’t understand, whether it was his unexpected moments of wisdom, or his habit of disappearing and reappearing at random, or what he’d gotten up to while he’d been away. He especially couldn’t understand how the insolent peasant had managed to get under his skin, but in spite of the fight they’d just had, Arthur couldn’t bring himself to regret it.

For better or worse, Merlin was his best friend… and that was what hurt the most. Arthur had given him everything, and he couldn’t be sure that anything Merlin had given him in return had been the truth.

He was saved from his musings by a knock at the door, followed by it opening as Gwen peeked her head in. “Is now a good time?”

Arthur stood and held out his hand. “Of course it is. Join me for dinner?”

“Oh. I ate earlier, but I would be happy to keep you company.”

He smiled, and kissed the hand she gave him. “I’d like that.”

They sat, and Arthur found a spare goblet to pour her some wine. “I sincerely hope that your afternoon was better than mine,” he said.

“Yes, I heard about the dragon,” said Gwen. “And then I suppose the council convened to discuss what to do about it?”

Arthur groaned. “Ugh. Yes. And They wasted hours on it, when if there had been a real threat, it would have roasted half of Camelot in the time it took them to figure out what to do. I don’t know why I keep them.”

“They have lands and wealth, from what Geoffrey taught me,” she said with a smile. “You can’t get rid of them unless you strip them of their lands, or their titles, or their membership in the various powerful guilds. Isn’t that right?”

“Technically, I could amend the law and then do whatever I want,” grumbled Arthur, but he couldn’t resist smiling at her in turn. “Anyway, that’s not everything I did today.”


He sighed, knowing she would not like what he said next. “In between the dragon and the council, I spoke to Merlin. He was in the garden where the dragon landed. Apparently he’s a dragon lord.”

She blinked. “Merlin?”

“That’s what I thought,” agreed Arthur. “I don’t know if he summoned it or what, and if he did I don’t know what his aim was.”

“You didn’t ask him?” She asked with a little frown, tilting her head curiously.

Arthur took a deep breath and braced himself. “We didn’t get that far,” he admitted. “We, uh. We fought, instead.”


“I know, I know, I shouldn’t have let my temper get the better of me. I shouldn’t have. But I saw him, and my blood was up from the threat of the dragon, and I let my temper get the better of me. All these… thoughts, that I’ve been keeping to myself, they just spilled out.”

“Oh, Arthur,” she said. The disappointment in her voice was clear, and he winced to hear it. Then she sighed. “He always did seem to know the best way to get you to open up.”

“I don’t think he wanted me to ‘open up’ this time,” he replied morosely. “I was just—I needed to know, Gwen, I needed to know whether any of our friendship was real.”

“You know it was.”

Arthur put his elbows on the table and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Do I, though? You say that, and yet, I still—I hate that he didn’t trust me. I know why he felt he couldn’t, I do, but I still hate it.”

Gwen reached over and gripped his wrist, squeezing gently. “Perhaps you can go and apologize tomorrow,” she said. “You know the two of you could never stay angry with each other for long.”

“I don’t know.” He dropped his hands and looked at her, feeling the exhaustion sweep over him again. “We’ve had ten years for this to build up and fester between us. Ten years of secrets and mistrust. I don’t know how easy it will be to just move past it.”

“It will be as easy or a difficult as the two of you decide to make it,” she replied, raising her eyebrow. “Although knowing the two of you, you’ll stew about it for weeks before you finally have it out with each other and clear the air, and you’ll drive us all mad in the meantime until you do.”

“Hey.” Arthur could feel himself pouting but was helpless to stop it.

Gwen actually giggled at him, and he felt the unfairness mount. “Don’t give me that look,” she said, “you know it’s true.”

It probably was, was the trouble. It was one of the things he loved best about her, how well she knew him, but sometimes her ability to see right through him was… inconvenient.

“Can I ask you something?” she asked, her expression sobering.

“Always. Although if it’s about Merlin, I don’t know if I’ll have an answer for you.”

“No. No, I heard something about the council meeting that had me curious.” She bit her lip, then took a breath and asked, “Is it true that you’re defending the sorcerers? Only, magic is still illegal, and you’ve always been so conflicted about it.”

Arthur blinked. “I… don’t know,” he replied, thinking back. It was true that he’d lost his temper with the council, and said a few things in the heat of the moment. Had he actually meant what he’d said? “I know I am defending the innocent bystanders who were caught up in the Purge and murdered for no reason at all. How could knowing a sorcerer, being related to one, just speaking to one in the street, how could any of that be punishable by death?” He looked down at the table, tracing his fingertips across the patterns in the wood grain. “And even if they did have magic, how could my father have justified executing children?”

“I don’t know,” she said gently. “But I think what you’re doing with them, keeping a record of their names, helping parents and children to reunite, is a good thing. A truly good thing. You have a good heart, Arthur.”

“I’m only defending the innocent,” he repeated. “That’s barely enough to even begin to undo what my father did. And I don’t know yet if I can truly bring myself to defend the sorcerers. Magic is so dangerous, Gwen.”

“Would you execute a sorcerer now, if you met one?”

“No, not right now,” he said thoughtfully. “Not unless they truly meant harm to Camelot or its citizens. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to keep them as citizens. The others, though, all those people without magic… they have a right to be here, to be treated with basic respect and dignity, the same as anyone else. It doesn’t matter that they used to be dead; if anything, that just means that we’ve failed in our duty to protect them once already, and I have an even greater obligation to protect them now.”

“So you’re letting the law against magic stand?”

“For now,” he sighed. “Until I can figure out what to do with them all, and learn more about magic in general, and—and handle everything else that needs taking care of, now that they’re back. The sorcerers are under a command not to use their magic unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“What constitutes ‘necessary’, then?” she asked.

“Well, according to at least a few of the people I’ve spoken to during the inquest, some of them can’t help it; they either use the magic, or it builds up and hurts them. Makes them sick. They’ve promised not to use it to harm, but according to them, that’s the best they can do. They can’t just stop.”

“I had no idea,” murmured Gwen.

“Nor had I.” Arthur nodded in agreement. “I don’t know enough about what Camelot was like before my father’s Purge began, so I can’t change the law yet. I’m not sure I want to, given how dangerous magic can be. I can’t forget that it killed both my parents. And in any case, I don’t know how I’d convince the council to do it.”

“You’re the king, you could just command it.”

“I could, but if they don’t agree, they’ll resent it, and it’ll be that much harder to get them to enforce any changes I make.” He sighed and scrubbed his hands through his hair. “It would be much easier if I could just order it, but there’s only so much I can realistically get away with there.”

“But you’re not going to execute anyone?”

“Not unless I have to. I will turn a blind eye for as long as I can, but if my hand is forced…”

“I understand.” She bit her lip again. “Does that extend to Merlin?”

“Of course it extends to Merlin,” said Arthur with a frown. “Why wouldn’t it?”

“Well,” she said hesitantly, “because at first, it seemed a bit like you were willing to defend all these complete strangers, protect them, but not Merlin.”

“Merlin has saved my life more times than I can count. I may be… at odds with him, but I’m not going to throw him to the wolves.” He sighed. “I’m angrier about the lies and the secrets than I am about the magic.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Gwen. She smiled at him again. “I hope that means you’ll be able to reconcile soon.”

“Perhaps we will,” said Arthur. “Although to be fair, I am still deeply conflicted about sorcery in general.”

“It will take time to truly move past all the things we’ve been taught,” she offered.

“I know.” His voice dropped to a hush as he added, “I always knew my father was a hypocrite. I just never realized he was a monster.”

Gwen reached out and took both his hands, and waited until he looked her in the eye. “Whatever he was,” she said firmly, “you are a better man and a better king than he could ever have dreamed of being. Never doubt that, Arthur. You are a good man… and that’s why I love you.”

Chapter Text

Merlin wanted his trip out of the castle to be a secret, and couldn’t think of any reason for Freya to stay with him past dinner that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. Freya, for her part, insisted that Merlin come and eat; he had been almost afraid to face them over the evening meal, sure that Gaius would have a lot to say about his magic getting out of control the way it had, but he needn’t have worried. Gaius kept the topic to other things, and he and Hunith each assured Merlin a dozen times that his mum was going to be all right.

“Honestly, I’ve gotten worse slipping in the pigsty,” she said with a laugh. But she brought her hand up to cup Merlin’s cheek. “It was an accident,” she went on. “Don’t blame yourself for what you couldn’t control, and don’t punish yourself, either.”

“Yes, Mum.” Merlin wasn’t sure he could really forgive himself for hurting her, even if she were bound and determined to absolve him of any wrongdoing, but it would do no good to fight over it. “Have a good night.”

“Remember the willow bark tea if the pain keeps you awake,” said Gaius, and Hunith laughed again, leaning only a little on the cane he’d found for her in his supplies.

Yes, Gaius, I know what to do if I need to. Honestly. You fret like a mother hen.”

When she and Freya were gone, Merlin gave an exaggerated sigh and got up to head to his own bed, but Gaius stopped him. “She’s right, you know,” he said. Merlin shut his eyes, having hoped that they wouldn’t have to have this conversation.

“I’ve never lost control of my magic so badly that it hurt someone,” he said. “Not even when I knocked down Old Man Simmons’s tree, when I was just a kid.” That had been a close call, yes, but no one had actually been hurt.

“Even so, lashing out with your power like that is not something you would ever do deliberately. You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“She could have been killed!” exclaimed Merlin. “If that Bruenor fellow hadn’t been there, it could have been much worse.” At Gaius’s eyebrow, Merlin sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. It’s just… this has never happened to me, and I don’t know how to make it stop.”

“You’re regaining your strength a little with every passing day,” said Gaius. “It’s my belief that your magic will heal as well, in its own time.”

“Maybe,” admitted Merlin. He wasn’t sure he believed that, either, but he planned to try and get answers about it later tonight, in any case.

He rested, wide awake, in his bed, until he could hear Gaius’s soft snores from the main chamber, and then a little longer after that. Once he was sure that enough time had passed, he threw the blanket back and sat up, leaning over stiffly to put on his boots. He stood, ready to sneak out and wait for Freya, before a thought made him pause. If Merlin stumbled or fell on his way out of the city, Freya wouldn’t have the strength that Lancelot or Gwaine did, to haul him upright and keep him on his feet. He’d need another support.

Painfully, Merlin knelt down and reached under his bed for the Sidhe staff he’d acquired, so many years ago. The magic in it was strong, enough to set his nerves tingling in discomfort, but Merlin didn’t care about that. The stone at the top was dormant, glowing only faintly in the dark of his room, and Merlin prayed that his own magic wouldn’t do anything to change that while they were out. All he really wanted was a walking stick, but this was the best he could do without rummaging through Gaius’s stores and making a racket fit to wake the dead.

Slowly, Merlin opened his door and made his way down the steps. Gaius didn’t stir, even when Merlin bumped his hip into the corner of the work table with a little grunt. The old physician was probably used to Merlin’s comings and goings after so many years, even if Merlin hadn’t had to sneak out in the past two months due to his weakness.

With one last look over his shoulder, Merlin stepped out into the corridor and shut the door softly. Freya was already there, wearing her traveling cloak, and she smiled when she saw him.

“I didn’t keep you waiting too long, did I?” he said quietly.

“No. Where are we going?”

“Outside the city a little ways. I don’t know how long it will take to walk there, with the shape I’m in,” he added with a grimace. “But it’s not too far.”

“I’ve walked for entire days before,” she replied. “I’m sure I can manage this.”


Together, they made their way out of the castle, Merlin pausing now and again to let guards pass before him, or ducking into alcoves with Freya close beside him so that they wouldn’t be seen. It wasn’t really that late, and as far as Merlin knew there wasn’t a curfew in place, but habit kept him to the shadows anyway. He’d been doing this for years, and the patterns of the guards’ movements were still familiar to him even after so many weeks out of practice. He listened to the hitches in Freya’s breath, and hoped that she wasn’t too frightened, or haunted by memories of evading the guards the last time she’d been in Camelot.

They stole through the castle and out a servant entrance, skirting the edge of the courtyard and making their way to the portcullis. Merlin couldn’t help but glance at the staircase he’d ruined, wondering if it was really as bad as it had seemed… but then he stopped in his tracks as what he saw registered.

The side of the stairs that had collapsed was marked off by rope, gleaming faintly in the moonlight, and there was still some rubble on the cobblestones; however, most of what he’d remembered falling had already been put back in place, so that it was mostly only the stone railing and part of the topmost steps that were still missing.

It had been worse than that, hadn’t it? His mum had fallen amid a heap of rubble, hadn’t she?

Freya leaned up to whisper in his ear. “Bruenor said he’d see about having the repairs done,” she said. “I don’t know if he did it himself, or if he went to the tent city to find people who could do it for him. But he said he’d see to it right away, after he left Gaius’s.”

Magic, benign magic, used openly in Camelot; once, that would have been cause for celebration, but now all he could see was that other sorcerers had had to repair something that Merlin himself had broken.

He truly wasn’t needed here anymore, was he? Perhaps in saving Arthur, his destiny had already been fulfilled.

Merlin turned away and ducked through the portcullis, trying not to make too much noise as he leaned on his staff. The blue crystal at the top would look suspicious whether magic was being used openly now or not, and while he was not out past any reasonable curfew, it certainly wasn’t proper for a young woman to be in the streets at this hour. If they were caught, Merlin might be able to lie and say that he was escorting Freya back to the inn or something, or pretend that they were husband and wife, but he wouldn’t be able to explain away a glowing stone set atop a staff carved with runes and strange symbols.

Fortunately, luck was on their side tonight; there were a few other people in the streets besides Merlin and Freya, and for the most part the guards were paying none of them any mind. Out of habit, Merlin still kept to the out of their path and avoided their gaze whenever he could. He didn’t have his magic to create any distractions, though, and it was surprising how much more difficult it was to evade the guards when he couldn’t make them look away from his hiding spots.

Still, they made their way through the lower town and to Camelot’s outer wall, then out a little-used postern gate that was overgrown with ivy along the outside. Most of the guards didn’t seem to know it was there, and the ones who did never really bothered to check it. Merlin had oiled its hinges years ago, and cut just enough of the ivy that he could open the door, but not so much that the door would be revealed from the outside of the wall.

Once the gate was shut behind them, Merlin paused for breath. “You all right?” he asked, a little louder now that they were out of the city.

I’m fine,” said Freya. “You?”

“Bit winded,” he admitted, “but I think I can still make it.”

She nodded. “Will you tell me where we’re going now?”

“It’s a clearing in the woods, about a mile or so from the castle. It’s close enough to get to easily, but I have to only use it at night so no one will see.”

“See what?”

He smiled at her, feeling just a trace of the old mischief begin to sing in his blood. It had been a long time since he’d felt like anything he was involved in could bring him joy, could simply be fun. “The dragon I’m going to call.”

Her eyes grew wide, not with fear but with wonder, and he smiled wider. His purpose tonight was certainly not to show off, but just being able to share this with someone, someone who understood, left him feeling lighter than he had in a long time.

They made their way down through the underbrush to the plain that surrounded the city; behind them, all was quiet, but Merlin could still smell the smoke of many campfires, even if he couldn’t see them around the curve of the city wall.

“Is that the tent city?” he asked. “Lancelot has told me a little of it.”

“It is,” said Freya.

“Have you seen it yourself?”

“I’ve gone, once or twice,” she replied. “It’s peaceful, but I don’t know if I would want to stay there. The druids threw me out after I was cursed, and even though I understand why they did, and even though I think I’ve forgiven them for it, it’s still… it’s hard to forget.”

“I understand,” said Merlin, reaching out and squeezing her hand.

They made their way hand in hand to the edge of the forest, and then in under the shelter of the trees. As he tired, Merlin leaned on his staff a bit more heavily, noticing that the glow of its crystal seemed brighter out here, surrounded by nature. He supposed that only made sense, given what the Sidhe were supposed to be, but it still made him uneasy. He hoped the stone’s light wouldn’t be enough for anyone to spot them.

He was stumbling with exhaustion by the time they reached the clearing, dragging his feet and unable to keep to a straight line without Freya at his elbow; she kept throwing him concerned looks that he tried to brush off with a smile and shrug. “I had a feeling this might happen,” he said, breathing hard. He found his favorite fallen log and stagger-stumbled his way over to it, using both hands to grip his staff, moving slowly so his knees wouldn’t give out until he wanted them to.

“Merlin, how will you get back to the castle?”

He shook his head. “I’ll wait here, rest till morning. It’s a nice night, I’ll be fine.”

“Is it safe, though?”

Merlin smiled again. “Should be, if the dragon agrees to stay with us.” Then he tipped his head back, took a deep breath, and spoke. He didn’t think he had the strength to roar, and in any case it wasn’t an emergency. The last dragon he’d spoken to had heard him even when he hadn’t meant to call her. “O dráko Kisheer, éla se ména gia na milísoume kai na moirastoúme.” O dragon Kisheer, come to me that we might speak and share company. He heard his voice drop to a growl that echoed, in his head and through the clearing, even though he wasn’t trying to be that loud.

Freya sat next to him on the log, twining her arm in his. “What now?” she asked.

“Now, we wait. Kisheer told me that if I ever wanted to talk, I could call and she would come, but I don’t know how long it will take her to get here.”

Freya nodded and leaned into his side, gently so she didn’t tip him over, but with enough strength that he could feel her warmth seeping through his jacket. Between her and his mother, Merlin had gotten more… touch… in the past several weeks than he could remember receiving in ages. As much as he sometimes felt he didn’t deserve it, he had to admit that the affection was nice. The knights and Arthur all roughhoused with him, smacked his shoulder or patted him on the back, even ruffled his hair, but it wasn’t quite the same as this. Merlin hadn’t really been able to just sit and soak up someone’s touch since… almost since he’d arrived in Camelot. Certainly not since Freya had been killed. He sighed, then shook his head when Freya looked up at him curiously. He didn’t want to spoil the mood between them.

After a few minutes, they heard the sound of enormous wings flapping overhead, coming closer and louder in the darkness. A gust tossed the uppermost branches of the trees, then another gust came that Merlin felt on his face as Kisheer landed.

The stone in his staff flared to life as soon as she touched the ground, lighting up the entire clearing like a star, and Merlin winced. He had no idea what it was doing, nor how to stop it if it turned out to be dangerous. Wrapping his hand around the staff, he felt the magic in it prickle sharply under his palm, like sparks to his nerves. He let go quickly, shaking the feeling out and clenching his fist a few times until the discomfort faded.

“Merlin?” asked Freya.

“I don’t know why it’s doing that.” He sat stiffly, looking at the thing and wondering if it was about to explode.

“It responds to my innate nature as a creature of magic,” said Kisheer. “It is waking after a period of sleep.” She tilted her head back and forth, looking at it, and him and Freya, with first one eye and then the other. “I am surprised that it has not responded to you.”

“Well.” Merlin shrugged and looked away. “My magic is sort of… broken. So maybe that’s it.”

“Perhaps,” said Kisheer. “Well met, once again, in any case. And who are your companions?”

“Companions?” Merlin answered with a frown. “I mean… this is Freya, she’s… but I don’t know who else you mean.”

In response, Kisheer turned her head toward the forest, back the way they had come. Merlin tensed, but then he heard a man sigh and step out of the darkness, into the light of the glowing Sidhe stone. “Hello, Merlin. Freya.”

Gwaine?” Merlin struggled to stand, but the other man only waved him back down, and came a little closer. He kept a wary eye on the dragon, but he wasn’t waving a sword about or seeming especially angry, so Merlin counted it as a tentative win. “What are you doing here?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he said with a shrug. “Looked out my window, saw you heading off somewhere. You haven’t been out of the castle since we got back from Avalon, and your stick was glowing a little, so… it seemed better than dreaming of Morgana and her snakes.” One corner of his mouth quirked up in something not quite a smile. “Besides, it’s not just the tent city that’s full of strangers, these days. I heard that people who don’t get along there are kicked out to live in the forest, sometimes. Thought you might want a little backup in case anything went wrong.”

“Thank you, Gwaine,” said Freya, before Merlin could protest.

“Your turn,” he replied with a wink. “A dragon lord, huh?”

“Seems like,” said Merlin sheepishly.

“And why are you calling dragons in the middle of the night?”

“It’s not the middle of—” Merlin stopped when Gwaine gave him a skeptical look. “I thought Kisheer might have some advice,” he said with a sigh. “And she promised that if I called her, she would come.”

“I see,” said Gwaine. He sauntered over to the fallen log and sat on Freya’s other side. When Merlin just stared at him, he gestured at the dragon. “Go on, then.”

“You’ve never heard of a private conversation in your life, have you?”

“Not too fond of them, generally.”

Merlin sighed again. “I’m sorry about him,” he said to Kisheer.

The dragon, once again, seemed only amused. “You have good friends, who care about you,” she said. “It is well. Now, what troubles you?”

“Everything,” said Merlin. “I…” He blew out a sharp breath, and just said it. “Is my destiny with Arthur fulfilled? Does he still need me?”

“Arthur is the Once and Future King, and you are Emrys,” said Kisheer.

He ignored the surprised noise that Gwaine made at that. “Yeah,” he said, “but first the prophecies said he was going to bring back magic and a golden age for Albion, and then they said he was going to die at Camlann. He died, and I brought him back, but now everything is different. Today was the first we’ve spoken to one another in over a month! And all these other people came back from the dead, too, somehow, Freya says the Goddess used my magic but I can’t remember any of that, and now my magic is broken… he doesn’t need me if he has these other people to protect him and do magic for him, and tell him about dragons, and whatever else. I can’t even tell him half that stuff anyway, because no one ever taught me!

“Plus, I’m pretty sure he hates me for all the lies I’ve told and the secrets I’ve kept,” he went on, quieter now. “And I don’t blame him. I’ve done terrible things to protect him. I’ve betrayed him, and I betrayed Morgana before that, and so many other people. I’ve turned my back on my kind so many times, and I’ve never managed to be this savior that all the druids think I’m supposed to be. I’m… I don’t know who I am anymore, and I don’t know if I belong by Arthur’s side after all this.” He hung his head, even as Freya squeezed his arm in reassurance. “And on top of all that, I still don’t know what the price was to bring Arthur back. It was supposed to be my life for his, that’s how it works. But we’re both still here, and all these other people were brought back to life, too, and… I can’t help but feel like something terrible is going to happen to balance everything out.” Merlin pulled away from Freya and put his head in his hands. “I told him I was proud to serve him, and I am, but… I can’t serve him like this. I’m useless like this.”

The dragon was silent for a long moment after he stopped, and so were Freya and Gwaine, though Freya rubbed his shoulders comfortingly. When Merlin looked up, Kisheer was tilting her head at him curiously. “Emrys and the Once and Future King need one another, always,” she said. “You are as two halves of the same coin.”

“I’ve heard that before,” he said morosely.

“But what is the value of the coin, if you do not value yourself?”

Merlin looked away, shrugging tightly. “I’m only speaking the truth. I can’t serve at his side like this, and he doesn’t want me there anyway.”

“Does he not?”

“When I speak the truth, he doesn’t often want to hear it,” said Merlin, thinking back to the fight he’d had earlier that day. And farther back, to Gwen’s enchantment, to Mordred, to Agravaine and Caerleon and Morgana, to Uther himself. “Arthur believes what he wants to believe.”

Gwaine growled softly, but didn’t interrupt.

“Ah,” said Kisheer. “Then perhaps the question is, what value the coin, when Arthur does not value his other half?”

“Probably not very much,” admitted Merlin.

The dragon drew her head up, and gave Merlin a look he recognized from Kilgharrah as his “pronouncement” expression. “In order for Arthur to value you, he may have to see what it is like to be without you. In order for you to value yourself, you may need a period away from his side, to heal and to learn.”

“He already hasn’t spoken to me in a month and half.”

“No,” she insisted. “No, the solutions you seek for yourself do not lie within the citadel.”

Merlin blinked. “Are you suggesting I leave Camelot?” Then he paused, and thought about it. “I mean, I guess I could leave the castle, go to the tent city, see if the druids would know anything about how to help fix my magic…”

“The druids will not be able to help you, at least not yet,” said Kisheer. “You require healing that they cannot provide.”

“The Crystal Cave, then?” It was the birthplace of all magic, after all; he’d been able to get his power back when Morgana had taken it.

“The sheer strength of the energies in the Cave would likely cause you irreparable harm, as you are now,” countered the dragon.

He huffed an impatient breath. “Well, what, then?”

In answer, Kisheer brought her head down close, touching her snout to his shoulder as she had in the garden. “I do not seek to vex you,” she said. “It is as I have said before: I may only guide and advise, and cannot think for you. But there is a solution you have not yet considered, standing right before you.”

Right before him… he got it, just as Freya gasped. “You want me to leave with you?”

“Just so,” she said, and he thought he heard approval in her voice. “The dragons are returned, as are the dragon lords, and it would be of great benefit to you to meet them.”

The chance to learn about his heritage stirred a longing in Merlin so intense that it brought tears to his eyes… and yet. “I don’t mean any offense,” he said, “but I don’t see how a dragon lord could help fix my magic, and right now I’m a danger to myself and others. I hurt my own mum today. I’ve set fires in my sleep. It’s completely out of my control.”

“The dragon lords perhaps cannot help there, though they have other gifts you would do well to accept,” said Kisheer. “But no. I was thinking of someone else you should see. You wished to know what price had been paid for Arthur’s life, and for the lives of all the resurrected, did you not?”

“Yes,” he said fervently. “If I only knew how to restore the balance, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I don’t want to see all these people suffer because of me.” He shut his eyes. “I’ve had enough of people suffering because of me.”

“Then come with me,” she urged gently. “We will begin the path of your healing… not only your magic and your body, but your mind and your heart as well.”

Merlin looked at Freya and Gwaine, and saw only support in their faces. Gwaine nodded once, somberly, while Freya smiled sadly.

“You really think I should do this?” he asked anyway, just to be sure. “That I should leave Camelot?”

“Merlin,” said Gwaine. “I think you need to, more than anything. Besides, you’ll come back,” he added, turning to Kisheer. “Won’t he?”

“He will.”

“When?” he pressed, narrowing his eyes.

The dragon seemed to smile, if such a thing were possible. “It will not be a terribly long time, as you mortals measure such things; certainly not years. Likely only a season, perhaps two. After all, the reign of the Once and Future King cannot endure without Emrys by his side.”

“Freya?” Merlin asked.

“I agree with Gwaine,” she said, as tears welled up. “I’ll miss you, but I miss who you used to be, too. You need to heal. Not just for me, but for yourself.”

Merlin took a deep breath, then nodded. “All right, when should I call for you?” he asked Kisheer. “I can say goodbye to my mother and everyone, pack my things—”

“No,” she interrupted. “Some of your friends would try to keep you here, to persuade you to stay where they may care for you. Their concern is admirable, but they cannot help you as we can. Also, if you are fearful for the balance and wish to see it restored, then it would be best if we left now.”


The dragon’s gaze was faraway, seeing something that Merlin himself could not begin to guess. “I will not foretell the future,” said Kisheer, “for it is never a single path, only a multitude of possibilities. But in many of those possibilities, your quest begins tonight. I am concerned that one of the gifts I wish you to receive, the healing I wish for you, cannot come if we do not leave as soon as possible. If you tarry here, if you delay, then your healing will be delayed as well, set back for a longer time than you would wish to tolerate.”

“And the longer I’m away, the greater the danger to Arthur,” Merlin guessed. “Since you said he can’t rule for long without me by his side.”

“It is possible, yes,” said Kisheer.

Personally Merlin didn’t see how that could be true, but he had learned years ago not to try and argue with a dragon. Besides, he thought with a sigh, everything in his life always came back to Arthur; it had for ten years, now, so why should that change tonight?

He shut his eyes with a sigh, then opened them again to look at Gwaine and Freya. “You’ll explain to everyone for me?” he asked. “Tell Gaius and Gwen I’m sorry, tell my mum I love her?”

“Of course,” said Gwaine.

“She knows,” added Freya. “And I’m sure she’d say she loves you, too.”

They shared a brief kiss, before Gwaine sat up with a frown. “Can you even stand up right now?”

“Not sure,” Merlin admitted. He reached for the staff, feeling it prick at his hands again, but he levered himself upright as best he could. His knees buckled, but Gwaine was immediately at his elbow to catch him.

“That’s what I thought,” he murmured. He looked up at Kisheer. “How is he supposed to ride to wherever you’re going, when he’s this weak?”

“You are his Strength, I see,” she said in approval. “But I have magic of my own, and can keep him on my back for as long as need be.”

“You’re sure about that?” quipped Merlin, as he shuffled one step forward and nearly fell again.

“I could carry you in my talons, if you would prefer,” Kisheer said drily.

“Think I’ll pass.”

The dragon lay down as close to them as she could get, and Merlin handed the staff to Freya. Gwaine threw Merlin’s arm across his shoulder, then half-carried Merlin to Kisheer’s side; he had to nearly climb onto the dragon’s back himself in order to haul Merlin into place, but eventually they got him settled.

“Bring the staff,” suggested Kisheer. “You may need it, even after you are healed.”

“If you say so,” said Merlin. He laid it along her neck, shoved one end under his leg so that he would be less likely to drop it, then leaned forward to grab at the ridges of Kisheer’s neck. “I think I’m ready.”

A warm wave of magic passed over him then, making him shiver pleasantly; “Now you will not fall,” said the dragon, as she rose smoothly to her feet. Just behind his back, her wings were already opening to take them into the sky.

Merlin looked down at where his friends stood; Freya was clutching her elbows, her cloak wrapped tightly around her, while Gwaine stood with his arm protectively around her shoulders. “I’ll see to it we make it back to the citadel safely,” said Gwaine.

“Take care of yourselves,” said Merlin. He met Gwaine’s eye. “Take care of Arthur.” To Freya he added, in a softer voice, “I’ll bring you back strawberries.”

She smiled. “I love you, too.”

“Until we meet again,” said Kisheer. She moved to the center of the clearing, gathered her haunches beneath her, and with a mighty beat of her wings, launched them into the sky and away.

Chapter Text

The last time Merlin had ridden a dragon had been exhilarating; that had been a night flight, too, but he’d been able to look down and see the lights of the cities and the gleam of moonlight on the rivers. Now, however, as much as he loved the sensation of being on a dragon’s back once more, he was simply too exhausted and sad to feel the joy he wished he could. The night was dark and overcast, though not too chilly at first, but Merlin didn’t think he even had the strength to sit up, much less let go and fling his arms wide, laughing into the wind. Instead, he rested his cheek against Kisheer’s neck, and kept one hand on the Sidhe staff and one on the ridges along her spine.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked, after they had flown in silence for a few minutes.

There is a place far to the north where the dragons gather, out of the sight of men, she replied, her voice echoing inside his head. It is called Comraich, and among humans, only the dragon lords and their families are permitted there.

“And you think the dragons will be able to heal me? Heal my magic?”

It is my hope, yes, she said. There is one there who will almost certainly be able to do it, though the cost to him will be great.

“I don’t want to harm any dragon, or have them harm themselves just for my sake,” Merlin argued, struggling to push himself upright.

What this dragon will do, will be done willingly, said Kisheer. More than that, I cannot tell you.

“Can’t, or just won’t?” muttered Merlin, but of course she heard him.

It is a little of both, she admitted. It is not my place to tell you his thoughts on the matter.

That at least seemed fair to Merlin, and he relaxed, letting his head fall to touch Kisheer’s hide once more. “You said we were heading north; how far is ‘far’?”

It will take us most of the night to get there. Rest your eyes, or sleep if you wish; I will not let you fall.

And that should not have been as comforting to Merlin as it was, since he could only guess how high up they were, but it had indeed been a long day, and he’d pushed himself past his limits to come to the clearing outside the city in the first place. With a sigh, he allowed his eyes to slip closed, and let the steady beat of Kisheer’s wings lull him into a doze.

He didn’t think he slept too deeply or too long; his mind flickered with images and sounds that were too disjointed to be dreams, glimpses of things he could not understand and occasional snatches of speech as if he was hearing a faraway conversation. There were golden eyes watching him that may have been human or not, and a gathering of people carrying torches. Merlin opened his eyes once, when he thought he heard someone calling for “Emrys”, but when he realized he was still on Kisheer’s back, he let the thought go once again. There was a woman standing on a lake shore, her face hidden in shadow; a raven, perched on a corpse. They could have been memories, or visions, for all Merlin knew, but he had no way to tell which was which.

Gradually the air grew colder, and then damp; Merlin sniffed as the chill made his nose run, and he clenched and unclenched his fingers as cold made them stiff. The clouds above were lower and closer now, although Merlin could not be sure whether they were growing heavier, or Kisheer was flying higher.

Before long, it began to rain, the wind from Kisheer’s flight blowing the water into Merlin’s eyes so that he had to shut them tight and duck his head under his forearm. The water was frigid, and he cringed as it wet his hair and began to drip down the back of his neck.

I am sorry about the weather, young dragon lord, said Kisheer into his mind. If I were to fly above the clouds, the air would feel too thin to you, and you would not be able to breathe.

“Not your fault,” gasped Merlin. “Will it be much longer before we get there?”

A few more hours, I am afraid, she replied, and my fellow dragons tell me that there is rain all the way from here to Comraich. I fear you will have little respite, though I will do what I can for you.

Merlin was about to ask what she could do, if her magic had some sort of shield that would protect him from the rain, when he felt her neck and body begin to heat, between his knees and against his face and chest. The water was still icy cold at this altitude, but he could actually see wisps of steam rising from her wet hide, to be blown away in the chill night air. Merlin opened his hands and let his fingers rest fully against Kisheer’s neck, hissing at the contrast between heat and cold.

“How long can you keep this up?”

Long enough to get you safely to Comraich, she replied. Though I will require rest, and a good meal, once we’ve arrived. A note of amusement tinged her thoughts as she added, And so will you, I suspect.

“Rest definitely sounds good,” he admitted.

He felt more than heard the ripple of amusement and affection that echoed in his mind, and ducked his head once more to protect his face from the rain.

The rest of their flight passed in much the same way; Merlin huddled as close to Kisheer’s warmth as he could, while icy water pelted him from above and the wind grew ever colder. Despite the dragon’s best efforts, Merlin’s fingers grew numb and his teeth began to chatter, and he curled into an ever-smaller space, trying to get as much of himself out of the wind as possible. The staff that she’d insisted he bring was digging into his inner thigh and knee hard enough to bruise, but its crystal had not dimmed the entire they’d been flying; whenever Merlin opened his eyes, he could see drops of rain illuminated by its light, zipping past and flickering like tiny stars themselves. In the darkness, the crystal was so bright that Merlin had to squint to look at it, and it was easier simply to keep his face turned away, pressed to the other side of Kisheer’s neck.

It was impossible to gauge the passing of time; as far as Merlin could tell, he might have been flying for an hour or twelve. He had grown hungry, so it had been at least a few hours since dinner, putting them well after midnight, but with the rain and the cloud cover, he had no way to see either moon or stars to guess how close they were to sunrise.

He wondered what Gaius and his mother would make of his departure, once they learned the news from Freya and Gwaine.

He wondered if Arthur would care.

Somehow, despite the cold and the wet, Merlin dozed off again, unaware that he’d done so until Kisheer spoke into his mind, startling him awake.


“What… what is it?” he asked, through lips gone numb with cold. And yet one side of his face was almost scalding from the heat Kisheer was generating for him. It was a strange sensation.

We are near Comraich at last, said the dragon. I did not wish you to startle when I began my descent. Also, I have called to my brethren, and they say there will be people waiting to take you to shelter.

Merlin shuddered. “S’good,” he said, turning his head so that he could press his brow against her hide.

Her concern filtered into his thoughts, almost like a color or a taste that he couldn’t quite name. I know you have been unwell, she said. I hope that this journey has not made you worse.

“Don’t think so,” he mumbled with another shiver. “Just tired.” That was a woeful understatement; Merlin was physically exhausted, at the end of his reserves, having pushed well past his limits even before beginning this journey. He’d conserved his energy as best he could on Kisheer’s back, but he couldn’t say he’d truly slept, so his mind felt as sluggish and weak as his body right now. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to carry on a conversation with any of the people he was about to meet.

Dragon lords. Other dragon lords, or their families, that was what Kisheer had said. Would they look down on him for his ignorance of their customs, or would they be forgiving, knowing what the Purge had taken from them all?

God, every last one of these people, every dragon, the entire population, had been resurrected at the whim of the Goddess of the Old Religion. Merlin swallowed around the realization, his mouth going dry and metallic tasting. Would they know him somehow? Would they recognize his magic, the way the druids had always seemed to?

He really wasn’t sure he could deal with the pressure of being “Emrys” to a bunch of formerly dead dragon lords.

Peace, young dragon lord, said Kisheer. I can sense your unease, but there is no need for it.

Merlin only hoped she was right.

The steady whoosh of Kisheer’s wing beats, which had lulled him for hours now, finally stopped as she began to glide, down and down in a slowly tightening spiral toward a landing site he could not yet make out. The rain was still dripping into his eyes, and the sun showed no signs of rising anytime soon. Merlin couldn’t even be sure which way was east anymore, with the way Kisheer banked and turned, dropping further and further.

Eventually, blinking the rain away sluggishly, Merlin thought he could make out buildings below, unless his mind was playing tricks on him. There were one or two guttering torches still managing to burn despite the rain, but no other source of light besides his own staff. He had no idea how to make it stop glowing.

The glided past those buildings, then the light from his staff showed him what might have been rocky outcroppings, looming high, and then more buildings. With one final turn, Merlin was able to make out what might have been a clearing or a town square, the only thing with any real light to it below, lined with torches on every side to form a giant rectangle. It soon became clear that they were making right for it.

There we are, said Kisheer with satisfaction. She beat her wings hard, causing Merlin to lurch just a little, but whatever magic she had thrown over him kept him from falling off. He felt it when her hind feet touched down, and she hop-skipped forward a little way, before dropping to all fours and folding her wings. There was another gentler shift as she lay down, bringing him closer to the ground so he wouldn’t have to jump. There are people waiting, just as my brethren promised. Do you think you can climb down on your own?

“I can sure try,” mumbled Merlin. He sat up slowly, stiff and sore from hours spent curled into a little ball on the dragon’s back, then shivered as the rain struck his chest, which had been warm and dry pressed against her hide. Now that they were stopped, Merlin could see that the rain was only a steady drizzle, with almost no wind, but it was still ice-cold, and Merlin wanted to get out of it as quickly as he could.

Painfully, he dragged his right leg over Kisheer’s neck and clutched his staff in a hand gone numb with cold. He tried to control his slide off of her, but as soon as he reached the ground his legs buckled before he could get the staff to support him. Away from Kisheer’s warmth, the rain was colder than ever, and he knelt on the stones of the square, head hanging low, with no strength left in him to stand back up.


“Tired,” he said, leaning with a little thump against her great bulk. “Sorry.”

He heard footsteps, splashing through the puddles, and lifted his head enough to see people coming toward him, two or three, silhouetted in the torchlight. As they neared, the blue light from his staff showed two men and a woman. Without fuss, the men got to either side of Merlin and hauled him upright, wedging their shoulders under his arms and holding on tight. They were wearing oiled cloaks against the weather, and they allowed the woman to drape another over him and pull the hood up.

“It’s not much, but there’s no sense you getting even wetter before we can get ye inside,” she said with a strong Northern accent. Merlin nodded, little more than a loll of his head before he got control of his neck muscles again. “Can ye walk?”

“Not sure,” Merlin admitted.

“Will ye let me take your staff?” He nodded again, and she stepped out of his line of sight. He felt the tug on his arm as she tried to take the staff, and with an effort of will he managed to convince his numb fingers to open and let it go. “Ach, it stings,” she exclaimed.


“Never ye fret. Now, let’s get ye warm and dry, hm?” They started walking, slowly, with Merlin stumbling and dragging his feet between them, and she went on. “I’m called Aileen. These are m’boys, but ye can learn their names after ye’ve slept. What should we call you, then?”

“Merlin,” he sighed. “Name’s Merlin.”

“Merlin,” she repeated. “Don’t remember a Merlin, but Kisheer says ye’re a dragon lord right enough. Who was yer father, if ye don’t mind me asking?”

“Balinor,” he said, his eyes falling shut. Fatigue was reducing him to one-word answers, but he honestly wasn’t sure he could dredge up the energy for more than that, just now.

He may have imagined the pause before Aileen spoke again. “Balinor,” she said softly, barely audible over the drizzle. Louder, she said, “Well, let’s get ye inside. Are ye hungry? Ye must be, after such a long journey.”

“Leave him be, Ma,” said one of the men helping him along. “Hot broth and then to bed, it’s all he’s got the strength for, just now.”

“Sorry,” said Merlin again, but Aileen clucked and reached up to push wet hair off his forehead.

“Don’t you worry about that,” she said. “We’ll get ye seen to. Have ye set to rights in no time.”

Merlin was tired enough not to argue.

He wasn’t sure if he dozed off again, still upright and moving, but it seemed between one step and the next, he was inside, warmth from a hearth washing over him so that he moaned and nearly collapsed in relief. He opened his eyes, blinking until he could focus, and saw a sturdy stone cottage with a lantern lit on the table and cane chairs sat around it. It was quiet enough inside, after hours of wind and rain, that Merlin thought he could hear his clothes dripping onto the stone floor.

Aileen’s “boys” steered Merlin straight to the hearth and sat him down in one of the chairs, pulling off his oiled cloak without a word. One of them knelt to get Merlin’s shoes off, and he saw a shock of red hair even brighter than Leon’s, bent to his task. Merlin wanted to ask the man’s name, but was too exhausted even to form words.

“Here,” said the other one softly from behind him. “Arms up.” Merlin lifted his arms and the man simply peeled Merlin’s shirt off, then wrung it out so that water pattered and hissed on the hearth stones. A good wool blanket was draped over his shoulders, warm and dry, and Merlin pulled it close, feeling the shivers start as his own body tried to warm up to match the air around him.

“Can ye stand?” asked the man. “Just long enough to get the rest of your clothes.”

Merlin groaned at the thought of having to move at all, but he nodded. “I’ll try.”

His toes felt like blocks of ice, but the floor in front of the fire was blissfully warm. One of the brothers pulled Merlin to his feet and let him just lean against him, while the other methodically undid the laces of Merlin’s trousers and tugged them down, muttering to himself when they stuck to Merlin’s wet skin. Eventually they got him wrestled free, and sat Merlin back in the chair, shuddering like a half-drowned cat and naked as the day he was born, but for the blanket wrapped around him.

Aileen appeared in front of him between one blink and the next. “When ye’ve warmed up a bit, there’s broth,” she said, then stopped and looked at him more closely. “Poor thing,” she breathed, “ye’re just about done in, aren’t ye?”

Merlin blinked in place of a nod. “S-sorry.”

“Enough apologizing. When was the last time ye ate?”

“Dinner,” said Merlin. “Earlier to-n-night.” With his mum, and Gaius, and Freya. He wondered when he would see them again.

“Think ye can make it till breakfast? We’ll still get a hot drink into ye, but nothing more. Get ye to bed all the faster.”

“Sounds g-good,” he said with a shudder. “Thanks.”

She cupped his face with a motherly expression, and Merlin shut his eyes. “Ye’re one of us,” she said kindly. “No thanks needed.”

Once his shivers subsided, one of the “boys” dipped Merlin a cup of hot barley broth from the pot over the fire, and helped steady his hand as he drank. It was savory, with just the right amount of salt, and warmed him all the way down. Merlin drank it greedily, licking his lips once he was done. The only trouble was that he was even sleepier, now that he was no longer so cold and wet.

The “boys” said something to one another that Merlin couldn’t bring himself to pay attention to, as tired as he was. He didn’t even startle when the two of them simply picked him up out of the chair and into their arms, carrying him together to a dark little room just the other side of the chimney. The only light came from his staff, whose crystal had finally dimmed but was still bright enough to show a single chair, a small table, and a bed sized for one, pushed up close to the chimney to soak in its heat.

The mattress was good straw tick and rustled under Merlin as they sat him down in the bed, blanket and all, and pulled a thick quilt up to his shoulders. Warm, it was all so warm. Merlin hadn’t felt this warm in a long time.

Welcome to Comraich, said Kisheer into his mind. Her voice was faint, as if from far away. You’re safe now.

Safe. That was a lovely thought.

He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

When Merlin woke, it was still raining, a gentle patter that he could hear on the tiles of the cottage roof. His room was lit only dimly by a tiny window in the wall opposite the chimney; it was definitely daytime now, but with the heavy weather outside, he had no way to know how long he’d slept. It could have been just after sunrise, or well after noon, for all he could tell.

He shifted in bed, struggling to get clear of the tangled blankets, and grunted at the stiffness and ache in his muscles and joints. After the exertion of yesterday, it was only to be expected that he’d need time to recover, but he hadn’t hurt quite this much in weeks. Gaius had told him that the worst of Merlin’s bad days were probably behind him, as he regained his strength, but it looked as though that might not be the case. On the other hand, it had been a long time since he’d hiked a mile or more in the dark to summon a dragon, and he’d never ridden through a frigid rain for hours on end in his life.

A little soreness today was probably only to be expected, then.

Merlin was just sitting up, the blankets pooled around his waist, when he heard the scuff of slippered feet behind him. He turned with a wince to see Aileen standing in the doorway.

“Thought ye might sleep the day away,” she said kindly. “Not that ye haven’t earned it, o’course. The boys tell me you flew most of the night to get here.”

“Seems like,” said Merlin.

“Is there anythin’ I can get ye?” Merlin’s stomach growled, and Aileen smiled. “Anythin’ besides breakfast?”

“Is there, um. Is there a pot I could use?” he asked, feeling his face heat with embarrassment.

“Under the bed,” she replied with a little gesture. “And ye’ve clean clothes on the chair there. I’ll just leave ye to it; holler if ye need help.” She was gone before he could thank her, though he could hear her puttering about in the other room.

Merlin took care of his business quickly, then clutched the blanket around his hips as he shuffled painfully across to the chair. The shirt was fine white linen, a bit large for him but with drawstrings at the neck and sleeves, so it would do well enough. The trousers were brown wool, and the socks thick gray knit, both better than he’d owned in Camelot. He recognized the smallclothes as his own, dried out from the night before, but instead of his boots, which were probably still soaked, he found a pair of sheepskin slippers that hugged his feet and warmed his toes. A warm sheepskin vest completed the outfit. He missed his neckerchief, and his hair was probably sticking out in all directions after sleeping on it wet, but he didn’t think Aileen would mind.

“There ye are,” she said, once he appeared, still trying to smooth his hair down. “Here, sit. It’s mutton and barley stew for the next couple of days, I’m afraid, but it’ll stick to yer ribs and keep ye warm in this weather. Turnips and onions, a few mushrooms. Probably not as nice as ye’ve had in Camelot, living in the castle, I reckon.”

Merlin blinked, realizing Aileen actually seemed nervous around him. “Uh, no, it’s fine,” he said. “I’m just—I was—just a servant. Nicest stuff I ever got was stealing from Arthur’s plate,” he joked halfheartedly. He blew on his spoonful and tasted it, then his eyes widened. “This is amazing.”

“Ye’re just saying that because ye’re hungry,” said Aileen, but he could see the pleased smile she was trying to hide, too.

“Anyone who didn’t like this would have to be thick in the head,” said Merlin around another mouthful. The stew was thick and rich, and there were herbs of some sort in there, making the entire thing savory and delicious. It was all Merlin could do to slow down and enjoy it, rather than gobble it all up as fast as he could. “Gaius has had me mostly on broth and porridge while I was recovering,” he said after a few minutes. “A little bread, a little cheese, apples sometimes. This really is the best thing I’ve had in ages.”

“I’m glad. M’boys tell me Kisheer said you’ve been unwell.”

“Yeah,” he said. He didn’t really want to go into details, but he didn’t want to be rude, either. “Um. Ever since everyone… came back. Gaius says I’m better than I was, but I still have bad days.”

“And is today a good day or a bad ‘un?”

“I’m pretty sore,” he admitted. “Probably overdid it yesterday.”

“Riding a dragon clear through the night, I should say so,” Aileen tutted, but she smiled to take the sting out of the words. “With the rain, there’s naught really to do today, so ye may as well sit by the fire and get yer strength back. Nap if ye want to.”

And that certainly sounded tempting, but… “Kisheer made it sound like I needed to get here in a hurry,” he said. “That there was someone I needed to see.”

Aileen’s face fell. “That blasted dragon up on the mountain,” she muttered. “Not Kisheer, she’s fine, but the other one’s a bit full of himself, isn’t he? Just because he lived through Uther’s Purge.”

Merlin’s eyes grew wide and he sat up straight. “Kilgharrah? He’s here?”

“Oh aye, he’s here all right. Orderin’ everyone about like a king, just because he’s the eldest. I know it’s their way, but he could stand to learn a few manners, I don’t care how old he is.” She sniffed. “But then, I’m not a dragon lord, so maybe it’s excusable when you can tell them to go away and they have to listen.”

Merlin snorted, just imagining how affronted the dragon would have been had Merlin tried anything like that. “Aren’t all dragons that way, though?” he asked. “I’m afraid there’s a lot I don’t know.”

Aileen paused, studying his face thoughtfully. “Ye said last night that Balinor’s yer father,” she prompted.

“He was,” said Merlin. He took a shaky breath, pushing down the memory of his death. “I never got to know him. He, uh, he fled Uther’s men before I was born. Never knew I existed until a few years ago.” He looked down at his bowl, pushing the last couple of bites around with his spoon. “Then he died protecting me, only a few days after we met.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Aileen gently. “But I’m sure it helps to remember he’s not dead anymore.”

Merlin’s head shot up, eyes wide. “He’s not?”

“Well, no, dear,” she said, seeming to be surprised at his surprise. “He came back, just like all the rest of us. Did ye not know?” When Merlin could only gape at her, speechless, she went on, “He’s been away from Comraich the past little while, bartering for supplies with a few others, but he’s due back anytime. Tomorrow, most like.”

“But… I still have his powers. I thought… he told me the power is passed on to the son when the father… when the father dies.” He swallowed. “We only knew each other a few days, though. There’s so much I don’t know.”

“Oh, you inherited the powers, right enough. They woke in you when they were snuffed out in him. But then, whatever brought us all back, it brought us back just as we were before we died. He still has his powers; in fact, a lot of sons are getting to share the gift with their fathers, for the first time in our history. A lot of daughters, getting to learn from their mothers. It’s an impossible miracle, but it’s not one we’ll begrudge, even if we don’t know where it came from.”

Merlin nodded, keeping his thoughts about that “miracle” to himself. “There are women with the gift?” he asked. “Dragon… ladies?”

“It’s rare,” said Aisleen. “A father can almost always pass the power to his sons, but a mother can’t always give it to her daughters. Odds are better if her father is a dragon lord too, but it takes a certain temperament to be able to face down a dragon without fear.” She grinned. “And that temperament is usually a bit big to fit two of ‘em under one roof! Doesn’t exactly make for a peaceful marriage, if ye see what I mean.”

Merlin nodded. “Makes sense.” His father. Alive. And there was a chance he’d get to see him again soon. He swallowed again, blinking back the well of emotion that was rising up as the realization sank in. Balinor was alive. “Does he know I’m here?”

Aileen patted his hand. “If he doesn’t yet, he’ll hear by the time he’s back,” she said. “Kisheer or one of the others will make sure of it.”

He could get to know his father properly, this time. Merlin smiled helplessly, and pushed his bowl forward. “Could I have seconds?”

Aisleen patted his hand again and stood. “Of course.”

Arthur sighed in annoyance, pushing his breakfast around his plate with little appetite. He’d slept like hell the night before, dreaming of cold and wind, and dragons, and magic. He’d woken up thinking of all the sorcerers he’d fought in his life, and all the magic that had been aimed at killing him. With justification, as he now knew; Arthur’s father had been a monster, and Arthur had followed in Uther’s footsteps like a dutiful son without ever questioning his motives, pushing down his doubts rather than confronting them as he should have.

Even so, he could not bring himself to be comfortable with all the magic that was beginning to return to his kingdom. The tent city full of druids and refugees was disconcerting enough, even though they seemed entirely peaceful. Bruenor, though, the supposed Knight-Mage, was flinging sorcery about with impunity on the castle grounds themselves… and Arthur did not know what to do about it. The man had offered to speak to Arthur about sorcery any time he wanted, which certainly seemed helpful of him, but then he’d apparently taken Arthur’s interest as some sort of permission to use his magic whenever he pleased.

There had been some sort of incident in the courtyard yesterday, while Arthur had been in with the council, and Bruenor had been in the thick of it, and yet he had not seen fit to even come and notify Arthur of what he’d been up to. It was annoying, and Arthur was strongly considering throwing Bruenor back in the dungeons to get him to stop using magic all the bloody time, or at least until they could come to some sort of agreement about what was and wasn’t appropriate.

A knock at the door was a welcome interruption from his thoughts. “Enter,” Arthur called, tossing his napkin over his plate and scrubbing at eyes that ached with fatigue already. God, and it was only the beginning of the day.

Leon stepped inside, closing the door behind him. “Sire?”

“Sir Leon.” He stood and moved across to his desk, leaving the food to be cleared away later. “What brings you here so early?”

“I’ve spoken with Sir—er, Bruenor, sire. He wanted to report to you directly about the incident in the courtyard yesterday. I wasn’t certain it was wise to have a sorcerer near you without someone else in the room, just in case.”

Think of the devil and summon him, Arthur thought. “So you’re carrying his report for him?”

“I could if you wished, sire, or he did say he would be here in the next half hour, if you would be willing to see him.”

“Of course he would,” Arthur sighed. “Fine. Fine, I’ll see him.”

“Would you like me to stay here, sire?” asked Leon.

“Yes. Thank you.”

Leon wasn’t one for idle small talk, and Arthur’s mood didn’t really lend itself to talkativeness either; fortunately, they had patrol routes and knight training to fill the conversational gaps until Bruenor arrived. Arthur managed to keep himself from venting about the idiots on the council, but only barely. Leon was a good listener, and a good man, but this was not the best time to start such a conversation. A Round Table meeting might not be a bad thing to have in the near future, Arthur mused; he could discuss strategies for how to manage some of the nobles, and some of his plans for restitution, and see what his closest knights and advisers thought without the rest of the council there to muddy the waters.

They were just finishing up a discussion of some of the resurrected recruits when the next knock came.


The door opened to reveal Bruenor himself, looking as unperturbed as always. Arthur wondered idly if he was really that unflappable, or if he’d simply learned how to hide his nerves and emotions, the way Arthur had been forced to do from a young age.

“Your highness,” he said with a respectful nod to them both. “Is now a good time to speak with you?”

“As good as any,” said Arthur. “Come in. I believe you’ve met Sir Leon.”

“I have,” said Bruenor. “An honor, as always.”

He sat, and Arthur took a moment to study him while Leon poured them all drinks and handed them around. Bruenor looked older than Arthur, though not by much, with laugh lines at his eyes and just the beginnings of gray streaks at his temples. His beard was neatly trimmed, and he carried himself like a soldier, though without the stiffness and nerves of the younger knights and recruits. He was not currently wearing a sword, but Arthur knew he had some idea of how to use one, as a supposed member of Uther’s army.

If he hadn’t been murdered and brought back thirty years later, Arthur guessed that Bruenor would have been almost the same age as Uther himself. The thought was unnerving: his father ordering Bruenor’s execution would have been equivalent to Arthur ordering Leon killed, and Arthur wondered that Uther could have done such a thing so easily.

Bruenor took a sip of his watered wine, with a nod of thanks to Leon, then set the goblet aside. “Forgive me, your highness, for not coming sooner,” he said. “I had wanted to speak to you yesterday, but I heard that you were with your council, discussing the meaning of the dragon’s arrival on the castle grounds.”

Interesting, that Bruenor didn’t speak of it in terms of a threat. “No matter,” said Arthur. “I appreciate you coming today. What is it you wanted to discuss?”

“I’m sure your highness has already heard about the accident in the courtyard, perhaps an hour or two after the dragon left?”

“I haven’t gotten many details,” he admitted. “What can you tell me?”

Bruenor sat up a little straighter, the way many officers did when preparing to report to their superiors. “I happened to be in the courtyard myself, talking with a companion, when a young man’s magic got away from him,” he said. “Your highness may stop me if you already know any of this, but such a thing happens sometimes when strong emotions are involved… although it’s possible he could have been ill, as well. There are certain sicknesses that can affect a person’s control of their magical energies. In any case, the magic that lashed out was quite strong, enough to damage the main staircase leading into the castle. Part of the staircase collapsed, roughly a third of it, from my estimate. A woman at the top of the stairs fell along with the rubble, and may have been badly injured, but I was able to catch her with my own magic.”

“And you’re certain this was an accident and not some sort of attack?” asked Arthur.

“Judging from the young man’s reaction and his words, no, your highness. The woman who fell was his mother. I do know that he seemed horrified, and immediately ran to see that she was all right. I and the boy’s companion got them both to Gaius, where I believe he diagnosed the woman with nothing more than a sprained knee, and then I took my leave.”

“The stairs are not as badly damaged as you described, from what I saw this morning,” said Leon.

“No,” said Bruenor. “No, I went to report the incident to your highness, but when I learned that you were otherwise occupied, I took it upon myself to go to the tent city to find magic users to assist in repairing the staircase, so that it would not pose a danger to anyone, especially after nightfall. The work is not yet complete, but we made certain the stairs were safe to use by the time we stopped.”

Arthur blinked. If a third of the staircase had really collapsed yesterday, it would have taken a team of stonemasons the better part of a month to complete repairs, yet Bruenor claimed to have nearly finished in less than a day. Arthur would have to go and look over the work the sorcerers had done, to see if he could tell the difference, and probably have a mason check the repairs as well, just to be safe. Even so… “I’ve never heard of sorcery being used for such a thing,” he confessed.

One corner of Bruenor’s mouth came up, though his eyes seemed almost sad. “Forgive me, your highness, but given Uther’s vendetta, I am not surprised to hear that.”

Arthur hid a sigh, even as Leon tensed beside him. It was only the truth, after all. “Did you happen to get the name of the sorcerer who caused the accident?” It was probably one of the resurrected, but they had all promised not to use their magic unless absolutely necessary.

“No, your highness,” said Bruenor. “I can tell you that he was dressed as a peasant, and I did suggest to him that he find a tutor to help him get his magic under control. But his mother introduced herself to me as Hunith.”

Chapter Text

It was all too much. Arthur had always known that being king would be complicated and difficult, that serving his people would take nearly everything he had; but this, this was getting to be more than he thought even a king should be asked to withstand. Thousands of people resurrected from the dead, dragons, sorcerers and druids at every turn, children and parents desperate to reunite with one another, unrest in the streets, anxious nobles… and that was all on top of the day-to-day running of the kingdom, the court judgments, the training of the knights and recruits, the tax and grain reports, and more.

Gwen did her best, and he loved her for it, but there was so much that he simply couldn’t delegate for her to take care of in his stead. The duty of running Camelot was all on his shoulders, and he didn’t feel right foisting that burden off on anyone, least of all his wife, even if she was queen.

Arthur had had busy periods before during his time on the throne, but now? Now he hardly knew which way to turn, and woke each day already longing for it to be over, before he had even faced it down.

The worst burden, the one that made everything else go from difficult to unbearable, was that he missed Merlin. As unhappy as Arthur was about the lies and the magic, as angry as their fight had made him, the simple truth was that Merlin had steadfastly kept Arthur sane over the past several years of his reign. He’d helped Arthur prioritize what was most urgent during extraordinary circumstances, and helped him keep a level head when he felt like he was drowning. When things were calm, Merlin kept a sharp eye so that Arthur didn’t have to, and let Arthur voice some of his own ideas in the privacy of his chambers, where he could test the beginnings of policy changes and new laws.

The man had written Arthur’s speeches, for God’s sake, which was not exactly part of a manservant’s official duties. He had been Arthur’s voice. There was nothing that Merlin did not know about Arthur, and Arthur had never realized just how desperately he’d needed that from another person until it was gone. Even Gwen, for all that he loved her dearly, did not always see past the crown and down to who Arthur really was at his core. She came close, and was definitely just as willing as Merlin to tell Arthur when he was being an ass, but she sometimes held back a little, because she didn’t want to hurt the one she loved.

Merlin had never held back, Arthur thought. Then a bitter part of his mind added, Except for his secrets, and he grimaced to himself. It was unfair to think it, even if it was true. Merlin had held back a lot of who he was.

How did Arthur forgive that? Or no, he was fairly sure he could forgive it with time (might already have forgiven it despite the hurt); but how could he look past it? How could he know his friend was being completely honest with him in the future? Arthur didn’t want a one-sided friendship with Merlin. The difference in their stations be damned, Arthur valued Merlin’s insight, his wisdom, his humor… even his funny feelings and his deliberate needling. The two of them had always seemed so different on the surface, but Arthur had never known what friendship truly looked like until he’d gotten to know Merlin.

Except he hadn’t really gotten to know Merlin at all, had he?

Arthur buried his head in his hands. It was all too much.

After dismissing Bruenor, Arthur had sent Leon down to the physician’s chambers, to ask after Hunith’s health. Bruenor had said she’d nearly taken a bad fall, when the staircase collapsed in the courtyard, but the strange thing was, he’d also implied that it had been Merlin’s magic that had caused the accident.

So Arthur had also asked Leon to see if he could discreetly find out what was going on with Merlin, while Arthur attended the inquest. For ten years, Merlin had lived in Camelot with the threat of execution hanging over his head every single day, and Arthur had never heard of him lashing out with his magic like this. It would have meant his death if anything like that had ever happened. Arthur had no doubt he’d used sorcery to defend Arthur and the kingdom, but a magical accident?

Or was he ill, after all? Bruenor had said that there were sicknesses that could cause a sorcerer to lose control of their magic, and Merlin had certainly looked like hell in the kitchen gardens yesterday, when he and Arthur had fought… Then Arthur rolled his eyes at himself and his stupidity. The man had tried to sacrifice his life for Arthur’s barely two months ago, had stabbed himself with Arthur’s sword. It only made sense that he’d take a long time to recover, even with the magical healing that Freya had provided. But would that have affected his magic, too?

Arthur should have gone to visit him long before now, but there had simply been too much happening for it to be feasible. One of many reasons he hated to give Merlin a day off; they never saw each other unless Merlin was in Arthur’s chambers or at his heels, performing his duties.

It was no way to treat a friend.

As soon as Arthur could, he would go to Merlin and try to speak with him like a reasonable adult, and see if they couldn’t reconcile and move forward. And then maybe he’d see about some sort of promotion for Merlin, something to put them on more equal footing, so that maybe Merlin would feel more comfortable sharing who he really was with Arthur.

Despite the hurt and sense of betrayal, Arthur found that he wanted that very much.

The inquest proceedings were a smooth routine by now, enough so that Arthur was considering changing its purpose, from investigation of the returned dead to something like a magical census. Arthur had told himself that it would be good to know who all actually had magic, in the event that someone tried to use it against Camelot, but he feared that having such a goal in mind might be merely channeling Uther’s desires, rather than his own. It would certainly be all too easy to abuse that knowledge, if one knew who had magic and where they lived, and what they could do. Arthur had no intention of doing any such thing, but a second purge would be far too easy to set up with that kind of information at one’s disposal.

Information that was mostly heartbreaking, if Arthur were being honest with himself. He ached sometimes, physically ached, listening to the tales of the people Uther had murdered. Perhaps ten percent of them admitted to actually being a sorcerer of some kind; the rest, according to Uther’s own records where they existed, had merely associated with a magic user in some fashion or another. Some of them asked him if he knew where their families had gotten to, whether they still had any living relatives to go home to, or if there was any record of what had happened to the children after the parents had been executed. It was horrible.

After being questioned and then released, most of the ones who did have magic ended up in the tent city outside Camelot’s walls, and Arthur didn’t blame them. There were still cases each week of people attacking some of the returned dead, on the suspicion that they were sorcerers, even if the records proved that they were not. The logic among the attackers—if their bigotry could be dignified by calling it “logic”—seemed to be that Uther must have had them killed for a reason, so it was perfectly acceptable to continue to harass them now that they had come back. But they were too afraid to go into the tent city where they knew they would be outnumbered.

Fear made fools of otherwise decent people, it seemed. Faced with an actual miracle, allegedly from the hand of a goddess of the Old Religion, their response was not awe, but hate. Arthur couldn’t fathom it. Instead, he found himself in the very strange position of defending magic users from people who were otherwise upstanding citizens of Camelot. It was difficult to decide what to do with the attackers, because neither the stocks nor the dungeon cells seemed to cool their tempers for very long. Arthur had to remind them, again and again, that they were taking the law into their own hands and overstepping their rightful authority. It was the king’s prerogative to arrest a criminal; it was not a peasant’s right to beat a fellow citizen.

He sighed, as he waited for the next poor soul to be brought in. Merlin would have known what to do.

Arthur dragged himself back to his chambers after the inquest, somehow managing to avoid all the nobles that wanted to steal his time and attention after every session. It was probably unbecoming of a king, but he really wanted to just take a nap for the next few… months, or something, until everything went away and the kingdom went back to normal.

Leon was waiting outside his door when he got there. Arthur hid a sigh; of all the people he could have had waiting to accost him, Leon was perhaps the least troubling, annoying, or infuriating. He actually appreciated seeing Leon. He was just also exhausted.

“Come in,” he mumbled, unlocking the door and stepping inside.

“Are you all right, sire?” asked the knight, once the door was closed.

“Just tired,” Arthur replied, shaking his head. “I’m fine.”

Leon looked skeptical, but let it slide. “I was able to visit Gaius and Hunith, as you requested.”

Ah yes. Arthur had almost forgotten. “How is she?”

“Nothing more than a sprained knee, according to Gaius. It would seem Bruenor’s report is accurate in that regard.”

“And Merlin?”

Leon frowned a little. “I didn’t see him,” he said, “and Gaius seemed reluctant to say where he was. I didn’t want to push. No doubt he was in the gardens or somewhere similar, getting some fresh air.”

“No doubt,” said Arthur. He shook his head with a sigh. “All those times Gaius used to say Merlin was at the tavern, when I went looking. I’ll have to ask where he was really off to, now that I know his secret.”

“Probably something to do with protecting you,” Leon offered, and Arthur felt the bitterness rise in him again.

“Probably,” was all he said. “Was there anything else?”

“I wasn’t able to get to it until after training, but I did inspect the courtyard staircase, to see the state of Bruenor’s repairs. It… honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it was ever damaged, if part of it wasn’t still roped off. Whatever the sorcerers did, it seems to have been done well.”

“Thank you for taking care of that detail,” said Arthur. “Doesn’t seem like Merlin to lose control of his magic, does it?”

Leon was silent for a moment. “To be fair, I don’t know enough about his magic, only that he has it,” he said finally. “But you’re right that he seemed to keep it hidden away better than this, before now. Do you think…?”

Arthur waited, but when Leon didn’t continue, he asked, “Do I think what?”

“I don’t mean to offend, sire, but… do you think it could have had something to do with your argument yesterday? It’s only,” he added quickly, “Bruenor said something about magic being linked to strong emotions.”

Arthur frowned, thinking back. “We’ve fought before,” he said. “Admittedly, never like this. But Bruenor also said that sickness could cause a person to lose control of their sorcery. Merlin certainly didn’t look well, when we talked.”

“No, he didn’t,” Leon agreed. “I asked Gaius about that, too, but all he would say was that Merlin’s recovery was likely to take some time.”

“I’m not surprised, given what he did.” And what he’d used, Arthur’s own sword, while trying to kill himself for Arthur’s sake. Arthur shuddered. “Even with Freya healing him with her own spells, he nearly died. I don’t know anything about healing magic to say what she could have done for him, even though I watched the wound close with my own eyes.”

“What will you do, then, if I may ask?”

Arthur sighed. “I’m going to rest until dinner, then I’m going to go and see if he’s willing to talk to me.”

Leon blinked. “You’re the king.”

“And Merlin is my friend, even if the difference in our stations would demand that we not be. If he doesn’t want to talk to me yet, I won’t force him. God knows I made him wait long enough to see me, after we returned from the battle.”

His first knight nodded, then gave him an unexpected smile. “If I may say so, sire, it’s good that you see him that way. You’re a good man.”

Arthur was not at all sure how to respond to that, and only barely managed to avoid gaping at Leon in turn, before the other man bowed politely and took himself off.

Chapter Text

Aileen was right about the weather; the rain continued to fall throughout the day, a steady drizzle just like Merlin had arrived in the night before. Merlin was in no shape to help with the household chores, despite wanting to earn his keep, but Aileen would hear none of it anyway. She tutted at him, and shooed him away from the broom and wash bucket, making him sit beside the fire with a quilt over his lap like an old woman.

“I have to do something,” he protested.

“Can ye spin?”

Merlin blinked. He’d helped his mother with spinning, a little, back when it was just the two of them in Ealdor, but eventually the other boys of the village had found out and mocked him for doing girls’ work. Merlin hadn’t really understood what the fuss was about, but his mother had found other things for him to do after that. “Not since I was little, but I could try,” he offered. “I don’t feel right just taking your food and bed and not giving you anything back.”

“Oh, ye’ll earn yer place right enough, once ye’re recovered, I’m sure. For now, just sit, I’ll bring ye a drop spindle and a bit of roving. See if ye still have the knack of it. I’ve a wheel, but I want you to stay by the fire where it’s warm.”

It took him one or two false starts, but he got a bit of the wool pulled free and started on the spindle. The thing was little more than a stick with a weight on the bottom, and a couple of hooks to catch the wool and wind it around the stick. Merlin twirled it gently, and pulled wool from the roving into the twist, and let the spindle do its work. His yarn looked to be a little ragged, thin in some places and thicker in others, but overall it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. He wouldn’t be wasting good wool, at any rate.

The spindle whirled, and the line played out slowly, inch by inch; when it reached the floor, Merlin wound the spun yarn up onto the spindle and started again. Spin and play out, then wind the yarn; spin and play out… there was a slow pattern to the movement, a gentle rhythm, and Merlin found himself lulled by it and the sound of the rain into a kind of trance state.

Images flickered through his mind, nothing clear enough to really be a full daydream, or perhaps they were the beginnings of visions. He saw dragons conferring with one another in their own tongue, heads bent close as though sharing secrets; a white creature, hidden among the trees, skulking warily and staring out at the world through enormous blue eyes.

Merlin, a voice echoed in his mind.

Twirl the spindle, play out the yarn, wind it back up.

A cloaked woman stood on a lake shore, her head obscured by a deep hood, radiating power, and Merlin heard the sound of swords clashing.

“Merlin,” he heard someone say, faraway.

Men schemed, and a woman pounded on a door, grasping the handle and yanking with all her might. He saw Arthur on a horse, riding with a grim expression on his face.



Merlin blinked, looking up, and then felt himself drop hard to the floor. His teeth clacked together painfully as his chair landed on the stone in front of the hearth, then tipped over. He yelped as his elbow banged the floor.

“Ach, Merlin, what was that? Are ye all right?”


“Where does it hurt?” Aileen was standing over him with concern in her eyes, but no fear. Merlin’s first reaction, to hide, to lie, washed over him and away at the expression on her face.

“Banged my elbow, was all,” he said, sitting up stiffly. The drop spindle had rolled away from him, but fortunately not into the fire. “Sorry.”

“What happened?”

“My magic gets away from me sometimes,” he admitted. “Ever since everyone came back. It used to be fine.” He took a breath and glanced up at her. “I’m sorry. I should have said something last night.”

“Ye were in no shape to be saying much of anything, last night,” Aileen replied kindly. “Now, can we get ye up together, or should I fetch one of the boys?”

“I think I can get it.” Merlin wriggled until he was out of the tipped chair, and waited for Aileen to set it right, before bracing against it, shifting up onto his knees, and standing. “I’m fine.”

“If ye say so.” The woman looked at him skeptically from under her bonnet. “What else might happen that we should be ready for?”

Merlin grimaced and felt his face turn red. “Sometimes things catch fire while I’m sleeping. Or the magic will build up and lash out on its own and break things. I, um. I can’t control it.”

“Sounds frightening,” said Aileen.

Merlin looked away. “If you wanted me to stay somewhere else, I’d understand,” he tried, but she cut him off with a tsk.

“Nonsense,” she said. “There’s hardly anything here to burn, and I’m sure if the dragons can’t heal you, they’ll know someone who could.”

“You think so?” Freya told him she had managed to heal his physical wound, there at Avalon, but her spells hadn’t done anything to wake him or fix his magic. “Healing spells haven’t really done anything for me.”

“Well, dragon magic isn’t quite like regular people’s, now is it?” she said, shaking out the quilt and gesturing for Merlin to sit back down. “Perhaps Kisheer will have some advice for you if you ask, or that blasted Kilgharrah.”

“Maybe. Kilgharrah’s never been the most helpful, though.”

“Hm. I’m not surprised,” said Aileen. “Just you rest, and spin a little more if you want. I’ve an errand to run, but I’ll be back within the hour. Just visiting an older lady here in Comraich, who needs a little help sometimes.”

“Of course,” said Merlin.

She patted his cheek and threw on an oiled cloak, then ducked out the door and into the rain.

Merlin looked down at his spindle, and the flames in the hearth, and sighed. He wasn’t sure he wanted to risk lulling himself into a trance again, with no one around to call him out of it. Besides, his last thought before coming out of his doze just then had been Arthur, and that was enough to get him upset all over again.

Arthur… he’d been Merlin’s closest friend, before all this. His prince, his king…his reason for existing and having magic in the first place, really. By now, though, he must hate Merlin; they’d fought, then Merlin had appeared to lash out with his magic, and now it would look as though he had fled like a coward. He didn’t know how they could ever reconcile.

He couldn’t protect Arthur like this, even if he were still in Camelot. And he was so far away from Camelot he had no idea how long it might take to get back there by horse or on foot. Weeks, perhaps. How fast could a dragon fly?

Would it even matter, if Arthur hated him when he got back? Kisheer had said that Arthur might learn how to value Merlin in his absence, but Merlin didn’t see how that would be possible.

He sighed again, and picked up the spindle. He could fret, or he could find something else to think about.

Arthur picked at his dinner, eating alone, too lost in thought to pay attention to the boy flitting about the room lighting his candles. He was someone’s squire, perhaps, far younger than Merlin; Arthur had been rotating through the entire corps of male servants since coming back to Camelot. He hadn’t wanted to replace Merlin, and was too preoccupied with the inquest to settle down and pick just one of the servants to manage his chambers and whatnot. The steward hadn’t complained… or perhaps he had wanted to, but Arthur had not had time to see him. Arthur neither knew nor cared.

It was all too much.

Once the candles were lit, the servant stood at Arthur’s elbow, waiting to refill his goblet. It was cider tonight, crisp and light, pairing perfectly with the roast pig, but Arthur could barely enjoy it. All he knew was that the room was too quiet, too large, with just him and some nameless, gangly boy that Arthur couldn’t even talk to properly to pass the time. Still, if he didn’t keep his strength up, Arthur knew he’d never be able to get through the day tomorrow, or the endless days to come after.

How long would this inquest drag on? He’d have to ask Leon how many people they’d seen and released, compared to however many were left in the pens outside the city. Were their needs being seen to? Did they have enough to eat? There had been a bit of rain last night; were there innocent people sleeping in the mud tonight, with no other shelter to be had?

Arthur needed to push things to go faster, if at all possible; see more people each day, get through the inquest more quickly so that things could return to normal. In his head, though, a voice whispered that they would never return to normal. Magic had returned to Camelot, and there was nothing Arthur could do to change that without becoming a monster like his father.

He barely tasted it, but eventually Arthur finished his meal, tossing his napkin onto the plate and gesturing for the boy to take it away.

“Will there be anything else, my lord?”

Arthur thought of having him turn down his bed and fetch his sleeping shirt, but honestly, he was capable of doing those things himself. And blowing out his candles, and closing the curtains. Merlin would have done all those things before, but those moments would also have been a last opportunity for them to spend time together before the end of the day. Merlin, who likely hated him. “No,” Arthur said. “No, you’re dismissed for the evening.”

The boy bowed and gathered everything up from his table; bowed again, and shut the door softly behind him as he left.

Perhaps Arthur could go to Gaius on the pretext of needing a draught for headache, or something to help him sleep, and see if Merlin would be willing to listen to him while he was there. He hated apologizing, hated looking weak in front of others, but it was Merlin; magic or not, lies or not, he’d stood beside Arthur in some of his lowest moments, seen him at his best and worst. If anyone would be willing to overlook a moment of perceived weakness, it’d be him.

And was it really weakness to admit he was wrong to a friend?

Arthur sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Maybe a headache draught and something to help him sleep.

“Of course, sire, come in,” said Gaius when he arrived. “I have just the thing, won’t take but a moment.”

Arthur stepped inside, nodding to Freya where she was cleaning up the evening’s dishes from their meal. “Hello, Freya.”

“Sire.” The woman seemed nervous, which might have made sense given that he was the king and she was a druid, except that she certainly hadn’t seemed to fear him when they’d been on the road back from Avalon together.

“I heard Hunith took a fall yesterday,” he said, watching for her reaction. “Is she all right?”

“She twisted her knee, but it will be all right.” Freya stacked the bowls and put the spoons together on top. She wasn’t looking at him.

Something occurred to him then, and he asked, “Would one of your healing spells be able to help her?”

Freya and Gaius both paused; Freya stared at him, while Gaius went back to work, but he had a feeling the old physician’s ear was cocked his way to see what he would say. “You would allow something like that?” she asked.

Arthur sighed; he’d been doing that a lot lately. “You used it on Merlin, and Gwaine, and they both came out all right. And… if this inquest has taught me nothing else, it’s shown me that magic can be used for benign purposes. All my life, I’d been taught it was only destructive. A corrupting influence. It’s been a surprise to learn otherwise.” He rubbed at his forehead again, tired and feeling the headache starting, just as it had every night for the past couple of weeks. “So would it work on Hunith?”

“It would, if she would permit me,” said Freya. “But she’s already told me more than once that the injury isn’t worth the effort. She said she’s fine recovering in her own time.”

Arthur nodded, then looked down. “I tried to find someone to heal my father once, years ago, just before he died,” he said quietly. “A sword wound. But the sorcerer I found tricked me. It’s hard to know whom to trust.”

Gaius spoke up then, shuffling over with a vial in his hand. “With respect, sire, it wasn’t the sorcerer who tricked you. It was likely Morgana and Agravaine, working together.”

Arthur felt his mouth go dry. “What?”

“The sorcerer, Dragoon, did everything in his power to heal Uther. I didn’t discover it until after I began to prepare the body, but someone had placed an amulet around Uther’s neck that would have reversed and amplified any magic sent toward the bearer. No doubt, if someone had tried to harm Uther, the spell would have helped him instead, a protective sort of amulet. But when Dragoon tried to heal him…”

“The magic killed him instead,” said Arthur. He barely recognized the sound of his own voice, and his knees felt wobbly. And yet, it explained so much of Dragoon’s own reactions at the time. He really hadn’t plotted treachery. He really had meant to help. “Why didn’t you tell me this then?”

Gaius took a breath, visibly bracing himself, before asking carefully, “Would you have listened, sire? Would you have seen it as proof that your last family was working with Morgana to betray you? Or would you have accused Dragoon himself of planting the amulet?”

“I told Merlin that my father’s death was proof that magic was pure evil. If I was wrong… I had a right to know this, Gaius.” In his head, he heard his own voice, shouting that same thing at Merlin yesterday. I had a right to know!

“Sire.” Gaius bowed. He held out the vial. “Forgive me for saying so, but… in the past, you have been known to make rash decisions, when under the influence of strong emotions.”

In his head, he heard Merlin say, You did. My God, you did, but what was I to do?

“I feared that if you learned of the amulet, you might not wish to believe that it was Agravaine who had placed it there, at Morgana’s behest. You might instead become angry with us for making such an accusation. It was I who counseled Merlin against telling you, and for that, I can only apologize.”

I tried to tell you he was a traitor, Merlin had said, and you threatened to banish me.

“How do you know it was Agravaine?”

Gaius raised his eyebrow. “As I recall, only you and he knew that you were to seek out a sorcerer to try and heal your father. And Merlin, of course, but I hope you know he would never have betrayed you in such a fashion.”

Arthur blinked rapidly and looked away. “I see.”

“Sorcery isn’t the evil you think it is,”said Gaius gently. “You’ve had good reason to believe that before now, but as you yourself have said, the inquest is teaching you otherwise.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s true.” And of course, there was everything he’d seen Merlin do for him after Camlann, to keep him alive. He sighed. “I actually came down here for more than just the medicine… and not to talk about Agravaine.” He shook his head, banishing the memory of his uncle from his thoughts. “Is Merlin here?”

“I’m afraid he isn’t, sire,” said Gaius.

Arthur nodded. “He’s with his mother, then.”

Gaius paused, and suddenly looked very cagey indeed.


“He left,” said Freya. “Last night.”

“Left,” Arthur parroted. “What do you mean he left?”

“I mean…” Freya set the dishes down, and clenched her fists nervously. “Arthur, he left Camelot.”

Chapter Text

“Left,” said Arthur. There was a sick feeling in his gut, and he could swear he felt the blood draining from his face. “What do you mean he left Camelot? We, we fought yesterday, I came down to talk to him, he can’t have just left.”

“For what it’s worth, he didn’t consult with any of us,” said Gaius. “Nor did he mention that you had fought.” The old man’s eyebrow rose and he fixed Arthur with a gimlet eye.

“It was after the dragon,” Arthur said; he dropped onto the bench, feeling as though his legs would no longer hold him up. “My temper was up. I said some things I shouldn’t. But then he provoked me, God knows he could always provoke me.” Left. Merlin and he had been at odds before, but never, in all the time they’d known each other, had Arthur ever imagined Merlin would just leave.

He hadn’t even said goodbye.

“I’m sure you were equally at fault for whatever happened,” said Gaius. “I’m well aware that he could get under your skin just as easily as you could get under his.”

Arthur swallowed and looked at his hands; he was clutching the vial of headache medicine so tightly that it hurt, and forced himself to set it on the table before it cracked. “He can’t have left. When was this?” He looked up at Freya, and nearly cringed at the expression of pity he saw on her face. “You said it was last night. We fought, and then there was whatever that incident was in the courtyard, and now he’s gone?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Freya. Tentatively, she sat beside him on the bench, but thankfully did not try to touch him. “He was devastated when he nearly hurt Hunith. His magic… ever since he’s woken up, it’s been misbehaving.”


“Sometimes he would try to use it and it would be extremely painful. Other times, nothing at all would happen. The worst, though, was when it would act out on its own, without his control.”

“That’s what happened yesterday,” Arthur guessed. “In the courtyard.”

She nodded. “The dragon, Kisheer, implied that she might know a place for him to heal. My own magic healed his body, but couldn’t touch his magic. I don’t know why.”

“No one told me he was sick.” Arthur picked up the vial again, for something to do with his hands, and turned it over and over. “Gwen and the others, they’ve all been visiting when I’ve been too busy. None of them mentioned he was—his magic was—sick.” And now he was gone. He’d looked like hell when Arthur had seen him. Was he even able to protect himself, with his magic “misbehaving”?

“He didn’t want you to know,” Freya said simply.

That shook Arthur out of his shock, and he scowled. “More secrets.”

“No,” she said evenly. “He was ashamed. He felt useless. Merlin thinks it’s his life’s mission to protect you, and since he brought you back, he’s been too weak to do that. He’s been too weak to do anything. You saw him; he can barely even walk a hundred paces now before he’s exhausted, never mind following you around and keeping an eye out for threats. And while he’s been recovering, you’ve been talking to other magic users, finding out what magic can do… he had always hoped that someday he’d be able to tell you about magic himself, but right now he can’t. He can’t show you what he’s capable of, can’t protect you… he thinks you don’t need him anymore. He may have left to find healing because Kisheer brought it up and made the offer, but I think feeling useless and then nearly hurting Hunith made that offer even more tempting.”

So it was his fault. Somehow, Arthur wasn’t surprised. “I wasn’t—I didn’t try to make him feel useless,” Arthur began, but Freya only shook her head.

“No, of course you didn’t. You’ve been busy enough with your own affairs; you’re the king, and you’re managing Camelot while things take place that have never happened before in history. This isn’t your fault, and I don’t think Merlin blames you anyway.”

Merlin might not blame him, Freya might not, but that wouldn’t stop Arthur from blaming himself. He should have seen this coming. Should have visited sooner. “He was angry when we last spoke.”

Freya sighed. “So were you.”

Arthur looked away.

“Merlin has wanted to tell you about his magic, all this time. He hated keeping it a secret from you, but he also feared how you would react. And then when you both came back to Camelot, you of course had to run the kingdom while he recuperated, but the fact that you never saw each other, it hurt him. He felt as though you were punishing him for the secrets. He felt as though his fears were justified.”

“They may have been,” Arthur admitted. He certainly could have made the time to come and see Merlin, if he’d really wanted to, in the early days of the inquest. He could have listened. Then he frowned. He could have listened, but, “Whether or not Merlin would have told me anything, though…”

“I know. But consider he’s had to keep this secret, for fear of his life, ever since he was a child. From his mother’s knee, literally, he learned to hide what he was.”

“And I must admit I did not teach him any better,” said Gaius, startling Arthur. He looked up to see a sorrowful expression on the old man’s face. “He came to Camelot because his mother worried that he would not be able to control the power as it grew within him. I don’t know if I taught him anything about control, only about how to be afraid. He was so cocky when he first arrived, I truly feared that his recklessness would see him killed. It nearly was the death of Gwen, before he confessed to sorcery himself, in front of Uther’s council, no less.”

“How did his magic harm Gwen?”

“It didn’t, not directly,” said Gaius. “But do you remember early in your acquaintance, when that strange plague struck the city? The afanc, in the water supply?” Arthur nodded, and Gaius went on, “Gwen’s father took ill, but then mysteriously recovered. The guards searched his belongings and found a magical healing poultice under his pillow. Gwen was accused of sorcery for it.”

“But Merlin was the one who made it,” Arthur realized.

“Just so, yes.” Gaius shook his head. “He wanted only to help a friend. He did not consider the consequences, nor did he have any idea just how paranoid and suspicious Uther could be.”

“And I never saw anything out of the ordinary with my father’s madness,” said Arthur. He thought of his first druid raid and hid a shudder. “Not really.”

“You grew up with it,” said Freya. “It was normal for you.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” said Arthur.

“No,” Gaius agreed, “but you are at least wise enough to realize that.”

Arthur nodded. “I am now.”

They were all silent for a moment before he asked, “Where did Merlin go? When will he return?”

“Kisheer took him away. I don’t know where, but she promised that Merlin wouldn’t be gone forever. Not more than a few months, she said.”

“Months?!” The sick feeling in his stomach was back, stronger than before. How was he supposed to get by without Merlin for that long? “And you don’t even know where?” He’d driven Merlin away, and now no one could even tell Arthur where he was.

Gaius actually smiled. “I’m sure he’ll be back before you know it, sire.”

Arthur doubted it very much. “There’s too much,” he said, dragging his hands through his hair. “How am I supposed to keep on top of everything?” He laughed, though there was no humor in it. “I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is.”

Freya tipped her head at him thoughtfully. “Merlin does more than fetch your bathwater for you, doesn’t he?” she asked.

“He always has,” said Arthur. “Almost always, anyway.” In the beginning, Arthur had been much more of an ass, but then Merlin had been much more than a mere bootlicker even then. He hadn’t let Arthur get away with rotten behavior, and Arthur thought he was a better man now because of it.

He wondered if Merlin knew that.

He wondered if he would ever get the opportunity to tell him.

“The dragon said that you both needed to learn to value your partnership,” said Freya. “Not in so many words. She called you ‘two sides of a coin’, and then asked what value the coin if one side did not value itself, or if one side did not value the other.”

Arthur grimaced. “Probably not much.”

Freya smiled. “Merlin said the same thing. He doesn’t value himself enough, and he fears that you don’t value him either. Kisheer thought that this separation would be good for you both.”

“I already value him as more than a servant,” Arthur tried, but Gaius only looked at him skeptically.

“And yet, you fought earlier. May I ask what about?”

Arthur grimaced, but did not answer at first. Arthur had been angry that Merlin had kept secrets and lied to him; meanwhile, Merlin had called Arthur out for not listening to him, not trusting his word, despite Arthur having known him for so many years. He’d feared beheading should Arthur ever find out about the magic. He’d feared banishment for speaking the truth about Agravaine, because Arthur hadn’t wanted to hear it. Maybe Arthur didn’t value Merlin as he should, after all. Or at least, if he did, he’d done a poor job of showing it. “Let’s just say Merlin made some good points,” he said finally.

“Then perhaps the time apart will allow you to think on those points,” suggested Gaius.

“Perhaps.” Gone. Arthur couldn’t stay here any longer, surrounded by the people who loved Merlin and hadn’t driven him away. He stood, blinking rapidly and rubbing at his temples. “Thank you for the headache medicine. Please tell Hunith when you see her that she is welcome to stay for as long as she likes. I don’t like the thought of her returning home with an injury, or traveling alone, for that matter. If she wants to leave, I’ll arrange an escort for her.”

“For the mother of a servant?” asked Freya, teasingly.

“For the mother of my closest friend,” Arthur snapped. Then he shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she replied. “And it’s good that you see that. I hope you still see it when he finally returns.”

Arthur nodded. He only hoped he would survive until Merlin returned. “What will you do, with him gone?” he asked. (What would he do, with Merlin gone?) “You told me your purpose was to see to it that he healed.”

“It was,” said Freya. “With him gone, I don’t know. I want to stay here and wait for his return. I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

Just like all the other returned dead, Arthur thought. “You were a druid, though, right? Was there a druid band that you would like to join, if we were to find them for you?”

“The druids banished me after I was cursed,” she replied. “I have no need to go back to them. But if you don’t want me in the castle, I suppose I could go find a place in the tent city.”

“No. No, that won’t be necessary,” said Arthur. “If you want to go, that’s another matter, but you’re welcome here, the same as Hunith. I’m sure Gaius would appreciate the company.”

“You are always welcome to visit as well, Arthur,” said Gaius gently. Arthur swallowed hard, ignoring the way his stomach dropped. Merlin, gone. His best friend, and no one even knew where. Only that some dragon had taken him, and he’d gone willingly… because he’d felt useless and ashamed.

“We’ll see if I have time,” he replied, not meeting Gaius’s gaze.

“Of course,” Gaius said, in that same gentle tone, and it was too much for Arthur to handle.

“Goodnight,” he said to them both, turning and shutting the door behind him before they could call him back.

He was halfway to his chambers before he realized he’d left the headache medicine behind.

Merlin spent the afternoon alternating between spinning wool and dozing by the fire; his magic didn’t act up again while Aileen was away, nor after she returned, which was a relief, but he still felt the deep inner chill from its absence that left him both afraid and despairing that it would ever return. Magic had been a constant and trustworthy companion for Merlin’s entire life, so to be without it now, or to have it be so unreliable and unpredictable, unsettled him deeply in ways he couldn’t begin to describe. It was like waking up one morning and discovering he was missing an arm, or blind, or… something worse, when he’d been perfectly fine the night before.

Kisheer had mentioned healing. Aileen had said Kilgharrah was here, and implied he was the one who had wanted Merlin to come so quickly. Would the old dragon have some idea of how to help Merlin regain his magic? Was that who Kisheer had wanted him to see?

Would it matter, if Arthur hated him?

Merlin’s destiny was to protect Arthur, to help him become the king that would unite all of Albion. Maybe they didn’t have to be friends for Merlin to do his job. On the other hand, Arthur was supposed to bring magic back to the land, too. How could he do that if he didn’t trust Merlin or want to listen to him?

Magic has already come back, he thought morosely. When he’d attempted his sacrifice to save Arthur’s life, something had gone… not wrong, maybe, but desperately awry. Merlin certainly couldn’t understand it. Now thousands of magic users, or at least magic sympathizers, had come back to life. He couldn’t begin to fathom how his magic could have caught the attention of the Old Religion and caused everything that had happened, but he also couldn’t imagine Arthur beginning another Purge like Uther’s, which probably meant that magic was here to stay. Whether or not Merlin understood how it had happened was likely irrelevant.

So it still came back to the question that had been haunting him for nearly two months, now: did Arthur still need him? He’d saved Arthur’s life at Camlann; did that mean his destiny was fulfilled? Kisheer didn’t seem to think so, but dragons seemed to look at the world a lot differently than humans did.

What could Merlin’s purpose be, though, in this changed landscape?

He sighed, knowing he would get no closer to an answer on his own. Maybe Kilgharrah would have something to say, although knowing the old lizard, it would likely be just as cryptic and unhelpful as always. And probably include some scathing comment on Merlin’s failings, too.

His musings were interrupted by the door opening and two men stepping inside, shaking off the rain and hanging their oiled cloaks up on pegs by the door. Merlin saw their bright red hair and remembered Aileen’s “boys” from the night before; with amusement, he realized the “boys” both looked older than him. They did not yet have any gray in their hair and beards, but they definitely were both grown men, with laugh lines at their eyes and callused hands. They were also broad-shouldered and barrel-chested in a way that Merlin had rarely seen on anyone other than the knights or the royal farriers. Merlin wasn’t sure if he was intimidated or not, but they both looked like they could wrestle a fractious horse and win.

“Ah, there you are,” said Aileen, getting up from her spinning wheel to give them both a kiss on the cheek. “Are ye staying for supper this time? Merlin, these are my boys, ye might remember them from last night.”

“Hello,” he said with a nod. They nodded back, but neither one spoke. Merlin got the impression that they were a lot like Percival in that regard: quiet, so as to seem less intimidating for their size.

“Twins, to my eternal vexation,” Aileen said, though she was smiling and both the men grinned right back at her. “That’s Devon, and the other is Liam, though for a joke all their friends like to call them Devon and Evan. Or Liam and Ian. As if I or their father would have picked something as ridiculous as rhyming names.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” tried Merlin, struggling to his feet. The nearer one, Devon maybe, waved him back down.

“Call us what ye like,” he said softly, in a deep voice. “Well met.”

“Are ye staying for supper?” repeated Aileen. She winked at Merlin. “They’ve both got their own wives to cook for them, or they could do it themselves, but for some reason they’re over in my kitchen more often than not.”

“Slander and lies,” said… Liam, probably, in a completely matter-of-fact tone that suggested they’d had this conversation a hundred times. “Also, Aoife sends her love. Wanted to know if ye wanted any of her early cabbage from the garden.”

“I’ll be over later to collect them,” said Aileen. “If ye’re not staying for supper, what news?”

“The supply wagons’re coming through the pass,” said Devon. “Should be here by sunset.”

“Thought we’d wait here to help unload, once they got in,” added Liam.

“And have ye asked the dragons to carry the message to Balinor that his son is here?” asked Aileen. Merlin startled, and felt his nerves rise. Aileen had mentioned that his father was alive, and due back soon, but Merlin hadn’t really paid attention to just how soon that would be. He felt woefully unprepared for a reunion.

“Didn’t ask, but they’ll tell ‘im,” said one of the boys. He glanced at Merlin, and one corner of his mouth turned up. “Reckon he’ll be pleased to see you.”

Merlin could only hope that was true.

Chapter Text

Aileen served supper, more of the barley and mutton stew that Merlin had eaten earlier, and the four of them sat down to eat. The “boys”, Devon and Liam, didn’t talk much except to ask each other to pass the bread and so on, while Aileen chattered enough for the both of them. Merlin wasn’t sure if he should add to the conversation or not; it had been a long time since he’d felt so out of place. Aileen was certainly kind… it was just that she and her sons were also strangers, and Merlin was in a place he’d never been before. It wouldn’t have bothered him so much, if he weren’t depending on their hospitality while he was essentially an invalid. It would have bothered him even less if Arthur were here.

He almost startled when one of the boys spoke to him. “Last night, ye said Balinor was yer father.” Merlin couldn’t tell if it was Devon or Liam that was speaking to him.

“Uh, yeah,” he replied.

“Liam, hush,” said Aileen. “I’ll not have you pestering our guest.”

Liam looked abashed, but still shrugged. “Just wanted to know if you were anything like him.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Merlin quietly. “He never knew he had a son until we went looking for him.” He licked his bottom lip and glanced down at his bowl, unsure whether or not to continue. “We knew each other for about two days, and then he died protecting me from one of Cenred’s soldiers.” He blinked back tears. “He wouldn’t have died if we hadn’t led them right to him.”

Devon and Liam kept silent, sharing a look as Aileen glared at them. “Sorry it happened that way,” said Devon finally. “You look a lot like him, is all.”

“Sound like him too,” muttered Liam. “It’s uncanny.”

“What do you mean?”

Aileen tsked at them both. “We all were killed by Uther’s men, you’ve probably guessed as much,” she said, with the barest tremble in her voice. When Merlin nodded, she went on, “Well, Balinor has lived the past twenty-odd years while we haven’t. He and my boys used to get into so much trouble together, growing up. Now he’s my age, and while we couldn’t see it last night, today it’s plain as the nose on yer face that ye’re his son.”

Merlin swallowed, feeling his mouth go a little dry. He looked like Balinor? “You knew him?” he asked. “What was he like?”

“Stubborn,” said Liam, with a little smile.

“Little patience for fools,” said Devon.

“Oh, I remember that,” Aileen put in. “Fearless when it came to bullies. Wouldn’t hesitate to cut a man to pieces with his tongue, never mind if he were older or a noble, or important in some other way. He told off one of the village elders for being mean to a child, when he himself was only eleven.”

“Kind, though, for all that,” said Devon. “Wouldn’t hesitate to help a friend, or a stranger, if it looked like they needed it.”

“He was a fine diplomat, once he was grown,” said Aileen. “That’s how he managed to be the last of us, I reckon. He wasn’t in Camelot, or even in Albion, until toward the end of the slaughter. He didn’t know what had happened to the other dragon lords, or he never would have agreed to help Uther trap a dragon.”

Merlin took that in. “According to Gaius,” he said slowly, “Uther claimed he wanted to seek peace with the last dragon, and asked B—my father to call him. He tricked him.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Aileen. “Not that Kilgharrah will have forgiven him, I’m sure.”

Devon snorted. “Probably holds a grudge against you just for being his son,” he said.

Merlin blinked. “Kilgharrah? He never said anything to me…”

“He wouldn’t,” said Liam. “Canny old bastard.”

“So you, uh, you don’t like Kilgharrah much, I take it?”

Devon blew a breath out through his nose. “He’s old,” he said eventually. “Set in his ways. Not many dragon lords had the strength to command him, powers or not. I know I can’t. Kilgharrah has always resented anyone who could. It wouldn’t matter to him that Balinor was deceived.”

Merlin took another bite of his stew, but barely tasted it. He’d commanded Kilgharrah, several times. The old dragon had never let on that he resented him, but then, they’d both been the last of their kind. Each, the only kin the other had left.

“So you’re a dragon lord yourself?” he asked.

“Aye, me and Liam both.”

“It’s rare,” said Liam, “for more than one son to inherit. They think it’s because we’re twins. Might just be because we’re both more stubborn than most of the dragons themselves.” He smiled as Aileen smacked him on the shoulder.

“You said Balinor was stubborn too,” Merlin said.

“Oh aye, it’s a trait for all the dragon lords,” said Aileen as she stood to fetch a basket of apples. “Stubbornness and pride are their biggest failings. Sometimes it gets them killed,” she added quietly. Then she shook herself. “Anyway, I kept all three of the boys in line when they were growing up. Kept them from being too prideful, too arrogant. They still got into trouble, but it wasn’t for being bullies themselves. I made sure of that.”

“I know someone like that,” said Merlin, thinking of Arthur. “He was an ass when he was younger. Thought he was better than everyone. A right terror until he finally started to grow out of it. Now, though… now he’s a good man.” One of the best, Merlin thought. It was a shame he probably hated Merlin now, for all the lies between them.

Aileen chuckled. “Well, whoever helped him grow out of it, as you say, deserves sainthood. The old gods know it was a trial keeping after you three, sometimes.”

“Ye love us anyway,” said Devon, as Liam grinned.

“Ach, I suppose I do.”

Not too long after supper, there was a commotion outside: the rattle of wagon wheels on cobblestone, mingled with the muffled sound of voices calling back and forth to one another. Devon and Liam glanced at one another and stood as one, casually stretching and reaching for their oiled cloaks. As they moved about, Merlin lost track of which one was which.

“Rain’s let up finally,” said one of them, as he opened the door.

The other looked over his shoulder at Merlin. “There’s a bench out here, under the eaves, if ye want to wait for Balinor. Or ye can stay inside if ye’d rather.”

“I’ll come out,” said Merlin.

“Take the blanket with you,” said Aileen. “I’ll not have you catching a chill after your journey through the rain last night.”

Women and children were lighting torches around the square when Merlin finally stepped outside, the firelight reflecting in the puddles here and there. The “village”, if it could be called that, was sparse but sturdy; all the buildings were made of stone with clay tile roofs, but Merlin didn’t see them crowded around the square as he’d expected a city or town would do. Instead, the square itself was nearly the only patch of flat ground within the walls of a tiny valley, with rocky outcroppings jutting up even between the buildings in places, and steep hills rising behind them. There were only about a dozen buildings around the square, and more houses that seemed to have been built right into the hillsides, farther up the slopes, with winding paths leading down to the common area. They were lit with either torches or magical lights, so that the land itself seemed as if it had been thrust up among the very stars. One end of the square boasted a fountain that Merlin suspected came directly from a spring bursting out of the mountain at just the right spot.

The square itself, meanwhile, was filled with wagons, at least five that Merlin could see, and men moving back and forth in and among them, pulling back tarps and unloading bundles, handing them down to others who lugged them off toward various houses, and one that was clearly meant to be a storehouse for the community. Merlin spotted Liam and Devon’s bright red hair as they stepped into the fray, slapping men’s shoulders and calling greetings to various people they recognized from the supply train. They stepped around three men wrangling an enormous barrel down out of one wagon, and got to work.

Merlin searched, but he didn’t recognize Balinor. Perhaps he was out of sight on the other side of one of the wagons, or possibly he was inside the warehouse. Could he have cut his hair or shaved his beard? Or maybe it was just that it was growing dark out and the flickering light from the torches was making it harder to distinguish facial features.

Was he even here?

Children stepped up and collected some of the smaller bundles, while women uncovered one wagon and promptly began dividing up vegetables into baskets and passing them around. Someone dropped a cage with a laugh and a curse, and suddenly there were a half dozen chickens dashing away, dodging through the crowd. A boy waved his hand, and Merlin jumped as he felt sorcery tickling the edge of his senses. He watched, wide-eyed, as the boy used his magic to round the chickens all back up again, and guided them out of the square, presumably to a hen house somewhere out of sight.

Gradually, the wagons emptied and so did the square, as men led the tired oxen off out of sight and the people working went back to their homes. There was only one hitched wagon left, and a handful of men standing there passing a flask back and forth in celebration of a long journey’s end. Merlin spotted Devon and Liam again, in among the group, and listened as someone said something that made the others laugh.

Finally, one of the “boys” clapped another man on the shoulder; his back was to Merlin, and he wore an oiled cloak with the hood pulled down, with his hair pulled back into a tail at the nape of his neck. Aileen’s son, whichever one he was, leaned in and said something to him as the others dispersed, and he seemed to stiffen, before he squared his shoulders and half-turned, looking toward Merlin. He turned back and said something Merlin couldn’t hear over the sound of the last ox and wagon being led away out of the square. Aileen’s son nudged him, then strolled off with his brother up a path that led between two houses and up the hillside into the gathering dark.

The man turned, and Merlin’s breath caught as his guess was confirmed.

Balinor crossed the square as Merlin struggled to his feet, and the torchlight caught his features as he approached. He’d trimmed his beard to something a little neater, and he moved with a hunter’s grace in clothing that was certainly finer than the last time Merlin had seen him. He was frowning a little, and Merlin felt a thrill of nerves at the thought that Balinor might be unhappy to see him. He’d gotten Balinor killed, after all.

Then the man was in front of him, the father he’d barely gotten to know. He stopped, and looked Merlin up and down, and Merlin found himself completely at a loss for words. Hello seemed entirely inadequate a greeting; Balinor might not even want to acknowledge father, or accept sorry. What could he say? He felt his mouth go dry and metallic tasting, and swallowed.

Then Balinor’s hands were on his shoulders and pulling him close. “My son,” Merlin heard him say; in an instant, he was returning the embrace, shutting his eyes against a sudden prickle of tears.


He could have sworn he heard Balinor’s breath hitch at the word, but then they were both squeezing even harder, as hard as Merlin could in his weakened state, and it seemed to him that they were both trembling just a little.

“I was a coward,” said Balinor, into his shoulder. “When I came back from the dead, I feared to go to Camelot to look for you.”

“It’s all right,” said Merlin. “I got you killed. I’m so sorry.”

“No,” said Balinor. “No. You were my son. I wasn’t there for you growing up, but once I knew of you, I would have done everything in my power to keep you safe.”

Merlin gave a quivering sigh. “It was my fault you died.”

“It was Cenred’s soldiers that killed me, not you.”

“We led them right to you,” insisted Merlin. “You’d been safe for over twenty years, and then the moment I found you, I got you killed.”

Balinor pulled back to look Merlin in the eye, his expression fierce. “Never blame yourself for the actions of other men,” he said. Then his expression softened, and he sighed with a little smile. “Although that is advice I could afford to take myself. I blamed myself for Uther’s treachery for years.”

Merlin smiled tremulously, and Balinor matched it. “My son,” he said. “I should have looked for you. Let me look at you now.”

The torchlight flickered as he looked Merlin up and down, no doubt taking in the slippers and the quilt Aileen had insisted he wrap up in before coming outside. Merlin wasn’t sure what else Balinor might see, but his expression changed to one of concern. “You’ve been unwell,” he said. “Kisheer told me, but I was so focused on the fact that you were here that I didn’t really pay attention to the rest.”

“It’s all right,” said Merlin. “Or, well, it isn’t, but…” He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“We should get inside so I can hear it, then,” said Balinor. “You’re staying at Aileen’s?”

“I guess so,” he replied. “I only got in last night.”

“If you wanted, we could move you and your belongings to my house. Aileen’s cooking is better, though.”

“I don’t have any belongings,” shrugged Merlin. “Or well. One belonging, and yesterday’s clothes. I can sleep anywhere as long as it’s dry.”

They both turned as Aileen opened the door. “Balinor, yer house hasn’t had a fire lit in the past three weeks,” she scolded. “And ye’re absolutely right that my cooking is better. Now both of ye get inside where it’s warm, and ye can talk as long as ye like. Till dawn, if it pleases ye, as long as I can get some sleep of my own.”

Balinor shook his head a little helplessly. “You’re not old enough to mother me anymore,” he said.

“And yet I’m doing it anyway.”

Balinor smiled, the playful expression one that Merlin had never seen on his face before. “Well, if I have no choice…”

“Ye don’t,” retorted Aileen, but her eyes were twinkling.

Merlin’s father sighed and shook his head in mock sadness. “All right, then.” He nodded to Merlin. “After you.”

“Have ye eaten yet?” she asked, once they were inside. Merlin folded the quilt over the back of a chair, flexing his fingers as they warmed back up from the damp.

“Trail rations,” Balinor answered, pulling off his oiled cloak. “I’m not starving, but I could have a little of whatever I’m smelling.”

“It’s only stew.”

“It’ll be fine.”

Aileen bustled about, preparing a bowl for Balinor, pouring two cups water, and cutting two generous slices of bread. She buttered both, and pushed one into Merlin’s hands as soon as he’d sat down. “I know ye ate already,” she said, “but ye could do with a little more meat on yer bones. Especially since ye’ve been ill.”

“Um. Thanks,” said Merlin, and she rested a hand on his head.

“Never you fret.” She raised an eyebrow at Balinor. “I trust ye know how to clean up after yerselves,” she said. “I’m for bed. Balinor, ye’re welcome to make up a pallet in the back, for tonight. Just till ye get a fire lit in yours.”

“Thanks, Aileen.”

She smiled and rested a hand on his head, exactly as she’d done with Merlin. “Ye’re still one of my boys, even if ye’re my age now,” she said kindly; then she nodded once to them both, and took herself through the curtained doorway to her own room.

Merlin let Balinor eat in silence for the first few minutes, unsure what to say. The last time he’d gone looking for his father, there had been a crisis in Camelot. They’d barely had time to get to know one another. Now it seemed they would have all the time in the world, and Merlin found he had no idea where even to begin.

“When you came back,” he said finally, wincing as Balinor glanced at him, “where did you wake up?”

“In the forest,” his father replied. “Probably the same place I’d died; it was the same distance back to the cave where I had lived for those years.”

Merlin nodded.

“I wasn’t sure how long I had been gone, or what had happened, though I knew I had died. I wasn’t sure what to do. I only knew I was alone, you and the prince both gone. I went back to the cave and found my belongings had been partly ransacked and partly eaten by animals. Then I saw the dragons in the sky… felt their presence, as I had not since Kilgharrah was first imprisoned.”

“It must have been confusing,” said Merlin.

Balinor huffed a little laugh. “You could say that. I called to one of the dragons, and he told me that the Goddess of the Old Religion had brought them back. All of them, all that Uther had slaughtered, and all the dragon lords besides. I couldn’t believe it, even though the proof of it was right there, speaking to me.” He shook his head, his expression faraway. “I wondered about you, and Hunith, of course I did, but I was afraid. I thought Uther might start another hunt for us, another Purge all over again, and if you were still alive anywhere, I didn’t want to endanger you by coming to look for you. So with nowhere else to go, I came here, to Comraich.”

“I understand,” said Merlin. “I never imagined that you would return. You had told me that a dragon lord inherits his powers when his father dies, and I still have that gift.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Merlin shrugged. “People were coming back in Camelot, people that Uther had executed, but you hadn’t died there. He hadn’t killed you, and since I still had your powers, I assumed you were still… gone.” He shrugged again, meeting Balinor’s gaze. “Anyway, I’ve learned not to expect fate to be kind, over the years. Even though other people I cared about did come back, I just… didn’t think you would. I was so surprised when Aileen told me.”

Balinor nodded. “I wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when I got here. The miracle was just too great to comprehend. I still couldn’t believe it, even when I found the dragons here, and more of the dragon lords and their families, trying to rebuild their lives… pick up where they’d left off. It felt like I’d been given another chance. A chance to make things right.” He ran his fingertips across an old groove in the tabletop. “A chance to atone for my failures.”

“What failures?”

His father gave him something too small and sad to be a smile. “I blame myself for things that are probably not my fault, as I mentioned before,” he said. “Not being here with my kin to fight against Uther’s slaughter. Failing to recognize his treachery, when I returned to Albion. I had been away, you see,” he added. “Then afterward, my responsibility for Kigharrah’s imprisonment. Abandoning him to save my own skin; abandoning Hunith not long after that, when Uther’s men came hunting once more. Abandoning you, though I never knew you existed.” He shrugged and shook his head. “I know I told you not to blame yourself for the actions of other men, but I could only say that because I know too well what it was like to blame myself for what Uther did. I felt like such a coward, for years afterward.”

“I understand,” said Merlin. After all, he’d felt like a coward, too, and a failure besides. He hadn’t told Arthur the truth of who he was. Hadn’t been able to prevent his death at Mordred’s hands. Only the intervention of a goddess had ensured Arthur’s survival, and now he’d abandoned his king simply because he felt Arthur no longer needed him. “It’s something we have in common.”

Balinor looked up sharply, and rested his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “I know you blame yourself for my death, but you shouldn’t. Dying to protect you, it felt like I had finally gotten something right. After decades of hiding from the world, you were the one to convince me to come back and face it. I finally had a purpose again, because of you. I don’t regret what happened, not for a moment.”

Merlin shut his eyes, and took a deep breath to steady himself, but said nothing.

“Besides,” Balinor said, very quietly. Merlin opened his eyes to see his father watching him intently. “If I hadn’t died then, I wouldn’t have been able to help you later, when you came to the Crystal Cave.”

Chapter Text

Arthur didn’t really sleep that night. His headache had subsided eventually, after he’d drunk enough cider that he would probably pay for it tomorrow, but the bell had rung midnight and still he tossed and turned in his bed, unable to relax.

Merlin was gone. Gone. Sick, somehow, with magic that wouldn’t listen to his commands, and barely recovered from having stabbed himself with Arthur’s own sword. And either despite that or because of it, he had been taken away by a dragon to gods-only-knew where, not to return for a few months at the very least.

Would he even survive that long? (Would Arthur?) Granted, with him being a dragon lord, maybe he’d have some pretty powerful protection watching over him, but even so, anyone could get a lucky shot in. And what if Merlin angered the dragons, somehow? What if they weren’t protecting him after all? What if they’d taken him away for some purpose, for some… some sort of nefarious ritual that required a sacrifice or something?

Arthur sighed, and rolled over once more, punching his pillow to try and make it more comfortable. He was probably being ridiculous. Merlin was probably fine. Freya had made it sound like the dragons might be able to heal him. Maybe Merlin was healed already, and he and the dragons were laughing it up, talking about what a fool Arthur had been to depend on him so heavily…

Okay, now he was definitely being ridiculous.

Arthur flopped onto his back and scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, looking up at the canopy over his bed. It had rained a little earlier, but now clouds drifted across the face of the moon, casting alternating shadows and light in his chambers. Gwen slept next to him, unaware of his turmoil; she’d been nearly asleep when he’d returned from the physician’s tower, and he hadn’t had the heart to wake her to tell her the news. Instead, he’d pulled out the pitcher of cider and sat himself in his favorite chair by the fire, drinking and brooding in silence so that he wouldn’t wake her.

Oh, she would be furious with him come morning, once she found out Merlin was gone.

It was tempting to be angry with her in turn, since she had known Merlin was unwell and hadn’t said anything to him about it, but he already knew that that would not be at all fair; he doubted it had been Gwen’s idea to keep things from Arthur.

He felt ashamed,” Freya had said. The thought of Merlin feeling ashamed about anything curdled Arthur’s stomach. Even when he was at his angriest over all of Merlin’s secrets and lies, he didn’t think he would have wanted Merlin to feel so low and useless.

Or, no. Perhaps that wasn’t true. Arthur had a cruel streak, one he’d inherited from his father, one that he despised but that still would rear its ugly head from time to time. And he’d turned that cruelty on Merlin more than once over the years, as Merlin had pointed out in their argument. Threatening him with banishment should he speak of Gwen when he was angry with her. Threatening him with exile should he say anything against Agravaine. And every time, Merlin had been right and Arthur had been wrong.

Perhaps the worst of those times had been the run-up to Camlann. “I always thought you were the bravest man I’d ever met. Guess I was wrong.”

What a horrible thing to say to a friend. Merlin had been by Arthur’s side for so many battles, through thick and thin, from unicorns to immortal armies, through one betrayal after another from people Arthur had trusted above all others. Arthur hadn’t been able to understand why the other man wouldn’t come with him to the most important one of all, and he’d lashed out. Had called Merlin a coward without ever stopping to question why, not really. Or if he had, he hadn’t pressed for a real answer from Merlin about what was really happening to keep him away. He still didn’t know the real story, though he could guess it had something to do with Morgana, and magic. Merlin, he suspected, had done a lot in the shadows, helping Camelot and Arthur with his magic.

That had only been a couple of months ago, now; and then Merlin had not only come back, appearing at the battle and turning the tide for their army, he’d revealed his magic and tried to sacrifice himself for Arthur’s sake. A life for a life. The thought still chilled Arthur, all these weeks later. As if Merlin’s death were a fair price to pay for Arthur’s survival.

God, it was no wonder Merlin had left. Arthur wasn’t sure he’d ever deserved such a friend, and he certainly hadn’t since they’d returned from Camlann.

In the silence of the room, with Gwen sleeping at his side, Arthur allowed one tear to break free and slide across his face before rolling over again.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to bear their being apart. Wherever Merlin was, Arthur could only pray—to the old gods, even, if he had to—that he was safe, and that they would meet again soon.

The Crystal Cave. Merlin felt his eyes grow wide, and a chill go down his spine. He sat up slowly, staring at his father. “You… you remember that?” he whispered.

“Some,” Balinor admitted. His expression turned thoughtful. “I died, though I still don’t remember any of what happened after that. If there is a land of the dead, I couldn’t tell you what it is like. But I remember… becoming aware, somehow, that you needed help, and I was able to come to you. I think I had assistance with that,” he added with a smile. “I’m not a terribly devout follower of the Old Religion, but as someone with magic I do know that the gods are real. And you were in a sacred place, where magic flows more strongly that just about anywhere in the world.”

“What do you remember?” Merlin asked.

“You needed my help,” he replied. “I could feel your despair. And your fear. You were so close to giving up your fight. I don’t know if I remember the details of the fight itself, though.”

“Morgana had taken my magic, right before bringing an army into the kingdom. I wouldn’t be able to help Arthur in the battle without it, so I went to the Crystal Cave to try and get it back. Morgana followed me there, and collapsed the entrance to the cave once I was inside.”

“I remember that I told you, you cannot lose what you are,” mused Balinor. His expression sharpened, and he met Merlin’s gaze with a keen eye. “I remember calling you Emrys.”

Merlin took a breath. “Yes.” It felt like a confession.

“A heavy burden to bear.”

“You have no idea.” Merlin laughed bitterly. “Or maybe you know more than I do. No one has ever told me what it means to be Emrys. I figured some of it out in the Crystal Cave, I think, but I don’t know if I’m right or not. I’ve only been told that it’s my destiny to protect Arthur, to help him fulfill his destiny, but never much about how.”

“Told? By whom?”

“Kilgharrah, mostly.” Balinor took a sharp breath, and Merlin frowned. “What is it?”

“Dragons are meant to guide, not dictate,” he said. “I’m sorry; there is so much lore you were never given the opportunity to know, and that is my fault.”

“That’s Uther’s fault, like you said before,” said Merlin. “What do you mean, though, about Kilgharrah?”

Balinor pressed his lips together and shook his head. “I’d have to ask him for details, and he hasn’t forgiven me for being deceived by Uther, all those years ago. But I will say this: if he tried to make you act in a certain way in order to fulfill a prophecy, or tried to tell you your destiny, then he ran the very real risk of upsetting the Great Balance, the balance of the world. And that… it’s hard to imagine. It’s anathema to everything I’ve ever been taught about a dragon’s purpose in the world.”

“Dragons have a purpose?”

“We all do,” Balinor smiled. “Some more than others. Those with magic, especially so.”

“Kilgharrah told me my purpose was Arthur.”

“And that may be, but we all are meant to find our purpose through the choices we make. Being shoved onto a path is not the same as walking it willingly.”

And Merlin had been more or less shoved on to his, in the beginning. “I think I understand,” he said slowly.

Balinor nodded, and leaned his elbow on the table. “Dragons are… some people claim that they are intermediaries between men and the old gods,” he explained. “I don’t know if that is true or not, but I can see why people would say it. Dragons live for a very long time, and have so much magic, so much power. They perceive and understand things in ways that we simply cannot. Sometimes, that will cause them to come into conflict with the goals and desires of humankind. A dragon lord’s sacred duty is to stand astride the boundary between what dragons want and what humans want, and smooth the conflicts between them when they inevitably arise.”

“So it’s more than just… killing a magical beast that’s eating the cattle,” Merlin offered.

“Well, sometimes it is that, unfortunately,” Balinor acknowledged. “Young dragons are less wise than their elders. Less concerned with destiny and following the will of the gods, or prophecy, or any of the rest of it. They can be foolish, or arrogant, and try to interfere in human affairs.”

“Kilgharrah is not a young dragon,” said Merlin, remembering his attack on Camelot.

“No, that’s true. Elder dragons who attack human communities are generally trying to redress an injustice, or set things back on the right path for that community. But even they are not immune to arrogance, or hatred, or the desire for revenge. They aren’t gods themselves, and they can still make mistakes, or misinterpret whatever it is they see in their visions. Justified or not, Kilgharrah had many reasons to attack Camelot.”

“He had reasons to attack Uther,” said Merlin. “The rest of Camelot was innocent of his crimes.” Innocent of Merlin’s crimes, as well, and yet they’d suffered for his choices. He couldn’t meet his father’s eyes.

“And that is why a dragon lord was needed,” said Balinor with a nod.

That brought his gaze back up off the table, to frown at the other man. “You didn’t say that at the time.”

“I was a good deal more bitter at the time,” he admitted dryly. “I had aided Uther once, and lived to regret it. I didn’t want to risk my neck to help him again, knowing the likelihood that he would have me executed as soon as I’d done his bidding. On top of that, Kilgharrah and I are kin, even if he won’t forgive me. I couldn’t be responsible for his death.”

“I understand. I couldn’t kill him either, no matter how angry I was.”

“You temper your power with mercy and kindness.” Balinor looked at him approvingly, and a part of Merlin warmed inside. “You have the makings of a fine dragon lord, even without the lore that I should have taught you.”

“Still not your fault that I didn’t get to learn it,” said Merlin.

Balinor huffed a laugh at him. “If you say so.”

He grinned back. “I do.” Then his expression turned serious once more. “I have a question, though.”

“Of course.”

Merlin licked his lips, collecting his thoughts. “I talked to Kisheer a little bit before coming here,” he said slowly. “She said something similar to what you did about Kilgharrah, about dragons… that it was her duty to guide and advise, but not to force my choices or decide for me. She couldn’t order me to come here, but she could tell me the possible outcomes if I did or didn’t.”

“Precisely. Sometimes it seems as if dragons speak in riddles, but it is because they are constrained by their own responsibilities to the Balance.”

“All right, but what about Kilgharrah, then?”

Balinor shook his head once more. “I don’t know, but what you’ve told me is definitely disturbing.”

“He told me once that no man, no matter how great, could know his own destiny… but then he spent the next,” Merlin blew out a breath, “several years, trying to tell me mine. And Arthur’s, and Morgana’s, and Mordred’s…”

“That’s not good,” said Balinor seriously. “And again, goes against everything I’ve ever been taught about dragons.”

“Could his imprisonment have driven him… a little mad?” asked Merlin.

“Before I would have said that was impossible,” his father replied. “Now, though… now I’m not so sure.”

Merlin leaned in and lowered his voice. “Mad or not, Kisheer implied he could heal me,” he said. “Heal my magic.”

Balinor looked up sharply, his face creased with concern. “What’s wrong with your magic? I’ve only heard that you’ve been unwell.”

Merlin paused. Right now, no one in this place knew what he’d done. Right now, only his father knew he was Emrys. Right now, he was able to set aside the burden of destiny, just for a little while. Admitting what he’d done would change all of that. More than that, he was selfish. Merlin had only just gotten his father back, and if he told Balinor what he had done, he feared the other man would see him differently, would judge him… would possibly even turn his back on him.

“Do I have to tell you?” he asked in a small voice.

“No, of course not.” Balinor put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “But whenever you’re ready, I’ll be here to listen.”

Merlin nodded, chewing on his lip. “It has to do with being Emrys, I think,” he said finally. “I just… really don’t want to be Emrys, for a little while.”

“I understand,” said his father, and Merlin felt his shoulders drop in relief. “As I said, it’s a heavy burden to bear. And no, before you ask, I don’t know all that it entails. I only know that the figure of Emrys has been prophesied for a long time. Dragon lords know a little of the story, because the original prophecy came from the dragons themselves. I imagine the druids would know the rest.”

“Maybe. Not that they’ve ever told me anything.” Then he winced, at the sheer bitterness he heard in his own voice. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Balinor squeezed his shoulder once more, before letting his hand drop. “But if you think Kilgharrah will be able to heal you, we should probably go to sleep now. I’d like you to get enough of your strength back that you can manage the climb to his eyrie soon.”

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Merlin began, but his father waved that away immediately.

“Of course I’ll come with you. You are my son.”

There was that warmth inside again. Merlin smiled helplessly against it. “Even though he hasn’t forgiven you?”

“He never liked anyone who could command him, anyway,” said his father with a shrug. “And if you’re unwell, I want to be there to protect you, if he throws a tantrum.”

The word surprised a laugh out of Merlin. “Thank you, Father.” God, it felt good to be able to say that.

“As I said, Merlin: you are my son.” He stood, and helped Merlin to his feet, ready to lead them off to bed. “I may not know what it is to be a father, but now that I have the chance to try, I won’t fail you.”

Chapter Text

Morning wasn’t easy, and seemed to come all too soon. When Gwen woke, she smiled sleepily at Arthur and gave him a quick kiss, but her smile fell away almost immediately as she got a good look at him. “Arthur,” she exclaimed, “have you slept at all?”

“Not really,” he admitted. He would have given a lot to be allowed to stay in bed and rest for the day, but there were still people in the pens outside the city, waiting their turn in the inquest. Builders had put a roof over each of the pens and dug latrines, so they weren’t as squalid as they had started out, but it was still no way to keep people who had likely done nothing wrong before Uther had had them executed. Arthur sat up, rubbing at aching eyes, and stumbled, literally, to the wash basin to splash a little water on his face. He heard Gwen’s gasp as he lost his balance and staggered into the table.

“Is it the inquest?” she asked, voice heavy with concern. “Arthur, you can take a day, let yourself recover…”

“It’s not the inquest.” The servants didn’t come in whenever Gwen and Arthur were together, so he blinked water out of his eyes and reached for yesterday’s shirt to wipe his face.

“I don’t see how you can say that,” said Gwen. “Look at the state of you! I fear you’re running yourself into the ground.”

“It’s not the inquest,” he repeated. “Or at least, not just the inquest.” He sighed, and braced himself, and said it. “Merlin left yesterday. During the night. The dragons took him somewhere, and he’s not expected back for several months.”

There was a long silence, and when he turned around, Gwen was staring at him with a stricken expression. “Left? He’s gone?”

“That’s what I said, when I found out.”

“Without saying goodbye?”

“He didn’t say goodbye to anyone, as far as I know. Freya was with him, talking to the dragon, and it convinced him to leave in the night.” Arthur turned away again, unable to face his wife as he said the worst part. “He’s gone, and it’s my fault.”

“Arthur, no.”

“It is,” he pressed. He listened as she got out of bed and came to stand right behind him, and waited for her anger, but she didn’t say anything else; only waited for him to go on. So he turned, and forced himself to meet her gaze again. “We fought, and now he’s gone.”

“It can’t be that simple,” she said, shaking her head.

And maybe it wasn’t, but even so. “All right,” he tried again, “we fought, and then after that his magic got away from him and nearly hurt Hunith, and he felt so… miserable and ashamed and useless, the dragon was able to convince him to leave.”

“You can’t know that.” Gwen’s hand came up to touch his bare shoulder, and Arthur almost shook her off. He didn’t deserve the comfort.

“It’s what Freya said,” he replied. “She said he felt like it was his responsibility to protect me, with his sorcery, and he couldn’t do that anymore ever since we got back. He’s been ill, did you know that?”

She shook her head a little helplessly. “I know he’s been recovering from that wound he took…”

“It was more than that,” said Arthur. “Freya healed him physically, but there was something wrong with his magic. I only found out from her, last night.”

Gwen heard the implied accusation, and drew herself up. “I didn’t know, either,” she said, with an edge to her voice. “I thought it was just because of his injury. He hasn’t done any magic around me.”

Arthur’s shoulders dropped; he should know better than to try to provoke his wife. He kissed her in apology, and thankfully she let him. “Apparently he hasn’t had control of his magic since he stabbed himself trying to bring me back,” he said tiredly. His irritation returned. “Apparently, his magic either doesn’t work at all, or is extremely painful, or it goes and does things without him commanding it. Did you see the state of the courtyard stairs yesterday?”

“I heard about them…”

“To hear Bruenor tell it, if he hadn’t been there to catch Hunith with his magic, she could have broken her neck when the stairs collapsed out from under her.”

Her eyes went wide, and a hand flew up to cover her mouth. “That’s horrible.”

It was, and Arthur felt his rising irritation subside again. “It is,” he said. “I don’t have magic, but if I had been responsible for accidentally hurting you, or Father, or…” He shook his head. “I’m trying to imagine how he must have felt.”

“Miserable and ashamed and useless, you said,” replied Gwen.


“I would be tempted to leave, too,” she mused. “But I wonder how he got out of the city to speak to a dragon.”

Arthur frowned. “What do you mean, out of the city?”

She shrugged, as if the answer were obvious. “Well, there’s nowhere he could have called a dragon, here in the citadel or the lower town, if he didn’t want to raise another alarm,” she reasoned. “He must have gone outside the walls, just to find room for a dragon to land. But he was hardly in any shape to walk that far.”

“Maybe that added to it,” said Arthur. “If he wasn’t even able to walk back, it’d be easier for a dragon to take him wherever it wanted to go.”

“Take him,” she repeated. “You’ve said that before. Do you think he was kidnapped?”

Arthur shut his eyes with a sigh; felt himself sway and opened them again, before he could fall asleep on his feet. “Probably not. Knowing him, he went willingly on some… harebrained quest to try and get his magic back.” He shook his head and leaned back against the table. “Even Freya doesn’t know where they went.”

“He’s always wanted to protect you,” said Gwen. “If his magic was really… broken? Sick? …then I suppose it would make sense for him to try to fix it. But I don’t know anything about magic, I haven’t the foggiest notion what that would take, or where he would go.”

“Perhaps we can ask Gaius. He’s had information for us in the past.”


Arthur nodded, and sighed again. Gods, he was tired. He shoved himself away from the table and went to rummage for a shirt in his wardrobe. Merlin always had liked to disappear and then reappear a few days later, whenever there was a crisis. Gaius would claim he was in the tavern, usually. Arthur had believed that for a long time; he had no idea how many times Merlin had really been foiling plots against the crown, entirely in secret. Of course, now his best friend was expected to be gone for months, rather than only a few days, and Arthur had no idea how he was going to remain sane when he couldn’t even search parties after him.

Then Arthur froze, staring at his clothes as an idea came to him. “Colgrevance,” he said aloud.

“I’m sorry?” asked Gwen.

“Colgrevance, the other dragon lord,” he repeated, turning around excitedly.

“Arthur, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ah. “Sorry. Before Merlin and I fought, out in the kitchen gardens, that dragon came. There was a dragon lord living in the tent city, who also came running to try and stop any bloodshed. His name is Colgrevance. He might have answers for us.”

“If he’s in the tent city, how will you send for him?”

“I won’t,” said Arthur. “I’ll go to him. He told me where he lived, roughly.”

“Are you sure that’s safe?” asked Gwen.

Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “I think it might be good to go out there and see what the place is like. I know there are a lot of druids, and they’re peaceful. Elyan says it’s full of magic, but pretty much none of it is harmful. I’ve never really… I want to see what that’s like. I saw a little, from Merlin, but my memory of it is hazy.”

“I understand,” said Gwen. “I admit I’ve been wanting to see Merlin’s magic, or Freya’s or anyone’s, really, but I haven’t known how to ask them to show me something. And of course with Merlin unwell…”

“Right,” said Arthur.

He finished dressing, and not long after there was a knock at the door; a servant came in with breakfast, and a maid followed, curtseying to Gwen and asking if she was ready to have her hair put up for the day.

“Yes, of course,” she said, standing. “Let’s go to my chambers.” She kissed Arthur again before leaving. “Take care of yourself today, all right?”

“I will. After the inquest I want to have a Round Table meeting,” he added. “Will you come?”

“Of course.” And with another kiss, she was out the door.

Arthur saw Merlin in every sorcerer or would-be sorcerer who came before the inquest that day. He imagined a bright little boy with too-large ears in the children Uther had drowned; imagined his servant, bound to a stake or led to the headsman’s block, in every young man. He saw Gwen or Gaius in the women and older men, and as he witnessed the hollowness in their eyes, as they recounted their deaths for Arthur, he imposed it on the faces of the people he loved.

It was not so unexpected that Merlin had left Camelot; what was a surprise was that he’d stayed at all, with this heavy dread hanging over his head. How had he borne it, every day, for ten years?

Now Merlin was gone, and it was Arthur’s fault, but it wasn’t because Arthur had found out about the magic. It was because Merlin hadn’t felt useful to Arthur without it.

How had Arthur ever come to deserve such loyalty? What had Merlin seen in him?

As usual, only about every tenth person brought before the inquest admitted to having magic, the rest only having been connected to a sorcerer in some way. And yet, every time someone admitted to having magic, the assembled nobles shied like skittish horses, murmuring among themselves as if they were about to be attacked. It was tiresome, made more so whenever Arthur imagined Merlin standing before them. He could just see his servant rolling his eyes and scoffing at them to quit being ridiculous.

“Honestly,” he heard himself saying before he’d even thought about it, “it’s as if you’ve never even seen a sorcerer before, despite sitting in this inquest for weeks.”

“But, but sire…”

“The overwhelming majority of the people to possess magic never lifted a finger against the crown, and you all know it.”

“I did,” said the sorcerer, and the hall fell silent.

Arthur tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

The man, thin and tired-looking, drew himself up, taking a deep breath. “I tried to kill Uther,” he said plainly, and the nobles gasped. “He took everything from me. He turned my friends and the townspeople against me. He made me watch as he murdered my wife and son.” The man’s expression darkened. “If he were still alive, I would try again.”

Arthur found himself wondering what Merlin had lost, over the years. “Brave of you to admit it,” he observed aloud.

The sorcerer simply shrugged. “What have I to lose, but my life, again? He already killed me once. I no longer fear death.”

One of the nobles shifted in his seat. “There are things worse than death,” he said with a sneer, and Arthur’s eyes grew wide. He glared, spotting Lord Archibald, and gritted his teeth; his knights looked across at the table full of nobles with expressions of disgust.

“We have more honor than that, in Camelot,” said Arthur, “and you would do well to remember it.”

Archibald’s expression grew darker, if anything, but he only said, “My apologies, sire,” and sat back in his seat.

“Geoffrey,” asked Arthur, “do we have record of the attempt on my father’s life?”

After a moment’s shuffling of papers, the archivist looked up. “We do, sire.” At Arthur’s gesture, he read it aloud. The sorcerer’s name was listed as Morven of Oakley. According to the record, Uther had left the castle with a few of his favored knights, though it did not say if they were on a hunt or headed for a specific destination. They had met a peasant, Morven, on the side of the road, who had seemed to be struggling with an overturned cart. As two of the knights assisted in righting it, the man had looked Uther in the eye and begun to speak a spell. The other knights had tackled Morven to the ground, where, according to the record, he had spoken treason against the king. Arthur suspected that instead, the sorcerer had yelled accusations of murder and promises of vengeance; he’d heard similar himself, over the years, when his squad had been accosted on patrol. The record went on to say that the knights had knocked the man unconscious and bound him in chains, then brought him back to the citadel for execution.

From there, it was the same story Arthur had heard hundreds of times now. The only surprise was that Uther hadn’t run the man through right there, on the road, rather than bringing him back to the castle.

“He likely wanted to make an example of me,” said Morven, when Arthur asked about it. “He was fond of that, in the first few years of the Purge.”

“So this wasn’t immediately after my birth?” asked Arthur.

“You were perhaps three or four years old, as I recall it, sire.”

The hall was silent as Arthur pondered. God, he was sick of this. All the death, for nothing. For no reason, other than one man’s hatred and refusal to take responsibility for his own actions. “Do you have any quarrel with me?” he asked finally.

“Not yet,” said the sorcerer, with a defiant expression on his face, and again Arthur was reminded of Merlin.

The nobles shied again, until Arthur held his hand up to quiet them. “Explain.”

“I saw my wife three days ago,” said the man, “being led here to the castle, and then entering the tent city a few hours later, unharmed. I haven’t seen my son, but if she lives, there is hope that he does also.” Morven squared his shoulders, and his expression softened, just a little. “The rumors are that you haven’t killed any of us, since we came back. That you suffer the druids to camp outside the walls without fear.”

“That’s right,” said Arthur.

“They say that you spoke with a dragon only a little while ago, without trying to kill it.”

“That is also true.”

“Then perhaps you are not your father’s son,” said the sorcerer.

Arthur nodded. “Not anymore.” It may have been the fatigue that allowed him to say it, but even after the words had left his mouth, even when he saw the reaction from Archibald and some of the others, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Hadn’t Merlin said the same thing to him, in the past, and said it with that proud and hopeful gleam in his eye?

The sorcerer bowed, actually bowed, to him, and Arthur didn’t think he saw any mockery in the act. “Then no, sire,” he said, “I don’t think I do have a quarrel with you. Before Uther destroyed my life, I wished only to live it in peace. I would try to do so again, if I were given the chance.”

“Magic remains illegal,” said Arthur, as he had a hundred times before by now. “But I can offer you recompense for the crimes my father committed against you, and offer you my hope that you will be able to begin again.” Once more, as he’d also done a hundred times by now, he gestured for the page to step forward with the little purse of coin. “I hope you are able to find your wife and son. Go in peace, Morven of Oakley.”

The sorcerer took the purse, watching Arthur pensively. He hefted it in one hand, glancing down at it, then nodded.

Even as the guards escorted him out, he still watched Arthur, over his shoulder, still with that same thoughtful expression on his face, before he stepped through the entrance and disappeared.

“Sire,” said one of the nobles, “forgive me, but… was it wise to release a man who has already attempted murder? Who has committed treason against the crown?”

“He has already paid for his crimes with death,” said Arthur tiredly. “As has every other person we’ve seen in this inquest. I’m not going to kill him twice.”


“This session of the inquest is over,” Arthur interrupted. “Knights of the Round Table, please meet me in the council chamber. The rest of you are dismissed until tomorrow.”

He watched as the nobles filed out, wishing with everything in him that the inquest was already over, and that life could go back to normal.

A round table, thought the noble in disgust. Common-born knights. The custom had been in place for a few years now, ever since the beginning of Arthur’s reign, but the noble still hated it. The king, insisting on the preposterous notion that no man was above another. Uther’s own son, listening to men who were little better than conscripted foot-soldiers, and ignoring those who had been raised from birth to govern and advise the crown. Ignoring reason, and common sense. And now he was ignoring the dangers of sorcery, releasing magic users on their word alone that they would do no harm. As if a sorcerer could ever be trusted to keep his word.

He waited until the last knight had left the hall and the servants were beginning to follow them. “You. Boy,” he called quietly, careful not to be overheard from outside.

The youngest, barely older than the pages, turned, and bowed, his hands tightening nervously on the pitcher he carried. “My lord?”

“I want you to do something for me,” he said calmly.

“Of course, my lord,” said the boy, fidgeting nervously. “Only, I’m needed in the council chamber…”

“And I won’t pull you away from that, never fear,” said the noble smoothly. “I simply need you to pay attention to what the knights say in their council session today, and tell me about it later this evening.”

“My lord?”

“A smart young lad like you, you can do that for me, can’t you?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “It’s wise for a man to pay attention to his masters… a good servant listens, and is prepared for anything he might be commanded to do later, is that not so?”

“I… I guess so, my lord?”

“There’s a good lad.” The noble braced himself, and patted the boy on the shoulder. “What you are doing is very important,” he went on, “and I’ll reward you handsomely for it. All you need to do is be a good listener. I’m sure the king will appreciate that, having a wise servant who listens, don’t you think?”

“Yes, my lord,” said the boy, with a little more confidence now.

“And you’ll be helping me to serve the king, too,” said the noble. “The more I know about what the king wants, the better I can help him. That’s why I need you. Do you understand?”

The boy smiled tentatively. “Yes, my lord.”

“Here,” he said, pulling a coin from his pouch. He watched in satisfaction as the boy’s eyes grew round. “That is for agreeing to help me. I’ll give you more tonight, after you and I have spoken in my chambers. The more you can tell me, the better you listen to your king, the greater the reward. You’ll deserve it, for being so wise.”

Now the boy nodded eagerly. Every servant in this castle loved Arthur to a sickening degree, bordering on improper in some cases, forgetting their rightful place in the hierarchy… but it would serve the noble well tonight.

He held the coin out, waiting as the boy took it and tucked it safely in his pocket, and smiled again. “Very good, young man,” he said. “I know you will do a good job, for me and for the king.”

“I will, my lord,” said the boy, his eyes shining.

“Oh, and one other thing,” said the noble, as if he’d only just thought of it.

“My lord?”

“Let’s keep this between us,” he said with a little nod. “You can surprise the knights and the king later, show them what a good listener you are. But for now, you can practice with me. All right?”

“Yes, my lord.”

He smiled, and stepped back. “Off you go, then.”

The boy bowed and hurried off after the knights, and the noble allowed himself a deep breath of satisfaction.

Such a small investment, for potentially enormous payoff.

Chapter Text

Arthur allowed the knights to enter the council chamber ahead of him, and waited until Gwen appeared in the corridor, striding toward him with her maid behind her. She smiled upon seeing him, but just as she had done that morning, her expression quickly faded to one of concern when she got closer.

She waved her maid into the chamber and stepped close enough to take his hand. “Are you all right?” she asked, low enough not to be overheard.

“I’m fine,” he tried, but the queen did not appear to believe him.

“Arthur, you look exhausted.”

“I didn’t sleep well last night, you know that,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” she pressed. “You haven’t been sleeping well for weeks.”

“A lot has been happening…”

“I know that, of course I know that. I know you’re worried about all of it. But Arthur, you’re still recovering. It wasn’t that long ago that you nearly died.”

Honestly, with everything else happening, Arthur had actually almost forgotten that. He’d hardly had time to dwell on his physical state, and the realization left him blinking. “Merlin healed me—”

“—and you’ve been concerned about his magic ever since. And all these returned dead. Dragons, and dragon lords. All the changes, and what they mean for the kingdom. And now Merlin has left Camelot—”

“I know,” Arthur cut her off with a scowl. “Believe me, I know.”

It was Gwen’s turn to draw herself up and level him a deeply unimpressed look. “You don’t get to snap at me, Arthur; I’m on your side, and I should think you would know that by now.”

He shut his eyes and sighed. “I do. I’m sorry.” His eyes didn’t want to open again, but he forced them to, and met her gaze sincerely. “I’m tired, and it’s making me short-tempered.”

“I’ve noticed.” Gwen smiled a little sadly. “Merlin would have bullied you into getting some rest by now,” she said.

He matched her smile, feeling the guilt overtake him once more. “Merlin isn’t here.” It hurt even to say.

“Well then, I shall have to bully you on his behalf,” she quipped, and his smile grew a little more genuine.

“After the Round Table meeting, we can go to my chambers, and you can bully me as much as you like.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she warned, and leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “Come. The sooner we begin, the sooner we can finish.”

“My queen is wise,” said Arthur, and she laughed and took his arm, then tugged him into the chamber by her side.

Leon and Percival were there, as was Gwaine. A handful of other knights had been invited to the table over the years of his reign, but the number remained small, perhaps half the size of the council of nobles. Arthur, however, couldn’t help but notice the seats that remained empty: Lancelot and Elyan, still not officially restored to knighthood, as well as two seats that didn’t exist, but should: one for Gaius, and one for Merlin.

When they’d fought, Merlin had pointed out that both men had been by his side in the keep of the ancient kings, before retaking Camelot from Morgana’s forces. He’d accused Arthur of casting them both aside once the initial conflict was over, with Merlin fading back into the shadows as a “mere” servant, and Gaius restored to his place as court physician: esteemed, yes, but still only a freeman, not a knight or noble. Not listened to, most of the time, nor sought out for advice. Merlin had also noted, loudly, how easily Agravaine had been able to convince Arthur that Gaius was a traitor to the crown, despite decades of loyal service and Merlin’s strident objections. Gaius had literally known and cared for Arthur since he’d been born, and as Merlin put it, Arthur had thrown him away without a second thought. It hadn’t been quite as simple as that in Arthur’s own mind, but his actions certainly would have appeared that way from an outside perspective. Any outside perspective, most likely, including Merlin’s or Gwen’s.

He’d thrown both of them away too, in his anger and his desperate desire to please the only family he’d had left. And Agravaine had proven to be nothing more than a snake in the grass, waiting for the right moment to strike Arthur’s heel and bring him low.

Arthur blinked rapidly, pushing back against the rising well of emotion in his chest. Now was hardly the time to grow maudlin, when he had an important meeting to lead.

The guard closed the door behind them; it was only his closest council and a handful of trusted servants. Arthur pulled out the chair for Gwen, listening to the murmured greetings from around the table, before he took his own seat.

His behind had scarcely touched the cushion when Gwaine declared, “Princess, you look terrible.”

“Gwaine.” That was Leon, trying as always to quell the irrepressible.

And as always, he failed. “I’m only saying what we’re all thinking,” pressed Gwaine. “You look like hell. When was the last time you slept?”

Arthur sighed, knowing the meeting would get nowhere if he didn’t provide an answer. “Night before last, if you must know.”

Gwaine narrowed his eyes shrewdly. “Any particular reason beyond the obvious?”

As tired as he was, something in Gwaine’s tone caught Arthur’s attention, and he studied the other man’s face until he realized what it was. “You already know, don’t you?”

The edge in Gwaine’s voice vanished as he admitted, “I was there, yes.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?”

“I’m sorry,” Leon put in. “What is it you already know, Gwaine? What’s happened?”

Gwaine looked at Arthur with a challenge in his eye, and the king said tiredly, “Merlin’s gone.”

It was a bit of a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been, when a murmur rippled around the table. “Gone?” “What does he mean, gone?” “Merlin, gone? Now?”

Arthur held up a hand, and waited for silence to fall. Then he waited a little longer, as he tried to figure out what to say. Merlin’s magic was still a secret to all but a select few, and it was probably safest to keep it that way. “As some of you know,” he said carefully, “Merlin, through his apprenticeship to Gaius, has some knowledge of the ways of magic and the Old Religion. Gaius used to practice sorcery, before my father instituted the ban.” He saw nods around the table. “After I was wounded at Camlann, Merlin and Gaius determined that the injury had been done with an enchanted blade, and that the skills of a regular physician wouldn’t be enough to save me. So Merlin brought me to a place sacred to the Old Religion, and made a bargain to save my life.” The silence around the table was absolute. “What you do not know, and what I never would have allowed had I been in any state to forbid it, is that the bargain was originally meant to exchange his life for mine. He was fully intending to die, in order to heal me.”

There were a few gasps around the table, but all eyes remained on Arthur.

“I know next to nothing about the Old Religion,” Arthur went on. “I only know that the old gods appear to have looked upon his offer with favor. I was very, very near death when the bargain was struck; I closed my eyes expecting never to open them again.” He glanced at Gwen to see tears rising in her eyes, and quickly looked away. “When I did awaken, it was Merlin who was near death.”

“I remember the day you returned,” said Sir Kay. “You were able to walk to the physician’s chambers, with help; Merlin was unconscious, had to be carried.”

“The wound is completely closed over,” said Arthur with a nod. “Even the scar does not pain me. I have been regaining my strength ever since that day, but for whatever reason, Merlin has not. Perhaps because he was meant to die and didn’t. I don’t know. I also never realized just how badly off he was, because no one saw fit to tell me,” he added with a glare to Gwaine. Before the other man could offer a retort, he went on, “Regardless, I discovered that when the dragon came to the castle the other day, it was to make Merlin an offer: to heal him, as he healed me.”

“Do you mean that someone else would have to die in Merlin’s place, in order to save him?” asked Leon, with a worried frown.

Arthur shook his head. “I truly don’t know. As I said, the ways of sorcery, and the Old Religion, are completely foreign to me. But it would appear that Merlin agreed to the dragon’s offer, and the dragon spirited him away later that night. I discovered his absence the next day. Yesterday.”

There was a long silence around the table, but Arthur noticed that nearly every knight there looked troubled, even worried. Merlin may have been nominally Arthur’s servant, but over the years he’d managed to befriend a great many people above his station, the knights included. No doubt this tale of his latest attempt to save Arthur would only endear him to them further.

A pity Merlin wasn’t here to see it, he thought with a pang. He’d left partly because he felt that he wasn’t needed, wouldn’t be missed. How wrong he was.

“Will he return?” asked Percival after a long moment.

God, Arthur hoped so. “I’ve been told he should be gone no more than a few months,” he said, a bit hoarsely. “With luck, he’ll be back to his usual annoying self by then… and now,” he added with a sigh, “you all know why I did not sleep last night.”

It wasn’t much of a joke, but it was enough to release a little of the tension around the table. “Here’s hoping,” said Kay, and others murmured in agreement.

“Indeed,” said Arthur. “But I didn’t call you here to discuss my servant, as much as we all may appreciate him. Camelot faces upheaval of a kind no one has ever encountered in all of history. I called this meeting so that we could discuss the problem, and determine possible ways forward from here, that will be of benefit to the entire kingdom.”

“The returned dead,” said Leon.

“Obviously,” said Kay, “but also the return of magic, along with them.”

“Dragons,” put in Percival.

“Aye, and all the rest. Plus everyone’s reactions to it.”

“There has been unrest, of course,” Leon reported, “but surprisingly little, when you think about how massive the change has been.”

“What sort of unrest?” asked Arthur.

“Nothing you haven’t seen already, sire,” said Leon. “We might have expected sorcerers causing trouble with non-magic users, but in fact it’s been the opposite. People are harassing suspected sorcerers in the streets, when they think they can get away with it. But with the magic users largely keeping to the tent city, and the non-magic users refusing to go there, the general upheaval has been lower than we might have looked for.”

“I suppose that’s something,” muttered Kay.

“But we can expect it to pick up, over time,” said another knight. “As the two groups get used to each other, they will start to mingle. And some people will simply accept the change and move on with their lives, but there are always troublemakers.”

“And that’s only here within the city,” said Arthur, as the others nodded in agreement. “We don’t even know how far this… resurrection has spread.”

“I’d wager it’s throughout Camelot,” said Gwaine. “We encountered resurrected children on our way back from Avalon, didn’t we?”

“Children?” asked Kay, sounding sick.

Arthur took a breath. “My father did not limit his executions to adults,” he said quietly. It felt like a confession, and he could not keep the bitterness out of his voice as he elaborated. “Children were too small to effectively hang, so instead they were taken to the river.”


“Yes.” Arthur let the reaction around the table die down, before continuing. “There are also the reactions of the nobles to consider. Some of those executed were nobles themselves, and had their lands confiscated and redistributed to those who turned them in for their alleged crimes. It’s been proven that many of them had nothing to do with sorcery themselves, and were betrayed merely for greed and power. I need to find a way to set that right, without starting a civil war.” He sighed again. “There is so much to set right.”

“Everything from peasants trying to start over, to the druids, the returned dragon lords, and the damned nobles,” agreed Gwaine. “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“Which is why you are all here. I can’t do it alone,” Arthur admitted, feeling Gwen take his hand under the table. “I need solutions.”

“We’re with you, sire,” said Leon. “Always.”

He nodded his thanks, and leaned back. “So. What is most urgent for us to address? Let’s hear your ideas.”

“Restore lands to the resurrected nobles,” said one knight.

“You’re already trying to reunite children and parents where you can,” said another.

“Have we searched Camelot for those who were killed outside the city?” asked Leon. “Almost everyone in the inquest so far was brought to either the dungeons or the pens because they were found here, in the citadel or the city, immediately after the storm. If the children were taken to the river to be… to be killed, they may not have been brought before the inquest to find their parents.”

God, Arthur had been too tired to even consider such a thing, but Leon was absolutely right. “We’ll need to arrange patrols for the express purpose of bringing them here,” he said. “Only I don’t know how we’d do it without terrifying the children.”

“There are the returned dragons and dragon lords to consider,” said another knight. “Were dragon lords members of the court, before Uther had them eliminated? Were they nobles, did they hold lands? Or did they hold some other position; did they even swear fealty? What role did they play?”

Arthur nodded. “I plan to speak to a dragon lord living in the tent city, as soon as possible,” he said. “I’d go today if I weren’t needed elsewhere, but I certainly want to go before the week is out. With luck I can find answers to those questions.”

“It’s not just the dragon lords,” said Kay slowly, as all eyes turned to him. “We need to figure out what role magic in general played in Camelot, before Uther’s Purge. Because it may be… sire, if we want all these people to live, to be a part of Camelot, and not simply be slaughtered again, or banished, or… I don’t know. It may be that the only way forward is to lift the ban.”

Silence, around the table. Then Gwaine nodded; Leon glanced at him, and at Gwen, before joining in. “I agree, sire,” he said quietly. “Though it may be treason to say so.”

“We’re discussing ideas,” said Arthur, “so nothing is unworthy of consideration. I do know that I do not want to repeat the atrocities my father committed. I also know that some of these sorcerers once aided Camelot, despite fearing for their lives after the Purge began. I will not see them harmed if they have never done harm themselves.”

“There was that sorcerer earlier today, who admitted he’d tried to kill Uther,” said Leon.

“Aye, and he had cause, didn’t he?” countered Gwaine. “He also said he’d only been trying to live his life in peace before Uther ruined it.”

Leon couldn’t help but tip his head in acknowledgment. “It was said by others, more than once, that Uther’s policies created more enemies than they eliminated,” he said. He met Arthur’s gaze, and Arthur knew he was talking about Morgana, before she had turned against them all. Uther had likely been the cause of her enmity as well, though it seemed they would never know that, now.

“What about those who did move against the crown, though?” asked Kay. “I saw many people over the years who looked at Arthur and saw only Uther’s son, or wanted to hurt him in order to get back at Uther. They would have been happy to erase the entire Pendragon line, if they could have.”

“We can only try to persuade them that my reign is not a threat to their way of life,” said Arthur, “and hope that my actions speak louder than my father’s words.”

“But isn’t it?” asked Gwaine. “Still a threat, I mean. Magic is still illegal.”

Arthur took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know,” he said finally. “And I think… I think I may want to change that, but I don’t know how. Just as I don’t know how we as a kingdom can defend against magical threats that may arise. It would be naive to assume that there are no sorcerers who bear ill will toward Camelot.”

“You need a magical advisor, then,” said Percival. “Or more than one, maybe.”

Arthur nodded. “I had considered bringing both Geoffrey and Gaius into the Round Table, if there were no objections,” he said. “Gaius has served Camelot for decades, and used to study sorcery, supposedly, before he renounced it in service to my father. I know he has been knowledgeable about magical creatures and other threats in the past. Geoffrey, for his part, is likely to know more than anyone else about the laws that existed before the Purge, and could help us draft new ones as we gradually rescind the ban.”

“Are you asking Gaius to take up magic once again?” asked Leon.

“That would be up to him,” Arthur replied, “but I doubt that he would. I admit, I can’t really imagine him facing enemy sorcerers on the battlefield, and I wouldn’t want to risk him or his expertise anyway. But his knowledge would still be useful… plus, he deserves the honor of being part of the Round Table, after everything he has endured for Camelot’s sake.” So did Merlin, for that matter, but he could bring that up for discussion after the other man returned. He could at least vindicate Merlin’s opinion of Gaius’s loyalty in the meantime.

“What about Bruenor?” Everyone turned to Percival; he flushed, but shrugged and went on. “According to him, there was once a whole company of knights who fought with sword and magic both. If anyone would know how to counter magical threats on the battlefield, it’d be him.”

“We can ask,” said Arthur dubiously. “I admit I’m still reluctant to trust him to be that close to the crown, especially since he’s trained in combat techniques. If I knew whether he were trustworthy, it’d be different.”

Four people around the table gave him knowing looks, and he felt his face turn red, even as he fought the urge to fidget in his seat. Though there were others not in the room, here at this table, apart from Arthur, only those four knew of Merlin’s magic, and of course they knew that Arthur trusted him above just about everyone else in Camelot. Still, Arthur wasn’t sure whether he was ready to reveal Merlin’s powers to anyone else, just yet. It didn’t seem right, somehow.

“And for dragons, you need a dragon lord,” said Kay, oblivious to the silent communication. “Plus it might be wise to include someone who knows about the Old Religion. A druid, perhaps.”

“That’s not an advisor, it’s an entire magical council,” protested Leon.

“I know,” and indeed, Kay did not sound thrilled about it, “but if Camelot is to move forward with magic, rather than trying to suppress it once more, that may be what the king needs, in order to make the best decisions for the kingdom’s wellbeing. It’s up to you, of course, sire,” he added.

“I wonder…” Gwen spoke up for the first time, and everyone turned to her. She frowned thoughtfully, then went on slowly, “If you need to speak to this dragon lord, and you also want to seek out a druid for magical advice, you may be able to accomplish both tasks by sending word to the tent city, before you go.” She glanced up, blinking when she realized that all eyes were on her. “My thought is simply that you let them know ahead of time that you’re coming, rather than making it a surprise visit. They just might solve part of your problem for you.”

“There are certainly druids there,” said Gwaine. “Might be there are some elders who’d be willing to meet with you.”

“You could accomplish a third task, and bring Bruenor with you,” said Gwen, “as a magical bodyguard of sorts. Obviously not as your only escort,” she added quickly, “but you could speak with him on the way there, determine whether or not trusting him is worth the risk.”

“I admit that so far he’s done nothing harmful,” allowed Arthur. “It’s only… he doesn’t seem to have any concern for the laws that prohibit sorcery, and we have no way to stop him from doing as he pleases.”

“Perhaps because he was executed before the Purge really got underway,” said Gwaine. “He never got used to having to hide his magic, or stop using it.”

“You don’t think he’s deliberately provoking Arthur?” asked Leon.

“You know me,” said Gwaine with a smirk. “If he were, I’d think it was hilarious. But no. I think he just genuinely doesn’t grasp that his magic is to be kept secret for his own safety. In a way, I think that makes him more trustworthy, not less. If he does turn out to have an agenda, it won’t be a hidden one.”

There was a pause around the table as his knights took that in, then, to Arthur’s surprise, nods of agreement. “Bring him with you,” said Leon finally. “And may I make one other suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Reinstate Elyan and Lancelot,” he said earnestly, leaning forward in his seat. “The inquest has shown that none of the returned dead are anything other than what they seem, and they both have continued to serve you faithfully as informants and go-betweens to the tent city. Let them continue to do what you’ve asked of them, only restore their positions here, where we can all benefit from what they have to say.”

“Hear, hear,” said Gwaine, as Percival nodded emphatically. Arthur studied the faces of the other knights, but none of them appeared to have any misgivings. Gwen, naturally, was looking at him hopefully.

“You know I’d like to see my brother restored to his rightful place here at the table,” she said. “And from what we’ve learned of Lancelot’s return, this second time, he can be trusted as well.”

“All right,” said Arthur. “We still have other matters to address, but for now, I can reinstate Lancelot and Elyan to the knighthood and the Round Table, and ask them to send word to Colgrevance in the tent city, and seek out any druid elders who might be willing to speak with me. Leon, I’d like you to find Bruenor and ask him if he would be willing to serve as a magical guard whenever we go.”

“When will that be?”

“That will depend on what the druids say, I think,” said Arthur. “The sooner they are willing to see me, the sooner I will arrange my visit.”

“You’re not going to with a full entourage,” said Gwaine skeptically. “A lot of those people still fear you, despite how you’ve treated them so far. And their memory of men in red cloaks won’t likely be very pleasant either.”

“No, I’m aware,” mused Arthur. “I don’t want to go precisely incognito, but I see no reason to intimidate them with any show of power or wealth, either.” There were more nods and murmurs of agreement, and Arthur leaned forward in his seat. “Leon, if you could arrange the specifics, as far as members of the guard who will accompany me?”

“Of course, sire.”

Arthur nodded his thanks, then met the eyes of everyone seated around the table. “There is still much to address, but for the time being, I think we can wait to discuss those issues until the next meeting. Is there anything else of immediate import that we haven’t looked at?”

“No,” said one knight. “No, sire,” said a few others.

“Get some sleep, Princess,” said Gwaine.

“That is part of today’s agenda, I assure you,” said the queen with a smile.

“Think on these problems, then,” said Arthur, “and be prepared to offer your ideas and potential solutions at the next meeting. As I’ve said before, Camelot faces a situation that no kingdom in history has ever encountered. It is not unrealistic to call these changes a miracle from the old gods themselves. With that in mind, no idea will be too strange, or unworthy of examination, so long as you see a way that it might benefit us all.” With that, Arthur nodded at them all, and took his wife’s hand. “Dismissed.”

Chapter Text

The noble paid the boy well for the information he provided, and the boy was eager enough, or perhaps had enough need for coin, that he offered to listen in on the next Round Table meeting as well. A worthwhile investment indeed, thought the noble.

“If you think it will not be too much trouble,” he said with feigned skepticism. “I know you have other duties.”

“I promise this won’t interfere with my other duties,” said the servant. “You were right, my lord. I learned a lot just by listening. I’m happy to help.”

The noble paused just long enough to make the lad fidget in anticipation. “Very well then,” he said finally, watching the servant’s shoulders drop in relief. “Do you know when the Round Table will be meeting again?”

“No, my lord, they did not say. But I’ll be sure to serve them then as well, whenever it may be.”

“Of course,” said the noble. “Well, I suppose that will be all right.” He watched the boy smile, pleased to have satisfied his betters, just as a servant ought to behave. “I’m glad you were able to see the value of listening to your masters,” he went on. “Let us keep practicing, then, you and I, and you can show me what you learn next time as well. And when the time is right, I’m sure you will impress His Majesty a great deal.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

He nodded. “Speaking of serving, I’m sure you have other things to do this evening.”

“I do, my lord.”

“Then I will not keep you… what did you say your name was?”

“Clement, my lord.”

“Very well, Clement. You may go.”

The boy bowed and shut the door behind him as he left. The noble waited a few minutes before standing up and putting on his cloak. He listened at the door to make sure there was no one else in the corridor, then left his chambers, heading for a certain home in the wealthier part of the Upper Town, just outside the citadel.

Clement was not the only one with other things to do this evening.

By the light of a single lamp, two men sat alone, goblets of the finest wine sitting largely untouched between them. The light brought out the gleam of metallic threads in the tapestry on one wall, and glinted on the rings and other jewelry both men wore.

“It’s madness,” said one. “You plot treason. I want nothing to do with it.”

“It isn’t treason,” said the other with a roll of his eyes.

“You want to pay someone to attempt to kill the king!”

“I want to pay someone who we both know will fail in the attempt,” said the other. “His Majesty is an accomplished swordsman, will be in broad daylight, and surrounded by bodyguards. He has killed countless sorcerers in his lifetime, going back to before he was king. He’ll kill this one as well. No one important will be harmed.”

“If you don’t want His Majesty to die, then what is the point of hiring someone to try and kill him in the first place?” asked the first, pressing his lips together with annoyance.

“The king needs to be reminded that sorcerers and their unnatural powers are not to be trusted. As do the townspeople in general,” said the other man, picking up his goblet and swirling the wine within. He brought it to his nose, savoring the aroma. “And the sorcerers themselves need to be reminded that they are permitted to live only on his—our—sufferance. Camping outside the city walls in such numbers is to be… discouraged.”

“I admit I hardly appreciate having a potential army of witches and enchanters so close,” said his companion thoughtfully.

“Like a plague of rats,” agreed the other, taking a mouthful of his wine.

“You think this attempt will discredit them, and convince the king to get rid of them.”

“I do,” said his visitor. “At the very least, it will drive a wedge into the populace, prevent the two groups from banding together. Arthur is too softhearted to execute all those with magic, even for the kingdom’s safety, but he could be persuaded to banish them. Let them be some other kingdom’s problem,” he added dismissively.

There was a long silence as the first man considered the other’s words. “How will you arrange it?” he asked finally, and his visitor knew he had won.

“The druids in the tent city are even more softhearted than the king,” he said. “Won’t even raise a weapon in their own defense. Troublemakers among them are shunned, kicked out of the camp; then, according to rumor, they either leave Camelot to cause trouble elsewhere, or they set up in the Darkling Woods and try to survive there. It will be easy enough to make a short journey into the woods… see if one of them holds a grudge and is willing to do something about it.”

“If the druids are such weaklings, how will this attempt convince Arthur that they are dangerous?”

“They won’t even defend themselves,” said the other man with a little scoff. “Do you honestly think they’ll lift a finger to protect the king?”

His host pondered his words for another long moment, before nodding thoughtfully. “And you are certain that this gambit of yours will not be traced back to us?”

“How could it be?” asked the other man. “The sorcerer will attack, either the king or his guard will cut him down, and that will be that. He will likely be dead before he hits the ground. He will certainly be in no condition to spread tales.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said the first man. “What do you need from me?”

“Support in the council, of course,” came the reply with a shrug. “When the assassination attempt is brought up for discussion, we can persuade the others to push for a crackdown on the vermin outside the city. Punish them for daring to threaten the king.”

“Very well,” said the host, slowly at first, then with more confidence. “Very well. If you are able to find someone to carry out the attempt, then I will support you in council afterward.”

“That is all I ask,” said his visitor with a smile. He lifted his goblet. “To a mutually beneficial partnership.”

Despite his fatigue, and despite Gwen’s coaxing, it had finally taken a sleeping draught for Arthur to get any rest, and then he’d slept for nearly sixteen hours before Gwen allowed him to wake. He’d barely managed to make it to the inquest in time, the next day, and he still felt tired to his bones, but he at least no longer thought he resembled a walking corpse with eyes that refused to stay open. It wasn’t much of an improvement, but he would take it.

Lancelot and Elyan both accepted the offer to return to knighthood, and the Round Table, which was a relief for Arthur; they both, however, refused to take up quarters within the castle for the time being.

“I’m staying with my father in the tent city,” Elyan explained. “It’s a good way to learn about the place, and… he’s my father. I never thought I would see him again.”

“I understand,” and Arthur did, truly. “Lancelot, what about you?”

“I don’t want to displace any knights who are already living in the castle, and cause any strife,” he said. “There are resurrected knights who were of noble birth, and while Uther may have killed them for sympathizing with magic, that does not mean that they look on commoners as their equals.” He lowered his eyes. “And, of course, there was the strife I caused the last time I seemed to return from the dead.”

Arthur waved that away. “It was a Shade, not you,” he said, and when Lancelot made as if to protest, Arthur stopped him. “It is forgotten,” he insisted. “But where are you staying, in the meantime?”

“I had been staying in the tent city as well, but with my knight’s stipend, I will probably take a room in the Lower Town instead. I can still listen and get a feel for the mood of the populace there, just as Elyan and I have been doing in the tent city.”

“Of course. A good idea.”

“Thank you, sire.”

“I’d like you both to accompany me when I go there myself, in a few days’ time,” he said. “You know the area better than any of us, and I think if the people see you with me, it will help to put them at ease.”

“Or make them think we were spying on them,” countered Elyan, with a frown of concern. “Would it be better for us to simply follow you discreetly, out of uniform?”

Arthur thought about it for a moment; the idea did have merit, but he didn’t like the subterfuge of it. He wondered what Merlin would have said about the notion; probably something about protecting Arthur from any threats. “All right,” he said slowly. “It’s… not my favorite idea. I worry about the honor of deceiving these people. But you may be able to approach them for information that they might otherwise fear to bring to me.”

Both his knights nodded in agreement. “I’ll talk to Leon so he can fit us into his arrangements,” said Elyan.

“Thank you,” said Arthur. “Is there anything else?”

Both men shook their heads, and stood. “If you don’t mind, sire, I’d like to go and visit Merlin,” said Lancelot. “It’s been a while since I was able to come up and see him.” Arthur’s face fell, and Lancelot immediately noticed. “Is he… not well?”

“He left,” Arthur forced himself to say. “Camelot. It’s… I’m sure either Freya or Gwaine could tell you more. I only know that the dragon that came the other day offered to take him away for healing, and he agreed.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Lancelot, looking stricken. “I hadn’t known.”

“No,” Arthur sighed. “No, he didn’t inform any of us. I don’t know whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, or something else he was keeping secret from us.”

Lancelot frowned, but did not answer. Elyan asked, “Will he return, then, once he’s healed?”

“From what I’ve been told, we may expect him to be gone for a few months. I don’t know if that’s because the damage to his health was so severe, or if there is some other reason.” And of course, if Merlin changed his mind—and after the way they had fought, he just might—Arthur might never see him again.

“Of course, sire.”

There was an awkward silence, before Arthur shook himself and looked up at both of them. “If you do visit anyway, please give my regards to Hunith,” he said. “Either way, I’ll see you in a few days’ time.”

Word went out that the king intended to visit the tent city outside Camelot, and the kingdom’s gossips and rumor-mongers immediately began to buzz like an excited hive of bees. It was known that Arthur was still recovering from his near-death in battle, and there were those who fretted over the wisdom of risking his safety among sorcerers and magic sympathizers. There were others, however, who pointed out that the majority of the people camped outside the walls had done nothing wrong before Uther had had them killed, and that many, in fact, had no magic at all.

The gossip extended into the tent city itself, with many who lived there nervous over what the king’s visit might mean for them. Was he looking for weaknesses or an excuse to attack them? Did he seek to make peace? No one knew, though there were some who claimed to have dreamed of the event, and that all would be well. On the other hand, there were some who claimed that their dreams showed danger and bloodshed, though they would not say for whom. It was impossible to guess which dreams predicted the truth.

Regardless, the king could go nowhere with haste, so a few days passed while anticipation built, and discreet messages were passed between the tent city and the castle. It was said that the king sought out any druid elders who would be willing to speak with him, and that the druids themselves were conferring on whom to appoint as their ambassador.

A few days were all the noble needed to make arrangements, and send discreet messages, of his own.

Leon’s final pick of knights included Gwaine, Percival, Kay, Bruenor, and himself; he’d agreed to allow Lancelot and Elyan to meet them at the city gates and join their guard discreetly.

After a few days of messages sent back and forth, a woman named Derwen had agreed to meet with them, claiming to be the leader of a druid band. And of course Colgrevance had agreed to see the king, whenever the king wanted, which was a relief. It looked as though all of Arthur’s goals would be met.

Still, he was not without nerves as he dressed for the day, in half-armor so as to protect himself without seeming too intimidating. He debated whether or not to wear a crown at all, and eventually opted for the simplest circlet he had. He stood there, silent and tense, the entire time his servant dressed him, and Arthur found himself missing Merlin once more. The other man had seemed to know better than anyone how to use both his chatter and his silence to set Arthur at ease; seemed to know which one Arthur needed in the moment, and adjust accordingly. He could get Arthur out of his head with a well-placed insult, or settle his jitters with a sincere bit of wisdom.

God, Arthur missed him already and it had only been a few days. Although really, it had been two months before that, too; only Arthur had been too caught up in his own hurt and confusion to really be able to notice how much he’d missed Merlin then. He had, though, whether he would have admitted it to himself or not.

Finally he was ready, and Gwen kissed him on the cheek for luck as he strode out. Arthur did his best to put thoughts of Merlin from his mind, and to focus on what was sure to be one of the more delicate diplomatic missions of his life.

Leon and his entourage were waiting in the courtyard; Arthur paused just long enough to wish them all a good morning, before they formed up around him and they all set out. Their destination was only outside the city gates, so they left the horses in the stables and went on foot through the portcullis, down the street, and into the Lower Town.

“It would appear that word has already spread of your visit,” said Bruenor, from his spot at Arthur’s left. Leon walked at his right, with Gwaine and Percival in front of him and Kay taking up the rear. Bruenor nodded to the passersby who were turning to stare at their group as it passed. “There are more people in the street than usual, I think.”

“Do you think it a bad thing?” asked Arthur. Talking to Bruenor, getting a feel for his character, had been one of his goals today as well.

“I suppose it could go either way, sire,” came the reply. The knight-mage did not so much as glance at Arthur, scanning the crowd and the street ahead instead. “I know your populace has come to hate and fear magic, in the time since Uther’s slaughter began. They have come to believe what he preached. I know there are some who take matters into their own hands, when they meet someone who they think may be a sorcerer.”

“Yes, I’ve had to deal with several of those already.”

“Perhaps your going outside the gate to the tent city will reassure them,” said Bruenor. “Your words will go far, of course, as king, but your actions will go farther still.”

“Do you think I’m taking a risk?” he probed, wondering what the other man would say.

Bruenor, however, only shrugged. “You plan to meet with peaceful people, and have taken many precautions for your safety and theirs,” he said, still not looking at Arthur. “If there is a risk, you’ve mitigated it well.”

A noncommittal answer, but inoffensive. Arthur still wasn’t sure how to read the other man, and Bruenor did not seem especially talkative while he was on duty. Merlin likely would have been able to draw him out, but Arthur dismissed the thought with a pang. Merlin wasn’t here.

Lancelot and Elyan were waiting just outside the city gates, in clothes of gray and brown; they looked less like knights and more like hunters, but the knives they wore at least did not look out of place. The nodded greetings to Arthur, Leon, and Kay, and accepted arm clasps and slaps on the shoulder from Gwaine and Percival.

“This is Bruenor,” said Arthur. “A resurrected knight like yourselves, only his death was when I was still an infant.”

“Knight-Mage,” he corrected, without heat. “I have magic. Will that be a problem for either of you?”

Elyan raised his eyebrows, but shook his head. “I’ve been living in the tent city since I made it back to Camelot,” he said. “I’ve grown used to magic.”

“As have I,” put in Lancelot. “Though it never would have occurred to me that Uther would have magic users in his ranks.”

“Foolish not to, when rival kingdoms do,” said Bruenor. “Though I do not know if that is still the case, thirty years on.”

“Some kingdoms employ sorcerers,” said Gwaine, “but they’re not exactly respected members of the court. More like fools, entertaining but barely tolerated.”

“Mm,” was all Bruenor said in response.

They opened up their formation a bit as they approached the outskirts of the camp, looking less like a gang of armed men ready to start trouble. Arthur had of course heard the reports, but he was still unprepared for the sheer size of the tent city; it was easily half the size of the Lower Town itself, and bustling with people headed about their daily business. It almost felt like regular Camelot on a market day, a buzz of excitement in the air. Arthur spotted people spotting him, and noted their reactions. Some seemed only curious, while others were clearly frightened, pulling their children close or ducking out of sight when Arthur and his men got too close. For the most part, though, people ran their errands or performed their chores with little notice of who was walking past them.

“I don’t see any magic,” Arthur said quietly, after they’d gone a couple of blocks in.

“It’s there,” said Bruenor. “Subtle, though. And I suspect they’ve been warned to hide the more obvious displays so as not to offend you, sire.”

Arthur bit back a sigh. He couldn’t blame them, really, but it was still disheartening to realize just how intimidating magic users found him. “I see.”

Bruenor actually looked over at him for just a moment, before going back to scanning for threats. “This bothers you?”

“It does,” he admitted. “I may not be entirely comfortable with magic yet, but so many of these people have done nothing wrong. I don’t see any reason to frighten them into submission, just because of my discomfort.”

Bruenor seemed satisfied, and Arthur found himself wondering if Merlin would have been pleased, too.

They passed through a market area, and the men spread out even further, allowing Arthur and Leon to look at the wares together while Bruenor stood a short distance from them, and the other men took up positions scanning the crowd. There was nothing especially impressive here; bundles of herbs or firewood, or baskets of vegetables, for the most part. Bags of wool to be spun into yarn. Arthur hadn’t really expected to see many displays of wealth, though, given that this was effectively a refugee camp. The “market” consisted mainly of things that people would need but might not have the time to gather on their own. Still, there were one or two wagons selling bolts of fabric, or carved wooden spoons, and even a few goats and chickens.

From his knights’ reports, Arthur knew that the street intersections were marked with various colored flags, showing animals or mystic symbols on them. Colgrevance had told them that he lived near the intersection of “Orange” and “Spiral”, and according to Lancelot, the druid elder, Derwen, was further along than that. They had made their way to Orange Street already, but Arthur had no idea how much farther it would be till they found “Spiral”. The nearest orange flag had a griffin painted on it.

A sudden commotion made him turn; a little girl had run up to Bruenor and was tugging on his sleeve, forcing him to bend down so she could say something. Arthur was too far away to hear, but he could make out the urgent tone in the child’s voice. Arthur smiled; whatever it was, she must have thought it important, although he did wonder how she had recognized Bruenor.

The knight rested a hand on her head and thanked her solemnly, and she ran off once more, to the sound of a worried mother calling from a few tents away.

“What was that all about?” he asked, as the other man approached.

To his surprise, Bruenor frowned. “I’m not sure,” he said. “A warning, I think.”

“A warning?” repeated Leon. “What did she say?”

“She said, ‘Be ready. It will happen soon, outside the dragon lord’s tent. The dragon lord doesn’t know.’”

Chapter Text

Arthur shared a look with Leon, but the other man seemed just as perplexed as he felt. “What will happen soon?” he asked.

“She didn’t say, sire,” said Bruenor.

Leon did not look happy. “And how did she know we planned to visit Colgrevance?” He narrowed his eyes, and Arthur thought they were both wondering whether someone were trying to compromise their mission… and whether that someone might be Bruenor.

But Bruenor only replied, “It’s possible she has the Sight,” with a thoughtful expression. “It would have to be a strong gift, to come on in one so young.”

“Explain,” said Arthur.

For the first time that day, Bruenor met his gaze and held it. “You already know from the inquest that some people are born with magic in their blood,” he said. “It will always make itself known, sooner or later, though it usually manifests in adolescence or perhaps a little later. It’s not unheard of for a younger child to show signs of magic, but if they do, it can indicate that they will grow to be quite powerful. That’s not always the case; sometimes it only means that they will be very, very good at one specific type of magic, and unable to do much of anything else with it for the rest of their lives.”

“I see,” said Arthur. Then he thought of something. “Is it actually possible for someone to… for their magic to manifest while they’re still an infant? A toddler, perhaps?”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Bruenor. “That kind of power would be legendary, if it existed.” He tipped his head. “In fact, there are legends, legendary figures, but as far as I know none of them are based on real people. There are supposed prophecies that a person like that might someday be born, but I don’t put much stock in such things myself.”


The knight-mage shrugged. “I’m not terribly religious,” he said simply. “I have magic, obviously, and I use it, but I don’t care to involve myself in the affairs of gods or grand destinies.” A sudden smile graced his face, and he added, “I honor them, of course, because I’d be a fool not to, but I don’t expect myself to have their favor.”

Arthur kept his face relaxed, his hands neutral. “I see,” he said. Gods and grand destinies. Merlin had always tried to tell Arthur that he had a grand destiny himself, to be the greatest king Albion had ever seen. Arthur had always put that down to encouragement, to Merlin’s faith in him as a person and a leader; now, though, knowing about his friend’s magic, he had to wonder: had Merlin been trying to tell him something that he simply hadn’t picked up on?

And a goddess—a literal, actual Goddess of the Old Religion—had interfered in his death and Merlin’s attempted sacrifice.

Arthur was no druid, but perhaps it might be time to become a bit more religious, himself.

“About this child’s warning,” said Leon. “What do you think she meant? ‘It will happen soon’? What will happen?”

“The most obvious possibility would be a threat to your safety, sire,” said Bruenor, shaking his head a little. “She didn’t specify; she may not have known any more than that, herself. But whatever she saw, she thought it was important enough to approach one of us to tell us about it.”

“And ‘the dragon lord doesn’t know’,” mused Leon. There was a crease on his forehead; if it were Merlin, Arthur would have wanted to tease him for thinking too hard, but this was Leon, and it wasn’t the right time or place for such informality.

“All we can do is keep our eyes open for any sort of disturbance,” he said instead, “which you all are already doing anyway.”

“Of course, sire.” Leon still looked troubled, but he was at least willing to let the problem go for now.

They reached the intersection of Orange and Spiral quickly enough, and Arthur’s men closed in around him once more. Arthur looked around until he spotted a tent, a little larger than its neighbors, with a sinuous dragon painted on the canvas on either side of its door flap. Around him in the street, people were staring, or hurrying away, although a few people at least paused and bowed before they left.

“Do you think this is it?” he asked Leon.

“It is,” said Bruenor, and Arthur glanced sideways at him for the interruption. “That’s the traditional symbol of the dragon lords,” he explained. “The circular design in the center of the dragons’ bodies marks the specific lineage of this particular dragon lord and his family.”

Well, that was interesting enough, but Arthur didn’t think he was here for lore and history… although he really had little idea of how this talk was going to go. As much as he wanted to learn about the dragon lords in general, he mostly wanted to know if Colgrevance had any idea where Merlin might have gone, and if he was safe. Arthur might end up with a history lesson by way of explanation, but he kind of hoped not.

He took a deep breath, then stepped up to the tent flap. “Colgrevance?”

“I’ll be right there,” came the reply from inside. “One moment.” Arthur heard a little clatter, and then the dragon lord opened the flap, bowed, and looked up at him before Arthur gestured for him to rise. “Ah, Your Majesty. Come in, please… and any of your men who wish to join us,” he added, seeing Arthur’s guard, “although space may be a bit tight.”

“It’s fine,” said Arthur. “We won’t strain your hospitality. Leon?”

The two of them stepped inside, and Arthur spared a look around as his eyes adjusted. The tent was clean, but nearly bare, with only a bedroll behind a half-drawn curtain, and a handful of fat cushions surrounding a low table. The cushions themselves were made with bright fabrics, and the table was in good condition, but there was almost nothing else in the entire space.

Colgrevance seemed to know what he was thinking, as he smiled ruefully. “I admit I am accustomed to more comfort than this, and would offer you more if I could. But, well… I have only been alive again for a couple of months now. I’ve not had time to seek out my stored wealth and purchase better.”

Arthur had to admit that that made sense. Really, it was a wonder that any of the resurrected people had possessions to their names at all. “No need to apologize,” he said. “Thank you for agreeing to see us.”

“Of course, sire. Will you sit? I can at least offer you good cider to drink, if you wish it. The druids are some of the finest brewers in the land, I can vouch for that!”

They each took a cushion, and Arthur tried not to smile as Leon folded himself up to sit, his long legs making him look a bit gangly and awkward at the low table. Colgrevance himself grunted in discomfort as he dropped to one knee, then shook his head as he began to pour the cider for them all. “I look forward to having proper chairs again,” he said. “My joints do not appreciate all this up-and-down, I can tell you that.”

Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, but he accepted the cider and took a sip with a little nod. Since Leon was guarding him, he likely would not touch the stuff while they were here, but hopefully Colgrevance would not take offense.

“Now,” said the dragon lord, “what can I do for you, sire?”

“I’d like to know more about dragon lords, and I am unsure even where to start my questions,” Arthur admitted. “I know nothing of your people. I had never even heard of them until only a few years ago, when we sought out the last of them—of you—to try and stop a dragon from burning our city to the ground. Anything you can tell me will probably be helpful.”

“The last of them, eh? That would be Balinor and Kilgharrah, I’d wager,” said Colgrevance. “Not surprising how that played out, if you don’t mind my saying so, sire.”

“I don’t understand.”

Colgrevance sighed. “Uther slaughtered all the dragon lords he could find, and their families with them to make sure there were no children to inherit the power. It’s passed on with the dragon lord’s death, you see,” he explained. “He brought many of us here to Camelot for a banquet, locked the doors to the hall, and had his crossbowmen open fire between the second and third courses.”

“God,” said Leon. Arthur felt sick, and set his glass down before he could spill it.

“There were other dragon lords living in other kingdoms, who did not come,” said Colgrevance. “I myself lived in Caerleon’s kingdom, serving in his court. Uther was quite the conquering hero in his younger days, as I’m sure you’ve heard. He threatened war with Caerleon and the other kings, one by one, but then promised he would withhold his troops on the condition that the kings surrender any dragon lords who lived in their territories.” Colgrevance’s gaze grew faraway. “I trusted Caerleon as an old friend,” he said quietly. “But when Uther and his men arrived, with rune-carved manacles and a cage for me and my daughter, my king did not lift a finger to stop him. I fought back, of course… and Uther ran my daughter through right there in the throne room. And all he said was, ‘Pity,’ as if it were an inconvenience that he could not bring us both back to Camelot for a better spectacle.” Tears stood in his eyes as he went on, “I had no fight left in me after that. I let them put on the manacles, let them put me in his wheeled cage… He brought me back here, and I’m sure you can guess the rest.”

“I’m so sorry,” breathed Arthur, because really, what else could he say?

Colgrevance blinked rapidly and swallowed, looking away. “You asked about Balinor, though,” he said, his voice hoarse. He cleared his throat. “Balinor was one of our diplomats, sire, an ambassador to other kingdoms, even across the sea to the continent, with the Normans and the Saxons and everyone else. From what I’ve been told, he never heard of the slaughter—wasn’t here for it—and came back to Albion to find himself the last of us living. He didn’t learn that, of course, until after Uther deceived him into calling Kilgharrah to Camelot, and imprisoning him under the castle in a cavern.”

“I’d heard that much,” said Arthur.

“Kilgharrah had been on a rampage, as his kin were slaughtered,” Colgrevance said. “Balinor likely wouldn’t have had any idea why. Uther told Balinor he wanted to make peace. Peace,” he spat in disgust. “After the dragon was bound and dragged under the earth as a trophy, Uther ordered Balinor’s execution. From what I was told, someone helped him escape, and he lived as a fugitive from that day forward.”

“Yes,” said Arthur. It was hard to imagine Balinor as some sort of courtly figure, remembering how brusque he’d been with Arthur when they’d first met. Not that Arthur could blame him in the slightest.

“So twenty years later, someone released Kilgharrah, and he started up his rampage once more,” said Colgrevance, calmer now. “I don’t know who would have let him out, but it was an act of great kindness and mercy, for all the harm that Kilgharrah did afterward.”

“Kindness and mercy,” said Leon in disbelief. “That dragon nearly razed the city to the ground. How do you know that wasn’t the aim of whoever let him go, all along?”

“I suppose it may have been,” allowed the dragon lord, “but you’ll forgive me for being inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dragons are creatures of air and fire, and this one was locked away from the skies for twenty years.” He leaned forward, picking up his glass of cider. “It was tantamount to torture. Dragons can’t really go insane, from everything I’ve ever been taught about them, but if they could, what Kilgharrah endured would have done it.”

And Uther had done that to the dragon deliberately, most likely knowing full well the pain he was inflicting. Arthur thought of the unicorn, and the unintentional harm he’d done, and the consequences of that act. “It is a wonder to me that Camelot is not… swimming in curses of one kind or another,” he said. “For all the harm that my father did to magic users, and magical creatures.”

“It might very well be, sire,” said Colgrevance. “The druids would know more about such things than I would, though. I regret that I cannot tell you more.”

“I’ll be certain to ask their leader when I speak with her,” said Arthur. Then he braced himself, “I did also want to ask you about… about Balinor’s son.”

“That young man who was with Kisheer, in your castle garden,” said Colgrevance.


“We only met that day… I’m not sure what I could tell you about him.”

Arthur reached for his glass again and toyed with it for a moment, debating what to say. “Your dragon friend… Kisheer?… Merlin left with her, later that night. He’s served me loyally for many years, but lately he’s been unwell. I wanted to know if you had any idea where she might have taken him, and if he’s safe.”

“Ah.” Colgrevance sat back and looked at the tent ceiling, leaning on one arm, and blew out a breath. “Well. There are places that the dragons go that are forbidden to most people. Only dragon lords are ever permitted in those places, and sometimes not even them. If Kisheer took your servant, Balinor’s son, my guess is he’s in one of those places. He’d be safe, safer than almost anywhere in Albion, with the dragons to look out for him.” He dropped his gaze, and met Arthur’s fearlessly. “But you wouldn’t be permitted to find him or command him to come home. I know that’s probably not what you wanted to hear, sire, but dragons, well. They don’t answer to mortal kings.”

He was right, that wasn’t at all what Arthur had wanted to hear. “There was a rumor that they would try to heal what was wrong with him,” Arthur tried.

Colgrevance raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I suppose they might, but it would depend what was wrong with him in the first place,” he said. “Dragon healing is usually reserved for very special cases, even among the dragon lords.”

Arthur glanced once at Leon, who nodded. “It was his magic,” he said after a long moment. “Something was wrong with his magic.”

Now Colgrevance looked even more surprised. “You had a sorcerer serving you, here in Camelot, knowing what Uther would have done to him?”

“My father never knew,” said Arthur. “I myself never knew, until about two months ago. Just before everyone came back.”

The dragon lord pursed his lips in thought. “A heavy secret to keep,” he said. “Considering.”

Arthur didn’t answer.

“And him a dragon lord, too, after Balinor died,” mused the other man. “I wonder if he wasn’t the one to feel that bond with Kilgharrah, and free him.”

There was a moment of pure shock, then, “I hope not,” said Leon with feeling.

Arthur nodded. “The damage that resulted was… unforgivable.” Hundreds had died, and the recovery effort had taken months. The thought had never occurred to him before this, but if Merlin had had anything to do with the Great Dragon’s escape, Arthur truly wasn’t sure what he would do. He felt a burn behind his eyes, and blinked to prevent the tears from rising. On top of all the other lies and secrets, if Merlin really had been involved, this one might be what broke their friendship for good. Arthur wasn’t sure he could bear that final betrayal.

“He seemed young,” countered Colgrevance. “And there would have been no one to teach him his responsibilities as a dragon lord. His father was the last of us, after all, and a fugitive besides. He’d have had only his own instincts, and until Balinor died, no power to command Kilgharrah to stop his rampage. And Kilgharrah always was a bit of a bastard, even before his capture.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Leon.

“Just what I said,” said Colgrevance with a shrug. “Kilgharrah is the oldest dragon in Albion, the most powerful; he’s something of a king, or what passes for one, among dragons. They always defer to their elders, it’s instinct for them. So Kilgharrah wasn’t used to having anyone gainsay him, or argue with him, or defy his wishes, except for those dragon lords who might be strong enough to command him, and they were few in number. Balinor was one of them, so it stands to reason that your Merlin would have been as well. Kilgharrah wouldn’t have liked that. If he knew the boy was Balinor’s son—and it’s likely he could have sensed that—then he wouldn’t exactly have gone out of his way to befriend him.”

“But you mentioned a bond,” said Arthur.

“Dragons and dragon lords can sometimes sense one another’s presence,” Colgrevance explained with a nod. “If their power is strong enough. Kilgharrah, as the eldest, and your servant, as Balinor’s son… odds are good they would have found one another, sooner or later, either accidentally or not.”

“Then, if they knew of each other while the dragon was still imprisoned…” said Leon slowly.

“Mm, well,” said the other man, tipping his head in acknowledgment. “They wouldn’t have been friends, but a young, untrained dragon lord, with an instinct to help any dragon he met…? Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“You think the dragon would have manipulated him,” said Arthur. “Played on his instincts, or his sense of right and wrong.” A sense which Merlin had in spades, from everything Arthur had ever known about him. “Convinced Merlin to set him free.”

“I’m almost certain of it,” said Colgrevance. “Not that I know the man, sire. I don’t mean to accuse him of any crime, and I’ve seen firsthand what a dragon attack can look like. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, and he had nothing whatsoever to do with freeing Kilgharrah. But if he were aware at all that there was a dragon imprisoned beneath your castle… sire, he may literally have been unable to help himself. And Kilgharrah would absolutely have played on that fact.”

Arthur looked away. It made too much sense. He would hate—hate—to have to ask Merlin about it whenever they saw one another again, but if it turned out that Merlin had released the Great Dragon after being manipulated, or made to feel guilty, or sorry for the beast…

Arthur would need to know why, before he could even hope to forgive. But he had a feeling that, for Merlin, he’d find a way to do it.

“But you think he’s safe?” he asked, rather than voice any of the turmoil he was feeling.

“As it happens, Kisheer is the second-eldest dragon in Albion,” said Colgrevance, “and a great deal more reasonable than Kilgharrah ever was. If your servant left with her, I have no doubt that he will be well cared for, wherever he ends up.”

Chapter Text

Merlin slept well, for what seemed like the first time since his return from Avalon, and woke up feeling… still unwell, but marginally better than he had. He could still feel the deep inner chill from the loss of his magic, but in a way, that was a relief, since it meant that he couldn’t have set anything on fire in his sleep, or caused the house to tumble down around them.

Aileen fussed over them both in the morning, feeding them porridge with dried apples and thick cream mixed in. Her “boys” had gone back to their own homes with their wives last night after unloading the supply wagons, so it was just the three of them now.

“Any plans for the day, Balinor?” she asked.

“I thought I’d get a fire going in my house, see about putting on a pot of something for dinner,” he said with a shrug. Then he smiled at Merlin, and added, “Spend some time with my son.”

“Well, if you get tired of chopping vegetables and want to come over for supper, there’s still plenty of this stew. It’ll spoil before I can finish it all on my own.”

“You always did cook enough to feed an army,” said Balinor.

“And the three of you always ate like starved soldiers,” she was quick to retort. “But I mean it. Do what you like, but at least take some of the stew for yourselves and your own cook pot.”

“I can do that.”

It didn’t take much effort at all to gather up Merlin’s old clothes and his staff; Aileen made him take two more spare outfits, and told him to keep the slippers. “They’ll do for everything except climbing the hills,” she said, “and I imagine you won’t be doing any of that for a few days yet.” Even so, Balinor carried everything but his staff, and they only traveled to the other side of the square and partway up the hillside to Balinor’s home. Merlin was pleased to find that he wasn’t even too winded when they arrived.

The little house was nearly identical to Aileen’s, both outside and in, built with sturdy stone walls, tiny windows (but fitted with real glass), and a clay tile roof. Inside, there was the front room with the hearth, a back room on the other side of the chimney, and a side room. Even the furniture was the same, for the most part: Aileen kept a spinning wheel in one corner, while Balinor had what looked like a woodworker’s bench with a tool chest resting on top.

“Was all this still here when you came back?” asked Merlin.

“Some of it. Easy enough for someone with magic to find or repair everything we need, and of course we’ve been trading with nearby towns… although ‘nearby’ may be a bit of an exaggeration,” said his father. “But if you’re asking if this was my house before Uther’s slaughter, the answer is no. Most dragon lords don’t stay in Comraich permanently, apart from the elderly or those who can no longer travel great distances, that sort of thing. Mothers with small children, people the dragons would be willing to protect. The houses are all just about the same inside, and we take for ourselves whichever ones are available while we’re here. When you and I leave, someone else will make use of this one.”

Merlin wasn’t quite sure he was ready to leave, just yet, even though he knew he’d have to get back to Arthur sooner or later. “When do you think that will be?”

Balinor must have picked up something from his tone, because he turned quickly away from where he was setting firewood into the hearth, and looked Merlin in the eye. “Not before you’re ready,” he said firmly. “We need to find out whether Kilgharrah really plans to try and heal you, and whatever is wrong with your magic, before we go anywhere. You’re in no shape to travel as you are, no offense.”

“It’s fine. You’re right, after all,” said Merlin with a little shrug.

“To be honest, I’m a little annoyed with Kisheer for bringing you here in the state you’re in, but at least she brought you quickly. And I do understand that you wouldn’t have gained enough strength to travel any regular way without waiting another few months.”

“I also sort of got the impression that Kilgharrah wanted her to bring me,” he replied. “She made it sound like it was pretty urgent that I leave when I did.” He looked around, glancing between the doors to the back room and the side room. “Um. Where should I put my things?”

“We’ll both sleep behind the chimney, if that’s all right with you,” said Balinor. “The weather is nice this time of year, but it’ll be turning to cool evenings sooner than you think, this far north.”

“Kisheer never really said where we were,” Merlin prompted.

“Alba,” was the reply. “Do you know where that is?”

Merlin had to stop and think, but he’d seen enough of Arthur’s maps… his eyes grew wide. “That’s north of Northumbria!”

“Aye, and we’re in the northern part of Alba, too. Almost all the way to Fortriu, the land of the Picts. A lot of the people here don’t even speak our language; the area has quite a few Norsemen, though they’ve settled here rather than going on constant raids. The ones who aren’t Norsemen are cattle herders, supposedly descended from the Picts themselves, and keep to tight-knit clans rather than kingdoms as we might think of them.”

“Just how fast can a dragon fly?” asked Merlin, mystified. If he understood the maps right, it would have taken a couple of weeks to get here by horse, and they’d done the entire distance in one night.

Balinor chuckled. “Pretty fast, when they want to.”

Merlin was still shaking his head as he stepped into the tiny room behind the chimney. There was only one bed, but it was larger than the one in Aileen’s house, and he and his mother had shared, growing up, until Merlin outgrew the bed and moved to the floor. It would be no hardship to fit two men in this one. There was a small chest at the foot of the bed, and Merlin set his clothing on top of it, then looked around for a likely corner to prop his staff.

“An interesting bit of work you’ve got there,” said Balinor, leaning in the doorway. “May I see it?”

“Sure.” He handed it across, and watched the other man react to the tingling sensation as he touched the wood. The stone at its top seemed to glow a little brighter in his hands, though it was still faint even in the dimly lit room.

“This is not human make,” his father said slowly. “Did you know that?”

“It’s from the Sidhe,” said Merlin. “And I… took it from one of them after they tried to kill Arthur. Years ago, now.”

Balinor tilted his head in wonder. “They would not have parted with this willingly,” he said.

“No,” was all Merlin said at first, still hating to remember how limp and cold Arthur’s body had been when he’d pulled it from the lake, even after all this time. Balinor, however, looked as if that answer would not be nearly enough to satisfy his curiosity, so Merlin sighed. “They were cursed to live as mortals, for some transgression or other,” he said. “I don’t know the details. But to be allowed back into their land, they had to sacrifice someone of royal blood. Arthur. One of them enchanted him, and when I caught them at it, they used that staff on me.”

Balinor’s eyebrows went up. “You could have been killed.”

“Maybe,” said Merlin. There were a lot of things that should have killed him over the years, and hadn’t. He wondered how much of that had to do with his magic, and whether or not he was still protected now that he was without it. “Anyway, when I came to, I went after them, and found them trying to drown Arthur in the Lake of Avalon. I fought them with their own weapon, they were destroyed, and then I had to dive into the lake and fish Arthur back out before he could die.”

Balinor didn’t say anything, but the way he was looking at Merlin only made him feel uncomfortable.

“Wasn’t the first time I saved the prat,” he said with a bright, false smile. “Wouldn’t be the last, either.”

“And how many times did you put your life on the line for him?” asked his father. “How many times were you hurt, or nearly killed, for him?”

Merlin felt himself tense up, and tried to shrug it off, but the motion was little more than a twitch of his shoulders. “Lost count, I guess.”

“Was he worth it?”

The words Yes, of course were on his tongue, but something made Merlin pause and really think about his answer first. For a long time, he’d thought that protecting Arthur was worth any sacrifice, and he still meant it when he said that he was proud to serve his prince—his king—till the day he died. But he’d had to hide everything he was from Arthur for so long; had lost so much, had changed so much, into someone he barely recognized, all in the name of duty and destiny. Did Merlin still believe in the world Arthur was going to build? The Golden Age of Albion, where magic returned to the land and all people could live in peace?

An even more distressing thought: with what he’d learned of Kilgharrah and his motives recently, was that supposed destiny even real? Arthur had nearly died before he could accomplish any of the things the dragon had said he would do, and had only learned of Merlin’s magic in what would have been the final days before his death. And now he surely hated Merlin, for the lies, for the betrayal, for everything Merlin had done in the shadows with the best of intentions. And if he ever learned of the things Merlin had done with more selfish intentions—his remorseless murder of Agravaine, his rage against Nimueh, just for starters—he might never want to see Merlin again.

So many magic users had called Merlin a traitor to his kind. What if it was true? He’d killed a lot of sorcerers over the years, even if most of them had been a threat to Arthur. Certainly Arthur had never really had the chance to see that magic could be used for good, except for very rare instances. Merlin had failed him in that regard. Nearly failed in fulfilling his destiny, if it hadn’t been for the Goddess’s miracle.

He cared for Arthur. Loved him, not romantically but deeply, far more deeply than he’d thought it possible to love another person. If Arthur had died, Merlin would have been devastated. But to be here, now, away from him, wondering if his best friend was all right and if their friendship would ever recover, was nearly as painful, if he let himself think about it for too long.

Was he worth it? Was Arthur worth everything Merlin had lost, in the name of a destiny that might not even be real? Merlin looked up at his father, and was surprised to feel tears blurring his vision. “I… I don’t know,” he whispered.

“Oh, my son,” said Balinor, and then he was wrapped tight in his father’s embrace.

Merlin tried, he really did, but the feeling of arms around him, solid and strong, undid him completely. He cried soundlessly for a few minutes, shaking with the force of it, and never once did Balinor falter in his hold.

“Everything I do, everything I am, it’s for him,” Merlin said when he was able to speak again. “But I don’t know if I can do it anymore. I’m so tired, Father. I’m so tired.”

“I’m so sorry, my son,” Balinor murmured into his hair.

After a moment, Merlin pulled back, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “I don’t know if I can go back to the way we were,” he said, voice still wobbly. “I don’t even know if he can stand the sight of me anymore.”

His father studied his face. “How long have you served him, now?” he asked.

“Ten years.”

“And you’ve really lost count of the times you’ve risked your life for him?”

Merlin nodded miserably.

Balinor led him to the table and sat him down. With a word and a gesture, he started the fire in the hearth, then sat across from Merlin with an intent expression on his face. “Tell me everything,” he said.

“It’ll be a long story,” Merlin warned, but Balinor only smiled sadly.

“We have time.”

Arthur rubbed his eyes, taking in what the dragon lord had said. So Merlin was probably safe, if Colgrevance was right. Possibly still injured or sick, or whatever he was, but possibly also in a place where he could actually get the healing he needed. Arthur took a deep breath, feeling his shoulders drop in relief as the news sank in.

“What else can you tell me about dragon lords?” he asked. “You had mentioned that you served in Caerleon’s court. Were you a noble? Did all the kings have dragon lords? I don’t know anything about what role your people played.”

“Ah,” said Colgrevance, picking up his glass of cider. “You may recall me talking about a sacred duty, back at the castle last week, when Kisheer came to visit.”

“Yes,” said Arthur.

“What sort of duty?” asked Leon.

“In essence, a dragon lord is an intermediary between humans and dragons. Older dragons rarely clash with human societies, but the younger ones haven’t necessarily developed the wisdom to stay out of human affairs, and sometimes cause trouble. A dragon lord can convince them to go about their business more peaceably, or, if that doesn’t work, can command them to go away.”

“Why not just kill the beast?” asked Leon.

To Arthur’s surprise, Colgrevance’s expression darkened, as his face turned red. “I’m going to let that go, because I know you don’t know any more about dragons and dragon lords than your king does, and that is Uther’s fault rather than yours,” he said evenly. “But dragons are as intelligent as any human, often more so, and definitely wiser. They can see and understand matters beyond our comprehension. To reduce them to mere beasts to be slaughtered whenever they cause a problem is a grave insult, and I’ll thank you not to repeat it.”

“But dragons were killed,” said Arthur, “at least some of them, and I’m not talking about my father’s Purge. Weren’t they?”

“Dragons can cause trouble for people, absolutely,” said Colgrevance, “and sometimes a command to stop isn’t enough, because they’ll go elsewhere and start up all over again. Anything intelligent enough to understand right and wrong can choose evil. In those cases, yes, sometimes killing a dragon is necessary, but it’s a rare thing, and it’s considered a tragedy when it happens. Just as you and your men wouldn’t murder every person who causes you inconvenience, you don’t choose to kill a dragon as your first option. It’s a last resort. That’s what a dragon lord is for, to prevent needless death on both sides.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” said Leon. “My apologies.”

“As I said, the fault lies with Uther, not you. You’ve never had anyone in your lifetime available to teach you the lore, or serve to bridge the gap between human and dragon.”

“I mean no offense,” said Arthur, “but why would anyone want to do that?”

“As I said: dragons are wise,” replied Colgrevance. “In ancient times, kings and commoners alike would befriend the dragons in order to ask for their advice in weighty matters. They likely wouldn’t deign to help over anything that wasn’t of grave importance, and you wouldn’t want to annoy a dragon by pestering it constantly anyway. But they are creatures of magic, and have a unique perspective on the world; people who were wise enough to make use of that perspective often had the advantage over those who chose to avoid them. A dragon lord is a good thing to have on your side when you approach a dragon.”

“Hence a position at court,” said Arthur, and Colgrevance nodded. “But you didn’t have lands?”

“Don’t usually need them,” he replied. “Between our positions at various courts, and the gifts people are willing to give us in exchange for our services, we were usually well-off enough to support a family. We do have lineages that matter to us, but we’re not truly nobles, if that’s what you’re asking.”

They both nodded; Arthur reached again for his cider and took a swallow, mulling that over.

“Did the ancient kings use dragons in battle?” asked Leon. “Or… not as beasts, from what you said, but as allies of a sort?”

“Sometimes,” said Colgrevance, “but it was less about using the dragon as a weapon, and more about convincing it that the king’s cause was just, and worthy of their aid. Dragons don’t kill lightly, just as we don’t. They recognize the necessity sometimes, and can be moved to act by their desire to maintain balance, or their sense of right and wrong, just as humans can.”

“So Kilgharrah would have seen his attack as justified,” said Arthur.

“If I had to guess, I’d say he was moved as much by grief and vengeance as he was by justice,” Colgrevance said with a grimace. “Otherwise he would have drawn Uther out and demanded to face him alone, instead of attacking innocents.” Then he quirked one eyebrow. “On the other hand, attacking innocents may have been the way he tried to draw Uther out in the first place, to get him to act. As I said, he always was a bit of a bastard.”

Arthur thought about that, but with hindsight, with what he now knew of his father, all he could remember was the way Uther had refused to stir from his castle and face the threat himself. How he had sent his son and knights to die in his stead. Arthur couldn’t be sure that the dragon’s strategy ever would have worked, as long as Arthur had remained alive. “I don’t know,” he said, half to himself.

“If I may offer advice, sire, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. What’s done is done, and with the dragon lords returned along with the dragons, you likely won’t have to face such an attack ever again. Not even from Kilgharrah.”

Arthur nodded, lost in thought; he sipped from his cider, and wished Merlin were with him to ask his opinion. On the other hand, if Merlin were here, Arthur wouldn’t need to ask.

“What sort of position in court did you hold, in Caerleon?” asked Arthur. “More to the point, would you be willing to take a similar position in my court, here?”

Colgrevance’s eyebrows went up, as if he hadn’t been expecting such an offer; or perhaps he hadn’t been expecting one so soon. “As your dragon lord?”

“I still don’t know all the responsibilities and duties that that entails, but yes.”

“I don’t know, sire,” he replied. “And I’m not trying to stall for a better deal from you. I genuinely don’t know what would be best for me. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the one thing almost all the resurrected dead have in common is that Uther was responsible for their deaths…”

“Yes.” There were exceptions, such as Freya and his own knights, but Arthur had a feeling that their tie to Merlin was what had caused the Goddess to bring them back.

“I’ve had the notion that possibly my daughter would have been brought back as well,” said Colgrevance. “And since everyone seems to have come back in the spot where they were killed, she wouldn’t be here, in Camelot. I’d have to travel to Caerleon to see if I could find her.” One corner of his mouth lifted, and he added, “Plus all my wealth was kept there, and I do enjoy my comforts. I’d like to recover what I can of that, before I make a decision.”

It was a little disappointing, but Arthur nodded. “I understand.”

“I’m not saying no, mind you,” said the other man leaning forward. “But there are things I feel I must do first before I can really make that decision with a clear head… although it occurs to me, if that young man comes back—Balinor’s son—he might be the better choice.”

“He might be,” Arthur allowed, “but unfortunately he isn’t here, and from all we’ve heard, he may be gone for some time.”

Chapter Text

Merlin still tired easily, and there was so much to say, so many tales of magic worked in the dark, deeds done in secret, intrigues behind closed doors. Balinor was a good listener, only interrupting from time to time with questions when he needed Merlin to clarify some detail or other. Even so, they spent a few days just talking through everything Merlin had done for Arthur as his shadow protector.

“Heroism without hope of reward,” said Balinor once. Merlin had only shrugged uncomfortably.

“Didn’t seem especially heroic.”

There was only so long that Merlin could spend talking each day before his voice went hoarse, or the memories became too much to bear; Balinor would squeeze his shoulder and bid him rest, or hand him a bit of wool to spin, or teach him to carve wood, and Merlin would let his heart rest before taking up the tale again. Sometimes it was easier to talk while his hands were busy and he didn’t have to look Balinor in the eye.

It was hard going; Merlin talked about Kilgharrah and the things he’d done, or tried to avoid doing, either on the dragon’s say-so or in rebellion against him. He talked about Morgana, and all his regrets, the way she’d been left without any support other than Morgause and how she had believed that even Merlin hated her for her magic, because he’d been too much of a coward to comfort her when she’d needed it most. He talked about Mordred, the child he couldn’t let die for deeds he hadn’t even contemplated yet, and the knight who returned and received only Merlin’s scorn for exactly the same thing. There were lighthearted moments here and there, but as he told his story, Merlin realized that they were far overbalanced by pain, heartache, and loss.

He talked about Freya, and Will, and Daegal even though they’d barely known one another.

And always, like a thread that ran constant throughout the entire tapestry of stories, there was Arthur. Almost everything Merlin did was for his protection, his safety, his comfort, his happiness.

“Arthur’s destiny was to unite Albion and bring back magic to the land, according to Kilgharrah,” Merlin said, unable to look up from the table. “And when the time came, when I really could have swayed him to do that, when he was being judged by the Disir themselves, I was so afraid that Mordred would live and he would die that I lied and told him, There can be no place for magic in Camelot. I sealed his fate. Everything that happened after that was inevitable, and it was my fault.”

Merlin had turned his back on destiny, caring more for Arthur’s happiness than for any goal they might have been meant to achieve together. And he’d still failed Arthur, taken from him in ways that were unforgivable. Merlin told Balinor about his part in Uther’s death, and Agravaine’s, and Morgana’s. All people Arthur had loved and wanted by his side, ripped away by Merlin’s own hand even if they had betrayed Arthur first. Merlin told him about how Arthur had been given one chance to see his mother’s spirit and learn the truth behind the Purge, and Merlin had taken even that away from him in order to keep him from killing his own father.

He’d expected Balinor to say something about how it would have been better if Uther had died sooner, which was entirely true… but his father didn’t even make a face of disappointment. “Go on,” was all he said.

“It’s hard to face all the ways I’ve failed,” admitted Merlin. And yet, there was a part of him that felt relief, an easing of his burden, in being able to share it with someone. Maybe he’d be punished as he deserved if Balinor knew all of it.

“I don’t think you have,” said Balinor; “failed, I mean. I won’t deny you’ve made mistakes, because you’re wise enough to know better. But as long as you and he are alive, there is still hope.”

“For me to fulfill my destiny?” Merlin asked, feeling the old bitterness rise.

“For you and he to recover your friendship,” his father countered. “To decide for yourselves what path you will walk, without other hands trying to steer you this way and that. You’re your own man, not some puppet with no will of your own, but that’s how Kilgharrah and several others have apparently treated you.”

“I… what?”

Balinor pressed his lips together, blowing a breath out through his nose. “You would have saved Arthur’s life anyway, when you first met him,” he said, “because you’re a decent person, and you couldn’t have just watched him die when you had the power to stop it. You could have started on that path without Kilgharrah trying to force you. You could have followed your heart, been guided by what you know is right, rather than having it twisted by everything that damned dragon told you, until you didn’t even know up from down anymore. He goaded you like a cow to slaughter! Once you and Arthur became close, once you really cared about him, Kilgharrah drove you with fear, to make you do what he wanted rather than what you knew in your soul would be right. He drove you with guilt, he played on your sense of what was right, and he did everything in his power to steer your path, rather than allow you to walk it.”

Balinor was scowling, his expression as dark as an oncoming storm, and the air in the little cottage fairly hummed with suppressed magic. The older man got up and began to pace, his fists clenching and releasing as he visibly fought for calm. Merlin remembered the man he and Arthur had met in the cave: hard, bitter after living the life of a fugitive for so long. That man had been willing to let Camelot burn, for Uther’s sins; and yet, Merlin wasn’t sure if he’d ever been as angry then as he looked now.

“Father?” he asked tentatively.

Balinor froze in his tracks, and took a deep breath. “I’m not angry at you,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “I am furious with Kilgharrah. I am this close to going up the mountain and telling him exactly what he can do with his prophecies and his visions of destiny. I can and I will demand that he tell me his gambit in all of this.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I want to know his goal, his agenda. His endgame.” Balinor came and sat back down, but his eyes were so intent upon Merlin he felt a little like a speared fish. “He was clearly using you. To what end?”

“I… he wanted to be freed,” Merlin tried.

“And after that, instead of remaining your ally, he tried to burn your home and your prince, the one he told you that you must keep alive at all costs. Why would he contradict himself that way? What was his real aim?”

Merlin felt his stomach drop in realization. “You think he was lying to me.”

“I’m not sure if he would have the gall to lie directly, but he would definitely play hide-and-seek with the truth if it would get him what he wanted. I want to know what that was.”

Merlin swallowed, and thought, but Balinor was right; he was so twisted up inside, with guilt and grief and all the rest of it, that he had no idea what to think of Kilgharrah’s behavior now.

“Why do you think he wanted me brought here?” he asked quietly. “Kisheer implied that he wanted to heal me, but if what you’re implying is true, then why?”

“So he can throw you back into the fray, maybe,” growled Balinor. “Heal you, claim that you are beholden to him for it—which you are not—and try to steer you toward some other goal of his. He can’t make use of you in the condition you’re in now.”

“I tried to give my life for Arthur’s,” said Merlin, despairing a little. “What more could he possibly want from me?”

“I don’t know,” his father admitted, “but I’ll be damned if we don’t find out.”

Even after that exchange, there was still more to discuss. Merlin hadn’t even told Balinor about Aithusa yet, and the ways he’d failed her. He hadn’t discussed his role as Emrys and what it might mean to the druids, or how he might have failed them in living up to their expectations as some sort of savior. And he was afraid even to start. It was one thing for Merlin to tell his father some of what he had lived through while trying to protect Arthur; it was another matter entirely to try and tell a dragon lord about the dragon he had hatched, and then abandoned.

And yet, if anyone would be able to tell him how to help her, it would be Balinor.

“There’s something else,” he said finally, lacing his fingers together to stop them from shaking. “You’re not going to like it.”

“I’m not going to turn my back on you because of mistakes you’ve made, Merlin,” said Balinor, not unkindly. “You’d better get used to that.”

“It’s… it has to do with dragon lord business,” he warned.

Balinor frowned. “How? Kilgharrah was the last dragon in Albion. You were the last dragon lord, for a long time.”

“I know, but… it turned out Kilgharrah wasn’t the last dragon. There was an egg.”

His father’s head snapped up. Merlin shut his eyes. “Merlin?”

He kept his eyes shut, because that made it a little easier, and forced himself to tell the tale. The Tomb of Ashkanar, the egg within, Kilgharrah’s instructions for how to hatch it.

“Aithusa,” breathed Balinor reverently. “Light of the sun. An auspicious name.”

“That’s what Kilgharrah said,” Merlin nodded. “And he said her being white was a good omen for Camelot. Or maybe it was for Albion.”

“As if he gave a damn about Camelot,” growled Balinor. “And speaking of Camelot… you couldn’t possibly have kept her there safely. What did you do? How did you raise her?”

Merlin shut his eyes even more tightly. “I trusted Kilgharrah with her care,” he said in a rush. “There wasn’t anyone else. I trusted him to take care of her while I couldn’t, and then…” He buried his face in his hands, unable to go on.

“Is she dead?” asked Balinor hesitantly.

“No. No, I don’t think so,” said Merlin. “But… she and Morgana found one another, and formed a bond of some kind. I don’t know the details. But Kilgharrah was so angry with Aithusa that he aban—”

Balinor roared, loudly enough for Merlin to jump half out of his skin. His eyes flew open to see his father on his feet, red-faced with anger. The roar echoed, in the room and in his mind, as if it were a dragon’s own voice.

“I’m sorry!” Merlin cried. “I didn’t know what else to do!”

Balinor took an audible breath through his nose. “I am not angry with you,” he said slowly, punching each word out through gritted teeth. “You did the best you could under miserable circumstances. I cannot believe that Kilgharrah would simply abandon the last hope of his kind, only because she made a friend that he did not like. She was too young to know better!

“I should never have hatched her,” said Merlin miserably.

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” allowed Balinor. “You could not have kept the egg safe in Camelot, any more than you could have left it alone once you knew it existed. Your instincts would not have allowed it. As I said, you did the best you could. But Kilgharrah has much to answer for.”

A pounding on the door cut Merlin off before he could speak. “Balinor?” someone called, their voice muffled.

“I’m here,” he answered, striding over in three paces to open the door. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” it was one of Aileen’s boys, and Merlin thought he saw the other one just behind, peering over his brother’s shoulder. “That was a hell of a call.”

Merlin heard more footsteps pounding up the path outside. “Balinor? Everything all right?”

“I’m fine,” he shouted in response. “Tell everyone I’m fine.” Lowering his voice, he said to Devon and Liam, “My son is just telling me some of what he’s endured over the past few years. Some of the shit Kilgharrah has put him through.”

One of the boys gave a low whistle. “Old bastard finally hit your limit, did he?”

“More than,” was the reply. “Merlin and I will be going to speak with him, first thing tomorrow, I think.”

There was a long pause, then one of them said, “You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that,” followed by uneasy laughter from more people than Merlin could make out.

“An egg was hatched, while we were all dead,” said Balinor, and everyone fell silent. “And Kilgharrah abandoned her to live or die on her own.”

Someone hissed. “Gods,” said another.

“What the hell for?” asked Liam, or maybe it was Devon.

“Long story, none of it justified,” Balinor replied curtly. “As I said: Kilgharrah and I will be having words, first thing tomorrow.”

“Take care, Balinor,” said someone else. “You anger one dragon…”

“I know,” he answered.

“What’s become of the hatchling?”

Merlin’s father looked over his shoulder, straight at Merlin. “We’ll find out.”

They didn’t talk anymore that afternoon, Balinor sitting hunched over his woodcarving equipment and Merlin staring into the fire, ignoring the wool and spindle in his lap. The silence between them felt tense, but Merlin couldn’t bring himself to be the one to break it. He’d apologized and Balinor had said he wasn’t even angry at Merlin, but Merlin wasn’t quite sure he believed that.

Merlin had failed so badly, in so many ways; how could Balinor not be angry with him, when he was so furious with Kilgharrah?

Finally, around dinner time, Balinor stood with a groan, and rubbed at his lower back. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

“I guess.”

“Merlin.” He looked up to see the other man looking at him in concern. “I meant what I said,” he said earnestly. “I’m not angry with you.”

He couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I failed as a dragon lord.”

“You had no one to teach you,” insisted Balinor. “Save one dragon, who didn’t seem to be very interested in passing on the lore.”

“No,” Merlin allowed. “I guess he wasn’t.”

“If anyone failed, it was Kilgharrah, letting a grudge against a woman he’d never met interfere with his care of the only other dragon in all of Albion. He should have known better.” Balinor’s expression darkened again. “I’ll make sure he learns better, when we speak to him.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Kilgharrah has no choice but to obey me, as he must obey you,” Balinor reminded him. “If he tries to start trouble, I can make him stop. I can banish him from Comraich, never to return, and if he still has any wisdom left in him, he will remember that the moment he sees both of us.”

“Not that I disagree with any of this, but what about his supposedly being able to heal me?” asked Merlin.

“If it comes down to it, I’ll make him do that before I banish him.” When Merlin only blinked in response, Balinor came around the table and knelt in front of his chair. “You need to get used to the idea that I’m on your side, and I’m going to stay there,” he said.

“But I’ve failed so many times,” said Merlin. “So badly. I don’t deserve it.”

“Every son deserves a father, Merlin,” said Balinor. Then he smiled suddenly. “And I’m yours, whether you like it or not.”

It was the same smile Merlin had seen reflected back at him in Arthur’s mirror, or in still water, and he was helpless against returning it. “Yes, Father.”

“That’s more like it.”

That night, Merlin dreamed.

He was standing on a high cliff face, with the sea crashing against the rocks far below him. Behind him, Kisheer stood on one side, and Kilgharrah on the right. He tried to speak to them, but the wind swept his voice away.

Merlin, one of them said into his mind, but for some reason he could not tell which was which. It may have been both of them. The echoes hurt his head, and he shut his eyes.

Merlin. When he opened them, only one dragon was before him, but the air had grown foggy and he couldn’t make out which one it was. In the distance, somehow despite the fog, he could see a white dragon flying toward them.

Aithusa? he called, but there was no answer.

MerlinHe turned back to face the sea, and somewhere across the ocean, standing on the opposite shore, was a woman wearing a hooded cloak. He could not see her face, but he knew somehow that she was aware of him, waiting for him. He didn’t know how to cross the sea to reach her, but then he realized there was no sea, nor cliff, and she was stood on a simple stretch of lake shore, surrounded by reeds and rushes. Wherever she was, the wind had died down, barely enough to stir the reeds, and he could hear the waves lapping gently against the land.


She did not answer him, and yet he knew she was aware of his presence. He could not see her face, yet he knew she could see his.


He turned back, facing into the fog as the waves crashed against the cliffs. There was no one he could see, yet he knew he was being watched.

Which will you choose, Merlin?

I don’t understand, he tried to say, but when he opened his mouth no sound came out.

Fear, or love, Merlin, came the reply. Fear or love?

He did not know how to answer.

Chapter Text


He was still asleep when the sound of Kilgharrah’s voice entered his thoughts, and for a moment, it was as if all the intervening years had not happened; the Great Dragon was still imprisoned beneath the castle, and Merlin was still barely a man, naive and headstrong. He rolled over in bed and pulled his pillow over his ears, mumbling, “Go ‘way,” into the mattress. He had to get up in an hour to tend to the prat, and run errands for Gaius, and he did not have time for the dragon’s nonsense about fate and destiny.


He shut his eyes tighter. “’M sleeping,” he muttered.

“Merlin?” The mattress shifted, and he startled, opening his eyes to see Balinor’s concerned face watching him. Memory came crashing back, years of it, as he realized he was in Comraich, because he’d nearly died, because Arthur had nearly died, because he had failed to avoid Arthur’s prophesied death at Camlann… a prophecy that Balinor implied might not even have been the full truth, coming from Kilgharrah.

“He’s calling me,” he said, voice still husky from sleep.


Merlin, it came again, and he rolled his eyes.

“Yep.” Go away, he tried to send, but had no idea whether he succeeded or not.


Merlin groaned at the same time that Balinor growled, throwing back the blankets and reaching for his clothes. “I’ll have him stuffed and mounted on the wall like a dead deer if he doesn’t learn to leave you alone,” said his father.

“Good luck,” he replied. “In my experience, he’ll just keep calling until I go and see what he wants. It’s usually something to do with Arthur being in danger.” He shut his eyes again and sighed heavily. “With my luck, he probably is.”


What do you want? he replied irritably. I’m coming, I’m coming.

I have a gift for you. Bring your staff, said Kilgharrah. And your father, if you must.

Merlin frowned into his pillow. If you even think of harming him

I cannot, dragon lord, came the acerbic response. As you well know.

Wouldn’t stop you from trying, from what I’ve heard. Merlin was beginning to get a headache; it had been a long time since he’d used telepathy deliberately, without it escaping his control so that he heard everyone and everything for miles around.

Kilgharrah, of course, ignored his last thought completely. There is little time, he said. Come before the sun reaches its zenith.

You couldn’t just say ‘noon’, could you? Merlin grumbled, sitting up finally and dropping his feet to the floor. His joints still ached, and he couldn’t help the shiver that wracked him as he dressed, feeling the lack of his magic once more.

In the past few days, he’d had a few minor outbursts, but one of the advantages to living with a fellow sorcerer was that Balinor could mitigate most of whatever Merlin’s magic tried to do outside of his control. He could contain or put out fires before they spread, calm the trembling earth (though he looked at Merlin strangely after that one), and repair various objects when they spontaneously shattered. It looked like this morning, at least, they wouldn’t have to worry about any of that.

He picked up the Sidhe staff, wondering what Kilgharrah wanted with it, and came around to the hearth side of the chimney to see Balinor already serving up two bowls of hot porridge. “Did he say anything to you besides waking you?” he asked, slicing up an apple and dropping the pieces in.

“He wants me there before noon,” said Merlin. “Wants me to bring my staff, for some reason, and he said you could come ‘if you must’.”

Balinor snorted and shook his head. “As if I’d make you go alone.”

Merlin smiled. They ate in silence for a few minutes before he asked, “Is it far?”

“If he’s where I think he is, it’s not too great a distance,” said his father, “but it will be a steep climb. Bringing the staff might be a good idea, after all.”

Once they were finished, Merlin switched from the sheepskin slippers to his usual boots, and Balinor gave him a pair of soft leather gloves to ward off the early morning chill. He put a lamb’s wool vest under a sturdy cloak, while Balinor pulled on a familiar-looking long coat that reached past his knees, and then they were off.

Balinor had not exaggerated; their path led downhill from their house to the village square, then behind the fountain, before heading sharply back up again. In some places, the dragon lords had cut stairs into the rock, and Merlin was forced to brace one hand on the cliff face or rock outcropping, and wedge his staff into the earth with the other. Balinor kept close behind him, ready with a hand at Merlin’s elbow to catch him if he should slip. The steps were wet with dew and slick in several places, and their breath fogged the air as they climbed.

“All right?” Balinor asked him, once the trail leveled out for a few paces.

“I think so,” panted Merlin. They were not going especially quickly, but Merlin had not noticeably grown stronger in the few days that he had been in Comraich. The stairs leading up to Gaius’s chambers had always tired him at the end of his walks for exercise, and this trail was already longer than that trek by quite a lot. “Is it much farther?”

“We’re about a third of the way there,” said Balinor. He put his hand on Merlin’s shoulder and gave a little squeeze. “If you need to rest, just let me know. We’ll be there well before noon, even if we slow down a little.”

“No,” said Merlin, smiling tiredly. “If I stop and sit down I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand back up again.”

His father shook his head a little, but gave him a smile in return. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Let me know if you change your mind. Kilgharrah’s lived for centuries; he can wait one more day if we need to turn around.”

The rest of the path was more of the same: just wide enough for one man, or perhaps a man leading a donkey, with occasional stairs placed where it was especially steep. And upward, always upward, through switchbacks and around outcroppings and boulders covered with moss, while the mist rose and fell with the breeze around them. Merlin’s ears and nose were cold, and he was grateful for the borrowed gloves. Fortunately his peasant boots were well broken-in after all these years, and he rarely slipped.

They reached an open space at the mountain’s peak, and Merlin bent over to catch his breath, leaning heavily on his staff. “I’ll be fine,” he said, once he could speak again. “Just give me a minute.”

“Of course,” said Balinor. “And while we’re stopped, you should enjoy the view.”

He indicated the valley below with his chin, and Merlin turned to see. The land spread out before him, rising and falling in deep gray stone, blackened by the dew and mist, and interspersed with short green grass and tumbling pink heather. The colors faded to blue and purple as Merlin gazed farther away, where the land wasn’t obscured by the gray and white of fog and cloud. Merlin had never been so high, unless he counted riding on Kilgharrah or Kisheer, and had never seen the land by day from this height. He thought he could see a hawk or an eagle of some kind, riding the wind currents far below.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. Turning on the spot, he looked for Comraich, but it was nestled between peaks and hidden, even from this vantage point. If it weren’t for the path they walked, it would be easy to believe that there was no civilization, no other people, as far as the eye could see. Merlin took a deep breath, and felt his shoulders drop as he exhaled. “This place must be sacred,” he said softly.

“It might be, to some,” said Balinor. Merlin was grateful that he kept his voice low, too. “Some say the old gods sleep beneath certain peaks. And of course it’s hard not to notice the comings and goings of a dragon, never mind several of them at once. As creatures of magic, of the Old Religion, they almost make the place sacred, just by spending so much time here.”

“I see,” said Merlin. His heart was still pounding with exertion, but he’d caught his breath at least. His legs were trembling only a little, and he wished fervently that he could still feel magic when he was like this. His sense of the energies came and went, and it was unfortunately absent today, along with his own magic. “If I were a dragon, I’d want to live here, too.”

Balinor chuckled. “I thought the same thing, at your age. Said the same thing, even.”

They shared a glance, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile.

The trail led along the peak of the mountain for another half-hour or so, at Merlin’s pace, before finally beginning to descend. The pass was little more than a crevice in some places, where Merlin could reach out and touch the walls to either side of him, and in others he was even forced to turn sideways so that he could fit between them.

“Almost there,” said Balinor eventually; at almost the same time, Merlin heard Kilgharrah’s voice in his head once more. He was close enough that the call was almost painful, seeming to press against the inside of his head. Merlin.

“I’m coming, I said,” he muttered, rubbing at his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose.

“Everything all right?”

“Kilgharrah’s getting impatient,” he said.

“Has he been pestering you this entire time?” Balinor asked, his expression dark.

“No,” Merlin reassured him. “No, but I can tell we’re getting close from the power of his call. Hopefully he won’t do that while I’m on slippery ground.”

His father nodded, a little skeptically maybe, but they continued their walk. Balinor was in front of him now as they descended, still ready to catch Merlin if he were to fall, which was starting to seem more and more likely. Merlin was having a hard time catching his breath, even though they were going more slowly than ever, and his legs were trembling with exertion. He’d have to rest for hours before they could begin the long trek back to Comraich, and he wasn’t sure if Balinor had put any food in his bag. They had plenty of water, at least.

Luckily, it was only about twenty minutes later that the path leveled out, and widened. Not long after that, paving stones appeared, making it look almost like an ordinary road, except high up in the mountain and with no village anywhere in sight.

The road dipped a little more, winding down along the inside of another crevasse; when Merlin looked up once, he was surprised to discover that the walls here were carved. He paused, taking in images that must have been truly ancient: spirals, lozenges, and checkerboard patterns pecked into the stone, all surrounding shapes that he realized after a moment were stylized dragons, their bodies filled with deeply-cut knot work and other symbols that he couldn’t make out.

“The ancient lineages,” said Balinor, from some paces ahead. “It’s said that the first dragons called from the egg bonded with the first dragon lords, and that every family descended from them remained bonded to the same dragon throughout its life. It is also said that the more dragons that family lineage hatched, the greater their powers would become.” He indicated one of the carvings. “The dragon lords adopted this shape as our symbol, our heraldry if you like. The circle inside the middle of the body, there, the carving inside it, shows you which family is which.”

“Do we have a lineage?” asked Merlin, voice hushed.

Balinor only smiled. “One of the oldest,” he said, and Merlin blinked, trying not to gape. “Part of why Kilgharrah has to obey you and me, even if he can try to ignore the call of other dragon lords.”

“I remember Devon and Liam saying they couldn’t command him.”

“Their lineage might have hatched fewer dragons,” said Balinor with a shrug. “If the legends are true, that is. But that makes them no less dragon lords than you and I. Never assume that strength is the only power a man has. Even the humblest of us can accomplish great things, if we know where and when to exert ourselves.”

“I grew up a peasant,” said Merlin, with a smile. “I’m more likely to take a prat down a few pegs, than wish I had his power.”

Balinor chuckled. “Yes, so I remember. I admit, I underestimated Arthur before, when we first met. I saw only the son of Uther Pendragon. Any lesser man might well have had you hanged for your insolence, but he chose to listen to your words and be shaped by them.”

“I dunno how much shaping I really did,” Merlin began, but his father waved that off.

“Probably more than you realize. But here,” he said, pointing upward. “This is our dragon. That circle is the symbol of our lineage.”

Merlin looked up, and his jaw dropped. It was stylized, of course, marked with curls and rather stiff looking legs, but there was clearly a beak, and talons, and feathered wings. “A bird?” He took in the sharp curve of the beak. “A hawk?”

“An eagle, actually,” said Balinor. “But yes. In the short time that Hunith and I were together, we talked under the stars about what we would name our children if we were ever free to marry. In jest, I thought. It would seem Hunith kept those words close.”

“I was named for this,” Merlin had to confirm, tears welling in his eyes.

Balinor smiled, a little helplessly. “You’ll have to ask your mother, but I suspect so.”

The carved walls of the crevasse fell away not long after, revealing a large clearing paved with cobbles and bounded by a perfect circle of standing stones, of a different color and texture than the surrounding rock. Merlin couldn’t begin to guess how the old dragon lords had brought the stones here to be placed; perhaps they had used magic, or asked the dragons to do it for them. Each standing stone was at least eight feet tall, and each had one of the dragons from the crevasse carved into it. There were over a dozen stones, perhaps a score of them; Merlin studied them until he found the dragon with his lineage’s eagle on it.

The he had to laugh to himself, just a little. He had a lineage. A legacy. A legacy he’d been named for, no less. The knowledge made him feel… rooted, in a way. Connected to something that he’d needed, something he’d been drifting a little without.

He hobbled over on fatigued legs to touch the stone, and wondered how many of his ancestors had rested their hands on it before him. To his surprise, first the eagle and then the entire dragon carving began to glow, the lines and curls lighting up an ethereal blue-green, like foxfire in the marsh.

Merlin looked quickly for Balinor, eyes wide, and found the other man standing only a pace away, with a proud look on his face. “If there were any doubt that you are my son, this has erased it,” he said. “Each stone lights only for a member of that lineage. In times past, the dragon lords would gather here to discuss important matters, and each of the stones would be lit. Or at least, all the stones that still have living members to touch them. Some of these family lines are no more.”

“That’s a shame,” said Merlin.

“Well, consider,” said Balinor: “thanks to you, many of these stones will light again someday, when their dragon lords come here. Otherwise this one would have stood all alone, the only light in a forgotten place.”

“I hadn’t really thought of it like that,” said Merlin.

“There is much that does not occur to you until it is too late to change it,” came a new voice, one that Merlin recognized all too well.

“Kilgharrah,” he sighed, and wondered just what sort of scolding he was going to get this time.

“Kilgharrah,” growled Balinor. They both turned, and Merlin followed his father’s gaze up. The circle of standing stones was itself surrounded by high, jutting outcroppings that had been shaped, he realized, flattened at the top into perches and places for dragons to lie down, and watch went on in the circle below. Merlin tried to imagine them all full of dragons, as the stone circle filled with dragon lords, and marveled.

The Great Dragon lay on one, his head right at the edge where he could see them without having to move. His perch was oriented to face the crevasse, and Merlin realized he must have been watching them approach the entire time.

“What do you want, Kilgharrah?” called Balinor.

The dragon narrowed its great, golden eye at him. “Do not speak to me, traitor,” he began, but Merlin cut him off.

“You will show my father respect,” he said, “or if you can’t manage that, then at least basic courtesy. You know damn well he was deceived by Uther. Put the blame for your imprisonment where it truly lies.”

“If your precious father had paid any attention at all—”

“Or I will turn around and go right back to Comraich, and ignore you when you start to hound me again.” Merlin wasn’t sure he could do that right away, already as fatigued as he was, but he’d damn well try.

To his surprise, the dragon sighed in resignation. “Come up, Merlin,” he said tiredly. “Bring your staff, and come up.”

He glanced at Balinor, who nodded and led the way. Once they were outside the standing stones, Merlin could see narrow, very steep stairs carved into the rock at intervals, all around the clearing. The closest ones led directly up to Kilgharrah’s perch.

It was a slow, laborious climb, and Merlin was gasping for breath when he reached the top, but he made it.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask Kilgharrah just what the hell he wanted, and why he couldn’t have flown down to Comraich instead, when he got a good look at the dragon, and his mind went blank with horror.

Kilgharrah was emaciated, his ribs clearly showing through a hide gone dull and patchy. His former gold was now a dull bronze, with gray patches in places where no scales grew. Shed, broken scales littered the ground around him, and his wings drooped as if he were too tired to keep them folded along his back. The sails of the wings looked tattered, like ragged cloth.

Merlin glanced at Balinor, but the other man looked just as stricken as he felt. “Kilgharrah,” he breathed, unable to speak more loudly. “Kilgharrah, what happened to you?”

Despite the condition of his body, or maybe because of it, the dragon’s eyes seemed to glow more brightly than Merlin had ever seen before, the gold of pure magic, kept barely in check. He stared at Merlin without moving his head, and his sides heaved as he labored for breath.

“I am dying,” he said, and Merlin felt his knees give way.

Chapter Text

“Dying,” Merlin repeated as he staggered sideways. “Why?”

“Because of you,” said Kilgharrah, and Merlin felt his heart stutter in his chest.

The growl Balinor gave in response did not sound human. It echoed, just like a dragon’s speech; when Merlin looked over, his father’s teeth were bared and his own eyes glowing gold to match the dragon’s, though perhaps not as bright.

“It is only the truth, dragon lord,” said Kilgharrah. “Calm yourself.”

“I will not. Do not dare to imagine that I will allow you to speak to my son that way.”

“If you do not wish to hear the story, then by all means you may go back below and wait,” said the dragon. “I have a task to fulfill, before I die, and I will not waste what little time I have left bandying words with the likes of you.”

“Both of you, enough,” pleaded Merlin. “Kilgharrah, tell me how this is my fault. Tell me how to fix it, and—”

“You cannot, for all your strength,” came the reply. “I am a creature of the Old Religion, as are you, and I must maintain the Balance. Just as you must, when you come into your power.”

“I don’t understand.”

To Merlin’s surprise, Kilgharrah’s mood calmed somewhat, from implacable and merciless to… he wasn’t sure what. “No, I imagine you don’t, young warlock,” the dragon said tiredly. “You are so very young, after all.”

Balinor stepped forward. “If you have no time to bandy words, then I suggest you get to the point.”

Kilgharrah sighed, shifting his wings so that they rasped against the stone. “Merlin, your king was meant to die at Camlann. It was prophesied.”

No. No, that couldn’t be relevant. It couldn’t. “It was also prophesied that he would bring about a golden age of Albion, bring magic back,” said Merlin. “He hasn’t done either of those things.”

“You will have to ask the druids for a more in-depth interpretation of the prophecies, once I am gone,” said Kilgharrah. “I will only say that when you invoked the power of life and death to save him, you nearly caused a fatal imbalance in the energies of the world.”

“How? It was supposed to be a life for a life, my life for his.” His eyes grew wide in horror as he realized what must be happening. It was Nimueh and his mother, all over again. “I chose myself, I was going to be the one to die. Not you.” He was shaking his head helplessly, over and over. “Not you. Not anyone else. Just me.” How could he have gotten it so wrong?

“And yet, you are Emrys,” said Kilgharrah. “Magic incarnate. So long as there is magic in this world, so too will you be.”

Merlin swallowed in a throat gone dry and metallic-tasting. “What?” he breathed. “Wh-what are you saying, are you saying I can’t die?” His voice was high and hysterical by the end.

“Just so.”

No,” he whispered.

“I do not have time to help you come to terms with this knowledge,” said the dragon. “I only know that it is so. Your magic is as vast as the world, because it is the world. You do not have magic; you are Magic.”

Merlin swayed on his feet, and when Balinor caught him by the shoulders, he leaned into his father’s grip, feeling tears burning his eyes.

“You tried to trade a life for Arthur’s that could not be traded,” explained Kilgharrah, more gently now. “The Goddess of the Old Religion was forced to intervene, to protect the balance of the entire world. Had you died, all magic would have begun to die, to fade from this world, as well. The devastation would have been… unimaginable.”

“So what happened instead?” he rasped, already guessing the answer and dreading it.

He had expected Kilgharrah to grow annoyed with him, to scold him for his stupidity, for things he could not possibly have been expected to know. For things that were still his fault despite his ignorance. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all. Instead, however, the Great Dragon, blinked slowly, and sighed once more.

“You and I are kin,” he said softly. “For a long time, you were my only kin. You showed me mercy when I was bent upon revenge. I did not show you the respect that you deserved, and I have wronged you in other ways, over the years, by withholding knowledge from you when you needed it, or by trying to force your steps to follow a path that would lead to my own freedom, rather than the path that would allow you to fulfill your own destiny, of your own will. As a creature of magic myself, I was meant to serve Magic, not dictate his choices.”

“But you did dictate them,” said Balinor.

“I did,” came the reply, “and for my sins, when the time came, when your son tried to die, the Goddess came to me… and I was offered a choice. A path of penance, should I choose it.”

“You took my place,” said Merlin, shaking from head to toe.

“I did,” he said, and Merlin’s tears broke free.

“I didn’t want this,” he cried. “I didn’t want this! Take my magic back, take my—my immortality, I never wanted it. I don’t want it! I was meant to die in Arthur’s place.”

“I am so sorry, Merlin, that I cannot.” Kilgharrah looked tired, and sad, and impossibly old. “You and Arthur are equal halves, two sides of a single coin. He cannot fulfill his destiny without you by his side, just as you cannot fulfill yours away from him.” His voice softened even further. “Young warlock. I would lift this burden from you if I could. The best I can do is heal what was broken when you attempted to make that trade.”

“Broken,” said Balinor, as Merlin tried to get himself under control.

“The druids will be better at explaining this as well, I think,” replied the dragon. “But in the metaphors that they use, the vessel that contains your magic is cracked, and your strength to wield it nearly shattered. One of my last gifts to you will be to repair the vessel, and restore your strength.”

“And then what happens?” asked Merlin.

“And then, my soul shall pass through the Veil, the remains of my magic will return to the world, and I shall have atoned for at least some of my transgressions.”

“I don’t want you to die,” said Merlin. It was nearly a whimper, and he hated how weak, how childish, he sounded.

“I am old, Merlin,” said Kilgharrah, not unkindly. “My time would have drawn near within only another few decades, with or without the Goddess’s intervention. At least this way, I can take my leave with one less stain upon my conscience.” To Merlin’s surprise, he smiled. “And I can take my leave knowing that I am not the last of my kind, thanks to you.”

Merlin took a deep breath with his mouth open, twice, three times, fighting not to start crying again. He was so sick of his own tears; had shed them so many times over the past few months. He tried to come up with something to say, anything, but all his mind supplied were various ways to beg for Kilgharrah’s words not to be true.

“I have a question,” said Balinor, giving Merlin’s shoulders one last squeeze. “You said ‘one of’ your last gifts would be to heal Merlin. What else are you giving him?”

“Your staff,” Kilgharrah answered. “It is of Sidhe make.”

Merlin wiped one hand across his face, leaning on the thing as he drew himself up. “Yes?”

“The Sidhe will pursue you for the rest of time, cursing you for thievery, unless we make the staff your own,” explained the dragon. “And, just as Arthur has Excalibur, so might you too need a weapon, something to balance it as you balance him. A weapon of defense rather than offense. A conduit for your magic and the magic of the earth.”

“I’m not really a warrior,” Merlin tried, but Kilgharrah only smiled tiredly.

“And a staff is not a weapon of war,” he countered. “Nonetheless, it may protect you in your travels. And no sword shall sunder it, save only Excalibur itself, for it will be tempered in a dragon’s breath just as that blade was.”

His father turned to Merlin, and said, “Such a thing would be a rare treasure, indeed. As special as your Arthur’s sword, in its way.”

“All right,” said Merlin. “All right. I accept.”

“And do you accept my sacrifice in your place, to save Arthur’s life, as ordained by the Goddess?”

Merlin shut his eyes and sighed. Somehow, he didn’t think it would be a good idea to defy a goddess, no matter how powerful he was supposed to be. “I… will come to accept it in time,” he said slowly. He couldn’t just be okay with it, not now, but perhaps he would be eventually.

“Know that I do this of my own will, Merlin,” said Kilgharrah. “For the world, yes, but also for you. Immortality or not, the world would be a smaller, dimmer place without you in it.”

He sighed. “Then I accept.”

“Then come closer, and let us say our last words to one another,” said the dragon. “Even though a part of me will always be with you.”

Merlin’s legs were still unsteady, and Balinor had to help him the last couple of steps, but then he moved back out of the way, leaving Merlin standing between the precipice and the dragon’s mouth. Kilgharrah took another laborious breath, his sides heaving, and then with visible difficulty, he lifted his head from the stone floor, his talons clenching in what might have been pain or mere effort.

He reached out ponderously to touch his snout to Merlin’s shoulder; Merlin reached up and rested his hand between Kilgharrah’s eyes. It has been an honor to know you, young warlock, came the voice, echoing into his mind.

I’m going to miss you. What will I do without you?

I will always be with you, even if it is only to watch over you from beyond the Veil. As for what you will do … That is a path you must discover for yourself. Yet, if you will take my advice one last time, let me remind you that I am not the only dragon you know. There is one other who needs you to make up for my failures.

Merlin nodded in understanding; then he took a breath, feeling the tears starting up once more. Goodbye, Kilgharrah.

The Great Dragon drew back and opened his eyes wide, the brilliant gold almost seeming to illuminate his eyrie even in broad daylight. For just a moment, he looked as Merlin imagined he must have been in his prime: regal, dangerous, and powerful. A creature of the Old Religion, wise beyond the understanding of mortal men.

He opened his mouth, and Merlin resisted the urge to flinch, or shield against the fire that was to come.

Instead of fire, though, the Great Dragon breathed shimmering gold mist, enveloping Merlin until he could see nothing else. The Sidhe staff prickled fiercely in his hand, seeming to fight the dragon’s magic, and Merlin let it go just as the prickling became a burn. He was lifted weightlessly into the air, along with his staff, and as he gasped, he breathed in pure magic.

The feeling of it filling his lungs was indescribable; something close to bathing in sunlight like a cat, yet instead of warmth he felt… wisdom. Understanding, ancient as the mountains and vast as the oceans. Clarity, calm, like the sky on a cloudless day.

Merlin closed his eyes and let himself be lost in sensation.

Memories flitted through his mind; some were his own, while others must have belonged to Kilgharrah in his youth. He saw people in unfamiliar clothing, with blue-painted faces, wielding bronze and copper weapons and tools as they went about their lives. He saw his mother, scolding him but with laughter in her eyes as he made the spoons dance across their table. He saw dragons slaughtered by men in red, and Freya killed by more of the same.

Stone carvings lit with blue and gold fire, and clouds flew across the sky; the sun rose and set and rose again, so quickly it seemed like a blade slicing across the sky. The seasons changed in an infinite dance, the Circle Round, as the stars wheeled overhead in a dance of their own. Above him, a vast void; beneath him, rock so hot it was melted, and all of it spinning, spinning in infinity, and him a part of it and spinning too. Small and insignificant, and vitally important to the great Dance, both at the same time. Spirals everywhere, from galaxies in the sky down to the building blocks of life, all of them spinning, spinning, seashells and sunflowers, and he was part of them, too. He was Magic, and Magic was everywhere.

Looking within, he understood what Kilgharrah’s metaphors had meant, and could see the cracks in his vessel sealing over, the reservoir of his energy filling once more. His arms and legs no longer trembled when he tried to pour the energy out, his strength restored as if after a long illness. He felt like a leaping kid, bouncing around its fellow goats while they grazed in amused tolerance. He could do anything, go anywhere, see all of it.

All of it…

Pull back in, Merlin, came Kilgharrah’s voice in his mind. You are not yet ready.

He was right. Merlin could see all of it, but all of it was too much. Emrys could handle all of it, possibly, but Merlin was still only a man, and a man could go insane from seeing the vastness of the universe and attempting to comprehend its design. He was no god, and did not wish to become one.

With effort, he shifted his awareness, away from galaxies and atoms, and back to human scale. His body. His hands, his feet. His lungs, taking in air, fresh and clean. His shoulders, his back, pressed gently against fire-warmed stone.

His eyes. He opened them, and saw only sky at first, before he remembered how to move.

Merlin sat up, looking for Kilgharrah.

Farewell, Merlin.

In front of him, there was no dragon; there was instead an outline formed of points of golden light, like sparks held in one shape by a spell, as he’d once shown Arthur: the shape of a dragon, a translucent net of sparks, which Merlin could see through to the sky beyond. As he watched, the net moved, a bit like sea foam rippling on the waves. The shape lifted and spread almost-wings and reared up on not-quite-haunches, throwing back its head to roar silently, a dragon in triumph…

…and then the shape began to dissipate, the sparks drifting gently away and up, up on the faintest of breezes, into the sky…

…and gone.

The eyes were the last to go.

“…-lin? Merlin!” Sound filtered into his ears gradually, as the Kilgharrah’s last image faded, and the magic surrounding Merlin settled further into his skin. He blinked slowly, remembering again that he was a human, in a body, in the world, and turned his head.

Balinor was kneeling beside him, his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, with a frantic expression that suggested he’d been calling Merlin’s name for some time. I’m all right, he tried to say, but the sound only echoed in his head. Words, regular words, were still a bit beyond him for the time being.

“Merlin, your eyes,” said Balinor.

What about them?

“They’re glowing, my son, bright as a dragon’s.” He studied Merlin’s face, still visibly worried. “Whatever spell you’re holding, you should let it go.”

I’m not, Merlin tried to reply.

Balinor raised one eyebrow, but let it go. “Can you speak normally?”

Merlin blinked twice, trying to assess. I… not yet? I don’t feel anything wrong… there’s just so much right now. I hardly feel attached to my body.

“I know the cure for that, at least,” said Balinor with a relieved smile. He dropped back from his knees to sit cross-legged on the stone beside Merlin, opened his satchel, and pulled out a little bread and hard cheese. “Here. Eat.”

Merlin had to stare at the food for a moment, trying to remember how that worked. Eating… He took the bread and tore it in half, picking out the softer insides and placing them gingerly in his mouth. Flavor flooded his tongue, and the next thing he knew, he was chewing and swallowing, and reaching for more.

“That’s it,” said Balinor. “I haven’t seen someone quite so magic-addled in a long time, but eating is always the cure for it. It’s why druid festivals always end in a feast of some kind.” He huffed a little laugh. “Then again, I’ve never seen someone soak up so much magic from a dragon, either.”

“Was it a lot?” Oh. That was how talking was supposed to go.

“It was everything Kilgharrah had left,” said his father soberly. “I think he was using his own magic to keep his body alive until you could get here, and then he gave you all that remained to give.”

A detached sort of sadness filled Merlin. “I never would have asked that of him,” he said.

“I know.” Balinor rested one hand on his son’s shoulder. “I think that’s why he decided you were worthy of such a gift.”


“What was it like?”

Merlin tipped his head in consideration. How to describe the indescribable? “I could see everything,” he said. “All the universe, as if I were one of the gods. Things I couldn’t hope to understand.” He looked away, studying the sky. “I could feel the birds in the air,” he mused; “I could hear the songs of whales in the ocean.”

“Careful,” warned Balinor. “Don’t go too far away.”

“No… I was just thinking that if I could see all that, I could probably look in on Arthur too.”

“You think so?”

Merlin shut his eyes, feeling the grounding effect of the food in his belly, but still so full of magic that it was easy enough to break free of that hold and cast his awareness out. “Arthur…”

Then he jolted, his eyes flying wide open as he realized what he felt. “Arthur!”

Chapter Text

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask me today, sire?” asked Colgrevance.

Arthur thought, then shook his head. “You have given me much to think about,” he said. “I am sure I will have other questions for you once I’ve considered all that you have told me today.”

“Of course,” said Colgrevance. “Well, you know where to find me, for a summons, or you’re welcome to return if you wish. Who knows, I may even have a proper chair for you by then, if you do come back.”

“Of course,” said Arthur politely. He stood and offered a hand to Colgrevance, as Leon unfolded himself back to his full height. “Thank you again for agreeing to see us.”

The dragon lord gave him a wry smile. “You’re the king, sire, I wasn’t exactly going to say no.”

“Still. I appreciate your hospitality.”

Colgrevance opened the tent flap for him with a little bow. “Even if you don’t have questions, sire, you’d be welcome to come back and drink some of this cider with me.”

Arthur smiled, tiredly, but he meant it all the same. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, and ducked out into the open air.

Gwaine and Lancelot were chatting together on the opposite side of the street while still keeping an eye out for threats, with Percival and Elyan standing just outside the tent. Bruenor, as odd man out, had placed himself nearer to Lancelot and Gwaine, but seemed content not to be part of their conversation, scanning the area thoughtfully with his thumbs hooked behind his belt. His was looking away from Arthur at first, but as soon as he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye he turned and came over to them.

“Everything all right, sire?”

“I learned a great deal,” said Arthur honestly. “What about here?” He had not forgotten the little girl’s—the supposed Seer’s—warning.

“Everything seems quiet to my eyes,” said Elyan. “People are just going about their business.”

“Where did the druid leader say she wanted to meet you, sire?” asked Percival.

“Closer to the outer edge of the tent city, near the forest,” said Arthur. “She said she would have some people gathered nearest to Blue and Tree streets.” They remained odd names, to his ear, but still practical for a place like this.

“Are you ready to go, then, sire?” asked Leon.

“As I’ll ever be.”

They set out along Spiral in their usual formation, but nothing seemed out of place. Arthur and his men passed families with children, and someone leading a donkey carrying firewood. After four or five tents, they spotted an open area ahead where an elongated fire pit had been dug, surrounded by straw bales that were being used as benches. There were a handful of people gathered there, with several tripods and pots hung over the coals. According to Elyan’s report, the tent city had been deliberately organized like this: fires were spaced evenly and shared communally, both for cooking and for socializing at night. The smoke from the tent city was visible from the castle windows, but was no worse than the smoke from the houses of the Lower Town.

Most of the people paid them no mind, which was honestly a relief to Arthur; he hadn’t come out here for the bow-and-scrape routine, nor to disrupt anyone’s day with his royal presence. A few people did notice their swords, however, and showed nervous expressions, or pulled their children closer for a moment until Arthur and his guard had passed. He kept his expression smooth, but inwardly he could not help the pang he felt. Simply offering not to persecute the druids had been nowhere near enough to make up for the atrocities Uther had visited upon them, he realized now. Arthur had promised to stop the attacks, less than a year ago, and then had been tempted to behave as if he’d deserved some sort of reward for his magnanimity, when in reality he’d done the absolute bare minimum that decency required.

He’d have to make greater changes, once he could see a way forward that didn’t lead to civil war within Camelot.

They were right next to the fire pit when the little girl’s warning suddenly made sense. Arthur heard a couple of children shout, and looked up to see a man turn away from the fire pit with what looked like a globe of flame held between his hands; at first, Arthur thought he was entertaining the children, unnerving as the display was… and then he saw the look of hatred on the man’s face.

After that, everything seemed to happen at once: half of Arthur’s knights yelled a warning, he heard the sound of swords being drawn, and the sorcerer sent the fire ball hurtling toward Arthur’s head. Before Arthur could do more than duck out of the way, hand on the hilt of his own sword, Bruenor knocked him to the ground, shouting a single word in the language of magic.

A glimmering dome materialized mere inches away from Arthur and Bruenor, just in time for the fireball to splash harmlessly against it, though Arthur still felt its heat.

Arthur was still climbing to his feet when he heard the sorcerer shout a word he recognized: “Astrice!” Bruenor’s shield must have done something to block the spell, because he felt nothing, but Gwaine, Lancelot, and the others were knocked back through the air toward him, and the sorcerer took off running.

“Somebody stop him!” shouted Arthur, though he didn’t think anyone actually would. This was a camp full of magic users, and he expected they would protect one of their own.

And yet, he was wrong: before the sorcerer could get very far, he ran past an old woman leaning on a staff, who, with admirable reflexes, stuck the staff in his path and tripped him, hard. The man went flying, and landed face down in the dirt with a thump that Arthur could both hear and feel; then, before he could get back up past his hands and knees, the woman bent, rested a hand on his head, and muttered something Arthur couldn’t hear. The sorcerer slumped back to the ground, and did not rise.

Arthur’s blood was up, ready for battle, but there was no fight to be had. Gwaine had drawn his sword, along with Lancelot and Leon; he glared at everyone around him, daring anyone else to make a move, while the others closed in around Arthur in tight formation.

“Everyone all right?” asked Arthur.

“Aye,” said Gwaine. “Felt like getting kicked by a horse though.”

“I’ll have a bruise or two, nothing more,” replied Elyan.

“I’m the same, sire,” said Leon. “What about you?”

“I’m fine,” he replied, fighting for calm. The battle was over. There had been almost no fight to speak of. He took a deep breath, then another.

The area around them was absolutely silent; Arthur could hear voices from the other tents and farther up the street, a child wailing and a couple of goats bleating somewhere, but here, all the bystanders that hadn’t fled were staring at Arthur with looks of absolute terror on their faces. Mothers were backing away slowly, children clutched by their shoulders, while men were swallowing heavily and beginning to group together. Only the old woman seemed calm, leaning on her staff over the sorcerer’s body and watching to see what Arthur would do.

Like a bolt of lightning, Arthur knew that how he responded in this moment, whatever he said next, would shape the rest of his reign. The rest of his life.

He also knew, in the same instant, exactly what Uther would have done.

Arthur took one last deep breath, and rested a hand on Gwaine’s shoulder. “Stand down,” he said quietly. “Lancelot, Leon, you too. Stand down.” With a gentle nudge, he moved Leon aside so that he could see the old woman better. “Is he dead?” he asked.

The woman sniffed. “I’m no killer,” she answered, loudly enough for everyone to hear. The implied unlike you was strong in her tone. “He’ll sleep until sunrise, or until someone does him harm.”

Beside him, Bruenor took a step forward. “You used swefe?” he asked.

“’Course I did.”

“What’s that one?” asked Arthur quietly.

“It means ‘sleep’ in the language of magic,” said Bruenor.

Sleep. There was a spell that could make people simply sleep, something that could eliminate a threat without having to slaughter anyone. Arthur wasn’t sure whether to laugh in relief, or cry. “You saved my life,” he said instead, pushing the emotion aside until later. He glanced over at Bruenor to find the man blinking at him in mild surprise.

“I’ve been a knight-mage for half my life,” he said. “Uther may have had me killed, but he didn’t manage to beat the Code out of me before I died. I swore once to defend the defenseless, and I have no plans to break that oath, even if Uther broke his oath to me.”

“I’m not exactly defenseless,” Arthur pointed out.

“Respectfully, sire, against hostile magic, you very nearly are,” said Bruenor. “Without magic of your own, there is very little you can do other than endure or dodge a sorcerer’s attacks, and hope that he runs out of energy before you do.”

Arthur wanted to argue that point, he truly did. He even opened his mouth to refute the man’s claims, because he’d defeated plenty of magic users over his life… and then he realized, he’d had Merlin by his side for the past ten years. His best friend had been there, working in secret, defending in secret, and was no doubt responsible for a great many victories that Arthur had claimed as his own. He shut his mouth, thinking of the Great Dragon that he had never truly vanquished, and of the young dragon lord who had.

Bruenor was gracious enough not to push his point. “What will you do with him?” he asked instead, nodding toward the fallen sorcerer.

Arthur sighed. Slowly, he walked over to where the other man lay, knelt, and turned him over to get a look at his face. The sorcerer was nondescript: sun-weathered skin, brown hair, dressed as a peasant in brown clothes. He had a scraggly beard, and his mouth hung open in sleep so that Arthur spotted a missing tooth, but other than that there was nothing especially remarkable about him. His breathing was slow and deep.

“Percival, Leon, search him for any belongings that he might use to cause harm, then put him in the dungeons,” he said. “We’ll question him in the morning, when he wakes.”

“Are you going to execute him?” asked the old woman. She still hadn’t moved from her spot near the sorcerer’s head, and was watching him fearlessly.

“He attacked the king,” answered Leon in disbelief.

“Ah, but is it for attacking the king or for using magic that you’re going to have him killed?”

“There’s a possibility I won’t have him killed at all,” said Arthur irritably as he stood. “It’ll depend on what he tells us in the morning.”

There was a long moment wherein the old woman only studied him, scrutinized him, while the bystanders watched nervously. Arthur had no idea what she was looking for, nor was he completely sure why he was standing there and letting her look for it, except that he still had the sense that fate hung in the balance, in this moment. What he said, what he did—well, as a king it always mattered, but right now, he knew, it mattered even more.

“Well met, then, Arthur Pendragon,” she said finally, and a collective sigh seemed to ripple through the bystanders. “I am called Derwen. You had said you wanted to speak to me.”

“We were going to meet you at your tent,” said Arthur, as they walked slowly back up the street, away from the scene of the attack. Percival already had the sorcerer draped over his shoulder, and he and Leon were headed back toward the castle; the remaining three knights, and knight-mage, clustered around Arthur and Derwen in a loose formation. “While I’m grateful for your assistance earlier, you didn’t need to come all this way to find me.”

“I didn’t have anything better to do,” admitted Derwen. “I knew you planned to visit the dragon lord, Colgrevance, and wasn’t sure how long your conversation with him would take. I didn’t fancy sitting in my tent and waiting, when I could just as easily come to you.”

“Fair enough,” Arthur allowed. “I am grateful that you agreed to speak with me. I know my past has done nothing to endear your people to me.”

“Our people were once yours, Arthur,” came the gentle reply. “It is our hope that soon we will be again. Not only that the persecution of the druids would end, but that we would be welcomed back to Camelot’s society once more.”

“Were you always nomadic,” asked Arthur, “or did that begin when my father’s Purge did?”

“Mm. It was a little of both, really,” said the older woman. “We druids have always felt a greater connection to nature, and preferred living in or near the forests and wild places, rather than towns and villages. When we did settle in one place, it was generally out in the wilder country, where we could roam with our flocks. After Uther went mad and began the massacres, we fled further away from settled land, and learned to hide ourselves from his patrols.”

“That makes sense.”

“But you did not ask to speak to us only to learn of our past,” said Derwen shrewdly. “Or did you?”

“It’s true that I know little of the ways of your people,” said Arthur. “I know that you use magic, and that you are peaceful, but little else. Learning more about the druids is important to me.”


Arthur blew out a breath, considering his words carefully. “Earlier this year, I promised to stop attacking your people, and to intend no further harm to you. But that… wasn’t nearly enough to make up for all that you have suffered. I want to move forward, to do more for the druids, but I don’t know enough about you. I don’t know what you need, or want, or what you’d be willing to accept from the King of Camelot.” Then, more quietly, he added, “And there is more that I wish to ask you, as well. About magic, and… the gods, maybe, if you know anything about them. I know so little, I’m uncertain even of what questions to ask.”

“That is understandable, considering the education—or mis-education—you likely were given under Uther,” said Derwen. “If it makes you feel any better, there is much that we wish to tell you. But that is a conversation best kept for your ears alone, at first.”

“You have secrets?” asked Arthur raising one eyebrow. He’d had enough of secrets to last a lifetime.

To his surprise, Derwen only smiled. “Everyone has secrets, Arthur Pendragon. Perhaps especially the druids, since we’ve had to hide for so long, now. But no. I was simply thinking that what we have to say should meet your ears first, and then you may decide what to do with that information. If you wish to keep it to yourself, that is well. If you prefer to share it with a trusted few, that also would be all right. If you felt a need to spread our words far and wide, that too would be your prerogative, I suppose.”

“But you’d prefer I didn’t,” Arthur guessed.

“My preferences mean little compared to the desires of a king,” said Derwen, and Arthur frowned a little.

“Aren’t you the leader of your people?”

“I am a leader, of some of my people,” she corrected. “And one of the few who was willing to speak with you, and give you a chance to explain what you are doing, and what you plan to do, with us.”

That was a bit disheartening to hear, but perhaps only to be expected, considering all that had happened between Camelot knights and the druids throughout Albion. “I see.”

“Don’t fret,” Derwen assured him. “There will be others present who, while they do not wish to make themselves known to you, nevertheless would hear what you have to say. You and I will not be the only ones present for this conversation.”

“May I have one or two of my knights with me, then?” he asked.

She shrugged. “If you like. You’re in no danger from us, but if they also serve as advisers to you, then perhaps it may be of benefit for them to hear our conversation, too.”

Arthur thought about it; they walked in silence for a bit, Derwen politely leaving him alone with his thoughts. He wanted to ask about what he’d seen in the forest near Lake Avalon, whether the Goddess was even real. Wanted to ask what Merlin had done to bring him back, wanted to know what Merlin’s magic had to do with the mass resurrection. But would the druids have any idea about that?

Before he knew it, he and Derwen were turning off of Spiral street and onto a long path that paralleled Camelot’s walls, marked with blue strips of cloth at every intersection. It was a bit quieter here, and had the feel of being closer to nature somehow; Arthur spotted a woman guiding a couple of goats down the path, a hunter hanging up rabbit skins to dry around one of the communal fires, and two children giggling and whistling as birds hopped fearlessly around their feet. The trees of the Darkling Woods were not far from here, and the breeze felt fresh and clean.

It was not much longer before Arthur noticed a blue banner with a tree painted on it, marking the intersection of two streets. About three tents away from the banner was a larger than usual clear space, surrounding one of the communal fires. At least two dozen people were gathered there, obviously waiting; Arthur spotted no children, but several druid tattoos on forearms, shoulders, or even the bare chests of a couple of the men. They were watching Arthur and Derwen’s approach in complete silence, and utterly unreadable expressions on their faces. Arthur had no idea if this crowd were about to become a hostile mob, or break into feasting and dancing.

Derwen moved forward, and the people parted before her like she was the king, and not Arthur. The fire was surrounded by wooden benches and a few three-legged stools; Derwen walked over to one, still leaning on her staff, and dropped onto it with a sigh.

“Come and sit with me, Arthur Pendragon,” she said, “and let us talk.”

Chapter Text

Arthur looked around at the gathered druids, all still watching him with unnerving silence, then back at Derwen, who sat patiently on her stool with her staff propped by her side. It wouldn’t do to show nerves or weakness in front of this crowd, he knew, but he still wasn’t completely sure how to proceed. “Lancelot,” he murmured finally. “You’re with me; set Elyan, Gwaine, and Bruenor at the perimeter.”


The closest seat to Derwen was a wooden bench, worn to a shine from long use. Arthur sat near the end, feeling Lancelot’s steady presence just behind him. “I admit, I expected this to be a more private conversation,” he said.

Derwen shrugged. “There are many who wish to hear what you have to say,” she replied.

“I didn’t come with any proclamations in mind,” admitted Arthur. “I came because I thought you would be the best people to answer some of my questions. About your people, and about the gods, and magic. The Old Religion.”

The old woman nodded slowly. “Some of what we teach is considered secret, only for the initiates. Other things even we do not know, as they are teachings reserved for the priests and priestesses, while we are only servants of the gods. But what I can answer, I will.”

Arthur frowned then, thinking hard. He wasn’t sure how long these people would be willing to extend their goodwill, and he wanted to make his questions count.

“I’ve been told that not everyone in the tent city was resurrected from the dead,” he said carefully. “Why did the rest of you come?”

Derwen nodded as if she had been expecting the question. “When the Goddess’s power filled the world, many of us felt it—in our very souls, it seemed,” she said. “Then we found some of our returned dead in the forest, and rejoiced to see them. It did not take long to realize that what they all had in common was death at Uther’s hands. So we came to Camelot, to see if we might find more of our people who had been slaughtered, and to take in and shelter any who were not druids, whom Uther had murdered, who had no place else to go.” She rubbed her chin with her hand, looking up at the sky. “There were also those among us who felt the power of Emrys, echoing through the world alongside the Goddess’s. They came to search for him, since it seemed he had finally come into his power as has been foretold for generations.”

“Emrys,” said Arthur. “I’ve heard that name before, but I don’t know who it is. Morgana would threaten me sometimes, and would say things like, ‘not even Emrys can save you now’. But I’ve never met this person.”

“I think perhaps you have,” said Derwen with a smile. “But that would depend on whether or not the prophecies are true, about him, and about you.”

“There are prophecies about me?” Arthur blinked in surprise, not quite sure how to take that.

The old druid tipped her head in acknowledgment of his surprise. “There are prophecies,” she allowed. “Whether or not they are about you is the subject of much debate.”

“What do they say?” he asked. “Why would I be in them?” How could he be, considering how he had treated their people for most of his life?

“Have you never heard the legends of the Once and Future King?”

Arthur opened his mouth and closed it again. “I know someone who has called me that before,” he said. Merlin, of course. Knowing things and not revealing them, or sharing only half the truth, snippets of information. He took a deep breath, not wanting to let his feelings about that overtake his reason. “I don’t know anything else, though.”

“Ah.” The crowd around them seemed to shift a little, a sigh here and there, a whisper in someone’s ear. A few people who had been standing sat down, as if preparing to hear a long tale.

“Before I tell you of these people, these figures of prophecy,” said Derwen, “I must tell you a little of magic itself. It is all around us, in every living thing, and every aspect of nature. The stones beneath our feet hold magic; the sky and the waters swirl with it. Magic is nothing less than the power of life itself. A sorcerer, or a witch or a warlock, shapes this power for their own ends.”

“I’ve only ever seen people shape it for destructive purposes, until very recently,” said Arthur. “The attack earlier was more of what I’m accustomed to seeing from sorcerers.”

“You know why,” said Derwen.

“I do.” Uther had created his enemies at every turn. “Even so, all I’ve ever been taught, since I was a child—though I know now it was likely almost all a lie—was that magic corrupted people, the more they used it. Turned them to evil, even if they started with the most benign intentions.”

Derwen sniffed and shook her head. “No. No, that’s utterly untrue.”

Power corrupts, Pendragon,” muttered a man standing nearby. When Arthur looked up, the man met his eyes fearlessly. “You’re more likely to abuse the power given to you as king, than we are to abuse the power given to us by the Goddess.”

Several people around him nodded.

“It is also true that fear corrupts, young king,” said Derwen gently. “Living under the shadow of your father’s gallows, the smoke of his pyres. Growing up being taught to hate what is in your very bones. Magic does not turn a person to evil. Thinking that you are somehow above the people around you, or the opposite, believing yourself to be a monster before you’re even fully grown… those things affect a person’s mind and heart far more profoundly than magic itself, or the ability to use it.”

“You’re speaking of Morgana,” said Arthur.

“Somewhat. It is also true that she grew up to share Uther’s, hm, approach to solving problems? If it is in your way, you are entitled to obliterate it to get what you want.”

That sounded very like her, or at least, very much like who she eventually became. And yet, he knew, “She had to be taught to think that way.”

“Of course. Just as you had to be taught not to, when you were a boy,” she said, raising one eyebrow. “We are taught right from wrong by the proper influences; having magic does not change that. If anything, magic makes what we are taught more important, because we are granted the power to change the world around us in accordance with our emotions, our whims, and our sense of right and wrong. Just as you have the power to do, as king. What you do matters, because you are not powerless. Those of us who have the ability to use magic are also not powerless.”

Arthur thought again of Merlin, and Gwen, and the way they had called him out on his more obnoxious, entitled behavior. Uther may have taught him to be a good king, concerned about the welfare of his people, but his friends had taught him to be a good man, who actually saw his people as more than an abstract concept. What Arthur did, did indeed matter, but it was Merlin and Gwen who really showed him how and why.

“I think I understand,” said Arthur.

Derwen gave him a satisfied smile. “So that is the risk of having too much power; the ability to use magic is but one form of power. Some with power who do not have magic see magic users as a threat, because it is much more difficult to abuse someone who is able to fight back.”

Arthur thought of his nobles, and Uther. “That makes sense.”

“But magic itself is neither good nor evil, no more so than the ocean or the sky. A tree may fall and kill a man, yet it is not evil. Fire may cause injury, or save your life on a cold winter day. The key is simply to respect what it can do, and not behave either foolishly or fearfully with it. Does this also make sense to you?”

“I think so, yes,” said Arthur.

“Then that is magic, in a nutshell. Now. Our prophecies tell of a person who is not simply able to use magic, but is in a very real sense made of magic, lives and breathes it, like the dragons and the gryphons and the unicorns. Some say he is magic, condensed into human form, immortal and eternal.”

“Emrys,” breathed the man standing nearby. At the name, another ripple went through the gathered druids, almost a sigh of contentment or wonder. He could hear the name murmured from one to another, all around the fire.

“Emrys, according to the prophecies, is the most powerful sorcerer ever to walk the earth,” said Derwen, leaning forward intently. “There has never been, nor will there ever be, another like him. He is known, the legends and prophecies of him, around the world, spoken of in places so far away that you cannot even imagine them. And it is said that, with all that power, he is content to serve and guide the Once and Future King.”

Only years of practice in keeping a straight face at court allowed Arthur to hide his sudden tension. I’m happy to serve you, till the day I die. The greatest sorcerer ever to live. Hadn’t Gaius called Merlin that, as Arthur lay wounded, before they both left to try and find healing for Arthur’s injury?

“And what is the Once and Future King supposed to do?” he asked. “Why even call him that, and why do you think I am he?”

“Hm; there is another way to translate the title,” said Derwen. “Rex quondam, rexque futurus. King Once, and King To Be Again. The legends say that he is a just and fair king, wise, who guides his people to prosperity. The prophecies claim that he may not truly die, but only sleep in the world beyond, and return or be reborn when Albion’s need is greatest.”

“All of Albion?”

“It is said that the Once and Future King’s purpose is to unite Albion against dire threats, ushering in an age of peace for all. In our current time, many believe that that age of peace also includes the return of magic to the kingdoms. A restoration of balance to the world, assuming that the imbalance without magic is the current dire threat, rather than any invading army. A Golden Age, during which Albion is strong and her people—all her people—are safe.”

Arthur took a deep breath. Uniting Albion. Arthur wasn’t sure he was the king to do such a thing; he’d only ever wanted to serve Camelot. And he wasn’t at all sure he was the king to bring magic back to Camelot, the Five Kingdoms, or anywhere else.

And yet, with the resurrection, it had happened. Now Arthur had to find out the best way forward from here, navigating through the aftermath of what the Goddess had done.

“And this Emrys serves the Once and Future King?” he asked slowly.

“That is what our tales tell us, yes,” said Derwen.

Arthur frowned, trying to find the best words for his question. “Why wouldn’t he use his power to manipulate the king, then? I mean no offense. But if Emrys is some all-powerful sorcerer, and the goal is the return of magic to the kingdoms, then why not simply make this king do as he wishes?”

“Because a change that is forced, created through deceit or greed or some other sinister motive, is not a change that will endure, Arthur. Surely you have seen that in your own experiences with diplomacy. Convincing someone that what they do is right earns their loyalty to your cause. Tricking them into giving you what you want breeds only resentment and grudging acquiescence.” Derwen drew herself up in her seat, looking for a moment every inch the leader of her people. “We, as druids and magic users, have no wish to be tolerated among your people, forever outcast, forever consigned to the fringes of society, mistrusted and blamed whenever misfortune befalls the kingdom. We do not want grudging acceptance. We wish to be part of your people. Embraced, trusted. Integrated into society as a vital part of what makes the kingdom strong. Can you not see the difference?”

“I can, of course I can,” said Arthur. “But I have no idea how I would even begin to go about something like that. I can’t simply decree that magic is no longer banned, and solve all the problems that your people face. It would take years to achieve that kind of integration, and I fear I would be risking war both within the kingdom and beyond our borders the entire time. The Purge has lasted a generation; nearly thirty years to plant seeds of hatred and fear in the minds of Camelot’s citizens, thirty years of spreading that hate through treaties with other kingdoms. If we change our course so abruptly, my nobles will almost certainly rebel. Worse, we will send a signal to other kingdoms that Camelot is weak, being undermined from within. You wouldn’t get a golden age of peace. You’d have war, war everywhere, with nowhere to hide.”

“You seem very certain of this,” said Derwen.

Arthur sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I know that I do not want to continue my father’s maddened rampage,” he said. “But I do not know enough of magic to trust it. I do not know a way forward that does not lead to death and destruction.” He looked her in the eye and let her see just how tired he was. “I do not have the resources I need to even find a way forward.”

“Do you not have Emrys?”

Behind him, Arthur heard Lancelot shift his weight. “Not that I am aware of, no,” he said. “And even if I did, that is one man, one sorcerer, tasked to overturn a generation of prejudice against his kind. That is an impossible burden to place on anyone, no matter how powerful or magical they are supposed to be.”

Arthur didn’t know whether Merlin really was this “Emrys” that Derwen and Morgana had believed in, but if he were, Arthur would not stand for anyone putting that kind of burden on his shoulders.

To his surprise, Derwen smiled. “You do not believe you are the Once and Future King,” she said.

“I was an arrogant youth, but I’d like to think I’ve grown out of such hubris in recent years,” said Arthur dryly.

“There have been kings who were convinced, each one, that they were the one spoken of in prophecy. They believed they had the right of conquest and dominion over other lands.”

“I don’t,” said Arthur. “I don’t crave victory in war. I only wish for peace.”

Derwen, damn her, was still smiling as if he were passing some test known only to her. “And if Emrys were by your side, would you use him to gain that peace?”

Arthur thought of Merlin again, and his expression hardened. “No. I don’t use people if I can help it. I don’t trust magic enough right now to, to deploy it as some sort of weapon, either.”

“Even if he were sworn to your service?”

“Even then.”

Derwen shifted in her seat, squinting at him thoughtfully. “What would you do, without Emrys by your side?” she asked.

“The same thing I’ve been doing,” Arthur said tiredly. “I don’t know magic, and I don’t trust it, but I know I need to learn. I know I need to find people who can advise me on magic and help me figure out a way forward. One man, no matter how much magic he might have, shouldn’t be asked to do that alone.”

Derwen nodded, but Arthur couldn’t tell if she was agreeing with him or prompting him to continue.

“I already asked this of Colgrevance, and now I will ask you: would you consider sending a druid to join my council, to advise the crown on matters that concern your people?” Silence fell across the gathering, the faint crackle of the cook fire the only thing Arthur could hear. “If not you, then someone you and your people trust. Someone who knows your ways, and can tell me whether my ideas are sound and will not cause more harm than good.”

Derwen’s eyes were wide for a heartbeat, then two, before she relaxed and beamed at him, grandmotherly in a way she hadn’t been since they’d met. “We can discuss it among ourselves,” she said, “and see whether or not one of us would be willing to represent our people for you.” She looked at him appraisingly. “We are many clans, and the clans do not all have the same needs. Would you want more than one druid on this council of yours?”

“Perhaps,” said Arthur. “I would need to know more, and talk with whoever you put forward as possible representatives.”

Derwen nodded, and put her hand out for Arthur to take. Her palm was dry, and soft with the skin of the very old. “We will consider it, and come to you with our decision,” she said. “The full moon is in two weeks’ time. We will make our prayers to the gods, and debate among ourselves until then, and reach our decision on that night. We will give you our answer the day after that.”

“I know you still fear for your safety within the city walls,” said Arthur. “I will send someone to you to hear your answer, so that you need not put yourselves at risk.”

“That is a kind gesture, Arthur Pendragon,” she replied. “Well met, indeed.”

Derwen collected her staff and pushed herself up from her seat, which seemed to be a signal for the rest of the group to disperse; some druids still looked at him suspiciously, but they went on their way until only a few women were left, preparing food and spinning wool at the far end of the fire pit. Arthur stood as well, waiting for his knights to gather around him once more.

“Have we answered your questions to your satisfaction?” she asked.

“I fear we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Arthur, “but yes, you’ve given me much to think about.”

“It could take a lifetime to learn everything there is to know about the Old Religion,” Derwen said with a smile. “But I trust that over time we will be able to at least give you the education you need.”

“Thank you again, for agreeing to see me at all,” he replied. “I know it couldn’t have been easy to extend that trust, given…” Arthur trailed off, unwilling to say it.

“Given our history with Camelot’s seat of power, yes.” Derwen nodded sagely. “But you are not your father, and you have taken pains to demonstrate that.”

“I like to think so, at least.” He frowned a little. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

"The attack earlier… I know the tent city is large, but… did you happen to recognize the man?”

“I did not, Arthur,” said Derwen. “Those who cannot dwell here in peace with the druids are sent away. Some live in the forest nearby. And of course, as you said, the city itself is large, and not all among us are druids in the first place. I did not know him.”

Arthur nodded. It was no more than he had expected. “Thank you for your assistance in keeping him from getting away.”

“Of course. If there is nothing else…?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Arthur. “At least, not right now.

“Then be well, until we meet again.”

Chapter Text

Arthur and his knights made their way back along Blue Street to the end of the tent city nearest Camelot’s gates. It was a longish walk, which gave Arthur time to collect his thoughts, but mostly all he was thinking about was how tired he was, and how his head was beginning to ache.

If Merlin were here, Arthur would have been able to ask if inviting Derwen to join his council had been a good idea. Arthur barely knew her, and they’d only spoken once in person, but she had that air of… not caring about his rank, maybe… that suggested she wouldn’t simply tell him what he wanted to hear. On the other side of that, she seemed secure enough in her own position and power not to feel a need to challenge him on every idea he put forward, either. Merlin had always seemed to have a better eye for that sort of thing than Arthur did, though—a better sense of a person’s character, he thought, remembering Agravaine—and Arthur would have appreciated the chance to hear his opinion.

Merlin. Could he really be this “Emrys” character that Derwen and the others were so excited about?

As before, there were relatively few people to be seen on Blue Street compared to closer to the city walls, and Arthur’s men were more relaxed as they walked back. Gwaine and Elyan were in front of and behind him, respectively, while Lancelot and Bruenor walked on either side of Arthur.

“Did you learn everything you hoped to, sire?” asked Lancelot, after they had gone a little way.

“I don’t think so, no,” said Arthur with a sigh. “We barely touched on the Old Religion, or what the druids need from me as king.”

“The Old Religion isn’t that complicated,” Bruenor put in. “There are a lot of gods and spirits, and festivals to honor them, to be sure, but the main tenet is simply balance.”

“A life for a life,” muttered Arthur sourly.

“That’s an extreme example, sire,” said Bruenor. “It’s more… you can’t have day without night. You can’t have summer without winter. You can’t have life without death. People fear death, but imagine if no one ever died, anywhere, ever, no matter how old or sick they got. Or imagine a summer that never ended, a harvest that never came, with no rains or winter to cool the earth and let everything rest. We prefer life and summer, sure, because we’re alive ourselves, and it’s a lot easier to survive when we’re not at risk of freezing. But once you look past the surface, you realize that the world needs those other times, too, to balance things out. That’s the core of the Old Religion, sire: acknowledging the balance between life and death, and living in harmony with it as best you can.”

“Then where do these prophecies come in that Derwen was talking about?” Arthur demanded. “This… Once and Future King business, and Emrys.”

To his irritation, Bruenor chuckled. “I wouldn’t worry about them, sire,” he said. “In order to be the Once and Future King, you would need Emrys by your side, and well, Camelot isn’t exactly welcoming of magic anymore, is it?”

Arthur thought of Merlin, and what Gaius had said about him, and his mouth went dry. “I wouldn’t want to be saddled with that burden anyway,” he said. “Uniting Albion? But no, I only meant, what do these prophecies have to do with the Old Religion’s ‘balance’ and harmony nonsense?”

“Ah, I see.” Bruenor rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “According to the druids, mankind is meant to live in harmony and balance with the world around them. However, most people aren’t druids, and are more interested in power and dominion over nature than they are in harmony. This throws things out of balance until the Goddess steps in and sets things right; starts them over again. You can have a godly cataclysm that wipes out most of humankind, or you can have an earthly agent of balance who puts things right without destroying everything. That’s where the Once and Future King comes in.”

Arthur thought about that for a few steps. “Derwen said this king was meant to unite all of Albion, and bring magic back to the land.”

Bruenor shrugged. “A land without constant skirmishes and wars between dozens of petty kings would be a lot stronger than what we have now,” he pointed out. “And of course the druids would want to see magic returned to the land. They’d feel the same way about a king poisoning all the fresh water, or destroying the forests. Magic is part of the world, interconnected, and trying to drive it out harms everything.”

“That’s what I don’t completely understand,” Arthur admitted. “We’ve survived without magic this long…” he trailed off, realizing he was parroting Uther’s words more than anything. It would take more than a couple of visits with druids and dragon lords, it seemed, to really root out everything he had learned from his tyrant of a father. “Or perhaps not,” he sighed.

“I haven’t been around, obviously,” said Bruenor, “but I’d be willing to wager that there has always been magic in Camelot, even during the height of Uther’s purge. Forced into hiding, constantly in danger of exposure and destruction, but still present. You could no more eradicate magic than you could… strip away the sky.”

Again, Arthur thought of Merlin. Magic, in the heart of Camelot. “I’m beginning to see that,” he said tiredly. “But uniting Albion…”

“As I said, sire, I wouldn’t worry about it if it were me. You’d need a powerful sorcerer by your side, and he would need to have been there for quite some time as a trusted adviser. I don’t really think you could just… grab a random sorcerer off the street and declare yourself the Once and Future King. Emrys is one of those figures of legend I mentioned before we came to Colgrevance’s tent. Born with magic, more powerful than anything you could imagine.” He chuckled again. “Respectfully, I don’t know that someone like that would have been able to hide their magic from you for very long.”

He managed it for ten years, thought Arthur sourly.

“You know, Uther fancied himself the Once and Future, before the Purge began,” said Bruenor idly. Arthur nearly strained his neck with how quickly he whipped his head around to stare at the man.

My father?” Bruenor only shrugged, but Arthur couldn’t believe it. “You must be joking, he hated magic.”

“He didn’t always,” was his reply. “He was a conquering king who united several smaller kingdoms into what became Camelot, then helped to create the alliance of the Five Kingdoms. It was a fragile alliance, but he had a strong army and a strong sorceress by his side. Nimueh, a high priestess of the Old Religion.”

Arthur took a breath. “I’ve heard that name before.”

“Mm.” Bruenor hooked his thumbs behind his belt. “There were rumors that she betrayed him somehow. And certainly she fled for her life at the beginning of the Purge, right after Ygraine died and you were born, but I think it more likely that Uther demanded something that magic couldn’t give, or else he wasn’t willing to pay whatever price the Old Religion demanded.”

“A life for a life,” said Arthur again, and Bruenor looked at him thoughtfully.

“Maybe,” was all he said. “Whatever happened, Uther certainly never let on. Only declared magic to be an evil and corrupting influence that could not be trusted, and must be eradicated for the good of the realm. Things got… interesting, after that.”

“Interesting.” Thousands of people slaughtered for no crime whatever. Nobles betraying one another on the suspicion of magic, so they could increase the size of their own holdings. Children drowned by the dozens. Arthur shuddered. “Interesting,” he whispered again.

Bruenor glanced over at him again, and whatever expression was on Arthur’s face softened his own. “I am only sorry that you are left to clean up after the mess your father made of everything,” he said. “But from what I’ve seen of you, sire, and for what it’s worth, I think you just might succeed at it.”

Arthur sighed, feeling his headache increasing. If he could only figure out a way forward that didn’t involve civil war for Camelot, he’d be content. The rest of Albion could wait.

The sun was just setting when a particular nobleman made his way down to the castle dungeons. Rumor had reached his ears that the king’s men had arrested a sorcerer for attempting to kill the king.

Unfortunately, the noble had been expecting this sorcerer to die on the street like the dog he was, rather than surviving until he faced trial in the morning. The fact that he was still alive had not factored into the noble’s plans; no, this would not do at all.

He was cloaked against the damp and chill that always pervaded the lower levels of the castle, no matter what time of year; he kept his hood up as well, but the guards took one look at his finery and stepped aside without complaint.

There were a few petty thieves in the nearer cells, as well as a couple of young toughs who had beaten up a druid woman. The noble didn’t see why they should have been imprisoned at all; under Uther, they would have been rewarded. With any luck, however, there was still time to sway his son back to the proper way of thinking.

At the farthest end of the long corridor was a cell with a heavy, iron-barred door with a tiny window, rather than the open cage-like doors of the other cells. There was only one man inside, the noble knew, and a second guard standing watch by the cell door.

“I’m to interrogate the prisoner. King’s orders,” said the noble smoothly. The guard didn’t even ask him to lower his hood; instead, he reached for the keys on his belt, unlocked the door, and stepped aside, then shut the door once more behind the noble.

The sorcerer lay on the floor, unmoving. At first, the noble thought he might already be dead, which would have simplified things immensely, but a closer look revealed the steady rise and fall of his chest.

The noble watched him for a moment, then kicked him in the thigh, hard.

The sorcerer startled awake with a cry, clutching at his leg, then startled again as he became aware of his surroundings. No doubt he’d been knocked unconscious in the street and was surprised to find himself elsewhere, but the noble didn’t really care.

He had a mess to clean up, and he would see it done one way or another.

The sorcerer glared at him, but rose to his feet, favoring one leg a little. “What do you want?”

“You attempted to kill Arthur Pendragon,” said the noble, just loudly enough for the guard outside to hear. He gestured at the door, miming that there were listeners outside.

The sorcerer only gave a mad grin in return. “Did I succeed?”

“No,” replied the noble. “And you’ve been sentenced to burn for your crime.”

There was a pause; then, “Like father, like son,” sneered the sorcerer. His voice shook, but only a little. The noble might have admired his courage, but he knew even a cornered rat could appear brave if one didn’t know better. “A pity he survived, but there will be others. He has to die eventually.”

“Eventually,” shrugged the politician. “That is no longer for you to say.”

The sorcerer limped closer, glancing once at the door, and the noble fought not to curl his lip in disgust. “Are you here to get me out?” he asked, his voice low.

He scoffed, shaking his head. “I haven’t got that kind of pull with the king. In any case, you knew the risk when I came to you. No, I’m afraid you will burn, at first light tomorrow; the only question is whether you’ll be awake to feel it or not.”

“What do you mean?” The sorcerer clenched his fists, but his wrists were clapped tightly in manacles of iron. The noble hoped that the stories of their effectiveness against magic users were true, or he might be in trouble. Then again, he’d made sure to choose a sorcerer of only meager power in the first place. The attempt on Arthur’s life was never meant to succeed, after all; the noble simply needed to clean up the loose end that was left dangling, when Arthur hadn’t killed the man for him. “You promised me a reward.”

“I promised you freedom,” smiled the noble. “Either freedom for your kind, or else freedom to see your loved ones again.” The sorcerer shook, his eyes wide. “Since you were unable to succeed in your attempt, there is only one thing left that I can do for you.”

The sorcerer swallowed, but did not answer.

The noble reached into his robe and pulled out a small vial, with a clear liquid in it. “This is a sleeping draught,” he said simply. “A quite powerful one. Take this, and you will not wake, even as they burn you. The fumes from the smoke will kill you first. You won’t feel a thing.”

“You are certain?”

“You have heard of the skills of the court physician,” prompted the noble.

Again, the sorcerer sneered. “He turned on us, on his own people, to save his own skin.”

The noble had no way to know whether that was true or not, and did not particularly care either way. Still, he knew just what to say in response. “Not so,” he replied. “The physician was bound by Uther himself, his magic shut away. He helped every sorcerer he could, here in the dungeons, granting them a painless death when he could not arrange their escape.”

“That’s now how I heard it,” came the reply, but the noble could see doubt in the man’s eyes.

“Of course not,” he countered. “Can you imagine the physician would still be alive, if word had gotten out of his true role here in the castle? Arthur would have had him executed as soon as he learned of it.”

The sorcerer eyed the vial, gleaming in the dim light of the cell. “And this is all you have to offer me?”

“I’m afraid so, yes,” said the noble.

“And it will be painless.”

“Completely,” he lied; when the man hesitated, he decided to push, just a little. “You will never feel the flames, biting into your flesh.” That much, at least, was true.

He waited, as patient as a snake watching a mouse, until finally the sorcerer nodded. “All right,” he breathed. He held out his hand for the vial, and the noble passed it to him. “Perhaps someday one of my brethren will succeed.” The sorcerer pulled the stopper out of the vial and discarded it, took a deep breath, and then swallowed the entire contents of the vial in one gulp. He gave a little grimace at the taste, then stepped back, sitting in the straw before the potion could take effect. He looked up, his expression earnest, and the noble bit the inside of his cheek so as not to laugh in his face. “Thank you for doing what you could.”

“It was my pleasure,” came the sincere reply.

The sorcerer shut his eyes, preparing for sleep that the noble knew would not come. He simply waited, biding his time, needing to make sure.

The poison began to take effect only a minute or so later. The sorcerer’s eyes flew wide at the first muscle spasms, and he had the audacity to look betrayed as he saw the noble still standing there, watching him. “Y—” he tried to say, but then doubled over from pain.

The noble smiled.

The gullible fool tried to call for help, twice, only to have his breath stolen as his throat swelled shut; his choking noises caused the noble to grimace a bit in distaste, but the guard outside heard nothing.

The convulsions started soon after, the man clawing at his own throat and foaming at the mouth as the poison did its work. His eyes bulged, his face contorting and turning an awful purple color, as his body writhed about like a dying weasel. Fitting, really.

The noble simply waited, and when at last the man’s body grew still, he bent over, collected the vial and stopper from the straw, and tucked them back into the pocket of his robe. He turned the corpse so that its back was to the cell door; anyone who looked in would assume that he had gone back to sleep after his interrogation.

In a way, the noble supposed, he had.

Finally, he rapped twice on the door; the jangle of keys from a few paces away heralded the guard’s approach.

“All finished?” he asked, opening the door.

“I got what I came for,” said the noble.

He made his way up and out, back to his home, dropping the vial into a sewer drain on his way.

Tidying up messes was just so satisfying.

Chapter Text

Instead of heading to his chambers immediately, Arthur went to visit Gaius, hoping to find a headache remedy and maybe some more answers about who Merlin really was. Maybe as Merlin’s mentor, the old man could tell him what he thought about this whole Emrys business.

Instead, he found Hunith, sitting at the work table and tying herbs into bundles for drying. There were baskets full of green things for her to work with, and a cup of tea on the bench beside her. Across from her, the fire was low, but it still filled the space with pleasant warmth, and the pot simmering on the coals gave off a sharp, clean scent. Arthur couldn’t tell if it was meant to be more tea, or one of the less horrible medicines that Gaius could brew.

Merlin’s mother glanced up from her work, then did a double take when she recognized who was standing in the doorway. “Your highness,” she exclaimed, struggling to rise. Her pile of herbs nearly toppled over.

“No need,” he said quickly, waving her back down. “I, er, was hoping Gaius was in. Headache,” he explained; then blinked at himself. Kings didn’t need to explain themselves to anyone, he’d always been taught, but he hadn’t been able to ignore the impulse just now.

“I have just the thing,” said Hunith, rising with more grace this time. “Gaius hasn’t rearranged these rooms since I last was here.”

“You’ve been to Camelot before? I mean, before you sought an audience with my father?”

“Those bandits, you mean?” At Arthur’s nod, she smiled. “Oh yes. Gaius is an old friend of the family. Although to be perfectly honest, until Kanen, I hadn’t been back to Camelot since I was, oh, fifteen or younger.” She looked around the room, and smiled a little wider. “But Gaius hasn’t changed the layout in all that time. The headache remedies are still right… here,” she finished, reaching up to pull a jar down from a shelf. “Willow bark,” she said. “Let me just make up a sachet for you.”

“This is the tea I’m supposed to steep, right?” asked Arthur. He watched as Hunith pulled out a little square of clean cloth, spooned a small amount of the powdered bark into the middle, and finally brought up the corners of the cloth and tied it shut with string.

“That’s right, your highness,” she replied. “It’s bitter, but I’m sure you already know that. A little honey with it will help.”

“Thank you,” said Arthur; their hands brushed as she passed the sachet to him, and Arthur had an instant’s wondering what his own mother’s hands would have felt like, if he’d ever had the privilege to have known her.

Hunith looked up at him expectantly. “Was there anything else, my lord?”

“I—maybe,” he admitted. “Tell me about your son.”

If he hadn’t been watching her expression so carefully, or perhaps if he didn’t know Merlin so well, he would have missed the little flicker of wariness that crossed her features, there and gone in an instant. “There’s not really that much to tell,” she tried, smiling nervously.

Arthur couldn’t help the skeptical little noise he made in response. “I think we both know that’s not true,” he said. She stiffened, just a little, and Arthur glanced away. He wasn’t trying to intimidate her, he just wanted to know.

“The two of you have been inseparable for ten years now,” she said. “I’m sure you know him better than I, by now.”

“No,” said Arthur softly. He looked down, turning the little sachet of willow bark over in his hand. “No, sometimes I feel as though I never really knew him at all.”

Hunith studied him for a long moment; he wasn’t sure what she saw, but eventually she seemed to relax, and moved around the table toward the hearth. “Tea, your highness?” she asked, reaching for the pot.

“Yes, thank you,” he said, “but only if you call me Arthur.”

She was turned a little away from him, but he could see the curve of her cheek as she smiled. “Arthur, then.”

He sat, and watched as she brought a mug out of Gaius’s cupboard, poured the tea, and set the pot back on the hearth. She moved her skirts out of the way as she took her own seat, then lifted her mug to her lips and inhaled the scent, sighing in appreciation.

Finally, she looked back up at him through her eyelashes, very similar to the way Merlin sometimes did. “What is it you wish to know?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” said Arthur. “What he was like, mainly. What was… what was it like, raising a little boy with magic? What kind of things did he do with it?”

To his surprise, Hunith laughed. “What didn’t he do with it, the little scamp. He was fetching his toys to the cradle before he could walk, and making the spoons dance on the tabletop to entertain us both by the time he was old enough to learn his letters. He nearly gave me a heart attack when I caught him putting his hands into the flames on the hearth, catching them like other children might try to catch frogs. When he was happy, the flowers would bloom under his feet, when we were weeding the garden together.” Her expression turned sad, however, as she went on. “He had no idea that other children couldn’t do the things he did. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t let him play with them. Other mothers teach their children about the world and their place in it; I had to teach my child how to fear. How to hide. Had to teach him that his place was away from the rest of the world, always apart. Because if anyone ever found out about his gifts…” She trailed off, blinking rapidly, and Arthur tried to imagine the pain she must have felt.

“I thought magic was legal in Essetir,” he said carefully.

Hunith’s expression hardened, just a little. “Legal, yes, but not trusted. Cenred kept sorcerers as near-slaves in his court, and I suspect Lot is no better. In Essetir, magic is to be used, but not loved.” She sighed, and went on, “And Ealdor is near enough to the Camelot border as to make no difference. Anyone who saw Merlin would have been tempted to report him to Uther and collect the reward money, no matter what kingdom he technically lived in at the time. He was only a peasant, after all. Who would miss him besides his own mother?”

“That’s terrible,” said Arthur.

Merlin’s mother shook her head, not looking at him. “That was the Purge,” she said simply, quietly. “My son was born with a great gift, and taught to hide it almost from his first breath. It was all I could do to keep him from hating what he was, because he could no more stop using magic than he could cease to breathe.”

Arthur sat, trying to wrap his head around that, trying to imagine it. All he could come up with was Morgana, growing up here, surrounded every day by messages of hatred and fear. It turned her, he knew; he wondered if it would have turned Merlin, too.

“Why send him to Camelot?” he asked. “This is… this place was the lion’s den for magic users. The belly of the beast. The danger in Ealdor was great enough, but here…” He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“I was desperate,” said Hunith. “Merlin had almost no control over his magic, and had never learned a single spell. Everything was instinct with him, which meant all that power was tied to his emotions. On a good day, wildlife would follow him through the forest. On a bad day… on one bad day, he nearly killed a farmer in our village when his magic caused a tree to fall over. Another few inches… and then, of course, Will found out.”

“Will,” said Arthur. He remembered, how could he not, the young man who had died in his place under Kanen’s crossbow. “He lied to protect Merlin. Claimed that he was the sorcerer.”

“I misjudged him terribly,” said Hunith. “I feared that even one person knowing of Merlin’s magic was one person too many. I feared that it would be only a matter of time before Will let the secret slip, and then our Merlin would be lost to us forever, either dead at Uther’s hands, or a slave at Cenred’s. My fear overwhelmed my reason and my trust, and I sent Merlin here, away from the only friend he’d ever had.”

“Only friend?” Arthur hadn’t had close friends growing up, either, but he’d had plenty of tutors, acquaintances, fellow squires… he hadn’t realized he was lonely until Merlin had come along, but he couldn’t imagine someone as gregarious as Merlin being even more alone than Arthur himself had been.

“Fear is a powerful force, Arthur,” she replied.

“Why Camelot, then?” he asked again. “Why not Nemeth, or… Alined had a court sorcerer, magic must have been allowed there.”

“Gaius was the only person I knew who had practiced magic before the Purge,” explained Hunith. “And he was much closer than Nemeth, where I knew no one. Merlin would have had to travel through Camelot to get there anyway, and if he’d ever had to defend himself… my son was never a killer before. Always gentle-hearted, was my boy. If any bandits ever attacked him, he would have had to slaughter every last one of them in order for his secret to be kept safe. And believe you me, he has the power to do it.”

“I know,” said Arthur.

She looked up at Arthur finally, and he spotted tears in her eyes. “Can you imagine how he would have felt, having to take lives, not to protect himself, but to protect his secret? How he would have hated himself, if that had ever happened?”

Arthur had grown up with a sword in his hand. All his life, he had been taught the grave responsibility that came with the power to end a life. Merlin, though, had been brought up a farmer. He would have seen his fair share of death, either when it was time to slaughter livestock or during a bandit raid, or even a lean winter. But he would not have been prepared to cause other human beings to die, the way Arthur had. Certainly not to kill for no better cause than to protect a secret—although, Arthur mused, survival was a worthy enough cause, when that secret would have gotten Merlin killed if it were ever discovered.

“No,” he admitted finally. “I can’t.”

To his surprise, Hunith’s hand covered his where it rested on the table. Again, he was reminded of Ygraine, and the longing that swept through him nearly overcame him for a moment before he mastered himself again. “I know you are angry, and hurt, because Merlin kept this from you,” she said earnestly. “And I will tell you now, you do have the right to feel that way. I’m sure Gaius and everyone else will tell you that Merlin’s secret was more important than your sense of betrayal—but I’ve seen the way the two of you are around one another. You’re more than friends, more even than brothers. Merlin loves you deeply, and I think you love him too… and I am willing to bet that you have trusted him with everything there is to know about you.”

“Yes,” breathed Arthur.

“When you have trusted him so completely, of course it will hurt to discover that he has not done the same, and trusted all of himself to you. Even knowing why he didn’t, couldn’t, will not change that. You have a right to those feelings, Arthur.”

Arthur shut his eyes.

“You’re allowed to be angry. You’re allowed to feel hurt. But please know, my son would never betray you, not in a thousand years.” She patted his hand once, and he opened his eyes to see her picking up her mug once more. She turned it around in her hands once, twice, before looking back up at him. “Whatever there is that you don’t know about him, it will be related to his magic and what he’s done with it, for you, or for the kingdom. And I think, if he can be assured that you won’t hate him for what he’s done in secret, he just might be ready to tell you everything you want to know, once he returns.”

“You’re quiet tonight,” Gwen said, later that evening. They had eaten together, and Gwen had done her best to hold up her end of conversation, but Arthur couldn’t remember for the life of him what they had talked about or how he had answered.

“Sorry,” he said.

“No need to apologize,” she said, kissing him on the cheek, “but what has you so troubled?”

“Merlin, of course,” said Arthur, and Gwen smiled.

“You miss him.”

“It’s more than that. I’m trying to learn about magic, so I can figure out a way forward for all these resurrected sorcerers. But everything I learn seems to bring me back around to Merlin.”

Gwen paused in pulling the pins from her hair. “How so?”

Arthur sighed. “I tried to learn about dragon lords, and learned that Merlin is one. I tried to learn about the druids, and learned that they have prophecies about him. About us. They think I’m some sort of predestined king meant to restore balance and unite all of Albion, and that Merlin is some… the way they talk about him, he’s practically a god. And they think his entire purpose is just to guide and advise me.” He shrugged, and stepped behind the changing screen to undress. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but then I wasn’t exactly brought up in the Old Religion.”

“What doesn’t make sense?” she asked.

“If the whole point of these prophecies is to bring magic back to Albion and unite the kingdoms, why involve a king at all? Why not just have their ‘Emrys’ do it himself? Not that I want Merlin to carry that burden,” he added, popping his head up over the edge of the screen. “The way they talk about Emrys, it’s like they forget he’d have to be a real person, with a limit to how much they could really accomplish.”

“Maybe that’s where the king comes in,” said Gwen. “You would be the one with the power to enact whatever ideas Merlin comes up with.”

“I can’t exactly imagine Merlin ruling anything,” Arthur allowed. “He still trips over his own two feet some days.”

Gwen grinned, then her expression turned thoughtful. “He does advise you, though. And you listen to him, more than anyone.”

“He’s not on the council,” Arthur tried, but even as he said it, he was thinking, He could be.

“He could be,” Gwen echoed. “You married a commoner, knighted commoners; there’s not really a reason you couldn’t put a commoner on the council. Technically, the guild leaders aren’t nobles either, and they’re on your council.”

“They’re wealthy,” Arthur pointed out. Gwen made a noise, and Arthur thought he could hear the flat look she leveled at him from across the room. He winced, and said, “If it’s any consolation, I do plan to promote him somehow when he returns. If he returns.”

“He’ll return,” said Gwen. “I can’t imagine him staying away from you forever.”

Arthur stepped back around the screen, dressed for bed, and pulled the blankets back for Gwen to climb in. She snuggled into his side, and he kissed her hair, before he finally said, “I hope you’re right.”

Chapter Text

“Easy, easy,” Balinor was saying, as Merlin came back from his vision. “You’re here with me, you’re safe.”

“I… yeah,” he replied absently, blinking and looking around him. “Yeah, ‘m fine.” He was still sat on the stone where Kilgharrah had waited for him, waited and then died after healing Merlin’s magic. The sun had barely moved in the sky; his vision must not have lasted very long at all.

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Balinor. “Do you have visions often?”

“No,” said Merlin. “No, I’m not really a Seer. I don’t think that was the future I saw, I think that was what is happening to Arthur right now. He was attacked, but other people stopped it. He’s safe now.” He didn’t need Merlin after all, it seemed. His face fell a little at the thought, and Balinor noticed.

“You’re sure?” his father pressed, and Merlin frowned a little.

“I mean, as sure as I can be… why?”

“Some sorcerers are able to scry and see what is taking place far away,” said Balinor. “If you knew the spell, you could look in on Arthur and be certain that he’s safe.”

Merlin blinked at that. “I don’t know any scrying spells.” He ran a hand down his face, feeling the breeze ruffle his hair. “And I wouldn’t want to know the future anyway. The last time I looked into a crystal…” He trailed off, shuddering. He’d made so many mistakes, trying so hard to prevent what he’d seen, and had only ensured that it came to pass anyway.

“The Crystal Cave,” said Balinor. “You had been there before Morgana trapped you inside?”

“Yes. Once. I’d rather never go back.”

“A wise decision,” came a new voice, and Merlin and Balinor looked up, Merlin turning behind him, to see Kisheer coming to a landing on another outcropping of rock, not far from Kilgharrah’s former perch. “To know the future can be to become trapped on a single path, rather than exercising one’s free will and one’s own choices.”

“Every choice I made to try and prevent what I saw just made it come about faster,” agreed Merlin. “Hello, Kisheer.”

“Young dragon lord,” she greeted, lowering her head a little. “Balinor. I felt Kilgharrah’s death.”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said. He had never wanted anyone to try and sacrifice their life for his.

Kisheer blinked slowly, seeming indifferent to his turmoil. “His time was near, and he made his choice,” she replied. “But what of you, young dragon lord? Are you well?”

Merlin took a slow breath, feeling inside him. His magic was there, warm and comforting, as if it had never left. His hands didn’t shake when he held them up, although he thought he could see currents of magic flowing around and between his fingers. He blinked and shook his head to try and clear his vision, opening and closing his fingers, but the sight didn’t really go away. “I think so…” he said. He turned one palm up, and tried to call a small flame; the magic answered his call eagerly. Perhaps a little too eagerly, as the resulting fireball nearly engulfed him, Balinor, and their entire perch. “Whoa!” he cried, and the fire dissipated before the heat could do more than pleasantly warm them.

Shocked, Merlin whirled to face his father, who sat there with wide eyes and one hand up as if to protect himself, but otherwise seemed unharmed. “Are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“I’m fine, Merlin,” said Balinor, although to Merlin’s ears he sounded a bit breathless. “Startled, but fine.”

“The fire—”

“Didn’t harm me,” he reassured. “What were you trying to do?”

“Just call a flame,” said Merlin. “Just in my hand. I’ve done that since I was a child, I don’t know what happened.”

To his surprise, Balinor and Kisheer both chuckled. “I think I do,” he said. “Kilgharrah filled you with magic, didn’t he?”

“It was more than that,” Kisheer put in. “He healed your magic, and then gifted you all that remained of his own. You are likely more powerful now than you have ever been, Merlin. Or would you prefer that we call you ‘Emrys’?”

“’Merlin’ is fine,” he replied adamantly. “I never wanted to be Emrys. I never wanted this power.” It was one thing to have magic, a soothing, beautiful connection to the world around him. But to have more power than anyone he’d ever met, and then to have been given even more of it… Merlin shook his head, not at all comfortable with the idea.

“Yet you embraced it, not long ago, did you not, when you saved Arthur’s life at Camlann?”

“I had to,” said Merlin. “I wasn’t going to fail Arthur.” He ran a hand through his hair. “And then I tried to give it all up to trade for his life, after Mordred stabbed him.”

“I think you see now why that is not an option,” said Kisheer, not unkindly.

“Kilgharrah said I can’t die,” he replied morosely. “Is that true?”

“All things die in time,” she said. “The Goddess calls every soul home eventually. The question is only how much time you have been given.”

“And do you know the answer?”

Kisheer paused, then said carefully. “I do not… but I suspect you will outlive me.”

Merlin shuddered. “I never wanted to be immortal.”

“We are each given the span of our years, and there is little to be done about it,” said Kisheer. “What freedom we do have is in deciding how those years are to be spent.”

“I’m going to outlive everyone I care about!” Kisheer only tilted her head in response, and Merlin thought she would have raised an eyebrow at him if she could. “Except for dragons, maybe,” he amended. “My parents, my friends, anyone I ever love… Kilgharrah said I will exist as long as magic does. I don’t know if I can bear that burden.”

“For what it’s worth,” said Balinor quietly, “I don’t think you should have to.”

“The Once and Future King and Emrys are as two sides to a coin,” said Kisheer.

“I’ve heard that before,” grumbled Merlin.

“I was not finished,” said Kisheer. At Merlin’s muttered “sorry”, she continued. “One of you, the Once and Future, must return to the world, again and again, whenever it is necessary to restore balance. The other, Emrys, must remain in the world, to learn, to watch the patterns of change, the better to assist the Once and Future on each new journey he takes.” She inhaled slowly, and released the breath in a sigh. “It is another form of balance, do you see?”

“I see it,” said Merlin.

“I see it as well,” said Balinor. “But that doesn’t mean I like it. He is my son. This burden is too great for one man to bear.”

“For one mortal, true,” said Kisheer. “But Merlin will come to understand in time that he is not mortal. And he will not be alone. In bringing magic back to the land, he has ensured he will always have friends. Allies. If nothing else, the dragons will owe him a debt of gratitude for the rest of time.”

Merlin wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it, if he ended up thinking and speaking in riddles the way dragons did, because they were the only friends he had left after all his human loved ones passed away. He didn’t say any of that, though; Kisheer might be right, and he might be more powerful than ever, but he had a feeling she could still roast him if she wanted. “So what happens next?” he asked.

Kisheer hummed. “Many dragons will have felt the passing of our eldest,” she said. “As many as possible will try to come to Comraich in the coming days. They will wish to see me, as I am now the eldest dragon living in Albion. You may wish to stay and meet them, as the youngest dragon lord. Or you may not. It is a tradition that the dragons of one’s lineage introduce themselves to the newest dragon lord, but you are free to make that choice on your own.”

Merlin huffed something a little too bitter to be a laugh. “There won’t be dire consequences if I choose wrong this time?”

He felt Balinor squeeze his shoulder, as the dragon smiled. “No, Merlin,” she reassured him. “I promise you, the fate of the world does not hang in the balance, should you choose to leave before you meet the dragons who will come. It may be of benefit to you to get to know some of them, but that is all. Although, there may be at least one you should see before you go.”

Merlin thought of Kilgharrah’s last words to him, and what they might have meant, and nodded.

“Apart from that, you need not stay if you have no wish to do so. You have other tasks before you, do you not?”

Balinor’s grip on Merlin’s shoulder tightened. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Your son’s magic is greatly increased,” said Kisheer simply. “He will need to learn to control it, if he wishes to use it safely.” She reached her front talons forward, scraping and gouging the stone as she stretched. “And I know he wishes to return to Arthur; the two halves of the coin have ever called to one another across any distance. Destiny will see them united and reunited, by any means that fate can devise. But before that… Merlin, I am sure you have questions which even we dragons cannot answer. If nothing else, there is training you require, which you have never had the freedom to seek before now. I think it might benefit you to seek the druids, or the priests and priestesses of the Old Religion who remain, or even the Goddess herself. I suspect She would answer, if you called.”

A scary thought, and yet, despite himself, Merlin smiled. “I am not used to dragons giving me a straight answer to my questions,” he admitted.

“Kilgharrah and I had little in common, save that we were both dragons,” she replied tartly. “Unlike him, I have no agenda, nor desire to defy the Goddess to manipulate your path.”

“Right. Sorry.”

Her tone gentled, and she went on, “I will always offer you what aid I can, as directly as I may. But it is not a dragon’s responsibility to think for you; remember that, and be prepared to make your own choices with the advice you do receive.”

“I will.”

Kisheer nodded. “I find it is a beautiful day, and I wish to enjoy it,” she said, “before any other dragons arrive, and I must assume my responsibilities as eldest.” She spread her wings, and Merlin heard the breeze catch in her sails, as she shifted to stand up. “I trust you will enjoy the day as well; safe journey, back to your home, whenever you decide to make it.”

“Thank you, Kisheer,” said Balinor.

“You care well for your young, Balinor,” she said. “I am sure you will find great happiness for as long as you continue to do so.”

Merlin wanted to ask if that was meant to be a hint of some kind, but before he could even open his mouth, the dragon had risen to her full height, leapt into the air, and allowed the currents to carry her away.

The breeze itself was still brisk, despite the sun having burned away the mist from earlier that morning, and Merlin shivered as it tickled the back of his neck.

“Let’s go down,” said Balinor, rising to his feet and extending a hand to his son. Merlin took it and pulled himself upright easily, feeling strength in his limbs that had been missing for the past two months. He swayed, a little unsteady on his feet still, but he suspected that that had more to do with the immense amount of magic flowing through his veins from Kilgharrah’s parting gift than from any lingering damage. Merlin suspected he might still be “addled” as Balinor had put it, because he could swear he could almost see the wind, the magic in the air currents swirling playfully around them. The stone he stood on seemed almost to glow with energy, the moss and lichen nearby humming in harmony. This new awareness wasn’t unpleasant, far from it, but if it were permanent, Merlin wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get used to it.

“All right?” asked Balinor.

“I think so.”

Balinor stooped to collect his satchel; Merlin looked around for his staff, and stopped in surprise when he spotted it. He tipped his head curiously, then reached out his hand to pick it up, and the staff leaped to his hand without his having to think about it.

The thing had completely transformed in Kilgharrah’s breath. Before, the gnarled wood had been brown and a little shorter than Merlin, with a blue crystal trapped in a wooden cage at the top. Now, the staff was straight as a spear shaft and black as night, and exactly as tall as Merlin was. Instead of a cage at the top, the wood had a split in its body that meandered like a river, or a lightning strike, traveling about a third of the way down the staff from the top, and filled with white crystal. Merlin traced a finger over the crystal and it lit up under his touch, the light trailing behind his fingertip by an inch or two before fading away once more. He wondered if he could command the crystal to light up, but remembered his earlier incident with the fire and decided against trying.

The staff had no runes inscribed on it that he could see, but he could feel the magic in the wood, connected, both rooted to the earth and a conduit from the skies. It felt good. It felt strong, like Merlin could lean on it and it would hold his entire weight without even noticing the burden. Out of curiosity, he set the staff gently on the stone, feeling its connection between earth and sky, and let go. The staff stood upright as if it were a pillar that separated earth from heaven, without even a quiver to suggest it might fall over.

“That’s really something,” said Balinor.

Merlin nodded. “Can you feel it?” he asked, walking around the staff without touching it.

“A little.” Balinor reached out to wrap his hand around the wood, and tugged experimentally, gently at first and then harder. The staff didn’t budge. “Well.”

Merlin touched the staff, and it tipped gently into his hand, no heavier than any other piece of wood its size. He ran his hands along the smooth black staff and shook his head. “I guess it’s mine, then,” he said.

Balinor chuckled. “I guess so.”

Chapter Text

They made their way down the steep steps and into the stone circle below, Merlin almost hopping from step to step with his newly recovered strength. He wondered if his magic would catch him, if he were to slip, but having fallen off of more than one cliff since coming to Camelot, he opted not to test it. Balinor didn’t need the heart attack, especially if Merlin actually got hurt.

On the other hand, it wasn’t like he could die, apparently. Both Kilgharrah and Kisheer had confirmed it; if Merlin had to guess, once he’d rediscovered his magic in the Crystal Cave, he’d embraced the role of Emrys with all its implications, whether he’d realized it then or not. He’d given himself over to magic completely, and now, just as his father’s ghost had said, he would endure for as long as magic itself did. A son of the earth, the sea, and the sky, he’d said.

Useful for protecting Arthur, but eventually, everyone he knew and loved in this life would leave him behind. Kisheer had said that Arthur would return whenever Albion needed him… but what about when Merlin needed him? She’d strongly implied that Merlin would be stuck here, learning about the world, preparing so that he could guide and serve Arthur whenever he came back; and in between Arthur’s lives, what then? What good was one half of a coin without its other half?

What if Merlin came to resent Arthur, in time? Constantly wrapped up in serving a man who would always leave him… hell, Merlin wasn’t even sure that Arthur needed him in this life. Who was to say he would need Merlin after he died and came back? Why should Merlin be trapped waiting, always waiting, for him to come back, fulfill his purpose, and then die again?

At least he would come back. Everyone else human that Merlin cared about was going to die; eventually, the only people who would remember Camelot apart from himself would be the dragons themselves. On the one hand, at least he’d have some friends with longer lives, but Kisheer had said that odds were good he would outlive even her. Even the dragons would eventually find a respite in death, but Merlin would not.

Merlin had been given something that kings would kill for—would go to war for—and could only think of how quickly he’d give it up, if he could.

Balinor must have guessed some of what Merlin was thinking, or else read it on his face when they reached the stone circle. He reached out and rested one hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin said honestly.

“I know I’ve already said it—it’s a heavy burden to bear—but repeating it doesn’t make it less true.”

Merlin nodded. “It doesn’t matter,” he said finally. “I mean, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it. I’m not going to be able to die until the gods are finished with me, sounds like. I may as well get used to the idea.” He’d had time to get used to the idea that he had a destiny in the first place, protecting Arthur; really, this new knowledge was just… an extension of what he’d already known. It was a heavy burden, Balinor was right, but it was one Merlin would shoulder eventually. He’d shouldered everything else, after all.

“Look at this way,” tried Balinor. “All the things you’ve ever wanted to accomplish in your life, all the dreams you’ve ever had—now you can be sure you’ll have the time to achieve them.”

Merlin thought about that, wrapping both hands around his staff. “Maybe.” Maybe when Arthur wasn’t around, when Albion didn’t need them, maybe Merlin wouldn’t have to be chained to his destiny quite so tightly. “I don’t even know what I want to do that isn’t wrapped up in protecting Arthur,” he admitted.

“Maybe that’s something you can think about, while we travel.”

Merlin nodded. “There is one thing I can do,” he said, looking at the standing stones with all their carved dragons, the lineage of his ancestors and the ancestors of all the other dragon lords ever to live. “Something I need to do, before we leave.”

“What’s that?” asked his father.

“I told you a little about Aithusa,” began Merlin.

Balinor winced. “The hatchling you called forth,” he said. “The one Kilgharrah abandoned.”

“That’s her. She… at the Battle of Camlann, Morgana had her attacking Camelot’s army. I commanded her, drove her off.” He looked away, unable to face his father’s expression. “More than that. I left her alone. I hatched her and then left her with Kilgharrah in the first place.”

“You couldn’t have known what he would do,” said Balinor. “And you couldn’t have brought her to Camelot to raise. Your instincts drove you to hatch her, and then you were left with almost no choice in what to do with her.”

“Still,” said Merlin, and Balinor tipped his head in acknowledgment.

“Still. What do you intend to do?”

“Call her,” said Merlin. “She wouldn’t be alone here. There are other dragons, other dragon lords. They could care for her, even if I can’t. She deserves that much. She deserves not to be alone anymore.” He took a breath, and added, “Maybe see if I could heal her, with all this extra magic that Kilgharrah gave me.”

Balinor’s eyebrows went up. “It would take a lot of power for a person’s magic to affect a dragon at all,” he said. “Ordinarily I’d say it wouldn’t work, but, well. You’re something special, Merlin. If anyone could do it, it would be you.”

Something special. “That’s one way of putting it,” said Merlin. “Where should I call her? I’ve no idea how far away she might be. The last I saw her was at Camlann; that’s leagues away.”

“If you call her, she’ll come,” said Balinor. “It’s the kinship, the pull in her blood, that she will respond to, no matter how far away she might be. And besides, we have time. We can afford to wait for her. Or, if you like, we can travel, and call out to her once a day so she can find us, on the road or in the wild.”

“All right,” said Merlin. He looked around at the standing stones once more, the legacy he’d never known he had, the lineage for which his mother had named him, even when she hadn’t dared to tell him of it. He reached out and touched his ancestor’s stone, feeling the magic in it hum sleepily to life in response to his.

Then he let his head fall back, and roared. The words sprang into his mind unbidden, and he filled them with as much power as he could, unsure what he would need to do to make sure that she heard him.

The call echoed in that small space, bounded as it was on all sides by rock, and seemed to echo in Merlin’s head as well, the way Kisheer and Kilgharrah’s voices always had. That might have been his imagination, except that when he opened his eyes, Balinor was staring at him with a dazed expression. Merlin frowned in concern.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Balinor blinked, shook his head hard as if he’d been stunned, and then laughed. “No. No, that was just a hell of a strong call. I damn near wanted to obey it myself.”

“Sorry?” Merlin replied with a grimace.

Balinor laughed again, and clapped Merlin on the shoulder, shaking him a little with one hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s head back to Comraich. It’s a beautiful day, but a little cold for my taste. We’ll see if Aileen has any of that leftover stew for us to warm our bones.”

Merlin looked around the circle, and passed slowly through the crevasse, studying the ancient carvings. He had no way of knowing when he would be back to this place, and wanted to commit it to memory. He had a lineage, a legacy, and the knowledge filled something in him that had felt hollow ever since Merlin was a child.

He’d only just come to Comraich, a scant two weeks ago, and now it seemed he would have to leave before he could really learn more about his heritage.

Balinor called back to him, and Merlin hurried his steps to catch up.

“Everything all right?” his father asked. “You’re still feeling better, aren’t you? Kilgharrah’s magic hasn’t worn off?”

“No,” said Merlin. “No, I feel fine. I was just thinking… I wish I could stay longer, learn more about this place.”

“Well, you won’t be traveling alone,” Balinor reminded him. “I’ll be happy to tell you everything you want to know about dragons, dragon lords, our lineage…” He smiled, a little helplessly. “Now that I have a son to pass on the knowledge, you may have a hard time shutting me up.”

Merlin grinned. “I don’t think I’ll mind,” he promised.

The walk back was much quicker than the hike up, thanks to Merlin’s renewed strength, but even so, the two men were in no hurry. Balinor was content to let Merlin set the pace, just as he had on the way up, and he paused when Merlin did at the mountain peak, admiring the view once more.

In the far distance, they saw a shape flying among the clouds; eagle or dragon, they couldn’t be sure, but once again, Merlin found himself drawn to the sight, wishing that he could share it somehow. He barely remembered his flight with Kisheer, but riding Kilgharrah remained one of the most joyful moments of his life.

“It’s hard to believe that Kilgharrah is really gone,” said Merlin eventually.

“He’ll be missed,” agreed Balinor. “Even though he was a bit of a bastard.”

Merlin smiled a little sadly. “He never did answer any of our questions.”

Balinor chuckled. “It wasn’t really his way, even before Uther imprisoned him.”

“There’s so much I didn’t understand, about his motives, mainly,” Merlin said. “I guess I never will, now.”

“He escaped quite the tongue-lashing from me,” Balinor said, lightening his words with a smile. “I was prepared to make him answer every last one of our questions about Aithusa, and what the hell he was thinking in abandoning the only other one of his kind in all Albion.”

“He told me he couldn’t forgive her for allying with Morgana, but… she was a baby. Couldn’t he have taught her better?”

Balinor shrugged, tugging on the strap of his satchel. “He admitted that he’d grown prideful,” he said. “Tried to direct destiny rather than allow it to unfold on its own. Perhaps he trapped himself on a path of his own, and didn’t realize he could have chosen differently.”

“I know whenever Morgana was mentioned, he kind of… well, he was always stubborn, but as soon as I even brought her up in conversation, he’d shut down anything I wanted to say. He refused to see any other path beyond my killing her to prevent a future that hadn’t happened yet.” Merlin shut his eyes, then opened them again when his mind supplied her dying expression. “We were friends, once.”

“I’m sorry,” said Balinor.

Merlin shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter now.”

There were people in the square at Comraich, perhaps two dozen, as Balinor and Merlin came down the final steep hillside path and emerged from behind the fountain. There were no supply wagons that Merlin could see, and no one seemed to be running any sort of errands in the crowd; he wasn’t sure what else would have caused everyone to gather. He turned to his father with a concerned frown. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure,” was the reply. “Though I have an idea it might have something to do with you.”


“Let’s find out,” said Balinor, stepping further into the square. It wasn’t long before someone spotted them, and called a greeting. Merlin nervously tightened his grip on his staff, as men and women, a few younger and one or two older, rushed over to meet them. No one seemed especially hostile; in fact, if he had to guess, the mood seemed almost celebratory.

“What’s going on?” asked Balinor.

It was Devon, or maybe Liam, who answered. “Folks want to meet the newest dragon lord,” he said with a grin.

“Hell of a call, young man,” added a grizzled grandfather, leaning with bowed back over a finely carved cane. “Hell of a call.”

“You… heard that?” asked Merlin.

A ripple of laughter spread through the crowd. “Felt it,” said Liam, or maybe it was Devon this time. “By the old gods, you stirred the blood for sure.”

A younger woman, wearing a coat similar to Balinor’s with embroidered dragons on the front, scowled at them all. “It wasn’t funny,” she snapped, and a few people groaned as if they’d heard this before. “Who needs to call a dragon with that much command? What’s the damned emergency?” She leveled Merlin with a glare that could have peeled the skin from his bones. “And which of them did you call, anyway?”

“Okay, well, the dragon I called is probably really far away, and I was just trying to reach her, wherever she may be,” said Merlin. “I dunno about an emergency, but she needs help. I was hoping to get her that help here, with people who know more about dragons than I do.”

“You’re a dragon lord,” said the woman condescendingly. “If you don’t know enough about dragons, that’s your own damn fault. Or your father’s.”

“Una!” someone snapped, as several others gasped.

Merlin narrowed his eyes. “For about seven years, I was the only dragon lord in all of Albion,” he said lowly. “And my father was a fugitive from Uther and never knew I existed until two days before he died. Who do you think could have taught me? You were all dead.”

Una’s eyes widened, and she took a sharp breath in through her nose, but whatever reply she might have given was cut off by the old man who’d spoken before. “Enough, Una,” he said. “What’s your name, young man?”

“It’s Merlin.”

“And you’re Balinor’s boy?”

Merlin drew himself up tall. This much, he’d never have to be ashamed of. Would never have to hide. “I am.”

“You knew the dragon you called,” said the old man. “But I thought Kilgharrah was the only dragon left, while you were the only dragon lord.”

Merlin licked his lips nervously. “There was another,” he said. “Her egg was in the Tomb of Ashkanar. Her name is Aithusa.”

Another collective gasp, followed by murmurs of surprise, wove through the gathering. Even Devon and Liam looked shocked.

“A new dragon,” said the old man. “A new egg.” He reached up with a shaking hand to wipe at his eyes. “It’s a miracle.”

Merlin wasn’t so sure they’d feel the same way, once they got a good look at her. “I didn’t do right by her,” he admitted. “The last time I saw her, she was alone, and in need of healing.” He looked Una dead in the eye. “I called her here, because I thought we might be able to help her.”

Una was the first to look away. “We’ll see.”

“We have other news,” said Balinor, and Merlin felt his shoulders drop a little in relief, as everyone’s gaze shifted away from him. “Kilgharrah has died.”

There was absolute silence for a long moment, until the old man spoke up again. “That leaves Kisheer as eldest, then, doesn’t it?” His words were a question, but his tone said that he knew the answer quite well. “Good. She’s got a good deal of sense. She’ll rule well.”

Una was staring at them as if unsure whether to be angry, along with several others. “How did he die?”

Merlin opened his mouth, then shut it again, unsure what to say or how they would take the knowledge that the dragon’s death was essentially his fault. Fortunately, Balinor spoke before Merlin could mess things up for himself. “That is a long story,” he said, “and one I’m not inclined to share. I will say he gave his life and his magic, willingly, without command, to heal my son.”

A few people reacted to that, shifting where they stood or exchanging glances, and Liam and Devon eyed Merlin appraisingly. “Ye do look stronger, at that,” said one of them. “It’s good.”

“Eh, well,” said the old man. “I suppose you can give me the full explanation at the feast, then.”

“Aye,” said Devon, and a few others.

Balinor shrugged and nodded, while Merlin felt himself tense. “Feast? What feast?”

One of the brothers, probably Devon but Merlin still couldn’t tell which, grinned at him. “It’s tradition to have a feast when there’s a new dragon lord come into his powers,” he said. “Usually it’s part funeral feast and part rite of passage, but, well. Yer pa’s not dead.”

“I don’t… I don’t really need a feast,” Merlin tried, but Liam crossed his arms and grinned even wider than his brother.

“It’s tradition,” he said. “Ye want to learn dragon lord traditions, aye?”

“Well, I mean, yes, but—”

“But nothing. We only held off b’fore ’cause ye were ailing,” said Liam. “And now we’ve got a new dragon lord, a new dragon, a new eldest…” The man leaned in and clapped Merlin on the shoulder, nearly dropping him to his knees. “Ye’re not gettin’ out of this one.”

“All good excuses for a feast,” said the old man, with a smile that held a bit less of a smirk than the brothers’. “And we’re enough of us gathered here, returned from the dead no less, that I think we can manage to put on quite a celebration.”

Una sniffed and rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything.

“How soon?” asked Balinor.

“Oh, a few days’ time, I reckon,” said the old man. Merlin still didn’t know his name. “That ought to give people time to prepare. If the weather holds, we’ll go up the hill to the stone circle; otherwise, I suppose we’ll clear space in the warehouse.”

The crowd began to disperse after that, leaving a few stragglers to converse with one another here and there. Una glared at him before stalking off by herself; Merlin couldn’t tell what she might have to be angry about, but he also got the impression that maybe her heart wasn’t really in it.

Liam and Devon waved and clapped Balinor on the shoulder before making their way across the square, leaving Balinor and Merlin standing more or less alone, watching the old man hobble to his own home.

“A feast?” Merlin asked weakly.

His father only chuckled, and tugged at him until Merlin fell in step beside him. “Come on,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but the bit we ate before coming back only made me hungrier for a real meal.”

Chapter Text

If Balinor could see that Merlin was unhappy, he wisely held his counsel until they were back in their cabin, eating their fill of Aileen’s stew. Once they were finished, though, and pushing their bowls away, he spoke. “You seemed uncomfortable there in the square,” he prompted, and Merlin sighed.

“It’s just that I thought we were going to leave,” said Merlin, “and now we have to delay for a feast…” He shrugged uncomfortably.

“What’s wrong with a feast?” asked Balinor. “Especially one where you’re the guest of honor?”

“It’ll be weird!” he exclaimed. “Especially the part where I’m the guest of honor.” He looked up and saw fading amusement on his father’s face, as Balinor read his expression. “I don’t—I’ve never really liked having so many eyes on me,” he added, more quietly. “It’s never really been safe, for too many people to… to see me, to know. Makes me feel like a target,” he mumbled, looking back down at the table.


He shrugged, and pasted on a smile. “I mean, I’m not much of a servant, but I’m still happier pouring the wine than drinking it.”

“If it weren’t for the Purge, you never would have been a servant,” said Balinor irritably. “You deserve better, a higher station in life than that. You are the son of a dragon lord. That used to mean something, in the courts of Albion.”

“I’ve never really cared all that much for station, anyway,” Merlin offered. “Maybe because Mum raised me to care more about what a person does than about their bloodline, or their fancy clothes and hats. Plus I never knew there was anything special about mine, so… Anyway, Arthur was a prat when we first met, I wasn’t going to just fall all over myself calling him ‘my lord’ when he didn’t deserve it.” His smile was a little more genuine at the memory. “God, we were so different then.”

Balinor echoed his smile. “It wasn’t so long ago, was it?”

“No.” Merlin’s expression faded. “But he knows now that I hid my magic from him all that time. Even if he understands why I had to, he still feels like I betrayed his trust. And I did. He… Arthur showed me everything he was, showed me parts of himself that no one else ever got to see. And I showed him… most of who I was? Just not the bits that protected him, or that killed for him, or—”

“Merlin.” Balinor’s voice was soft, but it stopped his spiraling thoughts in their tracks. “As you said, you were given no choice but to hide parts of yourself; you had to hide if you wanted to live, and that is a grave injustice. Arthur may feel betrayed, but it wasn’t you who did the betraying in the first place. Remember that.”

“Yes, Father.” It was said reluctantly, but he knew Balinor was right. Uther had damned them all from the start, and now he and Arthur were expected to pick up the pieces of everything that Uther had shattered, and find a way to put them all back together again. Not just their friendship, but all of Albion. If anyone could rule all the kingdoms united, Merlin thought it could be Arthur, but he had no idea how to get there from where they were.

And where were they? Five kingdoms only barely allied with one another, always looking for a way to stab each other in the back. Essetir, Cenred’s former kingdom, was reduced to the playground of bandits and petty warlords because Lot lacked the strength to hang onto everything he’d inherited or claimed with Cenred’s death. Smaller kingdoms living in fear of the larger five. Saxons in the east. And, Merlin thought, let’s not forget the thousands of resurrected dead, magic users and magical creatures alike.

How were he and Arthur to be expected to put all that back together? Who would be willing to step aside and let them?

“What are you thinking?” asked Balinor.

Merlin blinked, and looked up with a tired smile. “Just that I’m glad Arthur is the king and not me, even if I’m the one who has to live forever. I’ve no head for strategy and politics.”

“You’ve managed all right so far, navigating life in a castle where one wrong word would have seen you dead.”

“I came close to dying, many times,” Merlin countered. “Spent nights in the dungeon, was accused of sorcery or murder or who knows what else… Far too many times to really believe I was doing all right. Most of the time I was barely keeping my head above water, trying to serve Arthur, serve Gaius, protect everybody, help Arthur fulfill his destiny, and do it all with no one finding out the truth of my magic.”

Balinor, to his credit, didn’t try to soothe Merlin with platitudes, but he did nod in understanding. “Consider,” he said: “how much easier will it be to do all that now that you no longer have to hide?”

Merlin took a breath and blew it out slowly, considering. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I don’t know what it’s like for people to know about my magic. Only a couple of people ever did, and they all ended up dying. They’re back now, most of them, but at the time, it seemed like destiny was trying to tell me something: keep it secret. Hide who you are. No one can know.” He shook his head. “I was able to stop Morgana because she never knew I had magic until the very end. I was able to do a lot, because people only saw a servant when they looked at me, and no one really pays attention to what servants get up to. I’m not… I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to step out into the light and be… everything I really am.”

“Hence your reaction to the idea of a feast,” suggested Balinor.

“Exactly. I’ve hidden my whole life. The idea of celebrating something that could have gotten me killed only a few months ago… like I said, it’s weird.”

They were both silent for a bit, Balinor standing to take both their bowls to the wash basin. Merlin sat at the table, listening to the soft splashes of water, the crackle of the fire, and the thrum of the energies of the earth; the latter wasn’t exactly a sound, but it remained clear to his senses all the same.

“If you go back to Camelot, you’ll be surrounded by people who didn’t have to hide,” said Balinor eventually. “Or at least not for very long.”

“The resurrected?”

“Aye. You could take their counsel, learn what life was like before the Purge.”

“Could take your counsel,” Merlin pointed out.

Balinor huffed a laugh. “I plan to tell you everything I can remember, but I didn’t exactly lead a typical life, even then. Dragon lords often attach themselves to different royal courts to serve as advisers and intermediaries between humans and dragons, but I didn’t even do that. It might be better for you to talk to the everyday folk, the hedge witches and middling sorcerers, the druids; people like that.”

“I still want to know about your life,” said Merlin.

Balinor looked over his shoulder with a smile, his teeth startlingly bright against his dark beard. “I’ll tell you everything.”

The next couple of days went by peacefully; Devon and Liam stopped by often, and though they always spared a greeting and a friendly word for Merlin, it was clear that they wanted to catch up with the friend they’d grown up with. Merlin didn’t mind; it left him space to be alone with his thoughts, or to wander the hills, now that he had his strength back. He climbed the trail that led to the stone circle often, never going all the way there, but stopping at the peak and just watching the clouds, or the dragons soaring on the wind. True to Kisheer’s prediction, there were more dragons in the area now that Kilgharrah had died; Merlin left them be, content to admire their flight, and the fact that there were so many, back from the dead.

The price to pay for their resurrection had been steep, and Merlin still wasn’t sure that it had been fully paid even with Kilgharrah’s death, but he couldn’t help but feel pleased that his magic—if it had really been his and not the Goddess’s—had done this. He counted a dozen dragons in different sizes and colors, scales gleaming in the sun. They seemed mostly solitary creatures, not really interacting much with one another, but sometimes he’d catch a pair wheeling around one another, or interlocking claws and grappling one another as they tumbled through the sky. Merlin would watch, heart in his throat, but they always broke apart before they could hit the ground; then, with rapid wing beats, they would climb so high that he could barely see them, before they started their clash once again. He couldn’t tell if they were fighting, or playing, or… who knew, maybe they were mating and he shouldn’t be watching them at all.

There was so much he didn’t know… but now he had his father to teach him. The thought brought a smile to his face, even though no one was around to see it.

He saw Una once, at a distance, but when she spotted him, she turned and hiked farther up the trail, over the crest of a hill until she disappeared. Merlin shrugged to himself, and didn’t follow her.

Finally the night of the feast came; Merlin could barely keep his nerves to himself, and the fire in the hearth kept flaring whenever he got too close to it. Holding his new staff seemed to help, if only because it gave him something to do with his hands, but Merlin also got the impression that it was channeling some of his excess energy into the earth, or perhaps into itself. The crystal vein in the wood was beginning to glow faintly, even when the staff itself was propped up alone in the corner of their bedroom.

“You look fine, Merlin,” said Balinor, as he fussed with his hair yet again, trying to get it to stop standing straight up. He’d bathed, and he was wearing a new shirt that Aileen had brought over, though she claimed she had not been the one to make it: it was made of fresh white linen, with simple embroidery on the cuffs and collar in blue and red. Closer inspection revealed a repeating dragon motif, each beast biting the tail of the one before it. It fit him perfectly, and according to Aileen the blue thread matched his eyes; Merlin had no way to know if that was true, but it still made him blush when she said he’d catch the eye of all the daughters in Comraich tonight. His old boots would have to suffice, but Merlin did his best to clean them.

When he reached for his cloak, though, Balinor stopped him. “You won’t need that,” he said.

“Are you sure? It’s already chilly out, and you said we won’t leave the feast till late at night.”

Balinor only smiled. “You won’t need it,” he repeated, but refused to elaborate. Merlin put on his sheepskin vest anyway, and Balinor didn’t stop him.

They hiked up the hillside in late afternoon; the shadows already stretched across one side of the mountain, while the other side was bright with purple heather and green moss. Merlin spotted a group of travelers ahead of them, but Balinor shook his head when Merlin suggested they catch up and all walk together.

“You’re the guest of honor,” he said. “You’ll be the last to arrive. The others have been preparing the stone circle since about noon, I’d wager.”

“This is not making me feel less awkward,” said Merlin with a scowl. Balinor patted his shoulder with a grin, which softened when he caught a bit of his son’s glower.

A cheer from the group up ahead caught his attention in time to see a dragon swoop down, close enough for them to reach up and touch as it flew past, back and forth across their path a few times before taking off toward the stone circle.

“I know why you’re uncomfortable,” said Balinor, once it was gone. “And I respect it. But I promise you, you’re among the one group of people you’ll never have to hide from, and who will never expect any more from you than you can give. They already know you’re a dragon lord. There’s nothing you need to hide, here.”

“Except the whole Emrys thing,” muttered Merlin.

Balinor shrugged. “Many of us are sorcerers, too,” he said, “and you having magic won’t faze them either. As for the rest, well, if you decide that’s not their business to know, then it isn’t.”

There wasn’t much Merlin could say to that, so he didn’t, taking a bit deeper breath and leaning into the steep climb.

They reached the crevasse with the ancient carvings soon enough, and Merlin paused, hearing the sounds of many voices up ahead. Logically, he knew the feast couldn’t possibly be as large as the ones held at Camelot, and almost certainly wouldn’t include all the cutthroat politics, the insincere compliments and poisonous smiles that he knew the nobility traded back and forth like currency. Una might glare at him, but as far as he knew he hadn’t done anything to make anyone else hate him. He wasn’t really sure what he’d done to earn her wrath, for that matter, but he’d faced far worse than dirty looks over the course of his life, from murderous traitors to Arthur’s thrown goblets. Una could keep whatever grudge she wanted to.

Merlin stepped into the crevasse and stopped, awed. The carvings had been filled in with chalk and ochre, in tones of white, rust, and dull yellow, and stood out against the black rock in the fading light. Floating globes of magic gleamed in the shadows near some of the dragon insignia, like offerings at a memorial. Balinor stepped ahead of him, whispered a few words, and then released his own light to hover beside their dragon, the one with the eagle on its breast.

“It’s beautiful,” Merlin said. “Even more than the first time I saw it.”

“Do you want to add your own light?” asked his father.

Ruefully, Merlin shook his head. “My magic is all over the place tonight,” he said. “I’ve barely got a leash on it as it is; I’d probably blind everyone or something.”

“Fair enough.”

They reached the end of the crevasse and stopped; they were able to see into the stone circle, and Merlin smiled to note so many of the standing stones already lit with magic, glowing brighter whenever the people from their lineage touched the stone as they passed. A few of the standing stones’ symbols were dark, but the stones themselves had candles and lanterns surrounding them at their base. Merlin guessed that those were the ones whose lineages had died out.

A quick glance showed him that his and Balinor’s stone was still unlit. Balinor turned to him and smiled. “Part of the tradition,” he said. “You’ll be the one to light the stone, to prove that you’re truly my heir. Then we eat, and then you’ll receive a few traditional gifts.”


Balinor laughed outright at the look on his face. “Don’t worry, they’re all practical things that dragon lords can use. After the gifts, we celebrate with music and dancing and stories until the little ones fall asleep in their mothers’ arms, and then make our way back to our homes, or sleep up top with any of the dragons who might allow us to join them.” He looked around the space fondly. “Some people won’t bother going back down to Comraich till after sunrise.” Merlin still fidgeted, not ready to take the final step out into the circle, and Balinor patted his shoulder. “I promise, if it’s really that terrible, you can leave after the dancing starts. But I want you to hear at least three stories, and you might be asked to tell the story of how you found Aithusa and called her forth.”

“I can do that, I think,” said Merlin, taking a deep breath. He clenched and opened sweaty fingers around the staff a few times, then drew himself up and nodded sharply, once. “Okay. Okay, I’m ready.”

“It’s not a battle, Merlin,” Balinor teased, but before Merlin could reply, indignant, he stepped out into the stone circle and announced, “We’re here!”

Half the gathered people cheered, while half paused their conversations, and every last one of them turned to look Merlin’s way as he took the final few steps out into the light.

His nerves vanished when someone, either Liam or Devon from the sound of it, hollered, “Oi, light yer pretty rock so we can eat, I’m starving!”

Laughter echoed off the high rocks, and Merlin heard Aileen scolding her sons. Some smaller children started chanting, “Light the stone! Light the stone!”

The old grandfather that Merlin had first met a few days prior stepped into the center of the circle, stooped over his cane, and everyone fell silent. Children came and sat at the edge of the circle, all in a wiggling, excited mass. “I’ve seen more of these feasts than any of you,” he said, “to welcome a new dragon lord to our clan and among our kin. Ordinarily, the occasion is far more solemn; honoring our most recent departed, as well as our newest come into his powers. I rather like that we need not be quite so serious, this time.” He followed his words with a wink, and the children giggled. “So, then, Merlin: if you would, please, light the stone that reveals your lineage, and then we will eat. Because I, too, am starving, as Aileen’s sons have already confessed!”

More laughter, and a few whoops, faded to quiet until all Merlin could hear were crickets among the cracks in the rocks. Balinor clapped him on the shoulder once, and stepped back.

Merlin smoothed one hand down the front of his vest to dry his palm, then stepped forward; the crowd parted for him, and he looked up at the stone with its beautifully carved dragon, and the stylized eagle there. Then he reached out his hand and touched the stone, which seemed to warm under his hand.

His heightened senses felt the stone awaken again, only this time, with other stones lit as well, it seemed to reach out to its brethren, all of them humming in harmony. Merlin closed his eyes, just listening, and felt the corners of his mouth lift in the slightest of smiles as all the stones glowed just that little bit brighter, all together with only the lost lineages silent.

The cheer startled his eyes back open, and he nearly jumped when hands shoved at him playfully, patted him on the back, or ruffled his hair. He looked up to see Liam and Devon both grinning, side by side and reaching out for his head yet again. Merlin ducked back out of the way, shaking his head in warning, and they only laughed and nudged him toward the row of cushions that had been set up on the opposite side of the circle.

“Let’s eat!” they cried, and before long, everyone had found a place to sit, either at the cushions or on the cobblestones of the circle. Women and men alike opened baskets and hampers to pass around fruit, and bread, and meat pies, and cheeses both hard and soft. There were roasted vegetables, still piping hot. Someone even produced a bowl of fresh berries and cream, and set it in front of Merlin with a smile.

He sat with his father on one side, and the old man on the other. A few older men and women sat on cushions as well, around the circle, and some of the children, too, but it was clear that Merlin’s spot was meant to be the place of honor. “It’s probably not like the feasts I’ve heard you’re used to,” said the grandfather, “but I daresay we do all right.”

“No, this is better,” said Merlin. “Not so… pompous.”

The old man laughed. “I am Cnut,” he said.

“Merlin.” They shook hands as Cnut smiled.

“I remember. Seventy-eight years old I may be, but I’m still sharp—at least, as far as I can tell.”

“It’s nice to meet you.”

On Merlin’s other side, Balinor spoke up. “He’s been keeping young dragon lords in line since my father was young,” he joked, and Cnut laughed again.

“Too true.” He smiled at Merlin. “You look not unlike Ambrosius at that age,” he said, “though there’s a bit I don’t recognize, that must come from your mother’s side.” He leaned in close. “It’s the hair. Ambrosius often looked like a startled hedgehog, first thing in the mornings.”

Merlin grinned.

The food was delicious and filling, better than peasant fare by a long way, but as he’d told Cnut, not quite as fancy and over-wrought as food for the nobility. The meal suited Merlin perfectly, and he ate his fill, listening more than he spoke, letting Cnut and Balinor exchange stories back and forth.

He looked around the circle at the families, the children, awed once again at the notion that he had a people. Not truly a family, perhaps, not by blood, but bound by kinship all the same. Not even in Ealdor had he really belonged, and Merlin wondered if he would be able to find a place among the dragon lords, if he looked for it. Maybe he already had one.

Then he caught Una glaring at him from one side of the circle, before ducking back out of sight, and he sighed. Maybe not.

“What is it, lad?” asked Cnut.

“It’s nothing,” he tried, but the look of skepticism Cnut leveled at him rivaled Gaius’s own, and may even have surpassed it.

“Try again,” he said.

“I… well, everyone here seems really welcoming, and I really appreciate it, but I must have done something without realizing it; Una really doesn’t seem to like me much.”

“Ah,” said the old man. He smiled knowingly. “You’ve taken her position as newest dragon lord, and she resents it somewhat. No longer being the center of attention. She’s not a bad sort, really, but she grew up with several siblings and no one expecting her to inherit the power. She was overlooked when she didn’t deserve to be. And then her mother died, and suddenly she was a dragon lady, all unexpected. I imagine it was a heady thing, to be counted as special for perhaps the first time in her life, with all those brothers and sisters. And now she feels that you’ve taken that from her. Of course she dislikes you on principle, but you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I’m still sorry,” said Merlin. “I know what that feels like, to know that you are… more, than what everyone around you thinks you are.”

Cnut nodded. “Just so.” He leaned back in his seat with a contented sigh. “If she does more than give you dirty looks, let me know and I’ll speak with her. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone go through this. But Una is no less a dragon lady, for no longer being the newest of us.” He patted Merlin on the knee, with a hand gnarled by age. “That’s you, now.”

“Being the newest is a lot better than being the last,” he said, and Cnut nodded soberly.

“That it is, lad. That it is.”

Chapter Text

The feast continued until everyone had eaten their fill, and the children had gotten up to run around the outside of the circle, weaving in and out among the stones and being playfully scolded by the adults every time they managed to crash into someone. The magic lights and torches made them look like fey creatures, flitting in and out of the mortal world; Merlin smiled wryly at the thought, deciding that they were almost certainly less malicious than the real faeries, even if they were likely to be just as capricious. The adults, for their part, were slipping leather flasks out of their baskets and passing them around where the children couldn’t catch them at it. Devon and Liam, sitting near Balinor, leaned around an older woman to pass a flask to him. He sipped appreciatively, then offered it to Merlin.

“The people of this region call it ‘Water of Life’,” he said.

Merlin had heard of it from Gwaine, and even tasted it once, but… “I’d better not,” he said. “Never could hold my liquor.”

His father seemed a bit surprised. “Is that so?”

Merlin ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “Weird things tend to happen,” he admitted.

Balinor threw his head back and laughed. “I was wondering if there was any disadvantage to having as much magic as you do,” he said. “Guess we’ve found one.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “You’ve caught me doing magic in my sleep,” he groused.

His father’s laughter stopped short. “I thought that was because your magic wasn’t properly healed.”

He shook his head. “No, I’ve been able to do that since my voice changed.” He shrugged. “Probably before that, but I don’t really remember Mum saying anything about it.”

“You have magic?” asked Cnut.

“Quite a damn lot of it,” said Balinor, but Cnut only looked at Merlin curiously and waited for his answer.

“Yes,” he sighed, “I was born with it.” It still felt strange, almost wrong, to admit aloud to anyone. Even here, where he’d seen mothers entertaining their children with dancing lights and shapes in the fire.

Cnut’s eyebrows went up. “Not many catch it as toddl