For the people of Ealdor, it was a normal day. They had risen with the sun in their brick and wood huts and eaten a small breakfast before heading out to work. Some tilled the fields, others herded animals, still others hung out laundry.
Everything went smoothly for the first three hours or so. And then Kanen showed up. The raider and his band of men had rode into the village as if they owned the place. The people of Ealdor had run to their homes in fear, gathering up any children they came across, whether they were their own or not.
Kanen had ordered his men to search the village for Matthew, a farmer. When they found him, Matthew had been trying to hide food in his cellar. The men brought it with them when they dropped him to his knees before Kanen.
The people of Ealdor watched from a safe distance as Kanen grinned. "It's harvest time!"
One of the men pulled a bag from the small stash of food on the ground. Matthew and his polecat daemon were picking up the rest and carefully placing it in a basket.
The man handed the bag to Kanen.
"What's this?" He demanded. "Where's the rest of it?"
Matthew glowered up at him. "I only kept back what we need to survive."
"Survive?" Kanen laughed. "I'll be back in one week, farmer, and I want to see all of it."
Frustrated, a woman who had been watching from the safety of her doorway ran forward. She grabbed the bag and tried to pull it from Kanen's grip. "You can't take our food! Our children will starve! I won't let you do this!"
The woman's clouded leopard daemon lunged at Kanen's horse, making it startle. His grip on the bag loosened ever so slightly.
"You're not taking any of it!" The woman yelled, pulling with all her might.
Kanen, looking almost bored, hit her across the face.
She fell to the ground, her daemon instantly pulling back to stand protectively over her.
"Hunith!" Yelled one of her neighbors. He ran forward to help her up.
Kanen levelled his crossbow and shot him.
"I will give you a week. Don't you dare disappoint me," he announced to the village. He turned to Hunith with a wicked smile. "I'll see you later, sweetheart."
He whistled and as one, the raiders turned and left the village. Kanen's mastiff daemon snarled at the stunned audience then trotted after his human.
A small crowd began to grow around the fallen man. He was crying in pain, but thankfully the wound wasn't fatal. A few people carried him into a house, and the crowd slowly dispersed, whispering to each other.
Matthew helped Hunith to her feet. She smiled wearily around her rapidly bruising eye. Together they watched the people go about the rest of their day, trying to pretend the incident hadn't happened.
"We can't fight this, Hunith," whispered Matthew.
"No, we can't," she agreed. "We need help."
Merlin had been having a nice day. Arthur had been in an oddly good mood and given him the day off, leaving him only Gaius' chores to finish. He had gone about those rather quickly, delivering all the medicines and collecting herbs and pots. Now he just had to collect water, which would be easier is Tinnig hadn't been running excitedly between his feet. She kept chanting, "We're going to the forest! We're going to the forest!" It was garnering many odd looks, but only Merlin knew that she was excited for the chance to change forms at will.
Merlin was standing at the well when his day went downhill. This is because he was standing at the well when he saw his mother picking her way through the streets of Camelot in the direction of the castle.
Normally seeing his mother after so long apart would be cause for celebration. But today, when Merlin saw his mother, the first thing he noticed was her black eye.
Merlin dropped the bucket. Tinnig, who had been spinning in circles, immediately turned to see what had caught his eye, and gasped.
"Mother?" He called in some mixture of concern and excitement.
She turned to see him, and smiled wide. "Merlin!" She ran to him and wrapped him in a hug.
Fethryn gently picked up Tinnig by the scruff and set her firmly between his paws. He then proceeded to groom her with his rough tongue. Tinnig squirmed happily.
Merlin wanted to stay there forever, he had missed her so much, but there were more urgent matters. Namely, who the hell had had the nerve to hit his mother. He pulled back and took her face in his hands.
"What happened?" He cried. "Who did this to you?!"
Arthur hadn't expected to find himself in the throne room today, but neither had he expected to be meeting Merlin's mother. They had talked about her, of course, a handful of times after that first conversation. But Arthur hadn't thought he'd ever see her in person.
Now, here she stood, Gaius and Merlin behind her, making an appeal to his father.
"The winters are harsh in Ealdor, and there are many children," she said. "Some of them just won't be strong enough to survive."
Arthur glanced at Merlin, thought of how skinny he was when he first arrived in Camelot, of how skinny he still was.
"We barely have enough food as it is, and if Kanen takes our harvest, our children won't live to see another summer," Hunith plead. Her clouded leopard daemon crouched submissively beside her, as if asking the King for help as well. "Please, we need your help."
"Ealdor's in Cenred's kingdom," Uther said curiously. "Your safety is his responsibility."
Hunith shook her head. "We've appealed to our King, but he cares little for the outlying regions. You're our only hope."
Merlin was biting his lip, Arthur noticed. Even Tinnig was unusually still.
He glanced at his father. He seemed to be thinking deeply about the issue, which was concerning.
After a lengthy pause, Uther said, "I have the deepest sympathy for you and would have this barbarian wiped off the face of the earth."
"You'll help us?" Hunith said, voice shaking with hope.
"I wish I could," Uther shook his head.
Arthur couldn't believe it. "Surely we can spare a few men?"
"Resources are not the problem."
"Then what is?" Morgana asked sharply, eyes narrowed.
"Ealdor lies beyond the Ridge of Essetir," Uther explained. "For an army of Camelot to enter it would be an act of war."
Merlin looked absolutely shattered. He reached up to hold tight to Tinnig. Gaius grabbed his other hand.
Hunith dropped to her knees. "I know you're a good king, a caring man," she said desperately. "I'm begging you, help us, please."
"The accord we've struck with Cenred was years in the making. I cannot risk hundreds of lives for the sake of one village. I'm afraid Camelot cannot help."
Hunith bowed her head in defeat. Morgana glared at Uther and helped her to her feet, gently leading her out of the room. Gwen followed them. Their daemons made an odd site trailing behind.
Arthur noticed Merlin was struggling not to glare too. Arthur discretely caught his eye, shook his head warningly, then jerked his chin towards the door. Merlin pursed his lips and stalked out of the room. Gaius hurried after, looking worried.
Arthur sighed. He watched the rest of the onlookers leave then turned to his father. "Surely we can send a few men to help? It's not a full army, just a small patrol. Just enough to deal with these raiders."
"Any armed forces, no matter how big, crossing the border will be of offense to Cenred," Uther said lazily, as if wondering why they were even discussing the matter. "We can send no one."
Sometimes Arthur wished he could openly show his disdain for Cenred. "But if our men don't bear the Camelot crest -"
"No, Arthur. That's enough."
Navi gave a warning shriek.
Arthur bit his tongue. He bowed, then hurriedly dismissed himself.
It took longer than he thought it would to find Merlin. Although, truth be told, it was more like Merlin found him.
Arthur had been sulking on the battlements, staring out at the city and the lands around it, thinking of how big the world must be, and of all the people he wasn't able to help. Mala had reared up on her hind paws to join him, and he rested a hand on her head.
Then suddenly Merlin was there. Tinnig was clinging to his shoulder, looking more solemn than Arthur had ever seen her, and for a moment he worried that she'd been hurt. But then he remembered the look of anguish on Merlin's face as he left the throne room, and realized they had been wounded, in a way.
Arthur realized he was staring and averted his gaze. By the sound of Merlin and Tinnig's quiet snickers, he hadn't been very subtle about it. At least they were probably the only human-daemon pair in existence who wouldn't get offended by it.
Merlin joined him at the ledge, and together they silently watched the citizens go about their day.
When the silence got too deafening, Arthur said, "I'm sorry. If it were up to me, we'd be on our way there now."
Merlin shrugged. "You tried. And thank you for getting an audience with the King."
"I wish that Camelot was able to help people regardless of how far away they lived."
There was another long silence, this one slightly more comfortable.
"I'm going back to Ealdor," Merlin said.
Merlin hesitated, then bowed his head just slightly enough to show respect. "It's been an honor serving you."
Arthur frowned. Mala looked up in alarm. "You'll be coming back."
Merlin grinned almost sheepishly, as if he felt he should be embarrassed, but wasn't quite sure. "Well, she's my mother. I have got to look after her before anyone else. You understand?"
Arthur was quiet, thinking of everything he'd do just for his own mother to be there. "I'd do exactly the same."
"Well," Arthur cleared his throat. "You've been terrible. Really, I mean it. The worst servant I've ever had."
Merlin tossed his head, laughing under his breath. "Thank you, Sire."
He pushed away from the ledge and started walking back into the castle, likely to pack.
Arthur thought again of how skinny he was, and how useless he was with a sword, and the likelihood that he'd be able to defend himself from seasoned raiders. "Merlin."
He turned around.
Arthur swallowed the knot in his throat. "Good luck."
Gwen was stuffing a bag full of chainmail while Merlin organized his pack. Tydor and Tinnig were nuzzling each other under the table, whispering goodbyes and well wishes.
Gwen glanced at Merlin out of the corner of her eye. He was being unusually quiet, but she supposed she couldn't blame him. If someone had hurt her father and threatened her home, she'd be feeling grim too.
She grabbed the sword she had picked out for him. "Here."
Merlin took it. It rested awkwardly in his hand.
"Tell me how it feels?" She had only been guessing, after all, but she had plenty of experience with swords and thought this one would suit him best.
Merlin turned it over in his hand, trying to hide his confusion. "Yeah. Yeah, that feels really good. Very, erm, you know... Swordy."
Under the table, Tinnig laughed.
Gwen stared at him for only a moment, eyebrows raised high. She shook her head and turned back to packing. Arthur was right, apparently Merlin was useless with a sword. At least Tinnig seemed to be getting some of her humor back.
"I've packed some armor for you," Gwen said, gesturing to the bag she was currently stuffing with chainmail.
Merlin looked at it in confusion. "I won't be able to carry all that."
Morgana entered the house just then, dressed in a grey tunic, a silver necklace like armor, and trousers. "You won't have to," she said. "We're coming with you."
Merlin looked between her and Gwen. "What do you mean?"
Gwen looked at him sympathetically. "You're going to need all the help you can get." She gestured to the bag again. "I can mend armor and sharpen swords."
"And I know how to fight," Morgana said, smiling secretively.
"But y- you can't. I mean, why would you?"
Tinnig sighed loudly in exasperation. Merlin sent her a dirty look.
"If it was the other way around," Gwen said, ignoring their usual antics. "You'd help us. You already have. You saved my life."
"And you helped me get the druid boy out of Camelot. We owe it to you. Both of us."
Merlin continued to try to argue them out of it, reminding them that the King had already forbidden it when it was trained knights, let alone two women. But that had gotten him a pair of evil glares, and he'd had to backtrack fast to avoid offending them further.
In the end, it was decided that all three of them, with the addition of Hunith, would leave that afternoon.
The girls insisted on finishing the packing, so Merlin found himself back in Gaius' chambers. He finished packing his own bag, the one he had come to Camelot with.
"You got the food I prepared for you?" Gaius asked for the third time. Merlin wasn't sure if his memory was going or if he was just nervous.
"Yes," he sighed, buckling the strap.
"Be careful with the wine. You know what you're like." Gaius passed him a wineskin. "One whiff of a barmaid's apron and you're singing like a sailor."
That was most certainly not true, but it made Tinnig laugh, so he'd let it go. He slipped the wineskin into his pack.
"I'll be fine," he assured, slipping the pack onto his back.
"Are you sure you don't want an extra blanket?"
Now Merlin was sure the old man was just stalling. "It's okay, really. I'll be alright." He smiled.
Gaius shook his head. "Well, make sure you are. Do whatever it takes." He pulled Merlin into a hug.
On the table, Cadya bumped her head against Tinnig's.
They stayed like that for a few minutes before Merlin reluctantly pulled back. "I have to go."
Gaius sighed. "Yes, I suppose you do. I will miss you, my boy. Write often?"
"At least once a week," Merlin promised. He gently grabbed Tinnig and slipped out the door.
They rode through the afternoon and well into evening. But when the sun got too low, they collectively agreed to stop for the night. They helped set up the campsite together, helping each other with their individual tasks.
After they ate dinner, cooked by Merlin who insisted that his mother not exert herself (though how she could simply by cooking, Hunith had no idea), they all went to bed.
Only two of them actually fell asleep.
Merlin sat before the fire, his mother beside him. They were huddled close together, both for heat and simply to feel each other's presence. Fethryn and Tinnig cuddled on the opposite side of the fire, grooming each other and talking quietly.
"They shouldn't be here," Hunith whispered. "Especially the Lady Morgana. Isn't she the King's ward?"
"Not that you'd know it," Merlin smiled softly. "She's the only person I know who isn't frightened of him."
"It won't make any difference to Kanen that they're women."
"I know," Merlin said quietly. "But I couldn't talk them out of coming." He stared at his mother, refamiliarizing himself with her features. He was startled to realize that he had forgotten the exact shade of her eyes. He gently touched the bruise around her eye. "I want to make him pay for what he did to you."
That seemed to alarm her. "Promise me you'll be careful," she begged. "No one can find out about you."
"They won't," he said confidently. "They never do."
Hunith watched him with some undescribable emotion in her eyes. She leaned forward to kiss him on the head. "Get some rest." She smiled and walked to her bedroll, where she lay down, but didn't close her eyes.
Unaware of her attention, Merlin pulled a burning stick out of the fire. He blew on the end, and tiny embers floated into the air. "Draca," he whispered. The embers rearranged to form a rearing dragon, the Camelot crest.
Sometime later, Merlin awoke to the sound of something creeping through the woods. It was moving towards the camp. Merlin tapped Tinnig awake, who agreed to watch the camp while Merlin investigated. He drew his sword and stalked as quietly as he could, which wasn't very, towards the noise.
He stepped into the treeline. Someone put a swordtip against his back. He froze.
"I'd ask you for money, but I know you don't have any," said a familiar voice.
"Arthur!" Merlin spun, sword flying through the air.
Arthur ducked just in time to avoid getting his head cut off. "Put the sword down, Merlin," he snapped. "You look ridiculous."
He grabbed the sword from Merlin's hand and stalked towards the camp.
When Tinnig saw Arthur, and Mala behind him, she almost shouted with glee. Merlin stopped her with a harsh shush and a gesture to their sleeping companions. She shut her mouth, but hummed excitedly, darting around Mala's feet.
Arthur and Merlin sat by the fire. Merlin stoked it, and the flames brightened. They sat in a comfortable silence.
After about a half hour of staring into the fire, Arthur asked, "How much further is it?"
Merlin startled. "Er, maybe a few hours."
"How many men does Kanen have?"
Merlin frowned. "I'm not sure. I think, from what my mother said, maybe as many as forty."
Arthur hummed thoughtfully. "You should get some rest. It's going to be a long day tomorrow."
Instead of doing that, Merlin said, "Thank you. I know you didn't have to come."
Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly, as always, refusing to acknowledge any emotion. "Get some sleep," he repeated.
The ride towards Ealdor that morning was quiet. Each was thinking about what they'd find when they got there. Unfortunately for them, they all had vivid imaginations.
The uncomfortable silence came to an end when Tinnig realized something. Like Merlin, she was usually pretty oblivious, but also like Merlin, Tinnig was often thinking hard about multiple things at a time. This time, a couple of topics happened to align, and she came to the realization that soon one of their secrets would be revealed.
She immediately whispered her revelation to Merlin, who pulled his horse to a halt in his surprise that he hadn't thought of this complication.
The others turned to look at him, confused as to why he would stop when they were on a time limit.
"Er, Mother?" His voice sounded oddly strangled. "Could I speak with you?"
She looked at him in concern, but nodded, and the two drifted off to the side, just far enough away from the others to keep their conversation between them.
They talked for a good few minutes, faced away from the others so as to hide their expressions. Tinnig interjected once in a while, her accented voice easily distinguishable, but not what she was saying.
Arthur, Gwen and Morgana shared concerned and bewildered looks.
Eventually, Hunith seemed to give in to something, waving her hands in defeat and pursing her lips.
Merlin turned back to face his friends, looking oddly frightened. Tinnig, on the other hand, looked excited.
"I came to the realization -" he started to explain.
Merlin rolled his eyes, looking slightly calmer. "Fine, sorry, Tinnig came to the realization that there's something we haven't told you that you'll find out in Ealdor."
The Camelotians frowned in concern.
"Nothing bad!" Merlin assured. "At least, not really. And Arthur already knows, anyway. I just want to be the one to tell you, rather than someone else."
Arthur realized what this was about. "Merlin, I still haven't told anyone -"
"No, I know. I trust you. But I think it's time I also start trusting Gwen and Morgana. So," Merlin took a deep breath, puffing out his cheeks, before blowing it all out. "Gwen, Morgana."
They nodded to show they were listening, trying not to look slightly hurt that he hadn't trusted them enough to tell them whatever it is before now.
Merlin grabbed Tinnig off his shoulder and held her out as if offering her to them. "Tinnig is still unsettled."
And in his hands she shifted from a pine marten to a beautiful falcon. Merlin tossed her up and she took flight. She made dizzying loops above their heads, laughing the whole while. Then she landed on Merlin's arm, shifting into a red squirrel, and scurried up to his shoulder again.
Gwen and Morgana stared. Hell, even Arthur was staring at the display.
"Oh," Gwen said at length.
"Oh," Morgana agreed.
"If you don't mind me asking," Gwen stuttered, "How, exactly..."
Merlin shrugged, looking a bit uncomfortable. "We don't know."
"Did someone..." Morgana tilted her head. Arthur had never seen her look so confused. Not genuinely, anyway. "Did someone cast a curse on you, perhaps?"
"It's not a curse!" Tinnig yelled.
Merlin also looked slightly offended. "No, I've never been cursed, though that's one of the running theories in Ealdor."
Morgana had enough grace to look apologetic.
"So," Gwen asked after an awkward silence. "Everyone in Ealdor knows?"
Merlin frowned. "It's hard to keep something like this a secret in such a small village, especially since they've known me since birth."
They fell into silence again, this time thoughtful. Arthur gently herded them back on the path. They rode towards Ealdor at a steady trot. Any faster would be too difficult with their current distracted state.
Tinnig continued to flip between shapes, sometimes so fast that she started into another before she had fully assimilated the first.
Arthur noticed Gwen and Morgana watching her, too, and didn't feel so bad about it then.
The daemons were whispering among themselves, staring at Tinnig and Merlin. Mala and Fethryn, who had already known, tried to calm Oztin and Tydor. They explained all they knew, which wasn't much, and deflected all other questions.
Tinnig was enjoying herself too much to notice the awkward atmosphere, but Merlin did. He constantly shifted on his horse as if he had been riding too long, avoiding everyone's gazes.
Finally, Arthur realized that Hunith hadn't spoken in a long time. He turned in his saddle to find her pale and clutching her reins tighter than she needed to.
Arthur let his horse fall back to walk alongside hers. "Are you okay?"
Hunith tried to smile, but it came out more of a grimace. "I've always hated the way people treat Merlin. When he left for Camelot, I thought he'd be getting a new start. That people would finally judge him for his similarities and not his differences."
"He has," Arthur assured her. "We got to know him before we found out about Tinnig. We don't judge him for something he can't control."
Something about that seemed to amuse her. She huffed a laugh. "And has Merlin told you the rumors about him?"
"He told me that some accused him of using magic to keep her from settling." Arthur eyed her. "I don't believe that, if that's what you're worried."
Hunith's smile was strained. "You must forgive a mother for worrying for her son. It's all I ever seem to do."
Arthur grinned. "Well, I can understand worrying about Merlin. He seems to find trouble everywhere he goes."
Hunith laughed and nodded, suddenly teary eyed. Arthur wondered what he'd said to make her cry, but she didn't offer anything, so he stayed quiet.
They chatted the rest of the ride, idle questions about daily life, exchanging anecdotes about Merlin, discussing favorite foods. By the time they spotted Ealdor on the horizon, Arthur felt he was becoming quite fond of Merlin's mother.
Then Tinnig, from high overhead, began shrieking about bandits, and Arthur's good mood vanished.
Kanen's men ravaged the village, searching for every scrap of food. The villagers themselves ducked out of the way, clinging to each other in fright.
A pair of raiders dragged Matthew to Kanen. He grabbed onto the farmer's shoulder threateningly. "If you're hiding anything from me..." He let the warning hang in the air.
One of the raiders uncovered a hidden cellar dug into the ground, covered by hay. He lifted the wooden covering. "Kanen!" He called, lifting a pair of stuffed bags to show his leader.
Kanen angrily turned to Matthew. His mastiff daemon snarled, baring her teeth.
"Please, we have to eat!" He cried out desperately.
Kanen twitched an eyebrow in false sympathy. "Oh?"
"And re-sow the fields for next year!" Matthew said in a moment of inspiration. "We only kept the bare minimum! Everything else you can take."
Kanen nods. "That sounds fair." He punched Matthew in the jaw, toppling him to the hard ground. Kanen grabbed the axe strapped to his back, and raised it above his head.
A sword flew through the air. Kanen dodged it, knocking himself off balance and lowering the axe. The sword stuck in a wooden wall behind him.
Kanen looked around wildly as Arthur galloped into the village, swinging himself off of his horse's back. He pulled his sword out of the wall, brandishing it towards an approaching bandit. Mala lunged forward to grapple with the man's daemon.
"Kill them!" Kanen yelled.
Merlin rode into the village close behind Arthur, dismounting as well. He nervously drew his sword as a bandit raced towards him. Tinnig, still a wren, swooped towards the man's face, distracting him enough for Merlin to take him down.
Gwen, Morgana and Hunith reached the fight. They dismounted and the former two drew their swords and joined the action. Hunith began to hurry bystanders to safety.
Another bandit attacked Merlin. The man's daemon, a jaguar, leaped into the air and pulled Tinnig down with her. Tinnig immediately turned into a panther, startling the other daemon only long enough for Tinnig to escape her claws. They began wrestling viciously, and Merlin realized he couldn't rely on her to help him with his own fight. The man lunged, and Merlin parried, again and again, never getting in any hits of his own. Merlin found himself backed up into a doorway, the man pressing his sword closer with all his might. Merlin didn't have the strength to push it away. Desperate, he stared at the hilt of the man's sword and whispered, "Hætende."
The sword began to glow with heat. The man yelped and dropped his weapon. Merlin killed him quickly and his daemon disintegrated. Merlin and Tinnig quickly checked in with each other then ran to rejoin the fight.
They fought off two more bandits before Kanen mounted his horse. He struggled to keep the creature under control, as anxious as it was with the sounds of battle.
"You'll pay for this with your lives!" He yelled. "All of you!" Then he turned his mount and galloped into the forest.
The people slowly emerged from their houses, unsure if it was safe. They looked confused when they saw Merlin, and even more so when they saw Arthur, but when they saw Kanen and his men were gone they gained a little confidence. The began to gather in the village square.
Merlin watched them, wondering how they would react when they realized he had helped in fighting off the raiders. Would they maybe begin to treat him better? Merlin had told himself he didn't care anymore, but if he was going to be living in Ealdor again it might make things easier.
Merlin felt someone staring at him, and turned to see a familiar face. His gut twisted.
"You still up to the same old magic tricks again?" The young man said with narrowed eyes.
Merlin didn't answer, but took a step closer.
The man walked forward. "Look, I thought I told you I didn't want your kind around here?"
They closed the distance between them until they stood only a few feet away from each other. Tinnig and the man's wildcat daemon were vibrating in anticipation.
The other man was the first to break character. He smiled, wide and friendly.
Merlin grinned back. "Missed you too, Will."
Will stepped forward the final few feet and pulled Merlin into a hug. His daemon, Ekalya, pounced on Tinnig, despite being smaller than her. They wrestled playfully in the dirt.
Merlin pulled back. "It's good to see you again."
"How've you been?" Will asked. "I, er, hear you're skivvying for some prince."
Merlin shook his head. "No. I wouldn't say I'm a skivvy."
"Yes you are!" Tinnig said before turning back to her play.
"No," Merlin tried to insist, but it was ruined when Arthur called for him.
"Merlin!" Arthur walked by and patted him on the shoulder. "Gather the villagers, I need to talk to them."
"What, you think they'll listen to me?" Merlin sent him an incredulous look.
Arthur paused, seeming to remember Merlin's status in Ealdor. "Right. Your mother, then?"
"I can do it!" Tinnig interrupted. Before anyone could stop her, she had bounded onto the platform in the middle of the village square. She tipped her head back and released an ear-splitting roar.
The village fell silent. Every eye went to her, then, inevitably, they sought out Merlin.
He couldn't remember blushing this hard in a long time. He glared at Tinnig, who grinned back unrepentantly.
Arthur cleared his throat, stepping onto the platform as Tinnig stepped off. "I know Kanen's kind. He'll be back. And when he is, you must be ready for him. First of all, we have to prepare for-"
"Am I the only one wondering who the hell this is?" Will pushed his way through the crowd to the front. He stared Arthur down challengingly.
Merlin groaned quietly. Of course.
"I'm Prince Arthur of Camelot," Arthur said, one eyebrow raised high. He looked rather like Gaius, Merlin thought.
Will scoffed. "Yeah, and, er, I'm Prince William of Ealdor."
Hunith slipped to Will's side. "Keep quiet. He's here to help us."
"But he's made things worse," Will protested. "Kanen will be back, and when he is, he'll be looking for revenge. You've just signed our death warrants."
"He saved Matthew's life!" Hunith bristled. At her feet, Fethryn growled.
"That's alright, Hunith. This is his village." Arthur looked at Will. "What would you have us do?"
Will looked around at the crowd. "We can't fight against Kanen. He has too many men."
"So what's the alternative?" Arthur asked.
"Give him what he wants."
The crowd of villagers collectively shook their heads.
"Then what?" Arthur pressed. "Those of you who don't starve to death will face him again next harvest! And the harvest after that."
"We'll manage," Will said stubbornly. "We'll survive."
"How?" Muttered multiple people in the crowd.
"The only way he can be stopped is if you stand up to him."
"No!" Will snapped. "You just want the honor and glory of battle! That's what drives men like you! Look, if you want to fight, then go home and risk the lives of your own people, not ours!"
Will pushed his way back through the crowd, though most of them moved out of his way before he reached them. He made his way down the row of houses until he reached his, then slammed the door behind him.
"Will!" Merlin jogged after him. Behind him, he heard Hunith agree to fight, and the other villagers followed behind her.
Will's house was a mess. The raiders had torn it apart in their search. Will and Ekalya were attempting to organize things, righting chairs and picking up shattered remains of crockery.
Merlin moved forward to set a bench upright. Tinnig, rather than helping, was harassing a chicken that had found it's way into the house during the chaos.
"He knows what he's doing," Merlin said as Will rehung the curtains. "You've got to trust him."
"Look, when I first met Arthur, I was exactly like you. I hated him. I thought he was pompous and arrogant."
Will righted a stand with a chainmail shirt and tabard hanging from it. "Well, nothing's changed there, then."
"But, in time," Merlin continued as if Will hadn't said anything. "I came to respect him for what he stands for, what he does."
"Yeah, I know what he stands for: princes, kings, all men like him."
Merlin stared at his friend's back. "Will," he said gently. "Don't bring what happened to your father into this."
Ekalya growled. Tinnig growled back, even though she hadn't been paying attention to the conversation.
Will tensed. "I'm not," he snapped over his shoulder. "Why are you defending him so much? You're just his servant."
"He's also my friend."
"Friends don't lord it over one another."
"He isn't like that," Merlin insisted.
"Really?" Will snarked. "Well, let's wait until the fighting begins and see who he sends in to die first. I guarantee you, it won't be him."
"I trust Arthur with my life," Merlin said, a little shocked to realize that he meant it.
"Is that so?" Will turned to face him, eyes narrowed skeptically. "So he knows your secret, then?"
Merlin looked away.
"Look, face it, Merlin. You're living a lie. Just like you were here. You're Arthur's servant, nothing more. Otherwise you'd tell him the truth."
"He already knows about Tinnig." Merlin offered, watching his daemon play with the feathers the chicken had left behind.
"Yeah? So does all of Ealdor. How'd that work out for you?"
"But it's a secret in Camelot. Arthur found out, and he didn't tell anyone, even though I told him about the magic rumor."
"So? Just because he's smart enough to ignore a rumor doesn't mean he's your friend." Will shook his head. "The only one you're fooling is yourself."
Merlin lay on the floor, Tinnig curled up on his chest. The ground was solid, and something poked at his spine. All of this was familiar, though he had had a few months reprieve from it.
What was different was that Arthur lay beside him, head-to-foot. And the Prince was quite obviously not accustomed to sleeping on the floor. So much so that it was the first thing he said.
"Have you always slept on the floor?"
"Yeah," Merlin shrugged even though Arthur couldn't see it. "The bed I've got in Camelot's luxury by comparison."
Arthur hummed. "Must've been hard."
Thinking they were still talking about the ground, Merlin replied, "Like rock."
"I. I didn't mean the ground." Arthur sounded confused at how he hadn't realized his slight change of topic. "I meant, for you. It must've been difficult."
"Mmm." Merlin considered. He could feel Tinnig's annoyance that he was denying her sleep, but he just patted her. "Not really. I didn't know any different. Life's simple out here. You eat what you grow and everyone pitches in together. As long as you've got food on the table and a roof over your head, you're happy."
"Sounds... Nice." Arthur sounded almost in pain.
Merlin huffed a quiet laugh. "You'd hate it."
"No doubt," Arthur agreed instantly. "Why'd you leave?"
"You've already asked me that. Multiple times."
"Yes," Arthur sighed. "But I always get the sense that you're not telling the whole truth."
Merlin sighed. "Things just... changed."
When Merlin didn't answer, Arthur shoved his foot in his face. "Come on, stop pretending to be interesting. Tell me."
Merlin shoved the foot away, grimacing in disgust. "I can't tell you."
"Why not?" Not even a hint of suspicion, just friendly curiosity. And... A hint of hurt?
Merlin made a decision. "If we survive this, I'll tell you."
"Interesting." Arthur said. "You have a deal, Merlin."
"Glad you could come to an agreement," Tinnig snarled. "Now will you two kindly shut up and go to bed?"
In the morning, everyone prepared for a long day. They washed and ate and got dressed. Merlin was helping Arthur slip into his jacket.
"You've still not learned how to dress yourself?" Morgana smirked.
"You don't have a dog and fetch the stick yourself. No offence, Merlin."
"None taken," Merlin said cheerfully, making a rude gesture in Arthur's line of sight.
Arthur made an offended noise while Tinnig and, surprisingly, Mala laughed.
Hunith entered the room before Arthur could get his revenge. "Prince Arthur, you didn't finish your breakfast."
Arthur hurriedly morphed a disappointed expression into a mildly confused one. "Didn't I?" He took the bowl she handed him, lifting the spoon full of pottage. As soon as she was gone, he made a face.
Merlin felt a splash of irritation, but decided not to act on it. There were more important things to worry about than Arthur's manners.
Morgana grinned, having seen his disgust. "Come on, eat up."
Arthur pretended to eat it for half a second. "Mmmm." He passed the bowl off to Gwen, who didn't seem all that surprised.
"Right," Arthur made his way to the door. "Let's get going. We need wood, and lots of it."
Mala, Morgana, and Oztin followed him outside.
"Of course," Merlin turned to look for his mother's hatchet.
Behind his back, but still within view, Gwen scooped the last bite in the bowl into her mouth. When Hunith made her way back into the room, the food was gone.
Gwen passed her the now empty bowl. "Arthur said it was lovely." She smiled, then she was gone too.
Hunith set the bowl on the table and crossed the room to stand beside Merlin.
"He must care for you a great deal," she said softly.
Merlin, still looking about for the hatchet, shrugged. "Arthur'd do the same for any village. That's just the way he is."
"It's more than that," Hunith disagreed. "He's here for you."
Merlin shook his head, remembering his argument with Will yesterday. "I'm just his servant."
"Give him more credit than that," Hunith said, disbelieving. She patted her son's arm. "He likes you."
"That's because he doesn't know me," Merlin frowned. "And if he did, I'd probably be dead by now."
"You don't really believe that, do you?" Hunith asked softly.
Merlin didn't answer, having finally located the hatchet. He left the house without another word.
As he walked towards the forest, he realized one voice had been oddly silent during the conversation. Tinnig normally had no problem butting into any and every conversation held in her vicinity, propriety be damned, but she had always been most open around Mother.
He looked down at her, where she loped alongside him as a ringtailed lemur. She was frowning.
"You've been strangely quiet, Tin."
She looked up at him, brow furrowed, but didn't say anything.
"What's your opinion on him, then? Arthur, I mean. Do you think he's my friend?"
"I think..." She began thoughtfully, watching her feet. "I think that you trust 'im more than you're comfortable wit', so's you're trying to find an excuse to hold 'im at arms length."
That... wasn't an unreasonable opinion, but not one Merlin wanted to hear. "I'm not asking about my feelings, I'm asking about his."
Tinnig snorted. "'is feelings are obvious, Merlin.
Tinnig rolled her eyes. "'e disobeyed 'is father's orders to help you, not just now, but when you were dying of poison. Hell, 'e trusted you over Valiant after knowing you barely a week. I think it's obvious to everyone but you that's 'e's fond of you."
"Huh." Merlin thought about it. "But Will-"
"Merlin," Tinnig interrupted. "You know Will. You grew up wit' 'im. When has 'e ever been reasonable?"
Merlin grinned. "Yeah, you're right. I shouldn't've let him get to me."
"No," Tinnig tossed her nose in the air proudly. "You shouldn't've."
Merlin had reached the village border and was about to reach the the treeline when he heard Will shouting behind him. He turned.
"Where are you going with that thing?" Will pointed at the hatchet with a grin.
"What does it look like? We need wood." Merlin continued into the woods.
Will raised an eyebrow skeptically. "We both know that you don't need an axe to fell a tree."
Merlin grinned at the memory, but kept walking. "And I remember the trouble it got me into. I nearly flattened Old Man Simmons."
Tinnig giggled, thinking of her own role in the incident.
"Ha!" Will barked. "Yeah, well, he deserved it, stupid old crow."
"Mmm. He never did like me anyway," Merlin agreed.
"Well, even less after that."
Merlin chuckled, then stopped walking. He turned to face his friend, tipping his head. "Why are you being like this?"
Will's expression fell flat. "You know why. Why did you leave?"
"It wasn't what I wanted." Merlin sat on a fallen log. Will sat beside him. "My mother was worried. When she found out you knew, she was so angry."
"I wouldn't've told anyone," Will said, hurt.
"I know you wouldn't," Merlin soothed.
They fell quiet for a moment, watching their daemons whisper conspiratorially.
"You'd be able to defeat Kanen on your own, wouldn't you?"
Merlin sighed, looked down at his hands. "I'm not sure. Maybe."
"Well, so what's stopping you? So what if Arthur finds out?" Will stared at him incredulously.
Merlin stood up. "I don't expect you to understand."
"Try me," Will stood beside him.
Merlin sighed and shook his head, knowing his friend wouldn't get it, but trying anyway. "One day Arthur will be a great king, but he needs my help. And if anyone ever found out about my powers, I'd have to leave Camelot for good."
Will looked at him in something akin to disgust. "Are you telling me you'd rather keep your magic a secret for Arthur's sake than use it to protect your friends and family?" He pointed towards the village.
Merlin's gaze followed his finger, staring at the familiar houses and barns. They were filled with people he knew, people he'd grown up with. But could he really call them friends and family? No, he decided, apart from Mother and Will, none of them are my friends or family.
That still didn't mean they deserved this.
Arthur was taking a short break from training the men of Ealdor. He needed it, and they needed it more. Oh, sure they were strong and fit from working the land day in and day out. But they weren't used to this kind of physical exercise, and it was taking its toll on them.
Arthur dipped a cup in a bucket of water and drank. He was expecting to be left alone, so of course that expectation was shattered almost instantly.
Morgana appeared out of nowhere. She examined the men resting about the square. "Looks like the battle's already fought and lost."
Arthur looked them over too. "They'll toughen up," he said, hoping he was right.
"They'll need to," Gwen said, appearing on his other side.
"How are we doing for weapons?"
"There isn't much," Morgana admitted. "But we should be able to scrape together what you need."
"It's not the weapons that worry us," Gwen continued the train of thought. "It's having enough people to use them. We think the women should be allowed to fight."
Arthur opened his mouth to argue.
Morgana cut him off. "You haven't enough men. If they were trained soldiers, maybe you'd stand a chance, but they're not."
"It's too dangerous," Arthur ordered. He turned away before they could come up with a new attack. He strode around the square, pulling men back on their feet, and ordered them to get back into their pairs.
They'd need all the practice they could get.
Merlin woke to the sound of whispers from the other room. Tinnig twitched in her sleep.
"We don't stand a chance."
That was Gwen. Merlin was disheartened to realize that even the most optimistic of their group saw that the odds were stacked against them.
"Arthur can't see that," Morgana replied. "He's too stubborn."
They were silent for a moment.
"Why do you think he came here?"
"The same reason we did: Merlin. Arthur may act like he doesn't care, but he wouldn't be here if he didn't."
They fell silent again, but this time, they stayed that way. Eventually soft deep breathing could be heard in the other room. They must have gone to sleep.
Merlin wished he could do the same, but he was too busy thinking.
The men stood gathered in the village council building. Arthur stood in front of them, addressing them.
"We're not going to be able to defend Ealdor with sword and sinew alone," he explained. "We're going to need a plan. We need to find some way of limiting their mobility and drawing them into a trap. If we fight them on their terms, then-"
A woman screamed.
The men instantly raced outside, Arthur in the lead.
A horse clambored into the village square. A body was draped over its back.
"Get him down from there!" Arthur ordered.
A handful of men gently pulled Matthew down to the ground. He lay stiffly. A crossbow bolt stuck out of his back, pinning a note to the man's shirt.
Arthur carefully removed the note and read it.
Everything was silent.
Merlin stepped forward slightly, looking paler than usual. "What's it say?"
Arthur looked around at the gathered villagers, watching his with fear and grief written all over their faces. "'Make the most of this day, it will be your last.'"
No one said anything.
A young woman pushed her way through the crowd. Arthur had caught Matthew staring wistfully at her a few times. "Matthew! No! No! No!" She grabbed at his body, tried to turn him over. A few older women gently tugged her away.
Will was suddenly at the front of the crowd again. He stared at Matthew in horror, then turned to Arthur. "You did this! Look what you've done! You've killed him!"
"It wasn't his fault," Merlin said softly, looking ill.
"If he hadn't been strutting around, treating us like his own personal army, this would never have happened!"
"These men are brave enough to fight for what they believe in," Arthur argued. "Even if you aren't!"
"You're sending them to their graves! You killed one man. How many more need to die before you realise this a battle that can't be won? When Kanen comes, you haven't got a chance. You're gonna be slaughtered."
Will turned to leave, and Arthur would have let him, but Merlin grabbed his arm.
"Why are doing this, Will? It wasn't his fault, you know that, logically!"
Will turned on his heel. He glared at Merlin stronger than he ever had at Arthur. "No, Merlin, you're right. It's not his fault. It's yours, for bringing him here in the first place."
Merlin jerked back as if struck. Tinnig, who had turned into a panther at the first scream, growled menacingly.
The villagers witnessing the argument fell silent. They seemed shocked.
Arthur stepped forward to gently grab Merlin, who looked so pale he might faint, but he recovered startlingly fast. Merlin's face flushed with anger, his ridiculous ears turning pink. He pointed at Will.
"I have made many mistakes in my life, and maybe leaving Ealdor in the first place was one of them, but that's not what this is about, Will. This is about all of us, trying to keep our homes and survive another year. I am not the enemy, so don't you dare blame me for the death of a man I grew up with, just because you can't let go of your damn prejudice long enough to see that we're here to help."
Will gritted his teeth furiously, but had nothing to say to that. He changed direction and stalked into the forest.
Merlin watched him go.
After a few tense moments when no one said anything, Arthur decided to take the initiative.
"Merlin?" Gentle, like approaching a spooked horse.
Merlin spun around and stomped back into his mother's house. Tinnig stalked behind him, still growling, fur bristling. The crowd parted for them like they were something to be feared. Merlin dodged all eye contact and slipped inside the house.
He didn't once look at Arthur.
The crowd quickly dispersed, going back to what they had been doing before the interruption, but with a new sense of grief and trepidation.
Hunith hovered by her house, wondering if she should go in and talk to Merlin. Eventually, she decided against it, going to help some of the other women with their duties.
Arthur, Morgana and Gwen sat in a circle.
"I've never actually seen Merlin get angry before," Gwen said quietly, petting Tydor for comfort. "Upset, yes, but never angry."
"I can't believe Will tried to blame Matthew's death on Merlin," Morgana added. "I thought they were friends, Merlin talks about him all the time."
Arthur, however, was thinking of something else entirely. "Is he right?"
The girls looked at him, betrayal darkening their features.
"Not about Merlin," he hastily corrected. "About me. Have I doomed an entire village?"
They were both quick to reassure Arthur that, no, of course he hadn't doomed them, that they had a fighting chance, that they would either chase away the raiders or stop them forever.
Arthur appreciated the effort, but he could see in their eyes that they didn't believe a word they were saying.
He made his excuses and left. He wandered the village, trying to ascertain the security of the place, but eventually ended up on a bench on the border staring at nothing.
That's where Hunith found him.
She sat down next to him gingerly, as if afraid of startling him. Normally he would have laughed at the thought, but given his current state of mind, it was probably a wise move.
"I've never seen them fight before," she said so quietly Arthur almost didn't catch it. "They've had spats, of course, every healthy relationship does. But they've only ever fought once, and that was in a private setting, nothing so public as this."
"What did they fight about?" Arthur asked, only slightly curious.
"No idea," Hunith shrugged. "They came back from the woods one day when Merlin was fifteen, limping and covered in bruises. Anyone who saw them could tell that they'd been fighting, physically as well as verbally, but no one has ever been able to make them admit what about."
"Huh. Never thought Merlin was a brawler."
"Oh, he's not," Hunith laughed quietly. "Anyone with eyes could see that Merlin lost that fight. He's always preferred to fight with words."
"Yes, well..." Arthur thought back on the many, many times Merlin had argued with him. "He's quite good at it."
"Yes," Hunith said proudly. "He's quite the wordsmith."
"Maybe I should get him to write my speeches..."
Hunith laughed again, sounding happier than she had been since the fight.
"In any case," she sighed, her good mood suddenly gone. "I think I've given him enough time to himself, don't you? If you'll excuse me, Sire."
Arthur nodded and Hunith left to talk to her son. Arthur would take a crack at it later.
That evening, Arthur was sitting on a stump outside Hunith's house, sliding a whetstone rhythmically over the blade of his sword.
He nearly cut his hand when someone plopped down on the log beside him.
Arthur turned to see Merlin, looking unusually subdued, but better than that morning.
"Finally decided to show up, then?"
Merlin winced. "Sorry. I know I've been avoiding you all day-"
"Don't worry about it," Arthur said nonchalantly. "It was a trying morning for all of us."
"Right..." Merlin looked down at his hands, where Tinnig the field mouse nodded encouragement. "William's father was killed fighting for King Cenred, so he doesn't trust anyone of nobility."
Oh. So that's what Merlin had meant by 'prejudice'. "Do you think the villagers believed him?"
"Nah." Merlin grinned ruefully. "He's always been a troublemaker. They're used to ignoring him."
Arthur took that to mean that Merlin was one of the troublemakers, too. "And if he's right?"
"He isn't," Merlin said confidently.
"I'm treating these men like soldiers, and they're not." Arthur shook his head. "You've seen them fight. They...they haven't got a clue! You need to tell them all to leave the village before Kanen returns."
"First of all, Arthur, they wouldn't listen to me, remember? Second, no. No, we're going to stay. We're going to fight, and we're going to win."
"Merlin, it can't be done," Arthur sighed, setting aside both his sword and whetstone. He stared at his hands. "The odds are too great."
"It can," Merlin insisted. "We're going to make Kanen rue the day he ever came to this village. All you need to do is get the men ready for battle, and the rest will take care of itself."
"How?" Arthur despaired. He didn't want to give up on his friend's home.
Merlin smiled, and something about it gave Arthur a trickle of confidence. "You've just got to believe in them. Because if you don't, they'll sense it, and the battle'll be lost before it's even begun."
Arthur thought about Merlin's words. They gave him a sense of hope. He smiled, and resumed sharpening his sword.
Merlin sat beside him the whole time, petting Tinnig. Arthur was grateful for his silent company.
When the sun set, everyone in the village or the age of fifteen crowded into the village council building. There was barely room to move, but Arthur pushed himself to the front of the room.
Arthur looked around at faces that had started to become familiar over the past few days. He could even name a few. Mixed among them were the few people he knew better. Gwen and Morgana stood near the back with the village women. He spotted Merlin somewhere in the middle, being ignored by the people surrounding him, but staring resolutely forward, ignoring the cold reception. He seemed in a better mood, determined and confident.
Arthur took strength from him. He went over the plan one last time, double checking that everything was in place. That went smoothly enough.
Then came the part of the meeting he had been dreading, for Merlin's reaction as much as Gwen and Morgana's.
"Tomorrow morning, the women and children should gather what belongings they can carry and go to the woods."
There was instant uproar.
The woman of the village shouted their disapproval, led by Morgana and Gwen.
"We're not going anywhere!" Gwen's voice in particular stood out among the clamor.
Arthur raised his hands for quiet. "I know you want to help. The women can't stay here. It's too dangerous."
"The women have as much right to fight for their lives as the men do!" Gwen argued.
"But none of you know how to fight," Arthur pointed out as gently as he could with his growing tension headache.
"The more of us there are, the better chance we stand!"
One by one, the women of the village stepped forward to stand beside the men. They stared him down from every corner of the room.
Desperate for some help, Arthur found himself looking to Merlin. But the little imp was smirking at Arthur's predicament. When he noticed Arthur looking at him, he raised one eyebrow in an expression eerily similar to Gaius' (were they related? Arthur suddenly realized that it would make sense.) as if to say, 'Well, what are you waiting for?'
Arthur sighed and looked at the floor. When he looked back up, he announced, "This is your home. If you want to fight to defend it, that's your choice. I'd be honored to stand alongside you."
The women relaxed, satisfied.
Arthur continued his speech. "Kanen attacks tomorrow. Kanen's brutal. He fights only to kill, which is why he will never defeat us. Look around. In this circle, we're all equals." He looked directly at Merlin. To Arthur's surprise, Merlin was looking back at him with pride in his eyes. Pride in his village? Or pride in Arthur? He didn't know. "You're not fighting because someone's ordering you to, you're fighting for so much more than that. You fight for your homes. You fight for your family. You fight for your friends. You fight for the right to grow crops in peace. And if you fall, you fall fighting for the noblest of causes: fighting for your very right to survive! And when you're old and grey, you'll look back on this day, and you'll know you earned the right to live every day in between! So you fight! For your family! For your friends! For Ealdor!"
The villagers stood tall, weapons raised high in the air. They took up the chant, and soon it sounded throughout the room. "For Ealdor! Ealdor! Ealdor!"
Hunith sat alone in her home. The eight others she currently shared her home with were all out performing last minute duties, or double checking that the plan was set. She expected Merlin to be back first, so she waited to speak to him alone.
She stared pensively into the fireplace, Fethryn settled at her feet. She pet him intermittently, but mostly she watched the flames. She was deep in thought, of a time before Merlin, when she had hidden a different magic user from her village. She missed him.
The door opened. She was right, Merlin was the first to return. He hung up his jacket by the door and turned to see her sitting on the bench.
"Come here," she said.
Merlin obeyed, kneeling in front of her. Tinnig crawled off of his shoulder and onto Fethryn's back. Hunith stroked Merlin's cheek, and he closed his eyes.
"I do love you, my boy."
Merlin looked at her with a concerned gaze. "What's wrong?"
"I should never have gone to Camelot," Hunith cried quietly. "I've ruined everything for you."
"You haven't." Merlin shook his head. "Why would you say that?"
She looked at him sadly. "I know what you're planning to do."
Merlin hesitated, thought of denying it, then sighed. "If it comes to a choice between saving people's lives and revealing who I really am," he shrugged. "There is no choice."
"You can't let Arthur know about your gift," Hunith said desperately.
"Why not? Maybe it's meant to be this way." Merlin grabbed her hand, holding it between his own and his cheek. "And if he doesn't accept me for who I really am, then he's not the friend I hoped he was."
Arthur stood watch, alone in the woods just outside Ealdor. The sun had only just risen, but he felt like he had been up for hours. So many thoughts ran through his head, of Camelot, of Ealdor, of his friends, his father, the raiders. Of the absolute massacre that would occur if this plan failed.
He almost didn't notice Gwen approaching from the village. She carried a bowl with her, and Arthur mentally groaned.
"Arthur, Hunith made you some food." She passed him the bowl.
"Thanks." Arthur's smile dropped the instant she turned around. He looked down at the pottage in disgust. He muttered, "I think."
Gwen stopped. Had she heard him? Oh no, what if she told Hunith? No, she would never do that, that's not like her at all.
Gwen turned. She looked angry. "Food is scarce for these people, you shouldn't turn your nose up at it!"
Arthur stared at her in surprise.
Gwen seemed to realize what she'd done. She slapped both hands over her mouth and began to back away, muttering just loud enough to be audible. "Oh, no. I. I shouldn't've spoken to you like that. I'm sorry."
Gwen turned around to leave. "I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. It won't happen again."
Gwen slowly turned back around, but didn't come any closer.
Arthur tried not to let that bother him. "Thank you. You're right. And you were right to speak up. I should've listened to you and Morgana." Quieter, he said, "We're going to need all the help we can get."
"We'll be fine," Gwen assured him.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I have faith in you." She realized what she had said and tried to backtrack. "I mean, we all do."
"Thank you," Arthur said sincerely.
Gwen smiled, curtsied, and walked back to Hunith's house.
When Merlin moved to help Arthur into his armor, he was stopped.
"No, not today."
Merlin sent him an odd look.
Arthur gestured to the bag of armor Gwen had packed specifically for Merlin. "Put on your own."
So he did. It was different putting it on himself, but he figured it out easily enough.
Except the buckle on his right bracer seemed to be stuck. Merlin struggled with it, trying to fiddle with it to get it to work, but Merlin quickly realized that, as he couldn't use his dominant hand, it was pretty much a lost cause.
Arthur reached over to help. Merlin let him.
"You ready?" Arthur asked once they were both in their armor.
"My throat's dry," Merlin confessed. He didn't want to seem weak, not in front of Arthur, but he knew he didn't look nearly confident enough to say he was fine and get away with it.
To his relief, Arthur replied, "Me too."
For a moment they watched their daemons. Tinnig was shifting forms, and for each one Mala would name a weakness and a strength. Apparently Tinnig didn't want the raiders to know she was unsettled and was trying to pick an animal.
Arthur held out his hand. Merlin grasped it tight, and they shook.
"It's been an honor," Arthur said.
Merlin swallowed. "Whatever happens out there today, please don't think any differently of me."
"I won't," Arthur said, looking at him sympathetically. "It's alright to be scared, Merlin."
Merlin shook his head, refusing to look at the Prince. "That's not what I meant."
"What is it?"
Merlin bit his lip.
"If you've got something to say, now's the time to say it."
Arthur watched as Merlin worked up his courage. Finally, he took a deep breath, held it for a moment. He just started blowing it out when his time ran out.
Morgana popped her head in the doorway. "Arthur. They've crossed the river."
Arthur promptly forgot about Merlin and rushed outside.
Merlin puffed out what remained of his breath, and looked at Tinnig, who had evidently decided on a bushy tailed mongoose. She crawled up his pant leg, up his chainmail, and onto his shoulder, where she perched as his self-appointed guardian. She bumped her head against his, and they followed Arthur.
Arthur and a group of men were ducked behind a house, in the previously agreed upon hiding place. Merlin maneuvered through the men and their daemons, mostly farm animals, to reach Arthur's side. Together they looked around the corner of the house.
Kanen's men were approaching fast, galloping down the hill towards the village. A small steam of daemons followed, birds of prey in the air, large land-beasts racing behind the horses.
Tinnig began shifting her paws, eager for a fight. Mala dropped into a fighting crouch.
"Hold," Arthur ordered just loud enough to be heard. "No one moves until they give the signal."
They watched as the raiders entered the village square, looking around curiously. They seemed amused, as if the villagers hiding from them was all a game.
"Come out, come out wherever you are," Kanen called. His daemon laughed.
A horse approached the first trap. A makeshift gate, hidden under a pile of straw, raised, trapping the raiders inside the village. The raiders stared, their horses shifting in confusion.
Frowning, the raiders began to ride towards the other end of the square.
Merlin waited anxiously for the next part of the plan to start. But nothing happened.
"Now, Morgana. What are you waiting for?" Arthur whispered. "Something's gone wrong."
The raiders were getting too close to the line of pitch surrounding the village.
Merlin made a decision. He jumped up, running around the back of the house. He ignored Arthur's harsh whisper, calling him back, and darted across the outskirts of the village.
He ran between a pair of houses.
The raiders spotted him.
"There's one," Kanen shouted. "Get him!"
Merlin dodged a handful of arrows and bolts, nearly dislodging Tinnig, who dug her claws into his chainmail shirt.
Merlin dodged another arrow and slipped behind another house. He made his way around the back wall and crouched down beside Morgana. She was rapidly scraping a rock against flint with no success.
"Give me the flint."
Morgana handed it to him, standing to watch around the corner. Oztin moved to the other corner, doing the same.
Merlin struck the flint twice, just so she wouldn't get suspicious, and whispered a spell.
The pitch lit on fire, flames running down the line. The fire rose up to head height, surrounding the village, blocking the raiders' escape. The horses closest to the line reared, tossing their riders from their backs. The raiders gathered nervously in the center of the square.
"Now!" Arthur shouted over the crackling of the flames.
The people of Ealdor sprung from their hiding spots behind and inside houses and barns with loud battle cries. They rushed the raiders, weapons raised.
Merlin leapt into the fight. A raider swung a sword at his head, and he ducked. Tinnig tackled the man's fox daemon, clawing and biting until the daemon yelped and the man stumbled.
Merlin quickly stabbed him and he fell. He didn't have a chance to catch his breath before about man attacked. Merlin parried his blow, wincing at the force behind it.
The man's mutt daemon tried to grab Tinnig by the neck, and she darted out of reach. When it reached again, she jumped onto it's outstretched neck, clinging tight and biting down.
While they wrestled, Merlin continued to fight the bandit. He dodged and parried and feinted, but the man was clearly an experienced fighter, and he blocked every attempt that Merlin made at getting in a hit of his own.
The man looked behind Merlin and grinned.
"Merlin!" Tinnig warned.
He could hear a horse rapidly approaching his back, but he couldn't turn around. It was all he could do to defend himself from one bandit, he wouldn't be able to take on a second. He braced himself, expecting to feel a blade cut through his spine. He could at least try to take this man down with him.
There was a thump behind him and the horse raced past.
The bandit dodged its hooves, and Merlin used his distraction to cut him down.
He turned, expecting another fight, and saw Will climbing off the body of the man he had knocked from his horse.
"I didn't think you were coming," Merlin said cautiously. He hadn't seen Will since their fight, but he had heard that he had left the village.
"Neither did I," Will glanced at him sheepishly.
Merlin grinned, happy to have his friend back. They both turned back to the fight. Their backs pressed against each other as they fought. Tinnig and Ekalya worked together to bring down a wolf daemon.
During a brief reprieve from attackers, Merlin and Will examined the battle. Bodies were scattered across the ground, mostly villagers. Merlin spotted his mother fending off a bandit with a wooden staff. Arthur, Morgana and Gwen were cutting down bandits left and right, but it wasn't enough. It was clear that Ealdor was loosing.
"There's too many of them," Will said dreadfully.
Merlin bit his lip. "Not for me, there isn't."
Tinnig looked up at him. "Merlin..." She warned.
"I can't let them die, Tin." He looked out at the fight, ignoring the worried looks from Will and Tinnig. He raised one hand, palm out. "Cume thoden."
A windstorm conjured at his feet, growing rapidly to encompass the entire village. The fighting briefly stopped as everyone covered their heads and ducked flying debris.
The villagers recovered first, used to working through sudden weather changes. They used the bandits distraction to take them down. Soon, there were more villagers than bandits.
The remaining bandits fleed, the fires having been extinguished by the wind.
The people of Ealdor cheered. Some were crying in relief, others waving their weapons proudly. Daemons howled in glory. Gwen and Morgana hugged.
Then Kanen pushed himself to his feet, wounded but unfortunately not badly.
The village fell silent.
"Pendragon!" Kanen screamed, marching towards Arthur with his axe raised.
Arthur stalked forward to meet him. They fought, but it quickly became clear that Kanen wasn't a great fighter. His only real advantage was his massive daemon. She wrestled with Mala, pinning her down and shaking her by the scruff.
Arthur blocked Kanen's every blow then disarmed him. He turned to run, and Arthur ran him through.
Kanen dropped, his daemon limping to his side.
Mala climbed to her feet, sharing a look with Arthur. He frowned, then turned. They marched towards Merlin and Will, glowering.
"Who did that?" He demanded.
"What?" Merlin asked shakily. He'd hoped Arthur had been to busy to notice the obvious unnaturalness of the windstorm.
"Wind like that doesn't just appear from nowhere," Arthur snapped. "I know magic when I see it. One of you made that happen." He stopped in front of them, staring them down. Mala was softly growling.
Tinnig growled back, but otherwise they were silent.
Merlin swallowed nervously. He took a half step forward. "Arthur..."
Arthur's eyes widened.
On the other side of the square, Kanen, dying, pulled a crossbow from it's strap on his back. He aimed at Arthur's back.
Merlin and Arthur were too distracted to notice him.
"Look out!" He grabbed Arthur by the shoulders and shoved him out of the way.
The bolt thudded into Will's chest. Ekalya screeched.
Kanen's daemon disappeared.
"Will!" Merlin wrapped his arms around his friend before he could collapse.
Arthur stared at him in shock. "You just saved my life."
"Yeah," Will gasped. "Don't know what I was thinking."
Arthur opened and closed his mouth a few times, then waved his arm at the growing crowd. "Come on! Get him inside!"
A few men men stepped forward and helped Merlin carry him into the nearest house, ignoring their usual animosity for him. Their daemons helped Ekalya stumble behind them. They placed Will on a table inside, then left to give them space.
Merlin hunched over Will, trying not to cry. His hands hovered over the bolt in Will's heart, but knew better than to pull it out.
Tinnig had her head buried in Ekalya's fur, quietly singing a lullaby. Mala hovered uncertainly over them.
"That's twice I've saved you," Will said.
Arthur, standing awkwardly at the foot of the table, asked, "Twice?"
"Yeah, it was me." Will tried to nod, but couldn't lift his head from the table. "I'm the one that used the magic."
"Will, don't," Merlin choked.
Arthur looked between them.
"It's alright, Merlin," Will soothed breathlessly. "I won't be alive long enough for anyone to do anything to me." He looked at Arthur. "I did it. I saw how desperate things were becoming and I had to do something."
"You're a sorcerer?"
"Yeah," Will grinned shakily. "What are you gonna do? Kill me?"
Arthur hesitated, then shook his head. "No. Of course not. Do what you can for him."
Merlin nodded, refusing to look away from Will.
Arthur stepped forward to place a hand on Will's shoulder. He gripped it gratefully, then left. Mala followed, head hung low. Morgana, Gwen, and Hunith left as well, the latter looking regretfully back at her son.
The house fell silent except for Tinnig's whispered song. Merlin grabbed Will's hand.
"I was right about him," he wheezed. "I told you he was going to get me killed."
"You're not going to die," Merlin demanded.
"You're a good man, Merlin," Will smiled. "A great man. And one day, you're going to be servant to a great king. Now you can still make that happen."
Merlin nodded. "Thanks to you."
Will coughed. "This place has been boring without you. It was good to see you again."
Merlin grinned through his tears. "Yeah, you too."
Will coughed again. It sounded wet. "Merlin. Merlin, I'm scared."
"Don't be." Merlin ran a hand through Will's hair. "It's going to be alright."
Will's grip on his hand tightened, then fell limp.
Arthur, Morgana, Gwen, and Hunith, waiting just outside the house, were the only ones who could hear Merlin as he began to sob, but Tinnig's grieved howl echoed throughout the entire village.
The people ducked their heads respectfully, a few crying for the man they had known for years. The men quickly started gathering wood for a funeral pyre.
Hunith disappeared inside the house, and Gwen and Morgana left to begin helping with repairs. Arthur waited uncertainly by the door, but when Hunith began murmuring to her son, Mala nudged him away. They left to help build the pyre.
His mind whirled with thoughts of Merlin, Will, and magic.
When the pyre was ready, the village elders entered the house. They carefully carried Will's body into the square and out of the village. Merlin followed them to the pyre, Tinnig clutched in his arms. They both trembled. Hunith and Fethryn walked protectively at their backs, shielding them from anyone who might try to approach them. No one did.
The elders gently placed Will on top of the pyre and covered him with a shroud. The villagers began to gather. No one spoke.
The elders lit the wood, and the pyre and body both were quickly engulfed in flame.
Merlin stood at the front of the crowd, closest to the pyre. Arthur cautiously made his way to his side. Merlin didn't argue, so he stayed.
They watched the flames in silence.
After about a half hour, people began to leave, to return to their reparations. Only a handful of villagers stayed. Hunith was one of them, flanked by Morgana and Gwen. They all watched Merlin.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said quietly. "I know he was a close friend."
"He still is."
"You knew he was a sorcerer, didn't you? That's what you were going to tell me?"
Merlin hesitated. He wouldn't look at Arthur. "Yes. It was."
Arthur looked at him sternly. "You know how dangerous magic is. You shouldn't've kept this from me, Merlin."
He expected Merlin to apologize, or defend himself, or simply ignore him. He didn't expect Merlin to punch in the face.
Arthur stumbled back, shocked. There wasn't a lot of force behind it, but as he had told Hunith, he had never imagined Merlin as a brawler.
Tinnig jumped from Merlin's arms to confront Mala, who had darted to stand between Arthur and Merlin. They snarled at each other, fur bristling.
Merlin was facing him calmly. His face showed no emotion, but his daemon's reaction had betrayed his inner rage.
Arthur wondered what he had said wrong.
"Arthur Pendragon, you are a right ass," Merlin growled. "Who are you to scold me about not telling you something? Especially something about my best friend that could get him killed. I know how you react to magic, I've witnessed it. Why the hell would I betray him for someone I've only known a few months?"
Arthur opened his mouth to argue.
"No," Merlin interrupted. "You've said your piece, it's my turn. I've been accused of magic, you know that. I know how that feels, the fear that grips you, the way people look at you. Will was my friend first, Arthur. I would never have betrayed him, no matter how close we are, whether you ordered me to or not."
Merlin turned and stalked towards the forest, apparently finished with his rant. Tinnig ran behind him, twitching angrily.
Arthur glanced around, embarrassed to realize that his friends and the remaining villagers had seen them. Gwen frowned, and Morgana glared at him.
Hunith pushed past him and followed Merlin into the trees.
Merlin sat on the forest floor watching Tinnig pace before him. He hadn't meant to lose his temper, but he was grieving and Arthur had pushed too much. Merlin hoped he didn't hate him for the punch.
Someone stepped on a stick behind him.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, thinking it was Arthur.
"You don't need to apologize," Hunith said.
Merlin turned around.
"I didn't hear what Arthur said," she continued. "But I know that you wouldn't react like that if he hadn't deserved it."
"He did," Merlin said. "But I still shouldn't have hit him."
"Probably not," Hunith agreed. "But I don't think he'll hold it against you."
"No, he won't. He knows you're not typically a fighter," Hunith assured. "And, this is no insult to your strength, but I don't think you hurt him much."
"No," Merlin grinned slightly. "Probably not."
Hunith knelt beside him. They sat in silence for a while, listening to birdsong and the sounds of villagers repairing their homes.
"You'd better be going," Hunith said as noon approached.
Merlin suddenly realized that he hadn't told his mother his plans to stay in Ealdor. Though... Now that Will was gone, he was beginning to rethink his decision. Will had made life in the village bearable. Without him, Merlin wasn't sure he'd last a week. "I don't have to go."
"Yes, you do."
Merlin frowned. "If anything were to happen to you..."
"I know where to find you," Hunith reassured him. "You have to go, Merlin. You belong at Arthur's side. I've seen how much he needs you. How much you need him. You're like two sides of the same coin."
Merlin smiled. "I've heard someone say that about us before." But would Arthur let him travel back to Camelot with him? Merlin supposed he couldn't stop him.
Merlin shared a long look with Tinnig. She nodded ever so slightly. Merlin gave in.
He turned to his mother. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss you, too." Hunith hugged him tight. "When you left, you were just a boy. Now look at you. I'm so proud of you."
Merlin smiled at her, then left to pack.
As they rode that afternoon, Merlin noticed that his companions kept sending him curious looks. Eventually it got to be too much.
"Will you stop that?" He snapped.
Everyone looked away guiltily.
When the sun fell they decided to set up camp. Surprisingly, Arthur helped. Everyone walked on eggshells around Merlin, and it was getting on his nerves.
Finally, while Gwen cooked dinner, Merlin asked, "Arthur? Can I talk to you?"
Arthur nodded and led them off to the side where they wouldn't be overheard.
"I'm sorry," they said simultaneously.
Merlin frowned. "What are you sorry for?"
"I shouldn't have confronted you. Especially not then."
"No," Merlin agreed, "but I shouldn't have hit you either way." He glanced guiltily at the small bruise on Arthur's jaw.
"No," Arthur huffed. "You most certainly should not have. But I'll let it go this time."
Merlin nodded, looking at the ground. Arthur clapped him on the shoulder and turned to leave, thinking they were done.
Arthur turned back around. He raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"I promised I'd tell you why I left Ealdor," Merlin explained quietly.
Tinnig squeaked in surprise.
"Merlin..." Arthur frowned. "You don't have to tell me."
"Yes I do," Merlin insisted. "I need to tell someone, I can't keep it to myself anymore. And I already said I'd tell you."
Arthur nodded and gestured to a fallen log on the outskirts of their camp. They sat down, angled towards each other.
"You can't tell anyone," Merlin warned. "Not even Gaius knows."
Merlin sighed. Tinnig crawled onto his lap, to comfort him as much as herself.
"About two months before I came to Camelot," he began. "A travelling merchant visited Ealdor. That in itself wasn't too unusual, but he stayed, for about a week. It was odd, but most of us ignored it.
"Whenever we got visitors, Tinnig would pick one form and stay in it, like we do in Camelot. But in the woods she would change however she wanted. One day he followed us into the woods and saw her. He ran back to the village, shouting about magic and how much gold he could get for bringing me to Cenred. It nearly caused a riot.
"The people of Ealdor have never liked me, but they would never turn me over for a bounty, if for nothing other than fear of Cenred. I don't know who killed him, as my mother had sent me to hide in the caves under the mountain, and no one would tell me what happened. But my mother decided it wasn't safe for me to live there anymore, so she wrote to Gaius. He agreed to take me in, and here we are." Merlin shrugged.
Arthur stared at him, having listened to the story in silence. Mala nudged him pointedly.
"I'm sorry that happened to you, Merlin," he said. "I promise you you're safe in Camelot."
Merlin shook his head. "Not from Cenred. Not even in Camelot. No one can find out about me, Arthur. People would panic, jump to conclusions. They might even try to experiment on us."
"I won't let that happen," Arthur promised. "But if you feel safer keeping the secret, you can. Just know that, when I'm King, you'll be free to tell whoever you want, take whatever form you want. Nothing will happen to you, because I won't allow it."
Merlin and Tinnig stared at him skeptically.
"Really?" Tinnig asked. "Whatever I want?"
"Within reason," Arthur clarified, not wanting to think of what creatures she could come up with if she let her vast imagination run wild. "No magical creatures."
Tinnig frowned, but Merlin grinned.
"Thank you, Arthur."
Arthur reached over and ruffled his hair.
Merlin squawked and swatted him away.
Arthur smiled fondly and walked back to the camp.
"D'you think 'e really means it?" Tinnig asked once he was out of earshot.
Merlin watched him go thoughtfully. "I think so."
"D'you think we'll ever be able to tell 'im 'bout your magic?"
Merlin smiled down at her. "Maybe one day."