It starts off simple: Merlin wakes up, and something's wrong. Oh, he can stand and talk and walk, eat and smile, but he feels off, somehow.
'Are you alright?' Gaius asks him, and Merlin smiles and says, of course. He wolfs down the heel of the bread loaf in case hunger is the issue (it isn't), and runs for Arthur's chambers, late as usual.
It isn't until he's running an oily rag over Arthur's latest new gorget and murmuring the gentle little charm to deflect and turn away harm which he's repeated over Arthur's armour every morning since he learnt it, that he figures out what's wrong.
It's the magic.
Nothing happens when he says the words – none of that warmth in his fingertips that should be there, that is always there after a successful spell. Not even the feel of something transferred, like water pouring from the palm of his hand that happens any time he reaches for his magic, successful or not. Nothing happens.
This is an issue.
However, charm or no charm, the armour still requires its upkeep, so while Arthur is rolling and stretching in bed and muttering about this morning's training, Merlin grits his teeth against his loss, and keeps polishing. He helps Arthur on with his shirt and breeches and when that's done, Arthur takes Merlin by the shoulder.
'What's the matter?' he asks. 'No, don't look away. Answer me.'
Merlin turns back. 'Nothing,' he says, and smiles. 'Just thinking.'
'Well, don't strain yourself,' Arthur says, giving Merlin a little push. 'I'll see you out on the field?' he asks. 'We're starting the new lads this morning. I'd like your opinion.'
Arthur is technically still the Crown Prince. He is happy with this state of affairs. Uther still rules the kingdom with an iron fist, but the knights answer to Arthur and Arthur alone, and Uther will no longer give them orders directly.
Arthur's desk is loaded with paperwork, as well – taxation, tithes and trading figures. Supposedly, he is learning how things are done, but Merlin has attended Arthur late into the night with a flagon of barley water and what suggestions he can come up with when Arthur asks, and he knows this is Arthur inching his way toward control.
It's aged him, mostly for the good. Merlin finds him easier, more congenial these days, as if he's learnt the weight of his authority as well as the power. Merlin puts it down to the younger knight-hopefuls coming through, now that Arthur isn't the youngest any more – he's learning to mentor rather than compete.
Arthur wanting Merlin's opinion has something to do with Lancelot and Gwaine, probably. Merlin hasn't questioned it, just made the most he can of the opportunity to look over the likely recruits and see who will be loyal and who has been bought, who is a coward, or venal, or angry. He is fairly sure he's vetoed two Mercian assassins this way, at least.
'I'll be there, he says. 'I just need to check something first.'
Arthur looks at him for a long moment, then nods. 'See you down there.'
Merlin nods as well, and jogs back to his quarters, thinking that Arthur was easier to deal with when you could just knock him out in times of trial, and all you had to duck was crockery.
'What do you mean, gone?' Gaius asks.
'Not there any more,' Merlin says, throwing his hands up. 'I felt a bit odd this morning-'
'What have I told you about lying about things like this?'
'It could have just been a dodgy tummy, and then you'd have told me off for skiving,' Merlin says. 'Anyway, I felt a bit odd this morning, but nothing too bad, and then when I went to charm Arthur's armour-'
'You did what?' asks Gaius, and Merlin realises he may not have previously mentioned this ritual.
'I do it every morning,' he says impatiently. 'That's not the point.'
'With Arthur in the room?' Gaius says, probing the depths of the iniquity. Merlin realises this may be slightly contravening every rule Gaius ever gave him about caution in the use of his magic.
'It's fine, he thinks I'm talking to myself,' Merlin says. 'If he ever comes close enough to hear, I turn it into a list of my chores. Anyway, the charm didn't work. It wasn't even a failure. It was just, nothing, like I had no magic at all.' He can't disguise the note of panic in his voice when he adds, 'Gaius, it was like one of my arms was gone. I tried to flex and there was nothing there to move.'
'We'll get to the bottom of this,' Gaius promises. 'Was there anything different about this morning? Anything unusual?'
Merlin racks his brains, but nothing springs to mind. 'No,' he says. And 'Oh, bugger, I told Arthur I'd have a look at the new trainees this morning. He's probably on to the second or third one already.'
'Be careful,' Gaius warns. 'There's no telling if this is the whole of the problem or merely the first sign.'
'I'll be fine,' Merlin says as cheerily as he can. 'And I'll be back soon, anyway.'
Out of the castle, on the practice grounds, Merlin starts to feel better. He stands next to the weapons rack in his usual spot, watching Leon and Gwaine take the five new boys through a series of drills with quarterstaves. Arthur paces around them, leonine, looking for faults in posture, in reaction-times and in technique.
Merlin, meanwhile, is looking for other things. How they look at each other, how they look at the knights: How they stand when Arthur isn't watching them, or at least, when they think he isn't watching them; how they treat their serving boys when Leon lets them take a water break, because even with Lancelot being of peasant stock and Gwaine barely acknowledging his noble ancestry, it's still primarily the sons of nobles who aspire to knighthood.
Almost immediately, Merlin notices the Treloar boy's glares in Arthur's direction, and the way his servant cringes. Treloar stares curiously at Merlin, as well, while he's waiting on the sidelines, which is odd. But then again, Merlin is hardly a warrior-type. He probably stands out to anyone new here.
After they've drunk, Arthur calls them one by one back onto the field to face him, still with staves. Young Blackburn acquits himself well and surrenders gracefully when Arthur disarms him. The second son of Lord Issey, a bear of a youth, lasts only ten seconds, but proves to have a lion's tenacity – takes blow after blow in quick succession, never fails to try again. Arthur knocks him top over teakettle when he leaves his left hand side open, but hauls him up and claps him on the back, grinning, afterwards. He will take training, but he will be worth it.
Treloar is up third.
At first he appears to fight well, but something in his manner alerts Merlin. He keeps trying to engage close-up, trying to lock Arthur in tight, body-to-body, and he finally succeeds in that with a clever hooking move, but Arthur skips out of it. Oddly, as soon as he thought he'd got Arthur trapped, Treloar had dropped one hand from his quarterstaff, and groped at his belt.
Merlin isn't sure, until Arthur comes back with an onslaught of high blows, forcing Treloar to block, block, block up above his head, which makes his tunic ride up.
He's carrying a knife. And when Arthur rushes him, he manages to pull it.
Merlin doesn't even think, just mutters the spell he always uses for this - heat to the blade, to make the wielder fumble and drop it. Treloar yelps as his knife glows red-hot, and Arthur sees it drop. He disarms Treloar shamefully easily because he's only holding his staff one-handed. In the ensuing confusion, because Leon rushes back onto the field to help Arthur, almost a minute passes before Merlin realises he's used magic again.
They cancel the rest of training while they deal with Treloar.
'Arthur beat his brother in a tourney three years ago,' Leon murmurs in Merlin's ear as they stand at the back of the throne room, watching as Uther, Arthur at his side, declares that John, fourth son of the lord Treloar, is banished from Camelot for treason. 'The brother took a wound in the fight and died of infection not long after.'
'Tourneys are more trouble than they're worth,' Merlin mutters back, knowing Leon is trying to hide a grin. Merlin's opinion on tourneys isn't news to any of the knights - they treat it as a great joke. 'If people aren't trying to kill Arthur during them, they always seem to give people reasons to try and kill him later.'
It's an argument they've had before, because this is far from the first time this sort of thing has happened, but Merlin feels grumpier about it than he probably should. He wants to get back to Gaius and tell him that the magic is back. And he needs to see to Arthur, not that Arthur is likely in need of anything, but after something like this Merlin is never happy until he's laid a hand on Arthur's shoulder or found an excuse to make him change his shirt so that Merlin can inspect his stupid prattish hide for cuts and bruises, or some other way of reassuring himself that Arthur is hale and hearty and whole, unhurt.
It's a weakness of Merlin's, one he tries not to dwell on, this desire to lay his hands on Arthur, but he justifies it to himself by remembering Arthur's propensity to pretend that minor injuries don't exist, and how broad his definition of a minor injury is. And he never abuses Arthur's trust in him, never looks like that, never lets his touch linger, however much he'd like to.
'Tourneys have their uses,' Leon says, patting Merlin on the shoulder. Uther sits back down again – the audience is over. 'Go and see to his Highness,' Leon adds. 'Tell him I said we can continue with the other two tomorrow – I know he will be fine to go on but the new men are a little shaken.'
Merlin nods, and trots off, trying to talk himself out of the foul mood he appears to have sunk into, without success. It gets worse and worse the closer he gets to Arthur's chambers.
Arthur has stripped off his sweat-streaked shirt unaided and is splashing water on his face when Merlin comes in, so Merlin makes sure that the knife didn't even touch him without even having to insist on a change of clothes or other spurious excuse.
'And still they keep coming, eh,' Arthur says, taking the towel Merlin offers him. 'You'd think they'd learn.'
'They all think they'll be the one to catch you out,' Merlin points out, taking the towel back and draping it across the back of a chair. Arthur goes behind the screen to change – Merlin sits back down at the table and takes up a polishing cloth once more, the lack of protective magic on the new armour chafing him. He'll just rectify that small matter whilst Arthur is out of sight.
'They'll have to do better than a knife on the training grounds,' Arthur calls back.
'You should still be careful,' Merlin says, running a finger along the throat-edge of the gorget. He whispers his spell again ...
'Merlin?' Arthur says, coming out from the screen in more respectable clothes for attending his father in.
'Pardon?' Merlin says, looking up.
'I said, if you polish that armour any more, you'll wear it away. I haven't even had a chance to wear it yet.'
'Sorry.' Merlin puts the cloth away. 'Do you need me this afternoon?' he asks. 'Gaius wanted my help,' he adds. Gaius is getting frailer – if Arthur doesn't need Merlin, he often lets him spend the afternoon with the physician now.
'If Gaius has need of you, of course you should help him,' Arthur says. 'My father and I are going to review the barley yield figures this afternoon, I won't require your services.' He squints at Merlin though, and looks as if he's about to say something else.
Merlin gets up, leaving the armour where it is, shiny but wholly unmagicked. 'Thanks,' he says. 'I'll see you this evening,' and leaves, before Arthur can ask him if he's sure he's all right.
'So, you could use your magic outside of the castle, but not in Arthur's chambers?' Gaius asks.
'Have you tried anywhere else in the castle?' Gaius says. 'I know I've always said you should never use your magic anywhere in the castle, but I think we can use this. If something is blocking your power, or leeching it, then we may be able to work out what or where it is by how strong its effects on you are.'
It takes them most of the afternoon, but they ascertain that whatever it is, the cause of Merlin's troubles is in Arthur's chambers, and he can't use his magic anywhere within the castle walls. It also affects his mood, and Gaius is extremely gracious in forgiving Merlin a few outbursts and remarks that he swears he didn't intend to come out as nastily as they did.
'You need to work out what it is in Arthur's chambers that's causing you this distress,' Gaius says when they are back in his workroom. 'Although, without your powers, that's going to be difficult.'
'That's an understatement,' Merlin says glumly.
It's a week later.
Although Gaius spends all the time he can spare on research trying to find out how Arthur's rooms or their contents might have suddenly become repellent to Merlin's magic, nothing seems to turn up either as an explanation or a solution.
Merlin has, therefore, to go about his daily work feeling like a new amputee; hampered, itchy, irritable, with the sensation that something vital is missing, reaching out expecting to grasp with a limb that no longer exists.
Arthur notices Merlin's snappishness, and deals with it in his usual manner. His first reaction is to shout, because that used to work, and then he sees that Merlin is hurting somehow, not just being mule-headed. So he turns to awkward enquiries and even more awkward touches instead - shoulder-clasps or eye-contact - which make Merlin feel worse, because he has to lie.
Merlin's only respite each day is on the training-field. Two days after the problem starts Arthur takes it into his head to go hunting, and Merlin feels almost giddy with relief. Out in the woods it's like nothing ever changed, he's whole again, and he has to stop himself using magic every second that he's outside. But in this time of peace and plenty, Arthur spends more time at his books than with his crossbow, and so it's only a day-trip, and that evening Merlin attends him and his books and scrolls, quiet and subdued.
Earlier than usual, Arthur puts aside the last parchment.
'Done for the night?' Merlin asks, dying to get away from whatever it is about this room that clamps down on him so. After the freedom of the royal forest, it's like being in a cage.
Arthur stretches. 'Not quite,' he says, and produces a wineskin from a drawer. 'Will you join me?' he asks, gesturing at the table. 'Please?'
'I'd better be getting back-'
'Merlin, please?' Arthur says in a voice that brooks no argument at all, and so, trying not to look bad-tempered about it, Merlin puts down his flagon and sits. Arthur does likewise, taking two goblets and filling them with wine. He offers one to Merlin.
Merlin takes it, knowing it won't do any good to argue. He only lips it though, pretending to sip, because the other thing he knows is how badly wine sits with him and how loose it makes his tongue. He doesn't want to say anything unwise in front of Arthur.
'I know I'm not always a particularly good friend to you,' Arthur says, in his 'grasp the nettle firmly' voice, which is close kin to his 'let's all get our throats cut,boys' voice – indicative that Arthur has made a decision that he thinks is hard, but must be done despite it. 'But I'm not blind, Merlin. Something isn't right. And I know that we aren't supposed to be friends, and as I say, I know I'm not very good at it, but I like to think that we are friends. And so I'm asking you, as your friend, what the matter is, and if I can help?'
Merlin's heart sinks. He's good at lying to Arthur when Arthur is demanding, or priggish, or heavy-handed, or if it's Arthur's life in the balance, but he's never been good at dealing with Arthur when Arthur actually means what he says. For that face and that voice and that sincerity, men have fought and killed. Arthur doesn't want anything from Merlin right now but the truth.
Merlin can't give Arthur the truth, because the truth will get Merlin killed. And while Merlin, like all those men Arthur has led into battle, would die for Arthur's sake, this is not that kind of a situation. No, Arthur can want this truth all he likes, but he will not get it. Magic is illegal, and Arthur is sworn to uphold the law, and while that is true, Merlin will lie to him.
'It's nothing,' he says, trying to think of a lie, and gulps a mouthful of the wine before he realises he wasn't intending to drink any of it.
Arthur frowns. 'That's clearly not the case,' he says, and bites his lip. He stretches his fingers over the table-top as if he's going to take Merlin's hand, but pulls back before they touch. 'Merlin-' he starts.
And then there's a heavy knocking at the door. Both Merlin and Arthur startle. Merlin, glad of an excuse to get away from the table, goes to open it.
'Your Highness?' Leon calls through the door as Merlin approaches. 'An armed party has been sighted south-' Merlin unbars the door and ushers Leon through. To his credit, the knight barely falters in his report of the situation. '- of the Royal Forest. They are druids.'
Arthur grits his teeth. 'Merlin,' he says. 'My armour, if you please.'
They ride out that very hour, Arthur and Merlin. Just Arthur and Merlin.
'We'll scout only,' Arthur says when Leon tries to argue with him. 'We'll move faster on our own and a good deal stealthier than a company of knights or even a squad of men would. And then we'll be able to report their numbers and heading precisely.'
'My lord-' Leon says, looking like he's about to tear his hair out, but Arthur interrupts him, holding up a hand.
'Your concern is noted, Sir Leon. I like to see things for myself, you know that.'
Merlin can see that Leon would dearly like to bash Arthur over the head for his own good, but is resisting. But it's outside the castle, so he should be able to keep Arthur safe. His magic should be within his grasp.
As they ride along, Merlin decides to try and finally put that charm on Arthur's new armour. The knowledge that it's not there chafes at him.
He brings his horse up close to Arthur's, lagging a little behind, and murmurs the words that should make the metal shine with the intent to protect. Nothing happens, which should be a familiar feeling by now, but Merlin's stomach drops, shaking and sick-feeling.
He tries another spell, another one he frequently uses around Arthur - one to break wood, to bring down tree branches. Again, nothing, no feeling of power, no anything but the weird sensation of grabbing for something with an arm that isn't there, and a sinking, naked feeling.
He has no weapons, he just has Arthur, and no way to protect him unless he finds a big stick, or something. Merlin may not need his magic so much to protect Arthur when the enemies he faces are nothing more than triple-copies of important records, but this?
Merlin racks his brains as they ride, trying to think
They get ambushed - the raiding party was closer than their information had suggested - and when Arthur wakes up, shaking the dark from his eyes and pushing himself up on his hands, he expects to be in a cell somewhere, a prisoner.
But instead of stone there's soil under his palms, and instead of walls and bars there are trees striping him with shade and sunlight. Arthur blinks at the harsh contrast of sun and shadow, and then again when he realises he's alone.
No horses, no Merlin, no-one at all.
He drags himself to his feet, finds his sword a couple of feet away from where he'd been lying, and uses it to support his weight until he can find a stick to lean on. He hurts. He picks a stick from a tangle of broken wood that's covering a body - a druid, he realises as he tugs at his chosen stick one-handed. Velvet cloak, rough, poorly-cast bronze jewellery. Looking up, it seems as if a branch has come loose from the tree at the wrong moment for this poor man. Then again, he was trying to kill or capture Arthur and Merlin, so Arthur can't bring himself to have too much sympathy.
That dead body is the only one, but there are a number of knives and swords that have been dropped, and there's a confusion of tracks, man and horse, to the northeast.
So Arthur has a direction. He has the slow trickle of blood down his left side, but he has a sword, and a stick, and a direction, and a goal. Find Merlin. Get home. That's all he needs.
The kidnappers, the druids, or whatever they are, haven't even gone all that far, but it takes Arthur far long than it should to follow them, propping himself up with his stick. By the time he smells the smoke from their fires, he's wincing with every step he takes.
He's not stupid enough to think he could defeat anyone face-to-face in this condition. And if he tries to whittle down their forces by taking out scouts he's likely to get shot. Which leaves him one option - brazening things out. He discards the stick (he has his pride) and schools his spine straight, before approaching their camp.
They're stupid, stupid - this is a big encampment, their women and children are here, and they've just led an enemy back to it. No wonder his father routed them and their kind in the Great Purge.
'Hello?' he shouts as he's getting close. No response. 'OI!' he bellows as he walks in, and then people do start poking their heads out.
'Who is in charge here?' he demands of the first man to face him. 'You have my manservant, and I've come for him.' More and more people are starting to come out now; men mostly. Hard-looking men, with swords and axes. Fighters.
'He's nothing to you,' says a voice to one side. Arthur turns. A old man stands there, looking a good bit steadier on his feet than Arthur feels. He sounds strong, authoritative. 'He's just a servant. We have let you live, against the better judgement of some here. Go back to your castle, and tell your father the druids are a merciful people.'
He sees Arthur look around at the warriors who are surrounding them, and adds, 'And a dangerous one. We will not forget the past.'
'The past is no matter to me,' says Arthur. 'My manservant is, however. You will give him back to me.'
'He is not your possession, Arthur Pendragon. Go home and find another slave.'
'He's my friend,' Arthur growls. 'There are no slaves in Camelot, and you are holding him against his will.'
The old druid laughs. 'There is no holding him against his will. It cannot be done. We will tend his wounds, when he wakes, and he will join with us.'
'Wounds you inflicted,' Arthur points out. 'He'll never join you. He's just a serving boy - what is your interest in him?'
'Enough,' says the old druid. He gestures at his men. 'If you do not choose to leave immediately, Arthur Pendragon, we will imprison you. We have plenty of crimes to hold against your name. Perhaps we will have a trial, a fairer one than you and your father ever gave to our people.'
'I leave here with Merlin, or not at all,' Arthur says, standing his ground. When the druid warriors grab him, he refuses to cry out, even though their rough handling pulls at his wounds. They toss him into a roofed-over pen made of wood and hide and cloth, the only exit a close-woven gate that's chained shut. He'd hoped that Merlin, as a fellow prisoner, would be there too, but he's alone.
They take his sword off him, which is the final indignity, but not unexpected. He comforts himself with the hope that Leon will send someone to look for them sooner rather than later, and then, because he has nothing more constructive to do, he falls asleep.
'Arthur? Arthur,' someone is whispering through the walls of Arthur's ignominious little pen, and the walls themselves are shaking, as if being pulled on. Arthur rouses slowly, groggily. The voice is awfully familiar.
'Mm? What?' he asks, pushing himself up into a sitting position. It's dark, he notices with interest. Night time.
'It's Merlin,' says Merlin. 'They told me you were here.'
'Hang on, why are you out?' Arthur asks. 'Why are you bothering to hiss at me through the walls when we could be on our way home by now?'
Arthur can almost hear the shifty look on Merlin's face before the manservant clears his throat and says, 'Uh, no, I'm … not a prisoner.'
'You're not a prisoner.'
'They kidnapped you, and then captured me, and put me in this pigsty, and you're not a prisoner.'
'And the reason you're not celebrating your great good fortune by opening this door at once is?'
'The lock's magicked,' Merlin says. 'I've been trying to find somewhere I could break the walls open, but no luck.'
Arthur rolls his eyes nevertheless. 'Or sawing through the bits of rawhide that are holding the walls together?'
'The whole thing is magicked, Arthur, I'm sorry. And I don't have a knife.'
Arthur supposes he shouldn't be surprised by this, really. 'Fine. Do you have any idea why we're here, or why you're suddenly a venerated guest? They said you'd been wounded - are you okay?'
'I'm fine - it was a twisted ankle, that's a -- hang on, someone's coming,' Merlin says, and there is indeed the sound of quiet footsteps. Before either of them can do anything sensible, the owner of the footsteps has come around the corner.
'Ah, Merlin.' It's the rich, deep voice of the old druid, the one who seemed to be in command. Arthur tenses, ignoring the way the injury on his side catches at that. He remembers he hasn't had a chance to look at it yet. It can't be helped. Taking off his armour in the middle of an enemy encampment would be the height of stupidity, anyway.
'Aldwin,' Merlin says, tightly. 'Are you going to let us go now?'
'You're an honoured guest,' Aldwin says. 'You may leave whenever you like.'
Aldwin laughs, a gentle, almost grandfatherly chuckle. 'If our positions were reversed, and I were in Camelot's dungeons, do you think Arthur would let me leave?'
'If you were in Camelot and not committing crimes, you wouldn't be in the dungeons. Arthur hasn't done anything wrong!'
'He has hunted and murdered our brothers and sisters.' Aldwin's voice has turned cold. 'We have yet to decide what punishment he will face.'
'I'm not leaving without him,' Merlin says, and there's steel in that voice. Arthur wonders why he's never noticed it before.
'Then you are not leaving,' Aldwin says. 'You have a tent - I am sure you will be comfortable there.' But there's a note of deference in the druid's tone, as if he's somehow afraid of Merlin. He moves off, footsteps still soft.
'Merlin?' Arthur asks.
'I'm still here,' Merlin replies. He sounds tired.
'You should leave.'
'I'm not leaving you here by yourself.' That steel-woven voice of Merlin's is back. Arthur wishes Merlin could be in here with him, in the dark, because it's lonely and he hurts, and he wants Merlin to be stoic at and bully Arthur into letting him look at his wounds.
'I'll make it an order,' Arthur says, but his heart isn't really in it.
'And I'll refuse it,' Merlin counters. Now Arthur can hear the grin in his voice. 'We've been in worse fixes. Don't worry, something will come along.'
When you can't see someone, their voice tells you a lot more. Like the grin, and the determination of earlier, Arthur can hear the uncertainty. Merlin is not as confident as he sounds.
'I'm not worried, Merlin, don't be ridiculous,' he says, feigning irritation and hoping he's a better actor than his manservant. Then, because he rather suspects Merlin will just sit out there all night if he's not given instructions, he says, 'Go and get some sleep. If they've given you a bed, use it. If they'll feed you, eat.' It's the basics, what every knight learns - take advantage of anything your enemy will give you. But Merlin won't know it. 'And that is an order you won't disobey, thank you very much.'
There's a tiny laugh from outside, and then silence for a few moments. Listening to it - just the sounds of the encampment settling down for the night to break up the emptiness - Arthur realises he's not looking forward to Merlin leaving.
'Arthur, are you alright?' Merlin says, quietly. 'If you're badly hurt, tell me. I might be able to make them treat you.'
'I'm fine, Merlin,' Arthur retorts, because he has to be, doesn't he? 'Now for God's sake go and get your head down.'
'Yes, sire.' There's a grin in Merlin's voice, and then just his footsteps, tramping away, before Arthur is alone in the dark.
Merlin does not go to bed. Oh no. Merlin has things to do. He can see light in one of the tents, the largest one, so that's where he goes.
'Ah, Emrys,' says Aldwin. He and some of the other elders are there, the people who'd greeted Merlin when their warriors brought him, struggling and swearing, to the camp. 'At last, you join us, in your proper-'
'Let us go.'
'You are not being held against your will, are you?' Aldwin asks. He frowns. 'You are Emrys - how can you possibly prefer skivvying for an enemy of magic to taking your place with your people?'
'I'm Merlin of Ealdor,' Merlin says, fighting the urge to snarl it. 'Emrys is just some … made-up thing, a fairytale. Arthur is my friend, and I want to take him home.'
'You'll never turn him,' Aldwin's wife, Cora, says to the man. Her eyes are hard as she looks at Merlin. 'He kills for Pendragon. His magic is tainted - that's why we took it, remember?'
Merlin has been trying to act as if he still had his power - he knows the druids think he is powerful, and he's happy for them to be afraid of them if that's what they want - but the constant groping for it at the back of his mind has been chafing him. This cuts through him like a knife.
'You did that?' Merlin has a hard time controlling how angry he is. 'Why?'
'We took nothing,' Aldwin says, glaring at Cora. 'We merely blocked it. Blocked it from protecting young Pendragon. He must take his chance with all the other mortal men. Your magic is for greater purposes, Emrys.'
Merlin feels his teeth grind together as he tries not to shout. 'My magic is mine,' he says, slow and clear. 'Mine for whatever purposes I choose. And if I'm without it, I'll defend Arthur any other way I can.'
Aldwin meets his eyes, looking calm, but with a flash of worry there too. The other elders say nothing, and Cora stalks like a lioness out of one of Gaius's bestiaries behind her husband. 'I will get my magic back,' Merlin says. 'And when I do, you'd best hope no harm's come to Arthur, and you'd best run if it has, because I'll be behind you.' He's breathing hard, and he's furious, and if he stays here any longer he's going to do something stupid. So he spins on his heel and walks out, going to look for the tiny tent they'd 'given' to him when he arrived (bound ankle and wrist over a saddle, hardly the way you treat one of your 'honoured guests').
As he does so, he hears Cora. 'I told you you'd never turn him,' she says again, but that's not what plays in Merlin's head.
We took nothing, we merely blocked it. Blocked it from protecting young Pendragon. Protecting. Blocking protection.
When Merlin had first discovered his loss, he was … charming Arthur's armour. Arthur's new armour, that he'd never set a finger on before. Where had that armour come from?
It isn't unusual for Arthur to have new armour - important people always seem to be giving it to him, and when they're not, he's buying it, always looking for something better than what he has. Merlin hadn't thought anything of it at the time. But the armour … new, uncharmed, blank. It's too much of a coincidence.
The armour. That's why Merlin could do magic during the practices with the knights, the hunting trip, when Arthur was unworried and made do in linen and leather. That's why Arthur's chambers were tainted, and why Merlin can't do his magic now. The druids must have somehow had access to Arthur's new armour.
It arrived in the same caravan as the Treloar boy, Merlin's memory suddenly prods him. He doesn't trust coincidences, not after years of looking after Arthur.
If Merlin can just separate Arthur from his armour, they might have a chance of getting away. And if pigs grew wings, they might have a chance at migrating south for the winter.
Merlin needs a plan.
Arthur wants him to sleep, and eat, and be sensible. In this situation, Arthur would be plotting and practising and brooding darkly in poorly-lit corners. Merlin isn't going to do that. He's not a knight, he's a servant. So he's going to do what he's learned to do in service.
In a word, eavesdrop.
The druids are having a council. Merlin sneaks back round to the tent he'd had his little confrontation with Aldwin and Cora in earlier.
The younger men are angry. Angry with Arthur, angry with their leaders, angry with the fact that they have to run and hide. Merlin learns a lot about them in a very short time, as they shout and rail at each other.
'If we hold some show trial, how will we be better than them?' one of them asks. 'It's dishonourable. It's dishonest.'
'Let him prove himself!' another shouts, and his cry is taken up by some of his peers. 'Let him fight us!'
'Emrys protects him,' says someone in a cold voice. The shouting stops, messily and raggedly, but it does stop. 'Aldwin says he can keep his power contained, but would you pit Aldwin against the legendary Emrys?'
'Aldwin isn't alone,' Cora says. Something in her manner frightens Merlin a little. 'Are we not all sorcerors of some degree?'
'None of us is that strong,' the cold voice says. But the others are shouting him down again.
'Let him try!' someone declares. 'Legends aren't all they're made out to be. If we work together, we will defeat him!'
'And defeat Pendragon as well,' says someone else. 'How good can he be, with his serving-boy always keeping him from harm?'
'John Treloar has reported to us that Emrys's magic worked still in Camelot!' the dissenter says.
'But our other ears in the castle report no sign of magic within the walls,' retorts Cora. 'Arthur has taken up the armour by choice - Emrys's magic cannot work close to it, and only if Arthur discards it by choice will the charm fade.'
'But when he knows what cripples his mage, surely he'll get rid of it?' someone asks.
'Fool. Do you think Arthur knows of Emrys's magic? No, he is as ignorant as his father. And Emrys knows that the truth will have him killed. He knows a Pendragon is not to be trusted on the subject of magic.'
'A tourney, then,' someone calls. 'Let Pendragon face a champion, as equals. Let him see what it is to fight a druid on a fair footing.'
'And if Emrys shows his hand to save him?' asks Aldwin. 'What then?'
'Why then,' Cora says, and she sounds sly and hard, 'Arthur will be forced to have him put to death. Emrys would not be such a fool.'
Outside their council tent, Merlin tries to calm the shaking in his hands. They think they know all there is to know about him, with their strange little legends. But they've never taken the trouble to find out the truth about Merlin.
Because for Arthur, he would be such a fool, over and over again.
Arthur rouses in half-light, all awash with aches and pains. When he shifts as he sits up, his gambeson catches against his skin and he remembers the injury he hasn't cared to look at yet. At least it's scabbed over, he thinks to himself a little muzzily.
Sudden light blares in the doorway, bright as a fanfare, and the old druid, Aldwin, walks in. He is flanked by two younger men. Guards, Arthur assumes.
'Good morning, young Pendragon,' Aldwin says. 'I trust you slept well?'
'Well enough,' Arthur says, resisting the urge to rub his eyes and blink in the onslaught of daylight. 'May I help you?'
'We have come to an agreement as to what your punishment will be.' Aldwin clears his throat, and goes on to say, 'Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon, crown prince of Camelot, you are challenged to a duel. Your opponent will be a champion of our people, of our choosing.'
Before Arthur can even open his mouth to accept, one of the guards steps forward and drops a gauntlet at Arthur's feet.
'When?' Arthur says, gritting his teeth and picking up the thing. It hurts to bend. 'And if I win, will I be allowed to go free?'
'Today, at noon,' says Aldwin. 'And if Fate does indeed favour your victory, you will of course be free to go.'
'Emrys may leave at any time. He has chosen to stay, because you are here. I hope he does not have cause to regret his decision.' Aldwin smiles a little sadly, and turns to go. The guards follow him.
'He won't,' Arthur says. 'Are we going to fight bare-fisted like barbarians, or will you give me back my sword?'
Aldwin doesn't even bother to turn back. 'Your sword will be returned to you at the appointed hour,' he says. 'But I do not think you will find our champion as easy a target as you are used to,' is his parting shot.
Once they're gone, Arthur sits down, heavily. He is starting to shiver, to feel cold even under the heavy quilted gambeson and the weight of his mail. This is not a good sign. When another set of footsteps comes close, Arthur tries to get back to his feet, and fails. He cannot help but be ashamed of the sound that comes form his mouth as he tries again.
'Arthur?' It's Merlin. He sounds, if anything, more tired than he did last night, and Arthur wonders if the idiot followed any of his instructions. He also sounds on the edge of panic. He must know.
'Yes, Merlin? I take it you've heard?'
'You said yes, then?' Merlin asks, and his voice is shaking.
'I want to know why. You're hurt, Arthur, I know that much, and you're tired, and you haven't eaten, and they're not just fighters, these people, they're druids, they're of magic. What are you going to do? Why,' Merlin says again, and he sounds like he's begging now, 'Why did you say yes?'
'Because what else can I do?' Arthur says. It's the only real answer he has. 'Wait for your diplomatic skills to talk me free? Wait for rescue like a damsel? Wait for them to get sick of keeping me here and order my execution? This way at least I have a chance.'
'You're really going to do it, aren't you,' Merlin says.
'Yes, I am.'
There is a long, pregnant silence from Merlin. Arthur lies down, trying to stay as comfortable as possible. Then the manservant says, tentatively, 'Arthur, you trust me, right?'
'I said, do you trust me?'
Arthur harrumphs, but acquiesces. 'I trust you,' he says, and he knows he's saying it with bad grace, but really. Merlin hasn't sworn him an oath, and he hasn't trained like a knight, and he isn't of noble birth, but there is no-one Arthur would rather have beside him at a time like this.
'If you trust me,' Merlin says, and he still sounds like he's walking on eggshells, 'then -- don't wear your armour.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Just don't wear the armour, Arthur. It's cursed, I swear to you. They've witched it. They planted it in your room, and … just, please, don't wear it. Trust me.'
'Have you run mad?'
'I swear -'
'You expect me to go out against some unknown warrior without my armour?'
Merlin sounds like he's on the verge of tears. Angry tears, probably, with gritted teeth. 'I asked you to trust me, Arthur. The armour is bewitched. If you have any hope of winning, you have to choose not to wear the armour.'
Arthur isn't sure he has any hope of winning, armour or no. The trickling down his side has started up again.
'Arthur? Arthur, I have to go - I shouldn't be here. Arthur?'
'Go,' Arthur says.
Arthur needs to be alone. He has to think.
Cora comes to talk to Merlin in his little tent. He tries to leave, but she follows him.
'It's a pity that we have had to contain your power,' she says, a little sadly. 'I would have liked to trade spells with you.'
Merlin shrugs. 'Well, you could undo your working,' he says.
She laughs. 'It doesn't matter, soon you'll be freed of your obligations to Pendragon anyway. Emrys, have I told you how honoured we are to have you amongst us?'
'I am not your Emrys,' Merlin says. He's starting to get very, very sick of that name.
'Whether you want to be or not, you cannot fight your fate,' Cora smiles. 'You'll be Emrys in the end, whether you embrace it now or not.'
Merlin is sick of this. He wants his magic back, and he wants Arthur back. He knows Arthur is hurt, and that itches him almost worse than the lack of his magic, the fact that he doesn't know how badly Arthur is injured and that he can't do anything about it.
He doesn't care much for her insistence on his fate, either. He turns his back on her, and starts to walk away, back to his tent.
'Pendragon will fight his duel in an hour,' she calls after him. 'In the clearing in front of the camp. I trust you will be there?'
He doesn't bother to reply. Instead, he starts reciting all the spells he knows to hurt, to push, to break. Just in case. If he has a single chance at getting Arthur out of here alive, he will take it.
An hour later, he is standing by an empty weapons rack in a pale, foul-tasting parody of his training-ground position, waiting anxiously to see who will be the druid champion. He refuses to be anxious to see Arthur without his armour. He will just wait and see on that one. Deal with the situation as it comes.
Most of the druids cluster at the other side of the clearing, leaving Merlin alone, but Aldwin nods gravely at him, and Cora flutters her fingers. Merlin scowls. There's a bit of commotion at the druids' position, and then one man stands forwards of the crowd, swinging a sword.
It's John Treloar.
A steady tramp-tramp comes from behind Merlin. A tiny jingling noise kills the little hope that was struggling to rise in Merlin's breast - he turns, and Arthur is fully armoured, his sword in his hands, and flanked by two of the druid warriors.
He's limping, just barely, and he holds himself stiff on his left side. Merlin isn't sure that the druids will have noticed, but he can see it, plain as daylight. This is suicide.
Treloar looks up, smirking, and takes up a fighter's stance in the centre of the clearing. Arthur's two guards go to join the main body of the druids, and Arthur walks to meet their champion. He barely manages a sportsmanlike nod before Treloar is on him, striking high and low calculatedly, making Arthur stretch to block.
He knows. Oh, he knows. And this isn't the green boy who fought Arthur with quarterstaves a week ago - this is expertise. Arthur is working for this.
Time and again Merlin reaches out to stop Treloar - heat to the metal of his blade, the grass to tangle his boots and trip him, the trees to drop their branches, lightning to strike him from the blue sky, but nothing will come, like there is nothing there to be called. Arthur is flagging, tiring - a coppery shine streaking the left side of his chainmail suggests he has bled from there. He's still keeping his guard up, but the effort it costs him is showing on his face.
Eventually Treloar manages to smack the flat of his blade against Arthur's shoulder, and he buckles. 'Hold!' Arthur croaks. 'Please, I require a moment to collect myself,' and Treloar hesitates.
Aldwin nods, though, from the side, and Treloar steps back, lowers his sword.
Merlin is across the clearing like a hare. 'Arthur,' he says, trying to get his master's arm around his shoulder, to pull him back to the side, to safety. He even entertains thoughts of running like that, trying somehow to get Arthur to keep up enough speed that they might lose the druids in the trees. But he knows it's only madness.
Arthur refuses to be carried up. 'No,' he says, coughing. 'Merlin, I - I had to try.' He pats distractedly at the buckles for his gorget. 'You have to help,' he says thickly. 'I tried my way. Didn't work. C'mon, help me here,' he adds, belligerent, and Merlin finally realises what he's trying to do.
Take the armour off.
Treloar is across the clearing, drinking water from a hide bottle and being clapped on the back by his friends. Merlin's fingers work feverishly on the straps and buckles that will free Arthur from this. He chose. Merlin knows that so far the armour has stymied him whether Arthur was wearing it or not, simply based on how close he was to it, but then, Arthur had chosen to take it up, chosen it as his armour. Now he has chosen to put it aside, on a field of battle.
Merlin hopes the magic will understand.
The gorget and the pauldrons have come away, the vambrances, now the chainmail - and suddenly Treloar is running back onto the field, Aldwin and Cora behind him, and their entire complement of warriors besides, but Arthur has slipped out of his mail and is hunched over on the grass in stained, bloodied gambeson and hose, no armour, no protection except that which Merlin can give him.
Merlin stands, straightens up, and feels the power swell in his veins. Treloar reaches Arthur, sees a fallen, injured man, and brings his sword up for a mighty chop - and Arthur runs him through. His grip on his sword is two-handed and inelegant, but it doesn't need finesse; Treloar rearing over him left his midsection undefended, and Arthur gets him between his cuirass and fauld, a belly cut.
But the blow is a heavy one and Arthur buckles under it, and under the weight of Treloar as he falls. Merlin bends to try and heave the body away, pull Arthur free, and that distraction gives his opponents their own openings.
'I'm fine,' Arthur mutters angrily as a fireball whistles past them, too close for comfort, and Merlin yanks himself back up straight, calling on the air the way he did in Ealdor for protection.
Cora is throwing another fireball at Merlin, but he weaves the wind around himself, enclosing him and Arthur, and it tears her fire into nothing but shreds of embers that flicker and die. She cannot cross him. He will not let her. Aldwin tries to part the shield of wind and is blown back.
Merlin had almost forgotten what it felt like, to call and be answered by his magic. So wound up is he in it that he almost doesn't notice, in amongst fending off the individual attacks of the other sorcerors, that Arthur staring up at him. He reaches out to Merlin with a blood-streaked hand.
'Merlin, you're-' he says, before passing out in a dead faint.
He's heavy, a dead weight, when Merlin picks him up. Merlin isn't sure how he's going to get him home, but right now it's a case of one foot in front of the other. He leaves the armour on the field, but takes the sword.
'Emrys!' Cora shouts after him. 'You cannot escape your fate! You're one of us, Emrys!'
'My name is Merlin,' he shouts back. 'And Arthur is my destiny. My fate can wait in line.'