THE FIFTH COLUMN;
a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group such as a nation from within, to help an external enemy.
Below them, Camelot was burning.
They were a sorry sight taking temporary refuge on top of a green hill. Just a small group of six and Merlin with a fist clenched desperately to his mouth, silent with wide eyes and a singed cloak, staring fixedly at the castle being ravaged by fire and soldiers within. The sun peeked through the horizon, splashing colours onto the clouds on his right. Merlin could hear the screams even from this distance, and he felt more than heard the first fractured sound escape from him since the invasion started. His mother, too wrapped up in her own quiet grief from the consequences of the day, couldn't bear to look at him from where she knelt on the ground.
"Those bastards!" Will yelled from his left, turning to kick uselessly at the beech tree that they'd climbed not even yesterday. At ten years old, the power behind such a kick was negligible and only a few wood chips flaked off. Merlin couldn't hide his flinch, jolting at the realization that Will's father, Sir William the Senior who was lying prone near the sentry post of the west entrance, would no longer be around to look both amused and disapproving of Will's inappropriate language. "We'll…we'll, Merlin. We'll make them pay. I promise. I promise. They won't get away with this," Will continued, impassioned and angry and everything else that Merlin couldn't express. "We'll come back and…"
"Merlin," a deep voice interrupted Will's tirade as a strong hand, a very much alive and treasured hand gripped onto Merlin's shoulder and pulled him back a step- just that much further away from the castle and all its inherent danger.
"You did well, my son. You did…" Merlin shook his head, the wetness clinging to his eyes finally breaking free, the only acknowledgement he could give to the hitch in his father's words. "You did what you had to do. You cannot be blamed for your actions. No one could have asked better of you. Let it go, my son."
"I can't," Merlin barely managed to sound. "Look what I've done."
Merlin didn't want to leave, not until the last of the flames had become little more than embers. Balinor didn't allow that. There was no use in feeding the guilt he knew his son was feeling, and although Merlin didn't believe it yet, what had happened in the King's Hall was not his fault. He allowed his son to grieve, briefly, before forcing Merlin along, one hand held firmly to his shoulder. One of the other men in their party moved towards Hunith with the intention of helping her, but was waved away before he'd made it partway. His wife gained her feet with some trouble, hands fisted in the torn and dirty front of her skirt, her eyes steeling as she stood. She wiped the last traces of grief from her face before she turned. He only allowed himself to feel light-headed relief when she fixed concerned eyes upon their son and called him and Will softly, providing them with the quiet reassurance and strength they both needed but wouldn't ask for.
She was always far stronger than any of them.
Even with one of the two small children they were travelling with magically connected to the very land, it still took Balinor's men and family two weeks to make it to the border of King Cendred's territory, to an outlying village of no consequence called Ealdor.
Uther and his court, wholly occupied with rebuilding Camelot from the ground up, spared minimal attention to the town's fleeing sorcerers beyond ensuring that they were far from Camelot's borders. Even as cautiously as news travelled, Dragonlords were slowly trickling into Ealdor, following whatever trail they could trace. Balinor knew from the cryptic visions his dragon had received before Merlin's birth that this was only a temporary reprieve, that within a year, Uther would start what would be known as The Great Purge.
Many would die. Some would need to be sacrificed. And his son…
Balinor watched his son's exhausted sleep, limbs tucked tightly underneath a thread bare coverlet with Balinor's calloused hand incongruously large on Merlin's thin back. His barely ten years old son would bear the brunt of it; he would be the one to set the course of the future.
Balinor still didn't know if he had made the right choice.
As with most things embarrassing to Merlin up to that point in his life, it started with some fateful words uttered from Will's mouth.
"Well. That's it then, I suppose. Guess it's time to steal us a prince," Will announced to the room at large. Hunith, Merlin's mother, managed to toss the two of them a worried look as she took her seat at the scuffed table they ate their meals. His father, Merlin was slightly alarmed to notice, had taken on a considering look from where he was already seated on the wooden bench.
This, of course, led to Merlin sensibly objecting to the plan.
"Will, even for you, that's insane. A prince? A prince? We can't just go steal a prince! I'm pretty sure whatever kingdom we take one from will notice that they're missing a member of their sovereignty. Besides, why a prince? Why not a bishop or a lord or…"
Will wrinkled his nose. "Oh, like it'd be any fun if they didn't notice their prince missing. I'm not talking about any prince here, Merlin. I'm talking about the youngest Pendragon."
"…Yes, Will. That's so much better," Merlin supplied dryly, after a sufficient amount of time passed to allow the shock to be absorbed. Merlin could understand the need for revenge and retribution but Will was going about this all wrong. "Let's just go steal the prince of the most powerful nation in existence right now. I'm sure they'll send us a nice goat with a note around its bell collar politely asking us to return their next king."
"Yeah, well, at least we could milk it," Will unhelpfully quipped. Whether he meant the goat or the situation, Merlin really didn't want to know.
"I'm not saying we should borrow the prince but we have to do something. We can't keep going like this," Hunith spoke up. She grasped Merlin's hand in her own, glancing at Balinor next to ensure that he, of all present, took her words to heart. "Hiding here, not knowing how the others are faring in Camelot. We can't remain here forever, Merlin. There are people who need our help. And we can't let Uther stay in power. You know that."
"So stealing the prince is so much better?" Merlin gripped Hunith's hand, his tone gentler towards her and holding none of the sarcasm that had coloured his words to Will. "Mum, Uther won't stop at anything to get Arthur Pendragon back. That's his only son. He'll send the whole army of Camelot on our heads. We can't risk that, not right now."
"Neither can we afford waiting here. My darling boy, you've told me that the magic in the land is ebbing." Merlin nodded as Hunith palmed his face. They both ignored Will as he demanded why Merlin hadn't told him as much.
"That could be attributed to the purge," Balinor reasoned.
Merlin shook his head, fingers tugging at the hem of his shirt. "Maybe. I dunno." And then, "I don't think so, Father. It's been fourteen years. A little late for it to be kicking in right now." He couldn't explain exactly how he knew this wasn't just a result of the Purge. There was something shifting, some imbalance that Merlin couldn't explain. He could feel the flow of power every time he connected with the earth, restless and wild like it had been slotted into the wrong place. It was eerily similar to how he felt at times, as if there was somewhere else he was supposed to be, somewhere he was supposed to belong.
Or perhaps it was something in him, some vital part that had gone missing.
He sympathized with Albion, really, he did.
"Then we cannot wait," Hunith declared. "This is our chance, to begin restoring the balance."
"Your mother's right," Balinor interjected before Merlin could lodge another protest. "We need to know what Uther's doing in Camelot, and whether Arthur Pendragon will turn out to be a threat to our goals. It will be best if both of you go to Camelot. Find out what Uther's doing. Find out about the prince, but be careful. Uther's hate of all magic is deep and he will not show mercy should you be discovered."
"And the prince?" Will doggedly asked. Merlin shook his head at his father.
Balinor held his eyes for a few moments more before compromising. "…We will see. For now, just gather the information."
Finding a suitable enough road in order to travel to Camelot hadn't been a problem. Uther was adamant in keeping the roads to his land free from most thieves; the few lingering that were good enough to escape Uther's knights and guards were easily avoided by Merlin and Will's stealth.
Merlin had to admit that at least Uther Pendragon knew how to take care of the lot of his people who were not inclined towards magic.
Merlin and Will made their way up to a small town just outside Camelot's keep. It was innocuous enough, not too developed and visited mostly by those trading small wares and wools. More importantly, it was largely devoid of knights and guards.
It wasn't necessary for them to travel with an entourage, especially when secrecy was more important than personal safety. Regardless of how brassy and reckless Will's words were, they weren't ready yet to just snatch a prince. That would have taken time, planning, supplies and a whole lot of dumb luck.
Canvassing the area took up the majority of their days. Merlin wanted to see for himself how hard it would be and what it would require to carry out Will's plan. For another, he didn't think it would be a good idea to do anything without his father's approval. The last they spoke of it, Balinor had been suitably cautious about the idea.
It was only because of Will's whining that they now found themselves inside of a tavern.
As far as taverns and inns went, the one they were currently in-- well. It wasn't that bad. The service was passable enough, the wooden building clean and the food warm. And the fact that the mead hadn't been watered down too much was an automatic plus in Will's book. Coarse, heavy curtains hung at the two wide windows present in the main room, just enough to keep the service area cool through the heat stroke or two that plagued this land during the summer harvests. Worn wooden benches and tables filled the area, spaced far enough apart for each guest party to afford a modicum of privacy, but not enough that a voice carrying wouldn't be overheard. Merlin was more concerned about the clientele, consisting of men and women looking for a quick stop on their journey, people who kept to themselves and people who made their passes into the security of Camelot.
It was very reserved, very bland, and absolutely the last place on earth that he expected to run into the biggest prat of Albion.
"You have such… beautiful eyes," a feminine voice simpered. Merlin couldn't see the fluttering eyes but it was nearly palpable in the tone aimed at the man next to her.
Merlin tried very hard not to roll his eyes as he looked at the figure planted beside him, seeing nothing but blond hair, a stout neck, and a well-worn jacket of undeterminable make. Merlin could tell from the clothes that the man wasn't rich by any means, but he was clean enough. And in Merlin's book, that recommended him above the majority of the males present in the bar.
"Of course they are," the neighbour replied to the woman, sounding very self-assured and as if he expected such compliments as part of his due.
Merlin definitely couldn't keep from rolling his eyes then, half-scoffing into his drink as he ducked his shoulders down. Will elbowed him in the ribs. Merlin ignored him. The man next to him carried on, informing Merlin that his momentary slip went unnoticed.
"It's a natural consequence of my birth, if you must know," the man extrapolated. "I have often heard it referred to as a true blue of the Albion Sea. But clearly, they're not as beautiful as yours. …I knew from the first, that you were special. That we would spend eternity together. There was this undeniable quality about you. Your beauty and…I love you. You must know that. Our beauties were clearly meant to be together."
A full scoff escaped Merlin this time along with a chuckle at the man's audacity at complimenting himself. Who even does that? He wasn't even touching on the embarrassingly sappy way the man was going on. The man he was laughing at swivelled partway on his seat, his head turning the rest of the way to chastise Merlin at his audacity for interrupting such an important conversation. Will latched onto Merlin's arm and pulled him off the stool, forcing Merlin to grip onto his drink if he wanted to save it and bring it with him. His companion's hand came up and tugged his green hood down even lower around his face, covering his identity and cutting off his vision, but not before he had a second to glance into the man's reprimanding eyes.
He supposed fawning, love-struck girls had to be right some of the time. Yes, well, it was probably only to make up for the utter lack of depth in the man's personality.
"Do you have a death wish?" Will asked, once they made it out the door, fingers finally releasing Merlin's elbow before he half-shoved, half-pushed Merlin further down the lane. "Or do you not understand that we're trying to preserve your neck here? Calling attention to yourself like that. Are you absolutely mad?"
"I couldn't help myself!" said Merlin, half-laughing. "I mean, did you even hear him in there? Going on about his stamina and prowess for over half a candle mark. It's ridiculous! And you can't deny it, Will, that girl in there," Merlin jabbed his thumb back towards the building, "she can't honestly be hung on him. It's obvious she's going to fleece him."
"Wait," Merlin blinked at Will in surprise. "You actually know her?"
Will glanced back over his shoulder to the bar, looking half-amused himself and slightly worried. Of course Merlin understood that they couldn't be seen. Those were the orders, especially with this outpost being so close to Camelot's borders. Being ousted now would have ramifications that neither of them could afford to entertain. "Maybe. Not our problem, mate. That bloke looks like he can handle himself. Besides, he's not our concern. He's not my concern."
"I know, Will," Merlin cut in, before Will could finish with 'only you are'. His friend's overprotective nature was amusing at times and endearing always. But the last thing Merlin needed was someone else to get hurt or die because of him. "Look, I'll behave, all right? Let's just go back in, finish our food and then leave. We still need to make it to Landing's End if we're to clear the gate before dark."
When they entered the inn this time, Merlin realised how Will knew Sophia. An older man, clearly another travelling companion with Sophia by virtue of holding her staff, was so clearly Sidhe from the aura he was radiating that Merlin was surprised with himself for not noticing it before. Balinor had always taken Will when he'd gone to deal with the Sidhe. He couldn't believe he'd been that distracted by the blond man's obnoxious presence.
Well. There goes that bloke.
It was when he took another seat across the room that the enchanted man fully turned, a glint of familiar red finally catching Merlin's eye.
The forest was quiet, unnaturally still and devoid of any of the usual animal noises. This told Merlin more than he needed to know about the creatures skulking along in front of him. Merlin followed on as silently as he could behind the group of three travelling ahead. The father led the way with the Sidhe girl trailing her enchanted man behind her with a delicately held-out hand. They hadn't gone too far from the inn, where Merlin had left a still snoring Will in their cramped, rented room.
Of course, if Will knew where Merlin currently was and what he planned to do, he'd be having nightmares instead.
It wasn't too long before they reached a lake, far enough from actual civilization that Merlin was certain Sophia and her father had no intentions of leaving the man alive.
"Hullo!" Merlin called out, stepping from behind some foliage once Sophia and the enchanted man had both submerged themselves waist deep in the water. The father pivoted on his feet, eyes flashing red with anger even as Merlin pointed towards Sophia's supposed lover.
"I know this is an awfully inconvenient time for you, but do you mind giving me that?"
"Arthur?" Sophia asked, tilting her face and looking at Merlin as if she couldn't believe his audacity. "Absolutely not! Find your own sacrifice. This one's claimed."
"Er. Not quite, no. The necklace? I know who it belongs to, so it'd be nice if I could get it back to them. If it's not too much trouble."
"Do not dare to interrupt us! Who are you?" the father demanded.
"No one particularly important. Can I have it, please?"
Thin, pale fingers grasped at the dragon-red stone , Sophia probably becoming aware of the properties in the necklace for the first time. "It's--"
"Yeah, I know." Merlin was fully aware of what she'd planned to say. There was no need to state the obvious.
"…and very beautiful, too," she continued, ignoring Arthur's half dazed stare that was aimed above her right shoulder. "I can feel it. What I can do with this necklace," Sophia mumbled, low enough that Merlin would have missed it if he had been a bit further up the bank. Her hand tightened around the stone, the other pushing at Arthur's chest and letting him sink, the waters enveloping him as he fell back gracefully.
Which was about as far as Sophia went before she burst in a sudden, violent magical flare.
"Oh, sorry!" Merlin called out, more from surprise than any real sense of remorse.
"What have you done?" her father yelled, pointing his staff end at Merlin.
"Onstyrian, onbregdan!" Merlin yelled in return, because honestly, he was coming at Merlin with a magical staff. The spell he cast yielded just about the same results.
"Odd," Merlin mused once the forest had fallen quiet again, staring with some puzzlement at his hand after the father had likewise gone the way of his daughter. "Definitely not supposed to do that." He was positive he'd shouted a moving spell, nothing lethal and certainly nothing that should warrant instant death. His magic hadn't acted up like that since he'd been a teenager, outgrowing him faster than he outgrew his clothes. Maybe the necklace…
Merlin eyed the lake, contemplating the success of actually magically lifting Arthur from it, but judging from how deep and wide the water went, and the fact that he had to keep a low profile…Right. No more magic. Nothing for it then, Merlin decided as he dove right in with his jacket still on.
Hauling a water-logged Arthur out of the waters wasn't the hard part, nor was using a location spell (an extremely and surprisingly augmented location spell, to Merlin's dismay) to pinpoint him towards the man in the potential watery grave that hard either. Oh no, the hard part came after, when Merlin was good and tired after hauling a man weighing at least a healthy two stones more than him past unhelpful currents.
Good thing Arthur wasn't wearing any armour.
Merlin collapsed on top of Arthur on the bank, the stench of wet leather heavy while wet hair poked into his eyes. He smacked lightly at Arthur's cheek, then quite a bit harder on his chest. In the confusion between Arthur coughing up a lung or two and the bandits showing up at the edge of the trees, demanding monetary homage- of which Merlin had very little, Merlin managed to slip the necklace that started all this off of Arthur's neck and into his own pocket.
"You can thank me now. I saved your life."
Merlin slowly pivoted, disbelief dominant in widened eyes as they fixed on the no longer enchanted, bedraggled figure standing across the grassy area from him. A stolen sword dangled from one large hand while a dagger was held in an under handed grip in the other. Scattered between them- taken down by a sword, a mysteriously falling branch, and a small dagger normally fastened to Arthur's side- lay a contingent of five men, all bandits and all neutralized. Merlin was somewhat impressed himself, given that he'd barely had to use any magic at all to bail them out.
Of course, he'd never admit that. Arthur, across from him, was still standing soggy and with the proud arrogance that made it seem he believed that Merlin owed him thanks.
"However, it is my duty to protect people, so. I suppose there's no need for abject gratitude. Just remember to be more vigilant next time. The forest is no place for a person alone," Arthur warned.
Merlin wasn't sure whether to be flattered that his well-being factored on Arthur's scale, or offended at the allusion that he couldn't take care of himself.
"Right. And how do you suppose you got wet in the first place? I saved you. Long before you saved me!" And you didn't save me, not really, Merlin silently fumed.
"That's utterly absurd! You saved me? From what? Small fish?"
"From drowning, you numb wit!" Merlin threw both hands up, turning in frustration as they came down. "Although now I'm wondering why I did it."
"I'll have you know, I am a great swimmer, and have never, nor will I ever need anyone to save me from drowning. Wait a minute, why was I in the water in the first place?" Arthur caught up to Merlin, squelching sounds announcing their steps as they trudged along.
"You don't remember?" Merlin didn't think it was all that wise to tell the man that he'd been that close to becoming a Sidhe's leftovers. Not that he wanted to explain about the magic. "Oh well. Um. I was taking a walk. A very long walk, actually. Because it's a nice day and all. And I found you here. I mean, there! Flailing around like a hen in heat. So I decided, well, can't let the man die now, right? So I jumped in and pulled you out."
Arthur gave him a suspicious look. "You? Pulled me out? Just like that?"
"Just like that," Merlin confirmed rather cheerfully.
"Let's say I believe you for a moment," Arthur pointed out after they've walked along in silence for some time, "which, by the way, I don't. But let's say, for the sake of miracles, that you did save me from a drowning I do not recall, from a river I do not remember entering. I'd say we're more than even, and that in fact, you owe me, considering I saved you from five men ready to do God knows what to you. Am I right?"
"No," Merlin immediately disagreed.
"No! I can defend myself." Which Merlin proved by pushing a thin branch out of the way, then letting it snap back to hit Arthur in the face. Quick reflexes saved Arthur from acquiring a new scratch. He continued on as if Merlin's action hadn't been intentional.
"And does this infuriating person who believes he can defend himself have a name?"
"Merlin. And I suppose I already know the pompous arse's name, so no need for any other introductions."
"…Right. Insolent and useless. A pretty powerful combination. I have to say," Arthur continued right over Merlin's muttered 'oh, shut up' and assorted grumblings, "I was very impressed by your skills back there, Merlin. You know, laying on the ground and wriggling about every time one of the bandits came near."
"You were in the way! Or else I would have fought back."
"Really? Prove it then."
"What, right now?"
"Sure, why not? Unless you have any other pressing matters to see to, besides finishing your walk?" The words were polite, but the tone of Arthur's voice and the way his eyebrows rose with a trace of mockery said otherwise. Both clearly declared that if Merlin wasn't going to take up his challenge, Arthur would lose all respect and belief in his ability to take care of himself.
"I hope you brought some pain salve," Merlin accepted. "'Cause you'll definitely need it."
Merlin didn't exactly wipe the floor with Arthur, but neither did he spectacularly lose. Arthur was good, really good, probably the best Merlin had ever seen. During their first sparring session, he only had enough breath between blows to be thankful once to his father for making sure he knew his way around a sword. He was sure, deep down, that if he hadn't been drilled endlessly by Balinor and by some of his more trusted guards, he'd be nothing more than a glorified punching doll for Arthur right now.
The first session ended up in a messy, squelchy draw as they were wet and exhausted, barely able to last three minutes before they both collapsed in a pile of elbows and knees, and Merlin's nose pressed against places he did not want to be pressed against ever again; the second ended in Merlin's favour. Admittedly, Merlin may have tipped the battle on his side with a sparing use of magic. The third, fourth, and fifth were indisputably Arthur's, and Merlin's stubborn streak reared its head to win him the sixth and arguably, the seventh.
(It wasn't Merlin's fault if Arthur couldn't concentrate on the path of Merlin's sword and not on the pure white unicorn that just happened to be prancing by. Arthur should be thanking Merlin on his knees for deflecting that blow in the nick of time, or else his family would have been in great peril. Plagues and water droughts and food shortages were nothing to shake a stick at, or so Merlin had been told. Besides, Arthur should have been positively embarrassed that the unicorn wanted more than just a scratching.)
And it went on with no clearly defined winner, until before Merlin realised, a month had gone by between the first spar and the seventh. He had been evading Will to see Arthur in secret and was no closer to tracking down the Prince of Camelot.
"Hullo?" Merlin poked his head into the room, entering fully when he noticed it was vacant. Organized chaos dominated the chamber. Numerous books sat snug on the shelves, with some haphazardly placed on every available surface. The ceiling in the room was high and the medicine shelves full of labelled glass bottles. Round glass vials were bubbling merrily on a side table armed with burners, but there was no one around to supervise them. He walked into the room, turning in a half circle as he made his way to the middle. The room obviously belonged to a scholar.
The unmistakable sound of a book being shelved caused Merlin to look up.
"Hullo?" he called, this time spotting an elder man on the second level, reading a book. The man wore brown robes and had white hair just long enough to brush against his shoulders.
The man barely glanced down from his high perch before saying impatiently, "Yes? Yes, boy, speak up. I haven't the time."
"Are you Gaius?" Merlin inquired.
"I am. How can I help you, my boy?"
"I've been looking for you."
"Well, you've found me. Now are you going to continue wasting my time with pointless chit chat, or are you going to tell me what you need?"
"I don't need anything, actually."
Gaius snapped his book shut, mild irritation present when focused on Merlin. "Then why are you here?"
"Because my mother told me to be. Hullo, Gaius. I'm Merlin."
"Merlin?" Gaius gasped. "Hunith's boy?"
Merlin laughed, eyes crinkling as he gave a little wave. "Yeah."
Gaius quickly made his way down the stairs, abandoning his book and taking off his reading glasses. He tossed both onto the table he passed, only slowing his pace once he reached Merlin.
Merlin found himself warmly wrapped in a pair of arms, the familiar smell of herbs and paste surrounding him. He inhaled deeply, his arms automatically wrapping around Gaius in return.
"I can't believe…Merlin!"
"I can't believe it either."
"You've grown so tall! What are you doing here?"
Gaius pulled back, hands on Merlin's shoulders and holding him at arm's length.
"She's all right?"
"She's all right," Merlin confirmed.
He peered into Merlin's eyes. "And with Balinor?"
"Yeah. He's still alive."
"Oh, thank the gods for small miracles." Gaius exhaled sharply, chuckling as he did. His smile faded, however, once he realised who was standing there. "If you're Balinor's son, then you should not be here."
"It's sort of a long story. But my mother wanted me to tell you," Merlin reached out and gripped Gaius' forearm. Gaius stared blankly back at Merlin. "She wanted me to tell you 'thank you for the warning'. My father wouldn't have made it out of Camelot alive if it wasn't for you."
Gaius shook his head, a gnarled hand patting Merlin's shoulder. "I had to. It was the right thing to do. Uther can be blind in his grief, forget reason for the sake of his broken heart. I could not, in good conscience, allow Hunith to fall victim to that. Hunith is…"
Merlin nodded, acknowledging the unspoken word. Hunith never faulted Gaius for following Uther, had only felt sorrow when her brother was forced to choose between the man he loyally served and his family. When it came down to the wire, Gaius had still warned them, given them the time required to escape.
For Hunith, that was all that mattered.
"It's dangerous here, Merlin," Gaius said, pouring a steaming drink into a cup for Merlin. He nudged the cup towards Merlin once it was mostly full, silently urging him to take a sip.
"Herb tea," Gaius supplied. "The best in my stores. Strengthens the heart and flushes the digestive tract. It's very good for your health."
Merlin took a sip and grimaced at the bitter taste. "Yeah. You can certainly taste it, too."
Gaius swatted the back of his head. "Cheeky as ever, I see. How long will you be staying?"
"Depends, really. You wouldn't happen to be hiring, would you?"
"Here, in Camelot? Are you mad? This is Uther's territory."
"I know! But we're here for a reason, me and Will."
"Will. The saints preserve us, you've dragged Will into this?"
"Him? He dragged me! He has changed though. Won't you help us?"
"This is madness, Merlin. You cannot hope to hide under Uther's nose, at least not for long."
"I can certainly try. Father wants me to do something here, and as much as it pains me, I agree with him. I just need a place to stay for a few weeks. And possibly a job, for appearance's sake."
Fiddling with his cup of tea, Gaius sighed. "I suppose if I don't offer you something, you'll simply commit some idiotic mistake, possibly applying for a position much more dangerous than the one with me. Very well, I am in need of an assistant. But no slacking, and I expect you to make your deliveries on time."
"Yes, I will. Thank you, Gaius."
"Good." Gaius took another sip of tea, hiding a smile behind the cup.
Merlin braved another sip. Nope, still tasted the same. "I noticed something on my way in here."
"Yes, my boy?"
"Where are all the soldiers? I only ran into a few on my way here."
"The scarcity of soldiers is not your concern, Merlin, as much as you believe otherwise. But I suppose there's no harm in telling you. A majority of the soldiers have been dispatched across Camelot, to look for something. Rumour has it there's a weapon of unparalleled power out there, with strength enough to bring down Camelot."
"A weapon?" Merlin bit at this thumb. "How come I've never heard of it?"
"No one's seen this weapon, or even knows where it's hidden. Uther's hoping to find it before someone else does. He's concerned about the death of his people at the hands of sorcerers. What the weapon does, nobody knows. But if such a weapon does exist, it would be best kept out of the hands of those who would abuse it. Can you imagine the damage such a weapon would cause?" Merlin shook his head. "No. It's better to leave such things alone."
Merlin's days took on a pattern: delivering medicine for Gaius in the mornings, exploring Camelot in the evenings and every few days, meeting with Arthur to spar. Will returned to Ealdor a week ago, taking Merlin's latest missive to Balinor. It was forgivable then that Merlin started in surprise when he ran into Will in the courtyard.
"Will!" Merlin exclaimed, completely surprised to see him in Pendragon soldier attire. "What are you doing here?"
"You told your father there was a scarcity of soldiers in Camelot, didn't you?"
"Well, yes. Still doesn't explain what you're doing here."
"I'm a soldier now. Of Camelot, if you can believe it. I have to wear this stinking uniform with its obnoxious colour. It's horrible."
"You're a soldier?" Merlin asked, laughing.
"Yeah. Insult me now, will you? Anyway, we've got a few men in Valiant's group, and some in training to be in Uther's. The prince, on the other hand, seems to have a higher standard on what his soldiers should be like. We haven't managed to get one man in. They're being rejected in the preliminary round, so no one's caught a glimpse of him yet."
"Are you sure that's a good idea though? What if Uther finds out?"
"He won't. The others are under strict orders not to use magic. And a few of us can't, so it's not really an issue. The real issue though, is that we can't get anyone into his contingent of knights. It's a pity. Soldiers hardly know what's going on. We really need someone on the inside, Merlin."
"It's too dangerous, Will."
"What about your uncle, Gaius? Isn't he the personal physician to the king? Surely he'll know what's going on."
"Can't ask that of him. He's already risking enough by letting me stay there."
"I don't understand your family," Will lowered his voice, casting wary looks at the people passing by. "He was traitor to you, following that bloodthirsty king. And now you just forgive him?"
"It wasn't like that. You don't understand." Gaius had risked enough. Merlin's family understood that, why couldn't Will?
"You're right I don't understand." Will shifted impatiently, shrugging his shoulders to readjust the fit of his shirt. "Look, let's not talk about that right now. We still have to find the Pendragon Prince."
Relieved at the subject change, Merlin quickly offered, "Gaius says he's disappeared for a few hours each day, and no one knows where he's gone off to."
"You think he's up to something?"
"Guess it's our job to find out then."
"Do you not have a home?" Arthur asked between panting breaths, both he and Merlin lying side by side in the clearing they'd come to claim as theirs. The tree canopy above filtered most of the sun rays, letting a gentle sprinkling of light through. It was quiet, peaceful, with only their sounds disturbing the serenity of their place. It was so peaceful there that Merlin sometimes forgot why exactly he stayed in Camelot.
"What? Of course I do. Why do you ask?"
"You've never invited me over." Arthur shuffled his feet at that, looking as uncomfortable as Merlin felt by the question.
"There was just never any chance to." He bit the corner of his bottom lip, pretty sure that telling Arthur where he lived was a stupid thing to do. "Besides, I doubt you'd like staying at my house anyway. You'd have to milk goats and tend the fields if you're going to be staying. Maybe even muck out the chicken stall."
Arthur took a moment to consider that, before replying flatly, "Sounds like fun."
"Liar," Merlin said quietly.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I'm not exactly built for those types of chores. Give me a sword and a shield any day, and I'll show you how it's conquered."
"I'm sure you would," Merlin laughed softly, bending his elbow and shoving his arm into Arthur's. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Where do you live?"
Arthur quickly sat up, resting his forearm on a bent knee. He didn't respond for some time and Merlin felt it appropriate to dig a finger or two into Arthur's side. Arthur swatted his hand away. "It's not too far from here. It's a beautiful c- …home, and I wouldn't trade it for another."
With his eyes downcast and tearing at blades of grass with his fingers, Merlin asked, "Then why do you sound so unhappy?"
"I don't know." Merlin turned on his side, the better to watch Arthur's profile as he spoke. "It's lonely, I suppose. I have a…step-brother of sorts. And someone like a sister. We haven't been as close as we used to be. And Father's busy with his duties. I don't blame him. If I were in his position, I'd work just as hard. That's what it all comes down to. Duty."
Merlin felt his heart tug then, watching the bright sunlight frame Arthur's head, listening to him speak of what was undoubtedly his childhood. Merlin wasn't very popular with the other kids but at least he'd had Will. It sounded like Arthur had had no one.
"What about your mother?"
Abruptly, Arthur stood, dusting off the seat of his pants before offering a hand to pull Merlin up. "And why would I be discussing that with you? I hardly know you, Merlin. Besides, it's almost dusk. We should head back. Shall we meet again? Say, mid-day after tomorrow?"
Merlin knew a misdirecting tactic when he saw it. But all he did was nod, and promise, "All right. I'll be here in two days."
"Great. Let's head off then." Arthur gathered his swords, vambrace and black gloves from where he'd toss them into a pile, steps hurrying to catch up with Merlin where he'd set off down the road already. "I meant to ask," he said as he tugged on one of his gloves, drawing level with Merlin, "you wouldn't happen to see a necklace on the day I first rescued you, did you, Merlin?"
Merlin's steps faltered slightly at the inquiry. "Did you lose one?" Both of Merlin's hands slipped into his pockets, fingers brushing against the hard surface of the stone.
Arthur's gloved hand rose to his own collar, only to fall back to his side even before it reached halfway. "I've been back to the lake a few times, but I haven't found it. I fear it's lost to me."
"Was it important then?" Merlin asked, side glancing at Arthur.
"I…yes," Arthur admitted after awhile. His voice dropped in volume, a hint of longing slipping into his words. "It was my mother's."
"Your mother's?" Merlin was aware that a note of hysteria was creeping into his voice. "Are you sure? Did she buy it from someone else? A peddler, maybe?"
"My mother did not buy her jewellery from peddlers," Arthur announced pompously, only to immediately deflate. "It was a gift. One she treasured. When she…left," died, Merlin provided mentally, "father had it sealed away in her chambers. I broke in." Arthur lifted his chin, as if daring Merlin to berate him for a boy's wish to be closer to his mother. "And took it, along with this ring."
Merlin wasn't sure why Arthur was telling him this, since they'd never shared such personal stories before. And judging from Arthur's look, he didn't know why he was telling Merlin about this either.
Arthur glanced down at the silver piece wrapped around his forefinger. "Matron from the kitchens told me that mother wore it on the same finger of her other hand."
"She did," Merlin whispered, feeling his alarm build and all kinds of stupid for not recognizing it earlier. Arthur, this man beside him was Arthur bloody Pendragon and he'd been canoodling with the enemy all this time. He had been hunting Uther's son down and failing, when all along, the man had been right beside him.
Beyond the sudden rush of panic, Merlin wasn't sure how to feel about this.
"What was that?"
"Nothing." Merlin swallowed. "I have to go. I have to…" He took off, heart racing and ignoring Arthur's calls.
"The Prince, Will! The Prince!" Merlin moaned, collapsing dramatically on the hard and lumpy mattress the inn provided.
"Could be worse. He could be Uther." The humour fled Will's eyes. He threw the shirt he was mending onto the table. "You could have told me, Merlin, that you were having secret meetings with him."
"I know! I'm sorry, all right? I didn't know he was a Pendragon."
"Would that have made a difference?"
"Of course it would! You know it would!" Merlin dug the heels of his palms against closed eyes, feeling the frustration and regret rise all over again. He thought he'd found another friend in Arthur, a different kind of friend. Being with Arthur was unlike being with anyone else. It was exasperating listening to Arthur go on at times but their time together was always charged but easy, and Merlin already missed it. For once in his life, he'd almost felt like he'd belonged.
Now it was over.
Merlin sighed. "The necklace. All this over a necklace."
"I take it he doesn't know how important it is."
"He knows it belonged to his mother." If Merlin learned anything from the time he spent with Arthur, that fact alone made the necklace priceless to the prince. Merlin dropped his arms onto the bed. "This is ridiculous," he told the ceiling and indirectly, Will. "We've found the prince and determined the underground passageways into Camelot are still serviceable. Let's just go home."
"Sorry. Can't. We still need to investigate the state of Uther's army. Why don't you just ask your new friend?"
"Right. Perfect. Just ask him if he'll tell me secrets about his dad's army, not that I should know he has an army."
"Guess that does put a damper on things. Sounds like what you need, my friend, is an 'in'. Lucky for you, I've got just the plan," Will announced with unholy relish.
Merlin could do nothing but groan.
Merlin tilted his head and peered through the doorway. He looked around to make sure that no one else was in the counsel room. Uther had been in there earlier, drafting acquisition plans and Merlin wanted to see what was written on those documents.
Following previous patterns, Merlin knew the break Uther called would be short. He didn't have much time.
"What are you doing here?" Came a voice from behind him.
Merlin twirled quickly, flattening against the door and inadvertently forcing it open.
"Nothing!" He blurted. "Well, not nothing," he amended once he saw the dusky-skinned woman, eyeing him with suspicion. "I was just looking for," he glanced down at the sheets she was carrying in her arms. "Arthur!" He supplied, eyes coming back up. "I was looking for Prince Arthur."
"Arthur?" She repeated, when her eyes lit with sympathy and understanding. "I recognise you. You're looking for Prince Arthur? Then you must be the new manservant, Merlin."
"Yeah," Merlin nodded tightly, scratching at his jaw line. "That's definitely me. How'd you know?"
"Oh! Well, I was there. I saw what you did. It was amazing, how you stood up to those bandits and saved the prince from being kidnapped."
"It was nothing, really." Considering the 'bandits' had been paid to make Merlin look good, he didn't feel very comfortable accepting praise from this woman. Merlin swore in his mind that he would never follow another one of Will's plans again.
"No, you shouldn't be so modest! Everyone saw, even the King! When Prince Arthur fell over that bucket, I thought he was done for. It was odd. I didn't even see it there before he tripped over it. It's a good thing you were around. Funny. You don't seem like the burly, manly type."
"I mean, you are very strong, obviously," the woman backtracked, ducking her head. "And you did manage to save the prince. You're just not very," she paused, searching for the right word, "big."
"I have big ears, does that count?"
Gwen laughed, nodding that yes, it did count.
"I'm Guinevere but you can call me Gwen." She shifted her burden to one arm, offering a hand for Merlin to shake. "I'm the Lady Morgana's maid."
"Yes, I know," she laughed. "A pleasure to meet you. If you're looking for Prince Arthur, he's on the training field. Come, I'll show you how to get there."
Gwen turned, leading the way. Merlin had no choice but to follow, casting a last look at the counsel room.
Will returned from visiting Ealdor five days later bearing food stores, newly mended clothes, and Merlin's father.
"I hear you've done well for yourself, son," Balinor said, the moment he caught sight of Merlin, "the prince's personal manservant."
Merlin wanted to sink into the floor when his cheeks heated, his father's smile and genuine pride making him more embarrassed than when he'd received praise from Gwen. "Father, you know it was a set up."
"Yes, Will told me. But had they been real, I know you would have still made me proud."
"Will informs me that you're close to the prince." They'd retreated to the inn outside of Camelot, Balinor's face too memorable to be seen inside the castle walls.
"Will's got a big mouth." With a sheepish look on his face, Merlin ducked his head. "I didn't know he was the prince."
"That's probably to your benefit. I imagine he enjoyed the novelty of being free of expectations. Now that you've saved his life, he'll trust you even more."
Making a non-committal sound, Merlin didn't tell his father that he'd saved Arthur's life before.
"Merlin. This is a difficult situation and I wouldn't ask this of you if it wasn't important."
"You want me to spy on the Pendragons."
"Yes." Balinor leaned back in his chair, hands spread wide on the table. "I would not ask you to endanger yourself more than necessary, but my feelings tell me that you should be by Arthur's side." Balinor watched Merlin shift. "You don't agree?"
"It's not that. There's something wrong with my magic." Balinor nodded, a silent bid for Merlin to continue. "It's almost uncontrollable when I'm around Ar- the Pendragon Prince."
Balinor rubbed at his chin, watching Merlin with an odd, knowing expression. "You shouldn't fear it. Perhaps your core is growing again. Start small and work your way up to complex spells. Your magic will balance itself soon enough. Is that the only problem?"
"Yes." Merlin was tired of seeing his brethren executed for committing minor offences like healing spells and laying irrigation paths, spells normally cast to improve the way of life. Someone had to stop Uther and if it required him spying on Arthur Pendragon, he would do it. "Yes. All right."
"Good. Now fetch Gaius for me, son. I have things to discuss with him."
Merlin was immediately introduced at court as the Prince's personal manservant. No mention was made that Merlin, in fact, had saved the prince's life.
It wasn't until Merlin asked around for help with his daily chores that he realised he was the only one assigned to Arthur at all, an honour and a privilege if the way the others went about explaining it was anything to go by.
Arthur wasn't kidding when he said he didn't trust anyone.
He explored Arthur's chambers, making note to check the view of the window from the outside. The last thing he needed was for someone to see him casting magic as they passed below. Finding out where the rest of Arthur's necessities were stored was more of a trial and error hunt.
Finding out where Arthur stored his map and state documents was definitely much easier.
It turned out that Gwen was free the next day. She offered to give Merlin a tour of the castle, to acquaint him with the service passageways. He quickly accepted.
They were nearing the end of the tour with Uther's throne room the last to be explored. Gwen cautioned Merlin from ever sitting on Uther's throne, and pointed out the seats belonging to Arthur and Morgana. The most interesting piece, however, was the well-crafted sword curiously embedded into the floor.
Merlin's smile held admiration as he bent down to read the inscription on the sword. "Take me up." He tilted his head, viewing the other side. "Cast me away."
"It's odd, isn't it?" Gwen bent down, running her finger along the blade. "It's been here for as long as I can remember."
"No one's ever tried to move it?" Merlin inquired, expression serene as his hand wrapped naturally around the hilt.
"No one's been able to move that sword for years," Gwen stated. Then hesitantly, "did it just move?"
Merlin snatched his hand back, rubbing it against his thigh as he gave the sword an apprehensive look.
"I dunno. I didn't feel it move."
Gwen hummed. "I'm sure it was just my imagination. Are you ready? We only have one more stop."
"And this is my Lady Morgana," Gwen concluded as she introduced Merlin to Morgana. She stood between them in the hallway, the flowers they'd just picked still clutched in her hands.
"So you're Arthur's new whip boy." The beautiful woman in front of him lifted her chin, fixing him with a stern look.
"No matter. Just be careful about--"
"Morgana." Arthur drew out the vowels in her name, approaching their group with long strides. "What exactly are you telling Merlin?"
"Only the truth, Arthur. What's the matter? Afraid he won't worship the ground you walk on anymore if he knew the real you?"
Arthur approached them, eyes moving from Merlin to Morgana. His fingers flicked in a move clearly meant as a dismissal for his manservant. Merlin, appearing relieved by the dismissal, waved haphazardly and left.
When Morgana only lifted her chin higher at his upraised eyebrows, Arthur crossed his arms. "If you'd be so kind, please refrain from scaring away my manservant. I haven't broken him in yet."
"Clearly you haven't," Morgana replied. "He's not picked up the etiquettes of court." Though her words were a criticism, the sudden warmth in her voice claimed otherwise.
It was a close call, but Arthur managed to keep from rolling his eyes. "I'm well aware. I lament the shame my household will suffer the more Merlin's about."
"He didn't even bow to you. That must be a first."
"It certainly won't be the last," Arthur muttered. Then louder, "He hasn't the benefit of living at court all his life. Like you. Give him time. He'll learn."
"Yes, well, don't you dare torture him like you did the last one, Arthur Pendragon. If I hear even the smallest hint of the words 'moving target', you'll regret it." Gwen shifted behind her mistress, though her expression was nowhere near as distressed as the first time she'd heard them bicker.
"Oh? And just what exactly will you do?"
"Don't forget, Arthur. You aren't the only one skilled at knife work. Torture him, and you'll require a hat to keep your hairless head warm during the winter." And in a swirl of skirts, Morgana left.
After leaving Arthur and Morgana to hash it out, Merlin made it down the first corridor before he literally ran into a person strolling from the opposite direction. They collided- or more accurately, Merlin felt as if he'd run into a brick wall.
"Watch your step, boy."
He peered at the stranger, hand rubbing at his chest where his bruised lungs were still gasping for air. A crooked nose was the most prominent feature on the man's face. "I've a name, you know. Merlin."
"Ah," the irritating man drawled, voice slick with amusement. "So you're the prince's new toy. Not much of one from the look of you."
"Why's everyone saying that today?" Merlin asked with exasperation.
The man cocked his head, eyebrows tilted as he studied Merlin. "I see you're different from the last one. Feisty. Let's hope you last longer than he did."
He walked away, only to run into Arthur, who stared first at Merlin and then him.
"Knight Valiant," Arthur acknowledged, with hidden distaste. Merlin wasn't sure how he knew it was there, since Arthur wasn't visibly betraying it on his face.
"Prince Arthur. Fancy seeing you here. I hope your day's been fruitful."
"It will be," Arthur answered tightly.
"Then I should be off, to make sure mine is just as useful. I trust I'll see you at dinner tonight? It would be a shame not to have your company at your father's table. I'm sure he has much to say on your methods in running his kingdom."
"Wouldn't dream of missing it," Arthur delivered flatly.
Valiant chuckled and left. Arthur made his way over to Merlin.
"Creep," Merlin muttered.
The corner of Arthur's lips twitched at that, eyes taking on a satisfied look though he was quick to hide it. "I'll thank you not to criticize your superiors, Merlin. How would you like to spend a day in the stocks just for that?"
"I'll pass, thanks. Who's that then?"
"Knight Valiant." Arthur waved curled fingers at where Valiant disappeared. "He's one of father's more…vigorous knights." His look darkened. "Perhaps too vigorous. Keep your head down and steer clear of him. First Morgana and now Valiant. Clearly, I'm not keeping you busy enough."
"What? No! You've kept me plenty busy!"
"You'll start by polishing my sword, mending my clothes, getting rid of the dust bunnies congregating and procreating beneath my bed, for Christ's sakes, have you looked underneath my bed lately?"
"When I shoved your soiled sheets under there, yeah. Get rid of your own dust bunnies!"
"Excuse me but who's the prince here? Wait, my sheets? Are you saying my soiled sheets have been under there this whole time? Merlin!"
Only two nights later found Merlin in the very depths of the castle, standing on the ledge with a torch in his hand.
"Um. Excuse me? Do you think you could keep it down a little? I'm trying to sleep up there and Arthur isn't all that understanding if I show up hours late for my shift. So do you mind keeping it down, at least until the sun's been up for a bit? And could you please call someone else's name? You're sort of wearing mine out. Thanks. 'ppreciate it," was what Merlin originally planned to say. Upon entering the cave, however, he realised what kind of creature was calling his name. It was, most definitely, the last thing he expected to see in Camelot.
"A dragon? What's a dragon doing in Camelot?"
"Ah," the dragon said, nodding his head in amusement as his giant claws clacked against the stone. "That is the question of the hour, is it not? However you may look at it, it has no concise answer. What is more important is that the young warlock has found his way onto the right path. Good, good. I had begun to despair of you completing your task in this lifetime."
"What do you mean, this lifetime? This is the only lifetime I have!"
"If that is what you choose to believe." The dragon shifted on the rock, a few stones crumbling to fall into the darkness below. "None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin, and it becomes impatient when it is thwarted time and again. It is time to let it resume its course."
"Oh no. You're that kind of dragon, aren't you?"
"Destiny awaits, young warlock. Shall we begin?"
Merlin glanced up from the herbs he was crushing when Gwen came through the door.
"Gwen!" He dropped the bar-shaped pestle next to the mortar and swiped his hands on his pants as he made his way over to Gwen.
"Is Gaius here?"
"He went to deliver some medicine. Did you need something?" Merlin grew concerned. "Are you hurt?"
"It's not for me. It's Morgana. She's having nightmares again."
"Morgana? Are they bad?"
"They went away for awhile but now they've started up again. Gaius says they're a manifestation of her subconscious fears. I don't know, Merlin. I can't see anything in her life she would fear this much."
"No kidding. Living in the lap of luxury, having someone competent wait on you hand and foot."
"Morgana's not like that, you should know."
"Yes. Not everyone has a prat like me," Merlin joked.
"It's an honour, remember?" Gwen teased lightly.
"So what's this medicine called, maybe Gaius has some on his shelves." He made his way over to the medicine cabinets, hands already riffling through the bottles.
"Something to suppress her dreams. I think it's called Passing Flower."
Merlin froze, fingers resting on a random bottle and carefully not looking at Gwen when he asked again. "Passiflora? That's what he's giving her, Passiflora?"
"Yes! Do you know if he has any left? She's run out and I don't think she could sleep without it."
Merlin withdrew a glass bottle from the back of the shelf.
"That's it!" Gwen exclaimed, accepting the green bottle. "Thank you, Merlin. Morgana's retiring early tonight. All the excitement from today, you know."
"I hope she feels better soon."
"Thank you, Merlin. I'll tell Morgana you asked after her." She gave him a smile before heading out the door.
That night, Merlin waited until dinner was almost over before bringing up Morgana. They sat across from each other,bowls of soup in front of them.
"You never told me Morgana was a seer." Merlin swirled his soup about and watched Gaius closely for his reaction.
Gaius stilled and sighed before laying his spoon on the table. "Who told you that, Merlin?"
"Gwen. Not in those words, of course. She was in here earlier, asking for medicine for Morgana. But you never told Morgana she's a seer, did you? Why not?"
"You don't understand, Merlin. Morgana is Uther's ward and by default, is in a far more dangerous situation than even you can comprehend. To tell her such a thing would only make it more difficult."
"She's probably scared out of her mind, not knowing what's happening to her. Dreaming about chaos, growing more dependent on your medicine as time passes. Gaius, you need to stop giving her Passiflora."
"Morgana is my patient and I will treat her to the best of my abilities. Do not nose in where you're not needed."
"Maybe on a weaker seer the Passiflora would work. If it's not working by now then she's too strong for it. It could be making her dreams worse."
"And you know this for sure?"
Merlin's eyes fell, scooping a spoonful of soup and letting it splash back down. "No. But I know what it feels like to fear your magic, to not know what you're capable of. You've got to tell her, Gaius. She can't go on like this forever."
"No, she can't. But now is not the time, Merlin. You leave it alone, do you hear me? There's no need to stir up a hornet's nest. Do I have your word?"
Merlin couldn't afford Morgana stumbling onto his secrets, no matter how indirectly she did it. "I won't tell say anything but you should know that this is wrong."
"That's all I can ask for, I suppose. And please pass the salt. Obviously your cooking isn't any better than mine."
A chuckle broke out of Merlin as he passed the seasoning.
Arthur's half eaten dinner sat at the edge of the table, forgotten in favour of the briefing he was receiving from Leon, one of his father's more trusted knights. The tall, hirsute man was normally quiet, efficient, and very loyal. Sometimes, too loyal, Arthur thought. When he became king, hopefully a very long way off, he wanted his knights to question him when he danced over that line drawn for justice.
"Activities to the north have been increasing, sire." Leon laid a few scrolls down on the table, next to the map already spread there.
"Yes, I can see that." Arthur glanced down at the map, the hills and valleys of Camelot caught on it with marks and notations of where skirmishes had occurred, or where sightings of possible magical factions had last been noticed. They were up to something. He didn't know what exactly but the sudden influx in activity was becoming much more prominent. If it continued at this rate…
"And these are all the known locations?" Arthur traced the pad of his fingers along the slanted boxes sketched onto the map.
"Yes, sire. Those of the Dragonlords and those of Alvarr's men. The Druids have been quiet as of late. But there's been a surge of activity in the last few days. I'm uncertain if it's due to their political activities of the past… Their actions suggest they are looking for something, sire." Leon paused. "Rumour has it that they've lost one of their own, someone vital to their group. My men weren't able to find out anymore than that."
"I see." Arthur absentmindedly took the offered water goblet from Merlin, registering Merlin's presence at his shoulder but well used to his proximity by now not to be bothered by it. "Post sentries here and here," Arthur ordered, pointing at two perpendicular spots on the map. From the pattern of sweeps that the Druids were doing, it would only be a matter of time before they began searching there. Perhaps if one of his men could apprehend one of the Druids, they could interrogate him for information.
He'd been aware that Ealdor was a favoured base for the Dragonlords for some time, though without proof of the lair's occupation by Balinor, Arthur had never seen any reason to stir up a hornet's nest. However, as any commander well knew, the best defence was always to strike first. Maybe it was time he took his campaign to Ealdor.
"Inform the men to be vigilant, and to make the preparations necessary for transport. At my word, they should be ready to move at a moment's notice. We cannot allow the situation to escalate beyond our control. Understood?" Arthur tapped his curled knuckles onto the table, leaning back into his seat and taking a deep swallow from the goblet in his hand. Merlin quickly topped off the goblet with more water when Arthur set it on the arm of his chair, fingers still curled around the stem. "And if you can, quietly and discreetly find out what the Druids are after. Maybe we can find it first."
"Understood, sire," the knight said, gathering the paperwork and leaving the map and relevant papers for Arthur before taking his leave.
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, mostly tuning out the work that Merlin had engaged himself with in the background, until hands settled on his shoulders. Thumbs dug into the smooth skin between his neck and shoulders, ruthlessly assaulting the tension there and causing Arthur's head to drop back onto the chair back, eyes sliding closed as an embarrassing groan slipped through his parted lips.
"Do you want me to look into it?" Merlin asked, thumb digging in, right there, oh God just right, compelling Arthur to let out another groan. If only Merlin was half as competent at cleaning his rooms as he was in slaying his tension spots.
"Quite possibly, although not yet. Let my knights do their jobs, Merlin. That's what they're there for. Just as you're here to polish my sword and muck out my stables."
"Yeah, such a coveted job, to be sure. I wouldn't dream of doing anything else, sire."
"Yes. You keep to that. And maybe one day, I'll even allow you solstice leave."
Arthur caught Merlin's wrist, thumb stroking lightly at the skin there before releasing it. He dropped his head sideways until a series of satisfying cracks sounded in the room, the last of which was twice as loud as the first.
"All right!" Arthur got up, shuffling his hair and then stretching his fingers towards the ceiling. "Put those maps away, will you Merlin? I've some training to do," Arthur ordered as he walked out of his chambers.
Merlin's hand landed on the map, his thumb brushing against the territory known as the habitat of the giant scorpion-like Serkets. "Yes, Arthur."
Druids. Aglain's camp. Missing?
Be careful. P. sent reinforcements.
It was written on a tiny slip of paper that Will had removed from the potion bottle Merlin passed him, along with a thrice folded miniature map of what Will could make out as the borders of Camelot near Ealdor. On it, there were several distinct marks of what Will can only deduce were possible sentry soldier points.
"From Gaius," Merlin had said. "For your bruises during training. Douse it, but be sure you read the label thoroughly before applying. You might mistake it for some other medicine."
Will thanked him, took the bottle with practiced absentmindedness.
And now it looked like he had a trip to make to Ealdor .
"Have you heard?" Morgana said, one day while they were strolling through the fields just beyond Camelot's walls. Gaius had needed some plants and herbs, and when Gwen had mentioned that Morgana was going for a walk and said, "I'm coming too, so would you like to come along? For the company I mean, not that Morgana isn't good company," Merlin had snatched a basket and jumped at the chance.
It was good to be with nature again.
He just needed to remember that leaves didn't belong in his pocket, the unlucky green fated to be sat on and mashed into a tattered, mushy existence by his carelessness.
"Heard what, Morgana?" Gwen asked. Merlin tossed another leafy branch into his basket, listening with half an ear.
"It's amusing, to say the least. All of Valiant's efforts in locating the Druid camps have failed. Every time his men arrive at the camps, everyone's already evacuated. They even left fruit baskets behind for the soldiers! It's as if someone warned them he was coming. The man's furious. And Uther's not happy with him at all, if you can believe that. No one ever thought that the treasured knight of Uther's, his champion in the fight against magic, would fail so spectacularly."
Yes. Merlin had heard enough in the past week of how Valiant was a favourite of Uther's due to his brutal hunting and execution of sorcerers and witches, and of the speculation that Valiant may even replace Arthur as the favoured heir. He still wasn't sure what Uther saw in Valiant.
From what Balinor implied at their last meeting, it wouldn't surprise Merlin at all if Valiant was only accusing those who were standing in his way to the top with practicing magic.
Thank the gods he hadn't fingered Arthur or Morgana with the accusation yet. Merlin didn't want to contemplate what Uther would do.
"Really? That's interesting." Merlin's eyes shifted. "Maybe they got tired of the scenery. Or maybe they're looking for better hunting grounds. Animals can become scarce this time of year."
"Change of scenery? They're Druids, Merlin," Gwen reminded him, shaking her head. "They're nomadic, but no one moves six times in one year. It's not logical. No, there has to be something else."
Merlin crouched on the ground, hiding his face from them and perfecting the nonchalance in his appearance as he sifted through some herbs. "I don't think so."
Morgana turned to Gwen. "What do you think, Gwen?"
"I think, milady, it sounds like they had prior warning."
Morgana fixed her with a proud look. "That's also what I believe."
In his hand, the herbs were crushed after all.
"People have been talking about a weapon," Merlin told the dragon during one of his visits. "Do you know anything about it?"
"I see they are already looking for it. It appears that destiny waits for no man. This weapon. Has Uther sent men to look for it?"
"Yes. But they're not having much luck. What does it do?"
"This weapon, in the wrong hands, would have the power to destroy Camelot."
"Yeah, Gaius mentioned something like that. I didn't think it was that serious though."
The dragon folded his wings along his back. "Gaius may be old but he still knows very little."
"He's certainly more straightforward than you are."
"Then shall I be more straightforward? It is your responsibility to neutralise it. But of course, you cannot do this alone."
Merlin was afraid of that. "Right. Arthur."
"Like two sides of a coin, you two share a single destiny. You and Arthur are one, and though you may not see it now, the irrefutable truth is," the dragon shifted on his perch, pointing a claw at Merlin, "without you, Arthur cannot survive."
The dragon received a sceptical look. "I highly doubt that. Arthur's lived this long without me, what makes you think he can't survive after I leave?"
The dragon chuckled ominously. "Why indeed, young warlock. Why indeed."
Merlin grumbled, frustrated as always by the dragons cryptic nature. "Everything these days can destroy Camelot."
"The fault lies, young warlock, in your king."
"Uther isn't my king," Merlin was quick to correct.
"Ah, yes. Only Arthur is. In that, we are the same."
The former soldier had barely been back a day when Arthur tried to recruit him.
"Surely you'll be joining my men again, won't you, Lancelot? I could use a few good men with your skills."
Lancelot didn't bother to point out that last time, he hadn't been a part of Arthur's men but Uther's. "I would be honoured, sire, to stay for as long as you'll have me." Arthur grinned brightly at him, proud and benevolent, and Lancelot felt as if he'd come home again.
"Excellent." Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulders, leading him with it. They turned towards the direction Arthur came from, Lancelot catching sight of a man sitting in the middle of the training field, busy wrapping a red strip of cloth around his upper arm. Lancelot glanced back at the torn shirt Arthur was wearing, curiously of the same shade as the strip, and smiled. "Come. I want you to meet someone."
Arthur was in a good mood, had been since last night. This, according to Merlin, only made his job that much easier. He didn't know what set Arthur off but he hoped it lasted through the week.
His father had been right. The more he practiced his magic, the more he gained back the control he'd lost. He also discovered that practicing magic when Arthur was nearby tended to augment the spell, sometimes exponentially.
He wasn't sure what to make of that.
If close proximity yielded such results, Merlin was scared to think what casting while touching Arthur would do.
"Merlin? I want you to meet someone," Arthur called, as Merlin tended his wound. Gaius wasn't there, which meant that his expertise wasn't either, so Merlin made do. Of course, making do involved Arthur tearing up strips of his shirt, Merlin's initial objections falling on deaf ears.
Unfair at the very least, as Merlin would be the one to sew it back up.
Then again, Merlin wouldn't need to sew anything if Arthur would just restrain himself during their weekly spars.
"Can they hold a moment? I've still got another strip to go."
"No, Merlin, this cannot wait. You do realise that you can't tell the Prince of Camelot to wait on you, hm?" The eyebrows raised in condescension at Merlin didn't prompt him to move any faster, though the hand tugging his elbow up did. "There's a hierarchy in place for a reason. Now, come on. Buck up and meet this person. I'm sure you won't regret it."
Merlin followed obediently for once, not bothering to mention that his wrist was still being held captive in Arthur's hand.
"He's a brilliant soldier. He would make a fine knight, if he were of noble blood. Loyal to a fault. He's the one who taught me how to handle a sword when I was very little. He's a good sort. I'm sure you'll get on. And when I'm on border patrol, he'll be the one to look after you. Do you understand?"
Merlin hummed his assent, fond eyes fixed on the back of Arthur's head. "Won't I be coming with you on patrols?"
"Only sometimes. It depends on how dangerous the territory is. You certainly won't be coming with me when we patrol near Cendred's land."
Merlin couldn't help but grin at the irony in that.
The fondness disappeared once he found himself face to face with someone he never thought he'd meet again.
"Lancelot, come. I want you to meet Merlin." Arthur grinned at them both, waving Lancelot closer.
"Hullo," Merlin greeted after the initial shock, trying to hide his growing alarm. It's possible, he tried to remind himself, that time and distance would erase his face from Lancelot's memories. He hoped that this man, one of Arthur's most trusted soldiers, would not remember him.
Lancelot's lips closed and parted, surprise evident on his face. "Your high-"
"I'm Merlin," he interrupted.
Lancelot continued to stare, eyes penetrating for such a long time that Merlin began to fear the game was up.
Arthur glanced between them, hands on his hips. "Do you two know each other?"
Lancelot slowly shook his head, and the white haze around Merlin's vision started to fade. A smile teased at Lancelot's lips when he returned Merlin's greeting. "It's an honour to meet you, Merlin. Are you one of Arthur's soldiers?"
Arthur patted Merlin's back, too hard to be a friendly gesture.
"Of course not. Merlin's the worst manservant you could be inflicted with. But also the most loyal." The hand travelled back towards his shoulder, firmly squeezing it. "He saved my life more times than I can count. We'll need to toughen him up. Can I count on your help for this?"
"Of course, sire," Lancelot acquiesced. "I would be honoured," Lancelot paused after a moment, a strange look crossing his features, "to be trusted with this task."
"Good," Arthur grinned, satisfied.
Tears and ash hindered Lancelot's vision, clinging stubbornly to his face. Quick swipes from his sleeve did nothing but smear them even more. He fought his way towards the King's Hall and tried not to look at the assorted ravages of battle that lay on the floor around him. Pieces of corpses. Parts belonging to young boys, some barely older than sixteen, forced to fight a war nobody wanted.
The tears running down his face weren't only from the compassion he felt for the fate of the dead and anger at the waste of life, but from the ash escaping the raging fires along the hallway. There were only soldiers now. Most of the servants had been evacuated hours before when the castle had first been breached. Only soldiers remained now, ones Lancelot struck down until he reached the doorway, Gawain close on his heels.
He turned and nodded to Gawain, not saying a word as his gauntlet fist shot out to slam on the door.
"Surrender!" Gawain called out, "Surrender in the name of Lord Uther!" Lancelot followed suit, sweeping the room left to right and slowing to a stop near the front of the chambers. A hooded boy stood there, no less than eight but no more than ten, and certainly not old enough to be here.
Against his training, Lancelot lowered his sword and approached the boy. When he was halfway there he saw another row of children, huddled together along the walls. To Lancelot's eye, the way the children sat had nothing to do with fear, and everything with remaining close to the first child.
The children glanced between Lancelot and the boy. He had his back towards Lancelot and Gawain, green cloak fastened over his shoulders, though the material made it clear that this child was no peasant.
"You need to leave," Lancelot said in a commanding voice. He hoped that fear would drive the children to flee. He couldn't be seen leading the children out, not when he was a soldier for the opposing side, but nor could he take their deaths upon his conscience.
A hiss came from his right, from Gawain. For a moment, he wasn't sure if the noise stemmed from Gawain's disapproval of Lancelot or towards the children's inactivity. It didn't matter. Lancelot would not allow anyone to slaughter these kids.
"The commander's right behind us," Gawain warned, eyes pinpointing potential threats in the room. "He'll execute them all." Some of the tension left Lancelot. Gawain agreed with him.
"You need to leave now," he repeated. The boy turned slowly, revealing the exquisitely etched sword in his right hand. Five foot long, the blade was taller than the boy. Prominent ears were the next thing he noticed about him, followed by the golden eyes.
"Sorcerer!" Gawain accused, making no move to approach him. Lancelot took a step back, having seen first hand the destruction sorcerers had caused on his fellow soldier. This was no ordinary boy.
At that moment, soldiers poured through the chamber door, a unit of guards and some knights. They surrounded the room as the commanding knight approached Lancelot.
"Soldier, are these the prisoners?"
Lancelot glanced back at the knight. This man was born to take orders, to carry out the wishes of his sire. If Uther decided to imprison the children, he would not hesitate to comply. "No, they're not. They're children of the servants who fled. We should let them go."
"Surrender your weapon, boy!"
The thin child shook, backing up as the other children showed the first signs of fear. A tiny hand reached out and latched onto the back of the boy's robe.
"Myrrdin?" the little girl whispered, tugging harder on his cloak.
The Sorcerer Prince! The words seared through Lancelot's mind, his hand reaching for him before he could escape. They were searching for this boy, tearing the castle apart to find one of the two people Uther wanted executed. He couldn't believe such a small boy was the feared sorcerer prince.
Still, Lancelot would not allow the boy to be murdered.
Myrrdin took another step back. The children cried out in alarm as he shook his head, eyes stubbornly fixed on Lancelot in a reprimanding expression. He raised his sword as the knights called out warnings. Lancelot ran towards him, watched him flip the sword around and with both hands tight on the hilt, spear the floor with the sword as if it were made of butter.
Complete silence descended in the room, seconds of misleading peace before a terrible groan shook the castle, penetrating past its foundation. Lancelot wasn't sure how it was possible, but the air around the impaled ground shivered, the sword seeming to sing as Myrrdin released it. In horror, Lancelot watched as the children were shredded to pieces, material and hair whipping about as if being peeled like an orange. The remains floated up, disappearing altogether into thin air.
The Sorcerer Prince was gone.
When Lancelot finally looked around, he found the sword permanently embedded in stone and Gawain dazed by his side.
Everyone else had inexplicably disintegrated.
"It's been awhile," Merlin said to Lancelot once Arthur was distracted by another knight.
"It has," Lancelot agreed, tilting his chin down. "Fifteen years, I believe. You've grown well, Merlin."
Merlin laughed in relief. "I could say the same about you. I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"And you wouldn't have, if you hadn't spared my life."
"Please, don't." Merlin looked away as his fingers tugged on his sleeves. The last thing he wanted to remember was the day Camelot burned.
"It was a painful day for everyone involved." Lancelot watched Arthur, watched how the knights naturally flocked to him as he talked about weaponry. "But I have to ask, what are you plans regarding Arthur?" Lancelot focused on Merlin then, eyes firm in their conviction to protect a man who didn't even know he was in danger.
And Merlin found he couldn't lie.
"Gwen. What are you doing here?"
Merlin rushed over and took her basket from her. Gwen looked visibly distressed with red-rimmed eyes and a worried frown. "It's about Morgana. You asked me to tell you when she had a dream again."
"Did she? Have a dream last night?"
"It was horrible! She screamed and cried, something about a dragon eating a poisonous snake and I could barely calm her down. She's in her chambers now. I don't think she'll be leaving them today. I just wish I could do more for her."
"It's okay, Gwen," Merlin reassured, leading her towards Gaius' lab, remembering Lancelot was there. "Let's find her a calming drought and you can tell me about her dream. Then I'll talk to Gaius. I promise. We'll help her."
The kitchen was bustling with activity, the only place in the castle that was active this early in the morning. The smell of freshly baked bread was heavy in the air and Merlin savoured it as he ate his breakfast. When the Matron of the kitchen, a slim, silver-haired woman with kind eyes passed by, Merlin broke his silence. If he was right, this was the woman who claimed to know Arthur's mother as well as she knew Arthur. More importantly, Arthur seemed to trust her.
"Can I ask you a favour?" Merlin requested as he caught her sleeve. He gave her questioning look a harmless grin for good measure. "It's for Arthur."
Escaping the hustle of the kitchen with some cheese, a water skin, and a shiny apple well acquainted with Merlin's shirt, he trudged over to where Arthur was demonstrating a disarming technique, something the knights knew was a cover for Arthur to test their skills.
He ran over the conversation he'd had with Lancelot again, the reasons he gave the man for serving Arthur, saving Arthur's life, and for ultimately betraying him. He remembered standing there, facing down Lancelot's bewildered look as he tried to explain the logistics of preventing a war.
Thankfully, Lancelot had been convinced in the end, promising to help Merlin as long as Arthur met no harm.
That only left Merlin with a very disturbing question: Why had he saved Arthur?
A sun reflection caught Merlin's eye, alerting him that he'd reached the field where Arthur trained. Leaning against the horse rack, Merlin waited until there was a lull in the session before waving an apple-filled hand at Arthur. The prince nodded, exchanged a few more words with Sir Beldevere before swaggering over at a leisurely pace. The smile on his face grew as he came closer to Merlin.
Merlin grinned right back.
By proxy of being Gaius' assistant, Merlin was one of the first to know when Henry, one of the stable boys, fell deathly ill. Gaius and Merlin were summoned from their beds just as the sun rose, Merlin fully waking when it was explained how the stable boy contracted his illness.
Merlin reined in the urge to race to Arthur's rooms and check on the prince himself. The only thought stopping him was if Arthur was truly hurt, he doubted the castle would have remained this calm.
"He's been poisoned. I'm certain of it," Gaius declared, straightening from where he was bent over, sniffing at the corner of the boy's mouth. Merlin applied a cold compress to the boy's head and silently willed his apologies.
"Is it curable? Do you have a potion to neutralise it, perhaps?"
"Perhaps," Gaius allowed, nodding towards the doorway to signal that they would discuss it later. "My boy," he addressed the other stable boy present, "make sure he rests, and give him plenty of fluids. And two drops of this." Gaius placed a small, round bottle into his hands, half full with some viscous, amber liquid. "No more than two drops every hour, understand! Any more than that may just kill him. Come, Merlin. We have much work to do."
"Do you think you can cure it?" Merlin tried again once the door closed behind them and they'd moved further down the hall.
"Unfortunately, Merlin, no," Gaius stated with regret. "It appears to be a very fast acting poison, and whoever planted that knew it. By the time an antidote is found, the boy will be dead."
Merlin ducked his head.
"I can only be thankful that Henry felt the need to sample from Prince Arthur's plate. Otherwise, we may be short one prince in a matter of hours if he didn't. But it is a harsh punishment for one so young."
Merlin's steps slowed, fists clenched even as he nodded. "You're right. I'm sorry…for Henry. I think that this time, it's definitely my fault."
The physician turned, arched eyebrow raised as he took in Merlin's dejected demeanour. "Merlin?"
"Sorry, Gaius. It's nothing. Let's work on an antidote, in case they decide to use it again."
News about the Prince's poisoned meal spread fast and wide through the servants, then the knights, and then the courtiers. Gaius tried many combinations of tinctures and potions, but in the end, didn't find anything in time to save Henry.
Henry was sweating on the cot, moaning softly in obvious discomfort.
"I have some medicine for him, from Gaius." Merlin held out the bottle.
"Oh, good," the boy sitting next to the bed said. "He really needs it, he's been like this for awhile and…it doesn't look good."
Merlin nodded, coming closer to the bed. The sheets were already soaked through, and from what Merlin could see of Henry's face, it was flushed a blotchy red, dark bruises already showing on his face. Gaius had described these as acute contusions, a visible manifestation of Henry's blood vessels rupturing as the poison raced through his body. His organs would fail, one by one, painfully bursting until Henry's body couldn't stand any more and succumb. Merlin couldn't even imagine the pain he was in.
More importantly, Merlin couldn't even imagine what he would do if it was Arthur instead lying there, slowly and painfully dying. He couldn't help the relief that it wasn't Arthur. "Could you fetch some water?" he asked the boy in the chair. "He'll need it for the medicine."
Once the boy left, Merlin shifted in place, but when Henry let out a soft whimper, he sat down in the vacated chair.
"I'm sorry." It wasn't exactly what he'd intended to say, but it came out unbidden.
"It…" Henry swallowed, then tried again. "It's not your fault. We knew this could happen."
Henry was only seventeen, a few years younger than Arthur. His life hadn't truly started yet, and already Merlin was stealing his chance.
"I've always wanted to be a knight, you know," Henry interrupted Merlin's thoughts. "But I'm not of noble birth. This was another way for me to do what I've always wanted. Protect Prince Arthur. Protect Camelot. Just as his knights do. This way," Henry breathlessly got out, "at least I was able to protect him." Tears escaped from his eyes and rolled down the side of his face, and Merlin could see the fear he felt even in the face of that declaration.
"…Yeah." Merlin's fingers curled over his coat sleeve, holding it in place as he dabbed clumsily at the wetness on Henry's face. His eyes heated too, though he didn't know why. "I know."
"What you asked us to do. Merlin, don't blame yourself for this."
Merlin's face crumpled, sorrow flooding his chest but he didn't cry. He nodded tightly, his hand gripping tightly onto Henry's shoulder. "Just get better, all right?" he managed to say around the tightness in his throat. "That's what Arthur would want."
Henry released a shallow laugh, dark and stilted. "The only thing is, you've got to tell my mother, Merlin. It's okay if everyone thought I was just filching from the prince's plate. But I couldn't bear it if my mother thought that. Please. Tell her the truth."
"I will." Merlin felt his throat constrict even further, the heat surging up his chest. "I promise, I will."
Merlin shut the door behind him, leaned against it and took a shuddering breath. He recognized the signs that Gaius had pointed out and knew for certain now that Henry would not last the night.
Merlin went about his chores the next morning much the same as he'd done for the past few months since he'd been employed into the Pendragon household. Gossip was running rampant throughout the courts, more so in the servant's quarters. It was true that with Uther's sudden ascension onto the throne and his highhanded manner in handling his enemies and potential foes, the Pendragon family naturally amassed a good number of enemies and the accompanying threats. None, however, had come so close as to nearly cut down one of their own. This seemed to frighten and fascinate the people more than anything.
Though, if the populace really knew just how often Arthur's life came close to ending, they would probably have all died of an apoplectic fit by now.
Merlin kept to himself for most of the day, weak smile fleeting and head down even when he ventured into the kitchens to fetch Arthur's relatively late lunch. It didn't make him feel any better when Matron stopped him from leaving, and told him that Henry had volunteered for the task Merlin originally asked of her, that they'd all willingly volunteered to ensure that the prince remained safe while eating their prepared food. The defiant nod from a maid-in-training no older than Henry had been made it even worse.
He escaped with Arthur's lunch as quickly as he could.
The excuse for the extra training had been an acquaintance of regulations and fighting styles for the newly inducted knights, but Merlin knew better. Uther's request had nothing to do with the welcome of the new knights and everything to do with surrounding Arthur with the highest concentration of loyal fighters for as long as possible. Merlin, and Uther apparently, knew very well that every single one of those men toiling on that practice yard would rather die before letting another assassin through to their prince.
"You didn't manage to kill him, Will," Merlin accused, darkly, without leaving a doubt as to how he felt about that cowardly act.
Will pursed his thin lips. "I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin."
Merlin felt the anger rise hot and swift inside him, at Will, using him to fulfill his own need for revenge. They were supposed to be in this together, work together. If he couldn't trust Will to tell him his plans, how could he trust Will at all?
"Don't lie to me! You tried to poison him! Why? Why would you do something like that?" Merlin yelled, knowing that in Will's eyes, he was overreacting by a mile. But he couldn't contain his rage, couldn't even picture the chaos that would descend if Will's plan had succeeded in killing Arthur off. Will's men had access to the kitchens, now that they were infiltrating Uther's army. It wouldn't have been difficult for one of them to slip into the kitchens under the guise of filching food and tip the poison vial unnoticed over Arthur's plate.
The thought alone made the hair on the back of Merlin's neck stand.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Will insisted again, pushing at Merlin's shoulder. Merlin made a sound of frustration, slamming Will into the wall with his arms and unrelenting magic. Will gasped.
"I swear, Merlin, it wasn't me! I swear to you, it wasn't!" Will bared his teeth. "And why do you care? It's not like he's family!"
Merlin faltered, both magic and arms dropping Will from his perch on the wall. Why did he care? He was playing with lives here, ringing each group around in circles with his information and hoping they never met. He couldn't keep this up for much longer, not if Arthur was willing to send knights straight to Ealdor and Will was resorting to underhanded tactics.
He would break if Arthur or Balinor were murdered, but it seemed they were determined to do just that to each other.
"I don't care if you were a part of it, Will. Just stay away from Arthur. Until I talk to father, stay away from him."
"What is wrong with you? How can you protect the enemy? His father killed your people, or have you forgotten?"
"That's right, Will. His father did. Arthur is not his father."
"Father's furious," Arthur told Merlin that night, both of them on their backs, laying head to stomach on the plush rug in front of the fireplace. Merlin passed Arthur another roasted date as he spoke, tossing a handful of raw ones into the saucer hanging over the fire. "The knights still haven't discovered who poisoned the food, and now father's having every morsel taste tested before it even reaches me."
"Hm. Sounds like a problem."
"You've no idea. I refuse to have someone die like that for me, Merlin. And now he's starting to worry about the line of succession. He's never pressured me about it before but I suppose it does make some sense. If I were to be killed, there would be no heir."
They didn't mention that there was Valiant, that in all likelihood, Uther would turn to the knight as heir apparent.
"Is he going to marry you off then?" Merlin kept his voice level but the idea of Arthur being married to some princess made his stomach feel funny. Would the future queen allow Merlin to keep Arthur's time and attention, allow them the moments Merlin had grown attached to?
"Not right away, no. There'll be delegations, audiences granted for any ambassadors presenting an eligible bride. This is a negotiation, Merlin, not a fair. My marriage will affect the state of Camelot. I'm not just a prize to be won, you know."
Merlin lifted his head, his closed-mouth grin taunting Arthur. Taking that shot would have been too easy.
"Will you at least get to pick?" Merlin asked, dropping his head back down when Arthur flicked a date off of his forehead.
"Maybe. I don't know. Would you like to pick for me, Merlin?"
"Why not. Let's see. I'd pick someone strong and opinionated. Someone who'd yell at you and make you laugh, who wouldn't let you bully them around, much. And they'd be plain looking, too. Your ego's certainly big enough without feeding beautiful children to it."
"So basically, you'd be picking someone like yourself. Brilliant. I'm sure we'll live happily ever after with our nine ugly children. You'll be a nanny to them all, Merlin. Just so you know."
Merlin laughed. "You'd have to find me first."
"I knew you were useless," Arthur said fondly.
Will was sitting on his bed, waiting for him when he returned from helping Arthur with his bath. He paused in the doorway, still angry at Will's deception and more than ready to throw him out.
Will beat him to it. "Look, I know what you're thinking. But Merlin, I would never betray you. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me and I would never break our friendship. I swear to you on my father's grave, it wasn't me. I didn't poison the prat prince."
And just like that, Merlin believed him. "Oh, Will."
"It's always your kind that gives me trouble. I can't believe I'm doing this." Will scooted up the bed, patting the mattress in front of him. "Get over here. Maybe together, we could figure out who did it ."
Only five hours in and Arthur was ready to abdicate his position as heir to the throne. That was, if such drastic measures would get him out of this farce of a marriage dance. Uther insisted on Arthur's presence, wanting his opinion on each possible future queen. At the very least, disowned princes were not required to sit through hours of endless lists, citing each eligible lady's virtues. He half expected the representative from Xanang to claim that their princess could thread needles with her toes, so outrageous some of the claimed talents were.
What use did he have for a wife who could recite five thousand pieces of poetry?
Now if she could train his dogs to be better hunters, he might reconsider.
Sitting upright (or as upright as a prince was expected to sit once they were nearing their sixth hour of delegation) allowed Arthur to catch a glimpse of Merlin the moment he entered the King's Hall. If the red neckerchief and hair that looked as if Merlin had been crunched, spit, and then regurgitated by the flour grinder wasn't enough of an attention grabber, then the manner in which Merlin was flailing would have been.
In all honesty, Arthur wasn't quite sure that Merlin wasn't suffering from death throes. He watched him to determine that no, Merlin was certainly not dying and yes, he was insistently trying to get a message across to Arthur. His elbows bent, one arm swung wildly over Merlin's head, ruffling his hair on each pass. A few wrist flops and one two-fingered tap to his throat later and Arthur was still confused. What on Earth was his servant trying to say?
Arthur threw a few inconspicuous hand signals back: Wait. Retreat. Go back to base. All he received in return were blank looks and an even wilder flail of Merlin's skinny arms.
Apparently, Merlin was an idiot who lacked the basic comprehension for hand signals.
"If you will excuse me, Father."
It was definitely beyond boring as his Father barely gave him an amused glance before dismissing him. The representative from Xanang, an utterly forgettable man of medium height and dark features, stopped in his praise of their princess and bowed low as Arthur strode past.
Merlin intercepted him in the courtyard, latching onto his arm and dragging him along. Arthur gave up on regaining his arm when the first two tugs failed at dislodging Merlin's grip. Merlin, in an attempt to get Arthur there faster, turned around and with hands placed on the small of his back, proceeded to push.
"For God's sakes, Merlin! I'm not a donkey!"
"Well, then, don't act like one!" Merlin had the audacity to yell back, pushing harder at Arthur's back.
Arthur gave up on getting an answer out of his servant and just followed.
Where they ended up wasn't where he expected at all.
"Merlin," Arthur began dangerously, deciding that two days in the stocks was really too generous for his servant. Clearly, he needed to be a weekly attraction for life. "This had better not be what I think it is."
"Oh, it's exactly what you think it is, Arthur." Merlin supplied shamelessly, even going as far as pointing at the informally clad woman below.
"The Lady Viviane, the only daughter of King Olaf," Merlin solemnly announced, pointing at a blonde woman with curls, clad only in a white dress. Arthur refused to look. "She's like a female version of you."
"I beg your pardon!"
"You should meet her. I think you'd get along. Two seconds after meeting Gwen, she grievously insulted her."
"She insulted Guinevere?"
"Yeah. I know, right? Gwen's the last person you'd think anyone would want to offend. And then she said I had ginormous ears. Which isn't a word, by the way. So," Merlin pursed his lips. "I decided to lecture her on the virtues of kindness and tact."
Arthur covered his face, fingers digging into his temple where a relentless rhythm was already starting. "Let me get this straight. You lectured a future queen--"
"Possible future queen."
"—on the virtues of kindness and tact, qualities no nobleman is required to have, due to some insults she levelled against some servants."
"Oi! We're not just some servants. We're royal servants!"
"How are you still alive?"
"I'm just going to pretend you never asked that. Point is, she's kind of angry."
"So she's going to ask you to sack me. Or that's what she was screeching anyway when she ran out the door. Then again, she could have been asking me to clack her, too, but I highly doubt that."
"Again, how are you alive?"
"Are you going to help me or not?"
"No, Merlin, I'm not going to help you out. Are you insane? She's Olaf's daughter."
"Wait, you're really going to sack me?" Merlin affected a wounded look.
"You've brought this on yourself. No, I'm not going to sack you, training another manservant to adopt your level of insolence would be difficult enough. I'll be lending you to her for the week."
"What? Arthur, no!"
"I don't want to hear any arguments from you! This'll teach you to be careful who you offend. And Merlin." His pointed a finger between Merlin's eyebrows, making Merlin go cross-eyed. "If I see or hear about you spying on the Lady's Gardens again, I'll string you up myself. Understood?"
"Right. I'm going to go now. I'm pretty sure you have better things to do so I'll just." Merlin scratched the side of his face, retreating backwards towards the door. Viviane, however, had other ideas.
"Stop right there! Is this any way to treat a guest of Camelot? When I told Prince Arthur that I feared for Camelot, I had no idea that it was actually a gross understatement."
"Yeah, well. I fear for Camelot, too, if Arthur picks you. Oops." Merlin covered his mouth, then spread his hands in a placating manner at Viviane. "I'm sorry. Really, I'm sorry. Don't tell Arthur that."
"Arthur? Hah! Wait until my father hears about that."
"Do you always threaten people with your father?"
Viviane looked baffled, as if no one had asked her that before. "When they deserve it," she nodded, "yes."
"Right. I should go."
"Halt right there. Arthur said you were to wait on me. So wait. Or I'll tell my father."
Merlin sighed, as he began to realise how long this week was going be. "Look. Have you ever tried to stand on your own? To not use your father as a crutch? Gwen and Morgana do it just fine. You should give it a try. I think you'll be happier."
"I'm perfectly happy now."
"If you say so." Merlin quickly ducked out the door.
It continued on like that, Viviane berating Merlin for his uselessness, nothing different from his usual service with Arthur, and Merlin continued to slip and be insolent against the Lady Viviane.
Gwen grew more amused by the day as she watched them bicker. Morgana only patted him on his shoulder and commended him on his handling of two royal prats.
He constantly told Viviane that she could be better than this, that she could be a person everyone liked and not merely tolerated. And he rarely allowed an insult on Gwen to pass by without remark.
He didn't even notice the way Viviane was looking at him- from fury to curiosity, and then something else- was slowly changing until it was too late.
"I like you," Viviane declared.
"All right. I'm not sure I like you the same but I can work on it."
"No, Merlin. I like you," Viviane said with meaning, bobbing her head at Merlin in an attempt to make him understand. "I'm going to tell father that I'm withdrawing my marriage offer to Arthur. I'm offering it to you."
"No, you can't!" Merlin protested.
"And why not?! You're my type, I'm your type--"
"I don't even have a type!" Merlin interrupted. "I don't even want a type! I'm just a servant! Why can't you just, I don't know, pick someone else? I'm sure there are plenty of men who would be absolutely honoured to marry you. Officially. Without any offence to your father."
"Oh, don't be silly," Viviane refuted. "We're perfect for each other, you'll see."
"I'd rather not, really."
"Well, it's rather too late," Viviane informed him, advancing at an alarming pace. "I'm already in love with you. So go on."
"Go on?" Merlin asked, confused at Viviane's expectant expression.
"Yes, go on and kiss me." Either she was frighteningly adept at ignoring Merlin's expressions of horror, or she mistook it for some anomaly of passion.
"No! I don't want to kiss you! I don't want to kiss anybody!"
"If you don't come into this bed with me and kiss me, I will, I will…" Viviane trailed off for a moment, clearly searching for the most feared consequence she could. Merlin backed away towards the door, only freezing when Viviane raised her chin in stubbornness and pointed a perfectly maintained nail in his direction. "I will tell my father."
"Tell your father?" Merlin repeated in horrified disbelief. "But I don't want to go to bed with you. And it doesn't matter what you tell your father, he'll still kill me!"
"Argh, this is…this is just…"
"Destiny?" Viviane provided, prompting Merlin to flee from the room with fear.
And straight into Arthur.
"Oomph!" Merlin said.
Arthur, the gods take him, didn't even grunt at the impact, electing instead to latch onto Merlin's arms and holding him away from Arthur's chest. He looked surprised to see him at first, then exasperated.
"What on Earth? Merlin. What did we say about running in the halls?"
"That it should only be done when fetching your heating bricks to make sure your toes don't fall off from frostbite and otherwise, I should just…not?"
"That's right. And what were you doing?"
"Rudely leaving my presence without permission!" Viviane finally caught up to Merlin, pausing at the doorway to take in the compromising position Arthur and Merlin were in. With a look of indignation, Viviane stomped over and actually ducked under Arthur's arm to insert herself between Arthur and his manservant.
It apparently yielded the effect Viviane was going for, since Arthur immediately sprang away from them both. Merlin didn't blame him. King Olaf was a bit trigger happy when it came to declaring supreme warfare for his daughter.
"Lady Viviane!" Arthur eyed the possessive way Viviane placed a hand on Merlin, saw the way Merlin's eyes pleaded with him and decided enough was enough. "Lady Viviane, I'm aware that your need of Merlin as a manservant is great. However, I must ask for him back. He has duties he's been neglecting that can no longer be postponed."
"That's absurd! You said you'd spare him for a week. It's only been four days."
"Be that as it may," Arthur nodded, hand gesturing towards Viviane, "it's still inappropriate for a male servant to be tending you. Guinevere is one of our finest, and I assure you, she will fulfil your every requirement. Now if you'll excuse me. Merlin? Come."
For once, Merlin didn't mind being summoned like a dog. He escaped Viviane's clutches, bowed, and raced after Arthur.
It wasn't Merlin's intention to spy on the Lady's Gardens again, a place dedicated solely for the women of Uther's court, but Gaius had specifically asked him to bring some draught to the Lady Viviane, and Gwen had informed him that she'd been sequestered here for the past two days. He entered from the side gate, spotting Viviane sitting on a stone bench against the wall.
She was slumped over, hand covering her chin and Merlin felt his heart sink. He had no idea what to do with a crying person.
She straightened as he neared and Merlin was intensely relieved to see that she wasn't crying at all, merely thinking. He sat next to her.
"I thought you were avoiding me?"
Merlin handed her the draught and then rubbed his hands on top of his thighs. "I'm not so much avoiding you as avoiding death by your father."
Viviane chuckled at that, twirling the bottle between her hands. "He can be a mite overprotective."
"All right, a lot," Viviane admitted with a laugh, her head tilting as she spoke. "I'm all he has left, you know. From the memories of my mother. I'm sure Arthur's inflicted with the same."
"Yeah, parents are funny like that." Except in Uther's case, overprotective barely skimmed the issue. If mass genocide was the answer to a spouse's passing, Merlin could only be glad that both his parents were alive. He didn't want to imagine what his life would be like if Balinor or Hunith had died.
Merlin leaned against the wall and looked at Viviane. "You're not in love with me, you know. You can't be. You barely know me."
"I know you enough," Viviane insisted.
"I'm a servant. And you're royalty. Your father would never approve. We have nothing in common and more importantly, I'm already in love with someone else. I'm sorry," Merlin said, not unkindly.
Viviane remained quiet after that declaration, eyes watching a bird flitting about the garden. "I've never felt like this about anyone before. I've never had someone look at me and decide that I can be a better person. The expectation of it, it does odd things to me."
"It's called friendship."
"Hm. Something else I've never had."
"Well! No better time to start than the present, I suppose." He offered his hand. "Hi, I'm Merlin, friend and manservant."
Viviane giggled softly, shaking his hand in return. "Viviane. Future queen. And friend."
They were having banquets almost every other night, honouring the various potential marriage candidates Arthur had to meet. Merlin wouldn't mind it so much if he wasn't required to constantly clean Arthur's favourite coats. Honestly, the man was a prince. He had to have more than a handful of coats on hand.
Arthur's goblet was full and he'd barely touched his meal, busy talking with the lord seated to his right. Merlin edged towards the back where he was less likely to be noticed and popped the cherry tomato he'd filched from Arthur's plate into his mouth.
"Are you stealing food from your betters, manservant?"
Merlin jumped, glancing guiltily at his vine of cherry tomatoes before fixing eyes on Knight Valiant.
"These? Er. Arthur gave them to me. You could ask him." Merlin pointed to where Arthur was sitting at the table. Arthur hadn't technically given them to him but if pressed, Merlin knew Arthur would claim he did.
He might punish Merlin with the stocks later but he wasn't too worried about it. Fresh tomatoes were hard to come by during this season.
Valiant gazed at Arthur, settling into a more comfortable position next to Merlin. Merlin glanced at the crossed arm, shrugged, and went back to popping tomatoes into his mouth.
"Has our prince decided on a bride yet?"
He shook his head, twisting one of the stems off the vine. "Not that he's told me. It's sort of a big affair, so I guess they're taking their time." Merlin side glanced at Valiant. "Why are you asking me? Shouldn't you be asking Arthur instead?"
"You're free. And I'm bored. Has Arthur received any special gifts?"
"Special how?" Merlin asked, perplexed.
"Something valuable and rare perhaps. Crystals. Jewellery."
Merlin didn't like the look Valiant was aiming at him, a hungry gleam that he didn't trust.
"Sorry, I have to go. Duty calls and all." Snatching a wine pitcher off of the servant's table, Merlin made his way over to Arthur. Hand braced on the back of Arthur's chair, Merlin refilled his goblet, watching Valiant leave the hall out of the corner of his eyes.
It was supposed to be a simple survey expedition, just Arthur and a few knights inspecting the crops, taking no more than a few hours at most before Arthur returned to Camelot. Merlin grew anxious when Arthur didn't return after morning practice, then extremely worried when afternoon turned into evening. By the time dinner was over, Uther launched three dozen knights to track down their missing prince.
The first person Merlin searched for was Will, vividly remembering their conversation about stealing princes. Will denied any involvement in Arthur's disappearance, promising to look into it if Merlin would just sit down before his heart gave out on him.
Morgana hadn't seen Arthur either. It was the first time Merlin had ever looked at Morgana with suspicion, not endeared by her unconcerned state over Arthur's disappearance.
He finally tracked down Lancelot at the blacksmith where he was visiting Gwen. They immediately left, Merlin hopeful that Lancelot would be able to pick up Arthur's trail.
"Whoever took Arthur knew what they were doing," Lancelot announced, taking careful steps around the grassy area. He was trying to read the tracks to determine which way they'd taken Arthur.
They'd stumbled on the area first, Merlin riding back to inform Uther's knights of the remaining bodies while Lancelot continued on, trying to find clues of Arthur's location. They met back in the clearing, Lancelot having lost their trail.
"Can you tell how many men there were?" Merlin couldn't see anything but grass and twigs. He was thankful that Lancelot at least, seemed to possess some of Arthur's tracking skills.
"Too many. Although, it doesn't look like Arthur put up much of a fight."
Curious. "Do you think it was someone he knows?"
Lancelot stood up, brushing his hands off. "That, or he was drugged."
Not good. Definitely not good. "All right. Um. You might not want to be here for this."
Lancelot balked, not willing to let Merlin risk his safety alone. "I can offer you my sword. Two men are better than one."
"I can take care of myself, remember? Besides, if you're ever questioned by Arthur, I don't want you to lie to him."
"I'd rather lie to him than not have him alive at all."
"I know, Lancelot. I feel the same way. But this spell, I really don't think you should be here." He tried to give Lancelot a reassuring smile. "I promise, I'll bring him back."
With reluctance, Lancelot nodded and left, leaving his sword with Merlin.
Alone in the clearing, Merlin inhaled deeply, eyes drawn to one of the spots of blood. He drew the necklace he had given to Ygraine from his pocket, holding it cupped in his hand and letting the leather thong trail over his fingers.
"Arthur. Hold on. I'm coming," Merlin whispered, eyes closing as they flashed gold.
"Arásae mid min miclan mihte þín suna to helpe. Hider eft funde on þisse ne middangeard þín suna wæs!"2
His head spun, making him nauseous and dizzy. He had no idea where he was or how he'd got there. The bed he was laying on was adequate, the room non-descript. They could be in any inn or farmhouse from here to Mercia's castle.
The silent boy staying in the room with him was less than forthcoming, spending most of his time staring disconcertingly at Arthur. He couldn't have been more than ten, with dark hair and penetrating eyes. They were so intense, in fact, that Arthur sometimes wondered if the boy could read his thoughts.
He was about to ask the boy about his status when the door opened.
"Ah, you're awake." A fair man entered the room, bringing with him a goblet of water and some food, making Arthur's parched throat twinge in response to the promise of a drink. The man handed Arthur the goblet and when Arthur hesitated to drink it, laughed. "It's not poisoned, I promise you. I would not kill someone I just saved."
"You saved me?" Arthur couldn't remember. He recalled gathering his knights and riding through some wheat fields. Everything after that was a complete blank.
"Of course. You are the prince of Camelot?"
Arthur didn't deny or confirm, unsure whether this man was an enemy.
"What's your name?"
"I am Alvarr. This is Mordred. And we saved you from the Dragonlords."
"Dragonlords? They've always steered clear of Camelot."
Alvarr sat on the edge of Arthur's bed, concern on his face. "You do not know? Six months ago, the son of Balinor came to Camelot. Some say he's infiltrated the castle, biding his time until he could kidnap the prince. I've never liked such underhanded tactics."
Arthur looked sceptical. "And where did you hear this?"
"It is a rumour, though one I'm inclined to believe. There is a crystal in Camelot, containing an immense power. I believe it is this crystal that Myrrdin seeks." Alvarr sat back and waited for Arthur's response.
Arthur declined from commenting on the crystal, not dizzy enough at this point to blurt out treasury secrets to a mere stranger. "Where are we?"
He could see he disappointed Alvarr with his answer but the man was quick to hide it. "Two miles west of Fallen's Valley."
"That far?" The castle must be in an uproar by now. If he was that far away from home, not factoring in the time he'd been unconscious, then he'd been gone for—
"Two days! I need to go home." He tried to get out of bed, another dizzy spell hitting him right before Alvarr pushed him back down.
"You're still injured. You need to rest. We can send a messenger to your people and once you are well, you can leave for home. Until then, take it easy." Alvarr passed a plate of food to Mordred, who'd been silent the entire time.
"Mordred here will help you. I will visit you again this evening, hm?" Alvarr smiled at him.
Once Alvarr left, Mordred came closer, holding out the plate so that Arthur could pick a morsel to eat. "He's telling the truth."
Arthur blinked, letting out a relieved smile as he picked a piece of cheese. "So you do talk. I was beginning to wonder."
"There's no point in talking if you have nothing to say."
"True. Something my manservant could learn about."
"No. Merlin. Although, I thought Alvarr said Balinor's son was Myrrdin?"
"He is both."
Arthur made a non-committal sound, making a mental note to check all the servants when he returned. If there really was a Dragonlord in Camelot, he would flush them out.
"What are you doing here? You don't look like you're his son."
Arthur tore off a piece of bread, offering the other half to Mordred. The boy dragged over a chair and sat down, setting the plate on the sheets. He took the bread with a smile, the first child-like look he'd worn since Arthur first woke.
"Alvarr promised me he would find the crystal." And just like that, their easy atmosphere was gone. The bread tasted like sand in his mouth and Arthur felt regret at having to see this child as an enemy. Mordred glanced back the way Alvarr left and sighed. "He won't be able to get it. Not now that Emrys is there."
Arthur placed the uneaten bread down on the plate. "Alvarr speaks as if this Myrrdin is a threat to the crystal. You don't. Why?"
Mordred just smiled at him, this one a far cry from the innocent smile he'd given before.
The stone seared his hand, heat clinging to the necklace long after the spell had completed. He could still feel the presence lingering, gentle and soft, and Merlin knew right then that he needed to give the necklace back. He held onto it as he got his bearings, looking up the hill at the abandoned house sitting on top. It was run-down but obviously occupied, and Merlin's gut told him that Arthur was there.
Merlin didn't bother with subtlety, blasting the door off its hinges as he entered the house. Alvarr's presence only confirmed that this was a trap. Arthur hadn't been held here for long but any time spent with a man that wild and dangerous was bad enough.
He refused to tell Alvarr where Uther kept the Crystal of Neatid. It was during the resultant conversation that Merlin discovered Valiant's role in Arthur's capture. He had a pretty good idea now of who might have tried to poison Arthur.
Alvarr continued to taunt him, asking whether he was spying for the Dragonlords, or had betrayed the Dragonlords to join Arthur.
"Do you want me to destroy the crystal?" Merlin had asked then, ready to tear him apart if it would get him to Arthur. Alvarr made himself scarce after that.
Merlin was incredibly relieved to find Arthur unharmed. He still had some drugs lingering in his system, but nothing that Gaius couldn't flush out.
Mordred, however, was a complete surprise.
He was the missing Druid, Merlin was sure of it. Talking with Mordred was about as cryptic as talking with the dragon but Merlin finally discovered the reason for his presence. He informed Mordred then that though he believed otherwise, he did not have the power to control such an artefact.
Mordred wasn't impressed.
The question now remained how Merlin was going to get Mordred home with Arthur by his side.
He left the both of them at the edge of the forest, racing through the gates to find Will. His friend had grumbled at visiting a Druid camp but in the end, agreed that it would be better for Will to take Mordred back.
With Arthur's arm thrown over his shoulders, Merlin smiled at Mordred, Arthur quiet as they watched him go. Mordred turned before disappearing into the trees.
"Thank you, Arthur. Thank you. Emrys." Mordred smirked, eyes flickering to Arthur as he turned and left.
"Strange child," Merlin muttered, missing Arthur's look of disbelief.
Merlin was beginning to enjoy these short visits. He was able to question the dragon about magical artefacts and in return, keep the dragon entertained with stories of the outside world.
He still refused to bring live sheep into the cave. Regardless of how considerate the dragon tried to be, hearing the terrified bleating right before bones began to crunch was not Merlin's idea of a good time.
"How were you caught, anyway? I doubt any Dragonlord would command you to return, not after father left."
"Do you truly believe that Uther has the power to hold me down here against my will?" The dragon asked, neck extended to see Merlin better. The look he gave Merlin was amused, as if he couldn't see how Merlin's little brain could be so constrained.
"What do you mean?"
"How do you think it came to be that I remained down here all these years?"
"Uther captured you, chained you down here with magically enforced chains."
"If that is what you wish to believe." The dragon chuckled. "Uther likes to think he has the power to hold me against my will. We have worked hard to cultivate that belief. It would be a shame to disabuse him of that notion now."
"Why, me. And your father, of course. It was your father who asked me to remain here. He knew that one day you would require my help and that the young Pendragon would require protection. You are the only weapon he has strong enough to fight the coming tides. You are the only one strong enough to strike back at the heart of the young Pendragon's foes. "
"You're lying! My father wouldn't manipulate me like that!"
The dragon bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. "You could always ask him."
Merlin couldn't respond, so he fell silent.
"You should not blame your father. It is always wise to put the needs of the many above the needs of the one, something you do not yet comprehend. But you are young. One day, you will understand."
"The needs of the many? Above the needs of the one? Really?" Merlin was still shocked by the revelation that his father had been manipulating him possibly all his life. "Has anyone ever told you that you sound like Uther? Because really, you do. Same idea, you know."
"I am nothing like Uther!" The dragon bellowed, and Merlin realised he had found the one subject guaranteed to annoy the creature. Hot air wafted past his face as the dragon huffed. "The fate of all Albion lies in your hands. Your actions will determine the lives of many. Choose your path wisely. Or. Do nothing. And don't choose at all."
"Come back here!" Merlin yelled when the dragon flew off. "I'm not finished with you yet!"
"Quite the opposite, young warlock." The dragon's voice reverberated in the cave. "Our paths are just beginning."
Merlin tuned out Will, aware that he was talking about some woman he'd met in the market but not much else.
Merlin glanced up. "Oh yeah. Sorry, Will," Merlin answered distractedly, slowly twirling the papers in his hand. They were meeting in Gaius' rooms this time, Will using the excuse of a sprained muscle to see the physician.
"What's wrong with you today? Don't tell me you've lost your favourite neckerchief again. I've told you, Merlin. Women aren't attracted to those kinds of things. I never understood where you got the idea of reverse tokens from. They won't like it if you give them a ratty piece of cloth from around your neck."
"No. No, that's not it. It's just." Merlin sighed, putting the papers down. "Arthur knows something, Will."
"About the Dragonlords?"
"No, just about me, I think. The way he talks, says things…do you think he knows I'm a spy?"
"Do you see any soldiers? No, right? If he knew, you wouldn't be sitting here right now," Will pointed out. "If he knew, you'd either be scrambling to Ealdor for your very life, with me scrambling along as the very much put-upon friend, or sitting in a jail cell, waiting to be executed."
"Maybe," Merlin conceded, though his expression clearly said he didn't believe it. "Could be he's testing me."
"I hope not, Merlin. Or all our work will have been for nothing. Are you coming back with me to see Balinor? It's been awhile."
He gathered the papers up, slipping them into a book as he shook his head. He wasn't ready to see his father yet. "I'll have to pass this time, Will. Tell mum I love her for me, yeah? And no news for Balinor."
"All right," Will agreed with some hesitation, eyes following Merlin as he fled out the door.
It immediately manifested after their return from Alvarr's captivity, and at first, Merlin attributed it to Arthur needing to regain his equilibrium again. He knew from experience.
He also knew, having experienced it from the various boys in his village, that men took being emasculated very hard.
From the very first, Merlin knew that Arthur was the type to take duty and strength very seriously. But it dragged out, one week becoming two, then three, and finally Merlin couldn't handle anymore.
Arthur was vexing Merlin enough that it drove him to seek out Gwen's advice, Merlin willing to help her clean Morgana's room if it would shed some insight into Arthur's recent attitude.
"Have you noticed anything different about Arthur?"
"Different? Not really. Why?"
"I dunno." Merlin flipped the edge of the sheet over, pulling it taut between them until she flipped it a few times to get rid of the wrinkles. She pressed her end of the sheets to his, fingers wrapping over the edges to take the sheet from him. Once she was done folding it, she placed the sheet in the cupboard.
What Merlin would give to hear Arthur berating him about cupboards right about now.
"He's just been very quiet lately. Hasn't talked to me as much. I just thought, since you're so close to Morgana, that you might know something. Something with Uther, the courts or…" Merlin trailed off, leaving it open-ended and hoping Gwen would fill it with an answer.
"Do you think he's coming down with something? He could be feeling unwell."
"So you think he's sick?"
"You spend the most time with him, you should know."
"Yeah," Merlin sighed. "I think that's the problem."
For the first time, Arthur's room was nearly spotless.
Arthur was distant, had been so ever since they escaped from Alvarr's captivity. That more than anything told Merlin that something was wrong.
Merlin was so distracted by Arthur's distance that he actually performed his chores as originally intended; for the first time, things were put into their proper places. Clothes in cupboards and books on shelves. But the oddest thing about the situation was that Arthur barely even noticed.
Merlin removed the dirty plates sitting at Arthur's elbow to the side table, to be taken down once he left Arthur's chambers. Arthur didn't even glance at him, the customary quip about his being a horrible manservant completely missing. It made Merlin even more jumpy.
"Arthur?" Merlin ventured, as he straightened the sheets on Arthur's bed.
Then, evenly, "Merlin." It wasn't an invitation to speak. The tone clearly conveyed that Merlin was interrupting Arthur's reading.
Merlin forged ahead anyway. "Is everything all right? Are you still feeling pain from what Alvarr's men did? Should I fetch Gaius?"
Arthur flipped a page. "Does it look like anything's wrong, Merlin?"
"No, but." He fluffed a pillow, and then fluffed the other one for good measure. He'd never seen anyone be more of a pillow person than Arthur, hugging onto one while he slept like he was hugging onto a long forgotten doll. "You've been quiet lately. Has Mercia been giving you trouble again?"
Arthur slapped his open book face down onto the table. "Pray tell, Merlin, what would you know about Mercia?" He stared at Merlin with a neutral look, one that Merlin could tell wasn't neutral at all.
He tried to remember what he could have done to make Arthur this angry. "Nothing. Just rumours here and there. I'm just a servant, you know, what would I know about warfare."
"Yes. Just a servant." Arthur picked up his book again, flipping another page when Merlin knew he hadn't even read it yet. It was a clear dismissal. "Are you done here?"
Merlin tried to keep the injured look from surfacing on his face. He'd never been dismissed by Arthur like that before and it hurt. A lot.
"I was just concerned."
"Yes, well, perhaps a little less concern and a lot more competence should be in order." When Arthur muttered the phrase in the past, his voice had been playful, fond, exasperated. This time, his tone was serious, a trace of malice present as he aimed the insult at Merlin. "I've no idea why I still keep you around, Merlin. You're a liability at best."
The anger came on so swift, he nearly shook with it, though in the back of his mind, he was aware his anger was covering his fear. The way Arthur was looking at him scared him on a level he didn't want to admit.
"Fine! I hope you choke on your dirty clothes. Find someone else to put up with your pratliness, though good luck with that. I doubt anyone will." Merlin stormed out, not bothering to gather the dirty plates. Let Arthur deal with his own leftovers!
Being hungry was a feeling Arthur was used to. Camelot wasn't going through a food shortage, which would adequately explain Arthur's constant state of hunger, but Merlin was so often late with his food that Arthur had learned to tolerate that feeling of emptiness for Merlin's sake. He wasn't about to fetch his own meal, and he wouldn't undermine Merlin's position by requesting someone else fetch it for him.
So he went hungry for two hours on the training field before remembering that after last night, he was most likely short one manservant.
The kitchens were on the way from the training fields to his chambers so Arthur dropped in and prepared to order about a few maids if it would get him some food. What he saw instead was a girl, no older than seventeen, bent over the royal plates.
"What are you doing? Step back from those plates!" His sword was already out, pointed at the girl even as she squeaked in fright and scrambled away.
"I'm sorry, sire! I didn't mean any harm!"
Arthur advanced on her, enraged that a servant would be the culprit behind the poisoning. He'd expected a hardened soldier, or more likely one of the Druids or Dragonlords, not someone from his own household. "Who bribed you to do this?"
"No one bribed me, sire! Merlin—"
"Merlin?" Arthur felt like he couldn't breathe, his chest hurting with the effort. He wasn't sure why the idea of a traitorous Merlin shocked him, but it did. "Merlin asked you to do this?"
She nodded, eyes wide with fright though the mention of Merlin seemed to steel her. "Everyday, and to not let anyone know."
"Everyday?" Arthur stared at her in disbelief. "And has he asked you to do the same for my father's plates?"
The maid looked visually distressed. "I'm sorry, sire! Should we have?"
Arthur felt his world flip, growing disheartened that his people's loyalty could be bought so easily.
He swung his sword point at the chair. "You will remain there. Gaius will be fetched, and he will test this plate for poison."
"Oh, no," she interrupted, shaking her head. "There's no need for that. I'm almost done. I just need to taste the piece of chicken and if I don't get sick, I'm pretty sure you could eat it, sire."
Arthur's world shifted again, this time, the pieces fitting right where they're supposed to. He let out a sharp breath, sword lowering to the ground as he pointed again at the chair. "I believe you've got some explaining to do."
It was quiet in the armoury, and Merlin liked it that way. Though it was more dangerous to work magic in a public building instead of in the privacy of Arthur's room, Merlin wasn't about to go back with Arthur acting like an obnoxious arse.
Part of him also feared facing Arthur.
The armour unnaturally gleamed, but Merlin knew it would fade once the magic settled. He did this often, strengthening Arthur's armour by placing an imperceptible magical shield underneath, laying it into the groves and arcs of Arthur's mail plate and hauberk, and praying that even if he wasn't there, this extra measure would mean the difference between life and death in Arthur's last defence.
He placed the armour down and retrieved Arthur's vambrace, beginning to polish it.
Shuffling feet sounded in the doorway and Merlin glanced up, then immediately down to polish the vambrace more vigorously.
Arthur sat down on the floor beside him, moving some armour in the process.
Merlin's lips twitched at the apology, relief flooding through him. He wouldn't look at Arthur, focusing instead on the piece of metal in his hands. "For what?"
"For ignoring you."
"That's not all you were doing."
"I know." Arthur picked up the other vambrace, trading it for the extremely shiny one in Merlin's hands. "But that's all you're getting."
"You're a prat."
"I don't understand you sometimes."
"Well, I don't understand you either. I guess that makes us even."
Merlin didn't say anything to that but when Arthur's shoulder pressed against his, he leaned right into it, smile imperceptible as he savoured Arthur's warmth.
"Merlin?" He nodded, showing he was listening.
"Would you trust me with your family?" Arthur asked, apropos to nothing.
His hands stilled a moment before starting up the brushing rhythm again. He was careful not to look at Arthur.
"My family? Something you're not telling me?" Merlin stilled again, this time looking at Arthur with vague alarm. "Is there going to be a war?"
"Not one I'd want. I'm not fond of wars, Merlin. But sometimes they're a necessary evil to achieve peace. Surely you know that by now."
Merlin shrugged a shoulder, not saying one way or the other.
"Your family," Arthur tried again, "they're still alive, aren't they? Would you trust me with them?"
"My family aren't in Camelot, so it doesn't matter." Merlin got up, gathering Arthur's various pieces of armour into his arms. "Sorry, Arthur, I have to go. " Merlin raced out of the stables, the sound of his heart pounding so hard in his ears that he swore he would go deaf.
Arthur couldn't tell the truth from lies anymore, couldn't determine whether Merlin's smiles to him were genuine, or if they were a part of some elaborate trap he was setting for Arthur. Every time Merlin showed concern for him, or offered him information he would have gladly incorporated into his plans, he couldn't help wondering if this is the one thing that would lead to his fall.
Merlin was the last person Arthur thought would betray him.
It was the uncertainty that ate at his patience, that made his anger grow each time his men came back failing to complete what should have been an easy capture of Dragonlords. The only common denominator in all of them, the only one present in every single debriefing and planning session that failed was Merlin.
Merlin, who betrayed him by breaking his trust and stealing his information. Merlin, who smiled at him while telling his own father how to infiltrate Arthur's men.
And yet, he couldn't tell his father.
This was the same Merlin who filled his wine goblet, found him food tasters, and saved his life.
He didn't know which Merlin was his, or which one was real and that, more than anything else, hurt.
Perhaps it was time to find out.
Merlin hadn't thought anything of it when Arthur asked for his armour to be polished and hammered. When he asked Merlin to summon the knights, that's when he started to get concerned.
"I believe it could be taken by forty, maybe fifty men tops. The land is flat, easy to travel should you wish to bring artillery."
"Thank you, Leon. And what of their defences."
Merlin fetched another goblet from the sideboard, pouring watered wine for Arthur. Merlin knew Arthur hated to be impaired when he was planning campaigns. He placed the goblet at Arthur's elbow, eyes glancing down at the map. His hand jerked and knocked the goblet off the table when he recognized Ealdor's landscape.
"You're attacking Cendred's land?" Merlin asked Arthur, grabbing a cloth to dab gingerly at the puddle on the table. Arthur lifted his arm and checked underneath for stains before answering Merlin.
"At dawn, yes. We've allowed the Dragonlords to run amok for too long. Now is the time to stop them. If we arrive at dawn, most of the village will be asleep."
Merlin's hand shook as the cloth sopped up the liquid from the floor. He feared for his parents' lives, feared for Will and the innocent village people there. He couldn't warn them in person; Arthur would expect him to ride in front with him. But maybe there was another way.
"May I be excused, sire?"
"Of course, Merlin," Arthur replied, unblinking eyes fixed on him. "I'm sure you've plenty to do. Sharpening my sword and polishing my armour. Try not to forget my shield," Arthur called after him as he rushed out the door.
The village was already in a defensive position by the time Arthur's men cleared the trees. He could see where trap pits had been dug and where men were situated in strategic positions.
"They're expecting us." It was obvious that the village had been warned. "Where's Lancelot, Merlin? He was supposed to be here with you for your protection."
Merlin started, biting on his lip before answering. "I don't know."
"I see." Arthur watched for Merlin's reaction and wasn't disappointed when Merlin spotted Balinor and his wife at the front lines and briefly smiled.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Merlin turned pleading eyes on him, hands fiddling with his reins. "They're villagers, Arthur, not fighters. They won't last if you send your men out there."
"Then Balinor should have thought of that before settling here."
Leon pulled up beside Arthur, adding his reasoning to Merlin's. "Sire. Cendred may see this as an act of war, bringing Camelot soldiers into his territory. Perhaps it would be best if we withdrew and then negotiated with Cendred to allow us access--"
"Enough." Did they think he hadn't considered any of this? Regardless of what Merlin believed, Arthur's purpose today wasn't to crush Balinor, the Dragonlords, or the little village of Ealdor. This was a test of strength, and the only person under scrutiny was Merlin.
Arthur left his men at the tree line, taking only Merlin, Leon and a handful of knights with him to meet Balinor. They met in the middle of the field, Balinor not wasting any time by speaking first.
"Why are you here, Pendragon?" he asked, eyes drawn naturally to Merlin.
"For the same reason you've sent men to Camelot."
At the very least, Balinor didn't bother to feign ignorance by denying it.
"You're outnumbered, Balinor. The majority of people in your village don't know how to fight."
"I'm aware of that. Only a tyrant strikes at helpless people. And if I know anything about you, Pendragon, you aren't a tyrant. Single-combat. Whether I win or lose, you withdraw your army and leave the village alone. If I lose, you can have me."
Beside him, Merlin made to jump off the saddle, stilling when Balinor stared at him. For some reason, that made Arthur rather cross.
"And if I lose?"
"Your life is forfeit to me. And your men promise never to attack this village again."
"I accept. Merlin, my sword." He dismounted, hand held out waiting for the sword Merlin wouldn't pass to him. "Merlin?"
"Don't do this. This is insane. Your life, Arthur?"
"Worried I'll win?"
"Worried you'll lose, you stupid prat!"
Arthur's expression softened, "Then in fifteen minutes, you won't need to worry either way."
Within minutes into the fight, Balinor was on the defence, Arthur striking hard and fast with his sword, not giving him a chance to regroup. He didn't know who he needed to win, but it didn't matter. No matter who ended up on the sword at the end of this battle, there would be an all-out war.
Balinor feinted, his blade slipping under and striking at Arthur's left side. Merlin knew from watching Arthur fight hundreds of time that he didn't favour either side. But Balinor knew that because Merlin had told him.
Merlin hissed sharply.
Arthur's back hit the ground hard, Balinor sweeping his feet out from under him while he'd been busy defending his left side. The blade struck hard where Arthur's neck had been, then immediately swiped sideways, leaving a nick on Arthur's arm. Blood ran crimson down his arm, staining his shirt. The wound, however, wasn't deep enough to slow Arthur down.
Even with his wound setting him back, it was quickly evident that Arthur was the stronger fighter, quicker and more skilled.
He swung his blade around, forcing Balinor to back up. Merlin knew his father's footwork was weak, saw the protruding trunk he would trip over before he even went down.
Arthur stood over Balinor and flipped his sword, a horrible parody of the same act Merlin had performed fifteen years ago. And Merlin felt like his world was coming apart.
If Arthur killed Balinor, Merlin could never look at him again.
Time suddenly froze, the men on both sides stuck mid-pose with Arthur standing over Balinor, sword raised and caught mid-strike. He stood there, shocked at what he'd done and completely unnerved by how silent the world had gone. He'd stopped time before, this was nothing new, but he'd only managed it in small pockets of space. He knew, deep in his core, that this time the whole world had gone undeniably still.
Merlin scrambled over to where Arthur stood, fingers prying desperately at Arthur's grip. He could feel the vice he had on time slipping, like trying to hold fine sand in his fist. It was trickling from him, and any second, Arthur would get control of his sword back and Merlin would have to watch his father die, bleed out onto the ground while Merlin stood uselessly by.
"Arthur, please!" Merlin begged at Arthur's stilted expression, nearing tears when he couldn't move the blade.
Time lurched to a start again.
Merlin clapped both hands onto the blade, ignoring the sharp edge slicing into his skin. He grasped it like he would a hilt and wrenched his hands apart, his magic completely disintegrating the blade in the act.
Arthur leapt back, a look of intense rage on his face. He stared at the remains of the hilt before tossing it aside. He remained still, watching Merlin help his father stand, as Merlin checked Balinor for more fatal wounds.
"You've made your choice."
Merlin blanched. "Arthur, no." Arthur knew. All this time, when Merlin thought he was doing well, when he thought he'd had everything in balance, Arthur had known about his magic, about the Dragonlords. His lips parted, ready to reason with Arthur when a wall of flame separated them.
The Druids had arrived.
The Druids were far enough back that Merlin was having a hard time picking Morgana's cloaked figure from their group. He'd been worried that she'd been attacked by bandits or serkets on her way to the Druid camp, or that she wouldn't be able to convince the Druids to come in time.
He should never have doubted her.
Aglain stood near the Dragonlords, waving two men forward to flank Balinor. He politely demanded that Arthur step down and withdraw his men, telling him that while he wasn't out-numbered, he was certainly out-forced with the number of magic user set against him.
Arthur didn't look too happy about that.
"We are a peaceful people, Prince Arthur. Once your men have withdrawn, we will grant you your freedom. If you refuse, we will start by executing your manservant."
Shocked at this turn of event and unsure of what the Druid leader was doing, Merlin stared at Aglain. He knew Merlin was Balinor's son. What purpose could there be in threatening to execute him?
"Aglain." Balinor called out. Merlin was sure that he didn't appreciate Algain's threat either.
"Balinor. You've been compromised in this situation. Allow me to handle it. I promise you won't regret it."
Merlin couldn't decipher Arthur's stare, fixed on him and so intense that he couldn't help but fidget. Arthur's eyes flickered back to his men before he nodded and threw his long dagger down.
"Arthur, what are you doing?" Merlin protested. "You can't let them take you!"
"You don't have a choice, servant of Camelot," Aglain said, waving at another Druid to retrieve Arthur's dagger. "That is the bargain your master entered, that is the bargain he will keep."
"No! I won't let you do this!"
"Shut up, Merlin!" Arthur shouted at him as he pulled him back by his shoulders. "Haven't you done enough? Now be quiet and let me handle this."
"Fine, then handle it! But you're not going with the Druids."
"Would you like to deal with them then?" Arthur gestured palm up at the clump of Dragonlords and Druids. "Be my guest."
"Or maybe you could let me deal with them instead, Merlin." Both of them turned towards the voice, Arthur gaping in surprise while Merlin laughed. The Druids turned to face the new threat and Merlin snatched Arthur's dagger back.
There Gwen was, outfitted in armour and sitting at the front of King Olaf's men. They were flanking Arthur's unit, at least half of Olaf's travelling force. The king himself was nowhere in sight, not surprising since this was Cendred's territory. Merlin could only be glad that Viviane hadn't managed to tag along, something he'd worried about when he sent Gwen to Viviane. If she'd been here and gotten hurt, Olaf would declare war on them all.
Both sides were evenly balanced now, and Merlin was quick to press his advantage. "You can't win this, not with so many soldiers standing against you. At least, not without heavy loss," Merlin told Aglain. He waited until he saw Aglain nod, before turning to Arthur.
With Arthur, Merlin took a quieter approach. "Arthur, look at the number of people involved. If you attack them, there's no saying where the battle will spill to. Innocent bystanders could get hurt. The neighbouring villages. Cendred will believe you've ravaged them for your own needs. It's too dangerous."
Arthur's response was quiet, eyes searching Merlin's face. "Is that what you believe, Merlin?"
"Yes, Arthur, please. This isn't the time to strike. Call them back."
And he stood there, watching Arthur stroke his ring over his lips and think. Arthur took so long to respond that Merlin began to believe he'd failed.
"You're manipulating me right now, just like you have in the past." Arthur continued over Merlin's protests. "You're using my love and care for innocent people against me, so that I will withdraw against Balinor."
"That's not it! I just don't want this to become a war. I don't want anybody to get hurt and I just think it's pointless, all this murder and fighting. I want peace, for Camelot and for you." Merlin trailed off, not sure what else to say to convince Arthur.
"I've learned all I need. Thank you, Merlin. For opening my eyes to the truth." Arthur grabbed his dagger from Merlin, slipping it into its sheath.
"Balinor!" Arthur bellowed, drawing everyone's attention.
"Don't do this!" He seized Arthur's wrist, the cut on his hand leaving bloody hand prints on Arthur's shirt. Arthur shook him off.
"I will agree to withdraw my men if you will do the same. There's no need for shed blood today. But you will withdraw all your men, including those hiding in my army."
"You know about them?"
"I know more than you think." Arthur carefully did not look at Merlin.
"Then I agree. Allow me a few days to recall them."
"Be warned, Balinor." Arthur's hand settled on the hilt of his dagger, lending more threat to his words. "Should I find that you broke our agreement, the person you send will dearly regret it."
Balinor shrugged off Hunith's help as he made his way to where Arthur and Merlin stood. His eyes held Merlin's, sympathetic and regretful, before turning the full force of his intensity towards Arthur. "And you will find, young Pendragon, that if you hurt one of mine, I will not hesitate to tear all of Camelot down around your ears."
Merlin stood there, Balinor making his way to Hunith behind him and Arthur walking back to his army at his front. The two most important men in his life, both having seen something in Merlin worth keeping.
Both walking away from him.
And he had no idea who to follow.
Hunith squeezed her husband's hands, placed a quick kiss at the side of his face before abandoning him. She walked to where Merlin was, her heart breaking at the broken expression on his face.
"Merlin." Her son looked down at her, then at his father and Arthur. He opened his mouth and gasped, "Mum."
"Oh, my dear boy." She grasped his face in her hands, letting him lean on her emotionally until he could make his decision. "You've been through so much."
His eyes caught on Arthur and she knew he didn't mean only her. "You have, too."
She smiled sadly. "I've just seen how much he needs you. How much you need him."
"He doesn't need me, mum. You heard him. He wants father to withdraw all his spies."
"I did hear him, Merlin. He said he wanted Balinor to withdraw all his spies from his army." She peered up at him. "You're not part of his army, are you?"
Merlin inhaled sharply, hope budding on his face as his eyes caught on Arthur again. Hunith looked and noticed that both Balinor and Arthur were turned towards them now, both watching Hunith console Merlin.
She never understood why men had to make everything so difficult.
"He cares about you, Merlin. I can see it. And I know you care about him. You belong at his side."
"But what about father?"
"Your father understands. He sees what I do. You're like two sides of the same coin." At that moment, a pretty woman in armour ran up to the field, stopping a good length away from Merlin and Hunith and shifted nervously on her feet. Hunith smiled at her. "Will tells me that you have good friends in Camelot?"
Merlin laughed, strained though it was. "Yeah. Gaius, of course. Gwen and Morgana."
Hunith nodded. "Then just as the coin will always have two sides, you will always have two homes."
"Oh, mum." Merlin tightly hugged her, hiding a sniff into the side of her neck. Then she let him go, watching him run to Arthur's side.
"What you did was reckless! Endangering political relations, involving another kingdom in our disputes. Did you believe that no consequences would come of this? That Cendred might not find this a declaration, an act of war?" Uther paced the length of his dais, eyes unmoving from Arthur's still form. He had yet to reach for his goblet, always an indicator to Arthur of how furious he was.
"I am sorry for worrying you, father, but I had the situation under control. I informed Cendred of our intended actions earlier, and in exchange for gold, he agreed to allow me and my men the right of entry for that village. There was no breach of treaty."
"Did you now? And when were you going to tell me about this mission?"
"When Balinor had been apprehended."
"And if you didn't catch him?"
Arthur raised his chin, expression carefully blank as Uther continued to stare at him.
Uther scoffed. "I see. For too long have I allowed you freedom to affect Camelot's direction without check. I see now that I was wrong. Perhaps Valiant was right and I have allowed my blindness as a father to mislead me."
"This ends here," Uther pointed to the ground. "Your boy, Merlin. I heard he practiced magic at this village."
"Father, he's been a loy- he's saved my life many times. Surely that counts for something."
"He's a sorcerer, and that counts for everything. You will execute him for the crimes of practicing magic, and for treason against the throne. Is that understood?"
Arthur felt his composure slip. He shouldn't have brought Merlin back with him, no matter how stubborn Merlin had been about it. "I cannot agree with this. Punish him with life imprisonment, banish him from the kingdom if you must, but do not punish loyalty with death."
"You would defy me for a mere boy?"
"Of course not, father. But Merlin is not just a mere boy."
"No, he is not. Do not force my hand, Arthur. You will regret it."
Arthur didn't need Leon to tell him that Morgana was on a warpath. He could see it with his own eyes. And even if Leon hadn't approached Arthur about the riot incitement Morgana was trying to pull off on Merlin's behalf, the increasing number of courtiers begging to see him regarding a 'delicate matter' was enough to inform him.
He waited until his father left the dining hall.
"Morgana. Stop turning my courtiers against me," Arthur commented between bites of food.
"Then stop being an arse and start doing your job."
What was it about Morgana that always killed his appetite? Arthur dropped the spoon next to his plate.
"I am doing my job, or have you not noticed? Merlin is a traitor and the law says he must be executed."
"You're out of your mind! Merlin is no more a traitor than I am. In fact, I've helped him in the past. Are you going to execute me, too?"
Arthur threw his hands up. "I'm not hearing this. You're confused Morgana. You've been taken in by his false charm."
"The only one confused here is you! Believing in Uther's fanaticism against magic, consigning a friend to the role of foe. You're blinded by Uther's hate and you don't even know it."
"And I suppose Merlin being connected to the Dragonlords has nothing to do with it?" Arthur asked, rubbing at his forehead.
Morgana shook her head. "It has everything to do with it. Just talk to him, Arthur. Maybe you'll discover that not everything's black and white."
"I hear you've been looking for me."
Arthur turned swiftly, sword point aimed with deadly accuracy towards Balinor's throat. They stared at each other over the sheen of metal, waiting for the other to yield first. Alone in his chambers before the sudden appearance of Balinor, Arthur doubted the immediacy of aid from his soldiers should he call for it.
He idly wondered in that moment if Merlin would ever forgive him for executing his father then and there.
"You heard correct," Arthur confirmed. "How did you get in here?"
"He told you how to infiltrate these chambers?" Arthur didn't think he could hurt any more than he already was, but knowing that Merlin was willing to betray him to his enemies while he was at his most vulnerable caused something in Arthur to crack.
"No. He would not tell us such things, even when pressed." Balinor's hand gestured to the walls, then the door, towards the linchpins of protection spells only he could detect. "I followed to where his magical signature was strongest. He must care for you a great deal, Arthur Pendragon."
"If he truly did, we wouldn't be in this situation. Why are you here?"
"Because you wished it."
"I highly doubt that. I believe it was your intention to always stay one step ahead. I can't see that changing. So what do you really want?"
"What every father wants for his son," Balinor said, seemingly unruffled by the steel threatening his life. His arms hung prone at his side, his demeanour not so much proud as curious, determined. Arthur did not trust him for a second.
"State your purpose now, or I shall run you through."
"I have already stated my purpose. I want what's best for Merlin."
"And what's best for Merlin is to have him spy on me, on my family, for him to be released after his crimes have come to light. Is that it? Do you think me a fool? Did you think I would not notice?" Arthur's grip tightened on the sword hilt. "Time and again, our attacks against the Dragonlords failed, was intercepted. I knew it was strange at first. I knew we had a mole. But I had no idea it would be--"
Arthur clamped his mouth shut, not willing to say another word. He knew that if he continued, some emotion beside anger would leak into his voice, something he would not allow anyone else to witness.
Balinor nodded. "I understand what you're going through."
"Don't patronise me," Arthur interrupted, extending his shoulder and moving the sword point a couple of inches closer to Balinor's vulnerable throat. He was careful not to overextend himself. If Balinor did decide to strike back with a spell, he needed to be able to defend himself.
"I am sorry that things have come to this. Things happen for a reason, Prince Pendragon. Your father killed people for a reason, even if it was driven by mindless grief. He seized this kingdom. He made you his heir, all for a reason. Do you think this all came about through a series of unconnected circumstances? That your birth had nothing to do with this?"
"My birth? What does my birth have to do with anything?"
"It has everything to do with this. Your birth was a necessary catalyst for our future."
"I don't understand," Arthur growled, growing even more frustrated with each half answer.
"Don't speak about my mother!"
The silence between them was punctuated by Arthur's breathless pants, broken only by the rustle of Balinor's robe when he stepped back.
"Your mother was a good woman."
Arthur, completely thrown by those words, just stared at Balinor.
"You knew my mother?"
"I did," Balinor confirmed. "Very well. She was a brave one. A fine one, the only one of her kind."
"But you know about my mother." Arthur's sword point lowered, not enough to abandon his guard, but it was obvious that his interest was caught.
"She was good to Merlin."
"Merlin? Merlin knew my mother?"
"She was kind to him. Merlin was rather fond of her."
"I don't understand," Arthur said with some confusion. "I don't understand!" Arthur repeated with a growl in his voice. "How can Merlin know my mother? He would have been…six, seven!"
"Five, in fact."
"Do not take me for a fool, Balinor. Tell me what you know, and tell me what my mother has to do with all of this!"
"Your mother," Balinor began, "understood the risks of what was to come. We all understood the risk. The dragon had portended…"
"Dragon? You mean the one residing underneath the castle?"
"Ah, so you know about Kilgharrah."
"So the dragon has a name. Why am I not surprised?"
"Did you ever wonder why your father chained a dragon there?"
Arthur pursed his lips, not willing to say more on the subject but feeling obligated to defend his remaining parent. "Everyone knew that my father had captured him, imprisoned him underneath Camelot as a warning against all magical beings."
"Yes, and you've never wondered why a king with no earthly ties to magic was able to entrap the Great Dragon, one of the most magical beasts ever to walk upon this Earth?"
"Your father is a strong man, but he is not that strong. And he may be cunning and manipulative, and ruthless even when the need does not call for it, but he is not that talented. And I assure you, no knight would be strong enough to take Kilgharrah down."
Arthur closed his eyes, thinking of all the things he's heard, all the things he's known, of Merlin, and the nonsensical actions he'd taken all this time. They made so much sense now that Balinor had shed some light on the issue. He thought of his father and his unyielding principles, of the execution of children associated with magic.
He lowered his sword, eyes opening to glare at Balinor. "Tell me everything, Balinor. And leave nothing out. If you wish to see your son ever again…"
"I will tell you but only if you can handle it, Pendragon boy."
"That's not true."
Arthur stood at the window, tense, eyes fixed out into the distance. His hands were by his side, clenched into fists. Balinor sat at the table, fingers running over the stem of the wine goblet that Arthur provided. His green, embroidered cloak sat discarded on the back of another chair. Arthur's own goblet sat abandoned across from Balinor's, though neither of them had touched the wine beyond the initial decanting and pouring.
"It's the truth," Balinor repeated, "one which you cannot deny. You are one half of Merlin, two halves of a whole, if you will. Without him, you will not survive. He knows this. The dragon has informed him of this. That is your destiny, something you must accept."
"Do you realise how insane you sound? It's ridiculous! I've lived perfectly fine without Merlin for years. There's no reason now that I would have to…"
"You've lived well because your destiny has not been called before. Uther Pendragon has caused many upheavals in this land, nothing we didn't expected. But it is time now for you to seize that power and restore the balance."
"You're mad! I will not commit patricide or treason! I will not betray my father. Unlike your son, loyalty still beats in my heart. I will remain true to those who love me, depend on me. And to those I love."
Balinor sighed. "You judge my son too harshly, Pendragon. You don't understand what he's been through."
"Your mother desired your existence, would have given anything to conceive you. It was Merlin, whom she often expressed this wish to. Your father was a courtier in Camelot's courts at the time. A warlord in his own right. A knight. One of the strongest. He brought your mother, Ygraine du Bois, in order to curry favour in the courts. He wanted to secure land and wealth for any future offspring he may be granted. That was something he had difficulty with. Your mother miscarried many times. Uther feared that she would not survive another."
Balinor fell quiet. "It is my belief that Uther Pendragon was never meant to have a son."
"That is not for you to say," Arthur interrupted.
"No, it is not. But it was for Merlin to say."
"Stop being cryptic."
"Merlin did not know the consequences of his actions."
Arthur faced Balinor, a look of horror in his eyes at the implication Balinor was putting forth. "That's not possible."
"You do not know my son as I do. You do not know the power he possesses."
"Merlin desired to grant Ygraine's wish," Balinor continued. "He was five years old. He did not know what he was doing. You cannot blame a child for doing what he believed was right. He meant well and his intentions were good."
"Half of his magic rests in you, Arthur Pendragon. You are made of magic. Merlin's magic."
"Don't!" Arthur shouted. Everything he'd believed in his life… Arthur's mouth opened and closed in wordless distress. He was half of Merlin? Merlin? He was the one who killed his mother? But no, that wasn't right. Arthur had killed his own mother, just by being born, just by being willed into existence. It reflected what he'd always believed. Perhaps they were all culpable in his mother's death. Perhaps he was just as much to blame as Merlin.
Perhaps this was his punishment.
"I'll be dead before the month is out." Balinor stated the non-sequitor, calm expression at odds with his statement.
Arthur only managed to blink, unsure of where Balinor was going with this. "What? I highly doubt that. You've managed to evade my men thus far. I can't see why you won't simply continue to do so."
"That's not what I meant," Balinor corrected. "They want to start a war between the Dragonlords and the Pendragons. You have been too fixated on the internal struggles of Camelot. Knight Valiant desires to seize control of your kingdom, this you are already aware of. What you don't know, is that he's allied himself with King Bayard of Mercia."
"That can't be true. We have a standing treaty with Mercia."
"Bayard is a fool. He wants peace but he covets your land more. I've had reports of Valiant secretly meeting with him. You would do well to be wary of any peacemaking efforts on Bayard's part. You are young; untried. You cannot do this alone. They will try to start a war by assassinating me and blaming it on the Pendragon knights. At least, that is the rumour they will spread. Whether those tactics will work depends on you."
"Have you told Merlin all this?"
"I have not. You'll find there are many things I have not told Merlin."
"You can't do this to him." Arthur angrily protested, feeling offence on Merlin's behalf. "You're not dead yet, and this is event can still be prevented. You can't do this to him. You're his father! He obviously cares for you or he wouldn't disobey me quite so much." The last was said bitterly, Arthur aware of just how much Merlin loved his father. Enough even to betray Arthur, to break his trust.
"Did you think it was easy to watch my son struggle, to teach him to control his magic, knowing what the culmination of that training would lead to? That this thing he must do for you, for Camelot and Albion, might very well break him? This is Uther's fault! And if you think for one second that I made any of my decisions in blithe carelessness." Visibly trying to regain control, Balinor ran his hand over his face. "My family, Pendragon. I am sacrificing my family to restore the balance. That is something I would not wish on my enemies. Do not lecture to me about reckless choices."
Arthur didn't know how to respond. All he could think was that no one deserved this. Especially Merlin. "You have to tell him. Balinor, you must tell him the truth."
"Whether I tell Merlin or not, he cannot stop this. Only one person can. And that is you, Arthur Pendragon."
Two days until execution, if the markings on the wall in Merlin's cell were to be believed. It had taken Arthur two months to arrange Merlin's execution, no doubt pressured by Uther and the courts. Of course, he had never heard of an execution in Camelot taking this long to prepare for. It was never his intention to force Arthur's hand, to make him choose between Uther and him, knew that putting Arthur into that position was only courting for something to break between them.
And some part of Merlin, the part that was still standing on the top of the hill watching Camelot burn understood- Arthur would not choose him.
It looked like Arthur finally made his choice.
Merlin felt bitterness uncurl. During his captivity, Arthur had not visited him once. Merlin didn't expect him to, not really, but hope was hard to kill and when the only news he heard was through Gwen…
Dear Gwen, who came to visit him regularly, angrily shoving baskets of food and clothes at him at first and then slowly, coming to her own conclusions about his loyalty. She had forgiven him after some time, and he was grateful for that.
Morgana, he had seen only once.
Gaius visited often, urging him to leave, to flee while he could.
The dragon, on the other hand, sang annoyingly and wouldn't shut up in his head about Arthur's destiny crumbling the moment Merlin died.
A rustling sound was the only warning Merlin got before a vice grip around his neck woke him. A hand covered his mouth, muffling any sounds he would make. Merlin made a sound of protest even as his magic gathered in his core, aware that this was not a guard. He blinked in surprise at the cloaked figure above him, eyes shadowed with face and hair covered. The cloak was green, Merlin noticed immediately, embroidered leaves trimming the hem of the material and he recognized the cloak as the one all Dragonlords wore proudly.
His eyes widened in disbelief. How his father managed to get someone into Camelot, this deep underground into the cell holding a known traitor without any alarm was a mystery to him.
The grip on his neck harshly cut off his breath, his mouth falling open to gasp desperately for air. He was about to strike before he was suddenly released. The man nodded at the open cell door, and Merlin didn't need to be told twice. He quickly grabbed his meagre belongings and ran out the door, following the other man down the darkened stone way.
It was easy work getting out from the underground cells, the trail of unconscious guards leading the way up. Not dead, Merlin determined when he had the chance to check. He wasn't about to make his escape any more detrimental by killing the men loyal to Arthur.
The courtyard was conspicuously clear.
Merlin nearly ran into his rescuer near the gates, one hand grasping onto the other man's back for balance. A firm hand shoved Merlin into a corner alcove and Merlin found himself pressed against the wall, back flush against stone and chest heaving as silently as he could. His heart pounded as he finally heard footsteps approach.
"Who is it?" Merlin whispered, only to be pushed back into the wall even harder. He parted his lips at that, trying to keep his breathing even. His rescuer's caution wasn't wrong- two sets of footsteps were approaching.
Merlin couldn't help but smile when Gwen's familiar curls came into view, followed closely by a cloaked figure he recognized as Morgana. Gwen, carrying a much larger basket than the last visit, was nervously glancing around, steps sure and quick as she made her way past. Morgana had problems keeping pace, her eyes down cast the whole way.
The only place this pathway led to was his cell, and it looked like the two had been on their way to visit him. Would they sound the alarm if they discovered the fallen guards?
"We have to move," Merlin warned his companion, grabbing the man's hand to lead him out. He shot a perplexed look at the man when the hand was stiffly wrenched back. He shrugged and pointed towards the exit he knew to be clear.
Luck held with them, as Merlin showed his rescuer the pathway he'd explored once with Will. The man followed, keeping silent even after they'd escaped Camelot's walls.
He led Merlin to a clearing not too far from Camelot, where two horses were tethered to a branch. A rucksack of what Merlin could only assume to be supplies was leaning against the tree. Obviously, Merlin thought, this break out had been planned. Merlin sighed as he turned, grinning wryly at the man standing across from him.
"Thanks. Really, thanks for getting me out of there. Arthur wouldn't... I mean. I wasn't sure if anyone would be able to help, and the King…" Merlin paused there, something dropping low and hot in his belly at the thought of Arthur watching him burn alive; betrayed, accusing eyes not moving away even if Merlin were to scream as the flames flayed his skin off. It was this thought, more than anything that finally made Merlin realise that everything between them was now broken.
Merlin fought hard to speak past the sudden roughness in his throat. "A-anyway, thanks again. Would you let me know your name? I have to know who to thank. Are you one of Will's men then? Or did my father--"
A cry of surprise escaped as he fell the floor, fingers digging into the soft dirt, disoriented and unsure of what happened. It wasn't until he recognized the dark drops colouring the grass as his blood that his split lip and cheek flooded with pain.
"Even now," the man sneered through clenched teeth as Merlin paled, "even after all we've been through, you'd believe that I'd let you die?" Even muffled through cloth, the pain in his voice was palpable. Merlin rushed towards him, ignoring the twigs and pebbled rocks digging into his knees as he made his way towards Arthur, his Arthur. His hands fisted into the cloak hanging off Arthur's shoulder, the cloak of the Dragonlords, the one he refused to let go of now that he knew who was wearing it.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, knuckles going white.
"You no longer have a right to use that name, Traitor." Arthur's tone was implacable, unwilling to give.
"Sire. Please!" Merlin knelt there, every line of his body pleading with Arthur to understand, to not make the final move that would make their relationship irreparable. "I never betrayed you completely. I know, it was my fault, I shouldn't have lied to you about my father, a-about the Dragonlords, but please. Everything I've done, it's been for--"
"There's nothing left to say. You've already proven your loyalty." Arthur stepped back, tugged at the cloak to free it. Merlin shook his head. Arthur unlatched the clasp on his cloak and Merlin released a cry of dismay as the cloth spilled onto the forest floor. Arthur, hair and face now visible, took another step back, weight held on his back leg as if preparing to turn.
"Leave. Never return. If I see your face in Camelot again, your life will be forfeit." Arthur pivoted, only managing a few steps before Merlin called out to him.
"Arthur, wait! You asked me once, whether I trusted you with my family's life."
Arthur didn't move. "If I recall, you never answered. I took that for a resounding 'no'."
"It's still a no. But," Merlin hurriedly continued when Arthur took another step away, "I trust you with my life. I would trust you with my everything. Just not my family, Arthur."
"You insolent idiot! What kind of a trust is that?"
"A kind where I know you would do the right thing."
"The right thing, is it? All right. A choice then." Arthur walked back to him, hand resting pointedly on the hilt of his sword. "If you're so eager to return to my side, come back."
Merlin felt hope stir, fragile but still there. He still gave Arthur a wary look. "You truly mean that? You're forgiving me?"
"Under one condition," Arthur stipulated. "Your family. Effective immediately, you will cut all ties with them and with the Dragonlords. I never want to hear about you contacting them again. I forbid it. You can't serve two masters, Merlin, so this ends now. If you're to return to my side, you'll be loyal only to me."
"Do you accept?"
Merlin was wrong. Apparently, Arthur didn't need to die for Merlin to break.
"I can't. Arthur, I'm sorry."
He couldn't do this; he couldn't do what Arthur asked. He couldn't cut ties with his family or the Dragonlords. He loved his family, needed them. And if he was going to track down this weapon before Alvarr or Valiant did, he would need all the resources at his disposal. He wanted to be at Arthur's side, to protect him and watch him grow into the king Merlin knew he would be, but he couldn't do that if he didn't eliminate the external threats first.
Lying to Arthur wasn't even an option anymore. Arthur had said that he never wanted to hear Merlin contact his family again, and that was something Merlin could work around. But with all the deception shadowing their relationship, Merlin found he couldn't do that to Arthur again.
At least, not with this.
Arthur's face was already closing off, expression going blank. "Arthur, please, listen to me. I can't do what you ask. And I won't lie to you anymore."
"Then we have nothing left to discuss."
"No!" Merlin regained his feet, his knees shaking as they refused to hold his weight. "Would you give up your mother, if you were given the choice?"
Arthur inhaled sharply, drawing back and looking like Merlin had struck him. Merlin realised in a way that he had. Arthur swiftly regained his composure, jaw flexing in anger.
"I've accepted you for who you really are," Merlin's voice trembled. "Can you do the same for me?"
"Are you done?"
"No, I'm not." Merlin plunged in, pressing his lips against Arthur's, hands clutching desperately at his shoulders. He poured everything he felt into the kiss, the regret he had for betraying Arthur, the hope that Arthur would one day forgive him, and the sorrow that pierced him for leaving Arthur behind. He gave a sob of relief when Arthur let out something of a frustrated growl, and gave in to the kiss, hand on Merlin's neck mirroring his earlier grip. His thumb tilted Merlin's chin as he deepened the kiss.
Merlin pulled back reluctantly, lips brushing lightly against Arthur's as he spoke under his breath. "Give me some time," Merlin whispered. "Please. I promise I'll return to you when you need me."
"I can't believe a single word you say, Merlin," Arthur said quietly. "You've lied to me."
"I know and I'm sorry. But this is the truth. I know the man you will be become, Arthur, I can see it. You'll be a great king, a just one. And that's the man I want to serve. How can I not return to that?" Merlin also loved the man Arthur was now, prat and all, but he couldn't say that. He wasn't ready yet to hand Arthur the power to hurt him. "Just trust me. You've done it before."
"And that's the problem, Merlin," Arthur said, fingers stroking along the line of Merlin's ear before he pulled back. "I no longer trust you."
Arthur walked away, and this time, Merlin didn't stop him.
Merlin had only been travelling along for a few hours when the sound of horse hooves bearing down on him made him scramble off the road.
Merlin ran back and slid to a stop on the road, grinning so hard at the sight coming towards him that he could cry.
"Gwen!" And when the second rider came into view, "Morgana! I can't believe…!"
Both pulled hard on their reins once they reached him, Gwen quicker in leaping off her horse and engulfing him in a hug. "Stupid, stupid Merlin. You couldn't have waited for us? We were worried sick!"
Merlin laughed weakly, pulling Gwen into another hug. "'m sorry. I didn't really have a choice in leaving."
"We heard," Morgana said, having already dismounted. "That's how we managed to find you so quickly."
"Arthur told you?" Merlin was baffled.
"We're coming with you, Merlin. You can't go about this alone," Gwen told him, hands clasped beneath her elbows, a determined look set on her face.
"Arthur knows what I'm looking for?" Merlin was beginning to realise that Arthur may have known quite a bit more than he let on.
"Arthur's an idiot. Besides, we've helped you for this long. We aren't about to let you take care of the rest without us."
"But…what about Lancelot? Gwen you just met him."
Gwen smiled proudly, her eyes shining as she said, "He's staying behind, to guard Arthur the best he can. Someone has to protect Arthur from himself and it won't be long. Whatever we're doing, we're coming home after to Camelot, right?"
Merlin smiled, touched and overwhelmed. "That's right. It'll be rough going, though. No luxuries, dangerous territories. There might even be bad tea."
"I wouldn't worry about that," Morgana cut in. "I've tasted Arthur's attempt at tea. Acid would be a blessing after the swill he blends. I'm sure I can handle anything else the road throws at us." Morgana nodded back at her horse with a playful smile. "Shall we leave? The sooner we find this weapon, the sooner we can come home."
"Yeah." Merlin could feel the optimism replace his earlier despair. Maybe this would work out after all. "All right. Let's finish this so we can go home. Together."