It was once told among his people that when Carmarthen fell, a greater evil would descend upon all of Albion. His people, the Carmarthians, would suffer through dark times once their kingdom fell, but it would be nothing compared to what humanity would suffer after the Evil plunges Albion into chaos.
It was also told that a man would rise to save Albion, to save humanity. This man, the Once and Future King as some called him, would defeat the Evil and unite all of Albion as one, despite having no power but that of his sword and his words. Because at the King’s side would be a great warlock, one of their own, and it is only with the King and Warlock united, that Albion will find salvation and peace.
For years as he grew up, his people looked to him as the Warlock. Because as young as he was, he was gradually becoming the most powerful of them all. Because magic flowed through him the way blood did. Because his name was Emrys, the name all seers connected with that of the Warlock.
But Carmarthen fell as prophesized, crushed quickly under the combined forces of the kingdoms of Camelot and Mercia. And Emrys fell too. With his loss was the loss of hope of his people. Dark times were ahead, and without the Warlock to aid the yet undiscovered King, Albion was doomed.
Merlin was barely awake when he was dragged up from the dirt floor and hauled out of the slave pen. The slave merchant, whom he hadn’t bothered to learn the name of, gave him a cursory glance—to no doubt check for any defects to his merchandise—before clamping manacles to Merlin’s wrists. He was then herded out of the slave house, tripping over his shackles, and into the rain. And as he stood on the small, crudely constructed wooden dais meant for putting slaves on display, stark naked and shivering, he had a feeling that the day would rank as one of the worst since his capture twelve years ago.
He did not have to wait long before the slave merchant returned though, leading two men behind him. The taller of the two wore a blue cloak closed tight around his body, his head protected from the rain by the cloak’s hood. The shorter man wore a knight’s armor and remained two steps behind the other, indicating the hooded man’s superior rank.
“The Carmarthian slave, as you requested, your highness,” the slave merchant said with a subservient bow when they reached Merlin.
The hooded man was less than a foot away from him, and Merlin found himself under the scrutiny of Prince Arthur Pendragon of Camelot, son of King Uther Pendragon and heir apparent to the very kingdom responsible for Carmarthen’s fall. During the first few years of his captivity, if he had found himself before the prince, Merlin would have attacked him right then and there. He knew better than that now; he had no chance and no will to do so, not if he wanted to at least stay alive and as pain-free as possible.
Under the hood, Merlin caught hints of blue eyes, bright even in the rain, blond hair, and smooth, golden-tinted skin. If the glimpses of the man’s face were any indication, then the prince was as handsome as the stories said he was.
“He looks too pale to be Carmarthian,” the prince remarked. “And you're sure he can read and write? He looks a bit like an idiot.”
The prince's companion snickered. Merlin felt his temper spark, but he let the insult slide, as he had learned to do with all the insults he'd had directed towards him through twelve years of slavery. “Idiot” was probably the mildest he'd ever gotten.
“Yes, your highness. Lord Gaufrid, his previous master, informed me specifically that this one could read and write. It seems he knows several of the Old Languages as well--better for his kind to do magic and whatnot,” the slave merchant replied.
The prince's shoulders shifted, straightening his back undoubtedly at the mention of magic. Magic was not a rare thing in Albion, but it was the very reason Carmarthen had been invaded. Carmarthen had had the highest concentration of sorcerers, its own royal family having consisted of skilled sorcerers. Only a handful of the magicians in Camelot and Mercia had any true power, and it was through jealousy that the magicians betrayed their kind and turned Camelot, Mercia, and who knew which other kingdoms, against the Carmarthians.
“So he's a sorcerer then,” said the prince. The disdain in his voice was hard not to miss. The prince had been only a child when Carmarthen fell, but it was no secret the disdain the royal family held for magic, even though magic was not banned outright. It didn’t have to be, not when most of the Carmarthian sorcerers were killed or enslaved. “He's been put through the Rites, of course?”
Merlin stiffened when the prince reached into his cloak and extracted a knife from his belt. But the prince did not uncover the blade, instead using its sheathed point to poke and prod Merlin all over--including between his legs. Never since the first few years of his captivity had he felt the urge to bristle and hiss at the invasive treatment. He bit the inside of his cheek and willed himself still in both body and expression. The prince stepped a bit closer, circling him with increased scrutiny.
“Yes, sire, most certainly. I believe he's been in service since the very day we took Carmarthen. There shouldn't be a trace of magic left in him.”
None that Merlin could actually use anyway. No one, not even his own people, fully understood that he essentially was magic. Magic was in his bloodstream, in every fiber of his being. The Rites had left him with the bare minimum--just enough for his heart to pump and lungs to move, just enough for his wounds to heal and his mind to function, and no more.
“And these stripes? I wasn't informed that he was damaged.” Merlin kept himself from shivering when the sheathed knife lightly traced one of the whipping scars on his back. “Seems like he's been a handful.”
“He was one of the fighters taken during the conquest; no doubt he must have been put under strict discipline at first. But Lord Gaufrid has assured me that he is now well-behaved, albeit rather clumsy.”
“And what reason did Lord Gaufrid give for...relinquishing the slave?” The offending knife finally withdrew, returned to its original place on the prince's belt.
“He didn't say, but assured me it was no fault of the slave.”
“Hmm, odd.” The prince finally stepped away from Merlin, raising his head as if to get another look at him. Merlin’s breath caught in his throat when, by accident, his eyes met those of the prince’s. He immediately looked away, bowing his head to stare fixedly at the soggy grass before the prince’s feet.
“I-if the slave does not please you, there are others…” the merchant trailed off, and Merlin glanced up to see the prince shake his head.
“I’ll give you sixty for him. Get him ready and delivered to the castle.”
“But your highness, the slave is worth at least a hundred if not more!”
“You forget who you’re speaking to, Merchant,” the prince snapped. He glared down at the man with arrogance and expectation, a look most certainly garnered over years of always getting what he wanted when he wanted it. “I’m being generous. Those stripes are unsightly, and you’ve already said the slave was clumsy. I have little tolerance for bumbling idiots, but I have need of a scribe. You should be glad I’m paying you so much.”
“Yes, yes, of course, sire!” the merchant agreed, complete with frantic, low bows.
“Good,” the prince said with a nod before turning around to his companion. “Sir Caradoc!” The prince put a hand on the knight’s shoulder. “The slave handler still has business to take care of. Why don’t you pay for the slave and take him back?” The knight’s face morphed into a perfect look of shock and dismay. As if not noticing the look at all, the prince merely patted the knight’s shoulder before sauntering off towards the stable.
With a look of contempt and anger, the knight tossed several gold pieces at the merchant’s feet. His anger was understandable, and even the merchant looked vaguely sympathetic. Without any hesitation or guilt, the prince had essentially demoted Sir Caradoc from knight to slave handler, a position on level with, if not lower, than that of a simple commoner.
Of course, it was difficult for Merlin to feel a shred of sympathy for the man when he ended up with his wrists bound and tethered to Caradoc’s horse, chilled to the bone and still stark naked. Merlin stumbled along behind the knight and horse, too focused on not tripping and consequently being dragged through the city to feel any embarrassment and shame at the display he was making.
But Merlin failed to realize the extent of affront the knight felt at the prince’s slight until he was being dragged by the chains of his manacles into the castle and across its courtyard. It was with creeping apprehension that he spotted their destination—not the slave house, but the smithy.
“Sir Caradoc, what can I do for you?” A blacksmith stepped forward. He eyed Merlin with masked curiosity but waited for Caradoc to answer.
“You are to brand the slave’s face with the royal seal.”
Merlin choked back his cry of horror. The blacksmith looked from the knight to Merlin with a furrowed brow.
“Is he a runaway? He seems new. And Prince Arthur dislikes branding slaves. Are you sure, sir?”
“Look at those stripes. The slave deserves it, and the prince requested that it be done,” Caradoc said.
Merlin had to say something, to stop this or he’d be the one to pay for this senseless act of revenge.
“No! The prince— I’m not—”
“Quiet, slave!” Caradoc cut him off with a backhand to his cheek. “Brand his face, smith.”
“But are you sure?” the blacksmith asked again.
“Are you questioning my word, Blacksmith?” Caradoc snapped.
The blacksmith quickly denied the accusation, scurrying away and then back again, an iron glowing red hot at its end in his hands. The blacksmith murmured to Merlin that he’d chosen the smallest of the branding irons bearing the Pendragon royal crest and handed him a rag to clench between his teeth.
He had, mercifully, been half-conscious and delirious when he had received the brand on his thigh marking him as a slave. But today, he was wide awake as the blacksmith pressed the iron into his skin, right over his left cheekbone. His vision briefly turned white as pain flooded him, and he was biting down on the rag so hard he was afraid his jaw would break. His eyes watered, his left cheek feeling as if it was on fire. The smell of burnt flesh—his flesh—made his stomach turn. He dry heaved, nothing but bile rising into his mouth since he couldn’t remember when his last meal had been. He spat the rag from his mouth as dizziness swept through him.
A servant boy led him out of the smithy and across the courtyard to the slave house. The floor lurched under his feet, and his head felt hot and muddled. The boy pointed to the very-inviting-looking straw pallet on the floor, and without a second thought, Merlin collapsed onto the straw, hoping that when he woke up, the swelling and throbbing under his eye would have dulled.
It seemed as if he’d just closed his eyes when he was being shaken awake.
“Carmarthian, wake up. The prince wants you to serve him at—” The voice faltered to a halt when Merlin clambered to his feet.
The pain had dulled as he’d hoped and his head wasn’t spinning, but based on the look on the face of the man standing before him, he probably wasn’t a pretty sight. The man was dark-skinned, with surprisingly gentle eyes and laugh lines on his face. He looked almost amiable, which was a strange quality to see in a slave master—at least, Merlin assumed he was the slave master—but his broad shoulders and muscled build, much like a blacksmith’s, probably made him look intimidating if he chose to. The man rested his large hands on Merlin’s shoulders.
“Why has your face been branded? You can’t be a runaway. You’re the new slave.” When Merlin refrained from answering, the man squeezed his shoulders and looked him dead in the eye. “Don’t be afraid to say who it is. Answer me.”
“Sir Caradoc. He told the blacksmith that—” Merlin screwed his eyes shut, pushing away the memory of white hot pain. “—that the prince wanted me branded.”
The man cursed under his breath. “That fool. He knows no one but the prince himself can order a branding!” He let go of Merlin’s shoulders, instead taking him by the elbow. “Come. We need to get you cleaned. The prince wants you to serve him lunch.”
Merlin was soon walking down one of the castle’s many servants’ corridors, balancing a tray loaded with goblets and a jug of wine and repeating in his head the directions he’d been given to the small dining hall Prince Arthur took informal meals in when entertaining guests. Tom, the slave master, had cleaned up the mess that was his left cheek with the sure hands of someone who knew how to deal with brands—which, as one charged with overseeing slaves, of course he did. Tom had also put salve on the brand, and Merlin’s face felt pleasantly cool and numbed. He was clean after a quick dip and rubdown in cold, soapy water and was wearing actual clothes for the first time in the fortnight since leaving Lord Gaufrid’s service. Although the pair of braies he’d been given were too short for his long legs, going down only to mid-thigh, they were serviceable and his tunic was long enough so only a inch of the braies were seen—a far improvement to no clothes at all. The heavy shackles around his wrists and ankles, and the thick collar around his neck had been replaced with lighter, thinner arm braces and a rough leather and metal collar, all of which engraved with the Pendragon crest and demarcating Merlin as a slave owned by the prince. His hair, having grown irritatingly long during Lord Gaufrid’s service, had been left alone. Although Merlin would have liked to have had it shorn, Tom had insisted on having it tied off in a loose ponytail, hoping that it’d hide as much of the brand as possible—there was little chance of it not being noticed, but a chance nonetheless. The important question was who the prince would take out his wrath on—Merlin, Tom or Caradoc, or all three.
With that in mind, Merlin kept his shoulders slouched and his head bowed, just barely looking up to see where he was going when he reached the servants’ entrance to the dining hall. His entrance, however, did not go unnoticed. Arthur sat at the head of the dining table, facing the main double doors, but his head was turned to speak to the lady on his right. Thus, he was looking straight at the servants’ entrance when Merlin slipped in. Merlin took in the room and its occupants in one sweeping glance through his lashes. While several guards were stationed around the room against the walls, only five other men and women shared the table with the prince, decked out in fine clothing and jewelry despite this being an informal meal. The prince, as would be expected, stood out like the sun. As stories had told and Merlin had suspected, the prince was gorgeous, with fair skin, hair like spun gold and eyes like sapphire. As the First Knight of Camelot, the prince of course had a muscled physique and broad shoulders. Despite his youth, he already sat with the bearing of a king, although that was probably due to a fair amount of arrogance. He probably made many a woman swoon before him. Curiously, while the tunic and pants he wore were of no doubt superb quality, they were much simpler than one would expect of a prince, practical even. It seemed Prince Arthur preferred a knight’s simple standard of dress.
Merlin carefully balanced his tray before bowing deeply to the prince. After straightening, he kept his head bowed, eyes trained on the ground before him but alert to his surroundings. It was the perfect, servile pose, avoiding eye contact with everyone while moving around without bumping into things or other people. It had been a trial for Merlin to learn it, as evidenced by the lashes on his back. Not only was he somewhat clumsy by nature, he had never taken well to authority, especially when it was undeserved. At seventeen, he’d been so cocksure, so confident, backed by the assurance his magic gave him. He had been the prophesized Emrys, after all. But then he’d lost his magic, and twelve, almost thirteen, years were a long time; he’d long since learned how to act a perfect slave.
“Took you long enough. Get over here,” the prince beckoned him before turning back to his companions. “He’s my newest slave. I was told he’s a Carmarthian sorcerer.” Merlin didn’t miss the slight sneer in the prince’s voice at the word, but the other lords and ladies were looking at him with fascination.
“My, I’ve never seen a Carmarthian sorcerer before,” one of the women said.
“Mm, he looks quite pleasing,” another remarked. “Are you willing to lend him out?”
“Him?” the prince said incredulously. “He’s scrawny. And his ears.”
Merlin mentally bristled. His ears weren’t that bad. They’d been ridiculous on him as a child and adolescent, but he’d most certainly grown into them now that he was an adult.
“Well, he’s more of the wiry build, isn’t he? And pale too. Almost exotic,” continued the woman. “What color are his eyes? If they are blue, they must be gorgeous with his dark hair.”
“As a matter of fact, they are blue, if I recall correctly,” the prince replied. “Come on, slave, lift your head. Lady Elwynn wants to see your gorgeous eyes.” The lords at the table chuckled at the prince’s mocking tone. Merlin set the tray on the table by the prince’s right hand, but kept his head down. “Are you deaf? I said lift your head.” A sword-calloused hand grabbed his chin and pulled his head up. Merlin found himself meeting the eyes of the prince for the second time that day. Arthur’s face was shuttered, a royal mask to hide emotion, but Merlin stood practically toe-to-toe with the prince, and his eyes showed what the rest of his face hid—shock shifting into suspicion and then angry. “Get Tom at once,” Arthur ordered the guards, but he did not look away from Merlin and his marred left cheekbone. Merlin was trapped in the prince’s stormy gaze, staring back with wide eyes. Arthur looked like an enraged god, ready to smite all those in his path, and in the face of such fury, Merlin was left breathless, fearful for his life. He now understood how it was said that the prince could make grown men cower before him without even lifting a sword. Merlin winced as the prince’s grip on his chin tightened. “Who did this?” the prince demanded. “And I want the truth.”
A slave’s word meant nothing compared to that of a knight’s—to anyone’s really, for that matter. If the prince chose to ask for Caradoc’s side of the story and the knight lied, then Merlin’s life could be forfeit, having slandered the knight. But after a moment’s hesitation, during which Arthur glared at him, Merlin pushed aside all reserve and answered, “Sir Caradoc…” He then tacked on, “…my lord.” He stifled a cringe, hoping the prince would be too angry to notice the way he’d said the title. It had come out too casual, too familiar, sounding almost mocking of the prince’s rank. Gods, he hadn’t slipped up in nearly ten years for sure. What was this prince doing to him?
A frown pulled on the prince’s lips before he released Merlin with a little shove. Merlin stumbled back before lowering his head, assuming once again the servile position.
It was a tense few minutes before the slave master entered the dining hall, during which the lords and ladies, knowing that they were now superfluous, murmured their farewells to the prince and left the hall. The prince paced back and forth, anger rolling off him in waves, but he stopped the moment Tom arrived.
“My new slave claims Sir Caradoc is responsible for this…insubordination. Have you confirmed this?”
“I asked the blacksmith, and he said it was indeed Sir Caradoc, sire. He was told by Sir Caradoc that you had ordered it,” the slave master said.
“No one but myself or the King in person can order a branding,” the prince growled. “Make sure Mellan knows this, or the next time, there will be consequences.”
“Yes, your highness. I will tell him so.”
“Where is Sir Caradoc?” The prince turned away from Tom, instead looking back at Merlin.
“In his chambers, sire,” one of the guards answered him.
“Bring Caradoc to the courtyard. The other slaves and servants can show you the way, but you’re to bring him to the courtyard, where I’ll be waiting,” the prince said.
For a few moments, Merlin didn’t realize that the prince was addressing him. But the instant he did, he straightened immediately and bowing to the prince, who was looking at him with a different frown than from before. Recalling the prince’s earlier remark at the slave block, Merlin suspected the prince probably did think he was an idiot from the way Merlin had been acting thus far. With a hurried “Yes, sire,” he was out the door.
Sir Caradoc, to say the least, was not happy to see Merlin at his door. Truthfully, Merlin wanted to either punch the man or avoid him like the plague, but he schooled his face to blankness, looking the knight in the eye for a second before stating, “The prince requests your presence. I’m to take you to him, if you may.” Caradoc looked decidedly ill and didn’t even notice that Merlin had refrained from bowing. The knight nodded his answer and followed Merlin down the castle corridors, growing paler and paler by the moment. Merlin wondered how extreme of a punishment the prince could possibly give to a nobleman, but then pushed the thoughts aside. One branded face was enough violence in a day for him, even if it would be the one responsible for his branding to suffer this time.
Just like Prince Arthur had said, he stood waiting for them in the courtyard, paying no heed to the curious stares of the servants and guards. When Merlin and Caradoc entered the courtyard, the prince spotted them immediately.
“Ah, Sir Caradoc!’ The prince stepped forward and clapped the knight on the back. The gesture was almost friendly, if not for the smile that didn’t reach the prince’s stone cold eyes. “I would have gotten you myself, but I had business to take care of,” the prince said with a quirk of his lips. “Come.”
He turned on his heels and began striding across the courtyard. Merlin remained where he stood, unsure whether he should be following as well. The prince glanced over his shoulder to check for Caradoc behind him before beckoning for Merlin to follow. Merlin inclined his head in a standard form of acknowledgment before trailing after them.
“I should thank you,” Arthur was saying to Caradoc. “I will never have to worry about losing my slave.” If Merlin hadn’t seen the prince’s fury earlier, he would have almost been fooled by the cheer in his voice.
“N-no, Sire,” Caradoc replied in barely a whisper. He glanced around, as if searching for a way out of whatever was coming.
The prince took them back into a different section of the castle. Caradoc stumbled a step, and Merlin suspected by his wide eyes and creased brow that the knight knew where they were headed. And when they descended a curving flight of stairs, Merlin did too—the dungeons.
The guards in the torch-lit hallway straightened to attention at the prince’s arrival.
“Everything has been prepared, sire,” one of them said, stepping forward. At the wave of Arthur’s hand, the guard who’d spoken led the way to a cell.
“Sire…?” Caradoc breathed out, the fear almost tangible in his voice.
At the prince’s nod, two of the guards seized Caradoc by the arms and pulled him into the cell. The manacles hanging from the ceiling were clapped around his wrists.
“Sir Caradoc Cardon, for your impertinence and for damaging my property, you are to be flogged. Ten lashes.”
“Sire!” Caradoc choked out. He twisted around in his chains, looking over his shoulder at the prince. The lighting in the cell was dim, but it was impossible not to see the shock, mortification and fear shaking his body and rattling the chains.
Flogging was a punishment meant only for the most serious crimes in Camelot—mass murder, treachery and kin-slaying, when such acts did not result in execution, that is. The exception was slaves, of course. Slaves were whipped all the time, because they were not people, after all, not anymore. But noblemen, noblemen were never flogged—at least, not that Merlin was aware of—and knights certainly not, not when all of Camelot relied on them. That Arthur would mete out such a severe punishment on his own knight…Merlin told himself never to displease the prince to such an extent, because as a slave, he’d surely be killed instead.
The prince ignored Caradoc, instead gesturing again to the guards. The guards cut away Caradoc's tunic, exposing his back for the whip.
Merlin had seen another person flogged only one time before. Thirty lashes. The slave had died of infection two days later. He really did not want to watch another flogging after that, and during Lord Gaufrid’s service, which lasted him a good four years, he never witnessed or received one.
He was completely unprepared when a coiled leather whip was shoved in his face.
“Sire?” he questioned, looking up to the scowling face of the prince, who was holding the whip out to him.
“You will give him the lashes.”
“S-sire!” Merlin blanched. As much as he didn't want to watch another flogging, he also really didn't want to be the one holding the whip. And slaves were never to attack a nobleman, or anyone for that matter.
“Come on, don't deny it. I'm sure you slaves would love a chance to get back at us.”
“What? No! I would never!” Merlin cried before remembering himself. Sure, he would love to knock all the slave owners down a notch, but to whip another human being? It would make him just like them.
“Do it,” the prince insisted, but Merlin shook his head.
Arthur pressed the whip handle into Merlin's hand, but when Merlin did nothing but stand stupidly with it, he growled and latched onto Merlin’s hand with his own. The prince's grip was painfully tight, and Merlin winced at the grips of the whip handle digging into his palm. He was startled by the warm solid pressure of the prince against his back but hardly had the time to react before the prince swung his arm, and thus Merlin's as well. Caradoc stifled a cry as the whip cut open his back. Recoil from the whip shot up Merlin's arm, and his stomach lurched. But then the prince was swinging again, and this time Caradoc did actually scream. The prince swung again, and Merlin's world soon narrowed to the crushing grip around his hand, the swing of the whip and Caradoc's weakening screams. For the second time today, bile rose in his throat.
Ten nauseating lashes later, the prince let go of Merlin's hand, and Merlin immediately let the whip drop to the ground. The prince jerked him around by the shoulder, and he found himself the recipient of the prince's angry glare.
“You will not disobey me again, or you will be punished as well. Is that clear?”
“Yes sire.” Merlin lowered his eyes to his feet, afraid to look at the prince and afraid to look at Caradoc’s back.
The prince released him and said, “Tell Tom to put you in the room.”
The “room” was a windowless, four-walled cell underneath the slave house. The only entrance was the hole covered by a trapdoor that the slave master or his helpers would lift open or drop close. To get in or out of the cell, a rope ladder had to be dropped down. A square plank of wood covered one corner of the cell, which hid from sight, and to some extent smell, the cell’s “chamber pot.” On the opposite side, the side furthest from the trapdoor and ladder, was a straw pallet, which was a little better than the stone floor. The “room” was an isolation cell, for when a slave master felt the need to separate one slave from the others. Merlin didn’t know if he was glad or not to be kept apart from the other slaves, whom he’d never met.
Other than the times Tom had let him up to check on the brand on his face and put some salve on the healing flesh, it was in this cell that Merlin spent the next three days. At least, he believed it was three. Food and water were lowered to the cell’s floor in a basket attached to a long length of string. The basket had been lowered nine times, one for each of the three meals of the day. Besides eating, Merlin did little else but sleep. As one without a destiny, without a life anymore, he had learned over the years how to sleep whenever, wherever, and through whatever he might have been feeling. It made the passage of time easier, and he did not have to think of what he had lost and what that had cost.
When Merlin climbed up out of the room after three days, Tom informed him that the prince needed him for his scribe duties. The slave master had him cut his hair with the shaving knife, and Merlin took a moment to marvel at the lightness he felt now that his long locks had been cut to just an inch or so.
After cleaning up and getting dressed, Merlin was sent on his way with vague directions to the prince’s chambers. He discovered that they were not that difficult to find, and after his knock was answered, Merlin pushed open the door and stepped inside. At a quick glance, he found that he was in an antechamber, to his right an unlit fireplace and to his left a table where the prince and another man sat. The prince looked unchanged—still gorgeous, still simply dressed, still arrogant. The man sitting across from Arthur was significantly older, perhaps in his late forties, with graying hair and sharp blue eyes that bore some resemblance to Arthur’s if not for the weight of age in and around them. Merlin wondered briefly if they were related before schooling his thoughts to blankness. He bowed deeply to the prince and his guest, murmuring a “Your highness” and “Sir.”
“Ah,” the prince commented upon sight of him. Merlin was somehow able to read it as, I remember how you defied me, but I won’t make you pay for it—yet. “You. As my personal scribe, you should know that anything I have you read or write is to be kept secret, or I’ll have your head.”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin responded with a dipping of his head.
“Here. Read this.” The prince handed him a roll of parchment, sealed with blue wax. Merlin stepped forward and took the letter, gingerly breaking the seal.
In Camelot, Mercia and many kingdoms other than Carmarthen, nobles—that is, those not relegated to a life of scholarship anyways—were not expected to read or write beyond a rudimentary level. Their education was more focused on etiquette and fighting, whatever knowledge they needed gathered through firsthand experiences, observations or lectures. As royalty, the prince was probably more literate than most nobles, what with the security having to know if what was being read or written was truly as stated, but Merlin figured the effort of using the skill was not worth it unless absolutely necessary.
He unfurled the letter and began reading:
I regret to inform you that I will not be able to attend your coming of age. It has taken much more time than expected to oversee things here in Stafford and get the Northumbrian delegates settled. It is as if they wish to build a palace. Their list of demands and requirements try my patience, and you know what a feat that is.
While I am honored that the king has entrusted me with such an important task, I’m not a man of politics. I am beginning to feel the itching in my feet to travel again, but I am bound here by duty to my king and kingdom, answering to the whims of the Northumbrians.
Once again, I express how sorry I am to miss the ceremony. I had been sorely hoping to witness your crowning, but unfortunately, it is not to pass. I look forward to the next time I see you. I will make it up to you for my absence. It has been a long time since I have had a proper fight. No one comes even near your level of swordsmanship here.
Prince Arthur swore under his breath before exclaiming, “Gwaine is off playing royal envoy in Cendred’s kingdom for the next year, and now Lancelot can’t even leave Stafford for the prince’s coming of age!” The prince scowled at the letter still in Merlin’s hands. “How could you let this happen, Uncle? Why didn’t you stop Father from sending Lancelot to that godforsaken village?”
Uncle. As in Prince Arthur’s only living uncle, brother to the Queen, Sir Tristan Du Bois. That explained the resemblance.
“Of course I tried to stop Uther,” Tristan promptly replied. “But you know how Uther is. And now with the Northumbrians allied with us, they’ve been making more and more demands and he rarely denies them. We must be wary. The next thing we know, they’ll be asking for the throne.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Uncle. My father isn’t that stupid. Besides, the Northumbrians are hardly a threat. They surrendered without even a proper battle. Even the Carmarthians fought better.”
Merlin kept his head down, hiding the anger and indignation he couldn’t help but feel. His people’s livelihoods had been at stake. Of course they’d fought the best they could. But they had been no match against the sheer number of knights and soldiers from three or four kingdoms, even with magic on their side. There were costs to using large amounts of magic. Merlin might have had the power to raze a battlefield, but he would have been out of commission for over a day afterwards, something his people had not been able to afford. But in the end, after little under a week, their efforts had been for naught, and Carmarthen had fallen, just as prophesized.
“King Lot has sorcerers among his delegates. We have no idea what their agenda is, working for Lot, of all people,” Tristan said with a shake of his head.
“What I don’t understand is why Father would place such faith in a king who associates himself with magic. Father hates sorcery.”
Merlin searched his memory, trying to recall if he’d ever heard of any sorcerers working for the Northumbrian king, but came up with no answer. When had that happened? Sorcerers outside of Carmarthen used to never associate themselves with kings, lest they were coerced or threatened into using their power. It seemed that had changed in the years since he’d last heard any political news.
“It is like I said: the Northumbrians cannot be trusted,” Tristan insisted.
“There’s no need to worry, Uncle. I really doubt Father would be so careless as to get enchanted by sorcerers. Besides, we’ve already gotten rid of all the powerful ones. Lot’s sorcerers are probably just simple magicians, full of cheap tricks and fancy baubles.” The sneer in Arthur’s voice and on his face was hard not to miss.
“If it had been up to me, they and the Northumbrians would have been sent back to Northumbria by now, baubles and all,” said Tristan.
Merlin smothered his disapproval at that statement. Magic was never to be underestimated; even a person with the smallest amount could cause irrevocable damage. But Sir Tristan, probably as a skill honed through years as a knight and hunter, sensed Merlin’s unease and pinned him to the spot with a look that could have frozen water if the old knight had had magic. This, in turn, directed Arthur’s attention to him as well.
“I assume you know enough to never speak of your master’s private conversations. To anyone. You should be familiar with the penalties for even thinking wrongly about them,” Tristan addressed him icily.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin answered, bowing his obeisance immediately. He had seen the penalty once, when one particular slave master had simply disliked the look of a slave while he spoke; no one had ever seen that slave’s face again.
Arthur was scowling at him when he looked back up.
“Get out. Have Tom put you back in the room,” he snapped.
“Yes, your highness.” Merlin bowed once again, keeping his eyes lowered this time.
Before he could turn to leave though, the prince added, “You’re to report back here the same time tomorrow.”
Merlin bowed yet again, before leaving the prince’s chambers.
The thumping of the trapdoor being opened woke Merlin the next morning. After wolfing down his food and dressing, he was on his way to Arthur’s rooms again.
Sir Tristan wasn’t with the prince this time. Arthur had been sitting, but stood from his chair—the large, throne-like one with a white lambskin draped over its back—when Merlin entered the chamber with a knock.
“Sire,” he greeted the prince with a low bow.
“Sit down there and get ready to write,” the prince instructed, waving a hand at the other, smaller chair across the table from him.
There was parchment, quill and ink set on the table. Beside them were a box of coloured waxes, flints and a candle. Upon sitting, Merlin checked to see that the quill was sharpened. Someone had gotten everything prepared for him—probably a servant since slaves were generally not trusted with knifes. Arthur circled the table to stand behind Merlin, looking over his shoulder at the parchment laid out.
“Show me your handwriting.”
“What am I to write, sire?” Merlin asked, glancing over his shoulder at the prince. He ducked his head when the prince glared at him, mouth set in a line of frustration.
“Does it matter? Just write something,” Arthur growled.
After a moment’s thought, “Long live Prince Arthur Pendragon, First Knight and Crown Prince of Camelot” was what Merlin settled with. It never failed to pander to those who held power over his life or death.
The prince looked at the parchment with narrowed eyes. Then he surprised Merlin by slowly, haltingly reading what was written, and reading it once more, smoothly this time. Afterwards, the prince rolled his eyes.
“Really now, could you have possibly been more unoriginal?” Arthur remarked in that quickly becoming familiar condescending drawl of his.
“But it wouldn’t get me killed, yeah?” Merlin replied with a quirk of his lips, catching the prince’s eye.
A fraction of a second later, he realized what he had said and stiffened, breaking eye contact. The prince looked down at him with a vaguely startled expression. Then, Arthur let out a bark of laughter and clapped Merlin on the back. Merlin just barely avoided knocking the ink pot over. The prince appeared to be in the habit of surprising Merlin today.
“Yes, I supposed not. Although your tongue might,” Arthur said.
Merlin hunched his shoulders, unable to think of a response even if he was allowed to respond to that. It wasn’t as if he purposefully spoke out of turn. For whatever reason, the self-censorship he had learned over twelve years was being inadvertently tossed aside around Arthur. Merlin just hoped it didn’t lead to his death.
“Shockingly, your handwriting might be better than my last scribe’s,” the prince said, as if he hadn’t just laughed and threatened Merlin in one breath. “Get ready to write.” He stepped away from Merlin, opting to walk over to the fireplace and lean back against the mantle.
Merlin pulled a clean sheet of parchment from the pile and dipped the quill tip in ink. At Merlin’s nod, Arthur began to dictate his letter:
Damn you and your sense of duty. If it were I, I would come anyways. We’ve been looking forward to this since we were children, and now you say you can’t come for the sake of the Northumbrians?
A curse on the Northumbrians.
Tristan keeps warning me of secret plots to overthrow the kingdom. I swear, he is becoming more paranoid with age. But he does have a point. Surely you have noticed it as well, haven’t you? Father is being uncharacteristically friendly with Lot. You know as well as I do how he detests sorcery and those associated with it. And yet I hear he is being quite friendly to those sorcerers sent as delegates. If I ever find out that this sudden change in opinion was brought on by sorcery, there will be a war the Northumbrians will not have the option of avoiding.
You better return to Astolat soon. I will definitely take you up on that duel. Leon and I are growing bored of fighting each other every bloody practice. The knights and I will be glad when you are back to liven things up around here.
Having finished, Merlin read the letter out loud, the prince looking over his shoulder as if to follow along. Afterwards, the prince nodded his satisfaction.
“Would you like to sign it, sire?” Merlin asked.
With a thunderous look, Arthur raised a hand as if to smack him, and Merlin, flinching, cursed his foolishness. Just because Arthur, who had demonstrated that he could more or less read, could probably write as well, it didn’t mean he wanted to. Why else had he bought Merlin anyways?
But then, the prince dropped his hand, and his glower was replaced by incredulous amusement.
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”
“I—no—I mean, yes, yes, sire,” Merlin corrected himself. Never contradict one’s master. Although, Merlin was certainly acting like an idiot around Arthur.
The prince definitely snorted at his floundering. Merlin hurriedly added Arthur’s name to the end of the letter.
“Roll it up and seal it,” the prince directed.
“Which color wax would you prefer, sire?” Merlin asked, cautiously this time. It was a legitimate question, he was sure. There were at least four different colors of waxes in the box.
“Blue. Always use blue wax for Lancelot. Remember that.”
“Yes, sire.” Merlin bowed his head before pulling the stick of blue wax from the box.
When the letter was sealed, the prince passed the letter off to one of the guards in the hallway. He then turned his gaze back on Merlin, who willed himself not to fidget under the prince’s measuring gaze. He had no idea what to expect from Arthur. Amusement or anger seemed equally likely.
“You are dismissed. You’re an idiot who talks when you shouldn’t. Tell Tom you’re to go back in the room,” Arthur finally said, and Merlin bowed before making a quick retreat from the room.
The prince asked for him again a week later. But as he headed for the prince’s chambers, the shattering of ceramic and clanging of metal could be heard from down the hall. Tristan’s voice drifted through the wood of the closed doors, answered by growls of anger.
He raised a hand to the door, but for a moment, Merlin hesitated, not wanting to interrupt whatever tantrum Arthur was throwing. An upset and violent master was not one to be around. But Merlin then figured he would rather not risk becoming the new inciter of the prince’s anger by failing to answer his summons on time. This decided, he knocked on the door, waited a few seconds and then slipped into the prince’s antechamber.
The prince, as the racket heard from outside had suggested, was throwing things. Shards of pottery littered the floor, along with throw pillows and goblets and even the pewter water jug. Merlin tried not to think about the knife he noticed imbedded in the door he’d just closed. The prince looked as if he probably would have thrown a chair if Sir Tristan had not been seated at the table.
“Throwing things will not change anything, Arthur,” Sir Tristan was saying. “You were foolish, first of all in going so far as flogging Sir Caradoc over a slave.”
“He damaged my property in a deliberate act of insubordination!” Arthur retorted, clenching his fists at his side.
“Nevertheless, the Cardons has been serving the Pendragons for years. Now, you may have thrown their loyalty away over a slave and a thoughtless act,” Tristan chastised.
“It was not a thoughtless act!” Arthur retorted. “Caradoc had it a long time coming.”
“Be as it may, you can hardly be surprised that the one who intercepted Lancelot’s letter, Caradoc’s brother, would go running to Uther.”
“And for that, he has proven himself to be a traitor,” Arthur hissed.
“You were stupid to put your thoughts on the Northumbrians down on paper. You are fortunate Uther did not consider them treasonous.”
“Those were my private opinions, meant only for Lancelot. Rylan had no right to read my letters.”
“And what do you plan to do to him? Flog him as well?” Tristan snapped.
“What I do is of no concern to you, Uncle. I’m the prince of Camelot, and I will do what I see fit for Camelot.”
Tristan’s glower said he wanted to argue further, but the dismissal in Arthur’s voice was clear.
“Very well,” the old knight said icily, getting to his feet and heading for the door. For a moment, his gaze fell on Merlin, and he sneered before saying, “Your slave is here. Do watch what you say this time. I hope he was worth all this.” Without a backwards glance, Tristan left the prince’s chambers.
A pillow flew by Merlin’s head, crashing into the door Tristan closed behind him.
It was a tense minute or so, with Merlin staring resolutely at his feet and trying not to fidget or think the worst of what was to happen to him, before Arthur stopped glaring into the fireplace with balled fists and turned to look at Merlin.
“Come, you are to write another letter for me,” the prince said, nodding to the table. It was then that Merlin realized that the writing set he had used last was laid out on the table, untouched by Arthur’s throwing fit.
Not wishing to try Arthur’s patience, he sat down in the smaller chair and readied the quill and parchment for use.
However, he had to wait several minutes before Arthur finally began dictating his letter.
I sincerely apologize for my thoughtlessness in response to Sir Caradoc’s actions. I am aware that I have endangered loyalties to Camelot and have brought you disappointment and the Pendragon name dishonour. I must assure you that those were never my intentions. My loyalties are to you and Camelot. Such a lapse in judgment will not happen again.
However, I will not say that Sir Caradoc’s punishment was unwarranted. He attempted to destroy my property as an insult towards me. As a knight of Camelot, Caradoc has sworn loyalty to me, our family and Camelot, and for what he had done, I was within my rights to see him punished. That he would act against me makes me question his true loyalty.
This brings me to the incident with Lord Rylan. There is no denying that by intercepting and reading my personal letter, Rylan has committed espionage. Regardless of my actions against Caradoc, there is no excuse for this blatant act of treason. And while I now question the true extent of the Cardons’ loyalty to us, I am aware Rylan must be dealt with more forethought. I assure you that it will be with more caution than my judgment on Caradoc.
As for my letter to Lancelot, my private words are my own, and since they were never meant to be public, I will not take them back. Despite my misgivings, I have graciously received and openly welcomed the Northumbrian delegate you have sent to Astolat with your reprimands. As prince of Camelot and your son, I will support your decisions. However, I must express my hesitation about aligning ourselves with Northumbria. I understand the advantages such an alliance with Northumbria will bring the kingdom, but I can never truly trust a man who gains the crown only a few days after the beginning of war with us and who immediately surrenders. Such a man can only be considered a coward and highly dubious. Surely you have not overlooked the fact that without the sorcerers amongst the Northumbrian council, Lot would not be ruler today.
As always, my loyalties are to you and Camelot,
Merlin’s opinion of Arthur was changing. The prince really was more than just a hot-tempered knight. Despite his earlier tantrum, with this letter, Arthur proved himself to be intelligent and capable in handling politics, turning the king’s attention away from his actions and towards the questionable intentions of Sir Caradoc and Rylan, as well as towards those of King Lot and Northumbria.
Merlin remembered hearing the news of Lot’s ascension to Northumbria’s throne; he also remembered Lord Gaufrid voicing his strong disapproval of the event. Two years into Merlin’s service under Lord Gaufrid, Northumbria and Camelot had gone to war. But only a few days after the start, the king of Northumbria was killed in battle and left no heir. A nobleman on his council and army, a man by the name of Lot, ascended to the throne and swiftly surrendered to Camelot. And yet, amidst negotiation, Northumbria remained under Lot’s control, becoming a tributary to Camelot instead of a part of the conquering kingdom. Merlin hadn’t known about the sorcerer delegates, but this new information shed some light as to why Northumbria may have remained a separate kingdom. He wondered what kind of roles the sorcerers played in Northumbria before pushing the dangerous thoughts away.
A slave was not to think. It was dangerous to think, especially for a slave known to have once been a sorcerer. But Merlin had always had trouble with not thinking. There really wasn’t much left for him to do other than think when he wasn’t working, and Lord Gaufrid had even encouraged thinking, wishing for a person to carry discussions with. He reminded himself, however, that he was no longer with Lord Gaufrid, but the crown prince of Camelot.
Mentally shaking himself, Merlin read aloud what he’d written. After Arthur pressed his signet ring into the wax sealing the letter, the prince did not take the letter from him as Merlin had expected, but instead stuck his head out of the door briefly, conversing with one of the guards outside. When Arthur still made no move to take up the letter, Merlin set it back down on the table. After a wary glance at Arthur, Merlin slowly left his seat and began cleaning up the mess the prince had made. He placed the throw pillows in a heap by the inner door leading to Arthur’s bedchamber and put the goblets and pitcher on the table. During all this, the prince remained silent, standing with arms crossed and feet planted shoulders-width apart, staring at the unlit fireplace with a furrowed brow. Merlin was looking for a broom to start sweeping up the shards of pottery when there was a knock on the door, and at Arthur’s command, a near giant of a man, a knight, stepped inside. He is young, though older than the prince, with tousled brown hair and a short beard.
“Sire, what do you ask of me?” the knight questioned with a salute.
“Sir Leon, I have a task for you,” the prince said. “You have shown your loyalty to me many times over the years, so I know I can trust you with this task.”
“Of course, sire. My loyalty is yours and always will be.”
Arthur acknowledged the oath with a nod before saying, “I want you to personally escort Lord Rylan Cardon to the feast tonight. He is to sit at the high table.”
“…you do not wish to arrest him, sire?” the knight asked.
“No, I have other plans. Make sure he does not leave the city. He is to attend the feast.”
“Very well, sire. Is there anything else?”
“No,” Arthur said with a wave of dismissal, and Sir Leon left the room with a bow.
There wasn’t a broom in the antechamber, Merlin found. The door leading into Arthur’s bedchamber was open. He hesitantly stepped towards it, but the prince paid no attention to him, and he walked inside. Looking over the large four poster bed, desk and wardrobe, he quickly spotted what he was looking for. There was a small antechamber connected to the prince’s bedchamber, a room set aside for a manservant. It was there that Merlin found a broom, tucked unobtrusively behind a small wardrobe. He hurried back into the main antechamber, not wanting any reason for Arthur to be angry at him. But the prince didn’t even look at him when he re-entered the room, and he began sweeping up the ceramic shards.
Moments later, there was another knock on the door and a man came in, dressed in clothes finer than that of a servant but not as fine as a noble’s. He carried himself with rather pompous self-importance. Merlin supposed he was the chamberlain—they always acted the same way.
“Your highness, preparations for the feast are underway. Are there any changes you wish for me to make?” the man asked, confirming Merlin’s suspicions on his station.
“Farran,” the prince said in greeting. “Yes, I do. Have all the Cardons currently residing in Astolat seated at the high table. If there isn’t room, make room,” Arthur ordered.
“A-all of them, sire?”
“Yes. There are only six of them. It shouldn’t be too much trouble. Tell them that I have no hard feelings in light of the recent events and I wish for them to be present for my formal welcome of the Northumbrian delegate to Astolat. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sire.” The chamberlain tried but failed to hide the tightness in his jaw, belying his confidence in getting the task done successfully.
“Good. Get on with it then.”
“Sire,” the chamberlain answered a final time before departing. The chamberlain’s departure was quickly followed by the arrival of Sir Tristan, who looked slightly perplexed as to why he was being re-summoned after Arthur’s earlier dismissal.
“Uncle, I need you to deliver my letter to my father,” Arthur said without preamble, snatching up the sealed letter from the table.
Immediately, Sir Tristan’s confusion turned into anger.
“I am not to be treated like your messenger boy, Arthur,” Tristan hissed. “I am your blood relative, and a knight to Camelot.”
“Yes, I know. That is why it must be you. You’re the only one I trust here to deliver this letter to Father.”
“Don’t think that flattery will allow me to take this insult, Arthur.”
“It’s not flattery, but the truth. I trust you, Uncle, and I need you to give this to Father without an interloper in the way.” Arthur offered the letter to Tristan. “Besides, I know we’ve been trying each other’s patience, so perhaps some distance between us will do us good.” The look on Tristan’s face softened a bit as he took the letter from the prince.
“I will set out right away then. I will see you next at your coming of age.” Tristan gave Arthur a nod before heading for the door.
“Safe travels, Uncle.”
“Take care, Arthur. Watch yourself,” Sir Tristan said in response before leaving the chambers once again.
The prince let out a soft exhale that Merlin couldn’t quite interpret as exhaustion or exasperation or anger. He returned to his sweeping as Arthur sat down in his lambskin-draped chair. The prince made no move to stop him, did not tell him to stop, so Merlin kept at it, making sure all the pieces had been gathering into a corner for another servant to throw away. It was then that he realized that Arthur had been watching him for some time. He stiffened, turning to face Arthur properly even if the prince’s measuring gaze made him want to squirm in a way he hadn’t felt since his first years of slavery.
After a minute or two of the prince staring at him and of Merlin shooting him furtive glances through his lashes, the prince finally spoke.
“What’s your name, slave?”
That was definitely not what he had expected the prince to say. Then again, Merlin had wondered when the prince would get around to asking his name.
“Merlin, sire,” he answered with a dip of his head.
“Well, Merlin, you’re quite lucky,” the prince said. Merlin really wanted to disagree with that, considering all that had happened to him so far. “When I first learned that my father had heard the contents of my letter, I was very eager in planning your execution.” Merlin blanched at the thought. “However, Tom assured me that you’ve been securely locked up for the past week. Quite fortunate, isn’t it?”
“Y-yes, sire.” He felt that the little waver in his voice as he spoke was perfectly justified.
The prince stared at him again, and Merlin did not dare move.
“You were a Carmarthian sorcerer,” Arthur said, a subtle question for confirmation within his statement. Merlin hid the grimace that rose. His past was definitely not something he wished to discuss with the prince, though discussions weren’t exactly what happened when a slave was being addressed. Regardless, he nodded his affirmation. “Then tell me, Merlin, I’ve heard that some sorcerers can see the future. Could you?”
“There were several among my people who could see the future, sire, but I was not one of them,” Merlin answered, keeping his head down and eyes on the floor. He felt for the slaves who would have to remove the scuffs and scratches on the floor left from the prince’s tantrum. Fixing stone took finger-aching ages.
“Then did these…seers see what would become of Carmarthen?” It was not difficult to infer his second question: if you had known, why couldn’t you have avoided it? That question had plagued Merlin even before the Fall happened, when he was a boy just learning of the practice of scrying and of his destiny.
“Yes, sire, they did, but some des—some futures,” he corrected himself, “cannot be changed.” Once he had believed that some futures may change, but destinies would remain constant and true. No longer did he believe that, not when he himself had lost his destiny.
“How…reassuring,” the prince remarked. Whether it was said in irony, Merlin could not tell. The prince started for the doorway to his bedchamber. “My other slaves can attend to me now. Get cleaned up and go to the kitchens. You are to serve me and the other nobles at the high table tonight.” After a short pause, the prince added, “You were a house slave before, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sire. I’ll be going then?” Merlin said, bowing his head. Arthur dismissed him with a wave.
As much as Merlin would have wanted to consider what scheme the prince had come up with to deal with Caradoc’s brother, the feast preparations kept all the house slaves and servants without a moment to rest. Merlin and a number of men were roped into arranging all of the furniture in the grand dining hall. Thus it was not until just before the beginning of the feast, when the nobles began spilling into the hall, did he get a chance to really think on what Arthur was planning.
Four or five of the nobles, those of the Cardon family, looked noticeably uneasy, especially when they were seated at the high table, where Arthur would be seated. Sir Leon appeared, escorting who Merlin assumed to be Lord Rylan Cardon to the table. Rylan looked particularly pale, bringing to mind the same way Caradoc had looked before the flogging. Merlin turned his thoughts away from that direction, preferring not to think of stripped flesh and bloodied leather and wretched screams. He returned to the issue Arthur would be facing in punishing Rylan.
Although Rylan could be called a traitor for spying on the prince’s correspondence, the punishment for such a deed was typically flogging or death. The former, Arthur had already inflicted upon Sir Caradoc, and either option, particularly an execution, would further strain relations between the prince and the Cardons.
The prince swept into the hall soon enough, for once dressed in a fashion befitting his station, a heavy Pendragon red cloak draped over his shoulders. The Cardons tensed at his entrance, but the prince merely gave them a smile before taking his place at the center of the high table. The murmurs of the court died down when Arthur looked ready to speak. The prince turned to the woman seated to his left, who Merlin had not been paying attention to, and with a gentlemanly bow offered her a hand. Merlin could not see her face, only seeing that she wore a fine red gown and had long, curling blond hair.
“If I may?” he heard the prince murmur from where he stood along the wall behind him. The woman bowed her head and took his hand, standing up gracefully. Arthur kissed the back of her hand before releasing her and turning back to the rest of the hall.
“Tonight, I would like to welcome the Lady Morgause, Northumbrian delegate, to Astolat,” Arthur announced.
And the rest of Arthur’s words were lost to Merlin as the name registered in his head. Morgause. He knew that name, remembered the stories. Morgause was one of the High Priestesses of the Old Religion, a religion that had not held sway since before Camelot’s existence, although many magic users still held to most of its customs. But even as a child, Merlin had never wholly adhered to the Old Religion. Truthfully, he did not approve of the High Priestesses, having heard tales of their deeds and beliefs. A few years before Merlin’s birth, two of the priestesses were made virtual outcasts of Carmarthen for reasons best left unsaid. Since then, the High Priestesses and Carmarthen had avoided interaction. The priestesses were arrogant and thought themselves invincible. They thought magic made them more than human, made them almost gods, and they treated those around them with disdain. Only acting in ways that would better themselves, regardless of how they claimed they were following the Old Religion, they were never ever to be trusted. In the scant days leading up to Carmarthen’s invasion, there were whispers that the priestesses had had a hand in rousing Carmarthen’s enemies to action. Merlin wondered what the High Priestesses were planning, acting as delegates to a kingdom and willingly following a magic-less king they viewed lower than them. He wondered if what they planned was truly for Camelot. He hoped that whatever they were, he would not end up involved in any part of it.
The scraping of wooden legs against stone was Merlin’s cue to focus instead on serving the high table. He stepped forward alongside the other servants to the table, carrying with him a pitcher of wine. The prince’s food had already been set out before him, so Merlin simply had to lean forward with a murmured “Sire” and pour wine into his goblet. The prince spared him a glance before returning his attention to the man seated to his right.
Steeling himself, Merlin moved on to pour for Morgause, keeping his eyes on his task. He had not met a sorcerer since the Fall, one who still had magic anyway. Not many sorcerers outside of Carmarthen knew what he looked like or who he was, but his magic had made him easily identifiable as a powerful sorcerer and, in the case of more experienced sorcerers who knew how to look, as Emrys of prophecy. He did not know if he could still be identified without his magic; he did not want to know, not after he had failed Carmarthen. He also did not want to be found out by Morgause, of all people, and in front of Prince Arthur. He did not have to worry it seemed; Morgause was more interested in the meal on her plate than the slave pouring her wine.
However, as he straightened to step away, a hand grabbed his wrist. He just barely avoided splashing wine all over the table. He stiffened as Morgause’s other hand gripped his chin, turning his head to look at her. The high priestess was beautiful in a cold way, with high cheekbones, pale skin and assessing brown eyes rimmed with kohl.
Dread filled him at his imminent discovery before she tilted back his head a bit. He then realized that she was looking at the dragon on his left cheek, her assessing gaze moving from his face to Arthur to the Cardons.
“You are the one who has set everything in motion,” the priestess murmured, sounding as cryptic as a seer. “The impetus, the catalyst. How clever of the little prince, to flaunt you out before them.”
Arthur noticed them before Merlin could think of what to say or do.
“Has my slave offended you, milady?” the prince inquired. His tone was light, airy, but the look he shot Merlin promised retribution if it was the case.
“No, your highness, he merely caught my eye,” Morgause replied. She released Merlin, though still eyeing the dragon brand. “He may go back to his duties. Forgive me for the disturbance.” The priestess inclined her head to Arthur before turning back to her meal.
Merlin shuffled a step away from the high priestess, avoiding the prince’s probing eyes, and moved on to pouring for the lord seated to Morgause’s left. As he did so, he let out a slow breath he had not even realized he’d been holding. Relief and despair tugged back and forth inside him. He hadn’t been recognized, and it confirmed that without his magic, he was Emrys no more. He was Merlin, just Merlin, the Carmarthian slave.
It was just after the meal was done and people had begun milling about that Arthur made his move. The prince took off a leather glove and tossed it to the floor by Lord Rylan’s feet. Immediately, all the noise in the hall died down, the court’s full attention on Arthur and Rylan.
“I challenge you, Lord Rylan Cardon, for your act of espionage and treason to a trial by combat. Should you chose to refuse, your life is forfeit,” said Arthur, looking the man dead in the eye without a hint of emotion, only regal bearing.
And really, Arthur’s solution was a good one. Lord Rylan would still be punished for treason, but it would look as if he had been given a margin of mercy, a slim chance of escaping death, something the Cardons could not complain about. However, while Merlin has never seen the prince fight, there could be no doubt that Arthur was the superior fighter, if his title as First Knight was anything to go by. The prince could not be stupid enough to risk a fight to the death unless if his survival was certain. Lord Rylan was most assuredly a dead man.
With a trembling hand, Rylan bent over and picked up the prince’s glove.
“I accept your challenge, Prince Arthur Pendragon,” Rylan stated, impressively without a stammer.
“Good. The duel will take place an hour after dawn. Do not be late,” said Arthur.
“Yes, sire,” Rylan answered with a deep bow.
With a nod, Arthur turned and headed for the back doors of the hall reserved for royalty. But when he was almost at the doors, he paused and spun back around. The prince scanned the crowd, ignoring their staring back at him, before resting his eyes on Merlin, much to his unease.
“Merlin, come,” the prince beckoned, and Merlin tried not to wince. He looked over to where Morgause was conversing with some knights, wondering if she knew of Emrys’s other name. But the high priestess did not even look in the prince’s direction when he said Merlin’s name. Merlin sighed in relief before hurrying forward to answer Arthur’s summons.
“Your highness,” he greeted with a deep bow.
With a jerk of his head, telling him to follow along, the prince headed out the doors at a quick but even pace.
“Do you know how to put on armor?” the prince soon asked.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin replied with a small frown. What was the prince suggesting? The caring and fitting of armor was a task requiring a level of trust, given to servants or squires. A slave was never to touch armor. He had worn light armor during the war; after his capture, he hadn’t worn or touched armor since. He felt compelled to add, “It’s been years though. I probably don’t remember a thing.” At this, the prince glanced back over his shoulder at Merlin with a raised eyebrow, and Merlin wondered if he’d said too much, which he had probably did.
“Right, well, tomorrow, you’ll be fitting me into my armor. Go to the squires and learn how to do it properly before then.”
Merlin slowed to the halt, looking at the prince with an open frown. He repeated, “I am to…fit you into your armor?”
Arthur turned around to face him, a look of impatience and anger on his face. “Yes, are you really an idiot, or are you questioning my orders?”
“No, sire, never. I will do as you say,” Merlin replied quickly, bowing to the prince.
“Good. I have no more need of you tonight. Go back to the room.”
As Merlin sat back in his cell, eating the usual meal sent down to him for dinner, he could not help the wandering of his mind. He could not make heads or tails of the prince. Reading his emotions was one thing, but understanding the way he thought was another. The prince had proven himself as more than just a brainless knight, but would he make a good king? The rashness of his actions towards Sir Caradoc begged to differ, but his letter and his course of action with Lord Rylan…
Merlin shook his head at himself. What did it matter if Arthur made a good king or not? He was all but crown prince. Nothing short of insanity or death would prevent the prince from succeeding King Uther on the throne.
His thoughts shifted to Morgause. When she had said “everything,” he hoped that it only meant the prince’s conflict with the Cardons and nothing more. Really, Merlin would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation if he weren’t the cause—the flogging of a knight and a lord’s trial by combat for treason, all brought about by a slave worth sixty pieces.
With a sigh, he shoved the food basket away and curled up on his straw pallet, emptying his mind of all thoughts and welcoming sleep.
The next day dawned bright and much too sunny for a man to be killed that day. To the east of the castle, an arena had sprung up from the ground overnight. Merlin pitied the slaves who'd been charged with its building and who'd no doubt gotten no sleep at all. However, he was thankful the prince hadn't set him to the task as well. Instead, Tom pulled him out of the cell just before dawn and sent him on his way to the armory.
The young squire waiting for him there was in no way a good mood, scowling at Merlin the moment he entered the armory. Never mind that the boy was only up to Merlin's waist.
“I don't understand why you're putting on the prince's armor. You're a slave,” said the squire, wrinkling his nose at Merlin.
“Well, I don't know either. It’s not our places to know how the prince thinks. Let's just get this done, or the prince will have both our hides, yeah?” Merlin said with a smile, refusing to let a squire less than half his age, and who'd probably never seen battle before, look down him. There was only so low he was willing to go.
The squire frowned but didn't say anymore on the topic, instead picking up one of the pieces of armor on the table.
“His highness should already be wearing his gambeson, hauberk and surcoat. So the first thing you'll need to put on him is the—”
“Gorget,” Merlin finished for him, “which goes around his neck. Then the rerebrace and pauldron, followed by the couter. And then his vambraces, sword and helmet.”
The squire looked up at him with wide eyes and then reluctant approval, a different scowl than before creasing his brow.
“Well, if you knew all of that, what did you need me for?” the boy huffed.
Merlin shrugged and replied, “To refresh my memory, I suppose. Does he have any special preferences? Because I see he only wears one arm of armor. Is it for his right arm or left?”
“His right. And no, just have his armor nice and snug. And don't drop anything.”
“Great, thanks.” He gave the squire another smile, and this time the boy gave him a small hesitant smile in return. It was a good start to the day.
That was, until he was with the prince again and couldn't keep his mouth shut.
The prince stood silent as Merlin worked around him, fitting him into his armor. No doubt he was scrutinizing him for any mistakes to punish him about. There was a tense air around the prince, and it was making Merlin tense as well. And with the sun shine down on them just right, lighting up his hair and turning his skin gold, it was hard not to think of the prince as the perfect golden boy of Camelot, of Albion even.
He pulled his head from the clouds. He then was compelled to kick himself when he said the first thing to come to mind: “Nervous?”
Merlin flinched at his idiocy, and the prince shot him a glare as Merlin hurriedly carried on tightening the buckles on his armor and adjusting his belt and sword.
“You forget who I am. The prince does not get nervous,” Arthur gritted out, looking ready to smack Merlin. “Learn to hold your tongue, Merlin.” He snatched up the helmet Merlin held out to him and headed for the arena. Giving him some space, Merlin trailed after the prince. He hadn’t exactly been dismissed, and besides, he wanted to see how this duel would end.
The prince was playing with Rylan, drawing the fight out with unhurried blows and precise blocks. Merlin was sure even those unfamiliar with swordplay could see it. Even so, Lord Rylan fought hard, looking very enthusiastic to have his blade contact with the prince’s body. With his life on the line, it hardly came as a surprise.
Eventually though, Arthur began fighting for real. His every strike certain and strong, leaving Rylan no room for anything but blocks and pushing him further and further back across the field. Merlin had thought the prince would look smug during all of this, but instead, Arthur looked merely focused, intent on the fight despite his clear advantage. For a brief moment, Merlin could imagine Arthur in the midst of battle, looking glorious and golden, sunlight haloing his hair and his armor shining even as dirt and blood spattered him. With a twist and flick of his wrist, Arthur sent Rylan’s sword flying from his hand, and the image faded. A kick in the stomach then sent Rylan sprawling on his back in the dirt. The tip of the prince’s sword rested at the lord’s throat as Arthur stood over him, looking barely winded by the bout. Rylan did not say a word as he looked up at the prince, keeping perfectly still under that sharp blade. Merlin pushed himself off the barrier separating the spectators from the field, where he had been watching alongside the other people in the stands. He would see the Cardons from where he stood, looking grim and tense; they had had no hopes of Rylan standing a chance against the prince. Now, it was clear to all that the match was coming to an end, and Merlin made to leave and wait for the prince elsewhere. He had no interest in watching a man die.
Then, Arthur did the unexpected. Tossing his sword aside, the prince swiftly bent down and struck Rylan with a fist. There was a very audible crack as he broke the lord’s nose.
“From this day forward, Lord Rylan Cardon is dead. You are stripped of your title and rank. From here on, you will be just a peasant,” the prince announced before stepping away from Rylan.
Merlin stared. The prince’s act of mercy was another deed to be added to the pile of contradictions that made up Merlin’s view of him. Although, breaking the man’s nose seemed like such a petty act in the face of taking away Rylan’s life and identity. The Cardons, however, looked openly relieved by the turn of events, streaming forward across the field to the prince and bowing their thanks.
With a shake of his head, Merlin turned away, making to exit the stands, and froze upon spotting Morgause. The high priestess stood on the edge of the field, black-rimmed eyes fixed on the prince with a calculating, almost predatory look. A chill ran up Merlin’s spine, and he prayed the creeping suspicion he had that Morgause was planning something sinister was unfounded.
For the first night in years, Merlin dreamed. He dreamt of golden hair and shining armour. He dreamt of kohl-rimmed eyes, glaring, and red smiling lips, sweet but insidious. And for the next few nights, the dreams repeated, infused with flashes of dragons and white fire, spilled ink and swords.
It was after tossing and turning through one of those nights that the slave master woke him up. He was to report to the throne room, where he would be documenting the occurrences of the petitions under the supervision of the prince and steward.
The first two weeks of every other month, time was set aside for petitions from the kingdom’s subjects, be they nobles or peasants. These petitions could be taken up in Camelot, where the king held court, or here in Astolat, where the prince held court. All proceedings, the disputes, messages and decisions, were written down for the kingdom’s records—and also for the king to no doubt check up on the prince. However…
“Do slaves usually take the place of royal scribes?” Merlin asked as he washed up with the water Tom had set out for him and the other slaves to use.
“No, they don’t. It’s what the royal scribes are for,” the slave master answered, hunkering down on a worn rug and picking up a whetstone. He began sharpening a sword that looked newly forged.
“Then why me?” Drying off, he pulled on the fresh tunic Tom had laid out for him.
The slave master paused in his sharpening and looked pointedly at Merlin’s left cheek before saying, “Perhaps as a reminder. Where you have been concerned, the prince has been…unpredictable.”
Brilliant. So the prince’s capriciousness was because of Merlin. Now the question was which side, the arrogant arse or the perceptive princeling, was his normal side. Merlin then removed himself from the speculation, because as a slave he should not care. He should be acting as docile and mindless as any slave was expected to be and keep out of his master’s way. Thus, he turned to head out the door.
“The prince calls you Merlin when he asks for you,” Tom said before Merlin had reached the door. Looking back over his shoulder, Merlin saw that the slave master had not looked up, still sharpening his sword.
“Yes, that’s my name. Merlin,” he said, wondering where the slave master was heading with this.
“I have heard sorcerers have two names. It’s not your true name, is it?”
Merlin could feel his mood dampening instantly, but he replied, “No, it isn’t. You know something about sorcerers?”
“Once upon a time, I lived just outside the border of Carmarthen. I learned a few things about sorcerers,” the slave master said, still not looking up. After a slight pause he added, “Like how most sorcerers are good.”
There was a finality in his voice, and Merlin could find no way to reply without giving too much of himself away, so instead he cautioned, “Just as a warning, Master Tom, Morgause is a sorceress, and not one to be trusted,” Merlin said. Finally, Tom looked up at him, eyes wide, but Merlin hurried out the door before giving him a chance to speak.
In the throne room, which doubled as the audience hall, the steward placed Merlin at the writing table set up to the prince’s right. From there he was able to observe the proceedings and Arthur without being too conspicuous, though a few of the courtiers did notice him and comment to their neighbors on his presence and the role he’d played in the recent events involving Sir Caradoc and the former lord Rylan. Arthur had already been seated on the throne when Merlin entered the room, but he had barely spared him a glance, instead engaged in conversation with a few of his knights.
When the petitions began, Merlin half-expected the prince to be inattentive and unconcerned with the issues and disputes brought up by the peasants, if not the nobles. Instead, while Arthur looked uninterested, leaning back against his chair in a far too relaxed manner, his eyes were sharp and focused as he listened to even the smallest issues—a string of small robberies in the town market, a stray dog that kept causing trouble but could never to caught, two men contesting ownership of a pub. Merlin wrote them all down, dividing the petitions up by which were resolved right away, which had been put off for another reviewing, and which would be dealt with through the aid of the castle guards or knights. By the end of the session for the day, Merlin had gone through several sheets of parchment, and his fingers were stained black with ink. Immediately after the throne room was emptied of petitioners and spectators, Arthur hopped to his feet with a stretch before gathering up the knights in the room and heading off to training. Merlin was left tidying up the records with a hostile steward, who, like everyone other than the prince, did not understand why a slave was left with a royal scribe’s job.
The next day of petitions, two nobles came to the prince to settle a dispute. There was a plot of land just on the edge of the city. One of the nobles was a young man from the Talbot family, one of the oldest lines of nobility in Camelot, and claimed the land belongs to the Talbots. However, the other noble, an older lord from the Hynde family, attested that the land had not been touched by the Talbots in years. On the piece of land, the Hyndes built and started a respectable workhouse and an inn. It was only when the two establishments started gaining more attention that the Talbots chose to raise protests. The Talbots wanted to claim ownership of the establishments since they were on the Talbots’ land. Needless to say, the Hyndes strongly disagreed.
And so, it was before the prince that the representatives of the two families took up their argument. The two nobles kept talking over the other, arguing point after point repeatedly, and trading insults. Merlin thought, half-amused and half as annoyed as the prince was beginning to look, that the two vied for Arthur’s support the way children fought for a parents’ attention. He tuned out the two nobles, instead keeping a close eye on the prince. Any moment now, the prince would lose his temper, if the slow clenching and unclenching of his right fist was any indication.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, Arthur slammed a fist down on the armrest of his throne.
“Shut up already!” the prince shouted. The court fell silent, and the two bickering nobles turned to the prince with identically affronted looks.
“Now, let’s say we go have a look at these…establishments,” the prince said with an almost mocking smile.
It was because of this that Merlin was out in the actual city of Astolat for the first time since he’d been bought by Arthur. The prince didn’t bring a great number of people with him, only the minimum required: two of his knights, the steward, the two nobles and Merlin, who was required to come to witness and record the proceedings later.
Merlin tried not to think of the cold still lingering in the town, although wearing no trousers, only braies, made the task difficult. He also tried to ignore the squelching of mud over the flimsy sandals all slaves were given to wear, hoping that Tom would allow him to wash his feet after he returned to the slave house. Instead, he tried to focus on the prince and the reactions he garnered at being out in the city on foot.
Astolat wasn’t a bad city; Merlin had definitely seen worse. There weren’t any rundown buildings in sight, and the few dark corners Merlin could spot could be overlooked by the presence of good and honest townspeople bustling by and carrying on their businesses. There were, of course, signs of poverty, but again, Merlin had seen worse. The town square was open and friendly, bustling with people. An impressive statue of a griffin stood in the center, surrounded by playing children, and Merlin couldn’t help but smile at the sight.
The peasants bowed to the prince as he passed, but most did not gape at him or linger. This, coupled with the fact that the prince looked as if he knew exactly where he was and where he was headed in the city, told Merlin that the prince was not a stranger to the city and people of Astolat. He couldn’t decide whether to be impressed by Arthur’s sense of duty to his people or to take such demonstration of duty as expected from the prince.
Merlin was pulled from his musings when a woman and a child stumbled into the street before Arthur. They landed in the mud a mere foot or so from Arthur’s feet. The young Talbot jumped into action, no doubt wishing to gain the prince’s favor.
“Get away from his highness, you filth!” he shouted, flinging the little boy to the side and kicking the woman away. Merlin hurried forward, catching the child and holding him out of further harm’s way. Quicker than a man could blink, Arthur drew his sword from his sheath and pointed at the throat of the young Talbot. All noise in the vicinity stopped, everyone’s attention drawn to the young lord and the prince.
“If you ever dare to lay a hand or foot on my people again, I will make you regret it,” Arthur said, his voice low with righteous fury. “Is that clear?”
The wide-eyed youth stammered out an apology, and Arthur returned his sword to his sheath. He turned to the woman, who still lay in the mud, looking stunned. The prince bent down and helped her to her feet, asking if she was all right and passing her a few coins.
And Merlin gaped at that singular moment of clarity, where he could just see the kind of king Arthur could become, if only his arrogance was lost and his volatile temperament improved.
The child squirming in his arms pulled him out of his surprise, and Merlin let him go. The boy ran to his mother, clinging at her skirts. At that moment, the prince turned and looked straight at Merlin, and he stiffened, wondering what the prince could possible want from him. Surely not to shout at him for protecting the child?
However, Arthur merely frowned for a moment and turned back to the woman. The woman bowed, thanking him profusely, before taking her boy by the hand and leading him away. And then the prince proceeded onwards, as if he hadn’t stopped at all in the first place.
But the moment they reached the lands in dispute, the prince called for a cloak.
“Put this on,” he ordered, tossing it at Merlin. “You’re useless to me if you’re too frozen to move your fingers.”
Merlin fumbled to catch the cloak before it fell in the mud. Clutching the bundle of coarse cloth to his chest, he found himself once again staring at the prince in disbelief. But Arthur merely glared at him until Merlin pulled on the cloak, and then without another word to him, returned his attention to the lands in question and the Hyndes’ workhouse and inn.
After a few moments, the prince announced his decision. The Hyndes were to formally purchase the land from the Talbots, and unless the Talbots chose to negotiate a legitimate business partnership with the Hyndes, they were not to interfere with the Hyndes’ two establishments.
It was a reasonable decision, but for Merlin, the day’s proceedings were completely overshadowed by the accident with the peasant woman and Arthur’s declaration and threat to the Talbot youth.
After that, there were no more jaunts into the city and the court fell into a routine. Arthur would listen to the petitions and pass out his judgments. Merlin would be present to record the proceedings, only being addressed if a formal decree was required to be written. After a break for lunch, petitions would continue for two hours before adjourning for the day. The prince would dismiss the court until dinnertime and head off to training with his knights. The steward would leave Merlin in a stuffy little records room, where he was to add notes and finishing touches to the day’s rulings and records until it was time to return to the slave house for dinner and sleep for the night.
However, things did not remain routine. Two days after the outing, it became apparent that there was something wrong with Arthur. The first day, only Merlin seemed to notice. Arthur’s eyes would at times go out of focus as a noble or peasant made their argument or request to him. Merlin had seen how Arthur took the petitions with at least a certain degree of seriousness, never allowing himself to lose too much focus on what was being said or asked. He at first thought it was simply a lapse in the prince’s sense of duty. However, Arthur grew noticeably paler over the next two days, his judgments slower and his movements almost drunken. It was impossible for the knights and courtiers not to notice, and rumors of the prince’s illness were whispered through the halls.
When one of the knights attending the petitions finally brought up the issue, the prince merely snapped at him. Then Arthur had noticed Merlin watching him and had scowled at him.
“What are you looking at? Get back to work,” the prince growled, and Merlin turned away.
But Merlin froze when his eyes fell on Morgause in the crowd of spectators. Morgause, who was glowering at the prince as if she wanted to get rid of him then and there.
It was not until later that afternoon, as Merlin was sent back to the slave house, that he figured out what that glower had been about. Traversing the courtyard to get to the slave house, he caught a whisper as he passed by two idle chambermaids.
“I hear his highness has been having trouble getting up in the morning, and he doesn’t take his evening meals anymore, just goes right to sleep.”
And then he made the connection, between Arthur and Morgause, between Arthur’s illness and Morgause’s irritation—an enchantment.
An enchantment that affected his sleep and health. It had to be from a magical item then—a piece of jewelry, something small that the prince would have near at hand at night, whether on purpose or chance. The enchantment wouldn’t be too hard to break; just tossing the thing into a fire usually did the trick. If not, then—
Merlin cursed at himself. This is what he got for letting his thoughts run wild. He was a slave. Even if he knew how to break the enchantment, there was nothing he could do with the knowledge. He held no sway on the prince; he suspected no one really did. He couldn’t just go up to the prince, accuse an official delegate of enchanting Arthur and plotting against Camelot, and expect to be believed. It was the surefire way of getting himself killed, by the prince or Morgause. But…
Merlin froze in his tracks.
Whatever the cause of the enchantment was, it was dark magic. If enough time passed, it could drain all of the prince’s energy, in other words his life force. The prince would die.
No, he couldn’t allow that. No one deserved such a fate, even an arrogant prat of a prince. He had sworn years and years ago to fight against the use of dark magic. He had the knowledge to break this enchantment; he could not just let this happen. Even after years without magic of his own, his moral code would not allow him to do such a thing.
Mind made up, Merlin changed directions and headed for the prince’s chambers.
When Merlin reached the doors of Arthur’s chambers, however, he paused. What was he going to say? How would he convince the prince to let him help?
But then he heard footsteps down the hall, and left with no choice but to carry on, he knocked on the prince’s doors.
“Enter,” came Arthur’s voice from inside, and Merlin pushed one of the doors open and slipped inside.
The prince’s chambers were lit only by sunlight, the window curtains partly drawn and the fireplace unlit. Arthur sat slumped in his chair by the table. He looked as if he would close his eyes and fall asleep any second.
“Sire,” Merlin greeted him with a low bow.
The prince glared at him and said, “What are you doing here? I didn’t ask for you.”
“No, sire, you didn’t. But I know your ailment and I know how to fix it.”
“I don’t have an ailment,” he snapped. “Get out before I choose to flog you.”
Merlin flinched but pressed the issue. “Please, you have to listen to me. If you let this continue, it will kill you!” Arthur rose to his feet, eyes flashing, but Merlin kept talking. “Just hear me out. Just before you started losing your strength, you were given a gift—a piece of jewelry, perhaps. Let me find it and tell you who gave it to you. If I’m right, please listen to what I have to say.”
The prince maintained his scowl but Merlin noticed the small hint of recognition in Arthur’s eyes at what he’s saying. After a moment, the prince finally said, “Get on with it then.”
Merlin bowed to the prince before circling the antechamber. Sensing nothing, he glanced over at the prince, who stood with arms crossed watching his every move, and proceeded into Arthur’s bedchamber.
He felt it the moment he approached Arthur’s bed, his head turning sharply to the nightstand, drawn by the strong magic permeating into the air. He pulled open the little drawer and discovered a finely crafted bracelet, a large amber gem set between two outstretched silver wings. The Eye of the Phoenix. A bracelet made from dark magic that sucked away a human’s life force. But this was one far more powerful than any he’d heard of, because normally, only its wearer would be affected. Arthur, however, was being affected by just having it by his bedside. In fact, he was surprise Arthur had managed to fight its effects. A lesser man would probably have been bedridden by now. He gingerly picked up the bracelet, but he is unaffected by its magic; it was directed only to Arthur.
“This bracelet is the source, sire. The Lady Morgause gave this to you, didn’t she?”
“What sorcery is this? I thought you had no magic left. Do I have to put you through the Rites again?” the prince hissed.
“No, sire, the Rites left me powerless. But this bracelet is one I recognize from my studies. The dark magic is so strong, any sorcerer, with or without magic, can sense it. You have to get rid of it; melting it down would be the best option. You should feel better almost right away.”
Arthur was silent, eyes trained on the bracelet in Merlin’s outstretched hand. As every second passed by, Merlin grew more and more anxious. The prince’s face had gone expressionless, much like the time Arthur discovered Merlin’s branding, and he just knew that wasn’t a good sign.
“Why are you helping me?” Arthur finally demanded. “Did you expect a reward? My favor perhaps? Did you really think I’d believe the word of a sorcerer?”
Merlin barely saw the backhand coming before he was sent stumbling backwards into the wall. He winced as his head hit the stone. He pressed a hand to where he could feel the blood rushing to his stinging cheek.
“The Lady Morgause is an honored guest of Camelot, regardless of my opinions of her. What did you think you would get for placing blame on her? Who isn’t to say you are the one who has done this to me? If you continue to speak such insult, your life is forfeit,” Arthur growled, hauling Merlin from the wall by his shirt. The prince fixed him with the most furious gaze he’d seen yet. “Is. That. Understood?”
Words caught in his throat, Merlin could only nod fervently. The prince released him with a shove.
“You are to receive ten lashes for your slander and impertinence.” Arthur crossed into the antechamber and out the door, and Merlin heard him calling for a guard. In seconds, the prince returned to him, seizing him by the arm and hauling him out of the door to a guard.
Merlin stumbled along down the halls back towards the slave house, the guard’s hand clamped tightly over his shoulder. He silently berated himself; he had been so so stupid. He should have just let Arthur be, let the ungrateful ass figure out how to break the enchantment instead. But now, he was to pay for his good intentions, and the prince was going to end up dying anyways. The thought left him queasy. He had a strong disliking for the prince, but certainly didn’t wish him dead.
He didn’t remember much of the flogging. It had been years since he’d last been whipped. Tom, grim-faced and silent, had put him in a little cell in the slave house kept especially for flogging slaves and shackled up his arms. Pain ripped through his body at the first few strokes, bringing tears to his eyes and wrenching shouts from his throat. After the fifth stroke, everything started going numb. After the sixth, he blacked out.
At some point afterwards, he woke up, disoriented from the haze of pain rolling up his back and into his head, and discovered a man he had never seen before kneeling beside him. There was a jar of ointment in his left hand, while his right scooped up some of the salve and applied it to Merlin’s back. Almost instantly, coolness spread over his back and sank into his skin, numbing the pain. He didn’t stop the hum of relief at the sensation.
“I am the physician. The prince said to make sure you’re properly taken care of,” he heard the man murmured, but he was already succumbing to the troughs of sleep and did not get the chance to wonder at the man’s words.
“Merlin, wake up!” a voice called him from somewhere above. He let out a groan but didn’t react otherwise. The tonic Tom had given him some time before still clung to him, turning his head to wool. “Merlin!”
“What?” he managed to moan out.
“The prince wants you. Now you better get up.”
With another groan, Merlin got up from his pallet and, gritting his teeth, began climbing up the ladder out of the cell.
“You seem to quite like that room,” Tom remarked once he’d pulled Merlin up the last section of the ladder and out of the cell.
“It’s the only place I’ve slept in. Can’t exactly like anywhere else, can I?” Merlin groggily replied, rubbing the sleep from his eyes while avoiding the sharp flashes of pain that came when he stretched the ragged skin on his back too much. The whip marks might not hurt as much as they looked—he’s sure Tom had purposely altered his strokes for that to happen, though he did not know why—but that didn’t mean they didn’t hurt.
“Don’t let your tongue run off on you, and you might be allowed out with the rest,” said Tom.
Merlin opened his mouth to argue, but the slave master gave him a pointed look that told Merlin he only would be proving his point if he spoke. He closed his mouth and turned around, letting the slave master apply a healing salve to his back.
“…did the prince say why he wanted me?” Merlin ventured another question after a few moments of silence, savoring the coolness sinking into his back.
Tom sighed, but replied, “No, he didn’t. You will just have to see what he wants.”
“Oh, all right.” There was a cup of water set aside for him, and Merlin gratefully took it, though really he was feeling more hungry than thirsty. He wasn’t sure how many days he’d been unconscious.
Once Tom had finished administering the salve, Merlin took the tunic the slave master gave him and stiffly put it on. Bidding the slave master a good night, he left for the prince’s chambers.
Arthur was sitting on the edge of his bed when Merlin entered his chambers, dressed in a nightshirt and trousers, feet bare and hair tousled. He looked wide awake however, and Merlin couldn’t sense the Eye of the Phoenix anywhere. If he recalled correctly, the physician had said he’d been sent by the prince. He hoped that meant the bracelet had been destroyed or at least removed entirely from the prince’s presence.
“You asked for me, sire?” Merlin said with a bow.
“Yes.” After a moment’s pause, the prince continued, “I am willing to admit that I was…not of the right mind when I saw you last. How are you feeling?”
Merlin stared at the prince. There had been an apology somewhere in those words. At least, he thought there had been an apology. No one apologized to a slave. With the combination of Arthur’s words and the residual sluggishness from the sleeping tonic, Merlin was nothing short of stunned.
“Merlin,” the prince reminded him to answer.
“Um, never been better,” he replied. He winced, knowing just how ridiculous that sounded. And then winced again as he made his back hurt at the sudden movement. The prince noticed and scowled at him.
“Oh for gods’ sake, Merlin, sit down before you hurt yourself,” the prince said, grabbing him firmly by the elbow.
He guided Merlin to the chair draped with lambskin by the fireplace—the prince’s personal chair. But Merlin was more focused on the much-welcomed warmth of the fire flooding into his bones than the implications of the prince lending him his chair. Outside and in the slave house, the biting cold made the dull ache in his back sharpen. Here, the fire’s heat eased the pain and wrapped him and his mind in a haze of comfort. His eyes drooped with sleepiness, but he shook his head, remembering why he was there in the prince’s chambers. Arthur stood before the fireplace, his back to Merlin.
Only after a minute or so of silence did the prince finally speak. “Why did you do it?”
Merlin knew exactly what he meant—there was really nothing else Arthur could have been referring to—but he still said, “Do what, sire?”
The prince shot him a glare before returning his gaze to the fire. “Don’t play the fool, Merlin. You may be a bit of an idiot, but you obviously can think.”
Merlin snorted, and before he could stop himself, replied, “Just a bit.”
Arthur turned around to look at him, leaning back against the mantle. There was a spark of something in his eyes, maybe amusement. Merlin was simply glad it wasn’t rage.
“I’m asking again, why did you do it?”
Arthur’s eyes bore into him with an intensity that demanded the truth. Merlin was tired of forever keeping up pretenses, of pretending to be less than a person. That, combined with the warmth enveloping his senses and the way Arthur was treating him as a person, as a man, convinced him to let go and speak the truth Arthur asked for.
“I know of Morgause and her ilk,” he said. “Their reputation exceeds them among my people. They abuse their magic. I won’t stand by and let it just happen if I can help stop it.”
“Magic corrupts all who use it eventually. Carmarthen harbored many sorcerers. How could they possibly be any different from, as you say, ‘Morgause and her ilk’?” The prince would have sounded scornful if it wasn’t for the open curiosity lighting his eyes.
“Magic does not corrupt; power does. Magic is a tool. Magic is to a sorcerer what a sword is to a knight. Without proper training, it cannot be used. Without a code of honour and morals, it can be used for harm.”
“And your people had this code?”
Merlin eyed the prince, but there was no skepticism to be seen, just the inquisitiveness one might find on a pupil’s face, asking for answers to the world.
“Yes, we were taught from the moment we could speak and through all our childhood to heed it.”
“Morgause is a High Priestess of the Old Religion. She and the others were exiled from Carmarthen before I was even born.”
Merlin rubbed his eyes, trying to recall the details behind the exile. He soon brushed the thoughts aside; the prince did not really need to know the exact details.
“Their views on magic didn’t match ours. They think those with magic are superior to man; they think themselves gods.” The prince scoffed. “Their conceit is proof enough that they’re human.”
“Indeed,” the prince remarked noncommittally, crossing his arms and continuing to gaze at Merlin.
“What I don’t understand is what Morgause is doing here. She would never do the bidding of a magic-less king, and Camelot is clear on its stance towards magic.”
“So you suspect her of a treacherous plot?”
“And the enchantment she placed on you isn’t enough?”
“Maybe it was you who placed the enchantment, Merlin,” the prince accused. “You certainly seem to know enough. Perhaps the Rites had not worked after all.”
“Sire, if I still had magic, would I be here now?”
Arthur huffed and admitted, “I suppose not. Unless you were a rubbish sorcerer.”
“I was not!” Merlin snapped, pride-driven anger bubbling up before remembering himself. Arthur looked at him with wide eyes, the first look of genuine surprise Merlin has ever seen from the prince. Shit. He did not want to discuss his past with the prince, with anyone for that matter. He scrubbed his face with his hands, shaking away his inner turmoil. “Anyway, it is Morgause you need to worry about. She is a powerful sorceress, and she will notice immediately that her plan failed. Please be careful, sire. If she is serious in her intentions, she will try again, somehow.”
“I’ll be more careful with everyone from now on. Anyway, it’s not like you have any proof it was Morgause,” Arthur replied, sounding dismissive but with all seriousness in his eyes.
Merlin slowly got to his feet and asked if that had been all that had been required of him.
“No, here. This came today.” The prince crossed the room and retrieved a roll of parchment from the table. “Read it,” Arthur bid, waving the parchment in front of Merlin. The wax was red, so it wasn’t from his cousin Lancelot. Merlin took the letter from the prince and, breaking the seal, began reading:
Word regarding the fate of Rylan Cardon has reached us here in Camelot. You will be glad to hear that your father was pleased by your course of action. You have restored the loyalties the Cardons owe to Camelot with the mercy you showed. However, while Uther does not choose to do so, I must bring up the recklessness of your actions. I should not have to remind you that you will soon be the Crown Prince of Camelot. You cannot treat your life so carelessly as to partake in battles to the death. It is not only your future at stake, Arthur, but the future of the Pendragon line and of Camelot itself. That you are First Knight is no guarantee that you will win every duel you choose to fight. I implore you to listen to sense and remember this the next time you chose to throw down your gauntlet or glove.
I will return in two weeks’ time. Until then, I hope I can trust you to keep a cool head. I’ve attended petitions enough to know you will handle them dutifully and I expect you to continue to do so in my absence. You will need all the support you can get. The Northumbrians suggested for a new capital to be built for our kingdom. Uther spends too much time with the delegates, and I fear for trouble coming our way. I cannot say more until we see each other again.
“I’m surprised he and my father aren’t related by blood,” Arthur grumbled. “Nothing I do is ever good enough between the two of them.” The prince’s amicable mood was entirely done now; he paced back and forth before the fire, brooding.
As he was probably not expecting a remark on this, Merlin simply asked, “Do you want for me to write a letter back?”
With a sigh, Arthur sat down in his chair and said, “Yes, might as well. The writing kit is in the cupboard.”
Lighting a candle for the table, Merlin then retrieved the bundle of items required for writing. The prince sat in silence as Merlin set everything up for use.
With a nod, the prince told him what to write.
I’m sorry to hear my actions still do not please you. I will keep your concerns in mind in the future. Tell Father that replacing Camelot as the capital is a ridiculous idea, and I cannot believe he is even considering it.
Now, I must request something of you once again. Kindly travel to Cameliard and make arrangements to ensure Lady Guinevere’s safe travel to Astolat. I am not expecting you to personally escort her, simply to provide her with the best escort possible. While I still very much disagree with being her fiancé, as my future wife, her safety is important. While this will set back your return to Astolat, you should be able to return before my coming-of-age. Until I am under your guidance again, I will watch my words and actions carefully and act as expected of a crown prince.
Merlin resisted the urge to shake his head. Sir Tristan must have great patience to have put up with Arthur all these years. It was clear, however, through their correspondences that Arthur was closer to his uncle than to his own father—which was, Merlin supposed, the rather unfortunate consequence of having a king for a father.
Arthur sealed the letter and set it aside to be sent off in the morning.
“You may go now. I expect to see you back in the throne room tomorrow for the petitions,” the prince said with a wave to the door.
“Yes, sire.” Merlin headed for the doors, but paused, half-turning to add, “Good night, sire.”
The prince gave him an odd look, face hidden half in shadows, but replied, “Good night, Merlin.”
Sunlight spills through the canopy of leaves above them as they stroll hand in hand. He loves the gardens at this time of year, when the grass and trees are a vibrant green and flowers overrun the grounds with color. Beside him, she laughs at the birds and rabbits that pop into sight as he passes them and at the occasional tree branch or flower that shifts towards him just a little. The magic inside him draws all kinds of plant- and wildlife to him, and when he is relaxed and carefree like now, he lets it free, allowing the connection between him and nature because it fills him with warmth and calm. Her thin pale hand squeezes his lightly, and she smiles, half-mocking and half-affectionate. And that’s another reason he likes the gardens at this time; it is often during one of the rare times that she lets her mask fall and lets him see the woman she is inside.
“Really, Merlin,” she remarks as he reaches up to stroke the feathers of a small falcon. She lets go of his hand to pluck a flower from the ground and toy with it. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you care about birds and trees more than you care about me.”
He turns to protest the jibe, but she is already moving away from him. He calls after her, but she doesn’t turn around, doesn’t stop walking. He runs to catch up with her, but with every step, the distance between them keeps increasing. A fog is descending in the distance, darkening their surroundings.
“Wait!” he shouts to her, but she doesn’t hear him. The fog swallows her up.
Merlin woke with an ache in his chest he hadn’t felt in years. Taking deep breaths, he calmed the racing of his heart. He did not want to remember. He did not want to think. He pushed the dream from his mind, fixating on the dim sliver of light outlining the trapdoor out of the cell. He forced himself to stay awake, to keep at bay any other dreams, any other pseudo-memories.
When morning finally came and Tom dropped down the ladder, Merlin climbed up right away. His back felt stiff as a board, but at least it wasn’t hurting anymore. Tom waved him over to the bath and a clean tunic set aside for him to look presentable at the petitions. The bath, Merlin discovered, was filled with clean water, a rarity since the water would usually be shared with at least four slaves.
“Master Tom, the water, tha—”
“No need for thanks. Don’t want your welts to get infected. The prince said to take care of you until you were better, after all,” the slave master said. “Best get a move on. You wouldn’t want the prince angry at you now.”
Merlin didn’t have to worry though. The prince was in a good mood when Merlin took his place at the writing table for petitions. No doubt he had gotten a good night’s sleep with the enchantment broken. Arthur did not acknowledge him; they had reverted back to master and slave. Merlin scanned the crowd, but saw no signs of Morgause, and felt himself relax just a little. He briefly checked the notes from the scribe who’d covered for him the day before and settled down to work. Petitions proceeded, with the prince making more or less correct decisions and nothing too eventful happening. Merlin followed the same routine he had before, working after the petitions ended for the day to complete the records and fix up the decrees until it was time for him to return to the slave house for a meal and sleep. To his relief, no dreams came to him.
However, it seemed it was too much to hope for to have everything run smoothly for more than a few days because just two days after Merlin’s return, Arthur showed up to petitions two hours late. All through petitions that day, he was short tempered and brusque, going so far as to goad the supplicants to speak faster—which only made a mess of things as the peasants would cower and the nobleman would bite back, no doubt, scandalized remarks.
The next day, the prince didn’t show up at all, and petitions had to be canceled for the day. Merlin heard from the whispers of other servants that Arthur did, however, attend training and proceeded to beat the brains out of his knights. The courtiers were grumbling over the prince’s behavior, but even Merlin knew the prince never shirked his duties, despite all of his faults. Something was wrong.
And when Tom woke him up in the middle of the night, Merlin couldn’t say he felt very surprised. He wondered, as he strode down the dimly lit halls of the castle to Arthur’s room, what the problem was this time and hoped he would have a solution. He then promptly pushed the thought away. Hope was not meant for a slave, and actively putting himself more in the way of Morgause than he already was while holding no magic at all was a sure way to damn him. Shaking his head, he slowed his walk, attempting to dampen the faint sense of anticipation in him.
“Where is it? Find the thing so I can get rid of it!” the prince demanded the moment Merlin entered his chambers.
Merlin frowned, not bothering to hide his bewilderment. It was much too late at night for him to engage in conversations that seemed to have started before he had even begun them.
“Something is wrong again, so do what you did last time, and find what’s causing it,” Arthur answered, pacing back and forth in his antechamber.
“Sire, I can see that, but if I don’t know what’s wrong, I can’t help you,” Merlin said, although he was already scanning the room for anything that might just be out of place.
Arthur stopped pacing and stalked over to Merlin, grabbing him by the collar. He pointed a threatening finger at him, just a few centimeters from Merlin’s face, and growled, “If you tell anyone about this, you’re going to wish you were dead when I’m through with you. Is that clear?”
“Of course, Sire,” Merlin answered, putting on his most openly earnest expression. Arthur released him and half-turned from him, fists clenched tightly by his side.
“I can’t…It didn’t work when I was with a maid yesterday or today, and it didn’t work when I tried to do it myself,” the prince muttered, just barely loud enough for Merlin to hear.
“What…?” And then it hit him. Merlin would have snickered if he hadn’t known that it would have gotten him killed and that it was indeed a grave matter. As the future king of Camelot, Arthur was expected to be healthy in all aspects; impotency could not be accepted. “That…Has Morgause given you anything new?”
“No. And she has left for Stafford if that means anything to you.”
“Not really. Morgause is powerful enough to work spells at a distance. This might have been planned beforehand too. You never know,” Merlin replied with a shrug.
Arthur stared at Merlin for a while, but when Merlin failed to say or do anything, he growled, “Well? Fix this.”
“Ah, right.” Merlin searched through his slightly hazy knowledge concerning the issue. “Um, well, there’s nothing enchanted in your rooms, and I don’t sense any dark magic.” He paused, following the few possibilities left. Spells were rarely ever used for this, if he recalled correctly.
“Well what is it then, Merlin? I haven’t got all night.”
Merlin resisted the urge to snipe at him and instead said, “I know of herbs that could create such an effect when placed in one’s food. That could be why.”
Arthur’s face darkened. “There’s a traitor in the kitchens then. I’ll have their heads.”
“It could still be Morgause!” Merlin protested before the prince could get too carried away. “I’ve heard that Morgause can use her magic to help…persuade people into doing things. And I wouldn’t put it past her to disguise herself to slip the herbs in. If you go to the kitchens, you’ll tip her off that you suspect.”
The prince let out a long-suffering sigh and asked, “Then what do I do?”
“Um…the effects should wear off, so why don’t you fast for a day or two? Get it out of your system, and all.”
“Very well, I’ll give it a try,” Arthur said, sitting down at the table. “Before the Lady Morgause left, she asked me about my…illness. She wanted to know what remedy I used to get better.”
Merlin stiffened. If Morgause knew that he had any involvement in breaking the spell, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to dig up information, linking Merlin’s name to magic and then to Emrys. How Morgause would react to this discover was a mystery. Would she be furious that the ‘greatest’ sorcerer in Albion was now a lowly slave to the prince of Camelot? Or would she sneer at him for failing his duty to protect Carmarthen?
“What did you say?” he questioned, hoping the prince wouldn’t notice the extent of his unease. Arthur gave him a pointed look.
“I said I hadn’t done anything, and that perhaps, I had a guardian spirit watching over me,” Arthur replied with a smirk, startling out a snort from Merlin.
“I am no guardian spirit, sire,” he remarked. The prince shrugged before dismissing him with a wave.
The prince nearly scared Merlin out of his skin two days later, when Arthur came up behind him before petitions and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Merlin looked tentatively over his shoulder, hoping the prince wasn’t about to thrash him for something.
Instead the prince practically chirped, “Good morning, Merlin,” and gave him a conspiratorial smile.
Ah. So, the fasting had worked after all.
Arthur released his shoulder and clapped his back before romping over to his throne.
As the two-week period for petitions drew to an end, Arthur maintained a relatively good mood, considering he was now enchantment-free. Merlin was even permitted to finally sleep aboveground, outside of the cell he had grown to know too well. Instead, he slept in the large central chamber of the slave house, amongst all of the castle’s house slaves.
Perhaps it was because of his new proximity to other human beings, or the prince’s recent troubles, that dreams returned to him yet again, this time not nightmarish, but almost embarrassingly heated. He dreamt of sun-kissed skin and soft hair, clear blue eyes and long muscled limbs. Definitely not usual.
It was not really the why he was having them that bothered him. After being celibate for nearly thirteen years, it could hardly be a wonder why. However, it was a question of why now of all times? In the first few years of captivity, he’d dreamed such dreams, but he lost parts of him through years of slavery and the dreams faded away into nothing. What confused him was that before, they had been filled with pale skin and soft curves, long silken black hair and green eyes. Now, not so much, at all.
And it was during one of these new dreams that Merlin was shaken awake by Tom.
“I should just sleep in the prince’s room if he keeps asking for me at night,” Merlin grumbled as he rubbed his eyes and forcibly pushed his dreams to the back of his mind.
“The prince does not ask for you this time, Merlin. I do,” the slave master whispered, and Merlin woke up just a bit quicker.
“What is it?”
“We bought a few new slaves a few days ago,” the slave master began his explanation. “There is a boy among them, an ex-sorcerer like you. He refuses to work.”
Merlin eyed him warily and replied, “If you think I’m going to convince him…” Tom shook his head.
“It’s not about that. He refuses to eat, Merlin. He said he would rather die than submit.”
And Merlin couldn’t help but sigh. Of course it was so; he had been just the same before another slave had talked some sense into him. Slavery was looked down upon by his people, sorcerers especially. To unwillingly submit to another human being…it was degrading, and even in a tolerant and wise kingdom such as Carmarthen, slaves and ex-slaves were viewed as less than people. It was one of the reasons why Merlin knew he could never show his face to his people again. But at the very least, he was alive. He wondered where this new slave had come from; not many sorcerers were turned into slaves nowadays.
“Take me to him then,” he acquiesced, getting to his feet.
When Merlin dropped that last foot from the ladder to the ground, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the light coming from the open trapdoor he had just descended through. It was only after he could properly make out the outlines of the ladder and the grooves between the bricks of the walls did he turn around to face the only occupant in the cell. There was a boy curled up in the corner on the straw pallet, already wearing the standard collar and braces. There are marks on his back, no doubt rewards for his refusal to obey, but Tom, the strangely kind slave master that he was, had cleaned and treated them, protecting them from infection. The boy shifted slightly to look over his shoulder at Merlin. Then he curled back up and stared at the wall.
“If they sent you here to make me eat, you can go back up and leave me alone,” the boy said.
Merlin sighed, suspecting this would take a while. He sat down cross-legged beside the boy, leaning back against the wall.
“Well, yes, but I’m just here to talk,” he said. When the boy did not reply, Merlin just sat there for a few minutes, considering how to proceed. He then said, “I’m going to sit here until you talk to me so you might as well. I’m Merlin, by the way.”
The boy rolled over and glared at him, but did not say a word. Merlin simply stared back. The boy was young, perhaps no more than sixteen. In the dim light, he noted the boy’s dark hair, cut short as all slaves’ hair tended to be, skinny frame and ears that stuck out. The twisting in Merlin’s gut at the sight was no surprise. This boy had not even come into his power yet. And oh, how he was reminded of himself…
“Right now, my words probably mean nothing to you, but I understand what you are going through.”
“How could you possibly understand?” the boy snapped, sitting up. “My magic is gone!” The boy’s voice cracked, but no tears were shed; they had probably been shed already. “I wasn’t good at anything but magic. Without magic, I’m a nobody!”
The boy’s words made Merlin ache inside. He did understand. He had been this boy twelve years ago, raging against his captors, against the world, immediately after recovering from the Rites. Losing his magic had been like losing a limb, as if he still had the stump of it, but really, there was no use for a stump. Without magic, he had felt like a nobody. His entire life, he had lived and breathed magic. Magic was what he was. Losing magic had made him less a person than becoming a slave had. But he had had to learn to live without that large part of him, or the ache would have consumed him.
“And that is what slaves are—nobodies,” Merlin said. “If you wish to survive here, that is what you must accept and become.”
The boy scoffed and replied, “I’d rather die.”
Merlin winced. He had thought that too.
“Listen to me,” he insisted, “I don’t know what is being taught these days, but I was taught the importance of life, the balance of life and death. Killing yourself is not the answer; it will never be the answer. Sorcerers should never upset the balance with senseless deaths.”
The boy’s eyes widened as he said, “You were a sorcerer…”
“Yes…yes, I was.” Merlin definitely had his attention now, though he feared the forthcoming talk would open old wounds.
“How long ago?”
“Since Carmarthen’s Fall, when I was seventeen.” Even in the dim light, the boy looked a little pale. It wasn’t a surprise. Twelve years—thirteen years in a month’s time or so. That was nearly all of the boy’s life.
“Then you fought in the war?”
“I was one of the last to fall,” Merlin murmured, looking away from the boy. He shouldn’t have fallen. The oh-so-great Emrys wasn’t supposed to have fallen. But he did, and Carmarthen and thousands of people paid for it. And he should be convincing the boy to eat, not wallowing in guilt. What passed had passed, and all that mattered now was the present. “But that isn’t important. The past doesn’t matter anymore. Just the present.”
After a moment’s silence, the boy demanded, “What are you here for?”
Merlin nodded in quiet approval. The boy knew to be wary; it was a good skill to know, especially while serving in houses deep in politics.
“No slave owner wants a dead slave; it would be a waste of their coin. But the slave master here, he’s…well, he’s a bit different. He’s almost nice—as nice as you can be when you’re a slave master anyways. He doesn’t want you to kill yourself. He knows a thing or two about sorcerers, and I reckon he was sympathetic towards Carmarthen. He knew I was a Carmarthian sorcerer, so he asked me to speak with you.”
Merlin wanted to ask where the boy came from, but knew it was not his place to ask. Like he had said, the past was to be left behind. A slave was a slave, and it didn’t matter where one came from.
But then the boy answered his silent question anyways: “…my name is Gilli. I don’t remember much of it, but I was born in Carmarthen, before the war.”
Unbidden excitement jumped up inside him before he pushed it back down. The boy was too young; he couldn’t know any of the people Merlin grew up with—most of them were dead anyways.
“Good to meet you, Gilli,” he choked out through the familiar wave of guilt.
They didn’t speak for a few minutes, wallowing in their own thoughts.
“Merlin?” Tom’s voice drifted down from above.
“I’m coming up soon,” Merlin called back. He sighed, looking back at Gilli. “There’s something I have to warn you before I leave you,” he said. “Morgause is here, in Astolat.”
“The High Priestess of the Old Religion? Why?” Gilli asked with wide eyes. Merlin hoped that meant whoever had been the boy’s mentor had warned him about the priestesses.
“I don’t know for sure, but she doesn’t mean well. She didn’t identify me as a sorcerer, so there shouldn’t be a problem for you. But just in case, stay away from her, okay?” Merlin waited for the boy to nod before he got to his feet. “I’ll ask Tom to send down some food. Listen to what I said. Life is precious, you know that. Better to live a slave than not live at all. Yeah?” Gilli frowned, but nodded again. “Great. Good night, Gilli.”
Grabbing hold off the ladder, Merlin gave him a small smile that he hoped was encouraging before climbing back out of the cell.
In the morning, Merlin and a number of other slaves were moved out of the slave house and into one of the empty servants’ chambers in the castle. The prince’s coming-of-age was in a month, and they were to be close at hand for any work needed for the preparations. He did not see Gilli at all in the following few days. As the prince’s scribe, he was charged with writing down everything that was needed and everything that had to be done before the ceremony—which meant endless amounts of writing from dawn to sunset. He had very little time to think, a whole soup of words floating around in his head when he wasn’t eating or sleeping. He feared that he’d never get the ink off his hands.
Merlin was in the little closet of a room, updating the records, when a slave hurried in to retrieve him. When the slave said it was Tom who wanted him, Merlin suspected the worst.
And the worst had happened, as Merlin discovered when Tom led him to a small room inside the slave house.
“Oh, Gilli, you stupid child,” Merlin sighed, falling to his knees besides the boy lying on a pallet. He brushed Gilli’s bangs from his brow. The boy had cut his belly with the shaving knife, but the blade had been made dull purposefully so that the slaves would not harm themselves or anyone else. Gilli would slowly, and painfully, bleed to death.
“S-sorry. I couldn’t…” Gilli gasped, a hand pressed to his belly. Merlin leaned in closer to catch the boy’s words. “Couldn’t stand it…not as strong as you…”
Merlin squeezed Gilli’s other hand, at a loss for words. He wasn’t strong. He really wasn’t. Years ago, he had thrown away his pride, his dignity—everything, just so he would survive to see another day. He lived for the little things—pitiful, laughable little things—a sunny day, a scrap of meat or a warm bath, a little bird greeting him by chance. Gilli winced, pulling Merlin from his thoughts.
“I’m sorry. If only I could make this easier for you,” he whispered, giving the boy’s free hand a squeeze.
“Gaius spoke of you,” Gilli rasped into Merlin’s ear, and Merlin’s heart nearly stopped. Gaius, Gaius still lived. “He told me about a young sorcerer who fought in the war at seventeen. His nephew, who had had so much power and yet acted like an idiot half the time.”
Merlin couldn’t help the startled laugh from coming out of him.
“He always said I had a grave mental affliction,” Merlin said, and the tiniest smile ghosted Gilli’s lips.
“Yeah, exactly that.”
“It’s…” Merlin swallowed at the lump forming in his throat. “It’s good to hear that he’s alive.”
“There’s a refuge—” Gilli had to stop as he coughed up blood.
“Shh, don’t talk,” Merlin hushed him.
“Refuge,” the boy continued on anyway. “From the war. Four hundred…four hundred Carmarthians…hiding.” Gilli coughed again, choking on the blood that came trickling out of his mouth and down his face. “Go home…ask the griffin.”
“Easy, easy. It’s okay, Gilli. It’s okay.” Merlin gripped the boy’s hand tighter. He could see Gilli’s eyes glaze over.
“The griffin…will show you…will take you home. Just ask…”
The boy fell silent, eyes falling shut and hand going limp in Merlin’s.
Merlin threw himself into his work after that. Having finished all the required list-making, Farran the chamberlain had him join the other house slaves in the task of cleaning up the castle as well as its occupants. Gifts wishing the prince well and celebrating his coming-of-age were flooding in from all across the kingdom and needed to be stowed for the prince’s perusal. Every waking moment, he was on his feet, clearing rooms, moving furniture, putting up tapestries, washing bedding, mending clothes—anything that was needed to be done. Every night, he’d fall to the floor and sleep like the dead until morning came and work started once again.
But even so, he couldn’t forget what Gilli had told him. Four hundred. Four hundred Carmarthians still gathered together. Merlin had thought all the survivors of the Fall would have scattered, integrating themselves into the rest of Albion to avoid slavery or death. That there was an actual refuge hidden away somewhere had been too much to hope for. Ask the griffin, the boy had said. But griffins were impossible to find; he couldn’t have meant an actual griffin. It would sooner kill you than let you speak. Then what could it mean?
Merlin shook himself, trying to push the thoughts away. Gilli’s short presence in Merlin’s life had opened his mind, prying out all the memories and emotions Merlin had locked away, hoping never to access them again. They were no use to him here. He couldn’t simply take off in search of a griffin, and even if he miraculously escaped from bondage, he could not dare show his face to his people. Besides, the dragon brand on his cheek marked him forever as property of the Pendragons; there was no escape for him, only servitude.
A few days later, he was summoned by the prince to read a message from Sir Tristan. It was short, only a few lines that seemed to radiate the old knights’ displeasure.
Lady Guinevere will be well protected on her journey to Astolat, as you’ve asked. I will not be travelling with her or the King and Queen, but I will be in time for the start of celebrations.
The prince simply shook his head at the letter before dismissing Merlin, not requiring an answering message. It would be a few more days before Merlin saw the prince again.
A week after Gilli’s death and three weeks until the prince’s coming-of-age, the prince was to select the entertainment to be had at the welcome feast and the night of the coming-of-age ceremony. And as it was for an official occasion, Merlin was required to be there to keep records. So for the ensuing week, Merlin’s days fell into a similar pattern as during the petitions. He reported to the throne room in the mornings, where he would sit behind the writing desk until noon, writing down all of Arthur’s selections. The people hoping to entertain in the castle for the coming-of-age seemed to never end. Musicians and dancers, bards and tricksters, self-named entertainers from everywhere across the kingdom came, all auditioning to be a part of the crowning of Camelot’s sole prince.
Although Merlin had been interested in hearing the songs and tales and jokes the auditioners had to offer, the novelty of it wore out before the first day was even out. Everything started to sound the same and Merlin found himself half-tuning everything out.
Arthur, it seemed, was not much better off. After the first few auditioners, the prince would stop an auditioner only minutes after they began, occasionally throwing an insult before dismissing them with an impatient wave of his hand and calling for the next person to come forward.
On the first day, only one person gained the prince’s approval, a lute player with a level of skill Merlin has seldom encountered and whose performance left Arthur with a pleased smile. The second day was more fruitful: a bard whose words drew his listeners in like children to sweets, a group of acrobatic dancers with a dash of comedy that earned a nod of approval and a smile, a pair of jesters who left many in the room in stitches, and a harp player whose melodies removed all the tension from her listeners and left them relaxed and euphoric. Needless to say, the prince was in a good mood that day.
However, the third day was full of dull performances and blunders. With every failed audition, the prince’s mood grew darker and his temper soured. All the courtiers looked upon the prince with visible unease, and Merlin wished that the day would quickly be over.
The last auditioner of the day was a man playing the vielle. When he began playing, he sounded fairly decent, better than some of the other auditioners before him. Until he started playing a section of his song that left Merlin cringing and looking at the prince for his inevitable disapproval.
“Enough!” Arthur shouted. He shot to his feet, looking ready to charge at the man. “I’ll hear no more of your screeching. Leave before I put you in the stocks for wasting my time.”
He watched with a glower as the poor man left the hall with a bowed head and the few courtiers still in attendance left as well. But Merlin wasn’t quick enough to hide his disapproval when Arthur turned to leave, and the prince caught his expression before he could duck his head down.
“What? Have you got something to say to me, Merlin?” he snapped.
“No, sire,” Merlin replied, fixing his eyes on the parchment before him.
“Don’t lie to me. It’s obvious you’ve got something on your mind. You always seem to have something to say. Whether you’re feeling insolent enough to say it is a different matter.”
“You are mistaken, sire. There is nothing I have to say,” Merlin said. He wished the prince would just drop the whole issue, but considering how stubborn Arthur was, he probably wouldn’t.
“Merlin, I am giving you an order to speak your mind. Don’t you dare lie to me. Speak the truth. Or else.”
Merlin stared down at where his ink-stained hands rested on his lap and clenched them into fists. He could feel Arthur’s gaze on him. Everything seemed to press down on him—his powerlessness, the branding of his face, the frustrating contradictions the prince was made of, Morgause’s suspicious presence, Gilli’s death—and now this order, this challenge, to speak openly was pushing him over the edge.
He sucked in a deep breath before saying, “All these people you reject so hastily, they’ve travelled from all across the kingdom to come here. And why is that, sire?” Merlin paused to look the prince in the eye before continuing. “Because they wish to serve you. Yes, I suppose a part of it is selfishness, so that they get a reward and recognition for performing at your coming-of-age. But more importantly, they wish to please you, to pay their respects to you, the crown prince and future king of Camelot. And yet, here you are, throwing them out without so much as a kind word. Even if you aren’t willing to spare them a coin for their efforts, the very least you can do is say thanks and wish them a safe journey home. Is that too much to ask for?”
Merlin let out a long shuttering breath, trying to calm the anger threatening to make him lose control.
“Have you forgotten who you’re speaking to?”
“No, sire. You asked for me to be frank, so I spoke my mind. If you did not wish to hear it after all, then I apologize for my impertinence,” Merlin gritted out, sliding off his stool and bowing deeply to the prince.
Arthur looked as if he was going to hit Merlin, already standing from his throne and fists balled tightly at his side. But in the end, the prince did not lift a hand.
“Get out. I’ll have none of your cheekiness tomorrow, or I’ll do more than just have you flogged.”
Merlin cursed himself for losing control, for letting Arthur’s words goad him. If he wished to live, he needed to keep his head down and his mouth shut. That resolve didn’t seem to work so well around the prince, and he couldn’t even begin to understand why. He was grateful, however, that while the prince was quick to temper and slow to forgive and forget, he displayed an awareness of what kinds of punishment were appropriate for what offenses. This explained why Sir Caradoc had been flogged while Lord Rylan was essentially dead to society. And this was probably why Arthur did not follow through his threats at Merlin’s slips of the tongue. Merlin couldn’t rely on that judgment forever though. If Merlin kept slipping up and saying too much, one of these days the prince would surely snap and Merlin would be in a far worse position than he was in now.
The next day of auditions found the prince in a foul mood. Arthur spent much of the time with displeasure almost visibly rolling off his person. But he did not interrupt any performances or, strangely enough, say a harsh word to the auditioners. If they failed, they were merely dismissed with a shake of the head and a wave.
It was fortunate that the day was a significant improvement from before. Three more people made their way onto the list of approved entertainers: a songstress with a voice like honeyed wine, a flute player that could turn the fiercest lions into the sweetest kittens, and a man who probably knew more tales than all the people in the room did combined.
At the end of the day’s auditions, Merlin waited for the prince to depart for training, as he usually did before returning to whatever duties the chamberlain
“There, Merlin, does my behavior today meet your approval?” the prince demanded, standing with hands at his hips.
“You are the prince, sire. You can behave as you wish. My approval means nothing,” Merlin answered, bowing his head and keeping his eyes to the ground.
The prince laughed, sharp and derisive, and said, “So you choose again to watch your tongue? You’re like an open book, Merlin. I’ve seen how you are when you speak your mind, and it’s much better than watching you lie.”
Merlin looked up at the prince looming over him and froze. A wave of…something—a feeling, a sense of almost-nostalgia— swept through him. His vision seemed to shift, and everything seemed to take on a slightly golden edge. The man before was still Arthur, but he was older and there was a crown on his head. While there was still that proud gleam in his eyes, it was tempered with warmth and wisdom. The little magic inside of Merlin was pulling at him, drawing him towards Arthur and filling him with a deep certainty.
The Once and Future King.
The vision left him then. With a gasp, Merlin reeled back, almost toppling off his stool before he grabbed hold of the writing table. He groaned, rubbing his eyes as his head spun.
No, no, no, it couldn’t be right.
Arthur Pendragon, prince to the very kingdom that destroyed Carmarthen and enslaved and killed so many sorcerers, simply could not be the Once and Future King.
But his magic, the tiny amount left to him, had reacted. While Merlin had never been much of a seer, what he’d seen just now hadn’t been a silly daydream. It had been an actual vision.
Merlin looked up and found the prince staring at him with not anger but bemusement. And he had to shake his head to rid the image that popped up, a residual memory of his vision.
“What’s the matter with you now?” Arthur asked.
“Nothing, sire,” Merlin replied a little too quickly to be prudent, and the prince glared at him.
“There you go again. Lying. I would cut your tongue if I didn’t know it wouldn’t change a thing.”
Before Arthur could say more, Sir Leon entered the hall and walked straight up to the prince.
“Sire, we’ve received reports that Kanen and his men are attacking the western-lying villages,” the knight said.
“Kanen again,” the prince muttered, glowering at the floor as if in thought. Then he looked back up at Sir Leon and said, “It’s too late to set out after them today. Go select a few of the knights and get yourselves ready to leave first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Will you be leading?” Sir Leon inquired.
“Yes, I want to deal with Kanen myself,” Arthur said, and Merlin couldn’t help the shiver up his spine at the prince’s sharp-edged tone.
Sir Leon left with a bow, and almost seconds later, Morgause swept into the hall, dressed surprisingly in armour.
“Prince Arthur,” the priestess greeted him with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She paid no attention to Merlin, who warily watched her in case she chose to enchant Arthur again.
Sure enough, after Arthur had greeted her and commented on her return from Stafford, she pulled out a finely carved, rectangular box the length of her forearm. The instant, she opened the lid, Merlin felt his attention being dragged towards the box’s contents, just like it had with the Eye of the Phoenix. Nestled in cushion was a long dagger with a simple but elegant sheath. Arthur, Merlin could tell, was also drawn the knife, though he could not tell if it was because of an enchantment or the obvious quality of the knife even when sheathed.
“I come bearing you a gift, Prince Arthur Pendragon, for the hospitality you have shown,” Morgause said, offering forth the box.
Merlin glared at Arthur, trying to will the prince to remember his warning, to at least look at Merlin and then maybe remember the last time he’d accepted something from Morgause.
Arthur didn’t. With a look of delight, Arthur lifted the dagger from its cushion and unsheathed it. Morgause took a step back, staring at Arthur, but the prince was oblivious, his eyes trained on the finely cast blade. Her mouth started moving, and Merlin knew right away that she was whispering an enchantment.
Without a second thought, Merlin jumped to his feet and “accidentally” knocked into the writing table. The ink bottle flew off the table and shattered on the floor, splattering ink at Morgause’s feet and startling her out of her concentration and Arthur from his study of the knife. Both of their attentions snapped to Merlin, although, Morgause looked furious while Arthur wore that same unreadable expression he sometimes got. Merlin scrambled forward, and bowed deeply.
“Forgive me, sire, milady, for my clumsiness,” he begged.
“You impudent buffoon, how dare you!” Morgause hissed. “Prince Arthur, I will not stand for this insult. I demand for this slave to be punished.”
Arthur glared at Merlin, and he couldn’t tell if the prince recognized his “clumsiness” for what it was or if he was simply irritated by it.
“Of course, milady,” the prince said, though his eyes were still on Merlin. “He is to be flogged, twenty-five lashes.”
The blood rushed from Merlin’s face, and he was sure he was as pale as a sheet. Even in his first years of slavery, he’d never received so many lashes at once. The prince hadn’t remembered his caution, or hadn’t taken it to heart, and now he was once again going to pay for saving Arthur’s life.
“Guard, come escort this slave back to Tom,” Arthur called before facing Morgause. “Now, you will have to excuse me, Lady Morgause, but I am late for training and must take my leave. Welcome back to Astolat.”
The prince headed for the doors without another look at Merlin. A guard stepped forward and hauled Merlin to his feet. But as he turned on shaking legs to leave with the guard through the servant’s entrance, a glint of metal on the floor caught his eyes. It was Morgause’s dagger, lying in the pool of ink he’d spilt. He left the throne room utterly confused.
Tom just sighed and shook his head disapprovingly when Merlin showed up in front of the slave house. Merlin was once again put in that small back room with his wrists manacled above his head. He was waiting with tense shoulders and frayed nerves for Tom to return with the whip when a vaguely familiar-looking, middle-aged man entered to room. He was dressed simply in long dark robes with a leather satchel slung across his chest and resting against his hip. In his hands was a small glass bottle, which he offered forth to Merlin.
“I am Marius, the physician. The prince asked me to give you this,” the man said.
“It’s not poison, is it?” Merlin asked, eyeing the bottle suspiciously.
The physician quirked his lips in a small smile and replied, “No. It’ll help. And you are to be looked after afterwards. But if you rather not take it…”
“No! No, I’ll take it then,” Merlin said, his mood brightening a bit.
His confusion was now answered. The flogging wasn’t because the prince was an ass who’d chosen to forget his warning; it was for the prince to save face, to keep Morgause from suspecting he knew of her treachery. Not that it made much of a difference, since, unfortunately, Merlin was the one to bear the brunt of it all—again. And if the potion would help, then he’d take it.
The physician uncorked the bottle and held it to Merlin’s lips. Merlin grimaced at the sharp and bitter taste of the liquid inside, but swallowed it down. The effects were almost immediate, a heavy exhaustion falling over him and his limbs growing heavy.
“Thank you,” he murmured before closing his eyes. Consciousness left him in an instant.
When Merlin woke up early the next day, he was feeling better than could possibly be expected after receiving twenty-five lashes. Again, it seemed that Tom had made stripes that looked worse than they actually were, and Merlin faintly wondered if Arthur had asked for him to do so. Merlin discovered that in addition to giving him the potion, Marius had left Tom the same healing salve as before to use on his back. The salve worked wonders, numbing and cooling the dull pain in his back; he had almost no trouble at all walking or kneeling, though a little when bending over.
The prince summoned him to his chambers that morning, when the sun was just peeking up from the horizon. Merlin stepped inside the antechamber to spot a pair of servants flit about, packing a travel bag for the prince and straightening items around the room. Arthur stood near his table, in discussion with Farren the chamberlain. However, he looked up when Merlin entered and broke from conversation.
“Merlin, already up and walking?” the prince remarked. Though Merlin couldn’t be sure, he chose to take that as a thinly veiled inquiry to his well-being after the flogging and all.
“Yes, sire,” he replied with a bow. When he straightened, he eyed the knife hanging from Arthur’s belt. Although he was risking it, speaking freely to the prince with the chamberlain present, he had to ask: “And you, sire. Are you well?”
Catching his gaze on the knife, the prince nodded and said, “I’ve never been better.” For a second, he partially unsheathed the knife at his belt—Merlin recognized it as Arthur’s own—before he began to address both Merlin and Farran. “I shouldn’t be gone for more than a few days. Merlin will be in charge of all my correspondences. If he judges that it is important enough, he can have a messenger sent to me.”
Merlin and the chamberlain looked at the prince with similar open-mouthed expressions of disbelief.
“Wait, what?” Merlin blurted out.
“Sire, you can’t be serious?” the chamberlain exclaimed at the same time. “We have a number of royal scribes here who’d be more worthy for this job. To give this slave such a privilege, it’s not right!”
“I am the prince. If I wanted Merlin to be a steward, I could make him a steward.” Farran let out a scandalized choking noise but Arthur continued on, “If I want him in charge of my correspondences, I can make him in charge.”
“Are you questioning me?” Arthur hissed. This seemed to be the key phrase for Arthur to get people to do things, because immediately, the chamberlain began to bow frantically, murmuring his apologies.
“Good. That’ll be all. Both of you may leave.”
The prince and his knights returned four days later. Merlin spent those days without the prince working alongside the other house slaves and pointedly not thinking about the maybe-vision he’d had of Arthur as king. And when the prince returned, Merlin was surprised that while the prince had left eagerly looking forward to dealing with the bandits, he returned in a foul mood, glowering at all who spoke to him and brooding at the world in general. He did little more than grunt when Merlin informed him that no letters had come for him.
Merlin and Sir Leon, who had been receiving orders on the knights’ next course of action, were both dismissed from Arthur’s chambers when he expressed the desire to bathe. Merlin looked at the knight out of the corner of his eye. From what he’d heard from the servants, Sir Leon was a gentleman knight, calmer and more patient than the prince, an excellent leader but never unnecessarily harsh or cruel. It was even said that the knight had several friends among the common folk. Merlin decided to risk questioning the knight.
“Sir…” he tentatively began, and the tall knight turned his head to look at Merlin. He didn’t look angry at being addressed by a slave; instead, he looked reserved and even a little curious actually. They slowed to a stop to properly face each other. “If I may ask, why is the prince in such a—well, he’d looked excited when he left here a few days ago. But now…”
Sir Leon sighed and nodded wearily, understanding what Merlin was trying to say. “A peasant gave his life to protect the prince. He pushed the prince out of the way and took an arrow meant for him,” the knight said. “Kanen and his men were dealt with but the prince has been upset since.”
“But he is the future king. Whether he likes it or not, there will always be people dying for him,” Merlin remarked with a frown. Shouldn’t the prince already know that by now? And he certainly hadn’t expected the prince to care that much. Sir Leon looked at him with an expression that Merlin just knew had to say Oh, he’s not an idiot after all.
“I don’t believe he has actually given it serious thought until now,” the knight said after a moment of silence. “The prince probably didn’t think of the implications. What I don’t understand is why that has changed.” He then eyed Merlin suspiciously, as if Merlin had had something to do with it, which he couldn’t possibly have had.
Merlin shrugged, having nothing to say. The two of them started walking again, soon separating to go their own ways.
The prince was still in a bad mood the next day, when Merlin was once again called to the throne room to work as a scribe. It was a bit fascinating that Arthur could sit up straight but still look as if he was sulking.
As per the king’s suggestion, the prince was to select tricksters to the list of entertainers for Arthur’s coming of age celebrations. “Trickster” was the court’s more common term for a magician, who only had enough power to do small illusions and tricks. Magicians weren’t as looked down upon as full-fledged sorcerers, if only because their tricks were superfluous and could almost be explained away as mind tricks and sleight of hands. Merlin wasn’t sure how he felt about having to watch them. He’d seen a few tricksters before in his years of bondage, but never so many at once. He couldn’t help the twinge of envy whenever he saw them perform. Though they could only do rudimentary spells, creating light shows and butterflies from air, they were still doing magic, something Merlin could no longer hope to do.
The prince, Merlin discovered, held little respect for tricksters. He too seemed to find little interest in silly little tricks—especially when every magician who’d come to audition performed virtually the same spells. Arthur rejected one trickster after the other. By the end of the day, not one had been accepted.
Merlin was packing up to leave when the prince turned to him instead of leaving and said, “Tell me, Merlin, is it that hard for sorcerers to come up with something original and not utterly boring?”
Merlin frowned at the insult, but replied, “Tricksters—magicians—are sorcerers with little power, sire. There isn’t much they can do.”
“And an actual sorcerer would be better?”
“…an actual sorcerer, sire, would not lower themselves to perform cheap parlor tricks. For anyone.” And that was not what he’d meant to say. Merlin sat very still on his stool, waiting for the prince’s reaction.
Arthur glared at him and snapped, “Well it’s a good thing you aren’t one now then.”
The barb hurt more that he’d care to admit. If the prince noticed Merlin’s expression, he didn’t say, instead turning on his heels and sweeping out the room.
Now alone in the audience hall but for two guards at the door, Merlin took the opportunity to curse at fate and arrogant royal prats under his breath. Arthur couldn’t possibly be the Once and Future King, maybe-visions be damned.
The next day, the prince’s black mood had passed, and instead he was strangely quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t acknowledge Merlin or show any indications that Merlin’s last slip of tongue bothered him. Arthur sat in his throne with his elbow on the armrest and his head propped up by a fist, and indicated with his free hand for the first magician auditioning for the day to begin. This however did not change his reception of the tricksters auditioning as every person to step forward was rejected within the first few minutes.
Halfway through the allotted audition time for the day, it seemed the prince had had enough.
“If one more magician decides that colorful lights or winged creatures conjured from thin air are going to impress, then I’m going to end auditions right here and now. Is that understood?”
The remaining ten or so magicians in the room looked at the prince with nearly identical aghast expressions, which was a bit ridiculous because Merlin was sure there was at least a few magicians who could come up with something.
Before anything could be said though, a squire scurried into the room and up to the prince.
“Sire, Lady Guinevere Leodegrance of Cameliard has arrived. She is on her way here,” the boy informed the prince. Arthur grimaced, but gave the boy a nod. The squire left and the prince turned back to the magicians.
“You lot, due to Lady Guinevere’s arrival, I’m afraid I have to cut the auditions short for today,” Arthur said, looking completely unrepentant. “Come back tomorrow, but my declaration still stands. Is that clear?”
The magicians collectively nodded and exited the hall. Merlin hopped off his stool, making to clear the writing tools from the table. He was not quick enough however to leave before the lady arrived.
Lady Guinevere was the perfect picture of a lady. She had slightly dark skin, warm brown eyes and long curly black hair that was swept back from her face and up into a elegant hairstyle. Her purple gown, though fine, was practical, made for riding and travel. She was not a tall woman, but her back was straight and her footsteps were sure. There was a quiet strength to her, and Merlin could even imagine her with a crown on her head. Thus, he was now curious as to why the prince did not wish to be her fiancé.
Arthur got to his feet and said rather stiffly, “Lady Guineviere, welcome back to Astolat. I trust your journey was uneventful.”
“Thank you, sire. Yes, thanks to Sir Tristan, my journey from Cameliard was perfectly fine,” the lady said with a graceful curtsy. Arthur visibly brightened at the mention of his uncle.
“Did Sir Tristan mention when he’ll be arriving?” the prince asked, but Lady Guinevere shook her head.
“He didn’t say. He left for Camelot shortly after I left Cameliard. Perhaps the King will have some news?”
The prince shrugged, a gesture that almost hid his disappointment, before saying, “Well. I’m glad that your journey was safe.”
Merlin decided that for whatever reason Arthur was opposed to marrying Lady Guinevere, it left him awkward and made him fall back to his more princely mannerisms. Merlin also figured he should probably take the chance to slip out before Arthur yelled at him for eavesdropping.
But the moment he made to leave was the moment the lady noticed him.
“And who is this, Arthur? A new scribe?” she asked. Merlin found both of their attentions on him in an instant.
“Yes, he’s my new writing slave. He has work to do so he should be leaving now,” the prince said, giving Merlin a pointed look.
Merlin bowed and turned to leave, but Guinevere stepped forward.
“Wait just a moment,” she said, walking over to Merlin. Merlin bowed his head to the lady, but then she put a hand under his chin and tilted his head back up. As she stared at him, he knew right away that she was looking at the brand on his cheek. Her eyes hardened and her lips thinned into an angry line. She dropped her hand and quickly turned back to the prince, who was looking at her with surprisingly wary expression. “You branded his face,” she bit out, her voice heavy with censure. “It is one thing to have a slave, and I can accept that, though I don’t approve. But to brand his face? I expected better from you, Arthur.”
“It wasn’t me,” Arthur replied, looking rather uncomfortable under her judging eyes. “Sir Caradoc was trying to make a statement. I’ll have you know that he’s been punished for his mistake.” The prince visibly relaxed, shoulders dropping just a fraction, as the cold judgment left Guinevere’s face. And that must have been it, Merlin realized. The Lady Guinevere’s shrewd opinions of the prince left him uncomfortable, because it seemed she believed Arthur should be a better person while he acted for the most part like a spoiled, arrogant prat. “Anyways, get going, Merlin. You’ve got work to do.”
Merlin bowed once again and left before the lady could possibly detain him again. He carefully hid his smile as he made his way to the records room. He hoped that he’d get another chance to see the prince squirm under Lady Guinevere’s judgment.
King Uther Pendragon and Queen Ygraine Du Bois arrived in Astolat a day before the ten days of celebrations began. Shortly after the sunrise, the prince met them in the courtyard, where he was also introduced to the most important of the Northumbrian delegates, who’d traveled with the king and queen from Camelot. Merlin did not witness this encounter; he and the rest of the house slaves were scrambling to complete last-minute preparations. When the royal procession had come, Merlin had been in the kitchens, helping to ensure that the King and Queen would have the perfect dinner. But he had heard details from the other servants and slaves. Like how the king was as stern and terrifying and the queen was as beautiful and gracious as the last time they had visited. Like how the prince gave his father just a bow and handshake in greeting, while he had given his mother an unabashed hug. Like how the Northumbrian delegate traveling with them from Camelot was a woman like Morgause was, with dark hair and pale skin and a small, twisted smile that sent chills down a person’s back. Merlin wondered if this particular delegate was a sorceress—maybe a priestess—too. And that wasn’t a pleasant thought because it definitely meant trouble for Arthur. But Merlin pushed his musings aside because it wouldn’t do to be found neglecting his work.
Farran, the chamberlain, didn’t care that Merlin was really Arthur’s personal slave. He seemed to resent the fact actually, and he treated slaves more typically than Tom did—which meant with harsh words and a quick temper when a slave did not move fast enough. So close to the celebrations, it was hardly a surprise that Farran treated the house slaves even harsher, taking out his stress on them and making them work faster. Merlin had thought that with the weeks they’d already spent preparing, everything would have been ready by now, but no, everything wasn’t. The rooms and meals that needed to be prepared seemed to never end, as did the number of guests arriving at the castle for Arthur’s crowning.
Merlin had always been a bit clumsy. Unfortunately, the fatigue from working every waking hour of the day made him more so. While carrying a heap of dirty linens across the courtyards to the laundress, he stumbled over a section of uneven cobblestone. The linens toppled over from his arms, and while some simply fell to the ground, a few flew into the sputtering face of Gamel, the under-chamberlain with just as nasty a temper as Farran. Gamel yanked the offending linens away from his face, throwing them to the ground with a growl.
“You!” he shouted, and with his arms full, Merlin wasn’t quick enough to react to the fist slamming into his face. The punch sent him sprawling, the rest of the linens dropping to the cobblestone. It was fortunate, Merlin thought as he pressed a hand to the right side of his face, that the linens were dirty to begin with. “Watch where you’re going, you bumbling idiot!” the under-chamberlain hissed before stalking away. Merlin spent the rest of the day with a headache and half of his face swelling.
The next day, the first day of celebrations, Merlin, along with a few other slaves, was assigned to clean out the numerous fireplaces circling the dining hall. Considering that he could only see through one eye, the task was a lot more difficult than usual. He couldn’t quite tell what he’d already cleaned and what he hadn’t. He moved too slowly for Farran’s liking when the chamberlain stopped by to check on their progress, and earned a lashing for it. Merlin did not give him the satisfaction by crying out from it.
“Is a slave named Merlin here?” someone called into the hall some time later.
Merlin yelped when he moved to stand and forgot that he was kneeling halfway into a fireplace. He banged his head on the stone above his head, unsettling more soot onto his person. He winced as the twinge of pain in his back reminded him of the recent lashing.
“I’m here,” Merlin said, properly getting to his feet and brushing off as much soot as possible, although it wasn’t a lot at all.
The servant at the door made a beeline across the hall to Merlin and said, “The prince requests your presence in the small dining hall.”
“Right this instance?” Merlin asked. He was in no way presentable to be seen by the prince. Arthur would not be pleased with how filthy Merlin was or with the right half of his face bruised and swelling.
“Of course, this instance,” the servant said, giving him a look that questioned Merlin’s intelligence.
Merlin frowned, but didn’t say anything more to the servant before leaving to answer the prince’s summons.
The private dining hall Merlin had first served Arthur in had been converted into a small audience hall, where Arthur and the courtiers closer to his own age could gather when not attending the king and queen and where all the gifts brought by the guests could be temporarily stored.
When Merlin entered through the servants’ entrance, it didn’t take long for the prince to notice his presence. Merlin supposed it was because as a knight, the prince was to be aware of his surroundings at all times, to notice even the comings and goings of the slaves and servants. Regardless of how, the prince’s gaze turn to where Merlin stood with a bowed head.
“Merlin, come here,” Arthur beckoned him before turning back to the noblemen flocked around him. Resigning himself for the prince’s displeasure, Merlin made his way across the room to him, keeping his head down. With a wave, Arthur dispersed the noblemen, and they headed for the doors with good cheer. Arthur began speaking to him before even looking back at him. “I’ve heard that all these gifts haven’t been recorded yet. Why—” Arthur broke off when Merlin finally reached where he was sitting. “Merlin, look at me.”
Merlin did as he was told, not wishing to be grabbed by the chin again. Looking directly at Arthur, he had expected the anger that flared up in Arthur’s eyes when he saw Merlin’s swollen shut right eye and puffy cheek. What Merlin hadn’t expected was the furrow in the prince’s brow and the frown tugging at his lips; it could have possibly been concern if Merlin didn’t know better.
“What did they do to you?” he growled.
“It’s nothing, sire.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed, and he prodded lightly at Merlin’s cheek. Unprepared for it, Merlin flinched at the small jab of pain.
“Nothing, my ass,” Arthur scoffed. “You’re filthy and beat-up. You’ve never had a problem running your mouth. Don’t stop now when I’m asking you a direct question, Merlin.”
“I was clumsy. The under-chamberlain thought proper punishment would make me perform my duties better.”
“What duties? I haven’t assigned you any.”
“Anything house slaves are needed to do, sire.”
“My gifts haven’t been properly catalogued, and the chamberlain has my personal scribe doing house chores?” Arthur growled. “You can’t even see through that eye, can you?”
“No, not really.”
“And you obviously haven’t washed up…” Suddenly, Arthur grabbed Merlin’s shoulder and turned him around. Merlin grimaced. He knew the light spots of blood seeping through his shirt would be impossible to miss. “…they gave you lashes too.” Something in the prince’s tone made Merlin want to run and hide until all was safe.
“Just one, sire.”
“I’ll kill them for this,” Arthur hissed, making to stand.
“No, just leave it, sire,” Merlin said, grabbing the prince’s arm without forethought.
“I don’t listen to slaves, Merlin,” the prince retorted, but he didn’t shake Merlin’s hand off.
“Please, sire, just leave it,” Merlin repeated. Farren and Gamel would simply make his life more miserable if the prince interfered.
“Why should I?”
“Because you will only make it worse.”
“Sire, aren’t we going hunting?” one of the noblemen called from the door.
“I’m coming!” Arthur barked to him before turning back to Merlin. The prince studied him, but like the many times before, Merlin couldn’t tell what the prince was thinking. “You are to go to Tom. Get cleaned up and get some rest. Tomorrow morning, you are to start cataloguing all these gifts,” Arthur instructed, gesturing to the mess of chests and crates and boxes around the room.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin answered with a bow.
When Arthur left with the pack of nobleman, Merlin caught sight of Lady Guinevere standing by the door, looking at him with perplexed interest, a small frown and furrowed brow gracing her features.
Merlin spent the next day sorting through Arthur’s piles and piles of gifts and cataloguing them to be stored away in the castle’s treasury. He paused for a moment, and with a sigh, looked at all the boxes and boxes he had left. This would take at least another day, maybe two. The bright side was, he wouldn’t have to be working for Farran during that time.
A little after noon, Merlin heard one of the doors to the hall open, and he looked up to see none other than Lady Guinevere slip into the room. He ducked his head, and tried to be part of the background. He didn’t know why she was here, but she wasn’t possibly looking for him. He was proven wrong when he glanced up to see her walking straight towards him.
“Hello, I’m Guinevere, but just Gwen will do,” she greeted him, perching gracefully on a large chest by his writing table. Merlin was certainly not going to call a noblewoman by her name—her nickname no less.
“Hello, milady. Is there anything I can do for you?” Merlin asked, carefully setting down his quill. He bowed his head to the lady. He hoped that whatever she wanted from him, he couldn’t get in trouble for it.
“First tell me your name.”
“Oh, just drop the titles and fanciness. I don’t care about them. And I don’t approve of slavery so you may speak as any normal person to me,” the lady said with a dismissing wave of her hand. “Yes?”
Finding that she was waiting for an answer, Merlin nodded, though he really couldn’t address her the way she wanted. Not unless he want to be punished for disrespect if someone were to walk in on them speaking together.
“Now then, Merlin, what is your relationship with Arthur?” Gwen asked.
“I’m sorry, what?” Merlin choked on air. Was she, the prince’s fiancé, implying what he thought she was implying? “I’m just his writing slave.”
“Oh, I really doubt that, Merlin,” she said. “I saw you yesterday, with Arthur. Arthur never lets anyone but the king and queen tell him what to do. And yet here you are, actually telling him what to do and him actually listening.”
“You’re mistaken, mi--” She gave him a warning look, so he skipped the title. “I have no sway on what the prince chooses to do. I’m just his slave,” Merlin insisted.
“I don’t think you’re just his slave. Tell me, how does he treat you?”
“He is my master. He treats me as a master should treat his slave.”
“Oh, Merlin, surely you can say more than that,” Gwen huffed. “Very well, let me ask about you. Where are you from?”
“Are you a sorcerer?” She looked far too interested for Merlin to feel easy about it.
“Not anymore, milady,” he said. “I’ve been through the Rites, just like any sorcerer in slavery.”
“I supposed you couldn’t have used sorcery to fix Arthur then. How long have you been serving him?”
“About three months?” Merlin guessed. The days all seemed to blend into one sometimes.
“Only three months? And already, the prince listens to your words? I’ve known him for nearly twenty and he doesn't listen to me at all.”
The last thing Merlin wanted was for a noblewoman to think he had any sway on the prince, so he said, “Milady, I’m sorry, but I really should get back to work. I wouldn’t want the prince to say I was neglecting my work.”
“Oh, hush, if he asks, I’ll say I had need of your services. Speaking of which, what do you do for Arthur besides working as a scribe?”
“Just housework, mi—like any house slave. Anything I’m ordered to do.”
“How long have you been a slave?”
“Then you’ve been one since…”
“Since Carmarthen fell,” Merlin completed for her, dropping his eyes back down to the parchment as the familiar sense of shame touched him.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gwen said, and she sounded surprisingly sincere about it too. “I supposed I really shouldn’t pry into your past.”
“I would rather you didn’t,” Merlin answered before his sense of life preservation could catch up with him. “Milady,” he tacked on, to soften the hint of disrespect he’d shown her. The Lady Guinevere sighed and got to her feet.
“Very well. I best be off anyways, before my maids come looking. One day, Merlin, I’m going to have a proper conversation with you. I’m sure there is more to you that meets the eye. Arthur wouldn’t put up with you otherwise.” Merlin shook his head in denial, but she merely smiled at him before leaving him alone with Arthur’s mountains of gifts again.
That evening, Merlin was summoned to the prince’s chambers. Merlin feared that someone had seen him conversing alone with the Lady Guinevere and had informed the prince. But his fear was unfounded as he entered the antechamber to find the prince pacing back and forth before the fireplace.
“No need for you to bow and say nice things and be a nice little slave. I haven’t got the time. Just get everything ready for you to write,” the prince said, still pacing.
“Yes, sire.” Merlin hurried to get the writing kit out from the cupboard and everything laid out for use. “All right, ready.”
Under the prince’s dictation, Merlin wrote:
I request of any news you have of Sir Tristan Du Bois. He has yet to arrive in Astolat, but he was expected two days ago. Send a reply the moment you receive this.
Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot
“Is everything all right, sire?” Merlin hazarded an inquiry as he melted a glob of wax and prepared the letter for the prince’s seal.
“No, everything is not all right, Merlin. I’m sure that’s obvious even to you,” Arthur snapped. He leaned over the table and pressed his seal hard into the red wax. “My uncle is late and that harpy of a woman my parents brought with them, the other Northumbrian delegate, keeps asking why he isn’t here. As if she knows something.” The prince sighed before saying in a less agitated voice, “I want you to take this to the messenger barracks. Get the fastest messenger to deliver this to Camelot. You will stay there until he is back with an answer.”
“What about cataloguing your gifts, sire?”
“Tristan is the more important issue at the moment. You will stay there until the messenger is back. You will not be doing anything for Farren or Gamel or whoever. You will take the reply straight to me the moment it comes, no matter what I’m doing, where I am. Understood?”
“Yes, sire.” Merlin stood to clean up the writing kit.
“Leave it. I’ll have someone else clean it up. Just get going,” Arthur said, picking up the letter and holding it out to him.
“All right.” Merlin took the letter and headed for the door. Then he paused and asked, “The Northumbrian delegate, do you know if she’s planning anything?”
“If you mean, is she planning something like Lady Morgause was, then no. Though like I said earlier, she’s a harpy and definitely trying to influence the king,” the prince said, scowling.
“Then, may the gods watch over you and keep you safe, sire,” Merlin said.
For a moment, Arthur looked surprised, but then his eyes softened and he replied, “Thank you.”
Merlin gave him a bow before leaving for the messenger barracks.
For a moment, Merlin wondered why he’d given the prince that blessing, and had meant not only the new gods people were turning to nowadays, but the gods of the Old Religion as well. But he definitely couldn’t deny the sense of unease he felt when thinking of the Northumbrian delegates. He didn’t know if the “harpy of a woman” meant Nimueh, but from the stories he remember, it certainly could be her. Merlin worried about leaving Arthur alone, but there was nothing he could do when Arthur himself was ordering him away. He hoped that if the prince really was the Once and Future King, which Merlin still doubted, then the gods would keep anything from happening to him—at least, for a few days.
After the messenger had left, Merlin stayed in his room, sleeping on the thin rug before the fireplace. Like the prince had ordered, he didn’t leave the messenger barracks, a hall of small rooms on the side of the castle closest to the main gates, except when he needed to get food. At the slave house, Tom gave him a raised eyebrow when Merlin told him the prince’s orders, but he didn’t make a remark, instead simply handing him his meal.
Back in the barracks, sitting around waiting for a messenger to travel all the way to Camelot and back, Merlin was left with absolutely nothing to do. He turned to tiding up all the rooms in the messenger barracks, which, needless to say, pleased the messengers not on assignment and the servant originally assigned to clean the barracks.
The messenger returned two days later, just minutes before the night’s feast. Merlin hopped to his feet and with a quick thank you, he hurried off to find Arthur.
By great misfortune, Merlin ran into Gabel before reaching the dining hall, though this time at least not literally. The under-chamberlain grabbed him as he hurried past, yanking him back.
“So, you’ve finally crawled out of your hole, slave. What have you got there?” he asked, making to snatch the letter from Merlin’s hand. Merlin stepped back, as much as possible with Gabel’s hand still on his arm, and held the letter away from him.
“A letter for the prince. I am to take it directly to him,” Merlin said, trying to tug away his arm.
“You have duties to perform. Give it here and I’ll get it to him,” Gabel said, tightening his grip on Merlin’s arm.
Merlin stamped down on the flash of annoyance he wanted to show and grit his teeth before saying, “I’m sorry, sir, but my only duty is to deliver this letter to Prince Arthur. He specifically instructed me to deliver the letter, and only me. However, if you wish to explain to him why his orders weren’t followed, you are certainly free to do so. I am but a slave after all.” He bowed his head in submission.
The under-chamberlain growled but roughly released his arm.
“Then get moving, you insolent whelp,” he snapped before stalking away.
With a sigh of relief, Merlin took off for the dining hall once again.
Morgause, he heard, had returned to Astolat. And that piece of knowledge did nothing to ease the nervousness he felt as he approached the servants’ entrance to the dining hall. A strange sort of unease settled into his stomach the closer he got to it.
The prince, he discovered upon stepping inside, was already seated, and trying to pay attention to nothing else, Merlin went straight to him.
“Sire,” he murmured once he’d reached Arthur’s side. He bent down to whisper into the prince’s ear, “The messenger has just returned with a reply.”
Arthur gave him a glance and a nod before getting to his feet.
“Prince Arthur, is there a problem?” a woman’s voice asked as Arthur stepped away from his chair. Merlin looked up towards the speaker and froze. The woman before him, wearing a fine wine-red gown, was beautiful with long brown hair and pale skin, but her blue eyes were cold and her smile sent chills down his spine. And he knew who she was, because he had been shown pictures of her as a child with the warning to avoid her, to never cross her, at all cost.
Merlin should have expected it—had expected it, but had hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be true. Whatever Morgause was doing, Nimueh was never far off. Merlin remembered clearly the stories told of her, of how she once wielded the power over life and death until it twisted her mind and she thought herself—still thought herself—a god. The prices she charged from those requiring her power were too great, too unjust, and the balance of life had been almost irrevocably damaged until the power was wrested from her. Now the power, and the Cup of Life, was rumoured to be lost for all eternity. That she was here, in Camelot while pretending to be a Northumbrian delegate, plotting something against Arthur alongside Morgause, was bad news, to say the least.
Merlin quickly looked away from her, staring at the floor before she could catch him staring.
“I will have to be excused for a bit, Lady Nimueh. I will only be a few minutes; there’s something I must attend to,” Arthur said before taking Merlin by the arm and steering him out of the hall through the private entrance.
The manhandling seemed rather excessive, but Merlin was glad for it, because he could feel his legs trembling, a stream of “Nimueh. Oh gods. What do I do now? This is horrible. Nimueh. Oh gods” running through his head.
“Well? What does the message say?” the prince questioned, pulling Merlin out of his panic. He had completely forgotten why he’d gone to the prince in the first place.
With a start, Merlin held up the letter, breaking the seal to begin reading.
Sir Tristan Du Bois left for Astolat four days ago with three other knights as travel companions. We did not expect there to be any trouble. I have sent out a search party and will contact you as soon as I receive any news.
Your loyal subject,
“Four days!” Arthur exclaimed. “He should have arrived by now.”
“What would you like to do, sire?” Merlin asked.
“Go find Sir Leon. Tell him to gather some men together and then get a pack ready for me. I’m going to search for Tristan myself.”
“When do you want them ready by?”
“In fifteen minutes. There’s no time to waste. I need to go excuse myself to the King and Queen.” Arthur turned back towards the servant entrance, and Merlin remembered Nimueh and the almost sick unease he felt in the dining hall. He didn’t want the prince to go back in there, not with Nimueh so close in the room.
“Wait! Sire, don’t go back in there!” Merlin exclaimed, grabbing the prince’s arm. The prince turned his head to look at Merlin, irritation narrowing his eyes. Before Arthur could say anything though, Merlin explained, “Nimueh. She’s like Morgause—actually between her and Morgause, Nimueh is definitely the one you need to worry about more. Don’t go back in there.”
“Merlin, I’ll just be in there for a minute. I can’t just leave the feast—a feast held in my honor.
“Please, sire, you can’t go back in there. I have a bad—really bad—feeling about this. Something terrible is going to happen. You mustn’t go back in there. Just send a servant to go make your excuse.” And Merlin was starting to babble, but he would do anything, anything, to get Arthur to just listen for once and not go back into that room.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin,” Arthur replied, pulling his arm out of Merlin’s grip. “Like I said, I’ll be only a minute, and then I’ll return to my chambers to prepare. Nothing is going to happen.”
“But sire. Please, you have to listen to me. Nimueh is planning something, and if you step back into that room, I’m afraid something will happen.”
“Yes, something will. I will tell my father that I’m setting out to find Tristan, and then I will leave. That is it. I will be in my rooms before you even get there.”
“I’ll hear no more about this, Merlin. Go find Leon and do as I say.”
“Now, Merlin!” The prince grabbed Merlin by the shoulders and turned him around. “I won’t listen anymore to your girlish worries. Just go.” He gave Merlin a shove before striding away for the dining hall entrance.
With that same almost-nauseous feeling of apprehension, Merlin went to find Sir Leon, having been left with no choice but to hope the prince really would be in the hall for just a minute and would leave unharmed. Sir Leon was in the knights’ barracks, playing dice with the other knights not on duty or out in the town taverns. But upon hearing the prince’s orders, Sir Leon selected four of the knights present and dispersed them to be ready for travel in fifteen minutes. Merlin went to Arthur’s chambers, and with a servant’s help, gathered everything the prince might need for a journey that would last for two or more days. Afterwards, Merlin sat down on the bearskin rug before the fire, hoping the warmth of the flames would ease the twisting tightness in his gut.
But fifteen minutes later, and Arthur had not come walking through the doors of his chambers.
An hour later, and still no prince, Merlin hopped to his feet and began pacing, back and forth across the room. Then the door opened, but it was Sir Leon, who’d checked for the prince only ten minutes before.
“Are you sure, he said tonight? Not tomorrow morning?” the knight asked after another hour.
“I’m sure, sir. He insisted he’d leave the banquet immediately upon telling the King.”
Sir Leon sighed and said, “The King and Queen left an hour ago.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I know only what he had told me,” Merlin said with a small bow of his head, hiding his own worry.
With another sigh and a shake of his head, Sir Leon left the chambers, saying he’d try looking for the prince.
Merlin was half asleep on the bearskin rug when the doors opened and he heard a groan of pain. In the dim embers, he could only make out a hunched-over figure stagger into the room before crumpling to the ground with another groan. Merlin was awake and on his feet in a flash, rushing over to the man on the floor. It was the prince, as he’d feared. He dropped down to his knees besides Arthur’s trembling, curled up form. His fine clothes were soaked through from the rain, water already puddling around him on the floor.
“Sire, sire, can you hear me? Are you hurt?” Merlin asked, hesitant to touch the prince in case he was injured.
“Who is it?” His voice was strained, hoarse, as if he’d been shouting for too long.
“It’s Merlin. Are you hurt, sire?” Merlin asked again. “Should I get Marius?”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
Merlin helped the prince move in front of the fireplace. He fetched an armful of throws and blankets from Arthur’s bedroom, wrapping them around him, and brought the fire back to life, casting the antechamber into dim light. The prince looked wretched, hunched and shivering under blankets with his hair plastered to his head from the rain and his skin deathly pales. There were dark smudges under his eyes, which were red-rimmed and bloodshot.
There was a wine pitcher and goblet on the table, and Merlin went to pour some wine for the prince. It was then, as Arthur took the cup from him, that Merlin noticed that the prince’s hands were smeared with drying blood.
“S-sire, your hands. Shall I help you clean them?” Merlin inquired.
“What are you—”
Then he too noticed his hands. The goblet clattered to the floor, staining the rug with the dark red-purple of wine. Arthur looked down at his shaking hands in horror, and Merlin hurried to retrieve a wash basin and towel. After filling the basin with water, Merlin knelt back down besides the prince and began washing the blood from his hands.
“This can’t be—I didn’t do anything,” Arthur murmured, shaking his head repeatedly. “It was a dream. A nightmare. It didn’t happen.” He looked down at the wash basin filled with red-tinged water and jerked his hands away from Merlin, pulling them back under the blankets.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Merlin questioned softly.
“Nothing happened.” The prince took the bloody towel from Merlin and tossed it into the fire. He then shoved the basin away, spilling some of the dirtied water on the rug as well.
Merlin picked up the basin and went to dump out the water. Arthur was still in front of the fire when he returned, no longer shivering but with his hands tightly clenching the blankets close to him and almost haunted-looking eyes staring into the fire.
“Sire, do you need anything?”
“No. Leave me.”
“Sire, please tell me what happened. I fear that Nimueh might have been responsible.”
“No, nothing happened,” Arthur insisted. “I got drunk and went outside to clear my head.”
“At least let me help you change into clean clothes and get you into bed,” Merlin suggested.
“No. I’m staying by the fire for now. Get out, Merlin.”
Merlin ran a hand through his hair in frustration. Arthur was in danger; that was as clear as day. He needed to know what happened. Merlin sat down next to the prince, too close to be appropriate for a slave, but the prince didn’t say a word.
“At least listen to me while I tell you about Nimueh.” Arthur glared at him but made no move to stop him, so Merlin continued, “She is also a High Priestess of the Old Religion. Actually, she was Morgause’s mentor, and it’s said her powers are great. When she was still in Carmarthen, she was placed in charge of the Cup of Life. And by striking a deal with her, you could get anything you desired—if the price you paid was enough. She could even bring someone from the brink of death. She held the power of life and death.”
“That sounds impossible.”
Merlin ignored the prince’s comment and said, “All that power corrupted her. She desired more and more of it, and she started going back on her deals. Misinterpreting the deals on purpose, taking an unfair price, even killing the wrong person to be sacrificed.” The very thought of such trickery made Merlin’s skin crawl, remembering Nimueh’s cold blue eyes and mirthless smile. “She had a few of the high priestesses assist her too. Like I told you about Morgause, she thinks herself a god, and magic-less folks far inferior. Of course, the Carmarthen royals and council wouldn’t stand for it. The balance of the world was being damaged so they took the Cup from her and exiled the priestesses.”
“So she holds a grudge against Carmarthen. Too bad it’s gone now. How exactly does that impact me, or Camelot?” Arthur remarked, and Merlin gritted his teeth at the callousness of his words.
“Because the last I heard, she wanted to create a world ruled by only magic users. She wanted to eradicate all non-magic users, or at the very least enslave them.”
Arthur snorted and said, “Right. Even if she’s as powerful as you say, I hardly think she could take on all the kingdoms’ armies.”
“She won’t take it by force. At least not at first,” Merlin reasoned. “She’s planning something. I suppose that she’s already in league with King Lot. And now it seems her target is Camelot. You said yourself she’s trying to gain influence on the king. And with Morgause’s attempts to enchantment you, you are definitely one of their targets.”
Arthur didn’t speak, staring into the fireplace with a furrowed brow.
Merlin pressed forward, “I fear whatever they are planning for you, sire. So you have to tell me what happened to you, at least a little about what happened when you went back into the dining hall.”
Arthur sighed and said, “Gods, you won’t ever leave it, will you, Merlin?” He glared at Merlin, but it was with little heat. Merlin saw that his mind was elsewhere. “I went back into the hall and told Father I was going to search for Uncle. Then Nimueh said to at least listen to Lady Helen sing first. Lady Helen is a songstress the Northumbrians brought along with them; apparently she’s popular in Northumbria. Lady Helen sang a song. Then I left the banquet and went outside. And that was it. I lost track of time.”
“In the pouring rain,” Merlin remarked, not bothering to hide his skepticism. He was busy running over in his head what the prince had told him. What would cause the prince to come stumbling in hours after his promised time, hands covered in blood? Arthur didn’t seem to remember some details either. Then, he realized it. Lady Helen. “What happened when Lady Helen sang?”
“What, you think she had something to do with it?” the prince asked, looking at Merlin incredulously.
“You said the Northumbrians brought her. She certainly could. What happened when she was sang?” he repeated.
“Nothing. I—” Arthur frowned. “Hang on, what did happen? I remember her about to sing, but not what she sang. Next thing I remember, I’m leaving the hall.”
“You don’t remember anything about her singing? What about what language? How it sounded?”
“I just said I don’t remember, didn’t I?” Arthur snapped.
“Alright, well, that’s probably it then. Either Nimueh cast some sort of spell on you while you were distracted by Lady Helen’s singing, or Lady Helen was the one to cast the spell on you through her singing with Nimueh’s help. Though the real problem is whatever they enchanted you and how to undo it.” Merlin bit his bottom lip, cursing at himself. Whatever the enchantment, it couldn’t be good. He should have gone with Arthur. He should have insisted on just accompanying him until he knew Arthur would be safe.
“Well I feel perfectly fine. I was drunk, that’s all. It’s ridiculous to think they’d perform sorcery on me in front of the king and the entire court.”
Merlin sighed. Loudly. Just so the prince could hear the displeasure he couldn’t say without severe consequences.
“Then I’ll leave you be then, your highness,” he said. “Is there a message you’d like me to send to Sir Leon?”
“Gods, Sir Leon!” Arthur made as if to stand. “What time is it?”
“The last time I checked, half-past two, sire.”
The prince cursed under his breath before saying, “Let him know I’ve changed my mind. We’ll be leaving shortly after dawn.”
“Yes, sire. Will that be all?”
Arthur waved him away. When Merlin left him, the prince was sullenly stabbing at the fire with an iron poker. It reminded Merlin too much of the hot branding irons. He also hoped that whoever might decide to make a visit to the prince’s chambers this late at night would not end up with a head bashed in by a hot iron.
He found Sir Leon dozing in a chair in the stables, and Leon nodded blearily when Merlin told him the prince’s instructions.
For the first time in a few days, Merlin spent the night in the servants’ room set aside for the house slaves. But even with how late in the night it was, or early in the morning, depending on which point of view to take, Merlin couldn’t sleep. Instead, his worries and vague sense of panic kept him awake. Nimueh in Camelot, clearly plotting something with Morgause and targeting Arthur. What if they succeeded in whatever they were planning? What if, like he suspected, they wished for the sorcerers to take control of Albion? Then what could happen? Would everything turn to—the prophecies. Chaos. A greater evil upon Albion. But it couldn’t be. Surely Nimueh’s plot wouldn’t cause an all-out apocalypse. More importantly, did Nimueh and Morgause know or suspect as he did that Arthur was the Once and Future King? Could that be why they were targeting him? What could he, a slave without magic, do to protect Arthur? To stop Nimueh and Morgause? With a groan, he covered his face with his arms and tried to block out all thoughts for sleep to come.
Arthur was nowhere to be found in the morning. The court was in an uproar with the person of honor missing. Sir Leon and the rest of the knights were ordered to scour the castle and town for the prince, but they found no trace of him.
Farran was furious over Merlin’s three days away from work, even if it had been for the prince. For shirking his work, the chamberlain gave him two lashes before setting him to work scrubbing the dining hall floor. Merlin spent the morning and then the afternoon, after the lunch feast, on his hands and knees, mopping up the spills and picking up scraps. Though a few others worked alongside him, he was mostly left alone to his own thoughts, his concerns for the prince stewing in his gut and growing as minutes passed with no new information on his whereabouts.
As he worked, he listened to the rumors circulating through the castle: the prince was sick again, the prince had disappeared to avoid taking on his new responsibilities, the prince had been kidnapped. News of Sir Tristan’s disappearance had reached not only the court but the townspeople. Unease was spreading, because how could one of the kingdom’s best knights and brother to the Queen simply go missing? And beasts were roaming the lands; a man had been mauled yesterday night, as if by the claws of a giant lizard. People were wondering, were all these misfortunes clumped together mere coincidences or were they linked? Were the gods trying to tell them something?
Two hours past noon, Merlin had finished cleaning the floors and quitted the dining hall when he spotted two men walking down the hall headed his way. As they walked closer, he recognized them as Arthur and Sir Leon. Merlin felt his nervousness fade away at the sight of Arthur, though he was definitely looking worse for the wear. The knight was looking at Arthur with thinly veiled concern. The prince ignored the look, managing to pull off the haughty air of royalty even with his clothes dripping from the rain and his legs caked with mud up to his knees.
“I’m completely all right, Leon,” Arthur was saying.
“But sire, you’ve been gone the whole day.”
“Yes. Tell my father I’m sorry for my absence. I should have at least left a note. I’d see him myself, but I’m obviously in need of a bath,” Arthur said. The prince didn’t seem to notice Merlin as he quickened his steps down the hall, leaving Sir Leon behind. Leon gave the prince’s retreating back a concerned but exasperated shake of his head.
“Is there anything you would like me to do, Sir Leon?” Merlin ventured, and Sir Leon’s eyes fell on him without surprise. Of course, the knight had known Merlin was there.
“It seems you’ve also had a rough morning,” Sir Leon remarked, nodding to Merlin’s bloody back.
Merlin shrugged and replied, “Nothing more than expected. The chamberlain doesn’t like me very much.” He then asked, “Has the prince said anything? About his…disappearance.”
Sir Leon shook his head and said, “No, he was not willing to say anything. Though he’s sent another group of men to look for Sir Tristan.”
“Then I hope Sir Tristan is found soon.”
The knight eyed Merlin speculatively before saying, “You wouldn’t have any ideas as to the prince’s strange behavior, would you?”
“No, sir. I am but a slave. I do only as the prince commands.”
Whether or not Merlin’s lies were as obvious as the prince claimed, Sir Leon merely grimaced.
“I best be off to see the king then. He’ll want to know that the prince is safe,” Sir Leon said.
The knight gave Merlin a nod before going back the way he came. Merlin stood there in the hallway for a moment with a frown, trying to decide if he should seek out the prince and see if he truly was all right. Deciding against risking the prince’s or the chamberlain’s temper, he instead headed for the kitchens in hopes of begging off some lunch.
Merlin was nearly in the servants’ wing, ready to finally get some sleep for the night when a hand fell on his shoulder. He jumped, twisting to break away from a potentially threatening grip.
“Shh. It’s Tom, Merlin,” a voice whispered. And Merlin discovered that it was indeed Tom, bundled up in a woolen cloak and looking slightly haggard.
“Master Tom,” Merlin greeted him with a small bow of his head.
“Come with me, Merlin, and keep quiet,” the slave master instructed him.
Curious, Merlin did as he said, following Tom out of the castle and across the courtyard. Outside, the day of continuous rainfall had finally stopped, leaving behind a clear night sky and large puddles of water in the patches of sunken cobblestone. Merlin noticed that they weren’t heading to the slave house and was about to question Tom about it when the man started speaking instead:
“I said before that I used to live near Carmarthen. I don’t fear sorcerers the way some people nowadays do. My parents and their parents before them always felt safe, living so close. Carmarthen sorcerers were good ones; I had no doubt in that.” The slave master gave Merlin a significant look over his shoulder but did not slow his path around the castle’s inner walls. “When the war happened and Carmarthen fell, I knew that bad times were ahead. Lately, I’ve felt as if there was evil abroad. You’ve heard of last night’s attack, haven’t you?”
“By a beast with the claws of a lizard?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” Tom said, leading him through the castle’s gardens and towards a small storehouse. “I saw the beast fly into the courtyard and chased it. But when I caught up to it, there was no beast. Instead…”
He opened the door of the storehouse, and the bottom of Merlin’s stomach dropped out at the sight of the human form wrapped up in a cloak and curled up on the floor. Even in the dim moonlight streaming into the storehouse, the blond head was unmistakable. His weariness from before was gone in a flash as he hurried to the prince’s site.
“Sire, can you hear me?” Merlin asked . “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
Arthur slightly uncurled and looked up, but Merlin wanted to cringe when he saw no recognition in the prince’s eyes. Arthur looked at him with an animalistic fear; there was nothing human in his eyes.
“Get a blanket and hot tea,” Merlin directed Tom, not taking his eyes off the prince. The sound of the door opening and shutting was the only indication he had of the slave master doing as he’d asked. “Sire? Can you hear me? It’s Merlin.” Merlin reached out a hand, but the prince hissed and swiped at his hand with his own. Arthur curled away from him again, glaring at him as he did so.
The door swung open again, and Tom returned, holding out a wool blanket and a steaming cup. Merlin took the blanket and, slowly this time, reached out to the prince. He wrapped the blanket around him, and fortunately, Arthur only watched him warily.
“Here, drink this.” Merlin took the hot cup of tea from Tom and held it out to Arthur. With a shaking hand, the prince took the cup and brought it to his lips. Merlin watched in silence as Arthur drank the tea. Slowly, he could see the confusion and fear fade from the prince’s eyes. Merlin heaved a sigh in relief. “We have to get him warm,” Merlin said, looking over his shoulder at Tom.
“The workroom near the edge of the gardens. There’s a fireplace, and the gardeners aren’t working for another month,” the slave master said.
“Okay. We’ll take him there,” Merlin said.
Tom nodded and left to get to the workroom ahead of time. Merlin looked back to Arthur, who was staring at Merlin with tired, haunted eyes.
“Are you feeling a little better, sire?”
“I’m going mad, aren’t I?” the prince asked, pulling the blanket tighter around himself.
“No, you’re not. Come on, let’s get you somewhere warm, and I’ll try and find out what spell was cast on you.”
Merlin wrapped an arm around Arthur’s blanketed shoulders and helped him to his feet. Merlin felt even more concerned than ever, because Arthur did not even try to refuse his help and walked with a frailty that was nothing like the strength and confidence Merlin was used to. They made their way slowly to the gardeners’ workroom, where Merlin was relieved to see the small fireplace light and warm. Tom was there, with a whole pot of tea, and after settling Arthur down by the fire, Merlin immediately poured some for the prince. Tom left, saying he’d keep an eye out for anyone who might accidentally walk in on them. Arthur drank the tea in silence, staring into the fire. Merlin sat by his side, waiting for him to speak, but when the prince gave no indication of doing so anytime soon, he asked:
“Can you tell me how it starts?”
“Cold, I suddenly feel cold, as if I’ve been dunked into a lake during winter,” Arthur said, holding the blanket tighter as if remembering the cold made him actually feel it. “Then it just bloody hurts. The worst pain I’ve felt in my life, like my body is being squeezed and stretched into a different form. Everything looked different, smelled different. I could—I could fly.” After a pause, he then said, “That sounds ridiculous. I’m just going completely insane.”
“Sire, Master Tom followed you into the gardens, and it wasn’t you he was seeing, not until he got to the storehouse,” Merlin said, gently as if to a spooked horse. “And yesterday night, a man was mauled by a beast with the claws of a great lizard.”
“Gods, no.” Arthur turned even paler than before, looking at Merlin with horror.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could have stopped this from happening.”
“Well? How do I fix it? What…bauble do I need to destroy to make it all go away?”
Merlin shook his head and said, “It’s not that simple that this time. This…this curse is a transformation spell. There is nothing physical you can destroy to break the spell. The caster must lift the spell, or a sorcerer more powerful than the caster must break it.” He poured more tea for the prince, nudging the cup towards him.
“Then we out the caster and make him—her, whoever it is, lift it,” Arthur said, taking the cup without much thought. “I’ll go to my father and tell him it’s the Northumbrian delegates. You can explain it for me.”
“No!” Merlin exclaimed, heart actually seizing at the thought. Having Nimueh and Morgause as enemies was hard enough. The two priestesses actually knowing about Merlin’s involvement was sure to be the end of him. “If they know you suspect them, they might threaten the king and queen. Or just take what they wanted by force. We have to find out what they want.”
“And what makes you think they don’t want me dead?” Arthur said with narrowed eyes.
“…what will happen if you were mysteriously killed?”
“My father could call it sorcery and stop at nothing to find the culprit. He’d…he’d kill anyone in his way, anyone even suspected of using magic,” Arthur realized, looking queasy at the thought.
“Exactly. We mustn’t let anyone find out.”
“Then what am I possibly supposed to do about this? I can’t just keep…changing into a beast. I’m about to become crown prince!”
Merlin bit his bottom lip, running through possible courses of action to proceed with, but coming up with little.
“I don’t have magic, but I can help you control it…somehow, just enough so you don’t lose yourself completely,” he said. “Have Marius give you a sleeping potion. The strongest one he has. So you won’t change in your sleep. And if you find yourself changing, call for me and get away from any people nearby. Run for the gardens, I suppose.” And in the meantime, they—or Merlin, rather—would have to try to discover what Nimueh and Morgause wanted.
“Fine,” Arthur agreed.
“Could you tell me exactly what happened before today’s change?”
With a huff, the prince recounted everything that had happened since this morning, from when he woke in the morning freezing cold despite the roaring fire in his hearth to coming to with a steaming hot cup of tea in his hands and Merlin kneeling in front of him.
Afterwards, Merlin poured him some more tea, and the two of them sat quietly, lost in their own thoughts. Merlin couldn’t draw anything from Arthur’s recollections, nothing that could have acted as a trigger to cause Arthur’s transformation.
“Merlin.” Arthur suddenly spoke his name so softly, Merlin nearly missed it.
“If you still had your magic, could you have fixed this?”
“…yes, almost certainly,” Merlin admitted, turning his head to avoid the prince’s probing stare.
“I’m sorry.” Merlin’s gaze immediately snapped from the fire to the prince. He couldn’t have heard correctly. But then the prince said again, “I’m sorry. None of this would have happened if we hadn’t…” He didn’t say the rest, but there was no question what he meant. If Camelot hadn’t attacked Carmarthen. If Carmarthen hadn’t fallen. If Merlin hadn’t been taken.
Merlin moved into the servant’s antechamber in Arthur’s chambers that night. He left the door separating his room from the prince’s bedchambers open, so that he would know right away if Arthur started changing. For the first time in years, in over a decade, Merlin slept on a bed. It was a horrible bed really, with a thin lumpy mattress, but the sheets were clean and he actually had a pillow and blanket. In other words, it was absolute luxury. After Arthur downed the sleeping draught he’d acquired from the physician and Merlin had made sure he was asleep like a log, Merlin promptly flopped down on his own bed and fell asleep.
He was woken up the next day by a pillow smacking his head. His air supply cut off by the soft mass of cloth, he sputtered up to a sitting position, blearily looking around and trying to remember why he was in a bed instead of on the floor. Then he saw the prince leaning against the side of the door, already dressed for the day, with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.
“You do realize that you’re supposed to be the one waking me up, don’t you?” Arthur said before pushing himself upright. Merlin jumped to his feet, still sleep-muddled and a bit confused as to why the prince wasn’t shouting at him. “Come on, Merlin, you’ve got work to do.” He turned to walk through his bedchamber and into his antechamber, and Merlin hurried after him.
“What work would you like me to do, sire?” he asked.
“Well, apparently you didn’t finish cataloguing all my gifts,” the prince remarked with a pointed look at Merlin.
“You had me wait for the messenger for two days!” Merlin exclaimed before clamping a hand over his mouth and looking at the prince anxiously.
To his surprise, Arthur simply rolled his eyes and said, “I’ve given up on you, Merlin. I obviously can’t expect for you to keep your mouth shut. Nonetheless, you’ll be cataloguing my gifts today. Go to Tom and get washed up and then get to work.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin said, bowing quickly to the prince and heading for the door.
“I’ll send for you if I need anything,” Arthur said. It was the only indication that Arthur was choosing to remember last night’s incident as something more than just fit of madness. Merlin paused to give him another bow before leaving the prince’s chambers.
Four hours past noon, a page boy came stumbling into the small audience hall, skidding to a halt before Merlin.
“The prince wants you,” the boy said.
Merlin was out of his seat and running out of the hall in seconds. He headed straight for the gardens, hoping that Arthur remembered his instructions. He ran into Gabel just before reaching the courtyard, but he ducked away from Gabel’s attempt to grab him and ignored the under-chamberlain’s shout of outrage. He would probably end up playing for it later, but right now, getting to the prince was more important.
It was just starting to rain outside, and Merlin wanted to curse Arthur’s timing, but it really wasn’t the prince’s fault and the rain would keep people indoors and away from the prince and whatever beast he transformed into.
Merlin knew he was getting close when he heard a shout of pain that made his heart stop. Running into the grove, he nearly crashed into Tom, who stood at the edge of the small clearing, a sword held out before him in a shaking hand.
Arthur crouched on his hands and knees in the clearing, fingers digging into the mud and his face screwed up in what looked like pure agony. Arthur groaned, low and guttural, and Merlin rushed forward, skirting around Tom and his sword to kneel a little more than arm’s length away from the prince. He dared not touch the prince, choosing instead to lean in a little closer and keep a close eye on him.
“Arthur, sire, listen to my words,” Merlin urged. “The spell changes your body, but your mind won’t change. You’re in control. Do not let the spell control you. Listen to my voice and use it as an anchor. Keep your mind.”
Merlin and Tom watched with wide eyes as the prince’s image seemed to shift before their eyes, flickering between human and beast. Slowly, the prince’s body morphed, compressing and elongating, and his clothing and skin melted away into dark blue-grey scales. He grew a long tail and horns, and a pair of large leathery wings sprouted from his back. When he—it—the prince looked up again, Merlin found himself looking into bright red eyes. Merlin remembered the beast’s form from books, though he’d never gotten the opportunity to see one in person; the prince had turned into a wyvern. The wyvern, Arthur, leaped to his feet and roared, charging at him. Merlin remained seated, staring back at the prince, letting his eyes show his unwillingness to yield.
“What is that? Get away from it, Merlin!” came Tom’s voice from behind him. The wyvern appeared to understand, snarling at the slave master.
“Well, I don’t think his highness appreciates being addressed like that,” Merlin remarked, “but he is a wyvern. They’re distant cousins to the dragons, but more animal-like. Don’t worry. He still has his mind. The prince won’t hurt me.” He did not know where this confidence came from, but Arthur’s snarl had been indication enough for him that the prince was still in there, a human mind controlling the body of a beast. “I’ll just sit here and entertain you, shall I?” he said to the wyvern. “I will stay here and give you company until the enchantment passes, so what would you like to hear? I’m afraid what I have to say isn’t very interesting, and you probably won’t want to hear it. I haven’t spoken freely in a long time after all.”
Wyvern-Arthur sat back on his haunches, the glare on his face unmistakable.
“What should I begin? How about how you’re a royal prat?”
Arthur hissed at him, red eyes flashing and sharp teeth bared.
“You mustn’t speak to him like that, Merlin. You’ll face his wrath when he turns back!” Tom hissed.
Merlin simply shrugged and said, “I’ve seen who the prince is underneath. I’m not afraid of him.” He looked wyvern-Arthur straight in the eye, and the prince glared back but nothing more. Merlin gave him a smile and just because he could, he added, “He’s an arrogant, supercilious, condescending and overbearing prat.” Again wyvern-Arthur hissed, getting to his four feet and digging his talons into the mud. “But he’s more than that. There’s something better, something good underneath, I’m sure. When he’s being a proper human being, I can see the future king in him. He cares about his people; I’ve seen that firsthand. And if he stopped being a prat and could just think for once, he’d be a brilliant prince that everyone would want to love and serve.”
Wyvern-Arthur was silent to this. Merlin sat still and watched the prince as he began prowling in a circle around Merlin.
“Remember that you’re in control, Arthur. Your mind is human, but your body isn’t right now. It’s better if you listened to any urges, any hungers you feel, even if you think they are unsavory. If you’re hungry, go find something to eat. Just use your human knowledge and stay away from any humans. Do not attack them; they are your people, sire.”
After a pause where Merlin and wyvern-Arthur stared at each other, the wyvern nodded at Merlin and took off into the grove. Merlin heaved a sigh, letting his shoulders slump. He was vaguely aware that he was shivering, though he couldn’t tell if it was from dealing with wyvern-Arthur or from the rain. To his surprise, Tom dropped a woolen cloak over him.
“Thank you,” Merlin murmured. He pulled the cloak tighter around himself, savoring the warmth, though his clothes were already drenched.
“It’s the least I can do. You may be a slave, but it’s not your duty to help the prince with this matter.”
Merlin shook his head. It wasn’t just Arthur he was trying to save. Whatever the high priestesses were planning, if they succeeded, bad things were sure to come. And if Merlin could help prevent them, he would.
“It is my duty,” he said. “Or it would have been. If I still…” He didn’t finish the rest of the sentence, but Tom nodded, understanding.
“Do you think he will do as you said?” the slave master asked.
“One can only hope. What did he say before he came here?”
“Just something about a sword.”
Merlin eyed the sword Tom had picked up once again before remarking, “I don’t think he meant for the sword to used on him.”
Tom shrugged and left, saying he’d stand guard for them.
After some time had passed, Arthur came stalking back into the grove’s clearing and hunkered down a few feet in front of Merlin. The wyvern looked at Merlin expectantly, and after a few moments, Merlin realized the prince was waiting for him to talk.
“What would you like me to say? I know nothing but the past, and I don’t want to talk about it,” Merlin said. After a pause, he said, “Did you know the parchment the chamberlain orders for the official records is too poor quality for the price you pay for them? Or that the footpaths out of the courtyards haven’t been looked after because the under-chamberlain thought you wouldn’t notice?” Merlin sighed. “Sorry, probably shouldn’t say that if I want to stay in one piece.”
If Merlin was hearing correctly, wyvern-Arthur had actually snorted at him before lowering himself down on the ground like a dog would, neatly tucking his wings in. Arthur made that simple act look regal even as an oversized reptile.
Not wishing to tell the prince or think of the life he’d lost thirteen years before, Merlin instead started talking about the ordinary people of Albion, who worked long hours in the fields and mines or in smithies and bakeries and pubs. The people who struggled to make a living but still sought to be happy. He hinted, very subtly that Arthur could make this happen, could make the people look to him in hope and see the future Arthur could just maybe bring. And then, having talked the topic stale, he resorted to the weather and the land, comparing Astolat to Carmarthen and to what he’d seen of the rest of Camelot and to Carmarthen.
Merlin hadn’t spoken for such a long time in years. The rain trickled to a stop as he talked to the prince for over an hour, maybe two, eventually starting to feel a kind of detachment settle over him. He spoke without thinking much about it, instead feeling sleepier by the minute.
A roar startled him wide awake. Arthur was twisting in the mud, hisses spilling from his snout. His image began shifting again, flashing between wyvern and human. Merlin scooted back a foot or so, keeping out of reach of wyvern-Arthur’s flailing talons. He watched with shallow breath as Arthur’s limbs lengthened and scales and wings fell away.
Soon, Merlin was looking at Arthur in his human form, curled up on his side, face pressed to shoulder. With a groan, Arthur rolled onto his stomach, staying facedown. Panic coursed through Merlin as he edged closer to the prince again, though hesitant to touch him.
“Sire, are you all right?” he asked.
Arthur groaned again before propping himself up by his elbows.
“So, I’m a prat, am I?” he drawled, and a smile broke out unbidden on Merlin’s lips.
“Forgive me. I meant a royal one, my lord,” Merlin said, unable to resist.
The prince made a swipe at Merlin, but his limbs were trembling and Merlin was forced to assist Arthur in standing up.
“You can’t speak to me like that, Merlin, even if you’re the most horrible slave I’ve ever met,” the prince said once he was upright.
“And how many slaves have you actually taken to meeting, sire?” Merlin questioned, to which Arthur scowled. Merlin gave him another smile and said, “Come on, let’s get you to the workroom.”
Once they were settled in the gardeners’ workroom, a fire burning bright in the hearth, Merlin finally got to ask, “What do you remember? Do you know what the trigger was?”
Arthur nodded, and said, “A sword and Tristan. I had a hand on my sword and was thinking of when the patrols might return with word about my uncle. And then it started happening.”
“What about the first time?”
“After Lady Helen’s performance, I was planning for the search for Tristan and touched my sword.”
“I was putting on my sword as I left my chambers, and saw Sir Lionel—he is one of my uncle’s most trusted friends.”
Merlin heaved a sigh and remarked, “It sure seems that’s the trigger then.”
“Then tomorrow I’ll wear and touch no sword and avoid thoughts of my uncle. Then I won’t have to worry about transforming,” Arthur stated with utter confidence. Merlin wasn’t so sure.
“Please be careful, sire. If they discover that you know…”
“Of course I will. They won’t suspect a thing.” Arthur flashed that smug smile of his, and Merlin resisted the urge to roll his eyes despite the gnawing worry in his stomach.
He had little idea what Nimueh and Morgause were fully capable of or if they had a way to suspect if anything was going wrong. He was fairly certain Nimueh had seeing powers, but whether she felt the need to use them to check on Arthur was debatable.
As the two of them sat in silence, soaking in the warmth of the fire, Merlin once again found his thoughts turning to Arthur and his vision. He had meant what he’d said to wyvern-Arthur. The prince was a mess of good and bad qualities, almost like two different people mashed together. But if he was properly taught, if he learned to shed his arrogance and prejudices and the little acts of cruelty bred into him by society, maybe, just maybe, Arthur could pass muster as the prophesized Once and Future King. The verification that the prince actually was that King was not for him to make though; it would take one actually experienced in seeing.
Eventually, Arthur began complaining about his wet, muddy clothes, and proving to have regained his strength, got to his feet. Together, they slowly made their way back to the castle, reasoning that should anyone wonder why Merlin was with Arthur after his disappearance, it was because Merlin had been sent to look for him.
When they reached the castle, Sir Leon immediately appeared by the prince’s side, along with a few alarmed servants seeking to taking Arthur’s muddied cloak from him.
“Sire, you’ve returned safely,” the knight said, sounding much relieved. “The king has been…most irate by your absence. You’ve been gone the whole day.”
“Yes, I apologize,” Arthur answered while waving off the servants’ hands. “All this fuss day after day. Can’t a man taking the time to just breathe? I simply wanted some time alone today.”
“…alone, sire?” Sir Leon repeated, pointedly looking at Merlin.
Arthur waved a dismissive hand and said, “It’s just Merlin. He’s a slave. Besides, I meant away from everyone who’d natter my ears off.”
Merlin just managed to stifle his snort. After all, nattering to the prince was exactly what he’d been doing for the past hour. Sir Leon still caught the aborted noise he’d made and gave Merlin a disbelieving look.
“Have an apology sent to my father. I promise to show up tomorrow morning,” Arthur directed.
“Yes, sire. Will that be all?” the knight asked, looking resigned. Arthur nodded and gave him a wave.
“Come along, Merlin,” Arthur called over his shoulder, already heading for his chambers at a faster pace.
Back in Arthur’s chambers, Merlin helped the prince wash away the mud from his arms and face in a basin of warm water. It was too late to call for servants to draw a bath, and away from the eyes of his knight and the servants, Arthur looked nearly as exhausted as he had in the workroom. While changing into a clean nightshirt, Arthur allowed Merlin to wash up as well, which Merlin was grateful of; he was as covered in mud as Arthur had been. He was also thankful for the extra set of clothes left in the servant’s antechamber.
“I want to say thank you, Merlin, for what you’ve done for me,” the prince suddenly said, reaching for vial containing his sleeping draught. “It’s almost as if you’re my guardian spirit.” Arthur flashed him a smile.
Merlin was stunned, staring at Arthur with wide eyes, but before he could collect himself enough to speak, Arthur downed the sleeping potion and flopped onto his bed. He was asleep within seconds, and Merlin was left to throw a blanket over the prince and stoke the fire before he too crawled into bed.
After that incident, Arthur took to bringing Merlin along everywhere he went. Whether it was a casual court audience, a council meeting, or a meal, Merlin was always with him, staying as unnoticed as possible in the background and keeping well away from Nimueh and Morgause. They’d brought with them a servant, a shifty-eyed fellow named Cedric, with vaguely bird-like features and an overly polished, fawning manner of speaking that raised Merlin’s hackles. Merlin tried to avoid him as well. He did however draw the attention of the king, who commented on Merlin’s presence—Arthur, it seemed, rarely tolerated having a slave or servant trail after him “like a pup.” Luckily, Arthur made an excuse good enough to convince the king, and Merlin was not given a second glance by anyone.
Despite being indeed dragged around like a dog at times, it provided him with the chance to always keep an eye on the prince. And Merlin enjoyed the new level of freedom he now had. Having seen the prince at his most vulnerability, he had expected the prince to get cagey around him, but it was rather the opposite. While Arthur was of course not friendly to him, per se, the prince wasn’t hostile and took no major offense to anything Merlin let slip out. Perhaps it was because Merlin was the only one who could help the prince with his enchantment, but either way, Merlin was pleased that Arthur was treating him differently, more like a servant than a slave. If forced to, Merlin would admit to taking delight in speaking to the prince, usually in the form of teasing remarks thinly disguised with deference. He hadn’t so openly spoken to someone in years. It was almost as if he was a real person again.
One morning, Merlin found himself looking, just looking at the prince when he was about to wake him for the day. Arthur was scrawling across his bed on his stomach, face half buried in his pillows and the covers kicked all the way down to the foot of the bed. The thin beams of sunlight slipping through the curtains highlight his sleep-tussled hair, and his shirt had ridden up enough to reveal a sliver of his lower back, just above the line of his sleeping trousers.
And the whole thing shouldn’t have looked as endearing and aesthetically pleasing as it should have. The prince looked more human and vulnerable—and yet not—than he’d ever seen him. Merlin could imagine a smaller, young Arthur, sprawled out just like he was now, confident even then in his ability to defend himself to allow showing his back to the world.
With a start, Merlin realized he should really be waking up the prince and carrying on with his duties for the day, not watching him sleep. He tried not to wonder why he’d done it in the first place.
Over the next two days, Arthur showed no signs of any changes. He attended the events and feast required of him, and at the end of the day, the prince downed his sleeping draught and fell promptly asleep until the next morning.
Then, the day before the formal crowning, there was to be a tournament held in celebration of Arthur’s coming-of-age. Arthur was expected to compete, as it was held in his honor after all. Merlin felt it was a terrible idea if the prince wished to keep the enchantment a secret from the king and if the prince didn’t want to turn into a wyvern more than he could help it. Since the curse involved Arthur holding a sword, doing anything that involved holding a sword all day long was just asking for trouble. Arthur, however, refused to withdraw from the tournament; he claimed that he’d never missed a tournament before, not since he first became of age to participate, and he wasn’t going to this time. Merlin had turned to Tom for support, but the slave master hinted that it would look too suspicious if the prince chose to withdraw without a believable explanation—which there was none, unfortunately. And because Merlin was just a slave, he really had no say in the matter. Even if he was the one trying to save the prince’s life.
“Are you sure about this?” Merlin asked Arthur for the tenth time that morning, trailing behind the prince as they headed for the fighting grounds.
Servants and squires and slaves bustled around everywhere, rushing to make last minute preparations. The arena was already filled to the brim with spectators, though the royal stand, where the King and Queen and their special guests would sit, was empty. They would be the last to enter, the arrival of the King signaling the start of the tournament. Colorful tents had been erected overnight, bearing the standards and colors of the swordsmen competing. Arthur’s tent was easy to spot from a distance—full Pendragon red with a matching flag bearing the gold dragon crest by the tent’s entrance. It was there that they were headed, Arthur already in his gambeson but not the rest of his armor, and Merlin carrying his sword.
“What if you change in the middle of a fight?” he added.
“I’ll be fine, Merlin. When I fight, I focus entirely on the battle. I won’t be thinking of anything else, and certainly not of Tristan and wherever he’s gone off to.”
“Right, well, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you in case anything does happen.”
“Shut up, Merlin. There’s nothing to worry about,” Arthur snapped, entering his tent.
“If you say so,” Merlin replied. There was a table with the rest of Arthur’s armour already laid out, and this was where Merlin set down Arthur’s sword.
“Just take my sword the moment I step off the field after a fight, and nothing will happen. Now hurry up and fit me into my armor.”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin said, reaching over the table to pick up Arthur’s gorget.
Arthur scowled at him and remarked, “Only you could make that sound like an insult, Merlin.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sire.” Merlin looked at him with his most innocent face, and Arthur snorted.
“Right. Now get my armor on. I can’t be late to my own tournament.”
The tournament began without a hitch. Merlin spent the whole of Arthur’s first match hovering at the very edge of the arena field, watching with bated breath for any signs of the transformation beginning in the prince. When Arthur won his match and did not show any signs of changing into an overgrown winged lizard, Merlin heaved a sigh and cheered along with the crowd. After an expected “I told you there was nothing to worry about” from Arthur, Merlin relaxed a little and joined the rest of the servants and squires watching on the sidelines.
With Arthur pitted against actual warriors this time, Merlin could not help but notice how the prince shone out above the rest. It wasn’t much of a surprise. As prince, Arthur was a born warrior, trained to fight from birth. Every move Arthur made was precise, graceful, perfect. The sword and shield were simply extensions of the prince’s body as he defeated contestant after contestant. And like before, it wasn’t hard for Merlin to picture Arthur on the battlefield, fighting for Camelot. It was magnificent and yet unsettling. Arthur displayed no difficulty besting men twice his age, or any of the men he faced really. Merlin wondered if Arthur had ever been sent off to war before, and he couldn’t help but be a little relieved Arthur had not been nearly old enough when Camelot invaded Carmarthen.
“It must be a great honor, to serve the prince,” someone beside him said several matches later.
Merlin turned his head slightly, keeping one eye on Arthur, and discovered that Cedric had moved to his side. The man perched on the stool next to his and stared at the prince, not actually looking at Merlin.
“Yes, yes it is,” Merlin replied warily.
“He’s wonderful, isn’t it? Young, strong, charismatic, handsome,” Cedric said. “Everything one would want in a ruler.”
“…I suppose so.” Merlin kept a straight face, although his skin practically crawled at Cedric’s words. They begged the question of what Cedric wanted from the prince. There just wasn’t something right about Cedric, and Merlin figured that could be attributed to Cedric being Nimueh and Morgause’s servant.
“It can’t be easy, to hold such potential, such a future,” Cedric remarked. “It must be so hard, with all that responsibility.” Cedric looked away from Arthur and gazed at Merlin speculatively. “You’re his slave. Tell me, is he a good master?”
“He’s a better master than most,” Merlin hedged. He felt far too relieved when at that moment Arthur ended his match and stepped out of the arena. “Sorry. I’ve got to go see to the prince,” he said, and without waiting for Cedric’s reply, rushed off to take Arthur’s sword.
When Arthur fought his next match, Merlin sat as far away and out of sight from Cedric as possible. From his new position, he spotted Morgause and Nimueh, and the two priestesses were watching Arthur fight with cold eyes and furrowed brows. They no doubt wanted Arthur to fail, and Merlin split his attentions between assisting Arthur in between matches and watching the two priestesses for any new dangers to the prince.
In the end, Arthur won—unsurprisingly. If he had not witnessed the prince’s fight with Rylan or the tournament itself, Merlin would have wondered if the contestants had lost on purpose to give Arthur the glory. However, Arthur’s battle prowess and skill with his sword were clear from the start, and any contestants who even considered throwing their match had stood no chance against the prince. Arthur’s focus and will were strong as well, because not once was there any indication that Arthur might transform and Merlin stripped the prince of his armor in great relief.
“There, you see, Merlin? Nothing happened, and I’m perfectly fine,” Arthur said.
Merlin huffed and replied, “Yes, sire. I’m glad of it.”
Arthur gave him a smug smile before asking, “Have you ordered a bath for me?”
“Yes, it’s on its way.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, a few servant boys knocked and entered the room, lugging with them the prince’s washtub and several buckets filled with hot water.
When Arthur pulled off his tunic, Merlin realized that the prince probably had no qualms with being completely naked in front of a slave. While Merlin saw more than his fair share of naked bodies as part of being a slave, he had no desire to be punished for allegedly ogling the prince. Merlin coughed as Arthur gave him a mocking raised eyebrow, hands already on the laces of his trousers.
“Right. I’ll…get this lot cleaned and be back after your bath then,” Merlin said, scooping up the prince’s armour and hurrying out the door.
That night, the largest feast of the week was held, partially because of Arthur’s victory and partially because tomorrow was Arthur’s birthday and the day of the official crowning. The court was in high spirits, and many were soon deep in their cups. The royal family, however, was for the most part sober. The Queen looked preoccupied, worried, and Merlin suspected it had to do with her brother’s disappearance.
Nimueh and Morgause, on the contrary, looked pleased, sipping their wine, Cedric standing behind then looking equally so. They didn’t raise any suspicions, not in the current settings, but Merlin knew better. Not for the first time, he feared what they could possibly have planned for the prince and for Camelot.
Arthur left the feast early, claiming the need to rest and ready himself for the next day. Merlin followed him back to his chambers, helping the prince get ready for bed. When he made for his room though, Arthur suddenly spoke:
“Where do you think he is? What could have possibly happened?”
“Sir Tristan?” Merlin inquired, turning back around to see the prince lying under the covers, staring up at the bed canopy.
“Who else, you idiot? He said he would come.” Despite the insult, his words were strained and soft. There was hurt in his voice, an incongruous little boy type of frailty, and Merlin would have been lying if he was to say that it didn’t make his heart melt, just a bit.
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t know.”
Arthur sighed and said, “Of course you wouldn’t. I just—nevermind. Good night, Merlin.” He rolled over and reached for his sleeping draught.
“Good night, sire. May you have an uneventful crowning,” Merlin bid him with a bow. Arthur answered with a mumble, having already downed the potion.
Merlin woke up with that queasy sense of foreboding he’d felt the night Arthur was cursed. After how that time had turned out, Merlin felt compelled to listen to his gut this time. For perhaps the hundredth time, Merlin ran through everything that happened since Morgause's appearance. The Eye of Phoenix, to take Arthur's health. Sterility-inducing food poisoning. The curse. What was the purpose of the curse, of transforming Arthur into a wyvern? And the trigger. It wasn't just holding a sword, but thinking of Sir Tristan. Why? And why now, during the prince's crowning when the royal court of Camelot would be concentrated in Astolat, watching?
Then, a hunch began forming in his head, and with a curse, Merlin ran for the slave house, in search of Tom.
“Tom, Master Tom,” Merlin called, bursting into the slave house. He found the slave master going though his record books, and Tom looked up to watch Merlin approach him. “I have a suspicion of what the Northumbrians want from the prince,” he whispered in one breath. “I need you to trust me and do as I say.”
“…this is to help the prince? Will it harm him?” Tom asked cautiously.
“It might be what will save him,” Merlin replied.
“What do you need?” Tom squared his shoulders and got to his feet.
“I need a horse and supplies, enough for several days of travel. And a change of plain clothes, for someone with a knight’s build.”
The slave master eyed Merlin, measuring him up. It did not surprise Merlin. What he was asking for was dangerous. For all appearances, it would look like Merlin was trying to escape, and gain the slave master’s assistance to do so.
But Tom simply said, “I’ll have it done. The clearing from before, in the grove. I will bring the horse and supplies there.
“Thank you,” Merlin heaved a sigh. “I really do hope I’m wrong and everything will go just fine, but…” With a nod and a hurried farewell, Merlin was running back to Arthur’s chambers.
Arthur was already up and dressed for the ceremony. His dark tunic and trousers were of the finest quality Merlin had ever seen, as were his boots, freshly polished and soft but sturdy looking. A Pendragon red cloak wrapped around his shoulders. In the morning light, Arthur’s hair shone like gold filigree and his eyes were bluer than ever. He practically seemed to glow. It was at a moment like this that Merlin caught himself imagining what it would be like if Arthur was to rule, if he truly was the Once and Future King. With his regal bearing, Arthur made one fine king-to-be, like out of a fairytale, though his personality still needed some work.
“And where have you been, Merlin?” Arthur questioned upon spotting Merlin.
“With Master Tom, sire,” Merlin answered, darting his eyes to the servants bustling around the prince’s chambers and the two knights waiting at the door to follow the prince to the throne room. There was no way to tell Arthur his suspicions. Not with all these people in the room.
Arthur gave him one of those calculating looks of his before shaking his head.
“Well, stay out of trouble. I want you here when I’m back, not running around the castle.”
With that, Arthur swept out of his chambers, long red cloak billowing out behind him.
As just a lowly slave, even if he was the prince’s, Merlin was not allowed to follow Arthur into the throne room. The only people officially permitted to view Arthur’s crowning were the royal family, the court and knights, and the guards and servants selected to be of service. Merlin, however, was aware of the small balconies that overlooked, having had to clean them more than once in the last few weeks. He headed for one of them the moment Arthur left for the throne room.
King Uther and Queen Ygraine were already seated side by side on their thrones, and the throne room was filled to the brim with people, only the dais holding the thrones and a cleared aisle leading from the door to the throne free of people. With much fanfare, the doors to the throne room were thrown open. Arthur walked in, flanked on both sides by several of his knights—the ones Merlin judged were his most trusted, based on Sir Leon’s presence among them. Someone shut the doors as Arthur and his knights proceeded down the aisle to the king, who got up from his throne. An aged man with a bald head and a white beard stepped forward, bearing a thick gold circlet upon a red cushion. The knights fell back, joining the crowd as Arthur knelt down on the floor before the king. The king picked up the crown, holding it above the prince’s head.
“Do you solemnly swear to govern the people of this kingdom and its dominion, according to the statutes customs and laws laid down by your forebears?” Uther recited.
“I do,” said Arthur.
“Do you promise to exercise mercy and justice in your deeds and judgments?”
“Do you swear allegiance to Camelot, now and for as long as you shall live?”
“I, Arthur Pendragon, do pledge life and limb to your service, and to the protection of the kingdom and its people.
With a nod, Uther then said, “Now being of age and heir apparent, you shall be—”
“Kinslayer!” came a shout as the doors of the throne room were thrown open. Every person in the room stopped talking and turned to the doors as one. In walked Sir Caradoc, who, Merlin suddenly realized, had not been seen in Astolat since his flogging. He charged down the aisle, the crowd parting for him in apt attention. “To entrust the crown to such a heinous murderer.”
“You! You are the one who damaged the prince’s property. You got what you deserved,” the king said. “And your brother, the former lord Rylan, committed treason. He was given more mercy than he deserved. How dare you accuse your prince of murder!”
“It is the truth, your highness. This prince is responsible for the murder of his own uncle, Sir Tristan Du Bois.”
“Liar!” Arthur shouted, his hand shooting to his sword. Merlin tensed, but to his relief, Arthur refrained from actually touching the sword. The murmuring of the crowd, already at a low simmer the moment the king began censuring Sir Caradoc, had grown to a roar, but with a raise of Uther’s hand, the court immediately fell silent.
“I will not stand for such lies! Think carefully how you choose to explain yourself.”
“I bring with me proof!” Sir Caradoc declared. “I bring with me the body and a witness!”
“Then bring me the proof,” the king ordered with narrowed eyes, a hand hovering over his sword.
“Yes, sire,” Sir Caradoc said, turning on his heels and calling, “Bring in the body!”
Shortly, two servants appeared—not the castle servants, Merlin assumed, but Caradoc’s own—carrying between them a wrapped figure. A knight followed them, looking both travel-worn and harried. It seemed as if the whole court was holding its breath as the wrapped body was taken to the dais and set down before the king. Caradoc pulled away to fabric. The court let out a collective gasp and the queen gave a wail, covering her mouth with her hands, as it was revealed that the body was indeed that of Sir Tristan Du Bois. His face was streaked with blood, as were his tattered clothes. Based on the unearthly color of his skin, it was clear that Sir Tristan had been dead for at least a day. Arthur fell to his knees beside his uncle’s body. King Uther stared down at the body before turning to the knight who’d entered along with the servants.
“Sir Osred, you have been in service as long as Sir Tristan, and I trust your word above this treasonous fool. What do you have to say?” the king said. Upon being addressed, the knight immediately dropped down to one knee, head bowed and eyes trained on the floor.
“My king, I can only say that Sir Tristan’s travel party was attacked by mercenary bandits while crossing the White Mountains,” the knight stated. “All of them were killed, their horses and supplies stolen.”
“You traveled with Sir Tristan. Why have you arrived unscathed?”
“Forgive me, my lord. I fell ill and told the others to continue onwards ahead of me. Sir Graham stayed behind to assist me. He is resting in the barracks if you wish to also speak with him.” Sir Osred pulled out a folded square of paper from his pocket and held it out to Uther. “When we found the…the bodies, this was left with them.”
Uther took the paper and to Merlin’s surprise, began reading in a slow but steady manner, “Prince, everything has been done as you’ve instructed.”
The pieces of the puzzle fell neatly into place as chatter erupted in the audience and everyone who had ever held a grudge against the prince began speaking. Farran, the rat, was one of the most vocal, recounting all of the prince’s strange behavior since Merlin’s arrival at Astolat. Merlin really hoped he wouldn’t be blamed for all that had happened; it was very good thing he wasn’t present in the throne room. No one noticed but Merlin that Morgause and Nimueh had slipped away during the chaos. Merlin itched to go find them, to discover what they planned, but he had to stay to watch how this played out and find a way to help Arthur if he could.
“Silence, all of you!” King Uther shouted over the din, balling up the parchment and throwing it aside. Immediately, the court fell silent but for the low steady of “No, no, no” coming from where Arthur knelt with his hands covering his face
“Arthur, swear to me that you were not responsible for this. Take up this sword, and swear you didn’t do it,” the king ordered him, though his words sounded almost like a plea. But of course, Arthur could do no such thing. And oh, how clever Nimueh had been, because either way, Arthur was trapped, to turn into a full-out beast, his mind already fractured as it was, in front of the entire court, or to become a kinslayer, murderer of his own uncle, his mother’s brother.
Arthur didn’t touch the sword; he didn’t even look up, continued to mutter to himself and stare into nothing, lost to his surroundings.
“Damn it, Arthur, answer me!” the king yelled, but to no avail. He turned to the court and announced, “The ceremony will be postponed until the murderer is found and executed. And you, Sir Caradoc Cardon—” The king turned to the knight. “—you will be held in gaol until that time as well.” With that, the king stormed out of the throne room, guards immediately stepping forward to grab hold of the protesting Caradoc. The queen Ygraine, though she looked as stricken as Arthur, got to her feet and knelt down by him. The court and Merlin watched as the queen whispered something into the prince’s ears. After a few moments, Arthur and his mother stood up, and together they left the throne room.
Immediately, the court began spilling out of the throne room, alive with chatter. Merlin hurried out of his hiding space, trying to think of a way to reach Arthur. The hallways immediately outside the throne room were lined with people proclaiming their shock and horror at the latest events to each other. Word was spreading fast and the entire castle was in a frenzy. Melrin had no difficulty at all getting past anyone and all who would concern themselves with slaves and his incongruous presence.
Heading for the royal wing, Merlin skidded to a halt when he overheard voices he recognized as those of Nimueh, Morgause and Cedric coming from their chambers.
“It’s only a matter of time now,” said Nimueh. “Once we have the prince in our hands, Camelot will be within our reach.”
“I must commend you, Nimueh. Your power over Uther has made my task less difficult,” said Cedric. His voice was different now—harder and bitter, no hint of servility at all—and it made Merlin even more uneasy.
“When will the prince be made ready to leave? The stunning spell I placed will not last for long,” Morgause said. There was the sound of a door opening and footsteps approaching.
“Tomorrow morning. We must still put on a show after all,” Nimueh replied, sounding much closer to Merlin than before. Taking it as his cue to leave, Merlin darted away down a different corridor.
It wasn't even five minutes later when he was grabbed from behind. With a yell, he tried to twist away from his attacker, fearing who it might turn out to be. But the person he was up against was big and solid, with a crushing grip. A hand was clamped over his mouth before he was turned to the person. His “attacker” was a young knight dressed in Leodegrance livery.
“Hush, Slave. My lady Gwen has sent me to take you to her. Do not make even one sound, is that clear?” Merlin nodded, though he wondered what business the lady would want with him of all people when Arthur was in danger. Then again, perhaps through her, he could discover what was going on and what lies Nimueh had fed the king. After a moment of scrutiny, the knight removed his hand and let go of him. “Come with me.”
Merlin was taken to Lady Gwen’s chambers, but they were empty of Gwen herself. The knight left him alone in the antechamber to wait for the lady’s return. But with every passing minute, Merlin grew more and more impatient. The High Priestesses had dark plans for Arthur; his chance eavesdropping left no room for doubt now. Arthur’s life was at stake, and Merlin was the only one who had even a fraction of a clue as to what to do. But instead of doing anything about it, Merlin was being forced to wait upon the desires of another noble.
He dropped down into one of the chairs around the antechamber’s table, resigning himself to the wait. He shouldn’t have expected anything else. He had no freedom as a slave; his actions were ultimately governed by the noblemen and virtually anyone ranked above him. This, however, did not stop him from incessantly tapping his foot as he sat with eyes trained on the doors of the chambers, as if he could will the prince’s fiancé to appear.
It was another five minutes before Lady Gwen showed up, stepping into her chambers with a calm sort of anger to her steps. Though her face and movements showed no outright fury, her eyes burned fire. She went right up to Merlin and gripped him by the shoulders, kneeling to his eye-level.
“You must have some idea of what is happening, Merlin. Tell me please, did he do it?” she demanded.
“He didn’t,” Merlin said.
“You swear on it? You really think he didn’t do it?” she asked again.
“Yes, I swear he didn’t. Arthur would never do such a thing.”
“I can’t understand it. How can you be so loyal to a man who claims ownership of you and treats you less than a dog? What has he done to receive such faith from you?”
“The prince is my master and I his slave. Loyalty is only expected. But I’ve seen the goodness in him. And he deeply cared for his uncle, like a second father. He wouldn’t have been able to kill Sir Tristan. Never.”
Gwen sank down into a chair with a sigh before remarking, “He is just so infuriating.”
“That’s Arthur for you, yes.”
“A completely rude, arrogant and pig-headed idiot.”
“Oh yes, definitely,” Merlin readily agreed.
“And yet, I still care for him,” Gwen admitted. “I don’t love him, not in that sort of way, but he’s family. I grew up with him; he is like a second brother to me.” She paused before looking at Merlin with wide eyes and saying, “….but you’re different. You actually love him, don’t you?”
“No!” Merlin practically squawked. “There are no such feelings between us! He is my master, and I am required to serve him. As long as I remain chained to him, such emotions cannot exist,” Merlin insisted. Gwen looked ready to argue, but he said, “We don’t have much time. You must have faith in him; he is not a kinslayer.”
“No, instead, the prince is a madman.”
“He’s not mad. There are reasons for his actions.”
“King Uther has judged him mad, and in this court, his judgment is what matters. Arthur is now a madman, and the king has chosen to send him away.”
To send him away? To where? With the Northumbrian?
“My lady—Gwen—you have to tell me all that has happened,” Merlin said, leaning forward.
“The royal family and I adjourned to private chambers, and the king demanded for the bandits to be caught and killed. He asked again if Arthur had been a part of the deed, but Arthur refused to give a straight answer. He kept saying it was his fault, no matter what the king or even the queen asked.”
“Then the chamberlain came and told Uther about Arthur’s recent behavior: the events with Sir Caradoc and Lord Rylan, his illness during petitions, his fits of rudeness and disrespect, and his sudden disappearances. Sir Leon confirmed everything, and then other men started accusing Arthur of things. It was ridiculous the lies they said of him.”
But they weren’t lies, really. Just the truth placed out of context. Just as the priestesses had no doubt wanted.
“And Arthur didn’t deny any of it. He looked in shock, really. The king and queen asked him to swear by the sword that he didn’t kill Sir Tristan, but Arthur refused to take the sword. He said he’d never take up a sword again. The king called him mad and asked for the physician to come. Lady Nimueh interrupted and offered another solution.”
It was then that Merlin made the final connection to his earlier overheard conversation.
“Nimueh offered to ‘cure’ him of his madness!” Merlin realized. “But to do so, she insisted on taking Arthur away, out of Camelot. Am I right?”
Gwen gaped at him before saying, “How did you know? What do you know about Nimueh?”
“I can explain later. Just tell me, is that what happened?”
“Yes…and left with no choice Uther agreed.”
“And Arthur did nothing about it?” Merlin questioned, not even bothering to hide the edge of panic setting in—or to use Arthur’s proper title it seemed.
“Well, Arthur just sort of woke up. He started raging, like nothing I’ve seen before. He refused to go with the Northumbrians. He started shouting things about priestesses and ‘old religion’ and curses. He even tried to attack them! It took all the guards in the room to stop him, and Leon…Sir Leon had to knock him out to keep him from attacking Nimueh. Gods, he looks ready to cry.”
“Where have they taken him?”
“The Western Tower,” Gwen replied, and Merlin made a move to stand but Gwen gripped his shoulders, stopping him. “They’ve put guards on the stairs up and at the door. No one but the king and queen and the Northumbrians are allowed up.”
“I’m a slave. I’m not anyone,” Merlin reasoned, trying to stand once again. Gwen pulled him back down into his chair.
“You must tell me what is happening first.” Merlin opened his mouth to argue that there wasn’t time but Gwen gave his a glare and said, “You know more than you’re saying, Merlin, and like I said, Arthur is family. If there’s something I can do, then I want to help.”
“You’ll think I’m mad, too.”
“Tell me,” Gwen insisted.
Merlin looked at Gwen warily, tempted to argue more, but she glared back at him, her eyes sparking and demanding a real answer. He’s seen her arguments with Arthur; he really had no choice in the matter. And perhaps, having help from someone in a position of power would be good. He nodded slowly before asking her:
“What do you know about sorcery?”
An hour later, after telling her about magic, and the Old Religion and the High Priestesses, and Morgause’s attempts to curse Arthur and Nimueh’s successful attempt to curse Arthur into a wyvern, Gwen stared at him with wide eyes, looking rather dazed. In the following moments of silence, Merlin fidgeted in his seat, wanting to go help Arthur, and Gwen simply blinked and processed all he’d told her.
Then she clasped his hands tightly in hers and asked, “You can help him, can’t you, Merlin?”
“Not me, personally. I don’t have magic,” he replied with a frown. “But if I can get Arthur away from here and from the priestesses, I can send him to my people. Someone can lift the curse then and maybe protect him.”
Gwen nodded, and the worried look from before completely left her face. She became as calm and serious as one might expect from a knight. She got to her feet and declared, “Then let’s help him escape.”
Fifteen minutes later, Merlin was on his way to the Western Tower. Gwen, being dear to the queen, acquired permission to have “small comforts” taken to the prince. She had wanted to do it herself, but Merlin had firmly refused; he couldn’t possibly risk her getting caught. At the very least, he was a slave, and his presence and intentions would never be questioned. So it was Merlin who gathered everything needed to care for the prince and traipsed across the castle to the tower, balancing a pile of bedding and pillows, a change of travel clothes for Arthur and a letter from Lancelot he’d found waiting in the prince’s chambers. Amidst the sheer volume of linens, Merlin had hidden one of Arthur’s swords, one shorter than standard but a sword nonetheless, and he really hoped his clumsiness would not choose a time like now to show itself.
The guards stationed on the way up the tower did nothing and said nothing as Merlin passed. It was only until he reached the door to the tower room did the two Northumbrian guards cross their spears before the door, barring his path.
“Her majesty sent me to bring him these,” Merlin said in a small, shaking voice. “There’re blankets and clothes for him—for his travel.”
After a nerve-racking pause, the two guards exchanging looks, they stepped away from the door.
“Go in and be quick about it,” the one on his left said, unlocking the door for him.
“The king pronounced him mad. He-he won’t beat me, will he? The prince already frightened me before all of this,” Merlin said, making his pile shake and pretending that he was trembling where he stood.
The two barked their laughter. “That isn’t our problem, slave,” said the one on his right. “Hope you enjoy his company!” He gripped Merlin’s shoulder and pushed him through the door.
When Merlin was shoved into the room, the door slamming shut behind him, he immediately spotted Arthur across the room and resting on a bed, the only piece of furniture in the tiny room. Leather straps stretched horizontally across the bed and Arthur’s chest and legs, buckled tightly and keeping the prince from moving. Ignoring the sound of the turning of the door lock behind him, he dropped his burden on the floor and edged towards the bed.
Arthur looked to be asleep, eyes shut and breath slow and steady. The moment Merlin knelt down by Arthur’s bedside though, the prince’s eyes snapped open, making Merlin yelp and jump back a few inches onto his ass, his heart racing.
“You just love giving people heart attacks, don’t you?” he hissed, pushing himself back up into kneeling position.
Arthur, however, did not speak, simply staring at Merlin.
“Arthur, are you having me on? Because this is really not the time.”
It was then that Merlin realized that the prince’s face was rigid and still, as were his limbs. Other than the blinking of his eyes and the rising and falling of his chest, Arthur was frozen. A niggling suspicion hit Merlin.
“Nimueh—no, Morgause did this, didn’t she?” Merlin asked pointlessly, remembering what the priestess had said to Nimueh and Cedric. He didn’t wait for an answer from Arthur—he wasn’t going to get one anyway—before saying, “Alright. It’s a simple stunning spell. With your level of resolve, you can break it easily. All you have to do is will yourself to move again. Do you hear me?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at Merlin before closing them completely. Merlin didn’t miss the absolutely unnatural look of resignation in Arthur’s eyes. If he could have moved, Merlin suspected the prince would have turned his head from him.
Arthur didn’t open his eyes, and Merlin huffed in irritation. He reached over and unbuckled the straps holding Arthur to the bed. He rested a hand on Arthur’s right arm, squeezing tightly before shuffling over to his dropped pile.
“Look, I know you’re upset about Sir Tristan’s death, and I know you blame yourself for it, but it wasn’t your fault. You can’t just give in like this, Arthur,” Merlin said as he shoved Lancelot’s letter into his tunic pocket for later and retrieved Arthur’s travel clothes. As he continued speaking, he manhandled Arthur’s prone body out of his fine black tunic and into a plain red one. “You might not have been as respectful of him as you should have been, but it was Nimueh and the others who planned this. They were the ones who hired bandits to kill him. And it’s obvious why they did it, isn’t it? I know you’re smarter than you sometimes act. Killing Tristan and having you taking the blame was the best way to their hands on you without the king suspecting a thing. And I don’t know exactly what they’re planning, but they will use you, control you, to seize Camelot. If you don’t stop being a self-centered prat for a second, you’ll realize that you’re endangering not only your family, but the people of Camelot, by giving up.”
Arthur opened his eyes again, looking at Merlin with that unreadable gaze of him. Merlin scowled at the prince before returning to his task and yanking off Arthur’s boots. Without ceremony, Merlin pulled off Arthur’s black trousers and replaced them with the prince’s riding breeches, paying no heed to the intimacy of it all. He was instead intent on thinking of a way to get Arthur out of Astolat, even if it somehow meant lugging the prince out of the castle undetected. Just as he leaned over to tie the laces of the breeches, his heart nearly stopped when a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.
“Gods, Arthur, you really want to scare me to death, don’t you?” Merlin hissed at the prince, who now looked at him with an unmistakable scowl. Merlin tried to pull away his hand, but Arthur only tightened his grip.
“Why does it seem like all your fault?” Arthur growled, sitting up. “My life was normal before I bought you.”
You are the one who has set everything in motion, Morgause’s first words to him rang in his head. The catalyst, the impetus.
Merlin ignored the chill that ran down his back and retorted, “I didn’t ask you to buy me.”
“And then where would you be, Merlin? You know, it’s usually considered an honor to serve a prince.”
Merlin sighed and shook his head. At least, it seemed Arthur was recovering from the shock of Tristan’s death. It was then that he remembered that Arthur was still holding his wrist, their hands hovering uncomfortably close to the prince’s crotch.
“Er,” Merlin managed before Arthur followed his gaze down to their hands and immediately released him. Merlin spun around to retrieve Arthur’s riding boots from the heap of linen as Arthur did up the laces of his pants. He helped fit Arthur into the boots. “Right so,” Merlin forced himself to break the awkward silence, getting to his feet, “we have to get you out of here and away from the priestesses.”
Arthur got to his feet as well and asked, “How many guards are there outside?”
“At least eight?”
“Eight is fine. I can take of them easily,” Arthur remarked, heading for the door.
“No!” Merlin grabbed the prince’s arm, pulling him back. “You’ll never make it out of the castle that way. Think. Once you attack the first two, the others will know you’ve escaped and alert the rest of the castle guards, the priestesses and the king.”
“Well, then, Merlin, do you have a better idea?”
Merlin stooped over and pulled Arthur’s short sword out from a pillow. He held it out to the prince.
“They will hardly expect you to turn into a wyvern. The purpose of the trigger is already fulfilled,” Merlin stated.
“You can’t be serious!” Arthur exclaimed, recoiling from the sword.
“I am, sire. You’re locked in a tower with only one entrance. You can’t just leap out the window, and I can’t smuggle you out. It’s up to you alone, and I believe this is the only way to get you out unharmed.”
“Right, by turning into a beast and practically losing my mind,” Arthur scoffed.
“No, you won’t lose your mind. Remember that I will be with you, sire, I promise you. I won’t let you lose your mind.”
“The guards will hear me changing. They’ll stop us,” Arthur pointed out.
“Then you’ll have to be as quiet as possible,” Merlin said, and the prince glared at him. “It’ll be hard, but you’re strong, Arthur, and I’m sure you can do it.”
After a moment of silence, Arthur asked, “Why are you helping me, Merlin? You’re doing far more that anyone would expect from you, even if you disagree with the priestesses. I appreciate it, but why?”
“There’s no time for that now. Perhaps, I’ll tell you later,” Merlin hedged. “We’ve got to get you out and safe first.” Arthur looked ready to press the issue, but Merlin pressed on, “We’re in the Western Tower. When you break loose into the castle, you mustn’t let the beast’s panic control your mind. Remember not to hurt anyone, not to kill anyone, or you might regret it. Get out of the castle as fast as you can and meet me in the grove. If someone is after you, get away, but remember to eventually go to the grove. Tom is in the gardens, keeping an eye out for trouble. Do you remember all of that?”
Arthur took the sword from him and nodded. Two seconds later, the sword slipped from his hand as he hunched over, face screwed up in pain.
“Arthur, don’t think of the pain. Remember, what do you have to do?”
“Keep sane…don’t kill anyone,” Arthur gasped, fingers clawing the stone floor. “Get to….the grove.” Arthur managed to glance up at Merlin before he closed his eyes to the pain as his image began to shift between human and wyvern.
Soon, Merlin stood before a silent wyvern, its red eyes staring him down.
“Arthur, can you hear me?” Merlin ventured, and the wyvern jerked its head in a reptilian sort of nod. Merlin heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay. Alright. In a few seconds, I’m going to scream. Don’t be startled. The moment I get the guards to open the door, that’s your cue to run. Do you understand?”Again, wyvern-Arthur nodded sharply.
Merlin took a deep breath and let out a yell, running to the door. “Guards! Guards! Help me, please!” he shouted, banging his fists on the door. Behind him, Arthur roared and hissed in such a way that even a seasoned hunter would turn and run at once. Merlin really hoped that his yells hadn’t startled Arthur out of control of the beast.
When the door swung open, Merlin jumped out of the way as wyvern-Arthur went rushed through, barreling over the two guards. He watched the lizard-like creature dart around the bend and down the tower steps, hearing the shouts of guards upon seeing the beast.
After few minutes’ pause, Merlin began his own descent down the stairs. He ran past the collapsed forms of the guards he’d passed earlier, noting with relief that they were still breathing, and took off on his own route to the garden grove.
The castle was on full alert, every torch and fireplace blazing bright and guards rushing back and forth in the corridors and across the courtyards. Word of sightings of a winged beast and speculations to its origins passed from person to person like wildfire, fueling the terror and tension in the air.
Merlin had just entered the gardens when pain ripped across his back, sending him to his knees in the dirt.
“What’s this, a runaway slave?” Gabel. That voice was unmistakable. Merlin tried to stand, but the under-chamberlain’s whip cracked in the air by his face, the tail just barely nicking Merlin’s cheek. He winced, bringing a hand to the cut. He breathed in and out slowly, listening to the under-chamberlain’s footsteps approach him. “Well if it isn’t the prince’s pet.” In the darkness, Merlin was unprepared for the jamming of the end of Gabel’s whip handle into his face, making him see white for a second and knocking him sideways into the ground. “What might you be doing, sneaking about outside, Carmarthen?” Gabel hissed. Merlin grit his teeth when Gabel grabbed a fistful of his hair, pulling his head back and up at an uncomfortable angle. “Your mad prince isn’t around anymore; you’re no better than any house slave now. And you’re long past due a beating.”
The under-chamberlain shoved him flat on the ground, face down in the dirt. Merlin clenched his fists, but he swallowed the boiling rage inside him, just as he’d done many times before. Retaliation was not worth it, was never worth it. He just needed to get through this beating and get to Arthur.
But the beating didn’t come. Instead, he heard a choked shout of surprise before Gabel’s oppressive presence against his back was gone. Rolling up into a crouch, he found Tom standing over the under-chamberlain’s prone figure, a dagger protruding from his back.
“Master Tom, I—”
“Gabel deserved this a thousand times over,” the slave master interrupted him. “Get going, Merlin. Keep the prince safe.” Merlin almost doesn’t catch the bundle Tom threw at him, but when he did, he discovered that it was a wool travel cloak. “Get going. I’ll take care of this.”
“Thank you, Master Tom!” Merlin said before taking off for the grove.
When he reached the grove, he was met by Arthur, his wyvern form appearing from the trees like a specter. He grinned at the sight of the beast, relieved that no harm had come to Arthur. Wyvern-Arthur sidled up to Merlin, circling him where he stood. Only moments later, the wyvern crumpled to the ground with a low hiss. Merlin waited for Arthur’s human form to settle before wrapping the prince in the cloak Tom had given him.
“All right there?” Merlin asked, helping Arthur to his feet and lending him a shoulder to lean on.
“I’m fine,” Arthur bit out, which Merlin took as I’ll recover.
“Let’s hurry then,” Merlin said, leading him into the grove.
It appeared the slave master had had a suspicion of what Merlin had planned to do because when they reached the secluded grove clearing, the prince’s very own Hengroen stood waiting for them. A bag hung from a branch, and inside were the promised supplies, trousers and tunic. Merlin handed the fresh set of clothes to Arthur and averted his eyes as the prince stripped off his dirt-streaked clothes and pulled on the clean ones.
“Sire, you have to get away from Astolat, at least for a while,” Merlin said once the prince was changed, unwinding Hengroen’s reins from a tree branch.
“No, I am not leaving like a coward,” Arthur snapped.
“You have to. You can’t stay here. Morgause and Nimueh plan to take you away.”
“No, I’ll talk to my father, tell him of their treachery.”
“Didn’t you try that already? She might not have enchanted him, but Nimueh has him under her persuasion. He won’t believe you. He thinks you’ve killed Tristan, and you didn’t contradict him. He thinks you’ve gone mad, Arthur.”
The prince scowled and then crossed his arms and brooded for a good minute or so. Merlin shot nervous glances behind them, straining his ears for any signs of pursuers.
“Fine,” Arthur finally said with a sigh.
“Good, now, what I’m about to tell you, you have to swear not to abuse the knowledge. Whatever your opinions are of them, the people I’m sending you to are good people, and they’re the only ones who can break your enchantment.”
“What are you on about, Merlin?” the prince questioned.
“Please, Arthur, you have to swear it. Or I won’t say anything more,” Merlin insisted, his grip tightening on the horse reins. This was not a time for Arthur to be stubborn.
“All right, I swear I won’t abuse the knowledge you are about to impart on me,” Arther said with an eye-roll.
“Thank you.” Merlin closed his eyes, recalling the details Gilli had passed on to him with his dying breath. Ask the griffin. But the griffin just couldn’t possibly be a real one. Then what was—the statue. It had to be it. “Do you know the statue in the town square? The griffin statue?”
“Yes, what of it?”
“You need to go to the griffin and touch it. Ask it to ‘show you the way.’ A…map of some sort should appear in your mind, and it’ll tell you the way to go. After you’ve gone halfway, someone will show up and take you to the Carmarthian refugees. Tell them you’re…you’re the Once and Future King and that Nimueh has cursed you. They probably won’t believe you and will probably hate you for being from Camelot, but you’ll be examined at the very least. They can help you.”
“Once and Future King?”
“Arthur, there’s no time. Just do what I say and it’ll be all right,” Merlin pleaded, shooting another glance back towards the castle.
Arthur sighed, giving him an exasperated look Merlin was becoming very used to. In a matter of seconds, he had smoothly mounted his horse.
“Well, come on, Merlin. We best get going before the guards come round.”
“What?” A mixture of panic and hope filled him. How he wanted to go and see the Carmarthian refuge himself, to see who survived and mourn who was lost. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t face his people, not after his failure. He stared up at Arthur, who held out an expectant hand to help pull him onto the horse. “I’m not coming with you, Arthur. I’m a slave; I can’t just up and leave. They’ll track me down and find you,” he argued, thankful that it was too dark for Arthur to tell it was simply an excuse to keep himself from going.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. Of course you’re coming with me. They’ll know without a doubt you helped me. And it looks like you’ve already had a run-in with some if the blood on your back means anything. The moment you step back into the castle, you’ll be caught and executed.”
“But I can’t.”
“Merlin, get on the bloody horse.”
“Now, Merlin. I’m not going to just leave you here. I will not repay your loyalty by letting you go to your death.”
They stared at each other, eyes locked in a battle of wills. How far was Merlin willing to go to save Arthur? Because of Arthur, Merlin had already thrown away thirteen years of caution and not-living. Because of Arthur, Merlin was reflecting more on his past, present and future than he had since the Fall, drawing on the knowledge he’d gained in his youth, knowledge he’d tried to ignore, to protect the prince. Should he take the next step? Swallow his shame and face his people to save Arthur? From a simpler stance, there were two outcomes, really: a relative measure of freedom with Arthur as his sole master and a high chance of being caught and killed, or almost certain death upon returning to the castle. The former was definitely the better choice, but could he risk facing the contempt of his own people? He knew the answer though—he could. He’d survived thirteen years of back-breaking labor, thirteen years without magic. And it wasn’t him that mattered, but Arthur.
Merlin closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, looking up at Arthur, he could recall his vision perfectly. He could see the king Arthur could become, and it would be glorious. If Merlin could play a part to make it happen, even without being Emrys, even without magic, then his decision was already made for him. Merlin sighed and grabbed hold of Arthur’s extended hand, giving the prince a scowl just for the sake of obstinacy.
“Hmm, I thought so,” Arthur said with a smug smile before pulling Merlin up behind him onto the horse. “Don’t fall off on me, Merlin!” was his only warning before Hengroen shot forward at a gallop. Merlin yelped as he felt himself lurch back, slipping on the saddle before he threw his arms around Arthur’s waist.
“Prat!” Merlin hissed over the sound of his racing heart. Arthur just laughed.
Arthur maneuvered Hengroen through the gardens with ease, and they passed undetected until reaching the castle walls. At the gates though, there was no hopes of staying unnoticed, not with the castle already alert for a wild beast and a missing prince.
“Stop!” shouted the two guards at the gate. They rushed forward to block the path, spears crossed. But Hengroen was a warhorse, and Arthur urged the horse to keep on charging forward. The guards were forced to dive out of the way as Hengroen barreled through, taking Merlin and Arthur out of the castle gates and into the town of Astolat.
“Now, tell me, Merlin. I would have thought you’ve be glad to be with your people again,” Arthur asked as they galloped through the city. Merlin was trying hard not to let the discomfort of wearing only braies on the saddle of a speeding warhorse get to him.
“I lost my magic, and I failed my people,” Merlin said, revealing as much of his past to the prince as he was willing.
“That’s ridiculous. I hardly think you losing your magic caused the fall of your entire kingdom.”
You’d be surprised, Merlin wanted to say, but instead he said, “And I’m a slave. I can’t show my face to my people.”
“And why is that, pray tell?”
“My people see it as a disgrace, a dishonor to his name, for a sorcerer to submit to enslavement. It’s a corruption of character.” Albion will fall because of me, he adds to himself.
“You? Corrupted?” Arthur laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. There’s not a corrupt fiber in you, Merlin. Your people are fools if they do not welcome you back with open arms. “
“I certainly wish that was true,” Merlin muttered.
“Merlin, I know you’re a bit of girl, but you must have ridden a horse before. There’s no need to hold on to me so tightly.” Merlin realized then that in unconscious reaction to Arthur’s prying, he was indeed squeezing Arthur’s waist tightly, and he loosed his grip, now hanging on to him just enough to not fall. “Like I was saying, there’s no corruption in you. Listen up because I won’t say this again. You may be a rubbish slave, but…you’ve gotten me to think more.”
“That hardly seems like a challenge,” Merlin couldn’t resist remarking.
“Shut up, Merlin, I’m being serious,” Arthur snapped, still deftly maneuvering Hengroen through the network of narrow streets. “You’ve changed the way I think of things, and it absolutely infuriates me sometimes. Do you see what you’ve done to me? Everything I say, everything I do, I’m forced to take another second to consider everything. Always, I find myself thinking of what you, of all people, would think of me or how you’d judge me for my actions. You’re only a slave, and I don’t understand what makes you any different from all the others who’ve passed judgment on me. Gods know how much I have to put up with dealing with you, and yet, I can do nothing to get rid of you. You always make me feel as if I should do better, as if I should be better. So don’t you dare say you’re corrupted. If you can make a ‘royal prat’ like me second-guess himself, his entire life, then your people are all fools who can’t see the goodness before them.”
Merlin was rendered, unsurprisingly, speechless, body going as still as could be while riding a horse. He stared at the back of Arthur’s head, gathering back his voice.
“Don’t get a big head. You’re also a complete idiot with no sense of self-preservation or propriety,” Arthur interrupted, falling back again on that familiar arrogant tone.
“If you say so, sire,” Merlin murmured, still dazed and going over what Arthur had said about him.
It was as they arrived at the town square that the sounds of pursuers reached their ears, the echoes of hooves clattering and bouncing around in the air around them. There in the center of the square was the griffin statue, the griffin’s form cast in iron, rearing back on its hind legs with its forelegs clawing the air and its beak opening in a silent screech. Arthur pulled Hengroen to a clean stop just beside the statue. Merlin slid off the horse, following shortly by Arthur. He winced upon landing, stretching his legs and groin. Arthur gave him an unimpressed look before turning his attention to the griffin statue.
“So, what is it you wanted me to do?” the prince questioned, squinting up at the statue.
“We’ve got to hurry,” Merlin said, looking over his shoulder and trying to locate where their pursuers were approaching from. “Touch the statue and say, dangos y fford adref i mi.” Show me the way home, the words meant, and just saying them filled Merlin with familiar longing.
“Why can’t you say it?” Arthur groused but pressed a hand to one of the griffin’s legs. After a few abortive attempts, Arthur managed to say the words correctly. After a moment of silence, with the two of them looking expectantly at the statue and the shouts of their pursuers drawing closer, Arthur asked, “What’s supposed to happen? Because I don’t think anything did.” Merlin bit his lower lip, the crawling sensation of unease growing in him.
“Say it again. Try saying it in your mind, too,” he suggested. “Clear your mind and think only of those words. A…map or something should reveal itself.”
“Right. ‘Or something’,” Arthur muttered darkly before closing his eyes and gripping the griffin tighter. The sounds of horse hooves were getting much too close, and Merlin kept glancing back and forth between his surroundings and Arthur.
After well over a minute of waiting, Merlin was seriously considering for them to give up and just get out of the town. He could try and find another way to find the Caramarthian refuge.
“Gods, what—!” Arthur suddenly barked a laugh. “That is just fantastic!” Arthur looked up at the griffin and then at Merlin with wide eyes bright with excitement. “Come on, Merlin, I know the way.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and pulled him back to Hengroen.
They mounted quickly, though Merlin with trepidation for his manhood, and took off just as royal cavalry burst into the courtyard. Without much guidance from Arthur, Hengroen got them around the mounted knights and back into the town’s maze of streets.
“It’s like a map unfolding bit by bit inside my head, changing itself every time I go a different direction,” Arthur told Merlin, and it made Merlin wonder just who, if he’d known them, had come up with the spell to create this map.
Hengroen’s path was confident and sharp. It was expected that Arthur would own the fastest, strongest warhorse there was to offer, so it wasn’t long before they managed to gain some distance from their pursuers, though not enough to feel completely at ease. But as they rushed down one narrow street after another, Merlin realized that the way Arthur was leading them did not seem like a way out of Astolat. Before he could question Arthur, however, the prince pulled Hengroen to a halt outside a tavern of all places. Merlin wondered if they were perhaps supposed to meet up with someone to lead the way to the refuge.
“Arthur, what are we doing here?” Merlin asked as the prince dismounted and he scrambled to follow suit. “You do realize we’ve got some not-so-pleasant people chasing after us, don’t you?”
“We’re making a detour. Keep up, Merlin,” Arthur said before walking into the tavern.
A hush fell in the room, its occupants looking over at Arthur and Merlin. The barkeeper stepped forward as the rest of the people resumed their chatter.
“My lord, how may I—”
“I need some sturdy clothes and boots for him. Make it quick,” Arthur snapped, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Merlin. The barkeeper’s eyes slid over to Merlin, giving him a baffled look before disappearing up the stairs.
“Arthur, what exactly are you doing?” Merlin attempted to ask again.
“Getting you clothes, Merlin. I thought you’d appreciate not losing your balls,” the prince drawled, giving him a suggestive look.
“What?!” Merlin squawked, feeling heat rising to his cheeks and the tip of his ears. Before he could say more though, the barkeeper returned, bringing with him a cloak, rough but thick riding breeches and old, sturdy boots.
“Good, I’ll return later to repay you,” Arthur said to the barkeeper, snatching up the clothing.
“Yes, my lord,” the barkeeper replied with a bow. Arthur grasped Merlin by the elbow and pulled him back out of the tavern.
“Here, put this on. We haven’t got all day,” Arthur ordered, thrusting the bundle into Merlin’s arms.
The clothes smelt musty and a bit like ale, but they seemed clean enough, and Merlin couldn’t really care less as he pulled on his first pair of pants and boots in thirteen years. The moment they were on and the cloak wrapped around his shoulders, Arthur was pulling him back up onto Hengroen. He sent the warhorse into a gallop once again, this time most certainly heading out of Astolat.
It wasn’t long after leaving Astolat and entering the dense woods to the west of the city that Arthur announced they’d probably lost their pursuers. He slowed Hengroen’s pace to an easy gait as they traveled down a dirt path. The travel was monotonous, Arthur not choosing to speak and Merlin not having anything to really say that he already hadn’t or didn’t want to say. Merlin felt himself being pulled by the rocking motion of Hengroen’s steps.
Waves after waves the enemies came. He strikes down as many as he could, throwing out his magic with his left hand while fighting off others with his right. His arms scream at the strain, and his legs are shaking. His right hand feels as if forever glued to the hilt of his knife. Magic courses through the knife too, making the inscriptions in the blade spark blue and allowing him to slice even the thickest armour like paper. During a rare, brief pause, he takes the chance to wipe the sweat and blood from his brow and away from his eyes. There’s a scream behind him, and he can only watch as Isaac, one of his mother’s friends, is cut down by a knight from Mercia. With a guttural shout and a raised hand, Merlin brings down the knight. He turns back around just in time to block an attack from another knight. One after the other, the soldiers keep coming, bringing with them the smell of blood and death. The buzz of adrenaline that usually comes from using his magic has long since disappeared, his magic too overused. He feels sick, stretched thin and sluggish, but he is Emrys and must protect his people.
Arthur abruptly hunched forward with a curse, shaking Merlin from his dream. Disoriented for a moment, Merlin then noticed that Arthur had a hand clutching his forearm, his body bent over and face pinched with pain.
“I-is it the curse?” Merlin asked, glancing at the ground in the chance he’d have to throw himself off the horse and away from a hissing wyvern.
“I’ll be fine,” Arthur gritted out.
A few minutes later, the pain seemed to recede as Arthur straightened back up and his face smoothed over.
“My father might send out Aredian soon,” Arthur remarked, disdain curling his lips.
“The best tracker Camelot has to offer. I doubt he’ll find us though. I’ve left false trails for him,” Arthur explained. Despite his words, worry struck Merlin immediately.
“The Carmarthians. We’ll be leading—”
“No, we won’t be leading him straight to them. Aredian will not be able to follow us. Your people will be safe.”
“Trust me, Merlin. Aredian won’t be able to tell north from south once he falls into the trails I’ve left for him,” Arthur said. “You can just go back to sleep. I’ll wake you when we stop for the night.”
“No, it’s all r---”
“Go back to sleep, Merlin.”
“All right, I will,” Merlin muttered but lapsing into silence.
Closing his eyes, he tentatively rested his forehead against Arthur’s back. Arthur didn’t react or say anything, so Merlin blew out a breath before letting himself relax. He couldn’t tell how far they traveled after that before he felt himself slipping into dreams again.
Lightning cracks through the sky, its thunder resonating with the roar of his blood, his magic coursing through his body. With a roar and a flash of gold eyes, he sends the five soldiers surrounding him flying. Someone shouts to his left and he turns in time to see Koren, one of his sister’s best friends, crumple to the ground. Merlin immediately throws his knife, which cuts through the armour of Koren’s killer and catches him in the side. He calls back the knife in time to block an attack from behind.
There isn’t time to think, isn’t any time to mourn. Besides, his tears have already run dry, for his parents, for his sister, for all the lives lost—on both sides. Because Merlin isn’t a killer. He hates it, and he could feel the balance of the world shift with every life lost in the war. But to protect Carmarthen, to protect his people, he has killed and must keep killing. He could only hope that those he’d sent on ahead, sent on retreat, would survive, that she would survive.
He clears his mind and leaps back into battle, slitting the throat of his attacker and charging at the two new soldiers who’d appeared. He ducks the swipe of one of them, and—
“—up, Merlin, we’re stopping for the night.”
A hand wrapped around his wrist. With a grunt, he broke its grip. He rolled off the saddle and kicked out, his free hand shooting out to claw at his attacker’s throat—Arthur’s throat. Merlin let out a strangled noise, realizing his mistake, but fortunately, the prince was a warrior after all. Arthur knocked away Merlin’s kick and grabbed his wrist.
“I-I’m so sorry, sire. I was having a nightmare. I didn’t know it was you,” Merlin said, trying to pull away. Arthur didn’t let go.
“Gods, Merlin. What was that?”Arthur questioned, eyes wide and mouth open.
“Nothing. Just a nightmare. I wasn’t myself.” The sounds of metal clashing and magic singing and voices shouting still lingered in his head, and Merlin willed them to go silent.
“Merlin, with the skills you’ve shown, even if you happened to have rubbish magic, which I assume you didn’t, how on earth did you get captured?”
—hot metal sinking into his belly, a sudden hit to the back of his head, a gloved hand around his throat bringing him to his knees and his knife to the ground, iron clicking around his wrists—
“Merlin?” Arthur’s voice cut through his memories, and Merlin shook his head, banishing the memory.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, looking at the trees, the ground, anywhere but Arthur.
“Merlin,” Arthur said in his I’m a prince and you will tell me tone.
“No, Arthur,” Merlin replied, finally looking at Arthur to give him a glare. “I’m sorry I attacked you, but I’m not ready to talk. Maybe one day I’ll tell you, but not right now. It’s more important to get you to the refuge.”
Arthur huffed but conceded with a “Fine, have it your way.” He took hold of Hengroen’s reins and left the trail they’d been travelling on.
“Come along, Merlin. I want some sleep before the sun comes up again,” Arthur called over his shoulders. Merlin rolled his eyes, shaking away the last of his nightmare-memories, and trailed after the prince.
After several minutes of weaving through shrubbery and around trees, Arthur stopped them in a small clearing, just big enough for the two of them and Hengroen. Merlin stood there for a moment, uncertain what the prince expected him to do from here on out. Having never really seen Arthur outside of the usual princely settings, excluding the times of his enchantment, Merlin wondered exactly how the prince got on without others serving him.
“Er, well, we’ll need some firewood, but there should be provisions in the saddlebags,” he said. “If you want, I’ll take care of the horse and get something cooking while you get some shuteye.”
Seeing Merlin's offer for what it was, the prince snorted before saying, “Contrary to what you might think, I can very well take care of myself. I don’t always have servants and slaves at my beck and call. We certainly don’t bring servants on patrol or hunts.”
“Really? Shocking. And here I thought princes were to be babied,” Merlin remarked, exhaustion turning on his self-censor.
Arthur threw a glare at him but walked over to Hengroen, clearly intending on taking care of the horse himself. With a shrug, Merlin started looking about for kindling. If the prince wanted to prove something to himself, far be it for Merlin to interfere.
When Merlin returned, Arthur had already pulled out the bedrolls and crawled into one. Merlin dumped the kindling besides the small pit Arthur had dug out for a fire.
“I’ll wake you up when I’ve got some food cooked, yeah?” Merlin said, making his way over to where Arthur had dumped the saddlebags. As he passed Arthur though, the prince’s hand shot up and grabbed his wrist, stopping him.
“I don’t suppose you’ll be running away?” Arthur asked with a raised eyebrow. Merlin looked down at his hand and then into Arthur’s eyes. Arthur’s tone had been light and teasing, but Merlin could read the small edge underneath it. He wondered briefly if it was because Arthur didn’t want to lose his property or if it was because the prince did not wish to be left all alone with his curse. He suspected it was the latter, not that the prince would ever admit it.
Merlin gave him a small smile before replying, “Of course not. I told you, sire, I can’t just let this happen to you. If I’m able to, then I will help you fight this curse.”
“Well then—” Arthur cleared his throat and let go of Merlin’s wrist. He turned to face the fire before closing his eyes. “Get to work then.”
Merlin could still feel the pressure of Arthur’s fingers against his skin.
Surprisingly, Merlin hadn’t even thought of running away. A year ago, even six months ago, if Merlin had been given this opportunity—a fast horse, supplies, with only a man who couldn’t even touch a sword as company—he could have taken it right away. But now that he had met Arthur, things had obviously changed. It wasn’t as if Arthur would hurt or mistreat Merlin now that they were on their own. Years of slavery had left him more cynical and wary of what humans were capable of, but he still wanted to uphold a duty to protect Albion as best as he could, and it was his duty to help Arthur. Arthur, for that matter, had no one but Merlin to turn to, and in a way, they were co-dependent on each other now. Not that the prince would agree with him or that Merlin would say so out loud.
With a sigh, Merlin dug out some of the food supplies from the saddlebags and settled down by the fire.
Twenty minutes later, Merlin shook Arthur awake and passed him the pot of crushed herbs, beans and bits of dried meat. Arthur frowned at the food, and Merlin prepared himself for the inevitable criticism on his cooking, but Arthur just picked up the spoon and started eating.
Merlin sat down by the fire and watched the prince. Arthur definitely wasn’t looking his best, dark smudges under his eyes and his hair mussed. No one could possibly blame him though, not with the day he’d had. Merlin belatedly remembered then that it was the prince’s birthday—or had been. He didn’t think it mattered to Arthur though, not when his uncle was dead and he was now a fugitive from his kingdom. Merlin felt a flash of pity for the prince. The road to the throne was always full of hardship; Arthur’s seemed to overflow with it. But Arthur wanted no pity; Merlin knew him well enough to know that.
With a start, Merlin realized that he was staring and turned away, looking into the fire. Shifting, Merlin heard a crinkle. Curious, he stuck a hand in his tunic pocket and discovered Lancelot’s letter.
“Sire, this came for you. I picked it up on my way to find you,” Merlin said, holding up the letter for Arthur to see. “It’s from Lancelot.” Arthur set down the pot and spoon and gestured for Merlin to read it aloud. With a nod, Merlin broke the seal on the letter and began reading:
I believe by the time this letter reaches you, you will have been crowned. Congratulations, my cousin, Crown Prince of Camelot. It has been a long twenty-three years for this moment to come, and I sorely wish I could have been present to watch the ceremony.
I don’t envy your position though. I’ve mentioned it before. You are fit to be king, while I merely a knight, and I look forward to the day when I can serve you, though not to the day your father will pass of course.
I must warn you that I feel that dark times are ahead—for all of us. Sir Tristan tells me you two had an argument. I hope you two will resolve your issues soon, because you will need all the support you can find. Tristan suspects the Northumbrians of dark plots, and I suspect them as well.
As you know, I have been assigned to help the Northumbrian delegates settle in Stafford. They’ve claimed the old castle in the heart of the city, and while I’m not permitted in any longer, I hear from the builders hired that the Nothumbrians are adding deep rooms underneath the castle, and once a room is built, no one but the Northumbrians are allowed down there. There are more and more foreigners entering in the city—entering the old castle. They wish to build a temple, to their own gods, beside the castle and plan to build a wall surrounding. Only a fool would not suspect them of building a fortress, because it’s certainly beginning to look like one. The Northumbrians are our guests, though, and I am at a loss at how to proceed.
Please get back to me as soon as you can. I hope that you are well.
“Damn it,” Arthur muttered, rubbing his face with a hand. “They’ll tell Lancelot that I’ve killed Tristan. He’ll come after me once he knows. Tristan was like a father to him as much as he was to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, but Arthur waved it away.
“You couldn’t have done anything about it,” Arthur said. “What’s more important is what the Northumbrians are planning, the building of a fortress in the middle of Stafford. The most obvious conclusion is that they’re planning for war.” Arthur grimaced, prodding the fire with a stick.
“Then the High Priestesses are serious about this. They were planning to control you. If they failed, then war would be their back-up plan,” Merlin said.
Arthur cursed under his breath and said, “We have to stop them. I have to warn my father.”
Merlin sighed. “He thinks you’ve gone mad. And you’ve already tried to attack Nimueh. We have to break the curse before anything can be done. It’ll slowly drive you mad otherwise.”
“The moment I’m cured, I’m going after them. It’s my duty to protect Camelot.”
“And you’ll come with me?”
Merlin looked at Arthur with a perplexed frown. The prince stared back at him. His blue eyes were bright in the firelight, but once again, Merlin couldn’t read them, and Arthur didn’t say more, just waiting for a reply. “I don’t have a choice,” Merlin pointed out. Surely Arthur hadn’t forgotten that Merlin was his slave, bound to his service almost permanently when considering the dragon on Merlin’s cheek.
“You wouldn’t want to stay with your people?” Arthur asked.
“I wouldn’t be welcomed.”
“It’s been thirteen years, Merlin. After everything that’s happened, don’t you think your people’s beliefs will have changed a bit? Whatever you’ve done, however you think you’ve failed them, I doubt it will make them shun you.”
Merlin was hardly surprised by the spark of anger that shot up inside him. He turned away from the prince, glaring into the fire. He blew out a breath, forcing the anger out with his exhale. “Whether my people forgive me or not, I failed them. If I can somehow help stop Nimueh and Morgause, then I will. I won’t fail Albion in its time of need.”
“One of these days, you will tell me what this is all about, Merlin,” Arthur remarked softly. Merlin looked over at Arthur, but the prince had retreated back into his bedroll, his back to Merlin. With a sigh, Merlin reached over for the pot, finishing the rest of the food and resigning himself to a quiet night filled with his own thoughts.
Once again, Merlin found himself wondering at the likeliness of Arthur being the Once and Future King. He had his doubts, despite his instructions to Arthur. As a child, he used to pester the seers and his teachers for any information he could get about this man he was destined to stand beside. But there was very little the adults could tell him. The Once and Future King was a man with no natural inclination towards magic. He was mortal, but not really. He was born to rule for all time, the Eternal King, and so his death would never be just a death, as he’d always be reborn again eventually. He was a master of combat, and his charisma and words brought him support and loyalty. He cared for the land and his people, always putting them first. But it was only with Emrys by his side that he would achieve greatness.
Merlin’s musings were interrupted by a strangled sound coming from the back of Arthur’s throat. Master Tom hadn’t packed any sleeping draughts in the saddlebags, and unlike Arthur’s earlier nap, Arthur’s sleep was restless. The prince tossed and turned, mumbling in his sleep. Merlin had no interests in finding out what demons plagued Arthur’s dreams, but he worried for him. Lack of sleep led to a weakened mind, which would lead to a poor defense if Arthur was to transform again. Merlin hoped nothing would trigger Arthur’s transformation; there was a high chance Arthur wouldn’t be able to control the wyvern if he did. He watched Arthur’s sleeping form closely, but eventually the prince settled down, though it wouldn’t be long until the restlessness started again.
Arthur woke well before dawn, looking as if he hadn’t slept at all. Broody and silent, he helped Merlin get the saddlebags and saddle back on Hengroen. They were on the road again before the sun touched the horizon.
They traveled for four days, following the map in Arthur’s head. Much of the time was spent in silence—Merlin sleeping during the day while Arthur attempted to sleep at night. Merlin was grateful that the memories of war that had plagued him the first night hadn’t returned, because he didn’t know how much more he could bear of the contemplative stares Arthur would give him when he thought Merlin wouldn’t notice.
They had just finished with their dinner, Arthur preparing his bedroll for sleep, when he jumped to his feet and eyed the trees surrounding them. His hand went to his waist, but they hadn’t taken a sword with them when they fled Astolat for obvious reasons.
“Show yourself and state your business,” Arthur commanded. Merlin pulled up the hood of his cloak and stood to join Arthur’s side.
The foliage rustled to their left before a person in a dark cloak stepped out of the shadows, stopping just outside the ring of light cast by the fire. “Are you the ones who’ve been following the griffin?” the stranger asked. The voice was male and sounded familiar to Merlin.
Arthur scowled and said, “I will not speak to someone I don’t know the face of.”
There was a grunt of irritation, and Merlin just barely stifled the gasp when the man stepped into the light of the fire. Arthur, however, noticed and shot him a glance. The prince thankfully refrained from saying anything though, turning his attention back to the stranger.
But it wasn’t a stranger, not to Merlin. It was Will. Will who had once been one of his closest friends and his sister’s husband. Will had survived the Fall. Merlin resisted the shudder his body wanted to make, a flood of memories surging to the front of his mind.
His sister Freya had loved Will dearly, despite his sometimes surly personality. In fact, she’d been one of the few people who could keep Will in check when he looked ready to go off on raging tirades on life. And Will hadn’t minded at all that the extent of magic Freya could do was turning into a giant winged cat with a vicious temperament—he’d found it “wicked cool” and endearing. Will himself didn’t have any magic and had spent his days helping with the farming or assisting the magic teachers and physicians. Will had also been the first person outside Merlin’s family to see Merlin as Merlin and not the oh-so-great Emrys. He hadn’t cared, and that had brought a grin to Merlin’s face as much as all of Will’s wild antics did when they were children.
In the struggle for Carmarthen’s freedom, countless women had joined in the battle, refusing to back down when their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were fighting to protect them. Freya, Merlin’s courageous and kind sister, was one of those women, joining the battle in her beautiful feline form.
The day afterwards, Will had rushed into battle and Merlin hadn’t seen him again. Until now.
Unsurprisingly, Will looked changed since Merlin had seen him last. There were new lines on his face, a testament to the harshness the Carmarthian people suffered, and a scowl seemed to be permanently fixed on him. His hair was as shaggy as ever and his cheeks, leaner than before, were rough with a few days’ stubble. He stood glaring at Arthur with arms crossed. Arthur merely huffed at Will’s show of defiance and said:
“My name is Arthur, and I’m a knight of Camelot. This is–”
“Ambrose. I’m Ambrose, just his servant,” Merlin interjected in a lower voice than his own. Arthur glared at him, though he wasn’t sure if it was for the interruption or for insisting on hiding his real identity. “My lord has been cursed with a transformation spell. We were told your people could help us and how to find you.”
“Ha. I bet you tortured the information out of the slave, yeah?” Will remarked, his already constant scowl darkening.
“I would never!” Arthur exclaimed. He clenched his fists, and Merlin prepared himself in the chance he decided to hit Will. “I have already sworn to keep your people’s refuge a secret, and I never break my word. Besides, at this moment, I’m a fugitive as well.” Merlin caught the flash of pain in Arthur’s eyes before it was hidden behind his pride again. He knew better than to mention it any time soon.
“Right well, you’re still from Camelot and if you think I’m going to take you straight to my people, you’re mistaken.”
“Then answer me this, do your people have the power to rid me of this enchantment? I will find your refuge even if I have to do it alone,” Arthur said, matching Will’s glare with his own. Merlin could tell by the familiar twitch in Will’s clenched jaws that he was itching to punch Arthur.
This wasn’t going anywhere, except possibly a fist fight, and as Merlin tried to think of what to do, Arthur growled and turned away from Will, heading for where Hengroen stood. Merlin grabbed his arm, pulling him back even as Arthur turned his glare on Merlin.
“Please, sire. Do you remember what the slave said? About who you are?” Merlin asked. “Once and Future King,” he hissed under his breath just in case.
Arthur rolled his eyes and told Will, “He said I was the Once and Future King or some nonsense.” He huffed and pulled his arm from Merlin’s grasp.
“You? The Once and Future King?” Will snorted. “That’s nothing but a dream for the hopeful. Besides, if you’re him, then I’m a bloody dragon. Who told you that?”
“A young Carmarthian boy, captured about a month ago. He refused to say his name,” Merlin said. “I’m sorry, but…he killed himself not shortly afterwards…”
Arthur looked over at Merlin sharply. No doubt, he was wondering about Merlin’s association with the boy. But Merlin was watching Will instead. The scowl crumbled from Will’s face, replaced by unmistakable grief. Will closed his eyes, murmuring a short prayer to the boy. Merlin wondered briefly who Gilli’s family was, if he would have known them.
“Only someone with great power can tell if your master’s the Once and Future King. That boy couldn’t have seen it,” Will said, eyeing Merlin with suspicion. But after a few moments, Will sighed and his scowl had returned to his face. “I’ll take you. If you plan on attacking us though—”
“I have no interest in attacking a refuge,” Arthur snapped. “Your people are not my concern.”
“Then let’s get going. The sooner we get you fixed, the sooner we’ll be rid of you.”
For two days, they traveled in tense silence. Will’s scowl never left his face, looking even sourer than Merlin has ever seen Arthur, which was saying something. Merlin longed to see that mischievous grin he remembered clearly on his old friend’s face, but he suspected that that side of Will had been lost long ago during the Fall and Freya’s death. Merlin kept his hood up at all times, though Arthur kept shooting him exasperated looks.
Will led them in what felt like endless circles, but judging by the slight drop of temperature, they were heading towards the mountains. The caution, Merlin knew, was necessary, and Arthur expressed no complaints. Eventually though, they reached a high point, a ridge in the terrain that dropped off almost like a cliff, swooping down into a valley. Merlin was left breathless at the sight of the small houses nestled in between the grassy fields and the blanket of trees. This was where his people lived now, four hundred of them, living close among nature as before and safe.
“It’s not like home, but it’s the best we can do,” Will remarked almost carelessly before shooting a look at Arthur, as if daring him to make a snide remark.
Arthur simply shrugged and said, “Lead on.”
Will took them to a small cabin that stood on the village outskirts, along the central road that ran through the village. From the doorstep, Merlin could gaze down the road and see a number of other houses as well as a few people milling about. He spotted a group of children as well, all clutching satchels and hurrying down the road. Knowing that there were still young children among his people, children who didn’t know of the brutal war and only the aftermath and were still—hopefully—being taught as Carmarthians were once taught, made warmth and hope bubble inside him, and he couldn’t help but smile. Will unlocked the door and dropped the key into Arthur’s hand before waving for them to go inside.
The cabin was simple and bare, just one room furnished with a table and chairs and a bed. Shelving above the small fireplace held boxes of food stock and a few pots and pans and cups. Arthur took a short tour around the room before pulling out one of the chairs from the table and sitting down. Merlin followed him to the table but hovered by his side instead of sitting.
“I’ll let the council know about you and send for the healer to examine you,” Will said, still standing by the door. “Until then, don’t leave the premises. You lot aren’t exactly welcome here so just stay out of our business. The bucket in the back has water for washing up. The bucket by the fire has water for drinking. Your horse will be taken care up over in the stables.”
Arthur opened his mouth, to no doubt snipe at Will, but Merlin spoke before giving him a chance: “Thank you anyway. For letting us stay here at least.”
Will let out a huff before giving them a curt nod. He nearly slammed the door when he left.
Merlin sighed and pulled down his hood. He made his way over to the fireplace, reaching for one of the pots. While they waited, it was probably best to get some food in their stomachs. He found ingredients to make a soup and got to work.
“Well, he’s a cheery fellow,” Arthur remarked as Merlin set the pot over the fire.
“Will’s always been the surly type, but he…lost a lot in the war,” Merlin said, looking over his shoulder for Arthur’s reaction. The prince simply sat watching Merlin, waiting for him to say more. “We all did. I warned you already that they wouldn’t like you, and they don’t even know who you really are yet.”
“You knew him?” Arthur questioned, and Merlin grimaced, rubbing a hand over his face before turning back to the cooking pot.
“One of my best friends and my brother-in-law,” he admitted. He concentrated on cooking the soup and ignored the memories threatening to surge up and overtake him.
“Then you have a sister.”
Merlin’s grip on the pot tightened, the iron biting into his hand.
“I had a sister,” Merlin corrected, fighting the small ache at the back of his throat. “I couldn’t protect her, wasn’t fast enough.”
—an ear-splitting shriek of pain, and Merlin’s head snaps to his right. That familiar stomach-sinking, gut-wrenching dread hits him as he sees a sword sink into the side of the bastet. He yells out, white fury rushing through his head, and the men surrounding the great cat—his sister—are blown off their feet. They don’t get up, but neither does Freya. He runs to her—
“And he blames you for it?” Arthur said, and a wave of anger rose up inside Merlin. He shot a glare at the prince. “…or you blame yourself for it.” Arthur’s face softened with what Merlin could only read as sympathy. The anger died as quickly as it had come, and Merlin sighed, dropping the ladle into the pot.
“I…he doesn’t blame me. I blamed myself, but…Will probably still blames himself,” Merlin muttered, staring down at his hands. He’d come to terms with Freya’s death. Thirteen years were a long time to grieve. But he still felt that ache, knowing he should have protected her better, should have been there sooner.
“Then why do you still choose to hide your face from him? Is he that horrible of a friend that he’ll scorn you for what you become?”
“No! Will isn’t like that! I just…” He huffed in exasperation before poking at the soup with the ladle. He let the silence between them linger for a few minutes before saying, “It’s easier if they think I’m gone.”
“…why? And I want an answer this time, Merlin,” Arthur demanded.
“Without magic, I’m useless to my people.” It was something Merlin had thought about countless times during the first years of his capture. If he’d died, then that would have been the end. But it was, in a way, worse that he still lived, because he was still alive and should have been able to help his people, but Emrys was gone. He was powerless and slave to the very people responsible for the Fall.
“I hardly think magic is—” A knock on the door interrupted Arthur, and Merlin quickly pulled up his hood. Arthur glared at him but beckoned for the visitor to enter. The door swung open to reveal an old woman who smiled at them warmly.
Merlin recognized straight away who entered the cabin, and would have expected it if he’d known she’d been alive. Alice. Dear, old Alice, the best healer in Carmarthen and his very own aunt, married to his uncle and mentor Gaius. It made him feel even better, knowing that both Alice and Gaius had survived the Fall, were still alive and well. Of course, that meant he had to be even more inconspicuous as ever.
“Good day, sir. My name is Alice, and I’m here to examine you,” the healer said.
“Arthur,” the prince replied as Alice took a seat before him.
“And you?” Alice asked, looking over at Merlin. Merlin tugged the hood down a little further.
“Ambrose, a simple servant,” Merlin said. He sat himself down on the bed.
“Well, I welcome you to our humble refuge. It’s not much, but it’s all we have,” Alice said with a small smile. “Now, you told Will that you’ve been cursed with a transformation spell. Could you tell me about it in detail?”
“What do you need to know?” Arthur asked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.
“Everything you know. What do you transform into?” Alice questioned.
“A…wyvern, was it?” Arthur said, looking over at Merlin for confirmation. Merlin nodded his head.
“What triggers it?”
“Holding a sword and thinking of my uncle.”
“How long does the transformation last?”
“…at least an hour, but often longer.”
“Do you know who is responsible for it?”
Arthur glanced across the room at Merlin before looking back at Alice and saying, “Someone told me that it might have been Nimueh.”
“Oh, oh my…” The furrowing of her brow and her small frown weren’t reassuring at all. Then again, Merlin wondered who would have the power to go against Nimueh. Names came to mind, but most of them were dead.
Arthur, of course, noticed and demanded, “What? Is that going to be an issue?”
“No, no, I hope not. We will have to see,” Alice quickly replied, the worry falling away into her usual smile. “If you don’t mind, I’ll now cast a spell to detect the transformation spell. May I?” Alice inquired.
Arthur stiffened, eyeing the old healer with suspicion. It didn’t surprise Merlin, not when all the spells Arthur had had experience with had been used to bring about harm. Arthur looked again at Merlin, who gestured for him to agree. Arthur stared at him for a few moments before sighing.
“Get on with it then,” he said.
Alice gave him a small bow of her head before raising a hand, palm facing Arthur. She closed her eyes and began murmuring a spell. Straining his ears, Merlin recognized the spell; he’d learned it under Gaius’s tutelage once before, though he’d never had to use it in practice. It did more than detecting the spell. It would create an aura around its target. The caster read the colors from the aura to learn details about the spells placed on a person—how long they last, the general nature of the spells, if they’re fatal, how strong they are and so on. Alice opened her eyes again and looked at Arthur, her face solemn and blank. After a minute, she let out a breath, closing her eyes again.
“Well?” Arthur asked.
Alice shook her head and said, “It’s quite a strong enchantment. I will have to consult with a few others to find a solution.”
“Does that mean this can’t be fixed?” Arthur hissed. His hand gripped the edge of the table, knuckles white.
“I don’t know for sure. A powerful enchantment requires a powerful magic to break,” Alice explained.
“Isn’t there someone powerful enough to break it?” Arthur scowled at her.
She looked Arthur in the eye and replied with a touch of bitterness that shocked Merlin: “The one person most certainly able to break this spell was taken from us by your own people. If he lives, his magic is probably gone.”
Merlin stiffened. She was talking about him. That familiar tightness in his chest started again, along with the clawing sensation in his throat and the sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Are you all right?” he heard Alice say. He looked up to see both Alice and Arthur staring at him, Alice with the customary healer’s concern, Arthur with thoughtful suspicion. Merlin uncurled himself into a proper sitting position.
He coughed to dispel the tightness in his throat before replying, “I’m fine. Just a little cold. Please, my master needs your help, not I.”
“If you’re sure, dear,” said Alice, turning back to Arthur. “There is someone who might be able to help you, but I won’t know for sure until I consult with him. I’m sorry for the wait, but it’s a must.”
“Very well then,” Arthur said with a sigh. Alice got to her feet, signaling the end of her evaluation.
“If I may, I am to take you to see our queen,” she said.
The Queen. Was it who Merlin thought—hoped—it was?
“You will have a monarch for this small place?” Arthur remarked, earning him a tight smile from Alice.
“A monarch and a council,” she said. “The Queen asked to see you. She wishes to know the circumstances that brought you to us. I suspect it will have to do with how you believe Nimueh to be responsible for your curse.”
“My servant can explain it better then.” Arthur stood and nodded at Merlin. Merlin couldn’t decide if he wanted to see the queen yet, didn’t know if he was prepared to.
“I’m sorry, but only you may come, Arthur,” Alice said.
“She asked for you and only you. No one else can come see her.”
“Then what am I to tell her?” Arthur scowled, before giving Merlin an inquisitive look.
“Tell her everything you know about Nimueh and Morgause and what they’re planning,” Merlin suggested. “They need to know, need to be warned.”
“All right.” Arthur nodded. He turned back to Alice, who’d moved to wait by the door. “Take me to her then,” he told her.
After they left, Merlin pulled down his hood. After taking the pot of soup off the fire, he curled up on the bed. Not wanting to think, he took the chance to sleep—he hadn’t gotten much time to do so while Will led them to the refuge.
Merlin dreamt of the past again—not of the war, but of a happier, quieter time.
On a rare day when Gaius would give him a day off from his studies, he would spend the free time with his family. That particularly day, Freya, who was eighteen and just recently engaged to Will, had gone on a date with him, so it was just him and his parents. His mother was in the kitchen, bustling around and baking bread. His father was at home for the day, also a rarity, and he sat in his chair by the living room fireplace, whittling away at a block of wood to create another one of his little wooden creations. Merlin remembered an earlier time when he’d find amusement in making the figurines come to life—until his father pointed out that it was probably best not to have miniature dragons, horses and wolves running about in the wild. Merlin himself was curled up in his own chair, a spell book on his lap but his eyes drawn instead to the new dragon his father was carving out. The only sounds in the room were his mother’s quiet humming and the sound of his father’s knife shaving wood. It was these moments he loved most in his childhood—even though he tried not to think about his past nowadays. Because he loved the quiet moments, when he would be lulled to sleep by the warmth of his family and home.
Though his father had had magic, his mother hadn’t. From his father, Merlin had learned about dragons and unicorns and other aspects of magic, but it was from his mother that Merlin learned the human side of life. From her, he learned about kindness, compassion and patience, and about the value of quiet strength as opposed to bravado and pomp. The first day of battle, his mother had been one of the first women to take up a spear or sword and ask where to stand. He learned then about her own quiet strength, the fierceness of her love that allowed her to fight against men twice her size and yet come out victorious. But that hadn’t kept her safe forever. The day before the final battle that brought Carmarthen’s downfall, his father died protecting his mother in an ambush and later that day, his mother was killed as well. This was the same day he lost Freya; he lost his whole family that day.
Merlin woke a few minutes before the door opened and Arthur walked in. Merlin’s hands flew to his hood, ready to pull it up if he needed to, but to his relief, the prince was alone.
“Hungry?” he asked, setting the now reheated pot of soup on the table.
“Starving,” Arthur replied. He tossed his cloak onto the bed and sat down at the table, watching in silence as Merlin laded out some soup for him before doing the same for himself.
Merlin waited until they were both settled and eating before asking, “How did it go?”
Arthur gave him a knowing smile before saying, “It was…interesting. That queen of yours is quite a woman.” Merlin’s hands clenched involuntarily. He let go of his spoon, but not before Arthur noticed his tenseness.
“What was she like?” Merlin asked, though he really wanted to ask who she was.
“Fiery, but cold. Gorgeous, really, but I don’t think I can hold a civilized conversation with her without turning it into a fight.” So it was her. She’d always been that way—beautiful, headstrong, intelligent. “And her consort wasn’t much better.”
“Consort?” Merlin nearly choked on his mouthful of soup. But of course she could have married. A queen needed a consort after all. She wouldn’t have waited for him; there was no one to wait for. He didn’t know how to feel about it, not yet anyways.
“Yes, he spent the whole time staring at me. I don’t think he even blinked,” Arthur remarked. Merlin knew immediately who it was.
“Mordred he said. “He’s like that, always just staring. Has been since he was a child.”
Merlin remembered that day. They had been only eleven years old, just beginning their formal studies in magic. Wanting to have an adventure, they’d decided to explore the caves…and unknowingly stumbled into the Crystal Cave. The crystals should have affected them; they should’ve been too young to have been able to use them. But they had and found their gazes trapped on the smooth facets of the crystals, watching flashes of the past, future and present. It was horrifying and nauseating, a power that led to madness or darkness without proper control. Merlin had been able to pull himself away quickly, fighting away that magnetic draw he felt towards the crystals. Mordred, however, hadn’t been as lucky. When Merlin saw Mordred staring intensely into the crystals, unaware of his surroundings, Merlin had immediately pulled his friend away and out of the caves, and along the way, Mordred had passed out. When Mordred woke up again, he’d been changed—more silent than ever. That was when the unsettling stare started, though the stare rarely ever bothered Merlin. More significantly, Mordred claimed to not remember what he’d seen in those crystals. Merlin still didn’t know whether to believe him or not, though that issue hadn’t affected their friendship at all.
“So you know him as well?” Arthur asked, pulling Merlin from his thoughts.
“…He was my best friend.”
Arthur looked at him with raised eyebrows before remarking, “Well, he and the queen make quite a…striking pair. What with their skin and hair—actually, you’re like that too, Merlin. The three of you aren’t related, are you?”
“No, we just grew up together,” Merlin said, pushing the remainders of his soup around.
“And how did you get to know the queen? I hardly believe that you were cozy with royalty.”
“I was,” Merlin snapped. Arthur smirked, and Merlin cursed at himself. Of course, Arthur would provoke him to get information out of him.
“Well then, what’s the queen to you? I saw the way you reacted when I mentioned here. She isn’t just a friend, is she?”
“That’s none of your concern,” Merlin replied, opting for a light tone. He then nearly jumped out of his skin when Arthur nudged his leg against Merlin’s.
“Come on, stop trying to be mysterious. It’s a horrible look for you. Tell me,” Arthur insisted, jostling Merlin’s leg again. Though childish, Merlin scowled and jostled him back. He quickly sobered though, knowing Arthur wouldn’t leave it alone until he answered.
“She was my fiancé.”
Arthur stared at him for a stunned moment before breathing out, “Gods, Merlin. Did you ha—”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Merlin said, and for once, Arthur didn’t push for more. Merlin changed the topic. “What did you tell them? What did they say?”
Arthur heaved a sigh and got to his feet. “They said they’d consider the matter and debate what to do.” Arthur crossed the room and sat himself down on the bed.
“That was it? They didn’t seem alarmed, or anything?” He wondered if the queen had expected it, if she’d seen it coming. But then, she would have known that he was here, and he didn’t want to think of what it meant if she deliberately chose not to summon him along with Arthur.
“No, that consort of hers just stared white the queen told me to wait for a decision. Were they supposed to react?”
“The queen is a powerful seer. She might have seen all this happening.” Merlin shrugged.
“Considering Camelot’s part in the war, I’d hardly be surprised if your people supported Nimueh,” Arthur remarked with a shake of his head.
“No, they wouldn’t,” Merlin countered. ““Nimueh’s plans would send the world into chaos. My people could never choose to follow her.”
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Wake me if we have visitors. I’m getting some sleep.” With that, Arthur flopped down in bed and turned away from Merlin, curling into himself.
In the silence that followed, Merlin watched the steady rise and fall of Arthur’s chest, to see if his sleep would be disturbed. It seemed nightmares didn’t plague Arthur during the day but once night fell, the prince would toss and turn to no end, muttering in his sleep. Deciding Arthur didn’t seem to be having trouble at the moment, Merlin pulled his gaze away and spotted something vaguely familiar.
Merlin hadn’t paid attention to it before, but a small tapestry hung from the wall above the head of the bed. The faded colors took a while for him to decipher, but the image soon dawned on him: a dark-haired child staring up at a gold dragon, a glowing sword floating in the air and being bathed in the dragon’s fire. And Merlin remembered that scene. Because he had been that little boy staring up at the enormous dragon.
He’d just turned twelve when the council, with Gaius in the lead, approached him bearing a sword. That day was the first day his prophesized role as the Once and Future King’s…advisor really dawned on him. They had him take the sword to the Great Dragon to be tempered by his fire. Merlin had never directly spoken to the dragon before, his father always doing the talking, and he’d been frightened to death at the idea of telling the dragon to breathe fire in his vicinity. Of course, the dragon had only laughed at how tiny he was at twelve years old, and after Merlin had levitated the sword into the air, the Great Dragon used his flames to temper the sword. The result was the most amazing sword he’d ever seen, and its magic had beckoned to him, whispering of all that could be accomplished with it. Afterwards though, the Great Dragon took the sword with him, to be placed where no man but the Once and Future King could touch it. Merlin never saw the sword again.
Merlin’s first instinct upon seeing the tapestry was to take it down, lest Arthur questions him about it. But Arthur would almost certainly notice if Merlin took the tapestry down and would demand to know why. He would have to hope that Arthur regarded the illustration as merely fanciful thinking on the weaver’s part and pay no attention to it.
Merlin wondered, though, if he’d have to take Arthur to retrieve the sword. With the very likely approach of war, the prince would need it in battle—if he really was the Once and Future King. Merlin then pushed the thoughts aside and collected his and Arthur’s bowls for washing.
Merlin was dozing in a chair when a knock on the door came and woke him up. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes and pulling up his hood again, Merlin stumbled over to the door. He opened it to find Alice on the other side, a covered basket on her arm. He ducked his head even further, making certain his hood hid his whole face.
“Alice, hello. Are you here for my lord?” he asked.
“Hello, Ambrose. I thought you boys might like some actual food,” she said with a smile.
“Oh. Thank you.” He should have expected this really. Alice had always been the one who would show such kindness to strangers. In their hometown, she would cook food for any weary traveler to come stumbling through—provided that they weren’t dangerous company. To see her still continuing this practice now made Merlin’s heart ache for his childhood.
Merlin stood there awkwardly for a second before stepping out of the way to let her in. He let her take care of things and he went to wake Arthur. The prince woke up with some grumbling as Alice began taking out a few covered bowls and plates.
“What’s the healer doing here?” Arthur mumbled, rubbing his eyes. Coupled with his bedraggled hair, Merlin couldn’t help but be a bit amused at the boyish look Arthur presented. “Does she bring news?”
“She brought us food. You won’t have to eat my horrible cooking tonight,” Merlin remarked.
“It’s not horrible,” Arthur replied offhandedly and didn’t seem to notice that the comment sent Merlin into stunned silence.
“I didn’t know what you boys preferred, but I assumed some nice meat was a safe bet,” Alice remarked, dispelling Merlin’s surprise. She uncovered one of the plates to reveal diced up meat cooked with herbs. For Merlin, fresh food, fresh meat, was a very welcome sight to say the least.
“Some meat would do nicely. Thank you,” Arthur replied, echoing Merlin’s sentiments.
Merlin headed across the room to fetch Arthur some water to wash his hands with. Of course, with his horrid luck in life and his innate clumsiness, he stumbled on one uneven section of woof floor. His hood slipped down, and he immediately reached to pull it back up, hoping Alice hadn’t noticed.
“Wait!” The old healer was next to him in seconds, grabbing hold of his wrists and keeping him from replacing his hood. She turned him to face her. “Are you…Merlin,” Alice gasped as Merlin trained his eyes on the floor. After a few moments of complete and utter silence, she cupped her hands on his cheek and tilted his head up to look at his face. Her face was pale, like she’d seen a ghost, but her eyes were bright and watery.
“Alice,” Merlin murmured.
“Oh Merlin, it’s really you!” she marveled. “We’d hoped—I never thought—we thought we lost you.” Alice started crying, tears falling silent even as she smiled at him.
“Alice, no, please don’t cry over me,” Merlin pleaded. “You know I hate it.”
“I’m sorry, dear, but you can hardly blame me,” she said. Her smile disappeared when her eyes focused on the dragon on his cheek and then fell to the collar around his throat. “Oh Merlin…” She reached out to touch the collar, but Merlin grabbed her hand and pulled it away. “And…your beautiful magic?” she whispered. Stomach twisting, Merlin could only shake his head and look away. Alice squeezed his hand, and after a few seconds, he realized she was eyeing Arthur, who sat silently against the wall, watching them with the light of curiosity in his eyes. “You’re his slave master,” Alice accused him.
Oddly enough, Arthur flinched, a grimace passing over his features before disappearing again, but Merlin didn’t take the time to wonder about it as he said to Alice, “No, Alice, please, it’s all right—well, it’s not all right but you know what I mean. He’s a better master than most.” She looked pointed at the dragon on his cheek, but he just shook his head. “Please, Alice, I don’t want to talk about this now.”
She sighed and patted his cheek. “All right, my boy. Now, you’re coming with me to see Gaius.” Merlin couldn’t decide between a smile or a cringe. He opened his mouth to argue, to tell her maybe not tonight, but she interrupted, “No arguments, Merlin. I’m taking you to see Gaius,” and gave him a stern look.
Merlin glanced over at Arthur, who looked back at him with raised eyebrows, as if to say “well?” Merlin sighed.
“Can Arthur come to? I don’t want to just leave him here, in just…” He didn’t complete the thought, but Alice nodded.
“Anything that’ll get you to come, dear. Come on, let’s go,” She took his hand, pulling him towards the door. Arthur slid off the bed and followed them out of the cabin.
“There, Merlin, I hardly see what there was to worry about,” Arthur remarked. Merlin glared at him, but refrained from answering, more concerned with what to say once he saw Gaius.
Alice led them into the heart of the village, the streets quiet since most families were taking their meals, and up to a two-floor cottage. A sign hung by the door, reading “Physician and healer, Gaius and Alice.” Merlin swallowed, remembering a similar sign welcoming him to Gaius and Alice’s home every day over a decade ago. Alice let them into the house, taking Merlin’s hand again and pulling him through the quaint entryway and into a warm little living room. And at the table across the room was Gaius bent over a thick text in a pose so familiar Merlin’s eyes were stinging. His mentor had aged, with new lines on his face and his hair, grey when Merlin last saw him, now white. Other than those small differences, Merlin felt as if he’d been transported back in time, as if he was a child again, watching his old mentor conduct research.
“Alice, welcome h—” Gaius looked up at the sound of their footsteps, and his voice died in his throat. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost, and perhaps, Merlin did seem like a ghost to him. After all, the old Merlin, the young energetic youth he used to be, was long gone.
“Gaius,” Merlin managed to choke out.
“Merlin. Is that you?” Gaius asked, to which Merlin could only nod. The next thing he knew, he was being pulled into a fierce hug. Letting out a shuddering breath, he hugged Gaius back just as tightly.
“Merlin, my boy, how I’ve missed you,” Gaius murmured into Merlin’s ear.
“I missed you too, Gaius.” As his uncle and formal mentor in all things magic—baring dragons—Merlin had seen the old man almost every day during his life in Carmarthen, and he loved Gaius as much as he loved his mother and father. After he lost his parents and Freya, he’d feared he’d lose Gaius and Alice to the war as well. But he hadn’t, and now, Gaius, Alice, and Will were the only family he had left. For the first time in years, he felt like crying—this time out of a mixture of longing and relief—but tears were useless now, and he ignored the burning at the back of his throat and the stinging of his eyes.
When Gaius pulled away, he looked at Merlin at arms’ length, no doubt taking in the arm braces and collar and the dragon-shaped scar on Merlin’s cheekbone.
“You’ve certainly grown,” Gaius remarked.
Merlin gave him a half-smile and replied, “Well it has been thirteen years.”
Gaius nodded, a regretful look on his face. “I assume you were the mysterious servant Will brought here if you came with Alice?” He didn’t wait for Merlin’s reply though, instead looking over at Alice and Arthur. “…it seems the queen refrained from mentioning that your master is Arthur Pendragon,” Gaius commented, startling everyone in the room.
“How did you recognize me?” Arthur demanded, moving from where he’d stopped at the edge of the room.
“I visited Camelot, years before, and I’ve met your mother. You look enough like her for me to make the connection between your face and your name,” Gaius answered with a raised eyebrow. Merlin had always hated it when Gaius used his dreaded eyebrow on him; it was funny how he’d missed seeing it all these years. “If you’ve indeed been cursed by the likes of Nimueh, we definitely have things to worry about.”
Arthur gave him a frown before asking, “And who are you, exactly?”
“Gaius, as you’ve probably deduced. Once upon a time, I was Carmarthen’s court physician alongside my dear Alice, as well as a certified teacher of magic. Now I’m just an old physician working to keep my people healthy.” The frown on Arthur’s face deepened, but he nodded his understanding. “If you will excuse me, sire, Merlin and I have must to discuss. You are free to stay, of course. I’m sorry, Alice, but you wouldn’t mind entertaining the prince, would you?”
“Of course not,” Alice replied, though eyeing Arthur wearily.
Gaius took Merlin by the elbow and sat him down at the table he’d vacated earlier. Merlin fidgeted in his seat as Gaius got settled down. Now that the initial joy of seeing his uncle again had worn out, uneasiness set in, the same hesitation that had made him initially resist seeking out the refuge with Arthur. How would Gaius react once he knew everything that had happened to Merlin, everything Merlin had been forced to do? Merlin wouldn’t be able to handle the disappointment or pity—especially not the pity.
“Merlin, why did you hide yourself?” Gaius asked, of course going straight to the heart of the matter. Merlin winced.
“I’m a slave, Gaius.”
“And?” Gaius said, causing Merlin to scowl at him.
“I don’t have magic. I don’t—I’m not who I was before,” Merlin said. “I failed everyone. I’m not Emrys anymore, and I can’t be of any help when we’ll soon be needing it the most. I’m a slave,” he repeated. “I’m a nobody, lower than any human.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself. You were just a boy. No one expected you to single-handedly fight two or three armies.”
“But everyone expected me to save us,” Merlin argued.
“And you did. If you hadn’t held off the attack that day, the rest of us wouldn’t have escaped. There wouldn’t be this refuge, without what you sacrificed for us,” Gaius pointed out. “What I will regret for all my life is that you had to suffer for us to be free.” Merlin looked down at the table, running a finger along the grain.
“Well, that’s not going to help us in the long run,” he grumbled. “With what the high priestesses seem to be planning.” Merlin looked up when Gaius put a hand on his.
“I think it’s best if you started from the beginning, my boy. Tell me everything,” Gaius said.
With a quick grimace, Merlin then launched into retelling all that had happened since he’d fallen into Camelot’s hands. He glossed over the details in the years leading up to his service under Arthur, partially because he didn’t wish to think about those years and partially because he wanted to spare his old mentor from the demeaning things Merlin had been forced to do. Then he told Gaius about how Arthur bought him and how he got his dragon scar, about Gilli, and finally, about all that had happened with Morgause and Nimueh. Through it all, Gaius kept quiet, only nodding at points to prompt Merlin to continue or waiting when Merlin needed to rest his throat for a few seconds. Vaguely, he noted that Arthur—the prat—had charmed Alice into liking him, and they were circling the room, looking at the various hangings on the walls and the books tucked into the shelf by the fireplace.
After a stretch of silence once Merlin had finished his recounting, Gaius finally asked, “And did the prince tell all of this to the queen today?”
“Yes, at least, the general idea. I didn’t explain all the technical, magic bits to him,” Merlin replied with a little wiggling of his fingers. He pushed away all the questions that had arose in his head when Gaius had mentioned the queen.
“I will have to think on all of this then. The queen will no doubt bring this all up during council tomorrow morning. If what you suspect is true, dark times are ahead, and Nimueh and Morgause are not easy to deal with.”
Merlin bit his bottom lip and asked, “Is there anyone powerful enough to stand against them?”
Gaius frowned and shook his head. “The queen is powerful, but her powers lie in seeing. Mordred has improved since you saw him last, but his skills lie in combining weaponry with magic, and he still isn’t strong enough. Everyone else is gone. Except you, Merlin.”
“My magic is gone,” Merlin grumbled.
“But you still have the knowledge. It’s what has helped Arthur these past several weeks,” Gaius remarked.
“I don’t remember everything though.”
“Then why don’t we start helping you remember?”
“Sure, but I don’t see how that will possibly help us,” Merlin said.
“Anything we can do to prepare will help,” Gauis countered. “Now let’s talk about Arthur.” Merlin glanced over at the prince, who was staring at one of the small tapestries on the wall with his head tilted in thought.
“What about him?”
“Will said Arthur claimed to be the Once and Future King. Now, I doubt he came up with that on his own, meaning it could only be you,” Gaius said, raising his eyebrows to indicate his unsaid question.
“I, er, might have had a vision about it—him, as King?” Merlin said. Gaius looked ready to speak on that, but Merlin added, “No, I don’t have my magic, no matter what you think. I only have enough to survive off of, or something. I just—I saw him, older and wiser and just…Arthur could be the King. I can’t confirm it, obviously. I need an actual seer to do that.”
Gaius turned his head and looked at Arthur speculatively before saying, “We will have to get the queen to check then.”
“What about the curse? How can we break it? He’ll go mad if it continues,” Merlin said. His heart sank when Gaius’s expression turned grave.
“Alice has told me the spell placed on him is very powerful. Her and my magic combined might be able to break up, but it isn’t certain. I was just researching it,” Gaius said, gesturing to the books laid out on the table. Merlin ran his hands through his hair.
“There has to be something, Gaius. I promise I’d help him.”
“I believe for now, it’s best to not do anything tonight. It’s already late, and I would like time to think over everything. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow,” Gaius suggested. Merlin sighed, but nodded.
“I suppose we should go then. Give you some peace and all,” Merlin remarked with a small smile. The two of them stood, but before Merlin went to go get Arthur, Gaius pulled him into another hug.
“It’s so good to see you again, Merlin,” he said. “Be sure to come back tomorrow.”
“It’s good to see you again too, Gaius,” Merlin answered before letting go.
He went over to Alice and Arthur, who were exchanging goodbyes. As soon as he reached them, Alice embraced Merlin as tightly as Gaius had.
She patted his hand after pulling away and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Merlin dear.”
“Alice and Gaius, who exactly are they to you, Merlin?” Arthur asked the moment they left the cottage.
“Alice didn’t tell you?” Merlin said.
“No, we spent a lot of time talking about Carmarthen…and you.” Arthur cracked a smile, the moonlight just bright enough to see it, when Merlin stumbled a step.
“What?! What did she tell you?” he demanded.
“If I told you, that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?” Arthur replied. Merlin hoped Arthur could see his glare. “So? Answer my question, Merlin.”
“Alice is my aunt-in-law,” Merlin said.
“Then Gaius is your uncle.”
Merlin nodded and added, “He’s my mentor. He taught me almost everything I needed to know about magic.”
And maybe it was the mention of the word “mentor” that led Arthur to think of Sir Tristan, or maybe the curse had just gotten worse and Arthur’s defenses had already been weakened by lack of sleep. Either way, one moment the prince was grinning, and the next he was on the ground writhing, shifting between human and wyvern form.
“Oh no, no, no,” Merlin said under his breath. The transformation was happening too fast, much too fast for Arthur to keep a handle on his consciousness. “Arthur, Arthur, please hear me,” he pleaded, keeping just outside of reach. “Arthur, remember, you’re human. You mustn’t hurt anyone. You have to stay in control.” He feared that his words were pointless when Arthur, now fully in wyvern form, hissed and snapped his jaws at him. They stared at each other in the eyes, and Merlin tried to determine if Arthur was in control of the wyvern or if he was really staring down at a feral magical beast. He was answered though, when the wyvern made a swipe at Merlin before taking off in the opposite direction. Merlin took off after the wyvern and cursed when he lost sight of him. He kept running though, and soon enough, he heard shouts. He could only hope the wyvern—Arthur, only not at this moment—had simply scared the person and not attacked them.
He soon found the wyvern, cornering a man and woman against one side of a house. He rushed forward, getting in between the wyvern and the couple.
“Arthur, listen to me. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Please,” Merlin said, quite futilely. He took a small step towards the wyvern. “Just, stay away from people for a while. Maybe find a poor deer to terrorize?” He took another step towards the wyvern, and then immediately stumbled back a step when the wyvern took to flight in a new direction—towards the woods. Merlin heaved a sigh. At least in the woods there would be less people for Arthur to terrorize.
“Merlin?” someone—most likely the man he’d just protected—called, but Merlin was already running after the wyvern.
By the time he reached the woods, he’d lost track of wyvern, and he could hear shouts from the refuge. Word of a wyvern loose in the refuge was spreading. He cursed under his breath and plunged into the woods.
He had no idea how to find Arthur. The wyvern might not be able to fly because of the trees, but Merlin didn’t know how to read tracks. Still he continued, straining his ears for maybe, maybe, a rustle or roar that would tell him where Arthur was.
He found him eventually. The wyvern was crouched in a clearing, consuming part of a deer. He sighed in relief, quickening his steps. Then voices filled the air:
“We’ve found it. Quickly, before it attacks us.”
And he saw them, four cloaked figures wielding spears rushed forward into the clearing.
“Stop! Don’t! Don’t hurt him!” Merlin yelled, bursting into the clearing as well.
But he was too late. One of the hunters had already launched a spear at Arthur’s wyvern form, who was too distracted to notice the attack. As he rushed to the prince, he could only watch as the spear sank into Arthur’s side. Wyvern-Arthur roared, writhing in anguish and clawing at the spear. The four hooded hunters closed in on Arthur, but Merlin rushed forward, breaking through them to get to Arthur.
“He’s human! Don’t hurt him!” he shouted at them before dropping to the ground beside Arthur. “Sire, you’ll be all right. I promise. We’ll get you healed.” He reached out, and then hissed in pain when the wyvern’s talons cut his forearm. Merlin drew back, clamping a hand over the wound. It bled, but it was shallow and didn’t compare to Arthur’s wound. To his relief, Arthur was soon changing, shifting slowly into his human form. The prince slumped to the ground, unconscious, and Merlin rushed forward, trying to assess the extent of damage caused by the spear still jutting out of Arthur’s side.
Behind him, he heard one of the hunters hiss a curse. “Oh gods, it’s our guest from Camelot!”
Merlin ignored them, his attention focused only on Arthur. He had to move fast. Blood was seeping slowly out of Arthur’s wound and down the shaft of the spear, and he could feel Arthur’s skin beginning to heat up. If Arthur was to be moved for treatment, Merlin would have to deal with the spear first. Thankfully, the spear was thin, breakable without needing a blade to cut. Carefully, he grasped the spear firmly, making sure to keep the spearhead from shifting and harming Arthur further, before he took a steadying breath and snapped the spear a few inches from where it protruded from Arthur’s side. Merlin pulled off his shirt and scrunched it into a ball before pressing it around the wound, trying to stop some of the bleeding.
“Please, we have to get him treated,” he said to the hunters, finally turning to look at him.
And he found himself looking up at the man he once called his best friend, now the queen’s consort, and the woman who was once almost his wife, the Queen of Carmarthen herself.
“Morgana,” he choked out.
Merlin was soon stumbling his way through the woods, trailing behind as close as he dared to the others.
“We’ll speak later, Merlin,” the queen—Morgana—had said while Mordred stared, silent as usual. Then, at her instruction, the two other men with them had stepped forward and gently lifted Arthur from the ground. They were now carrying him back to the cabin he and Merlin were given, Morgana and Mordred leading the way.
Morgana hadn’t changed in the years since Merlin had seen her last—appearance-wise, that was. She was still gorgeous, with flawless pale skin and silky, long dark hair. Her eyes were still that brilliant green color he once loved, clear and fierce. But she was colder—harder—than Merlin had ever seen her, especially towards him. He wondered what had caused the change. Was it because of the war? Or because of his failure?
Merlin stands on a mountain hilltop thirty minutes away from the city. It’s been four hours sine he’d last used a spell, four hours since they’d started the journey home from a week-long trip and an hour since they’d reached the town. By all rights, he should be at home, letting his family know that he’d returned unharmed; he should be seeing Morgana, since one week is a long time to be apart from each other—even if they’d spoken to each other occasionally through scrying. But it’s been four hours since he’d used a spell and made the trek home, and yet, he could still fee the fire of magic running through his blood. Not the low key thrum he usually feels when conscious, but the sharp burn—quite like adrenaline—that makes his heart beat faster and breath quicken. He tries to calm down his body, hoping that the clear mountain air would help as he took forcibly slow breaths.
Mordred found him there ten minute later.
Emrys, why are you here? Mordred’s voice echoes into his head. Mordred isn’t much of a talker, preferring to communicate telepathically if he could get away with it. He also always calls Merlin by his magical name.
I needed to spend some time alone, Merlin replies, not getting up from the meditative pose he’s in to greet his friend.
You spent the past week with four old men for company, Mordred remarks, sitting down next to him. The four “old men,” all brilliant sorcerers, are only in their thirties, Merlin is tempted to point out, but since they are twice Mordred’s—and Merlin’s—age, he supposes they do seem “old.” So instead he shrugs and runs his fingers through a patch of grass, feeling the way the blades lean into his brush of magic as a cat might.
It’s not the same. And it’s partly why I’m here—the trip that is.
Morgana is angry with you. I can count how many times that has happened on one hand, Mordred tells him.
Merlin winces, dreading the conversation to come with Morgana, but says, I can’t bother her with this. I don’t want to.
What is making you willing to anger your future wife? I thought you adored her. Like a puppy, Mordred adds.
Merlin shoots him a look and replied, which is why I don’t want to worry her.
What has you so worried then, Emrys?
He considers not saying anything, not answering, but Mordred is probably one of the only people he could tell, so he does. Something is happening to me, he says, glancing at Mordred before gazing out at the mountains stretched before them. My magic. I think it’s getting stronger every day. Every time I use it, it’s just a little bit harder to control, and it takes longer for me to calm down.
I don’t see how that’s a surprise. You’re Emrys; you’re supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer in Albion.
But I’m afraid, Merlin admits. What’s the limit? What happens if I lose control? All this power, all to one person. He’s different from the other sorcerers. He’d realized that years ago, when he first discovered that the other children needed words for the things he could do by instinct since he was a baby. It’s never bothered him before, not until now. Now, he sometimes feels like a monster.
Isn’t this something you should be tell Morgana? Or Balinor? Or Old Gaius?
No, I want to work it out alone. I don’t want anyone—Morgana especially—to worry about me. And knowing her, she’ll take it upon herself to help me deal with it. But this is something I have to handle by myself.
Then why are you tell me all this? Mordred asks, nudging Merlin’s knee with his own in a rare show of companionship.
Because I know you’ll never worry about me.
Mordred offers him a small smile, just a lifting of a corner of his mouth. True. I’ll be there for you though. If you ever need it. You know that.
Merlin gives him a grin and nod, and the two of them sit together quietly for a moment. Eventually though, Mordred gets to his feet with barely a rustle of clothing.
Would you like me to talk to Morgana? Come up with an excuse? he asks.
That’d be great. Thank you. Tell her I’ll visit her after supper? Merlin requests. Mordred nods and head back to the city, and Merlin feels the mountain silence settle around him again.
There were people waiting for them outside Merlin and Arthur’s cabin, but with just a glare from the queen, they all dispersed—at least, enough so that Arthur could be moved inside quickly. Merlin relaxed a little when he spotted Alice by the door, her medicine bag at her hip. The two men carrying Arthur set him gently down on the bed, and Merlin rushed forward to help Alice with whatever she needed.
“Oh Merlin, what’s happened now?” she asked him, already going to Arthur’s bedside.
“One of them—” Merlin shot the two men standing off to the side a glare. “—threw a spear at Arthur while he was in wyvern form.”
“Oh the poor lad.” Alice sat down besides Arthur and got to work. She murmured a small numbing spell around the wound before beginning to ease out the spearhead. Arthur groaned when the spearhead was finally removed, but he didn’t wake. Merlin couldn’t decide if he should be relieved or not.
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” Merlin asked, watching over her shoulder. Alice was silent for a moment at she studied the wound.
“He should be. Nothing vital has been harmed,” she eventually answered
“What happened? Arthur said the trigger was holding a sword, but he doesn’t have one,” the queen said, addressing Merlin without really addressing him, her eyes fixed instead somewhere over his shoulder. The disregard made Merlin bristle and his heart sink; Morgana had never spoken to him so, even in the presence of the royal court. Even when Arthur spoke to him, a lowly slave before a prince, he’d never acted the way Morgana was now. He wondered briefly if this made his irritation grow before snuffing out the thought and emotion—he hadn’t been a slave for thirteen years for nothing.
“I think the curse has gotten worse,” Merlin replied, glancing at her before returning his eyes to Arthur. “Or he’s gotten weaker. He hasn’t been getting much sleep lately.”
“Does he always lose his mind when he turns?” she asked, still acting as if he was a stranger, or just another person.
“No, it just took him by surprise this time. It happened too fast.”
“Should we be worrying about the people’s safety?”
“If Alice could give us the strongest sleeping draught she has, it shouldn’t be a problem,” Merlin replied, looking to Alice for an answer.
She gave him a smile over her shoulder and replied, “That’s fine, dear.” Merlin returned her smile before glancing at Morgana.
The queen stood silently for a moment, watching as Alice tended to the wound. Then, she said, “I suppose we’re not needed here anymore. Good night, Alice. Good night, Merlin.” And without another word, she was gone, Mordred and the two hunters with her. Merlin sank down into the nearest chair with a sigh, waiting to see if he was to help Arthur in any way.
Merlin woke up an hour or so before sundown the next day. It’d been only a few hours before dawn when Alice had finished tending to Arthur, who’d woken up briefly to discover what had happened to him before falling back asleep. Alice had given Merlin a small bottle of sleeping draught and a hug before leaving, promising to return later. Merlin had fallen asleep on the bed, curled up next to Arthur’s legs, though he couldn’t remember why. He didn’t think too much of it; Arthur had been too injured to have cared. With that train of thought, he immediately, leaned over a little to check on Arthur. He relaxed after finding that the prince was sleeping peacefully for now.
Rolling out of bed, he puttered around the cabin, getting something ready to ease his hunger pangs. The door creaked open without a knock, and Merlin immediately turned to the sound. A cloaked figure stood at the door, silhouetted in the sunlight. Merlin hurried to Arthur’s bedside, just in case, before staring at the mystery visitor.
“Who is it? What do you want?” he asked.
“Emrys.” It was Mordred. “Why aren’t you answering me?”
“What?” And then Merlin understood. “Oh. I suppose I can’t hear you when you—” He gestured to his head.
Mordred shut the door before pulling down his hood. Merlin hadn’t paid much attention to his old friend that last time, more focused on Morgana and her dismissal of him. Mordred had grown taller and a little more muscled. There was a scruffier look to him, his dark circles escaping the gell being used to tame them and his cheeks rough with light stubble.
“Then you really do not have magic,” Mordred remarked.
Merlin sighed and shook his head. He was growing to hate that question—even more then he already did. He sat down on the floor, not wanting to disturb Arthur’s sleep. Wordlessly, like he’d done countless times when they were children, Mordred joined him, sitting cross-legged in front of him.
“The Rites are very thorough,” Merlin said with a grimace.
“But you’re different from us. You told me, remember? How much do you have left?”
“Just enough to stay alive,” he admitted, and the look on Mordred’s face darkened.
He shot a glare at Arthur’s sleeping figure and said, “Why did you bring the princeling here? Why are you helping him? His people did this to you, did this to all of us.”
“Don’t blame Arthur. He didn’t do it; he was only a child.”
“We were only children,” Mordred bit out. “That didn’t stop them from fighting us.”
“I know, but…let’s not argue about it, all right?” He waited for Mordred to nod before he asked, “How is everything here?”
“Fine. We get by, not like back home, but good enough.” The curl of his lips said the contrary, but Merlin didn’t point it out.
“Are the children still learning magic?” Merlin asked, to which Mordred nodded.
“There’s not as many of them as we’d like. We lost too many sorcerers that day.”
Merlin tried not to think of just how many sorcerers—how many people—they’d lost thirteen years ago.
“And…and you and Morgana?” Merlin almost flinched when Mordred reached out and grabbed his wrist, right where his wrist brace was.
“I’m sorry, Emrys, but we thought you were dead. We saw all those soldiers around you when you fell. When Morgana searched for you, she thought she saw your corpse. Then a few years passed…she needed a consort.”
“I understand,” Merlin assured him. “I’m happy for you. Lots of things have changed, and I’m sorry I couldn’t help our people. I failed you all.”
“Do not say that, Emrys. You sacrificed your life to save us from captivity.” Mordred squeezed his wrist before letting go. “I mourned for you, we all did, when they took you away.” He got to his feet as smoothly as a feline. “I have to go, but I’ll return if I can find a chance.” Merlin stood up as well and walked with him to the door. “Take care of yourself, Emrys,” Mordred said before pulling up his hood and setting off down the road into town.
Merlin shut the door with a sigh, feeling tension he hadn’t noticed before leave his body.
“He was lying.”
Merlin jumped, clutching his racing heart as he spun around. Arthur had turned around in bed to look at him. He looked pale and utterly exhausted, but he was a great sight better than what he’d looked like yesterday.
“Gods, scare me to death, why don’t you?” Merlin scowled at the prince before joining his bedside. Careful not to jostle him, Merlin perched himself on the edge of the bed.
“He was lying,” Arthur repeated.
“What are you talking about?” Merlin asked. “How much of that did you hear?”
With a groan, Merlin dropped his face into his hands. “Please don’t ask. I won’t want to answer right now.”
Arthur snorted and said, “I’m certainly going to have questions for you later, but my point right now is that he lied to you.”
“About what?” he demanded.
“He said he thought you died, but when he said he mourned for you, he said ‘they took you away.’ He knew you were alive; he let you become enslaved.”
“He still could have thought I was dead,” Merlin argued despite the unease beginning to settle in his stomach.
“Were you awake when they took you away?” Arthur questioned.
Merlin flinched at the question and tried to focus on that moment from over a decade ago. He didn’t like what he remembered. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat.
“Yes.” They’d made him walk—either that or be dragged—despite the stab wound in his belly. Which meant that Mordred—Mordred had seen them take him away and hadn’t done a thing.
“…you look awful, Merlin,” Arthur’s voice cut through his nausea. His hand on Merlin’s thigh felt almost like a hot brand, shocking him enough to think outside of the turmoil in his head. “Maybe you should get some air.”
“I—I can’t just leave you,” he argued. Arthur scowled at him and withdrew his hand.
“I’m fully capable of looking after myself for an hour or two,” Arthur said. Merlin immediately missed that point of contact, needing that anchor or he’d become lost in his memories.
“Go get some air, Merlin,” Arthur said, in a tone that allowed no argument, even when he was bound to bed rest.
“Fine, I’ll go for a walk then,” Merlin muttered. He was out the door before he could hear Arthur’s consent.
Merlin stayed clear away from the refuge, instead stumbling his way towards the woods. Nature has always been the place he’d turn to whenever he felt troubled or lost, and he certainly was now. He didn’t want to think about any of it—that day thirteen years ago, Morgana’s coldness towards him, Morgana and Mordred together. But the more he tried not to think, the quicker the thoughts returned, bringing with them memories.
He tries not to choke when he says the spell to set the little boat drifting in the lake on fire. He gives in to the trembling of his legs, sinking to the ground on his knees. He’s mildly surprised by the tears running down his face, because he’s already mourned for so many. But this is his sister, her body, being consumed by the funeral pyre in the lake she had always loved visiting. And he’d just finished burying his parents an hour before.
I’m sorry. She was a beautiful woman, a familiar voice echoes in his head. Mordred steps up beside him, gazing out at the lake as well.
“S-she was,” Merlin agrees. They slip into silence, Merlin allowing himself the time to wallow in his grief and Mordred simply there as calm and quiet support. It surprises him sometimes, how different he and Mordred are even though they share similar coloring. Merlin often wears his heart on his sleeve, but Mordred rarely ever does; Mordred is cold where Merlin is warm. Mordred lost his family before he ever had a chance to know them, and Merlin wonders if this is what makes them so different. His friend does not mourn for the lives lost in this week of fighting. Instead Mordred is angry, furious at the armies who’d decided that the peaceful Carmarthen was a threat. Merlin understands this, and he feels it too, but his emotions are in tatters as it is, and he’s just too tired now. He fears—suspects—that Carmarthen will inevitably fall.
Merlin stumbled on a large tree root stretching up from the ground. He nearly fell on his face, but grabbed onto a nearby branch instinctively. Rough bark stung his hands, but he barely registers it, already lost in another memory.
“Do you think I’ll make a good queen?” Morgana asks him a few days after they’re officially betrothed. They sit in the shade of the great willow besides the lake, and she presses against him, resting her head on Merlin’s shoulder.
“Yes, definitely,” he says with a smile. He slips his arm around her waist, pulling her close.
He laughs and teases, “You just want to me to stroke your ego.”
“So? A girl could use a little bit of ego-stroking, especially from her future husband,” she replies, smacking his leg.
“Fine. You’re brilliant, Morgana,” he says, pressing his face to her hair. “You’re the strongest woman I know. Smart, and beautiful, and fierce like no other. I’ll be honored to serve you when your time comes.”
“Thank you, Merlin. But you’ll be my consort, and as Emrys, I hardly think you’ll be serving me at all,” she points out.
“…I’m sorry.” He gives her hand a light squeeze. She is right, of course. If the prophesies are to be believed, there is only one person Merlin will be loyal to, and it isn’t his future wife and queen. And once Merlin helps the Once and Future King rise to power, Morgana will be but one of monarchs in Albion who must submit to the King’s reign. Merlin often wonders what kind of man can gain such loyalty and devotion from him, how that man would possibly earn that impressive title.
As if she’s reading his mind, Morgana asks, “Have you ever thought of him? What the Once and Future King will be like?”
“Of course I have, but I don’t have seeing powers like you. I just hope he doesn’t get a big head when he finds out his destiny.”
“Oh, I hope he’s a right prat about it, just to make your life harder,” she remarks.
“What?” he squawks, but he knows she’s only teasing him. She laughs before leaning up to kiss his cheek.
“I’m sure he’ll be a good man, Merlin. If not, you can make him into one, and I can help.”
Distantly, he noticed that he’d left the woods and was now trudging along a trail towards the edges of the mountains.
He sends two knights flying with a bark of a spell before fighting off another with his knife. He barely registered the sounds of battle—the screams, the swords, the clash of armor—because it’s been a week of that with barely any sleep since the fighting began. He just wants the fighting, the killing, to stop before he’s lost everything, everyone he loves. His parents are gone; his sister is gone; Will is missing; more than half the friends he’d grown up with were gone, as well as many of the sorcerers he’d collaborated with. He just wants the bloodshed to stop.
He cuts down an opponent and looks up to see Mordred and Morgana fighting in the distance. He shouldn’t worry about them as much as he is. Mordred could easily take care of himself, and Morgana is better at sword-fighting than Merlin and Mordred both. He worries anyways though. He volunteered to fight in the frontlines, like he always does, because he wanted to give his people time to feel. He had expected them—or at least Morgana, soon to be their new queen—to leave; he hadn’t expected them to stay behind, hadn’t wanted them to stay behind. But at least, the invaders are drawn to him, because by now, they know he is the most troublesome, the “kingpin.” They think they can win this war by bringing him down, but Merlin refuses to go down, not when his people need him.
Later, Merlin wonders if that thought has jinxed him. The enemy knights don’t stop coming at him, hoping to and succeeding at wearing him down; he hasn’t stopped fighting since dawn. He falters, muscles jarring just briefly, but that fraction of a second is enough for a knife to stick into his belly and someone to hit his head from behind. His own knife is knocked form his cramped hand, and panic sets in when the knight whose knife is in his stomach grabs his throat. He grapples at the vice-like grip forcing him to his knees, all the while reaching for his magic, but the blow to his head has left him disoriented after so little rest.
He sees Morgana and Mordred, left with no more opponents, catch sight of his situation, and he sends them a mental plea for help. He then gasps when iron shackles are clamped to his wrists; the shackles are magic dampeners, designed to keep a sorcerer from using magic. It feels as if the life was being sucked out of him. The slow burn of magic, normally running through his body and already strained from constant usage, is fading, leaving him dizzy and nauseous.
Mordred and Morgana stand there watching, their faces blank and weapons lowered. And then they turned and walked away.
As the last of the memories flooded back into him, he dropped to his knees, not even registering the rocky ground. He hunched over, wrapping his arms around his torso and curling inwards on himself as the not-quite-physical but gut-wrenching, heartbreaking pain overcame him.
During the Rites, he had thrown all the magic he could muster into the single act of making himself forget. Mordred and Morgana. Morgana and Mordred. The two people he should have trusted the most. The two people who had turned their backs on him. Their betrayal. His abandonment. No freedom. No magic.
Because they didn’t save him.
It wasn’t anger that he felt towards them. It was sorrow and agony. And the maddening ‘why?’ that looped over and over in his head.
The emotions boiling up and wreaking havoc inside him threatened to spill out. And he let them, letting out a roar that surged through his whole body and echoed into the mountain tops.
Eventually, he ran out of tears. Exhaustion sank through his skin and into his bones, making him feel numb inside. With a sleeve, he scrubbed the wetness from his face. He had reached a certain…acceptance. There was nothing to be done to change the past, to change what had happened. Mordred and Morgana, he couldn’t trust; that was certain. What mattered now was Arthur, ridding the curse from him and helping him defeat the priestesses intent on his destruction. But without magic, what use was he?
Without magic, I’m a nobody.
How true the boy had been.
Suddenly, he became aware of the sound of wings beating the air and winds gusting around him. His mind screeched to a halt at the sight of a familiar, golden-brown-scaled dragon in the air.
Everything else forgotten, he stared as the colossal beast alighted onto the ground before him.
“Hello, Young Warlock, it’s been quite some time,” came the dragon’s rumbling voice.
Merlin stared for a few more moments, his mind scrambling to catch up with the large creature before him.
“I’m not young anymore,” the words slipped out without a thought.
Kilgharrah’s answering chuckle made the ground and his whole body vibrate. He’d forgotten what it was like to stand before a dragon. How one had to crane your neck to look up at them unless they deigned to lower themselves to the ground. How the very air around them smelled of fire and brimstone. Magic shimmered faintly around the great beast, and Merlin breathed in, drinking in the ambrosial substance he had once had limitless access to.
“When you have lived as long as I have, all mortals are young,” the dragon said. “But yes, I do not deny that much time has passed and much has changed.”
“What are you doing here?” Merlin asked, finally finding his voice. “How did you find me? What happened to the others?”
Questions upon questions tumbled over each other in his head. The last time he had laid eyes on Kilgharrah, the dragon had been pitted into battle alongside and against his kin, commanded by the Dragonlords, including Merlin’s own father, at least until—
No, he had mourned enough those first few years of his capture. The past was the past, and what mattered now was the present.
“Patience, Young Warlock. I can only answer one question at a time.” Kilgharrah shifted from side to side before hunkering down and resting his head on the ground. “I came because I heard your call.”
Merlin’s face scrunched up in confusion. “But I didn’t call you.”
“You did not call me, yes, but I heard you, and I have no doubt that all of my kin has heard your cry. You are the last of the Dragonlords.”
What little hope he had had of any Dragonlords surviving the Fall and its repercussions were lost. His fears that the Lords had been rounded up and either enslaved or killed, regardless of whose side they’d fought on, had been warranted. But…
“But I couldn’t have done anything. I don’t have the power to be heard. I…I don’t have magic anymore.”
Kilgharrah chuckled before remarking, “You are a creature of magic, just as I am. You live and breathe magic; it is a part of you.”
“They put me through the Rites. I can’t use any magic,” Merlin insisted, wishing the dragon would stop reminding him of what he lacked. Kilgharrah looked at him with what he could only describe as pity and sadness.
“Yes, all of Albion felt your loss. It was a painful time. Now, many, even my kin, have lost hope of your return.”
“All hope was lost when Carmarthen fell.”
“And yet here you are, allied with the young Pendragon no less.”
“You know about Arthur?”
“Arthur is the Once and Future King. It is your destiny to be by his side and help him to reunite all of Albion.”
So his vision had been true. But the confirmation only made everything a little worse. He could not allow Arthur to die or succumb to Morgause and Nimueh’s curse. But…
“Like I said, I can’t use any magic! How can I possibly help Arthur? Without magic, I’m not Emrys; I’m just Merlin. Without magic, I have no destiny.”
The dragon breathed a puff of hot air through his nostrils in a manner Merlin could only call exasperation.
“You are magic, young warlock. Without magic, I would not have been able to come,” said Kilgharrah. “The Rites cannot take away what is a part of you. Instead, it and your years of bondage have blocked your access to the magic seeped into the lands.”
“Then I can get it back?” he questioned, a flicker of hope rising inside him before he had the chance to smother it with the memory of thirteen years of pain, skepticism and slavery.
“It will take time and effort, but yes, you will regain control of your magic.”
“When? How?” A single thought kept running through his head. He could have his magic back.
“That I cannot say. Go to Gaius. Your old mentor is sure to help you.”
Merlin frowned. There was no known reversal for the Rites; he hardly expected Gaius to know. But perhaps with the Dragon’s words and the help of Gaius’ old books, regaining his magic would be possible. He knew better than to pry Kilgharrah for more details. Dragons were the bearers of almost boundless knowledge, but they could divulged only what they judged appropriate.
“There is another thing…” Merlin said, turning his mind to a more pressing issue. “Morgause and Nimueh. They call themselves Northumbrian delegates, and they are the ones who cursed Arthur. If I had my magic, I can break the curse, but beyond that, they are planning something evil against Camelot.”
“The High Priestesses of the Old Religion do not hold faith in your destiny or in that of the Once and Future King. The witches desire magic to rule the lands. They do not heed the warnings that that will lead only to disaster.”
“Then, Arthur really is the Once and Future King? He’s going to rule all of Albion, and I’m supposed to help him.”
“Yes, Young Warlock.”
“What are the priestesses planning? How do I stop them? Do you know?”
“I’m afraid not. The actions of the priestesses did not concern me these past years. It is up to you, Merlin, to discover their plans and stop them.”
Merlin sighed, deflating a little, and remarked, “Fantastic. I can’t leave Arthur alone, but if I want to find out their plans, I’ll be taking him straight to them. And I still don’t have magic.”
“You are Emrys, Young Warlock. You will find the way,” Kilgharrah said, though he sounded just as tired as Merlin.
“Wait!” he called out when Kilgharrah got off the ground. “Where are you going?”
Sadness appeared in the dragon’s eyes, and he lowered his head to be on eye level with Merlin.
“I must leave you for now, young warlock. Many of my kind fled east after the Fall, but there is trouble. I must help them however I can.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You will know in time. For now, it is young Arthur and the High Priestesses’ plot that you must concern yourself with.” Kilgharrah straightened back up, his weight visibly shifting to his hind legs. “It was good to see you, young warlock.”
“Kilgharrah—” The Great Dragon flew off before Merlin could protest, the force of his flapping wings nearly knocking Merlin over.
Merlin remained there for a while, going over the conversation in his head. Eventually though, he gets to his feet and begin the trek back to the cabin and Arthur.
Night had fallen when he finally returned to the cabin. There were visitors inside, Merlin found as he approached the door. He could see two guards through the window, and he immediately suspected the queen was inside, speaking with Arthur. He wasn’t sure if he was prepared to see her, unsure of how to react and what to say. She had claimed to see his corpse in her visions, but he wondered if she’d simply wanted everyone to think he’d died. Pushing the thoughts aside, he took a deep breath before opening the door and stepping in.
Morgana stopped talking, and the room’s occupants all turned to his entrance. Merlin quickly gathered up the slave’s façade he’d learned and perfected over the years.
“Sire, your highness,” he said with an inclination of his head before retreating to the cabin’s table, away from where Morgana and her guards stand before Arthur.
Arthur gave him a scowl, as if irritated by Merlin’s behavior, but didn’t speak. The prince still rested in bed, propped up by pillows just enough to see and speak to the queen comfortably.
“As I was saying, at this time, we can’t help you with your…situation with Nimueh and Morgause,” Morgana told Arthur. “There are too few of us, and no one among…with magic is powerful enough to stand against them. We can offer you a place to stay, at least until you’ve recovered, but if the priestesses are indeed after you, it will not be safe for us to have you here with us. I’m sure, as a prince, you understand that; I have to consider the safety of my people.”
Arthur eyed her for a moment before saying, “Yes, I understand. However, I would like to know about all this business with me being the Once and Future King.”
“I cannot confirm if you are the King or not. You might be, but we need more than just a few seers to decide for certain,” Morgana said. “Besides, if you really are the King, the person you need the most can’t help you.”
“And who might that be exactly?” Arthur asked as Merlin stiffened, tightening his grip on the table.
“The prophesized Warlock. He can’t help you though; your people’s war on Carmarthen made sure of that.”
He’d always known about Morgana’s capability for cruelty, but he’d trusted her. They shared the same morals, the same sense of justice, and she’d never turned her cruelty on him or anyone he—they—cared about. It hurt more, to hear it coming from her.
Merlin slowly released the breath he’d been holding, reminding himself of what the dragon had told him, of how he could get his magic back.
Not wishing to hear more, Merlin pulled his attention away from their conversation, instead focusing on Morgana herself. He felt nothing for the queen, though perhaps a little hurt and resentment. She was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever, the same ice queen demeanor as ever, but the love and passion was gone. Of course it was. He would never love a woman who resigned him to slavery. And he was no longer the same person he was before the Fall. The thirteen years as a slave had changed him without a doubt. In fact, he cared more for Arthur than he did her.
Wait, what was he thinking?
No, he definitely didn’t care about Arthur like that. Even if he did not hold the feelings he once did for her, Morgana was once the love of his life. He had spent six years of his life by her side, learning everything about her, loving her—or rather loving the lie that had been the woman he thought he’d known. The handful of months he had spent serving the prince was nothing compared to those years.
A sharp gasp and a groan of pain interrupted his thoughts, propelling him straight to Arthur’s bedside.
“Shit,” Arthur hissed, squeezing his eyes shut and curling into himself. With dread, Merlin watched as Arthur’s image shifted for a second before settling back into human form. But then his hand clenched on his pillow and then transformed—just his hand— into the scaled talon-claws of the wyvern. “What on earth is this?” he gasped, looking in horror at his transformed hand.
Merlin didn’t get the chance to speak before he realized that the guards had stepped forward and were pointing their spears at Arthur. Arthur spared them no attention as another wave of pain seemed to hit him and his entire body went tense again.
Merlin felt irritation run through his body, directed at the guards. “Stop it,” he almost growled. “It’s not as if he can even move in this state.” Turning from Arthur, he recognized the two guards, but he doesn’t have the interest to dig through his memories for their names; they don’t matter to him so much anyways as he yanked a spear out of their grasp. With the butt of the long weapon, he jabbed at the two until they backed away from the bed, pulling Morgana back with them. He then tossed the spear aside and turned back to Arthur, whose hand was now back to a normal human hand, much to both of their relief.
“Arthur, are you all right?” he asked.
“I’ll be fine. Just let me rest,” Arthur replied. He didn’t even look at Morgana or the guards, just turned over to the wall. With a sigh, Merlin got to his feet and steeled himself before turning to face Morgana.
“I’m sorry, your highness, but if that’s all, Arthur needs to rest. Please come back later if you need anything,” he said, looking her in the eye.
She looked back at him, and for a while, they were locked in a staring contest, reminding Merlin fleetingly of the times he and Morgana would butt heads during their childhood. Morgana looked away first, glancing at Arthur’s resting form before heading for the door, her steps quick and sure.
“Good night, Prince Arthur, Merlin,” she said, almost offhandedly if not for the hint of steel in the way she said their names. She left, taking the two guards with her, and Merlin sank down to the floor and put his head in his hands.
Gaius and Alice showed up at the door soon afterwards, but when they saw that Arthur was resting, they said they’d keep their visit short. Alice set a covered basket on the table—more food for him and Arthur—and Merlin pulled Gaius aside. Whispering so as to not wake Arthur, he told his old mentor about Kilgharrah and what the dragon had said.
“So he is the Once and Future King,” Gaius remarked once Merlin had finished explaining, looking at Arthur thoughtfully. Merlin shrugged his reply. “Do you find him worthy of the title?” his old mentor then asked, causing Merlin to frown.
“I don’t know. He confuses me,” he admitted. “He’s a prat most of the time, but not so much now.”
“Perhaps it’s your job to change that, to make him the King he is supposed to be.”
Merlin cringed, the suggestion reminding him too much of what Morgana had said to him so many years ago.
“Either way, I have to get my magic back. Do you think you can help, Gaius?” he asked.
“Well, the dragon seems to think I can. We’ll see what we can do,” said Gaius. “Tomorrow we can start…re-training you.”
“I can’t leave Arthur on his own though,” Merlin said. He dreaded what would happen if he wasn’t around when Arthur transformed again—and he hated to admit it, but he no longer trust Morgana and Mordred.
“I’ll keep an eye on him, dear, don’t you worry,” Alice interrupted.
“Are you sure?” Merlin asked, and Alice just gave him a nod and a smile. “All right then. I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
Gaius and Alice said their goodbyes and left for their home. After Merlin closed the door, he retreated to the cabin table, the basket of food reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since waking.
Arthur stirred when Merlin pressed a hand to his forehead to check for fever.
“Sire? How are you feeling?” Merlin asked him. Arthur grunted what he thought was a yes. “Do you want anything to eat? Something to drink?” he asked as the prince blinked blearily up at him. Arthur shook his head and that seemed to wake him up enough to ask:
“Was I right?”
Arthur scowled and said, “About the queen and your so-called friend. I saw the way you reacted to her. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“You were right,” Merlin said reluctantly. Arthur just looked at him, clearly expecting more from him. “…they left me. They saw I was in trouble, but just left me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Arthur said. It was the most sincere he’s heard Arthur speak—apart from that one time after Arthur’s transformation—and it left Merlin feeling strange and uncomfortable. Merlin gave him a small smile, unsure how else to respond.
“I’ll…just stay away from them while we’re here,” he settled on saying. “Um, I’ll let you get some more rest then.” He shifted to get off the bed.
“I don’t mind if you sleep on the bed with me,” Arthur said, and Merlin could only blink at him for a few moments. “It’s…better,” Arthur turned his head to the wall, avoiding Merlin’s eyes, “when someone’s nearby, I think. The dreams aren’t as strong. I had no problem sleeping yesterday.” He then glared at Merlin, as if daring him to make a remark. Merlin briefly thought he looked like an adorably pouting child, but he was too surprised to pay much attention to it.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Merlin, I’m sure,” Arthur snapped.
“All right, I was just making sure,” Merlin said. “I’ll straighten things up a bit and then I’ll be…back.”
As he tidied up the cabin table, putting the unfinished food back into the basket for later, Merlin could feel Arthur’s eyes on him. Glancing back furtively, he saw that the prince looked as if he wanted to say something but was waiting for the right moment. Merlin wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear what Arthur had to say. He locked the door of the cabin and found the sleeping draught Alice had brought for Arthur. The draught, Alice had told him, would take a while to take effect, but it should be strong enough to get Arthur to sleep in some measure of peace. He handed the flask to Arthur, and took the chance while Arthur was drinking it to settle himself on the bed, resting his head on the end where Arthur’s feet were.
“If you kick me in your sleep, Merlin, I will not hesitate to kick you off the bed,” Arthur said to him, and the strange tension Merlin had been feeling dissolved just like that.
“Well it’s not like I’d be doing it on purpose,” Merlin argued.
“I’m still going to kick you off,” Arthur replied, and Merlin just huffed, not bothering to answer.
Arthur was silent afterwards. Merlin supposed the draught had taken effect and that the prince was now asleep. However, Arthur then spoke up and said:
“The consort called you a different name. Emrys, I think.”
“Is that your real name or something? A special title? Alice said you were an important person.”
Merlin grimaced, though Arthur couldn’t see it. He explained, “Every sorcerer has a second name that the seers determine once they’ve come into power.”
“…so when you come into power, you what? Reach your full potential?”
“In a way, yes. A sorcerer should have proper control of their magic at that time. They should before more powerful than they were as a child.”
“How old is a sorcerer when they come into power?”
“Nineteen.” There was a knot in his stomach; he had a good idea where Arthur was going with these questions. He fixed his eyes on the cracks in the ceiling, trying not to think too much.
“Hang on, the war was thirteen years ago. You can’t possibly be over twenty-five, let alone thirty-two.”
Merlin snorted. “Thank you, sire. I’m flattered you think me that young. I’m thirty.”
“…then you were seventeen when you fought the war. So you hadn’t come into power then. Or you came into power early.” He paused, but Merlin didn’t answer his implied question. Arthur bumped his knee against Merlin’s arm. “Tell me, Merlin. The only conclusion I can come up with is that you must have been ridiculously powerful.” Arthur prodded him again. “Alice said the curse was powerful, but you said you could have broken it. Explain, Merlin.” Again, he knocked his knee against Merlin.
“I hadn’t come into power yet,” Merlin finally admitted. “The seers knew my name the moment I was born.”
“Damn…how on earth did you get caught then?”
“Have you tried fighting four armies for seven days straight? With no sleep and your family dead?” Merlin snapped, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. “I was tired. There were six of them and one of me.”
“…I’m sorry.” Two apologies from Arthur in less than half an hour. To say Merlin was surprised was an understatement. Merlin didn’t know how to answer, so he didn’t. After a moment, Arthur spoke again, sounding groggy from the sleeping draught. “That tapestry above the bed. It’s like some of the tapestries Alice showed me. What they all show seem impossible, but they’re all about the same person…they’re all about you, aren’t they?”
“How did you come up with th—?” He sat up, only to find that Arthur had fallen asleep. “Yes….they’re about me…” Merlin said, even though Arthur couldn’t hear him. With a sigh, Merlin lied back down on the bed, wondering just how much of their conversation Arthur would remember the next day.
The next morning, they didn’t discuss the conversation they’d had about Merlin’s past and the tapestries; Arthur didn’t bring it up and Merlin didn’t feel like talking about it. Besides, Gaius and Alice showed up soon after Arthur woke, and once Merlin ate his breakfast, Gaius pulled Merlin away to begin his re-training.
Gaius worked him from morning to sundown, reviewing and re-teaching Merlin everything he’d remembered from before and everything he’d forgotten—magical history and theory, background and properties of magical creatures and plants, and spells. Since he currently couldn’t use magic, it was the academic knowledge that Merlin needed the most—it’d been what had helped him with Arthur so far, after all. As a child however, the academics behind magic had always come second in his preferences—the spells portion at least—because most of the spells he’d been required to do on a daily basis had been ones he could do simply by instinct. Now, Gaius was having him cram five or six years of knowledge back into his head in the span of three days.
By the time he returned to the cabin, he was exhausted, his brain fried. After Arthur’s first attempt to engage Merlin in conversation came without results, it seems the prince understood his need to withdraw from the world, and they shared their dinner in silence. Shortly afterwards, Merlin crawled into bed, to begin the routine all over again the next day.
He continued to share the bed with Arthur. The wound to his stomach, though mostly healed thanks to Alice, had left Arthur’s body weak against the curse. The occasional nightmares that overcame Alice’s sleeping draughts would cause some of Arthur’s limbs to turn wyvern, just like the time with Morgana in the cabin. It indeed seemed like only when Arthur had someone close at hand besides him did he remain calm enough to deal with the enchantment, even in sleep. So Merlin stayed close to Arthur during the night, and during the day, Alice could be there in the cabin, keeping Arthur company. He didn’t really know what Arthur did while he was gone, and didn’t think he should ask.
When Gaius finally deemed Merlin ready to move on three days later, he took him into the woods, like the teachers had done with the children just beginning to learn to cast spells. Working magic was always better out in nature. For Merlin, it had meant more raw and wild magic for him to draw on, but now of course, he had no access to magic regardless of where he was. Gaius set him to casting small spells—light charms for the most part—to no real success.
Since these days of attempted spell casting were considerable less fruitful than the days of studying and memorization, Gaius let him go back to the cabin a lot earlier than before. Merlin was worried at first, unsure what Arthur would say to him.
But Arthur, probably seeing the dejected look on Merlin’s face from the day’s failures, didn’t ask about training or Merlin specifically, and instead asked, “What was it like? Growing up in Carmarthen?”
Grateful, Merlin told him—about spending time with his family, about the festivals held in every major town to celebrate special times of the year, about roughhousing with the other children and playing pranks on the neighbors.
“Lancelot and I played a prank on Guinevere once,” Arthur remarked after he’d finished laughing over a prank Merlin and Will had pulled on Old Man Simmons.
“Oh? What happened?”
“My father found out and decided to let Guinevere decide our punishment,” Arthur said with a grimace.
“And how did she decide to punish you?” Merlin asked, already anticipating an amusing answer.
“She had the two of us wear matching blue dresses for a day,” Arthur said, and Merlin couldn’t resist laughing at the image. “Don’t laugh. It was absolutely humiliating!” Arthur protested, which make Merlin laugh even more. It felt good to laugh; Merlin couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to laugh freely.
“Shut up, Merlin.” The light in his eyes belied his scowl. “Anyways, that’s why we seal our letters to each other in blue. After that humiliation together, our bond strengthened; Lancelot is like a brother to me.” Then Arthur’s face darkened. “But now he probably wants me dead.”
“I don’t think he’ll truly believe you killed Sir Tristan,” Merlin said. Then, a thought struck him. “Although, how close is Gwen to Lancelet?”
“That’s Lady Guinevere, Merlin, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she told you to forget her title. And yes, they are, considering they’re obliviously and hopelessly in love with each other.” There’s a stunned pause from both of them. “…I shouldn’t have said that.”
“But…she’s engaged to you,” Merlin said, rather stupidly.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “And there lies the problem,” he said dryly. “Anyways, why do you ask?”
“Gwen was the one who helped me get to you, when you were locked up in the tower. So she knows the truth about Morgause and Nimueh.”
“What?! What were you thinking? You’ve put her in danger!” Arthur hissed.
“It’s not like I wanted to! She insisted on helping. And it wasn’t as if anyone else would tell me what was going on; I’m a slave.” Arthur scrunched his face in distaste but didn’t argue with him. “Gwen might have told Lancelot the truth. We could check, once we leave here.”
“You still plan on coming with me?” Arthur asked, sounding confused, which in turn made Merlin confused.
“Why would you think otherwise?”
“Merlin, once you get your magic back and break the curse, you don’t owe me anything. Considering how powerful you claim to be, I hardly think you’ll have a problem.”
“We talked about this before, Arthur. I’m not letting you face Nimueh and Morgause alone. It’s my duty to help. Besides, I don’t exactly feel welcomed here,” Merlin said, thinking of Morgana and Mordred.
“And you still refuse to tell me why it is your duty?”
Merlin shrugged, and Arthur heaved a sigh. After a length of silence, they slipped into easier conversation again.
During dinner two days later, Arthur asked, “Not all Carmarthians are sorcerers, right?” Merlin shook his head. “Then how does a person decide to be a sorcerer? I used to think it was just a matter of learning and saying a bunch of spells.”
Merlin hesitated, unsure why Arthur was asking, but he explained, “Yes, there is that, but the people who become actual sorcerers are born with an affinity for magic. If you have only a little bit of magic, then you don’t really have to worry about if you don’t want to, but if you have enough, you have to learn to control it, or it could end up controlling you. It’s like…” Merlin searched for the right words. “It’s like you’re an amplifier. There’s magic everywhere—the earth, the air, your body—but only certain people are able to draw the magic and use it to make something happen. At least, I think that’s how you can explain it.” Merlin shrugged.
“I thought you spent three days reviewing everything theoretical about magic?”
“How?” Arthur asked, eyes narrowed and brow furrowed.
“I am magic,” Merlin said. He tilted his head, waiting for a reaction from the prince. Arthur gave him a raised eyebrow. “I…it’s hard for people to understand, but I am magic. Magic keeps me alive. It runs through me the way blood does. I’m more of a…conduit? Except right now, I only have access to enough magic to stay alive, and not enough to do anything worthwhile.”
“…I always knew there was something about you, Merlin,” Arthur remarked quietly. “It seems there are a lot of ‘something’s about you.”
Inexplicably, Merlin felt his face flush and his stomach do a little flop. He coughed, covering up the strange reaction to Arthur’s words, and waved a hand dismissively. “Anyways, what happens is that at ten, a child showing an affinity for magic gets assigned a mentor. We start off learning in groups of ten, but after a year or so, we start individual studies with our mentors.”
“What do you learn? Everything you reviewed earlier?”
“The first thing they teach us is the Code.”
“The Code? Like the Knights’ Code, but for sorcerers?”
Merlin nodded. “I mentioned it before. We are taught a set of rules to follow so that we don’t abuse our magic.”
“What kind of rules?” Arthur asked, and Merlin was surprised and rather reassured to see open curiosity on his face.
“Well, obviously, don’t kill anyone or put a curse on someone.”
“And how exactly is that reinforced?” Arthur asked, a flicker of that old suspicion of magic crossing his face.
Merlin scowled and said, “Unlike what everyone outside of Carmarthen things, we’re not all amoral men and women bent on taking over the world. Magic was not meant for glory. It’s not a tool to gain more power.” Merlin paused, considering how to continue. “Life and death create a balance in the world. An unnatural birth or an unnatural death will tip the balance. Too many and it can cause damage to the world. It’s why my people disapprove of suicide, and why we rarely chose to fight before the Fall. And why Nimueh was exiled for abusing her powers.”
“How can there be an unnatural birth?”
“…life and death must remain balanced. For a new life to form, there must be a death. For example, if a woman asked Nimueh, back when she was in charge of the Cup of Life, to help her bear a child even though she’s barren, Nimueh could help, but the birth would be unnatural. Because of that, the birth would cost someone’s life—a stranger, a relative, the mother herself even—to make up for the imbalance.
Arthur grimaced. “Creating new life. That sounds impossible.” He ran a hand over his face. “Then I see why the priestesses think the way they do. This balance keeps sorcerers from becoming gods.”
An old fear ran through Merlin at his words. He remembered his burgeoning powers from before the war and the unease he’d felt, unsure what his limit would be. “Yes…you could see it like that,” he murmured.
“And what happens if the balance is damaged?”
After a moment’s debate, Merlin said, “The balance in already damaged.” Because a little part of him, that bitter, angry part of him still railing against all that’d happened to him in the past thirteen years, wanted someone—Arthur—to understand just what had been wrought on the world thanks to the attack on Carmarthen.
“From the war. Every time there is a war, the balance is upset. We fought against four armies, Arthur. And they didn’t just stop killing after we’d lost. They continued killing and enslaving us, you know that. All those deaths…I’m sure something bad is going to happen eventually,” Merlin said, the bitterness in his voice not quite hidden.
In the dim light, he couldn’t tell for sure if Arthur had just paled, but with wide eyes, the prince asked, “What is going to happen?”
“Chaos…unless we can somehow correct the imbalance—or it corrects itself. There might be famine, blight, drought, disease—disasters. But we can’t be certain. My people have known dark times were ahead, but oftentimes, we don’t know what might by chance fix the balance.”
“I hardly think you can stop everyone from…killing others. Are we just doomed then? Doomed to have the world fall apart because of our actions?”
“I think the world would be alright, actually. It’ll fix itself. Humans will be the ones affected. But it’s why my people were considered peaceful folk,” Merlin said with a shrug. “We tried to minimize the damage. Like I said, sometimes, the balance resets itself. It’s done so before.”
“But someone should be trying to fix this,” Arthur protested, leaning forward against the table. “You—we—shouldn’t be just sitting here and just hoping it’ll turn out all right in the end. I can’t accept that.” Merlin glanced down at the table to see that Arthur had clenched his hands into fists.
Merlin gave him a smile, though even he knew it wasn’t a happy one. “We don’t have enough sorcerers left to do that,” he said. “Besides, the biggest priority right now is what the priestesses are planning. If we don’t stop them, we’ll have more than just the balance of the world to worry about. They might make the damage irreversible actually.”
The frown on Arthur’s face deepened, but he nodded, and after a few minutes of silence, he asked Merlin about other, less grim aspects of life as a Carmarthian sorcerer. Merlin was willing to give him the best answers he could.
“Find your focus, Merlin,” Gaius reminded him the next day, when he was still making no progress.
Merlin muttered the spell again. Like before, he felt the tiniest tug inside himself, and then nothing. He bit back a curse, knowing his old mentor would not appreciate his vocabulary.
Find his focus indeed, he huffed to himself. The spells Gaius was having him do were child’s play. Merlin had been able to do them without incantations before he was even seven. Now, when he did a spell, if he could even get it to work, the effort left him trembling, weak-kneed and lightheaded as if he’d lost blood—which he essentially was. He had no access to magic but the piddly amount sustaining him.
Again he said the spell, and again, nothing came of it. With a groan of frustration, he pulled at his hair. It was never going to work. He couldn’t even get a simple light charm to work. How could he even hope to save Ar—
His focus. His focus was Arthur. He had to do this for Arthur; he could not let him die or go insane, or whatever the High Priestesses wanted to do to him.
Merlin took a deep breath, emptying all of his self-doubts and worries, emptying everything from his mind except of Arthur.
This time, when he said the spell, multicolored lights filled the clearing, and Merlin whooped. Only five seconds later, the lights faded, and he flopped down on the ground with a groan, clutching his spinning head.
“It’s never going to work, Gaius. I know my focus, and that’s fine and all, but if one small spell leaves me exhausted, what’s the point?” Merlin asked. Gaius leaned down and smacked the upside of the back of Merlin’s head. “Ow!” Merlin glared up at his mentor and rubbed the injured spot.
“And since when were you ever raised to be a quitter, Merlin? How am I to face Hunith and Balinor if you just give up?”
“I’m not giving up. I just…” He sighed. “I’m just frustrated.” He got to his feet and brushed the dirt from his trousers.
“Well, frustration will not get you anywhere. You know that, Merlin. Remember your focus and stay centered. Are you ready?” Merlin nodded. “All right. Try again.”
That day, Merlin returned to the sight of Arthur, who was fully healed by now, playing with a gaggle of Carmarthian children. They were in the field along the way from the woods to the cabin, kicking a ball around and tumbling over each other. The children’s and Arthur’s shouts and laughter mingled in the air, and Merlin couldn’t resist the smile that pulled at his lips.
“He’s such a dear isn’t he?” He looked around, startled, and spotted Alice settled on the edge of the field by the road, a collection of medicinal herbs clustered around her to be sorted. She smiled up at him and patted at an uncovered patch of grass for him to sit. He sat down and watched as the game was abandoned and the children took to tackling Arthur to the ground and begging for piggyback rides from him. “He’s a fine lad,” Alice said. “He’ll make a good king, not that the opinion of one old woman matters.”
Merlin shook his head. “No, I think you’re right.” He tensed when one of the children spelled lights into the air and flew them around Arthur. But Arthur just smiled, an open expression of wonder on his face as he scooped up the child with a laugh.
Something inside Merlin, the little reservations still left inside him at the thought of Arthur ask the Once and Future King melted at that moment. And he found that he was okay with it, okay with fulfilling his destiny and devoting his life to assist Arthur in ruling Albion. And he doesn’t know how to feel about that.
“Gauis?” Merlin asked during one of the breaks from practice.
“I should have asked earlier, but with Arthur and everything…what happened? After I was…taken? What did…what did Morgana and Mordred say about me? What happened to—everyone?”
Gaius sighed and deflated, suddenly looking even older than he already was. He set down the book he was reading to give Merlin his attention.
“You remember that on the last day, you had those of us who could escape do so.” Merlin nodded. “Mordred and the Queen, as well as the others who survived the fighting, caught up with us after we had settled for the night just outside of Carmarthen. The Queen said you were…lost to us. She didn’t say if you had died or if you had been taken. We didn’t ask, because she already looked grief-stricken. At that point, there wasn’t anything we could do, even if she told us. Afterwards, we kept traveling until we came here. We started rebuilding, and the Queen re-formed the council. Out of the three hundred survivors with us at the time, only perhaps fifty of us were sorcerers, and not very powerful ones at that. At the people’s request, the Queen scryed for news of you, but she told us that she might have seen you dead. She looked unsettled, we didn’t ask again—though your return proves that we should have.”
“But, Morgana…she’s changed, hasn’t she?” Merlin ventured.
Gaius nodded. “The Queen has changed since the war. Naturally, she distrusts everyone who isn’t Carmarthian, but she’s been embracing more and more of the Old Religion. And she wants the children to be taught more battle magic—much more than before.”
Merlin gaped at him, memories of the war flashing before his eyes and his gut clenching. As impossible as the hope was, he never, never wanted children to go through what he’d gone through and seen in the war. “Please tell me that isn’t happening.”
Gaius shook his head. “Not a lot of us remaining know enough battle magic. Most experienced in it were dead.”
Merlin grimaced, but couldn’t find anything to say.
“…the Queen refused to talk about you, and after three years, she and Mordred hand-fasted. I wasn’t even aware they shared affection for each other beyond friendship,” Gaius remarked.
“I wasn’t either,” Merlin muttered with a shake of his head. He then took a fortifying breath before telling Gaius, “They left me there that day, Gaius. They saw I was in trouble, and just didn’t care. They could have saved me, but they turned their backs on me, and I don’t understand why.”
“Are you sure?” Gaius asked, sitting up straighter. Merlin bit his lower lip and nodded. “Oh Merlin, I’m so sorry.” He put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, its weight an old comfort to Merlin even after all these years.
Merlin allowed himself to wallow in self-pity for a bit, even though he’d told himself he’d put the past behind him countless times by now. Then, with a sigh, he cleared his head, because it didn’t matter now. He had to remember his focus, like Gaius seemed to take delight in reminding him. He asked, “What has Morgana been saying about me now? I didn’t expect…I didn’t expect for absolutely no one at all to show up at the cabin to see me. Wouldn’t someone be at least curious?” Though he had expected it actually, because he was a slave and magic-less, not the person his people had hoped for. But it didn’t mean the disregard didn’t hurt.
“The Queen told everyone that you—and Arthur—wished to be left alone,” Gaius said.
“That didn’t stop the children from coming to play,” Merlin grumbled. But really, it was better that they were left alone. Merlin didn’t want to face anyone curious in what’d become of him, and Arthur was sure to have a poor reception. Merlin wondered how Morgana could have become such a stranger to him. What she could possibly be thinking? Or had he—had everyone except perhaps Mordred—simply not known her for who she was?
Gauis got to his feet with a groan. He stretched his back before saying to Merlin, “I’m sorry, my boy. Come, let’s get back to work, Merlin. Your magic is our top concern for now.”
Arthur was strangely silent when Merlin came back from training a few days later. He seemed lost in thought, leaning against the wall and staring at the floor from where he sat on the bed.
“Arthur? Is everything all right?” Merlin asked, wavering for a moment before joining him on the bed.
“I feel like I’m going to go mad,” Arthur said, scrubbing his face with a hand.
“You may be a prat most of the time, but there’s goodness in you.” Arthur made to smack the back of his head, but Merlin ducked and continued, “And you’re stubborn. Keep fighting the enchantment. Soon I’ll have my magic back and I’ll break the spell. I promise you, Arthur.” Merlin gave him a smile but rather than receiving a sarcastic remark as he’d expected, he got the assessing look Arthur had given him often when they’d first met. “Don’t hurt yourself too much thinking,” Merlin quipped, waiting to distract Arthur from staring. Again, Arthur swatted at him, but it was half-hearted at best. That was when Merlin started to worry. “Hey, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I just want to know, Merlin, everything you’re not telling me,” Arthur said. “You keep saying it’s your duty to help me, to help Albion and fight Nimueh and Morgause. I can understand fighting the priestesses, but will all the power you have—all the power you’ll have—I don’t understand your loyalty to me. I’m the Prince of Camelot. My kingdom—my father—brought terrible things upon Carmarthen and made your people and you suffer. And I’ve done some awful things to you. You call me a prat, and I’ll admit that I am one—sometimes. And yet you’re still so willing to help me. You could just go after the priestesses alone; you don’t need a magic-less prince bogging you down. I would think it might be because you say I’m the Once and Future King, but you never tell me what it means.” Arthur fell into brooding silence, staring at Merlin with that look in his eyes that demanded answers.
Merlin heaved a sigh and began gathering his thoughts. He couldn’t really put it off any longer it seemed, and Arthur…he deserved to know. It was his destiny also after all. Merlin cleared his throat, and Arthur continued to look at him expectantly.
“There are prophecies…old prophecies,” Merlin chose to begin with, “that tell of the Once and Future King. They say that after Carmarthen falls, which it obviously did, a great evil would rise up and bring about darkness and chaos in all of Albion. They say that the Once and Future King will have the power to stop the Evil, unite Albion and bring about the Golden Age.”
Arthur scoffed. “And you think I’m this prophesized hero king? One man can’t possibly achieve all of that. If you haven’t noticed, I’m just the prince of Camelot.”
“I know you’re the Once and Future King,” Merlin argued. “The dragon confirmed it.”
“Are you telling me, that you can talk to dragons? You were a Dragonlord?” Arthur gaped at him, his face no longer inexpressive.
“Um, I am one now, I suppose. I wasn’t one before. Dragonlords inherit their power from their fathers, and my father died during the war, so…”
“So now you talk to dragons; you talked to a dragon recently.”
“Yes, but that’s not the point. He confirmed that you’re the Once and Future King.”
“All right, well, ignoring the fact that you somehow spoke to a dragon without anyone else realizing it, I’ll say it again: one man can’t possibly achieve all of that.”
“Oh, no one said you’d be doing it alone,” Merlin said. Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “…There’s a reason why the seers knew my name at birth, and a reason why I have—had—so much power, Arthur. The prophecies also tell of a warlock, destined to stand by the King’s side.” Merlin watched as Arthur’s eyes widened in realization. “It was my destiny as Emrys to help the Once and Future King, to help you achieve greatness. When I lost my magic, I thought I’d failed my destiny, but…the dragon told me I could get my magic back, so everything should be okay now—hopefully.”
“So you’re doing this because you were born to do this, whether you like it or not,” Arthur said, and his face was carefully blank, hiding away his emotions the way he usually did in court. Merlin wasn’t sure how he’d expected Arthur to react, but this certainly wasn’t it. Then Arthur’s words caught up to him.
“Oh, no, definitely not. Arthur—do you really think if the Once and Future King had turned out to be a greedy or selfish ass, that I’d willingly give my loyalty to him? That I’d let someone I didn’t find worthy rule over Albion? I’ve told you before, sire, you’re a prat, but I’ve seen the kind of king you can become. You’re good, and I have trust in you. I’m glad that you’re the Once and Future King.”
Arthur started at him for a moment, and then, cracked into a bright smile.
“I had no idea you thought so highly of me,” he remarked.
Merlin huffed a laugh. “I can hardly believe it myself.”
“So let me get this all straight. Your people’s prophecies, and a dragon, say you and I are destined to defeat this Great Evil, whatever it is, and take over all of Albion together. I’m going to be some great king, and you’re an all-powerful sorcerer who can talk to dragons.”
“Yeah, that’s the simplest. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’re supposed to.”
Arthur shrugged. “Right. Well, for now, you should just work on getting your magic back.”
“…you’re taking all of this quite well, considering.”
“I’ve been raised for greatness since birth, even if it was just Camelot, not all of Albion,” Arthur replied with a shrug. Merlin scoffed.
“I see the prophecies didn’t help your ego,” Merlin remarked. Arthur just gave him a smirk.