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-oOo- Kilgharrah -oOo-

In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young prince. His name—Arthur.

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

"This thing," Arthur says, his voice reverberating off the vaulted ceiling of the burial chambers, "managed to raise an army of the dead?" He hoists up what remains of the staff Morgana must have chopped in half.

If he had not fought the skeletons himself, he would have thought it absurd.

"Be careful with it," his father warns. Uther then turns away to direct the servants he has insisted accompany them to light the torches lining the chamber walls.

As the servants light the sconces one by one, the shadows creep into hiding and the full wreckage of the room is visible. Heavy cobwebs dangle in the air, broken arch supports crumble to the ground, rocky debris salts the floor, and tomb lids gape open.

The crypt seems eerie, filled only with the living.

Uneasy, Arthur turns his attention to the staff and shifts it to his left hand. It is not particularly impressive as far as magical vessels go. Then again, he has never held one before. It is a twisted tree with a clear-polished crystal nestling deep in the mass of branches. He runs his fingers over the shallow grooving where the bark has been stripped off.

"There's something carved on here," Arthur says.

"What does it say?" his father asks.

"Some kind of script." Arthur squints at it, but the words are in no language he wants to understand. "I can't read it."

"Fetch the court physician," the king orders one of the servants. "His expertise is needed immediately."

The servant, who has finished lighting sconces, scurries up the stairs to deliver the message to Gaius.

Arthur follows as his father wades deeper into the crypt and hears a sharp intake of breath when the king misses a step in front of one of the newly destroyed coffins. It is a cheap stone slab, plain rather than ornate. Arthur checks for a name and date of death, but neither is etched on the tomb.

After a long moment, Uther says, looking haunted, "The dead are supposed to stay dead."

Arthur's hackles rise. The remaining servant is far enough away not to be in earshot, but if his father relapses and starts to yell, as he had in the council chambers, the rumors will start afresh. Uther bows his head and spans his arms on either side of the broken coffin.

"Father?" Arthur hesitates but eventually rests his free hand on his father's shoulder.

"Don't worry." Uther's tone is wry, but his father is fully cognizant. "I'm not seeing anyone I shouldn't right now."

The only hint at the previous occupant's identity is the coffin's size, which is not large enough for a man or small enough for a child.

"Who was she?" Arthur asks and drops his hand.

"No one of importance."

Arthur has no comment so he remains respectfully silent and waits. Three ragged breaths later Uther reaches a decision. "I need everything here cleaned up before the week is out."

The city's masons are busy rebuilding the defensive walls damaged in the attack, his knights are needed to patrol the outlining regions, and the castle servants are distributing aid to those who have lost their homes during the siege. "It'll need to wait until we are sure we have re-secured the lower town and the border."

"All remains are to be returned, the stone repaired, and the floors swept."

Arthur tightens his knuckles around the staff. "What about the battlements? The drawbridge gate? The damage to the west walls alone will—"

"This takes precedence."

"I've not the men for such labor."

"Pull them off patrol."

Arthur bites his tongue. What will the people say when they catch hint of Uther's priorities? "If it is that important to you, I'll see that it gets done."

"It is," Uther insists.

"I'll see to it personally." He will need to keep this as quiet as possible.

Arthur offers a silent prayer that Leon's report this evening will have some good news, or at the very least not be all bad news. Short of moving things stone by stone himself, he does not know where he will find the sheer manpower to temper his father's wishes.

"Good," his father says and the topic is considered closed. "Ah, Gaius," Uther says and stands erect when Gaius enters the chambers on the far side.

"Your majesty, what is it you need?" Gaius asks. He hikes his robes up as he picks his way through the debris towards them.

"Arthur's found a script on the artifact Morgana destroyed during the attack. What does it say?"

Arthur offers the white staff out for Gaius to inspect. "This would seem to indicate magic and this one balance." Gaius says pointing at each glyph while Arthur rolls his wrist. The weight of the staff is heavier than his sword, and the bandage Guinevere hastily tied yesterday has begun to chafe.

"And the other two?" his father asks.

"I will need to consult some of the older texts for an exact translation."

"How should we destroy it?"

"Fire?" Arthur suggests.

"It's made of Rowan wood, sire," Gaius adds.

"Witchbane," his father growls.

"That is one synonym, yes."

"Evil shouldn't be housed in something so benign as wood."

"It felt normal to me," Arthur comments.

Gaius protectively cradles the staff against his chest and a twist in his gut tells Arthur that Gaius is withholding key information. Sure enough, Arthur's suspicions are confirmed when Gaius speaks up to delay its destruction. "I am not sure burning the staff would be wise. Allow me to study it overnight… to determine the best method."

"Very well," Uther acquiesces. "Once you've ascertained it, Arthur will carry out your instructions to the letter."

Ugg! Yet another thing he will have to manage.

Uther rounds on Arthur again. "Are you any closer to identifying the traitor who caused this havoc in the first place?"

"I've been concentrating on the security and well being of the people."

"So, you've made no progress."

That cuts. "Not yet."

"Redirect your efforts."

Should he do that before or after he has cleaned out the burial vaults? "Yes, sire." Arthur resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. What was one more impossible task?

"I shall leave you to your work, physician. Arthur, you have your tasks," Uther says and ascends the stairs without a backwards glance at them—or the empty coffin. The remaining servant trails after the king like a dutiful puppy.

Perhaps Arthur can get Merlin to follow his instructions while he is busy performing the impossible. Better yet, maybe he can get Merlin to show up when he is needed instead of on a whim.

"Where did you find the staff?" Gaius asks, breaking Arthur out of his reverie.

"Over there." Arthur points.

Arthur accompanies Gaius to where the bottom half of the staff is still rooted into the castle's pockmarked floor. Perched on the top there is a gold ring encircling the wood. Cracks radiate out from the staff, reaching out all the way to the crumbling wall. Seeing the additional damage, he frowns, realizing he will have to supervise the replacement of the entire floor after it is swept clean.

"How do we remove it?" Arthur asks.

"Pull it out."

"Me?"

Gaius raises an eyebrow.

Huffing, Arthur gets a firm grasp on the staff and tugs. It barely budges on the first tug, the second shifts the broken rock around the base and makes his right shoulder ache, and then—finally!—the third yank gives so easily that Arthur ends up sprawled on his rear. The gold ring flies off and lands with a ping at his feet.

"Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine," Arthur replies. Feathers would make fantastic floor tile. Pillows. Cushions.

Arthur gingerly gets to his feet and has to consciously make the effort not to rub his bottom any more than necessary while straightening his pride along with his clothing. He also rolls his shoulder a few times to release some of the tension, which has not faded since the battle.

"Let me see," Gaius says.

"I said I'm fine." Just not going to be able to sit comfortably for a day or so.

"Not you. The staff."

"Of course." To cover his blunder, Arthur shoves the blasted thing towards Gaius.

Gaius studies the two separate pieces for a few moments. The edges where they previously joined are not splintered; it is obvious the gold ring merely bound the two separate pieces tightly together.

"Morgana always goes for the weak spot," Arthur comments, coming closer for a better look.

"Always has."

"Earlier, what were you holding back?" Arthur asks.

"I've heard of this staff before."

"When?"

"A long time ago while I was visiting a place I shouldn't have been," Gaius says as he butts the two broken halves together.

The crystal on the top catches the torchlight on an angle and its sparkles catch Arthur's eye. It is mesmerizing.

It is beautiful.

"Sire?"

Like Gwen.

He wants it.

Unable to resist Arthur leans forward and digs a fingernail between the wood and the crystal to pry it loose. It does not give. He knocks it with his ring.

Then the crystal buzzes and there is a blinding flash.

What the hell?

When Arthur can open his eyes, the staff is on the floor and Gaius is lit with a sickly white afterglow, rather than the warm flicker of the firelight. Arthur holds his breath and as the glow slowly fades completely away, the only sound in the vast chamber is the soft crackle of firelight from the sconces.

He stares at the staff dumbly for a few moments and then Arthur realizes it. It is now whole. A new golden ring, a twin to the one still lying at his feet, has sealed the two pieces together.

"What…." He clears his throat when the words do not come. "What did I do?"

"You must have activated the crystal."

"I'm not a sorcerer! How could I possibly activate it?"

"A sorcerer would have had to prime it, but this staff can harness great power all on its own."

Arthur is not sure he wants to know the answer, but asks anyway. "You don’t need to do any research do you?" Arthur waits, but Gaius offers nothing and instead crouches next to the staff. "Gaius," Arthur hisses through clenched teeth.

When Gaius looks up, his face is grave. "This is a sacred relic of the Old Religion. It's the Tree of Life."

"You're telling me the High Priestesses had a member of her Bloodguard put it here?"

"The traitor has been hard at work."

"I think it best we not mention this to the king yet."

"Agreed. He should be concentrating on resting."

"When you are certain about how to dispose of it, we'll tell him."

Gaius rises and purses his lips.

"We are going to destroy it," Arthur insists.

"I'm not sure it can be destroyed."

"What are you going to have me do with it?"

"That is what I need to research."

Arthur knows a dismissal when he hears one. "Is there anything else you require?"

"One thing."

"Yes?"

"Do not keep Merlin occupied too late this evening. I will need his assistance."

"If you see to it my father takes a strong sleeping draft, I'll be sure—"or as sure as he ever can be with the hapless fool—"Merlin finishes his duties early," Arthur bargains.

"Deal."

-oOo-

Hours later, after he surveys what must have been every stone and brick in the citadel for damage, chastises his father's advisors for lying about grain stores, and listens to another set of advisors wring their hands about the dwindling amount of money in Camelot's coffers available for repairs, Arthur arrives at his chambers and finds a full meal spread—bread, jam, chicken, eggs, cheese, fruit, and what blessedly looks like ale—on the table for supper.

He also finds his hapless manservant for the first time since daybreak. Merlin, little bottom waving in the air, is on his hands and knees with his head ducked under the bed.

Rolling his eyes and relishing the plan that has formed in his mind, Arthur slams the door shut. There is a satisfying thud moments later.

"Ow!"

"That was so much easier than usual," Arthur says brightly.

Merlin crawls out from under the bed rubbing his ear. "What was?"

"I didn't have to throw anything, and yet I can still give you a bump on the head."

Merlin glares.

"It's a day late to be hiding under the bed," Arthur continues.

"I wasn't hiding. Then or now."

"I know you well, Merlin, you're not that complicated. You are worthless in a fight, but you are scrappy and have, despite all these failings, managed to become a marginally successful, if ever forgetful servant."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"As well you should. Now, you couldn't have been cleaning and repairing my armor under there, which I distinctly remember telling you to do this morning. So, what were you looking for?"

There is the inevitable pause while he watches Merlin struggle for a lie. "Umm, dust bunnies?"

"Dust bunnies?" Arthur narrows his eyes as he pulls off his leather jacket and tosses it over a chair back. He is not buying that for a second!

"Mum hum."

"Are their heads full of the same fluff as yours?"

"There weren't any."

"Of course not," Arthur says absently and sits down in front of his dinner, "because you washed the floors—cloth, bucket, suds, and all just last week. Speaking of fluff, get me a pillow."

"Why?"

"To sit on." He most certainly was not going to explain further.

"You don't—"

"Merlin!"

Blessedly, Merlin shuts up, snags a pillow off the bed, and offers it to Arthur.

"Not a word," Arthur says as he stuffs the pillow between his rear and the hard wooden chair. Sighing in relief, he breaks the loaf of warm bread in half with his fingers. He is starving.

In a rare moment of insanity, Merlin demonstrates he actually has the ability to act the proper servant by taking up the pitcher and pouring out a goblet of ale.

"Has Leon's patrol returned yet?" Arthur asks while he butters a hunk of bread.

"Due in shortly. As you requested I've left instructions for him to report directly here as soon as he arrives."

Arthur may be starving, but his stomach is also roiling. Instead of eating, he puts down the bread and rests his head in the notch made by chair back and the side post. He lets Merlin pile his plate high.

"You expect trouble?"

"No more than usual."

"Then what's wrong?" Merlin asks.

"What's Gaius taught you of the Old Religion?"

Merlin jerks and the heaping forkful of chicken, which should have been destined for the plate, ends up in Arthur's lap.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Merlin babbles. "I'll clean it up."

Arthur scoops the slimy mess off his trousers. "Don't bother." He has nowhere to put it until Merlin fumbles for an extra plate.

Palms up, he waves his hands in front of Merlin waiting for him to buy a clue. He does not.

"What?"

"Napkin," Arthur demands.

Merlin obliges and Arthur wipes his hands and sops up as much of the juice as he can off his breeches.

"Uh, why were you asking about the Old Religion?" Merlin asks.

"I found the staff that caused the skeletons to attack."

"You went down to the burial vaults?"

"Father wanted to see the scene of Morgana's victory. I found the staff used during the attack." He also may have activated it somehow, but he should not tax Merlin's overshot nerves with talk of magic. "Gaius believes it to be a relic of the Old Religion."

"Where is it now?"

Arthur picks up a fork and toys with it awkwardly in his left hand. "Gaius has it safe, but that doesn't mean that the traitor isn't still stalking the halls of Camelot. While I'd like to believe he's gone, I won't rest well until I'm sure. And I...." he trails off, embarrassed. If that Tree of Life staff had done more than simply glow Arthur would have been defenseless against it. He cannot attack a blazing light with steel and brute force. "I don't know how to fight magic," he finally admits.

"Have you asked Morgana about how she knew to go down to the vaults in the first place?" Merlin puts a replacement heap of chicken on the plate along with a side helping of berries.

"She said…."

What did she say? Arthur can only remember that he, his father, and Morgana were talking in his king's council chambers. He was more concerned at the time with the fact that the tie of the bandage around his wrist was too tight as he tried to stay on his feet in the post battle letdown. "I don't remember."

"You should ask her again."

Arthur pokes at the chicken with the ends of the fork tines, but does not spear any.

"Have you seen her today?" Merlin asks.

"Morgana volunteered to ensure that supplies were distributed to those villagers who sought refuge during the siege. I imagine she spent most of the day outside the castle walls handing out food to the women and children."

Merlin snorts. "Did she?"

"I think Gwen went with her."

"Gwen spent the day helping Gaius tend to the wounded."

"So Morgana went alone. She doesn't need a keeper. Besides," Arthur says as he tosses the fork away, "after being kept in a cell for a year, I hardly blame her for wanting to be in the sunshine as long as she can."

"Are you not going to eat?" Merlin asks.

"I will. It's just that on top of everything else, I need to organize the cleanup of the burial vaults."

"Who are you going to have clean it?"

"Everyone's busy. I haven't a shred of an idea."

When Merlin wads up the dirty napkin and replaces it with a fresh one, brilliance hits.

"Then again…." Arthur smiles, wide. Appetite happily returning, he tucks into the food. "Perhaps there is someone qualified. He is constantly cleaning things, so I know he's very good."

"Who?"

Arthur just continues to chew.

"No. Me? No! You can't be serious."

"You apparently have time to hide under my bed."

"I wasn't—"

"You've just been volunteered."

"—hiding!"

"Frankly," Arthur says through a mouthful of bread, "I'm just glad you didn't hightail it off again. Worthless as you are in a fight, you do keep my chambers somewhat tidy. You can put your skills to good use down there."

"So you admit I have skills?"

"They are few and far between."

"I can't go down there," Merlin splutters.

Merlin's reaction is stronger than Arthur was expecting. Yes, it is an unpleasant task, but the dread in Merlin's eyes tells him there is more. "Why ever not?"

"There are… there are ghosts!"

Arthur shovels chicken into his mouth, amused. "Ghosts?"

"Ghosts," Merlin repeats.

"We were attacked by skeletons not ghosts."

"Are you saying skeletons don’t have souls?"

"Souls have nothing to do with it," Arthur counters.

"Since I've been your manservant, do you know how many times we've dealt with people who are dead?" asks Merlin.

"That's absurd."

"Not in Camelot."

"Yeah?"

"Experience has taught me otherwise."

"Fine." Arthur brings out the challenge. "Name three."

"Just three?"

"You are stal-ling."

"One – the Black Knight." Merlin ticks the name off of with his fingers. "Two – Cornelius Sigan. Three – the skeleton in the courtyard. Four – the skeleton I fought in the hallway. Five –"

Arthur interrupts, "The skeletons don't count."

"They do too."

"They didn't talk. That eliminates them from contention."

"You just changed the rules."

"Princely privilege."

"You're a sore loser."

"Then it's a good thing I never lose."

Merlin's harrumphs are drowned out by a knock on the door.

"Enter," Arthur calls out. A few seconds later, Leon comes through the door. He is disheveled and tired, clearly having come straight from the stables.

"My lord," Leon replies, and then greets Merlin with a nod.

"Join me for dinner?" Arthur offers.

"That would be most welcome," Leon accepts the invitation and seats himself across from Arthur. Merlin busies himself preparing a second plate and goblet.

"Mmm, that's nice and sweet," Leon comments after he has savored the ale.

"Last year's brew was a good one," Arthur agrees. He allows Leon to drink deeply a second time before he starts in on the questions. "Do you have good news?"

"There's little of it," Leon says, wiping his mouth.

Merlin, on his best behavior, is quick with a refill.

"The bulk of the army has retreated across the boarder and into Cenred's kingdom. As they went," Leon continues as he digs into the chicken, "they were courteous enough to burn the crops and take or kill all the livestock for every village between here and the forest of Ascetir. This year's autumn harvest is going to be short and unproductive."

"And followed by a long, hard winter," Arthur finishes.

"Surely we will aid them?"

Arthur picks up his goblet and nurses what little ale remains. "As best we can."

At Arthur's sour tone, Leon pauses in his quest to devour all the remaining food off of Arthur's table. "The last report I read indicated that the food stores weren't in any danger."

"I found out this afternoon the stores were depending on the upcoming bumper harvest. The advisors inflated the numbers in advance to climb into my father's good graces."

"How harsh was the king's reaction?"

"He finds out tomorrow." Arthur sighs. Petitioning—which his father will only call begging—other kingdoms for their assistance, is not going to be an easy sell. "We've enough to feed Camelot's normal population, but with all the outlying villagers here, and unlikely to leave anytime soon, it'll be… uncomfortable."

"If it's any consolation most of the mercenaries have taken their money and left Cenred's service. We could hardly go farther than a horse's shit without taking cover to avoid detection."

"The battle's over. You're sure they aren't dispersing?"

With a mouth full of food, Leon nods.

"Why?"

"To serve." Leon blinks in surprise, as if the answer is obvious. "You've proven yourself the dominant power."

Arthur swirls the amber liquid in his goblet watching the currents shift with the twist of his wrist. "Camelot's been strong for years."

"Not Camelot. You."

Arthur shifts in his seat, the pillow no longer a soft enough cushion.

"Every knight in Camelot knows you were the one in charge of the preparation for the siege and for the tactics. So do all those we fought against. Try as you might to suppress it, sire, word has seeped out to the people. All of Albion will know once the tale of the battle spreads throughout the land. The mercenaries are staying for you."

Arthur drinks the last swig of the ale and grips the empty goblet hard in order to steady himself. "I am Prince Arthur of Camelot, not King Arthur."

"You are the leader we follow."

"It was bad enough hearing this talk of treason from Gaius, but from you…."

Leon frowns and puts down the bread he has paired with cheese. "I admit it was I who convinced Gaius to speak with you. No one else had the courage."

Arthur's knuckles turn white under the force of his grip. "Is that why you're here now? To plot against your monarch?"

"My lord, I—"

"You discovered the sentry under the drawbridge. Was that merely coincidence, or are you the traitor?"

"Sire, I—"

"I will not overthrow my father!"

Arthur smashes the goblet on the table and all the dishes on the table rattle in response. When Leon wipes his hands on his thighs and pushes his half finished plate to the center, clearly done eating, Arthur knows he has made a foolish mistake—this is Leon, for God's sake! He is jumping to ridiculous conclusions, but the words of apology stick raw in Arthur's throat.

Merlin, disapproval obvious in his scowl, breaks the tension by beginning to pile the dirty dishes and the uneaten food on a large tray to return to the kitchens.

After Merlin has cleared most of the table, Leon stands. "Forgive me, my lord, for speaking so informally. I am here to update you on what I discovered while on a scouting mission for our sovereign, King Uther Pendragon."

"Then continue with your report, Sir Leon."

All trace of earlier camaraderie gone, Leon says, "There are several thousand mercenaries camping nearby who would pledge loyalty to Camelot."

"For a price?"

"Do you wish me to see they are offered employment?"

"Not really." Arthur wants another mug of the ale, but Merlin is holding it hostage far out of his reach. "But we've sustained heavy losses."

"How many are dead, sire?"

"Sixteen knights. Plus thirty-three others are wounded. Two are injured too seriously to ride or wield a sword ever again."

Leon pays his respects with a bow of his head and Arthur lets the silence stretch. It would be worse than death to be as helpless as a babe in his mother's arms….

"It doesn't matter. We can't afford to pay the mercenaries even if I wanted to."

"If you change your mind they will probably be in the area for sometime yet." Undoubtedly they will harass his people and any foreign travelers while they wait for Arthur's gold. "In light of your decision," Leon goes on, "I recommend we enact a curfew after the final bell to encourage everyone to be within the city walls at night. That is, with your permission, of course."

"I will support that."

"The mercenaries weren't worried about keeping quiet either."

Arthur perks up at that. "What did you overhear?"

Leon shakes his head in the negative.

"Did you engage?"

"Botched ambush. The 'gentlemen' were kind enough to impart some information before we relieved them of sword and purse. Cenred wasn't alone in planning the attack. There was a woman working with him, she wasn't happy about the retreat."

"Who was she?"

"They didn't have name. The only repeatable descriptions in civilized company were blonde and dressed in chainmail, and screw-able."

"Charming."

That description sounded suspiciously like Morgause. Full of restless energy, Arthur taps his ring finger against his goblet repeatedly as he remembers the first time he met Morgause.

Dead.

Mother.

Shocked, he looks straight at Merlin, who sometimes is a deliberately clay-brained lout, but he is not dimwitted enough to forget the reason Arthur held his father at sword point. Merlin misinterprets the look and gets temptingly close with the half-empty pitcher.

Arthur shoos him away and concentrates on Leon.

"There's more. Apparently, Cenred only agreed to the attack in the first place because she assured him they had a faithful ally, placed deep in Camelot's court, who would ensure their victory."

"The traitor's a courtier?"

"It is someone who is unquestionably high placed."

Fantastic! That meant he could not pawn off the search of each of the nobles' chambers to a lesser knight. He would have to supervise it himself so as not to ruffle any additional feathers.

"Is there anything else?"

Leon shuffles his feet. "I may have a one lead for you."

"Oh?"

"It's the reason we were late in arriving." Leon hesitates and refuses to look Arthur in the eye. "It may not be one his majesty would remotely want us to mention let alone entertain."

"My father wants all means used, no stone unturned."

"I do not wish to damage my reputation with you further."

"Then stop pussyfooting about it."

"We halted by the stream to water the horses." Arthur is well familiar with the location; it is a convenient spot with a gentle babbling brook. They use the place to break the journey for the horses and relieve themselves before resuming the five-hour trip east to the city. "I was returning to the group, when I encountered a man—age worn yet agile, curly 'n grey hair, plainly dressed in travel clothes, fine horse—waiting, as bold as you please, in the middle of the small dirt path that leads down to the stream. At first I thought he was lost and in need of assistance. When offered it, he refused, addressed me by name, and instead asked for an audience with the Prince of Camelot."

Arthur did not immediately recognize the man from Leon's description. "What did he want?"

"He wished to speak with you personally."

"You escorted him back, then?"

Leon combs one hand through his long hair. "Not exactly."

"I don't have the time to gallivant about the woodlands at the whim of peasants who only want an audience to beg for something I cannot provide," Arthur snaps.

"He's not a peasant, he's a druid."

"And he wants to meet with me?"

"Alone," Leon confirms. "After I informed him your duties would not permit a visit and instead offered to pass along a message," Leon fishes a small bundle out of his pocket and proffers it, "he gave me this."

Arthur takes it and unwraps the four corners of the brown burlap covering one by one. In the center is a round chip of wood with branch bark rough on the edges. It is about the size of a typical gold coin and the carving on the side facing upwards in his palm is of a now sickeningly familiar tree. When he flips it over the reverse side shows a crude picture of what looks like the dragon he slew the prior year.

"He said he would wait for you for three nights. No more. Then he vanished."

"People don't just vanish."

"He dissolved like smoke in the wind." Leon shivers. "I wasted two entire hours having the men search the grove for evidence of him, but there wasn't any. No campfire. No footprints."

"The horse?"

"No trace of it either. No hoof prints. No tracks. If it weren't for that"—Leon points to the wooden coin—"I'd say I completely imagined him."

"None of the others saw him?"

"Just me, sire."

"Did you tell anyone else of this conversation?"

"I didn't think it prudent."

Merlin, damp cloth balled in his fist rather than actively wiping the table, leans over Arthur's shoulder to get a better view of the wood chip. When Leon does not offer anything new Arthur asks, "Do you have anything additional to report?"

"No more, sire."

"You're dismissed."

Leon has the door partway open, but lingers for a moment. "I love Camelot and all she stands for. I serve at your pleasure and will strive to do so in the best manner I can as both knight and councilor. Please forgive me."

Forgive, perhaps, but not forget.

"Schedule a training session for early morning. I don't want any of the younger recruits resting on their laurels."

Face pinched, Leon bows himself out of the room.

Merlin is wise enough to at least hold his tongue until the door snicks closed. He has discarded the rag and, hands on hips, has the same expression Morgana wears when she is about to tell him off. "You were pretty harsh to Leon."

He does not appreciate Merlin's unsolicited comment. Ignoring him, Arthur stares at the wooden chip. It is certainly a token to grab his attention: a depiction of the vessel which nearly turned the tide of the battle he won and a depiction of an animal that he also triumphed over. His father will be proud that his son is identified so strongly with the defeat of evil magical objects and beings.

"Arthur, was that necessary?"

"I don't need you telling me how to handle my knights."

"I thought they were the King's knights?"

Not taking the bait, Arthur spins the chip on the freshly cleaned tabletop. The two sides of the makeshift coin blur together for the blink of an eye before it topples over.

Dragon up.

"Have you gotten out my bedclothes yet?" Arthur pulls out the pillow from underneath himself, stands, and stretches with fists behind his head, elbows up. "I'll take your stupefied expression as a no."

"First I have to—"

"You have to? You?" Arthur laughs without humor and heads towards the bed. "I have a swelling population that expects me to protect them." Perching on the bedside, he pulls his left leg up. "I have insufficient food stored for the winter." He yanks on his left boot, but it stubbornly remains halfway on. "I have over a dozen dead knights to replace." Another tug and the offensive boot slides off his foot. "I have rogue mercenaries roaming throughout the kingdom." He throws it to the floor and there is a satisfying bounce. "I have a weak citadel wall whose foundation is so damaged it won't withstand another bombardment and not enough quarry stone to rebuild it." The second boot follows the first, thumping harder. "I have a traitor, who I can't identify, that may possibly still be lurking about the castle, bent on Camelot's destruction." For good measure, he kicks the boots and they skid across the room towards Merlin. "I have a magical artifact that may or may not be able to be destroyed." Nonplussed, Merlin lifts the boots up. "I have an entire crypt to clean, not to mention a courtyard, the lower town, and an entire countryside." Arthur pounds the covers with his fist. "And worst of all, I also have a father whose sanity the entirety of Albion is beginning to question."

Worn out, Arthur flops on the bed.

"And all the while"—he spreads one arm wide hogging as much quilt as he can—"All the while my father, the council, the knights, the servants, the court, the people expect me to fix it." He screws his eyes shut. "I don't want the responsibility!"

He hears Merlin shuffle to the cupboard and put the boots away. Then there is the opening and closing squeak of drawers and the soft rustle of fabric followed by footfalls.

"I didn't ask for this," Arthur moans.

"Tough," Merlin replies and Arthur's eyes fly open. "You're the crown prince and heir to the throne."

A pair of loose, black trousers hit him square in the chest. Arthur scrambles up and supports his weight on his left elbow. "I didn't mean—"

"Take off your shirt."

"Pardon?"

"I have to change the dressing on your wrist and then Gaius wanted me to make sure I tended your shoulder wound."

"My shoulder isn't wounded," Arthur protests.

"Just because you won't admit to it, doesn't mean it isn't there."

"It's fine. I took care of it."

"Which is why you ate your dinner left-handed?"

Damn, Gaius!

Merlin dangles a strip of fresh bandage and jar of salve in front of his face. Gritting his teeth, he shucks his shirt to get this over with. Glancing down he can see the bruising has darkened to a deeper mix of black and blue since he dressed in the morning.

Merlin unscrews the jar and the scent of comfrey is unmistakable.

"That stuff always smells awful," Arthur complains.

"You'll appreciate it in the morning during the training session when you can lift your sword." Arthur hisses through his teeth when Merlin pokes at the bruise. "How did it happen?"

"Don't know. I didn't feel it until long after the battle."

Merlin hums as he rubs the disgusting slave into Arthur's tender skin. "So, why did you have Leon report directly to you tonight, in advance of the council meeting tomorrow?"

"I wanted to know the situation on the border."

Merlin finishes and screws the lid tight. "Leon gave his last border report about the army amassing to the full court. You found out about it when your father did."

That lands.

Merlin goes on to attack the bandage on his wrist. "You don't get to be angry if the knights treat you as the de facto leader when you act it. Your father may be King, but you are his sword. You're seeing betrayal where there isn't rather than where it may be."

Arthur himself unravels the dirty bandage once Merlin's got the knot unfastened. The cut is nasty, but it is no longer weeping blood. If there is no blood tomorrow morning he can probably make do without a bandage. "Do you think I should meet this druid?"

His question makes Merlin pause. "Do you want an honest answer to that?"

"I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't."

"Then, yes, I do."

"If my father were to ever find out…."

"Send me in your place."

"I couldn't ask you to do that."

Merlin gently wraps the replacement bandage securely about the laceration. "Earlier you said you didn't know a way to fight magic. This druid may be offering you a way to fight magic with magic. I can help you."

"I'll… think about it," he replies, even though deep down inside he squelches any such impulse. Then he asks, "Do you think the sorceress is Morgause?"

"There's no one else it would be."

"There was one other," Arthur says and twists his ring round and round his finger with his thumb while Merlin works. The confused expression on his manservant's face indicates he should elaborate. "Person, who has died that we've spoken with."

Merlin ties off the last of the bandage. "I thought it best not to mention her."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Why do you stay?" Arthur asks.

"Because my master is an ungrateful coxcomb who needed to have the dressing on his injured wrist tended to so a deadly infection doesn't set in. If that infection were to set in and he were to die, the mourning and wailing would be unbearable."

"The mourning period would have to be extensive as would befit my station."

"Weeks and weeks. Gwen would be inconsolable."

"Oh. Hum, best not to have that happen then."

"Quite. As this would prevent him from becoming king in his own right when the time comes all of Albion would also suffer from the loss."

"It's not my legacy to rule Albion, Camelot alone is plenty. With you by my side to…." Arthur flails trying to come up with the best responsibility for Merlin. What is Merlin actually good at?

"Darn your socks?" Merlin suggests.

That is good enough. "With you by my side to clean, dry, and mend my socks, we'll be a force to be reckoned with."

Merlin looks him dead in the eye, all trace of joking gone. "It's our destiny."

"You're having delusions of grandeur again."

"If you say, sire."

"Idiot."

"Prat."

Merlin's grin is impish, but Arthur is returning it in kind.

"Goodnight, sire."

He bids Merlin the same and climbs into bed, but with the odor of comfrey filling his nostrils, sleep eludes him.

-oOo- Gaius -oOo-

The first time Arthur gathered the courage to ask me about magic out of Uther's earshot, he was twelve. Despite the Lady Vivienne's insistence, I was never destined to have a son. The son of my king was more than enough bother.

I had just received a large shipment of beeswax and honey from my usual supplier and had set about making a tincture of valerian root infused with honey for Morgana's nightly sleeping draft. My previous batch had either been less effective due to poor quality ingredients, or I would need to increase the potency with something stronger that valerian.

Poor child.

I had the oil and honey base of the mixture bubbling in the double boiler when the Prince—bloody, dirty, and sweaty—limped into my workshop doing his futile best not to hold his shoulder funny.

In the last week, Sir Ector had begun to ramp up Kay and Arthur's training and had allowed them on the main field with the rest of the knights in the afternoons. Both lads had thrown themselves whole-heartedly into the newest challenge.

Two days ago, Kay had traded his bravado for bruises. Arthur, with his hot head, kept holding on, but Ector must have finally taught the lesson he'd been aiming for.

Arthur's limp had thrown off his swagger.

"What happened?" I asked the young prince once he seated himself on a stool with a grunt.

"Sir Ector sent me here to make sure these cuts"—there was a nasty one his forearm and another one on his temple—"were properly tended to."

I gathered clean cloths and dampened the corners in a bowl of water.

"Which knight's handy work is this?" I asked, wiping the blood off the Prince's eyebrow. The cut was more of a nick and had already stopped bleeding. All I had to do was wipe the blood away.

"It wasn't a knight."

I used the second cloth to staunch the flow of blood on Arthur's arm. The wound wasn't deep, but the blood was mixed with dirt.

"Who was it then?"

"Ouch!" Arthur tried to jerk his arm away, but I held it firmly in place.

"It's clean now. The worst is done."

"Sir Ector kept comparing our warm-up exercises to dancing." Arthur grumbled. "I don't want to dance. Dancing is for girls in dresses and Morgana and maids, not knights dressed in armor wielding swords."

"And then?" I lathered an ointment over the open cut, which would ensure no infection would set in.

"I demanded to spar with a knight, not to practice to be a princess."

That would not have gone over well with Sir Ector and probably was just what the head knight had been waiting for.

"And then what happened?" I asked as I bound his arm tight with a bandage.

"I got my fight," Arthur mumbled miserably.

"Did you not hold your own?" I inquired, wiping the last of the blood away.

Arthur miserably toed the ground with his boot. "He brought in Morgana to fight me," he muttered. Arthur hooked his boot around one of the stool's three legs to stop fidgeting.

"Ahh," I said with understanding. It seemed as if Sir Ector had finally taught the lesson in humility he'd been aiming for. "She defeated you."

"Did not."

I felt my right eyebrow rise of its own accord. The boy was too young yet to figure out there are other ways to win fights besides brute force.

"She might have knocked me down," Arthur amended.

"Is that all?"

"And stomped her foot on my chest."

"And?"

"Demanded I yield."

"Did you?"

"I am never fighting a girl again," Arthur said through tightly clenched teeth. "She kicked my pride in the balls."

"Is that proper language for a knight?"

"No, sorry," he insincerely apologized. "And the worst of it was that all the knights, and all the stewards, and everybody was watching and laughing. I need them to respect me!"

"Respect is earned, my lord."

"How am I supposed to lead these men into battle if they spend all their time sniggering with their hands covering their mouths?"

"We are at peace, what battle are you preparing for?"

"The one against magic."

"You know as well as I do that the Great Purges are over."

"I'm not scared of sorcery," Arthur proclaimed.

Ah, the sweet indestructibility of youth! "Sorcery isn't something to be meddled with or made light of. Take off your shirt, my lord, I need to take a look."

Arthur glared balefully, but obeyed and shimmied out of his sweat-drenched shirt. The odor of young knights in training never changed.

His back and chest were a mass of black, blue, and green. Some were old wounds, others were not. Suspicious, Arthur'd wounded more than his pride, I began to prod. I could feel the solid thumpety-thump of his heart under my fingertips, a little fast for an adult, but not for a growing boy.

"What do you know about magic?" Arthur asked.

I'm not proud of it, but I gave the only answer I could—the one Uther scripted. The reality of a warm bed and a paying job drove my need to stay in the king's good graces.

"Magic is banned throughout Camelot, Arthur."

"I know that," the boy said. I pressed on one of Arthur's ribs, searching for wounds Arthur purposefully wouldn't mention to prove how strong he was to the older, more experienced knights. I'd already noticed how he had balled his hands into fists to hide the broken and bleeding calluses on his his sword hand.

I poked gently at his right shoulder, where the skin was already starting to swell, and Arthur sucked in a sharp breath.

"Does this hurt?"

"No."

I prodded it again, but just a bit harder.

"Okay! Yes, yes. It hurts are you happy now?"

"You need to learn when to ask for help, Arthur." I scolded him, and then I softened my tone. "It's not a weakness."

"It is when you are the Prince," he grumbled.

I had hoped the pain would distract him from his question, but it didn't. "Do you know why magic is banned?"

"You should ask your father," I replied, and busied myself collecting comfrey from my stores.

"I did."

"What did he say?" Eggshells and hammers are a more delicate mixture than Uther and magic I thought to myself as I placed half of the comfrey in my trusty mortar and added a bit of water. Not enough to drown the herb, but enough to get it wet enough to soften my task.

"Father said only that 'Sorcerers can never be trusted.' What I can't figure out is how he learned that."

"Through one bad experience," I replied, grinding the mixture into a plaster with my pestle.

"Ick, that smells gross," Arthur complained. "You're not going to make me eat that, are you?"

"Comfrey can be poisonous when ingested," I replied. "I'm preparing a poultice."

"Still smells gross."

"You'll stop smelling it after a while." Just like I stopped feeling guilty for pointing out sorcerers during the Great Purge.

"You're going to make me wear it, aren't you?"

"If you want that shoulder to feel better on the morrow, yes."

"I only will if you tell me about my father's bad experience."

"Those are for your father to tell."

"But you do know?"

I looked the reason for Uther's hatred of magic in the eyes and said, "I do."

Arthur puffed himself up like a peacock spreading its feathers and I could see the glimmer of the ruler he would one day become. With any luck, he would not be blinded by Uther's faults.

"I command you to tell me, physician," Arthur imitated his father well, but he lacked the ruthlessness Uther sunk into after Ygraine died.

"I cannot answer, what the King has ordered me not to reveal. I can however, tell Sir Ector that you refused treatment." If there was anything Sir Ector liked less than complaining, it was failing to care for wounds properly.

Wounds, like old memories, fester.

Arthur huffed and his feathers drooped. "No one else will tell me anything either." Arthur tried to cross his arms, but the pain caught up with him and he winced.

"Who else have you asked?" I added the rest of the comfrey with a tad more water and continued to grind.

"Hayden turned beet red and ended the lesson on sums and division. Geoffrey of Monmouth droned on about the Pendragon lineage and the great legacy of the houses of Albion. The head cook, she talked in circles about chickens that wouldn't lay eggs and poor harvests that left little boy's bellies hungry."

"Indeed." There was no hope in stemming the tide.

"I'm not a little boy because I'm training with the knights now, but I think she said it just to frighten the kitchen boy who was listening."

If he had asked this many people, it was a wonder Uther hadn't issued an edict forbidding talk or mention of magic.

"Sir Marcus said it was because magic gave birth to two headed cows. Have you ever even seen a two-head cow? I haven't. Are there supposed to be two heads where there is normally one, or do both ends of the cow have separate heads?"

Once the paste reached a nice sticky consistency, I scraped the paste into a wide open mouthed beaker. Then I moved Morgana's draft out from under the flame and replaced it with Arthur's beaker.

"If both ends are heads, where does the cow poop?"

"I have never seen a two headed cow," I answered as blandly as I could, deciding that the first question was the safest to answer, though I was sure I couldn’t suppress the twitch at the corners of my lips.

"What brought this on all of the sudden?" I asked, collecting a large supply of gauze and bandages as the paste warmed for maximum healing power.

"Sir Ector's lessons this week are about understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies."

"Did you ask your question to Sir Ector?"

Arthur nodded. "Last week. Don't you see? I cannot conquer what I do not understand."

Oh, I could see more than the Prince could. Ector was playing with fire. I was going to need to have a word with Elsa. She would have the pull with her husband to remind him that discretion was the better part of valor.

"Uther's enemies are not your enemies." I said risking my livelihood and hoping to sidestep some of my guilt at the same time.

"Sorcerers are enemies of Camelot, someday I will be king of Camelot, and therefore they're my enemies."

"Is that so?" I asked and then bit my tongue. I should take my own advice.

"Don't you start too!" Arthur complained, clenching the wadded up shirt in his lap with both fists. "That's all Sir Ector says when I ask him any question. "Is that so? Is that so? Is that so?" the young prince mocked the head knight.

"Does it hurt to think?" I replied. The young are always in too much of a rush to not sort answers into the neat buckets of good and evil. Black and white are so easy to distinguish, but real life has a whole lot more gray now that Gaius was older and wiser.

"I'm tired of him throwing the question back at me."

"He wants you come up with the answer without any help." I poked my fingers into the comfrey paste and it was warm to the touch, but not too hot. I moved it off the fire.

"He does?"

"Yes."

Arthur was bewildered, "Then why does he encourage me and Kay to ask questions?"

I placed a thin layer of gauze over the shoulder. "So you will learn to answer them."

While Arthur contemplated that, I held the gauze in place with one hand, while I slathered the warm comfrey poultice over the gauze. When that was done, I added a final layer of gauze and wrapped it up with the large strips of bandages.

"The worst of the swelling should go down overnight." I patted Arthur on the thigh. "Go ahead and put your shirt back on."

He did so gingerly, the bandages restricting his movements.

"Thank you, Gaius," Arthur said as he slid off the stool.

He was halfway to the door when I cautioned: "Arthur, it would be wise of you not to ask questions about magic anymore. It may draw the wrong sort of attention."

"No sorcerer is going to kill me," he proclaimed. "My father's laws would have them killed."

"Even if they died afterwards, you would be just as dead. Although, it is not sorcerers I would be worried about attracting. It is your father."

I had Arthur's complete attention.

"You asked why he hates magic?"

Arthur nodded.

"It is because once upon a time a sorceress, a slip of a girl really, knocked him down and stole his pride. After what happened today with Morgana, I would think you would understand his desire to not discuss it."

"I understand."

"Promise me you won't go asking questions about magic again."

"I promise, Gaius."

"Very good." I breathed a sigh of relief. "Best be on your way."

After I sent Arthur off, I added two chamomile leaves to the sleeping draft and set it back under the flame to boil. Tonight with any luck, Morgana would have a dreamless sleep, Arthur would no longer ask about sorcery, and the whole kingdom would rest easier for it.

The three pillars of my own youth had been magic, science, and healing. With no hope of magic returning to the kingdom of Camelot, science and healing would have to be enough to sustain me. Science saved me and sorcery was naught but a faded memory.

I had never felt so old.

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

When Arthur—hair at the nape of his neck still wet—makes it to the council chambers with Merlin a half a step behind, the meeting is well underway.

Leon is reporting on the whereabouts and dispersal of Cenred's army to the assembled knights, nobles, and servants. Arthur curses himself for dozing so long in the bathwater as he scans the room for friendly faces. He finds Morgana, Gwen, Gaius, and Geoffrey. Most importantly, Geoffrey holds the scroll he will need later.

Every seat at the rectangular table is taken except for the one at his father's right and Arthur slides into his chair as unobtrusively as possible. Even after all these years, he comes across as a child sitting at the grownups table. His father does not deign to acknowledge his late arrival, which is how Arthur knows his mood is already foul.

"Prince Arthur and I discussed the matter last evening and due to our recent losses, it would be unwise to pursue the mercenaries. However, we would like to set a curfew to encourage our citizens to be safely inside after dark."

"Do it."

"Thank you, my lord," Leon replies.

"What's next?"

Arthur metaphorically dons his armor. "There needs to be a revision made to the inventory of our food and provision stores."

"In what direction?"

"Down. Severely."

"Who's responsible?"

The squirrely advisor, who fudged the harvest report and whose name Arthur did not bother to learn, stutters his excuses to the packed room. "I'm s…sorry, my lord. It is standard practice to project the stores with what is expected with the harvest."

"It is standard practice to lie?"

"Not… not lie. P…project." The man flushes and it is not merely because the packed room is overly warm.

"Will you have me feed my people projections instead of flour?" Uther asks the fool.

"Of course not, it's just that the report was for—"

"I have a solution," Arthur cuts the man off, not having the patience to listen to his incompetent prattle any more than he did the day prior.

"What would you suggest?" his father him asks still eyeing the (soon to be former) councilor with disgust.

"The treaty negotiations we signed with King Olaf explicitly state an exchange of goods and foods in time of famine."

Uther steeples his gloved fingers, remembering. "We put that provision in for the event of a drought that plagued one kingdom, but not the other."

"I reviewed the treaty yesterday and there is nothing that explicitly states drought must be the cause of the famine." Arthur gestures to Geoffrey in their prearranged signal.

The librarian steps forward and reads the relevant treaty passages aloud to the whole room. "Let it be known that from this time forward, the kingdoms of Camelot and Caerleon share the goodwill and benevolence to assist each other's population during events where famine afflicts one kingdom, but not the other.

"Food items agreed upon for trade include rye, barley, wheat, corn, oat, bean, onion, and pea. Quantities are not to exceed five thousand pounds per variety of item.

"Livestock agreed upon for trade include pig, sheep, chicken, and cow. Quantities are not to exceed twenty creatures per animal type.

"Items will be completely paid for prior to delivery. The recipient will pay transport expenses. If, during transport, any goods are lost due to weather, bandits, thievery, or mismanagement, then the payment shall not be refunded.

"Payment, in gold, will be at a fair market price. The fair market price, determined at the sole discretion of the party rendering the aid, is to be calculated at the time services are rendered."

When Geoffrey finishes, Arthur holds his breath.

His father mulls the treaty language over and finally states, "Despite the fact that no details are given for the cause of the famine, it will be difficult to convince Olaf to honor the agreement when that was not the original intent."

"Surely he would agree that what we are requesting falls within the spirit of the agreement?"

"You sat in on that portion of the conversation. Olaf was adamant."

Arthur had been too preoccupied with flower deliveries, chicken dinners, and wooing the wrong woman to remember any of Olaf's objections. His eyes flicker to Gwen and she hides a small smile when they make eye contact. It is serendipity that she is wearing her lilac dress with the autumn-hued bodice covered in flowers and vines. It is his favorite because it was the dress she was wearing for their first kiss. White wildflowers are braded in her hair and he itches to smell them.

He shakes his head to concentrate on the matter at hand. If King Olaf has any stance not recorded on paper, Arthur's extensive treaty reading after the fact would not have uncovered it.

"Can we not use the treaty as a basis for expansion?"

"That is tantamount to begging."

"I would rather beg than watch Camelot's people starve."

"The price will be steep."

"To ease the cost I suggest we convince Olaf to extend payment over the course of this summer and next two."

"I cannot, in good conscious, leave Camelot to negotiate such a request." Ha! He is considering it.

And now it is time to put all his cards on the table. He centers himself by imagining he is wearing full armor, wielding his sword, stepping on the tournament arena gravel in front of the hundreds of spectators. He knows he can handle that with nerves of steel. "Send me in your stead."

His father waves the suggestion away. "You are needed here to oversee the reconstruction of the citadel wall. You cannot walk away from your responsibilities here, Prince Arthur."

"Sire—"

"How extensive is the damage to the citadel's defenses?"

"There is minor damage to the main gate, and a few other spots, which can easily be repaired over the course of the next two weeks," Arthur replies. "The lower town is in shambles, but can be back in decent shape before the autumn rains set in. The most serious damage is on the west wall."

"The west wall?"

"Yes. It's the same location where the dragon concentrated his attack last year."

"Ghosts of the past," his father mumbles. It is barely audible, but it is clear to him and, mostly likely, to Morgana opposite him. Uther pushes his chair away from the table and stands to pace.

Arthur stares at the empty chair—his father will always fill it far better than he ever will—and speaks up again to draw the room's attention to him. "Not only is it a weak spot, but also because of those previous repairs, we do not have the adequate stone in Camelot for these new repairs. Our stores are depleted. I drew up the order for the mine yesterday afternoon. It is awaiting your seal and signature."

"A competing expense?" The thunder over his father's head is about to break.

"It will take a full cycle of the moon for the first batch of the needed stone to arrive," Arthur parries. "And I am convinced that Sir Leon that is more than capable of managing the preliminary restoration until I return from Caerleon." It is a silent apology, but it will do.

Leon swallows his open-mouthed fish expression and has the presence of mind to stammer out, "I would be honored."

Uther paces back and stands at the table corner between Arthur and his chair. "If I grant your request, if, who would be a part of your delegation?"

"I'll take my manservant, but otherwise I go alone."

"You will be in an inferior bargaining position."

"Until the west wall is fully repaired, it is vital that our forces remain here to protect the city."

"When do you propose to leave?"

"At first light tomorrow. If Camelot's population has starved and perished, then it doesn’t matter how strong or weak the citadel's exterior is, there will be nothing to defend."

"Very well," Uther announces and slides back into his seat, "You have my permission."

"Thank you."

Victorious, Arthur drops his imaginary sword and wipes the sweat from his brow. He has earned his first solo venture into affairs of state that does not comprise of war craft. Across the table, Gaius gives him a nod of approval; he hears the fantasy crowd cheering in his honor.

The finance minister begins to drone on about how long they will need to raise taxes in order to pay for all of these pressing expenses and Arthur slouches, stifles a yawn, and tunes the oily man out.

He allows himself a moment—brief, infinitesimal—to close his eyes.

He had given up on feigning sleep last night when the birds outside the windows heralded the dawn with song. Not bothering to wait on Merlin's appearance, he had dressed, and went for a jog through the sparkle of dew-lined grass before Leon assembled the men for practice.

Instead of joining them he kept apart, let Leon lead, and worked through forms himself. He had gone deliberately slow at first, ensuring his right side would not fail, and then ramped the speed up to feel his muscles burn.

When Merlin arrived to scowl from across the yard, he kept going. As the early morning sun warmed his back, he lost himself in the drills and forms he had practiced since childhood.

At the end he consented to spar with one of the recruits. Stupidly, he had caught an—

"Would you agree to that, Arthur?"

Arthur jolts and snaps his eyes open. "Yes, I do," he replies to cover his lapse.

"Very good, that's settled then."

A ripple of murmurs spreads through the crowd. Gwen is practically beaming at him. What the bloody hell else had he just agreed to do?

Before Arthur could object, or even inquire for details, the King turns to Gaius, "What have you discovered about how to destroy the staff?

"It is the Tree of Life, a prized ceremonial icon of life and renewal of the Old Religion. While we have it—"

Morgana interjects. "You recovered it?"

"Yes, my lady," Gaius replies smoothly. "It is remarkably intact."

"Where is it now?" she asks.

"Safe." Gaius turns to the king and continues. "There is little literature on the subject, which survived the purge fires, but I was able to learn it is a relic the druids worship. To them it represents the mystical concept of the interconnectedness of all life."

"The kingdom of Camelot is in no way connected with magic."

"Not now, sire, but once it was."

"We are not here for the history lesson," the king says coolly. "How do we destroy it?"

"We cannot. When the Tree of Life was split from its mother Rowan, the fate of magic users and non-magic users were twined together. Forever."

"Just what are you saying?"

"I'm saying it would destroy Camelot, in addition to killing all of those born of magic."

His father sucks in a sharp breath. Arthur hides another yawn behind a fist when his father slides a sideways glance at him.

"I understand your meaning, physician. This is just further proof of the insidious nature of magic. What do you propose?"

"That we hide it. That way no druid or sorceress can wield it."

"Allow me to do it," Morgana offers.

"No, Morgana," Uther replies. "I spent the entirety of the last twelve months searching for you. I will not risk your safety further. Arthur is the one best suited to take care of it."

In envy, Morgana's face turns as green as her silk dress.

Silently Arthur agrees, even if he has no idea where to hide the blasted thing, or desire to touch it again. Getting Morgana back was awful. He does not know if he could go through it again.

"Prince Arthur will take the staff with him when he departs. Arthur, the location you choose will need to be both secret and well protected. We would not want anyone to stumble on it by accident."

"I will come by this evening," Arthur tells Gaius, "to retrieve it prior to my journey."

Gaius nods. "I will have it ready for you."

"Is there anything else," his father asks to the room at large. No one else comes forward, or speaks up. "Very well, we'll convene tomorrow morning at the same time."

Conversation kicks up as soon as the meeting is adjourned and the people mill about and depart. His father thwarts his quick escape with a hand on Arthur's forearm. "You were late."

"I was tending another matter. It could not be helped."

"Do me proud with Olaf."

"I will, sire."

"Dine with me tonight?"

Arthur is sure the meal will consist more of unnecessary negotiation strategy than food and drink, yet he accepts.

When his father makes for the exit to his private study, Morgana trails closely after, doubtless to argue his decision about her participation with the Tree of Life in private. Arthur chuckles to himself, disappointed he will miss the fireworks.

"Thank you, my lord," Leon says coming up to him.

"Once you are up to your armpits in reports and complaints you may think otherwise."

"I promise not to moan, even if there are reports about complaints."

"I'm going to hold you to that," Arthur replies.

Leon inclines his head in gratitude and leaves. Merlin is at his elbow instantly afterwards.

"Another matter?" Merlin, arms crossed, mocks him.

"A very important matter," Arthur evades.

"Your beauty sleep?"

"Which wouldn't have been a problem had someone," he grabs Merlin by the scruff of his neckerchief and frog marches him out the door and into the corridor, "had the wherewithal to keep track of the time."

"Le'me go."

"Only if you can tell me what I agreed to."

"When?"

Hot under his own collar, Arthur lets go when the reach the stairs. "After my father consented to my plan, I got distracted."

"Ah, when you were tending to another very important matter?"

"Merlin."

"You agreed to supplement the final sum of negotiation monies with your tournament winnings from the past five years."

Arthur nearly trips on the first step as they head outside. "I what?"

"Agreed to—"

"I heard you the first time."

"Then why did you ask again?"

"To make sure this wasn't a nightmare."

When they hit the courtyard's cobblestone Merlin turns sulky. "You could've given me a little bit of warning last night that we were going to travel to Caerleon."

"Merlin, we're going to Caerleon," Arthur deadpans.

"I got the message," he mutters. They both come to a stop smack in the center of the courtyard, just past the well, when a mother and her three young children scurry past to join the queue forming for food handout and Merlin asks, "Where are we going?"

Arthur is hard pressed not to sigh at Merlin's endless need to play ridiculous games. He plants his hands on his hips and enunciates over-precisely: "Caer-le-on."

"Not tomorrow," Merlin says, affronted. "I mean right now."

"I was following you."

Merlin blinks, stupidly. "So was I."

"Oh?"

"Yeah."

Merlin is clearly awaiting his orders, so Arthur obliges and gives him some. "See that the horses are groomed, fed, and ready for tomorrow. Have the farrier re-shoe both your mare and my stallion. Muck out the stables while you wait. Gather the provisions we'll need for the journey. No meat. I'll hunt on the way, so you'll need to get my crossbow. When you get to packing make sure you include a whetstone and oil. Find and wash the clothes I'll need to wear in order to impress King Olaf. Don't forget my crown."

"Yes, sire." Merlin attempts to back away to escape the onslaught.

Arthur throws in one more, his favorite, for good measure. "And make sure my armor is polished before we leave."

Inexplicitly, Merlin brightens. "On the upside this trip to Caerleon means I get out of cleaning the burial chambers."

"Damn it!"

-oOo-

Arthur kicks his chamber door closed with a backwards kick. "Merlin you need to be sure to pack…." he trails off when he realizes he is talking to empty air. It is not seemly for princes to talk aloud to themselves. The people might start to think he is going crazy.

Where in the bloody hell is Merlin?

His servant should be here. From the looks of his neat room, Merlin had not even started gathering clothing for the trip.

The sun is sinking below the castle's turrets and he has already supped with his father.

It would have been a tasty dish, but disguised as advice it turned sour.

The meal had been peppered with helpful advice like "Do not be hard or soft. You need to strike a balance between the two approaches," and "Keep your emotions out of it," and "Try to get to the root of what Olaf needs," and "Don't forget your honor," and most importantly "Save as much face as you can."

When it came to a choice between saving face and saving coin, Arthur was not sure what he would pick. Either one would be a severe loss to his pride.

Arthur pulls a wooden chest out from underneath his bed and hoists it on to the dining table. Burden deposited, he rolls the tension out of his right shoulder as he unhooks a key from the chain at his belt.

Arthur caresses the lid and drags it to the edge of the tabletop, but before unlocking it he hesitates. There is no sign of Merlin coming down the corridor to grace him with his presence.

He hears no one in the hallway.

No one to see.

No one to see him being silly, indulging in a silly dream.

Carefully, Arthur unlocks the chest and lifts the lid and admires his winnings. There is more here than the meager amount he retrieved from the treasury this afternoon. He scoops his hands through the gold, lifts two fistfuls into the air, and then lets them fall though the slits between his fingers like water through a drain.

He had earned every piece in there with his blood, sweat, and tears. He had been hoping to save enough to build….

Well, it hardly mattered anymore.

Arthur takes a step back and unsheathes his sword with a flourish.

He places the scabbard on the table. He fingers the worrying chink on the sword and mopes at the gold. He has kept this sword for longer than he should have, but it is trusty and serves him well. This sword earned him the gold. His father presented it to him during the ceremony when he was knighted. It had been freshly forged, blindingly shiny, and sharper than his father's tongue after a rebuke.

Arthur had honed the blade, honed his skills, and dreamed of the day he would be a man in his father's eyes.

The hard edge of his sword is damaged by numerous nicks and chips. Even though it is a comfortable weight and has served him well, the sword cannot help but show its age. It did not help that one of the skeletons forced him to take a cut holding his sword out in the path of an oncoming blow. Then early this morning, sparing with the knights, he had caught the edge again.

Stupid of him.

There is a heavy thud on the door and after a pause there is another. The third is followed by a curse.

Quickly, Arthur closes the chest, but forgoes locking it.

"Ow!" It is muted and muffled, but unmistakably Merlin.

Arthur rolls his eyes and places his sword safely on his dining table before going to open the door. Sure enough, Merlin, goofy grin and all, stands on the other side, his arms full of Arthur's armor and hauberk.

"You shouldn't scowl. I knocked."

"With what?"

"My head."

"I can only hope you did lasting damage," Arthur says, rescuing one of his vambraces from atop the pile that, sure enough, is—Crash!—destined for the floor.

"You could've taken two trips."

"And have you complain about me being inefficient?" Merlin squats to pick up the fallen gambeson and gorget.

"Imagine what I can complain about instead?"

"My uncanny ability to get what you need before you think to ask it?" Merlin speaks rapidly and by an uncanny miracle manages not to trip over the words.

"Oh, noooo." Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose feeling the headache which has been simmering below the surface all day, bloom in full force as he sinks into one of the wooden chairs. "I guarantee that isn't it. I just wanted you to clean and polish my armor. We're not taking it with us."

"Then I brought this"—Merlin shakes the hauberk and its chain links jangle—"up for?"

"Not my amusement."

"Arthur!"

"I'm not going to commence treaty negotiations dressed to slay the enemy."

He feels his mood improve slightly at the disheartened look on Merlin's face. Glaring daggers, Merlin picks up the rest of the fallen armor and piles it on the table.

"There is something I do need you to get for me," Arthur says rescuing his sword from the invasion of armor.

"What is it?" A long suffering-sigh accompanies the question and if Merlin were any other servant, Arthur would send him to the stocks.

"With your all seeing knowledge, would you like to anticipate what it is?"

"Gwen and an uninterrupted night's sleep?" Merlin suggests, all cheek and smirk.

Arthur supposes he deserved that. "As pleasurable as your suggestion would be, no." He really needs to find out who, besides way-out-of-his-league Morgana, Merlin has got a soft spot for, so he can mock him mercilessly. There must be a kitchen maid who finds big ears, dippy grins, and two left feet endearing. "Commission me a new sword with the royal blacksmith. Tell him to have it ready when we return from Caerleon."

"What's wrong with that one?" Merlin points at the sword in Arthur's hands.

"I caught a bad edge fighting during the attack and then caught it again training this morning."

"It'll kill just fine, won't it?"

"You have no finesse."

"I didn't think," Morgana speeks up as she passes through the still wide open door, "that finesse was a requirement for killing someone."

"Not a requirement, but the mark of an excellent swordsman," Arthur greets her.

"Or woman," she replies as she closes the door behind herself. Then she drops her voice and smile. "Merlin."

"Morgana."

"Killed many knights in battle have you?" Arthur jokes.

"Magic is a woman's weapon," says Merlin.

It seems as if Morgana has swallowed a live goldfish. "Who are you referring to?"

"Morgause," Merlin replies promptly. "Who else?"

The space between them crackles. Arthur cannot quite put his finger on the emotions flowing between them, but it is disturbing.

Very disturbing.

"You have it wrong, Merlin," Morgana tells him. "The quote is that 'poison is a woman's weapon.' But that isn't true. Poison is for weaklings and cowards. I can hold my own just fine without it."

Arthur distracts the two of them by tossing Morgana the sword. "Show me your fighting prowess," Arthur insists.

She catches it gracefully. Even in her court finery she wields the weapon with skill. She holds the sword with a two handed grip and pulls the hilt to her chin, all the while keeping the blade flat with the floor. Her right elbow is strong, supporting her stance, just as he taught her ages ago when they were allowed to be children.

Morgana quirks an eyebrow at him in challenge and he is grudgingly forced to concede. "Fine," Arthur admits, "every woman as well."

"Merlin's seen me fight," Morgana comments as she points the blade smack at his manservant's heart.

Merlin shows no concern for his welfare and turns his back to busy himself at the wardrobe, sorting through trousers for their trip. "You weren't quick enough." Merlin throws the words over his shoulder.

Morgana's grimace deepens and she drops the point of the sword to the floor to examine the nicks herself.

"You strike fear into the hearts of all men, Morgana." Arthur chuckles. "Did you come to bid me farewell?"

"Of course."

When she does not immediately offer her well wishes, he pouts. "Well, aren't you going to?"

"Arrogance will be your undoing during the negotiations, Arthur."

"What would you like to bet?"

"My wardrobe does need replenishing."

"In that case, I wager that I return triumphant to Camelot with all the food we need to get through the winter without even having to dip into my tournament winnings. When I do, you will get on your knees and tell the entire assembled court of my brilliance."

Morgana snorts; it was most unladylike. "I will never kneel to you in public."

"Bowing will be acceptable."

"Never."

"You could commission a ballad."

She twirls the blade deftly in her hands. "Agreed. Since Olaf is going to rob you blind, you should remember that I am quite partial to the luxurious furs of northern Caerleon. Be sure to find an expensive wrap."

"Done," he replies. He counts it a point in his favor that she believes he will get the foodstuffs safely back to Camelot.

However, Morgana never visits his chambers strictly for silly bets, or his scintillating conversation, so there must be an alternate purpose for her visit. "I haven't made much progress in the investigation for the traitor," he states, hoping that might draw her out. At the very least he could vent to someone other than Merlin, who was most likely to ignore him.

"Unfortunate," Morgana says. No such luck.

"Father is wrought."

"When is he not?"

"The traitor probably fled during the heat of the battle," Merlin pipes up. He has moved on to selecting freshly laundered shirts. "Cowards generally do."

"Either that or he's gone to ground," Arthur agrees. He frowns, Merlin should know by now to be silent and carry on about his business when a guest is in his chambers. "Either way, I'm not going to find further evidence of who is in league with Cenred and Morgause before departing tomorrow."

That piques Morgana's interest. "Morgause?"

Arthur nods.

"How did you figure that out?"

"Leon brought me word last night."

Morgana goes silent for a while. "Will you hide the Tree of Life before you go?" Morgana asks. She nonchalantly tests the balance of the blade.

Ah ha! So, that is what she has really come to needle him about. "Father didn't budge did he?"

"I'm not an invalid, I can help," she replies avoiding his question.

"I'm sure you can, but it is my responsibility. I spent nearly an entire year searching for you in order to rescue you—"

"I rescued myself. You just happened to be passing though the woods at the right time." It is nice to hear the old Morgana spunk in her voice, rather than the one of the small lost girl he hugged the day after her return to Camelot.

"And you are stronger for it," he humors her.

"Have you decided where to hide it?" Morgana asks. "Tell me that at least."

"Blue or red?" Merlin interrupts holding two shirts directly in front of Arthur's face for what he assumes is supposed to be an inspection. "I think the blue brings out your eyes, but the red becomes you nicely too."

"I don't know if I should be more disturbed that you think of such things, or that you believe that will make a jot of difference to King Olaf," Arthur replies and bats the shirts away from his nose.

"You'll need every advantage you can get," Merlin tells him.

"In that case I want the black." Arthur turns back to Morgana. "I happen to agree with father on this one."

She pouts. She can pout all night, but he is not going to give in. Perhaps it is not such a good idea for her to be holding a deadly weapon for the duration of this conversation.

"I want to fight," she says.

"And you will." Arthur wanders to stand in front of her. He rests his hands on top of hers, which are gripping the sword's hilt as if her life depends on it. "You are going to gather your strength and while you do, I'm not going to burden you with any more dangerous work."

She pulls away and manages to keep his sword. He lets her keep it.

"It would be wise to hide the Tree of Life safely within Camelot's walls." Morgana suggests.

"Why?" he replies.

"Because everyone wil—"

"This one?" Merlin proudly brandishes a black shirt.

Arthur does not bother with more than a glance. "That one is fine."

"Because everyone will expect you to hide it on your journey to Caerleon," Morgana continues. "I could make sure—"

"There's another one that has silver stitching, but I thought it too ostentatious." Merlin drapes the black shirt against Arthur's chest. "This one strikes the right balance of serious and impressive. Would you agree?" Merlin asks for Morgana's input.

"Yes." Morgana grits her teeth and rolls her eyes after Merlin turns away. At least Morgana will use the sword on Merlin before she stabs the pointy end at Arthur.

Arthur shoves the fabric off himself. "Go pack it," he orders. "Morgana, perhaps you could help with—"

"Why the black?" Merlin cuts in.

Arthur throws up his hands in disgust. "'Cause then I won't stand out to any and all passer-bys as we travel through the forest."

"Your red cape won't advertize your presence?"

"I'm not going to wear the cape while we are traveling."

Merlin smacks his hand to his forehead. "I almost forgot your leather jacket!" His servant then overdramatically flings the wardrobe door wider and purposefully returns the black shirt to the wardrobe. "Blue then… definitely blue…" Merlin continues to mutter under his breath as he hunts for the jacket.

Arthur shakes his head in bewilderment; the thread of the conversation is utterly lost.

Morgana prompts him. "You had something I could help with?"

Arthur reaches into the pocket of his breaches and fingers the wooden token he has kept in his pocket all day long. He does not pull it out, just fists it in his hand so hard his fingernails dig into his palms. "Yes. There is something I would like your opinion on."

"Go on."

"Leon brought me back a message, which I didn't think wise to mention to father during the council meeting."

"Pick one." Merlin—unrepentant grin wide—holds up a selection of belts, buckles flopping over his wrist like dead snake heads, for Arthur to peruse.

"I don't give a damn what I wear tomorrow, Merlin!"

Merlin stares at him blankly; the smile does not dim. It not like yelling at him ever makes a difference. Merlin is not usually this annoying.

Check that.

He is annoying the vast majority of Arthur's day, yes. But rude with Morgana, who Merlin normally worships, in the room? Never. Unless.... Is there something more going on between the two of them?

Arthur sighs and he lets go of the wooden token. It is a heavy weight in his pocket. "Just pick one, Merlin. Quietly."

"Why didn't Leon bring up the message during the council meeting this morning?" Morgana asks.

"Because my father and the druids get along like river drownings and flaming pyres."

Morgana is stunned speechless for a moment and if this were any other topic Arthur would be belly laughing at her bugged out eyes. When she is able to form coherent words she trains all of her attention on him and it is almost overwhelming. "The druids?"

"That was my reaction too. It's near suicide for them to seek me out," he replies.

"Yet they have."

"Yes."

"Why would the druids send a message to Camelot?"

"Is your shoulder well enough?" Merlin butts in. Again. He is holding up the awful jar of comfrey with glee. "Or do I need not to take the salve?"

Arthur does not even dignify Merlin with a response other than a harsh glare.

"That's a yes? Maybe? Yes? No?" Merlin babbles. Revolted, Arthur shakes his head in disgust. "No, you mean yes." Merlin's silly smile finally falters. "Did I get that wrong?"

"I. Am. Fine."

"So that's a no then?"

Arthur balls his hands into fists, itching for a really good fight. Unfortunately, Merlin would not be a worthy opponent any more than the knights this morning.

"I'll pack it just in case," Merlin declares and adds it to the pile of clothes he has already laid out on the bed.

Instead of physically harming Merlin or destroying the jar of comfrey, he takes Morgana by the elbow and leads her to the window sill to get some semblance of privacy. "As I was saying, the druid wants to meet with me."

"But why?"

"I think he may have more information about who the traitor is," he confesses to Morgana.

"Are you going to meet him?"

The main constant in his life has been his father and his father's desire to eradicate magic from the kingdom. A torch he is destined to carry.

"I don't plan to, but...."

Morgana pinches the hilt of his sword between two fingers and idly swings it like a pendulum. "Probably for the best. Those who use magic always lie to you."

"They do." Arthur nods as the blade swings slows one way and then the other.

"Where did the druid want to meet you?"

There is a loud crash behind them.

The noise jolts Morgana so much she loses her grip on the sword. She yelps and they both jump away to avoid the falling point of the blade from spearing their toes.

Arthur whirls around to find his chest on the ground and the gold within spilling out like grain. A few of the pieces roll away from the heap and scatter, but a single coin continues to spiral on its edge far past its brothers and heads towards the two of them at the window. Arthur stomps on it with his foot to stop its momentum.

He wants to scream. He is going to scream.

"Merlin!"

"I was over here."

"Merlin!"

"I was nowhere near it." True to his word Merlin—even though he has just retracted his outstretched hand from the ridiculous manner it had been in—is a good fifteen feet away from the table where Arthur left the chest. "How could I have done anything to it?"

"I don't care," Arthur snarls. He bends over to pick up both the gold piece as well as his sword.

Merlin has not moved an inch to clean the mess. Arthur beans Merlin on the temple with the coin. He was not aiming for his head.

Honestly.

"Why are you just standing there?"

"I'll get it. I'll get it. Sorry. Sorry." Merlin falls all over himself apologizing and hustles to the pile. "I'll clean it up." Merlin scrambles to his hands and knees to scoop up the fallen coins.

Morgana waits in a chilly silence as Merlin works to gather all of the coins and tuck them safely in the chest.

Arthur turns back to Morgana and is about to ask where in the story he left off when Merlin opens his big fat month and says, "Are we taking it all with us?"

"That's it!" Arthur is beyond fed up. "Go and commission my sword before the royal blacksmith closes shop for the evening."

"Now?" Merlin puts the chest of coins on the table.

"Now."

"But… but… but the packing," Merlin stutters in protest.

"I don't bloody well care." Arthur points his sword to the door, and then to Merlin, and again back to the door. "You can return after the errand is done and finish packing."

Morgana preens as if she has won a battle. "I want a moment alone with Arthur, Merlin."

"Go," Arthur commands.

Refusing to be swayed by Merlin's hangdog expression, Arthur continues to point at the door. Though he glares at Morgana the whole time, Merlin does as he is told without another word.

Once the door is firmly shut, Arthur lowers the sword and rounds on Morgana. "What was that all about?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Don't give me those innocent doe eyes. That little"—he waves his fingers back and forth from the door to where she is standing"—contest of wills with Merlin. He was interrupting every time you would ask me a question drawing my attention to him. I'm not a dog to be marked."

She wrinkles her nose. "Though you wouldn't know from the stench."

"Morgana…."

"Has Merlin spoken to you about me?" she asks him.

He narrows his eyes. She is fishing, but for what? "What would Merlin have to say about you?"

"If he hasn't admitted it to you by now, he won't."

"Admit what?"

"Oh, all right, it's so embarrassing, but I'll tell you what's going on." She crooks her finger to urge him closer, and then she lowers her voice as if to confess a secret. "Merlin has a bit of a crush on me. So you see. He didn't want your attention. He wanted mine."

Relieved, Arthur snickers. "That's all?"

"Are you laughing at me?"

"No. Of course not."

Arthur bites his lip and turns away trying to keep a straight face, but he fails and bursts out laughing. When he recovers enough to look at Morgana properly again, he finds her with crossed arms and a frosty expression.

"Do you believe no man finds me attractive, Arthur Pendragon?" She is genuinely irritated with him.

"No," he assures her.

"Then what?" She cocks her head to the side awaiting an answer.

"It just that it's, you know…" He rolls wrists, trying to state the obvious without really saying it. She continues to pin him with daggers.

"It's Merlin," he finally blurts out.

"So?"

"Do I need to warn him off you?" Come to think of it, who would protect Guinevere from his own better judgment?

"No need. He picked me some flowers the other day. That's all. Merlin's a harmless fool, you need not worry."

That would mark at least two occasions where Merlin has been gathering his rosebuds.

"Does he often bring you flowers?" Arthur asks.

"More than you ever did."

"Flowers are a worthless gesture. You pick them and they die. Here, my love, have some death."

"You've never had any sense of romance."

"I have a sense of romance. It just doesn't involve sacrificing various flowers as proof of my affection. Morgana, don't encourage him unnecessarily." Arthur insists, but his insides squirm. He should not be the one to talk. He needs to take his own advice, banish his feelings, and stay far, far away from Gwen.

"Believe me, I'm not."

Something about her protestations do not ring true to Arthur. There is heat in her reaction, no matter what her words profess.

Oh, shit! His mind leaps to a sickening realization. Please, no. One member of the royal household in love with one of the servant class was one too many.

"Tell me you don't reciprocate."

"Of course not," she scoffs. "You're misinterpreting things."

"Am I?"

She nods. "In your own delightful big brother way. It's quite unbecoming, not to mention rude."

"I'm not being rude. I'm trying to look out for you."

"I can take care of myself all on my own."

He snorts. "I doubt that."

"Now you're being insulting," she says.

"Where are the flowers now?"

She blinks, confused. "They're in a vase in my chambers."

"Mm hum," he says knowingly. "Case in point."

"Don't be a pest."

"I'm not trying to be. I'm simply trying to point out what a monumentally stupid thing it would be for you to fall for Merlin. It would only end badly for you and worse for him. Look, when one of the knights carried you into the castle, Merlin was an absolute distracted mess. He wasn't listening to a word I said. Then you specifically asked me to call him up to your rooms the first morning after you'd returned."

Merlin's mood later that very same morning made a worrying amount of sense now. It had been a one hundred and eighty degree shift from depression to animation. He had been unusually chipper. That is until Arthur had dumped a bucket of sudsy water over his exuberance.

Morgana has her hands on her hips now. "And?"

"You spoke with him alone after I left."

"Yes." Her expression goes too perfectly serene.

"What did you speak about?"

She hesitates for a long moment, deciding what to reveal.

"Merlin was the only person still awake in the room and capable of fighting when Morgause swept in to take me." Morgana dry washes her hands. "I wanted to find out if he was feeling guilty for…" she trails off unable to find the correct words.

"For not being able to protect you?" Arthur suggests, softly.

"None of what happened afterwards was his fault. Her magic was too strong and he wouldn't have been able to overcome her."

"I understand that an entire year in a cell—"

"A dark and damp cell," she interjects, laying the guilt on thick.

He could conjure all sorts of horrors, but none of them would probably compare to the harsh reality she had been forced to endure at the hands of the bandits. Gaius had said she was physically fine, but…. He could not bring himself to say rape aloud, did not want to imagine it. He decides on: "You would've been helpless."

"It was like not being able to breathe. There was nothing I could've done. I don't want to remember it."

"My point is that you've always seen Merlin as someone safe. True?"

"Before I left Camelot, I did."

"There isn't a vicious bone in his body and he would never hurt you. He also wouldn't push you farther than you wanted to go."

"Arthur..."

"Don't you see how this is a bad idea?" Arthur groans. "He's made you a reclamation project. And you're going to let him."

"I am not a project," she protests.

"This is Merlin who takes in injured chipmunks and nurses them back to health."

"Am I the chipmunk in this ridiculous scenario of yours?"

Arthur winces.

Perhaps that was not the best parallel for him to draw. How to get his foot out of his mouth? "No, Merlin's the chipmunk," he backtracks.

"That's better."

"He certainly had the annoying chitter down today," Arthur says, then sobers. "All jokes aside, I understand you don't want to discuss the details of exactly what the bandits did to you in that cell yet."

"Nor will this conversation induce me to."

He gulps, but carries on, knowing he must plow through her touchiness. "I just want you to know that I know what men—no they aren't even men, they have no honor. I've seen what bastards like that are capable of and that I'm here for you."

Her eyes get suspiciously bright.

Way to go, Pendragon, she is about to cry. To forestall the tears, he pulls her in his arms and he is half surprised when she allows it and does not punch his lights out.

"Whatever you need," he whispers into her ear.

She sniffs.

"Hey, hey, hey," he sooths her as he rubs her back. "You don't need to put up this tough façade for me," he tells her.

"Thank you." Safe in his arms, he can protect her. "That will always be true. No matter what." Arthur strokes her hair, to offer what little comfort he can. It is too little, too late and far too inadequate, but it is all he can give.

"I won't hold you to that," she tells him.

That reply puzzles him, so he pulls away needing to see the expression on her face. She is not crying outright, but her eyes well with tears. She blinks rapidly several times and uses her fingers to wipe them away in lieu of a handkerchief so she can avoid eye contact.

He blinks away his own not-tears.

"Anything and everything you need," he repeats, "With arms wide open."

"I'm not helpless."

"Never thought you were." He realizes he has got his foot in his mouth already. It is not like he can make it any worse for himself. Even if she never takes him up on the offer, it is necessary for him to offer. "I'm just saying that I can help."

"It's like I have a second, whole new, life now," she admits.

"Then don't waste it on Merlin," he tells her.

She laughs. "I have no intention of doing that."

"Good. Besides, I'll keep him so busy he won't have time to moon after you." Imagine the tizzy he could cause if he insisted Merlin purchase him a brand new wardrobe. Then there would be fabric for Merlin to choose, seamstresses to visit, garments for him to sort in with the rest. It is a brilliant idea. He is glad he thought of it.

Morgana wanders over to the table and retrieves the scabbard.

"What are you going to do?" Arthur asks.

"I want revenge against all those who are responsible for keeping me locked in chains and submissive."

She plucks the sword out of his hands and slides it home in its scabbard. "Now," Morgana says. "I want you tell me more about this druid. Where did he want to meet you?" She smirks, all smugness and self-satisfaction

"At the stream checkpoint just outside the Forest of Ascetir. It's to the south-east, which is the opposite direction of Caerleon, I know, but I've been debating if I should go or not..."

"There's a series of caves nearby, isn't there?"

"That's the spot. I imagine that is where he is hiding."

Morgana considers for a moment. "I stand by what I said earlier, you shouldn't go. However, I would be willing to go in your place."

"Merlin offered the same thing."

"Did he?" Her expression turns dark.

"Yes."

"Do you think the druids know we have the Tree of Life?"

"They must," Arthur says. Then he remembers the question Merlin was curious about. "I've been meaning to ask you something. How did you know to go down to the burial chambers?"

Morgana does not even bat an eyelash. "Where else would the dead come from?"

"Good point."

Morgana cradles the sword and scabbard in her arm and returns to the window. She mumbles something to herself.

"What was that?" Arthur asks.

When she turns around, he swears her eyes glint gold for a second off the shine of the setting sun.

"You remember the night we snuck down to see Elsa?"

Arthur nods.

"Family truly is everything." She gives him his weapon back and kisses him on the cheek for good measure. "Safe travels. Oh," she adds, "the next time you call me a chipmunk, or allude I'm any other sort of woodland creature with a mouth full of nuts, I'll be sure to make your life a living hell." She sweeps out of the room and down the hall, before he thinks of a suitable retort.

He smiles to himself, happy for the first time all day, as he tosses the sword on the bed. He has missed Morgana's empty threats.

He pokes his head out the door to tell her so, but when he opens his mouth to call out to Morgana, an arm—an arm in a familiar brown jacket that has absolute no business being anywhere in this corridor when it should be attached to a body that was ordered to be at the blacksmith's forge—darts out from the alcove and drags her roughly into the darkness.

Arthur is going to take Merlin's head off if he has done nothing but lollygag around waiting for Morgana. He has been given specific instructions.

Angry, Arthur strides forward with the intent of dragging Merlin's sorry arse out. When he gets close, he hears a scuffle and what sounds like the rip of clothing, Arthur freezes. A pant of breath and a groan follow. There is another grunt, this time female. What were they doing?

Were they… kissing?

Slightly bothered, Arthur leans against one of the colonnades to listen.

There is a moment of quiet and then Merlin speaks. "We need to talk." He has never heard Merlin sound quite so commanding.

"Then talk." Arthur is shocked at the venom in Morgana's voice. No, they were not kissing, then.

"What did you egg out of him, Morgana?"

"What I needed," she replies icily. "Did you honestly think your shallow attempts at distraction would succeed?"

"Are you planning to sneak out tonight with all your newfound knowledge?"

"Gonna skulk in the shadows again? You'll be gone longer than a day if you try that again."

Huh? Morgana had known where Merlin was the day he went missing?

"How long do you think you can keep this up?" Merlin asks.

"As long as I have to. You can't stop me."

"I did last time."

"And I got all the credit. Now, let go of me!" There is another tussle as Morgana must be trying to wrench herself free. "How dare you," she says, clearly unable to escape.

"Let me see your hands." There is a pause.

"Looking for stains? Have you been crawling around on your hands and knees looking for more?"

"What did Morgause do to it?"

"The mandrake root?"

"The Tree of Life."

"You think I know?"

"We both kn… … …u do."

"…"

"… crocodile tears… when y… …ld be … the dungeons…"

"…"

Their voices fade too low and Arthur has to inch closer to hear the conversation.

"…and you stay out of mine."

"You made that impossible when...."

Ever so carefully Arthur nudges forward and catches a glimpse of Merlin holding Morgana's hands in a vice grip. Arthur jerks out of eye line before he can be seen.

"It's not too late to stop this. I can help. Talk to me," Merlin begs.

"The time for talk is long past. You listen to—"

"No," he cuts her off. "You listen to me." Arthur has never heard Merlin sound deadly. "The short painful, life you promised won't be mine. Just imagine how Arthur would react if his pathetic, little serving boy managed to single handedly identify the traitor."

"Yes," she sneers, "Arthur's easily led."

"Blind he may be, but when he opens his eyes, he'll—"

"You're not man enough to do it."

"I'm not afraid of you," Merlin retorts.

"You should be," Morgana informs him. "Now, let go!"

She succeeds in freeing herself and quick as a snake, Arthur darts behind the colonnade to hide.

Merlin is not finished yet. "I can help you, but you've got to make your own choices. You're responsible for your actions." Merlin calls out to her. "She's using you and sooner or later she's going to betray you."

"We all have our parts to play, Merlin." Morgana says as she passes the colonnade. "This is mine."

Once she is gone, Merlin mutters to himself, "And mine is to protect Prince Arthur from the truth."

A moment later, when Arthur peaks around the corner he spies Merlin heading in the opposite direction. Bewildered, Arthur wanders back into his quarters.

What the hell was that?

Sod it all!

He pulls his blue cloak out from the wardrobe and drapes it over his shoulders.

First, he will do his duty and get the Tree of Life, and then he is going to see the one person who tells him the unflinching truth. The one who makes him feel better.

He needs something just for himself. Not the prince. Not the son. Not the knight. Not the protector of the people. He has kept his father's crown safe. He has protected a city and her people. He has fought a battle and won.

He deserves time just for himself.

Just for Arthur.

-oOo- Morgana -oOo-

The first night I willingly took the stronger sleeping remedy to ward off the impossible dreams that had developed the disturbing trend of playing out during my waking hours, Arthur was fourteen and I was a moon's turn shy of sixteen. It was also the first time I realized I might be different.

I swept into Arthur chambers as if I owned them because, well, I am the Lady of Camelot.

When I entered, Arthur twitched awake from a daydream. "What do you want?"

"To visit Lady Elsa," I announced.

"Elsa's locked up in a dungeon cell."

I stamped my foot. "I know that."

"Then you know father's forbidden it."

"I don't care about what he's forbidden," I replied.

"I do."

Just because the man is king does not make everything he does right and good and golden. My own father used to tell me that Uther was king, but he was also a fallible man. "Come on, Arthur, it will be fun," I cajoled.

"No," he replied. Turning away, Arthur propped his chin on his palm, resolutely ignoring me, and returned to his reading.

"No one will know. It will be just like the time we snuck into Gaius's storeroom and stole the dye and put in the—"

"I said no. I'm studying."

I huffed and snatched the quill off his desk. Arthur's glare said he was using that, but he did not voice an objection. I peered over Arthur's shoulder. He was reading a dreadfully boring book. I knew it was boring because the print was tiny and there were no pictures.

"What are you reading?" I asked, trying a different approach.

"A book."

"But you hate reading."

Arthur turned the page as a reply.

"What's it about?" I rumpled the barbs of the feather down the wrong way. Broken and frayed, the feather's bristles were scattered every which way.

"Battle tactics." He turned another page.

I smoothed the feather plume back together and it was like nothing had ever been broken. The very fact that it had been in disarray was a secret only it and I shared.

Arthur flipped the page for a third time. There was no way he could have read the text that fast. I reached out with the very tip of the feather and tickled Arthur underneath the chin.

Annoyed, he batted it away. "Don't you have needlework or flower arrangement or somethin' bloody well else that you can do away from my chambers?" Page four met page three.

"I have no studies because my teacher is in the dungeons. Do you think she deserves to die?"

"Father says—"

I snorted, most unladylike. "I know what Uther says. Have an independent thought for once in your life, Arthur."

He gaped at me like a stupid trout just off a line. "Bbbbut…"

"But, but, but, but what?" I mocked him.

"But she's a sorceress!"

"She's the closest thing we have to a mother."

"She used magic."

"Says some smelly, old potter. I don't believe it's true. You saw him at court when he made the accusation—all clay-stained cloak and half starved. He hadn't washed in months. Since when is the word of a commoner worth more than the word of a knight's wife?"

"You know the law."

"Won't you come with me and ask her if it true?"

I waited while Arthur pretended to read some more. Page five. Page six. Page seven.

I didn't fiddle with the feather. I didn't fidget. I just waited patiently. Arthur had the eighth page between his fingers ready to flip, when he looked at me instead. "Why do you really want to visit Elsa?"

"To prove she's innocent."

"And?"

"And what?"

"What else, Morgana?"

I hadn't counted on Arthur figuring that out. He's a boy and a fool most of the time, but he does suss secrets out occasionally. "If she's going to die, I want to at the very least say goodbye."

"You want to ask her about your mother, too?"

My treacherous eyes watered. I blinked the stupid tears away. It would not do for a Lady to bawl and cry. "You can ask about your mother as well," I said. "Wouldn't you like to know more?"

"No."

"Aren't you the least bit curious?"

"Not anymore."

How typical of Arthur to keep his head buried in the clouds instead of learning something useful.

"Arthur, please." I could beg if I wanted to. Though I made sure to stand; it was beneath me to beg on my knees. "We've known Lady Elsa all of our lives."

"Father will find out."

"No he won't."

I tickled the length of his arm with the feather.

"Cut it out!"

"Make me."

He lunged out of the chair and grabbed for the feather. I snatched it out of his reach. He charged towards me and I led him on a merry chase about the room—we dodged about the table, we wheeled around the candle stand, we avoided the pile of armor stacked in the corner.

I skidded to a stop in front of the window, lost a slipper, and then darted sharply right instead of smashing into the glass pane. Racing past the table again, I knocked two chairs down in my wake and tossed my second shoe at Arthur in the hopes of stalling his attack.

It didn't. Arthur bounded over the fallen chairs easily.

The bed was my undoing.

I leapt on it, but my feet sunk in the mattress instead of springing up like a trampoline. Balance deserted me and I landed on my stomach with an oomph.

Instead of following me Arthur scrambled around the other side of the bed and cut me off when I got to all fours. Escape was futile and Arthur plucked the feather right out of my hand.

Quill held high, there was a glint of mischief in his eyes.

"Oh, no you don't."

"Turn about's fair play, Morgana." He crawled up the bed towards me.

"You better not."

"Make me." He threw my own words back at me.

I crab-walked towards the headboard, but my skirts and the sheets conspired against me. My feet were snared in the coverlet.

Arthur grabbed for one of my ankles, held it firm, and pushed the blanket aside.

I squirmed as the feather inched closer and closer to the naked arch of my foot. A split second before the first brush tickled, I yanked at the pillow over my head and tossed it right at Arthur.

It was a direct hit!

The pillow bounced off of his chest and landed in the space between us, I managed to snatch my foot away. Arthur sat on his haunches with a stunned expression for a moment and then very, very slowly lifted the pillow back up.

He looked at it, he looked and me, and then back at the pillow.

It was an all out war.

Arthur swatted me with his pillow. I grabbed another weapon and bashed him over the head. He retaliated with a blow to my side. I rolled over onto my stomach to avoid a jab at my shoulder.

I wasn't quick enough spinning back and Arthur's next swing landed.

I shrieked when it did.

I pummeled Arthur over and over again. He did the same.

I only managed to avoid every third or fourth blow. One of the ones I successfully managed to dodge missed me and Arthur's pillow smashed against the bedpost. When it did small, white feathers broke through the pillow case and flew about us.

My own pillow broke two blows later—over Arthur's stubbornly hard head.

By the time both our pillows had gone flat, we lay side by side crosswise on the bed, panting at the curtained canopy of the four-poster. Both of us had to spit feathers out of our mouth.

We couldn't help but laugh.

"There's something…." Arthur trailed off.

I felt the bed shift and Arthur held up the quill for me to see. The feather's spine had bent and the top-half angled pathetically to one side.

"That was brand new," Arthur complained.

"You can always get a new one."

He chucked the quill over the side of the bed. I didn't hear it land. "You're right. At least my quill isn't the only causality."

"Huh?"

He pointed. "Your sleeve."

I craned my neck down to see. At some point during our fight, my right sleeve had separated from the shoulder of my dress at the seam.

"Now I'm going to have to fix it."

"Get some servant to mend it," Arthur replied flippantly. "That's what they're there for."

"Which explains why you can't keep a steady servant for more than six months."

"Justin's working out nicely."

"He left a fortnight ago."

"He did?"

"You didn't notice?"

He shook his head. "No."

Typical male arroga—no, typical Arthur arrogance. He deserved to be in a class by himself. I gave him a withering glare, or at least I hope it was. Tough to see my face since Arthur doesn’t bother to keep a mirror in the pigsty he calls his rooms. Come to think of it, my hair was probably also in complete disarray.

"Servants aren't friends, Morgana. They do what we bid. It's not my responsibility to keep track of them. Hang on, Justin brought me breakfast."

"That would have been Michael."

"Michael? Who's Michael?"

"Your new manservant." I rolled my eyes and sat up to examine the tear on my dress. As I fingered the fabric, it became obvious that it was more than just a rip. The silk had frayed in such a way that sewing it together was going to be nigh impossible.

"Uggg, Arthur, you prat. No maid is going to be able to fix it. You ruined my dress. You ruined it!"

"You can always get a new one."

Arthur reached up, grabbed my sleeve at the wrist, and pulled.

"Stop it!" I gasped.

He chuckled instead of stopping and the fabric ripped completely apart. The remains of my sleeve slithered down my arm like a snake.

"You said it was ruined. How could I ruin it even more?"

I whacked him with the remains of the sleeve. "You should buy me a new one."

"Me? Why me? You started it." He flung his empty pillow case at me.

"'Cause now you owe me."

"Fine," Arthur said, sighing. "I'll buy you a new dress."

"And what if I don't want a new dress?"

"What do you want?"

I bit my lip to keep giddy laughter from escaping. I'd won.

"A bet," I replied.

He narrowed his eyes. "What are the terms?"

"I wager you're too chicken to defy Uther."

"I'm not."

I leaned over and whispered in his ear. "Then prove it. Distract the guards, so I can visit with Elsa. If you can't, then you will buy me a nice, new feast day dress."

"Those are the most expensive."

"Those are my terms."

"What do I get if I prove you wrong?"

"What do you want?"

He shoved himself to his feet and mulled the question over for several seconds. Coming to a decision, he pushed himself upright. "If I prove I'm not a coward, then you will agree that you've never bested me in a sword fight."

I arched a brow. "That's all?"

"You will never mention it again. It will be like it never happened."

"Deal."

Boys and their too easily wounded pride. I offered my hand to seal the pact. "Would you rather sit here and read about tactics, or actually use them?"

"Deal," he echoed and we shook on it.

In all the years that followed, much to Arthur's dismay and frustration, this was the only silk dress bet that I lost.

Personally, I considered it a victory.

-oOo-

"Ector?" Elsa called out as I snuck into the dungeon. "Is that you?"

"No, it's me," I said removing my hood and lowering the torch in front of me so Elsa could see my face in the gloom of room.

"Morgana, darling," Elsa said as she got up from the pile of straw and hobbled to the iron bars. Even in shackles she moved with a grace and a dignity I could never duplicate. "You shouldn't be here."

"I wanted to see you."

"It's late, you should be asleep."

"Don't worry." I gestured back towards the door. "Arthur's taken care of the guards. He'll let us know if anyone is coming."

"The Prince is involved in this little adventure?"

I nodded, settling the torch in the bracket.

"Heavens help me," she groaned. "If you're caught, I'd never forgive myself."

I put my hands on the bars and leaned as close as I could. "I had to come," I said, the words tumbling out like madness. "I wanted to tell you that I know it's a lie," I insisted. "I know about the feud between the potter's son and Kay. He's doing this to hurt you and I just can't stand it. So, I know it's a lie."

"Morgana."

"I know you didn't use magic like he said. I know you couldn't. Wouldn't. I'll go to the king and tell him otherwise. I can do it."

"Morgana," she caught my hands on the iron bars. "Calm down."

"I'm his ward, Uther will listen to me. I know he will."

"I can't ask you do that."

"Why not?"

"Because it would be a lie."

"You're… you're a…." I couldn't even say it aloud.

"I'm a witch."

"No!"

"It's not a slur, Morgana. I'm proud of who I am."

I banged my hands on the bars as I jerked away from her touch.

No. No. No. No. No. "You're not. Take it back." I couldn't believe that this was happening. I cradled my injured hand to my chest. My knuckles were bleeding.

"I'm the same Elsa you've always known."

"I know you are!"

That took Elsa aback. "You're not upset about the fact that I'm a witch?"

"I…" I wasn't. Oddly enough. Not like Uther has schooled me and Arthur to be.

"What are you afraid of, Morgana?"

I bit my lip to keep from sobbing. "Everyone I love leaves me. My father died and I couldn't bare it if you did. I don't want you to die."

"I'm not going to die. You needn't be in distress. Will you believe me?"

"I will."

"Good," Elsa said. "Now, let me see your knuckles."

Gingerly, I held my hand out for her.

"Ic i gelácne," she intoned.

I felt the magic surge through me. It felt warm, tingly like a clean scrubbing in a hot bath. For that brief moment, I was light and powerful, instead of skulking in the dark. I wanted more.

"Can you teach me to do that?" I asked, in awe.

"There is some magic that can be taught and some that can't."

Disappointed that I would never feel magic again, I frowned. "So you can't teach me."

"There's so much I should have told you, child," Elsa continued and cupped my face with her hands. "I should have taught you. I so am sorry for that."

"Elsa, you have nothing to be sorry about."

Elsa rubbed my cheek with her thumb. "Oh, but I did so much wrong."

"No, you didn't."

"Morgana, hush, now's not the time to argue. I can't correct everything, but I can…. Gaius, forgive me." Elsa took her palm away from my face and folded her hands together. I missed the warmth. "Did you dream last night?"

"I didn't," I fibbed. I pulled away from Elsa and took two steps back.

"You know my private secret," she told me. "You can trust me with yours."

"It was a nightmare. I don't want to remember it."

"You must."

"It was dark. There was a cave and I held a burning torch. Fire swirled everywhere about me, another woman, and three men."

"Who were they?"

"Their faces were blurry." One might have been Arthur, but I wasn't going to admit that to anyone, not even to Elsa. I dream of Arthur too often. I hate dreaming of Arthur.

Arthur with a sword.

Arthur without a sword.

Arthur in a lake.

Arthur climbing a winding staircase.

Why don't I ever dream of me? I want to do heroic things too. "All I know is I hated them. I wanted the men dead."

"What else?"

"The other woman. She hated them more than I did."

"Was there anything else in this dream?"

"There was a tree. A big beautiful tree," I told her. That was the only part of the dream that hadn't left me unsettled. It reminded me of my father.

"Oh, Morgana, you are more like your mother than you could possibly know."

I was profoundly insulted. "My mother left my father for a common farmer." She ran away. I don't run from things.

"I know that's what we told you, but it's not true."

"It isn't?"

"None of it."

"She's alive?"

"Not anymore. A mother will do anything for a child, or for a sister. Die if need be. One day, you will understand. I need you to promise me something, Morgana."

Head spinning with this new revelation, I would have promised her that the moon and the stars shined brightest at midday. "Anything."

"Never tell anyone of this dream. Do you understand? It will be our last secret."

"I won't."

"You need to take Gaius's remedy and everything will be fine. You will be safe. Now promise."

"I promise."

Arthur bumbled into the room before I could ask anything more about my mother. "Quick, we have to leave. Someone's coming!"

"One more minute," I snapped at him.

"We don't have another minute." He clamped my wrist and begun to drag me away.

"Wait."

Out of long habit, we both obeyed Elsa.

"I have something that I'd like to give you." Elsa slid the ring off of her finger and wormed her hand out between the iron bars.

I came forward to take it, but Elsa shook her head. "It's not for you. It's for Arthur."

That stung.

Arthur inched forward and held his hand out under Elsa's. She dropped the ring into Arthur's open palm.

"This was once your mother's."

"My mother's?" Arthur's eyes went big and round.

"Ygraine wore it all the time," she told Arthur. "Vivienne, Morgana's mother," Elsa glanced at me, "made it so it would protect the wearer from all harm. I kept it to remind myself of my two best friends."

Ever so slowly Arthur clenched his fist around it.

"Wear it," Elsa told him. "And remember your mother loved you."

"Thank you," Arthur said, choking back tears. "I will."

"Do you believe in magic?" Elsa asked Arthur.

"No."

"One day you will." She smiled softly. "Now go."

The thud of approaching footfalls said we'd lingered too long in making our escape.

Then there were voices.

"Father, there are no guards."

"Damn thing's already opened—" a man said.

Arthur gallantly pushed me behind him and we huddled up against the wall, but there was nothing to hide behind. My pulse hammered in my chest as the door creaked open and two black shadows appeared in the doorway.

The shadows dissolved into Sir Ector and his son, Kay.

"Elsa, what are they doing here?" Sir Ector asked.

There was the ring of steel being drawn and both Arthur and Kay squared off against each other.

"It's all right, my love. Morgana wanted to say goodbye."

"My prince, my lady," Sir Ector greeted them gruffly. "You should be abed."

Realization dawned. "You're here to break her out," I said.

Sir Ector grunted in reply. "Sheath your swords, boys."

Kay did. Arthur didn't.

"Arthur, you best be putting that away," Sir Ector warned.

Arthur kept the weapon out.

Sir Ector pointedly ignored the sword point directed right at him and dug a ring of keys out of his jacket and tossed them to Kay.

"Unlock the door," he ordered his son.

"You can't do that," Arthur protested. His balance wobbled.

"Is that so? Seems to me I can."

"I'm…" Arthur's voice gave out momentarily. He gulped, but stubbornly continued on. "I'm going to stop you."

"No, you're not. You're not because I've taken strides over the years to teach you the difference between right and wrong. This." He pointed at Elsa. "Is wrong."

Arthur, finally, sheathed his sword.

"Good. We don't have all night, Kay."

Kay did as he was bid and a key-turn later the cell door squeaked open. The sound was so loud that I feared even the king, three stories above, could have heard. The sleeping guards should have heard that for sure, but no guards came rushing in.

Elsa stepped out of the cell a free woman.

"Kay, give the keys to Arthur. He can put them where they belong tomorrow morning. No one will be any wiser."

Arthur accepted the keys from his best friend. "How will you know I won't mention it was you?" Arthur asked Sir Ector.

"Same reason you put away your sword. Besides when we're all gone and when the sun comes up on a new day, the king'll know I'm no Gorlois."

"What did my father do?" I spoke up.

When Sir Ector declined to answer Elsa did. "Once upon a time, there—"

"We don't have time for a tale, Elsa." Sir Ector warned her.

"For this one we do," she told her husband. "Listen," Elsa addressed me.

And Arthur.

"Once upon a time there were two sisters and a brother. They were from a powerful family of nobles who were well loved by the people of their manor.

"The eldest girl caught the eye of a nearby lord and later she became his wife even though her passion for him wasn't as strong as it should be. She married out of duty.

"The middle sister came to court with her sister and the lord to meet the king. The young king was utterly enchanted with her. She married out of love.

"It was all too good to last because the queen failed to produce an heir. The elder sister sacrificed everything—children, love, and her life—to give her sister and the king the son they craved. Full of pride, she dreamed the future, chose her path, and when it was too late, she couldn't turn back. That was your mother, Morgana." Elsa told me. "Everything revolves around family. Never forget that."

"That's a true story?" Arthur asked.

"All the best stories are," she replied.

"That would make the middle daughter my mother, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, Arthur. Your mother was the queen."

"What does that have to do with my father, Gorlois?" I asked.

"He got caught in the crossfire between Vivienne and Uther. Don't make the same mistake, my lady."

Arthur and Kay bid each other goodbye, while Elsa kissed me on both cheeks. I hugged her tightly so she couldn't pull away quickly. "I'll miss you." I choked out.

"Miss you too, 'Gana."

"I don't want this to be goodbye."

"We'll see each other again," she assured me, patting my back. I was sure it was just a hollow, empty promise.

"It's time," Sir Ector interrupted so we had to pull apart.

The torchlight made the tears on Elsa's cheeks glisten. She gave me one more sad smile and then curtsied for Arthur. "I am your servant."

"Go before I change my mind."

And with that Ector and Kay ushered Elsa from the room.

As Arthur and I climbed the staircases back to our separate chambers, I could hear the keys jangle against Arthur's new ring in his pocket.

I uncorked the stronger of the two sleeping drafts Gaius regularly prepared for me, but even that couldn't keep clanging bells from waking me up at midnight. The castle went into pandemonium, and a guard was posted at my chamber door to keep me "safe".

The next morning Sir Ector, Elsa, and Kay were gone; their names never to be uttered in Uther's presence again. The morning after that, a blacksmith's daughter named Gwen was hired to be my maidservant. She wasn't Elsa, but she did grow to be my best friend.

The night after that, and for all of the nights to follow, I dreamt nightmares of blood, fire, death, and worst of all—magic.

I didn't sleep well again until Morgause gifted me with my mother's bracelet.

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

When Arthur raps three times in quick succession on Gaius's door, there is no answer. He even goes so far as to jimmy the door handle, but locked, it does not budge.

"Come on, Gaius," Arthur mutters to himself, "you said you'd be here." Nothing seems to be going his way tonight.

He pounds on the door, much louder this time. There is no movement from inside and Arthur rests his head on the grain of the door. Just when he starts to believe that crawling into a whimpering ball on the floor to wait is his best option going forward, the bolt on the other side turns and Gaius beckons Arthur into the room.

"Sire, I wasn't expecting you so soon."

"I've come for the Tree of Life."

"Let me get it."

When Gaius heads up the small staircase towards the back room, Arthur is incredulous. "You're storing a priceless magical artifact that can destroy the kingdom in Merlin's bedroom?"

Gaius pauses on the second stair, turns, and calmly raises an eyebrow. "Would you think to look there?"

"No.

"Then there's no place safer."

"I've searched it once before. I've no desire to do so again."

"Quite." Gaius opens the door just wide enough to slip through and closes it behind him.

While he waits for Gaius to return, Arthur spies several heavy tomes on the workspace next to him. They have titles like The Past and Future History of the Druids, The Prophesy of Magic, Magic in Albion, and Magic's Return.

He knows his father grants Gaius special permission to review texts on magic to research against it, but Arthur had never seen one for himself.

After a quick, furtive glance over his shoulder at Merlin's closed bedroom door, Arthur flips opens the cover of the topmost banned book. It is the Return one that catches his eye because the gold-leaf calligraphy of the "M" is overly ornate, worthy of kings. There are sketches of a tree, a chalice, and a ring on the title page.

He thumbs randomly though the pages and when they flop open to a creased page near the middle, he cannot help but skim the text.

…ultimate power over the life and death… a scion of the royal house of… blah… blah… blah… herald the coming… golden age of Albion… blah… blah… blah-d-blah… blessed by the love found in the Ring of Life… their enemy pour water from the Cup of Life… plant the Tree of Life.... The branches… blah—blah… and ensure magic's reign.

It is clearly the mind numbingly dull treatise Gaius uncovered in preparation for that morning's council meeting. At least the passages are not poorly rhymed.

He flips to the next page and find lists and lists of phrases he cannot understand. Although they twist and trip his tongue, he sounds out some of the foreign words under his breath—lif, æsc, calic, and béag.

Bebeode thae áplante, forþgelæde, ond wite.

Æðeling forþframaþ.

Shit!

Arthur slams the book shut, realizing what he is pronouncing.

These are spells!

What if he just cast a horrible demon into existence, cursed all of Camelot, accidentally killed his father, or hexed his balls off.

Calm down, he tells himself, you have no magic. It is absurd to think you could cast a spell even if you wanted. Yet he still surreptitiously adjusts himself. Just to be sure. He breathes a sigh of relief when everything is present and accounted for and—ahem—in perfect working order.

Yeah, okay, he needs to distract himself, preferably with something that would bore him into a stupor.

He settles on taking an inventory of Gaius's main work bench. It is littered with paraphernalia—bowls, mortars, pestles, measuring spoons, lit candles, pitchers, beakers, decanters, dozens and dozens of vials. One of the larger vials is directly underneath a candle and a bright blue substance bubbles in the heat. There are also big jars, little jars, jars made of clay, jars of glass, empty jars, jars filled with suspicious looking liquids, jars filled with dried herbs and berries—foxglove, feverfew, comfrey, jimson, juniper, rosehip—and vases filled with flowers— purple heather, lilac, and pennyroyal; crimson clover; yellow tansy and marigold; white rowan and…

Hold on, what is this?

Arthur picks up a perfect chamomile flower. Gwen weaves these into her hair. How they stay there all day remains a feminine mystery to him. Does Gaius provide Gwen with her flowers?

She loves me. She loves me not.

He counts the petals, rather than plucking them.

She loves me. She loves me not.

She loves me. She loves me not.

She loves m….

He is twisting the flower idly between his fingers watching the petals spiral when he hears the hurried whisper of voices. Someone is in there with Gaius, and it certainly cannot be Merlin. When the door opens behind him a moment later, Arthur hastily slips the flower into the pocket of his cloak.

Gaius emerges and descends the stairs a few seconds later with a sheet and the Tree of Life.

"Were you talking with someone?" Arthur asks.

"Merlin's packing some last minute items," Gaius replies.

Arthur opens his mouth to call out the lie as Gaius carefully wraps the Tree of Life in the spare sheet for travel.

"Something wrong?" Gaius asks, handing Arthur the bundle of cloth and wood.

"No. I'll just be…." Arthur hooks his thumb at the door. "Going."

"Good luck, sire."

When he goes to let himself out there is a mud-stained leather jacket hanging on the door peg. It is far too large to fit Gaius, and Merlin cannot afford anything so expensive.

"Sire?" Gaius asks when he stalls.

"Tell Merlin to hurry."

"Certainly."

If Gaius nearly slams the door to get rid of him, Arthur is too disgruntled to notice.

Arthur proceeds to scowl at every kitchen scullion and castle guard from the physician's quarters to the front gate as to not invite conversation. As he passes out of the castle, he throws the hood of his cloak over his head and tucks his hair safely away. It obscures his side vision, but it is worth it since no one should recognize him. Confident none of his blond fringe shows, he makes his way towards the lower town.

The gate guard waves him through with nary a glance. He will have to have a word or two with them about vigilance when he gets back from Caerleon, but for now he is grateful. He is not as worried about people sneaking out of castle as he is them coming in.

When he enters the lower town the tang of smoke, acrid and heavy, still hangs in the air from Cenred's sack. The scent would probably linger until the next rainstorm.

It cannot come fast enough in Arthur's opinion.

He has not had the chance to survey much of the damage outside the castle properly yet, and just lit with moonlight and shadow Arthur can see that Cenred's army had been brutal during their brief occupation. Roughly a third of the buildings have severe damage—broken windows, burned roofs and cracked walls. These homes are dark and empty. Another third are damaged but inhabitable and already the people had begun to clean and rebuild. The final third, luckily, seem to have been spared the worst of the damage and candle light flickers merrily through those windows.

As he is about to pass the Rising Sun, a group of drunk men exit the tavern in front of him.

"Did'ya hear? The Prince is leaving," the oldest of the men says. Arthur stops in his tracks and pulls his hood even tighter around his face.

"For wha?"

"Food. Fear of magic. Same difference ta me. But his father's turned him into a clack-dish."

Clack-dish?

They chortle like it is the funniest thing in the world.

What is a clack-dish?

"No, it's worsssse," the third man slurs. "He tinks he's bettar dan us."

The second man spits. "No different than his father."

"We didn't need no savin' twenty years 'go," the first man say. "Don't need no savin' now."

"Don't need no…"

They turn the corner and head down an alleyway before Arthur can hear what else they do not need. He waits a good ten seconds before hurrying through the rest of the town towards Tom's now cold forge. When he arrives ten minutes later, a combination of relief and nerves flood when he sees light flickering in the cottage window next to the abandoned forge.

Gwen is home.

He shifts the bundled Tree of Life from one hand to the other and knocks on her door. As he waits he peeks around the corner for loiters or nosey neighbors. There are not any.

Gwen answers the door a few seconds later.

"May I help you?" she asks, not immediately recognizing him under deep shadows of the hood.

"Hello, Genevieve," he greets her smoothly.

Her eyes bug when she hears his voice. "M… my lord?"

"Not so loud," he hushes her. "And it's Arthur."

"I wasn't expecting you," she says.

"I wasn't expecting to need to come."

She is just as lovely this evening as she was this morning, though he is delighted she has already taken her hair down. It is a beautiful natural look and all the more tempting because he could run his hands freely through it. Her lips are redder than usual, but that could just be his imagination.

He pulls out the chamomile flower from his pocket and holds it out for her.

"I brought you a flower. For your hair," he elaborates when she makes no move to take it. Most of the petals got crinkled when he hastily stuffed it into his pocket. The head also droops a bit sadly towards the ground now. "You know, when you put it up tomorrow."

"Thank you," she says, accepting the bedraggled flower.

"You like flowers." He is babbling he knows, but cannot stop. "They suit you. I like your flowers."

"You came in the middle of the night to bring me a flower?"

"No." That is a splash of frigid water.

"Then for what?"

He sighs heavily. "To ask a favor."

"Anything I can do to help, you know I'll do it," she replies.

"May I enter?"

"Of course," she says, opening the door wider and inviting him inside her home.

Her cottage, clean and rustic, is much the same as it was the last time he had visited and the time before that when he had hid for the jousting tournament. "I'm glad your home escaped most of the damage."

"I'm lucky I live on the edge of the town."

It is warm and cozy inside as she has lit a fire to ward off the night's chill. Once he is safely inside, he slides the hood all the way off as she shuts the door. Moonbeams stream in through the window, but their weak light drowns in the fire and candles. There is also an empty vase on the table next to her half eaten supper—a loaf of wheat bread and a bowl of berries.

He has clearly interrupted a late supper.

When he opens his mouth to apologize for intruding on her evening, Gwen has both hands covering her mouth, stifling laughter.

"What is it that is so funny?" he asks.

"It's nothing." She drops her hands and sobers as best she can, yet does not completely manage it.

"You're still laughing, so it's certainly something."

"Sire, it's just that—"

"Arthur," he corrects her again. "Please, there's no need for that tonight."

"I'm not going to let us forget my station, or you yours."

"Can we compromise at least?"

"How?"

"When we're out of the castle and there's no one else around just don't call me 'sire' or 'your highness'. And don't even think about 'my lording' me."

The smirk twitching on her lips softens to a smile. He nods, satisfied, when she does not object further. And then she goes and blows his hopes with a small curtsy and a "Certainly, Prince Arthur."

Argh!

"That's not any better, Guinevere, and you know it."

Her eyes are sparkling and he is not sure if her mirth is at the expense of his anguish, or her earlier private joke which she neglected to share.

"No 'princing' either. Will you agree?"

"Yes," Gwen says, still gazing at a point just over his head.

Curious, he spins around to figure out what it is that she is looking at. There is no picture frame or anything hanging on the wall. Below there is a broom, a mop, and a bucket. Since they are not in Merlin's hands they are not exactly hilarious.

He scratches his head in bewilderment, but that only makes her laugh harder.

"Are you laughing at me?"

"No," she insists, yet giggles even more.

"You are!"

He huffs and brushes past her to sit backwards on her table's bench. He settles the Bane of his Life securely on his lap.

"I'm sorry. It's not you," she assures him.

"Then what?"

She sits next to him on the bench. Her fingers twitch out towards him, but she snatches them back before she reaches his cheek.

"It's just that when you took off your hood, you looked like a porcupine in a fright." She finally gives in and combs her fingers gently through his hair.

"That wild?"

"Quite ridiculous," she teases.

She continues to thread her fingers through his hair and he enjoys the moment. It is better than any warm bath and for the first time all day long, he feels his sore shoulder relax.

Then Gwen tucks the flower behind his ear.

It tickles.

"How foolish do I look?" he asks.

"You don't." She trails her hand over his chin and then to his chest to tangle in the strings of his cape and his shirt.

"I think it would look better on you."

"Would it?"

Arthur sweeps the flower from his ear and slips the stem into the bodice of her dress. He does not remove his hand and she takes a deep breath. That only makes the flower—and her breasts—rise higher. Intrigued, he runs his finger along the scoop of her neckline pressing the delicate lace of her dress against her skin.

Mouth suddenly very dry, he licks his lips.

Her eyes track the movement.

"Guinevere," he whispers as the moment stretches.

"Arthur."

Her kisses taste of sweet raspberries.

She is intoxicating.

The kiss he steals leaves his mind spinning. He cannot stop touching her—her soft skin, the curve of her shoulder, the arc of her neck. He pushes the homespun fabric of her dress off one side of her collarbone, nibbles up her neck, and noses into the curls of her hair. He inhales the lingering scent of the wildflowers she wore pinned in her hair all day long. The smell is light and sweet and innocent.

Her hands tangle in his hair.

Arthur kisses her harder this time and then twisting, tugs her firmly into his lap. She moves, but when she does the Tree of Life crashes to the floor.

The mood snaps.

Arthur stands in order to put some much needed distance between himself and Gwen.

"You, umm," Gwen says, rescuing their dignity and the smooched flower, "mentioned a favor earlier?"

He clears his throat as she puts the flower on the table. "I came to give you that." He points at the floor.

"What is it?"

He gently kicks it with the tip of his boot and the sheet unrolls to reveal the staff.

She gasps. "Is that what I think it is?"

"It's the Tree of Life."

"Why did you bring it here?" Gwen asks. "Are you supposed to be tak—"

"Taking it to Caerleon, yes, that's what I want everyone to believe."

He picks the Tree of Life up and feels the disturbing thrum of power he should not. "I need you to hide it," he tells her. He half expects it to shoot sparks, explode, or something infinitely worse, but it does not.

"Me? Why me?"

Which brings him neatly to the reason he sought her out tonight. "Because you're the one person I trust the most."

"Where do you want me to hide it?"

"That's up to you. Just—" He hands the Tree of Life over to Gwen. "Just keep it safe for me until I figure out what to do with it. "Sometimes it does things," he cautions. Full of too much energy, he paces back and forth to burn off the jitters.

"What things?"

"I was holding it yesterday and it starting glowing."

Gwen delicately places it on the table. Well out of reach.

"Don't tell anyone you have it," he adds. "Not anybody." It takes an entirety of eight short steps to cross the length of her cottage home. "Not any of the knights. Not any of the other servants. Not my father."

"I wouldn't," she assures him. "Morgana seemed to have some ide—"

"No." He rounds on his heel and turns the other way. "You can't tell Morgana either."

"Why?"

"Do you think…" he mulls how to phrase this best. "You've spent the most time with her since the rescue, how does she seem?"

"She's been a little distant, but that's to be expected."

"Did she give you any details? About what happened?"

"It isn't my place to press."

Arthur halts directly in front of the mop and bucket. He fights the urge to kick that bucket. Hard. "She wouldn't tell me any specifics either," he admits.

"When she's ready she will."

He settles for snatching up the broom. It is a poor substitute for a sword, but at least he has something in hands.

"Sometimes people," she continues, "have to help themselves first. All you can do is let them go and hope they'll return to you."

He turns to face Gwen.

"Has Morgana said anything about Merlin to you?"

"No, why?"

"Just… curious."

"Does Merlin know you're here?" Gwen asks picking up the abandoned sheet. She makes efficient work of refolding the wad into a neat square.

Arthur shakes his head.

"You trust Merlin with everything."

"Not with this."

"Won't he be expecting you to take it with you tomorrow when you leave?"

She is right.

Since Merlin will be in charge of their belongings, he would normally be expected to manage it and his servant would be meddlesome enough to remark on its absence. "I hadn't thought that far ahead," Arthur admits, twisting the broom angrily in opposite directions with his fists.

Gwen approaches and plucks the broom from his hands.

"What was that for?"

Instead of replying she scoots her plate, bowl, and candles to one side of the table and lays the broom right next to the staff.

"Think this'll work?" she asks.

They are roughly the same size. The broom handle is longer and the head is too long and too flat, but wrapped in a sheet you would not know the difference.

"That's brilliant."

Relieved, he slumps back down on the bench.

"Can I ask you something?" he asks.

"Anything." She again sits next to him. Too temptingly close.

"You don't always tell me what I want to hear, but you do tell me what I need to hear."

She does not say anything in reply and just waits him out.

"Why do you like me, Guinevere?"

She is startled by the question. "What do you mean?"

"You are gorgeous and lovely and kind. I've heard it said,"—he is sure his expression is a storm cloud—"that I am arrogant and blind and easily led."

"Who said that?"

"Just something I overheard," he sidesteps the question. "What kind of king do you think I'll become?"

"What kind of king do you want to be?" she returns, most unhelpfully.

He sighs, considering the hypnotic flickering of the candle flame on the table. "When I was growing up all I wanted was to be just like my father." He digs his fingernail in the soft tallow of the candle creating an opening. "I looked up to him. He's the best role model I have to pattern myself after." The pooled hot wax dribbles over the side and hardens in a drippy run. "And yet, he's made choices that I don't always agree with, but I do have to admire him for the fact that he makes the hard life and death decisions that affect the entire kingdom. He stands by them."

"You admire him for that."

"I do, but I can't be my father."

"What do you want?"

"The ruler of Camelot isn't allowed to want."

"No. What is it you—" she pokes him solidly on the breastbone—"you, not the Lord, or the Sire, or the Prince want? What does Arthur want?"

"You!" he blurts before he can stop himself. "I shouldn't have said that."

"It was, at least, honest," says Gwen, chewing her lip.

He blows out a breath. "Yeah, it was."

"It's difficult to accept that," she says not meeting his eyes.

"You won't accept it here." Arthur points a finger to her temple. Then he rests his hand over her heart. "But you do here."

"Always will." When she speaks he can feel the vibration of her words against his hand, the rise and fall of her chest, as well as the beating of her heart.

"I don't want to leave," he confesses.

"You've been gone longer from Camelot before," she says, purposefully misunderstanding.

"No," he corrects. "I don't want to leave you and go back to the castle."

"Then stay."

When she finally raises her head to meet his eyes, he sees her want.

-oOo-

Arthur awakens to the first cracks of dawn breaking through the windows. It is the most rested he has felt in days. Hard on the heels of that realization is the fact that Gwen is pressed warm and close against his chest, tangled in his arms.

They are both fully clothed, but he would give most anything to not have to be.

The last time he slept in her bed, she slept on the flour sacks. This was an infinitely better arrangement. If only they could stay here forever. Guinevere's home had become a sanctuary of sorts.

However, duty makes him rise and face the world. Careful not to wake her, he gingerly untangles himself from Gwen and slips out of the bed.

A stray lock of hair has fallen in her eyes. Kneeling, he gently moves it to the side. Then he brushes his lips whisper-soft on Gwen's forehead. She sleeps through his kiss. Torn, he wonders why knighthood always seems to pit honor and love against each other.

Arthur retrieves his cloak and looks at her sleeping form. It is early and he does not want to wake her, but at the same time it would be rude to leave without saying goodbye. He fiddles with his ring trying to figure out what to leave as a token. He slides the ring off past the first knuckle.

There is no paper or quill so he cannot leave her a note.

He slides the ring back on.

Besides what would he even say in a note?

Off. On.

He briefly considers the wilted flower he brought her, but even he does not need Merlin to tell him that it would not be romantic.

Off. On.

He scans the cottage looking for something. Anything….

Off. On. Off. On.

Then again Gwen would probably only find it rude if he gave her a gift that was already hers. It needed to be something personal, something that was his to give.

He slides the ring all the way off his finger.

Perfect!

He lays it next to Gwen's pillow. It will be the first thing she sees when she opens her eyes.

Task happily completed, he turns to the table and finds the Tree of Life and the broomstick right where they left them the night before. He moves the Tree of Life off to the side and he is grateful when there is no disturbing thrum of power when he handles the staff this time.

Arthur shakes out the folded sheet and makes quick work of rolling the broom up in the fabric of Merlin's bed linen.

There are pale yellow streaks and cloudy ribbons of pink highlighting the sky when he sneaks out Gwen's door. The hustle and bustle of the day is starting when he steps out into the street with the broom, pulls his cloak securely over his head, and walks briskly to the castle.

The day will be beautiful and a good for travel. Arthur refuses to feel guilty as he creeps into the castle, slinks up the stairs, and rushes into his chambers.

The first thing he sees is that Merlin did indeed return the prior evening and finish the packing as evidenced by the rucksack and two neat sack bundles prepared for their journey. The second thing he notices is that his bed is still perfectly made. Without a second thought Arthur places the sheet-blanketed broomstick on the table and musses the sheets and down-comforter on the royal bed as if he has slept there all night long. He and Gwen would have had ample room had they slept here. He finishes by pounding his fists into his favorite pillow to form the indentation of a head.

Next he goes behind the folding screen to find his traveling clothing. He strips to his small clothes and dresses himself in the Merlin approved black shirt, leather jacket, and a fresh pair of trousers waiting for him.

Arthur is pulling on his travel boots when his chamber door opens.

"You're up," Merlin says, entering.

"I am."

"I couldn't find you last night," Merlin states. The wonderful smell of sausage drifts over the folding screen.

"I was out."

"When did you get back?" Merlin asks.

Sure enough when he comes around the corner he can see a breakfast tray on the table laden with sausage, fruit, and bread. "Late," Arthur replies slipping his dragon etched vambraces on.

Face to face, neither apologizes for the fight last night.

Instead, Arthur eats sausages and fruit with his fingers while Merlin remakes the bed. Arthur looks for any signs of remorse, or some indication that the Merlin before him is different, or is lying. He does not find any. It is the same old Merlin.

"Is that the Tree of Life?" Merlin asks pointing to the broom-sheet bundle.

"What else would it be?"

"Can I s—"

"No."

"Where are you going to hide it?"

"You'll find out when we get there."

"The horses are saddled and waiting in the courtyard," Merlin tells him once Arthur pushes the empty plate away.

"Ready to leave?" Arthur asks.

In response Merlin grabs the two bundles of clothing and supplies. Arthur takes the rucksack, chest of gold, and the broom himself.

A groom is waiting with the horses when they arrive in the courtyard.

Arthur secures the fake Tree of Life to his horse while the groom and Merlin secure the rest of their supplies. When all is done, they mount the horses. With no fanfare, other than the huge yawn Merlin cannot hide behind a fist, they depart through the gates of Camelot.

On their way out they pass though a blackened and burned field of wheat. This time of year the crops should be plump and golden yellow. The brittle stalks crunch under the clip-clop of the horses hooves.

Neither he nor Merlin converse as they traverse the field.

When they reach the other side, Arthur takes a long look back the way they came. This is worse than after he hunted and killed the unicorn. At least he was directly responsible for that, this he was not. He did not have the power to grow crops to full bloom in the late summer. Alas, he may not be responsible for the ruined crops, but it was his responsibility.

"Which way are we going?" Merlin asks.

"Do you not know which way is west, Merlin?"

"I was hoping we were going to see the druid first. It's only a few hours out of the way."

"We are going to Caerleon," Arthur insists.

Merlin chews his bottom lip, but does not object or question Arthur's decision further.

Merlin dozes in the saddle most of the morning and Arthur lets him, still not sure quite how to broach the subject of what he overheard. There are a couple of times Merlin jerks awake when his chin falls too far forward.

Each time it happens, Arthur tries not to laugh.

Too loudly.

It is mid to late morning, when Arthur is squinting into the sun and sweating buckets in his black shirt that Merlin wakes up enough to ask, "What did you and Morgana talk about after you threw me out of the room?"

"You."

"And?"

Arthur urges his horse forward enough to cut Merlin off. Arthur reins his horse in next to Merlin's and both horses stand still. "Morgana told me you felt responsible for her kidnapping."

Merlin is agog. "She said that?" His voice squeaks out half an octave higher than normal.

"Don't fall out of your saddle."

"I won't," Merlin replies and then looks away at the passing elm trees. "I have plenty to feel guilty about, but Morgana's choices aren't part of my regrets." Merlin digs his heals in, and urges his mare around Arthur's and into a fast trot and then a gallop.

If Arthur is walking away from his responsibilities and obligations, then Merlin is running.

Gritting his teeth, Arthur follows the dust in Merlin's wake. When Arthur catches up, Merlin lets him pass without a word. About an hour later, Arthur realizes he is alone and Merlin is no longer faithfully following.

"Merlin!" Arthur shouts into the distance.

There is no answer and so Arthur turns his horse around and returns the way he has just come.

Ten minutes later, Arthur finds Merlin's horse tied to a tree and nibbling on tall stalks of grass. Of Merlin himself there is no immediate sign. Images of bandits and mercenaries dance through his head as he unsheathes his sword.

Arthur is swinging over the saddle to dismount when Merlin bumbles through the brush on the left.

"Sorry," Merlin apologizes.

"I don't want you wandering off again. You'll get lost." Merlin has turned him into a nervous fishwife.

"I would not get lost," Merlin protests.

"Which way is west?" Arthur asks.

Merlin points.

"Then why were you wandering east?"

"I was just, you know…" Merlin gestures to his crotch.

Arthur really has no need to continue this conversation further.

-oOo-

They stop for the night an hour before sunset. In unspoken agreement Arthur and Merlin unsaddle their horses and remove their packs and bedrolls in silence. Arthur does not fail to notice how Merlin's eyes track his every movement when he places Gwen's wrapped up broom on the ground next to his pack.

Merlin wanders away while Arthur feeds the horses and checks eight hooves for small stones and wear. Once the horses finish the oats, they whicker and stomp. He soothes them with a rub on the forehead.

Then Arthur leads the horses down to a small stream to drink their fill. The horses lap at the water and Arthur kneels to replenish his water skin with fresh, cool water.

As Arthur waits for the horses to finish, he picks up a smooth river rock. It is nice and flat. He skips the stone across the slow moving river.

Arthur watches the flux and flow of the water as it twists and winds downstream and around the bend. The water is never static, always changing course and rippling currents. Could he ever predict the exact path the water would take? Instinctively he knew the water would pour out into the sea, so perhaps the journey does not matter. Could he know his destiny?

By the time he returns, Merlin has scrounged together a ring of rock for a fire.

"Are you going to try 'n hunt?" Merlin asks stifling yet another yawn. Did the man get any sleep last night at all? Trust Merlin to break their uneasy truce with talk of food.

"Yeah."

Arthur puts the water skin aside as he rummages though the packs and finds the coin, clothes, his crown, two bedrolls, and some hard cheese and bread, but not what he truly seeks.

"Where's my crossbow?"

"It should be there."

"It's not."

"Did you not get it from the armory last night?"

Merlin winces. "I meant to—"

"You meant to?"

"I got sidetracked."

"After your trip to the royal blacksmith?" Arthur enquires, suspecting that Merlin made no such visit.

"Yeah." When Merlin scuffs the dirt with the toe of his boot, Arthur takes it for a tell.

"Just what exactly did you do last night?" Arthur asks. However, before Merlin can respond, Arthur decides he does not want to hear the excuse, for that is all Merlin has given him lately. "You know, you can think of the explanation while I hunt." At least Arthur has his hunting knife. "Gather more firewood while I'm gone," he orders Merlin as he pulls the knife from his boot.

"Of course, sire."

"Sort out your priorities too." Arthur storms through the forest for several minutes following deer tracks, birdsong, and game trails. Eventually he finds a natural clearing chock full of wild grass and clover. Rabbit would probably be the best catch.

Then again, he could always try for chipmunks.

Off to one side there is a thick, nasty bramble patch, which will be the perfect hideout for cottontail.

This late in the day, there should be plenty awake and feeding. He undoubtedly sent any that were out nibbling on clover scurrying for cover. Sure enough there are blackberry bramble branches moving, and there is no way it is due to the wind alone. When the branches settle, his observation is confirmed.

Arthur grins.

Lacking his crossbow, he is going to have to do this the old fashioned way—with his bare hands.

Arthur sheathes his hunting knife and heads to the brambles. The sound of his approach is not enough to flush the cottontail out into the clearing, so he walks very, very slowly and counts off ten paces along the edge of the bramble. When he reaches ten, he stops and stands stock still. He holds the position for a long minute, not making sound, not moving a muscle, just patiently waiting.

He walks ten more paces and freezes again. He hears no movement from inside the blackberry mass. With any luck, the nervous rabbit is on the verge of panicking.

Arthur enjoys hunting animals: dinner, dragons, enemies. He is good at it too. There is a thrill in the hunt, the chase, the capture, and the win. Breaking his reverie, he turns and just as slowly walks back the way he came.

After another ten paces he holds perfectly still once more.

He is not blood thirsty. He was taught this was the way of things, and that this is the way they have always been. It does not do to question the law of history. When Arthur is hunting there are no fathers to please, castles to protect, or rivals to impress. Best of all there is no room for worry. He is free to be completely in the moment.

There is still no rabbit emerging, so he repeats the process and stalks forward.

One, two, three. Hunting is simple. Four, five, and six. Kill or be killed. Seven, eight, nine, and that is ten.

In his experience, cottontail never handle suspense well. The long lulls in between rounds of pacing usually make them nervous enough for them to believe they have been spotted. They cannot help but flee.

And sure enough forty seconds into this silent phase, a rabbit bolts out from under the brush.

The bunny puts on a burst of speed as Arthur takes chase. They zigzag to and fro across the clearing. At the turn of one zag, Arthur gets close enough to grab it, but the cottontail squirts right out of his hands and zigs left.

The chase continues and eventually the rabbit tires out, not able to maintain his speed or hop quite as far.

Arms outstretched, Arthur dives.

Got it!

He also gets a mouthful of loamy dirt and grass for his troubles. While the cottontail squirms in his grip and bites at his gloves, he sits up and spits the dirt away.

Arthur whacks the rabbit with a sharp blow to the base of the neck. It goes limp, dead.

Arthur chuckles to himself. It was not from a hundred paces like shooting chicken, but he flushed the rabbit successfully in less than a hundred paces. There is no need to mention the chase that took many, many hundred more.

Satisfied, he dangles the rabbit from the neck between his thumb and forefinger and returns to the bramble. He lays the rabbit on the ground and uses his teeth to strip off his right glove.

With his still gloved left hand, he lifts the nearest thorny branch up and away to reveal a bounty of raspberries.

Most of the easy berries have already been taken by bird or beast, but Arthur is free to have those on the underside that have ripened ruby red. He pops them in his mouth as soon as they are picked.

They taste of summer and of Gwen's kisses.

Arthur crushes the last berry from that particular branch against the roof of his mouth and licks his lips. When he moves over to lift the next branch for a second helping, the spidery sense that someone is watching his every move kicks up.

He stands, thinking that it must be Merlin who has wandered far afield while gathering wood. He should have ordered the nit-wit to stay with the horses—not that it would have made a difference.

He spins around in a circle checking the clearing, but there is no sign of Merlin. Arthur is alone here, and yet he cannot shake the feeling that prying eyes are still on him.

Not wishing to linger, Arthur retrieves his glove as well as his rabbit dinner and heads back to camp. By the time he returns, Merlin has a fire smoking inside a ring of stone. There is also an ample supply of firewood to last throughout the night piled next to the blaze.

"I have returned victorious," Arthur says holding up the rabbit for Merlin.

"Rabbit?" Merlin asks looking up from stripping the leaves off a Y-shaped branch. There is another bare one already at his feet.

"Tell me you know how to cook it."

"I do."

"Good." Arthur hands the rabbit over to Merlin, happy to be relieved from any and all other activities having to do with it other than eating.

Merlin sets about skinning the rabbit, removing fur and the topmost layer of skin. There is a funny twist to Merlin's lips as he removes the head, tail and feet.

"What are you grinning about?" Arthur could not help but ask.

"Gaius once gave me a rabbit foot."

"Whatever for?"

"For luck and to protect against evil spirits."

It was amazing the rubbish the commoners would believe. He would not have pegged Gaius as the superstitious type. "We need all the luck we can get."

"We do."

Once Merlin has skinned the animal, he takes the rabbit to the river to wash it. While he is gone Arthur tosses the pelt and entrails into the fire. It all sizzles and splutters in the flames; the smell is not pleasant.

Arthur strips off his gloves and twists the two Y-notched branches deep into the earth on either side of the fire pit. Once when he was a boy, he used to imagine that he could take tree branches, stick them in the ground, and watch them grow over the long, hot summer. To his dismay, they never did.

Nature very rarely follows the commands of men.

The itching between his shoulder blades is mellow now, but it is still there. Has the lurking shadow presence follow him back to camp?

Arthur pulls on the sticks gently to make sure they are stable when Merlin returns. Merlin sorts through the rest of the wood piled next to the fire and pulls out a straight long branch. Merlin produces his own knife from his pack and uses it to whittle one end down to a spear.

Merlin sticks the spit through the rear end of the rabbit to emerge from the neck. He places the rabbit just above the fire so it will roast. To test the heat of the flames, Merlin lowers a hand next to the skewered rabbit.

Then Merlin drags his pack next to one of the sticks ground into the dirt and sits on it so he has easy access to turn the spit from time to time.

"Where did you tell me you were the day you disappeared and shirked all your duties?" Arthur asks settling on the opposite side of the fire.

"I didn't."

"Were you with Morgana?" he asks lightly.

"No."

It is a lie. Now that he is watching for it, he can see it plainly. What else has Merlin been lying to him about? "When you love someone—"

Merlin interrupts him. "You think I'm in love with Morgana?"

"Aren't you?"

"No!"

Merlin reveals a bitter, jaded side in the resulting laugh that Arthur has never seen before, but Merlin sobers right up after Arthur says, "Morgana says that you are."

"When did she say that?"

"Last night."

"She's mistaken."

"Have you been in love to know for sure?"

"You want to talk about women?" Merlin is aghast. "With me?"

"Why not?"

"Because… because… because…." Merlin is clearly unable to come up with a suitable reason.

Excellent. That means he has won the argument. "If you're that inexperienced, I'm sure I could teach you how to treat a woman properly."

"You could not."

"Could too."

"I'm sorry, but you have a history of kissing women once and then never kissing them again. I'd hardly call that love."

Arthur snorts and crosses his arms across his chest. "I most certainly do not have that reputation."

Merlin gives him a knowing look. "Do you know what your nickname is among the other servants?"

He would rather not, thanks. Suddenly thirsty, he gets up and gets the freshly filled water skin. "Fine. Name three woman who I've lead on."

"Sophia of Tiamor."

"I was ensorcelled!"

"Lady Vivian."

"It was a spell! I was enchanted."

"Sorcerers seem to like catching you in spells. You'd think by know you'd know the signs and recognize when it's happening."

He ignores the taunt and returns to the fireside. "That was only two."

Merlin smiles like a cat with clotted cream and waits until Arthur takes a deep drink from his water skin.

"Gwen."

Arthur splutters, unable to breathe. When he collects himself he growls out, "How could you possibly know I've kissed Guinevere? She's not one to kiss and tell."

"So you have kissed her?"

"That is none of your business."

"Was it as good as you were imagining?"

"I'm not telling you if they were or weren't," Arthur could not help his voice raising an octave higher in indignation.

"You've kissed her more than once?"

"Merlin!"

"How many times?"

"I've lost count," he finally admits.

"You told me that nothing could ever happen between you two, and yet you've kissed her. Sure doesn't sound like nothing."

How did this conversation get so off track? He is supposed to be finding out Merlin's intentions on Morgana, not defending himself. Arthur buries his head in his hands. "It's not nothing. She's not nothing."

"Have you told her that?"

He stopped short from admitting it outright last night, but Guinevere knew anyway. She read between his lines. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"I do," Merlin says quietly.

"How can you possibly know?" Arthur scoffs. "Do you know what it's like to have a secret you can't tell? Not even to the person who most deserves to know. No. No one can possibly know. You can't possibly know."

Merlin turns the rabbit spear. "Maybe. Maybe not."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Fear makes people keep secrets."

"Fear? Fear of what?"

"Getting hurt. Hurting the ones you love. Being rejected and pushed aside when the other person finds out. You see, I do know what it's like to be in love."

"When was this? The only woman I've seen you mooning over is Morgana."

Merlin spins the rabbit on the spike again and is quiet for a long, long while, gazing into the flames lost in thought. "Her name was Freya," he volunteers, voice hushed.

"Where did you meet?"

"The Rising Sun."

Arthur's eyebrows rise. This is a new side to Merlin he has never seen before. "You fell in love with a tavern wench?"

"She didn't work there. I was passing by and… saw her being mistreated by the man she was travelling with. Later that night I came back and rescued her."

"You were her knight in shining armor?"

"The armor's all yours. I don't need any. I would have done anyth—I did do everything for her. Strawberries, roses, a dress." Merlin chuckles ruefully. "And food fit for royalty. She had dark eyes, dark hair, and when she smiled for me there was no one else in the world but us. She was beautiful, but that is not what drew me in the most. She was the first person who accepted me for me. No questions. No judgment. No subterfuge. I didn't lock my true self away when I was with her. I'd found another person who liked me for me. We kissed and the kissing led to…."

"More?" Arthur supplies.

"Oh," Merlin sighs, lost in memory. "Much, much more."

A surge of jealousy seizes Arthur and in that moment he envies Merlin more than he ever has anyone in his life. While he had kissed Gwen many times over and held her in his arms while they slept, anything more would be a risk they could not ever take.

"Being in love," Merlin tells him, "is like having a song humming and buzzing under your skin. You're drunk, but thinking more clearly than you ever have in your life. You'd…." Merlin pauses to look directly up at Arthur. "Do magic, just to bring out her fleeting smile. Keeping your love secret kills you when you want to shout it from atop the castle spires. So, yes, I know exactly what loving a woman entails."

Abashed, Arthur hangs his head. "That's how I feel about Guinevere," he admits.

"Mh hum," Merlin agrees, but then continues sadly, "Freya and I never spent an entire night together. I always had to leave. I never got to lay her out on a bed other than sand. I never got to sleep sated by her side. I never got to watch her sleep. I never got to watch her wake when the sun hit her face. I never got to…." Merlin trails off and rotates the rabbit another few inches. Its skin is roasting brown and crispy and its juices are dripping and snapping in the flames below. "True love is too good to last," Merlin finally declares.

"She didn't return your feelings?"

"She did. More than I ever thought possible."

Arthur is stunned. "Then what happened?"

"The man I rescued her from kept searching for her. She was hunted down because of something she couldn't run from. She couldn't run from herself." Merlin turns the rabbit over unnecessarily to break his melancholy mood. "She died before we could leave Camelot."

Hang on! "You were going to leave Camelot? When was this?"

"Why does it matter?"

"Did I do something to drive you away?"

"When do you not?" The jape would normally be funny, but not this time.

"I could have helped, offered her protection within the castle walls." He would have too. For Merlin, he would have.

"It would have been impossible for you to help."

"Where were you going to go?" Arthur asks as a few chipmunks chatter in the woods nearby.

Merlin stares off into the middle distance with small smile. "Somewhere with wild flowers, fields, and a mountain fed lake. It's a nice dream, but that's all it is—a fantasy."

The mood breaks when the winds shift and smoke blows in Arthur's direction. It carries the scent of the roasting food towards him and it smells wonderful. Sometimes roasting meat catches the wind just right and he is torn between salivating hunger and a terrifying half-forgotten memory. It is an uneasy feeling.

"Is it done yet?" Arthur asks, pointing to the rabbit.

Merlin shakes his head. "Probably, but I want to give it a little more time. I'd rather have it overcooked than undercooked."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "You really are quite the girl, Merlin."

"Would you like to bet?"

"Merlin, I will not purchase you a dress."

Merlin cracks a smile and it is the first real one he has seen since he found Merlin wandering in the opposite direction. Arthur thinks things might be okay again. This is his Merlin.

Arthur pokes the fire with his stick, disturbing the embers. "So why is Morgana upset with you?"

The damn chipmunks chitter and chatter again in the background and Arthur is sure they are yelling at him to mind his own business. He does not care.

"Arthur, I really don't want to discuss why Morgana is upset with me. It's…." Merlin fumbles for the correct word.

"Personal?" Arthur supplies.

"Complicated," Merlin corrects. "It is also something we need to settle on our own."

At least Merlin is answering his questions now. He is not avoiding them or making a joke. "So, she is upset with you?"

"She has every right to be."

"What did you do?"

"What I had to." Merlin twists the spit to rotate the rabbit a quarter turn. Just when Arthur gives up on expecting a reply, Merlin says. "If it came down to my word versus Morgana's, whose would you choose?"

"Am I going to need to?"

"Someday you might," Merlin says with a certainty. "And since I'm in her way, I can only protect you for so long."

That was almost laughable. It was Merlin's job to serve and Arthur's to protect. "How are you going to do that?"

"There are many different ways."

"Name three," Arthur taunts, wanting specifics.

But Merlin does not play. "When are you going to figure out, that I do many things to protect you that you never see? It adds up to far more than three."

Merlin stands. "The rabbit is done cooking," he announces, removing it from the spit and sliding the cooked meat off the branch.

In addition to the roasted rabbit they sup on simple fare: hard bread and soft cheese. They also drink water from their skins.

"What does 'clack-dish' mean?" Arthur asks around a hot mouthful of food.

Merlin's answer isn't an answer. "What were you doing when someone called you that?"

"It wasn't about me." Arthur.

"Sure it wasn't," Merlin scoffs.

"It's just something I overheard and couldn't stop to ask for details."

Merlin shakes his head.

"Oh, come on," Arthur cajoles. "You told me I should learn to speak the language of the people. Get more in touch with the 'idiototic'."

"Idiomatic."

"Yes, that. Think of it as me trying to better myself."

His admission finally gets Merlin to give in. "It means beggar."

Arthur pauses, another bite of rabbit halfway to his mouth, as he absorbs that. "Really?" As he chews, it is like he is eating a mouthful of sour lemons and spicy peppers instead of tender rabbit.

-oOo-

The waxing gibbous moon, only missing a sliver slice, breaks the horizon as they eat. Firelight begins to overpower the dwindling twilight.

It is too early to settle into their blankets and rolls, so Arthur rummages through his pack and retrieves a bottle of oil and a small whetstone with the intent to get the newest dinks out of his sword.

Merlin sorts through the pile of wood at his feet for a smallish stick. In the last year, Merlin has taken up whittling at night around the campfire during their excursions from Camelot. He, in Arthur's illustrious opinion, is not very good at it, for the figures more regularly resemble misshapen lumps rather than animals.

Yet Merlin stubbornly keeps trying and tonight is no exception. Merlin gradually starts to shave the bark away. It comes off in small clumps.

Shaking his head in bewilderment, Arthur starts to work directly on the delicate work of honing a sharp point. The job takes his full concentration. Not more than ten minutes in, one of the obnoxious chipmunks is brave enough to dart across their makeshift camp. Skittish, it scampers about, changing tack when it is about to bump into their horse gear, the fire pit, a tree root, and Arthur's water skin.

Eventually it skids to a stop next to Merlin's knee and hovers on its hind legs, begging.

"Tell me you won't be feeding it."

"I won't," Merlin replies, setting the mystery carving aside—horse? goat? cow? Are those udders? "I won't."

"She certainly likes you."

"How do you know it's a she?"

"Because all the girls like you."

The chipmunk chitters wildly, defending Merlin. Merlin decides to chitter right back at it as if he is carrying on a conversation.

"Do you know how stupid you sound?"

"No more than usual," Merlin says.

"Which is entirely true."

"Eeee. Ee. Ee. Eeeeee."

As the human and chipmunk squeaks continue, Arthur loses his concentration and his blade slices into his thumb.

There is a moment of unreality where there is just a clean slice and no blood. The pain zing starts once the blood wells to the surface. Arthur draws in a sharp breath and sucks his thumb into his mouth to staunch the bleeding.

"You all right?" asks Merlin.

"Yeah."

Merlin shoos the chipmunk towards the trees and it flees back into the forest. Arthur gives a half hearted laugh and decides his concentration is completely shot. The edge is sharp enough.

"What are you making?" Arthur asks when Merlin picks up his knife again.

"A dragon."

"It's not a very good dragon."

"No, it's not." Merlin sighs and he tosses the wood in the fire to burn. "Will you take first watch?"

"I was hoping you would take it."

"Let's flip a coin to decide," Merlin suggests with a toothy grin.

Arthur fishes the druid's woodchip coin out of his pocket. He really needs to get rid of the stupid thing. While he is doing so, the fire-smoke shifts unexpectedly and catches him unawares. Arthur can feel his nose twitch. He fights the watering of his eyes.

Right as Arthur is forced to close his eyes and sneeze, Merlin says something.

"What was that?" Arthur asks.

"Nothing," Merlin says with an overdone smile.

"Alright, heads or tree, I win; tails or dragon you lose."

"What if I wanted heads?" Merlin whines.

"Fine. Heads you win."

Arthur flips the coin high and catches it easily. When he flips it onto the back of his hand it shows heads up.

"Best three out of five?"

"It won't make a difference."

"Mer-lin."

"Toss it."

It lands on heads for second time. And for a third! Disgusted, Arthur throws the coin to the ground. He scuffs some dirt over it for good measure.

Victorious, Merlin stretches, yawns, and curls up under his wool blanket.

"You cheated!"

"How?" Merlin asks yanking off his boots.

"Leave them," Arthur insists, remembering the spidery eyes back in the clearing.

"But."

"Leave them on."

Merlin frumps, but obeys. After all, he gets second watch.

"I don't know how you did it, but you did."

"When you figure it out, don't wake me up to tell me."

"So you admit you fixed it?"

"I did no such thing."

"But—"

"Goodnight, my lord."

He much prefers Gwen wishing him goodnight. "Goodnight, Merlin."

Arthur stands, stokes the fire—he takes great pleasure at pushing the dragon remains further into the heart of the fire—and then, piles on three more pieces of wood. Arthur gets another lung full of smoke and soot for his troubles when the fickle late summer winds shift.

Uncomfortable, he coughs.

These are the winds of change, he thinks.

The wind, an ill one blowing no good, kicks up once more and ripples through the leaves above Arthur's head. As quickly as it sweeps through the trees, it quiets.

It scratches at his very soul.

The dark silhouettes of the tree-tops surrender to the night's starry sky. The moon has fully risen and it is a stunning sight with nary a cloud in the sky. However, now that the wind has picked up, the weather is changing, and the first autumn storm will not be far behind.

As Merlin closes his eyes and falls asleep, Arthur takes some of the smaller twigs and twists them in his hands. He breaks them snap by snap by snap and feeds the brittle, little bits one by one into the fire. They pop and smack in the blaze.

If he were to pick between all of the possible ways to die, he would not choose fire. It lingers too long, he thinks as the last twig blackens and curls. Fire spreads without mercy, without regard for life or love; magic is the same. Life and death eternally entwined. Fire strives to grow, but it is careless of the fact that it destroys all it touches. Fire leaves the ashes of dreams in its charred wake.

No amount of wealth—silver, or gold—can stop it. Even the sharpest of steel is worthless.

Arthur wipes the dirt off the druid's coin and flips it once more.

Heads.

Frowning he does it over and over again.

Heads, heads, heads, heads, and heads. It is undoubtedly weighted; it might as well be a coin with the same two sides.

It is cursed with magic he decides, chucking it into the fire. It is for the best they are not going west. He fans the flames and there is a second between when the flame flickers low and when the fire kicks up higher and hotter than before.

Arthur uproots one of the branches he twisted into the ground for the spit and sticks the forked end into the fire. He makes sure to poke the branch deep into the coals of the fire.

Merlin starts to snore as the fire eats away at the prongs.

When Arthur pulls the stick out after a minute it is hot and flaming. He lifts the stick near his mouth and snuffs out the flame with a sharp huff. The ends are charred and black.

He sticks it back into the fire to let it burn into a single point. Flames keep licking at it. As the stick shrinks he leans in so close that the heat is overpowering.

Arthur stares at the flickering fire and spaces out.

When he takes the stick out again, there is a small flame flickering at the top. He traces circles of fire in the darkness. When that does not burn out the spark, he traces her name in large fire-bright letters.

G-W-E-N.

The letters blur together—the afterimage visible for the blink of an eye before the light fades and he traces the next letter.

Then he does it again with her full name: Guinevere. She is the light in his life. Okay, that is overly sappy, especially for him. He traces her name again faster and the script blurs together.

Midway through her name the third time, the flame fades out. Arthur closes his eyes and tips his head back remembering the feel of her hair, her skin, her breasts, her—

Arthur hears the pop of a stick snapping in two.

It is not from the fire.

It could have been Merlin's chipmunk girlfriend, but Arthur does not think so. One of the horses—Merlin's mare—whinnies, but settles down by the time another breeze rustles the leaves. The horse's lack of concern tells Arthur that it is a person, not a predator.

Well, well, well.

Their shadow is very bold; his audacity is also quite high.

Arthur loops his shoulders back and down, that shifts the tension from his neck, but not the unease that hidden eyes are watching his every move. It is well past time to flush this tracker out into the open. Whoever he is, he is good, but Arthur knows he is better. That is not conceit, it is fact.

The hunter has become the hunted.

Should he make his stand here, or lure the tracker elsewhere?

Arthur takes a swig of water from his water skin and debates. Rousing Merlin would alert the tracker that Arthur is aware of his presence. Plus, a sleep-mussed Merlin in a fight would be laughable, not to mention make him more of a liability than usual. In other words: worthless.

Arthur is convinced their tracker is a single man. So if Merlin remains in dreamland and Arthur draws the tracker away, Arthur can be assured of his manservant's safety.

Lure away it is.

But how? Arthur wipes a dribble of the water off his chin and recaps the water skin. When he does and the water sloshes inside, he gets an idea.

He shakes the water skin to judge how full it is. The liquid splash tells him there is more than half remaining, which should be more than plenty.

Brilliant!

Decision made, Arthur stands, stretches, and circles the camp taking stock. The horses are dozing, unafraid and unconcerned. The wrapped up broom is still secured to his horse's saddle. Merlin continues to snore. The fire crackles on.

Arthur closes his eyes, blocking out the light of the fire for a moment. Then without an apparent care in the world, he slowly wanders into the forest. He does not want the tracker's sound masked by running water, so Arthur heads away from the stream and its trickling babble.

He makes it a point to be noisy—steps on twigs causing them to snap, scuffs his feet, purposefully trips, and then swears twice for good measure. He nearly whistles, but figures that would be too obvious.

Through it all, his tail follows.

Arthur ambles for several minutes with no set destination in mind, letting his eyes adjust to the low light of the moon. Away from the light of the fire, the forest is leached of all color. At first all the trees are painted in blocks of black and white, but the further he goes, the more shades of grey seep in.

About the time his eyes completely adapt to the moonlight he arrives at the small clearing where he caught the rabbit. The ground, illuminated by weak shafts of moonlight peaking through pine and alder, is dappled with gnarly roots and noticeably slopes. It will make for treacherous footing.

It is a deadly fighting ground only the stupid (or the skilled) would claim.

The next order of business is to draw his prey in.

To that end, he seeks out a large alder at the bottom of a small gully. As he descends, he maps out the easiest route for his return up the gentle slope.

Once he reaches the base of the tree, he puts the moon to his back so he casts a shadow on the tree trunk directly in front of his face. While holding his head perfectly still he moves his eyes left and then right. Nothing stirs in the periphery of his vision.

He makes a mock show of unbuckling his belt, but instead of undoing it, he uncaps his water skin, pockets its lid, and lowers the skin to groin level. He tips it over and lets the water leak out in a small stream. It waters the base of the tree like piss.

Arthur keeps his ears sharp and watches for the lazy movement of shadows.

He groans as if he is relieving himself, even goes as far as to tip his head back and sigh over-dramatically.

The stars twinkle merrily above him and he grins up at them, not the least bit sleepy since blood sings through his veins in anticipation. He has been spoiling for a real fight for two days and now he is finally going to get it. With his free hand he tightens his grip on the hilt of his sword, preparing to pull it.

When he straightens and looks at the alder's bark again, he spots a shadow.

The blob—another head—starts large and faint covering the whole trunk and encompassing his own body's shadow, but it steadily shirks and darkens with each silent step of his prey.

Come closer, he wills the shadow.

There is no sound, but his fake pee. Waiting, he forces himself to take several deep breaths to calm his excitement.

Just another step….

The liquid slows to drips and dribbles and he bounces on the balls of his feet. For a whole heartbeat the entire forest waits, watches, and holds its breath. He is power leashed, coiled like a spring. When the water skin is drained completely, he drops it and wheels about drawing his sword in a smooth, practiced motion and charges up the small ridge.

His opponent yanks his own sword out and the man parries Arthur's first strike as if it is water off a duck's feathers.

Next they circle each other as wolves, sizing each other up. He is a good three stone heavier than Arthur, older, wearing leather not mail, and he has a well made sword.

Steel meets steel briefly—a testing. They break apart.

Both life and death balance on the blade of his sword. Arthur bobs in, lands a blow, and bobs back out.

Parry. Upswing.

Side step. Deflect.

His opponent may be as old as his father, but his form is strong, sure, and wily—more than on par with Arthur's.

Backslash. Left. Right. Right.

The shadow is huffing hard, yet more than holding his own.

Left. Right. Left. Left. Right. Left.

The man's attacks are agile and accurate with not a single wasted movement. No mere mercenary would have this self-mastery and discipline. He is fighting another knight, but none of his knights have combat skills this honed.

Lunge. Charge forward.

Who is this knight?

Grunt and step. Step, step, side-swing, and dodge.

When the man glides away like silk, the atmosphere shifts away from a life and death contest to a training lesson. Dancing in the moonlight, Arthur realizes he has not had this much fun in ages.

Spin around.

Duck. Upswing.

Backslash. Weave.

His opponent whirls about and his jacket flares. In shock, Arthur realizes the leather jacket as the same one he had seen hanging on the back of Gaius's door. He pauses too long and has to duck and roll to avoid his opponent's next swing.

High cut. Low slash.

Loop round. Slash. Weave. Cut. The swords clank when they cross. Clank-clank-clank-clang. Clank-clang-clank-clank. The ring of the blades carries through the forest. It has been years since he has faced an opponent who toyed with him so.

"Yield."

"You don't know me," replies Arthur as he charges and swings once, twice, again, and again.

"But I do."

Land a blow. Deflect.

Attack. Rebuff.

Thrust. Side step.

Tired of being toyed with, Arthur takes charge and decides enough is enough. Neither of his next two blows land. Wily bastard! The third does, but it catches the weakened edge and his sword sheers in two.

The awkward cut makes Arthur lose his balance. He feels as if he is fourteen years old again.

Arthur hits the dirt.

He lands heavy, on his stomach and the impact punches the wind out of him. He is only stunned for a split second, but it is too long.

His attacker presses the advantage with a boot to his back.

Arthur spins and kicks, trying to land a futile kick in the hopes he can bring his opponent down with him.

Then the old man chuckles, not unkindly.

"You still have a penchant for attacking directly when you get frustrated, young Prince Arthur."

The pressure on his back disappears. And the man extends a hand to help him up. Arthur takes it.

"Who are you?" Arthur asks getting to his feet.

"Come now, Wart, don't tell me you've forgotten all your betters."

Now he is fourteen years old.

"Sir Ector?"

Bemused and bewildered, Arthur finds himself in a bear hug. Ector gives him two hearty thumps on his back before releasing him.

"It really is you."

"In the flesh."

Sure there are more lines and wrinkles on his face and silver now weaves though his once dark hair, but the years have been kind to his former instructor.

"You'll be needing a new sword," Sir Ector comments.

"I will."

"Here," Ector offers, "take mine."

"Thank you, but what're you doing here?" Arthur blurts out.

"Wondering much the same of you," Sir Ector says toeing the remains of Arthur's ruined sword.

"What do you mean?"

"You're marching in the wrong direction, son."

"I'm not lost."

"Oh, but you are. When a druid asks to speak with you, you swallow your pride, observe the courtesies, and go find out what he has to say."

"You couldn't possibly know about that."

"Is that so?"

"Don't you dare 'is that so' me."

"It's a fitting thing to ask when another insists on doing something stupid."

"I'm not stupid."

"Head like an ox, maybe. Block-headed, perhaps. Jolt-headed."

"A dollop-head?"

Ector snorts. "As good of a word as any. But we both know you're not. You weren't when you played with blunt training swords, and I figure you wouldn't be now. Which is why Elsa and I convinced Iseldir to contact you."

"You?"

"Good old me."

"Why?"

"To see if you'd come. Or run away. And boy-o, you're running so hard and so fast you don't know where to."

"Am not."

"Where are you going then?"

"To Caerleon."

"And what are you going to do once you're there?"

"We have a treaty," Arthur insists, but when the words leave his lips, it sounds so feeble. Was all his work to present at the council, and to convince his father for naught?

"You're going to plead? Grovel?"

"No."

"Beg?"

"No."

"Take the charity?"

"I have the gold to pay for it."

"Gold will buy you many things, but it won't buy you respect. Sure your people'll have food, and you'll get by this winter, but what about the next? And the next? And the one after that? You'll still have the same problem you had before you stepped one pretty little toe outside Camelot's walls."

"And what problem is that exactly?"

"Same problem your father has—sorcery."

"You're the one who ran away because Elsa was a witch."

"I made a choice, Arthur. I stood up to Uther and said he was wrong. I have lived with those consequences and would do it again a thousand times over. Sorcery isn't bad, or evil, and neither are all the people who use it. They want things, same as you. You fight with a sword, they fight with spells."

"That's not true, they kill for sport."

"They're killing to survive, which is no different than catching a rabbit for dinner."

"No, it not. It's…." Arthur fumbles in the dark for the right words. "It's—"

"It's no different. It is all hide 'n seek, or hunt 'n kill to Uther. The fight for magic boils down to three sides: those who wield it, those who are afraid of it, and those who will fight for it. Iseldir's prepared to offer you a way to feed your people and it won't cost you a single coin."

"What does he want in return?"

"Go," Ector leans in close, "and ask him."

With that Ector wraps his cloak tightly about himself and leaves the clearing as silently as he entered. Arthur has to admit that he has just been expertly flushed out by a master.

When Arthur wanders back into camp, the fire is nothing but low coals and embers. Merlin, blissfully asleep, lies on his back. Mouth half open, soft whistling sighs follow the rise and fall of his chest. Arthur crouches and rests his hand on Merlin's shoulder. This close he can see Merlin's eyes twitch and flicker rapidly behind closed lids.

He is dreaming.

He wonders what Merlin dreams of? Is the entirety of his manservant's hopes and dreams really to mend Arthur's socks?

Arthur snorts. If he woke him, Arthur supposes he could ask.

What does Arthur dream of?

Of late, he has not.

What kind of world does he want to live in? What does Camelot represent? And above all, what does he stand for?

It would be a hard day's ride to meet the druid before the allotted time is gone, but they are far enough to the north now that they could skirt Camelot entirely. That would make up some time. If he pushes the horses, they would probably make it.

Even though it is late enough now to rouse Merlin, he does not. He lets Merlin sleep the night away.

Arthur, wide awake, also lets himself dream.

-oOo- Morgause -oOo-

The first time I heard Arthur Pendragon's name, I was eleven.

It had been six years since my magic first manifested, five since the war against Camelot began and my mother arrived on the Isle of the Blessed, and two since I formally began my study of the Old Religion.

The True Religion.

Nimueh, the High Priestess, and most of the Bloodguard had left the Isle early that summer to solidify an alliance with Bayard of Mercia.

Late one hot summer night, an old man came to visit my mother. He snuck in and startled her. It was my mother's yelp which woke me, but it was the buzz of voices that prompted me to scramble out of bed.

Peeking around the corner, I could see that the man was old, even older (and more wrinkly) than some of the druids who came for feasts, rites, and ceremonies. His crinkly hair—nearly all white—brushed the shoulders of his russet robes.

"Dunne," I casted.

The spell pulled the shadows tightly about me to hide. I was secure enough in my burgeoning talents to know that I would be next to invisible as long as I stayed quiet as a mouse. I tip-toed slowly into the main room we used for dinner and study, keeping my back securely against the wall.

Once Mother's shock wore off, she asked, "The Isle's warded, how did you get in?"

"Even after all these years, I still have a trick or two up my sleeve, Vivienne." His sleeves were ratty tattered things. They were nothing in comparison to the majestic robes of the Isle's priests. "Are we alone?"

Mother's gaze briefly slid to where I was standing. "Do you see anyone but me here?"

"I do not," he replied.

"It's not safe for you to be here."

"It's not my safety that worries me. It's Morgana's."

That got my mother's attention and she ushered him closer—to the side of the room farthest from me.

"…. news do you have of m… …ughter?"

"I fear she's grow… into …er mag…"

Who were they talking about? I had to strain to hear what they were saying, but even then I only heard every other word.

"She's too young," Mother replied. "Surely y… m….taken."

To eavesdrop on their conversation better, I flicked my wrist and whispered, "Heorcne." The spell unfurled about me in a warm embrace.

"She's only six," my mother continued and I could hear her every word as if she were cradling me in her arms. "She shouldn't have any magic at all."

"I fear she does," the stranger said.

"How do you know?"

"She woke screaming of fire about a month and a half ago," the old man said. "Even Elsa couldn't calm her after the nightmare. It happened the next night and again the following. She refuses to sleep and Gorlois insisted I give her something to ease the anxiety."

"You suspect she is having visions?"

"I do," he confirmed.

"Why come all this way to tell me?"

"I am not certain I can keep the secret of her magic from Gorlois much longer."

"You mean Uther." When the man didn't object Mother laughed. It was hollow. "Everything turns on Uther's hatred of magic, doesn't it?"

"If you love your daughter, let me bring her to you."

I had a sister?

"No, I left her there for a reason. Morgana belongs with her father in Camelot."

"It won't help if—"

"Tell me," Mother interrupted the man. "What did she see in her vision?"

"She dreams of a pyre and a woman burning."

"Is it in the courtyard of Camelot just before a storm breaks?"

"How could you know that?"

"Ector will tie me to the pyre," she continued.

Gaius gasped. "It's you?"

Mother nodded. "I'll be dressed in rags. Gorlois and Uther as well as Morgana and Arthur will be on the balcony. Uther will command the blaze to be lit. My hair will fly madly about in the wind until it too catches fire. I've see it from every angle—scired it in crystals, gazed it in countless mirrors, watched it shimmer in the surface of water pools. I dream that future every night in my dreams."

"Your bracelet cannot mask it?"

"I'm glad it does not." Mother twisted the metal band about her wrist. "You said Morgana's nightmare started over a month ago?" Mother asked.

"They did."

"Was her first dream the night of Midsummer?"

"Indeed."

Mother seemed almost relieved. "That was the night we took a cutting from the Great Rowan at the center of the Isle to create the Tree of Life."

It had been a majestic ritual. And the first one I'd been old enough to attend. Nimueh and Iseldir, the druid the High Priestess brought to the island to help perform the ceremony, took the cutting with magic. As they did, every man, woman, and child on the Isle—hundreds and hundreds of us—bowed before them in submission mingling our power with theirs. It was incredible, the power overwhelming. The High Priestess then charged the Bloodguard with the task of protecting it day and night. No one was to touch it until it matured.

The man was aghast. "Who convinced the druids to aid in the ceremony?

"I did. Well, with Talieson's help."

"You found the Crystal Cave?"

"It was the first place I went when I fled Camelot after Arthur's birth."

"Vivienne, why?"

"To stop an even worse fate."

"What could possibly be worse?"

"Gaius, we upset the balance of life and magic more than we ever thought when we asked Nimueh to give Uther Pendragon a son."

"The debt was paid," the man insisted.

"How? When I gave my first born daughter to Nimueh to raise? We—all four of us, Nimueh, me, Alice, you—believed a child for a child would be sufficient payment."

A fair bargain, I thought until I realized that child could only be one person.

Me!

Anger bloomed and clawed at my heart. In that moment, I hated my mother more than I had hated anything in my life. My mother sold me in order to give some arrogant king a squalling princeling. I had to bite my fist to keep from screaming.

"It was folly to try and determine the price," Gaius said.

"As we learned the hard way when Ygraine died in childbed," Mother agreed.

A life for a life. Fate always determines its own price, I thought and blinked away the tears that stung my eyes. My anger twisted into satisfaction that Mother's grand plan backfired. I removed my fist before I could draw blood.

"We thought we were so wise," Mother lamented. "We thought we understood all there was to understand about magic. We didn't."

"You believe Uther's war against magic wasn't punishment enough?"

"Not anywhere close. We meddled too much. It is a debt we handed down to our children. There must be balance, Gaius, and the balance of the world shifts like the seasons. You may choose to forget or deny the truth with your physicians work, but I know deep down you still believe."

Mother turned away, she sorted through a pile of books stacked on top of our rickety table that I had taken from the Isle's sacred library for study and came away with a leather bound volume titled Magic's Return.

"Here," Mother thrust the book at Gaius. "This will help explain."

She helped him leaf through the book. They stopped at a section somewhere in the middle of the book that I hadn't yet gotten to.

He read the passage she pointed to aloud: "Unlike the Cup of Life which bestows life on an individual, the Tree of Life holds the ultimate power over the life and death of an entire land. Only a scion of the royal house of Pendragon can root a seedling Tree of Life. The staff carries its own power and its planting will herald the coming of the golden age of Albion and magic will return to the land. First the scion will need to be blessed by the love found in the Ring of Life." He put the book down and asked. "What is the Ring of Life?"

"Who can say?" Mother shrugged. "A circle, a chain, a ring, or perhaps a bracelet."

"You don't know where it is?"

"I do not. Take the book with you when you go, Gaius. Study it and perhaps you will find the answer."

Gaius nodded and returned to scan the page. He read silently this time, but did move his lips like an unstudied child. "How is the vision of your execution tied to the Tree of Life?" he asked when he finished.

"At the end I swore to Ygraine that I would protect her son as if he were my own. And my death will ensure the ground beneath the pyre will be fertile."

The rage in my chest returned full force and then, curiously, numbed. Mother didn't return to the Isle for me as she told me. She returned to create and steal the Tree of Life. In that moment I knew she would always champion Arthur Pendragon over me.

"You believe this is what is meant to be."

"Until the day our children's great-grandchildren have passed from the earth and the pendulum swings the other way. Then magic will become no more than the myth of legends shrouded in the mist. Gaius, since we will not speak again, I would like to ask a favor." She took up both of his hands and gripped them tight. "When it happens—because it will and there is nothing you can do to stop it—make sure Morgana isn't there. Don't let her know it's me."

"Vivienne, I will do my best, but—"

"No daughter should have to watch their mother murdered. Promise me, Gaius. Promise."

"I promise," he replied and then kissed the back of her hand as if she were a real high-born lady, instead of a commoner.

"I am forever in your debt." In farewell, Mother kissed Gaius on both his sagging cheeks—ew! "Sweeten the taste of the valerian root with clover honey and occasionally add the tiniest drop of pennyroyal."

"The honey will sweeten the draft to make it more palatable, but what will the pennyroyal do apart from potentially poison her?"

"Suppress the visions and her magic."

"I couldn't."

My mother's voice was as cold as iron. "If you wish to protect her, you will do it."

"It would be…."

Treasonous. Nimueh had taught me that it was a sin to inhibit another's magical talent. My poor sister.

"Is the guilt from turning our kind over to Uther sneaking up on you, Gaius?"

That ruffled the old man's feathers so much he puffed up, affronted. "I did what I could."

"Which was just enough to ensure you stayed unnoticed."

"I protected Elsa," he growled, "I snuck Balinor away to Ealdor, and struck Alice's name off Uther's list."

"Yes, which is why you will also do this to help protect Morgana. I will bid you goodnight now and trust that you can find your way off the Isle. Unnoticed."

"I seem to have a talent for it," he agreed wryly. "Goodbye, my lady."

The doddering old man departed. He shouldn't be allowed to wander freely about the Isle, but who could I tell? No one would possibly believe me. The only thing I could do was hope he was captured, or drowned crossing the lake.

"Morgause."

I froze, not breathing, not moving, not thinking.

"Morgause, child, I know you are there." She gazed directly at me. "Your ward is well crafted, but I can see through it."

With the flick of a wrist I canceled the spell and stepped out of the false gloom. I made sure not to look at my feet, or show any sign of guilt. After all, Vivienne was the one plotting treason.

"Did you both know I was here?"

"Only I."

I am already far more powerful than my mother, but she has an adeptness of all things related to sight that I fear I may never master.

"You heard the whole conversation?" she asked.

I didn't bother to deny it. "Morgana is my sister?"

"Your half-sister," Vivienne informed me. "And she is the only other person besides Arthur Pendragon who can wield the Tree of Life."

"So she is the one who will save magic?"

She smiled softly. "Time will tell."

She took me by the hand—her bracelet banged on the bright red teeth marks still fresh on my hand—and tucked me into bed.

Perhaps Vivienne did know where the Ring of Life was. She was wearing it.

The next autumn, when she returned from Mercia, I went to Nimueh and begged to become her apprentice and acolyte. When I told her of Vivienne's plans for the Tree of Life, she said it was my destiny to become her heir, and so when the self-righteous knights of Camelot arrived to destroy the island, none of the true believers were caught.

After all, if my mother could trade a child for a child, then I could trade a mother for a mother.

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

Merlin jabs Arthur on the shoulder to wake him. "It's morning, my lord."

When Arthur cracks open his eyes he can see that, indeed, the morning is newly dawned. When had he lain down? And when had he fallen asleep?

"Are you awake?" Merlin asks and claps his hands together in overexcited glee. He clearly got an overabundance of sleep the night before. "We have places to go and kings to please."

"Sleep to catch and servants to maim," Arthur grumbles closing his eyes again.

"Do I need to dump river water over your head in order to make sure you're not going to fall asleep again?"

"I'm not in the mood, Merlin."

"When are you ever?"

Arthur grunts nonsense, hoping Merlin would go away.

"Then again," Merlin continues. "There was that one time at your last birthday feast when you'd drunk too much cider and you—"

"I'm up. I'm up." Arthur hauls himself to his feet. "Must you always be so annoyingly chipper in the morning?"

"Yep."

"Then you've accomplished your job."

"Do my ears deceive me?"

"Yours are big enough, I'm sure you heard me just fine."

"That was another compliment." Merlin beams.

"No, it wasn't."

"I'm sure it was a backhanded one."

"Go… go saddle the horses or–"

"Already done."

Sure enough his stallion and Merlin's mare are awake and grazing in the grass awaiting their riders. All of their other belongings are packed and ready for departure too.

"Get me some breakfast then."

Merlin shoves a hunk of bread in his face. "I figured you'd want to eat as we rode."

"Probably best," Arthur agrees and heads towards the horses. Arthur checks to make sure Gwen's broom has not been disturbed, secures Sir Ector's blade on his belt, and mounts.

Merlin follows.

When Arthur wheels his horse so he faces the rising sun, Merlin asks. "Where are you going?"

"East," he tells Merlin. "We are going east to meet this druid." Arthur kicks his horse into a gallop, so he cannot see Merlin's smirk.

-oOo-

The day develops into a warm, muggy afternoon; one where there is a storm boiling just over the horizon promising thunder and lightening. If the downpour does not come that evening it would come the morning after.

Summer is dying.

And with it the chance to feed the people of Camelot.

When they reach the babbling brook, twilight is settling over the forest. "We'll go the rest of the way on foot," Arthur tells Merlin, as he dismounts. "Secure the horses. I'll bury my chest of gold."

It is not the best solution, but he is not about to leave his personal fortune where any passing mercenaries could raid it. The horses, while valuable, could be replaced.

"What about the Tree of Life?" Merlin asks after he as finished tying his horse to a nearby willow.

Arthur has forgotten about it completely. "What about it?"

"We can't just leave it here."

"I'll bury it too."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Merlin complains as he reaches for the reigns of Arthur's horse.

"We're not going to be here more than a few hours."

"The druid could tell you what to do with it."

Privately, Arthur did not think that the druid would be much interested in what is really inside, but once Merlin sinks his teeth into an argument, no amount of distraction could put him off.

"Fine. We'll take it with us. You'll carry it."

Arthur buries the gold and then sets about looking for signs and trails.

He finds the boot prints (and horse dung) Leon and his party left behind when they were here three days ago, but they are faint and already fading from view. Arthur is debating the merits of crossing to the other side of the river to search for the druid when he spies the fresh tracks.

"Admit it," Merlin says, when Arthur heads back up the hill and the path they had just descended.

"That I'm an excellent tracker. I certainly will. My prowess is renowned throughout the kingdom."

"Not what I meant."

"Then what?"

"Admit that we're lost."

"I'm not lost."

"Of course not, sire."

Arthur rounds on Merlin. "That reeked of insolence."

Merlin rolls his eyes. "We've been walking for over an hour. Admit it."

"I'm headed in the correct direction now." Arthur tromps directly through a low bush of lavender and steps off the path. "Got a bit turned around for a while, but I'm back on the right track."

Ten minutes, and ten complains from Merlin, later Arthur parts a section of grasses that reach above his head and finds what he is looking for—a low cave opening hewn out of rock. Smack in the center of the opening is a gray haired man sitting cross-legged on the ground.

"Welcome, Arthur Pendragon," the druid greets him smoothly as he stands and comes forward.

Arthur edges forward cautiously while Merlin loiters behind. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir."

"My name is Iseldir and we have met before."

"In battle?"

"No."

Arthur searches his memory. The only other time he has met a druid was when he…. "You were in the party that took Mordred."

"Indeed. You were kind enough to return Mordred to our care."

"How is he?"

"I did not ask you here to speak of the boy."

"Then for what?"

"Because I knew your friend would come with you."

"My friend?" Arthur is confused. Wait a minute… "Merlin? You mean Merlin."

Arthur expects Merlin to prance about with a quip along the lines of 'the world doesn't revolve around you', but the jest never crosses his lips. When Arthur spins around, he sees a pole-axed expression on his manservant's face. Merlin thumps his fingers on his breastbone and mouths the word 'me' and 'no' over and over again.

"What could you possibly want of Merlin?" Arthur asks. "He's just my servant."

"Emrys," the druid says.

What the bloody hell is an 'Emrys'?

Merlin proceeds to take two halting steps backwards and stumble like a klutz onto the ground. The sheet-wrapped wood falls to the ground with him.

"Are you all right?" Arthur asks, going back to offer him a hand up.

Merlin does not take his hand because his gaze is glued to the druid. Arthur drops his hand to his side, worried.

The two are locked in a battle of wills and from the play of emotions—suspicion, fear, then reluctance—that flicker across Merlin's face, it is like they are having a silent conversation Arthur cannot hear.

Which is absurd.

Can you do that with magic?

He does not even know for sure. Arthur twitches to draw Ector's sword to put a stop to their silent argument, but before he can, the druid opens both his hands palms up and holds them wide in a gesture of waiting. Merlin loses the argument when he drops his eyes to the dirt and picks up what he had dropped.

The druid nods, satisfied.

"The time has come," Iseldir says to Arthur. "Follow me when you are ready." The druid enters the cave and is lost to its darkness a few seconds later.

"What did he say to you?" Arthur demands once they are alone.

"Did you hear him say anything?"

Arthur taps the side of Merlin's head. "In here."

"Arthur, I…" Merlin trails off.

"Tell me."

"Sire," Merlin says and stands, squaring his shoulders. "It has been an honor being your servant."

"Excuse me?"

"It has been an hon—"

"You're quitting? You're leaving me to join the druids?" All Arthur can see is red. Of all the ungrateful…. "What happened to it's 'our destiny'? What happened to—"

"My lord—"

"—you protect me? Even though you don't. Okay, so you saved my life a time or two. That's why my father gave you the job in the first place—he was fed up with me because I refused to take on a new servant. And I couldn't refuse you. Yes, then there was the time with the poisoned chalice, but to—"

"Sire—"

"—leave me for no good reason is rude, even for a servant as wretchedly bad as yourself. You can barely darn my socks without making more holes."

"I'm horrible at it," Merlin agrees.

"See, even you agree. But who else can I find to bring my dinner, wake me up in the morning, and keep my secrets? Even when we first met, you weren't afraid to speak your mind, as appallingly stupid as you were. No other servant I've ever had would talk back to me. You're the one who's been with me the longest, even though you hate every minute of it. I can change, I swear I can. I'm not going to rule like my father. I need y…." The final word of his plea gets stuck somewhere between his heart and mouth, leaving his tongue tied.

"Arthur, I am not going anywhere."

"Oh." That takes the wind out of his sails. "You're not?"

Merlin shakes his head. "No, and I won't unless…"

"Unless what?"

"Unless you want me to."

"Well, I don't."

Before Arthur can think of something else stupid and emotional to confess, Merlin asks, "Are we going to find out what the druid has to say?"

"That's what we're here for." Arthur strides for the cave, but Merlin does not make a move to accompany him. "Aren't you coming?"

"I always do."

Arthur ducks low to keep his head from banging against the rock. Merlin trails behind. Five steps in, the ground starts to slope gently downwards, but the cave's ceiling banks even more sharply. They nearly have to crouch in order to keep on.

Just before it is necessary to get onto all fours and crawl, the tunnel opens up into a larger chamber.

The druid is waiting with two torches. One is lit. The other is not.

Iseldir waves his hand over the top of the second. "Forbearnan." The druid's eyes glow momentarily yellow and then are outshined by the burst of flame that sparks up without the use of pitch. Iseldir offers the newly lit torch to Arthur.

"It looks just like normal fire," Arthur says taking it.

"Fire is fire," Iseldir informs him.

"Like life is life?" Arthur asks, figuring that Sir Ector would be proud of him.

"Very good."

Arthur raises his torch high to illuminate as much of the chamber as he can. There are craggy edges and sharp rocky points, but they have reached a dead end. There is no where further to go.

"Ic i íewe hordgeat."

The words echo in the chamber and the hair on the back of Arthur's neck stands up when the spell Iseldir cast reveals a wooden door hewn into the solid rock. The druid opens the door and on the other side stairs descend into gloomy shadows. Arthur decides to leave the door open when he follows Iseldir and Merlin down the stairs.

When the shadows play tricks on his eyes, Arthur is grateful for the torch.

The farther down the trio goes, the more damp and musty the cave smells. Stalactites grow thicker and more numerous above their heads. Moisture beads up on the walls and drips from the stalactites, Arthur figures that deep down in the recesses of this cave, there is an underground spring.

Every so often there is a small landing where another tunnel forks off in rabbit warren fashion, but they continue to go down. Finally, the path bottoms out and when they round the corner the cave gapes open into a gigantic cavern.

There is a giant stone plinth fifteen steps from the staircase. As they pass Merlin leans the wrapped up sheet at its base.

The floor of the cave turns rocky and that leads to a large pool of water than stretches out as far as the torchlight carries. The still surface is deceptively calm. When Arthur toes his boot in the water, the ripple makes his fire-lit reflection dance in the rings.

Iseldir leans his torch against the plinth and comes to stand next to him on the shore. "This water is the life's blood of Camelot," he says.

"It connects to the aquifer?" Arthur asks. He had no idea that there was a second entrance. He, Merlin, and Morgana had taken the other when they have vanquished the Afanc.

"Everything is connected in a delicate balance: life, death, you, me, kings, sorcerers. Blood and water."

It is a heroic feat, but Arthur manages not to roll his eyes. Just barely. If Sir Ector sent him here for a lesson in the basics of magic, the bruises of their midnight fight were not worth it.

"The Tree of Life," the druid continues, "was recently removed from the Isle of the Blessed. It was felt in Camelot. It was planted improperly and so it did not root."

Arthur considers lying for a brief moment, but in the end decides to go with the truth. "Our court physician is researching ways to destroy it."

"And has Gaius determined why that would be unwise?"

Arthur is incredulous. "You know Gaius?"

"Gaius may no longer be a friend of the druids, but there was a time before your birth when he was. What has his research revealed?"

"That Camelot would be destroyed."

"That is only partly true. Camelot and its walls would still stand, but you would die, leaving Camelot without an acknowledged heir. The city would fall to ruin short years after your father wasted away. Everything the king has worked for over the past twenty years would be obliterated.

"I created the Tree of Life for one purpose and one purpose only. To see it planted in Camelot so banished magic could return. The Tree is tied to you Arthur Pendragon in more ways than you could possibly know."

"What do you want me to do?" Arthur asks.

"Plant it." The solemnity in his voice is as serious as Geoffrey of Monmouth presiding over a ceremony. "Nourish it," Iseldir says as he pulls a goblet from his robes, "with blood, and love, and water."

Merlin gasps. "That's the Cup of Life."

"Indeed it is."

The goblet is made of polished sliver, which shines brightly in the light. It has a simple bowl for the cup, a tapered stem, and three pronged feet at its base.

"How did you get it?" Merlin asks.

Instead of answering the question, the druid holds the Cup out. "Fill it," Iseldir instructs Merlin.

"Me?"

The druid gazes intently at Merlin for an overly long moment. Aloud he says, "You must hurry. There is not much time."

Reluctantly, Merlin stalks forward, takes the Cup of Life, crouches at the water's edge, and dunks the lip of the chalice into the pool.

"Thank you," Iseldir says accepting the chalice back and cradling it using both his hands. Arthur peers into the cup and expects it to turn purple, or shimmer, or at the very least smoke, roil, and bubble. It is just plain, boring water. The druid closes his eyes in prayer, brings the Cup of Life reverently to his lips, and drinks the liquid.

"What happens now?" Arthur asks Iseldir.

"We wait."

"For what?" He asks, but that is when he hears it—the clomp of footfalls. "Someone's coming down the stairs," Arthur tells the other two.

"The High Priestess. She breached my wards halfway through our decent."

"Is this an ambush?" Merlin demands sharply. It is the same harsh tone of voice he used in the alcove with Morgana.

"It is not."

"Who breached them?" Arthur asks, bewildered. No one knew they were coming, except Sir Ector. And Arthur cannot believe his old teacher would betray him.

"Morgause," Merlin tells him.

Arthur does not understand. "How would she know we were here?"

The footsteps grow louder, closer. The intruders are close enough now that Arthur can see a faint glow of light getting stronger and stronger with every passing second.

Arthur draws Ector's sword and grips it tight. He has steel in one hand, fire in the other when Morgause sweeps into the chamber as if she owns it.

"Well. Well. Well." Morgause drawls, delighted. "What have we interrupted?"

Arthur's eyes bug out when Morgana picks her way through the rocky path towards the shore behind Morgause.

"You can't be here," Morgana says to Arthur. She is just as surprised to see him as he is to see her. "The trace I set," she says to Morgause and points at Arthur's sword, "tells me he's miles from here."

"Don’t worry about it, sweet sister," Morgause tells her. "This is a stroke of good luck. We may have failed to take Camelot, but now we have the Prince."

"Merlin too," Morgana comments.

"Both of them," she agrees.

It slots together in flashes: Morgana's miraculous return, Morgana's victory over the dead during the battle, Morgana pumping him for information about the Tree of Life, the conversation he overheard between Merlin and Morgana, Merlin's hints the night before, and Morgana's presence here in the cave confirms it.

"You are the traitor!" Arthur blurts out.

"I am." Morgana smirks. "Bewæpne," she spells and her eyes turn a horrible golden yellow as the sword leaps out of Arthur's grip and flies across the cavern. Morgana catches it with ease.

Arthur is helpless without the sword; he has nothing to fight with.

Merlin, damn him, steps between him and Morgana. "Merlin," Arthur growls. "Get out of the way."

"I can't do that, Arthur."

Morgause laughs. "You have no power to stop us," she taunts Merlin.

"Emrys," the druid addresses Merlin from behind as he sets the Cup of Life delicately on the ground at his feet. "Why do you hesitate? Prince Arthur is not the only man who must own up to his destiny."

Merlin turns to Arthur and says, "I hope you will forgive me."

"For wh—"

All hell breaks loose when Merlin yells, "Lyfte ic þe in balwen ac forhienan se wideor!" An invisible gale blows the fire from Iseldir's discarded torch in a billowing streak towards the women.

Holy shit!

Arthur drops his own torch.

In shock, Morgana drops to her knees and loses the sword. Morgause's eyes fill with magic and she pushes the flame back at Merlin with another spell. Volleys of light burst from Merlin's hands, and fireballs from Morgause's.

Magic pulses—orange, red, fire-yellow—streak through the cave. One of the pulses has a glare that is so blindingly hot and bright that Arthur has to cover his eyes with his sleeve for a moment.

"Ástríce!"

"Forbærne! Ácwele!"

"Cume her fyrbryne."

Fire streaks across the air and a smoky haze fills the cavern. Singeing blasts whip about over his head as Merlin and Morgause are locked in combat.

"Ástríce!"

"Ácwele!"

"Forbærne!"

Arthur is surrounded on all sides by magic. He can no longer tell who—Morgause, Merlin, Iseldir, or Morgana—is yelling what. Errant balls of fire smash the walls, the plinth, the lake, the ceiling.

Morgana sends a barrage towards Iseldir. The druid is too busy aiming an attack at Morgause to see it. Arthur barrels towards him. They splash knee deep into the lake, and successfully avoid the blast.

BOOM!

The deafening roar of magic blocks out all other sound as the ceiling of the cave explodes. One of the large stalactites right over their heads breaks apart and the rock pours down from above. Arthur successfully manages to dodge the plunging boulder, but the druid is not so lucky. Arthur can only watch as the rock and debris pummel Iseldir. The druid goes under and does not come back up.

Merlin's raw, gut-wrenching scream fills the cave and then there is an echoing silence.

Sopping wet boots and clothes dragging him down, Arthur manages to crawl out of the lake. He stumbles over more fallen rocks while dust and filth fall like rain.

Morgause, hand extended, stands over him.

"Slápe."

Arthur cannot control it when he grows weak and collapses. His head lolls to the side and as his eyes flutter closed. The last thing he sees is Iseldir's dead body floating in the lake, his blood mixing in the water.

-oOo- Uther -oOo-

The first time I let Arthur see the evils of magic, he was six.

We stood on the balcony overlooking the courtyard with the pyre and a mass of courtiers and peasants below. In order to see the people Arthur, cape snapping in the breeze, balanced on his toes and clutched the railing instead of peaking through the gaps of the carved stone cutwork as he did throughout the summer.

Gorlois stood to our right, expression cold and unyielding, an echo of the late autumn weather. The winds, busy brewing a storm, picked up as we waited for the execution to commence.

Arthur squirmed from foot to foot trying to give himself more height.

"Do not fidget," I reminded him.

He immediately ceased.

Then the deep, steady beat of the drums began and drowned out the murmurings of the crowd.

Sir Ector and two of his guards manhandled the witch—I refused to think of her as anything else regardless of the past—to the pyre. She tripped twice along the way, but didn't struggle even as she was roped to the stake. Her long, blonde hair completely let down from its normal braids and styling whipped in the wind and her red dress, once regal, was ripped and smudged with dirt from the past fortnight in the dungeons. Despite that her beauty, painfully similar to Ygraine's, was unmistakable.

"Did you not offer her other clothes?" I asked Gorlois.

"She refused them."

Obstinate to the end then.

"Who is she, father?" Arthur asked.

"No one of importance," I reply.

Gorlois cleared his throat and told Arthur, "She is an enemy of Camelot who would see all your father has worked for destroyed."

"What'd she do?" Arthur asked me.

The drums stopped abruptly, which saved me from answering as the guards finished securing her. If only she hadn't been on the Isle of the Blessed when it had finally been taken, then she wouldn't have forced my hand. It is of little comfort that she will die unnamed, unknown, and unremembered; probably more of a comfort to me than Gorlois.

"Watch and listen," I commanded Arthur.

Clearing my throat and raising my voice, I addressed the entire courtyard. "Loyal citizens of Camelot, the crime of sorcery is punishable only with death. The laws also state that those caught aiding those who wrongly champion magic, name themselves just as just guilty and are subject to the same punishment. Witch, I am capable of mercy, and offer you this one last chance for clemency. Denounce magic, those who use it, and state once and for all that Camelot's strength lies in the destruction of the Old Religion."

Silence stretched and I held my breath along with the entire crowd. I'm offering you a way to live, take it, you damnable woman.

When she finally spoke her voice carried clear as a bell: "I am a seer." My breath left me in a gasp. She can't mean it. She shouldn't have hidden it all these years. "And I have dreamt that one day magic will be welcomed in Camelot. We will unite under one banner. That king is not you, Uther Pendragon. Kill me and you seal magic's fate."

"She's sealed her own fate," Gorlois said quietly to me. "Do it."

I gave the signal to light the pyre. I watched her say something to Ector and he replied. She ignored the fire as it spread and instead watched the balcony. At first I thought she was staring up at Gorlois waiting for him to intervene, but when Gorlois backed off a few steps and turned away, her gaze didn't waver.

It was me—me and Arthur—she focused on until the smoke and screams took her.

When the smell of her burning flesh hit, Arthur broke his pose, covered his nose, and ducked below the railing. I put my palms on Arthur's shoulders to steady him and drew him up against me. "This is a lesson on how to rule, Arthur. Do not show your emotions. Have the courage to not look away. Show no weakness. You must always protect Camelot, at any cost."

The smoke billowed up and up before curling as the wind took it. The stench was light in comparison to the purge fires.

When the conversation of the people below began to mask out the crackling of the dying fire, I motioned for the guards to disperse the people.

Gorlois stepped again to my side. "My lord, may I tend to my daughter?"

"Of course," I dismissed him knowing our inevitable conversation that evening would require a large supply of alcohol. He left without a backwards glance.

I then knelt to Arthur's level. "Sorcery will destroy Camelot if we are not vigilant. If we do not stamp it out, it will plague our borders and our people forever."

"I will defend Camelot against magic," Arthur replied.

"That is a prince's duty, very good. Sir Ector will be pleased."

"He will?"

"What you witnessed today took courage and as a reward tomorrow you will start your formal training with the knights."

"With a sword, and mace, and knife, and crossbow, and horse 'n lance, and footwork practice, and everything just like a real knight?"

I chuckled. "Perhaps not all at once, son."

With a wide smile, his face was as bright as a freshly lit candle. How I envied his childhood excitement—a woman's love and a warrior's battle had not yet had the chance to corrupt him.

"You must become the best and strongest knight in all of the kingdom."

"Me?"

"I know you will. Nothing less will be worthy of a prince."

I stood upright, took Arthur's small hand in my own, and guided him into the heart of the palace. I would make Arthur into the king all of Camelot revered. When I glanced over my shoulder one last time, no more smoke hung in the air and the threatened rain started to fall.

Both fire and magic would be quenched.

-oOo-

That night I did not wait for him to come to me. I knocked on Gorlois's chamber door while a servant with several carafes of ale hovered behind me.

"Sire," Gorlois said haggardly, but held the door open for me and the servant. He'd shed his armor and was dressed informally.

No matter the hour, or situation, he never refused me.

After the servant left, I took the decanter and poured out two generous portions into pewter mugs. There was no fire in the grate. Only sconces on the wall and a lone candle on the table illuminated the room.

"Here, drink."

He took the mug without a word. And I waited for him to speak. Eventually he settled in the seat across the table from me while the howling wind outside turned the rain to snow. Gorlois drank a large mouthful, wiped his chin, and scooted his chair back a few inches.

"I have a request, Uther."

After what he sacrificed today I would grant him anything. "You need only ask."

"I've wanted to ask this for many months…" he trailed off.

I gestured for him to continue with a tilt of my mug.

"It's about Morgana." he finally said. The mug—halfway to my mouth—hit the table with a heavy thunk.

"What is it you'd like?"

"When Vivienne vanished six years ago, I hoped she would be recovered and put this off. When we found her on the Isle, I hoped she would see reason for Morgana's sake, but she didn't. In these last few weeks, it became clear to me that I never knew her at all. No wife would betray her husband in such a way."

"What passed between you in the dungeons?" I asked, unable to look him in the eyes. I'd barely drunk enough, but was starting to feel sickness stir in my stomach.

"She blamed you for Ygraine's death, for Tristan's death. She blamed me for standing by and letting it happen. She babbled on about setting the future in motion."

"Were you able to figure out what she'd planned?" I asked.

"All she would say was that in her dreams she'd seen that crumbling of the citadel's west wall would herald the return of magic to Camelot."

"Our walls are impregnable."

"Even so, I can't put this off any longer. I am all my daughter has left and if anything should happen to me on this next campaign at Cornwall."

"Nothing will. We've planned it well," I replied.

"You know as well as I that even the best tactics can turn against you in the midst of battle. Nothing turns out they way you expect. So, should the reinforcements not arrive, I want to make sure Morgana is well taken care of. Promise me, Uther, that she will grow up safe from magic and than none of her mother's taint will touch her."

"Gorlois…."

"Promise me."

"It isn't necessary. You know I would—"

"Nothing short of your word will satisfy."

Arthur, my golden boy, will inherit the best of me—Camelot—and the best of Ygraine—innocence, while Morgana, my shadow, will inherit the worst of me—a father's guilt—and the worst of Vivienne—lies.

"I shall treat her as my own daughter. Always."

Gorlois's wide shoulders relaxed. "Thank you," he said and drained the rest of the ale.

"I will also have Geoffrey seal all records of Vivienne's duplicity on the morrow. Morgana will never know."

"I would do the same for Arthur."

"There is no one else with whom I would trust my son."

Gorlois poured himself another and then raised his mug in toast. "We did what was required for our children. Here is to the death of the three de Bois siblings—Ygraine, Tristan, and Vivienne."

I met him halfway and added, "May they allow the living to rest in peace."

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

Arthur's mind crawls to consciousness in fits and starts. Sound, the dripping of water is the first sense to return. Pain, pounding pain, which drums in time with the beat of his heart, is second. He is sitting on the cold, hard ground and leaning against something even harder.

There is something tight across his chest. It makes each and every breath a labor. When he finally has the guts to open his eyes, it is pitch black dark.

He groans.

"Are you awake?" Merlin asks.

He groans even louder when he remembers how he got here. He struggles with the bonds, but they hold tight.

"Arthur," Merlin calls again from the right. "Are you hurt?"

"When we get out of here you're never working for me again."

"Figures," Merlin mutters. "This had to be the one time you were knocked out and remember everything."

Ignoring Merlin, Arthur tests the bonds again. He can lean forward, so the bonds are just around his chest and legs restraining his movement, they are not binding him to anything. If they could just give a little bit… He grunts at the strain.

"They won't break."

"Didn't ask you," Arthur snaps.

"If you fall over, it's next to impossible to get back up again."

"Shut up!"

Arthur takes a deep breath and tries puffing out his pecs to stretch the chain. Nothing gives. He tries wiggling his shoulders to slip a hand free. Nothing budges. In fact, all he succeeds in doing is cutting off the circulation in his arms, causing them to go numb from the strain.

"Let me guess, they are spelled to prevent us from escaping."

"Yes," Merlin says.

"Are you sure?"

"I've seen Morgause use them before."

Arthur does not fare any better when he tries to free his legs. "Argh!" he vents and tosses his head back—and bangs into hard stone. "Oww!"

"We're leaning against the plinth," Merlin says unhelpfully.

"I know that now," Arthur replies, stars sparkling in the dark everywhere he looks. He feels so stupid and embarrassed. How could he have not had a clue that Merlin and Morgana possessed magic? Merlin has spent the better part of two years deceiving him, but Morgana has spent a lifetime. How could he be so stupid? He bangs his head against the stone once more for good measure. The pain feels… is not good, but at least it is something he caused. Betrayal is not a strong enough word. "Did I ever know you at all?" Arthur asks, craning his neck towards in Merlin's direction.

"You know me better now than ever before," Merlin replies quietly.

"I'm not sure I like what I see." Then Arthur laughs under his breath. For the first time in his life he is not in the dark, and yet he cannot see anything beyond his nose.

"Neither do I."

"You admit you were wrong?" Arthur asks, surprised. He had not heard any remorse.

"I mean you."

Arthur cannot help but rise to the bait. "I'm not the one who's been lying to his employer."

"I wasn't lying."

"And what would you call it exactly?"

"You really want to have this conversation when we're all tied up?"

"Can't think of a better time, frankly. It's the only thing preventing me from punching your lights out. Your big secret isn't a secret anymore, so tell me, why did you keep it from me?" Arthur cannot bring himself to use the M word.

"You weren't ready to know."

"Who does know? Gaius?"

"Yes."

"Gwen."

"No."

"Morgana?"

"Not before tonight."

"Did you know she had m…m…"

"It's not a dirty word, Arthur. You can say it without being cursed."

"Did you know about her?"

Merlin sighs. "I did."

"Who else knows about you? Don't leave anyone out."

"My mother. My friend Will from Ealdor."

"It wasn't Will with the wind during the battle. It was you. It was you the whole time."

"I told you not to think less of me."

"Keep going," Arthur commands.

"Mordred. Freya. Nimueh—she's dead by the way, you can thank me later. And there's Lancelot. Kilgharrah."

"Who on earth is Kilgharrah?"

"The great dragon."

"You say that as if I didn't vanquish him."

"Umm, that's because you, well, didn't."

"You lied?"

"I-"

"Oh," Arthur's heart drops. "Let me guess it was one of the many convenient times I was knocked unconscious for you. How many times, Merlin? How many times did you play me for the fool?"

"I didn't mean. That's not…." Merlin trails off when a light starts to bob in distance.

A few seconds later, Arthur can make out Merlin's profile. By mutual unspoken agreement, they wait, huddled in silence while the light grows brighter and brighter and their captor come closer and closer.

It is Morgause, not a hair out of place or a smudge on her velvet, red—all the better to hide the blood—dress. She sets something on the edge of the plinth and from his angle, Arthur cannot see what.

"Comfortable?" Morgause asks, coming around in front and waving her torch in his face. Arthur is forced to look away; the flame is far too bright.

"Supremely." Arthur puts as much venom as he can in his reply.

"Good, we've observed the pleasantries. Where is the Tree of Life?" Morgause asks crouching down.

"I do not know," Arthur responds, pleased he is telling the truth. With any luck, Gwen has hidden it safely.

"My sister tells me otherwise."

"She's wrong."

"Where is Morgana?" Arthur asks. "I would like to speak with her."

"I am sure you would. Alas, she returned to Camelot so no one will miss her in the morning. When you do not return from your journey, we thought it best she be there to console your father in his grief."

Then Morgause turns to Merlin and cups his chin in her hand and forces him to meet her eyes. "You won't be taking your secret to your grave after all." Merlin tries to jerk away and fails. "Seems there's a hidden side to the lowly servant. He's a powerful sorcerer." She laughs. "Still believe your Prince will give you a fair and just land?"

"More than ever."

"Who trained you?"

"No one," Merlin grits out.

"Power as such that you wielded doesn't manifest out of nowhere. Gaius is too weak. If you'd been with the druids I would have heard about it. Everyone else with enough strength is dead."

How powerful really is Merlin?

"Nothing?" Morgause prompts.

"I was born this way," Merlin finally admits.

"Not possible."

"Where is the Tree of Life?" she asks Merlin.

Merlin does not answer her.

Morgause releases him and stands. "Perhaps something to loosen your tongue? I have brewed a potent mixture." When she crouches back down she holds the Cup of Life.

"Drink," Morgause commands.

Merlin turns his face to the side when Morgause brings the cup to his lips. "Don't make this harder than it has to be." She pries Merlin's mouth open and pours the liquid down his throat. Merlin chokes and spits some of it out, but he cannot help but swallow most of the liquid.

In a disturbingly quick amount of time Merlin's head slumps onto Arthur's shoulder.

"Why are you doing this?" Arthur asks Morgause as she tenderly wipes the spittle off Merlin's jaw.

As a reply Morgause puts the Cup of Life down and casts a spell aimed at Merlin. "Mælae sóþsage." Once the light fades from her eyes she asks her question to Merlin again. "Where is the Tree of Life?"

"Brought it down 'ere," Merlin slurs. "Wr…wrapped in a white sssheet."

"Where is it now?"

"Other ssside of the plinth-th," Merlin trails off dopily.

Wasting no time, Morgause circles the plinth and rummages through the rubble. She unearths the sheet and unrolls its prize. Her triumphant smile turns nasty when she uncovers the bristles of the broom.

"What am I to do with this?" she asks Arthur.

"Sweep the floor."

It is not the answer Morgause wanted. She retrieves the Cup of Life and offers it to Arthur. "Drink."

With more dignity than Merlin, Arthur does. It is a foul concoction—thick and bitter with a metallic bite. There is a split second where he feels no different and that he thinks he is strong enough to fight it off, but then the wooziness smacks him upside the head.

"Wha'd I ever do ta you?" Arthur manages to ask just as it become too dizzy to keep his eyes open any further.

"My mother, Arthur Pendragon, chose you over me."

If Morgause asks him any questions, he does not remember them anymore than he remembers his answers. All he does remember is that she takes the light with her when she leaves.

-oOo-

Time's flimsy fabric ripples and bends in kaleidoscope shards as Arthur drifts on its breeze.

He floats down.

Down.

Down.

Down.

There is no thump or bump, but he lands.

"Arthur."

It is a melodic woman's voice.

"Arthur you must wake up."

His vision swims when he opens his eyes. There is a beautiful blonde woman standing before him. There are two of them now. They glow softly, radiating warmth and light in the dark. They—no, the two coalesce again into one person—she smiles sadly.

"Hello, Arthur." Her mouth did not move, yet her voice is as clear as a bell. Inside his head!

She looks just like his "Mother?"

"Ygraine was able to visit you once. She cannot come again. I am here in her place."

"Who are you?"

"Your Aunt Vivienne."

"No. No. This is a trick. It's another one of Morgause's spells." This is not real. It cannot be real. "Where is Morgause?"

"Returning to Camelot to converse with Morgana."

This is not real. This is not real. This is not real! "I'm drugged and I'm just dreaming," he mutters, screwing his eyes shut.

"You're not dreaming."

A hollow pit gaps wide open in his stomach. "If I'm not dreaming, then I'm dead."

"On the edge," she confirms coming to sit cross-legged in front of him. It is only then he realizes he is still chained and propped against Merlin for support. How is that possible?

"Who is he?" Vivienne asks gesturing at Merlin.

"A sorcerer and a liar."

Vivienne frowns at him. She leans in closer and peers at Merlin's bloody and battered face. "He's Gaius's lost son."

"Merlin?" Arthur nearly busts a gut laughing.

"He needs you."

"Well, I don't need him," Arthur says bitterly.

"You need him just as much as he needs you," she informs him. "Imagine what the two of you will accomplish if you work together. Albion will be richer for it."

"I don't believe it."

Vivienne reaches out and gently rests her fingertips on his temple. "Then see what I have seen."

Arthur's eyelids droop and he fights to keep them open, but his vision flutters. There is a flash and then another, one white strobe after another. They get quicker and quicker and quicker and quicker and qui…cker….

Arthur's head spins and jolts outside of himself, outside of the cave, inside history, inside memories of the past.

He is Nimueh and he feels the magic rise within him as he blesses the water inside the Cup of Life—certain this will allow magic to flourish across Albion—and then offers it to Ygraine in exchange for a baby.

He is Ygraine and he lifts the baby Morgause from his sister's arms and gives her to Gaius to smuggle out of the castle.

He is Uther and he kisses Vivienne, undresses Vivienne, and lost in lust, propels Vivienne to his bed.

He is Vivienne and he watches helplessly as the midwife cannot staunch the flow of his sister's blood.

He is Elsa and he slides a ring off of Ygraine's cold finger while the babe, Arthur, nurses at her breast.

He is Tristan du Bois and he reads a letter from his sister Vivienne, rides through wheat fields at a breakneck pace toward Camelot, and tosses a gauntlet in the throne room at the bastard Uther's feet.

He is Iseldir and he stands with Vivienne and Talieson in the Crystal Cave gazing into the future; when Nimueh proposes splitting the Tree of Life, he agrees because he has seen Emrys.

He is Ector and he holds a flaming torch at the king's command, but just before he lights the pyre beneath Vivienne's feet, he agrees to teach and protect the Prince—at any cost.

He is Gorlois and he watches silently with Uther as two servants place a charred body in an unmarked tomb in the burial vaults of Camelot.

He is Balinor and he, in good faith, coaxes a Kilgharrah into a cave deep beneath the bowels of the Castle and when Balinor discovers the betrayal, Gaius secrets him away to Ealdor and to Hunith.

He is Geoffrey of Monmouth and he locks book after book and record after record about the Great Purge away, never to be read again, never to be remembered.

He is Gaius and he tumbles off a ladder only to have young Merlin slide a bed under him to catch his deadly fall with an unparalleled grasp of elemental magic

He is Gwen and he shyly stretches out a tape measure against Lancelot's trousers while Merlin smiles like a loon behind them.

He is Mordred and he calls over and over to Emrys for help.

He is Hunith and he smiles fondly at her beloved son and his friend, the Prince of Camelot, joined at the hip because she is sure that Balinor would be as proud of his son as she is.

He is Freya and he roars in bastet form at the knights and the pain when their leader wounds her is agony, then the next thing she knows she is gazing lovingly into Merlin's blue, blue eyes and tells him "I will repay you" as rain cries from the heavens.

He is Morgause and he stands in a moonlit clearing with his sister, he puts her to sleep, and spends the rest of the night weaving the spell which will utterly destroy Camelot and give her the revenge she craves.

He is Merlin and he grabs a bottle of hemlock to save all of the kingdom at the expense of killing his friend—the one person in all the world who is his kindred spirit—later he offers Morgana the pouch of water, holds her against his chest as her throat seizes up.

Stop.

He is Leon and he crests the top of a hill atop his gelding only to see Cenred's army cross the border.

STOP!

He is Morgana and he dries Uther's tears with her handkerchief (PLEASE, NO!), watches Morgause as she brews the Mandrake root, and (NO MORE!) plunges the dagger into the guard's chest and pushes him over the wall.

STOP-STOP-STOPSTOPSTOP!

"You are the twine, Arthur, which binds all of these lives together into a story," Vivienne says inside his mind. The flashes flicker as fast and furious as flame.

Gwen sobbing—Gaius melting honey.

Merlin sitting at a round table—Morgana screaming awake.

Lancelot begging on his knees—Morgause bowing before Nimueh.

Arthur wielding a magnificent sword—Uther toasting with Gorlois.

Mordred eyes glowing yellow with false power—Vivienne rocking a baby. First it is baby Morgause, then it is baby Morgana, and finally it is Arthur.

Morgause. Morgana. Arthur.

Morgause. Morgana. Arthur.

Morgause.

Morgana.

Arthur. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur. Arthur.

Vivienne brushes his sweaty brow and when she does, the visions abruptly end.

He is panting and his head is spinning. "No more. Please, no more," he begs. He cannot take any more.

He has seen too much.

He has seen enough of Gaius's guilt, Morgana's fear, Morgause's jealousy, Uther's anger, and Vivienne's certainty. Underneath all the currents of emotion, there is a common thread: pain. Pain of death, pain of the truth, pain of being denied, pain of what was lost, and pain of what might be.

"All five of us clung to the past, while you, my Prince, live in the present," Vivienne says to him. "Your legacy is going to change the course of generations, but you do not have to carry what we've handed down."

"Handed down?"

"In the memories I just showed you, you saw how Gaius hates himself. How my youngest daughter hates Merlin. How my eldest daughter despises me because she was forsaken. How your father hates Nimueh and all magic because of the death of your mother."

"And you?" Arthur asks. "Who do you hate?"

"What speaks more of your worth: the people you love or the people you hate?"

He thinks of his father, Guinevere, and despite his anger, of Merlin. Merlin, magic incarnate, steadfast and always by his side. Merlin who bends magic to his will, and then bends his own will to Arthur's.

"The people I love," he responds without hesitation.

"And I loved you. Above all others. You are the son I chose over everything—my husband, my daughters, and in the end even my life. I cannot free you from history," Vivienne tells him, "but I can break the chains that bind you."

"I don't understand."

"Morgana planted the Tree of Life in a crypt and the dead rose. You must plant it in Camelot's courtyard for the living."

"I'm not sure if I can do that."

"When the time is right, you will. Now close your eyes."

"Wait! I'd like to give you a message. To my mother, that is, if you can."

"I can."

"Tell my mother…." his speech gives out and he is forced to swallow. "Last time I forgot. There wasn't enough time. Tell my mother, I love her."

Vivienne smiles. "She's been listening. Close your eyes."

He complies and feels another soft touch on his forehead and then his senses flip upside down and inside out. Blood rushes to his head, there is a rush in his ears, and his stomach flops over. And he is thrust back to…

…exactly where he was before. He is leaning against the plinth with Merlin's labored breathing tickling his neck. His tongue tastes like skunk and his lips are bone dry, but he is clear headed for the first time since Morgause poured her potion down his throat. He stares at where Vivienne sat moments before.

Was it all a drug induced hallucination?

Merlin snorts and Arthur is sure that Merlin's also drooling all over his jacket. On instinct he raises his hand to push Merlin off and the chains give.

He is free.

-oOo- Vivienne -oOo-

The first time I held Arthur in my arms, Ygraine, my beloved sister, lay dying. When I brought the babe, still wet and squalling, to the head of the bed, Ygraine barely had the strength to open her eyes.

"Ygraine, it's over. It's a boy."

"What's… look like?" Ygraine, exhausted after nearly two long days of hard labor, slurred her words. The maid rested a cool cloth on Ygraine's forehead while the midwife was busy disposing of the after birth.

"See for yourself." I slid the tiny baby into her arms and knelt beside them.

Slowly Ygraine's eyes fluttered open and she gazed down in wonder at her son; her son, mesmerized by his mother, quieted immediately. "His name shall be Arthur. Arthur, my precious baby boy."

"He is beautiful," I agreed.

Without any warning my sight contracted and in a blink of my eye I saw what was not the now and I was in another time, another place. Memories are but shades of the vibrant color of reality, but my visions are full blown slices of that reality.

I stood outside in the castle courtyard, bright with the hot summer sun. Impossibly, a tree with rich green foliage and heavy clumps of ripe, red berries grew up out of the very center of the plaza. Other than the castle spires, the only source of shade was this magnificent tree. Two children—a boy and a girl both with curly, dark hair—lips stained with the juicy fruit, played beneath the boughs.

Camelot was at peace, and we had won.

I blinked several times trying to return to Ygraine and the babe, but instead of shaking the image, my vision shifted shadow-side. The courtyard was barren and filled with weeds, while the purple storm clouds above blotted out a weak sun. The impermeable stone walls of the citadel had crumbled. A gaping hole in the western wall yawns wide.

Camelot was at war, and we had lost.

My visions, twisty and slippery flashes, have never come in pairs before. My bracelet tempered the worst, but a few powerful visions seeped through from time to time. They normally provided me with glimpses of the possible—what could be, what may be, what will be, and what is certain to be. What I had just seen was fate forked into two possible futures. It could only be a warning from the gods.

But which one was the true vision?

Ygraine's voice shattered my sight. "'M dizzy. So… dizzy."

Her eyes had an unfocused glazed, glassy look and although she still gazed at Arthur, I didn't believe she could see his tiny head anymore. The cloth slid off her brow when Ygraine twisted her head to the side.

Ygraine's arms went slack and I scrambled to catch Arthur before he could fall to the floor.

"Protect… him… for… me," Ygraine murmured, fading fast.

"You will protect him," I assured her.

"Not me. Promise… promise."

"I promise." I will sacrifice everything for those I love.

"Thank y…."

"Ygraine?"

Her silence was far worse than the screams of her labor pains.

"My lady," the midwife's said, voice strangled. She held her hands up in the air—they were both covered in blood.

"Ygraine?" I tried again.

She did not answer me.

The next several minutes blurred together as the midwife tried massaging Ygraine's abdomen, the maid used the rest of the blankets to sop up the blood, and I, powerless, clutched Arthur to my breast when he fussed.

The boy squawked, helplessly. You are not my mother, he said with the noise. I want my mother.

"Shhh," I tried to hush him. "Everything will be all right. It's going to be okay."

It was all to no avail.

Ygraine's life slowed, unraveled; the queen of Camelot balanced between life and death and death tipped its claim. When it was over, the midwife stopped, bowed her head, and came over to close Ygraine's unseeing eyes.

I joined the maid at the foot of the bed. There was blood, so much blood. Blankets, bedsheets, and clothes were soaked through with it. Both the maid and midwife were sobbing. I realized I was crying too and with the baby in my arms, my tears fell freely.

"What are we to do?" The midwife trembled when she spoke. She knew her life was forfeit.

Arthur gave another little mewling, hiccupping cry, demanding attention. I rubbed his cheek with a finger and he turned his head towards me, rooting. I couldn't feed him. Ygraine's promise rang in my ears.

I turned to the midwife, "Find Nimueh. Tell her to flee. If you value your life, go with her."

To the maid I ordered, "Bring me a fresh pitcher of water and a clean cloth. Find some other bedding, clean the blood as best you can, but you need not move my sister's body. The physician will tend to her. Once you have done as much as you can, then fetch Ygraine's gold dress, the one she was married in."

When Uther laid her to rest, he would see the queen he loved, not the broken woman he had killed with the Cup of Life.

Both bobbed and then chorused: "Yes, Ma'am."

"And you, my lady?" the maid asked, bringing me a pitcher and a cloth, once the midwife had rushed out.

"I will introduce the king to his son." I sniffed back my tears and dipped a corner of the cloth into the water. It would not do to meet destiny unhappily.

"Yes, my lady," she replied and then wiped the tear tracks from her cheeks.

The newborn squirmed as I wiped the lingering sticky birth fluids away. As I bathed my sister's son clean, the sun, fire-orange against the royal-blue sky, faded below the western horizon.

The boy had wisps of golden hair, just as my lost daughter, Morgause, did when she was born. When Ygraine couldn't get pregnant, I dreamt of a blond haired prince night after night, week after week, month after month. I seduced myself with the idea of a son and then I seduced Uther with the certainty I would give him the son my sister couldn't.

Instead, I gave him a dark haired daughter, and we hid the ugly truth from those we loved the most, Morgana most of all. She would grow up as the daughter of a lord instead of a king.

Once Arthur was finally clean, I swaddled him in a fresh blanket. His little face and both of his fists poked out though the opening. I then sat in one of Ygraine's plush chairs to wait and to buy the midwife and Nimueh precious minutes to escape.

I stroked the downy softness of Arthur's hair. "One day you will be king." I pressed a soft kiss to Arthur's temple. "And your mother's sacrifice will be worth it," I promised him.

The maidservant busied herself following my instructions and had produced new bedding and laundered towels.

"You are of Sir Leon's household, are you not?" I asked the maid.

"Yes, my lady."

"Your master just recently had a son, did he not?"

"A couple of months ago. They christened him Leon after his father." All fathers want to live forever through their sons, even if only in name.

"Are you training to be a midwife?" I asked as I stroked Arthur's baby-soft hair once more.

She shook her head. "No, my lady."

"How did you come to be here today?"

"I volunteered because I… I wanted to know what it what it was like."

"Like?"

"Yes, my lady." The maid had wrapped an arm protectively around her abdomen. She was slender still, but with the fabric pulled tight, I could see she wouldn't remain so for much longer.

"You're pregnant?"

"My first," she replied shyly, never raising her eyes above her station.

Arthur cooed.

I blinked and a vision of a young woman filled my sight. She sat side-by-side a man on a bench inside a simple cottage home, her dark complexion and neatly styled hair marked a contrast to the blond's whose hair was an absolute mess. The couple leaned together closer and closer and closer, pulled by the inexorable lure of attraction. When their lips touch, their kiss was romantic, innocent—love on the verge of blooming.

I blinked a second time and the same young woman was frantically kissing a different man. He was a knight in dirty armor with black hair, dusky eyes, and stubble. Their hands were everywhere: shedding his armor, ripping her cloth dress, groping bare breasts and backsides. Their kiss was needy, wanton—lust spun out of control.

"My lady?" the maid enquired.

My head swam as the true world reeled into focus. "I offer you my congratulations," I said to cover my lapse.

"Thank you, my lady."

I rose, no longer able to put this unhappy task off any longer. Purposefully holding my head high, I traveled though the castle corridors and walkways with my precious cargo cleaved close.

Arthur had settled into a state of quiet alertness. He was unaware of the heavy burden he would bring his father and the kingdom.

I found Uther seated at his council chamber table with Gorlois, Ector, and Gaius huddled about him deep in consultation. These were the men who crafted kingdoms brick by brick, law by law into everlasting dreams. Dreams I was about destroy.

When I entered, they broke off their conversation.

"Vivienne, is that…." Uther trails off, uncertain.

"My lord, would you like to meet your son?" I gently rocked the babe in my arms.

"It worked?" Uther vacated his seat nearly tripping over his own two feet to get to me. "I have a son?"

Dazzled, Uther's grin easily knocked ten years off his face. His grin of relief wouldn't last more than a moment, but I was sure to cherish the moment because during the years to come, the memory would remind me that hiding beneath his pain and rage was a man with common aspirations. All Uther wanted was to hand his legacy down generation to generation through the branches of his family tree.

"Truly," I replied as I placed the boy in his father's arms.

"Careful with his head." I guided Uther's hand to support the baby's head.

In a way I did give him a son. He may not be of my flesh, but thanks to the promise I made my sister, he is of my spirit.

"Ygraine named him Arthur," I told him.

"Arthur," Uther echoed. He was utterly enchanted. He brushed the baby's nose with the softest fingertip touch.

Gorlois heartily slapped the king on his back offering manly good wishes. Sir Ector and Gaius came in closer for a better look at their future sovereign.

"He'll be as good of a fighter as his father one day." Gorlois pronounced.

"Is that so?" Sir Ector, piped up. "I think I will train him to be better."

I listened to the men joke, trying to divine who would turn enemy and who would remain friend in the coming hours.

Or years.

My husband would challenge Uther as a friend, but Gorlois would kowtow and carry out the king's vengeance. Enemy. Gaius would counsel prudence, but would keep his true thoughts and actions locked away alongside his own magic. Friend. Ector would be torn between his love for his wife and his love for his king. Wildcard.

Either way, I was about to dance them all like marionettes taut on strings.

"Can I go in to see Ygraine, or does she sleep?" Uther asked.

"It was a hard labor," I began.

"If she's asleep, I will wait until morning."

"Sire," I said and had to pause to wet my lips. "She's not asleep. Once the hemorrhaging started, the midwife couldn't stop it."

Gaius's smile dropped like a stone.

"Do you require the assistance of the court physician?" Uther asked, confused as he returned Arthur to my arms.

"No, sire," Gaius said and stepped forward, pained. "I fear there is no help I can offer. Is that right, Lady Vivienne?"

Gaius and I locked eyes and he read me like a book.

"I am very sorry, sire," Gaius spoke for me.

"I don't understand. It's not like you to refuse to help."

Gaius cleared his throat. "It is when the patient is no longer living, sire."

A horrible silence descended and the buoyant atmosphere melted from the room as the truth sunk in. Nobody moved and nobody spoke.

"She cannot be dead," Uther finally said, stoic, unbelieving. His rage would start as a cold burn, but it would flare hotter than the sun at zenith.

I blinked and Uther no longer wallowed in grief before me.

I was still in the council chambers, but a blond knight dressed in mail with eyes as blue as a midsummer's day stood in Uther's place. A sliver circlet crown adorned his head. He wore a magnificent sword on his belt. His blood-red cape matched Ygraine's stained sheets and the Pendragon crest matched the gold of the dress I had decided she would be buried in. He brought a finger to his lips as if to hush Uther's rage. Then he turned and slid smoothly into Uther's chair as if he owned it. He smiled, then winked, and I blinked.

The mind-image of my vision shifted and I stood in the mighty throne room. A man clothed head to toe in leather with two swords crisscrossing his back sauntered towards the seat of power. Both of my daughters sprawled lifeless across the tiled floor. The man troubled himself to kick Morgause's skull as he passed. When he sat on the throne, smile winter cold, he and surveyed the destruction he had wrought. He smiled, then arose, and I froze.

Uther grabbed me and shook me by the shoulders, snapping me into the present. "Where is Nimueh?" Uther demanded.

"I don't know where she is," I lied. "Ygraine didn't want her there for the delivery."

"Gorlois, find Nimueh and bring her to me. I have questions about our arrangement."

"Immediately, sire." Gorlois replied.

I reached for my husband hand as he passed.

"Yes?" he asked.

I swallowed my goodbye. He had always loved me more than I could ever love him.

"I may be all night," he spoke when I could not say what I wanted.

"I'll tend to Morgana," I lied.

He kissed me on the cheek as he left.

Arthur squirmed at my breast once more rooting for food. "Ector, can you find Elsa?" I asked. "The prince will need to suckle and she can wet nurse."

"My wife would be honored. Sire, will you permit it?"

Uther had no response, but to stare blindly in the middle distance.

"My lord," Ector observed the courtesies as if there had been assent. He bowed and exited as if he had been dismissed.

"Send for Geoffrey of Monmouth," Uther ordered Gaius. "I want to make a list."

"A list?"

"Of all those Nimueh consorted with while she was here."

"Do you want to take your son to the nursery?" I asked the broken king, even though I knew I would rue his answer.

"I don’t want my son. I want my wife."

I wanted my sister, but she was gone.

Uther stormed into his private chambers, the door slamming a few seconds after he rounded the corner.

"The king has a healthy heir," Gaius said and reached out to stroke Arthur's palm with a single finger and Arthur instinctively grabbed tight with his tiny fist.

"At what price?" It took my breath away at how small and helpless he was for the power he would inherit.

"Where is Nimueh?" Gaius asked quietly.

Shocked, I blinked up at him, but I could only focus on the mop-haired youth with magic-yellow eyes standing behind Gaius. Power radiated off him in an aura like none I've ever seen. His power was elemental, rooted deep within the Old Religion.

Emyrs incarnate.

I blinked the almighty warlock away and rather than going to a second matching vision, a great dragon loomed before me. It scraped a giant talon across the cave-rock it perched upon. The dragon opened its mouth and I expected a blast of fire. I flinched away from the non-existent flames.

Instead it spoke: "Greetings, Vivienne."

This was the first and only time I would ever have speech and sound accompany my visions.

"Hel…lo," I stammered, not accustomed to conversing with dragons. Dragonlords, not seers, were blessed with that magic. "Why have you brought me here?"

"You have brought yourself to me."

"What happens next?"

"That will be of your choosing."

I saw the courtyard again. A blazing pyre stood where the tree would grow. I writhed in its flames, screaming. As I screamed the rest of the vision unfolded, petal by petal, like a flower revealing its full glory in the spring: a castle, a king, his queen, a sorcerer's magic, and a golden kingdom purchased with my borrowed time.

Or.

I saw the Isle of the Blessed. The heart of the magnificent Rowan tree had withered, blackened with rot, and died like flowers caught in winter's thrall. I knelt before its stump and wept, lamenting all that was lost: centuries of power, the religion, friends, family, and a kingdom ruined because of my inaction.

"Do you understand?" It asked when I fell out of the vision.

The dragon wasn't offering a warning; he was offering a choice. "If the first does not happen, then the second will be set in stone."

"Very good."

"How could I possibly pick between them?"

The dragon snorted, tendrils of fire swirling up to the top of the cave. Then instead of answering, it opened its mouth wide, sending a roar of fire—cleansing, scorching, and deadly—to consume me. When the overwhelming heat faded, Gaius was again standing before me and Arthur was drooling on my bodice.

"Are you all right?" Gaius asked me.

"I had another vision."

"What did you see?"

In that same crystal clear moment, I realized that with my sacrifice I had the power to steer the kingdom of Camelot more deftly than any royal decree. Even with all my transgressions and secrets, I could right my wrongs.

"Destiny." I replied, transferring Arthur to Gaius's waiting arms.

"You're leaving?"

"Give my love to Alice."

I left in the dead of the night to travel to the Valley of the Fallen Kings, and then I would follow Nimueh to the Isle of the Blessed. In galloping out of Camelot, I set my three children on their diverging paths, knowing that before the end, they would intertwine.

Water and tears are thin; they evaporate.

Blood and jealousy are thick; they stain.

-oOo- Arthur -oOo-

Arthur unexpectedly has his freedom and the use of his hands, but he is still sitting half chained and blind and in the dark. As he shucks the rows and rows of chains, he cannot help but wonder if Vivienne was just a drug induced hallucination brought on Morgause's magical potion.

Had it actually happened?

He shakes his head to clear the cobwebs.

Arthur supposes he could have loosened the chains in his early struggles. He should not look a gift horse in the mouth. Arthur removes the last length of chain from around his ankles and manages to struggle up on his knees.

There is a thump and a groan as Merlin slides off his side and hits the ground. It is not as satisfying a sound as he thought it would be.

Merlin.

What is he going to do with Merlin?

Although if the flashes of history he has seen were real….

If.

Seriously? He is actually considering that he has just spoken with his dead aunt. The conversation had been real enough—except for the head-talking, which was unnatural. She had seemed real enough, sure, but he has been tricked by magic before.

Painfully.

If those visions were other people's memories, then he knows things about Merlin— Freya's death and Morgana's poisoning—that he had no way of knowing before. Merlin could confirm them.

"Merlin," Arthur calls, shuffling back on his hands and knees. Arthur gropes for Merlin and finds his servant's bony elbow, then his neckerchief, and finally his face. He gives it a not so gentle slap.

"Wake up, Merlin." Slap. Slap. "I have questions for you." Slap. Slap. Slap. "I have questions for you.

"Afur?"

Merlin is still dosed to the gills and probably under the effects of Morgana's truth spell. He will spill his soul to Arthur and be none the wiser. It will be an easy interrogation.

"Did you poison Morgana?" Arthur asks.

"W'th hemlock."

Slap. "No, you must stay awake."

"Don't wanna."

"Merlin, how did Freya die?"

"Lake. In arms. Raining. Fire. Forbernen," Merlin mutters. "Forbernen."

"I don't know what 'forbernen' means, Merlin."

"Forbernen. Forbernen. Forbernen."

There is a bright flash of light and Arthur's sleeve is on fire. "Shit!" Arthur drops and rolls to the floor to smother the flames. When the blaze is out Arthur lies on his back and pants at the darkness above him.

So, forbernen obviously means fire.

Arthur crawls back to Merlin again and asks, "Who killed Freya?"

Merlin just moans.

"Merlin, who?" Arthur shakes Merlin's leg. "Tell me."

"You did."

Arthur sucks in a quick, sharp breath. It is true then, all of what he had seen and lived is true. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Secret. Had to keep secret. Forber-"

"No! No fire!"

"Tis dark. Need you to see my face. Know I'm not lying. Fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme."

A silver globe blossoms above their heads and the cave is cast in a glow of muted blues and silvers.

"Not lying. Not lying. Sorry. No lie," Merlin babbles, but Arthur is not listening to the steady stream of jumbled protestations and apologies. The swirling orb is hovering right over the top of the Cup of Life.

Morgause left it behind.

Arthur shoos the orb away and it lazily spins to the side.

He dumps the remaining brew inside the cup out onto the rocky ground and pockets it.

Merlin is still spewing gibberish when Arthur kneels next to him again. His eyes are red rimmed and tear tracks stain his cheeks. "No lie to you ever, ever 'gain. Believe. Please, believe. Did it fer you. All fer you. Love you. Love you. So 'orry. Love you. No lie 'gain, Afur."

"I believe you." Having lived a slice of Merlin's life, he honestly does. "Besides, I have more honor than to kick you when you're drugged and bound."

Merlin's answering smile is sunny and bright.

"What?" Arthur asks.

"Sssstill take you 'part with less than one blow."

"Not in your condition," Arthur mutters.

"Wh' d' you mean my con-dition?"

"You can't even stand up straight."

"I cast."

"Oh," Arthur chuckles at Merlin's the slip of the tongue. "I believe you can. It explains all your brashness and your stupidity."

"'M not stupid. 'M most powerful warlock in generation."

Arthur hefts Merlin up into his arms. "And I thought I was full of myself."

"Ou are."

"Thanks," Arthur mutters as he starts the climb up an impossible amount of stairs with Merlin squirming all the while. The globe of magical light bobs and guides them upwards.

"Pretty light," Merlin says, enthralled with the orb. "Pretty, pretty light. No lie."

"No lie," Arthur says, hoping that would soothe him into silence.

"Than' you." Merlin kisses him sloppily the cheek.

Arthur sighs heavily.

There is no way to wipe the saliva off without dropping Merlin. The only good part about the journey to the surface is that there are no spiders chasing them.

-oOo-

Merlin, thankfully, passes out halfway up the stairs, which translated to about six-dozen more 'pretty light' monologues and two extra kisses. Arthur hears and smells the rain when they reach the main chamber. He drags Merlin through the crawlway feet first as gently as he can, and when they reach the entrance he spins Merlin in the dirt and leans him against the curved wall.

Now Arthur stands at the mouth of the cave and watches the rain fall in heavy sheets. A large bolt of lighting forks the ground in the distance and it fires the night's sky to full day. Arthur gets to a count of three before the thunder rolls over his head.

He does not relish going out into the storm, but staying here is not an option.

Merlin's orb floats out into the rain to either egg him on, or point the way. The water sizzles and spits when it hits the magical light, but its glow does not dim in the slightest.

When Arthur does not immediately follow, the orb zooms to Arthur's ear, circles his head twice, and drifts to the cave entrance. It waits.

"I get the message," he tells the ball of light. "We're going. We're going."

Merlin is still out cold and cannot protest being thrown over Arthur shoulder. This position is only marginally more comfortable than the previous one. Sacks of potatoes are lighter.

The storm's wind and water are merciless, and they are completely drenched thirty seconds after stepping out of the cave. Arthur concentrates on nothing more than keeping his feet from slipping in the squelching mud, not dropping Merlin, and following the guide light through the slog.

He is not positive, but he does not believe they are headed towards the horses.

Arthur nearly singes his hair when the orb stops abruptly an hour later just on the edge of an open meadow by a clump of mixed pine and maple trees. The trees are tightly packed, and while it will not be completely dry under their branches it would not be akin to standing under a waterfall.

Ducking low to keep Merlin from bashing his head, Arthur creeps under the trees and settles both himself and Merlin at the base of the trunk of one of the larger maples. The orb follows them in.

Arthur allows himself a moment to lean his head back against the rough bark before struggling out of his wet leather jacket and draping it over the low branch just above their heads.

Merlin groans.

Arthur slips his fingers under his armpits trying to warm them. It does not help much, but when some feeling does return, he clumsily unties Merlin's sodden neckerchief, worms it through the chains, and rings the water out. It goes over their heads as well. The chains are too tight to get the brown suede jacket off Merlin.

Merlin groans again and the orb flares briefly. "Arthur?"

"I'm here."

"Where… are… we?"

"Waiting out the storm."

"Can't… move."

Arthur reexamines the chains wrapped about Merlin's torso and legs. There is no end and no beginning to them as all the links are fused together.

"Let's see if I can get you out of these chains, hum?" Arthur tries yanking the lowest rope off Merlin's calves and over his boots, but an invisible force keeps it solidly in place. Even if Arthur had a sword, he doubts it would cut through the magically enhanced steel.

"Won't work," Merlin tells him. "He got them off last time."

"Who?"

Merlin tips his head back, and shouts to the treetop: "DRAKON!"

"No, no, no," Arthur tries to hush him. "We must be quiet."

Merlin, as usual, pays him no heed. Another clap of thunder crashes and the orb winks out. "O DRAKON!" It is harsh, guttural, and raw. "DRAKON! DRAKON! DRAKON!" Merlin howls.

Merlin yells until his voice give out. When it finally does, he slumps, exhausted and shivering, at Arthur's side. Merlin continues to chant, "Dragon, dragon, dragon, dragon," but it is nothing more than a delirious whisper and eventually even that fades away to nothing more than labored breathing.

Arthur waits.

It is soft at first—just a wish-wish, wish-wish through the misty filter of raindrops, but it gets steadily louder. Wish-wish grows to wik-wack and then he feels the beat of the whosh-tack, whosh-tack stir the air and the tree branches. Finally there is a heavy thud and a spray of mud out in the meadow.

Merlin's great dragon has landed. Arthur peaks out through the pine needles and gulps.

"I have come, young warlock," the dragon booms.

What is he supposed to do now?

"Young warlock?"

Arthur pokes Merlin on the shoulder to wake him, but he is insensate.

"This is not a night to play hide and seek, Merlin. Where are you?" Arthur hears the whumph of a giant sniff as the dragon snorts.

Grabbing hold of his wits and the branch above his head, Arthur takes a deep breath, leverages himself up to standing, parts the branches, and walks out into the rain to face the dragon. He steps out into the clearing and cranes his head up. And up and up and up to find the dragon's face.

The great dragon is more immense than he remembered.

Arthur forces himself to hold his ground as the dragon snakes his head toward him. The breath coming out of its nostrils is warm and smokes in the rain. Perhaps he should just be grateful it was sniffing him instead of breathing fire.

"So, we meet at last, young prince."

During the attack a year ago he did not have time to notice the intelligence in the dragon's eyes, or the spiked horns over its eyebrows. Its claws, however, still looked just as he remembered—as thick as a man's thigh and sharper than any knife blade.

"Are you Kilgharrah?" Arthur is proud his voice does not crack.

"I am."

The dragon cranes its head down to eye level, pokes Arthur's belly with his snout, and sniffs.

"Woah! Woah!"

In desperation, Arthur reaches for his sword, but he gropes at nothing because it is long gone. The dragon ignores his protests, noses Arthur once more and, apparently satisfied, snakes its head back upwards. "So, the witch has revealed her true colors openly at long last."

"The witch? You mean, Morgana?"

"I do."

"How could you know that?"

"Because you carry the Cup of Life." Then the dragon asks, "Where is Merlin?"

"Injured."

"Of late he is more accident prone than even you."

"Can you help him?"

"There will be a price."

This is not the negotiation Arthur expected, nor one his father would approve. "What is it you want?" Arthur asks warily.

The dragon narrows his very yellow eyes, considering. "Why that depends entirely on you?"

"Me?"

"And whether or not you are ready to restore magic to its rightful place in the balance between birth and death; love and hate; night and day."

"I am."

The dragon's eyes narrow to slits. "Bring him to me."

Arthur obeys and more delicately than Arthur even thought would be possible the dragon slips a single long talon underneath the chain binding Merlin. It slices apart easily the moment the dragon pulls his front claw away.

The dragon's chest fills like a heaving bellows when it sucks in a large breath. However, instead of fire, the dragon exhales golden sparkles. They twirl and surround about Merlin before seeping into his skin.

A few seconds later, Merlin moans. Arthur refuses to sigh in relief like a little girl, but even so he cannot help but kneel on the ground next to him. Merlin sits up on one elbow and shields the falling rain from his eyes. That is when he sees both Arthur and the dragon staring at him intently.

"Uh-oh, this can't be good," Merlin says.

Arthur purses his lips. "I've had better days."

"Yeah?" Merlin asks with a heap of sarcasm.

"Yeah."

"Uggg, my head hurts," Merlin complains. He crumples back on the grass and throws an arm over his eyes.

"Unless you can find the Ring of Life, there will be much worse days to come," declares Kilgharrah.

"Can you…?" Merlin completes the unspoken question to the dragon by flapping one hand out and up.

"I am neither horse, nor shelter, Merlin."

Merlin continues to lay prone on the ground and tries to charm the dragon with a winsome smile.

"Very well," the dragon huffs, and then it spreads one wing wide over both of their heads, creating a nice and dry overhang. They are buffered from the worst of the wind and deluge.

Then the dragon cranes its head around and peaks it under its wing to continue the conversation with Merlin. "Tell me what has transpired. The fact that you have brought your prince tells me the situation is grave."

"Hang on! I'm nobody's prince."

"Iseldir had the Cup of Life ready just like you said he would when we arrived at the Cave of Life," Merlin says, ignoring Arthur completely and wobbling to his feet.

"And I'm definitely not 'his' anything," Arthur pouts.

"Did he bless the water with his blood?" The dragon asks.

"No," Merlin replies, "before he could complete the ritual Morgana and Morgause—"

"The Witch and the High Priestess are of no concern to me since you have the Tree of Life," the dragon pronounces.

"Umm, about that," Merlin stammers sheepishly.

The dragon claws a talon in the muddy grass. It shreds the grass. "It was your responsibility, Merlin, to protect it."

"Funny," Arthur mutters. "I thought that was my responsibility."

"I didn't mean to give it to Morgause," says Merlin.

"You didn't. The Tree of Life is safe," Arthur insists.

"If the High Priestess is in possession of the Tree of Life, then she has the power to disrupt everything I have worked for in the past twenty years," the dragon says.

Arthur throws his hands up in defeat. "Neither one of you are paying me any attention, are you?"

Both Merlin and the dragon look at Arthur at exactly the same time. Arthur does not say anything for a long moment. The plunk and plonk of raindrops on the leathery hide of the dragon's wing is deafening.

"Oh, am I part of this conversation now?" Arthur asks.

"You are the entirety of the conversation, young prince," the dragon replies.

"Then perhaps the two of you should spend less time plotting and more time listening." Merlin is abashed, but the dragon is not. "I gave the staff to Gwen before we left Camelot."

"Morgause doesn't have it?" Merlin asks stupidly.

"Nope."

"Then there are three things you must do," the dragon says. "First you must be blessed by the Ring of Life, second you must have your enemy pour water from the Cup of Life on fertile ground, and then you can plant the Tree of Life."

"I didn't ask for this!" Arthur protests.

The great dragon's laugh rumbles louder than the thunder. "None of us can choose our destiny, Prince Arthur." The dragon rises to his full height, flaps its leathery wings, sprays water everywhere, and launches into the night's sky.

"And none of us can escape it," Merlin finishes.

"Is the dragon always that cryptic?" Arthur asks as they watch the dragon soar into the cloudbank and disappear.

"He was downright straightforward tonight. Mostly he talks of doom and death. I get confused, and leave with some idiotic desire to save your life."

Arthur snorts.

"What?" Merlin asks. "Like it isn't a weekly occurrence?"

Another bolt of lightening flashes and they head for the cover of the trees.

"What's it like?" Arthur asks, honestly curious when they settle in.

"What's what like?"

"Magic."

In answer Merlin raises his hand traces out an arch over their heads. As he does so a transparent dome coalesces above their heads. The raindrops that sneak through the trees merely bounce harmlessly off the shield.

"Bedrúge," Merlin spells with the flick of his wrist.

Arthur panics when he feels a glimmer of warmth pass through him, but when his clothes—his shirt, his trousers, and even his socks—are magically dry realization strikes. "You're not my servant. You're my equal."

Merlin cannot hide his wide, wide smile.

"Don't let it go to your head."

"Never."

They wait together for the heart of the storm to pass and dawn to rise under the shelter of Merlin's shield.

-oOo-

The horses are wet, grumpy, and hungry, but none the worse for wear when Arthur and Merlin find them an hour after daybreak streaks the sky.

Merlin feeds the horses while Arthur digs up his gold stash. He is securing his chest of gold onto his stallion when a rider, a cloaked woman cloaked, approaches. The woman wastes no time in removing her riding hood.

"Hello, Arthur," she greets him.

"Who are you—Elsa?" Arthur is incredulous.

"Yes, it's me."

"What are you doing here?"

"Righting a wrong from long ago," she replies. "Is Iseldir dead?"

"He is."

"Do you believe in magic now, Arthur Pendragon?" Elsa asks.

Arthur gives a sidelong glance at Merlin. "I do."

She breathes in a sigh of relief. "Then we best ride for Camelot."

-oOo-

They are just outside the main gate when Elsa reins in her horse. "This is as far as I go."

"No harm will come to you if you are with me," Arthur tells her.

"I will not enter Camelot so long as Uther is king. Go get Morgana for me."

"I will," Arthur replies.

The moment he and Merlin trot into courtyard, they are recognized. The finger pointing and whispers kick up as they pass.

"He's back."

"The Prince has returned."

"Prince Arthur is back!"

"He's back too soon."

"He didn't bring any food."

"He couldn't've made it all the way to Caerleon and back."

Arthur ignores the undertone of the small-folk as they ride up to the main castle steps. Merlin scrambles off his mare. Arthur takes a deep, steadying breath before he follows. It doesn't help. "Find Gwen," he tells Merlin as he dismounts. "Tell her to bring the Tree of Life."

"Yes, sire."

"And hurry!"

As Merlin races towards the lower town faster than Arthur has ever seen him run, a stable boy appears out of nowhere to take charge of the horses.

"Is the Lady Morgana in residence?" Arthur asks the boy as he digs in his pack for the Cup of Life.

The baffled look on the boy's face is not amusing. "She hasn't left the castle the entire time you've been gone."

What a good, dutiful, loving ward, Arthur thinks, pulling the gaudy, golden cup out and slipping it into his pocket.

The stable boy breaks into his thoughts and is bold enough to ask, "Were you successful, my lord?"

"We're about to find out." When Arthur offers nothing more, the boy leads the horses to the stables.

Arthur spins three hundred and sixty degrees.

He takes everything in—the balcony where he watched his father murder Vivienne, the citadel walls where the dragon attacked, the gate he'd guarded, the castle spires where he and Morgana climbed as children and watched the antlike people below, the main stairs, the statue, the tradesmen's courtyard, the cobblestone, the windows, the well, the horses, the people.

His people.

This is childhood's end; it is time to sit at the adult table.

"Morgana!" Arthur yells up at the castle. "Morgana, come out here!" He cups his hand together around his mouth to direct his voice. "Morgana!"

It does not take too long before his ruckus draws a crowd. They keep their distance, but no one is carrying about their business anymore—trade has stopped, work has stopped, play has stopped. All attention is on him.

"MORGANA!"

If she could not hear him, then others would. She would get the message soon enough.

"MORGANA! MORGANA! MORGANA!"

His father and Gaius rush out onto the main balcony. "Prince Arthur," his father bellows. "What are you doing?"

"Calling for—" Arthur sucks in a deep breath. "MOOORGAAANAAA!"

"Come into the throne room and we'll discuss it."

"Don't want me making a scene?" Arthur shouts back.

"No."

Too bad. Too late. He hollers for Morgana again. "MOOORGAAANAAA!"

By now he has the attention of all those within the city walls. Servants pour out onto the side balconies in droves, and even the hunting hounds in the kennels take up his call for Morgana.

By the time Morgana stumbles down the main stairs, the crowd is so thick she is forced to push her way through. She is dressed all in white and diamonds, pure as a virgin snow.

"Arthur," she greets him full of false welcome. "You've… returned early."

Arthur scans the crowd for Merlin and Gwen and spots them worming their way through the press of bodies. Buying himself some extra time, Arthur asks. "Are you more shocked that I retuned early, or that I returned at all?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Drop the act."

She smiles. "What act?"

He is spared answering when Merlin bursts through the last ring of people and pulls a shaky Gwen behind him.

"Do you have it?" Arthur asks Gwen.

"Yes." The nervous knot in Arthur's chest eases when she hands him a cloth bundle.

"Look up at the balcony," he urges Morgana. Uther stands, hands on his hips, watching them intently. Arthur leans close and whispers low in her ear. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't tell him who the traitor really is."

"Arthur, you wouldn't."

"I do believe," Merlin says, "that the word of the prince is worth more than the word of the ward."

Morgana's legs give out and her knees hit the stone. The thin film of her silk skirt is no guard against the harsh stone and he hopes it scrapes her knees raw.

Like a deer in his sights, she is well and truly trapped. According to his father's laws, he would be perfectly justified in taking the kill shot, however the people would misunderstand. And his father…

His father would never recover.

But most of all, he would not be able to forgive himself. "I pity you, Morgana."

She spits at his shoes. "I don't want your pity."

"It's yours anyways." Arthur bends down and hoists Morgana to her feet. "I will keep your secret, if you do something for me."

"What would you have me do?"

He takes the Cup of Life from his pocket and thrusts it at Morgana. "Fill it," he commands, pointing at the well.

To her credit, Morgana musters up her courage, and walks to the well. The commoners, sensing something historic is happening, part for her as she goes. The bucket drops to the bottom quickly enough, but it takes a long time for Morgana to turn the squeaking crank and draw the bucket up.

Morgana pours bucket's water into the chalice until it is brimming full. It is so full that water slops over the side as she returns to Arthur, Gwen, and Merlin.

"What do you want me to do with it now?" she asks.

"Hold it," Arthur replies as he unwraps the sheet slowly and deliberately. There is a collective gasp from the crowd when he reveals the Tree of Life. He discards the sheet on the ground and Gwen bends over to pick it up.

When she does, he is distracted by the sight of her breasts. Her bodice gaps low and from his vantage point he can clearly see all the way down the front of her dress. She is wearing his ring on a chain and it nestles in between her breasts.

His mother's ring—the Ring of Life.

Gently he takes Gwen by the elbow and helps her rise. "Guinevere, your necklace."

"Sire?" In her confusion she presses her hand to her heart, his ring trapped between.

"Turn around."

He is fully conscious of the hundreds of onlookers watching his every action as he hands Merlin the staff, shifts Gwen's hair to one side, and unhooks the clasp. It takes him two tries because the chain is delicate and his hands shake.

When the chain releases, it slips through his fingers, and the ring drops into her bodice.

"Hand it to me," Arthur insists when she is facing him once more. She pulls a face. Arthur's certain that if it were just the two of them alone, she most likely would have smacked him upside the head.

Or dared him to get it himself.

The little boys in the huddled in the front of the crowd titter as Gwen fishes inside her blouse to retrieve the ring.

When she hands the ring to him, the metal is pleasantly warm. He holds the ring between his thumb and forefinger, wondering if he needs to do something extra.

"What are you waiting for?" Merlin asks handing him the Tree of Life back.

"Do I need to bless it, or chant, or—"

"Or what?"

"I don't know, spit on it or something?"

"Magic doesn't work like that."

"Forgive me for not being wise in the way of magical arts. My education was deliberately cut short."

In the end, he simply drops the ring into the Cup of Life Morgana is holding out for him. It plops to the bottom of the chalice and the water froths.

"Pour it on the ground," Arthur instructs Morgana when the fizzing and bubbling calms.

The water, the lifeblood of Camelot, pools on the bricks and seeps between the cobblestones.

Arthur raises his voice so all assembled could hear. "Behold the Tree of Life!" Then Arthur lifts the staff high over his head and slams it onto the ground. The butt of the staff cracks several bricks and the now familiar buzz starts to vibrate though his palms, his arms, and deep into his chest. Just when he can no longer hold onto the throbbing staff, there is a blinding flash from the crystal and Arthur is thrown several feet from the force of the explosion.

The crowd bursts into pandemonium.

The branches of the Tree of Life thicken, bud, and reach greedily for the sky and at the same time the length of the staff expands into the trunk of a giant tree. There is a rumbling underneath his feet as the tree's roots sprout and dig into the earth.

He cannot explain it, does not know how it is possible, but Arthur swears he can feel the crops in all of the blackened fields sprout, grow, and ripen as the magical tree blossoms before his eyes.

When the tremors and quaking stop, Uther wrenches the balcony doors open and rushes into the castle. Arthur gets to his feet knowing his father will ask demanding questions and will not be overly fond of the answers.

Arthur helps Gwen up and then finds both Merlin and Morgana pale and dazed. Merlin is able to shake off the befuddlement relatively quickly, but Morgana takes a little longer.

"Morgana," Arthur says to her. "Merlin will escort you safely outside the castle. Elsa is waiting outside the gates for you."

"Elsa?" That brings a little more color into her cheeks.

"Yes, she can help you, but you must slip away now. Before Uther gets here."

Merlin grabs Morgana's hand and stares into her eyes; she does not protest as he weaves her through the dispersing crowd. Arthur watches them go and he wonders if things would ever be the same again.

He doubts it ever could be.

"Was that magic?" Gwen asks, breaking into his thoughts. "It was beautiful."

"It was," he replies. "I have much to explain, but it will take—"

"What have you done?" Uther bellows as he rushes towards Arthur.

"Secured Camelot's safety and ensured we will all eat this winter without spending a single coin."

"With magic?"

"Yes," Arthur confirms, standing his ground.

"Did you make a bargain with a sorcerer?"

"I—"

"You cannot trust this sorcerer," Uther jumps in before Arthur can even reply. "They are animals!" his father snarls.

"Is that so, father?"

Before his father can reply, Arthur wraps an arm around Gwen's waist and gently guides her through the few people still milling nearby. She gives him a quizzical look, but remains snug against his hip. They climb the stairs side-by-side, steps in sync.

When they reach the top landing and the griffin statue, instead of ascending further, he leads her to the window. The honeycomb metal work interferes with their vision, but they peer between the slits of glass to see the crowd milling around the Tree of Life below.

"One day our children will play under the boughs of that tree," he tells Gwen.

"Children?" Gwen squeaks and reels backwards, breaking his comfortable grasp.

"You don't want children?"

"With you?"

"Is there someone I need to challenge for your affections? I'm a fair man, but I won't have anyone else honing in on my sweetheart."

"You're awfully certain I'll accept you."

He opens his mouth to give a glib answer, but remembers the flashes of the future he saw in the visions Vivienne shared with him. Instead he says, "I've seen the future, now I just need to reach out—"

When he opens his other arm and she nuzzles against him, his heart soars.

"—and grasp what I want," he finishes. A lock of her hair has escaped her braid and he twirls the curl around his finger and tucks it behind her ear.

He presses a kiss to her forehead before he can stop himself. When he pulls away, he catches her staring at his lips.

Merlin coughs, deliberately, behind them.

Argh!

When Arthur glares at his manser—no—his sorcerer, Merlin hastily removes his fist from in front of his mouth. Gwen tries to pulls away, but Arthur keeps his hands on either side of his waist.

"Do you have something to add, Merlin?" Arthur says, never taking his eyes of Gwen.

"Just making sure you remember I'm here while you're busy making doe eyes at each other."

"If only I could forget," he teases. Then he turns serious. "Did Morgana say anything before she left?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"And what?" Merlin plays coy.

"What. Did. She. Say?"

Merlin purses his lips and looks away. "What passed between me and Morgana is going to stay between us."

Gwen finally has the presence of mind to remove her hands from his empty sword belt, when Arthur remembers something. "Merlin, I have something I need you to do for me. Do you remember when I asked you to commission a new sword?"

Merlin, wary, nods.

"Go and get it for me."

Merlin's ever present smile fades to a frown. "Can't."

"You did order it, did you not?"

"I, uh, forgot."

"Typical."

"Oh!" Merlin snaps his fingers and the happy smile is back, only ten times brighter. "But I did acquire another one for you. Gwen helped." Gwen waves her hands as if to say, keep me out of this. "I forged it in dragon fire for you."

"Well," Arthur rounds on Merlin. "Where is this mythical blade?"

"Umm… You see, we'll need to go to the lake and retrieve it."

This keeps getting better and better. Arthur rests his hands on his hips. "Which lake?"

"Freya's."

"You left my sword on the lakeside? Surely it's been stolen by now."

"It's…um… in the lake. Has been for 'bout two years."

Arthur rolls his eyes. "If it's in the lake, it's bound to be slimy, and old, and rusty. Fish have probably been peeing on it."

"Crabs too," Merlin agrees earnestly. "Eels perhaps."

"Sounds lovely," Gwen pipes up, unable to keep from giggling.

"It's named Excalibur," Merlin says. "And you've more than earned it."

Arthur is affronted. "You've named my sword?"

-oOo- The End -oOo-


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