It wasn’t unusual for Gwaine to wake up with a pounding headache. In fact, it was rather common as he did tend to over-indulge with alcoholic beverages whenever he got the chance. Over the years, he’d become quite adept at ignoring these headaches and pretending that everything was fine. He could even convincingly behave as though he didn’t have a headache at all.
That being said, it was very unusual for Gwaine to wake up with a hangover headache while on patrol with Arthur and the other knights. They rarely took enough ale or mead for him to actually get drunk on and, contrary to appearances, Gwaine actually took his duties as a knight seriously. He might like a good drink far more than most, but he wasn’t completely irresponsible.
So that fact that he’d awoken in the middle of the forest, in full chain mail, laying between Leon and Percival, on a mission to track down Julius Borden before he found the tomb of Ashkanar and the last dragon egg with a pounding headache that rivaled his worst hangover -- which was saying something when one considers how often Gwaine had woken up with a hangover -- the knight in question knew that something was off.
Groaning, he sat up and clambered to his feet, rubbing a hand over his face as he did so. No one else was awake yet. His royal princess was even snoring. Gwaine stumbled across the camp in search of the water skin that he knew would be amongst Merlin’s gear. Why Arthur insisted that Merlin carry and be responsible for every piece of equipment, besides their armor, that the knights might need was beyond Gwaine. He thought that it made more sense for them to carry items such as the water skins so that they’d know where they were when they needed them.
Gwaine found the pile of Merlin’s gear easily enough. He frowned slightly when he saw that Merlin’s bedroll was tied up neatly. Though it wasn’t entirely impossible that he was already up fetching water or firewood, it was unlikely. Merlin was usually the last one to rise, simply because he was the last one to bed because of all the chores he had to see to, even when they were camping in the middle of the forest.
Speaking of chores, the pot with the remnants of last night’s stew was sitting unwashed next to Merlin’s gear. Something in the bottom of the pot caught Gwaine’s eye. It looked like a small white stone. He poked at it and the stone let off a strange scent.
“Hemlock*,” he muttered. Gwaine had seen it used before in his travels. It was a wonder they were all alive.
His eyes widened as he realized the implications. “Borden. He must have found a way to slip into the pot. Merlin didn’t eat so he wasn’t effect. I bet he went after him.”
Gwaine cursed under his breath and hurried to grab his sword from where it lay. Merlin had his share of luck and he wasn’t completely useless in a fight, but there was no way Gwaine was going to stand by and do nothing while his first and best friend went after Borden. He hesitated only slightly before deciding not to wake the others. Percival was still injured, though he wouldn’t let that stop him, he didn’t know Elyan that well, Leon would insisted on waking Arthur, and the princess would insist on waking everyone else while he ranted for thirty minutes about how useless Merlin was. No. This was a job better done alone.
Finding his way to the tomb was the easy part, as was finding the entrance. Both were rather huge and impossible to miss. Gwaine had barely stepped inside when he heard a familiar shout.
Gwaine froze. “Merlin.”
He charged through the tomb, mentally cursing the chain mail that made it impossible to move silently, and only slowed when he reached a staircase. Gwaine cursed again when he realized that it opened directly onto the floor above rather than onto a landing and a door. That would make sneaking up on Borden a lot more difficult.
Voices filtered down the steps. Gwaine crept closer so that he could hear what was being said.
“No,” Merlin said calmly. “It must go free.”
“Don’t be a fool,” rasped Borden. “Think of the power it could bring us! The lands we could rule over. The riches!”
“I’m not interested in that.”
“With this dragon at our command, we will live like kings. We will have the freedom and power to do as we wish!”
“Dragons cannot be used like that!” snapped Merlin angrily. “They must be left unshackled, free to roam the earth.”
“But this is your chance, Merlin,” he wheedled. “Your chance to escape your meaningless life, your worthless existence!”
Gwaine frowned. There was no way that Merlin was worthless. He was a good friend, and a good person. They all depended on him, especially Arthur. Surely, he knew that. Right?
Only, he probably didn’t. They teased him, good-naturedly of course, but they did it quite a bit. That trick they’d pulled with the stew was just one of many. Arthur was probably the worst, always giving Merlin chores and calling him names. The ribbing was just their way of letting him know that he was part of the group, even if he was technically just a servant. But, even if Merlin knew that, and Gwaine was sure that he did, the constant teasing was almost sure to get to him.
“It’s not my life that’s pitiable, it’s yours,” said Merlin softly. “You wasted it...for nothing.”
That made Gwaine fell a bit better, but he resolved to make sure that Merlin knew that he wasn’t just their so that they could tease him. Despite risking being seen, he crept a bit further up the stairs.
They were standing half a dozen paces apart. Merlin was in front of a stone plinth upon which sat the egg. Borden held a torch in his hand, that he was brandishing at Merlin.
It took all of Gwaine’s self control to stay put. He was too far away and if he charged into the room, Borden would just grab Merlin and who knew what he would do.
“I pieced together the triskelion! I found the path that led us here! The dragon belongs to me! Now, hand it over!” Borden shouted.
Merlin backpedalled to avoid the torch being swung in his direction. Gwaine let out a low growl and advanced one step before once more stopping. There was nothing he could do without risking Merlin getting hurt.
“You are not going to stop me, boy!”
“Dragons are magical creatures, they belong to no man!” Merlin shouted. There was a soft thump as he fell to the ground. Gwaine hoped that he’d just tripped. “They are for the benefit of all!”
A fond smile flitted across Gwaine’s face at that. It was just so Merlin to be concerned for the wellbeing of an animal, even if it was a dragon. He wasn’t really surprised by Merlin’s antics. Merlin glared at them when when the knights and Arthur went hunting for pleasure.
“What do you know?” Borden scoffed. “You are but a serving boy!”
There was an ominous pause. Merlin stared at up at him from the floor and when he spoke, there was a power in his voice that Gwaine had never heard before. It sent shivers down his spine.
“I am the last dragonlord. And I am warning you. Leave this egg alone.”
Gwaine almost laughed at the horrorstruck expression on Borden’s face. It was easier than processing the fact that Merlin claimed to be a dragonlord. Somehow, Gwaine didn’t doubt that he was telling the truth.
Without warning, Borden swung at Merlin with the torch. Gwaine leapt forward. His cry of anger died on his lips when Merlin thrust his hand up. His eyes flashed a molten gold and Borden went flying across the room where he landed in a crumpled heap between two columns.
Under any other circumstances, Gwaine would have been feeling smug and quite pleased that he’d been right.
Merlin clambered to his feet and walked over to the egg. He never once glanced toward the stairs where Gwaine was no longer even attempting to hide. Reverently, he reached toward the egg. It was impossible to deny that the egg was beautiful, like blue and white marble. Merlin lifted it gently.
A sound like massive gears clicking into place filled the tomb. THe very building rumbled. Dust poured from the ceiling intermixed with chunks of stone. Merlin tucked the egg into his jacket and turned to flee.
He stopped short, legs locking like a startled colt, when he saw Gwaine standing on the stairwell. His eyes widened almost comically in fear. Gwaine was almost offended.
Merlin’s eyes suddenly widened further in horror and darted upward. Following his gaze, Gwaine saw a piece of masonry the size of a small cart falling swiftly toward him. He dove to the side, knowing even as he did so that, even if he managed to avoid the stone, he’d probably be caught by the debris. He braced himself for the impact of the two ton stone.
Only it never came.
He risked a look upward and saw, to his amazement, that the massive piece of stonework was being suspended above his head like a net of gold.
“Go!” Merlin shouted. “I can’t hold this up long and the whole tomb’s falling down.”
Gwaine didn’t need to be told twice. He scrambled down the stairs, looking back only for a second to see Merlin standing where he had been before, his eyes golden, hand outstretched, fingers splayed and pointing toward the stone. Ducking madly to avoid the falling debris, Gwaine raced back the way he’d come.
It wasn’t until he reached the tree line that he stopped. He was covered in powdery dust. Coughing and spluttering, Gwaine fought to catch his breath and waited for Merlin to emerge.
When the minutes passed and Merlin didn’t appear, Gwaine started forward, intending to go back in and drag Merlin out by his overlarge ear, but he stumbled out of the door before Gwaine could take more than three steps. He was still clutching the egg in his jacket and he narrowly missed being flattened as he ran to safety. Merin stopped short of Gwaine, so that he was safe from the falling stone, but also safe from the man he’d once considered to be his friend.
“I can’t let you destroy the egg,” he said softly. There was a note of steel to his voice that belied its quietness. “It’s my duty to ensure it’s safety. Give me until sundown to see to it, and I’ll turn myself in. You have my word.”
“Now why the hell would you do something as stupid as turning yourself in?” Gwaine demanded. “Do you want to be killed?”
Merlin looked confused. “Aren’t you going to turn me in?”
Feeling rather offended that Merlin thought so little of him, Gwaine glared at his friend. “I don’t turn my friends in to be executed, especially when it’s for breaking a law I don’t agree with.”
“You mean, you don’t care that I have magic?”
“I’ll admit the dragonlord thing is a bit of a surprise, but it was dead obvious you have magic. Flying plates and benches, fires that light very conveniently in slave trader’s castles, and lets not forget what the little man on the bridge told us. I heard him call you magic. It wasn’t that difficult to figure out.”
“Really? Here I thought that I’d been sneaky,” Merlin groused. He looked infinitely more relaxed now that he knew Gwaine wouldn’t be beheading him anytime soon.
“If that is your definition of sneaky, I’m not sure I want to know what obvious is,” Gwaine teased.
With an almighty clatter, Arthur and the other knights came running into the clearing. Arthur stared at the still crumbling tomb for a moment before rounding on Merlin and Gwaine. His eyes widened when he saw the egg clutched in Merlin’s hands. The warlock sent out a silent plea to Kilgharrah, as the dragon had to him when he’d first come to Camelot, to come and take the egg someplace safe. He knew that there was no way he was making it out of this with his secret intact unless he wanted to give up the egg, and he couldn’t do that. He just needed to stall until Kilgharrah could arrive.
“How did you get that?” demanded Arthur.
“I took it?” Merlin suggest innocently.
Gwaine rolled his eyes. How was it that Merlin had remained undiscovered when he was such a god-awful liar?
“What about Borden?” asked Leon.
Merlin gestured to the tomb. “It was a trap. He didn’t get out.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s sure,” Gwaine chuckled. “Merlin knocked him unconscious.”
Arthur snorted. “Sure he did. Give me the egg, Merlin. We have to destroy it.”
Indecision flickered across Merlin’s face and he involuntarily took a step back, away from Arthur. Gwaine could almost see Merlin attempting to come up with an excuse for why they shouldn’t destroy the egg, but after a moment, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I can’t,” he whispered.
“Why not?” demanded Arthur. “It’s a dragon. They’re monsters. We have to destroy them. Just give the blasted egg, you idiot.”
“No,” Merlin said more strongly. “I won’t let you kill it. I didn’t save it from Borden just to let you destroy it.”
Leon, Percival, and Elyan were staring at Merlin in confusion, though Leon had a look of dawning comprehension on his face, while Arthur glared at his manservant. He visibly attempted to calm himself before speaking again.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on, Merlin, but you should know exactly what dragons are capable of. You were there when the Great Dragon attacked Camelot. That thing,” he jabbed a finger at the egg, “cannot be allowed to live.”
“The Great Dragon had been imprisoned for twenty years before he got loose,” Merlin snapped. “Can you blame him for being a bit annoyed?”
“They’re not rational creatures, Merlin,” pointed out Leon.
“Actually, they are,” butt in Gwaine. “At least, they are in all the stories I’ve heard.”
“Really?” asked Merlin.
“When you travel as much as I do, you hear stories. A lot of places revere dragons. There was a reason the dragonlords are called lords.”
“That’s beside the point,” snapped Arthur. “Whether the dragons are intelligent or not, they are magical creatures and anything that is magic is evil. Now give me that egg before I take it from you, Merlin.”
Merlin caught Gwaine’s eye and shook his head ever so slightly, telling the knight to stay put, before saying, “I won’t let you, Arthur. You can’t kill it. You don’t understand what you’ll be doing.”
“Oh, won’t I? I’ll be protecting Camelot.”
“You’ll be dooming us!” Merlin hissed. “Destroying the dragons forever will forever change the balance of the Old Religion. If you do that, there is no telling what might happen. The Old Religion will attempt to right itself. The consequence could be disastrous. Didn’t you learn anything from the unicorn?”
Arthur surveyed Merlin coldly. “You seem to know a lot about magic.”
“He lives with Gaius, Camelot’s resident expert on magic,” scoffed Gwaine. He was pretty sure that Merlin wasn’t intending to make it out of this with his secret intact, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying to help prevent that.
The king ignored him. “I want an answer, Merlin.”
Merlin was saved (well, whether he was really save was actually debatable) from answering when a rhythmic beating sound pulsed through the air and a gust of wind whipped his clothes about his body. He almost laughed out loud with joy.
Kilgharrah had heard him.
He spun on his heel to watch the dragon soar into sight. Kilgharrah swooped over the ruins of the tomb and landed heavily, or lightly when one considered his massive size. He tucked his wings against his body. Arthur and Leon both reached reflexively for their swords. Gwaine rolled his eyes and muttered, “While I highly doubt that our swords would do any damage to a beast that size, it would probably be wise not to wave sharp point objects at the dragon that can incinerate us in one breath.”
Reluctantly, Arthur let go of his sword and rounded on Merlin.
“I thought you said I killed it,” he hissed.
Kilgharrah chuckled. “You are truly arrogant if you think a mortal weapon can kill me, Pendragon.”
Arthur and Leon gaped, completely taken aback by the fact that the beast they had attempted to kill, the same beast that had destroyed so much of Camelot, could speak in such a cultured manner.
“That answers that question of whether it’s really intelligent,” muttered Elyan.
The dragon surveyed the knights dispassionately for a moment before turning to Merlin. A wide grin played across his scaly face when he saw the egg clutched in Merlin’s hands.
“You have done it, young warlock. I never thought to see this day.”
“Warlock?” Leon repeated, glancing at Arthur. The king looked as though he’d been carved from stone.
“Is it still alive?” Merlin asked.
“It can live for a thousand years.”
Merlin grinned. “Then you are no longer the last of your kind.”
“It would seem not,” Kilgharrah chuckled.
Sighing, Merlin lifted the egg, offering it to the dragon. “I ran into a slight problem, as you can see. Can you take it someplace safe so that it can hatch?”
“It will not hatch without your aid. Young dragons were called into the world by the dragonlords. Only they had the power to summon them from the egg. As the last dragonlord, this solemn duty falls to you, Merlin.”
Leon rubbed his temple. “He’s a dragonlord, too?” he muttered at the same time that Arthur hissed, “Don’t even think about it, Merlin.”
But even as he said that, he wondered that Merlin, of all people, could have that kind of power and responsibility. That same voice whispered that this dragon was nothing like the monsters that his father had insisted needed to be driven to extinction. A creature as intelligent as the dragon seemed would definitely have been hostile after being imprisoned for so long. Maybe Merlin had had a point about that.
Gwaine stepped forward slightly to be a better view of Merlin and the egg.
“What are you doing?” Elyan hissed.
“Do you know how many people besides the dragonlords have actually seen an egg hatch? I’m not going to miss that.”
Oblivious to what was going on behind him, Merlin looked at the egg contemplatively, trying to decide what to name the fledgling dragon encased within the stone-like shell. Almost as if called by his magic, a name sprang to his lips.
“Aithusa,” he rasped in the dragon’s tongue.
A crack appeared along the surface of the egg. He hastily set it on the ground and backed away. More cracks appeared until a chunk near the peak of the egg fell away, revealing a small, reptilian head covered in white scales.
“A white dragon,” Kilgharrah breathed. “It is, indeed, a rare thing...and fitting. For in the dragon tongue, you named him after the light of the sun. No dragon birth is without meaning. Sometimes the meaning is hard to see, but this time, I believe it is clear. The white dragon bodes well for Albion, for you and Arthur, and for the land that you will build together.”
Chirping softly, Aithusa leapt off the ground and beat the air with unsteady wings, flying straight toward Merlin. The little dragon curled up around the warlock’s shoulders, chirping contentedly. A goofy grin spread across Merlin’s face.
What little patience Arthur had left him.
“Enough!” he shouted, causing Merlin to start and Aithusa to warble at the king in annoyance. “I want answers, Merlin, and I want them now.”
“If you want answers, then you must first ask the question,” said Kilgharrah. He sounded amused. Arthur’s glower deepened.
“You’re not helping me, Kilgharrah,” Merlin muttered.
Arthur looked too angry to speak.
Clearing his throat to get Merlin’s attention, Leon said, “I thought you said that Arthur slew the dragon, Merlin.”
“His name is Kilgharrah,” Merlin said tiredly. “What else was I supposed to say? You didn’t stand a chance. I have no idea how Uther managed it twenty years ago. Kilgharrah wasn’t going to attack again, anyway. There was no point in worrying you.”
“How could you possibly know that?” growled Arthur.
Gwaine smacked his forehead with his palm in exasperation. “Princess, did you miss the part where it was explained that Merlin is a dragonlord? If he told Kilgharrah to stay away, then he has no choice but to obey.”
Arthur’s face suddenly hardened. “If you’re really a dragonlord, then why didn’t do anything to stop the dragon’s attacks? If you’d done something, Balinor may not have died. Do you have any idea how many innocents perished because you didn’t do anything?”
Merlin flinched. The slight grin that had been on Gwaine’s face since the beginning of this horrible conversation faded and he glared at Arthur. If the King hadn’t been wearing armor, Gwaine probably would have punched him.
“Don’t you know anything about magic, princess? It’s a well known fact that the power of the dragonlord is passed from father to son upon death. You really are an insensitive prat.”
Merlin looked at Gwaine gratefully.
“Do you have magic as well?” asked Percival, speaking for the first time. “I’ve heard that some magical ability comes with being a dragonlord.”
You should tell them, Merlin, Kilgharrah whispered into his mind. There is no point to hiding anymore.
The warlock sighed. “Yes. I have magic, but I didn’t get it when I became a dragonlord.”
Silence followed that declaration.
“What do you mean?” Merlin asked.
Arthur threw his hands up in the air. “I would think that is obvious, Merlin. I want to know how long you’ve been practicing magic.”
“That depends on what you mean,” he said tiredly. “Do you want to know when I discovered that I had magic or when I started actively learning about it and improving my skills?”
“Is there a difference?” asked Elyan.
Merlin nodded. “Mother says I started moving things just hours after I was born. I’ve been slowing time and controlling objects with my mind for ages. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually started studying magic. And I really didn’t have a choice,” he added quickly. “My powers were growing. I couldn’t always control them so mother sent me to the one person she knew who might be able to help me.”
“And who was that?”
Once again, Gwaine answered in Merlin’s stead. “I’m guessing that would Gaius, princess.”
“Gaius is my father’s most trusted advisor and his closest ally in the fight against magic,” Arthur said hotly. “He would never undermine my father’s laws like that, not when he knows how dangerous magic is.”
“Actually, the way Gaius puts it is that he’s the king’s ally in the fight against evil magic. I don’t use evil magic.”
“All magic is evil,” Arthur snarled.
Merlin was beginning to lose his patience. “Oh really? What proof of that do you really have? Because of your father’s laws you’ve only ever seen the evil side of magic. You’ve only ever seen those desperate enough to use magic for the wrong ends in the small hope that it might gain them freedom. You’ve never seen what good it can do because those you use magic for those purposes are wise enough to stay out of the way.”
“Then what does that make you, seeing as you are constantly in the way?” Arthur retorted.
“I don’t have the option of hiding in the forest with the druids. I have a destiny that is constantly trying to get himself killed. I’d like to think that I did keep out of the was as best I could considering I have to keep your royal ass safe.” Merlin glared at the king. “You have no idea just how much I have sacrificed for you.”
“Magic is evil, Merlin. No matter what you do with it, that fact doesn’t change!”
If he hadn’t been worried about dislodging Aithusa, who was still wrapped around his shoulders, Merlin would probably have thrown his hands in the air in annoyance.
“Magic is not evil. Can I say that anymore plainly? It simply is. Just like a sword or any other weapon, it’s the person who wields it who determines whether it is good or evil. I’ve had magic ever since I was born and until today, would any of you have called me evil?”
“I wouldn’t have called Morgan evil, either,” Arthur said softly.
“She wasn’t exactly herself once she returned after being taken by Morgause,” Merlin pointed out. “You can’t tell me you didn’t notice that.”
Arthur couldn’t find an argument, because Merlin actually had a point with that.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Leon cut in before Arthur could think of something insulting to say just for the sake of saying it. “Can you give us any proof that magic can be used for good?” he asked Merlin.
“Just the last five years of my life,” grumbled Merlin. At the look on Arthur’s face, he added, “The number of times I saved you and Camelot the first year I was here is proof enough.”
“Well, why don’t you enlighten us?” suggest Percival, who’d remained quiet, simply listening, up till then.
Merlin sighed and launched into tale, speaking as quickly as possible so that they couldn’t interrupt them. “I saved Gaius from a fall in the first five minutes I was in Camelot by slowing time and moving a bed beneath him. My magic kept me from being effected by Mary Collins’ song so I could drop the chandelier on her and then I slowed time again to push Arthur out of the way of her dagger. I made the snakes come alive on Valiant’s shield when he couldn’t use them on you in secret. When Gwen and Elyan’s father fell sick with that plague, I was the one that healed him and I conjured the wind so that it could mix with the flame from your torch to kill the afanc. Apparently I conjured the light that led you out of the caves of Balor while I was practically delirious.”
He drew in a deep breath before continuing at the same breakneck pace as before.
“Then, I enchanted Lancelot’s spear so that he could slay the griffin. He, um, he might have noticed and that’s why he wouldn’t take the credit for it. Edwin was an evil sorcerer trying to kill Uther. He enchanted Morgana so that he was the only who could heal her so that he could discredit Gaius and get close to Uther. I ended up killing him and saving the king, with magic, I might add. Sophia and Ulfric were sidhe who were trying to sacrifice Arthur to get back into Avalon. They enchanted him, so I went after them, killed them and dragged Arthur, armor and all, out of the lake. I didn’t actually use much magic with the druid boy. It’s how he was able to tell me where he was and that’s how I blasted the grate to get him and Arthur both out of the dungeons. When that wraith attacked, I went to the great dragon and convinced him to burnish the sword I got from Gwen so that it could kill the undead. Only that backfired spectacularly because the king and Gaius drugged Arthur and Uther fought in your place. The dragon was not happy that Uther had used that blade as it’s very powerful and only meant for Arthur.”
He paused again to draw in breath, and when he continued, his voice was sad. “I was the one that conjured the windstorm in Ealdor. Will was just protecting me. I also used magic to light the fire when Morgana couldn’t. I didn’t need to do much with the unicorn, though I think my magic is why it stopped. I used magic to stop Tauren from killing the king. When Arthur was attacked by the questing beast I used the same spell that I used on Lancelot’s spear to kill it. I even tried to use magic to heal him, but the questing beast is a creature of the old religion. It’s power is absolute. So I went to the Isle of the Blest to trade my life for Arthur’s. Nimueh used the cup of life, but she tricked me and took my mother instead. I went back to trade my life again, but Gaius went before me and she’d already taken him. We fought and I killed her and her life was taken in Arthur’s stead, which explains why Gaius and I are both still breathing.
“And that is my first year in Camelot,” he concluded.
Everyone, even Gwaine who’d half expected Merlin’s many heroic deeds, was gaping at him in absolute astonishment.
“That was your first year?” Elyan choked out after a good five minutes of uncomfortable silence. “Please tell me that the rest have been a bit quieter.”
“If only,” Merlin sighed. “Though that year Morgana was missing wasn’t too bad, mostly because all the powerful sorcerers who had a grudge against Arthur were dead or busy.”
Leon surveyed Merlin, frowning slightly. “That day that you came bursting into the council chambers, claiming that you were the sorcerer that had healed Tom the blacksmith, you were actually telling the truth, weren’t you? Do you actually have a death wish?”
“I wasn’t going to let Gwen take the blame for something that was completely my fault,” Merlin shrugged.
“You said that you went to the dragon to get a blade that could kill the wraith,” Leon said slowly. “That was before you were a dragonlord. How did you know it was down there?”
Merlin rubbed his temples. “We’re both powerful creatures of magic, kin of a sort. He called to me and as annoying as he was, he often helped me when Gaius and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
At Merlin’s words, Aithusa perked up and warbled quietly. The little dragon leapt off his shoulder and beat the air with unsteady wings, flying straight towards Arthur. He landed on the king’s shoulder and chirped in his ear, climbing about his shoulders before launching himself toward Leon and doing the same to him.
“Merlin!” Arthur shouted. “Cant’ you control this thing?”
Kilgharrah chuckled. “Peace, young king. There is nothing to fear. Aithusa is merely greeting you. He means no harm.”
“He’s not exactly big enough to do harm,” added Merlin.
“Get it off my knights,” Arthur growled, eyeing Aithusa, who was crawling all over Percival at the moment. The knight in question didn’t seem to mind. He was was smiling at the little hatchling that was clinging to his trousers and nosing the blood stained bandage wrapped around his day old arrow wound. Aithusa warbled sadly and blew out a shimmering breath. He let out another chirp, sounding rather proud of himself, and soared unsteadily over to Gwaine.
“What did it do?” Leon asked warily.
Merlin glanced at Kilgharrah, a question clear in his eyes. The golden dragon nodded and Merlin grinned broadly.
“Take the bandage off.”
Looking startled by the request, Percival asked, “Why?”
He almost said, “Just trust me,” but given the situation, Merlin thought better of it and instead simply said, “Please.”
With an encouraging croon from Aithusa, who was still perched on Gwaine’s shoulder and didn’t look inclined to move, Percival deftly unwrapped the bandage. When the last strip fell away, everyone had a clear view of his unmarred skin. The wound had been healed without so much as a scar.
“That’s what Aithusa did,” said Merlin, a note of pride clear in his voice.
Elyan stared at the little dragon. “I didn’t know dragon’s had the kind of power.”
They all started when Kilgharrah spoke. “We are creatures of the Old Religion. Magic is in our blood. We cannot cast enchantments as men do, but we have our own breed of Magic.”
“I take it you knew this,” Arthur said to Merlin gruffly.
Merlin shrugged. “Kilgharrah’s healed more before and that’s what I guessed Aithusa was doing.”
“When were you hurt badly enough to need healing by a dragon?” asked Leon, somewhat worried for Merlin despite the situation. He was finding it hard to believe that the manservant, dragonlord and sorcerer or not, could actually be evil and he certainly didn’t wish harm to the boy.
“It was last year, right after Morgana came back. I followed her to a meeting with Morgause was got myself caught. They tied me up and left me for the serkets. One of them stung me before Kilgharrah could answer my call. He saved my life in time for me to make it back to Camelot and destroy the army of skeletons.”
“Morgana said she did that,” Arthur said skeptically.
Scoffing, Merlin said, “Do you really believe that? She was working against Camelot from the moment she returned and she used every opportunity to gain your father’s eye or keep herself out of trouble. The number of times I save you and the king because of her in that year alone is ridiculous.”
“If you saved my father before, why didn’t you save him from the sorcerer that took his life?” Arthur asked quietly.
It hurt Merlin that his master, the man he considered his friend, the man he had worked so hard to protect, was so determined to find evil in him. He cast his eyes to the ground and answered in a monotone.
“Didn’t you find anything familiar about Dragoon?” he asked. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I disappeared while you were with him both when he was captured last year and when you sought his aid?”
Merlin didn’t let him finish.
“I had to do something when Morgana convinced your father that Gwen had enchanted. Gaius made an identical poultice and I used an aging spell so that I could plant it and take the blame from Gwen. The spell didn’t wear off the way it was supposed to though. When I heard that you were willing to use magic to save Uther, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to prove to you that magic isn’t evil. So I took up the guise again. I didn’t prepare for Morgana to interfere. Gaius found a cursed pendant around your father’s neck. It...it reversed that purpose of any healing spell cast upon the wearer and increased its power so that there was no stopping it.”
Completely overwhelmed, Arthur staggered back until he hit a tree. He flashed back for the night his father had died and, for the first time, remember the look of confusion and pain on the ancient sorcerer’s, on Merlin’s face, when the king stopped breathing. He remembered all the times Merlin had followed him into danger, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t his duty to do so. Every time, something lucky and unexplainable had happened to save them all.
He looked up to see that everyone was watching him, even Kilgharrah and Aithusa, waiting for him to make his decision. Except for Merlin, who was staring determinedly at his feet.
Gwaine broke the silence. “Just to make it clear, I’m on Merlin’s side in this. He’s obviously saved your life countless times. He’s probably saved mine just as many. He’s a good man, magic or no, and if you can’t see that, than you’re not the man I thought you were.”
If he said that he hadn’t been expecting that, Arthur would have been lying. He wasn’t even offended. As he searched his own emotions, the king found that he wasn’t really angry at Merlin. He was angry at himself for never noticing. He was hurt that Merlin hadn’t been able to trust him, even if he did understand why. But above all, he was angry at his father for being so blind. So many times, the only thing that had saved the city was magic and Merlin hadn’t even told them everything.
“You’re an idiot, you know that right?” he asked, running a hand through his hair. It was only midmorning and he already felt exhausted.
Merlin looked up warily. “What do you mean, sire?”
“You’re a warlock whose apparently had magic since birth, and you not only come to the one place where it is punishable by death, but you use it daily for admittedly noble reasons. Do you actually have a death wish?”
“Just a destiny,” Merlin chuckled dryly. “Apparently, we’re two sides of the same coin, destined to unit Albion in peace and magic.”
“Is that so? I suppose I’ll have to keep you around, then.”
The relieved smile that spread across Merlin’s face was all Arthur needed to know that he had made the right choice. Though he’d never need proof, he knew that if he’d sentenced Merlin to death, the warlock would have gone without a fight, regardless of his power.
“I want to know everything, Merlin, and I mean everything,” Arthur continued sternly.
Merlin grimaced. “Are you sure? There’s a lot of it that you’re probably not going to like.”
“I still need to hear it.”
Sir Leon glanced at the sun’s position in the sky. “If we wish to return to Camelot by nightfall, we should leave soon.”
“Then I shall bid my farewell,” declared Kilgharrah, spreading his wings. “Today, destiny truly begins. You will have many battles ahead, but the fight will be worth the peace if brings. Good luck.”
“Wait!” Merlin shouted. He unconsciously slipped into the guttural cadence of the dragon tongue. “What about Aithusa? I can’t exactly take him to Camelot.”
“It is customary for young dragons to spend their first years with a dragonlord in order to learn the human speech. It is your duty, young warlock.”
Merlin started to object, but Kilgharrah cut him off.
“It is his instinct to remain with you. If you attempt to leave him with me, he will seek you out, Merlin.”
Spluttering incoherently, Merlin attempted to come up with a solution that would make everyone happy. It was too soon to ask Arthur if he could bring a dragon home, after all. His babbling was cut off when Arthur cuffed him round the head.
“You shirk enough of your duties. You’re not getting out of this one,” Arthur said firmly. “Just don’t let anyone see him. I don’t fancy trying to explain why you have a dragon in your bedroom and I don’t think everyone else is ready for the magic isn’t evil speech.”
Arthur sighed. “I’m not entirely convinced that you three aren’t just exceptions to the rule, but you’ve convinced me of that much. Maybe you’re right about everything else and maybe my father was wrong. So prove it. Show me that you’re not evil and the dragons aren’t monsters. The only way you’re going to do that is if Aithusa comes with us.”
“Are you all right?” Merlin asked warily.
“Do you really want to be asking me that?”
“Probably not, but the way you were acting earlier, the last thing I expected was for you to be so understanding.”
The truth was, Arthur hadn’t been expecting it either, but if he’d learned anything as a knight it was to trust his gut. Somehow, he knew that Merlin was telling the truth, about everything. The idiot had never led him wrong before, afterall.
“Just be grateful that I am,” he grumbled. “I could have you in the stocks for a month for lying to me. Stop standing there and get everything packed up. We have to get back to Camelot.”
Arthur grabbed Merlin by the neckerchief and dragged him back toward the camp, never even noticing the amused smiles that followed them.