In times lost and long ago, Arthur would not have had to walk down the hill and draw water from the well. Before the Great Destruction, he would have been able to turn a lever, in the comforts of the house, and water would have spilled forth. Some people even said the water could be warm, if you wanted it so, but those were just myths. Everyone knew that. Arthur’s father used to say, if all the legends from before the Apocalypse were to be believed, the Beast would never have been able to destroy the world. The First Race, as they called the people from before, would have fought and demolished, they wouldn’t have been conquered and destroyed. They at least would have been able to stop it in its tracks, prevent the total annihilation of every city, every country, every continent on Earth. They wouldn’t have grown so complacent, that they would abandon their descendants to such a fate.
They said the Apocalypse stalked the world for a long time before it struck. They said it haunted and crept and killed on the heels of the Seven Horsemen, before it roared and set the world on fire. With it, the First Race –– or the Forgotten Race, as they were remembered nowadays –– was all but wiped out. No one knew anymore what they really had been called. So much of them lost, so much of them beyond recall. This was what Arthur found so terrible, all these lives, all these legacies and nothing remained but myths and legends. An empire had been built, maybe thousands of years in the making, and it had taken less than seven days to destroy it. Arthur didn’t know if that was true either, about the seven days. Maybe that was just another myth, something left over from another time, something that trickled through and got mixed up with the end of the world.
Gwaine Orkney used to tell him they were called the Forgotten, because they would have drunk from the river Lethe that runs through the Underworld. It would have made them oblivious to their past existence once they died. Arthur knew he shouldn’t believe all that Gwaine told him. He said so, often, with a roll of his eyes and a punch to the shoulder.
“Gwaine Orkney,” he would say, “I don’t believe a word of what you tell me.”
And Gwaine would grin, trying to rub his arm surreptitiously and Arthur would almost regret punching him so hard.
Gwaine and his mother were well respected in Ealdor. “Old blood,” Arthur’s mother used to say, with a wise nod. It had been she who encouraged the friendship between Gwaine and Arthur to begin with. “They have books, Arthur,” she would tell him when he was little. “Made of something they used to call Papyrus. I read one once, could barely understand a word of it, but read it the whole way through. Something about a man with a funny mustache solving murders.”
Uther Pendragon wasn’t very impressed with reading. He thought Arthur should work outside or learn a trade. “Reading my boy,” he would say, always making sure Ygraine was out of earshot, “is for women. Don’t you waste your time on that nonsense.” And he would leave, with the clap of a hand so heavy on Arthur’s shoulders, his spindly and chafed boyish knees would almost give out. So it was Anna Orkney who taught him to read in the end, with Gwaine by his side and the scent of fresh apple blossoms tantalizing his nostrils if they sat in their large orchard. Or by the fire in the cottage kitchen with the heavy wooden table Arthur had to touch every time he walked past it. It was also Anna Orkney who, while Gwaine clutched Arthur’s hand as if he’d never let go, held him tight after Ygraine’s funeral when Uther was locked away in his own grief. Anna Orkney who told him it was all right to cry because no boy should grow up without a mother.
Arthur loved the Orkney cottage. It was made of solid stone that was nowhere to be found these days. The roof was low and dark and looked sturdy enough that Arthur suspected Gwaine didn’t have to listen to the wind trying to make its way through it with a soft whistle and a push. Inside there were copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling next to dried herbs and a large ham. There was always a roaring fire in the winter and a cool jug of fruit juice in the summer, made of apples or pears from the year before. No one owned much anymore, from before the Destruction, so to Arthur, Gwaine’s house was as good as a hidden treasure.
Apart from land. Everyone could have all the land they desired. The problem was finding land that grew crops and that didn’t glow green from sunset to sunrise.
“Never,” Anna had said, years ago when she closed the book they’d been reading from –– something about a wooden boy that wanted to be real –– and looked at the two boys kicking their legs beneath their chairs with a sternness Arthur didn’t know from her. “Never ever walk on the land that glows.”
He had heard it all before, of course, heard it from the moment he could remember hearing. But somehow, with Gwaine’s mother saying it, and with Gwaine’s thigh pressing against his leg, Arthur took it to heart all the more.
“Why not?” he asked anyway, because it was expected of him. He never got an answer, because no one knew really. But Anna looked at them, for a long time, before giving them a piece of apple pie with a glass of fresh goat’s milk and Arthur had the distinct impression she did know. His father said it was just another one of those legends, an old wive’s tale handed down from the Survivors. Arthur noticed however, Uther didn’t set foot on the greenlands either.
It meant acres and acres of good land went to waste, but no one dared go against the warning. One day soon, Arthur was going to convince Gwaine to take him to Camelot Hill, where the soft green light sometimes showed during the day. They would stay until the moon rose and eat cherries and strawberries until their mouths were red and their chins sticky. Maybe they would even sneak one of Anna’s apple wines with them and get a little drunk while they stared at the stars in the sky, dimmed by the glowing lands beneath them. Arthur would be brave, he imagined, and Gwaine would be a little scared maybe. Although he knew that to be very unlikely. Arthur thought he’d be hard pressed to find anything Gwaine was scared of.
Once, they had seen the great ruined city of Cardiff flare bright green against the sky like a burning furnace. People had stepped out of their houses and brought hands to their chests and mouths in awed silence. Arthur had tasted the fear in the air then, and had been secretly pleased with Gwaine’s shoulder warm against his. It was decades since the Apocalypse was last seen, and Arthur wondered if it had come to Britain first.
“No one knows,” Gwaine had told him the next day, back resting against the magnificent tree in the middle of the orchard. An oak, it was once called they think, but no one could be sure. Gwaine’s hair had been a wild disarray from his forage through the berry bushes, eyes bright and cheeks flushed by the autumn sun. “It was a horrible thing, Arthur. They say the world was burning by the Last Battle, which didn’t last long, in the end. They say the First Race was so weakened by their easy way of life, their debauched way of life, they couldn’t put up a decent fight. They say their arrogance had made them vulnerable, had made them believe there was nothing that could destroy them, that their machines would protect them from everything.”
Arthur didn’t want to imagine this world, these people who were his ancestors, who had grown so feeble and misguided. But he couldn’t stop listening to Gwaine, when he lay there like that, stretched out and languid, mouth blue from the berry juice.
“I think,” Arthur said, when Gwaine closed his eyes, obviously not planning on saying more. He did this on purpose, Arthur always thought, wanting to draw him out, wanting to be asked for more. “I think they somehow missed the point of life. I think, somewhere down the line they got distracted by their wealth and their power and they forgot why we are really here.”
Gwaine’s eyes fluttered open. They were amused and Arthur never knew if this should offend him or make him feel warm inside. “Why are we here then, Arthur?” He asked and Arthur was certain now, that he was being teased.
Arthur shrugged, refusing to take the bait. Instead he stole the wicker basket with berries from Gwaine’s belly and balanced it on his own knee after grabbing a handful and stuffing it in his mouth. He purposefully kept his gaze on anything but Gwaine, because Arthur knew he was waiting.
“They deserved their punishment, Arthur,” Gwaine eventually said, his voice soft and Arthur knew those eyes would be filled with something like understanding because Arthur didn’t think anyone deserved a punishment like that. They’d had this conversation many times before.
“But they did,” Gwaine said, so low the wind itself seemed to hold its breath to hear his next words. “They were arrogant and conceited, uncaring toward anyone who had less or were different than they.” He rolled to his belly and away from the tree so he could reach the basket on Arthur’s knee. And yes, when Arthur looked up he saw the understanding there, but also a mischievous glint, as if Gwaine enjoyed the argument that would no doubt follow. “Imagine if it returned Arthur, the fight we would put up.”
It was true. They were hardened. The first survivors had had to do unspeakable things to do just that: survive. And the wounds of the Earth were still unlicked enough for the devastation to exist in all their memories and every single human was determined to fight for their lives. He sometimes thought Gwaine imagined the Apocalypse to be a shrieking, stubborn pig that needed catching and caging. But Arthur knew, it must have been a being of immeasurable power and rage, to take what it had destroyed. Gwaine’s eyes shone brightly, as if he knew of a force to defeat the creature that stripped the world of all its beauty. It made his heart swell. It made him think, yes, we would fight. To protect what is rightfully ours. Arthur would fight for more than that, but he wasn’t ready to admit that yet.
“But there is nothing left of them,” Arthur said, giving in, unable to help himself but argue back. He looked at Gwaine who stared at him with a slight smile, hand resting on his chin, knowing he had won. “So cruelly ripped away that nothing is left of them.”
“We have a little,” said Gwaine.
Little enough to tease, to tantalize, to never know for sure. “If,” Arthur hummed, letting the sun warm his face and relaxing into the inevitable. “If I had magic, I would go back in time, to see it all.”
“And meet the Apocalypse single handed?” Gwaine laughed softly. “With a sword in hand maybe? It would huff and it would puff and it would blow you away in a cloud of smoke. Then it’d gobble you up and spit your bones out. Best stay here,” he said, adding; “with me,” like it was an afterthought. But Arthur was too annoyed to notice.
“No, you idiot. I meant before the Apocalypse. Before they’d become lazy and arrogant. When the world was a thriving place and the forests were lush and filled with mist. Where the moss was the greenest thing and not the glow of the lands. When the cities were great and prosperous, when the people were so beautiful they were a little bit unearthly. When fire appeared just from pressing a button and when water ran through pipes in houses. That is where I’d go. Just to know what it was like.”
“Would you come back?” Gwaine asked, reaching for more berries, but Arthur snatched the basket away.
“Only if you’d ask me nicely,” he said, picking out a berry and throwing it at Gwaine, who caught it deftly with his mouth. “Where would you go, if you had magic?”
“I’d go to another time entirely,” said Gwaine, and his eyes took that shine again, the one Arthur could never quite look away from. He’d heard this before too, knew he should roll his eyes and huff loudly, but there was something about sitting there, with Gwaine lying on his belly, the orchard warm and fragrant and making him a little sleepy, that just had him wanting for Gwaine to continue. “A much better time, Arthur Pendragon.” Arthur suppressed the shiver that always threatened to trickle down his neck and along his spine when Gwaine said his name like that. Here, in the shade of the ancient tree, it was more a roar of pleasure than a trickle, and Arthur stoically ignored it.
So when Gwaine repeated, “There was a much better time, once,” and smiled, Arthur put the basket with berries between them and shuffled a little further away, ignoring the slight frown that nestled between Gwaine’s eyebrows.
“Tell me about that better time again,” he said, when Gwaine didn’t continue. He wanted to make the frown disappear as well as stop his mind from drifting. To how Gwaine’s mouth would taste, sweet and tender so that someone could easily drown in the delight of it. Gwaine rolled away onto his back and propped himself up on an elbow so he could throw stones in the Sidh Pool at the bottom of the hill. Arthur immediately felt a sense of loss and withdrawal, because Gwaine had been looking at him with something so very close to a promise.
The words once upon a time were long lost to them, along with so many other things. For the past two hundred years, men and women were too busy surviving and rebuilding to occupy themselves with something as trivial as telling stories. That didn’t mean Gwaine wasn’t imaginative, at least that is what Arthur called it, because there was no way he could take his tellings seriously. So he settled back on his own elbows, the sun warm on his face as he closed his eyes, ready to sink into the magic of Gwaine’s words.
“Long ago, so long it was close to the beginning of time, there was a great court that reigned over Britain,” said Gwaine softly. “The court of Camelot, where the Once and Future King ruled from his Golden Throne. It was a time when the lands were filled with sorcery, when men were beyond human in their acts of heroism. They lived by a code, the Knight’s Code they called it, and to become part of this brotherhood, one had to be fierce, loyal and strong.
“Did you ever see a Bible, Arthur?” Gwaine asked him, turning a little, as if he couldn’t quite help himself, but had to look at Arthur. “It was a book of great importance to the Forgotten at one time in their history. It says ‘There were giants on the earth in those days.’ Giants, Arthur. Can you imagine? The people of Old Britain were that: mystical creatures to revere and serve. And fear, too. Because not all sorcerers were good. They say there was one who cursed the Golden Throne so no human could ever occupy it. Because while sorcerers were the ones with power, it was always a human that held the throne. So they wove an enchantment on the looms deep beneath Camelot and bathed it in the breath of a dragon, to sidestep the curse and prevent Camelot from falling. Think about it Arthur, how beautiful and frightening they must have been. Men and women with the blood of dragons in their veins. They could summon the beasts, and they would fight for them. Endless battles were won Arthur, because of this enchantment.”
“Remarkable,” Arthur told him, meaning to sound a little condescending. He knew it didn’t quite work, because Gwaine looked at him with a little smirk, as if he knew Arthur had been just as enchanted as those creatures centuries ago. He could almost see it, the hills, the fog and the dragons scaling the mountains and diving into a valley to protect their King.
“That is where I would go, Arthur, if you could work your magic. To Old Britain, the land of half-humans, magic and wars, Kings and Princes and enchanters. Of battles and forests and mist filled fields. Do you know why we’ve never seen mist, Arthur? The Apocalypse burned the world so fiercely almost all the moisture disappeared. When it rains now, it is hard and relentless but it wasn’t always so. Rain could be soft and inviting, fragrant and delicious. Would you come with me then, my dear friend, would you follow me?”
It’s not like Arthur could resist him when he talked like that, when he called him dear friend, like it was an endearment created just for him. It was nonsense of course, all of it. Arthur knew that. But for just one moment, for the briefest of instances, Arthur could see it all quite clearly; the beautiful faces of that impossible race, slant-eyed and intelligent, above human laws but not obeying animal ones either.
“You know,” Arthur whispered, fingers digging into the grass. “You know I would.”
I'll follow you and make a heaven out of hell and I'll die by your hand which I love so well.
The echo of the words lingered and stretched on the moment between them. Arthur didn’t know where it came from or what it meant, but he could tell by the slight widening of Gwaine’s eyes that he had heard it too.
“I believe you would,” Gwaine told him softly.
Uther Pendragon knew himself to be a reasonable man. Everyone said so. “Uther Pendragon,” they said, “is as reasonable a man as any.”
He was part of the leading party of Ealdor. He had a say in all the important things and was almost always asked for his opinion when matters had to be taken in hand if someone broke the law. He was beyond the sinful pride of the First Race, of course, but thought he could be a little bit pleased with his position in the world nevertheless. A reasonable man. A man in high position and a Pendragon to boot. There was no way of knowing if his bloodline was an old one, but he liked to think, without sinking to such despicable depths like vanity, that it belonged to a very old bloodline indeed. The surviving men and women had not always known their own names when they crawled out from under the debris into the light again after the Apocalypse had passed over their heads. Still, Uther was quite convinced the Pendragons had been highly thought of before the Great Destruction as well as after.
He pretended not to know about what Leon Johnson and his cronies said behind his back, when they made their way down to Vivian’s wine shop for what was surely too much drinking for any man of standing. Land-grabber, they called him, upstart. It was even worse when Lot Orkney was still alive, who would always say things to Uther he didn’t understand until hours later and it was too late for a retort. That he was a land-grabber was utter nonsense of course. Everyone knew you couldn’t trust a word of what Leon said. Just like everyone knew Uther Pendragon was a reasonable man, thank you very much.
He would deal with Leon next time he appeared before the leaders of Ealdor, and he wouldn’t be let free to go and act frivolous and intoxicated at Vivian’s, that’s for sure. Uther didn’t hold with the wine shop. It gave people too much freedom. And where there was freedom, there were ideas and see where that had gotten the Forgotten.
Uther had standards, that’s all. He remembered there were those who led and those who were led, and Uther thought of himself very much as a leader. That, and he knew himself to be above any of the sins that had brought the First Race to their knees. Especially sins like vanity and greed, never mind what Leon spread around. What would become of Ealdor if the people were led to believe one of their most prominent citizens had ancestors who had plundered and stolen right after the Apocalypse had passed over the lands? Nothing good, he could tell anyone who listened. Not that many ever did, but Uther wasn’t aware of that. So next time he had the chance he would make sure Leon paid for his lies and if he could somehow involve that widow of Orkney and that strange son of hers, so much the better. They had too many things in their cottage from before the Great Destruction and everyone knew those had to be handed in for preservation. Maybe there was a case to be made of that, and if that meant Uther could get his hands on that house and the large orchards it came with, then who was he to complain? There was that large patch of greenlands, which was a pity really, but Uther supposed he could live with it, bearing in mind the quality of the rest of their lands. Yes, Uther quite liked the idea of owning that cottage.
There were not many travelers these days, but some crossed lands and waters to find where people still dwelled. They brought stories of entire seas dried out and of miles and miles of soil turned to coal. It’s how they learned the greenlands were everywhere.
"People disappear," Gaius, the town physician, had once told Uther, when Arthur was still a boy. "On the greenlands. They are never found."
"Nonsense," Arthur's father had said, but he walked around the long way to the butchers for a week, instead of passing the long stretch of glowing land by the Orkney cottage.
"Throughout the world, they are," Uther had heard Leon say when they stood in line for Ealdor's finest pork sausage. "Some places they still burn. Green fire on green land. And the people who walk on it, disappear."
"Nonsense," the butcher had said, his three chins wobbling, and wasn't that a decent man, Uther had thought. Straight as an arrow. And his daughter Helen, a fine woman. It would be mildly unpleasant for Arthur to have to live on a pig farm, Uther agreed, but he had already checked the Book of Descent and the Pendragon line didn't cross with theirs anywhere. A droplet of sweat had pearled on the butcher's forehead and Uther had pressed his lips together a little in disgust, but after all, Arthur wouldn't be marrying him.
"But what about Gwaine?" Elaine had said, when Uther had told Ygraine’s sister of his plans. The only reason she was living with them, was because he could imagine the town gossip if he kicked her out, but no one needed to know that.
"What about Gwaine," Uther had said, glaring at her, and had pretended he didn't know what Elaine was implying because such things were just plain unnatural and wasn't it that kind of debauchery that had lead to the First Race's destruction? Conjoining was for procreation and nothing else. And it was meticulously kept track of in the Book of Descent to make sure there were no mutants.
Uther shuddered. Arthur was to marry Helen and if that meant Uther gained a large piece of fertile land as a dowry, that was just a lucky coincidence.
Gwaine Orkney was feeling particularly fine today. What wasn’t there to feel good about, he wondered, as he walked the hill that overlooked their orchard on one side and their greenlands –– the largest stretch in Ealdor –– on the other. He and his mother managed to make a decent living off their fruit and the sheep flock they kept in the large barn on the far end of the house. They lived in a beautiful old-world cottage that they could claim as their own unlike people such as Uther Landgrabber. Tomorrow Gwaine would come of age and tonight his mother was meeting him on this very hill to initiate him in a family secret. Gwaine could feel the expectation thrum in his fingertips. His skin warming by more than just the sun rays that filtered through the canopy overhead like liquid light.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would celebrate his birthday by bringing Arthur here. They would eat cherries they picked on the way and they would drink a bottle of peach cider they hadn’t stolen for once. And maybe, maybe tomorrow Gwaine would reach out and draw their heads together and taste the kiss of fruit off Arthur’s mouth.
Gwaine knew how things worked. He’d had a fumble with one of Vivian Lee’s girls at her wine shop a few times, but he knew that wasn’t where his heart lay. And so did his mother.
“He wouldn’t let you have him, you know,” Anna had once said. “Uther Pendragon. He’ll marry him out to Godwyn’s only daughter. Or worse, to Helen. Anyone with an only child and a business to take over so the Landgrabber will get a dowry in return. He won’t even consider whether Arthur is in love or not. And he certainly wouldn’t consider an Orkney even if you were a girl. No,” she repeated, biting the thread off her needlework as Gwaine sipped his honeyed goat’s milk. “He wouldn’t let you have him.”
“But you would?”
“Sweetheart,” his mother had said, dropping her mending in her lap so she could take his face between her calloused hands. “As long as you’re happy, I don’t care who you love. I just don’t want to see your heart broken.”
So that’s why Gwaine hadn’t pressed his palms into the hollows of Arthur’s body. Why he hadn’t folded his fingers around Arthur’s wrist and lead him to his bedroom. Even though he could sometimes see the question in Arthur’s eyes, hear it almost ––
Is this it? Will he kiss me now? Will it be sweet?
Yes, Gwaine wanted to say, it will taste like the strawberries on your tongue.
But tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.
The sun was setting behind the greenlands and they started to glow like the slow lighting lamps Gwaine had once read about in a book kept in the House of Preservation. They would shine brighter and brighter until eventually even the stars had to yield to their light. Gwaine was early, so he sat down in the fragrant grass and wondered not for the first time, what he would find out tonight.
He always knew there was something his mother was not telling him. Once a year, always the night before his birthday, she’d disappear.
“To help a lambing,” she’d say, but a night not long ago Gwaine had searched for her and she’d been nowhere to be found. “One day,” she’d told him softly, when he’d asked, “I will tell you Gwaine, because the responsibility will fall to you when I’m gone.”
In the distance, where the darkness fell first when the sun was gone, he could see lamps light windows like blinking eyes awakening. A single lantern bobbed up and down, up the hill toward him.
“Are you ready, Gwaine?” his mother asked, when she reached him, her face shrouded in cloak and dusk.
“I am,” he said, unusually solemn because a heaviness clung to the remaining light, reluctant to let go, as he rose to his feet.
“Then down we go.”
“Down? But ––” He glanced toward the slowly blooming greenlands. “No one ever goes down.”
Anna just turned and started down the hill.
Lancelot had been initiated in the Keeper’s Circle when he was very young, because his father had been too ill to continue protecting the secret.
"Guard it with your life," his father had said to a boy too young to understand the perpetuity of loss, "and pass it on to your own son, so he can pass it on to his. Maybe he will be the last of the Keepers."
Because the greenlands were disappearing. Slowly they were dimming, shrinking at the edges like lakes drying out. One day the Keepers’ Circle would become unnecessary and the greenlands would become myths, like so many of the stories left over from their forefathers.
Lancelot looked at the man, not much younger than himself, who'd joined their circle. An air of excitement thrummed around him, but no nervousness. He had a touch of arrogance but with an easy smile to temper it. He was the kind of man to never take anything seriously, but who you could trust with your life regardless. Lancelot felt strangely drawn to him, and found himself wishing he could take off his cape and show his own face.
"So," Gwaine was now saying, his eyes twinkling in the firelight the Keepers sat around. It was the ancient, deep-rooted need to huddle together and share tales in the dark around a fire, which even the Apocalypse hadn't been able to eradicate, "so, the greenlands are tears in the Curtain of Time?"
"Yes," Lancelot said, because even though all the Keepers needed to be present during an Initiation, only one was assigned to speak so their identity remained protected. Each of them owned a large piece of glowing lands in their town and had thus been given this burden, this privilege to carry. "When the Beast tore through the world, it was so powerful, so devastating, it ripped the very fabric of time. It clawed at the folds and opened windows and doors to the past. Never to the future, because times were so uncertain back then, there was a possibility there would be no future at all.
“When the first Survivors settled on these lands early after the devastation, they found they could travel back and forth, the tears were that pronounced. It is how we know a very little of our pasts."
Gwaine leaned forward, the fire catching the red in his hair. "So, does every piece of glowing land go to the same point in time?"
"No," Lancelot said. "We have stories of Romans, men in armor with magnificent red plumes on their heads, riding through countries and claiming them for their own. We have proof of cities, larger than you can imagine, where people traveled in metal contraptions. Where they flew through the air in them, traveling to the far ends of the world. Every patch is a different portal to a different time. But it is forbidden now, to travel through. Too many have gone and never returned."
They never returned.
Because the greenlands were fading.
“Amazing,” Gwaine said, crossing his legs beneath him. Anna sat quietly beside him and even though Lancelot couldn’t see her face, her entire posture shone with pride.
“This knowledge comes with responsibility, Gwaine,” Lancelot said, seeing the same longing he had felt himself shine in those dark, excited eyes. “Imagine what people would do if they knew. They would want to return to better times and there are few enough Survivors as it is, still. We need to build our own lives, look toward our own futures, not the past. And not all glowing lands lead to beautiful times. The First Race knew terrible wars. Terrible illnesses. So this night you must swear an oath.” Lancelot rose to his feet because it was always better to do something official standing up. Gwaine and the others, faces still in shadow, followed.
“Gwaine Orkney, like your mother before you and her father before her as her father’s father did at the beginning of the new age, do you swear to keep the secret of the greenlands safe?”
“I swear,” Gwaine said softly.
“Do you swear to protect the lands you own, to never allow anyone to walk them?”
“Do you swear to never of your own volition, without the consent of the Keepers, attempt to step through the gap in time yourself?”
Gwaine hesitated and Lancelot didn’t blame him. Because the temptation was great. The lure of a lush world where the skies hadn’t burned yet. The seduction of all the knowledge now lost, forever.
“I swear,” Gwaine said, eventually and they all exhaled a sigh of relief, because it was always a risk initiating someone new.
The embers of the fire glowed stark orange against the green soil only a few feet away. There was nothing left to say, and some of the Keepers had already begun to withdraw in the darkness. Lancelot wouldn’t see any of them again for a year. He wondered how much longer there would be need of these secret meetings.
“Is this it?” Gwaine asked, the mischief in his eyes rapidly returning now that the oath was given.
“This is it,” Lancelot said with a smile. He begun to step back himself when Gwaine said ––
“Wait. Where does this piece of greenland lead to?”
Lancelot looked at him for a long time before answering.
“To the time of ancient Kings and Sorcerers,” he said. “To the Royal court of Camelot.”
Arthur found himself on the family carriage with an odd feeling in the depths of his chest.
“Where are we going?” he asked his father again, who had refused to look at him all day. His Aunt Elaine had huffed more than once during dinner but said nothing. Which was unusual in itself because Aunt Elaine always had something to say. Arthur remembered her sharing a piece of her mind concerning a new policy regarding punishment for the hiding of old world artifacts Uther had had a heavy hand in. Any other time it would’ve made him smile, but today Arthur had a sense of foreboding that predicted nothing good.
Uther just clacked his tongue and urged on the old horse as it pulled them up the road leading to the other end of town.
Arthur’s apprehension only deepened when they turned into the drive leading to the pig farm. “Father,” he began, his voice low and thick with something Uther perhaps knew he could ignore no longer.
“You are to be conjoined with Helen today, Arthur,” he said crisply as if expecting an argument. “Alined and I have signed the contract and it has been noted in the Book of Descent already. It’s a done deal.”
“A done deal?” Arthur demanded, his heart thundering past a beat. “Father I can’t ––” No, was his only thought. Oh no, Gwaine.
“It is done. You are expected,” Uther repeated and they rode on, Arthur in dazed silence, cold sweat beading at the nape of his neck, his stomach churning in horror. Before long they stopped in front of an ugly square house, surrounded by a permanent trace of pig waste and rotten food. The butcher and his daughter waited on the doorstep, Helen smiling a big gap-toothed smile.
“Go on Helen,” her father said, pushing her roughly forward and no, Arthur thought, this cannot be. I can’t spend the rest of my life in this awful place with these awful people and pigs.
He thought of Gwaine’s house. Of the way the old kitchen would smell of lavender at the height of summer. Of the way the linens snapped in the breeze when Anna had done the washing. Of the way Gwaine would always, always carry the scent of apples wherever he went. And then Arthur thought of how this house would smell at the height of summer. Of how his bride would smell after a day’s work.
His mind was frozen in a shock of disbelief and all he could do, when Uther gave him a gentle shove and said, “Go on Arthur, Helen will show you the house,” was stumble forward and then be dragged inside to hear the door lock behind him. As if to shut out a life that had once seemed bright but suddenly lost all color.
“Well,” Helen said, digging her fat fingers into Arthur’s face, “aren’t you a catch.” She dragged him up the stairs, and because Ygraine had taught him manners from when he was very little, (always be a gentleman, my boy), Arthur followed. “This,” Helen whispered in Arthur’s ear when she threw open a door, “will be our room, Arthur.” Only it sounded like Arfur, and it made his skin crawl.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” he began, when she pushed him inside.
Through the open window and a world away, he could hear his father chatting to Alined, no doubt congratulating themselves on their bargain. Helen crowded him against the shut door and pushed a sour-breath kiss against his mouth.
“Oh,” she said when Arthur turned his face away, head hitting the door, her voice thick with something Arthur didn’t quite understand and didn’t think he wanted to. “Innocent are you? Well, we’ll soon remedy that. I’ll teach you what I like Arthur. Before long you’ll be able to please me like a man should a woman. What do you think of that? Would you like that?”
Arthur opened his mouth to say, “No, no I don’t think I would,” but Helen disappeared into an adjacent room with a, “Don’t run away now, I’ll be right back”.
Running away was exactly what Arthur planned to do, to go downstairs and tell his father that this was quite impossible, but when he looked out of the window he saw the carriage and Uther on it, disappear into the distance and the beginning darkness. A flood of bitterness threatened to overwhelm him, until Helen reappeared a moment later. The bitterness turned into bile at the sight of her fat, jiggling breasts that wobbled above a corset that was far too small. She looks like one of her pigs, Arthur thought and let out a small hysterical laugh.
“That’s right,” Helen misunderstood, “this is what a real woman looks like, Arfur. Now let me show you what I’ll come to expect from you in the future.”
Arthur couldn’t stop himself from gagging when Helen pushed her tongue into his mouth as she pressed a hand to his groin. It was reflex that made him shove her away. He didn’t mean for her to trip, but trip she did and for a second she looked like a fat flailing sow, squeezed into a corset, before she teetered over and lost her balance. Helen knocked herself out on the ground and after checking she was still breathing, Arthur bolted out of the door and the house and never looked back.
So it was all true, Gwaine thought, as he climbed the hill back toward the orchard, his mother saying something about checking on the sheep. Camelot, the magic, maybe even the dragons. They all existed some time in the past and it was all there, right at his doorstep. Gwaine was in the middle of dreaming up castles and palaces and men and women too beautiful, almost, to behold, when something made him look up and think Arthur.
Gwaine ran through the orchard, past the trees that bore no fruit but always made him feel oddly at peace with the world. He ran down the long lane lined with bending birch trees, toward a feeling of urgency. Out of the dark appeared Arthur, his hair messed up by the breath of the wind and never more gorgeous as he threw out his arms and Gwaine caught him, pressing Arthur, Arthur, Arthur into his neck.
“I can’t stay, Gwaine. Alined has no doubt warned my father by now, and if Uther finds me here he will have reason to do what he always wanted. To take your house. I have to hide.” Arthur pressed his fingers into Gwaine’s shoulders as if willing him to understand what he had no time to explain.
Arthur needing him was all Gwaine had to know. “Go to the abandoned barn at the edge of the orchard. I will wait for them because they’ll come searching here first. You know they’ll expect you to come to me. And when they’ve gone ––” Gwaine had to stop and breathe. He looked at Arthur’s flushed face and felt how Arthur’s chest heaved beneath his hand. “When they’ve gone,” he said softly, “I will come for you.”
Gwaine always thought he’d be the one to kiss Arthur. That he'd be the one to lead and Arthur would follow. The press of Arthur's fingers was a surprise against Gwaine's lips, then, and when Arthur's mouth took their place and kissed away their taste before Gwaine had a chance to savor it, he was left a little breathless.
"Don't be long?" Arthur murmured, the words a promise and a question Gwaine desperately wanted to answer. And then Arthur was gone, weaving between the trees and disappearing into the darkness.
Not a moment after Gwaine closed the cottage door behind him, there was a knock and then a bang before he had a chance to open it again. "Where is he?" he heard Uther yell. "I know you're in there Gwaine. Where is my son?"
Gwaine quelled the rising rage and plastered a smile on his face as he opened the door again. "Mr Pendragon," he said, barely giving Alined behind the angry man a glance. "Always a pleasure to see you. How can I help?" Gwaine stepped outside and closed the door before Uther had a chance to come in. Because Gwaine would die before he'd allow that oaf to sniff around his house, beady eyes peering at everything they owned: a-ha, they'd say, o-ho, yes, this is quite lovely. This would suit me nicely.
Never, Gwaine thought. Never will you get your grubby hands on our possessions, Uther Landgrabber.
"Don't play games with me, Orkney, I know Arthur is here," Uther said. "Bring him to me this instant or there will be consequences."
"Arthur?" Gwaine said. "No, sorry. Haven't seen him all day. I've been helping mum with ––"
Uther crowded into his space but Gwaine held fast, never blinking. As he glanced over his shoulder, uncomfortable perhaps with the butcher overhearing, Uther hissed, "My son is joined with Helen now, Orkney, so you can put any ideas out of your head."
Helen, Gwaine thought with a shudder, oh Arthur, no wonder you ran.
Gwaine pulled himself up to his considerable height and watched Uther hesitate with mild satisfaction. There wasn't much left of the First Race's hospitality. People kept to themselves, mostly. But there was still the unspoken rule that no man should be insulted under his own roof and Uther Pendragon came dangerously close to violating that rule.
"I am telling you," Gwaine said, realizing he would have no choice but allow these men to search their lands, "Arthur has not set foot in our house this day." It wasn't a lie and Uther's eyes widened.
"Of course," Alined cut in because he was not a brave man. He bowed a little and wringing his hands together, mumbled, "Our apologies. Worried… you understand. Something may have happened… Injured, perhaps. Surely you wouldn't deny us the opportunity to search for him? You never know, he may have made his way here without your knowledge."
Opportunity indeed, Gwaine thought and he saw Uther's eyes light up. Aloud he said, "Of course not, shall I fetch mother?"
"That won't be necessary," Uther said, his voice thick with anticipation." You could show us around."
Gwaine had to hang on to every ounce of his will not to grind his teeth as Uther looked through every building, Alined whimpering apologies the entire time. He felt time was running out, something nagged at the edge of his mind. In stops and odd starts Gwaine imagined he could hear music but whenever he strained to listen, it was gone.
“Well,” Uther said afterwards, sour-faced and disappointed. “It seems we were mistaken. Forgive our intrusion.” His eyes narrowed. “Is something wrong?”
“No, I ––” Gwaine gasped, “–– nothing’s wrong.” He rubbed at a non-existing bruise on his chest. It’d felt like something snapping, like a door closing somewhere or a trap falling shut and just like that, between one labored breath and the next, Gwaine knew Arthur was gone.
The night was so dark it glistened like a lake and Arthur moved silently, as if a racial memory of days spent hunting had awakened in his bones. He had run toward the old barn but he understood then, with a sharp ache in his lungs, his father’s rage –– and his greed –– knew no bounds. Arthur had to run further, hide deeper, but the warnings rang clear as day.
Never walk on the glowing lands.
They wouldn’t search for Arthur there. The fear instilled from birth flared and Arthur wondered not for the first time what the consequences would be. Would the earth swallow him whole? Did the Apocalypse still linger in this poisonous green glow? Would Arthur die here this night? Yet a life on a pig farm, a life with Helen, a life without Gwaine was nearly as unbearable as the thought of Gwaine and Anna being turned out of their house if Uther discovered him here.
I must do it, Arthur thought, for Gwaine’s sake.
Tomorrow, when the sun gently broke dawn to the world, he’d find Gwaine at the barn.
Arthur hadn’t expected he’d kiss Gwaine. Oh, he’d thought about it. Many times. But to think and to do were two things, sometimes worlds apart; but when he did, when they kissed for the first time, Arthur had felt complete.
I will never leave you.
I will never want to go.
There had been no need to say it, because the words had spun between them like a tale woven on an ancient loom. Tenderness welled up in Arthur, and for a moment he wanted to turn and run back and pull Gwaine close because a sudden sense of loss chilled his veins. He shook himself. “Don’t be ridiculous, Arthur Pendragon,” he said to the ground at his feet.
He hesitated only for a moment, because Arthur was not a coward, and then he stepped onto the green glowing soil, a shiver he wrote down to nerves crawling up his spine. When nothing happened, when the land didn’t rise and swallow him whole. When the earth didn’t open, Arthur ran on in the direction of what they still called the Lake of the Sidh.
The longer he ran, the more confident he became. If there ever was a terrible power hidden in the light rising from the ground, it was long gone. He slowed to a walk, catching his breath and looking over his shoulder. He saw no movement from the cottage, he heard no voices call out in anger and he finally took the time to really look around him.
In the distance the Sidh pool sparkled black and wet. The lack of light must have been playing tricks on Arthur’s eyes because he thought, for a moment, that he saw trees, a forest that had never been here during daylight. Something else than just the green glow rose from the soil now, something soft and wispy and a little bit damp.
Mist, he thought, remembering Gwaine’s tales of fertile woods and soft moss-covered lands. Arthur thought he could feel it almost, the gentle spring beneath his feet instead of the dried out, burnt world he grew up on.
And then he could hear it.
Come to us, Arthur Pendragon. Follow our voice and come to us. Step into an age long lost. Fall into a land of myth.
“Who’s there?” Arthur called out, not as firm as he’d hoped. “Show yourself.”
The voice that was one and many laughed, the sound more glorious than anything Arthur had ever heard. Like music. Like music the Survivors had forgotten to make.
To gaze upon us means death, Arthur Pendragon. Because we are so beautiful, to behold us would sear your eyes and your soul.
“How do you know my name?” Arthur asked. His feet still carried him onward, even though he wasn’t aware of it. I am going mad, he thought.
You would go mad, the voice called with a ripple of amusement, but we won’t let you. We need you Arthur Pendragon, so come to us. Step through the Time Curtain and into the world of your dreams.
That’s it, Arthur thought, I’ve fallen asleep and I am dreaming.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.
Arthur felt like he’d heard those words before but he couldn’t remember where. The mist was definitely there now, and so were the trees. And the land beneath his feet no longer glowed green.
Follow us, Arthur Pendragon, for we are the Sidh and we serve only the true King. Follow us and take on your destiny.
Arthur had the vague impression of stepping through something silver and intangible. A barrier, cool and gentle, washing over him like spring rain. There was a moment, brief and fragile, where he understood he could turn back and then he was suddenly and completely cut off from everything he knew.
For a moment Arthur’s senses had been blinded. Unable to see or hear anything, he had stumbled forth. It’s all right, he had thought, I can always go back. Back to my own … His own where? Home felt so out of reach, wherever he was. His sight returned. The trees wearing mist like breath-stirred silk cloaks were definitely real and the moss was soft and lush beneath his feet. The air smelled unscorched and clean.
The blue and green island. The forests of Gwaine’s tales. But it couldn’t be. Surely, surely such a thing was absurd. Impossible.
“Where am I?” Arthur asked. There were flitting emerald forms woven within the mist, and Arthur knew the voices were still with him.
In a land far, far away, they hummed, a thrill of music behind their words, in a time of magic. Are you afraid, human?
“No,” Arthur said immediately, but it was a lie. He was afraid. Yet, Arthur was a child of a devastated world, a member of a race that had seen the end and lived through it. So he straightened his back and lifted his chin and he felt the ripple of excitement run through the Sidh. Yes, they seemed to say, he is here. He has returned.
“Show me the way,” Arthur said and a path cleared through the fog. A long straight road that lead into greying dawn, toward a formidable fortress that lay out half into the sea and would only be accessible during low tide, appeared at Arthur’s feet. Someone lives there who wants to keep the world out, he thought. Or who the world wants to keep in.
Tintagel, the Sidh told him in their ethereal voice, the name sending a shiver down Arthur’s spine. Take the road and walk toward your fate, Pendragon. Your return, it is foretold. We must go and collect our dues.
“My return?” Arthur wanted to ask, but the fleeting shapes seemed to meld with the trees and then they were gone. But Arthur wasn’t alone. Two creatures flanked the path he was to take. Their chests stood as high as his shoulders and their entire bodies were covered in metallic scales that never seemed the same color twice. He had heard of these creatures. Seen a much smaller version in one of the few books that the survivors had managed to rescue from the fires of the Apocalypse. Lizards, his mind told him.
Dragons, said his heart.
Gwaine felt like punching someone, preferably Uther, in the face. He knew Arthur was in danger, feared that he had set foot on the glowing lands and every second spent with these idiots was a second closer to losing him. When he finally got rid of Uther and the sycophantically whimpering butcher –– even Uther seemed to have second thoughts about a union between their families –– Gwaine ran. He didn’t find Arthur at the barn, nor was there any other sign of him anywhere, and Gwaine knew he was right. Arthur had gone to the greenlands, had perhaps gone through to the past already.
Not that I will keep my promise, love. I will break my oath for you.
He would go after him, Keeper’s Circles be damned.
Only Anna came home, weary from working through most of the night, while Gwaine was packing a bag.
“We’ll summon them,” Anna said, when Gwaine told her where he was going. “The rules have been broken before.”
“There is no time, mother,” Gwaine said, his heart beating the frantic pace of fear because, Arthur, I can’t feel you anymore.
“We have no choice.”
This time there were only four of them.
“Lancelot,” the old man said, his beard and voice grey with age. “You must go with him. You must keep him safe and you must both swear you will return. No matter the cost. No matter what you find.”
“Anhora,” Lancelot said, because in a time like this anonymity seemed superfluous. Even in the sunrise Gwaine noticed Lancelot’s eyes were so dark they were nearly black. Something unspoken passed between the two men when Anhora handed over a large ring that Lancelot slipped on his finger. Gwaine shifted his weight. He wanted to leave, now. He wanted to run to the greenlands and find Arthur before it was too late. Before ––
No. I’d know if you were dead, my love. I’d know if you were forever lost.
“Only death or severe disfigurement justifies staying behind,” Anhora said softly and his eyes shone with knowledge that saddened the edges of his ancient, kind face. “Bring back Arthur Pendragon,” he said to Gwaine, “and fare thee well.”
The old words of parting settled Gwaine a little and his fear subsided, made room for a tingle of excitement, because yes, Arthur was in danger, but Gwaine was about to travel through the Curtain of Time. Gwaine was about to step into the past and see a world where creation throbbed like a thick artery, succulent with life so that it spilled from people’s fingers and illuminated golden in their eyes.
“Are we waiting for something?” Gwaine asked when they were in the cottage, watching as Anna packed them cheese and freshly baked bread and honeyed wine.
“Because,” she said, “you don’t want to arrive there starving. Who knows when you’ll eat again.”
“Dawn is a good time,” Lancelot said. “I think, if there is any magic left in our discolored world, it would linger at dawn and dusk, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” Gwaine found himself saying, because Lancelot with his kind eyes and soft smile just was the sort of fellow you found yourself agreeing with.
“Shall we, then?” he asked, when Anna had pulled Gwaine into a fierce hug and after a moment’s hesitation, Lancelot too, whispering not quite quiet enough, “Take care of him”.
“We shall,” Gwaine said, anxiety and exhilaration revolving around his spine.
Quickly they walked the open stretch between the orchard and the greenlands, sunlight barely licking the horizon. “I feel,” Gwaine said, “like we are being watched.”
Lancelot looked over his shoulder. “Yes,” he simply said, “we must hurry.”
The mist rose for them as it did for Arthur but no blue-green forms spun music and thoughts at the edge of their vision. “What will happen?” Gwaine asked. “Do you know?”
“I have heard different accounts,” Lancelot said, glancing back again, frowning slightly. The glow of the land before them diminished as the sun leached its color. “Some say they were pulled. Others say they were seduced by things they couldn’t quite see. Voices they couldn’t quite hear. I don’t think it’s the same for anyone really. And how do you explain traveling through time, really?”
Yes, Gwaine thought, how do you explain falling from one world into another?
As it was, for them, it was very simple. “We should join hands, I think,” said Lancelot and Gwaine felt a rush of strength as his fingers were engulfed by a warm, rough hand. He will not fail me, Gwaine thought, and at once came the response.
Lancelot gave him a sly smile, but there was no time to be more than startled. They were at the centre of the light now, and Gwaine was aware of an eternal silver-blue sheath that beaded with brightness and trailed through the dew. “It is yielding,” Lancelot said and Gwaine tightened his grip.
They heard soft, achingly beautiful music and the horizon seemed to expand before them. Then, one moment they were walking toward the Lake of the Sidh, behind it nothing but bare greenland; the next an enormous fortress appeared before them. Blood hummed in Gwaine’s ears, so that he thought, I am going to faint and won’t that be embarrassing. But he didn’t.
Neither of them could really pinpoint the moment it happened and afterwards, Gwaine would say it just arose from the mist, like a monster from legend.
“Camelot,” Lancelot said a little breathlessly.
“But something’s wrong,” Gwaine said, “it’s supposed to be bright and golden.” He knew this in the very depths of his bones, as if it had been written in their marrow the moment he was born. “It’s supposed to be golden and a beacon of hope and beauty. It’s too dark.”
“Nevertheless,” Lancelot said, “it’s where we must go. It’s where Arthur would have gone.”
Yes, Gwaine thought, his heart warming. Arthur. He began to walk forward.
“Gwaine,” Lancelot said, and Gwaine turned, frowning slightly. “Before we go on, I have to warn you. These people, ––” Lancelot hesitated, “–– you know they won’t be completely human, Gwaine, remember that. They will be beautiful and unearthly and a little bit frightening, but they won’t be entirely human. They will be cruel and wild and cunning. And they will be drawn to you, because you have a trace of their blood in your veins. Do you feel it? Can you feel it drawing you in? Camelot’s enchantments are already working on you. And its people will want to possess you and seduce you. So take care Gwaine, because we don’t know who we can trust in this world.”
Gwaine paused, then begun to smile. “I don’t think I can be cruel,” he said, “but I can be cunning. And I can definitely be wild.”
Uther Pendragon was not a stupid man. Everyone said so. “Uther Pendragon,” they said, “is not a stupid man.”
So of course when Gwaine had wheedled them off his land, Uther had sent the butcher home and turned back. He had waited in the dark, had let Gwaine and his mother go off to do whatever it was sheep needed done to and then, when Gwaine had tried to sneak off with another man –– maybe they had kidnapped Arthur, of course they had, it made perfect sense –– he had followed them as stealthily as, well, something stealthy.
Only, they stepped onto the glowing lands without even hesitating and Uther reluctantly felt a stab of jealousy for their bravery. He still followed them, obviously. Everyone knew they were all old wives’ tales anyway.
Don’t build on greenlands.
Pooh, if Uther had his way... So he went after them, squinting, and wasn’t that strange? It should become brighter, really, with dawn so near, not darker. And what were those irritating little voices that kept whispering and muttering in his ear?
Yes, they hummed and huffed, come to us human, so we can take your essence and one of your senses to feed our music. Come to us and let us use you.
Well, Uther thought, there was no way he was going to listen to that. He had no such thing as imagination. Look where imagination had gotten the Forgotten Race. But he surely was imagining something now. Nothing real about these green, blueish forms that just kept flitting in and out of the corner of his eye. And even if they were, it’s not as if he was stupid enough to follow something as creepy as a disembodied voice.
Ah but follow us you will, human, for a price must be paid. When the Sidh lends a helping hand, it has the right to take something in return.
We need human essence and senses to feed our music. Our music is beautiful and unearthly and spun on the magical looms beneath the sea. It is our life as much as the warm blood that runs through your veins... So follow us human, follow us and let us devour you.
“Well,” Uther said out loud, because saying something loud enough always made one feel courageous, “if this is supposed to scare me off, Orkney, you must think I’m dense.” He didn’t believe it was Gwaine, not really. Not with the way these sapphire shapes kept dancing in the corner of his eye. Not with the way he almost felt the caress of long boneless fingers. But it made him feel brave, to pretend, and it was all he had.
Come, Uther Pendragon. No one can resist our music once they’ve heard it. No one can stop what must happen. The price must be paid. The balance must be restored.
“I will fight you,” Uther said even as the spineless creatures coaxed him deeper into a forest he’d never seen before. “I will fight you with all I have.”
If Uther was a child of the age before the apocalypse, he would have thought them ghosts. He would have imagined them to be spirits left behind in the world of the living. Even though he had no word for them, Uther still felt the same quiet terror so many before him had: the feeling of being watched, of being followed, of being led into a trap.
His voice trembled but Uther was beyond caring now. He found himself in a place that most certainly wasn’t Ealdor anymore, because Ealdor wasn’t green and fertile and Ealdor didn’t have caves that smelled of something salty and damp.
Uther had never seen the sea before, so he couldn’t know he found himself in the caverns of the Fisher King, where the Sidh lived and brought their victims. Where they stripped them of their clothes and invaded their every opening until all their seed was spilled.
More, give us more, human child. Our music craves it.
“No more,” Uther begged, barely hanging onto the edge of consciousness. “Please, no more.”
Then we must take one of your senses.
What shall it be?
His touch? Or his sight? His scent or his hearing?
Let us take his taste.
His last sane thought was permeated with real fear. My God, Uther thought to a god he didn’t believe in when he felt the not-quite-there fingers reach into his mouth, they are going to rip out my tongue.
The beasts clung to the seam of the woods as Arthur walked down the path, their shapes always a little hidden in shadow. As if, he’d remember afterwards, they were forming some kind of guard.
He could never see them completely. The beginning light showed a large paw with long curved talons crushing the undergrowth, then an eye blinking green, the majestic curve of a sweeping tail. Above the soft rustling of the trees, he could hear them ruffle their wings as if they’d rather be flying. Ahead, the castle was a sharply outlined black silhouette against the red sunrise.
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.
“We’ll have to wait for low tide,” Arthur said, unsure if they could understand him. The hem of his jeans was damp with dew, the thin shirt he’d put on the night before and a world away not enough to ward off the chill. He took a shivered breath and tasted salt on his tongue. They had reached a sand-duned beach with the ocean rocking gently back and forth like a gentle lullaby. The dragons, because that was what they were – no lizard could look like this – flanked him and when their eyes glowed with liquid gold, the sea parted before their feet.
Large uneven boulders made for an uneasy and slippery walk, and Arthur had to mind his footing with every step. So when he found himself suddenly in front of a massive iron studded door, it was a little unexpected. The fortress still looked as dark and forbidding even though the sun had now begun her steady climb.
This is a lonely place, Arthur thought, looking at the tiny slit windows. And I have the feeling dreadful things happened here.
Cold apprehension wet his palms, but it was too late now. There were no Sidh to urge him on, and when Arthur looked back, he saw the small dragons flying off through the sky.
“It’s down to me now,” he said to no one and just as he went to lift the huge iron knocker, the doors swung open. Arthur paused only a moment and then stepped inside. Before him was a dark, torchlit hall that led to many doors, but only one of them bled light from a fire. “I’m not frightened,” Arthur said under his breath, and clung to that thought as he pushed the door open, because it was a good thought to have, considering it felt like he was stepping into the dragon’s den.
“I wouldn’t call it a dragon’s den,” an amused voice to Arthur’s right said when he stepped into the room. “But it’s a close second.”
The flames in the hearth flickered and almost died with the draft of the open door, casting a large shadow over the room, and for a moment Arthur thought he saw a terrifying shape of a dragon at least five times the size of the ones he’d seen outside. The door closed behind him then, and all that was there was a young man, not much older than himself, lounging in a solid wooden chair with one leg swinging over the armrest, a goblet dangling from his hand.
“Enter, Arthur,” he said without straightening, “you are expected.”
He smiled and instantly Arthur wanted to trust him.
Oh don’t, Arthur, don’t trust me. Never completely trust me, because I am from an ancient race and I will go to every length to get what I want.
Arthur frowned, but the man just smiled wider. He was more beautiful and otherworldly than anyone Arthur had ever seen. “Come,” he repeated, “warm yourself by the fire.” Arthur walked down the steps toward the fireplace, because –– come to think of it –– he was cold. Which was odd really. He hadn’t noticed it before. He wanted to ask how this man knew who he was, why he was here, and what was going on. All he could do was stare and then the man rose to his feet and promptly tripped over a bear rug.
Arthur raised an eyebrow.
“You’re a bit of an idiot, aren’t you?” and that was not at all what Arthur meant to say.
Camelot wasn’t just dark. It was as if a vital artery had been severed and all the light had hemorrhaged from it. The sun rays fell short of the solid stone walls, and so did their warmth and Gwaine shivered.
“I don’t think Arthur is here,” he said. Because I think I would feel it if he was.
Lancelot looked at him for the first time since they had stepped through time. “Perhaps not,” he said, “but this is where we must start our search none the less. He may have passed here, or someone might have seen him.” Lancelot’s eyes lingered on Gwaine and he frowned a little. Gwaine was about to ask, “What is wrong?” when the large drawbridge before them was lowered.
“It seems,” Gwaine said, “that we won’t enter unnoticed.”
“So it seems, indeed,” Lancelot said, but he still had that odd look on his face as he looked away.
An old man came hobbling down, a lantern held high in his left hand. He stopped before them, holding up one finger begging them for a moment as he wheezed and coughed and caught his breath.
“This is not,” he puffed, “as task for a man my age, I’m sure you agree. But the Lady Morgana says: ‘Geoffrey go see what our visitors want,’ and off Geoffrey goes. Because everyone knows what happens to those who disagree with the Queen.”
“Absolutely,” Gwaine said, who knew nothing of the sort but this Geoffrey seemed to expect a response.
“Indeed,” Geoffrey wheezed, straightening up a little. “Now, what brings you here, fellows?”
Gwaine opened his mouth but Lancelot quickly silenced him with a small gesture. “We are just travelers, Sir. Looking for shelter and perhaps a warm meal. We walked through the night, the famous hospitality of Camelot driving us forward and now we are weary.”
“Ah, my dear man, those days are long gone,” Geoffrey said, sadly shaking his head and his two chins wobbled. “True, Camelot used to be a place of light and peace and prosperity but that all went the way of the unicorn, didn’t it? Since the Lady Morgana took the throne from –– well, we shouldn’t talk about that, now should we. Not if we’re attached to our heads, which I am, rather. To mine, that is. I should turn you away really,” Geoffrey said as he beckoned them on. “But you do look like nice fellows. I mean, no one has manners anymore these days. It’s all ‘Off with their heads’ here and ‘Burn them at the stake’ there, and ‘Bring me virgin’s blood to bathe in’ while everyone knows there isn’t a single virgin left within five leagues of Camelot. Not since the time of The Knights of the Round Table, anyway.”
“Indeed,” Gwaine said, when Geoffrey seemed to expect an answer again.
“Oh, she’ll pretend she saw you coming in one of her dreams,” Geoffrey said as he lead them up dark stairs, “but it’s all fiddle faddle if you ask me. There hasn’t been any real magic since –– but yes, we shouldn’t mention his name. Not if ––”
“We want to keep our heads, yes,” Gwaine, who found it increasingly more difficult not to laugh, said.
Lancelot gave him an ungentle shove but Geoffrey noticed nothing. There was another long corridor they walked, its walls adorned with materials Gwaine had never seen before. It sparkled in the torchlight, but the glint was dull. Geoffrey caught him looking.
“Dragonling’s hide,” he said, not hiding his distaste. “Agravaine’s idea of supremacy over –– well. He has us all believe it is the Queen’s wishes, but we all know better. The Lady Morgana may be many things, she’s not as petty as that.” Geoffrey snapped his mouth shut and gave Gwaine a distrusting look.
“Don’t worry,” he said, holding up his hands in a gesture of appease, “we’re all far too attached to our heads.”
“Exactly,” said Geoffrey. “Now, everyone is still at repast so there is no announcing you quietly but that can’t be helped. The Queen will know about your entrance now. She has spies everywhere. And you will keep all thoughts about the Right– about him quenched, won’t you? Stray thoughts are easily picked up around here and the Sidh may not have shown up at the coronation but that doesn’t mean they don’t still linger beneath the castle. And we all know what it would mean if you’d be sent down to them.”
And then Geoffrey threw open the double doors into the great hall and for a moment Gwaine was blinded.
Morgana had no idea being Queen could be so boring. She sat overlooking her king – queendom with chin in hand, and honestly all anyone ever seemed to do at court was eat. It was all so dreadfully dull.
Even taking power had been almost too easy, once they’d figured out how to control the dragon. Sometimes she’d feel his voice reverberate through the echoing corridors of the castle, but Morgana would clamp down on the premonitions it always carried on its hot breath. She’d curl her hand around her bracelet until it cut into her skin, knowing she’d have to face her dreams one day, but not yet.
“Your majesty,” someone said at her elbow and Morgana barely offered them a glance. It was Guinevere, her old serving girl.
“What,” Morgana said.
“It is Geoffrey; he is bringing the visitors,” Guinevere said and Morgana heard the distaste in her voice. She didn’t like reporting the royal spies’ findings but she’d decided she’d like burning on a stake even less.
Morgana sighed. “Off with his head,” she said. “And the visitors too.”
So boring. All of it.
“Is that wise, Milady?” Guinevere asked. “I mean,” she hurried on, “Geoffrey is the only one who knows the content of all the scrolls and history of ––”
“Yes, yes,” Morgana interrupted. She’d heard it all before, a hundred times over. Her eyes roamed the hall, the groups of people that dined at her tables, some gossiping, some plotting, some sycophantically trying to catch her eye and favor.
It didn’t matter what they were up to. At this moment, everyone, everything in this room was all hers to do with as she pleased.
Apart from the throne.
The one thing she avoided. No one but the Rightful Ruler could occupy the throne and when Morgana had attempted to touch it, she had burned her hand. That, and the deafening absence of the Sidh’s song at her coronation, was the reason why the Knights were biding their time, waiting for her downfall. She knew this, and some time soon ––
“Your Majesty? Do you want the visitors to be beheaded?” Gwen asked, a note of impatience in her voice as if she could really do without the fuss and clean-up of another decapitation thank you very much.
Morgana blinked out of her reverie. “I –” she began, but then the doors opened and for one breathless moment she thought it was him. For one painfully longing heartbeat she thought he had returned to her. That he had returned from his banishment and just walked back into Camelot to claim what was his.
Have you finally come for me, my love?
And for a moment Morgana wished it was true.
But then Geoffrey pushed the two men into the great hall and the bright sun no longer hid their features from view. Morgana inhaled relief and regret with one draw. Still, she felt something tremble in the court. Something was shifting, as if time itself was interfering with Camelot. She rose from her seat. “Welcome,” she said, smiling wide, feral, and the court sighed as one. No heads would roll this day. No, Morgana thought as she looked at the man she had mistaken for Merlin. You are not him, but your eyes are full of mischief and your smile is far too smug. And you remind me of him, which is good enough, for now.
The anticipation in the room seemed to swell with her next thought, as if they could all hear it and some of the younger knights giggled.
Yes, Gwaine Orkney, Morgana thought when he had stepped forward and kissed her hand, never dropping his eyes as propriety required, and said his name. You will grace my bed before the sun rises again.
Arthur found the spiced and warmed drink delightful, but he was hesitant to tell this man so. He was weary of him. One moment he seemed clumsy and a little bit funny with his large ears and open smile but the next ––
The shadows would shift with the sparkle in the fire and suddenly Arthur would have the impression this man could be a considerable enemy. His hair was thick like fur and black like a lake in the night and his eyes, his eyes were almost inhuman. The edges of his irises seemed to glisten golden in the flames.
“And so,” Arthur concluded the tale of his journey, his legs curled underneath him where they sat on the rug by the hearth, “those large beasts left me on the path and here I am.”
“Yes,” the man said, “the dragonlings found you and here you are.”
So they are dragons, Arthur thought.
Of course they are, Arthur Pendragon. No other beast would escort you through Albion.
“But who are you?” Arthur said, ignoring the soft whisper in the back of his mind.
“I am Merlin,” the man said, his smile wide and easy. “And I am the rightful ruler of Camelot. I have brought you here Arthur, because the Sidh still obey me. They are a cruel and beautiful race that live between the world of the living and the dead but they must obey he who holds the throne of Camelot. So I sent them forth and they brought me you, and you will help me call the Dragonlings and escape my prison.”
“This doesn’t look like a prison to me,” Arthur said, but as the words left his mouth he knew he was wrong. It was a prison of loneliness and heartache and pain. “So why do you need me?” he added.
Merlin smiled and again Arthur felt that tingle of warning. “Because only you can free me.” Merlin looked into Arthur’s eyes – and when did he come to sit so close? – and gently touched Arthur’s brow. Arthur felt his heart beat faster, the moment of closeness reminding him of another time – a world away – a time with Gwaine.
“Have you known love?” Merlin asked him, his fingers softly tracing Arthur’s face. “Is there someone in that dry, barren world of yours that makes your loins fill with heat?” Arthur flushed and Merlin laughed. “It embarrasses you when I say this,” he said, tilting his head to the side, curious.
Like a cat, Arthur thought.
Merlin pulled away a little but kept staring into Arthur’s eyes. “There is someone,” he said, “who touched you. A woman.” Merlin swept his hands over Arthur’s shoulders and an unbidden image of Helen pawing at him came to Arthur’s mind. “You may forget her,” Merlin said softly and the memory of Helen left him, just like that. “There is someone else. Ah,” Merlin said, his eyes closing regretfully, “a man. You love him.”
Arthur felt the sharp stab of longing again when he remembered his kiss with Gwaine. “You shall forget him too,” Merlin said, very softly and Arthur stared into his blue, blue eyes and when Merlin curled his fingers through the hair at his nape and pulled him closer, parting his lips, Arthur didn’t resist. Couldn’t think why he should, really.
“Was there anything else my lord, before I retire?” Gaius asked and if his joints didn’t ache so much, he’d tap his foot with impatience. The banishment to this ancient drafty castle really wasn’t doing Gaius’s old painful bones any good. And yes, Gaius didn’t have to follow Merlin into exile –– a fully deserved exile at that, Gaius was well aware. Merlin had been stupid, young and reckless and played right into Morgana’s hands –– but who else was going to keep an eye on the boy? Just look at him now, his salvation barely walked through the door and already they were swapping tonsils.
At least the other young man had the decency to go as red as a boiled lizard when Gaius walked in on them. Not that Gaius would know what a boiled lizard looked like. And he quickly sent a silent apology to whatever dragonlings might’ve been listening in, because it wouldn’t do to upset the Kingmakers.
Merlin just grinned wide and beguiling and said, “No my friend, off to bed with you.” In another lifetime, Gaius was sure, he’d repeatedly whack Merlin across the head. With books. The heavy kind.
But in this one, he’d followed his lord into exile and that was that.
“I’ll be off then. Good night my lord.” Gaius was about to pull the door to and leave the younglings to their fumblings when Merlin said ––
“Oh Gaius, Arthur and I will be leaving first thing tomorrow morning.”
“We will?” Arthur asked and Gaius gave him a doleful look. Arthur looked bedraggled and flushed and his hair stood on end and, Gaius thought, heavens help us if the future of Albion depends on these two.
“I’m sure you’ll find everything you need in the kitchens. Have a good journey and come find me when Camelot is back in safe hands.” Gaius turned to go but Merlin said ––
“Oh but you’ll join us won’t you?” Merlin dragged his fingers through Arthur’s hair and Arthur batted his hand away. Gaius sighed. “Who else would keep an eye on us?” Merlin said, as if he’d heard Gaius’s earlier thought. He probably had. No propriety these young people. Not even a man’s thoughts were private these days. Oh, if only his bones weren’t so old and aching.
“So tell me,” Arthur said, still a little in awe of this creature stretched out in front of the fire. “Why did they send you into exile?”
Merlin’s eyes grew dark with longing or pain or a bit of both and Arthur almost regretted his question, but he wanted to know.
“I broke our most hallowed rule,” Merlin said quietly. He sat up and stared into the fire and Arthur went very still because he wanted Merlin to go on. “A long time ago,” Merlin said stretching his legs out before him, his hands clasped in his lap, “the throne of Camelot was cursed. Three evil witches coveted her beauty and her prosperity. There were great battles, Arthur, but Camelot always prevailed.”
Arthur could almost see it. The earth of the valley of Camelot churning under horses’ hooves, the skies darkened by the beating wings of dragons. Death and glory. Arthur could see it, almost as if he’d been there.
But you were, Arthur Pendragon.
Arthur looked up, but Merlin still stared in the flames, showing no sign he had heard the words that rang so clear through Arthur’s mind.
“They knew,” Merlin went on, “they had not the power to stand against the Knights of the Round Table and the Once and Future King that led them. So they cursed the throne with a wicked spell. If a human would ever reign over Camelot again, she would fall. The court sorcerers worked feverishly to find a counter curse, but the spell was too powerful, so they had to find a way around it.”
Merlin looked up, for the first time since he had begun to talk and Arthur saw the unearthly gold limn the blue of his eyes. “They summoned the dragons, Arthur, and they made them human for one day. Three sorcerers mated with the dragons in human form, because only those with magic would be able to stand the burn of a dragon’s power in their veins, their blood mingling in the offspring. This way they sidestepped the curse, because no true human would occupy Camelot’s throne, you see?”
“I see,” Arthur said softly when Merlin didn’t speak again. He should find all this fantastic and unbelievable, but he didn’t. He simply said, “You have dragon’s blood.”
“Yes. It is how we are bound, how we communicate. It is why the dragonlings listen to me. Or they did, until I was banished.” Merlin’s hand reached out and touched Arthur’s. “Does that frighten you?”
“A little,” Arthur said, because it did. Yet, he still needed to know more, before ––. “You still didn’t tell me why you were exiled.”
Merlin’s hand tightened a little around Arthur’s fingers. “The Blood Bond can only be performed under the supervision of the council of magicians, and only every so many generations, to ensure the counter spell does not weaken.
“But I was reckless,” Merlin said, smiling wryly. “I was wild and I was arrogant. I transformed into a dragon and I mated with one of their females. It is forbidden. The Lady Morgana found out and ––” Something flickered in Merlin’s eyes and Arthur knew he didn’t tell him everything, but Arthur didn’t press him.
Merlin took Arthur’s face between his palms and for a moment Arthur was reminded of something, of someone, but then it was gone.
“Camelot needs me, Arthur. Camelot will fall without me. Will you come with me? Will you help me bring her back to me?”
I'll follow you and make a heaven out of hell and I'll die by your hand which I love so well.
A shiver ran down Arthur’s spine. “You know I will,” he whispered, suppressing the odd sense of betrayal.
Merlin kissed him, and undressed him, spreading him out right there in front of the fire. “Trust me,” Merlin pressed into Arthur’s skin.
“Can I?” Arthur asked into Merlin’s hair. “Trust you, I mean.” He waited for Merlin’s answer as the paths of Merlin’s fingers felt like fluttering apologies on Arthur’s skin.
“For now,” Merlin said, his smile beautiful and feral as he spilled his desire into Arthur’s hands.
The banquet that evening was like nothing Gwaine had ever seen before.
Morgana had appointed a man with beady eyes to show them their quarters, and Gwaine had instantly distrusted him. A warning glance from Lancelot told him much the same but they followed him since they had no choice.
“Agravaine, is the name,” the man said, his smile too wide, reminding Gwaine of a cold-blooded animal he had once seen a picture of in a book. A toad he believed it was called. It fed on flies, snapping them unsuspecting from life with its tongue. Yes, a fitting image. “I have served the Queen since she arrived in Camelot many years ago. She’s the rightful ruler, no matter what rumors you may hear. Merlin was wrong for Camelot, you know.”
“I see,” Lancelot said because Gwaine hadn’t been listening. Not really. He’d been thinking of Arthur, and, when they were in their chambers he said to Lancelot, “I don’t think he’s here.”
“I believe you are right. This doesn’t seem the sort of place where visitors go unnoticed, but we must find out what we can of this world, Gwaine. Let us stay here for one night, and then tomorrow we can go on.”
“Yes,” Gwaine said, his mind on Morgana and the marble of her skin, “that is a good idea.”
So that is how he found himself to Morgana’s left, a woman whose beauty he hadn’t seen paralleled in his own world.
“Tell me,” she said, as if she heard his thought, –– and was that possible? Could they do that? –– “where are you from? You seemed to have traveled far.” She let her eyes rest on his and Gwaine thought how they reminded him of the grey skies of Ealdor. It seemed like they could darken as quickly as those storm clouds. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine Morgana as the eye of a tempest.
They had agreed to be vague about their quest but Gwaine always thought the best lies skirted the truth as close as possible. “We come from a small village, called Ealdor. Have you heard of it?”
“I have not,” Morgana said. She licked honey from her fingers and seemed to spin under his gaze, like a cat. “Ealdor.” She tasted the word as if it was part of the honey cakes. “Somewhere North, is it?”
“Indeed,” Gwaine said, who had no clue where his Ealdor would be in this world.
“And what brings you to Camelot?” Morgana asked, and Gwaine felt like they were the only ones in the hall, even though there must have been at least thirty people gathered for the feast. Lancelot was off to Gwaine’s right somewhere, talking to what seemed to be a group of knights. Their armor shone brightly in the torchlight and Lancelot looked like he belonged.
He could feel her eyes on him, and because Gwaine was a man who knew his worth, he smiled and thought, would you forgive me Arthur? Just this once? Would you forgive me for taking this beautiful woman into my bed, if I told you it was all for a good cause?
Because bed her this night he would. He knew it, and she knew it, –– she looked at him with the alertness of a predator –– and so did half the court judging by the not so covert glances they kept sending in their direction. All this was just a game, a performance for the court. He wondered how it would go. How they would end up together and he found he’d be a little disappointed if Morgana snuck into his room unseen.
“We wanted to see more of the world,” Gwaine said, giving her a small grin, letting his eyes linger on her lips, because he wanted Morgana to know that was not where his thoughts were taking him. Partly because he wanted to distract her from their real cause, but also because Gwaine enjoyed this part of seduction very much. He had played it out with Arthur many times, watching him squirm and heat against Gwaine’s words. He touched a delicate curl of her hair, feeling the strands of it between his thumb and forefinger, leaning close enough to smell the honey on her breath.
Morgana didn’t squirm and her face didn’t heat. Instead she basked in his attention and Gwaine felt his own skin warm at the thought of making her purr beneath his hands. “We had heard of Camelot’s great hospitality and wanted to see the golden city for ourselves.”
“But surely,” Morgana said, leaning forward so that her purple gown slipped slightly off one shoulder –– a move, Gwaine knew, calculated and perfected over years of beguiling and enticing, “surely even you in your far away village, must have heard of Camelot’s troubles. Of how the rightful ruler was overthrown by the evil sorceress and how she plunged the lands into darkness.”
Morgana was teasing him, but at the same time something brittle had edged into her voice and her eyes had taken a shine of vulnerability Gwaine did not wish to see there again.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said, stretching his hand toward hers but not touching, “all I know is that before me sits a woman so beautiful she deserves no less than to be called queen.”
Morgana seemed to hold her breath, and then she stood and held out her hand. And Gwaine felt a sense of pride and relief that they would not do this in the slinking cover of darkness. He took her hand and kissed it, smiling against her cool skin. He looked up at her through his fringe and he felt the ripple of realisation weave through the court.
With her head held high and her footsteps calm and measured, Morgana led Gwaine out of the hall and toward her chambers for all to see.
Gwaine caught Lancelot’s eye roll as he grinned and stepped through the vaulted doors.
“Will he be all right?” Lancelot asked Elyan, one of the knights he had become acquainted with during the dinner.
“Camelot used to be very different,” he’d been saying. “You’ve come at a dire time my friend.”
“Different how?” Lancelot had asked, drinking the rich wine and eating the opulent food.
“Years ago, it was bright and full of life. We’d have parties until dawn and there wasn’t a virgin to be found within five leagues.” Elyan grinned and lowered his voice. “Merlin would cast the most beatific spells to amuse the court. And then, when the sun was about to rise , when the wine was drunk and the food was gone, he’d bed different men and women every night, sometimes more than one at a time. He had quite the reputation, until Morgana arrived.” Elyan had sighed, suddenly wistful and a little sad. “Merlin had been so very easy to love.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Elyan said as they watched Gwaine and Morgana go, and was about to say more when another interrupted, Percival, Lancelot thought his name was.
“If he can keep it up all night,” Percival said, and the others laughed.
Leon tutted, and said , “That’s just a nasty rumor.” He adjusted his red cloak around him to hide the faint flush on his cheeks.
“What is?” Lancelot asked, becoming slightly alarmed.
He liked these knights. They were uncouth and raucous, at least the younger ones were, but Lancelot thought they were trustworthy and would do anything for each other and for this man, Merlin, whose name they only said in a whisper. Perhaps even die.
“They say,” Percival began in a hushed tone that practically carried across the whole table, “that the lady Morgana tends to throw lovers out of the window if they don’t ––” He started a gesture Leon quickly aborted. “–– if they don’t perform to satisfaction,” Percival finished, looking appalled at the very idea he’d ever do or say anything shocking.
“I wasn’t going to be rude,” he said sulkily. “I’d never do or say anything to shock our honored guest.”
“I do apologize,” Leon said to Lancelot. “These young lads never could hold their wine and a clear head on their shoulders at the same time.”
“Lies!” Percival said, but then was distracted by Elyan who pushed another goblet under his nose.
“No, your friend will be quite all right. I see why she has taken an interest in him.” Leon said and he offered Lancelot more wine, which he declined. Lancelot felt he needed to keep his wits about him, especially since he knew Gwaine would do nothing of the sort.
Leon looked at him a moment as if he knew exactly what Lancelot was thinking. “Why are you really here?” Leon asked, quietly.
Lancelot glanced around, but the other knights seemed to be occupied in a drinking game that involved a lot of banging of fists on tables as Percival sloshed wine all down his front.
“We are looking for someone,” Lancelot said quietly. “Someone –– was lost. And, he won’t be able to find his way home without us. We must bring him back, you see. That is very important.”
“Tell me more,” Leon said.
“I can’t.” Lancelot was uncomfortably aware of Agravaine’s eyes on him. “Not here.”
“Tomorrow then,” Leon said, “tomorrow we shall talk, and you shall tell me of your world as I shall tell you of mine. Tonight is for other things.”
Agravaine had enjoyed his evening. He had danced with some of the older court ladies and everyone had nodded and smiled and Agravaine felt he had acquitted himself quite well. Even the headache he always developed from sitting in the rowdy hall had held off until the end. Agravaine had even sent a few inviting looks to some of the younger ladies, and while those looks had always been met with derision and even disgust before – in Merlin’s days – Agravaine felt their resolve might be crumbling.
After all, it had been years since Merlin’s days, who had been quite incorrigible where the ladies of the Court were concerned. Agravaine thought Merlin probably would’ve taken a whole gaggle of those girls to bed with him. Before Morgana of course.
Geoffrey had once told him Merlin and his knights had competitions to see how many men and women they could all bed in one night. Agravaine hadn’t believed a word of it, of course. Anyone bedding anyone else for more than once a night was impossible. He knew, he’d tried after all. Still, when he’d heard the final count, albeit true or not, Agravaine had had indigestion for a week.
Merlin had been wilder than anyone Agravaine had ever known. There were feasts that went on late in the night where things occurred that made Agravaine’s eyes –– and other things –– bulge. Merlin and his knights would by the end be so drunk and sated they could hardly stand. The incomprehensible thing was that, the very next day, those knights, who had stood in a row and aimed at pots to see who could piss the farthest, would stand in respectful silence before their King and ride out behind him and protect him with their lives. Merlin was, without a doubt, the rightful ruler.
Agravaine quickly looked around, but Morgana was nowhere to be seen. He sighed a breath of relief, because even though he fully supported her reign, she wouldn’t be above sending him to the Sidh for a night and everyone knew what that meant. Agravaine patted his belly and burped discreetly. The lady to his left shifted away from him a little. The rightful ruler, yes. And the throne at the head of this room was proof. Merlin had only to come near it and the room would fill with glorious music, just out of earshot, so it had you straining to listen and wanting to catch those notes before they drifted on a summer breeze right out the window.
No! Merlin, all in all, had held too much power and had far too little time for Agravaine, so it was a good thing Morgana –– and where was she anyway –– was queen now. She turned out to be far less manipulable than Agravaine had thought, but he was working on it and he’d find a way to hold at least one of the reins here in Camelot. He glanced around, looking for his queen, but found her nowhere. The young man with the kind smile was sitting talking to the knights, and Agravaine narrowed his eyes. There was something about that man... and the other one too. He looked around again and found him nowhere either. Well. That explained it all.
Agravaine wasn’t surprised. For a moment he too had thought Merlin had returned when the two men had entered that morning. So he was not at all shocked to find Morgana had snuck away with him already. It made him feel uncomfortable. These were just the kind of men who’d be in league with Merlin.
Just supposing these two young men had come from Merlin? Agravaine had always known Tintagel wouldn’t hold him for long. He was going to have to do something about that. What if Merlin had broken out already and was gathering an army and these two men had come to gather information on the state of Camelot? No, that wouldn’t do at all.
Agravaine was going to have to get rid of them. And he knew just how.
Morgana’s dress had rustled to the ground in soundless supplication to Gwaine’s hands. Her fingers had found his skin with ease, her mouth tasting like honey.
“You remind me of him,” she’d said. “Merlin has a veneer of winsome ungainliness with which he masks his true might. I believe you hide yourself behind a curtain of charm and easy smiles, Gwaine, and I do think you are often underestimated.”
Gwaine had kissed her mouth again, sparing one last thought for Arthur before he buried his face between her thighs.
“I wish I could show you Camelot,” Morgana said, hours later, her mouth moving against Gwaine’s fingertips, “but the preparations for Beltane demand much of my days. It’s a pity because Camelot is beautiful.” She looked dreamy, Gwaine thought, as if she was remembering this place as a home, not a castle conquered. “It has many secrets. It could hold you for days and show you the most wonderful things, and just when you’d think you’re lost, it would show you the way out. And if you went back, later, to search for the wonders you’ve discovered, Camelot might never show them to you again.”
Morgana sat up suddenly, as if remembering something, her hair a black corona surrounding the moon-pale skin of her face. Gwaine felt drunk on the union of the first sunlight spilling through the window and the scent of Morgana on his body. “Oh Gwaine, you must at least go down to the caverns beneath Camelot and find its most beautiful treasure,” she said. “There is a rock which depicts a portrait of the Once and Future King, who laid the foundations of Albion.”
“I think I shall,” Gwaine said. He was intrigued, and pleased with the offer to snoop around the castle, but that could wait. He said so.
“That can wait,” he murmured, turning on his side. The sheets rustled a quiet sigh as he lifted himself up on one elbow. He picked a grape from the plate on the bedside table, pushed it against Morgana’s lips and then chased the flavor with his mouth.
Gwaine found Lancelot in the Great Hall, looking cornered and alarmed by a troop of young court ladies. Gwaine contemplated leaving him to his fate but Lancelot spotted him.
“There you are,” he huffed with great relief. He escaped the attentions of one young lady who seemed to be reaching for his hair with an expression of mournful loss, as he retreated. “I’ve been looking for you.” Lancelot took him by the arm and walked them in the other direction of the girls.
They stepped through a door that lead to a balcony overlooking the training grounds where the knights practiced. The clash of their swords could be heard all the way up and in the soft breeze and bright light, Gwaine felt tireless. He felt so full of energy he could imagine himself riding out at the head of these fearless knights. Invincible. At his side, Lancelot spoke softly, “Gawaine, son of Lot. It is returning to you, my friend.”
Gwaine said, “What?” rather sharply, because he wasn’t sure he liked his thoughts being plucked from his head like ripe fruit.
“Sir Gawaine was one of the Once and Future King’s most fearsome knights. He was one of the founders of the Round Table and I believe his blood runs through your veins.”
“And how do you know this?”
To Gwaine’s surprise a slight flush curled from beneath Lancelot’s collar. “I –– conversed, with one of the knights, Leon, for most of the night. He told me many things.”
Gwaine grinned. “You conversed for most of the night, huh. What did you do for the rest of it?”
Lancelot smiled, in control of himself again. “Much the same as what you did with the Queen I’d imagine. Leon is wonderful, but his heart belongs to Camelot,” Lancelot added quickly before Gwaine could pose more questions. “These Knights live by a code, and must undergo stringent tests before they are offered Knighthood.” Lancelot smiled a little ruefully. “They are strong and fearless, but also educated. And they forswear their loved ones and families and go where the King - or Queen - sends them.”
“Harsh,” Gwaine said, who thought Lancelot felt a pang of what could’ve been after his night with Leon.
“Perhaps. But they fight battles and counter the King’s enemies. There used to be a tradition that the young folk of Camelot couldn’t be offered in marriage before being given to the Knights from one sunset to sunrise, but Merlin put a stop to that. I daresay it’s not such a bad life.”
Gwaine laughed. “Come,” he said, “the Queen has told me of a rock upon which this castle was built. It is supposed to have a depiction of the first High King. We can get lost along the way there and snoop around.”
Before Lancelot could answer, the Queen’s advisor appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “Ah, there you are. Gwaine? Is it?” Agravaine said. “I have come to offer you a great privilege. A great privilege indeed.”
Gwaine, who didn’t trust this man any farther than he could throw him, had to force himself not to recoil under the man’s hand on his shoulder. “We were about to search for Camelot’s Rock,” Gwaine explained.
“Ah, yes, a great treasure indeed. But there is time for that later. Perhaps your friend could find it, and show it to you tomorrow after the Beltane celebration. The druids have offered you the chance to see their preparations for Beltane. A unique opportunity I assure you. They are normally very secretive about their goings on.”
The hand on his shoulder was very insistent, and Gwaine shrugged at Lancelot. Be careful, Gwaine heard in his mind and he gave the slightest of nods.
Out loud, Lancelot said, “I will look for this rock, Gwaine, and will see you this evening,” which Gwaine understood to be, “I will search for any sign of Arthur and look for you if you aren’t back by nightfall”.
The morning dawned in a sigh of green and gold. Tintagel looked nothing like the desolate Keep it had seemed when Arthur approached it the previous night. Only one night, he thought, it feels like I have been here forever. Haloed as it was now with an ebb and flow of blue, the despair that had dripped from its walls was less oppressing and Arthur could believe people had been happy there too. He sat on the slope of the dune, overlooking the castle and the sea it parted, his arms loosely wrapped around his knees. Slowly the sun crept over his arms, warming the blood beneath his skin.
On the shore Merlin stood very still, feet bare in the sand. Arthur was too far away to tell if his eyes were closed, but he imagined they would be. Part of him wanted to be there with him, but he knew that this was a fragile moment for Merlin.
“Will they come?” Arthur had asked Gaius earlier, who picked up and set down one vial after another in a small tower room. Gaius had lifted his head, had risen a disquieting eyebrow that held Arthur pinned on the spot for a long time.
“I hope so,” Gaius had said eventually, fingering a potion as if it was precious to him. “If they don’t, our fight is over before it has begun.”
Arthur found himself holding his breath when Merlin lifted his arms, tilting his face to the lustered sky. For a long anguished moment, nothing happened and Arthur felt a bubble of panic blocking his throat. It’s not working, he thought, it’s not working and all is lost.
And then he felt it.
It seemed to Arthur, forgetful of his own world and certainly forgetful of Gwaine now, that the air around him was coming alive. Something trembled the very earth. A deep, deep longing combined with a sense of love and loss –– because in the end, those always bleed together –– pulled Arthur to his feet.
Merlin’s magic sang through marrow and bone and Arthur had to draw on the silty wind to resist going to him. Because although Merlin wasn’t calling on him, Arthur was Merlin’s body and soul, by then. Merlin didn’t need to use further sorcery on Arthur and stilll, he felt drawn by it.
Merlin is summoning his half-brothers, Arthur thought, he is calling up the dragons of Albion.
In the distance he could hear it, the drumming of wings, like a heartbeat carried on air. Over the hill they surged, dozens of Dragonlings. Some soared low to the ground, others running with the striking liquidity and stealth of a pack of wolves. Merlin seemed to glow and Arthur could see his smile from the hill, as the beasts gathered around him, steam blowing from their nostrils clouding the cool air.
They were fast, cruel and beautiful.
He had done it. Merlin had summoned the dragons and he had broken the enchantment. Soon they would ride upon Camelot. Merlin touched their noses and their wings, running loving hands over their iridescent backs. Arthur felt like he was intruding on a private reunion and he quietly scaled the sand dune, leaving Merlin alone with his bloodline.
Arthur felt a swift exalted pride, and he wanted to say, See? See how powerful the man is who owns me? Arthur didn’t say it, because there was no one on the shore with him to say it to. But he also didn’t say it because there was a tiny part of him which wasn’t under Merlin’s enchantment. Nobody owns me, the old Arthur would have said. I am no one’s.
“Is Merlin’s magic powerful?” asked Arthur when he was packing provisions with Gaius in the kitchens.
“Oh yes,” Gaius said without hesitance, “there is none more powerful.”
“Then why doesn’t he just go back to Camelot and take it? Why wait so long?” Why wait for me? Again Gaius looked at him as if he heard the words unspoken. He turned away and stoked the fire in the corner before hanging a large kettle over it.
“Why he doesn’t have access to his full power now, is a tale I can do no justice, but as to why he waited for you...” Gaius turned and his voice softened as he looked Arthur in the eye. “It may be so only a sorcerer can take the throne now. Yet, it has always been the humans that were the Kingmakers. It’s a belief that has been bred in him and the Sidh have long lain in wait at the edges of the Time Curtain. And now they have brought him you and you will ride at at the head of the Dragonlings with him. Don’t you feel it, Arthur? Don’t you hear Albion’s call?” He looked as if he’d say more, but then he smiled, grabbing a teapot and dropping a handful of herbs in it. “But what do I know, I’m just an old doddering man.”
“I want you to have this,” Merlin said, later, as they were about to leave.
Arthur looked at the scabbard Merlin held out. It was beautifully inlaid with gemstones Arthur didn’t know the names of. He raised an eyebrow. “Since we are going to war,” he said, “wouldn’t it be more useful if there was actually a sword in there?”
Merlin grinned, wrapped his arms around Arthur’s waist, whose heart picked up a beat, as Merlin fastened the sheath at his side. “Oh,” Arthur said, when the weight settled at his hip as if it belonged there. “What is this?”
“It belonged to the Once and Future King,” Merlin simply said. He stepped back and his eyes were shining like the amethysts on the scabbard.
“Should I? I mean ––” Arthur ran his fingertips over the soft leather, “–– am I allowed to wear this?”
“It is for humans,” Merlin said. “I cannot wear it. I can’t even hold it for very long.”
It should have been cumbersome and heavy, but it wasn’t. It was light like a cobweb and Arthur couldn’t stop touching it. “It is magical?”
“It is thought to be. It was made for the High King on the Isle of Avalon. It’s a powerful weapon, Arthur. It has only been used in the history of Albion three times.”
“I see,” Arthur said, and he wondered if he should feel weary of this magical relic, but he couldn’t even if he tried. It felt like he was meant to wear it. “Then where is the sword?”
Merlin only smiled again, and said, “Come, we must go. We have a long way ahead of us and most of the morning is already gone. Gaius waits for us with horses at the castle gates.”
“Will the Dragonlings come too?” Arthur asked.
Merlin gave Arthur a long look. “They will go where I command them,” he said.
The sun grazed the tips of the trees beyond the dunes when they gathered in the courtyard. Two dragonlings flanked Merlin and Arthur suspected the others remained on the shore, waiting for them to begin their quest. “Do we ride straight for Camelot?” asked Arthur. He couldn’t wait to lay eyes on this bright and alive palace Merlin had told him about. He didn’t yet know that it was more than that, which called him there.
“No,” Merlin said, sounding far away. “When we take the valley of Camelot, it must be with the faith of the people restored in me. We can’t take any chances. I need to dethrone Morgana and for that I must have Mordred.”
Gaius lifted his head, his stiff hands stilled on the last saddle pack he was tying to a horse. “Mordred?” he said, “We are going to Mordred?”
“Yes,” Merlin said, leading a beautiful bay forward. She bristled when she smelled the dragonlings, but Merlin’s eyes gilded and with a soft murmur she calmed. “We are going to Mordred.”
“Who is Mordred?” Arthur asked. His own horse tossed his head up and down, and Merlin gave Arthur an amused look but did nothing to ease the gelding. Arthur would glower and say something but Gaius’s frown stopped him.
“Mordred,” Gaius said, “is a powerful sorcerer, but to reach him we must travel through the Kingdom of the Witchfinder.”
“The Witchfinder?” Arthur asked.
“Aredian,” said Gaius and it felt like the air turned to frost in Arthur’s lungs at the sounds of that name. He felt the need to wrap his hands around a sword that didn’t fill his scabbard. Odd, he thought, to want to do such a thing as if it was natural.
Not at all, said a voice deep within him and Arthur startled but drew a certain comfort from it too. “He finds witches?” he asked.
“Yes. He finds witches and warlocks,” said Merlin. He mounted his horse and looked down on Arthur. “And then he bleeds them of their magic and devours it while sitting at his banqueting table.”
It was a terrible thing to find the broken man by the side of the road when they’d been on it for three days and to watch the recognition bloom on Arthur’s face like a weeping wound. Gaius knelt on creaking knees, his fingers only trembled slightly, dear lord, he thought, I am getting too old for this. There was crusted blood around the man’s mouth and a small trickle that dripped from between his thighs. Gaius had managed to cover that up with his cloak in a hurry, before Arthur laid eyes on that particular horror.
“Father,” Arthur was saying, rocking gently back and forth with the senseless man staring at nothing in his lap. Arthur’s hands were shaking so hard, he never managed to hold him quite still while Gaius examined his mouth. “Father.”
“They took his tongue,” Gaius said gently, and Merlin made a choked sound, the back of his hand pressed against lips.
“Who did this,” asked Arthur, tears dripping silently from his eyes. “I will kill them with my bare hands.”
“It was the Sidh,” Gaius said, “their magic has a price. Bringing you here was the favor, doing this was the price.”
“Gaius,” Merlin hissed.
“What, Merlin? I am not going to lie. You know it’s the truth.”
“This is my fault, my fault,” Arthur said, beginning his steady sway again when Gaius had done what he could. “I’m sorry, father. I’m so sorry.”
When Gaius saw Merlin extend a hand and the edge of his irises limn amber, he rose to his feet with protesting joints and grabbed Merlin’s wrist. “Don’t,” he told him quietly so Arthur wouldn’t hear. “Don’t you dare.”
“But I did this,” Merlin said, his eyelashes clinging wetly together. “I did this. Look at him. He hurts. I can make him forget.”
“You already made him forget the man he loves, Merlin,” Gaius said far more gently than Merlin deserved. “If you make him forget this too, he will never forgive you. Because he will find out. He might not forgive you as it is, Merlin. I see why you did what you did. But don’t make it worse. Let him grieve.”
“Okay,” Merlin said hoarsely, eyes never leaving Arthur, “okay.”
Gaius closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. He was no prophet but he foresaw a lot of pain in the future of the boy who was like a son to him. “I will stay behind with Arthur’s father. He’s in no shape to travel and he might not make it through the night. Leave the dragonlings with me, Merlin. Go reclaim your Kingdom. If Arthur’s father lives, I will bring him back to Camelot.”
“Thank you, Gaius,” Merlin said, pulling the old man in for a hug before he gently urged Arthur to his feet. “Gaius will take care of him, Arthur. Come. There is nothing we can do.”
“I know,” Arthur said. “I just wish... I wish...”
“Yes, I know,” Merlin whispered, holding Arthur close. “I’m so sorry.”
The woman was beautiful. Her red dress clung to her body like an embrace and the blond curls that danced around her face looked like they were spun from sunlight. And yet, her eyes were too big and her mouth too hungry and there was something that stirred in the back of Arthur’s mind. But the night was so cold,
– “The night is cold,” she said, holding her lantern high. –
and Arthur was tired and knew Merlin must be too,
– “And you must be tired,” she added, softly. –
if only she would stop walking around them in circles, Arthur would be able to think, to concentrate. He sluggishly shook his head, images of a cozy fire, a hot meal and a warm bed invading his thoughts, blocking all else.
“My house is not far,” the woman said, still circling them slowly, as if she –– as if –– “I have a fire going in the hearth, and a hot stew asimmer. There is a warm bed waiting for you, if you want it.”
I don’t trust her, he thought, but his mind wasn’t working. His limbs felt heavy and his eyelids were drooping. Beside him, Merlin stood very still, fingers curling, grasping, as if he was trying to reach something but it was slipping away.
“You can trust me,” she said, her voice now more in his mind than his ears, and just like that, the warning that still curled around the base of his spine flickered and died. “You will come willingly into my house,” said the lady softly when they approached a cottage a little apart from the other houses.
For a moment Arthur felt something tug, simultaneously at his side and in this mind. A last attempt to stop him and he hesitated on the threshold, looked back toward the road they’d just left, the road they shouldn’t have taken, the road the lady guided them along. But then something warm trickled down his back and he saw Merlin outlined by a glow of golden light in the house, so he shrugged off the ill-feeling and stepped inside. The massive studded oak front door with a huge brass handle fell into lock behind him. The woman turned, spreading her arms in welcome. There was something different about her. She’s gloating, Arthur thought.
“That’s right,” said she, her smile widening impossibly. “Lord Aredian will be so pleased to see you.”
Morgause lifted a delicate hand and the enchantment fell away. Arthur gripped his head, fingers digging into his temples, images flooding his mind because all enchantments had been removed. Gwaine, he thought, oh my god, Gwaine. What have I done. Beside him Merlin made a pained noise but the next sound coming out of Merlin’s mouth was guttural, a growl around the name Morgause as he attacked her with a leap, as if he wanted to strangle her with his bare hands. He snapped in midair, pulled by some invisible force, his neck whipping back before he landed in a heap on the floor.
Morgause laughed, high and soft, and Arthur shivered. “Oh Merlin,” she said, “you don’t really think I’d bring you here without having defenses in place, do you?” She prowled around him, circling him again. Merlin tried to rise, his hands spread flat on the floor, head hanging heavy between his shoulders. “Your magic is useless here,” Morgause murmured. “So easily lured.” Her smile was sly and satisfied. “So easily ensorcelled. Who would have thought, Merlin the exiled Dragonking, such easy prey. I am honored to have you in my house. But then,” she added softly, “you knew you’d be here one day didn’t you?”
As Merlin rose to his feet, swaying a little, Arthur stopped himself from reaching out and helping him. While Morgause talked, Arthur had been edging toward the fire. There was a brass kettle there with all sorts of instruments to goad a fire into life. He doubted it would be that easy, but he had to do something.
Merlin shifted to the right a little, as if he knew what Arthur was up to, taking him further out of Morgause’s line of sight. “Yes,” he said, blue eyes never leaving her. “I knew it. For you are an ancient enemy and adversary of Camelot and all who rule are bred to oppose you.”
Adversary, banish adversary –– Arthur frowned at the whisper nagging the edges of his mind, but he had no time for this, he was almost there, almost ––
“I know you very well indeed,” said Merlin, his eyes never drifting to Arthur, but keeping Morgause’s attention. The lady laughed, and yes, Arthur thought, she is very beautiful but dreadfully evil.
“I live in your folklores and your legends, just like the Witchfinder, but as you can see, we are very real.” With a swift move that had Arthur freeze into place, she whirled and faced him. “I fought your ancestor, the Once and Future King,” she told him, acknowledging him for the first time since they entered the house, “and when he defeated me, I vowed to be avenged on his bloodline forever.” She paused, began to smile, reaching for Arthur. Behind her Merlin’s eyes steeled. He stretched a palm toward her but his eyes remained blue and furious. “Am I so ill-favored, Sire?” she asked Arthur, and her eyes did shine gold. To his horror he felt blood rushing to his loins. “Am I so undesirable? Will you not harden for me?” She pressed against him, hips writhing and Arthur recoiled.
“Get your filth off him,” Merlin roared and Morgause laughed, no softness or gentle seduction in her voice now. “You will warm my bed before the sun rises again, Arthur Pendragon, whether you do it voluntarily or not.” She leaned closer, and to his absolute horror, her tongue, forked like a snake’s, flitted out, tasting the air around him. “You will do my bidding. But first Lord Aredian must be told of my triumph this evening.” She spun around, hand closing around Merlin’s neck and with a savage tongue she hissed a spell that brought out fear in Merlin’s eyes for the first time. Beneath her fingers a thick, iron band appeared. “And when I am done with you,” she continued, looking at Merlin, sating on the fury and impotence on Merlin’s face, “I will ladle your blood in a golden goblet and drink it. I will quaff you and devour you, spawn of Pendragon, and I will wipe out your bloodline for good. And while I do that, the Witchfinder will bleed the Dragonking of his magic until his body hangs limply from the ceiling, but he will not be permitted to die until he has witnessed your ultimate suffering.”
And with that, Morgause vanished in a whirlwind of smoke.
As soon as she disappeared, the fight went out of Merlin. Agonizingly slow, as if the evening pressed upon him with the weight of a thousand worlds. He lifted his head and looked at Arthur, “I have led you into the most dreadful danger,” he said and there was such defeated humility in his eyes, a knife twisted through Arthur’s heart.
“You couldn’t have known,” Arthur said, moving toward Merlin, stopping short of touching him, because he wasn’t entirely sure what was allowed here. “Merlin, we were enchanted.”
“I did know,” Merlin said, “I knew it in my heart and in my soul that it was wrong to follow her and still I led you here. I was weak.”
“It was a spell, Merlin,” whispered Arthur, “I had the same bad feeling but couldn’t resist it any more than you could. We were cold, tired and hungry and she preyed on that.“
He hated this, hated to see Merlin like this, so he turned on his heels, knowing it was futile but trying anyway.
The door didn’t give.
“We won’t be able to leave here,” Merlin said, “Morgause will have made sure of that. It would be more than her head on the block to announce our capture to the Witchfinder only to have us escape.”
“You knew you were going to face her,” Arthur said softly.
“Yes,” Merlin said and a small grin curled around his mouth, “at least she sees me as the true King. That counts for something.”
“Right,” Arthur snorted, almost lightheaded with relief at the return of his Merlin, “because that is clearly going to be a great comfort before the night is out.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said. Something in his voice made Arthur stiffen. He wasn’t ready for this.
“There must be a way out of here,” he said.
“Arthur,” Merlin repeated softly, “please.”
“If only one of these windows –“
“I need you to know that –“
“Maybe that door to the –“
Finally he stopped and looked at Merlin. “It’s fine,” he said and he tried very hard not to sound hurt, “I understand.” The reality of it was, he did understand.
“I know but I want to tell you the truth anyway,” Merlin said. He kneeled by the fire, fingers darting to the metal around his neck.
“You can tell me afterwards Merlin, once we’ve found a way out of this frankly quite disturbing night we have ahead of us.”
“That is exactly why I want to tell you now, in case we don’t see another dawn. Please.”
Arthur stilled. “Okay,” he said, Gwaine’s face swimming to the surface of his mind. I’m sorry my love, he thought, I’m so sorry I forgot you. He sat down opposite Merlin, farther away than he would have done a mere hour ago, and by the flinch around Merlin’s eyes, Arthur knew Merlin noticed.
“The dragon blood in our veins, it gives sorcerers longer life than average people. I knew the Once and Future King, Arthur. He died in my arms and the sky hemorrhaged red as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. I thought it would never rise again. We were more than warlord and warlock you see; we were lovers. And when I saw you step through that door and into my world, I could not believe my eyes.” Merlin reached for Arthur’s face, but hesitated, as if uncertain the touch would be welcome, still.
“I am like him,” Arthur said, suddenly in no doubt of this. The voice, the voice in his head…
“Very much so,” Merlin agreed. “I told you about the image carved into the rock on which Camelot was built. It could have been an image of you.” Merlin dropped his head in his hands, and almost Arthur reached for him, but the hurt was still raw. “I wronged you terribly, Arthur. But I wanted you so badly. Just for a few moments more, I wished to be reunited with he whom I never stopped loving.”
Oh Merlin, the voice said in Arthur’s head. It was so full of helpless suffering, Arthur felt his eyes sting. He wanted to say, “He speaks to me,” but found his speech gone. It is best if he does not know, it would only hurt him more. Arthur sighed, reached out a hand and cupped it over Merlin’s shoulder. It felt too narrow to hold the burdens he carried. “Merlin,” Arthur said and Merlin met his eyes with a sea of regret. “I don’t want to tell you it is all right, because it’s not. Not yet. But I am here, with you, and I will be until I see you upon Camelot’s throne once again.”
“It is your throne, really,” Merlin said, back straightening a little.
“Not anymore,” Arthur said and for a moment he felt this was the voice within him that spoke.
The druids had shown Gwaine every courtesy. They had been polite and invited him into their camp. “Quite an honor, you know,” a very tall man with a warm voice and a brown robe had told him. “We don’t usually allow anyone into our sanctuary.” His eyes had been very kind and a little compassionate as if he was on the cusp of delivering some bad news. Gwaine wondered if that was why he was starting to feel worried.
Agravaine had been perfectly gallant and even a little fawning which Gwaine didn’t care for, as he had led Gwaine to the encampment. “Some of the pre-rituals,” Agravaine had said. “You will not have witnessed them before, and very interested you’ll be I assure you. Very captivated.” Agravaine had given him a too wide smile, which had made Gwaine shiver, but he went along anyway. Because maybe, he thought, maybe they have seen or heard of Arthur and not told anyone, if they are so secretive.
Gwaine had relaxed a little when Aglain had clasped his wrist and bid him welcome outside the camp. Apparently even Agravaine wasn’t allowed to enter and this perturbed Gwaine a little but then Aglain had placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and they had once again set off. When they crested the fold of the hillside which protected the druid’s settlement, Gwaine forgot his worries. He took in the colorful tents and the quiet people going about their tasks to prepare for the rituals of Beltane. The air was sweet with the scent of herbs and flowers and even though the people rarely spoke –– Gwaine wondered if they too communicated through thought ––there was a hum of gentle excitement.
It grew when Gwaine entered their domain. It wasn’t immediately apparent, and Gwaine looked around and nodded and spoke in all the appropriate places as Aglain led him around. Most of the druids were dressed in robes with their hoods pulled over their faces. With an abstract sense of recognition he thought of himself being welcomed in another group of hooded figures, in a whole other time, centuries and a world’s ending away from this one. Those figures had been friendly, and these druids seemed friendly enough too. So there was no reason why Gwaine suddenly wondered if Geoffrey at the gate had been wrong, and it wasn’t Morgana he should fear. There was no reason, no reason at all, and yet, Gwaine found himself looking for some means of escape. He felt eyes on him that were appraising, watchful, as if they might be thinking: oh yes, this one will suit our purpose very nicely. Don’t be ridiculous, he remembered thinking, afterwards, right before a burst of pain exploded at the back of his head and the world went black.
“The key is the scabbard,” Merlin had hissed, when Morgause returned and Merlin had jerked toward her, as if he was tethered to her wrist by an invisible chain. Arthur never asked what it did, the metal band around Merlin’s neck, but since Merlin had attempted no magic since they found themselves in this mess, he didn’t have to search far for an explanation. Arthur had pounced, hoping beyond hope that surprise might do the trick, but he was still launched in the air when he was halted by what felt like an invisible hand, choking him.
“This would be too easy an end for you, Pendragon,” Morgause had said, giving him a smile that could have been beautiful if it were a little less bloodthirsty. “I have plans for you.”
Arthur had stumbled to the ground, gasping for air, finding himself bound and gagged not a moment later. And damn it all, he knew they should’ve used their time to talk strategies, think about diversions, strengths and weaknesses, and when, Arthur thought, did I become someone to think in these terms?
The scabbard was strapped to Morgause’s waist and Arthur was momentarily distracted. He remembered Merlin telling him people with magical blood couldn’t wear it. Maybe Morgause was just braving it for now. Maybe she would have to take it off some time during the night. Because of this Arthur was certain; whatever Morgause and the Witchfinder had in mind for them, it wouldn’t be quick.
They were pushed, Arthur still bound and gagged and Merlin shackled around the neck, none too gently into an open cart by a man whose face was covered in burns. The scars snaked into his collar and Arthur wondered how deep they ran and what caused them. The man took his place behind the cart, probably to ensure neither of them attempted escape, while Morgause handled the reins and began their trek toward the feared citadel.
Arthur looked toward Merlin, but he was kneeling, facing away from Arthur, staring into a future or perhaps a past Arthur knew nothing about. He allowed himself a sharp flash of rage; how dare he, how dare he drag me into this with lies and deceit. How dare he make me forget my home and my love. But as if Merlin heard him, he looked up and his eyes were full of the sort of pain and regret that made Arthur instantly admit that it did not matter. Even after all that, he’d still follow Merlin to his death.
And by the sound of the incessant whispering and muttering going on behind him, that was exactly where they were going.
As if he sensed the voice grating on Arthur’s nerves, Merlin straightened and said, “Really, Edwin? After all these years you still trail after Morgause like an injured dog?” Edwin didn’t allow the sting to faze him.
“The goblets are polished and the silver is shining,” Edwin continued his whisperings. Only now he grinned and the effect was quite disconcerting because the burns pulled half of his mouth down. “The Witchfinder has the hunger on him tonight. Someone will be quaffed.”
Arthur couldn’t suppress the shudder that would surely have shook his knees if he’d been standing. Dear god, he thought, I don’t want to die.
Ah but dying, is it not the greatest adventure of all?
Immediately a sense of calm washed over him. I’m not alone, he thought, I will get us out of this. He took as deep a breath as he could with the gag blocking most of his airways, but before he could begin to assess their situation, Merlin let out a noise that sounded like it was wrenched from his mouth.
“The Golden Girdle,” he whispered and for a moment Arthur thought he saw tears glittering in the corners of Merlin’s eyes. “The lost enchantment of protection.”
Arthur looked up, and saw a faint golden glow surrounding the citadel atop the hill. It shimmered in the sunset like the moon might on water and it was beautiful.
“Yes,” Morgause called over her shoulder, mouth twisted with triumph as if she’d been waiting for this, “the Golden Girdle, taken from Camelot a long time ago. This is where it has been the whole time.” She looked ahead again and whipped the horse into a trot. Edwin fell behind and that is why Arthur was the only one to hear Merlin’s soft, muttered words.
As they entered the citadel, the streets were lined with people, faces hidden within capes or just the shadows of the setting sun. Still, Arthur could see the drawn paleness of their skin and the looks of resigned detachment that could only come with years and years of living in constant, terrible fear.
“Behold!” Morgause stood and yelled, when they had reached the center of a dense group. “Behold your Master’s next victim. It is the Dragonking of Camelot!” She spread her arms wide so her robe fell past her elbows, revealing slender, white arms. She laughed, the sound carrying further than it should, but still Arthur sensed more than heard the sharp intake of breath.
If he’d had any doubts left after this moment, whether following Merlin had been the right thing to do, they would have melted like snow before the sun there and then. Merlin had been their last hope and seeing him chained and kneeling on the Red Lady’s cart, to be carried into Lord Aredian’s lair, where he would be consumed this night, was the demise of these people’s last remaining dreams. Despair filled the evening like primrose and it made Arthur’s stomach turn. “Don’t give up,” he wanted to shout, “do not lose hope.” He was bound and gagged however, bound, gagged and powerless.
The citadel was a cold, awful building, melancholy dripping from the walls like tears. Hopelessness, the voice inside him said, is the worst of all feelings. When all hope is lost, there is nothing more to live for. There is nothing left. Never lose hope, Arthur, and you will always prevail.
Terrible things had happened here, pain and fear clogged the air and Arthur nearly panicked, thought he’d suffocate.
Somewhere along the way, Morgause dropped the robe she was wearing, to reveal a thin, loose gown beneath. When she opened a small, rotten door, the sleeve slipped off her shoulder to reveal a small, pert breast. Arthur looked away but her smile was dark and lascivious. Edwin slipped his binds off him and manhandled him through the door, and then Merlin, who snarled but was helpless, before an all encompassing darkness filled Arthur’s eyes.
They were kept in a dungeon for hours. In cages, filthy with things Arthur didn’t want to think about, and too small to either stand or sit with stretched legs so they were cramped and cold and disoriented. His heart stuttered to a stop before kicking into overdrive when he noticed they were to enter Lord Aredian’s dining hall. The sterile, bone-chilling brightness of the hall was such a stark contrast, they felt blinded for a moment. Arthur had expected something like Tintagel’s dining room. A large, tapestry-covered space with heavy furniture and a fireplace perhaps. He didn’t know if such a display of homeliness would’ve made their ordeal worse or better, but none of that mattered when his eyes adjusted to the bright light. He couldn’t work out where the light came from, it must’ve been the middle of the night by then, but it made one thing very clear. Not even his worst imaginings, not even his most desperate nightmares could have prepared him for this.
The room was enormous. So big his entire house in Ealdor could’ve fitted in it. And no, he thought, don’t think of home. I can get through this if only I don’t think of home. The walls, ceiling and floor were all a dull, uniform grey, consisting of a material Arthur had never seen before. A mean little notion entered his mind; easier to clean and he shuddered violently. In the center, side by side, lay five enormous crosses made out of a very dark wood. Their beams were old and stained but still sturdy enough to carry a man’s weight. And with that thought Arthur stomach twisted and he felt terribly sick. Each of the crosses was attached to a chain that operated as a kind of levering system so that they could be erected.
“No,” Arthur whispered, unable to stop himself. Merlin shook his head minutely, looking him deeply in the eyes.
We will be strong, he seemed to say, we will bear this and we will find a way out and we will extract vengeance upon these miserable creatures.
Arthur swallowed. He knew he would be able to bear whatever Morgause and the Witchfinder did to him. He also knew however, that watching Merlin suffer in silence would be too much.
And yet you must, the voice came from deep within him and Arthur clung to it. He wasn’t alone. You must bear it and keep your calm and wait for the right moment to strike. For make no mistake Arthur, strike we will.
“Ah, our guests have arrived. How exceedingly delightful.”
As one they turned toward the stairs by the door. A man stood at the top, one hand resting delicately upon the balustrade, a large golden ring glinting on his index finger. Arthur had imagined Lord Aredian to be a creature summoned from the depths of hell itself, a demon or at least a man ugly as the night. Instead there was this –– gentleman, looking down upon them with a kindness as if he truly was just welcoming them into his home for an evening of light entertainment. Suddenly Arthur understood why they called him Lord. Not because it was some title, but because he was in essence a creature bred with manners and decorum, who would keep to etiquette despite the fact that he was about to sup on two people. Lord wasn’t a title, it was an affection, a mockery. Another way to toy with his victims.
“Welcome to my humble home,” Aredian said in a smooth, soft voice, descending down to their level. Dark scarlet robes billowed around him, his grey hair catching the light so it looked like silver. His smile would have been kind, but when he approached, Arthur could see the ice cold calculation in his eyes. “I am so pleased to finally have you at my table.”
Aredian’s smile stretched to a grin now and Arthur saw him for the monster he was. Cruel and drunk on power.
To Arthur’s surprise, Merlin spoke with the same unaffected tone. “We are, of course, overjoyed to be here,” he said.
Arthur supposed he was the only one to hear the tremor of suppressed rage beneath the words, because Merlin looked calm and collected. Despite the fact that he was filthy, they both were, and that his eyes were rimmed with dark shadows, he looked regal. Arthur could see in him the King, as if he were here to pay a visit to one of his subjects. For a moment it seemed to throw Aredian off balance. Good, Arthur thought, that’s good. It means that despite everything, that despite having the obvious upper hand, the Witchfinder still fears Merlin.
“I’m sure you are,” Aredian said and turned his eyes upon Arthur for the first time. “Ah. I see what you mean, Morgause, there is a certain semblance, yes.”
Morgause appeared by Aredian’s side as out of nowhere. The scabbard still strapped around her narrow waist, she moved a hand and Arthur felt himself being yanked closer. “He’s mine,” she simply said, running a hand through his hair while she circled him, her bared breast pressing against his arm. She came to a halt behind him, turning him to face the crosses on the ground, hand on his shoulder. “You are going to enjoy this,” she whispered in his ear, “and then you are going to enjoy me.”
Arthur wondered if he could make a move. Maybe elbow her in the stomach and grab the scabbard. He flinched at how callously he could think of harming a woman. Then he remembered her snake-like tongue and thought, this is no woman at all. But even if he succeeded, he still didn’t know what the scabbard could actually do. It had shown him no sign of power so far, yet Merlin seemed to believe it held the key to their escape. He would have to risk it, would have to believe. He tensed ––
No, the voice said in his mind, not yet. They must think us harmless Arthur or they will bind you again and then we won’t be able to help Merlin. Wait until they are distracted. He felt a wave of recoiling disgust. They will be distracted soon enough.
Still, it took all the self control Arthur had to stop himself from reacting when Morgause ran a hand down his spine. Aredian however, seemed to have no interest in him. He had been weighed by a long, unwavering look and had been dismissed. The Witchfinder turned back to Merlin and said, “We meet at last, Your Highness. Let me welcome you again into my citadel. Morgause,” he added, as if an afterthought struck him, “there really is no need for that,” he made a vague gesture toward Merlin’s neck. “Please remove it.”
With a contemptuous little wave, Morgause removed the metal band from Merlin’s neck. Merlin immediately hissed a spell, his eyes glowed golden as he called upon the power and for a moment Arthur’s heart lifted as he thought it would work. The magic formed and grew in the air between them but then it halted. The delicate tendrils quivered, then shriveled and fell to the ground where they dissolved into nothing. With it, Arthur felt himself drain of all hope again.
Four guards that had been standing by the door this whole time moved forward, but Lord Aredian waved them back. “That was unwise and useless, Dragonking,” he said. “You must know I am protected.”
“The Golden Girdle,” said Merlin, his teeth bared. “My own enchantment used against me.”
Aredian inclined his head gracefully, as if Merlin had just paid him a compliment. “So you must know no magic can harm me within these walls.”
“I had no idea stolen enchantments were still so powerful,” Merlin said, drawing up to his full height. By his side, Arthur could feel Morgause shift. It was the slightest of movements, but it caught his eye as she adjusted the scabbard at her waist. It is growing uncomfortable for her to wear, he thought. Soon she’ll have to put it down, and then…
“Ah, my dear friend, it was not stolen,” the Witchfinder said pleasantly, “it was given to me. A price was named and it was paid.” He regarded Merlin unblinking. “You are too trusting, Highness. Where there is power, there is corruption. Even in a household as noble as yours.” Aredian considered Merlin for a moment, then softly said, “I expended many years in obtaining the Golden Girdle, and you will never get it back.”
“We shall see,” Merlin said, his voice equally soft but brimming with danger, “the battle is not yet won.”
The Witchfinder smiled as if he found Merlin’s threat amusing. “Everything you have heard about me is true, Merlin Emrys. Every tale, every legend, every whisper in the dark told to frighten children. It is all true. You know what the people of this keep have begun to call you? Merlin the Undying. Tonight I shall prove them wrong. So let’s make no mistake about it, Merlin the Undying; you are my prisoner and you are my victim and I shall do with you as I wish.”
His eyes begun to glitter, and Arthur thought, he is mad. He is absolutely and unmistakably out of his mind.
“I have waited a long time for this night, your Highness. And I shall savour it.” Aredian turned to where Morgause was listening, still at Arthur’s back, one hand curled around his neck. “My Lady and I will savour you both,” he said.
Morgause smiled and her forked tongue flitted between her lips. “You are both my Master’s and mine,” she said.
“Golden goblets and silver platters?” Merlin asked scoffingly.
“Exactly Dragonking,” she said and her eyes turned hooded, “and much more.”
“My Lady,” said Aredian, in a tone of deep satisfaction, “shall we?”
Morgause smiled and ran a hand down Arthur’s chest. He hissed and Merlin started as if to move toward them but stopped himself. A rage took hold of Arthur and for a moment, he forgot his intentions of going unnoticed. “If you touch me,” he said, voice low but clear, “I will kill you.”
Morgause laughed a clear sound of mirth. “You wouldn’t even manage to raise a hand to strike me,” she said. “The Golden Girdle might stop magic from doing us harm, but believe me when I tell you, it will do nothing of the sort for you.”
Lord Aredian regarded him. “I don’t know what you see in him, my Lady, but he is yours to toy with when we are done with his Royal Highness.”
The Witchfinder indicated the largest cross in the middle as if he offered Merlin a seat by the table.
Merlin laughed, loud and clear and for some reason it infused Arthur with strength. “You don’t honestly believe I will make this easy for you, do you?” Merlin said and for the first time the pleasant countenance fell from Aredian’s face. He snapped his fingers and the four guards stepped forward immediately. They grabbed Merlin by the shoulders and dragged him toward the cross. Merlin growled and kicked but it was no use. Arthur couldn’t hold still, couldn’t stand helplessly by and do nothing, but when he rushed for Merlin, he felt Morgause’s grip tighten on his shoulder with unnatural strength, her nails digging through his shirt, drawing blood. Merlin was no match for the four men and inch by inch he was dragged closer to the cross. They took him by an arm and a leg each, and spread him out across the wood.
“Be certain he’s secure,” Aredian said, his voice dripping with lust, “if he breaks loose, there is a cross for each of you on either side.”
The guards’ eyes widened in panic, and Arthur felt a brief stab of pity for these men. They were probably ordinary people from the town below, goaded into doing this work through fear. When one of them produced a hammer and three impossibly long nails however, the pity dissolved as fast as it had come.
Merlin was breathing hard and Arthur was shouting mindlessly, struggling against Morgause who pushed him to his knees. The guard with the hammer poised a nail over Merlin’s wrist that was being held down by another, and waited. Arthur closed his eyes, his lungs burning as if they were drawing on acid rather than air. This wasn’t happening, this couldn’t be real.
“Oh no, my love,” Morgause said in his ear, “it won’t be that easy.” Arthur felt his eyelids wrenched open against his will. Morgause was doing something, forcing him to watch. “You will enjoy every aspect of this evening,” she whispered.
Aredian moved away with a graceful gait and seated himself at a stone banqueting table. “Commence,” he said and Arthur and Merlin both screamed when the first nail was driven home.
When Gwaine awoke, he was bound neatly and efficiently. The druids kept him firmly in their grasp, this stranger, this traveller, this credible fool who had walked trustingly and unsuspecting by Agravaine’s side into their hands. Gwaine shook his head at his own stupidity but it still hurt like hell, otherwise he might have laughed. To come all this way to die. Because he had no doubt that these quiet, seemingly peaceful people would kill him.
“I’m afraid it’s necessary,” said Aglain. He looked at Gwaine searchingly, and rather kindly, and Gwaine, transfixed, thought, he quite likes me. He is going to kill me, but even so he rather likes me and he regrets it.
“Beltane must have a human sacrifice, if it can be contrived. And you have been ––“
“Sold to you?”
“Let us say you were passed into our keeping,” said the druid. “You should not mind. It is an honorable sacrifice.”
“Excuse me,” Gwaine said, laughing now that his head cleared a little, “but I think I shall mind anyway.”
Aglain only smiled, his large hands spreading palm upward from where he sat on a log before Gwaine. “It is an honorable death nonetheless, and I would be glad of your forgiveness first.”
Gwaine laughed louder now and then was horrified. He’d heard stories of executioners begging their victim’s pardon before they let the ax fall under the gaze of rulers of old. What would they do to him? Cut off his head? Hang him from a tree? Buried in the ground, still breathing?
“No,” Aglain said, the kind pity back in his eyes. “You will be burnt alive.” The druid took his elbow and Gwaine stood, unable to speak. He went with him, since there seemed no other option in that moment, but also because if he didn’t struggle, the druids might lose some of their watchfulness.
“It is of no avail,” Aglain said. “We hear your thoughts clear as if they were spoken. It is how we communicate.” His fingers tightened on Gwaine’s elbow. At first he thought it was to stop any possible chance he’d run for it, but then he realized it was an indication of support. “We will not lose sight of you, Gwaine. The Dragonking banned human sacrifice a long time ago, and animal sacrifice not long after that. But to forbid a thing does not unmake it. Beltane is a holy and important night, Gwaine. It is the exact opposite of Samhain. It is the beginning of life and the earth must be replenished. A human sacrifice will bless our crops. It will ensure a good year for us all. You will not be forgotten.”
Gwaine’s mind reeled when he saw where they were. Where his feet had taken him without his consent, while he listened, unable to help himself, to the silken voice of his executioner.
It was the Beltane bonfire on Camelot Hill.
When reach of daylight’s fingers ended, Lancelot took a torch off the wall and descended deeper and deeper into Camelot’s dungeons. He passed cells that were dusty and unused, doors that no doubt hid many secrets, and stairs that seemed to go on without end. He thought about turning back, about looking for Gwaine because that Agravaine certainly wasn’t up to anything good. Or maybe he could look for Leon again.
He felt a pang of sorrow when he thought about their night. It had been sweet and quiet and blissful, but Lancelot knew it would never be more than that. Leon’s heart was tied to Camelot, maybe more than the Queen’s or this Dragonking who seemed to take on cloaks of legend. Lancelot would think of the way Leon licked his lips before he kissed, and one day, he was determined, he would remember it fondly.
Instead of turning back, Lancelot kept going. Something called him, a soft music just out of earshot, that filtered all the way into his soul, tugging gently. He passed a cavern with a dim blue light and even though it seemed to draw him, he kept on going deeper, until the air grew stale and reeked of oceans.
Part of him that wasn’t under the influence of the spell yet, recognized his surroundings. The longer he spent in the castle, the more Lancelot had the sense of coming home. He thought about Gwaine and knew how, if Arthur was lost to them, Gwaine wouldn’t go back to Ealdor. He had seen it in his eyes, recognized how he had once belonged here. What about me, Lancelot thought then, steadying himself as he descended the last water-weathered steps into the darkness, did I once belong here too?
Of course you did, Human Traveler. Of course you did.
It came as silvery as the night and as insubstantial as the faint light from the rocks surrounding him. Lancelot stopped at once, an icy chain of dread closing around his heart. Don’t listen, he said to himself, don’t move. And above all, don’t look. He turned, eyes closed and one hand against the wall, feeling his way back toward the stairs.
Don’t leave us, Human Traveler. Stay with us, for we are the most desirable of all companions, and we can give you your heart’s desire.
Lancelot staggered, pushing down the images the words dragged up within him and slowed. The steps were slippery, more slippery than he remembered. If only he could look ––
But we are so beautiful, Lancelot. To see us would melt your soul and burn out your eyes, but you would count it as a small price. Never would you want to use your eyes to look upon anything else again. For we are the Sidh.
Don’t look, Lancelot thought. “I won’t look,” he said out loud, his voice echoing off the cave walls. If only he could climb back up to the other cavern, the one with the faint blue light. He knew now, that was where he was meant to go. But he had followed the music instead.
Because our music is rapture and bliss and perfection.
If only he could reach it, if only he could keep going. He didn’t know why, but he knew he’d be safe, then.
You know because you have been here before, Lancelot du Lac. You are the First Knight. You have waged countless battles and won them for the High King. You have fought many foes and brought them to their knees. But this is not your time. Now you have heard our music and you will glimpse our reflections and you will follow us.
Lancelot said in an angry voice, “I won’t. You must let me go.”
There was a ripple of amusement, a blur of blue and green beyond Lancelot’s eyelids and when the Sidh spoke again, their voice was soft and compassionate.
The Sidh never lets their prey go. You will gaze upon us and once you do, you will be lost, Lancelot. For we are more beautiful than any woman could ever be. We are more loving and passionate than any man. And once inside our caves you will cease to long for the world of Men. Once you have spilled your seed you will cease to desire any other touch than our own.
“I am not listening,” Lancelot said, but it sounded weak to his own ears. “I am not listening.” To succumb to the Sidh would be the greatest experience a man could have…
Yes, Lancelot. The greatest. The most exquisite pleasure in all the times of all the worlds. Once you have tasted us and lain with us in the caves beneath the Sea, once you have flown with us in the cities beyond the sky, the world of Men will forever be colorless.
The blue and green smoke was all around him, Lancelot could sense it. Almost see it. He could feel their outstretched hands. He could feel their cold silky arms all around him. And most of all, he could hear their heavenly music. Oh to lay eyes on them, just once. Lancelot surely couldn’t resist. The Sidh were clustering all around him, sure of their success, eager for his touch, his seed, his senses. Lancelot shivered. Their touch felt like cool spring water on a summer’s day. Like sinless caresses promising the most exquisite pleasure.
Swim in our music, breathe in our world, fly on our touch, gaze upon our beauty.
Just for a second, surely it could do no harm, if he could just for a second, look. I will lose my mind, he thought.
But it will be worth the loss of your sanity, Lancelot, First Knight of Camelot. It will be worth the loss of your life.
“Yes,” Lancelot said, beyond all control. He dropped his torch, took the few steps he had managed to climb down again, and opened his eyes. They burned at the sight of the terrible beauty of the Sidh. “Love me,” he said in a whisper, and held out his arms as triumphant music filled the cavern. “Love me.”
The most horrifying thing of all, to Arthur, was the organized manner with which everything took place. As if the banquet was a performance perfected through ages of practice. Every person who played a part in the Witchfinder’s terrible feast knew exactly what to do and did it quickly, quietly and efficiently. A ritual often repeated.
The guards had finished their gruesome task of crucifying Merlin without flinching and Edwin had appeared out of nowhere, setting the table for three. Arthur couldn’t spare a thought for who the third person might be, his eyes never left Merlin. For a dreadful moment he’d thought he’d be sick, and when the guards erected the cross he thought he’d actually pass out, but he did neither. He remained quietly and wrung out where Morgause had left him, unaware that her nails no longer dug into his flesh, holding him in place.
The cross was slightly tilted back, so Merlin at least wasn’t supporting his full weight with his bloodied wrists. At first they had gushed heavily, and Arthur thought it would be a blessing if he died quickly, but the flow had slowed fairly soon. The guards knew what they were doing. They knew exactly where to position the nails so their charge wouldn’t die before the Witchfinder had used it to his satisfaction. And now Merlin drifted between consciousness, his breath labored and skin sallow. When they had driven the second nail through Merlin’s skin, Arthur had wanted to tear this building apart with his bare hands. He had shouted himself hoarse, but Morgause’s magic held him in place. He had wanted to wrench the scabbard from her, but she had adjusted it, out of his reach.
She cannot wear it for long. Arthur, remember. Only a pure-bred Human can use the scabbard and only a pure-bred Human can wear it for any length of time. Be patient. Be watchful. Merlin is stronger than you think.
To his relief, Aredian had stopped the guard from nailing Merlin’s bare feet to the wood, and he was allowed to support his weight on a small plank of wood attached to the cross. Small mercies, he thought, but at least that could mean Merlin would be able to walk out of there of his own accord, if –– If.
Morgause gathered a large silver basin and placed it at Merlin’s feet. From a rack by the wall she took a large pointed spear, then she moved to Merlin’s side again, whose head had lolled forward, and please, Arthur thought, please hold on, please don’t be dead. Before he could rest his eyes long enough upon Merlin’s chest to make sure he was still breathing, Lord Aredian struck the table with the flat of his hand.
“My hunger is upon me,” he said, his voice a soft caress. “Do it. Do it now.”
If Arthur needed proof Merlin was still alive, he received it now. Morgause drew up the spear and pressed it carefully against Merlin’s abdomen. There must have been some magical quality to it, because Arthur could clearly see Morgause put no pressure on it, yet he heard the skin tear agonizingly slowly and Merlin cried out again. His head bashed against the wooden beam behind him and slumped forward again. Quickly Morgause set the spear down and lifted the basin.
Instead of blood, a golden liquid dripped down which she caught, waiting patiently until the basin was nearly full.
“Seal him,” the Witchfinder said, “we want none of his magic to go to waste.” She used the spear to knit the skin together again. Then, Aredian turned to Arthur. “Sit,” he said, indicating the chair to his left. Arthur felt like saying exactly what he thought Aredian could do with that suggestion, but then he realized he’d be right beside Morgause. And the scabbard. Without a word, he sat down and he understood. He knew who the third table setting was for. Morgause filled the three golden chalices with Merlin’s magic, emptying the basin, while Aredian watched comprehension dawn on Arthur’s face with relished amusement.
“I will not,” Arthur hissed.
“Oh but you will,” the Witchfinder said pleasantly. “You see, if you refuse, there are ways. Ways to make you. We can break into your mind and make you do things while you are aware of everything, my friend.” He snapped his fingers and Edwin reappeared, begun to laden their plates with food.
Morgause sat down beside Arthur, her smile full and red and feline. When Aredian lifted his chalice, so did she. “To your health,” she said and waited. Behind him Merlin moaned softly and Arthur briefly closed his eyes. If they broke his mind, they would be truly lost. If the Witchfinder somehow managed to take away Arthur’s free will, he’d never get his hands on the scabbard. Arthur sent a brief, feverish apology to Merlin, lifted the cup to his lips and drank the smallest sip he could manage.
It tasted like rapture and bliss drowning his mouth.
Arthur wanted to be sick. He was distracted by Morgause however, who shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She hesitated, then set down her empty beaker and took off the scabbard, hanging it from the back of her chair by its leather belt.
“Now eat,” the Witchfinder said. “Enjoy this dinner in honor of the most powerful sorcerer ever to have lived.” At this Arthur lifted his head in surprise. “Oh,” said Aredian, “didn’t he tell you? Yes, Merlin Emrys is Albion’s last and only hope. Always has been.” He lifted his cup again, drained it and set it on the table with a loud bang. “More Morgause,” he called, and his eyes were a little glazed, as if he was drunk on Merlin’s magic.
Morgause rose to her feet to lift the spear to Merlin’s flesh again. To rend him with it and drain him.
Arthur felt the rage boil in his blood.
Now, Arthur, the voice called, infusing him with strength, take it now.
With blinding speed he stood, knocking back his chair, spilling his cup and grabbed the scabbard. As he held it, he felt it grow heavy, and within a second a blade appeared. Arthur drew the sword, whirled around and in one smooth move, separated Morgause’s head from her body. The sword –– Excalibur –– sang in his hand as he whirled around again, spinning his wrist and the sword with it in a circle, to face Aredian.
He will surely kill me, Arthur thought, with his magic and with one thought, but maybe I can injure him enough before then.
To his surprise, the Witchfinder had risen to his feet and stared at Arthur with paralyzing panic. Arthur felt a strength he had never felt before surge within him,and he wasn’t surprised, when Aredian breathed a terrified, “You,” that his voice was not his own.
“Yes,” the presence within Arthur said. “It is I. We meet at last. I’d have destroyed you centuries ago, but you ran before I had the chance. I shall have to make up for that now.” Arthur pressed the sword against Aredian’s throat, who walked backwards, eyes wide.
“It’s not possible,” he said, voice trembling. Arthur wondered why he wasn’t using his magic.
He’s too scared, the voice said. Any draw on magic requires concentration and peace of mind. Aredian is petrified. It was foretold he’d die at the hand of a man wielding Excalibur. And now that he is faced with his worst fear, he is powerless.
“You will pay,” Arthur heard himself say, as Aredian was driven further and further back toward the window. “You will pay for every life you have cruelly taken. You will burn in hell, Aredian.” Arthur pressed Excalibur against the Witchfinder’s throat, who cried out when he felt it cut, stepped back one more time, and toppled out of the window.
Arthur didn’t need to look down, he knew the fall was a long one. He hoped Aredian had time to realize the same thing before he hit the ground.
Then he was running, past Morgause’s mangled body, not even sparing her a glance, but running toward Merlin. Arthur remembered the guards. “Lower the cross!” he yelled.
It took one of them less than a second to respond, and as soon as he did, the others followed. Together they lowered Merlin to the ground, Arthur’s hands fluttering helplessly over the nails and the blood seeping sluggishly from the wounds.
“My mother,” one of the guards said ever so softly. Arthur looked up and his heart clenched when he noticed how young the lad was. “My mother,” he began again, clearing his throat, “she has some healing magic. We kept it quiet. She’d sometimes help the ones he kept alive for days.
“She’s here?” Arthur asked, “in the keep?”
The boy nodded.
“Go get her.”
He ran off. Arthur passed a hand over Merlin’s forehead. It felt clammy. Then Arthur looked at the other three guards. “Who else in this place could be dangerous to us?” he asked. He hoped his first assessment had been correct; that these people were in this by no choice of their own.
“Only Edwin,” one of the older guards said immediately.
“Find him,” Arthur said. “Kill him or bring him here if you don’t have the heart to do it.”
“Oh we have the heart,” said the guard. “We have lost many of our own to his evil ways.”
“Then do it.”
He was alone with Merlin and allowed himself, for a brief moment, to feel everything he’d kept locked away ever since he’d left his home. It didn’t last, because Merlin moaned softly. His head lolled to the side and he opened his eyes. He saw Arthur kneeling beside him and blinked a few times.
“What ––,” he said. His hands twitched and he flinched.
“Shh, save your strength. Help is coming. Don’t exert yourself. We will free you of this very soon,” Arthur promised while he ran his hands over Merlin’s feverish brow, dragging the hairs back from his face.
“The Witchfinder?” Merlin asked.
Merlin’s eyes focussed on something behind Arthur. “Morgause,” he whispered, “you killed her.”
“Yes,” Arthur said, who hadn’t allowed himself to think as far as I killed a human being, yet.
Merlin seemed to notice Arthur going very white because he quietly said, “For Camelot,” before sighing and losing consciousness again.
“Yes,” Arthur whispered. “And for you, Sire.”
The guards returned soon after, an elder woman following the boy, a bag clutched in her arms. She bustled past Arthur without looking at him, touching a hand to Merlin’s forehead. “Right,” she said briskly, “we need to remove him from this cross. We don’t have much time. It’s a marvel he’s lasted this long. I will dampen the pain while one of you removes the nails.” She looked up and all the guards blanched and stepped backward.
“I will do it,” said Arthur, but his mind reeled around a panicked I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
The woman looked at him then, for the first time. “Very well,” she said after a pause. Then, to the boy, “Bring him the tools Gillian, hurry.” Gillian ran toward the rack where the weapons were kept and returned quickly with an ordinary claw hammer Arthur had used many times while repairing his home in Ealdor. He felt the wave of nausea return at the thought of what he was about to do.
The woman placed a hand on his forearm. “Young man,” she said gently, “trust me when I say it hurts him a lot more to have those nails where they are now, than it will to have you remove them. I will do what I can to stem the bleeding and ease the pain, but we must be swift. There isn’t much time. Understand?”
Arthur nodded, found his mouth too dry for words. He took the hammer from Gillian and set to work. At first, he had to tug hard, to get the nail to release the wood, but once it was loose, it slid from between the bones of Merlin’s wrist easily. Beside him, the woman whispered continuously under her breath and Merlin only sighed softly. There wasn’t much more blood than before, and Arthur hoped with all his heart this was her doing.
Soon, the second nail was free and Arthur was eternally grateful when the older guard took the hammer and bloodied nails from him. The other three lifted Merlin from the cross, and lay him flat on the floor. The old woman pressed her hands against his chest and continued her mutterings.
After a while, Merlin seemed to regain color and was breathing more deeply. Not too long after, his eyelids moved, then opened and Arthur thought he would weep with relief.
“Alice,” Merlin said weakly. There was a silence before a slow smile too over Merlin’s face. He started again, “Alice, Gaius will be so pleased to hear you’re alive.”
“My boy,” Alice said softly, her eyes brimming with tears. “My boy. Lie still. You’ll be fine.” She pulled her bag to her and took out what looked like trinkets tied together with complex knots and bits of rope. She placed them around and on Merlin’s chest.
“I know,” Merlin said. “I know.”
“Sire,” the older guard said, falling to his knees beside Merlin, “I am Captain of the guard. You must know, now that we are free of the malevolence of that monster that we will follow you to hell itself. As we speak, the news of his death travels beyond the walls of the citadel. I think you’ll find you are a hero to the people, and we will do all we can to help you take your rightful place on Camelot’s throne.”
A single tear ran down from the corner of Merlin’s eye. “Thank you,” he said softly and then he looked at Arthur and the tears began to fall in earnest, so when Merlin made to move for him, whispering I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Arthur, for everything, Arthur, he laid his cheek against Merlin’s and allowed their tears to combine.
No one knew how the news of the Witchfinder’s death traveled so fast through the city, and no one believed it at first. People thought it to be a trap, a new trick devised by his Lordship to test their loyalty. But the rumors of his broken body on the courtyard steps of the keep were persistent and slowly, one by one, men and women started to gather before the gates. Soon there was a small crowd and still the people kept coming.
Only when dawn brought color to this fearful citidel, the first brave voice called, “The Witchfinder is dead!” The cry was repeated when no rebuke followed until Arthur and Merlin awoke to its chant, stiff on the cold stone ground, wrapped in each other’s arms. Still a little weak and unsteady, they walked the corridors until they found a balcony which showed them the gathered crowd.
Merlin moved outside; Arthur one step behind him.
“The Witchfinder is dead!” they heard, louder, euphoric when the people saw who greeted them.
And then, from the heart of the crowd: “Long live the Dragonking!”
As the Beltane procession advanced through the castle, Agravaine lifted his head and listened. In every room fires and candles were extinguished, but that was not what he listened for. After a moment he smiled. The Sidh had not let him down. They had taken the one called Lancelot, and Agravaine knew, like they all knew, that no man could dwell in the vicinity of the Sidh and keep his soul or his sanity. Lancelot might return, because the Sidh would cast him out when they were done with him, but he’d no longer be a threat to Camelot.
That only left Gwaine.
And Gwaine would die on the Beltane fire.
It was dark on Camelot Hill and the pole against Gwaine’s back was slightly damp. His skin crawled with fear as he tugged the bonds around his feet and wrists again, but they were expertly tied. Beneath him was a large pile of carefully arranged firewood, so high he’d think twice to jump if there wasn’t the prospect of flames licking his feet. And oh, don’t think about that.
There had been no escape. Four druids had appeared out of nowhere and lifted him carefully, almost reverently, but their grasp firm none the less, onto their shoulders. Together they had climbed steps, designed specifically for this purpose, Gwaine had realized, while they chanted in an ancient tongue Gwaine didn’t understand. He had begun to struggle but it was no use. Soon his hands were tied behind his back and his feet were bound together. Aglain had appeared in front of him, his eyes mild and empathic as ever.
“Someone will hear me,” Gwaine had said. Will hear me scream, he didn’t say.
“No,” Aglain had told him kindly, “you are too far away. No one may walk on Camelot Hill once the fire is lit. It is forbidden, and the roar of the flames is deafening. No one will hear your screams, Gwaine.” Aglain placed a gentle hand upon Gwaine’s shoulder and squeezed. “May your passing to the other world be swift,” he said and then he was gone and Gwaine was alone.
The sun had set quickly after that, and the moon not yet risen, maybe not to rise at all that night. The stars barely gave him any light to see by and perhaps he should’ve been grateful for that. Soon there would be more light than he’d ever wished for.
No one may walk on Camelot Hill.
No one may walk on the greenlands.
Would he have stayed in Ealdor if he knew this would be his fate?
Gwaine closed his eyes, and pretended that behind his eyelids was the orchard and the cottage and that at any moment his mother would call him in for dinner. Maybe Arthur would already be seated at the table, a large glass of milk clutched between his fingers. He tried to will his way back through the time curtain, back to his safe, perhaps dull life at the farm. Gwaine opened his eyes. Even if that was possible, he couldn’t leave without Arthur. Not that he was in any position to help him now.
Oh Arthur. I am sorry.
He knew, then, that he would still go after Arthur no matter what. He could die a thousand deaths on a pyre, his only regret was not bringing Arthur home.
If he craned his neck to the left, Gwaine could just make out Camelot, it’s great looming shape slowly turning to shadow.
When the sun had disappeared, Camelot, the Iridescent City, had begun to dim. One by one, it’s lights were being doused, as if quenched by an invisible hand. If Camelot had felt wrong to Gwaine the moment the time curtain had parted and revealed it to them, now it felt like a large predator. A dangerous monster watching just beyond his vision, waiting to pounce.
The last light went out and then there was utter, oppressing dark.
His heart hammered in his chest and Gwaine took a deep gulping breath. It steadied him a little and with the thin thread of calm, came a memory. Beltane. The night they dosed all the lights, for only the Sacred Fire was allowed to burn on the eve of renewal. In the morning when the sun rose again, young men and women would jump over the smoldering ashes to bless their coupling. In the distance he heard a strange monotone chant, the druids approaching at the head of the procession, but Gwaine ignored it, thinking hard. There was something, at the edge of his memory... If only he could remember. There was something about the manner in which the fire was lit… No one was to walk on Camelot Hill this night. Then how? How would they light the pyre, how would they ignite the wood beneath Gwaine’s feet?
Wracking feverish sobs sounded hollow in the cavernous space around Lancelot, and it took a while before he realized they were coming from his own throat. Lancelot weaved in and out of consciousness, wondering if he had imagined the scratching of large, sharp talons and the rumbling voice telling him ancient secrets. It had been there, it had soothed him when the pain was at its worst and then it had gone.
“Shhh,” a gentle, definitely human voice now quietened him. “They are gone now, you are safe. I have some water. I will put it to your lips, you must drink.”
“Who ––“ Lancelot began, but the waterskin was pressed to his mouth. It felt cool and alleviated the burn in his throat, hoarse from screaming, and he drank deeply. The liquid was pulled away before he was sated and he tried to follow it.
“Not too much,” the voice –– a young woman –– said, “you might be ill. I will ––“
Lancelot heard her swallow, hesitate. He wanted to see her but it was so dark, there was something he should remember, but he couldn’t.
“I will need to clean your wounds,” she said, “it will hurt.”
“My wounds?” Lancelot asked, and his voice scratched. Then white blinding pain pressed against his eyes and he remembered. A cry of desolation left his mouth and he scrambled at the stones beneath him. “My eyes,” he whispered, “I am blind.”
“Yes,” the girl said, and he could hear the tears in her voice. “You scratched out your eyes to escape the Sidh. They took your sacrifice and left. I saw them. Or parts of them, at least.”
Lancelot wanted to twist on his side and curl up in a ball, wanted the world to close in on him and make him disappear, but he heard footsteps and then strong hands were holding him down.
“We need to clean your wounds,” a male voice he didn’t recognize said. “Before they become infected.”
“What’s the point?” Lancelot asked. He felt sick, like he would vomit and the man seemed to anticipate this because he pulled Lancelot up, held him tenderly as Lancelot emptied the bile from his stomach, heaving over and over again. Tears should drip down his face, but Lancelot would never cry again.
“Where am I?” he asked eventually, a wet cloth wiping his forehead again, “and who are you?”
“I’m Guinevere,” the girl said, her hand soft on his cheek. “But you may call me Gwen. With me are Owain and Percival. Lancelot, I know this is horrible, what happened to you. I know this seems like the end, for you. But you must be strong.”
“Why?” Lancelot asked, pressing his face against her palm, soaking up the warmth. He loved her smell, and he inwardly cried out that he’d never see her face. “What do I have to live for?”
“It is your friend, Gwaine,” the one called Owain said. “He has disappeared and we fear the worst. Leon searches for him as we speak but I fear we have little time.”
“If Agravaine has him, we’ll have to be quick,” Gwen said, dipping a cloth against his face. It burned and Lancelot bit his lip.
“But what can I do?” he whispered. “What use am I? I know nothing of this place and I can’t see.” I am blind, he thought, I am blind and useless. I tore out my own eyes to escape the Sidh, but at what price? Surely death would have been a better fate.
“There is always purpose. There is always hope,” Gwen said. “Can you stand?”
Lancelot nodded, tried to push up from the damp floor but failed, until a pair of strong arms lifted him wordlessly off the ground. “We will help you,” someone said quietly behind him. Percival, Lancelot thought, and then, my senses are already adjusting. Already I can hear things that would have escaped my notice before.
Such as the soft breaths betraying Gwen’s tears still running down her face. And something else, something in the far distance that sounded very much like a chain scraping over rock and giant, sharp nails on stone.
The dark woods before them gave Arthur the distinct impression they weren’t out of the maws of danger yet. His shoulders felt like slumping at the thought. Behind him Merlin stumbled, then muttered a curse. Arthur turned and saw a dark smudge of soot on Merlin’s forehead as the sorcerer picked himself off the ground and set to rebuilding their fire. He hadn’t used magic since they left the keep, and Arthur worried for a moment why that was.
Mordred’s camp wasn’t far, Merlin had said, but they wouldn’t be able to eat anything from the Sleeping Woods they needed to travel through to get to him so they decided to hunt.
“What is wrong with those Woods then?” Arthur had asked, but Merlin had just smiled and said nothing. He had stepped on so many branches, Arthur had started to wonder if he wasn’t doing it on purpose. Until Arthur had rolled his eyes, and told him to, “Stay where you are Merlin, before you’ve chased away all the game and we’ll end up chewing our shoelaces.”
Merlin had straightened, looking long and startled at Arthur and for a moment two worlds seemed to blend. Arthur could see Merlin as he was now, but he could also see him, not younger exactly, but more innocent, less burdened and he knew he was seeing a memory of the Once and Future King. Before Merlin could say anything, Arthur had turned away and stealthily moved through the underbrush. Arthur had found a proficiency with the crossbow he wasn’t sure to be entirely his own and had brought down two pheasants for their supper after that.
He turned back to witness the sun setting fire to the tips of the trees and thought about the spell Merlin had put him under. There had been a brief flash of hurt when he had realized what Merlin had done, when that memory of Gwaine had hit him hard enough to leave him winded. But he hadn’t been able to hang on to it, not with Merlin hanging from a cross by his bleeding wrists. Arthur knew he should have felt betrayed. Used and abused. He couldn’t. Perhaps due to the presence within him, who had loved Merlin wholly and unconditionally, but Arthur didn’t think so.
The night fell slowly, tinging the world in a purple hue. Arthur kept breathing the evening air deeply, as if it might cleanse him from what had happened not even twenty-four hours ago.
“We call this the Violet Hour,” Merlin said by Arthur’s side. Arthur hadn’t heard him move, and he stood very still, his face a shroud of shadows. “They say this is the most magical time of the day. That any enchantment holds most potency at this hour.” He sighed softly and his eyes lifted to the darkening horizon. “It is Beltane. In Camelot they will be dosing all the lights, stilling all the hearths and set flame to the sacred bonfire on Camelot hill as a symbolic sacrifice to the gods.”
Arthur hesitated, still not sure where they stood now all was out in the open, and then placed a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Soon it’ll be yours again,” he said. Merlin nodded but said nothing for a long while. They both remained in silence until the forest before them had been erased by the night and only the small campfire behind them provided any light. Even the moon and the stars had gone out in honor of this holy night.
“I’m truly sorry about enchanting you, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, still staring ahead into nothing. “I know it was wrong. But when I saw you ––” Merlin swallowed hard, shook his head and looked down.
“Merlin you don’t have to,” Arthur began. He hadn’t realized his hand was still on Merlin’s shoulder until Merlin’s fingers gripped his own.
“I do,” Merlin said. “I feel I don’t deserve your loyalty or your strength by my side if I don’t at least try to explain. Not that my actions could ever excuse what I did. Sometimes ––” he paused again, the orange flames behind them casting shadows on his face. “Sometimes it’s so easy to forget I’m supposed to control the magic and not the other way around. Sometimes it feels so natural to just let it take what it wants. And it wanted you Arthur. From the moment I laid eyes on you, it wanted you. It was drawn to you. I know it can be traced back to the blood that runs in your veins, but it felt like more than that. It felt like it was destined. So I reached out and I took what stood between us and I made you forget. And then I took you into my arms and loved you like I had any right to.”
“Merlin,” Arthur began, his voice rough like sandpaper, but Merlin squeezed his fingers and Arthur fell silent again.
“You would think I had learnt my lesson after what happened last time I allowed the magic to take over. Last time, when it had me banished.”
“That wasn’t your fault, Merlin. You were overthrown.” Arthur wondered why he had never doubted for a moment that he was on the side of right. That Merlin was the rightful ruler and that he should have Camelot back.
“No, Arthur. It was my fault.” He sighed and looked at Arthur for the first time, gripping his wrist and tugging Arthur closer to the fire. “Come, I will tell you everything, but we shall eat before those pheasants of yours have turned to charcoal.”
When they had eaten, and the fire had died down to red embers, “Because we too, should honor Beltane tonight,” Merlin had said, and Arthur had thought Merlin wouldn’t say anything else this night, he quietly began. “There once lived a sorceress Nimueh, who held the secret of life in a cup and who lived so long it drove her mad. She started to believe only those with magic should be allowed to rule the lands and she demanded to be made Eternal Queen of Camelot.”
There came a distant look over Merlin’s face, and Arthur shivered. No matter how much time he spent in this land that was his own and yet not at all, he would never get used to the terrible and beautiful creatures that walked its soil.
“Yes,” said Merlin, who seemed to have picked up on Arthur’s thoughts as if he had spoken and didn’t seem to realize he hadn’t, “she was terrible and beautiful. But her eyes held her madness and age and when I killed her, it rained for days.”
Merlin absentmindedly touched his chest, fingers tracing lines of a scar Arthur himself had drawn patterns over. “But before any of that happened, long before I was born, Nimueh was of course denied her claim to the throne and that is when she spoke her dreadful curse.” Merlin looked at Arthur then. “A curse that powerful can’t be undone, Arthur. It can be circumvented, but it can’t be undone. So when Nimueh called upon the earth and cursed Camelot’s throne so that it could never be occupied by a human again, the sorcerers loyal to Camelot and its people came together and devised a plan in case her sorcery came into effect. They didn’t know, you see. They didn’t know what would happen.”
Their fire had died, and Merlin shivered. He leaned closer to Arthur, subconsciously looking for warmth, but then he remembered and froze. Arthur grabbed a blanket from his bedroll, scooted closer and wrapped it around the both of them. Merlin’s face went through an array of emotions before it settled on such humble gratefulness, it made Arthur’s eyes sting. He wanted to say something, wanted to make sure Merlin knew, but Merlin had begun to speak again, his voice a quiet cadence in the starless night.
“It became clear very quickly what happened. One by one, the Kings begun to die. The first King had been old, but his son was healthy and one day he was found dead in bed, without a clear cause. Camelot’s council gathered, together with the sorcerers and the plan was set into action.
“The spells woven to turn the dragons human is one the most strictly guarded enchantments ever to have existed. I was the first to be born with dragonblood running through my veins, Arthur. And by then, the last heir to the throne was a five year old boy.”
“The Once and Future King,” Arthur said and Merlin nodded, pressing a little closer to Arthur.
“He was never King in name, that is why he is remembered as the Once and the Future, but never the one who just was. When I was old enough, I was appointed rightful ruler and together we made Albion great. The spell to turn dragons into humans was clearly a success and every once in awhile the sacred mating would take place. The second to be born with dragonblood was Morgause. I don’t need to tell you how that turned out, but at the time they didn’t know. It enhances all that is in you and as you have seen, in Morgause there was nothing good. I have no idea how Aredian came to be, but I believe she had something to do with it.
“It’s a magical experience, Arthur. I can’t begin to explain it. The dragons are willing, the magic hangs thick in the air, there is nothing like it. When I grew older, it became clear there were certain… advantages to the dragonblood. I could command them. But only I, because I was the first. They will obey no one else as long as I live. Or at least that was the case until... There is only one great dragon left and his bond with me was severed. I think it is how Aredian got the Golden Girdle. It was payment for someone in exchange for telling them how they could break the bond with my dragon.”
“But, didn’t all this begin centuries ago?” Arthur asked, confused.
Merlin nodded, gripping Arthur’s hand beneath the blanket. “That is the second advantage they were unaware of. Dragons live for a very long time. In fact, no one knows how long exactly. And apparently, so do I.”
“Oh god,” Arthur whispered. “Oh god, Merlin.” Inside Arthur something cried out with grief for the losses Merlin had lived through over and over again.
“The Once and Future King died in my arms,” Merlin went on, the grip on Arthur’s fingers belying the calm in his voice. “I wasn’t there when the magic struck him, but I got there in time for him to be ripped away from me for ever. There was a great battle and equally great chaos and to this day I do not know who struck him down, but struck down he was. All I knew in that moment was that I wanted to die. I didn’t know that this was a wish that would never be granted.
“Anyway,” Merlin said, giving himself a little shake. “After that, I turned to the dragons. I,” he blushed then, “I have great power. I don’t need the chanting and grouped magicks of the first sorcerers to bring them to be human. It was an escape. It was against our most sacred law, but I did it anyway. I lay with the dragons, Arthur. No one ever found out because I never let anyone be close to me again. I lived and I thrived at the court but I never loved again, not until Morgana, who was born some time after Morgause.”
“And she did find out,” Arthur said softly.
“Yes,” Merlin whispered. “I resisted for a long time, but the call of the blood was too great. I went to the dragons and Morgana followed me and ––”
Merlin fell silent, pulled his hand away from Arthur’s grip and Arthur knew then, Merlin would never reach for him again. He searched inside himself, but the presence within him that had cried out at Merlin’s years and years of solitude and loneliness was gone. “Morgana found out and she was hurt.”
“Yes,” Merlin simply said.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Arthur thought, but he didn’t know where the words came from.
“Morgana took her revenge on me in the cruelest way she could, and even though I have to take back the throne for the good of the people, I deserved it. But I was so alone Arthur. And then you walked into my world, and I knew I could share you with no one.”
“Why are they called the Sleeping Trees?” Arthur asked and Merlin turned to look at him, amused. The bushes seemed to part before Merlin’s feet, while Arthur very much suspected they went out of their way to slap him in the face.
They had started out as soon as the sun rose, and the forest was strangely quiet and still. Unnaturally so. Not even the rhythm of their breathing seemed to reach their ears and Arthur needed to fill the air with some sound, if only to know his voice was still there.
“Because they are asleep, of course,” Merlin said as if that was a perfectly normal answer.
“Okay,” said Arthur slowly, glancing up at what looked to him to be normal trees. “What are they like when they’re awake, then?”
Merlin’s mouth widened in a smile, mischief twinkling in his eyes. Arthur was relieved to see it. Not broken, Arthur thought.
Oh no, the answer came immediately, maybe bent out of shape, a little. But never broken.
“They walk,” Merlin said as if he hadn’t just whispered into Arthur’s mind. “They walk this earth and they fight for whoever summons them. They fought for the High King when I called them, and decided the battle in his favor. They are an extremely powerful ally to have. That is why I put them to sleep.”
“I don’t understand,” Arthur said, looking upon the trees with newfound respect. Rich fruit dangled lazily from branches, making them bend under their weight. Arthur reached for an apple, red and shining with promised juice.
“Eat that,” Merlin said, “And you will sleep for a long time. Nothing would be able to wake you.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Sounds good actually, I could do with a nap.” He felt the breath in his lungs heat when Merlin stepped closer, the mischief still in his eyes, but something else too, something a little bit dangerous and intoxicating.
“A nap that might take years?” Merlin asked softly, his fingers trailing Arthur’s jawline, as if he too was affected by the strange, languid something in the air. “One bite and you’d find yourself waking up in a world where you know no one, where everything is changed, because everyone you knew has long since died.”
Arthur snapped his hand away from the apple, and Merlin laughed quietly. For a moment there, Arthur had thought Merlin might kiss him and of course Merlin picked up that thought without hesitation.
“No,” Merlin murmured, “I very much want to, Arthur. But you are no longer mine. You ––” Merlin turned away, “–– you never were.”
Arthur wanted to grab his wrist, to pull him back, to hold him close. But the moment was gone.
“So, why did you put the trees to sleep?” Arthur asked, hurrying to catch up with Merlin.
“They know no loyalty,” Merlin said over his shoulder. “They will obey whoever awakens them. This way, no one can use or abuse them.”
“Will you wake them up with magic now? To fight for you?”
“No,” Merlin said, the earlier smile returning, eyes burning with meaning. “I can’t wake them up. If they fight again, it will not be for me, nor for magic.” He picked up the pace, and Arthur knew, infuriating as it was, that Merlin would say no more.
Of course, Gwaine had forgotten about the one most wondrous thing in this world. The chanting grew louder, an eerie sound in the now complete darkness, and Gwaine’s nostrils filled with the beginnings of smoke. Magic. No one would have to walk the hill this night because they could set the pyre ablaze from afar.
This is it, he thought, this is where I die. Not in a burst of glory or of old age in a home where I have lived and loved. I die alone and will be forgotten before I’ve even had a chance to be alive. And Arthur, I have failed you and I never told you the days I spent beneath the trees in the orchard were the best.
He could see small glints of sparks beneath his feet now, and in the distance he could hear the chanting reach a crescendo. Sheer panic threatened to overwhelm him again, and for a moment, when the first flame hesitantly licked into life, Gwaine considered letting it overtake him, letting the panic consume him. Anything better than burning alive with his wits intact. But ancient memories still pulled at the part of his mind not completely stricken by fear, and Gwaine listened, strained to hear the chants. He recognized a pattern, a question and an answer. Demand and acquiescence. He felt the unfamiliar cadences soak through his skin and he began to see a form, a shape, a logic.
I have heard this before…
Gwaine kept a wary eye on the flickering flame, but it did not burst into a roaring fire as he had expected. Instead it seemed to dance to the tones of the chant and again he strained to listen.
“If I was ever here before,” Gwaine said aloud, “if there is anyone here with me, I could use a hand right about now.”
There came no answer but in the dark places of Gwaine’s mind something stirred. For the briefest of instances he saw a hill, a bright blue sky and a brown haired man astride a black stallion leading a battle charge. With it came the understanding of the language of the druids, and a hard strength swept through Gwaine with a huge unstoppable force. He bent his mind to absolute concentration and listened, waiting.
This was different magic. It was more subtle, not the all-consuming power that came with the magic of the dragons, but something that was pulled from the earth itself. It came from the very beginning of the world, from the very moment before the first dawn. One group of druids questioned, the other answered and then he heard.
I am Woden, carrier of the dead and I am a jealous god.
Gwaine laughed, loud and high. He understood. He understood.
We bring you out of the darkness.
You shall have no other gods but me. I shall bring vengeance upon those who do not serve me, but I shall give my bounty to those that love me.
Excitement was beating against Gwaine’s consciousness, he hardly paid heed to the small flame multiplying by his feet. This was it.
Great and powerful Woden, father of all gods, look upon us, your servants. Grant us your bounty, accept our offering.
Fall down and worship your god!
Silence. Gwaine was breathing heavily, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead as the flames below him grew in strength.
Fall down and worship your god!
Again there was nothing and Gwaine concentrating on keeping his breathing steady and shallow because the smoke was beginning to burn his throat. And if he was wrong, it wouldn’t be all that burned. No, don’t think like that, concentrate.
Again, the command came.
Fall down and worship your god!
And finally, blessedly, the answer.
We worship our god. Of course, Gwaine thought, the magical three. Then the dialogue came swiftly, tumbling from the druid’s mouths in chant. Gwaine whispered the words along, remembering his days at the table of the High King, standing side by side with other Knights as they watched the Beltane fire burn on Camelot Hill.
Let us render up the Sacrifice
And let it be done as it was at the beginning of Time
Woden look merciful upon thee servants
That render to thee homage.
Woden hear our prayer.
Woden hear our prayer.
Woden hear our prayer.
I hear your prayer. Do you have the sacrifice?
Flames flashed higher, nearly forming a full circle around him now, the heat of them pressing against him. With absolute and unshakable certainty, Gwaine knew this question lay at the heart of the Beltane fire, and once it was answered with affirmation, he would be lost. The enchantment would leap forward and the pyre would be fully ablaze.
Do you have the sacrifice?
If denial was given, his bonds would fall from his feet and wrists and he would be able to leap down before the fire reached to high. If denial was given, the spell would splinter and he would be free.
Do you have the sacrifice?
Gwaine took a breath, and that was a mistake. His lungs filled with smoke. He coughed. And once he started he could not stop. Cough after painful cough tore through him and his eyes watered. He tried to draw air again and speak but it was no use. He was lost. The druid would any second now answer the demand, say that yes, they have the sacrifice and then the fire would consume him.
Lancelot and Gwen moved stealthily up the hillside, hidden from the chanting druids and the people waiting for the bonfire to their left. The darkness for him was permanent, Gwen’s fingers on his wrist a beacon of burgeoning hope. She had taken his face between her hands before they left the caverns beneath Camelot, when his despair was at its bleakest, and, “Lancelot,” she had said, “I am here with you. You are not alone. We will find Gwaine and we will rescue him and you will be all right.”
She had said it with such determination, and had been untiring and sure-footed and watchful since, as she held his arm and guided him, that Lancelot felt maybe he could go on after all. “What do you see?” he asked her, trying not to let the pain be heard in his voice.
Guinevere wasn’t fooled. She gently squeezed his hand but to his relief said nothing of it. “The sun has set. Camelot is all but dark now which means the ritual will begin soon. I can’t tell from here, we are too far away. It’s hard to see anything on the hill. I think that is the bonfire there and ––“
Lancelot felt her become still, her breath a stutter in her throat. “What?” he asked quietly, finding her fingers around his wrist with his free hand and holding them tight. “Gwen, what is it?”
“There is –– something. It’s difficult to make out but, I think there is someone tied to the stake,” she said breathlessly.
“Gwaine,” Lancelot whispered, cold horror numbing his insides.
“Yes. It’s not yet lit, we have a chance to rescue him. There is still fading light in the sky which would make us stand out against the hill like two targets. We’ll have to wait. The pyre won’t be lit until all light has gone.” Gwen guided him gently to the grass, drawing his cloak around the both of them, so they huddled close. Her warmth against his side fed the seed of hope that was slowly sprouting in his heart. Her hand on his wrist ground him to the earth, as if he might fly away and disappear into nothing without it. They were silent for a long time, and Lancelot allowed his thoughts to drift, to a tomorrow that would always be dark, to –– if they ever made it out of this alive –– a future in a harsh world where he would be of no use. He knew, if Gwaine never found his Arthur, that he would not leave this world, and perhaps, neither would Lancelot. And, he thought when Gwen’s thumb caressed the inside of his wrist, would that be so bad?
“Lancelot?” Gwen asked in a small voice. “Are you still with me?”
She didn’t mean in body, he knew and when she moved closer, he caught her fragrance. Something that reminded him of midsummer nights and dreams. His other senses were becoming more finely tuned and as he inhaled deeply, knowing he’d never have picked up on this if his attention had been directed to her face, her touched spiked fire beneath his skin.
“There is no darkness,” he said softly, “only fear,” and smiled. He reached out tenderly and Guinevere took his hand, laid it against her cheek. With gentle fingers Lancelot mapped her face, then took a strand of hair between his fingers and felt it curl against his palm. He’d never see her, and this made him ache from the inside out.
Guinevere said nothing but they lay together in silence heavy with expectations that would have to wait.
“Listen,” Lancelot said after a while, tilting his head. “Do you hear?”
“Faintly, I think,” Gwen said hesitantly. “What is it?”
“The Sacred Chant of the Druids,” said Lancelot. “It must be. In an ancient language. Do you speak it, Gwen?” He turned to face her, out of habit.
Her fingers trembled lightly but her voice was firm. “No, we without magic are taught the proper response to the questions asked by the druids but I don’t know what they mean. Oh. I think I saw something on the hill. Oh no. A flame, Lancelot, there was a flame.”
“We must hurry. Gwen you must go on alone, I cannot help you, I will only slow you down. I should have insisted on Percival or Owain to come with us; I knew I would be of no use.”
“Never,” Gwen softly said, “never useless.” Her fingertips graced his cheek and Lancelot shivered. “Percival and Owain have their own work to do. If we are to organize a revolt, tonight is the night to do it. We can’t go on like this. I can do it, Lancelot. Trust me.”
“Always,” Lancelot whispered. He was being presumptuous. They had only just met and yet, there was something there. Something that ran much deeper. He pressed her fingertips to his lips and murmured, “hurry. And be safe.”
Something sharp stinging his cheek made Gwaine wince and squeeze his eyes shut tighter. His lungs felt like they’d been wrenched through his mother’s wheat grinder and he felt a twinge of displeasure at still having to breathe even though he was dead.
“I am not going to burn for your sake,” someone hissed in his ear, their voice muffled. The sharpness stung his cheek again and Gwaine realized he was being slapped. “So if you don’t get your fat arse moving,” they went on, “I will leave you here to roast.”
He noticed now how someone was desperately heaving at his arm and Gwaine tried shaking his head, tried taking a breath, began to cough again and then, when heat licked at his feet, it all came rushing back. Dizzy and sick, retching up soot as he tried to stand, Gwaine leaned heavily on whoever was trying to drag him off the pyre.
“Come on,” they said, sounding like they’d been inhaling too much smoke already too. He couldn’t see a thing, but had to hope his rescuer was in a better shape than he was. He took a step, and then another, and together they tripped off the pile of wood and tumbled into the grass. Above the desperate gasps of air he was trying to force into his battered lungs, Gwaine could hear the Druids, could hear their chant, their answer.
We have the sacrifice.
Even though they were a good few feet away from the pyre, the heat still sent them scrambling back as it roared to life. Gwaine didn’t give it any more thought, didn’t want to imagine how it would have felt, blood boiling in his veins, eyes burning until they burst. He dragged his companion along and together they stumbled away into the darkness.
“Lancelot is just beyond the hill,” Gwaine’s savior said and he wanted to laugh with relief.
“Thank heavens,” he said and when they crested the hill, Gwaine fell to his knees, about to embrace his friend, but Lancelot sat hunched over, face turned away and Gwaine’s heart stuttered to a near stop. “Lance?” he said, gently, “Lance, what’s the matter? Look at me.”
“He can’t,” a voice said behind him and Gwaine looked up, realizing for the first time his rescuer was a woman.
“You’re a woman,” he said and she rolled her eyes.
“I’m truly astounded by your gift of observation.” She knelt down beside Lancelot and cupped his face into her hands. “Lancelot,” she said, her tone of voice sweet like honey now, instead of the bee-like sting it had been for Gwaine, “I am going back to the castle. I will find Leon and the others and we shall meet here at dawn. You’ll be safe. Gwaine is here now and no one approaches Camelot Hill on the night of Beltane. Not even ––” she hesitated, then whispered, “not even the Sidh.”
Lancelot whispered something Gwaine couldn’t hear, and then she was gone, swallowed whole by the night.
“I don’t think Gwen cares for you much,” Lancelot said and he finally turned and lifted his face to Gwaine. “You didn’t flirt with her, did you?”
Gwaine’s face crumpled and he let a silent cry to the empty night sky, as if he’d been robbed from his tongue as Lancelot had been robbed from his eyes. He sank to his knees and choked on the words, “I don’t know, I might have. I was barely conscious. In my defense, I didn’t know she was a woman. She had a scarf over her face.” He reached out a hand, swiping angrily at his eyes with the other one –– he wasn’t going to cry over this if Lancelot would never shed tears again –– and he gently touched Lancelot’s cheek.
“Lance,” he whispered, staring at the hollow wounds where the warmest, darkest eyes used to belong. Lancelot leaned briefly into his touch before pulling away, his face twisting with grief.
“I will tell you, some day, what happened Gwaine. But not yet, it’s too –– it’s too raw. I can’t. I just can’t.”
“It’s all right,” Gwaine said, drawing Lancelot into his arms, wrapping them both in the cloak Gwen had left behind. “I am here when you need me. Let’s get some rest while we wait for the others.”
Arthur had imagined Mordred would live in a castle like Merlin did. Maybe not so grand and looming like Tintagel had been, nor as golden as he imagined Camelot to be, but a castle none the less.
Instead there was a large, elaborate camp, with tents in a cacophony of colors. Some were small, barely enough for one person. Others were grandiose. Large enough, he’d find out later, to seat dozens of Druids at long tables filled with every kind of game Arthur had ever heard of, and many he hadn’t.
As soon as they had set foot into the camp, Mordred had appeared and embraced Merlin, his hands lingering and shaping to the curves of Merlin’s spine.
“I knew you’d come,” he had said, his voice low and odd, as if he was unused to speaking aloud. “And you’ve brought someone.”
Arthur had visibly shivered when Mordred’s eyes had come to rest on him, the blue of them slick as ice, instead of the warm depths of Merlin’s. They had flickered with recognition and something feral, predatory. Merlin had made an aborted move when Mordred reached out, traced Arthur’s face with the tips of his fingers, hummed an appreciative noise and said, “Yes. You.”
“You all right?” Merlin asked him now, handing over a small bowl of what looked like honey.
“Yeah,” Arthur said, and then, “tell me again what we’re doing here?”
“Gathering an army,” Merlin said and he grinned when Arthur raised an eyebrow.
“An army? Merlin,” Arthur dropped his voice, “I don’t mean to disappoint you, but I think there’ll be campfires and singing while we braid flowers in each other’s hair before the night’s out.”
Merlin laughed, a startling and precious sound that filled the night. “Don’t underestimate these people, Arthur. They are peaceful, but very powerful. I will unite them, all of them: druids, magicians, knights, and perhaps even Morgana.” His eyes grew wistful for a heartbeat, “if she’s willing. And together we will bring Camelot into a golden age.” Arthur felt his insides warm at the exuberance, the hope on Merlin’s face.
“And you,” he whispered, “you could stay. You don’t have to go back to that cold world of yours. We could, maybe, find a way to bring Gwaine here and, we could all ––” Merlin swallowed and pressed his lips together in a tight smile. “But no,” he said. “You’d want to go home.”
“Let’s not think about that now,” Arthur said, who felt an ache deep enough to take his ability to breathe at the mention of Gwaine’s name. “We are safe, we have a hot meal and a soft bed for the night. Tomorrow we take back Camelot and then we will deal with the future. Okay?”
“Sure,” Merlin said, briefly taking Arthur’s hand in his, and Arthur felt something heal, felt himself finally forgive Merlin for everything.
The makeshift council room was an empty barn at the edge of a village skirting Camelot’s walls. Sir Leon had managed to lay his hands on a few maps. Percival had come bearing a large barrel of honeyed wine when another young man with hair red as a rising sun had stumbled in, exhausted and starving.
“He’s not there,” he had mumbled, clinging to the doorframe, “he’s not there.”
“Galahad!” Leon had jumped to his feet and caught him before he sank to his knees. They made a bed of straw after he passed out in Leon’s arms and left him to rest.
“Who’s not where?” Gwaine asked and Lancelot put a hand on his arm, making him startle.
“The Dragonking, Merlin. He’s not at Tintagel.”
“How do you know?” Gwaine asked on a whisper, feeling awed.
Lancelot smiled, tilting his head a little as if he’d be regarding Gwaine if he could still see. “My other senses are becoming more attuned. I can’t quite read their minds, but it’s a very close thing.”
“Right,” Gwaine said, swallowing thickly and Lancelot laughed, gently, the sound a waterfall of solace running over Gwaine’s back. He’ll be all right.
“Don’t worry, your secrets are safe with me,” Lancelot said and then, yes, not yet, but I will be. Beside him, Gwen took Lancelot’s hand and squeezed it.
“The west boundary should be our focus,” Leon was saying, and Gwaine edged closer to the table on which they’d spread the maps they were all pouring over now. Apart from Percival, who was pouring wine instead. “This is a council of war,” Leon said with a sideway glance.
“All the more reason,” Elyan said, grinning as he lifted his cup. “This might be our last chance. We could all be dead tomorrow.”
Owain groaned. “Always the optimist aren’t you,” he said, but shuffled closer and took a goblet of his own.
“The west boundary,” Leon said a little louder, glaring around the table, “is Camelot’s weakest point. It always has been and even more so now Morgana leaves it unguarded. That should be our point of entry. If we move during the early morning, we could have Agravaine and Morgana in our hands before the castle is fully awake and avoid too many casualties. As soon as those two are removed, I am sure the rest will be easy. Most of Camelot is still loyal to our King.”
“How many of you are there?” Gwaine asked.
“We’ve been quietly recruiting loyal knights since the day Merlin was banished. We have at least fifty outside Camelot who are at the ready, waiting for our word. There are fifteen more within Camelot’s walls, including everyone here.” Leon gave Gwaine an unreadable look. “We’ve been preparing for this day,” he went on, voice softer, “waiting for the right time. It seems that time arrived with you.”
“Don’t underestimate Morgana,” Gwaine said. “She’s cunning. She managed to overcome Merlin once.”
“Yes,” Percival said quietly. “We’re still not sure how that happened.”
“I am,” Lancelot said and all eyes turned on him.
“Go on,” Leon said gently. Gwaine braced himself to look away, couldn’t stand it if they’d all look at his friend and see something to pity. But they didn’t. They looked at Lancelot with a trace of awe, as if he was someone to respect, to hold in high regard, because he had faced the Sidh and lived.
“While I was in,” Lancelot swallowed once and Gwaine felt his heart contract with pain, “when I was in the caverns, after the Sidh had left, a dragon spoke to me.”
“Kilgharrah,” Leon said, “the last living dragon. Morgana keeps him prisoner. He is bonded with Merlin.”
“Yes and that is how Morgana managed to overcome Merlin. She has taken Kilgharrah’s egg, the last dragon egg, and holds it ransom. If you want Merlin back on the throne, and Kilgharrah by his side, you will need to find the egg.”
“An egg?” Percival asked, “how is that possible?”
Beside him Kay shrugged. “Dragons,” he said, as if that explained it all.
“Did he tell you where it is?” Gwen asked him and Lancelot shook his head.
“It’ll be somewhere in the castle,” Gwaine said. “She wouldn’t let something that important very far out of her sight.”
“That’s right,” Leon said. “We’ll have to adapt our plans. A small group will have to search for the egg at the same time the others go for Morgana and Agravaine. The egg will be the first thing she’ll go for if the alarm is raised.”
“And she might call on Morgause,” Elyan said, causing Owain to groan again.
“Really? You’re going to go there?”
“He’s right,” Leon interrupted before they could start bickering. “Morgause and the Witchfinder are very real threats. We need to be alert. That is why,” Leon pointed at one of the maps and Gwaine leaned closer, “we will keep the vast majority of our force stationed here. If there is to be an all out fight, it will be in the valley. Even Morgana wouldn’t risk fighting within Camelot’s walls. If the small group of knights fails at the west gate, this is the only hope we have.”
“What about Merlin?” Percival said, looking down upon the prone form of Galahad. “If he’s not at Tintagel, then where is he? What if he’s ––”
“He’s not dead,” Owain hissed, jaw set. “He’s not.”
“He might be a prisoner,” Percival said. “Morgause and the Witchfinder might have him.”
The room went eerily quiet and Gwaine found himself holding his breath. He wanted to ask who they were, these people they seemed so afraid of, and he felt cold dread at the thought of Arthur being in their hands.
“If they do,” Elyan said, “he is doomed. We might be summoning an army, mapping out a battle plan, working out how to overthrow Morgana while we haven’t actually got Merlin to put back on the throne.”
“If he’s dead...” Percival said, his voice small and his eyes wide, as if this was too terrible to even think about.
Leon struck the table with a fist and all faces turned to him. “If he’s dead,” he said quietly, “we’ll avenge him.” His words were followed by sincere promises of vengeance and Gwaine, being who he is and unable to help himself, said, “But if he’s dead, who would take the throne in his stead?”
Everyone in the room turned to him, and they all looked baffled.
“Well,” Leon began.
“There is––” Percival began.
“I heard there’s a nephew,” Owain mumbled, frowning. And then they all started babbling at once, about the relationship of grandfathers and who was whose first or second cousin and Gwaine grinned when he saw the exasperated set of Lancelot’s mouth. Gwen was shooting daggers at him and Gwaine opened his mouth to interrupt the bickering when a cool, calm voice came from the doorway.
“Giving away my throne before I’m dead, gentlemen?”
As one they turned. Someone was leaning casually against the doorway, arms crossed and one ankle slung easily over the other, head tilted to the side in mild amusement. A beat of silence and then Leon said, “Your Highness... Merlin,” and every person in the room fell to his knees; each of them placed his right hand on his heart as a symbol of allegiance to their rightful ruler, an oath given, never compelled.
Gwaine, the only one still standing, saw pure and undiluted joy on all their faces and saw something else, something he could afterwards only describe as immense faith. It was as if they were saying, he is with us, everything will be all right. It was the most extraordinary display of trust he had ever witnessed. And then the Dragonking’s eyes came to rest on him and Gwaine was startled by the emotions that whirled like a fading storm over his face. Pain, regret, anger, jealousy and finally acceptance. Gwaine wondered if he should kneel too, just when Merlin stepped aside and Gwaine saw who stood behind him, and he was suddenly and completely overcome with breathtaking happiness.
That first sight of Arthur, travel-stained and disheveled, his eyes smudged with tiredness, affected the others in the room remarkably. There had been instant obedience and trust at the sight of Merlin, but when they saw Arthur, when Arthur stepped out of the shadows and into the barn, there was something very nearing awe on all their faces. The silence thickened as the knights of Camelot rose to their feet, and from where he stood, Leon said softly, in a voice of extreme reverence, “The High King of Albion.”
Beside him Percival said, “The Once and Future King, he has returned,” and suddenly, strangely, Gwaine didn’t see Arthur, not his Arthur from Ealdor, but someone quite different. Someone whose features had been carved on the founding rock of Camelot, whose eyes shone with a light he had never seen in anyone’s eyes before, whose face was such strength and such beauty, that for a moment his sight misted over. So he blinked and then there was Arthur, who was fighting his own tears and they lurched for one another, clung to one another.
“Gwaine,” Arthur managed, a hesitant, careful sound, as if he couldn’t be certain this magical and unreal world wasn’t playing tricks on his eyes. Gwaine felt his face light up like a sunrise and they just stood, holding on and on and on, hands pawing frantically, painfully at each other because this was real. They were here, together, and they’d never let anything part them again.
Later there would be time for everything else. For Gwaine to be angry at Merlin since Arthur refused to. For Arthur to feel a stab of jealousy at the night Gwaine and Morgana shared. Right now, all there was, was all encompassing alleviation of a sharp pain they had shared ever since Arthur had fallen through time. As if they were somehow connected by an invisible cord and that cord had been stretched taut beyond endurance.
“Arthur,” Gwaine was saying, over and over. “Arthur.” He tightened his fingers around Arthur’s nape and pulled him closer still, pressing his face against Arthur’s throat. “I can’t believe I found you, I knew you weren’t dead, I knew, but I feared ––”
“I know,” Arthur murmured in his hair, the weight of their combined grief and relief too heavy, so they sank to their knees. “I know.”
“I don’t understand any of it,” Gwaine said when they were as alone as they could be, atop the hay loft, and Arthur turned to face him, unable to contain his smile.
“I don’t think we’re meant to,” said Arthur, watching him and thinking, how could I have forgotten? How could I have forgotten the way his hair falls over his forehead, or the way his eyes slant up at the corners when he smiles, or the way his mouth curves? “We don’t have much time, Gwaine.”
“Arthur,” said Gwaine, his eyes dark and intent, “love.” And then hungrily, “Oh Arthur, come here.” Gwaine kissed him, like he was starved for it, like he’d been breathless and only now the air came freely and Arthur felt like he’d never be able to let go. His mouth tasted the way Arthur remembered it, and his body was firm and hard and right. “Yes,” Arthur moaned, when Gwaine released his mouth and trailed wetly down Arthur’s throat. This is what is meant to be, he thought, this is who I am meant for.
Gwaine tugged him down, pushing gently to roll them over but Arthur grinned. He wouldn’t give in so easily. They scuffled for dominance, Gwaine pushing at Arthur’s shoulders as he huffed a laugh while Arthur relentlessly ran his hands all over Gwaine’s chest, tugging at the hem of his shirt and over his head in one movement. He lowered his mouth to Gwaine’s nipple and sucked it until it pebbled, then bit down, tongue easing the sting.
“Arthur,” Gwaine moaned, his hands curling deep in Arthur’s hair, yanking hard and just like that, the mood changed. Arthur let himself be pushed down, Gwaine silent and dark-eyed above him, slowly stripping off his clothes. He let himself drift to the feel of Gwaine’s fingers on his skin, of his mouth warm and wet following the path they discovered. He gathered handfuls of straw by his sides when Gwaine licked his cockhead, scrambled for purchase on anything, anything at all, when he swallowed him down.
His voice broke on a string of endearments and promises when he came on Gwaine’s tongue, gathering him up and holding him close for a long time after. Then he took Gwaine in hand and pulled him along over the edge, Gwaine’s breath hot and wet against his throat as they clung together in an aftermath of much more than simple release.
“I can’t abandon him,” Arthur murmured against Gwaine’s hair, stroking it gently as they allowed their breathing to steady. “It would be cruel to desert him on the eve of battle.”
“The High King returned,” Gwaine said and Arthur sighed, pulled him tighter, the vertigo of relief and happiness making the room spin.
“You understand,” Arthur said. “Gwaine, I must ride out with him.” Gwaine lifted his head and looked at Arthur, his eyes unreadable. “And,” Arthur whispered, running his hand up Gwaine’s spine to cup his jaw, “I think you must be there too.” Gwaine opened his mouth to speak, but he tilted his head, listening, and Arthur softly said, “Can you hear it?” Gwaine nodded and Arthur felt the sensual beckoning thrum.
“What is it?”
“Merlin is summoning the Dragonlings.” Arthur thought of Gaius at Tintagel and felt a terrible surge of guilt for not thinking of his father sooner. Would he still be alive? If not, would that be worse?
Gwaine moved to the open loft window. “Can we watch?”
“I think so.” Arthur crawled through the hay and lay down on his stomach beside Gwaine, suddenly remembering with sharp, clear homesickness the lazy summers they had spent lying side by side, just like this, always on the verge of something. “I saw it once. It’s breathtaking and incredible and a little bit frightening. But we’re safe up here.”
Merlin stood in a clearing, arms stretched out. The others surrounded him in a half circle, a little distance away.
“They won’t go any nearer,” Arthur whispered. “To do so might distract him. And the call can only be made once from sunrise to sunrise. If the magic fails tonight, and this violet hour is the most magical of all,” Arthur grinned at Gwaine, who smiled at the memory, “if he fails tonight, the enchantment will be lost until tomorrow.” He felt again the same urge he had felt at Tintagel, to run through forests and fields to heed this call, to answer it, to obey it.
“I can see why you want to follow him,” Gwaine said, the words tinged heavy with sadness. “I find myself very much wanting to do the same.”
“He is a good man,” said Arthur quietly. “He made mistakes and went about things the wrong way, but he had no way of knowing I’d help him no matter what. He did what he needed to do.”
Arthur turned a little and slipped his hand in Gwaine’s. “But there will never be anyone for me, but you.”
Gwaine looked at him, eyes huge and fragile, but said nothing, and it came to Arthur, that it felt achingly right for them to be here in this moment, hand-locked and witnessing the ancient summoning of the dragonlings. Gwaine still didn’t speak, as if he felt Arthur’s need for silence, as if he knew words would only break the gossamer peace of the moment, and just held on, their hearts beating in harmony, pressed together in their palms.
“I remember this,” Gwaine said eventually, as they watched the mountains turn golden in the sunset, the hollow beat of dozens of wings assaulting the air. “I was there, the very first time this call was made. I was there when the first Dragonlords summoned their Beasts. I was there, by your side, as was Merlin. It’s him, isn’t it? He wasn’t reincarnated, like we sort of are. He is still that same person.”
“God,” Gwaine went on, quietly, “imagine the loneliness of a life lived forever.”
The mountain darkened with the spawn of dragons and Arthur and Gwaine watched until night fell and they could see no more.
Of all the great battles of Ancient Albion, none held a greater pride of place than the famous Battle of the Dragonking. It was what battle poets wrote about, bards sang ballads about, and storytellers recounted over and over.
They reached Camelot Hill as dawn was lightening the skies. Arthur stood a little apart; surveying the terrain, automatically looking for advantages, how they could encircle Morgana’s army. The entire landscape was familiar to him as if he had lived there for his entire life, and the sense of being on his own ground was piercingly sweet. It helped that Gwaine stood not far from him, Lancelot and Gwen by his side. It was wonderful to see him like that, wearing the Dragonking’s red and golden colors, taking command of the portion of knights dedicated to him, as easily as if he too, had never been away.
Arthur saw Gwaine press his hands around Lancelot’s and then, after a short hesitation, around Gwen’s. They would retreat to the higher plains of Camelot Hill, to stand with half of the summoned dragonlings.
“They will need to be held back until the fight is in full swing. If all the dragonlings enter the fray, it will be harder to pull them out and reposition them where needed,” Merlin had said.
“But will they listen to me?” Lancelot had asked, and Merlin had turned to him as Lancelot lifted his head, like he could see Merlin. It was eery, and Arthur had felt a sharp, bitter stab of pain when he’d seen Lancelot’s injuries, the sour taste of bile clinging to his tongue as he considered it was the same creatures who had lead him through the Curtain of Time that had done this. The same creatures who had forever silenced his father.
“Oh,” Merlin had said softly, “I think they will.”
“Are you afraid of what lies ahead?” Leon asked by Arthur’s side, and he turned a little in his saddle.
At once, Arthur said, “Oh no, for Merlin cannot fail.” They both turned toward Merlin, whose white steed stood still, Merlin’s cloak slung carefully over its haunches, mane dancing in the breeze. Merlin was a little apart from the others, as if already distancing himself and Arthur’s heart clenched in his chest.
“He is a true leader,” said Leon softly, and then, “may I ask you something, Arthur?”
“Please do,” Arthur said, relieved they’d stopped calling him Majesty. There was only one King here now.
“Are we remembered? In the future? Is there a point to this?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur said. “My world is devastated. So much is destroyed. But I think, yes. I think there are myths and legends. Maybe they don’t get it entirely right, but there is truth in the tales, I’m sure. I think the world will remember Merlin.” Arthur looked at Leon, the familiar pull of recognition tugging at his mind. “I wish there was more time to get to know you,” he said.
“Will there not be?” Asked Leon.
“I don’t think so, no. I don’t think we will be permitted to remain here.”
Arthur smiled at Leon, who must’ve seen something in his eyes because he asked, “Will you mind very much?”
Arthur looked at Merlin and simply said, “It will break my heart,” but he smiled again. “This isn’t my place, however. After the battle… No matter. We can think about that later.”
And then Merlin lifted his head and looked straight at Arthur, to say, “Mordred has found the egg.”
From where he was standing, Arthur could see the stealthy descent of the druids and a quarter of the dragonlings. The sun caught their magnificent scales, making them glint in the morning light. Beside Arthur, Leon shifted in his saddle, but Arthur said, “Wait, let them reach the Southern Gate.” It felt like forever, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, during which Arthur barely breathed. Then, the Gate was flanked, and Arthur looked to his left, where Gwaine nodded, and to his right, where Merlin nodded.
He held up his hand and dropped it.
“To arms,” Gwaine cried and the ground shook from horse hooves battering the valley. Gwaine led his knights to the East, while Merlin led his and another quarter of the dragonlings to the West.
Arthur charged straight on, Leon and the other knights hot on his heels. Above the clamor of armor and hoofbeats, he could hear the guards raising the alarm.
“Camelot is under attack,” they yelled, and “close the Southern Gate!”
Just what we want, Arthur thought, and he felt Merlin’s jubilance as their plan fell into place. Gwaine, Percival and Kay would veer off any moment now, and find the hidden entrance on the north side, where they would meet Mordred to accept the egg and push on to the dungeons to free the dragon.
I will be one with Kilgharrah again, Arthur heard Merlin think. We will bond again.
But then two figures appeared on the battlements, and Arthur’s heart stuttered to a halting stop.
“No,” he heard Merlin hiss, a bolt of lightning leaving his palm, but it was easily deflected. Mordred stood beside Morgana, and in his hands was a large, pearlescent egg.
The fight that followed was brutal and ugly.
The druids who had allegedly allied themselves with Merlin, saw Mordred on the bulwark, raising his arms and calling in a tongue Arthur had never heard before, and they slunk into shadow until they were gone. The air began to drum and Merlin let out a hoarse, strangled cry, head tilted to the sky, that rendered Arthur’s heart stone cold.
“Kilgharrah,” Merlin shouted.
Merlin, a deep, thrilling voice reverberated, and then from behind the stockades, rose a magnificent dragon.
The beast was enormous, and Arthur didn’t blame his horse one bit when it stomped nervously beneath him. It was the most amazing thing Arthur had ever seen. And he was terrified.
Merlin, the dragon cried again, rescue the egg. His hold over me goes through the egg, I cannot disobey his commands as long as he has it. The bond between a dragon and its offspring is stronger than the bond between a dragon and his lord.
Mordred spit out more incomprehensible words, and the dragon let out a wail of pain, his leathery features contorting, before he arched his neck and breathed a stream of fire over the attacking dragonlings.
They were horribly outmatched, and Arthur saw Gwaine had turned his horse. He and the knights were returning to the main battlefield. But Merlin’s head whipped around, his eyes focussing on Gwaine, whose horse almost stopped mid-gallop. Gwaine stared at Merlin and then nodded once, turned back toward the East side.
Arthur was about to steer his horse to Merlin’s side when he saw the woman Morgana raise her arms and to his horrification, the ground began to churn. First, one boned hand appeared from soft earth, and then another. A thin skeleton, with patches of rotted skin still clinging to its ribs, pulled itself free and advanced slowly, but surely on the knights. Everywhere Arthur looked, more and more appeared, and even if they weren’t armed, they’d be overwhelmed sooner or later by the sheer number of them.
“She is summoning the Fallen,” Leon said by his side, sounding appalled. “Bodies the battlefield has claimed over the centuries. Abomination.”
Arthur was aware of nothing but the wind in his face as they went down the hillside in a single concerted sweep, of the furious adrenaline pumping through his veins and the smoke that began to rise as the dragonlings burnt the skeletons that kept crawling from the earth. And then Excalibur was in his hand and everything became an automatism of parrying and thrusting and moving on to the next. Urging on his horse to trample the bones beneath its hooves as he took down one moving corpse after another.
The first to fall was Leon, and Arthur uttered a cry of such rage and despair, it was heard all over the battlefield. Three more knights took injury by his side and the fourth called, “Highness! Arthur, you must retreat!”
A lull in battle allowed him to look around as he wiped the sweat from his brow. The ground was churned, strewn with blood of the living and bones of the dead. Everywhere knights were about to be overwhelmed. As Arthur watched, one dragonling succumbed to a group of the Fallen. His stomach turning as he witnessed them tear it limb from limb. Then, they bent as one and drank and it wasn’t his imagination that flesh and muscle grew back on their frames. One last look told him Merlin was fighting the dragon, and Arthur could see he was just defending himself, unwilling to harm the beast. He wanted to shout, to tell Merlin to attack, but his rest was over, before him another knight slipped sideways off his horse, and Arthur was back into battle.
The trees, Arthur.
The stunned jolt nearly cost him his hand and Arthur could just in time twist his reins so the horse trampled the skeleton. You were gone, he thought at the familiar presence in his mind.
My time is up, I am fading back into time. You must wake the trees, Arthur, it is your only chance.
Arthur cut down three more Fallen as they were about to overwhelm the only knight still standing with him. He grabbed the man’s arm to heave him into his saddle as his own horse lay dead on the ground, and rode out of the fray.
“Take my horse and find someone to report to,” he yelled as he dropped to the ground at the top of the hill. The knight nodded and rode off. Arthur glanced back one more time, sparing a thought for Gwaine in the depths of the lion’s –– or maybe in this case –– the dragon’s den, and then he set off on a run.
No sooner had he stepped into the Sleeping Woods, all sound of battle fell away. An odd peace came over him, and Arthur recognized the feeling for the same one he always felt in Gwaine’s orchard, beneath the ancient trees that never bore fruit. It was a curious sensation, to walk amongst the Sleeping Trees, but Arthur knew this was right, this was where he was supposed to be. He knew the High King had left him completely now, and Arthur wondered briefly if he’d ever become accustomed to the slight emptiness inside him.
He will always be part of you.
Arthur turned, but saw no one, until, at the edge of his vision, he caught a blur of movement. It was possible his eyes were deceiving him, but then the small circled clearing was suddenly filled with naiads and dryads and every single tree-spirit in existence crowded around him.
An giant old oak stood slightly closer, staring down at Arthur with large, wizened eyes, his body one moment a wisp, the next a solid trunk. His branches ruffled even though the wind was still and then he said, in a voice raspy and old as time, “We’ve been waiting for you Arthur Pendragon, descended of the Once and Future King, the High King of all of Albion in whose name there will always be striven for peace. Albion united for you once, it will again. Will you lead us into battle?”
Arthur kneeled, Excalibur burrowed tip first into the soft moss, softly humming. “I will,” he said simply.
Gwaine and Percival found Agravaine hiding in one of the council chambers, crouching behind a curtain like the cowardly weasel he was.
“I never betrayed Merlin,” he was saying, in a wheedling voice that made Gwaine’s skin crawl. “I stayed by Morgana’s side biding my time, you see. I was waiting, yes, waiting for a day like today, and I can show you where she is. Merlin was always my King.”
Gwaine looked at Percival who shook his head, his mouth a thin line of disgust. “We’ll find her ourselves,” Gwaine said, and then motioned for the two knights waiting by the door. “Dump him in the first dungeon you find; Merlin will deal with him later.”
“No,” Agravaine said, struggling, looking back over his shoulder and begging, “no please, I can help you. I can show you Camelot’s treasures. I can make you a rich man.”
Gwaine snarled and turned away from him. “What a pathetic creature,” he said and Percival snorted. “You have no idea. Come let’s go find the others.”
The knights within the castle loyal to Merlin were gathered in the Great Hall, with what seemed like the majority of Morgana’s supporters bound in a large circle in the middle. Percival grinned. “Well done,” he said, clasping forearms with another knight. “You’ve done all the work for us.”
“Morgana and Mordred are on the battlements,” another said and Gwaine nodded.
“We know,” he said. “I’d ask you to leave the bare minimum of your knights here and follow us, but I fear it won’t matter if there is one or twenty of us.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Percival and Gwaine felt a burst of warm gratitude. “Did you comb through all the rooms?” he asked the other knight.
“All but the North side.”
“Very well, take four others and see who else you find. I’d rather not be stabbed in the back.”
“Yes, my lord,” the knight said and set off.
“Ready?” said Gwaine and Percival grasped his forearm, his strong hand folding around the muscle.
“Ready,” he replied. Gwaine tightened his own hand over Percival’s wrist and then they stepped out into the corridor.
When they reached the parapets, Gwaine’s stomach lurched in disbelief. Far below, the earth itself was churning, spitting and belching out one walking corpse after another. Merlin stood casting spells toward a huge dragon that seemed to hang suspended and immobile over their heads. Higher up he saw Lancelot give the command for the other dragonlings to join the fight, but it was hopeless.
“What have you done?” he breathed. The corpses moved against the knights, the dragonlings and, Arthur, Gwaine thought, oh god Arthur where are you. Rotting skeletons, decaying corpses with flesh still clinging to their bones, eyeless skulls with grinning lipless mouths and tattered blackened skin. The stench rose up to meet them, filling Gwaine’s nostrils so that nausea threatened to overpower him, “What have you done,” he again said.
“He will fall,” Mordred said, barely sparing them a glance.
“No,” Gwaine hissed, when Percival lunged forward, sword drawn, but he was too late. With a casual wave of his hand, Mordred sent him flying against the wall.
Gwaine crouched down, checked for a pulse and when he found one, rose to his feet again to see Morgana looking at him intently. He was about to draw his own sword, but she minutely shook her head. Beside her, Mordred lifted his arms, his robe slipping back over slender, pale wrists.
He’s no more than a boy, Gwaine thought and then Mordred said, “And now for the final act.”
In horror Gwaine watched the earth crack, a deep chasm appearing like split skin, more undead pouring out like leaking blood. They were no longer just human now, Gwaine saw harpies and hags, creatures on all fours and some with wings and, my god, he thought, we are lost.
“How could you do this,” he whispered because he didn’t trust his voice.
“This is not my doing,” Morgana said, a tremor in her voice. “He is out of control. I never wanted this.”
Then, his eyes caught on a ripple of movement at the edge of the woods. Stepping out of them was Arthur, seemingly alone, until a massive wave of life broke through the forest, and trees began to surge forward toward the battle that was raging. They are going to crush the enemy, thought Gwaine, they are merciless and rather terrible. And he felt a little afraid of them, his heart only swelling with more pride and so much contained emotion as he witnessed Arthur amongst them, leading them, fearless and determined.
Merlin made a sweeping movement with one hand, and shouted, “Back! Back all of you! Out of their path. Let them go on, let them destroy the Fallen!” and the knights, the dragonlings and the druids who had rallied and had come back to fight by their side moved as one to be out of the way of the Trees.
Arthur looked up, then, and Gwaine caught his eye. Again he saw the Once and Future King and wondered if there ever really had been a difference. He felt a surge of pride because Arthur did this, Arthur had awoken the Sleeping Trees and had tipped the battle in their favor.
The Trees were upon the undead army, crushing and rending them with ease. There were slender birchlike tree-spirits pouring on to the enemy, subduing them without effort. A strong straight beech had stretched across the ravine and, for a moment, they saw its spirit hovering, red-gold and supple and strong.
“Come across, Dragonlord,” cried the tree-spirit, in what Gwaine afterwards thought of as a warm woody voice that made him think of pine-scented forests and burning apple logs and the clean smell of sawdust in a workshop. “Come across, command your dragonlings and rout the filth!”
More and more tall, slender trees bowed down to bridge the chasm, and Merlin lead his knights across, the dragonlings flying and bounding and taking out the Fallen army one by one. Tongues of flame shot upward from time to time, consuming the undead that fell back into the gap.
“Their souls will know rest, now,” Morgana said to Gwaine, and she sounded so sad, he had to restrain himself from taking her hand. She was his enemy now, no matter how he remembered her skin beneath his hands.
“I surrender,” Mordred said, and he held out the egg to Gwaine, who carefully took it. He didn’t miss the frown on Morgana’s face, as he thought this is too easy.
Down in the valley Merlin lifted his face to the battlements and then, after a few seconds, he dropped his hands and collapsed, releasing the dragon from the spell that held it suspended in the air.
“Take me inside,” Mordred said, with fear in his voice for the first time when the dragon turned its head in their direction.
Beside him, Percival stirred and climbed to his feet with a groan, and together they entered the castle.
Merlin made no ceremony. “He never did,” Leon said, head resting in Arthur’s lap. He’d found him alive, had run to the spot where he had fallen as soon as he could, but his wounds were dire.
“He doesn’t need to,” Arthur said. Merlin simply looked at the Trees, and after a long while nodded his head, “You are timely come,” he said, formal words that suited the occasion well.
The ancient oak-naiad said, “We owe you obedience Merlin, and we are your most loyal servants,” and Merlin smiled.
“I welcome your awakening,” he said, and Arthur had the feeling some sort of ritual was taking place.
The oak bowed, his trunk nearly, but not quite recognizable as a face. “It was Arthur who called to us. Only he could awaken us for it was his ancestor who ordered us into the Enchanted Slumber so that we should not fall to the power of Evil.” And then all the tree-spirits turned to where Arthur stood quietly watching, and made a deep bow.
Gwaine was waiting in the Great Hall, with Percival and five other knights guarding Mordred and Morgana, when Arthur and Merlin entered. Gwaine gave Arthur a look of such relief and gratitude, it sent Arthur very nearly to his knees. He wanted nothing more than to run and lift Gwaine in his arms, but there would be time for that later. A small smile played around Gwaine’s mouth, mischievous and a little suggestive, as if he knew precisely what Arthur was thinking.
Merlin walked forward and gently lifted the dragon egg from Gwaine’s hands. He seemed entranced as he held it reverently before him, eyes closed and face lifted to the ceiling, for a long moment. Almost immediately Arthur could see the lines of worry fall from his face. No one else but Arthur would notice, how Merlin’s fingers trembled slightly when he walked to the window, opened it, and gently placed the egg in a large claw waiting just outside. It seemed such a casual thing, but Arthur knew Merlin was touched to the profound depths of his being.
Merlin said something in a tongue Arthur didn’t understand, but it sounded soft and loving, and then they heard the unmistakable beat of massive wings carrying the dragon and the egg away.
“Morgana,” Merlin said, turning on his heels, and this, Arthur thought, this is the ruler. This is the Dragonking. He mourned the friend he’d made over the long journey of the past weeks, because he knew he wouldn’t see that Merlin again. “You are banished from Camelot. You will spend the rest of your life in Tintagel or until such a time I see fit to set you free.”
The lady Morgana ducked her head, a curtain of long, beautiful hair hiding her features. Arthur didn’t miss the way Gwaine’s fist tensed, and he understood, but couldn’t find it within him to feel angry. The time they both had here had been frightening, no doubt, but also thrilling and absolutely wonderful, and Arthur wouldn’t let something as petty as jealousy ruin it. Not when he was looking ahead to a lifetime with Gwaine.
“Mordred,” Merlin said, and the boy lifted his head. There was something not right, and Gwaine seemed to sense it too because he made a move toward Mordred but it was too late. “It was you who sold the Golden Girdle enchantment to the Witchfinder, wasn’t it?”
The smile on his face was cold and lifeless. “Yes. He told me everything I needed to know to come between the dragon and its lord. Morgause was the only one, apart from you, who knew about the egg and its power. She told the Witchfinder after he turned her mad with torture, and he, in turn, told me. For the right price.” Mordred smiled. It would’ve been innocent and sweet but for the deranged look in his eyes. “I felt it when you killed Morgause,” he went on and beside him Morgana flinched. “So I guess Aridian is no more.”
Merlin didn’t answer just held Mordred in a furious amber gaze. “Pity. I quite liked his methods. In the end, you always have to do everything yourself, don’t you?” With a sudden and jerking move, Mordred flung out an arm and a ball of red energy released from his palm, heading straight for Arthur.
“I’ve killed you once; I will kill you again,” Mordred cried at the same time Merlin yelled, “No!” and flung himself in harm’s way. He crumpled at Arthur’s feet, and Arthur wasted no breath on shouting, he just stepped around Merlin and ran Excalibur through Mordred’s heart. A white flash blinded him, hurting through his eyeballs so he had to blink away tears. Mordred made a gurgled noise and Arthur’s vision slowly cleared.
The boy crumpled, slipping off the sword and to his knees, blood oozing through his fingers as his blue eyes staring at Arthur went from startled to glazed. With a last, mournful song, as if to say goodbye to a world it would never appear in again, Excalibur faded from existence.
Arthur didn’t spare the boy a second glance, just turned away, let him lilt sideways to the ground. He bent down on shaking knees.
“Have I redeemed myself?” Merlin asked, his eyes too bright and shining, face twisting in pain as Arthur cradled him to his chest. “Have I your forgiveness?”
“Merlin,” he whispered, fingers sticky from blood welling out of the large burn on his chest. “Why? Oh, Merlin. You should’ve let me die.”
“Never,” Merlin said. He coughed and blood bubbled from his mouth. “I love you now and always.” His eyes fluttered closed and Arthur titled his head to the ceiling, mouth parted in a soundless cry as tears leaked down his face and neck.
“I can help him,” the lady Morgana said, carefully edging forward. Arthur looked at her and thought, beautiful. Percival took a protective step forward but when Arthur’s eyes searched for Gwaine, they found him nodding once.
“Very well,” he said, voice cut and broken. “What harm can it do? But I am not letting go of him.”
“You don’t have to,” Morgana said, gentle, pressing a hand against his shoulder once, before kneeling down beside them.
Gwaine stood opposite Lancelot and Gwen, the setting sun lighting gentle radiance in Lancelot’s face. This was home now for him, this was their place. But isn’t it my place also, Gwaine thought, have I not, also, come home? He had fought alongside knights and magical creatures, had felt the blood of an ancestor stir in his veins, had watched Arthur be a King. He knew himself alive and charged with an energy and a confidence so great that he felt he could storm citadels, ride out at the head of great armies, defeat the Beast of the Apocalypse itself.
And he already felt the pain of loss, of leaving behind his maimed friend, never to see him again.
Gwaine saw Lancelot’s head come up and he saw the sudden awareness in the tilt of Lancelot’s whole body. He thought, something has struck a very deep chord in him.
“Do you remember,” said Lancelot, “the night we agreed to go through the Curtain of Time, you and I?”
“Yes,” said Gwaine, I remember, and nothing, not wild horses, would have stopped me going in after Arthur. He remembered as well, the moonlight and the mystery of the night, the aching loneliness for Arthur gone beyond his reach.
“You placed yourself under my authority then, Gwaine. You are still under it.”
Gwaine did not speak.
“And as such I may expect from you obedience.” He smiled. “And that, my friend, goes uneasily with you, I think. Gwaine Orkney doesn’t bow to the authority of another. We vowed to return, you and I. Remember?”
Unless death or mutilation should prevent us. Yes, he remembered. He must go back. He promised. They both did and he felt the terrible weight of Lancelot’s eternal sightlessness descend about him. There would be no place for Lancelot in Ealdor now, the world still too harsh a place to live and work. If he returned, he’d be fulfilling their promise, making it possible for Lancelot to remain here, where he belonged. With Gwen.
She squeezed Lancelot’s hand and smiled at Gwaine as if she’d read his thoughts.
“You understand,” Lancelot said, and Gwaine nodded, realized Lancelot couldn’t see it, but was unable for the moment, to speak. “Also know then, that I was to be the successor as Leader of the Secret Keepers.” He slid a large, green ring from his finger. “I pass this office on to you.” Lancelot’s fingers closed about his wrist and Gwaine felt the steady flow of his thoughts as the cool ring slid along his finger. “Do you accept?” he asked out loud, in a voice of ceremony and Gwaine straightened. “Will you return with Arthur and lead in my stead when the time comes? Do you promise to keep the secret until the Time Curtain has repaired itself and do you promise to let it be forgotten?”
Gwaine bowed his head, found that he still couldn’t speak. In the silence that followed, he felt Lancelot’s hands tighten over his.
So after all, there was to be no regretting the promise he made to return. To leave behind this wonderful land, full of green and mists and magic. After all they would return, and he’d have Arthur by his side. Together, they’d remember.
“I was fascinated and bewitched,” Arthur would say, much later, in answer to a question Gwaine never asked. “And part of me did love him, but I think that part was the other, the Once and Future King. I think.” He’d regard Gwaine steadily then, and add, “There will always be the memory, but you don’t need to mind about it.”
For I was always yours, my love.
“As much as you were mine,” Arthur’d said, grinning, “even that night inside Camelot with Morgana.”
Gwaine would grin back at him, and would think, he understands, just as I do. He too, would always have the memory of the wild, unprincipled lady who was not quite human, and who loved well, if not always wisely.
There was a wake, a funeral of a sort, for Arthur’s father, who had come to Camelot with Gaius and died not long after the battle. As if he’d been waiting to see Arthur one last time. Arthur had been able to say goodbye, while everyone kept their silent distance, and he had felt another door close quietly, another link severing him from this alien and beautiful world.
“I don’t think Morgana will stay in Tintagel for long,” Arthur said and Gwaine nodded, thought of Gwen and Lancelot, her keepers.
“Will it be safe?” he had asked them, remembering Morgana too had magic.
“Quite,” Gwen had said, quirking a smile, “before all this we were friends. And we shall be again.”
“No,” Gwaine now said, running his hands through Arthur’s hair, watching the banquet roll to an end, Percival and Kay still lifting their goblets in some drinking game, albeit far less steady than when they started out. In the middle of their table stood a chair with nothing but a red cloak and a black band around it, and Gwaine remembered Sir Leon and his calm leadership.
He startled when Arthur squeezed his hand. “No, I think Merlin and Morgana have unfinished business and when their hearts have healed, they’ll find each other again.”
They both looked at Merlin, who sat, as much as he was part of the festivities, isolated from it all.
They were together a great deal, Arthur and Merlin, in the days that followed, as they waited for midsummer, for the magic would be at its peak and at its most yielding to send them back through time.
“Talk to me,” said Merlin, “enough to last me a lifetime. Leave me as much as you can, Arthur. Make me know you so well, I’ll never forget you. Let me store you in my mind so when you return to your own world, I can unravel the memories and spread them before me like a tapestry. I will never see you again in this life.” He grasped Arthur’s hands. “Give me memories,” whispered Merlin, his eyes slanted and golden and Arthur could feel that he was being wrenched apart with longing.
Merlin sat alone in the Great Hall, watching purple shadows steal across the floor. Dusk. A time for lovers and yet I am alone.
He needn’t be. There were enough men and women in the Court who’d happily share his bed after less than a stolen look in their direction, and Merlin smiled a half-smile. Soon, he thought, but for the moment, for tonight and perhaps a fair few tomorrows, I shall be alone with my memories of Arthur.
The shadows had deepened when the door was pushed open, and Merlin looked up, startled, because he thought he was imagining it, but it was Arthur in truth. He stood hesitant in the doorway, not moving. Merlin stood up and then Arthur walked across the room, took, without a word, Merlin’s face between his palms and kissed him, slow and sweet and deep. He poured everything he had into it, the connection flaring in Merlin’s brain like magic, seeing all Arthur’s memories of their time together, searing into his mind to never leave.
Yes, Merlin thought, when Arthur ran his thumb over Merlin’s lips, and then turned to leave, both unable to speak. Yes. His mouth curved into a smile. Enough.
THE WORLD IS BLEAK, AND DARK, NOW. IT HURTS ME TO SEE CAMELOT HILL LIKE THIS. I RECOGNIZE IT, WHILE EVEN CAMELOT’S RUINS ARE LONG GONE. THERE IS THE VALLEY WHERE I WAGED BATTLE WITH ARTHUR BY MY SIDE. IT IS FITTING, SOMEHOW, THAT THIS IS WHERE I SEE THE ONLY PATCH OF RESPITE ON THIS SCORCHED EARTH. A COTTAGE STANDS BEYOND AN ORCHARD WHERE EVEN NOW BLOSSOMS STILL PREPARE TO BEAR THE TREES' FRUIT. LIFE WILL ALWAYS CARRY ON, NO MATTER HOW BRUISED AND BATTERED. THEY ARE SURVIVORS, THESE PEOPLE AND THAT IS WHY I DIDN’T STOP THE APOCALYPSE, EVEN THOUGH I COULD HAVE. EVERY FIRE BRINGS DESPERATELY NEEDED RENEWAL. AND WITHOUT THE APOCALYPSE, ARTHUR WOULD NEVER HAVE COME TO ME. I TRY NOT TO ADMIT TO THIS SELFISH THOUGHT, BUT THERE IT IS.
THE DOOR OF THE COTTAGE OPENS AND THE CHICKENS STIR IN ANTICIPATION. A MAN STEPS OUT AND THE RISING SUN GLINTS IN HIS GOLDEN HAIR. I FEEL A STAB OF LONGING AND REGRET, BUT ALSO OF FIERCE, INFINITE RELIEF. ANOTHER FOLLOWS HIM OUT, BARE-CHESTED, AND WRAPS HIS ARMS AROUND THE FIRST FROM BEHIND. TOGETHER ARTHUR AND GWAINE STAND ON THE THRESHOLD OF THEIR HOME, LOOKING IN MY DIRECTION. MAYBE THEY CAN SEE MY SILHOUETTE UPON THE HILL, STARK AGAINST THE NEW MORNING. MAYBE THIS IS JUST HOW THEY GREET DAWN EVERY DAY. DIFFERENT PARTS OF ME EACH HOPE THEY ARE BOTH TRUE. ARTHUR TURNS, THEY KISS. IT IS SWEET, FAMILIAR, KNOWN.
“CAN WE GO NOW?” MORGANA SAYS BEHIND ME. HER HAND SLIPS INTO MINE.
“SOON,” I TELL HER. I STRETCH MY HAND TOWARD THE GLOWING LANDS AND POUR MY MAGIC INTO THE EARTH FOR THE LAST TIME. THE TEARS IN THE CURTAIN OF TIME WILL HEAL FASTER NOW. MAYBE ARTHUR AND GWAINE WILL HAVE TO INITIATE ONE MORE INTO THIS SECRET, AND THEN IT WILL BE FORGOTTEN. OR REMEMBERED AS NEW MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THIS RENEWED WORLD. LIKE CAMELOT WAS A LEGEND ONCE, IT LIES FOREVER FORGOTTEN. ASIDE FROM ARTHUR AND GWAINE, NO ONE KNOWS THERE WAS ONCE A CASTLE HERE, AND ONCE A KING, WHO RULED ALL THE LAND, AND WHO IN THE END, LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.