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She was the cause, Merlin now realized. Freya, the girl he rescued from the bounty hunter’s cage and hidden in the catacombs. It was her. Six people had died, and yet he could not stop his heart’s longing. Had she lied to him? No, he decided. His conclusions were his own, no false words had passed her lips. Yet it stung.
It had been so important to Merlin to discover more about himself, and to see the face of one that shared his fate stare back at him with renewed hope. A hope he thought he could never share with anyone because he was condemned to deny it. The hope of acceptance.
But in a sick twist, he understood her curse. She was the killer. And she knew about him. It was clear that she cared too much to reveal him, and that he cared too much to persecute her. They were in this together. His longings, normally burrowed deep within his heart, were so close to the surface. He was unable to keep himself from seeing her again and trying to find a way to rescue her.
“You really don’t realize how special you are, do you?” he whispered to her in the darkness.
“You’re not scared of me?”
“Being different is nothing to be scared of.” He offered her a reassuring smile.
She turned away. “I shouldn’t be alive.”
Merlin shook his head. “You have every right to be.”
In order for her to have any sort of life, he’d have to get her out of Camelot. In part he wanted to go with her and leave all of this behind. Leave the royal family and their absurd claims against the magic he believed to be beautiful and filled with goodness. To live a life without constant fear of discovery and persecution. But that day would not come for Freya. Or for him.
“I would go with you, Freya,” he said in a final, desperate fit. “If you trust in my magic enough, we can make it work.” He wanted it to be true.
As they looked at one another, realization struck them hard. Their eyes reflected this knowledge cruelly as they clung silently to any possible hope with the deepest desperation. He might have to get them out, but it would be impossible.
He had been accused of freeing the druid by Halig. If he left now with Freya; if the accused servant boy went missing the same day the deaths in town stopped, his persecution would be made reality. He saw in the reflection in her eyes that she understood this too.
“You are too sweet. But there is no such thing left for me.”
“I can’t—" Merlin felt the burn of tears. He could not give up on her. Even with his destiny tied to Camelot.
Freya explained to him in soft words that even if he came with her, they would be hunted.
Merlin shook his head. “I will take care of you, one way or another. We are of a kind.”
Hope was lost in her eyes and yet she thanked him.
Arthur sat in the council chambers with his father, Gaius, Leon, the council members, and several Lords who acknowledged King Uther’s summons for political discussion. These men, according to Arthur, were carefully selected to provide as little resistance to his father as possible. It was well known to him how his father loathed opposition. “And there are no other suspects?”
“Not yet, my lord,” Leon reported.
Halig, the foul-smelling bounty hunter, had come in from the countryside with an extremely dangerous druid. He was known in Camelot, but Arthur had not met the man personally until now. While he had done his rightful duty in bringing magic users before the court, Arthur’s opinion on the man was low. He had, after all, targeted Merlin and it reeked of conspiracy.
Targeting his manservant as a magic supporter out of the blue was a ridiculous notion. Arthur would deny it again today if it came up, because as far as Uther was concerned a culprit needed to be found.
Arthur sat beside his father and he could feel the man’s desperation to resolve this. The beast frightened his father, Arthur knew, but what scared him more was that the culprit would get away with it. Arthur felt conflicted. Bringing peace and safety to Camelot was the evident result the King had in mind, but his father’s attitude about it disgusted him, more than he could ever reveal.
“Expand your investigations,” his father said. “Find out how secure Halig’s cage was, talk to the persons lodging him, find out if he’d been drinking or if he has a history of falsehoods. Also find out if any other druids had come to trade in the lower town or within the citadel.”
Arthur shifted in his seat. Someone was to be hanged before the week was out. His father’s voice told him enough. Several people had been slaughtered by the beast, leaving the town in deep unrest. Each time Camelot was tried in this way, his father braved the people’s panic and provided solutions. The quicker the better.
It gnawed at him. Everything he understood regarding justice was being shredded and each year it got worse. He was just glad Morgana was not included in such meetings or she would have to witness firsthand the increasing paranoia and ruthlessness his father displayed.
Arthur wanted to know the truth.
“I will help with the investigations,” he heard himself say. For the truth, and, he admitted to himself—to prevent any further members of the household staff from facing persecution. “Whoever is involved won’t get away so easily.”
“Of course,” his father said. “Sir Leon, see to it that Arthur has your full support.”
Leon bowed his head and stood.
“And Gaius,” the King added. “Find out what this creature is.”
The physician regarded him steadily. “Might I request permission with Geoffrey to access some books, my lord?”
“Is that really necessary?” Uther sighed.
“The simple books I use are not always enough to find out about more… strange or exotic occurrences. I am limited in my ability to aid this investigation.”
“Yes, I know. I cannot have these books transported outside of Camelot. What they contain is too dark to bear. I have that responsibility—"
“I understand, sire,” Gaius said. “I only mean to look into them. If I may have your permission.”
Arthur contemplated about the existence of such dark information. It could fall into the wrong hands, especially those of the druid who was on the loose. He looked at his father and saw that he was contemplating the same. Arthur wondered what his father would say and waited while Uther carefully considered. His father had taught him so much already and with moments like these, when Arthur didn’t know what he would do, he knew he still needed his father’s guidance.
“You will have temporary permission from Geoffrey to look at the books in the vault,” Uther said, the decision made. “As soon as this is over you will return them immediately to his care.”
“Thank you, sire.” Gaius stood up to leave. “I will make every endeavor to provide you with answers shortly.”
The king nodded.
Arthur mused how Gaius had wound himself around his father’s finger. It was remarkable that only a few months back Arthur had learned that Gaius had once practiced magic. His father himself had told him of it, as if it were nothing. And here he was, ever assisting his king dutifully. He personally never doubted Gaius’s allegiance because every time Gaius promised something, Arthur had seen him work hard to deliver and provide good counsel. A pessimistic part of him was waiting for the day that Gaius would prove them wrong.
The alarm bells rung at dawn. Merlin awoke with a start and realized that the beast had struck again. He silently mourned that another family within the citadel would have to bury their children. He turned on his side, his back to the window, and his heart raced in his throat. He desperately thought about Freya’s fate. When he heard loud voices coming from the workshop he got up and dressed reluctantly.
A wooden pallet was being dragged into the workshop by several palace guards. Gaius removed the blood-soaked sheet and studied the body with a clinical detachment Merlin discovered he couldn’t mirror. The victim was a young boy no older than ten or eleven. “These wounds were not for feeding, they were executed in a blinding rage,” Gaius concluded soberly.
Merlin fled the workshop shortly after, when the boy’s family collected his body. Their sobs chased him down the hall and left him full of sick duplicity.
His resolve was set.
When he brought Freya one of Morgana’s dresses, after making it through an incredibly awkward moment with Arthur in the corridor, he went to find her. It was extra risky during the day, but there was no time to lose. If she killed tonight, she would be done for. “I will get you out of here,” Merlin said, his voice thick. “You will be free.”
Arthur was exhausted from his investigations. They had interrogated Halig and had discovered that the man had been drunk when the druid girl escaped. The tavern keeper, Evoric, had nearly thrown him out for approaching one of his daughters, Everilda, as if she had been a whore. He couldn’t deny that the man had a crude attitude, but even this surprised him.
What was worse, was that no new suspects had been revealed. The cage had been right in front of the tavern all evening and night, but Evoric was accounted for during the whole period, looking after his daughter. The nearby shopkeepers, stable boys, and even the guards stationed at night had been questioned as well.
Arthur returned to his room and wrote a report about their findings of the day when Morgana walked in. She looked smug as usual and was clearly coming to gloat about something. He put down his quill and gave her a challenging look.
“I heard about the event at the tavern.”
“News travels fast,” Arthur said.
“You mean gossip, of course. I know what you think of us women, but we need to stand up for each other sometimes.” Morgana narrowed her eyes.
“If any of my knights said anything about the investigation—"
“They did not,” she interrupted. “This came from the kitchens. Goldwine knows Everilda well. Arthur, do you know what this man did to her?”
Arthur lowered his gaze. “Yes, we have heard the account as well.”
Morgana’s stare was piercing. Arthur was familiar with her misgivings concerning what men without constraints got up to when they were drunk, and sometimes when they were not. She had been frequently warned during her upbringing that this might befall her; it had been used as a threat against her in case she thought to undertake anything by herself. Uther had convinced her over the years that men like that stood around every corner.
“He must pay.”
Arthur looked up at her. “There are punishments for that, Morgana. I’m sure you are well aware.”
But there was something Morgana wasn’t saying. Her brow furrowed and she pressed her lips together, searching for words. After a few moments she relaxed and walked over to the window. “And right now? He is still free to do as he pleases?”
“He is a means to an end. He can track down the druid girl.”
Morgana turned her back to Arthur. “Has he found her then?”
“No, not yet.”
“Then how good is he, really?”
“Morgana, it attacks each night. Only yesterday two citizens were brutally slaughtered! The town crier said they were young lovers who were outside to meet in secret. How is their fate any better?”
“They don’t live with the consequences like Everilda does.”
Arthur sighed as he stood up and walked over to her. There was something in Morgana’s voice that told him this wasn’t just about Everilda. He tried a different tactic. “I’m afraid too, but we have the bravest knights and we will defeat the beast. After that we will have Halig stand trial.”
“Don’t you see?” Morgana turned around to him. “Uther will not punish him, not as long as he brings us druids.”
Arthur made to reply to that but she interrupted him. “Can’t you see him for what he is? A nefarious fraud! He probably planned this all along!” With that she stormed out of Arthur’s room, leaving him speechless and confused.
He returned to his desk and sat. He suddenly felt uncertain. Arthur had always seen through Morgana’s determinations when others could not. Having grown up together, he knew more than anyone that she only took a stance when it truly mattered and her words were never trivial. He turned his thoughts back to their findings with new eyes.
What had he missed? What was overlooked? The shackles didn’t seem to have sustained any damage so they must have been opened with a key—or with magic, he assumed. He had doubted Halig’s involvement because why would the man celebrate with drink if he was about to let her out of the cage? Unless… He found himself rethinking. Was it by design?
Arthur regarded his account, the paper half filled, and he picked up his quill, pressed the point of it to a clear section and listed the reasons why the bounty hunter might have released the druid himself.
“Then I remembered what Halig said about the druid girl,” Gaius said, looking at Merlin with scrutinizing eyes. “She is cursed.”
Merlin feigned surprise and ignored the sick curl in his gut when Gaius didn't appear to notice anything wrong. Gradually, Merlin thought he was getting better at lying to his mentor, no matter how wrong it felt most of the time. “What’s that got to do with the monster?”
Gaius explained with patience that this curse transformed its victim at the stroke of midnight and turned it into a Bastet.
So, Merlin thought, this curse had a name. The druid girl was not a creature born of magic, but turned into magic by the wicked spell of an evil sorcerer. He had surmised that she was the cause of the nightly attacks. And yet, he had refused to fully believe it until this very moment.
Gaius read the expression on his face. “Did you release the druid girl?”
“Of course not!”
“There was a time when you thought twice before lying to me.”
Not as good as he thought then. He couldn’t deal with it, and so he defended her against Gaius. There was goodness in her. “I did what was right.”
Gaius shook his head, “You know the creature and the girl are one and the same.”
“You're wrong. Freya is just a girl.”
“Merlin, please think about what I'm saying. You know it is the truth. Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.” It made him nauseous to think about the consequences. He had already promised her.
“She has killed already, and she'll kill again.” Gaius hung his head and turned to walk towards the door of his workshop. “She can't stop herself.”
“Please, Gaius. Where are you going?”
“I'm begging you! Just give me some time to get her out of the city, please.”
“I'm sorry. I can't let more innocent people die.”
Merlin stared at Gaius in horror. The man who had willingly taken him in now condemned a girl without even knowing her. He felt gutted and betrayed.
This was the bane of being a monster.
Merlin was quiet at the banquet that evening. King Uther had put together a feast for the knights in order to prepare for that night’s hunt for the creature. What they didn’t know was that she was already gone. Along with it were Merlin’s final shreds of hope to be known as anything other than a monstrosity to anyone other than Gaius, whom he had been lying to mercilessly for the past few days.
Merlin watched as the knights drank to calm their nerves, clapping each other on the back reassuringly for boosts of confidence. Arthur drank calmly as his heart was the sort that sought to conquer the menace to his city’s people. Merlin stood beside him quietly, burning up on the inside.
He knew that Arthur wasn’t wrong, and that the citizens did not deserve to live in fear. And he knew Arthur had orders from his father to show no mercy, no matter what he saw. All Arthur and the king knew was that the source was magic and magic had to be destroyed. He wondered where she would turn up next.
Arthur, how could you not see beyond your father’s view? Merlin thought. Arthur turned around and looked at Merlin curiously. Merlin froze, terrified he’d been caught despite not saying a word.
“You’re awfully quiet. Didn’t it fit?”
“I’m sorry?” Merlin asked in a soft voice. Any louder and he knew his voice would crack from emotion.
“That dress. Don’t tell me, not your color after all?”
Merlin faked a laugh and refilled Arthur’s wine. The knights at the long dining tables were deeply involved in their own discussions on torches, lances, and spears to bring with them.
Arthur just stared up at Merlin. “You know,” he said, “it’s alright if you are afraid of this creature.”
“Oh, I’m not,” he assured Arthur, his tone steady for this particular answer.
“Most of my men are. They didn’t even get to see what it did to the bodies, like you did. That must have been awful.”
Merlin wanted to close his eyes at the misplaced compassion that he usually never received from the prince. It served only to wreck his nerves further. He nodded and stayed quiet. Arthur gave him one last look and leaned away to speak to Uther, who in turn addressed his manservant Holden. Holden’s surprised look announced nothing good.
Merlin comforted himself with the knowledge that Freya would be far away now. A new hope resolved within him that the next reports of her attacks would be vastly delayed.
Three guards held Halig down to the crude wooden chair placed in the dungeons of Camelot. Both the king and Arthur stood facing him. Sir Leon and Sir Kay stood beside them, regarding the bounty hunter with a steady glare.
“Sire, what is the meaning of this?” Halig turned his attentions directly to the king.
Uther and Halig had spoken on many occasions during his deliveries of druids from widespread regions within Albion. To Halig, this course of action was lunacy. It fueled Uther’s paranoia beautifully.
“It is not madness to be careful,” Uther sighed in a soft voice.
Arthur looked on with an unsteady gaze. If his father spoke in these soft tones it meant a cruel outcome with no room for discussion. He resisted the urge to speak up in favor of Halig, to return doubt to his father’s mind. Sometimes the merest suggestion would only steel his father’s resolve before the trials even began.
“I have not done anything wrong!” Halig cried. Arthur saw he was fighting not to wrench himself from beneath the guards. He said, desperate, “I have served you always, brought you seventeen druids over the last few years. You have benignly ended their lives as should be. This girl, she is the worst of them all, she—"
“There is no need to remind me of our business in the past. It is true you have brought druids before us and we have rid ourselves of them. It is also true that we count seventeen, if we do not count the one that was pregnant.” A triumphant glint entered Uther’s eyes. The king continued, “What you have brought into Camelot this time is different. It is dangerous.” He walked around Halig until the captive could not strain his neck any further.
Arthur regarded his father. He was a force to be reckoned with and Halig would know that soon enough. King Uther put fear into the hearts of his enemies with his mere presence. Arthur wasn’t so sure if he would one day be able to do the same.
“She is, my lord. She is most dangerous. She is the killing beast.”
“So you’ve told us, and yet you bring her here.”
“Yes, my lord. To be executed.”
The king hummed unimpressed and reappeared on Halig’s other side. Arthur glanced at Leon and Kay. The first looked rather uncertain at the proceedings, but Kay seemed to enjoy watching the man squirm. “To be executed. Yes. However, her shackles showed no sign of being broken.”
“She could not escape them. They were made of cold iron, her magic has no—"
“I know all about cold iron.” Uther’s voice was deceptively calm as he stopped pacing. “But it is clear that she either did that herself or she had help!”
“The boy!” Halig shouted.
“No such thing happened and you know it!” Arthur interrupted. His father silenced him with a glance. Uther wanted, needed to remain in control. Arthur bit his tongue and inclined his head, chastised.
“It was him!” Halig insisted.
“You were seen leaving the tavern, Halig, at a very late hour,” Uther said. “We have heard the account from Evoric, the tavern keeper.”
Halig sneered, “Sire, surely… this means nothing compared to the use of sorcery!”
“You are correct,” Uther said. “But it must be addressed that you had an objective and you failed to reach it. Perhaps you went to the druid girl instead—"
“Unlocked her shackles, and—"
“No!” Halig sounded desperate. “When I came outside she was gone!”
Arthur grit his teeth. When he was thrown out, more like. When he’d not even pulled up his breeches and stank of a week’s worth of ale. He balled his fists feeling helpless in his father’s presence. Despite the man’s diligent delivery of Camelot’s enemies, Arthur had no respect for the methods or means Halig chose to use.
“She was released into Camelot mere hours after you arrived, before even her presence was known to us in court. After you were drinking and with no marks to the irons or cage in which she was bound. You, sir, have wittingly brought murder onto our streets, a creature of magic, and a known danger to Camelot. My trained knights and my own son are going out tonight to fight the beast!”
“My lord, I—"
Uther loomed over him. “Do you know how to defeat it?”
“No. I only possess the shackles,” he whimpered, “but they are too small for the beast.”
“Can you stand against it?”
“Then you will remain in this cell until we find out what to do with you in the morning.” Uther turned to leave.
“No, wait! There’s one more thing!”
Uther did not stop to listen, but Arthur looked at Halig with fire in his eyes. “Speak up!”
“She changes at midnight.” Halig’s lip curled into a mean sneer. “If you can find her before then she is entirely helpless.”
“Leon, Kay,” Arthur said, “let’s go. We must start our search before the bell tolls. Guards, keep him under lock and key as per my father’s instructions.”
Arthur followed his father out of the dungeons, wondering if he would sentence Halig to death if they successfully slayed the beast, or if Halig would be free to scour Camelot once more. One attack on a tavern keeper’s daughter might not be enough to sway his father’s mind.
Still, they must kill that beast. They must!
That night Merlin awoke with a start when the alarm bells rung. He tried to convince himself that it could be anything, but his heart knew otherwise. Past his small window he heard the heavy feet of guards and whinnying of horses. He turned his back to it, determined not to get involved, but it was impossible to remain asleep knowing it might be her.
He raced out of the workshop, unconcerned with whether or not he would wake Gaius. He sprinted down the spiral staircase and through the corridors. Servants were up and running in panic, and he could hear shouting coming through the open windows. Merlin dashed through the main hallway and out into the courtyard.
He spotted the commotion and gasped helplessly. The knights had driven Freya into a corner and had wounded her with flaming spears and torches. The smell of burnt flesh and singed hair hung thick in the air. Was he too late?
In the beast’s wails he heard Freya’s tears. The miserable growls echoed across the castle walls. They were equally terrifying and sad.
Arthur and the knights closed in, each seeking their own glory. There was no way to save her from the sharpened spears. Merlin came to stand behind the knights. The beast caught his eye and there was a moment of recognition.
Freya. He called out to her mentally. No answer. She could not hear him, but she had seen him. It was clear to Merlin then that despite the curse there was always something of Freya left in the creature. He understood that she would be aware of each kill and the despair each dawn would bring. On reflex he brought down one of the overhanging gargoyles, which crashed onto the ground right in front of Arthur. Merlin drew a sharp breath at the realization of what he had just done.
Had he just attacked Arthur?
He hadn’t ever thought that he could put Arthur in such peril. What was he thinking? His stomach turned. He cared for Arthur more than anything. How had he just done this?
The Bastet flew away and though Merlin’s heart lifted he wondered if he’d done the right thing. Setting her free would undoubtedly be followed by more deaths. And yet, she was free. With it, a part of him was too.
Without hesitation Merlin rushed to the catacombs where the knights would not yet think to look and found the beast. The Bastet. It was docile under his touch alone. No one else in the world would understand how this weighed on him. He followed the beast deeper into the cold corridors until he saw Freya’s wounded form.
She was cold to his touch, shivering. She looked at him, then turned her glance away. “You must hate me.”
“No.” How could he?
“I’m a monster. I tried to tell you.”
“You mustn’t talk.”
“There was a man,” Freya said, “he attacked me. I didn’t mean to hurt him but I thought he was going to kill me.”
“It was an accident,” Merlin said.
“His mother was a sorceress,” Freya explained, gasping for breath. Merlin didn’t want to hear it, it hurt too much. He shook his head and stroked a hand through her hair to soothe her. “And when she found out that I’d killed her son, she cursed me to kill forever more.”
If magic brought her into this world, it must release her from this too. There had to be something. “I’m going to make you better, Freya!” He had to hold onto any belief of goodness inside of her, or even the creature she had become, or he would lose himself.
“No, Merlin. My wound is too deep.”
He shook his head, physically rejecting the idea. “I’m not leaving you here!”
When she closed her eyes and slipped from consciousness, Merlin felt desperate.
Magic. There had to be someplace where he knew magic could guide him to the right state of mind again. Perhaps then he would find out what he had to do. He would not leave her here.
In the darkest hour of the night he left the citadel with Freya. She was lighter in his arms than he had expected, but after several hours his muscles had started to burn. Each step shook her lightly and it rocked her in her sleep.
Merlin did not dare to wake her for fear she might protest. He walked the familiar path toward the lake where he knew magic was strong. The lake where he had defeated Sophia of Tír-Mòr, the lake which held Excalibur for him until the time Arthur needed to wield it. Although he did not understand the full power of that place, it was there. He had seen it with his own eyes. He had to reach it in time for her. For the goodness within her.
There was a moment when he rested that he thought she’d died already. His heart soured when he touched her cold skin until he felt the shallow rise and fall of her breath. “We’re almost there,” he assured her and he pushed aside the ache in his spine and the burn of his arms as he lifted her again.
It had to be the right way as the pull of magic was strong. He couldn’t stop now. Her blood was tacky on his fingers, and when Merlin thought he could no longer bear the thought of her life draining out of her, he still walked onward until, at dawn, he was at the water’s edge.
It was quiet and Merlin saw there were mountains in the distance. It reminded him of Freya’s story of her past. He observed with a knot in his gut how the eternal quality of the mountains stood in grand, cruel contrast of how brief and fickle Freya’s life had been. She looked at him with glazed eyes, too exhausted to speak. She had lost too much blood. He knew it and he saw in her eyes that she did too.
An echo carried over the lake. Suddenly a brilliant figure rose up from the water, radiating light over the ripples on the surface. Merlin looked away from Freya to gaze at the woman. She wore a long silver-green dress and her white blonde hair reached her knees in long swirling tresses. Her body radiated light and she had an ancient, serene quality to her that Merlin couldn’t quite explain. She was breathtaking and terrifying all at once.
Merlin held Freya close to him. The strange woman’s presence felt familiar to him, it called to him as the winds and the earth did. He felt her presence like a warmth to his face.
“Emrys,” the voice echoed, although her lips did not move.
That name again.
Merlin held Freya tighter.
“You’ve saved me,” she whispered against his skin.
“I couldn’t…” Merlin cried. Life left Freya’s body at last, and she went limp in his arms. "No!" The one person who could have understood him was now gone.
He wailed out loud and held her close to him and buried his head in her black hair. She had been his promise that something good might come out of magic, and yet he hadn’t been able to turn the tide for her. She had been an escape route, a release of his burden within Camelot to keep himself hidden. She was the only one who knew about him besides his mother, Gaius, and Lancelot. The only one who might have understood him…
“Emrys,” the echoing voice called again and the lady extended a hand. “You have brought her here.”
Merlin gathered Freya to himself. Maybe if he kept her warm, it would be enough. He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and wiped a smear of blood from her face. He rocked her gently.
“You have saved her.”
“No,” Merlin said. “I watched her die.”
“The curse was removed upon her death. And now she will reside with us.”
Merlin looked up again. The woman was standing in the middle of the lake, on the water’s surface where it should be impossible to stand. It was magic. Her very essence was magic. Her powers fissured all around her and sent ripples across the water, breaking up her magnificent shining aura into dazzling ripples. Despite his inner wounds Merlin could not withstand the beauty and let his heart be filled by it.
“Take her then.” He offered Freya up. The woman’s magic was good. He could feel it.
She smiled, and she was at once his mother, Gwen, Morgana, and even Nimueh. She was Freya. And many other faces he had encountered or would encounter one day. She was not just all that was good, she was more than that. “Who…?” he started to ask, but at that very moment he felt Freya’s body lift in his arms.
His heart jumped a moment and he looked down hoping to see her eyes open once more. But they were closed. Her body was raised from the ground, being lifted out of his embrace by magic. He opened his arms.
“One day, you will return and we will repay you,” the lady said.
“We? I don’t understand.”
“Come to us in the hour of truth.” Freya’s body was submerged into the water. Her arms floated out to the side and her hair and clothes billowed out beside her. Her eyes were closed and she looked almost as if she was asleep. The magic in the air licked and bubbled around him, cradling him and finally, he took a deep breath and set his resolve to fully acknowledge that she was at last at peace.
When Merlin blinked his tears away and looked again, she was gone. There were no ripples on the surface, no trace of her ever being there. The lady was gone too and so was the magic. Not one indication showed that anyone besides him had stood there.
“Thank you,” he breathed, sitting for another hour to compose himself before returning to Camelot on foot, aching and cold.
During the long hours of walking through the early dawn he came to terms with Freya’s death and with the reconfirmation of his place within Camelot once more. The thick woodlands were tranquil and served to calm his heart. Moonlight struck down through the canopy and from time to time he heard a fox or a deer, or the faraway hoot of an owl. Life went on, as it always did and in doing so it balanced out to something that is at peace with itself. The enormity of it filled him with hope and with resolution as he made his return to Camelot.
When he stepped onto the Roman roads, which led to the last part of his route to the citadel, he picked up a dead branch and walked with it for a while, contemplating. Freya was freed now. She would not be alive but it was good enough. And he would never forget her, and in that she would live on. As did Will, and everyone else he knew who had died. They would each receive a place inside of him, carefully shut away so he might function again.
And he would live his life without recognition or acknowledgment, and that was that.
He could do it.
Several hours later, he felt slightly more relief as the surroundings became familiar. His place was at Camelot. His destiny. And everything he did would be secret and hidden once more. No one could know what he had done for Freya, not even Gaius. He could carefully shut these events behind the inevitable heavy doors of secrecy operating within him.
Once he got to the town’s gates he realized how hungry he was and that he would not have time to eat before Arthur’s day started. No time to sleep even. He sighed deeply and set his neutral facial expression into place before starting his tasks, which began with being yelled at for being late. As usual.
Two nights passed since the Bastet’s last attack. Halig was still in the cell and Camelot was announced safe at last. The only pressing issue was Halig’s fate, and Uther called the council to meet right after Arthur’s daily training session.
Arthur hadn’t seen Merlin attend him since breakfast. While he knew he shouldn’t worry, he did. Merlin was annoyingly quiet lately, leaving his quips hanging with curt nods and small bows. And now he was absent during the council meeting where Arthur could have used Merlin’s awkward looks to guide him through the upcoming trial.
Uther sat at the head of the table in the council chambers in full armor. He was cloaked, crowned, gloved, and branded with the Pendragon sigil that hung from a thick chain which rested on his broad chest. On his left sat Gaius and Geoffrey with Arthur, Sir Leon and Sir Caridoc on his right, and at the last seat sat Holden, Uther’s manservant and steward to the household, ready to take notes.
“Are you certain about this?” Uther demanded.
“A curse this powerful is not easily broken,” Gaius answered the king. “It must occur every night or not at all.”
“Sir Leon,” Uther said, “your reports?”
“The same, my lord,” Leon said. “There are no mentions of any killings in the way we have seen. The beast must be dead.”
“Then Arthur and our noble knights have successfully protected Camelot. I decree the streets cleared. Holden, have it announced at the courtyard. And share it with the servants, the news will travel faster.”
“What about Halig?” Arthur questioned. “We have not judged him yet.”
“Gaius?” Uther asked.
“It is unlikely that Halig opened the cage for any reason, knowing what she was,” Gaius said. “He exited the tavern after midnight and might have been in immediate danger himself of the beast’s onslaught. I believe him to be innocent of that, at least.”
Arthur studied him. It seemed that this conclusion was uneasy to Gaius. He considered Gaius’s point of view; Halig was innocent of opening the cage, but probably guilty of attacking Everilda. Arthur was certain that Gaius would have been asked to examine her after the event, and it made him uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat.
“I believe he must be punished for what we know he certainly did. By the laws of these lands, he should not leave the city without being tried.”
“For touching a common lass?” His father clearly thought the notion was absurd.
Leon was studying the wood of the table, picking at it with a finger.
“Exactly for that,” Arthur said with confidence. “Our streets should be safe from more than one kind of monster, and this includes those who break our laws. Even if they have done good work for us in the past.”
Uther regarded him and nodded. “Very well. Bring forward the witnesses. His trial starts today and we hold him to our laws.” The disappointment was clear in his voice. Arthur nodded towards him. Morgana would be pleased, even if his father was upset with potentially losing an ally in the war on magic.
It would be two days later that Arthur would receive word that Halig had been released after all. And on his father’s orders.
It was a week later that a surprising turn of warm late autumn weather offered all of Camelot blue skies and glorious warmth from the sun. It presented an opportunity for all of the knights to practice their skills outdoors. For Merlin this meant ducking in and out of tents all day, toiling along the grass and mud, all the while being burdened with weapons and gear. And it meant lots and lots of polishing. The sun and scents around him did him a world of good though. All of the physically draining work had taken his mind off recent events and Merlin had started to feel better at last.
Prince Arthur had picked up on this and assumed this to be an invitation to start bullying him more. “Are you quite done with that yet?” Arthur gestured at the large round wooden shield Merlin was cleaning.
Merlin looked at the old shield he had been trying to polish free of mud stains and tufts of grass stuck between the narrow cracks and brass knobs. Nothing short of magic could return it to its proper state. “My arm has just fallen off so I would say yes,” he complained.
They were inside Arthur’s red-and-white tent, which was pitched along the training fields behind Camelot. The grounds served as tournament and jousting location, and provided excellent outdoor entertainment, as well as a place for training and daily practice routines for the knights and their squires. All were in desperate need of training, according to Arthur. Out of the sun the autumn air was fresh and the draft through the tent was cold on Merlin’s cheeks.
“I doubt that,” Arthur said. “Let’s put it to the test, shall we?”
Merlin grinned at Arthur and handed him the shield.
Arthur didn’t pick it up but smiled at Merlin instead. “Seeing as your arm is still quite attached, I’d say you can work it a bit more.”
The grin faded from Merlin’s face. “What?”
Arthur threw his head back and laughed. Arthur’s proximity had always been a great comfort to Merlin. He was strong and confident. As well as a total pompous prat. All of Merlin’s fears and doubts didn’t seem to matter so much when Arthur was so eager to display his energy and vigor. And when he laughed, it almost seemed as if there were no problems at all.
“Take it outside. We can’t have you sitting in here sulking again.”
“I’m not sulking!” he protested. Besides, his shoulder was quite sore from all the polishing. Reflecting on that, he realized he shouldn’t have brought it up. Prince Arthur’s lopsided smile was proof of that.
“Go on then.” Arthur picked up a morning star and advanced.
Merlin stepped back out of the tent, herded by Arthur’s broad body, which was well protected by his gambeson, hauberk, and pauldron. Merlin only had the shield and a self-preservation that drove him backwards towards the training ground.
“You can hold this off, surely.” Arthur lifted the weapon and it clanged loudly against the shield.
Merlin staggered at the impact but managed to steady himself at the last moment.
“Good,” Arthur said and swung again.
On the second hit Merlin dropped the shield and ducked below it.
Arthur shook his head. “Up and again.”
Merlin swallowed and scrambled to his feet. He gave Arthur an apologetic smile, wanting to clarify somehow that he wasn’t built for this, when Arthur started swinging his weapon in earnest. Merlin could only lift the shield at the very last moment. If he hadn’t…
“Oh come on!” Merlin said. He felt the burning stares of the other knights behind him. He knew they were watching. Laughing. Was it Arthur’s sole purpose to humiliate him?
“Is that what you would tell our enemies on the battlefield, Merlin?” Arthur mused.
He waited for Merlin to steady himself and attacked again. Merlin steeled his resolve and withheld several more blows until Arthur was satisfied. When he didn’t hear the swing of the chain anymore, he dropped the shield, entirely fatigued.
“I only held back a little,” Arthur grinned, squinting against the sun.
Merlin gave Arthur a challenging look. “This is because I called you fat, isn’t it?” he said with his chin held high.
Arthur turned his head away, glancing at the other knights who were watching them from a distance. Merlin’s words hadn’t carried that far. “Maybe,” he said, “but it’s better seeing you like this than with all that gloom on your face.”
The grin Arthur gave him then made him smile despite himself. Even with the hard work and the constant challenges, it was easy to be around Arthur. No, he quite liked the challenges in fact, even if they sometimes hurt. Where he had once wished to reveal his magic to Arthur, he now understood that it was impossible to do so and remain his devoted, loyal servant at the same time.
The latter was far more important.
He could not imagine a world which didn’t revolve around Arthur. His personal wishes did not matter and they never would. Neither would the feelings he had developed for that clotpole of a prince. He had it well under control, just like everything else.
Arthur walked past him and picked up the large shield with one hand, while Merlin had needed both. “Now I’ll show you how it’s done. Watch closely.”
Merlin spent the next hour watching the men train and produce the next pile of polishing and cleaning work for him. Each time they skidded across the field or rolled around in a pool of mud, Merlin became more certain his arm would actually fall off before the day was out.
Arthur fought with a two-handed longsword and shield, and then changed to a spear and mace. During all of which he managed to get grass and dirt all over his clothes and mail. As Arthur trained, Merlin watched. Joining Arthur on the field were Sir Bedivere, Sir Caridoc, Sir Kay, several squires, and the armorer. The knights were formidable fighters, providing ample resistance to the prince’s energetic routine.
Merlin sat on a bound pile of hay stacks and used a whetstone to sharpen one of the axes. But what he was really doing was daydreaming. The knights’ routine had turned to hand to hand combat and later to wrestling. Pauldrons, hauberks, and vambraces were removed. Gambesons were shrugged off. Some of the men’s shirts were removed and Merlin quietly took it all in. He’d stopped his work entirely. So absorbed had he become, that he failed to notice the shadow looming up beside him.
Arthur suddenly dumped a willow basket filled with dirty clothes and armor in front of him. The prince crossed his arms. He was down to wearing his white undershirt, stained at the elbows with green and over his chest with sweat. “Are you getting a sunburn?”
Merlin looked away instantly. “Er. No?” He realized he looked flushed. “Just… the heat.” It was midday and the sun was pouring over their heads. The air was cool though and Merlin felt Arthur regarding him. He held his lips together betraying nothing.
“You’re not even doing any work,” Arthur said. He looked a moment longer at Merlin, snorted, and turned to leave. “Well? Get to it!”
Merlin let out a long sigh. He was fortunate that Arthur could be a blockhead and usually missed what was not directly explained to him. In simple terms, preferably. If Merlin hadn’t been wearing his neckerchief, Arthur would have seen the blush on his cheeks going all the way down to his chest. So he picked up the basket, holding it in front of himself strategically, and retreated to the palace armory quickly.
The cool indoor air did him well. Arthur wouldn’t have understood any of it. He was certain of that. The man was dense like his father about the ways the world actually worked. There wasn’t a shred of romance in either of them.
It had been easier in the countryside where one could disappear unnoticed for a few hours with a girl or a boy. Especially in small villages this started at quite an early age, Ealdor being no exception. And Merlin too had frequently escaped his chores and had his tastes from both sides. It had all come to a full stop when his mother had sent him to the citadel.
Everything was different now and he either didn’t have the time or hadn’t met anyone inclined to frivolity. He’d considered Gwen at some point; she was cute and an honest, hardworking girl, but there was no chemistry. Besides, the court gossip was terrible and Merlin could not afford any attention being brought to him whatsoever. That didn’t mean he didn’t feel. Or want.
Merlin shook his head, cleared his thoughts, and set to work soaking the clothes and waiting for the rest of the materials to be brought to his work station. Hard work had always calmed his mind. It gave him room to come to peace with his place and put aside all his personal desires. It was a reward in itself to work here, he reminded himself. Working for Arthur. That was what he should be doing. Two sides of the same coin. Uniting the lands of Albion. He scrubbed the dirt from the greaves with furious determination.
It was there in the armory that he heard Sir Caridoc and his squire Liam speak of a strange occurrence of burned victims in the lower city. He slowed his polishing to listen for more details. Sir Caridoc’s voice was slightly slurred, as if he had been drinking. Five people were dead. Their whole bodies had been burned as if they had been laying in the sun. The strange thing was that there were no other wounds. Oddly, their relatives had not witnessed any sort of burn or rash in the hours before their deaths. Apparently they looked quite roasted.
Merlin was scrubbing very slowly and lightly, trying to keep listening in when Arthur and the knights walked in, talking with loud enthusiasm.
“You’re never going to get it clean like that,” Arthur mused and put another pile of work on the table in front of Merlin. “Here, let this be your inspiration. And I’ll need a bath after I’m done training.”
Merlin looked around and Sir Caridoc was gone. Liam was working on repairing a coif. The other squires worked beside him in the armory, mostly in silence. Some talked about their own hopes and dreams; of horse riding, jousting, and Liam spoke of a sweet girl in town selling spices. Merlin ignored them and worked as hard as he could, so that he could slip out to Gaius before returning to his duties to the prince.
When he exited the armory the sun shone in his eyes something fierce. He almost bumped into someone. “Watch it!”
“Is that any way to speak to a lady?” A familiar voice challenged him. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness of the sun he saw the shape of Morgana fill his vision. She was dressed in dark gray breeches and a white top covered by a short haubergeon. She wore plated gloves and held the grip of her sword like she was ready to take it out to fight.
“I’m not sure I’m looking at one,” Arthur teased. “What on earth are you doing out here, Morgana?”
“What does it look like? I’m training.”
Arthur noticed that her hair was braided back and her usual jewelry was absent. She still had the same fierce look in her eyes as when she wore her dresses, Arthur mused. “You haven’t been out here in some time. I thought you’d outgrown it by now.” He looked into the distance and regarded the knights who were still training, as well as several squires who were working on their sword techniques.
“I’m not ready for a permanently seated life. I still have things to do.” Her smile was foreboding. But then it usually was.
“Things like what?” He sounded more petulant than he’d meant and she looked wounded suddenly.
“I don’t know yet, I’m not allowed any labor. I’m essentially dining and smiling at guests.”
“I’d eat my left shoe for a week of simply dining and smiling,” Arthur grinned at her. She didn’t look satisfied at all.
“You would go mad in a day living like that,” she assured him and turned to walk to the training fields, swinging her dark braid around. She was fiercely determined and he knew he would not be able to talk her out of it.
Arthur followed with haste. “You mean like you?”
“If you’re too frightened to combat a madwoman, you need only say so.” The humor was back on her features.
He smirked at the challenge, oblivious to the effect of his banter and followed her onto the field. He had exercised for most of the morning and early afternoon so he was slower than usual, but it meant she matched him quite well. After several exercises he complimented her stance, and told her to use more force. Several of the men were watching them.
“You know it’s unusual for a woman to be out on the fields. Let alone the king’s ward.” He parried her blows and spun, he almost managed to get a hit onto her shoulder, but she blocked it effectively.
“You’ve been trained to protect yourself because you’re important. I’ve been led to believe I am too, so what will it be?” Her gaze was strong upon him and her large green eyes looked determined.
“I doubt my father would allow you to ride into battle.” He circled her and made a feint, trying to scoop a foot from under her, but she saw through him and skipped along, turning quickly to return to her defensive stance.
“I doubt I would ever have the need to lead an army to war. But who knows what battles the future may bring?” She lifted her chin defiantly and swung high, low, then high again.
He blocked her and complimented her speed. “You can outride anyone on a horse, Morgana. There’s no need to fight.” She swung once more, high, low, and low once more which caught Arthur's thigh.
“There is every need,” she disputed. “We fought Kanen in Ealdor shoulder to shoulder.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows as he recalled the memory and Morgana’s sword hit him against his gloved hand. He hissed and dropped his sword.
She took several steps back, trying not to look too satisfied with herself. “You are so eager to die for your men, who will defend me after you are dead?”
“I won’t die so easily, though. Besides, at some point you should get yourself a fine husband.”
“Morgana!” Gwen came running down the path, her dress spilling behind her.
Arthur picked up his sword and stepped aside.
Gwen was panting. “Morgana, you are needed inside.”
Morgana lowered her sword as well and regarded Gwen. “What is it?”
“I believe, that is… I’ve been asked to retrieve you.” Gwen stole a glance at Arthur who turned to look at the citadel. Morgana too turned to look and King Uther was regarding them from one of the windows in the throne room.
“I’m not yet finished with my training routine. Tell the king I will join him later.”
“My lady, he seemed… quite upset,” Gwen attempted. She did not want to be the bearer of bad news to the king, which Arthur understood.
“If he expects me to sit like a pretty marionette at his every beck and call, he must be bitterly disappointed. I cannot stand him!” She lowered her voice, correcting herself, “I will finish this first. Thank you, Gwen.”
Gwen lowered her head. She knew when it was too much to ask and she curtsied to Morgana. “Yes, my lady. I understand,” she sighed and it looked like she wanted to say something more, but instead she bit her lip and with a swirl of skirts hurried back towards the castle.
Morgana’s eyes were on fire. “He thinks he can command me to the point of deciding whether or not I’m allowed to wake or breathe. One day he will see what I am made of.”
“I’d rather you said that when your sword is sheathed, Morgana,” Arthur joked.
She moved quicker than he anticipated and her sword swiftly rested against his neck. He stopped it eventually with his free hand. “Tell me, Arthur. Why does he keep me?” While her voice was calm, the prince saw in her eyes that there was turmoil. She pulled herself back together quickly and sheathed her sword. With the move of a gentlewoman she pulled a loose lock of hair behind her ear.
“He has taken care of you for all these years. I don’t understand why you resent him so.”
“He hasn’t taken care of me. If I didn’t know better I think he is waiting for the fight to go out of me so he can marry me.”
“Marry you?!” Arthur’s jaw dropped. “I can safely say that it is anything but that!”
“You would know this?” She looked at him from the corner of her eyes.
“I would know any man to be a fool not to want to marry you, Morgana. And I know my father is quite foolish in these things. He will not marry, not after my mother…”
Morgana looked away at nothing in particular. In her mind she was trying to make sense of things. The nature of her stay at Camelot had changed over the past few years just as the interest of their foes in harming Prince Arthur had become a sport. The more Arthur was targeted, the more Morgana was hidden away from the world.
“I, too, want to help Camelot,” she said at last. “Even if Uther does not understand. I am considered part of the royal family. That is how the people speak of me.”
Arthur regarded her wordlessly. He took a step closer, trying to figure out what she was trying to say. He was clueless about women and although he grew up with Morgana, she was always a mystery to him.
She seemed to understand his difficulty and spoke plainly. “Did you know, I have never heard of any marriage proposals being made to me?”
“I’m pretty sure there have been. Is it something you desire?”
“If so, I would like to be involved, not informed, Arthur.” She shook her head. “If this continues, one of these days will be the last you see of me.”
“I had no idea you were so unhappy.” He was being uncharacteristically gentle.
“That’s just it.” She gave him a wan smile. “I’m not allowed that either.”
“Burned, you say?” Gaius looked worried, hovering over a bowl of soup. “Well, there could be many reasons. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
Merlin shrugged. “I just thought you should know, that is all.” He felt the pull of his magic. He longed to use it to truly investigate and be of help to the palace in situations like this. His sense of justice was nagging at his heart. With five victims it indicated that this was not just a random attack, but something with a pattern. Who knew what would happen next? He hadn’t been able to set the deaths at Freya’s hand behind him either. Before making any conclusions he decided that he would investigate that evening. He told Gaius his plans.
“Just don’t do anything rash. We have had a quiet time and we don’t yet know if this is any design against the royal family or if this is simply the work of a scoundrel,” Gaius cautioned him.
Sometimes it was as if that man read his mind. “I know, but I can’t sit by and do nothing.”
“Merlin, think about what you’re saying. If you go near those bodies and somehow you are found out, they might think you were the cause.”
“I know, trust me I do. Wait for another day or two. I’m sure we will hear of something more.”
“People might die.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. Who knows, whoever it was, they might have moved on. I’m just trying to keep you safe.”
Merlin got up. “I know,” he said. But he didn’t fully believe his own words. Gaius was as much holding him back as he was protecting him. That was fine for a child, but Merlin was determined to make his own choices. “I have to serve Arthur his bath.”
“Don’t mess this up, Merlin.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
Merlin emptied the pail of warm water, filling the tub entirely. His sleeves were pushed up and an old towel lay folded over his shoulder, in case any water escaped its intended destination. Prince Arthur appeared from behind the changing screen wearing nothing but a towel and his eyes shot towards the steaming tub. He crossed his arms across his broad chest and looked at Merlin. “You test it.”
“Me?” Merlin raised his eyebrows, staring straight at Arthur’s eyes to prevent his gaze from wandering. A flash of warmth crept up his chest and threatened to reveal itself across his face.
“Just put your hand in it. I don’t want to get scalded again.” The prince looked at him with impatience. “Well?”
Merlin gave a small smile. “It should be perfect, my lord.” He lowered a hand confidently in the water and it felt good and warm. Just like the small flame in the pit of his belly. Merlin knew this couldn’t bring about anything good, and he quickly dried his hand again on the towel over his shoulder. He proceeded to distract himself with the other full pail over the fire and then by lighting some more candles.
“Good, then prepare my doublet. The blue one. Father has asked me to dine in the banquet hall tonight. He has invited Gaius, so I expect nothing good to come of this.”
Merlin frowned. Gaius hadn’t mentioned this. Perhaps this was why he cautioned Merlin patience.
“Well? I’d like to be there before the entrée is served!”
“Of course, sire,” Merlin said and averted his eyes to the floor as Arthur stepped into the bath naked.
He passed the bath and went over to Arthur’s closet, biting his lower lip. He fished out several layers of clothes while Arthur gave small ‘ahh’ sounds as his muscle tension unwound after the long day of training. The prince used a small flask of oil for his muscles, rubbing it over his chest, neck, and arms, which added a sheen to his skin.
Merlin turned around briefly at the sound and saw how relaxed Arthur looked. He regarded the back of Arthur’s head, the ends of his sun-kissed hair wet from the bath water. His strong arms were draped around the edge of the tub, defining the muscles around his neck and shoulders. The light from the fire and the dancing flames on the table enhanced the contours.
Damn. Merlin gulped and felt himself start to swell. What had happened to his earlier resolve? This would make everything more difficult. More secrets to—
A flash of light distracted him momentarily, coming from behind him at the window. That was odd. The sun had already set and none of the courtyard fires ever came as high as Arthur’s room. He stepped over to the window quickly and looked out from one of the small transparent stained glass panes. There was nothing to see except for the courtyard and guards talking to one another. Perhaps it was nothing…
He distracted himself the following half hour by repairing one of Arthur’s shirts. Poorly. He was never any good at needlework but it was expected of him. He pointedly ignored Arthur as the prince got out of the bath, dried himself, and slipped into his breeches. It was far too tempting a sight, but then Merlin was amply practiced at ignoring temptation and choosing the best option. The sort of options that kept his head attached to his shoulders.
From that point on Merlin kept a straight face and dressed Arthur mechanically for the feast. He fastened and tied the laces to his breeches and strapped on the belt. He offered Arthur his silver rings, pulled the doublet over his head, and closed the buttons with careful fingers. And there was absolutely nothing to read on his face.
Or so he thought.
“God, you look bored, Merlin. I know what will cheer you up! Tomorrow’s hunting trip.” Merlin’s hopelessly disappointed look could not be missed and Arthur laughed lightly at him. He put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, indicating he was done with getting dressed. “Cheer up, that also means I’m not drinking tonight. So you can join the other servants at the lower table after our meal.”
“Thank you, sire,” Merlin said, giving Arthur a curious look. It wasn’t often that the servants were allowed to be seated at all during these gatherings. The lower table was nothing but a bench, but at least they could keep a plate on their lap and enjoy some of the royal meals.
Arthur dismissed him and he escaped to the direction of the kitchens to help with the preparations for the feast. He nearly bumped into the chef, Audrey, a large woman with a fearsome bust and arms as thick as logs. She could wield a ladle at least as well as a knight his sword. He greeted her politely and escaped to the small room where Gwen was polishing the silver forks and knives. They discussed that day’s events briefly.
Gwen looked worried, so Merlin asked about it.
“I’m worried about Morgana,” she admitted. “I mean, she’s fine. She’s been better recently, actually. But there was something that happened a while ago and it’s the only thing she won’t talk to me about.”
Merlin raised his brow. He regarded Gwen with a small smile. “Do you mean she won’t gossip about something?”
Gwen smiled cautiously. “We do more than gossip, you know. As women, we might not be allowed to discuss war and strategy at court sessions, but we discuss them all the same amongst ourselves.”
“Is Morgana contemplating a war then?” Merlin joked.
“No!” Gwen laughed. She tucked some of her curls back behind her ear. “She has been unnerved as of late. It started when that witchfinder interrogated her to incriminate Gaius.”
Merlin looked serious. “She wouldn’t have done anything to harm him, I’m sure.”
Gwen nodded. “I’m sure too. She’s always sought him out for advice, for her dreams—or nightmares that is.”
Merlin nodded. Morgana’s dreams had frequently been supported by the events which then later occurred. Morgana’s precision was remarkable. He thought back to her secret confession to him, and her trip to the druids who confirmed her magic… He gave Gwen a puzzling look as if he didn’t understand what she was implying.
“Well, she’s stopped taking the medication and she seems fine.” Gwen laid down the fork and looked at Merlin with exasperation, as if he had to understand her meaning right away.
“That is a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. Only…” Gwen reached out and picked up a serving spoon, starting to polish it furiously while several other servants and cooks walked back and forth on their own errands behind the two of them. “It seemed rather sudden after Aredian’s accusations. I doubted very much that she would have rested well without the sleeping draughts. Yet she has.” She shook her head and worked out several creases in the shining fabric.
“I trust Gaius’s work. It would not have harmed her in any way.” Whatever Morgana might have said about the potions, Merlin knew it was all coaxed out of her. That man had been too clever to put words in her mouth directly. The after effects of this damage had apparently not yet faded.
“I know this. That’s why I was wondering about the change in her…”
“What did you discover?” Merlin knew it was not his business to pry into Morgana’s private life. She was highly protected by those around her. And by King Uther. The fact that Gwen came to him especially to mention something private must mean it was important to Morgana’s safety.
“Well,” she hesitated a moment, “as servants we see and observe and listen, right?”
“Well, I know each piece of Morgana’s jewelry. In case something goes missing and it must be retrieved, you know?”
Merlin wasn’t sure where Gwen was going with this.
“Well, she’s been wearing a bracelet now. Ever since…”
“The day Morgause left. Everything changed.”
Merlin frowned. He recalled his secret trip with Arthur to see Morgause and the visions she had shown the prince. She was a sorceress. Though Merlin was unsure what side she was on, he knew that she was powerful. She had obviously pitted Arthur against Uther, but Merlin wasn’t sure who her quarrel was with.
“Huh.” Was his stupid reply, but his mind was racing. Was the bracelet related to Morgause? Did she give it to Morgana? Did Gaius do something different for Morgana without telling Merlin? Could Gwen be wrong? Had Morgana done something different to suddenly be sleeping well? Had she used magic to ease her nightmares? Could she use anything specifically yet? Had Morgause truly interfered? Was her magic good or bad? What was Gwen suspecting of the bracelet all in itself? He smiled at Gwen simply and said, “Well, she’s feeling better isn’t she?”
“Merlin!” she said in exasperated tone. “You know I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m coming to you because I want to relay a message to Gaius without Morgana becoming suspicious.”
“I believe the bracelet is magic. And I’m worried, Merlin. She’s happy, and that’s good, I mean— she should be happy. But what if—"
“Don’t worry. I will ask Gaius about it.” Then, he turned to her seriously. “What if it really is helping Morgana?”
“Perhaps it is,” Gwen said with a sigh. She had seen that it was. “But I’m afraid there might be consequences…” Gwen’s layered response revealed her true fears, and it conveyed to Merlin once more how Morgana was somehow linked to something more. Something just beyond Merlin’s grasp.
“I promise, I will ask Gaius about it.”
The feast turned out to be a good meal indeed. The air was warm and the knights were talking merrily. He had spent most of the meal daydreaming of the Lady of the Lake. He didn’t know her name but he understood that’s who she was. And she had mentioned ‘we’, as if there would be more than one of these magical beings waiting for him in the hour of truth. He didn’t know when this would be, and he wasn’t sure whether to trust his instincts on what would be a good time to see them.
Gwen sat next to Merlin and spoke of the lower town. “Their skin turned black and their eyes were…” She looked at Merlin in horror.
“I’m not sure, some people said they were gone, others said there was nothing but blood where their eyes once were.” She lowered her head. “I can hardly believe it to be true.”
“That’s pretty gruesome. Who would do such a thing?”
Gwen shook her head. She caught Morgana’s eye, who was looking at them curiously. “I need to go. Don’t worry yourself, Merlin. I just hope this is not some vicious attack.” Gwen hurried to her Lady’s side and served her more drink. Merlin looked briefly and did not see any bracelet on Morgana’s arm at present. He would have to look again another time.
Arthur kept his promise and stayed off the drink, but as a result his evening was not an enjoyable one. He sat hunched over next to his father and Gaius, who were discussing something the others were not invited to listen to. Uther’s gloved hand was balled into a fist. He longed to hear for himself and assumed it could only be about one topic.
Again there was a flash of light near the windows. This time, seated in the grand throne room, Merlin could follow it clearly with his eyes, moving behind the stained glass across each window, one at a time. As Merlin regarded it he felt dread across the room. It was as if he saw the light in slow motion, crawling from the furthest window to the one closest to him, nearest to the door.
Before he realized what he was doing, he sprung up from the bench, ran towards one of the windows and opened it. The guards looked on suspiciously at first. But they were quickly at ease. It was Merlin after all, and they started laughing, assuming he had drank too much.
Instead of retching, like the guards thought he might, Merlin’s eyes searched the sky for any sign of the light's source. Were they under attack? Was there some flying beast? Freya? He turned around and saw that none of the knights or guards were paying attention to him. He caught Gaius’s eye, who beckoned him over.
None of the people in the throne room had even remotely looked in the direction of the windows. Even so, the light had been very bright and it couldn’t have been missed, even by the people with their backs towards it. It had been as clear as if the sun had just come out. The guards stationed at the far end of the room were still overlooking the guests, as if their vision hadn’t been perfectly suited to follow the ball of light. They were not alarmed. None of the guests were even remotely aware of the ominous feeling seeping into the room. Merlin was intensely confused.
“Gaius,” Merlin said unsteadily as he kneeled next to the old man who was seated several places away from the King, to the left side of the main table.
“I know, I felt something too. Best be quiet now.”
“But I’ve seen it before,” he added in a hushed voice.
“Earlier today,” he said quietly. Arthur was looking at Merlin oddly and he calmed his face instantly. “It’s probably nothing,” he said with a small smile. From this distance, it would be impossible to learn what he had said to Gaius.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” Gaius said, turning to him. “Was it here? I didn’t see anything.”
Merlin looked at him oddly. Was he the only one who had seen it? He smiled awkwardly. “Perhaps it was nothing, but… it looked like a ball of fire, or light.” While he had hoped that his next discovery of something magical would be benevolent, he had every expectation that the doom which had covered this place like a suffocating blanket, which Gaius too had felt, indicated something more sinister.
“Very curious. I would advise caution, Merlin. Come to see me in the morning. I may know in which direction we should be looking.”
“What direction is that?” Arthur stood behind them and Merlin realized he hadn’t seen the prince get up. He stood up straight again and looked at Gaius and Arthur helplessly.
“I’m thinking of an ancient spirit of the northeastern parts, perhaps. But I would need to have more evidence first, before I can confirm this.”
“Sorcery?” Arthur demanded.
That word again. Merlin hated the layer of disgust that filled Arthur’s syllables as he pronounced it. The prince was born of magic himself, personally decreed by the King. And hundreds had died so Arthur may exist. Arthur didn’t even know it, as Merlin had denied the prince any acknowledgement of that truth only a month ago. And Uther had been all too glad to accept it. From that moment his meagre appreciation for the king had faded entirely.
“I’m not sure,” Gaius said in a gentle tone. “It’s too soon to tell. Besides, we cannot assume that all strange occurrences have sorcery at its source. We should talk in the morning.”
The old man got up to retire and bowed to the both of them. Arthur stood there for another minute, jutted his jaw, and then grabbed Merlin’s arm. “Come on, let’s find that evidence.”
Before Merlin could even say ‘ow’ he was dragged away from the royal feast and through the corridors. He felt uneasy still, but followed quietly. Arthur descended the stairs and turned to the corridor that would bring them to the entrance hall. Merlin recalled Gaius’s soft tone in the face of some unknown source of magical energy when had he replied to Arthur just now. He appreciated it greatly, that constant push into the direction of calm discretion as he cautioned and counseled the royal family. However, they never took notice of these attempts, not even now.
“Shh!” Merlin said, stopping suddenly in the corridor. There was a whirring sound of some kind, it seemed to blow through an open window. It unnerved him. And worse, the sensation of dread had returned.
“That’s just the wind, Merlin. God, are you five?” Arthur kept walking but Merlin wasn’t quite ready to yet. A very minute sound mixed in with the wind, it was most certainly a whirr or a flap. When Arthur turned the corner, he saw that the prince was suddenly bathed in a strong light.
“ARTHUR!” He lunged forward and pushed the prince away. They landed with a loud bang across the hall. Whatever light there had been a moment ago, had faded now.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Arthur got up and pushed Merlin off him roughly. “Are you drunk?”
“No, I— There was…” He looked around. The corridor was dark apart from the sparse torches and it seemed that once more Arthur had missed it. This was really, really bad.
Arthur looked quietly past Merlin. There was something in his eyes then that settled on disbelief. On the place where Arthur had been a moment ago was a dark stain against the wall as if some fire had been burning there for many hours. A smoldering line of smoke was all that revealed its recent heat. Merlin stared at it.
“That wasn’t there just now, was it?” Arthur asked, incredulously.
“I don’t think so,” Merlin said hopefully. He bit his lip and got up. The uneasy feeling in the atmosphere had gone, but instead a deep roar had taken his place. The Great Dragon was complaining at him from the cave beneath Camelot, which only he could hear. He held his breath.
“Then you’ve saved my life again! What did you hear?”
“I don’t know, honestly. It was just a feeling…”
Arthur’s hand reached out to help Merlin to his feet. Merlin grabbed Arthur’s forearm and pulled himself up. The prince held it for a moment longer and looked Merlin straight in the eye. “Thank you.”
Merlin’s heart warmed, but he was careful not to let his face betray him. There was a goodness in Arthur that the king did not possess. The low rumbling below the castle continued, but it didn’t get any louder. Whatever he had done, the Great Dragon did not seem pleased and he couldn’t understand why. It was just like this source of light. No one else was aware. It nagged on his nerves.
To his dismay, Arthur was still hell-bent on finding evidence. The prince was unafraid of the consequences as usual and easily casted off the occurrence of a few minutes ago as almost trivial. To Merlin, it was not. The burn stain confirmed his suspicion that the source of this terrible energy was connected somehow to the burned victims from the lower town. Gaius would likely be the one to examine them in the coming days. He suspected that this was what King Uther had summoned Gaius for. Word had already spread through the servants’ gossip that the victim’s eyes had been removed somehow. This type of sorcery made no sense to him whatsoever. The victims so far had all fallen in the poorer part of town, and now Arthur had been the target. How were these people connected? His mind was racing and he shared none of his thoughts with the prince. No good would come of it.
As the moon rose, they set out to the lower town and investigated the places where the attacks had taken place. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the new reports. It all sounded the same as when Gwen had told the story to Merlin at the table. He kept his expressions guarded. If Arthur had thought Merlin knew anything about the gossip, the prince didn’t show it. Afterwards they were brought to see one of the victims.
The charred remains of an old man had been found moments after he had been left alone for the evening. He had stepped around the corner to put some shoes outside, when in the next moment his family had heard him scream and found him as he was. His grieving son told them the story numbly, as he had recounted it several times already to the city guards and neighbors and friends alike.
They looked at two of the other victims as well and it became immediately clear that they had met a similar fate. Merlin inwardly noted the position of their houses, compared to the palace. He found no pattern. The second victim was a mother of four, and the third victim was a boy barely in his teens. There was no logic to any of their deaths.
Prince Arthur didn’t ask any of the particular questions that Merlin wanted answers to. Though it was enough to go off of that all of the mourning family members hadn’t seen or heard anything. And that nothing had seemed amiss. They had no debts worth mentioning, nor were they involved in anything out of the ordinary. Arthur drilled them hard on that last part, clearly suspecting sorcery to be at the core of it.
It was not something he was pleased about, but he had to acknowledge one truth. If the citizens of Camelot were too frightened to partake in anything related to sorcery, it should surely stop the smaller ill-meaning magic users from making any attempts to upset the peace here at the citadel.
But there was another truth. Merlin knew that the more powerful sorcerers would also see their chance of success increased, as they could more easily blend in among appeased common town folk and pass careless guards. This seemed to only fuel the king’s paranoia, rather than make him see any flaws in his logic, or so Merlin thought.
The only thing consistent was that the attacks happened sometime after sunset, and that each time their skin was burnt and their eye sockets had been hollowed out. Perhaps they had seen something after all? Merlin hadn’t spoken now for some hours, keeping all his thoughts private, after Gaius’s suggestion, but it clearly irked Arthur.
“So what’s your take on this?”
“God, have you even been paying attention?”
“I have,” Merlin protested.
“It’s magic, isn’t it?” Arthur wanted to know. He always did.
“I don’t know,” he lied. “Gaius should tell us.”
“I think the attacks occur outside, or near doorways and windows,” he said, not looking at the prince.
“That whatever it is… perhaps it is more wild and not targeted,” he ventured carefully. It wasn’t to put Arthur’s thoughts off sorcery. But it didn’t make any sense that these three people had been specifically targeted victims.
“Then this is even worse,” Arthur said, more to himself.
“How?” Merlin asked, stopping and turning to look at the prince.
“It attacked me too, didn’t it?”
Merlin’s eyes widened. He recomposed himself a moment later. “I don’t know,” he said, before hastily adding, “Maybe. Why?”
“Because if it’s not after me, I have no idea what it will do next…” Arthur looked frustrated and he hurried along the quiet streets, navigating around some drunk towns folk laughing wildly, a young man walking a palfrey back to the stables from one of the pastures, and a woman bringing in some of the dry laundry from her work bench. Arthur looked at the activities of these people in the middle of the night and shook his head.
Merlin understood. Which one of them could be next?
It was deep in the morning before they returned to Arthur’s room and Merlin prepared him for bed. He helped him out of his garments and offered him his night shirt, turned down the bed, and put another log on the embers of the fire, nudging it along slightly with his magic for added warmth.
“I have a feeling the boy won’t be the last victim,” Arthur said contemplatively as he got under the covers. Merlin was edgy. Arthur had been attacked only a few hours ago. Nobody else had noticed a single thing and people were dying. He was more reluctant than ever to leave Arthur alone for the night. What if it happened again?
Yet so far, each attack had only taken place in the early evenings and it would be dawn soon. He had to get some sleep as well. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said, and though he had meant it to be appeasing, it worked the opposite.
“If it is sorcery, my father should hear about it first thing.” The prince stared at the canopy of his bed.
“Let’s hope Gaius has news,” Merlin added with a soft voice, aiming to placate the prince.
“I won’t sit by and let our people die,” Arthur said more to himself than to Merlin.
Merlin smiled at him. “You’ll come up with something.”
“Whoever is behind this…”
“I take it the hunting trip is delayed?” Merlin asked hopefully.
“Until further notice,” the prince said with genuine complaint. Merlin left him then to his sleep.
The next morning he woke up hard and with a certain prince infiltrating his otherwise peaceful dreams. He repositioned himself in the narrow bed and lowered a hand to stroke himself. Images of the last few days returned to his mind and he mentally turned every situation into his favor. There was a bustle outside his door and he stilled, turning his back to the door the moment Gaius knocked and entered.
“Merlin, I need you to go on an errand immediately.”
He muffled a reply and when Gaius left he let out a long sigh. Some of these early mornings were the only time he had purely to himself. But if Gaius had found something, it was probably very important. But he was horny, dammit. He took another couple of minutes until Gaius knocked impatiently. “Yes, I’m getting dressed,” he lied. Against his will he dragged himself out of bed and got dressed quickly. It wasn’t like his master to push matters so early in the morning.
Gaius was sending him on an immediate errand into town to find an artefact that might be bound to whatever magical thing was attacking. A small list of ingredients for potions was his cover. He allowed Merlin no time to waste and had him pack his breakfast as quickly as possible.
“Wait, Gaius. I need to ask you about Morgana’s bracelet.” He’d promised Gwen. The old physician turned around with a little too much care for Merlin to suspect his full innocence, despite the man’s long standing training of ignorance in these matters.
“Gwen says it’s been helping her,” he added with a small smile. “Has it?”
Gaius continued stirring his potions. “I do not know exactly what the bracelet is or does.”
“You still won’t talk to her about her gifts?”
“It is a gift, you know. And if accidents around her keep happening…”
“This is neither your concern nor your priority. Now will you please get me the ingredients on your list? And keep your eyes open, remember what you are looking for. Make haste!”
Merlin left displeased. He knew that if the bracelet had been a very serious threat, Gaius would have offered a warning of some sort. The physician had admitted to knowing about it, as much as he admitted to knowing about Morgana’s powers. It was something they disagreed upon on an essential level. Merlin contemplated what he knew.
Lady Morgana was clearly frightened, though she hid it well at court. She served no other purpose at the high table than to be Uther’s ward. He had made her feel useless, she was never involved concerning the kingdom, politics, diplomacy—it fueled exasperation within Merlin. At least he had a purpose, and it kept him busy every day instead of having to concern himself about any of his powers. He put it from his mind. Gaius’s hasty charge was justified from the point of view of the victims’ families. Besides, it could happen again that very day. Morgana would have to wait.
Merlin wandered through several districts in town remembering details from the tome that Gaius had been reading from. There was something about spirits and they had both assumed that perhaps something had come unto Camelot from the Northeast. It was the first lead they had and Merlin thought only of Arthur’s satisfaction if he succeeded in finding something solid. Whatever that may be.
He made several inquiries throughout the morning and increasingly he found that the frightened people looked to him for a solution. He didn’t have anything to tell them yet, but cautioned them to stay indoors as much as possible. It was all he could tell them.
After some hours he discovered one large chest with the symbol of a man and a mountain. The man was the same size as the mountain and had just one eye in the center of his face. Other than that, there were few other decorations present on the wooden chest. It held several pieces of cloth, which had been brought from lands beyond the eastern borders. Perhaps this was what Gaius had mentioned.
He took a piece of parcel from his pack and a jar of ink, jutting down the symbol in a very ill-scribbled copy under the scrutinizing look of Lefarden, the owner of the chest. The beady-eyed man had only let him near his possessions for one reason. Lefarden’s daughter had been last night’s victim. She had been working in the spice shop for the past few years. As Merlin spoke with her father, customers had started to bring flowers and small gifts in sympathy. Lefarden graciously accepted them and tried his best not to cry, though he failed miserably. Merlin saw that Liam was among those who had come bearing gifts. His breath hitched. It could be him, bringing a gift in remembrance of Arthur. He couldn’t think like that. He had work to do.
He thanked the trader respectfully and offered him many wishes and condolences. The man looked at him helplessly and asked for some personal time before he brought his daughter to Gaius. To say goodbye. Merlin nodded. He looked out among the people bringing their gifts after hearing the dreadful news. He sensed no evil among any of them. Only grief.
When he returned to Gaius’s workshop he realized that he’d been away most of the morning. He found Arthur and the king both leaning studiously over a large, old book on Arthur’s lap. Gaius himself was treating a silver platter with a brush, smearing some transparent liquid onto it.
“I do not know if this will hold. Besides, there is that problem, sire.”
Merlin closed the door with a click and Gaius turned around and smiled at him.
The king looked angry and Arthur pale.
Merlin greeted them both with a bow and put some of his purchases on the nearest table. “You know what it is then?” Merlin asked hopefully and took out his piece of parchment. Arthur lifted the tome back onto the table and didn’t meet Merlin’s gaze. Uther simply ignored him.
“It’s a Birugderc,” Gaius said calmly. “At least that’s what I am led to believe. It is a creature of magic, which follows its own journey. It may not be too bad.” He nodded at the king.
“How is this is a good thing?” Uther asked, there was a tired impatience in his voice.
“Because it has not been summoned by anyone trying to harm Camelot, sire. That also means there is no need for further alarm regarding any suspects behind this particular case. It is simply a spirit passing through.”
Merlin looked at Arthur, hoping that his suspicion from the previous night was confirmed at last and that he might have been helpful. “I think I have found—"
“I want it destroyed,” Uther declared. The man’s conclusions were always the simplest, Merlin observed.
Gaius put his brush down. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy. It can only be taken down by a wooden spear. It is a counter element to its own power source, I believe. Besides, you do not know how to find it.”
“I might have an idea on that,” Arthur said.
“What’s a Birugderc?” Merlin interjected at last.
Gaius gestured towards the book. Merlin unrolled his scroll and walked over to the table, standing next to Arthur. He saw the large figure of a one eyed giant, which confirmed Gaius’s suspicions of it. “There, that looks like the symbol I saw on the chest. It belongs to… one of the traders. I am certain he is innocent of knowing what it brought.”
“This is your idea of a drawing?” Arthur hissed at him.
“How can you be certain?” Uther’s pale eyes pierced through Merlin, demanding his attention away from the snipe.
“Because his own daughter was taken. Burned, last night.”
Arthur looked up. “What?”
“In the trading part of town. Lefarden’s daughter, Marden. She was twelve years old, just a child. He found her this morning,” Merlin confirmed solemnly. “She is the same as the others.”
“It could be a trick,” Uther mused.
“Father, I really—"
“The man was broken,” Merlin interrupted. Uther stood up menacingly and turned to Merlin, ready to speak volumes about a servant’s station. Merlin stood his ground, against his own better judgment. “He lost his only child.” He knew these words would hit home. Uther’s gaze was unkind but he did not retort.
Gaius saved the situation. “As the writings tell us, it cannot be willfully summoned or controlled. Whatever has been brought unto Camelot, has been most unwittingly done.” Gaius had the gift of speaking calmly in any situation. Uther sighed and turned to Gaius. Merlin wasn’t so sure about the lack of conjuring or motivation, but he didn’t want to put the king on edge.
The attack on Arthur lay at the core of it. He couldn’t mention it now. Instead, he returned his attention to the detailed page in the book. The lettering was small and plentiful and in the lower corner was the image of an eyeball. There was too much to read, so he scanned over the words quickly. “What have you found out so far?” he asked Gaius pointedly.
“It is a spiteful creature that is very, very old. It has always been hard to describe. It is said to come from a slighted knight who could not find truth in the prophecy of his death, and thus made it happen. He ignored the lesson offered to him by his lord, that it is better to fully live than to be preoccupied with destiny. He had a magical eye, and its visions drove his anger. In fact, it is these visions that turned him blind to anything else. It is so ancient that no magic can harm it. It is immune.
“He wreaked havoc until he was finally defeated by the help of Water Spirits that were embedded in young shoots of wooden spears and arrows, and thus the magical eye could no longer burn into its master’s mind. It seems that it has been disturbed and it travels once again, seeking to regain power in a time no longer belonging to it. Some say it flies. It will burn all its victims instantly. And… it is entirely invisible.” Gaius wanted to add something but it was clear he could not mention anything further in the presence of the king. “Even this treatment might not work. But you may see something in it.” The old man pointed at the small, round silver dish which he had coated with a layer of transparent paste that had dried and was now hardly visible.
Immune to magic. Merlin felt tense at the very mention of it, but kept his eyes fixed on the paper, staring rather than reading. The dread, he knew, was another clue. He felt that he understood the hatred this creature brought into this reality, and recognized it as the heavy air, which both he and his master had experienced in the banquet hall last night.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, “help me into my armor.” He picked up the silver platter from Gaius’s table, startling the old man. Merlin put the book down with care.
“You’re not thinking of attacking it by yourself,” the king protested.
“I’ve got to try. This creature may be traveling, but it’s currently traveling through the citadel. Who’s to say when it decides to leave? I will decide for it.” Arthur’s resolve was harsh and Uther nodded at his son with some appreciation in his eyes. Arthur turned to leave, pushing Merlin out in front of him.
Gaius seemed to be very anxious. “Do not try to find it. Use the silver. I am not certain that it will work… Be cautious!” he called out to both Merlin and Arthur.
Cautious. It wasn’t the same as careful. Merlin pondered. He hadn’t read the full description but the idea was clear. The ball of light was somehow an evil soul no longer meant for this place and time. Merlin had felt its spite rolling through the halls, and he could probably sense it, at least if it was in Arthur’s vicinity again. But he would not be able to do anything to stop it. His magic wouldn’t work against it. There was no way that he could protect Arthur this time.
Arthur walked quietly in front of him, not saying a word. Merlin wasn’t certain what this meant but he followed diligently. They entered the prince’s room, and still Arthur had not spoken to Merlin or shared his thoughts about attempting to attack the creature. The prince demanded one of the guards to bring him a wooden spear from the newest batch to his room as fast as they could.
When Merlin helped Arthur put his armor on, he did so quietly and mechanically. It unnerved him greatly that Arthur didn’t speak to him. He ventured quietly, “You’re not afraid, are you?”
“This time,” Arthur said with a dry voice, “more than ever.”
Merlin raised his eyes to look at Arthur, while trying to strap his pauldron tighter for safety. Arthur’s cold, avoiding look was replaced by something else for a moment. “I believe in you, sire. More than anyone.” He stepped back to hand the prince his sword belt.
“And why is that?” Arthur taunted. “Yesterday you pushed me out of its way.”
“I don’t know about that,” Merlin said nervously.
“Yet you acknowledged that you saved my life,” Arthur said his brow furrowed.
“I’m not sure what happened, actually,” he added sheepishly.
“Well, I’m drawing it out. It will be in the inner catacombs.”
Merlin nodded at Arthur and made for the door. He halted when he didn’t hear the familiar clump of boots or clinging of chain mail behind him. The prince stood still and pursed his lips for a moment, regarding his servant.
“You don’t think I’m letting you go alone?” Merlin asked with a disarming smile.
Arthur’s face softened. He took a deep breath, clearly to say something, but a guard knocked and entered immediately, presenting the spear.
Merlin handed it to Arthur. “Let’s go.” He gave Arthur a stern look, trying to help him gain his courage. The prince was brave, Merlin knew, but fighting against an invisible enemy would be nearly impossible. If there was anything he could do, he would.
Arthur set off for the inner catacombs, carrying the spear, and with Merlin trailing behind him. No guards came this far down and it was thoroughly deserted save for the tombs of kings and queens from the past generations of Camelot’s royalty, which were surrounded by artefacts from their own ages.
“Why will it be down here?” Merlin asked curiously. It was nearly mid-afternoon and they were deep within the castle’s bowels. Somehow it didn’t seem to be the right time or place for the creature to attack. Perhaps Gaius had told them something of value.
Arthur remained quiet and Merlin followed. They entered the dark hall where the torches along the wall were their only light and their steps echoed off every stone surface in dull reverberation. The sensation that Merlin had had during the feast was not present, but he felt a different kind of anticipation. He sensed the Great Dragon’s presence beneath the castle. He felt that it was busy in the castle and even busier in town. Market day. He felt none of that miserable spite which had filled the corridors just before Arthur was bathed in that horrible light.
He looked around at the old and ancient objects, as well as the tapestries and furniture that was stored away. He tried to see anything that resembled the symbol on the chest in the trader’s shop. Merlin’s biggest question was; was it after Arthur in particular, or just seeking to kill?
It seemed suddenly that he would have to reconsider his priorities because Arthur turned around and held out the spear straight at Merlin. His lips were pressed thin and the look in Arthur’s eyes was miserable. “It’s over, Merlin.”
The words rang oddly across the catacomb and refused to settle in Merlin’s brain. He took a step back but realized that he’d been standing close to a wall and was now pinned against it. Arthur forced the spear against his ribs and Merlin bit back a yelp.
“Arthur, what…?” He stared at Arthur wide-eyed. The prince shook his head, jaw clenched, and his grip tight around the spear. “I haven’t done anything!” Merlin protested loudly. His complaint bounced off the walls.
“Gaius…” Arthur started. “He clarified something to my father and me about the Birugderc.” His voice was uneven. Merlin looked at Arthur stupidly and wrapped his hand around the spear’s point, trying to remove it from where it was bruising the skin right over his heart.
“It’s a cursed creature. Made of pure magic itself,” Arthur continued, his eyes narrowing, “and it can only be seen or heard by those who have powerful magic.”
Merlin’s heart skipped a beat and his gut twisted tightly in anguish. His brain raced to somehow come up with an excuse. He knew what was coming. The wooden spear prodded his ribs hard enough to hurt.
“You saw it.” Arthur’s conclusion was merciless and there was blind hatred in his eyes.
“I didn’t…” Merlin protested weakly. He let go of the spear and held up his hands. “I swear, I had no idea—"
“No idea of its traits, perhaps. I saw you,” he spat. “I saw you run to the window after dinner.” The prince’s dark blue eyes were wide, accusing.
Merlin felt the blood drain away from his face and nausea settle at the pit of his stomach. I’ve made a terrible mistake. “I was… feeling sick. Needed some air—"
“Enough with the lies, Merlin. You took credit for saving my life yesterday. I know you better than if that had been nothing. Why did you do it? Did you summon that creature to gain favor?”
“It cannot be summ—"
“I know what Gaius said, but Gaius can be wrong. Like he is about you!” The spear pushed further and Merlin gasped.
Arthur had not brought him here to investigate.
He had brought him here to kill him.
The very thought broke Merlin’s spirit more than he thought possible. It wasn’t the right time for the creature to attack, there was no ill sensation here. There were no servants, no guards. Just the two of them.
“I’m not… I didn’t…” Despite his words, he saw that Arthur read all the answers in his face. Anger in the prince’s features made place for utter surprise and disbelief. Merlin wanted that spear from his side, so he could think.
“I should hang you!” Arthur said to him bitterly.
The spear left Merlin’s side and Merlin expected nothing more than to feel it return with more power. His pleading eyes searched Arthur’s, and his lips were trembling as he tried to formulate words. He took a deep breath and steadied himself against the wall. He would not fight Arthur. It didn’t matter if the man struck him down right there. He thought about his destiny, about Albion, about the Great Dragon. He thought about the future of magic. He thought about Arthur as King. How was he to save all of them now?
“I use it only for you,” he breathed, and everything felt like it was slow down and muted. “It is my duty to protect you.” His mind raced. Everything is lost.
He realized his voice sounded different now than it had previously. He sank to his knees, no longer having the strength to keep himself standing. A lightness rushed through his head, wrecking the last of his nerves. He stared at the cold stone floor as though it could provide him with answers somehow. All had been for naught. What have I done?
“You do not deny it then?” Arthur asked. Merlin heard sadness in his voice, rather than the aggression Uther would have expressed. Arthur drew his sword. He had to uphold the law, he was the Prince of Camelot after all.
“No.” Merlin hung his head, his hands lay limp on the ground. “If you want to kill me, I understand. I’m sorry.” His voice was surprisingly light. He felt more and more at ease by the minute. It was absurd. Perhaps he had already given up hope that anything could come out of this positively for him. Tears welled up in the corner of his eyes but did not fall. I’m sorry, Great Dragon. Perhaps I won’t be able to set you free after all.
But the prince’s sword did not swing. Merlin waited for what seemed like a decade before Arthur said anything. Each second passing tore Merlin further apart, cruelly, as he thought about what it meant for the prince to see his own manservant, his friend, being unmasked this way.
“Why?” Arthur asked at last through clenched teeth.
Merlin dared to look up. His worried look clearly had an effect on Arthur, who took a step back. “Because of the man you are. And will be. To protect you. It is my destiny. I stand guard from the shadows despite the risks. My loyalty is only to you.”
“No.” He could see now that Arthur’s eyes were watery too, mixed with the utter conflict in his expression, and pain as realization dawned on him. “You’ve lied all this time. You’ve used magic, right here, at the heart of Camelot!”
Merlin looked at him sadly. All of that was true. And now his cover was gone. The risks involved were far beyond his comprehension. Everyone’s warnings forfeit. He was dizzy. If only he could make Arthur see. If only he could tell Arthur what it was like to be him. It made him reckless.
“There is goodness in the hearts of men, sorcerer or not. I have saved your life more often than you know, released enchantments, guided you.” His heart thumped wildly in his chest. There was no way these words were his own. “And I would do it again if it led me here once more.”
“How do you expect me to believe you, after all these lies?” The last word echoed through the catacomb.
“Your father’s wrath would destroy me and leave you unguarded for his enemies to target you. He would destroy the kingdom with it. And,” his voice turned into whispering sobs, “I never wanted to put you in the position to be untrue to your king, your father.” He hung his head, desperate for air. It was too much to bear. He could not have made Arthur bear this burden too. Everything had gone wrong. Arthur was going to strike him down and it would be his end.
The prince heaved his sword and uttered a battle cry, roaring at the top of his lungs. Merlin whispered a final apology into the dust on the ground. His time was over and there was nothing left to do but repent his last seconds.
The sword struck against metal and Arthur took a step back. The blade was stuck in a dummy knight, which stood next to Merlin. Arthur’s chest heaved with labored breathing. Merlin huffed incredulously into the dirt on the ground. Arthur had not executed his vengeance, nor upheld the law of Camelot. His head swam. He looked up and saw Arthur taking several steps back, lifting an arm in distrust. He had expected Merlin to act, he realized. To defend himself. Now that he hadn’t…
“You understand then?” Merlin’s voice rasped. “I only ever protected you, guided you through the darkness. I would do anything for you.”
Arthur shook his head in denial. “Why,” he gasped, “why you?” The prince was obviously struggling hard to come to terms with the very notion.
Merlin didn’t understand the question. He cast his eyes down and heaved a sigh. Gaius would despise him now, and the Great Dragon would too. He hadn’t been clever enough to stave off this discovery. He hadn’t been able to keep himself hidden.
Be cautious. Now he understood that Gaius had avoided mentioning the creature’s exact traits before the king. He had warned Merlin the only way he could. And Merlin hadn’t been cautious enough. He should have understood that if nobody saw it, he couldn’t see it either. Evidently Gaius hadn’t been told about the previous evening when he had saved Arthur. He had gone to bed late at night, too late for Gaius to be awake. And Merlin had not been there when Gaius must have spoken about the creature to Arthur and the king. There had not been any time to explain it to Merlin. And then…
“I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers.”
“You sent the light,” Arthur said and took another step back, his brows furrowed. “In the caves of Balor.” The words came out with serious struggle.
Merlin’s face relaxed for a moment as he recalled the memory. He had been poisoned and unconscious, yet despite his serious predicament he had led Arthur out of the cave with his magic. He ventured a small smile. “Yes. I guided you to climb the right path.”
Arthur stared at him hard. Obviously he had never told anyone about the light. It must have been something Arthur had fretted about for a long time. Why would a magical light guide him, when Nimueh’s dark magic had obviously left him there to fall prey to those beasts. Why would any magic be of help at all? Merlin gave a small laugh at the very unreal acknowledgement. His tear-stained eyes connected with Arthur’s. He had to see the truth there.
“You are still a…” Arthur started, but Merlin interrupted him.
“All I know is that I can see a creature that I cannot attack. But you can.” He looked seriously into Arthur’s eyes, bringing him sharply back to the present and the problem that lay before them. Saying it was odd. Explaining it was so simple, but the mere utterance of that sentence was a novelty.
The prince didn’t answer. Merlin waited. Arthur was processing all this information and struggling hard to make the right decisions. He gave Merlin the smallest nod.
He knew then that Arthur understood that he had Merlin’s support, despite its unfortunate source. He also knew Arthur’s determination to save his people was beyond even the slightest caution to himself. Merlin was still kneeling in the dust, but the fright had left his features. He was ready now for what might come.
“Do you think it will attack again tonight?” Arthur asked.
“Most likely. I found a chest in Lefarden’s shop in the southern part of the trade district, which suggests it has a source, despite its randomly chosen victims.”
“We have to destroy it.”
Merlin’s heart jumped, but he guarded his response. We, he had said.
“Yes.” Something warm burned inside of him, on top of his devotion for the man in front of him. The thought had been an impossibility just a year ago, when the man was just an obnoxious self-indulged bully. And a prat. Somehow, all of this had changed. Arthur had chosen to defy his father, his own understanding of magic, and the blind execution of someone he must know was loyal. All in one motion.
Perhaps Arthur had not brought him down here to kill him. Merely to unravel the information that had already formed in his head. Perhaps in some way the prince had always known.
No, he decided. Arthur’s surprise and disgust had been real. And everything that had been so carefully built up was broken. Merlin now had the chance to gather the shards and put them back together.
Just having that chance filled his heart.
Arthur excused himself from that day’s council, despite his father’s express wishes to discuss the matters of upcoming state affairs concerning the other kingdoms. He knew that it was important, certainly. But so was this. He paced his chambers from the hearth to his bed and back, still fully dressed in armor.
When he was young, he hadn’t been suspicious or paranoid. His father’s broad and stately appearance had made him feel protected; him and Morgana both. But she was lately sensing the unrest too, just like he was. And despite the knowledge that his father was not perfect, perhaps even largely flawed, he could not disobey his king and he could not stop loving his father. Which is why it was so hard.
Since his early teens he had become an object of interest to all neighboring kingdoms. One day he would be crowned king and this was good for some, and very bad for others. He had been taught the means to be courageous, political, diplomatic, and, above all, distrusting. And yet, the deepest faith he had put into his knights and his household were stronger than any distrust for his enemies. His men were loyal and he had always been proud of this. He paced some more.
Was he wrong? Had he been reluctant to see what was under his nose all this time? Nothing made sense to him anymore. No matter how hard he tried to wrap his head around the idea that Merlin was a sorcerer, it did not settle. The very notion was absurd! Arthur had even denied these accusations openly and very convincingly several times in the recent past. Against the court, the people, and against his own father even. And his conviction had been because of his ignorance.
Now, it was time to make a decision. Should he be revealed? Should Merlin die?
He desperately sought to find the necessary arguments on both sides to rationally weigh out the reasons, but found that his heart answered that question for him. Despite that boy being a fool, Merlin was his servant. His diligent, loyal, stupid manservant. He clenched his fists. The biggest problem was not that Merlin had broken his trust, but that he had believed that Merlin, of all people, was the only one who never would.
I never wanted to put you in the position to be untrue to your king, your father, Merlin had said. It was the only thing he could focus on right now. He had never wanted to put Arthur in that position, which meant that he knew that he could have. But then he would have never gained his trust. And Merlin had wanted to spare him from that. He surprised himself when he thought it. Could he lie to his own father?
Merlin had also stood by and watched many persecutions and hangings. Or had he been there at all? Arthur failed to recall. Why had he not done anything? Those people had magic too, at least some of them. Arthur had not been certain each time the noose went around someone’s neck, about whether or not they were evil. This guilt gnawed at him. Of course, his father never faced this uncertainty. He didn’t need to spend any time thinking about what Uther would do if he knew about Merlin.
He tried to think back to the events of the past months, of the past years. Merlin had always been by his side, unwavering. He had come with him to perilous situations—well not so perilous obviously, and they had escaped many situations with the odds piled against them. He couldn’t even rightly say what Merlin had or hadn’t done in those cases. Arthur pondered. Was everything he knew about magic wrong?
There was nothing evil about Merlin. He would have had many occasions to kill Arthur, especially when he’d been knocked out cold from some vicious attack or other. He could have let many enemies somehow get their hands on the prince, and it had never happened. Merlin was loyal.
And yet, he had betrayed him too. He had betrayed the laws of Camelot by using magic. Using it to save his life, and perhaps other people’s lives too. Or had he done so by vile means? Was he communicating Camelot’s inner workings to some external party? Would he—? No, it was absurd!
He continued pacing. Everything seemed to hurt.
His mind and heart would not accept the fact that Merlin needed to stand trial. His servant. Who changed his linens and scrubbed his boots. And for this, he was directly defying his king, something he had promised himself never to do. Unless it was the more reasonable choice, of course. And he had ignored his father’s words before, to be fair. Could he do something this important, this big?
Moreover, what if someone found out? Someone besides him or even anyone within the castle. Could Merlin play the fool? Could Arthur defend him now and claim it was nonsense? Could he lie to his father and the court straight-faced, and say he did not know? His head pounded sorely at the very thought of the king’s response. His face. His bitter disappointment in his own son. His wrath. His persecution…
That evening Arthur had asked for dinner to be served in his chambers. Nothing was mentioned about the trip to the inner catacombs to any of the servants or guards, or more importantly, to Uther. Nor was any mention made about the creature to anyone.
Sir Leon had reported the word from town and had relayed that the people were scared, and that the citadel was buzzing with gossip and paranoia. The king had decreed a curfew at sunset, which was to lift only at dawn. The guards who were sent to uphold the curfew were told not to take any prisoners, only to send the people inside, and to instruct all citizens to close their doors and windows. It was too dangerous to be outside. A select number of the bravest guards had stepped forward for this undertaking.
Merlin knocked on Arthur’s door timidly and entered with a tray of warm food in his hands. His eyes met with Arthur’s and he found no warmth there, so he lowered his gaze. He had never felt more uncertain in his life.
“I’m not holding to that curfew,” Arthur stated. The prince knew his father must already realize this as there were no additional guards stationed at his door. Ridding Camelot of magic was too important to the king, and Arthur had probably said something to appease Uther’s expectations of the outcome after their confrontation.
Merlin put the tray down on the table and walked towards him.
Arthur took a step back when Merlin reached for the leather straps to his pauldron. “Whoa, easy there.” Arthur held up an arm, creating a distance between them.
Merlin stopped mid-movement. “Sire?” He gulped. Had Arthur changed his mind? Merlin’s nerves felt electric.
“Why do you even do this?”
“Serve me like this. You have ma—” Arthur looked around restlessly, his expression cautious and his voice bitter. “I don’t even know you.”
“I’m still the same person,” Merlin answered as lightly as he could manage.
Arthur shook his head in denial, though he lowered his arm. “You’re not though, are you?”
Merlin stepped in and did his job, unstrapping Arthur’s armor and sword belt deftly. His eyes sought any sort of recognition from Arthur, but he couldn't form the words to make him understand. So he didn’t reply.
“We’ll see how this goes.” The prince bowed down to get out of his hauberk, which puddled heavily on the floor in front of him. “If anything happens, I want you gone.”
Merlin stopped in the middle of picking up the chainmail. No! “Sire, please...” he begged.
“Don’t contest this. I cannot have you here at the castle. You understand this, surely?”
Merlin stood up with the hauberk and laid it out over the table, watching Arthur undo his gambeson himself. His stomach knotted. He felt extremely vulnerable. Not being by Arthur’s side, being dismissed, was his greatest fear. “I can’t—" he started, looking up to Arthur with a furrowed brow. “I can’t be away from here, from you. There are forces at work trying to harm Camelot.”
“Oh, so this is about Camelot, is it?” Arthur’s deep voice toyed with him.
“Yes. No, it’s… it’s so much bigger than that.”
“I bet. And who are you working with?”
“No one,” he said it quickly, but Arthur was not convinced. “I only look out for you. I saved you from that troll of a mother-in-law, remember?”
Arthur looked somewhat surprised. “I suppose you did.” The memory of it seemed to add a glint of humor back into Arthur’s eyes as he recalled his father’s marriage to that creature and his utter denial of her true nature. The prince paused, studying Merlin. “And Aredian found you out.”
Merlin didn’t know how to answer that. Aredian had been a fraud despite his keen eye in uncovering himself, Gaius, and Morgana. And the man had done so within a few days’ time. “Not truly. He never understood that I am your ally.” He folded up Arthur’s hauberk and put it into a basket with the rest of his armor, ready to take away for polishing.
Arthur shrugged out of his gambeson and threw it over the folding screen irritably. “I defended you against him!” Arthur shouted.
Merlin turned away. He remembered how Arthur had broken the law, allowing him to see Gaius in the dungeons for a few spare minutes, when the old physician had been falsely accused and sentenced to death. Of course, Arthur had been fully convinced that Merlin was not a sorcerer then, or he would have never done what he did. “Apart from that… nothing that man ever said was true.”
He’d never been more scared for his, Gaius’s, or Morgana’s safety than when Aredian haunted the castle. He could not betray them to Arthur now. He thought back to Aredian’s dirty tricks and remembered how Arthur had stood up for him to Uther, when Aredian’s fate was being decided. He had shown faith in Merlin’s accusations. The faith that was now horribly broken.
The prince sat down at the dining table without saying anything. The painful silence between them was felt distinctly by both men.
Merlin folded Arthur’s gambeson and added it to the washing pile, gathering Arthur’s waist belt and sword to put away, lit several more candles and added some logs to the fire. And all the while his throat felt dry. Everything in his mind seemed shattered, and despite his hands working mechanically, he hardly comprehended what was happening.
“You were the one who freed the druid girl,” Arthur concluded with darkness in his voice. He was doing his best to unravel Merlin, and it hurt each time Arthur’s conclusions hit home.
“She was not evil, she was cursed.” Poor Freya. He would never forget her. “She is dead.”
“Did you kill her?” Arthur pulled his plate to him and started eating. As if Freya’s death was something to be discussed while devouring a large piece of beef, with steamed pears and spiced vegetables.
“No, you did,” Merlin’s voice rasped. He thought back to their final moments at the lake, at how she had been lowered into the water by magic. That she was now free. He thought about the warmth and the colors of the lady who had welcomed Freya to them. It was all he could do not to break down.
“How many more lies should I expect to uncover?” Arthur asked after a while. Merlin thought about it while filling the prince’s silver goblet with red wine. Arthur was asking a lot with this.
“The more I tell you, the more risk you take in conversation with your father. He would have you hanged for even speaking to me.”
“There is that,” Arthur conceded and drank his wine.
Merlin hovered near the table. He could hardly imagine Arthur’s thoughts right now. He ached for the other, and felt his pain too; but he could not, would not ask for anything. He needed their minds to work as one, especially if they were going to defeat the creature, which neither of them could handle by himself. They had never been further apart than at this moment. Not even when they had first met.
“Sit down,” Arthur said as he continued eating. He waved a fork in the general direction of the chair opposite him at the table and regarded Merlin thoughtfully. The longer Arthur looked, the more nervous Merlin became. He wanted to get out of there, but he was aware that there was no other place he could be right now. That to leave now would mean to be defeated. So he sat down and stared at the pitcher of wine. After the meal they would have to set out to find the Birugderc. Together.
He ventured a look in Arthur’s direction and found his dark blue eyes still regarding him thoughtfully while he chewed. The candles bathed a golden light over his blond hair. Merlin lowered his head and felt an unhelpful blush creeping on. Arthur’s stare was doing unspeakable things to him, giving him hot flushes, followed by cold ones. He blamed his nerves even though he knew better. To be so close, and yet so far away from him mentally was playing tricks on his mind and he would do anything to make this right again. He needed Arthur more than he was ready to admit to himself.
No, that was a dangerous path to walk. There was nothing to be gained from it. He decided to change tactics and grinned nervously, trying his best to look lighthearted.
Arthur didn’t respond, still chewing and giving him a hard stare, and Merlin straightened his expression once more. All of a sudden he wasn’t certain at all whether they would be able to work together to destroy the creature. He needed Gaius or the Great Dragon to give him advice. Right now.
A knock came from the door and Merlin sighed with the utmost relief when Gwen walked in, oblivious that she had disturbed anything. “Arthur, it’s Morgana. She hasn’t woken up since this morning. I thought she was sick, but now… Please hurry.”
Merlin had never been happier about an interruption than he was at that moment. However, the realization of what Gwen said settled heavily in his stomach. They rushed to Morgana’s chambers and Arthur called on the guards to run and fetch Gaius. Inside her chambers, Morgana was asleep in her bed, twisting and turning, pale as a sheet. Gwen rushed to her side and picked up her hand.
Merlin noticed that the bracelet was lying on the sheets. Perhaps it had come off during her sleep. He couldn’t catch Gwen’s glance to confirm it. Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed when, suddenly, Morgana sat upright with a gasp and looked at Arthur, right through him, to his very soul. “No one, no matter how great, can truly know what lies ahead. Retrace your steps to see the truth. Live to understand—” Gwen put an arm around her, and Morgana was brought back to reality with a shudder.
Morgana was shocked to find everyone by her bedside. She opened her mouth to speak and closed it right away. Whatever she might have wanted to say was stilled by her deep and twisted terror that she must have felt in that moment. She shot Merlin a helpless glance. He gave her a small nod and retreated to the far end of the room. Her large green eyes pleaded helplessly.
“Oh Morgana, I thought your nightmares were over,” Gwen said, huddling the lady to her own chest.
Arthur stood up from the bed and sighed with clear relief. “Your dreams really are pretty horrible.” He added with a more tender tone, “I’m glad you’re alright.”
Merlin stood quietly at the back. A thousand thoughts passed through his mind, including his worry about Arthur’s possible suspicions about Morgana, and Gwen’s too. Plus, the bracelet and what this vision meant. For it must have been a vision, and one that was clearly directed at Arthur.
He memorized her words while the others seemingly dismissed them. He sensed that her magic was becoming stronger and he knew that if she laid in bed any more than she already did, without any understanding or any outlet, without any knowledge of how to hide it away, that the burden on her soul would be a heavy one.
When Arthur passed him, he got a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, she’s fine!”
Merlin nodded simply. She really wasn’t.
The curfew was in place and guards were stationed along all the watchtowers as well as near the gates. Besides that, there was no one on the street. A faint mist hung in the darkening sky and it threatened to drizzle at any moment. Merlin and Arthur made their way quietly across the vacated streets, avoiding the guards. Arthur carried the spear and the embalmed platter. Merlin looked around carefully.
They had barely spoken since emerging from Morgana’s chambers. Gaius was looking after her now.
Merlin sensed the prince by his side, but he still felt so completely unconnected to him. It served to remind him of how easy their time had been recently, and how much everyone had been right when they had told him not to reveal himself.
Now, the hour of the attacks was upon them, but the sky remained dark.
“You had better be right about this,” Arthur warned him.
“It’s only been four days,” Merlin said. “We can’t possibly know what to expect.”
“Then what good is this?” Arthur hissed through his teeth.
“I don’t know. This creature is one of a kind.” The air became thick.
“You really are useless, aren’t you? Even for—"
Right at that moment, Merlin saw something light up against one of the towers. “There!”
He started running and Arthur followed without hesitation. Merlin kept his eyes to the sky. He twisted around the streets, slipping along the muddy pools and kicking things as he went. He never took his eyes off the light. He knew that Arthur followed closely behind him. He heard the heavy, careful footsteps and the clangor of chainmail in pursuit. The ball of light disappeared for a moment and Merlin stopped. He stood still and closed his eyes, concentrating, listening, and feeling.
The dread was thickening around them. He could feel it, though he knew that Arthur could not. This time his own feelings were amplified by their dark saturation; it seeped into his very being. Everything within him shouted for him to give up, to leave everything behind and surrender. That he had failed. It drowned away his breath and he stumbled forward.
A steady hand touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes again, sucking in a deep breath.
A cry wailed through the street and before either of them could exchange words, they rushed into the direction it came from. It had sounded like the cry of a child and Merlin’s heart was in his throat instantly. The torches guttered when drizzle started to pour down. Carefully, the two men descended into a dark alleyway. They did not find anybody and Merlin saw no light in the sky. He spun around, desperate to find the source of the cry, to discover whether anyone else was dead.
“Over here, Merlin!” Arthur had found the source. It was a dead cat. Its fur was singed and it stank.
“Look at its eyes.” Merlin knelt and pointed. There were gaping, bloody wounds where the cat’s eyes had once been. Unfortunately, the poor creature’s cries had stirred the local folk and Merlin and Arthur heard shutters opening.
“Back into your houses! Do not open your windows or doors to anyone!” Arthur shouted. His booming voice had the experience of command behind it, and whoever had been thinking about coming outside, now had second thoughts. Merlin looked up and down the street. Arthur’s words had the desired effect and they saw nobody looking.
“We were nearly too late,” Arthur said. “We must hurry.”
Merlin nodded and left the poor, dead cat where it was. He followed his senses and thought about his destiny. The old knight who once had the Birugderc—whose very soul had merged with it—had not come to terms with his own prophecy. He understood how hard it must have been for the poor man. From the moment Merlin’s path was laid out before him, he had been bound in chains to his servitude, his secrecy, and his humility. It was exactly his own prophecy which provoked so much unrest within him. Strangely enough, that sensation was answered by the surroundings. A malicious sensation was formed clearly in the area to his right, and he started running.
He followed the dark sensation until he was breathless. When he reached the lower town’s small market square he came to a halt. It was empty now but for a breeze and some remaining vegetable waste and straw. All the shutters were closed. The dread was around him now, suffocating the air. “It’s close.”
He couldn’t use magic against this creature, the only thing he could do was get Arthur close to it. Close to something dangerous, which had cast an attack that had been entirely invisible to the prince. Fear got hold of him, heavily weighing in his shoes. The dark gloom of its magic seeped into his bones and made his limbs heavy and lame. All the while the drizzle seeped into their clothes. It was then that a large shadow loomed in front of him. He realized after a moment that it was himself, displayed on the stones in front of him. His own shadow.
“Arthur!” He spun around and pointed at the ball of light. It resembled a giant eye, looking down on him with evil intent. He held a hand in front of his eyes, looking through his fingers. The eye stared at him and its pupil glowed an angry orange. Its viciousness was all around Merlin. Anyone who possessed this eye would have been corrupted, Merlin knew it with a certainty. And it was looking straight at him.
The whirring sound increased while it hovered.
He had seen evil creatures before, but none of them filled him with such a ferocious feeling. It hung in the air while the noise increased. Merlin did not realize what was happening until something shot out toward him. It dawned upon him at last; he was its target now.
He jumped at the very last second.
Arthur was looking at him blankly. “Merlin, quit playing around!”
Merlin rolled over the cobblestones painfully and got up, pointing at the sky once more. “There!” He had no time to admire the dark, steaming smudge on the cobblestones beside him.
Arthur eyed the sky aimlessly. He held out the platter, trying to see if anything was visible in it after Gaius’s preparations. There was something of a faint glow visible. Merlin wasn’t lying. Arthur aimed the spear and threw.
The floating eye hummed more loudly as it swiftly raised itself up, and the spear went through clean air.
“It’s moving!” Merlin kept his eyes narrowed against the bright light. The rain wasn’t helping. He scrambled up and dove towards the spear that had fallen to the ground. He almost ran into Arthur who took it from him with a rough grasp. “I’m sorry,” he said to Arthur, not certain of how he could be of more help.
Arthur shook his head at him dismissively.
A bright light shone on Arthur’s face and Merlin turned. The eye’s pupil was starting to glow an angry orange once more. Merlin lifted a hand to the sky lest the both of them would be hit. They were too close to it now. Both of them would be burned if he didn’t do anything. Could he use his magic somehow? In front of Arthur?
He cast a spell, using an ancient incantation, which created a circle around the creature in the sky, made of sparks and embers that came from a nearby torch. The whirring increased rapidly. Merlin would not be able to defeat it, but he could point it out to Arthur. “Throw it, now!”
Arthur hadn’t seen the glow in Merlin’s eyes, but he did see the circle. The circle hovered in the sky, guided by Merlin’s hand as the Birugderc moved. Arthur dropped the platter and stood with the spear firmly in his grip. The Birugderc was moving away now, higher into the sky, pulsing and charging its attack. It would be out of reach soon. The circle moved with it, higher and higher.
It was now or never.
Arthur took several steps until he braced himself against the stones, and threw the spear with all his strength, right into the center of the circle.
There was a crack along the sky which sent all the dust, dirt, and both Merlin and Arthur flying. They landed against some empty barrels and saw particles whizzing across the sky, falling into pieces.
The dread was gone immediately.
Merlin lowered his arm and the circle faded. He turned his swirling head towards Arthur beside him.
The prince just regarded him with a stunned expression.
“You did it…” Merlin said. Arthur was safe. Then all the light went out and he collapsed.
Merlin awoke with Gaius leaning over him and looking worried. He was in his own bed, and birds were chirping outside. Merlin smiled casually at Gaius. His head pounded. “No more deaths?” He reached out and touched Gaius’s sleeve.
“No more deaths. I’m not sure how this came to be, but for the past two nights we’ve all been safe.”
Two nights? “Ah. Good.” His arm dropped from his master’s sleeve and his head lolled back onto the pillow. It was only then that he noticed Arthur leaning against the wall beside the door with his arms crossed. Merlin bit his lip. Gaius didn’t know about Arthur’s discovery. The physician regarded Merlin’s concerned look curiously.
“Dodging work again, Merlin?” Arthur asked, stepping closer. He was relieved more than anything with that question, and he smiled. His head swam from the movement alone.
“As a physician, I do believe he should rest,” the old man sputtered.
“Thank you Gaius, I can see that.” Arthur turned to Merlin with a small grin. The prince nodded briefly, turned, and left.
Whatever that was, it filled Merlin with the delight of a child. He had woken up in his own room, and not in a cell. There was no way he could tell Gaius about Arthur’s discovery. It would put too much of a strain on everything. Gaius would have his hide.
He rested for some more hours, checked the bump on his head tenderly, and left to attend his daily duties.
Inside the castle, he learned that Arthur had taken all the credit for killing the creature. Perfect. The tale that was being told described a specially prepared silver platter that had been used to discern the creature’s image, so that Arthur had known where to throw. Gaius seemed to buy it and so did the king. Uther announced a tournament in his son’s honor, which coincided with the visit of a great king, and as a result many knights, earls, and other nobles were invited to arrive in three days’ time. So it happened that Merlin was back out on the training field, surrounded by the knights practicing around him.
It didn’t take long for Arthur to walk over to him and throw insults his way. “Really, Merlin, if you had half of Sir Leon’s weight, you’d still be bigger than you are now.”
“At least I’m not stretching my chainmail,” he shot back.
“I am not. Stretching. My chainmail. They’re made of metal, they don’t…” Arthur looked down and sucked in. Merlin laughed and Arthur gave him a smack on the back of his head.
He genuinely winced at that.
“Well, that’ll teach you,” Arthur said awkwardly and walked away quickly.
Things were looking like normal and he smiled underneath his wince. “Prat!” He called out and dodged a war hammer flung in his direction. Even the other knights laughed.
Good, that was good. He was the same old Merlin to them. He wondered if Arthur would talk to him about magic that evening at all. He wondered if the Great Dragon knew what had happened, if he had foreseen this too. Soon, he would have to free that beast and fulfill his promise. And he knew in the pit of his heart that it would be a bad thing. But there was something else on his mind now that he needed to address first.
Before his evening duties started, he walked into Gaius’s workroom to find the man writing a letter. He didn’t question Gaius, and simply sat down in front of him. He waited patiently for his tutor to stop writing and look over to him.
“If you’re wondering whether I’m thinking you had anything to do with the Birugderc being defeated…” The old man paused and Merlin looked at him innocently. “I don’t need to know.”
No, he didn’t, Merlin conceded for once. He smiled at the old man. “Arthur is a formidable warrior. He doesn’t always need my help,” he said simply, unsure of what Gaius’s reply would be. He’d have to get better at lying, better than he had been. “Gaius,” he started, “have you seen Gwen lately?”
“No, not in a while. She’s been busy I suppose.”
“Yes. Busy and observing.” He smiled and got up, leaving Gaius stumped. “Very keen, that one.” And Merlin pointed at his temple indicating Guinevere was a clever woman.
Since this was not particularly new to Gaius, he let out a heavy sigh. “What is it, Merlin?”
“Oh, nothing special,” he said lightly. “Only that she wondered where Morgana’s fantastic new bracelet came from, but I’ve told you this. Oh, and that each time Morgana doesn’t wear it, she still gets her visions. But I’m sure it won’t end up to be court gossip.”
“Merlin, you are overstepping your bounds.”
“I disagree with you entirely.” Gaius’s words had made him feel guilty though. His master had that power over him. But he had to push. “What you are doing, holding her back, is doing more harm than good.”
“I’ve learned a thing or two in my lifetime, Merlin,” Gaius preached and Merlin shook his head. “And one of them is that patience is the biggest virtue one can possess. I understand,” he added, “how you must feel. Give it time.”
“How much time before someone figures it out. Someone who is not Gwen?” He jutted his jaw. “Are you going to help her from your workroom? Will you persuade the king to change his stance when he finds out about her? You know as well as I do that even she cannot persuade him.”
“There is nothing more we can do now.”
“There is,” Merlin said. “She can be useful.”
“Useful? I don’t understand your meaning.”
“Find something. Make her useful. Refrain her from pining and being kept out of sight like a doll. She is caged to her room, Gaius. She will go mad for it.”
“She’s never indicated—"
“Find something, Gaius. Please.”
The old man looked at Merlin. He was surprised that the boy hadn’t asked him to confide more about magic to the Lady Morgana. It was too dangerous for her. And yet, her confinement had made her more solitary. While she used to be seen together with Arthur sharing meals and occasionally studying, she had stopped doing those things altogether.
“I will think about your words, Merlin.”
Merlin offered a dimpled smile. “Thank you, Gaius,” he said before rushing out to the kitchens to serve Arthur his meal at the feast.
That evening Arthur was in his chambers writing out some notes when Merlin entered with clean laundry and several boots tied together by the laces and flung over his shoulder. He didn’t say a word, letting Arthur work as he tidied up the items quietly into Arthur’s wardrobe. When the closed the door, he saw Arthur looking at him, just like he’d done at dinner several evenings ago.
“Anything else, sire?”
“Perhaps.” He leaned back slowly, his loose white tunic showing off the various muscled curves of his chest. Merlin tried desperately not to look, pointedly ignoring the deep cut and the chest hair just visible between the lace… He also expertly ignored the rolled up sleeves showing off his formidable forearms, simply raising his eyebrows at the incoming request. There was nothing in it for him, he convinced himself.
Arthur contemplated before he spoke. “You’ve heard about what happened.” It was hardly a question.
“You defeated the Birugderc, sire. Bravely, I might add.”
“Yes. And that’s fine with you?”
“Entirely, sire.” He put his hands behind his back and straightened his shoulders, curious as to where this would go.
“You’re not upset that I destroyed a creature of magic?” He leaned his head to one side and regarded Merlin.
“No. It was dangerous.”
“Have you ever killed anyone, Merlin?”
“What?” He faltered and looked at Arthur indignantly. “I don’t… I don’t do that.” It wasn’t entirely true, he had killed on many occasions, but only when they posed a direct harm to Arthur, Camelot, or the people around him.
“What stands in your way?” Arthur asked, getting up from his desk. He walked towards Merlin, passed him on his way to the door. Merlin’s eyes followed him. He locked the door.
“You,” Merlin answered simply.
“And if I would ask you to kill someone, would you do it?”
Too many questions. “No, I wouldn’t.” He moved away from Arthur and started to take all the decorative pillows off the prince’s bed, putting them aside and began turning down the bed.
“But you said you’d do anything for me.”
“Not like that, sire.” He felt nervous now. This was nothing like the talk about using magic he had hoped for.
“Well, explain it then.”
If anything happens, I want you gone. He heard Arthur’s words in the back of his mind. Merlin thought long and hard. Arthur crossed his arms while Merlin eyed the locked door. He didn’t understand it.
“Most magic users,” he began at last, “pick up sorcery through artefacts, charms. Sometimes enchantments. Others are born with it. Like me. Those who pick up sorcery probably do so to achieve a goal or an aim. Claiming magical use as such is wrought with danger and sometimes the soul is touched by whatever magic was in those artefacts. But to be born with it, that’s different.”
He paused, hoping that the new path he took was something Arthur would accept. He chose his words carefully. “Though we face the same persecution, our relationship with magic is entirely different. It resides in our very core. We make our own life choices. And in this life I choose to use it for good, or not at all.”
“Like destroying evil creatures,” Arthur interjected.
Merlin looked away and fluffed up Arthur’s pillows. “I try not to use it in general. Day to day I polish your armor, scrub your boots, clean your room, and muck out the stables. I don’t use anything special for that other than my own two hands…”
“I highly doubt it, looking at you.”
“I’m stronger than I look!” he protested. Arthur scoffed. It was so frustrating to look at the prince. His scrutinizing eyes were peeling him apart. He had no idea what Arthur was expecting of him. He only understood that he’d hurt him, betrayed his trust, and was trying to build it back up from the start. “I’m sorry,” he added.
“About what, exactly?” Arthur stood in front of him now, his deep blue eyes gazing directly into Merlin’s.
Merlin blinked and stammered. “You. You are the only person that matters…” His voice trailed off at the end. He knew how lame it sounded. Of course the prince mattered. He would succeed his father on the throne. But to Merlin he was everything. Could he own that kind of claim on the prince for himself? Impossible. Arthur mattered to everyone in Camelot.
Arthur looked at him oddly and Merlin felt a blush creeping over his cheeks. They were far too close. Merlin could smell the fact that Arthur had been in the sun that day, that he’d had a glass of wine at dinner. It seemed that Arthur was contemplating things just as much as he was.
“What I don’t understand,” the prince said at last, “is why you put yourself in all this peril. Are you brave or are you truly stupid?”
Merlin couldn’t help a small smile curling around his lips. “A bit of both if I’m honest.”
Arthur’s expression changed at that, to something far less dominant and more juvenile. “At least there’s something I can count on, then.” He slapped Merlin on the arm quite roughly.
“Yes,” he replied with a wry smile. “Always.”
“Well, that and your assurance that my breakfast is served on time tomorrow, and that my horse stables are mucked out before the morning.”
“But sire, it’s almost midnight.”
“You’re going back on your word?”
“No, I just…” He wanted to say something about the bruise on his head, something about needing to rest, but assumed it wouldn’t make much of a difference to Arthur. He still had a long way to go in regaining that trust.
“The tournament is in three days’ time, and I still want to take that hunting trip tomorrow. Before all the honored guests start arriving.”
Merlin gave a small bow. “Right away.”
“We ride at dawn.”
Merlin unlocked the door and looked back at Arthur with a small helpless smile. And then he was gone.
Early the next morning they rode out of Camelot together and followed the path into the woodlands. Arthur took the lead, in full royal armor and a crossbow strapped to his back. Merlin followed behind with supplies. Riding was a genuine joy for Merlin, and the energy of Royse, one of the royal beasts, beneath him sent him forward like a powerful force. If he’d had to describe magic to Arthur, perhaps this came close.
Growing up in Ealdor horses had been a scarce commodity. One summer he and Will had rescued two horses which had been left tied to a tree and had likely not eaten or drank for several days. They had carefully brushed them down and nursed them back to health. Then they had used the horses to carry building material to improve the home of the village elder, Simmons. Both he and Will had got into trouble after racing the horses through the woods and consequently being spotted in a much further range than their parents would have liked to see them go at all. It was where he had learned to ride, and where he had learned to love it.
Merlin and Arthur paused at a crossing with a small inn and some cottages to stable the horses and continue on foot. Merlin patted Royse’s soft nose and spoke gentle words to the roan, when Arthur told him to hurry along.
For a large part of their journey into the southern wild woodlands neither of them spoke much. They simply enjoyed each other’s company and strained their eyes for game. Merlin felt more at ease in the woodland as opposed to having the sun on his head. He was feeling more relaxed. Trips like these were normal. And normal was good. Despite his sincere dislike of hunting, Merlin found he enjoyed this day already.
“So, who knows?” Arthur questioned at last, when they had reached a stream and sat down for a small refreshment. They had hunted down one small boar and two rabbits, but no big game.
Merlin looked around, still suspicious of answering such a question. “My mother,” he answered honestly. Hunith resided in Ealdor, which was ruled by King Cenred and though magic faced its own persecution there too, he assumed Arthur would not pursue her for knowing. She was his mother after all.
Arthur nodded contemplatively. “I suppose she would.” He chewed his bread and then took some cheese. He thought back to his training session with Morgana. She had spoken of Ealdor. Something clicked. “And Will,” the prince added.
Merlin looked down. Of course Will had known. Now that he was dead, there was no harm in confirming it and he nodded. He picked up a stick and drew lines in the earth with a heavy sadness which filled the hole Will had left when he died.
Arthur understood. “He took the fall.” It wasn’t a question.
“We were overwhelmed…” he started with a soft voice. He felt absurd saying this now, after all that time. It had been almost a year ago.
“That explains why he had never used it against Kanen before we arrived. I had assumed he’d been too much of a coward to use it.”
“He was not a coward!”
“I also thought you claimed you never killed anyone.”
Merlin’s mouth drew into a thin line. “In battle the rules change,” he said simply, and felt more than cheeky as he looked at Arthur. He was claiming his place as a warrior, be it of a different nature. Despite the warlock’s expectations, Arthur did not laugh at him.
Instead, the prince regarded him curiously. “They do,” he conceded after a while and sat up straight. “And you did save us all.”
“No sire, everyone fought extremely bravely that day. I cannot handle a sword as well as the others, but there are other things…”
“I get it. It would be wrong for you to take credit.” Arthur looked away in amusement.
“It’s not that simple.”
Merlin shook his head. It was nothing to joke about.
“Did you tell your girlfriend?”
Merlin choked on a piece of bread, coughing loudly.
“Oh, come on. We all know about country manners. You must have had someone back home, or on your way here,” Arthur coaxed him.
He frowned. Then turned away from Arthur. “One of them knew. Perhaps two…”
The prince laughed heartily. “Merlin, the conqueror of women all across Ealdor and Camelot.”
Merlin shuddered and laughed nervously. “You think you know me, but see, you really don’t.” It made all sorts of odd movements in his belly tickle. He felt his heart squeeze tight and a blush creep to his ears.
“It would seem I don’t…” Arthur said contemplatively.
Merlin thought he’d ruined the mood now. He needed this topic to steer away from himself and fast. “Well, I can only imagine how difficult it is for you, sire.”
Arthur raised a brow at him. “Do tell.”
“Well, being a virgin.”
This time the prince nearly dropped the deerskin flask he was holding. “I’m sorry, a what?” Arthur shook his head indignantly.
“Surely a prince must…”
“I am not…!”
Merlin raised his brows. “I’m appalled… Sire.” In a way he truly was. “Don’t you know how dangerous that is for a man in your position. If there was to be a child…”
“There won’t be. I’m sure,” he said it with ease and finished the flask before throwing it at Merlin. “Get me some more water.”
Merlin walked down to the stream and filled the flask in the cool water. Before he was able to stand up, Arthur had pushed him down with his face flat against the leaves. His heart jumped and he opened his mouth to speak, but it was quickly covered by a gloved hand.
“Bandits,” Arthur whispered.
Merlin lay face down against the cool forest soil among the dirt and leaves as Arthur was sprawled half on top of him. And bandits were prowling. He heard the hooves now. Quite possibly, Merlin reflected, this was the very worst moment to get hard, in all his life.
“How many?” he asked Arthur from between gloved fingers, but there was no reply. Arthur might not have seen them yet. A few deep voices were audible now and they were getting closer. Then it became quiet again, the echoes and hooves fading. A few more minutes of lying on the wet soil near the water’s edge chilled Merlin’s skin. When Arthur finally got up, the warlock thought he would be presentable once more. Mostly anyway.
“Let’s get out of here,” Arthur said, holding out a hand for Merlin to stand up. Merlin got up, handed the flask to Arthur for drinking and dusted off his clothing. They had not moved two steps up the bank before over a dozen bandits charged their way with swords in hand.
Without hesitation, Arthur reached for his own sword and rushed towards the nearest of them. Out of habit, Merlin stayed behind and ducked towards a tree. He overlooked the battle and stayed quiet, doing what he could to protect Arthur.
He made a hole in the ground where one bandit would land after a jump. The man sprained his ankle badly and was successfully slowed down. Another dropped his blade mid-attack and Arthur chopped off his head, followed by a spray of blood. A third one got sand in his eyes and was blinded for a few moments so the prince could slice him down diagonally across the shoulder. A fourth slipped over an otherwise entirely dry old log and fell over backwards, taking some time to scramble back up. Arthur sliced his gut open. Each of his spells were small. Within minutes, Arthur had taken the lives of eight men and the rest went fleeing.
The prince turned to him angrily. “Bloody useless when it comes to it, aren’t you?” He was panting for his effort and holding an elbow in pain.
“Save it. You ran for cover.”
“I had your back!”
“From behind a tree?” Arthur started back up the river bank.
“Exactly,” Merlin protested. “From behind a tree.”
The prince stopped and turned. “You mean you…” Arthur waved his sword at the directions of the dead bodies around them.
“Yes,” Merlin said simply. “Small things.” His heart thudded loudly in his chest.
“I didn’t see anything,” Arthur protested.
“That is the point!” Merlin reminded him and the corner of his mouth lifted with treacherous elation. “Besides, it was too dangerous. The other bandits ran off. If any of them recognized you and saw you talking to a… If they spread the word, well, you would be banished. Or worse.”
“Don’t assume you can start thinking for me now, Merlin.”
“Clearly I must if you won’t,” he ventured with a grin. Then regretted it the next moment when Arthur flung the flask at him and it spilled water all over his suede jacket.
“The bandits must have chased off the game. Let’s see if we can find out who these men were, and return. There won’t be anything for us to hunt out here now.” They examined the remains and emptied the men’s pockets, taking anything of value, and storing it in Merlin’s travel pouch. Of course, that also meant Merlin had to carry it all the way back to the horses.
“It will do you good,” Arthur had said. But his arms could hardly take it. Still, it did distract him from the day’s events. His heart was light and his skin felt electric. He recalled the moment he got pushed down onto the dirt with possibly too much glee. His logical mind told him to quit, but he knew he would be remembering this for some time.
The tournament in his honor for defeating the strange Birugderc coincided with the visit of King Galorian from one of the kingdoms in the far North called Foltaig, far beyond the Perilous Lands. The entire household of Camelot received the traveling party on the stairs, and all of the staff were also present to welcome them.
Arthur looked over his shoulder anxiously. Merlin was late, and Galorian’s scouts were already there, announcing the king’s arrival. They heard the trot of hooves coming through the gates, and a trumpet announced the very moment the king came into view. Suddenly Merlin appeared at Holden’s side. The steward looked immensely displeased but Merlin’s gaze was first and foremost aimed at Arthur. The prince shook his head with a small smile.
He knew what Merlin had been up to. He needed to learn what types of magic would come from the North. They knew the Birugderc was from the Northeast, but Foltaig's domain was far more West. Besides, it had been an ancient spirit and nothing that could have been summoned. At least, that’s what Merlin had been sent to investigate in secret. Merlin’s elated expression told him enough.
The council's concerns had only stretched as far as to discuss tidings on the druids in the northern lands, and the different magical creatures that they had there. There were talks of golden seals which could take the faces of humans in the water. There were pixies and brownies pestering the local folk. Arthur assumed these would not be traveling with the royal party. Nevertheless, the household was on guard, and this whole situation particularly unnerved Arthur.
King Galorian arrived and was full of easy charm with King Uther. They had exchanged several letters on the voyage down and it offered them a strange familiarity though they had never met in person before. Galorian wore rich clothes lined with soft furs and on his tabard stood a hunting bird with sharp claws. Behind him, the members of his household and several knights in armor sat on their horses and regarded their surroundings.
“You are very welcome, we are glad to offer you and your staff the southern wing, which is most pleasant at this time of year. May I remind you that any dealings with magic are strictly forbidden here in Camelot?”
Galorian offered a smile showing too many teeth. “Your laws are widely known, Uther. You have naught to worry about.”
Uther took that moment to announce to both staff households that in celebration of King Galorian’s stay at Camelot, a special grand prize would be offered to the tournament champion. Holden walked forward with a wooden chest, which was opened by Uther to display a collection of rare jewels from far beyond the southern seas. Rubies, jade, and precious topaz stones littered its velvet lining, and gasps were heard from the surrounding people.
“This is certainly a beautiful prize and one worth fighting for. I have several very talented knights who rode down with me from Brooksten Castle that are eager to test their skills.” King Galorian then leaned closer to Uther. “Of course, there might be more than one prize to be won.” The king’s eyes scanned the welcoming party and his eyes rested on Morgana for several moments. Uther pat the man on the shoulder and asked him to come inside.
Arthur stood uneasy on the stairs until the older gentlemen had passed and followed up the steps. He had a bad feeling about what the man had just practically whispered in his father’s ear. Without realizing it, he had again found Merlin’s eyes. The two of them needed to talk about the coming days, but Merlin’s turn to join the crowd inside had not yet arrived. Wordlessly they acknowledged that they would discuss things later.
Arthur followed the train of people through the corridor towards the throne room where an extra throne had been erected especially for King Galorian beside his father’s. Arthur’s own chair was placed further to the side. Morgana’s was also pushed more to the other side, and she was seated next to Uther. No doubt his father had planned it this way. He didn’t mind in particular, as he would hardly be indoors during the coming days after all. Perhaps Morgana would mind though.
He took to his seat and watched as people poured into the room and situated themselves according to their station. Holden was absent, likely securing the chest full of prizes so that nobody would get to it. At last, Merlin stood beside him. He had become increasingly aware of his manservant’s presence ever since discovering his true nature. A part of him wanted to somehow keep him at a distance from his father as much as possible, though it was an absurd notion. Merlin did his work normally and never complained.
Well, he complained a lot actually. And still defied Arthur’s orders all the time. In the end, there was nothing suspicious, which was acceptable to Arthur. At least that’s what he thought for some time. As the days passed, he found himself with more questions each time. And with the recent preparations and strict training regimes they had not shared each other’s company for more than a few minutes a day.
Not since that hunting trip.
At last everyone was in the throne room and the ground rules for Camelot were laid out to them. Holden returned and was introduced to them as the head of household. Nothing went by him without prior approval. His father announced a feast for that evening.
“Sire, I would like to use this moment to present to you my nephew, Darren.” One of the boys from the crowd stepped forward. “He is a strong boy at fourteen and ever in need of training. I want him to squire for Arthur during this tournament so he will learn all he can from Camelot’s greatest fighter.”
King Uther nodded at the boy. “Welcome to Camelot, Darren. You have skills in the field?”
The boy looked up nervously at King Uther and stammered, “Y-yes. I have some. It would be an honor…” his voice trailed off.
Arthur looked quickly at Merlin and saw that his servant was not too pleased with this. He started, “I already—" but his father was quicker to answer.
“Of course Darren will squire for Arthur.”
Arthur closed his mouth and smiled diplomatically at the boy whose big eyes were focused on him now.
“Which reminds me,” King Galorian said in a pleased tone. “I have no manservant with me. I will need one, especially for the upcoming festivities. One who knows this place well.”
“It’s settled then.” Uther turned to look at Arthur. “Merlin will serve King Galorian during his stay.”
“Father, I’m not—"
“Merlin is also in need of training in proper etiquette, Arthur.” King Uther smiled at him, but his underlying message was clear. Stop complaining.
Arthur gritted his teeth and nodded at his father. This was exactly one of those moments where nothing he could say would be heard or acknowledged. He knew his father too well for that, and courteousness always preceded common sense for that man. He realized his meeting with Merlin would have to be postponed now and strictly avoided looking in the other’s direction. It would show him defying his father’s wishes.
“Good,” King Galorian said in a pleased tone. “And he will exclusively be in my attendance throughout the event.”
“Gaius, you can surely spare him for a number of days,” King Uther said. It wasn’t a question and Gaius understood. He nodded in accordance. Arthur didn’t miss the mild annoyance on the man’s face.
He couldn’t stand it anymore and ventured a glance in Merlin’s direction. He was stood in his servant’s position and his eyes were directed somewhere over the heads of the people. There was a determination in his eyes that made Arthur wonder.
“Holden, please take the guest staff down to the kitchens first to eat after their long journey. Merlin, arrange for the clothing and packs to be brought up to the rooms. Darren, why don’t you follow Arthur down to the armory right away. Morgana, will you show good King Galorian the way to the tournament grounds?”
With that the court was dismissed. The bustle started up and Arthur got up from his seat in a huff, only to be stopped by his father grabbing his wrist. “You will show Darren every courtesy, is that understood?”
Somehow, his father understood his mood even better than he had. “Of course, father.” He pulled his wrist back and crossed the hall to find a very shaky Darren looking up at him as if he was descended from the heavens.
“Right, Darren. Let’s take a look at your upcoming workplace and then you can bring my armor to one of the tents and we’ll start some training.”
The boy nodded. “Thank you. I mean, for doing this. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Arthur smiled despite himself. “Do tell, what tales of me have traveled so far north?”
The boy started recounting his various adventures and Arthur noticed that many of them were clearly grossly exaggerated in his favor. He laughed. Perhaps this would not be so bad.
How did this happen? Within moments of the Northern King’s arrival, he had been whisked out of Arthur’s service and offered up to King Galorian. He was walking down the corridor in a foul mood when he spotted three of Galorian’s servant women near one of the carts with their belongings. They seemed to be arguing. Merlin needed to be at the cart for the King’s possessions and approached them. They scattered as soon as he was near them and he looked after them as they left. Clearly not all of the king’s party were at ease.
He set himself to carrying the ridiculously heavy chest up to the King’s room. Holden passed him in the hallway and shook his head. “You should have taken his travel bags first, they have a fresh change of clothing in them. And you should have undone his sword belt and cloak by now, so he could sit down after his long journey. Really, Merlin.”
“Oh, okay. Well, can I put this somewhere for now?”
“No, bring it up. If you leave it here, the other servants might wonder about it. These are the king’s possessions and more important than anything!”
“Right then. I’ll move on then shall I?” he said with labored voice.
Holden huffed at him and yelled at George to get King Galorian’s travel bags. Merlin frowned at that. George was often called upon when Merlin was sick or away on an expedition. But surely this wasn’t such an occasion. “Come on!” he told himself and lifted the chest a bit higher in his arms and labored up the stairs.
When he got there, sweaty and broken, he dumped the chest in the room of King Galorian’s chambers, just as the king entered. “Ah, Merlin is it? Undo this.”
“Yes, sire.” Merlin took off the man’s cloak and sword belt. He could hear the king breathing heavily through his nose. He was quite tall, slightly taller than Merlin and in his late forties or early fifties. It was hard to tell. The man had likely been in some battles, as he moved stiffly. But that could be weariness from his travels. He had gray streaks through his hair and was unshaven after the long journey. His eyes were dark and narrowed when they regarded Merlin’s work.
“Why is there no fire in the hearth?”
“Right away, sire.” He knelt before the fire to spark it and ensured it was crackling away nicely with the smallest amount of magical help when George knocked and entered with the travel bags.
“Who are you? Get out!” the King sputtered.
George dropped the bags in fright and left. Poor George, Merlin mused. “Would you like to change, sire?” he offered. Perhaps he could do this, after all. It wasn’t so different from Arthur.
“Yes, slowly please. I am getting on with age.” He held out his gloved hands for Merlin to tug them off. Gloves, Merlin thought. Not something Arthur usually still wore in his room, or at least he would take these off by himself. But he must obey a king, so he set to work. All the while King Galorian regarded him.
“You have very strict rules here about magic,” the man said.
Merlin nodded. “Oh, yes.” What was he asking?
“And you have seen magic users yourself in these lands?” Galorian got one hand free and offered him the other.
“Er, in the past.” Merlin felt unease creep up.
“Tell me about them.”
“They’re very secretive. Nobody really knows.” He tried to shrug it off.
“What about their trials and punishments, boy?”
“Hanged, sire,” he said.
“Come now, you must have seen something more, know something more.”
“I’m not part of the trials, sire.” He had stood by and seen several sentences take place, but it was not something he wanted to share with this man. He took a risk by lying like this, but he severely doubted the man’s intentions at this point.
“If you knew a magic user, would you point them out? To me?” The man started licking his lower lip. Somehow it seemed that he was keeping the glove on his hand, making it difficult for Merlin to pull off.
“I don’t know any,” he said lightly, “but if I came across one, the right choice is to tell King Uther. He decides what to do.” He tried to make it seem as lighthearted as possible. Both that he would not secretly pass any such information onto King Galorian, and that he was loyal to his own king. And above all, that he wasn’t afraid.
But he was.
“Do not test me. You are in my service and you will obey my will.” The man’s other hand got free and he grabbed Merlin’s wrist. The king’s thumb drew a small circle on Merlin’s skin. “Do I need to share my doubts about your service to King Uther?”
“N-no, of course not, sire,” he said lamely. Where was Arthur?
“Then you have a special task. One that I don’t need anyone else hearing about.” Galorian’s dark eyes stared at him hard and cold.
“You will find out one such magic user. And you will bring him to me.”
Merlin held his breath. What was he asking?
“If you do not comply, I will be able to make life very unpleasant for you. I am not in the habit of seeing my will ignored. Now, will you ignore my will?”
“No, sire.” Merlin tried to tug his hand away, but the king drew it closer.
“Bring me Emrys. Before the tournament is over.”
“W-who?” he stammered. He was instantly sweating and prayed his eyes were not showing his shock.
The king let go of his wrist. “I will have my eye on you, Merlin. Even if I’m not watching. Best remember that.”
“Yes, sire.” He took a step back and King Galorian was all smiles.
“Now, take this off and give me my evening wear.” He held out his hands and Merlin worked shakily to rid the man of his royal clothes and laid out the clothes from the travel bags neatly over the bed.
“You are new to service, aren’t you?” King Galorian pointed out.
“Yes, sire,” he lied again. He would not give him anything.
“You know your word counts for nothing.” It was a simple threat.
“Yes, sire,” he said through gritted teeth. How could this day possibly get any worse? He picked up one of the king’s royal breeches and turned around to assist in dressing the man.
“Kneel,” the king commanded as he approached with the breeches. Merlin knelt and helped Galorian step into them. The man put his hands in Merlin’s hair and gripped. He was pulled forward towards the man’s body, almost directly toward his groin. Merlin tried to pull away as he lifted the king’s breeches quicker than would be thought possible. Some magic might or might not have been involved at that point.
What are you doing? he asked himself. What was the king doing? The man’s hands were still in his hair, gripping at his short locks. He was too shocked to do anything in particular, especially with the compiled threats in his direction.
A knock on the door disturbed Galorian’s attentions and he let go of Merlin abruptly. Merlin stood up and retreated back towards the royal bed where the rest of the man’s clothes were laid out. King Galorian finished lacing his breeches himself and shouted for whoever was at the door to enter.
Holden entered and looked at the situation of the room, then all but glared at Merlin. “I would like to formally invite you to the tournament’s opening. It starts in half an hour. Will that be enough time, sire?”
The last question was added at Merlin’s expense. It made him feel miserable.
“Oh, I would say so. I shall attend. And please request the Lady Morgana to walk me there. She was so pleasant this afternoon.” He gave a sly smile to Holden, who bowed and left.
Merlin offered the king his doublet from behind.
The man uttered a small laugh. “You are not out of any of your obligations, Merlin. You must perform my requests perfectly or you will face the consequences.”
It sickened Merlin to think of what the man meant.
“Tell me about the Lady Morgana,” Galorian ordered.
“She’s the king’s Ward.”
“Something I don’t know yet.”
“Er, she likes jewelry?”
“All ladies do. Are you trying to be difficult here?” The king turned around and grabbed Merlin’s jaw, his fingers clenching into his skin. “Let me look at you proper.”
Merlin looked anywhere but at the man. He smelled the man’s sour breath which indicated that he had been drinking since breakfast and likely had tooth rot as well. He was frightened beyond anything. Nobody would believe his word if he told them. The king would deny it outright. The only one who might believe…
“Tell me something about her.”
“Okay okay,” he said, trying to speak with his jaw being held. “She is a better horse rider than Arthur.”
The king let go and looked at Merlin with disappointment. “That is the best you can come up with? You had better start opening your ears, boy. I know that Emrys resides in these lands and I want him found.”
“I will learn what I can,” he said, taking several steps back.
“Yes you will. Now open that chest.” He pointed at the heavy item which Merlin had lugged up the stairs. Merlin was grateful for the distance created between them. He needed to speak to Arthur now more than anything, about what he’d learned earlier that day and now about this.
A knock came at the door and this time it was Gwen. “Your highness, Lady Morgana is ready to receive you. If you please.” She held the door open for him.
“Leave it.” The king waved Merlin off and put his crown back onto his head. He smiled innocently at Gwen and stepped out. “Take me to her then. Merlin, I want you to serve me hot wine. Be there when I arrive.”
“Yes, sire,” he said with a strange voice. Gwen did not seem to notice and took the lead to take Galorian to wherever Morgana was waiting.
Merlin wasted no time and ran towards the armory, all but tumbling down the stairs. That’s where he had been instructed to take Darren.
He nearly crashed into Sir Kay on the way down, who yelled at him for his clumsiness. He jumped down several steps at a time as me made his way towards the armory, only to find it empty when he got there. Liam stood in the corner, placing two crossbows on a table for cleaning.
“Where is he?”
“Where is who?”
“Arth—Prince Arthur. Which direction did he go?”
“He’s left to attend the opening. It starts in a few minutes I think.”
Merlin panicked and left the stunned squire behind. He ran back up to the kitchens to arrange the wine. He saw Audrey, the head of the kitchen, stressed out of her wits instructing the new staff on how to prepare everything correctly. He gulped and moved around her carefully. If he got off to a bad start with Galorian, he would get punished for it. Whatever the punishment might be, it was probably worse than he could fathom. He was absorbed in his own thoughts and it took Audrey several times to catch his attention and tell him to put the pitchers down before he listened.
He explained that he was nervous because he was suddenly serving a king and Audrey smiled at him, slapped him on the shoulder with her large and ungraceful hand and told him not to worry. After she attempted to cheer him up, he noticed one of the three Northern serving girls entering with a similarly worried look on her face. She was a kitchen maid, he realized.
She regarded him directly and held his gaze for a moment before leaving again. Merlin felt sick. He knew that Galorian’s people would spy on him. Obviously they were instructed. And many of them seemed nervous too, now that he thought about it.
He quietly asked Audrey if she had seen something similar. The cook explained to him in the quietest tone that there was a lot of gossip that Galorian was not at all so gallant as he looked, and that he was quite a brutish king. Also, none of the people really knew what happened to his last manservant. Audrey said, with a gentle grin, that she hoped he had managed to get away.
Merlin thought that she didn’t know how right she was.
“I have to go, thank you.” He picked up the pitchers with only slightly less shaky hands and started running. He was already late, and the wine would likely be cool when he got there. Should he use magic? No, the King was looking for any excuse to find a sorcerer. It would be better to deliver the drink to him lukewarm and face hopefully mild punishment, rather than face the other persecution.
And should he tell the king anything about Emrys? Warn him of the warlock’s great power, and that this person could not be dismissed so easily? No, it would be better not to say anything at all and play dumb. The trumpeting ended and Merlin hadn’t reached the stand yet. He ran faster and some of the wine sloshed over the edges.
At the podium he was stopped by Holden who told him everything had already started.
Merlin caught his breath. “King Galorian has demanded wine. I must bring it.”
“You took all this time to bring wine?”
“He demanded heated wine. I came as fast as I could,” he stated, matter-of-factly. Holden was clearly debating Merlin’s capacity to mess up even the simplest task. “I cannot offend his majesty!” Merlin said at last. At this, Holden moved to the side and Merlin ran up the stairs.
“Don’t make a spectacle!” Holden hissed after him.
Merlin took a deep breath and steadied himself, appearing from behind a curtain and filled King Galorian’s goblet with wine.
“You are late,” the king said.
With those three words, Merlin felt as if he had been sentenced. And still he could not see Arthur anywhere. He was not at the podium, nor on the field. He wouldn’t be hiding in the crowd so he must be at his tent. And it was impossible to go to Arthur’s tent now. Merlin said nothing to the king and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as the tournament’s opening ceremony began and the various candidates spilled onto the field.
King Galorian’s various knights and his personal favorite champion, Sir Carsen, were introduced at length. Then Camelot’s participating knights came forward and Arthur was the very last one to step onto the field. Merlin held his breath and felt an impossible need for Arthur. One he would have to stifle away.
He regarded only Arthur as the names were announced, and he mechanically poured more wine. The only moment he broke away was when King Galorian turned away from his discussion with Uther to regard his manservant. At that point, Merlin’s interest was vaguely settled in the crowd, directed at no one in particular. The king turned back to his various discussions and Merlin looked for Arthur again. He had the feeling that Arthur returned the gaze, but with the helmet it was impossible to say for certain.
With the utmost frustration he saw Arthur leave the field again, walking straight to Darren and handing him his helmet. Arthur smiled at the boy and laughed at something he said.
Unfairly, Merlin instantly hated the boy.
As soon as King Uther stood up, indicating that it was time to retreat back into the citadel and change clothes for dinner, Merlin disappeared behind the panel before King Galorian could approach him for anything. He couldn’t stand him. Galorian made him feel weak. He needed to speak to someone about his predicament. Gaius perhaps. Or Arthur. Maybe even the Great Dragon.
Instead, he ran into Gwen in the hallway. She smiled at him and looked around nervously before she took his arm and pulled him into a corridor.
“Merlin, I need to ask you something,” she said in a high pitch.
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s… good grief, are you alright?” She looked at him as if she had only just noticed he was there.
“Fine, really. I’ve got a lot of work on my shoulders, that’s all.” He smiled at her despite himself.
“Oh no, I won’t bother you then.”
“Gwen, what is it? If it’s important, perhaps I can help.”
Guinevere hesitated and bit her lip. Several servants were bustling past carrying parcels, food, washed clothing, tapestries, bed stuffing, candles, and all sorts of things. One or two looked down the corridor at them oddly before moving on. Gwen seemed genuinely ill at ease. “I’ve just heard servants talking. One of them heard someone mention, someone from King Galorian’s household—" she paused as someone else walked past. “He used to have a court sorcerer, Merlin. Until recently. Nobody knows what happened.”
“I didn’t hear anything about that. Are you sure?”
“Well, they didn’t say much. I don’t know anything else yet. Do you think it’s important?”
“Very. Oh Gwen, I don’t like this at all.”
“I know! I don’t either. They’re a horrible bunch. Have you seen those three maids who are always gossiping together? Really I—" she stopped. Her dark eyes met Merlin’s innocently, but her countenance had changed. Without moving her lips, she breathed, “We are watched. Got to go.” And within a moment she was out of his sight.
Merlin frowned, he hadn’t even had time to relay a message to Arthur, or even to Morgana. Or anyone for that matter. He walked back into the corridor and saw many faces, some known, some not. All were hard at work and none paid attention to him. Yet he knew that someone was watching and King Galorian’s threat was not an idle one.
Arthur laughed at Darren’s fumbling with the morning star. “No, see you’ve got to move with its weight. Let it swing for you, it’s not a stick.” They were in Arthur’s tent and had been practicing with several weapons that were now strewn all over the place.
The young boy had taken to him quickly and was eager to learn. He had a focus to him and a thirst for battle that Arthur liked to see in new recruits. The boy had only made some small mistakes when putting on his armor, but Arthur had concluded that the Northerners wore their pauldrons slightly differently to theirs and had let the boy correct himself on the spot.
“I want to be as strong as you,” Darren said and beamed at Arthur.
“It doesn’t happen by itself, you know. Discipline is the most important factor in this, and nobility. You are of a royal family so you must always act with care. Your behavior off the battlefield is as important as on it.” The boy nodded eagerly and took it all in. Arthur was used to training the young family members of local nobles and many expressed their honor in being chosen to be trained as knights. Not all of them were particularly suited for it though, despite their family’s wishes when they were sent here. This boy, Arthur decided, would make a great knight right away. And he didn’t complain as much as Merlin.
Arthur thought about Merlin for a moment as the boy continued to practice his swinging. He’d assumed that Merlin was fine with the new appointment at King Galorian’s side. If he wasn’t, he’d expected the other to complain about it mercilessly to him one way or another. He would have had word by now. And of course Darren was only assisting Arthur during the day. George would fill in for the rest of the duties. How dull his evenings would be.
“Yes, that’s it. Much better. Now, again and steady your feet.”
He thought back to Merlin on the podium. How he’d stared at him. For a brief moment he had been acutely aware of everything Merlin had said to him in the last few days. It overshadowed all the instructions his father had given him leading up to the tournament, and it blotted out all of Leon’s words of wisdom and even Morgana’s recent teases. Merlin considered it his job to protect him. And he had seemed out of sorts.
It wasn’t something he could easily describe. Merlin was too careful when it came to these things and he hadn’t been paying any special attention in the last year to his servant’s actions or expressions. Why should he? However, if Merlin thought that anyone would be a danger to him, he would let him know.
He looked at Darren. Impossible. Darren was just a boy and seemed to revere Arthur. That was nothing new to Arthur, of course. He ventured some questions. “What’s it like back home? Do you get to train with your cousins, Galorian’s sons?”
Darren stopped swinging and put the weapon down. “No, he had only one son who died young. But I train with the other knights sometimes. They spoil me though. Not like you.”
“Oh, you will certainly be put to the test here,” he grinned and the boy grinned with him.
“So why did your uncle travel without a manservant? Surely on a journey of this scale it would be highly inconvenient.”
Darren’s attitude changed and he shrugged. “I don’t know. He just did.”
And there it was. Cause for concern. Arthur looked around at the mess of weapons and the old shield which had been receiving Darren’s concentrated blows. There was nobody else around as many people had already gone inside to change. Arthur was stalling and now he assumed he could make good use of it.
“What was his name?” he ventured.
The boy looked at him with surprise and started to speak. “I can’t say.”
Arthur laughed. “Why not? Surely a man who served your king should be known to you.”
Darren shuffled his feet. “He died. I’m not allowed to talk about him.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. Well, let’s see how Merlin is getting on then, shall we?” He picked up the pile of gear and shoved it into Darren’s arms. The boy looked nervous still but Arthur patted him on the shoulder. “It will be alright.”
“I’m told I cannot disturb uncle. Can I wait in the entrance hall instead?” His big eyes almost pleaded.
Arthur nodded at the boy. He was the royal nephew after all and could not be denied total ease during his stay. He dismissed the thought from his mind that Darren could possibly be ordered to harm him in any way. He shifted his attentions instead to the knights, particularly their champion, Sir Carsen. He was a tall man. The biggest eye-catcher was the man’s very long, very unkempt red beard. His exercises on the field today displayed brute strength, but it would likely make him slow when it came to agility.
He continued pondering about Merlin on the way back to the castle after sending Darren off to the armory. Once inside, he was nearly cornered by Gaius who told him it would be most important and urgent to meet his father in his private chambers right away.
“Yes, of course. Has anything happened?”
“No, but we should hear it presently,” Gaius said mysteriously, and Arthur didn’t press. It was twice as busy as normal in the castle and anything they discussed might be picked up along the way. He wondered why his father was not using the council chambers, but assumed that it might be seen as a slight to Sir Galorian to be discussing matters of state during festivities. So he followed quietly.
tCrossing the hallway, he saw a glimpse of Merlin, who was carrying a stack of linen in the direction of the southern wing where their guests were staying. He wanted to call out to him, but thought it may be inappropriate. He followed Gaius instead.
Inside King Uther’s private chambers Holden held the door for them. Geoffrey, Sir Leon, and George were already waiting. King Uther sat in his chair next to the window and rubbed a gloved hand up and down his chin. Holden ordered the eight guards outside the door to not let anyone close, then locked it closed. They could then begin discussing.
“Holden, your account please,” Uther said with surly voice.
“Sire, it has come to light from the servant’s quarters, though they are extremely tight-lipped about any sort of magic use, that King Galorian has until recently kept a court sorcerer. It was not a well-known fact by his political alliances, but the staff members were aware.”
“Could this be? I thought they abolished magic years ago,” Gaius said incredulously.
“It could have been done in secret,” Geoffrey added.
“What is the point of having an appointed member of state, if they do not operate on stately business?” Gaius wondered.
“These questions are unknown to me. What is most pressing is that whoever it is, may now be here within Camelot,” Uther distilled.
After a deep silence Arthur was the first to speak. “If his staff members were aware, they could point him out. Holden, can you investigate?”
“Not without offending King Galorian,” Holden said matter-of-factly. Uther also understood the delicacy of the situation. An accusation in this manner after both parties had accepted the terms of magic use within Camelot would be an affront if proven unjust.
“Yes. We need to find more information first. Have the staff report to you. Arthur, I want you to increase the number of guards stationed at your door at night. Nobody is to enter.”
“Not even anyone from our own household?” Arthur asked.
“George may, of course, attend to your services,” Uther said. It was not what Arthur had meant.
“Then I advise to do the same for Morgana. She was not invited into this council meeting, but she has received special attention and might be better off with extra protection as well.”
“Make it so.” The king waved a dismissive hand toward Holden, who left.
“Wait,” Arthur stopped when Holden had just unlocked the door. “What about Merlin?” Gaius turned to look at Arthur with a brow raised. Uther gave Arthur a look of extreme tiredness.
“What about him? He is occupied by the King and is best left in the man’s service. If we extract him now, it will raise the worst sort of suspicion. He must be avoided at all cost,” Holden said, looking at Uther instead of Arthur. The king nodded his consent.
“Surely he gets to—"
“He is just a servant, Arthur. Right now is not the time for concern.”
Arthur disagreed vehemently on the inside. This was exactly the time for concern. “Yes, father.” He was going to disobey him, and so soon after finding out about Merlin. No, perhaps he shouldn’t. It was too soon and too dangerous. This time, he could not interfere.
The preparations for dinner had been the calmest moment of his day, which was in stark contrast to of all the other servants who were working hard around him. He had worked as hard as any of the other servants arranging the various tables, lighting candles, and bringing dishes before all of the guests arrived. He did not speak to anyone and instead kept his ears peeled.
There was an increasing hubbub along the corridors about situations in the the kingdom of Foltaig. Enemies they were facing, famous bandits who got sympathies from some and disdain from others. Nothing that was of value to Merlin. He learned that Arthur was very pleased with his new squire and gossip started that Darren might be left at Camelot in a permanent placement.
It was just gossip, Merlin tried to convince himself. Surely he could not be so easily replaced. His entire being told him to escape and to talk to someone about his concerns. What if Arthur wasn’t safe?
And what if he was in danger because he was Emrys? He had never understood how this other name was spread so far and wide and he had no notion of it until his arrival at Camelot. Apparently it reached far and wide beyond the Northern borders and didn’t fail to raise interest even there. Emrys resided within Camelot, this was known. Of course, Camelot was large enough to keep anyone’s identity hidden. Any information Merlin would find for King Galorian could be misinformation or incomplete. And any falsehoods would result in punishment.
“Merlin!” Holden called out his name as he was overseeing the placement of all the dinner plates. The man looked as stressed as he was. “You’ve got the order wrong, Sir Carsen goes here, Sir Leon sits over on that side. Pay attention!”
“Yes. Of course.” He was nearly thankful for the distraction from his dark thoughts.
“Word has come to us that King Galorian is already displeased with your attitude. You’ll have to work harder at this, Merlin. I know Arthur jokes around, but Galorian is a king and will not be disappointed.”
His gratitude waned away. “Yes, I will do all I can,” he said with a voice lighter than he felt.
“Then go dress him for dinner. He has been waiting!”
The hour of terror for Merlin arrived and he nodded to Holden, rushing down the hall. His heart thudded in his chest. He knew that that man was waiting for him, not just to dress him for dinner. He would have to report and serve him any way the man wanted. He knocked on the door to Galorian’s chambers and entered.
“Ah there you are, boy.” The man was all smiles. “I had started to suspect you might have fled.” He put his hands on both sides of Merlin’s face, holding his cheeks. “But you already know you can’t.” There was a mean curl on the man’s lip.
“Sire, would you like to get dressed for dinner?”
King Galorian chuckled lightly and lowered his hands. Before Merlin realized what was happening, the king was gripping his throat and squeezing tight. “You will not presume anything. You will speak when spoken to.”
Merlin nodded in fright and mentally strained against his hands moving up to try to pry those fingers away from his throat. After several seconds the king let go and he could breathe again.
“First and foremost, I will hear what you have to tell me about the sorcerer. Speak up.”
Merlin cleared his throat. “The name is unknown, sire. To the staff. To our staff.”
“Unsatisfactory!” Galorian yelled at him.
“I don’t know anything about this sorcerer, I don’t know what to ask...” he ventured.
“He resides here, you useless goose! He is foretold and he is supposed to be mighty powerful.” The man licked his lips grossly and rubbed his ringed hands together.
“You haven’t had enough power to know what it’s like. You are supposed to find him and bring him to me!”
“I’ve hardly had any time!” Merlin protested. “I wish to serve you, sire. Please, I beg you, give me more time.”
“If you don’t, I will start punishing the others around you. I know who you speak with. I know exactly who you hold in high esteem. Don’t think that I won’t find out if you have been slacking. You will see the consequences and you will know that it’s all your fault.”
Merlin looked down at the ground. It was impossible to say whether the man’s threat was idle or not. He could not let this happen to anyone else. This man’s cruel vice on him was bad enough. If only he could ensure that his treatment wouldn’t allow for anyone else to suffer. He would just have to endure it. “I will work harder!”
A twinkle sparked in the corner of Galorian’s eyes and he was appeased for the moment. “Come to me immediately when you learn more.”
“Yes, sire.” His gut was knotted. Tonight he would definitely go out and ask someone. After the man had gone to sleep.
“Now, I will be dressed.”
Merlin walked over to the man’s large chest that held his belongings and set to work to empty it, carefully placing each item into the guest room cupboard. The thought of this man with a court sorcerer, as Gwen had told him, frightened him. If Galorian was familiar with the ways of magic, then he knew what to watch for. “What would you like to wear?”
“The dark red, the one with the pearls.”
Merlin bent over into the chest to pick up the doublet the king had indicated. When he leaned back to get up, the man was behind him. The king leaned in over Merlin and put a hand on his back to keep him from standing up. Galorian’s hips touched Merlin’s in a slow grind. Merlin clenched his teeth and struggled not to resist. Disgust flowed through him as the king’s intentions were entirely clear. He felt the man’s obvious desire starting up, pressing against his thigh.
“Don’t stop now,” the man purred down at Merlin. As Merlin grabbed the doublet he noticed something heavy folded within weighed it down. At that moment Galorian grabbed his hip and the horrified warlock dropped the whole thing. “Watch it!”
As Merlin started to apologize a fist to his side knocked him straight over. He fell down beside the chest with the king glaring over him.
“You will be more careful with my belongings. Now if I need to make an excuse as to why I am late, it will be on your head. Hurry up!”
Merlin took a deep breath and set his resolve. He locked all his fears and pain, as well as his disgust and shame away into the familiar enclosures within him, such as where his pride and acknowledgement hid away, deep inside. He climbed to his feet again and shook the doublet so that whatever was inside would not be picked up as well. He was successful and heard a clunk down below in the chest.
He raised the material in front of the king who extended his arms to put it on. Merlin pulled the entire affair over his head and down around the man’s waist. He could smell the king’s rank breath and stains of old sweat as he worked so close. All the while, he was conscious of the man’s eyes on him, and he took care not to answer that gaze. The king might think him petrified and was obviously taking pleasure from that.
What that man did not know was that Merlin found his strength in this situation. His regard for himself was not that high, and the extent to which he would go to ensure the safety of others was not something King Galorian could fathom. As he fastened the man’s cuffs and buttoned up the last material all the way up to his chin and handed him his crown, he did so without spirit, as was expected.
Inside he burned.
The King seemed immensely satisfied with Merlin’s meekness and ordered him to follow him towards the throne room to the feast. He passed many people in the hall and marked them all though he did not look at any of them. He ignored Gwen’s small greeting as well as several others he knew. For all their concern, he was taking his job seriously. It would implicate fewer staff for Galorian to target.
They entered the throne room and King Galorian walked straight up to the dais and took his seat. Merlin walked along the side of the wall, avoiding King Uther and even Prince Arthur’s gaze and stood behind the king’s throne, ready to serve after the opening of the feast. People were still entering. The Lady Morgana wore a beautiful white dress which showed off her figure and Galorian made a remark of appreciation towards Uther.
Merlin was abhorred with the ease that this man lied about his affections.
To make matters worse, Darren had been given a seat at Arthur’s right hand at the table and they were chatting away merrily. This had been a most terrible day. Fortunately, the meals seemed to occupy both kings quite effectively. Merlin served food and wine and did so without saying anything but ‘Yes, sire’ and ‘No, sire.’ He even received a look which bordered on appreciation from Holden.
During one moment when the kings were in deep discussion, he walked over to Gaius. “I need to speak with Arthur. Tonight. Invite him to your workshop.”
Gaius smiled at him innocently. “He’s fine, Merlin. Look at him.”
“Please, Gaius. This once, no questions.”
The physician looked up at him with a look of pure surprise. The only fortunate thing was that they were turned away from the dais.
Merlin smiled at Gaius pleasantly in case anyone was watching. “There’s trouble. Please.”
At once Gaius understood the urgency and he nodded. King Galorian was just turning to look. “Why, of course, my boy,” his master acknowledged.
Merlin bowed at Gaius and retreated to Galorian’s side, checking to see if he needed to be served more wine. Merlin made sure to top Galorian’s goblet up as much as possible. The king did not mention anything and perhaps the small discussion with Gaius had gone entirely unnoticed. Merlin searched for Holden in order to refill his pitchers but couldn’t see him in the room. Arthur was pleasantly engaged with Darren and had avoided Merlin the entire night. Hopefully that would change later.
The evening went on without any further events and it was close to midnight when Galorian decided to retreat to his chambers. King Galorian was entirely drunk and Merlin had rarely felt the need to be thankful to Uther for anything until this evening.
Unbeknownst to the King of Camelot, he had potentially saved Merlin’s life that night. At the very least his dignity. Galorian went quietly to his bed and sunk into a dirty drunken sleep within minutes after Merlin had taken off his crown, belt, jewels, and clothes. He hadn’t even been awake long enough to properly put on a night shirt. Merlin did not fight it. He would face whatever consequences might come from that in the morning.
His limbs could hardly carry him any further after the nerve-wracking day he had, but once everything was cleaned and sorted for the next morning, and with nothing for King Galorian to complain about, Merlin finally reached Gaius’s workroom at midnight. Gaius was alone.
“Did you ask him?”
“Yes, I did. Come, Merlin. Sit down.”
“Why isn’t he here then?” he demanded impatiently.
“I have also heard of some troubles, I’m afraid. This time from some people in town.”
Merlin stalked through the room. He couldn’t fit the pieces together. There was so much missing. And where was—
The door opened and Merlin spun around. There was Arthur, unaccompanied. He looked at Merlin with a frown. “Have you any idea what it took to get away? There are twelve guards stationed at my door tonight.”
All of a sudden Merlin was too anxious to explain the full situation to Arthur. He paced around the room and his hands were in his hair. If Arthur had been given additional guards, then what was King Galorian after? And if the topic would shift to magic… Gaius still didn’t know that Arthur knew.
“What’s up with him?” Arthur scoffed at Gaius, pointing at Merlin. He sat down next to Gaius at the table and watched Merlin’s huff in amusement.
“Merlin, why don’t you start to explain why we are here?” Gaius offered.
“It’s the king. There is something terrible…” Everything on the inside came tumbling out now that he was surrounded by friendly faces. He felt like shouting, crying, and running away all at once. He saw their curious faces and stopped pacing. “King Galorian. He is looking for a sorcerer within Camelot. He’s looking for one specifically, and if I don’t bring him information he will see me punished.”
“You’ve been punished before, surely,” Arthur said.
Merlin thought of the stocks. “No. No.”
“Word from servants who were in town reached my ears. It seems that Galorian is a particularly cruel king. He has a history of torture and… other means,” Gaius offered Merlin a way out of that which he could not say. Merlin was grateful for the physician’s piercing senses.
Arthur looked up then. “You’re not talking about his court sorcerer?”
Merlin sat down opposite Arthur. “No, he’s looking for one in particular. He gave me his name.” He looked down. Gaius put an encouraging hand on his arm.
“Well, what is his name?” Arthur asked. “And does he reside here, do you know?”
Merlin only shook his head. “I know who it is. But I can’t say anything.” He twisted his way between the two men helping him. He was certain that Gaius understood him completely.
The old man shook his head. “The word given is that he has tortured magic users frequently. It seems he was after some information and, quite possibly, it could have been about the whereabouts of this particular sorcerer.”
Arthur bit his lip. He added in a steady, threatening voice. “If you are abiding someone within Camelot…” Merlin understood that he had to threaten him. He was not ready to confront Gaius with Arthur’s knowledge, or he would have done so already.
Gaius’s keen eyes moved back and forth between the two.
“Darren is afraid of him too, I know that much.” Arthur shifted the topic. “But when I ask him to talk about his uncle, the boy only sings his praise.”
Merlin hated the fact that Arthur was so observant of the boy’s particular attentions. That squire had effectively been the convenient reason that Merlin was in his predicament. “The servants too,” he added. “They are afraid. They avoid discussing anything related to magic openly, but discuss it frequently when they think nobody is listening.”
“I’m afraid you must learn of something else tonight too,” Gaius said slowly. “Just this evening a group of these servants were interrogated in town by several of Camelot’s guards. The particular topic was sorcery.”
“What?!” Arthur shouted. “This is strictly forbidden. It goes against the agreement made with King Galorian.”
“I do not know who is behind it. All I know is that we need to be extra cautious. Now that the bond of trust is faded, they will equally be trying to listen in on us.”
“There are already spies sent to follow me.” Merlin hung his head.
“I think it’s those three kitchen maids, they’re always together.”
“What on earth are they spying on you for?” Arthur asked in disbelief.
“To see if I make a mistake. If I do, the king will execute punishment in person.” He could not meet Arthur’s eyes. He stared at the table, hard. “And there is nothing I can say to stop serving him. If I remove myself from his service, it would aggravate him further. And he would…”
“I’m afraid you cannot stop serving him, Merlin, though it pains me to say it,” Gaius said. “Just be sure not to reveal anything related to any sorcery just yet. Go on, it’s time to sleep.”
Merlin looked defeated. “You need to help me, Gaius.”
“If there is anything I can do, I will do it. But at this moment my hands are tied as much as yours.”
Merlin shook his head. He did not know how to clarify his predicament any further without painting a picture of extreme disgust before Arthur. It could not be done.
“I’ll find out what I can,” Arthur said. He noticed Merlin’s distress keenly and was not at all appeased with this evening’s conversation. Merlin even less so. He was grateful for Arthur’s presence there, even if it was only for a moment. The prince bid the others good night and left quickly. Their meeting had not been long and his absence would go unmarked. Merlin hoped it with every fiber in his being.
Merlin looked up at Gaius. “You understand.”
“I don’t fully understand. Tell me, he is looking for Emrys, yes? But he does not know where to find him.”
“And his torture, it goes beyond that.”
He nodded again.
A dark shadow set on Gaius’s face. He had seen it before, that much was clear. And he had dreaded the day he would see it again. “I can only give you something for the pain.”
“No.” Merlin got up from the table. “No, thank you, Gaius.” If anything, that made it worse.
“Then let’s hope the day will bring its own distractions to the court.” Gaius bowed his head and with that, Merlin escaped up into his small room for a night of uneasy sleep.
Arthur’s morning started pleasantly with a solid breakfast and Darren waiting for him in the entrance hall to start their training. The knights were energetic and the weather was good. The dark cloud inside Arthur’s mind had everything to do with last night’s conversation. He performed all his duties as were expected of him and yet he could not let something go. It seemed lately that he was at a loss regarding Merlin. He knew what the man was, he knew what he could do. And yet, last night he’d spent several hours before he was able to sleep, recalling their conversation. Until it hit him. Merlin was scared. Beyond his wits.
It was not something he was able to shake off. It went beyond the duty to his people although he couldn’t explain why. Merlin was his friend, and he was scared desperately about what was happening. So while he pummeled a large mace against the shield of one of the Northern knights, he was still trying to put the pieces together. He was interrupted when it seemed that more than one person was shouting at him.
“Prince Arthur!” Darren ran up to him. “Please sire, you are wanted immediately. Holden has been placed under arrest. They’re in the council chambers.”
Arthur dumped his mace and shield in Darren’s hands and followed one of Camelot’s servants inside. “Tell me everything you know.”
“Sire?” the young woman asked. She was a girl in her teens with blonde curly hair.
“Everything, until we get to the council.”
“I only know word-of-mouth, sire.” She meant gossip.
“Then share it.” They marched through the hallway and he took care to distinguish Camelot's servants from the others as he walked. “Quickly now.”
“Oh, some of our guards cornered King Galorian’s servants in town. They were asked many questions. A-about magic, sire. I think about ten people were questioned. They formalized a complaint which the King has brought forward.”
“Were any sorcerers mentioned?” Arthur asked pointedly while they walked.
“Just one. The king had a sorcerer once, who lived at court. But he’s dead, they say.”
Dead. Then the sorcerer was definitely not in Camelot. At least not that one. “Anyone else?”
“No, sire. Though there was some talk about someone called Nimueh. They said she was a court sorceress once.”
Arthur stopped. “She was what?”
“I don’t know. She served a king, I suppose?”
“They didn’t say.”
“But Nimueh is dead, surely?” Arthur pressed.
“I don’t know, sire.”
Arthur grabbed her by the arms and the poor girl turned pale. “Do you know of any magic users inside Camelot?”
She shook her head. “No, sire. Or I would report them to get Holden out. He’s done us a service, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Arthur let her go and nodded. “Thank you for your words.” She scuttled off to return to her duties, and Arthur turned towards the council chambers.
“…absolutely scandalous!” King Galorian’s voice echoed through the hallway. Arthur took a deep breath and pushed both doors open as he entered. The council had gathered already; made up of his father, Geoffrey, Gaius, Sir Leon, Sir Carsen, and several other knights. Holden was absent. So was Merlin, Arthur noticed.
“I agree entirely. The agreement which was given at the start stands and should never have been broken. We are investigating at this very moment,” King Uther said calmly, standing opposite King Galorian.
“I highly doubt Holden went out by himself to investigate.”
“I did not order this, Galorian. You would do well to remember.” King Uther, the only man who could threaten the Northern king, leaned forward as he said so and it had some impact.
“You are not in control of your staff, sire. It is painfully obvious from my point of view.”
That word, Arthur noticed. Control.
“What are the exact accounts?” Uther asked, and Geoffrey rolled out the report and started to read. It spoke of a group of twenty or so guards who had been sent into town in the late hours to find if any of King Galorian’s people were at that moment in town inquiring after magic use. The word went that there might be a magic user among Galorian’s people—at that, Galorian scoffed in disbelief—and various efforts were invoked during interrogation to try and find out if any of them were the culprit. No arrests were made, but the word spread and the guards were questioned. One guard pointed at Holden for the task given as he was Camelot’s steward.
“I can scarcely believe it,” Uther said. “He raised his concerns with me before, but taking action was expressly forbidden.”
Arthur regarded his father. At that very moment he knew that Uther had expressly ordered Holden to do exactly that. Holden was taking the fall for his father’s inquiries. How often had this happened before, he wondered? “Has he admitted to it?” Arthur asked. He refrained from mentioning Nimueh because he knew how this name distressed his father.
“Fully,” Geoffrey said. “It seems his mind was not at rest and he claims that he thought only of his king’s safety.”
Arthur knew where he heard such words before. “Then what will his sentence be?”
King Uther thought long about that and all eyes were on him. The man knew this. At length he answered. “As nobody was hurt, Holden will spend a night in jail to consider his actions.”
King Galorian was outraged. “A night in jail? He should be hanged for defying you! Flogged at the very least.”
“Are you questioning my rule within my own castle walls? I would caution you to consider otherwise. I have known Holden long and this is a behavior unknown to me. He will be questioned further and if anything else comes to light, it will be put to trial.”
Again, Arthur found that Galorian was silenced by his father’s words. He admired him for his unwavering attitude and his steady voice. All the while as King Uther didn’t even know that Galorian was searching for a sorcerer right within Camelot too.
Then it hit him.
He was searching for Merlin. That’s why he was so scared. The Northern king had Merlin out looking for himself and Merlin couldn’t possibly turn himself in.
“…Arthur?” Sir Leon bumped his elbow.
“Both kings are starting the interrogations now. Do you wish to join?”
“No, I should return to the field. After all, this is in essence a festive occasion and I do not see that the many noble knights should not be entertained.”
His father smiled at him and nodded. “You are right, of course.”
As he left the room his head spun with the many consequences. His father was left without a manservant now, something he could deal with but which wasn’t favorable in light of all of Foltaig's servants bustling about the castle.
Secondly, it was never confirmed whether or not a sorcerer had traveled with King Galorian. Although it seemed more and more that such a person was the very servant Darren had been so reluctant to talk about. King Galorian’s manservant. The court sorcerer in the North. He was certain that they were one and the same.
And now he wanted Merlin. Or he wanted someone. Merlin had been given a name to find, which obviously wasn’t his own name. Perhaps there was another. Someone Merlin was protecting. Had he lied to him again?
His thoughts turned to Holden. His fate seemed unclear. King Galorian was ready to have the man’s head for questioning his servants. But he knew there were spies among them as well. Some spying on Merlin, perhaps some spying on others within Camelot. It was a dirty affair.
He had no more time to think. Merlin would probably be busy all day anyway. Kept away from any affairs that mattered. He walked outside and saw Darren in the distance. The boy waved at him and he waved back. To his fortune Gwen was just passing him by. He grabbed her by the arm.
“Ow!” she protested.
“Gwen, I’m sorry this is important. Tell Merlin he is to meet me at the eastern tower after his duties, at midnight. It must be a secret to everyone else. No servants either from Camelot or from King Galorian may know.”
“Yes, I understand. Don’t squeeze, please.”
He let go of her arm. “Gwen, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can see you’re stressed. I’ll deliver your message if I can. And if I cannot, I will let you know.”
“What do you mean if you cannot?”
“Nobody has seen Merlin all morning,” she answered curiously. It was rather odd that Arthur had not heard about that. But then again, these were very busy days. “I’m sure he’ll pop up later,” she added.
“Right. And thanks!” he shouted after her as she resumed her work. If it wasn't for this stupid tournament he could assist with the investigations. He could find out where Merlin was and if he was in danger. “Ridiculous,” he said to himself. His concern was getting out of hand. For the rest of the afternoon he resolved to concentrate on training the noblemen in the ways of battle.
In light of the recent arrest there was no feast that night. The lords ate privately in their chambers and the corridors were quiet after hours. Arthur had not drunk, despite George’s insistence, and he had ordered the manservant to look after his father instead.
Without George’s knowledge he had followed him towards the eastern tower where his father resided and he stood in the shadows waiting for Merlin to show. Gwen had not knocked on his door all evening and he had to assume that her message was delivered.
It took twenty long minutes, but at last Merlin was there, walking casually along the hallway as if he was not just secretly meeting up with the prince. For a moment, Arthur wondered just how good Merlin was at hiding in plain sight. The answer became apparent as he turned the corner and all but bumped into Arthur.
Merlin’s demeanor changed and he ducked into the shadows behind Arthur. Not before the prince noted a large red bruise on his cheek.
“What’s this?” he asked with authority.
Merlin moved a step back, out of the light. “Nothing, sire.”
Arthur felt sick. Already the very things Merlin was afraid of were showing. “Did you get away safely?”
“For a short while,” he said. Merlin looked around and Arthur noticed more bruises just above the scarf around his neck.
“Holden has been arrested, have you heard?”
“Just bits and pieces. Do you think he did it?”
“Yes, and on my father’s orders most likely.” Though it pained him to speak the words aloud, he was certain of it.
“You can’t know that.”
“Yes I can, Merlin.”
“What if it was planned so that Holden would be away.” Merlin pointed up the stairs at the door to King Uther’s private chambers. Several guards were stationed outside but apart from that there was no special precaution.
“That’s why I’m here. Waiting to see.” He assumed whoever was behind it would show.
“Do you think your father specifically planned it so that King Galorian would reveal his intentions?”
Arthur stared at Merlin. He had not thought that far ahead. “Yes, obviously.” He gave Merlin a dubious look.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Merlin said.
Arthur was stumped for words but gave Merlin a pat on the shoulder to which he winced. For a reason he could not describe, he physically felt Merlin’s pain at that moment, and what he was undergoing and how powerless everyone was to change the situation. “I’m going to get you out of this, Merlin. You have to believe me.”
The sorcerer glared at him. “You must not. Everything depends on you and me being in our places and finding out what’s actually going on.”
“Your place is by my side,” Arthur said. He was not at all prepared for the look of gratitude Merlin gave him. Merlin was saying no but everything else Arthur saw was communicating yes.
“What else have you learned?” Merlin asked, changing the subject.
“That he used to have a manservant who is now dead. And most likely a sorcerer too,” Arthur watched as Merlin swallowed an answer to that. I’m not going to let that happen to you! He couldn’t say it out loud, but he felt it. He knew Merlin felt it too when their eyes met.
“Anything else?” Merlin broke the awkward silence at last.
“Someone said Nimueh was a court sorcerer, that she served—"
“Shh!” Merlin interrupted. Moments later Arthur heard the footsteps too.
Their echoes sounded louder and one of the three kitchen maids from the twitchy group of King Galorian’s bunch turned the corner toward them. She had a bandage on her arm, most likely from being “interrogated” the evening before by Holden’s authority.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur stopped her. The girl looked up at the two of them with a small gasp. Before Arthur fully understood what happened, the girl presented Merlin, not Arthur, a small package. It was wrapped in a decorated dark blue linen cloth and contained a foot long braid of red hair.
“Hide it from the King. It should go to Em—"
The moment that Merlin opened his mouth to ask a question more footsteps were heard. The girl’s eyes widened and she snatched the package back and kept on walking. She left around the corner without another word.
Arthur had noticed her distress too and turned the other corner towards the advancing footsteps. “Who goes there?” The two of them heard only a scurrying of feet in the opposite direction, hidden by the darkness that the night brought. It seemed that whoever was following the woman had been caught in the act and had run away. Arthur moved to follow but he heard Merlin’s gasp behind him. He spun back to see Merlin more distressed even than the previous night. He looked into his blue eyes which were filled with terror.
“She knows.” It was all Arthur said.
She knew who the sorcerer was King Galorian wanted and she had selected Merlin to do the job. Or she had discovered that he was the one they were after. Merlin covered his hand with his mouth. For the first time, Arthur fully comprehended the effects of his father’s merciless persecution. How much Merlin had had to hide from the world. Everything about it felt wrong.
“Perhaps,” Arthur said, “she doesn’t know, perhaps she is not under his control. Perhaps the other one I chased off was.” Merlin didn’t answer him, he was simply shaking. Arthur stepped forward and put his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, trying to meet his eyes. He couldn’t stand to see Merlin broken like this. But Merlin would not stop shaking.
Arthur didn’t know how he could make this right for Merlin. He couldn’t stand to see that misery on his face and he abandoned all propriety and drew Merlin into his arms. He held Merlin close to him, feeling the other’s shivers against his chest. He was powerless to change Merlin’s situation, but he could give him this comfort. After several moments Merlin’s hands clung to his sides, then snaked up his back. Arthur relished in feeling Merlin’s warmth against him. He would do anything to help him, he knew that now. “I will find a way to get you out of this,” he promised against Merlin’s ear, and he felt Merlin’s grip tighten.
It wasn’t long afterwards that the guard changed in front of Uther’s room and they disentangled. Arthur could not meet Merlin’s gaze and they turned away from each other uneasily, using the bustle of the guard’s footsteps to wordlessly exit the tower and head back to their own rooms for sleep.
Arthur concluded after breakfast that whatever had occurred the previous night, the girl who had brought Merlin the package had not been on King Galorian’s side. He’d spotted Merlin at breakfast in the throne room, looking composed and serving the king specially requested warm dishes. The bruise on his cheek was noticeable. Apart from it, all outward appearances showed nothing out of the ordinary at all. As he puzzled together all the implications, he found himself admiring Merlin’s courage. It was greater than most of his knights possessed.
After that moment, the day was wrought with its own problems. It seemed that they weren’t catching any breaks. The worst part was that that afternoon the first tournament battles would begin and he was part of the opening.
He had been talking to Galorian’s knights and Arthur noticed very markedly that some of the noble men were more at ease talking about their king than others. He discovered that the ones who were happier in their demeanor and genuinely looking forward to the upcoming battles generally knew less about their king or had not been in service that long. One of Galorian’s knights had gone missing entirely.
There was a short, brown-haired knight who had an easy smile. He complained loudly about Holden’s interrogations and bodily searches. “Certain servants just can’t be trusted, either here in Camelot or from our own party.”
“How do you mean that?”
“Well, you never know the nature of those among either, really. The only people you can be certain of are those descendant from noble families.”
“Your meaning, good sir knight?” Arthur pressed.
“We should not have been questioned in the first place!”
“I agree with that,” he smiled at the knight. “On the field, we’ll show our valor where it matters.” He patted the man on the shoulder.
“You miss my meaning, sire,” the man said to him. “There’s one particular pair who is up to no good, see. I’m afraid they’re from our bunch. They should not spend so much time snooping around. It reflects badly on us.”
“And who might that be? I can have our staff look into it if you like.”
“Three kitchen lasses. I’ve seen them walk around like they were up to no good.”
“I believe I know the very ones. Thank you, sir. And do you have anything to share of the other knights attending?”
“Well, Sir Carsen here has expressed that he wouldn’t mind to win the Lady Morgana instead of a pair of handsome jewels.” The man laughed heartily.
“I can safely say King Uther will forbid it. But he’s welcome to dream.”
After their odd conversation, Arthur spent most of his time talking to the knights about the time table coming up and the local customs. He spoke of the weapons, their sequences, and when the winners would be announced so that nobody would be left unaware. Several of Camelot’s knights recounted stories from the past of things going wrong during previous tournaments, to the hearty enjoyment of all men attending. And soon the arrival of King Uther and the other royal members attending were announced. Arthur removed himself from present company to greet his father and Morgana.
Morgana looked beautiful in a deep green colored dress and a black cloak across her shoulders. Silver jewels lined her dress, neck, and even her hair. Arthur walked up to her with a smile.
“Are you ready for a day of watching men bashing their heads together?”
“I’ll watch if your head might be bashed,” she said with a grin.
“You’ll never see that happen.” Arthur put his hands on his hips.
“I already have, and with great pleasure.”
Behind Morgana, at some distance, Arthur saw King Galorian walk up to the podium with Merlin in tow. The bruise on Merlin's cheek stood out against the brightness of midday. No doubt he’d already made up an excuse for it to anyone who asked.
“How is your new squire, Darren? He seems a very eager young lad,” Morgana asked conversationally.
“Oh, he’s great. He has quite some battle knowledge already, and he’s good at sharpening weapons and has keen abilities. Much better than Merlin in that area.”
“Well yes, if you’re raised in a castle instead of the fields.” She gave him a knowing look.
“Yes, yes. What is it you’re saying, Morgana?”
“Nothing, just… your squire is afraid of his king. And Merlin has looked better.”
Once more Morgana’s keen eye surprised him. He looked in the direction that Merlin had taken to enter the podium. “Yes, I’ve noticed it too.”
“Just this morning, Merlin requested a meeting with Gaius from Galorian. He expressly forbade Merlin from meeting his own master.” She raised her eyebrows as if the meaning was clear.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Just…” She struggled for words. “Don’t put too much trust in someone temporary. And don’t share your secrets.”
“Thank you, Morgana.” He nodded at her diplomatic suggestion. “Did you hear that Sir Carsen is quite taken with you?”
“I should hope he would sooner fancy a bath one of these days.” She gave him a hearty laugh and dismissed it.
“Now that I had not noticed, thank you,” Arthur said, somewhat uncomfortable.
“The manners of these Northerners are quite different, or perhaps it’s simply their way to win the tournament.”
They joked some more until King Uther needed Morgana on the podium beside him and Arthur was instructed back to his tent.
It was late afternoon and the first day of fighting was over. Arthur had won all his battles, Merlin was pleased to see. Several other knights proved to be very skilled as well. None of them behaved in a way that indicated intent to endanger Arthur. That much was clear. It was a good day. Except that it wasn’t.
King Galorian had been worse than before. Merlin had bruises all over his back, ribs, and thighs. Merlin’s loose fitting clothes covered all of them, except those near his wrist and just above the show of his neck scarf. No one had asked about it. No one had in fact seen him. Entire days had been spent working through the king’s many requests and demands, and he was kept in the room more often than not. He wasn’t sure whether it was his shame or his pride, at their own opposite ends, which prevented him from showing any pain.
The treatment he received had slowly worn down his defenses and he had been tempted to use magic once or twice to protect himself, but fear had gotten hold of him. He had stood shaking next to Galorian’s bed, his arm twisted around his back and pressed forward over the bed. The king hadn’t executed anything beyond a rough fondle, and it was the only reason Merlin could stand still and serve the man. His words would not be heard by anyone if he did complain. Not by anyone who could change it.
He had no time to visit Arthur and was forbidden from speaking to Gaius entirely. Gwen had been occupied, and even the knights of Camelot had never been without company to secretly divulge some warning to them. Their squires followed them on their heels. Whenever he returned from his errands, the king demanded news on Emrys. He wasn’t asking, and he wasn’t dropping the name anywhere. Any reports that he offered Galorian were fabricated denials of Camelot’s servants having never heard of Emrys. The king looked like he was about to give up, but took it out on Merlin all the more.
And that morning he had woken up in the middle of a dream of Arthur holding him. Arthur’s arms steadying him and his lips against his ear, his breath warm against his neck. And he had awoken with the realization that it had actually happened. It wasn’t a dream. The very memory gave him strength throughout the morning to undergo anything Galorian did to him, and suffer through it. Because he had that at least. Even if he knew that the context was so different from what his dream had turned it into, Arthur had promised to get him out of there somehow. And that mattered more to him than any pride or pain or suffocating abuse.
He had not seen Arthur, who spent most of his time outside in the tent with Darren. It infuriated Merlin that Darren wasn’t slipping up. That he wasn’t dropping any armor or making life generally difficult for Arthur. Darren was doing, by all accounts, a fantastic job. And he was still a kid! It didn’t bother Merlin that he was serving Arthur well, but that it made his own contribution so painfully redundant. In any other situation, George would have attended the prince and Merlin would have been certain that Arthur would have sought him out. As it was, they had not spoken since the previous night outside Uther’s rooms, at the foot of the stairs.
Recalling the moment that Arthur had hugged him stilled his nerves. He clung on to it with his very soul. Tomorrow would be the last day of the tournament, the finals. Surely, that would mean King Galorian would make his way back to his seat in the North the morning after. He would leave none the wiser about Emrys or any active sorcerer in the citadel.
Merlin was convinced that King Uther had to know about the court sorcerer by now. This was probably a good thing, as it would increase wariness in public. Camelot’s servants would be instructed to keep an eye out—even more reason for Merlin not to ask around actively and instead contrive fake reports. It was sustainable even up to leveling to Holden or to the King himself if it came that far. If he needed to tell Uther that he made fake reports, since no inquiries toward the use of magic should be actively supported, he might even make it out with a mere afternoon or two in the stocks for lying to a nobleman.
Someone knew though. Among the three kitchen maids, the most nervous one of the three, with her short brown hair. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew exactly who ought to receive the parcel she’d brought. Not one glance had even been directed at Prince Arthur. And what did she mean with ‘hide it from the king?’ He had so many questions! Perhaps this was the hour of truth the Lady of the Lake had spoken of. There was no way in the world he could be excused to undertake such a journey now. He had to sit this out for another day and he could do so, for Arthur.
If he could survive another night.
His body hurt, but then it had hurt before. He was bruised in more places than he could count and by now he could neither sit, nor lie down on his back, stomach, or his sides without feeling like his body was made out of patches of fire. Nearly every place was sore and there was every promise of more to come.
And it was getting worse. Merlin still had not come up with any information about Emrys. His biggest mistake had been asking King Galorian to find information at Gaius’s workshop. The man had a vast knowledge about sorcery, but the King absolutely did not want Gaius involved, likely for fear that he would speak to Uther about the magical inquiries. Despite the warnings, Merlin decided to do exactly that.
He exited the podium directly after the last battle was done and hurried among the scurry of servants back indoors. He did not mind the call for King Galorian’s cloak to be put back around his shoulders and he ignored George stepping up to do it for him. He would deal with that later.
Once inside, he hurried along the corridors with his empty pitcher until he burst into Gaius’s room without knocking. To his great relief, his master was right there pulverizing some herbs with an old stone pestle and mortar. Despite himself, he took a deep breath as all his emotions came crashing down and when Gaius looked up at who had just entered, he nearly dropped the stone tools from the table and onto his foot. Nearly—if Merlin had not guided them back onto the table with the merest wink.
“Merlin, what on earth—?”
“Gaius, you have to help me.” Merlin got away from the door and put the empty pitcher aside. He pulled a wooden beam over the door frame to lock it against anyone else intruding right this minute.
“You can’t just waltz in here and… there are eyes and ears open everywhere. Word is—"
“I know, Gaius. Please,” he begged his master not to turn his small spell into a big thing for now. To his relief, Gaius noticed his distress and pointed at a bench for Merlin to sit on. Merlin stood, uncertain about the pain it would bring him to sit down.
“Very well, what’s on your mind?”
“I’m not allowed to speak to you. I have only a few minutes. Gaius, King Galorian’s patience is ending. He wants Emrys by tomorrow.”
“Oh this is bad news… How exactly did he come by that name?”
“I don’t know. I believe he may have had a sorcerer serve him before, I think he’s looking for a replacement.” His voice quivered and he continued, “If he is not satisfied with the results I bring—"
“Yes, Merlin. I fear I understand the sort of man he is.”
“You don’t understand. He has ordered me to stay in his room tonight. I won’t be allowed to leave. I cannot disobey.”
Gaius sat down, his hand absentmindedly reaching towards a pouch in his sleeve. “You have been put in a very unfortunate position. However, it seems that your tests are not over yet.” As he said this, he handed Merlin a parcel wrapped in a dark blue embroidered cloth he had kept in his sleeve. “Gwen came to see me earlier. I have no idea how she got this, but she wanted me to look at it. No note or anything.”
Merlin did not need to open the parcel to know what it contained. He recognized the cloth it came in. The braid. He unfolded it to see the dark red hair. He picked it up to study it and the memory of someone seemingly knowing who he was frightened him once more.
Merlin dropped the parcel suddenly. “I can’t take this.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of King Galorian’s servants already tried to give this to me last night, in the corridors,” he paused there because he could not mention Arthur’s presence. This was not the right time to discuss that with Gaius. Merlin struggled to find the right words.
“I could find nothing malicious about it. Do you believe it to be an evil sort of artefact?”
Merlin looked at the braid and considered. He reached down and picked it up again, cradling the item in his hands. “No,” his voice was broken and he steadied it. “No, it doesn’t appear to be intended for that. But Gaius, she gave it to me. You should have seen her, she was so frightened.”
“King Galorian is a frightening king. It might be nothing, Merlin, other than the fact that she knows you serve him.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin conceded though he inwardly thought the opposite, and his insides swam with turmoil. Gaius stood up and patted down Merlin’s shoulders as if there was nothing to worry about. Merlin bit down a wince and instead nodded at Gaius. “I’ll keep it hidden.”
“This is best, my boy. I need to attend the council meeting. Today’s tournament needs to be reviewed, then there’s Holden’s release, and there are political matters to be discussed. I assume you will be required to serve drinks while we are there. Best hurry along now.”
Merlin nodded and folded up the blue cloth, stuffing the braid under his shirt and tucking it under the belt which held his shirt somewhat tied to his hips. He cast a small spell to keep it hidden, while Gaius ushered him along to the door.
He just remembered to pick up the pitcher in time before running back to the corridors. He passed many servants along the corridors and avoided eye contact with any of them, whichever king they served. He missed some sharp looks in his directions and multiple pairs of nervous eyes from the kitchens as he climbed the stairs towards King Galorian’s quarters in order to help him dress for the council meeting.
He was late, he knew. He had not provided the king with his cloak on the way back. And now, with the empty pitcher which he placed on a table in the corridor, he knew that he would be punished for it. But Gaius knew something now. It was all he had. Perhaps Gaius would inform the king or even Arthur about Galorian’s unending quest for a sorcerer. It was wrought with danger for Gaius to even push the subject, but perhaps there would be a moment, if Merlin could stall Galorian to the meeting. Which he effectively already had.
He took a deep breath and relaxed his face to show, hopefully, that he would be easily submissive and yet unmoved by his abuse, before knocking on the door to the king’s chamber. It took a few moments of something being thrown shut before the King told him to enter. Merlin pushed forward and walked in without pausing at the door. He wanted to say something but the words were stuck in his mouth and would not come out.
King Galorian was standing next to the large chest Merlin had nearly broken his back over bringing up the many staircases. He noticed how the king relaxed when he saw it was only his manservant and he broke out a mean smile.
“You left me at the podium today. Where did you rush off to?”
“I had to tell the kitchens to warm up more wine, sire,” he lied quickly. The king loved his wine mulled and spiced and he certainly had been carrying a pitcher around.
“That’s too bad, that’s not what I heard,” the king said, approaching Merlin. He held out his hand as if he was giving Merlin a second chance to adjust his story. Merlin opened his mouth to answer but he had no time as Galorian cuffed him along the side of his face. The red swelling that nestled on his cheekbone would now be joined by a blue and yellow bruise to match.
“Now you will dress me for the meeting. I don’t want to be later than I already am. You can be assured I will speak to Uther about this.”
About what? Merlin wondered with a sick feeling.
As if there was nothing wrong in the world, Galorian held out his arms and Merlin held a tongue against his swelling upper lip as he quietly undid the buttons of the man’s brown leather, finely decorated overcoat and shrugged it off his black shirt. He then brought his burgundy sleeveless doublet over and strapped the golden belt tightly over his waist. “Today I want to wear my sigil. It’s at the bottom of the chest. Fetch it for me.”
Merlin turned away from the king, glad to be out of the man’s suffocating aura momentarily to open the chest. King Uther wore a similar chain to these meetings and it made sense to Merlin that King Galorian wanted to be equally dressed for these matters of importance. Merlin knew it would be an affair of public speaking more than a strategic meeting as he was tasked with serving wine throughout the event. Most of the real strategizing went on without anyone present but those of Uther’s personal inner circle.
Merlin carefully lifted various items of clothing and kept them folded as best he could—refolding one or two of them until he found the item in question. He would not risk more beatings. The golden chain was lying on the bottom of the chest and Merlin assumed it must have been the very same item which had caused another few bruises earlier on when he dropped it. He studied it for a moment before reaching out to lift the chain.
And dropped it instantly.
A raw sort of magic had lashed out against his hand and there was a thin line of blood across the last digit of his middle finger. He looked at it curiously when Galorian moved in behind him.
“Are you still unable to perform the simplest of tasks, boy? How is it that I get appointed with the most useless person in the entire castle? You are a joke! You—” Galorian stopped and Merlin quickly hid his hand. He was still too stunned at the magic imbued in the item before him to notice Galorian’s change of demeanor.
The king leaned over him dangerously as Merlin was still kneeling in front of the chest. A strong hand grabbed the back of his neck, keeping him in place. “You know, I should talk to King Uther about you.” Merlin did not respond. “You’re a conniving little cheat. You’ve disobeyed me more than once and I would not be surprised if you were a thief too.”
Anticipating what was coming, Merlin closed his eyes and braced himself. He waited for the king’s fist to connect to his ribs or the boot to kick him in his shins as had happened before. But it did not come. He would not retort either way, or answer the man as it only served to aggravate him further and fuel his allegations.
When the king’s free hand reached down it was not the connection Merlin had anticipated. Instead his pockets were searched, first on the left side of his jacket, then his right. “I know you were not at the kitchens. I know exactly where you went.” Both pockets were empty.
The braid, Merlin thought, was still safely tucked inside his vest. He hadn’t had time to place it anywhere else. His mind raced with ideas on how to hide it, including placing it in the very chest that kept the man’s clothes and leaving it there until he could get to it. But he did not have time to move or to think. Anything he would do now, would be an admission of guilt he did not possess. Even doing nothing had its own risks. So he held on to the edge of the chest and felt the king’s hand dig into the pocket of his breeches, first on one side, then on the other.
The man’s hand lingered there and there was a long stuttering breath coming from King Galorian’s mouth, right behind Merlin’s ear. His body buckled under both alarm and shock as Galorian’s hand dug further down Merlin’s pocket towards his groin. He gripped the edge of the chest and bit his lip not to fight back—it would only result in more pain—as the groping hand hit home.
The king’s other hand was still firmly on his neck, keeping his head down and ensuring he would not move anywhere quickly. Galorian continued, “You are weak, you have weakness in you. You know I have more than one way to ruin you.” The utter disgust raking through Merlin’s body vastly overshadowed the pain he had felt during the past few days. He slowly turned his head to look the man directly in the eye. He had to be careful not to use any magic, even by accident—it would give away too much—but he showed then and there that he was not weak enough to look at him through this ordeal. Just that.
It took King Galorian somewhat aback and Merlin felt the hand digging out of his pocket quickly. The king licked his lips and considered whether another beating was due. Merlin turned back around to the chest and braced for the pain the chain would give him, picked it up and suffered through it gladly. He brought it in front of Galorian to place it over his head. The metal stung his flesh but now that he was prepared for it, it didn’t bite at him like before. With a pleased tug at the corner of his lip, Galorian lowered his head and the heavy chain settled around his shoulders. In the middle hung a gilded sigil showing Galorian’s family crest with the bird of prey.
“Now you will serve me my wine at the council meeting. And tonight, we will resume our discussion. Get out of my sight.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin said with his normal voice. It took all his energy to answer him so. His frequent practices of his facial expressions and his voice served him now to get out of the room as quickly as he could.
Whatever discussion would follow, Merlin had to get out of it somehow. Every possible alarm bell rung in his mind. His stomach turned over and left him nauseous. He picked up the empty pitcher and ran through the hallway, considering several spells which would knock the king out cold or at least get him to sleep for an entire day. Except he had never practiced these spells and he could not assume to know when King Galorian would wake up or in what state he would be when he did.
Before he reached the kitchens, he turned and entered an empty storage room with several cases of strong drinks, fruits, and cheeses, and he promptly threw up in the corner. The stress coursed through his veins and whatever he had managed to eat that day came out in heaves of disgust until the corners of his eyes filled with tears from the horrid sour taste in his mouth and nose. He wiped himself clean with a random piece of cloth lying there and hurried out of the room. He felt sorry for whoever would find his mess but it was too dangerous to be late now.
When he entered the kitchen he ignored the bustle of people and quickly washed his mouth in the basin, wincing at the glowing pain on the side of his cheek and his swollen upper lip from the earlier cuff. He looked at the small cut on his index finger, the dull sting was brought back to life by the cool water, before going towards the pot of mulled wine.
He bumped into one of the jittery kitchen maids, this one had long, dark curly hair and warm brown eyes. She gaped at him in surprise and started to ask him a question.
“Did you… have you…?”
“Get out of my way!” he shouted and pushed past her. He couldn’t even begin to think about what the girl was about to ask him. Yes, he had the braid. No, he did not know what to do with it. No, of course he wasn’t Emrys nor did he have anything to do with magic. Yes, he was being treated appallingly, as she well knew.
He did not care to look back at that moment. There was too much work in the kitchens for anyone to pause even for more than a few seconds so his shout had been entirely fitting for the situation. After the council meeting there would be a small feast, which would only be surpassed by tomorrow’s grand feast when the tournament had a winner. Even for this meal, there was scarcely room for two breaths of pause.
Merlin poured more warmed wine to serve. It was past the servant’s call when he rushed up the staircases, spilling some of the wine on the stones below—it could not be helped—until he finally arrived at the council meeting.
It was well underway and Merlin tried to sneak in unobtrusively, biting back his heavy breath by holding it in until he heard his accelerated heartbeat rush through his ears. He bowed low and served King Galorian, ignoring direct eye contact with anyone, lest it should result in another punishment. George and two serving maids also stood at the back of the room and regarded his entry with interest.
The council of this afternoon was well-attended by everyone of importance. King Uther had made room at the head of the table for King Galorian’s seat to be placed beside his. They were flanked by Gaius, Geoffrey, Sir Leon, and Sir Kay on the left side and by Prince Arthur, Sir Carsen, and Darren on the other.
He needed only to see the parchment laid out before the boy to feel a deep jealousy rise from within. Not only was Darren in place to serve Arthur, he was now in Holden’s seat and taking the council’s notes. This was a precarious position which was left to the head of household for a reason. Merlin did not particularly like Holden, but he knew the man held a certain amount of pride over being in charge of the minutes. Meticulous execution of the orders was required and being allowed just to document these—could this kid even write?—was of the highest compliments to be received. Merlin knew right then that Darren would be asked to stay on as Arthur’s squire and Merlin’s duties would be reduced. He feared it to the core of his being.
King Uther spoke of the tournament rounds and marked out the winners of each round for Darren to write down. Both sides had done remarkably well, though overall Camelot’s knights stood stronger. It was only this fact which allowed Uther to speak calmly and without any reserve. The man’s pride ran deep for the noble sons in his care. Arthur had won four battles and did not show any worse for wear. He looked almost cheerful. Merlin pointedly ignored him as he stood behind King Galorian, waiting for the cup to empty.
The boy scribbled down the notes as properly as he could, his pen hand unsteady and trying to add the proper curls to each capital as he had been taught. He placed accents in the wrong place, Merlin noted from across the room, and was inconsistent with the mark down of the victories.
The topic shifted, predictably to the release of Uther’s manservant. King Galorian leaned forward with both elbows on the table and spoke up.
“In light of the interrogations which followed the earlier arrest made, our court is satisfied that Holden has suffered penitence for his actions. However, we will require additional punishments should his actions be pursued.”
“Galorian,” Uther warned him. He was the only man who could talk to him without using his title, as they were of an equal station. “Holden has been in my personal servitude for many years and is not known to break any rules. He will have learned from this. I do not find it necessary to add to these allegations of ‘in case.’ Our laws are firm.”
“Your laws do not protect against the needless inquiry of guests under your own roof.”
“These inquiries have been proven necessary in the past, you understand. No insult to your good self.”
“I fear that damage is already done.” King Galorian shifted in his seat, looking sideways at King Uther. Darren looked at his uncle with large eyes, wondering what he should write. Merlin pressed his lips together in quiet gratification of the boy’s unease. It was however short-lived.
“And the punishment has been served,” King Uther said unwavering, sitting up straight to mark the beginning of a new topic. As he drew in breath, the king beside him leaned over further towards King Uther in a menacing gesture.
“Oh, I hardly think so. Another insult bothers me to this very moment.”
Both Uther and Arthur studied him carefully. The room was silent except for Sir Carsen putting down his goblet of wine onto the dark wooden table.
“This poor excuse for a manservant you have appointed me. I have heard how Prince Arthur complained of him. I do not know how you pick them, Uther, but he is literally the worst servant I have ever had.”
Merlin stood in the shadows and refrained from moving, even from breathing at that moment. The king would make his move now to bring Darren in. What hurt even more was that Arthur’s frequent jests—they were, weren’t they?—would be turned against him now. The only one who looked at him now was Arthur, out of the corner of his eyes. He seemed uneasy about something but wasn’t speaking up for Merlin. He ignored the prince’s eye contact. He bit back his disgust at King Galorian’s ministrations and it was impossible to meet Arthur’s unashamed, innocent blue eyes in the face of his own battered, molested, and repugnant state.
“We are aware,” Uther began, in a calm tone. It was hard to move a man with this power especially when it came to things that were beneath him. “That some of the younger servants are in need of training.”
“That would be exactly my point. He broke a direct order with me not to speak with his master, and went to see him anyway despite not having any time for such nonsense. I should hardly be surprised if this was part of the games being played,” Galorian answered for him. The minor creak of Uther’s glove indicated that he had not expected that answer.
Merlin was still holding his breath and he saw that more people glanced in his direction now, Sir Leon and Geoffrey included. But Gaius eyed Uther steadily and did not shift his vision in the direction of his student. It took all of Merlin’s restraints to slowly start breathing again and listen to the King’s response.
“Speak your mind,” Uther said after the silence had stretched on. Arthur was still studying Merlin, who was hidden in the shadows at the back of the room.
“I am being treated appallingly and if your servants run off to break the rules each chance they get, I fear for your great house a vast deal. So much even that I am willing to undergo the necessary steps to take him to the North and break him in.”
Three things happened at once. Darren looked away from his uncle and glanced at the door; evidently he wished he was not there. Gaius curtly said “Sire!” in the most animated of his various calm voices Merlin had yet heard. And Arthur… Arthur stood up and leaned over the table following Gaius’s outburst with a low spoken, “That will not be necessary.”
“Take your seat, Arthur,” Uther said dismissively and the prince did. The man cared nothing for him, Merlin knew. The promise of serving the prince after saving his life feebly forgotten, it seemed.
King Galorian took his shot. “Prince Arthur is well served by Darren. It would be our greatest honor to have him serve as your ward and he will work hard. Will you not?” He looked at his nephew who nodded thin-lipped and glanced at Arthur for help. “Meanwhile, this boy has something up his sleeve, he is guilty of something and it has become evident to me that I need to work it out of him. Don’t worry, Uther, this is something I’m quite good at. You will be happy to have him out of your hands.”
“I already have a ward,” King Uther said casually as if the matter did not touch him at all.
Merlin doubted it moved him at all. He still stood in the back though King Galorian’s cup had now gone empty. He didn’t know whether to move forward or not, to pour. He bit his lower lip and decided to refill the cup. The whole room looked at him, at the bruise across his cheek and at his fat lip. The King curled his fingers around the cup greedily as Merlin poured it, and stroked his fingers up and down. It made Merlin sick to look at.
To his own disbelief he accidentally looked in Arthur’s direction and their eyes locked for a moment. Merlin quickly broke away from that intense gaze to look down again. He stepped back, disappearing as if he were a piece of furniture. He had served for several years, and he had sometimes complained of being part of the décor and never had he wished it were more true.
But Arthur had looked at him, really looked, and had seen not just the layered bruises on his cheek but what was going on. He knew because the look he got from Arthur then was nothing short of determination. It filled him with the smallest hope that something might be done against Galorian’s request. Uther’s pause was stretching and it made the room uncomfortable.
“Yes, the lovely Lady Morgana. How she would benefit from a journey, don’t you think? She would be warmly welcomed for a stay of… a year?” Galorian played with his goblet. “A season?” he offered when Uther exchanged glances with him.
“Under no circumstances is Morgana traveling with you. She is at home in Camelot and she is not up for trade with Darren. I will however consider your other offers and let you know by the end of the tournament. Now, any further business shall be delayed until the morrow. You are all invited to join me in the throne room for tonight’s festivities.”
Uther had effectively drowned out any further complaint Galorian might have made regarding Morgana’s traveling with them. The guards stationed inside the council chambers opened the heavy wooden door and let the light in from the corridors. “Darren, pick up your notes and join Arthur to the dungeons to release Holden. He has half an hour to clean up before we will await him at the feast.”
Merlin stood quiet at the back of the room as the noblemen left and thought about Galorian’s request for Morgana with a deep loathing. He would never take her out of Camelot, he would not enslave her as he intended to do to Merlin. If he had any idea about her magic, she would never see Camelot again and Merlin would not let that happen. As Arthur walked out of the room, Merlin followed him with his eyes. He needed to talk to him now more than ever. It was as if Arthur knew the same thing because right at that moment he looked back at Merlin. For a brief moment Merlin knew the grief was visible on his face. He needed more than he could ask from him. The glances they shared were his lifeline. A moment later the prince was gone from his sight, following Darren.
The only people left in the chamber were Gaius and King Uther. Neither of them had gotten up yet. Merlin, too, did not move yet, despite George and the two serving maids already having left in order to quickly eat before the feast started.
“Sire,” Gaius began calmly.
“I know, Gaius. I’m thinking it over but I have not made any decisions yet,” King Uther said.
“I’m afraid that it has come to my attention, from very reliable sources, that King Galorian has indeed been making inquiries after magic. This has nothing to do with Holden, mind you. I fear it might not be as clear cut as today’s meeting sounded.”
“Tomorrow is the last day of the tournament and I want everyone to be in the best shape. I will not risk offense now. I will have extra guards stationed in the corridors outside Galorian’s quarters to ensure nobody goes in or out.”
“What about Merlin?” Gaius asked pointedly.
“What about him?”
“The King has required the boy to sleep inside his room. Is this not highly unusual?”
“It is not, if there is a reason such as assistance or council.”
“Of course, sire. But has King Galorian not made it clear that he expects neither of those from Merlin? Besides, it is not a trusted relationship like you have with Holden,” the physician said, implying many things, including the spontaneous inquisitions in town that had him thrown in the dungeon to begin with. “I’d say there is none at all.”
“And what would you have me do, go against King Galorian’s orders to send a servant back to his room?”
“Let me at least work on his bruises, sire. Even if Merlin made a mistake, or even if he made several, it would be in everyone’s interest that he is in a fit state to serve the king tomorrow and not add more stress to the current households combined. The day is too important for it.”
“Yes, make it so. I know you care for the boy, Gaius,” the King said dismissively. From his place in the back corner of the room, Merlin felt tears welling up with gratitude towards his master. He held his lips stiff together to not choke when the king suddenly spoke.
Merlin rushed forward. He couldn’t remember the last time Uther had spoken his name aloud, it was probably months, perhaps even longer than a year. He stood beside Gaius, it was the only sensible place for him to stand, pitcher carefully in hand. He blinked back the tears and gulped once but stood otherwise neutrally, gazing somewhere over Uther’s head, afraid to meet the man’s eyes.
“What do you say to King Galorian’s proposition?”
He took a moment to think of that. A moment King Uther clearly did not have. Merlin’s voice protested being used the first moment that he spoke, coming out almost in a huff. “Galorian is not half the man Prince Arthur is. My loyalty is to Arthur and to you alone, sire.”
“You do not want to go with him?” Uther drawled out.
“I do not,” Merlin answered curtly.
“Do you know… Is he conspiring to use magic?”
Merlin felt as if he now found the real reason he was questioned. The other thing didn’t matter to Uther at all. “He is, sire. He has tasked me to ask around for sorcerers.”
“And what did you do?”
Merlin looked at Gaius for a moment, who nodded at him. He took a deep breath and spoke. “I told him there are none in Camelot, and that you have it under control. I have not made any inquiries of this nature, to anyone. It would have broken with Camelot’s law and it would have made Holden’s situation worse if I was arrested too. This would have resulted in a breach of trust between the households.”
King Uther considered him for a long moment. “What will he do if he finds any sorcerer in Camelot?”
Merlin stared blankly. “I don’t know. He hasn’t said—"
“Alright. Do not mention any of this to anyone. Run off now.”
“And you will sleep in your own room tonight.”
“Thank you, sire,” he added, but his gaze was at Gaius, thanking him too.
As he left with the cooling pitcher of wine in his hand he heard Gaius turn the topic to Morgana. He did not hear the full sentence because he was out of the back door and in the small corridors running back to the kitchen.
Gaius had just saved his life.