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The Dragon Rises

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Book cover for The Dragon Rises: Arthur leaning forward, his sword in a downward slash; Merlin behind him, short sword aimed at the sky, his other arm stretched out in invocation as magic swirls around them.

 


 

Tarot Card of the World Tree (Renewal, Rebirth, Immortality).  Merlin sitting in a nest of magic, his cloak a feathered blue, a crown of golden acorns on his head.  He is tattooed, and they gleam with magic as he touches the oak tree, which brightens on contact.

 

 

CODA


 

When Myrddin's Oak shall tumble down
The shield of Ironwood will burn
Then shall fall all of Albion
Until the Great World Tree returns.

 

The Dragon rises in Carmarthen
Where it shatters the acorn's chains
The Great Oak grown will Rage and ring
The peace that only Freedom brings.
Tarot Card of the Pen y Ddraig (Life, Chaos, Change).  Arthur as he emerges from combat, bloodied and beaten but alive, his shoulder gleaming with the tattooed pauldron of dragonskin.

Chapter Text

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

The elms and oaks in this forest were as old as time. Few had ever trespassed in this place to disturb the grove, and those who had must not have dared cut down one of the majestic trees to make room and build someone's palace in this place where only elm and oak could rule. Merlin could tell. There was a pure, pristine power here, and it curled around him in welcome.

In warning.

The leaf litter rippled under his feet to mark the way to safety, but Merlin stopped in the middle of a forked path, unwilling to soil the forest any more than it had already been. He ran a soothing hand over the white star on his horse's forehead, listening, feeling.

Birds twittered. Squirrels chittered noisily as they leapt from branch to branch, harvesting for the winter. Blades of grass rustled, but that could equally be a fox trotting from one patch of territory to another, or the ghostly presence of a wind spirit dancing through the trees.

And yet, in the eternal calm that rose up from deep below to reach the great above, in the ethereal peace, there was a hatred and a menace that didn't belong. Someone, or something, had entered this forest and meant to do harm.

The forest shuddered from that darkness. It curled into itself to protect its core, its magic sinking down beneath the ground, hiding away from the approaching violence.

Merlin felt the forest's magic brush against his in welcome with the gentleness of kin kissing kin. He rocked under a sudden, invisible push urging him to go. To continue on his way, and to hurry, because he was in danger.

They were all in danger.

Merlin closed his eyes. He rested his forehead against his horse's cheek. He couldn't remember the last time that he had ever felt anything but the low-grade terror that left him in a frantic scramble for survival. His body trembled, though not from strain or injury, but from the constant surge of adrenaline. There were days he couldn't take the weight of everything that had ever gone wrong, and today was one of them.

He wondered what it would be like to live in a place where his life wasn't under constant threat. Where he didn't snap awake, weapons in hand, at the first sound that was out of place. Would he be in pain the way drug addicts were, when they couldn't get their drug of choice anymore? What would he do without the adrenaline that kept him alive and on edge?

The forest nudged him. Merlin nudged it back as gently as he could, hoping that the forest would understand human emotions. He'd protect the forest. Of course, he would. But he had to survive, too. He might not have much, but his life and his choices had always been his own. As selfish as it was, he had no other purpose. All whom he had loved had died a long time ago.

Merlin pulled away from his horse. He patted her nose. She mouthed at his fingers in quest of food he didn't have -- or perhaps, she was encouraging him in her own way.

"Always looking out for me, aren't you, girl?" Merlin murmured. He patted her throat. "Go on. I'll be all right."

He turned her head and smacked her rump. The mare plodded off with a reproachful glance cast his way, but she followed the path cleared by the forest, black tail swishing in her wake.

It was close to the Fall equinox, but the leaves on the trees were as green as they were in the wealth of Spring. The ground was gently rolling hills and summertime warmth, without a trace of wind or of the encroaching winter. Wildlife rustled in the distance, huddling under dense foliage and scurrying high into the trees.

The birds whistled, their songs dimming into subdued humming and eventual, complete silence. A small flock of wrens took flight and vanished through the thick canopy. In the distance, footsteps and hoofbeats crunched leaf litter and cracked dried branches.

Merlin reached under the swaths of fabric wrapped around his chest and loosened the ties. His palm brushed against the ribbed grip of one of his knives, but he didn't draw it. The forest might whisper of danger, but Merlin didn't want to fight if he didn't have to. He would rather distract, leading the threat away, and if all else failed, he'd do what he had always done. He'd run.

Hoofbeats galloped toward him. Men barked orders that were muffled by the trees. Movement blurred through the leaves and light flickered in the shadows, reflecting from metal surfaces.

Right about now, Merlin would be running. He forced himself to stand his ground, this time, because he'd given the forest his promise.

From the colours worn by the men approaching through the woods, each taking their own route to surround him, Merlin suspected fighting was the only way that this encounter would end.

Black and gold, trailing a snake banner. Essetir's banner. Cenred's men. Perhaps not the so-called thane himself, but certainly someone ranked high enough to be trouble for Merlin. It was strange to see them here. This wasn't Cenred's territory. Not even close, not by far, and it was rare, these days, for someone to doggedly hunt him down into free territory where they, in turn, might be put upon by the rebels rising up against the Kingdoms.

Merlin sighed and resisted the urge to rub his brow. He was tired. Of travelling. Of running. He thought he'd find a place to make himself a home, finally, if he hid in the mountains. Those who had once held his service were gone; he had no oaths to hold him, not anymore, and he'd completed his sole duty a long time ago. Distract, only, he remembered. Stay safe. We need only but a few days.

Days.

Days had turned into years, with no word whether his old friends had been successful, no sign that they'd survived. They had never reached the meet-point, and when Merlin found his way back, it was to discover his once-home had been filled with open graves.

Merlin might have succeeded too well in drawing attention away from Ironwood, but the Elders had failed in their own tasks. There was little else for Merlin but to run, and to suffer days when he couldn't remember his own name, too mired in old grief and haunted by those he'd left behind.

At the rate he was going, he would be an old, old man before he would catch so much as a glimpse of snow-capped mountains in the distance. He'd only ever seen those mountains in books. In photographs from family albums that weren't his. Hunith had told him stories, but the mountains had only ever been a fuzzy, half-remembered dream cobbled together from two-dimensional collages and fantastical stories.

He wasn't sure that those mountains were any more real than his fervent dream that one day, he wouldn't have to run anymore.

Big bay horses broke into the clearing.

Merlin scratched his jaw. His beard was soft but ragged, his hair long and curly, and he'd shied away from his trademark colours a long time ago. He wondered what had given him away this time. As was his habit, Merlin rarely greeted people with anything other than quiet grunts, market transactions were completed with nods and shakes of his head, and he bypassed everyone else without so much as eye contact. He'd been so careful.

"You! Halt!"

Merlin half-turned to indicate he'd heard, spreading his arms away from his body to show that he wasn't a threat. Soldiers and hunters didn't tend to give orders to the person they were running down. Merlin wondered if there was a chance that he could get out of this without spilling blood.

The first of the Brigands of Essetir rode deeper into the small clearing and roughly reined his horse to a stop a few yards away. Two other horsemen came up on either side of him, backs ramrod straight.

The leader of the group was a short man with dark skin and dark hair peppered with grey, his square jaw rounded by a manicured beard. His armour was worn and well-oiled, and that was sign enough that his position in Essetir's ranks had been hard-won. His jaw was set and his eyes were hard. He settled in the saddle, spine straight, shoulders back. "Show yourself."

Merlin watched the footsoldiers swarm through the forest until they completely encircled him. None of them breached the trees to enter the small clearing. Three of the Brigands of Essetir had crossbows. Four had guns. The three men on horseback, the leader included, carried rifles, but only two of them were pointed at him.

Either they were waiting for the command to attack, or they had no idea of Merlin's range. To be fair, Merlin rarely left witnesses behind to comment on his power or his skills.

Instinct, as much as the intensive training he'd received as a child, quickly categorized his opponents' level of skill.

He wasn't worried about the guns. Despite Cenred's reputation for warmongering and allowing his men to run ruckshod, bullets were difficult to come by. The old knowledge was carefully guarded by alchemists, and the few who betrayed their own kind for material rewards were rarely entrusted with the secrets of the preparation of gunpowder and accelerants. These footsoldiers may have been granted the use of firearms by their thane, but every unaccounted bullet would come out of their pay. Merlin imagined they didn't get much of a chance to practice.

Crossbows were usually deadly and accurate, but not at these distances, and certainly not with the trees in the way. None of these footsoldiers were skilled arbalestiers, or they would be carrying their weapons with more confidence. At the most, the Brigands would have two shots at the most before they would have to take matters into their own hands.

All of these men carried swords of varying lengths, styles, and quality. None of them would be wearing the uniform of a Brigand if they hadn't undergone intensive training and passed Lord Cenred's gladiator trials. Since the only merit of Cenred's approval was to survive both a weapons melee and to be willing to kill an opponent, it was unlikely that any of these men had received any training worth noting.

It was a fair judgment that none of them would be able to hold their own against Merlin. Not one on one. All of them together? Maybe he could get them in each other's way, which would cut their numbers enough to give Merlin a fighting chance.

His silent evaluation stretched for nearly a minute more before he paid any mind to the men on horseback.

The leader shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. He took out a six-shooter and pointedly rested it on his thigh, the polished silver bright against his black leathers. "I said, show yourself."

Merlin turned toward him. Slowly, he raised both arms, grasped the coarse wool of his hood, and pushed it back, letting it fall onto his shoulders. He lowered his hands, keeping his eyes down, attempting to appear non-threatening. It must have worked, because the Brigands lowered their weapons.

The leader scoffed. "It's not him. Move out!"

Merlin frowned, but he stayed where he was as the horsemen galloped past him in a cloud of dirt and dust, the footsoldiers following after.

It's not him.

Confusion was replaced by an intense wash of emotion. That emotion wasn't relief. It was shame. He should be happy that, for once, he'd be able to continue on his journey unmolested. But absolutely no part of him could possibly be pleased that he'd been spared at the expense of someone else.

How many people had used him? How many had put him in harm's way to save themselves? Too many. Merlin shouldn't care about the poor sod who had caught Cenred's attention, or that, once caught, they would be torn apart by the Brigands.

He looked up, but the western horizon was shrouded by the thick foliage overhead. It was a long journey to the mountains, made longer by the necessity of having to circumvent territories under a thane's control. These forests were outside Cenred's claimed lands, but that didn't mean that they were safe.

Merlin's journey had been made that much shorter now that he wasn't slowed down by yet another group of hunters who wanted to capture him for the reward on his head. The pressure was off, at least for the day. Perhaps for the week. And if he was lucky, he could cross this forest, go through Essetir, and find some rest in Ealdor before he continued on his way.

It's not him, the Brigand had said.

Eight men with guns. The rest heavily armed. All of them in the formal armour of Essetir. Their target was so important that they couldn't be delayed with questioning a random stranger on an empty road, to harass them and to steal whatever they had that was of value as was the Brigand's tradition.

Merlin knew of no one who would warrant this much attention from a thane. No one other than him. Maybe his pride was a little hurt that someone else had finally outstripped him in unwanted fame, but whoever it was, Merlin couldn't help but feel strangely protective.

He spared a wistful thought for the mountains. The only consolation was that the mountains wouldn't be going anywhere.

Merlin lowered his arms. His hands clasped into fists.

He should walk away, he told himself.

The magic saturating the forest must have sensed his intent, because the path it had cleared for him earlier was covered with leaves, and another one was opening up in the direction the Brigands had gone. The road widened, leaf litter curling aside and over, showing him the way.

Merlin covered his head with the hood and ran.

He wasn't far behind the Brigands, but they'd picked up speed after they'd left the little clearing in the road. What they didn't have in time, they had in distance, and that distance was rapidly stretching between them. Merlin didn't know how long he ran, but his chest was tight and he was gasping for breath before he realized how hard he was pushing himself.

It was the forest, he realized. The urgency, the desperation, it was coming from magic that was older than anything he'd ever felt before. Whoever the Brigands were after, they were important on a scale Merlin couldn't comprehend.

Instead of slowing down to ease the burning in his legs, Merlin kept going. The dull ache was nothing compared to the urgency of this task.

Gunfire rang through the trees. The ground shuddered under Merlin's feet, rippling and carrying him over the hill and forcing him through the rise. Men shouted, metal clanged. Another gunshot, this time loud and reverberating, made tree branches shiver.

A big black horse broke through the shrubs and bolted away. No one chased after it.

Light flashed between the tree trunks. It was sunshine burning down from clear blue skies, cutting through the canopy to brighten the clearing ahead.

The Brigands had four men completely surrounded, and those four men were holding their own. In the chaos of movement, Merlin saw one man go down. It was a turning point. The Brigands took the advantage, cornering the men and separating them.

Merlin saw a flash of gold. A strip of red. Three men on their knees, a fourth one dragged away.

The guns raised.

"Kill them," the leader barked.

"No -- don't!" one of the prisoners shouted.

Merlin's magic lashed out, shoving the foliage out of his path. He burst through the trees with a wave of his hand that knocked the guns out of the Brigands' grasp and sent the Brigands into the trees.

The three captive men surged to their feet, picking up weapons they'd been forced to put down. The remaining Brigands hemmed them in a corner, preventing them from rescuing their comrade.

One of the Brigands moved into Merlin's way. Merlin ducked the wild swing of the Brigand's blade, drawing his knives as he moved. He caught the Brigand's next blow with his left knife, slicing the exposed flesh in the Brigand's armpit. He turned quickly as a second Brigand attacked, using the first as a shield, the knife in his right hand slicing across the man's throat.

Merlin shoved his human shield against his new attacker, letting the trapped Brigand to take the blows. He twisted the slumping body in his arm to trap the attacker's weapon and shoved it away, already turning to meet a third opponent.

Merlin reversed his grip on his knives, flattening them against his forearms to block a sword strike. He grunted, his footing slipping over the wet ground. He twisted the knives to lock the sword's length against the hilt and to push it down and away. He slashed the man's bare throat with an angled swing, and stepped over the body as it fell to the ground.

He turned in time to see one of the mounted men raise a rifle and aim in his direction. Merlin's magic manifested in golden, glittering tendrils dancing around his knives. He moved to block the bullet, his magic catching it in mid-air.

With a practiced, rapid twist of his body, Merlin swung the bullet at the horseman. His magic released it with a whip-crack that echoed in the clearing.

The horseman jerked back in the saddle. The rifle dropped from his hands. His body listed to the side --

Merlin didn't watch the body fall. He was already advancing on his next target.

One of the Brigands held the fourth man against him, a six-shooter pressed against the man's head.

"Stop or I'll kill him!"

In the background, the sounds of combat quieted.

"I'll kill him dead!"

Merlin didn't slow down.

"I'll shoot him!" The Brigand's arm shook, his eyes wide. "Halt!"

"Run," Merlin snarled.

The gun slid away. The Brigand took a nervous step back before shoving his prisoner at Merlin. The prisoner stumbled, catching himself easily, and cast about for a weapon. Merlin walked past him, but the Brigand was already gone, running into the forest.

"No!"

A warmth covered Merlin's back. The prisoner -- a blond man as tall as Merlin, but broader of shoulder -- shielded him with his body.

Merlin immediately saw why. On the other side of the clearing, still sitting imperiously on horseback, was the leader of the Brigands, his revolver aimed in their direction.

"You need me. You're under orders to bring me in alive. You're not going to kill me," the man said, holding an arm out toward the Brigand's leader while keeping a hand on Merlin's hip. Those fingers tightened in alarm when the leader thumbed the hammer of his gun. "Just -- just wait a second, yeah? Take a look around. You've lost. Your men are dead or gone. Put down your gun. Ride away."

Merlin saw the instant that the Brigand made a decision. He wasn't even aware of making a decision of his own. He simply reacted --

He grabbed the man, turned him around --

Grunted.

He felt the gunshot before he heard it. A sharp pain in his upper shoulder. Close enough to his heart to make it stutter, but not so close to make it stop.

He fell --

Someone caught him.

The man's eyes were a blue so bright it was like looking at a sky full of summer's sun. His mouth was parted in shock. He was handsome, Merlin thought, with a pale scruff of youthful beard along a strong jaw and tracing sharp cheekbones.

Merlin stumbled forward into the man's arms at the second shot. Heat radiated down that same shoulder, but once again, the Brigand had missed his heart.

The man steadied him, taking his weight. He wasn't so much a man as he was a boy on the cusp of manhood -- sixteen winters, at least, but no more than twenty. It was hard to tell; Merlin was never good at gauging someone's age, and he was less able as his vision blurred with pain.

Merlin's left leg gave out under him at the third shot. Just above the thigh, he guessed. Bone intact, but he wouldn't be able to walk until the bullet was out and he'd had some time to heal. His longtime hunters would catch up to him now, and suddenly, the impulse to save someone else's life seemed so stupid.

Merlin shook off the man's hands. "Run," he said, and though it was twice that he'd said the same word and nothing else in only the Gods knew how long, this time, there was no threat in it. He closed his eyes. "Please."

Merlin didn't know why it was important that the man get away. That no one should capture him. That no one kill him. Merlin could feel the forest fluttering in inexplicable emotion that his human mind could only interpret as anxiety and worry.

"Go," Merlin said. He pushed the man away, and when the man took a step back, Merlin fell to his knees.

No pain forewarned the fourth gunshot, and the gunshot's crack in the air was so startling that Merlin glanced down to see where he'd been injured this time. But there was no more blood on his chest than there had been a moment ago. No added aches and pains, no new weaknesses, and the blackness encroaching his vision wasn't accelerating into unconsciousness.

Only belatedly did Merlin recognize a new sound. Someone crying out -- someone else. The clang of weapons and gunfire that continued for five more shots before the revolver clicked empty. The faint gurgle of someone dying, but too dazed to realize it as they crawled on their belly to get away, guts dragging along the ground beneath them.

Merlin felt a pang of sorrow that this forest would be tainted like this. That his blood was adding to it. But at least...

At least he hadn't failed in doing what the forest had asked him to do. For once in his life, he'd protected. Whether or not that protection was worth it, whether the target was someone of value -- that didn't matter. It was right that he had done so, a small atonement for all the sins committed in his lifetime.

Merlin looked up into bright blue eyes that were hard and determined. Those eyes looked away from Merlin's, a glimmer of something cold and calculating boiling deep beneath them.

Merlin felt himself slip. He struggled to stay upright only to realize that he was already on his knees, swaying to the left.

Glimpses of people running away. Legs surrounding him like the trees in the forest. A hush in the battle that lasted only so long.

Someone pointing out the obvious.

"Leave him. He's a dead man, anyway."

Merlin closed his eyes to the sight of the hard ground reaching up to meet him.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Arthur didn't need to make eye contact with Leon to know what he was thinking. It was evident in the way he kicked the fallen log before he sat down, in the aggressive rummage through the contents of his saddle bag, and in the angry chewing that followed the big bite of beef jerky.

This is a mistake, Arthur.

It wasn't just Leon speaking in Arthur's head. It was his father, Lord Uther, Thane of Camelot. It was the echoing agreement from every member of the council. It was the behind-the-hand murmur among his own men. Camelot's safety and surety had to come first, above all else.

He's going to die. Let him die.

The man's wounds were bad. A hasty bandage around the thigh took care of the lesser of the three bullet holes, and it helped that Gwaine had found another horse when he tracked down Hengroën. Strapping the man to the saddle to move out of the forest had put necessary pressure on the injury, keeping the leg wound from bleeding out, but there hadn't been much they could do about the rest, not at the time.

Not that there was much that they could do about the bullets in his back now, either. The two entry wounds were a few centimetres apart. Both bullets were also a few centimetres from the man's heart. There were no exit holes, not like the leg, and the bullets were still in there, rattling around, sinking deeper into muscle and sinew. The man needed a physician's care if Arthur wanted him to live.

What was needed was the kind of field surgery none of them were equipped for, never mind qualified to perform. Leon was the most skilled, and he would try if Arthur ordered him. But Arthur couldn't trust that Leon wouldn't hasten the man's death instead, so he hadn't so much as made the suggestion. Arthur fretted, because the bullets might have fragmented, or they might have slipped closer to the man's heart when they transported him. He might die no matter what they tried, anyway.

Alive. Dead. Either way, the man's continued existence wasn't Arthur's first concern. They were far too close to Cenred's Kingdom. Even if any of them had the proper tools and medicine, it wasn't safe. They had to keep moving.

Should've left him behind, Leon's voice in his head said.

Good on you, thinking with your dick for a change, Morgana's voice in his head said, unhelpful as always.

Arthur, Uther's voice in his head said, his tone disapproving and disappointed. As usual. Because nothing Arthur chose to do would ever be good enough for the thane, and stopping to pick up a random stranger while on a mission was yet another reason why Arthur would never be Uther's choice of successor. No. That honour would go to Morgana. Though the order of birth had little to do with inheriting the throne, Morgana was certainly the most cutthroat of Uther's three children, and, as she said too often for Arthur's liking, To the victor go the spoils.

As soon as she was old enough to understand the way of things, she'd ensured that Uther couldn't father additional threats to her position as Camelot's next thane. Prospective and new wives were found flawed or compromised. Uther's wives at the time suddenly became sickly, traitorous, or barren. Children were stillborn, miscarried, or deformed and later put to death. Only one other sibling had survived to her fifth year, pretty, charming and sweet, and...

Her death had been peaceful, at least.

Arthur counted it lucky that Morgana liked him enough that she hadn't tried to poison him yet. He wasn't sure why she hadn't tried for Kay, but it might have something to do with his complete disinterest in all things that didn't fall in one of his three favourite things to do: gambling, fucking, and fighting.

The sooner you stop trying to impress our dear father, the better off you'll be, Morgana's voice rang in his head again, and this time, Arthur felt her ghostly fingernails digging into his jaw. He could also hear the taunt in her tone, but he was never sure if she was trying to bait him into giving her an excuse to finish him off, or if she genuinely gave a damn.

Arthur, Uther's voice said again, disembodied. Are you, or are you not the commander of Camelot's Knights?

Ugh, Morgana's imaginary voice huffed, and Arthur sighed in agreement with the sentiment. He'd learned to ignore Uther's crudely veiled insults, but he knew a part of him still harboured a childish need for the attention and the approval that he'd never get. That was the only reason why Arthur had bowed his head to hide his grimace at Uther's order to investigate the rumour that Cenred had acquired himself an alchemist who could blend magic with gunpowder.

Technomancy was the thing of a tyrant's dreams, melding the old with the new, the unnatural with the natural, the magical with the mundane. Past leaders of all the different Kingdoms had signed a peace accord that included a promise that none would pursue such deadly research nor create weapons originating from the abomination that would result. Absolutely no one was fooled into thinking that any of the current thanes would actually keep the word of their predecessors, not when that word was sworn a generation ago by thanes long rotting in their graves. It was a given that anyone who attained such power would wage war and force all of the Kingdoms under their rule.

Arthur had seen first-hand how each thane ruled their lands. With an iron fist, with cruel indulgences, with threats of violence, starvation, slavery, and death. He would be the first to whisper behind a cupped hand that Lord Uther was no better than the rest, but at least Camelot was free of overt slavery and had yet to lose its people to hunger.

Camelot couldn't afford to be at the disadvantage. None of the thanes could.

When it came down to it, Arthur should have known that the rumour was just that -- a rumour. Cenred had a reputation for playing games and forcing other thanes to reveal their hand.

The absolute power prophesized to come with the bastardization of magic and mundane wasn't the only way to expand a thane's Kingdom. Deceit, treachery, assassination were but a few of their worn tools.

Arthur had taken his men and entered Cenred's territory under disguise and with the knowledge that if they were captured, Cenred would have the ammunition he needed to stand before the Council of Thanes and demand Uther's Kingdom for himself. Whether the High Council would give him that accord was a question that Arthur didn't want answered; that was another game entirely, involving sly promises and outright bribery. Cenred wouldn't have started the rumour if he didn't have every member of the council in his pocket for the occasion.

"Arthur --"

"Don't," Arthur said quietly, refusing to look at Leon. Refusing to even give voice to his reasons for... for whatever it was that Leon was going to question now. He was the bloody commander of the Knights. He didn't have to justify himself to anyone, never mind his own men.

"We should keep moving," Leon said, undeterred.

"Because the sooner you get to my sister's bed, the sooner you claim your role as her first consort? Uther's not dead. There's no crown upon her brow, nor promised to her name," Arthur snapped.

A strained silence lingered in the small clearing. After a minute, Leon stood up, making no effort to be quiet. Grass crunched underfoot, branches snapped. Fingers brushed over fabric, metal tinkled against metal. Leon wouldn't dare stab Arthur in the back. Not yet. He didn't dare risk his position as Morgana's favourite. As long as Arthur remained in his sister's good graces, Leon would never have the balls to try assassination as a way to get Arthur's position for himself.

"This wasn't the mission," Leon groused, the air heavy. He would attack, if he could. He was probably thinking about it right now. How he'd get the drop on Arthur, because he'd need to get the upper hand quickly. How he'd slide his sword between Arthur's ribs, holding him close until he bled out, eyes turned glassy and pale in death.

It was what Arthur would do if the situation was reversed.

Arthur turned his head. In the low light of the fading evening sun drifting through the forest, he could make out Leon's profile, but not his expression.

"The mission is whatever I say it is," Arthur said, his hand slowly drifting down to his boot, fingers reaching for the hilt of the knife. If it came to a fight, the quarters were too close for a sword.

"And what is the mission now, Sire?" Leon asked, his voice full of derision. "Stay where we are as sitting ducks for the Brigands? We need to --"

"We need to keep our voices down," Gwaine said amiably, entering the little campsite with his usual grace, shadow one moment, only a little less shadowed the next. "They're turning back this way. Not much choice, not at this point. Either we tip-toe out, horses and all, or we hunker down and hope they'll pass us by again."

The Brigands were closing in. Their earlier patrol had brought them close enough to step on top of any of Arthur's men or pat their horses' heads, but for inexplicable reasons, they had turned around and continued on. Arthur didn't know if he could trust that kind of good fortune to fall on them a second time.

Arthur could feel Gwaine's judging look as he glanced between Leon and Arthur. His mouth stretched in a thin line and his hand settled on his belt, eyes narrowing thoughtfully.

"We should --" Leon began.

"Percival's with the horses," Gwaine said, his shoulder knocking hard against Leon's arm as he entered the clearing proper, crouching down beneath a tree. "He'll keep them quiet. You know what a soft hand he has with them. But that's a lot of horses for just one man. Maybe help him out, Leon?"

There was a warning edge to Gwaine's voice, barely hidden behind friendly charm. Arthur was both grateful and resentful of Gwaine's interference. He knew he was young, that there were more experienced men, that Uther could have chosen someone who knew what they were doing, but it was Arthur who was the commander of Camelot's Knights. Not Gwaine. Not Leon. Not anyone else.

After Leon disappeared through the trees, Arthur gave Gwaine a curt nod. The man wasn't doing him any favours, but at the same time, Arthur didn't know what it was that he could do to win the respect of his men. They saw how poorly Uther treated him and no doubt took their cue from their thane when it came to Arthur. Gwaine might be the son of a dishonoured thane, and yet Camelot's Knights held him in far more regard than they did their own commander, and it grated.

"You'll have to do something about him," Gwaine said, speaking in a low tone only after enough time had passed for Leon to get out of earshot. "If he can't have Morgana, he'll come sniffing after your job."

Arthur glared at him, but his anger was short-lived. Gwaine wasn't telling Arthur something that he didn't already know. "He can try."

Gwaine nodded, but it was hard to tell what he was thinking. When he spoke again, it was in a solemn tone. "There are many who want to."

Arthur's jaw clenched. "Do you count yourself among them, at last?"

Gwaine snorted. A shift of movement in the darkness was the only sign that he was still there. The tree rustled faintly when Gwaine leaned his weight against it. "I am the best swordsman in all of Albion. I can tell when someone holds himself back on the training grounds."

Arthur said nothing. He turned away, focusing on the stranger's laboured breath lest Gwaine was secretly a mythical Fair Folk who could see into the soul of a man if they made eye contact. There were things Arthur didn't want others to know about him.

But it was dark, and Gwaine was surely not seeing him any better than Arthur could see Gwaine. Gwaine was unbothered, because he continued, "I respect a man who pushes me to my limits and who shows me how to be more. I respect a man who never makes another feel as if they are less. I am waiting for the day when that man respects himself, because that will be the day that I will follow him wherever he might lead."

Arthur bowed his head.

"Until then..."

Arthur glanced over his shoulder. He could make out something of Gwaine's shape against the tree. A low branch camouflaged most of his body, his legs sticking out. His foot twitched in boredom or in impatience. Gwaine wasn't the sort of person who would let his nerves get to him.

"Until then," Gwaine repeated, a soft, resigned sigh on his lips. "We are as we are, and nothing changes. Summer follows Winter, Winter follows Fall. The drudges will continue to toil the earth with no hope for something more. A peon's station remains exactly that and nothing else. And, of course, the thanes remain unredeemable tyrants."

Arthur could almost feel the weight of Gwaine's gaze on him and suppressed a shudder. He wondered if Gwaine suspected what Arthur very carefully kept to himself -- a different life, a different future. But the mere whisper of something that wasn't under a thane's iron fist was tantamount to treason, and Arthur had always been very, very careful. He never wrote anything down. He hid maps in random places. He collected stories about the rebels and the rebellion, pretending to mock their failures while memorizing the names of the key players.

Arthur closed his eyes and swallowed hard, forcing himself to relax, lest he rouse suspicion. It seemed that everyone glanced at him with a narrowed gaze, these days. He wondered if he'd given himself away.

If he had, well. He'd deal with it then.

In the narrow interval of time between the setting sun and full darkness, the shadows in the forest thickened until it might as well be night. The wildlife was silent, the faint wind settled, and nothing moved in the space that was allowed for the great sigh of the world, shrugging off the burdens of the day to hide beneath a great blanket, away from the blight of day and the aches that came with it.

A fire to warm the bones and to offer the relief that came with light was ill-advised, at least until Percival and Gwaine risked crawling out of their hideaways to scout their surroundings once more and declare the area clear. Cenred's men had been hunting them for as long as they'd been running, and were bound to be tired, too. They'd call off the search, at least until sunrise, but Arthur and his men wouldn't have any respite until then.

"Why him?" Gwaine asked. And, in complete contradiction of his earlier warning for silence, Gwaine crunched into an apple.

Arthur's stomach grumbled. Gwaine must have pilfered a fruit bowl or two when they made their scattered escape out of Cenred's castle, but his belly's complaints were quelled by the question.

Somehow, the question was less obtrusive than Leon's, full of curiosity where Leon's had had the weight of hostility, and Arthur found himself more inclined to answer. He wanted Gwaine's respect. He wanted Gwaine to follow him. He wanted so many things, and he didn't know how to begin, but he wasn't so stupid to reveal something that would be important to him. To all of them.

He couldn't run the risk that someone else would make the connection he had. That they would come up with a better plan before Arthur could put his own into action. He didn't know who to trust, or whom he should keep near.

So he said, "No reason."

"You fancy him, then?" Gwaine asked mildly, a smile in his voice adding a touch of his usual charm.

Gwaine was the son of a thane. He knew how to play the courtly game. Arthur could play it, too. His blood was as noble as Gwaine's, and Gwaine hadn't grown up with Uther over one shoulder, Morgana on the other, and the entire court watching his every move.

"A wild man in scraps and rags who brings a knife to a gun fight," Arthur said, his voice as deadpan as he could manage. "That sort of initiative is very attractive. I don't know how anyone could resist."

Arthur thought he heard a quiet huff behind him, gentle like the wind whistling faintly through the trees, but when he looked, the stranger was as unmoving as before, his breath still laboured. Gwaine, on the other hand, laughed, loud and brash, as if they were in a rowdy tavern rather than in the middle of being hunted down.

"But you saw him, yeah?" Gwaine asked, his tone turning serious so quickly that it took Arthur nearly a full minute to register the question. His heart beat faster when he understood what Gwaine said, only to stop dead when he realized what Gwaine meant.

"Saw him?" Arthur frowned to cover up his stunned silence with ignorance. He scoffed more to clear the frog of his heart in his throat. "He was right in front of me. 'Course I saw him."

A rustle of leaves drew his attention to where Gwaine leaned out from his makeshift foxhole. Arthur could see him -- hunched shoulders and lowered chin, clasped hands and elbows on his knees, eyes intent, mouth in a flat, unimpressed line.

"You saw him stop the bullet. You saw him turn it against Belant," Gwaine said. Belant was -- had been -- Cenred's man, the leader of the band of Brigands who had chased them into this forest, and he couldn't have looked more surprised when he'd been shot with his own bullet. A gleam had flashed in Belant's eyes, chased away by the spectre of death, as he understood just what had happened, what opportunity he had passed by.

All the thanes were in a secret race to develop a corrupted thaumaturgy to blend magic and mundane. Before the treaty had been signed signed between the Kingdoms, it had been rumoured that each of those thanes had reached varying degrees of successes in creating a new trade that would win them power over all the others. The only reason the treaty had been signed at all was that the thanes who had not been able to accomplish any progress in their endeavours outnumbered the thanes who were believed to have been close in achieving their goal.

Peace, an accord between the Kingdoms, some sort of restoration of order... None of these were as great a motivator to sign as the underhanded agenda of slowing down those who were nearly there in order to give those lacking the time to catch up.

Only a handful of the signatory thanes still lived. The decades had passed without major incident thanks to the treaty, and the rumours of thaumaturgical achievement had been just that -- rumours.

Until Emrys.

Few things could make a thane sit up and pay attention, but Emrys had succeeded by what appeared to be unhappy accident.

By every account, Emrys had been merely one sorcerer among sorcerers, coming to no one's notice because he was unremarkable in talent and strength. Though few, there were other, greater magic users capable of fantastic feats, and these men and women were forever courted -- or kidnapped -- by one Kingdom or another to serve this land or that one. Emrys, it seemed, had fallen through the cracks, and remained unsworn. He was free, as many unexceptional sorcerers were, to do as he wished without being bound to a thane's will or a Kingdom's laws.

But from there, the stories differed. However it had happened, Emrys had somehow revealed himself as far more powerful than any other known sorcerer across Albion. Why he'd done it was a question of much speculation. How he'd done it was prone to wild exaggeration. Every story was hearsay, but it was true because it had been witnessed by the nephew of the best friend of a third cousin twice removed, estranged on the father's side. It was hard to tell what to believe, but one detail stood out amongst them all.

Emrys had used magic to bend the metalwork of the weapons of old. He'd stopped bullets before they left the firing chamber. He'd turned bullets against the shooters.

All were feats previously unachievable by any magical practitioner. All were feats that the thanes had been working toward for decades to achieve on the hope that such a power would turn the odds in their favour should they go to war with a neighbouring Kingdom.

Emrys had saved countless lives on that day. Of that fact there was no doubt. And he'd put his own life at risk in the process.

From that day forward, there were multiple bounties placed on Emrys' head, the price increasing depending on the thane and how desperate they were to capture Emrys alive, and for the assurance that he would be delivered into their hands, rather than turned in to an enemy thane willing to pay more.

Others wanted him dead.

In Arthur's heart, there was no question. This wild man who had burst through the forest to rescue them was the dreaded rogue sorcerer, Emrys. Arthur didn't understand why Emrys would have put himself at risk for complete strangers, but it was to Arthur's advantage, now.

Leon was right in one respect. In this world that they lived in, acts of compassion and of mercy were signs of the weak. The weak were ruthlessly culled. Arthur had earned Leon's derision and scorn for bringing this complete stranger with them.

But Leon didn't know what Arthur knew. That this man was a prize for Camelot, if only he could be kept alive long enough to get him proper medical treatment. Arthur might not have any respect amongst his peers, and he would lose even more when they returned to Camelot, but he knew that loss would be returned tenfold when Emrys healed from his wounds and was forced to kneel before Lord Uther, his identity revealed.

The thought of it made him sick. No amount of respect was worth a man's life.

"Gwaine --"

"I want you to think very, very carefully about what you're going to do with him," Gwaine said, his tone friendly enough, but the overall emotionlessness gave voice to a threat that chilled Arthur to the bone. "I'm not saying a word about him to anyone. The rest is up to you."

Arthur's hand relaxed from around the hilt of his dagger, and it wasn't until he flexed his fingers that he realized he'd gone for his weapon subconsciously. Whether it was to protect his prize or to protect Emrys, Arthur didn't know, and he didn't want to know. Self-examination had a bad habit of souring his mood.

He turned his back on Gwaine and settled next to Emrys.

The seconds passed in silence. Those seconds became minutes that stretched the tension in the air. Arthur knew he should be listening for anything out of the ordinary, for any signs that the Brigands were approaching, but all his attention was captured by Emrys. His laboured breathing. The faint twitch of his fingers. The slide of his head as it fell forward, clearly too exhausted to hold himself up anymore.

And then he heard it.

The crunch of dry leaf litter. The rustle of leaves. Heavy men clomping through the bushes, trying to be quiet and failing.

The Brigands were too close for Arthur to do anything more than to shift slightly, hiding Emrys' body with his own, ready to press a muffling hand on Emrys' mouth should his breathing turn into a gasp of pain or a cry of alarm.

Emrys' eyes were half-slit, his hand reaching up to weakly grasp Arthur's arm. Arthur reached for his knife when a sliver of gold shone in Emrys' eyes.

Arthur waited for something. Anything. But nothing happened. The Brigands of Essetir walked past as if they weren't a stone's throw away, separated by a thin curtain of tree branches.

The golden glow faded, and Emrys slumped against Arthur. Arthur wondered how many more times Emrys had saved Arthur's arse. He didn't like being in this much debt.

Emrys' breathing was more laboured now, but he was still alive. Arthur made Emrys more comfortable, and murmured a soft, "Rest," before settling in nearby for the rest of the night.

 

Coin Image of Gwaine

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

"Open the gates! Open the gates!"

The ground lurched. People blurred past Merlin. A great deal of unintelligible shouting made him even more disoriented than he already was.

Men and women in red leather armour. Golden ringlets.

Weapons.

Grim expressions. Mouths in unhappy lines.

"Get Gaius!" someone shouted. The blond man, Merlin recognized. Arthur.

Rough hands grasped Merlin's tunic. Someone pulled him down. They didn't notice that Merlin was still strapped to the saddle, and the hard pull made him yelp when half of his body tried to go one way, but the other half stayed right where it was.

"You bloody fucking pillocks," another familiar voice said. Gwaine. Merlin wouldn't recognize him, because throughout their harried journey, Gwaine had been nothing but a foggy face with thick eyebrows, a smear of dirt along his jaw that was probably a beard, and too-long hair. Or a hood.

But he was the only other person besides Arthur who had been kind to Merlin -- for some variation of kindness, anyway. He'd introduced himself, but not the others. He'd made conversation to keep Merlin awake when Arthur tightened new bandages against Merlin's back and around his chest. He'd spare some of his rations, turning it into a gummy broth, and helped Arthur feed and water Merlin as if he were a plant or an invalid.

For all the strength Merlin had at the moment, for all the wits he possessed, he was certainly an invalid plant, leaves withering and dying, and nothing more.

Merlin was held steady by strong hands that were familiar for how frequently they'd hefted him in and out of the saddle. Gwaine's grousing was barely audible under the cacophony around him, and the dull ache pressing into Merlin's thighs eased. The big man in the group put Merlin on the ground. Merlin remembered his name was Percival.

Merlin's legs failed him, but Percival didn't let him fall. Merlin went to his knees, listing to the side. Percival steadied him easily, giving Merlin a tree trunk leg to rest against.

Abruptly, silence fell.

The crows parted with the ease of the ocean's wave ebbing from the shore, but this particular wave receded and never returned. A stony path cleared all the way to the dauntingly steep steps leading to a building that was all the more dismaying for its height and breadth. It was a fantastic stone castle, with towers in varying degrees of construction, and Merlin hoped, with all that he had left, that no one expected him to walk all that way and up those stairs.

As it was, he could barely stay upright, even with most of his weight against Percival.

It was testament to how poorly he was doing that when he blinked, and opened his eyes, there was abruptly a tall, imposing man standing in front of him. He was broad shouldered and barrel-chested, with greying hair and a steely gaze. Despite the cold, he wore no jacket, but the line of ermine fur stitched into his collar was as much a symbol of his rank as the golden signet ring on his hand.

A thane.

"Wonderful," Merlin mumbled. There was no other way to sum up the situation. He was fucked.

"What's this?" the thane asked, his tone reflecting the disdain that was in his expression. Merlin knew what he looked like. He wore rags on purpose. The marks on his arms and hands were mostly hidden. He hadn't cut his hair in nearly a year, and his beard was patchy where he'd made a half-hearted attempt to keep it under control. At best, he was a peasant, not worth anyone's notice. At worst --

"He saved our lives," Arthur said.

At worse, that.

Merlin could feel the thane's scrutiny. He swayed under its weight. It felt as if the sun was burning him.

A shadow passed in front of him, giving him a moment's respite. Merlin struggled for the slipping threads of consciousness and saw that Arthur had interceded, and that he'd redirected the thane's attention to him.

Poor fucking sod.

Merlin must have lost time, because Arthur and the thane were no longer in front of him, the crowd had diminished in size, and someone said, "Oh, dear."

Merlin couldn't help it. He snorted.

The last thing he heard was, "Can you carry him?" The last thing he saw was the sky. And suddenly he was flat on his chest, inhaling something sharp and sweet, listening as someone tut-tutted his way around his injury before offering a reassuring, "I'll try not to kill you."

When he woke --

He woke muzzily, with no awareness of the time that had passed, no knowledge of where he was, and an entire universe of pain encapsulated in a tiny pinpoint on his back. An acid wash filled his veins, a thousand needles jabbed down his spine, and molten iron washed over his skin, burning him from the outside-in.

"Drink this," an old man said, shuffling over from a nearby workbench to shove a cup under his nose. Fortunately, the man didn't seem to expect Merlin to take the cup on his own, because he roughly shoved an arm beneath Merlin's back, propping him up enough to pour the contents down his throat.

Whatever it was, the lukewarm liquid was foul. Licking toadstools levels of foul, with a healthy measure of swamp scum and ground-in leeches to round up the bouquet. Merlin gagged and was about to spit it out, all over himself if he had to, when the man pinched his nose. Merlin reflexively swallowed to gasp for air, only to choke when the liquid ran down his gullet with the consistency of sludge.

The man smacked him soundly on the back, barely a half-handspan away from his gunshot wounds. Merlin's vision whited out from the pain.

When Merlin could see again, it was to watch the old man make himself comfortable in a chair by his cot. He was grinding something wet and squishy with a mortar and pestle. He looked up, met Merlin's eyes, and arched a brow.

"You're in Camelot. It's five days later," the old man said, in the bored tone of someone who'd had to answer the confused questions of his patients far too many times. "I had to go in twice more to clean out the infection. Normally, I wouldn't bother. It's one less mouth to feed when you're dead. You're lucky I like Lord Arthur, or I would've chucked you out of my window and let you rot on the bone pile."

Merlin followed the old man's gnarled finger across the room and to the wide-open gap in the wall. Part of the surface glistened with warped glass and burnished iron. The other half showed the clear night skies, starry-bright despite the clouds, warden fires burning in the distance. The windowsill was curved, as if rain had gotten in and damaged it, but there were brown splatters on the stone beneath it. Merlin didn't want to wonder about those, so he turned away.

Merlin looked at his caretaker. His hair was a white-blond that disguised age, and his brow was heavily lined, though those wrinkles seemed to be an aftereffect of intense concentration over a task rather than of any real concern for his patients.

"I'm Gaius," the man said, his eyebrow raising as if he expected Merlin to argue. When Merlin didn't say a word, Gaius continued, "And you are the stupid pillock who has the thane's attention."

Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was a croak.

"Indeed," Gaius said, as if he understood Merlin's sentiment. "One look at those tattoos, and I had to report you. That's the law here. The thane doesn't like not knowing what's going on in his lands. He knows how many men he has, how many women, how many bloody bawling children. The number of swords his blacksmiths forge, how many towers of grain, the day to the minute that the harvest is brought in.

"He knows how many soldiers he has left after a battle better than his own men do. He knows how many sorcerers --"

Gaius gave Merlin a pointed look and snorted. He got up and shuffled to a workbench on the other side of the chamber. Glass clinked, some sort of apparatus rattled. The schnik of a lighted flame and the rush of gas crackled for a few seconds before it was vigorously shut off. After several minutes of mumbling under his breath, Gaius returned, a blotchy, frosted beaker in his hand, and offered it up to Merlin.

A few fingers of orange-yellow liquid sloshed along the bottom.

"Drink?" Merlin managed to ask, hoarse.

"No, shove it up your arse and tilt down," Gaius snapped, unimpressed. "Drink."

"What --" Merlin closed his mouth when his question cracked in two.

"Medicine," Gaius said. He waved a generous arm that came perilously close to knocking over the contents of a nearby table. "It's all fucking medicine. Refined antibiotics from the swamp farm. Tranquilizers from the fairy ring outside the gates. Painkillers -- the good kind. My special concoction. I don't give this to just anyone, but Lord Arthur --"

"Yeah, I know. You like him," Merlin finished for him, his voice hoarse. He laid back on the lumpy pillow and closed his eyes. "No painkillers."

"Yes painkillers," Gaius mocked, grabbing a hand of Merlin's too-long, knotted hair, yanking his head up. He poured the contents of the beaker into Merlin's mouth, and there was a practiced air in how he timed his pours between Merlin's weak splutters. More of it was swallowed than spilled, and it burned Merlin's throat. He dropped Merlin and stood up again. "Fucking warriors. Fucking idiots, the lot of you. Oh, look at the big, bad soldier. Look at their missing arm. Too fucking brave to tie a fucking tourniquet, absolutely must take down an army first. Took two bullets in the back, but that's okay because the bollocks are too big to feel any pain."

"Fantastic bedside manner," Merlin muttered, struggling to roll onto his side, but any kind of movement aggravated his back, so he tried to stay as still as possible. There was a chance, however small, that if he didn't attract Gaius' attention, he might shut up from his tirade. Merlin's head still smarted where Gaius had pulled his hair; he didn't need to get an actual headache on top of it.

Gaius lost steam, eventually. That, or he simply went out of Merlin's earshot when he wandered to the other side of the room, looming over a table. The table was bowed like a swaybacked mare under the weight of books that were steadily sliding toward the middle. It creaked when Gaius added something else to the pile, but miraculously, it didn't collapse.

Merlin tried to stay alert. He really did. But the medicine must have contained one of Gaius' self-proclaimed famous anaesthetics, because he was drowsy in a few minutes. He had no recollection of having fallen asleep at all, but the scrape of the chair along the stone floor startled him awake, and he had to blink blearily at the bright sunlight burning its way across the floor.

How long had he been asleep? He started to ask, only to stumble when Arthur placed the chair next to Merlin's cot and sat down. Merlin rubbed his eyes.

Arthur looked different. For one, he was clean and no longer fit in amongst the unwashed masses that toiled the earth at their thane's will. For another, the dirty, oversized clothing had been discarded in exchange for the fitted and the tailored. Instead, he wore a burnished red leather chest piece might have been a vest in style but it was armour to Merlin's eyes. The black leather overcoat was worn, but in good condition; gold-silver buttons glinted in the candlelight, and an embossed imprint of a winged dragon shadowed his left arm. Arthur's dark trousers had straps on the thighs for gun holsters, were covered to his knees by scuffed boots, and there were gloves tucked in his belt near the clip for his sword's sheath.

He was a thane, Merlin reminded himself. A thane's son, rather. Perhaps the heir himself. Merlin wasn't sure. He'd kept his head down for so long that he no longer knew the details of who ruled what Kingdom beyond which thane was likelier to be lax enough not to notice when he passed through their realms. The only real information he had bothered to pick up were the numbers of troops and the quality of the men who served each thane, because that strength in arms was just as likely to be pressed to hunt him down as it was to rise up against an enemy in war.

Merlin remained very, very still. Arthur didn't seem to notice that Merlin was awake, not yet. His attention was fixed on a scroll of papers in his hands, the edges dried out and cracked, the ink faded from age. A small furrow pinched his brow, the set of his mouth dimpled with displeasure, his cheek hollow from a clenched jaw.

"Something on your mind?" Merlin asked, his voice soft.

Arthur's eyes drifted from the curly page to Merlin's face. He leaned back as he rolled the papers into a tight curl, some of the tension in his expression easing away. But, only some.

He was young, Merlin decided. His first impression had been wrong. Arthur was older than he'd thought when he'd come across the group in the forest. He'd believed Arthur a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, maybe, travelling with family to safer grounds only to be set upon by the Brigands of Essetir for no other reason than being scoundrels at heart, prone for violence in its every shape or form. The Brigands had been looking for Arthur, so intent on their search that they'd overlooked Merlin.

No. This son of a thane was a man grown, twenty summers easily under his belt, the last of childhood's yearning long melted away from hard training on the battlefields and the strain of political games. Pretty, too, Merlin couldn't help but think. Eyes like the winter sky, clear but guarded, holding back summer's warmth.

Arthur seemed to be weighing Merlin's question carefully, mulling over each and every word before committing to an answer. "Yes," he said finally, and offered nothing more.

Merlin hummed noncommittally. He didn't care what was bothering the young thane. He wanted to know how long he needed to stay before he was healthy enough to leave. More importantly, he wanted to know if he would be allowed to leave in the first place.

He knew Arthur had guessed the truth. That he knew who Merlin was. Merlin had overheard every word of the conversation that first, fateful night. Gwaine would keep Merlin's identity a secret. Gaius had seen the marks on Merlin's skin and had reported them to the thane, but they would reveal nothing more about Merlin than his status as a sorcerer. And Arthur --

The rest is up to you, Gwaine had said, and those seemed to be heavy words, if they were still weighing on Arthur's mind. Merlin could tell when someone had done a great deal of thinking, and the dark circles under Arthur's eyes were sign enough that he had been spending sleepless nights at it. Or maybe, he made a habit of not getting enough sleep. It didn't matter. How long --

For days? Merlin looked around, once again wondering how long he'd been out, this time. Gaius' crowded book table was still upright, the makeshift glass apparatus in the corner bubbled away merrily, distilling an unappetizing blue liquid into a round-bottom flask. Gaius himself was nowhere in sight.

Arthur leaned back in his chair, his weight settling against the frame. He brought up a foot to rest upon the cot at Merlin's elbow. The scrolls remained in Arthur's hand, and he tapped them once against his knee.

"What do you want to be called?" Arthur asked.

The question wasn't unexpected, but the careful tone that surrounded it was. Merlin had a ready answer and opened his mouth to give one of the many fake aliases he had prepared for exactly this sort of circumstance, but he stopped himself when he saw the slight shake of Arthur's head.

If Arthur already guessed at Merlin's identity? Why would he ask that question? And why would he ask in the way that he had, rather than, What's your name?

Merlin tried to sit up. Pain radiated out from his back, but it was far, far less than it had been when Gaius had poured his vile concoctions down Merlin's throat that first -- and every subsequent -- time, and he was able to prop himself up, however temporarily. Arthur didn't try to help him, his expression guarded and measured, and Merlin --

Merlin understood. He didn't know a lot. The politics between thanes never interested him; the politics within a thane's household was even less of a concern for someone who lived his life on the run. Motivations, hidden agendas, the very nature of the man... it didn't matter. For Merlin, it came down to one thing, and one thing alone.

Arthur had made a choice. Whatever that choice was, for the moment, he was allowing Merlin to retain his anonymity.

There was a game in this. Merlin was sure of it. Some self-serving manipulation, an underhanded treachery. Whatever outcome Arthur had in mind, Merlin didn't intend to be around to see the end of it.

"Merlin," he said, giving his birth-name rather than a borrowed name.

The last of the tension eased from Arthur's shoulders. He half-closed his eyes. A slow exhalation of breath and an easing of his expression made Arthur's relief so palpable that Merlin sank back onto the coarse pillows and wondered if, maybe, he'd misjudged once again.

Arthur ran a hand over his face. He nodded to himself, his mouth a line of determination. He stood up abruptly, crossing over to the table with random dishes and cutlery. He pulled a metallic bowl from the pile, tore up the scrolls and dumped the remnants inside, and, as Merlin watched, set the papers on fire.

Arthur stood over that table, watching the flames until smoke no longer drifted up from the lip of the bowl. He rummaged through the bottles lined haphazardly in the cabinet, selecting one seemingly at random, and dumped the contents inside, the slow slick of oil glugging into the steaming bowl, auto-igniting of its own merit.

The smoke that billowed up in a small mushroom cloud smelled faintly of hawthorn.

Arthur dumped the ashes into the fireplace, poking at them with an iron bar until they were well mixed with the embers burning beneath the low flames. He wiped the bowl clean, dumping it into a stack of dirty bowls, and shoved the bottle of oil into the cabinet in a random spot several shelves down and toward the back.

He sat down again with a heavy huff, his arms crossed over his chest. He stared at the floor, a small furrow between his brow, but the tension that had clouded him several minutes ago was gone, leaving him as unreadable as always.

Merlin was baffled. If he wasn't so wary, he would even say that he was fascinated, because nothing that Arthur was doing was making any sense.

"You were free to go," Arthur said abruptly, turning his head to the side, momentarily distracted by shuffling footsteps approaching, then retreating, outside the chamber's door. "You were. Something must have happened while I was away, because Gaius would never... He'd never. But he did, and Uther knows what you are. Not who, so that's good. There's that, at least. And I've destroyed any likenesses we had, which were... not you, of course, not even close. Terribly bad artists, making you bigger than you are. Still, I didn't want to risk it."

He unfolded his arms, leaning elbows on his knees, and stared unabashedly at the intricate knotwork tattoos that covered Merlin like gauntlets stretching from fingertips to his shoulders.

"Soon as you can walk -- maybe tomorrow. Maybe in two days. I'm not sure. You'll get put in front of him. He's going to reward you."

The way Arthur spat the word, Merlin guessed that the reward was anything but.

"I don't know what he's going to offer. He always gives people a choice. It's what he does. A choice. Equally bad, or equally good, and depending on what you pick, it could go poorly for you." Arthur coughed to cover a sardonic laugh. "Could go poorly for you anyway. Just --"

He looked up. He sighed.

"If you can, get your things and go. By morning. Before then, even. Gaius will be in his cups by nightfall, and he'll curl around them until noon. The Knights won't think you so thick to go toward Essetir after you killed Brigands, so they'll look for you everywhere else. That'll be your best bet. I'll stall them as long as I can."

Arthur stood up then. He paused, as if he were about to say something more, but shook himself out of it and headed toward the door.

"Why?" Merlin croaked.

Arthur stopped a few feet shy of leaving. He took an audible breath before he turned to face Merlin. "For the only reason that matters. No one should have that much power. Not even my own father."

The door clicked shut behind him. Merlin stared at the blank spot for a long, long time before he let himself believe Arthur meant what he'd said.

Arthur had saved his life more times than Merlin dared count on their journey to Camelot. He called for halts whenever Merlin's colour blanched. He stayed Leon's cutting hand twice that Merlin could remember. He sent Gwaine ahead to a small village to obtain medical supplies from the hearth witch who lived in the area. He stayed up through the night to make sure that Merlin didn't stop breathing.

Arthur was a man who cared. Merlin didn't understand why. Arthur knew who he was. Surely he also knew what advantage he would gain by keeping Merlin in Camelot. If he wanted Merlin gone, it was probably because it was to Arthur's advantage for Merlin to leave, though Merlin couldn't fathom how.

For the longest time, Merlin didn't let himself think about any other possibilities. But hope was a cancer that spread viciously once set alight, and maybe...

Maybe Merlin had finally found someone who could help.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Arthur had never been more grateful to find the castle corridors empty, but that didn't stop him from skulking through the shadows to take an indirect route far away from Gaius' tower. He didn't want anyone to see him. Anything out of the ordinary was always noted, and this late-hour visit was definitely not the norm. He wanted nothing that could associate him with Merlin's escape.

Servants gossiped. Councillors speculated. Knights spied. In every case, information was hoarded like the most precious coin. If a servant could trade what they'd seen to shift themselves into a better position with better pay, they would. Councillors were prone to blackmail and manipulation, eager for anything that would force a member of the thane's household under their thumb. And the Knights...

The Knights always searched for weaknesses, particularly where Arthur was concerned, and Arthur wasn't inclined on giving them any openings.

Not that Merlin was a weakness. Merlin was...

Arthur glanced around. He waited for a three-count and lingered behind the ceiling-to-floor tapestries as the guard walked down the corridor on the usual patrol rounds, and emerged off the side, heading in the opposite direction.

He didn't know what Merlin was.

Arthur knew who, of course. Emrys. The dread sorcerer of Albion, the thanes' direst bane, a practitioner of dark arts so foul that demons cowed at his feet. The minstrels painted Emrys in such vivid detail in the early songs, and, over time, had vilified him into a frightening, cruel monster to appease their thanes.

Having tended to Merlin during the journey, keeping him alive through an encounter with Uther, and bribing Gaius to keep him that way only made Arthur realize just how little Merlin resembled Emrys and how very human he had become in his mind. Small and pale under rough-hewn blankets. Too thin by far from too many years running and scavenging for survival. A bird's nest of tangles for hair, a beard in desperate need of trimming or outright shave, dark marks upon his skin that spoke of old bruises and wounds that were just as persistent as the tattoos on his arms.

Merlin, Arthur told himself. He couldn't think of the man as Emrys. His name was Merlin.

Just another low-level sorcerer wandering the countryside, who, for whatever reason, had come to the Knights' rescue against Essetir's Brigands. Perhaps Merlin had hoped for a warm meal for a reward, but hadn't anticipated that he'd be shot to his death instead.

Arthur knew the question would come. It was writ upon Uther's face whenever Uther chanced to look at Arthur during dinner.

Why didn't you let him die?

Why, indeed.

Arthur wasn't certain how he would answer. He could claim that he refused to let Leon dictate things, because once he let his second make the decisions, where would he be, then? But that sounded whiny and petulant in his own head, inviting nothing but mockery. He could say that it was only right, as Merlin had risked his life to save the lives of perfect strangers, but that would only invite the derision and mockery of his Knights, who would call him a bleeding heart.

He'd avoided the question thus far. No one would ask it until Uther did. No one would --

"Arthur?"

Arthur bared his teeth reflexively before schooling his expression to courtly neutrality, and turned around. "Morgana."

She was alone, but from the way she swept toward him from seemingly nowhere, her step as smooth as the expensive silk of her gown, Arthur couldn't help but wonder if she'd been lying in wait for him. The Knights and councillors whispered quietly of Sorcery! at her unexplainable appearances, but Arthur knew better. Morgana's magic wasn't so powerful as to arrive in a puff of smoke, even if she were inclined to such ridiculous theatrics, but she had a second sense to where she needed to be in order to confront her target.

That, and she was a bloody stalker, armed with a convoluted spy network of servants keen for her dubious favour.

As always, Arthur couldn't fathom anything from her expression. She was pleasantly neutral, her smile serene, hands clasped in front of her in disarming supplication. Her eyes, however, were sharp.

She wanted something.

What Morgana wanted, Morgana very often got. She had been a spoilt, indulged child; she was a spoilt, indulged woman now, though these days, she didn't demand or whine nor plead, opting instead to have things simply fall into her lap. Arthur wasn't certain how she managed to orchestrate having her way without so much as raising a little finger.

It wasn't magic, at least, but something was going on, and Arthur had no idea what it was.

"Fancy finding you here," Morgana said, her tone so cheerful that Arthur's teeth were set on edge. She unclasped her hands to grasp his arm, sliding her hand around his elbow. "I've been looking for you all day."

"Well, you've found me," Arthur said, gently leaning away from Morgana to see if she would follow along his path or insist on a different route. She seemed amiable enough, and fell in step next to him easily.

Neither of them spoke for some time, and it wasn't until they'd reached the end of the corridor that Morgana made her demands known. Arthur felt the pressure of her hand on his arm and sighed inwardly, resisting only a moment before allowing her to pull him toward the castle's private gardens. It was the only place that had the dubious definition of "outside" where she could go without a guard, and what had once been the leisure spot of Uther's wives and their guests had eventually become Morgana's domain alone.

"You wanted something?" Arthur asked, dragging her to a stop just within the entrance, unwilling to go deeper.

A faint frown pinched Morgana's brow, fading away a moment later. Her smile remained, but he could tell that she wasn't happy with him at all, though why, exactly, remained a mystery.

"Yes, of course," Morgana said, pulling away slowly, letting her hand trail down his arm, fingers plucking at his sleeve. If they weren't related, he'd think the contact a seduction to lure him along, to follow her further. But they were blood-kin, and no matter how he looked at it, Morgana's touch was still a seduction, leaving him feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Once more, a flicker of displeasure pinched her brow. She turned away from him, walking in a slow slide toward the stone bench near the entrance, and sat down, legs extended.

"Can we chat?"

Arthur felt a dull, but familiar ache creep across his forehead. It encroached with a slowly increasing pressure, and he felt as if his mind were clattering under the impact of a windstorm battering the windows. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, willing for the pain to go away, and dropped his hand. "We are chatting," he said, annoyed.

Morgana's mouth pressed in a thin line. She stared at him with a fixed glare, a line of concentration marring an otherwise clear forehead, and said nothing for what seemed to be an eternity. Arthur thought he saw concern in her expression -- the same sort that came whenever he felt a migraine coming on and as she asked him if he was all right. He'd always thought it strange that she would know the exact moment of his pain, sometimes even before he did, but he'd chalked it up to her unusual perceptiveness.

This time, though, he remarked, as he always did, how strange that he should only feel this type of ache when Morgana was in the vicinity, the headache taking root and growing to envelope his entire head. None of Gaius' treatments worked to dull the pain, leaving Arthur no choice but to power through.

Arthur cracked his neck to relieve some of the pressure. "Morgana. I have things to do."

Morgana huffed. She crossed her legs at the ankles and tucked them beneath the stool. "As do I. Or do you not believe that the work I perform is as important as yours?"

Arthur swallowed a sigh. So it was going to be one of those days, then, when Morgana was stroppy over a perceived slight, leaving Arthur to placate her, or apologize, even though he never had any idea what he'd done or what she was on about this time. The usual soothing words felt hollow, a transparent act that he didn't have the strength to perform, but would have to try.

Irritation got the better of him, and he spoke before he had the chance to couch his words. "What would Uther think of his heir if he saw her hunched over herself, and heard her vomit her insecurities all over the floor?"

"Arthur!" Morgana's mouth fell open in outrage. She stood up methodically, the very image of a disturbed predator yawning out of sleep, ready to claw whatever had dared come near. She turned a dark glare to Arthur, as if intending on smiting him where he stood, leaving nothing but a black scorch mark on the floor to mark his grave. She might not have magic enough to do that, but her glower was certainly powerful enough to set him on fire.

"Morgana!" Arthur challenged, mocking and cruel, and... He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply, fighting through the sharp, stabbing pain along the side of his skull. He fought to find his center and held up an apologetic hand once he thought he had a better grasp on his emotions. "I apologize. It's been a long day. I'm tired, and I have duties yet to perform before I can retire for the evening. Have pity on me. I've no mind for these games of yours. What do you want?"

Morgana's expression twisted. Placid, calm, serene, unperturbed -- Morgana was easily these things even in the most stressful situation, but now, she was none of them. Instead, she was strangely distressed, off-balance, angry, even a little desperate, and it made for an ugly look on her delicate features. The emotions morphed together into something dark and vile. Morgana's mask slipped, and Arthur realized that she was revealing herself as more than Uther's obedient, dutiful daughter. Somehow, Arthur couldn't bring himself to care about her lapse.

He remembered far too keenly how many of his siblings and other-Mothers had died, and Arthur had a passing wonder whether he would live to see the dawn.

Perhaps realizing that she had betrayed herself, Morgana quickly schooled her features and offered him a courteous smile. "It's been more than a long day, hasn't it? A long fortnight. More."

My entire life, Arthur didn't say. Instead, he nodded dumbly, hoping that she would see him grateful for the excuse.

"What really happened in Essetir?" Morgana asked. "Was it truly so bad?"

"That's why you've laid in wait like a common thief until I walked past? You were there when I recounted the details," Arthur said, his impatience breaking through. He started to turn around, wanting to leave. "I'll not repeat myself a second time."

Cenred's castle had been in disarray, as if they had recently fought off an attack that had somehow breached the walls, though every sign was there to speak of an internal coup. Cenred himself remained as the thane, dour-faced and moody, holding court as was the tradition across all the Kingdoms only to walk out after one supplicant. The guards were on high alert, the servants were chastened and silent, and the alchemist's tower was in partial ruins, though it wasn't clear if it had always been that way or if it was a recent development.

Was Essetir developing weaponry that blended science and magic in a twisted sort of thaumaturgy? Yes, they were, as were all the other Kingdoms, and, like all the other Kingdoms, Essetir was no closer to success. The few plans that Gwaine had been able to pilfer from the alchemist's tower before they were uncovered and forced to flee showed the Essetir alchemist attempting a path that Gaius had long discounted.

The rumours were only rumours, and it had been a wasted trip.

"Did you tell Uther everything you know?" Morgana asked.

A peculiar pitch to Morgana's tone gave Arthur pause. He studied her. Poised and courtly, with misleading grace, her stance allowed others to decide for themselves what she must be thinking. It was a tactic she often used against others. Arthur knew her too well, though, and he saw a slight rumple to her dress, her jewellery askew, her curls in frustrated disarray. Anyone who looked past the illusions would think that she had come fresh from a snogging with whoever was her bedmate du jour, but not Arthur. Something was on her mind, and she was hungry for information.

"I told Uther everything I know," Arthur said slowly. The pain in his head increased in intensity, pulsing and throbbing. Instead of flinching, he poured the pain into his glare. "If you trust my word so little, perhaps you should inquire after Leon. He was with me the entire time, a shadow I couldn't shake, just as you asked him to be. Really, Morgana, if you wanted to plant a spy amongst my men, you could've done better than the man you fuck whenever your bed gets cold."

The words were cruel, but they didn't cut her. Morgana's eyes narrowed and she raised her chin haughtily. "Then why did you risk yourself for a common vagrant?"

Arthur bristled. "That common vagrant saved our lives."

"He should have died," Morgana said. "I've seen his wounds myself. Why didn't you listen to Leon? He told you to leave him behind."

Arthur stood where he was for the longest time, hands on his hips, staring at the far wall along the corridor. He counted the bricks until he was reasonably assured that he had the hurt well-hidden. He didn't do as well with the flare of temper at Morgana's words, and when he turned to face her more fully, it was in time to see Morgana take an uncertain step back.

"Leon told me, hmm?" Arthur asked, tilting his head. Morgana's eyes narrowed, but she stayed silent, clearly realizing that she had pushed too far. "And I do what Leon tells me to do, don't I?"

Morgana didn't answer. Arthur gave her another moment to see if she would rise to the bait, and he was rewarded with the haughty lift of her chin. "Leon is one of Camelot's most experienced Knights --"

"No," Arthur said sharply. He shook his head, a slow smile spreading on his lips. A dark emotion flushed through him, but he didn't spend too much time determining what it was for. Certainly not amusement. "No. The most experienced? Leon? Hardly. The strongest Knight? No. The most canny? Definitely not."

The most steadfast, certainly, with a moral compass that Arthur had always been able to count on. Or at least, that he had been able to count on, once upon a time. He still didn't know what had happened to Leon, nor could he fathom why the man who had once been his closest and dearest friend hated him so much.

"Leon is many things," Arthur said, taking a step closer. Morgana shifted as if she wanted to retreat, but the bench behind her hemmed her in. "But there's one thing he most assuredly is not. I am the commander of Camelot's Knights. I do not take orders from him, and he would do best to remember that."

"Of course," Morgana said graciously, though the words were said through clenched teeth and a forced smile.

And then --

Arthur realized his mistake the instant Morgana's stance shifted slightly, the light returning to her eyes in a conniving glint. She didn't quite jut her hip out or lean seductively the way she would with nearly anyone else, and her smile was friendly, almost affectionate. It was too much like the one she always gave him when she indulged her "little brother", but in which she ultimately got whatever she wanted in the end.

He could see her manipulations unfold even before she said a word. The dull ache in his head magnified, and he clamped down, resisting both the spread of oncoming charm and pain.

"You would do best to remember that, as well," he said, his voice cold. The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He knew he should be more careful. His position was tenuous enough as it was, and there were courtly games to be played if he wanted to survive.

He didn't give her a chance to respond. He turned on his heel and walked away.

One day, Morgana would become the thane of Camelot, and she would do as she wanted then. Arthur might not be well-respected among the Knights, but the most troublesome Knights were Uther's men. By the time the throne was passed on, Arthur would be firmly set as the commander of Knights he himself had selected. Morgana would have to either get rid of him now, when he was still young, unestablished, and vulnerable, or she would have to continue to foster the relationship they already had to ensure that he would remain under her thumb in the future.

He'd poked a sleeping dog knowing full well that there would be consequences. Morgana favoured Leon, but until now, it had been as a body to warm her bed. Morgana was a classicist who preferred the company of her own kind and disdained the company of the Knights; the odds were high that she had no idea which of them would be the best replacement for Arthur if she got rid of him. She was also lazy, which meant that she wouldn't want to invest the time into cultivating someone new to her side.

Arthur rounded the corner and headed up the steps to his private quarters, feeling no less angry than he had in Morgana's company. He didn't know why he bothered to convince himself of his relative safety when he never intended on staying in Camelot any longer than he had to.

He had plans, and none of them involved playing second-string to a controlling and unscrupulous half-sister who might decide, at any time, that he'd outlived his usefulness. Neither would he linger for the next few years, hoping that Uther would grow kinder in his advancing age, and realize Arthur was the better choice to take the throne once he was gone.

And anyway, it would be too difficult to do what he wanted to do if he were shackled to Camelot.

The hallway leading to his chambers was darker than usual. A few torches had burned out and the servants must not have come by to replenish the oil vessels. The tapestries lining the wall billowed out as the wind whistled through the open windows, and fresh, crisp air filled the corridor.

Arthur slowed, suddenly wary. He watched the shadows as he walked, inspecting each before moving on, wondering whether the windows had been opened to mask a scent or to cover up sound. Nothing happened and no one appeared to intercept him on the way to his chamber door, which was...

Unlocked.

Propped open.

A gun would attract unwanted attention and could too easily be turned against him in close quarters. A sword would be too obvious. Arthur unsheathed a knife and pressed a finger to the door, pushing it in.

A single lantern burned on the far end of the room where he kept his private workspace. The curtains were drawn, but it was too early in the evening for the moon to have risen over the fortress wall to provide any illumination, but he didn't need more light to see his room had been tossed.

Again.

One cabinet had been pushed onto its side. The mattress listed toward the floor, blankets and pillows strewn everywhere. His bookshelf had been vandalized, every book carelessly cast aside, and loose maps, archival documents, and the rolls associated with his position as the commander of Camelot's Knights were scattered over the table, his desk, and the ground. The side door leading to the privy was ajar. The other door, which led to a small room meant for a manservant, but had long been used for storage, was open and a few childhood toys littered the ground.

Arthur shut himself into his chambers and took another long, slow look around before he walked further in.

His room was decorated in such a way that there were few places for an intruder to hide. The curtains at the windows didn't reach the floor. The single tapestry hung flush, though askew, against the wall. The cabinets contained his clothes and some of his armour and were too small to properly hide a man or a woman, though he checked them anyway. The privy and bath were empty. The side room was too neatly packed away with chests and boxes pushed flush against the walls or crowded under and onto the single cot for someone to hide, though now those chests and boxes were wide open and their contents scattered on the ground.

There was no one there.

Arthur locked the door to his room and did a slow circuit again, lighting the lamps and lanterns as he went. It wasn't until his third go-around and every single shadow was alit, that he was convinced that there was no one in the room and that nothing had gone missing.

He sat down heavily on the bed, his knife in his hand, and willed his racing heart to calm down, for his unsettled belly to ease.

The break-ins started when he was twelve years old, weeks after returning from a mission with some of the other Knights. He'd barely been a page, then; too young to lead but not too young to fight, already more skilled than their most experienced and intelligent enough to hide it. These days, the invasions occurred more often, always on the return from one assignment or another, and usually some time afterward, so that no correlation could be made between Arthur leaving the castle and the presence of an intruder in his chambers.

Arthur had never told anyone about them, just as he never found out who was behind the random pillaging of his rooms. At first, he thought it was more of the same bullying he'd had to endure while growing up. For the longest time, he wondered why he'd been targeted. That wonder became a question of tactics -- why not wait until Arthur was out of Camelot? -- until he realized that the person or persons responsible were waiting for him to become complacent, lowering his guard, using this occasion to force him to make a mistake and to reveal himself.

It wasn't until Arthur cautiously but actively began to collect information on the renegades who plagued all the Kingdoms and harangued the thanes that Arthur had a reason to reveal himself. Except Arthur wasn't stupid.

In case he was still being watched, Arthur didn't approach the loose stone beneath the leg of the bed. He didn't inspect the cabinet to ensure that the hidden panels were still in place. He didn't so much as look at the wall tapestry that he had systematically sewn together from two matched pieces to contain hidden compartments.

He refused to reveal himself.

Arthur sheathed his knife. He picked up his room piece by piece, restoring it the way it had been, and tried not to think too much about the increasing frequency of these searches, or how it meant that he was being suspected of a treason that he hadn't yet committed.

 

Portrait of Arthur

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

"... almost there!"

For a moment, Merlin thought he'd spoken his thoughts out loud, except his inner voice wasn't female, and he would never be so careless to reveal himself in any way, shape or form while he was on the run. He froze where he stood before slowly inching toward the smooth stone wall of the ruins, careful that his borrowed boots didn't crunch the dry leaf litter on the ground. He stayed where he was until he was satisfied that no one had seen or heard him. Under the cover of night and the shadows of forest, tucked away behind a broken stone wall, it would be a mean feat to have seen him at all, but Merlin had been careless before, and he would not be careless now.

The woman's words were answered with an indulgent sigh. "You're no longer a child, Morgana, and this tantrum does not flatter you. Your coup on Uther's throne will have to wait. War is coming, and the High Priestess' priorities are elsewhere."

Merlin moved to the edge and peered around the corner. A cloudy night marred both slivered moon and starry skies, but a flaming torch had been cast carelessly aside, where it burned dried grass. Oddly, the fire didn't spread; the ground smothered it, and the air around the two women was more smoke and haze, though it did cast as much light as the small glass lantern that had been set on a cracked stone slab. It was enough to see by, and Merlin immediately recoiled when he recognized Morgause.

He cursed under his breath.

The Sisterhood of the Old Religion had been an uncomfortable ally to the druids and warriors of Ironwood, though Merlin, too young at the time, had never been privy to the details. He remembered Taliesin's anger when the Sisterhood refused to provide assistance toward the end; he had called them self-serving traitors, more interested in pursuing their own agenda than peace and unity. Where Ironwood were never numerous, the Sisterhood counted themselves in the hundreds, if not thousands. Most of their acolytes were pretty young ladies drawn from the lower castes, though a great many more came from the thanes themselves -- daughters to be trained to be proper ladies for their future husbands, sisters to be taught their places, wives cast aside when they could no longer carry heirs.

On the surface, the Sisterhood was nothing more than a nunnery and a finishing school from which many thanes found beautiful wives skilled in a broad range of delicate arts, the least of which was not necessarily limited to bedroom activities. Past the masquerade, the Sisterhood was an academy of sorceresses, most without any power worth noting, all of whom were instructed how to enhance their gifts with those of their sisters to achieve greater power and strength.

The Sisterhood was a neutral entity, without territory to call its own, each member answering to no one but the High Priestess, acting as nothing more than a passive presence in the politics of the thanes. Gracious, diplomatic, effusive in their generosity, the Sisterhood represented an ideal that every thane wanted on their arms.

They were the most dangerous organized body in all of Albion.

Sisters in every Kingdom. Wives in every thane's bed. The rich and the powerful at the mercy of sweet smiles, tantalizing bodies, and gentle words that were as paralyzing in a whispered spell as they were in spreading a carefully-crafted rumour to shape and manipulate the fate of the future.

If Morgause was here...

Merlin risked another look.

Yes, it was Morgause. Long blond hair fastened away from her face. A non-descript grey cloak over a silvery chain mail vest. Plain trousers and riding boots. A sword at her left hip, a gun holster at her right.

The other woman paced a hole in the ground before settling in front of Morgause. They were of a like height, though Morgana's features were fine where Morgause's were sharp, and the black cloak she wore did little to distract from the light purple of her dress.

"And don't try to use your powers on me, little miss," Morgause chastised, her expression dark, her tone foreboding. "I may be Nimueh's right hand, but her course is set. It won't work if you try to make me change her mind, and I'll have to tell you what you tried to do to your own sworn sister. Nimueh warned you to be judicious in the use of your power. You don't want to upset her, do you?"

Morgana stopped pacing. Her shoulders rose and descended in a heavy breath. "Of course not."

Morgause's voice was as cloying as dripping honey. "Such a shame that Uther did not accept our invitation when you came of age. You, your power... You would have grown into such a devastating --"

"He didn't want me to become one of Nimueh's trollops," Morgana snapped. "And for once, I agree with him. Why would I be one amongst a thane's wives when I could be thane?"

Morgause said nothing. From Merlin's vantage point, he could see how she narrowed her eyes in that calculating, measuring way of hers, as if trying to decide how best to proceed. It was so unlike Morgause that Merlin was having a hard time rationalizing her with the vicious, cutthroat woman he'd seen years before.

"And you will be thane," Morgause said soothingly. "But now is not the time. The war --"

"The war. The war," Morgana mocked. She turned in a graceful sweep that would make even the young women from the Sisterhood sigh in envy. "You're a broken record that plays only one tune. 'The war is coming', and that's your excuse every time I try to push forward. Since when are you afraid of a handful of rebels? Even the thanes ignore --"

Morgause's hand stretched out, palm up, fingers curled inward, and Morgana's words finished on a gurgle. She grasped at her throat, scratching at nothing.

"You'll watch your tone with me, little miss," Morgause said mildly, her brow furrowing with the strain of keeping her spell from dissipating. This was the Morgause that Merlin knew, all sharp edges and brute force, with little subtlety except for when it suited her to play along.

He'd risked his life that night all those years ago, though through no fault of his own. He'd been snow-blind and soaked through from a terrible storm, half-frozen from the encroaching ice of a winter like none any had ever seen before. Lost, with no idea of his direction, Merlin had stumbled onto the Sisterhood and pleaded for their mercy.

They'd given it, such as it was. A roof and a meal came with conditions. Work on the roof like the other male refugees. Dig out the roads. Muck the stables and tend to the pigs. But the food distributed to men was different than the hot meals given to the women, and the men became weaker and weaker every day, unable to complete the tasks they'd promised to finish in exchange for a few nights under a dry roof. The longer they stayed, the more indentured they became; daughters were bartered off into the Sisterhood to pay for their debts, wives released from their vows.

Merlin had nearly fallen for their trap. If they'd seen past his guise of gnarled hair and knotted beard, through the layers of dirt that hadn't been washed off in weeks, he would've been put to death.

Or shackled and made to serve them in some other way, breeding them powerful little witches, whether he wanted to or not. It wouldn't be the first time that they'd gone that far.

It was there that he'd first seen Morgause, witnessing for himself her incapacity for compassion and the breadth of her cruelty. Her hate was not fixed on men alone, for she beat young women in equal measure, brokering no disrespect.

Merlin had stayed no longer than he needed to. Completed chores without error while discreetly using his magic to avoid sabotage. Ate from his own dwindling stores of food. Walked out while the storm still raged down.

As far as he knew, Morgause had no idea that he even existed, and he wasn't about to do anything to change that.

Merlin sank down against the stone wall, his legs giving out from under him. He trembled with exhaustion. His leg ached; his chest and back were a knotwork of pain. He wasn't so sure that he could keep going even if he found a way past Morgause.

Arthur had set out a very detailed escape route. He'd timed it down to the last bell. In the distance, Merlin heard the chime signalling the eleventh hour. Over the jagged hillside, less than a kilometre beyond the ruins, the patrols would dismount for fresh horses. The groom would linger in the dark, smoking linsillweed as he always did, and once he'd come out of the drug-induced haze, he'd dip to the stream to wash up so that no one would smell the acrid scent on his skin.

That would be the best time to steal the horse, Arthur had explained. A weak spot in the patrol that hadn't been addressed, not yet, because the patrols were meant to guard against intruders coming to Camelot, rather than leaving it. The guards would be at the furthest point of their circuit by the time the groom was well lit, and the horses would be glad of someone who didn't smell of sulfur springs.

Merlin glanced around the corner.

He wouldn't make it.

Morgana's frantic clawing at empty air had slowed down, and Merlin wasn't sure, but he thought she was turning blue. Morgause eased her invisible grasp around Morgana's throat.

"I will tell you this because you are my favourite," Morgause said. "The war that is coming is the war with the Sidhe."

"The S --" Merlin bit down on his exclamation and jerked away from the edge of the wall. He closed his eyes, gathering up both his magic and what little strength he had left in case he would need to defend himself. But the seconds passed without discovery. Morgause was still talking.

"-- council of thanes will be convening soon. Mercia will call in all favours owed them and demand that the Kingdoms band together under their banner. You are to ensure that Uther refuses to go to Mercia. If you can't, see to it that he takes command of the army himself."

Merlin tilted his head to the side when he heard no response. He caught a glimpse of Morgana shaking her head.

"It won't work."

"What works and what does not work is none of your concern. Don't question us. We expect that Uther will go to war with the rest," Morgause said. "Push so that Uther positions himself, and the rest will fall in place."

"I mean, that won't work," Morgana said, whipping around. "Arthur is the commander. Already, the Knights begin to obey him, rather than Uther. He's winning them to his side no matter what I do."

"Discredit him," Morgause said dismissively.

"You think I haven't tried?" Morgana snapped. "The bloody guards can't find the evidence to paint Arthur a traitor even when I place it in plain sight --"

Morgause closed the distance between them. She was shorter than Morgana, managing to tower over her, full of menace. It was enough to force Morgana to stammer to a stop. "If you cannot control him, if you cannot push him aside... You know what you must do."

"He's my brother," Morgana said weakly.

Morgause raised a brow. "I thought you wanted to become thane. One does not gain power without sacrifice. I was under the impression that you understood that."

"I do. It's just..." Morgana trailed off. She looked down and away. Her hands were wrung before forced to stillness.

"There's no room for sentimentality when one sits upon the throne," Morgause said. "Kill him now and be done with it, or he will turn on you when you least expect."

Morgana started to protest, but Morgause's words had struck home. Her jaw shut with an audible click.

"You have a replacement," Morgause said, her words as much a question as it was a statement. "Someone who will obey your every whim. Position them properly, and do it quickly. Mercia's messengers are already spreading through the Kingdoms. It will be a mere matter of days before it arrives in Camelot. Nimueh wants assurance that the Knights will obey the Sisterhood."

Morgana said something that Merlin couldn't hear.

"Patience, sister," Morgause said, grasping Morgana's arm. "Wait only a little longer, and your efforts will be richly rewarded. Camelot will be yours, and any challengers to your position will be dealt with in short order. Now, hasten your return, before someone notices you're missing."

"I understand," Morgana said, leaning in to kiss Morgause's cheek. The two went their separate ways -- Morgause to a dun gelding and to the northern road, veering off to the west to avoid the patrol route, Morgana to her white palfrey and a subdued return to Camelot.

Merlin sank back against the ruined wall, pressing hard against the stone to let the cold seep through his thin clothes to numb his wound.

I understand, Morgana had said.

"No, you really, really don't," Merlin said under his breath. He didn't, either. He was missing too much information. But he had experience that Morgana didn't have, and he'd seen what the Sisterhood was really like behind closed doors.

Merlin didn't know how the Sisterhood expected Morgana to manipulate her father, the thane, into refusing to band with the other Kingdoms of Albion to guard against the Sidhe. That required a knowledge of courtly dealings that he didn't have, but it wasn't far-fetched to believe that the right word or forged document could drive a wedge between allies. Merlin had heard little about Uther, and what little he'd gathered only confirmed that he was the sort of man who would happily use any excuse if it would gain him the advantage.

Should whatever tactic Morgana used work and Uther ended up leading the charge over Mercia and the other Kingdoms, Uther would somehow succumb to the Sisterhood and direct the war at Nimueh's fancy. Merlin had no great head for political maneuvering and could only vaguely extrapolate outcomes, but a blind man could see that Camelot was prime territory laden with natural riches and the envy of most other Kingdoms.

The High Priestess of the Old Religion wouldn't make use of Camelot's Knights. She would decimate the best, enslave the rest, and move her acolytes into the castle, leaving the Sisterhood's decrepit building that had been decaying for decades and into the middle of what could easily become the seat of power for the entire country. Like Morgause, Nimueh wasn't known for keeping her promises, and Merlin wondered just how long Morgana would be strung along until she realized that they never intended for her to take charge at all.

Merlin blew out his breath slowly.

He thought about the mountains. Of the illusion of peace and tranquility he'd held onto for his whole life while knowing, deep down, that escaping to the mountains was no guarantee of safety.

He'd fled. He'd always run from everything. First to guide the enemy away from Ironwood. Then, when Ironwood fell, the Elders dead and the remnants scattered, he'd steered clear of the rebels, wanting nothing to do with small bands of people who would only end up killed in the same way Ironwood had been.

He was running now.

Merlin rubbed his face.

He wanted more. He'd always wanted more. He wanted freedom. Equality. To live his life unfettered, subjected to laws that were fair and just.

He wanted...

Fuck. He didn't want to run anymore.

Merlin might not know a great deal about the Sisterhood. He'd never cared to poke his nose in the business of the thanes. He was too busy running to ever consider joining the rebels hidden deep in the forest or lurking about cities and villages -- if they'd ever allow him to join them given the bounty on his head.

But he knew about the Sidhe. He knew too much. If Nimueh had a reputation as a cold, conniving woman with aspirations of great power and absolute control, capable of doing whatever it took to get there, the Sidhe were doubly so. Everything about them was alien -- their appearance, their culture, their laws. Where the Sisterhood would enslave their people for the betterment of an ancient ideal, the Sidhe would drain them dry.

There was no war that Man could wage against the Sidhe and hope to win, not now. There were too few guns, too little cold Iron, and the magic that had returned to the land would be but a mere breeze against the oncoming storm.

Merlin didn't know why the High Priestess of the Old Religion would want to meddle with the thanes' summoned war party, but the only conclusion was one that he liked not at all. Nimueh intended on paving the way for the Sidhe.

Merlin shuddered as much from the cold as from the fear of what would come.

He needed to tell someone, but who would he tell? He had no contacts amongst the rebels. No idea where the few remaining survivors of Ironwood might have gone. The thanes would sooner enslave him than listen to his warning. Even if he brought Nimueh before them and compelled her to confess her grand plans, it was more likely that the thanes would squabble over who would bed her first than who would have the privilege of pulling the lever for her hanging.

"Fucking Hell," Merlin murmured, pressing the balls of his hands against his closed eyes, pressing cold fingers against a throbbing temple. He had no solution. Nowhere to go. No one --

In the distance, the lights of Camelot glittered in the gloom. The night was as black as pitch, but those lights shone like diamonds.

He laughed to himself.

Loneliness had made him mad. Exhaustion and heartache had destroyed what little was left of his ability to reason. He couldn't believe that he was thinking of going back. He'd be putting himself into the thick of this entire mess. He didn't want to fight, but if he returned to Camelot, he would committing to doing whatever he could to brace against the wind before the Sidhe made landfall.

"You're bred for war," Taliesin had told him, once. Even after all these years, Merlin still had the sense-memory of his old teacher placing a big hand on a young-Merlin's chest, pressing hard and giving him a little, affirming shake. "So full of anger. What makes you so angry, little one?"

"Everything," Merlin had told him, because he'd been too young to understand his own emotions and to find the fine divide between them and his magic.

But when war came for Ironwood, and the people who lived with them had needed time to get to safety, Merlin had volunteered to draw their attackers away without hesitation.

Merlin would never forget the disappointment that had flickered in Taliesin's eyes, but everyone else had looked relieved, obviously understanding more about the sacrifice Merlin would be taking. And anyway, there had been no other volunteers. When Merlin had risked everything to return to the grove, years later, hoping for traces that would lead him toward those who had become his family, it was to the overwhelming weight of survivor's guilt and the urge to keep on running.

"What makes you so angry, little one?" he heard in his head, and as much as he wanted to believe it was Taliesin's voice resonating in memory, he didn't remember what any of his old friends and teachers sounded like, not anymore.

"Everything," Merlin answered, tilting his head up to the sky. The clouds shifted, the stars peeking through, twinkling as if they shared a secret.

"Then maybe it's time you did something about that rage," Taliesin had told him after a long, thoughtful silence. He'd taken Merlin by the hand and led him to the practice field, placing him in front of a big burlap sack and putting a thin stick in his hand. Merlin easily recalled his confusion, because why bother giving him a practice sword when he could turn the sand inside the bag into glass and shatter it from the inside out? Taliesin had put a firm hand on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing comfortingly, and had said, "Anger has its place in battle, but you can't let that rule you. You need to temper your emotions with the cold mind of a soldier, or your magic will destroy you --"

"I don't care," Merlin had said, petulant.

"And everyone you love."

"Everyone I love is dead," Merlin said, rubbing a hand over his face. The pain he felt now was not unlike the fear of loss that had stunned him to silence as a child, and the sense-memory of Taliesin guiding his sword-hand in a four-fold pattern against the burlap sack had him stretching out his arm. Merlin swallowed thickly, wiping the tears from his face.

"I can teach you how to rein your power, but you are the only one who can find a proper balance between your heart and your mind." Taliesin had crouched in front of Merlin, gently guiding the wooden sword aside, and had offered a kind smile. Merlin had always thought it strange to see such a warm smile from a man who had possessed such cold eyes. "You need to find something worth fighting for. And more than that, little one, you need to learn that even the most powerful among us never fights alone."

"I shouldn't have run," Merlin whispering, remembering how Hunith had bundled hastily-packed supplies into his arms and shoved him out the door of their little hut, urging him to be careful. He hadn't looked back until he was well into the trees, barely able to see the campfires and witchlights of the Ironwood camp, realizing too late that he hadn't even said good-bye.

Merlin rubbed his hand through his hair, fingers yanking at curly knots, and swore.

Arthur hadn't pushed him out the door, but his curt directions had been as firm as a hand on his back right before a rough shove. Supplies, Arthur had promised, were in the ruins right before the rise where Merlin would find the horse, and...

Merlin hadn't said good-bye. If Morgana succeeded in removing Arthur from the equation to further the Sisterhood's intricate plot, allowing the Sidhe to successfully lay siege to Albion, it wouldn't just be a small, little camp in the middle of nowhere that would be left in scorched ruins, bodies littering the ground and rotting in the open air.

Earth magic surged around him, light and sympathetic, and Merlin was reminded of the urgency he'd felt in the forest and how important it had been for him to stop the slaughter of Arthur and his men. He'd thought it was because the forest hadn't wanted to be tainted, but maybe it was for something more.

And, anyway, if Nimueh and Morgause wanted Arthur dead, Merlin now had a vested interest in keeping him alive.

"Fuck," Merlin muttered. "I'm going to regret this."

He rubbed his face one more time and pushed himself to his feet, using the pain to give him strength. His leg gave a dull throb, but it was steady beneath him.

With a quiet, determined sigh, Merlin turned for Camelot.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Morgana's resplendent lavender gown made her eyes appear bluer than they normally were, brought out the healthy glow in her cheeks, and effortlessly pulled unexpected confessions or unintended promises from petitioners who were more focused on her ample bosom than the wicked curl of her smirk.

Men were such fucking idiots.

Arthur watched yet another farmer walk away with a glazed look in his eyes, still dazzled by Morgana's clever manipulation and unaware that he'd made a promise to the thane of Camelot that his under-producing fields would be unable to fulfill. Morgana didn't have this effect on everyone, but the more she honed her skills and used her talents to her advantage, the better she became. Watching her at work was something to behold, but her charms, magical or otherwise, wouldn't serve her well on the battlefield. Maybe that was why Arthur was still alive -- him and Kay. A second and a spare. Morgana needed someone to do what she couldn't, if it ever came to war.

Uther might have favoured Arthur's mother over all of his many wives, but it was Morgana, from among Uther's few surviving children, who would doubtless become his heir. They had the same dark heart, the same ruthlessness, the same pretty trappings hiding a cruel and merciless soul. The two of them couldn't be more alike than if they had been cast from the same mould.

Maybe, if Ygraine hadn't died in childbirth or if Uther had been able to look at Arthur without seeing his beloved's murderer, Arthur would have been groomed a thane in the same way that Morgana had been. Maybe, if Arthur had had his father's love for even one moment, he would have cared for a throne that would never be his. Arthur couldn't live in a world of maybes, but that didn't stop him from having dreams.

Deep, deep down, hidden away from everyone, and never spoken of out loud, not even in an empty field, Arthur acknowledged that he didn't want to settle for what little future there was for him in Camelot. He didn't want the throne of a corrupted Kingdom among corrupted Kingdoms. He didn't crave power in a world where power was taken, rather than given, unequal in distribution and cruel in its tending. He wasn't interested in the riches that came with sitting upon an uncomfortable seat, growing fat on the backs of others.

No. Arthur wanted more. He had always wanted more. He was afraid to give that craving a name, so he hid it, deep in his soul, letting it fester like an open wound.

Correspondences with his associates amongst the rebels were burned and the ashes scattered in animal feed. Maps marked with their rumoured locations, past and present, were cleverly hidden in a few secret compartments in his rooms, or memorized. All the information Arthur had gathered on the military and magical complements of every thane in Albion was in code and glued within the pages of some of his books. Blackmail material on the thanes who wouldn't be easily swayed was squirreled away in the ruins around Camelot.

The rebels had no idea who Cavall was, and Arthur made certain to include enough information to make them believe that he was well travelled and well connected. There was truth in both, but nothing could lead the rebels to Camelot or to Arthur himself.

He did what he could to help their cause, acting in the role of a mysterious benefactor, careful to keep his identity secret.

And in the meantime, he bowed his head and did as he was told. He toed the line. He smiled when he was supposed to, killed whoever he was told to kill, and obeyed every command given, even if it made his soul die, bit by bloody bit.

"That him?" Kay asked, his voice low.

Unlike his half-brother, Arthur knew to pay attention to court on the few occasions when Uther requested his presence. There were consequences, however subtle, if any of the Knights broke protocol, but Kay, oblivious to his transgressions, took personal pride in breaking the rules. Arthur didn't turn to acknowledge Kay, instead listening to the growing murmur traveling ahead of the newest petitioner approaching the throne.

He was too angry with Merlin to trust himself to speak. Every contingency had been planned for. Arthur had put himself at risk to ensure that Merlin would be able to get away. He couldn't go so far as to direct Merlin to the rebels without the rebels asking too many questions and making the connection between Cavall and Arthur, but he'd told Merlin to go through Essetir where he would, hopefully, come to the rebel's attention.

Except Merlin hadn't bloody well done what he was told and escaped.

Eventually, Merlin limped to a stop in front of the raised dais, coming even with Arthur's position. Someone had done a half-decent job of cleaning Merlin up, though it was clear he'd put up a fight. His hair was a short, untamed mop that stood up every which way, with a cowlick on the crown of his head and spikes along the side, making it appear as if he had rolled out of bed and run his gummy hands through the bird's nest. His mountain man beard was gone, though he must have won the battle against a closer shave, if the fine, spotty layer of scruff along his jaw was any indication.

Dark circles weighed under his eyes. Gaunt hollows made his cheekbones more prominent. He was pale and sallow, with one foot out of his sick bed and into the grave.

Arthur clenched his jaw.

Merlin ran his right hand over the back of his neck, ignoring the hisses of the guardsmen behind him to Stay still and to Stop moving. He wavered on his feet, exhaling slowly when he moved to hold his left arm closer to his body.

Arthur had been shot before. Never twice at once, and never so close to the heart, but he remembered how much it hurt. There was no forgetting the treatment at Gaius' learned hands either, and if no one recognized how much strength it took to walk the distance from the alchemist's tower to the court when one was so injured, they were fools.

Gwaine was on the other side of the hall. He made a gesture Arthur couldn't miss and raised his eyebrows. He wasn't a man who impressed easily, but Merlin had won him over more than once during their dogged return to Camelot. Beside Gwaine was Leon, who stood at rapt attention, his focus entirely on Morgana, either intent on ignoring the spectacle or planning on causing one. Arthur forced himself to stay relaxed, but it was difficult.

Why hadn't Merlin listened? Why hadn't he left?

Uther's scrutiny was slow in coming, but when it came, it was uncompromising. He reclined on the throne, one arm on the sturdy rest, one leg stretched out. He leaned toward Morgana, who turned to give him her attention, but Uther didn't speak, and neither did he give her a quiet signal to use her magic.

A lesser man would wither under Uther's steady stare. Merlin scratched his jaw and heaved a put-upon sigh, as if wanting to be anywhere but there.

"No sense of self-preservation, yeah?" Kay whispered, amused.

Arthur ignored Kay, but his brother was right. Merlin's sudden attack on the Brigands, the blatant use of his magic -- in front of Arthur, at least -- to keep them safe on their journey, not taking the opportunity to leave when it was dropped into his lap, and the disrespect for someone above his station? No, Merlin didn't possess an ounce of survival instincts. He didn't know the meaning of the word.

Uther's fingers dug into the arm of his throne. Arthur couldn't read his father at all, and had no idea what to expect. "What is your name?"

"Merlin," he said easily, and Arthur glanced at the floor where Merlin stood, his heart in his throat.

The castle was ancient, reaching back into an era before known history. This room had been built upon the ruins of old, using the foundations not only to support the high-reaching rafters, but to contain the magic that had been braided into the stone, forming an eclectic golden pattern upon the floor. Visitors saw it as an extravagance, but only the family knew the gilded lines in the stonework were elaborate spells of interwoven imprisonment, forced coercion, and interrogation.

The more intense spellwork hadn't yet been activated, but the passive truthfulness spell inherent in the white quartz interlocked with the black marble was always live. Merlin's answer didn't trigger it, and Arthur felt the knot of tension in his chest loosen with relief. Merlin must be a name that truly belonged to him. A birth-name, Arthur guessed; it had the gentle sound of a child's name, without weight of destiny or duty attached to it.

Arthur glanced at his father. Uther's eyes were fixed on the stone, narrowed with suspicion. "And where do you come from?"

Merlin didn't answer right away. Arthur thought he saw Merlin glance down, and he must have, because his brow furrowed into a frown. When he answered, it was with a cautious, "All over."

Around Arthur, there was an exchange of glances, a low murmur of curious noises. He felt Kay nudge his elbow, saw Morgana sit up a little straighter, and watched as Uther shifted out of his insouciant sprawl upon the throne to lean forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped together.

"Where were you before you were brought here?" Uther asked, his words clipped. "Where were you going?"

"The forest," Merlin said, his tone glib. "Ealdor."

Uther snorted, raising his chin in self-satisfaction. Arthur knew that look. He'd seen it enough times, usually right before Uther proclaimed an accusation of treason and a death sentence. Arthur swayed forward, not entirely sure what he was about to do. A firm hand at his arm held him back.

He glanced at Kay. Kay squinted at him, more in curiosity than censure, and shook his head before glancing at Merlin in question. His eyebrow raised, a curl of amusement touched his lips, and he murmured a soft, "Huh."

Arthur pulled his arm away, feeling the heat of his blush on his cheeks, and stared straight ahead, trying to pretend nothing was going on while knowing full well that Kay wouldn't believe his denial of... Of whatever this was.

"The forest that borders Essetir," Uther said.

"Is that where it was? I suppose that might be right, then," Merlin said.

Uther turned to one of the councillors lingering nearby, inching closer to the raised dais as he dared without stepping on top. The councillor froze at the attention. "Doesn't one need to travel through Essetir to get to Ealdor?"

"Uh," the councillor said.

"One does," Merlin answered, sounding weary. He waved his good hand in the air in a vague gesture of annoyance. "Look, I'm not a citizen of Essetir. I don't work for their thane. I'm not in collusion with anyone from Essetir. I'm not in collusion with anyone, full stop. Does that answer the question you really want to ask?"

Across the room, Gwaine grinned and ducked his head to hide a laugh. Next to him, Leon drew his gaze away from Morgana long enough to cast Merlin with a disapproving scowl, and Kay coughed loudly to cover up his snort.

Arthur sighed heavily, as much in disbelief as in relief, because none of the white quartz so much as darkened at his words. The truth, however rudely spoken, was still the truth. Uther might raise his hand against Merlin for his impudence, but he wouldn't strike.

Morgana was smiling faintly, but it wasn't a reassuring smile. Uther slid back upon his throne, both arms stretched out on the armrests, his fingers digging into the wood. His knees were bent, his heels down, as if he were about to stand up. He remained sitting, and after several uncomfortable minutes, must have come to a decision, because he changed tactics.

"What were you doing in the forest?" Uther asked.

"Passing through," Merlin said.

"Going where?"

"Anywhere," Merlin said. After a moment, he added, "Nowhere."

Arthur's eyes narrowed. What was Merlin doing? Uther wasn't capable of compassion or sympathy, but Merlin was giving Uther all the ammunition that he needed to tailor an uncompromising reward that Merlin couldn't refuse.

"You're not associated with Essetir. You're not a spy."

"As I've said. No," Merlin said. After a pause, he added, "To both."

"You saved my men," Uther said. "Why?"

Merlin sighed. He rubbed his eyes, not bothering to hide his pain. He braced himself in a somewhat-steady stance, but he still wavered where he stood. He dropped his hand and said tiredly, "Because I clearly don't have the wits the Gods gave a common man. I don't know. It seemed to be the right thing to do."

Uther stared at Merlin for a long time. He stuck his leg out lazily, his grasp on the armrests easing, and glanced at Morgana. Morgana's smile of amusement was cold but unconcerned. Another knot in Arthur's belly eased, because he'd worried that Morgana would sense Merlin's magic and realize who he was.

"Such selflessness is rarely seen in this day and age," Uther said, a small curl to his lips. Arthur tensed. "Very often, it goes unrewarded."

Merlin shook his head. "I don't --"

"My son was among the men you saved," Uther said. He picked a bit of lint from his sleeve. "For that alone, I would give you what it is that you seem to seek. A home. I will grant you citizenship in Camelot."

A low murmur, varying in degrees of surprise and outrage, rippled through the crowd of onlookers. It was a generous reward, and not one given lightly. Citizenship in any Kingdom was a rare prize that not even a birthing would give, granting allowances of land, protection, and the right to speak as part of the thane's council, if the thane so permitted. Arthur had citizenship, of course, as did all of Uther's children. It was the payment given the Knights for their service, a privilege given to the rich and powerful, and both an irresistible lure and a tempting bribe, a deadly weapon that could only be wielded at the thane's hand.

The offer made Arthur's blood run cold. He felt as if his head had been placed on the chopping block. He could only imagine how many people would be lining up to either kidnap Arthur and hold him hostage, or to stage such an event, playing themselves the hero, all for citizenship. Or worse, killing him outright when Uther wouldn't give in to the demands.

"Son of a bitch," Kay muttered.

The quiet exclamation reminded Arthur that he wasn't the only one in danger. Uther didn't have that many surviving children. Morgana was his clear favourite, while Arthur and Kay were the only ones among his many sons who held a place in the royal hierarchy.

Morgana shot Uther a sharp glance, as if he'd done something that she hadn't expected. In the next instant, she sat up straight, her chin raised in determined defiance. Her normally pleasant expression had hardened, her eyes like steel, her cheeks pale. She'd come to the same realization.

And so had, apparently, Merlin. He had lowered his head and his gaze was downcast, now, his mouth in a thin line. Arthur didn't know him anywhere as well as he knew his siblings to be able to guess at what Merlin was thinking, but he felt himself hope that Merlin wouldn't turn it down. If he did, word would spread quickly, and as many people as there were who would make an attempt on Uther's children, there likely was an equal number of men and women who would be angry at any refusal, and would kill him.

If Uther didn't get to Merlin first.

"How generous," Merlin said. He stood up straighter and regarded Uther through hooded, canny eyes. "What's the catch?"

The room went very, very still. However insouciant, Merlin's question reminded everyone that Uther's gifts were not as magnanimous as they appeared. Arthur felt yet another knot loosen -- this one associated with the target that had suddenly been pinned to his back. He felt Kay's exhaled breath and noticed the subtle relaxation in Morgana's posture.

Uther, on the other hand, covered up his amusement at Merlin's blatant disrespect with an expression of grave irritation. "I will give you citizenship, but I cannot disregard the law of my Kingdom."

It's your Kingdom, no one said. Arthur was certain everyone in the room was thinking the same thing. You can do whatever you want. In fact, you do. Regularly.

"I see," Merlin said. He closed his eyes as if he knew what was coming. Casually, he asked, "And what law is that? Specifically. I don't need the full rote of it. Your point will do."

Uther allowed the silence to settle in the room before he spoke. "No sorcerer may become a citizen if they are unbound."

Arthur saw Merlin's attention drift toward Morgana, who was both a citizen and a sorcerer. Everyone believed that she was tethered to Uther, and that was a rumour they encouraged. She wore the collar -- a delicate necklace with a heavy pendant, easily removed by no one save Uther -- in theory. In reality, the collar was decorative, serving no purpose, and fettered her not at all.

Arthur held his breath. The most powerful sorcerers had stood in this very court, but none of them had so much as noticed that Morgana was free.

Was Merlin stronger than the others? Did he know the truth?

Something flickered in Merlin's gaze. Arthur thought that would be the moment when he revealed all. But instead, Merlin turned to Uther and bluntly asked, "To you?"

Uther snorted. He placed a proprietary hand on Morgana's arm. Morgana favoured him with a smile that was anything but heartfelt, and wore a falsely serene expression when Uther declared, "I believe, as your fate here is a result of your heroic effort to save my son's life, that it should continue to rest upon him."

Arthur's heart stopped. He didn't register that his name had been called until Kay shoved him out of the line. He stepped out onto the ensorcelled stone, aware of all the eyes on him, but he didn't move to stand next to Merlin until Uther gestured him forward.

He couldn't look at Merlin. He couldn't. It was all that he could do to keep from shouting at him, You fucking numpty. Why didn't you run?

A million worries settled in his gut. He was still in danger of being targeted by someone who might want to become a citizen badly enough that they would risk whatever additional price that Uther would ask of them. He would have to prepare for the eventuality that Morgana or Kay would also be in danger from the same threat, and ensure they would be protected. And Merlin...

Arthur didn't know how he was still standing. Two gunshots at short range. A less severe injury in his thigh. Blood loss. Major surgery. It was said that the bonding rite took a lot out of a sorcerer, too. He'd have to protect Merlin. Merlin was in no condition to defend himself now, and he wouldn't be able to protect either of them later.

Frustratingly, Arthur would be in no condition to defend anyone. His attention would be split in too many directions. The hair on the back of his neck was raised where he could feel the countless stares burning as his own men contemplated how to best do away with Arthur while he was compromised.

"Well?" Uther prompted, already getting to his feet.

Merlin exhaled heavily. Tiredly. It was a sound that Arthur didn't want to hear -- a death knell that resonated in the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin raise his hand, bringing it to his face. He risked a glance and saw the expression of a man who found himself caught between a rock and a hard place, with no wriggle room to breathe. When he lowered his arm, it was with the sort of scornful shrug that came with subtext that Arthur could hear loud and clear. Uther wasn't giving Merlin a choice; any rejection would be met with imprisonment, death, or worse, and Merlin knew it.

"What a generous gift," Merlin said, his voice flat and monotone. "How could I possibly refuse? I am a mere peasant and undeserving of such high regard. I can only hope myself worthy of the honour you've so generously bestowed upon me."

Arthur might not be standing next to his brother anymore, but he could hear the choked laugh loud and clear. So could the rest of the room. Everyone ignored Kay's outburst, and Arthur swallowed his annoyed sigh.

Merlin bowed his head and kept it bowed when Uther descended from the dais and strode forward. Arthur tensed when Uther paused beside him and hissed, "Bind him, or leave him dead in his sheets. I don't care. But by tonight, Arthur."

Uther walked past them. Slowly, the councillors filtered out, following in his wake or departing through side doors. The Knights in the hall meandered for a moment longer. They kept an eye on the remainder of the crowd and hustled them out, too.

Arthur saw the fear in Morgana's eyes as a guard escorted her to the side room, a proprietary hand on the small of her back pushing her forward against her will. "Leon!" he barked, "Accompany Lady Morgana until I send someone to relieve you."

For all that Leon hated Arthur, they were of a like mind where it came to Morgana. Leon was on the dais and intercepting the guard before Arthur even finished giving his order. The guard put up a token protest, but Leon easily outranked him, and while the guard might argue against Arthur's order, he wouldn't do it within the thane's earshot. Arthur watched a relieved Morgana disappear through the door with Leon and turned to Kay.

"Kay --"

"I know," Kay said, holding up his hands. "Disappear, right? Tell no one where I'm going? Show up for training in the morning, same as if it were any other day?"

Arthur nodded. Kay saluted and left, casting wary glances around him as soon as he crossed the threshold of the great hall. Kay was a skilled fighter, but even he couldn't hold his own against many opponents for very long. Arthur was under no illusions -- Kay would recruit a handful of people to watch his back, but he wouldn't trust any of them.

He turned to Gwaine. "I need your ears on the ground. Flag whoever's a threat."

"Will do," Gwaine said. He tucked his thumbs into his belt and glanced from Arthur to Merlin. "That can wait. The damage's done, and you'll need someone to watch your door tonight."

"I can do it," Merlin said. He half-turned to face Arthur, his balance wavering. He swayed, only to catch himself, and Arthur raised a brow. "Fuck you. I can ward a room. Not even the Gods will get through."

Arthur hesitated, not sure whether he trusted Merlin to be the best judge of his own strength, given his condition. He glanced at Gwaine.

"Unless, of course, you plan on killing me before the night's out," Merlin said carefully. Arthur winced, because he hadn't thought Merlin heard Uther's threat.

"I didn't bloody well drag your arse all the way to Camelot, bribe the best physician in seven Kingdoms to put aside his drink and perform surgery to keep you alive, only to kill you because you were too stupid to leave when I told you to --" Arthur cut himself off. No one was in the hall to have overheard his traitorous words, and Gwaine was grinning, looking at Arthur as if he'd answered all of his prayers.

Merlin nodded, satisfied, strangely willing to take Arthur at his word.

Arthur grit his teeth. He turned to Gwaine. "Arrange for food and medical supplies to be brought to my chambers."

"Sure," Gwaine said, reaching to take Merlin's good arm. "Let me take this one there, first. Looks fit to pass out, doesn't he? You can watch our backs on the way."

 

Coin image of Kay

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Arthur paced the length of the room like one of the big wildcats Merlin sometimes spotted prowling in the moors, restless with unbound energy. He'd dropped his long, flowing shoulder cloak over the back of an oversized chair, dumped all the fripperies of court on random surfaces, and kept his sword at the ready.

Merlin watched him for a few seconds before unceremoniously laying down on the softest bed he'd ever had the privilege to lay upon. He tried to roll over to ease the strain on his left side, but the effort was more than he could manage. Instead, he closed his eyes, fruitlessly attempting to pinpoint the moment when he decided to willingly cast his lot in with a man he barely knew.

It was either when Merlin realized that Arthur had not only known exactly who and what he was, but had chosen not to betray him. Or maybe it had been when Arthur had quietly urged him to leave Camelot as quickly as he could, providing him with an escape route and resources through the dubious discretion that was a half-drunk alchemist who played at surgery in his spare time. Or it might have been when he'd overheard two very dangerous women having a casual conversation about compromising Albion's defence in a forthcoming war against the most vile race of creatures to ever walk the land.

Or maybe it was this exact moment.

Arthur stopped pacing across his chambers, came over to the bed, and, without hesitation, placed a hand on Merlin's brow.

Merlin looked up to see concern in Arthur's eyes. "You're warm."

"Infection," Merlin said, closing his eyes again. "Probably."

Arthur's hand drifted down Merlin's cheek. The contact was comforting. His fingers lingered on Merlin's throat, light against his pulse, before drawing away. Merlin heard he rattle of ceramic, the splash of water, and a slow dribble into a bowl. Before he realized it, a cool, wet towel was placed on his brow, and there was knock on the door.

"It's me. I've got Gaius."

Arthur's hand was light on Merlin's thigh. "Stay."

"Not moving," Merlin mumbled. The brief warmth of Arthur's touch spread through him, and he didn't immediately notice when Arthur moved to answer the door.

The door creaked open before swinging wide. Two pairs of footsteps stomped in, one heavier than the other.

"See to him," Arthur said. "He's running a fever."

"Fucking Uther," Gaius said, shuffling closer to the bed. Merlin managed a soft chuckle and opened his eyes a sliver, watching the old man dump a large pouch on the side table. "He could've waited a day. A bloody week. Fucking self-entitled prick."

The damp towel was yanked away. Gaius' hand was rough on Merlin's forehead, nothing like Arthur's, and instead of measuring Merlin's pulse at the throat, he took Merlin's wrist.

"Help me strip him," Gaius said, grabbing Merlin's shirt to haul him into a sitting position.

"Gwaine, watch the door," Arthur ordered. The Knight moved, checking the lock and the barricade.

"He didn't ward it?" Gwaine asked, alarmed.

"Not in any state for that, is he?" Arthur retorted, supporting Merlin easily. Gaius did most of the work of removing Merlin's clothes, but Merlin gratefully leaned against Arthur. Arthur was broad and solid, calm and reassuring. The buttons, straps and buckles digging into Merlin's skin barely distracted from the contact.

Merlin didn't realize he'd fallen asleep -- or passed out, which was more accurate -- until he woke up, flat on his back, staring up at the wooden canopy of Arthur's elaborate, four-poster bed. The light was dim, relegated to a single lamp on the other side of the room, a flickering candle nearby, and a fire burning in the hearth.

He made out low voices. Gwaine, the curly-haired, bearded Knight, spoke in low tones with Gaius, who sat at the table on the far end of the room, heads bowed over a wooden bowl surrounded by small glass bottles. Arthur was next to Merlin on the bed, sitting up against the frame, a large, an old book in his lap, his fingers carding absentmindedly through Merlin's hair.

Merlin closed his eyes.

It was rare to feel like this. Safe. In the company of people who meant him no harm. Who cared enough for him to see him healthy and whole. Whatever their reasons for doing so, Merlin wanted... War or not, he wanted this to last.

A life on the run was no way to live. Sleeping with an eye open. Meagre belongings that could fit in a small pouch. Always ducking behind large objects to hide from newcomers. Struggling to remember a long litany of false names and the never-ending necessity of inventing new ones. Never letting his guard down, never letting himself rest, never letting anyone touch him.

"I know you're awake," Arthur murmured. His fingers stilled in Merlin's hair.

Merlin sighed, ignoring how bereft he felt when Arthur pulled his hand away, and opened his eyes. Arthur pressed closer, his leg heavy against Merlin's hip, as if preparing to hold him down if Merlin intended on suddenly rising up to flee.

"Are you strong enough to ward the room?" Arthur asked. His voice was low, almost husky, an intimacy of words that sent a chill down Merlin's spine. He might as well have asked, Do you want me to fuck you so hard you forget your own name?, because the answer to both questions would have been, Yes, regardless of Merlin's condition.

Merlin wasn't blind. Arthur was very fit. Like most men employed to a thane's service, he was broad shouldered and stout, muscled without being overburdened, hardened by a life learning the art of war and young enough that these were only hints of the man he would become. Nice to look at, but that wasn't what lit a fire in Merlin's groin nor what set a strange flutter under his heart.

He wanted to blame the fever, but he knew that what made Arthur so attractive was the easy closeness between them, the softness that came over Arthur's expression when he thought no one was looking, and the way his brow furrowed in thought as he puzzled out some great mystery in his head.

"Merlin." Arthur nudged his arm.

"Huh?" Merlin asked.

"The wards, Merlin," Arthur reminded him.

Between the pain, Gaius' tender treatment, and unavoidable unconsciousness, Merlin had completely forgotten about the veiled threat the thane of Camelot had issued against his own children. From Arthur's lack of surprise, it wasn't the first time that this thane had played games with his children to determine which one was best suited to succeed him, or to make an attempt, however obvious, against their lives when his children's power and popularity among citizens and councillors alike endangered the thane's own position.

Merlin wondered which of Uther's children was the problem. Most likely it was Morgana, if anyone suspected her of her misdeeds. Perhaps Arthur.

With a heavy sigh that betrayed how in over his head he was, Merlin grumbled, "Right. The wards."

Merlin managed to sit up with a grunt of pain. Arthur set his book aside and moved with Merlin, hands hovering close, but barely touching.

Somehow, Merlin managed to shuffle his way to the door without falling flat on his face. He stared at the solid oak, his magic eagerly tracing the natural knotwork and dancing around the edges of the steel bracers bolted into the wood. The frame was reinforced, iron-bolted into the stone.

It would do.

Merlin held out his hand. "Knife."

The hilt of a blade was placed in his palm without hesitation. It was a short, functional dagger, without frippery; a single edge and a pointed tip.

Merlin leaned against the door. He began to carve.

Arthur moved away after a few minutes. Merlin felt the heat of Arthur's palm hover over the small of his bare back, fingertips dancing over the tattoos swirling down his arm. A ripple of magic trembled down Merlin's body, setting the marks aglow. It was an instinctive effect meant to intimidate an attacker, a grating sensation on his skin that marked an enemy. And yet, instead of feeling as if he were bristling like a wild animal under attack, Merlin felt more as if his power was puffing itself up to make him more attractive, much like one of those peacocks he'd seen once, long ago, prancing across the manicured lawn of the castle in the southern Kingdom of Sommerlund.

Heat flushed his cheeks. He focused intently on the marks being carving into the wood, his voice hard when he said, "If the others want to leave, they need to go soon."

"Right," Arthur said strangely.

Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Arthur reach for him again, as if he meant to make contact with Merlin's skin and to trace the tattoos. Merlin grit his teeth, stabbing the knife so hard into the wood that a chip went flying.

"Tell them," Merlin snapped.

Arthur's hand dropped without making contact. After a strained minute, he moved away.

Merlin didn't hear the conversation. He was peripherally aware that Gwaine had come closer, but the Knight didn't say anything nor interrupt. Merlin was grateful, and didn't stop working, hardly noticing when Gwaine rejoined the quiet conversation between Arthur and Gaius.

He didn't have to carve the symbol. Chalk or charcoal would have done just as well. But carving was as close to permanency as he could achieve with the tools on hand. Deep down in his gut, he had a feeling that he would need to activate the protection ward frequently in the future, and it would be nice if it was ready when needed.

If he were stronger, he would dig the symbol deeper. He'd make it a bit bigger. But after living so long on the run and never having time to do anything but the most basic spells or crude variations of the complex, Merlin knew that, in the end, it didn't matter. Small or large, surficial or deep, his magic would have a foothold, taking intent and transforming it into something that could only be bent or broken at his will.

Merlin continued to guide the knife through the wood, pushing as hard as he could, concentrating on every curve, muttering ancient spell words under his breath. He stopped often, panting for breath, waiting until his strength returned enough to raise his arm and continue. Through it all, his magic hummed heartily under his skin, eager to pulse its way along the lines and to gain a form.

"Good Gods," Gaius said.

The shock in Gaius' voice was so reminiscent of the tone of his old teachers' disapproval that Merlin took an unsteady step back and inspect the ward for mistakes.

Symbols were powerful. Those that had come to them from a time long past were all the more powerful because of the millennia of belief that had been imbued into them. The simplest ward of protection was a circle with a diagonal line slashed through the middle, and was used liberally by both the magically-inclined and those who weren't. It was such a common mark that bandits were waylaid from their raids upon seeing the circle-slash drawn on a wall, even if there was no magic giving it strength to prevent their entry.

That was not the symbol that Merlin had unconsciously chosen to use. No. He had carved a shield upon the door. A shield was what stood between a man and death, the guardpiece against an assault, capable of blocking a blow and feinting it aside. The shield would protect against physical harm from an enemy and bar entrance, but it was the knotwork squares and curlicues within the shield that warded against evil intent in its every supernatural form.

Merlin frowned, seeing no mistake. He turned to look at Gaius.

The alchemist's eyes were pale and wide, his mouth open, an eyebrow high. His gaze drifted from the symbol to Merlin, and slowly, slowly, the eyebrow descended, joining its twin into a deep furrow. "Ironwood," he accused.

Gwaine appeared suddenly behind Gaius, his expression dark but unreadable. A heavy hand gently guided Gaius' aside, and Gwaine's attention fixed from Merlin to the symbol on the door.

Merlin saw the change in mood as if in a dream, the edges hazy, the floor uncertain beneath his feet. Tension filled every line of Gwaine's body, pulling taut like a marionette's strings, each movement jerky and telegraphed, broadcasting intent as surely as his cry of alarm.

Gwaine drew his sword.

Arthur grabbed his wrist and forced the sword back into its sheath, shoving Gwaine away with a loud shout. Gwaine fought to get his weapon free; Arthur stymied his every attempt with a grunt. "What's wrong with you?"

Merlin had no time for them, because the alchemist's anger radiated with the power of the ocean crashing upon a rocky shore. Gaius' right hand twitched, as if grasping for something that wasn't there.

Merlin felt magic rising to the surface, but it was just out of the alchemist's reach, sparking like a spluttering flame. Even if Gaius were able to overcome whatever prevented him from using his magic, it wouldn't have been enough to cause Merlin any serious damage. Gaius was too old. His magic not that strong. But his passion was great, and Merlin...

Merlin leaned against the door.

"Yes," Merlin said, allowing himself a weary sigh. "I trained at Ironwood."

Many years ago, hoping for some sort of sanctuary from the very place he had once run from, Merlin returned to the only home he had ever known and found Ironwood destroyed. The few teachers and even fewer students had either scattered or had been slaughtered; Taliesin's grave shallow enough to leave his remains partially exposed and rotting under the elements. Once renowned for training champions for the thanes, the old grove was now nothing more but old ruins and bones.

He had no idea who had gone against Ironwood or why. Who had chosen to denounce Ironwood as monsters. Anyone who practiced the old arts taught at Ironwood were slapped with hefty bounties upon their heads. Murders and thieves, betrayers and traitors -- whatever the story, it was less than flattering and without proof. Ironwood had only wanted more. They'd wanted better. They'd demanded it, too, and it had come down on them tenfold, eradicating the once-proud people and chasing the survivors into the shadows.

Merlin was twice-hunted, and neither reputation was deserved.

He watched Gaius and waited.

Gaius' mouth twitched. He stood straighter, his shoulders pushed back. He slowly seemed to realize that Merlin wasn't going to defend himself. Merlin did nothing as Gaius dissected him with his eyes, seeing him the way no one had seen him in a very, very long time.

"You're Emrys," Gaius said, his voice flat, as if that had been the only foregone conclusion. Merlin wasn't sure what to read into it. He was too tired to feel alarm.

This was a slippery slope, Merlin knew. There was nothing to tie Emrys with Ironwood, and yet, he'd been found out as both. It wouldn't be long before Arthur realized the significance, before he decided that he owed Merlin no allegiance. How long did he have before the others found out? How long before he would be chased by a raging mob eager for his head, distracted by the question of whether he was more valuable alive or dead. He knew it was just a matter of time before more people figured out his true identity. He had hoped he'd have had more time than this, to establish himself, to protect himself.

"No," Merlin said, feeling the carved sigil dig into the side of his skull as he shook his head. "I... I never went by that name. I'm... My name is Merlin."

Gaius' eyes narrowed once again. "You're Hunith's son."

Merlin raised his chin at the name he hadn't heard in over a decade.

He'd come to Ironwood an orphan, with no record or memory of his origin, merely one of many children left behind during yet another war or raid. Ironwood's healer, Hunith, had taken him in, ignoring her husband's refusals, and eventually, Balinor accepted that he had a son to call his own.

The bodies of his foster parents had never been found. Merlin didn't know if they were still alive. He'd burned a pyre for them, the flames raging high and illuminating the grove as he reburied Taliesin deep, returning him to the Great Mother as he would have wanted.

Merlin turned to Gaius. Something in him made him stand straighter, the way a child would when they wanted their parents proud of them. And yet, his voice still cracked when he confirmed, "Hunith raised me."

Unexpectedly, Gaius' steely resolve crumbled. "Oh, my dear boy."

Merlin was pulled into Gaius' grasp and held so tightly he suffocated on the wormwood and thistle lingering on the alchemist's skin. He couldn't find it in him to pull away from the kindness and the sense of familiarity that came with it.

"I thought you were dead," Gaius murmured.

Merlin caught a glimpse of incredulity on Gwaine's face, of confusion on Arthur's. He pulled away forcefully, knocking himself against the door. "Why do you care if Emrys lives or dies? Were you looking to win the reward for yourself?"

Gaius caught him, his hands on either side of Merlin's face. "You are my sister's son."

Merlin shook his head, only to... Only to see Hunith's indulging smile superimposed on Gaius' face, the same open affection in the crinkles around his eyes. The woman he had once called Mum had been shorter than Gaius, with finer bones and a more slender build. Her hair had been dark where Gaius' was light, but the colour of their eyes was the same.

Whatever resemblance he thought he saw, he didn't trust it until his magic reached out to wrap around the tendrils Gaius had left spiralling invisibly in the air, out of control. There was recognition in the magic, sussing out familiarity and kinship, however distant, and for a brief moment, it felt like coming home.

"Uncle," Merlin said, shattered. "Uncle, I --"

"No," Gaius said, his brows furrowing. A determined glint shone in his eyes. He shook his head firmly. "No. We have time. We will have time. You need to ward the room and to do as Arthur says."

"But --"

"If I'm right, you won't have long. Arthur -- take him," Gaius said, his orders firm. "Gwaine, come with me. The sooner we're away, the quicker the room is protected, and these two can..."

He trailed off, but Merlin's mind helpfully supplied what wasn't spoken out loud.

Bond.

Most sorcerers weren't so powerful that the law required a bond. A natural familial tether was enough. In most cases, the connection was nothing more than an anchor for a sorcerer who might become too entranced by their magic. In others, the bond was a way to control the sorcerer and to use them for nefarious means. Rare were the strong magic users, who were invariably dragged before the nearest thane, forced to their knees, and marked as property under their absolute control.

Bracelets, collars, brands, tattoos. Temporary or permanent, it didn't matter.

A bonding was a pretty way of dressing up what it really was. Slavery. Maybe it was pride, but Merlin thought he was strong enough to withstand the forced servitude that came with the bonding. He could use it as a mask to hide behind.

Ironwood had taught Merlin that, once upon a time, it hadn't always been that way. Sorcerers had once been free. Bonding was something that happened naturally, between paired souls, each grounding and strengthening the other, offering balance where there was none. But the old ways were the old ways, and times had changed.

"Arthur. Arthur," Gaius said. He left Merlin stumbling against the door and grabbed Arthur by his arms. "Forget all that I instructed you to do about the bond. Do you remember the stories I told you when you were a child? Do you?"

He shook Arthur so roughly that Gwaine squawked in protest.

"I -- I do, but why...?" Arthur shrugged Gaius' hands off and steadied the older man. "Gaius, what stories? You told me so many."

Gaius shoulders fell. He started to say something, but caught himself and shook his head. He patted Arthur's shoulder. "You're a good man. Do what you believe is right."

A strange expression came over Arthur; Merlin wasn't sure what to make of it. He expected the worst, of course -- marked permanently, rather than weighed down by a temporary chain, because no member of a thane's household would allow anyone close to the family who could be surreptitiously controlled by an enemy with the foresight to use another sorcerer to destroy a temporary bond. It was something Merlin could live with. He could work with it. Whatever enchantment was used, he would break it himself, even if it took years.

Decades.

Arthur looked at him, his eyes sad. Then, he clenched his jaw and turned to help Gaius and Gwaine gather their things. Merlin moved away from the door when it was swung open, leaning against the wall; he saw the grimness of the situation in the way Gwaine took Gaius' arms and forced a change of course to head down the other way.

"Ward the door now," Gwaine snapped. "Ward it now."

Arthur slammed the door shut. He flipped the latch, turned the bolt, and dragged a heavy bar from behind the decorative tapestries, hefting it onto the metal rungs as barricade.

A loud thump made the door vibrate. A shout was muffled through the wood. The doorknob jiggled, and an object slapped against the frame.

"Merlin," Arthur said. He was calm, though his hand twitched, fingers curling for a weapon, and he cast a glance around the room as if trying to decide what piece of furniture to move to block the entrance.

The frame splintered. The curved edge of an axe glinted through, reflecting firelight.

"Merlin," Arthur repeated, more urgently.

Merlin was tired. He could sleep for a thousand years. His back throbbed and any kind of abrupt movement hurt. Meeting his uncle had been an added strain to an already stressful day, but at least he didn't have to hide his power or his identity anymore. The toll of pretending to be yet another person was more than he could manage.

But magic... Magic, he could do.

He slapped a hand on the door, his fingers spreading wide to cover the carved shield. He felt the pounding on the other side, noting how it took on a more rhythmic, orchestrated effort. The axe cut deeper into the frame before it was yanked out for another blow.

Merlin didn't give it a chance.

His magic flowed like liquid gold, curving through the carved lines of the knotwork sigil. Every dip in the wood shone bright only to flash all the brighter when the last curl was drenched and all the lines were joined together.

The sigil pulsed like a heartbeat, and, abruptly multiplied. One sigil became four, four became twelve, twelve became --

Merlin's vision dimmed around the edges, but he could feel the ward multiply until it had wallpapered every corner of the room, from ceiling to floor, from fireplace to windows, to the cracks in the plaster to the vents in the corners. And when the last connected with the first, the flash that followed was so vibrant it seared Merlin's eyes and shrouded the room in blessed silence.

Merlin's hand slid from the door. Arthur caught him as he fell.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

"I hope this isn't going to become a habit," Arthur said, to no one in particular. He watched Merlin's chest rise and fall for several more cycles, reassuring himself that Merlin was still alive, before turning his attention somewhere other than his bed.

He ran his hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration he wouldn't perform outside of the privacy of his chambers, and stared for a long time at the closed door, half-expecting it to be broken down any minute now.

It wouldn't, of course. The door hadn't so much as rattled in the last hour. Whatever Merlin had done, it had effectively silenced any sound from the hallway and from outside while simultaneously turning the room into a veritable fortress. Arthur's attention drifted to the floor, where a piece of metal from the tip of an axe caught the firelight. He picked it up.

The tip was blunted from both misuse and poor heat treatment at the forge, but the edge was sharp and without nicks. The side that would normally be attached to the axehead proper had been neatly cut, as if by a very hot blade.

Or magic.

Merlin was Emrys, Arthur reminded himself. One of the most powerful sorcerers to have ever lived, if the minstrel songs were true and not wrought out of fanciful exaggeration. To learn that Merlin was Ironwood-trained only lent credence to the stories, even if it had briefly frightened Arthur to his very core. The only thing that had shaken him out of it was Gwaine's battle-cry and the absurdness of the situation.

He knew the histories. Gaius had made certain of that. Ironwood, the birthplace of warrior-druids of old, where the deadliest fighters in the Kingdoms were born and the champions of the thanes were made. Their original stronghold, its location long forgotten, had been burned down to the ground by the Sidhe more than a century before, but it had been Ironwood who had pushed the Sidhe from Albion's shores and had stood fast to ensure they would never return.

Time tempered memories and made people forget debts owed to those who had willingly given their lives in sacrifice for others. No thane was comfortable having untethered sorcerers in their lands and no Kingdom would give them a home. Ironwood were penniless and driven to live the lives of nomads or hermits, with small settlements deep in the wilds that bordered between Kingdoms.

Despite everything, somehow, the men and women of Ironwood kept to their traditions, training whoever came to them. In the early days after the defeat of the Sidhe, those warrior-druids moved on, presenting themselves to the thanes of their choice, who could no more refuse the treasure offered them than a starving man could snub a mouldy loaf of bread.

Arthur remembered the day he first heard the minstrels recount the hunt for the remaining men and women of Ironwood. Barely seven years old, he didn't understand what had happened or why his heroes were now fugitives, but he'd known well enough not to ask questions, to put his favourite stories with heroes from Ironwood away, to hide the toys with Ironwood soldiers, and to never bring Ironwood up again.

Thanes assassinated their champions. They set their armies to hunt down anyone who claimed to be Ironwood. Large rewards were paid out to anyone who could prove neighbours as Ironwood, and they, too, were dragged to the pitch and the flame. Someone had raised a small army of mercenaries and hunted everyone down. Thanes from every Kingdoms set their hounds onto those of Ironwood. Man, woman and child. Arthur was never certain who had been behind the large-scale genocide, though the nearly-mythical Witchfinder was often attributed in the songs.

And why? It was never clear. Arthur could only guess. Maybe it was because those of Ironwood refused a thane's rule. Their sorcerers and champions refused to be tethered. Their leaders dared to speak out against the Kingdoms.

They had been rebels before there had been rebels, and no thane would tolerate dissent.

Arthur observed Merlin's sleeping form. He didn't look away until he'd seen Merlin's chest rise and fall in another slow, pained breath. He had a warrior-druid in his bed, and once he'd tethered Merlin to him, he'd have a champion of his very own.

He tried to imagine Merlin fighting his battles for him and couldn't.

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. It wasn't enough that Merlin was Emrys. He had to be Ironwood, too. A reward on his head, dead or alive, regardless of who or what he was.

"You don't do anything by halves, do you?" Arthur asked, and Merlin answered with an unconscious sigh.

Arthur cast another glance at the closed door. He inspected the small side room, half-expecting an invading horde to suddenly appear, but it was empty of everything except for what Arthur had thrown in for storage. The windows in the main room were shut, and when he went to inspect the latches, he was struck by an urge to look outside.

He opened the shutters, sliding the frosted glass aside. Faint, ambient sounds filtered in, muffled by both the distance and the ward, but recognizable all the same. Guardsmen milled about, day servants headed home for the night, horsemen rode in, a patrol heading out. A small group of men across the courtyard were in heated conversation that stopped abruptly when one of them noticed the open window to Arthur's chambers; one man smacked his nearest companion in the chest and pointed up.

Arthur didn't pull away. The courtyard was far below, and it would take a determined man gifted in acrobatics some time to climb up. Six minutes was Arthur's record, and he could certainly close and latch the window in six minutes, assuming that the ward only worked if the room was completely shut.

A flicker of torchlight raced down the corridor on the far left of the castle. All the hallways were illuminated, not a single holder was empty of a burning torch. One floor above, to the right, several men patrolled in a staggered pattern, either protecting Morgana's chambers at Leon's behest, or waiting patiently for an opportunity. Arthur wondered where Kay was.

Gambling in the low city, most likely, with thieves, conmen, and crooks who cared little about citizenship and who knew well enough that kidnapping anyone, never mind a thane's son, was far more trouble than it was worth. They would be more inclined to cheat Kay out of all his money, keeping him safe and sound in a private back room until they cleaned him out of every bent copper he owned.

Arthur moved away from the window.

Kay and Morgana were as safe as Arthur could make them, considering that he was effectively trapped in his rooms. He didn't dare try to leave. He was one of the best fighters in Camelot, but had no illusions of his ability to hold his own against overwhelming numbers.

The carved lines of the protection sigil on the door glowed a steady, constant gold. It was the same colour as Merlin's eyes when he used magic. It was a pretty shade, but damning in how it ran through the carved lines like water down a river. Wards like those were permanent. How many maids came through his rooms during the day to clean, change the linens, deliver his laundry? How many stout men delivered his bath and filled it with pails of boiling water until it was full? Dozens, at least, and Arthur hadn't begun to count how many different serving men or women brought him his meals, the councillors who came to openly spy on him, the guardsmen who needed something, or the Knights asking after the roster changes or the training schedule.

Arthur sucked a tooth.

He could trust Gwaine to hold his tongue. Gwaine was a clever git on the best of days, and he'd rather blatantly manipulate than blackmail in order to get his way.

Gaius, on the other hand... Maybe once upon a time, before he started the long regimen of pickling and preserving his body with whatever alcoholic concoctions he manufactured with that monstrosity of shaped glass in his laboratory. His eyes had been particularly bright to recognize Merlin as his nephew, however, and Arthur wanted to believe that Gaius would protect his long-lost kin.

For now.

Gaius might be the weak link.

Arthur doubted that the servants would recognize the symbol on the door for what it was, but they would talk about it because it was something new. It wouldn't be long before whispers reached the wrong ears, or for those ears to belong to someone who came to see the mark for themselves and who would recognize it for what it was.

All these years of hiding the secret help he'd given to the rebels, only to be undone by the semi-conscious, protective instincts of an Ironwood sorcerer with a bounty on his head.

"Fucking Hell," Arthur muttered. He closed the window, twisting the latch. It was cold enough that he didn't want to lose the small measure of heat from the fireplace.

After yet another sidelong glance to assess Merlin's condition, Arthur shrugged out of his weapons and light armour. He went through his usual routine of inspecting his sword and knives for nicks before storing them on the rack next to the wardrobe, and turned his attention to the fine chainlink and shaped leather, oiling both where they showed hints of rust or dryness. His boots went on a mat near the door, left for the servants to brush and polish. He tossed the overshirt into the wash basket and his socks into the darning pile off to the side.

When he ran out of things to do and couldn't distract his own tiredness any longer, Arthur climbed onto his bed, careful not to disturb Merlin. He stretched out, and closed his eyes.

"Why didn't you run?" Arthur asked softly.

A faint rustle next to him was the only indication that Merlin was awake. "Why did you tell me to?"

Arthur stared at the ceiling of the canopy. He folded his hands on his chest. "Seemed like the right thing to do," he said honestly, because nothing else sounded right in his head. He was certain he could come up with something plausible and diplomatic, hurting no one's feelings, but it would take too much energy.

He also didn't give a fuck anymore.

"Hm," Merlin said. He was silent for so long that Arthur turned to see if Merlin had fallen asleep again. "Funny. Wasn't that what I told the thane?"

"You did. Like an idiot." Arthur snorted. "Who in their right mind would think giving up their freedom to be bound for the rest of their lives to some bloody twit of a thane's son was a good idea?"

Merlin rolled onto his good side and pushed himself up to a sitting position, half-leaning against the headboard. His jaw clenched, his eyes shut tightly, and he was very pale as he released a hiss of pain. He blinked several times, taking in the room but not actually seeing anything, before sinking into the pillows.

The silence stretched. Arthur thought Merlin might have passed out.

"Realists," Merlin said finally. "Not sure I would've made it very far. Odds are you'd have been in hot water, unless you were clever enough to set someone up to take the fall. Did you?"

Arthur frowned. The way Merlin had exhausted himself in court, it was easy to believe Merlin. He could barely stand up now, and casting the ward had taken the rest of his strength out of him. But the rest... Arthur actually hadn't thought of that. His lip curled in disgust, because he knew Morgana and Kay would have.

He wasn't like them, and that would be his downfall.

"No, of course you didn't. If I'd run, I'd only have seen you again a few hours later, sharing space on the platform while they set bales of hay around us." Merlin's gaze darkened. "I've seen burnings enough to know I've no interest in being the star attraction."

Unbidden, the memory-scent of burning flesh and memory-sound of screaming came to the fore, jarring Arthur out of his light doze. His body tensed, his nostrils flared half to get fresh air and half in revulsion. "No. That's not the way I'd want to go, either." He thought it was a small miracle that he was able to keep his voice steady.

He felt Merlin's eyes studying him. He resisted the urge to ask what Merlin saw when he looked at Arthur.

Merlin turned away with a curt nod. He scratched his jaw with his good hand, dropping it heavily on the mattress. "Anyway, I'm not giving up anything."

"Ah," Arthur said, unable to find it in him to be even a little bit surprised. "This was a ploy for time, wasn't it? Get your strength back, waltz out of the gates at first light, no one the wiser? What's the plan, then? Tie me up, leave me unconscious? Kill me outright?"

"No," Merlin said softly. He shifted again, steadying himself on his side, and when Arthur turned to look, it was to find himself the target of a pair of very blue, intense eyes.

"Not going to tell me?"

"I'm going to stick it out," Merlin said.

Arthur pushed himself up to a sitting position. "You what?"

"I'm staying," Merlin said.

"Why would you --"

"Because." The word was weighed like a war-hammer, full of intent and hidden meanings, capable of shattering even the most stout of barricades. Arthur found himself bracing for the impact even before Merlin said another word. "I'm gambling that the man who's willing to let me go is also the man who'll let me stay."

Arthur rolled out of bed. He stood up only to lean against the mattress, his back to Merlin, his head down. No. There had to be more to it than that. Merlin was Emrys. Thanes would pay a great deal to have their hands on him and to use him for their own purposes. Or they would capture him outright. Merlin would be stupid to stay where he could be easily caught and killed.

And yet, Merlin was also Ironwood, which meant that he might be working with the rebels. Arthur had long suspected that those who had survived the Ironwood massacres and continued to evade the Witchfinder were also working with the rebels -- if they weren't the rebels themselves. If it were anyone else but Emrys, Arthur would suspect that the intention was to put someone on the inside of a thane's household and to destroy it from the inside out, somehow.

He didn't think that was what Merlin was up to. Not if he'd spent his entire life running from every bounty hunter and their mother. When would he even have the time to collude with the rebels and come up with such an intricate plan?

No. It had to be something else. What would motivate someone of Merlin's power and reputation to willingly tether themselves to a thane's son where they would be unable to go against them? The tether could be faked, of course, but Arthur didn't have those resources.

A scoff worked its way out of his chest, only to falter.

There would be no getting around it. However much Arthur trusted Gwaine and Gaius, Merlin's true identity would eventually come out. What little Arthur had seen of Merlin's fighting style was easily identifiable as an unique blend of various arts from different parts of the Kingdom, but anyone who watched him train long enough would be able to pick out the tell-tale signs that would flag him Ironwood as surely as did the protective mark on the door.

And once revealed, the uproar wouldn't be limited to Camelot. The bordering Kingdoms would rattle the sabers in their sheaths, ready to go to war to claim the most powerful sorcerer in Albion -- or to kill him outright. Arthur's importance would be limited to his control of Merlin through the bond, but it wouldn't be long before someone would decide they wanted that privilege for themselves. They'd murder Arthur for it.

The only question was who would make the first attempt. Uther would certainly try.

Was that why Merlin was staying? Did he just need another place to hide while he healed? And was he going to run, later, after Arthur was dead, leaving Camelot to get in the way of anyone who would come after him?

"I'm nobody," Arthur said. However painful the admission, there was no forgetting the nearly-permanent disdain in Uther's eyes when Arthur gave his reports, nor the way his own men treated him with far less respect they would the blacksmith's dog. He might be the first-born son, but he had no power at all. His eyes drifted toward the glowing sigil. "I can't protect you."

"No, you can't," Merlin said, his agreement stinging. "But you don't have to."

Arthur looked at Merlin over his shoulder.

"I can protect myself. I can protect you," he said, his voice low, the way it was when lovers shared a secret. "But I can't do much with fetters."

Why would you want to protect me?, Arthur wanted to ask. It was more important that he understand what Merlin wasn't saying out loud. Was Merlin suggesting a bond without a bond? Surely he knew that was a risk in itself. They would have to act bonded. Merlin couldn't leave. Arthur would have to trust him above and beyond even those who were his most trusted men. Arthur needed to know why.

He wasn't stupid. He knew that they were at each other's mercy. Merlin could easily accuse Arthur of betraying his thane by planning Merlin's escape. Arthur could reveal Merlin's true identity and condemn him to mindless slavery under Uther's rule.

Arthur had no interest in seeing another man lose their freedom. For some reason, Merlin seemed unwilling to act on the advantage he had. Maybe they could come to some sort of an accord?

"Speak plainly," Arthur said. "What do you want?"

"I'm tired of running," Merlin said. He pushed himself into a sitting position with a grunt, swinging his legs off the other side of the bed.

"Do you want to try that again, this time with the truth?" Arthur asked.

A wry smile touched Merlin's lips, but sadness filled his eyes. "I am tired of running. That would be true for anyone who's lived any part of my life."

"But it's not the whole truth," Arthur said.

"No," Merlin admitted, and more easily than Arthur had thought he would.

"What's the rest, then?"

Merlin clenched his jaw. His brow furrowed thoughtfully before he shook his head. "Nothing you won't find out in time. And it's best that you do as the time comes, and for you to learn of it... officially."

Arthur raised a brow at the curious choice of words. He wondered what it was that Merlin knew, and what it was that Arthur did not. "Will it harm Camelot if I wait to find out?"

Merlin didn't answer right away, but when he did, it was with a considering, "No." He scratched his jaw, and waved in the air, as if in paltry offering. "If it helps, I'm pretty sure you'll be glad I stayed once you find out what it is."

Arthur weighed Merlin's words against the risk that Merlin was lying. He didn't know the man well enough to understand his motivations or why he would stay at all. He didn't want to trust Merlin, but the words were out of his mouth before he realized he'd spoken out loud. "Fine. But I want something, too."

Merlin's eyes narrowed, his posture changed from merely pained to cautiously guarded. "What do you want?"

Arthur crossed his arms, shifting to stare at the bookshelf on the far end of the room. There were no books, only instruments of war. A helm, gauntlets, a small buckler. Artefacts from a time before this one, archaic and rudimentary, speaking of a genetic legacy of violence and war.

"I'm tired of fighting," Arthur blurted out, surprising himself. Even as he spoke, he realized that it wasn't strictly true. "Petty skirmishes, land grabs, random raids. I'm tired of it. It's useless, it's meaningless, it's..."

He trailed off when Merlin sat down next to him. He hadn't even noticed Merlin getting up.

"It's what?"

This close, Arthur could see the scrapes under Merlin's short scruff, the tired bruises under his eyes. He was pale, but it wasn't so much the doomed yellow undertone of sickness, nor the grey-ash of impeding death. Merlin was tired, mirroring the core of Arthur's soul.

"It's empty," Arthur said, the words coming out of him easily after being kept bottled up for so long. He should be afraid of eavesdroppers who would report back to Uther. He should be afraid of Merlin, who could betray him, if Merlin hadn't already been engaged to do so. Instead, he was filled with a strange sort of serenity to give voice to the outrage he'd muffled for years.

Merlin nodded, his expression flat. Arthur searched his face, but could not find the slightest curl of glee nor secretive glint that came with deceit.

"If we're going to go off to fight for our thane, it should be for the protection of the people, not the protection of property. I've seen too many good men and women die for nothing more than another fifty acres of land we can't even farm. I've killed --" Arthur's voice caught in his throat, suddenly thick. He swallowed hard. "People are only trying to survive."

Merlin made a faint noise, but Arthur couldn't tell if it was with approval or agreement. Maybe both. Of anyone, Merlin would know better what it was like, to struggle each and every day with only one goal in mind -- to see the next day.

"All right," Merlin said. Arthur felt as if he'd just asked for the keys to all of the Kingdoms, and Merlin obliged because he just happened to have them in his pocket.

Arthur sighed, tucking his chin to his chest, crossing his arms tightly. He stared at the floor between his bare feet, noticing the cracks in the stone, worn-down and polished from countless passages. He elbowed Merlin. "How is this going to work?"

Merlin didn't answer right away. When Arthur glanced at him, a soft, thoughtful expression had replaced the pained grimace. Merlin studied him, a pinch to his brow, and after what seemed to be an eternity nodded in... agreement? It was as if he'd already come to a decision, and Arthur couldn't make sense of it.

"I have a few ideas."

"Okay," Arthur said, more amused than annoyed. Anyone else would have been too terrified of their situation to so much as make a demand, but he was learning that nothing was typical when it came to Merlin. Common conventions were defied, expectations shattered, and though he would play the game, he was canny enough to flatten the playing field without so much as casting a spell or raising a weapon. Arthur felt he should be concerned. Instead, he felt relieved.

"I need a roof over my head where I can sleep without having to keep one eye open," Merlin said. "I don't much care where. Close to you if possible. The thane put a target on your back, and it does me no good if I'm in a barracks somewhere when you need help."

Arthur jerked his head toward the side room attached to his chambers. It wasn't very large, with barely enough room for a cot, and he'd been using it as storage. "If you can clean it out without throwing anything away, it's yours."

Merlin turned to look. He didn't say anything for some time, and finally nodded as if that satisfied his demand. "Gonna need other clothes than these."

Arthur glanced past Merlin's bare, scarred, tattooed chest, and at the rough cloth of the trousers he'd been provided. It was better fare than most, but barely better than what the Knights gave the newest recruits. "I agree. You can hardly be in my company wearing rags."

Merlin snorted, but fell silent, satisfied.

"Anything else?"

Merlin took a slow breath. His shoulders tensed. His gaze was distant when he spoke in a low, dangerous voice, "I want what you want. Something different. Something better. And not just for the thanes. For everyone."

Arthur's chest tightened. He was so sure that Merlin could hear how fast his heart was beating, how loud.

Merlin slid closer to him on the bed, their arms and thighs touching. He leaned in, his voice dropping an octave, low and seductive. "I want you to fix the Kingdoms. To make right everything that's wrong. I want you to win the war that's sure to come. I want you to win that war. And when you do, you won't be a thane. You'll be the King of all Albion."

Arthur looked at him sharply.

Fear buzzed under his skin. The fear of being accused of treason. The fear of being tricked. But more than that, he ached for everything that Merlin had said, except --

"I don't want to be King."

Merlin's eyebrows rose, and a slow, self-satisfied smile spread across his lips. Honest pleasure made his eyes glow, and Arthur couldn't look away. "You didn't balk. Not at challenging the thanes. Not at going to war. Not even at the thought that you'd lose all the power that you have now if you fail, or that you'll die if you're caught. The only thing you have a problem with is being King."

"I don't want to be King," Arthur repeated, flabbergasted.

Merlin nodded. "That's why you'll be a good King."

Arthur shook his head. He didn't know what he was saying no to. Whether it was the idea of becoming King, or the idea of that such a thing was even possible... He'd daydreamed of the latter, but King? He rounded on Merlin and said, "If that's what you want, you be the King. You're strong enough. You're powerful. You could --"

Merlin snorted. "I don't know anything about the court. The politics -- the thanes. How to run a Kingdom. No. I've spent most of my life running from them. I'll be better behind the throne."

Arthur stared. He didn't know what to say to that. Finally, he managed to give voice to the sinking stone in his belly. "You're going to get us strung up."

"Sorcerers burn," Merlin reminded him.

"Traitors swing with the wind. Hanging, burning -- whatever. Is that really the way you want to go?" Arthur asked, standing up.

"If I die fighting for everyone's freedom, how's that any different than dying trying to keep myself free? It's the same effort either way. The same kind of ending." Merlin said. "I'm no better than anyone else. One person cannot stand above them all."

Arthur's shoulders slumped. "And yet you want to make me King."

Merlin stood up slowly, with difficulty. He stepped in Arthur's space, feverish body heat warming the air between them. "If you get too big for your britches, I'll toss you in the mud."

Arthur blinked. He couldn't help himself. He chortled. A little chuckle became a raucous laugh that sobered quickly enough. He shrugged helplessly. "I wouldn't even know where to begin. Loyal men are impossible to find. There's no raising an army in secret. How am I even going to get the dosh to feed them all?"

"You've got me. By all accounts, I'm an army's worth," Merlin said, shrugging carelessly. "I don't eat much."

Arthur stared at Merlin, unbelieving. Merlin was right. The minstrels painted Emrys as a sorcerer who could take down entire platoons, but that had to be an exaggeration. No magic-user was that powerful, even if they were said to manipulate guns, bullets, and gunpowder. He couldn't tell if Merlin was joking, so he said, "You should. You're rail-thin. A strong wind could knock you on your arse."

Merlin snorted. The tension seeped back into his shoulders. "Am I right in thinking a collar won't do?"

"Uther will want to see a scar. A tattoo. A brand. Doesn't matter which, as long as it's permanent and can't be removed easily. He'll test it, too," Arthur said, certain of that, at least.

"His pet sorcerer?"

"My sister," Arthur said.

"She's not really bound," Merlin said flatly, and it was less a question than statement of fact. Arthur swayed, because checking for a tether wasn't so simple as a simple glance. Was Merlin -- was Emrys indeed more powerful than Arthur thought? No one else had ever been able to tell.

"No," Arthur admitted slowly, not sure what Merlin would do with the knowledge. "She's not."

"Can you trust her?" Merlin asked, his eyes drifting toward the fire.

Arthur started to say yes. She was his kin. She coddled him when they were younger, offered him the affection that he never received from their father, and gave him unsolicited but solid advice when he was at loose ends. He trusted that she would be his sister -- teasing to the point of cruel taunts, jealous of her position and determined to keep it, a master manipulator who hoarded information until the situation best suited her to use it. Morgana wouldn't lie for him. Not over something as simple as a bond. She would want to know why, first, and if she found out about this insane whirlwind spiral Arthur was about to step onto, she would do anything she could to discourage him and to put herself up as Queen.

No. He couldn't trust her. The first thing Morgana would do was to whisper in Uther's ear.

"No," Arthur said finally, his heart heavy. "Not about this."

Merlin raised his eyes, as if surprised. The silence stretched, and he said again, "I can't do a whole lot if I'm tethered."

Arthur knew that. Sorcerers were bound to whoever had bound them, and he'd seen more than one battle lost when a thane fell on the field, unconscious and unable to give permission to his sorcerer to use his magic to defend them.

"They'll know if you're not," Arthur said resignedly. "There's no way around it."

Merlin nodded distractedly, as if he'd expected as much. "Do you trust me?"

"Of course not," Arthur scoffed. "I trust you about as much as you trust me."

Merlin chewed his lip. Eventually, he held out his hand.

"There's a different bonding rite. It's old, but no one would be able to tell the two apart," he said.

"Okay," Arthur said, because if it would bind them together without tethering Merlin, allowing them to move forward on this crazy plan for their future, he would do it.

Merlin hesitated. "It's going to mark you, too."

"Okay," Arthur said again. He shrugged at Merlin's incredulous look. "If you're marked, it's only fair that I am too."

 

Merlin facing Arthur, his hand over his shoulder to touch the red dragon tattoo on his back, while Arthur looks at Merlin in awe, and touches the red oak tree tattoo on his chest.

 

 

Black oak tree tattoo in stylized Celtic knotwork

 

 

Black dragon tattoo in stylized Celtic knotwork

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Where the two bullet holes on Merlin's back had been butchered open by an alchemist with a physician's scalpel, there was a rapidly-healing scar. The swelling had gone down enough from the magical cauterization to hint at its future shape -- a dragon.

It wasn't much different than the dragon in raised relief on Arthur's leathers. The dragon, Merlin had learned, was Arthur's personal sigil, adopted after he had been caught too many times sketching it in the margins of his books instead of paying attention to his childhood lessons. As punishment, Uther had declared that Arthur would be haunted by that symbol for the remainder of his life, and had thought no more of it.

Merlin ran his fingers along the edges of what he could reach. He honestly hadn't expected a dragon.

"The rite is a true binding," Merlin had explained to Arthur, half-expecting that Arthur would change his mind once he was made to understand the implications, "One of connection, rather than control. You will have no more command over me than I will have of you, but you will have my measure, just as I will have of yours."

"And the mark?" Arthur had asked, kneeling to join Merlin in front of the fire. He'd pulled off his shirt, and Merlin had paused, distracted. "It'll fool Morgana?"

"It'll fool anyone except sorcerers from Ironwood, and there's not many left. They're the only ones who would know what it means. Them, and the druids, but they don't really come to the cities," Merlin had said. He'd frowned, not understanding why Arthur hadn't been bothered by the concept of equality as most thanes would have been, but had covered up his confusion to forestall any questions with a quick, quelling, "Believe me, they've got better things to do than to check a sorcerer's tethers."

Arthur had grunted doubtfully, but had agreed.

"The only thing is, you'll have to be careful and make sure no one sees yours," Merlin had warned him. "That means no bedmates unless you want them to think you're the sorcerer. Or worse, they realize what binding rite was used and figure out I'm not under anyone's control."

Arthur had given him a long, considering look before he'd shrugged and waved for Merlin to get on with it.

"You're not worried?"

"No," Arthur had said. Then, he'd leaned in, his breath hot at Merlin's ear and said, "I know about this rite, Merlin. I know what it means. And there's one person I'll be able to trust to see the mark and to not turn me in. That's you."

Merlin had stared at Arthur for a very long time, hoping to the Gods that he'd lost too much blood from his injuries to flush in embarrassment. Merlin hadn't been so sure that Arthur actually did know what the rite had done. If he had, Arthur would have had more of a reaction over what was essentially a soulbonding rite used in handfasting ceremonies. But Arthur had taken his shirt off, looked suggestively over his shoulder at Merlin, and said, "Don't worry, Merlin. Unlike most thanes, I'm quite monogamous, and I promise I won't stray."

As if he didn't mind that they were, for all intents and purposes, married under all the laws that mattered to Merlin.

Even now, Merlin was struck dumb by... the muscle definition in Arthur's shoulders and back. By the way Arthur's eyes darkened. By the curl of his smirk.

By Arthur, really.

The magic involved in the rite was such that Merlin had taken advantage of it to direct Arthur's hands over his wound, the heat of the brand enough to cauterize it against infection. The magic sank in deep, accelerating his healing while tearing him apart. Arthur's only reaction at seeing the mark had been to huff a laugh.

He'd drawn the dragon since he was a child. The dragon was on everything he owned, Merlin included. And yet, Arthur didn't seem to understand what it meant that the dragon would form as Arthur's mark upon Merlin.

There was power in symbols. The older the symbol, the greater the power. These days, dragons were creatures in old, ancient myths, barely more than fearsome beasts in fairy tales that frightened villagers, kidnapped the occasional princess, and feasted on herds of sheep. But once upon a time, as in old tradition, the dragon was the symbol of the chieftain of a clan until it was subsumed as the title for the head of all chieftains, the dragons' head, the Pen y Ddraig.

The Pendragon.

Merlin exhaled slowly.

Merlin would have thought nothing of it. A coincidence that paralleled his decision to take advantage of the situation, to make an attempt at bringing order to a world that had gone mad and was steadily marching into the abyss with every passing day. He told himself that the symbol was independent of his decision to use Arthur as a puppet against the thanes, against Nimueh and the Sisterhood of the Old Religion, and, more importantly, in the oncoming war against the Sidhe. That, maybe, if it had been anyone else, the symbol would have appeared regardless.

Except. He couldn't convince himself with hollow explanations, not after he'd seen the symbol that had appeared when he'd removed his hands from Arthur's chest. His symbol was the Great Mother's holy Tree of Life, its branches folded into the triquetra knot of immortality.

The rite they had used for the binding had drawn from the nature of each other's souls to strike a balance between them. If it was in Arthur to be the very leader Merlin needed to turn the Sidhe aside, it was in Merlin to be his strength, steadfast and everlasting.

Merlin took a deep breath, centering himself. It was heady, even disorienting, to realize that his plotting and shrewd machinations had suddenly taken on the weight of destiny.

He stared at his reflection in the mirror. The bruises under his eyes were fading now that he'd had a few nights of solid rest in a soft bed, next to a warm body in a guarded room. His shoulders relaxed for the first time since he could remember, and though he was thinner than he'd like, he felt strong.

There was no question that he would follow through on his plans to stop whatever Morgana was doing in Camelot, whatever Nimueh had planned to corrupt the thanes, and to stand against the Sidhe the way that Ironwood's warrior-druids had once done in days of old. He had no doubt that if they survived, Arthur would help Merlin build the world he'd always hoped to create in the aftermath of the war. The marks of the Pendragon and the Tree of Life gave him the conviction to push forward.

He had to figure out how.

Merlin headed for the side room, searching for the chest Arthur had said was filled with his old cast-offs -- clothes he'd outgrown, but which were too fine to discard and that servants refused to take for themselves, fearing repercussions. They were of a like height, and finding a pair of dark trousers that fit the length of Merlin's leg was easy, as was a belt that could cinch tight enough around his waist to keep them from sliding down his hips. A dark grey shirt fit the breadth of his shoulders but fell short at the wrists. Since there was no need to cover his sorcerous tattoos anymore, Merlin rolled up the sleeves to his elbows, and the ink writhed, as if enjoying the freedom.

In an older, dust-covered chest, he found a high-collared vest that fit him close to the torso, the leather barely broken in. He doubted it had ever been worn.

Two pairs of socks let him fit in a pair of buckled knee boots that had been discarded to a forgotten corner, and after snatching a dark blue scarf to wind around his neck against the cool air, Merlin spared a long glance around the cramped side room. He'd clean it out later, he decided. It was more important that he find Arthur. Everyone needed to see Merlin tethered to Arthur. He'd been excused from making an appearance because of his healing injuries, but he'd need to show his face soon.

Merlin ran a hand across the door, the shield shimmering before fading behind an illusion. He yanked the door open, and a young servant shrieked in surprise, leaping to the other side of the corridor. Bedsheets fluttered in a pile at his feet, but the woman had managed to hold onto what looked to be a pair of pillowcases, both of which she grasped tightly in each hand.

"The training field," Merlin said roughly. "Where is it?"

"B-B-Be-Behind the... the castle, sir. Through the courtyard, down the west corridor." The woman raised a trembling hand to point in the general direction, her finger aiming south, and Merlin raised a brow. She swallowed heavily and quickly corrected herself.

Merlin stepped over the pile of crumpled sheets and into the middle of the hallway. The servant whimpered and hugged the stone wall, her knuckles white around the pillowcases. He was stunned to silence by her fear. It was ridiculous that he made anyone afraid, when, for so long, he'd been nothing but the scorn of those who stepped around the vagrant blocking their way. Apparently, all it took to change how people saw him was to be bound to the son of a thane and to become a citizen.

He didn't like the feeling, but he wasn't above using it for his own purposes.

"Do your work, and nothing more," he said, pitching his voice low. The way the woman's eyes widened, accompanied by a frantic nod, he must have sounded gravelly and demonic. "I will know if anything is out of place. I will know whose hand moved it."

She paled and swallowed hard. She dragged the pillowcases to her chest, as if they could shield her from harm.

"Toss the food that's left. Have none of it yourself. The plate that remains is full of poison." Merlin tilted his head, gauging the woman's reaction.

Her mouth parted in alarm, as if she couldn't believe anyone would do such a thing. He was lying, of course. The words slipped out of his mouth before he had really thought about it, and he continued only because it was better to warn off any attempts before they started.

Merlin leaned in. "Tell the cook to pay his meals more mind. How much does he trust the people who touch his food? Who delivers it?"

Merlin turned on his heel and walked down the corridor. He felt like such a bloody plonker, but at least this way, word would spread quickly. The servants wouldn't want to risk his ire and would spend as little time as possible in Arthur's chambers. Merlin would have to come up with other safeguards for the other people who might barge in while they weren't there.

Eyes tracked him on his passage through the castle, into the courtyard, and toward the open training grounds. Whispers followed him, too, though most were behind cupped hands, the words unintelligible. The closer he came to the soldiers, the more those whispers drifted into silence, eyes narrowing thoughtfully as they evaluated him the way they would an obstacle in their path.

Merlin knew the sight he made. The obvious limp as he walked, because the healing of the debilitating wound on his back hadn't extended to the leg injury. Everyone watching no doubt knew about the surgery and the binding, and these men must think him weaker than he currently was.

Frightening a poor servant was easy. These men would need far more convincing.

The training area was a wide open space stretching out all the way from the castle to a distant forest line, angled on a slope that made any rearward attack on the castle itself difficult, but not impossible. The ground was recessed in half-moon circles lined by supporting walls of white stone; the circles themselves were dusted with trampled sand. The sand might have been white, once, but now it was dull and brown.

Though all around on the training grounds were men and women practicing formations or coupled in sparring pairs, it seemed the more senior of them stood around the open ends of the sand-circles, working on concentrated attacks from multiple quarters. In the center circle, in the middle of it all, was Arthur.

Fucking idiot.

Mere days after Lord Uther of Camelot had issued an challenge to all and sundry to exchange citizenship for the life of his son, Arthur had gone ahead and placed his head on the bloody chopping block in the yard. Guards ringed a training circle that was, for now at least, protected by Knights with citizenship. Merlin wouldn't be surprised if those guards were only there because they wanted to see for themselves how well Arthur fought, and to decide whether an elaborate kidnapping plot with them as the rescuing heroes was worth the risk of citizenship.

The mood from the Knights was different. No doubt they had their own duties and their own training to attend to, but for some reason, they were standing around and talking quietly amongst themselves. Merlin didn't think it was because they wanted to protect Arthur. Something else was going on.

The guards might need a small amount of brute force to remind them that Merlin wasn't a slouch when it came to combat or magic. But the Knights? Merlin would have to be less subtle with these men who might think him easy to get out of the way. At the same time, what he absolutely could not do was take away Arthur's agency. If Arthur was to become the Pen y Ddraig, he had to be more formidable than anyone. He had to prove himself, and that was something he needed to do on his own.

Hell. As far as anyone knew, Arthur had been saddled with some two-bit sorcerer who didn't have the power to squash a gnat, never mind nudge one out of the way. They both needed to establish themselves, and these men?

These men would need a great deal of convincing.

Merlin worked his way through the rows of men to get to the front, neither an easy task nor a quick one. He ignored the harsh murmurs around him and the unsubtle pokes and prods attempting to shove him past the stone line, and crossed his arms.

Arthur was in the center, a short sword in one hand, a riveted buckler strapped to his other arm. He held himself tightly, weapon and shield close to the body, his boots ground into the sands, as if fear-frozen in place. Three opponents were on the field with him; a fourth was on the ground, two Knights dragging him away, weapon left behind on the sands. The fallen man bore no wounds and there was no sign of injury, but somehow, he had been rendered unconscious.

And yet, none of the Knights around the ring seemed in the least impressed at Arthur's skill. Merlin knew that it took a great deal of self-control to hold one's strength back enough to disable their opponent without injury. It seemed that the Knights and the guards could only see a man with his back against a wall, shoulders to his ears, cowering like trapped prey.

Merlin, on the other hand, knew that Arthur had taken down one man, and that none of the other combatants yet knew that they'd lost the battle well before the first man had fallen.

Merlin revised his opinion. Arthur wasn't the idiot. Everyone else was. They looked, but they didn't see. Arthur was not prey. He may have been backed into a corner, he might be coiled tightly, ready to attack, but he was the deadly serpent -- the dragon -- about to strike.

Merlin glanced around the group. Most of them wore guarded expressions. The remainder murmured amongst themselves, faces marked with mocking smirks. From what Merlin could make out, they were taking bets on the outcome of the round. Their attention was fixed on their comrades.

Arthur was their commander. For whatever reason, the majority of the Knights of Camelot completely disregarded him. There was no respect, no obedience, no trust. In their eyes, Arthur was a joke, someone who had attained his position for no reason other than he was the son of a thane.

In the faces he could read, Merlin saw resentment. He'd seen it in Leon on their harried journey to Camelot, and he saw it in Leon now as he stood at the entrance of the training ring, his arms crossed, his chin tucked down to his chest, his eyes cold. He saw mockery in the pair of young Knights who looked to have only recently been raised to the ranks. Judgement resided in the steady gaze of more experienced men and women who hid their hatred well, or who hadn't yet decided how they felt about following a man who was many years their junior.

Though few, some of the Knights were watching Arthur himself. Gwaine was one of them. He stood on the other side of the circle, mirroring Merlin's pose. Gwaine's jaw was tightly clenched with suppressed anger, though that anger was not directed toward Arthur. Percival was there as well, his thumbs tucked in the buckle of his belt. His brow was furrowed in disapproval, though there was no real indication of why.

"Are you going to stand there until he gives up out of sheer boredom, or are you going to attack?" Leon snapped.

Percival's gaze turned into a glare when he turned to look at Leon, and Merlin decided that was a question answered. For all of Percival's nonchalance, he was firmly in Arthur's camp.

"In a melee attack, you fight together," Leon continued, oblivious to Percival's open distaste. "Together. Not like that fool who rushed in without a concrete plan. Now. The three of you. Bloody well fight!"

The three Knights in the ring exchanged slow glances between them. Their expressions ranged between annoyed and unsure. They were young, too, though older than Arthur, but smart enough to recognize when they were outmatched. None of them wanted to fight Arthur. None of them knew how to meet Leon's demands.

"What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation --"

"Leon," Arthur said sharply. He started to say something more, only to press his mouth together into a thin line and to swallow down whatever it was. Merlin's eyes narrowed. He'd hoped that Arthur, as commander, would act like one.

"Attack him," Leon barked.

Because they were accustomed to following orders, following orders was exactly what the men did. One man hesitated. Another exchanged glances with the third man. The third man lunged forward --

Arthur's shoulders dropped. He rolled his eyes. Just as the young Knight reached him, Arthur raised his weapon, parried the sword-strike, and twisted. He caught the Knight off-balance and added to his momentum with a hard shove. The Knight ran into the man behind Arthur, and the two collapsed in a tangled heap.

The last man standing took advantage of Arthur's distraction, except he couldn't know that Arthur wasn't distracted at all. Arthur's body was loose, his gaze down, but his weight was also on the balls of his feet, turning in position to avoid --

The Knight got a solid hit in.

Merlin's eyes narrowed.

Arthur staggered, his sword arm going wide from the force of the blow, but it was deliberate. It had to be. The Knight cheered at the hit, his confidence spurring him forward. Arthur braced against the attack with his small shield, drawing the Knight's sword aside. The Knight seemed to forget about Arthur's sword arm, because when Arthur swung his weapon up, the Knight was unprepared.

The Knight took the flat of the blade against his helm. The connection resounded in a clang that silenced the yard. The Knight crumpled to the ground, and some of the men and women around the training ring groaned as their wagers were called in.

Merlin suppressed the annoyance that Arthur's own men had bet against their commander, but he couldn't blame them. It was clear to him why.

Arthur was faster than he looked. He should have easily avoided the blow. But, for whatever reason, he had taken the hit and changed tactics. He could have easily gone on the offensive, turning the attack around, and thoroughly trounced the Knight.

He had done none of those things. If anything, he'd transformed himself into an even weaker opponent, drawing the Knight into an attack, and had become a practice dummy for the other Knight to whale upon. He'd taken unnecessary blows; he'd put himself into a dangerous position, and for what? For nothing, as far as Merlin could see. Arthur's men still didn't respect him. He was a joke.

Arthur was holding back.

"Fucking bollocks, that's what. He shouldn't of bloody won," someone nearby said, slapping a small satchel into another Knight's hands.

"He's the commander for a reason," another Knight said, his tone good-natured and lightly reproaching. Merlin glanced over, surprised at the sole voice of support for Arthur. The Knight looked familiar. Shorter than Arthur, slimmer in build, younger.

It took Merlin a moment to place him. He was the Knight who had stood with Arthur in court, the one who had followed Arthur's orders to disappear before Arthur had even spoken a word. A brother, then, though there wasn't enough similarity in appearance for full kinship.

"He's a cheat," a third man said, gesturing toward Merlin. "His pet sorcerer's here, innit? Five to one he tripped Marais and made Dunstan lose his grip at the end. No bloody way he won that round."

Arthur's brother grunted in answer. His gaze drifted past the third man's shoulder to catch Merlin's attention. He raised his chin and quirked a brow, almost in apology.

"I'll take those odds," Merlin said, and the area around him silenced as the challenger turned around to face him, his expression sour with recognition and embarrassment. He imitated the man's accent. "Five to one, innit? I'd sooner say you lot don't know what you're doing on a battlefield."

"Fuck you," the man said, turning away, though he kept his head turned just so, as if keeping an eye for any funny business.

Merlin glanced at Arthur's brother. He shrugged, but there was a small smirk on his face, the faintest curl of a smile. He turned to look at Arthur, who had walked off to the far end of the ring, tugging off his helm to take a cup of water from the pail.

Do something about it, Arthur's brother seemed to say.

Merlin didn't know what he could do. He needed more from Arthur than complacency. Merlin was walking across the battle sands before he even knew what he was doing.

"Five minutes, and we'll reset. Five minutes. Geraint, Ernest, Brenden, Kellin, Jenny. Come up with a plan to take your commander down, or the Gods help you, you're cleaning the latrines tonight," Leon said, his voice carrying over the chatter around the ring. He paused, his glare heavy, but Merlin stared back at him, unaffected. He joined Arthur at the water bucket in time to hear Leon snarl, "Someone get the fucking sorcerer off the field."

 

Portrait of Merlin

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Someone brushed his shoulder. Arthur tensed reflexively, ready to be shoved off-balance or out of the way, but when all the person did was take the water cup out of his hand and lean into the bucket for a refill, Arthur relaxed.
There was only one person who had marks like that on his arms.

Merlin shoved the cup at Arthur and took the practice sword away from him. He held it up, inspecting the edge, and raised a brow. He didn't ask, and Arthur didn't explain. Unlike the guards, the Knights only ever practiced with sharpened weapons. The only differences between the practice swords and those issued to each Knight were in the weight and balances, to teach and condition the men to fight with whatever they had on hand.

"Good fight," Merlin said neutrally, and Arthur groaned inwardly, recognizing the tone.

"Don't," Arthur said, shaking his head. He brought the cup to his lips and gave Merlin a dark look. "Just don't."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Merlin said. He swung the sword, coming perilously close to slashing a Knight who had wandered close. Given Merlin's skill, Arthur knew that the maneuver had been on purpose.

"Oi, watch where you're swinging that," the Knight snarled. Merlin stared blankly and uncomprehending at the Knight, and the Knight, clearly discomfited, moved out of range.

"You sound like Gwaine," Arthur said.

"What does Gwaine sound like?" Merlin asked, tilting his head. His eyes were round and his mouth was pursed, reminding Arthur of a curious child asking a million questions. Merlin's gaze also held a knowing glint, and Arthur didn't buy his act, not at all.

Still, he felt compelled to snap, "Like an overbearing mother hen pecking at grain that isn't there."

The fake innocence vanished from Merlin's expression in a flash. The glint darkened behind shrewd calculation. Arthur knew what Merlin was going to say and held up his hand to silence him. Merlin, unfortunately, ignored him. "You're the commander. Act like one."

"You don't understand --"

"I understand more than you think," Merlin said, stepping into Arthur's space under the pretence of reaching for the cup of water that Arthur hadn't finished drinking yet. Arthur held it out of his reach. "I understand you feel you need to prove yourself, but sparing their feelings and trying to make friends isn't the way to do it. You're the commander. Command. You train when you want to train, not at the orders of your so-called Second."

"Merlin --"

"You've got nothing to prove. Not to anyone. Not to these men. So you tell Leon where he can shove his bloody five-on-one melee round that serves no purpose except to make your own men resent you while Leon turns you into a greater joke than these men already think you are."

Arthur's eyes narrowed. He started to protest, only to falter, because he couldn't argue. Nothing that Merlin had said was wrong. His jaw clicked shut.

He glanced around. Leon spoke in low tones with one of the Knights' sergeants. Killian was a solid, stout man, scarred from his forehead to his cheekbone, his nose flat from an errant blow dating back to combat in Dover. He was a good fighter, generally unflappable and rarely driven to anger, but that didn't explain why he was in Leon's face, his mouth in an unhappy downturn. Leon's amusement was writ all over his face, his hands up in a placating gesture that was made all the more enraging by the laugh on his lips.

Merlin must have followed his gaze, because, in a softer tone, he said, "You know these Knights. You know them well. I warrant you know them better than they know themselves."

Arthur nodded. The most senior of the Knights were the very same who had indulged a child more interested in learning the strategies of the battlefield than the murky inner workings of the royal court. Their patience might have been merely the courtesy they would show the son of the thane, but they eventually came to treat him as an equal as he earned his place amongst them without any influence from his father. But the more recent rise in rank had been abrupt and sudden, and more than half of the Knights had protested. If Arthur really thought about it, those who had voiced their complaints were young, or new, or had never fought with Arthur before.

Arthur spared a wistful thought for the times when he and Leon had been friends. He wondered if their friendship had really changed because Arthur had been named the commander ahead of him, or if there was more to it. Had Arthur done something? Or had Leon always been this way, cozying his way up the ranks however he could?

"You've trained with them. Some of them trained you. You've fought with them. You have an idea of their mettle. But they know you, too," Merlin reminded him. "How they know you? That's up to you."

Merlin wrenched the water cup out of Arthur's hand. He threw it into the bucket. A spray of water landed on the sand, turning it dark, like a splatter of blood from a well-aimed blow. Arthur stared at it for a moment too long, Merlin's words ringing in his ears.

"I want to show you something," Merlin said, his tone serious. He stepped closer, angling his body to hide himself from the others, as if about to impart some great secret. He held Arthur's gaze for a moment before raising the practice sword to eye level. He pointed at the length of the blade and tapped a fingernail on the sharp side. "This? This is the edge. Bloody well use it. Stop ducking their blows. Quit with the love taps. It's ridiculous, it's like watching one of those traveling shows, all physical humour and slapstick comedy."

He shoved the sword into Arthur's hands.

"I don't want to hurt them," Arthur admitted.

"Look at them," Merlin said. He tilted his head when Arthur didn't turn around, his cheeks flushing furiously at his own weakness. "They're big boys. They didn't become Knights on their good looks, did they?"

"Of course not," Arthur scoffed.

"Well, it's certainly not because they know their way around a sword," Merlin said, raising his brows. He leaned in close, and Arthur blamed the shiver on the cold wind cooling the sweat on his skin. "Or maybe they do know their way around a sword, if you know what I mean."

Arthur blinked. Merlin had been... careful around Arthur since the bonding for some reason, and this was the first time he'd so much as teased Arthur in return. Arthur felt his cheeks warm and couldn't quite manage to stop the slow grin from his lips. He put a hand on Merlin's face and shoved him away. "For Gods' sake, Merlin."

Merlin's laugh was loud, startled but full of genuine pleasure, attracting everyone's attention for a brief, awkward moment. Merlin had spoken too low for anyone to hear; he could only imagine the reaction of some of these men if they'd been near enough. Arthur glanced around them only to find that no one was paying them much mind -- no one, that was, except for Gwaine. Gwaine was watching them intently, as if trying to suss out their conversation while simultaneously amused by them.

There were crinkles in the corners of Merlin's eyes. His smile faded into wistfulness before fading entirely. "Arthur --"

"It's fine," Arthur said, though he suspected that Merlin hadn't been about to apologize. "I know what you mean. It's not like... It's not as if the process for promotion isn't without its problems."

Favouritism showed in Uther's choice to replace the commander who had been forced to retire after suffering a crippling injury. Arthur knew what he was capable of, but he was under no illusions about his lack of experience. More knowledgeable men filled the ranks. They had to feel the same amount of resentment as the entitled young Knights who thought themselves better than Arthur.

It was that same favouritism that raised undeserving men and women into position as Knights without their having gone through the required training, first. No one complained about it, because unlike most of the soldiers and Knights, the spoiled prats were the children of powerful and well-placed people of influence. No one wanted to earn their ire, not when Kelly's mother was the head of the textile guild, Soren was the son of the merchant where sellers plied their wares on market day, and Aggie had been raised by his older brother, who was the blacksmith's apprentice. Staying on their good side and taking their abuse was the difference between staying clothed, fed, and armoured.

Arthur glanced at a small group off to the corner, huddling together. His mood soured. He didn't think too hard about the people who made up the ranks of his Knights, because he had thoughts like these and the frustration of being unable to do anything about it. If it had been up to him, a good quarter of the Knights wouldn't be Knights at all.

He turned at the light touch on his arm. A furrow of concern marked Merlin's brow, as if he'd read Arthur's mind.

"It's not amateur hour," Merlin said, directing his attention toward the five men that Leon had singled out. They were among the youngest Knights and newest recruits to the ranks, and of them all, only Geraint had seen any real combat. They stood off to the side, discomfited and uncertain, staring down at their weapons in the hopes that they'd find answers there while Geraint spoke to them in increasingly anxious tones. "Have some pity. Put them out of their misery."

Arthur nodded, both in agreement and in contemplation. He asked, "And show them how it's really done?"

"If you like," Merlin said magnanimously. At Arthur's narrow-eyed squint, Merlin grinned. "You're the commander."

As if Arthur needed the reminder. He shifted his weight, digging his heels into the sand, his attention drifting past a curious Gwaine to a placid Percival, finally resting on an impatient, irritated Leon.

Maybe he did need the reminder. Maybe they all did.

"Geraint," Arthur called, grimacing when the young man snapped to attention with wide, worried eyes. Geraint was a good man, a good soldier. Quick on his feet, with a tendency to overthink himself into a troublesome situation instead of figuring a way out of trouble. He would make an excellent Knight, but not if he was thrown into a training exercise he wasn't equipped to deal with. "Step back."

Geraint's relief was a bodily shudder, but he caught himself before he collapsed. "Yes, sir," he said firmly, and moved out of the circle.

"Arthur, what are you --"

"You four," Arthur said, ignoring Leon to gesture at the other young Knights that Leon had singled out. "You can go, too."

They exchanged glances before looking to Leon. Leon's anger was thunderous and badly hidden, but it wasn't directed toward the Knights. The young fighters did the only sane thing they could possibly do, and followed Geraint, burying themselves in the crowd.

"You can't --" Leon started. He cut himself off abruptly, his spine straightening as if preternaturally aware that he was under scrutiny. Arthur followed Leon's sidelong gaze to the more senior amongst the Knights, whose attention was equally split between Arthur and Leon.

Arthur didn't try to gauge their emotions. He pressed on, intent on keeping Leon off-balance, and said, "When a Knight engages in combat against multiple opponents, they need to be ready for absolutely anything, whether it is a novice or a Kingdom's champion. It's easy to win a fight against those who don't know how to work together. But when the enemy has trained together and drilled maneuvers until it becomes instinct, a Knight had best be able to rise to the challenge."

The idle chatter had died down. Arthur had everyone's attention, though most of it was a passing fancy before quiet conversations resumed.

"Percival," Arthur said, gesturing for the strongest man among the Knight to step into the circle.

Percival picked up his weapon and stepped inside without hesitation, just as Arthur had hoped.

"Lamorak," Arthur said, pointing at the man.

Lamorak was the loudest of Arthur's detractors, the first to whisper mockeries as soon as Arthur's back was turned. He was young, but not inexperienced, having come up through the ranks the hard way, winning his position over time. He was a self-entitled pillock, and he showed it too, in the way he paused, joining Percival at the heckling of those closest around him.

"Anaïs," Arthur said, gesturing at the crowd. She wasn't very tall and he could only see the top of her head between the shoulders of two Knights.

Presumably the quickest of all the Knights, but also the most foul-tempered, Anaïs elbowed her way through the crowd, selected a sword from the practice racks, and stood next to Percival. The dichotomy in height garnered a few chuckles from the crowd, because it was a little funny no matter how many times they saw the two together.

"Simon. Baird," Arthur said. When neither of them moved, Arthur raised a brow and asked, "Unless there's some reason why you feel you should be excluded from the round."

Arthur had never trained with these two Knights, who had been off to war under the previous commander more occasions than they were home. Both were experienced and skilled, and both were silent, angry men who did everything they could to circumvent Arthur's orders while toeing the line. Arthur wasn't certain where they stood in the growing divide between Knights who saw Arthur as their commander and those who only played along, but their noses had been bent out of joint ever since Arthur had denied them both promotion and pay raises over the winter.

Simon sighed and stepped forward, selecting a sword at random from the rack. Baird rolled his eyes and joined the others, moving to stand next to Anaïs. He patted her on the head. Anaïs punched him in the gut. Baird groaned and fell to one knee, barely supporting himself on his sword.

"Leon," Arthur said, once the laughter died down.

"You have five," Leon said, crossing his arms, clearly uncomfortable.

"You can count. Very good," Arthur said mildly. He waved a hand. "I'll have six once you step in."

"Arthur --"

Arthur turned away, rolling his shoulders. He swung his sword in a circle, noting that Leon had stepped into the ring. "Scatter or pair up, however you want. The enemy won't have time to work out a plan of attack, and neither will you. Are you ready?"

"I'm not fighting you," Simon declared, raising his sword to point at Arthur. "Your pet sorcerer's handled your sword, how do we know he didn't enchant it or something?"

Merlin waved at the crowd from where he was leaning, an unhelpful, taunting smirk on his face.

"Give me yours, then," Arthur said, holding out his short sword for Simon to take.

Simon reached for it eagerly, only to stop short, a funny look coming over his face. He eyed Arthur warily before leaning to the side to look at Merlin. "It's a trick."

Arthur rolled his eyes. He walked over to the weapons rack, pointedly placed his short sword off to the far end, and picked up a new blade of similar weight. "Satisfied?"

"What's stopping that one from casting a spell to protect you or trip us up?" Baird asked, gesturing rudely toward Merlin.

Arthur sighed. "Merlin."

"Yes, my lord?" Merlin's voice was sickly sweet and overly differential.

"I want you to stay out of this fight," Arthur said.

"Yes, my lord," Merlin said, owl-eyed and solicitous. Arthur didn't believe Merlin's act for one second and doubted anyone else did, either. "Whatever you say."

"I'll thump him if he starts with the twinkly fingers," Gwaine said with an annoyed sigh, crossing over the stone line and into the ring. He headed straight for Merlin, waving at them impatiently. "Will you lot fight, already? I want a turn sometime today."

No sooner had he spoken that Leon barked, "Begin!"

Simon lunged from his position, crossing the very short distance between them to thrust his weapon at Arthur's chest. Arthur swept the sword aside with his buckler. Simon's blitz attack had left him open, and Arthur made short work of him by slicing the edge of his sword on the diagonal across Simon's torso, deep enough to cut through the light leather armour and skin but not to leave a lasting injury.

He immediately turned, his sword colliding into Baird's downward slash. He didn't give Baird any time to recover, choosing instead to get away from Lamorak's advance by barreling into Baird, driving him back hard.

The instant he felt Baird stumble, Arthur let him go. Baird collided into Anaïs, knocking them both to the ground.

"Damn it, Simon! You're blooded. Get out of the ring!" Bedivere's booming voice could easily be heard over the crowd and the fighting, and Arthur was glad to hear him. One of the Knights' sergeants, about as feared as Percival and nearly as strong, no one was going to go against him. Arthur wasn't so sure he would trust anyone else to step in as referee.

Percival was hanging back for some reason, and Arthur had no time to think about the bigger man's ploy when Lamorak came into range. Arthur blocked Lamorak's sword with his buckler; Lamorak stopped Arthur's attack with his little round shield. Lamorak flickered in confusion, hesitating too long to react, and Arthur planted his boot into Lamorak's belly, knocking him on his arse.

The shift of a shadow behind him was Leon's incoming strike. Arthur sidestepped the blow and brought his left arm down on Leon's face. He must have struck Leon harder than he meant to --

Hell, who was he kidding. That felt fucking good --

Because Leon crumpled on the ground, a bloody bruise on his temple where one of the buckler's rivets had torn the skin.

"Get him out!" Bedivere shouted. Leon shook off the blow, but couldn't get to his feet on his own, and could barely muster a protest as one of the older Knights hauled Leon off.

Arthur would have liked a more drawn-out fight with Leon. It felt as if it was long in coming, but it wouldn't happen now, and not in front of a crowd. He turned in time to shove Baird at Lamorak and to parry a flurry of blows from Anaïs, landing a light cut along her upper arm that could just as easily have been her throat. She cursed, stomped a foot angrily, and stormed out of the ring without needing to be called out.

The theatrics distracted from Percival's juggernaut lunge. Arthur brought his weapon close to his body and braced for impact. He was thrown, landing hard a few feet away, Percival pinning him to the sands. He didn't have time to catch his breath, because Baird stood over him, the hilt of his sword in both hands, driving it down.

Arthur twisted his head out of the way. The edge of the sword dug into the dirt, coming perilously close to Arthur's cheek. With a growl, he grabbed Percival and rolled them both, pushing the bigger man onto his back. Percival's arms were tight around Arthur, and Arthur broke his grasp easily now that he had the ground under his feet and the leverage. He dragged the sharp edge of his sword across Percival's chest, blooding him --

And with a vicious, but measured swing upward, slashed the blade across Baird's cheek before he could advance any further. Arthur pulled his blow, leaving Baird with a thin cut across the bone, where everyone would see that it hadn't been random luck, but Arthur's skill that had kept Baird from being blinded.

Arthur turned to Lamorak.

Lamorak stuttered to a stop. Now that Arthur's full attention was on him, Lamorak couldn't use distraction as a tactic. As Baird cursed his way out of the ring, shouting about magic users and cheating, Percival grumbling under his breath at having been out-wrestled, the training circle grew in size, giving the two men more than enough time to evaluate the other.

Arthur deepened his breath deliberately. He let his shoulders slump, feigning exhaustion. The tip of his sword came down and he pressed a hand against his side.

Lamorak's gaze flickered over him quickly, his mouth curling faintly to match the glint of glee in his eyes. Lamorak was a swordsman, first and foremost, preferring something in his hand to nothing at all. His right foot twisted in the sand, giving him the leverage for a sudden burst forward.

Arthur retreated a few steps, meeting Lamorak blow for blow. He ducked under an overhead swing, rounding behind Lamorak. Lamorak whirled with a whip-swing at the ready; Arthur deflected it easily. Lamorak kicked Arthur's instep, but Arthur drew his leg out of range, stepping back to draw Lamorak off balance. A thrust at his head, a block by his shield, a tangle of sword hilts that nearly yanked Arthur's blade out of his hand.

A fight was a dance, no matter how many partners were in the mix. Arthur had been leading the entire time, and Lamorak was wrestling for dominance, trying to force Arthur to fight in his style and succumb to his rules.

A thrust at Arthur's head. A block of a shield swipe with Arthur's buckler. A tangle of sword hilts --

And this time, Arthur let go.

In that brief moment of Lamorak's surprise at the change of tactic and his inability to correct for his own momentum, Arthur punched Lamorak in the face, knocking him out.

The silence around the training ring was deafening.

Arthur knelt down, slapping Lamorak's cheek until he began to stir. He helped the other man to his feet, handing him off to another Knight who pulled Lamorak to a bench on the outside of the ring. Only then did Arthur turn around to face the other Knights.

No one spoke. The mockery was gone from their expression, replaced with gravity, and in some cases, alarm. The senior Knights wore their unrestrained approval with the pride of men who had known exactly what would happen. Arthur felt a swell in his chest, and was unsure whether it was courage or confidence.

He cleared his throat.

"It's easy to win a fight against those who don't know how to work together," Arthur said, speaking slowly and with weight, looking at each of the Knights around him. They hadn't heard him when he'd said those same words earlier, but they were listening to him now. "When the enemy has trained together and drilled maneuvers until it becomes instinct, a Knight had best be able to rise to the challenge."

Who dares challenge me?

Leon wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Again. Bedivere, Pellinor, Owain. Show them how it's done," Arthur ordered, turning away. He saw a smile of approval on Merlin's lips, and if that made him preen a little, standing all the straighter, no one needed to know.

He glanced at Leon one last time before turning toward the castle. Leon's attention was focused on Merlin, prickly with anger and hatred. Arthur's good mood faltered until he saw Merlin's wary, speculative glance, but he didn't feel better until he moved between them.

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Gwaine fell in step next to Merlin on the walk back to the castle, though he didn't speak. Merlin guessed that this was as close to an apology as he was going to get for Gwaine's attempt to kill him when discovering that Merlin had been raised Ironwood.

Arthur was in a chipper mood following several full days in training, and from Gwaine's tired, disgruntled grunt as he climbed the steep steps, Merlin guessed that it wasn't a common occurrence. In the aftermath of Arthur's personal brand of instruction, the Knights were dour and sombre, bruised and battered, and just plain exhausted, with more than half of them regarding Arthur with grudging respect.

The rest hated his guts on the general principle of having had their arses handed to them more than once, but they would come around once they realized how much better they were for having listened to their commander. Arthur had a solid head on his shoulders, a quick mind for strategies and tactics, and an eye for weaknesses and strengths. He was the first to point out mistakes, including his own, but he was also the first to provide constructive criticism for improvements while soliciting input for everyone else.

For all the poor treatment Merlin had witnessed Arthur endure, mostly at Leon's hands, Arthur was a fair man. He took the abuse and never returned it. He allowed the whispers questioning his ability and character, but allowed none to speak ill of another in his presence. And when Leon undermined Arthur's command, Arthur didn't stoop to his level, though he had seemed at a loss on how to handle Leon until now.

It was an unnecessary power struggle where one of the two people involved had no basis nor merit. Leon overstepped his authority again and again, as if that would advance his rank and position in the eyes of the Knights. Arthur seemed to have decided to broker no more foolishness, and had yanked the reins firmly and surely from Leon, who had been left gaping with surprise each time he tried to rise above his rank. Arthur gave Leon little time to seethe in his juices, putting him hard to work instead.

All it had taken were a few reminders. Who he was. What he was. Merlin had thought it would be so much harder to turn Arthur into the leader that Merlin needed if he ever wanted to make his dream of equality a reality, ensure the sisterhood didn't get a foothold in Albion, and that the Sidhe failed in their bid for war. Arthur had eaten up a simple show of support as if it was manna from the Gods.

What kind of childhood had Arthur had that he would grow into a giant for knowing someone believed in him, finally?

It broke Merlin's heart.

Gaius was right. Arthur was a good man. Merlin's instincts were correct. Arthur would be a good King.

The dragon embossed on Arthur's overcoat shifted and moved as Arthur walked ahead of them, and it seemed that Merlin could hear it whisper, Pen y Ddraig.

That, or he was hallucinating. He hadn't eaten since morning, and though the worst of his wounds were mostly healed, the magical brand had done little to replenish his strength.

"My lords!" a young page shouted, descending the steep staircase at a run. The page barely averted tripping and breaking his neck, coming to a heaving stop a respectable distance away. He took in a deep breath and quickly said, "Lord Arthur, Lord Kay. Thane Uther requests your presence before dinner. He said also to bring your... um."

The boy glanced past Arthur to look at Merlin, his mouth forming a word but not quite giving it voice, his cheeks red and eyes round with mortification.

"His name is Merlin," Arthur supplied, his tone gentle.

"Yes!" the boy exclaimed gratefully. "He said to bring Merlin. Thank you, my Lord."

"Tell the thane we will be right there," Arthur said. The boy obediently turned around and ran up the stairs with the enviable energy of childhood, leaving them to make their way up at a more sedate pace.

Once through the heavy gates at the top of the stairs and into the fortress proper, Gwaine said, "Let's have it, then," and held out his arms for Arthur's and Kay's equipment. Leon made no effort to help, and Merlin noted his troubled expression.

Merlin worried about Leon. He was the one who could throw a wrench in his plans. Not that Merlin had a plan, not exactly, but he knew how to identify an obstacle when he saw one. The only question was whether Leon could be converted, or if Merlin needed to eliminate him entirely.

Elimination was so much easier. And cleaner.

Arthur might not approve, however, which limited Merlin's options.

A newly-burdened Gwaine walked off in the opposite direction. Leon wavered, clearly wanting to come with Arthur and Kay, though no invitation was forthcoming. Still, Leon lingered, watching Arthur with something too similar to jealousy for comfort, ignoring Kay altogether.

Arthur noticed, because he stepped in close to Leon and said, his voice dark, "You and I have a few things to sort out."

Leon swallowed, but his gaze was hard. He nodded.

"Come to my quarters after dinner," Arthur said, drawing away. He headed down the corridor without a backward glance. Kay watched the exchange without a word, but Merlin stayed behind.

Leon's jaw clenched. He lowered his gaze. Merlin thought he saw a flicker of unguarded regret in his face, his shoulders dropping with resignation. Then, he realized that he wasn't alone and pulled himself together, hiding behind an aristocratic mask of nonchalance and disdain.

Merlin scoffed, drawing Leon's attention. "In case you're as thick as you look, it goes without saying..."

Merlin let his eyes flash with the tell-tale sign of magic. He winked and clicked his tongue as he made a gunshot motion with his hand. Leon paled and took a step back. His point made, Merlin turned on his heels and walked away.

Merlin followed after Arthur and Kay. They must have been waiting for him, because he caught up easily. Arthur cast a concerned glance at Merlin, but didn't ask any questions.

"Four hundred, maybe five, I warrant," Kay was saying.

"Is that how much you won off me today?" Arthur asked.

"Nice round number, yeah? It'll make for an easy split this time." Kay grinned, shrugging his shoulders. He pulled his trousers up and adjusted his belt as they walked, taking the opportunity to jiggle a coin pouch with no amount of subtlety. "No one wanted to place any bets toward the end, even with serious odds against you. Took some fast-talking to convince them toward the end. Oi, some warning before you change tactics would be nice."

Arthur's jaw clenched before a forced, good-natured smile stretched across his lips. He ducked his head in generic non-answer.

Kay was younger than Arthur by at least three years and had the carefree attitude of a child who knew they would never have the same heavy responsibilities as his elder siblings nor suffer the same consequences of reckless, irresponsible behaviour. As long as he floated under Uther's attention and didn't cause incidents between Kingdoms, Kay would continue as he was, troublesome and self-centered. Merlin wondered how much that bothered Arthur.

"What's Arthur's cut?" Merlin asked, the words out of his mouth before he gave them any real thought. Kay's grunt reminded Merlin of his mistake in not using Arthur's title, never mind in having spoken out of turn before the children of the thane, but Arthur's growing smirk was reassurance enough to press forward. "Sounds like you've been making money off of him for years. He's been doing all the hard work, playing the long con. How much is he due?"

Kay glanced between them. "I, uh..."

"My little brother thinks I've been doing this out of the goodness of my heart," Arthur said, glancing over Merlin's shoulder at Kay's weak, whispered, Haven't you? Without missing a beat, Arthur continued, "I've been keeping a running tab. If I take fifty percent, I'm owed nearly ten thousand this year alone, so far."

Kay choked.

"That's not including the last four years prior. Including interest on the arrears, by my count we're at almost a couple hundred thousand."

Kay stopped dead. As Merlin walked past him, walking faster to fill the now-empty spot next to Arthur, he saw Kay blinking multiple times, trying to grasp what had just happened.

"I'm willing to defray the first year, of course," Arthur said, acting as if Kay was still with them.

"Of course," Merlin said encouragingly. "You have to pay into the business. Setting up the scenes, luring in the marks, promoting the fights. There's wins and loses all around."

"Yes, exactly." Arthur's smile was blinding. "You understand. Not many people do."

Kay's footsteps were heavy as he hurried to catch up. He cleared his throat noisily. "Hey. Uh. You're not really going to hold me to that, are you? I mean, you don't expect me to pay you all that?"

Arthur slowed, finally stopping. He frowned. "Is there a problem? I thought we had an understanding."

"We never --" Kay caught himself. He shook his head . "Look, I don't... Arthur. I don't have the cash. I lost it at the tables a long time ago."

Arthur stepped back in surprise, but Merlin wasn't so sure that Arthur didn't know that already. Concern became hurt, hurt became confusion, and confusion turned into shrewd thoughtfulness as Arthur brought his hand to his face, tapping a finger to his cheek. Kay fidgeted, and Arthur finally put him out of his misery. "That's all right."

"Really?" Kay asked cautiously.

"Of course," Arthur said, wrapping a hand over Kay's shoulders, squeezing with brotherly affection. "I know you're a honourable man."

"Of course I am," Kay agreed, breathing in relief even as the trap snared around him.

"That's why you're going to owe me so many favours," Arthur said, ruffling Kay's hair.

Kay squawked and squirmed to get out from under Arthur's arm, missing the calculating darkness in Arthur's eyes. Merlin raised a chin in appreciation and approval. Maybe he wouldn't need to come up with a scheme to make Arthur the King of Albion. Arthur played the game far better than Merlin ever would. He was able to turn people around with very little effort on his part, whether it was through irresistible charm, genuine concern, strength of character, or outright blackmail. Chances were, in the weeks since Merlin had subtly nudged Arthur to consider his proposal, Arthur had already pulled together a crude plan to conquer all of Albion. Merlin was also willing to gamble that this plan wouldn't have half as much bloodshed as it would if Morgana or Uther had had the same drive.

Arthur might have been able to pull it off all on his own without any interference from outsiders. He might even have been planning it all along, before Merlin had come to disrupt his life. All Arthur needed -- all he wanted -- was someone firmly in his corner.

Merlin could do that. Better yet, Merlin wanted that.

Their particular magical bond created a two-way tether that would, with time, permit one to sense the other, but nothing more, and it was a sense easily blocked or ignored. Emotional manipulation was impossible. Mind-reading was a talent unique to the rare mind-mage. An equal bond such as theirs would not allow the inequality of absolute control.

The bond had nothing to do with Merlin's urge to protect and support Arthur. Arthur himself engendered the sort of loyalty that Merlin had never been able to muster for anyone else. It was a strange feeling considering that he barely knew Arthur and wasn't altogether certain whether he trusted him.

Those were the thoughts harrying after him as he followed Arthur into a large meeting room. The rectangular table stretched down the middle, wide, colourful banners acting as curtains against the fading light of the setting sun. At the far end there was a slightly raised dais and an ostentatious throne, clearly meant for the thane as he presided over his council.

The thane in question sat at the head of the table, frowning in concentration. Several books were scattered on the surface, three of them open. A metallic scroll casing glinted in the drifting sunlight and several sheets curled on the table, weighed down at the corners by polished river stones.

A man with grey hair and a patchwork white-and-black beard stood a respectable distance from the thane. He wore a heavy robe over his clothing that was tinted a shade of purple that was more eyesore than academic, and the long sleeves would have been long enough to hide his hands if not for the fact that he was wringing them anxiously.

"Is it in order?" Uther asked, not bothering to look up at their approach, never mind at the nervous man.

"It seems so, my Lord," the man said, stumbling over the honorific. He started to step forward, only to remember himself and to draw back. He pointed helplessly from where he stood. "The sigil appears to be the same. There are some alterations, of course, which is supported by the book near your left hand, and --"

"And the laws?"

The man hesitated, clearly considering his words carefully. "The laws are a thane's domain, my Lord. I wouldn't presume to --"

"You may go," Uther said abruptly, sitting up straight. His hand gestured dismissively, and he shoved the papers in front of Morgana. "What do you think?"

The man in the purple robes rushed past them with the staggered gait of someone who couldn't get out fast enough. Kay walked to a chair nearly halfway down from the thane. He dragged it away from the table noisily, and sat down. Arthur remained standing and Merlin leaned against a stone column to take some of the weight from his leg and ease the strain on his back.

"I would have to concur with Geoffrey," Morgana said, barely glancing at the papers. If anything, she avoided touching them entirely, staring at the sheets as if they were a mound of steaming offal deposited in front of her. "He's from Monmouth and learned in their ways; surely, if he says that something appears to be in order, he's not likely to be wrong."

"That's not what I asked," Uther said darkly.

Morgana exhaled heavily, openly rolling her eyes, and that, somehow, was the last straw for Uther. His fist came down on the table hard enough to make even the stack of books jump. Morgana jerked, but didn't cry out. Kay sat up a little straighter. Arthur, who hadn't moved from where he stood, remained still, as if he'd been expecting something of the sort. Morgana and Kay's reactions and their subsequent exchanged glances implied that Uther's tantrum wasn't a common occurrence, but Arthur's complete lack of reaction hinted that he'd seen more of this side of Uther than the others.

Uther paced the length of the room. Hands at his side, occasionally reaching out to strike a chair or a banner in passing. Leaning forward, like a charging bull enraged by a rippling flag in the distance, Uther didn't walk. He stormed, boots pounding on the stone, kicking at whatever was in his way.

"Arthur," Uther barked. "What do you make of this?"

A book clattered beneath the table, sliding across the floor to come to a stop at Merlin's feet. It was, it seemed, the latest of Uther's hapless victims, bruised with a dirty cover, a few torn pages, and bent in one corner. Merlin left it where it was.

"Kay," Arthur said, snapping his fingers impatiently when his brother didn't look up immediately, too entranced by Uther's rage to pay attention. "Pass me the papers."

Kay stood up slowly, as if expecting the angry beast to charge him without warning. He reached for the nearest sheets, dragged them across the table, and slid them over to Arthur, all without taking his eyes from Uther.

Merlin noticed the tightness in Morgana's expression. Make-up did a poor job of covering up the dark circles under her eyes. She must not have had much sleep in the last few nights, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the strain of coming up with a plan that was acceptable to Nimueh and Morgause. Maybe it was the fear that she would be kidnapped for citizenship.

If it was the former, Merlin needed to find out what she had planned. But if it was the latter, Merlin wondered why Morgana hadn't used her magic to barricade her chambers -- magic alone went far in reassuring someone's fears. A good shield would stand against an army, and barring that, served as a good early warning system. Either she didn't know how, wasn't able to, or couldn't, for whatever reason. The more he studied her, the more he realized her magic was unlike any magic he had ever come across, and --

She must have sensed his attention on her, because she turned to him. Her gaze was glazed over with exhaustion. Only her aura revealed what she was truly feeling, and Merlin saw both apathy and an underlying hatred -- a hatred that was currently directed toward Uther.

Merlin knew this only because he could feel ghostly fingertips drift over his mind as gently as if they were trawling over the flat surface of a lake, barely disturbing the surface, leaving an oily trail behind.

Merlin froze, afraid to react in case Morgana realize how sensitive and how strong his magic was. He flooded his mind with the dull ache of pain, letting it pulse in time with the throb in his still-healing leg, before forcing himself to glance down with a tired sigh.

Morgana's fingers drifted away, her attention fractured, drawn to the next thing.

If Morgana knew how to use wards to protect herself, it was unlikely that she was able to cast them in the first place. She had enough conventional magic to pretend that she had magic worthy of being tethered to a thane, but that wasn't her greatest power. She was a mind mage.

"Fuck," Merlin hissed under his breath. He coughed to cover up his slip.

Mind mages were ostracized even among the magical community, feared and hated for their ability to burrow into the minds of Men and to force them to succumb to someone else's will. Mind mages excelled in manipulation, aided by their ability to soothe frayed emotions and twist them into becoming agreeable. The most powerful among the mind mage were said to be capable of travelling out of their bodies to spy on distant lands, pushing aside someone's soul for a time, or to direct their physical beings as if they were nothing more but a vehicle to be driven. They could use others as extensions of themselves, directing them much as an insect queen would her hive.

"I don't understand," Arthur said, shuffling the papers in his hands. He flipped through them again, shaking his head. "Mercia is calling a war Council. But why? There's nothing worth concern, not of late."

Morgana shifted in her seat. She closed her eyes for a stretched moment, sitting regally with her shoulders pushed back as she raised her chin. Uther's stalk around the room slowed to a stop, and he meandered to stand behind the chair at the head of the table, crossing his arms along the back. His agitation was nearly completely gone, seemingly unaffected by anything, but Merlin suspected that long exposure to Morgana had rendered him unconsciously susceptible to her manipulations.

How often did Morgana take over? Was Uther merely a puppet thane? The delicate necklace around Morgana's neck might appear to be a tether, but it was hardly an effective defence against Morgana. Merlin suspected it was a tether of a sorts, though one that ran in the opposite direction.

He would need to get closer to be sure. Getting closer would attract Morgana's attention, and he had only half-remembered lessons from Ironwood to rely on for protection. He glanced at Arthur, eyes narrowed, and wondered if Arthur knew about his sister's magic. If he was as affected by it as Uther was.

Merlin glanced at Kay. Mind-mages rarely focused their attention on only one person. Who else was under Morgana's control?

Arthur dropped the papers on the table, his gaze drifting toward the scrolls scattered near Uther's chair. "Is there more to this?"

Uther glowered. He stood up to his full height, rearing up like a dragon sitting on its haunches, and rolled his shoulders back. The effect was almost instantaneous. Arthur deflated, lowering his gaze and shuttering. Kay made himself smaller and slid to the edge of his seat, as if he intended on bolting out of the room as soon as Uther's attention turned to him.

The only person who didn't wither under Uther's scowl was Morgana. Merlin noted how her eyes had gone glassy. Her cheeks were somehow pinker, but that might have been because she was going pale with the effort of keeping Uther under control.

"I hardly think I need to explain the situation to the commander of the Knights," Uther said, his tone cold as ice. For a mercurial man, the words were far too unlike him and could only come from Morgana.

Arthur's head bowed and his shoulders rolled inward. He took a breath that he held, as if expecting a blow, but when none came, he said, "Mercia is calling all the Kingdoms to ride to war under its banner, as is the right of any thane who feels Albion as a whole is threatened. What I don't understand -- what none of those papers say -- is why."

Morgana's mouth pressed in the thin line of a grimace. A flicker of intelligence filled Uther's eyes, only to glaze away again.

"Clearly, it's a trick." Uther's announcement wavered only faintly in its surety, inaudible for all but those who were looking for it. Uther's knuckles were white where he grasped the back of a chair, fingernails digging into fabric.

Merlin could see the mind control unfolding in front of him. Uther's struggle against Morgana's power. And Merlin couldn't stop it. He wasn't sure if he dared try.

"Clearly," Arthur repeated in agreement, though he sounded unconvinced.

"He plans something," Uther said. "I know he does. This wild-goose chase to Essetir? It was all Mercia's doing. A rumour spread to lure the Kingdoms to investigate and go to war while they gain the upper hand on all the thanes. You found no hint of forbidden alchemy, and there never was any. We are at odds with Essetir, and they'll invade the minute our backs are turned."

"But Mercia --"

"They failed," Uther said, cutting Arthur off. "You learned the truth of it quickly and got away. How many other Kingdoms fell for the same ploy? All of them, I'm certain. Now Essetir is spoilt for choice, trying to decide which of us to attack first."

Merlin glanced at Morgana. She was still pale, her breath coming in shallowly but slowly. Whether it was because she was fighting Uther for control, or because she was trying to sell a theory that made sense, Merlin wasn't sure. No matter what, he could tell that whatever she was doing, the cost to her was great.

"And now this!" Uther exclaimed, connecting the dots on a very thin thread. "Mercia! They call us out to war for nonsense, drawing us out from our Kingdoms under some pretext of great danger that they can't even name! They're in collusion. They must be. Hold us fast behind Mercia's borders while Essetir reaps our Kingdoms for himself."

It sounded plausible to Merlin, who knew little of politics but enough of the Kingdom's armed forces to know how many men each thane dared spare and how many men they needed to keep in reserve. Arthur's expression was flat and neutral, however, and Merlin couldn't tell if he was buying the story.

From the way his hand clenched in a fist, out of sight of everyone but Merlin, Merlin was betting that Arthur didn't believe a word of it.

"So," Arthur said slowly, clearly picking his words carefully through the minefield ahead, "We send a refusal to Mercia. I'll increase the patrols at our borders --"

"I'm going to send you," Uther said suddenly.

Morgana made a faint sound, her brow pinching.

Arthur's mouth clacked shut.

"You. Twenty Knights," Uther said. He nodded resolutely, and Merlin thought he saw some clarity in his eyes. It wasn't much, but it was there, struggling against Morgana.

Merlin wished he dared reach out, to interrupt the connection, somehow, but too many years of protecting himself had groomed a nearly-unshakable survival instinct. He kept his head averted, feigning disinterest.

"Twenty men. Yes," Uther said, the strength in his voice fading. "That should be enough. A show of strength to play our hand, to make it seem as if we will commit along with all the others. You'll go... you'll..."

Uther's eyes trailed to the ceiling. He glanced down quickly. He shook his head as if trying to shake something off. Abruptly, he turned and stalked out of the room without another word.

"The fuck was that?" Kay asked, looking from Morgana to Arthur.

Morgana took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. She touched her forehead lightly, offering a shaky smile that didn't look to be in the least sincere. "You know what he's like when he talks about Essetir and Mercia."

Kay snorted. "Yeah, but that? That's over the top. What's eating at him?"

"He's in a strop. Same as usual. He'll be back," Morgana said evenly. "You don't want to be here when he does. Maybe you should go. I'll calm him down for dinner."

A chill ran down Merlin's spine. I'll calm him down had far too many connotations now that he knew what kind of magic she had.

"Yeah, all right. Better you than me. I'd like to wash up, anyway. Maybe he'll make more sense then," Kay said, getting up. He patted Arthur's shoulder on his way out.

Arthur lingered a moment longer, his eyes fixed on the scrolls at the head of the table. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. "Yeah. I'll see you at dinner, Morgana."

Arthur gestured for Merlin to follow. Once they were in the corridor and out of earshot, he said, "I think it's time you tell me what's going on."

Merlin glanced over his shoulder, not entirely certain that Morgana wasn't listening in. "Yes, my Lord. But not now."

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

"You've changed," Morgana remarked, looping her arm through Arthur's. He bent his elbow automatically, protecting himself from her fingernails, but this time, more than any other, he felt them digging deep despite the thick leather jacket he wore. Either something in particular vexed Morgana, or her nails were sharper than usual.

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin trailing behind them. He should be annoyed to have a permanent shadow, but he was relieved, instead. "I'm certain I don't know what you mean."

Morgana's smile was fixed, even detached. Arthur had only seen her like this when her machinations had worked against her, and couldn't help but wonder what had gone wrong now. "You were quiet all through dinner."

"I am often quiet," Arthur said, furrowing his brow. He might have stared into his cup more than not, and eaten little of what had been placed in front of him, but that was no different than at any other dinner. It wasn't his fault that on this particular day, his thoughts were preoccupied.

Twenty Knights and one of the thane's sons to respond to a country-wide war-party set by another Kingdom? The number of men was so low as to be a slap in Mercia's face. Sending Arthur, rather than his heir, was the equivalent of ridiculing Mercia's reaction as little else but an extravagance. The two acts, combined, could be seen as Uther putting Camelot above all the other Kingdoms, and to Hell with the rest of them.

There was too much that Arthur didn't know. Why was Mercia calling for a war-party? What had been in those other papers that Arthur hadn't seen? What was behind Uther's behaviour?

Arthur could analyze the meeting all that he liked, but he couldn't get very far when he didn't have all the information. And worse, he knew where to get the intelligence he needed to move forward in his own mind, but between dinner and too many people, Arthur hadn't been able to get Merlin alone for the revelation he'd ben promised.

It was infuriating to have Merlin within arm's reach and to be unable to speak with him in private.

"Quiet, perhaps," Morgana said, laughing a small little laugh that chilled Arthur to the bone. He forced himself not to tense. "But I know you, little brother. I know when your mind is elsewhere. What were you thinking about?"

Arthur sighed. He pretended he didn't notice that Merlin was trailing further and further behind them, slipping away and out of sight. "What should I think about?"

Morgana's smile fell. Her fingers tightened. "Mercia."

"Yes, of course. Mercia," Arthur said, nodding amiably. He tilted his head, studying her carefully. Uther had told him to take twenty men but had not specified which twenty; he wondered if Morgana was worried about Arthur's possible choices. He wondered what Morgana was thinking at all. Normally outspoken on a variety of topics, Morgana had been unusually silent, keeping her thoughts to herself. "Do you have any comment on the matter?"

Morgana made a dismissive gesture, matching it with a scoff. "What do I know about war-parties?"

"Quite a lot, as I recall," Arthur said, slowing down. He didn't want to get too far away from Merlin, though he couldn't put his finger on why. "You were our tutor's favourite."

Morgana's laugh was more genuine this time, her eyes crinkling in fond memory. She patted Arthur's arm, pulling him along with her for a few more steps before she spoke. "Do you know which of the Knights you'll bring with you?"

Arthur shook his head ruefully, more to cover his expression than anything else. "Of course I know," he said flatly. "In-between Uther's fits of temper and dinner, I wrote up a roster, filed the requisitions, and intend on leaving on the morrow."

Morgana frowned at him.

"I don't even know what this is all about, Morgana," Arthur snapped, exasperated. "I haven't anything, not yet. I will, soon."

"Good," Morgana said, sounding thoughtful and distant.

Uther, much to everyone's surprise, had repeated his announcement at the beginning of the dinner. His words had been met with a dead silence, which was only slowly filled with dubious cheers and exclamations. Nearly all of the Knights in the Hall had glanced at Arthur before clapping, though whether they expected Arthur to name the Knights who would be accompanying him or if they were looking for some reassurance in the confusion that came with Uther's uncharacteristic decision, Arthur didn't know.

"Ah," Morgana said. "Will Leon be among them?"

Arthur pulled them to a stop. He searched Morgana's expression, but she gave nothing away. He didn't know if she wanted to keep Leon close for her own purposes, which, given their strange relationship, was understandable. But something in her tone raked at him. The weight in the pit of his belly had only grown since Uther's decision, and it was heavier now, and a bitter taste rose up in the back of Arthur's throat. He didn't know what it was, but something wasn't right.

"He's one of our best fighters," Arthur said easily, avoiding the question.

"He is, isn't he?" Morgana said tightly. Her hold on Arthur's arm lessened and she took a step back. "You would do poorly without him."

Arthur took a deep breath, uncertain how to take Morgana's words. Did she want Leon to go to Mercia? And why? Was she playing her usual manipulative games again, to try to make Arthur take the opposite view and to leave Leon behind? Carefully, he ventured, "He's my second. I'm loathe to bring him. I don't want to leave Camelot undefended."

Morgana hummed thoughtfully. Arthur still couldn't gauge her reaction, but he thought that she looked... frustrated? Arthur had never played along with Morgana's games, confounding her on more than one occasion, forcing her to order him outright instead of falling into her traps. He wondered if he could pry her true agenda this time, or if she would play it close to her chest.

"That's probably best," Morgana said. Then, raising an eyebrow, she continued, "To leave him in Camelot, I mean. Uther has been erratic of late --"

Arthur glanced at her warningly before looking over his shoulder, but they were as alone as they could get. Merlin had dropped further back and was slowing down even more.

"-- and having someone in Camelot when he offends yet another thane would be wise. Who knows? Uther might be right this one time, and Mercia is indeed in cahoots with Essetir, and we will have two fronts to defend."

"Perhaps," Arthur said, his tone neutral. He wasn't sure he liked how Morgana had framed her words. Offending yet another thane? As if Uther made a habit of it. Camelot kept to itself, defending its borders ruthlessly, and except where the politics of the thanes affected their Kingdom, Uther maintained diplomatic relations with his nearest neighbours, even if he didn't particularly like them. This one time? Unlike most of the other thanes who had inherited their positions, Uther had fought for his Kingdom tooth and nail. At the core, he was a warlord, as successful on the battlefield of arms as he was in courtly duels.

In a few words, Morgana had painted Uther as a manic, uncontrolled lout, capable of leading them to certain destruction. Why would she bother? Arthur knew well Uther's faults, but he was aware of Uther's strengths, too. Uther's earlier behaviour was unlike him. Morgana's description was more fitting of a complete stranger than their father.

What the Hell was going on?

"You've changed," Morgana said again, unhappily. Her hand dropped from Arthur's arm, and instead of feeling bereft, he was relieved. All these years, he'd deferred to her or sought refuge with her, even though a part of him had always known that she was never as safe as she'd made herself out to be. She would guard him, cajole him, reassure him, but now, looking back, he wondered how much of her support had been genuine. She had always been quick to speak a soothing word to calm Uther when his temper raged, but was loathe to stand between them when that temper was directed at Arthur.

Arthur took the opportunity to step aside. He felt as if he were cutting ties and making his position clear. It was difficult for anyone to take a step away from the proverbial nest, and maybe the comfort of home made it so that it was a step Arthur had never taken for himself. There were too many unknown factors. Too many questions. Too much that he would have to do on his own.

The idea of leaving, of making his own way -- it was exhilarating. He'd never had the opportunity to build himself a safety net, and it was strange to operate without one now, even though, deep down, he knew that he had the sturdiest support of all.

The oak tree on his chest had grown out of Merlin's touch during the binding ritual, like a seedling bursting from its husk, growing stout and strong in the flash of an eye. After seeing how the mark of the dragon had burned a healing brand on Merlin's skin, he'd expected much the same and had braced for the pain. Arthur had been surprised in more ways than one at the coolness of Merlin's touch and the smoothness of the darkening lines upon his skin.

"You can never let anyone see this," Merlin had said, apologetic and regretful in the same breath, as if the sign of the oak was something to be ashamed of. Merlin's expression had closed off before Arthur could ask what it meant, pulling his hands away with difficulty. "Well. In the traditional tethering ceremony, the binder isn't supposed to have a mark, too. I'll make a talisman to hide it. Just... just cover it up for now."

Cover it up for now.

Was that what Morgana was doing? What was she hiding?

Arthur exhaled and turned to look out the window, working his jaw. He didn't like secrets. He could understand them coming from Merlin because Merlin had spent nearly his entire life on the run, harried after as if he were little more than a fox for the hunt. He had never had the luxury of being able to trust anyone, and any such trust would be hard won. It would take time.

Arthur was willing to give Merlin some leeway. Arthur was certain he'd have his answers either way, right down to how oddly Merlin had reacted to their marks and what they meant, but that could wait. They barely knew each other.

Morgana didn't have the same excuse. They were kin. They were raised together. They had shared tutors. They had spent equal amounts of time on the training fields and in the court until their duties were more fully formed. Arthur had thought them close siblings, but these days, he felt he had more in common with Kay, who was a miscreant on the best of days.

What was she keeping from him? What was she planning?

Aware of Morgana's attention on him, Arthur heaved a heavy breath and scratched his hand along his jaw. He made a dismissive gesture at Morgana's inquisitive eyebrow and allowed himself to reach out for her, helplessly, in the way he used to.

"Of course, I've changed. I have a sorcerer tethered to me," Arthur said, watching her carefully. "I assume such a permanent act would change a person in some way."

A flash of relief appeared in Morgana's eyes. She took his arm again, and this time, her fingernails didn't dig into the creases of the worn leather, saving him from a maiming. "I wouldn't know," she said lightly.

"Morgana," Arthur sighed. He glanced over his shoulder as if looking for Merlin, but he hadn't rounded the corner yet nor caught up, and wasn't in sight. Wherever he'd disappeared off to, Arthur sincerely hoped that Merlin would show up quickly. "What do I even do with a sorcerer? Particularly one of his sort? Have you seen what he's like? Sorcerer or not, I doubt he can do much more than light a candlewick on the best of days."

"He's a bit crude," Morgana agreed, but that was the only sympathy Arthur knew he would get from her. "The way he speaks his mind is rather quaint and good for some amusement, but beyond that, you should get rid of him as quickly as possible."

"I don't even know what he's good at," Arthur complained, even though he damn well did. The memory of Merlin hurling bullets back at their owner was seared in his mind.

"Not too much from what I've seen," Morgana said, a curl of a smile on her lips. "He's strong enough for a semi-decent protection ward. Maybe he can light a campfire if you need one, but he's more of a weight that will drag you down than anything."

"You can tell that?" Arthur pressed.

"He's weak," Morgana said, serious. "He's not worthy of a thane's son. The sooner you're rid of him, the better."

"Why did Uther --" Arthur cut himself off. He hesitated, and asked, "Why did Uther do what he did, then? Is this some sort of punishment?"

A darkness passed over Morgana's expression. Her smile was forced, this time. "You know Uther and his games. I told him that the sorcerer wasn't anything much, that we should cut him loose as soon as we could. I was as surprised as you that he offered this man so much. What a foolish, foolish thing to do."

"I suppose," Arthur said, not entirely sure.

Morgana brightened. "Speaking of, where's your little pet? Did he get lost already?" She leaned in conspiratorially. "Or have you had him waylaid? Has someone taken on the task of getting rid of him for you?"

Arthur's heart clenched, though he schooled his expression to passive concern. He opened his mouth to shrug Merlin's disappearance off as nothing, that he was certain Merlin would turn up, when Merlin himself stumbled into the corridor behind them. He bumped against a decorative table, barely caught a flower vase before it tumbled to the ground, and straightened himself up as best he could.

Morgana snorted derisively.

"Ah, there he is," Morgana said, turning away. She pulled Arthur after her.

Arthur's eyes narrowed. He hadn't missed Merlin's new, ruffled look, nor the way his clothes appeared to be in disarray. He'd seen Merlin move on a field of battle and knew that there was no possibility that he was truly that clumsy as to bump into a table, even with his leg the way it was. Arthur slowed down, using his superior height and weight to keep Morgana from dragging him off, and watched as Merlin shot a dark look down the corridor, around the corner, out of Arthur's line of sight. "Where were you?"

The question came out harsher than he'd meant, but footsteps in the distance came to a sudden stop before slowly retreating. Merlin's expression didn't lighten in the least. Pursing his mouth into a thin line he said, "Sorry, slipped off. Had to use the loo."

"How crass," Morgana sniffed.

"Yeah, must be a shock, learning that some people still take a whiz every now and then, not that you blue bloods know about anything of the sort --" Arthur freed himself from Morgana's suddenly-sharp grasp and grabbed Merlin's arm a little more roughly than he'd meant. "-- Ow. What did I do?"

"Sorry, Morgana. It seems I have to spend some of my off-hours teaching my pet sorcerer how to behave in cultured company," Arthur said, dragging Merlin along with him.

"I don't hold out much hope that such a thing is even possible," Morgana called out after them.

Arthur waved a hand behind him, both to indicate that he'd heard, and not to worry. Arthur continued to haul Merlin along until they rounded the corner into an empty corridor. He relaxed his hold on Merlin and asked, "Are you all right?"

"I've had worse," Merlin said, brushing himself down. A faint crinkle was audible as he smoothed his vest and straightened the collar of his shirt.

"I told you, it's best if you stay close, especially at the castle. Where were you --"

Merlin reached into his vest and pulled out hastily folded and wrinkled scrolls that Arthur recognized from earlier that day.

Arthur was struck dumb at the sight. "Why --"

"You wanted to see them, didn't you?" Merlin asked.

"I'm not even going to ask how you got those," Arthur said, shoving them back into Merlin's vest.

Merlin grunted. "If I'd known you'd be this handsy --"

"Shush," Arthur said, grabbing Merlin's arm again.

He was gentler this time, and as they walked down the corridor to head for the upper levels to his room, he was more conscious of Merlin's leg. Neither of them spoke again until they'd passed several servants on their way up the stairs.

"It's time we have that talk," Arthur said. He kept his voice low. "Something's not right."

"Oh, good, I thought it was just me," Merlin said, pausing halfway up the stairs to take a deep breath.

Arthur winced, having forgotten that Merlin had also been shot in the upper back, lost a great deal of blood, and was, technically, still recovering. Anyone else would still be on their sickbed, sleeping off Gaius' so-called healing draughts, but Merlin had eschewed both, sticking close to Arthur from the moment he was well enough to move.

"So I'm not wrong, then," Arthur said.

"No," Merlin said.

Arthur glanced at Merlin sidelong, remembering their first real conversation, right before the binding. I want you to win the war that's sure to come. "Is this the war you were talking about?"

"I don't know yet. Maybe." Merlin shifted, patting his chest where he'd stashed the crumpled scrolls. He scratched his jaw before turning to Arthur. "My guess? Definitely."

"Twenty Knights?" Arthur asked.

Merlin's laugh was dry. "Yeah, that's not going to cut it."

Merlin slowed down considerably and Arthur followed his gaze down the corridor to the person standing outside Arthur's quarters, thumbs hooked into his belt.

Leon.

Arthur had nearly forgotten that he was meant to speak with Leon, to try to sort out whatever the issue was between them. There had come a time when the two of them had been friends, so close that not even the threat of corporal punishment would cause one to betray the other. Arthur didn't know when that had changed. He had always thought that it had begun when Arthur had been given command of the Knights, but he had a feeling that the animosity between them began a long time ago, starting when Leon became involved with Morgana.

But how could Leon have turned against him so completely? For what purposes? What had Arthur done, and could he repair their friendship before it was too late?

From the grim set of Leon's jaw, Arthur wondered if they were well beyond the point of no return.

For appearance's sake, and possibly also because of a perverse, irrational need to hurt something, Arthur shoved Merlin away from him. He listened with an inward cringe as Merlin cried out in surprise, stumbled, and crashed into the wall. Arthur continued on, heedless of his "pet"'s condition, and approached Leon.

"Let's go inside," Arthur said, reaching for the door to his rooms.

"Another time, Arthur," Leon said gruffly, stepping away.

"We were to talk," Arthur said, his tone harsh. "We're going to talk. Get inside."

"I'm meeting Morgana," Leon said, one hand moving to grasp the hilt of the sword at his belt. It probably wasn't meant to be a threatening gesture, but Arthur took it as one, staring pointedly at Leon's hand with a raised brow until Leon relaxed his grasp around it. "I've only come to tell you, that's all. I'll be with Morgana for the evening. Every evening from now on."

"You're my second among the Knights. You report to me, not to Morgana. You have duties to attend to," Arthur said dangerously.

"And one of my duties is Morgana's protection, as you yourself decreed," Leon said. He leaned in with a raised brow and a mocking smirk so inviting that Arthur was tempted to knock it off his face with a well-placed punch. "Unless you've forgotten? Uther's little game is still on. The threats to her life are real."

"Leon --"

"We'll talk another time," Leon said, his tone clipped. He turned on his heel, stared straight ahead, and rolled his shoulders back, marching down the corridor. He walked past Merlin without so much as a glance in his direction and trotted down the stairs.

Arthur couldn't remember the last time that Leon shut him down so thoroughly. It certainly wasn't the first time that he'd invoked Morgana's name in that regard. But above anything, Leon wasn't the sort to forget common courtesy, never mind military protocol, and Arthur thought it was very curious that Leon blatantly ignored his superior's command and went so far as to bark orders he had no authority to give.

Merlin pushed himself from his slump against the wall, glancing over his shoulder at the dark hollow of the staircase and past Arthur before walking over with less of a limp than a man in his condition justifiably should have. He stopped in front of Arthur.

"From the look on your face, odds are, what you think is wrong, and what I think is wrong? They're probably the same thing. But best we talk inside."

Arthur barely felt Merlin's fingers on his shoulder, but he allowed himself to be moved. Merlin opened the door and entered first, a bright witch-light forming in his palm and floating inside at whipcord speeds. It moved as if it were sentient, seeking something, and, when it didn't find it, shattered into a dozen pieces that whizzed out, lighting all the lanterns in the room.

Merlin pulled Arthur inside. He pushed the door closed.

It was only at the resounding click of the latch falling in place and the bolt turning in the lock that Arthur shook himself out of it and ordered, "Secure the room."

Arthur ignored the cheek in Merlin's tone when he said, "Whatever you say, my Lord."

 

Coin Image of Leon

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Merlin was distracted from carving yet another symbol into the door by the sound of rustling papers falling to the ground. He looked over his shoulder in time to see one of the scrolls slowly wind itself up and spiral away from the large table on the far side of the room.

Arthur kicked the chair next to him, stretched his legs out onto the seat, and stared at nothing, his brows pinched in a frown. There was no misinterpreting the sullen expression.

With a roll of his eyes and a huff of annoyance, Merlin finished carving the last curve in the oblong knotted circle, copying from one of the symbols on his arms. It was, he knew, poor protection against a determined mind mage, but it was also the only protection he could offer. Mind mages were rare and little was known about the extent of their abilities. Taliesin had postulated the possibility that mind magic was restrained only by the morality of the wielder, just as creativity fuelled the breadth of a magic user's ability, but that had been only an argument for the sake of argument, without evidence to sustain it.

Merlin had thought him full of shite.

The circle was a net meant to ensnare and capture. It was a two dimensional scribble equally powerful on wood as it was on skin. Merlin's magic would transform it into a multi-dimensional maze should a mind mage venture close or if a sorcerer attempted to trick him with illusions. Merlin triggered the ward by blowing breath into the hollows of the symbol. Magic shone in the shadows, and unlike the protective ward that stretched out and spread across Arthur's chambers, the circle-net was all fine lines and delicate knot work, glowing brightly once the beginning met the end, and faded into the wood.

"I'm putting one of these on you," Merlin said, wincing when he turned too fast and put weight on his bad leg. He caught himself before he stumbled, and bowed down to pick up the mess of papers scattered on the floor.

"Sure," Arthur said, distracted.

"It involves blood, needles, and ink of dubious provenance," Merlin said, piling the last of the scrolls on top of the table, folding them rudely to keep them from rolling up again.

"Fine," Arthur said.

Merlin sat back on his heels. With a grunt, he stood up and walked to the table, carrying the papers over. "I'll be putting it on your magnificent arse, and you don't get a say in the matter."

"That seems counterintuitive for protection against psionic attack and mind manipulation," Arthur said, blinking repeatedly. He dropped his hand to the table, his fingers tracing the edge of the only sheet of paper he hadn't carelessly thrown aside.

Merlin blinked at him, suitably impressed. He thought Arthur was lost in his private little world from which there was no escape. Then, just as quickly, he realized what Arthur had said and goggled at him. "You know?"

"I have no other explanation for the strange behaviour of many people, particularly of late," Arthur said, spreading his hands. "Uther has always been mercurial. Everyone says his temper grows worse every year, but I remember a time when he was... normal, I suppose. Normal for him. But Leon's about-face is ridiculous. We've been friends for as long as I can remember. And then there's..."

"Who else?" Merlin prompted.

Arthur licked his lips. His fist bounced on the table. "The armourer, last month, when I asked him if he'd repaired the weakness in the chain mail. Some of the councillors -- every week, really, nosier than usual, entering my room at all hours of the day as if they have permission to be here, whether or not I'm present. The cook, once..."

Arthur frowned. He looked off to the side, his fingers pressing to his lips as his brow furrowed deep. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, until he finally spoke. "It's Morgana, isn't it?"

Merlin made a small sound. At Arthur's curious glance, Merlin shook his head and said, "I should have given you more credit."

Arthur snorted. "Thought me thick, didn't you?"

Merlin very carefully said, "I thought you a thane's son."

Arthur rolled his eyes. He rubbed the side of his head. Helplessness drifted into his expression. "How do I even know if she's in my mind right now?"

"Because you're the same bloody prat I met in the woods, the one who fretted over me any time I groaned," Merlin said, raising a challenging eyebrow. "There's a limit to mind magic. I remember that much. It doesn't work well the further their target is. Proximity is key."

Arthur's eyes went distant again. It was a thousand-yard stare into oblivion. He tapped his thumb ring against his chin, mindlessly mouthing at it a second later. Merlin stared at the way Arthur's lips wrapped around the metal, and had to tear his eyes away.

"What are you thinking?" Merlin asked, reaching for the scroll on the table.

"I can understand my father's behaviour. If it was Morgana's doing, she must have been learning how to control it when she came of age. That's how it starts, doesn't it? When they come of age."

Arthur's gaze remained far-away, but his mind was very clearly fixed on the situation at hand. The brief silence as he drifted off into thought didn't last. He burst into motion, sitting up abruptly.

"And lately, all these... random missions Uther has been sending the Knights on, making sure that I led them. Invading Essetir wasn't the first time. That must have been her doing. I don't understand why, though. Why would she be doing all this? What does she have planned? And the war. Uther might not care much about the other Kingdoms unless it affects him, and any kind of war would affect Camelot. Did she change his mind about sending the Knights at all? If she did, then, why did Uther order me to go? She can't have meant for me to go at all. That must have been Uther's doing. Can you fight mind-magic?"

Merlin was slow to absorb everything that Arthur blurted out, taking longer to pick out the one question he could answer.

"Presumably. If someone's strong-willed enough to realize. Or if she's making them do something that's repugnant to them. They'd have to overcome whatever she's doing, and that means fighting her the whole time," Merlin said. He paused for a second, and said, "It's possible Uther is sending you out on his own free will, because he knows what she's doing, and he's trying to protect you."

Arthur's expression was blank. He closed his eyes, took a slow breath, and shook his head before sitting up straighter. "Has she ever done it to me? Can you tell if she has --"

"No, I can't. Not my skill set." Once again, Merlin wondered of the relationship between Arthur and his father, but he let it drop. "But if I tattoo your arse, I'll know. So will you."

Arthur took a big breath, as if he were considering the matter. In the next, he nodded sharply. "What do you need to do it? Can you do it now?"

"Gaius has everything I need," Merlin said, studying Arthur. "I can do it tonight, when everyone else has gone to bed. No one will see me."

"Good. Do it," Arthur said. He pointed a finger at Merlin. "It's not going on my arse."

"Gods, no," Merlin said, not even thinking about what he was saying. "As if I'd mar perfection."

Arthur's eyebrows rose. Merlin registered what he'd said. He scratched his jaw, hurriedly thinking of a subject change when Arthur saved him. "Do we know if it's really Morgana? What if it's someone else I never noticed?"

"How many people have access to Uther?" Merlin spent most of his time with Arthur and avoided the thane whenever he could. He had observed that Uther was usually in the company of the same handful of people, but none of them ever came close enough to use mind magic on him.

Arthur fell silent at the question.

Merlin tugged at the sheet of paper. It was firmly caught under Arthur's elbow, and Merlin didn't want to tear it. He was going to have to return the documents at some point, and he'd prefer that it wasn't obvious that someone had been handling them. There were spells to smooth out folds in papers and textiles, but he had never mastered the fine art of weaving fibers together. Every childhood attempt to mend rips in his threadbare clothing resulted in unsightly snarls.

"It's Morgana, then," Arthur said flatly. He sighed, running a hand along the side of his face. "How do you explain Leon? You said if someone knew they were doing something they wouldn't normally do, they'd be able to fight. He was my mate, first. She wouldn't talk to him for the longest time. She barely gives him the time of day now, and only when she feels like it. I don't understand."

"I don't think there's any explaining Leon," Merlin said distractedly. He nudged Arthur's knee, and Arthur obliged by shifting his legs from the second chair. Merlin took the opportunity to sit down, but couldn't free the paper from under Arthur's elbow. Merlin twisted his head for a better look at the banner that was partially covered by Arthur's arm. "Lift your arm."

Arthur didn't lift his arm.

Merlin slowly managed to pull the edge of the sheet closer, only for Arthur's hand to come down on it.

"He was my best friend growing up. We were close. If Morgana turned him against me, that's fair, but how do you explain how he acted when we were out in the forest? Wouldn't Morgana need to be close by to be able to tell him what to do? He kept wanting me to leave you behind --" Arthur stumbled to a stop, as if he'd come to an answer. His voice was very small when he said, "Unless he was in his own right mind. He was trying to protect me. To get me to safety."

"Was a bloody pillock about it, too, harping about leaving me behind to die in my own filth," Merlin snapped.

Arthur made a small, indescribable noise. Merlin glanced up and saw a vulnerability that he suspected Arthur didn't show anyone. Merlin sighed in frustration, let go of the paper, and rubbed his forehead. He was tired. He'd had a long day. He really wanted a few hours of rest before having to leave what was a very safe and cozy room again.

"I don't know what Leon was like before. How am I supposed to know what Leon was doing? For all I know, she used a charm, implanted a command he couldn't refuse, or... something else." Merlin rubbed his fingers along his jaw. "Should you even be talking to me about this?"

Arthur's expression shuttered. "Who else am I supposed to talk to? According to you, there's no one that I can trust. The bloody grave-digger could be under Morgana's control for all I know. Also, according to you, the only person who can't betray me is you, because the bond expressly forbids it."

"It works both ways. That was purely a selfish decision on my part," Merlin said quietly. "Doesn't mean she can't affect me in other ways."

"Yes, well," Arthur said, suddenly stoic. He sat up straighter. "The bond's working to my advantage. I can't bring myself to regret that." There was a pause before he asked, "Do you?"

"No," Merlin said, before he even realized he was talking. He looked away from Arthur's expression of surprise and rubbed his forehead as if trying to erase every plausible argument he had for making the choices he had. Everything, from his fervent desire to live in a world where he didn't have to run anymore, to how the forest had reacted for Arthur's protection, and finally, to how Arthur had, very unselfishly, contrived a way for Merlin to escape, only proved to Merlin that he was right in his choice. "No. I don't regret it. Look. I... I don't know you, Arthur."

Arthur raised an eyebrow, as if asking, That's no excuse.

Merlin's shoulders slumped. He exhaled heavily. He reached for words that weren't there. "This is hard for me. I don't... I don't trust anyone, all right?"

"Ever?"

Merlin thought about Hunith. He'd been quick to soak up her affection and to eat every last drop of her stew, but trust had come, eventually. Warming up to Balinor had taken longer. Even the boy he'd been friends with -- Merlin could scarce remember his name now. William. Will. They had been thick as thieves until Taliesin had forced Merlin to pay attention to his studies, sending Will and his family away. Merlin had kept his magic hidden, even then, from Will, from Taliesin, from everyone. He didn't think any of them had ever fully understood how much power he had possessed, even as a boy, because he had never showed them.

He shook his head slowly and closed his eyes. He propped his arm on the table, his cheek in his palm. The comfort of darkness wasn't comfort at all, and he opened his eyes. He shoved his bad leg shamelessly into Arthur's lap, wriggling his foot against Arthur's hip, until the dull ache from the leg wound ebbed away.

Arthur stared at Merlin's leg for several long moments before lowering his hand, tentatively letting it rest on Merlin's ankle. The warmth was a balm that Merlin hadn't known he ached for until the weight of Arthur's hand settled heavily and easily, inching up his shin toward his knee.

"Maybe once," Merlin finally said.

"What happened?" Arthur asked.

"I ran," Merlin admitted. "Had to. People were coming after me and I couldn't lead the horde to them. It didn't matter anyway. I came back and they were gone."

"They moved?"

Merlin met the eyes of a man who clung on to the innocence of youth, refusing to believe the worst, and shook his head. "I buried all those I could find."

Arthur didn't speak. He didn't need to. Merlin didn't know what kind of horrors Arthur might have seen in his life. They wouldn't be the same as those that Merlin had lived through, but there was never any comparison, no experience that was the same. However closely Arthur guarded himself, he was a compassionate man, and in that compassion he showed understanding with lowered eyes and a flicker of grief that Merlin couldn't help but be grateful for, because he didn't know if he could feel grief anymore.

After a while, Arthur worked to unbuckle Merlin's boot. "These are mine."

"Only ones I found that fit," Merlin said, not the least bit apologetic.

"They suit you. We'll get a cobbler to fix them. A tailor to get you more clothes," Arthur said absentmindedly, pulling off Merlin's boot. His nose wrinkled. "Your feet reek."

"They're your socks," Merlin said, shrugging. He shifted in his seat, half-expecting Arthur to shove his leg away, but Arthur grunted and made an unexpected, rude gesture.

"I have clean socks," Arthur said, thumbing over his shoulder toward the cupboard.

Merlin snorted doubtfully. Arthur scowled, but became pensive at a slow crawl, his eyes drifting toward the table. Merlin didn't know what he was thinking about, and didn't interrupt, letting the silence sink for a few minutes more.

"Is it still Leon in there?" Arthur asked abruptly. "I mean. If Morgana's controlling him, is it still him?"

Merlin spread his hands and shook his head. "I don't know. I wasn't taught much about mind magic, only how to defend against it, and they're so rare, I've never encountered one until now. I suppose there's nothing to control if there isn't anything to control -- if he wants it and is letting her, that is. But it seems to me that it's still him, though, so I think he's in there. Whether he's aware of what she's doing or not, that's a different question. I haven't the faintest. It's not like... I know it's not like a gaeas, nothing like a compulsion, either. It's not like there's a whole lot of information on mind mages, not even at Ironwood. Even before the London Library was burned down by the heretics three hundred years ago, I'm pretty sure they didn't have any autobiographies from the victims of the mind mages, because --"

He trailed off as he caught up to what he'd been about to say, and winced.

Arthur must have caught on to what he was about to say. He prompted, "Because?"

"All the stories I've ever heard..." Merlin spread his hands helplessly. "They die. The mind mage rides them so hard that by the time they're free, it's only because they're done. Burned out. I'm sorry, Arthur. I don't know what to tell you."

Arthur went extraordinarily still. Merlin slowly began to regret the harshness of his words the longer the silence stretched on. He sat up straighter, pulling his leg away from Arthur's lap, but Arthur's hand tightened around Merlin's ankle, keeping him in place.

After having lived a life where he trudged past crowds of people without so much as a friendly greeting and avoiding conversations whenever someone decided to share his table at a tavern, Merlin should be comfortable with the quiet, however awkward or strained. For some inexplicable reason, he couldn't stand the silence from Arthur, and it was harder to tolerate as he watched the machinations in Arthur's mind slowly wheel to a helpless stop.

"One of my old teachers, he said... He used to say that mind mages were so rare that their rarity worked against them," Merlin said. Arthur raised his chin, seemingly perking up at Merlin's words. "He called them genetic abnormalities. Those are --"

"I know what that is," Arthur said, his tone sharp. He gestured for Merlin to continue.

Merlin scowled at him. "One of the old books at Ironwood said that maybe one in every half million could be a mind mage. The odds could be different now, since the Great Fall. Odds are, you throw a stone in a crowd, you're likely to hit seven different sorcerers before you'd hit a mind mage, because they're not even in the crowd in the first place. And if they're that rare, how do they learn how to control their powers? How do they learn to do anything in the first place?"

Arthur's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and that, Merlin thought, that was miles better than the hopelessness from before. He didn't know why, but a scheming Arthur was safer than one who wallowed in despair, unable to climb out of the pit or claw his way out of a corner.

"Probably one in five of your books over there has some sort of treatise on magic," Merlin said, nodding toward the bookcase. He didn't have to read the titles to see most of them would have to do with warfare and magic, and from the sidelong glance Arthur made, Merlin knew that his guess was correct. "How many would have anything on mind magic? None, I warrant. Some random witch off the street is more likely to find someone who can teach them about magic than a mind mage would. So if... If Morgana's a mind mage, she's had to learn it all on her own, and depending on when she started using it..."

Merlin trailed off again, sighing. There was too much he didn't know and he had no idea where to get the information. Maybe one of the scholars at Ironwood might have made a study of the art, or even been a practitioner themselves, but Merlin had been too young to care about anything other than himself for most of his years there, and the rest of the time, his teachers had kept him preoccupied with his own education. From sunrise until sunset, and often well into the midnight hours when the moon was bright in the sky, Taliesin and the others had made Merlin practice until he had memorized complicated rites by rote and could recite spellbook compendiums from memory.

It was memory that failed him now. He felt as if everything that was important was just out of his grasp, or buried deep beneath dusty tomes he was too intimidated to dig out. Or, maybe, he was afraid of his own knowledge, of being reminded of exactly what he could do, and his reluctance to remember anything associated with his past had everything to do with him, and nothing to do with the problem at hand.

Arthur interrupted Merlin's wayward thoughts with a soft question. "They're powerless to stop it, aren't they?"

"I guess," Merlin said. He reached for an example that might be remotely similar. His hand flailed uselessly in the air. "The closest comparison I can imagine... It would be a hex." Merlin saw the moment that Arthur finally understood. "Like being cursed to tell everyone your name is Cabbagehead instead of Arthur, even though you know damn well what your name is. You want to tell people your name, but you can't."

"A curse can be broken," Arthur said, earnest. "Can this be broken, too?"

Merlin opened his mouth to answer. Arthur didn't appear to be willing to accept anything but, Yes. Merlin sighed, and admitted, "I don't know."

"Who would?" Arthur asked.

"I don't know," Merlin said again, defeat sinking into his bones. He thought the condition fit him better than it did Arthur. At least, the resignation that he couldn't do anything about a situation was something he was well familiar with, and he could hide it better.

Arthur nodded resolutely. He rapped a knuckle on the table. "Leon's coming with us."

The whiplash caught Merlin by surprise. He didn't cobble Leon and coming with us together until he remembered Uther's order to take twenty Knights to Mercia for the war, and when he did, Merlin winced. There were too many ways that bringing Leon along could go wrong. Away from Camelot, in uncomfortable circumstances, under a great deal of strain, Merlin wouldn't be surprised if Leon would be enchanted -- programmed, his memory supplied, as if the proper terminology really mattered now -- to assassinate Arthur.

Before he could protest, Arthur pointed at Merlin and said, "And you're going to break him of Morgana's control, do you understand me?"

"This is a completely different magic! If it were necromancy or blood magic or something like that, maybe I'd have half a chance of being able to figure it out, but you don't get it!" This time, when Merlin sat up, he pulled his leg out of Arthur's lap, but stopped short of standing up altogether. "Mind magic is about as alien to me as... as wearing a dress would be to you. I don't even know if I can!"

Arthur gave him an odd look. "I've worn a dress."

Merlin blinked. He was pretty sure his mind short-circuited at the mental imagery that rose up, unbidden. Arthur in a tight-fitting bodice and a long, flowing train, the fabric layered with different shades of red and the cut emphasizing Arthur's broad shoulders, trim waist, and tantalizing backside. Merlin shook his head and struggled to remember what they'd been about to talk about, but the only thing that came out of his mouth was, "And I'm sure you looked quite dashing. That's not the point."

A wry smile pulled at Arthur's mouth, as if he knew damn well what Merlin was thinking about. His amusement gave way to seriousness, and he asked, "Please try."

Merlin groaned. He rubbed his throbbing temple. Throwing up his hands, he said, "Fine. Best I can do is maybe find someone else to do it, because I don't think I'm the one. But I'll try."

"Good," Arthur said, tuning away. He stood up abruptly, heading for the work desk tucked in the corner of the room next to the bookshelf. "I'll make a list of the Knights we'll bring with us. Can you enchant the sheet to keep anyone from seeing what's on it? I want to keep it secret until the last possible moment."

"I can," Merlin said distractedly. He saw his chance and took the scroll that had been trapped under Arthur's elbow all this time. "We're not actually going to Mercia, are we?"

"Gods, no, are you mad?" Arthur returned to the table with a blank sheet of paper, an ink pot, and an elaborate pen with more levers than Merlin had ever seen on such a small device. He wasn't even sure what the knob at the end was for. "Twenty Knights against whatever we're going to be fighting? Imagine us standing next to all of Essetir's Brigands. Or Alator's Legion. They won't let us through the gates to even sit at the war table, and that is if they don't slaughter us on the road."

Merlin grunted. He didn't know a lot about the politics between the thanes, but Arthur's assessment was sound. Before he asked what Arthur had in mind, his eyes fell on the sheet of paper in his hands.

The heading was a banner that wasn't often seen, not in the world of Men. A verdant plain, a half-crown of oaks, a single, silver sword within. The blade of the sword was pointed up, which was odd. Merlin had only ever seen it pointed down to the ground, though he knew, sometimes, different families would change the position of some emblems on their crests when necessary. In this case, the sword down was a symbol of peace, but the raised blade was a declaration of war that sent a chill down Merlin's spine despite knowing that it was coming.

Nimueh wasn't preparing for a passing fancy of the Sidhe. Both of the royal houses had declared war, the Unseleighe and the Seleighe in unity for the first time in all of known history.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Arthur watched as Merlin scanned one document, then the next. He returned to the first, started a third, reviewed the second, and started a fourth before scrambling through several other papers until he seemed to have found what he was looking for.

Merlin had gone unnaturally still when he saw the stylized crest on the top of the sheet. It brought to mind how a prey animal would freeze in its tracks when it became aware of an approaching predator, as if it thought that, by not moving, the predator wouldn't see it.

Arthur leaned back in his chair. He cradled his chin in his palm and studied Merlin's expression. The furrow of his brow spoke of great concern. The set of his mouth betrayed a hint of anger. His jaw clenched and a muscle in his cheek twitched, but it wasn't until Merlin started chewing the corner of his bottom lip that Arthur cleared his throat.

"Let's have that chat now, shall we?"

Merlin's glance was sharp and not at all fleeting. If anything, Arthur would call the look on Merlin's face burrowing, as if he were trying to figure out how much Arthur knew. Very slowly, still wearing that edgy expression, Merlin put down the papers, smoothing them out carefully.

Arthur tapped a finger on the crest. "This is the war you were talking about, isn't it?"

Merlin nodded.

"Nothing to do with the rebels. I was expecting that, even though they've been quiet for a while. Looked through all my research on the rebels to see if there was anything that I'd missed. I'd gotten so good at predicting where they would be next..."

Arthur trailed off. Merlin tensed at the mention of the rebels. He broke eye contact and stared at the table before shifting his gaze to the crest. Merlin clearly had a great deal of experience hiding who he was and what he was thinking, but Arthur had been looking for the faintest sign of what Merlin was thinking ever since he'd come to Arthur's rescue.

He didn't believe that Merlin was in contact with the rebels. In fact, Arthur was certain that Merlin had always gone out of his way to avoid them lest he lead the thanes to them. Either it was to protect those who chose to live free, or it was for some other reason, but whatever was behind Merlin's motivations for staying in Camelot and making Arthur King had nothing to do with the bands of rebels hiding in the countryside.

"It became easy to take the Knights out somewhere that was in the opposite direction, so that they could travel through Camelot unmolested," Arthur finished casually, satisfied when Merlin's wide eyes met his. He raised a forestalling hand and said, "But we'll discuss that later. First, you're going to tell me how you knew about the Sidhe."

"Not sure you'll believe me," Merlin muttered.

Merlin slumped in his seat and rubbed his temple with two fingers as if his head ached. Maybe it did, but it was a stalling tactic if Arthur had ever seen one, and he was content to wait it out. They had all night.

"I could use a drink," Merlin said.

"I could, as well," Arthur said, glancing toward the decanter of whiskey on the other side of the room. He didn't make any sign of getting up to get it, and neither did Merlin.

"I haven't known long," Merlin began. He leaned his head against the chair, staring up at the thick rafters. He fell silent, and when he looked at Arthur again, it was with a slow, resolute nod and a bit of blown breath, as if steeling himself. "It was when I was supposed to run. Got as far as the ruins shy of the rise in the road. I overheard people talking. I thought it was the patrols not being where you said they'd be, but..."

"Go on," Arthur said.

"You're not going to like it."

"I already don't," Arthur said. "Can't make it worse."

"Might," Merlin said. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair before leaning forward, one elbow on the table. He drummed his fingers on the surface several times before clicking his tongue. "Do you know anything about the Sisterhood?"

"Yes," Arthur said, ignoring how his blood ran cold. "Came sniffing around Morgana almost a decade ago, offering her a position at the... school."

He hadn't understood at the time what that meant. Uther had hired the finest tutors for his children; why would he want to send any of them to a school where the students would have to contend for the teacher's attention from amongst many others? A seven-year old Arthur thought that was Just bollocks, and had gotten cuffed on the back of his head for his language. A four-year old Kay asked if that meant he would get more toys and had received a consoling pat on the head when he was assured that, no, he would not.

But a twelve-year old Morgana? When Uther had politely declined, going so far as to arrange an escort to get the Acolytes away from Camelot as quickly as possible, Morgana had burst into tears. All my friends go there, she'd wailed, they're going to learn things that I'm never going to know. That's not fair!

It wasn't until many years later, when the acolytes from the Sisterhood made another recruiting attempt, that Uther had taken his children aside and explained to them why it was that they should never, ever trust a woman raised at the Sisterhood. Arthur still hadn't understood, Kay had asked for a new sword, and Morgana had had a memorable tantrum that was immortalized in the poorly-patched gouge at the base of the throne, where she'd thrown a flaming brazier.

"There's a reason why none of Uther's wives were from the Sisterhood," Arthur said quietly, spreading his hands. "It's the same reason why Merchant Howin and Castellan Lide are not permitted to bring their wives to the castle, and despite rumours to the contrary, it has nothing to do with a fashion faux-pas or having refused to bed Uther."

Merlin nodded, as if that was the answer he had been hoping for, and asked, "Ever met one of them? A lady named Morgause? Or maybe Nimueh?"

"The High Priestess and her right hand," Arthur said, feeling prickly. Uther disliked Nimueh, though he'd never said why, and all the information he'd managed to collect on Morgause came from second-hand sources, and those sources were usually survivors of an encounter gone bad. "I've heard the names."

Merlin leaned in closer, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped. He stared at his fingers for a long time before looking up. "What would you say if Morgause was in Camelot that night you told me to run, talking to someone from the castle? To tell them to do certain things and ensure that the war goes the way Nimueh wants it to?"

The urge to stand up and to shout outrage was overwhelming. How could anyone in Camelot be a spy for the Sisterhood? Rationally, however, Arthur knew Merlin had no reason to lie, and that he wouldn't get answers if he derailed the revelation now. Arthur took a deep breath and leaned forward, shifting his chair back a little so that he didn't knock heads with Merlin, but he was close enough for Merlin to feel his words on his cheek when he said, "I'd tell you to stop faffing around and to tell me everything."

Merlin pulled away just enough to see Arthur's expression before settling forward, tilting his head so that his mouth was nearly at Arthur's ear. "Are you sure you want to know?"

Arthur forced himself to ignore the frisson that ran down his spine, detouring straight for his cock. He nodded without drawing back. "Out with it."

"Morgause gave this person warning of the war with the Sidhe. Nimueh wants them to do whatever they can to keep Camelot from banding with the other Kingdoms, but if they can't, they're to push Uther into taking command."

Arthur shifted to balance his weight on one elbow, and covered his eyes with one hand. Without Camelot's Knights, who were as equally fearsome in war with the sword as with the gun, and who outnumbered most of the other Kingdoms' armies, combined, any battle with the Sidhe would be doomed to disaster. If that tactic failed, putting Uther in charge implied that Nimueh believed she could exert enough influence on him to cut the Kingdoms to their knees regardless. "The Sisterhood wants to control the outcome of the war."

"Seems so," Merlin said, his voice quiet.

"Why?"

That was what Arthur couldn't understand. What possible outcome did Nimueh hope for? For all that former students of the Sisterhood were highly valued throughout the Kingdoms as wives or concubines to powerful men, Nimueh had neither the money, the land, nor the resources to be a force of any kind against the thanes, never mind the Sidhe. Not unless she planned on using those former Initiates and Acolytes to her advantage, using the women's influence for her own gain, just like Morgause seemed to be doing to someone in Camelot.

If it was power that Nimueh wanted, if it was land that she coveted, Arthur hardly thought that the Sidhe would give Nimueh a reward should they succeed in invading Albion. All the stories he'd ever heard and read as a child painted the Sidhe as bloodthirsty and merciless, untrustworthy for even the simplest things.

"I don't know," Merlin admitted. "Haven't the right bits to put on a dress and spy on them to find out for myself. Not that I think we've the time for such things."

"It's the knees. Dead giveaway," Arthur said distractedly. "Too knobby."

"I thought my legs were my best feature," Merlin said with a snort.

"Whatever Morgause's spy did, it didn't work out the way Morgause planned," Arthur said. "Uther's holding back the bulk of our army.. He's not going to Mercia. He's sending me."

"Which brings me to the next bit, which you'll like even less than the first," Merlin said, rubbing the side of his face in frustration. The movement pressed Merlin's cheek against Arthur's, and Arthur felt the tease of scratchy scruff along his jaw. His breath caught.

Arthur forced himself to stay right where he was, to focus. "There's a spy in Camelot who's in a position that gives them direct access to Uther. Whatever you have to say, it can't possibly be worse."

Merlin leaned back, hesitating. Arthur put his hand on Merlin's good leg and squeezed.

"Tell me," Arthur said firmly.

"Morgause's contact warned that you would be a problem no matter the outcome of their attempts to influence Uther," Merlin said carefully. "Morgause told them, if they can't control you, discredit you. Which, apparently, has been tried."

Arthur thought about the recent ransacking of his rooms, how some of the Knights insisted on fighting him at every turn. He'd once despaired that the fates themselves were working against him, but it seemed that he'd been right all along, and that it was something much more mundane.

"Failing that," Merlin continued, "They're to kill you. They've got a replacement in mind."

"Leon," Arthur said, because whatever was going on, it had been in the works for a very long time. His first instinct was that Leon had betrayed him, but his heart told him that, the evidence notwithstanding, Leon would sooner chop his leg off than to go against Arthur.

"They didn't say," Merlin said.

Arthur leaned back, keeping his movements slow. His fingers trailed off of Merlin's knee reluctantly, and he studied Merlin thoughtfully. He shrugged his shoulders. "Why did you wait this long to tell me? Why should I believe anything you say?"

"Didn't tell you because it wasn't time, yet. You needed to react naturally to the news," Merlin said. He spread his hands. "Believe me or don't. I don't have any proof."

Arthur rubbed his temple. "What's your stake in this?"

Merlin sat up straight, confusion darkening his expression. "Stake?"

"What's in this for you, Merlin?" Arthur asked tiredly. "You're Emrys. I know you're not a rebel because you've never been associated with them. In fact, they'd rather steer clear of you and the trouble chasing on your heels, if I understand correctly."

"That's painfully fair," Merlin said.

"You're Ironwood. Just that alone tells me you've nothing to do with the Sidhe. I know about your old feud with them, and it only makes sense that the Sidhe would think about coming to Albion if they know most of Ironwood is gone," Arthur said.

"Scattered," Merlin corrected, but he sighed. "Not many of us, though. So, yeah. There's no one left, not really."

Arthur gestured rudely. "I've noticed you've got the wrong bits to be a member of the Sisterhood, and I've got it on good authority that any man allowed close to the inner circle is castrated. Your bollocks seem to be intact."

"You've been looking?" Merlin asked cheekily.

"I'm observant," Arthur said flatly, ignoring the heat rising to his cheeks. "Also, hard to miss when you won't stay on your side of the bed. Why haven't you cleaned out the spare room, yet?"

"I'm injured," Merlin frowned. "Also, you're the one who won't stay on your side of the bed. I never took you for a cuddler."

Arthur held up a hand in defeat, more because they were getting sidetracked than because he couldn't come up with a plausible counter-argument. He ignored Merlin's knowing smirk and asked, "Is this really about making me King?"

"Well," Merlin hedged, scratching his jaw. His gaze drifted to the papers on the table. "It wasn't. Not at first."

Arthur tapped the table. "What changed?"

"This," Merlin said, patting over his shoulder to indicate the binding mark. He reached over and tapped Arthur's chest where Arthur carried his own. "This, too."

"I don't understand," Arthur said. "They're binding marks, only. You said it was the equivalent of a magical handfasting."

"Yeah," Merlin said, looking like he'd regretted having made that comparison when he'd explained it to Arthur. "Not just that, though. They just... Look. It's more than that. Any binding mark made by the person reflects the sort of person they are. That's how we know which sorcerer belongs to which thane."

Arthur nodded, because he could see that. Some of the thanes had left ugly marks on their sorcerers, and at least one of them had left a mark that resembled a hog in a very visible spot on his sorcerer. Rumours were that the thane got so sick of seeing it, that they'd ordered their sorcerer burned to cover up the physical mark. Arthur had been pleased that his mark on Merlin had been something he liked, at least, even if it was fanciful.

"What we did, it goes a little further. The marks also reflect the destinies of the two people who have been bound."

Arthur tilted his head, feeling lost.

Merlin licked his lips. "There used to be a great Library in London, before. One up north in old Edin, too. Both of them were burned to the ground, but not before Ironwood managed to steal away a large portion and to hide them all over Albion."

And those books, if they still existed, would amount to a small fortune. The thanes would give a great deal to have their hands on the old knowledge. One of them might have the secret to making gunpowder, for example. Arthur waffled between wanting to ask where those books were hidden and needing to know what Merlin was getting at. He settled on gesturing for Merlin to continue.

"There's a story that's repeated in so many of those books. It's never quite the same, but there's a few things that they have in common. The story is of the Once and Future King who would return to Albion at the time of its greatest need." Merlin paused, searching Arthur's expression.

"I've heard the story," Arthur said softly. "Gaius used to tell me that story when I was a child, before..." Before he turned drunkard and locked himself away in his alchemist's tower, avoiding everyone and anyone. "It's just a story."

"Is it?" Merlin asked. He was staring at Arthur's chest. "I used to think so, too. Except Ironwood taught me that there's a great deal of power in symbols. The older, the better, because with age comes the weight of belief and faith. Some of the runes I've used, that I'm tattooed with? They don't date back centuries. They're millennia old, Arthur."

Arthur found himself leaning forward, trying to pair Merlin's words with the war against the Sidhe and everything else.

"There are two symbols that are older than even these," Merlin said softly, brushing his fingers on his wrist, where the marks were visible despite the long sleeves. "They come from the time before time. The oak --"

Arthur glanced down, touching his chest protectively, before looking at Merlin again, his eyes trailing down to Merlin's shoulder before Merlin finished. "The dragon."

Merlin didn't speak for a few minutes. He slumped back in his seat. "Yes."

"And what do they mean?" Arthur asked, not entirely sure that was the right question.

Merlin waved a dismissive hand in the air, as if it didn't matter, but he sighed at Arthur's stern look. "The oak stands for great power. It's strong and steadfast and enduring. The oak is the symbol of the Great Mother Earth, of renewal and rebirth, of...of immortality."

"And the dragon?"

"Fire and flame and everything in-between." A small smile pulled at Merlin's mouth, hinting at a private amusement. But that smile became serious. "The dragon is a herald of chaos and turmoil, of change. It is the shield that protects and the sword that defends. It is the beast that rages when its sleep is disturbed and that is quick to force the calm and the balance."

Arthur didn't speak. He didn't know what to say. Gaius had always scolded him for drawing the dragon when he was but a boy. Uther had tried to shame Arthur for his fascination with them, while his tutors had insisted Arthur stop fantasizing about creatures of myths and to focus on his lessons.

They don't exist, they had said. Dragons are monsters. They eat sheep and goats, prey on innocents, raze the countryside and shite everywhere.

Merlin reached out, and Arthur closed his eyes. Merlin's fingers brushed the tears he hadn't even known he'd shed.

Merlin's voice was gentle when he spoke again. "In the time before time, when all those stories in all those books were written down, in the story that Gaius told you when you were a little boy, there were no Kingdoms, and there were no thanes. There were Clans led by men and women who were called the Ddraig. There were many of them, war-chiefs all, and they were the dragons of Albion before Albion had a name.

"At the time of their greatest peril, they banded together under the Pen y Ddraig, the Pendragon, the head dragon, who became the King of this land and whose feats are remembered even now, and who is known in myth and prophecy as the Once and Future King."

Arthur's chest was tight with emotion he couldn't identify. His ears rang and resonated Pendragon. "Merlin. Merlin, I'm not --"

Merlin caught his hand. He slid forward until he was between Arthur's thighs, his knees thunking painfully on the stone floor.

"Merlin," Arthur said again.

"The Pen y Ddraig wasn't alone," Merlin said. "The stories forget the other one, sometimes. Maybe it was because they didn't understand what the Oak was. They thought it was just a tree. Sometimes they wrote it as an unbreakable shield, or a tourney lance, or a staff, because that sounds mightier than a bloody tree. But in the old, old tongue, the Oak is the heart and the soul of the land. The Great Mother Earth's blessing, an anointed druid, a sorcerer."

"You --" Arthur caught himself and reconsidered what he'd been about to say. You're mad was too hurtful, even if Arthur thought it was a little much to compare the two of them to figures of legend. Instead, he said, "You believe this."

"I do," Merlin said slowly, but with so much certainty that Arthur wondered what it was that had convinced Merlin. Maybe it was years of indoctrination in Ironwood's beliefs. Maybe it was something more recent. And yet, Arthur couldn't help but be envious that someone could have so much faith.

"It's a lot to swallow," Arthur said carefully.

"I know," Merlin admitted. He inclined his head. "Took me a while. I've had a lot longer to warm to the idea than you."

Arthur rubbed the side of his head. He could understand what Merlin's agenda was, now, but it was too difficult to wrap his head around. "We've got more important things to worry about than some old stories, a handful of meaningful but probably entirely coincidental symbols, and the fact that I believe prophecy has absolutely no agency in determining our destinies."

"Things like the spy?"

"Like the Sisterhood's spy," Arthur said with an irritated sigh. He had a feeling that he already knew who it was, and that Merlin knew he knew, but neither one of them said it out loud. Arthur wasn't ready to admit that Morgana was a traitor, because that meant he would have to do something about it, and he had no idea what to do. "The Sidhe coming at us from one side. The rebels who will rise up when we're not looking. And let's not forget the absolute bollocks that all the thanes are going to make of this mess."

Arthur paused.

"Did I miss anything? There's no other revelations I'm going to loathe?"

"No, that just about sums it up," Merlin said. He glanced at the papers on the table. "But there's one more thing, and yeah, I'm not sure how happy you'll be to hear it."

Arthur leaned his elbow on the table and rested his head against his fist. He resisted the urge to run his fingers through Merlin's hair and did his best to ignore how much he liked seeing Merlin on his knees like this.

"I haven't liked anything you've said so far. Let's just take it as a given from this point forward."

Merlin snorted, but amusement pulled his mouth into an almost-smile. His hands left a searing heat where he squeezed Arthur's thighs as he pushed himself up and onto his seat. He slid closer before Arthur could mourn the loss and sorted the papers out.

"Do you know this crest?"

Arthur made a show of studying it. The shield was split in two, both sides mirrored, one light, the other cast in a darker shade. Along both was the same plain verdant, an azure-blue sky above on the left, a midnight-blue sky on the right. The sun shone on one side, a one star gleamed on the other. Both sides had identical crowns, one in gold, the other in silver. It was a crest of unity between both nations of the Sidhe.

"Yes, of course," Arthur said.

Arthur couldn't contain his wince when Merlin put two sheets on top of the pile. Merlin noticed, because he said, "I'd ask if you know what these are, but you already know, don't you?"

"Terms that the Kingdoms would have to concede to avoid the war," Arthur said carefully.

"Yes and no," Merlin said, still watching him. He held up one list. The crest above the sheet was the dark cast of the Unseleighe court. The second list had the bright crest of the Seleighe court. The demands from both courts were very different, but Arthur couldn't stop staring at the demands from the Seleighe court. "It's how we drive a wedge between them. It might be enough to stop the war altogether."

"How's that?" Arthur asked, though he already knew.

"This," Merlin said, holding up the scroll from the Seleighe court. There weren't many terms on their list. In fact, most of them were paltry requests that any one Kingdom could easily meet on their own. But the first item -- "Have you seen this sigil before?"

Merlin's voice was so soft that Arthur scarce heard him. "Yes," he admitted.

"Where?"

Arthur swallowed. "You have to understand. My father told me very little about my mother. He told me that her family was from somewhere over the sea. Near New Gaul. The seas were too treacherous for us to visit them, no matter how much I begged."

"But you know better, now," Merlin said.

"I've known for a while," Arthur said. He met Merlin's eyes slowly and released a deep breath. "Not everything of hers was destroyed. I saved what I could."

Merlin dropped the sheet and grasped Arthur's hand, squeezing reassuringly. "What was her name?"

"Ygraine," Arthur whispered, because no one had been permitted to say her name since she died. He closed his eyes. "Ygraine, Heir of House Dubois, daughter of Brigid the Bright, Queen of the Seleighe."

 

Old Photograph of Queen Ygraine

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Arthur's body surrounded Merlin, his meaty arm holding him immobile. Arthur sighed a contented breath against the back of Merlin's neck, and relaxed heavily, effectively pinning Merlin down.

That wasn't what woke Merlin up.

Merlin laid unmoving, senses on alert. The ward was a solid, glimmering presence in the room. The protection sigil against mind-magic attacks was dark and inactive. Dawn hadn't risen yet, but the first rays of the sun inched over the horizon, and there was enough light streaming through one of the open windows to see by.

The air in the room was comfortable. The fire in the hearth was low, but still burning.

They were alone.

And yet --

Arthur grumbled as Merlin peeled himself out of his grasp, but Merlin calmed him by shoving a pillow into his arms, instead. Merlin shivered as he left the warmth of the blankets, the stone floor too cold for his bare feet, and looked out the window.

Firelight brightened small areas at every column around the courtyard. Guards stood at their posts, standing as still as statues along the catwalk. A thick mist clung to the land in the distance, swirling like a gathering of ghosts, glittering and glistening.

On the surface, this night was yet another night, quiet and without threat. Merlin should go back to bed for the last few hours until sunrise, surrendering himself to being bodily rearranged by a sleeping Arthur until the prat was satisfied.

Merlin told himself that when they returned from Mercia -- if they survived the war -- he would clean out the bloody side-room and make himself a proper bed. He'd been making similar empty promises for weeks, each with deadlines that passed without his so much as having shifted any of the rubbish in the side room. Neither Arthur nor Merlin made any mention of it though, and each night, the two of them readied for bed as if they'd done it for years, neither of them hesitating to curl around the other even before they fell asleep.

Merlin liked his young King. From the way Arthur reached out, no longer satisfied with just a pillow, Merlin thought that Arthur might like him, too.

He wasn't running anymore. His safety was ensured by an obscurity that came with being able to trust people instead of hiding from them. If not for the looming war with the Sidhe, maybe their uncertain relationship would have naturally evolved.

Maybe that was wishful thinking, but Merlin had never had the luxury to dream of such things. Still, he couldn't help but to enjoy what they did have when they were allowed time alone.

Quiet dinners. Lazy breakfasts. Long conversations about everything and anything. Arthur taught Merlin the proper manners at court. Merlin taught Arthur the symbology of Ironwood and how to defend himself against it. Arthur had hesitatingly revealed how he helped the rebels and had formed a friendship with the leader of a small faction; Merlin had grudgingly shared his belief that some of the survivors of Ironwood were scattered among those rebels, and how he'd always been afraid to go to them lest he put them in danger again.

They spoke about the Sidhe. Arthur showed Merlin his maps of the countryside and of Mercia. Merlin told Arthur everything he had been taught about the Sidhe and their tactics. They formed battle plan after battle plan even while knowing that they were useless without an army at their backs.

More than once, Merlin had sat back in awe of Arthur's intelligence and his cunning. He'd been left breathless by Arthur's laugh. He marvelled at how Arthur hid his good heart from everyone, but didn't think twice of letting Merlin see him without the armour he hid behind.

Merlin might more than like his young King.

Merlin smiled to himself. He started toward the bed, only to pause.

That.

There.

A faint pull in the distance. A disturbance in the realm. Something that didn't belong.

Alien.

Merlin turned toward the window, pushing the glass pane wider. He stared off into the distance, watching the mist. It swirled and twisted despite the absence of wind; it shone and reflected light despite there being no moon.

"Well. Fuck," he said under his breath. He stretched out his arm and closed his eyes, concentrating.

Only peripherally was he aware of the rustle of bedding behind him and to the left, of Arthur's sleepy complaints about the cold. He cast his focus outward, stretching himself from his body and into the beyond, allowing in a flood of preternatural awareness. He was the pebble tossed in the middle of a calm pond, the onslaught of information struck him in concentric waves as they rebounded from the shore.

The fire crackling in the kitchen hearth. Monmouth on the ladder in the library, bringing down another book to continue his late-night study. The guards standing at attention. Horses snuffling lazily, tails swishing in motion. Knights sleeping despite the late-night gambling in the barracks, Kay in the middle of it all, sweeping all the chips to add to his pile. Morgana, in her brightly-lit chambers, reclining against a tower of pillows, Leon with his elbows on his knees as he protected her door.

The waves returned to Merlin again and again, always the same frozen images. The flames flickered, the torchlight burned, smoke swirled from the chimneys. But no one was moving. Kay kept that same gleeful laugh while his surly opponents looked on. Leon didn't so much as move a muscle nor blink an eye. Monmouth neither rose nor ascended on the ladder, a book halfway on the shelf that was either being removed or re-shelved.

Arthur's sleepy, complaining, "Merlin?" was a brief distraction, jarring Merlin out of his confusion and into an alarming realization. He pushed himself even further, making a bigger splash in the ether, and sensed...

Nothing.

A fox frozen in mid-stalk. A rabbit huddled beneath the shrub, blurred in mid-shiver. A guardsman on patrol, his horse's tail stuck in mid-swing, legs raised in a slow walk.

And the mist --

The mist.

It had risen from a distant lake and stretched out just as far. The glimmer was not light but a lightning's strike of magic that fed upon itself the way the eternal serpent, the Ouroboros, fed upon itself, and would, eventually, be completely consumed. The fog was not a mere mist but a mask that hid the stretched path and the army that marched upon it.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, awake now, his breath warm against Merlin's neck. "What is it?"

"An attack," Merlin said, still looking, looking, searching for answers. His voice sounded disembodied to his own ears, but he didn't shake out of his seeking and fall into the grounding of Arthur's touch until he was certain. "Not yet. The gateway isn't open, but they're coming."

Merlin rushed to dress, grabbing his clothes from the pile on the ground. It was only then that he realized --

"How are you awake?"

"You left the bed," Arthur said, frowning, as if to say, Of course you woke me up, you numpty. Merlin stared -- probably for longer than he should, because Arthur noticed and paused before pulling on his shirt. "What?"

"If you still doubt you've the blood of the Sidhe running through your veins, don't doubt a moment more," Merlin said, wrenching his shirt over his head and reaching for his boots. "A Sidhe can see through Sidhe enchantments and can shrug them off just as easily. Everyone else in the castle is asleep --"

Merlin frowned suddenly, weighed by the feeling that he'd missed something. There had been flashes of darkness in the images he'd absorbed from the scanning spell, but he hadn't noticed it, not right away. Shadows, movement, someone, and it had been racing through the courtyard and the castle corridors, getting closer and closer until --

"Nearly everyone," Merlin said. He turned as a loud, persistent banging battered at the shielded door.

"Who?" Arthur asked, pulling up his trousers. He unsheathed his sword.

"Clearly someone unaffected by Sidhe magic," Merlin said.

"You're not," Arthur said.

"I'm Ironwood," Merlin snapped. "You don't think the first thing they did to their initiates was ward them against their greatest enemy? I don't have these for show!"

Merlin raised his arm. The loose sleeve fell to his elbow and the black marks flashed iridescence in rhythm to the pulse of his magic. Arthur's eyes followed the flash up the sleeve and down the open front with such intensity that Merlin almost covered himself up. He saw Arthur's Adam's apple bobble, and he raised a brow.

"Really?"

"I like them," Arthur said. He gestured at the door hastily, clearly wanting to change the subject. "Open the door."

Merlin smirked and asked, "Ready?"

Merlin put a hand on the door handle and glanced back at Arthur, who moved out of the way with a firm nod and raised his sword. Merlin summoned enough magic to stun an attacker, keeping it curled in the palm of his hand, and wrenched the door open.

Gwaine stumbled into the room, arm still raised in mid-knock, and the first thing he said when Merlin steadied him was, "Thank fuck you're both awake. Come on, we have to go!"

Arthur's eyes narrowed but he didn't lower his sword. Merlin glanced down the corridor but found it as eerily silent as the rest of the castle. He pushed Gwaine in, shut the door, and re-activated the shield. "How are you awake?"

"What are you talking about?" Gwaine asked. "I've been awake all night. I'm on patrol --"

"Why did you come here, Gwaine?" Arthur asked, his tone dangerous. It took Merlin a second to catch up to where he thought Arthur was -- already at the conclusion that Gwaine was himself a Sidhe, possibly a traitor, and here to kidnap or kill Arthur. "Why didn't you ring the alarm bell?"

"Because it won't work," Gwaine said, walking past Arthur and Merlin to look out the open window. "I've tried to wake up a few people, but they're not moving."

Merlin exchanged glances with Arthur. Arthur tilted his head questioningly. Merlin shrugged helplessly, because he had no answers, and juggled the ball of magic from one hand to the other.

"Let me try that again," Arthur said, shifting his grip on his sword. "I've just been reliably informed about what's going on out there and why it's affecting everyone but Merlin, who is Ironwood and apparently impervious to everything, like the smug pillock that he is. I also know why I'm not affected --"

Gwaine tensed, his hand dropping slowly from the windowsill.

"Though I have decided to examine the reasons for that at a later time, preferably when we're not about to go to war against a race of magical people who are Hell-bent on seeing all of us dead and gone. But you..." Arthur raised his sword, pointing at Gwaine. "I'm hoping someone can explain you."

"He's not Ironwood, I can tell you that," Merlin supplied. He watched Gwaine warily, but Gwaine only held up both his hands, empty of weapons and full of defeat. "Can't say there's much else out there that won't be affected by glamours and enchantments this powerful. But what do I know?"

Gwaine's glare was murderous, but it calmed into something like pleading innocence when he met Arthur's gaze.

"Tell me you're the son of a disgraced thane," Arthur said.

"Not a thane." Gwaine grimaced. "But disgraced, yes."

"Is how you regain your honour? You become a spy. Infiltrate Camelot's ranks, get close to Arthur, keep an eye on him until the Sidhe are ready?" Merlin asked. The ball of magic glowed brighter in his hands. It grew bigger, too.

Gwaine stared at him with an expression that was more like resignation than fear, as if he'd expected the inevitable but had hoped for more time. He sighed. "That's why they let me go, yeah."

The admission shouldn't have jarred Merlin as much as it did. Maybe it was because he didn't expect the confession at all. Or maybe it was the complete lack of reaction from Arthur -- except Arthur was the son of a thane, perpetually under one threat or another, and the awareness that he would be targeted by yet another group didn't concern him overmuch.

Except Merlin wasn't going to let anything happen to Arthur. Not as long as he was alive. Thanes or rebels, sorcerers or Sidhe, they could come, one and all, and Merlin would lay waste to them before they came close enough.

He didn't examine his feelings of protectiveness. Now wasn't the time.

"What are you supposed to do? Kill him or kidnap him?" Merlin asked.

Gwaine scowled, as if he were about to protest, but he clamped his jaw shut, shook his head firmly, and grit out, "What do you think?"

"I think you should answer with the whole story," Arthur said, his voice deceptively soft.

"Arthur," Gwaine began.

"Gwaine," Arthur said, turning away. He reached for the rest of his clothes and his armours, pulling on each piece with slow deliberation, and when the silence dragged on, he barked, "Talk."

"Fuck. Okay," Gwaine rubbed his face with his hands. "Long story short, because we haven't the bloody time. They've sent dozens of us throughout the Kingdoms to look for our missing Queen. Failing that, to find any offspring, if she had them. We're supposed to bring the Queen back, and slaughter the children."

Arthur stilled. He stood up, rolled his shoulders back, and stared at a distant point in the room. "You've been here for years. Why wait until now?"

"I wasn't sure at first," Gwaine said. "There's nothing of Ygraine here. No one even says her name. No pinhole photograph, no paintings, nothing. Not a piece of jewellery that I could find. And you were... such a fuck-up."

Arthur looked at him sharply.

"Absolute shite on the battlefield. A scrawny, cowardly brat cowering at his father's shadows and dragged around everywhere by the leash held in his sister's hand," Gwaine said, his tone hard and unrepentant. "I was about to move on when I saw you with the druid boy."

Arthur said nothing, but his jaw clenched.

"Saved him from Camelot's Knights. Hid him away from your own father. Walked him out through the tunnels and kept out of sight when the rebels came looking for him. That's when I realized you were hiding what you were all along. You're not a bloody coward. You're stronger than everyone else in every way that matters and smart enough to hide it from the people who would ruin you. That's when I knew."

Gwaine trailed off. He glanced at Merlin and gestured.

"He knows, too."

"Knows what?" Arthur asked.

"That you're more than just the son of the Seleighe Queen," Gwaine said. His shoulders slumped a little, his expression souring as if someone had just yanked out a painful tooth. Knowing how the Sidhe were about their secrets and convoluted explanations, Merlin expected that revealing anything was quite contrary to Gwaine's nature. "You're what the Sidhe fear the most. The blood of two worlds, the leader of men, the King of Kings. The Pen y Ddraig."

"Fuck's sake," Arthur muttered, glancing at Merlin.

"What," Gwaine said, confused.
Arthur gestured at Merlin.

Gwaine turned to Merlin, and Merlin shrugged. "I told him, he doesn't believe me, and he's pretending it's not real in the meantime."

Gwaine tilted his head. After a few seconds, he nodded. "Yeah, sounds like him."

Arthur glared at the both of them. He didn't speak until he'd finished dressing and pulled his long leather coat over his armour.

"Let's sort this out, then. As you've both said, we're short on time." Arthur stepped too close to Gwaine for Merlin's comfort, but then again, when a Sidhe was involved, anywhere was too close. Arthur drew his revolver, chambered a round, and aimed his gun at Gwaine. Gwaine flinched visibly at the threat -- the bullet might not be made of cold iron, but there was enough iron to cause some damage to his kind. "Why are you here at all?"

"To get you to safety," Gwaine said.

"And then what?"

"And then that's it. Just get you out of here before the army arrives and massacres everyone," Gwaine said.

"You'd let them kill my people? Your friends?" Arthur asked, angry. "We took you in. We clothed you, fed you, protected you. You'd just let them die?"

Gwaine ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "What else am I supposed to do? I'm one man with a sword. They're a fucking army."

"You're Sidhe," Arthur said. "And I know enough from watching you that not all of it was playacting. You're a noble. They'll have to listen to you."

"Disgraced," Gwaine hissed. "They're not going to listen to me. They'll skewer me first --"

"Use your magic, then," Arthur snapped. "Stop them from coming through that mist. Close the gateway before it finishes forming."

Gwaine glanced at Merlin. His admission was pained. "I can't."

"You can't?" Arthur asked. His gun lowered a bare millimetre. "What do you mean, you can't?"

"Titles and ranks and wealth isn't the only thing they strip from you when you're Sidhe," Gwaine said bitterly. He pulled at the chain around his neck to show the little pendant that hung from it. Merlin had never really noticed it before, but he knew that Gwaine was never seen without his necklace. "All I've got left feeds the charm that hides what I am from everyone -- including my own kind."

Gwaine covered the pendant with his palm.

The enchantment dimmed, and Merlin could see the cat-like slit of Gwaine's eyes, the fuzzy haze of illusion uncovering the point of his ears. Gwaine flashed a faint smile and revealed pointed canines that made Merlin think of the wild cats running free in the northern moors.

Gwaine let go of his pendant. It fell back to his chest, half-hidden by the folds of his open shirt, rolling with movement as Gwaine spread his hands. The green-glow of his eyes faded, the tips of his ears rounded, and his canines were not so pronounced anymore. "So, now you know. What are you going to do?"

He looked from Merlin to Arthur and back, as if unsure who was the larger threat, but he made no motion to defend himself. If anything, he seemed almost relieved to have his secret out in the open.

Merlin glanced at Arthur when Arthur took another step closer to Gwaine, his gun still raised. "All this time, you've been a bloody arse to me," Arthur said.

"That I have," Gwaine agreed.

"Cryptic pillock, with your riddles and games," Arthur said.

Gwaine shrugged. "No helping that. It's my nature."

"Pushing me to be a better man," Arthur said.

"Because that's what you are," Gwaine said. He closed the distance between them and let Arthur's gun press against his chest. "A better man. And a better man does what's right and makes me see that, too."

Arthur shifted his grip, his finger light on the trigger. "Would killing you be the right thing to do?"

Gwaine licked his lips nervously, but didn't pull away. "I thought I'd have to do more to atone for all my sins."

Neither of them blinked. Neither of them moved.

The ball of magic was heavy and hot in Merlin's palm, but he didn't quite let it go, more than happy to drop it on Gwaine if he somehow dodged the bullet in Arthur's gun. The longer the stalemate lasted, the more he came to realize that Arthur wasn't going to shoot Gwaine no matter what Gwaine said or did, and slowly, he drew off the magic in the orb and absorbed it into himself. He had a feeling he would need every drop of magic that he had in the coming hours.

When the light flickered out of his palm, Gwaine relaxed, but never took his eyes away from Arthur. Merlin went to put on the rest of his clothes.

"So, you're here to take me to safety," Arthur asked slowly, lowering his gun. "What's safe?"

"Away from them," Gwaine said. "As far as I can get you."

"Not sure anyone's supposed to believe you, mate," Merlin said, leaning back against the rumpled bed to tug on his boots. "You're Sidhe. Your kind has never been known to lie, but you're not known for telling the whole truth, either. You give us enough to suit your needs, leaving us to fill in the blanks."

"A family in disgrace," Arthur said. "Siblings hiding everywhere. Noble manners. Never telling us your name. Of course you were the son of a northern thane who lost his Kingdom, because we couldn't possibly think you were anything else."

"Arthur." Gwaine was apologetic in tone and posture, but not at all repentant. "That was the story I had to tell so that I could stay. But it's not why I'm here. Do you really think I want to help the people who beheaded my father? Who took away my family name and emptied our coffers, leaving my mother and my siblings penniless, without a roof over our heads? Do you think I'd betray you to the people who wrenched my magic from me?"

"I don't know," Arthur said. He holstered his gun and crossed his arms over his chest. His head tilted in consideration, and he asked, "But I'd like the truth, instead of being led to believe whatever you want me to believe. Would you betray me?"

"No. Never," Gwaine said, and there was a ring of magic in the air, clear as a bell. Merlin turned to tell Arthur that Gwaine had spoken the full truth the only way a Sidhe ever could -- with binding, resolute honesty. He didn't need to. Arthur's expression was softer, now, as if he understood what had just happened.

"Fine," Arthur said. "I'll let you take me to safety."

Gwaine nearly deflated with relief.

"But not until we've taken care of the Sidhe. I'm not letting them march into the heart of Camelot. I'm not sentencing my people to be massacred. We are going to find a way to shut down that gateway and release Camelot of this bloody stasis spell before it's too late."

Gwaine smacked the side of his face with an irritated sigh. After a heartbeat, he nodded.

"Do you have a plan?" Gwaine asked cautiously, glancing from Arthur to Merlin with a grain of hope.

"No," Merlin said. "Honestly, if it were up to me, I'd just burrow back under the blankets and sleep this off."

"We're winging it?" Gwaine asked, incredulous.

"We're winging it," Arthur agreed.

Much to Merlin's delight, Gwaine groaned. "Can't we just go somewhere else?"

Arthur rounded on him.

"You both say I'm the Pen y Ddraig. A bloody leader of men," Arthur said, a tone of irony in his voice. "Don't scowl at me, Gwaine. You've been harrying after me for a long time to be a good man. Let me do what a good man does."

Chapter Text

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

As far as Arthur could tell, the invading Sidhe were unaware of their presence. According to Gwaine, they would remain oblivious until the gateway was completed or until the mist was breached, whichever came first. Through the haze, Arthur made out several rows of eclectically-armoured men and women that were at least a dozen deep, all staring blankly ahead, eerily motionless.

"I'm going to die," Gwaine said, far too loudly for Arthur's tastes given their proximity to the enemy.

None of the Sidhe reacted, and Arthur supposed Gwaine's description of the gateway as a place that was neither here nor there made sense, now. The Sidhe weren't able to see or hear anything on the other side of the magic door and wouldn't step out of the timelessness until the complicated spell was completed.

Such powerful magic gave the Sidhe an unfair advantage. They could cast themselves into enemy territory and behind enemy lines, stationing their troops where they would be more effective. Cast in the pitch of night, far away from casual observers and patrols, this trick spoke of treachery and deceit, giving them the ability to overwhelm any defences. It wasn't a spell that could be performed often or quickly -- again, according to Gwaine, though Merlin agreed -- which was fortunate for the Kingdoms of Albion. They would have been overrun a long time ago if that was the case.

While Arthur could see the merit in casting such powerful magic, he could see the downside, too. If the Sidhe were noticed before the gateway was completed, the odds were even that the door would open and they would face not an empty field, but an army casually waiting to slaughter them. "I'm not an expert, but I suppose that's why they make sure all the people in the area are frozen, so that doesn't happen," Gwaine had explained.

Which meant that the Sidhe had to have sent advance scouts capable of casting the paralysis spell, and they were probably still in the area.

Gwaine got as close to the mist as he dared, squinting through the gloom, and sighed despondently when he saw what Arthur had already noticed -- that these troops all wore the shield of the Unseleighe. "You're going to die," Gwaine said, turning to Arthur.

The spell could only be cast by focusing on a target object from the source location. The object was usually a magical artefact strong enough to act as an anchor. Since those items were valuable enough that any random passerby might pick it up, tuck it under their arm, and walk away, the Unseleighe tended to use one of their own people to act as both homing beacon and anchor.

They would need to find the scouts who had cast the paralysis and hope that one of them was the anchor. Killing the anchor would destabilize the gateway and possibly kill the waiting soldiers, if they were lucky. If the spell was too close to completion, a few -- if not all -- of the troops would fall through the mist, ready for battle. Either way, the blowback of so much magical energy was powerful enough to kill anyone who tried to intervene.

"You're going to die," Gwaine said, clamping a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "We're all going to die. This is a bad idea. We should run."

Merlin heaved a heavy, irritated sigh. "Seems to me that if the Sidhe are a bunch of whiny pansies like you, we might come out of this all right."

Gwaine gawped at Merlin. A hysterical laugh escaped him before he could form words. "You --"

"Let's move," Arthur said firmly, walking between the two of them. Merlin shrugged off Arthur's glare, but Gwaine's glower hadn't abated. Arthur grabbed Gwaine's vest and pulled him close. "You're not a bloody coward. I'm not buying this act of yours at all."

"Arthur --"

"There's no changing my mind, and you know it," Arthur warned. He let go of Gwaine. "Spread out. Keep in sight of the other. Don't approach the mist. Keep an eye out for Unseleighe scouts and find the anchor."

Merlin gave Arthur a lazy salute before gesturing off to the distance, where the fog was thinning out toward the trees. "Anchor's probably that way. Scouts too, most likely."

"Yeah," Gwaine said glumly. He straightened a second later, shaking himself out of his misery. "That would be the standard practice. Far as my recollection goes, that is. I never paid much attention."

"Let's go, then," Arthur said, taking the lead. He felt fingers brush his shoulders as he walked past Merlin, but when he glanced over, he saw only the faintest flash of gold in Merlin's eyes and an innocent expression that was completely contrived.

As they walked further toward the forest, Arthur noticed how the mist thinned, narrowing at the space that expanded across the open ground. The Sidhe couldn't simply appear anywhere they liked. It seemed to Arthur that the Sidhe needed a great deal of open ground to properly open a door, that it was more like transporting a room full of people from one physical realm to another.

Walking past the Sidhe soldiers was discomfiting. They were like statues reacting to nothing and no one, but were, on the other side of the veil, alive and aware. The temptation to tap one of them on the shoulder -- or better, to drive his sword through one of them -- was nearly too much for Arthur to resist, and it was only Gwaine's wariness and Merlin's disdain that kept Arthur from jumping whenever the mist seemed to shift.

Arthur didn't like being in the open, either, but they didn't have much choice. They left the horses some distance away so to not alert any of the Sidhe scouts. They could have approached the furthest end of the mist by taking the long way through the woods, but Gwaine wasn't sure how much time they had, and Merlin didn't have the experience with Sidhe magic to be much of a judge, either. The direct approach was the only one they had. They wouldn't be able to use the element of surprise.

"I see them," Gwaine murmured. Arthur squinted, but he couldn't see anything in the distance. Gwaine seemed to know that, because he continued, "Four of them, plus --"

"The anchor," Merlin finished. He slowed down and crouched low to the ground, pulling the hood of his long jacket over his head "You can handle the four of them, yeah?"

"Ah," Gwaine said, hesitating.

"Best bloody swordsman in all the Kingdoms, he says," Merlin said mockingly. "Nobody can defeat him, he says --"

"Shut up," Gwaine said, though there wasn't much heat in his voice. Arthur glanced over, and thought he saw the pull of a smile across Gwaine's mouth.

"We'll draw them off," Arthur said, hesitating to give Merlin any instructions. Emrys' reputation notwithstanding, Arthur had no idea how Merlin would fare against the Sidhe nor how well Ironwood's training would hold up. If it were up to Arthur, he would rather stay with Merlin and offer him back-up against... Arthur had no idea what, exactly, but he was sure that there would be something.

"Go," Merlin said, as if reading Arthur's mind or sending Arthur's apprehension. He gestured toward Gwaine. "Watch your back with him."

"Oi," Gwaine said, affronted.

Merlin turned to him and pointed a finger in his face. "And you, don't think you're off the hook because we're letting you tag along. I don't trust you. If you turn on him, if you don't protect him with your life, if you hurt him, I'm going to hunt you down and return whatever you've done to him tenfold to you."

Gwaine looked Merlin up and down. "What if he dies and it's no fault of mine?"

Merlin crowded into Gwaine's space before Gwaine could so much as raise his weapon to defend himself. "Then I kill you. And raise you from the dead. I'll kill you again and bring you back however many times I like until I'm satisfied that you understand damnation before you even get to Hell."

Arthur couldn't make out Merlin's expression, but the tone of his voice was dark and sent cold shivers down Arthur's spine. Gwaine reared back, taking a cautious step from Merlin. Gwaine's little, nervous laugh accompanied an awkward gesture of dismissal when he turned around to face Arthur with renewed determination in his expression. His gait was stiff when he approached Arthur, grabbing him by the arm.

Arthur shrugged himself free. It wasn't until they were out of earshot that Gwaine groused, "Some bloody protector he is."

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of a coward quaking in his boots," Arthur retorted. He didn't give Gwaine time for a rejoinder, instead signalling for silence and pointing Gwaine in the direction that he wanted to go.

Gwaine raised two fingers in a rude salute before nodding acknowledgment of his orders. He moved away, silent as silk over dry grass and dried leaf litter, leaving it to Arthur to shoulder the brunt of the responsibility of drawing the Sidhe away from the anchor.

Arthur waited a few more seconds before pointedly stepping on a branch to attract attention. The branch snapped with the resounding crack of distant thunder heralding a great storm -- there was no way the scouts would have missed it, but for some reason, no one reacted with alarm. Arthur moved more into the open, heading toward the four Sidhe scattered in formation in the distance. He kept his sword close to his body and his hood over his head, not wanting to give himself away.

It was a gambit that he was taking. From the way the Sidhe didn't immediately react beyond turning to face him to gauge his arrival, Arthur decided that his guess was correct. There weren't merely four Sidhe in the clearing; there must be more nearby, hidden somewhere as additional protection for the spell. In the dull glow from the misty gateway, Arthur made out one of the Sidhe raising his arm in greeting.

He mimicked the motion, but didn't slow his approach. The Sidhe spoke, his voice ringing and soft, his words musical and incomprehensible, with a questioning lilt toward the end.

Of course, they couldn't speak any of the languages that Arthur had been forced to learn right next to Morgana, their tutor smacking his knuckles with a ruler whenever his attention strayed.

Arthur spread his free arm out in what he hoped was enough of a non-answer for the Sidhe to accept it as an appropriate response. The Sidhe shrugged, unbothered, and spoke to the others calmly before approaching Arthur on the rough road, his pace unhurried.

So far, so good, Arthur decided.

The four Sidhe were well-armoured and well-armed. Their weapons were at the ready but not drawn. They were all nearly of an equal height -- taller than Arthur, but not taller than Percival. Thin and slight, they would remind Arthur of Merlin's frame if they were not somehow more willowy and breakable.

Appearances were deceiving, as Arthur knew. He saw the moment that the Sidhe realized Arthur wasn't one of his own. The Sidhe's body stiffened, his hand moved toward his weapon, he half-turned his head to cry a shout of warning.

Arthur closed the distance between them at a run, burying his sword at an angle through the Sidhe's gut. He caught the Sidhe, keeping his body upright, grateful that the Sidhe had only made a slight groan instead of the cry of alarm. He held on for a few more moments, giving Gwaine and Merlin as much time as he could to get into position. Such closeness between the Sidhe must not be uncommon, because the others didn't glance twice in their direction.

For all that the body was slight, the armour the Sidhe wore was heavy. Arthur supported the body for a few more seconds, slowly drawing his sword. The blade caught on ringlets of chain that tinkled at the contact, the sound barely muffled by the wind.

Arthur let the body fall when he saw Gwaine's shadow approach the other Sidhe from the opposite direction. He moved forward cautiously, drawing the enemy's attention to him. There was a moment's delay before they registered their comrade's fate. Another passed as they realized that Arthur wasn't one of them after all, and a third when they shouted, drawing their weapons.

A second Sidhe fell when Gwaine came up behind him, stabbing him repeatedly in the kidneys before catching him with an arm around his chest. Gwaine finished him off with a blade across the throat.

That was all that Arthur saw before he was set upon by a third Sidhe. The fourth one never came; they must have turned for Gwaine, instead. Arthur met the strike of a thin, light blade with his sword, grunting at the unexpected force behind the blow. The Sidhe twisted away and struck again with a swirl-strike aimed at Arthur's head.

Arthur ducked and barrelled his shoulder into the Sidhe's exposed side. The Sidhe stumbled back and caught his footing, but not before Arthur ran the edge of his sword along the Sidhe's ribs.

The Sidhe swore, a hand holding his side. His eyes flashed yellow-green, like an animal's in the pitch of night in the slightest glimmer of light, and he attacked again with a wordless cry, moving quick and nimble over the uneven ground.

This time, Arthur was prepared for the Sidhe's strength. He battered the sword strikes away, shoving the Sidhe back and away, forcing him to defend himself. Arthur pressed the attack, only to have the Sidhe retreat out of arm's reach with an acrobatic slide that was less than graceful.

The Sidhe's mouth moved and his eyes flashed brighter. Arthur couldn't make out the words. It sounded like a creepy chitter that would follow a hapless traveller through the woods. A spell, most likely, and Arthur couldn't broker time to demand surrender, not with the army waiting behind the mist. He couldn't risk being incapacitated by magic, either. Too many people depended on him.

He struck at the Sidhe, intent on distracting -- intent on killing. The Sidhe continued to speak, but the more Arthur pushed, the more breathless the Sidhe became, hesitating between words until he lost the train of his speech entirely. The Sidhe's body jerked, and a zing of electricity rang through Arthur's sword as it shattered against the Sidhe's weapon.

The Sidhe grinned.

Arthur was only peripherally aware that he'd lost half of his blade. That it had shattered like glass and glittered in the air around him. The weight of the hilt in his hand was enough to remind him he was still armed with a sharp fragment, and he closed in on the distance between himself and the Sidhe.

He drove the broken point of his sword up through the Sidhe's jaw, freezing the rictus of triumph for all eternity.

Arthur dropped his hold on his weapon, letting it fall with the body. He reached for his short sword, only to find that he didn't need it. Gwaine's opponent was already on the ground.

"There's a fifth," Arthur said quickly. "Maybe more."

He searched the area, Gwaine turning to do the same. Arthur spotted the anchor in the distance even as Gwaine gestured, but the Sidhe was difficult to make out. The haze blurred out most of his features, but Arthur could tell the anchor was taller and broader than the Sidhe soldiers. He was cloaked in black from his shoulders down but the rest of him was washed out from the blinding glow from the gateway. He stood with his arms outstretched, as if trying to contain and direct the magic away from him to form the gateway.

Arthur thought at first that the anchor was blindfolded until he realized that there was a black smear over his eyes. Whether it was ceremonial or a necessity to protect himself from the glow of the gateway, Arthur didn't know. He didn't care about anything but the way the gateway was pulsing stronger, now, as if the sorcerer sensed or had seen their presence, and was hurrying the spell along to get reinforcements before he was stopped.

Arthur looked around quickly. There was no sign of Merlin.

"Gwaine --"

"Over there," Gwaine said, pointing even as he moved toward the two shapes fighting in the darkness beyond the sorcerer.

Arthur had been right to risk approaching the Sidhe the way he had earlier. No wonder the soldiers had greeted him as if he were one of their own. He'd looked just like their companion, wearing a dark cloak that looked much the same as the one worn by the Sidhe currently knocking Merlin onto his backside.

Merlin grunted painfully, and didn't move to get up. Arthur broke into a run.

It was hard to see this Sidhe. He was no larger than his fellow soldiers, no more impressive than a young initiate vying for the Knights. But whoever this Sidhe was, he was the shield to the sorcerer's blade, lightly built where the sorcerer was strong, his dark hair long and loose, a blood-red slash of paint or blood over his eyes.

He pounced on Merlin like a cat on its prey, razor-fast and merciless. The silvery blade of the Sidhe's longsword sank down --

Merlin twisted away, his eyes bright gold with magic as he shouted an incomprehensible word --

The Sidhe's sword sank deep into the ground and stayed there. Merlin curled his body up, bringing his knee into the Sidhe's side. The Sidhe grunted, thrown forward and off-balance. Merlin pulled his arm back to punch the Sidhe's jaw. The Sidhe's head threw back before he could raise his arms to defend himself. Merlin grabbed the knotted gnarl of cloak around the Sidhe's throat and rolled them both away from the sword.

The two broke apart in a flurry of blows on both sides. Merlin was a close-combat fighter, better than Arthur had ever seen, but he was clearly distracted, his attention split between his opponent and the gateway that was glowing brighter with every second.

The Sidhe took advantage to cast a spell the second there was space between them. His eyes brightened to a sickly yellow-green and Merlin was thrown --

Merlin grunted when he landed at Arthur's feet, nearly knocking him down. Arthur crouched next to Merlin and Gwaine moved to block the Sidhe's advance.

There were no words to express Arthur's relief when Merlin shook his head as if to clear it, pushing Arthur out of his way as he scrambled to his feet.

"You had one job," Arthur said.

"Nutter got in the way," Merlin said, moving to stand between Arthur and the Sidhe.

Arthur wrenched him back and pushed him toward the anchor. "We'll handle this one."

"Traitor," the Sidhe shouted. Arthur turned in time to see the Sidhe throw a bright blue orb at Gwaine. The orb moved so fast that not even Gwaine could move away in time. He was struck in the middle of his chest and was cast alight with witchfire as he was thrown across the clearing, landing against the trunk of a stout tree.

"I'll handle this one," Arthur revised. He moved away from Merlin only to be pulled back.

"Hand him his bloody arse," Merlin said, placing his palm on Arthur's chest. His hand glowed for a brief moment, but Arthur felt the burn of magic seeping through his armour and sinking into his skin. Arthur was always peripherally aware of Merlin's bond-mark over his heart, but he was even more aware of it now. It pulsed through him as if stretching its branches to capture the wind, its roots digging deep into the ground. "And when this is done, I'm tattooing wards all over you, you hear me? This is getting ridiculous."

Arthur didn't get the chance to answer. Merlin turned and moved toward the anchor, clapping his hands with determination. He left Arthur to forcibly push away the mental image of Merlin's hands on his body before the Sidhe attacked him when he was sidetracked.

Although the Sidhe was close, he had also stopped short and was regarding Arthur and Merlin, his head tilted with curiosity. His eyes darted between the two as Merlin moved away, and for a moment, Arthur thought that the Sidhe was trying to decide between attacking Arthur or going after Merlin.

Instead, his brow furrowed in consideration. He raised his hand in the air, whispered a harsh string of syllables. Before Arthur could think of dodging, a faint shiver rippled at him in a rapidly-growing circle that no mortal being could ever hope to avoid.

It struck Arthur cleanly, but did nothing. It swept at Merlin, and did nothing --

Arthur's dragon sigil shone in the air, filling Merlin's aura. Merlin whirled at the contact, eyes wide with alarm, and Arthur knew, without even looking at himself, that Merlin's tree was visible, too.

The Sidhe's eyes slowly widened with mortified understanding, his body rigid with indecision. He advanced a step, only to stop and look over his shoulder at the dark woods behind him. He retreated, and --

"Kill him! Fuck! He knows, Arthur! He knows --"

Arthur didn't need to be told twice. He didn't need to be told once. He was after the Sidhe before the Sidhe had even made his decision to abandon his post and to turn and flee. To carry with him the secret of who and what Arthur and Merlin were.

The Sidhe leaped back with a yelp and a raised short-sword to catch Arthur's blow. The contact of the two blades sparked. Arthur struck again, driving the Sidhe into the trees, tangling him up in the snarled underbrush. Surprise gave way to determination, and the Sidhe's defence became a vicious attack that forced Arthur away. Their swords clashed in a shower of sparks that was nearly as brightly-blinding as the gateway had become, but Arthur didn't have the time to think much more than, Hurry up, Merlin.

Gwaine had long-accused Arthur of holding back on the training fields. He wasn't wrong. Uther had always pushed Arthur to train harder and longer than any of the other Knights, and there had been many nights when Arthur had foregone sleep in exchange for more hours on the sands, working his way through the forms. He'd taught himself from old books, putting new movements into practice with the weight of his more formal training behind them, drilling himself over and over until the new skills became natural to him, until they blended in with the rigid structure of Knight training and became something more.

He needed that extra edge now, in fighting the Sidhe. They were evenly matched in height and reach, but the Sidhe's fighting style was far more fluid, using twists of the wrist and a continuous swirling movement to stay out of Arthur's reach and to escape pinning blows. The Sidhe was good -- he was fast, faster than anyone Arthur had ever trained against, and Arthur, for the first time in his life, felt the call of challenge sing to his blood.

Arthur pushed himself to keep up with the other man. He met the Sidhe's sword blow for blow. For every counter the Sidhe made, Arthur made one in turn. He drew the Sidhe out again and again until he could use what he had learned of the enemy's tactics against him.

It was all the more surprising when he saw the resignation in the Sidhe's expression, as if the outcome of their fight was a foregone conclusion. To surrender or to die -- those were his only choices, and Arthur saw the decision made before he could pull his blow to injure instead of kill.

Arthur wanted the Sidhe alive. For questioning. They needed to learn all they could about the Sidhe's forthcoming attack on Albion. Where they would strike first. Their numbers. Their weapons.

But the Sidhe dropped his block at the last instant. He dropped his wrist, allowing Arthur's sword to scrape its way up along the edge, the tip finding the weakest spot in thin armour and plunging through his heart.

"Shite." Arthur followed the Sidhe to the ground, breathing heavily. With a stagger, Arthur took a step back, yanking his sword free. He raised it defensively when he saw a shadow flicker out of the corner of his eye, but it was only Gwaine, limping toward him, holding his arm close to his chest, staring at him in awe.

"That was a High Guard," Gwaine said, glancing from the body to Arthur. "Nobody beats a member of the Royal High Guard."

Didn't, Arthur wanted to say. The Sidhe had given up rather than be captured. Arthur hadn't won the fight. The High Guard had chosen to commit suicide.

"That's what they're trained to do," Gwaine said, and it wasn't until then that Arthur realized he'd spoken all that out loud after all. "They never surrender. If he gave up, it was because --"

Gwaine was cut off by a high-pitched noise. The shriek became a deafening cacophony that drove them to their knees. Arthur held out a hand to protect his eyes from the gateway's sun-bright glow, barely able to make out Merlin's dark shape behind the anchor, gold-white claws digging into the Sidhe's magic and pulling it away. The gateway shuddered and juddered, jerking out of focus on an oscillating frequency, and Arthur thought, for one brief moment, that the sound he was hearing was the cumulative echo of all the Sidhe soldiers screaming in agony.

The anchor suddenly fell to his side, his body steaming in the cold night air. Merlin's shape was nearly erased by the gateway's light --

And abruptly, everything went dark.

In the distance, Camelot's warning bells began to ring.

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Merlin leaned back in the solid wood chair, grateful that it was too uncomfortable to sleep on. He tuned out the shrill debate between the members of the council in favour of picking at the thick bandages on his hands.

Two days after the Sidhe's failed invasion, Merlin was still in pain from the magical blowback. He was dizzy and light-headed, he drifted off at the drop of a hat, and his magic randomly flared up at every shift of shadow. But despite his exhaustion and the damage done to his frostbitten hands, Merlin was in better shape than Gwaine.

The Knight was on the other side of the council table, a post-healing draught green tinge to his skin. His shoulder had been dislocated, several ribs cracked, and he was bruised all along his spine from when the High Guard Sidhe had thrown him into a tree. He'd gotten off lucky. Merlin had seen the tree -- Gwaine should be dead.

Merlin's stomach rumbled. He wondered how much longer he'd have to sit on his arse through this waste of time. It was understood by all and sundry that they'd been attacked within their borders. The existing patrols had been increased to complement the alertness level, but for some reason, the councillors were under the impression that bemoaning what had happened before would turn back time.

The current debate was how best to react to a problem that was already taken care of. Some councillors wanted to bring the fight to Essetir, as that seemed to be their default whenever Camelot was under threat. The more intelligent and observant members of the council suggested going to war against Mercia, since the issue with the Sidhe originated with them, and they needed to pay for the damage done.

It didn't matter that there had been no damage, that the situation had been contained, or that only two people had been injured, though not incapacitated. The councillors demanded reparations because of the offence made to their delicate sensibilities, and Merlin wanted to shake them all for being idiots. He had no idea how Arthur sat through these bloody council meetings all the time. He didn't even know why Uther even bothered with them, since, ultimately, Morgana would be calling the shots.

Although Morgana's attention was completely fixed on Uther, it wasn't difficult to tell that she'd been caught unawares, too, and was furious. Whether she would distance herself from the Sisterhood as a result of this betrayal was still in question. It would be far too easy for the Sisterhood to claim that the Sidhe had acted on their own and to fool Morgana into believing them, whether it was true or not.

Merlin clumsily attempted to open the bottle of pressed pills Gaius had given him. The bottle slipped out of his hands, bounced on the table with a clink, and scratch-scratch-scratched away from him in a wild, circular motion. Arthur caught it easily, twisted the cork out, and shook out the prescribed amount into Merlin's bandaged palm.

No one noticed, of course. The debate frenzy had reached a completely new pitch of ridiculous -- how repayment monies would be disbursed throughout Camelot, and never mind that they hadn't even received any, much less made the request in the first place.

"Just once, I'd like to be the one mothered over," Arthur muttered, signalling for a servant to refill both their glasses.

"Next time we need to wrench a gateway loose from its anchor, I'll let you take care of it," Merlin said quietly, shooting Arthur a sidelong glare. He inspected the two green, chalky pills on the bandages before awkwardly popping them into his mouth.

The dry-swallow left a decidedly not-chalky taste in his mouth. Merlin carefully manoeuvred the goblet to his mouth and washed out the bitterness.

"But who would help me get dressed and use the loo?" Arthur asked, a small smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"I'm sure you'd find someone," Merlin bit out, refusing to let the thought of someone else putting their hands on Arthur make him jealous. He'd never admit, not out loud at least, how much he liked it when Arthur fussed over him, or how he'd been tempted to give in and to let Arthur help him get dressed. Arthur's pout had been difficult to resist.

Before Arthur could answer, Uther cut off the debate with a snarled word and turned to Arthur and Merlin. "Do you two have something to share?"

Arthur raised a hand to rub his forehead in what Merlin had learned was his favourite stalling tactic. When his arm dropped, it was with a heavy sigh, a contrived look of extreme concern, and a self-effacing gesture that Merlin loathed, because Arthur couldn't see how much he was worth. "Oh, just thinking about how lucky we were."

"Indeed," Uther said, clasping his hands together over the council table. He leaned forward, his brow in a heavy frown. "And how is it, exactly, that the three of you were not affected by the paralysis spell? You didn't quite explain that to my satisfaction."

Merlin could tell that Morgana was behind Uther's question. Uther had that slightly glazed look to his eyes. However harsh his tone had been a moment earlier, it was softer now, as if he were talking around a mouth full of food.

"We were playing cards," Arthur said testily, because he'd explained this before, careful not to add more details to their hasty cover story than was necessary to make it believable. "My rooms are warded."

"And Merlin set those wards?" Uther asked mechanically.

"A random witch off the street approached me some time ago and volunteered her services. I thought inviting a complete stranger who might be working for our enemies into my private chambers was a fantastic idea," Arthur snapped, annoyed. "Of course it was Merlin. He might not be much to look at, but he's capable of at least that."

Uther reared back abruptly. That was the moment Merlin was able to tell that Morgana's grasp on Uther was more precarious than he'd previously thought. Whether it was because Uther's emotions were particularly strong at the moment, or because Morgana was distracted by other matters, Merlin couldn't tell, but it was something they could use to their advantage.

Just as quickly as that flicker of light appeared, it was snuffed out, and Uther slowly leaned over the table again, his head down. He breathed slowly as if getting himself under control.

Merlin glanced at Arthur. Arthur's chin was raised and his expression was thoughtful, as if he'd noticed the change and understood what it meant.

"If he's that capable, why doesn't he ward the entirety of Camelot?" one of the councillors asked. "We could've been protected all this time. This would never have happened!"

"Warding a couple of rooms is an entirely different matter than warding an entire Kingdom," Arthur said. "It's been tried before, and we've seen the other thanes burn through their sorcerers making the attempt. Maybe a sorcerer as powerful as... as Taliesin or... or, I don't know, who's that other one?"

"Emrys?" Gwaine suggested, and Merlin nearly choked on his water when he brought his goblet to his lips. He covered it up by letting the goblet slip through his bandaged hands and struggling to catch it.

Arthur took the goblet away from Merlin and steadied it on the table.

"No, not that one. He's a myth the minstrels made up," Arthur said. He shook his head and gave the members of the Council a hard stare. "It doesn't matter. We can talk about what we should have done until the bloody moon falls out of the sky, but that's not going to change the past. We need to address what we are going to do from this point forward."

The conversation around the table suddenly started up again, increasing with volume, though it didn't move much from the original push for more defences around Camelot and the city. Uther's expression became weary; Morgana heaved a heavy breath as if rallying her strength for another push.

It came a few minutes later, when Uther, or rather Morgana, leaned forward again and asked, "Why weren't you affected by the paralysis spell after you left the warded room?"

The discussion came to an abrupt stop the instant the councillors realized that Uther wasn't listening to their arguments in favour of one action over another. All eyes turned to Arthur; when Arthur shrugged, the weight of all that attention turned to Merlin. Even Arthur -- the bloody git -- shifted in his seat, waiting for an explanation, going so far as to gesture in invitation.

Merlin glared at him. He shifted in his seat until he was more comfortable, reminding himself at the last moment to look at Uther rather than Morgana when he answered. "Well. I'm not an expert on Sidhe magic. So. I don't know."

Arthur raised his eyebrows at him.

Merlin sighed, and in a slow, deliberate drawl, half-heartedly said, "I've been thinking about that, though. Best I can figure, a spell like that? It can only be cast over a limited area, and it's probably not the self-perpetuating sort of magic. By the time we left the warded chambers and realized what was going on, we'd missed the window of effect."

The staring continued. No one said anything. Uther's expression remained blank, Morgana's narrowed her eyes, and Arthur bit the inside of his cheek, because all this was funny to him. The only reason why Merlin managed to evade bounty hunters and thanes chasing Emrys for all these years was because he'd mastered the art of coming and going without people taking much notice of him. He'd also become pretty good at ducking people's interested questions to the point that he could distract them with a non-answer. But when it came right down to it, he was an awful liar who couldn't come up with something plausible and believable right on the spot.

He'd sounded like a ham-fisted, blithering idiot just now. He was glad Arthur was amused, because now everyone thought he was useless and stupid. From what he'd figured out about Arthur, that had probably been his intention all along, and --

Oh.

The tactic was sort of brilliant, actually. That didn't stop Merlin from thinking a few more uncharitable thoughts in Arthur's direction.

"We did get word that the people living in the farms outside of the city walls weren't affected that night," Gwaine said helpfully. "Supports his theory, at least."

Morgana had her next question ready, because Uther said in a flat monotone, "I'm told Sidhe magic is difficult to break."

"I suppose," Merlin said. "Never encountered it before, so I wouldn't be able to say for certain." At least the latter part of his statement was true.

Uther's mouth curled into a sneer that didn't seep into his voice. "Then how did a common, uneducated sorcerer like you manage to break the paralysis spell and the... what did you call it? A gateway? You can't honestly expect me to believe that you single-handedly saved Camelot."

Uther's use of the singular instead of the royal "we" was telling, and Merlin knew that Arthur had noticed. Gwaine's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he immediately coughed and said, "Can't give him all the credit. Lord Arthur and I were there too."

Morgana's mouth tightened with strain, and it looked, for one instant, as if Uther was fighting her control. It didn't last. His dull gaze returned to Merlin and he asked again, "How?"

An anchor was just that -- an anchor. A caster used the anchor as a rooting point to construct and build the spell between two points, forming a bridge that would spread the effect of the spell over a greater distance. As best as Merlin could figure, the anchor had been a sorcerer himself, already primed with the spell, waiting to be positioned in a proper location before unleashing the magic to form the bridge with the sorcerer who held the second half.

The Sidhe invasion must have been months -- if not years -- in the planning. It wasn't a quick trip over the ocean from the shores where the Sidhe were believed to come from, though those shores had never been conclusively found and were believed to exist through some sort of magical passage that only opened up on rare, undetermined occasions. At least, that's what Ironwood had taught Merlin, and that belief was held and passed on to its students on the sole merit that the Sidhe hadn't been seen in decades.

Preparing and holding onto the spell must have taken months of working in tandem with another sorcerer. The concentration required to sustain the magic and prevent the spell from unraveling must have been formidable. Merlin couldn't imagine that the Sidhe would have been able to cast any other magic, much less defend himself during the journey. It was the only explanation why the Sidhe soldiers and the member of the Royal High Guard had been tasked with accompanying him on the journey.

Once the anchor was in place, it was a mere matter of releasing the spellwork in what must have been intricately pre-planned synchronicity -- or the use of one of the rare radio communicators that few Kingdoms had anymore. The distance between the two points was great enough that the gateway needed a great deal of time to properly form, because the preparations involved in moving large masses of living beings from one place to the other in the space was not something that was done quickly.

The anchor couldn't defend himself against Merlin. He'd been kneeling in a protective circle that would have worked well against another Sidhe but was rather useless against a human. That hadn't been the problem.

The magic the anchor had held within himself might have been small to begin with, but the feedback loop between the two anchors was significant enough that Merlin doubted either of the Sidhe on the two root positions would survive the gateway's creation. There was so much magic resonating in a tightly-wound whirlwind around the Sidhe that Merlin couldn't get close enough, and it wasn't until then that Merlin realized the protective circle around the anchor wasn't so much to defend him against other Sidhe, but to protect them from the magical backlash.

The obvious way to stop a feedback loop was to break it. Breaking a loop like the one that had formed risked detonating the energy and turning the area into a crater. Less obvious was to disrupt the loop, to turn it away.

He was certain that there were better ideas, but Merlin had done the only thing he could think of at the time. He hadn't trained to sustain a gateway and was wholly inadequate to act as an anchor. With what was a great deal of difficulty, Merlin had managed to unravel only part of the anchor's tether. He'd scrambled to tie what he had to himself, instead. The Sidhe had collapsed, his body now a drained husk, but still somehow alive. He introduced disharmonious magic into the gateway. The feedback became riotous, the fuel for the gateway suddenly unstable and unusable. Merlin had felt it the moment that the other Sidhe realized what was happening, but Merlin was faster.

He'd released the tether first.

The backlash had been nothing short of spectacular. He would never forget the sound of all those screaming Sidhe in the gateway as the rebounding magic sliced through them. He'd felt the death-echo of the distant Sidhe anchor resonate through the Sidhe on his end.

The memory haunted him, but the weight of everyone's attention dragged him out of his own head. Morgana -- through Uther -- had asked a question, and he was damned if he could remember what it was.

"How what?" Merlin asked, somewhat dumbly.

Beside him, Arthur snorted.

"How did you break Sidhe magic?" Uther asked, flat, mechanical. Morgana couldn't be in complete control, not anymore, because there was a curl of amusement to Uther's lips, a spark of life returning to his eyes.

"Um." Merlin chewed the corner of his mouth. He squinted, trying to come up with a way that would contain the general highlights of the struggle with the Sidhe anchor without exposing himself as Emrys or giving away too many details that would make people wonder, anyway. "Magic."

The murmur that rumbled through the room bordered on hysterical panic and offended confusion. Morgana's fist clenched tightly on the table, knuckles going white. She was focusing so much on controlling Uther and her own emotions that she didn't realize just how much she was revealing about herself with that one, unguarded gesture.

Merlin felt obligated to add a little more, for the sake of closure, and said, "Also, a very sharp knife. Did you know most spells unravel when the caster dies? Seems that these two spells were amongst them."

"It must be possible to reproduce what you did," a councillor Merlin didn't recognize said.

"I require details," Morgana/Uther said.

Merlin had to remind himself yet once again to look at Uther when he answered. "I'm not sure I can give them to you. After all, I'm a common, uneducated sorcerer. Chalk it up to luck, if you must." He turned his eyes to Morgana, unable to and unwilling to stop the challenge from sinking in his tone. "Perhaps you should ask Lady Morgana. I'm given to understand that she is far more skilled in esoteric matters than I."

The dichotomy of being addressed in both consciousnesses was enough to jar Morgana out of Uther to blink blindly at Merlin a few times before she registered his words. She sat up properly and primly. She bristled behind her fake smile and met Merlin's eyes without answering. Merlin wondered if it was because she hadn't quite untangled her tongue from Uther's mind, and was stalling for time to make sure she didn't speak through the wrong mouth.

Merlin stared back, fully aware that it was in contravention to the rules of courtly propriety, thanks to Arthur's lessons. A man did not engage with a woman, particularly not one of noble blood, unless they intended to court her, but there would be no courting here. This was a quiet battle of wills, and while Merlin had every confidence that the tattoos on his body would protect him against any mental backlash, he still braced for an invasion into his mind that never came.

"I believe --"

Morgana's slow speech was interrupted when a servant dropped a heavy pitcher onto the table between Arthur and Merlin. The metal screeched and wobbled over the uneven surface, splattering water everywhere. If Merlin hadn't been watching, he would have missed the moment when the distraction broke the last of Morgana's control over Uther.

"It doesn't matter," Uther said roughly, his voice low and warm, full of more vigour than it had been throughout most of the meeting. With every word, he seemed more himself, his gaze becoming sharp and alert. There was the glint of warning in them when he looked at Merlin and said, "What's done is done, and Camelot is safe, for now. Despite your ineptness, you've proven your value, and I will ask you to continue in your loyal service to Arthur."

Ineptness? Merlin wasn't sure if that was a jibe or not, but he remained silent only because of the peculiar tone in Uther's words. There had been a weight in it, as if he were asking for a boon. Specifying Merlin's service to Arthur, and not to Camelot had also struck him as odd, but he didn't parse what it meant until Uther abruptly stood up, his heavy chair screeching on the stone floor.

"This attack on Camelot could be repeated anywhere in the Kingdoms. As long as this threat exists, the Sidhe could attack us from any position. In this matter, we must consider all the Kingdoms our allies and must rise as one against them."

Uther glanced sidelong at Morgana, as if judging her condition. Merlin looked between them and saw that Morgana was recouping her strength, steadying herself as she turned to face Uther with determined focus.

Uther knew, Merlin realized. He knew what Morgana was doing to him. All along, he'd been picking his battles and choosing his moments to act against her, all the while making it seem that he had no idea what was going on and that everything he had ever done was of his own volition. In the moments when Morgana's control wavered, he'd done what he could to protect Camelot from her. He'd done what he could to protect Arthur.

Merlin's respect for Uther grew. Uther was a stronger man than he'd believed him to be.

"We will go to Mercia. We will band our strength to the gathered armies of all the Kingdoms, and we will stand fast against our enemies," Uther said quickly. "Arthur, I give you full authority over Camelot's Knights and our army. Not even my word can countermand yours. You will represent me in Mercia as my Heir."

Merlin couldn't see Arthur's expression past the servant who had moved between them to hastily mop up the spilled water, but from the way his hand stilled on the table, Arthur had been taken by surprise. So had the rest of the council. The silence was overbearing before everyone exclaimed in shock -- clearly, there had never been any declaration naming anyone as Heir until now, and everyone, Morgana included, must have expected that Morgana would be next in line for the throne.

Whatever attempts Morgana had been making to get Uther under her control again fizzled under the weight of her own shock and the distractions of the loud murmurs in the room.

Uther heaved a small sigh of relief, standing straighter as if he himself had been released of a great, momentary burden and was suddenly feeling whole again. He seemed more human to Merlin now, more like the intelligent, calculating man that had sat recklessly on the throne when he'd bestowed citizenship on Merlin. Uther looked at him, nodding in severe acknowledgement, and once again, Merlin was struck by the realization that Uther knew.

He knew everything. Not just that Morgana was using her power to manipulate him. That Morgana had twisted many people to force them under her control. That Arthur had struggled to work with the Knights and that he had overcome. That the people loved Arthur more than they loved their thane, because Arthur was just as human as they were. And most of all, Uther knew about Merlin himself. That he wasn't who he said he was. That he had more power than he laid claim to. That he was Emrys.

And all those were things that Uther had kept secret, somehow, from even his daughter.

"Arthur, join me in my chambers. We will discuss our strategy. Bring your pet sorcerer along; he may have some useful insight," Uther said. He paused, looking around the room. "Leon, the Lady Morgana appears to be somewhat peaked. I suspect that the events of the last few days have been too much for her and that this meeting has taxed her strength and sensibilities. Please escort her to her chambers and stay with her to ensure that she obtains some rest."

Morgana's squawk of outrage was music to Merlin's ears.

 

Coin Image of Uther

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

"I'm on the list, aren't I?"

"And I?"

"Myself as well, I hope?"

With a grunt heralding a great force of will and ironclad discipline, Arthur drew his attention from a distant spot along the horizon. The distant plain was undisturbed, treetops shining bronze with the turning colours of autumn. Though a patrol ranged out to begin their route along Camelot's borders, there was no one approaching along the normally busy road.

Arthur wasn't on watch, but he had felt the need to be far away from everyone. Nearly a week had passed since discovering that he was half-Sidhe and the sole Heir to the Queen of the Seleighe Court. Three days since the Sidhe attempted to invade Camelot's borders by means of a magical gateway. Two days ago, Merlin and Arthur managed to corner Gaius and sober him up long enough to read him into the battle plans and to prepare for the journey ahead, only to learn of his complicity in helping Uther kidnap Ygraine from the Sidhe and to take her as his wife.

Arthur should feel betrayed. Instead, he just felt so very tired. Everyone was keeping secrets from him.

His own father. Gaius. Morgana. Leon. Gwaine, who had mostly done it to save his own skin while trying to keep an eye out for Arthur. Kay, who quietly stole from the coffers to hide his growing gambling debts -- he was only sixteen, for fuck's sake. He shouldn't have gambling debts.

Some of those secrets weren't as secret as the holders hoped they were. Arthur wasn't an idiot. He could read between the lines if he needed to, and he wasn't above following people and eavesdropping.

The only person who hadn't kept secrets from Arthur was Merlin. Merlin blamed the bond between them for loosening his tongue, but Arthur knew bluster when he saw it. After so long on his own, Merlin must have been desperate to be able to tell someone his secrets, and he'd chosen Arthur.

When Arthur first came to that realization, it had stung, a little. He wasn't special. Merlin could have chosen to reveal himself to anyone he liked. But he'd chosen Arthur, in the end, and Arthur knew It didn't last, because he realized that he needed Merlin just as much as Merlin needed him, though in a different way.

He needed Merlin's faith.

Everyone else doubted him in some way. To question him, his ability, his strength, as if he were fragile and breakable, unable to handle the truth.

In reality, it was the opposite. The truth gave Arthur strength.

It came in knowing that despite his claim to want to preserve the sanctity of his own arse, Gwaine had chosen to stay at Camelot all these years not because he believed Arthur could restore him and his family to their former glory, but because Gwaine had come to see him as a friend.

It came in knowing that Gaius had not resorted to drinking himself stupid because he was crumbling under the weight of his guilt for having helped Uther steal Ygraine from her people. He'd done all this damage to himself and to his reputation because he'd realized what Morgana had been from the very day she'd first manifested her magic, and had seen the kind of person she would become. The drinking had been as much to protect himself as it was to protect others from Morgana.

It came in knowing that Uther was still Uther beneath it all, that he knew what was happening to him and who was the perpertrator, and that he remained canny enough to seize the opportunity to act on his own volition at the first opportunity, effectively cutting Morgana's greatest power. He hadn't done it because he thought Arthur would be the better Heir. He'd done it because he loved Camelot more than his own children.

"If it were up to me, it would be none of you," Uther had said, his voice a low, angry hiss. He'd glanced at the protective sigil Merlin had drawn on the door of the room more than once -- it had been simpler and less ornate than the one in Arthur's chambers, and temporary, but enough to protect against mind magic to some degree.

Arthur had been more worried that Uther would recognize Merlin for what he was, for who he was, more than he'd felt the sting of Uther's words.

"But in this? In this, you are all that we have to defend Camelot. You will convince the war council at Mercia to follow this battle plan. We cannot allow the Sidhe to come to these lands. I won't hear of it!"

Arthur had exchanged a glance with Merlin. Merlin had quirked an eyebrow. Arthur had picked up all the letters Uther had hastily drawn together and sealed after bowing formally to his father, and once he'd arrived to the safety of his chambers, had thrown them all into the fire.

All of them save one.

He had put that last letter aside. Uther was a brilliant military strategic, but he was biased toward protecting his own interests first, acquiring more power second, and protecting Camelot last. As far as Arthur was concerned, safeguarding the whole of Albion regardless of a person's status was more important than a single Kingdom. Also, as long as Uther created the battle plan, Morgana would know it too, and that would put them all in danger.

Arthur had crooked a finger at an amused Merlin, pointed him at a seat, and went to collect his maps to draw up a new battle plan. "How good at you at forgery?" Arthur had asked, because he would need new letters written if they were to have any hopes of winning.

"Just because my face is on a wanted poster doesn't make me a criminal," Merlin had said, mock-offended. Then, without missing a beat, he'd continued with, "What do you want me to write, and in whose hand?"

And that, that, was the faith that was keeping Arthur from faltering.

Like he was faltering now.

Was he doing the right thing?

He ran his hand along the stone that made up the outer walls of Camelot. He resisted the urge to pull at his hair. He closed his eyes tightly and counted off each and every thing he needed to do before he took a small number of men and rode out of Camelot while the main army headed toward Mercia.

"Arthur?"

Arthur forced himself to focus and turned around. Percival stood before him on the narrow walkway, his big arms crossed over an equally broad chest. Gwaine's smile was faded but still held hints of a roguish grin. Kay must have reached out to touch Arthur's shoulder, only to think better of it, because he was already drawing his hand away.

"What?" Arthur asked.

Percival and Gwaine exchanged glances, and Gwaine's smile disappeared completely. Kay, however, had no such compunctions.

"So there's talk that you're taking a small group for a super-secret mission that no one knows about," Kay said, leaning in to cup his mouth, as if that would muffle his bloody gob.

He must take after his mother, Arthur decided, and it swamped out all of the genetic material from Uther that was prescribed for stealth and subtlety.

"I have no idea what you're on about," Arthur said quietly, spreading his hands wide as if he were exhausted and done with everything. To be honest, that wasn't far from the truth.

"Sure you do. I know you." Kay waggled his eyebrows before leaning in again, an excited smile on his face. "Who's going?"

Arthur sighed. "You'll find out in the morning, along with everyone else."

"I'm not sure if you've noticed," Kay said, leaning in close again, "But we're leaving tomorrow."

"Are we?" Arthur asked mildly, half-heartedly feigning surprise. "I hadn't realized. The days, they blur together, it's so easy to lose track of time."

"Yes, tomorrow! I counted backward, and if we want to arrive in time for the war council, and not be wiped from the trip to the point of worthlessness, we leave tomorrow. First thing in the morning, as the rooster -- oh, you arse, you're having me on," Kay suddenly realized, scowling. He punched Arthur in the arm. "You know all this."

Arthur smiled faintly, leaning against the castle wall.

"So who's coming?" Kay asked. "Don't leave us in suspense. Some of us have to pack."

"You should already be packed," Percival said dryly. "We're all going, one way or another."

"Super-secret mission," Kay hissed, once again announcing it to lord and sundry. "We might need special supplies."

"I still don't know what you're on about," Arthur said firmly. He grabbed Kay's shoulder, turned him around, and stared at him with a raised brow and a significant look as if he fully expected his little brother to understand. "And anyway, if you're stupid enough to leave a glaive behind like you did last time, the quartermaster will have spares in your size. Because we know you."

"Oh, fuck you," Kay said half-heartedly. "That was the one time."

"And anyway, as if you don't already have everything in a pile, ready to go, saddles and all," Arthur said, raising a brow. Even without any confirmation that he was among those selected, Kay would have packed half his wardrobe twice before dumping it all in favour of what he would actually need -- spare clothes, weapons and armour. Odds were very good that Kay had also harassed the cooks into deviating from Arthur's instructions and packing his favourite rations for the journey.

"Of course I do, but I'd like to know if I should bring my things down to the stables now. Just so I can sleep in some, and all," Kay said.

Arthur clamped a heavy hand on Kay's shoulder. He pulled him close, and Kay leaned in eagerly, anticipating a great secret. "You'll find out tomorrow along with everyone else."

"Son of a --" Kay's outrage died out almost immediately, and he took a step closer, crowding into Arthur's space. He reached for Arthur's collar, pulling it open.

Arthur immediately shoved him away, adjusting his shirt to cover the mark Merlin had tattooed at the base of his neck. That mark was the first of many, each of them protection against a possible threat, and, this close to the head, also conveyed a measure of security against Morgana's magic. Arthur hadn't seen her over the last few days, but the marks, each and every one of them, were warm, still pulsing from the infusion of magic that Merlin had pressed into them the night before.

Arthur had thought Merlin was being overly cautious. Merlin had told him to shut up. Arthur had obeyed without reminding Merlin to Watch his tone, you're talking to the son of a thane, but that was only because he hadn't wanted to give Merlin any reason not to touch him.

"That threat would be more effective if you'd own up to being a Prince of the Sidhe," Merlin had said, poking Arthur's head down while he tapped the needles into the meat of Arthur's upper back. "Or better, as the Pen y Ddraig. Then I'd have to address you as Your Majesty all the time."

"Now that's the most compelling argument you've given me so far," Arthur had said, wincing when the next tap of the needles scratched into his skin.

Arthur pulled himself together, because now was not the time to get lost in his own thoughts. He held up a warning finger to prevent Kay from asking any more questions. He should've known better than to bother.

"It's a hickey, isn't it?" Kay asked, his curiosity about the battle ahead vanishing. He grabbed at Arthur's arm, coming closer still, intent on getting a look. "It's a hickey, I'm sure of it --"

"Kay, will you --" Arthur shoved him off, feeling his cheeks burn. It most assuredly was not a hickey, but no one needed to know that, and it helped him not at all how much he wished the marks were exactly what Kay thought they were. "None of your bloody business."

Kay gaped at him, mouth ajar. He burst out laughing. "I knew they were fucking! I thought it was strange when I asked the servants where it was that Merlin was sleeping so I could ask him if he knew anything about the secret mission, but they either didn't have a clue or... or! Oh, well, that explains why the maid who cleans that quarter of the castle blushed like mad and refused to say a word --"

"Kay," Arthur groaned.

Gwaine was the recipient of Kay's ire next, receiving a finger in the face. "And you! You knew! You're the only one who didn't want to take the bet. You saw them together, didn't you?"

Arthur gave Percival a pleading look.

Percival raised a questioning eyebrow.

Arthur rolled his eyes and nodded, silently agreeing to Percival's terms, whatever they were. Smiling as if he'd won a Tourney prize, Percival turned to Kay, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, and hauled him away.

"Unhand me! I'm not done, I have money to collect, payoffs to give!"

Arthur watched his little brother go and shook his head. Kay was going to be insufferable when he learned that he was indeed on the list of Knights selected to split up from the main body of the army marching to Mercia. Arthur had no intention of letting his little brother out of his sight. He'd made that mistake once, and Kay had nearly died. There was no chance that Kay would be left behind for Morgana to prey upon, either.

Arthur sagged a little before realizing that Gwaine was still on the walkway with him. The weight of Gwaine's scrutiny was a little more than Arthur was willing to bear at the moment, so he turned around, elbows on the fortress stone.

"So," Gwaine said. He tilted his head. "Well, you could do worse, that's for certain."

"I don't want to hear it," Arthur said. He didn't have to look to see the smug smirk spreading across Gwaine's face, so he didn't. "Just... go. Do whatever it is that you do at this time of night."

"This time of night?" Gwaine made a considering noise. "Well, I'm done my rounds, and it'll be a while yet before the maids are done their work and I can offer to escort one or two of them home. And by escort --"

"Ugh," Arthur said, covering his face with his hand.

"-- I mean, escort, right to their beds and out of their clothes. But then, you'd know something of the sort, wouldn't you? Given that you're banging your boy and all."

"Go away," Arthur said, refusing to look at Gwaine.

Arthur would know something of the sort, all right -- he could only wish that he was getting something more out of sharing his bed with Merlin at night. The first time Merlin had rolled onto the bed after their agreement, Arthur had wanted to point out that there was a perfectly good cot under all the chests and boxes in the side room. Since he couldn't reasonably expect Merlin to have cleaned it out for himself when Merlin spent all his time with Arthur, Arthur lived in fear that Merlin would one day come to the realization that he could ask one of the servants to do it.

As it was, the two of them tumbled into bed together only as a matter of course, tired from a day at training, dealing with courtly duties, attending to random incidents, and walking patrol around the castle proper. The privacy of their chambers was their only respite, and it was spent poring over maps, the two of them teaching the other on matters of the kingdoms.

It was as much an education for Arthur as it was for Merlin. Where Merlin grudgingly listened to lectures about the political climate, read treatises on courtly manners and edicts of the most current set of laws, and gaped at Arthur when Arthur described how bloody childish court proceedings could get, Arthur had a much harder time of it as he took in the actual state of affairs across the Kingdoms. He hadn't realized starvation was so rampant, how thanes punished those who lived in their lands for little more than the perception of a crime, or how children sometimes vanished from their beds at night, resurfacing much later after they'd been sold as slaves.

Arthur wasn't sheltered. He knew he wasn't. It was difficult to ignore how the living conditions for his own men were much less than his own. At the same time, the realization that he looked, but never saw, was a bitter pill to swallow. The pictures Merlin painted stayed with him even after the last candle was blown out, following him in his dreams, and more than one nightmare had been quieted by Merlin's sleepy hand on his chest as he somehow managed to fall back asleep after being startled wide awake.

That was another thing, too. Merlin left him in awe. A lifetime on the run had taught him how to sleep lightly and to come to full alertness at the slightest noise, but somehow, he was able to drift off to sleep next to Arthur, carelessly stealing the blankets or snuffling closer because Arthur wouldn't give up his pillow.

Merlin might claim he didn't trust easily, but he did. He trusted Arthur.

In many ways, that knowledge was more overwhelming than learning he was a Prince of the Sidhe. It left Arthur gasping quietly long after Merlin had fallen asleep, because he struggled to keep himself from gathering Merlin close, holding him tightly and making promises he wasn't sure Merlin was ready for.

"You shouldn't be out here alone," Gwaine said, pulling Arthur out of his own thoughts. He moved closer, his back against the wall, attention focused on the few people milling around in the courtyard.

"I'm fine," Arthur said, by which he meant, I want to be alone right now.

Gwaine shook his head, as if he'd heard Arthur's unspoken words, and said, "No, you're not."

Arthur stood up straight and turned to face Gwaine. "Are you my physician now?"

"You're not fine," Gwaine said, still facing the courtyard. "Not alone. Where's your boy? He should be here."

"He's doing something for me," Arthur said. He stuck his finger in Gwaine's face when he turned around. "And don't ask if it has anything to do with the..." He curled his fingers around the phrase. "Secret mission."

"I, ah. Wasn't.... Okay, yeah, all right." Gwaine huffed. "Anyway, he should be with you, or you should be with him. I've gotten word. There's a group working themselves up to hitting the Knights on the road to Mercia. Could be nothing, could be something, but I'm not taking any chances that someone won't try to grab you in the distraction before we go."

"What group?" Arthur asked, though he had a feeling he already knew, and that it had something to do with why Morgana wasn't around much these days.

"Who do you think?" Gwaine scoffed. "And does it matter, anyway?"

Arthur sighed, and shook his head. "No, I suppose not. As long as they get there. If it's to come to war, Albion will need all the men they can get. Fuck the Sisterhood, and fuck the Sidhe. We're not letting them win."

"Exactly," Gwaine said, grinning like a feral cat.

"Spread the word among the men. Tell them whatever you like, but most importantly to stay on the alert. I'll have new orders for the Knights in the morning. They're to share them with no one," Arthur said, already planning to have the army broken up into smaller units to move more quickly.

Camelot, being completely landlocked, had the fastest-moving army in all the Kingdoms, though hardly as many sorcerers as most. Those sorcerers were bound to a Knight, who in turn ensured the sorcerer's safety. What would matter most was moving fast enough to catch up to whatever the Sisterhood had planned and to overcome them before they were ready, and moving fast enough to stay ahead of the Sidhe all the way to Mercia, while planning on all sorts of skirmishes and obstacles from neighbouring Kingdoms along the way.

Bedivere and Pellinor would do well in those roles, as would Lamorak, though he was still young. They were all devious little bastards when pushed into a corner, and this was an occasion when their particular skills would make them shine.

Something Gwaine said finally sank in, and he squinted at the man. "What distraction are you talking about?"

It wasn't that he didn't trust Gwaine. He'd always supported Arthur in his own, quiet, quirky way, but sometimes, he'd say something that would set Arthur's hackles on edge. With all the stress piling up, Arthur knew he was a little paranoid these days. Before he could let himself wonder any more whether Gwaine had turned against him, Gwaine straightened against the wall, took a long look around, and met his eyes.

"There'll be a distraction in the morning before you gather your Knights and go. I guarantee it. It won't be one of your doing, nor mine, and it won't be ought to do with anyone thinking themselves strong enough to take on a column of Knights out in the open road to capture themselves a thane's son in exchange for citizenship, whether or not they've got a full army marching at their backs," Gwaine hissed, his grin gone, a manic glint in his eyes.

Arthur wrenched out of Gwaine's grasp. "Explain yourself," he ordered, his voice rough.

A muscle clenched in Gwaine's jaw. He took a breath as if to speak, only to exhale and remain silent, and it was as the sun set so low to touch the distant horizon that he looked sharply away. But there was something -- something Arthur couldn't quite put his finger on.

Arthur frowned.

Gwaine had come to Camelot many years ago, naming himself the errant son of a disgraced thane from a tiny Kingdom in the north. He had been seeking refuge from his tyrant of a sire. There had never been any reason to doubt Gwaine's history, for the thane in question was indeed the monster Gwaine claimed him to be. The disgrace that had fallen upon that Kingdom was one that had scattered his many legitimate and bastard children far afield.

Knowing that it was all a lie meant nothing. The most believable falsehoods were couched in truth. Gwaine was not the son of a disgraced thane. He was the son of a disgraced Lord of the Sidhe. However he'd come to Albion, why he'd chosen Camelot out of all the possible places he could have gone, he had come seeking refuge, and whatever duty he felt he should carry was his duty alone, and not one that had been asked of him in any way or form.

He was not a traitor. Arthur believed that much.

"The Sidhe have ways to communicate with each other that is beyond your ken. Nothing like those communication devices Gaius tinkers with every now and then that break up every ten seconds. If the Sidhe who have already landed and are in hiding don't already know, they will soon," Gwaine said quietly, careful to keep his voice from carrying as it very easily would on a clear night like this. "After the gateway collapsed, there would be no mistaking it. They'll know that there's a sorcerer of Ironwood here in Camelot. Someone strong enough to resist their spells. Strong enough to break them."

Arthur nodded, understanding.

"And if they know, odds are that the Sisterhood knows. And if they know, Morgana knows," Arthur said. "You think she'll try something in the morning?"

"I know she will. We'd best be gone by then."

"We?" Arthur asked, amused. "You're coming along, then?"

"Of course I am, and you know it," Gwaine said, nodding with a surety that Arthur wished he had. "You're going to need someone to tell you everything about the Sidhe."

"I've got Merlin for that," Arthur said. Gwaine's flail was entertaining.

"He doesn't even speak the language," Gwaine spluttered. "Do you really think he'll be of help when you need to navigate the diplomatic minefield of the Sidhe court?"

"You really mean to come with us," Arthur remarked, leaning with an elbow on the fortress wall, tilting his head speculatively. Gwaine had always been on the short list to accompany him on what Kay had termed the "secret mission", though not for the reasons Gwaine was pushing.

"Someone will need to protect your arse when your bloke's not around," Gwaine said seriously, coming closer. "I've been remiss in my duty for too long. For that I am sorry."

"At the risk of repeating myself, what are you on about?" Arthur asked, genuinely confused this time.

"I see it," he said, grave. "It wasn't easy to see. You're busy. Legitimately so. And your boy's always with you, so I know you're safe. But I see it now. How you avoid Morgana. How she tries to find you. Your boy always steers you away, somehow, before she crosses your path, and if you're stuck in the council, or at dinner, you're quick to avoid her touch, ready with an excuse to leave."

"You've lost me," Arthur said, standing up.

"I know," Gwaine said sharply. He paused, glancing around. Arthur did the same, trying to assuage the pit in his belly.

They were both careful to keep their voices low so that their words wouldn't carry, and it wasn't strange to see two Knights on the walkway, keeping each other company in the cool night while on duty. No one so much as glanced in their direction from the courtyard below, but there was no knowing if someone was watching them from a window.

"I know what she is. I see what she's been doing. If... If I'd been here before, if I'd been here longer, I would've..." Gwaine trailed off. He planted his hands on the stone edge of the fortress walls, his eyes half-closing to shutter against the biting wind that was kicking up, and a grimace of anger shrouded his expression. For once, Arthur saw Gwaine as he truly was, his emotions raw to the core, more angry with himself for some perceived failure than at anything else.

"You would've what?" Arthur asked.

"I would've known." Gwaine's words were a minuscule howl. He tossed his head back as if he were about to shout, but caught himself at the last moment, hunching over himself. "I would've done something. I would've taken you away. I promised. I swore I wouldn't fail."

Arthur swallowed thickly. A fleeting fear that this was Morgana's doing came and went, because this was beyond Morgana's mind magic -- genuine emotion was something that she couldn't achieve herself.

Arthur glanced at the balustrade. Gwaine's fingers were curled into claws that cut four thin lines into the stone. Impulsively, Arthur reached over and covered one of Gwaine's hands. Gwaine jerked, startled, his eyes widening when he realized what he'd done.

"You didn't fail. But I will make it clear now, if it wasn't clear before. I don't need a protector. I need people to help me win the war and to build a new Albion. Are you with me?"

Gwaine mouth dropped open in disbelief. "Of course. I... Of course."

Without warning, he threw his arms around Arthur's neck and hugged him close.

"Thank you. I just... Thank you."

Arthur patted his back awkwardly. He saw a few guards on the catwalk looking their way. Gwaine's antics had even caught the attention of the few people down in the courtyard, too. With a firm push, Arthur broke the hug and raised an eyebrow.

"You're being overdramatic because a girl turned you down," Arthur said firmly. "You tried to use it as a bid for sympathy to get me to tell you who's on the list to go to Mercia. It didn't work. You should know better than to try to get one over your commander."

Gwaine blinked at him as if he didn't fully understand. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, he straightened imperceptibly, a steeliness seeping into him that hadn't been there before. His chin jutted out and he nodded jerkily before playing along. "I had to try."

Neither of them spoke until the guards walked past and the people lingering down below had wandered away. "Arthur. There's something else you should know."

Arthur glanced around and nodded, encouraging Gwaine to continue.

"It's Merlin," Gwaine said. "What he did to the gateway? It shouldn't have been possible. That kind of power is fabled to belong to the World Tree. If they realize it's manifested in human form, the Sidhe won't just be looking for the Pen y Ddraig. They'll be looking for him, too."

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Merlin saw the packed bags and grimaced. He had hoped for one last good night's sleep to recoup his strength and let healing magic deal with the scars on his hands before they rode out, but it didn't look like sleeping was in the cards. The Fates were testing him, he was sure of it. He shut the door, ran his fingers over the protection sigil to activate it, and needlessly asked, "Change of plans?"

"I don't know how you got that idea," Arthur said, not bothering to look up from the papers strewn across the table. "But yes. We leave at midnight, if not before."

"Outstanding," Merlin said flatly. He gazed wistfully at the bed that they wouldn't be using. He hadn't been at Camelot so long that he'd turned soft, unable to tolerate the hard ground and cold, wintry air, but if there was one thing he would willingly give up after several weeks of living under a sturdy roof and eating hot meals, it definitely wasn't the bed.

Sleeping in the wild was unpleasant. The ground was unyielding. Insect infestations were a given on nights when one was too exhausted to find a better spot to lay down. The night air was cold even in the summer, and they were already in the depths of autumn.

Arthur's bed didn't have branches and rocks sticking out to perforate a rib. The sheets were clean and crisp, very unlike freshly-fallen leaf litter. And, once Arthur fell so deeply asleep that his body could finally abandon propriety, the bed was warm, because Arthur would unconsciously manhandle a very conscious Merlin against him and cling to him as if he had suddenly grown a dozen arms.

It had been awkward, at first. Merlin didn't mind because it had been a very long time since he'd been held like that. However, Arthur had taken longer to get past the embarrassment of mutual morning erections. The sleepy grinding always ended with a startled break apart and a flushed Arthur scrambling away. Merlin sincerely wished one of those mornings would end in something more, even just once, because Arthur was fit and lovely and the sort of bloke that Merlin would have handfasted willingly. It was vexing how much Merlin wanted.

Merlin blew out his breath and accepted that it wasn't the bed he was going to miss. It was this. The quiet between them, which was more reassuring than he'd thought it would be. The easy camaraderie he'd believed impossible given the way they'd been thrown together. The growing emotional attachment that had absolutely nothing to do with the strengthening bond between them and everything to do with how much he liked Arthur.

When he managed to draw his eyes away from the bed to glance at Arthur, it was to find Arthur studying him with an inscrutable expression on his face. After a moment, Arthur leaned over the maps again, though it was clear his attention wasn't on them. "Gaius?"

"Sober and hating every last second of it," Merlin said. He could still smell the brew he'd forced down Gaius' mouth and taste the burn in the back of his throat from when he'd taste-tested it for readiness. Acrid willowbark, acidic red pepper spice, cloying lavender in a syrupy-sweet mixture that might pass for honey to a less distinguishing palate, but Gaius wouldn't taste anything else for weeks if he decided to succumb to drink again. "He'll be ready."

"Good. Everyone else?"

Merlin studied the bags and wondered if he should check them. He didn't need much to survive. There was enough of value on his person that he could trade for food and cheaper clothing if need be. Arthur had returned Merlin's weapons to him shortly after the binding ceremony, though Merlin hadn't gotten into the habit of wearing them around the castle, figuring it best for all to forget that he wasn't just another pretty face with magic. Merlin's knives leaned against the smaller pack, though they were now in custom-made sheaths he would never have been able to afford in his lifetime, and there was a new soft leather harness to replace the one that had been cut from him.

He wondered when Arthur had had the time to commission their make.

"Gwaine was the last," Merlin said. "Caught him on the way back, but it seemed he already knew."

Arthur hummed to himself, tracing a finger along the map, completely oblivious to the glare Merlin shot at him. There was a reason why Merlin had been sent to inform the Knights who would be coming with them, and that was to cast the sigil ensuring their silence. Originally, there would have been two groups of Knights: one to accompany Arthur and Merlin on their search for the rebels; the other to congregate in the courtyard for the pomp and fanfare of their departure, and who would journey on to Mercia. Arthur and Merlin would eventually catch up, hopefully with additional forces.

Now, it seemed, they were leaving with the first group, and possibly leaving a very confused squad of Knights and soldiers in the courtyard, wondering where their commander was.

"Leon?" Merlin asked.

"Coming with us," Arthur said, without hesitation. They didn't know if the effects of Morgana's mind magic were alleviated with distance, and the decision of what to do with Leon had been left for the last minute. It seemed that Arthur had elected for the worst possible option.

With a sigh, Merlin scratched his jaw. "Leon will be a problem."

"I'm certain you're more than suited to the task of herding the wayward where we need them to go," Arthur said. He winced, as if thinking the worst, and in a cautious voice, asked, "Can you keep Leon from sounding any kind of alert without killing him?"

"Who do you think I am?" Merlin scoffed. "I'm not an amateur."

Arthur raised a brow.

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Very well. I'll try."

"I suppose that's all I can ask for," Arthur said, shaking his head. He dragged one corner of the map closer and rolled it up with brutal efficiency that would make any archivist cringe. Merlin knew it was all for show, to give the impression that the map was the one most handled. Detailed maps of any kind were rare and valuable. Those maps wouldn't be accompanying them, but would help throw any pursuers off their trail by being left behind.

Merlin watched as Arthur stored the other maps -- those to the south and to the west -- in a hidden compartment in his wardrobe, keeping them flat between two thin panels. Nothing short of a thorough tossing of the room might reveal those maps, and by that time, they would be long gone, with no one the wiser.

There was a perfunctory efficiency in the way Arthur put everything away, as if he were running down a mental checklist, crossing each item as he completed the task. The essentials had been packed, the food and additional equipment were on the horses that would be led out at midnight with the first group of Knights, and there wasn't much to do at this point beyond the usual hurry-up-and-wait.

And yet, a peculiar tension knotted between Arthur's shoulders. His brows were pulled down in a faint frown that would be unnoticeable to anyone except those who were looking for it. His jaw wasn't quite clenched, and his movements were tense, not from injury, but from preoccupation.

"Something's on your mind?" Merlin asked, shrugging out of his overcoat. The overcoat was a soft, supple thing, once Arthur's, but now Merlin's; the worn inner red lining had been replaced with silk in a deep blue shade. He hated the thought of giving it up should he have to run again. It was warm enough to cut the damp cold that clung to the castle stones and wearing it felt as if he had been rolled into a favourite blanket.

He draped the overcoat on the bed next to Arthur's, and when he looked up, it was to Arthur's incredulous look. "Oh, no, not at all. It's not as if we're about to commit treason against the thane of Camelot. To all the Kingdoms in Albion, actually. What could I possibly have on my mind?"

Merlin shoved his hands into his trouser pockets, tilted his head mockingly, and waited.

Arthur relented. "Fine. A few things, actually."

"Anything worth worrying about, or are you fretting like a housewife over crooked stitches?" Merlin asked.

Arthur leaned against the large worktable and drummed his fingers on the surface impatiently. Merlin could almost hear Arthur dismissing each of the points in his mind, either relegating them as subjects for concern best left for later, or as inconsequential because they were happenstances, now and in the future, for which he had no control.

When Arthur finally spoke, it was with grim nerves. "The Sidhe, actually."

"Ugh," Merlin said, walking across the room. He drew a chair out, but didn't quite sit down. "Is this going to be another round of picking through what little I know about them? Or something else?"

"Have you ever heard of the World Tree?" Arthur asked, blunt and out of nowhere.

Merlin blinked at him before scratching his head at the unexpected question and furrowed his brow. "Sure, yeah. Considering it's the very root of Ironwood's beliefs, I'd hope so. Do I want to know how this came up?"

Arthur looked at him expectantly. It was an owlish, unyielding stare. No, he did not want to know, and he wouldn't find out, it seemed. He tried not to glance at Arthur's chest, in case that revealed how much he hadn't told Arthur, either.

Merlin sighed. He knuckled his eyes, trying to stave off sleep. "The World Tree, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Creation. It's all the same." He could almost hear Taliesin's voice reverberating in his own mind as he spoke. "The Tree is the connection between all the spheres of power, and there's just about as many interpretations as you can think of, to be honest."

"Which one do you believe?"

"The same as most people, I suppose," Merlin said. "The Tree's branches grow high and support the heavens while pulling energy from the sun. The roots dig deep into the ground and the underworld while feeding from the earth. It drinks the water we give it, it cleanses the air we breathe. It's the world around us and the world in us."

"So it's a..." Arthur hesitated, uncertain. "It's a powerful object?"

"Sure," Merlin said, rolling his shoulders. "In as much as the Great Mother can be called an object. It's insubstantial, I suppose. It exists and doesn't exist. You can't see it, you can't hold it, you can't, I don't know. Pluck a bloody apple from its branches. It's metaphysical bollocks I never paid attention to. Didn't much understand as a kid, didn't care to understand as an adult, and I've been too busy keeping myself in one piece to do a whole lot of navel gazing."

"You call it the Great Mother?" Arthur asked, confused.

Merlin shrugged, feeling a little self-conscious. When he'd first learned of the concept as a child, he'd called it the Tree just like everyone else. But it wasn't until Taliesin had explained it to him, slowly and patiently, in a way that Merlin could understand, that he'd exclaimed with realization and said, "Oh, you mean Mother." Taliesin had been amused, and had never corrected him.

"Just seemed strange to me to call it a tree, given that, well." He caved in and gestured toward Arthur's chest, hoping that Arthur would understand. Arthur glanced down at himself, looking thoughtful, and nodded as if maybe, he did.

Merlin waited, but Arthur turned away, and continued to study the maps on the worktable.

"What does that have to do with the Sidhe?" Merlin asked.

Arthur shook his head. He didn't look up, instead waving a hand in the air breezily. "Just something Gwaine said."

"And what did Gwaine say?" Merlin asked, sliding closer, tilting his head to try to catch Arthur's eye.

Arthur leaned heavily on the table, his head bowed, and Merlin had the sense that, for the first time since they'd met, Arthur was trying very hard to keep something from him. Eventually, he stood up straight and said, "The Sidhe aren't going to be happy knowing that someone can break their gateways. I worry that they'll come after you."

"I expect they would," Merlin said, largely unconcerned. "If they knew it was me."

"Everyone does know it was you," Arthur said. "It won't be long before the Sidhe do, too."

Merlin chewed the inside of his cheek. "Fair point."

Abruptly, Arthur asked, "Can you tell if someone is a Sidhe?"

Merlin raised an eyebrow before sitting down, finally. He had the feeling he wouldn't get the chance to sit still for the days to come. "Well. Yes and no."

"It's yes or it's no, Merlin," Arthur said, irritated. "Which is it?"

"If they've not got any magic left because it got stripped from them like it was with Gwaine, and they're under a low-key illusion that I can only sense if I'm looking for it? Then, no." Merlin studied Arthur's expression, not completely convinced that Arthur was telling him everything, but reassured that, at the very least, it had something to do with Arthur being worried about him. "Otherwise, if it's like those blokes we saw around the gateway? Oh, yeah, they're like bloody lighthouses of magic. Pitch black on a stormy night and glowing like fireworks sparkling during Summer Faire. If I'm looking for them, I'll find them."

Something relaxed in Arthur's shoulders.

"Can you know them without being overt about it?" Arthur asked. He pulled out the chair next to Merlin, shifted it so that it faced him, and sat down. Merlin didn't notice Arthur's propensity to initiate physical contact, however casual, not anymore. But this time he couldn't help but glance down as Arthur rearranged their legs to cage Merlin's with his own.

"Um," Merlin said, blinking to force himself to focus. "Overt."

"Not overt," Arthur specified.

"Right," Merlin said, shifting in his seat. He rested an elbow on the table and leaned forward. "Yes. There's ways. Steal their hair, fingernail clippings, that sort of thing. Works best with blood, obviously."

The small cut on Arthur's knuckle was evidence of that, as all it had taken for blood collection was to re-open a scrape earned during training.

Arthur's lip curled, as if none of those were options. "What about just with magic?"

"Some Sidhe are sensitive to magic. Odds are, they'll sense anything cast on their person and instinctively counter it. I'm strong enough to get an answer, but not without being obvious. If they're paying attention, they'll know it's me," Merlin said. He leaned in a bit more. "Are you worried about me?"

Arthur rubbed his face. When he dropped his hands, he wore a heavy, weary look.

"I've lived this long," Merlin said quietly. "Gone through a lot more shite than you think I have. And I'm not telling you stories, because those are memories best left buried. But if it ever goes to Hell, Arthur, you need to not think twice about me. Get yourself to safety. You are the Pen y Ddraig. Nothing is worth more than you."

"The World Tree," Arthur snapped, and the announcement chilled Merlin's spine cold. A muscle jumped in Arthur's jaw. "Don't put me on a fucking pedestal."

Merlin barked a sharp laugh. "I'm not. The Gods know I'd sooner kick it out from under you. Doesn't change the way I feel, and doesn't change the way I think. Nothing is worth more than you, Arthur. Not to me."

Arthur scanned Merlin with the sort of scrutiny that always made Merlin feel naked, and he wondered if he'd revealed more than he should have. It seemed that Arthur's propensity for ignoring what was right in front of him was in Merlin's favour, this time, because he asked, "Do you trust Gwaine?"

Merlin shook his head at the change of subject. Trying to follow where Arthur's mind went was an exercise in mental stamina that he just didn't have in him, not when he was still trying to figure out why Arthur had asked him about the World Tree.

He would be lying if Ironwood's old prejudices against the Sidhe hadn't coloured his opinions of the Sidhe now, though he himself had never knowingly met nor spoken with one until Gwaine had revealed himself. Merlin didn't know if he believed anything that came out of Gwaine's mouth, if even an ounce of his story was true. But if one thing was clear, it was that Gwaine's magic had been ripped from him.

It must hurt him, Merlin thought. It certainly hurt Merlin to look. The missing magic was a weeping wound bleeding from the ephemeral soul, wisps of spirit and self fading into the ether as if grasping for a phantom limb.

"I'm Ironwood," Merlin said finally. "Gwaine is Sidhe. Trust may not ever be possible between our kinds, but I'm an example where nothing is what it seems. I don't trust him. Not yet. Possibly not ever. But for what he's done, he's earned my consideration, if not my regard."

Arthur made an unsurprised noise of acceptance, as if he'd expected Merlin's answer.

"Did something happen?"

Arthur's head bobbed in a slow, thoughtful nod. He didn't answer right away, and Merlin, an arm leaning on the table and propping his head up, wondered if he would fall asleep before Arthur told him what was on his mind. He was still tethering on the edge of asking when Arthur spoke up. "You said you don't know a whole lot about their politics."

"About as much as I understand the courtly manners of thanes, which is to say, not at all, despite all your attempts to educate me," Merlin agreed. "I can learn to bow properly, but I'll never understand why it matters how deeply I bow, or how long I hold the bloody pose. I've told you what little I know."

"Is it possible..." Arthur trailed off. He scratched his jaw, dropping his hand on the table with a faint thump. He didn't like doubting people, and he liked it less voicing his questions out loud, Merlin knew. He was surprised when Arthur took a deep breath and pushed through to ask, "Would the Sidhe take him in again if he delivered a prize they've been searching for?"

Merlin frowned. "Are we talking about you?"

Arthur hesitated. "If we must."

It was Merlin's turn to sigh. He bit his lower lip and shook his head. "Gwaine lived here as nothing more than a man for as long as you've known him, if not longer. If there's a grain of truth in his story, then, I'd say that's long enough, in my mind, for one of two things to happen."

"What are those?"

"The first?" Merlin allowed himself to wallow in old memories for but an instant, and those memories gave weight to his words. "He's desperate. He would do anything and try anything if it meant that he could fill the gaping chasm in his soul with the magic that was taken from him, even knowing that he would never heal properly, he would never be as powerful as he was before, and he might not be able to use that magic anyway."

"Is it that bad?" Arthur asked.

"I looked," Merlin said. "I don't look often. It's tiring and it's depressing and... but with him, I looked. It isn't that bad. It's worse. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd tried to commit suicide after his magic was taken from him, and didn't follow through in the end."

Arthur said nothing for nearly a minute, his eyes fixed on his clasped hands, his mouth in an unhappy downturn. He swallowed hard. "And the other thing?"

"A man who's got nothing left still has his hate," Merlin said, because he knew that feeling too well. It had driven him for years and had been, some days, the only thing keeping him alive. "He'd do whatever he could to fly the fingers at his enemies and make damn sure they knew it was him doing it, too."

Arthur studied Merlin for a long time before asking, "Which is he?"

"The better question is, can you trust a man desperate for another drink of water or a man hell-bent on revenge?" Merlin asked.

"You weren't either when you saved our lives in the forest," Arthur said.

"I'm not sure what I was," Merlin admitted, spreading his hands. "I wanted it all to end. I was running for the mountains looking for a slice of peace. I ended up finding you instead."

"And what a prize I am," Arthur muttered.

"Not what I'd pick at the Faire, no," Merlin said with a wry grin that faded a second later. "I found what I was looking for anyway. Better than that, actually. I found the one thing that made me feel alive again."

"What's that?"

"Purpose," Merlin said.

Arthur raised his chin. Merlin thought he would ask for an explanation, but his gaze dropped and his brow furrowed, as if he understood.

The three of them had not had the same upbringing, the same lives, the same trials. What little they might have in common was easily overshadowed by their vast differences, and yet, in each their own way, they were able to get past the shackles of their greatest pain and move on.

Merlin had watched Arthur grow into the man he would become, into the King he was destined to be. He had only ever needed the unwavering faith from someone that he could do what he couldn't help but do, deep down, and that was to lead. Whether Arthur accepted the title or not, he'd found his purpose in being the Pen y Ddraig, and if anyone could understand why Merlin hadn't run when given the chance, or why Gwaine had chosen to fight instead of betraying them, it was Arthur.

Arthur nodded, though mostly to himself. He met Merlin's eyes. "He's never let me down before."

"Let's hope that's a trend he won't break in the future," Merlin said tiredly. He silently promised to keep an eye on Gwaine. Since Arthur was giving Gwaine a chance, Merlin was willing to see what Gwaine would do now that he realized he had that freedom again. It didn't mean Merlin was prepared to trust him.

Merlin rubbed his closed eyelids with a forefinger and thumb, taking a moment to relish in the complete darkness and the white sparks that came out of it. He waited until the white faded to black before he opened his eyes again, catching a glint of hidden emotion in Arthur's expression.

Merlin dropped his hand with a faint frown, and asked, "Was there anything else on your mind?"

The corner of Arthur's mouth twitched into an almost-smile that could be described as shy. He didn't answer Merlin right away. Merlin watched Arthur's thumbnail trace the ridges in the polished wood of the table, waiting with patience that he didn't have. If there was one thing that he'd learned since throwing his lot in with Arthur -- Gods, that seemed like a lifetime ago, and not merely weeks -- it was that Arthur couldn't be rushed. Once he'd made up his mind, his actions were decisive and unshakable.

He knew that the moment Arthur's hand settled calmly on the flat of the table that Arthur had decided on a course, but he didn't expect the burning intensity in Arthur's gaze. "I wish we had more time."

Merlin nodded. He did as well. He had yet a few more missives to send, but he could magic them away while they were on the road.

"I don't like being rushed into these things. There's too much that I don't know," Arthur said.

Merlin lowered his eyes. He didn't like rushing Arthur, either. Arthur was young, though he'd been raised a thane, and as a result had been forced to grow up faster than most. Some things needed to be experienced in their proper time. "I wish I could --"

Stop time. Merlin exhaled slowly, remembering the one and only time he'd done it, catching Will before he fell out of a tall chestnut like a bloody numpty. Will had never known, and Merlin had never tried to repeat the feat again, too afraid of what that might mean.

But it was Arthur who said Stop. "No. Let me talk. I need to get this out. Or I won't, and I don't know when I'll get this chance again."

Merlin waited.

Arthur stood up abruptly, though he didn't move away. His legs brushed Merlin's knees, pressing them together intimately, sending chills down Merlin's spine. "I want to... I keep thinking I see something, but I'm never sure. And I'll hate myself if I don't at least try."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Merlin said, amused.

"I want to see if we're on the same page, you and I," Arthur said.

"Of course we --" Merlin's words stumbled to a stop when Arthur placed a hand on Merlin's shoulder, fingertips gentle along the side of his neck. "Oh."

Arthur leaned down.

"Oh," Merlin repeated intelligently, because Arthur was looking at him with guarded vulnerability and because his other hand was on his thigh in a gesture that couldn't possibly be misinterpreted.

Merlin wasn't sure which of them kissed whom first. He'd surged up -- he knew that much. They'd met halfway. But beyond that... It didn't fucking matter, he didn't know why he even cared about semantics. Merlin stood up abruptly; Arthur had to take a step back, nearly tripping over the chair behind him. Merlin steadied him with a dizzying burst of magic that didn't take his breath away nearly as much as their kiss.

Merlin wasn't sure how to read Arthur's expression when they broke apart. There was lust, yes. A haze of desire. A hazy veil for having finally drunk deep of something forbidden.

Hesitatingly, Merlin asked, "If this is because you just want a bedwarmer --"

"By now, you should know I don't do things by halves. That I don't let go of anything easily," Arthur said, his eyes dark. The way Arthur's fingers tightened around him, as if afraid of losing hold, answered Merlin's question better than words ever could. "The bedwarming is a bonus."

"Prat," Merlin said fondly. He didn't get a chance to say much more. This time Arthur initiated the kiss, and Merlin let him be the guide. Slow and gentle, full of inquiry and learning, giving way to the heady rush of yearning that drew unspoken promises to the fore to bind Merlin to them as surely as if he were a full-blooded Sidhe.

Arthur's hands were firm and unyielding, though Merlin couldn't have pulled away even if he wanted to. Merlin groaned when they broke for air, shivering at the feeling of the scruff on Arthur's jaw against his own. Arthur's fingers pulled at Merlin's shirt, rucking them out of his trousers, and --

Merlin froze. He turned his head.

Arthur stopped at once, though he didn't step back nor let him go. Merlin felt Arthur's hot breath against his throat, the question slow in coming. "What is it?"

A spear-pointed press pushed against the wards, firm and deliberate, intent on finding a weak link where there was none.

"Morgana," Merlin said, spitting out her name as if it was a curse. He broke from Arthur's embrace, heading for the door, only to be pulled back into a blistering kiss that left his mouth bruised and tempered his rage.

"Wait," Arthur said, letting him go. He rushed through unbuttoning Merlin's vest and pulling the neck of his shirt open. He ran his hands through Merlin's hair with a possessiveness that left Merlin off-balance. Arthur scanned him up and down, smug self-satisfaction appearing in his eyes. He nodded, moving away from the door.

"Ugh," Merlin said, because if he hadn't been hard and uncomfortable before Morgana's barrage against the wards, he was hard and uncomfortable now, and that wasn't how he wanted to greet someone who had the potential to become his greatest enemy. He wrenched the door open with a frustrated noise, pushing all that excess energy into the wards tattooed on his body, guarding himself against anything Morgana could do.

Which was nothing, because she was so startled that she took a few steps away from him. If she intended to attack, that intention evaporated as her eyes trailed over Merlin's completely dishevelled appearance.

"Yes?" Merlin asked impatiently. "Can I help you? We're busy."

Morgana stepped forward with renewed determination, but Merlin held the door close, bracing it against his leg, his hidden hand flat upon one of the carved wards. "My brother's leaving on the morrow. I'd have a few words with him before he goes."

"Then have those words," Merlin said, baring his teeth in an unfriendly smile. "On the morrow."

He slammed the door in her face, activating the wards, and felt a surge of satisfaction. That feeling vanished completely when he turned around to see Arthur naked on his bed, an eyebrow raised. "Incidentally, we're to meet the others soon," he said.

Merlin nearly killed himself taking his clothes off in his hurry to join Arthur.

 

Coin Image of Morgana

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Nineteen Knights, not counting Arthur, and one beleaguered, aging alchemist who was more at ease on horseback than he should be, considering he'd spent nearly a full decade of his life deep in his cups. Arthur wondered if he should have brought more men.

Arthur shifted in his saddle, glad for the cover of night. The clear skies made the thought of travelling appealing, but also promised a bone-aching cold. His men were more concerned with their personal comfort than the wonder of why they weren't moving on, though he'd received a few curious glances that asked, anyway. Arthur kept apart from the others, not wanting to invite questions that he wasn't prepared to answer.

If Arthur were honest with himself, he didn't want to know which of these men would elect not to follow him once they were told what Arthur planned to do. A part of him wanted Merlin close, if only for support, but this was something he was going to have to do alone. He'd grown up around the Knights, and these men in particular were those that Arthur would consider friends if his noble blood didn't prevent friendships across the castes. If he'd ever trusted these men, this was the time to show it.

It was Kay, and not Gwaine, who broke from the group first, sidling his roan gelding close. Hengröen tossed his head, ears folding back in warning, but was otherwise motionless.

"I won't ask the obvious question, which will get the obvious answer. Secret mission is secret. Got it," Kay said, his voice low. Several men looked in their direction, no doubt listening in. "So, I'll just ask. What's really going on?"

The quiet conversation between the men died down abruptly. Arthur couldn't see all of them clearly; they'd eschewed the use of torches for now, following Arthur's direction to the letter. Arthur wasn't certain what means Merlin had used to pass on his instructions, but it had been effective in getting all of the Knights and Gaius out of Camelot without raising the alarm.

"If I asked for patience, would you give it?" Arthur asked.

"How much patience?" Kay shrugged. His hands were clasped in his lap, the reins wound around his fingers. Arthur would call him unconcerned if he didn't know how excited his brother had been to be on the list of Knights heading to war. That excitement was long gone, now. Kay might be younger and less experienced, but that didn't mean he wasn't sensitive enough to pick up on the change of plans.

"He's waiting for his boy," Gwaine said. Like Kay, his tone was soft, but easily heard, even though he hadn't moved from the group. "Aren't you?"

"Where is Merlin, anyway?" Kay asked.

"Did he not make it out? Was he caught?" Gaius asked, louder than Arthur liked. A low murmur passed through the rest of the men, and Arthur really wished that Gaius hadn't said anything.

"Caught?" Kay said, picking up on exactly the wrong word. The Knights fell silent again, and Arthur wished there was more light to see by and judge what they were thinking from their expressions.

"I'm sure he's fine," Arthur said, sounding more certain than he felt. "He shouldn't be long."

"Why would he be caught?" Kay asked, like a dog after a bone. "Father knows we're doing this, right? Why would anyone stop Merlin from coming? He was supposed to come, yeah?"

"Kay, can you just --"

"No," Kay snapped. "I want answers. What's going on?"

Restlessness spread through the group. Several Knights split off, though they didn't range far. Arthur hoped that the separation was because their horses had picked up on the rising tension and had nervously shied away, rather than their riders making the decision to head back to Camelot.

Desperation, exhaustion, strain. Whatever it was that drove Arthur to do it, he reached out, grabbed a handful of Kay's leather armour, and hauled him halfway out of the saddle.

"Kay," Arthur said, firmly. He heard, more than saw, the satisfying click of Kay's jaw snapping shut. "You'll have your answers if you shut your bloody gob and wait a few more minutes."

"How many more minutes?" Kay asked cheekily.

Arthur let him go. Kay flailed, catching himself just as his horse started to walk off on its own, whether he wanted it to or not. Hengröen snorted and stomped a hoof.

"Clear enough to me that we're not going to Mercia. Unless I'm wrong?" Bedivere asked. His tone was solemn, and it was difficult to tell what the man thought about it.

No one answered him. The Knights buzzed restlessly, horses moving in and out of position in their little herd, men and women murmuring quietly between them. The longer Arthur remained silence, the louder they got, and he felt the need to reassure them, somehow.

Before he could speak up, Gwaine announced, "No, we're definitely not."

The silence stretched. It was broken, finally, by Lamorak, who said, "Well. Good. So, what, then? If this is us running for the hills, I'm telling you now, I'm not having any of it."

Kay rode past Arthur. He doubled back and returned, driving his horse to pace back and forth. Every time he came alongside Arthur, Arthur saw Kay's eyes were narrowed with something akin to murder. Arthur nearly reached out to stop him, to tell him to save his horse, only to be distracted when Galahad lowed out , "Riders coming."

The tension seeped out of Arthur's body. If none of his men turned on him, if they would band together and join him on this risky endeavour, if they supported him through all that he was going to ask of them, the relief he would feel was nothing compared to the calm that flooded through Arthur at seeing Merlin riding toward them.

At least, he hoped it was Merlin. All Arthur could make out were two horses -- a rider on the lead mount. The trailing horse was carrying a big lump on its back.

Out in the distance was Camelot, the lights flickering like tiny fireflies in the distance. The alarm bells would ring and the signal fires would flare out if something was wrong. Camelot was silent.

It was a slow sort of torture to wait until the two horses came closer. Arthur guided Hengröen to block the way, but the lead horse continued its approach, stopping only to touch noses with the warhorse and to lip at his horse's cheek. Arthur recognized Merlin's mare, but he didn't fully relax until the rider removed his hood.

"You were right," Merlin said, in the same passing tone a stranger would say, It's a lovely night. He gave Gwaine a short nod, which was returned -- Thanks for the warning and You're welcome, see, I'm not so bad all in two wordless gestures. "She was planning something."

"What was it?" Arthur asked, not entirely sure whether he wanted to know the answer.

"No idea. And don't ask me why, either, I've not the faintest, and I'd rather not put myself in her dainty heels," Merlin said, snappish. He drew the lead of the second horse up short, pushing the horse gently to guide him around.

Arthur made out Leon's messy curls, but didn't see that Leon was also unconscious until Merlin reached down and pulled at the hair to lift his head.

"This one came to the room about an hour after you left, insisting that he take you to Morgana. She has a gift for you, it seems, but I never saw it, and for all I know, it was ensorcelled in some way. As soon as he realized you weren't there, he tried to kill me," Merlin said.

"He what?" Kay blurted out, startling his horse.

"Tried. To. Kill. Me," Merlin enunciated carefully. "I really wish he hadn't. Do you know how difficult it is to get an unconscious man in full armour out of the castle without noticing, even in the dead of night? There's a lot of guards. A lot."

"My fault, sorry," Percival said, piping up. "I changed the roster this morning, moving most of the guards to the castle. Had to get them to look the other way somehow when we rode out, yeah?"

"Yeah," Merlin grunted. "Didn't do me any favours, though. While I was dragging this one's big bloody arse down the corridor, I overheard Her Highness telling a servant to poison the travel rations for the Knights heading to Mercia. At the very least, enough to kill them all from the first meal. Keen to kill you, Arthur, if nothing else."

"Gods damn it," Arthur muttered, closing his eyes. "I don't suppose you...?"

"Dumped his lardship's arse in the nearest linen closet," Merlin thumbed toward Leon, "Took a few detours to get ahead of them both, created an illusion to make the servant think he was dumping the poison in the right pile, burned the evidence, stopped by to play a round of cards with Roland, Nathaniel, and Geraldine to give them their new orders to ride the army out at dawn and to warn them that they should test all the food to be on the safe side, just in case the spies decide to double the dose later on, returned to the closet, dragged his lardship down to the stables -- yes, I did all that, even though it would've been much simpler to just kill the bloody git and go on my way."

Several Knights exchanged glances.

"Good," Arthur said, ignoring most of Merlin's rant. "Because that gets us more time."

"Time for what?" Percival asked.

"Actually, what I'd like to start off with first is why Leon is hogtied to his horse," Anaïs said, a bemused tone in her voice. "That's kind of my sticking point."

"Well," Arthur began, and the group went silent, clearly keen on learning what was going on.

Arthur swallowed, and decided to rip the proverbial bandage off, scab and all, and deal with the aftermath as it happened.

"I'll sum up, shall I? Morgana is a mind mage who has had Uther and Leon under her control for only the Gods know how long. I'm certain that a handful of council members, Knights, and servants are among those that she is using for her own purpose. That purpose appears to be this: to become the thane of Camelot."

No one spoke. The horses shifted their weight and huffed hot air in the breeze. A few people exchanged glances. The silence was broken by Kay. "Say again?"

"You heard me," Arthur said.

"But she's in line for the throne," Anaïs said, confused. "Everyone knows she's Lord Uther's favourite."

"Maybe once upon a time. Honestly, everyone's glad she's not, not anymore," Pellinor said. "My father sits on the council. Most of them weren't looking forward to having her as thane and were trying to convince Lord Uther otherwise. Almost everyone was relieved when Lord Uther name Arthur his heir."

"Almost everyone," Anaïs said mulishly, shooting what Arthur took as an apologetic glance. The young Knight had fought long and hard for her position -- more so than any other man that Arthur knew. Before Arthur became the commander of the Knights, she had been lucky to even have her role as a squire, but she never warmed up to him.

"Well, that's good, then," Matthias said, from somewhere in the back. "The future's brighter already without another dictator in line to rule."

"She's a mind mage?" Kay asked, his expression scrunched up in confusion, still stuck on that particular point.

"She's a mind mage in collusion with the Sisterhood," Arthur said, glancing around and wishing again that there was more light so that he could judge everyone's reactions. "I don't know how that came about, but they must have known how she felt about ruling Camelot and used that against her."

"And with mind mages as ostracized as they are," Gaius put in, sounding old, slow, and tired. Any raised complaint died down at his words, and he continued on unhindered, "It is of no wonder that Lady Morgana believed securing her position before a show of force was her only recourse."

"Backfired, didn't it?" Pellinor said, scoffing.

"She's been controlling Father?" Kay asked, shaking his head. "I don't... I don't believe it. And Leon? If she's... If she's ordering him about, is that why he's been such an arse to you? To me? Gods! Why is he even here?"

Arthur fought the impulse to ride closer to Kay and to shake some sense into him. He opened his mouth to answer only to find that he didn't really have a coherent response. He'd gotten Leon away from Morgana because he'd wanted Leon away from Morgana. He knew that Merlin had given him a plausible reason, but he couldn't think of it right now.

"It falls to Leon to command the army when Arthur's away," Percival said, saving Arthur by voicing exactly what he couldn't say out loud. "Do you really want that to happen if Morgana's behind Leon's decisions? Best if no one under Morgana's direct control is left in charge of Camelot's defences. If Morgana's with the Sisterhood, I have a feeling we'd sooner come home to ruins."

"She wouldn't... She wouldn't do that," Anaïs said, doubt creeping into her tone.

"She might, especially since we found out the Sisterhood is in collusion with the Sidhe," Gwaine said, shifting in his seat. He waved a hand insouciantly in the air. "Take of that what you will."

The stunned silence that followed was broken by outraged conversation that Arthur didn't even try to follow. He slumped wearily in the saddle, patting Hengröen when the war-horse sidled to the side, and wondered, exactly, how he'd lost control of this quest. With a sinking heart, he listened as half of his men made plans to head back to Camelot to throw a coup and take control; the other half alternated between goading them on and urging them to drop everything and go.

Arthur glanced at Merlin. Merlin shrugged his shoulders. Arthur tilted his head to the side meaningfully. Merlin rolled his eyes. Arthur gestured emphatically. Merlin sighed, and finally, finally, raised his hand, snapping his fingers.

The localized thunderclap made Arthur's ears ring. His dark look was ignored, but when his hearing was restored, he noted that everyone in the group was regarding Merlin with something akin to fear, and were eyeing Arthur as if they half-expected him to rein his sorcerer in.

Arthur heaved a deep breath and told them, "So. The facts are these. The Sidhe have declared war against the Kingdoms of Albion and are sailing their ships to land their troops close to Mercia, if not directly to Mercia's ports once they've taken the harbour."

And they would take the harbour, too, because both Gwaine and the lore painted the Sidhe as far more skilled in the art of war on seafaring vessels than the Men of Mercia. It wasn't a statement of whether they would take Mercia, but a matter of when.

"The war council will be focusing the armies from all the Kingdoms on this attack. I have a feeling that the battle will go poorly once they engage, and they will concentrate every resource at the point when they can't afford to spare them elsewhere." Arthur could picture the battle so clearly in his head that he vibrated with the need to fight it, though he had known that even if he were up to his hips in guts and blood, he was only one man and wouldn't be able to make much of a difference.

All around him, his men fell quiet, as if they could imagine it, too.

"I don't doubt that the Sisterhood will have a hand in ensuring the Sidhe engage in the battle behind our forces much in the way they attempted to cross into Camelot in the midst of the night, unseen and unheard. For that reason, Camelot's army has been redirected to take position well behind the rear of Mercia's troops, and will not enjoin the main battle."

Arthur had faith that Bedivere and Lamorak and the others would ignore any commands from the other thanes to go to arms, but the sooner Arthur's small group was able to complete their task, the better.

"But Camelot's army is just that. One army. If the combined forces of all the Kingdoms do nothing against the Sidhe, who's to say that our Knights will hold fast against them for long?"

No one spoke until Kay broke the silence with a quiet, "Wow, your faith in us is astounding."

"You're the gambler in the family," Arthur said, seizing the opportunity to pull his brother to his side. He knew if Kay could follow his reasoning, the others would, too. "The odds are against you, you've got nothing in reserve, no cards up your sleeve. You're not about to fold, because you'd never drop trouser, bend over the bench, and let the other players at the table have their go at your pasty arse."

"I always have a card up my sleeve," Kay groused.

"Exactly," Arthur said. He glanced at the dark shapes around him, lingering at length on Merlin before turning to the others. "Which is why we're going to the rebels to ask them to fight with us."

The reaction was an instantaneous mixture of outrage and scoffing laughter. Arthur wasn't certain which hurt the most -- the accusations that he'd gone mad, or that the concept of fighting with the very same rebels who couldn't be quashed by any of the Kingdoms' armies was too ridiculous to consider. But bit by bit, the protests died down, and more than a few Knights fell to a considering silence when they realized that the oldest and most established of the Knights hadn't said a word in derision or protest, but were thinking the matter through.

"The Sidhe can defeat armies without so much as the blink of an eye," Gwaine said quietly, almost resigned. "If Mercia stands for long, it's because the Sidhe are playing a game for their amusement."

"It's not an army that you need against them," Merlin said, breaking his silence for the first time since joining the group. "You need a nation strong, united to the same cause, led by a person that all can have faith in."

"Tall order," Pellinor remarked.

"Not really," Owen said quietly, speaking up for the first time. A few people looked in his direction, clearly waiting for him to elaborate, but he remained silent.

"I sure as hell hope that the rebels aren't the only card in your pocket," Kay said, shaking his head. "Because no matter what you do with them, that's a really fucking weak hand."

"How about you're on my side for once?" Arthur asked, annoyed.

"I'm on your bloody side," Kay said, reaching up to pull at his hair in frustration. He sounded it, too; despite the darkness, Arthur could easily picture his little brother's face scrunched up in displeasure, locked in a derisive eye-roll. "I'm trying to make you see sense. There's how many Sidhe coming to Mercia's shores?"

"I doubt Mercia gave a headcount," Gwaine said, "and they wouldn't anyway, in case no one showed up when the Sidhe handed them their arses. They'd have no idea in any case. The Sidhe are rather fond of their mists, so there'll be no telling how many boats there are, never mind how many men on board. But best guess would be a thousand ships, with a thousand more behind, and a hundred thousand men in all waiting to make land. They don't do anything by halves."

"That's your best guess?" Anaïs asked, incredulous. "Paint it in our favour next time, why don't you?"

"Where did you get those numbers?" Kay asked.

"Experience," Gwaine said flatly, and offered nothing more by way of explanation.

"Does it matter?" Arthur cut in, drawing attention away from Gwaine. He didn't need his men discovering Gwaine's true nature, and Arthur didn't need the Knights turning against him when Gwaine was the only resource he had. The numbers he'd so easily rattled off left Arthur chilled to the bone, but also left no question as to whether all the Kingdoms banding together would be able to hold off the Sidhe.

"Only in that we're ridiculously outnumbered no matter how we look at it, because that proves my bloody point," Kay said, not even able to sound the least bit smug, for once. For all that he was young, Kay was a thinker, as good at calculating long-term odds as Arthur was able to plan several moves ahead of an opponent. "The Kingdoms won't send more than they think they'll have to. The rebels can't possibly have that many men. Even if you rally all of the rebels, that's hardly going to make a dent in one hundred thousand Sidhe. We may as well start running for the bloody hills now."

"And what will you do when they catch up to you? Backs to the wall, surrounded on every quarter by bloodthirsty Sidhe who want you dead, or at worse, shackled and chained like a slave?" Gwaine asked.

"That's laying it on a bit thick," Anaïs said with a scoff. "They're no different than any of the others who've landed in Albion and tried to carve out a slice of land for themselves."

"One hundred thousand men," Gwaine said slowly, drawing out each syllable. "Each and every one armed with the finest steel any of you have ever seen. Each and every one trained from birth for war. Each and every one a sorcerer in their own right, capable of rudimentary spells that are far more than what the best sorcerer in the Kingdoms can do."

"You're giving me nightmares," Percival muttered.

"And well you should," Gwaine retorted. "The Sidhe aren't conquerors. They're opportunistic pillocks who'd sooner --"

"Suffice it to say that they will kill us all," Arthur said flatly. "Gwaine and I had the advantage against the Sidhe who would have attacked Camelot. Let me tell you, fighting them was no fucking walk in the park. Can you imagine defending your land, your people, and your loved ones against the Sidhe, and being unable to stand against them? Because I don't have to imagine it. I know exactly how it feels."

He let his words sink in. No one spoke, but the mood was sombre.

"You men are among my best," Arthur said. "And I'm going to give you the choice right now. Are you able to put aside your differences? Will you come with me when I go to the rebels to ask them for their aid?"

No one spoke.

"Will you trust that I have an ace up my sleeve?"

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

"You do know that Druids are really fond of their groves?" Merlin asked, crossing his arms in disapproval.

Arthur glared at him and resumed carving the spiral into the tree trunk. From where Merlin was standing, the spiral was mostly finished and at this point, Arthur's continued attention only contributed decorative swirls.

Merlin sighed and leaned against an unmarked elm tree, watching in amusement as Arthur slid his blade carefully through the bark, sharpening points and smoothing curves with far more dedication than Merlin had ever had, even back when he was a student at Ironwood. He regretted not paying more attention to the artistry involved, because even from across the clearing, the spiral was beautiful and eye-catching.

The rebels were somewhere in these woods, that much was clear. Gwaine had spotted sign that there were groups of people moving through the forest, though none of them seemed to have come close enough to the Knights to be aware of them in turn. It seemed as if the rebels either didn't know they were there, or were playing ignorant, biding time Arthur and the Knights couldn't afford to waste. Merlin suspected that the elaborate woodworking was as much a product of Arthur's boredom as it was a promise that he meant the rebels no harm.

Merlin gave Arthur a great deal of respect for having sussed the rebels' location after speaking to a handful of people and travellers, all of whom only gave Arthur the very bare minimum of information based on hearsay from a third cousin who lived by the river, who had heard it in turn from passing travellers, who had seen something fishy in the forest during the waning moon during the summer. Merlin might have encountered the rebels on his own during his flight from bounty hunters, but he'd never stayed long enough to recognize them as rebels, much less make his own alliances.

To the Knights, Arthur had made a vague promise of knowing some of the rebels personally and that they would be able to speak to the very leaders of the otherwise disorganized group in short order. Merlin wanted to ask, but thought it better if he didn't, not entirely certain if he had any rights to Arthur's history despite their single shared intimacy of frantic handjobs and blowjobs before they had to hurry to leave Camelot. They'd barely had a moment to themselves since then, and even though they set their bedrolls next to each other every night, there wasn't enough privacy to ask personal questions.

Maybe Arthur was feeling some of that frustration, too, and it was bleeding through how he was handling the long wait for one of the rebels to show up. This far away from a village that was known to own a radio, deep in uncontrolled territory, there was no news about the war or if it had even started yet.

Merlin scratched his jaw. "You know, as much as I admire your artistic talent, cutting a permanent mark into someone's favourite tree is probably not the best way to let them know we need to talk to them."

"It's not my favourite tree, so I don't mind overmuch," a man said, low and soft.

His presence was jarring to Merlin. He was there and not there, a physical presence that blended into the forest as if he were a part of it, a threat that didn't trigger as one. Somehow, the man had managed to approach despite the wards that Merlin had set around their campgrounds and the assigned patrols.

Merlin reacted without thinking. His magic rose up in an uncontrollable wash, a wave crashing without direction on the shore, clawing at the earth to make a place for itself, claiming territory and ground.

The man was alone. Merlin knew that at once. No one else had crossed the wards. The Knights were uninjured and calm. Arthur was --

Arthur was shouting at Merlin to stop, but it was too late. Far too late --

The man threw up his arms, crossing them over his head as he braced for the impact. The wave smashed hard into... into something. Magic. And not just any magic, but the very essence of the earth, rising up in a calming ripple of strength that acted as a breakwater against Merlin's storm.

Still, the wave wasn't so easy to stop. Arthur's hand was a heavy, steadying weight on Merlin's shoulder as Merlin forced the dam to close its doors. The wave was shunted until it was barely a trickle, dribbling down to be swallowed into the earth. The forest rippled like an animal shaking its fur coat after a rigorous brushing, absorbing the power with a calm, merry hum.

The man -- the Druid -- escaped unscathed, somehow, though he'd been pushed nearly twenty feet through the woods, his boots scraping deep wedges in the leaf litter and ground until he found purchase in stone and tree. He gasped in shock, lowering his arms slowly, and when his wide eyes turned to Merlin, they were the pale blue of a frosty sky full of awe at the warmth of the sun.

"Holy Mother," he said. A long silence stretched out until he came to some sort of conclusion. "It's you."

Merlin took a step back, suddenly unsure, and walked into Arthur. Arthur steadied Merlin, both hands on his shoulders, and murmured something soothing and calming, but too low to make out the words.

The man looked from Merlin to Arthur, a growing horror filling his expression. He straightened himself from where he was half-crouched on the ground, brushing down the dirt from his trousers, pulling his cloak closed against the cold.

"I should have known that when the Pen y Ddraig came into himself, he'd be careless about the company he keeps," the man said, glaring at Merlin. "I should have expected no less from the son of a thane who gave me the name of a flea-bitten mutt instead of his own when we first met."

"Cavall was my favourite hound, and I'll thank you not to mock the dead," Arthur said, squeezing Merlin's shoulders reassuringly before pulling his hands away, the warmth of contact lingering down Merlin's spine before resting in the small of his back. "It's all right, Merlin. This is Mordred."

Mordred crossed the distance between them, holding out his hand in eager greeting that was not meant for Merlin. Arthur was quick enough to pull Mordred into a stout embrace, though he glanced at Merlin in question. Merlin shrugged, crossing his arms over his chest, and pretended he didn't know why Mordred reacted to him the way he had.

Merlin turned away and ignored the flare of jealousy blooming in his chest. He started for the forest, intent on heading toward the camp, but thought better of it when he decided he liked the idea of leaving Arthur alone with Mordred even less.

"You took your bloody time getting here," Arthur said, breaking away from the Druid but staying close. "Did you get lost?"

"In my own wood?" Mordred scoffed. "Hardly. But there was a great deal of conversation on what to do with the Knights of Camelot who are very far from their Kingdom and making themselves at home too close for the comfort of many of our people."

Merlin had warned Arthur that even in civilian clothing, the Knights were far too conspicuous for their own good. Fine horses, armour a cut above what one would get at a common blacksmith's, men and women too well-fed to be peasants -- no one would believe them if they claimed to be passing travellers. Merlin and Gwaine had argued for separation, Arthur and the rest for staying together lest they be put upon by the armed forces from other Kingdoms or from rogue Sidhe skulking about the countryside, and now, Merlin had the satisfaction of casting a knowing look toward Arthur, who made a rude gesture.

"And what did they decide?" Arthur asked, drawing away from Mordred.

"Quite vocal against, with a vote heavily leaning toward hexing your dick with an abundance of warts, but a near thing to the end." Mordred shifted, as if drawn toward Arthur, but a moment later, he stilled where he stood, as if the ground itself didn't want him to move. He cast a glance downward in consideration before shrugging, more to himself than to Arthur.

"Well, my cock and I are thankful you've chosen to deal with us otherwise," Arthur said. "That is why you're here, isn't it? To bring us in?"

"Of course. I insisted. I had to remind them of the assistance given to us by a mysterious benefactor who isn't so mysterious after all, which changed things and cast the vote in your favour. Most are curious to know why you've come this way when Camelot's army is marching east toward Mercia."

"You've news from about that, then?" Arthur asked. "I knew you had a radio."

"When it works," Mordred said with a shrug. He hesitated and said, "Don't expect a warm reception from the Druids."

Arthur tilted his head in question.

"They want nothing to do with a man who would bind a sorcerer to his will," Mordred said by way of explanation, nodding toward Merlin without the least bit of sympathy for Merlin's perceived plight. "The elders will hear you out, but as far as they're concerned, it's wasted breath. You're best spending your strength moving on to whatever it is you're after."

"My will is my own," Merlin said, feeling the need to point that out. Whatever his personal feelings, Arthur was right. They needed to rebels on their side, and Arthur didn't need the druidic elders thinking poorly of him, using any reason to refuse his request for aid.

"So said the sorcerer bound to the son of a thane," Mordred said, turning away as if Merlin himself offended him. It was such a contrast to the awed regard Mordred had given in the moment of their meeting that Merlin had whiplash. "But you're free to have your word with them if that's what you want, puppy."

"It's Arthur, damn you, and of course I do," Arthur said, his brow furrowing. He must have caught the change in Mordred's mood, because he glanced between Mordred and Merlin again, trying to understand the tension. "I'll get the others. We won't be long."

Merlin considered following, but he didn't like that there was someone who could get past his wards without being detected. He felt more comfortable keeping an eye on Mordred, though he was acutely aware of Arthur walking deeper into the forest to rejoin the Knights to order the camp tear-down. Once he was conscious of Arthur's safety, Merlin turned to study Mordred, only to find Mordred watching him in turn.

"You seem to have a problem with me," Merlin said.

"Yes," Mordred said, and offered no more.

Mordred was half a hand shorter than Merlin, with the sort of solidity that came from living hard off the land. He moved with the grace of someone who had made the wilderness his own and the assurance that came with having more power than he knew what to do with at any given time. Merlin could not gauge what kind of man Mordred was, and as the silence stretched, he wasn't so certain he cared. He found himself hoping that the druids turned Arthur away in short order, so that they could move on to the next stage of Arthur's plan.

"Glad we got that cleared up," Merlin said dryly, uncrossing his arms to let them hang at his sides. He rolled his shoulders to ease the knot that was growing between them, and forced himself to keep his hands from clenching tight. "You called him the Pen y Ddraig."

"Yes," Mordred said again, and once more the silence stretched without any indication of forthcoming conversation. Merlin was surprised when Mordred added, "He's grown into his role, finally. I've known it since we met, but he wasn't ready. Since he's not the least bit confused by the phrase, I'm assuming you're the one who told him what he was."

"Who he is," Merlin said firmly. He felt the need to explain, and added. "He doesn't like the title."

"No, he wouldn't," Mordred said wistfully. His tone turned harsh when he said, "Nor would he like enslaving a man to his service. Was that your doing as well?"

Merlin's mouth pressed in a thin, almost numb line. Looking back, knowing what he knew now, Merlin wouldn't have pressed Arthur into making the choice that hadn't been a choice at all, but a game for a thane's amusement. Binding to and staying with Arthur had been the least problematic option -- for Merlin. He hadn't considered what it would have done to Arthur in the aftermath until it was already too late, and he'd done his best to counteract them. Still, that didn't make the situation better. Merlin still felt that he had taken the choice away from Arthur, in the end. He bristled, and said, "That's not for you to judge."

"Isn't it?" Mordred turned to face Merlin more fully, his face a piercing scowl. "He sent word to me at great risk to himself, begging me to get some sorcerer to safety before Uther found a way to execute him. Was that you?"

Merlin frowned, but said nothing. He tried to remember Arthur's instructions from that night, but most of them were hazy memories lost under pain and drugs. If Arthur had indeed arranged for the rebels to take Merlin in, he'd never brought it up again.

"If I'd known it was Emrys whom Arthur wanted me to save, I would have left you to rot and die," Mordred said, and that, Merlin was more comfortable with.

Hatred and loathing were more familiar sentiments when they came from people who knew that Merlin had survived what most of Ironwood had not, passing judgment on him without knowing the truth. Merlin raised his chin. "Is that right?"

Mordred stared at him from beneath hooded eyes. His hands were clasped in front of him, his shoulders back, his cloak draping his body as if it were a druidic robe and not merely a thin blanket scrap half-covered in mud. Though shorter than Merlin, there was no doubt that Mordred was strong, capable of wielding the short sword at his waist with the same commendable skill that drew upon his magic to defend against the wave of power from Merlin.

"The sorcerer who is said to be able to turn bullets toward their masters is surely powerful enough to turn a bond against the person who cast it upon them. When I catch you controlling Arthur, I will kill you as surely as I will when you betray us the way you did those few who remained of Ironwood," Mordred said. "The first chance I get, I promise you'll die if it's the last thing I do."

"What if you're wrong?" Merlin asked, quiet.

His question deflated some of Mordred's rage, tainting it with confusion instead. Mordred's brow furrowed. "What?"

"What if you're wrong? About everything? I mean, maybe something prevented me from escaping in the first place. Maybe we didn't have a choice in bonding. Maybe it's not what you think it is. Maybe I've got no control over him at all. Maybe I never betrayed Ironwood," Merlin said, his tone flat and even, as emotionless as he could make it.

Mordred didn't answer, but his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"I'm not a druid," Merlin said, his voice lowering into a warning tone, "but it seems to me that the druid who unfairly passes judgment and speaks in sureties without balancing perceptions and assumptions with the truth from every side is a traitor to his own kind. If you knew anything about Emrys, if you knew him as a man instead of a name, as something more than a fantastical character in the songs the mistrels sing, you'd know Emrys would never let a traitor stand.

"Even if he himself were the traitor."

A muscle clenched in Mordred's jaw, but he didn't deny Merlin's accusation nor defend himself. If anything, he stood all the taller, full of defiance and cheek, his eyes darkening with every passing moment.

Merlin drew back with a snort and a shake of his head. "And anyway, I'm not Emrys."

"Merlin," Mordred said with a sneer, but there was doubt in his eyes, now, a little less certainty.

"Hello," Merlin said, smiling easily. He offered Mordred a fake, friendly nod. "Nice to meet you."

Mordred's scowl could stop an invading army all on its own, Merlin thought, because it was grave and severe in the way the countryside could be grave and severe, lined with deep furrows and unforgiving terrain, with deep gouges filled with rivers of confusion. The silence stretched within them, neither giving any quarter until Mordred said, "You're very powerful."

"Same could be said of you," Merlin said. He propped a foot on a fallen branch, leaned forward, and asked, "Does that make you Emrys?"

Affront slapped Mordred's expression so thoroughly that the sound he made would've been amusing in any other circumstance. Merlin thought he should feel insulted. "Of course not," he huffed.

Mordred turned away as soon as he spoke, understanding sinking in, and it wasn't until that moment that Merlin realized that Mordred was young. Clearly, he was old enough to bear a sword and be a person of note amongst the rebels, but hardly of an experience that would teach him that the world wasn't quite as black and white as he wanted to believe. That was a flaw of druidic teaching that had never passed onto those who had split, centuries before, to form Ironwood: a dangerous certainty that would rather kill than to heal. Balance was everything, and that balance had to be kept above all else, repaired before it tilted too far in any direction, and damn the cost.

"Of course not," Merlin said. "How silly of me."

A strained silence fell on the grove. Merlin moved to sit down to wait for the others to arrive, while Mordred remained standing, his expression giving nothing away. Merlin wasn't certain how long it took for the Knights to make their way through the narrow deer trail to reach the grove, but the instant they arrived, Arthur took one look between Merlin and Mordred. He must have noted the lingering tension, because his eagerness to proceed was quelled.

"It's not far," Mordred said stiffly, already moving away. The Knights exchanged glances before Arthur nodded in reluctant approval. They followed Mordred in wary pairs, keeping an eye out for an ambush.

"What happened?" Arthur asked, dropping the reins of Merlin's horse into his hand.

Merlin shrugged. At Arthur's raised eyebrow, Merlin sighed and leaned in to whisper, "He knows who I am, he wants me dead, and I'm thinking of steering clear. If I show up in that camp, it's not going to go well."

"Don't be ridiculous," Arthur snapped.

"I could save us some time hunting down whoever's left from Ironwood --"

"You're the one who said you've no idea where they are, but the druids might, so shut your gob and stop arguing," Arthur said. "You're coming, full stop. I'm not doing this without you."

Then, without letting Merlin get a word in edgewise, he walked away, his spine straight with irritation. Merlin stared at Arthur's retreating back until he couldn't see past the Knights who had filed in behind Arthur. With an annoyed sigh, Merlin ran his hand through his hair before falling in step beside Gwaine, who looked about as thrilled to be walking into a druid camp as he was.

"This will either go very well or very badly," Gwaine remarked under his breath, though Merlin could hear him well enough.

"Yeah, that sums things up," Merlin said.

"Do me a favour?" Gwaine asked. When Merlin grunted, Gwaine said, "Don't leave him."

Merlin raised a brow.

"Just don't." Gwaine said, and added nothing more. The curious tone of his voice made Merlin wonder who he was trying to protect.

The column of Knights followed an unmarked trail that erased behind them in their passage, hiding the road from everyone who didn't belong. The ground was damp with mulch, the trees were losing leaves, and the air was cold and wet with the weight of an incoming storm. Beneath the surface was an earth that rippled with the criss-cross of fine leylines, pulsing with magic the way places of power tended to do, but the lines were old and worn, and unmaintained. Pressing down on them were layers and layers of spellwork interlocking into a complicated web, and as they walked, Merlin felt himself sway, disoriented.

He bumped into Gwaine more than once, who seemed similarly afflicted by the folding effect of druidic magic. The two of them shared commiserating glances through their stubborn, white-knuckled walk, relying on the other Knights to alert them of an ambush in areas where they would be ripe for the picking.

The magic didn't ease until they breached a narrow ravine and walked into a wide, open clearing. While the others moved on ahead, Merlin stayed back, leaning against his mare while the disorientation passed. He turned to study the magic and found the jagged lines to be a series of misdirection spells that were stacked on top of each other like a pile of untidy ladders. There was a way to walk the forest without getting lost, he saw, though only if one was a magic user and could grasp the golden thread that would take them through.

Gwaine's expression was thoughtful, if somewhat sad. Merlin wondered how much it hurt him to be able to sense magic but be unable to reach out and touch it.

An intense feeling of homesickness speared through Merlin's heart when he took in the druid village. Short, squat huts melded into the countryside, thatch rooftops overshadowed by the long heavy branches of nearby trees. The houses were positioned in a radial circle that widened with the open clearing as an epicentre and continued on until they reached a stony hill that Merlin instinctively knew housed a string of caverns and tunnels. Though most of the druids milled around the little village's square to see who the visitors were, Merlin could see the fighters hanging back, wary and on guard. In the distance, children shouted playfully, giggling as they ran away from a bigger boy.

It was so much like Ironwood that Merlin felt his breath catch. It was too much like Ironwood to be a coincidence. The druids lived in communities similar to this one, that was true, but there was never so much planning in how to lay out the grounds as to simply decide that, Yes, this is where I will build my house. The rebels lived out of caves and tents, unable to linger in any single place for fear of being discovered, which meant that the concentric design of the settlement couldn't be their doing, either.

There was a commotion at the front, and Merlin looked to see Arthur in the middle of it. Several older men and women surrounded him, silent as they listened to whatever it was that Arthur was telling them. Merlin started to approach, to intervene if he needed to, but the feeling that he was being watched rooted him to the spot and made him turn around.

A man approached him with a determined stride, his eyes narrowed into wary slits. He was short and stocky, solid and muscular, dressed in a thick wool tunic and breeches cut of tanned hide. A spear hung loosely in his hand, and although there wasn't any threat in how he carried the weapon, there was --

Merlin's eyes trailed up the man's arm where the sleeves of his tunic were rolled up to his elbows. Black ink curled up from the wrist in symbols that Merlin had only ever seen once before, and he blurted out, "Will?"

The man's wariness fled, quickly replaced by certainty and joy. He didn't smile -- Will never smiled -- and walked right into Merlin's space and pulled Merlin into his arms.

"Knew it was you. Knew it," Will said, his voice strangled and hoarse. "You couldn't be dead like everyone said. You just couldn't."

"Will," Merlin gasped, slowly wrapping his arms around his childhood friend, too stunned to process anything but the awareness that his friend was alive. He wanted to ask who else had survived the attack on Ironwood -- he knew Taliesin had not, but the others...

A cleared throat pulled Will away. Merlin saw the tears in Will's eyes when he stepped back, and a thousand different things crossed his mind. Apologies that he needed to make, reparations he needed to pay, regrets he had to bury. But Will turned away, and Merlin followed Will's gaze to the druids who were approaching him.

"It is you," the oldest amongst them said, the awe in his voice reminding him too much of Mordred's reaction when they had first met. Merlin couldn't help the reflex to draw inward at the recognition. He took a step away, his hand tightening on the reins. He cast a glance of apology in Arthur's direction as he considered the best way to flee.

"The traitor, Emrys," Mordred said, triumphant, smug as he took his place next to the grey-haired druid.

"He's no traitor! You don't know what you're talking about," Will snarled, falling silent when one of the Elders raised a hand to request silence.

"Emrys, indeed," the druid leader said, stepping forward with a kind smile. He pressed a hand upon his chest. "The Great Oak."

The druid Elder bowed deeply at the waist, and one by one, row upon row, all the druids bowed, too.

 

Coin image of Mordred

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Arthur toed the bucket closer to the dripping water and studied the thatch roof critically. From the mustiness of the straw filling the thin cot on the bed and the condition of the fireplace, Arthur guessed that the guest hut wasn't used frequently, and that it wasn't part of the regular camp maintenance. Still, it seemed that the roof would hold, for a while at least, and with luck, would hold up through the night.

He rubbed the small window with his sleeve, but didn't manage to clean it enough to see through. Not that it mattered -- the night was as black as pitch and the hut faced away from the rebel's settlement where there would be artificial illumination. Even if there were light, he doubted that he'd be able to see anything through the sheets of pouring rain.

Intellectually, Arthur knew that he was safe. He also knew that Merlin hadn't seen his childhood friend since the Ironwood massacre that had decimated them once and for all. Merlin had believed everyone he'd ever known to be dead. Still, Arthur would feel more comfortable -- and warmer -- if Merlin were here, with him.

Excuses were excuses, though, and when it came down to it, Arthur was a jealous little prat and he couldn't stand the idea that Merlin preferred to spend time with Will in the warmth of the communal hall instead of cozying up with Arthur in a drafty, leaky hut.

With a dissatisfied grunt, Arthur turned away from the window. He hauled his saddlebag onto the rickety corner table and pulled out dry clothing. He'd brought in enough wood to try to start the fire, but he wasn't going to spend another moment soaking wet if he could help it.

Just as he stripped out of his shirt, Arthur heard the door creak open. He smiled in relief and said, "It's about time, Merlin. I was starting to think you'd gotten lost."

There was no response, and Arthur could feel the damp chill creep into the hut, full of the promise of winter. He sighed wearily and threw the soaked shirt over the back of a chair and went to the fireplace, stacking branches and tinder in a small pile. The flint was in his pack, but there had to be matches or lighter fluid somewhere that would get the wet wood burning into a roaring fire. He stood up, ignoring the damp chill running down his spine, and searched through the clutter on the fireplace mantel.

"You've lived with me long enough to have learned how to close the door," Arthur groused. He turned around, and -- "You're not Merlin."

Mordred dragged his eyes up from where he'd been staring at -- from the angle, Arthur could only guess his arse had been the subject of Mordred's interest. Mordred cheeks coloured, and Arthur tilted his head, raising an eyebrow.

"Most people knock."

"I'm sorry," Mordred said, looking away, only to very sharply turn back, his brow furrowing into a frown. "I came to tell you that the council has agreed. They'll send messengers to the other camps in the morning."

The news didn't process in Arthur's head right away, and when he did, he wasn't sure how to feel. There was a certain amount of elation in the knowledge that older, more experienced leaders had seen the merit in Arthur's plans, but the hollow in the pit of his belly was the weight of responsibility that came with making the decision to send so many people into a battle that would almost certainly mean their deaths. The emotional turmoil that came with that understanding was so much that Arthur turned away.

"Will they arrive in time to meet us on the field?" Arthur asked, his voice rough.

"The crows have already gone out," Mordred said distractedly. "The men will be on the march when the messengers catch up to them on the road to give them their orders."

"Good," Arthur said, running his hand over his face. The Knights already had their instructions and would head to the nearest Kingdoms to rally what few troops were left behind. They would also commandeer the radio and contact the more distant Kingdoms that were too far to reach in a short period of time. Though they had access to the few automobiles that remained, few of them could be trusted for a long journey to make personal visits to convince the people there to join them in the fight ahead. Arthur had given his Knights instructions on what to say, but in the end, it would come down to the powers of persuasion of each of his men.

"I spoke to the Druids," Mordred said, and when Arthur turned around, he saw that Mordred's attention was now decidedly fixed at a spot on Arthur's chest. "They said your friend Leon will be all right, but that it'll be some time before he recovers. They want him to stay and rest."

"If he's not an imposition," Arthur said, relieved. Leon had been belligerent since Merlin had lifted the sleep spell, immediately demanding answers and ordering the other Knights about. His mood quickly darkened when he realized that none of the Knights were obeying him and that none of them were returning to Camelot. After his attempt to escape, they'd kept Leon tied up, and he'd fallen into a sullen glower, barely uttering a word for the remainder of the journey.

Arthur had worried that Morgana's mind magic stretched out over all this distance, despite Merlin's assurances that it was doubtful. To learn from the druids that Morgana's mind magic had changed some fundamental aspects of Leon's personality, possibly permanently, had been devastating, but the druids had sworn that they would do what they could to lift the cloud of Morgana's presence and to give Leon protection against any further intrusions.

A great deal of worry lifted from his shoulders to hear the news, only to return with a redoubling of regret to think about Uther. If Arthur was right, Uther had been under Morgana's influence for far longer. If the druids were correct in their evaluation, there was a chance that Uther might never recover.

He couldn't concern himself with that, not now. He would deal with Morgana in the aftermath. He could only hope that something could be done for his father.

"Not at all," Mordred said, his tone hollow. When Arthur looked again, Mordred's eyes were tracing up along the left side of Arthur's body, where Merlin had tattooed an intricate series of whorls and triquetra, using a fair bit of artistry to make it resemble chain mail. Arthur didn't know what it would do, but he trusted that Merlin had a reason for both the design and the tattoos, same as he did with all of the tattoos on his body. Abruptly, Mordred asked, "He marked you?"

Arthur glanced down. No matter how often he saw the symbols on his skin, he never got used to the sight, though he couldn't complain considering how much he liked the way Merlin's fingers traced them each and every time they were alone, or how much care was in Merlin's touch when he inked another sigil on his skin.

That wasn't what Mordred was talking about, though, and Arthur touched the oak tree on his chest protectively. The contact set the mark alight, the lines tracing bright with gold, and when the edges of light made contact, a warm feeling coursed through him, calm and reassuring.

The scowl vanished from Mordred's expression. In its place was awe, guilt, and disbelief. His mouth snapped shut, and while Arthur appreciated the way Mordred seemed to be working through a series of mixed emotions to come to some sort of conclusion or decision, it was rather cold outside, and he was half-dressed. "The door?"

Mordred gawped for a moment longer before registering Arthur's request. He shut the door behind him. Arthur knelt, scratching through four matches. None of them lit.

"I made a mistake," Mordred said weakly.

Arthur glanced at him. He wasn't sure what mistake Mordred thought he'd made, and he wasn't sure he cared. The Mordred of now was nothing like the little boy Arthur had rescued many years ago, and he could only imagine what he'd had to endure since then. Arthur had tracked rebel movements, had passed messages to Mordred when he could, had protected them by drawing the Knights away from settled areas long enough for the rebels to get away. And all Mordred could do was take and take, always greedy for more, selfish in the way druids were selfish, seeking balance while angling it to their advantage.

He didn't know what Mordred wanted now, or what he'd done, and he wasn't sure he cared. His eyes trailed down to the satchel hanging from Mordred's shoulder, and he gestured. "Does that mistake have anything to do with that?"

Mordred's hand curled possessively around the satchel. He bowed his head, and with a sigh, ran his hand through his soaked curls. "I meant to free you of him."

"Of Merlin?"

"Of Emrys," Mordred said, curling the name with a hiss of anger.

Arthur stood and dug a clean, dry shirt out of his saddlebags, pulling it on. He felt vaguely better for the shield it provided. Mordred didn't look to be the sort interested in helping Arthur start the fire, and falling ill was the last thing he needed right now. "Except you're finding that things aren't as clear-cut as they seem, and that frustrates you."

"Yes," Mordred said, taking a step into the room. He stared at the floor. "I grew up in awe of him. Do you know that? So many of us did. So many of us still do."

"What changed?" Arthur asked. He dug through the box of matches, picking one that seemed promising, but when struck, it ignited only to fizzle out quickly.

"Nothing," Mordred said. "Everything."

Arthur threw the box of matches on the mantel and went to dig through his saddlebag for the flint. "You're angry that the council agreed to help us."

"No, no," Mordred started, only to catch himself. "Yes. We've been waiting for this moment. For you. We've been preparing for so long. We knew that the Pen y Ddraig would come to lead us. To war. Against the thanes, against the oppression we've suffered, against..."

"I'm not fighting against anything," Arthur said quietly, remembering the words he'd spoken in front of the council. "I'm fighting for something. For Albion. And that bothers you."

"Yes," Mordred said, unrepentant. He raised his chin. "That wasn't the plan."

"That wasn't your plan," Arthur corrected, because he was at the council meeting, too. Nearly all of the leaders of the rebel factions had arrived for the meeting, and each of them had had their own opinion of how to proceed now that the Pen y Ddraig was with them once more -- whatever that meant. Most, Mordred included, wanted to take advantage of the war with the Sidhe to undermine the thanes and to take control, and it had been after a cold wash of realization of the druid's intentions that Arthur had made it clear that he wouldn't be a figurehead, and neither would he be a pawn.

Arthur had spoken for hours before he had convinced most of them that taking the Kingdoms meant nothing if the Sidhe marched through Albion. The remainder were reluctant until the elders, who hadn't spoken the whole time, turned to Merlin and asked him what he thought. Arthur had bristled. At first.

Merlin had put down the pitcher he'd been using to refill Arthur's glass, stared at his hands, and very quietly said, "I've travelled the breadth of Albion with a bounty on my head for most of my life. I've been hunted by the thanes who want me for my power. I've been shunned by the peasants living in their lands because they saw me as a transient with nothing to offer. I've been vilified by the rebels for many things that I didn't do."

Will had spoken for Merlin, too. "You lot wouldn't believe me, but maybe you'll listen now --"

Merlin had cut Will off. He'd offered a dismissive shrug, but a long time had passed, the council oddly silent, before he'd spoken again. "I have a whole lot of hate for a whole lot of people. I can't see the path ahead with eyes clear of judgment. I've only ever known one person who can. Only one person who can push through all the bollocks and understand the consequence of everything we do. And that person's not me."

The World Tree was revered amongst the druids, and the druids were highly respected amongst the rebels. As the druids had listened to Merlin, the rebels did, too, silent and reverent in a way that they hadn't been when Arthur had had his turn to speak.

Arthur hadn't been able to find it in him to resent the respect that Merlin instantly commanded. He had been able to tell that Merlin hated the attention -- this attention. He wasn't a thing, he wasn't an object, and even the druids could only see Merlin's magic and little beyond.

"Let me ask you something. All of you. These grand plans of yours. What do you do in the aftermath? You bring down the thanes. You break up the Kingdoms. Good on you. But what about the Sidhe -- what do you do with them? And if you're lucky enough to chase them from Albion, what, then? How do you rebuild? How do you govern? Because you can't not. Not even here -- don't try to deny it, I see leadership amongst you, and not a single one of you can make the decision to take the burden to build the Albion I have always dreamed of."

He'd looked at Arthur, then.

"I won't follow any one of you. Not even Arthur. But one man has my faith and my trust, and I will be with him every step of the way. I will follow him, because his dream is the same as mine, except he has better plans than I will ever have."

Merlin had left, then. No backward glance, not another word. The members of the council had exchanged thoughtful glances but Arthur had not waited to hear their decision, if they had any to make at all. He'd risen and followed Merlin out. It wasn't until in retrospect that Arthur realized that he'd declared his position with his actions -- that he wouldn't take a single step without Merlin.

"Because it's not your plan, either," Mordred said, closing the distance between them. "I thought it was Emrys' doing. Because everything Emrys does is wrong."

"Oh, yes, because I can't think for myself. Haven't you yourself named me the Pen y Ddraig?" Arthur snorted. He opened another saddlebag when the search through the first proved fruitless. He glanced over his shoulder at Mordred when the silence only lengthened. Mordred stood there, dripping water on the packed floor, his head bowed as if grieving.

Mordred's mouth tightened, turning into a flat line. A moment later, he closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't know what to trust. How can he be the Great Oak? It's... It's his fault. All of it. It's his fault."

The door opened and shut behind Mordred, but Mordred didn't seem to realize that Merlin had walked in behind him.

"What's his fault?" Arthur asked.

"My family," Mordred said, sad. He didn't speak again for the longest time. "They came looking for him. There was no reason for them to come to my village. Someone started a rumour. I don't even know why. But they came and they razed everyone, and --"

"I'm sorry," Merlin said. Arthur couldn't stand the closed-off look in his eyes, how he seemed to have shut down, stewing in grief and guilt he shouldn't have to suffer.

"No," Arthur said, even as Mordred turned around, wide-eyed and bumbling.

"I didn't mean it," Mordred blurted out.

"You do," Merlin said. He was too calm. "It's fine."

"It's not fine," Arthur snapped. He walked to the two of them, crowding in the small space. He pointed a finger at Merlin. "You don't apologize. You had nothing to do with it." He turned to Mordred. "If you want someone to blame, blame the person who lied about Merlin. Blame the people who killed your parents. Don't blame an innocent man who doesn't have their blood on his hands."

Arthur placed a hand on Mordred's shoulder and squeezed.

"I know you, Mordred. I remember the frightened little boy hiding in the barn behind a bale of hay. I remember feeding you Gaius' draughts to stave off the fever from the wounds. I remember lying to my family and shielding you from harm until you were well enough to go off on your own." Arthur put his other hand on Mordred's cheek. "I remember the boy who cried out for his mother in his sleep. I remember the boy who told me that he would fix the world, one day. You can't tell me that you're not still that boy."

Mordred wouldn't meet his eyes. "Arthur --"

"You can't tell me that you've carried this much hate for Emrys and still have been able to hold faith as a druid. You can't tell me that you're not a rebel because you don't dream of the same thing Merlin does," Arthur said.

"I'm having trouble," Mordred admitted. He sniffled. "I don't know how to reconcile the two. That the man I've hated all this time is the foundation of my faith."

"I'm sorry," Merlin said again, and Arthur glared at him. Merlin nodded, approaching slowly, gently nudging Arthur out of the way until it was his hands on Mordred's shoulders. "I'm sorry for so much. For your pain. For your grief. For your loneliness. No one deserves to suffer."

Mordred's head bowed. He shivered before falling into Merlin, wrapping his arms around Merlin's waist. A sob broke out of Mordred powerful enough to send anyone to their knees, but Merlin held him close.

"I'll take him home," Merlin said quietly, reaching out to place a hand on Arthur's cheek before leaving with Mordred.

Arthur didn't move for the longest time. He stared at the closed door, wondering if he should go after them, but he had a feeling that there was little he could do to help them heal.

He eventually got the fire started and was curled under the blankets and cloaks when he heard the door open and shut. Arthur looked up to make sure it was Merlin and not some other random person walking into the hut without knocking, and sank back into the precious warmth.

"How is he?" Arthur asked.

"Hm," Merlin said, which was an answer and no answer at all. Still, it was telling of Merlin's mood, and Arthur resisted the urge to reach out for him. Merlin would tell him when he was ready.

He dragged the sole chair in the room in front of the fire, sitting down heavily to remove his boots. He stripped out of his clothes systematically, almost robotic in his movements, and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He bowed his head and ran his fingers through his hair, squeezing out as much of the water as he could.

Arthur was so intent in his study of Merlin that he didn't immediately register that Merlin had spoken. "He... He's hated this idea of me for so long that he's... he's lost. And on top of that, the person he's hated for so long just happens to be the..."

Merlin faltered.

"Not much fun, is it?" Arthur asked gently, folding the blankets aside to invite Merlin in. Merlin didn't move, though he did raise his eyes questioningly. "A title you never asked for, a destiny you didn't know about, being pushed to fill boots far too big for your feet?"

"I'm sorry," Merlin said with a rueful sigh. "Put you in those boots, didn't I?"

"Turns out they fit well enough," Arthur said with a shrug. "A bit uncomfortable at times, but I'm sure I'll break them in, eventually."

Merlin snorted.

"Are you coming to bed?" Arthur picked at the straw poking through a hole and flicked it off the side. "For what amounts to a bed."

"If you're in it, that's all I care about," Merlin said. He stared at the fire for a while, and Arthur wasn't sure if the golden shimmer in his eyes was his magic coming to the fore or merely a reflection of the flames. Either way, the room got warmer fast when Merlin stood up and stripped himself of his knickers, dropping them on top of the pile of clothes.

The cot wasn't very wide. Arthur's shoulders easily made up the breadth of it without much room on either side. Merlin worked his way into Arthur's space, somehow fitting against him as if he'd always been there. It took them a few minutes of rearranging themselves before they were sorted into something comfortable enough for a full night of sleeping, though it was bound to be a frustrating few hours until dawn, given that Merlin's cold, bare arse was firmly set against Arthur's rapidly-warming cock.

"You did that on purpose," Arthur accused.

Merlin grunted.

Arthur kissed Merlin's neck and wound his arm more tightly around Merlin's waist. After a long silence, he asked, "Mordred's not the only one having trouble reconciling who you are, is he?"

"See through me that easily, do you?" Merlin asked. There was a haunted look to him, and Arthur wondered if he'd looked like that when Merlin told him about the Pen y Ddraig. It couldn't be any easier for Merlin to know that he was the World Tree.

"No," Arthur said. "I just know how you feel."

"How do you sort it in your head?" Merlin asked, turning his head. "I've been at it for years with this Emrys bollocks, and now there's this new thing, and I'm... I don't know who I am anymore. All these people, and I'm more alone than I've ever been, and I have no idea where I fit in."

"You're Merlin," Arthur said, kissing Merlin's cheek. "And you belong with me."

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Arthur's clever machinations meant that they would go through the Kingdom of Leodegrace on the journey to Mercia, though Merlin no longer knew if it had been Arthur's idea all along, or if Mordred had had a hand in it. Both men were equally cagey on the matter when questioned directly, but Merlin knew that if he gave Arthur enough time, he'd find out what Arthur had in mind.

That time was coming due, it seemed, because Thane Gwynnyvhar of Leodegrace put down her goblet with a thoughtful furrow of her brow, biting her bottom lip as she considered the plan that Arthur had spent the last hour laying out. Gwynnyvhar -- "My parents thought they were funny when they gave me a name few people could pronounce, please call me Gwen" -- was a beautiful, graceful woman who was composed in ways few ladies were. Merlin had heard of her by reputation, only. She was fair, though she allowed for few infractions of the laws, coming down with a sledgehammer's strike on anyone who tested her. Her Kingdom was not unlike the other Kingdoms in Albion, but people seemed... happier here, more content to live out their lives in drudgery than they did elsewhere.

Gwen was also the thane one of the few Kingdoms who had opted not to head to Mercia to join the war council. Her reasons were her own, but Arthur had confided in Merlin that he believed she was more intent on protecting her people than in participating in something she saw as fruitless. Given that she was one of the few women in charge of a Kingdom, she probably believed, and rightly so, that her opinion on matters of war and strategy wouldn't be held in high regard.

"I..." Gwen glanced at her Consort, Lancelot, who only raised his eyebrows in silent communication, agreeing to whatever she was about to say . Gwen nodded as if to steel herself, and continued on with more assurance, "I see the merit in your plan, though I reserve concern for your approach. It's risky, and riskiest of all is what you've asked of me."

"I wouldn't make the request if it wasn't absolutely essential," Arthur said earnestly -- almost too earnest. He pushed his dinner plate aside and was careful to move his goblet out of the way before he leaned forward, arms crossed. "I don't see how we can win this war, and quickly, without your weapons and your ammunition."

"Most would say that this is a last-ditch effort to gain weapons for Camelot when we've refused Uther many times," Lancelot said, fingers loose around the stem of his glass.

To look at Gwynnyvhar and Lancelot together was to look at the reunion of a twinned soul, because both were gentle in nature, firm in their belief, and determined to do what was right by their people, even at their own expense.

"And what would you say?" Merlin asked.

Lancelot's dark eyes drifted from Merlin to settle on Arthur. "It has been my experience that the apple rarely falls far from the tree."

"And when it does, it's the sweetest fruit that leaves you craving more," Gwaine said, offering a smile that was charming and seductive. Neither Gwen nor Lancelot fell for it, however, and Gwaine deflated.

"I understand. I'm not my father's son, but you won't know that for yourself until you have seen me at my worst, and I won't ask you to take my word for it," Arthur said, his tone grave. He rapped his knuckle on the table, effectively ending that subject of debate, and asked, "If not ammunition and weapons, what of your men?"

It was clear from the troubled cloud in Gwen's expression that she wasn't inclined to give up any of her troops. Elyan, her commander-at-arms, seemed torn, no doubt understanding that sending soldiers out to war would prevent the enemy from approaching Leodegrace's borders. He remained silent, however, as did Lancelot, who lowered his gaze and studied the remnants of the roast chicken that had been served for dinner.

Though Arthur hid it well, Merlin could tell that he was resigned to having to rework his plan to exclude any participation from Leodegrace, and to somehow figure out how they would follow through without the ammunition that Arthur wanted. That he needed. He didn't care about guns -- he was adamant that guns in the wrong hands were a terrible idea, but ammunition...

Ammunition was something that Merlin could use, and with the cannons that Arthur had included as part of the Knights' armoury for Camelot's trek to Mercia, Merlin would be able to do great harm to the Sidhe. Even the druids agreed that the Sidhe were particularly vulnerable to cold iron, and the ammunition from Leodegrace was known to be water-forged. It was their trademark, and one regarded by other thanes with suspicion, believing Leodegrace to be the closest of all the Kingdoms in creating ammunition that any sorcerer could control.

Asking for the guns was a cover for what they truly intended to do, but it didn't matter anyway. Gwen's mind was set. The answer was still no, regardless.

Gwen glanced at Mordred. Very slowly, she said, "Out of our long friendship with the druids, we agree to show you the artefact that you have come to see."

Mordred bowed his head in thanks.

Gwen turned to Arthur. "But I am very sorry, Lord Arthur. My first priority must be my people. I need to ensure their safety, and to do that, I will need both men and weapons. Your plan may have merit, but I will not take that risk."

"I understand." Arthur forced a faint smile, and graciously said, "I have heard that the thane of Leodegrace cared more for the living than she did for the health of her coffers. I'm glad to hear that the rumours were not wrong."

"No doubt Lord Uther had a few choice words to say about our practices," Gwen said, smiling sadly. She raised her goblet to her lips, and before she took a sip, added, "Most do."

Arthur tilted his head, as if in agreement, but diplomatically chose not to confirm nor deny, and Merlin didn't need to wonder why. No one would truly know if it was a sentiment that Uther himself held, or whether he was parroting Morgana.

The conversation turned to other topics. Merlin wasn't certain who had asked after the Leodegrace's radio capability, but Lancelot was the one who answered.

"We've been monitoring the signals, of course. I'm afraid that the news from Mercia is not good. The Sidhe landed more than a week ago and completely demolished the Mercian Navy. The ships from Anglia and Tir Mor were too late, and there's been no word from Deira. We fear that the Sidhe landed there as well, though the Thane has always been particularly..."

"Hostile?" Gwaine suggested.

"Unfriendly," Lancelot said, though his mouth twitched in an amused smile. "We're not certain that they would answer our call even if everything was all right, in any case."

"They wouldn't," Arthur said, somehow managing to keep his good humour. Merlin wondered if he was trying to come up with an alternative approach to convince Leodegrace to join the fight.

"The transmissions have become sporadic of late," Lancelot said, clearly concerned. "We know from Anglia's allies that the Sidhe sent troops ahead and that they arrived at Mercia's capital some time ago, though we are uncertain of the outcome. Certainly there must have been a skirmish, but we have no news since then."

"We must think the worst," Gwen said, offering Arthur a sympathetic look, as if that would be enough to apologize for why she would rather circle the wagons to protect her people as long as she could rather than to protect Albion as a whole. Merlin understood where she was coming from, at least on paper, but it didn't mean that he had to like it.

Something felt off, however. Merlin couldn't put a finger on it. He pushed away his unfinished plate, earning a raised eyebrow from Arthur who was ever-vigilant of putting meat on Merlin's bones, but the action didn't so much as attract anyone else's attention. He'd already scanned the food for poisons and had found none; Mordred, who had been of the same mind, performed different tests than those that Merlin had learned at Ironwood, though he had been more subtle about it. The food was fine, but Merlin was convinced there was another reason why the Thane of Leodegrace had refused them so quickly.

It was nothing overt. She had been so kind about it. Arthur had spoken for a long time. His argument had been compelling, honest, and open. He'd explained the outcome of the Sidhe's occupation of Albion, he'd explained what would happen to the country, and he'd painted a dire picture of the future that was only reinforced by stories from Gwaine.

And none of it had moved Gwen, who was supposed to be the most even-minded of all of the thanes, the one most likely to support Arthur if she wouldn't support anyone else. Even the thought of becoming the Kingdom that all would turn to for sanctuary hadn't been enough to deter her -- of course, it wouldn't, because both Gwen and her consort were known to be compassionate and giving. But no Kingdom, no matter how wealthy, could support an influx of new people for long, even if they were so inclined.

Yet, the answer was still no.

Merlin leaned back in his seat and watched Gwen while the conversation turned to other topics. Her skin was smooth and perfectly highlighted with the faintest touch of colour. Her dress was flattering to her complexion and her figure, her smile was easy and her eyes were bright, but every now and then, her attention would drift away, and the mask she wore would slip, revealing how she wanted to be anywhere but there. Lancelot was as formally dressed, his vest and collar complementing Gwen's gown, and though his weapons were not overt, he was armed all the same. He addressed Arthur in a slightly better tone, though his true emotions revealed through the cracks, despite how keen he was on the conversation.

But Elyan was the true telling factor. He wore his feelings on his sleeve. He hadn't hidden how impressed he was with Arthur's battle plans and strategy. He didn't hide his disdain for the risks that they would have no choice to take. He'd questioned Arthur's assumptions, only to be challenged in turn, smiling as he was treated as an equal rather than just another man with a sword.

That disdain was present, even now, though it was turned toward Gwen and her consort. Elyan leaned back in his chair, glowering at his older sister, his mouth pressed tightly together as he swallowed the words he didn't say out loud.

"You didn't train at the Sisterhood, did you, Lady Gwynnyvhar?" Merlin asked, the question out of his mouth before he realized he had spoken. He heard Arthur's quiet, "Merlin, what are you doing?" and Mordred's strangled snort, but the answer to his question came in the form of an alarmed squirm as the thane raised her chin to look at him.

"My parents felt it best if I remained at home to learn the matters of the Kingdom," Gwen said, her brow pinching even as she managed a little, pleasant smile. "Please, when I asked Arthur to call me Gwen, I did mean to extend that invitation to you."

"But Gwynnyvhar is an Ironwood name," Merlin said. "I thought it an interesting coincidence, at first. Some of the old names do make their appearance every now and then, particularly in certain family lines, so I can only imagine... Was it your mother?"

Gwen said nothing. She glanced at Elyan, but the commander's attention never shifted away from Merlin.

"Your father, then," Merlin said. He drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully. Elyan shifted in his seat, sitting on the edge as if he were about to leap over the table. Lancelot sat up, alarmed, but was fighting not to show it. Arthur fell silent, leaning back in his seat, and Merlin could almost feel the contemplation brewing under his skin. "That explains why your parents kept you away from the Sisterhood. You've had nothing to do with them. But for some reason, something is holding you back, and I can only imagine it's either the Sidhe themselves..."

Lancelot made an outraged noise.

"Or someone has contacted you on behalf of the Sidhe, with whom the Sisterhood is allied, and plied you with information that you're not sure you should believe, so you are erring on the side of caution," Merlin said. He paused, and asked, "How is Morgana? What horrible lies did she tell you about Arthur? Did she promise that Leodegrace would be spared by the Sidhe?"

Gwen stood up abruptly, her chair scraping on the stone floor. Merlin stood up, too, matching her movement for movement. Elyan was next, and --

Crack --

Merlin's magic flared to life, sundering in the air in a golden bolt of lightning, freezing the bullet in mid-air. It hung over the remnants of the venison, a little to the left of the overcooked stewed vegetables, shockwaves from the bullet's wake rippling behind it.

Lance stood up --

Crackcrack --

Two more bullets stopped. One over the large pitcher of mulled wine, the other over a fluffy dessert that was in the process of collapsing under its own weight. The third bullet vibrated faintly, but Merlin reached out with his arm to help direct his magic and steady his concentration.

The first time he had used his magic to this effect, he'd been a teenage boy, barely aware of what he was doing and how. It had been a time when bullets were passed around like penny currency, well after the war that had cascaded between the Kingdoms and everyone had the surplus but had long lost the supply. Merlin had been alone, all his companions from Ironwood dead upon the ground, Gilli bleeding out in his arms. The men had filed in a half-circle around Merlin and were given the order to execute him --

There were women and children behind him. Men who made their living as farmers. People who had lived under the weight of war for far too long and struggled to feed their bellies every day. They'd stood behind Merlin, not twenty feet away, and if any of those bullets missed...

Merlin had reacted out of instinct. He hadn't thought, It's impossible, as he'd been taught. He'd only felt desperation and urgency, and the world had bent to his will.

It had been as easy as that.

He wasn't a teenager anymore. He'd had years to refine his skills. He'd taught himself to snatch a bullet out of the air and to fling it back at the caster. He'd learned the trick of igniting firepower when it was still within a chambered bullet. He'd learned how to disintegrate the bullets to their individual components.

He hadn't stopped bullets dead in their flight in a very long time. But he remembered how. He willed the bullets to turn onto their owners, and left them hanging there.

"Emrys," Gwen said. There was no fear in her voice. Not the faintest waver. But there was apprehension in her eyes even as she raised a hand to stop the guards from approaching them. "You didn't tell me you had Emrys, Lord Arthur."

"Oops," Arthur said, his tone hard, uncaring. "You didn't tell me you've forged an alliance with Morgana."

"She warned me about you," Gwen said, raising her chin in defiance.

"Did she warn you about her?" Arthur asked, standing up finally.

Merlin realized in that moment that none of the others had leaped to his aid. He thought he should feel insulted, but instead he felt only a strange sort of gratification, because Arthur had trusted him to protect him, and the others had followed his lead.

"That you stole her inheritance?" Gwen asked, her eyes cold. "That you twisted her own father against her?"

"Try the other way around," Gwaine said, standing up with lazy insouciance. "Just so happens that Fate will have Her way and set things to rights whenever She can. Arthur is the next thane of Camelot, and he is such of his own merit, no matter how hard Morgana worked to prevent it."

"The Lady Morgana is a mind-mage who has forced at least one person that I know of into obeying her will," Mordred said, taking another bite of his meal. His cheek bulged out when he added, "I would strongly recommend that you reconsider this alliance before the druids leave your Kingdom and take with them all the gifts and protection they've bestowed."

"Over an alliance with Camelot?" Lancelot asked, scoffing.

"Over an alliance with a mind mage," Mordred said, chewing the rest of his food to give them time to absorb his words. "Such magic is wrong, and against our tenets."

Gwen exchanged glances with Lancelot. "She's not --"

"She is," Gwaine confirmed, his lip curled into a sneer. "Go on. Ask me how I know."

Gwen's eyes were wide when she turned to Mordred. "You wouldn't dare cut us off. Not now. You'd put the Balance at risk. You'd be breaking your own laws."

Mordred's smile was dangerous enough to make even Merlin wince.

"The agreement between the druids and Leodegrace predates whatever collusion you've made with Morgana." Mordred stood up, finally, snatching a handful of plums from a nearby bowl. "Try me. In the meantime, why don't you take us to the sword?"

The stalemate lasted only as long as it took for Gwen to weight the odds and find them stacked against her. She nodded curtly, her lips pressed in a thin line, and both Elyan and Lancelot lowered their weapons.

Merlin closed his fist and let the bullets drop onto the table.

"This way," Gwen said. She stalked out of the dining hall, her head held high. Lancelot and Elyan fell in step behind her.

Merlin exchanged glances with Arthur. Arthur's expression was grim, but he wasn't angry, only resigned. "I'm sorry --"

"No," Arthur said, taking Merlin's hand and squeezing it gently. "You saw what I didn't. I pray that you always do. I'm grateful, and however I feel about this new knowledge, it's a problem for another time."

"It is," Merlin agreed, understanding. Hell would rain down on Camelot one day, but not today.

Arthur released Merlin's hand, nodded at Mordred and Gwaine, and followed after Gwen.

They were out in the open courtyard, heading toward stone ruins buried deep in the garden. A miniature forest seemed to have been planted there, or at least laid roots too deep for anyone to dig out of the ground, and the ruins within were nearly completely hidden from sight. Merlin wouldn't have seen the entrance if he hadn't been led to the stony steps and the raised, crumbling arch, though he was sure that the small, wispy essence of the forest would have led him there. He could feel it beneath his feet, clinging to his boots as he walked, carefree and welcoming, teasing and taunting, warm and comforting, like coming home.

"This is old Carmarthen," Gwen said, her voice full of respect. "We're not sure what it was. A temple, a place of learning, a castle... but in clearing the area to build our stronghold, we found it."

None of the others felt it. Not Mordred, who was a druid of the earth. Not Gwaine, who was still sensitive to such things despite having his power torn from him. Not the people from Leodegrace, who protected the small grove as if it was an essential part of their lifestyle -- and maybe it had been, once, when their Ironwood father had been alive. But when Merlin's attention fell on Arthur, he was surprised to see Arthur glancing down at the ground with every lift of his feet, a small, bemused smile belying his curious frown.

Once they crossed the stone threshold, the feeling only intensified. Once upon a time, the ruin might have been a stately temple with solid stone floors, but the forest had taken over, crumbling roots and grass and flowers growing through the cracks. The temple was small, barely larger than the Leodegrace dining hall, with stone pillars reaching up for the forest canopy that shielded them from the elements.

"It's there," Gwen said, stopping and standing aside. She gestured toward the middle of the room. Lancelot moved to stand at her side, Elyan bracketing her, his hand on his pistol.

In the middle of the temple floor was a lump of stone, blackened by the white flame that burned at its base. The stone was the sheath to a sword unlike any Merlin had ever seen.

"I'm not sure why you want it, anyway. It's not like it can be removed," Lancelot said. "The legends say that it belongs to the Pen y Ddraig."

"And those who have come to try have always been pretenders," Gwen said, crossing her arms. She regarded Arthur scornfully. "Do you think he's the one?"

"I know he's the one," Merlin heard Mordred say, but he barely paid attention. He was drawn to the sword just as Arthur was, and that was when he realized that the sword wasn't within stone, but stuck into a tree stump blackened by ashes and age, its roots withered where they should have sunk deeply into the ground, with branches reaching high into the sky.

Merlin's chest ached.

"Arthur." Merlin's voice was an echo in his own head, redoubling and reverberating the closer he came.

"I know," Arthur said, and his voice was a steadying balm. "I don't, but... I know."

Merlin swallowed. His heart pounded with anticipation. He swayed, his balance lost, and slowly sank to the ground, blinking repeatedly when he thought he saw those scorched roots move.

Arthur hesitated before the sword. He glanced warily at the white flames dancing around the base, rising higher and higher as if in warning. Merlin could feel the heat from where he knelt in the stony grass. He could feel the heat from within. Arthur must, too, because he pressed a hand to his chest.

"I know he's the one," Mordred said again, continuing to speak over Gwen's doubtful scoff. "Because he's made the World Tree whole again."

"Are you blind?" Elyan asked. "The World Tree's dead --"

"You know the prophecy. You were raised on it," Mordred said, his tone preternaturally calm. "When Myrddin's Oak shall tumble down, the shield of Ironwood will burn. Then shall fall all of Albion, until the Great World tree returns."

"You can't be --"

Mordred cut Lance off as he continued, "The Dragon rises in Carmarthen where it shatters the acorn's chains. The Great Oak grown will Rage and ring the peace that only Freedom brings."

Merlin didn't hear the rest.

Arthur reached through the flames. A low hum resonated through the bond. Arthur's fingers closed around the hilt of the sword, and Merlin felt the contact as surely as if Arthur had reached through him and grasped his soul.

Arthur pulled the sword out. It drew from its burning sheath without resistance, and with every inch of freedom, the flames died down all the more until they were nothing but embers. The white fire sank into the tree stump, shining through the cracks and the whorls in the base, and --

In a bright, burning flash of light, the tree stump dissipated, and all the magic contained therein slammed into Merlin.

Great Mother --

Her embrace filled him, welcoming him home as if he were a lost child.

 

Coin Image of Gwen

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Crows blackened the skies ahead.

The mood was sombre as the caravan travelled up the rise on the old Roman road, horse hooves clicking faintly on cobblestones that had long been worn down by thousands of years of travel. Though the land close to the road had been cleared and few forests stood in the distance, somehow, the Sidhe had found trees tall enough to use as warning posts.

From this morbid, barren forest hung multiple cages with desiccated corpses collapsed to the bottoms, thin, sun-scorched limbs hanging out of the narrow bars. The further they travelled, the fewer cages they saw, with prisoners either nailed directly to the makeshift gallows or hung by knotwork rope until they were dead.

Their bodies swayed -- not in the wind, because there was none, not here in this place that had been tainted by bloodshed and sacrifice, but from the weight of the crows landing on whatever perch they could find, beaks burrowing deep into decaying flesh before they flew off with their prize. Male and female, young and old and indeterminate in age, of varying castes from poor to working class and rich, all had been treated equally by their executioners.

Without care. Without mercy.

Arthur did not miss how a disproportionate number of the more prominently-displayed bodies were women. Though their deaths were brutal, it didn't appear as if they had been brutalized themselves; their clothing, though dirty, was pristine, as if they had been allowed to change into their Sunday best before the rope was dropped around their necks.

It was strange, Arthur knew, that no human scavengers had come through to take advantage. The dead needed no shoes and no clothing, and yet, much wealth hung from these trees, despite the magpies worrying at shiny buttons and carrying them away.

Lancelot stared straight ahead, a muscle in his jaw clenched as he lead the Leodegrace volunteers down the southern road to the Knights' hidden camp that remained a few days' ride away. A few hundred men more, all freemen or peasants, had joined them on the journey; Percival and his own motley crew of surviving soldiers had arrived from Mercia, and the remainder had promised more would come, if they hadn't already arrived.

Mordred was distressed, his eyes wet with grief, but he didn't stop, kicking at his horse's flanks to hurry on, catching up with Lancelot.

Arthur pulled to a stop when he didn't see Merlin. He rode back the way he'd come, his horse leaping over a stony rise of rough terrain as he turned from the road and sought out the highest point. He spotted Merlin on his brown mare, Gwaine with him, neither of them far from a cluster of hangings. When he approached them, he had the feeling that he'd missed something.

"I reckon the Sisterhood's been taken out of the equation," Gwaine said, his brows furrowed with the first real concern that Arthur seen from him since beginning this journey.

"How do you figure?" Arthur asked.

It was Merlin who answered by pointing his finger at the woman swaying under the tender ministrations of a pair of crows. The corpse had been dressed in rich red robes, a golden belt at her waist, her brown hair -- now askew -- had once been styled in a complicated upswept twist of braids and beads. One shoe was missing; it was half-buried in the mud, dwarfed by a nearby horseshoe print.

Skeleton-gaunt. Empty eye sockets. Mouth slack, partially lined with ruby red lip colour around the mouth.

Maybe once, the woman had been pretty. She certainly hadn't been young. It was difficult to determine how long it had been since she was executed. The nights had been too cold, and that cold had encroached into the days. Bodies didn't decompose very quickly in the late fall and incoming winter, and in the winter, they decomposed nearly not at all.

"It's Nimueh," Merlin said quietly.

Arthur glanced from Merlin to the woman again. Nothing on the woman's person betrayed any hint of her position in any organization, and the woman, in death, looked more like a noblewoman than she did a pious High Priestess. Pious was a generous term, Arthur knew, because the Sisterhood could hardly be called generous and altruistic, showing one face to the world and another to those they held dear.

No, Arthur couldn't fathom this wretched creature as the person who had seduced his sister to her side, who engineered an infiltration of her disciples through all the ruling houses of the Kingdoms, and who had colluded with the Sidhe in exchange for power.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. It's her," Merlin said, still quiet, still... subdued.

He'd been this way ever since Leodegrace. Since Carmarthen. Since Arthur pulled the flaming sword out of the tree stump. Whatever magic had been encapsulated in the old, charred base and gnarled roots, it had vanished shortly after, dissipating into so much glittery dust and ash as purple-white light surrounded Merlin and subsumed into his being. In that moment, Arthur had understood the meaning of serenity without actually feeling it himself; it had thrummed at him through the bond he shared with Merlin, soothing and calm.

Arthur had known that there was nothing to worry about. That Merlin was safe, that the magic that had erupted had meant no harm to anyone.

But for every day of travel, Merlin had grown... or faded. Perhaps it was both. His skin was pale, though his eyes were bright. His smile was easy, but it frightened Arthur how, sometimes, it was a ghost of what it had been, before. Merlin's appetite had fled from him and it was as if they had just met, all over again, with Merlin staring suspiciously at the food, as if expecting it would be taken away as soon as he'd taken a bite, but he was still strong, preternaturally so, his energy ebbing and cresting in waves that left Arthur breathless with whiplash.

Arthur looked at the woman again. Nimueh hadn't been a tall woman. Perhaps she had carried herself with enough presence to be so imposing as to frighten the thanes, but that strength was long, long gone. Whatever she had done, the Sidhe were finished with her. Arthur realized he wasn't curious enough to care for the reasons why -- he could only feel glad that this was one less threat he would have to deal with in the future.

"Okay," Arthur said, taking Merlin for his word. He turned his horse's head, but didn't ride on until Merlin and Gwaine followed after him.

The days that passed were uneventful. Gwaine was bored and insufferable; Merlin was quiet and restless, waking up late at night, drenched in sweat. Arthur pretended he had no idea of Merlin's nightmares; Merlin kissed him in the mornings as if he knew damn well that Arthur had watched over him until he'd fallen asleep again.

The world slowed down at times of war. There was only so far that an army could travel, only so fast they could go without leaving their supplies behind. Communication was nearly always as curtailed, with radios restricted to the thanes and a select lucky few. Their use and operation was now a skill passed on from father to son, and their making required a clockmaker's precision and a scavenger's luck. Too many parts couldn't be made these days; too many metals couldn't be mined from the earth anymore.

A Kingdom could change hands within a season without the neighbours being the wiser. A storm might encroach from the west but reach deep within the island to wreak havoc before the message could be passed on. Signal fires, ravens, riders on fast horses -- in some ways, Arthur longed for the days of old when warriors knew the enemy was approaching from the way bright lights glowing on a dark glass screen were positioned. As it was now, Arthur wouldn't learn how the war had progressed until he arrived on the battlefield.

"Rider coming," Gwaine said, squinting his eyes. "Looks like it's Pellinor. Camp must not be too far ahead if he's coming out to meet us."

"The thane of Deorham took half our troops when we arrived," Pellinor said, after a brief salute. He wheeled his horse around, taking position next to Arthur. Gwaine and Merlin rode in closer to be able to hear over the tumult of the troops following after them. "Tried to stop him, we did, but Lord Alined wouldn't hear of it, no matter how much we protested. Took the letter you gave us, tore it to bits, said something unsavoury about your person and went off with them. Said he'd hang the rest of us as traitors for not coming along."

"Never heard back from him, did you?" Gwaine asked. Arthur slowed his horse as they rode up a hillside; in the distance, the forest curved around them like a half-moon, thick with evergreens and brambled trees bare in the late fall. Lancelot led the men from Leodegrace to an open corner of the camp, and the commanders from other armies found places for their soldiers.

"Not a word," Pellinor confirmed. "Those of ours who survived came back in trickles. The Sidhe have an iron fist around Mercia and there's almost no going in and out without being found. We've a few sorcerers in the ranks who can sense the breaks in magic, but at the most, we've kept our men well away. There's a few Knights on the other side, watching for us and biding their time. They know we're coming."

Arthur nodded. He glanced at Merlin, who answered his unspoken question with a nod. Whatever ward or barricade had been raised by the Sidhe, Merlin was confident that he could break it down.

"And the Sisterhood?" Arthur asked.

"Saw the crow cages and the marionettes on your way in?" Pellinor asked, his voice wry. "They've been putting up bodies all along the main roads. When they ran out of those they started the side roads. If you go down the King's Way, the streets are lined with thanes."

"Alined?" Gwaine asked.

"Our scouts didn't see him, but wouldn't be surprised if he were, or stuck on some rat's arse of a wagon trail," Pellinor said. "Didn't know about the Sisterhood until yesterday when Bran's raven made it through. Short on details, so all we know right now is that the Sidhe got rid of every single one of them within Mercia's borders."

Arthur glanced at Gwaine, who shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. It smells as if the Unseleighe are running the show, though, and it's usually best to let them have their way."

Pellinor made an interested noise.

"Or so I've been told," Gwaine said, suddenly cagey.

"Anyway, our numbers haven't changed that much, all told," Pellinor said. "We're rested and fed. Ready to go, if need be. With Leodegrace and... Is that Goffroi's banner?"

"What's left of them," Gwaine said.

"And Olaf's men? How did you convince Vivian?"

"You don't want to know," Gwaine said solemnly, but the severity of his tone didn't linger. A broad grin spreading across his face.

Pellinor's expression pinched. He shook his head, took a breath, and pushed on. "Whenever you're ready, my Lord. We've got the maps laid out and the latest intelligence we can gather. There's at least one radio operator hidden somewhere in Mercia proper, but we haven't been able to reach them since last week. Gaius has been working on our radio since arriving last night, but he fears the problem isn't on our end."

Arthur nodded. He reminded himself to unclench his jaw.

They were halfway to the campsite when Kay ran up to them, catching the reins of Arthur's horse and reaching out to grab Merlin's. "We've got warm food. Good to see you, big brother."

"I'd trade warm food for a hot bath," Arthur said, because the month on the road had been filled with too much travel and not enough downtime under proper shelter. He loosened his grip on the reins and let Kay lead them further in.

"Well, there's a tent for you and your bloke. Made sure someone put in a tub and cold water," Kay said helpfully.

"Don't I get a tent?" Gwaine asked.

"No," Kay said.

Merlin snorted in amusement, and it was so surprising to see a smile, however faint, on Merlin's face. Arthur stared at it for a moment, fully intent on looking away before he was caught. Merlin must have sensed his scrutiny, because he met Arthur's gaze with tired eyes, and offered a weary nod of acknowledgement, promising answers.

"I know the commanders are eager to do something," Pellinor said, raising his eyebrows in emphasis. "Would you like me to get them together? I'm sure they'll want to hear the plan."

Arthur wanted to laugh. All these capable, experienced men, who fought under all of the different thanes, always at odds with each other? He couldn't imagine them working together under any circumstance, not even the end of Albion, but somehow, they'd banded together in a mixed camp and were waiting for Arthur's orders. After so many years of being disregarded, of fighting his hardest to gain the regard of his own men, it seemed absurd to Arthur that now, he would become the commander of the armies of every Kingdom.

He suddenly didn't want it. The mantle of leadership was heavy, almost suffocating. He didn't want to fail because failing meant losing everything.

The sun was setting over the horizon in a terrorizing smear of oranges, yellows and reds. It would be a clear, cloudless night, the new moon watching over them under a blanket of bright stars. The coming night spoke of good portents, though he was hardly a mage to know of such things, but it was enough to give him peace with what he was about to do.

"My Lord?" Pellinor prompted.

Arthur shook his head. "See to the men, ensure that they've been fed. Give the order to get some sleep -- I don't care if it's too early, because I promise they won't get enough before the night is out. I want all the commanders together at midnight."

"Yes, sir," Pellinor said carefully. "We're attacking in the morning?"

"We're doing something in the morning," Arthur promised. Pellinor nodded, his expression troubled, but he nudged his horse's flanks and went to follow Arthur's orders. Kay turned his head up, his mouth opening in a question, and Arthur forestalled him by saying, "Don't make bets on this one, Kay."

"But --"

"I need the men rested and ready, not fretting over penny gambles," Arthur said, dismounting.

He patted his horse's neck and looked down at his little brother, feeling old and ancient, the weight of the earth pulling him down. Kay's features were still soft, with the faintest promise of the man he would someday become -- as roguish as Gwaine, as conscientious as Leon had been, once upon a time, as canny as their father. He wondered if there was anything of himself that would carry on in Kay.

He put a hand on Kay's shoulder and squeezed. "Trust me on this one. No speculation on the battle plans, no gossip about the morning. They will be the better for it."

"You mean you will," Kay said sourly. "My pockets will be empty at the end."

"At least, at the end of this one," Arthur said, "Coin or not, we'll have won."

Kay's brows furrowed. He chewed the corner of his mouth. There was a glimmer of disquiet in his eyes, as if he finally understood what Arthur had been trying to teach him for years -- that it didn't matter the outcome in the end, as long as it was the best outcome for all.

Arthur's tent was a narrow, dusty thing salvaged from somewhere, the skin patched with blocks of fabric from a million different sources. Some areas were lighter than others, the dimming sunlight and nearby firelights filtering through only in part, and during the rainy season, this tent must be a nightmare to sleep in. Two raised cots were tucked off to the side, piled high with blankets against the cold, the promised bath took up the rest of the floor space, dwarfing everything else.

The ratty tent was a palace when compared to the weeks of cold nights under an exposed sky, huddling under too-thin cloaks and against the nearest body, greedily leeching off the warmth and blinking away the frost that had settled in his hair and eyelashes. Arthur dropped his saddlebags in the corner, rubbed at a scrape along his temple until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, only to blink again when an oil lamp next to the cots flared to life.

Arthur turned and found himself face-to-face with Merlin in the cramped space, not even a finger's width between them. Merlin's breath on his skin was a soothing balm he hadn't known he needed, and he closed his eyes, wondering how much time they would have left.

"Don't think like that," Merlin whispered. Arthur felt fingers against his forehead; they trailed down to his cheek to scratch through the patchy beard that was slowly coming out.

"Trying not to," Arthur admitted. "Is it going to work? Will it be worth it? Is there another way?"

"We've looked at it from as many angles as we can, and you know there isn't," Merlin said. Arthur opened his eyes when he felt soft lips against his cheek. Arthur grabbed Merlin's vest, digging his fingers into the fabric, afraid of letting him go. Afraid of what they were both going to have to do if he wanted his words to Kay to be true.

We'll have won.

"I'm asking for too much," Arthur said.

"I think you're not asking for enough," Merlin said, pushing Arthur to walk backward to the paired cots behind them, stopping only when Arthur felt the edges digging into the back of his calves.

"And you're trying to distract me from the question I've been wanting to ask," Arthur said, catching Merlin's fingers before they could undo the buckles of his armour.

"I'm fine," Merlin said, though his words sounded faint, like he wasn't entirely certain himself. "I will be. I'm... I'm just carrying a lot of... history."

Arthur didn't understand what had happened when he'd released the sword from the ancient tree stump, nor why Merlin had been so reserved ever since. He thought he felt snatches of something whenever Merlin's guard was down, but it had been enormous, incomprehensible, without substance and yet tangible all at the same time. A part of Arthur knew what it was, though he couldn't recognize it.

"Will you explain it to me?" Arthur asked, letting go of Merlin's hands. He'd long ago realized that he needed Merlin's touch on him nearly as much as Merlin did. The contact grounded Arthur, giving him something to focus on when otherwise his head would be in the clouds, lost in strategy and tactics, planning for a future that he had only ever dreamed about, but could see reaching out to him in the near horizon.

Arthur knew that for Merlin, the closeness filled a void he'd endured for nearly his entire life and had long ached for. It was in knowing that he could be this close and this vulnerable to someone else without having to defend himself or flee. It was in knowing he had a home -- if not in a place, then in a person.

Merlin's answer was a silence full of careful motions and gentle touches, of furrowed frowns and distraction. He moved closer to Arthur, working on a buckle for too long, and not long enough on another.

Arthur was nearly bare from head to toe when Merlin leaned in and kissed him, quick and present, in reassurance for the worry Arthur no doubt wore all over his face.

"It's everything," Merlin finally said, removing his own clothing with a deliberation that spoke of great concentration. He folded his great coat and put it aside. He dropped his vest on top of Arthur's armour. He stripped himself of his knives, removed those Arthur hadn't known about, and worked his way down. He let Arthur touch, but not help, and Arthur huffed in annoyance at each and every rebuke. "I'm awake for the first time. I walked through a haze my entire life and never knew it. The world is clear. I feel solid. I can breathe again. It's shrugging off winter's coat to feel the first rays of sunshine in an early spring. It's taking my first drink of cold water and to be refreshed for the first time. It's spreading my arms to feel the wind blow through my fingers and to dig my toes in the ground."

"The Oak," Arthur said, his voice a whisper, reverent for things he didn't understand, but had long accepted.

"I'm alive," Merlin said, his eyes bright. A weight dropped from his shoulders, and Arthur was blinded by Merlin's smile. It was boyish and innocent, full of life and longing.

Arthur kissed him. "Of course you are."

"Because of you. I'm alive again because of you. The Great Oak drops its acorns. It's reborn. I've lived a long time, waiting for you."

Arthur kissed Merlin again.

"We're meant to be together," Merlin said, guiding Arthur down to the bed. "Always, always. Neither of us are who we are without the other. I've lived for so long, and the only times I've ever truly lived is with you. You always leave me. But you always come back."

Arthur didn't understand any of it, but out of all that, one thing and one thing only resonated with him. It was the promise in Merlin's voice when he said, We're meant to be together. Always. Always.

Merlin settled between Arthur's knees. He wasn't shy about pressing down against him, their hard cocks smearing precome over each other's bellies. However urgent the world was outside their tent, it didn't matter as long as they were alone and together.

"I love you," Arthur said, in-between kisses.

"I'd forgotten," Merlin admitted, burrowing his head in the crook of Arthur's neck and sucking a mark that would stay for days, distracting Arthur from the slide of his hand in-between their bodies to stroke their cocks together in a circle of callused fingers, the grip too loose to be anything but torturous and teasing.

"Gods," Arthur gasped, throwing his head back as he lost himself in the sensation. "I admit my heart's greatest secret, and all I get in return is, I'd forgotten. As if he's known all along."

"I did, once. Twice. Four times. A hundred times. A thousand. I never stopped loving you. I always loved you." Arthur silenced Merlin in a bruising kiss, wishing he understood everything that Merlin was saying, and realizing in that moment that he didn't care at all.

I always loved you.

That, Arthur could accept. That, Arthur could understand. When he closed his eyes at night, Merlin snoring softly into the pillows, or when he caught Merlin in a certain light, that was how Arthur felt, too, his chest swollen with so much love he didn't know how it was physically possible for any single person to contain it all.

Merlin's hand slipped away from their cocks and drifted between Arthur's legs. Arthur felt wetness slide around his hole and didn't question it. It wasn't a surprise anymore. They kissed and touched and took a particular, gentle care in each other as if knowing this might be their last night together for the rest of their lives. Arthur's body welcomed Merlin's as he'd done so many times before, and as they rocked together in the questionable privacy of the patchwork tent, Arthur let himself think of Forever and Always.

 

They lay upon a narrow cot covered in thin red blankets, Arthur's skin dark against Merlin's pale, cradling Merlin's body between his legs and arms.  He closes his eyes as Merlin nuzzles his throat, and never wants to let him go.

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

The sunrise was long and laborious, like a slow yawn after a long night's sleep, stretching out lazily across the ocean, glinting gold and white over the edges of unruly waves on a wintry sea. The sky came down to greet the dawn with a haze of crystals that hung in the air, twinkling like will-o'wisps before settling on water and sand and grass.

To the north was Mercia. It was shrouded in impossible shadow. The famous whitestone fortress was as black as pitch, pockmarked all along its eastern face from sea battles fought in ancient times and far more recently, and none of the tall keeps within were alit, not even the striped signal tower on the stone breakwater. So secure were the Sidhe within Mercia that none guarded the fortress walls, oblivious of the army slowly lining up one hundred metres away from the too-thin wards stretching around their claimed domain.

They were a ragtag army from nearly every corner of Albion, mismatched in arms and weapons and armour. They had no shared faith, held themselves to different laws and rights, and passed judgment upon their enemies. Their leaders were gone, their oaths no longer binding, and nothing stopped them from turning tail and going home. And yet, with one single word from Arthur, they had banded together during the night as if they had been following Arthur all along.

One word. One mind.

Albion.

In the distance, a line of horsemen fell into formation. They were nothing but shadows along the coast, silent sentries high upon the rise. The fields below were razed black, as dark as the shadow that shrouded the castle high.

It was ominous.

Merlin had been running almost his entire life. He'd been running from war. He'd run to draw the enemies away from Ironwood so that they would be safe. He'd run when he'd found all those he'd cared for dead because of him. It never mattered what it was -- his instinct had been to run.

Running brought him to Arthur.

Arthur was here.

He wouldn't run anymore. Not from those he cared for. Not from war. Not from anything.

Merlin closed his eyes. He wondered if it was normal to feel so calm before a battle. Not until he felt a spike of anxiety surge through him did he realize that the emotions he felt weren't his own, that Arthur's drive and determination was so powerful that it had eclipsed his own fear.

The ward rippled.

Merlin opened his eyes.

Arthur had moved from his spot beside Merlin. He'd deliberately ridden ahead to break through the ward. The sky was brightening, and it was time. With the ward disturbed, the Sidhe would know they were there soon, and they would react and rally. The battle would begin soon.

Slowly, Arthur rode his horse around in a wide circle. His red overcoat glittered where Merlin had magicked iron plates onto his more vulnerable spots, giving him more protection against the Sidhe's magic. The sun hit the low clouds in the horizon, reflecting on the ocean waves, and in that brief moment, Arthur was crowned with a halo of light.

Merlin couldn't look away.

Arthur met his eyes. He nodded.

Merlin drew a sigil in the air, his fingertip tracing a gold line that flared brightly when he connected the ends, and pushed it toward Arthur. In the morning light, few would see the sigil float toward Arthur, but those who were near enough to see its formation glanced at him with curiosity.

"Albion!" Arthur shouted. Merlin's magic amplified his voice so that he could be heard by all and sundry, and in the distance, Merlin could see people emerging from their hiding places in the forests and from the small villages and settlements all around Mercia. The fortress came to life.

The signal fire flared and came alight at the very height of the tower on the breakwater. The band of rebels trapped within Mercia headed toward them. Knights of Camelot, Brigands of Essetir, soldiers from every Kingdom who had survived the first battle with the Sidhe but had been forced to hide in the aftermath -- they rode up the rise as if they had been waiting for their summons.

Merlin glanced at the fortress. There was no movement, not as far as the naked eye could tell, but when Gwaine offered his telescope, Merlin could see sickly witchlights blink to life in the darkness all along the parapets and people moving along the walls. Merlin hoped that the Sidhe were reacting out of confusion, and not preparation.

They couldn't have been so foolish not to have expected another attack, but they were no doubt unprepared for another onslaught so soon after the first one had failed. The brutality of the Sidhe had been deliberate; their slaughter merciless. They'd meant to destroy all the courage and morale of Men, breaking their new subjects as quickly as they could.

But the Sidhe couldn't have anticipated Arthur. They couldn't possibly believe that a mere human would be willing to lead men and women to what would be a promise of certain death. They wouldn't fathom the lengths one man would be willing to go to save his people.

They would learn, soon. Arthur would not allow the Sidhe to dictate the rhythm of the fight, nor permit them to force their hand. Surprise was an advantage that the Sidhe had lost after they'd landed on the Mercian shores, and they would take that advantage now.

Arthur must have sensed the increase in enemy activity, because Hengröen picked up his pace, cantering in an ever-widening circle. The silent sentry that had held the army still all along the border of Mercia was waking up. Horses stamped their hooves on the ground and tossed their heads. Soldiers rattled their weapons in their sheaths in nervous anticipation.

"All through the living memory of our recorded history, our shores were breached by invaders seeking to claim this land. Ever have we endured, through force of will or strength of arms, but this time, this time," Arthur said, "We say, No more!"

Shouts of agreement on either side of the Sidhe's warding line drowned out the echo of Arthur's words. Arthur's big horse picked up its steps, magnificent and dangerous, like a war-horse of old; fearless against his enemy, inspiring to their own.

"They've slaughtered our kin. They've tainted our land. They impose the rule of their law, when they should suffer under ours!"

The clatter of weapons in sheaths increased. Some men banged steel against their shields. Horses chomped at the bit, ears flat against their skulls, eager to surge forward.

"The Sidhe believes us weak and divided. That we will blindly accept whatever pittances they'll give us. After centuries under the thanes, I say, No! No more tyranny!"

A cacophonous cheer rose up. In the distance, more and more lights shone along the walls of the fortress. The southern gate opened, a gaping maw in the darkness, and though a group of men emerged, they were alone, confused, and lost. To the east, at the seaboard, Merlin could make out shadowed movement that was only slightly more structured as the encampment of Sidhe soldiers mobilized.

He lowered the telescope and passed it over to Gwaine. Of any of them, Gwaine was the only one who knew and understood Sidhe movement. They had no choice but to trust him when it came to interpreting enemy tactics and how to counter them. Gwaine had been invaluable at the war council that continued on well into the morning, instructing each division how best to move their men quickly. And much like a confessor, he had later taken Arthur aside to advise him on how best to navigate the courtly manners of the Sidhe should it all go to Hell.

And that was Arthur's ultimate plan. He didn't need to win the first route. Indeed, the battle needed to go badly. Everyone's orders were to fight as hard as they could for as long as it took for the Sidhe to take Arthur prisoner. Though many believed that Arthur would take the opportunity to assassinate the leaders of the Sidhe and to cut the snake off at the head, only a small handful knew the truth -- that the battle would never be won in a contest of strength. The Sidhe had too much magic on their side.

Had the Sidhe chosen to attack twenty years, even ten years ago, the Kingdoms of Albion would have been able to use the cold iron of their ammunition to turn them back. The invasion couldn't have occurred at a more propitious time for the Sidhe. There weren't enough guns, there wasn't enough cold iron -- Leodegrace had given them all that they had stockpiled in their armoury, but anything else that the other Kingdoms might have had hidden away was gone, lost in the recent battle or stolen by their citizens.

They would make do with what they had -- more iron and gunpowder than working weaponry, but they didn't need all that much, not when they had Merlin.

Even now, Merlin could sense the ammunition scattered through the ranks and secretly positioned as close to the wards as possible. The metal was a presence under his skin and the gunpowder made his nose itch.

To Merlin's left, Gwaine lowered the telescope. He gestured for Arthur and nodded.

Merlin wasn't certain if the tension roiling in his gut was his own, Arthur's, or both of theirs together, but it was squashed in the next instant when Arthur put on a determined grin.

"The Kingdoms belong to us! We stand here, united, to fight for our land, our people, ourselves. We will not be conquered! We are the conquerors!"

The army roared in approval. Horses whinnied, half-reared, and dug at the ground. The clang of metal against metal was the purest call to arms that they could have hoped for. Merlin's normally placid mare nearly bucked him off, and it was a struggle to keep her from breaking the line.

Arthur unsheathed the sword that they had kept hidden through the journey from Leodegrace to Mercia. A hush grew over the army even as he raised it high in the air, as if everyone, no matter how far away they were, recognized something important and significant. The sword and the oak had been symbols of their mythology for so long that too many had forgotten their true meaning, but there was power in the sword itself, which glowed of its own light now that it was revealed.

The longsword's blade was a gleaming meteoritic metal that shimmered in iridescent shades. The runes upon its length were from a time before language was written down. Mordred couldn't read them. Gaius had no idea of their origin. But Merlin had looked upon them and it was as if they had been written by his hand, forged from the flame deep beneath the earth and moulded from the steel of his bones.

"For Albion!" Arthur shouted. He wheeled Hengröen around and raced down the slope, leading the charge.

But the line of horsemen had frozen, too enraptured by the power of the sword and the soul-song it had begun to sing. That echo resonated in Merlin's chest even as he let go of his firm grip on the reins. His mare was the first to break the line, and the battle cry that tore out of him was a deep, tremulous roar --

The ground shook.

"Albi-i-i-on!"

Right where the earth was scorched black by the Sidhe, a path began to clear. It unfolded with grass sprouting green on a beautiful spring day, rippling as it spread ahead of Arthur as he raced toward the great fortress of Mercia. This time, when the ground shook, it wasn't because of Merlin's magic or the earth itself favouring Arthur and Merlin. It was the army that Arthur had roused, sweeping after them.

Their forward movement spurred the Sidhe to action. The platoon emerging from the east immediately changed their crooked formation to form a concave crescent, focusing their forces toward the centre, sending out columns on either side to flank them.

It was a bad call. Arthur had staggered all of their fighters and spread them as widely as possible without thinning the ranks too much. But more and more people kept showing up, ready to fight, some of them on old farm nags and wearing armour that was a generation old, their weapons rusty and chipped. Neither Arthur nor Merlin knew how the word had gotten out, and they'd had no time to find out why all those people were there, but they'd been relegated to the back of the line where they would be safest.

Altogether, Albion's army spread out nearly all across the southern hillside and western plain, easily four rows deep. Merlin knew, without counting, that they had the numbers to more than match the forces of the Sidhe, but they didn't have nearly enough sorcerers for what they had to do.

They didn't need to win. They needed to get far enough. Arthur had to get inside.

Alive.

The battle was meant to distract the Sidhe. To provide cover for Elyan and his team so that they could bring the iron through the fortress' wards. So that Arthur could get as close as possible before the troops pretended to be overwhelmed and retreated. He needed to be left behind.

Arthur didn't know how hard it was going to be for Merlin to leave him behind.

As the Sidhe platoon fell into formation, archers lined the fortress walls and fired. Even magical arrows could only fly so far; the arrows fell in-between the Sidhe and the approaching army.

"They do it to judge distance," Gwaine told Merlin. "You want to wait until you reach that line. They'll hold the strings until we're in the thick of it, because that's when they'll do the most damage."

Merlin kept his eyes on those arrows. He knew Arthur did, too.

The army was catching up to them. It wouldn't be long before they were neck and neck, bearing down upon the Sidhe. The Sidhe were on foot, armed with pikes and sarissae, but the ground was too soft after the Sidhe's earth-rending. They were closing in fast and in equal danger of falling to the lances as they were to the arrows.

They rode past the arrows. Merlin dared shoot a glance toward the fortress wall, but they were too close and it was too dark under the shroud for Merlin to see the archers clearly. No arrows were released.

Not yet.

Merlin didn't know who to target first. The Sidhe ahead of them or the arrows that were about to fall.

The gunfire was a surprise. Even Arthur looked over his shoulder to see where it was coming from. One gunshot, then two. The report was quick, the muzzle flash from poorly-mixed powder distant pinpoints of light, and --

A body fell from the wall.

And another.

The Sidhe couldn't use guns. The lore had been correct about that much. With or without his magic, Gwaine refused to touch them. The metal made them sick, twisted their power, and poisoned them, withering the skin and killing them slowly unless they were afforded a quick death.

A bullet to the brain was a quick death.

They had snipers, Merlin remembered. Men and women who had come from the farms, who lived detached of the Kingdoms, whose skills were passed down from parent to child. Bullets had long been hoarded, cleaned, preserved, though the gunpowder had weakened with time and weathering. But their guns were intact, and they could shoot.

And shoot they did.

Another human-sized shape dropped out of the corner of his eye before Merlin turned his attention to the lances. He reached out, clenched his fist, and yanked the lances out of the Sidhe's grasps. Suddenly empty-handed, the Sidhe didn't react right away, only a few of them stepping forward to reach for the lances that were hanging vertically in the air above their heads. Merlin decided to prolong their confusion a moment longer, to gain them a few extra seconds to get closer, and tightened his fist.

The spears splintered.

They split along the shafts, following weaknesses in the old wood grain. Rope and leather bindings unravelled, the silvery metal of the blades and supports peeled like a flower blooming under the summer sun. Another squeeze of his hand, and the spears disintegrated into their base compounds and elements. They glittered in the air as they drifted to the ground.

The entire front row of the Sidhe platoon took an alarmed step back. Those among them who had been spellcasting lost their concentration, and --

Arthur's army plunged into the mire.

It was jarring.

It was a breakneck gallop across an open plain. A jerky mudding through bodies that couldn't help but give way under the unstoppable momentum of a cavalry at full charge. A reckless canter and a frantic walk as momentum lost its force and Merlin found himself penned by a swarm of Sidhe who were only just coming to their senses from the shock of losing their weapons and the depth at which the army had driven in.

Merlin's knives were in his hands before he consciously reached for them, but they were useless as long as he was on horseback. He didn't have the same reach as he would if he was armed with a sword, but Arthur had insisted -- the longer he was on horseback, the longer he would survive.

"It's essential that Merlin makes it through," Arthur had insisted.

He'd given Gwaine a meaningful look -- Merlin was Gwaine's responsibility. As much as Merlin had railed against the decision, wanting Arthur as protected as possible, he'd understood that there was no other choice. Gwaine would be the first person the Sidhe would eliminate should he be captured, and he needed to be alive to counsel Arthur if Arthur made it inside. More than that, Merlin had never spent any great time in Mercia and didn't know the castle, but Gwaine did, and could take Merlin where he needed to go.

"Don't worry about me," Arthur had said, then. A small smile, serene and content, had touched Arthur's lips as he'd grasped Merlin's hands. "I'll be in my element. I'm born and bred for this. The castle won't fall, not today, but I will see you inside."

In the brief moments when Merlin wasn't countering Sidhe magic, Merlin knew at least two of those statements to be true. Arthur was in his element. He'd taken a shield from somewhere and defended himself from a blow coming along his left flank. Hengröen reared, powerful hooves lashing out at the soldiers swarming from the front, but Arthur's seat was sound. He moved with the horse, twisting to drive his sword into an attacker on his right. The way cleared for him, and with a shout of command, Arthur surged forward.

He was born and bred for war. He was born and bred to lead. The army he'd built up from nothing followed him with the sort of blind trust that was normally only earned from years of working together. And yet, these men, most of whom Arthur had never spoken with, were fighting with him as if they'd known each other their entire lives.

Merlin could only hope that the rest of what Arthur had said would be as true.

I'll see you inside.

Arthur wasn't alone. Percival was with him, Lancelot riding in to guard Arthur's left side. Mordred, though he'd never been in a battle like this before, used druidic magic in a very un-druid-like way, and Merlin could only think, He would have thrived as Ironwood.

Merlin made himself a willing target against the Sidhe, drawing their magic away from Arthur and the others as much as possible. His shields were wavering, and though he could easily raise another, that wasn't his purpose here. He lashed a bullwhip of white light against the Sidhe ahead of him, clearing the way through the rest of the Sidhe's platoon. A small group of men and women, led by Anaïs, followed after him, turning back to keep the Sidhe from chasing Merlin as he continued on to his destination.

He encountered more Sidhe on his race up the slope to the fortress, but they were just as surprised by Merlin's appearance as he had been of theirs. His instinct was faster, though, and he fought past them quickly and methodically, swatting away hastily-incanted spells and bolts of blue light as easily as he cut into them after a quick dismount.

Merlin pushed his mare. She threw her head at him a few times, snorted into his face with what Merlin could only determine as displeasure, and trotted away. He watched her head further east, jerking her head warningly when anyone came too close, and finally disappeared behind a meadow overlooking the ocean.

He'd find his horse later. She'd be fine. If the Sidhe bothered her, she was stroppy enough to take a bite out of their arses.

With a wild glance around, Merlin searched for Gwaine and panicked when he couldn't find him. He'd either been trapped by the fighting or lost to it, and couldn't reach Merlin. He contemplated waiting, but he stood out enough without attracting more attention to himself. He had to keep going.

With another last look at the battle and willing Arthur to keep his promise, Merlin turned and raced down the slope toward the bay beneath the fortress. The Sidhe encampment was sheltered there, protected on all sides except from the ocean. The tents were empty, flaps loose in the wind in their haste to get to the battlefield, and of the few Sidhe Merlin could see, none were combatants. Those Sidhe were busy performing busywork or necessary tasks, anything to keep occupied while they waited for the outcome of the fight.

If they saw him, they didn't raise the alarm.

Merlin reached the cavernous outcropping on the far end of the bay. He climbed over black, porous stone to get purchase in the loose, drifting sand, searching for the opening that Gwaine had described. If we get separated, follow the square stones up until you hit the wall. There's a narrow path at the top, don't miss it. You can only see the entrance if you're hugging that path -- it's a narrow opening, but once you're inside, giant cavern. Follow the water until you reach a pool. You'll find the way into the castle from there.

Merlin cursed Gwaine, because all the bloody stones were square. He eventually found what looked to be a set that fit together to make a crude staircase and was about to start his climb when --

"Oi!"

The ball of flame was in his hand the instant the Sidhe armour registered, but the man held out his arms desperately, hurriedly pushing off his helm. Merlin relaxed, shaking the fire out of his hand, when he saw Gwaine's broad grin.

"Sorry," he said, leaping across the stones with far more grace than Merlin had managed. "I thought a change of clothes would help us once we got inside. You ready?"

Merlin looked back the way they'd come, gritting his teeth. "Not really."

"He's fine," Gwaine said, taking Merlin's arm and shoving him forward. "Worry about your own arse. Actually, worry about both our arses, yeah? This won't be fun for either of us."

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

With war came a sort of berserker's calm. There could be no hate, not on the battlefield; each and every opponent that crossed swords were strangers performing a duty, nothing more.

During some of Uther's more paternal moments, sometime before Morgana must have truly buried her claws into his mind, he'd told Arthur, "No, boy, goddamn it, stop hacking at the post and ruining a perfectly good blade. Put down the bloody sword. Look at what you've done. Do you see how you've lost the edge? Do you know how long the weaponmasters worked to create this sword for you? And you've ruined it with your childish temper tantrum --"

Arthur had been seven years old. Maybe eight. The sword had been a gift, a toothpick of a thing that would have been a long knife for any of the Knights or guardsmen. The hilt had not been elaborate, the blade less so, but it had been his sword, his. He didn't remember why he'd been so angry that particular day or who had betrayed him to Uther, but he would never forget how Uther's face had crumbled when Arthur's lower lip had wobbled right before he'd broken into tears.

"Here, now," Uther said awkwardly, coming to kneel at Arthur's level. He'd reached out and placed a firm hand on Arthur's shoulder in a gesture that might have been paternal. "Don't cry. For the love of the Gods, stop crying. You're no son of mine if you --"

Gaius had been there, too. He'd cleared his throat, effectively interrupting whatever Uther had been about to say. Uther had bowed his head and heaved a sigh.

"If you stop crying, I'll tell you a secret," Uther had said, his voice low, solemn, and firm, as if he were a commander on the battlefield trying to rouse his demoralized troops. Arthur had hiccupped to silence, blinking repeatedly to clear the tears from his eyes, and had looked at his father with hope and reverence, because he'd still been young enough to worship his father, back then. "In battle, whether it's on the training grounds or in the middle of a war, you cannot, you absolutely cannot allow yourself to feel. To feel is to be weak. Your opponent will use it to exploit you. You must put it all aside. You cannot waste your tears on the man you've just killed. You cannot pull your punches because you're afraid to hurt someone. If you want to win, you have to put it all aside --"

Arthur raised the shield he'd stolen from a Sidhe in the early moments of the charge, angling it to cast his attacker's blow aside. He could see nothing of the man's face beneath the grilled faceplate of his helm, not even the whites of his eyes, and Uther's words rang into his head as if he were a seven year old boy again, weeping quietly because he didn't understand what Uther had been trying to tell him.

As his sword found the weak spot in the Sidhe armour and drove home, Arthur understood. For the first time since he became a Knight and was allowed to join the squadrons protecting Camelot instead of merely standing by the sidelines, providing whatever support was necessary, Arthur understood that Uther was wrong.

He couldn't separate emotion from the battle. He couldn't divorce mercy from combat. He could focus on his duty, on his goal, but it was the love he felt for Albion and his willingness to sacrifice for her safety and for the safety of his people that kept him fighting on.

Hengröen reared, staying low to the ground; Arthur braced for the rearward kick. Whoever had been about to attack in Arthur's blind spot, they were gone, now, though there was a polearm on the ground that he couldn't remember having been there before.

Arthur looked around wildly. For the moment, he was in the eye of the storm.

All around him were Sidhe fighting for their lives against soldiers from as many different uniforms as there were Kingdoms and castes. A Brigand of Essetir faced off against a Sidhe soldier who was easily twice his size, his back defended by a young woman with a fierce expression who was dressed as if she'd walked away from the farm fields with two short scythes in her hands. A noble Royal Guard from the pompous Kingdom of Kent was on bent knee beneath a Sidhe's falchion, but he was rescued by a bare-chested, broad-shouldered man in a long kilt from Northumbria, hefting up a claymore that was taller than Arthur with a giant's strength. Mordred, a man sworn to his faith and the druidic balance, seemed to think nothing of holding the life of a Sidhe in his hand, and neither did the unbonded young witch who was trading spellwork with a Sidhe who seemed baffled by her makeshift, hedgework hexing.

Arthur took a deep breath.

The air was heavy with the smell of metal fresh from a forge, heavy with the taint of iron in the blood. The sweet-sour scent of sweat was from exertion, but it wasn't acrid with fear, nor overwhelming to his senses.

Hengröen's head tossed. He chomped at the bit, eager to charge into the fray. Arthur held him back with difficulty, just as eager as his horse to return to the fight, but he had to remember --

He had to stay to the plan.

This was as perfect a moment as he would get, Arthur decided. The battle hung in a balance where it was uncertain which side would move forward. The fortress' gates were wide open and the Sidhe hadn't yet unleashed their main forces, perhaps holding back to see if they could weed out the weak amongst those on their lowest echelons, as Gwaine had expected. The rest would come, and soon.

The Sidhe, Gwaine had explained, got bored easily, and that was something Arthur could easily believe, having known Gwaine all these years.

Arthur couldn't see Merlin anywhere. Nor Gwaine, for that matter. He could only hope that meant that they'd made it through the Sidhe's first line of defences and were well away, and that they would find a way inside. But now, he needed --

He found Kay in the crowd ringing around him. He'd been unhorsed and was on foot, muddy from head to toe, the red crest of Camelot on his chest a smear of brown, indiscernible to the naked eye. Kay ducked beneath a Sidhe's blow, swept his sword up in an arc even as he rounded forward, and would have kept moving, heading deeper into the fray, if Arthur hadn't cried out his name.

Kay retreated into the ring, never taking his eyes from the threat around him. No one followed him through; the battle was out there, and though the eye was calm and safe, it wouldn't stay that way for long. Even now, Arthur could see the ring closing in around him, the Sidhe pressing their advantage of magic and might, and soon, despite Albion's strength in numbers and the cold iron of their weapons, the war would end.

"Take my sword!" Arthur had to shout to be heard in the chaos around him. Hengröen danced a few steps away from Kay before Kay could get close enough. Arthur noted Kay's wide eyes, the scrape of colour across his brow that couldn't be mud, the way he favoured his left side, but he couldn't order Kay to safety. Too much depended on this part of the plan. Kay must have figured out what Arthur was thinking, because he flashed a big, insouciant grin, and gestured at Arthur to Hurry the hell up.

As soon as they traded weapons, the preternatural glow of Arthur's sword faded, and it was, for all appearances, just another sword, hardly fancy enough to be worth a second look.

"Are you sure about this?" Kay asked, and this close, Arthur saw that the smear of blood was from a cut in his temple. It should have bled more, but hair and dirt packed the wound, keeping the bleeding to a slow trickle.

No, Arthur didn't say. He gave Kay a curt nod and gestured. "Get to Mordred. Mordred!"

Mordred's attention immediately snapped to Arthur. His eyes were a solid yellow hue -- nowhere as brilliant as Merlin's molten gold -- and that colour faded as he released one more spell. His mouth moved -- Ready, he seemed to say, but it was hard to tell over the noise.

Arthur dismounted. He slapped Hengröen's rump hard with the flat of his shield. His horse huffed, as if he understood exactly what it was that Arthur wanted it to do. Hengröen stomped a hoof on the soft ground in displeasure, and didn't move.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He spread his arms wide. "Really?"

Hengröen chewed at his bit, rolling it over his teeth where it would have no power over him. He bowed his head, tossed it once, and backed up.

Arthur got out of the war-horse's way. "Bloody stubborn --"

He didn't have time for this. The eye was closing over them; the ring of safety was growing narrow. Kay needed to get out of the middle of the battle and bring Mordred and Arthur's sword inside. Arthur couldn't explain why, but if there was two things of paramount importance, it was that the Sidhe couldn't get their hands on the blade, and that he would need it once he was inside. The Sidhe would claim the weapon if it was on him when he surrendered, and he'd never see it again.

They wouldn't be able to use it, Arthur knew. But they'd know it for what it was, and they'd... He didn't know what they'd do, but if it felt wrong to give his little brother the sword for safekeeping, it was even worse to contemplate what would happen if it were in Sidhe hands.

"At your leisure," he told Hengröen, who dragged a hoof through the mud.

Abruptly, just as a Sidhe broke through the ring, Hengröen reared up with a stallion's shriek of challenge, massive hooves pawing the air and clubbing the Sidhe clean through the helm. Whether it was the horse's anger or the particularly loud Thunk! of cold iron horseshoes connecting with Sidhe metalworked armour, Arthur would never know, but a pause rippled outward, as if the battle itself had taken a big breath of air.

Hengröen came down heavily before his muscled flank tensed again and he surged forward, barrelling through the crowd. Arthur watched him plough through the Sidhe -- it was mostly Sidhe, anyway, and soldiers who couldn't get out of the way in time. The heavy chestpiece they'd placed on Hengröen would protect him until he got free of the carnage.

Mordred used the wake that Hengröen created to catch Kay by the elbow, hauling Kay behind him as his horse fled after the stallion's wake. They'd head for the western side of the fortress and enter from one of the other, smaller gates with a few others who were hopefully already waiting for them.

The ring closed before Arthur could tell whether they'd gotten away, but he'd seen enough. A riderless Hengröen was everyone's signal to begin the retreat -- but until he was clear of the mire of battle, the horn wouldn't blow to alert everyone. Still, those who were nearest, who had heard Hengröen's scream, were already withdrawing and bringing those they could with them, leaving Arthur in the middle of growing number of Sidhe, alone.

"They're going to be pissed," Gwaine had said, still shaking his head after having heard Arthur's plan. "So pissed. I don't even know how they're going to react, Arthur. You're the clear leader, everyone's taken off, they're going to be angry that someone's dared break through. If no one's smart enough to recognize you for what you are, the rest of them are going to take off your head and not give a bloody fuck. Are you sure that's what you want to do --"
Arthur had to hold out. He had to stay alive and conscious long enough to hear the horn blow to signal the retreat. Then and only then would the Sidhe who held noble titles emerge from the fortress, strutting as they took the glory of the battle for themselves.

"You want to hit them where it hurts? Skip the bollocks and go for their pride," Gwaine had said. He'd leaned forward, then, clasping Arthur's arm while Merlin looked on, his expression grim and pale. "By the Gods, Arthur. Stay alive with everything you've got until they come out, and your chances of surviving this will go up. Don't bloody die, do you hear me, or I'll find a necromancer and raise you from the dead and kill you my own damn self."

The Sidhe glanced around in something close to confusion when they realized that most of the combatants were retreating from the field before all the others and well before the call for a retreat had sounded. The Sidhe who were on the outer edges of the ring started to chase after the soldiers, already cheering their victory, but those who were nearest to Arthur turned slowly as they realized that they still had one more person to kill.

Arthur hefted the borrowed shield up higher and readjusted his grip around the hilt of Kay's sword. The weight of the weapons was wrong -- the Sidhe shield was imbued with a magic that made Arthur's skin crawl, while Kay's sword was too light, the centre of balance off. He took a deep breath and adjusted his stance, nodding to himself, as if accepting the inevitable.

In that moment, the horn sounded.

"If you last that long, maybe..." Gwaine had rubbed the scruff along his jaw with the flat of his palm a few times in contemplation, but it was Kay who had continued with, "Long odds, but I'd take those odds."

Arthur didn't relax. He didn't dare. He knew he was right in keeping his guard up when the Sidhe surrounding him slowly turned around, their expressions of unbridled anger, vexed annoyance, and gleeful bloodthirstiness mostly hidden beneath their helms. Their chests heaved deeply, though they would have caught their breath by now. They were working themselves up for another fight, and this one, Arthur knew, would not end well.

There was no hint of an incoming attack when one Sidhe broke away from the others. Arthur caught his strike with his shield but had no time for a blow of his own. A second Sidhe came at him from his other side, quickly joined by a third, and though Arthur blocked both blows and swept beneath a fourth that came out of nowhere, he was very quickly mobbed.

This was what he tried to teach his Knights: what to do when facing impossible odds. How to defend themselves. Waiting for the right moment to make a move.

It seemed that moment would never come when Arthur was nearly driven to his knees, his shield arm going numb from both the number and the power of the blows he'd blocked. The armour Merlin had modified absorbed most of the strikes, though he was sore and bruised beneath it all where he felt each and every thrust and slash. Sidhe swords found weak spots and they exploited them mercilessly, leaving Arthur cut and bleeding from a number of shallow wounds.

He was tired. His body was exhausted. Doubtful thoughts clouded his mind. He couldn't protect himself forever. His head was unguarded, and sooner or later one of the Sidhe would go for a cheap shot. There were more weak spots in his armour than the Sidhe had reached thus far, but it was only a matter of time. He couldn't stop fighting, because if he did, he would die, and Albion would fall.

He was a poor choice for the Pen y Ddraig, Arthur thought, if he gave up this easily. His huffed laugh was louder than he thought it was, because the Sidhe drew away along his right flank, clearly taken aback. The movement created an opening of clear daylight between the bodies, and though it wasn't the opportunity Arthur had been waiting for, it was an opportunity.

With a roar that reached deep, deep down into the marrow of his bones for every last trace of strength that he had left, Arthur rose to his feet despite the weight of the Sidhe against his shield pinning him down. He cut the straps along his arm with the borrowed sword, forcing the Sidhe to stagger against the large shield and find their way around as he ran for that gap between the bodies.

The Sidhe rapidly closed ranks.

Arthur twisted away from the slash of a sword and ducked beneath another. Metal clanged against metal in a ringing tone that spoke of foreign alloys. Arthur met a Sidhe sword with Kay's iron blade, scraping down the edge as he drove his strength forward, pushing the Sidhe back. Smoke steamed from the contact, the magic of the enemy's weapon faltering under Albion steel.

Arthur showed the Sidhe as much mercy as the Sidhe would have shown him, and mindlessly drove his sword forward, slicing through armour and flesh and bone.

He wrenched his sword free in a wild swing that sprayed blood in an arc around him, coating pristine silvery Sidhe armour with a bright red smear. Arthur drew a long dagger from his belt with his free hand, tightening his grasp around the hilt briefly before he drove forward with a berserker's cry.

Above them, the skies darkened. Lightning crackled.

Arthur moved.

It became a dance much like the thousands practices on the training grounds behind Camelot, drilled over and over until it was second nature. One foot here, the other there, his weight shifted, his body twisted, the sword thrusting forward, the long dagger bearing down. Three Sidhe were dead before Arthur realized that he was stepping over their corpses. He pushed forward, breaking through the rapidly-thinning ring. A fourth and a fifth Sidhe went down, neither of them dead, not yet, and a sixth came up on Arthur's blind side and struck a blow that should have knocked him down.

He felt the pain, bright and blooming, but there and gone in the next instant, lingering in a dull throb as he wavered on his feet. He turned, raising his weapons in anticipation of another attack, and --

The sky thundered a low, lowing and reverberating sound that was both warning and threatening. The Sidhe stepped away from him almost simultaneously and Arthur, after a long moment, risked looking up.

The clouds were looming and heavy with rain, a rough, multilayered mosaic of blacks, whites and greys, dark blues, and deep purples. They swirled with a whirlpool of activity, and Arthur recognized the shapes the clouds made almost at once.

Dragons upon dragons, with the biggest overhead, its long neck stretched out, lightning breathing out of its maw, thunder cracking from its wings.

Exhaustion. Blood loss. Arthur was losing his fucking mind. And all he could hear in that moment was an acknowledging murmur --

Pen y Ddraig

The skies churned, the mirage fading. The Sidhe exchanged glances with each other before staring at Arthur as if they'd never seen him before. Arthur lowered his weapons tentatively, and it was only then that he realized that there were Sidhe emerging from the castle proper, heading toward them.

These were the noble Sidhe. There was no missing them. They were mounted on slim, ethereal horses that looked as if they had stepped out from the paintings of old. Long-legged and long-necked, with small, narrow heads and big, almond-shaped ears, the horses were every shade of white from dappled grey to powdered blue, with long manes and tails rippling in soft waves, their bridles and saddles made with such finery that the ladies of the Kingdoms would sigh with envy.

And then there were the riders, all of them in resplendent armour that put the already impressive Sidhe armour to shame. Where the soldiers wore reticulated plate and chainmail, the nobles wore a silvery carapace that fit them as if it were a second skin. The plate armour was decorated with subtle engraving and adorned with curlicues of metal that were more ornamental than functional, with long, shimmery cloaks of such a rainbow of hues that a small part of Arthur's mind wondered where they'd found the dyes.

The soldiers surrounding Arthur moved out of the way as the riders approached. The nobles closed the circle and were still for a long time. Arthur swayed on his feet, but he felt his strength return to him slowly, quickly regaining a second wind. One of the nobles rode forward, his mount a darker shade of white than the rest, sidling his horse aside so that he could present his best.

Morgana would have mocked this preening little twit mercilessly, Arthur thought, unable to stop the small smirk touching his lips. That smile startled the Sidhe as much as his earlier laugh had the rest of the soldiers, because he regarded Arthur with quiet contemplation.

The Sidhe was beautiful, Arthur realized. They all were. High cheekbones, sharp jawlines, aquiline noses. Hair every shade of gold or every nuance of raven black, skin creamy and pale, eyes the shade of every gemstone Arthur had ever seen.

"Surrender," the man said.

"To you?" Arthur asked, his smirk growing into a mocking grin. He spread his arms, showing his weapons. He twirled his dagger in his hand. "Never."

A ripple of outraged murmurs spread through the soldiers, but the nobles remained stone-faced and impassive. Arthur took a deep breath, trusting Gwaine with everything he had, and spoke the words he was certain would have him beheaded before he took a step away from the battlefield.

"But if you take me to the Queens of the Sidhe, I will ask them for theirs."

 

Tarot card: Arthur drawing a glowing sword out of a burning magical tangle of tree roots, a dragon pulsing brightly in his aura behind him.

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

"Are you done yet?" Gwaine asked. His boots shuffled impatiently on the floor as he approached. He stopped behind Merlin, looming like a mother hen, and when Merlin didn't answer him, huffed as if this entire situation was a major inconvenience.

At the moment, Merlin was so attuned to the currents and eddies in the fortress that he could track Gwaine as he headed back the way he came, playing sentry while Merlin prepared.

A great deal of the work had been done beforehand, and by people more skilled at the manipulation of earth elements than Merlin himself. The druids had marked the stockpiles of Leodegrace iron with wards that kept them hidden from Sidhe eyes and which also acted as a beacon for those capable of elemental magic. The sorcerers and elemental mages who were capable of handling raw iron had re-moulded the material into a form that was more immediately usable, though their magic wasn't strong enough to complete the task.

It had taken a precious few hours that Merlin instinctively knew that he didn't have, but the cold iron had been brought in through the last of the Sidhe wards and melded with the gunpowder that had been hastily mixed by Gaius and his team of crackpot alchemists. Gaius had warned that some of the batches would be less efficient than others, because some of his cohort had decided to get creative, but Merlin didn't think it would matter.

The work wouldn't normally have taken him so long if he hadn't needed to be careful. His magic was strong enough to attract unwanted attention, and he'd had to move slowly, lest the Sidhe be lured to the cubbyhole where he and Gwaine were hiding.

"I'm done," Merlin said to no one in particular, because Gwaine had vanished around the corner again. Merlin stayed where he was for a moment longer, feeling his strength return in ebbs and waves, flowing as if under the power of a tempestuous moon, lapping at the shores before it cascaded into him with a surprising crash. It was only several minutes later, when he thought the worst of it was over, that he heard the sound of Gwaine's footsteps returning.

He rose on wobbly legs in time to catch a pile of fabric tossed in his face.

"Something's happening. Quick. Put that on, and come on," Gwaine hissed.

Merlin shook out whatever it was that he'd been given -- the rich, silky material was dyed in hues of aquamarine and cornflower blues, its edges embroidered in silver, and --

Gwaine snatched the snarl from Merlin's hands, shook it out with unnecessary roughness, and folded it with the practiced fingers of a man who had had to do so on more than one occasion. When done correctly, it seemed, the fabric became an overlong cloak in the style worn by the Sidhe, and Merlin suffered Gwaine's less-than-gentle ministrations as the cloak was pulled around his shoulders and fastened by a round pin near his collarbone. Gwaine yanked the hood over Merlin's head and moved aside.

Merlin spread his hands out. "How do I look?"

"You'll never pass for a Sidhe," Gwaine said critically. "Too tall, too skinny, too pretty, and worst of all, you smell like the wrong kind of magic. It'll work. Let's go."

"That's reassuring," Merlin said, following after Gwaine.

"They're not going to be looking at you," Gwaine shot back. "The Court's gathering -- both sides."

"You say that like it's important," Merlin said. He glanced over his shoulders, acutely aware of his surroundings. He'd seen the Mercian castle before, though only from the outside, never daring to put himself in close contact with the soldiers who had hunted him for years, but what he had heard of the castle was that it was a marvel to look at, both inside and out. From where he stood, he had a hard time seeing anything that would warrant that level of awe, because the taint of the Unseleighe Sidhe had seeped through the stone from the outside-in.

Or from the inside-out. It was difficult to tell.

The walls were a charred, sickly black. Furniture was scorched and burned. Artefacts and riches were turned over or destroyed. A vase sat defiant along the far wall in front of a tapestry that had been magically altered to show the Sidhe's latest battlefield victory, but the flowers within the vase were withered and dead, the vase overflowing with water as if someone had tried to save them.

"The Unseleighe's sitting Queen and the Seleighe's dubious heir have never sat upon their thrones together at the same time," Gwaine said, strangely excited. "They hate each other. You'll see."

"I don't understand Sidhe," Merlin complained. He caught up to Gwaine and ducked his head when he saw the Sidhe wandering in the open hall ahead. Gwaine no longer wore the armour of a common soldier -- he'd traded up to a minor noble's vestment while Merlin had been working on the cold iron, and he held his head high. He didn't act like a man who had been banished from his own kind; if anything, he fit in as if he'd never left, and the Sidhe didn't cast him a second glance. "Does this mean it worked?"

"It must have," Gwaine said, scoffing faintly. He swept a hand ahead of them. "Because, clearly, the Queens wouldn't have gathered in one place if it wasn't important."

Gods watch over Arthur, Merlin prayed, the words heavy in his own mind. He hadn't called for them since he was a child, but it seemed to be a good time to elicit all the help they could get. When Gwaine had first proposed the idea of a challenge and Arthur had considered it, Merlin had wanted to bash both their heads together until they saw sense. There had to have been other ways to get to the castle. Other ways to confront the Sidhe. Other ways to get them out of Albion --

And Merlin couldn't think of a single one that was plausible enough to change Arthur's mind.

At least one good thing was coming out of the gathering Sidhe. It meant that Arthur was still alive.

Gwaine pushed his way through the crowd gathering outside what was the main hall of Mercia, ignoring the complaints of the other Sidhe. Hierarchy and rank mattered here, because one glance at Gwaine's rich clothing and Merlin's cloak was enough to silence the protests to grumbles, and they moved forward unhindered.

Long rows of nobles lined up either side of a hall crudely bisected between the Unseleighe's foul poison and the Seleighe's cool light. It was clear that the Unseleighe held the power here, their darkness dominating the hall. Less than a quarter of the room remained clean and bright, reminiscent of Mercia's former majesty. To Merlin, it was a sign that the Seleighe had no real strength here, and the Unseleighe queen was taking clear advantage.

That couldn't be good.

Gwaine brought them to a stop a third of the way from the thrones. He waved a hand between two of the Sidhe standing there, and only one of them moved out of the way, though grudgingly, to make room. With rank came privilege, Merlin reminded himself.

The two Queens were indeed sitting upon their thrones. They were both blonde and fair and beautiful, though each in their own way. The Queen of the Unseleighe had a greyish cast to her pale skin, her hair the colour of unrefined gold, her expression cool and sharp and distant, and Merlin had the feeling that if she should smile, it would be considered a crime. But the heir of the Seleighe throne had neither the full support of her people nor power enough on her own, and though her skin was the milky pale of the moonlight and her hair glittered of spun gold, there was a kindness and warmth to her expression that her counterpart lacked.

"Gwaine --"

"Shh." Gwaine elbowed him in the stomach hard enough to hurt.

Merlin glanced around as surreptitiously as he could. Gwaine wasn't hiding his face with a hood nor a glamour beyond the one he wore to give himself more human features -- surely that couldn't be enough to disguise him from people who had once been his peers in the Sidhe court. Merlin felt as if he had eyes on him as well, because he was anomalously dressed with a hood over his head in the presence of the Queens. Except no one paid Gwaine any attention, and Merlin wasn't the only one with a hood. The more he studied the others, the more he realized that the hooded men and women of the Sidhe were powerful sorcerers.

Biting back a resigned sigh, Merlin rubbed his forehead before dropping his hand, shooting Gwaine a dark look. Gwaine, for his part, wasn't looking at him, his attention fixed on the Queens.

"What --"

"Shh," Gwaine hissed again.

Merlin resisted the urge to elbow him back and fought to stay as silent and as immobile as everyone else. It didn't work. A nearby Sidhe cast Merlin a disapproving frown, but once they noted Merlin's cloak, they quickly looked away. Maybe there was something to how Gwaine had dressed Merlin, that the naturally magically-inclined Sidhe wouldn't so much as dare chastise their own sorcerers.

It wasn't much longer before the far doors opposite the thrones creaked open. A tall Sidhe, likely a noble of high ranking given the elaborate armour he wore, stalked into the hall with the grace of a wildcat and headed toward the Queens. He didn't turn his head to offer greetings to his peers, if there was such a thing as an equal in the court of the Sidhe, nor to look behind him at the guardsmen following him in a concave semicircle. In the centre of that circle, being carefully urged on, was Arthur.

Merlin exhaled a soft sigh of relief.

The Sidhe had treated Arthur far better in his capture than Merlin had anticipated. The cuts on his armour and the scrapes on his cheekbone were from the battle itself, if not the aftermath of the retreat. From what Merlin could tell -- from what he could feel, Arthur was tired and uninjured, but he pushed on as if newly energized. There wasn't so much as a glance from him as he walked past, but Merlin felt a faint tug of awareness along their bond.

The nobles standing around the court had been silent before, but it seemed they were all the more silent now. Their expressions were schooled for disinterest, but the weight of their focus was canny and measuring, as if each and every noble was evaluating the situation and attempting to work it to their best advantage.

"It has to be done in open court, or the challenge has no weight," Gwaine had said. Merlin started to understand why. He'd thought that the courtly rules of the Kingdoms were elaborate and unnecessary, but they in no way prepared him for the minutiae of Sidhe hierarchy. A mere glance was enough to distinguish the pecking order, and for anyone to establish their place in the royal line, there needed to be a pantheon of witnesses to accept that someone had been soundly defeated and must, therefore, acquiesce their position to the challenger.

Without being told, Merlin understood that Arthur was breaking every one of the Sidhe's courtly rules. Instead of fighting his way through the ranks, climbing the ladder one rung at a time, he was gunning for the serpent's head.

Arthur was pulled to a stop at the foot of the thrones by a guard behind him. That guard quickly backed away at his raised eyebrow. The noble who had led the parade stood at a measured distance between the lines separating the two thrones, bowed deeply, and moved off to the side. He swept a broad arm in Arthur's direction, the gesture dismissive.

"My Queens, this is the one who has had the gall to raise an army against us," he said, dropping his arm. "Whose army fled and left him behind. He refuses to surrender, and dares to insist upon ours."

The court erupted -- as much as they could, given that they had graduated from deathly silence to low murmurs of exclamation. Merlin had to strain to hear the Sidhe snort and mock, "The absolute nerve of Men," and, "How ridiculous."

The two women upon the thrones were not in the least bit amused, however. The Unseleighe Queen sat up straighter, her hands digging into the arms of her seat, while a deep frown furrowed the brow of the Seleighe Queen. A flash of vexation crossed the Seleighe's Queen's expression when the Unseleighe Queen didn't so much as look at her, speaking for both of them.

"And what punishment shall we inflict on this vermin who thinks himself higher than his station in the muck and the mire? What shall be done to ensure that the lesson we have attempted to teach his kind is one that remains in the mind of every Man from this point forward? They must learn they are nothing in our eyes, merely pests to be eliminated, and to rail against their fate is to be met with death." The Unseleighe Queen turned to the woman still seated on her throne, and said, "Perhaps you have some idea, Lady Elena?"

The Seleighe Queen, Elena, raised her chin in response to what seemed to be an insult that Merlin didn't quite grasp, but which rippled through the court nonetheless. She said nothing, her cheeks flushing prettily, and Merlin felt a pang of sympathy for her.
And then he remembered what she was and what they were doing in Albion, and he shook off the charm that had crept upon his skin.

"No, of course you don't," the Unseleighe Queen said, turning back to Arthur. She opened her mouth --

Only for Arthur to cut her off with an abrupt, "Which one's mine?"

Flummoxed, the queen tilted her head and asked, "Pardon?"

"You're excused," Arthur said easily, shrugging magnanimously. "But truly. I'm curious. Which of those thrones is mine?"

The Unseleighe Queen's face darkened with fury. Her hands clenched into fists, the air crackling around her in dark sparks of not-light. When she spoke, it was with barely-controlled rage. "A Man has designs upon the thrones of the Sidhe --"

Arthur turned away from her, and Merlin winced inwardly. Arthur was playing the part that Gwaine had told him to play, but Merlin's stomach clenched sickly to watch Arthur drop his guard. Arthur gestured at the noble who had walked him into the hall, and scowled. "Do they not know who I am? Was I not announced before I entered?"

Besides Merlin, Gwaine choked back a laugh. Even Queen Elena smiled faintly, though she was more composed and covered her mouth with her hand.

"Well," Arthur said, barrelling on without giving anyone the opportunity to answer. He stood up straighter, flicking some dirt from his sleeve with the back of his hand, and said, "Let's try this again, since you lot are barbarians lacking in proper courtly manners."

Gwaine's shoulders were shaking so hard that Merlin didn't know how he wasn't laughing out loud.

"I am Arthur, son of Uther, thane of the Kingdom of Camelot in the heart of Albion, and of Ygraine of House Dubois, queen of the Seleighe among the Sidhe of Avalon."

The hall roared with cavernous silence. Queen Elena's eyes widened. The Unseleighe Queen's mouth dropped open. All around Merlin, Sidhe exchanged glances, some with the desperation of men and women realizing that the status quo had changed their hard-fought positions would be lost. Most were agape with shock, quietly processing the revelation.

"Now that we've been properly introduced, I will ask again," Arthur said, his voice lowering to a tone that Merlin could only identify as terrible and unyielding, "Which one was my mother's throne, and therefore mine by rights of blood and law?"

No one spoke for the longest time. Then, slowly, Queen Elena rose to her feet. She took a graceful step to the side, and gestured to her seat. Merlin wouldn't have seen the tiny nod that Arthur gave her if he hadn't been paying attention. As it was, he nearly missed the faint tremble of Arthur's fingers as he fought to stay relaxed and insouciant. Merlin didn't know how Arthur was keeping it together. If Merlin were in his shoes, he would have fallen apart by now.

"Lies," the Unseleighe Queen said, the word nearly entirely a serpentine hiss. "Ygraine was barren."

Every pair of Seleighe eyes turned on the dark queen, and Merlin felt a very palpable tension rise. Beside him, Gwaine swallowed loudly and whispered, "Oh, shite."

"Shh," Merlin said, because he was at heart a small, petty man. There was only a little satisfaction in the retaliation, but he was far more curious about the drama that had risen, unbidden, like a leviathan from the depths. For once, he wasn't at the centre of it.

Whatever was going on, whatever betrayal had been done against Ygraine by the Unseleighe, it was a story for another time, it seemed, because none of the Seleighe did anything more than glower.

"I don't much care what you believe or what you think is the truth. I know who I am," Arthur said, and for a moment he was silent. Merlin worried that Arthur had lost the script, because certainly the Unseleighe queen's revelation had been unexpected and brought with it unforeseen circumstances. Arthur was watching the Seleighe side of the court with measuring eyes, and when he spoke next, he said, "But I will ask you a question, Queen of the Unseleighe. It seems to me that you cannot afford to be wrong. Do you really want to take that risk?"

The Unseleighe queen opened her mouth, only to let it click shut when she realized that she had lost her allies in the other court.

Merlin felt a sharp nudge behind him, and when he risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw a dirty serving boy resolutely staring at the floor. Kay's blond hair was nearly brown from a muddy smear across the crown, and he'd ditched his fine clothing for a stableboy's rags. He raised his chin enough to cock an eyebrow at Merlin and smirk with half-suppressed glee, pushing a long object wrapped in burlap into his hands.

Arthur's sword.

Merlin quickly hid it beneath his cloak.

"We're ready," Kay murmured, and slid back behind the tapestries hanging from the wall, moving as invisibly as a servant in any Kingdom's castle.

Gwaine breathed a sigh of relief, as if he'd been worried. Merlin's fingers tightened around the hilt of Arthur's sword. The others were in position; now they had to wait for Arthur.

Maybe Arthur had eyes behind his head, or maybe he sensed whatever Merlin was pouring at him through the bond, because Arthur stood up straighter, and everyone's attention turned to him again. He pointed at the noble who had brought him in.

"That bloke there? He's right. I'm here for your surrender. I'm a gracious man and I will give you a chance to lay down your arms. There are conditions by which you will abide."

The Unseleighe queen laughed. It was a cold, chilling laugh, like claws upon stone, bordering on the hysterical, mouth curling around an order for slaughter that she couldn't afford.

"Be quiet, Lady Sophia," Elena said, striding forward. She grasped the Unseleighe queen by the arm, and in that moment, the contrast between the two was all the more apparent.

Arthur waited with the kind of patience he must have learned at Uther's knee, staring down a room full of unruly counsellors and citizens until they settled down. When neither queen spoke again, Arthur turned to Elena. "If you do not challenge my claim to the throne of the Seleighe court, I will remain in Albion while you return to Avalon with all the Seleighe and allow you to rule as regent in my stead. You will accept that my word is law, that there will be an alliance of friendship between us, and that none of the Seleighe will again return to Albion's shores save by my express permission."

Elena didn't answer, though she turned to look at someone behind her, past where Merlin could see through the throng of nobles ahead of him. Her expression was thoughtful when she looked at Arthur again, though she didn't give him an answer in any form that Merlin could see. And yet, somehow, that was enough for Arthur, because he shifted his attention to Sophia.

"And you... you? Just leave. I have nothing to offer you in exchange for the atrocities the Unseleighe have committed against those of Albion. You have trespassed and broken laws --"

"Your law doesn't matter here," Sophia sneered.

Arthur spread his hands. "If it does not, then yours certainly do, O Queen of the Unseleighe. By your own law, you are guilty of leading an invasion into protected lands, and we are due a tithe for every life unduly stolen and every damage done to land and property. You are to pay the fine owed and leave, to never return."

Queen Sophia's snarl made her next words incomprehensible. Gwaine was the only person in the entire court who was grinning like a loon, and Merlin wondered if the Unseleighe, or Sophia herself, had engineered the circumstances that led to his family's downfall. A flare of panic burned through Merlin that maybe Gwaine had planned this all along for his own revenge, and would leave them all by the wayside, but Gwaine's pleasure slowly faded, and he looked grim again.

"Should either of you refuse these terms, I am within my rights under your laws to challenge for both your thrones."

Sophia's heavy breathing was the only sound in the hall. Her eyes glowed faintly blue and her hands closed into tight fists. Merlin saw her raise her arm, and was ready to step out of the court's audience to stop whatever she was about to do, but Elena was there, suddenly, catching Sophia's wrist and dragging it down. Magic fizzled in the air, the spell unfinished.

Elena once again gave Arthur a curious look, her head tilted to the side in consideration. When she spoke, it was with the soft charm that made Merlin fight to keep his senses against the natural enchantment of the Seleighe Sidhe. "I see much of your mother in you, Arthur, son of Uther, son of Ygraine. I will not dispute your rights under our laws, nor deny the kinship I sense between us."

The acknowledgement of Arthur as one of their own sent a soft murmur of approval down the court along the side of the light, but grudging snarls along the dark.

"But these lands are not protected, and they have not been for hundreds of years. The King of Kings in Albion is long dead, and the Great Oak has burned to ashes. Challenges amongst the Sidhe are done in pairs, and even if you should claim the throne of Albion, you are alone. We cannot accept your challenge." Elena sounded sad.

Sophia's fury faded to triumph.

"Well," Arthur said, preternaturally calm, "I hate to be the bearer of bad news. The legends speak of the Pen y Ddraig who will return in the times of Albion's greatest need, and of the Great Oak who will live again to protect Albion from her enemies."

That was Merlin's cue.

He stepped forward, breaking the perfect lines on either side of the great hall. The breach attracted everyone's attention, and as he moved to the centre of the open court, he felt hands reach for him to pull him back. His magic snapped out to shrug them off.

Merlin walked toward the throne, past the guards who rapidly scattered to get away from him. He dropped the burlap rag from around Arthur's sword.

As always, there was a shock when his hand wrapped around the hilt, his fingers brushing at the crosspiece. His magic responded with a wash of flames, curling purple-white and hot as it travelled along its length, flashing with a bright ripple when it reached the end.

Merlin held it high for all to see.

He turned to Arthur, offering the sword hilt-first, and Arthur, without hesitation, wrapped his hand around the flames. The fires quenched at once, as if drenched by a great waterfall, and the splash of resonating power rang clear as a bell in the silent hall.

 

Tarot card:Magic rises up to meet Merlin as he draws his weapons, sparking like embers and fog in the air around him, the protective knotwork of the triskelion glowing behind him.

 

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Hours passed, and the queens of the Sidhe hadn't responded to the challenge. Arthur stared once again at the far doors where the two women had gone, edgy with anticipation.

The hall weren't empty, and more than once several members of the Sidhe left, only to return some time later. Gwaine had ducked away often under the pretense of checking on whatever important business the Sidhe purported to have, when the truth of it was that he was passing messages to those of Arthur's men who had made it inside. Though he didn't explicitly say so, Arthur suspected that every now and then, Gwaine walked past the closet where he had stuffed the body of the noble whose clothes he was now wearing, pausing for a few seconds to kick the poor sod a few times in the head to ensure he remained unconscious.

They didn't need trouble now.

"It's fine," Kay said, slapping Arthur on the chest. "Just another bout. Keep to the old tactics, fake them out, put on a show, end it fast. We'll rake it in."

Incredulous, Arthur asked, "You didn't seriously start a betting pool here, of all places."

Kay scratched the back of his neck. He shrugged, waved a hand in a gesture that was probably supposed to distract Arthur from the subject, and fretted, "I wish we could get you better armour."

Arthur blinked at the whiplash. "Your confidence in me is astounding."

"Oh, I'm not saying I don't have complete faith in your ability to trounce their so-called champions' arses. I just want to see you on the other side of this alive, yeah? Preferably in as few pieces as possible," Kay said, tugging at a tear in Arthur's jacket.

"We're all in agreement on that one," Merlin said, his voice low. The Sidhe had allowed Arthur one human servant to assist in the preparations for the challenge, but had refused any other requests. While Merlin kept an eye out against the Sidhe who were too nervous to approach them, Kay took care of whatever else they needed. They were limited to whatever Kay could bring them, and it was fortunate that Kay knew his way around the Mercian castle as well as he did, because he'd brought them clean water to drink, dried nuts and berries to eat, and first aid equipment that they might need in the aftermath.

Arthur had fought Gwaine enough times to know what he was in for. He could only hope that Gwaine's claims of being one of the best swordsmen in the world hadn't been full of fancy, because otherwise, Arthur didn't have half a chance of surviving.

The point was moot if there was to be no challenge at all.

Arthur nearly jumped out of his own skin when the far doors opened wide. Both queens emerged from the darkness beyond, walking side by side, followed by a retinue that was equally split on either side. But where Queen Sophia of the Unseleighe stopped her forward march at the height of the dais, Queen Elena of the Seleighe continued on, descending the steps with a flowing, boneless grace, the light tendrils of her cloak and robes floating in the faint breeze. She headed for Arthur, pausing to stop some distance away from Merlin, where she bowed her head and held a curtsy for what was an uncomfortably long time before Merlin nodded uncertainly.

Elena took that as permission, because she approached Arthur determinedly, again stopping to bow her head and offer him the very same curtsy that she had given Merlin.

Arthur didn't make her wait as long before accepting her presence, though he kept an eye on the two Sidhe who had followed after her. Both stood outside of Merlin's protective ring, and where one was tall and broad-shouldered, with light blond hair and pale blue eyes, wearing silver-red armour of the Champion of the Seleighe, the other was short, with black hair and the same blue eyes, shrouded in the navy-blue robes of a Sidhe High Sorcerer.

"Your Majesty," Elena said, her voice ringing through the hall as clear as a bell, "please accept my surrender. I accept all the terms you have set forward and recognize you as Ygraine's heir, the King of all Seleighe."

At the announcement, the Seleighe on the grey side of the room swept down to bow or curtsy, holding their poses just as Elena had. Arthur could easily believe that the Seleighe had practiced if they hadn't been standing solemn in this very hall, speaking quietly amongst themselves the entire time the queens had been away. Arthur glanced at Merlin; Merlin half-turned and shrugged, not knowing what to do any more than Arthur did. Gwaine hadn't said anything about this, but that was probably because he had had no idea how the queens would respond to the challenge.

"I accept your surrender and your allegiance," Arthur said, and Elena curtsied again. It was only when she rose, this time of her own volition, that all the other Seleighe Sidhe stood up straight, their corner of the room suddenly a great deal whiter than it had been before.

"Our ways may be strange to you. Our customs as alien as yours are to us. Would you allow me to present myself as a guide and counsellor?" Elena asked.

Carefully, Arthur said, "As my regent, I expect no less and am grateful. However, I would be remiss if I only had one person in my counsel."

"Of course," Elena said, seemingly not at all offended. "There are words that you and I would share. Is there another whom you would trust to confirm what I am about to say?"

Arthur looked to Merlin, who snorted and shook his head, tilting his head toward the crowd. Not me, Arthur almost heard him say, But try that impatient bugger about to crawl out of his skin.

Gwaine was indeed a tense ball of nerves where he stood among the crowd, and at Arthur's faint gesture, he surged forward with such haste that Arthur thought he would trip over himself in crossing the room. Gwaine stood next to Arthur, but all of his attention was on Elena.

Elena was unsurprised, her eyes bright to set upon him, her smile restrained and sad. From the way they looked at each other, Arthur suspected that there was far, far more to the story of Gwaine's disgrace and banishment from the Sidhe than he had revealed.

Slowly, as if with great difficulty, Elena turned to Arthur and said, "The Unseleighe Court has refused the terms of surrender and have raised none to counter. They accept your challenge."

Arthur looked past Elena to the raised dais at a furious Sophia, who was speaking in low, heated tones with another blonde woman he didn't recognize and an older Sidhe in deep navy robes. The Sidhe woman was smaller than the queen, though more compact and solidly built, her eyes heavily lined with black Kohl and her armour a charcoal grey lined with blues and silvers. The older man reminded Arthur of Monmouth, standing aloof with a dignified air, and carrying a gnarled wooden staff topped by a pale blue stone with the same menace as the woman did her sword.

"I see," Arthur said neutrally.

"Challenges are done in pairs," Gwaine said, much to Arthur's relief. Arthur had known this much, but not what went on beyond. Gwaine hadn't wanted to say in case they didn't get this far, but Arthur had assumed that the standard rules would apply. "Sorcerer against sorcerer, warrior against warrior. If one wins their battle, they recuse themselves from the field. The magic users can't use weapons, and the fighters can't use magic."

"Sounds simple," Arthur said, looking at Merlin.

"Challenges are normally to first blood," Elena said, casting a surreptitious glance toward Sophia. "But some believe in older rules."

"Cheating to win, and winning by killing?" Arthur asked, preferring not to mince words. Elena's wince was answer enough, but she turned her body aside and swept an arm out to indicate the tall, armoured blonde and the sorcerer waiting just outside Merlin's ring. Though gauging the age of a Sidhe was difficult, Arthur could tell that both men were older, their experience showing in their eyes.

"Knight Tristan and Sorcerer Agravaine are both kin to you and Champions of the Seleighe," Elena said. "We would be remiss to lose our King so soon after receiving him. They wish to fight for you in your stead."

"It's normal and expected," Gwaine said quickly. "And they are the best. You can trust them not to throw you under a cart, either. It won't go well for them if they do."

Kin was the only word that stood out in all that both Elena and Gwaine had said. Arthur glanced down at the tugging of his sleeve and saw Kay nodding encouragingly at him, though perhaps not for the reasons that Arthur's two counsellors believed in. Kay understood -- Kay knew -- what it was like to have grown up with a distant father, an absent mother, and a conniving sibling more concerned for her ambition than the strength of familial ties. Merlin knew, too, because he'd grown up with even less than Arthur, and without being asked, Merlin stepped aside and allowed the two Seleighe champions through.

This close, Arthur could see the similarities in the two men's facial features and in those he had memorized from the faded photographs of his mother. Tristan's hair was nearly the same shade; both men had the same eyes. There was something of a shared mouth between Agravaine and Ygraine, and Arthur wondered if they had the same smile. "You are my mother's brothers?"

"We are," Agravaine said, but it was Tristan who smiled and looked all the more like Ygraine, so much so that Arthur's chest tightened with an ache for a mother he had never known. "Is she --"

"You can tell me about her after this business is done," Arthur said, cutting off the question he knew was coming. Agravaine's eyes clouded with the grief of a freshly-opened wound, but Tristan stood all the taller, nodding curtly as if he hadn't expected more.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shrewd grin pull at Sophia's mouth. No doubt she expected Arthur to pass his responsibility on to someone else. She must know what weaknesses the Seleighe champions possessed, and was poised to take advantage.

"Forgive me. I won't forget that you offered your lives in my place, but I won't lose more family. This is a battle that Merlin and I will fight ourselves."

"Are you certain?" Agravaine asked, glancing dubiously at Merlin.

Arthur met Merlin's gaze and nodded. "We are certain."

Elena's expression turned mournful, but she quickly recovered, serene and calm once again. "Then the choice has been made, and we will retreat to the field of challenge."

"Do they need to know right away?" Arthur asked, nodding toward Sophia and her entourage.

Elena was more subtle and didn't look around. Her smile was small and wicked. "Oh, it's tradition for the combatants to be introduced on the battlefield."

"In that case," Arthur nodded to Merlin, who left the outer rim of the protective circle he'd drawn and joined them. He turned to look at Agravaine and Tristan, and invited, "Perhaps you can share your expertise with us. I'm certain the challenges I've fought aren't quite the same as yours."

"Never having fought one myself, I've no idea what to do," Merlin said amiably, falling in step beside Arthur as Elena led the way out of the hall. "Is it like a quick draw match for sorcerers? Or something along the lines of age before beauty? I could give the old coot the first round, it's only polite, I think. Oh, are we penalized if a spell goes awry and kills the other team's fighter?"

Kay walked on Arthur's other side, and both Tristan and Agravaine followed behind them. Arthur saw the two exchange commiserating glances, and he didn't blame them. He could sense Merlin's nerves, but rather than beg for silence, Arthur found comfort in Merlin's questions, even if they went unanswered.

Acutely aware that the Unseleighe were behind them, as was the custom of those challenged, none of them spoke again until they emerged through the southern gate of the fortress to ground that had already been cleared of bodies and debris. It seemed as if all of the Sidhe were present, standing idly in a circle that widened outward as they arrived, making room for the nobles. There were no familiar faces and no friendly ones, either, not in this crowd, and for that, Arthur was glad.

In the hours wasted waiting for the queens to discuss the challenge made, Arthur had worried that the army would have dispersed, seeking their own safety rather than victory, but in the distance, he could see the line of horsemen against the rise along the western horizon, their long shadows shrinking as the sun sank from the sky. Arthur claimed the western side of the circle, wanting the sun at his back.

"It's best to stop Aulfric as quickly as possible," Agravaine said, immediately turning to Merlin. There would be no privacy here, not with the nobles around them, but at least they would have a few moments of surprise and more time to plan a strategy. "He's old and his stamina isn't what it used to be. His spells will be killing spells --"

Merlin didn't look like he was listening, though. His eyes narrowed as he watched Aulfric, and he was distracted and fidgety. Arthur wasn't certain why.

Tristan filled Arthur's line of sight. Though his eyes were filled with concern, his voice was so soft that Arthur had to strain to hear him. "Morgause is small. Fast. Deadly. Those gauntlets aren't for decoration or to protect her manicure -- she fights in the old style, and I've seen that take down men three times her size."

Arthur looked past Tristan. The Knight's description of Arthur's opponent reminded him of Anaïs -- short, slim, and sneaky. "Morgause?"

"Morgause," Tristan confirmed, glancing over his shoulder. He frowned. "Do you know her?"

"Never met her before," Arthur said honestly, relaxing now that he had a damn good reason to fight for the kill, if it came to that. When they'd found Nimueh hanging outside Mercia, Merlin had wondered where her right hand was, and it was here, here, because she was Sidhe. What disguise had she worn, that Merlin had not recognized her? "When do we begin?"

A faint tinkle, like water dripping down bells, made the air shimmer in a radiance of pinkish-yellow light before fading.

"Now," Tristan said, moving out of the way. "Good luck, your Majesty."

Arthur glanced at him, frowning at how easily the title had fallen from his uncle's lips and how... right it seemed to fit. He turned away, uncomfortable.

There was no movement on the other side of the ring. Morgause was inspecting her gauntlet and Aulfric was speaking in low tones to another Unseleighe. Agravaine was still instructing Merlin, his expression irritated and growing more so as he realized that Merlin wasn't listening to him at all. Arthur went to stand next to Merlin, nudging his arm gently to distract him.

"What is it?" Arthur asked.

"That's not -- that's just wrong," Merlin said, in that same frustrated, disjointed tone that had followed him since Arthur had drawn the sword from the burning tree stump in Carmarthen. Sometimes, Arthur thought he understood what Merlin was going through, but other times, like this one, it was as if Merlin was haunted by memories that weren't his own.

Before Arthur could even attempt to soothe Merlin, Merlin stalked out into the ring.

"Hey. Hey! Give that back," Merlin shouted.

Aulfric, a raised eyebrow the only hint of concern, lifted the staff in the air. He stretched his free arm out toward Merlin, a sickly green-blue ball of light appearing in his palm, and --

The staff abruptly wrenched out of his grasp, flying across the clearing to slap into Merlin's hand. Merlin slammed the staff onto the ground, shattering the blue crystal against stone. When he righted it, the gnarl of branches at the crown of the staff twined together into an elaborate braid, and once knotted, burst into a blue-white flame.

No one spoke, but no one was more aghast about what Merlin had done than Aulfric, whose magic had fizzled out in his hand. Merlin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, tension bleeding out of his shoulders. When Merlin glanced around, eyebrows up and his mouth in a confused "O", he was more himself than Arthur had seen him in weeks. "Um. Did I do something wrong?"

Arthur glanced at Agravaine, who rubbed the flat of his palm against his jaw, a wry, impressed smile across his face. "Well, that's one way to win a challenge."

Merlin confusedly looked from Agravaine to Aulfric.

"He's lost the object that focuses his magic," Agravaine said, a critical tone seeping into his voice. "You've destroyed and reformed it." Then, more to himself, he mused, "If I'd known it would be that easy..."

Aulfric, pale with shock, raised his hands in surrender. A furious Sophia shouted admonitions in his ear, pointing angrily toward the ring, but Aulfric only shook his head and turned away, disappearing into the crowd with a humiliated stumble. Arthur wasn't entirely certain what was going on, but he'd take the win for what it was.

Merlin shot Arthur a sheepish, apologetic look. Arthur sighed, shaking his head fondly, but inwardly, he was grateful. The next part of the plan required Merlin, and Merlin couldn't perform his assigned task if he was caught up in combat and exhausted by the aftermath. Arthur headed for the middle of the ring, thumbing over his shoulder. "Looks like it's my turn."

"Keep them busy for me," Merlin murmured, and Arthur followed his glance to where Sophia stood on a small platform, high above the mud and muck, her arms crossed over her chest. She glowered hotly, while Morgause was as cold as ice, murder writ as a promise in her eyes.

"You sound like Kay," Arthur scowled, squeezing Merlin's hand. "Do you get a payout too, the longer the fight lasts?"

"Uh, yeah," Merlin said. "A free Albion. Well worth the cost."

"What about me?" Arthur asked, affronted.

"You?" Merlin smiled. "You're not my payout. You're my prize."

Merlin brought Arthur's hand to his lips in a show of affection that caught Arthur's breath. He let go, trailing his hand up Arthur's arm, and squeezed.

A pulse of magic tingled along Arthur's skin, activating the tattooed pauldron on his shield arm. It was unfinished, much to Merlin's dismay, but it would be enough. Arthur had promised him that it would be.

"Bloody sap. Get out," Arthur said quietly. I love you too, he didn't say, but he didn't think he needed to. Arthur waited until Merlin had returned to the sidelines before drawing his sword. He turned to face Morgause, and in the movement, spotted Mordred in the crowd. He wore a stolen blue robe, too, and no one stopped him as he slowly made his way toward Merlin where he would join Kay and Gwaine in guarding over Merlin when he raised the cold iron from the ground and turned it upon the Sidhe.

"Ever hear the old human saying to never make a deal with a Sidhe? It's a fair warning, that. Make your conditions for surrender all you want. Take whatever word they give. But even if the Seleighe Sidhe will honour their promises, the Unseleighe never will. You need to show that you can keep them out, and that's where Emrys comes in," Gwaine had said.

Morgause must have been waiting for Merlin to move out of the way, because she advanced, her weapon held close to her body, her helm's faceplate hiding everything but the narrow glint of her piercing gaze. She was a juggernaut storming forward, every step light and precise. Arthur remained stock still, his weapon ready, until she was close enough to strike.

She had the shorter reach, but the longer, thinner blade. She didn't need to get through Arthur's guard for an attack, and crowding close would win her no advantage. Where she lacked in solid brute force, she made up in flexibility and speed, but even the most finely made blade could be bent past its breaking point.

It was just a matter of pushing it there.

Her sword slashed, wild and uncontrolled. A testing blow, and nothing more. Arthur retreated from the swinging arc, drawing her in, in, in.

He parried a strike and locked her blade with the hilt of his sword. He pushed to force the weapon away and leave her open and vulnerable. But he should have known that the woman who would come to Albion, don a Human seeming, infiltrate the Sisterhood, and seduce others to her side would never let vulnerability become a weakness.

She turned it against him, twisting beneath his arm to lock his sword in turn. The movement brought her close to Arthur, and she slammed her armoured elbow into his chest hard enough to be felt through the layers of leather and steel and magic. Morgause danced away before Arthur could retaliate, and closed in again.

Their swords clashed. To Arthur's ears, the metal rang with a discordant chime -- Sidhe metalwork against Albion steel. Theirs was a contest of skills, attacks pressing against offences, only to be turned against the other. It was more of an intricate dance with fancy footwork on Morgause's part and treachery in her motions, each gesture trying to goad Arthur outside of his comfort zone.

Arthur wasn't an idiot. He knew he wasn't as fast as Morgause, and that eventually, she would get under his guard. She would have to do it quickly, because Arthur could hear her breathing had deepened from the exertion and she was pushing herself too hard. But more than that, her strike would need to be fatal and sure, because Arthur's sword had damaged the edge of hers.

Morgause drew back. They circled around each other. Arthur knew he was being inspected for weaknesses, for lingering injuries from the morning's battle that could be used to gain the upper hand. Arthur didn't bother to return the favour. Even if he lost, they would win the war.

He let Morgause see his attention drift, as if distracted. Merlin's eyes were closed and he was leaning heavily against Gwaine; Elena was regarding him with suspicion, and Agravaine's eyes were pinched. Kay's concern was split by a sudden, broad grin when he realized what Arthur was doing, and Tristan shouted something that Arthur couldn't hear --

Arthur saw Morgause's rapid advance almost too late. He dodged, giving her his left side --

In that split second, he realized that he had no shield. Morgause's mouth curled into a gleeful smile, full of menace and hate, and there was so much certainty in her eyes that she had won that Arthur knew it almost at once.

Poison.

The sword slashed down his arm. Sidhe metal cut through leather and reinforced chain, through linen shirt and --

The edge struck armour. Merlin's magic flared to life and the shadow-outline of the tattooed pauldron magnified bright and golden in the dying light of the day.

And something broke.

It was deep inside of him. At the centre of his core. A cascade of power unlike anything he'd ever felt, and he heard a roar --

It was the earth itself rising from the depths, a tremulous thunder-crack of the sky, the resonating drumbeat of a calm day.

It was him.

Still human, still Arthur, and yet, Morgause's sword shattered against dragonskin.

 

Image of the Sidhe Crest

 

 

Oak Tree Chapter Divider

 

Despite being able to sense the cold iron already imbued with his magic, Merlin couldn't reach it. It wasn't that he couldn't concentrate. He didn't dare.

He was afraid that if he took his eyes from Arthur, something would happen. But by that same reasoning, if he didn't do his job, things were going to go to shite, and that would be a waste. So far, everything had gone according to plan, turning out even more in their favour than even Gwaine could have anticipated, but if Merlin didn't hold up his end, everything would fall apart like a flimsy house of cards.

"You can't trust the Unseleighe," Gwaine had told them. "Every time you think we're doing enough, that our point has been made, I guarantee they'll see it as a weakness. They say they'll give up, but they'll stab you in the back as soon as you look away. They say you've won, only to take your position from you when you least expect. And it won't be just the Unseleighe. It's all the Sidhe. You're the rightful heir, and the Seleighe have to respect that, but they won't support you until they see you strong, unrepentant, and unyielding."

Arthur had gotten the Seleighe to accept him as Ygraine's son and as their King. It was a grudging acceptance under the letter of their law, but he couldn't stop there. It wasn't enough. He had to win the challenge against the Unseleighe. They had to win it. They'd intended that Arthur would fight first, so that Merlin could draw the iron closer and use it in combat, but Merlin had gone and spoilt it when he'd...

He hadn't thought. A piece of him was in foreign hands, and Merlin hadn't liked it. He'd reacted, nothing more, and hadn't relaxed until the staff was in his hands and the stone broken, allowing the wood to restore itself the way it was meant to be, and --

And now Arthur was fighting Morgause, and Merlin had to come up with a different plan. Their army was on the outskirts, but it wouldn't take them long to arrive on the field of battle. The iron was ready to be used, but he couldn't be seen to interfere in the challenge or Arthur would lose -- not just his position, but everything, right down to the Seleighe throne. He could tell Elena was worried about Arthur's chances from the way she clenched her hands together, and more than once, Agravaine's hands twitched as if he wanted to intervene. Tristan hissed through his teeth, crossing his beefy arms over his chest, and Merlin was sure that none of them wanted to be as involved in the fight as Merlin.

Arthur retreated from Morgause's wild swings. He raised his sword to block, moving around Morgause easily. Arthur couldn't possibly know how beautiful he was in combat, as fluid and as graceful as any of the Sidhe, but with a heady, restrained strength that put Morgause's fierceness to shame. It was mesmerizing to watch, and Merlin needed to fucking concentrate.

He needed a plan.

He closed his eyes so that he couldn't watch any more of the fight, but he drew a blank. He wasn't a tactician or a strategist. His sole contribution to the battle plans Arthur and Gwaine had put together was to be the blunt hammer of magical power against the Sidhe. Merlin might have trained at Ironwood. He might be Ironwood himself. But the only thing he knew to do was to run.

Run.

And he knew. He knew what he had to do. It was so simple.

Merlin had only ever run for one reason. Fear. Not for his own safety, but for the lives of those he loved, for the innocent, for those he had never met.

The Sidhe had never known that kind of fear.

They had to end this. They had to be decisive. They had to draw a line in the sand so deep that the Sidhe themselves wouldn't dare return.

Merlin signalled the armies scattered around Mercia to begin their approach. He raised an illusion to mask their advance, to make it seem as if they were still far in the distance. Illusions wouldn't muffle the sound of thousands and thousands of mounted soldiers, archers, and footsoldiers marching across the terrain. Merlin reached deep, deep down, rooting through the ground, questing for whispers of life in an earth preparing for a cold winter, and he felt the land respond.

It swallowed every footfall, every hoofbeat, and the army moved as one, silent as ghosts.

Merlin tied the illusion to the earth and stretched outward, reaching for the iron scattered around the fortress. It was difficult to focus through the sounds of battle, and at every scuffle, Merlin would jerk up, thinking it was Arthur -- slipping, stumbling, falling. Mordred steadied him and murmured, "I have him."

"Just do whatever you're going to do," Gwaine whispered, pulling Merlin against him. "Lean against me if you need to."

Merlin needed to.

Seconds or centuries passed, but Merlin was able to block out the sound. He was still rooted to the earth, which helped, and once he held on tightly to the bond he had with Arthur instead of listening to the noise around him, he was able to reach out in a dozen different directions. He latched onto the precious stores of cold iron, latching onto the firepower that had been blended into the metal, and raised --

The spells hiding the metal from the Sidhe had held. The few men who had volunteered to come into Mercia with them had managed to move the stockpiles in the distraction of the challenge. It was easier, now, to drag them even closer, to separate the blobs of metal into their individual components. He tucked the firepowder away where it needed to be. He shifted the cold iron onto the catapults that were finally close enough and rolling closer still as the army approached. He --

He reached down, down, down, into his heart, into his bones, into his soul. Into the earth beyond the grasp of mortal Men. Deep, deep, deep, where the pool of the Great Mother's magic rippled like an ocean under a bright, full moon. He let himself drown in the warmth that waited for him.

It was an embrace that he'd never felt before. A gentle touch against his skin, soothing and comforting. Ethereal fingertips against his cheek, a warm blanket swaddling him and holding him close. It was familiar and unfamiliar all at once, and Merlin shivered as it pulled away from him and drowned him in the waters of the earth.

He was in three places at once -- within the earth, upon the earth, high above. In the maelstrom of bullets that swirled above them, hidden by the glamour of a darkening night and a cloudless sky. On the ground, rooted down, surrounded by the enemy, trying not to listen as his love fought alone. Deep below, in the Great Mother's core, his heart beating along to a rhythm that wasn't his own.

For a brief moment, everything was in balance.

Merlin could feel it the moment the armour he had tattooed onto Arthur flared to life. The distraction pulled at his magic and disoriented him. He could sense power -- power, sheer and alive in a way that magic never was -- and it rose out of Arthur, through him, and --

A terrible roar split the air and shook the ground. The air filled with ozone. Merlin opened his eyes, half-expecting to see a dragon like the ones in the old storybooks that Hunith used to read at him, late at night, when he didn't want to sleep. All he saw was Arthur.

The dragon had been there all along.

Dreadful in his fury, mighty in his strength, overwhelming in nobility.

Morgause had struck him cleanly on the arm. She hadn't drawn blood. Whether it was the pauldron Merlin had tattooed on Arthur's shoulder that was suddenly almost a physical object, or the draconic power that had saved him -- it didn't matter. What mattered was that Arthur's essence had protected him in a way that should be impossible, and now the Sidhe knew, without a doubt, who and what Arthur was.

Shards of foreign metal splintered in the air. Morgause's sword had shattered on contact.

Merlin could only guess at what might have awakened the Pen y Ddraig, but it was out now, unbridled and unrestrained. Arthur was stripped raw, naked of human seeming for a bare instant, absolutely affronted by something that Merlin hadn't seen.

He retaliated. By punching Morgause in the face.

Morgause staggered back. She dropped her grasp on a useless hilt, and fell flat on her arse. Her free hand flew to her face, pushing up the visor, and came away with blood on the gauntlet.

"First blood!" Elena shouted, sounding far too gleeful for a queen regnant.

Sophia raised her chin in defiance and turned away, purposely not looking at the blood on Morgause's face. The gesture was enough that all the Unseleighe also turned away, some of them going so far as to stare at the ground or at the sky.

One by one, the Seleighe Sidhe summoned witchlights to all around the challenge ring. It was almost so bright that Merlin thought they would see through the illusion he had cast above and beyond, and see the threat that was waiting for them.

"Yield," Arthur said, turning toward Morgause.

"Never," Sophia said. Morgause sneered, wiping her bloody face on the sleeve of her overtunic. She drew a pair of knives. Without a sword or a weapon giving her longer range, she would be at a disadvantage, and she knew it, too. Merlin could only think she planned to do the worst, and he could do nothing to stop her, not with nearly all of his concentration elsewhere, his magic masked, and only barely, by the cold iron.

The Seleighe protested, but none of them stepped forward to stop the fight. Gwaine had warned them that this might happen if they made it this far, that the Unseleighe would never back down if they thought they had a chance to win, however underhanded. Elena's expression was grim, but she didn't appear to be unsurprised, and her short-lived pleasure was hidden behind cold eyes and a clenched jaw.

"Mordred," Merlin said, feeling dizzy. Gwaine caught Merlin by the waist, dragging him close as if nothing was wrong, and made something that might have been an encouraging or a comforting sound. Merlin couldn't tell which.

"I've got him," Mordred said again.

"It's not that," Merlin said, his voice small and strained.

Mordred looked at him then, his eyebrows to his hairline, and he glanced up at the sky before nodding. "Arthur!"

Arthur raised his hand. He didn't turn around. It seemed that he knew what was going on, because as he circled the ring to stay away from Morgause. He warned, "Yield."

"Or what?" Morgause taunted, gesturing to Arthur's arm with a knife. "Your charm is broken and you're unprotected."

"Yield," Arthur said dangerously, his voice deepening, nearly guttural, "Or we go to war."

All Merlin could hear was, Now. Do it now.

With a tremble of relief, Merlin released the illusion, allowing it to drop to the ground. The earth welcomed the magic even as it withdrew the protection against sound, and the cacophony of horses tromping along a restrained line. No doubt the army was wondering how they could have gotten so close without alerting the Sidhe, but they weren't questioning their good luck.

The Sidhe startled at the sudden presence around and above them. Cries combined with shouts. The Seleighe drew away. The Unseleighe drew their weapons. And --

"Now," Merlin heard himself say, but it was in an echo that rang three times in his head.

He released another spell.

The firepowder melded with the iron scattered around the castle and the fortress abruptly went off in multiple locations, each one with a burst of magic that returned to Merlin with lively energy that refilled his flagging strength and made him struggle to maintain balance. He felt Mordred move forward and Gwaine draw his sword, but he couldn't move until --

There.

The iron gates, both those existing and those that Merlin had magic-forged, finally, finally fell. The castle of Mercia, the fortress... It was closed off, blocking the Sidhe from within from leaving to join the battle, and prevented the vulnerable, cowardly nobles from escaping to safety.

"You cheated!" Sophia snarled.

"You first," Arthur said, gesturing at something on the ground. The glittering shards of Morgause's sword seemed to glow of their own light despite the darkness and the witchlights bobbing around the field, and Merlin understood.

"Poison," Merlin said.

"Isn't that a crime against your liege? Even in the midst of a challenge?" Arthur asked, his tone full of mockery. He shook his head, his attention locked on Morgause, but his words were addressed to all. "Do none of you understand? This is our land. It protects us even as we protect it. It won't let us come to harm."

Even now, Merlin could feel the benevolence of the earth twining up to surround them with so much energy that the ground glowed. It gave Merlin the sort of clarity of mind that he never thought that he would have with his senses stretched as thinly as they were.

He could focus now that his attention wasn't devoted to the iron flying over the countryside and within the castle proper. The only magic that required his concentration now was the storm of cold iron overhead. His first few steps were on wobbly legs, but he shook off Gwaine's supporting hand and continued on until he stood at Arthur's side.

"Yield and surrender," Arthur said again, his voice calm and yet ringing in the darkness. "No harm will come to you. But raise your arms against us, and you will all die, to a man."

The Seleighe Sidhe moved silently aside to line the fortress wall, their hands raised, their weapons sheathed. Elena stood amongst them, as did Gwaine, though Gwaine kept his weapon out and himself between the former queen and the rest of them. The Unseleighe were left in a scattered semi-circle, uncertain and without leader; the nobles closest to Arthur and Merlin exchanged glances, as if measuring themselves in the others' eyes, silently warring for or against a leadership and the political gain it would win them in exchange.

"Men never learn," Sophia said haughtily, her eyes shining with a faint blue light. "The thanes thought they could best us in combat. Their numbers were many, but for all their strength of arms, they were useless against us. Swords of bronze and brittle steel. Arrows made of raw wood and birdfeather. Hobbled witchcraft and sorcery. But they learned, and they died for their offence, and you --"

Sophia swept a hand around.

"A third of the men your predecessors had. Hedge witches and charm-makers. You may outnumber us for this short time --"

A terrific thump from within the fortress walls gave credence to Sophia's words. Merlin could feel the sheer strength of the Sidhe's magic and knew they would find a way through the stone where cold iron didn't interfere. It wouldn't be long before they made it through.

Merlin tuned back in, but Sophia was still talking.

"Doesn't she shut ever shut up?"

"No," Arthur said with a sigh. He took Merlin's hand and squeezed. "Are you ready for this?"

Merlin closed his eyes. He shook his head.

When he was a child, coddled and loved among those of Ironwood, Merlin had never thought he would use his magic for war. Thought trained for it, he had never imagined using it to kill and to destroy. On that day when he'd watched those men turn firearms against the innocent, it had broken something within him that he never thought he'd have again. A home.

He'd volunteered to lead the enemy away. He'd failed because he was never meant to run. This was his responsibility. He was meant to protect and to defend.

He offered Arthur a weak smile.

"There's an old saying," Merlin said, turning to look at Sophia.

Morgause had moved to stand beside the Unseleighe Queen, her knives still in her hand, a magical glow around them. The Unseleighe had moved to formation, their weapons drawn, and there was a chill of Sidhe magic in the air as each and every one of them, sorcerer and warrior, called their power to the fore.

"Really, really old. The last time it was ever used was a millennia before Ironwood first harried you from these shores."

Merlin dropped the last illusion and the last shield hiding his magic from the Sidhe.

The Unseleighe were either too distracted by the army marching on them or they weren't half as sensitive to magic as Merlin had believed them to be. It took them longer than Merlin thought before they began to realize there was magic buzzing like a hornet's nest overhead, and that none of it was their own.

Merlin didn't need to look to see what he could so easily feel. The swirling whirlwind above weighted nearly half a tonne and was an even mixture of old-style hand-packed bullet cartridges and musket balls. It rotated round and round in a slow twister, a solid grey cloud that glittered as it reflected the pale blue witchlight shining from below.

The Unseleighe must have sensed the iron before they sensed the magic, because their expressions were of unmitigated horror when they looked above.

Arthur raised his sword. Merlin held up his staff. He let his magic seep through his tattoos, where they glowed golden-bright.

"Bring the rain."

He picked a single bullet from the storm above and let the first raindrop fall.

Sophia collapsed like a puppet without its marionetteer.

She was pale against a dark ground scorched darker still by flame and fury and stained by the blood of countless Men who had fought to protect their land. Guilt, regret, mercy -- Merlin felt none of it. Not for this person who commanded the bulk of the Sidhe army, who had ordered the massacre of innocents, who had shown no quarter for those who peacefully surrendered in combat. She had sent her hunters to nip at the heels of those who had retreated rather than to give up. She had taken men, women and children and turned them into slaves, and had drawn all the natural magic from Mercia's shores, corrupting it into something twisted, broken, and cruel.

No more, Arthur had said.

Morgause was the first to react. She lunged forward, blades out, teeth bared like a feral cat, lunging for him. Arthur moved to protect Merlin, giving him a chance to draw upon the storm of bullets above to drive their enemy back. Merlin felt Mordred's hand at his back, lending him druidic magic to fuel his strength. Kay moved to guard Merlin's unprotected side.

The army pushed forward, herding the Sidhe into the bullets. Merlin felt the connection to each and every one break as they made contact with the Unseleighe.

"Protect the queen regent!" Gwaine shouted from somewhere behind him, his voice muted by the growing distance between them. The army Arthur had gathered together to Albion's banner thundered toward them, intent on their task, each soldier led by men and women of sufficient noble worth to be Knights as they had been in the days of old, before time had changed the meaning and the power of the title.

"Protect the King," Elena shouted in turn, and abruptly there was a tide of Seleighe Sidhe around them, driving the Unseleighe from the centre of the storm.

It was too, too easy to get lost in the swirl of magic, in the power of the whirlwind. His magic had melded with the impossible, was buoyed with the protective instinct of an earth-entity he could never hope to understand, and driven by the bloodthirst for revenge against all the pain and agony suffered throughout the years. It pushed him to grasp the iron above and to drive it all down at once, scouring the land clean.

Except that bloodthirst didn't belong to him.

He fought against Mordred's urges, shaking off the contact between them, and reached out blindly until his hand dropped onto hard leather and a familiar shoulder. The proximity and physical contact gave Merlin the clarity he'd lacked since stretching his magic as thinly as it would go and losing his mind to the storm above. He knew what to do.

They'd made the Sidhe know fear. They'd made the Sidhe want to run.

Now it was time to give them a place to run to.

He pulled all the power he could. The corrupted ground. The twisted air. The heart of Albion. The Great Mother. All of it, every ounce, until he could take no more.

Arthur anchored Merlin from the turbulent clatter of so many different magics, but he still felt as if he were lost, flying in a tempest, when he looked up into the swirling storm. He was nothing but the conduit of Albion's power when it transformed the Mercian shoreline into a shimmering portal into the Void.

He felt the first of the Unseleighe cross through. He heard Arthur's shouts commanding the Unseleighe to defect or to be banished. He saw nothing but the silvery light of the tear within space and time.

Minutes or hours. Days or decades. He held the gate open until the last one was herded through, and when he was done...

He was done.

Merlin closed his eyes and there was the blissful quiet of darkness.

 

Dragon Chapter Divider

 

Uther, the thane of Camelot, was dying.

Arthur sat at his father's bedside, leaning back heavily in the chair that the servants had brought in for him, and stared at Uther's sleeping form. Arthur's only regret was failing to have understood what Morgana was doing to their father far sooner than he had, nor done anything about it in time to save his mind. He hated knowing that he might have had a father if not for Morgana's ambitions. He prayed for a quick, painless passing even as he hoped for a miraculous recovery that would never come.

Uther was stronger on days like these, when the air was crisp and cold, the sky a clear blue, the sun shining down, but he'd exhausted himself with trying to do more than he could manage. The day had ended poorly, with Uther struggling to remember who Arthur was, frustrated by a knowledge that was just outside of his grasp. The druid healers had calmly guided Uther to his rooms and soothed his temper, giving him a sleeping draught with the promise that, Things will be better tomorrow.

White lies like these were the kindest. Arthur knew he should grieve, but he found that he didn't have it in him because he'd been grieving for the loss of a father he'd never known for years.

The door to the bedchamber cracked open, and Arthur rose when he saw Kay. He walked on stealthy feet to the door, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder, and offered a reassuring squeeze. Kay's jaw jutted out, but his eyes were as dry as Arthur's. He hadn't grieved, not for one second. He was the baby of the family, indulged and loved in Uther's own way, and he would break, Arthur knew, when Uther finally passed beyond the veil.

"You'll stay with him tonight?" Arthur asked. He didn't ask what he really wanted to ask, which was whether Kay wanted to stay.

"Tonight," Kay agreed, nodding mulishly. "Maybe tomorrow, too."

He took a deep, shuddering breath.

"Maybe longer. But I'll meet you --"

"Take as long as you need," Arthur said, pulling his brother in close. It was not a long journey to Caerleon, and they'd have to wait until after the spring tempests to sail across the sea to Munster from Odin's old Kingdom. They had months. Uther didn't have that long. Kay would need longer. "Will you talk to Morgana before you go?"

A wet, broken laugh escaped Kay's chest, and he shook his head. "No. Fuck it. No. I'd sooner kill her, and you said not to."

"Yeah," Arthur said, though there were times that he couldn't remember why. Most of the other collaborators -- with the Sisterhood, with the Sidhe -- had unilaterally been sentenced for treason under the laws of their own Kingdoms. Those who had escaped the harsh punishment because of legal loopholes would not escape death under the new laws of Albion, though there were a few who would be imprisoned for the rest of their days.

Under the laws of Camelot, Arthur had every reason to sentence Morgana to burning. Most of the Council had called for it as well. Those who had not accepted Arthur's judgment were dismissed, the remainder only vaguely assuaged by promises that the druids to keep her under control for the time being in the hopes of reforming her enough that she would undo the damage done to the few who might be salvageable.

Morgana had been unrepentant throughout her entire trial, becoming more and more unhinged as the days passed. All that time in other people's minds without the training to guard her own had had repercussions, and it showed. The druids feared that her own condition would only worsen the longer they kept her under wards, away from everyone. She refused training. She refused treatment.

Kay drew away from Arthur and swallowed thickly. His eyes were focused on a distant spot in Uther's room. "Will you?"

"I suppose I should," Arthur said, even though he had no idea what to say. He took one last glance over his shoulder at Uther's sleeping form, wondering which memory he would keep of him after Uther had passed. Uther, as he had been -- a vibrant, uncompromising man who had been sparse with his affections, or as he was now -- grey-faced and drawn, his hair nearly white, at least a few stones lighter than he had been only months before.

"Should let her rot," Kay muttered, but Arthur left him, pretending he hadn't heard. For all her faults, Morgana was still their kin, and she had been Arthur's sister, once.

It was fortunate that the Sidhe were gone and that Arthur could set his mind to other things. Merlin had cast the Unseleighe into the Void -- a dark and dreary place where the sun never rose and the moon never set. Those who remained free in the land of the Sidhe would either have to pledge allegiance to Arthur's regent, Elena, or also be cast through. The Seleighe had remained only long enough to ensure that the proper reparations for the war had been made, and Gwaine, for the longest time, had lingered on the docks, overseeing the Sidhe's final retreat, before deciding to remain.

"Even without my magic, I'll live a long time," Gwaine had said, his wry smile hiding a heavy heart. "This is more important. I will see her again."

And he would. Arthur would see to it. His regent would come to Albion when Arthur was ready, and he would need an envoy in the meantime.

While Mordred and the druids spread through the countryside to undo the damage the Sisterhood had wrought, Gwaine and Lamorak took the Knights hunting through Albion to root out any of the sleeper Sidhe before they could band together to free the banished Unseleighe and start another war.

In the aftermath, Percival and Pellinor, Bohrs and Anaïs, and several other Knights had been named guardians of the realm. They would bring balance in Kingdoms where the heirs of the fallen thanes attempted to reassert the status quo, establish some sort of government where there were no known heirs, and attempt to ease the strain between the castes until the time that Arthur was able to abolish the caste system entirely.

Arthur hoped some sort of peace would be achieved, however temporarily, by the time the spring came. The King of Eire had sent an invitation for an alliance, and Albion would be in a stronger position to negotiate if they could show all the Kingdoms united.

Arthur had no idea how he was going to manage all that.

He trotted past the old alchemist's tower. It was empty, now; Gaius had moved on to Leodegrace where he was able to continue his research unfettered. He'd admitted to wanting to be away from Morgana, not fully trusting that she was under control despite the druids' assurances, and Arthur had grudgingly let him go when Lancelot had pointed out that Gaius spent most of his time following the head alchemist of Leodegrace, a lovely woman named Alice, around, all moon-eyed and oblivious.

Men in love, Arthur could understand.

Arthur took a deep, steeling breath as he approached the southern tower. It was darker there; gloomier. The stairs led to either the dungeons below or the comfortable imprisonment of the cells above, and it was on nearly the top floor that Arthur found Morgana, under the careful guard of a sweet-faced young druid named Freya.

Freya closed her book at his approach. "Would you like a moment alone?"

"Please," Arthur said. "I shouldn't be long."

"Take as long as you like," Freya said, her smile kind, but Arthur thought he saw faint tension in her eyes. "I could stand to stretch my legs for a bit."

Arthur watched her go, but didn't turn toward the cell until he couldn't hear her footsteps descending the spiral staircase anymore. Freya and the other druids would never leave Morgana alone with anyone else -- even with the wards, it was simply too dangerous. They had found out the hard way that Morgana couldn't influence the Sidhe or the Sidhe-born. To Morgana, Gwaine's mind was simply too alien, like a slippery stream she couldn't latch onto. Arthur was human enough that she could try to gain control, and she had tried, it seemed, but had given up, believing that Arthur had been protected by his mother's magic.

Arthur didn't know what to make of it. His beloved sister might have loved him, once, and might love him still, though in her own way. To know that she had tried to control him the way she controlled their father, the way she had dug her fingers deep into the minds of council members and into Leon... He wanted to see his sister, not the enemy, and it was difficult to reconcile that both were one and the same.

"Are they treating you well?" Arthur asked.

Morgana's glower was almost a physical blow. She rose from her seat by the barred window and strode purposely toward the cell doors, throwing herself against the iron bars. Her slight weight didn't make them so much as wobble, and her fingers curled around them until her knuckles were white. Arthur was certain she was imagining strangling him.

Her hair was pinned up, though barely. The curls were wayward and knotted, as if she'd run her hands over her head multiple times absentmindedly, and only run her brush on one side, neglecting the other. Her make-up in stark, dark colours that were a terrible contrast to her usual pale hues, and she had eschewed her fancy dresses for long skirts and loose over-tunics.

The cell had every creature comfort she could want. A semi-private privy, her clothing hanging off to the side, a soft bed, books to read, a desk where she could write, if she were so inclined. She didn't keep it clean, and no servant was permitted inside. It was a pigsty, now, and Arthur wondered if she'd ever cleaned up after herself in her entire life.

"You know they're not," Morgana said, tilting her head the way she would examine a bug, the way she'd looked at him all through her trial. The worst thing Arthur had ever had to do was preside against a war criminal like Morgana, but he was glad that he'd recused himself from making the final decision, leaving it to the others to come to an agreement for her sentencing. She was alive only because of the intercession of the druids, and she loathed them, each and every one, but it was Arthur that she blamed for her fate, even though the only hand that had driven it was her own.

Arthur opened his mouth, only to close it with a sigh. How many times had he tried to speak with Morgana? To reason with her? He'd hoped to see some contrition in her actions, and no matter how hard he looked, he found nothing. He almost believed that the Morgana he'd known, once, who would take him riding to the grove and read him bedtime stories and steal sweets from the cooks during the festivals was still in there somewhere, trapped by her own power.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, and it sounded like a farewell to his own ears. Morgana must have thought the same, because the curled smirk fell away and she raised her chin to look at him more fully, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "For... whatever it was that I've done in my life to make you hate me so much. There's no undoing the past. No looking back. No promises that I could have made then, and none that I can make now that would make things better for you. For us."

"I don't want your charity," Morgana spat.

Arthur looked away. He searched his own mind, but didn't know what he could possibly say. Some of the druids believed that Morgana would fade away after Uther was gone. Others thought she would fragment into multiple minds. Everyone agreed that, perhaps, if they'd gotten to her sooner, if they had been able to help her train herself properly, if the Sisterhood hadn't tried to get its claws into her, if Morgause...

But it was too late.

Arthur ran his hands over the carved stone around Morgana's prison. The sigils there were modelled on the ones that Merlin had carved into the door of their bedroom. A shield to keep her trapped within. Protection against her magic. Merlin's memory of all things Ironwood might have been random and piecemealed, but what he remembered had been powerful, and the druids mourned the loss of all that knowledge. Not even the druids could break Merlin's wards.

He watched the magic shimmer under his touch. It was nothing like the golden magic he was more familiar with.

Arthur turned and walked away.

"How's Leon?" Morgana asked, her voice soft, without its usual mocking.

Arthur stopped on the second step, unsure if he'd heard properly. He turned to look at her, but whatever had prompted her to ask the question vanished as she pressed her head against the bars, her smile turning into something awful and mean.

He walked down the stairs without answering her.

Leon had healed from most of the damage she had inflicted, but there were other types of injuries, those of the heart and of the soul, that would take far longer, if they healed at all. Like Gaius, Leon refused to return to Camelot as long as Morgana was still alive, but there were times Arthur had caught him looking off into the distance, always to Camelot wherever they were, looking sad and wistful, aching for what might have been.

Arthur could never tell him that Morgana hadn't cared for him toward the end. Better the broken heart than a twisted soul and a lifetime of hate.

"All is well, my Lord?" Freya asked, crossing the lower hall to meet him. She had a new book in her hand, and Monmouth was behind her, wringing his hands nervously the way he always did.

Arthur glanced back the way he came. He considered for a long moment before turning back to a concerned Freya and said, "Well enough."

Don't trust her.

Freya smiled, as if she had heard his warning anyway. Arthur wasn't certain if the young woman's sharp canines were real, if the cat's-eye slit of her gaze was a trick of light, but he had seen many strange things these last few months, and decided that he had no real need to be certain. Freya curtsied, a small sweet smile as always, and said, "Safe travels, m'lord."

She walked past him, her step determined, and Arthur wondered what Freya would do if Morgana should try to escape. He shook the question out of his head -- he didn't want to know.

Monmouth approached him the instant Freya was gone, shoving papers into Arthur's chest that Arthur didn't have time to read. He very gently placed them all back into Monmouth's hands.

"Is this about the grain stores?" Arthur asked. "Because if you're about to tell me that we're going to be low if we keep distributing to everyone in Camelot, I'm afraid you're not telling me anything new. If you're going to beg me to stop, you're only wasting our time. Everyone's belts will tighten, but we'll make it through to the first harvest once we have the new fields growing. It'll be fine, Geoffrey."

"But --"

Arthur placed his hands on Monmouth's shoulders. "You ran Camelot when my father was a child. You've studied the old ways and the people trust you. I trust you."

Monmouth's lips moved, but no sound came out, and he lowered his head, abashed.

Arthur clapped Monmouth's arm, nearly dislodging the papers in his arms, and said, "You'll figure it out."

Monmouth sighed heavily in resignation. Finally, he nodded.

"My horse?" Arthur asked.

"Waiting for you in the courtyard, my Lord," Monmouth said with a sigh. "Shall we be seeing you again any time soon?"

Arthur grinned. He headed for the door, unwilling to let Monmouth slow him down for a second more, and said, "What, and disrupt how well things are running?"

His horse was saddled and ready to go, but so was Kay's. There were a handful of Knights waiting for him. Arthur spent a moment to let the stablemaster know that Kay would be staying for a few days more, and directed Galahad and Geraint to remain behind to accompany his brother when he was ready to arrive. Bedivere and Leonore both gave him stony looks when he started to dismiss them.

"Not alone, m'lord," Bedivere said, using the title less reverently than most. Leonore shot him a dark, chastising look, too starry-eyed from her recent knighting to be anything but absolutely respectful. The shine would wear off that armour, and soon, Arthur hoped. He knew that nothing was more humanizing than to see a figure of myth sleeping on the cold, muddy ground right next to them.

"It's only a short ride," Arthur protested, mounting Hengröen, who tossed his head and danced around in a circle, eager to get going after so many days of inactivity. "I'll be fine."

"Oh, aye," Bedivere said, only somewhat amused. "There's nothing like a former Brigand of Essetir to wake you up in the morning with a knife at your throat, or the bandits raiding all the supply stores for food you should have some sense to eat yourself, too."

"You can't tell me you're afraid of them," Arthur snorted, leading the way out of the castle gates.

"No, my Lord," Leonore said, fingers fretting with the bridle as she caught up with him on the road. "He's afraid of Lord Emrys and what he'll do if he hears we let you out by yourself."

"Merlin," Arthur said automatically, smiling despite himself.

Merlin had taken some of the men and women -- most of them former members or descendants of Ironwood -- to deal with the growing threat of thieves and cutthroats from Essetir. They styled themselves as the rebels did, though they were no rebels at all, instead stealing from everyone, keeping for themselves, and offering to sell the pilfered wares back to their original owner for a ridiculous fee. Merlin took particular glee in hunting them down, and Arthur preferred not to stand in his way.

It had been a fortnight since Arthur had seen him, but they were due to meet again. Arthur did not mean to go to Eire without Merlin, and he needed Merlin to help him build a stronger Albion before they crossed the sea.

"I'm sorry, my Lord?" Leonore asked, confused.

"Merlin," Arthur said. "It's not Lord, and he'll be the first person to shirk in horror if you call him that. And it's not Emrys, because he'll never answer to that name."

Leonore's brow furrowed in confusion. "But the men of Ironwood --"

Bedivere barked a sharp laugh and offered no explanation. Leonore's searching gaze went from the Knight to Arthur, who shrugged helplessly. "The men of Ironwood are right pillocks, as they themselves will admit, and for whatever reason, Merlin has given them leave to use that name. But for the rest of us unprivileged, we must call him as he likes, and he likes to be called Merlin."

Leonore's eyes were wide and scandalized. "But you -- you can't even -- I don't understand! He's your consort! He should... you don't... I mean, you should be able to call him whatever you want!"

Arthur reached out and took the loose reins of Bedivere's horse before Bedivere laughed himself into a ditch. Arthur would have laughed, too, if he didn't know that when Will and all the others shouted for Emrys, Merlin remembered the few good times he'd had as a child. To Merlin, that name on anyone else's lips just didn't sound the same.

He gave Leonore an assessing look. She was the youngest daughter of a minor merchant lord, trained in all the proper ways of decorum and courtly manner, but for whatever reason, she hadn't gone on to the Sisterhood with her older siblings. Her hair was cut short and curled just below her ears, and her slimness belied an impressive strength, but a childhood innocence still clung to her, and the world, when it was different, awed her.

In Leonore, in everyone, Arthur could already see the changes that had been wrought in the aftermath of the Sidhe's attempt to conquer Albion. Most of the thanes were dead and had been succeeded by their heirs, and though old prejudices were difficult to changes, the heirs were sufficiently shaken by what they had seen on the battlefield to at least strongly consider changing their views and their laws rather than face the wrath of the Pen y Ddraig. In the broken Kingdoms, the former rebels had taken over and were slowly rebuilding, though most had no idea how to run a town and were learning from others, like Gwen from Leodegrace and Geoffrey from Camelot.

Change would be slow in coming, but it would come. Maybe not in Arthur's lifetime, but he would be glad to see its beginning, especially if it came with the same sort of innocence that Leonore possessed, unable to forget her roots but willing to see beyond them.

"Oh, but in all fairness, I am his consort, too," Arthur said, tossing the reins at Bedivere when he burst into another fit of giggles. "And I do call him whatever I like. Usually in the bedroom."

Leonore flushed red, and it took the better part of an hour for Bedivere to catch up to them after he'd fallen out of his saddle, still laughing.

It was a matter of a few days of easy riding before they reached the meeting point outside of Camelot's old borders and in their new territory in the forest that had once bordered Essetir. The small village of Ealdor on the northern side was cluttered with older residents and new visitors, and as Arthur rode through in search of wherever it was that Merlin had cast his tent, he was pleased to see his Knights working alongside the people of Ironwood as they rebuilt the granary that had been burnt down by brigands. Spring was still a distant point in the horizon, but it harmed no one to be ready for the fall harvest.

Leonore went to help the men arguing over the proper cuts of timber to use, because she had been taught mathematics at her father's knee and knew something of proper architecture, while Bedivere joined the women weaving textiles, as much to flirt with the ladies as it was to shyly offer his aid, since he used to help his mother when he was a child, before he'd been forced to join Camelot's guards, and later, the Knights. Arthur rode on, frowning when he found no sign of Merlin, and nearly startled when Hengröen snorted in protest when Will appeared out of nowhere and grabbed his bridle.

"Looking for your better half?" Will asked, offering up a lopsided grin that might have been an apology if the setting sun didn't reveal it for the mischief it held.

"I don't suppose you've seen him?"

"Himself told us you were on your way, made sure we knew to trap a few extra rabbits to fill your royal belly," Will said. It didn't matter how many times he asked people not to, they insisted on addressing him as they would a noble. Will had taken a long time to warm up to Arthur and Arthur wasn't entirely certain the thaw was complete, but he would take the ribbing about his noble blood if it meant finding out where Merlin had gone. Arthur drummed his fingers on his saddle, waiting patiently until Will was finished. Will sighed, disappointed that Arthur wasn't taking the bait. "He's no fun anymore, and it's all your fault."

"I take pride in that accomplishment," Arthur said seriously. For some reason, Will found that funny, because he cracked a wry grin and patted Hengröen's withers.

"Why don't you fetch us some firewood?" Will thumbed toward the woods. Arthur pointedly looked at the very large piles stacked in several covered pyramids around the village. Will rolled his eyes, and said, "Just go, yeah? That way. Specific that way. Don't worry, you won't get lost."

Arthur watched Will's retreat with suspicion before grudgingly admitting that, no matter how much Will seemed to dislike Arthur, he'd never deliberately done anything that would cause any real harm. Giving in to curiosity, Arthur urged Hengröen onward, and the war horse obliged with a huff of breath and a swaggering canter onto the path leading to the woods.

The sun wouldn't fully set for hours yet. The forest was already grey with the promise of encroaching nightfall, the dim light filtering through bare tree branches and snow-frosted evergreens. A nearby brook babbled and hiccupped over the river-smooth pebbles and sharp chunks of ice that crunched beneath Hengröen's hooves and broke off from nearby branches as they passed by.

Arthur rode for a while, lifting up his coat collar when the air grew colder. He eyed the shadows warily. No matter how close they were to the warriors of Ironwood and the rebellious druids, or to a village full of survivors who would fight to the death to remain free, Arthur wasn't so foolish to believe himself safe, not with the darkness falling and hungry bandits skulking throughout the countryside. His instincts screamed to be careful, to be conscious of his surroundings, to Turn back and scout this area out with some of the others, because he was the first who insisted that his men never travel alone, and the last to follow his own order.

And yet, despite the menace that could be hiding in those shadows, Arthur felt nothing but a soothing calm. Whether it came to him from Merlin through the bond they shared or from the magic of the land itself, Arthur would never know, but when Hengröen jumped a small rise in the deer path and broached through a thicket of dry bramblebrush to bring them into a small clearing, there was no doubt as to the cause.

The clearing was green and vibrant with life where the rest of the forest was resting in its winter slumber. Grey-green grass on the outskirts was washed out by the blue-green-brightness of a meadow with flowers and new leaves arching upward in search of a springtime sun that wouldn't come for months yet, and if Arthur closed his eyes, he could smell the lavender in the air.

The path ended here. A new one bloomed in front of him, rippling through the sleeping earth to sprout fresh buds of grass and weeds and wildflowers, and Arthur was charmed to the very roots of his soul, flushing faintly as he realized that this was the courtship he and Merlin should have had in the very beginning.

His smile hadn't faded for the long minutes of travel through the underbrush to another, smaller clearing that was as rich and as alive as the first. Arthur dismounted and loosened Hengröen's saddle to let him shuffle off toward Merlin's mare, but of Merlin himself, there was no sign, not until the man himself emerged from the snowy depths of the forest and into the open air again.

Merlin's hair had grown out into soft waves, his beard was neatly trimmed, and he looked a damn sight better than the first time Arthur had met him in a forest much like this one. Civilization had done nothing to tame the wildness that was ever-present under Merlin's skin, but it had tempered it with better clothes.

Arthur watched Merlin deposit a small pile of dried wood for the campfire. A pot was bubbling by the cookstone and Merlin gave it a good stir before glancing up, as if suddenly aware that there were two horses in the clearing, not just one, and that Arthur was there.

"I could've been anyone," Arthur chastised, fighting the losing battle of keeping a stern face when Merlin was smiling at him like that. "A hungry bandit after that pot of twigs and fungus. One of the Sidhe's assassins disguised as a dryad to tempt you and kill you when you least expect. A Brigand of Essetir after your skinny arse. You can't be oblivious, Merlin. You need to pay attention."

"It's a rabbit stew with potatoes and roots," Merlin said with a frown, because, of course, that was what he'd gotten out of Arthur's scolding. He stopped in front of Arthur and raised an imperious brow. "And I remind you, the Brigands of Essetir were after you, once upon a time."

Arthur hummed agreeably, falling quiet when Merlin pulled him into his arms. "I missed you."

"Did you now?" Arthur asked, his tone teasing.

Merlin answered him with a gentle kiss that held the promise of more to be found in every minute of their lives, and Arthur smiled, finally at peace.

The clearing was warm and free of the winter's pervasive chill. His favourite rabbit stew with potatoes and roots was bubbling and was nearly ready.

And, most importantly, he was here, deep in the forest in the middle of nowhere and far away from all the troubles of the world he was trying to rebuild. He was in the one place where he felt safe and cherished -- with his once and greatest love.