Si vis pacem, para bellum.
-- If you wish peace, prepare for war.
In all the years Arthur had been attending banquets, he had never quite persuaded himself to truly enjoy them. He was always conscious of how his every move was scrutinized by the social climbers at court, and how the slightest slip in protocol could damage a blossoming treaty or alliance. Very few celebrations lived up to their intent, and many ceremonial occasions were shadowed by some sort of tragedy. Ascensions to the throne were preceded by funerals; glorious victories were marked by tragic deaths. Old memories crowded out new triumphs.
The only thing that made banquets bearable, in fact, was the knowledge he could leave them when he wished, and that he'd be leaving them with Merlin by his side. The court sorcerer, who seemed still to have very little regard for protocol, leaned closer as if he could hear Arthur's thoughts.
"More wine, my lord?" Merlin said. He leaned forward to fill Arthur's cup from the pitcher before him, heedless of George's indignant squawk. As he did, his sleeve rode up, revealing the leather bracelet wrapped tight around his lean wrist.
It was much the same as if he'd stripped off and bent over the table, in Arthur's mind, and his cock agreed completely. It was a private showing, one solely for Arthur's pleasure - to know Merlin wore his token still, and was his in every way. It had only been a few short months since they were bound together by the Druids, and nothing had yet eclipsed the burst of pure joy Arthur felt whenever his gaze fell upon Merlin. His chief pleasure at all events of state was watching Merlin smile and laugh with visitors to court, working his natural, non-magical charms upon them.
There always came a moment when his eyes lifted to Arthur's, and the bright happiness there matched Arthur's own.
The banquet currently underway had the same ceremonial undertones Arthur had always dreaded, and it was difficult for him to return his attention to the proceedings. Queen Annis and her contingent were paying their first official visit to the kingdom since the start of Caerleon's alliance with Camelot -- an alliance which had been set in motion after Arthur's misguided attempt to prove himself as king by executing Annis' husband. It was one of the many regrets he held from the first year of his reign.
At Arthur's left, Queen Annis pushed her delicacy-laden plate away and turned her attention to business. "Arthur, it is good to be here among allies. Even if I find that there are certain things which were misrepresented to me." She gave Merlin a pointed look, and Arthur pretended not to notice the blush creeping up Merlin's neck. Every moment of his first encounter with Annis was etched deep into Arthur's memory -- Merlin on his knees, doing his best to undo all Arthur's careful, humble offerings of a peaceful solution for both Caerleon and Camelot. Arthur sometimes thought of that moment as the night he had fully realized just how determined Merlin was to die for him.
It was also the night he had learned what it meant to trust his own judgment as king. Such a thing was not easily forgotten.
"My apologies for the lie regarding his status, Annis. I saw no other option to save his life, at the time. It can be very difficult to preserve the neck of someone who seems determined to throw their life away."
"And yet, as it turns out, he had no need of your protection," Annis said. "Such loyalty is rare, and should be valued." She cast a disappointed eye on Merlin. "Although I will admit to sadness that there will be no entertainment this evening."
"I do not like to disappoint a lady - most particularly a queen of such stature," Merlin said, inclining his head.
"Not such a fool after all, then," Annis said. She favored him with a shrewd smile.
A moment later, all the goblets on the table began to dance in unison, sloshing their contents across plates and laps. The banquet hall erupted in delighted laughter and applause. Annis nodded to him, and he smiled at her.
"Well done, sorcerer," Arthur said, turning to give Merlin the sort of lazy look which he knew full well ignited Merlin's blood. "You seem to have a particular talent for entertaining royalty."
"I will prepare suitable entertainment for my lord's pleasure this evening," Merlin said, "in private. If that pleases you, sire."
"Oh, it does," Arthur said. He held Merlin's gaze with his own, contemplating all the potential pleasures the night held in store.
Annis retrieved her goblet, which had stopped dancing long enough to allow a servant to refill it, and took a long sip. "Tell me, Arthur, what progress have you made in opening Camelot to magic?"
Arthur marveled at the ease with which Annis broached topics no other visiting dignitary had dared raise, unless they did so in a challenging manner. Only curiosity sparkled in Annis' intelligent eyes, however. She was nothing if not a collector of useful information.
"The laws put in place early on have proven to be a strong structure," Arthur said. "Only a few have gone beyond those boundaries, and most now await sentence or execution in our dungeons. Merlin has proven adept at winnowing out true traitors from the misguided or misled."
"There are rumors that the Druids have not fully put aside their grudge toward your kingdom," Annis said. Her eye fell upon the three young Druid sorcerers sent to the court by Iseldir. As always, they sat politely at the table, partaking of the food and conversation, but avoiding the wine and the rowdiest of the knights. "It is said they will seek to unseat you."
"I have heard these rumors, from time to time. But Iseldir's people are peaceful, and are opposed to violence. I have seen no evidence of it."
"I'm glad to hear it. Holding the peace is always a difficult task, regardless of the respect one may enjoy." Annis set her goblet down and leaned back in her chair. "My advisors torment me with incessant demands to marry, but I have refused all such advice. I frankly don't believe I have need of a king when I have strong allies. Any man I marry would not command the same loyalty I have been privileged to have from my men." The corner of her mouth quirked up slightly. "They have also pressed me to wed my eldest daughter to you, now that she is of age."
"Is that so?" Arthur said, scrupulously not looking at Merlin. It was not a secret at court that Merlin was Arthur's consort -- those who had not known had assumed it to be true, in any case, much to Merlin's amusement and Arthur's scowling chagrin -- but the matter of their binding was a private one, between the two of them and the Druids who had witnessed it.
"Should I press the matter?" Annis said, obviously fighting a smile.
"I directed my advisors to stop throwing potential brides at me on pain of death," Arthur said. "Not that this has stopped them from subtly introducing a visiting dignitary, now and then, but eventually they will tire of my disinterest."
"Then we are in sympathy on this matter." Annis briefly clasped his arm, and released him with a brisk pat. "Besides, I should not like to marry my daughter to a man whose heart is clearly already spoken for, whether or not he admits it to all and sundry."
Now it was Arthur's turn to blush, and to tuck in to his roast pig and carrots to avoid her wise look past him, at Merlin.
The talk turned for a time to mundane matters of politics and gossip. Once the musicians bowed and were acknowledged, they began to play a rousing set of tunes, and Arthur's mind wandered in search of topics which held more interest.
"I would distract you, sire, but it wouldn't do for the Queen and courtiers to think I monopolize your time." Merlin's chair slid an inch closer, then two, so that his elbow touched Arthur's. Arthur sent a patient glance skyward, because now the teasing would begin. "Did I hear you discussing marriage? Princess Alaria is actually very beautiful." Merlin raised his hand and waved to the obviously besotted girl in question; she turned a deep scarlet and waved back.
"You are incorrigible," Arthur said. "Besides, it's not me she's staring it. It's you."
"I'm quite taken," Merlin said. "Thoroughly, deeply taken, sire. I can arrange to have one of the servants impart some gossip on that topic to her. If you like."
"You will do no such thing. I don't want that girl traumatized for life." Unfortunately, now that Merlin had conjured up some rather lewd images with mere words rather than magic, Arthur was having a difficult time sitting comfortably.
"So you do intend to woo her?"
"I intend to send her on her way with a kiss to the hand," Arthur said. He tilted his head until his lips brushed the shell of Merlin's ear. "And hope she is as fortunate in her choices as I have been."
Smoothly, he turned back to Annis and asked, "Your Majesty, what do you think of holding a gathering of rulers in Camelot next summer? I should like to welcome all here to discuss strategies for our united kingdoms."
"We are united, aren't we?" Annis said, a thoughtful look on her face. "It has been so very long since the kingdoms of Albion have been at more than an uneasy peace at best." Her fingers traced the intricate carvings on the arm of her ceremonial chair. "I think you are largely responsible for that, Arthur. It is something to think on."
"There is still a threat," Merlin said quietly, chiming in to the conversation for the first time.
"Yes. Morgana has not shown herself, these past few months?" Annis asked.
"We have not located her. Nor has she made herself known." Arthur had spent many long days on patrol, searching the forests and plains for any trace of her. Not even one villager had yet to admit they had seen her, and Arthur had finally been forced to admit to himself that if she did not want to be found, he would be unlikely to flush her out by conventional means.
Merlin spent many nights in the quiet of their chambers, facing the open windows. He searched for Morgana in ways Arthur could not see nor understand, searched until exhaustion showed in the slope of his shoulders and the apology in his eyes.
It was those nights, most of all, that even Merlin's warm presence at Arthur's side could not lull him into sleep.
Before Arthur could find a way to detail their incessant searching, a page ran up to the table and bowed. "Sire, there is a man here to see His Excellency," he said breathlessly. Arthur suppressed a grin at Merlin's visible flinch; the use of his title always had that effect on him.
"Who is it?" Merlin asked.
"Alator of the Catha. He said it was a matter of utmost urgency."
Merlin's expression clearly told Arthur he knew who their visitor was. He looked to Arthur, who instructed the page, "Have him wait in the council chambers." To Annis, he said, "If you will excuse us for a moment, the business of the kingdom intrudes."
"I understand," she said. On her left, Princess Alaria stared openly at Merlin as he walked away. Arthur had some sympathy for her appreciation. Since Merlin's taste in clothes had been forced to improve due to his change in status, everything seemed to fit him much more...sharply.
Once they were out of the banquet hall and in the corridor, the air seemed easier to breathe, and Arthur sighed. "Now tell me, Merlin, did you pay someone to interrupt, or is this simply a happy coincidence?"
"It is a happy coincidence." Merlin matched Arthur's stride as he loped down the corridor and added, "And perhaps this business will take long enough that we may find ourselves unable to return to the banquet."
"I like the way you think." Arthur waved the guards ahead of them and asked, "Why does this man's name sound so familiar?"
"It was Alator who tortured Gaius for my identity," Merlin said, and in a cold rush, that entire dreadful episode came readily back to Arthur's mind. He had rarely been so spectacularly misguided about a man's character, or a course of action. It had been tempting to blame the harm he'd done on Agravaine's prompting, but of course, it had been Arthur's decision, and he had gone far astray from center. It would always haunt him.
"Why would he seek you here?" Arthur asked.
"I can't imagine. But it must be important for him to come to the citadel. I doubt he would want to cross paths with Gaius again, unless he had no choice." Merlin hesitated, then said, "He was ashamed of what he did."
"There was shame enough to go around," Arthur said quietly.
The guards pushed open the doors of the council chambers, and Arthur caught sight of their visitor: a sturdy-looking man, bald, with a dignified air about him, wrapped neck to toe in a homespun indigo cloak. When their visitor laid eyes on Merlin, he dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "My lord Emrys," he said reverently. "Your Majesty."
Arthur was always amused when the magical folk paid homage to Merlin first, and then to him as an afterthought, mostly because it made Merlin twitch with discomfort.
"You must never kneel before me." Merlin crouched down to take hold of the man's shoulders. "It has been a long time, Alator."
"Yes, Emrys." The look on his face as he gazed at Merlin was nothing short of worshipful adoration. "But I will always kneel to you, for you are the greatest of our kind."
"I thought we settled this when last we met." Merlin smiled, and Arthur was reminded that there was much about the first several years Merlin had spent in Camelot which he had only heard in generalities and summary. He was perpetually catching up with it all.
As if he'd heard Arthur's thoughts, Merlin turned to him, wearing an embarrassed smile. "Alator chose not to reveal my identity to Morgana. He kept my secret."
"I would have kept your secret until my death, had you not chosen to reveal it. My loyalty is to you, Emrys - not just my loyalty, but that of all the Catha."
"Then you must also be loyal to my king." Merlin stepped back a pace, so that he was side by side with Arthur. "As I am." It was a gesture, certainly, but one which never failed to stir pride in Arthur's heart. The words were unnecessary; Merlin's every action had shown his devotion.
"Indeed. In fact, that is why I have come." Alator turned troubled eyes on Arthur, and a chill wandered up Arthur's spine; Alator seemed able to see right through him, down to bone and heart. "I have information for you both in the form of prophecy. There is great danger ahead for you, Arthur Pendragon - for both of you."
"What danger?" The sharp edge to Merlin's tone mirrored the tension in his body; Arthur resisted the urge to place a hand at his back while in Alator's company.
"You are aware, Emrys, that the seers of the Old Religion have recorded many things in prophecy, to be interpreted by the generations to follow them. Your birth, and the birth of the Once and Future King, are two such prophecies. These two events have always been tied together; one of you could not exist without the other."
It was startling to hear the truth of it spelled out so bluntly. Merlin's fingers brushed gently against Arthur's, a reassurance of what they both knew, prophecy be damned. "So we have been told," Merlin said.
"Events great and small are also foretold." Alator frowned. "Some things have been written since the dawn of time, and it has been common wisdom that these things are irrevocable, unchanging. But in these last few years, the future has become clouded."
Arthur quashed his impatience and asked, "What has this to do with the warning you've come to deliver? Is it part of this prophecy you speak of?"
"It is." Alator met Merlin's eyes. "The first part of my warning will not be unfamiliar to you, Emrys. It is about the Druid boy, Mordred. I must bid you to beware of this boy, whose life you and the king once saved."
It had been so many years since that day, but Arthur remembered it all too well. It was the first time he had openly defied his father's stance on magic, had risked everything to help a Druid child. He had never regretted it, though he had wished for his own sake that he had not been so blind about Merlin's motivations. Hindsight was a dangerous lens through which to filter his conscience, and he tried never to use it.
"He has become a powerful sorcerer in his own right. I have heard tales of the magic he has worked, in his wanderings. Such power is to be respected, particularly in one so young." Alator inclined his staff toward Merlin. "His path will cross with yours, Emrys, and will bring him close to Arthur. This makes the oldest of prophecies even more relevant now." He fished a bit inside his sleeve and produced a small, ornately carved box. Merlin took it, with a sideways glance at Arthur, and opened it to reveal a parchment within.
"I have guarded this long, in the hopes I would not need it." Alator waited until Merlin had broken the tiny seal and unfolded the paper. "But I believe the time has come."
"I can't read all of it," Merlin said, squinting at the neat script so meticulously laid down on the yellowed paper. "My lessons with Gaius haven't progressed this far."
"If you will permit me, I will recite it for you." Alator closed his eyes, gathering himself, and after a moment, he began to speak. "Let loose the hounds of war. Let the dread fire of the last priestess rain down from angry skies." His voice seemed to grow, filling the room until it was pressing against Arthur's skin, crawling under it. "For brother will slaughter brother; friend will murder friend, as the great horn sounds a cold dawn at Camlann. The prophets do not lie. There, Arthur will meet his end, upon that mighty plain."
Merlin's fingers curled around Arthur's wrist, gripping him tightly, as they both stared at Alator. "The last priestess," Arthur said. "Morgana?"
"She is not the only priestess still practicing the Old Religion, but she is the most powerful by far." Alator opened his eyes and sighed. "I do not know how these events tie together, but I do know there are troubling signs that Mordred is gathering power unto himself. I have heard much of his travels among the Druids, and the rumors of discord in the Druid tribes."
"What quarrel could Mordred possibly have with Arthur?" Merlin asked. "Arthur saved his life." Merlin's face was ashen, and his grip on Arthur's wrist had not loosened at all.
"That is not for me to say, Emrys." Alator's gaze was intent on Merlin, who met it with a frown.
"Not for you to say? You just predicted his death," Merlin answered, and now it was Arthur's turn to step forward, ignoring Merlin's attempt to pull him back.
"Alator. You have traveled far, I imagine, to bring us this news, and you must be tired. Please, accept Camelot's hospitality for tonight, and tomorrow we will discuss these matters further."
"Merlin," Arthur said, interrupting the inevitable lecture about safety and danger and protection. "It can surely wait until our guest has had a good night's sleep." He gestured the guard forward. "This man will escort you to your chambers, and the servants will see to your comfort. You need only ask if you have need of anything."
"You are kind, my lord, and I admit, I am weary. Thank you." Alator bowed to Arthur, and then to Merlin, who still seemed as if he were ready to pin Alator to the floor and sit on him until he babbled all the many prophecies he surely had rambling around in his head. "My lord Emrys."
"I will call on you first thing in the morning," Merlin called after him, in the tone of an anxious mother hen. The moment Alator was out of earshot, he rounded on Arthur. "What can possibly be served by waiting? Arthur, if you are in danger--"
"Merlin, really. All my life, I've had to endure one advisor or another prattling on about imminent doom as predicted by prophecy. Gaius has been the worst of all - do you know how many prophecies my father had him watching over the years? He was always waiting for the sky to fall, and it rarely did." Arthur caught hold of Merlin's arms, pulling him closer; he was a ball of restless agitation, looking back over his shoulder at the door Alator had just exited. "Most prophecies are rubbish, anyway."
"I won't take chances where your safety is concerned." Merlin allowed Arthur to pull him close, pressing his face to Arthur's neck.
Arthur folded his arms around Merlin. "Is that my court sorcerer talking, or my consort?"
"Both," Merlin said fiercely. "Either. Take your choice."
"Come," Arthur said. "Let us make our excuses to the court, and retire. I can't imagine I will be able to return to making mindless small talk, at any rate."
Annis and the assembled guests were perfectly understanding of the need for the king to leave the banquet early - business of the realm always came before social occasions - and so Arthur led the way back to his chambers, Merlin close behind. The moment the door closed behind them, Merlin flicked a hand toward the hearth, where a fire blazed to life in an instant.
Arthur unpinned his cloak and it dropped to the floor, a puddle of red against the cool grey stone. Merlin stood by the fire, unfastening the laces of his dark grey velvet tunic, and his expression was a million miles away.
Quietly, Arthur said, "Will you stop dwelling on this?"
"How can I?" Merlin shook his head, one hand braced on the mantel. "If Mordred and Morgana are allied, we will need better defensive plans than we currently have, Arthur. Far better."
"When last I saw Mordred, he was a shivering boy, too small to defend himself."
"When last I saw him, he told me he would never forget my failure to save his people from your knights. Nor would he forgive what he saw as my betrayal." Merlin stripped out of his tunic and tossed it on a chair. "He was dangerous then, because his magic was untamed and out of control. He channeled it through his rage." Merlin looked up at him then, eyes like troubled seas. "If he has grown more angry through the years, and has learned to temper his magic, he might be formidable indeed."
Arthur sat down in a high-backed chair and pulled his boots off, dropping them on the floor. "Once I believed that when magic was no longer outlawed, our troubles would cease. It seems foolish, now."
"No," Merlin said, as he crossed the room to kneel before Arthur. "Not so. Morgana's issues reached far deeper than a simple desire to see magic-users given their freedom. Perhaps it's the same with Mordred. You did him a service; Morgana was his friend." Merlin tugged off Arthur's socks, then stood to help him with his mail. "Such things are so often personal. His anger is for me."
"As Morgana's anger is for me." Arthur ran a hand through his hair as the mail cleared his head, and Merlin knelt before him again. Slowly, Arthur leaned down for a kiss, relishing the way Merlin opened to him, the taste of spiced wine dark on his lips.
"Morgana has been silent these last months," Merlin said softly, arching into Arthur's touch with a quiet noise of pleasure. Arthur made quick work of the ties to his tunic, and stripped it from him to have Merlin's skin under his hands. "Perhaps it is time to offer her a truce, and end any chance of an alliance with Mordred."
"Must we speak of her now?" Arthur grazed his lips down the long, tempting line of Merlin's neck. "Or can the kingdom's business wait until morning?"
Instead of words, Merlin offered him touch, divesting him of his belt and tunic, and then curling his fingers around Arthur's to lead him to the bed. A moment more to throw off breeches and smalls, and they twined together on the bed.
It had been six turns of the moon since they were hand-fasted in the presence of the Druids, bound by the Old Religion and their own joy, and Arthur was still as hungry for Merlin as he had been that night. The quick patter of Merlin's heartbeat beneath his palm; Merlin's soft chuckle when Arthur's hands ghosted past his ribs; the way Merlin's hand tightened in Arthur's hair when Arthur took Merlin into his mouth, suckling gently - Arthur reveled in each sensation, each time it was given to him anew.
He had thought once he knew what love was, but there had never been anything to compare to this feeling which grew larger inside him every day, spreading wildfire in his veins and stealing his breath every time Merlin's eyes met his own.
Merlin slid a hand under Arthur's back and rolled them smoothly to sit astride Arthur's thighs. "So, my king," he murmured, taking slow, deep kisses from Arthur's mouth, "Let us return to the matter of the prospective royal bride." He took hold of Arthur's wrists, raising them above Arthur's head and pinning them to the bed, even as Arthur chased his mouth to kiss the ridiculous words away. "She is very beautiful, isn't she?"
"Hadn't noticed," Arthur gasped, as Merlin's eyes flashed golden, sparks from a hot flame, and he found his arms immobile. Merlin reached under the brocaded pillow and withdrew the oil, slicking his hands with it.
"Beautiful and intelligent," Merlin said. "Everything a king could want." His hands slid up the length of Arthur's cock, and Arthur threw his head back with a cry as Merlin lowered himself, pressing until Arthur was fully seated inside him. "A perfect match for the greatest king Albion has ever known."
"Merlin," Arthur growled, pushing his hips up into Merlin to hear Merlin's breath catch. Pleasure arced through him as Merlin began to roll his hips in a sinuous rhythm, Arthur captured there inside him, beneath him, a slave to Merlin's whims.
"But she can't have you," Merlin whispered, and his mouth descended on Arthur's in a punishing kiss, one that gentled as his tongue swept across Arthur's, slow and teasing. Merlin reached up and tangled his fingers with Arthur's, then pushed his hand up until Arthur's fingers touched the soft braided leather wrapped around Merlin's wrist.
Arthur gripped Merlin's wrist tightly, and Merlin broke the kiss, making soft, needy sounds in his throat as he freed Arthur from his invisible restraints. Arthur's left hand went to Merlin's hip and gripped him tight as he thrust in deep.
"Say it," Merlin demanded, even as Arthur's hold tightened on his wrist. "Arthur, Arthur-"
"I am yours," Arthur said, eyes locked to Merlin's as Merlin threw back his head, shuddering, his cock pulsing untouched. Arthur moved relentlessly beneath him, watching with feral joy as Merlin trembled in the throes of his release. Arthur pulled Merlin's wrist to him, kissing the leather braid that had come to symbolize so much.
"And I have always been yours," Merlin whispered. "Since the moment we met." He cupped the side of Arthur's face, thumb stroking his hot cheek tenderly. Arthur closed his eyes against the tide of pleasure, spending himself inside Merlin.
Merlin fell forward onto his chest, and Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin's slender body, dragging his hands down his sweaty, silky back. It was as if he could feel the marks of possession on his body, underneath his skin where none but Arthur could find them. Merlin's own marks were just as deep into Arthur, scrawled across his bones and heart, where they could never be erased.
Morning light brought with it a new clarity of purpose, and as Arthur let Merlin dress him - while George swept and cleaned and eyed them both with the extreme displeasure of a servant who has been set aside temporarily by someone whose skills are inferior to the task - he worked the puzzle through. The boy, Mordred, may have been carrying a grudge against Merlin, but it would be difficult to understand why he was a threat to Arthur without more information. Morgana, on the other hand, had either gone far underground, or - as improbable as it may have seemed - was no longer interested in pursuing her claim to the throne.
Some small part of Arthur hoped that she had decided not to press him. Whether because of Merlin's intervention, or her own change of heart, it would not matter to Arthur. He had been ready to offer her peace terms for some time, and the moment would never be better. If she was already allied with Mordred, and had some other endgame in mind, there was nothing to lose by offering peace; a rejection of the offer would not disadvantage Camelot, or place the kingdom in more danger than it already was.
"Daydreaming?" Merlin asked, provoking a smile from Arthur.
"Of a sort." Arthur sat on the low bench by the window and let Merlin slide his mail on over his head. "The council has assembled?"
"Yes." Merlin paused, glancing to George and receiving a curt nod in return. "And there's something else you'll want to see, before you begin."
"Intriguing." Arthur buckled on his belt and sword, and followed Merlin out into the corridor. Merlin seemed as full of energy as a pup, rambling ahead every few steps and then turning back to see if Arthur was there. It was exasperating and endearing in equal measure.
"My lord," Merlin said, stopping before the doors of the great hall. "As you commanded." He flung open the doors, and the sight before him stopped Arthur dead in his tracks.
Before him, the huge wooden table he had spoken to Merlin about, patterned on the smaller table favored by the kings of old, filled one end of the hall entirely. Workers stood on and around it, polishing the carved edges to shining perfection. Arthur stared, uncertain it was real; he had discussed its creation with Merlin in secret, and his plans to seat ordinary men around it, knights made so for their character and deeds rather than titles and status.
"How?" he asked, turning to Merlin, who backed away, a grin on his face.
"The woodworkers did most of it. A hundred of the finest from all the five kingdoms." Merlin ran his hand across the smooth surface. "It is large enough to seat fifty men, if you wish."
Arthur walked around the opposite side of the table. It was sturdy, solid to the core, but it glowed from within, a richness of color which reminded him of the sun on the forest after a cleansing rain.
"I chose the trees from deep in the Forest of Ascetir, near the place where you pulled your sword from the stone." Merlin gestured to one of the workmen, who rolled a heavy round piece forward. "This piece was carved from a great oak, rooted to the land so deeply it was a privilege to use its timber. I saved this to be placed at the heart of the table, but it needs the finishing touch."
Merlin lifted his hand, and as his eyes flashed golden, the heavy piece rose in the air, spinning slowly. The flags of Albion's kingdoms fluttered as Merlin said, "Forbearnan." Fire erupted from the center of the wooden circle, sparks flying everywhere as if flung from a blacksmith's forge. Arthur squinted against the intense light, his heart running hard against his ribs, as a shape began to emerge from the trail of fire.
"This is your legacy," Merlin said. Slowly, the wheel of fire lowered itself toward the center of the table, coming to rest as gently as a feather in the space made for it. Smoke rose from it until Merlin cleared it with another wave of his hand.
In the center, a beautiful dragon took flight, a stylized version of the Pendragon family crest.
The workmen began to murmur, crowding closer to Merlin and to the table to see the finished design, and then they drifted from the great hall, leaving Arthur alone with Merlin, at opposite sides of the table. "It's magnificent," Arthur said, not looking at the dragon.
"I wanted to make this dream real for you," Merlin said. "It is a symbol of all you have done, and all you will do."
"What I have done, I have done because there were others who stood beside me." Arthur continued his slow walk around the table, pausing every so often to look at the dragon, until finally he was standing before Merlin, captivated by his flushed cheeks, and the pleased sparkle in his eye. "And most of all, I have had a sorcerer pestering me day and night, never giving me a single moment's peace from his opinions and advice."
"It is a difficult job, sire, with a king so stubborn and pigheaded as yourself, but we all have our lot in life."
Arthur's hand covered Merlin's where it rested on the table. "Thank you," he said softly, stepping closer, his fingers curling around Merlin's as they kissed. "For this gift."
"Shall we put it to use, then?" Merlin stepped away, pulling Arthur with him, and flicked a finger. The chairs slid from the edges of the room into place around the table, as neatly as soldiers marching in formation.
"Oh yes." Arthur smiled at the prospect. "Summon the council. And send for Alator; we may as well put all of this to bed at once."
The most senior of his counselors, inherited from Uther's time, filed listlessly around the table, unsure of where to seat themselves in a room with no strict pecking order. It did not help matters that Arthur stood in the antechamber, watching with a barely concealed grin as they entered the room; his presence gave them no point of reference around which to arrange themselves.
Gwen gave him a reproachful look as she passed by, but there was mischief in it, and Arthur couldn't bring himself to feel terribly scolded.
With a mirthful glance at Merlin, Arthur entered the hall, motioning to his council to sit back down. They were clustered in twos and threes, the exceptions being Gaius and Gwen, who sat together next to two empty seats. Arthur took a seat next to Gaius, and gestured to Merlin to sit at his right hand.
The moment he sat at the table, contentment filled Arthur's heart. This was how it had been meant to be, from the beginning; this was how it would be from now on.
"Gentlemen," Arthur said. "My lady," he added, with a nod to Guinevere, whose smile lit the room. "We have much to discuss this morning. First, I put before you the notion of extending an offer of peace to Morgana Pendragon, in the hopes of putting hostilities permanently behind us."
"Sire, I must protest." Lord Corin spoke above the gasps and murmurs, as Arthur had known he would; Corin was still not comfortable with Merlin at court, and his biases were deeply ingrained. It could not be otherwise, given that he had served as one of Uther's most loyal knights for a decade. "We have no evidence she is amenable to a treaty. She will see this as a sign of weakness."
"The Lady Morgana knows well that Camelot is not weak," Sir Leon said. "But she may believe an overture of this nature will provide an opportunity for action against our interests. We are spread thin on several fronts, keeping the peace and rounding up bandits."
"True enough." Arthur glanced around the table, waiting for those with enough courage to offer their opinions.
Finally, Lord Pryce cleared his throat and said, "Sire, I cannot see how you can ever trust her again. Her word means nothing. She has tried to kill you, has tried to take your throne, and practiced deceit and treachery against you. It is difficult to believe that given an opportunity, she would not do so again."
"Trust isn't at issue," Gwen said, speaking softly but firmly from Arthur's left. "Merlin was not able to exercise his power in Camelot's defense, when last Morgana attempted to wrest control of Camelot from the king. Now he is responsible for our protection against magic-users, and he won't let the king come to harm."
"What say you, Merlin?" Sir Mortimer leaned toward Merlin. Arthur had observed that Mortimer had long been one of Merlin's staunchest supporters, from the first discussion of lifting the bans on magic.
"Morgana has wanted two things all along: Arthur's throne, and an end to the bans on magic," Merlin said. "She is aware that as long as I am alive, she will never have the throne; it is a losing proposition for her to continue to try. As for the other objective, it has been achieved."
"You believe she can be trusted?" Mortimer pressed, his sharp mind peeling back the diplomacy in search of truth.
After a long breath, Merlin answered, "If we treat with her, we may only give her an unfettered space in which to plot new strategies for taking the throne of Camelot."
Arthur nodded. Nothing his councilors had said was in any way surprising. There were times he felt he might completely predict their reactions to any given question, based solely upon their underlying beliefs. Only Merlin and Gwen sometimes surprised him, but then again, neither of them had been well-versed in telling kings what they wanted to hear.
He beckoned George forward. "Bring in Alator," he said. George turned to whisper to the guard, and Arthur addressed the table. "Last night, some additional information surfaced which is pertinent to this discussion. We have a guest, who will elaborate."
Alator made his way into the hall and strode forward, all eyes on him as he approached. From the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Gaius stiffen.
"Alator of the Catha, welcome to this meeting of my senior councilors. You said you had information for us about the activities of the sorcerer, Mordred?"
"I do, my lord." Alator leaned on his staff. His glance flickered across the table, lingering longest on Gaius, before lighting on Arthur again. "We spoke last night of Mordred, whom you saved from execution at the hands of Uther Pendragon many years ago. He has spent these intervening years learning to hone his magic, sire. He is dangerous, and his hatred of Emrys is well-known among those who have had dealings with him.
"Mordred has spread his poisonous yearning for a kingdom dedicated only to magic among the Druids. There is a sect - warriors devoted to this cause - who have aligned themselves with him, in hopes of killing you, sire."
"You do not speak of Iseldir's people," Gaius said, his words clearly for Arthur's benefit, rather than to contradict Alator. Nevertheless, there was a sharpness to them which caught Arthur's attention. "They will never arm themselves, nor try to claim a throne for their own."
After a moment, Alator gave a nod in Gaius' direction. "Gaius is right. Iseldir's people are isolated from all of this. These Druids are warriors in their own right - dangerously so - and are led by a man called Ruadan."
"I have heard this name before," Leon said. "He is spoken of among some of the younger knights - a formidable opponent, who once trained Caerleon's men at arms."
"He has trained warriors wherever magic is permitted to be used, chiefly to gain influence and parlay that into power, and now some of those knights follow him in this endeavor," Alator said. "If Mordred and Ruadan are united in purpose, they have taken the first steps toward toppling you from the throne."
"Or so they believe," Gwen said fiercely, her voice ringing out firm in the room. Arthur spared her a grateful look.
"Some prophecies are so old they are woven into the fabric of the world," Alator said. "But many prophecies about Emrys and the Once and Future King have been unraveled in this last year - prophecies I would have staked my life on. The future is no longer clear. The ancient words may stand as your epitaph, or merely as a warning."
"Well," Arthur said, clearing his throat. He glanced around the table; a few of the old knights were murmuring to themselves, having caught wind of battle opportunities on the horizon. "Alator, in your travels, have you come across evidence that my sister has aligned herself with Mordred or this Ruadan?"
"No, my lord. But that does not mean it has not occurred. I know from experience the lady Morgana is as clever as she is ruthless." Alator and Gaius exchanged a long look.
Arthur leaned back in his chair and met the eyes of each of the senior councilors. "The situation with our enemies is fluid, and will require great diligence because of the unknowns we face. However, given that Morgana's intent is unclear, perhaps we would be wise to divide and conquer, if possible." He tapped a finger on the smooth, newly-polished wood of his great table, around which his kingdom could be built, or destroyed, if he was not cautious. "All of your points are all well-taken, but I will not destroy her without provocation. If she seeks to destroy me, so be it; we will meet her as she comes. In the meantime, I will meet aggression with aggression, and peace with peace." He turned to Merlin. "Prepare a brief offer of truce, and send it today by messengers to the outlying villages."
"I can send it by magical means as well, if you wish," Merlin said. "Morgana is a seer. I can reach her through her dreams."
"Very well. See it done." Arthur rose from his chair. "Thank you, Alator, for your timely information. Council is dismissed."
As the others stood, milling about on their way to the doors, Gaius said, "Sire, if I may, a word?"
"Of course, Gaius."
Merlin paused at the door, where he was speaking to Alator; when their conversation was over, and Alator had gone, he came back to the table, a worried frown on his face. Gaius waited until Merlin was seated beside Arthur, and it was just the three of them, before he began. "Sire, the last time I encountered Alator, he was in Morgana's service. I do not say that he cannot be trusted, because he did not betray Merlin to her. But he can be quite ruthless himself, and that should not be overlooked."
"If Alator had intended to serve Morgana, I'd be dead, or in her thrall," Merlin said. "Nothing can excuse what he did to you, Gaius, but he did it for his own purposes as much as for Morgana's. He felt he must learn my identity, so he could protect me from her."
Gaius nodded, but seemed unconvinced. It was an expression Arthur remembered well from long nights talking strategy with his father and his advisors. He had seen Gaius puzzle through problems with nothing more than intuition and a keen mind, and it saddened him to think of what he had endured at Alator's hands. "I would like to study the prophecy, sire, and see what I can make of it."
"Merlin?" Arthur stretched out a hand for the tiny box, and passed it to Gaius. "I'll be interested to know what you find." He paused. "Gaius, if you would prefer not to have Alator in the citadel-"
"Merlin trusts him, sire, and that is enough for me." Gaius clasped the box close and stood, bowing. "I will begin at once."
"Thank you, Gaius."
Even as he approached the doors, Gaius was removing the paper from the box, examining it in the shards of light coming from the windows. "Alator hurt him badly," Merlin said, and the remnants of anger were in his voice. "Even after I understood that he'd done so to keep Morgana from learning Emrys' whereabouts, it took some time for me to come to terms with it."
"With what people would do to keep you safe, you mean?" Arthur waited until it dawned on Merlin, and he seemed about to protest, before he said, "Remember how it feels, the next time the shoe is on the other foot."
"That's not at all the same," Merlin said indignantly.
"Isn't it? Your people - for that it what they are, like it or not, Merlin - would give their lives for you, and you spent every day for years trying to throw yours away for me for the same reasons: loyalty, and a belief in the world you will build. I see no difference." Arthur traced the worry lines etching Merlin's face.
"You left out a reason or two, in my case." Merlin turned his face to nuzzle Arthur's hand. Despite all the uncertainty, all the threats of war and death which seemed to constantly surround them, the ridiculous smile forming on Merlin's lips gave Arthur a moment of bone-deep contentment he had no right to feel. Nothing in life was guaranteed, so there was no time to put such feelings aside; if anything, the past two years had taught him that.
"Don't you have some magic to perform?" he asked, as Merlin pressed his lips to Arthur's wrist.
"Anything my king commands," Merlin answered, his mischievous smile lightening Arthur's heart.
Arthur took dinner in his chambers, and while he ate, Merlin scratched out a brief message to Morgana, using the quill and parchment George supplied. "You really should get your own manservant," Arthur observed, as Merlin crossed out a line and shook his head in frustration. "Then he could write your letters as you used to write mine."
"Who would do it better than I could do it myself?" Merlin raised an eyebrow at Arthur. "I have more experience at serving a harsh master than any other in the castle."
"I wouldn't say harsh, exactly," Arthur said, leaning closer to examine what Merlin was underlining. "More like, deserving of the finest service, which you provided inconsistently, by the way - here, give me that." Arthur swiped the parchment, resisting the urge to laugh at the way Merlin's brows drew together with annoyance.
Morgana Pendragon, High Priestess: Arthur, King of Camelot, does now present you with this offer of truce, in the interests of peace throughout the Five Kingdoms and all of Albion's provinces. You will raise no armies, and incite no violence against the peoples of the Five Kingdoms. Further, you will cease attempts to seize the throne of Camelot, held by right of succession and combat by Arthur Pendragon. In return, Camelot will withdraw the bounty upon your head and cease its search for you. You may live at peace.
If these terms are acceptable to you, respond forthwith.
"It'll require copying over, and your seal," Merlin said.
"I don't know, I think the mess you made of it lends it a certain charm," Arthur said, dangling the parchment with its strike-throughs and blots in front of Merlin.
"Next time, write your own offer of peace, then!" Merlin leaned back in the chair, which gave George the perfect opportunity to swoop in and rescue the document.
"Does this meet with your approval, sire?" he asked, holding the parchment at arm's length.
"It will do. Have it copied and dispatched immediately. See Geoffrey to affix the royal seal."
"Very good, sire."
Arthur perched on the table, ignoring the perfectly comfortable chair next to Merlin. "Fifty knights, you say?"
"If you wish it." Merlin glanced up, eyes shining. "Just as you have always wanted, Arthur - no rank, no one man above another. All equals at the table, and in the eyes of the king."
When Arthur captured his mouth in a slow kiss, he could almost taste the optimism shining from Merlin's heart.
"Come, then," Arthur said, drawing Merlin up with him. "We have a list of knights to make, and a message to send."
"It'll be a bit tricky, reaching Morgana. She has shielded herself well from my attempts to find her, but I think I'm powerful enough now to reach into her dreams." The way he said it so matter-of-fact, as though he were building muscle on the training field or learning an ancient language, brought home to Arthur just how unique Merlin was. Any other sorcerer with the power Merlin possessed would be striving constantly to attain what was natural for Merlin, and once achieved, would not be as reluctant to even admit what they could do. Yet Merlin, who was sometimes lost in thought and still seemed shy to reveal his true power even to Arthur, would never have dreamed of working toward power for his own gain.
Merlin's power was the most fearsome thing Arthur had ever seen, and there was nothing he would not do for Merlin, nothing he would not kill, no command he would not give to ensure Merlin lived and was by his side. It had nothing to do with his power at all, and that was something he was sure Morgana would never understand.
All through the evening, Arthur kept watch over Merlin as he prepared, as he cautiously practiced the spell with soundless motion of his lips, over and over. Once, he put his hand out and took hold of the bedpost, swaying. Arthur was up from his chair faster than a thought, his arm around Merlin's waist to steady him.
He was not the sort of man who whispered endearments often -- not when his consort could summon dragons with a few words and obliterate entire kingdoms with the sweep of one hand. Instead, he pressed a kiss to the top of Merlin's head, ignoring Merlin's huff of breath, which might have been gentle amusement. It wasn't as if Merlin didn't know Arthur's feelings. In fact, it was unlikely that anyone in the kingdom was unaware of his feelings for Merlin by now, and Arthur had come to terms with it long ago.
"Leave me be," Merlin said, pushing at him until Arthur released him. He still seemed a bit wobbly; whether it was the magic, or the fact that he tended to drive himself all day until he was ready to drop, Arthur couldn't tell.
"Should have eaten some capon," Arthur said, as Merlin went around the bed and stretched himself out on it.
Merlin fussed with the blankets until they were comfortable and gave Arthur a wan smile. "It'd just come back up."
"Good to be warned," Arthur answered, subtly pushing the chamber pot closer with one toe.
Merlin lay down and closed his eyes, and whispered the words of power which sent shivers across Arthur's skin. The candles flickered, and for a moment, Arthur's breath gusted white in the chilly room. Merlin's eyes rolled back to the whites and he tossed restlessly on the bed.
Merlin had said once that Morgana was terrified of him before it had been known to all just who Emrys was. Some small, vicious part of Arthur hoped that seeing Merlin in the night would provide enough of a shock to end the bitter war between them. Whatever else she may have done, she was still his sister, and he dearly hoped not to have to shed her blood.
But he would, even though it would stain his sword forever. Some things had to be done, for the preservation of all he held dear.
There was not much for Arthur to do, aside from restlessly rifle through papers of state one after another without reading them. His eyes were drawn back to Merlin time and again, though there was not much change. When he gave up on rifling papers, he sat at the edge of the bed with a dagger at his side and a book in his hand, mindlessly turning pages without seeing more than a bright illustration now and then; bluebirds flew across the borders toward the next page, tiny harbingers.
Merlin moaned and jerked sideways on the bed, and Arthur dropped the book on the ground. A fine sheen of sweat covered Merlin's face, which was contorted with effort. Arthur could not tell if he was asleep or awake, or in some middle ground between.
After a long moment, the tension in Merlin's body eased beneath Arthur's hand, and he blinked; his eyes were golden, and as the magic faded from them, he turned his face toward Arthur, sighing with relief. "I felt your touch," he said, voice as hoarse as if he'd run a thousand miles. "It called me back; she was trying to keep me with her."
Arthur's grip tightened involuntarily as Merlin rolled to his side and placed his hand over Arthur's. "She knew you were there?"
"She was on the cusp of waking when I released her. She knew it was no ordinary dream. Her fear of me is still strong." Merlin hid his face against his arm and added, "I did nothing to reassure her."
"It has to be so." Arthur reached up to run his fingers through Merlin's hair, soothing himself as much as Merlin. "What is it like, to walk in another's dream?"
Merlin eased himself up on the bed, closing his eyes even as Arthur's gentle touch traced across his cheeks, his lips. "Perhaps you should tell me," he said. "You are the one who walks through my waking dream every day." His lips touched Arthur's, and his kiss was scorching, shaking apart every notion Arthur had ever had of the mingling of duty and desire.
Arthur spread Merlin out beneath him, intent on making a mess of him. One article of clothing at a time, he stripped Merlin while Merlin watched him with quiet intent. "Dreams are strange things," Arthur murmured, pressing his lips to Merlin's belly, then to his left side, where he was most ticklish over his ribs. Merlin writhed under his touch, and Arthur smiled. "Unpredictable and changeable at the slightest whim."
"My dreams have never changed," Merlin said, arching into Arthur's hand as it closed around his cock. Arthur reveled in this, Merlin flushed and wanting beneath him, craving everything they could do together. He made soft, pleased noises when Arthur took him in his mouth, preparing him with his fingers; Merlin's taste was strong and bitter, and Arthur used his tongue to wring more of those sounds from Merlin's throat.
More than anything, Arthur wanted to take his time, to see Merlin's body in the firelight laid bare for him, the long pale stretch of his throat, and the pulse jumping there. He would kiss that spot later, he decided, and hold his lips there until Merlin's heart slowed, until Merlin was asleep and content. Merlin's eyes were half closed, and he watched Arthur from beneath his lashes, touching Arthur everywhere he could reach. His hands skimmed across Arthur's shoulders, pushed up into his hair and curved against his scalp, petting softly there as if Merlin could not help himself.
Arthur sucked him gently, steadily, until Merlin was shaking beneath his hands as Arthur pressed his hips into the bed. He curled his fingers inside Merlin, more pressure above and below, and Merlin tossed his head back, teeth sunk into his lip until finally he broke, Arthur's name spilling between his teeth as he spent into Arthur's mouth. The sight of it nearly sent Arthur past the edge, and he let Merlin's cock slip from him, pressing his nose to the bony edge of Merlin's hip and squeezing his eyes shut.
"Arthur," Merlin said, breathless, as he tugged at Arthur's wrists.
"Turn over," Arthur said, and raised his head so Merlin could comply, turning on his stomach with a contented sigh. Arthur ran his hands up Merlin's back, enjoying the play of lean muscles beneath his touch, and carefully pushed into him in one long, smooth stroke. Merlin gasped and arched, and as Arthur dragged his lips up the curve of Merlin's spine, he seated himself fully inside Merlin. Merlin rocked back into him, tiny circles of his hips, making Arthur groan. "Shameless," he said hoarsely, biting at Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin's laugh was hoarse, and he reached back to find Arthur's hip, pulling desperately until Arthur snapped forward, punching a long moan from Merlin. From then on it was just Arthur moving deep inside Merlin, Merlin meeting him in counterpoint, exquisite torture that built until the wave broke over Arthur and he spent himself, panting, inside Merlin.
They fell into the sheets, tangled up in each other and the bedding, and Merlin curled his body around Arthur, sinking quickly into sleep. Arthur smoothed the wild strands of Merlin's soft hair and entertained the private thought that soon, he would have a circlet made for Merlin, a crown of gold set with sapphires, so all would know his true place.
The image of it, and Merlin's soft heavy breaths on his chest, soothed Arthur into sleep.
For Merlin, having his own chambers had been a strange and uncomfortable transition, but having his own workshop was somewhat bizarre. Still, it had become clear over time that Merlin needed a space in which to study, and to greet magic-users from other kingdoms who insisted on behaving as though he had stepped out of the pages of prophecy. It was nothing to Merlin; he was still who had always been. But it was clearly something to those with magic, and no matter how much he tried to downplay his own existence, they would not be stopped from seeking him out.
The first time Iseldir had used the word 'pilgrimage' in relation to the steady stream of visitors, Merlin had put a stop to it. "I am no temple of the Old Religion," he had said, scowling.
In his usual quiet way, Iseldir had not even spoken; his voice had reached directly into Merlin's mind. Emrys, you are the only true temple of the Old Religion. When will you open your eyes and see the truth we have set before you?
Gaius had encouraged him, and had brought over a few of the more dangerous books he kept hidden under the floor, in the corner, concealed by barley sacks and rat droppings. Geoffrey had reluctantly coughed up one or two books he had set aside during the Great Purge, books Uther would certainly have executed him for keeping, and one particularly frightening parchment Merlin had considered burning which contained spells for raising the dead.
At the very least, having his own workshop gave him time to rise - always before Arthur, whether they slept apart, or together - and greet the day by thinking over problems. This day, he would welcome Alator back from his travels to meet with Iseldir and the nearby Druids, and he would help Gaius research the prophecy which occupied the forefront of his mind. Between the wait for Morgana's answer, and the work the patrols were doing to ask about Mordred, there wasn't much else he could contribute in a solid way.
Arthur's safety was paramount, and every scrap of information was useful.
"Good morning, Emrys."
Merlin looked up from the text he hadn't really been reading, and smiled to see the Druid ambassadors there. Eira and Kara were always on time; Liam had a terrible habit of arriving late, in spectacular, crashing ways that reminded Merlin of himself when he'd first arrived in the citadel. "Good morning."
"Is it true that a peace treaty has been extended to the Lady Morgana?" Eira pushed back the hood of her robe and sat at the table opposite Merlin, eager as always for the gossip. Kara hung back, fussing with potions on the opposite table, her back turned to Merlin.
"Where did you hear this?" Merlin asked. He set his book aside, focused now on how information traveled the citadel, and where the hubs of gossip could be found.
"It has been on the lips of every guard and knight I have spoken to," Eira said.
"The way she says it, you'd think she speaks to them all," Kara added with a shrewd look, causing Eira to blush.
"That's not how I meant it," Eira said. "Just that I heard them speaking of it in the kitchens. The grooms spoke of it also, in the stables."
"Word travels far in a short time," Merlin said. "But it is true, yes. The king has offered a truce. Provided Morgana stops trying to make war against Camelot and her allies, we will stop searching for her, and withdraw the bounty."
"Do you think that's wise?" Eira asked. Her gentle heart did her credit; the question alone showed her worry for Camelot. In some ways Eira reminded him of Morgana in the first years Merlin had known her, but without the vulnerability Morgana had suffered because of her fear. It was the difference between knowing one's power, and dreading it.
"Quite possibly it's not, but this state of enmity can't go on forever. Magic is no longer forbidden here. It was time to extend the hand of peace."
"I can't imagine why she would accept peace." Kara turned to him with a vestige of anger on her face, one which she wiped smooth as Merlin met her gaze steadily. "When she is powerful enough to have all she wants. Why should she not have it?"
Merlin gestured to the bench beside Eira. Kara hesitated, as if she would rather simply leave, but she came to sit beside Eira, her eyes blazing the question Merlin dreaded from all magic-users. "Having power does not entitle any of us to take what we wish with it," he said. "There are laws in place for a reason."
"Some might say they are unjust laws, Emrys. And you aid the king in perpetuating them." The tiny hint of venom in her voice was not new; she had been a reluctant visitor to Arthur's court, and had come largely because Iseldir had insisted. She had talents which might one day lead to her becoming a High Priestess.
"Law is what ensures magic is not used for the reasons Morgana would use it - to achieve her own aims."
"The son of a tyrant does not own the tyrant's throne."
"Careful," Merlin said, and let his magic well within him, manifesting in his eyes as he looked at her. "Lest I begin to believe this debate is not merely theoretical."
"My apologies, Emrys." Kara bowed her head, while Eira gave her a worried look, her hand furtively raised to brush a brief comforting touch against Kara's shoulder. Merlin looked from one to the other, and felt the weight of protecting Arthur on his shoulders beside the burden of being a teacher to those not much younger than himself. He had learned so many lessons the hard way, through arrogant mistakes which led to blood and tears, and much loss. How could he hope to explain what he knew to be right, to people whose own lessons had been learned through that same filter of pain and oppression?
If he had been born a Druid, he might have used his power to eradicate the entire Pendragon line. It was a thought that had haunted him ever since he first met Mordred. Now Mordred occupied his thoughts again, as he had not since the difficult day Merlin had decided to defy Kilgharrah's predictions of doom and save his life. If there was danger lurking for Arthur, Merlin was responsible for it - not a new feeling, but one he understood more keenly, now that Arthur was not simply the king he was destined to protect.
Love had complicated everything for them, and Merlin would not have it any other way, but sometimes those complications outweighed all other considerations.
"What tasks do you have for us today?" Eira asked, breaking the moment.
"Research into prophecy," Merlin said. "All you can find about the time of Arthur's reign, and what may befall him."
"What has that to do with learning to strengthen our abilities?" Kara asked impatiently.
"There are many different kinds of abilities. To be able to find answers outside of yourself is one of them."
"Come," Eira said, tugging at Kara's sleeve. With some reluctance, Kara stood, not even bothering to glance back at Merlin as she marched toward the door. Eira gave Merlin a respectful bow before hurrying after her.
When they were gone, Merlin sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. Kara was not so much younger than he was, and yet there was an anger thrumming through her like a churning flood. Nothing stood in its way, or in its wake. He made a mental note to speak to Iseldir about her, when an opportunity presented itself.
He was rising from his chair to shelve one book and take down another when the room shook, the heavy percussion of a blast outside rattling his ears as he was thrown to the floor. He sat up and shook his head to clear it.
"Merlin!" A moment later, Liam crashed through the door. His robe was disheveled, his brown hair a tousled mess, and he swiveled toward Merlin with a wild look in his eye. "Attack! The citadel is under attack!"
"Who attacks?" Merlin said, as Liam reached down to pull him to his feet.
"Don't know," Liam gasped, all Druid serenity evaporating as the floor beneath them shook and rumbled.
"Damn," Merlin muttered. "Come with me." He made for the central courtyard, Liam at his heels. If Arthur was mustering defenses, he would be there, or in the armory. He was barely ten steps out of the tower when heat and fire licked at the archway, and on the heels of the blast, cries of terror.
Whatever strategy was in play, their opponents had clearly decided that initial devastation was a sound approach. Fireballs were dropping out of the sky in every direction, exploding into great sharp lances of burning wood. Merlin pressed forward again, stepping past bits of flaming debris. He stopped to give aid to a woman who lay moaning weakly in the courtyard.
"Rest," Merlin said, smoothing his fingertips over her brow. She sighed and sank into sleep. He had no time to heal her injuries, but he could see Gaius working the edges of the courtyard, and he would do his best for her.
Several knights ran by in formation, Leon at their head, and Merlin stood to shout his name. "Where is the king?"
"Western gates," Leon shouted back, and continued on. Merlin set off the way Leon had just come, Liam still following behind.
"Emrys, should I try to find Eira and-"
"They will have to find us. I need you with me." Merlin caught sight of Arthur and the moment their eyes met, relief flooded Merlin. With Liam in tow, he met Arthur halfway.
"Catapults," Arthur said. "Debris is raining down all over the citadel and the lower town. I have enough men to defend the gates, but the lower town is defenseless. It would take more knights than I have at present to secure the town."
"I'll go," Merlin said. "Liam, you must go to the battlements and do what you can to push aside these balls of fire. Let them drop in the countryside. When Eira and Kara find you, one of them must join you there, and the other must begin healing. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Emrys," Liam said, and though his fear was written plainly across his face, he ran toward the stairs to obey.
"Is he capable of it?" Arthur asked, gesturing directions to various knights as they approached the gates.
"Yes. They'll do fine." Merlin refrained from mentioning that none of the Druids would engage directly in battle, or kill Arthur's enemies. There was a time and a place, and Arthur had more than enough to deal with.
"I suppose we have Morgana's answer," Arthur said grimly, his eyes tracking another fireball as it approached overhead. He gestured Gwaine forward. "Take Gwaine and a few of his knights with you."
"I don't need the-"
"Humor me," Arthur said, meeting Merlin's eyes, and even if Merlin had been inclined to argue, the look there would have stopped him. Arthur rested his hand on Merlin's chest for a moment, and they turned in different directions - Arthur toward the garrison forming up in front of the western gate, and Merlin toward the southern gates, and the town, where he could weave a barrier to protect the town.
"Never a dull moment," Gwaine said, flashing him a grin.
"How would you ever survive peace?" Merlin asked. They dodged more debris as they made their way through the street.
"Let's hope we get the chance to find out." Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder and took the lead, Sir Hollis falling back to cover the rear.
They pushed their way through a crowd of men, women and children streaming toward the citadel, their only hope of safety. So many times Camelot had been attacked; so many people had never managed to find their way behind the fortified walls. Even those walls could not protect them from the unleashed hell streaming down on them. Homes and shop fronts were on fire all down the path, and Merlin spared a moment to send a tiny rainstorm to wet down the worst of it. There was no time for more; the fleeing crowd was beginning to thin, which meant he was nearing the thing they had fled from.
A man fell from a hut screaming, his arms on fire; Merlin put the fire out with a whispered word, then looked up to see a fireball descending directly overhead. He raised a hand and shouted, "Gecumen gé dry wæter!" The burning debris turned to water, scattering down on the street as if buckets had been upended.
"Of course," Merlin said, mentally kicking himself. He pointed toward the clouds and said "Tídrénas," grinning as the clouds opened and a veritable deluge began to pour down on the citadel - and all the fires the attack had caused inside and around her.
"You do come in handy," Gwaine said, pulling him out of the way of two merchants sprinting for the citadel gates. They continued on down the street, and Merlin used a bit of magic here and there to rebuild a toppled wall, or weave a straw roof back together as they passed.
Embers and bits of ash floated by as Merlin cleared the smoke with a thought, and a small troop of men appeared in the distance. "Hold," Gwaine said, and the three of them stopped, watching the group approach. All wore the same clothing: dark blue and black cloth of fine quality, Druid-made, Merlin could tell by the symbols woven into the fabric. The Druid triskellion tattoo was clearly visible on the neck of the man in front, an older warrior with greying hair and beard, and a fierce look in his eye.
"This is where I come in," Gwaine said, giving Merlin a gentle but firm push behind him.
Merlin shoved at him. "I don't have need of your sword just now, Gwaine."
"Yes, but where's the fun in all that waving of hands?" Gwaine flashed him a grin as Sir Hollis stepped up to join him.
The small party of men and women - ten in total - came to a halt a few feet from Gwaine and Hollis. "Drop your weapons," Gwaine ordered, looking directly at the older knight in front.
The man in front leaned sideways, until he could see Merlin. "Is this him?" he asked, his deep voice ringing across the village path.
"Yes." From behind the group, a younger, slender man pushed forward, clad much the same as the others, but with a Druid cloak wrapped about his shoulders. Merlin was struck by his eyes, which were as green as the forest in spring.
"I said, put down your weapons," Gwaine growled.
The young man's mouth twisted up in a bitter smile. "Not today, sir knight." His eyes flashed gold, and Gwaine lifted in the air, body contorted at a painful angle. He cried out, and Merlin immediately reached for him with magic, only to find himself assaulted by burst after burst of powerful, deep-rooted magic. He lost control of Gwaine and fell to the ground on his back. Gwaine hit the street beside him with a sickening thud.
"Gwaine!" he shouted, rising to one knee and pressing a hand to Gwaine's neck, where a pulse still beat. Merlin pushed Hollis aside and safely out of the way, and then pushed out with his magic, seeking the closest target. Three of the warriors opposite him stood with joined hands, and Merlin's magic bounced off them as drops of rain from a leaf - harmless.
The young Druid's eyes flashed gold, and Merlin felt a ripping, clawing sensation down his right side. He knew without looking the injury was real, and not in his mind; warm blood trickled past his ribs. He dared not allow himself to become distracted. "Swilte," he said, under his breath, and two of the three warriors with their hands joined dropped to the ground, their necks snapped cleanly in two. Merlin pushed out again, his hands extended before him, and three more of the warriors lifted from the ground as if caught in a whirlwind, only to land hard against the stone town wall and fall, unconscious.
Hollis engaged one of the men with a blade, and as he did so, Merlin turned his attention to the older warrior, and the young Druid beside him.
He opened his mouth to speak the words which would damn them, and something cold slid around his neck, choking him. His hands flew to his neck as his air was cut off, and his magic slid away like a river eel, elusive.
When he fell to his knees, he registered the sound of footsteps beside him, and a Druid robe, before Kara moved into his field of vision. There was fear in her expression, but also triumph as she looked at him, before turning eagerly to the warriors. The young Druid crouched before Merlin, and that bitter smile returned, a cold thing that didn't reach his eyes.
His mouth never moved, but Merlin knew the touch of that mind, the moment it entered his.
Merlin could not speak, could not force the word across his lips, but he spoke it in his mind, even as consciousness left him.
Merlin squinted open his eyes, acutely aware of the vicious pounding in his head, and waited for the expected pain of light...but there was very little of it. One torch guttered low in a wall sconce, and after a moment, Merlin realized it was on the other side of iron bars. So a dungeon, then. The floor was damp, littered with straw; it smelled of old death, of men kept in darkness past their breaking point.
Carefully, Merlin pushed up on one elbow, and as he did so, white-hot pain flared through him. He flopped onto his back, gasping. His wrists ached and throbbed; so did his chest, and his throat. The cut to his side pulsed with a dull pain, and he could feel the stickiness of dried blood where his clothes cleaved to his back.
He lifted a hand to his neck and found a thin band of metal there, barely thicker than his little finger. It was the source of the deepest pain, the one that had left him breathless. This was what Kara had placed on him during the battle, then. The surface was smooth, but when he rubbed his fingertip across the metal, runes flared out at him, sunk so deep into the metal they were a part of its structure, invisible to the eye and touch.
Merlin reached out for his magic, only to find...nothing. Or no, that wasn't it, exactly; he could feel his magic there, but it was as if it were smothered somehow, muffled and unresponsive to his call.
"Your magic will do you no good here, Your Excellency."
Merlin turned his head, though he already knew the voice; the contempt with which the man said his title made things clear enough. "Lot," he said, pushing up to a sitting position, and then to his feet.
Green eyes glittered in the darkness, as Lot moved closer to the bars. He curled the fingers of one hand lazily about them and leaned a shoulder on the wall. "You will address me properly, boy."
At once a clawing, choking sensation tugged at Merlin's throat, and he coughed, words pushing themselves up onto his tongue. "Your Majesty."
"Better." Lot held his gaze for a long moment, before those greedy eyes began roaming over Merlin's body. It was not an unfamiliar examination; Merlin had felt the same disgust once before, but he had been in a position to defend himself then. Now, cold fear raised gooseflesh on his skin. "I will have the respect I've earned."
"You've earned nothing," Merlin said. "What do you want with me?"
"Now that is the question," Lot said softly. "And you will have your answer, when the time comes. In the meantime, you will sit quietly here, and you will await my return."
Merlin staggered backwards until his back hit the slimy wall, and slid to the floor, staring. His hand flew to the collar on his neck and the chain which wrapped his chest, and the pain returned the moment he touched it, even stronger than before.
"What have you done to my magic?" he whispered.
"Nothing whatsoever. But my Druid friends have kindly fashioned a little trinket which makes my will your own. So until such time as I give you leave to do magic, you will not be able to so much as conjure a drop of water in a full bucket." Lot's slow smile sent a shiver down Merlin's spine. "Soon I'll show you the price of Pendragon's insolence, boy. And when I do, my will shall be your own." He barked a laugh, eyes raking down Merlin's body again, and slipped into the shadows.
Merlin resisted the urge to claw at the collar, which seemed to grow ever tighter against his skin. The runes which had shimmered in his mind the first time he rubbed his fingertips against it were unfamiliar to him. Not for the first time, he wished he had paid more attention to Gaius' lessons, or listened more closely when Gaius spoke of Druid magic.
He winced. The Druids. It was impossible to believe they were assisting Lot - assisting Mordred against Camelot -- and yet the evidence of treachery was wrapped around him, cold against his skin. The art of making objects infused with magic had gone underground at the time of the Great Purge. Only the Druids possessed such skill with magic; the bindings he wore had either been made by them, or by one trained by them. Their sects were all over Albion, including the lands where magic had been allowed while Camelot's ban was in place. There was no way to be certain how many Druids were in league with Lot, or if they were an organized force.
Merlin would have staked his life on the idea that Iseldir and his people were not a part of it, but the evidence was clear. And there were still three other magic users inside Camelot, trusted by him once, and close to the king. Kara might not be the only one privy to details of the plot, and that meant Arthur was in great danger.
Arthur. If Alator arrived safely, surely he would help Arthur determine if they could be trusted. But in the meantime, Arthur was alone, without protection.
With a bitten-off cry, Merlin smashed his hand into the stone floor.
He turned the pieces over in his mind, trying to find some logic among the chaos. Mordred had brought him to Lot, but why? What could he have to gain by giving Merlin over to a king who had long held magic in thrall by force? Lot's treatment of the Druids had been brutal; he had tortured and killed more than one sorcerer to achieve his goals. If only he could understand how they were aligned, and why, he could try to formulate a plan. There were always opportunities, and Merlin was a master at finding the niches and cracks through which he might slip.
There was no way of telling where he was being held prisoner, or how long he'd been missing. It was unlikely he was still in Camelot, but he couldn't be certain he was in Lot's kingdom, either. In the time Merlin had spent at his court, he had learned Lot might be prone to impulsive hatred, but he was not stupid, nor a fool. If he had planned this, he would have been careful.
Arthur would figure it out, in time, and when he did, he would stop at nothing to find Merlin. As surely as Merlin knew his own name, he knew his king would not rest until Merlin was safe. Everything in Merlin loved him for it, and cried out against the idea of him searching the five kingdoms for any traces; it was not safe. A thousand scenarios ran through Merlin's mind in the blink of an eye. He could be forced to hurt Arthur while under Lot's thrall. Even kill him. And Alator had said they must beware of Mordred; for all Merlin knew, he had played right into the embrace of deadly prophecy.
Merlin's hands began to tremble.
He stretched his neck high and hooked one finger underneath the metal collar, testing its strength. It seemed to be an unbroken line, no seams or seals, no fastenings to be undone. He had felt it click into place when it was forced on him, so even this must be sorcery. For a moment, Merlin considered what Arthur might do if he learned sorcery had been Merlin's undoing - if even Merlin could be destroyed by the thing he had helped Arthur bring back.
Merlin slipped four fingers under the collar, and then four fingers of his left hand as well, on the opposite side. The fit was tight, and he coughed, then began to pull, straining to find any sign of a crack or opening.
Red-hot pain seared over his hands first, crawling up his arms like a thousand serkit stings, but he continued, gasping and panting as the pain traveled up his body. His spine seemed to be melting, liquid metal scorching down his back. With a short scream, Merlin released the collar, and the pain instantly ceased.
Spent, he sat utterly still, trying to regain the strength lost to the pain. Without magic, he could not break the bonds. Still, there might be one who could.
Merlin lifted his face toward the dank stone ceiling and shouted, "O Drakon-"
This time, the pain circled his throat, choking off the words as surely as it had forced them from him on Lot's command. Merlin bent double, twisting with the effort to breathe, no longer even attempting sounds. As his intent to summon Kilgharrah died away, the pain did, but more slowly this time, as if the magic contained in his bindings did not trust him to be good.
Merlin buried his face in his hands and reached for his magic, exerting every bit of control he possessed to fight the pain. He could almost sense his magic responding, as if it reached toward his call but could not quite find the way. Only one name ran through his mind, over and over, and he begged his magic to reach toward Camelot, if it could not find its way to him.
Arthur. Arthur. Arthur.
Not just a name, but his heart; his world, and everything worthwhile in it. He breathed through the pain, and the rising panic, clawing at his bindings as if it would do any good. Writhing, he pressed his face against the wall, agony blooming now in every inch of his body, and still he begged his magic to obey this one command.
The word in his mind was not a voice, but an impression; smoke, and ice, and darkness. Not Mordred; something farther away.
Emrys. You can accomplish nothing this way. Stop struggling and rest.
Tears flooded Merlin's vision, born of pain and desperation.
He sent one final push toward his magic, and then succumbed to the strange voice in his head, allowing darkness to wash back over him.
Merlin awoke choking on cold water, and for a moment expecting to see Arthur hovering over him with a bucket in hand and a disapproving scowl on his face, even though that hadn't happened in years. It took him a moment to remember where he was, and he looked up to find three of the king's guard surrounding him.
"Up," one of them said, prodding him in the thigh with the toe of his boot.
Merlin sat up, dripping water, and wiped his face with a dirty hand. The guards reached down for him, their fingers gripping his upper arms hard enough to leave instant bruises, and hauled him to his feet. "Best not to keep the king waiting," the taller of the two said, and shoved Merlin toward the door.
As he walked, Merlin made a tentative grasp toward his magic, and felt only the same sensation of wet fabric over his eyes. His stomach lurched, but he took a deep breath and kept moving, on toward the faint light coming from the stone stairs ahead. The guards prodded him ahead, and he followed one of them into a narrow spiral stairway which seemed strangely familiar.
Eventually they emerged into a stone antechamber, with armor piled along one wall, and weapons against another. Merlin barely had time to look before a hand shoved him hard in the middle of the back. "The king wants you to see your surroundings," the guard said, shoving again. Merlin turned and glared, but went through the archway and up another short flight of stairs to the battlements.
Ahead of him stretched a desolate wasteland - one he had seen before.
"The Perilous Lands," he breathed, staring at the activity below. Unlike the last time he had come to the Fisher King's castle, the courtyard was not empty of all except wyverns and sand. Now there was a small village encamped at the foundations of the castle, and between the cooking fires and tents, soldiers walked freely.
"Enough, let's go." Another tug, and he was being herded down through the castle toward the scene below.
When finally they exited the gated arch, Merlin could see Lot waiting, one hand on the hilt of his sword as he watched Merlin approach. Even though the suppressing chains inhibiting his magic, Merlin could sense the magic in the air; the land was alive with it, where before the Fisher King's lands had been stripped of all vestiges of the Old Religion. In the distance, trees grew, stunted and short, but present all the same.
The guards laid hands on Merlin's shoulders and pushed him to his knees, and he looked up balefully at Lot's satisfied smile.
"You like what you see, boy? It was easiest for me to assemble my army here, far from prying eyes." Lot gestured to the camp.
Merlin said nothing, but he took his first close look at Lot's soldiers. There were many who clad in the regular mail and cloaks of all knights, but there were others with Druid markings visible on their skin. Merlin did not recognize the specific markings, but he noted every one of the Druids wore a sword or dagger - something he had never seen before.
"Ruadan," Lot called into the group, and a man turned around - the older warrior who had come first into the fray when Merlin was taken. Ruadan glanced at Merlin, and then came forward as Lot beckoned with short, impatient gestures.
"Get our guest on his feet."
Ruadan gave Merlin a long, searching look, and after a moment, said, "My apologies, Emrys. I regret that it has come to this." With speed to rival any of Arthur's best knights, Ruadan drew his sword and fisted one hand in Merlin's collar, yanking him to his feet, off-balance. The edge of his blade pressed against Merlin's neck, cold, unyielding, just below the metal collar. Merlin repressed a laugh; if they cut his throat, then any purpose they may have taken him for would be defeated. It was possible Lot was quite a bit more stupid than he had thought.
"There's no need for this." Mordred's voice cut through the crowd, and the pressure of the blade at Merlin's throat eased immediately. Mordred moved forward, giving Lot only the most cursory nod as he placed a hand on Ruadan's arm. "Move away, brother."
"How do you dare countermand my orders," Lot hissed, and there was movement behind him, probably Lot's men, though Merlin couldn't see them; Ruadan's arm around his chest was like an iron bar.
"I dare because there are other ways - more effective ways. Emrys is within your control, is he not? Would you not like an opportunity to demonstrate how ably you control his power?" Mordred's eyes were like twin flints, no emotion, only bland deference.
Lot didn't answer, but Ruadan's arm eased away from Merlin, only to be replaced by Lot's sturdy body behind Merlin. Lot rucked up Merlin's tunic to slide his hand beneath, and Merlin shivered with revulsion as Lot's fingers curled around the chain binding his chest. Lot pressed his lips to Merlin's ear and whispered, "Call the dragon."
Merlin's stomach turned over as he fought the command. If he called Kilgharrah, he would put the old dragon in great danger - they could require he ask anything of his friend, even his death, and Kilgharrah would have to obey. It was not certain that even the dragon's magic could save him, or that he would be strong enough to refuse Merlin's command. Merlin could not be certain others in the group did not know the language of dragons, so if he tried subterfuge, Kilgharrah's life might be forfeit anyway.
The drugging pull of the bindings seeped into him, even as he fought for clarity, to try to find a way to resist. He pressed his lips closed, biting back the words that would deliver the oldest magic in Albion into Lot's hands.
Lot pressed close against him, pulling the chain so that it cut into the wound down Merlin's side, and said, "Call him now, or see what I will do to you here, among all these men, if you do not." His meaning was plain, and Merlin did not try to hide his disgust at the ordinary threat, one which did not even take advantage of the control Lot could exercise with the chains.
Ruadan turned away, a muscle in his jaw twitching.
A thought struck Merlin then, like a lightning bolt cutting through a dark storm. Kara had read some of the history Geoffrey had set down regarding Merlin's confessed deeds over the last eight years. She knew of the dragon Merlin brought forth into the world, and Lot had not said which dragon. As far as anyone knew for certain, Arthur had slain the old dragon years before; there was no proof he lived.
There was only one way to ensure that remained true, and to guarantee his friend would not be endangered. It was a dreadful choice, but there were no other options. Tears pricked the corner of Merlin's eyes as he threw back his head and roared, "O Aithusa, e male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!"
In the silence that descended after his last word died out, he could sense the agitation of the Druids as they murmured to themselves. It was so easy to forget that no one had summoned a dragon in a generation. He wondered how many of the older men had known his father, and how many might feel shame at having betrayed his son in such a manner. Not enough of them, it seemed.
Lot shook him viciously by the chain and whispered, "Might have been more enjoyable if you'd tried to disobey. But just goes to show you're not as powerful as some have said, are you? Now that you are mine." He released Merlin with a shove, and a hand reached to steady him - Mordred's. Merlin flinched away as if burned, and stood staring at the sky with the rest of them as Aithusa came into view, circling overhead with a plaintive cry. As she descended onto the plain, Merlin had his first good look at her, and what he saw broke his heart.
Aithusa's wings were stunted, as if she had been hurt, and never healed properly. There were marks down her back that appeared to be scars, and she stood at a distance, quivering, her eyes beseeching Merlin. He had not summoned her in many months; he did not know what had happened, and so he was responsible. She had been his to look after, and now he had handed her to the enemy.
He looked away, tears falling freely down his face as he struggled to reconcile this wounded creature with the tiny, perfect creature he'd freed from the egg.
Wyverns took flight as Aithusa approached, screeching at her and diving past as though to knock her from the sky. Their taunts sent her hurtling toward the ground too quickly, and she landed with a thump, off-balance and shivering as she beseeched Merlin's help with her sad eyes.
He lowered his head, unable to offer her false comfort.
"Bring the sword." Mordred held out his hand, palm up, and one of the Druids placed a beautifully wrought sword into his hand, the hilt wrapped with hammered gold. Mordred lifted it in the air with magic. "Instruct the dragon to burnish this sword with dragon fire."
"She won't know how," Merlin said, pulling at Lot's hold. "She's too young, and she's had no one to teach her."
"Then instruct her," Mordred said mildly. "If she cannot create weapons, then she serves no purpose, does she?" As he approached Aithusa, she shrank back, ruffling her wings in alarm.
"Be still," Merlin said to her in the dragon tongue, his attention fixed on the sword and the threat it represented. "You must breathe fire on the sword."
Aithusa made a sort of croaking noise, and Merlin frowned; it was unlike any word he'd ever heard from a dragon. Then she extended her neck, lifted her wings, and made the noise again.
"Put the sword in front of her," Merlin said, noting that Mordred seemed to have no fear of the little dragon, or her fire.
Aithusa's roar, and the flame that followed it, lasted but a few seconds. When she had finished, Mordred retrieved the blade and tested it with a gloved hand; there was no heat, an indication that magic had manifested in the dragon breath. "It is done." He handed the blade back to one of the Druids. "Bring the rest." To Merlin, he said, "She will comply, will she not?"
"Yes," Merlin answered. He tried to ignore the vicious ache in his chest, the betrayal of his kin, and reached for his magic once more, testing the chains. Perhaps because Aithusa was near, he was able to sense it more strongly, but he still could not call it to him.
"When she has finished with these weapons, she is free to go," Mordred said.
"What?" Lot shoved Merlin into the arms of a guard and stalked forward. Ruadan and two others drew their swords, putting their allegiances on full display, but Lot ignored them as he circled Mordred. "That was not our agreement. The dragon could be useful. Who knows what else it can do?"
"The dragon is a creature of magic. We required its assistance, but it is not yours to enslave."
"You had no problem with enslaving the sorcerer."
"That is a different matter. Merlin is a traitor to his kind. What you do with him once he outlives his usefulness to me is of no concern." Without even a glance at Merlin, Mordred turned his back on Lot and threaded his way into the ranks of Druid warriors flanking him.
Merlin took in the scene before him: Lot distracted, Ruadan and others with drawn swords watching either Mordred or Lot, and the guard charged with watching Merlin not touching him. He thought briefly of all the harm he could be forced to do to Camelot - to Arthur - and the only choice available to him became clear.
He lunged away from his guard and flung himself toward Ruadan, directly toward the point of his sword. Ruadan twisted sideways with a true warrior's reflexes, but he would not be able to avoid it; Merlin knew his trajectory was true. At the last moment, he closed his eyes, ignoring Aithusa's distressed wail.
Two pairs of hands grabbed him, grappling for control, and Merlin opened his eyes to see Ruadan shrinking back, carefully moving his sword away even as Merlin strove toward it. The tip of Ruadan's sword was an inch away from Merlin's torso, at best. Merlin used all his strength, fighting his way toward it, even as the crowd behind Ruadan tried to scramble back so he would have room to withdraw.
The deadly struggle seemed to go on forever, and more hands were on him, until finally their number was too great and Merlin did not have the strength to pull forward. He landed hard on the ground, gasping for breath, devastation flooding through him.
"Let me through," Lot ordered, and the guards withdrew, still standing within reach. Lot pulled him up from the ground, and when he and Merlin were eye to eye, he smiled grimly. "Oh, no, little bird, you do not fly from me today," he said softly. He nosed down Merlin's neck, laughing softly when Merlin tried to twist away, and then sank his teeth savagely into the join of Merlin's neck and shoulder. Merlin gritted his teeth, determined not to make a sound that would betray his feelings.
Lot licked back over the bite, then lifted his head to stare into Merlin's eyes. "A promise of what's to come, when the Druids have finished with you." He put a hand on Merlin's chest and stepped him back a pace. "Take him back to his cell."
Dinner for Merlin was bread, water, and a piece of cheese so hard, he considered putting it to use sawing the bars of his cell. He ate the bread, drank the water, and tried to put order to the thoughts churning around in his head. Without the ability to control his magic, he would not be able to free himself, and now he would be guarded more closely than ever.
He dozed fitfully, back against the wall, trying to ignore the vicious sting of Lot's bite, and all it represented.
When he woke, Mordred was standing outside the cell, watching him. He wore ordinary chain mail, and a sword hung at his side. He might have been any knight, from any kingdom, standing guard; he seemed so young and removed from the bloody business of killing. It was deceptive, but then again, he had always been deceptive, with his quiet way and his sincere eyes, and Merlin dreaded what Arthur would make of him if they encountered one another on the battlefield.
Merlin blinked slowly, trying to clear his head, as Mordred turned and lit the torch on the wall to his left. "You were foolish to attempt escape today."
"I wasn't trying to escape." Merlin put his hand on the damp straw and pushed himself up a bit straighter.
"No? There is more than one type of escape, Merlin." Mordred's stare was dispassionate, his eyes glittering green in his pale, young face. "But why am I explaining this to you? After all, you know what it is to turn away when others need your help."
There was no need for Mordred to elaborate. Merlin would remember that day until his last breath. He could still hear the shouts of the Druids as they fought or fled Uther's knights, and he had done nothing - except halt Mordred's escape, and try to trap him into certain death. He supposed he did deserve a measure of justice for his inaction, though it had been impossible to do otherwise.
No. Not impossible. That was a lie he told himself, a way of comforting a troubled conscience.
He sighed. "I did what I had to do, Mordred."
"So you believe. And that is the trouble, really." Mordred folded his arms, and they fell to an uneasy silence, one Merlin broke with a question.
"What I don't understand is why you have thrown in with Lot. Surely you know what kind of king he is - what he's done to the Druids, to possess their power." The time Merlin had spent in Lot's kingdom had left a long and vivid impression on him, particularly as it pertained to Mithian and her choice to remain with him. The man had nearly brought Camelot to the brink of war, all because he coveted the things other kings possessed - Merlin still could barely think of himself as one of those things, but Lot had clearly not stopped thinking of it for a moment.
"Lot had things I needed: an army, and weapons. Things I could not use magic to obtain on a larger scale. My warriors needed a place to mass, and Lot provided that as well. In return, his demand was simple: just you, nothing more. He did not even care to expand his lands through acquisition of Camelot." The cold smile returned, spreading across Mordred's face like ice. "His troops will make excellent fodder for the swords of Arthur's knights in the coming battle."
"So much for the Druids being a peaceful people."
"You know nothing about the Druids," Mordred said sharply. "What would you know of generations of persecution and death? You, who hid what you were until it was to your benefit to reveal it. You disgust me."
"I don't care what you think of me." Merlin pushed himself up slowly, using the wall to lean against. "What are you really after, Mordred? Are you in league with Morgana?"
"Hardly." Mordred's voice curled on a sneer. "Morgana has nothing to do with this. She is weak - she has been consumed by envy for a crown that was never hers. Her desire for power has been her undoing time and again. But I will admit, her single-minded obsession has been an excellent distraction. I have been able to build my forces and persuade others to my cause with little fanfare, while she has tried and failed to capture Camelot for herself."
"You seem to have it all in hand." Merlin approached the bars warily, so he could see Mordred's face better. "What do you want with me, then? Was all this about calling the dragon?"
"With you?" Mordred laughed. "When this is finished, I will give you to Lot as a plaything, and you will do his bidding for the rest of your short life." Mordred leaned closer to the bars, and his eyes blazed with fierce hate. "It is Arthur I want."
Merlin's heart began to race. "Why? He has never harmed you."
"No. He has not. And it is regrettable that he must die." Mordred paced slowly down the length of the bars, moving his gloved hand from one bar to the next as he passed. "I asked myself, what has always fueled your actions? Why have you betrayed those who use magic, time and again? Sanctioned their deaths? And the answer is so very simple. You have chosen your king whenever a choice must be made."
Merlin said nothing; there was no way to answer such an accusation, where distortions and lies were so entwined. He would always choose Arthur; that much was true, and he could not deny it. A tiny seed of panic took root in Merlin's belly. He had done this - he had made Arthur a target, just the thing he had hoped to prevent when his magic was known to all, and there was no need to hide.
He stared at Mordred, and focused on showing him nothing, no emotion to use against him as a weapon. Mordred knew far too much already, and every morsel of information he gave Merlin now might be useful, later.
"It was when I heard of your union with Arthur that I began to understand you entirely: there is nothing in this world that would destroy you more completely than the death of your king. So that is what must happen." Mordred stopped pacing and turned, angling his body toward the sound of Merlin's indrawn breath. "First, I will kill your king. Then I will dismantle his kingdom, piece by piece, until everything you have put in place has been utterly destroyed. Magic users will be free to do as they choose, without submitting to your laws, your restrictions. Camelot will be a kingdom ruled by magic, as it was in the days before Uther's tyranny."
Merlin began to understand the endgame. "And Lot?"
Mordred raised his other hand to grip the bars. "The chains I have fashioned for you are my chains. You will do Lot's bidding because it is what I wish, and when I wish for you to murder your king, you will do that, too. Once you have made Arthur suffer at your hands - once you have watched him die slowly; once your friends are dead, and all you love is gone - I will give you to Lot as payment for the bargain we struck."
No hint of emotion showed in Mordred's expression - not greed, or satisfaction, not even anger. "I doubt Lot will even stop to take you back to his own lands. He'll want to sample your charms the moment you're delivered to him. While he is occupied with you, it will be easy to dismantle his kingdom also, and when he's no longer useful, his life is forfeit. And then - finally - I will end your life."
He smiled, sending a slow chill up Merlin's spine. "I promised you long ago, Emrys, that I would never forgive you. You will see now, how I keep my promises."
During battle within his own citadel - which had happened far too many times for Arthur's comfort - Arthur was never fully engaged in combat. Soon after he had become king, he had drawn up specific plans placing a senior knight in charge of each gate, siege tunnel, and garrison of the guard, to ensure he did not have to be everywhere at once. But there was always the nagging sense he should fight each battle, be in each place a man was fighting for him.
This battle was no different. A part of Arthur was with Leon at the south gates, and with Gwaine and Merlin in the lower town, and with every other knight fighting to save Camelot.
When the fire stopped falling from the sky, Arthur rallied his knights to the aid of Camelot's citizens. Most of the lower town, and a great deal of the citadel, seemed to be on fire or smoldering, but the gates had held against a fairly paltry force of ill-equipped bandits and smugglers. It didn't make sense; Arthur checked the bodies of those who had fallen at the north gate, and many of the men were no longer in their fighting prime. It was almost as though whoever planned and launched the attack had chosen the least valuable fighters, and sent them to their deaths amidst the chaos.
"As a distraction," Arthur breathed. It was an old tactic, and one most attacking forces would not attempt. Men were hard to come by, and the time spent training them too valuable. Perhaps Morgana was growing desperate. "Leon. Check the vaults, the armory, and the food stores, and then find Merlin. Send him to me."
"Right away, sire."
Only after Leon had gone did it occur to Arthur that it was unusual for Merlin to have stayed away so long after the conclusion of battle. He stood staring at the bodies a moment longer, and then made his way back to the courtyard in search of Gaius. He found him there, circulating among the wounded as he had done all of Arthur's life, tending each with efficient care.
"Gaius, have you seen Merlin?"
"No, my lord. I was about to ask you the same thing. We could use more hands here."
"I will assign men to assist with stretcher-bearing." Arthur flagged down two of the nearest knights and set them to the task. A growing fear bloomed in his mind, but he pushed it away. It was ridiculous to assume that something had happened to Merlin just because he had not run immediately to Arthur's side.
"Sire!" Leon rushed toward him, four men bearing a stretcher just behind. Gwaine lay unconscious in the stretcher, his face streaked with blood. Ice crept through Arthur's body as he reached a hand to touch Gwaine's face. "He was found in the lower town, just as you see him."
"Merlin was not with him."
That rush of dread returned, stronger this time, and now Arthur let himself react to it, as the king he must be. The safety of Camelot's most powerful sorcerer was a concern far beyond the seizing of his own heart. "Search the lower town and the area near the southern gates," Arthur said, gripping Leon's arm. "Check every body, Leon. Check every building."
"We will find him, Arthur." Leon laid his hand over Arthur's gloved one for the briefest of seconds, and then began shouting orders to the knights under his command, and more besides.
Gaius bustled over and crouched down beside Gwaine, ministering to him. He opened a vial under Gwaine's nose, and Gwaine bucked up, coughing hard and then groaning as he thrashed away from the vial. Arthur dropped to one knee beside the stretcher. "Gwaine, what happened? Where is Merlin?" Arthur asked urgently.
With a grimace, Gwaine pulled himself to a sitting position. "They were waiting for us," he said, voice raspy and thin. "Sorcerers, or soldiers with magic. Not sure which. Weren't interested in fighting me; they had bigger fish to fry."
"What do you mean?" Arthur asked.
"Tossed me out of the way like a rag doll," Gwaine said, wincing, "and then they came for Merlin."
"Came for him," Arthur said, all sound around him fading into nothing in the background as the words echoed around his mind.
They came for Merlin.
Merlin, in the hands of the enemy, was a thought too large for Arthur to comprehend. He was too powerful to be taken alive; it should not have been possible. But someone had taken him. The world narrowed to that one thought, that one idea.
It did not matter who had come for him, or what their intent was. If Merlin was still alive, their lives would be over soon enough, either by Merlin's hand, or his own.
"But Merlin is more powerful than any sorcerer I have ever seen," Gaius said, and the astonished expression on his face mirrored Arthur's feeling. "He should easily have been able to defeat even skilled sorcerers."
"Never had the chance. The blonde Druid girl threw something around his neck. That was the end of it." Gwaine put a hand up to his head. "Tried to get up - was crawling over - and one of them put a boot in my face. Faster than magic I suppose." He looked up at Arthur, and the sorrow and fear there nearly seized Arthur's heart. "Arthur, I'm sorry."
Arthur didn't trust himself to speak; he squeezed Gwaine's hand briefly, as much of a message as he could give, for the moment. Then he looked up, seeking any knight who could assist; Percival was hovering nearby, supporting an injured comrade. Arthur gestured him over and found his voice. "Muster every knight who is not injured or engaged in rescue. Find our Druid guests-" he spat the word, tasting Merlin's blood in it "--and bring them to me in the great hall. Use the cold iron, Percival. Put special patrols out with a description of the girl."
Gwaine threw an arm over his eyes and turned his face away, as if ashamed.
"Sire, any magic that could arrest Merlin's powers would have to be remarkable indeed," Gaius said.
"Morgana is capable of it," Arthur said. "You've seen what she can do." The ice of disbelief was winding its way through his body like slow poison, and he shivered. "I trusted them," he said slowly. "On Merlin's word, I trusted them. I allowed magic users free rein in Camelot."
"Arthur," Gaius said sharply. "Just as Merlin is not Morgana, one untrustworthy girl is not the Druids entire."
"We shall see," Arthur said, the cold settling into him, driving fear and panic down deep inside, to the place where useless emotions must be kept. "All that matters is Merlin, now, and they will tell me where he is."
"And if they don't know?"
He fixed Gaius with a hard stare. "Send for Iseldir. Let him prove his loyalty to Camelot, and repay the debt he owes Merlin."
"He will do no violence on your behalf, Arthur. You know he will not condone it."
"He will winnow the truth out of these sorcerers, or I will do it with a sword and fire, and I will not stop until they are dead," Arthur hissed. "Summon him, Gaius, and make my intentions plain."
Even after Arthur turned his back, he could feel Gaius' silent stare cutting into his skin, and it took him only a moment to realize, it was the same way Gaius used to look at Uther when his father was on the wrong path. In his heart, Arthur knew magic was not to blame for what had happened; there was only one person responsible. He would find Merlin, and then he would cut Morgana's heart out, and end this once and for all.
The young Druids did not seem like much of a threat, crumpled on the stone floor before the throne in their black chains and grey robes, but Arthur knew better. More than once during the battle, he had seen the man, Liam, hurling fireballs aside, dispersing them over the fields just as Merlin had instructed. They were capable of harm as well as protection. Merlin's absence beside him was proof of it. He could not afford to be gentle in what he was about to do.
The girl - Kara - refused to lower her head, and she sat glaring at Arthur with such hatred in her eyes, Arthur was surprised he had not burst into flames. Only the cold iron was stopping her from using her magic; she had killed three knights when they found her. It was a miracle they'd been able to take her alive.
Around them, the knights not out on search patrols filled the room, and many of Arthur's advisors, including Gaius.
"You know of our troubles securing the girl Gwaine has accused, my lord. The other two came without resistance; they offered no defense." Leon bowed and stepped away. Arthur realized with regret that until this day, he had not bothered to learn or remember all of their names. He could practically hear Merlin chastising him from afar, lecturing him about respect for those who practiced magic, and how important it was to see them as citizens of his kingdom.
He had failed in that, and perhaps it had helped to lead them to this moment, and to Merlin's death. The thought was unbearable. There was only the task at hand, and he must see to it.
"Liam." The boy looked up at Arthur, and the fear in his eyes made Arthur swallow hard. He had never wanted to be feared, but if it would serve a purpose, then so be it. "I commend you for your service to Camelot during the battle. I know you were not directly responsible for Merlin's disappearance. But I will hear from you now: did you know anything about what was to come?"
"No, Majesty, I swear it. I did only as Emrys instructed, and I looked for him after the battle, but I could not find him." Liam bowed his head to the ground. "Please, sire, I would never bring harm to your kingdom, which I have sworn to protect. I would not dishonor my people or my vows."
"And you," Arthur said, turning his attention to Eira, who trembled beside Liam. "I am told you were nowhere to be found before the battle."
"I was looking for Kara," Eira said, tears streaking down her face. To her left, Kara twisted away from the guards to stare at her with loathing.
"You were not with her?"
"No! That is - not when the battle began, sire," she said, lifting her chained hands to wipe at her face. "Emrys sent us to do research, but Kara did not want to. She seemed so angry, and I knew there was something wrong, but she would not tell me what troubled her. When she ignored Emrys' instructions, I ran after her, but she did not answer my call. And then...then the attack began." Eira began to cry again. "I would not have let her harm Emrys. He is our teacher. He has been kind to me."
A moment later, Eira cried out as a gob of Kara's spittle struck her on the cheek. "Traitor," Kara hissed, before she was bent low by the guards. Eira rubbed her cheek on her sleeve, her face burning red, and turned away, sobbing.
Arthur looked from one to the other, frustration welling within him. He directed his attention last to Kara, who smiled a vicious smile the moment he did so.
"Ask your questions, Arthur Pendragon, and be assured only of my silence," she snarled.
Arthur did not bother. There were other ways.
The double doors swung open at the end of the room, and the guard announced, "Iseldir of the Druids, at the king's command, and Alator of the Catha." The knights parted to let Iseldir through. Clad in the same grey robes as the two students, he stopped behind them, and lowered the hood of his robe. Alator followed behind, but stepped off to the side. It was then that Arthur remembered he had gone to see Iseldir, to ask questions on Arthur's behalf.
"Arthur Pendragon," Iseldir said, bowing only slightly, as had always been his custom. "You sent for me."
"You have heard what took place here."
"Yes. Also that you believe Morgana Pendragon to be responsible." Iseldir looked down at the two Druids at his feet. "What do you wish to ask of me?"
"The truth. They are your people. You must do what is necessary to find...Emrys." The name was strange and unfamiliar on his tongue, but it had the desired effect on Iseldir; as it rolled from his lips, Iseldir stood straighter.
"If any of my people have caused harm to Emrys, they will be dealt with in the way of our people. They will be shunned by our kind and excluded from our rites." At that, Arthur noticed a shudder went through Liam, though he did not speak. A punishment of some significance, then, though for Arthur the punishment was irrelevant; he needed information.
"Not enough. You owe me the truth, Iseldir. I cannot force you to remain here, if you choose to use your magic to remove yourself and your people. But you made sureties and pledges to me regarding these emissaries. Now I ask you to honor those oaths." Arthur's voice dropped low, and he let the barest hint of his fury creep through. "I will learn if they have harmed Merlin, or know where he has been taken. You can obtain this information."
Iseldir seemed to withdraw a bit at that. His calm stare never wavered as he asked, "Are you become your father, then?"
Arthur resisted the urge to look elsewhere for reassurance - Gaius, or Gwen, who knew him best - and the silence at his right hand began to feel more and more like an open, festering wound. "If I were Uther, they would already be dead." Arthur leaned forward. "Merlin trusts you. Therefore I trust you. But that trust has been misplaced in the emissaries you sent to my court. This is your problem to correct, Iseldir, and you must do it now. I will have Merlin back at all costs, and every moment we waste discussing this is a lowered chance that he can be found alive and unharmed. "
Something changed in Iseldir's expression then, a softening, and he said, "Truly, you are not your father, but your father destroyed much for the sake of his lost love, Arthur Pendragon. Love must strengthen the heart, not harden it, even when the loss is unbearable."
Arthur clenched his jaw until he thought it might break under the sheer force of his control. When he was able to breathe again, he said, "I will have your answer, Iseldir." He lifted his chin toward Kara. "Start with this one."
"Sire." Alator stepped forward, his staff clicking on the ground. "If it is information you wish, I can...I will do it. Iseldir need not go against his beliefs."
Arthur held Iseldir's gaze, willing him to understand. "Yes," he said at last. "He must."
After a long, tense moment, Iseldir nodded, and pulled his hood back up, obscuring his eyes. Hands clasped together beneath the robe, he began to chant the words of the Old Religion which Arthur found both beautiful and frightening. Then he stopped, abruptly, and Kara gasped, falling forward on her palms, back arched. She made a tiny cry, and hunched there, body rigid, for what seemed like an eternity. Then, as if she were a puppet dropped from its tether, she sprawled on the floor, whimpering softly.
The moment Kara fell, Eira's back bowed, and she lifted her face to Arthur, eyes wide and terrified. Gold clouded them, and then all color seeped from her eyes, a white mist curling through them like fog. She screamed, an eerie, mournful sound, and collapsed, senseless, on the ground.
Liam was last, and he covered his face with his hands as he gave a long, mournful scream, his body twitching madly until he fell to the side, weeping softly.
Iseldir raised his head, and Arthur could see his golden magic fading in his eyes. "These two have not betrayed Emrys," he said, sweeping his hand over Eira and Liam. "Kara alone is responsible."
Desperation clutched at Arthur, but he refused to surrender to it. "Does she know where he is?"
"Perhaps. She is deliberately trying to cloud the information so I cannot retrieve it." Iseldir paid no attention to the Druids as they shakily sat up; he waited until Arthur nodded to Percival to release the chains for Eira and Liam, and then said, "In the coming days, you may have need of us. My people are allies of Camelot, and will remain so. These two will remain here, to do as you bid - as per the terms of our agreement."
"Get those two out of here - Gaius, see to them," Arthur said, looking at Alator.
"I would prefer to stay, sire," Gaius said, and Arthur knew he had seen through him easily enough.
"As you wish." He did not waste time with the inevitable argument, because although Gaius would be entirely correct, and give wise advice, Arthur wanted none of it. "Alator. Can you find out where Merlin is being held, and for what purpose?"
"If the girl knows, I can obtain the information."
"Then take her. By the laws of Camelot, her life is forfeit; Gwaine witnessed her complicity in Merlin's capture. She will hang as soon as the gallows can be erected. Therefore, do what you must."
"As you wish." Alator bowed, and as the guards took Kara from the room, he followed silently.
Gaius was looking at Arthur as if he did not recognize him at all, and Arthur had some sympathy for his sentiments. He suspected if he looked in a mirror just then, he would not like what he saw looking back.
He stepped down from the throne, Leon and Percival at his heels as he stalked through the corridors. "We can't waste time waiting for that information. Take as many men as are necessary and form patrols, Leon. Search as far from Camelot's borders as you must. Send riders to the courts of our allies informing them of the search."
"And if our allies refuse us crossing at their borders, so that we may continue looking?" Leon asked.
"None will, if they understand the nature of this search," Arthur said. He turned to Leon, meeting his eyes. "If any do, cross their borders in the woods and streams; cross any way you can, and find the truth of it. If any of the kings and queens I have welcomed here as allies are responsible, they may as well prepare for war. Let nothing stop our knights until Merlin is found, Leon."
Even as the words left his lips, he felt the rightness of it in his heart.
"Some will offer assistance in the search," Percival said. "Should we accept it?"
"Accept nothing until we have verified that the offer is not simply a way to throw us off the scent." Arthur paused outside the door of his chambers. "Updates as soon as every patrol comes back, Leon - no exceptions."
"But sire, you should rest-"
"No exceptions." Arthur gave Leon a hard look, and then entered his quarters, closing the door behind him quietly.
"Sire," George said, rising from the chair by the fire. "What can I do?"
"Go and ready my armor," Arthur said, hearing only Merlin's voice, and the touch of his hand as he dressed Arthur; like ghosts, the tiny, vanished joys of the past swirled around him, taunting him with his failure to keep what he loved safe. "I'll send for you when I'm ready to dress."
"Shall I bring you something to eat?"
"No. If Alator sends word, or if Leon has information, I want to know immediately. Otherwise, I don't want to be disturbed."
George, ever the perfect servant for an imperfect king, slipped past Arthur and turned the key in the lock as he left. Arthur made his way to the chair George had just vacated and eased down by the fire, his muscles crying out for some relief. He had barely settled since the battle, except to climb on his throne and demand something terrible from the one true magical ally he had.
He put his face in his hands, and leaned toward the fire, but it seemed pale and cold against his skin; no warmth, no life. Not when Merlin had been there less than a day before, laughing, teasing him, offering a voice of reason when Arthur made plans with his heart - plans which may have provoked Morgana's attack, and helped to deliver Merlin into her hands.
If she had him, he might already be dead. But a small part of him was whispering that it made no sense; if she wanted Merlin dead, she would have left his body for Arthur to find, and stormed her way in to the citadel. The enemy corpses told a tale which didn't match the facts.
Merlin was the most powerful sorcerer who had ever lived; he was too powerful to leave alive. What they wanted with him, who had him, why they had chosen not to press the attack on Camelot - questions swirled around in Arthur's head until he thought he might go mad with them.
Always at the center of it, the image of Merlin's face.
He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes and sat back, staring into the fire. George had left a pitcher of watered wine and a goblet on the hearth to warm, but he would have none of it. He would need a clear head for what was to come. There was no kingdom he would not destroy, no king or queen he would not challenge, to find Merlin. They would all do well to remember him as the warrior his father had trained, instead of the peaceful king they had come to expect.
He stared into the fire, willing himself to stay still, thinking of Alator and Kara in the dungeons below.
He did not think of Gaius' disappointment at all.
Merlin stood under an oak tree on a desolate plain. Sunlight and moonlight washed over him, one tumbling after the other, and clouds sped by overhead. Arthur could not see his face. Darkness clouded his throat, his chest; Merlin's hands were lashed to the tree. And everywhere around, the sound of Merlin's quiet, plaintive cry -
Arthur Arthur ARTHUR
Arthur woke with a shout, clawing at his throat, and jerked from the chair where he'd fallen asleep, landing on the floor with a thump. He rested one hand on the seat of the chair and looked about him wildly. He was still in his chambers beside the fire. He must have dozed off.
He swallowed, with the sound of his name from Merlin's lips still ringing in his ears, and touched his throat again. Something was wrong with Merlin's magic, but a terrible, tenuous certainty had taken hold in Arthur's heart - Merlin was alive, and he was in great danger.
A sharp knock sounded at the door; a moment later, it creaked open. George peered around its edge, ever discreet. "Sire, are you well?"
"Fine." Arthur rubbed his face wearily and beckoned George in. "Is there any news?"
"Sir Leon is expected shortly, my lord. He sent word not to disturb you until he actually arrived. And I just received word that Alator would like to see you."
"Bring him to my chambers. Summon Gwen, Gaius, and the senior knights, and have them attend also."
"At once, sire."
"Any word on Sir Gwaine's condition?"
"He is up and his usual self, my lord," George said, his tone of disapproval telling more of the story than his words. "When last I saw him, he was terrorizing Cook and taking extra bread for the wounded knights."
The picture those words conjured in Arthur's mind brought a tiny lightness to his heart. "Very well. Have Gwaine join us, too."
Arthur took advantage of his brief moments alone to wash his face and hands briskly. It was too much trouble to remove his mail and change clothes. He could hear Merlin having him on about dressing himself, and that lightened his heart even more. They would have those moments again, because anything else was impossible. Arthur would find him.
A quick knock, and George swung open the door to admit Alator. Arthur stood awkward for a moment, the heaviness of his request catching up with him, before taking a seat at the table. "Please, sit."
"Thank you, sire." Alator pulled out a chair and leaned his staff against the table before he sat down. He gave Arthur a peculiarly sympathetic look, which chafed against Arthur's skin. "Forgive me, but I believe it was difficult for you to ask me to use my particular skills."
Arthur nodded, and swallowed. "So it was."
"I should have thought Emrys' great faith in you terribly misplaced if it was not," Alator said gravely. "But even if you had not asked it, I would have found a way to see the girl and extract the information anyway. For Emrys' sake, I would have done it. You understand all too well, I think."
"Yes." Their eyes met, and there Arthur saw a fierce devotion he was not unfamiliar with. "What did you learn?"
"Mordred is responsible for Emrys' capture. The girl and Mordred were friends as children, and she has a staunch loyalty to him. She was to meet one of Mordred's men outside the city walls when the battle was over, but she did not manage to leave the citadel before she was caught by your men."
"Does she know where he's been taken?"
"No, but she did give up a good deal more information which might be useful." As Alator began to continue, another sharp knock sounded.
"Come," Arthur said, and Gwen opened the door.
"You sent for us, my lord?"
"Come in," Arthur said, standing to pull out a chair for Gwen. Gaius followed her, and the knights behind, including Gwaine, whose face appeared to be one large, mottled bruise. "Continue, Alator."
"It is as I suspected; Mordred and Ruadan are in league, and they have found a new ally to feed them troops and weapons. They have formed an alliance with King Lot."
"He wouldn't dare!" Leon gripped the table and turned to Arthur. "He knows what you would do!"
"He's been waiting for his opportunity," Arthur said, swallowing back the bile flooding his throat. "Now he's embraced the war I promised him if he ever harmed Merlin."
"We don't know that he's harmed him," Gwen said, placing her hand over Arthur's.
For her sake, Arthur did not say that he knew it would not be long before Lot did much more than harm Merlin. He remembered the exact tone and cadence of his threat to use Merlin, and his magic was not the prize in question. The thought of it raised a rage in Arthur he knew he could not control, and he must be in control. He must. For Merlin's sake.
Instead, he said, "If they've taken Merlin, there must be some sort of plan - otherwise why not just kill him?"
"To provoke an action of some sort from the king," Percival said. "He knows you'll come after him."
"He wouldn't be foolish enough to take Merlin to his own kingdom, where we could easily find him," Gwen said. "If he wants him alive, he would lock him away somewhere out of our reach, at least for the time being."
Gwaine made a small thoughtful noise across the table, and Arthur's attention immediately shifted. "What is it, Gwaine?"
"There is a place," Gwaine said slowly. "The Perilous Lands. Lot used to take prisoners there when I was young. He'd store them in one of the ruined keeps on our borders with a minimal guard, and then dispose of them in the bogs or pits, or feed them to the wyverns."
Arthur stared at him, processing the use of the word 'our'. "And how is your knowledge of Lot's practices so different now from when you, Merlin and I were last in the Perilous Lands?"
Acute discomfort twisted Gwaine's features as he tapped out a rhythm on the table. Finally, he gave Arthur a half-smile and said, "I haven't been completely honest. I may know a bit more about King Lot than I let on before."
Gwaine leaned back in his chair, and as if the words tasted foul, he spat, "He's my father."
It explained so much about Gwaine, so many pieces of the puzzle that had never quite fit - his skill with a sword, his easy manner with other nobles despite his outward disdain - and Arthur felt he had been a complete fool not to have realized it.
"Your father?" Leon said faintly.
"Don't hold that against me. He's a despicable pig," Gwaine said. "He held me prisoner in the Perilous Lands when my mother ran off with his first knight. Even threatened to have me killed, just to take revenge on her. I escaped, and I've been footloose and fancy-free ever since." Quietly, he added, "There's no end to the depravity he's endorsed, Arthur. It'd be just like him to throw in with them so he could get his hands on Merlin." He winced, as if he realized what he'd said. "On Merlin's power," he clarified, but Arthur knew he'd had the right of it the first time.
"Lot has an impressive army indeed, and if he's thrown its might behind this man Mordred, we will not have enough knights to make an even match on the battlefield," Leon said.
"What of Morgana?" Gwen said. "Is she mixed up in this as well?"
"Can you confirm it?" Arthur asked Alator, who shook his head.
"I cannot. I have only my instinct, and the signature of magic used here is not that of Morgana Pendragon. Her magic is...older. Deeper. The magic used to attack Camelot yesterday is the kind that is drawn from practice and instruction, not an elemental magic."
"Sire, if we are facing an army of magic-users, we have a problem we have never encountered before," Gaius said. "Iseldir is our ally, but his peaceful Druids are no match for the warrior sect. They would repel attack, but they would not press an offensive."
"You will need allies among the magical races." Alator lifted his staff and set its base on the ground. "I can be of service here. The Catha will stand with you; I can summon them to your borders today. Some have remained within Camelot for these many years, waiting for the world it was promised Emrys would bring, and they will gladly assist."
Arthur turned his head to the right to ask for Merlin's advice, and his absence struck him all over again, a pang of loss so harsh he could barely breathe. He tried to wrap his mind around the idea that magical creatures might want to fight alongside Camelot's knights, but it had only ever been a speculative discussion, one Merlin had dropped because Arthur knew he could sense it was too soon. Arthur had moved many leagues down the path toward accepting magic, but there were some things he had yet to come to terms with.
Druids were one thing, but there were so many unknowns beyond that familiar ground, and it was difficult to know who to trust without Merlin's steady, grounded truth.
"Sire, I will contact the Sidhe, to begin with; perhaps they will be willing to stand with Camelot." Alator seemed to be speaking to him the way one might a kicked dog, with infinite patience and gentleness, as if he could sense Arthur's immense discomfort. "For Emrys, they may be willing to lend their power to your cause."
"These races are dangerous, Arthur," Gaius said, giving Arthur cause once again to be grateful he still had Gaius' sound advice. "While I concede we may need their help, it would be unwise to forget that their power can be difficult to control."
"Iseldir can assist with that, can he not?" Arthur asked, looking from Gaius to Alator.
"I believe so. Like all of us, he will do whatever he can to ensure Emrys' safe return, and the safety of this kingdom," Alator said. His conviction that this was the right path was obvious. It was easy to see why Merlin had chosen to trust him. Such unwavering loyalty and devotion was useful, and Arthur reminded himself that Merlin's judgment, however much Arthur might sometimes disagree with it, was usually sound.
"Very well, "Arthur said. "Leon, you will remain here to oversee the search and the preparations for battle, if it comes to that. Continue reinforcing our defenses. Alator, you will work with Gaius and Leon on securing these new allies." A deep breath and then: "I will ride for the Perilous Lands tonight, along with Elyan and Percival. Gwaine, can you manage the ride also?"
"Absolutely," Gwaine said, with that firm, deceptive calmness Arthur relied on in battle as well as at the council table.
"Sire, perhaps..." Gwen hesitated, looking around at those assembled, and said, "Perhaps this is premature, if you'll forgive me for saying it. We have no confirmation that Merlin is in the Perilous Lands. Sir Leon should go in your stead. If attack is imminent, then your place is here."
"I agree," Leon said. "This will be a dangerous mission, one we must undertake in secrecy, and with few men. Your safety cannot be compromised."
"The mission is not even sure of success - we cannot be certain they have Merlin, or that Kara's information is genuine." Gaius was watching Alator as he spoke. "Sire, a kingdom in crisis needs its king."
They were right, and Arthur knew it. He had been raised to send men to their death on his behalf, to trust that they would give their lives for what he deemed most important. His father had ensured he would know the cost of being king, the agony of those decisions. It was an old argument - the king must stay behind, be protected, be safe - and Arthur had never agreed with it, even when his advisors were right.
Even so, everything he was rebelled at the idea of staying behind, drawing up battle plans and supervising the rebuilding of walls, while Merlin suffered at the hands of unknown captors.
He thought of the dream of Merlin on a desolate plain, one he was sure he had seen before. He could still hear the echo of Merlin's cries.
"I must go," he said softly, unable to find words to explain which would not make him seem like a love-sick, dream-addled idiot.
"Of course you must; it's folly to say otherwise." Gwaine rescued him with a toss of his hair and a simple truth. "You must be where Merlin is. I'd do the same."
"Well then." Arthur cleared his throat. "Alator, if you will work with Gaius in our absence to shore up our...our..." He struggled to say it, and Gaius chimed in.
"Magical defenses, sire?"
"Yes. Those." Arthur pointed to Gaius, then sat back in his chair. Eventually he would come to terms with what that might mean, but not this day.
"I will do my best." Alator nodded to Gaius, who met his gaze steadily.
"Sire, with all due respect, I'm not certain four men will be enough to free Merlin, if Lot has him." Leon glanced around at the others, looking for support. "He has been known to kill hostages and throw them from his parapets of his fortress at the first sign of trouble, and that plain is wide open. Your approach will be noticed."
"Not only that, but the danger from sorcerers is immense," Gaius said. "There may be magical defenses in place as well."
"We can't take a larger force," Arthur said. "If four would be noticed, how much worse would a hundred be? No, stealth is on our side, if we approach by night."
"And if you free Merlin," Gwen said, "he can use his magic to help with the escape."
Words hung unsaid in the air: if he is able. Arthur dismissed the thought from his mind, because they would find Merlin and bring him home, no matter the cost. He turned to Gaius. "Perhaps I should send a patrol to bring Hunith back here."
Gaius shook his head. "There may be no need to alarm her."
"She should be here," Arthur said, thinking of her kind face, and the worry in her eyes nearly every time Merlin was within her sight. "She should know what has happened, and I must be the one to tell her, if..." Arthur broke off, unable to say it, unable even to bear the idea of it.
"Merlin needs only the tiniest opportunity, sire, and he will free himself. He is quite resourceful, as you know. I have faith that you will find him, or he will find you." Gaius gave him a slight, encouraging smile.
"Your optimism does you credit," Arthur said. He reached for that optimism inside himself, and found only a cold, ruthless determination, waiting to be tapped.
"I cannot think any other way, sire. Merlin is as a son to me. I must believe, or else there would be no point."
"Then I will borrow your faith until I can refill my own," Arthur said.
If Merlin stood on his toes, and grabbed the bars of the tiny, high window with both hands, he could see outside of the keep just far enough to observe the stockpile of swords and lances kept outside the soldiers' encampment. He watched it grow every hour, until finally Mordred waved Aithusa off, giving her permission to go.
He heard her cries in the sky above for hours as she circled, and then finally moved off, resigned to the fact that she must obey his command to go. The sight of her twisted body and wounded wings haunted Merlin. He had neglected his duty to her, lost in the chaotic changes Camelot had undergone since Morgana's last attack. He had never seen any other dragon than Kilgharrah, and did not know what was normal for a dragon's growth, but he could tell something had gone terribly wrong.
If only he could ask Kilgharrah why she could not speak, or why he had not kept her within his protection. Perhaps dragons were supposed to fend for themselves.
Perhaps dragon lords were supposed to protect them.
Merlin promised himself that when he was free, he would see to it. In the meantime, he would have to look for ways to get himself out of his dungeon cell. In the days since his capture, a routine had developed: bread and water in the morning, usually with a meat or cheese that was rotted or inedible, followed by a long wait to see what would happen. There was little to do but think, and Merlin found himself daydreaming about those first days of his hand fast with Arthur. It was difficult now to recall how simple things had seemed before magic had complicated everything, but for all that, Merlin would not have traded a moment of what had passed between himself and Arthur.
It had been arrogant to believe any happiness he found would be uncomplicated for long. Even more arrogant was the idea that he could keep Camelot - Arthur - safe, or that he was equal to the task of being the sorcerer to guard an entire kingdom. It wasn't a question of capability; it was a question of wisdom, and Mordred had shown him to be a fool, not even smart enough to guard his back in battle.
Gwaine had paid the price for that foolishness as well. Merlin hoped with all his heart he had survived.
Each day, predictably, there was a late morning visit from the guards; each day, they took him up to an empty room high in one of the castle towers, where Ruadan and Mordred were waiting.
They had begun softly, the first day, asking blunt questions about Camelot's knights.
"How many?" Mordred asked, touching the collar. Explosions of white fire coursed through Merlin's chest. "How well are they trained? What are their weapons of choice?"
The questions never varied, and Merlin gasped through the pain, reminding himself it was illusion, magic of the most despicable kind. Mordred gave him little respite, alternating between pain, and the administration of potions, the kind which left Merlin's head spinning. He was sometimes unsure how much time had passed, or what he had said.
Mordred seemed to take a particular pleasure in using magic against him, though it would have been simple enough to compel Merlin to answer questions, and Merlin would have been forced to comply. Always, Ruadan stood by, a silent, grim guard, rarely speaking, never touching Merlin at all unless it was to drag him from the room.
On subsequent days, they moved on to questions about the citadel's defenses, the gates, the siege tunnels. Mordred extracted every detail Merlin knew about Liam and Eira, and Merlin knew he was being punished for the fact that the girl, Kara, was not with them now. It gave Merlin no satisfaction to think Arthur had captured her, and may have executed her. He could not think her death served any greater purpose, aside from Mordred's revenge upon him. She had been but an instrument to him, and the grief in Mordred's eyes was of his own making.
Every detail they asked, Merlin gave. Shame burned through him, more powerful than the pain Mordred inflicted; there was nothing he could do while he was bound.
On an afternoon several days into his captivity, Merlin sat with his head drooping, exhausted, when Mordred declared, "He has given us all he knows." To Ruadan, he said, "Have the men break camp and prepare to march."
Ruadan kept his head inclined until Mordred had left the room, and then he filled two goblets with watered wine. With a long inscribed blade, he cut the rope holding Merlin to his chair, and pressed a goblet into his hand, waiting until he was sure Merlin's shaking fingers were curved around the stem. Then he took up his own goblet and sat down in the chair opposite Merlin, drinking and watching Merlin.
Merlin waited until his hand was steady, and then he drained the goblet and held it out for more. Ruadan chuckled. "Get it yourself."
Eyeing Ruadan, because there was no way to anticipate why he'd suddenly decided to be kind, Merlin did exactly that. The pitcher was on the table amongst the litter of empty potion bottles and unused weapons scattered carelessly about. Merlin had already assessed Ruadan's skill from long experience watching the knights, and he knew he'd be no match for Ruadan with any of those small blades. He poured another goblet and drank it then and there, finally slaking the thirst which plagued him, and then poured a third cup full, which he took back to his chair. The wine had a pleasant warming effect, and the aches in Merlin's body began to ease.
"You apologized to me once before," Merlin said. "For my capture."
"I did." Ruadan took another long swig of wine. "If it had been my choice, I would have tried to persuade you to our cause. I would have preferred to fight by your side, Emrys. Many of our kind have waited a lifetime for that moment. I am not above that sentiment myself. But things were already in motion, and there is no stopping a wave as it nears shore."
"You could kill me now," Merlin said, making it not a suggestion, but an observation.
"I've done you one favor already," Ruadan said, his posture a study in relaxed tension. "You may have noticed Lot's absence in this room, yes?"
"I did wonder," Merlin said.
"Mordred preferred his fiddly potions and his anger, so I let him have them. It matters little to me. But I made it clear I would not stand watch if Lot were permitted access to you while you were questioned." Ruadan dangled the goblet between his fingers. "Because we outnumber Lot's forces now, and because he cannot control Mordred, he agreed."
"Good of you," Merlin said, putting as much acid in his tone as he could muster.
"I don't agree with Mordred's decisions about you, but it is a means to an end, and the Pendragon dynasty has held power over our lives long enough." Ruadan pointed to Merlin's chest. "There are all kinds of chains, Emrys. You've been ensnared in Arthur Pendragon's for some time now. You're blind to it, and that makes you far more dangerous than Mordred."
"My eyes are open, as they have been since the day I first arrived in Camelot." Merlin drank down the rest of his wine and flexed his sore muscles gently, stretching until he winced. "It has all been for the greater good, and you're wrong about the king."
"Your king. Soon to be ex-king, I hasten to add, though not soon enough to save Kara's life." Ruadan gave that time to sink in, and added, "She swung this morning, and went to her death in a kingdom that never valued who she was. That must change."
The image of Kara's sharply curious face entered Merlin's mind; she tilted her head like a bird when she was learning, and her eyes would light with triumph when she solved a puzzle. It was a terrible loss. Even so, belief gave urgency to his answer. "It has changed - it is changing," Merlin said. "Such things take time."
He watched Ruadan's expression shift to disbelief, even contempt, and wondered how he had come by the knowledge of Kara's death so quickly. Likely there were still spies loyal to Mordred and Ruadan's cause in Camelot. Whether they sent intelligence using a raven, or some other means did not matter; their presence did. Arthur could be surrounded by those who wished him harm. Even though Merlin knew they were saving him for Mordred's revenge, the idea of enemies so close to Arthur, unknown, unseen, made him twist his hands tightly together. He fought to remain still; he could not afford to betray his emotions.
Ruadan leaned forward, his head tilted to the side. "How long should it take, Emrys? We have reached the second generation of magic-users who are not free to practice the Old Religion. Children have grown up in fear of dying in agony on the pyre; they have seen their kin drowned, or hanged, all because of Pendragon ignorance. The prejudice of Camelot's common people remains to this day. They mistrust us all - including you." He set his goblet down deliberately. "Tell me that all those who use magic should feel safe in your precious kingdom."
"Those who mean no harm to Arthur or the realm have been allowed to do as they will," Merlin said.
"And who decides whether the magic practiced is worthy of this standard - you?" Ruadan shook his head, his lips thinned to a straight line. "If you ruled Camelot, your word would be unquestioned, because you are Emrys. But you do not. You subjugate yourself to a Pendragon, to a murderer of children who have never done any wrong in their short lives, and enforce his word as law. This makes you no better than your master in the eyes of many."
"And in your eyes?" Merlin asked. "You obviously know a great deal about what Emrys is prophesied to do. Do you really think I would blindly follow a man who did not understand the importance of ruling fairly in all things?" He could see the tiny crack in Ruadan's armor, and if using his status with the Druids would pry it open further, he would use it. Any weapon would do.
"No." Ruadan studied him. "But I think you believe it is not necessary for Pendragon to atone for sins past. And you seem to harbor an irrational belief that your king is wiser than you in the ways of magic - it is his laws you bow before, as much as your king himself - and these things together make me believe you cannot be trusted to see to our interests."
"I have seen Arthur put the law before his personal feelings many times," Merlin said, leaning forward, his posture a mirror of Ruadan's. "Without the law, how can we hold accountable those who seek to destroy others?"
"A fair point." Ruadan drained the last of the wine from his goblet. "Tell me, Emrys, who holds a king accountable, then? What law applies to the crimes of Arthur Pendragon?" He smiled without mirth. "Pendragon has already been judged by laws older than this land, and by powers he continues to fear. It is fitting. And in your case, regrettable, but no war ends without damage to all sides."
There was logic to Ruadan's argument that could not be countered by any plea of emotion. Merlin knew Arthur's heart better than his own. He knew how Arthur had agonized over each decision related to the safety of his kingdom, and the laws governing magic. Ruadan did not know this, and would never know, because he could not believe in a Pendragon's ability to change. Arthur's past deeds would always overshadow what he now tried to accomplish.
Merlin had never realized just how deep the chasm of mistrust had grown in the span of Arthur's short life. There was no bottom to it; there was only darkness.
Ruadan's chair scraped against the floor as he stood. "What is done is done. If I can find a way to persuade Mordred to end your life mercifully once you have served your purpose, I will do so. On this, you have my word."
"And if you can't?" Merlin asked, pinning Ruadan with his stare.
Ruadan's eyes narrowed as he considered that likelihood. He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door, then said in a lowered voice, "I will conceal an unsheathed blade in Lot's chambers - secured to the bedframe, where a man might reach down to the left and take hold of it with ease. It can be hidden from the eye with a simple spell." He gave Merlin an assessing once-over. "When you pass into Lot's custody, you may find it of use to you."
Merlin nodded, his jaw tight. "Fair enough."
The sounds of soldiers packing, laughing, drinking, accompanied Merlin to sleep that night, though he twitched awake often, thinking about Ruadan's words. It was possible he would be dead before he had a chance to use the blade Ruadan had hidden for him - or no longer care about living, which was much the same. But if the worst came to pass -- if he was able to slit Lot's throat, he could find a key to the chains, and be off. He had made his way through the Perilous Lands once; he could do so again.
No matter what, he could not allow himself to be used as Lot's pawn, for the destruction of many kingdoms would surely follow, and it would all fit neatly into Mordred's plans. The blade could as easily be turned on his own throat as on Lot's.
So focused was he on strategy and timing that he failed to notice someone in the cell with him until a shadow obscured the torchlight. Merlin started and put his back to the wall, only to stare at the unexpected sight of Morgana before him.
"This is a dream," he said to himself, as if to persuade himself that it was true. The walls about him had taken on a soft white glow, the stones no longer dark and harsh, and when he reached for them, they seemed to shrink back from him.
"Why should you be so surprised?" Morgana's charming laugh was threaded through with venom. "After all, if you can walk in my dreams, why can I not walk in yours?"
"Come to gloat?"
Morgana did not answer. Instead, she went to the high window and looked out. "Mordred's piecemeal army will be on the move soon. Poor Emrys, all alone in the Perilous Lands. Soon you'll be on your way to kill your king."
Merlin frowned. He was in no mood for her taunting. With his magic, it would have been easy to rouse himself from his dream; without it, he was at the mercy of the enchantment she had woven around him, just as she once had been when he approached her.
"Did you ever ask yourself why Mordred did not align with me, Emrys? He has a power beyond anything most sorcerers will ever dream of, but I am a High Priestess; my power is greater." Morgana sat on the wet stone floor opposite him, gathering her silk skirts around her in a black cloud. "Why would he not want me for an ally?"
"Because you are single-minded and obsessed with toppling Arthur."
"And yet, Mordred claims to want the same thing." Morgana flicked a finger and sent the torchlight spinning off the end of the torch and closer to them, illuminating parts of the cell Merlin would rather not have seen. In the flickering dream-light, her skin looked fragile as alabaster, and her eyes like burning emeralds. "Did you ever wonder why I did not press an attack on Camelot in these months since magic came back to the land?"
"Come to your point," Merlin said.
Morgana's expression darkened like a thundercloud. "My point, Emrys, is that Mordred wanted to neutralize me, in order to have a clear path to Camelot's throne. Lot is not the first king he has aligned himself with." A shadow passed over her face, and the cell around them began to dissolve, taking the light with it. When they were in total darkness, Morgana spoke again. "This is where he held me for five months."
Merlin could feel water seeping into his breeches; the chill settled in his bones, brittle and unrelenting. The darkness was absolute, stifling. "What is this place?"
"The bottom of a deep well." Morgana's disembodied voice seemed to echo through Merlin's mind. "I was imprisoned here by the Sarum of Amata. You've heard of him, surely."
"By reputation only." Merlin knew of the Sarum's reputation for cruelty, and his fearsome skill in battle. His men were the finest of all the rogue warriors in the five kingdoms. If he had taken Morgana, he would not have been kind about it.
"The Sarum was lured in by Mordred and his promises of alliance. But alliance was not what either of them truly wanted. The Sarum is only interested in power. He attempted to bind me, as Lot has bound you. But he was foolish, and Mordred young and inexperienced. They made several mistakes, and I was able to escape. Unlike you." Morgana's laughter seemed to wrap around Merlin in the dark. "Mordred seems to have learned from his folly."
"I'm sorry," Merlin said. The idea of Morgana imprisoned in the dark for days on end was unbearable, no matter the things she had done. They had been friends, once; if he had been more courageous, he might have prevented much that had happened to her, including her flight to her sister's arms.
"Spare me your pity." The darkness began to swirl, changing shape and form to become a forest glade. Morgana still sat opposite him, now clad in a gown of purple and blue, with golden chains in her hair. "Do you remember me this way, Emrys? When I was young, and came to you for help - help you denied me?"
"I tried to help you," Merlin said, though the truth of it was far more complicated. "You hated Uther. It had nothing to do with me."
"If you had told me of your magic, I would have known I was not alone. But instead, you were like all the others - manipulating me, making me think what you wanted me to believe." The golden shimmer of Morgana's eyes was the brightest thing in Merlin's dream. "We all pay for our mistakes, in time."
"So you and Mordred aren't aligned, then?"
"Pay attention," Morgana snapped. "I am a High Priestess; I need none of them to accomplish my purpose."
"They excluded you," Merlin said. "Tried to use you to gain power, which they didn't plan to share with you."
"Mordred lacks respect for the traditions of the Old Religion - just the same as Uther did, and Arthur now." She stood. "Even you, Emrys, dismiss the Old Religion as an inconvenience."
"I was born with magic," Merlin said. "But I have never followed the Old Religion."
"Yet another mistake." The darkness morphed once again, and they were back in Merlin's cell, the torch guttering behind Morgana. "Tomorrow night, I will return, and we will speak again. Tell no one you have seen me, or I will leave you here to rot," Morgana said.
Merlin woke with a jolt, slamming a hand into the wall to verify it was real. "What are you up to, Morgana?" he murmured. He drew his knees up close and wrapped his arms around them, wondering if he was at last beginning to crack beneath the weight of his own helplessness.
It was a long night, and Merlin did not reach for sleep again, fearful of the messages the darkness might deliver. Dream, or hallucination, he could not quite tell which form Morgana had taken, and it frightened him. He was conscious of Ruadan's condemnation of him, and Morgana's words might just be a cruel trick his mind played on him in the night.
In the morning, the guards came for him, and dragged him down to the ruined courtyard with the other servants. Work, Merlin could do; work, he was used to. After years of carrying Arthur's bags, hauling water, setting and breaking camp, it was nothing to help the soldiers preparing to march. Under Ruadan's watchful eye, Merlin saddled horses and tied saddlebags, loaded feed for the horses onto carts, and other menial work which diverted his mind from things to come.
One by one, each squadron of soldiers marched into the distance, westbound, taking them toward the White Mountains at Camelot's northern borders.
At the end of the day, Merlin counted only a few hundred men remaining, mostly Druids who did not wear Lot's livery. He sat on a tree stump and shared a water skin with two servants in much worse condition than he was. Exhaustion sank into him slowly, and he fought it, for once it took hold, he would be helpless to resist it.
The servant at his side nudged him, and Merlin glanced up to see the man trembling, eyes to the ground. Merlin sighed and shifted his gaze to Mordred, who stood a few paces away, watching him.
Mordred made himself comfortable on the log beside Merlin. He smiled, and Merlin had come to despise that smile, so full of hidden hate. "The time has come for me to provide a good-faith payment on the bargain with Lot, so you become his property tonight. He has given orders that you bathe - thoroughly - and be taken to him after supper. And after he has had a taste of what's to come, my men and I will join the others on the march for Camelot. You will ride beside me in battle, at the head of the army."
Merlin handed the water skin to the servant at his left and stood, so that he looked down at Mordred. Quietly, he said, "I will find a way to undo what you have done, Mordred, and I will never allow you to harm Arthur. You have my word on it."
Mordred scrambled up from the log, composure momentarily lost. "You can do nothing to me," he said, reaching out as if to grasp the collar around Merlin's neck. Something stopped him in mid-motion, and he withdrew his hand, eyes cold as the grave. "Whatever is left of you after tonight, you will not be the all-powerful Emrys anymore." Mordred shouldered by him, then turned to add, "But I will be sure to tell your king why you are in such sorry shape, before I command you to end his life."
Merlin watched him go, the small spark of anger in his chest kindling higher. He would not hate Mordred; he could almost understand the sadness and anger which had turned him against Merlin. He had his own part to play in what was now unfolding. But Mordred was dangerous to Arthur and to Camelot, and this more than anything else had signed his death warrant.
Whether or not he killed Arthur - and the thought of it gave Merlin physical pain, an ache deep in his heart - Merlin would take his life.
During the walk back to his cell, Merlin went over the intricate plans in his mind - every variation of how he would reach for that blade hidden in Lot's chambers, and free himself.
And if the blade was not where Ruadan had said it would be, well. Merlin was resourceful. He had considered alternate plans, things he had seen knights do, tales he had heard them tell. Ways to gouge out eyes, or stop a man's heart.
Lot would not have him long.
Shouts echoed from up ahead in the dank corridor, only to be cut short, and then silence. The guard at Merlin's side gripped his arm, out of fear or warning, Merlin could not be sure. One of the guards in front of him lifted in the air, then flew backwards, his body jerking at odd angles. The other turned to flee and dropped like a sack of stones where he stood, twitching, eyes wide open - dead, or as good as.
Slowly, the guard next to Merlin dropped his arm and took a step back, but before he could move, he too fell to the ground, clawing at his throat. Merlin stepped away from him and turned back toward the guard post.
Morgana stood there, clad in a simple black dress and black gloves, watching him intently - she was real, not a trick of the mind, and she was there.
And Merlin did not have his magic.
Merlin immediately reached to his neck and began prying at the collar, but the familiar, hated white-hot pain flooded over him and he gasped, backing away from Morgana.
Morgana rolled her eyes. "Would you still be standing there if I had come to kill you?" She pointed to the chair still occupied by a dead guard, flicking him onto the floor with a gesture. "Sit. We still have things to discuss."
Merlin stepped over the guard and sat, while Morgana took the chair on the other side of the tiny table. She pulled off her gloves, one at a time, delicately tugging at the fingers first, and Merlin was reminded of how beautiful she had seemed to him in his first days at court, how mysterious and brave. They had been so young, then.
She met his eyes, and there was not much in her steely gaze to remind him of the vulnerable girl she had once been. "Although Arthur has overturned the bans, you cannot be the only one who decides what magic is permissible, and what is not. Here is the deal I will strike with you, Emrys. I will free you from the bindings which have held back your magic. In return, you will consent to allow all magic users within the borders of Camelot. And you will consent to trials of magic users, by magic users - not just you."
"I can't agree to either of your conditions, Morgana." Merlin lifted his head and felt the heaviness of the words settle over him. His neck burned where Lot had set his teeth. "It's not my place to make any sort of agreement with you. Only the king can do so, and he has already offered his terms of truce."
"You are his agent. Strike this bargain and go free."
"You know I cannot."
"Still so stupidly loyal to Arthur, after all this time?"Morgana sneered at him, baring her teeth. "He used your magic to defeat me and bend his precious laws in his own favor."
"He took only what I offered, nothing more. He never forced me to stay. He never even asked me to stay. What I am is his."
"You may come to regret that." She regarded him steadily. "All right then, another bargain - one you can make on your own accord. If I free you, you will vow not to use your magic against me here, now. And you will also swear to me, on your mother's life, that when next we meet you will not interfere."
"I will never keep that promise if you threaten Arthur."
"If your magic remains bound, Arthur will die anyway," Morgana said. She smoothed her hand over her gloves, ironing out the tiny wrinkles. "I could have left you here and killed Arthur while you were without magic." She smiled, her eyes moving over him like snakes set free to devour a mouse. "I could have killed you the moment you came into view."
"Arthur is not so easy to kill," Merlin said. "Your threats ring hollow."
"That is not what prophecy tells us." Morgana's smile was triumphant. "Oh yes, I know of the prophecy, Emrys. I know many things which have not yet been revealed to you. And I have seen many things in a future which changes and yet does not change. Make up your mind now. Which is it to be?"
Merlin leaned back in the chair and sorted it through. Morgana could not be trusted; her motives in offering to free him were not clear. But she did have the gift of sight, which meant she was privy to information he did not have - yet -- and her reasons for freeing him might work to his benefit. Once his magic was restored to him, he would be her equal in any battle, and he could easily make his way past Lot's remaining forces. His magic was the key.
"All right," he said slowly. "I swear to you that I will not use my magic against you, here, in this keep. And I swear to you, on my mother's life, that I will not interfere when next we meet - unless you threaten Arthur, in which case I will destroy you."
"If only you had given me a tenth of the loyalty you've shown him, how different things could have been." The bitterness in her tone was not so far removed from the way Mordred spoke. "Very well. I accept your oath. Get up."
Merlin stood, and Morgana began to chant, soft words of the Old Religion which seethed with power. His chest began to tighten, to burn, and then a cracking noise sounded, so loud it was as if the earth beneath them was opening up.
Outside, a familiar screech sounded, and shouts of alarm and warning followed. But Merlin could not concentrate; he felt as if he was being torn apart. Head tipped back, arms flung out to the side, he could only hear Morgana's voice as her magic wound itself around the chain holding his body. It seemed to permeate his skin, seeping into him even as it ate away at the chain, but Merlin could not move, could not counter it.
The collar at his neck fractured, and Merlin reached with a trembling hand to tear it away, as the rest of the chain disintegrated around him - first the chain across his chest, and then winding around his waist. Merlin reached beneath his tunic to brush the fragments away. Morgana's magic was still swirling around him, within him, even as he reached for his own magic and felt it rush into him, the first taste of water in weeks, or the first breath of air for a newborn child.
"What have you done?" he said, straightening, as his magic covered Morgana's, chasing it from him like quicksilver laughter flowing free.
"I have bound you to the oath you made, in place of those chains. Nothing more. That was the bargain we struck." Morgana lifted her eyes to the ceiling, then her face, and said, "Aithusa will keep Lot's guards busy while you go. They keep the horses at the back. Remember that Mordred's forces move with the aid of magic; they can go twice the pace of an ordinary army." She met his eyes again. "Better hurry."
With a lift of her arm, she seemed to draw wind around herself like a cloak, and when the dust cleared, she was gone.
Merlin climbed up from the dungeons, blowing apart every lock and door which stood between him and freedom. He did not stop to combat any of the guards; he simply moved them aside, or removed them altogether, as befit the level of threat they offered. One after another they surged toward him, and he moved among them, eyes halfway shut as he felt and pressed and moved with his magic, the same as a knight would with a sword.
Aithusa cried a greeting from overhead, laying down a trail of fire to clear his path. Wyverns surged up from the parapets, their shrieks raising the hair on Merlin's neck as they attacked Aithusa in unison. Two at a time, the six wyverns swooped in, slashing at her with claws as long as Merlin's arm. Aithusa rose bravely in the sky above them, spewing bursts of fire, the one defense she possessed that her cousins did not. As Merlin watched, the wyverns shrank back from the heat, and Aithusa took her opportunity to throw flame at the ground, and the troops assembled there. Merlin broke into a run; he did not have much time.
He found the penned horses running into each other, half out of their minds with fright. Clearly no one had trained them out of their fear of fire. A few whispered words of comforting magic, and he swung up onto the back of a chestnut mare, head down, focused only on flight. Aithusa swept down from the sky, streaking past him to cover his flank, and he rode as fast as the horse was able across the great plain. He pushed aside the startled warriors who ran to apprehend him, his power strengthened by fear and determination.
When he reached the edge of the clearing, he stopped and turned back, flicking aside the warriors pursuing him on horseback. A trail of bodies lay behind him, like bread crumbs showing his path to freedom, and fire blazed over the land. He listened to the stunted alarm bells clanging at the ruined fortress. Lot would be among those running to answer the call.
He could return to the castle and take Lot's life, or he could find Mordred and force him into combat now, before he could join the rest of his army. His magic responded to those ideas with a swirling, surging joy, but he discarded the plan. There were too many Druids still in the castle, and the combined force of their magic could very well trap him into the same situation he had just escaped.
He had been recently disabused of his arrogance over handling armies. Mordred's men had been caught off guard, but Ruadan's most skilled Druids would not be far behind, and he could not just deliver himself back into their midst and hope for the best. If he failed, Arthur would surely die, and Arthur must be his only priority. The only hope was to move with all speed, carrying his warning, and hope that Arthur was already looking, already near to finding him.
Mordred would be on the battlefield in a few short days, and Merlin would find him there.
He turned and looked toward the bogs and marshes south of the keep, then began to ride as fast as he dared across the treacherous terrain.
Arthur and his knights left the citadel just before sunrise and rode for hours at a punishing pace, stopping only for a brief rest in a small village near the border. While Gwaine bartered with the village blacksmith for fresh horses, Percival stopped at the inn to pay coin for some fresh bread and cheese, and brought a jug of milk for Arthur.
He drank it gratefully, slaking his thirst as he looked off toward the valley concealed by forest and mountain. His first trip to the Perilous Lands had nearly ended in his death - yet another of Merlin's secrets, one he had revealed not long after they had been bound by the Druids, when he had listed the litany of all Morgana's many sins. It saddened Arthur still to think of how deeply determined she had been to rid herself of him, even then.
Merlin and Gwaine, together, had come to his aid. He could still remember waking to Merlin's ridiculous grin, and a wyvern trying to take both their heads off. It was that day he had realized he was better with the help of good men than he would ever be alone.
Not that he had ever admitted it to Gwaine or Merlin, of course.
"Ready?" Elyan asked, passing off the reins of a black mare to Arthur.
They mounted up and rode hard, on through the passable part of the forest, to where the trees grew dense and difficult. Percival tied the horses, an expectation of return to that same spot eventually, and they proceeded on foot, no conversation between them unless necessary to find the true course. Gwaine stepped out at the lead after a few miles, sure of the right path.
Arthur knew all of them were fond of Merlin, his own feelings aside, but Gwaine's pace told him there was still a much deeper well of sentiment there.
Soon enough, they scaled a small peak and came down the other side to find the bridge in sight. "I'll go first," Gwaine said, sheathing his sword. He approached slowly, Arthur on his heels, and they were a step away from the bridge when the keeper appeared out of nowhere.
"Well, well. Courage and Strength, come to an alliance at last."
"Grettir, wasn't it?" Arthur said, stepping forward. "I remember you."
"As I remember you, king-who-was-prince." Grettir gave Gwaine a slow once-over. "You have learned to keep your sword sheathed in my presence, sir knight! Progress indeed." He grinned. "You are only the latest to pass through to the Perilous Lands. I have not seen so many men cross these borders since the days of the Fisher King." His grin disappeared, and he looked back across his bridge. "Emrys is here."
"Where is he?" Arthur took another step forward, and Grettir looked up to meet his eyes.
"I've just said he's here, haven't I?"
Arthur took a deep breath, forcing himself to patience. "Yes, so you did. But where within these lands is he held, Grettir?"
"His magic is hidden from me, by what means I cannot say. I am but the keeper of the bridge. It is for you to find him." He stepped aside, making way.
"Thank you," Arthur said.
"The balance must be maintained," Grettir answered. Arthur nodded and stepped past him, followed in single file by the knights.
As the bridge began to narrow, Arthur slowed, scanning the twisted trees and bushes ahead. They were the only cover for miles; ahead there was just swamp and barren land. The bridge was the sole easily accessible point of entry from Camelot to the lands of the Fisher King. If their enemies were in fact using the Perilous Lands as a base, men would be waiting there. Heat surged in Arthur's blood; he wanted them to be there, proof that he was closer to finding Merlin.
If they were there, they were all dead men.
Arthur signaled a halt, and pointed out the trees and bushes ahead. Gwaine nodded, and gracefully lowered himself over the side of the bridge onto the steep slope to the right. Elyan followed suit, but to the left. A moment later, they disappeared into the thick overgrowth. Arthur crept forward in a crouch, Percival close at his back. He counted down in his head, giving Elyan and Gwaine time to make their way through the foliage, and then rose from his crouch, Percival a mirror of his every action. Arthur moved right, Percival left, and the bushes exploded with motion, a dozen men surging forward from the trees.
Arthur took the first two with one blow each, anger giving way to cold skill. His sword parted mail and flesh with equal ease, even as Arthur turned to strike a third man with a closed fist. His opponent's sword flashed up, diagonal and jagged in its arc, and Arthur struck it away without effort, cutting down and across. The man fell where he stood, his throat cut clean through.
Each man who stood against him was an obstacle to finding Merlin, and Arthur removed them all, one at a time. He and the sword were one, full of purpose, finding each weakness and striking true. When finally he looked up, sticky with sweat and blood, his knights were watching him. He realized then they had disengaged from the few remaining men, and Arthur stood in a circle of bodies, nine men felled by his hand.
He wiped his sleeve across his face, and sheathed his sword. The knights silently moved closer, and Arthur knelt beside one of the corpses, Gwaine on the other side of the body. "Lot's livery," Gwaine said.
"Not these others." Percival rolled over two men behind Arthur and knocked one's head to the side. "Druids," he said, pointing to the tattoo on his neck.
"Alator was right, then," Elyan said. "On every point."
They made their way down the steep slope on the opposite end of the bridge, and stopped halfway down to look out over the Lands. The landscape seemed changed from when Arthur had last crossed them. Birds dotted the sky, and a bit of greenery had crept in across the wasted plain. Arthur knew the path to the ruined fortress of the Fisher King, but Gwaine had mentioned other places where Lot had kept prisoners.
"Where are they likely to be?" he asked Gwaine, who squinted and pointed to the east.
"There are four keeps on the eastern border - Lot used them mostly, because they were easy to reach - but he'd run the risk of discovery if he amassed an army there. It's more likely he'd go deeper into the land if that's his purpose."
"I'd agree, but we'll waste precious time if we strike off in a false direction," Elyan said. "Perhaps if we split up-"
"Sire," Percival said, pointing north.
Ahead of them, the sky was lit with fire; streaks of it filled the air, like lightning.
"Fire raining down from the heavens," Gwaine murmured.
A shudder ran the length of Arthur's spine. He had given almost no consideration to the prophecy Alator had brought, or what it meant for his own safety, until that moment.
"Perhaps it was Morgana all along," he said, watching as the streaks of fire became intermittent, and then stopped altogether.
"Only one way to find out." Gwaine pushed past and took the lead again, and by unspoken agreement, they set out in a straight line toward the plumes of smoke rising in the distance. Whatever was happening, it was impossible to tell if it was an attack or something less sinister, but at the very least, their path was clear as a beacon.
It was as much of an arduous slog as Arthur remembered, picking their way across acres of dead trees and wet, boggy ground. As the sun abandoned them and darkness swallowed them up, they kept on, until Gwaine stopped Arthur with a hand to his chest.
"The marshes are dead ahead, Arthur - we need rest, and to see where we're going."
Arthur glanced up. The plumes of smoke had disappeared into the night, and there were no real landmarks anywhere about them. Every instinct was drawing him on, but he knew Gwaine was right.
"Very well. A small fire, to avoid notice, and a few hours' rest."
There was no camp to set up, as they were traveling light to increase their speed. Elyan built a tiny campfire, and they huddled on crumbling logs dragged nearer the fire. Percival shared around bread and dried meat, and they washed it all down with water from their waterskins. Elyan and Percival bedded down on the hard ground, and both were asleep within minutes.
"You should rest also," Gwaine said, his sword resting against his knee. "I'll stand watch."
Arthur shook his head, and settled on the log next to Gwaine. "Not tired."
"Really? Is that why you look like a wyvern has trampled your face?" Gwaine lifted an eyebrow. "No offense Arthur, but if you were any more exhausted I'd be dragging you by one leg through the bog."
It was true; the bone-deep weariness in Arthur made it difficult even to lift his water skin. But what sustained him, what made his limbs move and his eyes remain open, was that thin bright thread of hope that Merlin was not far now. "I'm fine," he said curtly, ignoring Gwaine's knowing eyeroll.
"Of course you are. You and Merlin, two of a kind." Gwaine threw a stick on the fire. "You should have seen him when you were on your little quest for the trident - frantic to get to you, wouldn't take food, wouldn't close his eyes."
"Merlin has never once in his life done as he's told," Arthur said, thinking of the moment he'd told Merlin never to place his life above Arthur's own. In the dead of night, with Merlin's hands on him, the warmth of furs and linens around them, he'd given that command, and felt Merlin's smile fade against his skin.
I've told you before there are promises I won't make, Merlin had said, nuzzling kisses into Arthur's neck, brushing his lips across Arthur's, as if to cut short his reply. You are everything, Arthur. Everything.
Arthur had wanted to say that it was not true, that Merlin had everything backwards, that Merlin's life had become infinitely more important than anything aside from the kingdom they both guarded. But words had never been easy for him, and declarations of such magnitude were far easier to say with touch.
He'd wondered then, as Merlin took him with slow care, if it were possible to be consumed by love, swallowed up by it like an ocean or a raging storm, and find nothing left of himself at all in its wake. Once, he would have feared such loss of self; with Merlin's body nestled close to his own, he had welcomed it.
Nothing could be served by dwelling on the past, so Arthur forced himself to deal with the present, and the questions rattling around in the back of his mind. "Why did you not tell me of your lineage?" he asked.
Gwaine smiled in a tense way Arthur had grown to recognize so well, which spoke of his embarrassment. "No offense, but nobility is in the deeds, not in the man," he said. "And when I first met you, I didn't want you to think I was like you."
Arthur snorted softly. It was true; he had had a great deal of growing up to do when they first met. He had felt so young then, and so unworthy, still struggling with what it meant to lead men, and to rule with honor. There had been days when he had done neither particularly well.
"And then later, after you saw what Lot was like, I didn't want you to think I was like him." Gwaine poked savagely at the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. "There just wasn't a good time."
"Fair enough." Arthur tossed his own stick onto the fire. "I'm going to kill him, when this is over."
"Good riddance," Gwaine said, meeting his gaze steadily. "If you knew the half of what he's done, you wouldn't have waited this long."
"His lands will be forfeit." Arthur looked deep into the fire and said," I could pass them to an heir of his body."
"Now there's a terrible idea." Gwaine drew himself up on the log, leaning on his sword. "My brothers are scattered to the winds, same as me. No idea where they are. As for me, I have no interest in shepherding a kingdom. I've seen what you go through. I'd rather be free to choose my own path." A pause, and then, "I've already chosen my king."
Some statesmanlike part of Arthur was disappointed, because Gwaine would have made a reliable ally on the throne of Lot's kingdom. But Gwaine's quiet affirmation warmed him; he had commanded the loyalty of many men over the years, but very few whose choice had sprung from nothing more than friendship and honor. Gwaine's friendship humbled him, and made him feel he had yet more to do, to earn it fully.
They fell into a comfortable silence then. Gwaine sat next to him through the night, feeding sticks and twigs to the fire, both of them listening to the strange screams and cries of the creatures kept at bay by the unfamiliar firelight. Arthur's thoughts turned toward Camelot, and Leon, performing the lion's share of duties in Arthur's stead. Unerringly loyal, and careful to a fault, he was the best of all Arthur's knights, taking on all the hard jobs without complaint. Arthur could hardly split himself in two, but having Leon to see to battle plans and manage the kingdom in his absence was nearly the same as being there himself.
He forced himself to think of battles, of strategy and politics, to keep any thought of Merlin dead or injured from his thoughts lest he go mad and stalk off into the night alone. The night seemed interminable.
Near dawn, as the sky began to lighten, Arthur lifted his head from a half-doze, alert the way only a battle-seasoned knight could be. The night had been filled with sounds, snuffling cries and screeches, but the creatures had fallen silent.
Arthur gripped Gwaine's shoulder and drew his sword, then stepped to the edge of their small clearing while Gwaine roused the others. He scanned the plain ahead, expecting to see men or patrols on the move. Instead, he saw a solitary horse moving at a snail's pace, and a figure bent low over its back.
Without even a conscious thought, Arthur sheathed his sword and ran toward the horse, ignoring Gwaine's cry to wait for the others. He knew, even before Merlin's dark tousled hair came into sight; he knew, and his legs could not move fast enough, his heart could not keep up.
Merlin slid from the horse and fell to his knees, then rose, one arm wrapped around his middle. He stumbled toward Arthur, limping but gaining speed as he shuffled forward. Arthur crested the rise and then Merlin was in his arms, covered with dirt, gasping as Arthur buried his face in the side of Merlin's neck and breathed him in, warm and whole, alive, real.
"Arthur," he said, in a hoarse, tired voice, and Arthur released him, hands petting over Merlin's face of their own accord. He cupped Merlin's face, pressing a thumb against Merlin's small smile.
"Are you all right?" he asked, searching Merlin's eyes for truth.
"Thirsty," Merlin said. "But I'll live." He turned his head to look back over his shoulder, and Arthur's eyes were drawn to the vicious, inflamed bite on Merlin's neck as Merlin said, "There's been no one following me - none of the guards were in shape to, and Aithusa held the rest back, but the Druids - the warriors - Arthur, there's an army moving for Camelot. We haven't much time."
Everything in Arthur stilled. Merlin's words registered, but distantly, as Arthur gently touched the wound. Now his eyes roamed over Merlin, at the way he held himself, searching for signs of what he'd seen all too often after a battle when captives were returned.
"Merlin," he said, "who did this?"
Merlin turned back to face him, slowly, and Arthur knew the answer before the word was spoken. "Lot."
Arthur closed his eyes. The rage welling within him was so great, he was helpless against it. Merlin pushed closer to Arthur, a wordless plea, and Arthur enfolded him in his arms, pressing one cheek to Merlin's hair. Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur, and said quietly, for Arthur's ears alone, "He did not harm me, husband. Threats only, but nothing more."
For a long moment, Arthur couldn't speak, not even to protest that the wound on Merlin's neck was far from nothing. Finally he found his voice, and released Merlin, to meet his eyes; Merlin could not hide from him that way. Merlin met his steady gaze, holding nothing back. Arthur wrapped his fingers around Merlin's wrist.
"I warned Lot of the consequences once before," Arthur said, noting the way Merlin's pulse leaped under his fingertips. "Now, he has earned them."
"It's more than Lot," Merlin said. "It's Mordred, and a band of Druid warriors, aligned with Lot's troops. They are on the move now, headed for Camelot's northern borders, last I saw."
Merlin frowned. "No. Arthur, she's not a part of this. At least, I don't believe so. She freed me."
Arthur stared at him. "Freed you? Why would she do that?"
Merlin shook his head, as if expecting the words to tumble out. "There's - so much to tell, I don't even know where to begin."
"With water and rest," Arthur said. He slung Merlin's arm over his shoulder, not missing the hiss that provoked, and vowed to himself that the moment opportunity presented itself, he would have the truth of all Merlin's injuries.
When they turned, Gwaine was standing a short distance away, Elyan and Percival at the top of the ridge behind him.
"Couldn't pick a prettier meeting place?" Gwaine said, reaching to ruffle Merlin's hair.
"I know how much you like it here, despite the lack of taverns," Merlin said, grinning at him. Then, more quietly, as he touched the fading bruises on Gwaine's face, he said, "I'm glad you're all right."
"You know me. Unspeakably hard to kill." Gwaine handed him a water skin, and Merlin drank deeply, eyes closed. Dust streaked his hair and paled his lashes, and Arthur reached his free hand to wipe carefully at Merlin's face, clearing some of the mess.
"It's a few hours' walk back to the horses," Arthur said. "We'll be back to Camelot by nightfall, if you can bear the pace."
"I'll be fine. We need to ride hard," Merlin said, glancing over his shoulder again. "Mordred has several thousand men, magic-users and soldiers alike."
"Several thousand?" Gwaine glanced at Arthur. "How the hell did they manage to raise a force that large?"
"Druids, and Lot's soldiers, and - I'm not sure, I saw no crests on most of the armor, just a few banners with twined snakes. But they are not all of the same army." Merlin handed the water skin back. "Arthur, we have to move. Now."
Arthur did a mental calculation; the distance between the Perilous Lands and Camelot's northern borders could be crossed in four days - less, if the army rested little and was well-supplied. "The White Mountains?" he asked Merlin, who nodded.
"That would be my guess." Merlin began marching toward the ridge, dragging his leg a bit. He stopped and looked back at Arthur and Gwaine. "Well? There's no time to waste!"
Gwaine's lip twitched with amusement, and Arthur gave him a helpless shrug. As Elyan and Percival greeted Merlin with affection, Arthur resisted the urge to sling Merlin over his shoulder to cover the distance faster. He was alive, and safe; he was stronger than all of them, and Arthur's heart was already eased.
Now there was an army to face, and a prophecy to conquer.
The moment they entered the citadel's courtyard, a flurry of activity erupted. Leon ran down to meet them, full of news and updates; Gaius and Gwen approached with joyful smiles, ready to greet Merlin.
For the last two hours, ever since they'd stopped to water the horses, Merlin had been riding with one arm curled around his side. He'd tried to be inconspicuous, but Arthur was already certain there were more injuries than could be seen, and that was confirmed when Merlin tried to wave off Gaius' attentions. Were it not for the fact council must convene immediately, Arthur would have ordered Merlin into Gaius' capable care.
Instead, he turned to George and said, "A hot bath in my chambers, George, and plenty of food and wine."
"Certainly, sire." George lowered his voice. "I will bring a change of clothing for His Excellency as well. Is there anything else you require?"
"No." Arthur patted him on the shoulder, grateful for the ways in which George clearly understood his job. "Thank you."
"Sire." Leon clasped arms with him, smiling. "Very good to see your mission was a success."
"We need the council, Leon, and - is Iseldir still here?"
"He is - he refused to leave until you returned. Said he may be needed to assist with defense."
Arthur's brow arched. "Did he. Well, have him attend council as well. And Alator."
"Sire, there are a few...envoys here." Leon shifted a bit, looking as uncomfortable as Arthur had ever seen him. "Lady Guinevere has been seeing to them; they arrived when summoned by Alator."
"Envoys, eh?" When Leon nodded, Arthur prompted, "Waiting for an audience?"
"Yes, but...they aren't..."Leon cleared his throat. "The Sidhe envoy and her party arrived in a flash of lightning, in the middle of the kitchens. Cook fainted dead away. The others arrived not long after and... my lord, they were floating."
"Floating," Arthur said, noting that the word made both knights behind Leon flinch. He could barely imagine what kind of floating entrance would have so traumatized men who had been born and bred to battle. "Well. I'll see them once we've discussed the current situation." Arthur watched Merlin approach; he was making his way to Arthur's side far too slowly for his liking, Gwen right beside him, talking quietly with him. "There won't be room for everyone in the council chambers. Call them in to the throne room."
"Right away, my lord."
Merlin drew up beside Arthur, Gwen's arm in his, and Gwen held fast to Merlin as she reached to give Arthur a one-armed hug. "I'm so pleased you are both back, well and safe." Subtly, she returned her hand to Merlin's arm, bolstering him without being obtrusive about it, and Arthur resisted the urge to hug her again. Together they marched up the stairs, Arthur following close behind.
The council meeting was as brief as it could be, given the amount of information Merlin had on the enemy forces. Leon unfurled three maps on the long table, and the advisors and knights stood and conferred thoughtfully over the details as Merlin spoke. Arthur could not take his eyes from Merlin, could not stop drinking in every detail - the tired, bruised circles under his eyes, or the way he self-consciously pulled the plain tunic up closer to his neck, to hide the mark there. Arthur gestured for George, and had him bring a cloak for Merlin. Merlin smiled at George when he placed it carefully over Merlin's shoulders.
Iseldir's face grew paler with each word Merlin spoke about the Druids. He bowed his head, and sorrow showed plainly on his face, as if someone had spoken of the death of someone dear to him. Arthur could only imagine how difficult it was to learn that his own people had a hand in plotting death for others. For the first time, he had some sympathy toward the Druid leader and his position on peace.
When Merlin had finished, and the advisors seemed satisfied that they'd wrung all the details from him, Arthur could only think of the questions not asked and information still withheld - questions he would ask Merlin, as soon as they were alone. He set the thought aside and asked Alator, "What success, with finding allies?"
"Sire, there are two representatives here. Lady Maura has come on behalf of the Aos Si."
"The Sidhe," Merlin said softly, raising a surprised murmur at the table.
"And Lady Sureya, of the Vilia."
"We are honored to have them here," Merlin said. "And I thank you for your efforts."
"You should not thank me yet, Emrys," Alator said. "It remains to be seen if they will align themselves with Camelot. They have requested an audience with King Arthur as soon as possible."
"Tell them that as soon as I've seen to Emrys' safety and comfort, I will meet with them." With that, Arthur stood, effectively dismissing the group, and waited while Merlin got to his feet. "Your Excellency," he said, gesturing toward the doors. Merlin snorted, raising the ghost of a smile in Arthur's heart, and made his way out of the doors under his own power.
Gaius was waiting for them in Arthur's chambers, and Arthur did his level best not to hover while Gaius performed a brief examination. He fiddled with papers and listened with half an ear to Gaius' instructions about ointments and poultices, most of which he knew Merlin would ignore. Soon enough, Gaius left them, with a nod to Arthur and a stern look at Merlin, and they were alone for the first time in days.
"The Sidhe, Arthur, think of it! The power they possess...you could not ask for a better ally. Aside from the Druids, of course." Merlin settled himself into a chair beside Arthur's bed and pulled off first one boot, then the next. He sat with his hands on his knees, prattling on about the mystical aspects of the Sidhe, until finally Arthur lost patience and took Merlin's hand.
"Later," he said, pulling Merlin to his feet. He stripped off Merlin's tunic, and stopped to catch his breath, because there before him was the evidence of what he had only suspected. Down Merlin's right side, a long gash, healing well but obviously painful; across Merlin's chest and at his waist, what looked like burn marks, from where the chain had been struck from him. He traced those marks with a finger, and Merlin's eyes fluttered closed at the touch.
"I should be undressing you," Merlin said, smiling as Arthur untied the laces of his breeches and pushed them down. He couldn't help it; his eyes went to Merlin's hips, to the small of his back, searching for-
"Arthur." Merlin kissed the corner of his lips, sighing against his cheek. "I told you the truth. I wasn't harmed. Not by Lot."
Arthur swallowed, quelling the rage that had burned within him since the moment he saw Merlin again. "That he dared to touch you - dared to try to take you from me -" His voice broke, and he looked away, but Merlin was touching him, his hands taking Arthur's belt from him, setting his sword aside, pulling them as close as skin to skin would allow them to be.
"I would have killed him," Merlin said, "before I'd let him take me."
"At least you saved that privilege for me." Arthur slid his hands down Merlin's back, careful of his wounds. "Into the bath, and no arguments."
Merlin nodded, and eased himself into the water George had so scrupulously kept hot, even though he must have known Merlin could heat it with less than a thought if he so chose. Arthur quickly shed the rest of his things and climbed in with Merlin, looking his fill. Steam rose up around Merlin's face, and he settled with his head back, eyes closed, sighing out his contentment.
When Arthur took up the cloth and began washing him, starting with his bruised feet, Merlin's throat worked, and he turned his face away, as if ashamed. "All the time they had me, I could think of nothing but your death." He drew in a shaky breath. "All the ways they might try to use me against you...all the ways you might die without me here to protect you."
Slowly, Arthur drew the cloth up Merlin's body, taking extra care with his wounds; they were inflamed and raw, and the one on his side would need tending. He scooped water into his hand and trickled it over the bite mark, then washed it thoroughly. Beneath his hand, Merlin's body trembled, a sense-memory of abuse; Arthur gentled his touch, even as he began to draw on pleasurable images of cutting Lot to bloody ribbons for what he had done.
With insistent tugs, he maneuvered a pliant Merlin so that his back was against Arthur's chest, and continued his ministrations. Merlin's hair was matted, and it took a bit of effort to wash out the grime. He used his hands again to pour water over his scalp, holding Merlin's neck in the palm of his hand for support as he tipped his head back. Merlin looked as if he were bursting with the need to say more, to unburden himself, and Arthur waited for the words, but they stayed closed behind Merlin's tightened jaw.
Arthur wrung out the cloth and draped it over the edge of the tub, then wrapped his arms around Merlin. "The water's getting cold," he said. A moment later, Merlin's hand slid lazily through the cloudy water, and warmth suffused the water once again. Merlin was pliant in his arms, the tension finally gone, and Arthur took a moment to thank the old gods - and the new - that he had been delivered safely from Lot's hands, no matter the instrument of that deliverance.
"Tell me," Arthur commanded softly.
Once Merlin began speaking, the details poured out. In unflinching detail, he spoke of Mordred's hatred of Arthur, and his torture of Merlin's body, the threats that had kept Merlin focused only on escaping before he could be forced to bring harm to Arthur. With every word, Arthur's rage grew, muscles tightening in readiness for a fight that was yet to come.
"He wants you dead," Merlin said, "and he will stop at nothing, even if he no longer has me to use as a weapon. There are so many Druids, Arthur. So many with magic. I'm not sure my magic will be enough to stop them."
"I've seen what you can do," Arthur said. "But you don't enter into this fight alone, Merlin. We fight together; we face this threat as one."
Merlin nodded, but his expression remained troubled. "I once thought you invincible," he said, his voice fogged with fatigue. "The first few times I saw you fight, you were like a hero come to life from the storyteller's yarns. I watched you, and I could not imagine anyone ever able to defeat you."
"And then I fell in battle, over and over again, and you took to rescuing me," Arthur said, smiling against Merlin's neck. That provoked a small snort.
"No. You so rarely needed my help, really, and it wasn't until the Questing Beast that I actually feared you might die. I would have done anything for you, then." He shifted, tilting his head back so he could see Arthur's face. "That feeling is insignificant, compared to what I'd do now to keep you safe."
Arthur thought he might have a very good idea of what that felt like. "When I saw you casting your magic for the first time, up on the battlements, I thought you might be invulnerable to harm," he said. "I thought of all those times you'd come through without a scratch, and then you fell unconscious, and I knew you could be taken from me." He met Merlin's serious gaze, and added, "I knew I could never survive it, if it came to pass."
"Aren't we a pair," Merlin said, kissing Arthur's jaw once, twice, and then hiding his face against Arthur's neck.
They sat that way for a time, until the water cooled again, and this time Arthur stood, prodding Merlin until he got up with a groan. Arthur fetched some linen and dried Merlin, then tossed him a shift to sleep in. By the time Arthur had dried and changed into breeches, Merlin had burrowed under the covers. Arthur joined him, and Merlin rearranged his awkward pile of limbs just so. The space he had claimed became their space, occupied fully by them both.
Merlin settled his head on Arthur's chest. "I should have stayed there," he said. "I should have dismantled their army. I could have gone back and finished Lot, if I'd-"
"And risked your life. I thought we already established you aren't invulnerable. Or did all that warm water drown what little sense you have left?" He stroked his hand through Merlin's hair, and Merlin pressed his nose into Arthur's shoulder. "Let them come, Merlin. Let them come, and meet Camelot's army squarely. Let them see how we deal with those who threaten our people."
"Let them see her golden king, and his justice," Merlin murmured, and a moment later, he was asleep.
In the morning, George brought an appropriate change of clothing for Merlin, and assisted Arthur with dressing while Merlin changed behind the screen. It was all so odd; Merlin had rarely accepted help dressing, and never from George, but he also had never been in the same room with Arthur while someone else dressed him. He threw on the dark blue velvet tunic and black breeches as quickly as he could, wincing as the fresh scabs at his side pulled and his body complained of his haste.
He poked his head around the screen only to find that George was placing the chain mail over Arthur's head with his usual efficiency, and tried not to feel entirely useless. It was a ridiculous sensation, but there it was. He emerged with his boots in his hand, socks slung over one shoulder and his belt hastily buckled, and George gave him a critical look.
"Excellency, if I may-"
"Leave Merlin alone, George," Arthur said, with what Merlin was astonished to recognize as fondness in his voice. "He'll just frown and grump if you try to straighten him out."
Merlin stared; the world seemed to have gone topsy-turvy in the few days he'd been gone.
"Very good, my lord." George yanked the chain mail into place, and belted Arthur's sword belt around his waist. He gave Merlin one last glance, but it was devoid of his usual disdain. Instead, he inclined his head to Merlin with what seemed suspiciously like respect, before asking Arthur, "Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you. Merlin will bring me my sword. You may go; I'm sure Leon will have you assigned to work assisting with the preparations." George bowed again, and as the door latched behind him, Merlin sat down with a thump, wincing again at the jolt to all his many bruises.
"What's come over George?"
"George has expressed his opinion, Merlin, that you are a good man, a very busy man indeed, and in need of an excellent manservant." Arthur's eyes were twinkling. "I think he means to volunteer his services, given that you will barely let him do his work for me without shoving him out of the way to do it yourself."
"That's not..." Merlin thought of the way he'd nearly ripped his tunic in half in his haste to displace George that morning, and sighed. "Point taken. I'll...try to be better."
Arthur leaned against the bedpost, arms crossed. "I know you don't trust anyone else to ensure my welfare. Why do you think I won't let him touch my sword?"
"You let him polish your mail," Merlin said, busying himself with his socks and boots.
A hand crept under his chin, and Arthur lifted it gently to press a bruising, deep kiss to Merlin's lips. Merlin dropped his boots and surged up into Arthur's arms, ignoring the cold press of metal in favor of the way Arthur's hand curled about the back of his neck. The kiss turned tender, after long moments, and Arthur pulled back to whisper, "That's just because I'm well aware you've enchanted it. All the polish in the world can't rub off the strength you've given these links."
Merlin ran his hand over the shimmering mail, which held every spell and enchantment and bit of magic he could press into it. "It is useless against a blade burnished in dragon fire," he said softly, thinking only of the ways it could be penetrated, and not the protections he had so carefully woven into it.
"I'll bear that in mind." Arthur stepped back, pushing Merlin back into his chair. "Now put your boots on and bring me my sword."
With a small smile, Merlin buckled on his boots, and then went to retrieve the sword. Every time he touched it, it seemed to welcome him, the blade singing through the air as he picked it up. "The same doubtless holds true for Mordred's armor," he said, handing Arthur the sword carefully. His magic soared the moment Arthur touched it.
"It's not likely I'd forget that." Arthur's hand lingered on the hilt a moment as he sheathed the sword, and then he straightened. "Ready?"
Merlin shoved a corner of his tunic down and properly buckled his belt, then dodged around Arthur to steal his comb from the bedside table. A few quick swipes, and he tossed the comb back. "Ready."
"I'm beginning to think George is right," Arthur said, smoothing down Merlin's hair. He turned away when Merlin rolled his eyes.
When they entered the great hall, a hush fell over the crowd. Merlin followed Arthur down the endless center of the hall, just behind him and to his right, and when Arthur was seated on the throne, he moved to a position behind him and to his right, as had always been his custom. George had become used to making way for him, even though Merlin was occupying the very same spot he always had when he was Arthur's servant.
He was still Arthur's servant, really. He always would be, and he liked the symmetry of it.
Once he was stationed, he looked up and had his first good look at the visiting emissaries. The Sidhe emissary, Lady Maura, seemed faintly blue in the morning light. Her dark hair was woven with what looked like shimmering pearls, and her long cream-colored gown was a swirling cloud of sparkling fibers, like white firelight. Two female courtiers accompanied her, neither as tall or as beautiful, but both wearing the same sort of gown.
By contrast, Lady Sureya of the Vilia wore a plain blue cloak, and her head was bowed. She looked up as Merlin's gaze passed over her, and smiled softly. Her eyes were a remarkable shade of silver-blue, glowing in her pale face.
Sir Leon stepped forward to announce them, and both women moved before the dais. Sureya bowed her head, but Maura did not offer any gesture of respect. Instead, she fixed Arthur with a direct, piercing stare.
"My lady Maura, my lady Sureya; I welcome you to Camelot, and I thank you for agreeing to meet with me." Arthur stood and stepped down from his throne, causing whispers all around the room as he descended the steps. Merlin moved out from the shadows behind the throne, but did not follow until Arthur beckoned him close. In the blink of an eye, Merlin was beside him; Sureya graced him with a smile.
"You may be aware that an army is marching on Camelot at this moment," Arthur said. "The kingdoms of Albion are united in our desire to repel this army, and to prevent those who lead it from doing harm to our people. It is certain they mean to destroy Camelot." Arthur paused, and Merlin leaned imperceptibly closer to him. The unspoken threat to Arthur himself made Merlin's blood run cold, and he had no idea of the alliances of these people.
"King Arthur," Sureya said. "My people are the spirits of the brooks and rivers of Albion. We protect this land, and we believe your destiny is to protect it also. Therefore we will help you in this coming trial. As Emrys knows, we are able to heal the sick and injured. You have but to place an injured man's hand in a few drops of water, and my sisters and I will do our best for him."
"I thank you, my lady." Arthur turned to Lady Maura, who had not stopped staring at him the entire time Sureya had been speaking.
"Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King. Your destiny is written, and has been since the dawn of time. What we do, or do not do, cannot change what will come to pass." Her voice was like ice creeping across glass in a frigid winter, and Merlin resisted a shiver.
Arthur nodded his head, as if considering her words. "Perhaps, my lady. I know very little of what is written, I will admit. But I don't accept that we cannot challenge the prophecies of old, in order to make a better world. Even if, as you say, it is inevitable, what harm can it do to try?"
"A waste of effort," Maura answered, her gaze shifting to Merlin. It was all Merlin could do not to flinch back; his last encounter with the Sidhe had been one of the worst experiences of his life, and he did not trust them in the least. "Our magic is older than time, older than the dragons your father wiped from this world, older even than the prophecy which speaks of you, Emrys, and your destiny with this king. Tell us why we should intervene in petty mortal concerns."
Merlin drew in a deep breath, thoughts churning. He was no diplomat, no fine speaker with persuasive words like Arthur. All he could do was speak from his heart. "I have pledged my magic to the king, because I have long believed in the world he would build. It was his destiny to unite Albion, and he has moved the many kingdoms within this land toward that goal. He has made these lands safe again for magic users, and it is magic users who threaten the peace. I cannot stand by and watch them kill innocents." He paused, and added, "Your magic is born from the lifeblood of this land. You are of Albion, as I am. As we all are. You are the guardians of this land we all love. Perhaps it is your destiny to stand with us, and see the prophecy through."
She was silent , watching Merlin's face as he spoke. When he finished, she turned her gaze back to Arthur, searching his eyes. Arthur met her gaze, steady and true.
Finally, she sighed. "I can no longer see the future as clearly as once I did. But Emrys is correct; your path does cross with the Sidhe. That much is certain. Perhaps..." She turned back to Merlin. "It grieves us to be in conflict with those who practice the Old Religion, Emrys. We will provide one hundred warriors to fight with you, as your cause is just."
"A generous offer, my lady, and you have my gratitude," Arthur said, bowing his head. Another rumble went through the room. Arthur bowed to her as if she was a queen, and Merlin privately thought he was not wrong at all.
"You have humility, Arthur Pendragon. It is a quality we had not thought to see in you, but we are pleased." Maura stepped back, and the shimmering glow which had swirled about her began to grow brighter. "When next we see one another, it will be on the battlefield. Bring your bravest warriors," she said, and her laugh was like the crackle of lightning on a warm summer day.
The glow grew and grew, until Merlin was forced to shield his eyes; when it dissipated, she was gone, and so was the lady Sureya.
"That went well," Merlin said, blinking the afterimage away.
"Define well," Arthur said under his breath, turning to Leon. "Sir Leon, assemble the war council; I should like to know what plans have been made, and what is left to do." He strode down the center of the room again, as oblivious to the bowed heads of his people as he had been the first day Merlin met him. Some things never changed. To Merlin he said, "Can they be trusted?"
"I have no idea," Merlin said, as they passed through the doors and down the corridor, trailed by three knights and a few straggling advisors. It was the truth; all his dealings with the Sidhe had been negative. "But I can tell you that if she was sincere, there are no greater warriors in legend than the Sidhe. Their power is immense - certainly greater than anything Mordred's bringing to bear. Gaius would know more than I do about it."
"So we have the Sidhe on our side, and the Vilia." Arthur shook his head, bemusement clear in his tone as he added, "This is all very strange, Merlin. I had not thought to ever entertain magical creatures in this kingdom."
Merlin smiled. "I rather expected you'd only go to those lengths if I were actually dead and the kingdom on the brink of ruin."
Arthur seemed to be searching for words, until finally, he said, "Without you, Camelot is a wasteland. The taste of ash was in everything, until I saw you alive and well before me once again."
Merlin caught his breath, a hot blush creeping up his neck. "Arthur," he whispered, and then found himself at a loss for words. Arthur reached for his hand; his fingers encircled Merlin's wrist, pressing against the leather bracelet, before he withdrew and continued down the corridor, Merlin once again at his side.
Council was long, and the plans extensive. Patrols had been sent to every corner of the kingdom, watching for the army which stalked along Camelot's borders.
"Two patrols have reported skirmishes at the northeastern border, sire. By now, their leaders are surely aware we know they are massing. They appear ready to cross over our borders." Leon spread out a large map on the table, so that all might see and understand the territory being discussed as well as Leon had come to know it. "We will have to meet them further from the border than I'd prefer."
"How many of our allies have joined in this alliance?" Arthur asked.
"All, sire. Messages have arrived from Mercia, Caerleon, and Nemeth. All stand ready to assist and will send troops if needed." Leon paused, and added, "King Rodor sent a separate message under seal, disavowing any actions by his daughter's husband. It is clear Lot enjoys no support from Rodor despite his marriage to Queen Mithian."
Merlin thought about Mithian's quiet decision to stay with Lot and endure his treatment, despite knowing clearly what an animal he was. The best thing that could happen to her was her husband's death, which was not far off, if Arthur had anything to say about it.
"Lot will not join in this battle, I assume," Arthur said, looking at Merlin.
"I can't say for certain, but he took very little part in the war preparations."
"That's because he's a despicable coward who relies on others to do his dirty work." Arthur's eyes still blazed with fury. "Leon, ensure we have good men to send across the border once this battle is ended. I want Lot taken alive and brought back to Camelot to face justice for what he has done." Merlin knew that justice would be execution, and that Arthur would take satisfaction in it. He was not a perfect man; he had killed many for the sake of his kingdom. Merlin was not perfect, either, and had killed for Arthur's sake, but he would be deceiving himself if he did not admit, in the privacy of his own soul, that he would watch Lot swing with pleasure.
"Have you any sense of what kind of battle leader this man Mordred is, Merlin?" Percival was saying, as he studied the map.
"He's ruled by his emotions, and he's still very young. I can't imagine he has the necessary knowledge to lead men into battle. But the man who leads the warriors - Ruadan - certainly does. He's compelling, Arthur, and obviously a man who can lead warriors. Has done, I'm sure."
Gwen spoke up from opposite Merlin. "What I'm wondering is why Morgana chose to free Merlin. What does she have to gain from this? It makes no sense."
"It does, in a way," Merlin said. "I think her hatred of Arthur has diminished since he lifted the bans. Now someone like her - someone who uses magic freely - has tried to use her, and then set her aside. He wants to destroy Camelot. That isn't really Morgana's goal."
"Then why not stay out of it?" Gwen said. "Mark my words, you haven't seen the last of her."
"No," Merlin said slowly, thinking of the promise he'd made to Morgana. "No, I don't think we have."
"If she surfaces during the battle, can you contain her?" Arthur asked. Merlin knew he was thinking of the promises of peace, offered and not yet answered.
"I will do all I can, but I made an oath not to interfere with her unless she threatened you." Merlin thought that over and added, "A threat to your kingdom is an indirect threat to you, so...I expect I can contain her, yes. And there may be ways around the vow I took, if worst comes to worst."
"I will aid Merlin as I am able," Iseldir said quietly, from at the far side of the table.
"Very well." Arthur rose, and most of his councilors automatically rose with him. "The war council will convene to discuss the specific battle plans after supper." He nodded to Leon, who doubtless already had it arranged, as he always did.
"Merlin," Gaius said quietly, as the table dispersed.
"Have you made any progress with the prophecy?" Merlin asked. The word caught Arthur's attention, and he came to stand with Gaius as the rest of the group dispersed, talking quietly.
"I've been studying the prophecy, with Alator's help. But I can't tell you with any certainty that this battle, above all others, is the one where Arthur is fated to fall." Those words never failed to chill Merlin to the bone.
"At last report, Mordred's armies were moving toward the White Mountains." Arthur examined the map and added, "Percival tells me the place referred to in the prophecy - Camlann - is near there."
"Alator has said over and over again that things have shifted, changed - that the future is not as clear as it once was. We cannot be sure that the place, or even the circumstances, are the same," Gaius said.
"We can't take any chances. Arthur, you must be constantly on your guard," Merlin said.
"Agreed," Gaius said. "It may amount to nothing, but...it is wise to be prepared."
"Thank you, Gaius," Arthur said. He smiled. "Will you join us for our evening meal?"
"Even old physicians have battle preparations to make," Gaius said, returning the smile. "You will forgive me if I see to it."
"Of course." Arthur watched him go, fondness in his eyes. "He will miss having your assistance with the wounded, as in the old days," he said. Merlin thought ruefully of how useless he had been then, bumbling about with plasters and potions, not a bit of knowledge in his head that might help the dying. "You should persuade him to take an apprentice."
"Perhaps when all this is over," Merlin said. "I have other things on my mind, you know."
Arthur rolled up the maps and tucked them under his arm. "Join me for dinner, and we'll talk of all those things weighing on you."
In the absence of knights and courtiers, the great hall took on its customary hush. Merlin had barely been alone since he escaped Lot's custody, and the quiet grated on his nerves. To fill the silence with something other than memories of waiting in a cell, he began to tidy the piles of paper and the books weighing them down.
"Emrys. A word?" Iseldir had hung back, with that anxious, worried aura he sometimes had. It reminded Merlin of the way his mother looked at him, even now, when she felt he was missing the point somehow.
"Of course." Merlin leaned one hip against the round table as Iseldir stepped out from the shadows. The solidity of the table was comforting, like a promise of a stable world to come, if only they could find peace in which to enjoy it.
Iseldir tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robe, and paused to gather his thoughts. Then he said, "What Morgana knew, but you have never accepted, is that you did not need her aid to break the bindings which held your magic. She took advantage of an opportunity to use your willful ignorance against you; she secured a promise from you in exchange for something you did not need."
"I couldn't touch my magic," Merlin said. "Cold iron worked as well on me as on any sorcerer."
"A sorcerer? Is that what you are?" Iseldir smiled. "You do not use magic, Merlin. You are magic. When you come to understand what this means, then you will know why no bindings can hold you - why no army can stand against you. If you were any other, I would fear this power in one so young, but I know your heart."
"Well, I don't have any special power, so-"
"Emrys. Do not deny what you are. Your king has need of you, and you must not fail him. Not this time."
"What do you mean?" Merlin stepped closer. "Are you speaking of that damned prophecy again?"
"You have heard but one prophecy; there are many more. Many shades and variations of a truth that will most certainly come to pass. Arthur Pendragon will fall one day, as all men must." Iseldir's face held nothing but certainty. "When the time comes, his fate will be in your hands. What you do now may determine whether those threads are irrevocably tied."
"I would never let harm befall Arthur."
Iseldir was silent, watching him in a way that made Merlin want to squirm under the scrutiny. Finally, Iseldir spoke without speaking, in the way that had always unsettled Merlin most. You have no need of tricks and spells, Emrys. Your power does not flow through you. Your power is of the earth and sky, of the water and fire. Direct it, as you were born to do.
"I don't know how," Merlin said, through gritted teeth. "I don't-"
Let the magic teach you. Open yourself to it. Iseldir placed his hand on Merlin's arm, squeezing lightly, and spoke aloud again, easing Merlin's discomfort. "When this battle has ended, I will take you to a place of great magic, and there I and others will teach you all we know. But for now, you need only understand that words do not matter, Emrys. Magic is deeper and greater than that simple device." He seemed to be beseeching Merlin to understand, and Merlin did not understand. He felt perpetually on the cusp of awareness, but without a lantern to see past the dark.
Merlin reached for some way to explain his frustration and found that words, indeed, had their limits. The simmering need to understand that crawled beneath his skin could not be answered. Not yet. The battle, and time, were between Merlin and his answers. All he could do was nod, and receive Iseldir's nod in return, as if some great secret had been shared between them and received in the spirit intended.
He gathered the papers and plans into his arms, and tried to persuade himself there would be time beyond this battle to learn, and to be taught.
It was his dearest hope that such learning would not come too late.
Camelot's army marched at dawn, a great caravan of men, horses, carts and equipment. Like a herd of beasts wending its way across the land, the might of the war machine progressed slowly, with knights and vassals to the front and sides. They were joined by troops sent by Camelot's allies on the second day. Arthur, Merlin, Percival and Leon rode ahead to scout out the terrain, with Elyan and Gwaine close behind.
The moment they crested the edge of the hill, Merlin knew they had come upon the place itself. He shivered, staring out at the barren, wide expanse of land, laid open between the peaks of dark rock. It was familiar, and yet new, like something seen in a dream, too strange to be real, too real to be imagined. Even before Merlin looked to Arthur, he could see the logic of choosing this place to meet Mordred's forces. They could easily be trapped, no way back, no way forward - but the same could be said of Arthur's forces, who might have means of retreat, but could not go far before being overtaken while on the run.
"It must be here," Arthur said. "If we are to make a stand."
"There is nowhere to place reserve forces," Leon pointed out, twisting in the saddle to see from all angles. "Everything can be seen; our scouts will not even be necessary."
"Place them anyway, and have the servants and squires set the camp back at the edge of the low hills, where we are sheltered from the elements."
Merlin saw to it that the Catha were made comfortable, though they seemed reluctant to take quarters meant for knights, or even servants attached to the column. There were only twenty of them, as well as Alator, who raised Merlin's tent with barely a sigh and the flick of a finger. Merlin grinned; it was not his way to casually use magic when labor would do, but he had been quietly aiding in the erecting of tents and the starting of campfires all over the site the entire afternoon, just to make the burden easier on the servants.
Liam and Eira were unobtrusive in the mix of bustling servants, assisting Gwen and Gaius with hauling water to the physician's tent. Merlin watched them for a time, before he approached them, stopping Liam with a hand to his shoulder.
"Emrys," Liam gasped. The bucket hit the ground unnoticed, sloshing water over his sandals as he fell to his knees and touched his head to the wet earth. Eira turned, her eyes widening, and knelt beside him.
"Don't," Merlin said, mortified that they felt they had wronged him, and unsure of how to repair the damage which had caused such fear. "Please get up - please," he urged, offering Eira his hand.
She put just her fingertips in his palm, as if scared his touch might burn her, and scrambled to her feet. Liam got up a moment later, both of them with bowed heads.
"It's all right," Merlin said, "I know neither of you had a hand in what Kara did."
"Oh, Emrys," Eira said, her lip trembling. "I am so truly sorry for what you endured. And I am sorry that any of my people were responsible. I cannot fathom it."
"I am sorry too," Liam said. "I feel like we should have known if we had only paid closer attention."
"And how were you to know?" Merlin asked. "It's a question I've asked myself a thousand times. I've been outspoken, even defiant, when I felt my king or my teachers were wrong. Kara was no different, and I could not have foreseen that her beliefs had led her down a different path."
"Nevertheless," Liam said. "We owe you a debt of service beyond what was promised by Iseldir, and we will provide that as penance."
"It's not necessary," Merlin said, clasping his hand. "Just make yourself useful during the battle, and help where you can. Eira, your healing talents would come in handy here with Gwen and Gaius."
She smiled, brightening. "Gwen asked me to stay, and I will, if you think it wise."
"I do." He smiled back.
Their hopeful faces haunted Merlin all the way back to his newly erected tent. Inside, George and two other servants bustled about, making a comfortable space for Merlin, similar to the space enjoyed by the king.
"None of that," Merlin said sternly, when servants approached with heavy tables and chairs. They looked blankly at him, bewildered. It was not like any noble to refuse the trappings of privilege. The newer servants had never known him when he was simply the king's clumsy manservant, wearing the same clothes for days on end and once, memorably, sleeping with the horses for two days while Gaius' workshop was occupied with injured soldiers. George intervened, hustling them away, and then sending one back with luxurious blankets and furs - the one thing Merlin could never refuse. He loved being wrapped in decadent softness with Arthur.
Alator and Iseldir joined him for a simple meal of fruit, bread, and cheese, while Merlin laid out his plans for the portion of battle he was responsible for - plans he and Arthur had argued over extensively before Arthur's touch had derailed all Merlin's arguments entirely. "If you are spaced evenly at the top of these cliffs," he said, pointing to where the sun was slowly setting the ridges on fire, "you will be well-positioned to see where Camelot's armies are in the most need."
"And you, Emrys?" Alator asked. "Will you join us up top?"
"For a time. But I must be on the battlefield with Arthur if I'm to be of best use." It was barely necessary for him to explain, but sometimes he felt as if every magical creature, every user of magic, understood more of his life and his destiny than he ever had, or ever would. The old frustration which had once accompanied the idea of that destiny sometimes caught up to him, making him feel far younger than his years, and ignorant of so much he should already know.
"We will leave you to prepare, then," Alator said, bowing low, and ignoring Merlin's discomfort when Iseldir followed suit. He gave Merlin a kind smile. "Don't be troubled, Emrys. Destiny is a thin thread, at times, and prophecy only attempts to weave it into the bright tapestry. The picture will become clear."
Once they had gone, Merlin slipped into the tent and sat down on the bed, alone with the vastness of his own worry. He had not hesitated to use his power on Morgana's armies, but it had been a desperate moment, and he'd had no time to think. This time, such careful strategy was in place, such meticulous preparation. Magic had never been at the center of it all before.
He was prepared to rain death down on Camelot's enemies, and the thought unsettled him deeply.
He looked down at his hands, turning them palm up, and then palm down. The damage he could do with a simple gesture, with the force of his intent, gave him pause. He wasn't frightened - could never be frightened, harnessing the magic which flowed in him and around him - but he sometimes felt he had only just begun to scratch the surface of his capabilities. If he opened his heart, and allowed the magic free rein, he might burn down the world in Arthur's name.
It had been said before - the sorcerer, the warlock, Arthur's weapon, trained to unleash fury at his command. In truth, his aversion to it was so strong, he knew there was no danger of losing himself. But in refusing to use his power for the good of Camelot, there was a danger - one long foretold - that he would lose Arthur.
Every path he examined, every step he took toward the end, could be the one to move Arthur toward his destruction.
If Arthur should fall, then let the world burn; there would be nothing left to save.
Merlin left his tent in the gentle twilight, which made the plain seem smaller somehow, less forbidding. He entered Arthur's tent, finding it set up with George's usual precision, and a fire burning in the brazier, but no sign of Arthur. His battle mail was draped over a wooden stand, and his sword set to the side, for later honing. Only a razor-sharp edge would do, for this battle would be like no other. Merlin would see to it.
The armor gleamed in the low light. Merlin ran his hands across the fine cool metal, whispering magic into the links, small protections against dangers Arthur should not ever face alone. The enchantments cast a soft glow and the armor shimmered golden for a moment, before the magic sank fully into the metal.
So engrossed was Merlin in shaping a barrier around the armor that he did not hear Arthur behind him until strong arms enclosed him gently. "Are you making me invincible, Merlin?" he asked, voice rumbling in Merlin's ear as he pressed a kiss to the tender spot just beneath.
"If I could, I would," Merlin said, tilting his head back for more kisses as he pushed even more magic into the armor, one final burst of resistance to sword and dagger.
Arthur caught his hands, running his fingertips down Merlin's fingers, as if to capture the magic there. He traced the back of Merlin's hands, provoking a shiver. "You must leave something for me to do myself."
Merlin turned in his arms, and with a press to Arthur's shoulder, guided him into a chair. Arthur allowed Merlin to remove his everyday chain mail, and then Merlin was able to tug his tunic off, and have access to his skin, to the fine pattern of scars, the light dusting of hair there. He whispered soft words, hardly even aware of them as he traced ancient symbols on Arthur's skin, even closer to his heart than the outer layer of protection would be.
Arthur drew in a sharp breath, and pulled Merlin into his lap so Merlin straddled his thighs on the chair. He cupped Merlin's face in his hands but Merlin ignored it for the moment, intent on finishing this one last task.
Arthur caught the final, murmured syllables, lifting them from Merlin's mouth with a kiss to take them into himself. Then he stood, lifting Merlin bodily with him, and walked them both the few short steps to the monstrosity of a bed Merlin had earlier refused in his own tent. Merlin laughed, startled, and petted Arthur's hair.
"You'll break your back before the battle is begun," he said, smiling as Arthur chased his lips for kisses.
"There you go again," Arthur said, tipping Merlin back onto the bed to crawl over him, the light of desire in his eyes. "I'm afraid I'll have to demonstrate my strength for you, then, and put any doubts you may have to rest."
Merlin laughed again, a sound which quickly turned to soft gasps as Arthur stripped him of his clothes far more efficiently than Merlin had ever done in reverse. It was a means to an end, as Arthur laid kisses against Merlin's skin, and whispered quiet words, their meaning all too clear even though the sound disappeared into each kiss.
"Arthur," Merlin said, closing his eyes. He pressed his cheek to Arthur's and sunk his fingers into Arthur's soft hair, sighing out with contentment. No matter what the battle brought, they had this, now, and it was had been dearly won, for both of them.
Arthur turned his head to kiss Merlin's wrist, his teeth catching at the bracelet there, and then sat back to strip off his breeches and smalls. He lay down beside Merlin, catching Merlin's hand to bring it to his hip, and then curled into Merlin so that hand slipped down, onto Arthur's arse.
Merlin prepared him with the same care he had always taken with Arthur, acutely aware of every sound, every hint of pleasure. He was barely inside Arthur when Arthur surged up into him, eyes bright, hands greedy for Merlin's skin, and turned Merlin onto his back, where he could watch Arthur take his pleasure slowly. Arthur rose and fell in slow, controlled movements above him, so tight around Merlin that all breath nearly left his body.
A fleeting thought passed through Merlin's head, that they had not had enough time, that there could never be enough time for this, and he threw his head back into the plush pillow, determined not to show his fear. Arthur's hand curled at his cheek, then slipped down to encircle his throat for a moment as he began to move faster, taking Merlin deeper.
"This is just another battle," Arthur said roughly, his hand coming to rest over Merlin's heart. "And I will never leave you. Do you hear me?"
"Yes," Merlin cried, the focus of his world narrowed to his cock inside Arthur, and the glorious sight of his king fucking him, stroking himself slowly. A moment later, Arthur shuddered and came, tightening around Merlin, his body drawn tense like a bow. Merlin arched off the bed, his hands locked tight on Arthur's hips, and lost himself in white-hot bliss.
He struggled to draw in air as Arthur eased off him, cleaning them both gently with the coverlet before stretching out beside Merlin. They stared at one another for long moments, until Arthur pulled Merlin closer, curling up against him so that they touched along the lengths of their bodies.
"Remember it tomorrow, if you begin to fear," Arthur said, his hand coming back to rest on Merlin's chest. Merlin placed his hand over Arthur's, and beneath their twined fingers, Merlin's heartbeat settled, steady and true.
Dawn had not yet come when George roused both the king and Merlin with whispered words. Arthur stirred first, his tousled head lifting from the bed as he blinked away sleep. He turned alert, wary eyes to Merlin and kissed his shoulder, then threw back the covers and took the basin of warmed water from George so he could wash.
The sounds of an army waking and setting about preparations for battle grew louder outside as Merlin pulled on his clothes from the day before; it mattered little, now. He turned his attention to Arthur's sword while George dressed Arthur. The magic Kilgharrah had breathed into the sword resonated through Merlin's bones and blood every time he touched it, but still he used magic to sharpen its impossibly fine edge even further.
With both hands, he handed the sword to Arthur, just as he always had. All the ways he could protect Arthur from afar, he had put into place. Arthur took the sword, reverent, and slid it into its sheath.
"I must go," Merlin said. "I need a vantage point overlooking the field for a starting point, but I'll join you on the battlefield when I can."
"Merlin," Arthur said. "Don't come down to the battlefield. Stay up top, where...where you can be of more use."
The idea of it caused a shudder Merlin could not control, and he pressed up against Arthur, for the feel of him strong, alive. "My place is with you, as soon as I'm able," he said, as Arthur's gloved hand combed gently through his hair.
"Just once, I'd like to see you do as you're told."
"Not today," Merlin said, stepping back. He offered a cheeky smile he didn't feel.
"You could at least stay for my speech," Arthur said, his eyes never leaving Merlin.
"A speech," Merlin murmured, shaking his head. "They might be more inspired if you talked less, actually."
Arthur made an outraged face at him, and for the tiniest moment, normalcy was restored.
All the warnings had been given time and again. They had talked through everything Merlin knew of Mordred, and of how he might attack. All the plans were in place. There was nothing left to say.
Merlin looked his fill at his king, and when his vision began to blur, he lifted the flap and exited the tent into the grey dawn.
To the left of where the knights were beginning to assemble, there was a commotion - warriors on white steeds, with white shields and lances full of shimmering blue fire. Lady Maura rode at the head.
"Emrys," she said. She nodded her head in response to his short bow. "As promised, we have come. Where can we be of use?"
"That is for the king to decide," Merlin said. "When the battle is won, I will thank you properly."
Her gaze seemed to see everything Merlin did not say, could not even think to himself. "When this battle is over, destiny will take its course. I will remain here until it is done."
"Good luck," Merlin said. The assembled group rumbled past, and Merlin watched it go, before turning toward the steep mountain path.
The climb did not take long, but the sun was creeping up before Merlin crested the ridge. In the near distance, he saw Alator, and the shadows of the other Catha, further down the way. He looked out over the armies, poised in eerie silence, ready to destroy each other at the first sound of the trumpet, and his blood ran cold.
Iseldir's words rang in his mind. Your power is of the earth and sky, of the water and fire. Direct it, as you were born to do. With a hitching sigh, Merlin closed his eyes, and opened his consciousness to the world around him. Rolling clouds rumbled overhead, carrying the seeds of a thunderstorm. Below, the earth trembled, uneasy, afraid of the red rivers the swords of men would create. He could feel the spark of change in the skin of the world, the rattling swords poised in the sky.
When he opened his eyes, the gleaming horde below had begun to move, inching slowly toward an eagerly met destruction. The blue lances of the Sidhe shone bright among the press of bodies, casting an otherworldly glow on Camelot's young warriors.
Merlin looked closely, focusing his vision on that which he most wanted to see, and found Arthur at their head, grim determination written in all the taut lines of his body. Leon was at his side, and Percival just behind him, intent on selecting targets to be cut down first in the mayhem.
He closed his eyes again, reaching out into the air, drawing down the power he could feel everywhere around him.
The trumpet sounded, distant, lonely, and the answering roar of men followed after.
Merlin thought, stop, and the sky answered his command. Lightning streamed down upon the battlefield, indiscriminately leaping from one enemy soldier to another. Their screams echoed up to Merlin, but distantly, like an echo inside a bottle. He looked down into the battlefield and picked out the lead regiments; he stretched out his hand, and lightning followed, striking time and again. The sizzle was followed by the scent of scorched metal, of burning flesh. His stomach turned, but there was no time for regrets.
All around him, light flashed, near and in the distance, as the Catha followed his lead. They pointed their staffs toward the battlefield, and warriors fell beneath the magic they directed there.
From the edges of the forest, enemy Druids on horseback began to join the fray. Merlin asked the earth to open and receive them, and great yawning chasms appeared beneath the ground they traveled across. Men and horses disappeared into the abyss, and the ground rumbled back into place, seamless, pristine.
The Sidhe sent up a battle cry which raised the hair on Merlin's arms, mournful and restless, as they plunged forward through the milieu. Merlin could see their magic mingling with that of the Catha even as columns of water rose twisting in the air, the forest streams and brooks answering the call of the Vilia, crashing down over warriors and washing them away.
Merlin heaved a deep breath and staggered back. Now that the enemy forces were thinned, he had to get below. He ran for the path, heart pounding as if to burst from his chest. He made his way over the jagged rock, veering off toward the edge of the clearing.
The sounds of chanting filled the air. As Merlin neared the edges of the plain, he saw Iseldir's robed Druids working in pairs, dogging the footsteps of the knights. Their quiet words encircled the knights with protection, deflecting the worst of the blows aimed toward them while enhancing their aim. Twenty feet from Merlin, Elyan was making his way steadily toward the line of soldiers behind the warrior Druids, Percival at his heels.
Merlin held up his hand. "Fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme. Fromum feohgiftum," he said; a ball of light appeared in his palm. As the ball grew in size and brilliance, he said, "Show me Mordred." The magical beacon sped off across the battlefield, hovering near the middle.
Head down, Merlin threw himself into the fray.
With effort, Merlin could see breaks in the battle, places where he might press through, like a path through a dense forest. He stepped ahead, and was swallowed by the churning battle, like an ocean closing around a pebble. But his insight enabled him to find the path of least resistance, and he pushed ahead. From out of the crowd, one of Ruadan's men barreled toward him, and Merlin snapped his neck with a quick motion of his hand. There was no time for regret - he had to find Mordred.
"Emrys!" He turned to see who had bellowed his name, and Liam was there, shouldering his way toward Merlin. Without words, they continued on, Liam at Merlin's side, forcing their way past those still fighting, and the dying men writhing on the cold ground.
Merlin watched his orb as it circled the battlefield, tracking Mordred; they were not far away now, though their progress was agonizingly slow, and they were engaged in a new struggle every few feet. Merlin pushed aside three men who ran for him with swords, and a burst of magic took him off his feet. He fell with a gasp, the wind knocked out of him. Liam dropped down beside him and shouted, "Forbearnan firgenholt!" A dead tree limb uprooted itself and smashed into the enemy Druid's face, knocking him unconscious.
Liam pulled Merlin to his feet and as Merlin turned, something struck him in the back - a burst of magic so powerful, he knocked into two knights in front of him. They fell together, tangled, and Merlin twisted to his back to see Ruadan approaching. Liam took a step forward and Merlin cried, "No! Liam! Protect Arthur at all costs, do you understand?" Liam nodded, and vanished into the crowd.
Ruadan pointed his sword toward Merlin. "Yield, Emrys, and I will let you live," he shouted.
In answer, Merlin threw his arms in front of him and directed his will toward Ruadan, who lowered his sword and turned his face away, palm extended out. Merlin's magical push glanced off Ruadan, staggering him, and Ruadan's lips moved. Merlin wasted no time diving to the side; he shouted "Folge min bebod," but Ruadan repelled the magic yet again with a flick of his finger.
The knights Merlin had toppled regained their feet and attacked Ruadan as one, each taking a side and pressing their advantage. For the first time, Merlin could see Ruadan's vaunted skills in battle, which had overshadowed even his powerful command of magic. Ruadan chose to meet Camelot's knights as equals, sword to sword and Merlin's reluctant respect for him notched up. Even so, there was only one way this could end, and Merlin could not afford any more distractions.
Merlin pulled his lower lip between his teeth and closed his eyes, finding every sword on the battlefield which had fallen from its owner's lifeless grasp. He reached out for fire and metal fused together, drawing on the magic in the swords Mordred had forced Aithusa to create. He listened for the song of that magic, the elemental power of it, and summoned the song to his bidding, to a single focused point in his consciousness.
A hundred swords arced in the air, gleaming in the fresh rays of dawn as they descended on the battlefield. Their song filled Merlin's ears as they sank to his bidding, and when their song stopped, Ruadan stood wavering, impaled on a bank of swords, his eyes wide with disbelief. With a grimace, he lowered his own sword and fell, his body not quite touching the ground, held above it by the mass of steel piercing his body.
Merlin dragged his eyes away and looked up to see the orb hovering over the battlefield not far from his position. He charged into the melee again, his magic breaking a path for him in the body-to-body death grapple all around them. Warriors and knights alike were tossed aside, the price of haste, as Merlin sped toward Mordred.
And then finally, as the crowd parted courtesy of Merlin's magic, Mordred was there, sword drawn, an expression of grim concentration on his face as he buried his sword in Arthur's belly.
His voice echoed in Merlin's head, drowning out the screams and cries of the dying and suffering, and Merlin's own scream of Arthur's name - a scream his king did not answer.
It comes down to this, Emrys. It was always fated to be so.
Arthur turned his face toward Merlin, saying everything with his eyes, and fell to one knee, his left hand covering his wound.
In the next instant, Merlin's heart tried to lift itself from his chest and return to Mordred's outstretched hand - or so it seemed. Merlin gasped, crushing the pain back to a manageable level as Mordred advanced. Behind him, the hand-chosen warriors who had dogged his every step in the Perilous Lands drew nearer.
Merlin thrust his hands in front of him, and lightning found them, curling around his hands like snakes. He moved his arms out to his sides, until they were fully outstretched, coils of lightning all around him. He let the power fill him, overcome him, and then he clapped his hands over his head.
Instantly, warriors on all sides of them - Druids and Lot's soldiers alike - fell to the ground, lightning sizzling over their bodies like sparks from bonfire. Mordred smiled grimly, and in the eerie silence which followed, threw his sword toward Merlin; it sailed end over end toward him at unthinkable speed.
Stop, thought Merlin, and the sword arrested its motion a hair's breadth from his face. Return.
Mordred cried out an instant later, as the cartwheeling sword sank into his left shoulder a few inches higher than needed for a quick kill. Merlin wasted no time - he threw his power Mordred's direction, only to be met with a wall of cold rage, swallowing his elemental power and breaking it apart.
Mordred pulled the sword from his shoulder with a cry and flung it aside; his green eyes burned with rage. His fingers twitched toward Merlin, and Merlin's limbs began to misfire, as if they were no longer attached to his body. He stumbled and fell to his left side, pain threading through him like white-hot needles in every part of his body. Mordred loomed close in his field of vision.
Before Merlin could regroup, Mordred's body lurched forward in an unnatural arch. Blood dripped from his open mouth. As Merlin fought to regain control of his own body, he stared at the sword protruding from Mordred's chest. It disappeared, only to reappear a second time, and then a third, and fourth. And then Mordred fell to the side, his lifeless eyes staring into the distance, revealing Arthur standing behind him, bloodstained sword in his hand.
Merlin rolled to his side and crawled toward Arthur. He reached him in time to catch him as he pitched forward. "Arthur!" he cried, settling to the ground with Arthur's heavy body cradled in his arms.
"You're all right?" Arthur asked, lifting his gloved hand to touch Merlin's face.
"Yes, oh, Arthur," Merlin said, voice wavering. He wasted no time; he pressed his hands to the torn chainmail and whispered, “Þurhhæle dolgbenn.” But even as he poured all his magic and love into the torn flesh, he could tell it was not working; there was no healing beneath his touch.
"Help me! The king!" Merlin shouted, and shouted, until his breath was gone, until knights had come to lift Arthur on their shoulders, until Percival pulled Merlin to his feet and quieted him; until Gaius appeared in his dust-stained robes to tend to the king.
The knights laid Arthur gently on a pallet of rough woolen blankets, and Arthur made a pained sound. Merlin went to his side and took his hand, and tried again to heal him as Gaius directed his mail be removed.
"The blade has broken off near his heart," Gaius said after long, tense moments of examination. "Can you pull it from him, Merlin?"
Merlin placed his hands on Arthur's belly and pulled at the tiny, invisible shard with all his might. Arthur grunted, and closed his eyes, jaw clenched tight. But the dragon-forged blade did not move closer to the surface of Arthur's body; it only fled deeper, away from Merlin's magic.
"It's not working," Merlin said. He wiped away dust and tears from his face with the back of his sleeve.
"If he has been wounded by a blade burnished with dragon fire, the only magic I know of which is strong enough to save Arthur is Sidhe magic," Gaius said.
Sir Leon pushed his way through the crowd and knelt beside Arthur, opposite Gaius and Merlin. "Sire!"
"Leon, we need Lady Maura's magic," Merlin said. He held his hand over Arthur's wound, though he knew it was not helping. Arthur's hand slowly covered his, warm and solid.
"We'll find her," Leon promised, pressing a hand to Arthur's shoulder. A group of knights followed him away, but Merlin had eyes only for Arthur, who was smiling at him.
"This is what I get for putting so little faith in prophecy," he said ruefully.
"Don't say that," Merlin answered, leaning closer to hide the hitch in his voice. "You are not going to die this day, Arthur Pendragon. I forbid it."
"Well then," Arthur said, his expression comically obedient. "I'll endeavor to obey, Your Excellency."
"Shut up," Merlin said desperately, and then he was kissing Arthur, because words would never be enough for all the orders and pleas and declarations in his heart.
"Emrys." Merlin sat back on his heels to see Lady Maura standing off to the side, her expression filled with pity.
Merlin had no thought of pride or debt; his fear overwhelmed everything as he said, "Please, Lady Maura. I beg of you. Save him."
"No need to beg," Maura said. She lowered herself to the ground, and the brightness of her magic made Merlin shield his eyes. "But we are far from the waters of Avalon; our magic is weaker when we are away."
"I may be able to assist with that," Lady Sureya said from behind her. Gaius accepted Percival's hand up, and made way for her to kneel beside Merlin. "Your hands, Emrys - cup them before you."
Merlin cupped his hands, and she said, "Lend your magic to mine, and bring a storm to Camlann." As she touched his hands, her magic flowed over him like a soft breeze, a memory of summer and the scent of yellow flowers in the field.
Merlin whispered the words to bring a storm, and as thunder boomed overhead, the sky lit with lightning, nearly as bright as Maura shone. Sureya's hand slipped beneath Merlin's, and as rain began to fall, droplets of water seemed to aim themselves toward Merlin's hands, which were ready to receive them. After a time, the rain tapered off, and Merlin's hands shook beneath the precious waters they protected.
"The waters of Avalon, summoned for you," Sureya said to Maura. "Though it is not much; our magic is weakened away from the water, too."
"It will be enough." Maura dipped her fingers into the water, then pressed them to Arthur's wound, and he thrashed beneath the touch. "Be still, Once and Future King, and let the future unwind."
For long, breathless minutes, Maura crouched motionless, as the glow from her body spread over Arthur's in turn. Arthur gripped Merlin's hand tightly, and then tighter still, while Merlin fought the urge to let the Sidhe magic consume him. Its seductive touch was stronger than the oldest magic he had ever experienced -- Kilgharrah's magic, poured into him to help him defeat Cornelius Sigan. Even that deep, old magic, drawn from the very fabric of the world, could not compare to the sorcery Maura weaved through Arthur's body.
The Sidhe magic grew incrementally dimmer, withdrawing as it finished the work it had been tasked to perform. Arthur closed his eyes, and his breathing became even, no longer shaken with pain. Merlin touched his stomach with wonder; the wound was completely healed. Not even a scar remained. On his chest lay a jagged shard of metal, cool to Merlin's tentative touch.
"It is done." Maura took the shard from Merlin. It dissolved to nothing in her hand. "He will rest a while, and he will live."
"Thank you," Merlin said, though the words were a pale reflection of what was in his heart. He reached to grasp Sureya's hand as well. "Thank you, for his life."
"We all must play our part," Maura said, with a speculative look at Arthur's peaceful face.
Merlin barely noticed as they withdrew, and Gaius ordered Arthur carried into his tent. He was never more than an inch from Arthur's side until he was tucked and settled in his bed, and Gaius had examined him again.
"He is asleep, Merlin, and appears healed, just as Lady Maura said." Gaius squeezed his shoulder. "You have done it."
"I have done nothing," Merlin said softly, gazing at the miracle of his living king. "And I owe much to those who have saved Albion this day."
"You have saved this land, and Arthur, many times over," Gaius said. "There is not a man nor magical being in Camelot unaware of it."
"That doesn't matter." Merlin took up a cloth and cleaned the blood from Arthur's chest. "They owed me nothing."
"No. And the fact that they came to Arthur's aid is quite telling." Gaius took the cloth away from Merlin. "You should rest as well, my boy."
"I...I can't," Merlin said, blinking away the grit and dust in his eyes as his vision blurred. "There's so much to do, the-"
"Merlin!" Liam burst into the tent, looking about wildly, and flung himself at Merlin's feet. Blood streaked down both sides of his face, and matted his hair. "I could not reach the king in time. I am so sorry."
"Let me see," Gaius said, poking at Liam's head in a familiar way which made Merlin smile. "It's a wonder you're still conscious!"
"I wasn't, for a while," Liam said. "And then I was, and I came to find Arthur straightaway." He seemed to notice the king for the first time. "Has something happened? Is the king all right?"
"Yes," Merlin said, a bit of hysterical laughter threatening to bubble up. "Something has happened. But it's fine now." He patted Liam on the shoulder in thanks. "You've done well. You should go find Eira; she will need your help."
"My place is with you," Liam said, "and here I will remain."
"I don't need your help," Merlin said, eyes on Arthur.
"You do, and you shall have it," Liam said stubbornly, his jaw set in a way that was all too familiar to Merlin; he refrained from telling Liam he was like an irritating horsefly, always hovering about, because Merlin was not unacquainted with those traits. Besides, the boy had shown where his true loyalties could be found.
"Have it your own way," Merlin said, smiling at Liam's look of relief.
Leon pushed open the tent flap and moved immediately to Arthur's side. He gazed at Arthur with such reverence that Merlin looked away, out of respect for the long history they shared. "He's all right?" he asked Gaius, who nodded.
Leon heaved a great sigh and accepted a cup of water from Liam with a grateful nod. "Merlin, the forces that are left have scattered - we've sustained heavy casualties, but there is no doubt of our victory." He looked at Merlin, expectant, and with a jolt Merlin realized that Leon was deferring to him - that he expected Merlin to lead when Arthur could not. It had never occurred to Merlin that such a thing would be asked of him. He was not meant to rule Camelot; it was not his destiny. He shoved the idea of it away so violently that he shuddered. With luck and hope, such a thing would never come up again.
"Yes," Merlin said, "it is a great victory." He found he believed it, though the words rang hollow with so many dead littered across the great plain. Arthur was safe, and Camelot would soon be secure. The threat was ended, for now.
"There's been no sign of Morgana, either," Leon said. "So far."
"Make sure any of the Druids left alive are secured in cold iron, Leon." Merlin thought for a moment and added, "We should withdraw from this plain as soon as possible, and seek a fortified position lower in the mountains on which to meet what remains of their army, if they advance again." He paused. "Would you agree?"
"Yes." Leon cleared his throat. "I have dispatched a contingent of knights to retrieve Lot, as Arthur ordered prior to battle."
"Thank you, Sir Leon," Merlin said. The warmth of Leon's smile was an unexpected gift, one of many on a long and terrible day.
Merlin sat with Arthur a while longer, watching his eyelids flutter as he dreamed. When finally his lingering fear for Arthur's life had eased to a relatively normal level, Merlin tapped the sleeping Liam on the shoulder to rouse him. Together, they made their way past the numerous guards outside to the tent housing the many wounded knights.
Eira and Gwen were tending the injured, and dread crept back into Merlin's heart; he did not know how Percival or Elyan had fared.
A huge smile lit Gwen's face when she saw Merlin, and when she threw her arms around him, he gave in to the need for a moment's comfort. "We've all heard about the king. But are you all right?" she asked, as she drew away and began fussing over the blood on Merlin's hands.
"I'm fine," he answered, even as she looked him over, satisfying her own need for reassurance. "How is Elyan, and the others?"
"Elyan is well - I haven't seen Percival yet, but Gwaine is here. At the back," she said, pointing. Merlin kissed her cheek and went to see about his friend.
"Merlin! I see you managed not to get yourself killed," Gwaine said with a grin. "And Arthur?"
"He's fine now," Merlin said, grinning back. "Did you throw yourself at a sword, Gwaine? I can't imagine how else you would have ended up here."
"Threw myself in front of one of those Sidhe you're so fond of, more like." Gwaine flopped back on his blankets with a groan.
"And I'm sure she was beautiful, wasn't she?" Merlin said, nodding sagely.
"Of course she was. A man has to do his duty." Gwaine threw his arm over his eyes. "Never mind that she tossed me to the side and defended my honor by killing ten or twelve Druids. We'll just forget that part, shall we?"
"Immediately." Merlin laid his hand over the bandage and sneakily whispered his best healing spell, though Gwaine lifted his arm to give a suspicious peek.
"Here now! Save all that mumbo jumbo for the truly injured. Away with you; someone needs to tell Percy to go rescue my horse from Maura."
"She stole your horse?" Merlin couldn't help the laugh that bubbled out of him, because he knew now Percival was all right.
"The woman has no shame. It's a common theme with those magical ones." Gwaine's arm shifted to cover his smile.
Leon stuck his head inside the tent and called out, "Lot's forces have surrendered! And the Druids have laid down their arms!"
A cheer went up from inside the tent, and for the first time in days, Merlin took a deep breath, free of fear for Arthur's life. He sat silent with Gwaine as the cheers of men and women echoed across the battlefield, across the bodies of the dead and dying, one bittersweet moment in the midst of a victory which had cost them all so dearly.
Celebration banners already dotted the villages they passed on their way back to the citadel, and Arthur took a moment to marvel how swiftly news traveled, even though he had sent only a few messengers to deliver the news. Camelot's citizens met the long caravan with food and drink, and fresh horses to trade. They took the injured in when they could ride no more, and Arthur's love for his people swelled until he was sure his heart would burst.
All he could think of was a hot bath, and the bit of unfinished business Leon's top patrol was handling. Beside him, Merlin prattled on about things Arthur did not care one whit about, and the utter familiarity of it slotted the world back into place, which was certainly Merlin's intent.
Arthur determined that he would have to kiss Merlin quite a lot that evening, and in between, Merlin could give him the shortened version of his tales.
From time to time, Arthur pressed his hand to his ribs, where his mind said a fatal wound should be, but only a deep ache remained. Gaius had said that his body was still adjusting internally, healing itself in minor ways. He could taste the lingering tickle of magic in his body, like the smell of rain on a cloudy day; it was a constant reminder that he would not be alive, were it not for the willingness of the Sidhe to intervene. He had accepted the inevitability of death in those moments when Merlin held him tight. Leaving Merlin had been his only regret, when Merlin's hand was in his and the world was darkening around him.
His father would have said his priorities were all wrong, that he should have been focused on who would lead, instead of all the sunlit kisses he would miss. But Arthur understood now that it was all one and the same. Merlin would have been a reluctant king, but a fine one, and his heart was at ease for that knowledge.
Somehow, he would have to bring Merlin to the same conclusion.
They parted ways with the Sidhe at a fork in the road near Caerleon's borders, and Maura pulled her horse alongside Arthur's. "Farewell, Once and Future King," she said. As always, the way she said it made Arthur's skin crawl, but he could not deny her forces had helped turn the tide.
"Thank you, Lady Maura, for all you have done for me and for Camelot. I am deeply in your debt."
She scrutinized him, as if he were some sort of strangely shaped fruit she planned to devour. "Nothing has gone quite as I expected, Arthur Pendragon. But we are allies now, and you may call upon us in any hour of need." Her piercing gaze shifted to Merlin. "Be well, Emrys, and remember that just as streams find their way to the river, so the threads of prophecy find a way to weave together."
"Er, I'll remember," Merlin said, staring after her as she rode away.
"Whatever is it that makes those with magic so damned cryptic?" Arthur asked.
"No idea," Merlin said. "But I'm rather used to it by now."
The citadel was ready to receive them, but their arrival only lengthened the list of duties and tasks Arthur must perform before he could have a moment's rest. He held a short audience with Iseldir to thank him for his help, and another with Alator, who delivered a lengthy debrief on the state of the Catha post-battle. Even Merlin was drooping a bit by the time he had finished. The ambassadors from Camelot's allies lined up to receive gifts and thanks from the king, and were well-supplied for their journeys home. Leon detailed the casualties and the state of their army, and discussed the many ways they had secured the border behind them as they withdrew from the north.
Leon also gave him welcome news. "We've had word, sire, that King Lot has been taken alive. My men will have him here within a day."
"Excellent work, Sir Leon," Arthur said. He dismissed Leon and stood, brushing his hand through Merlin's hair, enjoying the way Merlin leaned into his touch.
When finally Arthur was scrubbed and settled down in his own bed - with the extra furs on top, to keep out the chill - it was nearly impossible for him to keep his eyes open a moment longer.
Merlin, of course, chose that moment to bang into the room, shed his clothing, and climb into bed, pressing his cold toes against Arthur's legs.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelped. He scooted to the side to avoid Merlin's feet.
"You may have been healed, but you still need rest," Merlin said, pressing him back into the bed. "And warmth," he added, as he covered Arthur's body with his own in a most enjoyable way.
Arthur glared at him, but it had little effect, particularly since Merlin was extinguishing most of the candles. His eyes had that arousing golden glow Arthur had come to associate with many of the good things in his life. Merlin snuggled up against him, grumbling as he pulled his feet away, and Arthur lifted his arm to pull Merlin close. "Better," he said, nosing into Merlin's hair, which was a bit damp and smelled of herbs.
They were quiet for a bit, until Merlin said, "Gaius is taking on Eira as an apprentice."
"Hmm," Arthur said, thinking over the list of knights who were to be named to the round table.
"And I may take on Liam. As a servant. A manservant," Merlin clarified. That got Arthur's attention.
"You're sure about that? The arrangement with Iseldir was to be temporary, you know."
"Liam won't go. He thinks he owes me some sort of debt. It's ridiculous, really, but he's stuck to me like leaves in a storm."
"Well." Arthur jostled Merlin until he was more comfortably curled into the nook of his arm. "There is something to be said for pests who refuse to leave their masters alone. You could do with a keeper. He could find you clean socks to warm your feet, for starters."
All the things they hadn't discussed floated about them invisibly in the room, until Merlin said, "I had thought the day might come when I would engage armies in your name." He shifted, restless. "I was thinking about it in the wrong ways, you see. I've killed for you before - almost since we first met - but each of those moments seemed individual. Not connected to the others."
Arthur was silent. His place was to listen, and to know what was in Merlin's heart.
"But it was all connected, really. You were at the heart of it. I told you, all of that was nothing compared to what I would do now, and it was true." Merlin buried his face in the safe haven of Arthur's chest, and mumbled, "Hundreds of men, Arthur. And I regret none of it. Not even Mordred."
"I don't believe that," Arthur said quietly. "Even I regret the killing that must be done to preserve the peace."
"If it saves your life, how can I regret it?" Merlin lifted his head, and tears shone in his eyes, which burned with a fierce love which still took Arthur's breath away. "I would kill them all again, and thousands more besides, and...and..." Tears spilled, and Arthur caught them with his fingertips.
"You were Emrys on the battlefield," Arthur said. "Feared sorcerer, protecting his king. Here, you are just Merlin." He kissed Merlin gently, tasting salt on his lips. "Here, you can allow yourself to grieve for the things that are necessary."
"I can't afford to grieve," Merlin said, putting his head down again. "Or I might never stop, and then I'm no use to you."
There was nothing to say to that, nothing that would not contradict the vastness of Merlin's tender heart, so Arthur did not try.
Quiet settled over them like a soft blanket. Eventually Merlin sighed and said, "Soon I will need to see to Aithusa. There are so many things unexplained, Arthur. Where she's been...why she isn't growing as a normal dragon should. Will you allow her here, in the citadel, so I may build trust with her?"
"Yes." Arthur could feel sleep pulling at him. "Do your duty, dragon lord."
He thought he heard Merlin say, my most beloved dragon, but later, he was sure it was part of his exhausted dreams.
In the morning, Arthur held a full court, all of the kingdom's nobles and many of their guests in attendance. He sat on the throne, Merlin at his right hand, and received Queen Mithian. She wore a black gown without adornment of any kind, and she approached the throne calmly, without any hint of fear.
"Sire," Mithian said. As the assembled crowd gasped, she sank to her knees and touched her head to the floor. When she raised her face to Arthur, she was calm, her demeanor every inch a queen. "I have come to beg mercy for Lot's kingdom, and for the people I am charged with protecting. The people are innocent of his crimes." She shifted on the cold stone, folding her hands over her skirts. "What was done to Lord Merlin was unconscionable, and unforgiveable. The attack on your own kingdom and the deaths of so many of your knights may be a predictable part of the give and take of war, but I offer you my humble apologies on behalf of my people."
Arthur felt a surge of quiet respect for her. She had no right to expect leniency, and yet she was the queen her people deserved. She straightened her back and looked him in the eye. "I knew nothing of these plans, but as Lot's wife I will submit myself to your judgment nonetheless. I ask only that you spare my people. Take Lot's lands for your own and give them a proper king."
She lowered her head again in silence. Arthur let a few moments pass while he considered her words. It had always been his plan to annex Lot's kingdom. He held Mithian blameless, and knew full well she would never have condoned or participated in any attack on Camelot.
It was time Lot's kingdom had a proper ruler; that much was true.
He nodded to Leon, who gave Mithian his hand and helped her to stand. Arthur regarded her a moment, then said, "I will take your plea into consideration. I must ask that you remain here while I try your husband for his crimes."
"I will bear witness," she said, her fingers tightening on Leon's arm.
"Bring him in," Arthur ordered.
The doors swung open, and four guards marched forward, Lot between them bound in ropes. He looked around the room like a trapped animal, head jerking back and forth, until he caught sight of Gwaine. His lip curled in a sneer, and he spat on the ground as he passed; Arthur could see in the tension of Gwaine's body that it cost him dearly to stand still and endure such treatment. The apple had fallen far from the tree, for which Arthur was grateful.
Lot's head swiveled to the front of the room, and he shouted, "Arthur Pendragon! I don't recognize your authority to try me."
"On your knees," Arthur said, voice level, despite the deep anger the mere sight of Lot evoked. The guards shoved him down, and Lot winced as his knees cracked into the stone. Arthur rose from his chair and paced a slow circle around Lot, who had fixated on Merlin the very moment Arthur was out of his range.
"Lot. You stand accused of kidnapping Camelot's court sorcerer, and holding him against his will. Further, you threatened harm to him, and by your actions, were directly responsible for the deaths of many while Camelot was under attack from your forces." Arthur completed his circuit around Lot, and stopped before him. "What is your answer to these charges?"
"My answer?" Lot spat on the ground again. "I should have fucked your esteemed court sorcerer while I had the chance."
It was only after, when Merlin's hands were on Arthur's shoulders and Merlin's quiet voice was urgent in his ear, that Arthur realized he had moved, and the tip of his small dagger was pressed deep into Lot's throat. Blood trickled down from the shallow cut, and Lot's shallow gasps gusted against Arthur's face, foul and desperate. But in Lot's eyes, there was a gleam of victory, one small triumph in making the king lose control.
Arthur eased back his arm, just enough to stop cutting into the skin, and said softly, "I made you a promise when last you threatened Merlin, and now you'll see it fulfilled." He moved back, Merlin an anxious bird hovering at his side, until Arthur sheathed the dagger again. Raising his voice, he said, "Very well. Lot, your lands and your titles are forfeit to me, until such time as I see fit to disburse them. Under the authority vested in me, you are condemned to die by execution, in the time and place of my choosing. That time and place is now. Sir Leon -- provide this man with a weapon."
Leon quickly divested one of the newer knights of his sword - one which would not be perfectly honed, but would be serviceable. He threw the sword on the floor within reach of Lot's hand, and then stepped behind their prisoner to cut his bonds.
Arthur drew his own sword, then pointed at the weapon on the floor. "Pick it up."
"Whelp," Lot said, scooping up the sword. "I was leading armies and killing men when you were still in your britches."
"Oh yes." Arthur swung his sword, readying it for the brief contest to come, even as he assessed Lot's practiced ease and battle stance. "I'm sure the fact that you did not lead your army against me was proof of your courage and skill."
"See for yourself," Lot answered, his sneering grin one Arthur could not wait to eradicate. He lunged, and Arthur parried the blow with ease, knocking his sword aside.
In the way Lot moved, there was a ghost of a man who once had formidable skills. Arthur could see it, and he also saw the remnants of skills now practiced by Gwaine in combat - graceful arcing attacks, and skillful defense. But he was not a young man, and he had grown soft, allowing his forces to kill and maim while he displayed the heads of enemies on his fortress walls. It was all just for show now, and Lot tired quickly, his blows losing strength as Arthur pressed attack. Still, Arthur drew it out, toying with him a while; it was a death earned, and Arthur would see the lesson learned.
When finally Lot staggered back and fell, his sword clattering away, Arthur lunged forward and pressed one knee to his chest. A clean thrust through, and Lot's smile slackened, his eyes growing dim. There were so few deaths Arthur had been responsible for that he'd not had cause to regret, but this was one. He watched until the light was gone from Lot's eyes, and then stood, wiping his sword on Lot's tunic.
When he looked up, he saw Gwaine standing in the shadows at the side of the room, no expression on his face. If he mourned his father, Arthur did not see any sign of it.
"Queen Mithian," Arthur said, stepping over the body. She came from the crowd to kneel again at his feet. "Take your husband's body home and bury it, and then turn your attention to your people." Her eyes widened, and Arthur gave her a tiny smile. "I entrust the lands formerly known as Lot's Kingdom to you, to rule in my stead." He stepped close, so he would not be overheard, and added, "When the time comes to choose a proper king, my lady, choose more wisely next time."
"Arthur, I'm so sorry," she said, tears falling freely now.
"None of that," Arthur said. "There is business to be done. I trust you can see to it?"
"I can, my lord." She raised her head, giving him a grateful smile. "There is, however, the matter of Lot's sons."
"Their claim is forfeit, with the severing of Lot's possession of his lands. Lot's time is at an end; a new era is begun."
"Thank you, sire," Mithian said.
Leon gestured to the guard, and they dragged Lot's body from the room. When Arthur met Merlin's eyes, he was satisfied with the quiet acceptance he saw there.
The business of the day progressed, as court was already in session, and Arthur saw no reason he should not take care of the accumulated business at hand. There were pleas to the throne for leniency, taxes to dispense with, and all the mundane business of ruling Arthur had grown to both love and despise.
Leon provided the morning's most official pronouncement, unrolling a ponderous scroll and reading out in ringing tones. "Queen Annis, ruler of Caerleon, Governor of the Evening Isles and the White Mountains, sets forth that Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, Lord of the lands formerly belonging to Lot, has acquitted himself well on behalf of these united kingdoms of Albion. Be it known therefore that Queen Annis proposes King Arthur Pendragon be henceforth regarded as High King of Albion."
Gasps and cheers went up in the hall, and Arthur turned a bemused look on Merlin, who was beaming with something suspiciously like pride.
"Sir Leon, send a messenger to thank Queen Annis for her kind proposal, but tell her-"
"Arthur," Merlin said. Nothing more, just that one word.
"Tell her that if it is the will of each kingdom, then I will happily discuss the matter with my allies at a time and place of their choosing."
"Very good, sire." Leon bowed, and handed the scroll to Geoffrey.
Merlin continued to beam behind Arthur. Arthur couldn't see him, but he could feel it, as clearly as if he'd turned his face up to the summer sun.
At the end of the hall, the doors flew open, and Elyan strode forward. The urgency in his gait brought Arthur out of his chair. "What is it?" he asked.
"The Lady Morgana," Elyan said. "Sire, we apprehended her at the eastern gates. She was just...standing there."
"No," Merlin said, drawing up beside Arthur. "Why is she here? Why now, after such a battle?"
"There is only one way to find out," Arthur said, exchanging a look with Merlin. "Bring her forward."
A moment later, five guards escorted Morgana in. She wore no cloak, no hood to hide her identity. Instead she was clad in a simple black frock, and her heels clicked on the floor as she approached. The grey shackles on her wrists were an ugly contrast to her regal posture. All around the room, courtiers and advisors shrank back as she passed. Knights murmured to one another, their hands at their weapons.
When she stopped before Arthur, she smiled. "Brother dear," she said. "How good of you to see me."
"An interesting way to put it," Arthur said. "Given that we took you into custody."
"Not quite," Morgana said. She lifted her wrists, and the shackles on her wrists began to glow white-hot, like iron still on a forge. Even as they disintegrated into the air, Merlin placed himself in front of Arthur, one hand behind him on Arthur's arm. Arthur's knights stepped forward, swords drawn; Arthur barely had time to gesture them to a halt before Morgana lifted her chin, arms outstretched to the sides, and her eyes glowed gold.
All the knights skidded backwards, teetering into each other as they lost their balance. Even as the golden glow faded, Arthur marveled that he had become accustomed to seeing the same magic in Merlin's eyes. It had the sense of the familiar to him, and no longer seemed something to fear. Even in Morgana.
She could have injured his knights, if she chose, even killed them to prove a point, but she had not. Whether out of fear of Merlin's power, or some other reason, Arthur had no true sense of her purpose. Curiosity had the better of him, though Merlin vibrated with menace in her presence.
"A little breathing space, if you please," Morgana said, lowering her arms.
Merlin twitched toward her, but Arthur caught his shoulder, and Merlin stopped mid-motion. Morgana did not fail to see the exchange between them. "There's no need for theatrics. I was not apprehended; I came for this audience," she said. "After all, your king has offered me terms of truce." She met Merlin's eyes. "Remember your vow to me."
After a long, long moment, Merlin stepped back, but only to return to Arthur's side, closer than his shadow.
Arthur and Morgana regarded each other in silence. Arthur took in Morgana's hollowed cheeks, the sunken set of her eyes; hardship had clearly been upon her, quite recently. It was no more than she deserved, but there was no pleasure in the thought. He paused, thinking of those days when she had first come to court, beautiful and full of laughter. Memories of those days were filled with a bittersweet joy; she had grown from a coltish girl into a brave, independent woman. She had never been shy with her opinions, and he had learned much from her courage in standing up to his - their - father. The wistful, foolish youth he had been had once dreamed of a day when their ideas - both his, and Morgana's - might bear fruit in Camelot.
The battle-hardened king he had become wondered if it might not be best to kill his sister this instant, and put an end to all her treachery.
Ruthless, he squashed that thought, because he still had his honor above all else.
Her gaze flicked to the sword at his side, and then back to his face. Defiance shone in her eyes.
"Why are you here, Morgana?" Merlin was inching forward again.
"I have come to discuss the terms of truce," Morgana said, ever direct.
"Your timing is interesting," Arthur answered. He weighed his instinct to give her the benefit of the doubt with his better judgment; even when they were young, she had been skilled at deceiving him. Now, it was impossible to tell what schemes she may have in mind. She had lived within the citadel walls for over a year while plotting to kill him, and he had never seen any sign of it. He could not trust his instincts fully where his sister was concerned. "This wouldn't have anything to do with our defeat of Mordred's forces, would it?"
"On the contrary. I wanted to see him dead, and now he is dead. In some ways, I owe you a debt." She produced a scroll from her sleeve. "I have written a counter-proposal -- one you would do well to consider, if you still want peace."
"What is your price?" Merlin said. Arthur turned a fierce look upon him, willing him to silence.
Morgana's gaze shifted to Merlin. "Free passage within Camelot and the citadel. I also demand a seat on the king's council so that I may give voice to the concerns of those who practice the Old Religion. Emrys does not speak for them all."
Arthur ignored Merlin's noise of skeptical distress as he considered his options. Morgana had caused so much damage, killed so many, and he owed her a debt of pain. But even after all these years - even after Uther's slow death of a broken heart, and all the suffering she had caused in the meantime - he still could not find it in himself to hate her. She was a High Priestess of the Old Religion, and in his talks with Alator and Iseldir, he had come to understand how much sway she had with magic-users, even if he personally believed power born of fear was not to be respected. If he gave her a seat, and a voice in matters of the kingdom, it might go far toward uniting his people.
When he turned to Merlin to ask his opinion, Merlin had a hand at his throat, face pale as the moon, and was staring at Morgana. "Merlin?" Arthur stood, as Merlin frowned with frustration. "Are you all right?"
"He would like to object, but unfortunately, his oath to me prevents it," Morgana said. "He is perfectly fine." She turned her gaze on Merlin. "Did you know that the Cailleach once told me your destiny was linked with mine, Emrys? Once, long ago, I dreamed of it." Her icy smile sent a shiver up Arthur's spine. "Now that Mordred is dead, the path is clear for a different outcome than I foresaw. I welcome that. As should you."
Anger blazed in Merlin's eyes, but he stopped trying to speak, and the color came back into his face.
Arthur asked again, "All right?"
"Fine," Merlin said, through gritted teeth. He glared at Morgana, who met his anger with a shrug.
"You wouldn't let me speak, otherwise," she said, turning the parchment over in her hands with a small smile.
Arthur sat back down on the throne. "I will need time to consider your terms, Morgana. Trust is a thing earned, not given without cause."
"Do keep in mind I could have killed Emrys where he stood when he was helpless to stop me," Morgana said, her fingers clenching around the scroll. "He lives because I wish it."
"You are not advancing your cause by threatening Merlin," Arthur said quietly. "As for the truce - I will consider what you have said. You'll have my answer in due course."
"Of course. Dearest brother." She smiled again, and her smile reminded him of the way she'd shown her teeth when they practiced with swords as children; it was always a precursor to some trick move she'd begged an experienced knight to teach her. Half of Arthur's best moves, he had learned at Morgana's hand. "You have only to summon me when you are ready to discuss it."
"And if I should decide not to accept your terms?"
Her smile deepened, but never reached her eyes. "We all make our choices," she said. She turned her cold smile on Merlin, and hissed, "Emrys." Then she wheeled on her heel, giving the guards only the briefest moment to move out of her way before she began toward the door.
Leon started forward. "Sire, should we-"
"Escort her to the gates and see that she leaves the citadel," Arthur said. "Nothing more."
"Arthur," Merlin said urgently. "There will never be a better time to-"
"We offered peace, and she has accepted," Arthur said, watching her go. "I will honor what I agreed to, if I can stomach her terms."
"Are you seriously considering it?" Merlin asked. He retrieved the scroll, holding it as if it were covered with horse dung.
"We shall see," was all Arthur said. Merlin's frustration was a palpable thing, but there were many facets to the problem, and much to think over. To reject a reasonable offer of truce after he had proposed peace was an untenable position to be in, and her terms were not onerous.
Arthur left Merlin's question unanswered as he resumed court, and throughout the rest of the day, he thought of the many ways in which kingdoms could be built or undone by the choices made by kings - falling in love, choosing war over peace, or choosing peace over justice. The truce he and Morgana could forge was a kind of prophecy, no less potent than the magical words of seers written a thousand years before Arthur was born. It would shape the course of events yet to come.
Merlin carried the parchment with him to council, on rounds to see the injured, and finally into Arthur's bedchamber. Arthur caught him sneaking furtive glances at it by the light of a guttering candle.
"Burn that or put it away, I don't care which," Arthur said, patting the furs in what he hoped was a most inviting way. "Just don't bring it to bed."
Merlin flapped the parchment at him, fretful, and Arthur took advantage of his own relatively quick reflexes to snatch the thing up and crumple it.
"It doesn't matter," Arthur said, dropping it over the opposite side of the bed as Merlin lifted the blankets to hunker beneath them. "I'll agree, or I won't. Either way, I doubt Morgana and I will ever come to terms for very long."
"But knowing that, why are you considering agreement?"
"Because she is my sister." Arthur settled down in the flickering candlelight with Merlin, and let his gaze wander to the open window. Outside, the clear, cold night was deepest black, and stars glittered in the narrow space Arthur could see. "And because no matter what prophecy Alator uncovers, or what treachery Morgana plots, it doesn't matter."
"It always matters," Merlin said. "Keeping you alive is a very difficult endeavor."
"So you've told me many times." Arthur smiled, as happy as he could ever remember being.
"Then why would you say it doesn't matter?"
"Because you are here," Arthur said simply. "I know all of you, your magic and your heart, and you are mine, as I am yours. That is what makes the difference."
For once, Merlin seemed to be at a loss for a smart retort. Instead, he kissed Arthur, slow and thorough, in the quiet of their warm bed. Morgana's demands lay forgotten, to be picked up and delivered to Geoffrey on the morrow.
The moon climbed high overhead, parting the darkness of the sky and casting its peaceful light through the window. Arthur nuzzled at Merlin's ear, at the nape of his neck. "If Morgana becomes an advisor, you can't be seen as equal to her, official sorcerer or not," he said. Merlin shivered at the feel of Arthur's breath on his skin. Arthur pressed closer, adding, "I have often wondered how you'd look wearing a circlet of gold set with sapphires."
"I am not going to wear a crown," Merlin said softly. "And that is final."
Arthur smiled into his hair, sleepy but content. He would be ruthless in his pursuit of this small victory, just as he had been in pursuit of victory for Camelot. There would be time to enjoy all their triumphs. Together, they would make sure of it.