Chapter 1: Shimmering on the lakeshore
The night was pale. City lights outshone the stars that once helped travellers find their way home.
All was quiet. Just a few wrinkles on the surface disrupted the lake of Avalon. The sounds of water lapping on the edge couldn't even cover the city’s distant humming.
An engine's rumble. Headlights splashing the lake’s surface and the advertising hoarding near the road. The car drove away – silence and darkness fell back.
A bubble popped out of the water.
The lake's depths suddenly exploded with blinding light. It flooded the surroundings, so bright it looked like it was broad day. It only lasted for a few seconds before everything went dark once again.
In this desert place on the outskirts of the city, there was no one to see the little clawed hand shoot up from the water with crooked fingers. No one to see the withered face contort. No one to see its black eyeballs look up at the starless night.
The blue-skinned creature wasn't much taller than a human's hand, and its body was glowing like a firefly. Its wings started to flutter so fast they became blurred. Its reflection sparkled on the water while the Sidhe rose in fits and starts.
It didn't fly far away and collapsed on the asphalt dark from pollution. Its tiny hands scratched the ground as it shook violently, its twisted mouth showing pointy teeth. The wings fell apart first, holes tearing the translucent thin membrane.
"Emrys…" the Sidhe hissed in a harsh voice while its body was ripping apart like old boiled leather. "… EMRYS!"
Its skin tarnished and from blue, became grey. Its voice still resonated through the worlds once its body turned into ashes.
Another car drove by, and the movement of air scattered the ashes away. By the time the vehicle had disappeared behind the advertising hoarding, the wind started to blow like it never did in Albion. Trees were howling, branches bending and snapping.
As the grass turned yellow, as the trees withered, as leaves dried out and whirled down, the lake of Avalon bristled with glimmers from another world.
Hundreds, thousands of Sidhes rose from the water. They crawled on the lakeside and the central islet in a swarming, glowing crowd. Some of them tried to flap their wings and fly, but failed. They all eventually fell back, face contorting, and seized on the ground, crying in agony.
The glimmers went out one by one as the creatures curled up and died with Emrys's name as their last breath.
There were no more than a dozen Sidhes still alive, lying on the ashes of their dead brothers and sisters, when one of those broken winged creatures looked up to see a human figure standing there.
An old man with a white beard and white hair was approaching, the sound of his footsteps muffled by the layers of ashes. The Sidhe raised an arm – the blue was fading from the skin.
"Emrys…" it whispered as its wings crumbled into dust. Face veiled by shadows, the ancient and powerful sorcerer leaned on a magic staff, looking down at its agony. Emrys was wearing old jeans and a worn out jacket. His knees cracked loudly when he knelt.
Feeling its life fading away, the Sidhe struggled to keep its eyes open when the sorcerer's hand picked it up, lifting it close to the wrinkled face.
His woolly hat hid most of his white hair blowing in the wind. Emrys was staring down at the creature, his eyes stern and ancient. The Sidhe knew the sorcerer was listening, but all that came out of its mouth were a few words and a hissing respiration:
"Emrys... hurry... you have to... the Old Religion is..."
It didn't have a chance to finish. Its body was shaking violently and crumbling off.
The sorcerer watched it perish on his palm until all that was left was a handful of ashes immediately blown away by a gust of wind. All around him, no leaf was left on the howling trees, and grass had turned greyish and dry. The last Sidhes's glimmers died out. Soon, everything went dark.
When the wind stopped blowing and silence fell, Merlin leaned on his staff to get up. He looked down at his own reflection on the lake of Avalon's cold surface. The image of an old man with hunched shoulders stared back, his eyes impenetrable.
The sword's point was scraping humus soil, drawing a line and tinkling each time it bumped on a rock or tore off a grass turf. Their feet slipped on the loose ground. Leaves brushed against them with a rustling sound.
Holding limply his sword’s hilt, Arthur was leaning heavily on Merlin who was encircling his waist with his arm. Every single breath put him in agony and worsened the pain digging toward his heart. The bandage Gaius made him was drenched with blood. He could feel it streaming under his coat of mail, down his chest and side, all the way down his leg and inside his boot.
Struggling to breathe, Arthur felt his body becoming number with each step and an icy shadow wrapping around him. Merlin’s bony hip was digging into his side, but he couldn’t even feel it any more, no more than the hand gripping his wrist. His breath hitched and his vision clouded when the sword’s fragment grazed his pulsing heart. He let out a groan of pain and his legs gave way beneath him. Merlin was bending under his weight and struggled to keep him on his feet.
"Come on. We have to make it to the lake."
Arthur blinked, Merlin’s voice against his ear. He felt himself fall, eyes wide open in the dark invading his vision. His feet slipped on the grass and he collapsed on his friend’s bony body.
"Merlin… Not without the horses," he slurred.
His vision cleared just enough for him to take in the sky, struggling for each breath. Merlin’s ragged respiration filled the nightfall’s cold air. Arthur could feel him trying desperately to make them both stand up, crushed under the weight of the King and his armour. Merlin kept telling him for years he was fat, maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong after all.
But even if Merlin did manage to make him stand, Arthur didn’t feel capable to make a single step any more. The lake was still far away, almost half an hour walk, and he couldn’t feel his legs.
"We can’t, it’s too late…" he breathed as Merlin against his back squeezed him tight with his arms around his chest and tried to make them both sit. "It’s too late…"
His heartbeat was speeding up. Each pulse sliced the heart a little more with every second passing by. A weak smile grazed his lips at the idea of dying so close to his salvation, just because Merlin was too scrawny to carry a man of his build wearing a coat mail. Arthur himself never had any difficulty carrying around his friend’s body as thin as a rake.
If he had known, he would have made him take part in all of the knights’ trainings…
What did Gaius say again? That Merlin was the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the earth?
Admittedly he did defeated the Saxons and Morgana, but now he was sweating and struggling to carry him to a lake. It was so stupid, and infuriating.
"All your magic, Merlin,… can’t save my life…"
He was trying to mock him like he always did, but he was so blinded by his agony that his voice sounded weak.
"I can," retorted Merlin, trying even harder. "I’m not going to lose you."
His heartbeat became erratic. A dark veil was falling in front of his eyes. Merlin’s pointless efforts were only making his agony even more painful.
Arthur had cheated death many times before, but at this moment, he knew for sure he wasn’t going to make it. He was done.
And strangely enough, he wasn’t afraid. He felt calm. Resigned.
"Just, just hold me," said Arthur, gripping Merlin’s hand against his chest. "Please…"
Merlin was still breathing hard, almost cheek to cheek with him. Arthur could see his distressed face taking shape in the darkness, eyes shining with tears.
Arthur felt like he was seeing him, truly seeing him for the very first time, as if he had been blinkered until now. And it was now, when death’s icy grip closed in on him that he finally opened his eyes.
"There’s… something I want to say…"
"You’re not going to say good bye," Merlin hissed fiercely, holding him tighter in his arms.
Arthur couldn’t even feel pain any more. His body was too numb, he couldn’t feel anything but Merlin’s warmth surrounding him. His consciousness slipped out like sand escaping from his closed fist. He felt like he was drowning in dark and icy water, while clinging on to the last thread linking him to life.
The word burst out of his mouth, hoarse and hasty. He didn’t want to die without telling him. Just once. Just one last time.
It wasn’t his throne or his crown he regretted leaving behind. Contrary to what Merlin seemed to believe, Camelot was thriving and hadn’t needed him for years. Arthur was made for the battlefield, for war strategy and danger. He was useless in time of peace. Gwen was smart, fair and wise, she would rule the kingdom in his place far better than he ever did.
But Merlin… Arthur couldn’t stand the thought of letting his friend believe he died hating him for what he was, for everything he had done in his shadow all those years. He couldn’t leave him like that. He refused to disappear with this sorrow in his soul.
Because Arthur understood. Far too late, but he finally understood.
"Everything you’ve done… I know, now."
Merlin was staring at him with blue eyes shining with unshed tears, sharp-faced, anguish making him look older that he was. Arthur recognized that wise and serious look he often wondered about and never could figure out until now. He used to conceal his fascination for his servant with mockery, and never looked into it for fear of what he might find.
But he saw it, now. He saw it.
"For me… For Camelot…"
Merlin was immensely powerful. He could brush aside hundreds of lives with just a thought, and yet he always stayed in Arthur’s shadow, despite the mockery, despite the humiliations, and never once tried to take honour and glory for himself.
"For the kingdom you helped me build…"
"You’d have done it without me."
Arthur had no idea if he was stroking his ego before he died or if this was a joke – Merlin always did have dubious taste in humour – but he couldn’t help laughing.
"Maybe," Arthur smiled.
At this exact moment, the sword’s fragment pierced through his heart wall, digging into the pulsating muscle. With each heartbeat, the sharp point sliced the vital organ.
Arthur’s eyes became glassy, life slipping out. A dark veil blackened the sky and Merlin’s face – it was hard to see him now.
His smile faded and he sank more deeply into the darkness, but struggled fiercely with his last strength. He panicked, not wanting to perish without ever being sincere with the one who had been his closest friend for ten years, who always supported him, and whose company and opinion had always meant the most for him. Merlin was the most important part of his life, way more than he used to think all this time. And he realized it only now, when he was about to die.
"I want to say… something I’ve never said to you before…"
All that was left of Merlin’s face was a shadow. Deep into his heart, the fragment kept moving, slicing its way out. The muscle contracted, missing a heartbeat. Then another. Darkness thickened.
"… Thank you."
He forced a smile on his face and raised a hand to ruffle Merlin’s hair as a last sign of affection and gratitude – but his strength drained out, and all he managed to do was rest his fingers on his head, too tired to move more. His consciousness was fading away.
The fragment severed the aorta, and his heart stopped beating.
Everything went dark. Merlin’s voice shouting his name resounded in the dark water drawing him in the deep.
Severe cold slithered under his skin while his body sank into the void, heavy like a rock. And when water rushed into his lungs, Arthur abruptly regained consciousness, mouth wide open as he tried in vain to breathe.
He was at the bottom of the lake, engulfed by silt and green algae. Far, very far above, the surface rippled with light. Suffocating and panic-stricken, Arthur realized that he was drowning and reacted straight away. With a powerful thrust of his foot, he propelled himself toward the surface, frantically moving his arms and legs to swim despite the weight of his coat mail and his clothes, despite the agony of his lungs filled with water.
He gracelessly shot up, breaking the lake’s surface. Choking and coughing, he noisily breathed air, flailing his arms wildly to keep his head above the water. Then he swam toward the nearest edge, splashing all around him like a panicked dog would. Every single move hurt his exhausted muscles. The chain mail seemed heavier by the second and his soaked hair was flattened on his forehead.
He finally reached the edge, hauled himself up with a groan onto the solid ground, and crawled out of the lake, still coughing water from his lungs.
Hands clenching into the earth and dry grass, he managed to roll on the side and lie down on his back. The sky above was bright grey. Birds were flying high and trees rustled in the wind.
Getting his breath back, Arthur blinked and raised a hand to carefully touch his chest. To his surprise, he felt no pain and there was no blood.
After the battle and those two days of agony in the forest, his body was exhausted, but he managed to sit up to look down at the hole in his chain mail. His breath hitched when he slipped his fingers inside.
Underneath, the skin was perfectly smooth and unharmed. No wound at all.
He was alive. Cured.
He gave out a high-pitched laugh, then another, and fell back onto the grass, roaring with laughter.
"You did it, Merlin!" he laughed heartily, taking in the sky. "You did it!"
He smiled so widely his cheeks hurt. He shouldn’t have doubted the sorcerer. It wasn’t the first time Merlin saved his life, after all.
Eyes sparkling with glee, he turned his head, expecting to see his friend’s stupid smile lighting up his face like it did every time they got away at the last minute of a life-threatening situation. But there was no one in sight. Only wind whistling between dead trees, greyish and brittle grass, like burnt by frost. Arthur was pretty sure grass had been green just a few minutes ago… unless it was a result of the magic that saved him?
"Merlin?" he called out, frowning.
Silence was the only answer he got.
The dead grass crackled when he straightened up to look around him. The lake of Avalon was placid, just a few wrinkles on the surface due to his swimming. Trees rose into the air, stripped of all their leaves, and their branches looked like skeletons’s gloomy hands.
He turned his head to search the surroundings, looking for his friend’s gangly figure among the trees, to no avail. When he stood up on his weak legs, litres of water streamed down his clothes, and a few cold drops slipped from his hand down his neck and spine. Against his hip, his sword clicked in its sheath when he took a few steps and looked around, disorientated, with no horse and no servant.
His soaked boots squeaked with each step as he walked along the edge, on his guard.
He strained his ears and heard, over the birds chirping and the wind rusting, a strange faraway rumble that increased and decreased right away.
Wary, he drew his sword and hunched into a defensive position. Something wasn’t right. Merlin would never have left him alone without a good reason.
Morgana’s death didn’t mean he could ease off. There was still danger around, and enemies of the kingdom. This area was usually infested with bandits, but now, after the battle, no doubt hundreds of routed Saxons swarmed in the woods. Hand gripping his sword’s hilt, he walked in silence and concern for a few minutes.
He slowed down and frowned when he noticed the edge was now made of rock, but it looked unnaturally straight and smooth so he bent to touch it with the tip of his fingers – never had he seen such a construction. And when he looked up, he saw a wide road bordering the lake, perfectly smooth and grey too.
Arthur knew Albion’s maps better than anyone, and there was no road leading to the lake of Avalon – this place was situated at more than a three days walk from any village, difficult to access and isolated in the woods.
He stepped on the road and touched it with the point of his sword, puzzled. His hair was starting to dry, but his clothes were wet and the breeze made him shiver.
Even more than the road and Merlin’s concerning absence, a weird construction stunned him. Mounted on a pillar, a huge rectangular sign displayed some kind of extremely realist painting of a woman, and… he stared wide-eyes and stepped back in horror when the painting moved to become a totally different one, just as colourful and detailed.
And suddenly, the rumble he heard earlier increased once again, but way stronger, and approaching so fast he just had enough time to turn tail and see a gigantic monster made of steel charging right at him, screeching like the devil. Arthur threw himself on the side to dodge and faced the beast, gripping his sword with two hands, ready to fight for his life.
"Don’t stand in the middle of the road, asshole!"
Dumbfounded, Arthur realized then that it wasn’t a monster – it was some kind of steel-clad white carriage with wheels, but no horses to pull it. A man’s head came out to glare at him, and the carriage roared again and drove away on the smooth road, faster than any horse ever could.
Arthur was still stricken and gaping on the side of the road, watching the carriage made of metal disappear in the horizon, when a hand crashed down on his shoulder and turned him around before he could react.
He found himself facing an old bearded man with shoulder-length white hair. He was holding a wooden staff adorned with an ochre stone, and staring at him with fierce blue eyes.
Arthur couldn’t end his sentence. The old man’s narrowed eyes lit up like gold, and suddenly the King of Camelot felt all his organs spin and a violent nausea bent him in half.
When he fell on his knees to retch and empty his stomach – there wasn’t much more than bile, since he hadn’t been able to eat more than a few spoons of whatever Merlin fed him – he wasn’t on the grey road any more, but surrounded by tall grass undulating into the iodized wind.
"Yup. It’s always like that the first few times."
Hearing the old man’s hoarse voice, Arthur got up immediately even though he felt dizzy and staggered. Everything was turning around him and his vision was blurred. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and brandished his sword toward the enemy.
"What have you done to me?"
By no means worried by the threat, the man gave him a cross look and wrinkled his nose – he was staring at him insistently, but looked clearly defiant and upset. His hair was blowing in the wind, and he clenched his hand on the staff he was leaning on.
"No biggie, it's nothing a nice cup of tea won’t cure."
Arthur frowned and lowered his blade, looking more attentively at the old man’s wrinkled face. Even quavering and hoarse, this tone of voice was familiar. As were those eyes and sharp cheekbones.
He narrowed his eyes, incredulous. "… Merlin?"
He recognized the sorcerer of Camlann, this Dragoon who failed to cure his father, the one Gaius defended so much. He wasn’t wearing his long red robe any more and his beard and hair were shorter, but it was definitely him. Now he was wearing some weird jacket and blue trousers. No wonder Arthur didn’t recognize him right away.
"But… why are you old again?"
Silent and sullen, Merlin stared unblinkingly at him.
Arthur glanced around, confused. They were on the edge of a steep cliff by the sea, and he could hear from here the waves crashing on the rock. Besides the sea, there was just tall grass and fields as far as he could see. Built on the cliff’s edge, a wobbly cabin seemed to be just about to fall over.
"What happened? How did you save me? Where are we? The lake… where is the lake?"
The rush of questions seemed to annoy even more the sorcerer – Merlin – who clicked his tongue and mumbled something in his beard. Arthur came closer, but he barely took a few steps when a huge winged shadow glided over the both of them.
Arthur looked up sharply to the sky and swore, gripping his sword’s hilt tight. Flapping its large-scale wings, a gigantic black dragon was flying over them.
"Watch out!" he shouted, positioning himself in front of Merlin when he saw the dragon diving to the ground and opening its mouth wide to spit fire at them.
It was purely out of habit that he tried to shield his friend from danger, after ten years of having to protect him on the battlefield, having no idea his manservant didn’t need protection at all. He had to remember so when Merlin brandished his staff and lightning burst out of the ochre stone on top of it, forming a shielding bubble the raging fire crashed into.
The furious dragon landed on the ground, growling and hissing at them, its claws sharp as daggers tearing clumps of earth off. Arthur moved into attack position, but the old man went ahead and high-handedly pushed him behind.
"Hey!" he took offence, but Merlin ignored him.
The dragon’s black scales marbled with green and blue glints under the sunshine, and its mouth radiated with fire as it spread its membranous wings.
Shoulders hunched, the sorcerer scowled and rolled his eyes before he walked straight to the beast.
He was about to tell him it was too dangerous, not to go near that monster, but he heard Merlin’s voice, deeper, more powerful than usual, and gaining volume. He was roaring words Arthur couldn’t understand, exactly like he did back at the battle against the Saxons, when the white creature attacked Camelot’s army.
And now too, the dragon cowered and he went into a submissive position, as if tetanized by the sound of Merlin’s voice. It wrapped itself with its own tail and respectfully bowed its head until the sorcerer petted its snout without any fear at all. Astonished, Arthur saw the dragon melt under the stroke with a loving whine just like a cat would.
"Kalkhaino's having his teenage crisis," Merlin mumbled while petting the black dragon's large snout. "He's getting more and more aggressive lately. There, good dragon… Now go play somewhere else."
Arthur blinked when the old man dismissed the dragon with a fond pat, and the creature flew away and dove to the cliff, disappearing.
"I hope you’ve got an explanation for all of this," Arthur asserted, resheathing his sword. "And it's better be good."
Merlin stared at him over his shoulder as if trying to look into his soul, then turned to face Arthur, eyes narrowed.
"Hmpf. What’s the last thing you remember?"
"Huh... The battle against the Saxons, Mordred wounding me, the both of us crossing the woods, and Morgana’s death. I thought I’d die too. How did you do it?"
Merlin clicked his tongue and walked past him with long strides, cutting through the tall grass toward the cabin on the cliff’s edge. Confused by his friend’s unusual looks and distant attitude even though Merlin was holding him in his arms just a few minutes ago, Arthur followed him, his armour clattering with each step:
"Well? Did you managed to drag me yourself to the lake after all? Did you fetch the horses? Or did you just use your magic?"
They arrived at the cabin and Merlin stepped inside, Arthur on his heels. And once more the sorcerer didn’t answer and instead put his staff against the wall, then took two cups from a wooden shelf and set them on the table.
"Sit," Merlin grumbled harshly while pouring water into the cups. "I’ll prepare the tea."
"Not until you’ve answered my questions," retorted Arthur, folding his arms.
Shoulders still hunched like a real old man, Merlin looked up at him, wrinkling his nose. He was staring right at him, mentally dissecting him, to the point Arthur felt uncomfortable and moved his head back. There was something different in the sorcerer’s eyes. Arthur thought he finally knew everything about Merlin, but now he was facing a mystery once again.
"Then ask your questions one by one and give me enough time to answer!" scolded Merlin with this defiant attitude that seemed to be part of his old fogey’s costume. "Onhǽte þá wæter!"
As Merlin spat out his magic formula with a rough hand gesture, his eyes lit up with gold. Arthur looked down – the water in the two cups was now boiling.
"Very well…" began Arthur, sitting down on a chair made of wood and wicker that creaked under his weight. "Where are we?"
The old man plunged a tea bag inside the steaming cups.
"We’re on the Cornwall coast, south of Tintagel."
Sceptical, the King of Camelot looked at his friend sitting down with a groan of pain, rubbing his lower back.
"Tintagel?" Arthur repeated, raising his eyebrows.
He knew Tintagel quite well – he went there once when he was a teenager, before he met Merlin. His mother Ygraine was born and grew up in Tintagel before she married Uther, so Arthur hoped he would somehow feel like he knew her by visiting the place where she used to live. He went back to Camelot sad, downcast and frustrated and never dared to ask his father about her again.
"It’s impossible, we were at the lake of Avalon a few minutes ago, it’s too far away! This isn’t even the same kingdom! Unless… is this part of your powers too?"
Merlin just nodded with a groan, then looked down at his steaming cup he was holding with both his hands, as if to warm them up.
"Then why didn’t you do it earlier? We would have arrived at the lake immediately! And what the hell are we doing in Odin’s kingdom? He may be our ally, but it would be wise not to invade his lands without his knowing. I did kill his son and he still holds a grudge…"
"Odin's dead," Merlin cut him short, looking up with an annoyed scowl. "Are you done with your stupid questions already? I’ve some urgent research to do."
Taken aback by his aggressive tone, Arthur half-grimaced, half-smirked, not knowing if he should feel angry or puzzled. If Merlin didn’t just save his life for the umpteenth time and win the war against the Saxons, Arthur would have slapped his stupid head or thrown something at his stupid face – although, knowing that he had magic was a reason good enough not to.
"No, I have more questions. Lots of them."
"Good heavens," Merlin sighed.
"Why are you looking like… that again?" Arthur pulled a face. "I suppose you used a spell so no one could recognize you at Camlann, but there is no use now. I’m not going to sentence you to death or exile, you know. Stop pretending to be an old fogey, you’re ridiculous."
Arthur jumped when Merlin banged his fist on the table and glared at him, looking extremely offended.
"Because this is who I really am, you boneless half-assed toad! It hurts my feelings, you know!"
"Are you mocking me?" said Arthur, growing impatient and raising his voice too. "I don’t have time to lose with your drunkard’s jokes!"
"Ah, the insolence of youth! You’ll see when you’ll get arthritis too…"
"Okay, that’s enough. I’m going back to Camelot, Gwen must be dead worried."
"Gwen is dead, period, and Camelot is in ruins."
Arthur had started to stand, and sat back slowly, as shocked as if he had been slapped in the face.
"What did you just say?"
The old sorcerer just shrugged, as if he couldn’t care less.
"A thousand years has passed since you died. Everyone you knew is dead. Camelot has fallen into ruin. I’ve grown old and I’m raising dragons because I’m the last Dragonlord. Want some sugar with your tea?"
He said it all with a neutral voice, and held out a pot full of sugar cubes with a hypocritical smile.
"Even from you, this is a really bad joke, Merlin."
"Do I look like I'm joking?" Merlin snapped, dropping a sugar cube in his tea.
A shiver ran down Arthur’s spine when he thought about all the strange things he saw since he came out of the lake.
"No…" he whispered in a toneless voice, shaking his head. "Just a few minutes ago, we were in the forest. You killed Morgana, and… Gwen is waiting for me… we have to go back to Camelot and announce our victory…"
A glimmer of pity appeared in the old man’s blue eyes. They were too ancient, too deep, way more than the last time Arthur looked at Merlin when he was dying in his arms. Now, it seemed like there was a world between them, keeping them apart.
"I'm sorry," murmured Merlin, lowering his eyes.
Arthur couldn’t believe it. He refused to.
He could still feel Gwen’s soft skin like a ghost under his hands, and smell her hair’s perfume if he closed his eyes.
"A thousand years…" said Arthur with a forced smile on his face. "A thousand years? You really think I’m going to believe that? If it’s true, how come you and me both are still alive?"
"Believe whatever you want, Arthur. I’ve more urgent matters to deal with at the moment."
Dumbfounded, Arthur watched Merlin as he removed the tea bag and took loud gulps until the cup was empty.
I'm real-life-sucks-ass (main blog) or saturnefanfictions (writing blog) on tumblr, by the way!
Chapter 3: A king without a kingdom
This chapter was a pain in the ass to translate. Kudos to my beta-reader CloudFactory who helped me a great deal. Hope you'll enjoy our work.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A flash of lightning followed by a rumble tore Arthur away from his daze. He could not say for sure for how long he had been staring at the crack on the cup, but it was now almost as dark as night. Through the dusty window, the sky was invaded by thunderclouds. They flashed in the distance and belched out lightning on the plains. A few drops hit the roof and soon became a real downpour.
Tea had stopped steaming for a long time and the cup was cold between his hands. He sipped it to chase away the bitter taste of bile, but pulled a face – over-brewed herbs weren't much better a taste. The wind was howling and banging the shutters. Wood creaked so much it was a wonder this shack hadn't collapsed yet. The downpour was spluttering on the roof made of sheet metal. Slumped on the chair as if the world had crashed on his shoulders – and it had – the King of Camelot rubbed his face, looking defeated.
The cabin was small. Rustic. It only consisted of this table, the two chairs, a few shelves nailed askew against the wall and some wicker baskets piled up in a corner. Lightning cast shadows all around him and hollowed out his features. The chair in front of him was empty. After he gulped his tea in one go, Merlin had opened a trap door in the ground and stepped into it, mumbling in his beard all the way down. He left him behind just like that, without a glance back, like he had already forgotten him.
The trap door stayed open. The gaping hole in the ground was dark, but he could see the top of a ladder.
A blinding flash of lightning. Arthur grabbed his head, the metallic plates fixed on his shoulder and arm clicking along. Fingers buried deep into his hair still damp from the water of the lake of Avalon, he sighed. If Merlin was telling the truth, then… then Arthur had lost everything in the blink of an eye. His kingdom, his queen, his knights… and even his friend. Merlin wasn't the Merlin he knew any more. Arthur had trouble combining the image of this old and aggressive bearded man with his loyal, stupid, smiling manservant. He remembered with bitterness telling him not to change, to always be him. And if this conversation took place just a few hours ago for him, was it a thousand years for Merlin? Did Arthur win the war against Morgana and the Saxons and save his kingdom only to learn that everything he lived and fought for was remnants of the past?
That was absurd. And he wished he could believe it wasn't true. But Merlin would never tell him such a lie. Arthur knew now that his servant had repeatedly lied to him since the day they met and for ten long years, but he would never be cruel enough to tell him Gwen died and Camelot fell if this wasn't the absolute truth. Or would he?
Arthur wasn't even sure he knew Merlin enough to be certain of it.
He couldn't accept the idea of having lost everything. It was too sudden. Too abstract. How could he even think about mourning the death of Gwen and his loyal knights without seeing their corpses, without a funeral, without knowing anything about what happened to them? He couldn't believe they were all dead. Those last two days, when he was slowly dying in the woods he had embraced death, knowing he accomplished his duty, protected his kingdom and brought peace. But nothing prepared him to the exact opposite: to live on, having lost everything. To outlive everyone.
What was a king without a kingdom and subjects?
Lost in his scrambled thoughts, he didn't see the creature slipping out of the trap door. He didn't hear the clicking sound of claws on the ground either. The thunder's rumble and the rain pouring covered it all.
When something brushed against his calf, he started and looked down.
A series of flashes flooded the cabin with white light, and Arthur saw a dragon the size of a big cat stretch its neck to sniff at his boot, nostrils flaring. Its tail was waving on the dusty ground, wings folded against its sides and the lightning made its golden scales sparkle.
Instinctively, Arthur's hand flew to his sword's hilt and he got up so abruptly his chair came crashing down behind him. The little dragon squeaked and leaped backward before it dashed off, flapping its wings in a frenzy. The king let go of the hilt and frowned when he realized that the creature seemed unable to fly. After flapping its wings uselessly, the dragon waddled like a lizard toward the baskets piled up against the wall and hid behind them.
Outside, the storm raged and lit up the cabin with flashes.
The dragon looked way more frightened than he was. And it wasn't very good at hiding. Its golden tail was sticking out.
Wary, Arthur stepped closer and crouched down near the wicker baskets. The creature looked harmless, but it was better to stay on guard.
"You're one of Merlin's beasties, right?"
The little dragon reacted at Arthur's voice: it slipped its triangular head out of its hideout to stare at him timidly.
"Your idiot master ditched me just when I needed him most."
The dragon gave out a weird cooing, tilted its head and cowered down when Arthur's gloved hand came closer.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he murmured. "Don't be afraid…"
But the creature hissed and snapped its teeth at him – Arthur quickly withdrew his hand and gave up the idea of petting it. Every magical creature he ever met showed unconcealed hostility to him. And obviously even a thousand years in the future that was still true.
Arthur stood up and moved backwards away from the big winged lizard to keep it at a safe distance. He sat down on the chair Merlin used before. Eyes drifting to the window, he got absorbed into his dark thoughts once again. The dark mass of clouds was shining with lightning, and the tall grass moved with wind gusts.
This wasn't the first time he felt rejected by Merlin. For ten years Arthur considered him as a loyal, brave and a bit simple-minded friend, but there have been those rare moments when Merlin shut up like an oyster and his eyes grew hard and distant. Although Arthur tried to cheer him up, it felt like facing a wall made of ice. In those moments, he felt deeply uncomfortable but thought Merlin was sulking for a futile reason, maybe irritated by a joke Arthur made or by too much chores. Arthur didn't think much about it once his manservant went back to be his smiling, insolent, chatty self…
Now he finally knew it was way more complicated, and Merlin was a man harder to know than he thought. For ten years he served the son of the one who exterminated sorcerers and banned magic in the most violent and bloody way. Since he had magic himself, it wasn't that surprising in retrospect that Merlin acted distant from time to time. In his place, if Arthur had been able to wipe out hundreds of lives with just a spell, he would never have accepted to work like a manservant for his enemies and never get any credit for his efforts.
But now it was worse. Arthur finally knew about his magic, about everything he did for him, but yet Merlin seemed more unreachable than ever. He was a totally different person.
What the hell happened after he died near the lake of Avalon? And for those thousand of years?
The sudden realization that so much time had passed hit him like a bucket of cold water. A flash of lightning blinded him and his pupils contracted as he finally assimilated that as a fact, and not just an abstract notion.
Arthur took a deep breath, eyes shining with unshed tears.
A stealthy movement caught his eye and he saw the golden sheen of scales approach. The dragon left its hideout and was staring at him as it took a step closer, then another, and another. The slightest movement from Arthur made it flee and go back hiding like a coward.
Hesitant, the king took the pot on the table and picked a sugar cube.
"Hey beastie, beastie, beastie..."
He bent to place his gloved hand above the ground. The dragon's nostrils flared and its attitude became interested. This time, it scampered right to Arthur to sniff at the sugar cube in his hand. Its breath was burning hot. Forgetting totally its fears, the dragon gulped down the sugar cube.
Arthur was about to do it again with another but didn’t have time to. The dragon climbed his leg, sticking its claws into the fabric. Arthur tensed, ready to slay the creature if it showed any sign of hostility. But far from it, it settled down on his knees and plunged its muzzle right into the pot to gobble up sugar.
Arthur tried to relax while the big lizard stuffed its face full. The very idea of having a dragon on his knees was as extraordinary than terrifying.
The creature was heavier than it looked and emitted so much heat he felt his clothes dry at its contact. Soon enough, it had emptied the pot and was licking the bottom in search of any grain of sugar left.
Arthur watched it more attentively. It had been only two days for him since he was attacked during the battle by a white dragon, and just a few years since he slew the Great Dragon attacking Camelot, but his fear melted away when this golden-scaled big lizard looked up at him with trusting eyes. The dragon stood up on its back legs and widely spread its wings with a happy squawk. And to his surprise, it head-butted his gloved hand and nestled its muzzle into his palm to beg for a caress. Even through the glove’s thick leather Arthur could feel the intense heat radiating – it was like touching fire, without the burning.
A flash of lightning lined with a deafening clap of thunder made the both of them jump, and the dragon hopped off his knees to the ground and gnawed at his trousers to pull him with astonishing strength.
"Hey, stop! You’re going to make me fall if you kee…"
Too late. Dragged by brute strength, Arthur tumbled on the ground while trying to take back his leg and not be stripped by a dragon – that would be the last straw! Red-faced and mumbling insults, he managed to grab the creature by the scruff of its neck. They shared an equally stubborn look, muzzle against nose.
"Don't ever do that again. You hear me, you idiot lizard?"
All he got for an answer was the dragon sneezing a burst of flame. He almost got his eyebrows burned, but he released it just in time. Now free, the creature waddled right to the open trap door and glanced back at him, as if ordering him to follow.
It had been at least one hour since Merlin went down there. At first, Arthur thought he just went to retrieve something and would be back right away to finally answer his questions. But he waited for a long time and now there was a storm, but the sorcerer still hadn’t come back. What in the earth could he be doing in his cellar for so long?
Maybe he should go look for him. At least, that was familiar. Arthur was used to search everywhere for his manservant who somehow always disappeared when he needed him.
"He better not be taking a nap…" mumbled Arthur, following the dragon down the trap door.
The ladder creaked as he climbed it down, feeling like he was going into a well. He never would have thought the hole was so deep.
Far under his feet, a faint light was glowing and lighting up the damp rock faces.
The dragon went ahead by just falling and flapping its wings to slow down its fall. Arthur had to climb down for several long minutes before he finally reached the light and the ground.
Much to his surprise, instead of a cellar he saw a tunnel dug into rock and lit up by torches fixed to the walls. The baby dragon was waiting there for him and cooed before he dashed off to one of the tunnel’s junctions. That place looked like a maze carved into the cliff.
Arthur followed the furtive dragon’s shadow at each turn, guided by its claws’ clicking sound reverberating through the walls. Arthur’s chain mail and armour too made an awful lot of noise, like kitchen utensils knocking against each other. He was dressed for the battlefield, not for discretion.
As he walked through that underground maze, Arthur noticed it wasn’t just ordinary tunnels dug with pickaxe and explosives like Camelot’s. No, the walls were smooth and mysterious signs were engraved every thirty feet. Obviously, it was sorcery – they glowed blue when he walked by.
"Merlin?" he called out.
Only his voice’s echo answered. He walked pass many doors – some of them were nailed shut, covered in dust or moth-eaten. Not wanting to loose sight of the dragon, Arthur didn’t try to open them and walked faster.
"Meeerlin!" he shouted in a loud voice, to no avail.
He finally caught up with the big lizard just when it rushed through a half-open massive door. It creaked when he pushed it to enter.
Arthur felt like he walked into a place halfway between a library and a chaotic storeroom. The aisles between the high bookshelves were so cluttered he had to stride over piles of stuff to go through. The room was lit by torches in here too, flames crackling softly.
Among the heaped strange objects – sand glasses, chests, finely-worked sceptres, stones tablets or dusty jars – Arthur recognized one and stopped short. The Fisher King’s golden trident was there, resting against a bookshelf, adorned with a spider web. That very same trophy he retrieved with Merlin’s and Gwaine’s help to prove his worth to his father.
He frowned and decided to keep going when the dragon started to head-butt his calves stubbornly. They walked among books and relics of the past for a few minutes. There was a smell of old paper, dust and magic in the air. They came out onto a clear space with a table on its centre. Merlin was sitting there, shoulders hunched and reading a book looking as old as he was.
Despite the clattering of the armour and the clicking sound of the dragon’s claws on the floor, the sorcerer didn’t even look up when Arthur pulled a chair and sat in front of him.
"Well?" he said in an imperious tone as he rested his elbows on the table littered with books and parchments.
"Well what?" grumbled Merlin, turning his page.
Torn between the very royal need to take offence and the hesitancy he felt when confronted with this unfamiliar version of his friend – even more unfamiliar than the fact that he had magic – Arthur let out a laugh on the verge of hysteria.
"You tell me I lost everything and a thousand years passed, and then you leave me high and dry, just like that? You need to work on your bedside manners, Merlin. They leave much to be desired."
Merlin finally looked up and stared at him unfathomably. The friendliness in Arthur’s voice had sounded a little bit strained – even to his ears, it seemed out of place.
"What do you want me to say, Arthur ?"
The king’s fake smile disappeared. A wave of indignation heated up his face and he leaned forward to point his finger at the old man.
"I deserve an explanation. I demand an explanation! Or at least a bit of compassion, for heaven’s sake!"
"Would that really change anything?"
Arthur banged his fist on the table and snapped "YES!" with bulging eyes, choking with anger.
At this moment, Arthur pulled a face when he felt claws digging into his calf. He looked down to see the little dragon climbing up his leg, his chest, then haul itself onto the table, flapping its wings.
Merlin’s attitude changed radically, and his wrinkled face lit up with a wide and fond smile – kind of like a doting grandpa.
"Oh, I see you’ve met Makkariah! Come here, my baby. Come see daddy."
Dumbfounded, Arthur watched as the golden creature snuggled up in the old man’s arms and chewed at his white beard before he slipped into Merlin’s jacket. Only a bit of its tail came up.
"… Makkariah?" Arthur repeated, his frown deepening.
Merlin pat down the moving bump that distorted it to the point he looked like he had a huge belly. Warmth and tenderness bled from his eyes in a way Arthur never witnessed before.
"That's the name I gave him when he hatched a month ago. It means happiness."
Arthur made a face without conviction.
Merlin nodded, smiling fondly.
"Oh, they're always cute at this age. The one you saw when you arrived was Kalkhaino, which means dark. I gave him that name because his egg was all black. He’s almost a century old now, and he’s beginning to grow temperamental. Adolescence crisis. Ghalini had been quite a handful too."
Arthur wasn’t listening any more. Merlin was just using his dragons to change subject. Did he really think Arthur would be dumb enough not to notice?
"Merlin. I want you to tell me how Gwen died. How and why Camelot fell. I need it."
Merlin narrowed his eyes and smacked his lips with a wet sound. Then he looked away, a glimmer of grief in his blue eyes.
"After you died, I went back to Camelot and Gwen took over the throne. She ruled as a respected and loved queen. She lifted the ban on magic and named me Court Sorcerer, and the kingdom thrived. Her life was long and honourable. She died of old age in her bed. Gone in her sleep with a peaceful smile. I stayed at her side until the end."
Arthur took a deep breath to chase away the lump growing in his throat. His gloves’ leather creaked when he closed his fists and nodded.
"She never remarried," Merlin added in a softer voice. "And without an heir, Camelot plunged into power struggle between your distant cousins and neighbouring kingdoms."
Arthur moistened his lips and lowered his head, a hole widening into his heart. Merlin’s words should have comforted him, or at least soothed his pain, but they didn’t. It was even worse, now he regretted even more letting himself die. He should have hang on to life more. He should have been strong enough to reach the lake. He should have spend the rest of his life at Gwen’s side.
He had not been there for Gwen and Camelot. But Merlin had been.
He wanted to thank him but couldn’t utter a word. Silence fell, just interspersed with the dragon’s happy grunting inside the jacket and the soft rustle whenever Merlin turned a page of his book. Obviously a book of magic, judging by the images and silver and golden symbols.
Arthur took the time to look more attentively at the sorcerer. He was old indeed, but not nearly as decrepit as some old peasants he saw throughout his life. His hair and beard were as white as snow and framed his wrinkled face.
Now that he paid attention, Arthur recognized easily those high cheekbones, those big ears sticking out of his white hair, and those expressive eyes under his frowned eyebrows.
"If a thousand years passed…" Arthur spoke again in the heavy silence, "then how come you're still alive?"
This time, Merlin didn’t even bother to look at him. He snorted and shrugged his bony shoulders as if it was a stupid question.
"Peuh! Most of the very powerful sorcerers are immortal, nothing extraordinary in that. Magic is eternal, and when you’re one with it you can’t ever die. Or at least, not completely."
"If you say so," said Arthur in disbelief. "But I’m not a sorcerer. I don’t have magic. So why did I come back to life in the lake? It makes no sense!"
Once again, Merlin stubbornly retreated into silence. Arthur could almost feel the barriers rise up between them. He was overcome by a dreadful doubt.
"Merlin, did you… did you bring me back to life with a spell? Just like Lancelot had been? Or with the Cup of Life the druids used on Leon?"
Merlin looked up and stared at him, but remained silent. White with rage, Arthur stood up and glared at him.
"I would have preferred staying dead than coming back to life in a world I don’t belong to and where everyone I loved are dead!"
Now it was Merlin’s turn to stand up and bang his fists on the table.
"Yeah well, I’d have preferred you to stay nicely dead too, for your information!" he spat. "You think I like staying alive when everyone dies? I saw them die, you know! Gwen, Gaius, my mother! Everyone! And once I was completely alone, I had to keep on living!"
In shock and taken aback by the vindictive look in his eyes, Arthur closed his mouth. The old man was breathing hard through his nose, nostrils flared and body tensed.
Merlin mumbled something in his beard – was it an insult? Arthur could swear he heard an insult – and raised his hand in a peaceful gesture as to apologize for his fit of anger.
"I admit I’ve been tempted to bring you back somehow the first centuries after your death. I’ve looked for a way to do it without sacrificing a life, but never found anything conclusive. I was young and stupid back then…"
Arthur meaningfully raised an eyebrow but Merlin ignored him and kept talking while petting Makkariah’s triangular head sticking out of his jacket’s collar:
"No Arthur, I didn't bring you back from the dead. The Old Religion did."
The golden dragon wriggled out from the jacket and jumped, flapping his wings in the air to go rummage into the mess around. Arthur frowned, staring at the sorcerer in front of him.
"The old religion? What is this nonsense?"
But as Merlin was opening his mouth to answer, a man holding a wooden staff and wearing a white cloak appeared from nowhere a few metres from them. Arthur jumped and turned to face him, ready to draw his sword.
The intruder was a old man with a thick nose, bushy eyebrows and stern look.
"Anhora!" cheered Merlin. "What a joy to see you again, my old friend!"
"Emrys," the intruder saluted with a smile, "we haven’t met since that wyverns proliferating incident in my forest twenty years ago, I believe."
Gaping, Arthur watched Merlin smile widely and stride over a pile of books to warmly hug that stranger. He couldn’t help feeling a spike of jealousy in his heart.
Why did Merlin welcome that stranger so friendly when he showed Arthur nothing but distant coldness and even hostility? Merlin should have been hugging him, if he hadn’t seen him in a thousand years! No one else!
"Who's that?" asked Arthur aggressively.
His voice interrupted the two sorcerers’ hug – he could guess the intruder was a sorcerer since he magically appeared out of nowhere and definitely looked like a sorcerer – and they turned to look at him. Only then Arthur realized that the intruder’s stern face was somehow familiar.
The old man in a white cloak stared at him intensely.
"Well this confirms what I feared. So the Once and Future King is back."
"I beg your pardon?" snapped Arthur, narrowing his eyes. "Who are you? Do I know you?"
"Freshly out from the lake of Avalon, indeed!" nodded Merlin, totally ignoring Arthur. "Freya warned me of his arrival at the last minute, I was caught off guard and I don’t exactly know what to do with him."
Extremely offended to be ignored let alone have people talk about him as if he wasn’t in the room – he wasn’t used to such treatment – Arthur folded his arms in a way he hoped was stately.
"I asked you a question," he articulated, glaring at the intruder. "And I demand an answer. Who are you?"
The unknown sorcerer obeyed at last with a calm and melancholic voice.
"You know me, Arthur Pendragon. We've met a long time ago. I am Anhora, the Keeper of the Unicorns."
Arthur’s eyes widened when he recognized the sorcerer who cursed Camelot because he hunted and killed a unicorn. He remembered very well how much Merlin had bitched and sulked – rightly so – until the Keeper of the Unicorns made him pass several tests to prove his sincere repentance.
Anhora turned back to Merlin, a sombre look in his eyes:
"To tell you the truth, Emrys, I didn’t come for a courtesy visit, but to consult you. I heard of the druid child who died from this strange illness despite your intervention…"
Merlin’s face darkened and his shoulders hunched even more, making him look older in his worn out clothes.
"It happened two months ago. The druids asked for my help to treat their most promising disciple, a ten years old child. His eyes had turned black and he behaved aggressively, erratically, consumed by a killing frenzy. I tried everything, and nothing worked. When I performed an autopsy on him, I noticed his blood had become ashes in his veins. I did a lot of research day and night to understand what happened, but I found no explanation and no cure to this unknown illness."
Arthur watched as Anhora paced anxiously, his staff hitting the floor loudly with each step.
"The child's death is a sign. Now the Once and Future King’s return tells us a grave danger is hanging over Albion."
"It doesn’t look like you to care about anyone else, Anhora. You’ve always stayed aside with your unicorns and waited for storms to pass, never getting involved."
Anhora stopped pacing. The two old men stared at each other, silence thick with things left unspoken, while Arthur had no idea what was going on.
"No offence, of course!" chirped Merlin with a grin too wide to be totally sincere.
The Keeper of the Unicorns sighed and looked down dejectedly.
"You’re right, of course. I admit I had no intention of getting involved despite the signs and bad omens that happened since this Questing Beast appeared last year…"
"I killed it on my own before it could harm anyone," shrugged Merlin. "You’re welcome, by the way."
"… but it looks like my unicorns are suffering from the same illness that killed the druid child. One of them is dying. Now I can’t turn a blind eye on what is happening any more. This is why I’ve come to ask for your help, Emrys."
Arthur decided to interrupt the two sorcerers, if only to remind them he was still here, frustrated and waiting for answers to his questions.
"So what I understand is: your unicorns are sick, right?"
Anhora shook his head, his grip tightening on his staff to the point his knuckles turned white.
"Unicorns are immortal and ancestral creatures I protected from Uther Pendragon’s Great Purge. They are born of the purest and oldest magic. No ordinary illness could affect them."
Merlin scowled, which deepened the wrinkles on his face.
"Your unicorns…" he grunted, "did their eyes turn black?"
"Yes," nodded Anhora without blinking.
"Are they aggressive? Restless?"
"Yes. The sickest one gutted an innocent with its horn. This is why I decided to isolate my flock and tie up the sick unicorns before I came to see you."
"Murf," grumbled Merlin and walked toward the books of magic piled up on the table.
Arthur raised his eyebrows and joined him to look over his shoulder, even though he had no clue what was going on. And he couldn’t help feeling offended that Merlin was telling everything to this sorcerer while he had been reluctant to give him the slightest information about Gwen and Camelot.
With the back of his hand, Merlin brushed the books and parchments aside to clear the table. Then he unfolded and spread a map of Albion – it was spotted by hundreds of red crosses on the whole territory.
"I annotated with a cross every incident linked to magic since the Questing Beast’s omen last year. The last sign I’ve witnessed was the death of the Sidhes," murmured Merlin as he touched a cross with the tip of his finger. "They killed each other and devastated their own kingdom before they died on Avalon’s lakeside, begging for my help. That was last month. I was too late to do anything, but I saw them die from the same illness that killed the druid boy. The whole Sidhe species decimated in the blink of an eye… They all turned into ashes."
Arthur looked alternately at the two sorcerers and tried to understand what they were talking about, feeling more and more annoyed by the minute.
"We all felt their death deep in our soul," sighed Anhora solemnly. "They were part of the oldest and purest magic from the ancient golden age of the Old Religion. And if we take into account my ill unicorns and the return of the Once and Future King..."
Merlin smoothed the map with his hand – his eyes shone golden and two more red crosses appeared on the paper.
"This is indeed a terrible omen of death and destruction I’ve been fearing for centuries…"
"All right, that's enough!" Arthur raised his voice, pissed off. "I’ve had enough. What on earth is this story about a once and future king?! What does that have to do with sick unicorns and me coming back to life a thousand years after I died? It makes no sense!"
"It’s a prophecy," murmured Merlin in a raspy voice, walking toward him until they were face to face. "An ancient prophecy that binds you and me until the end of time. A prophecy saying you’ll come back from the dead to protect Albion from a threat so terrifying no one else but you could defeat it."
Arthur raised his eyebrows high on his forehead.
"Me?" he sniggered unbelievingly.
"Emrys," Anhora cut in a pressing tone. "Time is running out. I can feel my unicorn’s life declining…"
Merlin narrowed his eyes and stepped away from Arthur. He folded back his map and raised his hand, mumbling a spell in his white beard. His eyes flashed golden and Arthur couldn’t help but jump when the finely-worked wooden staff cut through the air across the room until the sorcerer caught it.
He would never get used to see Merlin doing magic. And even less to see him so old.
"Let's go at once," Merlin said intently. "I was too late to help the Sidhes and I couldn’t save the druid boy, but maybe it will be different for your unicorns, Anhora."
"I'm going with you," decided Arthur.
Merlin gave him a sidelong glance. Much to his surprise, he agreed with a nod and grabbed his shoulder with a firm hand, his fingers digging into the chain mail.
And for the second time this day, Arthur felt his organs spin around and contract in his body while the dusty library was fading away like sand by the tide.
His knees hit the dewdrop grass hard and he retched violently. At least this time he managed not to throw up – probably because he already vomited everything he had in his stomach earlier – but he still stayed for a long moment on all fours, panting, sweating and white as a sheet.
"Are you all right, Arthur?" quavered Merlin’s voice behind him as a hand tapped his back.
"Do I look like I'm all right?" he snarled. Everything was spinning around him.
The hand left his back and Arthur saw out of the corner of his eye the two sorcerers speaking in low murmurs. A fresh smell of humus soil was hovering in the air. Here and there, tiny blue flowers coloured the forest’s shade. Once the nausea went away and the ground felt more stable, Arthur stood up on his wobbly legs and looked around him. The trees rose high, their leaves clouding the sky. No bird was singing, but Arthur knew from the muffled sounds in the distance that bugs and animals were moving.
Pure white brightness caught his eye – Merlin and Anhora were bending over a unicorn lying down on the ground. The horse was tied up with vines which seemed so dark in contrast its the mane and coat. It was trashing out, nostrils flared and mad with rage. Arthur had trouble associating this beast with the peaceful creature he killed back when he was still just an arrogant and carefree prince.
"It keeps getting worse…" Anhora sighed when Arthur joined them.
Merlin crouched down, his eyes full of compassion. The unicorn lashed out when he tried to stroke its mane.
Arthur’s heart sank when he looked the unicorn in the eye. There was rage in those black eyes, but deep inside he could see an abyss of sadness and fear that felt like his own.
"Unicorns are the purest and most innocent beings to ever exist," murmured Anhora. "Whatever evil is consuming them, I’ve never seen anything like it in more than three thousands years."
Merlin grabbed the horn to restrain the unicorn and stroked the silky mane. Arthur did the same, hesitantly petting the creature burning with fever.
"Before he turned into ashes, the last Sidhe spoke of the Old Religion," murmured Merlin, frowning.
"What does it mean?" asked Anhora as he tried to calm down the trembling horse.
The unicorn had lost all aggressiveness. Now it was so weak it struggled to breathe and its head was resting on the grass, as if it couldn’t move it any more.
"I have no idea," admitted Merlin. "But maybe we could purify and heal your unicorn by combining your magic and mine."
"Let’s try. We have nothing to lose. We’re soul bond, the unicorn and I. I can feel death is close."
Arthur removed his hand when the two sorcerers pressed their palms on the unicorn’s side. They started to chant in a deep and raspy voice, articulating words he couldn’t understand. Arthur shivered and got up, hastily moving back a few steps. His mistrust of magic was deeply rooted in him – two days spent dying in the woods after he learned his manservant’s dirty little secret were not enough to erase a lifetime of conditioning.
The sorcerers held their staff in a iron grip and chanted their spell, louder and louder. Anhora’s white cape and Merlin’s beard and hair whirled in the rising wind. The ochre stone at the top of Merlin’s staff started glowing as if it was full of liquid light that poured out and created a blinding and growing orb that engulfed the unicorn and them both.
Eyes wide open and blond hair blowing in the wind, Arthur took another step back. He had to squint to see the old men’s figures in the light – they were still yelling their incantation. Arthur had been very impressed in the battlefield when he saw the sorcerer defeat the Saxons and bring a dragon under his control, but back then he hadn’t know it was Merlin’s doing. And Arthur went through those two days following the revelation in so much pain he was in no state to fully realize.
Gaius claimed Merlin was the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the earth, and at the moment he thought that was impossible and ridiculous, but now...
A shrieking neigh made his blood run cold and he had to cover his ears. The power of the magic displayed in front of him caused gusts of wind to be more and more violent.
Suddenly, the light resorbed itself and the wind stopped blowing. Still blinded, Arthur rubbed his eyes and opened them. The forest was dark and silent. Merlin and Anhora had stopped doing magic and looked down dejectedly as the unicorn painfully convulsed before it crumbled off and turned into ashes.
"Magic is useless," said the Keeper of the Unicorns, his voice breaking.
"I am sorry. This goes beyond my competence."
Merlin leaned heavily on his staff to stand up. The Keeper of the Unicorns stayed on his knees, draped in his white cape, hood veiling his face.
Anhora took a handful of ashes and held it tight against his heart.
Wind scattered the rest away.
Let me know what you think! And as always, please tell me if you see any typo or help me if a sentence sounds off.
As he watched the howling wind bend the trees, Arthur had the feeling the forest was reacting to the unicorn’s death. Plants were withering and the sky darkened with black clouds.
Merlin kept still as a stone, eyes lowered, jacket and hair billowing in the wind.
"Have no fear, Anhora. I’ll find a way to stop this. I swear I will."
The Keeper of the Unicorns stayed silent on his knees, prostrate with grief. Ashes slipped from his fist and he couldn’t hold them back.
Merlin turned around and grabbed Arthur’s shoulder. Gold flashed in his eyes. And this time, when the forest faded away and was replaced by the underground library, the king flinched but managed to stay on his feet and control his nausea and dizziness.
With no regard for his state, Merlin nearly knocked him over when he rushed to a shelf full of old leather bound manuscripts. In his haste, he left his staff behind and it hit the floor. Taken aback by this sudden change of attitude, Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"There have to be an explanation for all this…" muttered Merlin in his beard, skimming through the books’ titles one by one. "No, not that one… not this one either…"
While he had seemed stoical in the forest, now he was in a very agitated state.
The golden dragon – Makkariah – pattered to Arthur and snuffled his mud covered boots.
"Damn it! Why can’t I find anything?!"
Arthur blinked and barely dodged a book flying through the air. Merlin was fumbling through the shelves, tossing everything above his shoulders and bitching out loud. The dragon scampered off and slipped behind a chest, terrified.
But the sorcerer ignored him.
Irritated, Arthur walked with long strides toward him. If it wasn’t for his lifelong battle training he wouldn’t have been able to dodge the books that nearly hit him in the face – he had to draw his sword and slice them mid-flight in order to reach his friend. He grabbed his shoulder with a firm hand and turned him around forcefully to pin him against the now almost empty shelves.
"CALM DOWN!" he yelled right to his face.
It worked. The sorcerer’s shoulders sagged and the golden gleam in his eyes vanished. He suddenly looked crestfallen, exhausted, and very, very old. And not just because of the wrinkles and white hair.
"Sit," ordered Arthur while shoving him to a chair.
Merlin meekly obeyed as if he had lost his willpower. Arthur bent over and glared at him.
"And now, talk. With words."
The old man didn’t even take offence at his patronizing and authoritarian tone. He sighed and looked down at his wrinkled hands.
"If this unknown illness can kill unicorns…" he started in a low voice, "then my dragons can be affected too."
The clicking sound of claws on the floor announced Makkariah’s approaching. The dragon cooed and hauled himself on the sorcerer’s knees. There, he stood on his hind paws to nuzzle up against his beard. Merlin sighed and started stroking the creature’s scales.
"Much to my regret, Aithusa only laid one single egg in a thousand years. It took me centuries of perilous quests to find two other eggs that survived the Great Purge. I am the last Dragonlord and if that illness takes them away from me… my life work will be destroyed."
Were those tears shining in his eyes?
Arthur slowly straightened his back as he digested the informations. So Merlin had spent the last thousand years seeking and raising dragons. He didn’t know what to think about it. Why did he care so much for those bloodthirsty untameable monsters? Arthur saw with his own two eyes what damage only one of those things could do. Uther went to a lot of trouble to exterminate them to protect his people during the Great Purge, and Arthur heard many tales when he was a child, about the dark ancient times when dragons flew in the wind and burned alive innocent men before devouring them.
He frowned when he was struck by a troubling detail. Did Merlin say « Dragonlord »?
"Wait a minute. You say you’re the last dragonlord. But wasn’t that man in the forest the last one able to tame those monsters? The one my father sent us to look for when the Great Dragon was attacking Camelot?"
"Balinor," grumbled Merlin. "His name was Balinor."
Arthur was overcome by a dreadful doubt. His two days of agony after the battle against the Saxons, his death and resurrection a thousand years in the future let him no time to think about it properly, but now Arthur realized he saw Merlin tame and chase away Morgana’s dragon that was attacking Camelot’s army. This meant that at that time, he already had this power…
"Don’t tell me you could’ve stopped that monster yourself and didn’t do it not to reveal your magic? Innocent people died, Merlin!"
Merlin’s hand stilled on the dragon’s head.
"Don’t you speak to me in that tone, young man!" he spat, his voice quavering. "You don’t know what you’re talking about!"
Arthur angrily turned on his heels.
"Anyway, I defeated the bloodthirsty beast myself without any sorcerer’s help. We shouldn’t have wasted time running through the woods and caves to search for a useless hermit."
"That’s what you think," the sorcerer snarled. "Are you sure you slew him? Did you even see the corpse? Or at least blood on your sword?"
Arthur froze and slowly turned around.
"The Great Dragon… when I looked for the corpse to cut the head off and bring it back to my father, you told me you saw the dragon turn into ashes under my sword…"
At the time he didn’t find it strange and reported that same explanation to Uther, too happy to announce he defeated the beast without resorting to magic.
Merlin arched a mocking eyebrow.
"I lied. I made him promise never to attack Camelot again and I let him go. Then I made you think you killed him before you lost consciousness."
Merlin looked down at his dragon and petted his scales. Makkariah squeaked and climbed onto his shoulder with the agility of a lizard. He perched here and started to chew on Merlin’s white hair, lock by lock.
"It was when the Great Dragon knocked you out that I discovered my dragonlord power, that I could bend him to my will. If I had known how to do it earlier, I would have done it, Arthur. Never mind the consequences."
"I should have known dragons don’t turn into ashes when they’re slain," Arthur sighed at last, looking put out.
"Yes. Gaius was surprised you bought it, by the way."
Both annoyed and ashamed to have blindly believed everything his manservant said for all this years, Arthur folded his arms and held his head up high.
"Very well. Now tell me about this prophecy you were talking about with the unicorn old man. You said I was brought back to protect Albion… What does it mean?"
"That’s what Kilgharrah – the Great Dragon – revealed to me. Druids and High Priests of the Old Religion too predicted you would come back to life when Albion needs it most. You are the Once and Future King, protector of this kingdom."
He whispered those words in a low voice and Arthur almost didn’t hear them. There was a trace of sorrow in the sorcerer’s eyes.
"I admit I had my doubts. When Camelot fell, when the black plague decimated the population, when wars devastated the country… I waited for your return at the lake of Avalon’s shore, but you didn’t come back. You never did."
"And now that I’m here, what am I supposed to do?" Arthur raised his voice hysterically. "How will I save Albion, according to your prophecy?"
"I have no idea. I had sort of naively hoped the unicorn would miraculously cure at your touch… But no, no effect. The prophecy did say Albion would bring you back at a time of great danger for you to protect the realm."
"But it doesn’t explain how? Not even a hint?"
"No. Nothing at all."
"But I don’t have magic! I don’t even have an army or a kingdom to lead a war any more, I lost everything!"
Admittedly Arthur was a brilliant warrior and a skilled strategist, but that was worthless compared to Merlin who could submit dragons to his power and wipe off thousands of lives with just a magical wave of his hand! And to what use could Arthur be against an illness killing unicorns?
He started to pace on the old books littering the floor. His armour clattered with each one of his movements and the dragon perched on Merlin’s shoulder was following him with puzzled eyes.
"Let me get this straight: we defeated the Saxons, you killed Morgana, and I died because you failed to save me despite your magic. I come back to life a thousand years later, and… Why should I be the one saving Albion, for that matter? What’s so special about me?"
Merlin stood up and his lumbar vertebrae creaked like dry wood. He grimaced in pain and rubbed his lower back.
"How should I know?" he muttered in his beard. "I’ve been studying day and night for a year to find a way to stop that evil and found nothing."
"Well, I don’t know!" Arthur lost his temper, face red with anger. "You’re the great oh so powerful sorcerer! Find something! Use your magic!"
"In olden times I would have given anything to hear you say this… But my magic is useless against this illness, you’ve seen it yourself."
"Then why don’t you just make another prophecy so I’ll know what to do?"
"This isn’t how it works. You can’t make a prophecy out of thin air, believe it or not! I don’t have a free pass to destiny and…"
The sorcerer stilled, as if stricken by a revelation.
"Destiny… That’s it! Destiny!"
Disconcerted, Arthur blinked when Merlin shoved Makkariah into his arms, strode over boxes, and started digging into a mountain of dusty artefacts. The dragon was heavier than he looked and radiated as much heat as a camp fire. Which probably came in handy in winter.
"Care to tell me what you’re looking for, this time?"
On his knees, the old man pulled out a pouch made of leather from the heap and got up with difficulty.
"You see, Arthur… I knew you would die at Camlann during the battle against the Saxons. I had known for years that Mordred would be the one killing you, and I did everything in my power to save you. But everything I did just made destiny happen faster."
He put the pouch on the table and loosened the strings with careful moves.
"After you died, I learned my lesson. Kilgharrah taught me destiny can’t be changed, and what’s meant to happen must happen. I swore I would never try again to know the future or try to change it. You can’t fight destiny. For destiny is the essence of Albion’s magic itself."
The pouch opened, revealing a translucent crystal. Arthur walked closer and frowned.
"Hey, I recognize this thing. This is the crystal we took from the druids and brought back to my father."
"The crystal of Neahtid," confirmed Merlin sombrely. "I kept it after Camelot fell, but I never used it again in a thousand years."
"Used it?" repeated Arthur sceptically. "You mean it can be used for something? I thought it was just some kind of glorified ornamental trinket for the druids. My father loved trophies, he collected them."
The sorcerer snorted, and the dragon huddled up in Arthur’s arms emitted the exact same sound and lazily waved his tail.
"You have no idea how valuable it is. Uther didn’t either. The crystal of Neahtid can be used to see into the past, present and future. If you know how to control it, you become omniscient and have access to unlimited knowledge."
"If you say so… and how does it work? It just look like a common crystal to me."
"Only the most powerful sorcerers can read it," explained Merlin as his wrinkled hand came closer to the crystal. "Maybe taking a look at the future might help us find what we’re dealing with…"
Was it a glimpse of fear in his eyes? Arthur saw him hesitate before he touched the crystal with the tip of his fingers, then flinch as if he just got slapped in the face.
"That’s impossible," he murmured, eyes wide open.
"What do you see?"
Merlin frowned and took the crystal in his hands to look at it closer. Arthur held his breath.
Arthur’s face fell.
"Huh? What do you mean, nothing?"
"I see no vision at all. The crystal is only showing me darkness. Nothing else but darkness."
Arthur was stirring the contents of his bowl with a sullen look.
"I don’t get it."
He let his fork fall and sighed in frustration – not only he wasn’t hungry, but a thousand years did nothing to make his manservant’s cooking skills any better. This gruel was revolting.
"Why study magic?" he wrinkled his nose. "How can anyone be stupid enough to learn magic in a kingdom where it’s punishable by death?"
Shoulders hunched and chewing like a cow, Merlin looked up. There were some lumps of millet caught in his beard.
"You forget I’m from Ealdor," the sorcerer pointed out after he swallowed his mouthful. "Ealdor was in Essetir. Unlike Uther, king Cenred allowed and even encouraged the use of magic."
The table creaked when Arthur rested his elbows on it to watch more attentively his friend eat.
"You mean you already learned magic in your village before coming to Camelot? But how…"
Arthur paused. Suddenly, everything made sense.
"Ah, of course. I should have guessed."
Unfazed, Merlin raised his eyebrows.
"What are you talking about?"
"Your sorcerer friend in Ealdor, obviously! The one who got killed in the bandits attack. He’s the one who influenced you and taught you sorcery, right?"
Arthur thought he finally got it all figured out and solved the mystery that was Merlin, but the sorcerer disabused him.
"Will wasn’t a sorcerer," he revealed, scraping the bottom of his bowl. "Far from it. I tried to teach him, but despite my efforts he never even managed to move a wisp of straw. He lied in his last breath to protect me."
His eyes flashed golden and the pitcher rose above the table to pour water in their glasses.
"He was convinced you’d have me executed if you learned the truth," added Merlin before he sank his teeth into a loaf of bread. "I thought so too, at the time."
Arthur couldn’t deny it. Even if at the time he already cared a lot for Merlin and had started to see him as his best friend, and probably his only friend, he would never have accepted the truth that easily.
He probably would have handed him over to Uther’s justice and would have regretted it later, too late, once Merlin would have been executed publicly…
He was starting to get what Merlin had to go through all these years, hiding such a heavy secret.
"So the tornado that defeated the brigands…"
"That was me," confirmed Merlin with a nod. "Onbregdan!"
Arthur flinched when the sorcerer’s eyes became iridescent with gold again and fruits flew through the air toward them. Conditioned reflex made him catch an apple mid-flight just before it could hit his head.
"Eat," ordered Merlin, pointing at the fruits now piled up on the table in front of them. "You need to get your strength back. Tomorrow will be a rough day."
Arthur was about to point out that a king had no order to receive, but he thought better of it. Technically he was no longer a king now that his kingdom didn’t exist any more. On top of that, he was Merlin’s guest – those tunnels dug in the cliff seemed to belong to him. It looks like no one else lived here despite the countless rooms and floors. Even this huge dining room was spacious enough to host hundreds of people. Tables and chairs lined up between rock pillars as far as he could see. Layers of dust were piled up and spiders webs invaded the space. Their table was the only one clean.
It was as if this place had been abandoned for centuries and Merlin had taken care only of the things he used himself, letting everything else to deteriorate. Arthur sank his teeth in the apple and looked around at the desert dining room, feeling like he was watching the relics of a long lost golden age. What happened here, for Merlin to be left alone? Who used to live here?
"You didn’t answer," insisted Arthur, then pointed at Merlin with his finger. "If you didn’t have a sorcerer friend in your village to teach you magic, there must be a reason why you decided to study it."
"When I came to Camelot, Gaius gave me a book of magic so I could study and improve. I knew no spell, no formula or incantation before that."
So not only Gaius knew from day one, but he actually encouraged Merlin to study magic. Arthur scowled, irritated that the old physician got to share his manservant’s secret for all these years while Arthur remained ignorant no matter how hard he tried to gain Merlin’s friendship and trust, to get him to talk about personal stuff and confide in him like friends are supposed to.
"I never learned magic at Ealdor," explained Merlin who was peeling a clementine. "I was born with magic. My mother told me I used to make things levitate above my cradle when I was just a baby."
Arthur stopped chewing his apple, swallowed and frowned sceptically.
"Is that even possible?"
The old man nodded and piled up the peels on the table.
"For some people, it’s innate and impossible to repress. It was the case for me, as it was for Morgana."
The king’s face darkened when he thought about his once kind and caring half-sister who changed and became in the space of a few years his sworn enemy. Arthur had hated magic then, and had started to think like his father: magic corrupted everything it touched, including the people he loved and cared for the most. When two days ago – or a thousand years ago – Merlin revealed his secret after the battle against the Saxons, he was scared magic had corrupted the heart of his dearest friend, the one who had his entire trust and for whom he would give his life without a second thought.
For a few hours, the worst hours in his life, he believed Merlin had manipulated him since the day they met and pretended to be his friend to get closer to him and destroy him. More than magic, that was what had scared Arthur. That everything between them had been a lie since the beginning. That his affection for Merlin never was mutual.
"But why come to Camelot, where magic is punished by death? Why didn’t you stay safe in Ealdor with your friend and your mother?"
"Ealdor may have been in the kingdom of Essetir… but sorcery was taboo and practising it was frowned upon. King Cenred didn't just allow magic, he was obsessed by magic. He often kidnapped sorcerer's apprentices to force them to join his army and make them do terrible things. Essetir's citizens feared and hated magic, and Cenred punished anyone hiding sorcerers and not giving them up to him. Since the day I revealed my secret to Will, I'd become careless with my magic. My mother feared that Cenred's army would hear of me and come one day to Ealdor to take me away and recruit me by force. Especially since the villagers were suspicious of me after I knocked over trees to impress Will and set a barn on fire by accident… My mother thought Gaius could help me control my powers and that I would be safer in Camelot than in Essetir. She said Camelot was the only kingdom where Cenred's knights would never dare hunt me down."
"I had no idea…"
Arthur pensively finished eating his apple.
If Arthur closed his eyes, it would almost feel like he were back to Camelot.
Fingers unlacing his pauldron and breastplate's strings. The metallic rattling when Merlin undid his armour piece by piece. All of that was familiar. Merlin had been dressing and undressing him every morning and every night for more than ten years – except when he slipped away from him to go to the tavern according to Gaius – and Arthur never bothered to try and learn to do it himself like Gwen said he should. Even after the wedding, Merlin had been there by their bed every morning and every night to take care of Arthur.
He raised his arms and felt much lighter when Merlin took the heavy chain mail away from him. Yes, really, if he closed his eyes he could picture himself being back victorious in his castle, he could picture Merlin grinning at him and demanding some days off, Gwen waiting for him in the bed with her hair down…
He could imagine a thousand years didn't pass since he died.
"What is this place exactly?" asked Arthur as he looked around him.
Yes, he could have thought he was back at Camelot if his eyes had been closed. But they were open, and this bedroom wasn't his. There were no windows, and walls were just dug in the rock. The bed was rustic, the blanket all patched up, and the air was heavy with dust.
And instead of a lively young man with a cheeky smile, his manservant was an old man with hunched shoulders. An old sorcerer whose eyes were glowing gold as he effortlessly levitated the armour toward the table and made warm water appear in the bucket in a snap of a finger.
"This is my bedroom," grumbled Merlin, knees creaking as he crouched down.
Arthur raised his eyebrows and watched him plunge his hand into the steaming water to check its temperature.
"I'm talking about this underground city, Merlin. There are at least as many tunnels as there are under Camelot's castle."
"Indeed. I've been inspired by Camelot when I built this refuge for the druids eight hundred years ago."
"The druids? I haven't seen any of them since I arrived."
Merlin stood up with difficulty and shook his wet hand to dry it.
"One day, they all left. I stayed."
It was clear from his tone he didn't want to talk about it. Not so long ago Arthur would have been only too pleased to insist and worm the truth out of him even if it meant throwing pillows at him or mess up his hair until he surrendered. But confronted to that old, dignified and worn out Merlin, he shied out of it.
Instead he automatically raised his arms for Merlin to undress him so he could finally take a well deserved bath. After the battle against the Saxons, two whole days dying in the woods, almost drowning in the lake of Avalon, and the underground library's dust, it certainly was long overdue.
The torches fixed to the walls shed a fluttering light. Merlin walked closer and stopped right in front of him. His fingers brushed against Arthur's side. Instead of grabbing his tunic, they lingered on the tear in the fabric next to his ribs, where Mordred's sword struck its death blow. Merlin looked down and touched with the tip of his fingers the smooth and unbroken skin, right where the wound had been soaking Gaius’ poultice with blood.
His touch was warm, hesitant.
"I never brought your corpse back to Camelot. I just couldn’t."
Arthur slowly lowered his arms. Merlin seemed engrossed in the skin’s warmth under his fingers, and his eyes were full of grief.
"It took me weeks to find the courage to go back and tell Gwen, Gaius and your knights who hadn’t been killed by the Saxons that you died. Did you know Gwaine has been killed after the battle? I never got to say goodbye."
The sorcerer shook his head and sighed. He grabbed the tunic and forced Arthur to raise his arms again to take it off.
"It doesn’t matter any more. What’s the point of dwelling on the past? I stopped centuries ago living in regrets. It’s all just ancient history."
"Not for me."
Arthur crossed his arms on his bare chest and glared at him – Merlin was almost an inch taller than him, and Arthur had a hard time accepting it since the day they met.
Merlin had the decency to refrain from arguing and let the tunic fall on a chair back.
"I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m aware how hard it must be for you. I’ve had centuries to grieve, but you just lost Camelot and everyone you knew. My condolences."
Arthur raised his eyebrows and spread his arms. About damn time. At last, some apologies and condolences. Exactly what Merlin should have done from the beginning.
"Thank you for acknowledging it," he articulated sarcastically. "So kind of you."
The sorcerer gave him a pointed look and started to unlace his breeches. Arthur helped by lifting a leg, then the other, so he could take them off for him, as well as his boots. He never showed any sign of modesty in Merlin’s presence for more than ten years, but now he felt a hint of embarrassment as he walked naked toward the bucket, his penis wobbling between his thighs. He knew it was just Merlin, but it was still difficult for him to associate in his mind the image of his best friend with this old man crippled with arthritis.
Arthur let out a contented sigh as he slipped into the warm water up to the shoulders and rested the back of his neck against the bucket’s edge. Steam rose as warmth infiltrated his skin and relaxed his body.
Merlin plunged a sponge into the soapy water and started scrubbing his chest, washing the mud and sweat away. Arthur docilely raised his arm when he grabbed his wrist and pulled it up. He didn’t bat an eye when the sponge energetically scraped his armpit, then the other one. A thousand years may have passed, but Merlin washed him in the exact same way he did for ten years at his service: carelessly, with no regard and no frill. Any other manservant would have been all « Please Your Highness » and « My apologies Your Majesty » and would have treated him cautiously as if he might shatter. Arthur had been treated that way all his life until Merlin arrived with his insolence and his brute honesty, never fearing him, giving him a bath like he would wash a horse or a dog.
Arthur had thought his downright attitude and his clumsiness were quite refreshing, and in time he wouldn’t have done without him for anything in the world.
The sorcerer poured a full bucket of water on his head, with no care if soap came into his eyes. Blinded by his own drenched hair falling in front of his eyes, Arthur spat out water and rubbed his face.
"Ouch, my back…" grumbled the old man as he bent over, rubbing his lower back. "I’m too old for this."
His wrinkled hands started to rub his skull and blond hair, soap lathering up. Arthur pulled a face when he felt water infiltrate his ears, and he glanced up at his friend, at his white hair, his beard and his skin crumpled by old age.
"Why don’t you just use magic to be young again?"
In response, Merlin wrinkled his nose and uttered a scornful « pfuh! » just like Dragoon the Great used to. The water lapped when Arthur turned around to stare at him with a frown on his face.
"It can’t be that hard, right? Or isn't your magic powerful enough?"
Merlin narrowed his eyes as he wiped his hands with a towel.
"I could, if I wanted to."
"Then do it."
"Why? Does it bother you?"
Arthur examined the sorcerer from head to foot. If not for his bright blue eyes and his familiar facial expressions, he'd have considerable trouble recognizing his manservant and best friend behind the beard, white hair, hunched shoulders and wrinkles.
"Feels weird," he concluded with a scowl.
Merlin cut short the conversation by mumbling a spell that lit up his eyes with gold and poured a full bucket of warm water on Arthur's royal head to wash the soap off. When he motioned him to, Arthur lifted his leg out of the water to let him wash one foot, then the other. Warmth infiltrated his bones and his body became pleasantly numb. He sank into the water up to his chin and closed his eyes.
He probably dozed off for a while, because when a slamming door drew him from his torpor, the water was lukewarm, almost cold.
"Time to sleep."
Half asleep, Arthur opened his eyes and scrambled out of the bath. He shivered in the cold air, his body streaming with water and feeling twice as heavy. The sorcerer wrapped him in a towel and briefly dried him off before dressing him in weird clothes – the fabric was strangely thin and warm. They smelled like Merlin, he noticed when he sniffed them and let the sorcerer lead him to the bed.
His smell hadn't changed in a thousand years.
When he slumped onto the bed and Merlin tucked him up, Arthur was wrapped in this familiar smell like in a cocoon. He was fully aware this was Merlin's bedroom, and it was his bed. He felt strangely excited about it – that was the first time since his trip to Ealdor that he had the occasion to sleep in Merlin's bed and sheets.
He refrained to criticize the narrow and hard mattress.
"Good night, Arthur."
Merlin was blowing the candles one by one and his face was now hidden in shadows. Arthur sharply grabbed his wrist as the last glimmer went out and left them in darkness.
"Wait. Where are you going to sleep?"
Two golden eyes flashed in the dark and a faint globe of light appeared in the sorcerer's hand, forming a halo around them. Merlin stared at him with a dark and intense expression on his face.
"I don’t have time to waste sleeping. I've got to keep researching for a way to end this plague before it's too late."
Arthur slowly loosened his grip and Merlin slipped out of the room like a shadow.
Arthur woke up to the soft sound of breathing and a weight on his chest. He raised his hand without thinking to caress Gwen's hair and embrace her – but instead of his wife's hair, his fingers met rough scales. He frowned and half opened his eyes clouded by sleep… only to find himself staring right into the eyes of the golden dragon lying on his chest and purring like a cat.
He blinked and almost started yelling for the guards and reaching for his sword. But looking around, everything came back to him all at once. He wasn't in Camelot or even at his era any more, but in an underground city dug into a cliff, a thousand years in the future.
The dragon gave out a disgruntled growl and lazily stretched on his lap when Arthur sat up, disoriented. The sunlight filtered through loopholes in the rock he hadn't noticed last night in the candles' light. One of the sunbeams fell right on a tiny figurine on the bedside table. Arthur reached out and took it to watch it closer – it was a wood carved dragon, a quite rudimentary one.
"Merlin?" he called out loudly, rubbing his eyes.
He put the wood dragon back on the table and got up, Makkariah on his heels. The bedroom was quiet. The floor was cold under his bare feet. The bucket in which he took his bath yesterday was now empty and resting against the wall.
Merlin was nowhere in sight.
His armour was on the table, but he couldn't see anywhere his tunic or his shirt. Where were his clothes? Arthur scowled. And as if it weren't enough yet, his stomach started rumbling for breakfast.
"Merlin!" he shouted, feeling that familiar hint of annoyance.
He opened the door and shouted his manservant's name one more time. His voice reverberated for a while through the empty corridor. Better safe than sorry, he decided to take his sword with him before stepping out in the tunnels to look for Merlin.
Just like the day before, strange symbols carved into the rock glowed blue when he passed through. And just like the day before, the baby dragon trotted ahead and regularly turned his head to check if the king still followed him. He obviously wanted to guide him somewhere. Maybe he knew where Merlin was and was leading Arthur to him?
Arthur was on his guard, hand on his sword's hilt. Makkariah was leading him through a maze of endless tunnels. They went down so many stairs Arthur was starting to wonder how come they didn't reach sea level yet, but then the dragon let out an excited squeak when they walked into what looked like a cave.
Arthur couldn't help lowering his sword, gaping. He lifted his head to admire the majestic vault spiked with stalactites, the columns made of crystallized salt – some of them thicker than two men. In the distance, the sound of waves crashing on the rock and the light coming from the outside indicated an opening to the sea.
He could hear muffled echoes and recognized Merlin's voice talking with someone else. Arthur re-sheathed his sword at his belt and had to stride over and walk around stalagmites to make headway.
The ground was damp and slippery, salt crunching under his bare feet. The iodine smell was strong. As he walked toward the light, the cave widened, a salt lake appeared in the middle and the voices became more distinct.
"And what do you intend to do about Arthur, now?"
Arthur froze – instinctively, he grabbed the golden baby dragon by the scruff of his neck and hid behind a column. The voice was deep and full of echoes, but female. Holding back his breath, Arthur stretched out his neck to take a look and check if he had seen correctly. And indeed, what he first mistook for a rock was actually a gigantic white dragon. The creature was almost as impressive as the Great Dragon that once attacked Camelot. It slowly unfurled its body, and Arthur saw Merlin standing there, reaching out to pet its muzzle with no fear whatsoever. He looked so tiny next to the dragon.
Neither of them seemed to have noticed him.
"I don’t know, Aithusa," sighed Merlin. "Arthur doesn’t belong in this era."
The white dragon slowly blinked with an expression akin to sadness or amusement – Arthur couldn't tell.
"You don’t either, Emrys. You left your heart in the past."
Arthur flinched when a loud splash resonated in the cave. He saw two more dragons rise from the lake's depths. One was covered in blue scales iridescent with green, the other was as black as night and shook itself like a dog would – Arthur recognized the dragon who attacked the day before and would have burned him to ashes if Merlin hadn't stopped it.
He flattened himself again the salt column and would have drawn his sword if he wasn't weighed down with Makkariah who was wriggling in his arms and flapping his wings in a frenzy. He had to muzzle him with his hand to prevent him from squeaking and attract their attention.
"Shut up and stay still," he hissed very quietly.
The dragon puffed smoke out of his nostrils but obeyed begrudgingly. Arthur bent once again to watch the sorcerer surrounded by his creatures. The two dragons who came out of the water were stretching their membranous wings and licking their scales just like cats. The giant white one rested its head on the ground as if it was too heavy to lift. Its powerful breath flattened the old man's clothes against his body.
"I can feel something is troubling your mind. You didn’t come just to talk about Arthur, did you?"
Frowning, Merlin lowered his eyes and leaned even more heavily on his wooden staff.
"I promised myself I would never touch it again, but I looked into the Crystal of Neahtid. I wanted to know what to expect. But what I saw…"
The dragon blinked slowly.
"Darkness. I saw it too."
The feminine voice resounded in a thousand echoes through the cave walls.
"What does it mean? Does it have something to do with the druids and the magic creatures dying?"
The dragon growled and scrambled to her feet. Only then Arthur noticed how tired and old this creature looked, despite being the largest and most terrifying of them all. Old scars streaked her pearly scales and the slightest move seemed to make her suffer.
Trembling, tail lowered, Aithusa slowly shook her head.
"All I know is that Albion's purest magic born from the Old Religion, is dying. And us too."
At this moment, Makkariah bit Arthur's hand so viciously he let out a muffled cry. The baby dragon took this opportunity to get free and jump on the ground, dashing off to Merlin.
"It looks like we have some visitors," the white dragon said. "Hello, Arthur Pendragon."
No need to stay hidden behind the column now. Arthur showed himself with a scowl on his face, rubbing his painful hand. Surrounded by his monsters, Merlin stood straight and dignified, watching him with an indecipherable stare.
"I didn’t know dragons could talk," said Arthur as he glanced mistrustfully at the white dragon who could easily crush him under her paw like a fly.
The black dragon was staring at him too, aggressively puffing air out of its nostrils and showing sharp fangs. And the blue one was thumping closer to watch him, each step making the ground tremble. Feeling uneasy, Arthur instinctively put his hand on his sword’s pommel, ready to draw and defend himself.
"Don’t be scared," Merlin said. "They won’t hurt you while I’m here."
"I’m not scared!" Arthur denied, outraged.
The sorcerer arched a sarcastic bow, and Arthur felt himself blush.
"Aithusa is the last of her kind able to talk," explained Merlin, turning his head to look at the giant dragon. "It took around three hundred years of patience and efforts to get that result. When I took her in after Camelot’s fall, she was mute."
The white dragon closed her eyes and melted under her master’s hand stroking her neck. Arthur approached cautiously, feeling naked and vulnerable without his armour and surrounded by those monsters. In comparison, the wyverns he fought in the past would have passed for harmless lizards.
"Kalkhaino and Ghalini have yet to pronounce a single word," Merlin continued, gesturing at the two other dragons. "I’m still hoping that one day, when they reach their maturity and adult size, they’ll succeed like Aithusa did."
Arthur glanced at them, internally horrified at the idea they would grow even more. A movement attracted his attention – the black dragon’s body was quivering with painful spasms. The creature suddenly curled up and scratched the ground, a ill-boding growl growing into his throat. His wings snapped open and he let out a blood-curdling shriek before opening his mouth wide and shooting a fireball right at Arthur.
Only a lifetime of training and fighting made him quick enough to dodge the deadly attack by rolling on the side. He just barely escaped death – some of his hair were smoking and the intense heat had burned his arm so badly he could already feel his scarlet red skin blistering.
Merlin grabbed his staff whose ochre stone started shining and stood in front of Arthur to protect him, facing the enraged dragon.
"Kalkhaino! What the hell is going on with you? Stop this at once!"
The dragon’s wings flared and he started flying, tail lashing in the air and smashing a column with a loud crash. Just like he did the day before, Merlin gripped his staff and yelled throaty incantations in a powerful voice. But this time, the dragon ignored him and dove for them in a huge burst of flame – the staff’s radiating stone formed an invisible shield that protected them.
The dragon crash-landed, hissing and snarling at them.
"So much for authority," commented Arthur in a caustic tone, drawing his sword. "And you were saying they wouldn’t attack while you’re there, right?"
"This isn't his normal behaviour," the old man panted. "Kalkhaino is pig-headed but he would never disobey me. There is something wrong."
"Oh, really, you think? I will tell you what’s wrong. What’s wrong, is that your monster wants to kill us!"
Merlin frowned stubbornly.
"My soul is bonded to Kalkhaino’s, and I can feel through our bond that he’s in pain and he’s terrified! Something is compelling him to attack!"
Kalkhaino crouched, and Arthur’s eyes widened when he understood the dragon was about to leap and shred them with his claws. Indeed, the dragon dashed toward them with a roar, and…
"WATCH OUT!" Arthur shouted as he seized Merlin bodily and tackled him to the ground behind a rock.
They fell hard – he heard Merlin hissing with pain as the staff slipped from his hand and rolled away. Leaning on the old man with his elbows on either side of the grimacing wrinkled face, Arthur looked up sharply, gripping his sword tight. Then he saw it. What saved them from Kalkhaino’s rage was actually Ghalini, the dragon whose blue scales were iridescent with green. He had stopped him and held him to the ground by biting his throat as Kalkhaino thrashed out, tail lashing out in the air and smashing another column.
"Emrys, look at his eyes. He's infected."
Aithusa’s voice resounded in the cave. Merlin grabbed Arthur’s collar to help him up. Together, they stood up and saw Kalkhaino foaming with rage, and his eyes had turned black just like the unicorn’s did. It was constantly fluctuating. His eyes became normal again now and then, but only for a few seconds.
"He’s fighting the illness," Merlin figured out as he caught his staff he made fly right to him using magic. "And he’s losing."
Kalkhaino managed to overthrow Ghalini and the cave’s walls trembled when they engaged into a fierce battle. The flew away together, wings whacking, both hissing and spitting fire at each other. Merlin grabbed Arthur’s forearm in a surprisingly strong grip for an old man, and pulled him back to dodge the massive fireballs crashing into the ground and leaving impact craters. In their air combat the dragons flew over the lake and the water immediately started boiling under the fire blasts.
Merlin hauled himself on a rock and brandished his staff, throwing blinding arcs of electricity, so much more powerful than what killed the Saxons a thousand years ago. Magic hit Kalkhaino hard, just like a bird struck in flight by lightning. The dragon fell but managed to forcefully flap his wings. Instead of attacking again, he just flew away to the sea in a flurry of wings, leaving the cave.
Aithusa struggled to stand up on her legs, her pearly white scales glowing like snow in the sun. She had watched the whole scene without moving, obviously unable to fly or even walk any more.
"I can feel his soul filled with blood lust, Emrys. Kalkhaino is flying toward Tintagel with the intention to kill. He has to be stopped before it's too late."
Merlin clenched his teeth and articulated a few throaty words in an unknown language. Ghalini rushed up to him, then bowed his head and diligently spread a blue wing so Merlin could use it as a bridge to hoist himself onto his back. Now that his master was settled, the dragon snapped his wings open, ready to fly away and chase the runaway.
Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. He didn’t think twice and stood in front of the creature to stop it from leaving. If innocents were in danger, if Merlin was in trouble, Arthur had to step up and do something. A thousand years would never change that.
"I’m going with you," he said adamantly.
Merlin stared at him intensely for a few seconds before holding his hand to him.
Best way to make me translate faster is to give me some feedback! Just saying. :p
Chapter 5: A sky of ill omen
I feel like I’m getting better and faster at translating. I love translating, it’s so relaxing and empties my brain. By the way, I started translating a dumb merthur OS I wrote a few months ago, I think I’ll put it online by the end of the month. :p
Arthur only just got on the dragon’s back when he came to regret his decision. Ghalini took off with so much brutality and speed that he felt like all of his organs were squashing down inside his body and he nearly got thrown back. With a not so royal shriek he would deny forever having uttered, Arthur clung on to Merlin, hugging him from behind. Face buried into the sorcerer’s neck and blinded by his white hair, Arthur held back his breath, eyes wide open. Between his thighs, Ghalini’s massive reptilian body radiated with strength, hard as steel muscles moving each time he flapped his wings to rise higher in the sky.
His sword’s sheath bumped repeatedly his leg and the wind flattened against his calves the weird trousers Merlin gave him the night before. His soft tunic’s short sleeves didn’t protect him against the cold, and his arms were getting gooseflesh. A few seconds flying in the sky were enough for the cold to stiffen his toes. He inwardly cursed his manservant for taking away his battle suit that would have been way more convenient for dragon-riding in the sky. These future clothes were worthless!
He dared to look down – the ocean, the cliff and the fields were so far below and looked like a map. The few trees were so small, just like twigs. Feeling dizzy, Arthur clung tighter to the sorcerer and grasped his clothes’ fabric. His body was lanky and his bone structure angular – even more than he was back in the day – and Arthur could feel his heart beat against his palm like a bird trying to escape from its cage.
What was he thinking, riding on a dragon’s back? Arthur’s feet never once left the ground before – and now they were hanging in the void, seven hundreds of feet or so above the earth!
"Faster, Ghalini!" Merlin roared.
The sorcerer was obviously used to ride dragons in the sky. He didn’t even seem to fear taking a deadly fall. He barely held on to the scales with one hand, grasping his staff with the other.
Arthur breathed deeply and forced himself to stop staring at the void below to focus instead on the black spot flying far off in the sky among the clouds cluttering the horizon. Kalkhaino was way ahead of them but his flight was messy and erratic.
The were catching up with him bit by bit, and soon Ghalini and his two human passengers plunged into the cloud mass. Arthur’s clothes and hair became damp. He couldn’t see anything any more, except for pieces of vertiginous landscape when the strong wings cleared the white mist away.
"He’s nearing Tintagel…" Merlin hissed through clenched teeth, and Arthur almost didn’t catch that because of the wind lashing at his ears.
He was about to ask how in earth Merlin could see anything in this fog, but then he remembered what he said in the woods a thousand years ago when Arthur asked that same question – Merlin’s magic allowed him to see the path ahead.
Indeed, when Ghalini folded his wings down and came out of the clouds to dove to the ground, Arthur saw through his nausea and vertigo what looked like ruins perching on the cliff, facing the ocean. Were those façades falling apart and loose-stoned walls all that was left of the castle of Tintagel? That very same castle where his mother used to live before she married Uther and died in Camelot? That castle and its towers and tapestries that had looked so majestic to him when he stayed there a week as a teenager, hoping he would somehow feel closer to this mother he never got to know?
As they charged right to the ground, all of that was growing bigger and bigger and he could see every detail getting closer – and when Ghalini snapped his wings open just in time for them not to crash, Arthur realized that there were groups of citizens walking in the castle’s ruins. Dozens. Maybe hundreds! He saw the moment those people unaware of the danger started to look up and point fingers at Kalkhaino who was flapping his wings in a frenzy and diving right for them.
As quick as lightning, Ghalini flew to the black dragon who was opening his mouth wide to spit raging fire at them.
"Run away!" Arthur shouted as he grabbed his sword’s hilt and swiftly unsheathed. "Don’t stay here!"
He felt more than he saw the old man’s shoulder blade shifting when Merlin raised his staff up high. The stone on top of it shone bright and a strike of lightning shot out of it with an electric cracking sound. It hit the black dragon hard, preventing him to burn alive the stunned citizens who watched the scene without moving. The huge creature roared in pain and crashed heavily on a wall in ruins that tumbled down under his weight.
Arthur didn’t stop to think. Wielding his sword, he jumped off Ghalini’s back to land hard on the grass burned by the fire breath. Taken away by his momentum, Ghalini flapped his wings energetically and had to land a bit further.
The groups of people hadn’t even moved one bit. Instead of running away to safety like any person with a shred of common sense would, they just stood here, gaping and brandishing strange rectangular things at the two dragons and him. Arthur felt himself flush angrily – couldn’t they obey a simple order and flee to save their lives?
"Get away from here!" he yelled and waved his sword to motion them to back off. "Can’t you see it’s dangerous?!"
"… Is it… is it for a movie?" one of them stammered, wide-eyed. "Or a tourist attraction?"
Those morons were going to get themselves killed if they stayed here! He could already see Kalkhaino getting back on his feet and growling threateningly, puffing smoke off his nostrils.
"For crying out loud, you have to run away! RUN AWAY!"
Fuming, Arthur strode toward the bystanders with the firm intention to shove them all out of the way himself if he had to. Good thing he did so: he only just forced them to step back when raging fire crashed down exactly where they had been standing a few seconds earlier.
Arthur turned around sharply, half-blinded by the burning hot blast. He came very close to being roast alive. The realization made him grip his sword tighter. Roaring, the black dragon was once again fighting Ghalini who, even if he was bigger and heavier, struggled to fight back. Kalkhaino kept glaring at the citizens, obviously determined to exterminate them at all costs. Tail gashing the earth and lashing out in the air like a whip, he trashed furiously against Ghalini’s fangs and wings that shielded the humans to keep the dragon from reaching them.
What the hell was Merlin waiting for? Why did he not do anything to control his monsters?
For a brief moment – probably out of habit – Arthur thought he was going to find his manservant hiding like a coward and watching the others fight with a bemused face instead of helping out. But now he knew that had never been true and he had spent ten years mocking a man who had never stopped saving his life and never got any credit for it.
Merlin was here, brandishing his staff adorned with an ochre stone at the sky. His eyes flashed golden and there was a hard look on his face. It took Arthur’s breath away.
The sorcerer opened his mouth and his voice roared, powerful and hoarse. He was chanting like he did in the forest with the other old sorcerer.
The wind rose.
Black clouds darkened the sky.
Darkness fell and the panicked screams of the citizens wrenched Arthur from his amazement. The dragons fought each other so fiercely they didn’t even seen to notice the spell Merlin was preparing.
Kalkhaino managed to claw at Ghalini’s eye just enough to almost blind him and get free. Then he dashed to the scared citizens, foaming with rage. Arthur tensed up and stood in front of them in a defensive position to block the attack, raising his sword.
He managed to deflect the first assault by striking the enraged dragon’s ribs. But when Kalkhaino charged one more time, he brutally kicked Arthur out of his way – he crashed into a wall in ruins and pain exploded in his skull. His sight darkened with black spots and sounds became muffled as if he were under water – there was ringing in his ears as he gasped for breath and struggled not to lose consciousness. He gritted his teeth and got up as best as he could by leaning on the old stones, his bare feet slipping on the damp ground.
His sight cleared up, and everything came back at once – the cold, the screams, Merlin’s powerful voice still chanting his endless spell. The sky above had turned completely black and bolts of lightning were distorting into arcs forming circles and symbols above the sorcerer.
Arthur wiped out the sticky blood running down in his eye – his eyebrow was split open. The terrified citizens were trying to run away from the dragon, figuring out at last that they were in grave danger – except for a child who just stood there, frozen in fear. And Kalkhaino was heading for him, hissing and showing his sharp teeth.
Arthur’s blood ran cold.
He rushed toward the boy to push him back and faced resolutely the dragon. He spun his sword, ready to protect the child’s life at all costs. Kalkhaino growled, crouching, his mouth filling with fire before he leaped like a hawk diving on its prey. But an invisible force brought him to a halt and pulled him back brutally, dragging him down. The dragon could claw at the ground and tear off lumps of earth, but to no avail.
Standing up with eyes wide open and short breath, Arthur saw Merlin raising his hand toward the black dragon, his eyes glowing like gold and his white hair billowing around his wrinkled face.
The stone on top of his staff seemed to be pulsing shock waves, bending the grass all around.
Stunned, Arthur kept the child safe behind him.
Kalkhaino was trashing out and foaming with rage as chains made of light materialized around him and tied him up so tightly he couldn’t even stir a limb or move his tail any more. The chains vibrated and crackled as if they had a mind of their own. Arthur realized with stupor that these chains weren’t solid – they were lightning bolts the sorcerer had obviously tamed and brought under his control with his magic.
Merlin’s eyes turned back to their usual blue colour and the wind fell right away. Ghalini stood on his hind legs to hold Kalkhaino in place.
Relieved, Arthur sighed and sheathed his sword as he looked around. No casualties, it would seem. The citizens who left running didn’t go very far – they were standing from a distance, watching the scene and chatting excitedly. Reckless fools, Arthur thought with dismay.
He nearly had a heart attack when Merlin appeared out of thin air just next to him. Hand on his pounding heart, he glared reproachfully at his friend. But Merlin ignored him and looked around with narrowed eyes. He stretched out a wrinkled hand and murmured in a hoarse voice:
And all of the citizens suddenly collapsed.
Shocked, Arthur asked "What did you do to them?" and bent down to the child he had protected against the dragon. The boy was now lying motionless on the ground.
"They’re sleeping," Merlin answered sternly, hand still stretched out. "And when they wake up, they won’t remember anything of what they just witnessed. They’ll even forget they fell asleep and they’ll erase everything they filmed without even noticing it, then they’ll go on with their normal day like nothing happened. Folge min bebod!"
The golden gleam in the sorcerer’s eyes became brighter, and a strange curl of mist rose from the mouth of all the sleeping citizens and vanished.
Arthur blinked, then frowned while getting up slowly.
"Why do you want them to forget what they saw?"
Merlin didn’t answer right away. He lowered his arm and leaned heavily on his staff with both hands, looking suddenly very old and very tired. He was looking far, very far away at the skyline, where the sky melted into the sea.
"This era is nothing like the one you left behind when you died, Arthur. Nowadays, magic is unknown. Forgotten. No one in this world even knows it exists. There are only a few communities of druids living on and sorcerers have been practising magic in secret for centuries now. Including me."
Arthur was left speechless for a moment. How could anyone not know about magic?
"I usually don’t go around flying on dragons without using an invisibility spell, precisely to prevent this kind of situation," Merlin sighed and looked dejectedly at his chained dragon still hissing and snarling with eyes as dark as ink. "This is exactly what I feared. Sorcerers, unicorns, even my dragons… no one is safe from this plague."
He stiffly turned on his heels and strode toward his creatures, his wooden staff hitting the ground with each step: "We can’t stay here," he said and motioned Arthur to follow him. "These people are going to wake up any second now and time is running out to save Kalkhaino before it’s too late."
The small fire circle was licking the saucepan with a soft crackling sound. It was filled to the brim with simmering water.
Merlin had assured him that wasn’t sorcery. This stove, as he had called it, was a recent invention that had nothing to do with magic. He had supposedly bought it half a century ago on a whim to bring his kitchen to date and « move with the times ».
But to Arthur, it might as well be magic. He never had been familiar with how Camelot’s kitchens worked – the heir of the throne had nothing to do there, his father made that perfectly clear when Arthur was just a child – but he was quite certain none of the servants there ever made fire circles appear out of thin air by just turning a button.
It took him several days to master this stove of the future without burning himself or causing an explosion. He had been forced to do so, driven by hunger and left to his own devices.
Since they came back from Tintagel almost three weeks ago and chained Kalkhaino in the cave under the surveillance of the other dragons, Merlin settled down in his library and hardly ever came out of it again. They barely exchanged a few words the first days, and then the sorcerer withdrew into himself and became more silent and sombre for every day he spent combing through dusty books without finding any cure to the illness that was eating into his dragon.
With no manservant to feed him, wash him and dress him, Arthur had no other choice but to swallow his royal pride and take himself in hand like a commoner. It had not been an easy task and Arthur suffered many humiliating situations he was grateful only Makkariah witnessed.
Speaking of which, the tiny golden dragon was perching on that white cupboard that kept food cold – Merlin had called it a fridge – and chewing on his own tail, watching him struggle for his survival. Arthur was firmly convinced the beastie found it very funny to see him squinting at the instructions written on the packet of pasta and not understanding a damn word. What the hell did al dente mean?
The water was now boiling hard into the saucepan and steam was rising up and accumulating under the rock ceiling. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that it didn’t matter if his food was al dente or not, as long as he could eat. Arthur decided to ignore the cryptic instructions and energetically opened the packet.
The wrapping broke with an explosion of pasta that poured down the counter and to the floor. Arthur cursed through his teeth and pushed some of them with his foot to hide them under the stove, like he discreetly did for everything he had dropped on the ground those last three weeks so he wouldn’t have to use the broom. Then he used the edge of his t-shirt – since that was how this future item of clothing was called, as Merlin had informed him – as a container to get back all the pasta littering the counter.
He poured them into the saucepan and started back when the water boiled over and nearly extinguished the fire circle. Cringing, he grabbed a sponge and tried his best to mop up the disaster without getting his hand burned.
Makkariah had jumped to the ground and was now stuffing himself with pasta cracking under his fangs. Arthur had to stride over him to get to the shelves he had been raiding to feed himself since Merlin stopped making his meals. Many pots made of glass or scrap were stored there, looking a bit like Gaius’s potions and remedies – except that it was food, not medicine.
He scowled sceptically as he picked a tin can. The paper strip wrapped around it was a painting of some sort of red round things that didn't seem to be apples since there was canned tomatoes – whatever that was – written over. Unlike the glass pots, those tin cans were obviously an invention of the future. A special tool was needed to cut them open.
It took Arthur so much time to find back the tin opener in the mountain of dirty dishes piling up in the sink, he was running out of patience and the saucepan was threatening to boil over once again.
"I hate this future," Arthur muttered when the tin opener slipped on the scrap lid.
It slipped a second time. Then a third time but Arthur hammered the tool so aggressively it sliced the back of his hand and made him hiss with frustration.
Makkariah leaped on the side to dodge the tin opener thrown through the kitchen while Arthur furiously drew his sword. Excalibur cut through the air and came crashing on the tin can that ended up severed in half as easily as if it was made of butter. He had struck so strongly the wooden counter split, and the impact smashed the plates and kitchen utensils piled there in an unstable equilibrium. Everything came crashing down on the floor, including the boiling saucepan that fell off the stove.
The baby dragon moved back hastily so the spilt water wouldn’t wet his tiny feet. Then, out of curiosity, he stretched out his neck to sniff at the overcooked pasta and have a taste.
Discouraged, Arthur looked at the disaster in the kitchen. How did low-born people execute those cooking and cleaning chores themselves many times every day tirelessly, for their whole life?
The cut on his hand wasn’t deep but bled and felt unpleasantly tingly. More than his growing hunger and the frustration of being abandoned by Merlin, loneliness and boredom weighed heavy on him a little more each day. This era and this world were foreign to him and Arthur was left out entirely by himself. In three weeks time he had had no other distraction but travel up and down the underground city with Makkariah as his only company. Now he knew every corner and could perfectly find his way through the tunnels.
His idle mind focused his thoughts on Camelot. Sometimes, down a hallway, he could swear he heard the clicking sound of the guards’ armour and spears. The joyful rumbling of the main square’s market. The resonant clattering of hooves on the paved courtyard. The soft rustling of capes.
On waking, for a fleeting second when his mind was still clouded by his slumber, he could still hear the echo of his knights screaming « For the love of Camelot! », feel on his side Gaius’s fingers apply the plant poultice, or taste Gwen’s soft lips pressed against his.
The transition was too brutal. His heart was still in Camelot and everything looked like a bad dream that would disappear in the morning. He couldn’t accept the fact that his kingdom, the people he loved and everything he worked for his whole life were now remnants of the past.
Arthur had never felt so alone.
Merlin should have been there at his side to support him through this ordeal, but he was not. He stayed recluse in the silence of his library with a hard look on his face and his nose in old books. He only came out to check on his sick dragon and exchange some theories of a magical cure with Aithusa.
Was this how he lived for the last thousand years? Cut off from the world like a hermit, with only his dragons as company?
Arthur frowned and turned the button to extinguish the fire circle on the stove.
No wonder Merlin had become as pleasant and talkative as that asocial old bear of Balinor if he had lived all alone. But Arthur had no intention to let himself be buried alive on this underground ghost city for much longer. Three weeks of this had been enough to get on his nerves. For someone who had always lived in a lively and populous city, surrounded by guards, servants, knights, courtiers, and never quite got the opportunity to feel bored with all the balls, royal duties, hunting, quests, banquets and training, inactivity and loneliness were driving him insane. He felt like an animal trapped in a cage.
Whether Merlin liked it or not, Arthur wouldn’t stay one more day in this tomb. Determined to tell him so, he sheathed back his sword and stormed out of the kitchen, Makkariah on his heels.
On the first days exploring he used to get lost all the time in the maze of stairs, rooms and tunnels, but now Arthur had no trouble finding his bearings any more and he even knew some short cuts and secret passages the little dragon had showed him. It only took him a few minutes to climb the stairs and find his way to the library’s heavy door.
The musty smell of dust assaulted his nose when he walked into the semi-darkness only lit here and there by a few candles’ golden glow. Arthur suspected them of being enchanted, because not a single drop of wax had melted those last three weeks. He stepped between the bookshelves, striding over piles of parchments, chests and abandoned artefacts. The candles’ flames slightly trembled and shadows throbbed when he passed through.
Merlin didn’t even bother to look up when he arrived. He remained seated with a frown of concentration on his face, his nose buried in an old book of magic. His eyes were running over the lines as he muttered to himself, the wrinkles on his face looking deeper than ever.
No need to beat around the bush. For the last week, Merlin barely talked to him any more, only just answered in monosyllables and didn’t even bother looking at him. Arthur might as well be a ghost. So he planted himself in front of the sorcerer with his arms crossed and glared down at him:
"I want to go back to Camelot," he said straightforwardly. "Now."
He felt almost surprised when Merlin stopped reading. The wrinkled finger ground to a halt on the book’s page, and he looked up sharply. His bright blue eyes stared at him hard.
"What’s the point? Camelot has been invaded and fell a thousand years ago. I told you that."
His voice was gravelly, as if not being used for days somehow made it rusty.
Arthur stubbornly raised his chin high.
"I don’t care. I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes. Do your magic trick and take me there. It’s an order."
Merlin stared at him for a long time before looking away with a tired sigh.
"I don’t have time to waste. Every second counts. Every page I read might bring me closer to finding a cure to save Kalkhaino and free the magic world of this plague."
And here he was back at reading his book as if to make him know that the conversation was over. Offended, Arthur pulled a face and unfolded his arms.
"Very well. Then I’ll go by myself. On foot, if I have to."
He might have said those words in a rather immature way and turned on his heels a little bit too dramatically. But Arthur couldn’t stand staying idle any longer, unable to properly grieve a bygone age.
He didn’t have a chance to complete his dramatic exit. He only took a few steps when he crashed into Merlin who just magically appeared in front of him. The old man narrowed his eyes whose golden glow was fading away, and spoke in a quavering voice:
"I can’t let you go out there on your own, Arthur. This world is no longer the one you knew, you have no idea how much it changed. You won’t go very far with your sword and this attitude, asking people where is Camelot. I bet that by the end of the day you’ll end up in a police station’s drunk tank. And guess who has two thumbs and will have to bail you out? This guy!"
Arthur had no idea what all that gibberish meant, but he bent to stare defiantly into Merlin’s eyes, a few inches from his face:
"I’m going to take my chances. No way in hell am I going to rot in this hole for one more second. I’m going back to Camelot, with or without you. And none of your magic will be able to stop me."
Merlin scrunched his nose, looking closely at Arthur as if to assess the level of his stubbornness, then rolled his eyes.
"Well then. If you want it that bad, I’ll take you there."
Arthur flinched and stepped back when Merlin reached at his belt where his sword was hanging to unbuckle it.
"What are you doing?"
Merlin scowled and pulled at the leather to prevent him to move again.
"Believe it or not, Arthur, but in this time it is forbidden to walk around with weapons. If anyone sees you with this sword, you’ll be arrested."
The absurdity of what his manservant just said left him speechless. The unbuckled belt and the sword fell on the floor with a thump.
"It’s forbidden to carry a sword?" Arthur repeated in disbelief. "But then how do the knights fight? And how can travellers defend themselves against the brigands in the woods? This era is ridiculous!"
Merlin shrugged non-committally and took a critical look at him from head to toe.
"Blue jeans, t-shirt et trainers. Uh-huh. If you shut up and let me do the talking, you should blend in and melt into the crowd. Here, put this on too, it’s a bit chilly outside."
Arthur begrudgingly let Merlin put on him a worn out leather jacket.
"Are we going or not?!" he snapped, growing impatient while the sorcerer was dusting the leather off and combing his blond hair with his fingers.
"Hang on!" Merlin warned him.
His bony hand suddenly grabbed Arthur’s shoulder, and magic hurled them away with the raw power of a tidal wave.
The sun was shining through the leaves in long ribbons of light fluttering with the breeze. A bird came flying, wings flapping so fast they looked invisible, and perched on the bench. Puffing the yellow feathers on its throat, the bird swelled out its tiny body and gave out a chirp, then another.
Its singing was interrupted by a sudden movement of air and two men appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the path. The bird fled in a flurry of wings while Arthur clang on to the bench’s back and sat down heavily because his legs gave way under his weight. Dazed and heaving, he felt like his bowels had been hooked and violently shook around. He made a concerted effort not to throw up, and wiped the sweat off his forehead as he looked around him.
The change was brutal from the dusty and dark library. They were now in a forest and the sun was blinding him, overflowing his vision with bright white until Merlin diligently stepped in front of him to offer his shadow.
"Here we are," Merlin said with a wave of hand to show the trees around.
Confused and still feeling queasy from the magic travel, Arthur blinked as his eyes got used to the brightness of the day light. He sat up straight and looked around, frowning. All he could see was a path and trees rising high in the sky. There were roots slithering in the soil, green grass and colourful flowers. Except for the bench he was seated on, no human construction on sight.
Taking a deep breath, he stood up and stepped forward, unsteady on his feet. He tipped his head back. High above, the trees’ leaves stood out against the blue sky, and the sun grazed his face for the very first time in three weeks spent buried underground like a mole. Dozens of birds were perched on the branches and chirping. But where was his castle? In which direction was Camelot?
Feeling uneasy, Arthur lowered his head to make eye contact with the sorcerer who kept staring at him.
"What is this place? It doesn’t look like the forest of Balor… Is is the forest of Escetir?"
Merlin slowly shook his head and looked away to watch the woods.
"We’re standing on the exact site of Camelot’s castle, Arthur. Or at least, where it once used to be. Nowadays, this is the forest of Wyre’s nature reserve, just at the frontier between Worcestershire and Shropshire, not so far from Kidderminster."
Arthur stared at Merlin, an icy sensation making its way under his skin like a poison. He had never heard the names of those locations before. And he had studied the kingdoms’ geography since an early age.
"Camelot… the castle… there’s nothing left of it?" he whispered in a toneless voice as he looked around him like a lost child.
He had braced himself to the idea of finding his castle in ruins and walking through rubble and collapsed foundations. He was prepared to discover crumbling sections of walls and one or two towers still standing, just like Tintagel's castle had been. But he could never have foreseen that there would be absolutely nothing left of his kingdom to mourn over.
"There are a few stones buried in the ground," Merlin sighed. "Like this one, for example…"
Merlin sat on the bench, rubbing his lower back like the old man he looked like, and bent down to touch with the tip of his fingers a fragment of rock next to his feet, just under the bench. He dusted off the dirt, and indeed the rectangular shape of the stones that once composed the castle's high walls appeared.
Arthur approached with his eyes riveted on the stone and couldn't utter a word with the lump in his throat. His vision was blurred, and he realized his eyes were brimming with tears. He held them back with great pain as he sat next to Merlin and reached to touch the stone too. It was warm under his hand, bathing in the sun.
"I often come here to meditate and think about the past," Merlin said wistfully. "This is all there is left of that time. Of our time."
Arthur nodded slowly. They stayed like this for a while with their hand on the ruin of their past, until a stepping sound coming from afar broke their meditation.
They sat up straight, and by reflex his hand shot up to his side to draw his sword – but he was unarmed. Suddenly, without his sword he felt naked. Vulnerable.
The steps were coming closer, but Merlin didn't seem worried about it. He was staring into space, elbows resting on his knees.
"Do you know we've become legends nowadays? There are thesis written about us. Some of them even claim that we actually never existed, you and I. Historians have been searching for Camelot and the lake of Avalon for centuries and it's just there, right under their noses."
A figure was becoming clearer in the distance on the path between the trees. It was a middle-aged woman with a white dog on a leash. She greeted them politely when she walked pass, the panting dog wagged its fluffy tail happily and they continued on their way.
The woman and her dog were long gone now, and the two men stayed in silence shoulder to shoulder on the bench, both absorbed in their memories from a thousand years ago.
Arthur wished he could say something. Ask questions about Camelot's fall. About the last moments of his loyal knights, of Gwen, of Gaius. But the words were stuck in his throat with the tears he refused to cry.
Finally, his stomach spoke for him, reminding him with a discontent rumble that he hadn't eaten anything since the night before. The sound made Merlin smile – a smile that briefly lit up his face and made him look like the manservant and loyal friend he shared ten years of his life with.
"Still such a glutton, huh? I think it's time to make you try some specialities of this time. I know a good restaurant in London that will do just right. Let’s go."
Arthur had no time to protest. He was thrown into magic travel once again even though he barely recovered from the first one.
The forest melted around him like the tide withdrawing from the sand. But this time, the change was less abrupt and Arthur got off lightly out of it with only a bit of dizziness and nausea that went away almost immediately. Perhaps that was because they were sitting and the landscape had not changed that much. And yet, even though they were still on a bench with trees around them, they were obviously not in the Wyre forest any more. The place was quite different. The trees were scattered and a mown lawn was stretching as far as he could see.
Arthur raised his eyebrows when he saw hundreds of wild geese waddle next to villagers walking around in twos or in family groups. Fluffy-tailed squirrels hopped here and there.
"Where are we now?" he asked, looking at Merlin.
The golden glow was fading away in the sorcerer’s eyes that went back to blue.
"Hyde’s park, at the heart of London. This is the only place I get to appear into without anyone noticing me. It’s nearly empty at this time in the middle of the week."
Arthur glanced around sceptically. The place was far from empty, though. There were at least dozens of people on sight.
They stood up and walked on the lawn, plump geese waddling away from them. They were heading toward a road that seemed to go through the park, and Arthur recognized the grey and smooth matter it was made of. It was the same sort of road that shocked him so much the moment he came out of the lake of Avalon three weeks ago.
But the people they passed now were way more striking. They were all so strange. No one was dressed normally, no one wore an armour or a sword. Arthur saw some of them running in skin-tight clothes even tough they weren’t chased by anyone. He jumped on the side when a man perched on a weird equipment with two heels went off like an arrow pass them. All the women were wearing trousers, thing that seldom happened in Camelot, only when ladies of the highest nobility wished to ride a horse and hunt with no petticoats to weigh them down. Many of them had short hair, and that was something Arthur had never seen before in his life.
Some people had seemingly lost their mind altogether: they were holding a flat object against their ear and talked out loud as if they were speaking to someone, even though they were alone.
"Arthur, stop staring at them with this dimwit face, people will think you’re crazy."
Arthur closed his gaping mouth and tried very hard not to turn around to stare at a woman who was gliding over the ground with ease because of the tiny wheels she had somehow fixed under her shoes.
"Crazy, me?" he scoffed. "It’s the world that has gone crazy, Merlin! Look at them!"
He pointed at a couple grinning at their flat rectangular object they were holding at arm’s length. Hands deep in his pockets and looking unimpressed, Merlin shrugged.
"You’ll get used to it. Whatever the times, inventions and customs, people were and will always be the same at heart."
Arthur made a concerted effort to look neutral as he walked next to Merlin, but his face fell and he froze when they left the park and stepped into a huge avenue with high walls, a crowd like it only happened on market days, and infernal din. Gaping, he had a great deal of difficulty to start walking again when his friend grabbed his arm to pull him into the flow of people all striding hurriedly.
Hundreds of metallic carriages were crowding on the road with no horses to draw them. They were all growling and blaring like a hunting horn, driving at a terrifying speed. Some of them were painted in bright red and were at least twenty feet, like monsters born from hell fire.
He had felt threatened by one of those metallic carriages when he came out of the lake of Avalon, but now he was surrounded by them and could see them everywhere as far as he could see. Bewildered, he looked around with round eyes, his heart hammering in his rib cage.
If it weren’t for the warmth of Merlin’s hand on his arm he wouldn’t have been able to walk through this nightmare as if everything was normal. He held on to him, grasping at his friend’s sleeve in fear he would lose sight of him in the crowd and end up alone. The air was corrupted and he could barely breathe it. There was no tree, no plant in sight any more. Everything was grey, smooth, and the constant blaring noise was hurting his ears.
His throat was dry. He swallowed hard and moistened his lips.
"How did you say that place is called again?"
His voice sounded weird to his own ears. He had had no other choice but speak louder to make Merlin hear him because three of those huge red monsters blared in passing – they gave off a hot blast of unbreathable air that made him cough. His shoulder bumped into someone who ignored him and just kept on walking with not even the smallest apology.
"London," Merlin answered. He didn’t seem bothered by the foul air or the noise. "To you, that would be situated between the kingdom of Kent and the kingdom of Tir Mor. This is the most important city nowadays, where the Queen lives."
Arthur stopped staring at those lights attached to strange-looking pillars – they kept changing from red to green and from green to red with no logic whatsoever – and glanced sharply at Merlin.
"The queen? Queen of which kingdom?"
"The whole territory of Albion is now called United Kingdom. There is only one queen, but she has no power and her function is a symbolic one. She basically just represents the country."
"What do you mean no power?" Arthur repeated, blinking. "But then who commands the army and collects the peasants’ taxes?"
"I’m not going to explain politics to you right now. If we make it out of all this alive, I’ll buy you a television."
Arthur scowled. Not understanding what Merlin was talking about was starting to annoy him.
If he ever got an answer, Arthur didn’t hear it. They just arrived in a huge square crowded with metallic carriages, and a building’s front was covered with gigantic moving pictures of smiling faces, bright words flowing with colours. His grip on Merlin’s sleeve loosened and he let go of it. He slowed down to a stop, eyes wide open to behold this breathtaking sight. He didn’t even pay attention to the people hurrying all around, bumping into him and glaring.
Merlin stopped walking too and turned to see why Arthur wasn’t following any more. He glanced at the moving pictures and rolled his eyes:
"They’re just advertisements, Arthur," he grumbled impatiently. "Don’t pay attention. Hurry up, we’re almost there. We can’t idle around or it’ll be too late to get lunch."
Eyes not leaving the surreal sight, Arthur followed in his friend’s footsteps and tried not to get left behind. How much longer were they going to walk? This city Merlin called London was obviously a very large one. They had already walked through the equivalent to Camelot’s lower town, and those streets crowded with hellish carriages seemed to have no end.
At last they turned in a narrower street and Merlin guided him into one of the buildings. Arthur couldn’t help pulling a disgruntled face when the smell of greasy food assaulted him. The place was even louder than a tavern full of drunkards during a round of drinks. On top of that, it was rather cramped – tables and chairs crowded the space, leaving just enough room to move around. They were all occupied, and the clients were chatting loudly to cover the deafening music. No minstrel and no musical instrument in sight, though. Was there an orchestra hiding somewhere? Perhaps in another room?
A dozen of persons were waiting near the counter in the entrance, probably hoping to get a table, and Merlin pushed him so they would wait in line.
"Mister Dragoon!" a warm voice called out from behind the counter. "It’s been months since the last time we saw you around! How are you doing?"
Arthur arched his eyebrows when a middle-aged man leaned above the counter to shake Merlin’s hand with a big smile. The sorcerer hunched his shoulders and grinned like a senile old man.
"Same old, same old!" he quavered. "You know, at my age, we don’t expect much of life any more!"
"Oh come on, don’t say that, mister Dragoon! You’re strong as a horse and still have your whole life ahead of you! Now, back to business: a fish n’ chips and a ginger beer, as usual?"
Merlin raised two fingers and gestured at Arthur with a move of his chin.
"And my grandson will take the same! Say hello, Arthur!"
Arthur grimaced as if he had bitten into a lemon.
"What do you mean, grandson?"
Arthur had said those words at the exact time the man behind the counter did.
"And he’s such a handsome fellow, that young lad!" the man teased with a grin. "Why, mister Dragoon, you’ve been a regular client in my restaurant for more than ten years and we’ve been making small talk all this time, but you never told me you had a grandson! Are you trying to hurt my feelings?"
Arthur felt himself blush with humiliation and offence when Merlin grinned from ear to ear and ruffled his hair. He even went as far as pinching his cheeks.
"I forgot that big daftie even existed! You know, I’ve got a poor memory and children grow up so fast! He looks just like me when I was young!"
The man burst out laughing, slapping his own thigh as if that was the most hilarious thing he ever heard.
"You’re a funny one! Here, take the table that just cleared off, go sit with your grandson. No need for you to queue, you’re a VIP in there!"
The old man smacked his lips with satisfaction, then asked "Is little James present today?"
"Young Jamie? Yes, he’s in the kitchen, but I’ll send him to bring your order! He’ll be happy to see you again after all this time!"
Once they were settled at their table with the deafening music and the loud conversations of the other clients, Merlin dropped off his senile old man act: his back straightened and his grin disappeared.
"Sorry, Arthur, it’s just easier to lie," he apologized contritely. "Anyone looking at us would think I’m your grandfather, no need to make things complicated by telling otherwise."
Even his voice was more or so back to normal. Hoarse and tired, yes, but closer to the young mysterious manservant he once was than the role he just performed to the owner of this tavern. All of a sudden, Arthur wondered how much of this old man’s character was just a role Merlin played. What about his behaviour was simulated, and what was really him? Did Merlin even know the answer himself?
He had no idea why Merlin was so adamant to look like an old fogey, or why he inflicted back pain and arthritis on himself when he could get back his youth’s vigour and his stupid young face with just a magic spell. But one thing was made clear for Arthur since the day he came back to life, and it was that his friend stubbornly avoided the subject and it was pointless asking questions.
He sighed and let his eyes wander on the close tables. The food in the plates looked like nothing he knew. He had never seen this before, no in Camelot’s banquets, not in the taverns scattered through the kingdom, not even when Merlin cooked for the knights and Arthur in the woods while they teased him. Homesickness clutched at his heart when he realized he would never again get to joke with Gwaine, Leon and Percival.
He chased away his emotions and focused on the present. He was exploring this era for the first time, and Merlin had granted his request despite his dragon’s state and that plague affecting the creatures of magic. Ignoring his growing hunger, Arthur put his elbows on the table and leaned on so his friend would hear him despite all the noise.
"So, what’s the next step? To save your dragon, I mean."
Merlin face darkened and he looked down at his wrinkled hands.
"As soon as we’re done with lunch, we’re going back home. I have to keep looking for a cure."
"You said it yourself, Merlin. You’ve been looking for a year with no result, this is a waste of time. Perhaps the solution isn’t in your books. Is there really nothing else we can do?"
"This is how I’ve always done, since the times when Gaius was still alive: something bad came up, we found the answer in his books, and there, problem’s settled. I’ve proceeded that way for a thousand years, and books have never failed me."
"Well, now they’re useless. Maybe it’s time to change methods!"
"And what do you suggest, since you’re oh so clever?"
"I have no idea!"
"Well guess what? I don’t either!"
They didn’t even realize how loudly they were arguing – the other clients were glancing nervously at them now – until a waiter approached and dropped off two plates in front of them and opened two cans with a pschitt sound.
"Two fish n’ chips and two ginger beers," he announced in a drawling voice. "Enjoy."
The man grabbed a chair and casually sat next to Arthur with his legs crossed, feeling apparently very at ease. The King moved aside as far from the intruder as he could and glared at him out of the corner of his eye – the waiter was wearing black trousers, a white shirt and an apron with the name of the restaurant written on it. His light brown hair was neglected and formed long thick locks all tangled up. He didn’t smell bad though, and his beard was trimmed and well kept. Even stranger was his skin marked with dark inked shapes and drawings, and his ears and his eyebrow were pierced with rings and metallic spikes. It would have been hard to guess his age, but he looked a little bit younger than Arthur.
"Hi, Emrys, it’s been a while."
Arthur stared and blinked when Merlin and this guy warmly shook hands.
"James, what a pleasure to see you again! How are the law studies?"
The waiter merely shrugged.
"Not bad. I should start preparing for the exams if I want to complete my year, I guess. Hey, tell me, that’s the famous Arthur Pendragon? Heard he came back to life."
Arthur took offence when James carelessly pointed at him with his thumb.
"That would be « Sire » for you," he cut him off dryly before turning to Merlin. "Who’s that? How come he knows about me?"
"James is a druid, I guess he heard about the prophecy."
"Yeah, no escape from it, the Elders have been talking about it non-stop for weeks," James confirmed while he looked at Arthur from head to toe. "So you’re the legendary Once and Future King who’s supposed to save Albion? Funny, I kinda thought you would be taller."
Arthur didn’t bother to react to the insult, he just glared daggers at him and grabbed his fork to stab angrily what looked like fish in breadcrumbs surrounded by fried potatoes.
Instead of defending him, Merlin started chatting with the rude druid:
"Have there been new cases of the disease among the druids?"
"A few. The illness is evolving at different speed depending on the person infected. Some sorcerers die in two days, while it takes weeks of agony for some others. We’ve been talking about the end of the world since the last High Priests of the Old Religion stopped having prophetic visions. There’s nothing else but darkness in the future, from what it seems."
"That’s what I saw too when I looked into the Crystal of Neahtid," Merlin admitted as he sombrely chewed on his food.
The idea Arthur had of Merlin as an hermit was starting to crumble off. Watching him acting all distant and closed in on himself for the last three weeks made him believe that Merlin had lived cut off from the world since the day Camelot fell and for a thousand years with his dragons as his only company. But that was clearly not true. Anhora, that restaurant he was a regular client of, and now this James he acted all friendly with… It seemed Merlin hadn’t waited for his resurrection to make friends, and there was now a huge part of his friend’s life Arthur knew nothing about.
Something that felt a lot like jealousy pierced into his heart as he watched the two men chat as if he wasn’t even there. He tried hard to ignore them in return and swallow back his bitterness to focus on his plate. That fish wasn’t half bad, Arthur had to admit as he stuffed his face full and drank the ginger beer in one go. It felt so good to have a proper meal after weeks of settling for food burned to a crisp he could barely eat since Merlin had stopped taking care of him.
With no consideration of Arthur’s personal space he was invading, James leaned forward, elbow planted on the table just next to the plate.
"It’s good you came here today, Emrys, I had planned to pay you a visit. The Elders asked me to tell you that your presence is required at the Council’s gathering tomorrow night."
Merlin stopped chewing and looked up at James, frowning.
"Are you sure of it? I haven’t attended a single Council’s gathering in almost four hundred years. You and Anhora are the only sorcerers who still talk to me."
"Considering the current situation, I guess the Elders decided to bury the hatchet for now. Come tomorrow night at dawn in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. And bring Arthur with you, the druids want to see him."
"JAMES!" the voice of the man behind the counter thundered. "WE NEED YOU IN THE KITCHEN!"
"My break is over, guys. We’ll meet again tomorrow for the gathering, I’m a member of the Council too."
James stood up in no rush and vaguely waved them good bye.
Chapter 6: Ash and tears
I translated into english my OS "Un sort au rabais" (with the title "A cheap spell") if you’re interested in some light and silly merthur fic :p
Maybe he was starting to get used to magic after all. When Merlin touched his shoulder and all colours and light were blown away, Arthur only felt some discomfort. No nausea this time, no dizziness, or feeling like his marrow had been sucked out of his bones.
However, it seemed he had suddenly gone blind.
The brightness of the underground city’s torches had given way to total darkness. His eyes were wide open, but it was pitch black and he couldn’t see a thing. Judging by the roots he could feel under his feet, he assumed they were in a forest, though.
The sorcerer’s hand let go of his shoulder with a soft rustling sound. Deprived of the touch, Arthur couldn’t help feeling a stab of panic in his guts.
"Merlin?" he called out, groping around in the dark to find his manservant. "Where are you?"
Arthur flinched – the hoarse voice was close to his ear. He turned in that direction, trying stubbornly to see Merlin’s face. Why was it so dark? He had gone through the woods in the middle of the night many times before, but it had never been that dark!
With no eyesight to rely on, he felt uncomfortable. If someone or something attacked them, Arthur wouldn’t see them coming and would have a hard time defending himself.
"We should have brought a torch," he muttered, his hand flying to his sword’s hilt. "I can’t see a damn thing."
"Aren’t you forgetting something, Arthur?"
Merlin’s voice was amused and held a familiar touch of sass.
"I’m a sorcerer. I don’t need a torch. Leoht!"
The sorcerer’s eyes lit up like a cat’s, glowing golden in the night. Arthur froze when he saw an orb of light growing in Merlin’s hand, shining as bright as the sun. Even so, looking right at it didn’t hurt Arthur’s eyes. The light was soft, breathtakingly beautiful. Magical.
Arthur couldn’t help himself. He reached out and touched the orb. It felt warm and liquid when he pushed his fingers inside, as if the magic was alive.
"Not bad, heh?"
Enthralled with the silky feeling of the liquid light coating his fingers and shining even brighter, Arthur nodded in amazement.
"Thank you, Arthur."
Torn away from his daze, Arthur blinked and looked up. His friend was beaming with pride, a dumb smile plastered on his face. Then only he realized he just blabbed his admiration for Merlin’s magic out loud. He removed his hand from the orb immediately and blushed with embarrassment.
"Stop smiling like an idiot, Merlin," he scoffed. "You look ridiculous."
Merlin just kept grinning at him like a dimwit, so Arthur scowled and turned his back on him to look around now that the orb was providing light like in broad daylight.
And what he saw disturbed him in many ways.
His private tutors had taught him since his earliest childhood that a king worthy of the name should perfectly know his kingdom’s lands, from the remotest village to the highest mountain. Arthur had always followed this precept by exploring the kingdom of Camelot through his many quests and missions ordered by Uther.
Arthur knew the Valley of the Fallen Kings well, he had been there a few times with Merlin by his side. And still, this forest looked nothing like he remembered.
Everything was abnormally still and the silence was deafening. There were no leaves rustling, no birds chirping, no sound of living things moving away from them. When he looked up, high above the trees top, the sky was pitch black. No moon or stars in sight. Arthur had never seen a night that dark before. That was not natural, he thought as he observed the woods around him. The vegetation’s colour was dull and the trees bark was all cracked. It was like everything had been petrified by an intense frost. When his fingers brushed against a fern, the grey leaves crumbled off and turned to ashes.
The passage of time couldn’t explain such phenomenon. A thousand of years couldn’t make what he saw any less impossible.
"Is it… sorcery?" he asked, turning around to face Merlin and show him the chalky ashes slipping through his fingers. "From what I remember, the Valley of the Fallen Kings didn’t look anything like this."
The old man stared at him for a moment, and there was something deep and ancient in his eyes. He was grasping at his staff made of carved wood, leaning on it like a cane. The ochre stone at the top was now glowing. His blue eyes took in the grey and bleak landscape.
He probably used some kind of silent spell, because his eyes flashed golden and the orb of light rose slowly in the air. It became even brighter and now Arthur could see hundreds of yards around. Grey trees, rocks, and far in the distance, the two massive statues of Kings of the old days he recognized right away. Many tree trunks were broken and lying on the ground.
"What you see is the result of an enchantment the druid Council cast four hundred years ago on this sacred place of the Old Religion to preserve it from impious eyes. The sunlight has not touched those lands since that day. No one can enter this forest or even come close to it unless they are intimately linked to magic. This place…"
Merlin waved around to show the forest and the two giant statues of the Kings who had been staring at each others for millennia.
"… is inviolable, and even modern technology with its satellites and GPS and Internet could not place it on a map."
Arthur didn’t bother to ask about the terms he didn’t understand – as always when Merlin talked about the strange things of this time – and wiped his hand on his jeans, pulling a reproving face.
"So the druids deprived that forest from sun for all that time? No wonder the trees are dying."
"That’s where you’re wrong, Arthur. The enchantment cuts off the Valley of the Fallen Kings from sunlight and rain, but Albion’s magic itself fed the forest. For four centuries, the trees and vegetation thrived. Less than a year ago, this place was luxuriant and full of life. Its state today can only mean one thing."
Merlin narrowed his eyes when he saw a tree far off crumble and fell on the ground.
"Aithusa was right. Albion’s magic really is dying. And we don’t know why."
The sorcerer started walking with long strides, his staff hitting the ground with a thud with every step he made.
"Come on, Arthur, the druids are waiting for us."
Arthur followed closely. Not so long ago, or at least before he died, he would have taken offence if his friend and servant gave him such a direct order. But he had to face the fact that things were different now. In this world, at this time, he was not the king any more. He was in uncharted territory and Merlin was the one holding the reins.
The orb was following too, floating above them to light their path. Shadows moved as they passed through, and every now and then they heard more trees cracking and falling down. The two statues of the Fallen Kings were growing taller as they walked in their direction, and soon they arrived at their feet. They had to stride over rocks, rubbles and tortuous roots that crumbled when they stepped on them.
Finally the path lead into a clear space. There, around twenty druids were standing still in a circle with their face hidden under a hood. Strange magical-looking runes were drawn on the ground and were glowing, bathing the scene with a soft blue light.
Not a word was spoken, but they all turned at the same time to watch them come. Arthur dusted the ashes off his leather jacket and his jeans, and puffed out his chest to keep his composure.
"You are late."
The voice of the druid who just spoke out resounded oddly, and the echoes whispered away like swarms of bugs.
"We are very busy men," Merlin retorted insolently and led Arthur into the circle.
With a sharp gesture of the hand, he made the light orb disappear. Only the pale blue glowing of the the luminous runes carved on the ground was lighting them from below.
The druids were wrapped in their dark cloaks, and Arthur could only catch a glimpse of their chins and lips under the hoods. Merlin and him stood out in the circle, dishevelled and wearing their modern clothes. Except for the magic staff with its ochre stone, and his faithful Excalibur at his belt, they looked nothing like a sorcerer and a king.
The druids shared a few looks, and one of them spoke in a serious tone:
"You all know why we are gathered tonight. These are grave times. For months now, there has been one bad omen of death and destruction after another. Sorcerers succumb to this plague that makes them lose their mind and consumes them from the inside."
Arthur recognized the next druid who spoke. It was Anhora, the old Keeper of the unicorns.
"The pure and ancestral creatures of magic are succumbing one by one. There are only five unicorns left today, all suffering from this illness."
A middle-aged druidess raised her hand at her heart, the fabric of her cloak rustling.
"I am a Seer and a High Priestess of the Old Religion, and yet I cannot see into the past or the future any more. For the first time in my life, I am blind and I know not what has yet to pass. In my dreams and trances, all I see is darkness. Nothing but darkness."
"The Crystal of Neahtid too only shows darkness," Merlin said, tightening his grip on his staff. "According to Aithusa, it is Albion’s magic itself that is dying, and we are dying along with it."
Anhora nodded sternly. He was holding a staff too, like most of the druids present in the circle.
"We all know how intimately dragons are bonded to the oldest and purest magic. They draw their knowledge directly at Albion’s source. The great white dragon’s words are not to be taken lightly."
Arthur wasn’t in his element. Of course, after three weeks of listening to the conversations of Merlin and his dragon he understood the situation way better than he did the day he came back to life and heard Anhora and Merlin talk about this magical plague. But he felt out of place in this circle of sorcerers, in the middle of an enchanted forest in a sacred land for the druids. He didn’t belong to their world and this time, he had spent most of his life fighting magic and its practitioners, and following Uther’s precepts. He had nothing to do here, among those sorcerers threatened by an evil that didn’t affect Arthur himself.
"When I defied the Council’s will and made Emrys come here to try and treat the young Lorvar, first druid to succumb to the illness, he warned us about the bad omens foreshadowing a terrible danger upon Albion. You didn’t listen to him then, but the return of the Once and Future King tells us that this is even worse that what we feared."
Arthur raised an eyebrow. He definitely knew that drawling voice. James, the young man who served them food at the restaurant yesterday. Indeed, the druid with the trimmed beard was pointing his finger at Arthur.
"According to the prophecy, he is the one supposed to save Albion."
All eyes turned to look at Arthur who held his head high with as much dignity as he could.
Anhora spoke to Merlin: "Emrys, you told me three weeks ago that the Lady of the Lake was the one who informed you of the return of the Once and Future King. What did she tell you exactly? Did she know something?"
Merlin shook his head, his long white hair following the movement.
"Freya didn’t know any more than you and I. She felt Arthur come back to life in the lake and she told me right away so I could go to meet him. She didn’t say anything more."
Arthur blinked, not understanding a word they said. Who was this Lady of the Lake?
Before he could ask, the High Priestess who was still staring insistently at him rose her voice haughtily:
"Very well, then let’s ask the one who is actually destined to rescue us… Arthur Pendragon, how do you intend to save Albion from this plague that kills sorcerers and creatures of magic?"
Arthur opened his mouth. Then closed it, frowning with frustration.
"I don’t know."
"Perhaps he met the Cailleach during his stay in the limbo?" another druid suggested. "The Gatekeeper of the spirit world has to know what is happening. She might have told him something."
"No, I haven’t met anyone," Arthur cut him short.
"What do you remember of the realm of the dead?"
Arthur folded his arms, starting to feel annoyed. He didn’t quite enjoy being interrogated by druids who would have feared him once, and he enjoyed even less being stared at like some circus freak.
"I don’t remember anything. I was dying, and next thing I knew I was in the lake of Avalon a thousand years later. That’s all."
"Then how could you defeat this plague even though you don’t have magic and you are not a king any more? How can you claim to succeed where our magic failed?"
"I have no bloody idea!" Arthur snapped, irritated. "I’m not claiming anything! I never asked to be in a prophecy and I have no idea how to save Albion!"
The druids shared dismayed looks and murmurs.
An old man with a square jaw rose a hand to force silence and spoke in a loud voice that echoed through the Valley of the Fallen Kings:
"The ancient prophecies predicted that Emrys and Arthur Pendragon would unify Albion together and restore magic. But it never happened. Today, the kingdom is unified, but it was not of their doing, and magic has been buried, weakened and forgotten through centuries. Why should we believe in this second prophecy when the previous one never came to pass?"
"Rheyelan is right," the grey-haired High Priestess nodded. "And how can we be so sure it is truly Albion that brought Arthur Pendragon back to life?"
"What do you mean?" Anhora asked calmly, but his voice was cold.
The High Priestess continued more fervently:
"We all know that through the centuries Emrys hoarded for himself the treasures and powerful artefacts of magic that belonged to the druidic community. He has the Cup of Life, doesn’t he? Nothing could stop him from using it if after a thousand years he has grown tired of waiting for his king to return every time a danger hangs over Albion! Maybe he brought him back to life himself to force destiny! Maybe he is the reason why Albion’s magic is dying!"
Offended, Arthur glanced at his friend who would certainly deny this absurd accusation. But Merlin remained silent and still, staring at them with a hard look in his eyes.
James pushed back his hood, freeing his dirty-looking locks of tangled hair – Merlin told him it was in fact a hairstyle called dreadlocks.
"Are you serious, guys?" the young druid sighed wryly. "You can’t possibly believe that! As if old Emrys was the kind of person to make a human sacrifice to bring anyone back to life! He’s just a grumpy but cool grandpa when you get to know him, stop blaming him for everything that goes wrong!"
The High Priestess stepped forward and pushed back her hood too, revealing an aged but dignified face, cold eyes glaring at Merlin.
"You don’t know him like we do, James. You are too young to know those times. Emrys was our ally once, our protector. When I was a child, I would have given my life for his in a heartbeat. But he betrayed us to rejoin the Sidhes just when we needed him the most. He abandoned us. And for what? For a dragon’s egg."
She spat those words with unconcealed rage and contempt. Arthur blinked when he saw an indescribable expression on Merlin’s face. He couldn’t tell if it was anger or remorse.
Finally, the sorcerer lowered his eyes and said in a tired voice:
"Eleanor, I know you will never change your mind about me. But we are not here to dig up the past. We need to find a way to stop that plague killing sorcerers and creatures of magic."
The High Priestess gritted her teeth.
"Very well. So be it."
She carefully put back her hood to conceal her face in its shadow – but the hard line of her jaw and her pinched lips were a clear sign of her resentment. She took her place back in the circle to talk to the druids with a voice devoid of emotions:
"We can’t rely on prophecies to save us. We have to take action ourselves before the disease kills us all while we wait for a miracle that will never happen. Since the Once and Future King is no more of use for us than Emrys is, I would like to suggest a real solution to find a remedy."
"We are listening, Eleanor," Rheyelan nodded.
"The Cailleach once was Albion’s first witch, in the old times. Ancient legends say that the souls of the dead used to wander on earth until she divided the realm of the living from the realm of the dead. She became the Gatekeeper of the spirit world. She certainly could tell us why Albion’s magic is dying if we asked her. We have to tear up the veil to the spirit world to consult the Cailleach."
Arthur and Merlin had reacted at the same time, and they shared a brief look. The sorcerer tightened his grip on his staff and stepped forward to stand in the middle of the circle.
"Arthur and I were there a thousand years ago the last time the veil has been torn. Not only opening and closing it required a human sacrifice, but the Dorocha poured out of the veil and slaughtered many innocents through the kingdom of Camelot!"
He had spoken in his hoarse and charismatic voice, but the High Priestess didn’t seem impressed.
"I am aware," she retorted coldly. "And I will not hesitate sacrificing my life to give a chance to my community to stop the plague. I can’t just stand idle and watch them die."
Merlin snorted and smacked his lips together with this scowl Dragoon the Great always had a thousand years ago.
"I know the Cailleach better than anyone, and believe me, she won’t help you. She doesn’t care about life or death. If you tear up the veil between the worlds, death and terror will descend upon Albion. I won’t let you do that."
The High Priestess smirked bitterly.
"I couldn’t expect any less from the one who betrayed our community, Emrys. Just like Anhora who doesn’t care about anything else but his unicorns, you only came tonight because you fear for your dragons. You don’t care about the druids dying."
Merlin slowly turned to the witch, a sombre look in his eyes.
"Don’t let yourself be blinded by hate, Eleanor. I know you still don’t believe it and I don’t blame you, but I did all I could back then to protect the druids persecuted by the Inquisition. I created a city to shelter you all and avoid a blood bath. I have provided food, protection, education. What more could I have done?"
"Oh, right, you did perfectly!" she scoffed. "The truth is, Emrys, that you are a coward. Coward and selfish. You have been hiding in the Pendragon’s shadow for so long that the very idea of a world where sorcery is free and accepted frightens you. Instead of fighting the ones who murdered us and standing up for your kin, you buried us like rats in a underground gilded cage. You let our magic weaken and sink into oblivion over the centuries, which made us even more isolated and vulnerable than ever before. We were relying on your protection when you abandoned us to rejoin the Sidhes, and now you have the nerve to show up in front of us with that sceptre they offered you in exchange of your betrayal!"
She pointed a finger trembling with anger at Merlin’s staff, while Arthur stepped forward to stand by his side, their shoulders brushing against each other. He kept his hand on his sword’s hilt, ready to draw it to defend his friend. He knew perfectly well he couldn’t stand a chance against a powerful and angry witch, but he had no intention to just stand idle while Merlin had insults thrown at him.
"Emrys never had but contempt for the druids!" said an old toothless sorcerer who had been silent until now. "A thousand years ago we all had so much faith in him, but he never protected or helped us! He left us to die because he would rather serve Uther Pendragon and his son who persecuted us! I was very young at this time, but I never forgot about Mordred, that pure-hearted boy who turned hateful because Emrys stamped on his loyalty and his hopes! And I never forgot he let Arthur sentence to death that druid girl, Kara. She was a young and innocent maiden who was like a sister to me."
Arthur felt a drop of cold sweat dripping down his spine and clenched his fists. He remembered that young druid girl – she was so virulently hateful against the Pendragons and refused every compromise, so he had been left with no other choice but to sentence her to death.
"Are we here to be put on a trial, or to save Albion?" Merlin shouted in a thundering voice, his staff hitting the ground.
"We should not have invited you, Emrys!"
"At least we agree on something!" Merlin quavered back drily. "I don’t know why I even bothered coming!"
"Now that the Sidhes have been wiped out by the illness, you don’t have any allies any more to protect you and you should show us some respect!"
All the druids were now arguing at the same time, and their shouting resounded through the Valley of the Fallen Kings, making it sound even louder. They were now all glaring at him with hostility, except for Anhora who had stepped back into the shadows, and James who was trying to take Merlin’s side and quarrelling with Eleanor.
"Merlin…" Arthur hissed through his teeth.
"We have nothing to do here any more," the sorcerer nodded and grabbed his shoulder. "Let’s go, Arthur."
The blue half-shade and the figures of the druids started melting around them, but Arthur still heard Eleanor’s voice echoing away like dust blown by the wind:
"Go then, Emrys, run! Run away! That is, after all, what you do best!"
A second after, they had left the Valley of the Fallen Kings and Arthur started back when he found himself face to face with Aithusa’s huge mouth, engulfed in her burning hot breath. The giant dragon’s blue eyes looked down serenely at them. She didn’t seem surprised to see them appear out of thin air in the cave.
"How is Kalkhaino doing?" Merlin asked right away.
"He is stable, but the evil is eating into his soul," Aithusa’s voice echoed. "You came back early. I assume your reunion with the druids didn’t go well, Emrys?"
Merlin shrugged off his jacket and threw it on a stalactite, using it like a coat rack.
"Of course it went wrong," he sighed and wedged his staff against a column. "I never expected a reconciliation. I guess we should be glad we weren’t attacked."
"Attacked?" Arthur repeated with a sceptical scowl. "I thought the druids were peaceful people?"
"They once were. But things have changed since the day you died."
"After centuries of persecutions, even the most peaceful people can be consumed by hatred…" the dragon whispered wistfully. "That was what Kilgharrah used to tell me when he spoke of our extinct race."
Aithusa’s eyes glowed like two diamonds. It was night, but the darkness in the cave felt nothing like the never ending night of the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Here, the light of the stars and the moon poured into the cave and was reflected on the salt lake. The silver half-light traced the outline of Merlin’s face, making it look somehow ethereal.
Arthur took a few steps forward until he was right in front of his friend. So close he could see every wrinkle on his face and the pain and sorrow darkening his eyes.
Merlin hesitated. For a fleeting moment, despite the white beard and hair, despite the face withered by old age, Arthur saw his awkward manservant.
"After you died and Camelot fell…" Merlin began with a hoarse voice, "the only reason I had left to live was to wait for your return announced by the prophecy, and to fulfil a promise I made to the Great Dragon in his last breath."
He turned his head to Aithusa and raised a hand to stroke the white scales of her jaw – the dragon closed her eyes and stretched her neck, melting into the caress, before she pressed her nostrils against the sorcerer’s body.
Further away, Ghalini’s figure was hidden in the shadows, his eyes glowing like two emeralds. Water lapped when he dove into the lake, and Arthur saw him swim swiftly underneath the rippling surface.
"I promised him I would find Aithusa and bring back to life the noble race of dragons. But centuries went by, Aithusa still laid no egg, and even though I searched Albion and the whole world, I never could find any other dragon egg. Never."
Aithusa let out a sigh and their clothes billowed in her breath. She opened her eyes and looked sadly at her master before dropping down her head on the ground as if she had no strength to lift it any more. Merlin stopped stroking her and slowly lowered his hand.
"Eight centuries ago, I was travelling around the world looking for dragons and had no idea that Albion was torn apart by conflicts and terrible wars. I heard the desperate call from the druids and hurried back, riding Aithusa through the skies. At this time, I still wasn’t able to move from a place to another like I’m doing now. What I saw when I returned… it was a new Great Purge, but so much worse than the one your father once led, Arthur. Anyone suspected of practising magic was persecuted, hunted down, savagely tortured and burned alive at the stake without even a trial. That was what we called the Inquisition."
Arthur moistened his lips, old remorse clutching at his heart when he thought about the druid village he slaughtered in his youth under Uther’s orders. Then he thought of his own reign, how he perpetuated the ban and the persecutions because of his hatred for the magic that took his father away and corrupted Morgana’s heart.
"That’s why you built all of this? The underground city, the chambers, the kitchen, the bathrooms and diner room… it was to shelter the sorcerers?"
Merlin nodded gravely, looking away.
"Then why are they so angry at you, if you saved them from a certain death?"
"Oh, they were grateful, in the beginning."
Aithusa had closed her eyes in slumber and was breathing deeply.
Letting her sleep, they walked away slowly and went to sit on a rock roughly carved like a bench facing the lake. With his head lowered down and his elbows resting on his knees, the old man was looking sternly at the dark water of the lake. Ghalini’s shadow was swimming beneath the surface, diving in the deep.
That felt familiar, somehow. How many times did they sit like that, just the two of them gazing at a camp fire side by side? How many times did Arthur glanced at Merlin’s profile like he was doing just now, wondering what his friend was thinking and hoping he would confide in him? How many times did he shove him in the shoulder or ruffled his hair with no idea how to express his affection in any other way?
"When I founded this city, I enchanted the cliff to control the access and prevent our enemies to reach us. I only wanted to offer a shelter to the sorcerers until the Inquisition stopped and peace returned. But years passed by and generations lived and died trapped underground. Many were those who became hostile towards me when I forbade the use of magic to kill our enemies after a few incidents involving young druids who went out to fight and made the situation worse. I wanted a lasting peace, even if for this we had to wait for the world to forget magic ever existed so no one would think of persecuting sorcerers any more. The druidic community accused me of letting magic weaken and keeping the druids prisoners. But what else could I have done? Lead an open war that would have made the druids appear hostile for all the world to see, and made everyone in Albion fear and hate magic?"
Arthur had listened, eyes locked on his friend’s aged face, his white beard and his bright blue eyes.
"You did the right thing, Merlin."
He raised a hand to squeeze the sorcerer’s bony shoulder. Merlin turned his head to look at him in the eye, and Arthur continued gravely:
"Since I’ve been crowned king, I know how hard it is to rule, to take decisions to protect the people, to maintain order and establish authority without being unfair. It is impossible to please everyone."
His words didn’t seem to bring comfort to Merlin – he looked down with a tired sigh.
"I am not like you, Arthur. I don’t have the shoulders for bearing that kind of responsibility, for ruling over thousands of people and placing their needs before my own. It’s not only my passivity against the Inquisition and my decision to let the world forget about magic that brought me the ire of the druid Council. I’ve… I’ve made some selfish decisions, back then. After centuries of hoping and searching in vain, I realized that I would never be able to keep my promise to Kilgharrah. There were no dragon eggs left anywhere in the world, and Aithusa was sterile, unable to lay eggs."
Arthur frowned and gestured at the massive shape of the blue and green dragon breaking the lake’s surface and diving right back with a loud splash.
"You told me that Aithusa laid Ghalini’s egg, though. And that you found Kalkhaino’s and Makkariah’s eggs."
Merlin nodded with a pale smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
"Well, in fact, I had the help of the Sidhes for that. To prove me what they were capable of, first they used their ancient magic to allow Aithusa to lay an egg, just one, Ghalini’s egg. Then they promised me more dragon eggs they saved from the Great Purge, provided that I would become their ally in a war that was tearing them apart in the kingdom of Avalon. That is one of the things the druids reproached me: that I refused to fight against the Inquisition and spill human blood on Albion, while I didn’t hesitate to provide an army to the Sidhes and go to war for them, because I wanted so badly to bring back to life the race of dragons and honour Kilgharrah’s last wish."
Merlin sighed, shoulders hunched.
"When I came back victorious from the Kingdom of Avalon with the Sidhes’ eternal gratitude, Kalkhaino’s egg as well as that sceptre in reward, I found the underground city deserted. I didn’t know it then, but time passes by differently in the Sidhe realm – I thought I had been gone for a few weeks, but in reality I had disappeared for almost a hundred years. While I was away, sorcerers had been captured by our enemies and under torture they revealed the location of the city. Soon, it was under siege and the druids couldn’t go outside without being captured and tortured, or killed on sight. They called for my help, but I couldn’t hear them from the Kingdom of Avalon. So they decided to attack, one finale battle, rather than starving to death. Eleanor’s parents were leading the druids to battle, and they all got slaughtered. When I came back decades later, all that was left of the druidic community were a few hundreds of children and old people recluse in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. To this day, they still accuse me of choosing the Sidhes over my own kin and they hold me responsible for what happened. By gathering them all in the city to protect them, I made them an easy target, and their magic was weakened by centuries of living underground, cut off from nature. Without my protection, they were doomed and had no chance to defeat the enemy."
The water lapping and Merlin’s hoarse voice echoed along the cave’s vault. Arthur moistened his lips, looking for something to say. But there was nothing to say, so he just squeezed his friend’s shoulder harder as a sign of support – the sorcerer’s long white hair brushed against his fingers.
"I felt so bad about not having been there to prevent this tragedy and stop the death of thousands of druids," Merlin continued, lowering his eyes, "that for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to make Kalkhaino’s egg hatch. I finally did it a hundred years ago. I have lived here alone with my dragons for four centuries, and only kept in touch with Anhora, the Sidhes, and more recently James… The Sidhes gave me another egg as a token of our friendship a few months ago, Makkariah’s egg. If I had known it would be the last one, that I would never receive more of them any more…"
Merlin sighed and slowly shook his head.
"Now, the Sidhes are all gone. And with them, any hope of getting new dragons."
" Emrys…! "
Arthur and Merlin startled at the urgency in Aithusa’s voice. The great white dragon was struggling to get on her feet, the bone structure of her membranous wings trembling with the effort.
" Kalkhaino is getting worse ! "
Merlin didn’t even waited for her to finish her sentence before he jumped on his feet and rushed to the wall where the ill creature was chained. Arthur followed him, his heart pounding inside his chest.
The black dragon was shaking hard and didn’t seem to have the strength to fight back the evil any more. He watched them approach with his eyes that had turned entirely black, and whined pitifully when Merlin embraced his head with his arms and pressed his forehead against his.
"Hold on to me, Kalkhaino, my little one…" the sorcerer murmured, stroking his scales. "I’m here… I’m right here…"
Arthur kept his distance. Walking closer and listening to the reassuring words Merlin was whispering to his trembling dragon would feel like intruding.
That creature he had been so afraid of the first time he saw him was now a sorry sight. The disease had made his body wither away, and he had fought so ferociously those last few weeks the magical chains cut into his bloody scales. His tail and his wings were lying lifelessly on the ground. His scales were falling at some places, revealing the raw flesh under. He was staring at Merlin with so much pain and trust in his eyes Arthur had to look away with a heavy heart.
The dragon started seizing violently, and still Merlin was holding him in his arms while the scales turned grey and the membrane of the wings tore apart like old boiled leather before turning into ashes.
"No… NO!" Merlin shouted when he saw the tail crumble off, followed short by the legs, the body… "Kalkhaino!"
Until the very last second, the dragon stared at his master in distress, until his head and the rest of his body crumbled into ashes in the sorcerer’s hands. Soon all that was left was a huge heap of chalky powder in the middle of the now useless chains that vanished like they never even existed in the first place.
Silence fell in the cave. Standing still like a statue, Aithusa was watching. Ghalini was slowly coming out of the lake to nudge with the tip of his nostrils at what was left of his brother. As for Merlin, he remained frozen here, his hands still raised in the air where the dragon’s skull had been just a few seconds ago. Ashes were spilling from his fingers with a soft sound. They were all over Merlin’s clothes and the cheek he had been pressing against the dragon.
Hearing a sob in his friend’s voice broke something in Arthur’s heart. Merlin’s wrinkled face was contorting and his shoulders trembling when he dropped on his knees and burst out sobbing, tears rolling down his face.
Arthur had never seen his friend cry before. Not that openly, anyway. Not like that. He had seen him hold back tears shimmering in his eyes, or discretely wipe out his cheek when he thought Arthur wasn’t watching. But he had never seen him burst into tears, with his face flushed red and his whole body shaking with sobs.
Arthur stepped closer hesitantly and knelt next to his friend, touching his shoulder with just the tip of his fingers.
The prostrate old man was gripping a handful of ashes against his heart, and they spilled from his fist no matter how tight he clenched it. Getting rid of his last reserves, Arthur pulled his friend into his arms. Merlin melted in his embrace and buried his face into Arthur’s neck. The beard was ticking his skin and he felt his t-shirt getting wet from the tears. His friend’s lanky body was radiating with warmth and Arthur could feel his heart pounding against his even through their clothes.
Arthur clumsily slipped his fingers into the white hair to stroke the nape of his neck.
"I’m here," he murmured against his friend’s ear. "I’m right here…"
He would realize only later that he had used the same words Merlin had whispered to his dying dragon.
Arthur wasn’t nervous.
Or at least he was trying to convince himself he was not as he followed with his eyes the spoon filled to the brim. He held his breath when Merlin stuffed it in his mouth and started chewing like a cow with a scowl on his face.
"Well?" Arthur finally said, trying to sound casual. "It’s good, isn’t it?"
The old man swallowed his mouthful of chunky soup, narrowing his eyes.
"It’s… edible," he muttered under his breath. "Not that bad, actually."
Arthur couldn’t help puffing out his chest and grinning when Merlin warily swallowed another spoonful as if he expected to be poisoned. If Arthur hadn’t be so damn proud of his cooking achievement, he would have taken offence.
Merlin didn’t need to know it had taken many failed attempts and hours sweating in the kitchen to finally cook something that wasn’t burned, or too salty, or too sweet – why in earth did salt and sugar look so much alike? In the process, two saucepans had ended up burnt to a crisp and the floor was littered with garbage.
"If someone told me one day that king Arthur Pendragon would someday make me soup, I would never have believed it," Merlin mumbled, stirring at the contents of his plate and frowning. "Did you really made it yourself?"
Arthur resisted the sudden need to empty the pitcher on his head for his insolence. Instead, he confidently pointed at him with the tip of his spoon:
"This is your problem, Merlin. You underestimate me. I may not have magic, but I do have some assets you’re deprived of and will never get."
Merlin raised his eyebrows, looking sceptical.
Arthur spread his arms with an arrogant smirk:
"Elegance. Charisma. Intelligence. Talent. A king has to adapt to every situation and be able to do anything."
"Oh really?" the old man snorted, rolling his eyes. "A thousand years ago you couldn’t fend for yourself without my help. It was always Merlin do this, Merlin do that, every hour of the day and night. You couldn’t even manage to put on a pair of trousers or cut your own toe nails by yourself."
"Stop whining, you idiot. Why would I have bothered doing those boring things on my own when you were paid to do them anyway?"
"Peuh. I was working my ass off for peanuts…"
"What are you mumbling again?"
For a short moment, Arthur felt like he had his sharp-tongued best friend back. The one who never hesitated mocking his king and burst out laughing when he dodged the pillows Arthur threw at him. But despite his efforts, Merlin still wasn’t smiling, and the moment vanished when the sorcerer turned his head to look outside through the window with a heavy sigh.
Arthur’s smile fell back. His objective had been to cheer up his friend after the death of his dragon, and the only idea that came to him was to cook for him and mock him. That was how Arthur always used to handle Merlin when he looked upset, sad or distant: he mocked him, rebuked him, bullied him a bit, and it always cheered him up eventually. But not this time. And Arthur didn’t know how to handle things differently. He never did.
He turned his eyes to look through the window like his friend. The tall grass outside was undulating under the breeze, Ghalini was gently lifting Makkariah between his fangs as high as he could to drop him. The tiny golden dragon was flapping his wings in a frenzy each time he fell, but couldn’t glide in the air more than two seconds, let alone fly. The big dragon with the blue scales iridescent with green patiently showed him how he was supposed to do, and tirelessly started over, again and again.
Ever since Kalkhaino’s death occurred a few days earlier, Merlin’s eyes filled up with sadness every time he looked at his dragons who were still alive. Perhaps he was fearing the day the magic plague would infect another one of his creatures who had been all his life for centuries.
When he wasn’t buried deep into his dusty magic books in the library, the sorcerer spent most of his time in the cabin at the edge of the cliff and watched Ghalini trying to teach Makkariah how to fly on his own. Only Arthur’s presence and efforts to get his mind off it managed to tear him away from his grief, but it never lasted. He always ended up lost in his thoughts, looking older and more worn out than ever.
"When Kalkhaino hatched a hundred years ago…" Merlin murmured, stirring the soup absently. "he was full of energy, very playful, and did a lot of stupid things. I’ve lost count of how many times he set fire to my clothes just for fun. For thirty years he has been sleeping with me in my bed until he became too big. I had to forbid him the access to my bedroom because his weight had broken the bed. I haven’t had a second to be bored since his birth. Sometimes, I think he did all of it on purpose to prevent me of dwelling too much on the past…"
Merlin would probably have gone on talking about his dragon for a long time if the sky hadn’t suddenly darkened even though there had been no cloud just a few seconds earlier. Such an abrupt phenomenon couldn’t possibly be natural, Arthur thought as he shared a tense look with Merlin. Ghalini’s warning growl confirmed their suspicions.
Leaving the soup behind, they got on their feet and rushed out of the cabin perching on the edge of the cliff. They looked up, and Arthur froze, eyes widening in stupor.
Those weren’t clouds darkening the sky and concealing the sun, but hundreds, maybe thousands of winged creatures. They were swarming like a thick mass of flying cockroaches, gliding through the air, hissing and flapping their membranous wings.
Arthur first mistook them for dragons, before he realized they were smaller, and their scales were far less coloured and shimmering.
"Wyverns!" Merlin hissed, narrowing his eyes.
Then only Arthur recognized them. He had fought this kind of monsters before, during his quest for the Fisher King’s trident, and they would have killed him if Merlin and Gwaine hadn’t been there to save his life.
Without hesitation, Merlin raised his arm, hand spread open toward the invaded sky.
"Nun de ge dei s'eikein kai emois epe'essin hepesthai! "
He had chanted in the dragon language with a hoarse and powerful voice, but it had no effect on the monsters. Swarms of wyverns came from everywhere on the horizon and kept heaping together in the sky. It was now as dark as night and Makkariah dashed between Arthur’s ankles to hide behind his calves, trembling with fear.
"Impossible…" the old man said, grinding his teeth and lowering his hand. "No wyvern could resist my orders. Unless… Inbringe, cume mec!"
Arthur barely dodged the wooden staff as it slashed through the air right to the sorcerer who snatched it in flight and brandished it up high.
The sceptre’s ochre stone shone and hurled lightning to the sky in a deafening cracking sound. The flash of light that set the swarm of wyverns ablaze was so bright Arthur had to cover his eyes not to end up blinded. When he dared opening his eyes again, the field was littered with dozens of tetanized wyverns convulsing and shrieking in pain. Merlin cut through the tall grass to bend over one of them to inspect it. The creature darted stark black eyes at him, hissing and snarling, and instantly crumbled into ashes just like Kalkhaino did a few days earlier, even though the sorcerer barely even touched it.
"I knew it," Merlin said as he got back on his feet, his spine cracking loudly. "They all are infected by the evil and consumed by blood lust."
Arthur glanced at the sky still swarming with wyverns wheeling around and impulsing a collective movement in the same direction like a flock of birds would.
"They’re heading south! Is there any city around there in this time?"
"Cities are everywhere these days!" Merlin replied as he whistled for Ghalini. "We have to stop them before they kill anyone!"
With a sudden movement of air, the dragon joined them and spread a wing for them to use as a ladder to climb on his back. This time, Arthur merely gritted his teeth when that giant flying lizard took off with a few powerful flaps of wings. He embraced Merlin’s waist with just an arm and drew his sword with his free hand, ready to fight an army of enraged beasts. They were flying like the wind, cutting through the air so fast his leather jacket was flapping like a cape and his blond hair was plastered back. He could feel the movement of the wings and the muscles shifting under the rough scales, but the very thought of riding a dragon hundreds feet above the ground was no longer terrifying, not like the first time around.
Little by little, they were catching up with the wyverns, but the swarm of flying beasts suddenly swooped down to a city like a black cloud.
"They’re attacking Port Isaac!" Merlin yelled and patted his dragon’s scales to encourage him to speed up. "Faster, Ghalini!"
Arthur was just thinking he had to ask Merlin for recent maps of the united kingdom of Albion to visualize the geographic changes that occurred the last thousand years and memorize the names of the new cities, when everything turned upside down. The dragon folded his wings and let himself fall like a rock to chase after the wyverns, and Arthur clung on to Merlin in order not to fall over into the void. When Ghalini snapped his wings open just before they reached the ground, Arthur didn’t hesitate and leaped down to land lithely on the pavement.
It was chaos all around. Distraught citizens were running and screaming in terror, chased by the wyverns swooping down at them and flapping their wings in a frenzy. The creatures were even more numerous than he had estimated – just in this street, there were hundreds of them screeching and viciously attacking people to devour them alive and rip them apart with their claws.
Arthur clutched at his sword’s hilt with his two hands and shielded with his body a wounded citizen who was being attacked by three wyverns. He pushed them away by wielding his sword and cutting off a monster’s leg whose warm blood splashed him in the face. The attacks were coming from everywhere. Some wyverns crumbled into ashes when he barely touched them with his sword, while others resisted and didn’t seem to even feel pain.
"Run!" he ordered the young man he just saved from certain death. "Go take cover and stay hidden!"
Arthur covered his escape and made sure he was hidden and safe inside a building with a few other terrified victims. He wielded Excalibur around to keep the creatures away, but there were so many of them now surrounding him, leaving him no way out. Adrenalin rushed through his veins when three wyverns swooped down at him, and he barely dodged the attack by throwing himself on the ground. He rolled hurriedly to get back on a knee in a defensive position and couldn't hold back a cry of pain when claws slashed his jacket's leather and the skin of his back open.
A lightning bolt tore through the air and crashed down on the wyverns surrounding Arthur with a loud cracking sound. Short of breath, Arthur wiped the blood and the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and looked up to see where did the attack come from. Standing on the tiled roof of a house and staring down at him with golden eyes, Merlin was holding his staff and addressed him a short nod.
For a brief moment, Arthur relived the battle of Camlann with high precision and saw the Saxons Merlin annihilated in the exact same way before they even had the chance to attack Arthur.
Blood was running down Arthur’s back, soaking through his t-shirt. He ran to rescue other citizens who were shouting for help, pinned on the ground by wyverns and at their mercy. Every move he made with his sword opened his wounds even more, but he gritted his teeth to endure the pain and fought the growing crowd of monsters.
High above the sorcerer, Ghalini's huge shadow was gliding with his wings wide open and belching out raging fire at them to burn them in flight. Merlin kept striking dozens of wyverns at once with his lightning bolts bursting out from his staff's ochre stone. But the creatures still increased in number, and Arthur could hear people screaming and dying through the city because they couldn't rescue them all. The street was swarming with wyverns foaming with rage that became more violent and bloodthirsty with every minute passing by.
Arthur was bathed in sweat and breathing hard by fighting monsters assaulting him from behind, from above, from everywhere. His damp t-shirt was plastered to his chest and his wet locks of hair dripped on his forehead. For every wyvern he managed to slay, three more came from nowhere. The ground was covered with bloody ashes.
"There are too many of them!" he yelled as he slew the flow of wyverns that never seemed to run dry. "We won't make it just the two of us, even with your dragon as back up!"
Merlin suddenly appeared right in front of him with his golden eyes flashing – Arthur startled, barely holding back a reflex of defence.
"I have an idea," the sorcerer told him in a rough voice. "Cover me while I summon an army to help us out."
"An army?" Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow, dumbfounded. "What do you mean, an army?"
Instead of answering, Merlin breathed in deeply, his head thrown back, and raised his arms high to the sky darkened with wyverns. The sorcerer's clothes, white hair and beard billowed in the gusts of wind rising.
"Bebiede þe arisan ealdu!"
Arthur cursed silently when he figured out he would have to protect his friend from the wyverns while he was chanting his summon spell – his blade dirty with blood and ashes cut through the air to keep the monsters at a distance. Every time he wielded his sword in a direction, he was attacked from the other side. Good thing it didn't take too long, because Arthur had a hard time countering the assaults and he took such a violent blow to the elbow now his right arm was completely paralysed. He couldn't move his fingers any more and his hand dangled uselessly, so he had to grab his sword with his left hand which made it even harder to fight with.
"Your magic trick has better be worth it!" he panted, positioning himself back to back with Merlin. "I’m not impressed for now!"
Maybe his friend's spell had failed, because he couldn't see anything different around, let alone an army coming to lend them a hand. The wyverns were still spreading terror and death in the city. Now they even tried to smash the windows and tear the doors out of their hinges by clawing at them, trying to reach their preys hiding inside the houses.
"Give them some time to arrive and you will be impressed, believe me!" Merlin retorted and tightened his grip on his sceptre to strike down the closest wyverns.
A metallic carriage – a car, since that was how those things were called – appeared suddenly at the corner of the street blaring like a hunting horn, red and blue lights flashing on its roof. It was immediately submerged with enraged monsters clawing the metal open to reach inside.
Someone yelled of fright behind them. They turned around and saw a wyvern smash open a door and slip into the house. Judging by the cries they heard, there were defenceless women and children inside. Arthur’s blood ran cold, and he cleared himself a path with his sword through the crowd of monsters to reach the house before it was too late.
Inside, crouched in the corner of the room, a woman was trying to protect two kids hidden behind her from the black-eyed monster hissing at her. Arthur struck a blow at the membranous wing to divert its attention from those innocent people. And Merlin finished the work for him by throwing violently the wyvern against the wall with just a flick of his wrist.
Satisfied, Arthur tapped his friend on the shoulder before he held out his hand to the woman to help her get back on her feet.
"Are you all right?"
Pale and shaking, she nodded and took his hand to stand up, staring at him with wide eyes. One child was crying and sobbing, while the other was gaping at the unmoving wyvern slowly crumbling off at Merlin’s feet. Standing still like a statue, the sorcerer kept his head lowered, looking down at the grey ashes.
"Find a place to hide and stay there until we say you can go out," Arthur ordered. "You’re not out of danger yet."
"Who… who are you?" she stammered. "What is going on out there?"
All of a sudden Merlin’s hand surged forward to grab hold of the woman’s wrist. The vice-like grip made her yelp in pain. Taken aback, Arthur saw him tighten his grip even more.
"Stop it, you’re hurting me!" the woman shouted as she tried to get free.
"Merlin! What the hell are you doing?"
Those words died in his throat when the sorcerer slowly turned his head toward them. His iris had turned completely black and his face’s features were shifting. He was looking younger by the second – his wrinkles were resorbing, his hair shortening and getting their former brown colour back. In a matter of seconds he had changed back into his younger self, and looked exactly like he used to be in the past, except for the cold and hard look on his face. Without warning, he twisted the woman’s arm and threw her against the wall, ignoring the children begging him not to hurt her.
In shock, Arthur finally reacted when he saw Merlin pointing his sceptre at the scared and crying woman, and a flicker of light lit up the ochre stone like it always did just before throwing out a lightning bolt.
"Have you gone mad? STOP THIS!" Arthur shouted and shoved him brutally.
The movement deflected the lightning that burst out of the stone just enough so it smashed down the wall and spared the woman. Pale as a sheet, she grabbed her children’s hands and dashed out of the house with no regards for the wyverns swarming outside. Merlin flinched and had to lean on his staff not to collapse. Arthur grabbed his friend’s collar to yell right at his face:
"What was THAT? What’s the matter with you, for heaven’s sake?!"
Merlin was staring at him with bright blue eyes wide open, which made Arthur doubt he even saw what he thought he did earlier. But his young face, high cheekbones and sticking-out ears, and the flabbergasted look in his eyes were exactly the same they were a thousand of years ago.
"I…" Merlin whispered and blinked, looking utterly lost. "I don’t know what happened. I… lost time."
His face as well as his voice were growing old again at high speed. His skin was withering like parchment, his beard and hair were growing white as snow. It only took a few seconds for him to look like an old man again. Arthur frowned and let go of him warily while Merlin looked around him in a daze and pushed his hair back with a trembling hand.
"I don’t… remember anything… We came in, and then… nothing. Why can’t I remember? What happened?"
"We will talk about this if we get out of this mess alive," Arthur said drily and pushed him outside. "For now, we have to protect the citizens of this village!"
When they came out of the house, Arthur winced in horror. Other creatures even more terrifying had joined the wyverns. Hideous clay monsters dripping with water stumped along on the cobbled street, throaty growls coming out of their mouths full of sharp fangs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, and it looked like they came from the sea, judging by the seaweeds covering them and how strongly they smelled of iodine.
"Great. More monsters. Just what we needed." he mumbled through his teeth and grasped his sword tighter.
His memories were blurry and distant, but Arthur recognized this kind of creatures. He had faced one a long time ago in the darkness of Camelot’s depths, with Merlin and Morgana at his side. A drop of sweat dripped down his spine, and he ignored the fear twisting his guts to hold his sword in attack position. They was no way they could survive fighting so many monsters. But he had to attack and protect innocent people, and die fighting if it came to it. For that was his duty as a king, even if his kingdom had disappeared a thousand years ago.
Merlin’s wrinkled hand stopped him as he was about to attack.
"There is nothing to fear, the Afancs are under my control. The battle is over. Look for yourself."
Arthur slowly lowered his blade and frowned as he watched the brutal confrontation between the wyverns and the clay monsters. Everything went very fast. Ruthless, the Afancs threw themselves onto the winged creatures before they had a chance to take off and devoured them alive, crushed them, ripped them in shreds with their bare hands. The wyverns trying to fly away were chased mercilessly by Ghalini who burned them to death in full flight or smashed them down to the ground with his tail where Afancs awaited them. Arthur gulped and glanced at Merlin who was leaning heavily on his staff, his face pale and his forehead shiny with sweat.
"Creatures of water and earth are the only ones able to defeat those of fire and wind…" he muttered in a low voice. "I learned elemental magic very early in my life. It is the oldest and more powerful magic."
"These… Afancs… it was a monster like this that poisoned Camelot’s water source."
It wasn’t a question, but Merlin nodded anyway as victory happened in front of them and wyverns died massively.
"Nimueh had created one to harm us. I created an army of thousands of those to fight in the Sidhe realm. Once victory was mine and war was over, I let the Afancs return to the sea where they could live forever and never poison any source of drinkable water. I never thought they would ever be of use to me again."
Arthur wiped his sword’s blade on his t-shirt and slid it back in its sheath while Merlin ordered at his monster with a hand gesture to go back to the sea now that all the wyverns were dead. The Afancs obeyed and left the city grunting with a heavy tread, like a blind and docile army.
Soon, they were only ashes, clay tracks and lifeless bodies of dead citizens littering the streets to remind what happened here.
Here and there, men and women ventured outside hesitantly. Some were shouting and brandishing their weird rectangular thing toward the dragon flying in slow circles high above in the sky. People were gathering around the dead and the wounded, crying and screaming. Cars were bursting out from everywhere to bring people wearing uniforms.
"I will have to wipe their memory and implant some believable explanation into their mind…" Merlin sighed as he watched hysteria and agitation spreading like wild fire and more people coming out in the streets. "Onslæp nu!"
Eyes glowing golden, the sorcerer raised a hand and everybody in sight just collapsed like marionettes without strings. He probably put the whole village to sleep, judging by the sudden lack of screaming. The silence was deafening.
Now that adrenalin was fading away, his lacerated back was hurting him more and more, and the pain was getting worse in his elbow and his shoulder too. The wind drying his sweat made him shiver.
Merlin strode over the unmoving bodies, his staff hitting the ground with each step. He took a critical look around, scowling and muttering spells under his breath. A simple hand gesture was enough for him to make the wyverns’ ashes blow away in the wind, to rebuild walls in ruins and torn off doors. When Arthur caught up with him, the street looked almost normal again, except for the bodies lying on the ground and Ghalini flying in circle high above in the sky.
"Folge min bebod," the sorcerer finally whispered hoarsely.
Shoulders hunching, Merlin let out a deep sigh while all the passed out citizens breathed out a whirl of mist.
"There. It’s far from perfect, but when they wake up they will have forgotten everything that just happened. We avoided the worst. If it weren’t for us, Port Isaac would have been destroyed and no doubt the wyverns would have kept going and devastated the other coastal cities."
Arthur moistened his lips and hesitated.
He cleared his throat and gave a sideways glance at his friend’s hardened face.
"Earlier, when you tried to kill that woman…"
The old men stilled entirely, and his hands clenched harder on his staff.
"… you changed back to your young self for a few seconds," Arthur continued, frowning. "And your eyes turned black. Just like the unicorn or your dragon before they died. Are you…"
"… infected by the plague too?" Merlin finished for him and looked away resignedly. "It certainly looks like I am."
Chapter 7: Losing control
Already another chapter, thanks to my lovely betareader CloudFactory! I'll do my best to translate the next one quickly, but I'm currently quite busy translating a chapter for another fic, I have to write a few chapters in french and make some ugly drawings just because it's fun. Also, real life is exhausting, ugh.
A few droplets were rolling down his wet skin. They dripped down the nape of his neck, melted into the blond hair of his chest and soaked the sheets. Seated on the bed unmade, Arthur was holding his injured arm to keep it still – it was flaring up with pain and it might get worse if he moved it. His elbow was bent in an ugly angle and had tripled in size, and his stiffened fingers had turned purple.
Dust was whirling and sparkling like gold in the sunlight pouring through the arrowslits carved into the chambers walls. A ray fell right on Makkariah, making his scales shine. The tiny dragon was standing on his hind legs and stretching his neck to sniff at the contents of the bucket Merlin had used to roughly clean Arthur up with a cloth. The water was now black with blood and mud, and Makkariah curiously tasted it with the tip of his tongue. His reaction was immediate: his nostrils flared and he sneezed so energetically the bucket was knocked over and the dirty water spilled on the floor.
Arthur rolled his eyes when the dragon scampered off to go hide under the bed. He glanced sullenly at Merlin who was bending on the table with his shoulders hunched, grinding leaves and herbs in a bowl.
"Why don’t you just use your magic?"
The sorcerer looked up from his work with his eyebrows raised, surrounded by all sorts of vials and containers just like Gaius used to hoard in his laboratory. A sour and sickly sweet smell of plants was flooding the room.
"That’s exactly what I am doing," he replied and went back to stirring his greenish mixture more laboriously.
"You’re not doing magic, you’re just squashing herbs. Any physician could do the same."
Merlin shook his head with a sigh, took his bowl and walked to the bed. Arthur felt the mattress sagging when the old man sat down right behind him.
"Magic is not just throwing lightning bolts or flames around, Arthur."
Arthur flinched when fingers touched the open wounds on his back to apply the herbal paste. An unpleasant tingling sensation of cold penetrated his raw flesh and made him clench his teeth.
"You have been wounded by a wyvern," Merlin’s calm and low voice continued. "Those creatures’ claws are poisoned and you’ll succumb to a terrible fever within two weeks unless I treat you with the appropriate ritual. Those plants I’m using are not ordinary, they grew in a sacred place of the Old Religion."
Arthur glanced above his shoulder at his friend. Merlin was squinting at the lacerations with a scowl on his wrinkled face, scrunching up his nose in concentration.
"Ahlúttre þá séocnes. Þurhhæle bræd…"
"What are you mumbling?" Arthur cut him short, frowning.
The sorcerer stopped and glared at him impatiently.
"An ancient spell."
"Without it, the herbs would be useless. Now, if you would be so kind as to hold still and let me finish…"
Arthur nodded with an annoyed pout and looked down at Makkariah who was now nibbling his shoes, licking the soles and trying to swallow up the laces. He reached out with his foot to push him away with the tip of his toes before he ate all his stuff, but the dragon mistook it for an invitation to play – he leaped on his foot and gnawed with his tiny pointy teeth at the sole of his foot.
"Ouch! Will you stop this!"
He tried to shake off his foot the overly affectionate dragon who was drooling all over the toes he was chewing.
"Don’t move, or you’ll blow everything up!" Merlin snapped, still applying the mixture on the wounds. "Seópan ærest wearð feasceaft funden. Denum æfter dom. Dreamleas gebad he gewann langsum…"
Arthur glared at Makkariah as Merlin went back at mumbling his spell. He had to admit he had been very impressed by the destructive power of his friend’s magic since the battle of Camlann a thousand years ago, but now Arthur couldn’t help thinking that all that gibberish he was reciting in a hoarse voice sounded quite ridiculous. It didn’t change anything about the texture of the herbal paste and didn’t seem to have any effect at all.
Staying still and stoic while this stupid fat lizard was tickling him by licking the sole of his foot was torture and felt like it lasted forever. When Merlin shut up at last and put his empty bowl aside, Arthur bent to grab the dragon by the scruff of his neck and threw him energetically across the room – Makkariah flapped his membranous wings and managed to glide somehow. Obviously delighted, he squeaked and came back trotting to wrap himself around the king’s ankles.
Arthur decided to ignore the dragon and turned just enough on the bed to look at Merlin in the eye.
"I don’t understand. Explain. How could mixing up herbs be sorcery?"
"First you need to understand, Arthur, that sorcery is way more complex and diverse than you think. It comes in an infinite range of fields that require years of study each to master."
"Whatever you say," Arthur muttered sceptically.
"There are many sorts of magic. There is magic in its purest state, that is basically concentrated energy. Then, elemental magic that allows to create and control fire, wind, water and earth. There is what you witnessed just now, the magic that uses and increases tenfold the qualities of plants to cure, enchant or kill."
Merlin started to wrap a roll of gauze around Arthur’s chest to bandage and compress the lacerations on his back. Every time he rolled it around the torso he had to briefly hug him from behind to keep the bandage nice and tight – and every time, his cheek pressed against Arthur’s shoulder for a second, his breath and his beard brushing against the bare skin. Despite the searing pain in his paralysed arm and Makkariah nibbling at his calf now, Arthur straightened his back to make it easier for Merlin, trying to keep still.
And Merlin was still going on and on about magic:
"Then there is telekinesis, telepathy, animal magic, senses amplification, slowing down time, mastering space, necromancy, divination, shape-shifting, transferring energy through the worlds, breathing life into objects, possession, illusion, destruction, incantations of the old or the new religion, and that’s the least of it. I’m not even talking about magic artefacts or magic inherent in creatures like unicorns, Sidhes, dragons, trolls, goblins, pixies, …"
Merlin seemed like he intended to just blab endlessly about every sort of magic, so Arthur cut him short with an annoyed gesture.
"Enough, I get it! Shut up!"
"You’re the one who wanted me to explain," Merlin pointed out, arching an eyebrow. "Make up your damn mind."
"I forgot how annoying it is when you talk," Arthur scowled.
He noticed out of the corner of his eye the smile on Merlin’s face as he fixed the bandage with a safety pin.
"I will take a look at your arm now. Let’s see…"
Merlin moved over to sit at his side and inspect his right arm. He was so focused he didn’t seem to notice as Arthur took advantage of how close they were to watch him, to really look at every detail of his wrinkled face, at every fold furrowing the skin, at his beard and his long hair white as snow.
They still hadn't spoken a word about what happened an hour ago during their fight against the wyverns, when Merlin turned back to his young self and almost murdered an innocent woman and her children. Arthur couldn't stop thinking about it. He still saw the black eyes on his friend's familiar face, the image was carved into his mind. But he couldn't bring himself to ask any question. Somehow, it felt like talking about it out loud would make it all more real and final.
He couldn't bear the idea that Merlin was suffering from this illness, doomed to die in horrible pain like Kalkhaino and Anhora's unicorns did. He refused to even think about it.
Arthur could live having lost his crown, his people, his kingdom. He could live in a time when everything he ever knew and everyone he loved had long turned to dust. But not without Merlin.
He couldn't lose him. He just couldn't.
Arthur bit back a hiss of pain when his friend touched his swollen elbow, palpating up to the shoulder. His hands were warm and his touch confident. He obviously knew what he was doing.
"The shoulder is dislocated," Merlin stated, scrunching his nose. "Clench your teeth, Arthur."
"What are you- OUCH!"
Arthur glared in betrayal at the sorcerer who just brutally pulled at his arm, making his shoulder snap and flare up with pain. He grabbed it with his unarmed hand and realized that the bones were correctly locked in place again.
"Sorry,"Merlin said flatly. "It had to be done. Now there's only your elbow left! Let me take care of it and don't you dare moving."
Warily, Arthur scowled reluctantly and consented to let him touch his elbow. Merlin gently took his bare arm in his hands, lifting it to his face so he could squint at it.
When the sorcerer started mumbling a throaty spell and his eyes flashed golden, Arthur braced himself, ready to endure the pain. But it didn't hurt, even if he could feel the bones and cartilage shifting and mending under his skin. The sensation was unpleasant, but he had expected much worse.
It only lasted for a few seconds, and when Merlin let go of his elbow, it didn't hurt any more and looked perfectly healed. Arthur bent his now unswollen arm and started stroking it in awe.
"Remarkable," he admitted, wiggling his fingers that were back to normal as well.
Merlin started putting away his equipment, barely holding back a flattered smile. Arthur stood up stark naked and grabbed the clean clothes his manservant folded earlier in a neat pile on the bed.
"You told me you were born with magic," Arthur continued as he struggled to slip the weird canvas trousers on, "so you could already do all of this as a baby?"
"Oh, no. I was born with a brute and elemental magic. I had trouble controlling it, and it caused me many problems back at Ealdor. I once set a barn on fire by accident, I made trees fell with just a thought, and when I was upset I could become dangerous without meaning to. Everything else, everything I know, I learned thanks to Gaius and Kilgharrah, then over the centuries by studying old magic books rescued from the Great Purge and Camelot's fall. Magic is first and foremost about learning and persevering. In theory, anyone can do it by working hard – even though, of course, it's much easier for those who have the gift or use magic artefacts to channel their energy. Wait, Arthur, let me help you."
Merlin helped him zip up what he called a fly – one more barbaric invention of the future – and buttoned the trousers close. The bandaged lacerations on his back made him wince in pain when he slipped on the t-shirt, then he flopped down on the bed, raising a foot expectantly. Deep in thought, he watched as his manservant knelt in front of him to put socks on his feet, then shoes.
"You think I could do it?" he asked as Merlin tied his shoelaces.
The sorcerer blinked slowly and looked up.
"You… want to do magic. You. Magic."
It wasn't a question, but the tone of voice was clearly incredulous. Merlin had gone very still and was staring at Arthur in disbelief as if he had lost his mind.
Arthur felt his face grow hot but held his gaze imperiously.
"You heard me. I want to try. Teach me a spell."
Merlin scowled and got up off the floor with a loud cracking of his knees.
"Magic is not something you can learn on a whim, Arthur. It takes years of studying. Dedication. Patience. Sleepless nights learning by heart countless pages of spells."
"It can't be that difficult if you managed to do it," Arthur teased with a mocking smile. "Come on, Merlin, teach me something easy. Order from your king."
Admitting defeat, the old man sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Very well. If you so desire, Sire."
"I would appreciate a little more enthusiasm!" Arthur smirked.
A surge of fondness almost made him shove his servant in the shoulder. But he wasn't sure if Merlin would be fine with it like in the old days, and he feared the old man's bones would break if he roughed him up a little too much.
"Watch closely how I do it."
Merlin faced him and took a deep breath, holding his hand between them with the palm up.
"Forbearnan," he murmured, eyes glowing golden.
A small flame flickered in the sorcerer's hand and disappeared as soon as he closed his fist.
"This is the easiest spell I know of. Go on. Your turn."
"Wait, that's it? I say the word and it will work?"
"Yes," Merlin nodded, gesturing vaguely at Arthur's palm. "You repeat the magic spell, you… focus your energy and visualize the flame."
It didn't sound that hard, Arthur thought as he opened his hand like Merlin did. Never in his life the idea of trying to do magic crossed his mind before, not even for a second. He grew up in Uther's hatred for sorcery and its practitioners, so he would not even have dared thinking about it. But now, he was curious and a bit nervous about discovering how Merlin did it exactly, and what it felt like. Would his eyes lit up like gold too?
"No, no, it’s Forbearnan. The spell won't work if you say it wrong."
"That's what I said!"
"No, you mispronounced. Repeat after me, Arthur: Forbearnan."
Although Arthur tried and tried again with a puzzled Makkariah staring at him, no flame appeared in his hand. With every new failure his level of frustration was rising, until he got fed up and threw his arms up angrily, cutting Merlin short in his useless instructions.
"Enough! There’s no point, I can’t do it!"
The old man smirked arrogantly with his arms crossed.
"Now you understand that magic is a complex art that cannot be mastered in a few minutes."
"What I understand is that you are a very lousy teacher," Arthur retorted, narrowing his eyes. "Let’s forget about that nonsense, I’m starving. Fighting those wyverns whetted my appetite."
Merlin’s face fell when they entered the kitchen with Makkariah on their heels.
"What the hell happened here?" the sorcerer exclaimed and looked around, his eyes wide open.
Arthur folded his arms and leant in the door frame, pouting.
"What do you think? I have been forced to cook on my own for three weeks because you didn’t take care of me any more. That’s what happened."
"And you’ve never heard of cleaning and tidying up?"
"Hey! I did wash two plates this morning!" Arthur lifted two fingers to insist on the number. "Two plates, Merlin! Two!"
"You left the fridge and the freezer wide open and everything is rotten now," the old man kept nagging as he inspected the kitchen, scrunching his nose in disgust. "Plus, you opened up all the tinned food, we won’t be able to eat those any more!"
It was true the stench of rotten food was heavy in the air. Arthur had piled up the tins he had opened over the course of the weeks, just enough to smell and taste what was inside. There was a bit of garbage littering the floor and swarms of flies buzzed over the sink crawling with dirty dishes.
So the place wasn’t exactly in pristine condition. But his manservant’s accusing glare was still offensive. Did Merlin even realize that as a crown prince and then a king, Arthur never once in his life cooked nor washed a plate before that day? Why couldn’t he just appreciate his efforts?
"I had to open them to know how they tasted!" Arthur frowned in discontent. "I worked very hard to make that soup, and this is how you thank me?"
The tiny golden dragon was perched on the furniture slashed open by Excalibur and had shoved his triangular head into the saucepan to lap at the soup left inside with loud slurping noises.
"And I guess I should thank you for all the mess too?" Merlin groaned, his scowl deepening. "Who is going to clean now, huh?"
Arthur lifted his eyebrows and moved from the door frame to walk right in front of the old man. He jabbed a finger into his lanky chest with a smirk.
"What was it you were saying before I died? That your destiny is to serve me? That you’re proud of it and wouldn’t change a thing? That you’re happy to serve me until the day you die? Then prove it."
Merlin narrowed his eyes and smacked his lips, obviously looking for something to reply. Arthur knew he had won when the old man looked away begrudgingly.
"Hmph," he groaned, slowly raising a hand. "Fine."
His irises lit up like gold glistening in the sun with a silent spell. Arthur unfolded his arms and looked around with his eyes wide open, turning around to watch the dirty dishes rising up in the air and levitating above their heads to go nicely pile themselves with the rest of them in the sink. There, the tap turned on its own and two sponges started energetically washing and scrubbing the dishes. Arthur had to take a step backward to let a cloth dry the clean dishes one by one. He span around once more and barely dodged a broom that came to life to stubbornly clean the floor, to the point it actually tried to sweep him out of the way. Above him, among the flying stream of dirty dishes Merlin was commanding, the saucepan of soup was wavering dangerously – Makkariah was clinging on to it, yapping in anguish and flapping his wings.
When the dragon lost his grip and fell, Arthur only just caught him in his arms, not without being slapped in the face by his tail. He held the big lizard burning up like a furnace against his chest, and stared in awe as Merlin fixed the destroyed furniture and soldered the broken plates together again by just shifting his hand.
All of this only lasted for a few seconds – by the time Arthur regained his composure, the kitchen was clean, the sink empty, the dishes back into their shelves, and the floor spotless. The king closed his mouth as the golden glow receded from his servant’s eyes that turned back to their usual blue shade.
His voice was hoarse. Tightening his arms around the dragon, Arthur cleared his throat and gestured with his chin at the perfectly clean kitchen.
"When I made you polish my armour, muck out my horses, clean up my chambers or do the laundry… Were you using magic like you just did?"
Merlin considered the question for a moment, hands joined behind his back and eyes lost in the past.
"Sometimes," he admitted in a low murmur. "Not often. Gaius didn’t like it. He wanted me to be careful and for people to actually see me performing my chores in a normal way so I wouldn’t get suspected. But from time to time, when I was exhausted, when I had to save your life, protect the kingdom from an impending doom, or fulfil my destiny… I did use my magic to dispose of the chores faster, indeed."
Arthur pursed his lips in annoyance. He still couldn't believe he spent more than ten years around Merlin and never suspected a thing. How many times did he practise magic right under his nose? Looking back at those years now that he knew his secret, he remembered many details that suddenly made sense, many things that happened around him and moments when he thought his manservant was acting strangely and just assumed he was stupid, drunk on cider, or was just being his usual weird self… And all those times Arthur had been saved in the battlefield by what he took for dumb luck or his enemies' clumsiness, had it been Merlin all along watching over him, hidden in his shadow?
Makkariah pressed his wet muzzled against Arthur's neck and heaved a hot sigh smelling like soup. His tiny claws were clinging at his t-shirt and he seemed perfectly content perching on royalty. Now Merlin had his back turned on them and was mumbling under his breath as he inspected the almost empty fridge and shelves.
"We have to go out and buy some groceries," the old man sighed in discontent. "There's nothing left to eat. As long as Albion's magic is in danger, it's better if we stock enough food to survive in case we have to hold a siege. You never know what could happen."
"Can't you just make some appear by magic?"
The old man scowled just like Dragoon the Great used to when he was about to say something rude.
"Not everything can be solved by magic, Arthur. I can make appear some fruits and vegetables or anything that grow from the earth. But certainly not peanut butter or tinned duck confit."
Arthur casually shrugged even though he had no idea what was peanut butter.
"Well then, let's go do some errands. When I was young I once or twice bought some apples and sausage at Camelot's market. At least that won't faze me too much."
"Oh, you think so?"
Merlin sniggered and reached out to take Makkariah out of his arms. The baby dragon whined begrudgingly, clawing at Arthur's t-shirt, but finally let his master take and cuddle him.
"You hear that, little one?" he quavered, giving his dragon a tummy rub. "The simpleton king thinks Tesco will leave him unfazed."
"Hey!" Arthur frowned, offended. "What did you just call me?"
But Merlin ignored him, bending down with his back cracking to put his dragon down.
"You can't go with daddy, Makkariah. Be a good lad and go play with Aithusa and Ghalini until we return, will you?"
Makkariah cooed and left the kitchen trotting with his claws clicking on the tile floor. Merlin turned around to face Arthur.
"Let's go for your first dive into the consumerist society!" the sorcerer announced as he grabbed Arthur's shoulder.
A flash of gold in his eyes, and everything turned upside down around them – the kitchen and its clean smell vanished and were replaced by grass under their feet and the sudden rumble of a car hurtling past.
Merlin tightened his grip on his shoulder to keep him from moving. Completely disoriented, Arthur looked around him and saw no market anywhere. They were standing behind a metallic sign on the side of a road lined with mounds blocking the horizon. There were a few trees here and there.
"Where are we? Where is the market?"
Merlin let go of his shoulder and half-bent started scrambling up the mound.
"We are on the A39 at the outskirts of Wadebridge. I always appear here because it's the only angle no camera is filming. Come on, Tesco is up here."
Arthur followed him and ignored the old man's protest when he grabbed his bony arm to help him walk up the slope so he wouldn't just slip on the wet grass.
Once on top of the mound, they walked into a wide open space covered in concrete. Hundreds of parked cars were lining there. It was the first time Arthur had a chance to look at them from up close, all silent and still. Until now he only just saw them in motion, blaring like nightmare monsters belching out stinking smoke. He watched them closely, bending down to take a look inside and touch the cold surface very cautiously as if he feared that would wake them up.
"Arthur, stop loafing around, let's go!" Merlin groaned, already a dozen of steps ahead and walking toward a building almost as huge as a castle.
Arthur reluctantly dragged himself away from the cars and caught up with his friend. On the way to the building whose front was decked out with the word TESCO written in capital letters, he saw many people pushing metallic carriages and opening the cars to load them with bags.
They reached the doors made of glass and Arthur startled back when they magically opened on their own. As a reflex his hand flew to his hip before he remembered he wasn't carrying his sword. He glanced at Merlin, but he didn't look like he just cast a spell – his eyes were blue and no one around them seemed surprised by this sign of sorcery. Could this be an invention of the future too, just like the stove, the fridge and the cars?
What he found inside surprised him even more. The building was huge, but even though there was no torch hanging up the walls, it was far brighter in here than outside. Strange tubes on the ceiling were shining so intensely it hurt his eyes to look directly at them more than a few seconds.
Merlin's hand grabbed his elbow to guide him, and only then Arthur stopped gaping at the ceiling and looked around them. For him who always saw peasants struggling against famine and slaving every year to save their harvest from plagues of bugs, thieves, flood or drought, nothing could have prepared him to this vision of abundance. Racks and shelves full of groceries and colourful packets lined up as far as he could see – he recognized some of the packets of pasta and tinned food he used in Merlin's kitchen.
Never before in his life Arthur had seen such a display of food, not even during celebrations and huge banquets in the castle. How could this era abound with so many resources? What was their secret?
"Where are the merchants?" he asked as he looked around in dismay.
Just like in this tavern in London where they ate fish, Arthur could hear music even though there was no minstrel anywhere around. The floor was pristine clean, everything with bright and colourful. It felt like he stepped into a whole new world.
"This is how it's done nowadays," Merlin muttered as he took an empty metallic carriage with a squeaking wheel. "The big retail chains act as an intermediary between farmers and consumers. We just pick what we want and then we go to the checkout to pay before we leave. That's all."
Arthur followed him closely between the shelves as the old man picked here and there a packet, a jar, a tin or a package to throw them carelessly into the carriage. Arthur regained his composure and decided to contribute by randomly choosing and adding to their purchases some colourful packets bragging about their delicious taste or a new flavour. A dozen of jars stored on a shelf caught his eye – the coloured ribbon wrapped around showed « peanut butter ». He slowed down and stopped short to pick one and take a closer look at it. He opened the jar and dipped his finger inside. The texture was surprisingly both creamy and crumbly, so he brought his finger to his mouth to have a taste – it was salty, a bit greasy.
An old lady standing next to him opened her eyes wide and looked at him in shock.
A slap on his wrist made him drop the jar that fell on the floor and broke into pieces while Merlin quavered:
"Arthur! You naughty boy, how many times have I told you not to touch at the food until we’ve paid for it? Are you trying to put your old grandpa to shame?"
Then, playing the part of the senile old man far too well, the sorcerer turned to the lady who was looking daggers at them:
"Don't mind my grandson, madam. He’s a bit mentally deficient but he’s a good boy. Aren’t you, Artie?"
Arthur flushed red with humiliation as Merlin pinched his cheek affectionately and the woman walked away glancing back at them. Once she was out of sight, Arthur shoved his friend’s hand away.
"Mentally deficient, uh?" he snarled through his teeth, closing his fists threateningly.
Merlin didn’t look very impressed though. He straightened his back and went back to his usual insolent voice:
"It’s unpleasant, right? Now you know how it feels like. I had to endure your constant taunts and humiliations for ten years."
"If you weren’t so old and decrepit I would give you a good beating you would remember for a while," Arthur grumbled and crossed his arms, pouting.
"Just you try and I’ll turn you into a toad," Merlin retorted. "A boneless one. With pustules. Come on, let’s get away from here before someone from security notices we broke something and make us pay for it."
Not quite sure if his friend was joking about the toad thing, Arthur frowned and followed him closely, refraining from tasting anything else even though they were going to buy those things anyway. Once the carriage was full to the brim with food, they headed to the checkouts lining up near the exit and they had to stand in line for several long minutes Arthur spent tapping his feet restlessly, not used to having to wait for anything.
When finally came their turn, Arthur watched in confusion as the seated woman took their purchases one by one to point some strange beeping item at them. Her eyes were glassy and she looked bored, repeating the same movements mechanically.
Arthur tilted his head to murmur against his friend’s ear so the other clients wouldn’t hear:
"How can you live in a time so absurd and degenerate? Nothing looks the same any more and I can’t tell apart magic from those weird inventions."
"I've… had time to get used to it," the old man replied with a throaty voice.
Arthur frowned and gave him a sideways glance. Merlin was pale and his forehead was shiny with sweat. He looked like he had trouble breathing and his trembling hand was grasping at the checkout counter.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked with concern. "You look pale."
Merlin swallowed and shook his head, teeth clenched.
"I think it’s starting again…" he breathed, his voice sounding panicked.
"174 pounds," the cashier’s monotonous voice announced. "Cash or credit card?"
"Credit card," Merlin mumbled as he hastily pulled his wallet out of the inside pocket of his jacket.
His trembling hand pressed the buttons on the strange device he inserted his card into. He was breathing so hard even the cashier frowned and looked up at him.
"Are you okay, mister?" she asked as she pulled a long strip of paper that seemed to list everything they just bought.
She yelped when instead of taking the strip of paper she was holding out to him, Merlin suddenly grabbed her wrist. He wasn't trembling any more and stared unblinkingly at her, his face impenetrable.
"Are you insane?!" the cashier hissed angrily and got up on her feet, pulling at her arm in an attempt to free herself from his grip. "Let me go, you freak!"
It felt like déjà vu all over again. Arthur saw his friend's irises turn black as he tightened his grip, making the poor woman whimper in pain. Like it did a few hours ago during the battle against the wyverns, his face was rejuvenating very quickly – wrinkles smoothed themselves and vanished altogether, his hair shortened and turned brown while his beard was gone. Arthur stared in shock at the transformation occurring before his eyes and only reacted when Merlin, now young again, started casting a spell with a low and hoarse voice:
The woman threw her head back and a blood-curdling scream came out of her mouth. Arthur widened his eyes – the clients around them were wondering what was happening and all turned to watch.
"… seo mægþ…" Merlin continued, his voice rising in a threatening way.
Tears of blood were streaming down the woman's face while she suffocated. Her bulging eyes were full of terror.
Arthur didn’t let Merlin a chance to finish his incantation. He pushed him brutally, making him stumble back. Freed from the spell, the cashier slumped down and collapsed on the floor. Clients rushed to help her while she was trying to take her breath back, panting and wild with terror.
"Security!" she yelled, pointing at Merlin with her finger. "This man… this man tried to…!"
Merlin steadied his stance and turned a dark and hateful glare at Arthur. His cheeks seemed hollower and his cheekbones sharper now that he had turned back to his young self. The look on his face was frightening, full of rage.
"Merlin, pull yourself back together!" Arthur ordered, striding right to him. "Don't make me knock you out!"
There was a heavy aura surrounding Merlin when he raised an open hand toward Arthur.
Everything happened very fast. The shock wave that hit him threw him back with a staggering blow, tearing his feet away from the ground. He crashed into the glass doors, smashing them to pieces, and pain flared in his back. He might have lost consciousness for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes again, he was lying on the concrete strewn with sharp glass fragments and the wounds on his back had reopened, soaking his t-shirt with blood.
He cut his palms on the shards trying to get up, but he clenched his teeth and ignored the pain. There would be plenty of time to worry later about how dizzy he felt and his vision starting to blur. For now, the urgency was Merlin.
The sorcerer was standing in the middle of stunned and terrified customers – some of them were rushing out of the Tesco, shoving Arthur out of the way. Arthur staggered closer, fragments of glass crunching under his feet.
Five heavily built men dressed in black launched an attack on Merlin who just brushed them aside with a gesture of his hand, not even bothering glancing at them as they were thrown back violently. The men started seizing on the floor, their limbs twisting in sick angles as if their bones had snapped as easily as twigs.
"MERLIN!" Arthur shouted himself hoarse.
But the sorcerer didn’t seem like he could hear him at all, he looked like he was in a trance. A sinister smile spread his lips and he raised his arms, his short brown hair and his worn-out clothes billowing in the non-existent wind.
"ÞURH MINUM GEWEALDE OND ÞINUM MÆGEN!" he shouted in a gravelly voice, throwing his head back. "GECLIPPAÞ WE ÞONE LIEG ÞE EALLA AWESTAÞ!"
Arthur stared wide-eyed when the ceiling went up in raging flames and fire spread everywhere, making the lighting tubes explode – the background music crackled and died out, replaced by the growing rumble of the fire.
When he saw Merlin turn his hand toward the citizens running away from death, Arthur’s blood ran cold. With no hesitation, he dashed to the sorcerer and tackled him to the ground with all his strength. He straddled his waist, leaning heavily on him and grabbing hold of the bony wrists to restrain him.
"Merlin!" he shouted right at his face. "Stop this!"
Merlin was trashing out like an enraged animal, glaring at him with his eyes darker than the endless night in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Hatred distorted his face and he started hissing yet another spell through his teeth:
Before Merlin could complete the curse, Arthur stopped him by restraining his wrists above his head, and closed the other one into a fist to punch him in the face. The blow was hard enough to throw his head aside and burst open his brow ridge, splattering blood everywhere.
Fire was consuming everything around them and the temperature was soaring like a furnace. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s chin to force him to make eye contact.
"Look at me, Merlin!" he shouted. "It's me, it's Arthur! Snap out of it! WAKE UP!"
Merlin’s young face was lit by the flames getting dangerously close, and he was staring at him with wide eyes. Arthur saw the darkness recede and fade away from the irises, giving way to clear blue and a stunned look. Blood was pouring down from his split eyebrow and he gazed at Arthur, looking utterly lost.
"Arthur…?" he breathed and took a look around, eyes widening. "What the…"
"Later," Arthur cut him short. "First we have to get out of here before we get roasted alive."
He got up on his feet and grabbed his servant’s arm, dragging him up swiftly – Merlin was as slender and light as he always had been in the past. He caught sight of the carriage full to the brim with the food they purchased, and ran in its direction, pulling Merlin with him and bowing their heads under the flames roaring on the ceiling – he was quite certain he heard the building’s foundations cracking.
He took hold of the carriage with one hand, pulling Merlin to him with the other, and shouted so he would hear him in the fire roaring and the alarm that just started blaring:
"Now do your magic trick and bring us back home!"
Merlin was gaping at him wide-eyed like a terrified stoat, his face still looking young.
"Stop staring at me like an idiot and use your magic!" Arthur yelled, shaking him like a rag doll. "Right now!"
Finally Merlin took a hold on himself and nodded feverishly, a flash of gold glowing in his eyes. The Tesco’s roof crashed down in a roar of flames at the exact moment they disappeared.
Their sudden appearance in the underground city’s dining hall raised dust all around. Arthur scrunched his nose and sharply brushed aside the spider webs surrounding them. Merlin looked like he was about to pass out so he grasped his arm to hold him up.
Blown by the force of their magic trip, the carriage rolled away between the rows of tables with one wheel squeaking loudly because of a piece of salad stuck in it, until it hit a pillar and ground to a halt.
Merlin didn’t protest against his bossy tone, and let himself be sat down on a bench layered with dust that had obviously not been used for centuries. Pale and haggard, he breathed heavily and his blood kept gushing out from his brow ridge, streaming in his eye, along his cheek and down his neck.
Arthur pulled another bench closer, dragging it on the ground with a deafening clatter that echoed through the empty hall that probably once had hosted hundreds or maybe thousands of people. He placed it in front of Merlin and sat down so that he would look him in the eye, their knees brushing against each other.
Rays of sunlight poured through the arrowslits in the rock walls diffusing a dim light all around. He could hear from afar the faint rumble of waves crashing against the cliff and the wistful cries of seagulls.
Short of breath and his head lowered, Merlin was staring down at his trembling hands, still in shock. His brown hair curled, barely longer that it used to be in the past when he was still his manservant in Camelot. Blood was dripping from his chin down to his worn trousers.
Merlin flinched when Arthur reached out to brush against the bloodied side of his face. He looked up with bright blue eyes, looking vulnerable. Terrified.
"Did I…" he whispered in a thin reedy voice.
He choked and couldn’t finish his question, closing his eyes shut as his face contorted in pain. He shuddered and lowered his head, clutching at his own hair.
"What happened?" he croaked at last. A single tear broke through his eyelashes to roll down his cheek and meld with the blood there. "I can't remember anything."
Arthur paused, his fingers barely touching his friend’s face that no wrinkle was marking any more. He slid his hand on his cheek, pass his ear, to firmly grab the nape of his neck like he used to do to his knights. He waited for Merlin to open his eyes and look at him to nod darkly.
"You lost control for a few minutes."
Merlin swallowed and lowered his eyes, breathing hard through his nose.
"Did I hurt someone? Did anyone die?"
"I don't know," Arthur answered honestly. "I haven’t seen any corpse but I can’t tell for sure since I lost consciousness for a moment. But at least six persons have been wounded."
A tear trembled on Merlin’s eyelashes before rolling down his bloodied cheek. Another one followed suit. Arthur squeezed at the nape of his neck to awkwardly show his support.
"It's over now. Everything is all right."
Merlin sniffed and wiped his cheek with his sleeve, staining the fabric.
"No it’s not," he murmured in a choked voice. "It's not all right. I lost control of my mind twice in the space of just a couple of hours. This is not normal. This is going way too fast. I’ve never seen the disease developing so quickly and brutally. I feel darkness infecting and eating into my magic, and it’s getting worse by the second. I am struggling as we speak to stay conscious and in control."
As he said those words, thin wrinkles slowly appeared under his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. Arthur could feel Merlin’s hair growing against his palm and becoming grey before his eyes, then white. His beard too was growing and soon his face was as wrinkled and old as before.
Merlin looked weary and utterly dejected when he looked up at Arthur.
"I don’t know how long I can hold on like this, Arthur. I thought I had more time, but… if it goes on like this, before long I’ll have gone mad and bloodthirsty."
Arthur gently let go of his friend’s neck, cold seeping into his heart. He barely felt the searing pain in his back or the taste of blood in his mouth any more.
"There has to be a cure," he breathed, shaking his head in denial. "You said so yourself. Perhaps somewhere in one of your books… There has to be something…"
He couldn’t even convince himself. Merlin’s blue eyes filled up with sadness and resignation.
"It's too late, Arthur. You know as much as I do that there is no cure. I am doomed."
"No," Arthur hissed fiercely. "I can't lose you. You're my best friend. I need you."
The old man’s face displayed a wide range of raw emotions before he sighed heavily.
"What I am going to ask of you will be even harder. I need you to promise me something."
Arthur frowned, he had a bad feeling about this.
"Do you remember the day you drew your sword out of the rock in front of your people? I had told you then about its legend. I told you only the true king of Camelot could wield it."
As he nodded in confusion, Merlin continued:
"I can tell you the truth now. That was a lie. I made everything up so you would get your confidence back."
Arthur gaped in shock, but Merlin cut him short before he could utter a word:
"Let me finish, Arthur. The truth is your sword is indeed special, not because of a so-called legend of the ancient kings, but because its blade was forged in the breath of Kilgharrah, the last great dragon of the old myths. It holds a power you can’t possibly imagine. I could never have killed Morgana with an ordinary sword. Mortal or magical, living or dead, there is nothing in this world Excalibur cannot slay."
"What are you…"
"Promise me," Merlin cut him short again, staring intensely at him, "promise me you won’t let me live long enough to debase my magic and endanger innocent lives."
Realizing exactly what his friend meant, Arthur widened his eyes.
"Are you asking me to… to kill you?"
Merlin nodded silently, staring at him unblinkingly.
"… No," Arthur murmured in a broken voice. "No, I can't. Do you even realize what you’re asking of me? How dare you…?"
Merlin put his wrinkled hand on Arthur’s knee, making him flinch:
"I'm not just a sorcerer, Arthur. I know it’s hard for you to comprehend, but I am the most powerful sorcerer in the world. When I succumb to this plague, I will be way harder to defeat than my poor Kalkhaino."
"I could control you. I did it twice, now."
Merlin gave him a weak smile, his eyes too bright.
"Will you still be able to stop me when the third time comes? And the fourth? And when I become completely mad, when the need to kill is too strong to resist and I cast my most destructive spells? No one will be able to stop me from slaughtering hundreds, thousands of people. I already hurt you today…"
He glanced at Arthur's sliced hands and his t-shirt soaked in blood.
"… I won't take the risk of killing you. Not after having lost you for so long."
Arthur rose to his feet with a scraping noise from the bench on the ground. He couldn’t hold his friend’s gaze nor hear him plan his death any more – he wanted to scream.
He turned his back and stepped away to distance himself and regain control over his emotions. Unshed tears were burning his eyes and the growing lump in his throat made it hard for him to breathe.
He could feel his friend’s gaze on the nape of his neck when he stood still near an arrow slit and flattened his hand against the cold wall. A sunbeam stroked his cheek as he gazed at the blue immensity of the sea merging into the sky on the horizon.
"Arthur…" Merlin said in a low and hoarse voice.
Arthur went very still and sucked in a shaky breath to slow down the wild beating of his heart.
He knew from the wood creaking and the soft sound of footsteps that Merlin had stood up and was walking closer:
"There’s already so much weighing on my conscience. Your death, Camelot’s fall, my kind being persecuted and facing extinction. I have been living in regrets and remorse for a thousand years. Don’t let me spend the last days of my life killing innocent people. Don’t let me become a threat to Albion. Don’t let me become a monster. Please."
Merlin was standing right next to him. Arthur turned his head to look at him in the eye. The sorcerer was pale and dishevelled, his wrinkled forehead shiny with sweat. He was wheezing and he obviously had trouble standing on his legs, so he had to hold on to the wall.
In a flash, Arthur thought about the black dragon’s slow and painful death that had lasted for weeks. He could still hear the agonizing screeching echoing through the tunnels.
He couldn’t bear watching Merlin suffer the same fate. But he couldn’t kill him either.
Arthur closed his hand to a fist against the wall. His eyes darkened and he stared intently at his friend.
"I will do everything it takes to stop you the moment you get out of control. You have my word."
Chapter 8: What lies in the shadows
It took some time, but here is another translated chapter! CloudFactory had been very busy and tired lately but she still managed to betaread it just when I was about replace her so she could focus on her studies and job.
As always, please tell me if you find typos or sentences that could have been written better. I’m still trying to improve in english and would appreciate any help.
A swirl in the shadows. Black feathers glinting. A raven flying away in a flutter of wings, its beak open in a silent cry.
All goes up in smoke and vanishes. A wrinkled hand takes shape and brushes against a translucent crystal. At this touch, worms and cockroaches stream out in torrents.
An eye with a black iris opens in the translucent surface. Then another. And another.
There is a cave full of those crystals all reflecting the same eye. They are all turned toward Emrys and following his every move.
Emrys, face contorting in rage. Emrys, eyes lit up with gold.
Emrys, spreading his hand out.
Day turns to night. The moon conceals the shine of the sun and adorns the sky with a circle bleeding light.
Trees and men crumble into ashes. Everything is blown away by a deathly blast.
Eleanor woke up with a start, her hair spread like an ashen halo around her sweaty face. The golden glow in her eyes faded away as she clutched at her heart beating wildly and sat up on her straw mattress. Her chest heaving, she struggled to hold on to the scattered fragments of her dream before they could sink into oblivion.
Her eyes were wide open but she couldn't see a thing. Darkness was familiar, wrapped around her like a cocoon – over the decades, Eleanor had got used to it to the point that she drew comfort from it. Not a single sun ray had penetrated the Valley of the Fallen Kings since the enchantment had isolated it from the world four hundred years ago. Such was the cost of protecting this sacred ground from the impious and save the druids who survived the Inquisition. The High Priestess never left those lands and the sunlight had not touched her skin ever since.
With a tired wave of her hand and a wordless spell, Eleanor lit up the candles scattered in her cabin. Their warm glow outlined a table, a chair, a cupboard and a rustic bed. Nothing else.
The High Priestess reached out to grab her wooden staff and leant on it to get on her feet. The flickering light lit up her drawn features, deepened the wrinkles furrowing her forehead, made her eyelids look heavier and the corner of her mouth sag.
As she poured water into a basin to wash herself, she kept thinking about the blurry and flickering images she saw in her sleep. After a year of dreaming only about darkness, finally she was granted a vision.
She wiped her face with a towel and frowned.
Why now? What was the meaning of this?
Her visions always had been hard to decipher, all tangled up with symbolism. For all her life she had struggled to discern what was ominous from what was just metaphoric, and she often figured out the meaning once the vision finally came to pass. She didn't have the power of the High Priestesses from the old days, before the Inquisition and the Great Purge, in the golden time when magic was flourishing, celebrated and exposed for all to see.
However, it was clear that her vision directly involved Emrys. No doubt about that.
She wrapped herself in her cloak with a rustling sound and pulled down the hood before her eyes. She grabbed a burning torch, pushed the door open and stepped out of the cabin. The air was cold and reeked of death. Silence reigned over the forest, only disturbed by a tree falling far off and by the thumping sound of her staff hitting the arid ground with every step she made.
Not that long ago, the vegetation had been lush and so full of life. Now, everything was grey and there were no birds singing on the branches any more. The grass her cloak brushed against immediately fell into dust.
There were graves lined up between the trees, forever lying still in the silence and the dark. The closest ones from her cabin were several centuries old – timeworn stone and barely legible carved names. As she walked with her cloak sweeping the earth behind her, the graves became more recent. Eleanor knew every single one of the druids buried in this sacred ground. She had helped their mothers through labor and birth. She had buried them and held their funerals. She had been by their side for their entire lives, from their first to their last breath, through every joy and sorrow. Still in death she made sure their spirits rested in peace through rituals. Her hand brushed against the tombstone of Drinis, the High Priestess who took her as an apprentice. Without her, Eleanor would never have found the will to survive.
Each one of those graves brought back old memories. Memories of her first years in the darkness of the Valley of the Fallen Kings, devastated by the slaughter of her family. Memories of rebuilding the druidic community for centuries while the outside world was forgetting magic ever existed at all.
But the newest graves were the most painful to look at. Hundreds of freshly stirred earth mounds – there had been too many deaths in a too short span to give them a proper burial and tombstone. Eleanor could feel tormented souls wander about. The air was thick with suffering.
The major cause of death in the Valley of the Fallen Kings had been old age until recently. But this plague running rampant those last few months had reaped old people as well as men in the prime of life and newly weanling infants. Eleanor had worked so hard for four hundred years to rebuild and grow her community that barely survived the Inquisition, and now an unknown illness was decimating the druids one by one before her eyes.
At this rate, soon there would be no druids left on Albion's lands.
Eleanor came out of the cemetery and stepped between the druids' cabins scattered among the trees and the withered vegetation. Gloomy figures wrapped in their cloaks were treading silently or exchanging whispered words. They were all holding either a flaming torch, a candlestick or a glowing magic orb to light their way, only islets of light in this ocean of darkness.
Eleanor nodded her head to some of them, lost in thought. Should she call a gathering of the Council of the Elders to tell them about her vision? Make Emrys come once more?
She wasn't thrilled by this idea, to say the least. She had been very reluctant to summon him last month. The Council's Elders deluded themselves into thinking of the return of the Once and Future King as a prophetic sign of their salvation. But if Emrys never could save young Lorvar or Anhora's unicorns from death, how could the resurrection of a king of the old age change anything? And just like she expected, it went wrong and neither Emrys nor Arthur Pendragon had been of any help at all. Since that day, the plague had spread like wildfire and dead bodies piled up a little more every day.
She came to a stop near a tree and brushed against it with her staff, pulsing magic right into the trunk through the dying bark. She looked up, feeling her magic rise up the tree and gather in a branch. An apple started growing at high speed until it became red and ripe and fell down under its own weight. Eleanor caught it swiftly and sank her teeth into the fruit, sweet juice flowing her mouth and dripping down her chin.
"You should not eat that, Eleanor."
The High Priestess turned around slowly. The Keeper of the Unicorns was standing there, merged into the shadows and wrapped in white like he always was. He was staring at her with an undecipherable face.
"Feeding on our own magic only weakens us and can kill us in the long term," he said as she munched and swallowed. "Absorbing the product of your magic will fill up your stomach but drain out your life essence."
Eleanor stared down at her juicy apple. Her face darkened.
"I am aware. This is how hundreds of our kin perished when we were under siege in Emrys' city four centuries ago. Half my family died that way."
The memory of her pale and starving mother drawing from what was left of her magic to feed her fruits was something Eleanor would never forget and never forgive. Under the siege of the underground city by the Inquisition, many druids had died from exhaustion by trying to feed their children using magic, because they were not powerful enough.
This would never have happened in the old times. This would never have happened if Emrys had not weakened Albion's magic by hiding and repressing it until it became forgotten and neglected.
Eleanor looked up slowly to glare at Anhora. The Keeper of the Unicorns had not been there for the siege. He hadn't joined the druids in the Valley of the Fallen Kings after the enchantment was cast either. He always kept away from things and never got involved in the community, even though he was a member of the Council. Eleanor knew that Anhora only cared about this plague because it affected his unicorns.
She bit defiantly into the fruit.
"I might not be as powerful as the High Priestess of the ancient times you used to know, but my magic is strong enough for me to feed on it for a few weeks and not be harmed. It's my people I'm worried for. Our vegetable gardens and our fruit trees died months ago and there is no animal left alive in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Now our survival rests on James' waiter's salary. He's been bringing us food every week since everything started withering."
"Perhaps it would be better to leave the Valley of the Fallen Kings if it can no longer provide for your needs."
Eleanor shook her head with a sombre and fierce look in her eyes.
"My people once suffered the Great Purge and the Inquisition. The outside world has always been hostile to us. All that's waiting for us out of those lands are hatred and persecutions. Our place is here. Safe, among our own."
Anhora refrained from commenting and looked away to take in the village. Without magic to measure the time, it would have been impossible to know if it was day or night. The enchantment cast on the Valley of the Fallen Kings by Drinis and the other druids back then had cut it off from sunlight, wind, rain, as well as invaders and everything they might use to find and persecute the druids. Their magic hadn't been subtle and mastered enough to repel the enemies without banishing the sunlight as well, and no one now was powerful enough to cast again such a great enchantment.
In here, day and night didn't matter. Many generations were born and had died without ever seeing the sun. But as a High Priestess and unquestionably the most powerful witch of the community, Eleanor felt the shifting and angles of planets and stars, so she knew it was dawn in the outside world right now.
"I noticed you opened up another quarantine zone for the infected," Anhora murmured in a low voice. "More people are getting sick?"
Eleanor finished her apple and let the core fell on the ground – it crumbled into dust immediately. She walked closer until her shoulder brushed against Anhora's, and together they gazed at what was left of her community. Not that long ago, this place had been so lively. Druid children used to play and chase each other between the trees. Rituals, chanting and ceremonies used to take place here. Elders told stories and legends of the ancient times while younger druids illustrated by drawing creatures of the Old Religion directly in the air with glowing magic. They had been happy.
Now, all that was left was silence and the sickly sweet smell of death.
"Almost all of the children are suffering from the illness. Some are so enraged I had to chain and gag them. Some are dying, catatonic. I've tried everything. I don't know what to say to the parents who only want to hope. I don't know what to do any more."
"Perhaps the reason we can't find a cure is because there is none. I did a lot of thinking about what Emrys said at the Council gathering… According to him, Aithusa thinks Albion's magic itself is dying. Perhaps magic has no longer its place in this world and we are witnessing its last moments. Perhaps it is only the natural course of events."
Eleanor turned her head to stare intently at Anhora. She was only just now noticing his eyes were red as if he had been crying, and there was a resigned and downcast look on his face.
"So you think the great white dragon is right?"
"I believe so. My last unicorn died tonight," the old man confessed, lowering his eyes.
She didn’t bother offering her condolences. There was no point doing so. She knew Anhora well enough to know that no word of compassion could soothe his grief, just like nothing could ever stop her agony as she watched helplessly her community perish before her eyes. There was no word for that.
So she averted her gaze and tightened her grip on her wooden staff.
"You know I believe that Emrys’ decision of protecting us from persecutions by hiding us underground and letting magic sink into oblivion only managed to weaken us over the centuries. There are not many of us left, our ancestral art is getting lost and many druids have trouble performing even the most basic spells. Nowadays, no one in the outside world is aware of the existence of magic, they have all forgotten about us. If the Old Religion is dying, it is because of him."
Her four hundred years old hatred was being rekindled like embers under the ashes.
Anhora stayed silent for a while before he nodded.
"It is a theory I couldn’t bring myself to expose him to, but it would explain everything. Emrys’ intentions were good and I know he only meant to protect the druids and make the persecutions stop, but it is possible indeed that by making the world forget about the very existence of magic he dealt a death blow to the Old Religion without meaning to…"
Eleanor cut him off with an imperative gesture.
"Don’t do that. Stop finding him excuses for exiling us within our own lands and abandoning us when we needed him most."
Under normal circumstances she would have ranted at length about Emrys like she did every time the ancient warlock was mentioned in her talks with James or Anhora. But shattered fragments from her dream came back to her, and she hesitated.
"I had a vision," she revealed in a hoarse whisper. "Tonight."
Her torch's crackling flames were casting shadows on their faces. Even though their eyes were veiled under their hoods, she could feel Anhora watching her closely.
"You haven't had visions since the Questing Beast appeared. What did you see?"
"I'm not sure, it was so dark and confused. But I saw an eclipse. I saw men dying. I saw… Emrys. He…"
Her memories were slipping away like sand between her fingers. She closed her eyes and focused hard.
"He was stepping into a cave. A cave encrusted with crystals."
She opened her eyes again and let out a shaking breath.
"I don't know what it means, but that's what I saw. And never before did a vision make me feel so uneasy."
Anhora furrowed his brow thoughtfully.
"Have you ever heard of the Crystal Cave, Eleanor?"
His voice was soft and calm – just like he used to talk to her when she climbed on his or Emrys' lap so they would tell her stories about the Great Purge and Albion's golden age.
"It is mentioned in old tales and legends as the birthplace of magic. But that's purely symbolic, nothing proves it ever existed at all."
"Oh but yes, the Crystal Cave does exist. This is where the legendary Crystal of Neahtid came from. I've never had the honour to visit it myself, but Emrys once told me he entered it several times in his youth. Only he knows today where it is located."
The High Priestess clenched her teeth in frustration. She pressed her lips into a thin line and her eyes hardened.
"This vision means something. Something important. I don't know what, but it has to do with Emrys and the Crystal Cave."
"You need to talk to him at once. Destiny is not to be taken lightly."
Eleanor flinched and looked away angrily.
The mere thought of seeing the sun and the sea again made her dizzy, after four hundred years of living in the dark. Furthermore, she refused to endure the humiliation of asking Emrys for help. It was more than she could bear.
Anhora was right, though, she couldn't ignore her vision. Not if it could provide the answers she was looking for. Not if there was even the slightest chance to save the druids from the evil slowly killing them like fire in their veins.
"I’ll pay Emrys a visit on your behalf," Anhora said, stepping forward. "I will ask him to guide me to the Crystal Cave. I will tell you what I find there."
The High Priestess sighed in relief and nodded. But as the Keeper of the Unicorns started to walk away, a feeling of dread iced her innards.
"Wait!" she hissed and grabbed Anhora’s white cloak into her fist. "What if bringing him to the Crystal Cave only makes what I saw in my vision happen faster? I didn’t just see Emrys, I also saw the day become night and a deadly blast burning everything into ashes!"
Anhora stilled and turned his head to look at her above his shoulder.
"Your prophecies always came to pass, Eleanor. What you saw will happen whatever we do, so why fight against destiny? Or would you rather prolong the druids’ suffering and wait until they are all dead?"
Her hold on the white fabric weakened. She thought about the dozens of graves already dug in anticipation of the next victims to succumb in agonizing pain, once their blood finally burned to ashes into their veins.
Her fingers slowly let go of the cloak.
"You are right," she admitted reluctantly. "It is not a coincidence is the Old Religion gave me this vision through my dreams. As a Seer and High Priestess, it is my duty to be its voice and eyes to lead us to our fate, no matter how dreadful."
Eleanor swallowed back her fear deep into her soul and gritted her teeth, her hand tightening around her staff. She was no longer this frightened little girl who once screamed herself hoarse calling Emrys for help in vain, tears streaming down her face along with the blood of her parents, brothers and sisters. That little girl died a long time ago.
If magic perishing and the druids dying were already written, if it was destiny, at least they would leave this world with dignity and honour, like they always lived.
Hidden in her hood’s shadow, her eyes hardened like steel.
"Go, Anhora," she hissed. "Let’s get it over with."
Arthur had no recollection of having closed his eyes.
He had struggled fiercely against sleep for hours, head nodding off and eyelids growing heavy, but a moment of weakness had been enough to make him sink into a deep slumber. It felt like he had dozed off only for a few seconds, but it probably had been a lot longer since it wasn't pitch black any more and the moon had vanished. Feeling numb and stiff all over, he cracked an eye open. The cave was enlightened by the first sun rays of dawn and the blue sky was already shimmering on the salt lake's surface.
He wasn't sitting any more, but lying on the ground and holding Excalibur against his chest. The lacerations on his back were painful and the bruises all over his body made him feel like he just took part in an arduous joust – this time he had turned down Merlin's offer to tend to him with magic, fearing that it would only weaken him more. His neck had stiffened from being bent in an uncomfortable angle. He grimaced in pain and tried to prop up on his elbow, and only then did he realize that he was cuddled against Ghalini's side. The giant dragon was fast asleep, his belly swelling up with each breath he took. His tail was curled up possessively around Arthur, scales shimmering with blue and red colours.
Also, there was something heavy weighing on his feet. He glanced down to see Makkariah curled up in a ball on his boots, his tiny teeth gnawing sleepily at the heel's leather. He was snoring softly, his tail wrapped so tightly around Arthur's calf he knew there was no point trying to untangle himself.
Arthur frowned, his clouded mind slowly clearing up. His eyelids were heavy and the temptation was strong to just close his eyes and bathe in the dragons' warmth and let himself be lulled by the sound of their breathing. The low rumbling of the waves crashing down on the rocks was soothing, but the hard line of the sword he was hugging reminded him what he was doing here.
The night before, he had given his word to Merlin. He had sworn he would kill him if this strange illness were to permanently take control of his magic. And since that moment Arthur never let him out of his sight, watching for any sign of relapse and feeling torn apart between his duty as a knight to honour his oath, and his blunt refusal to lose his best friend who was now all he had left in the world.
He had spent the night by Merlin’s side, hoping in vain for a miracle. With a heavy heart and a hand on his sword’s hilt, Arthur had watched every move he made, every single expression on his face.
He was about to stand up when Merlin’s voice rose in the silence.
"Kilgharrah was wrong."
Arthur froze. He took a look around and saw the old man sitting before the fire with his shoulders hunched. Aithusa was sprawled on the ground, her giant head facing her master. The flames danced in their blue eyes, and both seemed too engrossed in fire gazing to have noticed that Arthur was awake.
"About what?" the white dragon’s deep voice murmured.
With a swift flick of his wrist, Merlin’s eyes flashed golden and the flames twisted and shaped a dragon made of embers suspended in the air. The sorcerer watched it flap its wings, the shadow of the past darkening his eyes. Arthur was almost certain he recognized the Great Dragon who once attacked Camelot.
"Albion’s golden age will never come back," the sorcerer said as he cleared off the vision with a tired gesture. "The noble race of dragons became extinct a long time ago."
Arthur closed his eyes shut and pretended to sleep when Merlin turned his head in his direction. He strained his ears, listening intently at every sound. For a while there were only the faraway rumbling of the waves and the occasional crackling of a log crumbling under its own weight – and then Merlin’s hoarse voice was rising again:
"I shouldn’t have hatched them. I shouldn’t have brought you to life. Any of you."
"So you regret bringing us to life?"
Cautiously, Arthur cracked an eye open and saw through his eyelashes that Merlin wasn’t looking toward him any more, he was staring down at his wrinkled hands, white hair veiling his face like a curtain.
"What kind of life did I offer you? A life hiding underground in a world where dragons no longer belong. All I ever wanted, all my life, was a world where magic would be accepted and where dragons would be free to fly in the sky. But Kalkhaino never got to be free. I couldn’t protect him. As for Makkariah… I made a mistake hatching him when I knew those bad omens predicted a grave danger. It would have been better if he were never born rather than suffer such a terrible fate."
"You could not possibly have known that the creatures of magic would be endangered…" Aithusa blinked. "You had just hatched him when the Sidhes got decimated by the plague. There is no point regretting what is done."
Merlin’s brow furrowed as he looked up grimly at his dragon.
"If the Old Religion is really dying like you think it is… soon there won’t be any sorcerer or creature of magic left in the world."
Aithusa gave him a sad smile, and her breath made the flames flutter.
"Our end is nigh, Emrys, we are living our last days. This is the natural course of life, we have to accept it. It has been an honour to live by your side."
Merlin lowered his head silently, his face hidden in shadows.
"What will become of Arthur once I’m dead?"
Arthur felt his heart skip a beat and had to shut his eyes again to pretend to sleep soundly – Merlin had turned his head, and he could feel him staring.
"How will he live in this world? Who will guide him? There’s no one I can ask to take care of him. James and Anhora are my only friends, and they are doomed to perish with Albion’s magic eventually."
"Arthur will have to find his place in this new life and this new world," Aithusa replied softly, her voice echoing on the surface of the lake and whispering away. "Alone."
A bitter sigh.
"Five of six hundred years ago, nothing could have made me happier than him coming back from the dead. I missed Arthur so much I would have done anything to see him again, anything. I spent so much time waiting and hoping for his return with every new war and every new plague, before I realized that the worst that could happen to him was coming alive again, having lost everything. It would have been better if… if he never came back. It’s too cruel."
Heart pounding in his chest, Arthur cracked open an eye to take a look at his friend. Shoulders hunched in his shabby jacket, the old man was gazing at the fire and his face looked so sad it was painful to watch. Aithusa scrambled up on her front legs, and every move made the ground shake. She stretched her neck until her nostrils brushed against the sorcerer’s forehead, like a kiss.
"Your heart is bleeding, Emrys. I don’t like watching you suffer."
Merlin closed his eyes and lifted a hand to stroke the giant dragon’s jaw. Silence fell.
Arthur decided to open his eyes for good this time, so he sat and pretended to wake up. He leaned back against Ghalini’s rugged side and stretched, yawning loudly. The movement woke Makkariah up – the baby dragon glared at him and clutched at his boot tighter.
"How long have I been asleep?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Almost three hours," Merlin answered, withdrawing his hand from Aithusa’s scales.
Arthur got to his feet and straightened his sword at his belt. He struggled to stride over Ghalini’s tail because of Makkariah weighing down his foot, and walked toward the fire to sit down on a rock next to Merlin.
"You should have woken me. If anything had happened while I was sleeping…"
"You needed to rest. By the way, you snore louder than Makkariah."
"I don't snore!" Arthur huffed.
Merlin arched his eyebrows significantly and smoothed down a few tufts in Arthur's blond hair. For a short moment, there was a glint of something wistful and tender in his eyes, promptly covered up with his usual rough and grumpy attitude.
"Eat," the sorcerer ordered as he made an apple appear in his hand with just a flash of gold in his eyes. "You have to regain your strength in order to heal."
He shoved it in Arthur's hand unceremoniously. Arthur hesitated for a second before he took a bite and chewed while trying his best to stop the small golden dragon perched on his lap from devouring his breakfast.
He was swallowing his third mouthful when a sudden displacement of air startled him. He looked around sharply and saw that Anhora just appeared behind him, wrapped in his white cloak and frowning gravely.
"Anhora, what a pleasant surprise!" Merlin greeted him with a strained grin. "Come on now, sit down with us for breakfast! "Come on now, sit down with us for breakfast! To what do we owe the pleasure so early in the morning?"
The Keeper of the Unicorns gazed down sternly at Arthur and nodded in greetings before he turned to Merlin.
"Good morning, Emrys. I'm afraid I bring terrible news."
With a soft rustle from his cloak, he stepped closer and politely refused to sit or to accept the fruit Merlin was holding out to him. He was clutching at his wooden staff so tight his knuckles had turned white. The fire was lighting up his face from under and hiding his eyes in shadows.
"My unicorns succumbed during the night and the plague is decimating the druids. They have given up all hope and have resigned themselves to wait for their death."
A shiver ran down Arthur's spine. He leant forward, elbows resting on his knees, not even batting an eyelid when Makkariah took advantage to gobble up the apple.
"Does it mean the epidemic is getting worse?"
Anhora looked at him for a moment and then nodded.
"I believe so."
"Kalkhaino also died after a few agonizing weeks…" Aithusa said, blue eyes looking down.
Surprise registered on Anhora’s face and his gaze sharply returned to Merlin.
"So your dragons too are…?"
Merlin wordlessly nodded, his eyes full of grief.
"I wish I was wrong, but all signs lead to confirm my fears," the great white dragon murmured. "Unicorns, Sidhes and dragons are the oldest creatures of magic. Their extinction can only mean one thing: the Old Religion is in its death throes. It is only a matter of time before all magic disappear from the surface of the earth."
Jaw clenched and teary-eyed, Merlin got on his feet and grabbed Anhora’s shoulder.
"It looks like this is the end, my old friend."
Anhora gave him a weak smile.
"Actually, Emrys, I didn’t come here to say goodbye, but because I need your help."
Anhora didn’t have the chance to say more – Merlin cried out in pain and clutched his chest with a shaking hand. His face had gone pale and he was suffocating with bulging eyes and a gaping mouth.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled and sprang to his feet.
The sorcerer collapsed heavily on the salt-encrusted ground, his back arching in a violent spasm. Arthur was immediately by his side and saw his irises darkening.
"It’s… starting again…" Merlin hissed through his teeth, his face contorting in pain.
As if trapped in a bad dream, Arthur had to watch powerlessly his friend’s features rejuvenating, wrinkles disappearing and beard growing shorter.
"Hold on!" he snarled and grasped his face between his hands. "Look at me in the eye and focus!"
Panting and his forehead covered in sweat, Merlin snapped his face up and stared sharply into Arthur’s eyes. Darkness was slowly eating the blue in the irises.
"So even he is doomed…" Anhora said in a low and defeated voice.
Arthur gritted his teeth and glared angrily at Aithusa and Anhora who just idly watched the scene. Ghalini was awake now and had climbed up a huge stalagmite aside to gaze down silently at his master’s agony, his tail wrapped around the rock.
"Don’t just stay here, do something!"
"There is nothing we can do…" Aithusa breathed out, looking away with regret. "No one can help him. He is fighting a battle against his own magic."
Arthur narrowed his eyes and looked down at Merlin who was shaking all over.
He slipped his hand into his friend’s hair, now as short and brown as it once were. The woolly hat he was wearing fell on the ground when he stroked the silky hair curls.
"Don't leave me alone," Arthur whispered, his voice cracking a bit. "Don't make me kill you… Don't make me live without you…"
Merlin was staring at him with his eyes wide open, but his gaze was as empty and black as a pit, as if he couldn’t see any more. Arthur’s blood ran cold.
He grabbed hold of the magic staff lying on the ground and shoved it into the sorcerer’s hands.
"Fight back, you idiot! That’s an order!"
Merlin blinked, and his bony hand tightened around the staff. He harshly pushed away from Arthur’s arms, got on his feet and took a few unsteady steps back. Eyes darker than ink and looking as young as he used to be in the old days at Camelot, the sorcerer took a firm hold on his staff with his two hands, and the ochre stone became pitch black.
That couldn’t possibly be good. Holding his breath, Arthur’s hand hesitantly reached his sword’s hilt. What should he do?
Would he be able to stop his friend in time if he were to lose control again? Would he be forced to honour his pledge and lose forever the one person he cared about the most in the world?
Merlin’s voice amplified in his throat and burst out hoarse and powerful.
"GEHÆFTAN CARCERNÞÉOSTRE," he roared, throwing his head back with his eyes entirely black. "ÁGOE EALLNE ÞÆS DRYCRÆFTES MÍN SAWLE!"
The stone on top of the staff started gushing out thick threads of black liquid whirling around the sorcerer grimacing in agonizing pain.
"Don’t go near him!" Aithusa’s imperious voice resonated as she blocked his way with her tail. "The spell he just cast won’t harm anyone else but himself. Emrys is trying to contain the evil by attacking his own magic to weaken it. Look…"
Arthur stopped short, eyes fixed on his friend who looked in a trance, like he couldn’t see or hear anything any more. Makkariah timidly padded toward Merlin and stretched his neck to give the liquid circles of shadows a sniff. He jumped back and squeaked when they brushed against his nostrils.
Merlin was trembling uncontrollably and his legs gave way under his weight – he fell hard onto his knees, still holding tight on his staff. Once again, he was ageing very fast, his hair and his beard growing as white as snow while his skin became wrinkled.
"… it is over now . He resisted . He defeated it ."
Indeed, the streams of black fluid resorbed back into the staff’s stone whose colour turned back to ochre. Aithusa withdrew her tail from the way, letting Arthur rush at his friend’s side.
"Are you all right?"
Breathless and pale, Merlin nodded and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He took Arthur’s helpful hand and struggled to stand on his feet, looking exhausted and older than ever, as if a gust of wind would be sufficient to finish him off. His wrinkled hands were trembling like a leaf.
"I feel better now," he muttered as he feebly tried to pull away from Arthur. "I managed to take back control over my magic."
"You did this time…" Anhora walked slowly toward them. "But how much longer will you be able to? You should have told the Council the situation was that critical here. What will happen when no spell will contain you any more?"
"When that time comes… we will do what is required," Merlin waved him off noncommittally.
Too aware of Excalibur’s weight on his hip, Arthur darkened as he thought of the promise he made the night before – what just happened here had been a close call. He straightened Merlin’s gangly arm on his shoulder to keep him standing on his own two feet.
Ghalini and Aithusa watched their master with sad eyes, while Makkariah was hidden behind a column, obviously too scared to come out for now.
As for Anhora, as if not stirring a finger when Merlin was struggling against the plague had not been enough, he was just standing here unmoved like nothing happened at all.
"As I was saying, Emrys," he said in a low and serene voice, "I need your help."
"Whatever you need can wait," Arthur replied as he guided Merlin to a rock and sat him down. "He needs to rest."
The Keeper of the Unicorns shook his head.
"I’m afraid this can’t wait. Emrys… Eleanor had a vision."
Still breathing hard, Merlin snapped his head up, his gaze sharpening on Anhora’s face.
"You appeared in this vision," Anhora lifted an eyebrow. "You know what this means."
"The Old Religion is trying to tell us something…"
"Indeed. Maybe there is still hope to save Albion."
The early day’s light bathing the cave fell into pieces around them and faded away. Arthur took a deep startled breath and opened his eyes wide into the thick darkness. Their appearance had sent a cloud of ashes up that was now slowly falling down and making him cough. Far off, he could hear crackling sounds in the silence.
Arthur knew where they were before a whispered spell lit up their surroundings twenty feet around.
"The Valley of the Fallen Kings…?" Anhora frowned in confusion.
The pale light was outlining greyish trees and casting tortuous shadows of roots slithering on the ground. Leaning on his wooden staff, Merlin confirmed with an affirmative grunt.
"The Crystal Cave is buried under there," he muttered as he gestured at a pile of rocks covered in moss. "I haven’t come back there for a thousand years."
Arthur glanced anxiously at his friend. Merlin had recovered just enough to stand and walk on his own, but he was in a pretty bad shape. Every now and then, his face turned young again and his eyes blackened, but it only lasted for a few fleeting seconds.
How long would it last until he couldn’t fight any more the evil eating him from the inside?
"I never thought the Cave would be here, so close from the druids’ camp."
Anhora pointed his finger at something far off – as it were, if Arthur narrowed his eyes and took a good look, he could make out a few flickering lights hundreds of yard away behind the lines of dead trees.
"The druids share a profound bound with the deepest roots of the Old Religion," Merlin sighed and took a few heavy steps toward the rocks. "It’s only natural they unconsciously felt drawn to this place where magic was born to build their community."
The sorcerer stretched out an open hand and hissed hoarsely:
"Ic ábíetee þæt stánhol!"
Arthur flinched and shielded his face with his arm when the pile of rocks exploded and the shock wave induced a sudden displacement of air. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Anhora levitating the dirt and fragments of rock out of the way with just a flick of his wrist.
Now that the cave’s entrance was clear, Arthur walked closer until his shoulder brushed against Merlin’s.
"Enough loafing around," he grumbled darkly. "Let’s go and find out what Eleanor’s vision meant."
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s bony arm to help him stride over the rocks and step inside the cave. They made their way through the cluttered tunnel, all bent over so they wouldn't bang their head. The light Anhora was holding in his hand was casting shifty shadows.
When the tunnel finally widened and led down to the cave, Arthur held his breath and looked around at their light orb being reflected on hundreds, thousands of translucent crystals encrusted on the rock like diamonds.
It was breathtakingly beautiful.
"It is horrible…"
Arthur glanced at Anhora who looked devastated by this enchanting sight. And Merlin seemed to share his state of mind: he nodded sternly and brushed against a crystal with the tip of his wrinkled fingers.
"Just like the Crystal of Neahtid, they only show darkness. They don't emit anything any more. No energy, no warmth, no reminiscences of my forebearers…"
"They are empty," Anhora breathed as he touched the crystals too. "Utterly empty."
They both looked utterly dejected now. Arthur knitted his eyebrows, bewildered.
"You mean we came here for nothing? You said there was still hope! What about the prophetic vision you mentioned?"
Merlin hunched his shoulders even more and his hands tightened round his staff as he shook his head slowly.
"Eleanor probably mistook a mere dream for a vision. There is no way she could receive a prophecy. It's too late. Magic is dead."
Suddenly, a harsh snigger resounded in the cave.
"Oh believe me, it’s not dead."
Arthur stiffened, unable to locate where the voice was coming from.
"Quite the opposite actually. The Old Religion has never been more alive than on this glorious day."
It was like every word was arising out from different directions in the cave. Merlin and Anhora were glancing around to spot whoever was talking when the voice rose just behind them, this time perfectly clear:
They spun around to face…
Arthur blinked in confusion. His hand that had been about to unsheathe his sword loosened on the hilt.
Waddling out of the shadow on his bow legs, a dwarf strode over a crystal to haul himself up onto a rock. Now that he was at eye level, he leaned his hand against a column and looked up and down at them with a grin.
Merlin narrowed his eyes and scrunched his nose. "Grettir…?" he murmured in disbelief.
The dwarf’s gaze sharpened on the sorcerer.
"We meet again at last, Merlin. I waited a very long time for this moment."
It only took Arthur a few seconds more to remember exactly where he had seen this familiar face already.
"Hey, I've seen you before!" he said, pointing a finger at the intruder. "I remember, when I was on my quest for the Fisher King’s trident, you were the one guarding the bridge of the Perilous Lands!"
Again this snigger. A cold, hard, scornful laugh.
"You are mistaken, Arthur Pendragon, I am not Grettir. Grettir died many centuries ago."
Arthur flinched when the dwarf breathed in deeply and his irises turned entirely black. The atmosphere was suddenly thick with something evil – all his instincts were screaming danger and he felt an icy thrill shot down his spine.
His staff hitting the ground loudly, Merlin stepped in front of Arthur as if to shield him from danger.
"Who are you?" the sorcerer asked, voice strained.
The dwarf pulled away from the column and glared at Merlin with hatred, and with his pitch black eyes he didn’t even look human any more.
"You know who I am."
There was energy vibrating in the air. Arthur clenched his hand on his sword’s hilt with dread when every pebble and fragment of the cave rose to levitate three feet above the ground. He shared a look with Anhora, but the Keeper of the Unicorns didn’t seem to know much about what was happening.
"When Camelot fell in fire and blood…" The dwarf’s voice was increasing in volume and power. "All I had to do was to wait for a plunderer to break my heart from my tomb to be free and come back to life. You thought you could bury me under the castle I built myself! You thought you had defeated me and locked me in! But I am immortal, you fool! And now you are going to regret ever refusing the honour I offered you to rule the world by my side!"
Merlin took a step back. Then another. Arthur could see him now that they were side by side again, and he had never seen such a look of terror on his friend’s face.
Merlin’s lips opened and let out a whisper, so low Arthur barely heard it:
Chapter 9: A ghost from the ancient times
If you haven't seen it yet, I made a drawing for a scene in chapter 6! I’m quite proud of myself on this one hehehe.
The chapter you’re about to read is a bit short, but that’s because there is a lot of action.
Holding back his breath, Arthur felt a drop of sweat sliding down his cheek to his neck.
Cornelius Sigan. That name reminded him of something but he couldn’t quite remember what it was.
All around, fragments of rock were floating three feet above the ground. One of them bumped against his fist closed on his sword’s hilt and slowly hovered away. Arthur tightened his grip even more, clenching so hard his knuckles turned white.
Their figures were reflected on thousands of crystals like mirrors. Arthur in attack position ready to unsheathe Excalibur, Merlin with his white beard and hair leaning on his staff, Anhora standing back, wrapped in his white cloak… The dwarf staring at them appeared there as a swarming mass of darkness.
Arthur glanced at Merlin, unsure of what to do. He didn’t understand a single word of what the dwarf just shouted at them, but it had clearly been hostile. If he was an enemy, should they not attack right now?
Just in case, Arthur slowly drew his sword out of his sheath with a metallic sound, his face hardening threateningly.
"You know him?" he asked Merlin.
His imperious voice shook the old man out of his daze.
"We crossed path in the past," Merlin confirmed with a rough voice.
Anhora appeared out of thin air between the two of them, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.
"Cornelius Sigan is a sorcerer who lived in the ancient times of the Old Religion," he said, his eyes shifting to Arthur. "So great was his power that he brought Albion to its knees under his despotic reign. He founded Camelot by rising the castle and the city from the earth. The king who lived then feared his immense power and ordered him to be executed. Legend has it he will come back to take his revenge on Camelot."
"When the execution order was proclaimed, I took precautions," Sigan said in a sepulchral voice. "I sealed my soul with all my fortune into the secret tomb I built under the castle. They only executed an empty shell that day."
A cold grin distorted the dwarf's face.
"I know the darkness that lies within the heart of men. Sooner or later a greedy hand would come to pull out the diamond containing my soul. I thought the time had come for my revenge when that Cedric fool set me free. I possessed his body to destroy all life within the walls of Camelot by instilling life into the castle's gargoyles… But I had never anticipated a warlock as powerful as Merlin to get in my way."
Arthur lowered his blade. He remembered fighting those monsters made of stone that came down the walls to slaughter the terrified citizens. Come to think of it, a tomb had indeed been discovered under Camelot's castle just a few days earlier. He wasn't entirely sure he understood all that was going on here, but it certainly shed a new light on this attack that took everyone by surprise back then.
And that name…
"… Cedric?" he frowned in disbelief. "The man Merlin was quarrelling with for the honour to serve me?"
He shared a brief look with Merlin who confirmed with a nod.
Arthur had a vague memory of that thief who had done everything possible to replace his manservant whose incompetence was even more blatant than usual. Arthur had voluntarily let it happen, amused – and he had to admit, quite flattered – by the jealously Merlin was displaying, and eager to teach him a good lesson. It all went wrong very quickly when Merlin accused Cedric of being possessed by an evil spirit, and the two servants ended up wrestling on the floor like commoners right under his eyes. Afterwards it turned out that Cedric had in fact been trying to steal the key to rob the tomb – the guards found it on his corpse lying among the enchanted gargoyles' other victims.
Merlin stepped forward, his blue eyes riveted on Sigan and his staff's ochre stone glowing. Arthur saw him wet his lips before he spoke in a low and slow voice:
"You said you've been set free again when Camelot fell, then how come you're showing yourself only now, a thousand years later? And what are you doing here in the Crystal Cave?"
Sigan pitch black eyes bored into Merlin’s as if he was trying to pierce a hole through his skull. Arthur shuddered when he noticed that the dwarf’s veins were progressively darkening under his skin.
"During the few seconds I invaded your body and failed to take control of it, I was able to assess the extent of your magic. I’ve never felt so much raw power, and I would have been crushed under its pressure if you hadn’t sent me back into my prison. In a way, you saved my life by expelling me from your body, because at the time I would never have gotten the upper hand over you. Underestimating you was my mistake. You are not a sorcerer, Merlin, you are the magic of Albion incarnate."
Sigan’s hand brushed again the nearest crystal. It cracked with a sharp sound under his fingers, losing its shine before crumbling off just like the unicorn and Merlin’s dragon did when they died. The dwarf stared down at his fingers streaming with ashes.
"When Camelot fell, I took control of a soldier from Escetir. I was determined to get my revenge on you, for I knew I could never rule Albion again as long as you were in my way. But I had to gain enough power to defeat you, which seemed almost impossible to accomplish. For centuries I kept a low profile. Centuries of utter humiliation, hiding, possessing as many sorcerers I could without notice to absorb their life essence, their knowledge and their magic. I was looking for a way to reach your level and I had almost lost all hope… when one day, five hundred years ago, I took control of Grettir who happened to have invaluable informations. He knew where the birthplace of magic itself, the Crystal Cave, was located. Then I knew what I had to do."
"What have you done?" Merlin breathed, growing very pale.
Arthur had the feeling Merlin already knew the answer.
A black tear fell from Sigan's eye and slowly rolled down his cheek. He reached with his hand to wipe it, and watched unabashedly the dark fluid on his fingertips.
"For centuries I have been drawing Albion's magic from its source to feed my soul and increase my powers. Each one of these crystals gives an unlimited access to the past, the present and the future. I have become omniscient, I have eyes and ears everywhere and I used them to spy on every move you made. As I grew more and more powerful, I learned how to absorb from afar the magic of all druids, sorcerers and creatures of the Old Religion. Did you ever wonder, Merlin, why everyone's magic kept weakening except yours? Why Aithusa was unable to lay an egg without the Sidhe's help? Why the number of sorcerers was decreasing and why no one could grow magic powers through study any more?"
It was Anhora, not Merlin, who reacted to this. With an expression of fury on his features Arthur had never seen before, the old sorcerer spoke with a voice so powerful it made the ground quiver under their feet:
"So you are the one who killed my unicorns! The deadly illness – that was you absorbing their magic to quench your thirst for power! You fool! Don’t you know a dreadful curse come upon anyone who kills such a pure creature? You will pay a thousand times for your crime!"
Hands folded behind his back, Sigan’s icy glare darted toward Anhora.
"You forget this curse is a punishment inflicted by the Old Religion itself. Do you know why I absorbed the ancestral magic out of the Sidhe, unicorns, wyverns, druids and a dragon, until they died? No curse will ever avenge your unicorns, Anhora, because I have become the Old Religion!"
"You lie," Anhora hissed hoarsely and snapped his hand up with his fingers spread in Sigan’s direction. "Forbaerne, ácwele!"
A blazing fireball appeared and grew against the Keeper of the Unicorns’ palm. Arthur sucked his breath in stupor when the roaring ball of flames was violently thrown at the enemy.
Unfazed, the dwarf arched an eyebrow – and with just a glance, the fireball stopped in the air, floating just a few inches from his heart. He calmly stared down at it, and his face lit up from below by the flames looked positively terrifying.
"Your spells are of no use against me," Sigan said as he made the fireball disappear into thin air with just a flick of his hand. "It took me only a year to absorb almost all of Albion’s magic. I am now the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Let me prove it to you…"
Sigan raised a hand in Anhora’s direction. The old man flinched violently and grabbed his own head with a hoarse whimper.
They didn’t even get a chance to rush to his help. It only took a second for the darkness to invade Anhora’s irises under his bushy eyebrows. When he looked back up, his face was devoid of any expression.
Sigan moved his fingers, and Anhora turned his black and empty gaze to Merlin, raising a hand threateningly. Arthur’s heart missed a beat when an invisible force yanked Merlin a dozen feet away – he crashed into a few crystals, shattering them into pieces.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled.
His friend was collapsed on the ground suffocating and shaking like a leaf, white hair veiling his face. When Anhora stepped forward in his direction, Arthur’s blood ran cold. He rushed in to block his way, wielding his sword, lips pressed together into a thin line.
"I won’t let anyone hurt Merlin."
The pitch black eyes of the Keeper of the Unicorns stared at him unblinkingly.
"Gehæftan . "
He barely caught the whispered spell before thick vines shot up from the ground, bursting the rock open, and wrapped around his legs and waist. Arthur didn’t let them enough time to tie him up completely – he swung Excalibur to slice off the writhing vines one by one to set himself free, ignoring the stab of pain that shot through him when he cut a deep gash into his calf and his hip in the process.
He clenched his jaw and raised his sword to slay Anhora, when–
"Arthur, no! Anhora has no control over his actions but he’s still in there! Don’t kill him!"
Merlin’s voice stopped his arm. Arthur darted a glance at him and saw his friend now standing firmly on his feet, his angular features smoothing into his younger self by the second.
"Ablinn ðu, forlæte ðu nu!" Merlin hissed through his teeth, his hair turning darker and shorter.
Arthur felt the shock wave of the blast that sent Anhora crashing into the rock.
Merlin was right. Anhora wasn’t the one he had to attack.
Arthur turned his head to the dwarf standing on his rock to stare down at them. An evil smirk distorted his face, his veins were black under the skin, and dark tears were streaming down his cheeks.
His mind made up, Arthur gritted his teeth and swirled his sword before he hurled himself at Sigan, his blade slicing through the air as he aimed to cut his head off.
But before he could reach his target, he felt like a cannon ball just crashed into his chest, sucking the air out of his lungs. A sudden and excruciating pain searing into his arm made him drop his sword with a cry – it hit the ground with a clinking sound. Then some invisible force threw him backwards until he brutally hit a wall. The impact made him bite his tongue and the iron taste of blood flooded his mouth. He thought he heard Merlin screaming his name through the ringing in his ears. His vision darkened and he struggled not to pass out as the blurry figure of the dwarf raised a hand in his direction.
"Do not interfere, Arthur Pendragon," Sigan articulated. "This is not your fight. Áþind clúd!"
Arthur flinched when the rock against his back suddenly became liquid like melting wax and engulfed his arms and legs before it hardened again in a split second. No matter how fiercely he struggled, he couldn’t move at all. He was embedded into the rock and restrained more efficiently than Camelot’s heaviest chains in the dungeon ever could.
Heart hammering in his chest, he turned his head to look at the two old sorcerers still throwing spells at each other, just in time to see Merlin vanish and materialize immediately behind Anhora’s back, brandishing his wooden staff.
"Sorry, old friend…" Merlin panted as he hit the Keeper of the unicorns on the back of his head, hard.
The cracking sound of the skull and then of Anhora’s body collapsing on the ground made Arthur wince. He could only see Merlin’s back, but now his hair was as short and dark as it used to be in the old days. And when the sorcerer turned around, he no longer had a beard. His face had turned back into the young and angular face of his loyal manservant and best friend who had been at his side for ten years.
"Release Arthur immediately, Sigan. I won’t say it twice."
Merlin’s voice was hoarse and threateningly low. There was a stormy glimmer in his eyes and an ash stain on his sharp cheekbone.
Sigan cocked an eyebrow, climbed down from his rock, and took a step toward Merlin.
"Rest assured, Merlin. I have no intention of killing Arthur for the moment. I have plans for Camelot’s heir."
Merlin narrowed his eyes flashing golden and brandished his staff.
The ochre stone glowed and belched out a massive lightning bolt that sliced through the air so brightly Arthur had to shield his eyes. The thundering sound stopped and he cracked an eye open, dazzled.
The air was heavy with dust and Arthur watched in bewilderment the gigantic fuming crater where Sigan had been standing a few seconds earlier. But the hope that the enemy had been pulverized in the blast was short lived.
"I see you’ve decided to take me seriously at last," Sigan’s satisfied voice rose. "I was wondering how much longer you would waste your energy holding this ageing spell."
Arthur sharply turned his head to see where did the sepulchral voice come from. Sigan was now standing at the other end of the cave. He had been hit by Merlin’s attack after all, a whole chunk of his face had been ripped off. Instead of flesh, a black and viscous mass was swarming underneath and streaming down his neck.
Merlin defiantly held his enemy’s gaze. Now that he was back to his young self, his movements were swifter and more assured, radiating with power.
"All the ancient magic you absorbed can’t be contained into your body. You have been too greedy, Sigan, and now it’s only a matter of time before you end up crushed by the excess of power."
The dwarf sniggered, and his smirk crackled his skin like old leather.
"Indeed, I am afraid good old Grettir here is getting a bit thin for my ambitions. This is the reason why I have been trying to take possession of your body for the last few days. I was not able to do it from afar, but face to face it will be child’s play."
"Why didn’t you come out and face me directly, if that’s so?" Merlin walked slowly like a predator circling its prey.
"Because this body is embedded in the magic I drew from the crystals. I cannot leave this cave without risking this too fragile vessel to implode. To get out of here and rule over the world, I need a more powerful body. Like yours."
Arthur struggled again to free himself from the rock, but to no avail. He cursed himself for being powerless when he saw his friend grab his staff, ready to fight the enemy on his own.
Merlin sucked in a sharp breath as if he just realized something, and his face hardened further.
"You’re the one who sent this vision to Eleanor. You knew I would hear of it and it would lure me directly to you."
Sigan grinned and spread his arm dramatically, his voice raising in volume until he was shouting:
"I will now take possession of you, Merlin, and this time I will not fail!"
"ÁMYRÐRE!" Merlin shouted as his eyes glowed a bright, effervescent gold.
A flash of lightning burst out of the staff’s stone, but didn’t reach its target. It only took a dismissive wave of the hand from Sigan to deflect the attack. His predatory smile widened.
Sigan walked toward Merlin step by step, raising an open hand in his direction. With his pitch black eyes, his crackled skin streaming with black fluid all over, he didn’t even look human any more.
Arthur felt a wave of energy slicing through the air – a terrible wind rose and lashed his face. The attack wasn’t aimed at him, though. Merlin was taking the hit head-on, gritting his teeth and leaning on his staff to stay on his feet and struggle against the brute force blowing hard.
Sigan was coming closer, leaving black puddles as footprints behind him.
Arthur heard himself screaming Merlin’s name as he watched him raise a hand in a desperate effort to fight back:
"FOLGE MIN BEBOD!"
He had no idea what kind of spell Merlin had been trying to cast, but all it did was make Sigan flinch for a second. Arthur held his breath, going very pale when Sigan stopped just in front of Merlin. All was left of the dwarf’s body was a ripped carcass overflowing with liquid shadow – he started roaring an incantation, his voice raising in volume and vibrating through the cave’s walls and crystals.
Merlin let out a choked cry of pain and fell on his knees with a hand clutching at his heart. When Sigan stuck his hand on Merlin’s forehead, the wooden staff clattered to the ground and Arthur saw the ochre stone crack and crumble into dust.
Powerless and stuck into the rock, Arthur watched as Sigan opened wide what was left of his jaw and belched out a mass of black smoke. It rushed down on Merlin's face and seeped into his eyes, his nose and his mouth. As the smoke left his body, the dwarf was rapidly decaying until there was nothing left but a skeleton crumbling into dust.
Arthur stared wide-eyed as his friend collapsed to the ground and curled up, trembling like a leaf.
"MERLIN!" he yelled, trying to yank himself out of the rock.
There was nothing he could do but curse himself for being powerless and watch his best friend writhing in pain on the ground.
"Don't let him get you…" Arthur murmured.
Something moved in his peripheral vision. Anhora had regained consciousness and struggled to get on his feet – he was a sorry sight but looked like he was back to himself, judging by the colour of his irises and the baffled look on his face.
"Anhora!" Arthur hissed, bracing himself against the solid rock. "Release me, I have to help Merlin!"
The Keeper of the Unicorns gauged the situation by glancing at Merlin who struggled to breathe and Arthur literally embedded into the stone. His eyes hardened under his bushy eyebrows and he lifted a shaking hand in Arthur's direction.
"Áhredde…" he slurred, looking exhausted.
Arthur felt the stone liquefy again and withdraw from around his body – free at last, he hopped down and was about to run to his friend when Anhora blocked his way with his staff.
"Wait, Arthur. Do not come closer. Neither you nor I can help him win this fight."
"Out of my way, old man!" Arthur snarled. "I can’t lose him! He’s my friend!
He harshly pushed the staff away and rushed toward Merlin who was no longer writhing – he was now lying very still on the ground. Heart pounding in his chest, Arthur sank down to his knees and touched his shoulder.
The sorcerer's eyes fluttered open. Relief washed over Arthur when he saw they were blue again, and a smile split his face.
"You did it, Merlin!" he squeezed his shoulder fondly. "You defeated him!"
They got up and Merlin turned his head to stare right at him.
"I did. It was easier than I thought it would be."
The corners of Merlin's mouth curled up into a smirk, and his irises suddenly turned to a deep black.
"The last centuries he spent living underground and inflicting an ageing spell on himself considerably weakened him."
Arthur's smile fell as Merlin's widened, and he pulled his hand off the shoulder as if he had been burned.
"Arthur!" Anhora shouted behind him. "Get away from him! This is not Emrys any more!"
Arthur took a step back, shaking his head in horror and denial, staring wide-eyed at the stranger controlling his friend's body.
Sigan raised a hand and watched his wiggling fingers with dark jubilation – the expression looked wrong on Merlin's face.
"With this body, I will take my revenge at last and my reign of terror will begin! Not only Albion, but the whole world will tremble at the name of Cornelius Sigan! You should be honoured to witness the birth of a new era!"
Sigan vanished into an ascending swirl of smoke. The ground began to tremble and every crystal cracked and shattered. Arthur flinched when Anhora grabbed his wrist and yanked him back.
"We cannot stay here! Everything is going to collapse!"
Arthur pulled himself together, snatched Excalibur from the ground and rushed after Anhora. They came very close to being crushed by rock blocks as the cave collapsed onto itself like a dying beast. They rushed into the tunnel and reached the open air just in time to watch the cave in blocking the entry. Immersed in the darkness of the Valley of the Fallen Kings’ eternal night, they caught their breath. Arthur straightened his back and sheathed back his sword, a feeling of emptiness growing into his heart.
But it wasn’t over yet. Instead of stopping now that the cave had collapsed, the rumbling kept getting louder. Arthur tensed up with his eyes wide open in the dark as the ground started shaking under his feet.
Suddenly, the night cleared up and Arthur could make out Anhora’s face and the outlines of the trees around. He snapped his head up in bewilderment and saw the darkness receding and unveiling a bright grey sky.
"What the hell…"
"The enchantment…" Anhora breathed. "The enchantment cast by the druids four hundred years ago is unravelling…"
Anhora didn’t get a chance to answer. A muffled explosion coming from the cave hurled out such a terrible blast it knocked down the both of them to the ground. Shielding his head with his arms, Arthur stared as the shock wave burned the trees away until all that was left of the forest was ashes.
Arthur looked up sharply when he heard screaming in the distance.
"The druids' camp…" he whispered in horror.
Only then did he realize that Anhora was lying next to him and not moving at all. His face was livid and distorted by pain. Arthur reached for the old man's neck, fumbling to find a pulse – it was barely present, but he was alive, just unconscious.
He had no other choice but to heave the sorcerer onto his shoulder like a bag of wheat. Walking to the village was no easy task, as Anhora was way heavier than Merlin.
Thinking about his friend he had just lost brought tears to his eyes. He choked them back and gritted his teeth as he quickened his pace.
Nothing could have prepared him to the horrendous sight that greeted him at the druids' camp. The huts had all been blown away like wisps of straw, and hundreds of lifeless bodies littered the ground. Women were weeping over their dead loved ones, and others were screaming in horror and shielding their eyes from the sun light reaching them for the very first time in their lives.
His shoulder numb from Anhora's weight, Arthur froze when the druids started yelling and pointing fingers at the sky with fear written on their faces.
Arthur looked up and stopped breathing altogether.
Up above, the moon was moving impossibly fast across the sky until it stopped right in front of the sun.
Day had become night and a fiery crown adorned the dark sky.
Chapter 10: What it means to be a king
I made a gif for chapter 6! First time ever I make a gif, it was fun. ^^
Thank you all for your comments, kudos and bookmarks, I’m so happy you’re enjoying the story so far!
The soft fabric fluttered between his fingers, grazing his wrist and drifting with the wind. Arthur could have sworn it came to life the moment it touched the rope.
All colours merged into a dull grey under the eclipse’s shade. The long shreds of fabric were hanging on loosely stretched ropes, and all looked the same colour.
Arthur was fastening the strip of cloth with the others when he heard muffled footsteps behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw the High Priestess grind to a halt a few meters away, her eyes sharpening on Arthur and his hands tying the knot.
She didn’t say a word, but she wrinkled her brow. Arthur hesitated and withdrew his hands from the strip of fabric, wondering if he had done something wrong by imitating what the druids were doing. He had watched them hammering sticks into the ground, stretching ropes between them and cutting ribbons on the dead’s clothes to hang them up. He assumed it was some kind of funeral rite, so he clumsily tried to assist. He had no idea what he was doing. After all, he never did understand the Old Religion and he had offended its practitioners many times without meaning to do so.
"I just wanted to help," he turned to face Eleanor. "I apologize if my initiative is inappropriate, I meant no disrespect to your beliefs."
The eclipse’s twilight bathed the druidess’ face in shadows, but he could still see her grey hair wavering down on her cloak, and how her eyes were red from crying. She gave off the same kind of tragic dignity that Arthur, as a child, had admired on the statues and tapestries of the past fallen kings.
"You have nothing to apologize for, Arthur Pendragon. You showed compassion and humility by taking part in our ritual."
"Please accept my condolences. I am terribly sorry about what happened."
Eleanor gave him a weak smile and lifted a shaking hand. The movement laid her wrist bare as she carefully touched the strip of cloth Arthur had tied up, revealing the druidic symbol tattooed on her skin there. The fabric fluttered against her palm like a beating heart.
"Restaþ friþgearde…" she whispered, her voice cracking with emotion on the last syllable.
She released the strip of cloth, letting it writhe in the wind.
Silent, Eleanor gazed in sorrow at what remained of the druids' village, and Arthur did the same out of respect. Under the black sky adorned with its thin circle of light, a landscape filled with darkness stretched as far as he could see, haunted with darker figures jabbing more sticks into the ground and hanging more ropes up. Gusts of ashes rose in swirls and fell back into a slow rain covering the freshly dug graves. In the distance, he could hear sobbing and wailing melding with the wind.
"Hanging up a substitute for their earthly body anchors the souls that have been too brutally torn from life," the High Priestess said in a low voice. "To make sure they won't get lost in our world and be consumed with terror, we tie them up next to each other so they keep together and find peace on the way to the realm of the dead. The last time I took part in such a ritual, I was only a child. All I wished for was to go with my parents, my brothers and sisters to the other side."
Arthur looked at Eleanor. The High Priestess was staring at the hundreds of shreds of cloth floating around, and her eyes were so sad Arthur felt his heart grow heavy.
"This land is cursed now," the old woman murmured. "And it will remain that way as long as the dead are not resting in peace."
Arthur looked away and took in the devastated landscape. As he listened to the wounded moaning and the infected crying in agony, something became very clear to him.
"You can’t stay here."
Arthur had involuntarily spoken in an overbearing voice, the same way he used to give orders to lead his men into battle or impose his strategy to his counsellors. He felt the High Priestess' eyes sharpening on him.
"You need water, food and medical care for the wounded," he continued with all of his royal authority. "I offer you shelter in Merlin’s underground city, there are hundreds of empty rooms and the kitchen is loaded with provisions."
Eleanor started back, horror and disgust widening her eyes.
"There is no way in hell I'm going back to this place!" she hissed through clenched teeth.
The High Priestess flinched when Arthur put his hand on her frail shoulder, and leaned in to stare right into her eyes.
"Merlin told me what happened in the past, Eleanor. I know how your family has been killed. I know how painful it would be for you to go back there, and I understand your reluctance…"
So many raw emotions were battling in the druidess' grey eyes, but behind the anger and outrage, Arthur thought he detected hesitation and a glimpse of vulnerability. He decided to focus on this, and tightened his grip on the woman's shoulder.
"… but this isn’t about you right now. Your people’s survival is at stake. This people are relying on you, they are under your responsibility. Look at them."
Eleanor complied and glanced at the wounded lying on the ashes littering the ground, then at the druids tying the last strips of cloth and crying over their dead loved ones.
"Forget about the past." Arthur's voice was firm. "Only the present and the future matter. You have to protect those who are still alive."
When she made eye contact with Arthur again, he could tell that her will was wavering. But the moment was interrupted by muffled footsteps coming from behind. She pulled away from him and they turned to face an old man with a square jaw and prominent eyebrows who was walking toward them, his magical staff digging into the thick layer of ashes with every step. Arthur remembered meeting him when he came along with Merlin to the Elders' gathering.
The High Priestess found her composure back and her face became distant and dignified again.
"Rheyelan. What are the news?"
"James just arrived," the man sternly announced. "He says only the Valley of the Fallen Kings suffered from that blast. The rest of the country is unscathed, but the whole world is wondering about the unnatural eclipse."
The High Priestess nodded grimly.
"How many of the Elders are still alive?"
"Almost all of them are dead or dying. There is only Anhora, James and the both of us left."
"Did Anhora regain consciousness?"
"Yes, but he’s very weak, he needs rest. James is taking care of him."
Eleanor pulled down her cloak’s hood, veiling her face in the shadow.
"Anhora will rest later. We have to gather the Council to decide on our community’s future." She glanced briefly at Arthur. "The Once and Future King will attend the meeting, he owes us some explanation. And there is a proposal he would like to make."
She whirled around and gestured for them to follow her. They walked through the ruins of the village and the stretched ropes adorned with long shreds of cloth. The infected druids were tied up and seizing on the ground. Pure hatred distorted their features, and they followed the three of them with pitch black eyes.
Further on, apart from the others, they found James crouching at Anhora’s side. The young druid was wearing his modern clothes and didn’t seem to have noticed them coming. His thick mats of tangled brown hair were gathered up into a bun, clearing the back of his neck and showing the druidic symbol inked there. He was grazing with his fingertips the forehead of the Keeper of the unicorns who struggled to breathe.
"James. We have been waiting for you for hours. Where were you?"
The druid tilted his head to show he heard Eleanor’s question.
"I was working at the restaurant when the eclipse plunged London in the dark," he sighed. "Everyone rushed out in the streets to take pictures and post them online. Looks like the planet’s stopped rotating and the moon deviated from its course to stop right above us and somehow block the sun for all the United Kingdom, which is technically impossible. Scientists are going batshit crazy."
His drawling voice was unusually grim. The young druid stood up to face them, his face stern.
"If I’d known our community was in danger, I’d not have wasted a second and I’d have come right away. What happened here?"
Rheyelan shook his head, looking downcast.
"There is nothing you could have done, James."
"I knew it would happen," Eleanor said sternly. "I saw it in a dream. As a High Priestess of the Old Religion, I could only bow to our destiny. I knew nothing I could do or say would change what has been written."
Wheezing, Anhora tried to sit up.
"I relied on this prophecy and brought Emrys and Arthur to the Crystal Cave…" He broke into a coughing fit. "I wanted to find answer, to know where the evil that had been decimating us for months came from…"
Rheyelan knelt to help Anhora drink from a flask, and Arthur decided to speak up:
"We’ve been attacked by a sorcerer named Cornelius Sigan. He took possession of Merlin’s body and blew up the cave, the blast destroyed the forest and the village."
Rheyelan narrowed his eyes sceptically. "… Cornelius Sigan?"
The High Priestess opened her eyes wide as if she just realized something, and fear registered on her face.
"The raven in my dream… Sigan’s seal is a raven…"
Trembling like a leaf in Rheyelan’s hold, Anhora nodded.
"Do you remember the legends of the old times I used to tell you when you were children? The tale of Cornelius Sigan, the dreadful sorcerer who built the castle of Camelot and carried on a reign of terror over Albion was your favourite, Eleanor…"
Arthur blinked, taken aback. The castle of Camelot, built by a sorcerer? What was this nonsense? His tutors always taught him that Camelot had been founded by kings of the old times who ended up killing each other in deathly wars and let magic corrupt them until Uther came along to restore order and rule over the land.
The High Priestess tightened her grip on her staff, her eyes darkening.
"Legend has it he will come back one day to get his revenge. And if by possessing Emrys’s body he took over his magic too…"
"There is more," Anhora hissed through his teeth. "Cornelius Sigan did not just take Emrys’ body and magic. He spent centuries draining magic at its very source, the Crystal Cave. Those last few months, he started using the sacred crystals to reach sorcerers and magical creatures to absorb their energy."
"The plague…" Rheyelan figured out, eyes widening in shock.
"Indeed," the Keeper of the unicorns said. "He amassed so much power he has become invincible. He can submit any creature of magic to his will and control them. He exerted his power on me, and believe me, it is impossible to resist his hold. Not even Emrys could."
Arthur looked down and gritted his teeth thinking about Merlin. At this very moment as they wasted time blathering, he didn’t dare wonder what Sigan was doing with his friend’s body and magic… Was Merlin even still alive inside? Was he struggling in vain against Sigan’s will like Anhora did? Or was he already dead like Grettir, crushed by all the power Sigan amassed through the centuries?
He tried to ignore the gaping hole his friend’s absence was digging in him. There was no time for panicking or giving up hope. He remembered the unwavering support Merlin showed him when Arthur was exiled from his own kingdom while Morgana was sitting on his throne. Merlin never gave up then, he always believed in him.
Merlin probably saved him more times that he could ever imagine, and now it was time for Arthur to return the favour.
The druids were Merlin’s people, in a way. Until he found a way to help Merlin, Arthur would make it his duty to protect them, for him.
His hands curled into fists at his side and his eyes hardened as he raised his voice:
"We will worry about Merlin and Sigan later, there’s nothing we can do about it for the moment. Right now, we need to leave this place and get you all somewhere safe to tend to the wounded. Without proper care, they won’t survive long."
James sighed resignedly, folding his arms.
"Arthur’s right. Also, we can’t stay on these cursed lands. The dead’s souls are tormented, and the enchantment protecting the Valley of the Fallen Kings is gone."
"This is why I offer you shelter in Merlin’s underground city. You will be safe there. I know that’s what he’d want."
Dead silence fell on their group. James arched his eyebrow pierced with a silver ring while Anhora and Rheyelan exchanged significant looks.
"There are hundreds of vacant rooms," Arthur insisted. "The kitchen is loaded with food. And Aithusa will certainly be able to help us find a way to defeat Sigan."
A strange smile curled up the corners of James’ mouth.
"I’m in," he shrugged, digging his hands in his pockets. "What about you, Eleanor?"
All eyes darted to the High Priestess whose lips were tightened into a thin line.
"If it were up to me, I would rather die before I set foot in that place again," she narrowed her eyes. "But Arthur… you are right. I can’t take such a decision in my people’s behalf. So I will just abide by the Council’s decision."
"I am not exactly thrilled by this idea either," Rheyelan said, staring intently at the High Priestess, "but what other choice do we have? James, you know of the outside world. Do you think you could find us a place to take in a hundred people including thirty wounded and sick people without attracting attention?"
"Given that I’ve got only a hundred pounds or so in my bank account," James said with a hint of sarcasm in his drawling voice, "no way. We won’t get far like this."
Anhora took a deep breath and managed to get on his feet with Rheyelan’s help.
"We have no other choice but to accept the Once and Future King’s offer. Thank you, Arthur."
Arthur nodded with dignity and shook hands with the Keeper of the unicorns, then with Rheyelan, and finally with James who was now looking at him with a whole new respect in his eyes.
When Arthur held out his hand to Eleanor, the druidess clenched her fist around her staff with obvious reluctance.
"Eleanor," Arthur’s voice was soft but firm. "Do it for your people."
When she finally made eye contact with Arthur, it looked like she had made her mind. She reached out to him resolutely.
Their handshake felt like an alliance.
The glowing runes carved into the rock bathed the tunnels in a soft blue light. Following Arthur's orders, the druids were rushing around and settling down in the underground maze, keeping a safe distance from the decaying areas he warned them about, where the stone was within an inch of collapsing.
Arthur felt oddly calm, focused and in control. Perhaps it was the familiarity of giving orders and having the survival of a hundred people under his responsibility, but he felt like himself once again. There was a fire burning in his heart, and for the first time since he came out of the lake of Avalon and lost his kingdom, his loyal knights and his wife, he felt truly alive. The time for grieving what once was had gone by, and now he was determined to live and fight in this world so different from everything he ever knew.
He would get Merlin back at all costs. He would find a way to rescue him.
Arthur just told a druid girl where to find buckets and water when James’ familiar voice spoke from behind him:
"Hey, Arthur, where do I take him? Every room I've seen so far is occupied…"
He turned around to see the druid carrying an inert child whose eyes were rolled upwards, his lips starting to turn blue. His head was wrapped in a makeshift bandage and one of his arms was lacerated to the bone. Blood was gushing from the gaping wound, streaming down to his fingertips, dripping to a red pool at James’ feet.
"Over here," Arthur gestured for him to follow. "Eleanor is taking care of the most serious injuries."
They strode off down the corridors, weaving among the druids, and rushed into a room equipped with several beds – a large family had probably lived here once.
Eleanor snapped her face up to look right at them. She was hovering over a women whose leg was broken in half, bone jutting out through the skin.
She wiped the blood off her hands in a towel and got on her feet to gently take the child from James' arms.
"Do you have everything you need?" Arthur walked closer as the High Priestess laid down the wounded boy on a bed.
"The medicines you brought us are exactly what we needed. Emrys has always taken great care to get the most efficient herbs for his potions."
Arthur glanced at the table where he had piled up every herbs, vials and weird powders Merlin had used to cure him when he had been clawed by the wyvern. Then he watched her apply a greenish paste on the arm's open wound.
"If there’s anything else I can help you with…"
"You have done enough, Arthur Pendragon. We will forever be grateful."
Eleanor smiled at him shortly and went back to focus on her task. Arthur understood he was being a hindrance, so he stepped back to let her work. A young druid girl was assisting the High Priestess, following her every move like a silent and grim shadow.
Once he and James had left the room and closed the termite-eaten door behind them, Arthur took a deep breath. He was starting to get tired. After the Council gave its agreement, they had gathered all the druids to tell them the news before they proceed to the magical transportation to the underground city. It had been a long and tedious process, given that the few rare druids capable of such powerful magic were almost all injured or dead. In the end, Eleanor and James had had to transport here every druid one by one, just the two of them.
"How many people left to bring back?" Arthur asked the druid in a strained voice.
Sticking his hands in his pockets, James leaned back against the wall, runes glowing blue like a halo behind him.
"None. He was the last one."
Arthur looked around. It looked like the druids had settled in and were taking good care of the wounded. They no longer needed him to guide them.
"Good," Arthur said with a short nod. "If Eleanor or Rheyelan ask after me, tell them I went down to the cave."
"You’re going to see the dragons?"
Arthur shot him a sidelong glance. The druid stared right back unblinkingly.
"Yes, maybe Aithusa will know what needs to be done in order to defeat Sigan and help Merlin."
"Good idea. I'll go with you. Plus, it's been years since the last time I saw Aithusa."
The druid picked up a torch from the wall and set it alight with a whispered Forbearnan, achieving with ease that very same spell Merlin had tried to teach Arthur to no avail.
"You know Aithusa?" he asked, leading the way.
"You could say that, yeah," James shrugged, following suit. "This isn’t the first time I’ve set foot in this city, y’know. I’ve lived here a couple years with Emrys."
Arthur pressed his lips together and forced himself not to ask any more questions. Merlin was in peril and possessed by an evil sorcerer, now was not the time to brood over the thousand years his friend had lived without him and why he never told him anything about sharing the place with the druid.
The sound of their footsteps echoed all around them when they walked down the stairs leading to the cave. Everything was silent there. James was just a few steps behind him, holding the flaming torch. Arthur's shadow was stretching along the walls and throbbing like a living thing.
He came to a grinding halt when he heard a noise in the distance and raised his hand to signal to James to stop and hold still. The sound became clearer and Arthur identified the clickety-clack of claws on stone just before Makkariah dashed forward to them, flapping his wings in a frenzy and leaping up the stairs four steps at a time.
Arthur reached down to pick up the obviously panicked creature.
The baby dragon didn't let him a chance to touch him. He leaped and clung on to Arthur's wrist, hanging from there and flapping his bat-like wings frantically. Arthur winced when the dragon dug his claws into the jacket’s leather to climb up his arm and wrap himself around his neck with the agility of a lizard.
Makkariah bleated against the ear, his burning hot breath nearly setting Arthur’s hair on fire.
"Hey!" Arthur shot him a reproachful look.
The dragon just glared back stubbornly and blew a puff of smoke out of his nostrils. Tail thrashing impatiently, he opened his mouth wide to bleat even louder right into Arthur’s ear:
Arthur grimaced in pain and grabbed the big lizard by the scruff of the neck to hold him at arm’s length as he kept bleating like a goat and flapping his wings like crazy.
"Calm down!" Arthur shouted at the top of his lungs to cover the noise.
Makkariah was flailing so wildly Arthur had great difficulty holding him – especially since he wasn’t exactly a light weight.
"Need some help, bro?"
James was stone faced as usual, but there was a glint of mockery in his eyes.
"Something is wrong, he’s not usually like this," Arthur narrowed his eyes at Makkariah. "I never heard him make this kind of sounds before."
"Aaaaaaaarh…." the dragon bleated again, thrashing wildly to get free of Arthur’s grip. "Aaaaaaaaaarrrrhh….!"
"Maybe he felt what happened to Emrys," James suggested as he looked more attentively at the dragon whose scales glistened like gold with every move he made. "Dragons are bounded to the soul with their master, after all."
Arthur tried not to think of the other possibility – that Sigan's deathly grip had finally reached Merlin's youngest dragon. Makkariah's eyes had always been black, so he couldn't know for sure and chose to repress those thoughts for the moment.
Arthur cautiously drew the dragon to his chest to hold him in his arms like a newborn infant, stroking the rough and warm scales with his thumb. The touch soothed the creature who stopped struggling and looked up at him with eyes wide with distress, clutching at the t-shirt with his claws.
"Aaaarht…" he bleated plaintively. "Aaaarhrrrr…. Aaaarthurrrrrr….!"
Arthur blinked in confusion, holding the warm dragon close to his heart. Did he hear that right?
No, he wasn't dreaming.
"He said my name!"
The dragon wriggled out of his arms, jumped to the ground, wings flapping loudly, and turned his head to look at them.
"Arthur!" he trumpeted, then dashed off, rushing downstairs until he disappeared out of sight.
Arthur glanced at James who just raised his eyebrows.
"We’d better follow him."
They went down the stairs and reached the underground cave. The eclipse's bright circle was rippling on the surface of the lake. The salt crystals crunched under their feet as they walked between the stalagmites, haloed by the torch's light that cast hundreds of shifting shadows all around them.
Arthur heard the echo growing before the voice even rose.
"I thought I would never see you again… Arthur… James…"
That was Aithusa’s voice coming from right behind them. They whirled around and the druid raised the torch high above their heads to cast a golden light onto the giant white dragon hunched body – in all likehood they had walked right past her and just mistook her for a pile of rocks. Further away, Ghalini and Makkariah were lurking in the shadow, silent and still.
"Aithusa!" Arthur called out.
He ran straight to the giant dragon whose head was resting on the ground. She watched him come closer, her blue eyes filled with sorrow.
"I felt through my bond with Emrys that something terrible happened to my master," Aithusa murmured. "This is the end. Albion’s magic is living its last moments."
Arthur reached out hesitantly and stroked the white scales. There was an old scar drawing a deep line going from her mouth to her neck. Aithusa heaved a sigh and closed her eyes, melting under the caress.
"This isn’t over yet," Arthur said, trying to sound self-assured. "Merlin has been possessed by a sorcerer named Sigan who’s been using the Crystal Cave to siphon off all magic of Albion. But maybe it’s not too late. Can you feel if he’s still alive?"
The white dragon slowly opened her eyes, and Arthur saw her irises filling with darkness for a split second. Aithusa was shaken by a painful spasm but managed to fight the evil back, which left her panting and exhausted.
"I don't know," she admitted tiredly. "All I can see and feel is darkness and my strength is running out…"
The dragon looked like she was about to lapse into unconsciousness, so Arthur panicked.
"Wait! You’re my only hope… please tell me if you know of a way to defeat Sigan without harming Merlin, or at least how to extract him from his body…?"
Aithusa’s clear blue eyes gazed at him, and he could see his face reflected on them.
"I don’t have the power and knowledge of the dragons of the ancient times, O Once and Future King… You should ask your questions to the Lady of the Lake."
Arthur frowned and slowly removed his hand from the rough scales.
"Who is this Lady of the Lake?"
But Aithusa’s eyes were already closing and she was curling up in a ball like a wounded animal, burying her head under her wing.
"Tell me! Who is she?!"
James hand on his shoulder stopped him short.
"Easy, Your Highness," the druid drawled. "The Lady of the Lake is Emrys’ confidante. I can bring you to her."
Arthur never thought he’d be standing on this lakeside again, over a month after he came back to life. In the eternal night Sigan had cursed upon Albion’s lands, the lake of Avalon looked as dark as ink, only adorned by the eclipse’s rippling circle of light. His breath misted every time he exhaled. He narrowed his eyes and peered at the shadows of the bare trees, searching for a presence, a figure, anything. In the distance, he could make out the concrete road and what he now knew was an advertising board. The rumbling sound of a car engine grew and headlights swept across the lake before it all faded away.
There was no one in sight. No sign whatsoever of Merlin’s so-called confidante.
"Kay, so I’m gonna leave you alone with her. I’ll be waiting over here ‘til the both of you are done talking."
Arthur’s brow furrowed and he turned toward James – he was already walking away with his hands in his pockets.
"Wait!" Arthur called out with a hint of irritation in his voice. "Where is she? Where is the Lady of the Lake?"
The druid came to a halt and glanced back at him. It was so dark Arthur could barely make out his features, but still he saw the eyebrow pierced with the silver ring arching up, and a hand gesturing dismissively at the lakeside.
"Just go near the water, mate. She’ll come to you."
With no regard for the king’s sceptical face, he walked away until he became just another shadow in the dark – Arthur vaguely saw him sit down and lean against a tree.
Arthur took a deep breath and walked carefully to the lake, dead grass crackled under his feet. He stopped when his shoes sank into mud and icy water engulfed his toes.
Feeling utterly ridiculous, Arthur raised his voice and hoped he sounded self-confident enough:
"Lady of the Lake! I, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, came to talk to you!"
No answer came. All was quiet. The black surface of the lake rippled away from him in slow circles. Arthur looked around impatiently, but seconds passed and no woman came to meet him. This was a complete waste of time.
He was about to step out of the water when he heard the voice of a young maiden.
It sounded strangely close and distant at the same time, as if whispered right into his ear and floating miles away from here.
Arthur peered at the darkness more intently, but except for James sitting alone on the edge of the forest, he was all alone.
"Where are you? Show yourself!"
"I am here. Look down."
Arthur complied and lowered his head. The image reflected on the black rippling water was not his own. Instead, he saw a young brown-haired girl staring back, making him flinch in fear.
It's just magic, he reasoned himself. There’s nothing to fear.
He should have known Merlin’s confidante would be well-versed in magic. But to be honest, he had expected some sort of old and ugly sorceress with a liking for dresses just like the Dolma, not a young maiden immersed in icy water with her long hair floating around her head like seaweed.
Slowly and cautiously as if he was approaching a wild animal, Arthur crouched down and reached out with hesitation. His fingers grazed the pale face, pushed into the water and met no resistance: it was only a reflection without substance. She wasn't actually there. Or at least, not in the flesh.
Arthur removed his hand and shivered as his toes went numb in the cold water.
"Who are you?" he asked, stupor and fascination lacing his voice.
The reflection tilted her head unblinkingly.
"Don't you remember me?"
Arthur looked more closely at her delicate features and deep ancient eyes. He had this uneasy feeling that he should recognize her, like a distant memory of a face lost in the crowd, but nothing came back to him. So he shook his head, furrowing his brow.
"I became the Lady of the Lake after I died. It has been so for the last thousand years. But during my lifetime, my name was Freya. I lived at a time when you were still only a prince."
"And we’ve met?"
Arthur couldn’t tell if Freya’s smile was amused or sad.
"Yes. You’re the one who killed me."
Arthur sucked in his breath.
"Let me refresh your memory…"
When a hand burst out of the lake, followed by a slender wrist and a naked arm, Arthur startled back and fell backwards, gaping. Freya's reflection was heaving up the water, and her head surfaced with hair streaming down her face, shoulders and chest barely covered by a dress ripped in shreds. She leaned over him, reaching for his face with a translucent hand. Her body was solely made of water. Feeling like his heart was about to pound right out of his chest, Arthur held his breath and made a concerted effort not to draw out Excalibur.
Cold liquid fingers touched his cheek, and Arthur felt a torrent of images and sensations rushing right into his mind, overwhelming his senses and his memory.
He wasn’t at the lakeside any more, but in the courtyard of Camelot’s castle. A full moon shone bright in the night sky. He was barefoot, terrified, and he was facing himself. This Arthur in armour and red cape standing there with his sword unsheathed looked younger. There were sinister looking guards by his side, holding spears.
Please, let me go! he begged with Freya’s voice.
His torturer, Halig, stepped forward with a sneer and made his chains clatter.
No one escapes from me, the man grunted jubilantly.
Arthur felt panic overcome him. No, he'd never go back inside that cage to be treated like an animal! He’d rather die!
Midnight bells ringing broke something inside him, and he felt the curse take control of him. He howled in pain as his body burned and distorted itself, black fur growing all over. He fell on all fours, opening his mouth with an angry growl, stretching out his wings and swishing his tail furiously. All he saw in front of him now was prey. Puny humans whose bones would snap like wisps of straw under his teeth. He was eager to take a taste of their flesh and blood. He could smell their fear, which increased tenfold his urge to kill.
He pounced on Halig and lacerated him to the marrow with just a swipe from his claws, easily slashing through his heart and lungs. Looking up, Arthur saw himself charging and felt the sword thrust into his shoulder and slaying right to his heart. A fatal blow that made him howl in agony.
Shaking in pain, he tried to limp away but ended up cornered against the walls, surrounded by these hostile men led by Arthur. The prince was pointing his sword at him, with the clear intention to kill in his blue eyes. He was about to fight back when he saw Merlin in the distance watching the scene. The distraught look on his face made all his rage and blood lust vanish.
Merlin's eyes glowed with iridescent gold, and a gargoyle's head came off from the bulwarks to crash on the ground, barely missing Arthur.
He glanced gratefully at the young sorcerer and despite the excruciating pain he managed to fly away.
Breathing heavily, Arthur broke free from this memory that was not his. The agony and terror he had felt so vividly already started to fade away like a bad dream. He was back at the lake's shore, with his feet dunking in the water and Freya's liquid frame towering over him. Her translucent face smiled as she slowly removed her hand from his cheek.
"I succumbed from the wound you inflicted on me shortly after. I died in Merlin's arms, just like you. At least this is something you and I have in common."
Arthur tried to catch his breath and process everything he felt through that memory. It had felt so real.
He suddenly realized that ever since he came back to life in this era, this was the first time, except for Sigan, he heard someone call Merlin by his name instead of Emrys.
"I'm not mad at you," Freya's voice turned wistful. "I was cursed, condemned to turn every night into a bloodthirsty beast for the rest of my life. I found peace in death."
His trousers were soaked now and he was getting cold. Arthur shivered and straightened his back – the sight of Merlin casting a spell to prevent him from finishing off the beast was carved into his mind.
"Why did Merlin protect you?"
Freya's eyes softened.
"Merlin freed me from my cage when Halig brought me to Camelot to hand me over to Uther Pendragon. Look…"
Again, she reached out with her hand so pale it seemed to be glowing in the eternal night, and grazed his cheek – icy water oozing from her liquid fingers started to stream down his neck, soaking his t-shirt.
Why did you do that? he asked with Freya's small voice.
Merlin was standing in front of him, looking hesitant. A flaming torch was casting moving shadows on his face and Camelot's underground tunnels.
What? Merlin said in confusion.
Shivering in his dress ripped to shreds, Arthur was eyeing the sorcerer with suspicion. After a whole life of being rejected and treated like a beast, he couldn't understand why anyone would even want to help him.
Well I saw you, and… Merlin hesitated, arching his eyebrows with sad resignation. It could've been me, in that cage.
Memories followed one after the other with a sudden rush of sensations and emotions, getting faster and faster. Arthur saw Merlin come back to bring him food and imply he stole the prince's breakfast. He saw him smile shyly, talking about magic and gift. Merlin's warm hands wrapped around his as he whispered promises. Merlin bowing and giving him a rose, eyes sparkling with glee.
I like you, Merlin admitted with a sunny smile. With you, I can just be who I am. We don't have to hide anything.
Hands entwined. Heart beating. A kiss tasting like tears shared by torch light.
Arthur tore himself from Freya's torrent of memories, breathing heavily. He had to take a moment to remember who and where he was as he gazed into the eyes of the Lady of the Lake. She slowly took her hand off Arthur's wet cheek.
"Merlin wanted us to leave Camelot and go live somewhere together. That was a foolish dream, I knew I could only bring him exile and terror. But for the first time since my family died, someone was actually trying to protect me even though I was cursed. After all the suffering I had endured, Merlin allowed me to feel hope, even if just for a short moment. For this, I will forever be grateful to him."
Arthur was listening in a daze, raising a hand to graze his lips with his fingertips. The warm and soft feeling of Merlin's lips against his own was starting to fade away like a forgotten dream, leaving him stunned.
It hurt to know that Merlin whose loyalty he had never doubted, had considered once leaving him to run off with some girl he only just met. He took a deep breath and tried to forget Merlin's bright smile and soft lips. Now was not the time to ponder over his confused feelings he had always ignored and repressed since the very first day he met Merlin. He hadn't come here for this.
Trying to appear composed, he stood up to look down at the Lady of the Lake who was sinking back into the water until she was only a reflection on its surface again.
"I came here to seek your advice, Aithusa believes only you can help us. Merlin is possessed by a sorcerer named Cornelius Sigan who's been absorbing magic from the Crystal Cave for centuries."
Freya's rippling reflection widened her eyes.
"I knew Albion’s magic was in danger when it brought you back to life, but I had no idea Sigan was the cause. This is even worse than I feared. If Cornelius Sigan took control of Merlin, we are doomed. All magic will be corrupted."
"Is there any way to stop Sigan without harming Merlin?"
The girl's eyes darkened.
" I’m afraid there is not . His power is so great now nothing can counter it . The only way to kill Sigan would be to slay him with Excalibur. But Merlin is not only a sorcerer . He is born from the ancient magic of magical beings that had been exterminated during the Great Purge . He is Albion’s magic incarnate . To kill him would rip off the last roots of the Old Religion, which means all magic would just disappear from this world ."
And so vanished Arthur’s last hope. His shoulders sagged and he swallowed through the lump growing in his throat. He sucked in a shaky breath and blinked back tears as fear took over him.
What should he do now? Resign himself to either watching his dearest friend destroy the world, or slaying him with his sword, killing both him and Albion’s magic?
"I don't know what to do any more…" his voice broke. "Sigan could be anywhere. I don't even know if Merlin's still alive. I made him a promise, but…"
He closed his eyes. He had lost Merlin forever, there was no going back.
Freya’s sad voice was blown away by the wind.
Chapter 11: The legend of the Once and Future King
I was on vacations in Ireland for a few weeks, that’s why this chapter took me some time to translate. But now I’m back, energized and ready to write and translate as much as I can!
There was a deep silence reigning over the underground city when James brought Arthur back. Being magically thrown thousands of miles away in a heartbeat didn't bother him anymore, he realized as the druid's warm hand withdrew from his shoulder.
The bluish glow from the runes carved in the rock and the flaming torches the druids had hanged at the walls bathed the tunnel with a soft light. There was no one in sight. Most of the doors were closed, but one near Arthur was ajar and he could see two children lying on makeshift beds. In the faint glow of a candle, they were shaking and grimacing in pain. Sitting at their bedside, a woman was whispering in a foreign language, focused on a strange construction made of twigs she was tying with blades of grass. Silent tears were rolling down her face. As if she had felt Arthur's gaze, she went quiet and her fingers stopped before she looked up. She recognized him and nodded respectfully, then went back to her hand work.
"Let them get some rest," James whispered. "They sure need it."
Arthur gave the druid a inquiring glance as he closed the door, the rusty hinges creaking loudly.
"What was she doing?"
James put his hands in his pockets, with this casual attitude he always seemed to display.
"We're people from the earth, wind and rivers. Lorna was just trying to make a wooden offering to invoke the spirits of the forest and ask them to watch over the wounded and soothe their tormented souls."
Arthur nodded wordlessly, realizing once more he knew next to nothing of the habits and customs of the druids and followers of the Old Religion. Did Merlin secretly resort to this kind of rituals with Gaius back in days past? Did he invoke spirits of the forest to cure the suffering of the body or soul too?
To think of Merlin only deepened the emptiness placed in his heart by the Lady of the Lake's words. He took a deep breath to keep his feelings under control.
"I have to talk to Anhora," he blurted. "Go get some sleep, James, you've done enough for today."
Arthur had involuntarily spoken as a king, with the absolute certainty to be obeyed on command. James merely arched an eyebrow pierced with silver spikes and rings.
"At your orders, Your Highness."
Arthur forced himself to ignore the sarcasm in the druid's voice, and turned on his heels to head to the room he had carried the Keeper of the unicorns to a few hours ago. The door eaten by woodworms had been left open, so he entered without knocking, stepping into the flickering candlelight.
Anhora was sitting alone on a shrivelled mattress that had probably not been used for centuries. For the first time, he wasn't wearing his cape – and without the white fabric wrapped around him, he looked like some peasant worn out by a lifetime slaving on his patch of land.
The Keeper of the unicorns hadn't looked up at Arthur's coming in, as if he hadn't even noticed he was there. He didn't bat an eyelid either when the king sat down at his side.
Arthur rested his elbows on his knees and gave the old man a sidelong look.
"I need to know…"
His voice sounded foreign and too loud in the silence. Arthur folded his hands under his chin, stumping for words.
"Were you conscious when Sigan took control of your body?"
Anhora raised his head to make eye contact with him. Under his bushy eyebrows, his eyes were dull. He nodded slowly.
"I could see, hear, and feel everything. There was…"
He sucked in a shaky breath and averted his gaze, clutching at his chest.
"… there was that terrifying cold invading and crushing me from the inside. I was deprived of my magic, my thoughts and my will. I could feel myself becoming him, to the point I was no longer sure of who I really was when he let go of me. I am still not quite sure, to be honest."
Arthur moistened his lips, questions rushing through his head.
"It only lasted a few minutes for you… Could Merlin still be…?"
His voice trailed off. There was no need saying the words out loud, Anhora had figured out what he was getting at. Arthur could see it in his eyes and clenching jaw.
He knew what the answer would be before the old man even opened his mouth.
"Two souls cannot coexist in a body without one destroying the other sooner or later. Emrys have been under Cornelius Sigan's total control for hours now. If his soul has not been destroyed yet, it won't be long until it happens."
"So he might still be alive as we speak."
That wasn’t a question – Arthur had spoken in a flat voice, staring intently at a candle's flickering flame.
Years of ruling his lands and leading his men to the battlefield had taught him to appear calm even in the most critical situations. But now, under that old sorcerer's pitying gaze, he struggled to contain the sense of helplessness that kept growing inside him since Merlin had disappeared.
"In olden times, there was an order of warrior priests of the Old Religion we called the Catha. They used magic to inflict excruciating tortures by lacerating the soul. No one could ever resist more than a few minutes, for the suffering of the flesh is nothing compared to the suffering of the soul. But even this kind of torture, Arthur Pendragon…"
Arthur stiffened when the sorcerer put his hand on his shoulder.
"… doesn't compare with having your soul slowly crushed. It would be better if Emrys were already dead rather than going through such agony."
Throat strangled, Arthur nodded wordlessly. He felt like he just lost ground and fell into an abyss.
Tears sprang to his eyes, clouding the candle's light. He couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, it became unbearable to stay here, not even for one more second. He had to get out. Immediately.
"Thank you for your honesty, Anhora," he managed to get out and rose to his feet.
He strode off as if he had the devil on his heels and could feel Anhora's gaze on his back right until he left the room. But distance did nothing to ease the pain and the painful lump in his throat had swollen even more. Once he was far enough from the chambers occupied by the druids, he slowed to a walk and stopped.
Only then, now that he was alone and out of sight, he backed himself against the wall and let his defences crumble off. He slid down the cold stone digging into his back until he was sitting on the ground, his breathing growing shallow and his face twisting in anguish. It all came down crashing on him – his uprooting in this era so different from his own, the loss of his kingdom, his wife and his entire life in Camelot he would never get back again… but all of this felt insignificant now compared to losing Merlin. It hurt as if a part of him had been ripped out of his soul.
He had failed. He hadn’t been able to save Albion’s magic. He had failed to save Merlin. And now, he had to spend the rest of his life with this hole in his heart, alone in this world he didn’t belong to.
A painful sob tore out of his throat, then another one. Warm tears rolled down his face and neck, and for once, he didn’t even try to wipe them off or hold them back.
His father had taught him from the earliest age that crying was a sign of weakness, only fit for women and cowards, and that he would never allow his son to dishonour the Pendragon name by whining. All his life, Arthur had followed those rules to make him proud. He had hardened his heart and hidden all emotion that could be seen as a weakness. How many times did he admonish his young knights by telling them a man, a real one, never shed tears for anyone or anything?
For the first time since his father passed away, none of this mattered any more. He could no longer think of any reason to suppress and lock his distress back inside of him. Why should he? He had no one left to impress or make proud.
He couldn’t tell how long he sat here crying, but when his tears ran dry and he used his sleeve to wipe his face, he felt empty, both physically and emotionally.
He wearily pushed himself up to his feet and walked through the maze of tunnels, heading towards Merlin’s chambers he had moved into since the day he came back to life. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
A draught heavy with iodine tousled his hair when he walked past a room, and he stopped short – there was someone inside. It was one of these many chambers that hadn’t been maintained in centuries. Some of them had collapsed entirely, while others had been eaten away by the violence of waves or invaded by colonies of seagulls. This one no longer had a door and the cliff had collapsed for over thirty yards long, a wide opening to the void. And there, barefoot on the moss covering the ground, a lone frame was standing out against the black sky, head crowned with the eclipse’s bright circle.
Even from behind, Arthur recognized Eleanor. She was standing still like a statue, right on the edge of the cliff.
Arthur took a step forward, paused, and then walked into that room nature had taken over. Eleanor gave him a sidelong glance when he stopped right at her side to take in the seascape stretching as far as he could see. The eclipse’s ring was reflected on the black water. Sea and sky melted on the horizon to become one. Suddenly, Arthur figured out why the silence in the underground city had felt so oppressive. The sea was as placid as a lake. No waves came crashing against the cliff. The constant rumbling of the tide had stopped altogether. That stillness was not natural.
"This is the end, isn’t it?"
The tone was flat, but Arthur could hear the restrained emotion in the druidess’ voice. She probably guessed just by seeing his face that he wasn’t bringing good news.
"The Lady of the Lake said Sigan is too powerful and no spell could ever extract him from Merlin’s body."
Arthur had spoken with a neutral voice. He felt numb from crying and all that was left was a dull ache inside his heart.
"I suspected as much. As a High Priestess of the Old Religion, I should tell my people that we’re living our last moments so they prepare themselves to pass to the other world, but… I can’t bring myself to say it to the parents praying at their children’s bedside. I want them to hold on to that glimmer of hope for a little longer, just a little longer…"
She was gazing at the quiet sea, her eyes glistening with a poignant emotion.
"After all this time, I’ll be reunited with my brothers, my sisters and my parents waiting for me in the other world."
She met Arthur’s eyes, a wistful smile grazing her lips and lighting up her aged features.
"This room… We used to live here, my family and I."
The High Priestess gestured at the chambers falling into ruins under fallen rocks and thick moss.
"Of course, it looked very different back then…" she whispered, lost in her memories. "I barely recognized the city when you brought us here, Arthur Pendragon. When I lived here as a little girl, there were no arrow slits, but large stained-glass windows, curtains, wall hangings and canopy beds. Emrys told me once he drew inspiration from what he remembered of Camelot’s castle to build and decorate this city."
Her smile tarnished when she mentioned the sorcerer’s name. Her face darkened with bitterness.
"I loved Emrys like a father, you know? From the moment I could walk, I followed him all around and imitated him in every way. I dreamed of going along with him to seek dragon’s eggs. Sometimes, he brought me to fly in the sky on Aithusa’s back, or told me tales about the knights of the round table, about Camelot and the Once and Future King."
She looked away and let out a heavy sigh.
"Emrys has changed too. At the time, he was already over five hundred years old, but still he looked just as young as you, Arthur."
Arthur blinked and his gaze sharpened on the old woman’s face. He had to know. He had to ask the question that had been plaguing him every day since he rose from the lake and came face to face with Merlin who refused to quit his aged appearance. The one question his friend had obstinately refused to answer.
"Do you know why Merlin is so adamant about looking like an old man?"
Eleanor tensed up and she darted a sharp look at him. She remained silent for a few seconds.
The High Priestess hesitated for a second before she held out the palm of her hand. Her eyes glowed a bright, effervescent gold, and a small swirl of luminous mist rose, lighting up everything around them.
"Magic flows in the blood in varying quantities depending on the sorcerer. It’s different for each person. Some have the gift: they were born with a dormant reserve inside they can draw from at leisure. Everyone else has to grow their own magic through study and dedication. Magic’s specificity is to keep us young and healthy by constantly regenerating each and every cell of our body."
As to prove it, with a flick of her wrist she made the shimmering mist wrap around her wrinkled hand – her skin started to smooth out until her hand looked like a young girl’s.
"But all magic disappears in the end," Eleanor breathed out. "Sooner or later, it escapes to go back where it came from, into the roots of a tree, a gust of wind or a river’s stream."
The bright mist vanished, leaving Arthur dazzled in the eclipse’s shadow. Still, he saw the druidess’ hand growing old again.
"This is a process that can take decades, centuries or thousand years, but will accelerates if we make an excessive use of our powers. This is why less powerful sorcerers age prematurely when they cast spells way beyond their capacity."
With her fingertips, Eleanor brushed against her flabby cheek and the wrinkled skin at the corner of her lips and eyes.
"However, even weakened, even if it’s just a few droplets left in the blood, our magic never stops fighting to keep us alive, and will react violently against any threat on our organism. Do you know what does an ageing spell involve, Arthur Pendragon?"
Arthur had no idea what she was getting at, so he merely shook his head.
"It’s about purposely damaging our cells almost to the point of destroying them. This entails attacking our own magic when it tries to regenerate them, to reverse the process. This is no ordinary spell. Few are those who can master it. Without using potions, it is extremely difficult and painful to hold, as it is a constant internal struggle wearing out both magic and soul. The more a sorcerer possess a powerful and innate magic, the more it will be difficult for him to hold the spell more than a few hours."
Arthur stared wide-eyed as realization sank in. For almost two months he had been living in the underground city, never had he seen Merlin break off his ageing spell, not even to sleep, except when Sigan’s hold made him lose control of his mind and magic.
"How long has Merlin been holding that spell?"
Eleanor turned her gaze back to the eclipse, her lips pressed together into a thin line.
"Over four hundred years. When Emrys came back from Avalon to the deserted city and saw what remained of our funeral rites, he figured out what happened. He found us in the Valley of the Fallen Kings to apologize and to offer his help. I had absolutely no difficulty convincing the Council of his culpability and banishing him from our community. Emrys has been inflicting this spell on himself since that day, and has taken a vow never to break it until he has earned and deserved our forgiveness. He personally promised me so."
Cold rage filled Arthur as he thought about the accusations the High Priestess had shouted at Merlin during the druid Council.
"You accused him of choosing dragon eggs over the druids’ lives. But if he had known what would happen, Merlin would never have left you unprotected, not for anything in the world."
"I am aware."
Her voice was so low that for a second, Arthur thought he had misheard.
"Then why?" he burst out. "Don’t you think he’s paid for his mistake by now? Four hundred years living alone in these ruins and inflicting this spell on him, is that not enough for you? Merlin never wanted your family to die, for heaven’s sake!"
Eleanor smiled bitterly.
"You fight tooth and nail for him. I admire your loyalty, king of yesteryear, you honour the legends. But none of this matters now. Everything will be over soon."
Arthur opened his mouth but the words died on his lips when he saw a tear rolling down the old woman’s cheek.
"Emrys only wished to protect us from the Inquisition, I know this. To be entirely honest, I’ve always known. But that’s precisely because I loved him and idealized him like only children know to that I hated him so much for not being there to save us. I was young, traumatised, condemned to live the rest of my life in darkness with memories of everything I had lost. I needed someone to throw the blame on. We all needed that. I think that without it, I would have lost my mind to grief."
"You’re forgetting something. Merlin was your family too. You knew he was innocent, and yet you chose to banish him, to hate him and turn the druids on him. How do you think he lived it out?"
Arthur turned around and walked away, the sound of his footsteps muffled on the moss. He stopped in the doorway and said without turning back:
"Merlin never abandoned you, Eleanor. You did."
He didn’t wait for an answer and walked out, his frame glowing in the pale light of the runes carved into the stone.
As a result of an enchantment cast centuries ago, the candles scattered all around the library were suspended in a never ending time loop. Their wick burned bright but the wax didn’t melt. Warm light coated relics of the past and leather-bound books just like the first day. Here and there, a flickering glimmer was reflected on the clasp of an old book lying on the floor, on a mirror dulled by time passing, or on a dagger adorned with diamonds.
Cheek resting on a manuscript lying open on the table, Arthur was in a deep, dreamless sleep. The candle-holder next to him was ringing his blond hair with a crown made of soft light. Without all the worries and responsibilities hardening his features, he looked younger. Innocent.
His hand twitched on the table, eyes fluttering open.
For a couple seconds, Arthur gazed absently at his ring’s carvings as sleep faded away from his mind. For the first time since he rose from the dead, there was no confusion on waking about the place and time he was in.
He lifted his head just enough to unstick his cheek from the parchment, and blinked when he felt a mass radiating with heat against his ribs. Snuggled up to him, Makkariah was snoring softly, his snout buried in the king’s armpit. Arthur couldn’t help smiling and he sat up, wrapping his arm around the dragon to draw him to his chest. Makkariah whined sleepily and nestled against Arthur’s heart, curling into a perfectly round golden ball.
Rubbing his stiff neck, Arthur stood up with a scraping of chair, carrying the dragon like an newborn baby. His eyes lingered on the page he had fallen asleep on, and he heaved a deep sigh.
Arthur had been provided a first rate education by the kingdom’s best preceptors, though. Even if he had always preferred war strategy and the art of combat, he wasn’t outdone with the other fields, far from it, actually. He still remembered the lessons that had bored him to death when he was a young prince. But now, all this knowledge was useless.
His stomach growled to draw his attention on his growing hunger. He had probably dozed off for a much longer time than he first thought.
The old book gave off a dust cloud when he closed it shut. He strode over piles of parchment scrolls, chests and relics of the past to get out of the library. Walking out, he stumbled onto a group of five druids moving silently like shadows, face hidden under their hood. They stopped dead when they saw him and glanced at each other furtively. Arthur greeted them, and they reciprocated by nodding soberly.
"We were looking for you," one of them said. Judging by the breaking of his voice, he was quite young. "We are all gathered in the dining hall for breakfast. Would you honour us by joining us, Once and Future King?"
Arthur blinked at the deference in their attitude. And he definitely couldn’t get used to be referred as the Once and Future King. The very same expression he remembered Merlin using once a long time ago – back then he had mistaken it for some kind of awkward flattery.
"I’d be happy to."
The teenage druid bowed respectfully, hands joined under the wide sleeves of his cloak.
"Please follow me. We saved a seat for you."
Makkariah let out a soft snore when Arthur followed the druids – they all seemed to be rather young, judging by how nimble on their feet they were, and the smooth skin of their hands.
"What’s your name?" Arthur asked, watching out of the corner of his eye the druid leading the group.
The teenager looked up just enough for Arthur to see his freckled face and dishevelled curls of red hair.
"My name is Wistan, son of Osbarn and last descendant of the High Priestess Drinis."
There was as much pride as pain laced in his hoarse voice.
"My father was the village’s storyteller. He died from his wounds tonight."
"I’m sorry for your loss."
Wistan lowered his head and nodded as a thank you, his boyish face once more hidden in his hood’s shadow.
"My father used to tell us about the ancient prophecy announcing the return of the legendary king Arthur to save Albion. He was convinced you would save us from this plague. I believe it, too."
Again, the young druids shared a furtive look.
"We all believe in you," a dark-skinned druid girl said fervently. "The Old Religion brought you back to life to save Albion. It is your destiny."
Arthur felt his stomach clench and it had nothing to do with hunger. Before he could even think of something to say, they walked into the dining hall. This area didn’t look so dark and gloomy now that it had been cleaned up – gone were the dust and cobwebs. About sixty druids were sitting at the tables in the middle of the dining hall. Many of them turned their head to watch the group approach.
There was a mouthwathering smell of grilled sausages and eggs in the air that made Arthur’s stomach growl and woke up the baby dragon nestled in his arms. Makkariah’s triangular head popped up, nostrils flaring eagerly.
"Over here," Wistan said, leading him to a table with empty seats.
Arthur sat down on the bench in front of a full plate awaiting him. He looked up and recognized James sitting across from him, waving at Arthur in greetings with his fork. Wistan and the other young druids sat down at this table too and pushed their hood back, revealing their face. They seemed to be thirteen or fourteen years old at the very most. They started eating with such restraint and dignity Arthur had never even seen in Camelot’s young nobility.
"Impressive. Who prepared all of this?" he said, gesturing at the abundance of food on the table.
"I did," James drawled. "I’ve been up for an hour cooking. Not much of a change from work, though. Enjoy your food, by the way."
Arthur looked down at his plate full of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs and slices of bread and jam. Suddenly, Makkariah wriggled out of his arms and jumped on the table with a rattling sound of claws. All eyes darted toward the golden dragon sniffing Arthur’s plate and sticking the tip of his tongue to taste the jam. Everyone started whispering at each other in astonishment, obviously very impressed.
The young druids lost all restraint right away and started making kissy noises and holding out bits of food to draw the dragon towards them and pet him. Having suddenly become the centre of attention, Makkariah seemed a bit frightened at first, but gluttony made him overcome his fear, and soon enough he was being petted by Wistan and an ill-looking little girl while the other children quarrelled to be next.
"They’ve never seen a dragon in real life before," James explained when Arthur threw him a confused look. "They’re too young, they basically lived their entire life in the Valley and know nothing else."
Children would always be children, whether or not they were druids. All it took was a dragon for them to forego their stern attitude to become loud and excited. Arthur held back a smile and started eating his breakfast while looking at the other tables. The High Priestess was nowhere to see.
"Where is Eleanor?" he asked, and bit into his slice of grilled bread covered with jam.
"She’s taking care of those who are too sick or wounded to come eat with us," James said, pouring juice into Arthur’s glass.
The children gave out a cry of surprise when Makkariah bleated out a loud « Arthur! » and snapped his wings open as if to show off. To which almost everyone at the table tried to offer bacon and make him say their names.
"Kids, make sure to keep some for yourselves," a woman sitting at Arthur’s right chimed in. "Emrys’ food supplies are not infinite."
The young druids calmed down immediately and regained their disciplined attitude, but Arthur saw Wistan discreetly sliding a slice of grilled toast to Makkariah. The woman was looking at Arthur now, and when they made eye contact, he recognized Lorna, the one he caught a glimpse of the night before, making an offering to the forest spirits. She was holding a child sitting on her lap – a boy around ten years old whose eyes were infused with darkness and high fever. He was staring at Arthur, Sigan’s shadow seeping under his eyelids. He barely could swallow what Lorna was maternally spoon-feeding him. Arthur had the dreadful feeling that Sigan was watching him through his eyes.
"I wanted to thank you."
Arthur blinked, tearing himself away from the druid boy’s black eyes to look up at Lorna’s face. She gave him a weak smile.
"Since Lorvar died – Eleanor’s young apprentice – things have not been easy for the children. Every day someone else died, and the Valley of the Fallen Kings was withering away all around us. We were all terrified. This is the first time I’ve seen them smile in three months."
Face darkening, Arthur took a sip of juice that was way too sweet.
No one was paying attention to him now – adults were eating in silence, while children tried with varying success to make Makkariah come to them, obviously fascinated by the baby dragon.
"Despite what happened yesterday…"
Lorna lowered her eyes, her voice cracking. Arthur put his fork down, unsure how to react to such raw emotion.
"… I think about the stories of the Once and Future King I’ve grown up with, and I can feel myself hope again."
She stroked her son’s brown hair and her eyes darted back up to Arthur, burning with the same fervour he saw in the young druids earlier. He had often been admired with such blind faith by his knights the day before going to the battlefield. But this time, he felt unworthy. He had no hope to offer them.
"I am no longer afraid," she continued, smiling. "I have faith in you, Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur’s stomach clenched and he lost all appetite. The absolute trust the druids were showing him all of a sudden was a weight he had not expected. Should he tell them that Albion’s magic was dying and their damn prophecy will never come to pass?
Eleanor couldn’t work up the courage to destroy their false hopes. Now Arthur too couldn’t bring himself to tell this mother it was only a matter of time before her child, herself and every druid died.
"If you would excuse me," he mumbled, standing up stiffly.
To think that the druids expected him to save them somehow, he felt like choking. He couldn’t stand being idle while innocent people died and Merlin’s soul was consumed by an evil sorcerer. He had to do something. Anything.
He ignored James’ arched eyebrow and the surprised looks following him as he left the table and walked out of the great hall without turning back, leaving Makkariah to the young druids.
He grabbed one of the flaming torches hanging on the wall and strode through the maze of tunnels. The underground city held no secrets from him by now. Without any hesitation, he rushed into a short cut to one of the stairs leading to the dragon cave. He ran down the stairs, the torch casting glowing red shadows on his cheekbones and the sharp angle of his jaw.
As soon as he stepped into the cave, holding his torch above his head, he saw Aithusa lying there with eyes closed and wings limply spread on the ground. She wasn’t moving.
For a dreadful second, he thought she was dead and his heart skipped a beat.
At the sound of his voice and footsteps rushing to her side, the great white dragon opened her eyes whose clear blue was starting to get consumed by Sigan’s darkness. She looked at Arthur and let out a low whine when he reached out to brush against the pearly white scales of her jaw.
There was in her eyes the same kind of resigned fear he knew well from the countless times he had seen a fatally wounded prey stop trying to run away to embrace its fate.
"Did you come down to watch me die, Arthur?"
Arthur clenched his teeth and shook his head.
"I need your help, Aithusa. I made Merlin a promise, and it’s time for me to keep my word."
"Your promise to slay him with Excalibur once he loses control of his magic," Aithusa whispered sadly. "Yes, Emrys told me about it."
"Your souls are bonded, right? Can you feel where he is at this moment?"
A shiver ran through Aithusa’s entire body and she growled in pain, baring her fangs.
"I am focusing all my strength on fighting off Sigan’s growing hold on me. If I slacken my efforts even just for a moment, I will lose what little control I have left. I cannot help you with your quest."
Something shifted in the shadows and drew his attention. Perched on top of a huge stalactite with his tail wrapped around it, Ghalini was staring down at them, wrapped in silence, and his eyes slowly turning entirely black.
So Ghalini was getting infected too. How much time would last the agony of the druids and dragons if he didn’t find Merlin quickly?
"I have to put an end to this," he looked back at Aithusa, his voice growing strained. "Maybe that’s what this prophecy the druids believe in really means. If Albion brought me back to life, maybe that’s to save magic from what Sigan intends to do with it, even if it implies destroying it altogether."
Aithusa smiled dejectedly.
"Emrys always told me prophecies only have a hold on those who believe in them, and they are not infallible. After all, you more than anyone know that a thousand years ago, a prophecy foretold that Emrys and you would unite Albion and bring back the Old Religion, and it never came to pass."
Arthur furrowed his brow. He had spent a great deal of time thinking about this issue since the day he came back to life.
"I believe he’s wrong. You just have to consider things from a different angle. This prophecy didn’t came to pass during my lifetime, true, but in a way it did happen through Gwen when she restored magic after I died."
Aithusa shook her head and pulled her shivering wings back around her.
"This hardly counts. Your widow only lifted the ban on magic many years after she rose to the throne, and this decision caused dissensions in the kingdom. Ultimately she ruled for about fifteen years fighting war after war, and her stand on magic only got her to be hated and murdered."
The great white dragon probably noticed the stupefaction registering on his face, because she suddenly stopped talking and looked embarrassed.
"Oh. You didn’t know."
Arthur felt a sudden surge of white hot anger.
"It’s been a thousand years, and still that idiot Merlin won’t stop lying to me!" he burst out, his thundering voice resounding in the cave. "He told me Gwen ruled in peace and died of old age in her bed!"
There was pity in Aithusa’s eyes now.
"In his defence, I think he lied to you to spare you needless pain. What you don’t know cannot hurt you, and what is the point of dwelling on the tragedies of the long lost past?"
Fuming, Arthur narrowed his eyes with suspicion.
"How many more lies has he told to spare me « needless pain » since I came back to life?"
"Does it really matter? What good will truth do when you face Sigan? And if you manage to defeat him, will knowing the truth about events in the past no one remembers help you live in a world stripped of all its magic?"
His anger fell back as quickly as it took him over, leaving him empty.
"I don’t know," Arthur lied, averting his gaze.
But he knew. He knew he had no intention of living in those times without Merlin. He had been brought back to life only to free Albion’s magic from Sigan’s evil clutches. Once his task was done, he would go back to the void he had been drawn from.
A bone chilling shriek pierced his eardrums, and he whirled around brandishing his torch.
Still perched high, Ghalini was slashing the rock with his claws as easily as if it had been made of butter. He kept screeching, his mouth blazing up and white-hot fire growing in his throat.
"GHALINI!" Aithusa yelled behind Arthur, trying unsuccessfully to scramble up on her feet.
That was a mother’s cry, vibrating with distress and visceral panic. Ghalini showed no sign he heard her, he fell from his perch and came crashing down with such violence the ground trembled and Arthur nearly lost his balance. The creature was seizing in the salt crystals and breathing fire all around him.
Arthur could pinpoint the exact moment darkness completely invaded the dragon’s eyes and Sigan took over. Ghalini came to a standstill and became very quiet. Too quiet.
His hand tightened around his sword’s hilt and he moved into attack position when the dragon turned his head in a fluid motion, dark eyes sharpening on Arthur.
"Arthur Pendragon, the so-called Once and Future King…"
Arthur stared wide-eyed. Ghalini was talking even though he was supposed to be mute, but the intonations in his gravelly voice were clearly…
He repressed a flinch and maintained his position when the blue dragon took a few heavy steps toward him.
"I have some score to settle with Camelot and its last heir," the dragon hissed heinously. "I once was betrayed and humiliated by Camelot’s first king, and now everything is ready at last for my revenge to rain down on its last king!"
Arthur heard Aithusa whine in pain behind him, but he kept his eyes focused on Sigan who looked down on him through Ghalini.
"Then show yourself, let’s get it over with! Stop cowering behind that dragon and face me like a man!"
"Not here," the dragon snarled, baring his fangs into a sly smile. "I will be waiting for you in Camelot, where everything started and where everything will end."
Ghalini spread his membranous wings open, veiling the eclipse’s bleak light. Aithusa struggled to scramble up and drag herself forward to hold back the possessed dragon, too late. With a powerful flap of wings that almost threw Arthur to the ground, Ghalini was already taking off and flying away from the cave, vanishing into the eternal night cast on Albion.
Chapter 12: Within the walls of Camelot
Damn, summer heat is melting my brain cells… This chapter is a bit short but it took me forever to translate it. Many thanks to my betareader CloudFactory who proofread it faster than ever! :D
Anyway, enjoy this chapter! I’ll be leaving shortly for some vacations in Italy and Slovenia so I won’t be writing or translating anything until I come back on september! See ya!
Barely above a whisper, Arthur's voice broke as he stared in shock at the vision from the past.
Bathed in a pale glow and outlined against the dark sky, towers and bulwarks were crowned with the blazing ring of the eclipse. Where Arthur had only found ruins buried under a forest, the castle now stood as if it never fell and thousands of years never passed.
Arthur tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt when he came to realize how powerful Sigan had to be in order to conjure up Camelot’s remains from the ground. His eyes hardened and he chased every last regret and doubt from his heart, leaving only a cold hard resolve to fight until the end with honour and bravery. He would free Merlin from Sigan’s hold whatever it took. He would keep his promise.
Just like the night before Camlann’s battle, he was ready to die fighting. With this difference that instead of an army of loyal knights, the only person at his side now was a High Priestess of the Old Religion.
"I cannot go with you beyond this point, Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur tore his eyes off the castle. The torchlight he was holding was casting red shadows upon Eleanor’s face. She tightened her grasp around her staff so hard her knuckles blanched while her eyes darkened.
"His influence is too strong. I can feel his power from here, and it’s growing with every minute…"
With a soft crackling sound from his torch, Arthur turned to face the old woman who was starting to tremble like a leaf.
"Go back to your people, Eleanor. This is my battle to fight."
Her gaze sharpened on Arthur’s face.
"Is this truly what you want? If you go in there, you will not make it out alive."
"I know. But I have to do it."
"You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for us. Killing Sigan won’t save the Druids from extinction. We are destined to perish along with magic."
It wasn’t for them but for Merlin that Arthur was about to march to his doom, but he chose not to tell her.
"I’m in no place to tell you how to rule your people, Eleanor, but you should tell them the truth. They deserve to know what’s going to happen to them."
A gust of wind ruffled his hair and puffed up Eleanor's cloak. She shook her head sorrowfully.
"A long time ago, when I was just a little girl, Emrys told me once his greatest regret was that he had known where and how you would die. As a seer myself, I know there is no cruellest fate than to know something terrible is going to happen, and be powerless to prevent it."
Arthur peered down at her silently as she trembled even more, fighting against Sigan’s power. There were so many things he’d have wanted to ask her. So many things she could have told him about Merlin, about the past and the Old Religion. But time was running out, and nothing mattered anymore.
"Thank you for bringing me here."
Arthur held out his gloved hand to her and she feebly shook it.
"Farewell, Arthur Pendragon. May the old and the new gods be with you."
With a short nod, Arthur released her hand and walked away without turning back, disappearing into the dark woods. There was no bird, no bug to be heard anywhere under the tree leaves. It was totally silent. The only sound was the metallic clicking of his pauldron sliding against the breastplate. The heavy weight of the chain mail and the armour was a familiar but distant feeling, like the reminiscence of bygone days.
As he came closer, the castle’s bulwarks and walls seemed to grow taller and towered over him threateningly. Soon, he reached the citadel and then the courtyard. It was cobbled with the same stones he had walked upon since he was a little boy – the feeling was exactly the same under his feet. But the castle might have looked like the one he had known and loved all his life, it missed the constant humming from the lower city, the comings and goings of servants and guards, the chattering of noblemen and the clattering sound of hooves. Everything that had made Camelot alive was gone. The walls were encrusted with roots, dirt and broken twigs, as if they had risen from the ground by devouring everything, like some kind of beast from the mists of time.
On his guard, Arthur came to a halt before the flight of stairs leading to the entrance. A rush of memories overwhelmed him, and he had to painfully swallow back the emotions choking him. When he had left the castle with his army to head for Camlann to fight the Saxons, he hadn’t known he would never get to come back. Of course, he had been aware the chances were high he would not make it alive, but he had been too preoccupied with strategic considerations and Merlin’s hurtful absence to fully realize it. It seemed like fate was giving him one last chance to properly bid farewell to Camelot, a thousand and five hundred years later.
Looking up, Arthur saw a faint glow flickering through the throne room’s windows.
The throne room, where any enemy of Camelot would want to assert their domination, just like Morgana did.
Arthur’s thumb traced the smooth lines on his sword’s hilt as he took a deep breath. He braced himself and climbed the steps to walk inside, feeling like countless eyes were following his every move. He rose the torch high above his head to light up his surroundings. It smelled like damp earth and raw sap in here. Stripped bare of its pieces of furniture and wall hangings of the Pendragon crest, Camelot was but a shadow of its former self.
The sound of his footsteps echoed through the corridors bathed in the eclipse’s pale glow. He walked up the stairs and finally reached the doors to the throne room. With barely a brush from his fingertips they opened wide on their own to let him in. Arthur stepped inside, trying his very best to look confident as the floor made of rough bark creaked under his feet. The throne room and its high ceilings were every bit as impressive as he remembered them. His eyes darted right to the throne across the vast empty space and his heart skipped a beat at the sight that greeted him.
Hands clenched on the throne’s armrests, Merlin was sitting there, his boot pressed on the giant blue dragon’s head lying at his feet. Behind him, two fires were burning in the grates Arthur had never in his life seen used for that purpose. Their light bathed the throne room in golden colours and shifting shadows that enhanced the sorcerer’s sharp features. His hair was pulled back and his shoulders draped in a dark cloak that made him look morbidly pale.
"Merlin…" Arthur raised his voice as he made his way across the throne room. "If you can hear me…"
The sorcerer only tilted his head, looking down on him. Arthur slowed his pace and came to a stop, feeling like his heart was about to pound right off his chest. He lowered his torch, loosening his grip until it slipped from his fingers – it fell on the ground with a clattering sound he barely heard, his eyes and attention dead set on his friend.
"… know that I’m here to honour the promise I made to you. I will free you from this nightmare."
"Merlin cannot hear you anymore."
It was Merlin’s voice, but the low tone and coldly articulated words were definitely Cornelius Sigan. Arthur slowly and menacingly drew Excalibur out of its sheath.
"I'm giving you one last chance to release my friend."
The fire’s bright light caught on the blade and the golden carvings glistened as if the sword were coming to life.
Sigan removed his foot from Ghalini’s head and leaned forward on the throne with a sneer on the face he had stolen. Growling, the dragon straightened out until his unfurled wings touched the vaulted ceilings.
"Your friend, you say? How touching… I saw with my own eyes how you mistreated Merlin, always demeaning and disregarding him to the point he would not dare tell you his secret."
Arthur tried hard not to let the words get to him. He regretted his past behaviour since the moment he had come to realize everything Merlin had secretly done to protect Camelot. And he didn’t need Sigan to remind him he had wrongly treated his most loyal ally and closest friend.
"I don't expect you to understand, I care about Merlin more than anything in the world. I would give my life for him without a second thought."
When Sigan stood out of the throne with hatred flashing in his eyes, Arthur stiffened, expecting an attack.
"Do not pretend to care!" Sigan hissed with barely contained rage. "The kings of Camelot have always used sorcerers as weapons when they needed help to conquer a land or win a war, and oppressed them when they became hindering or too powerful! When I possessed Cedric, I saw what an arrogant and unfair king you were to become, and I tried to free Merlin from your influence. I never understood why he refused to join me only to remain in your shadow. He denied his true nature and chose to live in servitude when he could have ruled the world with me!"
The articulate way he enunciated words and his rigid posture were so different from Merlin it changed him beyond recognition. Ghalini’s mouth shone with flames as the dragon glared at Arthur with deep black eyes.
"Merlin is the most courageous and loyal man I’ve ever met, he’s stronger than you’ll ever be! He’s worth a hundred, a thousand like you!"
"Merlin was WEAK!" Sigan roared, and his voice blared like thunder in the throne room.
A drop of sweat rolled down Arthur’s spine under the chain mail and the rough fabric of his tunic. Sigan walked down the dais step by step, never taking his eyes off Arthur.
"You say you want to free him? You fool, he was never free! Merlin spent his entire life doing the will of others, whether it was the Pendragons, druids, or prophecies…"
The sorcerer was now circling him like an animal of prey, staying out of reach of Excalibur. Arthur widened his stance into a defence position, slowly turning on himself to keep facing the enemy.
"If he had joined me, together we would have been able to open a new era where the Old Religion would have ruled the world, where kings and emperors would have bend their knees before us and tremble at our voice! We would have been gods!"
His heart pounding, Arthur was tempted to attack Sigan while he was talking to use the element of surprise, but he thought better of it. The sorcerer’s posture offered many openings and weak spots for him to strike, but he gave off the confident vibes of a giant looking down at an ant at his feet.
Sigan came to a halt and stared unblinkingly at Arthur with his eyes filled with darkness.
"According to the ancient prophecy, you are Albion's last bulwark, brought back to life to protect the magic of this world. I wonder what Merlin and the Old Religion see in a powerless petty king such as you…"
"I wonder too," Arthur mumbled, the leather of his glove creaking as he tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt.
Arthur had often wondered why Merlin was so ardently loyal and devoted to him. He prided himself on being a good king and a skilled warrior despite the errors of judgement he had made and the betrayals he had suffered, but he never once felt worthy of whatever Merlin seemed to see in him. Of what the druids now expected from him.
"… but it does not matter," Sigan said contemptuously. "I will kill you, defeat the prophecy, and nothing and no one will be able to stop me anymore."
Sigan held out both his hands, his black cape blowing up in the nonexistent wind.
"I control the movements of the stars and I hold a power you cannot even begin to imagine, Arthur Pendragon. No prophecy will help you now. However, I will grant you a quick and painless death if you bow down before me and admit defeat."
Arthur scowled at the insult, deeply offended. The outcome of the fight seemed obvious but he had every intention of fighting according to the Knight’s code he had sworn to live by, with bravery, to honour the promise he had made to Merlin.
He dashed to the enemy like a hawk to strike and–
"I was hoping you would say that."
Arthur opened his eyes wide. His sword had slashed through the empty air just where the sorcerer should have been standing, and Merlin’s cold voice had said those words just behind his back. Like a flash from the past, he remembered his fight against Anhora in disguise, a long time ago, when he was only a young prince finding out his actions could have dramatic repercussions.
He whirled around to lash out with his sword, but instead of slaying Sigan, the blade clashed against an air shield harder than stone – the impact was so violent, the shock shot up to his shoulder. The blade was stopped just a few inches from the sorcerer’s face. Sigan hadn’t even flinched. Arthur froze, staring in shock at Merlin’s angular face. It was the first time he was standing so close to him since Sigan had taken possession of his body, and he couldn’t take his eyes off him. The straight bridge of his nose, the curved line of his eyebrows, the plump softness of his lower lip and his sharp cheekbones were a familiar sight to him. It was the same face that had greeted him every morning for ten years. The same face that always managed to reassure him and make him feel better whenever he glanced at it.
But the eyes, filled with terrifying darkness, the eyes were different.
"Try not to die too quickly," Sigan enunciated, his mouth twisting into a grin. "I have waited for so long to finally get my revenge on the kings of Camelot. Make it worth my while."
Sigan waved his hand, and a burst of energy struck Arthur right in the chest, throwing him violently across the throne room. He crashed into the wall and collapsed to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, struggling to breathe as every gasp of air he took shot a sharp pain through his ribs.
His hand clenched around the sword’s hilt and he wiped the blood streaming down his face, blinking to clear his vision. He saw Sigan standing in the middle of the throne room, shaping fire in the hollow of his hand. The flames grew exponentially, circling the sorcerer with a blazing swirl that rose like a tornado. Only a lifetime of training and fighting allowed Arthur to roll out of the way of the torrent of fire that suddenly lashed down at him. The spot where he had been standing just before was now burning and emitted an intense heat. He had been half a second away from being burned alive. The fight was so unequal it was absurd. What the hell could he do against that kind of power with just a sword?
But a knight of Camelot never gave up, even when faced with certain defeat. Arthur’s jaw set and he ignored the iron taste of blood in his mouth and the burning sensation on his smoking thigh. He took a fighting stance and grabbed Excalibur with both hands to move toward Sigan.
This time, before he could even reach his target, Ghalini came roaring between them with one heavy leap that made the floor tremble. Arthur hurriedly backed himself and looked up at the huge creature that towered threateningly over him. As if everything had slowed down, Arthur saw the dragon’s mouth fill up with raging fire. He saw claws as sharp and long as swords slash through the air to slice him. He threw himself to the ground and rolled out of reach, taking advantage of Ghalini’s heaviness and slow moves. Without missing a beat, he let out a warrior cry and hurled himself at Sigan.
But again, when he went to strike, his blade only sliced the empty space. Sigan had vanished and reappeared a dozen feet away. Now holding out a hand in his direction, he hissed a spell – immediately, sharp stakes tore themselves from the wooden floor. Arthur opened his eyes wide as he watched them rise in the air and slowly rotate to aim at him. With a snap of his fingers, Sigan sent them flying at him, fast as lightning. Arthur reacted on instinct and managed to shatter several of them in mid-air with Excalibur, but he let out a cry of pain when a sharp stake stabbed him right in the stomach, cutting deep into his flesh.
Everything seemed to stop.
Arthur looked down to watch the piece of sharpened wood rammed into his body through the chain mail. He touched in disbelief the bleeding wound with a shaking hand and wrapped his fingers around the stake. Mordred had struck the fatal blow at the very same spot, a thousand and a half years ago… and just like on Camlann’s battlefield, Arthur felt his vision blurry and pain radiate through his body like ice. He ripped the piece of wood out of his body with a groan and staggered back, struggling not to pass out. Taking short, laboured breaths, he managed to brandish Excalibur toward Sigan who was stepping closer. But his hand was shaking, and warm blood was streaming down his abdomen and leg to pool inside his boot.
"Dying already?" Sigan sneered.
A wave of hand from him, and Arthur felt himself being lifted up by some invisible power that rose him ten feet above the ground. Unable to move a single finger, he looked down helplessly at the sorcerer who glared at him with obvious contempt.
"I feel insulted that Merlin chose you over me and that the ancient magic of Albion deemed you fit to defeat me. No one insults Cornelius Sigan and gets away with it. You will pay for that."
A pain like none he had ever felt before ran through Arthur’s entire body. It felt like he was being dismembered and burned alive all at once. The pain intensified and he heard himself scream for what seemed to be a long time. Excalibur slipped from his fingers and fell on the ground with a clattering noise.
The spell ended as brutally as it had started. Arthur collapsed on the floor, coughing blood and clenching his hand on the bloody hole in the chain mail. Every wheezing gasp of breath he took increased the searing pain shooting through his broken ribs. He could feel his life fading away like sand slipping from his fist.
He noticed Excalibur lying just a few feet away. He stretched a trembling hand to reach it, but his vision was darkening around the edges and he felt heavy and weak. All he managed to do was brush against the sword’s hilt with his fingertips before he dropped his hand.
Sounds of footsteps coming closer.
Sigan’s shadow fell over him.
The sorcerer nudged him with his foot to make him roll on his back. The throne room’s high ceilings looked so far away above Merlin’s face, who was looking down on him with black eyes.
"How disappointing. I expected better from the Once and future king whose name became a legend when mine sank into oblivion."
Sigan lifted his foot and pressed it down on Arthur’s open wound, tearing a cry of pain out of him. Tasting blood on his tongue, Arthur watched as Sigan held out a hand in Excalibur’s direction. He watched as the sword rose above the ground, its golden carvings glistering briefly.
"May the sword that forged your legend mark its end. This is how your destiny ends, Arthur Pendragon, last king of Camelot."
The sword rotated to aim its hilt at the sorcerer and floated straight to him.
Arthur saw all of this and gathered his forces in a final effort. It all happened very fast – he grabbed the ankle of the foot pressed on his wound and pulled hard to throw the sorcerer off balance. In the same movement, despite the agony of his broken ribs and his wounds, he bolted up to snatch Excalibur mid-flight and, from his sitting position, shoved the blade straight into Sigan’s heart.
Stupor and rage flashed through his widening black eyes but Arthur held his gaze and pushed the sword even deeper, right to the hilt.
The dragon screeched furiously, but Arthur barely heard the sound. Time and space had shrunk to his friend and the pale veil of death slowly obscuring his face.
Sigan parted his lips and grasped Arthur’s bloodslicked hand. His knee hit the ground, bringing him down. He was gasping for air now, eyes locked into Arthur’s, burning with hatred even in his agony. They were so close that Arthur could see the liquid darkness swirling in the sorcerer’s eyes, with a glimpse of blue here and there. He could see life fading away from there bit by bit.
Their breaths mingled in the heavy smell of blood.
Holding firmly the sword piercing through Merlin’s heart, Arthur brought their foreheads together. He cupped Merlin’s face with his other hand, softly stroking the sharp curve of his cheekbone with his thumb, then slipped to the nape of his neck where dark hair curled up. The skin was growing cold already and he could feel him shiver under his palm. Arthur closed his eyes and didn’t try to hold back the tears rolling down his face.
He had kept his promise. Everything would be over soon.
"Farewell, Merlin…" he forced the words through the lump in his throat, his voice barely above a whisper.
He heard a dark chuckle.
"Do not think you have defeated me so easily."
Arthur snapped his eyes open. Sigan was grinning and a glimmer of victory flashed through his dying eyes.
"This is only a vessel – you might have slain it, but my soul is immortal! In that case, I will take your body, and I will keep living and ruling the world through you!"
The sorcerer opened his mouth wide, and Arthur’s blood ran cold as he stared in horror at the black smoke gushing out of it. He tore Excalibur out of the sorcerer’s body and recoiled in a haste. He tried to get back to his feet but failed. Drained of all his strength, a searing pain ran through his entire body with every move he made and every breath he took. A sense of hopelessness took him over as he backed himself some more, looking up at the black liquid smoke swirling out of his friend’s mouth. He tightened his grip on his bloodied sword’s hilt, feeling on the verge of losing consciousness.
Emptied of Sigan’s soul, Merlin’s body collapsed on the ground with a loud thud. A thought chilled Arthur to the bone – Had he just killed his dearest friend for nothing? The smoke was rising up in the throne room like a giant snake, slowly making its way towards its prey.
Arthur tried to move further away, but behind him, the massive and hissing dragon was blocking the way.
Sigan’s evil soul charged down at him, and Arthur managed to repel it once by wielding his sword, then a second time by rolling on the side – but then, Ghalini’s clawed paws crashed down on each side of him to stop him from escaping.
Arthur was immobilized. This was the end. He had only one solution left.
Gritting his teeth, he rotated his wrist to aim the blade at himself. He pressed the sharp point against his own neck and shot a defying glare at the black smoke hovering above him.
"Don’t think I’ll hesitate," Arthur panted harshly. "I have nothing left to lose."
He was about to follow through with his threat when he heard a hoarse voice rising up: "… emois epe'essin hepesthai…"
That voice… "Merlin…?" Arthur breathed in shock.
His eyes darted in this direction and his hold on the sword’s hilt loosened. Shivering uncontrollably, Merlin had raised himself on one elbow, a hand red with blood clutching at his heart. Raw anger hardened his sharp features and his eyes blazed like the sun. His voice raised in volume, powerful and thundering:
"… FTHENGOMAI AU SE KALON SU KATERKHEO DEURO!"
Arthur felt more than he saw the dragon flinch. And suddenly, the darkness vanished from Ghalini’s eyes. The creature opened his mouth wide and–
Arthur braced himself when a torrent of white-hot fire rained down on Sigan’s soul. The bone-chilling scream that rose in the throne room as the soul disintegrated in the fire barely sounded human – was it Sigan’s real voice, the one he had during his lifetime? Curling up to protect his head with his arms, Arthur felt the blaze’s intense heat nearly roasting him through his armour. A blast of light brighter than the sun washed off every single shadow around, radiating out of the castle and right to the outer reaches of the lands of Albion.
When the firestorm finally stopped, Arthur’s clothes were smoking and a few strands of blond hair were singed. Sigan’s soul was nowhere to be seen – only remained the fading echo of his scream, like a nightmare clearing away at dawn. Dazzled and exhausted, he looked up, eyes searching for Merlin.
His friend’s trembling hand applying pressure on his heart couldn’t stop the bleeding – a red pool of blood was widening on the floor. Arthur saw the golden glow leave his eyes that went back to their blue shade.
"Arthur…" Merlin murmured feebly as his eyelids veiled his gaze.
Merlin’s elbow gave way under his weight and he collapsed. His eyes were closed and his chest wasn’t moving anymore. Arthur shouted his friend’s name in a hoarse voice and struggled desperately to stand up. But he had lost too much blood and could feel his conscious slipping away.
His vision went dark, and he sank into nothingness.
Chapter 13: The future of magic
So… I’m late. Oops?
The ground gave way, haltingly receding into the distance. Through his eyelashes the world was spinning around and blue sky filled his sight. Whistling wind tousled his hair and plastered the tunic and chain mail against his chest.
A powerful wing beat.
His arm was hanging limply in the air, fingers sticky with blood clenched on the sword’s hilt.
Arthur was floating away, growing both heavier and lighter by the second. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but the vice-like grip around his body tightened. Pain flooded him all over and he felt his consciousness slip away like a forgotten dream.
A violent impact snapped him out of it. His belly was soaked with blood and the coppery taste filled his mouth, nearly choking him. He coughed over and over again, blinded by the searing pain shooting through his sides. The ground was now speckled with scarlet droplets and vibrating with rushed sounds of footsteps. He could hear muffled voices as if he were immersed underwater. There were hands touching him, faces leaning over him – but none of them was the one he was looking for.
He tried to say Merlin’s name, but his tongue was growing heavier and colours were fading away. Sounds merged together, sinking into silence.
A seagull’s faraway cry woke him up.
Sunlight was pouring through the windows carved in stone, crowning Arthur’s hair with a golden glow and bathing his cheek with warmth. The rumbling sound of waves crashing into the cliff was familiar. He was back in underground city of Cornwall’s coast.
Arthur cracked open an eye and moved his hand. He felt the blanket’s fabric under his fingertips, then shifted up to his belly and chest tightly wrapped in bandages. He was so weak the movement was enough to drain him out, as if his arm weighed hundreds of pounds.
The throbbing pain in his ribs that increased with every breath he took sparked a memory. And suddenly, it all came rushing back. Camelot’s castle. Sigan sitting on the throne with his foot on top of the dragon’s head. The pure hatred in his face when Arthur’s sword sliced through his heart. And Merlin…
"Merlin," Arthur blurted with a rasping voice.
Gathering his strength, Arthur winced and struggled to sit up, pushing his weight on his elbow. He let out a grunt when a stab of pain shot through his abdomen.
"Don’t move, you’ve got three broken ribs and you’ll tear your stitches open."
Arthur looked up sharply, squinting in the daylight bathing the room with brightness. James was seated next to a window with a stack of paper on his knees and a pen in his hand. His hair was down, dreadlocks brushing over his shoulders.
"You gave us quite a fright, Your Majesty. For a moment here we thought you’d die on us."
"How did I…?"
Arthur couldn’t finish his question. His throat was drier than sand and he started coughing, which increased ten times the searing pain in his ribs.
The druid slipped his pen behind his ear and abandoned his reading to walk to Arthur's bedside. He put his hand on his back to help him sit up and brought a glass of water to his chapped lips.
"All I know is, two days ago the sun came back and the druids and Aithusa were no longer sick. Shortly after that, we saw Ghalini flying back here carrying Emrys and you. You both were pretty beat-up to say the least."
Arthur eagerly swallowed the water to the last drop. It took him a considerable effort just to wipe his chin - it felt like his hand weighed as much as two knights in full amour.
James put the empty glass back on the night stand, his eyes darkening.
"More or less. I'm not going to lie, his condition is critical. Eleanor is doing everything she can to heal him, but we still don't know if he's going to make it."
"Where is he? I need to see him."
Despite the throbbing pain under his bandages, he tried to get up from the bed. James restrained him from doing so, pushing him down to the mattress with a firm hand.
"Hey, easy there, Arthur. We treated your wounds but you're still recovering."
"I don’t care. I need to see him. Bring me to him."
"Nope. What you need right now is rest. Doctor's orders, y'know."
Arthur frowned in annoyance. Back when he was a king, no one but Merlin would have dared to go against his will.
"I will see Merlin, with or without your help. I won't rest and I won't let my wounds heal until I get to see him."
James held his gaze a few seconds, and what he saw in Arthur's eyes probably convinced him he wouldn't be able to keep him confined to bed. He let out a defeated sigh.
"Emrys told me you were a pig-headed king back in the old times, but I never thought it would be so accurate. You'll keep still once you've seen him?"
"Okay then." James rose to his feet. "I'll take you to him."
With the druid's help, Arthur heaved himself out of bed with a groan of pain as the blanket slipped from his knees and fell on the ground. He was still wearing his trousers encrusted with dried blood, but his boots had been taken off. He leaned his arm heavily on James’ shoulder to take a tentative step forward, bare-footed.
Arthur was a battle-hardened knight. He had broken some ribs before, and the wound on his abdomen was nothing compared to the agony he went through for two days riding in the woods with Merlin until he died. But there was nothing natural about this state of utter exhaustion. It was no doubt an ill effect of the spells Sigan inflicted on him.
They made their way out of the room and to the corridor where Arthur saw a few druid children staring at him wide-eyed before they scampered off. Arthur’s pride flared up and he gritted his teeth, gathering all his will to stand on his own. He managed to move away from James, just keeping a hand clenched on his shoulder.
By the time they reached Merlin’s chambers – the very same room Arthur had been living in since the day he came back from the dead – he was drenched in cold sweat and his face was bright red with the effort. The druid knocked at the door and pushed it open. They stepped inside and Arthur let go of James’ shoulder as his eyes darted to the bed.
Merlin was lying there, white as a sheet with his eyes closed. His face was glistening with sweat and there were a few strands of hair plastered on his forehead, which made his angular features look sharper. If it weren’t for his chest rising up and down at a regular pace, it would have been hard to believe he was alive. Leaning over him, Eleanor looked up and blinked in surprise when she saw Arthur.
"He woke up and wouldn’t stay in bed," James said, casually pointing at Arthur with his thumb before Eleanor even had a chance to ask. "He wants to see Emrys at all cost."
The old woman’s face softened with a smile.
"This is good news. Welcome back, Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur nodded absently while James slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Arthur limped to the bed with his hand clenched on his bandages-wrapped belly, eyes riveted to his friend’s motionless body. Merlin’s lips were parted and there were a few beads of sweat glistering on his bare collarbones. Curled up in a ball against his master’s side, Makkariah lifted his snout to gaze up at Arthur, let out a pitiful whine before flopping back down his triangular head on Merlin’s hip.
Arthur dragged a chair to the bedside and sat down, feeling drained.
"How is he?"
Eleanor didn’t answer right away. With her nimble fingers she was undoing the soiled bandages wrapped around the sorcerer's chest until the open wound across Merlin's heart was revealed. Arthur's breath caught on his throat when he saw the hole oozing dark blood the old woman was mopping up with a wet cloth.
"This is no ordinary wound. The blood won’t coagulate."
Arthur pressed his lips together, watching closely as the Priestess applied a thick and greenish poultice to stop the blood flow.
"My sword’s blade was forged in a dragon’s breath," he murmured hoarsely. "I had no other choice. I had to kill Sigan."
"Did it work?"
Arthur nodded, his throat painfully constricted.
"Is Merlin… is he going to survive?"
Eleanor looked down, a glimmer of gold flashing through her lowered eyes as she whispered a prayer. Then, she wrapped clean bandages around the poultice and the wrinkles on her forehead deepened.
"I have been doing everything in my power these last two days to save him. I prayed to the old and the new gods. I went to seek advice from the Lady of the Lake and she gave me water infused with magic from the fallen realm of Avalon to make this poultice. Now all we have to do is hope and wait."
Her hands still on the bandages once they were tightly strapped. She grew silent for a while, studying Merlin's face.
"Emrys used to tell me the tales of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table when I was a little girl."
"Emrysss," Makkariah bleated back tearfully.
A weak smile grazed over her lips and she wiped her hands sticky with macerated herbal paste.
"My favourite ones were when none of you noticed he had just saved your lives. He was immortal, the most powerful warlock to ever walk this world, the one all prophecies designed as our saviour. I think that…"
Eleanor hesitated and pulled up her hood, veiling her eyes in its shadow.
"… like many others before me, I failed to see that he is only a man. He too is a pawn in the hands of Fate. And like every single one of us, he makes mistakes and has to live with them."
"Perhaps it is time to leave the past behind and look up to the future."
Eleanor started putting away her herbs, phials and concoctions in a wicker basket.
"You are probably right. We need to live in the present, or the present will reject us."
She rose to her feet, carrying her basket under her arm.
"Now I see why Emrys praised your wisdom and righteousness. You were a great king, Arthur, and you still are throughout the ages."
She picked up her staff and leaned on it to walk to the door.
"I will be back in one hour to change the bandages. In the meantime, I will tell my people about your recovery, and pray for Emrys to wake up too."
"Thank you, Eleanor."
She closed the door on her way out, and Arthur's gaze focused back on Merlin. Makkariah unrolled his body whose scales glistened in the sunlight like the richest jewellery of the ladies of Camelot.
"Arthur!" the tiny dragon squeaked as he hopped on Arthur's knees. He pushed himself to his hind legs, digging his claws on the bandages' fabric to blow a burning hot breath on Arthur's neck.
"Cuddle, Arthur! Sugar. Magic. Emrys. Chicken. Apple."
Arthur petted the overly affectionate dragon that gave off as much heat as a campfire and seemed dead set on bleating every word he learned right against his ear. Leaning forward, he took Merlin's hand in his own.
It was ice-cold.
A sun beam was bathing the sorcerer's angular features, outlining the curve of his nose, painting light on his eyebrows and soft lips. Eyes riveted on his friend’s face, Arthur stroked the knuckles with his thumb, trying to warm up the skin.
"Wake up, Merlin. That’s an order."
He had tried for a commanding tone, but his voice broke and he took a shaky breath in. Burning tears welled up in his eyes.
"Don’t you dare leaving me again, you clotpole."
Still plastered against the bandages wrapped around Arthur’s torso, Makkariah breathed out a flying spark and bleated back: "Clotpole!"
Swirls of multicoloured sparkles rose in the twilight, entwining and splitting off to shape moving pictures of knights and dragons. The young red-haired druid, Wistan, was controlling them by waving his arms and pitching his voice low, speaking in an unknown language. Children and parents were gathered around sitting on the grass, listening in fascination to the tales of the old days he was telling. Very high in the sky, Aithusa and Ghalini were flying in slow circles, their winged shadowy shapes melting into clouds and stars.
Sitting away from the druid group, Arthur sipped his tankard with a distracted eye on Makkariah’s antics – the tiny dragon was bouncing around and flapping his wings to try and swallow some of the sparkles. The beverage had a bitter-sweet taste that burned his tongue and throat with every gulp, way stronger in alcohol than the cider of Camelot’s taverns he was accustomed to. He felt light-headed and there was a pleasant heat pooling inside his belly.
The last sun rays faded from the cliff, outlining the druids’ figures and casting warm colours on the tall grass. Since he was sitting too far away from the fire, the cool of the evening started to filter through Arthur’s clothes.
The sound of winds flapping and a loud thump announced the landing of a dragon just behind him. Arthur saw from the corner of his eye Aithusa lying down on the ground like some kind of giant cat, her white scales glimmering with purple shades in the sunset. She laid her gigantic head on her front paws and her hot breath made the tall grass bow away.
"Can you feel the magic in the air, Arthur?"
Arthur looked down at his tankard with a pout on his lips. His sullen face was reflected on the dark liquid.
Aithusa blinked and folded back her wings with a soft rustling sound.
"By bringing Sigan down, you broke the curse and set free all of the magic he was holding prisoner. I have been dying and unable to move for so long, but now I feel stronger every day. Magic is free, the druids are cured, and this is all thanks to you."
Arthur remained silent, taking in the flat landscape the night was wrapping in its shadow.
It had been almost a week since he regained consciousness in the underground city, and indeed the druids’ health gradually improved. There were more and more of them venturing out to watch the sunrise and the sunset every day. Some of them even walked out of the city in broad daylight, amazed at the brightness and the colours they had been deprived for their entire life.
But Merlin was still lying in his bed, pale and barely breathing. Day and night, Arthur lived in fear that he would be told that he succumbed to his wound, that he died from his hand. Arthur had no idea what he would do if he came to lose his dearest friend, his only reason for living in this world so different than the one he had always known. He had no desire to discover this world without Merlin by his side.
He remembered feeling terrified and guilty a long time ago, that day when Merlin had willingly drunk the deadly poison intended to this prince he had only been assigned to serve recently. It felt so much worse today.
Arthur tipped his head back to empty his tankard in one go, even if nothing could ever dull the worry gnawing him constantly.
"Arthur… Something is happening. I can feel it."
Arthur looked at Aithusa. She was heaving herself on her legs with blown pupils.
"What is it?"
The dragon took a startled breath in and snapped her wings open.
"Emrys is awake!"
Without another word, Aithusa flew off the edge of the cliff, closely followed by Ghalini. Arthur didn’t waste a second – he scrambled to his feet and dashed to the cabin with no care for the dull pain throbbing in his ribs. Climbing down the ladder and running through the corridors with Makkariah on his heels felt like a lifetime. When he finally stormed into the chambers he was short of breath and dishevelled.
The room was bathed in the golden glow of candlelights. Each of the arrow slits carved into stone were obstructed by eyes and scales – obviously Ghalini and Aithusa were clinging to the cliff in order to take a peek inside.
Wringing out a wet cloth above a basin, Lorna jumped at Arthur’s storming entrance, then relaxed when she saw him.
"Oh, it’s you. I was just about to come upstairs to tell you Emrys is waking up."
Holding his breath, Arthur stepped inside, his shadow growing taller as he came near the bed. Merlin was lying there with his eyes shut and with a wince of pain on his angular face.
"Merlin…" Arthur sat on the edge of the bed. "Can you hear me?"
He brushed a strand of hair away from his friend’s forehead. Merlin’s eyelids fluttered open, revealing blue eyes that brightened when he looked at Arthur. He swallowed hard and the tip of his tongue moistened his cracked lips.
His voice was hoarse but the tone was excruciatingly familiar. It really was him. Only then did Arthur realize how much he had missed Merlin as a part of himself, and he felt overwhelmed by relief.
Arthur felt his face split up with a beaming smile.
"I’m going to tell Eleanor and Anhora," Lorna said, putting the basin aside. "They’ll be there in a moment."
She smiled at them and left the room. Merlin raised a trembling hand to touch his chest wrapped in bandages, right where Arthur had slain his heart, and pulled a face as he tried to sit up.
Under the dragons’ scrutiny through the arrow slits, Arthur wrapped an arm around his friend to help him sit and lean back against the headboard where he rearranged the pillow. Merlin leaned the back of his head against the wall with half-open eyes and laboured breathing.
"Cornelius Sigan is dead."
It was barely above a whisper, but Arthur heard it anyway. Merlin seemed barely conscious. His shoulders were slumped, his hands laid limply on the mattress, and a few strands of hair were plastered on his sweat-covered forehead.
"Yes, we defeated him. You remember that?"
Merlin kept quiet for a moment, mouth hanging half-open and his face constricted with pain. When Makkariah hopped on the bed to squeak and curl up against his master’s belly, Merlin weakly lifted a hand to stroke the golden scales.
"I remember everything," he breathed out. "I was conscious all along. But no matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t do anything to stop it."
Arthur awkwardly squeezed his friend’s shoulder – the bare skin was radiating heat under his hand.
"It’s over now."
"Yes, it is."
A drop of sweat rolled down Merlin’s cheek, dripping to his neck and finishing its journey on the bandages wrapped around the chest. He turned his head to stare right into Arthur’s eyes through his eyelashes.
"In the end, I had to save your royal backside once again. Like I always do."
Arthur bristled at the offence, gaping in utter shock. Then he noticed the teasing glimmer in his former manservant’s eyes, and laughed in disbelief. And he couldn’t stop.
Merlin had come very close to dying, he could barely keep his eyes open or sit on his own, and still he managed to make fun of him? At a time like that?
Fondness and relief filled his heart to the point he felt like it was about to burst open. And Merlin just kept quiet, a hint of a smile lifting the corners of his mouth and brightening his eyes. Arthur couldn’t help it, he reached out and ruffled his friend’s hair, no matter how greasy and sweaty it was. Hell, he would give him a bone-crushing hug if only he could.
Arthur’s laughter trailed off when the door opened. Anhora, Lorna and the High Priestess stepped inside.
Anhora stood next to the bed, leaning over to lift Merlin’s eyelids and study the whites of his eyes. "How are you feeling?"
"I’ve been better."
The back of Eleanor’s hand brushed against his forehead beaded with sweat.
"He is burning up. We need to bring the fever down."
Arthur put his hand on the nape of Merlin’s neck to hold his head while Anhora made him drink some kind of potion. Merlin was so weak he barely managed to swallow, and a few purple droplets dripped from his chin – Makkariah stood on his hind legs to lick them off.
"Help me lie him down," Eleanor told Lorna. "I have to check his wound."
Arthur grabbed the baby dragon by the scruff of his neck despite his squeaking sounds of protest and held him close to his chest, stepping aside to let the druids do their work.
Merlin was staring feverishly at the High Priestess, his hollowed features making his cheekbones look sharper than ever.
Eleanor undid the bandages to take a look at the wound, and Arthur caught a glimpse of red and swollen flesh under the poultice.
"There is no bleeding, it is finally healing," she mumbled. "Avalon’s magic was efficient, but now the wound is infected."
The old woman flinched when Merlin wrapped his hand around her wrist in a weak grasp, making her look et him in the eye at last.
"The druids… are they safe?"
Her eyes softened and a hint of a smile grazed her lips.
"The evil curse left them. Your dragons made a complete recovery too."
It’d have been hard to tell for sure whether Merlin heard her or not. His hold on her wrist tightened, anguish flashing through his face.
"Forgive me," he slurred. "I tried to protect you all, and I failed once again. If only I had figured out earlier that Sigan was behind this, if only I…"
Eleanor interrupted him, covering his hand with her own.
"We will talk about this later. Sleep, Emrys. Onslæp nu."
Merlin’s hand went limp and fell back on his chest as his eyelids dropped shut. His breathing grew deep and steady.
"He needs rest now. And quiet."
A jolt of wrist, a throw of dice. They rolled on the table and everyone cheered loudly when they stopped, revealing a perfect score. Arthur spread his arms and turned around to savour his triumph – his knights all dressed in Pendragon’s colours were acclaiming him. Percival’s warm and solid arm was heavy on his shoulder and laughter sparkled in Gwaine’s eyes.
The tavern had no door and no windows, buried in the depths of the Earth where no one would ever find them.
« I demand a rematch, Sire. »
Standing across the table, Mordred picked up the dice with his gloved hands. The other knights’ voices merged into a muddle of muffled sounds as Mordred’s smile widened, baring his teeth.
Dice were thrown again. But this time, they were perfectly smooth, without any black dots on them. Mordred was no longer smiling. His face had shifted back to its young self. The blue-eyed child stared at him intently and pointed a finger at Arthur’s chest.
« Does it hurt? »
Arthur felt up his chest and realized that there was a gaping hole where his heart should be. It didn’t bleed though, and he could fit his entire hand inside.
« No. »
Mordred huddled up to Morgana’s silky dress. The walls and the knights were melting down like candle wax. Arthur couldn’t see his sister’s face – it was veiled behind dark wavy hair.
« You shouldn’t let it empty, » Mordred whispered as he slipped his hand inside Morgana’s. « You never know what might fall inside. »
« You’re right, » Arthur replied as the table crumbled off under his hands. « I’m sorry. »
« Don’t be. »
Arthur reached out to them, but just when his fingertips brushed against his sister’s emerald green dress, Mordred and Morgana vanished like smoke in the wind. The walls were splitting up, bristling with bark. The sound of footsteps pulsed like a heartbeat in the distance.
« What’s wrong? »
Arthur turned around to face his dead wife. Clad in a purple dress, she was standing right there, in the middle of their chambers. Or was it a forest? The bed, furniture and carpet, everything was in its place, but there were trees all around as if they had grown in here.
« Gwen… »
She smiled at him tenderly, a golden crown weighing on the curls and waves of her hair. Arthur pushed out of his way a few parchment scrolls floating around in the air and took a step closer. The ground was caving under his feet like water-logged moss.
« I never got to say goodbye to you. »
Their hands touched – Gwen’s felt as cold as ice.
« You can’t save everyone, Arthur. »
Her voice sounded like the fading echo of a memory. When his fingers brushed against her brown curls, he saw them becoming grey and wrinkles furrowing her face. And when he took her in his arms, he felt her wither like a flower until her small frame crumbled into dust.
Only remained the crown in his hand. He brought it up and put it on his head.
The distant and familiar sound of Merlin’s voice called his name. Arthur whirled around, cape flowing down to his feet.
He was standing in the throne room but there was no ceiling. The sun was flying across the sky, chased by the moon that scattered stars on its trail. Day and night came and went at an alarming rate, making Arthur’s shadow wildly spin around him.
And again, Merlin’s voice was calling him. Something shifted near the doors, and he caught a glimpse of his friend slipping out of the hall.
He tried to call him, but no sound came out of his mouth. And when he rushed to chase after him, his movements were slow and clumsy as if he were submerged under water.
He crashed out of the throne room and saw Merlin’s retreating back and his red neckerchief fluttering in the corridor infused with shadows. He was walking away, and no matter how many times Arthur screamed himself hoarse, the silence swallowed it all and his legs kept growing heavier.
He couldn’t let Merlin disappear. He couldn’t lose him. Not again.
As he was sinking into the ground like in a swamp, and as the castle’s walls closed in on him…
"Hey, Arthur, wake up."
Arthur’s eyes snapped open. He blinked in confusion, dazzled by the sudden burst of light. The warm touch of a hand on his shoulder, the low rumbling of waves crashing against the cliff and the wistful cries of seagulls cleared away his dream. He was sitting at Merlin’s bedside, and had been so for almost two days now – the sorcerer was still lying on the bed with his eyes closed and a strained look on his face.
Arthur’s neck was stiff from sleeping in such an uncomfortable position on a chair, and the dull pain made him wince when he turned his head to shoot an annoyed glance at the druid who just woke him up. James merely arched his eyebrows and withdrew his hand.
"I brought you breakfast," he pointed at the night stand with a flick of his thumb.
There was a tray lying there, with an apple, a cup of tea and a slice of bread with peanut butter. Arthur felt his stomach give out an eager growl, so he grabbed the apple and took a bite while James sat down at the edge of the bed, next to Merlin’s knees.
"It’s so weird, y’know, seeing him like this," the druid said as he watched Merlin closely.
Arthur chew and swallow his bite, then sipped some hot tea.
"You mean silent?"
James shook his head, dreadlocks waving around his face.
"Young. I’ve always known Emrys as an old man, also I think of him as kind of like my mentor or even my grandpa. He taught me how to control my magic and teleport myself. It’s quite unsettling to see him as a boy looking younger than I do. Blimey, he doesn’t even have a beard."
Arthur looked down at his manservant's familiar face. It was the other way for him – he'd never quite gotten used to see him looking like an old man, and only now that the spell had been lifted he felt like he finally had the Merlin he knew back.
Arthur discarded the apple core and took the slice of bread before he came to realize that James was still there, staring silently at Merlin. The druid usually never stayed that long in Arthur's company, always too busy taking care of his community.
"Did you want anything else?" Arthur asked while chewing his breakfast.
James nodded and thoughtfully stroked the silver ring piercing through his lower lip.
"We need Emrys back on his feet before it's too late."
Arthur frowned and swallowed his mouthful of bread.
"Too late for what?"
The druid made a vague hand gesture.
"The situation is critical at an international level, mate. It's not like it was back in your time, y'know, nowadays with Internet, the TV and stuff, any time something happens the entire world learns about it very quickly. How do you think people reacted after the planet stopped rotating and the moon hung over the United Kingdom? Everyone has been freaking out all over the web and newspapers ever since and no one understands what happened. We need to do something before governments start a war by blaming each other of terrorist attack, or even worse, throw an Inquisition 2.0. We can't afford to wait any longer."
Arthur lowered his hand and put the half-munched slice of bread back on the trail. James had tried to explain what Internet and television were the day before and it was still so strange to him – but he could get the general idea here. Any victory inevitably led to complications and countless treaties to sign. He would know, after years of working out strategies with his Council to protect Camelot and maintain a relative global peace with the neighbouring kingdoms. It was no different in this era, even if he had yet to figure out everything that was at stake, including that technology thing.
"What do you suggest we do?"
James turned his head to look at him in the eye and folded his hand under his chin, elbows resting on his knees.
"The best thing would be to properly reveal the existence of magic to the world before anyone jumps to conclusions about us and decides we're a threat to them. What Sigan did might reflect badly on us, and that's exactly why we should speak up and explain who we are. I established a twelve-steps action plan to reunite and reconcile our two worlds."
James leaned over to grab a huge binder that he pulled on his knees to open it.
"So, first step would be to arrange a meeting between the queen, the prime minister, Emrys and you. I’ve got contacts, it should be easy to make it happen. You both are the obvious choice to represent us, what with the powerful symbolic of the legend and all. I think it would be wise to start with our country and see how it goes before aiming for international diplomacy with a UN meeting. Second step…"
James casually flipped through hundreds of pages.
"… it’s mandatory we enact laws to reassure the population that sorcerers who use their powers to do ill will face sanctions, and to make sure that no one will be discriminated because of their magic. I already wrote out a series of laws and a Magic Code, but it’s a draft so I’m open for modifications and negotiations. And of course, we will need to consult the other druidic communities that live in secret all around the world. The good news is, Emrys and I do have regular contacts with them."
Arthur took a look at the pages, reading through the lines. It looked much more complicated than the treaties, laws and speeches that he used to write as a king – or that he had made Merlin or Geoffrey write on his behalf.
"Looks like you gave this quite a lot of thinking."
A smile tugged at the corners of the druid’s mouth.
"Yup, I’ve been mulling over that stuff for the last fifty years. I didn’t choose to study law just for fun and giggles y’know."
"And he’s been pestering me about that stuff for the last fifty years too," Merlin’s hoarse voice cut them short.
Arthur’s heart missed a beat and he snapped his face up. Merlin had opened his eyes and was watching them with a slowly growing smile.
With the scraping noise of his chair on the ground, he shifted closer to the bed and leaned forward, feeling his face mirroring his friend’s bright smile.
"How do you feel?"
Merlin winced and Arthur helped him sit up with a hand on his back.
"Like a wrung out dish rag." He reached out to take the cup of tea from the night stand. "But I’m feeling much better. The fever broke and now I’m starving and I’m parched."
He emptied it with two gulps and grabbed the slice of bread Arthur didn’t finish as well to bite into it hungrily.
"Welcome back, Emrys," James drawled, closing his binder shut. "And I’m sorry to be such a party pooper but…"
Merlin’s chewing slowed down and his eyes darkened as he looked down.
"I know, I know. I heard you two talking. Is it really necessary, though? For the last few centuries I successfully managed to keep the community safe and secret…"
James arched an eyebrow pierced with silver rings.
"Not even you can erase the entire world’s memory. Literally everyone noticed the planet stopped turning, and it caused deathly climate disorders all around. There’s no going back this time. Now is our chance to open ourselves to the world and save magic from extinction. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but I mean, that’s what the ancient prophecies destined you both to, right? To bring back Albion’s golden age."
Merlin pulled up his knees and buried his hand into his messy hair. He swallowed hard, a muscle twitching inside his jaw.
"You’re probably right."
His blue eyes slowly returned to Arthur, sharpening on his face.
"The time has come to stop hiding."