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That Was My Idea

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Prologue:

Once upon a time on the night of a half moon, the kingdom of Albion's slumber was broken by a cry. In the blue darkness, torches were being lit and shoulders were shaken and doors rattled as those who had not heard the cry were awoken. Soon the streets were crowded with groggy yet alert peasants and workers, making their way toward the beacon in the night. Nobles even joined the lower civilians, rank put behind them and their awe put forth.

Towns all over Albion were coming alive, clothes and food left at home, jobs forgotten, need calling them toward the cry. Some would travel great distances and others only had to walk a few streets but all of the masses were rejoicing for the new heir to the throne had been born.

In the lower reaches of Albion in a majestic white stone palace, a king was rushing through the gilded halls in naught but his flowing gold nightgown. His face was half distraught, half elated. He was summoned by the cries of a baby. As he passed between shadows and moonlight his long silvery hair glinted, loose from its normal plait. The sound of his bare feet against the floor was softened by the long red carpet over the cold white-gray stone. He was making his way to the servants' quarters.

Through the towering arched windows that dominated the walls there were already peasants and nobles alike lining the grounds of the castle, small orange glows that the king barely noticed as he found the small wooden staircase that lead away from the main hall and down into the dark corridor of the servants' quarters. The carpets were brown rags littered here and there, trying meagrely to keep the chill out at night. The worn wooden doors were cracked open as servants peered out in alarm and awe as their sire made his way to the only door that was all the way open. The child's cries had died down to watery hiccups and the sound of heavy breathing was coming from the small bedroom. The king didn't bother knocking and strode through, slightly out of breath himself.

On the hay stuffed bed was a sweaty, determined looking servant woman who was holding a tiny red, squirming baby. Another woman servant was mopping up the afterbirth to the best of her ability with rags and a bucket. The light from the shuttered window fell across the mother's awed blue eyes, which peered tiredly but unmoving from beneath her straggly brown hair.

"This is Merlin." She rasped solemnly, turning the tiny baby with great care toward the king. He let out a breath and noticed her share an understanding smile. She could feel it too, the strong magic pulsing from the child like a steady heartbeat.

"Hunith, my pardon, Lady Hunith. May I?" He inclined his head toward the newly royal woman, acknowledging her status. She nodded and kissed Merlin's forehead before gently handing him over to the king, umbilical cord still tied on his stomach. The king accepted the baby almost giddily. The baby's eyes were slowly blinking, not really seeing the king's beaming face. "He will be king," the current king mumbled, "his title henceforth will be Prince Emrys." He opened the shutters next to Hunith's head with one hand, the people had already migrated to the grounds beneath the room. Summoned. "HE WILL BE KING, HIS TITLE IS PRINCE EMRYS. HIS NAME IS MERLIN!"

"ALL HAIL THE KING! ALL HAIL PRINCE EMRYS!" The crowd chanted, roaring with applause and celebration. "ALL HAIL THE KING! ALL HAIL PRINCE EMRYS! ALL HAIL!"

*

An irate, sturdy-looking king loomed in a squat white hall. He was standing next to a small blonde child who was fiddling with his cape while the king flexed and unflexed his fists, trying to collect his nerves. This king had a strong yet polite face that was, at the moment, contorted with frustration and humiliation, his soft blue eyes shining with resentment. The fine black leather of his gloves made his hands let out a shuddery low squeak as he moved them. The blonde kid watched them.

"Arthur," the king addressed the child, "remember to stay by my side at all times, do NOT go into the crowd and do NOT say anything. Stop when I stop and go when I go. You will give the locket to the baby in the bassinet and then come back to my side." The king looked over his shoulder at the large silver embroidered blue doors. "I am sorry for this Arthur but I cannot afford another mistake when I am trying to re-build relations with other kingdoms. You'll understand when you're older." He affectionately smoothed the boy's golden hair once then dropped his hand. Arthur didn’t understand.

“Why do they hate us father?”

“I—I made an error in judgement five years back.”

“That’s when I was born!” Arthur latched on to the only thing he understood.

“Yes, Arthur… We will talk more later,” Uther noticed his son’s unhappy expression, “I mean it Arthur. By my side.”

"Yes father." Arthur mumbled then moved to stand nervously beside his father as they entered the grand hall.

There were royalty from all across Greater Albion crowded in the ballroom; kings, queens, and nobles intermingling and laughing politely at each other’s jokes. The range of clothing differed vastly, Uther nearly felt drab himself had it not been for some of the poorer kingdoms. Uther was wearing a long dark blue tunic, the colour in honour of Albion's celebration, with a great gold, red, and silver threaded dragon embroidered on to the torso. His cloak, gold, reflected one of the colours of Camelot, his kingdom. It was buttoned with silver pendants that bore his family, the Pendragon’s, crest. He wore a moderate circlet of gold with rubies studded and shining brightly over his closely cut, short gray hair. A long decorated sheath hung from his belt which, like his gloves and boots, were made from the finest black leather his kingdom could custom.

Arthur stared bewildered at the size of the ballroom. In Camelot the throne room was the biggest room and even that was only half of the size of Albion's hall. Its roof arched with thick wooden beams to meet in a point far above their heads, many paned windows were on every wall with one giant circular one adorning the wall above the throne.
Arthur was dressed similarly to his father, the only difference being that Arthur had wanted brown leather instead of black. He stared ahead to the end of the wide red carpet that lead up to the bassinet and throne. The bassinet was simple with white silk hanging off the side of it, too deep to see the baby from the sides and too tall for Arthur to see in to it without getting on to one of the steps that lead up to the throne. Standing in front of the throne, waiting to receive them was King Elrich.

No longer hurried and in shock but beaming with pride and joy over the new prince, Elrich had his long, silver hair plaited and a dim gold but large mural crown adorned his head. He had a ragged looking but jovial face that was marked with age and warfare. Elrich wore a long sleeved white tunic that was belted with fine brown leather and had a solid gold sheath hanging from it. Arthur stared at King Elrich's sleeves, they were large and cuffed at the wrist instead of the straight like his and his father's. His cape was different too, it was over the shoulder, dark blue velvet, and pinned in silver instead of buttoned.

Arthur turned to tug on his father's cloak and ask why the other king's sleeves were so poufy but then stopped, his small hand hovering in the air above the yellow fabric before dropping it. Not looking up while walking, Arthur nearly tripped over Uther's cloak when he stopped and Uther had to put his hand on Arthur's shoulder to keep him from toppling over.

"Ah, King Uther, a pleasure to see you again," King Elrich walked down from his large silver throne with his arms wide open to receive Uther.

"Likewise my dear King Elrich," Uther placed his hands on Elrich's elbows and Elrich clasped his hands around Uther's, Uther then kissed Elrich once on each cheek then conceded to Elrich kissing him on the forehead.

"Always so much forehead space to choose from, huh Uther? Ha!" Elrich burst into laughter as Uther glowered jokingly at him. Arthur stared in amazement at Elrich and his father. He had never seen anyone tease his father and get away with it before. He also didn't recognize the greeting they had done. Arthur half walked forward with his arms out wide, half turned to his father to see if he was doing it right.

"Not yet Arthur, you have to be at least my height to greet other kings like that." Uther chuckled light heartedly, it was the happiest he had been in a while. Uther had underestimated the relief being with an old friend would bring him.

"Until then young prince Arthur, you can just bow politely. I'm sure one day you will be as tall as your father." King Elrich said then reached out his hand and ruffled Arthur's hair. Arthur nearly fell over from the King's strength in ruffling.

"Arthur has a present for the young prince. Arthur would you like to give it to him now?" Uther bent down and pushed Arthur forward a bit. The boy walked up to the bassinet and stood on his tip toes to peer in. A small, no longer red but healthy pink faced baby with bright blue eyes was blinking up at him. The baby looked at him tiredly as Arthur brought out a thick gold chain with a small ovular locket dangling from it. Merlin noticed the locket once it was closer to his face and stared at it with wide eyes.

Uther watched to see that Arthur wasn't upsetting the baby before turning to Elrich.

"So where is the Lady Hunith?" Uther questioned, trying to feel casual but failing due to some of the royals nearby looking at them with mild distaste on their faces.

"She is resting. With young Prince Emrys keeping her up at nights she hasn't been sleeping as well. She did not feel up for the party." Elrich said while also staring at Arthur dangling the locket over the baby. He pondered over the two princes, then, an idea struck him. A flickering as if someone had lit a candle in his mind, “Uther.”

Uther seemed to be considering something as well, “Elrich. Have I forever stained Camelot with my…regrettable actions, or do you think Camelot can be redeemed?”

“As it stands now, your army is far too fierce for the other kingdoms to take arms against you.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Redeemable, perhaps, but not by you, old friend.”

“Then we are thinking the same idea. Arthur and Prince Emrys could make amends where we could not.”

“Uther, I’ve forgiven you—“

“—but they have not.” Uther nodded toward the whole of the room behind them. The lords and ladies, the kings and queens, and even their servants all held hostility toward Uther and Camelot. “You want there to be a time where all the kingdoms are united?”

“Of course,” Elrich nodded, stroking his bare chin, “I am not arguing with you Uther, I see where you are going.”

“I don’t want my son to suffer for my…mistakes.” Uther said under his breath, close to Elrich. Luckily Arthur was too fascinated by the tiny pink prince to notice the two kings
mutterings.

“He won’t. Should Arthur become well respected and Merlin as well, they could ally and repair relations between Camelot and Greater Albion. Perhaps Arthur could spend his summers here, in Lesser Albion. Get to know young Merlin, once the babe has grown old enough to appreciate boyish company.”

“…I wish Prince Emrys had been a Princess, she could have ruled with Arthur.”

“Why not wish that Arthur were a girl? You could always father another—“

“I will never take another bride, nor another child so long as Ygraine lies beneath the ground.” Uther near shouted at his friend. Several lords and ladies glared at him. “I am sorry, old friend.”

“I didn’t know what to do with the necklace, so I dropped it by his head, is that alright father?” Arthur came back from the bassinet and tugged on his father’s gold cloak.

“Yes, son. It is alright.” Uther said, feeling heart worn, he picked up his child and held him in his arms. “We should be getting back, it is a week’s ride from here to Camelot.”

“You could allow me to assist and stay longer?” Elrich lifted his broad hand and Uther flinched. Elrich nodded sadly, "I understand."

"We can come back one day right? Maybe if Prince Emrys has a brother?" Arthur piped up from by Uther's arms. Elrich chuckled.

"Wouldn't be anywhere near as much celebration as this if Hunith had a second child."

"Why not?"

"Because he or she wouldn't be the chosen one."

"I don't understand."

"Our heirs aren't born, they're chosen. By...magic." Elrich glanced at Uther but he seemed not to be worried.

"How does magic know if he's the right one?" Arthur was confused. "Did magic choose you?"

"No, I'm actually a regent until Prince Emrys reaches adulthood. The late queen, my wife Isla, was the prior chosen one. She was chosen by magic to be queen but she was the one who chose me to be king. Well, her and her father had some say in the matter, thankfully I was of noble blood." Elrich had a fond smile on his face in remembrance.

"But how does magic know?" Arthur persisted.

"I don't know. It's magic, it just knows. It sends its signal then we all know. Bugger if I'm going to learn all the know-how behind it."

"We should really get going." Uther finally spoke up, "it was truly a delight to see you again my friend, and I will letter you later about our future arrangements." He whisked away making his cape fan out in a way that not only Arthur but Elrich was envious of. Dimly, Elrich heard Arthur ask his father why they stayed for so little of time if it took so long to get here. Elrich sighed.

Watching them depart King Elrich wandered back to the bassinet where Merlin lay. The baby had somehow managed to fall asleep despite the noise surrounding him. Spotting another lord and lady heading his way, Elrich quickly stroked the baby's cheek fondly and whispered, "you've got kingdoms to rule Merlin, don't get tuckered out quite yet," then turned to greet the arriving pair.

Chapter Text

The sun was distant in the pale blue sky but its heat clung to the grounds of Camelot where the young prince, his father, a retinue of servants, and the knights stood waiting. The small group of overdressed people were standing, not within the walls of Camelot, but in a nearby hilly field where the livestock usually roamed, not too far from the softwood forest. The livestock were cleared to another field for the day, as Camelot was expecting important visitors that had a particular way of traveling, unfit for the square in front of the castle where Uther usually received his guests.

Arthur was squinting with his head bowed, the sun’s rays were bright that day. He felt damp with sweat and very uncomfortable in his royal wear.

Five years since Merlin’s birth and Arthur had turned a healthy nine years of age. He had lost most of his soft baby-like features and had grown tall and skinny. His nose had lengthened and, though still round, was beginning to take on his father’s stern bridge. His eyes remained dark blue and his bright blonde hair was still golden. He had two large front teeth though, that were noticeably gapped and still refused to fall out despite Arthur’s desperate wiggling. They were his last baby teeth and the boy dearly wanted to grow new, adult teeth to take their places.

Arthur was wiggling one of his teeth with his tongue that moment, he was upset and tired of waiting for his supposed new friend on that first day of summer. Uther, beside him, had his bare hand, leather forgone in the intense heat, tightly gripping Arthur’s purple-cloaked shoulder. Uther was noticeably more upset than Arthur was, teeth grit and temper snappish. Arthur looked over at the hand on his purple-cloaked shoulder and pushed his tooth forward angrily. Arthur had wanted to wear his red cloak.

“But red is the colour of Camelot!” Arthur proclaimed earlier, while pulling his favorite cloak around his neck. He stood stubbornly in front of his tall, wooden wardrobe as his father strode to him from the door of his room.

“Red is aggressive. We are welcoming friends, not preparing for war. This is why you will wear the purple cloak. It shows our nobility and loyalty to the high crown.” Uther made no move to remove Arthur’s cloak. He merely stood silently with a look of disapproval written on his face. Arthur felt a twitch of nervousness and his fingers jerked up toward the knot but pride of his kingdom won out.

“Red is the colour of bravery and I want to wear it! It’s my best cloak! You can’t make me wear the other one! You can’t! You can’t!”
Standing in the fields, later that morning, with a hand on his sore, red cheek, and the other hand gripping his purple cloak very tightly, Arthur sulked.

“Stand up straight.” Uther chided, even though he was squinting as well, his eyes growing tired from the heat. Arthur sighed sullenly and stood up straighter. His father hardly ever hit him, Arthur didn’t understand why he was so angry that day. He almost thought about asking when he noticed a distant shape in the sky.

“There it is!” Arthur shouted and pointed toward the sky, his eyes shining with excitement. Noticing his father’s grimace, though, he quickly quieted down.
In a matter of minutes, a golden dragon came wheeling down from the sky and landed in the grassy fields, ten horse-lengths away from them. It was as tall as Camelot’s highest turret and as thick as the castle’s hall. The dragon had a long face that looked between a snake and a horse, somehow the expression it bore made it look wise. It brought in its massive leathery wings and crouched down to let its riders slide off.

Arthur gaped at the size of its talons. Beside the boy, Uther was clenching his hand very hard and willing himself not the clench the one holding Arthur.

“UTHER!” Elrich bellowed from by the dragon, after having helped Hunith down from the saddle. Uther stood awkwardly awaiting his friend to come striding over. Elrich was resplendent in his large, white sleeved shirt and golden tunic. His tall golden crown, adorned with a single sapphire, nearly fell of his head as he embraced Uther.

“You’ve grown a beard,” Uther commented, in lieu of their usual greeting.

“Hardly.” Elrich responded, pulling at the short, gray goatee he had chosen to sport. There were a few matching gray strands in Elrich’s shoulder-length, loose hair. He grasped Uther’s elbows and the two kings greeted each other properly. Uther, again feeling underdressed, in his purple cloak over his deep brown leather jacket and black tunic and his modest ruby circlet (dug out from the bottom of his small crown chest), gave Elrich a smaller smile than he would have initially.

Hunith came walking up next, dressed in a straight dress of pale green, she looked elegant and gentle. Her gown trailed behind her delicately, as if made from thin paper. Her dark hair piled high upon her head. Her eyes were a bit lined but it didn’t detract from her sweet, heart-shaped face. She greeted Uther like an old friend despite having never met.

“Your majesty, King Uther. I’ve been meaning to come see you since I missed you at Merlin’s birth party.” She laid her hands on his and bent her knees and head slightly.

“I am glad you are able to come today,” Uther said, meaning it truthfully. He laid his hands atop hers and bent at the waist to bow to her. After standing up he put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and pushed him forward, “this is my son, Arthur.”

Arthur bowed politely. Hunith curtseyed back.

“This is my son, Merlin.” Hunith said. She turned around and with two hands, encouraged the hiding prince to come forth. Merlin toddled forward hesitantly. Arthur frowned. Merlin was very small for a boy of five. He had dark and unruly black hair, huge ears, pale skin, big, round cheeks, a tiny button nose and the largest, water-blue eyes Arthur had ever seen. He looks like a baby! Arthur was disgusted. He didn’t want to play with a baby. Merlin was wearing a blue cloak over a gold tunic over a white poufy shirt. The material seemed quite thick and it hindered Merlin’s ability to waddle faster.

Arthur was glaring at Merlin. Merlin was giving Arthur an equally apprehensive look.

“Merlin, are you cold?” Hunith fussed over him, “it was a bit chilly today, up in the air.”

Arthur looked incredulously at Lady Hunith. Merlin remained silent.

“Arthur, you should greet young Prince Emrys.” Uther prompted. Arthur scowled but turned to Merlin and bowed none-the-less. “You should greet him as you would another king, Arthur. He will be yours, one day, after all.”

Arthur turned aghast to his father.

“Ha! Little kings greeting each other! I like it. Emrys, my boy, do you remember what I showed you? How I greeted King Bayard?” Elrich put his hands on his knees and bent forward to address the little prince. Merlin looked fearfully at Arthur then back to Elrich.

“But he’s much shorter than I am!” Arthur exclaimed. Uther’s face flashed with anger and Arthur knew he would be scolded when they were alone.

“Bend down and you will be fine.” Uther suggested. Elrich gave Merlin a little shove toward Arthur. Uther did the same with Arthur to Merlin. Arthur tried to bend down but ended up kneeling to be of even height. Merlin had barely any elbows so Arthur had to make do by grabbing his upper arms. Arthur paused then kissed Merlin’s cheeks as quick as he could. Merlin, eyes wide, looked back at Hunith for help.

“Bow your head, Arthur.” Uther added, trying to be helpful. Arthur bowed his head with great reluctance. Merlin turned back to Arthur. He has such big eyes. Like a deer. Arthur thought as he peeked upward to see what was taking so long. Hunith gently guided Merlin forward to kiss Arthur’s forehead. It felt wet. When he looked up he noticed a string of saliva stretched out from Merlin’s mouth to Athur’s forehead.

“Eww!” Arthur jumped away from the other boy and started wiping his forehead. Elrich burst out laughing. Even Uther smiled a little. Then the dragon chuckled and both Uther and Arthur started. Uther’s hand flew to his sword, gripped it, and then let go.

“Balinore! You can take off now.” Elrich shouted toward the dragon-rider, noticing his friend’s discomfort. The dark-haired man nodded and spoke to the dragon, who spread its wings and launched into the air.

“Balinore, the name seems familiar.” Uther commented, turned away from the flying beast.

“Ay, the young prince’s father.” Elrich said.

“Your husband?” Uther asked Hunith.

“No.” Hunith answered resignedly. There was a small silence. Arthur broke it.

“Can we go now?”

“…yes. Go show young Prince Emrys our kingdom.” Uther smiled tightly. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s sleeve and pulled him along for a bit before letting him go and running ahead. Merlin toddled after, nowhere as fast as the older prince. A few servants and knights followed the boys at a leisurely pace.

“Are you sure they will be safe?” Elrich asked.

“They will be fine. I even have my physician, Gaius, tailing them.” Uther brushed off the other kings’ concerns and gestured for them to follow him up the hill and toward the castle. The princes were running up the hill as well but toward the training grounds rather than the castle itself. Elrich spoke up.

“Gaius! I remember him. Good man, very—”

“ARTHUR PICK UP YOUR CLOAK THIS INSTANT!” Uther bellowed, staring after the belligerent boy, whose purple cloak lay rumpled on the grass far behind him. Merlin, coming upon the cloak, tried vainly to collect the fabric in his arms but kept stepping on it and stumbling. One of the servants, an older man with wispy white hair, kindly took Merlin’s bundle from him and gestured the boy onward.

“Like father, like son.” Elrich teased, Uther turned with bright red cheeks to his friend.

“If we’re sharing stories I’m telling the one about the broken sword.” Uther warned.

“More war stories?” Hunith raised an eyebrow.

“Something akin to that.” Elrich thumped Uther on the back, “my kingdom for tea, Uther.”

“Well if that’s what you’re offering, I’d better accept.” Uther said, Hunith laughed. Uther glanced at her with a small smile then turned back to Elrich. “I would like to visit Isla’s grave, next summer…” His expression softened.

“You will be bringing Arthur to our kingdom then? Elrich told me that you were not fond of the idea.” Hunith said. They stopped before the wooden gate that lead out of the field and onto the streets before the castle. A servant opened it for them and they passed through.

“I…I wish to pay respect to Isla. Abstaining from her kingdom for the rest of my life would be against the help she gave me…at that time long ago.” The king looked grim. “Aside from that, Arthur should get to know Lesser Albion if the two are to ally…m-magic and all.”

Elrich looked greatly relieved and put his hand on Uther’s back much more gently than before.

“You were very close with Queen Isla, I take it?” Hunith asked, curious. Uther glanced at her.

“Yes, she was Ygraine’s sister. They were quite fond of each other and visited often.”

“I thought I told you this.” Elrich frowned, trying to remember.

“You tell me a lot of things, and in erratic order. It’s hard to keep things straight.” Hunith laughed lightly. They passed along on the dirt road next to the houses, some neat and some in shambles. Nearly upon the gate, a peasant walked forward to address them then spat at Uther. The knights took out their swords but Uther stopped them from advancing.

“Leave him.” Uther had to bite the inside of his cheek to restrain himself from yelling. He normally would not tolerate the peasant’s behaviour. The peasant ran off.

“You should have—“ Elrich started.

“No. Let them be angry. They have a right to be.” Uther scowled.

“That was disrespectful, I would have thrown him in the stocks.”

“I have to keep the peace in my kingdom, Elrich.”

“Because of—“ Hunith stopped.

“Yes.” Uther stalked forward, getting inside the gate. The King and Lady Hunith looked to each other worriedly, then followed.

 

*

 

Arthur was beaming when he finally reached the training grounds. He rushed to where he kept his wooden sword, Uther promised that Arthur would use a real sword once he was older, and held it up with gusto. He looked around for the others and saw them, and Merlin, walking over to him from the small gate in the wall twenty feet away from him. Merlin was being carried by Gaius, the wispy haired, high eye-browed old man who took care of Arthur whenever he was sick or injured. Merlin wiggled out of Gaius’ arms as soon as he spotted Arthur and came running over, now void of his own cloak and his jacket (which Gaius had given to one of the servants to put in Merlin’s room).

“You’re,” he panted, “fast.” His voice was high pitched yet quiet. Arthur didn’t like it.

“That’s ‘cause I’m bigger than you.” He said smugly. Arthur looked at Merlin questioningly. “Do you hunt?”

“…no.”

“Do you know how to sword fight?”

“…no.”

“Do you know how to do anything?” Arthur asked derisively.

“I-I-I can count to five, and, and, I can make a sand castle, and I can do magic!” Merlin proudly spread his fingers and made Arthur’s wooden sword float out of his hand. Briefly, Arthur noticed Merlin’s eyes turning gold.

“Hey!” Arthur jumped back in surprise. He had never seen magic before. He had only ever heard about it from Gaius. His father had said nothing about it. Arthur waved a hand underneath his floating wooden sword. “W-what else can you do?”

Merlin smiled. It was a tiny smile with almost no teeth but it was the first smile Arthur had seen on Merlin.

“I can move stuff.” He moved the sword over to the other side of the grounds, where Gaius, a servant, and two knights were standing, watching. The servant applauded Merlin and Gaius waved.

“What else? Can you lift a horse or a person? Can you turn into an animal? How about a dragon?” Arthur was fascinated.

“I can only move stuff. Uncle Elrich said—“

“Uncle?”

“Mama says to call him that. Since he’s not my dad and, and he’s helping taking care of me.”

“You can only move stuff?”

“Yeah. ‘Cause Uncle Elrich said that big stuff is for when I’m big.” Merlin scratched his head. “I hope I get big soon.”

“Can you move me?” Arthur persisted.

“No. I’m not allowed.” Merlin said. Arthur frowned, a little bit envious but also, a little bit disappointed.

“That’s boring. Give me my sword back.” Arthur crossed his arms. Merlin’s eyes turned gold again as he concentrated on moving the toy back to them. Arthur grabbed it, then threw it across the grounds. “Get it again.”

Merlin looked at Arthur with furrowed eyebrows but did as he said. Arthur threw the sword yet again. “Come on then, get it.”

Merlin frowned but did so. Arthur looked around himself, they were near the fence that separated the training grounds from the grassy yard behind the castle. There was a rock.

“Catch it before it hits the ground.” Arthur demanded and hoisted the rock as far as he could. Merlin flailed and tried to catch the rock with his magic but wasn’t quick enough. “You’re terrible at magic. I bet you’re the worst wizard in the whole kingdom of Greater Albion.”

Merlin’s eyes watered but he didn’t speak.

“I bet, you’re such a weakling at magic that you can’t do big magic because you’re too weak not just because you’re a small baby.” Arthur continued. Merlin started to cry but kept staring at Arthur resiliently. He still said nothing. Arthur felt a little bit bad but didn’t care enough to apologise. “Come on, I’ll get you a stick and I can teach you how to sword fight.” Merlin sniffed then followed Arthur as they climbed under the wooden fence and toward one of the big trees in the yard.

 

*

 

Sword fighting, as it turned out, was not a good idea. A few fights and a few bruises later and Gaius was reprimanding Arthur for making Merlin cry again. Deciding that perhaps they had played enough, Gaius brought the two of them to the kitchens to eat. After lunch they toured the grounds, the wall, the castle, and even the dungeons as Arthur specifically wanted to show Merlin what happened to the scum who dared defy Camelot. When evening fell, Merlin was shown his room and Arthur was brought to Uther’s.

“Arthur,” Uther’s stern voice caused Arthur to be very hesitant while approaching the high-backed, mahogany chair. Uther was sitting next to a small, circular table that carried a silver goblet and a lit candelabra. There was moonlight shining through the blue stained glass windows that lined the walls, tall and skinny. Arthur sat in the chair that was opposite Uther.

“Yes father?”

“Have you behaved today?”

“Yes, father.”

“I heard from Gaius that you were not being nice to Prince Emrys this morning.” Uther lifted a (much less impressive than Gaius’) eyebrow at the boy.

“Sorry, father. I just…he doesn’t do much, does he? He’s too young.”

“All the more reason to be more considerate to him, he’s young, and therefore needs someone older to show him new things. I’m sure you will get along better if you actually take time to show him things instead of being angry that he doesn’t know these things already. Sir Antor has fun teaching you and he does not bruise you and make you cry.”

“He bruises me sometimes.”

“Yes but only to teach you a lesson.”

“Then I was teaching Emrys a lesson.”

“It’s Prince Emrys, and no you weren’t, you were bullying him. Think about Sir Antor and his ways and perhaps you’ll have a better time.”

“Why does Lady Hunith call Prince Emrys, Merlin?” Arthur fidgeted in his chair.

“Because that is his name. Prince Emrys is his title. Prince amongst the non-magic, Emrys amongst the magic.” Uther explained, leaning on the armrest and looking at the windows.

“Merlin showed me magic today.” Arthur admitted, watching his father closely. Uther tensed.

“It’s Prince Emrys unless he allows you to call him otherwise. Goodnight Arthur.”

“But father—“

“To bed. Now.” Uther stared wearily at his confused son then sighed and smoothed his son’s golden hair. “It’s late.”

Arthur slid from his chair and left the room. At the door he turned and looked back.

“Goodnight father.”

“Goodnight Arthur.”

Arthur closed the door and Uther leaned on his hand and stared at the flickering flames of the candles.

Chapter Text

A peasant girl was helping her mother pick eggs while the chickens clucked about her feet. She was a tiny, dark skinned child with black, tight curls cascading from her head and down her back. Too little to help her mother seed gardens or even to pull weeds, she was left to delicately try not to break the eggs she lifted from the nests and set into her near too big basket.

She was just leaving the coop when she felt a sudden drop of water hit her hand. Blinking, the small child looked up to the cloudless, sunny sky in surprise. She looked back at her hand and watched the drop roll of and onto the ground.

Her mother then called for her and she whirled around and quickly followed not bothering to look back. From the East came a gust of wind and another drop of rain fell to the earth, landing on a turret belonging to the castle of Camelot.

“Let’s do something else.” Arthur said dully while watching Merlin attempt to hold a real sword. Sir Antor stood warily by, greasy brown hair and bushy mustache obscuring his face. Arthur had been able to lift the sword for a whole minute, Merlin couldn’t even get it off the ground.

It had been three weeks since Merlin arrived. Uther had assigned both Gaius and Sir Antor to watch the boys since two days after his talk with Arthur, Merlin mysteriously acquired a particularly large bump on his head. Both boys refused to say anything. Gaius, however, recounted the tale of Arthur’s rather too enthusiastic throw of a rock toward the small boy after he had discovered that Merlin had finally learned to catch with his magic.

So Sir Antor, despite his fondness for Arthur, scowled and grunted with the best of it whenever Arthur voiced poor ideas (which was often). Feeling guilty though, Sir Antor would let them play with bits of his armour and would attempt to teach them small lessons on what being a knight was like.

Today he let them hold his sword while visiting the armory. Thankfully it was too heavy for either boy to hurt anyone with. The armory, however, was a bit hot and stinking of sweat and metal, the knight could tell that it was bothering Arthur. The boy had grown grumpier as the time progressed.

“What do you suggest we do, kid?” Sir Antor made sure his voice was gruff, Arthur seemed to think he could get away with more whenever Sir Antor spoke normally.

“I want to go into the woods.” Arthur said, a gleam in his eyes. Sir Antor sighed.

“Too many beasties sire, your father said no.”

“But it’s boring staying on the castle grounds.”

“And it’s dangerous going into the woods. Find something else to do. Prince Emrys, what would you like to do?” Sir Antor had taken to prompting the foreign prince since he noticed that the child was unusually quiet. He found Prince Emrys kind of disconcerting, but simple enough to please and to keep entertained.

“Say something dummy!” Arthur stamped his foot. Sir Antor swatted Arthur on the head. Merlin said nothing.

“Be nice kid.” Sir Antor scolded. Arthur was furious, he turned and started walking quickly away. Arthur also seemed to think that if he walked fast enough, ‘old’ Sir Antor would not be able to watch them so closely. The knight briefly thought of Gaius and wished he had not been whisked away to deal with some ailing lord.

He looked down at Merlin. Merlin wasn’t there. He looked up. Neither boy was there, how were they so fast? Sir Antor sped out of the armory in a panic not noticing the now smirking Arthur and Merlin hidden behind a rack of spears.

They held still for a while, crouched and trying to be silent. Once they thought the knight was far enough away, Arthur stood up and Merlin walked toward the door.

“Merlin.” Arthur said. Merlin paused and looked at Arthur with a surprised expression.

“Only my mummy calls me Merlin ‘cause no one else is s’posed to.” He said.

“I’m going to call you Merlin and you’re going to say that you let me call you Merlin ‘cause I don’t want to get in trouble. And if you don’t I’ll lie.” Arthur pushed past the boy and peered into the corridor.

Taking a breath, Arthur tried to relieve some of the heat he was feeling. It wasn’t just the armory, he thought, he had felt uncomfortable since he awoke. He felt as if he were suffocated, he just couldn’t bear being inside anymore. He wanted fresh air and relief.

Merlin tried to look around Arthur as the older Prince was leaning close to the side of the doorway. Merlin could make out the white-gray stones of the corridor and the red tapestries that hung on the walls next to the skinny, simple rectangular windows of Camelot that were now becoming familiar to him. It was not as regal as Lesser Albion but Merlin didn’t mind, quite liked it actually.

Arthur stared down the corridor and then turned to look the other way, no servant was in sight and Sir Antor was probably well away. He pulled Merlin out of the room by his hand and they ran to the opposing wall. Inching forward, Arthur peered around the corner then smiled and tugged at Merlin and ran to another opposing wall opposite a fleet of stairs.

Arthur wiped a hand on his sweaty forehead then carefully tread along the wall and over to the steps. They made it down without too much difficulty, the going was slow though as Merlin’s legs were much shorter than Arthur’s.

Once they had made it down, Arthur checked for servants again. The halls were empty. They were near the door that lead through the kitchens and into the field. Arthur was starting to worry.

Feeling too overheated to stop though, the prince went to the door and pushed it in and saw nobody. The kitchens were empty. Arthur shook his head to clear it as Merlin softly walked past and hid behind a table leg despite the lack of people. There wasn’t anything cooking or fires burning or even a maid to clean the floors.

Arthur knew it was wrong, knew that there had to be somebody but as soon as he had opened that door he also knew that he had to get out. He could feel his skin’s heat and the drip of sweat that occasionally fell to the floor. He kept going, he barely remembered to tug at Merlin’s shoulder before exiting the kitchens and finally making it to the grounds.

The sky was gray with heavy clouds and there still wasn’t a person around. No lords, ladies, servants, knights, children, not his father nor Merlin’s mother, not King Elrich, nor even Gaius. There wasn’t enough wind blowing though so Arthur made for the gate that would lead to the sheep pastures, the fields that were near the woods.

He had wanted to go after all.

Rushing, he and Merlin finally made it to the fields where, to Arthur’s great relief and mild annoyance, a shepherd stood tending his flock as the boys hid behind the wooden gate.

“I can’t believe we made it this far. There’s usually hundreds of servants about.” Arthur looked back toward the castle as he crouched behind the solid, thick gate. He felt the suffocation from earlier go away, the heat slowly fading, but then felt a kind of pulling feeling in his chest, it almost hurt. Arthur felt a deep need to go into the forest.

Merlin was tracing an etching on the gate unaware of Arthur’s worries. Royal Flock, proclaimed the door though Merlin couldn’t really tell, his learning only taking him so far. Arthur turned back to him, agitated.

“Merlin, could you…I don’t know, distract the shepherd or something. I want to go to the forest.”

“Not s’posed to.” Merlin mumbled while looking toward the field and forest just down the hill from them. He frowned suddenly.

“I don’t care. Besides, don’t you want to see a manticore? Or a unicorn? Maybe a dragon!” Arthur near shouted but remembered to keep quiet. He peeked around the gate and looked through the fence. The shepherd was picking his ear with his thick, bulbous pinky. The prince wrinkled his nose and pulled back. “Knock his staff over.”

Merlin didn’t want to but Arthur was always so angry whenever he didn’t do as he said, screwing up his face he held out both of his tiny hands and felt the crook with his magic and pulled it away from the shepherd.

The shepherd, who had been leaning on the staff at the time, fell flat on his face. Arthur and Merlin burst out laughing. Merlin felt a little bad but it had been funny.

Thankfully the shepherd didn’t notice the giggling boys as the sheep bleated noisily. Arthur nearly forgot to run but then started tugging on Merlin’s arm fiercely and they raced through the fence and nearly down the hill before Merlin started to pull back against Arthur’s grip.

“What are you doing? We’re almost there!” Arthur slowed a little but his heart was racing fiercely and that pull was tingling in his chest.

“No. Wrong. Something’s wrong. Not s’posed to. It feels bad. I want to go home.” Merlin looked scared of the forest, his big eyes wide with a hint of gold lurking in the blue. They heard a shout.

“Hurry!” Arthur pulled again at Merlin’s arm but this time the little boy fell forward and both of them wound up tumbling the last few feet to the beginning of the woods.
Merlin began to cry miserably as his face and hands were scraped and bleeding slightly. Arthur felt guilty but then heard the shepherd shout again. He hastily grabbed Merlin and attempted to drag him into the forest. Merlin was too upset though.

“N-n-no. My chest hurts. I don’t want to.” Merlin blubbered then with a look of shock and golden eyes suddenly Arthur was left with an armful of nothing.

“Merlin?” Arthur queried as he looked around worriedly. Suddenly there was no shepherd and flock, suddenly there was forest surrounding him and he was all alone.

“M-Merlin? Stop it. Where have you brought me? Bring me back. This isn’t fair. I’ll tell!” Arthur panicked and started stumbling in random directions. “Merlin? Please?”
He stumbled a few steps and felt great fear wash over him, he didn’t know where he was and the pull was gone. It was dark, the sky was gray, and it started to rain heavily.

A tall, dark haired woman walked into his vision from behind a tree but as soon as he saw her she disappeared a second after. All he could tell was that she was wearing something vividly red.

He was reminded of Lady Hunith briefly but he knew it was not her.

“Merlin?” He called in a small voice. He was wet and cold now, the rain wasn’t letting up. The ground was muddy and he had almost lost a shoe to a puddle. He kept walking forward.

This time when the lady showed up he screamed at her, “wait! Please!” She didn’t heed though and was gone. A screech filled the air. Arthur whirled and saw some creature whisk over his head, a claw grabbed at his arm.

“ANTOR, FATHER, PLEASE! MERLIN! FATHER! NOOO!” Arthur screamed as the beast lifted him into the air and slowly made its way up. Branches caught on his tunic but still they climbed. Wishing desperately for a dagger or sword, the boy flailed wildly.

“ARRRrrrthurr!” A blubbering wail came from beneath him, Arthur looked down and saw that Merlin had appeared, his eyes still glowing and his arms were outstretched. Arthur felt a pull on his leg very unlike the pull he had felt earlier toward the woods. It felt warm, like a soft hand was gripping his ankle and tethering him to the ground. The creature screeched and let Arthur go.

Arthur got a brief glimpse of it as he was falling: big, black, hairy, with leathery wings. Then he hit the ground and for second the world went black.

When the world came back, Merlin was beside him. He was soaked through but the rain seemed to have stopped. Merlin was crying still but gold shone bright and he felt a tug and then, with a blink, he and Merlin were at the edge of the forest again. The sky was clear and the sheep’s bleating was loud.

The baby Prince’s eyes had dimmed to blue and his body had stopped shaking. He was awfully pale, Arthur noticed, and then Merlin vomited on to Arthur’s chest.

 

*

 

“You deliberately disobeyed me, you not only got yourself in danger but Prince Emrys as well. You’ve hurt yourself and our royal guest is bruised and ill. You have only yourself to blame Arthur. Disrespectful, absolutely disrespectful.” Uther was fuming, pacing back and forth in front of his white-faced child who was now lying under the thick red quilts on his father’s bed.

Uther had admittedly been more worried than angry at the first sight of his boy, curled in the shepherd’s arms along with Merlin. The shepherd had found the boys muddy and wrestling near the forest’s edge.

Wrestling had been an overstatement as Arthur could only manage a few weak punches before clutching his aching head and laying back down. Merlin had let him, not feeling well enough to hit back or to say anything.

After Gaius had proclaimed both boys well but tired, Uther’s rage rose.

“What on earth possessed you to go to the woods?! Which servants let you go? I ought to flay Antor.” Uther restrained himself from roaring at his son. Arthur looked a bit sick himself but also fidgety and unresponsive, glancing at the window now and then.

“Arthur.” Uther commanded his boy’s attention. Arthur looked but did not say anything. For the boy to be so quiet, Uther grew concerned. “Arthur,” he said more gently and moved from the foot of the bed to sitting on the side of it with his hand covering his son’s, “what’s wrong?”

“-was a monster.” Arthur mumbled almost so his father couldn’t hear.

“What?”

“A monster. Big monster. It tried to get me but Merlin. Merlin grabbed me with magic and he pulled me and the monster let go. Father…Father I don’t want the monster to come back. What if it comes back?” Arthur was shaking and felt more Merlin’s age than his own but didn’t care because Uther had bent over and hugged him.

“It’s alright son. You probably just angered a bear. Don’t worry Arthur.” Uther rubbed his son’s back and thought to himself he would punish the boy later.

“N-no. It’s not a bear. It had wings!” Arthur’s hands gripped his father’s cloak.

“Whatever it is, it’s nothing the knights of Camelot can’t handle.” Uther patted his son on the back then pulled away. “I’ll have them hunt for it this very afternoon.”
Uther stood and made to leave the room but Arthur said something that made him pause.

“Watch out for the woman. I think she’s in the woods too.”

“Woman?” Uther turned to him slowly. Arthur looked to the window and back.

“Yeah, she was tall and red and she had black hair I think. But she was there and then she disappeared. Make sure the knights don’t hit her.”

“Arthur, they’re knights. They’re better trained than that.” Uther tried to sound normal. He left the room feeling as if he had numb limbs and his body was filling with white fear. He grit his teeth and let anger fuel him through the castle.

“ELRICH!” Uther shouted down the corridor as he strode quickly toward where he knew the other King and Lady Hunith would be. When he burst into Merlin’s room and found both there, Hunith lying in bed with her little son, soothing him, and Elrich standing up from his chair beside them, he gestured harshly toward his friend and left the room.

“What Uther? Has the child not been frightened enough? Must you bang into his room and scare him more? What is so urgent?” Elrich had followed, closing the door behind him carefully.

“Her. It’s that devil woman. It’s- “

“She can’t. She can’t! She shouldn’t be able to.”

“But she has!” Uther sprayed a bit of saliva on to Elrich’s face but he was far past caring. “Ready your guards, I’m afraid mine alone won’t be capable.” He wanted to hit something or burn something or even someone. He had to stop himself from thinking that.

“I’ll join them in the search. Uther. Please. Remember what Isla said-“

“I bloody well remember what Isla said!” Uther fought hard to not swing his fist at his friend. “I remember, now let’s go.”

With that, the two of them set out to meet with their respective knights. The guards were placed foremost with Arthur and Merlin, then the castle, the rest took the woods hunting. Their orders though were quite opposite of Arthur’s concerns.

Chapter Text

It was the spring after when Uther decided his son could be allowed in the forest. He was, of course, not allowed without at least four knights if not the King himself but Uther thought that the best way to overcome a fear (and to chase one away) was to face it.

It had taken two months since the initial incident in the woods for Uther to call off the search for the red woman, two months of summer wasted. Arthur and Merlin were kept on castle grounds with a retinue of knights and servants supervising every moment of their play. Though they were hardly needed as the boys’ play had become half-hearted and tentative compared to before.

Arthur’s bravado had dimmed since the creature, whenever he was outside he had taken to glancing at the sky occasionally. Even inside he took to looking at the windows to check for the winged menace that had nearly taken him.

Merlin, who had been quiet before, was now silent. He kept quite close to Arthur much to Elrich and Uther’s contentedness but had also taken to using magic for everything. Merlin would summon toys, cups, and one time King Elrich was dragged a couple feet backward by the boy. Elrich had been simultaneously impressed and annoyed.

By late July their mood had picked up as there was no sign of either woman or beast. Arthur had, at this point, asked his father hundreds of times who the woman was. Uther never answered. One day it occurred to Arthur to ask King Elrich and Lady Hunith. He was hesitant though, he didn’t know how they would react.

Merlin and Arthur walked up to the two just a day into August. King Elrich had taken to watching the knights train from a window seat whilst occasionally reading a book or playing a chess game against Uther. Sometimes he would even go down and join their swordplay, feeling the call for battle still lingering in his blood.

Lady Hunith was sewing a rose design onto a patterned cloth beside him, she was sitting in a cushy red chair. She was seldom seen without some project for her hands, she wrote, she drew, she sewed, and she even whittled small carvings when she truly felt like it.

That day Elrich had the window open and was making inarticulate noises and gesturing slightly with his hands, making smaller versions of the swings he believed the knight currently fighting should be making. Hunith had her pattern but was shifting a bit restlessly from sitting down for so long. Uther was currently in the throne room dealing with his people’s problems, Arthur knew they would be safe from him for now.

“Prince Arthur, Merlin,” Hunith noticed the boys first, “how are you today? Need something to do?”

Arthur grimaced, Lady Hunith’s idea of something to do was helping out with the servants’ work and unfortunately Uther agreed and thought it was a good lesson for the boys to learn. Arthur quickly shook his head, Merlin also shook his head. Even Merlin hadn’t enjoyed polishing armour.

“Lady Hunith… King Elrich…” Arthur started but still wasn’t sure he should proceed, curiosity won out, “who is the red lady I saw? Is she dangerous?”
Neither looked surprised by the question.

“What has your father told you?” Hunith asked even though she clearly knew.

“He told me to ask you two.”

“Har! Little shit lies as easily as his father.” Elrich turned from his viewing and smirked at the boy. Hunith rolled her eyes at him.

“Prince Arthur, I don’t think it is a particularly wise idea to go around your father’s wishes, do you?” Hunith leant forward to look him calmly in the eyes. Arthur fidgeted.

“No.” He admitted begrudgingly. Hunith smiled.

“Good then, now run along,” Hunith sat back in her chair. The two boys wandered off reluctantly, missing Hunith and Elrich’s exchange of significant looks.

 

*

 

When the visiting family finally left the kingdom of Camelot at the end of summer, Arthur was allowed to go play with his other friends again. During the visit, Uther had told his son that he was to focus on playing with and getting to know Merlin, Arthur had protested of course but ultimately had to go along with his father’s command.

“Leon!” Arthur yelled gleefully and hugged his best friend as he entered Arthur’s room. Leon hugged him back then they broke apart and smiled at each other. Leon was a curly haired young boy of Arthur’s age, son of one of the knights that served Uther, Leon has known Arthur since they were toddlers.

“Hello Arthur,” Leon pushed Arthur’s shoulder a little and smirked, Arthur pushed Leon’s shoulder back and half-scowled, Leon was still taller than him. “How was Prince What’s-His-Name?”

“Boring! He didn’t know how to sword fight or anything! He can do…” Arthur looked at the closed door behind Leon briefly, “he can do magic though.” He said in a lower voice.

“Really?” Leon knew as well as anyone that while magic could be practised in Camelot, speaking about it in the King’s presence was equal to stepping on his toes and spitting on his cloak even if the King refused to acknowledge his bias. Lords and Ladies had mysteriously stopped receiving invitations to events after talking the issue where he could hear, servants could even be sacked. There were no magic users working in the castle save Gaius (though he barely practised), Uther would not admit so to others but it was. Arthur still didn’t know why. Leon did though.

“Yeah, he’s really strong at it. I mean, he’s a big baby about everything else but he’s really good at magic.” Arthur walked over to his wooden sword that he kept near his bed and picked it up.

“Did he use magic on the monster? Mama’s handmaid said a monster attacked you both and nearly killed you.” Leon already had his wooden sword strapped to his waist and was starting to untie it as he glanced excitedly to Arthur, hoping for the story.

“He did.” Arthur said. “I mean I attacked it first but Merlin helped, yeah.”

“Who’s Merlin?”

“The other prince. Anyway,” Arthur ran to the middle of his room and lifted his sword up in ready position for attack, Leon followed suit, “you be the monster. I’ll be Sir Arthur, no, King Arthur! The knight about to best you!”

“Only if you can get by my sharp claws!”

“It had wings and talons not claws. It wasn’t a bear!” Arthur took a swing at Leon and the other boy jumped backward to avoid it.

“Caw, caw!” Leon lunged at Arthur. Arthur ran to the side and swung again, missing.

“It’s not a bird either Leon. It sounded like a bear but had wings like a-a- bat. Or something.” Arthur let his sword hand drop. Leon looked at him confusedly as the other boy grabbed his hand and placed it on his arm.

“He grabbed me like this,” Arthur said, “he grabbed me and pulled me up and it was really cold. Flap your arm.” Arthur told Leon. Leon frowned but did so, flapping the arm that wasn’t holding Arthur, “yeah, and he pulled me up.” Leon began to tug on Arthur’s arm and roared dramatically, “and then I slashed at him with my sword.” Arthur lifted his wooden sword again and banged it on Leon’s fingers.

“OW! Arthur!” Leon let go of him.

“And then Merlin used his magic to pull me away from the monster.” Arthur grabbed his friend’s foot and pulled him forward.

“Stop it Arthur!” Leon shook out of his grasp.

“Then I fell and then I was asleep and then I woke up and then I wasn’t in the woods anymore,” Arthur was breathing a little shortly, not looking at his friend, “I didn’t know how that happened. I didn’t remember. All I know is that Merlin’s eyes were gold and shiny and then…” Leon looked a tad afraid of what Arthur was going to say next, “and then Merlin threw up on me.” A shocked look crossed Leon’s face and then a startled laugh followed by giggles.

“That’s gross Arthur.” Leon shoved Arthur’s shoulder again, feeling less uncomfortable. Arthur blinked.

“Yeah… yeah, it really was,” Arthur looked at Leon a bit blankly then smirked, “wanna go to the kitchens and get some pie? They’re making apple.”

“Yes!” The boys then took off toward the kitchen to bug the cooks. While they were munching on their slices later in the courtyard, watching the knights, Arthur’s eyes drifted toward the archers. Their bow strings were snapping and their sharp arrows pierced the targets deeply. He never did mention the beast again to Leon but he did mention it to his father.

“I need to be a better knight so that I don’t get taken by monsters.” Arthur told his father as seriously as the nine year old could muster. Uther was sitting by his window in his room watching the snow fall lightly outside. The moment with Leon had been months past and Arthur had grown sick of just watching the knights. He had tried talking to them before turning to his father, Sir Antor in particular, but none of them felt comfortable advising him, fearing they would overstep their boundaries and bring the King’s wrath upon them.

Uther turned toward his son with an eyebrow lifted and an intrigued expression.

“How would you propose to become a better knight?”

“I need a real sword.” Arthur started.

“Hmph,” Uther leaned down, “while it’s true that a knight is only as good as his sword is, if he hasn’t the skills to wield it-“

“And I want to learn to hunt.” Arthur interrupted, having heard his father’s views before.

“Archery, Arthur?” Uther smiled as the boy nodded. “Very well.”

Arthur was given his first bow and arrow set the next day though he would not receive his first real sword yet. Uther oversaw his training and Uther rode into the woods beside the small boy on his pony when the spring finally came.

 

*

 

When summer rolled into Camelot, Arthur was dreaming of flying into Lesser Albion as he sat in a carriage that was bringing him to Merlin’s home. He missed his father. Uther, unlike Elrich, did not have a clan of dragons to carry him back and forth on a whim and so chose to stay in Camelot to rule his kingdom. Sir Antor had also remained behind much to Arthur’s chagrin, it was Sir Tristan who rode in the boy’s cabin whilst idly writing in a journal. It was to Arthur’s horrible surprise that not only did Sir Tristan write poetry but he also recited it, loudly, to anyone who would listen.

It wasn’t that Arthur hated the poetry though, he would admit to Leon later that reading Sir Tristan’s poetry was actually kind of good, it was more that Sir Tristan’s mouth salivated with such frequency that Arthur felt much like he was laying under a rose bush while a gardener putted about with his watering can.

“A cold inviting hand is warmth for me, for lonely souls do seek for kind embrace despite the aching heart's desire to flee. Instead, though dark and twisted visage seems, his arms out wide enchant, the weak will chase-” Sir Tristan stumbled as a dent in the road caused the carriage to rock and the journal to fall from his hands. Arthur took the opportunity to scoot to the other side of the carriage in the hopes that Sir Tristan’s spit’s range was not far reaching. They had been travelling for just verging on seven days and Arthur was feeling soggy.

“My Prince!” Called the driver of the carriage, a portly old man who loved children and horses, “you can see the castle now! We’re but a day away from getting there your majesty.”
His voice was muffled through the carriage walls but Arthur heard well enough and finally grew excited again. He barely remembered anything from the first time he came to Lesser Albion when it was Merlin’s birth celebration.

“I want to see the castle.” Arthur said happily, Sir Tristan knocked on the back of the carriage.

“The Prince would like to see, if you would stop a moment Higgsley.” Sir Tristan smiled as the carriage rolled to a slow stop then opened the door for his Prince to step out of. Arthur jumped out and nearly fell to his knees, it had been awhile since their last break from riding.

Walking up to the front of the carriage where Higgsley offered a hand, Arthur was lifted up to stand on the driver’s seat. In the distance was the palace.
It was a tall white serene building with many spires and towers and slanted blue roofs, it was a wide circle of buildings that arched into the sky and Arthur could even make out the small village houses that stood around it.

“There’s a river that runs right through the village, my Princeling, it cuts right near the palace and is quite wide. You’ll like the bridge for sure, very well made. Sometimes the villagers set up stalls along it to sell their wares to passers. Sometimes performers set up their shows there, you like clowns, my Prince?” Higgsley’s big black mustache was upturned in a kindly smile but Arthur was not answering. Instead he stood staring at the palace, feeling quite small.

It wasn’t as if Arthur didn’t know that Lesser Albion was the greatest flourishing kingdom in all of Greater Albion, it wasn’t as if he didn’t know that this kingdom was the most powerful and that other kingdoms deferred to it in terms of hierarchy, but it was the first time that Arthur felt he understood what it meant. He sank to sitting next to Higgsley and kept his eyes trained on the impossibly large palace. Higgsley, misunderstanding Arthur’s quietness, turned back to his horses and called for them to move.

“Higgsley?” Sir Tristan called from the door of the carriage.

“He’s up here with me, Sir Tristan, admiring the view.”

“Sir Liam, if you would.” Sir Tristan called to a knight who was following the carriage. The knight promptly rode forward to beside the carriage.

 

*

 

The litter pushed on through the next day, Arthur was able to take a nap inside the carriage later on, but for the most part the group did not rest. They made it to the bridge by late afternoon and the sun had just disappeared when they finally rolled into the courtyard of the palace.

The grass that surrounded the palace on both sides after the bridge ended was a vibrant green that Arthur had never seen the likes of before. Even the sky somehow seemed bluer. And it was a much warmer evening in Lesser Albion than would ever be in Camelot. Arthur loosened the clasp of his purple cloak.

Standing before the stairs that led to the entrance were the Royal Family. Hunith was as soft and lovely as Arthur remembered her to be, standing in her long yellow dress, she never wore a crown, he noticed, nor a circlet, he gave it a small thought before noticing King Elrich and Merlin. King Elrich was wearing his normal regalia, the large sleeved shirt under the golden tunic and his sapphire crown. Merlin, Arthur noticed and nearly rolled his eyes at, was dressed identically to the King sans the crown.

He wasn’t much bigger than last summer, Arthur thought, perhaps a bit thinner in the face and his ears were simply ridiculous with his new short haircut. Though Merlin was smiling this time, a relieved kind of smile, and Arthur, who was quite ready for someone who was not his knights and servants, smiled back.

“Welcome Prince Arthur!” King Elrich boomed as the Prince, who was in fact a whole two inches taller than last summer, walked up to take his bow. There was a pause after the bow toward the King and Lady Hunith, where Arthur looked at Merlin and was unsure of how to proceed.

“You needn’t do the King’s greeting this time,” Lady Hunith gave a dry look toward King Elrich, “come inside. We were about to have a small snack before bedtime.” She smiled kindly toward Arthur and Arthur felt a small pang in his chest. He wondered if his own mother had been so warm. As the group dwindled in, Merlin hung back to walk next to Arthur.

“It’s good you’re okay.” Merlin said, surprising Arthur, “I’m happy the monster didn’t take you when I was gone.” Arthur felt a little offended.

“I can defend myself, I’m learning archery right now,” Arthur huffed then sighed, “but. Thank you. I guess. I’m glad you’re okay too.” Merlin grinned then took Arthur’s hand and tried to hurry them forward.

“Let’s go, I want to show you my room now!” Merlin nearly fell up the steps in his excitement. Arthur snorted but felt a little less small when he stopped thinking of the palace as Lesser Albion’s castle and started to think of it as Merlin’s home.

Chapter Text

Breakfast the next day was a polite and quiet affair, during which the King, Lady Hunith, and a very tired Sir Tristan agreed upon a formal tour of the castle and grounds. Arthur, who was still adapting to the narrow doorways and halls and the overuse of the colour blue, was initially excited at the chance to explore but soon realized that because the castle was impossibly large, the tour would be impossibly long and slow, especially with the dry historical commentary by the otherwise very engaging King Elrich. As it turns out, though a great warrior of his day and fond of lively activities, Elrich was also deeply interested in political and architectural history. Since Arthur and Merlin understood neither politics or even what the word architectural meant, the tour was the most grating experience Arthur could have ever imagined.

Arthur did find the castle and grounds very beautiful but his focus waned when King Elrich went on about the century that certain pillars were carved in or why the current laws rebuked several traditional laws in spite of the protest by the court. Truly the only thing that kept Arthur’s interest was magic. He was drawn to even the simplest feats by the servants (such as cleaning spells) and was so absorbed by the practise of magical combat by the knights that he had to be bodily dragged away by Sir Tristan so as to complete the tour.

Having not seen any magic since Merlin had left Camelot, it was a treat to see it used so casually and so often. He even was fascinated by the reverence that the people had for the old religion. When he had seen an old woman bend down and kiss a ruby ring on her finger which then shone brilliantly and seemed to soothe a pain she had in her chest, he had to stop for a moment and wonder why there wasn’t any of this in Camelot. From what he could see, magic was beautiful, convenient, and life saving. Why did his father hate it so much?

At the end of the first week, Arthur was very unhappy. They were finished with the tour but he had learned nothing of magic and had spent no time dedicated to playing or training. And so he was gratefully surprised when Merlin managed to sneak away to Arthur’s room.

“Hello Arthur,” Merlin said while grinning mischievously from Arthur’s door.

“Merlin! There isn’t another tour is there?” Arthur had been dutifully writing his weekly letter to his father (as promised before leaving) when the other prince had shown up, he was now giving Merlin a rather apprehensive look. Arthur was seated at an oak desk by a stained glass window that carried a myriad of blues, it was a tall figure with a white crown and antlers coming off of their head. Arthur didn’t know who the figure was or why they had antlers but it was impressive to look at.

“No. I got away from them. Want to see something neat?” Merlin was practically wiggling with excitement. “I learned- I learned something new today.” He walked the rest of the way into Arthur’s room. Arthur put his writing materials aside and slid out of the chair. He stood smugly, revelling in his height over the six-year-old boy. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Merlin alone thus far and so he wanted to catch the other prince up on his accomplishments.

“I learned how to do archery and how to hunt. And I’m getting a real sword when I get back to Camelot. What did you learn?” Arthur puffed out his chest and placed a hand on his wooden sword tied at his waist. Merlin faltered but his excitement from before carried him forth.

“I learned how to make light! Look!” Merlin thrust out his little hand and a transparent orb of whirling blue-white magic appeared glowing brightly and hovering an inch above his palm. Arthur started. He cursed himself inwardly for still being surprised by magic but walked forward to look at the spell anyway. He touched it, it felt warm and tingly. Like the hand that pulled him down from the creat-

“Well,” Arthur interrupted his own thoughts, “that is neat. I bet you haven’t killed yet though. Father says a boy’s first kill is important. I killed a rabbit with my bow.”

“Poor rabbit.” Merlin’s large blue eyes shone with sympathy and the glow of the spell. Arthur rolled his eyes.

“We all have to eat Merlin. Can’t eat without killing.”

“We don’t eat animals in my home.” Merlin stated. Arthur was momentarily confused and was about to object when he realized that they hadn’t eaten meat at any of the meals served in Lesser Albion. His mouth dropped and he sputtered as he tried to think of something to say.

“Well that’s stupid then.” Arthur said while scowling. “Let’s go do something else. And make the light go away, it’s hurting my eyes.” The last bit was a lie but Arthur didn’t care. Merlin quietly extinguished his spell and looked down at the rug briefly, Arthur hoped he wouldn’t cry.

“Okay.” Merlin said in a small voice as he turned and had to stretch up on his toes to open the door. He opened it only a tiny bit and whispered some words that Arthur couldn’t hear before his eyes turned gold and a sudden crash followed by the sound of running feet came from the hallway. “Now.” Merlin grabbed Arthur’s hand and ran out of the room. Arthur was impressed.
Last summer Merlin had been too bashful to sneak around without Arthur’s prodding, perhaps he was learning something from him. Arthur thought back to his father’s words on being a mentor to someone who was younger and figured that he must be doing a good job of it then.

The two raced down the corridor and then down a few more, making frequent stops behind armours and tapestries to hide from servants and one time, from Lady Hunith, who was walking slowly with her head bent over a piece of parchment and a sly smile on her face. Though Arthur was curious, Merlin, having apparently become the master of stealth, dragged him onward.

“How did you learn to hide like this?” Arthur whispered to Merlin while they were currently behind an open door.

“Meredyth showed me how.”

“Who’s he?”

“She’s this way.” Merlin said taking off again. Arthur sniffed but followed him anyway. They had just arrived in a corridor that turned toward the main hall on the right when Merlin veered to the left where a heavy grey curtain hung, obscuring the corner. He pushed it open and darted down worn wooden steps and into a cramped living quarters of the servants. Arthur balked when he realized where they were.

“Merlin, this is the servants’ quarters. We can’t be here!” He grabbed Merlin’s poufy sleeve and halted the boy.

“Why?” Merlin asked confused, nearly tripping over a scant rag that was being used as a rug in the hallway.

“Because we’re royalty. We’re not supposed to.” Arthur said, repeating what Uther had told him years back when he had attempted to befriend one of the kitchen servant’s sons. “It isn’t the done thing, people would- would lose respect and we would- would- not be seen as respected? And because my father said so.” Okay, so Arthur had only half been paying attention to his father’s tirade, but to be fair, there were many rants and they were long and frequent.

“My mother used to live here. She said I could come.” Merlin said hesitantly.

“Your mother was a- oh right.” Arthur felt wrong footed. He kept forgetting that magic monarchs were decided magically, he nearly huffed but then decided to forgive Merlin. This once. “I guess it’s alright then.” Merlin gave a small smile that reminded Arthur of Lady Hunith before he turned to a door beside them and knocked.

“Meredyth?” He called out. There was a rustling and hushed words before the door opened and a large woman with a flush face stepped forward. She was beaming at Merlin and she swooped down and pressed large wet kisses to the boy’s cheeks. Merlin rubbed his cheeks quickly but the woman, Meredyth, only laughed.

“Why it’s the wee Prince Emrys, come round to learn the secret art of the servants. Come in dear-y and your friend as well.” She backed up and pressed her lilac skirt to her legs so that the boys could come by. There was a red-faced older man sitting on the window sill, he was deliberately not looking at the two young boys though he had initially risked a glance.

“That’s Rud. He’s the horse master. He was just paying me a visit, old friends we are.” Meredyth gestured to Rud, waving him out of the room. Rud, relieved, bounced up from the sill and hurried his way out.

“I know him. I saw him and Ann in the garden last week. They were all scratched up and he gave me a coin to not tell anyone.” Merlin said while pointing at the back of the escaping man. Meredyth barked out a startlingly deep laugh and Rud turned round with a rather scandalized expression before deciding to continue to run away. Arthur was confused.

“Aye, I gather Rud gets scratched up quite a bit. He’s very popular around here.” Meredyth squatted down next to the two boys. “Now what can I do for you lads? This has to be our guest Prince Arthur, such a royal bearing. With a face I know will grow as stern as King Uther’s, though maybe Queen Ygraine’s looks will keep it softened.”

“Did you know my mother?” Arthur asked, surprised. Meredyth’s brown eyes were suddenly sad.

“Oh, aye, she was often here to visit her sister. Queen Isla and Ygraine often invited me to share whatever stories I had heard to pass the time.” Meredyth said. Arthur didn’t understand.

“Queen Isla was queen here. She was my mother’s sister?”

“You didn’t know?” Merlin asked incredulously.

“Your father didn’t tell you?” Meredyth asked. “I suppose you were too young to remember meeting her.” She looked at Arthur with a discerning gaze. Arthur felt frustration and pain rise up in his chest.

“He doesn’t tell me anything!” Arthur burst out in a fit of passion, “he doesn’t tell me about my mother, he doesn’t tell me about- about my aunt, he won’t talk about magic or the red lady. All he’ll talk about is Camelot and my duties and to teach me about being a knight but he never talks about my mother. And I want to know about her.” Arthur sniffed and ground his teeth, trying not to cry. This was ridiculous, he was confessing to a servant.

“I suppose he wouldn’t, stubborn man he is.” Meredyth grunted as she sat down on the ground. “I once heard that asses were easier to convince than him.” Arthur gasped and Merlin let out a surprised giggle. It was the first time Arthur had heard Merlin laugh. That thought surprised him more than the servant’s statement. He turned toward her.

“That’s a king you’re talking about.” He said stiffly, refusing to find her funny. She merely shrugged apologetically.

“Aye, you’re right. It doesn’t matter anyway, if you want information you have to find the right people or be in the right spot at the right time.” She smirked and brushed a piece of brown hair away from her sweaty forehead. She was large and she smelled and she was a servant but Arthur wanted to stay anyway.

“What do you mean?”

“I know what she means!” Merlin tugged on Arthur’s sleeve.

“Shut up Merlin.” Arthur pulled his shirt away.

“Shouldn’t talk to anyone like that Prince Arthur. ‘t is rude.”

“You can’t talk to me li- I mean,” Arthur backtracked, this woman knew his mother, “I mean, sorry.” The woman seemed to understand what went through Arthur’s mind and she grinned unrepentantly.

“Tell Prince Arthur what I mean, Prince Emrys.” She gestured toward him and he moved to sit gleefully on her lap. Arthur was baffled by how close the two were.

“She means that servants hear everything. Because no one pays them any mind. So you can listen to secrets and stuff if you’re sneaky. Meredyth taught me how to- to hide in sight.”

“To hide in plain sight.” Meredyth corrected congenially. “Though actual hiding is efficient too. Would never have found out about Mor-“

“MEREDYTH! MEREDYTH! You’ll never guess- oh!” A lanky servant woman ran into the room with a wide smirk on her face before halting when she spotted the two princes. “Your highnesses!” She curtseyed to them hastily.

“Oh stuff it, Ann, they’ve gone rogue. They’re playing, no need to be stiff and formal.” Meredyth guided Merlin off of her lap and slowly got up to her feet. “Is this urgent or can you tell me later?”

“L-later. Of course.” Ann nearly curtseyed again before leaving the room and shutting the door.

“Ahh, I got up for nothing.” Meredyth sat back down on the floor again. “Alright, listen boys, I have about ten minutes before I have to attend to Lady Hunith. Is there anything you’d like to know first?”

“My moth-“

“Why’s there no magic in Camelot?” Merlin spoke quickly, cutting off Arthur. Arthur was nearly furious with Merlin but managed to calm himself down because he wanted to know about the magic too.

“Oh, touchy question that.” Meredyth gave a glance toward the door, she bit the inside of her cheek in worry before leaning forward, “what do you know about your mum Prince Arthur?”

“I told you, nothing. Except her name and that she died giving birth to me. Though,” Arthur paused, “Gaius said she loved riding horses.” Meredyth nodded.

“Aye,” she let out a worried breath, “she was- A good woman, yes. I don’t know all of the details but the week after she died, there was a lady named Nimueh, a sorceress, pretty powerful one too, who was exiled from the kingdoms of Camelot and Lesser Albion. Pain of death if she ever returned. Before that, King Uther, he…” Meredyth, normally a very unhindered talker, faltered before continuing in a low voice, “he was in a rage after your mother died. Killed a lot of magic users, he did. I heard that he killed a hundred of them before he was stopped. Don’t know what she said to him, but they say that Queen Isla flew to Camelot and locked herself in a room with Uther for hours. I saw her leave, I did, and I saw her come back. Pale in the face and shaking. Whatever she said, the killings stopped. Then Nimueh and a few other magic users fled from the kingdom, only Nimueh was properly exiled though. Nimueh, she was… well, I only saw her from a distance but she was Uther’s friend. Don’t know if she killed Ygraine or if she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time but ever since her banishment, magic has been scarce in Camelot. There was talk that Uther would ban all of the magic users or kill them but well. Queen Isla. Don’t know if you’ll ever hear that full story…”

She faltered again. Prince Arthur was looking sick and Prince Emrys looked terrified.

“Why did he kill magic people? Why?” Merlin was utterly lost. Arthur swallowed and stood straighter.

“Maybe they were evil magic people,” he said, “maybe they deserved it.”

“But-“

“I don’t know Prince Arthur but I- I wouldn’t ask him about it. Also, I’d be much thankful if you didn’t mention I told you any of this.” She got up to her feet once again. “In fact, I’ll take my leave now. Prince Emrys can show you how to hide. He’s a good student. And Prince Arthur, don’t be angry at your father. For all I know, maybe he only killed two people and maybe they were bad people. Rumours are kind of like makeup in a way, some of it will really show off the face, which is the truth, but too much of it can turn a face ugly or hide the face away altogether. If that makes sense. It probably doesn’t. Oh, what have I done.” She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Never mind me. Off I go.”

Merlin half heartedly waved goodbye, Arthur stood still.

“I don’t get it.” He said, trying to think about what he had just heard.

“Me either.” Merlin raised his hand tentatively and grabbed Arthur’s own. Arthur didn’t move. He didn’t remember much from his first visit to Lesser Albion but he did remember that his father had said he had… had what? Made an error in something. Was that the error? Killing people?

“Why would I be angry if they were bad people?” Arthur suddenly proclaimed, pulling his hand from Merlin’s, “Why wouldn’t they be bad people? My father is a king and king’s do what’s best for the people. So maybe father saved everyone. Maybe everyone who hates us is wrong.” Arthur remembered the few times his father had taken him to walk amongst the peasants, the anger, the occasional peasant who spit at them. “Or maybe father was wrong? I don’t know. I don’t know what to think.”

“Maybe it’s Nimay’s fault?” Merlin suggested worriedly.

“Who? Right, Nimueh. I’ve never heard of her.”

“Meredyth?” Ann’s voice came from the doorway where Meredyth had left all but a few minutes ago.

“She went to work Ann.” Merlin said while opening the door. Ann raised her eyebrows at him.

“You two oughtn’t be here.” She said while wringing her apron nervously. The princes looked at each other then both left the room and made their way out of the servant’s quarters. The sun was shining brightly still, on its arc downward as it was late in the afternoon.

“Meredyth said if you want information you have to talk to the right people.” Arthur said quietly as he let Merlin lead them through the corridor. “Who would know about my father?”

“I don’t know.” Merlin said as he opened a door that lead to a small courtyard. There was a path that lead up to a bare white tree with a small pond of water sitting in front of it. The path itself was lined with bushes laden with berries. Merlin paused, as if he were soaking in the sight. Arthur wondered if he could feel some sort of magic that was happening. “What about that Gus person? The man with the eyebrows?” He tried to mimic the eyebrow lift and scrunched his face to do so. Arthur blinked then laughed.

“Gaius. He would tell father I asked. And it’s more like this!” Arthur raised his own eyebrow and put his best disapproving face on. Merlin giggled. Arthur felt better. Not completely unconcerned, but better. “Why are we here?”

“I feel safe here. It’s holy.” Merlin plucked a berry off of one of the bushes and ate it. Arthur followed suit while looking at the cobbled pathway.

“It doesn’t have any holes.” Arthur kicked at a rock.

“Holes? No, not hole-y, holy! It’s part of the old religion.” Merlin had a huge grin on his face. Arthur blushed.

“I know what you meant. I meant, it doesn’t have any holy… things. Like a cross.” He bluffed while walking up the path to the pond by the tree.

“That’s not what you said.” Merlin was still smiling smugly.

“Shut up Merlin. It is too.” Arthur stomped his foot at the edge of the pond and enjoyed the splash.

“Don’t!” Merlin gasped and pulled Arthur back.

“Stop touching me!” Arthur shoved Merlin backward and the prince fell over and hit his head on the path. A high pitched cry issued from Merlin but as soon as it started, the water from the pond started to stream past Arthur and pooled beneath Merlin. Soft lights encircled the prince’s dark locks and the crying stopped. Merlin sniffled then sat up, pain apparently gone. Arthur stepped back in shock but felt the water under his shoe and so jumped forward. He looked at Merlin on the ground, who was looking at Arthur with hurt in his eyes, and felt incredibly guilty.

Everything about Lesser Albion made Arthur uncomfortable. Everything was magic and everything seemed to cater to Merlin. Everyone was too familiar with each other and the weather was always just a little too warm. And everyone knew more about him and his family than he did. He hated it here. He hated it at Camelot too. He hated everywhere. It just wasn’t fair. He wanted to go home and yet he didn’t want to go home. He wanted his father and yet his father was the last person he wanted to talk to. Why was everything so difficult?

“I’m going home.” Arthur decided. He walked past Merlin, back into the castle, and then out the main doors, which thankfully weren’t too far. He didn’t go back to his room for his stuff, he didn’t try to take any horses, he just walked up the path that lead to the main gates that separated the bridge from the castle. By the time he had reached the portcullis, he was crying. He was thinking of the long and lonely walk he would have ahead of him, of Camelot and how his father would scold him, maybe Uther would kill more magic people, Arthur didn’t know. He contemplated running away from Camelot and from Lesser Albion but the horrid creature came unbidden to his mind and caused him to sink to his knees and place his forehead on the iron grating.

Meanwhile, the two knights whose job it was to keep watch over the gate were looking at each other in hopeless confusion as to why a child had wandered up and just began weeping on the portcullis. Sir William, who was the junior of the two knights, had wild eyes that were switching between being alarmed at the kid and desperately asking for help from the other knight. The other knight, Sir Thomas, who had more children than his Lady had fingers, and by far the braver of the two, clanked up to the child and knelt down.

“Hello there,” he said as gently as he could. The boy looked up in shock at the knight. Sir Thomas smiled a little. “My name is Sir Thomas. My job is to watch the gate. Now since you came from the castle and are dressed quite nicely, I’m going to guess that you’re not supposed to be out here on your own.” The boy remained silent but was tense like a frightened rabbit. “That’s alright, I’m not going to tell on you. But I can’t let you out either. I can tell you’re having a hard time so tell you what, I’ll walk you to the kitchens and we’ll get you a treat and some water. It won’t solve anything but it might help. Does that sound good to you?”

The boy looked incredibly wary but he nodded anyway. Sir Thomas stood up and waved at Sir William, signalling him to stay. The knight and the boy walked awkwardly to the kitchens, which had an outside entrance, and the both of them partook in a few custard tarts. After sitting silently for a few minutes, the knight patted the boy on the back then returned to his post.

Arthur managed to eat three tarts before the cook told him to get out of there. Instead of heading back toward the gates, Arthur decided he would find his way back to his room. He didn’t feel as bad anymore, the knight had been right about the treat and water. He wondered if Sir Tristan was looking for him. The other knights might be by now as well but honestly, Arthur didn’t care. All he truly wanted now, was his mother. He had never met her but he figures that maybe magic can find a way for them to talk? Magic did make the impossible seem possible. He was tired then though. And so he walked back into the castle and was promptly found by Sir Liam.

Arthur was very fortunate that his father did not let anyone else berate his son but him. That being said, Sir Liam’s already grim face looking considerably more somber was making Arthur feel very bad. He was escorted back to his room and though he was invited to supper, did not join the others and ate alone. Arthur didn’t want to see King Elrich and Lady Hunith angry at him for hurting Merlin yet again. After eating and the servants taking away his dishes, Arthur untied his practise sword and held it up, taking swings at imaginary foes.

He was supposed to be making friends with Merlin. That’s what his father had said. Why was it so hard? Stupid, baby Merlin, thought Arthur angrily. Another swipe upward. Maybe Merlin would hate him now too and only Leon would be Arthur’s friend. He swung the sword to the side and hit the chair with a loud thwacking sound. Maybe if he showed Merlin how to use a bow and arrow, he would like him better. Arthur jabbed his sword forward, gutting his imaginary enemy. Aha! Leon liked playing swords with Arthur, maybe Merlin would like playing archer with him. It’s too bad he couldn’t learn magic from Merlin… not that Merlin could ever teach him anything, being a baby and all… Arthur’s sword dropped. He knew he wasn’t being fair; Merlin had saved his life.

He looked at the ground where his imaginary enemy lay dead. He wondered if his father felt bad about the killings. He would find out. He would find out and then he could show everyone that his father was a great king. Then maybe magic people would come back to Camelot. Arthur picked up his sword again. Maybe.

Chapter Text

A straggly blonde haired adolescent with sharp eyes and a voluminous green cloak was cutting through a crowd of spectators who were huddled around the Blacksmith’s house. Wide eyes, tears, and gossiping lips were predominant throughout the audience and the young cloaked woman found herself pitying the family. She couldn’t see the Blacksmith’s two children who were grieving their loss, she could hear their tragedy though, could almost picture the two folded in on themselves and wailing whilst a dozen or so eyes watched. She didn’t stop. She didn’t know if the children had their parent or any hand to hold, and she probably wouldn’t find out. There simply wasn’t time. It ached her, pulled at her, she had to grit her teeth and tense her muscles to force herself to keep moving.

It was actually quite a large crowd. The Blacksmith in Camelot was known well and fondly, or so she gathered, as she caught snippets of conversation while passing by.

“Oh, not Lena, oh no. Please Lord, don’t let the fall have killed her, please.” One woman was tightly clinging to her friend’s shoulder but was also standing on her toes to peek at the display. The cloaked woman pushed past rather forcefully and caused the woman on her toes to stumble. Of all the days she chose to risk Camelot, she had to choose the one that would cause her the most pain. The castle was in sight; she was so close. Perhaps a well placed spell and the ducking of her head to hide her eyes… but no. She mustn’t give herself away. She had a mission. She outlined the dagger she had hidden in her cloak. She wished it was that kind of mission. Alas, it was not.

She strode up the hill, away from the tragedy, and toward the main gates. She didn’t pass them. Instead, she turned to an alleyway two streets away from the entrance and found the man she was looking for. A curmudgeon, not as old as he looked but definitely as cruel as his steely gaze implied. After a few hushed words, an exchange of letters, and a special pouch bestowed, a tall, stern but elegant man left the alley where the curmudgeon had been. The young woman smirked to herself for a moment before realizing she would have to cut through the crowd again to leave.

As she was leaving she paused, spotting a familiar figure trailing a tall, black man. The figure (Damn him!) started when his eyes flickered in her direction which almost caused him to topple over on the steep hill that the main street rested on. Hastily, he turned away from her to focus on his steps, had to, as he was being dragged by the other man, whom she quickly realized to be the Blacksmith.

Of course Gaius would be called to help, she thought bitterly, though by the sounds of the children and the spectators, she knew the old physician was much too late. Futile efforts. Briefly she hoped he would forget her in the face of an old friend’s death. She felt rage and panic swelling in her as she flicked up her green hood and tried to stay at the very edge of the crowd, she had to leave fast. She had to just hope that Gaius did not recognize her even if she knew that to be blatantly false, that haunted glance had said everything. It had been so long since they had last met and yet apparently she was as recognizable now as she had been as a mere infant. She gripped the handle of the dagger tightly, maybe if she just waited… no, no, she mustn’t stray.

Nimueh was waiting for her.

Arthur had been waiting for three days in his room to be scolded. He knew it was coming. Merlin had been hurt by him and so, once again, Arthur would be punished. He knew it was true and although he didn’t relish the idea, knew it was fair. Merlin’s large hurt eyes kept flashing in his mind, he honestly felt bad about pushing the boy, hadn’t expected the fall to be so quick and so painful.

Three days had come and gone though and neither monarch had spoke a word to him that wasn’t polite or concerned. They had shown up only twice, inquiring whether he’d like to participate in meals or activities before leaving after Arthur (as politely as he could) declined.
Merlin hadn’t shown up at all. Even Sir Tristan and Sir Liam had no particular words or disapproving looks for him, other than for disappearing briefly. Arthur knew his father tended to punish those who tried to discipline him without permission so he knew the knights wouldn’t but he didn’t think the rule extended to King Elrich and Lady Hunith. Maybe they had lettered Uther and he was coming to deliver the punishment himself, Arthur shuddered, he hoped that wasn’t true.

Since no one had told him off after so long, Arthur concluded that either they didn’t believe Merlin or Merlin hadn’t told. The latter seemed to be true as he finally cornered the boy early one morning in the second week of his stay.

“I’m sorry.” He grunted. Merlin shook his head.

“It was an accident; I didn’t tell anyone so don’t worry.” Merlin admitted. Arthur felt quite wrong footed again, it was becoming a feeling he would start to associate with Merlin.

“I pushed you. I meant to do that.” He refuted.

“But you didn’t mean to hurt me.” Merlin said back. Arthur stomped his foot.

“Yes I did, that’s why I pushed you. Just accept my apology already.” Arthur scowled, he felt bad enough as it was, this prolonged apology made him feel even more ashamed of himself. Merlin still looked disbelievingly at Arthur but nodded to accept anyway. That finally being aside, Arthur invited Merlin to watch him train with the bow and arrow. It wasn’t enthusiastic but Merlin agreed anyway and the boys spent a not altogether unpleasant morning in the yard. Their time together would continue to be a mixture of hesitation and frustration for the rest of the month but, truthfully, Arthur would concede, it was an improvement on the last summer.

At least this summer Merlin was more participative, more engaging, had actual stories and activities to share. He wasn’t just a baby that followed him everywhere. And also, Meredyth was becoming more and more Arthur’s favourite person at the castle. While she refused to outright tell Arthur anymore concerning his mother and father or even his aunt, claiming that she didn’t know much else in any case, she did end up spending a good amount of time with the two princes. Thankfully, neither King Elrich nor Lady Hunith seemed to mind (the Lady Hunith actually said that Meredyth was a good friend of hers from her servant days) and so the robust lady was their main caretaker. She showed them her favourite shortcuts, she taught them how to skip rocks on the (non-holy variety) ponds, she even managed to work out a prank involving Merlin’s magic and Arthur’s charm. She was, quite frankly, really fun to be around.

It was in the aftermath of one such prank, midway through July, that Arthur finally decided to speak up about the burning question that he’s had since the day he tried to run away.

“Can you use magic to talk to dead people?” Arthur asked as a bald servant was searching the courtyard for his hat. Merlin, who currently had the hat hovering directly above the servant’s head, turned around curiously and let the possession drop back onto its owner. Ignoring the startled yelp from the gardener, Meredyth immediately gestured the boys inside. After finding an unoccupied room (a small office of a sort, filled with books and parchment), she closed the door tight and slid down to the ground.

“You know, most children in Lesser Albion ask why can’t magic bring back the dead. Talking to the dead is a much less common question.” Meredyth stated while fanning herself with on the books from a lower shelf nearby her. She was patchy red all over, not from the heat, as the weather rarely wavered from just a touch too warm, but from cleaning and playing. She sat silently for a bit with a expression warring between wanting to say everything and not wanting to say anything at all.

“I figured since my mother and aunt aren’t here, that you couldn’t bring them back since you would have already if you could.” Arthur explained.

“You’re a smart prince, your father ought to be proud.” Meredyth sidestepped the initial question that still hovered between them all.

“Can we speak to the dead? I’ve never heard of it.” Merlin scratched his head.

“If you must know, yes but-!” She held up her finger to stop Arthur and Merlin from speaking, “it’s only done by the High Priestesses at Beltane. They do it so they can learn from their ancestors, it’s not for farewells or checking up on your loved ones, you can’t request that they call a particular spirit for you, it’s all very religious and well…” she trailed off as Arthur hung his head in disappointment. Merlin (bless him) reached out and took Arthur’s hand. Meredyth noticed that whenever Merlin felt comfortable with a person, he was more inclined to touch them, to hold their hand, sit on their lap or next to them, he even plays with Meredyth’s hair on the odd occasion.

“How come I didn’t know that?” Merlin asked quietly.

“It’s a private ritual. High Priestesses only.” Meredyth responded, tugging lightly at a lock of Merlin’s hair. Arthur remained unspeaking. He had fleeting envy for Meredyth’s affections toward Merlin but forced himself to concentrate, he needed to think. He really wanted to talk to his mother and if Meredyth couldn’t reach her for him, he would have to find a High Priestess. Given that they were religious, one might find them in a church. He didn’t know if they stayed in a church all of the time or if they were in the castle or the village or somewhere else. He would have to find out. “I’m sorry Prince Arthur.”

Arthur looked up, forgetting that he was still in the room with the two, “it’s fine,” he said moodily and then went open the door as Meredyth struggled up. They spent the rest of the day in the gardens with Merlin trying to grab his hand every once in awhile and Meredyth shooting him occasional looks of pity as they played. It was frustrating for Arthur but he put up with the looks, knowing that Meredyth really did care. The hand holding from Merlin made him uncomfortable. No one ever really held his hand, not since he was an infant at least. He figured Merlin did care about him too but he wasn’t sure how to react in return to the hand holding.

Uther’s last few letters to Arthur had been brief but full of concern and worry, apparently Lady Hunith had written to him about his son’s short antisocial periods (when he had stayed himself in his room for too long). It was nice whenever he received his father’s love, nice when he got to see it. However, having still not had a chance to find out more about the supposed killings, Arthur’s feelings toward the letters had been mixed, almost shameful, like he couldn’t enjoy the love of a murderer or else he might be seen as just as bad. It made his heart clench.

On a day when Meredyth actually had to work and the princes were left relatively alone, there had been a servant but he was relatively easy to lose, Arthur decided to take Merlin aside, away from eavesdroppers. They stood in the shade of the bushes of the courtyard where Arthur had hurt Merlin earlier that summer. It made Arthur feel bad but the sanctum was empty aside from the two of them, thus it was an ideal discussion place.

“What is the Old Religion?” Arthur asked bluntly, not bothering to hedge, “you talk about it like it’s not the same thing as Camelot’s religion. I don’t get it.” He grabbed a berry from the bush and ate it while lying down. They were beside each other, looking up at the sky through the vibrant leaves.

“You don’t know?” Merlin asked and received a forceful nudge from Arthur, who didn’t like being called stupid, “I mean… it’s everything. It’s the earth and the magic in the earth. It’s me and you and mother and Uncle Elrich, we’re all the Old Religion. It’s, erm, it’s life and magic.” Merlin hesitated, he usually didn’t get to talk so much for so long and wasn’t used to it, “I don’t know anything about your religion. I think it’s apart of the Old Religion though. Because everything is. I think. I can feel it.”

Arthur held up a berry above his face and gestured toward Merlin with it, “you can feel it?”

“Yes.” Merlin said while smacking his dry lips. “I can feel all magic.”

“And you can feel magic in me? But I can’t use it.” Arthur was confused.

“You don’t have to be magic to have it. It’s life.” Merlin reiterated. They were silent for a few minutes.

“But does your religion – the old religion – have clergy or something? Mere said something about priestesses.”

“The High Priestesses, yes. They live on the Isle of the Blessed.” Merlin ate another berry.

“Do they ever leave the isle?” Arthur asked, feeling a bit nervous. He was close to finding out what he wanted. He really didn’t want Merlin to find out his plan. He didn’t want Merlin to get into trouble if he got caught.

“Sometimes. Not all of them. Sometimes I get to meet their students. They’re… not always nice.” Merlin sucked on a berry stained finger.

“How do magic fights work?” Arthur asked, desperately trying to distract Merlin.

“I-I don’t know. Uncle Elrich says I’m too young to learn magical combat yet… I don’t think so though.” Merlin was looking at Arthur with an impatient frown on his face.

“He won’t even tell you how they work?” Arthur half smiled at Merlin’s indignation.

“No. He thinks I’m a baby still.”

“You are a baby.”

“Am not!” Merlin pushed at Arthur and Arthur pushed back laughing. It was the closest they had come to behaving like friends. Arthur was happy. He didn’t end up asking Merlin anything more about the subject though, instead he came up with a different plan. Arthur decided to spend another few days alone in his room, only this time when Lady Hunith came to check on him, he would ask her to stay.

“Of course, Prince Arthur.” Lady Hunith said while sitting in the chair opposite the boy, which in turn sat next to the fireplace. She was wearing yellow today. Arthur always liked her dresses. They weren’t elaborate but they were soft and delicate looking. They were usually the richest part of Lady Hunith. She hardly ever wore jewellery and never wore any crowns, Arthur wasn’t sure why.

“I was wondering if you could teach me more about magic.” He asked as innocently as he could. Lady Hunith was momentarily surprised before a very understanding expression crossed her face, one that seemed a touch sad. Arthur suddenly felt guilty, he didn’t really understand what manipulation meant, but he was starting to understand that getting what you want can hurt others. He wondered if it was worth it.

“Ah yes, your father… isn’t the most talkative when it comes to magic, that is true. What would you like to know Arthur?” She gripped the chair handles briefly before relaxing. Arthur bit down his immediate urge to ask her straight up, ‘why isn’t father talkative about magic?’ He sort of knew why already anyway.

“How does magic work? Why can’t everyone use it?”

“Oh Arthur, that is a very big question that no one really has an answer for. In the Old Religion, they say that the gods gifted it to their chosen ones but there are others who also follow the old ways who believe that we are all born with different abilities, some can sing and others can cast, and there are yet others who believe that magic is a curse. There is yet another theory that everyone can use magic to a certain degree, even those with no clear magical power. But as it is, we are not sure what the truth is.

Does that help clear up any misconception, Prince Arthur? I know it’s a trite confusing and you don’t really have many Old Religion followers in Camelot save the Druids, so I can understand not knowing.” Lady Hunith smiled politely, her right index finger was tracing a pattern onto the armchair. Arthur noticed that in her own kingdom, Lady Hunith had many responsibilities but also seemed to take on more duties than was strictly necessary for a woman in her position. She always seemed to be doing something and when she wasn’t, she was restless.

“Yes, thank you Lady Hunith. Could you also tell me about using magic while fighting? I really want to know how it works!” He sat forward excitedly. Now that he had the information he needed to know, he might as well learn about the information that he wanted to know. Lady Hunith shook her head, amused.

“Ask King Elrich, he knows far more about it than I. But be warned, he will spend hours explaining it.” She laughed then stood up. “I think I’ll leave you for tonight Prince Arthur.”

“Wait!” Arthur stood up as well and walked a bit closer to her. “Just one more thing,” the Lady Hunith paused, “why does Merlin call King Elrich, Uncle? They’re not related, I know that.”

“Because Elrich is neither Merlin’s father nor his king. Elrich is Merlin’s regent, King until Merlin is old enough. We call him uncle because Elrich wants to be involved in Merlin’s life even post his regency. He wants to be as close to being Merlin’s family as he can because he cares about Merlin and wants to impart any wisdom he can, either his or what he remembers from the late Queen Isla. He feels like Merlin is an honorary son of his, though Elrich does have two children of his own. It is actually a bit unorthodox even within Lesser Albion history but not opposed, thankfully.” Lady Hunith laid a hand on Arthur’s blonde head and smoothed his hair down affectionately. “Now, goodnight Prince Arthur.”

“Goodnight.” Arthur smiled as the Lady Hunith left. His head felt warm from where she had touched it. He was glad to finally know about the uncle thing; it had been bugging him since last summer.

Now he had to plan to find anyone who knew the High Priestesses, or if he was lucky, a person who was training to be one. He started to prepare to go to bed while thinking back on the conversation. He was grateful that Lady Hunith hadn’t dumbed down her speech to him even if he was a little confused about a few things. Yawning as he clambered into his bed, he decided to speak to King Elrich first tomorrow, maybe he could persuade the King into letting him watch the knights.

Sir Liam, Sir Ottenwald (of Lesser Albion’s guard), and the two small princes were on the castle bridge late in August on a semi-cloudy day. The summer was drawing to a close and the boys were starting to feel cooped up even in the large palace. The Lady and King were attending to their duties and so sent the two trusted knights to watch over the boys as they toured the many entertainments that had gathered on the bridge. It was festival time and performers from all kingdoms have gathered onto the bridge and surrounding area just outside of the castle.

The bridge was everything Higgsley had promised it to be. Arthur was agog as a performer stood on his hands and breathed fire up into the air without using any magic. Even Merlin was dashing from one performance to the next, excitedly pointing and gasping at the tricks and stories. The two knights were thankfully young and able to keep up with the princes but unfortunately were often swamped by the sheer amount of people crammed onto the bridge.

Arthur had had no success in finding any High Priestesses or associates in the time between his talk with Lady Hunith and that festive day, nor had he luck in finding out any information related to his mother, his father, or his Aunt Isla, at least, not in terms of that fateful time. Instead, he played with Merlin and Meredyth and watched the knights with King Elrich who was very enthusiastic about sharing what he knew about magical combat (Arthur figured he must be old enough to know if the King was willing to tell him and not Merlin). He even got to see some of the magical creatures that Lesser Albion kept.

“Is he laughing at me? I swear he was laughing at me.” Arthur had said after they had meandered amongst the dragons and one of them had startled the prince. Balinor, a bedraggled-looking Dragon Lord in charge of the Dignity, had smiled conspiratorially without saying anything.

On the festival day, Arthur decided to put his investigation to the back of his mind. He figured he would enjoy the shows while he could. He was watching a girl charm a cat into jumping over small obstacles when he felt a tug on his shoulder. Annoyed, Arthur turned to confront the person who he assumed to be Merlin only to be met with a brown travelling cloak. Looking further up, he spied the face of a blonde teenaged girl with sharp brown eyes. Briefly, he glanced around to see where Merlin and the knights were, he couldn’t spot them. In fact, the noise surrounding him seemed to fade into the background.

“Hello, Prince Arthur,” she said, her face was smiling pleasantly but was also tense.

“Hi.” Arthur replied, uncertain of why the older girl was talking to him and wondering how she knew him.

“I have a message for you,” she said looking down at him through her locks, “from your mother.” Arthur’s breath left him momentarily.

“How?” His voice was small in comparison to the largeness of his emotions.

“I am the ward of a High Priestess. She summoned your mother’s spirit and told me of her message for you. Her message is this: she would like to see you.” The girl’s eyes were staring intensely into Arthur’s.

“She wants to see me…” Arthur swallowed dryly, “I want to see her. Is the High Priestess going to let me? I thought they only talked to spirits on Beltane?”

“This is an exception; the High Priestess is an old friend of your mother’s. If you come with me, you could meet her.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth? Who are you anyway?”

“My name is Morgause. And trust me Princeling, what I say is truth.” She bent down and clasped her hands over one of Arthur’s, something cold passed between them. “If you wish to meet her, simply go into any woods and call my name.”

“Arthur look! That man is eating a sword!” Merlin’s voice broke the intensity that seemed to exist between Arthur and Morgause. He looked away from her at the other prince, who had a remarkably strange expression on his face, and felt her hands disappear. He looked back and she was gone. He opened his hand, the one containing the cold item, it was a necklace; a gold chained necklace with an oval locket that had an etching of a white swan on its casing.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s face appeared next to Arthur’s hand, also looking at the locket, “I have one of those!” He said in a weird tone of voice that Arthur couldn’t identify and pulled out a chain from his shirt, the locket that it bore had a unicorn on it. “Uncle Elrich said that you and King Uther gave it to me. I didn’t know you had one too.” Arthur stared at the locket confused. What did it all mean? He felt a surge of anger rise in him.

“You scared her away!” He shouted.

“What?” Merlin’s eyes were wide.

“You scared her and now—“

“My lords!”

He didn’t get a chance to talk to Merlin, about the locket, about Morgause and the High Priestess, about anything, for the knights had finally caught up with the two of them and were urging the boys to move along so as to see as many attractions before nightfall. Arthur shoved the locket in his pocket, he would look at it later. He did reluctantly enjoy the rest of the performances, though while feeling bad about snapping at Merlin and looking around to see if the blond haired girl was anywhere nearby. He didn’t notice Merlin looking at him.

At the end of the summer, as Arthur was preparing for the long trip back, he still hadn’t figured out the locket. It didn’t open. He didn’t even manage to get to the woods, though he did try. He hadn’t mentioned Morgause to anyone. For some reason, whenever he tried to talk to Merlin about it, his voice dried up and he felt like he couldn’t say anything.
King Elrich had looked very grim the last few days before Arthur’s leaving day. He had been surly and hadn’t talked to anyone, even to the Prince he was withdrawn and even seemed sorrowful. When Arthur was standing next to the carriage with Sir Tristan and Sir Liam nearby and Higgsley attending to the horses, the King knelt down.

“Your father has a… surprise for you when you get back young Prince Arthur. It came at a great expense but hopefully you will appreciate your father for it.” King Elrich’s eyes were glassy. Arthur was confused.

“A surprise?” Arthur questioned.

“Not for me to say, your father insisted.” King Elrich stood up. “Now Merlin, my boy, say your farewell. It will be quite a while before you see each other again.”
Merlin walked over to Arthur and grabbed his hand. Arthur’s heart twinged. He still wasn’t fond of the hand holding but he didn’t think telling Merlin not to would go over well. This was Merlin’s way of saying he cared, Arthur knew that, had gathered that finally from seeing it all summer.

“Bye Arthur.” Merlin said very simply. Arthur looked at Merlin. Yes, it hadn’t been a very fun summer but Merlin wasn’t… all that bad. He refused to admit that he would miss the other Prince. Refused to admit that he liked him.

“Goodbye Merlin.” Arthur said back squeezing Merlin’s hand quickly before letting go. Merlin smiled. Arthur smiled back, hesitantly, and even managed to wave to Meredyth who waved back. The Prince then got onto the carriage, sat far away from Sir Tristan, and looked out the window, watching the vast, magical kingdom shrink as he made his way back home.

To a stranger. Arthur was grumpy. He hadn’t slept well on the trip back, occasionally trying to get close enough to the woods at night to call Morgause’s name only to be caught by knights and having to lie about needing to pee. He was fairly certain that Sir Tristan thought that Arthur had a peeing problem. There had been mutterings between him and Higgsley about talking to Gaius and Arthur was not looking forward to that conversation.

So when he stepped out of the carriage and into the courtyard of Camelot, half happy to see his father and half apprehensive, he was even more confused when beside Uther was a tall girl with long wavy black hair. She was obviously from a noble family as she had pale skin, a striking purple gown, and two serving girls (one old and one young), but her pale green eyes were ridged with red and her face was expressing extreme discontent toward Arthur. Strangely, the younger of the serving girls, dark skin and even curlier hair than the noble girl, also had red eyes.

Arthur frowned fiercely at the noble girl and the girl scowled back.

“Arthur, welcome back.” Uther, in a rare act of public affection, bent down and hugged his son tightly, Arthur, who hadn’t realized how much he missed his father all summer, hugged just as tightly back. After a moment, Uther stood back up and gestured toward the noble girl.

“Arthur, this is Lady Morgana. She will be living with us from now on as my ward.”

“Wait, what?” Arthur recoiled, looking at this father as if he had gone crazy.

“Pleased to meet you, Prince Arthur.” Morgana said with a grimace and a curtsey.

“Wait, father–“ Arthur started but his father was already turning to move back into the castle.

“Come along my son, surely you must be tired. I will explain everything while we eat before sending you to bed.” Uther whisked up the stairs to the main doors. One of the knights, Sir Tristan, hastily caught up with the King and was holding a letter out toward him and explaining something as they walked inside. Morgana stepped toward Arthur.

“I don’t care what your father says, this will never be my home and you will never be my friend.” She bit out nastily before whipping around in a startlingly similar fashion to Uther, her hair nearly hitting Arthur’s face, “come along Joan, Gwen.” She walked away from the Prince haughtily, her servants trailing behind her.

Arthur stood blankly, hoping vainly that he was still asleep in the carriage. After a moment of no such luck, and the pointed coughing of Sir Liam who was waiting for Arthur on the steps, the boy’s irritation carried him up and inside the castle. If his father thought he was going to take the new intrusion lightly, then he would get drenched in the storm that was Arthur’s seething dissent.

Chapter Text

“I’m worried about the boy; he lets Prince Arthur get away with far too much.” King Elrich said, his voice resonant and important sounding.

“Prince Arthur was fairly well behaved this summer as compared to last.” Lady Hunith’s voice was a bit harder to hear, soft but still well spoken enough that her words weren’t incoherent.

Merlin sat in the shadows of a large bookcase, listening to his mother and uncle talk. The sorcerer whose study he was hiding in had long since retired to his room and who had locked his office before leaving but Merlin, minutes later, had whispered into the keyhole and the door clicked open easily. He had only meant to glance at the pictures in the spell books that he wasn’t allowed to look at yet when he sensed his mother and uncle walking by.

He had quickly crammed himself behind one of the bookcases, remembered to cast the spell that Meredyth had taught him to make the shadows darker, and breathed as quietly as he could.

As it turned out, his guardians decided to stand in the cove opposite the study to talk.
Merlin wondered why they could never feel him when he was nearby, the way he could feel it when others were close to him. It was how he had first found Meredyth. He had sensed her casting the shadow spell as she pressed herself against the wall and behind a stand of old enchanted armour. She had been impressed that he had noticed her but also claimed that she could not feel as he did. He was beginning to think no one did.

Since Merlin was born, the world was immersed in magic. To him, magic felt overwhelming. His mother told him that when he started to breathe, magic pulsed from him like a heartbeat. Merlin always felt like the opposite was true, that he was pressed to earth’s chest while magic beat on. Magic consumed him, it emanated from sorcerers, sorceresses, from non-magic users even such as his mother, and from plants and animals. It was this reason that he always felt a bit smaller than everyone else, sometimes magic even rendered him speechless.

His humility toward magic was perhaps a little less so in Camelot, as Lesser Albion was drowning in magic users, Camelot seemed to be a bit like a stream compared to the ocean. It had been disconcerting at first but Merlin did not mind the lull. He enjoyed both kingdoms, truly, he was just a little lost at sea sometimes.

“-and I would like to see my mother again. She’s fallen sick and I think it would be good for Merlin.” His mother said, interrupting Merlin’s daydreams. He had missed how the conversation about Arthur had ended and was wondering what they were going to do for him now.

“Ealdor is puny, Merlin will surely be bored.” King Elrich was insisting.

“Elrich. We are going. Next week.” His mother put her foot down and the King grumbled in a fashion not dissimilar to Arthur. Merlin almost laughed at the image of a small Uncle Elrich with his silver beard. “There are plenty of children there, I’m sure Merlin will find something to do.”

Merlin sighed. He hated making friends.

 

 

Arthur was glared at throughout every meal. It was consistent, Morgana’s piercing gaze was sharp and made his skin prickle. He was relieved whenever she switched her scorn over to his father. There was something odd about her. In fact, Arthur thought it felt similar to the odd feelings he had about Merlin. He mulled over his roasted venison, sneaking glances at her eyes when she wasn’t looking at him and trying to guess whether or not she was magic too.

She was beginning to develop a routine. Arthur would see her at breakfast in the morning, she would disappear for the rest of the day, he would see her at lunch, she would disappear again, and lastly he would see her at supper. It was like that time Sir Antor showed him the squirrel in the bush, it would only come out when there was food in their hands. Not that he cared to see her.

“Do you remember Sir Gorlois?” His father had asked the night Arthur had come home from his trip. Arthur vaguely recalling a tall dark haired man had nodded, “That was Morgana’s father, he has passed on.” His father’s face clouded with misery and resignation. “He was the bravest man I ever knew. I couldn’t let his daughter suffer alone. She has already lost her mother, this must be very painful for her, so, Arthur,” a warm hand on his shoulder and stern eyes, “be kind to her.” That was what his father called an explanation for her presence. Arthur hadn't found it very swaying initially but after two months he realized she would be staying.

Two months of glaring and two months of being unable to get into the forest alone. He found himself wishing desperately that Merlin were here to help him and yet knew that he would need to be alone to summon Morgause. He couldn’t ask his father. Arthur wasn’t ever truly afraid of his father before but somehow his moments of anger lately have been worse with the knowledge that he gained. He murdered sorcerers, what stopped him from doing it again? Maybe he does it in secret? Maybe one day he’ll snap from holding back and murder everyone. Arthur’s heart hurt sometimes, when he thought about it too much. It was easier to think that this Nimueh lady had been evil and cruel and so had her cohorts been.

Arthur was walking idly toward the library, one autumn day, on his way to meet Geoffrey for lessons when he heard someone speaking and it caught him off guard.

“And then he dropped his sword and cut off his own toe!” Leon was laughing loudly, Arthur knew it was him even though he was a hallway away from him. What he didn’t know was why his friend was talking to Morgana’s young maidservant. The maidservant was laughing and shaking her head at Leon familiarly. Arthur decided to confront them.

“Leon?” Arthur shouted while walking toward them. The maidservant gasped and bowed her curly haired head as he approached. Arthur took little note. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, hello Arthur. My dad told me Gwen works here now and I wanted to come with to see her again.” Leon was beaming. “Her mum used to work for my household, did you know?”

“No, why doesn’t she anymore?” Arthur asked. Leon flinched and Gwen’s hands tightened around the basket of flowers she was carrying.

“She died.” Gwen’s voice was watery and Arthur immediately felt awkward.

“I’m sorry.” Arthur said sincerely. Gwen looked up at him warily then to Leon, Leon nodded and Gwen stood up properly.

“My brother and I are friends with Leon too, sorry if we take up his time with you, my lord.” Gwen’s voice was small but her eyes were resolute.

“Don’t be ridiculous Gwen, I’m not just Arthur’s friend. Besides, Arthur can be your friend too.” Leon patted her on the back as if she were just another boy like Arthur. Gwen looked at him shocked.

“He’s the prince, Leon! I’m just a maidservant.”

“Yeah and I don’t want to spend time with a baby girl.” Arthur crossed his arms.

“Baby?! At least I can dress myself.” Gwen pointed at him then gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. Arthur gaped at her and Leon burst out laughing.

“I can dress myself.” Arthur harrumphed and decided he was going to leave them.

“Wait, Arthur, do you want to play at swords?” Leon tugged at Arthur’s arm.

“I’ve got lessons.”

“After then. We’ll go down to the fields and parry at sheep.”

“Poor sheep.” Gwen said from behind Leon.

“They’re not going to let us into the field to swing at sheep.” Arthur was still somewhat sulky over Gwen’s comment and was trying to edge away from them. “I can barely get out of the castle at all anyway.”

“Really? But it’s so easy.” Gwen blurted out the slapped a hand over her mouth again.

“It is not.” Arthur frowned at her. Gwen looked as if she was going to resist saying so but instead she lowered her hand.

“Is too.”

“Is not!” Arthur stamped his foot.

“I know tons of ways to get in and out of the castle.” Gwen wasn’t behind Leon anymore, facing him. It was mildly disconcerting, she kind of reminded him of Meredyth, in that she wasn’t afraid of him like other servants were.

“Then show me. After my lessons. And don’t tell anyone. Prince’s orders!” Arthur nodded firmly. Gwen was surprised and Leon made ‘ooo’-ing noises, not taking Arthur seriously at all. This time, Arthur did leave them.

He was somewhat surprised when after his lessons Gwen was in fact waiting for him. He honestly didn't think she would. She looked a bit apprehensive about guiding the prince sneakily through passageways and also telling him about the patterns of the knights watch but Arthur was thoroughly impressed. Then concerned. He wondered exactly how safe he was if a ten year old girl could manage to fool knights. He resolved to change that once he was a knight.

“Thank you Gwen.” Arthur said after they were finished and she had to get back to Morgana. “Wait!” A thought struck him. “What does she do all day?”

“Mostly… she just cries and writes. Though occasionally she hits things and yells too.” Gwen looked uneasy again. “Don't tell her I said that please, your highness.”

“I won't.” Arthur said solemnly, meaning it. Gwen smiled and left, faded yellow dress swishing behind her. Arthur waited for a bit then walked slowly back to his room thinking about everything and everyone. He was feeling a bit heartsore again, he really didn't want the people he loved to be mean or even the mean people to be hurt. He opened the door to his room, deciding. He would go to the forest tonight.

Chapter Text

Arthur’s heart was beating loudly as he darted around the dark corridors. He was putting all of the knowledge Meredyth had imparted to him and Merlin last summer to use, dashing behind curtains and armours, wishing desperately for the cloak of magic. When Gwen had showed him the passageways during the day, it had been simple, but now shadows turned corners into caves, voids of unknown terror behind them. His mouth felt dry from trying to breathe slower, to quiet the amount of sounds he was making. His cloth shoes scratched against the dirt on stone, his clothes rustled, his breath, his heart, he ran blindly down a narrow stairwell, not being able to stand hesitating anymore.

A slight whooshing sound caused him to panic and turn around, he looked up to the top of the stairs, nothing. Must have been the wind. Arthur made his way across the last few feet of hallway before stopping, the door to the outside towering above him. He leaned onto the wood then pushed slowly, the door revealing strip by strip flattened brown grass and whispering autumnal trees… in the flicker of the light of fire. Arthur stopped moving. His breath caught. The orange gathered closer, brighter, he couldn’t decide whether to shut the door or to stay still. He couldn’t be caught now, he couldn’t. He wanted to see his mother.

Inexplicably, the orange passed and so did the knight with nary a glance toward the slightly opened door. Arthur waited. And waited. He watched as a mouse scurried into the longer brush and as a few leaves fluttered to the ground. Then he left, making a mad dash for the fields, hopping through the gap in the fence and dodging left and right around the sleeping sheep, only one making a half hearted bleat after his gait. As he reached the forest’s edge he heard the bleating sheep yet again and turned to look. Some movement, as a sheep shifted, but still nothing.

Arthur was breathing hard, he leaned over for a moment, head nearly at his knees. He felt a bit nauseous. He was really here. About to meet his mother for the first time. He wondered if she would be tall, if she would have hair like his, as Gaius had said once, he wondered what her voice would sound like, if he would be able to touch her. He wondered what she would say about his father. He turned to the forest. It was dark and filled with uncertainty. He wondered how far in he would have to go.

He looked down to the swan necklace he clutched in his hand, a heart imprint on his palm. He closed his hand again and straightened up, ready. He started into the forest. He didn’t want to mess this up so he kept walking for a good five minutes. He felt naked without a weapon or a pony. He felt so small. He found a small clearing next to the big river, his father’s favourite fishing spot, and stopped. He looked around and aside from insects, it was peaceful.

Shakily, he raised his hand with the necklace, letting the locket dangle as he let the chain slip. He was starting breathe too fast. Soon. Soon. His nails were digging into his skin. He started to let loose his grip—

“What are you doing?”

—Arthur did not scream. He did not, as he would insist to Leon and then Merlin in later years. He did, however, stumble into the river. He gasped at the cold and choked as water got into his mouth. The river was fast, carrying him down and away. He had to grab something, he had to grab— there, a thick branch. He held on for dear life and pulled himself onto the bank. Hands clutched at his back and he balked, falling to his side on the mud and rocks. Long dark hair fell into his face as Lady Morgana leaned over him.

“You!” Arthur gasped and coughed. He was incensed as he scrambled to his feet. “You! What are you doing here?!”

Morgana was in her nightgown, not even a cloak to cover her. She looked wan and exhausted. She almost looked like a ghost.

“I was curious to see if you were stupid enough to get yourself killed by going into the forest alone. I was right.” She snapped, her voice strong where her visage wasn’t.

“How did you even know I was going to be here?” Arthur yelled then started to shiver. He was so cold.

“I— I didn’t. Not at first. I just— I wondered where you were going so late at night. It’s improper for a prince to go alone at night and almost get himself killed, isn’t it?” She flicked her hair backward, haughtily.

“You almost killed me!” Arthur stressed, pointing at her. That’s when he noticed the locket was gone, his hand was empty. He stared aghast at Morgana.

“I’m sorry.” She said, uncharacteristically, her haughtiness from before disappearing. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You d-d-didn’t scare me.” Arthur turned from her, shivering harder now but now trying desperately to see if he could find the locket in the river. Even with the moon as bright as it was, he knew it was hopeless. The blue-grey rushing past did not carry a glimmer. “I hate you.” He said lowly. “I hate you!” He ran away from her and back toward the castle.

“Arthur!” Morgana’s cry was faint. Arthur didn’t care. He sniffled, tears escaping as he thought about his mother whom he would never see.

 

In the coming weeks, Arthur developed a cough. At first, it seemed he just had a cold, stuffy nose and feeling chilly. Then, after a short sword training session with Sir Antor, he collapsed. Antor had carried Arthur all the way to Gaius’ where the child was examined.

“Pneumonia.” Gaius had gravely informed a stricken Uther and anxious Antor. Arthur was confined to his bed with medicine from Gaius and instructions for the servants to boil water near constantly in his room to improve his breathing. Arthur became pale, his breathing short, and a fever caused him to writhe and moan. Leon wasn’t allowed to see him. He was only ever visited by servants, Gaius, and his father. Though Antor would peer over Uther’s shoulders every time he entered or exited the room.

Arthur experienced vivid hallucinations of a blonde woman telling him how disappointed she was that she couldn’t see him, he also saw the woman in red again and a jester-clad Morgause, then Merlin was stuck in a crystal with a long beard and polka dots on his face, and Uther was a farmer who only sold sour apples. It all seemed very real to his fevered mind.

Then, just as Gaius feared Arthur wouldn’t survive the night, as the boy vomited and wheezed, his fever broke. His breathing subsided and though he remained pale, he was coherent again.

Uther had held fatigued Arthur in his arms for a very long time, rocking him back and forth as if he were a babe again, kissing his forehead and cheeks. Arthur felt safe in his father’s arms, felt loved, he almost forgot about the possible murders.

“Did you… did you…” Arthur was so tired as Uther lay him down on his bed again.

“What, my son.” Uther stroked his hair aside.

“Did you kill the sorcerers?” Arthur’s eyes were filled with tears.

“Where did you hear that?” Uther’s tone was sharp but Arthur was far too tired to notice.

“Mer’dyth,” Arthur mumbled, “were they bad sorcerers?” The boy felt like his whole world was his pillow and his father's looming face. Uther's expression was pained.

“Some- no. No they weren't. I was blinded by rage and grief, I believed magic the killer of your mother so I took it out on any user. Isla stopped me though and the true villains, the ones who hid from me the cost and fickleness of magic, are now banished from both Camelot and Lesser Albion, pain of death on return. The witch should have been executed for her crimes but she escaped before she could come to trial. Arthur, one day you'll understand about those who would wish to destroy Camelot, our enemies...” Uther trailed off, noticing his son had fallen asleep. He wondered how much the boy would remember in the morning.

 

“But I'm bored!” Arthur whined as Gaius felt his forehead and checked his complexion.

“I'm sorry Prince Arthur but until you're completely well again, the King doesn't want you gallivanting about.” Gaius said. Arthur groaned and threw himself back on his pillow. “It shouldn't be too long now.”

“Can't I at least talk to Leon?” Arthur asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not until you're better, you don't want your friend to catch pneumonia too, do you?”

“No.” Arthur replied resigned. Gaius tutted then after some medicine, took his leave. The boy slid down and under his blankets then twisted them until they were a mess about him. He had been bedridden for a week since his fever broke and he felt fine. He wanted to learn swords again and to go hunting. Instead he was stuck in his room.

He hated mulling on what his father had said. The fickleness of magic. He didn't really understand what it meant but something about it made him uneasy. He couldn’t believe Meredyth had been right. He felt weird. Like it wasn’t real. He felt horrible. His father had killed people. He felt… too much. He didn’t want to feel. How could his father be king if he had- had betrayed his people? All of the other kingdoms hated him and Camelot… except Lesser Albion. But why? Why didn’t Lesser Albion hate them? Does being really sad make up for the fact that he killed people? Arthur didn’t know. All Arthur truly wanted was to not be sick and to play with Leon as if nothing had happened… and he wanted his father to still be his father and for it to be okay to love him.

Arthur curled around and threw his face against his pillow. He hated thinking about this, he hated it. He felt sick, not pneumonia sick, but heartsick again. The door slammed open. He bolted upright and his jaw dropped as Morgana strode to his bedside with a book in hand.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur asked, beginning to feel as if that’s all he ever asked her.

“What does it look like, Arthur, I’m here to read to you.” Morgana dragged over a chair and plopped down into it gracelessly.

“I don’t want you to read to me.” Arthur said disgusted, “I’m not a baby.”

“You’re stuck in bed all day with nothing else to do, might as well listen. It’s not everyday a lady reads to you, you know.” Morgana was flicking open the heavy book.

“Why are you allowed in here but Leon isn’t? I don’t want you here, I hate you.” Arthur balled up his hands and thumped the mattress.

“I’m a lady, they can’t forbid me from doing something.” She brought her legs up onto the chair. “The mother wolf lead her pack to the veil of fairies—”

“I said go away!” Arthur yelled, throwing a pillow at her. Morgana’s light blue eyes narrowed, her lips tightening. She shut the book, stuck it on the chair, hopped off then pushed the chair away.

“I’m sorry.” She said, arms crossed. “Okay. It’s my fault you’re sick and I’m trying to make up for it. So what do you want to do?”

“I want to play at swords and become a knight.” Arthur crossed his own arms and looked away from her.

“So do I but right now we’re both not allowed to.” Morgana huffed and looked around the room for something.

“How do you keep getting away from your servants and guards? Wait, you want to learn swords too?” Arthur looked at her again as she was examining the tapestry in his room.

“Father… my father taught me a little before he… died.” Morgana traced an embroidered figure next to a deer. “What would you do if this lady were real?” She turned to him, eyes bright.

“What? What do you mean? She probably is real or was. Hey, you never answered my question.” Arthur moved to the edge of his bed.

“I mean, what if she just popped out of the tapestry and said, er, ‘oh my, how ever did I find my way into a little boy’s room?’” Morgana lifted her arms as if she were in a play, donning the affectation of a lady of the court.

“I’m not a little boy.” Arthur scowled.

“‘I do apologize, are all the men so short in this kingdom?’” She lifted a hand to her face dramatically. Arthur’s lips twitched. “‘You must have a terrible time getting onto horses.’” Morgana mimed getting on a horse by struggling to get onto a chair. Arthur couldn’t help it, he giggled.

“That’s why all the men in this kingdom ride ponies. Truly they are the steeds of kings.” Arthur stood up awkwardly on his bed and mimicked his father’s proud gesture, a closed fist in front of his chest. Morgana looked toward him and for the first time since she arrived in Camelot, she smiled.

“‘What else can you tell me about this strange new kingdom?’” She asked.

“Well,” Arthur smirked, “in our kingdom we travel from room to room by hopping on one leg.”

“‘How inconvenient, like this?’” Morgana hopped around the room while Arthur laughed. They spent the next few hours playing the game, every once in awhile a knight would peek in and Morgana would dive behind a curtain or under the bed then come out again, dustier but proud of her skills. After they tired out the game, Morgana said she should probably get back to her room.

“Oh… okay.” Arthur climbed back onto his bed. He looked at her seriously. “I still hate you, you know.” Morgana faltered, then smirked.

“I hate you too and I’m better at it.” She flicked her fair over her shoulder and left. Arthur huffed but decided she wasn’t so bad after all.

When Arthur finally got better, declared so by Gaius, he was able to learn swords again and to hunt with his father and play with Leon. He made time though, during the winter, to play their new game, Threads, with Lady Morgana and to show her his new sword techniques when no one was looking. He still hated her though. Mostly. As the spring came and warmed into summer.