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For the Love of All Who Gather

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Image Description: there are five human figures on a light blue background.  Two are in the bottom half, Merlin and Gwaine, with beaded headdresses and their foreheads touching as they smile at the other.  A small head of a white dragon, Aithusa, is above them, and between them is a shield on top of a staff.  Along the top, from left to right, are five other figures: Merlin's mother, Hunith; an elderly Druid man, Iseldir; the king of Camelot, Arthur; a figure of a white, blond-haired teenage boy, Soredamor; and a final figure of Arthur's sister, Morgana.  End description.

 

~

 

The rider’s cloak was dark, blending seamlessly into the shadows cast by the sinking sun as it set in the west. The castle loomed dark above, and as the rider approached its entrance, two guards walked forward, their spears at the ready.

“State your business,” one said once the rider was close enough.

The rider dropped her hood, revealing a head crowned with black locks, and green eyes that glinted maliciously in the torchlight. The guards stiffened in recognition.

Morgana Pendragon.

“I am here to see Prince Soredamor,” Morgana said, daring the guards to defy her with a look.

The guard who spoke nodded shortly, “Yes, my lady,” before stepping to the side and allowing Morgana to enter.

She did, making her way through the lower city until she was at the entrance of the castle itself. The guards there had much the same reaction of the ones at the gate: surprise at her arrival, but no resistance to her entry. She handed her horse off to a stablehand, silently, before climbing the stairs and pushing her way through the oaken doors.

Morgana made her way through the castle, no one impeding her progress as she found her way to Soredamor’s study. There was a guard outside, who nodded at her in recognition and stepped to the side, allowing her to enter.

Soredamor was standing by the window, staring out at the sinking sun, the last rays reflecting off his golden hair. For a moment, the image reminded Morgana of her brother, but she pushed it down, reminding herself that this boy was not he.

“Hello, Soredamor,” Morgana greeted.

Soredamor turned, his brown eyes meeting Morgana’s green ones, and smiled. “Morgana,” he greeted warmly. “I though you wouldn’t be home until next week.”

Morgana let out a breath as she stepped in. “My plans changed,” she responded smoothly, hiding the grimace that threatened to rise as she recalled why her plans had changed. “I was able to leave earlier than I expected.”

Soredamor smiled and gestured to a chair. “Please, sit. I’ll have some food sent up. Guard?”

The guard poked his head in. “Yes, my lord?”

“Please send for two meals from the kitchens.”

The guard glanced at Morgana, then at Soredamor once more. “My lord, I am not to leave your side.”

“I trust Morgana with my life,” Soredamor said calmly. “And I am certain she can defend the both of us should the need arise. If you pass another servant, you may relay the message to them and return to your post, but I do ask that you send for two meals.”

The guard glanced at Morgana once more, before nodding and heading off to fulfill his orders. Soredamor joined Morgana at the table, giving her a genuine smile. “I am glad to see you back, Morgana,” he said.

Morgana returned the smile. “As am I. It has been many months since I saw you. How have things been?”

At this, Soredamor’s smile faltered, before he hung his head and let out a grieved sigh. “… things haven’t been well. Last week, on Samhain there was an attack from some magical creatures- ghosts, I would call them, but they were so much worse than that. We were powerless to stop them… and we lost hundreds of lives…”

Morgana kept her face tactfully blank, but allowed her eyes to soften in apparent sympathy for the young prince.

Soredamor let out a sigh, before looking up with a forced smile. “When we didn’t from you after, I feared the worst: I feared that perhaps they had gotten you, too.”

Morgana shook her head, and allowed a small smile to grace her lips. “No. I managed to avoid the Dorocha.”

“The Dorocha? Is that what they are called?”

Morgana only nodded. “It is.”

Soredamor was quiet for a moment, before he leaned forward, desperate and imploring. “Do you know where they came from, Morgana? Do you know who would send such a ruthless attack against my people?” Soredamor asked, his eyes flashing in pain and grief for all those he had lost. Morgana was almost touched by the care and concern the prince was showing for his people. Almost.

Morgana smiled wryly. “I imagine it was the first person you’d expect.”

Soredamor’s eyes flashed in realization, then his gaze turned to fury. “Arthur Pendragon,” he growled.

Morgana nodded. “Indeed.”

“What did Essetir ever do to him, Morgana? Why does he hate my people so vehemently?”

Morgana shook her head minutely. “I’m afraid I cannot say,” she responded. “But when have the Pendragons ever prided themselves on having a reason for slaughter?” she finished with a sneer.

Soredamor glanced at her. “Are you not a Pendragon?”

“I hate my brother just as much as you do, Soredamor,” Morgana said icily. “Do not think that I would ever choose him over you. Uther and Arthur revel in death, and see no qualms in causing others pain. You’ve seen this first hand.”

Soredamor looked up, his eyes sill alight in fury. “He killed my parents. And if you are correct in that he is responsible for this latest attack… It is only a matter of time before he pays.”

“I agree,” Morgana said, before she leaned forward. “But we must wait. You yourself are not yet King- you won’t be until you come of age.”

“I fail to see what difference it makes.”

“The Council still has a say over what you do,” Morgana explained. “You cannot order your forces to war without their approval, and, as it stands, Essetir is too weak to take on Camelot’s forces. The council knows this.”

“Another thing we owe to your brother,” Soredamor growled. But then his sneer softened, and he rubbed a hand over his face. The motion was so familiar that Morgana had to once more remind herself that this was not Arthur in front of her.

“I’m tired, Morgana,” he confessed quietly after several moments, his voice breaking. “I’m tired of the slaughter. I’m tired of seeing my people suffer like this at the hands of a man to which we have done no wrong.”

Morgana was silent for a moment, before she stood up and rounded the table and put a gentle hand to Soredamor’s back. “Arthur will pay,” she assured. “We just need to bide our time.”

Soredamor let out another sigh, before nodding. “You’re right. Time to strengthen our forces. Time for me to learn as much as I can about Camelot and its weaknesses. And then strike when he does not expect it.”

Morgana smiled and squeezed his shoulder. “Indeed.”

But then Soredamor glanced at Morgana, his eyes flashing with an emotion not befitting a prince regent. “But what if he attacks again? What if he decides to strike while we’re weak?”

“Soredamor,” Morgana said calmly, crouching down by him. “I am here now. If Arthur dares to bring his forces here, I will protect you.”

“But what about my people? Who will protect them?”

“I will do everything I can, Soredamor,” Morgana said. “I promise you- if Arthur comes before you are ready, then I will everything I can to protect you and your people.”

It was then that there was a knock at the door. Morgana straightened, and the two of them glanced over to see a servant entering with two trays, one balanced on each hand. She placed the trays on the table, removed the covers, before bowing to Soredamor. “Will you be needing anything else, your majesty?”

Soredamor shook his head, and regarded the servant warmly. “No. That will be all, Clarissant. Thank you.”

Clarrisant bowed once more, before ducking out of the room and shutting the door behind her.

Soredamor looked up at Morgana and gestured to the plates with a small smile. “No more talk of death. Not while you are home after so long. Please.”

The rest of the meal passed in calm conversation, Soredamor mostly regaling how recovery efforts have been since the Dorocha attack. Morgana feigned interest, but in truth her own mind was wandering, wondering when she’d be able to get away from all this talk of crop harvest and population redistribution as people came to the city in preparation for winter.

When they finished, Soredamor had a guard lead Morgana to her chambers. She didn’t thank the guard, instead shutting the door quickly and letting herself finally scowl at the topics she had had no interest in. But then she let out a breath and smirk came to her face.

It had been easy really, almost too easy: twisting the blame for both Soredamor’s parents’ deaths and the attack of the Dorocha on Arthur. None who knew the truth of Cenred’s death still lived, save for Morgana herself, and the Dorocha, while a miscalculation on her part, had fit nicely for her ability to manipulate the prince.

Morgana looked out the window, a smirk coming to her face. “You are so trusting, Soredamor. So naive. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before this happened to you.”

Soredamor already trusted her blindly. Was already was willing to take anything she said without question. She only had to keep that power until Soredamor became of age and was crowned king- when he would finally be able to take Essetir’s army and march on Camelot, much like his father had planned- and failed- to. Arthur did not know she was in Essetir, and he would never suspect an attack from them again after the total devastation that had followed Cenred’s army.

Morgana smiled. It was only a matter of time.

Chapter Text

“Rise and shine, my liege!” Merlin began much too cheerily as he opened the curtains and let the sunlight enter the room, falling right onto the bed where Arthur was no longer sleeping.

Arthur groaned and began to move, only to take one pillow and cover his face.

“You’ve got a busy day ahead, Arthur,” Merlin continued sing-song like, quite used to his king’s inability to wake up at a decent time. “First is your council meeting, and then you’re to meet with Leon about those new recruits for the guard, remember?”

Arthur grunted from under his pillow, but he didn’t move.

Merlin huffed while putting his hands on his hips. “Come on, Arthur. You need to get up. Don’t make me steal your blankets.”

Arthur didn’t move.

Merlin let out a second huff, grabbing the blankets. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, before roughly trying to pull them from the bed.

Arthur’s hand snapped to grab them, and he just made the catch, gripping the blankets tightly while Merlin tried to pull them off.

Merlin dropped them and let out a sigh. “Arthur, you’re only going to get mad at me if you don’t get up. And I don’t want that.”

Arthur still didn’t move.

Deciding it was time for a change of tactics, Merlin went over to Arthur’s still steaming breakfast and perused the selection. “Oh look, sire, ham! Your favorite! Shame if it were to get cold.”

And, once more, Arthur still didn’t move.

Merlin shrugged. “Oh well, guess I’ll have it then,” he said, already reaching for a piece.

He felt something hit his side a moment later, and turned to find Arthur sitting up, glaring at him with tired eyes and an impressive bed head, and his arm extended in the aftermath of throwing a pillow at Merlin.

Arthur pointed at Merlin accusingly, though still very drowsily. “You touch my ham,” he slurred, “It’s the stocks for a month.”

Merlin lifted his hands in surrender, before dramatically bowing and gesturing to the table. “All yours, sire.”

Arthur glared at Merlin for a moment longer, before swinging his legs out from under the covers and shuffling over to the table. He sat down heavily, before beginning to slowly eat.

Merlin tried to give Arthur his schedule for the day as he laid out Arthur’s clothes, but his king just stared blankly ahead. Merlin knew Arthur wasn’t a morning person, but this was ridiculous even for him.

When Merlin made it halfway through Arthur’s schedule for the day, he realized that Arthur hadn’t said anything since threatening Merlin with the stocks.

Was Arthur even listening? Only one way to find out, Merlin supposed.

“Also, Percival asked Gwen to marry him last night. She said yes. The ceremony is going to be tonight,” Merlin slipped in easily, staring at Arthur and watching for any semblance of a reaction. “You’re invited to attend. But I suppose we’d need to find you something nice to wear. Can’t go dressed like that.”

Arthur nodded slightly, his eyes still dull from sleep. “Sounds good, Merlin,” he responded drowsily, ripping off a piece of his roll with his teeth and chewing it.

But then his eyes sharpened, and he looked up at Merlin in horror. “Percival did what?” he breathed.

Merlin’s face lit up. “So you are listening! Good. I thought I’d have to repeat this entire schedule to you and annoy you more. And we don’t want that now, do we?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes at Merlin, before taking the roll he had just bit and flinging it at his manservant.

Merlin ducked it quite easily, the smile never leaving his face. But then Merlin let out a slight huff. “No, Percival did not propose to Gwen. I’m fairly certain he knows you would have his head if he even dared think of doing such a thing. Speaking of which,” Merlin looked up with a cheeky grin. “How’s that coming?”

Arthur huffed. “My Uncle is needing more convincing than I thought. He keeps saying ‘But the council-,’ ‘But the citizens-,’ but I’m starting to think he doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me to marry Guinevere.”

“He may be right about the council,” Merlin responded. “But I think the people would be pleased to have Gwen as their queen.”

“You think?”

Merlin nodded. “She’s one of them. At the very least, they will know that she’ll be coming from a place of understanding: she knows what they’re going through. She’s kind, she’s smart. Everything they could want. Plus she’s not afraid to let you know when you’re wrong. No offense, sire.”

“None taken,” Arthur responded while reaching for his goblet. He said in fond amusement with a slight laugh, “I’m well aware of Guinevere’s ability to tell me when I’m wrong. She and Elyan are visiting their aunt right now, yes?”

Merlin nodded as Arthur took a sip. “They’re coming home the day after tomorrow.”

Arthur nodded as he swallowed. “Good. I’m glad.”

Merlin glanced up, a teasing smile on his face. “You miss her.”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

“Ah, see,” Merlin said victoriously with a smile while pointing at Arthur as if he had just caught Arthur in a trap. “That reaction means I’m right.”

Arthur scoffed (albeit in fond amusement) before sticking out a hand. “Pass some more of that ham, would you?”

 

 ~

 

Merlin stumbled into Gaius’s ward later that day, loudly proclaiming, “I thought he’d never let me leave!”

Gaius glanced up from where he was mixing several herbs in his mortar, an eyebrow raised at his charge. “Welcome home, Merlin. I take it Arthur worked you hard today?”

“He certainly did,” Merlin grumbled. He ranted as he headed to the back, “He decided that since Gwen and Elyan are out visiting their aunt, that I needed to be the one to advise the knights on smithing. ‘That sword needs a new hilt,’ ‘your helmet needs some new hinges.’ Where he got that I even know anything about that I have no idea. Then he had me pack supplies for Percival’s overnight patrol- and not just Percival’s supplies, no- supplies for all six of the knights that he’s going with too. And I was trying to finish things more quickly so I could get out before dusk! But no, he just kept piling things on and on! It’s lucky I haven’t missed sunset already!”

Gaius was taken aback in confusion. “Why do you need to be out before dusk?”

Merlin, having made it all the way across the room during his rant, ducked his head out from the doorway to his little nook and gave Gaius a puzzled look. “I’m performing that protection spell, remember?”

Before Gaius could respond, Merlin ducked back into his room and yelled out, “I packed the supplies this morning, so I just need to grab them then I’ll head out. I have a location chosen already, too.”

Merlin then stumbled dramatically out of his room, before dropping his bag onto Gaius’s table with a proud smile. “This protection spell was the most powerful one I found. Camelot won’t know what hit it.”

“Are you sure about this, Merlin?” Gaius asked as he warily glanced at the supplies.

Merlin nodded. “It needs to be done at sunset on the equinox, which, I’ll remind you, Gaius, is today.”

Gaius nodded. “I’m aware, Merlin.” He let out a sigh, resigned to knowing his pupil was going to go do this anyway despite his reservations. “Alright. I should have supper ready when you return, but I still don’t like the idea of you performing a ritual in the open.”

Merlin waved a hand dismissively and blew a breath between his lips. “I’ll be fine, Gaius. I picked a spot hidden in the woods- no one will find me. Besides, weren’t you the one saying that I should put more of my attention on ritual magic?”

Gaius didn’t respond to the question, and Merlin knew from Gaius’s expression that he had done nothing to reassure his guardian.

“Fine. Gaius, if it makes you feel better, I’ll wear my hood. That way if someone stumbles upon me, they won’t see my face,” Merlin said heading to the back to fetch the cloak in question. “Alright?”

Gaius hummed, but then said with a sigh, “Alright, Merlin. Just… don’t do anything stupid.”

“Ah, Gaius you should know me by now!”

“I do know you,” Gaius muttered, out of earshot of his charge. “That’s precisely why I’m so worried.”

 

~

 

Merlin made his way into the forest outside the city, his bag weighed down with supplies and stuffed to the brim with his cloak (which he elected to wait to put it on until he was out of sight of the castle). He walked through the lower town easily enough, weaving through the vendors and the occasional group of running children, before exiting through the gates and taking a right to head into the forest.

His feet found the beaten path, and soon the bustle of the city of Camelot was behind him, and Merlin was only able to hear the rustling of the leaves and the birdsong of the forest’s feathered residents.

It was a beautiful day- a little warm for so late in the year, but Merlin didn’t mind, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as he smelled the sweet scent of decaying autumn leaves.

Snap.

Merlin stopped. He hadn’t made that noise.

Merlin turned, and there was-

“Gwaine!” Merlin began, startled. “I didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“I could say the same to you, Merlin,” Gwaine responded lightly, but Merlin could see hints of surprise in his face too, along with… wariness? What had Gwaine been doing? Gwaine was wearing casual clothes, it being his day off, after all, but his sword still hung at his side, alongside a bag of his own supplies. “What brings you out here so late in the day?”

“Oh, uh, gathering herbs. For Gaius,” Merlin answered quickly.

Gwaine looked over Merlin, his brow furled in possible confusion but then he shrugged. “I’m not doing anything. Want some company?”

Merlin couldn’t deny that he did- out in the woods, surrounded by nature and magic, just him and Gwaine. The idea had appeal in more ways than one, with the last thought sending a sudden feeling through his stomach. But…

“Nah,” Merlin responded with a dismissive wave. “I’ll be fine. You wouldn’t want to come anyway.”

Gwaine’s expression turned to amused puzzlement. “And why not, Merlin? I certainly wouldn’t refuse spending more time with you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Merlin froze. “Cause I’m getting… stinkleaf. Yeah. Stinkleaf. It’s a very pungent herb; the smell doesn’t leave you for days if you don’t have the proper herb bath ready as soon as you get back.”

Gwaine’s face twisted in disgust. But then he clapped a hand to Merlin’s shoulder with a laugh. “Alright. I’ll leave you to your stinkleaf, mate. Let’s hope you get that herb bath quickly enough, eh?” he said with a wink, before taking his hand and heading back the way that Merlin had come.

Merlin stared after him for several moments, almost disappointed that Gwaine hadn’t insisted on staying, and the spot on his shoulder still warm from where Gwaine had touched it.

Merlin didn’t even realize he was rubbing the spot until several seconds later, to which he pointedly cleared his throat and tried to suppress the rising blush. Why was he blushing?

But then he shook his head and continued his heading, being much more careful now to silence his steps. The clearing he had chosen was small, out of the way, and far from the more traveled paths. There was one path a bit too close to the clearing for his liking, but Merlin figured as long as he kept his voice low he should be fine.

With a final turn around a tree, Merlin found his chosen clearing. It was almost circular, about fifteen feet across, with a wide stump near the almost perfect center that Merlin had decided to use as a table. He set his bag down next to it, before opening it up and pulling the first item out.

Merlin frowned at the cloak, really not in the mood to wear it in the warm weather, but with a sigh he slung it around his shoulders and tied the laces. He had promised Gaius he would wear it, after all, and he’d rather not break a promise if he could help it. He pulled off his neckerchief and jacket- wondering why he didn’t do that before he’d put the cloak on and muttering curses under his breath when they got tangled- and stuffed the two into his bag before he pulled the hood up.

He pulled out his other supplies: some amethyst, various candles, a small cast iron cauldron, along with an assortment of other objects- and set them out on the stump. He counted off the supplies, and was satisfied that he had everything. And with a quick glance at the sky, he saw it was almost time to begin.

“Alright,” Merlin began, tipping his head and cracking his knuckles. “Let’s do this.”

 

~

 

“It really is a beautiful day out, Arthur,” Agravaine said, staring at the trees as they begun to be colored in the red light of dusk while riding out alongside Arthur and Leon. “Thank you for inviting me to join you.”

“Indeed, Uncle,” Arthur responded. “But as much as I’d like to enjoy the weather, this is a patrol, and we need to keep a wary eye out.”

“I’ve been on patrols before, nephew,” Agravaine responded lightly. “I’m just grateful that the weather is cooperating with this one.”

Arthur smirked slightly in response, navigating his horse along the dimpled dirt road that the three of them were navigating. They weren’t too far from the citadel, so Arthur didn’t think it necessary to bring more than just his Head Knight and Uncle.

“Sire,” Leon began, spurring his horse forward so he was closer to his king. “Where are we going?”

“The western forest,” Arthur responded. “It’s less traveled, I know, but I want to make sure that no one has, well, figured that out. If someone were to realize that we patrol there less often, they could use it to their advantage.”

“Like an attack,” Leon finished.

“Exactly. So, both of you, keep your eyes peeled for any signs of frequent travel.”

They rode along in silence for several minutes, each examining the terrain and keeping their ears primed for any noises that were out of the ordinary.

They were crossing a ridge, when Arthur heard something, and he straightened.

Shush!” Arthur said as he held out his hand, the signal that Leon and Agravaine both knew meant Silence.

He listened to the surrounding forest, trying to hear the noise once more through the forest ambiance, and Arthur’s eyes widened as he picked out a low voice among the rustling leaves and birdsong.

He couldn’t understand the language of sorcerers, but Arthur recognized it when he heard it.

“Do you hear that?” he whispered at Leon.

Leon listened for a moment himself, before his eyes widened. “Sorcery,” he whispered in shock. A glance at Agravaine told Arthur that his uncle heard it too, based on the way his eyes were wide and looking in the direction of the voice.

Arthur silently dismounted his horse and landed in the fallen leaves. Unsheathing his sword with a silent hiss of metal, he signaled with a nod that Leon and Agravaine should do the same. They followed, all three lightly treading on their feet as they headed towards the voice.

The sorcerer’s voice grew as they got closer, and then, through the trees, Arthur spotted a figure. He froze, hoping the sorcerer couldn’t see them.

The sorcerer was cloaked, a large hood covering his face and concealing his identity. He was in a clearing, walking in circles as he muttered something. Arthur straightened a little, and was able to make out various supplies on a stump- candles, some crystals. Arthur narrowed his eyes; whatever this sorcerer was doing, he was prepared.

Arthur glanced at Leon and Agravaine, both of whom were watching with wide eyes. Arthur caught their attention with a soft snap of the fingers. He pointed Leon to the right, Agravaine to the left, and with a silent nod, the three of them set out to flank the sorcerer.

Arthur approached straight on, and as he got closer, the sorcerer’s voice turned from a low murmur to words.

Swá cwildseten of sé dæg of emniht fealþ edlæcan fæstnung on Camelot-”

Arthur stiffened as a hot flash of anger ran over him, his grip growing tighter on his sword. The sorcerer was targeting Camelot. There was no denying it.

“- ond gehwa hwa buan wiðinnan híe.”

Just through the trees, Arthur looked up and saw Leon, moving into position. He glanced to the other side of the clearing, and saw Agravaine already waiting, both of them watching Arthur for the signal to attack.

He held up three fingers, before putting one down. Then another.

Then on the count of three, the three of them burst into the clearing, Arthur letting out a yell as he did so.

The sorcerer spun, obviously startled, yet he cleanly ducked the swing of Arthur’s sword.

But before Arthur could react once more, the sorcerer lunged to Arthur’s left and waved a hand.

Agravaine flew to the side, and the sorcerer darted into the woods through the space Agravaine had been only a moment before.

“After him!” Arthur yelled, already in pursuit.

Ahead of him, Arthur could see the sorcerer’s cloak weaving its way through the trees as he fled. Whoever he was, he was fast, and he clearly knew his way among these woods.

A resident of Camelot then, Arthur realized as his anger flared. He began to run faster.

The sorcerer glanced over his shoulder then, and Arthur caught glimpse of a pale face, but nothing more, before the sorcerer turned back forward with renewed speed in his steps.

Then the sorcerer waved a hand, while shouting a single word, Bebrecan!”

A large branch fell off the tree just in front of Arthur, missing him by mere feet. Arthur managed to stop, and he assessed the branch, before glancing forward.

The sorcerer had stopped. His hood still hid his face, but he had one hand out towards Arthur. But then Arthur moved to leap over the branch, and the sorcerer took off running once more.

Arthur watched as the sorcerer wove his way through the underbrush, leaping over plants and rocks without losing his footing once. The sorcerer glanced over his shoulder to see Arthur still in pursuit.

Another hand wave.

And Arthur dove under the falling branch just in time, rolling out on the other side and not slowing in his pursuit at all.

The sorcerer was closer now, the edge of his cloak flapping mere feet away from Arthur. Arthur reached out a hand-

And Arthur grabbed the sorcerer’s cloak and pulled backwards, catching him in the throat.

The sorcerer’s feet flew out from under him, and he fell to his back on the forest floor with a gasp, the wind having been knocked out of him.

Arthur immediately rounded on the sorcerer, holding him down with a knee to his chest, the tip of his sword at the sorcerer’s throat and a sneer on Arthur’s face.

A sneer that turned to a look of shock as he met blue eyes that were much too familiar.

“Merlin?”

Chapter Text

Gwaine entered his room and shut the door behind him, letting out a breath as he did so. He idly patted his bag with a hand as he remembered what had just happened in the woods mere minutes before.

He hadn’t been expecting to encounter Merlin, but with hindsight, he shouldn’t have been surprised: it was the equinox after all, and there was something about Merlin that Gwaine knew that Merlin didn’t know Gwaine knew.

Stinkleaf. Yeah. Sure.

“One day I hope you trust me enough to actually tell me, Merlin,” Gwaine sighed under his breath as he put his bag down on the table. “One day.”

After double checking his door was locked (it was), Gwaine opened his bag and began to withdraw his own supplies: some used candles, a bowl, and a now half-empty wineskin.

He may not have had many holdovers left from his mother, but he still celebrated the holidays of the Old Religion, just as a way to keep her close.

Not that he could let anyone in Camelot know that.

He made his way to his wardrobe and, accessing the hidden bottom he’d added the day after he’d gotten it (What? One could never be too careful), he hid his own supplies. Once they were secure, he lazily stretched his hands above his head, and glanced out the window.

There was still some time left in the day, and Gwaine was still restless- might as well go wandering through the halls and see if maybe something was happening.

It was as he was passing Elyan’s room that he remembered that the knight in question and his sister were out of town, and would not be home until at least the next day.

And with that thought and a smirk, Gwaine set off to go find himself a bucket that no one would miss for a couple days.

After grinning maniacally at himself for a job well done (or, a prank well set-up, rather), Gwaine sneakily exited Elyan’s room and continued his wandering round the hallways of the castle, which were colored gray-blue in the after-light of dusk.

He allowed his mind to wander, not really noticing or caring where he was going. He rounded a corner-

And ran straight into Gaius, who was looking very frazzled and in a hurry.

“Whoa! Gaius!” Gwaine reacted. “Where’s the fire?”

Gaius looked up, his eyes wide and fearful. “Merlin’s been arrested,” he said immediately with absolutely no preamble.

Gwaine’s own eyes widened, and his heart skipped a beat. “What? What for?

Without pausing, Gaius turned and continued rushing down the hallway. He didn’t answer.

Gaius!” Gwaine snapped as he grabbed Gaius’s shoulder and pulled Gaius to look at him. “What was Merlin arrested for?”

Gaius blinked, before shutting his eyes and letting out a breath. He answered, pained, “Magic, Sir Gwaine.”

Magic?” Gwaine breathed, the implications of what this meant not lost on him. “Does Arthur know?”

Gaius opened his eyes and looked up. “Arthur is the one who arrested him.”

Gwaine’s eyes widened in horror, a single thought on his mind as his heart began to race.

Arthur knows.

“Where is Merlin now?” Gwaine asked quickly.

“The dungeons, or at least I hope so,” Gaius answered, looking briefly surprised as he looked over Gwaine. “I’m going to go speak to Arthur. I hope… I hope he hasn’t done anything rash.”

Gwaine nodded. “I’ll go check on Merlin,” he said, before turning and heading the other direction.

“Gwaine?” Gaius called after a moment. Gwaine stopped and turned back. Gaius opened his mouth to say something, but it was a moment before he spoke. “Thank you.”

Gwaine didn’t move for a moment, before he nodded. “Merlin is my friend. I’ll make sure no harm comes to him.”

 

~

 

After donning his chainmail and cloak, Gwaine rapidly made his way to the dungeons, startling many servants in the process when they saw one of the knights running through the hallways. As he reached the stairs to head down, he took in a breath, and descended with his shoulders back.

The guards looked startled to see him, but they both stood and blocked the entry like they were supposed to, much to Gwaine’s annoyance.

“I’m here to see the sorcerer,” Gwaine said, the words sour in his mouth.

One of the guards looked him over. “For what purpose?” one asked.

“That’s none of your business,” Gwaine responded. “Now I suggest you let me through before I inform the king that you’ve denied me entrance.”

The guards glanced warily at the other, before stepping to the side. Gwaine strode between the two of them, forcing his steps to slow despite his eagerness to get to Merlin.

Merlin’s cell was near the back, deeper in the castle, or at least Gwaine assumed so when he passed the outer ones and saw no sign of his friend.

His steps quickened, and he found his way to the very back of the dungeons, a single cell door closed, and a single torch outside illuminating the cell.

When Gwaine spotted Merlin, he took in a sharp breath.

Merlin was sitting against the wall next to the bars, his knees drawn into his chest and his forehead resting on them. Around his wrists were iron shackles designed solely to repress the magic of sorcerers- one of the last physical remnants of the Purge.

“Merlin?”

Merlin’s head snapped up, his red rimmed eyes meeting Gwaine’s. “Gwaine? What are you doing here?”

“I had to see you,” Gwaine said, crouching down so he was more level with Merlin.

Merlin blinked, before turning his gaze away. “You shouldn’t be here. If Arthur finds out-”

“You really think I care about what Arthur thinks?”

Merlin was silent for a moment longer, before he let out a resigned sigh.

“I suppose you know, then.”

“About your magic?” Gwaine responded, and immediately regretted his bluntness when Merlin flinched. “Yeah. Everyone does now, Merlin.”

Merlin let out another sigh. “You must hate me.”

“No, I really don’t.”

“But I lied to you.”

“You were keeping yourself safe,” Gwaine responded easily. “There’s a world of a difference between lying and keeping things secret for your own protection. I could never hate you for that. Ever.”

Merlin didn’t respond to that, and he was silent for a minute, still keeping his gaze away from Gwaine.

“I’m scared, Gwaine,” Merlin confessed quietly. “I’m scared about what he’s going to do.”

“Merlin, Arthur would never execute you.”

Merlin looked up, pure desperation flashing across his face. But then his eyes darkened and he looked away once more. “I know. I know Arthur wouldn’t. But I’m worried that Uther’s son would.”

“We can run. I’ll steal the keys-”

No!” Merlin protested, suddenly lurching and grabbing Gwaine’s hand through the bars as the shackles clattered against them. “If I run, Arthur will take it as an admission of guilt. He’d never let me explain. But if I stay, maybe he’ll listen to me. Maybe he’d give me a chance to explain. I need to stay. And if not for my sake, then at the very least for his. I’m not running.

Gwaine’s eyes flicked between Merlin’s, and he was plainly able to see the resolve contained within them. Gwaine let out a breath. “No. You’re not.”

Gwaine met Merlin’s eyes for several moments longer, trying to gauge what his friend was thinking, before Merlin let out a sigh and dropped his head.

“Just… stay with me,” Merlin said in a small voice, leaning against the bars. “Please.”

Gwaine leaned against the bars too, brushing his shoulder against Merlin’s and squeezing Merlin’s hand through the bars. “I’m not leaving you,” he whispered. “Not ever, Merlin.”

 

~

 

Gaius finally reached the hallway containing Arthur’s study, and, to his dismay, found guards waiting at the end and blocking his entrance.

“I’m here to speak to the king,” Gaius said, out of breath.

“He has ordered not to be disturbed,” one answered immediately.

“But this is important! An emergency!”

The guard’s eyes softened, and he grimaced slightly. “I know, Gaius. And were it any other day I’d let you through, but I cannot. The king mentioned barring you specifically.”

Gaius’s face became shocked, and he let out a sigh. “Is he alone?”

“No; Lord Agravaine is with him.”

Gaius grimaced, but he hid it a moment later. But then he let out another sigh. “When you get the chance, please inform the king that I would like to speak with him,” Gaius said, turning on his foot to head to his chambers- with plans in mind to prepare a case for his ward.

“I will, Gaius.”

Just as Gaius began to walk back, he heard shouting from Arthur’s study. He paused, listening.

And what he heard did not encourage him in the slightest.

 

~

 

“Sire, are you sure it is wise to wait to sentence Merlin?” Lord Agravaine asked darkly. Arthur was pacing his study, his brow furled and a clenched fist to his mouth. “Who knows what he could be doing down there in the dungeons- who knows what he is planning as we speak.”

“What would you have me do, Uncle?” Arthur responded shortly, giving Agravaine an even look.

“Execute him! Immediately!” Agravaine exclaimed. “It’s what your father would have done, and you cannot afford to show weakness!”

A loud bang sounded in the room, Arthur having slammed his fist on the table. “I am not my father!” Arthur exclaimed. “I will not have Merlin executed.”

“Arthur,” Agravaine began slowly, “Have you forgotten that it was magic that took your father from you?”

“Merlin has been my loyal servant- my friend- for five years, Uncle,” Arthur responded. “The least I can do it give him a trial.”

“A trial?” Agravaine scoffed. “A trial for one of his kind? He is a sorcerer, sire. You saw it with your own eyes! Magic goes against everything your father built- everything he did to make this kingdom the one it is today.”

“Merlin has done nothing else to prove that he is an enemy of Camelot,” Arthur replied coolly.

“He was performing a spell in the woods! He mentioned Camelot specifically! What more evidence do you need?”

“We don’t know what the spell was doing. Merlin had shows no animosity towards Camelot in the past, I fail to see why that would change now.”

“Perhaps he was only biding his time, sire, waiting for you to become king. It would be a chance for one of his kind to finally end the Pendragon line once and for all- if he were to kill you now that you are on the throne.”

Arthur collapsed to the chair, burying his face in his hands.

“… Arthur?”

“Get out, Uncle,” Arthur growled, not raising his head.

Agravaine hesitated for only a moment, before he bowed and swiftly left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Arthur didn’t move from his table for several minutes, head still supported in his hands.

Magic corrupts. Arthur had seen it with his own eyes, when Morgana, his own sister, had turned against Camelot and her people. Merlin had seen it too. How, after watching one of his friends succumb to such an evil thing as magic, could Merlin do the same?

Merlin knew, knew, that it was magic that had ultimately killed Arthur’s father, too.

Merlin- who hated hunts because he thought hunting for sport was disrespectful to the animals they killed. Merlin- who stayed awake caring for patients when Gaius was unable to. Merlin- who always smiled at the other servants, and went out of his way to do something nice for another if he heard they were having a hard time.

How could Merlin, Merlin, turn to sorcery?

… how could Merlin betray him like this?

Several minutes later, Arthur lowered his hands and leaned back in his chair, his shoulders stiff from sitting in the same position for much too long. He stood, slowly, and made his way to the window.

Night had fully fallen, and the only lights he could see were a handful of candles in windows, and the torches of the guards as they made their rounds for the night, keeping Camelot safe.

Safe. From enemies of Camelot.

From sorcerers.

Arthur rubbed his eyes once more, still unable to believe that the man currently housed in his dungeons- Merlin, his loyal servant, his confidant, his best friend- could be a sorcerer.

But he’d seen it, with his own eyes.

The image refused to leave his mind: the look of Merlin’s face when Arthur had him pinned in the woods. The complete look of shock and fear, which immediately turned to resignation as Merlin had turned his face away.

“I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m so sorry.”

There was one thing that Uther had always taught Arthur- one central thing that Arthur’s father had stressed beyond everything when teaching his son to be king.

Trust no one. Trust no one, because that will only lead to betrayal. Arthur had always thought that was extreme, even if he never voiced it at the time.

Now though…

It wasn’t until today that Arthur thought he finally understood what his father had meant.

 

~

 

The next morning found Merlin still in the cells, still leaning against the bars like he had the night before and his eyes rimmed red from both the occasional tear and the lack of sleep.

Gwaine had kept his word- sitting with Merlin the entire night, his shoulder always touching Merlin’s, and his hand resting on top of where Merlin had placed his own on the floor. Neither of them said much the whole night, not that there would have been much to say anyway.

Dawn flooded the dungeons, and it was a few minutes after that they heard footsteps.

Merlin immediately jerked upright, naked terror on his face as the footsteps got louder.

“Hey,” Gwaine said, drawing Merlin’s attention back to him. “I’ll be right here.”

Merlin’s eyes flicked between Gwaine’s for a moment, before he nodded shakily. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

It was then that four guards rounded the corner. The leader blinked at Gwaine in surprise, and Gwaine only stared at him with a defiant glare, challenging him to say anything.

The guard gave his head a quick shake, as if to clear it of something, before turning his gaze to Merlin and narrowing his eyes. “The king has summoned you,” he said, and another guard strode forward, taking his keys and unlocking the cell.

Merlin stood, shakily, and Gwaine followed.

Together, the group made their way out of the dungeons, the guards surrounding Merlin, and Gwaine following behind, resisting the urge to draw his sword, grab Merlin, and run.

Eventually they reached the throne room, a figure standing outside.

Lord Agravaine looked at Merlin coldly, but when he spotted Gwaine, his eyes narrowed. “Sir Gwaine,” he started. “What reason do you have to be here?”

“I’m here for Merlin,” Gwaine said defiantly, narrowing his own eyes at Agravaine.

Agravaine hummed in disapproval for a moment, before he said, “Well, I’m afraid you cannot come with us. The king has ordered that no one be in the throne room. You’ll have to wait out here.”

Gwaine was taken aback, before he stepped forward angrily. Two of Merlin’s escorts immediately grabbed Gwaine’s arms and held him back. "I'm not-"

“Gwaine,” Merlin spoke up, meeting Gwaine’s eyes. “It’s fine. Just wait outside. Please.”

Gwaine didn’t move for a moment, before he jerked his arms from the guards- all while giving them a glare- and stepped back. “I’ll be right here,” he said, turning to Merlin. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Merlin gave Gwaine a small, scared smile, before he turned his head forward. At this cue, Agravaine nodded and opened the doors to the throne room before walking in. Merlin took in a shaky breath and strode forward into the throne room, the four guards with him.

The doors shut behind them, and Gwaine stared at it for a moment- considering ignoring both Merlin and Agravaine and simply barging in- but with a growl, Gwaine walked over to the side, folded his arms over his chest, and leaned back against the wall.

He was simply going to have to wait.

 

~

 

The guards had come out only a minute or so after Merlin had gone in (the magic-suppressing shackles in hand, Gwaine had noticed), and surprisingly, Agravaine followed them less only a few moments later. Agravaine gave Gwaine a scowl upon seeing him outside, and Gwaine only returned it with narrowed eyes. But then Agravaine and turned and headed off to who knows where, apparently uneager to join Gwaine in waiting.

Minutes passed. Gwaine had begun pacing the hallway in front of the doors. He couldn’t hear anything that was being said (curse those solid oak doors) and he wanted nothing more to know what Arthur was saying.

What did he have planned for Merlin?

What was he going to do?

When he finally heard the doors open, he turned to see Merlin coming out, his head bowed and a hand over his mouth.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked, stepping towards his friend.

Merlin glanced up at Gwaine for only a moment, his expression one of complete loss and shock and despair, before he turned on the ball of his foot and began running in the other direction.

Merlin!” Gwaine called, taking a step, but Merlin was gone.

Gwaine stared after Merlin for a moment, his eyes wide and shocked, before his face twisted in anger and he turned towards the door.

There could only be one reason Merlin was this upset.

What did you do?!” Gwaine demanded, his voice shaking with rage as he slammed the doors to the throne room open and stormed in.

“I banished him, Gwaine,” Arthur answered. The king was standing by the his throne and his gaze resolutely fixed to a point at the side of the room.

He didn’t even turn to look at Gwaine.

“You ban-” Gwaine began in shock, but then the anger returned. “He’s been with you for five bloody years, Arthur Pendragon,” Gwaine spat. “Did you even think that if he had any ill will towards you, he would have done something by now?!”

It was then that Arthur finally turned to Gwaine, his face in a sneer. “He lied to me for each and every one of those five years!”

“Well maybe you could think of why that is if you used your head for something other than a crown rack!”

This response left Arthur sputtering, before the anger returned. “He knew the law! He knew he was breaking it!”

Gwaine let out a growl. “Maybe he had no choice in his magic. Did you ever even consider that?”

Arthur turned away but said nothing.

Well?”

“That isn’t how magic works, Gwaine.”

“Like hell it isn’t.”

Arthur’s head snapped back to Gwaine once more, eyes ablaze. “And what do you know about magic, Sir Gwaine?”

“More than you,” Gwaine sneered.

Arthur paused, and he looked over Gwaine, his expression becoming more betrayed. “Did you know?”

Gwaine didn’t respond, but his jaw grew tight and his fists clenched further.

“Well?”

“He never told me,” Gwaine responded shortly. “But I figured it out.”

Arthur looked more shocked than betrayed now, before his angry glower came back. He said accusingly, “Harboring a sorcerer-”

“Protecting a friend. Something that I thought you would understand.”

The two of them only glared at each other for a minute longer, the tension in the room tangible. But then Gwaine let out a growl and turned. “I’m going to go see Merlin. And I don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.”

“Gwaine, if you take one more step, you too are banished from Camelot.”

Gwaine didn’t move for a moment, before he turned and settled his even gaze on Arthur.

Gwaine lifted his hand to the clasp of his cloak. “I thought you were better than Uther. Turns out I was wrong.” He undid the clasp. “My loyalty is to Merlin first. Always has been, and always will be. Good-bye, Arthur,” he said, turning on his heel, and letting the red cape fall from his shoulders. It drifted to the floor as Gwaine exited the room and slammed the door shut behind him, leaving Arthur alone as he stared at the splash of red Gwaine had left behind.

Chapter Text

“You ready to go?”

Merlin jumped slightly from where he was packing his bags in his room, not having heard anyone enter. But then he turned and saw Gwaine leaning there in the doorway with a quirk of the lips that might have been trying for a smirk. He’d changed out of his chainmail, and was now wearing his classic traveling shirt, gray jacket, with leather vest over the top of it all. Merlin looked over Gwaine in confusion, his puzzled gaze settling for a moment on the packed bag Gwaine had over his shoulder, before going to Gwaine’s face. “What-?”

Gwaine shrugged. “I’m going with you.”

Merlin blinked, but then shook his head. “No, no, I can’t make you do that-”

“You don’t have to,” Gwaine responded, pushing off of the door frame and moving so he was in Merlin’s space. “Arthur’s banished me too.”

Merlin’s eyes widened. “He did what?” he breathed.

Gwaine smirked wryly. “Apparently he didn’t appreciate me taking your side.”

Merlin stared at Gwaine blankly for a moment, before rubbing his hands over his face. “This is all just a big mess, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Gwaine responded noncommittally.

There was a knock at the door then, and both of them turned to see Gaius standing in the doorway, his lips pressed into a line. “I grabbed some traveling food from the kitchens for you,” Gaius said, coming over and putting the basket he was carrying on the bed. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t get very much: most of the kitchen staff… well…” he trailed off.

Merlin let out a sigh. “They all know now, don’t they?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Merlin didn’t move for another moment, before he took a hand and once more rubbed his face.

“I’ll just… I’ll go home to my mother-”

“You can’t go to Ealdor, Merlin,” Gaius said, looking horrified at the prospect.

Merlin glanced at him, brow furled. “Why not?”

Gaius glanced at the door, before turning back to him. “The council does not agree with Arthur’s judgment to only banish you. Lord Agravaine himself was arguing for your execution.”

Merlin groaned. “Of course Agravaine was,” he muttered.

Gaius continued, “I would not be surprised if some of them feel it necessary to take Uther’s sense of justice into their own hands.”

“You mean hunting me down and killing me,” Merlin translated bluntly.

Gaius only nodded, lips pressed into a grim line.

“Then where can we go?” Gwaine asked.

Merlin pursed his lips and thought for a moment. Then he looked up. “There’s a cave, in Essetir. It’s just past Engerd. We could stay there.”

Gwaine furled his brow. “What’s there?”

“It’s… a long story,” Merlin evaded. “Only Arthur knows it, but I don’t think he’d ever expect me to think of it.”

Gwaine nodded. “To Engerd it is.”

“I’ll write Hunith and let her know what’s happened,” Gaius said, turning back out the door. “I’ll send it with a messenger so it can get there as soon as possible.”

After Gaius had left, Gwaine turned back to Merlin, and noticed that Merlin was still staring after Gaius, exhaustion clear in his eyes.

Gwaine put a hand to Merlin’s shoulder, drawing Merlin’s attention back to him. “I’ll fetch my horse, and meet you out in the courtyard, alright?”

Merlin, after searching Gwaine’s eyes for a moment, let out a sigh and dropped his head. He screwed his eyes shut, before he nodded shortly.

 

~

 

Gwaine entered the stables, his eyes scanning the horses as he looked for his brown mare with her distinctive ears.

Or, rather, her distinctive lack of an ear.

He spotted her near the back, and gave a rueful smile as he walked over to her. “Hello, Gringolet,” he greeted, scratching her neck.

Image Description: A watercolor portrait of a light brown horse with a dark brown mane and blue eyes.  The left ear is missing.  End Description.

Gringolet wasn’t a young horse. Having been in service for the knights of Camelot for many years, she bore many marks of battle all across her flank, the most prominent being her lack of a left ear. But she was strong and steady, and Gwaine had grown quite attached to her during the short time he’d been in Camelot. He certainly wasn’t going to leave her behind if he was being forced to leave.

“C’mon, Gringolet,” Gwaine said, taking her reins and beginning to guide her from the stable. “We’re going on a trip. You, me, and Merlin.”

Gwaine made his way to the courtyard after saddling Gringolet and tying his bag to her. And there he waited, unsure how long he was going to. He leaned against Gringolet, his arms folded over his chest, and Gringolet padded where she stood, anxious to get moving after being taken out.

Gwaine glanced up to see the castle doors opening, and out stepped Merlin, his shoulders slumped. Gaius was right behind him, his own expression devastated.

Merlin turned to Gaius, and Gaius put his hands to Merlin’s shoulders. Gwaine didn’t hear what Gaius said, but Merlin let out a heavy sigh as his head dropped, before he nodded.

Gaius let out a sigh of his own as well, before pulling Merlin into a hug.

Gwaine glanced away, electing instead to travel his gaze across other parts of the courtyard, and even settling it on his boots for a moment, before he glanced back up at the two of them.

They hugged for only a moment longer before separating. Gaius gave Merlin one last rueful smile, and lightly ruffled his hair.

Merlin let out another sigh, before giving Gaius a matching smile. But then Merlin turned and descended down the stairs, Gaius staying by the top with his expression morose.

Gwaine straightened from where he had been leaning against Gringolet, and he looked his friend over with soft eyes. Neither spoke when Gwaine took Merlin’s bag and strapped it to the saddle, nor when Gwaine mounted and Merlin followed a moment after, wrapping his arms around Gwaine’s torso and leaning against him, Merlin’s chest pressed to Gwaine’s back, and his face against Gwaine’s shoulder.

Then, with a click of his tongue and a light flick of the reins, Gwaine spurred Gringolet onward.

He elected not to say anything about Merlin’s grip getting tighter around him, or the choked noise Merlin had clearly tried to keep from escaping his throat.

Gwaine glanced back once, just before they exited the courtyard. And there, in one of the windows watching them leave, was Arthur.

They made eye contact for a moment, and Gwaine knew that Arthur had seen Gwaine’s searing glare when Arthur turned his gaze away.

Gwaine glared after him for a moment longer, before forcing his head back forward and guiding Gringolet from the courtyard and into the main city.

Their entrance into the lower town was surprisingly uneventful. Gwaine, after hearing that the kitchens had already received word of Merlin’s sentencing and subsequent banishment, had been positive that rumor would have spread already.

Perhaps it had, and the only reason no one had noticed Merlin was that he was with Gwaine: no one was expecting Merlin to be leaving with someone else, let alone on horseback.

“Don’t lift your head, Merlin,” Gwaine instructed, voice almost a murmur as he spurred Gringolet just a little faster. “Just in case.”

Gwaine felt Merlin move his head slightly, but otherwise he made no acknowledgment that he’d even heard Gwaine speak.

Gwaine let out a sigh- both of relief and of grief- once they’d made it through the outer gates, and he slowed Gringolet once more to a walk.

They had a long way to ride today; he didn’t want to tire her out so early. And with that thought, Gwaine let out a breath, and together the two of them left the gates of Camelot behind them, neither of them bothering to glance back.

As they rode, Gwaine noticed that Merlin’s weight seemed to get heavier and heavier on his back. He didn’t say anything as the very familiar became the less traveled, and as the shining city (though Gwaine had to sneer at such a title now) became smaller and smaller behind them.

Merlin didn’t even try to break the silence that had fallen between them, and Gwaine didn’t even try to coax him to, even as the minutes of riding turned to hours.

It was proving to be a heavy day for the three of them.

Gwaine stopped Gringolet once they were barely outside of Camelot’s lands. He let out a sigh, and turned his head to try and look at Merlin.

Merlin was slumped over as much as their positions would let him, his face buried into Gwaine’s back. Gwaine frowned. He hated seeing Merlin like this. Always have.

“You alright there, mate?” he asked quietly, although he knew the answer was far from “yes.”

Merlin let out a breath. “Let’s just keep going,” he whispered back, voice barely audible.

Gwaine nodded. He turned back forward, and with another click of the tongue Gringolet started moving once more, away from Camelot.

And from Arthur.

 

~

 

They rode for several more hours through the day. At some point, Gwaine began rambling- about the random tree they just passed, about the cloud that just crossed the sun- hoping to keep Merlin’s mind off of what had just happened.

Merlin was still uncharacteristically quiet; not even a groan at some of Gwaine’s bad jokes. If it weren’t for Merlin’s grip still tight around his ribs and the occasional shaky breath he could feel Merlin let out, Gwaine wasn’t even sure if he’d have thought Merlin was still awake.

Gwaine once more stopped Gringolet and glanced at the sky. “Sun’s going to set soon. We should make camp for the night. Right?” Gwaine gave a pause, but Merlin didn’t respond. “Merlin?”

Merlin grunted in answer, albeit begrudgingly, before sliding off the horse. Gwaine followed a moment later, and turned to look at Merlin as he began to unpack their meager belongings. Merlin seemed to be in a daze, his gaze not quite settling on any one thing, and Gwaine’s own eyes saddened at the sight.

“Hey,” Gwaine said, putting a hand to Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin looked at him, his eyes glassy and still not quite focused. “We’ll get through this,” Gwaine assured him, his eyes flicking between Merlin’s in a way he hope was comforting.

Merlin stared at Gwaine dazedly for a moment longer, before nodding, though Gwaine didn’t think it was in belief of what Gwaine had said. “I’ll… get firewood,” Merlin murmured, before turning and setting off to do just that.

Gwaine watched him head off for a moment, a fresh wave of anger at Arthur washing over him at just how defeated Merlin looked, and he had to suppress a growl. But then he took in a sharp breath, his fists clenching in the sides of the bags, before he turned back to their supplies. He withdrew their bedrolls and the sparse traveling food they still had left; there was enough for tonight, Gwaine figured, but from then on they’d need to start hunting, or at the very least keeping an eye out for some edible plants.

He’d watered Gringolet and gave her reign to graze, set up their bedrolls, and had a circle of stones ready for a fire (now sorely needed, for the sun had gone behind the mountains by this point, and the world was now in the half-light of dusk) by the time Merlin returned, weighed down with an armful of wood.

Merlin was silent as he set up the small pile of kindling, and Gwaine didn’t push him to speak as he himself sliced up their food with his knife.

Just when Merlin finished setting up the wood, Gwaine began glance around for a flint out of habit, but Merlin simply held out his hand to the wood.

Forbærnan,” Merlin murmured, and his eyes flashed gold.

The fire lit straight to a full flame, which in of itself was quite impressive, but Gwaine found himself staring at Merlin with slightly wide eyes.

Merlin noticed his stare and glanced up. “What?” he asked softly. “You’ve seen magic before, haven’t you?”

Gwaine gave his head a quick shake, before trying for a reassuring smirk. “Certainly. Just… never seen you use magic… so openly.”

Merlin didn’t move for a moment, before a ghost of smile crossed his face, the sight easing the unrest that had settled in Gwaine’s stomach. “I don’t have to hide it from you anymore,” Merlin murmured. “… feels nice.”

Gwaine’s smirk became more of a smile for a moment, before he leaned over and handed Merlin some bread and a bit of cheese. “Eat up,” he encouraged. “You need your strength.”

Merlin stared at the bread in his hand for a moment, before a half smirk crossed his face and he let out an amused breath. “Strength, eh?” But he took a small bite of his bread before Gwaine could ask why that had stuck out to Merlin so much.

They were once more silent as they ate, Gwaine half keeping an eye on Merlin to make sure that his friend did eat something while they did. Merlin did, thankfully, but not much, only finishing about a third of what Gwaine had given him before letting out a sigh and just staring at the fire once more, his hands moving to a rest in his lap and no longer moving to take another bite.

It was fully dark now, save for the light of their fire, and the flickering flames gave Merlin’s face a ghost-like quality, not helped at all by his despondent and far-off expression.

“What happens now, Gwaine?” Merlin whispered several minutes later- long after Gwaine had finished his own food- staring blankly at the fire. “What do we do now?”

Merlin looked so lost, so hopeless, that Gwaine found his chest clenching. “Well, Merlin, I think that waits to be seen,” he responded. He put a hand to Merlin’s shoulder. “But, no matter what happens, no matter what you decide to do, I will be there, and I will support you in whatever you choose.”

Merlin was quiet for a moment, still staring at the flames, but then he looked up at Gwaine. He didn’t speak for a moment, before he said, voice breaking, “Thank you.”

Gwaine smiled faintly, before giving Merlin’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. But then he let out a huff and glanced around the forest. “I’ll take first watch. You get some sleep.”

Merlin shook his head. “No, no. I… I don’t think I’ll be sleeping much tonight,” Merlin responded with a rueful smirk at Gwaine. “Might as well make some use of it, right?”

Gwaine looked Merlin over for a moment, before nodding. “Alright. Night then. Wake me when you get tired, and I’ll take over,” he said, before moving to his bedroll and laying down, shifting to get comfortable and readying himself for sleep.

Though, truth be told, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep all that well either.

 

~

 

Gwaine, despite being quite restless early on, had long since fallen asleep, leaving Merlin awake and staring at the fire. Gringolet was sleeping too, just beyond the firelight to Merlin’s left, her low and even breathing filling the clearing.

Merlin let out another low sigh and pulled his knees into his chest, listening to the forest and watching the embers of the fire get lower. He toyed with the idea of boosting the flames with magic, but the night was warm enough that he decided there was no need to add to even the scant heat the fire was providing.

Emrys.”

Merlin straightened in surprise, and he looked around the forest surrounding him. The voice had been telepathic, but he knew the source was nearby, it had to be. He heard a noise and turned to see a figure calmly approaching in the dark. Merlin stood up, but the figure was undeterred.

It was when the figure reached the edges of the firelight that Merlin was able to see details. It was a young woman- a Druid, if her robes and ability to speak into his mind were anything to go by.

“I mean you no harm,” she said aloud and calmly once within speaking range.

“Why are you here?” Merlin responded, voice low but not without and edge of warning.

She smiled faintly. “When news that Emrys has come near our camp reached us, we got… excited.” But her brow furled, and she glanced at Gwaine’s sleeping form, then back at Merlin. “But… why are you here? Where is The King?”

Merlin frowned and he turned his gaze away. “Arthur learned about my magic. We were banished,” Merlin responded, the last word catching in his throat and tears threatening to renew themselves.

The Druid’s eyes widened and glanced at Gwaine once more, but then her eyes saddened. “I… I am so sorry,” she breathed.

Merlin sighed. “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault,” he murmured.

The Druid woman didn’t respond, the only noise filling the clearing being that of the crackling fire and Gringolet’s low breathing.

“Is there anything we can do?” the Druid woman asked after a bit. “My camp is near, perhaps you would like to stay with us for the night?”

Merlin glanced up at her. “Could we?”

She nodded, a small smile coming to her face. “It would be much safer than being out here. There haven’t been many bandits in recent months, but there’s still a chance.”

Merlin mulled over this for a moment, before letting out a sigh. “You’re right.” He began to crouch to Gwaine, ready to wake him, before he glanced at the Druid once more. “What’s your name?”

“I am Fidelma.”

Merlin nodded, and then gently shook Gwaine’s shoulder. “Gwaine,” he whispered.

Gwaine stirred and blinked his eyes open. He grinned drowsily upon meeting Merlin’s face, but then he glanced past Merlin and spotted the Druid. He straightened and was obviously startled, one arm already instinctively reaching for his sword.

“Gwaine,” Merlin said as he placed a placating hand on Gwaine’s arm. “This is Fidelma. She’s going to help us.”

Gwaine glanced at Merlin, then back at the Druid. He looked wary, but his trust of Merlin far outweighed any distrust of the Druid, so he nodded. “Alright.”

Merlin reached out a hand and helped Gwaine to his feet. They cleared the camp quickly, Merlin using magic to hide traces that they had been there, and after rousing Gringolet- who was much annoyed with being woken after finally getting some sleep- they began to follow Fidelma on foot, Gringolet following behind with tugs on her reins.

After several minutes, Merlin let out a slight sigh.

“Gwaine…” Merlin started. He turned his head to look at Gwaine. “There’s something you need to know.”

“I’m listening.”

“The Druids… they might call me a different name. Something other than ‘Merlin.’”

Merlin could only just make out Gwaine’s confused- though not without concern- expression. “Okay?”

“I’ll explain in the morning. I promise.”

“No more secrets?”

“No more secrets.”

Gwaine was silent for a moment, before he nodded. “Alright.” He put a hand to Merlin’s shoulder. “I trust you, Merlin.”

Merlin tried to give Gwaine a small, grateful smile, before turning back forward and following their guide once more.

“We’re almost there,” Fidelma said after some time, approaching the entrance of what looked like a cave.

Gwaine glanced around then, his brow furling. “Merlin, we’ve been here.”

Merlin gave Gwaine a confused look, but then he too glanced around, and his eyes widened in recognition. “This is Iseldir’s camp.”

Fidelma glanced back at them with a small smile. “Indeed. I’m to take you to speak with him before we find you a place to rest for the night.”

They entered the cave, and, sure enough, Merlin recognized the camp as being the same one that had held the Cup of Life when he, Arthur, and Gwaine had all went to retrieve it.

Just past the entrance, Fidelma indicated to a small dip to their right and Merlin glanced over to see the forms of a couple other sleeping horses. Gwaine led Gringolet over and tied her off with her new companions, before leaving her to rest with an affectionate pat on the neck.

Gwaine rejoined Merlin and Fidelma, and she began to lead them once more through the sleeping camp that was sparsely lit with candles and the occasional torch. In the darkness, they could make out what looked like small tents scattered about, but not much more detail beyond the off-white blurs, none of the tents lit from the inside.

But they eventually came to one tent with candlelight spilling out of the flap, and Fidelma poked her head in. “Iseldir?”

“Ah, Fidelma, you’ve returned,” a voice Merlin recognized came from inside. “Please, show our guests in.”

Fidelma stepped to the side, and held the tent flap open for Merlin and Gwaine to enter.

Inside the tent was a short desk at one end, with pillows in front and bookcases behind, and an old man was seated behind the desk. An old man that looked just as Merlin remembered, despite only meeting him a handful of times.

Iseldir.

Iseldir stood, a light smile on his face. “Lord Emrys. Sir Gwaine. Welcome.”

“Iseldir,” Merlin greeted to the archdruid.

“You know me?” Gwaine asked immediately. “And… wait,” he turned to Merlin, his brow furled in shocked confusion. Lord Emrys?”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine with a look that hopefully said I said I’ll explain later, before turning back to Iseldir.

Iseldir’s smile widened slightly, possibly in amusement. “Indeed I do, Sir Gwaine. But the why is unimportant at the moment. Please, sit,” he said while gesturing to the pillows in front of the short desk as he sat once more on the one behind.

Merlin stepped forward, and Gwaine followed with only a moment’s hesitation, and the two of them sat side by side on the two pillows. Fidelma didn’t follow, instead leaving the three of them alone in the tent. Iseldir looked between the two of the newcomers, brows revealing that he was slightly confused. “Forgive me for asking, Emrys, but why are you here?”

“Arthur’s a hypocrite, that’s why,” Gwaine muttered immediately.

Merlin’s response was much more helpful. “Arthur… found out about my magic, and Gwaine defended me. He banished us.”

Iseldir’s eyes widened, then saddened. He let out a pity filled breath. “I am sorry to hear it.”

Merlin swallowed, but continued. “We had just stopped for the night and I was keeping watch when Fidelma contacted me. She invited us to come stay for the night.”

Iseldir nodded. “I am pleased she did, and that you accepted, Emrys. Traveling is dangerous, and I am glad to see that you and your companion did not encounter any troubles.” Iseldir then smiled warmly. “You need not worry tonight. We have a spare tent that you may use. Get some rest, and tomorrow we shall help you further in whatever way we can.”

Merlin faintly returned the warm smile and responded, “Thank you.” Gwaine nodded his thanks as well, but said nothing.

Iseldir then looked behind them. “Fidelma?”

“I’m here, Iseldir,” she said suddenly, neither Merlin nor Gwaine realizing that she had returned.

“Could you kindly lead these two to the spare tent? And make sure they have enough blankets, it gets cold during the nights.”

Merlin and Gwaine both took this as their cue that the conversation was over, and they both stood. Merlin nodded his thanks once more. “Thank you for your kindness.”

Iseldir smiled once more as he stood as well. “Think nothing of it. We try to help all we can, and if that includes you, then all the better. Get some rest; we can speak more tomorrow.”

Fidelma led them out into the cave once more, and they followed her as she guided them to a far corner of the camp where a small tent stood. Candles inside the tent lit upon their approach- Merlin figuring Fidelma must have lit them magically- and she opened the flap to let them in. “There should be a couple blankets in there already, but I can go grab more if you think you’ll need it.”

Merlin glanced in: a wide bedroll was across the floor, surrounded by a handful of candles. Pushed to the far end were a stack of blankets and pillows. It was small, designed for only a couple people at a time, and contained just the necessary supplies.

“Looks cozy,” Gwaine said.

Merlin turned to Fidelma. “I think we have enough. Thank you.”

She smiled, and bowed her head slightly. “Well, then, good night, Lord Emrys, Sir Gwaine.”

“Good night,” Merlin and Gwaine both responded. Gwaine ducked into the tent first, and Merlin followed after.

Gwaine sat on the bedroll, and bent over and began to pull off his boots as Merlin sat next to him. As Gwaine tucked them to the side, he looked over Merlin, his expression turning to one of concern. “How are you doing?”

Merlin glanced at him. “What do you mean?”

Gwaine shrugged. “With being… banished. I’ve been kicked out of more places than I care to tell, so this is nothing new for me. But… you…”

Merlin frowned. “It’s just…” he sighed and laid down on the bedroll, staring up at the canvas ceiling of the tent. Gwaine followed suit and laid down next to him, looking Merlin over with soft eyes. Merlin sighed. “I’d been with Arthur for five years. As bad as this sounds, my whole life revolved around him. For all that to suddenly end…” he let out a shaky breath and turned his gaze away.

Gwaine pulled Merlin into his chest and began to rub a hand along Merlin’s back.

Merlin initially stiffened at the contact, but then he relaxed and buried his face into Gwaine’s chest, his own arms coming up to wrap around Gwaine’s waist.

They were silent for a while, Gwaine not speaking for once- not even when Merlin’s tears began to leak and stain his shirt, or when Merlin began to shake with sobs. Gwaine just held Merlin tight, his hand not slowing as he rubbed comforting circles on Merlin’s back.

“Get some sleep,” Gwaine whispered after Merlin had been silent for some time- Merlin didn’t know how long- his hand still not having slowed to a stop. “Things will be better in the morning.”

“Will they?” Merlin retorted, unable to hide the bitterness from his voice. But he shut his eyes and let out a breath, finally allowing the exhaustion from the day’s events to overwhelm him.

It was only when he was drifting off that he realized Gwaine hadn’t answered.

Chapter Text

Merlin and Gwaine were both surprised to be woken the next morning by the sound of Fidelma outside their tent, saying, “Lord Emrys? Sir Gwaine? It’s time to get up.”

Merlin blinked his eyes open, and found he was still cradled in Gwaine’s arms, his own still around Gwaine’s waist. Gwaine stirred against him, before letting out a slightly pained groan. “Merlin, mate, you’re on my arm.”

Merlin sat up with a murmured apology. Gwaine followed suit, and he gave Merlin a drowsy, toothy grin. “Morning.”

“Morning,” Merlin murmured.

Gwaine tilted his head towards the tent entrance. “Better see what she wants, eh?”

“I suppose,” Merlin said as he looked over Gwaine. “Y-you have a twig-” Merlin said, tapping a point on his head and staring at Gwaine’s hair.

Gwaine lifted a hand to his head, brow furled, and pulled the twig out of his hair. He looked at it in amused confusion for a moment- “Indeed I do,”- before flicking it off to the side to where it probably found its place on the dirt floor.

The two of them emerged from the tent moments later to find Fidelma waiting patiently for them. “Good! You’re awake! I’m supposed to take you to get some breakfast, and then to talk to Iseldir.”

And with that, Fidelma turned and began to walk through the cave. Gwaine and Merlin glanced at each other for a moment, before following right after.

Now that it was no longer the dead of night, the camp was a flurry of activity, with Druids all milling about and performing tasks- cleaning, sewing, whatever needed doing.

However, when Merlin passed them while following Fidelma, each of them stopped, looking at him with clear awe in their expressions as he stepped by.

Only Fidelma seemed unaffected by Merlin’s presence, calmly and purposefully leading them somewhere else in the cave.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked softly, coming forward and glancing around. “What are they doing?”

“I promised I would explain, Gwaine,” Merlin murmured back. “Just wait a little longer. Please.”

Gwaine didn’t respond.

A fire had been set up near the center of the cave, and as Merlin and Gwaine approached, they could see a large cauldron set in it, and small gatherings of Druids in the area surrounding, each chatting as they ate out of wooden bowls.

All conversation ceased when they noticed Merlin, once more everyone giving him the awed and reverent look that he had received so much of that morning.

Fidelma continued forward undeterred, and walked up to the Druid stirring the cauldron.

“Morning, Finnegas,” she greeted. “Three servings, please.”

Finnegas looked up, and smiled cheekily at Fidelma. “Three?” he asked in skeptical amusement. “Are you trying to sneak more servings again? Who are the other-?”

It was then that Finnegas spotted Merlin and Gwaine, and his eyes widened.

“Lord Emrys-” Finnegas began, already starting to bow.

“Y-you don’t need to do that,” Merlin said holding out a hand. “And, please, just ‘Merlin’ is fine.”

Finnegas blinked in surprise, before glancing at Fidelma for permission. Fidelma simply nodded once, but then Finnegas pursed his lips, before bowing again. “Forgive me, Lord Emrys, but I feel doing such a thing is improper.”

Merlin let out a defeated sigh. “Very well. I won’t stop you, Finnegas.”

Finnegas looked up with a small smile, before he grabbed a bowl from the side. “Three servings, coming right up!”

He filled a bowl and handed it directly to Merlin, before doing the same with two more- handing one to Gwaine and one to Fidelma respectively.

“Anywhere you would like to sit?” Fidelma asked lightly.

Merlin glanced around, still feeling the stares from the rest of the Druids. He’d been expecting a reaction like this, but it still unsettled him.

And there was the matter of explaining to Gwaine…

“Can we sit outside?” Merlin asked softly. He tilted his head towards the entrance. “Outside the cave.”

Fidelma only nodded, a warm smile on her face. “If that is where you would like,” she said, before turning and leading them out.

They made it outside into the forest once more, and after getting a small distance from the entrance Fidelma gestured to a fallen tree that had been smoothed down from years of use as a bench.

“I’ll let you two alone,” she said, turning to head back into the cave. “Return when you are ready.”

Gwaine watched her leave, before giving his head a slight shake. But he said nothing, instead turning and beginning to eat his stew.

Merlin pushed the contents of his around with the bowl of his spoon, the scent of herbs and meat doing nothing to rouse his appetite.

Gwaine nudged his shoulder a few moments later, and Merlin looked up.

“You really should eat that,” Gwaine said, nodding at the stew, before looking over Merlin, his eyes flashing with concern despite his smirk. “Don’t want you to pass out from hunger now, do we?”

Merlin sighed as he turned back to his stew, before slowly taking a spoonful and putting it in his mouth.

The stew was good, all things considered, and the first bite did seem to pique his appetite, even if only a little bit. So he took another spoonful.

Gwaine, satisfied, turned back to his own and simply watched the surrounding forest as they ate.

But, soon Gwaine finished, and as much as he wanted to just leave his friend in peace, curiosity got the better of him, and Merlin had a promise to fulfill, after all.

“So?” Gwaine said, flicking his hair from his face as he set his now empty bowl aside and looked at Merlin expectantly. “You said you’d explain.”

Merlin let out a breath as he absentmindedly pushed around the contents of his own stew once more, and he nodded. “The Druids, they have a prophecy about me.” He glanced up at Gwaine, and Gwaine was physically taken aback, his eyes showing his disbelief. Merlin continued, “This prophecy says that a powerful warlock, whom they call Emrys, will lead the Once and Future King to unite and return magic to the Land of Albion and that together they will rule in a prosperous reign for many years to come. According to the Druids… I am Emrys.”

Merlin was silent for a long moment, letting Gwaine absorb this information. Gwaine nodded slowly after some time, and glanced up at Merlin once more.

“You’re some all-powerful warlock, then?”

“Apparently.”

“And… The Once and Future King?”

Merlin sighed once more. “Arthur is supposed to be him. But now…” he trailed off. Merlin set his bowl aside before he bent forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I don’t know.”

Gwaine was silent for several more moments, before he let out a low whistle. “That’s… a lot.”

Merlin snorted. “Tell me about it.”

“Is that why they all looked at you like that?”

“They think I’m their savior- that I’ll bring magic back to Albion,” Merlin said with a sigh as he ran a hand through his hair. “I guess I should have expected that reaction.”

“… and what about you?”

Merlin turned to Gwaine, a confused look on his face.

“Do you believe them?”

Merlin paused, considering. “I… I suppose I do. When I first heard about this prophecy… it… it gave me a reason for why I was born with my magic. It gave me a purpose, Gwaine.

“I’d spent my whole life wondering- hoping for a reason that I could-” he gestured vaguely, but Gwaine understood. “And once I’d found it, I… I put my whole life to that purpose. And now… now…” Merlin sighed, before rubbing his face with his hands.

“Don’t worry, Merlin- we’ll think of something. We’ll figure it out.”

“Figure what out, Gwaine?” Merlin responded in agitation, once more sitting upright. “Arthur was supposed to be my destiny. The reason I am what I am. I was supposed to protect him. To help him become the greatest king Albion’s ever known. But now I can’t even do that. What do I do now?”

And Gwaine only wished he knew what to say.  "I don't know, Merlin.

"I don't know."

 

~

 

Fidelma spotted them when they reentered the cave. She ran over to them and quickly asked if they were ready to talk to Iseldir. And with confirmations from both, she led them to back to Finnegas to return their bowls, then to where the archdruid was.

Iseldir was bent over, filling buckets at a shallow stream that was at the back of the cave. The camp’s main source of water, Merlin guessed.

He turned when they approached, and smiled. “Lord Emrys, Sir Gwaine,” he said while straightening. He approached them. “I was hoping we could discuss what your plans were. See if there was any further assistance we could provide. What do you plan to do?”

Merlin let out a breath. “There’s a cave I know of near here. It’s safe. Hidden. My father stayed there for a while, and I was thinking we could stay there until…” he trailed off. Until when?

Merlin turned his gaze away, frowning at the dirt.

Iseldir glanced at Gwaine, and Gwaine nodded. “That’s where we were headed last night.”

Iseldir nodded. He was quiet for a moment, before he said, “You do not have to leave if you do not wish to.”

Merlin turned and blinked at Iseldir.

Iseldir smiled gently. “We can make room if you would like to stay.”

“S-stay-? Here?” Merlin asked, blinking in disbelief. Even Gwaine seemed slightly surprised by the proposal.

Iseldir nodded. “It would be an honor to host Emrys and his companion.”

Merlin blinked in disbelief for a moment, before turning his gaze forward as he thought; he hadn’t even considered staying at the camp. Fidelma invited them to stay the night- he didn’t think staying past that had even been an option.

Merlin stuttered for an answer, but Gwaine beat him to it. “Can we have some time to think about it?”

Iseldir nodded. “Take as long as you need; I await your answer. In the meantime, is there anything else I can do for you or that you wish to discuss?”

Merlin shook his head. “No, I-I think we’re good.”

Iseldir nodded. He glanced at Gwaine, who nodded. “I think I’m good for now,” he answered.

And with that Iseldir nodded once more. “Lord Emrys, Sir Gwaine,” he parted, before walking past them and returning to his duties with the camp.

Merlin turned to Gwaine. “Well?”

Gwaine gave Merlin a small smile, and let out a breath as he glanced around the camp. “I’m good wherever you go, Merlin. I say it’s up to you if we stay.”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine, his brow furled. “We?”

Gwaine turned to him with a confused smirk. “Of course, Merlin. What kind of friend would I be if I left you two days after you get banished?”

“But… you’ve always been on your own. I guess I just thought-”

“Merlin, I like staying with you. The only reason I didn’t ask you to stay with me, before, well,” Gwaine let out a sigh, toeing at the ground. “I would have asked you to come with me, you know, after the Perilous Lands. But… I knew I could never ask you to leave Arthur. It wouldn’t be fair to make you choose that.”

Gwaine glanced up to see Merlin’s wide-eyed, shocked stare, and Gwaine shrugged self-consciously. “Guess I was just tired of traveling alone.” But then he smirked, and slung an arm around Merlin’s shoulders before pulling him into a walk. “Well, we can’t decide if we want to stay here if we don’t know what goes on. Let’s go explore this camp, shall we?”

The purpose of their walk seemed straight forward enough: just the two of them wandering around the camp and observing the general daily life of the Druids. It seemed peaceful, and Merlin found himself able to relax for the first time since Arthur had discovered him out in the woods.

As they had walked, Merlin noticed that the Druids seemed to have toned down their reaction- the initial shock of seeing him was over, after all, and now they did nothing more than give him a respectful nod (or perhaps it was a mild bow) when he passed by.

And as he glanced around the camp, Merlin felt something stir in his chest.

Magic was everywhere- the charms hanging off the tents, the gardens inside the cave, the children chasing after a toy that had been enchanted.

“What do you think, Gwaine?” Merlin asked quietly some time into their walk. “Do you want to stay?”

Gwaine shrugged, seemingly indifferent. “I already told you, Merlin, I’ll be happy with whatever you want.”

“But you’re used to wandering- I’d be forcing you to stay.”

At this, Gwaine suddenly laughed. “Merlin, I’d stayed in Camelot for months by the time we were forced to leave. I’m used to staying in places, too.” He paused, his brow furling, before turning to Merlin. “I take it you’ve decided, then?”

Merlin hesitated. “I… I want to stay. There’s magic here, Gwaine. I wouldn’t have to hide who I am, I wouldn’t have to worry about people finding out. I can be open here.” He looked up and met Gwaine’s eyes. “That’s something I’ve never had before.”

Gwaine nodded in understanding.

But then another thought occurred to Merlin. “But… how you would you fit in? I have magic, but you… This is the Old Religion, you’ve never-”

Gwaine laughed suddenly, startling Merlin with that reaction. “Merlin, do you know what I had been doing in the woods before you ran into me the day before yesterday?”

The question was obviously rhetorical, so Merlin didn’t say anything.

Gwaine turned to him with a smirk. “I was celebrating Mabon.”

Merlin was taken aback. “You were-?”

Gwaine shrugged. “My mother was of the Old Religion, Merlin. She taught it to me.”

“I never knew that.”

“We were in Camelot. It’s not exactly something that comes up in light conversation. And besides, I’d been taught to keep it secret from a young age, because my mother feared that the Camelot’s anti-magic sentiments would spread even to Gwynned. She’d already lost one person to it- didn’t want to risk losing another.”

“… who’d she lose?”

At this, Gwaine let out a sigh, before explaining, “My mother’s brother, so my uncle, had magic. Only one in our family who did.” Merlin blinked in surprise but said nothing. “And, well, he had been in Camelot when the Purge began. For months, my mother waited for word that he’d made it out, that he’d managed to escape, but,” Gwaine let out another sigh, “My mother never saw him again.”

Merlin was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

Gwaine shrugged. “I hadn’t been born yet, Merlin. I never got the chance to meet him. I guess I just saw it as another reason to hate nobles,” Gwaine said with a smirk.

“And yet you joined Arthur.”

Gwaine smirked, almost self-deprecatingly. “And yet I joined Arthur.”

Merlin regarded Gwaine for a moment longer, before shaking his head. “Look where that got us,” he muttered.

Gwaine shrugged again, apparently electing not to say anything about Merlin’s comment. “Ever since then, she kept her beliefs low-key. I didn’t learn much, but I did learn some things. And, well, it keeps her close.”

Gwaine smiled at Merlin then, and put a hand to his shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. I know more about this than you think.”

Merlin looked him over briefly, before a faint smirk crossed his face. “Well, that settles that then.”

Gwaine looked him over, before nodding. “I guess that means we’ve reached a decision.”

 

~

 

That night, Merlin and Gwaine approached Iseldir as the archdruid sat in his tent. “Iseldir?” Merlin called while stepping in.

Iseldir looked up from where he had been bent over a piece of parchment. “Emrys,” he greeted, removing his reading glasses. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine, and they both stepped into the tent. “We’ve reached a decision, about staying.”

Iseldir looked surprised, but for only a moment. He stood and rounded the desk, and stood by them. “And what is your decision?” he asked, not unkindly.

“Well… we want to stay. I guess we’re staying.”

Iseldir, after a brief pause, took a couple steps forward and put a hand to each of their shoulders.

And he smiled. “Then, I welcome you to our camp.”

Chapter Text

Gwen let out a relieved sigh as the shining towers of Camelot came into view. While she was always grateful to visit her aunt- some of her last living family, bar Elyan- coming home to the citadel was always a relief.

Next to her, on a horse of his own, Elyan leaned over and lightly jostled her shoulder with his. “Glad to be home?”

“Very,” Gwen said with an amused huff. “As much as I love Aunt Mildred, she can be a little…”

“Much?”

“Very!” Gwen exclaimed with a laugh. “I can’t believe her- ‘So when are you getting married? How many great-nieces and nephews can I expect? Oh, and Elyan, any plans for you to wed a nice rich lady now that you’re a knight?’”

Elyan snorted, but then cast his voice higher as he joined his sister in imitating their aunt, I can’t believe how tall you’ve gotten, Elyan! Why, you’re almost large enough to be a troll! You certainly act like one- leaving your family behind for all these years!

Gwen guffawed. “I can’t believe she said that!”

Elyan turned his face away, an apologetic smile on his face. “Well, she wasn’t exactly wrong on that regard, Gwen.”

The two siblings continued their ride, entering the city and making their way through the lower city and up to the citadel. They stopped briefly by Gwen’s house to drop off her things, but she continued with her brother to take the horses back to the royal stables. They reached the courtyard and slowed, stablehands already coming up and ready to take their horses.

Gwen glanced around, her brow furling.

“Gwen? Everything alright?” Elyan asked as he dismounted.

Gwen blinked, but then she too swung a leg off her horse. “I guess I expected Merlin to be here. He said he’d be waiting when we got back.”

Elyan hummed, then he too glanced around the courtyard. “Yeah. Strange he’s not here.” But then he shrugged. “Arthur probably has him polishing armor or something. You know how he gets.”

“Probably,” Gwen echoed, but still not entirely believing. She handed the reins to one of the stablehands, before waiting for her brother to gather his things, all the while watching the courtyard in concerned confusion.

The two of them made their way inside, and headed to Elyan’s room, lightly conversing the entire time. Elyan pulled out his key, unlocked the door, and stepped inside.

There was suddenly a splash, then a thud, all followed by a very loud and irritated, Augh- Gwaine!”

“What happened?” Gwen called, stepping in. “Are you alright?”

She found a soaking wet Elyan standing in his doorway and in a puddle, scowling at an overturned bucket on the floor.

“Gwaine,” Elyan explained in irritation, flicking water from his hand. “I knew he’d pull something like this.”

Gwen looked him over. “Do you need help-?”

“Nah, no need to concern yourself, Gwen,” he said lightly, heading to his bed to drop his stuff off (Gwen tried not to smile at the noises his now soaked shoes made as he walked). “I’ll be fine- just a change of clothes, and then a plan for revenge.”

Just as she turned to walk away, she heard Elyan cry out in annoyance again. “I don’t believe- Gwen, he left a note!” Elyan cleared his throat, before speaking in a terrible imitation of Gwaine’s dialect, “‘I know you just got back from a day of riding, so I thought you might need a bath. Hope it wasn’t too cold. With fond regards, Gwaine.’ I’m going to pummel him at training tomorrow.”

Gwen chuckled. “Good luck. Truly,” she said, knowing Gwaine’s reputation as one of the best fighters in Camelot, only rivaled by Arthur himself, before stepping out and shutting the door to her brother’s room.

Gwen made her way through the castle, keeping an eye out for a dark-haired servant with a neckerchief. But as the hallways passed, and as one turn melded with another without a sign of him, her frown became more apparent.

Merlin was always so consistent: always meeting her in the courtyard after every one of her brief trips beyond the city, even if Arthur couldn’t be there himself to greet her when she got back. Where could he possibly be now?

She passed through the kitchens and the armory on her way to Arthur’s chambers, hoping to spot Merlin in either of those two locations, but, once more, Merlin wasn’t there.

He must be with Arthur, then, though it seemed strange for Arthur to keep Merlin from greeting her, but what other explanation was there?

Gwen reached Arthur’s chambers, nodding cordially to the guards outside, before knocking.

She then heard Arthur’s voice, short and to the point. “Enter.”

That was odd. If Merlin was there, shouldn’t he be the one to let her in?

Arthur was standing by and staring out the window, his jaw clenched and his body rigid. She glanced around the room, and she could see the telltale chaos of a room untouched by a servant for some time.

She’d been trying to fight the concern rising in her, but there was no denying it now.

Something had happened to Merlin, she knew it.

Arthur spoke first. “I’m glad to see you home, Guinevere.”

“Arthur, where is Merlin?”

Arthur didn’t turn to her. But when he spoke, his voice was thick and tight. “He’s been banished from Camelot.”

Banished?” Gwen exclaimed in disbelief, the news sounding so impossible and unfathomed that she could barely believe her ears. “Whatever for?”

Arthur let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. “Merlin… Merlin has magic, Guinevere. He’s a sorcerer.”

Gwen froze. “That’s impossible.”

“I saw it with my own eyes,” Arthur said desperately, turning to face her. “He was performing a ritual in the woods when we stumbled across him.”

“Surely it can’t have been that-”

“He confessed to it, Guinevere! He confessed to being a sorcerer!” Arthur let out a groan and rubbed his hands across his face. “I’d hoped it was something else- maybe someone was forcing him to do this, maybe he himself was under a spell. But when it was just the two of us, he confessed to everything, Guinevere. Everything. And no matter how much I wanted to deny it, I couldn’t. What other choice did I have?”

“So you banished him,” Gwen said, her tone making it clear how she felt about that.

“At least I didn’t kill him!”

“No, you didn’t kill him,” Gwen responded, voice cold. “But you didn’t even give him a chance to explain, did you?”

Arthur’s cold silence was answer enough for that question.

Their gazes were connected for a moment more, before Gwen roughly turned on her heel and headed to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To send a messenger to Ealdor. And you’re going to pay for it,” Gwen responded shortly, not turning to Arthur. “Merlin’s probably gone home to his mother.”

“Not if he’s smart,” Arthur muttered. He looked up to see Gwen fixing him with a glare, but one eyebrow raised in a silent question.

Arthur let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes once more. “Merlin knows that the council didn’t agree with me only banishing him. I would not be surprised if some of them tried to take my father’s sense of justice into their own hands. Ealdor would be the first place they’d look for him, Guinevere. Merlin knows this. And he would never put his mother in any unnecessary danger.”

Gwen was silent for a moment. “But maybe he didn’t,” she said coldly. “He was just banished by his best friend- don’t you give me that look- Merlin may not have been in his right mind. Did you consider that?”

“… No,” Arthur ceded, his stomach dropping. “No, I hadn’t.”

Gwen only looked over him with a glare once more. “I’m sending that messenger.” And she turned and stormed out of room. She didn’t slam the door behind her, but Arthur had never thought he’d heard it close in more anger.

And never before had he thought it so well deserved.

 

~

 

Gwen stormed straight back to Elyan’s room, tears of rage and anger threatening to spill from her eyes. She reached his room once more, and shoved her way in without even bothering to knock.

Gwen!” Elyan squeaked, pressing his new, dry shirt flat to his chest. “You could have knocked!”

“Arthur’s banished Merlin,” she said, straight to the point.

Elyan’s eyes widened. “What?”

“Arthur told me himself,” Gwen said shortly. “I just came straight from him.”

Elyan blinked at his sister in disbelief, before slipping the shirt over his head as he ran to the door. “Why? What did Merlin do?”

At this, Gwen stopped. She’d been so focused on what Arthur had done, that she had barely spared more than a thought as to the why.

Magic.

Merlin has magic.

“Gwen?”

Gwen looked up at her brother, eyes wide. “Merlin’s a sorcerer,” she explained, breathless.

Elyan blinked at her. “No way.”

“I… I don’t want to believe it either, but Arthur says that Merlin confessed. That he didn’t deny it, even when there was no one else to overhear.” She rubbed her eyes.

Gwen gave her head a slight shake, before turning on her heel. “I’m going to go speak to Gaius,” she said quickly.

Elyan nodded still looking dazed and in disbelief. “I’ll… I’ll go get Percival. Leon. Gwaine. See if they know. I’ll meet you at Gaius’s.”

Gwen nodded shortly. When she spoke, her voice was tight. “Alright. Thank you.”

 

~

 

“Gaius?” Gwen called, stepping into Gaius’s tower.

Gaius lifted his head from where it had been- staring down at his table as he prepared what appeared to be a poultice. Under his eyes were bags, and he looked, in a word, drained.

Gaius forced a smile upon seeing her. “Welcome home, Gwen,” he said, but then his face fell and he let out a sigh. “From your expression, I take it you’ve heard the news?”

“You mean Arthur banishing Merlin.”

Gaius let out another sigh and placed his pestle to the table. “Indeed.” He looked up, his eyes betraying his exhaustion. “And I also take it that you’ve come to me to talk about it.”

Gwen nodded shortly, stepping into the room so she was across the table from him. “Did you know? About his magic?” she asked, her voice not quite accusing, but only just.

Gaius let out another sigh and dropped his head. “I did. I will not lie to you, Gwen.”

“For how long?”

“I’ve known since his very first day in Camelot.”

Gwen took in a sharp breath. She glanced away for a moment, before looking up. “Elyan’s gone to fetch Percival, Leon, and Gwaine, they’re supposed to meet us here to discuss what to do.”

But, to Gwen’s shock, Gaius blinked at her, appalled surprise etched into his face. “Did Arthur not tell you?” he asked, voice matching his expression.

“Did Arthur not tell me what?”

Gaius stared at her in disbelief for another moment, before he let out a sigh and sat down heavily at the table. “Arthur has banished Sir Gwaine as well.”

“What?”

Gaius nodded once more. “Gwaine defended Merlin, and confessed to having known about Merlin’s magic for some time- but not due to Merlin telling him. Arthur decided to banish him as well. Though, I imagine Gwaine would have left with Merlin willingly had he been given the choice.”

Gwen only stared for a moment, before sitting in the chair next to her, still not quite believing what she was hearing.

“They left yesterday morning,” Gaius said, and Gwen looked up. His eyes were more sunken now, and not meeting hers. “Barely an hour after Arthur had sentenced them.”

There was a knock at the door then, and in walked Elyan, followed by Percival- who from his expression, Gwen could tell he’d only just gotten the news himself.

“Leon… already knew,” Elyan said, shutting the door. “He didn’t want to come.”

Gwen nodded. “I take it you know about Gwaine as well, then?”

“Y-yeah,” Elyan said. “I… I can’t believe it.”

Gaius let out another sigh, before gesturing to the empty bench across the table from him. Everyone went and sat across from Gaius, before looking up at him expectantly.

Gaius met each of their eyes in turn. “I won’t hide anything from any of you, but know that some of the things I will say…” Gaius let out a sigh. “If Uther were to have caught wind of many of the things I will say, he would not have hesitated to have both Merlin and I executed. Do you understand?”

Everyone nodded at this. “So it’s a secret, then?” Percival asked quietly.

To which Gaius nodded. “If you wish to leave now, I won’t stop you, but I ask that if you stay, you do not tell Arthur what was said. Understood?”

There was a slight pause, but then the other three gave their affirmations.

Gaius then let out a sigh. “Well, I suppose I’d better start from the beginning.” Gaius lifted his head, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “As you all know, I myself was a sorcerer once. Merlin’s mother sent him to me so he could learn to control his gifts.”

“She sent him here? To Camelot?” Elyan said in shock.

Gaius nodded once more. “While it may be hard to understand Hunith’s reasoning, it was truly the best option: I’d helped Merlin’s family in the past when it came to incidents involving magic, and it was becoming unsafe for him to continue to live in Ealdor as his abilities developed. I, of course, didn’t actually know about Merlin’s magic until he arrived, since she couldn’t risk explaining why she was sending him here in a letter that could have been intercepted.”

“How did you find out?” Percival asked.

At this, Gaius chuckled. “He saved my life. I was up there, gathering books-” he nodded at the balcony behind them, and they all turned and looked- “When the railing failed behind me. Without even a moment’s hesitation, he brought the bed from the other side of the room and caught me. I was… stunned. I’d never seen magic without an incantation, let alone slowing time. It was when I was, well, confronting him that he told me he was Hunith’s boy, and explained the real reason he was sent to me.”

“And you still agreed to take him in?”

“I did. Hunith… had done a favor for me in the past, and how could I refuse to help a boy who had the most raw magical power I have ever seen, yet no training in how to wield it?”

Gwen glanced at Elyan, whose lips were pressed into a line. Gwen said, “So he’s had magic… the entire time he’s been in Camelot?”

Gaius nodded. “Indeed.”

“Does Arthur know this?”

Gaius sighed. “I do not know. Merlin did not tell me what was said in the throne room during his trial. Only that he’d been banished. Then Gwaine arrived a few minutes later and told me that Arthur had sentenced him as well.”

“How did Gwaine find out?”

Gaius shrugged. “I cannot say- Merlin certainly didn’t tell him. But as you know, Gwaine was not raised in Camelot- he likely does not hold the same view towards it as most of the people here do. So once he realized, he probably just kept it to himself. He didn’t seem at all surprised when I informed him as to why Merlin had been arrested.”

Gwen stared at Gaius in shock for a moment longer, before she fell forward to the table, rubbing her eyes. “Merlin should be here. We should be discussing this with him.”

There was silence for a moment, before she heard the scrape of a chair, followed by the shuffling of feet. A moment later, she felt a weary hand on her shoulder. “I believe I know where they have gone. I can send a messenger to them if you wish.”

Gwen was silent for a moment, before she snorted slightly. “How many messengers will we be sending? I plan to have one sent to Ealdor already.”

“I do too,” Gaius responded. “To inform Merlin’s mother of what is happening.”

Gwen let out a sigh. “But you don’t think they’re in Ealdor.”

“They told me they were planning to head somewhere else. But I can send another letter from you with both messengers if you wish.”

Gwen nodded. “I would like that, Gaius.”

 

~

 

The way to Morgana’s hovel was dark, following a winding stream that traveled through the thickest and oldest part of the forest. The banks were muddy and unforgiving, the perfect set-up for someone to slip-

And Agravaine swore as his foot plunged into the water, the cold instantly sinking through his leather boots and reaching his socks. With a growl, he shook it out, before continuing on his way, though not without a scowl and squelching noise every other step.

He reached Morgana’s dwelling within a half hour (far past the point of annoyance with his pruning foot), the thin trail of smoke from the chimney signaling that the resident was home.

“My lady?” he called as he descended to the entrance. He knocked.

“Enter,” came Morgana’s cold voice.

He did, and found Morgana sitting at her table, a ratty and worn book resting open in front of her.

Morgana was wearing a black lace dress, her hair pulled away from her face with a pin. She gave Agravaine a cold look, before standing. “Agravaine,” she greeted. “What brings you here?”

“I come bearing good news, my lady,” Agravaine said with a smile, shutting the door and taking a step towards her.

Morgana narrowed her eyes. “Very well- what is it?”

“Arthur has banished Merlin.”

Morgana physically recoiled in shock. “You can’t be serious.”

Agravaine nodded, his smile widening. “I am. Merlin… Merlin has magic, my lady.”

Morgana’s eyes widened further, and she leaned against the wall a moment later, her breathing becoming heavy, and her eyes seemingly searching the ground as she thought through these implications.

Merlin. That little sniveling servant has magic.

And he works for Arthur? The son of Uther?

Why?

Morgana’s eyes widened in realization, and she sneered. “The little bastard works for Emrys! He’s probably gone straight to him.” Morgana rounded suddenly, and advanced on Agravaine. “Do you know where Merlin went?” Morgana hissed.

At this, Agravaine’s demeanor faltered. “… n-no, my lady. My men lost his tracks just after he entered Essetir. We do not know where he’s gone.”

Morgana grimaced, but then she let out a grounding breath. “Very well. It seems my revenge on him will have to wait. But… I will alert Soredamor that Merlin is within his lands. Perhaps he can help us find him.”

Agravaine nodded. “… and, how is Soredamor?”

Morgana snorted as she sat back down on her chair, the very picture of nonchalance. “He trusts me completely- it’s pathetic, actually.”

Agravaine was quiet for a moment. “… I don’t feel like it is appropriate to say such things about the boy, Morgana. Considering who he is.”

Morgana gave Agravaine an even look, one eyebrow raised in incredulity. “You are certainly one to talk, Agravaine.”

At this, Agravaine glowered slightly, but brushed it off his face a moment later. “Camelot has been in chaos since the news broke. Arthur has rarely left his rooms, and never without a scowl on his face. His most loyal knights are noticeably angry with him. And, more surprising still, is that Arthur has banished Sir Gwaine alongside Merlin.”

Morgana looked up at this, unable to hide the surprise on her face. “He’s banished Sir Gwaine?”

“Indeed, my lady. He defended Merlin, much to Arthur’s displeasure, so Arthur simply ordered them both gone from the kingdom.”

Morgana blinked. “Did he now?” But she then smirked. “And, how is dear, sweet Gwen taking the news?”

“She hasn’t spoken to Arthur since he told her what became of Merlin.”

Morgana let out a laugh at that. “I’m not surprised! Gwen can be stubborn. But, perhaps…” she trailed off, thoughtful. “It seems that my brother is losing all those he can trust. This may work to our advantage.”

Morgana looked up, and spoke once more. “Return to Camelot. Do nothing different from how you have- Arthur will rely on you now more than ever, Agravaine. We must not let this opportunity go to waste. Keep his trust, and make sure he believes that you are on his side.”

“I will, my lady.”

Morgana smirked. “Good. Bring me any news as soon as you are able.

“I want to be informed as to what happens next now that Arthur knows how it feels to be betrayed by those closest to him.”

 

~

 

Gwen waited by the window most days, watching the courtyard for any sign of the messengers’ return. She worried- would Merlin or Gwaine be there to receive her letter? And if so, what response would they send?

When the messenger to Ealdor returned with word that neither Merlin nor Gwaine were there, Gwen’s anxiety only grew. She found herself spending her time in Gaius’s tower, taking up Merlin’s old chores and helping the physician gather materials and prepare poultices; the familiar scent of herbs and medicines calming her nerves.

But only slightly.

It was one of these times as Gwen sat at the table, mixing something that used to smell faintly of basil and now… didn’t, that the messenger returned, barreling into Gaius’s rooms.

Gwen stood immediately, as did Gaius.

The messenger bowed his head. “I was unable to find them.”

“But you found the cave, didn’t you?”

“I did, but it was empty- I could tell that no one has disturbed it for quite some time.”

Gaius stared blankly at the messenger, before he nodded. “Thank you,” he said with a sigh, grabbing a bag and taking out some coins. He handed them off to the messenger. “I cannot fault you for failing to deliver the message if the recipient was not there. You needn’t worry about trying again.”

The messenger looked confused, but gratefully took the coins. “Thank you,” he said simply, before turning and heading off out of the room.

There was silence for a minute. A terrible, tense silence.

Finally, Gwen voiced her fear, “You don’t think something’s happened to them, have you?”

“Of course not,” Gaius responded immediately. “Both Merlin and Gwaine are capable of taking care of themselves, Merlin especially. I… I imagine that they may have found somewhere else to stay.”

“But… where? They’re not at this cave, they’re not in Ealdor. Where have they have possibly gone?”

Gaius let out a sigh, and leaned back against the table, his lips pressed into a line. “I wish that I could tell you, but the truth is that I don’t know, Gwen.

“I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

Two weeks had passed since the day Arthur had banished Merlin and Gwaine.

The time had felt so short, yet so unbearably long at the same time.

The two of them had been given their own tent in the corner of the camp, with various books on magic already housed within. Two bedrolls had been placed inside as well, and it was here that the two of them spent their nights.

They had integrated into camp life very smoothly, helping out where they could and picking up spare duties as they needed filling. (Though, at the very start, Merlin had had to convince some of the Druids to let him help. Gwaine remembered Merlin coming back one night and saying to him how he’d had to steal his laundry back from one of the Druids because that Druid didn’t believe that Emrys should stoop low enough as to clean his own socks.)

But, despite the smooth integration, these first couple weeks had been rough, both for Merlin and for Gwaine. Merlin still woke up before the sun, and in the split moment before his mind caught up with the morning, he almost believed he was back at the castle, ready to go spend another day at work for Arthur, and that all these past events were nothing more than a cruel dream.

But then he always remembered, and only curled in on himself, feeling numb, and trying to force himself to sleep once more, if only to put off the memories for a little while longer.

Gwaine could see this happening to Merlin- in the telltale silence as they got ready in the mornings, in the way Merlin’s eyes didn’t quite have the same shine that they had had before, the same shine that Gwaine had always come to associate with Merlin.

Gwaine couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Merlin’s real smile.

He was thinking over this at breakfast one morning, the two of them sitting together outside their tent as the rest of the Druids gathered around the central fire. The Druids seemed to have taken to Merlin well enough, but Gwaine… Well, Knights of Camelot weren’t exactly popular at Druid camps, even if they were ex-knights, he thought to himself as he saw a couple of the Druids giving him a certain side-eyed look.

While Gwaine had prided himself on his independence before, it certainly didn’t mean that he wasn’t perceptive of other people’s emotions. Quite the opposite, actually, if you asked him.

But, Gwaine was used to being unliked, and if Merlin was happy to stay here, then he would be willing to stick it out.

For Merlin.

Besides, they had to see he wasn’t a threat eventually, right?

But it was when he was turning back to his stew, that he noticed Merlin suddenly freeze out of the corner of his eye, his eyes going wide.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked as he glanced up. “You okay?”

Merlin frowned at the stew, his brow furrowing. “I just… I just realized something, and I’m ashamed that it took me this long to think of it.”

Gwaine cocked his head, before standing up and walking next to his friend. “Something wrong?”

Merlin looked up, his eyes wide- as if he didn’t realize that he’d spoken aloud. Merlin rapidly shook his head. “I-it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” And without explaining further, he turned back to his breakfast.

Gwaine looked over Merlin, skeptical, but decided not to press the issue any further.

 

~

 

That is, until he found Merlin trying to sneak out of the camp later that day.

Merlin had been antsy ever since his mysterious revelation that morning- and Gwaine had noticed. He’d kept an eye on his friend throughout the day, wondering what it possibly could have been that he’d realized.

It was when Gwaine was outside the cave, still trying to acquaint himself with the surrounding forest, that he heard rustling, and turned to see Merlin sneaking through the underbrush, his blue cloak around his shoulders.

Merlin!” Gwaine called.

Merlin turned with a start. “Gwaine!” he exclaimed. “Did you need something?”

Gwaine shrugged, but had a smirk once he caught up with his friend. “Just wondering where you’re going.”

Merlin blinked at him, but then he turned once more. “I just… I need to take care of something.”

“Need help?”

“No, no I got it.”

“You sure?” Gwaine asked, frowning as he saw straight through Merlin’s evading.

“It’s nothing- I can handle it-”

Merlin,” Gwaine responded shortly, grabbing Merlin’s wrist and stopping him. “Merlin, you need to be honest with me. You promised.”

Merlin didn’t move for a moment, before he let out a sigh as his shoulders slumped, and he nodded. “You’re right,” he conceded. Turning back to Gwaine, Merlin’s eyes flicked between Gwaine’s, his mouth partway ajar, before Merlin finally took in a breath and said quickly, “I’m a Dragonlord.”

Gwaine was taken aback, blinking in surprise. He let go of Merlin’s wrist, but Merlin didn’t move. “Y-you’re serious?”

Merlin nodded. “My father was Balinor, the Last Dragonlord. When he died, I inherited his powers. I… I didn’t even know until Arthur and I set out to find him.”

Gwaine had heard the story: how Arthur and Merlin had set out to find a last hope when the Great Dragon had escaped and began an assault on Camelot.

Merlin turned back on his heading, and began to talk.

He explained to Gwaine how Uther had hunted the dragons and Dragonlords to near total extinction, before telling Balinor that, in exchange for the capture of the Last Dragon, he would spare all the remaining Dragonlords. And Balinor agreed, expecting Uther to keep his promise and to spare all that remained of his kin.

Gwaine was not surprised in the slightest to hear that Uther didn’t.

“Gaius helped Balinor escape from Camelot before Uther found him,” Merlin said while hopping over a small stream. “To which he told my father to head to Ealdor where he could find someone who could help him: my mother, Hunith.

“The plan was for him to stay for a couple nights, and then head further north away from Camelot.” He turned to Gwaine with a wry smirk as he said, “But things didn’t go exactly as planned.”

Merlin continued, saying that Balinor and Hunith grew a connection, and Balinor decided he wanted to stay in Ealdor and start a life together with Hunith.

But then Merlin stopped and let out a sigh. “Uther was angry- Balinor had escaped him. It took him a year or so, but he eventually found out that Balinor had made his way to Ealdor.”

Merlin turned back to Gwaine, his eyes saddened. “So Balinor ran- and he left my mother behind, believing it was the only way to keep her safe. They hadn’t been married, so as long as no one mentioned their connection, Uther would never suspect. But he…” Merlin let out a breath. “He didn’t know about me.”

And with that, Merlin turned back forward, effectively ending the conversation.

Gwaine followed through the underbrush, until Merlin reached a small clearing in the woods, the opening in the trees above easily showing the blue sky.

Merlin glanced around the clearing, before nodding in satisfaction. “This should be big enough.” And with that, Merlin took in a breath, and turned his face to the sky.

Aithusa! Zu’u bel hi het!”

Gwaine blinked in surprise, his wide eyes fixed on Merlin. Merlin’s voice had become deeper, louder, and had had a growl-like quality to it. He’d never heard anyone sound like that.

“Merlin, what was that?” Gwaine asked.

Merlin held a palm out, the sign to wait, as his eyes searched the sky for several moments.

Suddenly, a white blur dropped out of the sky, barreling itself straight into Merlin’s chest. Merlin stumbled at the assault, but he didn’t fall, clutching whatever it was to him.

“That was quite the entrance,” Merlin said with half a laugh, before moving so he was sitting on the ground, and letting the white bundle fall from his chest so it was standing on the forest floor.

Gwaine’s eyes widened.

It was a dragon. Not a big one by any means, no, but a real dragon nonetheless. The dragon was white and about the size of a large house cat, with small horns and wings that looked like that of a bat’s. The dragon stretched it’s wings, before wiggling it’s body in a motion that reminded Gwaine of a dog shaking off water.

“Gwaine, this is Aithusa. She’s a dragon,” Merlin said with a grin, stroking her head with overwhelming fondness. Merlin turned to Gwaine with a smile. “And Aithusa, this is Gwaine.”

Gwaine blinked as he looked at Aithusa, awed. He crouched down as he let out a breath, and reached out a hand to the dragon. Aithusa glanced at Merlin, who gave an encouraging nod, before she took a couple steps over to Gwaine and nudged her head against his hand.

Gwaine let out an awed laugh and began to stroke her head as he had seen Merlin do. “She’s… beautiful,” Gwaine said, and he meant it. Her pearl-like scales gleamed brilliantly in the sunlight, and her eyes were shining as they looked him over- pale blue, like the summer sky. Gwaine had never seen a dragon. Wyverns, yes- he’d even killed one of those- but a dragon? He’d never thought the day would come.

Merlin smiled and he leaned back on his hands. Merlin looked at Aithusa and asked, “Aithusa, can you say ‘thank you?’”

Aithusa smiled shyly, if it was possible for a dragon to do that. “T’ank you,” she said.

Merlin looked so proud. “She’s still learning to talk. She can speak fluent Dragontongue already, but humanspeech takes longer to learn.”

Gwaine nodded and sat fully as he scratched the dragon’s horns. He glanced at Merlin. “How old is she?”

“A few months,” Merlin said. He clicked his tongue a couple times, and Aithusa turned back to him. She went over and curled up in Merlin’s lap, and Merlin began to run a hand along her back. “Do you remember Borden? And the Triskelion?”

Gwaine nodded. Then he realized. “Merlin, you sly-” He barked out a laugh.

Merlin grinned at him, his eyes glinting mischievously. Merlin then turned his attention back to Aithusa, but then his smile fell, turning to a look of concern. “Aithusa,” he asked her as he delicately put his fingers to a point on her back, Los hi ahraan? Kolos drey hin ahraan meyz nol?”

She responded, Zu’u mah nau reyth.”

Merlin frowned with a slight huff. He looked up at Gwaine and said, “She’s injured. I need to treat it. Can you watch her while I get something?”

Gwaine blinked. “Yeah, sure!”

Merlin smiled gratefully. He said a couple more things to Aithusa, before he picked her up and gently set her on the ground between the two of them. He then stood up and started to head back to the camp.

Aithusa and Gwaine watched Merlin walk off, before the two of them turned to look at each other. They both blinked- how does one take care of a dragon?- before Gwaine smiled awkwardly and said, “So, you’re learning to talk?”

Aithusa nodded. She swallowed, before saying with effort, “You… Ga-waine?”

“Close. Gwaine.”

“Ga-waine!” Aithusa exclaimed excitedly, eyes shining.

Gwaine laughed. “Alright, ‘Gawain’ it is!”

Aithusa’s eyes glinted similarly to how Merlin’s did earlier: with an undertone of mischief. She cocked her head. “What Ga-waine mean?”

Gwaine blinked. “What does my name mean?” Aithusa nodded. Gwaine smiled. “It’s an old word. It means ‘hawk of battle.’”

Aithusa pondered this for a moment, but then nodded. “Aithusa mean ‘light of sun.’ Brod picked it.”

Gwaine’s brow furled. “Brod?”

Aithusa smiled. “Merlin,” she explained. “Brod is family. Kin. Father.”

Gwaine was taken aback slightly in surprise, but then he nodded. “Is Merlin… your father?”

Aithusa appeared to be contemplating this, or how best to explain. “No… but yes.” Oh, well, that certainly explained it. Brod hatched egg. Brod is my Dragonlord. Brod is bormah.”

Aithusa smiled brightly at Gwaine, seemingly satisfied with this explanation, before her gaze went down a little. Her head cocked, and a moment later without any warning, she lunged forward towards his throat.

“Whoa whoa!” Gwaine reacted, suddenly having a dragon barrel herself to his chest and scrambling with her claws to get a foothold on his shirt. “What are you-?” He felt a tug at the back of his neck, and realized that Aithusa had found his necklace and was tugging at it. “You want my necklace?”

Aithusa glanced up at him, the charm of his necklace sticking out of her mouth. “Shiny!” she said around it.

Gwaine blinked at her, before he barked out a laugh. Aithusa turned her attention back, and began to tug at the necklace once more while letting out a frustrated growl.

“Hey, hey, wait,” Gwaine said reaching into his pouch for a coin. “How about this instead?”

He flicked it into the air with his thumb, and the glinting metal caught Aithusa’s attention. A moment later she lunged into the air and caught the coin, before rolling on the ground and scratching at it with her claws and gnawing at it with her teeth.

They heard rustling then, and Gwaine glanced up to see Merlin returning, a small bag over his shoulder. He sat on the ground with a huff, before holding out his hands to Aithusa. “Come on, then,” he said, inviting her over, “Let’s get that injury, shall we?”

Aithusa toddled over to Merlin, before curling up on his lap, the coin still in her mouth.

Merlin noticed it, and looked up at Gwaine with a confused look. “You gave her a coin?”

“It was either that or my necklace.”

Understanding dawned on Merlin, and he mouthed a silent “ah” before turning his attention back to the dragon.

Merlin inspected the wound for a moment, before opening his supplies and pulling out various herbs. Then he set off to work.

Gwaine watched Merlin, simply appreciating the clearly practiced motions as he applied the poultice, all while murmuring soothingly to Aithusa in the Dragontongue.

“Why don’t you just use magic?” Gwaine asked softly.

Merlin let out a sigh as he wrapped the bandage around her torso. “Healing magic… isn’t my strong suit,” he said. “I was working with Gaius to get better, but…”

Gwaine nodded in understanding, but then he leaned over and jostled Merlin with his shoulder. “Maybe you can ask the healer here to teach you. What was her name? Bode-mull?”

“Bodhmall,” Merlin corrected, finishing and tying the knot on the bandage. “Maybe I could.” He put his hands on his hips and spoke to Aithusa next though, “That good? Or is it too tight?”

Aithusa scrambled off of Merlin’s lap, before shaking herself out. She gave her wings a couple test flaps, before nodding. “It good.”

“You sure?” Merlin asked, looking her over. “I don’t want it to hinder you.”

Aithusa gave Merlin a confused look. “Hinder?”

“Oh, umm,” Merlin paused, trying to think how to explain.

“Make things harder for you,” Gwaine answered. “He doesn’t want the bandage to hurt you.”

Aithusa pondered this for a moment, before nodding. “No, it good, brod.”

And Merlin nodded, satisfied.

The two of them spent the rest of the day with Aithusa- the dragon running around the fields and flying between trees, off in her own little world as Merlin and Gwaine watched. Sometimes she would come over and drag one of them to their feet by the hem of their cloak, and they’d spend a few minutes running around with her- either chasing or being chased- before her attention was called elsewhere and she ran off again.

Gwaine had asked numerous questions- about both dragons and being a Dragonlord- and he could tell Merlin was relieved to finally have someone to talk to about Aithusa when he answered. Though when it came to questions concerning his heritage, about Dragonlord culture, Gwaine found that Merlin’s eyes saddened more often than not, and Merlin could only shrug and say he didn’t know.

Dusk found the three of them together- Aithusa dozing on Merlin’s lap while he and Gwaine continued to talk in low voices. There wasn’t any singular point of conversation- the topics ranging from how the Druid food was, possible ways to make the bedrolls more comfortable and back again- but Gwaine noticed that Merlin seemed to be more at ease than he’d seen him these past couple weeks.

It was a change, and Gwaine was glad for it.

Merlin glanced at the sky and let out a sigh. “It’s late, we should probably head back.” But then he looked down at the sleeping dragon in his lap with a frown. “I don’t want to wake her…” he muttered. But then letting out a huff he carefully put an arm under her so she was lying across his forearm, before slowly lifting her off his lap.

Aithusa stirred only a little, but she didn’t wake, and Merlin let out a relieved breath before the group began their trek back to the camp.

They reached the cave within a short time. Aithusa had woken up at some point (despite Merlin’s best efforts to keep her asleep), and was now perched on Merlin’s shoulder, eyeing the forest around the group as they traveled through it with a passing curiosity.

But just before they reached the cave, Merlin suddenly stopped, and swore under his breath.

Gwaine turned to him. “Merlin?”

Merlin turned to Gwaine, trepidation on his face. “How do you think they’ll accept a-” he gestured to the subject of his question, who was currently nosing at the hood Merlin’s cloak.

Gwaine thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Won’t know till we go in,” he said lightly, before wrapping an arm around Merlin’s waist and guiding him forwards into the cave.

Merlin was hesitant at first, but then he let out a breath and strode forward himself without more of Gwaine’s coaxing.

“Do you have a plan?” Gwaine asked when the first tents came into view.

“Hope for the best.”

Their entrance was met without much ceremony, no sudden exclamations of horror, or of even surprise, and as Gwaine glanced around at the Druids, he wondered if maybe they were just so relaxed about magic that the presence of a dragon didn’t faze them, or whether they truly had not noticed Aithusa yet.

The first Druid to spot Merlin, Gwaine, and Aithusa was Bodhmall, the healer. She glanced up, turned back to whatever it was she was doing, before snapping back with wide eyes and blinking at the dragon on Merlin’s shoulder.

Ah, so they simply hadn’t noticed her yet.

It seemed like a cascading effect, for after more Druids began to notice and to stare, murmuring to each other in low voices.

Merlin continued, undeterred, to the center of the cave, where he sat down and dropped Aithusa to the ground a scant foot in front of him, with Gwaine joining him a little ways off. The Druids gathered around, and looking at Aithusa with varying glances- from wonder to wariness. None of them approached.

But then, to Gwaine’s amusement, two children pushed themselves to the front of the crowd- a boy, maybe nine years of age, and a girl a couple years younger. They paused, blinked at the dragon in wide-eyed wonder, before they both came forward and knelt on the ground in front of Merlin, staring at Aithusa.

Merlin smiled at them. “What are your names?” he asked.

The boy lifted his head and blinked at Merlin. “I-I’m Tadg. This is my sister, Dornoll, L-lord Emrys,” he answered. “Is that a dragon?”

Merlin smiled warmly. “You can call me Merlin. And yes, she is.” He then nodded at the dragon, pulling Tadg’s gaze back down to her. “Her name is Aithusa.”

Tadg looked up again, his eyes full of awe. “Can we pet it?”

Merlin’s smile turned more to a smirk. “You can pet her as long as Aithusa says it’s okay.”

Tadg looked confused. “Huh?”

Merlin nodded at Aithusa once more. “Ask her.”

Tadg blinked, before looking down at the dragon, but he said nothing.

Dornoll stared at her brother expectantly for a moment, before rolling her eyes and scooting forward. “Can we pet you?” she asked the dragon.

To which Aithusa looked her over with a scrutinizing eye, before nodding, seemingly satisfied. “Yes.”

Dornolls’s eyes widened in wonder, and she reached out a couple fingers to Aithusa's back.

Tadg stared in disbelief for a moment, before repeating the same motion, rubbing a couple fingers along Aithusa’s spine.

Gwaine glanced up at Merlin then, and Merlin’s eyes were shining and his mouth was forming a smile as he watched the children.

“Tadg, Dornoll, come over here please.”

Gwaine glanced over to see a Druid woman- Nuadat? Gwaine wasn’t entirely sure of names yet- standing to the side, her lips pressed into a line as she watched the two children; her children, he guessed, if the matching hair was anything to go by.

Dornoll looked up with a frown. “Ah, why, mama?”

“Just come over here,” Nuadat said, obviously trying to keep her voice calm but anger leaking through all the same.

Dornoll frowned, before glancing at Merlin.

Merlin gave her an apologetic smile. “You better listen to your mother. But don’t worry, Aithusa can come by later. You can play with her then.”

Dornoll smiled widely and Tadg did too, before the two of them stood up and went over to their mother. She looked them over for a little bit, glanced at Merlin, then began to corral her children away, Gwaine watching and wondering what it was that had made her wary of Aithusa- a tame dragon with a Dragonlord right next to her.

But as the three of them stepped away, Nuadat spared a moment to give Gwaine a fierce glare, her eyes alight in fury.

Ah. It wasn’t the dragon she didn’t want her kids near.

Gwaine frowned, but turned back to Merlin and Aithusa a moment later without giving Nuadat any indication he had seen.

Merlin didn’t seem to have noticed, his attention entirely on Aithusa as she went and approached some of the Druids to introduce herself, and a small smile breaking through his face.

Gwaine’s own lips began to form a smile at that, and he decided that he wasn’t going to worry about Nuadat any longer in that moment.

Chapter Text

As Samhain approached- the nights getting longer and the days getting colder- a sense of excitement fell over the camp. The upcoming holiday was one of the Druids’ biggest, a time for making changes and remembering those who had gone before them, and everyone from the oldest elders to the smallest child seemed to be soaking in the spirit of the season.

Everyone except Merlin, that is, whose eyes grew darker and who became more closed off and quiet at the season passed.

And Gwaine didn’t blame him in the slightest, his own mood falling grim and off putting.

For two days after Samhain was the one year anniversary of Lancelot walking through the veil, after all.

As the day itself got closer, Merlin’s shoulders began slumping nearly as much as they had had in the days following their banishment.  And the sight pained Gwaine to see.

The holiday itself passed without much incident. The Druids celebrated as they did, but neither Merlin nor Gwaine participated much, electing instead to spend the day with Aithusa out in the fields or walking around the forest, simply talking to the other.

Neither of them brought up Lancelot, though both could tell that it was weighing heavily on the other’s mind.

When the actual anniversary came, Merlin, at some point, vanished from the camp. Gwaine frowned, and any Druid he asked simply responded calmly, saying something along the lines of “Emrys can handle himself.” And while Gwaine didn’t doubt them- believing it himself, actually- he just didn’t think it wise that Merlin be left alone today.

After an hour of searching, Gwaine found Merlin sitting on the ridge above the cave, staring out at the sunset across the tree tops, his eyes rimmed red and puffy.

Gwaine’s own eyes softened, and he sat down next to Merlin.

“You alight?” he asked quietly.

Merlin pressed his lips together, before shaking his head. “No,” he answered.

“Want to talk about it?”

Merlin didn’t respond. Which wasn’t really a no, but it wasn’t quite a yes either.

So Gwaine elected not to say anything either, only staring out at the red and orange sky alongside his friend, at the clouds being colored purple and pink in the dusk. It was quiet, but not silent: some birds, the sound of the wind traveling through the trees. It was also peaceful- a stark contrast to how everyone in Camelot and the surrounding area had felt at this time last year.

“It- it’s my fault, Gwaine,” Merlin confessed some time later, his voice shaking. “It’s my fault Lancelot-” he let out sob then and bent forward, burying his face in his hands as his shoulders shook.

“… how so?” Gwaine’s voice wasn’t accusatory, only calmly asking.

Merlin took in a couple deep breaths. “A-Arthur had been planning to walk through the veil himself- to be the necessary sacrifice to An Caillech in order to close it. I had been planning to take his place. But Lancelot-” Merlin cut off here, shaking his head.

And finally, after a year of wondering, Gwaine understood. “… he took your place,” Gwaine breathed, his heart skipping a beat.

And Merlin only nodded behind his hands. “He didn’t have to die,” he murmured with a voice so quiet and grief-stricken that Gwaine’s heart clenched in his chest.

Gwaine looked him over for another minute, trying to see what Merlin was thinking, before letting out a sigh and opening his arms. “Come here.”

Merlin didn’t move for a moment, before he suddenly slumped over against Gwaine. He wrapped his arms around Gwaine, with Gwaine doing the same in return.

They sat in silence for a minute, before Gwaine himself let out another sigh.

“I remember how you looked when I woke up,” Gwaine began quietly. “I knew that something had happened as soon as I saw your face. I thought it was my fault- if I hadn’t been knocked out so easily…” Gwaine let out a sigh then. “Should have been me.”

Merlin jerked up at this, his eyes wide. “What? Gwaine-”

“Lancelot was a better knight than me. Hell, he was a better man than me, Merlin,” Gwaine said, frowning. “The least I could have done was take his place.”

“He wouldn’t have let you,” Merlin responded, half of a grim smile coming to his face.

To this, Gwaine huffed a small a laugh. “Perhaps not,” he said. “But he couldn’t have stopped me from trying, if it meant protecting you.” Merlin stopped at this, before turning to Gwaine with a slightly shocked look on his face. Gwaine only smirked wryly. “I already told you, Merlin,” he said. “You’re the only friend I’ve got.”

Merlin stared at him for a moment, before matching the smirk. But then he leaned in again and turned forward, staring out at the sky once more.

They both sat and simply watched the sun sink lower in the sky, slowly turning the clouds to colors of orange and pink. Neither of them spoke, and the stars had begun to come out in their full splendor without a word uttered between them.

But then Merlin said something with a voice so soft it was almost a whisper.

“Thank you. For listening.”

“Anytime, Merlin. Anytime.”

 

~

 

The moon turned from full to new as the month passed, and Merlin’s mood had improved since those few days after Samhain, the death of his friend no longer weighing as heavily on his mind. The colors of the leaves continued to change, and Merlin found himself enjoying the firelike quality the branches took on, and found his heart lifting ever so slightly every time he went for a walk.

Gwaine’s mood however, seemed to be only getting worse.

“Are you alright, Gwaine?” Merlin asked shortly one day after Gwaine had become testy again that morning. Gwaine, it seemed, had had a permanent scowl on his face for the past couple days and his temper had been short, to put it lightly. He was oddly silent- not rambling on about whatever came to mind like he usually did.

Gwaine didn’t respond- which, again, was unusual- just frowning slightly at the ground.

“Gwaine,” Merlin said, finally at his limit with this irritability.

“Have you noticed how some of the Druids look at me, Merlin?” Gwaine answered shortly, not lifting his gaze.

“What?” Merlin asked in confusion.

Gwaine lifted his head, giving Merlin a look. “Don’t tell me you haven’t.”

“I don’t-”

“I’m a knight of Camelot, Merlin, in a Druid camp. How do you think they look at me when you’re not looking?” He paused for a bit, and Merlin’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to think of something to say.

“… do all of them-?”

Gwaine frowned, but then shook his head. “No, but… a fair amount. Enough to-” But then Gwaine just huffed and shook his head. “I’m going to go sharpen my sword,” Gwaine said before grabbing the blade in question and making his way out of the cave, Merlin watching him leave.

Merlin let out a sigh, before leaning backwards and tipping his head back so it rested on the wall behind him. He hadn’t missed the way that some of the other Druids seemed to step out of his way, and the glances they gave him as he passed.

How he hadn’t noticed before, he couldn’t say.

 

~

 

“Are you sure we should be doing this, Tadg?” Dornoll asked, scrambling over rocks after her older brother and trying not to trip on her cloak.

Tadg openly laughed at her, and Dornoll had to fight off the urge to tackle him. “What? You scared?” he mocked.

“No!” she responded immediately. “But mama said-”

“Mama said to never go this far from camp without someone. I know,” Tadg said. “Could be bandits. Or worse.”

“Like Knights,” Dornoll said, paling.

Tadg snorted. “There’s already one of those in the camp. I think we’ll be fine.”

“What do you mean?” Dornoll asked, confused.

“Sir Gwaine,” Tadg said, easily vaulting a tree that Dornoll had to scramble to get over.

“Gwaine? Emrys’ friend?” Dornoll protested in disbelief. “He’s too nice to be a knight. And Iseldir wouldn’t let him stay if he were a knight.”

She had apparently left her brother speechless, as he didn’t have a response to that. After several moments, he said, “Well… that’s what mama said! Are you saying mama’s wrong?”

“Well, no-”

“Then he’s a knight, plain and simple.”

And as much as Dornoll wanted to argue back, she couldn’t.

The two children ran through the woods for several minutes longer, leaping over trees and streams, Dornoll following her brother as he seemed to know exactly where they were going.

But then she passed a large rock she didn’t recognize, and she realized something was wrong; she glanced around, and her stomach flipped. “Umm, Tadg, where are we?”

Tadg stopped at this, before he turned and glanced around the forest. “I’m… not sure,” he said. He glanced at Dornoll, then around the forest. “Wait here. I’ll come back once I figure out where we are.” And he turned and ran off without another word.

“Wait, Tadg-!” Dornoll cried, running after her brother. “Tadg!”

But when she rounded a tree, her brother was nowhere in sight.

“… Tadg?”

Did he go left? Dornoll certainly hoped so, as she turned to go that way as well, calling her brother’s name all the while.

But she then found a small clearing, with still no sign of her brother.

“Tadg? Tadg! This isn’t funny, Tadg!” Dornoll cried, turning in a circle and trying to find her brother.

“Well, what have we here?”

Dornoll turned suddenly, her eyes growing wide.

Behind her were three men, smiling in a way that immediately set Dornoll on edge.

One of the men stepped forward, looking her over. “Looks like a Druid.”

“Don’t be daft,” one of the other men said, smacking his companion. “There aren’t no Druids this close to Camelot.”

“Well, Druid or not,” the third one began, “She’s alone. She’s young. She should sell for quite a bit, methinks.”

Dornoll took a step backward, then another, before she turned on her foot and ran through the trees.

After her!”

Dornoll heard the sounds of the men crashing through the woods behind her, and she ran faster- faster than she had ever run in her life.

Dornoll felt her foot catch on a root, and she pelted forward to the ground, her ankle throbbing in pain and her face now covered in scratches from the foliage.

She pushed herself up, but then from behind- “Oh no you don’t!” and she felt something grab her arm in an iron grip. “Got her!”

Dornoll screamed. “No! No, let me go! Tadg!”

A moment later, the other two men came barreling through the underbrush, looking annoyed with Dornoll struggling against the man holding her arm.

“Will one of you shut her up?” one of the other men said in annoyance.

And a moment later, Dornoll felt a cloth pulled over her mouth, and it was knotted roughly in the back.

“Now, let’s get out of here,” one said, glancing around warily. “We’ll discuss what to do with her once we’re back at camp.”

And with that, the man who gagged her grabbed Dornoll’s other wrist tightly, and the three men began to head back the way they came, Dornoll’s head falling and tears of defeat and fear beginning to fall from her eyes.

None of them noticed the small boy watching with wide eyes, or when he turned and began running through the trees.

 

~

 

Gwaine was alone in the woods, sitting on a rock and listening to the sounds of the forest around him as he flicked the pad of his thumb over the edge of his sword, judging it’s sharpness. His face was in a sour grimace, though it wasn’t from sharpening.

Gwaine understood why all the Druids were wary of him, absolutely, but it was still frustrating, still being an object of their fear even after he and Merlin had been staying with them for just over a month. He’d rarely stayed in any one place long enough for people’s thoughts of him to bother him. Now though…

With a huff, Gwaine began sharpening a rough spot he had found on the blade, the repetitive and purposeful motion softening his anger slightly.

He stayed like that for a couple more minutes, simply sharpening his sword. After it was about as near perfect as you could get sans magic, Gwaine decided that he couldn’t hide out here for much longer, and with a sigh, stood up and sheathed the sword at his waist. Just as he turned to head back to the camp, he stopped. Gwaine turned his head, his eyes searching and his hand already hovering over the hilt of the sword that he had just sheathed.

There was rustling. Too large to be a rabbit, but not large enough to be a man. Yet it was soft, similar to how the Druids moved their way among the forest. And it was getting closer. He took a step-

- and something barreled straight into Gwaine.

Gwaine glanced down to see one of the children from the camp- Tadg- looking up at him with wide and scared eyes. Gwaine almost rolled his eyes. Of course the small child was afraid of him too.

But, to Gwaine’s absolute shock, the boy didn’t run, instead he lunged forward and grabbed Gwaine tightly, his breathing becoming erratic and his entire body shaking.

Gwaine’s eyes widened in realization: it wasn’t Gwaine he was scared at.

Gwaine immediately glanced around, his eyes scanning for any nearby threats and his hand already grabbing the hilt of his sword and unsheathing it several inches, but there was nothing nearby.

But, something had scared the child.

“Hey, hey,” Gwaine said calmly, grabbing Tadg’s shoulders and making him take a step back. The Druid child stared up at Gwaine, his eyes still wide, and his breath shaking. “Take a breath, and tell me what’s wrong,” Gwaine instructed calmly.

Tadg nodded rapidly. “My little sister and I, we were- we were running around. Playing. B-but we got separated and she- she- she ran into some bandits-”

Gwaine stiffened, his blood freezing.

“The bandits. They took her. They took Dornoll!”

Gwaine’s eyes widened, before he immediately began to head where Tadg had come from, already unsheathing his sword. “Go get Merlin, tell him what’s going on.”

“W-where are you going?”

Gwaine turned, and Tadg was taken aback at the determination and anger in Gwaine’s eyes.

I’m going to get her back.”

 

~

 

Gwaine found the bandits easily enough, following the way Tadg had come and hearing their laughter before he managed to approach them. Immediately he quieted his steps and snuck closer, before peering around a tree.

There was Dornoll.

She was sitting next to the base of a tree, her hands and mouth bound. Even from that distance, Gwaine could see her shaking in fright.

The sight sent a righteous fury through him, and his grip tightened on his sword.

There were only three bandits: two of them talking, and the other seemingly standing guard.

“I’m telling you, she’s a Druid.”

“And I’m telling you that there aren’t no Druids this close to Camelot.”

“I must say,” Gwaine said breezily, stepping out from behind the tree, and the three bandits snapping to look at him. “Your friend is right: she is a Druid.”

One of the bandits, the one who was correct about Dornoll being a Druid, looked over Gwaine with a scrutinizing eye. “Oh, are you one too?”

“Something like that,” Gwaine said, taking note that the two other bandits were slowly- yet not very subtlety- trying to flank him on both sides.

The bandit who was speaking laughed. “Then we should take you too! Two Druids in one day!”

Gwaine eyed the bandit. “What do you plan to do?”

“Oh, we’s just gonna sell you both for some good coin. That’s all.”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Gwaine said easily.

“And how do you plan to stop us?”

“With this,” Gwaine said, casually showing off his sword.

The bandit laughed. “And here I thought Druids hated violence.”

“Good thing I’m not a Druid then.”

The bandit’s face fell to confusion. “What-?”

Before anyone could react, Gwaine lunged towards the bandit on his right, swiping his sword through his abdomen.

The bandit fell unceremoniously to the ground with a choked noise, his companions staring in shock, before looking up at Gwaine with furious expressions.

One down, two to go.

Gwaine swung his sword in an arc as the bandit to his left unsheathed his own blade, and lunged towards Gwaine with it.

Gwaine parried easily, the screech of metal against metal filling the air as the swords scraped against each other, forcing him back just as the bandit who had been speaking moved forward with another knife, Gwaine blocking that one easily as well.

Instinct and practiced moves took over, Gwaine easily finding his footing against the bandits who had clearly never fought in anything beyond a petty tavern brawl.

Another bandit fell easily, having left himself open wide to Gwaine’s attacks and skills.

Two down, one to go, Gwaine thought, turning to the final bandit.

Gwaine let out a grunt as he felt something hit his side, and turned to see that the first bandit he had struck had pushed himself up, his fist near Gwaine’s stomach.

Gwaine immediately kicked the bandit in the face, sending him sprawling to the side, unmoving. There was a glint of metal, and Gwaine realized that the bandit had had a knife in his hand.

He couldn’t spare another moment to think of that, because the leader lunged for him once more. But, almost without thinking, Gwaine parried, and immediately moved and ran him through, before withdrawing his blade. The bandit fell to the ground.

Gwaine waited, watching the three bandits for any sign of movement, and his sword at the ready. But none of them moved, and after several moments Gwaine lowered his sword. Another beat. Nothing. And with that Gwaine let out a huff, before sheathing his sword as he walked over to Dornoll, who was still sitting bound at the base of the tree.

She was looking at him with wide and tearful eyes, and when Gwaine crouched in front of her, she began to scoot away, whimpering slightly.

“Hey, hey. I’m not going to hurt you. You recognize me, don’t you? I’m Mer- Emrys’ friend,” Gwaine said soothingly, keeping his hands where she could easily see them.

Dornoll’s eyes were still wide and she looked over Gwaine in fright for a moment, before nodding slightly.

“I’m going to take this off, now,” Gwaine said, slowly moving his hands to the back of her head to find where the gag was knotted. “Alright?”

Another nod.

And with that, Gwaine undid the knot and let the gag fall from her mouth.

“Can I see your hands?”

Dornoll lifted her bound wrists, and Gwaine fumbled with the knot for a couple moments- his fingers still shaking from adrenaline- before letting out a huff.

“I’m going to have to cut it,” he said, reaching to his boot and withdrawing his knife.

Dornoll stiffened, and her eyes widened further as she moved back and brought her hands to her chest.

“I’m just going to cut your ropes,” Gwaine said calmly, holding the knife loosely enough that she could see that his grip wasn’t tight. “But I need you to not move while I do. Can you do that?”

Dornoll was still for another moment, before she nodded once more and shakily lifted her hands again.

Gwaine gently grabbed her wrist, before carefully slipping the knife between her hands. With a swift upward motion, he cut the ropes, and they fell to the ground, revealing tiny wrists that had been rubbed raw.

Gwaine looked up at her with a small smile, and he slipped the knife back into his boot. “There now. That wasn’t too bad, was it?”

Dornoll shook her head rapidly. “… no,” she responded in a small voice.

Gwaine gave her another small smile, before he held out a hand. “Your mother’s probably worried about you. Should we head back?”

Dornoll nodded, and smiled nervously as she took Gwaine’s hand. The two of them stood, and Gwaine gently began to guide her from the clearing back in the direction of the camp.

However, Dornoll fell to the ground a moment later with a choked whimper.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” Gwaine said immediately and dropping down as he looked over her for injuries.

Dornoll turned away. “My ankle hurts,” she murmured, her face burning in shame.

“… Do you want me to carry you?”

Dornoll didn’t move for a moment, before she nodded.

“Okay, put your arms around my neck.”

She did, and Gwaine picked her up, Dornoll hiding her face in his shoulder.

“What happened, anyway?” he asked calmly.

“While they were chasing me… I tripped,” Dornoll said, embarrassed.

“A battle injury, eh?” Gwaine said. “I’ve gotten those. Do you want to hear a story about one? It’s quite funny, actually.”

Dornoll was quiet, but then she nodded against Gwaine’s shoulder.

“Well, a few years ago, I was over in Nemeth, when I came across a man who I can only assume was actually a troll…”

Chapter Text

Merlin hadn’t moved all that much since watching Gwaine leave earlier, too wrapped in his own thoughts to really do so.

How could he have not noticed?

How could he have not realized?

Why hadn’t Gwaine said anything sooner?

With a groan, Merlin leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands.

Of course Gwaine wouldn’t have said anything- he’d probably been too preoccupied trying to keep Merlin from falling apart that he hadn’t wanted to say anything about his own problems. He’d probably worried that if he’d said anything, Merlin would insist they leave, and then where would they be?

With a sigh, Merlin stood.

Perhaps it was time to talk to some of the other Druids, try to ease their minds about having Gwaine in their camp.

But just as Merlin set off to go find Iseldir to ask how best to do that, he heard someone frantically enter the cave. “Emrys!”

Merlin turned in surprise.

There was Nuadat’s son, Tadg, barreling straight towards him with a panicked look in his eyes.

“Tadg?” Merlin asked, going to meet the child.

Tadg’s cry had gathered the attention of the rest of the camp as well, and they were all starting to move closer, watching Tadg with confused looks. Including Nuadat, whose lips were pressed into a line, but she did nothing to stop him.

Tadg reached Merlin, and took in a couple short breaths before speaking. “Gwaine, he said- he said to go find you.”

At this, Merlin’s stomach dropped. Gwaine had sent him? “What happened?”

Tadg glanced around warily, his breathing still rapid, but then he stuttered out. “Bandits. W-we were in the woods, when we got lost, and I went to go find Mama, but Dornoll- Dornoll ran into them-”

Bandits took her?” Nuadat breathed in horror, her eyes widening.

To which Tadg only nodded, his expression horrified and despaired.

Nuadat took in a couple deep breaths herself, before looking up. “We need to do something!”

Then the Druids began all speaking, one over the other, arguing how best to rescue the child.

But then Merlin lifted his head. “Wait!” he said, holding out a hand.

Immediately, startlingly so, all the Druids shushed.

A low voice was coming into the cave. A voice Merlin recognized.

“… so then I said ‘well, I’d love to agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong, and we don’t want that now do we?’”

Merlin turned towards the entrance and let out a relieved sigh.

There was Gwaine, and, based on the figure he was carrying, Dornoll too, safe from any bandits.

“Now this man, the troll,” Gwaine continued lightly, “He didn’t seem to appreciate that much, and decided he wanted to challenge me to a duel. So, he decided to throw a gauntlet at my feet. But does he have a gauntlet? No! Instead he reaches into his bag and pulls out an unwashed sock and throws it at my face.”

Gwaine laughed, completely at ease, and so did Dornoll. “I have never smelled anything worse than that sock. I nearly lost my dinner right at that moment. Shame I didn’t, actually- he was already mad enough at me that I don’t think I would have had anything to lose if I had retched all over his ‘nice shoes’ that he claimed they were.”

By this time, all the Druids had gathered around Gwaine and Dornoll. Gwaine glanced up and spotted Nuadat. Dornoll looked over, and she did too.

“Mama,” Dornoll said, reaching her arms out to her mother.

Gwaine passed Dornoll over, and opened his mouth to speak but Nuadat beat him to it.

“Dornoll? Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

Dornoll’s face was now pressed to Nuadat’s shoulder, so her voice was slightly muffled when she responded, “A-a little-”

Nuadat inhaled sharply, before glaring at Gwaine. “No thanks to you, I suppose,” she sneered.

Merlin was taken aback at the venom in her voice, and Gwaine was too based on the way he blinked in surprise. But before either of them could say anything-

“Mama? Why are you yelling at him?”

Everyone turned to see the small child in Nuadat’s arms, leaning away from her mother and giving Nuadat a shocked and disapproving look. “What did Gwaine do wrong?” Dornoll flailed a bit, and Nuadat dropped Dornoll to the ground.

“He saved me, Mama!” Dornoll yelled once more, before Nuadat could say anything else, moving so she was in front of Gwaine. “Why are you being so mean to him?”

Nuadat stared at her daughter, flabbergasted. Her mouth opened and closed several times as she tried to say something, but nothing came out.

Dornoll huffed, before stepping back towards Gwaine and taking Gwaine’s hand. “I like Gwaine,” she declared loudly, turning and glaring at her mother. “He’s nice and he tells funny stories. Why are you being so mean to him?”

Gwaine let out a sigh. He said softly, “Dornoll, it’s alright.” Dornoll looked at him, confused. “I understand why your mother doesn’t like me. I don’t blame her, actually.”

Dornoll’s face became confused at this. “But… why?”

Gwaine glanced up at Nuadat. She didn’t move, staring at him with an unreadable expression. Gwaine looked back down at Dornoll, and opened his mouth, but then shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Now you better go rejoin your mother.”

Dornoll looked at Gwaine was more, her face showing confused devastation, but then she nodded and walked over to her mother. Dornoll took Nuadat’s hand, and the two of them began to head to their tent.

Merlin turned to Gwaine. “Where are the bandits now?”

“I left them in the woods. Three of them. They’re all either dead or unconscious.”

“We should… take care of that.”

To which Gwaine nodded as well. “Let’s go then.”

And Merlin turned to head out of the cave.

He heard Gwaine take a step as well, but then Gwaine let out a choked and pained gasp.

Merlin snapped back to see Gwaine doubled over, his eyes wide, his hands pressed to his side and his breathing suddenly growing shaky.

“Gwaine? Gwaine?” Merlin exclaimed, moving to him and grabbing Gwaine’s shoulders.

Gwaine lifted his hands from his side, and Merlin inhaled sharply to see that they were covered in blood.

“What-?” Gwaine breathed, appearing more confused than anything. “When did-?”

He suddenly swayed, and only Merlin’s arms around him kept him from falling to the ground. Gwaine?!”

Behind him, someone yelled to fetch the healer, but Merlin barely heard it, the pounding of the blood in his ears drowning out everything else. “Gwaine, look at me, look at me.”

Gwaine did, lifting his head to meet Merlin’s eyes. And Merlin inhaled sharply to see that they were dilated.

Gwaine was going into shock.

But before he could think through that further, Gwaine’s face suddenly slacked, and he slumped into Merlin’s arms, having fallen completely unconscious. Gwaine?!”

Hands suddenly entered his field of view, and he looked up to see Bodhmall and her wife, Liath, standing next to him. “What happened?” Bodhmall demanded.

“I don’t- I don’t know; he was fine and then-”

Bodhmall nodded shortly, before looking up. “Liath, help Emrys get him to my tent.”

Liath nodded, bending down and grabbing Gwaine’s legs and hoisting them off the ground. Bodhmall ran ahead, and Merlin and Liath followed quickly, Gwaine’s unconscious form between the two of them.

“Get him inside, quickly!” Bodhmall instructed, holding the tent flap open.

Merlin and Liath moved inside, before gently setting Gwaine on the bedroll inside the tent. Liath quickly vacated, leaving the other three alone.

Without hesitation, Bodhmall rucked up Gwaine’s shirt and inhaled sharply upon seeing the wound in his stomach. Merlin did too- while he may not have had enough training to be able to tell the full extent of the injury, he knew enough to recognize a bad one when he saw it.

“We need to move quickly,” Bodhmall said, immediately reaching to the side and grabbing supplies. Without even glancing at Merlin, she handed him a clean rag. “Press down on the wound.”

Merlin did, immediately taking the rag and placing it over Gwaine’s injury, before putting his weight on the rag.

“Is he breathing?”

Merlin shifted so one hand was covering the entire wound, before taking his other and putting it by Gwaine’s face. “Yes, but barely.”

“How about his skin?”

Merlin then put a hand to Gwaine’s cheek. “Not good- it’s clammy. He’s definitely going into shock.”

Bodhmall nodded. “We’ll need to keep him warm, but we need to fix this wound first.”

He looked up then to see Bodhmall grabbing crystals and a bundle of dried herbs- not salves or even tongs like he would have suspected. “What are you doing?”

“Magic is his only chance,” she said quickly, setting the crystals around where Merlin’s hands were pressing on Gwaine’s stomach. “You’re going to have to help me.”

Merlin’s heart palpitated from where it was racing in his chest. “I’m rubbish at healing magic though!” Merlin protested. “I’ve no chance to help him!”

“Then let me guide it. Let me guide your magic,” Bodhmall said, holding out her hand to Merlin. “Send it through me, and I’ll direct it.”

Merlin shakily put his hand in hers, and Bodhmall clasped it tight, her stability stark against Merlin’s shaking. She put her other hand next to the one Merlin was still pressing tight over the wound, and she let out a grounding breath.

“Now guide it through me. Think of me as a tool, not as a person. It will make it easier.”

Merlin nodded shakily, before shutting his eyes and letting out a breath just as she had done.

A tool.

Bodhmall started chanting, but Merlin was more focused on trying to get his magic to connect that he didn’t notice what she had said. In the back of his mind, he made a note to ask her what she had said later.

It wasn’t working.

He felt Gwaine take in a shaky breath, and Merlin was hit with what was needed. What he needed to do.

And what was at stake if he failed.

So he pushed.

Bodhmall gasped at the new influx of magic, but didn’t slow in her incantation. He felt his magic connect with Bodhmall’s- strange and unfamiliar at first, but then it became warm, connected. He felt her guide his magic through her before reaching Gwaine. And Merlin didn’t stop, sending both Bodhmall and Gwaine as much magic as he was capable.

But as he focused, Merlin was taken slightly aback.

He could feel Gwaine healing. Something Gaius had tried to explain to him time and time again, but that Merlin could never quite catch. Something Gaius had said was the most important thing when working healing magic. He could feels Gwaine’s body working to knit itself back together.

He only hoped it was enough.

Merlin didn’t know quite no how long later, but he felt Bodhmall shift eventually. “That’s all we can do for now,” she murmured.

Merlin opened his eyes, and let out a breath.

Gwaine was still unconscious, but he was breathing much more deeply now, and his skin didn’t appear nearly as flushed.

Gingerly, Merlin lifted his hand from Gwaine’s wound- the appendage now tingling since he’d been pressing so hard and for so long- and Bodhmall immediately moved to take a look.

And she let out a relieved sigh. “We’ll still need to stitch it, but the worst has passed,” she said, removing the rag so Merlin could see the wound.

Merlin looked, and was taken aback once more.

The wound looked significantly better now, without the immediate risk that it had had before.

Merlin looked up at Bodhmall then with a relieved breath, ready to thank her, and she was staring at Merlin with obvious amazement in her eyes.

“What?” Merlin asked.

She blinked, but then smiled. “You truly are Emrys. I’d never- I’d never felt anything like that,” she whispered, awe clear in her voice. But then she gave her head a slight shake, before handing Merlin another rag and a bowl of water. “Clean the area, please.”

Merlin did, taking the rag and washing away the blood that had surrounded the wound. Now that it was gone, all that remained was a red welt on Gwaine’s stomach.

Bodhmall turned back from whatever she was doing, and in her hand she held a needle with a black thread coming off of it. She muttered something, her eyes flashing gold.

“What’d you do?” Merlin asked, curiosity brimming at new magic now that the immediate risk had passed.

“Strengthened the thread,” she answered, before bending down over the wound. “Keeps it from snapping while in use.”

And with ease that came only from years of practice, Bodhmall sewed the wound shut, before tying off the thread and snapping the excess length off with another flash of gold. And at that, she let out a breath.

“He’ll need to rest for a few days, and we’ll need to watch for infection, but I believe he’ll be just fine.”

At this, Merlin let out a shaky breath. “Thank you,” he whispered, gratitude lacing his voice.

Bodhmall gave him another smile. “It’s your magic that saved him, Emrys,” she said softly. “All I did was put it where it was needed most.” She reached out a hand and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder, a motion of solidarity and friendship.

“I’ll go inform the others of his condition,” Bodhmall said, standing. “I assume you would like to stay with him?”

Merlin nodded. “If that’s alright.”

“It is. I’ll return shortly.” And she left the tent.

Now that he was alone, now that the immediate crisis was over, Merlin felt a sudden wave of grief wash over him at what had almost happened.

He’d almost lost Gwaine.

To bandits. To some low-life bandits.

Merlin brushed Gwaine’s hair back from his forehead and let out a shaky breath, slipping his other hand into Gwaine’s. “I can’t lose you, Gwaine,” he whispered, breath shaking in his throat. Merlin shut his eyes and leaned over, gently putting his forehead to Gwaine’s. “I can’t. I don’t know what I’d do. I’ve already lost everything else- I can’t lose you, too, Gwaine.

“Not you, too.”

 

~

 

Merlin didn’t leave Gwaine’s side, keeping vigil next to his friend for several hours long into the night and watching Gwaine’s chest as he breathed, almost afraid it would stop. Aithusa slept at Gwaine’s side- curled up and pressing herself to his waist. She had found joined Merlin earlier that night, sensing his distress and wanting to check on him.

But at some point, Merlin simply couldn’t fight the urge to sleep any longer, and closed his eyes and drifted off- one hand still holding Gwaine’s.

Merlin was roused several hours later by the sound of someone saying his name. He let out a slight groan before lifting his head and blinking sleep from his eyes. It was dim, most of the candles having been snuffed for the night and not yet relighted for morning, but Merlin could still make out Gwaine’s eyes in the dark.

Gwaine smirked slightly. “Hey,” he greeted softly.

“Hey yourself,” Merlin responded as he pushed himself up. A faint smile crossed his face. “I’m glad to see you awake, Gwaine.”

Gwaine gave Merlin a small smile of his own, before he swallowed- the single motion showing considerable effort- and asked, “How long have I been out?”

“Most of a day; it’s the middle of the night.”

Gwaine nodded, but then he let out a pained hiss as he grimaced. He lifted a hand as if to do something, but started slightly when he touched Aithusa.

He glanced down and his eyes widened, before he let out a breath and softly put his hand to her back.

“Bodhmall left this for you,” Merlin said, reaching to the side and grabbing a small waterskin. “She said you were supposed to drink it when you woke up. I think it’s for the pain.”

Merlin helped Gwaine sit up, slowly, Gwaine involuntarily hissing and gasping as he did so. But once he was up, Gwaine took the skin from Merlin’s hand and took a sip, only grimacing slightly at the taste.

He swallowed as he handed the skin back to Merlin, but then asked as Merlin lowered him back down, “I didn’t get to see my wound; how bad is it?”

“Pretty bad. Any later and we might not have-” Merlin cut off here, taking in a shaking breath. But then he let it out. “But, Bodhmall and I used our magic, or more accurately she used mine, so we managed to keep it from getting worse. You have a few stitches, so we’ll need to make sure you don’t pull those. But this should just be another scar in a few weeks.”

Gwaine nodded. “That’s good to hear.”

“How do you feel?”

Gwaine laughed, before grimacing and hissing in pain once more, one hand clutching at his stomach. “Like I’ve been stabbed,” he said, strained.

“I’d think that’d be obvious, Gwaine,” Merlin retorted, deadpan. “I meant… feverish? Ill?”

Gwaine thought for a moment, before shaking his head. “No.”

To which Merlin let out a relieved breath. “We’ll need to examine you more in the morning, make sure there’s no puss, but if all goes well we’ve staved off infection.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Merlin didn’t respond at that, still just holding Gwaine’s hand and trying to regulate his breathing.

“You alright?” Gwaine asked softly.

Merlin let out a slight wry laugh. “Ironic you’re asking me that. Just… you gave us all quite the scare.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

Merlin let out a soft laugh. “Aithusa was really worried. She tried to wake you up as soon as she got here, and she started crying when you wouldn’t. I could only hold her and assure you that you were just resting, and that you would wake up when you were ready.”

Gwaine glanced at her. “Should we wake her-?”

Merlin shook his head. “Let her rest. She exhausted herself with worry.”

Gwaine, after a moment, nodded, before looking up at Merlin. He looked him over. “What about you?” he asked softly. “How are you doing?”

Merlin smiled wryly, rubbing his thumb over Gwaine’s hand. “I… I was scared I was going to lose you, Gwaine,” he confessed. “I-I can’t lose you, Gwaine. Not you too,” Merlin murmured, his voice becoming thick. He roughly wiped his eyes with the palm of a hand, feeling overwhelmingly selfish and ashamed for falling apart in front of Gwaine after Gwaine had just gotten stabbed.

“Merlin,” Gwaine started. He withdrew his hand from where Merlin was holding it, before putting it to the back of Merlin’s neck, rubbing his thumb at the base of Merlin’s skull. “You won’t lose me. Promise.”

Merlin snorted. “You can’t promise things like that, Gwaine.”

Gwaine only smirked. “Eh, perhaps not. But I can do my hardest to make sure that I keep it.”

Merlin let out a short breath, before giving his head a slight shake. “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“For-” he gestured broadly, then to himself. “Here you are, you just got stabbed and here I am-”

Gwaine smirked, before lightly tugging the hair at the base of Merlin’s skull, almost chastising. “You were worried about me. I’d do the same if it were you.”

Merlin let out a breath, before looking up and giving Gwaine a small smile. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”

Gwaine let out an amused breath at this. “Me too. Getting stabbed is not a pleasant way to go, let me tell you.”

Merlin laughed softly at this, before his eyes met Gwaine’s once more.

Then there was a shift, a change, and Merlin bent down more to Gwaine’s level, his expression nervous. Gwaine looked confused, but then his expression turned to surprised realization.

Merlin’s gaze flicked to Gwaine’s mouth, then back to his eyes as he swallowed nervously, silently asking permission.

But instead of answering verbally, Gwaine only smiled and lifted his hand to the back of Merlin’s neck, before pulling him down and closing the distance between them.

Their lips touched, and Merlin let out a sigh as he shut his eyes, parting his lips against Gwaine’s as he felt Gwaine do the same in return. Gwaine’s lips tasted like basil- there must have been some in Bodhmall’s mixture.

He took the hand that wasn’t holding Gwaine’s and ran it through Gwaine’s hair, inwardly marveling at how soft it was (softer than he’d imagined when he’d thought of doing it before). He felt Gwaine’s other hand land by his hip, lightly pulling him closer. And Merlin didn’t resist, moving down and pressing more of himself to Gwaine.

Gwaine tried to sit up slightly, to bring himself closer to Merlin, but then let out a grunt of discomfort and fell back with a soft chuckle. Merlin murmured an apology against his lips, before giving them one last peck.

Merlin leaned back then and found Gwaine smiling at him, his eyes shining with fondness and joy. “You fancy me, then?” Gwaine asked playfully.

Merlin smiled. “I do.”

“Well, good thing then, because I fancy you too. Have for a while, actually.”

“Why didn’t you say anything, then?”

Gwaine smirked wryly. “What could I have said, Merlin? You’re already the best friend I’ve ever had. I didn’t… I didn’t want to lose that.”

Merlin ran his hand through Gwaine’s hair again. “You wouldn’t have.” He paused for a moment, before asking, “So you want to do this? Want to try… courting?”

Gwaine took Merlin’s hand and brought it to his mouth, before lightly kissing his fingers. “Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Then lets do it.”

At that, Merlin smiled. “Alright. Sir Gwaine, will you do me the honor of courting me?” he asked, playfully, eyes twinkling.

To which Gwaine smiled, and squeezed Merlin’s fingers. “I would love nothing more.”

 

~

 

Merlin woke before Gwaine the next morning as the sounds of the camp starting their day filtered into the tent. He lifted his head and checked Gwaine: still breathing thankfully, and no sign of pain on his face as he slept.

Merlin let out a relieved breath, before smiling softly as he brushed some of the hair from Gwaine’s face. Gwaine didn’t stir at the touch, a testament to how exhausted he must have been. Aithusa was still curled up asleep, pressing herself close to Gwaine’s side, her snout nuzzled in the folds of the blanket over him.

Merlin spent a couple minutes like that, just looking over Gwaine and being grateful for the fact that he was alive.

And remembering what they had confessed the night before…

Bodhmall slipped in several minutes later. “Lord Emrys,” she greeted with a slight bow, before she looked at the still sleeping Gwaine. “Did he wake during the night?”

Merlin nodded, then indicated towards the waterskin with his head. “I gave him the skin, just as you said.”

Bodhmall nodded in approval. “Good. Did he have any other issues?”

Merlin shook his head. “I told him we’d check in the morning for infection, but he said he felt fine- not feverish or ill.”

“Would you like to stay with him still? I can take over if you wish to leave.”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine, before turning back and shaking his head. “No, I’ll be fine.”

To which Bodhmall nodded. “I’ll fetch you some breakfast. Send for me if he wakes,” she said, then she was gone.

She returned a minute later, and handed Merlin a bowl of stew, but then left once more, leaving Merlin, Gwaine, and Aithusa alone.

Gwaine stirred a while later, after Merlin had finished eating, and Merlin glanced down from where he had been staring into space in the direction of the canvas ceiling of the tent.

“Morning,” Merlin greeted once Gwaine’s eyes were open.

Gwaine looked at Merlin and flashed him a grin. “Morning.”

Merlin’s face softened, and a small smile graced his face. “Are you feeling any better?”

Gwaine shrugged slightly. “Don’t feel worse, if that’s what you’re asking.” He then glanced down at where Aithusa was still sleeping and smiled slightly at her, before taking a hand and lightly rubbing her scales just as he had done earlier that night.

Aithusa shifted at the touch, before she lifted her head. She blinked drowsily for a moment, before her eyes widened. “Ga-waine!” she exclaimed, jumping up.

Gwaine smiled softly again. “’Thusa.”

Aithusa nudged her snout against Gwaine’s cheek then, whimpering, and Gwaine let out a soft laugh, before gasping slightly in pain. “I’m fine, ‘Thusa. I’m fine,” he said, though slightly strained.

He took a hand and put it to her head, softly rubbing the scales, and gradually her whimpering quieted and Gwaine let out a relieved breath.

Gwaine then glanced at the empty bowl by Merlin’s side and asked, “Any for me?”

“I’ll go get some. Just hang tight,” Merlin said, standing and setting off to do just that.

Merlin returned to the tent a minute or so later, bowl of stew in hand and Bodhmall in tow.

She and Merlin examined Gwaine’s wound, and all were relieved to find no sign of infection, and that his wound was coming along as if it had been imparted several days ago, and not just the night before.

Merlin’s magic had done the trick, it seemed.

They helped Gwaine sit up- Gwaine admirably attempting but not quite keeping himself from making noises of discomfort- and propped him up with some pillows so he could eat, Aithusa moving to rest her head on Gwaine’s thigh.

Bodhmall gave Merlin some extra instructions- how best to keep it clean, when to change the bandages, with Merlin resisting informing her that he already knew most of this. But then she left after asking Gwaine if he felt if he was ready to talk to anyone.

Iseldir wanted to speak with him, apparently.

The tent flap parted several minutes later, and Merlin glanced over to see Iseldir stepping in.

“Iseldir,” Merlin greeted. Gwaine nodded in greeting as well, but said nothing due to a mouth full of stew.

Iseldir smiled warmly, before coming in and kneeling on Gwaine’s other side. “I’m glad to see you are well, Sir Gwaine. I heard what happened- and what you did for Dornoll, and I wanted to come thank you personally.”

“It’s the least I could do,” Gwaine responded after swallowing.

Iseldir nodded slightly, though more in acknowledgment of what Gwaine said in lieu of agreeing. “But still, thank you. Truly. Our children are our future, and to lose any one of them…” Iseldir trailed off, a dark cloud suddenly covering his brow.

But he shook it off a moment later, before smiling once more at Gwaine. “The entire camp is grateful for what you have done. If there’s anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.”

Gwaine glanced at Merlin for a moment, before turning back. “I think I’m good for now, thanks.”

And with that, Iseldir smiled and put a hand to Gwaine’s shoulder. “Get some rest and heal well. I hope your recovery is swift.” And with that, he stood. “Sir Gwaine, Lord Emrys,” he parted, before leaving the tent.

 

~

 

Gwaine spent the rest of that day recovering in the tent, Bodhmall not wanting to risk him moving too much until she was positive the wound would not open again. But Gwaine, after only a day and a half, got decidedly restless and insisted that he was well enough to at least go out to join the others at breakfast the next morning.

Merlin held the flap open for Gwaine, and Gwaine stepped out into the cave, only grunting slightly as he straightened to a stand and Aithusa sitting on Merlin’s shoulder and joining him as he looked over Gwaine in slight concern.

“You sure about this, Gwaine?”

Gwaine waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve had worse. Don’t worry.”

“Have you?” Merlin asked in skeptical amusement.

“Well, I can’t think of an example right now, but I’m sure I have.”

Merlin snorted at that, but didn’t comment further.

The three of them began to head to the central fire, when Merlin noticed something.

Nuadat was standing off to the side, her daughter hiding behind her robes and staring out at Gwaine. Nuadat put a hand to Dornoll’s shoulder and said quietly, “Go on, don’t be shy.”

Dornoll glanced up at her mother, before stepping around her and walking up to Gwaine. “Sir Gwaine?” she asked, looking up at him.

Gwaine turned, looked briefly surprised. He glanced at Nuadat, who did nothing to discourage him, just standing and watching.

Gwaine knelt on the ground in front of the child, and flicked his hair out of his face. He smiled slightly at Dornoll. “How’s your ankle?” he asked.

“’S good,” she answered shyly, her hands behind her back and swaying slightly.

Gwaine smiled and nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Dornoll was quiet once more- strange, considering her usually loud and talkative nature.

“… everything alright, Dornoll?” Gwaine asked gently.

Dornoll bit her lip, before looking up, eyes brimming. “Is it my fault you got hurt?”

Gwaine’s eyes widened. “What? No, no, it’s not your fault.”

“B-but you got hurt saving me-”

“Dornoll,” Gwaine started, shifting forward slightly. “It’s the mean bandits’ fault I got hurt- not yours. They were the ones who stabbed me, not you.”

Dornoll’s eyes widened in terror. “Stabbed?” she squeaked.

Gwaine grimaced. “Well… yes, but it wasn’t too bad,” Gwaine backtracked, trying to calm her.

Merlin disguised his reaction to Gwaine’s blatant lie with a cough.

(Aithusa glanced to Merlin, worry in her eyes. “Sick, Brod?”

“No, I’m fine, Aithusa.”)

Gwaine smiled warmly at Dornoll, before taking a hand and ruffling her hair. “Merlin and Bodhmall healed me- I’m going to be just fine,” Gwaine said with a warm smirk. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

Dornoll’s sniffling quieted a little, apparently Gwaine’s words reassuring her. She was quiet for a moment longer after that, before she suddenly brought her arm forward from where it had been behind her back. In her hand was what looked like a green wreath made out of oak leaves.

Gwaine glanced down at it, then at Dornoll again. “What’s this, then?”

“It’s a crown; she made it,” Dornoll’s mother said from behind. “She wanted to thank you for saving her.”

Dornoll smiled and nodded and held it out.

Gwaine bowed his head slightly, and Dornoll took the leaf crown and placed it on his head. She adjusted it slightly, before nodding in satisfaction and stepping back.

Gwaine lifted his head. “How do I look?”

“Good. Like a king.”

Gwaine smiled. “Glad to hear it. Thank you.”

To which Dornoll shot Gwaine a smile, before suddenly turning and running off without so much as a farewell. Gwaine stood with a smirk.

Nuadat rolled her eyes fondly, before stepping forward towards Gwaine. She kept her eyes down, rubbing her arm. But then she took in a breath and looked up. “Thank you,” she said. “I… I know I wasn’t kind to you before, but… you saved my daughter. It seems that I may have… misjudged you.” She let out another sigh. “There is nothing I can do to repay you, but I hope I can earn your forgiveness for my earlier actions.”

Gwaine looked her over, before letting out a breath of his own. “I don’t blame you, Nuadat. I understand. Though I can’t say I’m fond of Camelot myself at the moment.”

Nuadat and Gwaine both chuckled slightly at that. Before Gwaine stepped forward and put a hand to Nuadat’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he said genuinely, and they shared a small smile.

“Did you tell Gwaine ‘sorry?’” A sudden voice called.

The three of them turned to see Dornoll once more, standing over to the side and looking over her mother with narrowed eyes.

Nuadat let out a breath, before laughing faintly. “I did. I told Gwaine I was sorry for how I was being mean to him. You should never be afraid to admit when you did something wrong.”

At this, Dornoll stared at her mother before nodding approvingly. Merlin had to stifle a laugh at Dornoll’s antics. But then Dornoll came back over and looked up at Gwaine. “Are you a knight?” she asked.

“I used to be. But not anymore.”

“Why?”

Gwaine glanced at Merlin, before crouching back to Dornoll’s level and answering, “I defended Merlin from my king. The king didn’t like that much and banished me.”

Dornoll looked confused. “Ban-ished?” she asked, clearly not familiar with the term.

“Kicked me out. Decided I wasn’t welcome in his kingdom anymore.”

Dornoll nodded slowly, considering this. “Because Emrys was your friend?”

Gwaine smirked wryly. “Because Emrys is my friend.”

Dornoll’s face fell, and she was silent for a minute, before speaking once more. “You never finished your story. The one with the troll,” she said.

“I didn’t, did I? Tell you what,” Gwaine said, “I need to eat something first, but come find me later, and I’ll finish it for you, alright?”

Dornoll looked him over for a moment, before nodding in satisfaction. And with that, she turned, grabbed her mother’s hand, and began to pull Nuadat away.

Nuadat let out a laugh, before she turned back to Gwaine as they walked away. She nodded, once, and gave him a small grateful smile, before she followed her daughter, off to go do whatever it was the child would next be enthralled by.

“I hope I don’t look too much like a king,” Gwaine muttered to Merlin as they too turned and walked away. “Looking like Arthur would be a serious blow to my good looks.”

Merlin barked out a laugh at that, his face alight in a smile.

Gwaine stopped; Merlin hadn’t laughed like that- a genuine laugh- in a long time. He smiled softly at Merlin, his eyes shining.

Merlin turned to look at Gwaine, and he gave one more laugh through a confused expression, before asking, “What?”

“I missed your laugh,” Gwaine responded sincerely, still with the soft smile. Feeling bold, he reached forward and slipped his hand into Merlin’s and gave it a squeeze.

Merlin looked down at their hands, before he smiled softly and intertwined his fingers with Gwaine’s. Then he looked up with a wry smirk. “I missed it, too.” But then he let out a breath and continued his heading, his hand still in Gwaine’s. “C’mon, let’s go get you something to eat.”

Chapter Text

Winter began to show one night, and the camp woke to find the outside fields frosted over and glittering in the morning sun. So, as such, that week was spent preparing for winter- harvesting plants, finishing blankets, creating magical barriers against the cold. Anything that needed doing.

Gwaine had nearly fully recovered from his knife wound, it now only manifesting itself as an angry scar on the left side of his stomach.

During the first weeks, Merlin would often soothe the wound, placing his hand over the scar and trying to ease some of the pain, the healing magic now coming much more easily to him than it ever had before. But, soon, it was just another scar decorating Gwaine’s body.

It still flared up sometimes, but no more than Gwaine’s other scars did. If anything, he said it was more tolerable than his usual injuries.

A testament to Merlin’s magic, they both supposed.

One night, Merlin sat on his bedroll, running his fingers over a small trinket he had brought with him from Camelot. One of the first things he had been sure to pack when he knew he had to leave.

A small carved wooden dragon.

His fingers were familiar with the ridges and the rough spots as he traced the lines along it, and as he sat there, he remembered Balinor as the Dragonlord had carved it during their one night together.

And Merlin found himself, as he always did, wishing that they’d had more time. That he could have gotten to know the man who was his father better.

But, eventually, Merlin took in a breath and spoke.

“I want to go to the cave. The one past Engerd.”

Gwaine looked up from where he’d been tucking another wool blanket inside his bedroll, the chill finally getting to even him. “Really? What for?”

“Well, not permanently,” Merlin began. “But my father stayed there, I told you that, right?”

Gwaine nodded.

“I think his stuff might still be there.”

Gwaine nodded once more. After a thoughtful pause, he said, “You want to go get it.”

“And it has been a while since I visited my mother. I want to see her again, too.”

“So you want to stop by this cave, then go see your mum?”

“Yes.”

“Why now?”

“Well, with winter, there will be less bandits on the road. I can use magic to keep us warm, so we won’t have to worry about that. I just think soon would be a good time: no one is expecting anyone to travel, and we can hunt for ourselves- use less rations from the camp since we arrived so late in the season.”

Gwaine thought for a moment, before shrugging slightly. “Yeah, alright, love. When do you want to set out?”

 

~

 

The two of them set out about a week after Yule, weighed down with supplies and well wishes from the Druids. Adorned in furs and woolen cloaks that had been enchanted to keep both dry and warm, the two of them mounted Gringolet (her first major outing in a while) and set off for Balinor’s cave.

Though it had been quite some time since Merlin had been there he found the way easily- the journey having been forever ingrained in his mind since the first time he’d made it.

Aithusa flew alongside them part of the way, but when she wasn’t flying she was joining them on Gringolet, either huddling in the warm space between the two of them or appearing as a lump on Gwaine’s back beneath his furs.

They managed to reach the cave within half a day of riding, without any consequences just as Merlin had anticipated. But as they got closer, Merlin noticed his breath catching more and more in his throat, and that he began shaking, but not from the cold.

Gwaine noticed too. “You alright, Merlin?” he asked, leaning forward and murmuring in Merlin’s ear.

Merlin nodded shortly. “Yeah, yeah, fine, just-” he let out a breath- “a lot of strong emotions right now.”

Gwaine nodded after a moment, before leaning further forward into Merlin’s space (while being careful of Aithusa, who was currently nestled between the two of them), and rubbing Merlin’s arm soothingly. “We can turn back, or just head straight to your mother’s. We don’t have to do this.”

“No, no, I want to, Gwaine- I need to. It’s been three years. If not now, when?” Merlin twisted so he could meet Gwaine’s face, and he gave Gwaine a small smile. “I’ll be fine. We’re nearly there, anyway.”

Sure enough, within half an hour of when Merlin had said that, they had reached the cave. They hobbled Gringolet near the entrance, far enough in to be sheltered from the wind, and Merlin, Gwaine, and Aithusa headed deeper into the cave Balinor had called his home.

As they approached the space within that Balinor had made into his living area, Merlin saw that it looked just as he remembered, even though three years had passed since he had: a pile of blankets acting for a bed, a couple bookshelves, a table, and a firepit laid in the middle of it all, still with some logs waiting to be used. With a wave of Merlin’s hand and a flash of gold, the firepit lit, and the cave was illuminated further.

“This is where your father stayed?” Merlin heard Gwaine’s voice.

Merlin nodded. “Yeah. He spent nearly twenty years here after Uther chased him out of Ealdor.”

“… must have been lonely.”

“… it was,” Merlin responded, his voice thick.

Merlin heard flapping from behind him, and felt something land on his shoulder a moment later. He turned to see Aithusa looking at him, her eyes imploring yet concerned.

Merlin smiled at her and lifted a finger to scratch her chin. He let out a sigh. “Well, this place isn’t going to clean itself.” He turned to Gwaine. “We’ll start tomorrow; get some rest tonight.”

“Sounds good, love,” Gwaine said, coming up and patting the shoulder Aithusa wasn’t perched on.

Merlin and Gwaine prepared some food and Aithusa explored the cave, running off into the deeper parts and running back to the two of them in an excited flurry, often nudging one of them by the hand until they got up to go the absolutely fascinating rock feature that she had found, over and over again.

Gwaine had brought Gringolet deeper in as the weather had gotten worse, and she was now huddled and sleeping in one nook of the cave underneath their woolen blankets.

Even though they were a fair way in, the cold still carried through, and they had to constantly be relighting candles and making sure they had enough supplies to last the night.

“No offense, Merlin, but I’m glad the Druids found us before we’d made it here- staying here would have been terrible.”

And Merlin could only laugh in agreement.

 

~

 

After night had fully fallen, they began to get ready to go to sleep. Merlin checked on Gringolet- the horse having enough blankets to keep herself warm and food within reach- and gathered enough firewood to make sure it lasted most of the night.

He returned to watch as Gwaine laid out one bedroll, and made no move to get the other one as he started taking all the furs and piling them on top of it.

“Uhh, Gwaine, what are you doing?”

“Sharing will be warmer. And it’s not like we haven’t done it before, love,” Gwaine said, glancing over. “Though if you don’t want to I can get the other one-”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Merlin responded. While he and Gwaine had certainly shared a bedroll before, this would be the first time they’ve done it since they had officially started courting.

Gwaine climbed in, before patting the spot next to him and inviting Merlin over with a warm smile. Merlin returned it, before he came over and put himself next to Gwaine, tucking the furs over the two of them, before he laid down with his head on Gwaine’s shoulder.

Merlin shivered against Gwaine then, and Gwaine removed an arm from the warmth before he gently pulled the fur on top further up, covering the two of them completely up to their necks.

“You’re right, this is warmer,” Merlin said lightly.

He felt Gwaine chuckle, but Gwaine didn’t respond.

Aithusa then came over and wiggled her way along Merlin’s spine, fitting herself underneath the furs and settling herself in the small of Merlin’s back.

Merlin let out a small laugh at that, before idly taking a hand and patting Aithusa’s head. She chirped drowsily, but didn’t say anything.

“Night, Aithusa. Night, Gwaine.”

“Night, love.”

And Merlin drifted off to the sound of Aithusa and Gwaine’s breathing, completely at ease.

 

~

 

Gwaine awoke first the next morning, already shivering from the cold. Time to get a fire going, he figured.

He glanced to his side to see Merlin, still sound asleep under Gwaine’s arm and his black tangle all a mess. Gwaine smiled softly, before lightly pecking Merlin on the head.

He moved from under the furs, careful to keep Merlin and Aithusa covered, before making his way to the firepit. The cold sunk through his socks quite easily, and Gwaine was very thankful Merlin had had the foresight to enchant his boots to repel the cold as he slipped them onto his feet.

The wood from the night before had all burned, so Gwaine spent a couple minutes silently walking around the cave and salvaging what he could, before crouching by the pit and assembling it into a pile.

Just as Gwaine began to look around for a flint, he heard a chirp from over where Merlin was sleeping.

He glanced over to see Aithusa awake and staring at Gwaine, her cocked head poking up above the lump that was Merlin.

Gwaine smiled. “Hey, Aithusa. Could you come here for a moment?” he asked as he tipped his head to invite her over.

Aithusa chirped happily, before ambling over to Gwaine and nudging her head against his hand.

He scratched her horns with a smile, before nodding at the stack of wood. “Can you light that for me?”

Aithusa glanced at it, back at Gwaine, then nodded. She turned to the wood, wiggled herself a few times, before coughing.

A small plume of fire came out of her mouth, and it just barely managed to catch the kindling, staring a small fire. Aithusa looked up at Gwaine, her eyes alight in pride.

Gwaine laughed. “Yes, you did very well,” he praised, scratching her horns again.

Aithusa chirped, pleased, before suddenly running off deeper into the cave.

“And where are you going?” Gwaine called after her, turning where he was sitting.

Aithusa didn’t respond with words, just another happy chirp which echoed through the cave.

Gwaine laughed and shook his head fondly, before turning back to the fire and poking it with a stick, trying to coax the flames to grow.

He heard scrambling on rocks a minute or so later, and turned to see Aithusa returning, something in her mouth.

“What do you have there?” Gwaine asked.

Aithusa walked over and dropped a rabbit into his lap, before looking up at Gwaine. “Food!” she exclaimed. She nudged it. “For Ga-waine and brod.”

Gwaine blinked at her, before he let out another laugh. “So it would seem,” he said, picking the rabbit up and his mind already planning how he would prepare it for their breakfast.

Aithusa watched, fascinated, as Gwaine skinned it with a swiftness and ease that only came from years of practice, though he couldn’t deny there was something else in her gaze. Gwaine noticed, amused, and pointed at the rabbit with his knife. “You want a piece?”

Aithusa immediately straightened at this, her eyes alight.

So Gwaine tossed her a piece, and she immediately lunged for it, catching it in the air and eating it quickly. Before looking up at Gwaine with a clearly expectant look.

He tossed Aithusa another scrap, a bigger one, and she caught it and immediately began to rip it up, holding it between her claws and tearing at it with her teeth, growling slightly.

It was then that Gwaine heard movement from the bedroll, and he glanced over to see Merlin sitting up and staring groggily at Gwaine.

Gwaine gave him a toothy grin. “Morning, love.”

Merlin blinked at Gwaine for another moment, clearly still very tired, before he moved to a stand while wrapping one of the furs around his shoulders. He came and sat next to Gwaine at the fire, eyeing the rabbit meat Gwaine was currently cooking. “What’s that?”

“Rabbit,” Gwaine answered. “Your lovely dragon caught it for us.”

“Did she now?” Merlin asked, sounding impressed.

Aithusa looked up at Merlin- half finished bit of scrap meat still in her claws- and gave a proud chirp, her eyes shining once more.

Merlin smiled fondly, before taking a hand from the inside of his furs and rubbing the scales of Aithusa’s forehead, to which she made a pleased rumbling noise before nudging her snout against his leg.

Gwaine mixed the rabbit into a stew along with some of their rations from the camp, and the three of them (four, including Gringolet) ate before setting off to do what they came to the cave to do.

Clearing Balinor’s things.

As they worked, the small signs of someone living there became more apparent- the worn rocks where Balinor had frequently walked, the pile of worn clothing in that back that had probably been used when nights had gotten cold, a small stash of coins that had been hidden in the back that only Aithusa’s penchant for finding shiny things revealed.

(She’d sat on them and then had proceeded to stare defiantly at both Merlin and Gwaine if they had dared gotten too close to it, suddenly extremely overprotective and possessive of the her newfound wealth.

A Dragon’s Hoard, indeed.)

It was clear that they couldn’t take everything, and so Merlin had had to make the difficult decision of what they could afford to leave, and what they should take with them. Though Gwaine pointed out that if there was anything usable that Merlin didn’t think his mother should have, they could stop by on their way back to the Druids.

They spent about half the day like this- cleaning the cave. And slowly, sadly, the signs of someone using it as their living area started to disappear.

The signs of Balinor began to disappear.

Merlin’s shoulders slumped lower and lower as they progressed, but he didn’t slow in his determination to get everything organized and gathered, and Gwaine didn’t slow in his helping.

There was still a pile of furs on an elevated point near the back of the cave. Gwaine had been putting off cleaning that, mostly because it was further away from where Merlin was and moving over there would involve going past where it was easy to continue talking, but with a sigh he headed back and began to take the furs.

Gwaine lifted a deer pelt, and was taken aback.

A large tome with a black leather cover had been underneath. It was by far the largest book they’d encountered, and the fact that it had been wrapped up meant that it must have been important.

Gwaine bent down and picked it up. “Merlin?” he called. “I think I found something.”

Gwaine heard Merlin’s footsteps a moment later, and soon found Merlin at his side. Gwaine turned and handed him the book, and Merlin took it, his brow furled in confusion.

But then Merlin cracked open the cover, and his breath caught.

“Merlin?”

Merlin didn’t respond, still staring in disbelief at the volume in his hands. Without a word, he turned and made his way to their bedroll, before slowly sitting down on it, still not having removed his gaze from the book.

Gwaine followed and sat next to him, trying to read what Merlin was thinking.

Merlin flipped through the book, his look of shock turning to a smile.

“He wrote down everything,” Merlin said with a breathy and disbelieving laugh. “He wrote down everything about being a Dragonlord: the stories, the customs, the rituals-” Merlin looked up at Gwaine, tears gathering in his eyes. “I can finally know.”

Gwaine smiled softly, before lifting a hand and tucking some of Merlin’s hair behind his ear. He leaned in a placed a light kiss to Merlin’s lips before leaning back with a soft smile. “Congrats, love.”

Merlin gave him a small, sad smile, before turning back to the book.

Merlin flipped to the very front, looking over a sketch of a dragon Balinor had done on the inside cover.

Gwaine’s attention, however, was drawn to the inscription on the first page:

 

Ful orin fod un Reyliik los vod, un tey fent lahney nau.

Lingrah lahney faal Dovahdrog.

 

“What does that say?” Gwaine asked.

Merlin pursed his lips at it for a moment. Softly, he repeated the phrase under his breath, his voice somehow containing the telltale growl of Dragonspeak though Merlin was not yelling.

“It basically says… ‘So that even if our People are gone, our tale shall live on. Long live the Dragonlord.’”

Gwaine glanced up at the sound of flapping, and a white blur suddenly landed on Merlin’s shoulder, revealing itself to be Aithusa who now looked down at the book in fascination.

Gwaine smiled. “Long live the Dragonlord, indeed.”

Merlin looked up and gave Gwaine another watery smile, before turning back to the book, leaning over and putting his head on Gwaine’s shoulder.

They spent much of the day still on that bedroll, simply flipping through the book and marveling at the details contained within- children’s rhymes, holiday customs, rites of passage, dragon anatomy.

As Merlin read, his brow became more furled, and a hard look came to his face.

He was thinking of something. Gwaine knew it. “What is it, love?”

Merlin looked up and met Gwaine’s eyes. “There’s… one more thing I want to do before we head to Ealdor.”

 

Image Description: An ink drawing of a dragon above writing in Dovahzul on textured paper.  End description.

~

 

The next day, Merlin and Gwaine set out from Balinor’s cave, the things of Balinor’s they were taking to Merlin’s mother packed securely in bags that had been tied to Gringolet’s saddle.

(It had taken some convincing, but even Aithusa’s small hoard had been packed away, with promises from Merlin and Gwaine that she would get it back as soon as they were back at the Druid camp. She’d looked skeptical, but eventually, reluctantly, agreed to let them take her coins. Though she kept her eyes narrowed at the two of them while they packed them all away.)

Aithusa followed a little ways behind as they rode, leaping from branch to branch and occasionally showering snow on top of the travelers, Gringolet nickering in annoyance whenever she did so, and Merlin apologizing with a pat to her neck.

Merlin hadn’t really explained to Gwaine where his detour was taking them, but Merlin figured Gwaine had a fair idea, especially since he carried the large leather tome in a bag right at his side.

But Merlin eventually stopped Gringolet and let out a breath. “This is it,” he said, swinging a leg over and slipping into the untouched snow below.

Gwaine followed, looking around with a furled brow. “Merlin?”

But without answering, Merlin made his way to a pile of snow off to one side, that was placed between two trees.

Merlin knelt down in the snow, and let out a sigh. “Hello, father,” he greeted, brushing some snow off of what Gwaine realized was a cairn.

Balinor’s grave.

Had Merlin done it alone? Had he been the only one to give his father a place to rest?

When had he done it?

“Gwaine, can you help me?” Merlin asked, pulling Gwaine from his watchful reverie.

“’Course, love,” Gwaine said, crunching through the snow to get to Merlin’s side.

Together, the two of them cleared off more of the cairn, before Merlin pulled out the tome and flicked to a middle page. He held it out to Gwaine, a silent question to hold it, and Gwaine took it.

It was the section on funeral rites.

“We can’t do everything,” Merlin murmured solemnly, “… but there is one thing.”

And with that, Merlin read the page once more, before nodding to himself and placing his hands on the stones, and shutting his eyes.

Aal hi bo zeim lok, Bormah, ahrk aal hi siiv drem ol hi praan. Erei zu’u aav hi ko praan.

Merlin’s eyes flashed gold as he opened them, and he let out a low breath.

Aithusa had been watching, her eyes soft, before she came over and nudged Merlin’s knee with her snout. “Is this your bormah, brod?”

Merlin gave her a sad smile and nodded. “This is my bormah.”

Aithusa’s eyes saddened, before she leaned over and rested her head on Merlin’s knee, her eyes far off.

Merlin let out a sigh, before rubbing her head, staring at the cairn with a sad, distant look in his eyes.

“I only knew him for a day,” Merlin murmured. “But I can’t help but grieve for what might have been.”

Gwaine’s eyes softened, before he shut the book and rested it on his lap. He reached out and put a hand to Merlin’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “But at least you knew him.”

To which Merlin smiled through the saddened expression, before looking up at Gwaine. He smirked wryly. “At least I knew him.”

The three of them crouched silently by Balinor’s grave for a minute longer, before Merlin nodded to himself and stood.

“That it?” Gwaine asked, standing.

Merlin nodded. “It’s essentially a spell wishing peace. Though spoken in the Dragontongue. All Dragonlord’s are supposed to be told it at their funeral. It’s the only thing I could do on short notice… and by myself.” He gave Gwaine a small, rueful smile, before turning to and walking back to Gringolet, Aithusa following behind in the snow.

Merlin untied Gringolet’s reins, before crouching down in front of Aithusa and scratching her horns. “We’re heading out. Do you want to ride with us, or fly on your own?”

Aithusa thought for a moment, before saying, “Fly, brod.”

“Okay. We’re headed to Ealdor. Do you know where that is?”

Aithusa smiled and nodded, her eyes shining.

Merlin smiled. “That’s my girl. Now go on. Be safe.”

Aithusa bumped her snout to Merlin’s knee and gave an affectionate chirp, before walking over to Gwaine and nuzzling his leg for a moment. She took off on a gallop a moment later and leapt into the sky, and disappeared into the low hanging clouds.

Merlin turned and mounted Gringolet, and Gwaine followed a moment later after slipping the tome into one of the bags tied to Gringolet’s saddle. He wrapped the large fur around his shoulders back around the two of them, before glancing back at where Aithusa had disappeared in the clouds. “You sure she’ll be alright?”

Merlin nodded. “She’s been able to handle herself for months. This is honestly the most time I’ve spent with her.”

Gwaine nodded. “Well, alright then.”

And with a flick of the reins from Merlin, Gringolet set out for Ealdor.

Chapter Text

They crested a final hill, and Merlin leaned back into Gwaine as he let out a breath. “Well, here we are. Welcome to Ealdor.”

It was about what Gwaine had anticipated: he’d seen enough small towns to have an accurate idea of what to expect. A small smattering of houses (each with a thin trail of smoke coming out of a chimney or hole in the roof), some livestock, and gardens and farms at nearly all the houses.

“My mother’s house is the second one to the right,” Merlin said as he flicked the reins to get Gringolet moving again, and soon they were entering the town.

Not many people were out- it being the middle of winter and all- but the central road had been cleared of snow, and was now just cold dirt with the occasional clump of frozen grass.

As they approached, Gwaine saw that there was a woman in the garden of the house Merlin had indicated, kneeling on the ground and, presumably, harvesting some root vegetables. She was wrapped tight in wool fabric, and Gwaine could hear her softly humming to herself as she worked.

She didn’t notice their approach, even when Gwaine stopped the horse only a few dozen feet away and slid off, his feet causing the frost ridden grass below to crackle.

Merlin dismounted from the horse, and took a step forward. “Mother?” he called.

Hunith’s head snapped up and she turned to look at him. “Merlin?”

Merlin smiled. “Hello, Mother.”

Hunith stared in disbelief for a moment, before she stood and rapidly wiped her hands on her skirt as she rushed over and embraced her son tight in a hug.

“Oh, my son. It’s been too long.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

They stayed like that for a moment longer, before Hunith leaned back and smiled widely at Merlin. She rubbed her hands along Merlin’s arms, as if making sure he was actually alright. “When Gaius wrote and told me what had happened in Camelot-!”

“I’m fine, mother,” Merlin said. “And I’m sorry for not writing. But I came as soon as I was sure the roads wouldn’t be occupied.”

By bandits or by Camelot’s soldiers?

Hunith looked over Merlin for a moment longer, before she let out a sigh and smiled softly. “I’m just glad to see you’re alright. I know you can handle yourself, but a mother still worries.”

It was then Gwaine took a step forward, and Hunith turned and looked at Gwaine. “And who is this?” she asked

“Gwaine,” Gwaine said, reaching a hand forward. Hunith gave him her hand, to which Gwaine immediately bowed and kissed her dirt-covered fingers. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Hunith raised an amused eyebrow, and for a moment Gwaine wondered if she and Gaius were related. “Gwaine? Gaius told me you were with Merlin. And I do believe Merlin’s mentioned you in some of his letters.”

“He has, has he?” Gwaine said, turning and giving Merlin- whose cheeks were red not just from the cold- an amused smile. “All good things, I hope.”

After helping Hunith grab the vegetables she had harvested, Merlin and his mother entered the small house, Gwaine following behind laden down with their numerous bags.

“Had I known you were coming, dear, I would have cleaned,” Hunith apologized, quickly kicking what looked like a broken pot under her small cot, which reminded Gwaine briefly of the bed Merlin had had back in Camelot.

“Mother, it’s fine,” Merlin said. “I didn’t warn you. Besides, Gwaine’s used to messes; his room back in Camelot was constantly one,” Merlin said with a teasing grin at Gwaine.

“Thanks, love,” Gwaine responded sarcastically. He looked to Hunith and asked, “Where should I-?” while lifting the bags.

“Oh, over there is fine,” Hunith said, waving vaguely to one corner of the house. “Honestly I’m surprised you two brought so much.” But then she paused, and looked at Gwaine with a raised eyebrow once more. She had to be related to Gaius. “Did you call Merlin ‘Love?’”

“I did,” Gwaine responded lightly, looking at Merlin in a are you going to tell her or shall I?

“Well, mother, Gwaine and I-” Merlin walked over and hooked his hand through Gwaine’s elbow. “We’re courting.”

Hunith’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh,” she said, before smiling teasingly and walking over to Merlin and looking Gwaine over with an obviously exaggerated appraising look. “Brought him home to see if your mother approves, did you?”

Gwaine smirked and bowed his head slightly. “I hope I meet your satisfaction,” he said, unable to keep a teasing tone from his voice.

Hunith hummed, before looking at Merlin. “He’s an attractive one, I will admit.”

Had Merlin been drinking something, he would have spat it out.

 

~

 

Hunith and Merlin quickly set the house up to accommodate two more people (Merlin apologizing profusely all the while for not telling her in advance that they were coming). It had been late afternoon when they arrived, so after a couple hours they found themselves sitting and eating a pottage mix that Merlin had made.

The three of them were lightly talking. Gwaine was surprised at how much Hunith already knew about him (Merlin apparently not being shy to mention Gwaine in his letters) and Merlin told Hunith where they had gone after what had happened back in Camelot.

But while they were talking, Merlin’s head suddenly snapped to the side, and he paused as if listening to something.

A moment later, he turned back to his mother. “Sorry, I need to go do something. I’ll be right back.” Merlin stood, grabbed a fur cloak, and stepped out into the winter air.

Hunith glanced at Gwaine with a raised eyebrow, confused, and Gwaine could only shrug. “I don’t know where he’s going. But he can handle himself.”

Hunith chuckled, turning back to her stew. “He certainly can,” she said in exasperated amusement.

Gwaine smirked. “I take it there are a few stories behind that statement?”

Hunith smiled and let out another amused huff. But then she looked up, her eyes glinting mischievously, and said, “You have no idea.”

 

~

 

Merlin returned to find Gwaine laughing wholeheartedly while his mother regaled a story involving Merlin, Will, a chicken, and a fireplace- a story that Merlin had desperately hoped his mother had long forgotten.

Mother!” he exclaimed in embarrassment, which, to his further humiliation, only caused Gwaine to laugh even louder.

Hunith turned to her son, her face alight in a mischievous smile. “Did you find what you needed, Merlin?” she asked calmly, obviously trying to hide her own laughter as well.

“I, uh, yeah, I did- Gwaine, will you stop that?”

Gwaine took in a couple more calming breaths, before looking up at Merlin, his eyes still shining with unshed tears. “You never told me this, love.”

Merlin let out a huff. “It wasn’t one of the prouder moments of my childhood, Gwaine, of course I wouldn’t tell you it.”

Hunith laughed at that, before standing and moving to where she had always stacked the firewood.

But then Hunith made a noise of displeasure, before letting out a huff.

“Mother? Something wrong?”

“I’m almost out of firewood,” Hunith said, straightening to a stand. “Mary came by the other day asking for some, and I meant to cut more, but it slipped my mind.”

“I can get it,” Gwaine said, moving to a stand. “Where can I get an ax?”

Hunith blinked at Gwaine in surprise. “Gwaine, you really don’t have to-”

“No no, I insist,” Gwaine said with a charming smile. “Least I can do for Merlin’s mother.”

“But you’re a guest-”

“A guest who arrived unannounced. Think of it as an apology, then.”

Hunith gave Merlin a nearly imperceptible, amused glance, before turning back to Gwaine. “There should be an ax at the southeast corner of the house, just underneath a lean-to.”

To which Gwaine nodded, before grabbing a cloak and heading out to do just that.

Merlin watched him leave, considering going and helping for a moment, before he turned to his mother and let out a breath. “Mother… we need to talk.”

Hunith blinked at Merlin, before setting down her bowl. “Okay, sweetie. What is it?”

“… you know how I did meet father? And how I’m a Dragonlord now? I wrote to you about that, didn’t I?”

Hunith’s eyes darkened momentarily with grief, but then she nodded. “You did.”

But then Merlin smirked. “Well, I have someone I’d like you to meet,” he said, before he turned to look over his shoulder at a point underneath his cloak. “Aithusa, you can come out now.”

He felt the lump on his back begin to wriggle, and Aithusa’s head popped out of the fur lining his cloak a moment later. She wiggled herself free, and was soon sitting on Merlin’s shoulder, stretching her wings out and letting out a satisfied hiss.

“Mother, this is Aithusa,” Merlin said, lifting a finger to scratch at Aithusa’s chin. He turned and smiled at Hunith. “I hatched her.”

Hunith blinked at Aithusa for a moment, but then her face broke into an awed smile.

“May I?” Hunith asked, reaching her arm out towards the dragon.

Aithusa glanced at Merlin, and he tipped his head encouragingly, before she crossed the gap between Merlin’s shoulder and Hunith’s hand. Hunith’s arm dropped slightly at the sudden weight, but Aithusa was undeterred and climbed up her arm until she was sitting on Hunith’s shoulder.

“I didn’t know there were any eggs left,” Hunith said, running a hand along Aithusa’s neck, and Aithusa making a pleased rumbling noise.

“Well, there was one,” Merlin said, smirking. “Though I didn’t know about it until a few months ago.”

Hunith let out a sigh. “… Merlin’s father would have loved to meet you, little one,” she murmured to Aithusa.

“Mother… Gwaine and I, we actually went to the cave where Father stayed.” Hunith’s head snapped to him in surprise. “We gathered all of his things we could. There wasn’t much, but we have it with us.”

Hunith blinked once more. “… can you show me?” she breathed.

Without a word, Merlin stood up and walked over to his and Gwaine’s bags. He grabbed the ones with Balinor’s things, before bringing them over to his mother.

And with that, he began to pull out Balinor’s things- some tableware, various clothes, then followed by his numerous books.

Hunith grabbed one of the books, and began to flip through it, Aithusa staring at the book as well from her place on Hunith’s shoulder. “These were Balinor’s?” she asked, breathless.

Merlin nodded. “All of this was.”

Hunith let out a shaky breath, and wiped an eye with the palm of her hand. “He loved reading, you know- he’s the one who taught me, actually. I felt bad that there weren’t many books in Ealdor for him to read, so he started making his own. He was always working with his hands- making books, drawings, carvings-” she looked up at Merlin then, her eyes watery, but smiling all the same. “You saw that yourself, didn’t you?”

Merlin nodded. “I still have the dragon he gave me.”

Hunith’s rueful smile widened, before she reached out a hand and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder. She let out a breath and set the first book aside, before turning back to the bags. “What else did you bring?”

They spent a couple minutes sorting through what he had, pulling out his things, but then when Hunith looked into another bag, she stopped.

“I recognize this one,” Hunith murmured, grabbing a small book from the bottom. “This was his journal the second year he was here- the year he left.”

“It was?”

Hunith nodded. “He tried to do one a year, or so he told me.” But then she opened the cover, and her breath caught as her eyes widened.

“Mother?”

Merlin moved to see what she was staring at, and his own eyes widened too.

In the front, on a loose piece of paper, had been an ink drawing of a person. A person Merlin recognized immediately.

Hunith.

Image Description: an ink portrait of Hunith on textured paper.  She is smiling with her hair pulled back in a scarf.  End description.

Hunith ran her fingers delicately over the drawing, her eyes welling up. “I never saw this one,” she breathed, still staring at it with wide-eyes. “He must have… he must have done it after he’d left-” Her breath hitched then, and Merlin’s chest clenched.

“I didn’t mean to-”

“No, Merlin,” Hunith said. She turned to her son and gave him a watery smile. “You gave him back to me. I’d spent years wondering… but now I know. Thank you.”

She set the drawing aside, gently, but her eyes were wistful as she stared at it for a few moments longer. She sighed. "I just wish I could see him one more time…"

“I found this too,” Merlin said, drawing his mother’s attention back to him as he reached into his pouch and pulled out a silver ring. He said as he put it in his mother’s palm. “It was in a small chest, with a note that said, ‘For Hunith.’ I think you should have it.”

Hunith blinked at the ring, before she looked up at her son and shook her head. “No,” she said, grabbing Merlin’s wrist and putting the ring back in her son’s hand. She closed Merlin’s fingers around the ring. “It’s been a long time since it would have been nice to have that. You’re still young- perhaps you’ll find a use for it yet,” she said with a warm smile.

They finished sorting through the items, finding places for them, and ending by the fire with the two of them sitting on the ground softly talking; Aithusa having fallen asleep on Hunith’s lap. Gwaine hadn’t returned quite yet, but from beyond the house they could hear the rhythmic swing and thunk of an ax as he worked to get them some firewood.

“Your father spoke fondly of one dragon. Asariel, was his name. It was the first dragon Balinor hatched,” Hunith said softly, looking up from the sleeping dragon on her lap and giving her son a wistful smile. “Balinor’s father died when he was barely twelve summers- he came into his powers fairly young. A friend of his father’s… I don’t remember his name… was the one who began to train him about how to be a Dragonlord. When your father became of age, he was given his first egg. And from it, hatched Asariel.”

Hunith smiled, lightly rubbing Aithusa’s horns. She didn’t wake, but she did make a pleased noise in her sleep. “Your father said it was the most amazing thing- watching him hatch. His scales were a deep sea-green, and would shimmer rainbow colors in the sunlight. I never met Asariel, but I did see one of his scales, since your father kept one of his scales with him, just as a way to remember.”

Hunith let out a sigh then, her eyes softening. “Asariel was killed early in the Purge- your father never found out who was the one who killed him. But… I don’t think he ever stopped grieving. Not really. Losing Asariel was like losing a child, so he said. Seeing someone you cared for, someone who was supposed to long outlive you, suddenly leave this world before you.”

Merlin didn’t say anything in response to that, his eyes saddening and the two of them looking at Aithusa as she slept.

The door opened then, and Merlin turned to see Gwaine stumbling back into the cottage, his arms filled with wood and clumps of snow sticking to his hair. He shot Merlin and Hunith a smile, before walking over to the side and setting the wood down. He then shucked off his wet cloak and laid it out to dry, and shook a hand through his hair to rid it of some of the snow before walking over to them and joining them by the fire. “It’s a bit wet, but it should be fine by morning,” Gwaine said, sitting next to Merlin and flicking his hair from his face. “Hopefully it will last you for a while.”

Hunith smiled warmly. “Thank you for taking care of that, Gwaine.”

“My pleasure; least I could do.”

 

~

 

The fire had tuckered out some point during the night, so when Merlin awoke the next morning, the cold air of the house touched his face, coloring his cheeks and nose. He didn’t want to get up; it was so much warmer under their blankets. He curled in closer to Gwaine.

“Shouldn’t we set the fire?” Gwaine asked drowsily- apparently Merlin had woken him. “I’d hate to make your mother do it.”

Merlin groaned; Gwaine had a point. Merlin brought an arm out from under the covers and lazily waved a hand, and soon logs were flying into the fireplace from the stack next to it. Gwaine heard the sound of a fire lighting as Merlin pulled his arm back under the blankets and laid it across Gwaine’s chest.

Gwaine smirked. “Handy, that. But when are you planning to get up?”

“I’ll get up when it’s warm,” Merlin answered, voice low and still husky from sleep. He let out a deep breath and relaxed once more.

“Don’t fall back asleep now, love.”

“I wasn’t gonna,” Merlin slurred in annoyance. He lifted his head from the pillow, and it was only now that Gwaine opened his eyes. He found Merlin looking over him with an incredulous expression. “Why are you so concerned about me being awake anyhow?”

Gwaine grinned drowsily. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you wanted to stay here in bed with me.”

Merlin smacked Gwaine lightly, and Gwaine let out an “oof,” but then he laughed.

“Don’t let my mother hear you saying things like that,” Merlin scolded in a whisper with an accompanying glance over to where his mother was still (hopefully) sleeping. “I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.”

Gwaine frowned. “You mean she isn’t supposed to think we’re in a relationship?”

“What? No! That’s not- I didn’t mean-” Merlin groaned and dropped his face into the pillows once more. It was followed by a very muffled and exasperated, “You know what I mean, Gwaine.”

Gwaine chuckled and ruffled Merlin’s hair. “You’re fun to tease.”

Merlin groaned again, but didn’t otherwise move.

But, sure enough, once the house was warm Merlin did get up, and he immediately set out to make breakfast. Gwaine helped, slicing up the root vegetables and herbs before handing them off to Merlin.

“Morning, Hunith,” Gwaine said after some time, and Merlin glanced over to see his mother awake and staring at them, a thoughtful look on her face.

Merlin gave her a smile. “Morning, mother. Sleep well?”

Hunith blinked, but then she smiled. “I did. And it’s nice not having to face the cold before my day starts. I should keep you two around more often.”

To this, Gwaine laughed. “Only if Merlin says I can.”

 

~

 

Merlin and Gwaine spent a couple more weeks in Ealdor with Merlin’s mother, generally making up for time spent apart, and learning what changes had happened in both their lives since they had seen each other last. Ealdor had stayed much the same as it turned out, a fierce contrast to the sudden changes that had recently been in Merlin’s life. But it was soothing, in a way: to know that even if things seemed like they were falling out of control, there was still a place where Merlin could go and be surrounded by the familiar.

But, eventually, the time had come for Merlin and Gwaine to leave and to return to the Druid camp. So they found themselves outside the house, Gringolet set and ready to go, and the two of them giving their last good-byes to Hunith.

(Aithusa wanted to stay a little longer, liking Hunith’s warm home and Merlin being willing to let her stay so long as Hunith was okay with it and Aithusa agreed to stay out of trouble.)

Hunith was giving Gwaine a last hug, the two of them having developed a friendship over the last couple weeks.

“Thank you for staying with him,” Hunith whispered into Gwaine’s ear. “I don’t dare think about what might have happened had he been left alone. Merlin is lucky to have someone like you, Gwaine.”

Gwaine only smiled as he pulled back. “Thank you,” he responded. “He’s lucky to have a mother like yourself.”

To that, Hunith let out a laugh, before patting Gwaine on the bicep. “He always said you were a charmer in his letters.”

Gwaine glanced to Merlin with a smirk. “One day I’ll have to read these letters, love. See exactly what it is you say about me.”

Merlin scoffed but with an amused smile. “I don’t say anything that isn’t true, Gwaine.”

“So you say I’m a charming rogue with absolutely no redeeming qualities?”

“No, because you have plenty of redeeming qualities, Gwaine.”

“You think so?” Gwaine asked in mock surprise, smirking.

“Yes, I do, Gwaine.”

But without taking that further, Merlin stepped forward to embrace his mother, hugging her tightly for several seconds.

Merlin leaned back from his hug with his mother, smiling at her. “It was wonderful to see you again.”

Hunith smiled and placed a hand to Merlin’s cheek. “Don’t be a stranger. Otherwise I might have to visit you at this camp of yours.”

“I certainly wouldn’t complain if you did.” Merlin paused for a second, before saying, almost hesitantly, “But I do have one last favor to ask.”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

With that, Merlin reached into his bag and pulled out a letter. “Can you have this delivered to Gaius for me?” he asked, handing it to her. “I couldn’t risk sending anything from the camp, but I want to let him know that we’re both alright.”

Hunith glanced down at the letter, before nodding at Merlin. “John is heading to Camelot next week. I’ll send it with him.”

Merlin smiled. “Thank you.”

And with that, he and Gwaine mounted Gringolet, before spurring her onward.

Merlin glanced back once at the hill, to see his mother still watching from her doorway. He waved, once, and she did in return, before they started descending and Ealdor was once more out of sight.

Chapter Text

Winter had come to Camelot nearly uneventfully, arriving with a quiet storm one night and the residents waking to a white world outside their windows. The castle had been mostly quiet, as it was every winter.

But this winter had been quieter than the last, the absence of both Merlin and Gwaine weighing heavily on all those who missed them. Those two had been the talkers, the ones to keep the cold nights interesting when everyone had been trapped in the castle away from the cold. Merlin, with his general amiable ramblings, and Gwaine with his stories from his life on the road (most of them had seemed too outlandish to be true, but with the knight in question there was no telling whether or not they had actually happened) that ranged from lighthearted and heartwarming to downright scandalous.

(Many of the kitchen staff had had many a mean word with him after he had chosen to tell a certain story in the presence of their children. After that, Gwaine’s stories were always reserved for after the children had been sent off to bed, no matter how innocent he claimed them to be.)

Gwen was standing by a window, thinking over this while watching the clumps of snow drift past and fall softly to the courtyard below, a wool blanket around her shoulders shielding her from the bitter air.

Wherever Merlin and Gwaine were, she hoped they were keeping warm.

She heard someone approach, and turned to see a stablehand walking over to her. “Gwen?”

“Yes, Thom?” she asked, turning fully to him.

“Gaius has requested you. He says there’s no rush, but that you should go see him as soon as you can.”

Gwen nodded, and gave Thom a small smile. “Thank you. I’ll head straight to him.”

And she did. She made her way straight to Gaius’s ward, and knocked lightly on the door before opening it. “Gaius? Everything alright?” she called, stepping in.

Gaius looked up from where he’d been reading a piece of parchment, and smiled warmly. “Hello, Gwen,” he greeted, taking off his glasses. He held out the piece of paper, his eyes alight. “Merlin has finally written.”

“He has?” Gwen exclaimed, rushing forward to the physician. “Is he well?”

“Read for yourself,” Gaius said as he handed her the letter (something akin to amusement in his voice), and Gwen began to read.

 

Dear Gaius,

I’m sorry for not writing sooner, but please trust me when I say that I had good reason not to, and that I would have written sooner had it been safe. Gwaine and I are not at the cave near Engerd, instead we have found somewhere else to stay that is, in every possible way, better than the cave. However, I can’t tell you exactly where we are, just that we are both well, and we’re both safe.

The place we’ve decided to stay is wonderful. Magic is openly used here, and there is even a healer who is teaching me. She’s not as skilled with herbs as you are, Gaius, but she’s shown me wonderful healing spells and has been working with me to develop the skill I severely lack. (I’ve finally been able to cure a cold, Gaius! Ha! And you told me I couldn’t do it.)

I admit, it took Gwaine nearly dying for me to figure out how to work healing magic (more on that later) but I finally seem to be getting the hang of it.

I have another mentor in magic as well. He’s been working with me to learn the more traditional aspects of magic- charm making, enchanting, sensing magic in the air, getting a feel for the seasons as the year passes. I can feel my abilities growing, and it’s very exciting. Perhaps most of it is that I no longer need to hide it and can openly practice, but either way I’m excited to see my abilities develop, and I hope that perhaps one day I’ll be able to show you what I’ve learned.

Aithusa’s grown quite a bit, Gaius, now the size of a small hound or a rather large cat. Though she acts more like the latter, I must say- sleeping every chance she gets, constantly vying for attention from Gwaine or I. There was even a phase where she insisted on knocking everything off tables every chance she got, but after she broke a bowl I think she decided that it wasn’t a good idea and has nearly stopped (though the occasional thud of a drinking cup says otherwise). She’s difficult, but I love that I get to spend all this time with her when I couldn’t before while in Camelot.

I’ve been learning more about my father, too, Gaius. We went to the cave where he had stayed and cleared out his things. And I managed to find a book he had written.

He’d written everything, Gaius. Everything that I should have learned had he been there with me as a child. Rituals, customs, stories. Aithusa seems to be quite fond of the stories contained within (the one about The First Dragonlord being her favorite- I swear she’s asked me to tell it to her every night) and she’s often curled up on my lap as I read the book, often asking me to read aloud to her.

As for Gwaine and I, well, there’s been an interesting development.

We’ve started courting.

It’s been a few months now, but things are going exceedingly well between he and I. I imagine that if we’d stayed in Camelot, this would have happened eventually, but it’s still strange to think about. As I write this, he’s leaning against my back and trying to carve a flute from a branch he found. He claims he’s done it before, but I’m guessing from the six failed attempts sitting to my left, he hasn’t.

Now, as for how Gwaine nearly died.

A couple months ago, one of the children who lives here was abducted. Bandits in the woods came across her and had taken her. Gwaine was able to find her and rescue her before she’d been harmed, thank goodness, but Gwaine was not so fortunate- he himself leaving the encounter with a stab wound to the stomach.

Thankfully the healer here was skilled enough to heal him and to guide me to help. He’s nearly fully recovered now, the scar only acting up on occasion as one usually does.

Also thankfully that has been the most perilous thing that has happened since we left. I assure you that no other life-threatening events have happened, which I am exceedingly grateful for. If anything, our life has been abnormally peaceful since we left.

(It’s strange how unoften life-threatening events occur when you’re not trying to rescue the sorry backside of an ungrateful monarch every other week. Sometimes I feel anxious that something is about to happen simply because nothing has for so long.)

It’s getting late. I suppose I should wrap this up and head to bed. I miss you, Gaius. Give my love to Gwen, won’t you?

Love, Merlin

PS: Gwaine says hello. He also says that he wouldn’t mind if you slipped Arthur a bit of poison (“Not enough to kill him,” he says, “just enough that he can’t do anything for a few days”), but I’m going to suggest that you don’t poison the prat no matter how much I agree with Gwaine at the moment.

 

Gwen laughed softly as she lowered the letter- though not at the final quip about murdering the king. “He sounds smitten,” she said in amusement.

Gaius chuckled. “That’s what I thought too. Though while I can’t say that I wholly approve of the match, I’m not entirely against it either- Gwaine did choose Merlin above all of Camelot, after all.”

Gwen smiled for a bit, before glancing down at the letter once more. “Where do you think they are?” she asked. “They must be beyond Camelot, but do you have any ideas?”

“If I had to guess, I would say a Druid camp.”

Gwen’s head snapped up, surprise etched on her face. “A Druid camp?” she echoed.

“Indeed,” Gaius said, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands over his stomach. “Merlin said they’re in a place where magic is used, where there’s a healer and another skilled magic user, yet he feels he cannot safely disclose where exactly he is. By all accounts, it makes sense.”

Gwen nodded, before looking down once more. She let out a sigh. “I’m relieved to hear they’re safe. I’d been worried- especially since winter set in.”

“As am I. And I’m glad they’ve found somewhere where Merlin can develop his skills.”

Gwen gave him a, albeit slightly uneasy, smile (still coming to terms with Merlin’s magic being mentioned so brazenly by people other than Merlin himself), before looking at the letter once more. But then she squinted at the page. “Who’s Aithusa?”

Gwen looked up to see Gaius, an uneasy look on his face. “Aithusa is… a friend of Merlin’s.”

“A friend the size of a large cat?”

“I didn’t say she was a human friend, did I?”

Gwen gave a moment for Gaius to explain, but when he didn’t she prompted, “What is she, then?”

Gaius hesitated. “I feel Merlin should be the one to tell you this, but…” then he sighed. “Aithusa is a dragon, Gwen.”

“A dragon?”

Gaius nodded at the letter. “You saw how he mentioned his father?”

“Yes.”

“Merlin’s father was a Dragonlord, who had to flee Ealdor on account of Uther’s men chasing him. He was the very same Dragonlord that Merlin and Arthur set out to find when the Great Dragon was released.”

Gwen blinked at Gaius in disbelief, before sitting heavily in a chair. “You’re kidding.”

Gaius shook his head. “I am not. When Balinor died, he inherited the Dragonlord’s powers. Merlin managed to obtain the last dragon egg, and from it hatched Aithusa.”

Gwen blinked at Gaius, before rereading the letter once more. “B-but, a dragon, Gaius-”

“Aithusa is perfectly kind, Gwen. I only got to meet her once, but she adores Merlin, and, even then, Merlin has the ability to stop her if it comes to it.”

Gwen nodded, biting her lip. Before she leaned back in the chair. “Merlin’s a Dragonlord…”

Gaius nodded. “The Last,” he said solemnly, his statement heavy.

Gwen didn’t move for a moment, before giving her head a slight shake as if to clear it from something. A small, rueful smile graced her face as she put the letter on the table and rounded it to reach Gaius.

“Thank you, Gaius,” Gwen said, embracing him in a hug. “I know you didn’t have to, but I appreciate you letting me see.”

“You’re very welcome, Gwen. I’ll let you know if he writes again.”

 

~

 

The journey back to the Druid camp had been uneventful, Merlin and Gwaine stopping by Balinor’s cave one last time to fetch the usable furs and blankets they’d left, before they headed back to the camp nearly three weeks after they’d left. The Druids celebrated their return- and Merlin let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding when he saw that they welcomed Gwaine just as warmly as they had welcomed Emrys. Welcoming them both home.

Aithusa returned a couple weeks later, laden with a couple letters for Merlin and Gwaine from Hunith, and eager to fly their responses back to her. Merlin and Gwaine both sent responses (each stubbornly refusing to let the other see what he’d written), and Aithusa became the eager messenger, flying back and forth from Ealdor and the camp every chance she got, and glad for the chance to stretch her wings.

But soon, spring arrived with a warm breeze through the air and small shoots of green beginning to poke their way through the dirt and frost. The Druid camp let out a collective breath at these new signs of growth- restlessness from the winter and being stuck inside beginning to get on everyone’s nerves.

But with spring, as it turns out, came something very unexpected to the camp.

Smugglers.

“Smugglers?” Merlin asked in stunned disbelief, sure that he had heard Fidelma incorrectly.

Fidelma nodded, before sucking in the part of lettuce that had been sticking out of her mouth. She chewed and swallowed, before saying, “We have an agreement with a small group. They bring us supplies, and in exchange we provide shelter for a month or so. Truly it works for all of us. They get to rest, and we can resupply after winter.”

Merlin blinked in surprise, before giving his head a slight shake. “Alright.”

 

~

 

A couple weeks after that conversation, one of the Druids who’d been scouting (making sure no patrols or wanderers had strayed too close to the camp) returned with news that the smugglers were near, and that they would be arriving within the next day or so. Preparations were made for their arrival- new tents set up, extra food gathered- and, the following morning, the smugglers arrived.

Merlin had been put near the front of the camp- the first line of defense in case one of the smugglers acted untrustworthy or tried to pull something.

But when none of them did anything that anyone could deem threatening, Merlin went to find Gwaine- who had been out hunting some more during the smugglers’ arrival and putting his proficiency with a crossbow to good use- and bringing him back to the cave. They set Gwaine’s kill out to dry (looking forward to something more fresh than just the dried rations they’d had all winter) before walking by the entrance, where the group of smugglers’ were unloading their supplies for their stay and for their repayment to the Druids for letting them stay.

Gwaine glanced over, and- stopped, his expression becoming that of complete surprise.

“Gwaine? You alright?”

Gwaine didn’t respond, only walking towards the group of smugglers, his shocked gaze fixed on the blonde woman who seemed to be running the group.

When Gwaine got closer, the look of surprise turned to a disbelieving smile. “Isolde?” he said with a laugh.

The woman recoiled and turned to Gwaine in shock, before a matching expression came over her face. “Gwaine?”

Gwaine let out a shocked laugh, before embracing the woman in a one armed hug. “Good to see you! It’s been a while!”

“Could say the same to you!” Isolde said, patting Gwaine’s back, before leaning back and looking him over. “You’re looking well. Though seeing you after that brawl in Stonehold makes that not a hard bar to jump.”

Merlin approached awkwardly from the side, trying to see if he could figure out who this newcomer was. Gwaine, having heard Merlin’s approach, turned. “Oh, Isolde, I want you to meet Merlin,” Gwaine said, reaching a hand out and taking Merlin’s. “And Merlin, this is Isolde. She’s a smuggler.”

“I figured,” Merlin responded, still trying to figure out how Gwaine could possibly know her, let alone that and treat it so casually. “So you’re the group of smugglers that stays for the spring?”

“Yep. We usually stay through Beltane. Gotta join in in the festivities, am I right?” Isolde said with a wink. Merlin flushed slightly, and she looked between the two of them for a moment, her expression considering. “Looks like you two will be joining in too, I guess.”

Merlin blanched, and Gwaine barked out a laugh. “We’ve still got a month, Isolde. We’ll see what happens. I take it Tristan is with you then?”

Isolde smiled, before turning and nodding her head to indicate back to the carts. “Yep. Hasn’t gotten sick of me yet.”

Merlin glanced over and spotted a middle-aged man standing by the carts. As if sensing their stare, he glanced over, spotted Isolde, before smirking and making a kissing motion, but then turned back to the carts.

Isolde smirked. But then she glanced behind her, before turning back to the two of them. “Now if you’ll excuse me, we still have things we need to unload.” And with that, she turned back to the cart, and began barking orders to the men once more.

“Should we help?” Merlin asked.

“Nah,” Gwaine said, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and guiding him away. “I know from experience that you should never snoop through smugglers’ things. They’ll either cut your hands off, or another part of you that should not be mentioned in polite company.”

“And how do you know that?”

“When you spend a few years on the road, you tend to hear a lot of threats and meet a lot of people.”

“Including smugglers?” Merlin asked in amusement with a raised eyebrow to match.

“Merlin, when we met for the third time, I was being held prisoner at the bottom of a slaver’s pit,” Gwaine responded matter-of-factly. “I think smugglers are some of the milder people I’ve met, don’t you?”

 

~

 

That evening found the smugglers joining the Druids around the fire for the evening meal. The smugglers had brought with them numerous herbs and spices, and those were added liberally to the food that had been prepared.

And after all the blandness of winter rations, Merlin thought his mouth was going to burst with the sudden onslaught of all this flavor.

Most of the Druids, as it turned out, knew Isolde’s group very well, the arrangement between the two groups several years old by this point.

Merlin and Gwaine were sitting off to the side, watching from a distance as the rest of the Druids mingled with the smugglers and quietly talking to each other as they ate.

“Mind if we join you?”

Merlin glanced up to see Isolde and Tristan standing near them, bowls of stew in the hands that weren’t clasped in the other’s.

Gwaine smirked, and gestured to the sand in front of Merlin and Gwaine. “Always room for more,” Gwaine said warmly.

Tristan sat first, and Isolde followed, setting herself comfortably between Tristan’s knees and leaning back against her lover, completely and utterly at ease.

Tristan gave her a smile before looking up at Merlin and Gwaine. “Now, I’ve met Gwaine. When Isolde told me you were here, I couldn’t believe it,” Tristan said with a nod at the man in question, but then he turned to Merlin. “But I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

“Merlin,” Merlin responded, reaching out a hand to shake Tristan’s. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Tristan took Merlin’s hand and nodded with a smirk. “Tristan.”

“So how’d you all meet?” Merlin asked, glancing at Gwaine.

But it was Isolde he answered as she leaned back into Tristan. “Gwaine found us one day while he was on the road. It was late at night, and the poor sod had just lost his last coin gambling.”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine with a disapproving side-eye, to which Gwaine only winked at Merlin before turning back to his stew.

Isolde continued, “We offered him a place by the fire, and we decided we could use his sword skills, so then he stayed with us for… how long?”

“A couple weeks, I think,” Gwaine said.

Isolde shrugged. “Probably. But then we parted ways at some point. Said something about ‘still looking for home.’ Whatever that means.”

Gwaine then smiled at Merlin. “And I think I’ve found it,” he responded.

Merlin scoffed and rolled his eyes, but all with a smile. “You sap.”

“Perhaps, but you can’t deny that you like it.”

“So, what have you been up to, Gwaine? Lose anymore coins to gambling?” Tristan asked with a teasing tone.

“I’ve been in Camelot,” Gwaine responded. “And I’ve actually curbed my gambling habit, so I’d thank you not to bring it up again.”

Isolde looked skeptical, and she glanced at Merlin with an inquiring look.

Merlin smirked and shook his head. “He hasn’t,” he mouthed at her, smiling.

“You wound me, Merlin,” Gwaine responded but without any heat.

“Camelot? Really?” Tristan responded. “I wouldn’t take you as the sort to stay there.”

Gwaine shrugged. “It’s where I met Merlin, so I think it was a good choice on my part.”

“How did you and Merlin meet?” Tristan asked.

“Now that,” Gwaine exclaimed suddenly. “Is a good story.”

So Gwaine went on to tell the story of how he met Merlin, about how he’d been in a tavern when a handsome raven-haired young man and a mediocre looking blond (his words, not Merlin’s) had thought it was a good idea to get into a fight, and how he thought it was an ever better idea to join in. There was some embellishing, but Merlin didn’t mind, only rolling his eyes fondly at the parts that were obviously exaggerated.

Gwaine finished his story, ending it with his second banishment from King Uther, but conveniently leaving out the part about deciding Arthur wasn’t too bad of a noble in the end.

Isolde glanced between the two of them, her brow furled. “But if you’ve been banished, how’d you meet again?”

“Merlin’s from Essetir,” Gwaine responded easily. “He came and found me during my banishment. Pretty close to here, actually.”

It wasn’t exactly a lie- Merlin had found Gwaine in Engerd when seeking his help for Arthur’s quest into the Perilous Lands.

Apparently Gwaine wasn’t too eager to delve into the hole that was his time as a knight in Camelot, and how he’d gone back even after Merlin had found him in Engerd. And Merlin wasn’t eager to bring it up either, so he let this one truth serve as an explanation.

They finished eating and, as the Druids always did on nights that were celebratory, gathered around the central fire to generally mingle, or listen to music if someone wanted to play for the others.

Which was when Merlin learned another unexpected thing.

“Sing for us, Tristan!” one of the Druids called suddenly after a couple Druids had performed.

“Yeah, sing!”

And to Merlin’s surprise, Tristan only smiled and shook his head, “Sorry, I can’t-”

“Come on, you’re great!”

Tristan laughed and held out his hands, a gesture of slight helplessness. “I don’t have my harp!”

“Use Fidelma’s!” Liath yelled then. “She doesn’t practice enough anyway!”

To this, Fidemla scowled at Liath- “I do practice!”- before rolling her eyes and standing. “I’ll go get it.”

A few minutes later found the camp almost completely silent, listening to Tristan singing a soft ballad as he plucked along on the harp.

He was an excellent musician, there was no denying that. His fingers seemed to know just what to do to render the clearest sound from the harp, and his beautiful baritone complimented it perfectly.

The music was, for lack of a better word, enchanting.

Merlin was leaning against Gwaine’s chest, his head resting comfortably in the crook of Gwaine’s shoulder. Gwaine’s own arms were wrapped around Merlin, and he had one cheek pressed to Merlin’s hair and was swaying slightly in time with the music.

Isolde came and sat next to them (having gone off to help Tristan prepare), watching her lover with a fond smile.

“He was a famous bard- in the Western Isles,” she said softly after some time. “Before we were forced to leave.”

“Really?” Merlin asked, turning to her. He even felt Gwaine turn in surprise. “What happened?”

Isolde let out a sigh, but she entered into a silence instead of responding, and Merlin thought she would never answer.

Then she spoke.

“He betrayed my husband.”

Gwaine jerked in surprise, and Merlin’s head snapped to look at her from where it had wandered back to watching Tristan.

“Your husband?” Gwaine asked in disbelief.

Isolde glanced at them, her eyes glinting mischievously. “Yes. I was married, once, to a cruel man who is even older than Tristan. Promised to him by my parents before I was even five summers, and married to him as soon as I became of age.”

Merlin blinked in surprise, but he said nothing.

Isolde turned back to Tristan, a smile on her lips. “Tristan was a traveling bard, and he had been invited to perform for my husband and I.”

“You were a noble?”

“Aye. Not that I cared for it much- this life is much better for me.

“But… when I first saw him,” her voice became breathless and wistful. “I’d never… I’d never felt that for anyone before. Our eyes met, and it seemed that the world was just the two of us.

“Of course I thought such feelings were shameful, so I left before he had even finished his performance, no matter how beautiful his songs were.

“But he came to find me afterward, out in the garden. And you would never guess, but Tristan is a romantic at heart. And he asked me if I had felt what he did, back there in the room, and asked me if I believed in fate, of all things.”

Isolde let out a laugh then. “I told him that I had never had a chance to consider it. But… he asked me that if I had a choice, between him and my husband… who would I pick?

“And I chose him. For the first time in my life, I had a choice. And I took it. I chose him. That night, I grabbed what little possessions belonged to me, and we fled the palace.

“My husband, of course, was furious. He set a bounty for Tristan that covered the entirety of the Western Isles. So we fled here, in hopes that it wouldn’t follow us.

“So we ran, and we’ve been running ever since.”

“But smuggling?” Merlin asked. “I’d think you’d want to keep your lives fairly inconspicuous if there’s a bounty on his head.”

Isolde laughed again. “Tristan’s traveling group was already smuggling! He told me that before we left together- wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I simply-” she shrugged- “I simply joined in. And I haven’t wanted anything different since.”

It was then that Tristan’s first song ended, and the conversation was briefly interrupted by applause from the Druids. Tristan smiled and nodded at them, before starting another song.

Merlin suddenly felt Gwaine shift at his back, and soon found Gwaine standing over him, holding out a hand to Merlin and with a soft smile on his face. Merlin furled his brow. “Gwaine?”

Gwaine tilted his head, indicating to the small clearing in the middle. “Come on, dance with me.”

“No one else is though.”

“They’ll join in soon enough.”

Merlin looked at him for a moment longer, before laughing softly. “Yeah, alright,” he said, reaching up and taking Gwaine’s hand.

Gwaine grinned widely as he pulled Merlin to his feet, and together the two of them walked to the center of the clearing. Gwaine faced Merlin, putting a hand on Merlin’s hip as he held Merlin’s hand with his other. Merlin put a hand to Gwaine’s shoulder, gave him a small smile, then began to move.

Merlin knew they were being watched, but he found he really didn’t care after a moment. He already stood out enough in the camp, being Emrys and all, but this was his choice for once.

And with Tristan’s beautiful singing; the warm night; the general comfort of being around people who knew him, who accepted him; and being up here, dancing with Gwaine, Merlin found himself more at peace than he had felt in a long while.

It must have shown, because Gwaine smiled gently, reverently. A smile reserved just for Merlin. “You look happy, love,” he said softly after a minute or so.

“I am happy,” Merlin said in response, smiling. “I truly am.”

And with that, he let out a contented sigh, before leaning forward and putting his head to Gwaine’s shoulder.

“I love you, Gwaine.” Gwaine smiled.

“And I you, Merlin. More than anything.”

Chapter Text

Beltane came and passed, and soon it was time for the smugglers to continue on beyond the camp. The Druids found themselves helping to load up the carts, giving fond farewells to their friends who only visited once a year.

Merlin had been helping- loading some of the larger items with his magic, and impressing Tristan and Isolde in the process- and soon found himself up next to the front of the cart as they readied to leave.

“We’ll be back next year,” Isolde said, climbing up into the cart. “Assuming none of those pesky knights catch us.”

“Well, we have that in common,” Merlin said with a sigh.

Isolde looked him over, before smirking. “One day you’ll tell me your story, Merlin,” she said in amusement. “One way or another, I’ll get it out of you.”

Merlin huffed a laugh. “It’s not a very happy one, at the moment.”

Isolde shrugged. “Maybe you don’t think so,” but then she glanced up and nodded with her head, indicating across the cave, “But Gwaine seems to like you well enough. I’d say you’re set there.”

Merlin glanced over to see Gwaine talking with Tristan as the smuggler brought back over one of the last satchels of supplies before they set out. Tristan said something, a wicked smile gracing his face, and Gwaine threw his head back and barked a loud laugh, his voice echoing through the cave.

Merlin smiled at the display, shaking his head in fond amusement.

“Life is short, Merlin,” Isolde said, and Merlin’s attention snapped back to her with a surprised look. She smiled coyly. “I see how you look at him. It’s alright- take a chance,” she glanced up at Tristan, her eyes shining. “I did, and I’ve never regretted it.”

Merlin glanced at her and nodded with a smile. “I’m glad. Truly.”

“Do you have plans to-” she lifted the back of her hand, wiggling her fingers and accentuating the ring found on one finger.

Merlin’s stomach flipped at the implication- but… in a good way. An excited sort of way.

“Well, maybe not quite yet, but soon.” Merlin then smiled, and turned to look at Gwaine once more. Gwaine turned then, and he noticed Merlin’s stare, before flashing him a grin and a playful wink that only broadened Merlin’s smile.

“Very soon.”

 

~

 

Two months after that conversation found Merlin and Gwaine walking through the woods just outside the camp. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, and the trees were in full flourish with the middle of summer. He held Gwaine’s hand in his, the motion now feeling as natural as walking.

But his other hand was in his pocket, doing something that revealed his thoughts.

In Merlin’s pocket was a silver ring- the same silver ring that he had found in Balinor’s cave all those months ago, and had in turn been given to him by his mother in case he needed it- that he was continually rubbing his thumb over, reminding himself that it was still there and would be there when the time came.

Hunith must be more perceptive than he had thought if she’d known he’d need it this soon, Merlin thought suddenly, his head jolting back slightly with the realization.

Gwaine noticed. “Everything alright, love?”

“Oh. Nothing.”

“Hmm. Well alright.”

They continued for a little while longer, just taking time to talk to each other and enjoy each other’s company and eventually, they reached the point that Merlin had been subtly guiding the two of them towards with their walk.

The clearing was one of Merlin’s favorite places in the entire forest outside the Druid cave- small, but beautiful with a stream running through it. In spring it had been filled with wildflowers so thick that you couldn’t see the grass below. Now, with the height of summer, the trees were in full green splendor and emanating a sense of life. Of magic.

Merlin couldn’t think of anyplace, or anyone, better to ask the question on his mind.

“Gwaine, I…” Merlin turned to his love, moving his other hand so he was clasping both of Gwaine’s in his, and his heart pounding in his chest. “There’s something I want to ask you.”

Concern briefly crossed Gwaine’s brow. “Okay. Is everything alright?”

“What? Yes, everything’s fine, it’s just-” he gave a breathy laugh- “This last year has been… hectic, to say the least-”

Gwaine smirked. “I’ll say.”

“- and you… you’ve stayed by my side through it all. You’ve supported me through it all, and that is something that is absolutely invaluable to me. You have always been there when I needed you, a-and I hope I’ve returned the favor somewhat,” he said with another laugh. “You’re my best friend, my truest friend. I… I love you, Gwaine, and there’s something I want to ask you. Right now.”

Merlin took in a deep breath, before moving one leg behind him and kneeling down on one knee. Gwaine’s eyes widened. “Gwaine,” Merlin said as he pulled the silver ring from his pocket and held it out to Gwaine. “Will you marry me?”

Gwaine blinked for a moment, face completely surprised, but then he laughed. “Y-yeah!”

Merlin smiled, suddenly feeling like a huge weight was lifted from his chest. “Yeah?”

Gwaine was smiling broadly, face the epitome of pure joy. “Yes! A thousand times yes, Merlin!”

Merlin stood with a huge smile, sliding the ring onto Gwaine’s waiting hand as he did so. Gwaine blinked down at it, face still alight with joy, but then glanced up at Merlin. Within a second, Merlin was in his arms, and Gwaine was spinning in a circle, Merlin’s feet flying in the air behind him as Gwaine held him and whooped with joy.

“Gwaine-! Put me down!” Merlin exclaimed with a laugh as Gwaine spun.

Too late, Gwaine lost his footing, and he fell straight into the stream, dragging Merlin down with him.

Merlin sat upright with a gasp as he blinked the water from his eyes, and then he turned to look at Gwaine.

Gwaine blinked in surprise at Merlin, his wet hair sticking unflatteringly to his face. But then Gwaine’s face broke into a grin and he laughed.

Merlin joined him a moment later, laughing at himself and Gwaine, but was interrupted by Gwaine lunging forward and putting his lips to Merlin’s, kissing him as they both sat in the stream.

Merlin didn’t know how long they spent out there, simply kissing in the steam and otherwise just celebrating, but they both eventually returned to the camp soaking wet, but with barely contained smiles on both their faces.

The Druids were overwhelmingly excited for the announcement, many immediately calling on Iseldir for an impromptu feast to celebrate and heading out to make such preparations.

Iseldir seemed slightly exasperated at the sudden call for a feast, but he smiled warmly all the same, congratulating them with his eyes shining in joy.

They decided to wait until the next spring for their handfasting, to symbolize the new beginning between the two of them.

And to celebrate the future that they would have.

Together.

 

~

 

As Merlin sat, having another lesson on scrying from the archdruid a month later, he found himself wishing he was back out in that stream, no matter how cold it had been, found himself longing for a different set of water than the one resting (almost tauntingly blank) in the black bowl in front of him.

“You need to focus, Emrys,” Iseldir said calmly, looking over his student. Merlin was bent over, glaring into the bowl, trying to force a vision to come to him from the inky depths of the water.

But it just wasn’t, no matter how much he tried.

Merlin grimaced. “I’m trying,” he ground out, plainly irritated. “Why do I need to learn this? I can already scry with fire.”

“Because water is calmer. It is better when trying to find something specific, when you want an answer to a question, rather than letting the fire tell you what it wants.”

“That doesn’t do me a lot of good if the water won’t tell me anything in the first place.”

Iseldir was quiet for a moment, before he let out a breath. “Let us take a break,” he said, moving to his table and grabbing a pitcher he had prepared.

Merlin leaned back from the bowl as he rubbed his eyes, hearing the sound of Iseldir pouring a couple glasses of water.

“Something is on your mind,” Iseldir said simply as he held out one glass to Merlin.

Merlin glanced up, and let out a sigh. “Yeah,” he said as he grabbed the offered glass.

Iseldir sat back down and looked over his pupil. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

Merlin was silent for a moment, but then he said, somewhat begrudgingly, as he tilted the cup and watched the water climb up the sides, “Today’s Arthur’s birthday.”

“Ah,” Iseldir said simply. “I see.”

They were quiet for another minute, Merlin only swirling the contents of his glass but not taking a sip.

“Perhaps,” Iseldir began, “We can use the natural course of your thoughts to guide your scrying.”

Merlin glanced up, brow furled. “Meaning?”

“Your mind is wandering to King Arthur. If you wish, we could try to guide this scrying session to see him.”

Merlin blinked, before lowering his gaze, saying nothing.

“It is your choice, of course. If you feel it’d be an invasion of his privacy-”

Merlin snorted. “I was his manservant, remember?” He paused for a bit, before saying, “I’m not sure I’m… ready. To see Arthur again. Last time I saw him… he was just so angry with me. Rightfully so. How can I… how can I face him again? After that? Even if he won’t know I’m there?”

Iseldir was quiet for a moment. “… how can any of us truly face the past? How can any of us take that which we regret and confront it head on without fear?” Iseldir sighed. “I know you do not wish to do this, Emrys, but perhaps it is for the best that you do. See what the Once and Future King has become when you were not there. It may be a chance to heal, to finally accept what has happened. I… I know you’re still struggling with letting go. With accepting what has happened to you.”

Merlin didn’t respond at that. But after a moment, he sighed. “Is it really a good idea?”

“It is your choice.”

After a long moment, Merlin sighed again. “Okay, I guess we can try to see Arthur.”

“Then look into the bowl, clear your mind, and let your thoughts go to him.”

Merlin nodded as he set his water cup aside (still not having drunken any). He let out a grounding breath before leaning over and staring into the bowl, his mind focusing on only one thought.

Arthur.

 

~

 

Merlin was gone. Arthur still couldn’t believe it. For something that had been such an integral part of his life for so long to just be- gone…

George was a good manservant, gods knew it. Always on time, never complained. But the man was positively stifling. Not to mention he just… lacked. Merlin was always able to be blunt with Arthur, telling him where he was going wrong. George just… didn’t.

Arthur sat at the head of his council table, listening to some boring report from a lord about trade, but staring off blankly as he wondered where Merlin and Gwaine were. He’d managed to avoid thinking about it for some time, but he just was unable to avoid it today.

Arthur missed his servant, his friend, his brother, dearly. But… He sighed.

And Arthur didn’t want to admit it, but he did. He regretted it as much as he’d ever regretted anything in his life.

He missed Merlin. And, though he’d never admit it aloud, he missed Gwaine too. You could always count on Gwaine to have your back, or at the very least to have an interesting story when nights got slow.

… where were they now?”

“My king?”

Arthur looked up, pulled suddenly from his reverie, and found the council members staring at him expectantly.

Arthur cleared his throat and straightened in his chair. “Yes, of course,” he said. What was he agreeing to? “I think that’s all for today. You are dismissed.”

The council looked confused for a moment, before they all bowed and began shuffling from the room, their cloaks flowing behind them.

“My lord?” Arthur inwardly groaned, and turned to find Agravaine next to him, his uncle looking him over in concern. “Are you alright?”

Arthur took in a sharp breath as he straightened and forced a smile. “Fine. Everything is fine, Uncle. No need to concern yourself.”

Agravaine looked over Arthur once, his brow furled in skepticism, but then he nodded. “If you insist, Arthur. But just know that if you need anything, do not hesitate to ask.”

Arthur smiled a smile that was less forced. “Thank you, Uncle. Your presence has been… invaluable to me these last few months.” The actual moment from when Arthur was referring to went unsaid.

Agravaine smiled. “I’m glad I could help you, nephew. I’m just sorry that you need so much of my help.”

Arthur let out a breath. “There are no more council meetings today, correct?”

“So I’ve been told.”

Arthur nodded. “In which case I will retire for the day,” Arthur said, standing.

“So soon?” Agravaine asked, confused.

“I… am not feeling myself, Uncle,” Arthur said.

“Shall I fetch Gaius?”

“Nothing a little rest won’t fix,” Arthur said, leaving the room. “But do retrieve me if anything happens.”

“But you will be attending your birthday feast tonight, won’t you?”

“Of course, uncle. But in the meantime, I wish to rest. That will be all.”

 

~

 

“You alright, love?” Gwaine asked that night. “I can hear you thinking.”

Merlin shifted from where he was tucked underneath Gwaine’s arm with his head on Gwaine’s shoulder as the two of them laid on their mattress- the separate bedrolls having been swapped out about a month before when they had announced their engagement to the Druids.

(Where they had gotten it, Merlin didn’t know, but he certainly wasn’t going to complain about no longer needing to sleep against the rocky floor of the cavern with just a bedroll.)

Merlin was silent for a moment, tracing patterns on Gwaine’s chest with a finger as he wondered how best to say what had him down. “I saw Arthur today,” he murmured eventually.

To which Gwaine stiffened. “What? Where?”

“Well, not in person,” Merlin explained, and he felt Gwaine relax slowly. “Iseldir was working with me on my scrying, and well, since it’s Arthur’s birthday… I guess I was thinking about him.”

“So you saw him. In a vision.”

Merlin nodded against Gwaine’s shoulder.

“… how is he?” Gwaine asked softly, without any trace of malice.

Merlin lifted his head and gave Gwaine a confused look. “I’m surprised you’re asking.”

“Well,” Gwaine started, sounding hesitant. “It’s… complicated. Surely you all people can understand that, love.”

Merlin nodded, lips pursed, before lowing his head back down. “He… looks well. I caught him in the middle of a council meeting; the kingdom is… thriving. Bandits are scarce, the harvest has come in well.” He trailed off then, but Gwaine didn’t say anything.

“Who was I kidding?” Merlin murmured at length. “He doesn’t need me. Did he ever really?”

At this, Gwaine began rubbing Merlin’s arm comfortingly. “You made him a better person, from what I heard,” Gwaine said softly. “But that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. Truthfully, I’m just grateful you improved his sorry head enough to not execute you on sight after he found out about your magic.”

“Since when have you been so introspective?”

Gwaine chuckled. “I may not use it that often, love, but I assure you that I can be when I need to be.”

They fell into a silence then, Merlin still thinking, but then Gwaine murmured something quietly after a minute or so.

“I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost you.”

“You probably would have killed him.”

Gwaine laughed at this. “I probably would have! I was ready to run him through after seeing your face when you came out of the throne room. And I don’t think I would have regretted it.” Gwaine let out a breath. “I was loyal to you first, Merlin. Always have been and always will be.” He lifted his head and lightly pecked Merlin’s hair. “We can worry about this more tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

Merlin let out a breath, but then shifted slightly as he shut his eyes. “Alright. Night, Gwaine.”

“Night, love.”

 

~

 

The moon turned from full to dark to full again, another month passing through the world and the leaves beginning to be colored once more with the coming of autumn.

The Druid camp appeared to be empty, but that was only because all the residents were currently outside the camp, sitting in a clearing in the forest outside.

It was dark, save for the light from the moon, and the fire illuminating the clearing.

Most of the Druids were sitting in a large circle around the edges of the clearing (along with a white dragon who was seated and calmly watching), with a small handful standing in the middle by a table laden with supplies.

Iseldir was standing by the table, and he smiled at the other two figures closest to him: Merlin and Gwaine. “It has been a year and a day since you decided to stay at our camp. And, if you so wish, here you are given the choice to join us. To become a full member of our camp and our community.”

He turned to Merlin. “Lord Emrys, do you wish to join us?”

“I do,” Merlin answered.

Iseldir turned to Gwaine, “And Sir Gwaine, do you wish to join us?”

“I do.”

“You’ve both chosen places for your tattoos?”

At this, Gwaine reached a hand behind his head, grabbed his collar, and shucked his shirt swiftly and completely shamelessly. He shook his hair once his head was free, before placing it on the table.

Merlin was a bit more modest, doing it not nearly as quickly and with not nearly as much flourish, but still setting his shirt on the table next to Gwaine’s a moment later.

Iseldir turned to the crowd. “Bodhmall?” he asked.

Bodhmall stepped forward, and a small chest in her hands. It made sense, Merlin thought: Bodhmall was the healer, her specialty lying in magic involving the body.

She reached the table, set the chest down, and opened it. Inside lay a wooden triskele, just under the size of Merlin’s palm. Bodhmall pulled this out and smiled warmly at the two of them. “Who would like to go first?”

Gwaine raised a hand. “I will.”

Bodhmall nodded. “Where would you like it?”

To which Gwaine put a hand to his right hip, just by where you could feel the jut of his hipbone.

Bodhmall stepped forward, and placed the stencil to Gwaine’s right hip, just where he had indicated.

Adihtan on sé ferjgt,” she said, her eyes flashing gold.

Gwaine jerked slightly and gave a small grunt of discomfort, but then he blinked. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Bodhmall said, smiling up at him in amusement. And with that, she removed the stencil.

A black triskele tattoo now sat on Gwaine’s hip, just where the stencil had been a moment before. Gwaine looked at it in surprise, rubbing his fingers over it in disbelief, before he looked up with a smirk at Bodhmall and nodded. “Thank you,” he said.

Bodhmall gave him a smile, before turning to Merlin. “Are you ready, Lord Emrys?” she asked.

To which Merlin nodded. “I am.” He put his hand over his heart. “Here, please.”

Bodhmall nodded. She placed the stencil where Merlin had indicated. With a glance and a nod from Merlin to confirm it was right, she said, Adihtan on sé ferjgt,” and her eyes flahsed once more.

Merlin felt a shock of magic where the stencil was placed, a tingling feeling traveling there. But, it was gone barely a moment later. Bodhmall removed the stencil.

Merlin glanced down at his chest, and blinked. Though he was expecting to see the black triskele there now, it was still strange: seeing the mark and knowing that it would be there forever.

Just like Gwaine, he looked up at Bodhmall with a smile. “Thank you.”

Bodhmall nodded, smiling as well, before she stepped back to the side and rejoined the crowd of Druids once more.

Iseldir smiled at them. “Here is your gift, Lord Emrys,” Iseldir said, reaching to one of the Druids and fetching a staff that was as long as Merlin was tall from their hands. Iseldir held it out to Merlin, his eyes shining. “Oak, topped with quartz and enchanted to withstand even the strongest of spells. And the feathers,” he added with a nod to the feathers hanging off of leather cords from the top, “Are from a merlin falcon.”

Merlin’s expression was that of pure awe as he took the staff from Iseldir’s hands. “The runes?” he asked, looking at the blue markings winding their way along the shaft. He recognized many, but was still very unversed in their meaning.

“To channel and focus your magic,” Iseldir answered. “I hope the staff is to your satisfaction.”

“It’s beautiful,” Merlin breathed, a smile coming to his face. He looked up. “Can I-?”

Iseldir stepped back and gestured. “Please.”

With that, Merlin turned towards the fire, and held the staff in his hands.

It thrummed with energy in his fingers, connecting easily with Merlin’s magic. The crystal at the end glowed briefly when Merlin focused his magic into it, and Merlin’s smile widened.

But then he looked up at the fire, and held the staff out.

Without a word, flames rose from the fire, before taking the shape of a bird- a merlin falcon, Merlin thought with a smirk. It spread its wings widely, illuminating the clearing, before it took off and dissipated into the night sky.

Merlin turned to Gwaine with a wide smile, and Gwaine was looking at Merlin with so much fondness and pride that Merlin’s heart stuttered in its chest.

“And here is your gift, Sir Gwaine,” Iseldir said, drawing their attention back to him as he turned to Fidelma and grabbed an object from the pillow she was holding.

Gwaine stepped forward and took it from Iseldir’s hands.

Merlin recognized it: it was an arm bracer, colored gold and with leather straps to tighten it.

“It is a magical artifact,” Iseldir said. “Since you are Emrys’ Champion and protector, we thought it fitting to give you something to help protect yourself.”

Gwaine looked up. “What does it do?”

Iseldir smiled. “Put it on your shield arm, hold your arm out, then say bordrand.”

Gwaine, after a moment, slipped it on, held his arm out, and spoke, “Bordrand.”

There was a sudden hiss of metal, and Gwaine staggered in surprise, but then he let out a victorious laugh.

A formidable shield was now on his forearm, colored gold just as the brace had been and about the size of his upper body. Gwaine turned to Merlin with a grin, and Merlin saw that emblazoned across the front of the shield was an emerald green pentangle.

“It’s so light,” Gwaine said, bouncing on his toes. “I can barely feel it there.”

“Light, but strong,” Iseldir said. “Able to withstand even blades forged in a dragon’s breath.”

“Really? Can’t imagine there are many of those about, though.”

Merlin tactfully chose not to say anything in response to that.

Iseldir spoke once more. “Use both these gifts well, to the benefit of all. And with that, I welcome you, to our community.” Iseldir then glanced up, and addressed all the Druids there. “By the power of Land, Sea, and Sky, this rite is done, so say I!”

And a cry of “So say I!” rose up in the clearing, joined by Merlin and Gwaine.

Chapter Text

Hunith arrived at the camp a week or so before Samhain, wanting to see her son once more before winter set in and not willing to risk him trying to visit during the cold season again.

The Druids welcomed her with open arms (for who could turn away the mother of Emrys?), and she quickly adapted to life in the camp.

Aithusa was overjoyed to see Hunith once more (despite having acted as messenger between the two places for months now) and often spent her time at Hunith’s side, excitedly showing Merlin’s mother all her favorite places in the forest beyond the camp, and sitting by Hunith’s side during the meals and gatherings.

Merlin himself was elated to have her near again, and so was Gwaine (the two of them having formed a bond, that had only grown when Merlin and Gwaine had written to her and informed her of their engagement), and Merlin found himself strangely content with life.

But, Merlin found he wanted to do something for his mother, something to show her that he’d finally become a great sorcerer, and that his magic had grown and flourished into something she could be proud of.

In the back of one of the books, Merlin found a spell- a complicated one that took many priestesses to do originally. It would take a lot of work, but maybe…

 

~

 

“Where are we going, Merlin?”

Merlin was walking through the forest, just after dusk, guiding his mother along a worn path. Aithusa followed behind, her tail swishing across the path and flicking underbrush to the sides as she dragged it in the dirt.

Merlin turned his back to his mother. “There’s… something I want to do. Something I want to show you.”

“What is it?”

“It’s… a spell,” Merlin said. “I’ve learned a lot of magic here with the Druids, and I wanted to show you what I’ve learned.”

“Is it safe? I don’t want you getting hurt, Merlin, my dear.”

“It should be,” Merlin said, holding a low hanging branch up with his staff so Hunith could duck underneath. “I took some precautions; nothing should go wrong.”

“Alright. I don’t want you hurting yourself for my sake.”

Eventually they reached a clearing that Merlin had prepared in advance for the spell- Gwaine already waiting there and setting up the last bits. He spotted them with a grin, and gestured. “I think it’s ready, love.”

The clearing now had a circle of rocks around it, with various sigils drawn the dirt just within them.

“What’s this?” Hunith asked, crouching and examining the sigils. Aithusa too bent her head down and examined one with narrowed eyes.

“The spell is difficult,” Merlin explained. “It took many priestesses to perform before, and the repercussions were often physically painful. The sigils-” he gestured around with his staff- “Will absorb any of that, so it doesn’t effect me.”

Hunith looked up, her eyes wide, as did Aithusa. “The spell used to hurt those who did it?” she breathed in shock.

“Yes, but they figured out a way to dispell the effects,” he said as he gestured again. “We’ve set up everything, mother. And, if something does go wrong, I’ve told Gwaine what to watch for and how to stop it.”

Hunith glanced at Gwaine, and he nodded reassuringly, showing absolutely no signs of apprehension. “It’s going to be fine.”

Hunith looked uncertainly at Merlin, and Merlin nodded as well. “I want to do this for you, mother. Please.”

Merlin then noticed Aithusa’s worried expression, and how she was slowly backing to the trees. He looked behind his mother at the dragon. “Aithusa, it’s going to be fine,” Merlin murmured soothingly.

Aithusa looked up at Merlin, her eyes wide, before she shook her head and backed further into the foliage, hiding herself under a bush so only her eyes were visible in the dark. “Watch from here,” she said in a small voice.

Merlin glanced at Gwaine then, who shrugged. “If she wants to watch from there, I say let her.”

Merlin pursed his lips before nodding. He looked to Hunith. “Are you ready, Mother?”

Hunith looked her son over once, concern furling her brow, before she nodded. “Okay,” she answered softly.

And with that, Merlin smiled, before turning and staring at the circle. He shut his eyes, let out a breath, before opening them once more, them glowing the color of starlight. “I’m ready.”

 

~

 

Gwaine watched as Merlin walked into the clearing, to within the circle of stones and sigils. Next to him, Hunith watched as well, clearly slightly nervous.

“What spell requires so much preparation?” she murmured.

“A complicated one,” Gwaine answered. “But all the Druids say that Merlin’s the most powerful magician they have ever met. If anyone can do it, he can.”

“But…” Hunith turned to Gwaine. “Why? What does this spell do?”

But it was then that Merlin reached where he wanted to be (near the center of the circle, but not the exact middle), and he took his staff and planted it firmly on the ground in front of him.

Gwaine thought he had imagined the small shockwave that had traveled through the clearing, but when he heard Hunith gasp, he realized he hadn’t.

Merlin shut his eyes and began to focus, and, softly, the sigils surrounding the area began to glow an ever faint gold.

Then Merlin spoke.

Ic ascian onuppan ðu, sé land, bund, ond lyffc, æt geopenian sé dor of gastgedal, ond besendan drút ic gewill besprecan. Besendan mec-” Merlin took in a deep shaky breath here, before finishing the spell with a single word- “Balinor.”

Hunith gasped next to Gwaine, but Gwaine didn’t say anything, his attention fixed to a point in front of Merlin.

For there, in the very center of the clearing, Gwaine could see what looked like a doorway forming. It appeared to be made of glass, barely visible if you weren’t looking for it.

Merlin’s eyes opened, strongly glowing gold as he fixed his stare on the apparition in front of him, watching it as if waiting for something.

Or someone.

And then out of the doorway stepped a figure.

Merlin’s eyes widened in recognition, the gold faded from them, and he had to lean on his staff for support. He stared in disbelief at the figure, and Gwaine could have sworn he saw a tear leak out of one eye.

Father.”

At this, Gwaine turned an examining eye to the figure- Balinor.

He was broader than Merlin, with wide shoulders and a build more like Gwaine’s own, with long hair and a full beard.

But Gwaine could see elements of Merlin in him- or rather, he could recognize the elements of Balinor Merlin had inherited- the cheekbones, the hair color, the texture. But more striking than that was one distinct difference: Balinor was translucent, and appeared to have a blue tint about him.

Balinor smiled, awed. “My son,” he said, stepping towards Merlin. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”

And Merlin let out a disbelieving, breathy laugh. It worked.”

Balinor gave Merlin a rueful smile, but then he glanced behind Merlin, and his eyes widened. “Hunith?” he breathed.

Hunith stared in disbelief. “Bal?”

They stared at each other wide-eyed, before Hunith took a tentative step forward into the circle. Merlin moved out of the way, moving closer to Gwaine, allowing his parents to approach each other.

Hunith looked over Balinor, her eyes wide and in disbelief.

“You grew your hair out,” she said eventually.

Balinor huffed half a laugh. “Easier to not have to worry about cutting it.”

Hunith chuckled, but it was weak. They were both silent for a bit, before Hunith took in a breath and looked up, her expression devastated. “Why did you leave, Bal?”

“Camelot’s men were coming, I couldn’t risk them finding out about you.”

So why didn’t you ask me to come with you?”

“Because you would have said yes, Hunith,” Balinor responded, his eyes anguished. Hunith didn’t respond at this, her eyes wide. Balinor let out a breath, “… And I couldn’t have asked you to leave your life behind just for me.”

“We could have made it work!”

“At what cost, Hunith? You had a life in Ealdor, friends, family-”

Family?” Hunith scoffed then.You made it so our son grew up without a father!”

Gwaine turned to Merlin then, and found Merlin staring at the two of them with a mortified expression. He shook his head minutely. “This was a bad idea.”

Gwaine jostled Merlin’s shoulder with his own, making Merlin meet his eyes, while Balinor and Hunith’s voices continued in the back. Gwaine said, “You didn’t know what was going to happen.”

“I should have thought of it-” Merlin said, his gaze heading back.

“Hey,” Gwaine said, pulling Merlin’s attention back to him. “This would have happened eventually anyway, right?”

Merlin’s eyes flicked between Gwaine’s, and then he snorted. “I suppose so,” he said with a sigh, turning his attention back to his parents.

Balinor let out a sigh then. Gwaine had missed a couple things that had been said, but it was clear that they had both calmed slightly. “I thought of you every day, Hunith,” Balinor said. “And I have never regretted my decision. You were safe, which is all I wanted. And as for our son,” Balinor looked up at Merlin then, meeting Merlin’s eyes before smiling ruefully, “I only met him for a day, but I know you raised him to be a wonderful, caring young man.” He turned back to Hunith. “And I could not be more proud of you.”

Hunith met his eyes for a moment longer, before letting out a sigh and dropping her head. “I just wish we’d been able to do it together.”

Balinor lifted a hand and moved to place it to Hunith’s cheek, but it simply went through. Balinor’s expression became more anguished for a moment, before he simply held his hand there instead, trying to touch her even through the divide between them. “I do, too. More than you will ever know.”

Silence followed for a moment, before Hunith let out a sigh. “I… I know why you left, Bal, I understand, but it still hurt.”

“And for that I have never forgiven myself- that I hurt you, Hunith. I never wanted to hurt you. And I’m so sorry I did.

Hunith was quiet for a moment, before she looked up again, a small, sad smile on her face. “Yes, it did hurt, Bal, but I don’t regret a single moment we had together. I don’t regret it at all.”

Balinor was quiet for a moment, before a matching expression came over his face. “I don’t either,” he breathed, staring at her so gently and so lovingly that Merlin felt tears welling in his eyes.

But then, after no one had said anything for a while, Merlin again stepped forward.

Both of his parents attentions turned to him then, and Merlin shifted where he stood.

Balinor smiled ruefully. “Hello, son.”

Merlin returned the smile. “Father.”

But then Balinor’s attention turned to Gwaine.

“And who is this?” he asked. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“This… is Gwaine,” Merlin introduced, grabbing Gwaine’s hand and pulling Gwaine towards him. “My betrothed.”

Balinor blinked, possibly surprised, but then he smiled. “I’m pleased,” he said, regarding Gwaine warmly. “I’m glad I got to meet the one whom my son has chosen to spend his life with.”

“I’m glad your son chose to spend his life with me,” Gwaine smirked then, but then his brow furled. “I suppose I’m supposed to ask for your permission.”

Balinor chuckled. “Not necessary. I trust my son to make his own choices wisely. And I assume Hunith’s permission will suffice.”

Balinor then glanced at Merlin’s mother with a teasing smirk, and she smiled, before shaking her head slightly in fondness. “Gwaine’s a sweetheart, Bal. I assure you they have my blessing.”

Balinor’s eyes softened, but then he turned back to Merlin and Gwaine. “Then I will give you both my blessing as well.” He smiled, but then it saddened slightly. “I hope you two get to have what your mother and I did not.”

Merlin choked up then, and Gwaine felt him squeeze his hand. “Thank you.”

There was a chirp off to the side, and Balinor turned at the sound. But then his eyes widened and he took in a gasp. “Is that-?”

“Did you ever hear about the Tomb of Ashkanar?” Merlin asked, voice breaking and a rueful smile on his face. “About the last dragon egg?”

Balinor glanced at Merlin once, before turning back to the dragon. “No,” he breathed in disbelief. “You- you got to the egg?”

Merlin simply nodded, smiling despite the tears threatening to spill over.

Balinor let out another disbelieving laugh, before he crossed the clearing and knelt down, opening his arms and staring at Aithusa.

Aithusa looked over Balinor once, before crawling out from underneath the brambles and joining them in the clearing.

Balinor’s breath caught in his throat upon seeing her emerge, and he smiled widely, his breath shaking.

Hello, little one,” Balinor breathed, looking over Aithusa with wide awed eyes, his hands hovering by her head as if to touch her, but knowing he can’t. “What’s your name?”

“Aithusa,” Aithusa responded, still looking over Balinor, as if uncertain.

Balinor laughed breathily again. “Aithusa,” he said. Light of the sun. It’s perfect for you, little one.”

Aithusa looked over Balinor once more, before asking, Hi los Bormah do Brod?”

Balinor let out a breathy laugh, eyes brimming. “Geh. Geh, zu’u los.”

Aithusa glanced at Merlin, and Merlin nodded. Geh, Aithusa. Rok los dii Bormah.”

Aithusa blinked at Merlin for a moment, before turning back to Balinor and looking him over. But then she smiled slightly. Sahrotbrod,” she said.

Balinor gasped slightly, almost a laugh and almost a sob. “Yes, yes, mal gein.” He let out a breath then, lowering his hands to his laps. “I have so much I could tell you. So many stories, so many tales. If only you-” but then his eyes widened, and he jolted to Merlin, new urgency in his eyes. “Son, in my cave, I have a book-”

Merlin smiled. “We know,” he said.

Balinor blinked. “You- what?”

“We… went to your cave, last winter,” Merlin said. “We found your book. The one you wrote on Dragonlords.”

Balinor’s eyes widened. “You did?” he breathed, slowly straightening to a stand.

Merlin nodded. “I’ve studied every page,” he said, voice breaking slightly. He continued with a slight laugh, “I probably have the whole thing memorized at this point.”

Balinor blinked in disbelief for another moment, before letting out a soft, breathy laugh. “When you told me who you were… I wanted to give you that book- to make up for all that I had missed… I thought you would never see it. How did you find it?”

“I wanted to clean your things, so Gwaine and I went.” Merlin smiled softly, but then let out a sigh. “Your cave, it’s… it’s empty now.”

Balinor’s eyes saddened momentarily, but then he nodded. “Good,” he said. “I’d hate for it to all stay and rot.”

But then Balinor then glanced suddenly to the side, his eyes focusing on something that no one else could see with a shocked expression.

“They’re calling me back,” he murmured softly, his eyes saddening. He let out a sigh and turned to the others. He glanced between Merlin and Hunith, smiling ruefully. “I love you. Both of you. Never forget that.” He then glanced at Gwaine. “Gwaine?”

Gwaine looked up, surprised he was being addressed. “Yes?”

“Take care of my son. Treat him well.”

Gwaine didn’t move for a moment, before he quirked his lips slightly and nodded. “I promise I will.”

Balinor smiled gently, then turned his attention to Aithusa. “You are so beautiful, little one. I’m so glad I got to meet you.”

Aithusa chirped, pleased with the compliment, and Balinor laughed softly.

But then he looked at Merlin and Hunith once more. “Thank you, son, for doing this. I will miss you. And Hunith…” he turned to Merlin’s mother, before letting out a sigh. “… I didn’t say it then, and it was my one regret. That I didn’t say this to you:

“Good-bye, my love.”

Hunith took in a shaky breath, before she said in return, “Good-bye, my darling.”

And then he was gone.

Hunith gasped slightly, but then she let out a shaky breath, but she didn’t move or say anything.

Merlin hesitantly walked up to her. “… mother?”

And at that, Hunith turned to Merlin, before giving him a watery smile. She reached out a hand and squeezed his shoulder, before stepping forward and pulling him into a hug.

“Thank you, Merlin.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Winter came and passed once more, the green and the light returning to the world after months of white and darkness.

And with the new growth, came excitement and happiness throughout the camp. But not just for the return of the warmth and life to the land.

It always did for a handfasting.

Halfway between Imbolc and Ostara found Merlin sitting in a small tent that had been set up just beyond the cave, surrounded by candles (even with the natural light coming through the canvas of the tent) and in front of a mirror.

He was shrouded in cream colored robes with green edging of spirals and leaves, and to one side there was a bowl of woad dye with a paintbrush resting in it. He’d already used the paintbrush though, the evidence taking the form of blue spirals that were on his arms and peeking out from beneath the sleeves of the robes.

But what he had his attention on was what was in front him.

A pair of beaded headdresses. One for him and one for Gwaine.

The headdresses were relatively simple design wise, only a circlet with arcs coming off in a pattern meant to emulate dragon scales, with larger beads at the center of the forehead and the bottom of the loops in the back. But there was one difference between the two sets.

Merlin’s headdress had horns that sat on his head and curled towards the back, resembling the horns of a dragon. It’d taken a while to carve them from wood and dye them to resemble the horns of what would have been a black dragon, but Merlin believed he’d succeeded in making them match the diagram in Balinor’s book.

(All while doing this without Gwaine’s knowledge, leaving the headdresses to be a surprise.)

Carefully, he set his on his head, and looked in the mirror to make any final adjustments to where it sat. With a small charm for stability (since the horns felt a bit off balance and he didn’t want to risk them falling off in the middle of the ceremony), his head was finally finished.

Merlin looked himself over in the mirror, nerves alight in excitement, and unable to keep himself from smiling.

He was ready for his handfasting.

“Merlin? Gwaine?” came Fidelma’s voice. “Are you ready?”

And with that, Merlin stood, and moved to open the flap to his tent.

Merlin stepped out, his stomach only a large mass of butterflies that were swarming in his excitement.

Across from him, Gwaine stepped out of his own tent, and Merlin’s breath caught in his throat.

Gwaine was also wearing the delicate cream colored robes that had been accented with green embroidery, and it was gently flowing in the breeze. His hair had been styled, to Merlin’s surprise, with a handful of braids in them and various flowers woven in. Much like Merlin’s own skin, Gwaine’s arms had blue spirals drawn on, and they were poking out from below the hems of the robes.

Gwaine spotted Merlin, and an awed smile came to his face, before the two of them slowly approached the other.

“… how do I look?” Merlin asked, slightly sheepishly once they were next to each other.

Gwaine smiled at him for a moment, before reaching a hand forward and brushing hair behind Merlin’s ear. “Breathtaking,” he answered, breathless and his eyes filled with awe.

Merlin let out a nervous laugh. He waved a hand at his head. “The beads are a Dragonlord custom,” he explained. “I hope we got them right.”

Gwaine smiled. “I like it.”

“There’s actually a set for you too,” Merlin said, holding out the stringed beads in his hands. “Since you’re marrying a Dragonlord.”

Gwaine blinked at them, before he gave another awed smile, and he tipped his head forward so Merlin could put them on.

And with that, Merlin reached up and draped them over Gwaine’s head. He untangled a couple strands that had fallen together, and they fell onto Gwaine’s hair, accenting it just that much more.

The two of them glanced forward to see Fidelma, smiling warmly at them. “Are you all set?” she asked.

With a nod from both Merlin and Gwaine, she lifted a crystal in her hand and her eyes flashed gold.

And the crystal began to glow white in response.

“What’s that?” Merlin asked.

“Communication crystal,” Fidelma answered. “Iseldir has a matching one: if one begins to glow, the other does as well- to let Iseldir know we’re ready. It has the added advantage that if you don’t know where the other is, it can help guide you to them.”

Gwaine nodded, impressed.

Fidelma gave them another smile, before she turned and began to head to the clearing.

Gwaine glanced at Merlin and smiled once more. He took Merlin’s hand in his and lifted it to his lips before lightly kissing Merlin’s fingers. “You ready?”

And Merlin nodded, his face threatening to split in half with his smile. “Absolutely.” Gwaine grinned widely and intertwined his fingers with Merlin’s before they both began to follow Fidelma.

When they reached the clearing, Merlin let in a gasp.

The oak tree in the middle had been adorned with ribbons, and they were swaying slightly in the breeze. Small conjured lights drifted about in the breeze as well, and though it was the middle of the day, they were easily visible in the shadows of the trees, and lit the clearing just that much more. Some chimes had been set up as well, and they too were all swaying, letting out notes as they collided with their neighbor.

The clearing looked and sounded, for lack of a better word, magical.

Iseldir was waiting for them at the base of the tree, next to a table with various supplies laid out upon it. Hunith was next to him (not one to miss her own son’s wedding, after all), a smile on her own face, with a very excited Aithusa next to her. Aithusa had grown during the winter, and Aithusa’s head now reached to Hunith’s waist when the dragon was seated.

Iseldir smiled at them, and beckoned Merlin and Gwaine forward.

To this, the rest of the Druids stood, and Finnegas, who was sitting off to the side with a harp, began to pluck out a gentle song.

The two of them glanced at each other, shared a nervous smile and laugh, before Merlin held out his arm, and Gwaine hooked his through Merlin’s elbow, his eyes shining in joy.

And with that, Merlin turned forward, let out a shaky breath, and the two of them walked forward into the clearing, crossing it slowly and not trying to rush.

“Please, be seated,” Iseldir said once they had reached him at the base of the tree, and there was shuffling as the Druids sat once more on the ground.

Iseldir smiled once more. “We are gathered here today to honor the union of these two people. Who have both decided to pledge their lives to one another. Who have both decided to join together in love, from now until the end of eternity.”

Iseldir turned to Hunith and held out a hand. “Hunith? If I may.”

And Merlin watched, confused, as Hunith reached to the table and grabbed some braided ribbons- their handfasting cords- before handing it to Iseldir. The cords were about as long as Merlin was tall, and was made of three ribbons braided together- blue, green, and gold- with silver colored charms dangling off intermittently.

“I made it. The cord,” she whispered with a smile at Merlin’s silent question, and Merlin blinked in surprise for a moment, before he smiled gratefully at his mother.

“Now, clasp hands,” Iseldir instructed, “Right hand to right hand.” Merlin and Gwaine did, their smiles growing wider.

Iseldir draped the handfasting cord over their hands, “Will you share yourselves freely and generously with each other, making time to be together?” he asked.

“We will,” Merlin and Gwaine responded.

Iseldir picked up the end dangling in front and wrapped it around their hands. “The first bind is made with the land, so that your love may be wise and nurturing and your happiness abundant.

“Will you seek to ease each others’ sufferings, sharing laughter and joy?”

“We will.”

He grabbed the end closest to him and wrapped it under and over their hands once more. “The second bind is made with sea, so that your love may flow and fill you to your depths.

“Will you strive to keep your love alive through daily actions and words of encouragement?”

“We will.”

Iseldir grabbed one end and wrapped it around, “The third bind is made with sky, so that your love will be just as limitless, and filled with spirit.

“And, will you love and cherish the other, so long as you live?”

“We will.”

Iseldir grabbed the last end of the cord and wrapped it around once more, going around their hands and back, before he did the same with the other end.

He looked up at them and smiled. “With this, the fourth and final bind, we turn to you. Gwaine, Merlin, do you both have your rings?”

“We do,” the both responded, and they both turned to Aithusa.

Aithusa straightened and let out a happy chirp, before bending to the ground and picking up a basket that had been resting in front of her. She walked over and sat in front of them, and straightened, holding the basket high and proud.

Sitting on a pillow in the basket were the silver ring from Balinor’s cave, and a gold ring that, until that very morning, had made it’s home on the chain around Gwaine’s neck. Merlin and Gwaine then looked to Iseldir, who smiled once more.

Iseldir turned to Gwaine. “Gwaine? Would you like to go first?”

Gwaine nodded. “I would.” And with that, he and Merlin turned to fully face each other as Gwaine reached to the basket and pulled out the gold ring.

Merlin lifted his left hand, as did Gwaine, with the gold ring between his fingers. Gwaine took in a breath. “Merlin, the day I met you changed my life. I never could have thought that my life could ever… be this good, if I’m being honest. And… I never thought that I could love someone as much as I love you. I promise you, Merlin, that I will love you for as long as I live, and even longer if I have my way.” He slid the ring on, his face alight in a devoted smile. “And with this, I pledge to you my body, my heart, and my soul, from now until eternity.”

Merlin glanced down at his left hand, and his heart stuttered in his chest from where he could now see the gold ring on his finger.

He smiled up at Gwaine, who’s own face was alight in joy, before Merlin nodded and reached forward to grab the silver ring from the pillow.

“Gwaine, you are my best friend, my truest friend, and there is no one who I would rather share my life with than you. You’re my Strength, Gwaine. You held me together when my life was falling apart around me, and there is nothing I can do to repay that to you. I love you, Gwaine, and the day you said yes to marrying me is the happiest of my life.” He slid the ring onto Gwaine’s waiting finger. “And with this, I pledge to you my body, my heart, and my soul, from now until eternity.”

He smiled at Gwaine then, Gwaine’s eyes shining with unshed tears of joy.

Iseldir then spoke one more. “Then before the gods and these witnesses, I bind you together with this cord, to symbolize that it is the love between you that truly binds you. A love shared between two souls. May you always stand together and support the other. And may your love sing like the wind in the trees and burn like the fires that warm you during cold winter nights.” Iseldir let out a breath, and smiled. “And with that, I pronounce you bonded. You may kiss.”

Gwaine put his hand to Merlin’s cheek, his eyes alight in joy- Merlin positive that his eyes looked the same- as they met Merlin’s for a moment before the two of them leaned in a shared a kiss.

A cheer rose up from the Druids, and Merlin felt Gwaine smile in amusement. They separated, awed smiles on each of their faces, before leaning towards each other once more and touching their foreheads together.

Iseldir stepped forward, and they moved apart so he could undo the cords.

“As I unwind these, remember that it is not the cords that bind you, but your dedication to one another. These cords serve as a symbol of that, but nothing more. It is your love that truly binds you.” Iseldir finished, and held out the cords to them. “And may they always serve reminder of that and of this day of joy.”

Merlin took the cords with a fond smile, before draping one end over his shoulders and the other around Gwaine’s. Gwaine laughed, before reaching forward and taking Merlin’s hand in his once more.

Iseldir smiled again, before addressing the Druids. “And with that, it’s time for the celebratory feast, is it not?”

Feast?!” a sudden exclamation sounded. Tadg and Dornoll bolted upright and immediately started running back to the camp, letting out cries of “I’ll get there before you!” and “No you won’t!”

Nuadat groaned before standing and immediately following them, muttering under her breath something about, I told them to wait.”

Gwaine let out a laugh, and Merlin did as well, though his was softer. But then they turned to each other, and Gwaine’s expression was happier than he’d ever seen it- and Merlin was positive his expression was the same.

“Let’s go join them, shall we?” Gwaine asked, squeezing Merlin’s hand and looking Merlin over with shining eyes.

Merlin smiled, and squeezed his husband’s hand in return. “Let’s.”

 

~

 

After the feast found Merlin, Gwaine, and Aithusa walking through the woods. The sun had long since set, and the stars were illuminating the path as they walked along it.

Despite being a calm, beautiful night following the best day of his life, Gwaine’s heart was racing in his chest, and he was positive Merlin could feel him shaking as they held each others’ hand.

Kilgharrah’s just a dragon right? Gwaine’s met dragons. Look, Aithusa’s right there. She’s a dragon. This is just another dragon. A big, bloody full grown dragon.

“Gwaine.” Gwaine looked up to see Merlin looking at him in the dark. Merlin squeezed Gwaine’s fingers and gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s going to be fine. I’ll be right there, so he won’t be able to do anything to hurt you. And besides, he likes riddles more than he likes hurting people. I imagine the most he’ll do is give you a headache if you listen to him for too long.”

“… but this is the same dragon who attacked Camelot, isn’t it?”

Merlin paused, before letting out a sigh. “Yes. Kilgharrah believed he was the only dragon left. He wanted retribution against the one who killed his kin. Can you really blame him?”

“… no, I suppose not. But what if he doesn’t accept me as Dragonconsort?”

“Then I’ll just ask Aithusa.”

Aithusa perked up at this, before walking over to Gwaine and nudging her head against his hand in a way that was supposed to reassure him.

Gwaine smiled, and gave her a quick scratch. “Why don’t we just ask her now? Why Kilgharrah?”

“Aithusa’s only two years old. Kilgharrah is hundreds, thousands. He, for lack of a better word, outranks her. Besides, I thought you liked a challenge?”

“You know I do, love, but this is a great bloody man-eating dragon.”

Aithusa made a hurt noise, and Gwaine winced. “Not you, Aithusa. The other one.”

Aithusa looked Gwaine over with a narrowed eyed look, before she suddenly flicked her tail and stalked forward past Gwaine, her head held loftily in a clear motion of displeasure.

Merlin laughed. “Guess we better hope Kilgharrah does accept you, because it looks like Aithusa might not at the moment.”

“… joy.”

They walked for a little longer, before reaching a larger clearing- one that Merlin had found in advance of tonight.

They stopped, and Merlin shot Gwaine a reassuring smile, before stepping forward into the clearing and turning his head skyward.

Dovah! Bo het wah kolos zu’u bel hi, kruziik gein, ol zu’u laan fah hin aak. Bo nu, Kilgharrah!” he called, his deep and archaic voice echoing off the trees that surrounded them.

The three of them waited silently, and then, at the edges of his hearing, Gwaine heard it.

He knew what dragons sounded like as they flew, intimately familiar with the sounds of Aithusa as she had flitted about their tent when she was small enough, and as she glided through the trees outside the camp, but this, this, was different.

It was deeper, stronger, each beat sending a wave through the air.

And it was getting louder, much louder than Aithusa’s wing beats ever did.

Suddenly something fell out of the sky into the clearing in front of them, before straightening and putting its gaze on Merlin.

Gwaine felt his eyes widen involuntarily.

Gwaine had known Kilgharrah was huge, but it wasn’t until now that he knew just how large the Great Dragon was. How was it possible for any living creature to be so huge?

And then Kilgharrah turned his golden-eyed gaze to Gwaine, looking him over with an unreadable expression.

Gwaine would never admit to the noise he made.

Merlin stepped forward, completely unafraid. “Kilgharrah.”

Kilgharrah turned to Merlin, before bowing his head slightly. “Young Warlock,” he greeted. Then he looked up. “Sir Gwaine-” Gwaine blinked, not realizing the Great Dragon knew who he was. “Mal gein,” he said (fondly?) looking at Aithusa, who chirped happily. But then Kilgharrah turned back to Merlin. “You have summoned me here for a purpose, I assume?”

“I have,” Merlin said, stepping forward. “As of today, I am now handfasted to Sir Gwaine.”

If Kilgharrah was surprised, he didn’t show it. Instead he nodded. “I see. And do you believe that Sir Gwaine is worthy of the title of Dragonconsort?”

“I do. Wholeheartedly.”

“And is he prepared to make the oath?”

“He is.”

“Very well,” Kilgharrah once more looked at Gwaine. “Then step forward and say your oath, Sir Gwaine, so that I may accept you as Dragonconsort.”

Aithusa nudged Gwaine forward with her snout, and Gwaine took a couple steps towards the Great Dragon. Gwaine turned to Merlin, nervousness plain in his gaze, but Merlin nodded encouragingly with a smile. “He’s not going to eat you,” Merlin assured him.

Gwaine laughed (albeit nervously) at that, before turning back to Kilgharrah, who was still eyeing him expectantly.

But then Gwaine took in a breath, rolled his shoulders back, and spoke the oath he and Merlin had practiced night after night for months on end to perfect (and with the help of Aithusa, who had visibly cringed when Gwaine had mispronounced something, and had tackled him in a hug when he’d finally gotten the whole thing right).O Sahrot Dovah. Zu’u vaat daar zu’u fent spaan faal dov ahrk zin dii Dovahdrog, nol nu erei dii oblaan. Ol Dovahefeiihleta ahrk ahmul do Merlin, zu’u vaat.”

It was strange, hearing the tongue of dragons being spoken in a normal speaking voice, but Gwaine had done his best to imitate the growl quality that Merlin’s voice always had when speaking Dragontongue.

Kilgharrah only waited for a moment, before he nodded in approval. “Very good, Sir Gwaine,” Kilgharrah praised, and Gwaine’s shoulders visibly relaxed in relief.

Kilgharrah then bent his head down to their level, and Gwaine stepped forward to place his forehead to Kilgharrah’s snout.

“I, Kilgharrah, accept you, Gwaine, as Dragonconsort and husband to Merlin.”

And with that, he straightened and stepped back.

Gwaine looked confused. “That’s it?”

“Unless you wish for me to eat you.”

“No, I’m good,” Gwaine responded. He felt a hand slip into his, and found Merlin standing next to him with so much fondness and pride in his eyes it took everything Gwaine had not to kiss him again right there.

Kilgharrah chuckled, a great rumble in the air, pulling their attention back to the dragon. “To find someone you wish the spend the rest of you life with is truly a wondrous thing. Congratulations, both of you,” Kilgharrah said.

Merlin smiled. “Thank you.”

And with that, Kilgharrah turned and flew away into the night.

There was silence for a moment, everyone in an awe as they watched the Great Dragon fly away, and were still silent long after Kilgharrah had faded into the distance.

Then Gwaine spoke.

“Well that was bloody terrifying.”

Chapter Text

A few weeks before Beltane, another celebration was taking place in Essetir. Another celebration that would effect the entire kingdom, and those that lay beyond.

“Rise, Soredamor Cenredson, King of Essetir.”

Soredamor let out a shaking breath, before standing from his kneeling position and turning to face his people- who had gathered to see their new king crowned. He glanced to the side briefly to see Morgana watching, and smiling reassuringly at him, her eyes filled with what seemed to be pride. He let out another breath and rolled his shoulders back as he lifted his chin, standing proud and tall.

Long live the king! Long live the king!”

 

~

 

“I’m proud of you, Soredamor,” Morgana said, once the two of them were alone in Soredamor’s study. The young prince- king had headed there as soon as celebrations had finished, eager to have a moment to breathe.

Soredamor let out a long breath and leaned against the table heavily, the weight of anticipation of this day finally falling from his shoulders. “Did I do well, Morgana? I’ve always been so bad at speeches.”

“I thought you did quite well.”

“But I’m so… inexperienced. I barely came of age yesterday. Can I really do this? Am I really prepared to run a kingdom? How can my people trust me to rule them well?”

“… perhaps it is time for a show of strength. Time for you to show your willingness to your people to defend them- even to right wrongs that have been done to them in the past.”

Soredamor didn’t move for a moment, before he lifted his head slowly. He turned to face her, his eyes wide. “Do you believe it is time?”

“I do. We’ve had two years to prepare. And since you are now king, your people will listen to you.” She walked over and put a hand to Soredamor’s shoulder. “And your people know that I am on your side. They know my strength. Together, we can take Camelot.”

Soredamor nodded. “It is time that Arthur Pendragon pays for what he has done to my people.” He looked up at Morgana then, his eyes lit in conviction. “I trust that your insider is still there?”

“He is one of the few people left in Camelot who has Arthur’s complete and unwavering trust. Any information you require, I can have him retrieve.”

Soredamor nodded. “Then it is decided. Soon, Camelot will finally pay.”

 

~

 

Arthur opened the door to his chambers, and smiled. “Guinevere,” he greeted.

Gwen gave him a small smile, before ducking her head slightly. “Arthur.”

Arthur stepped to the side, allowing Gwen to enter, and he softly closed the door behind her. “I’m glad you came.”

Gwen let out a soft laugh. “How can I refuse my king?” she asked teasingly.

“It’s just Arthur, here,” Arthur said, giving her a soft smile. With that, he gestured to the table. George had set it up beautifully for two- a fruit platter in the middle, with a fresh ham next to that, and candles illuminating it all with a soft light.

He pulled the chair for Gwen, and she sat, looking slightly confused. “What’s this about, Arthur?”

Arthur hesitated for only a moment, before he turned and sat at the other end of the table.

They had reached an understanding over the last year and a half- Gwen was angry with him about banishing Merlin and Gwaine, and he knew it, but at the same time, she understood why he had done it, how he felt that it had been his only option at the time. But, most importantly, she had seen how guilt had torn him up inside over a decision made too quickly.

A decision he dearly wished he could go back and change.

The last year and a half had been strange for the two of them. They’d both approached Gaius on numerous occasions, each wanting to learn more about Merlin’s magic and what had happened while he’d been in Camelot. There were some things Gaius refused to explain- saying it wasn’t his place to tell- but Gwen knew that Arthur greatly regretted his decision, and would have done nearly anything to go back and change it, and that he was trying to do all he could to try and make it right.

But that was impossible if no one knew where exactly Merlin was.

Arthur let out a sigh, before reaching a hand forward and putting it on the table, palm up. Gwen reached forward and gripped Arthur’s fingers with her own, prompting him to speak with a nod and a reassuring squeeze. Arthur said, “My feelings for you… haven’t changed, Guinevere. I love you, and more than anything I want you by my side as my queen.”

Gwen looked slightly surprised, but she didn’t say anything.

“I… I want to know what you see in our future. That’s why I’ve asked you here. If you no longer… if you no longer wish to be by my side as you have in the past, I will respect that. But I want to know. Guinevere, what do you want our future to look like? Are you still open to the thought of marrying me? Perhaps not soon… but in time?”

Gwen blinked, her eyes wide, she stuttered for a moment, before she said, “Arthur, I-”

The sound of the warning bells ringing through the citadel interrupted her, and the two of them glanced to the ceiling, looking in their direction

“Something’s wrong,” Arthur said, standing rapidly.

He took Gwen’s hand, and together the two of them rushed to the door.

The two guards outside looked just as surprised, their shocked gazes staring in the direction of the warning bells. But without a word, the group set out to the throne room- the rendezvous point when the bells began to ring.

The hallways of the citadel were in chaos, servants and guards running through the passages.

A red cloak gracing tall shoulders turned in front of them, heading towards the throne room as well.

Percival!” Arthur called.

Percival turned with a start, before rushing over to Arthur.

“What’s happening?” Arthur demanded.

“Intruders, sire,” Percival said. “They’ve already breached the city walls. The lower town has been overrun.”

“How many?”

“A couple thousand, at least.”

Arthur jolted at this, his eyes wide, and next to him Gwen gasped. “A couple thousand?” Arthur breathed. “Whose army is this?”

“I do not know- I do not recognize the banner they march under.”

Arthur took only a moment, before he nodded shortly. He opened his mouth to say something, but then there was a loud crash from outside. A noise that caused Arthur’s veins to fill with ice.

Percival rushed to the window, and his eyes widened. “They’ve broken through the gate.”

Arthur’s heart skipped a beat, and he and Gwen rushed to the window, his eyes widening in horror.

The courtyard was swarming with enemy soldiers, Camelot reds overwhelmed by the dark cloaks of the intruders.

Arthur turned to Gwen. “I need you to get out of the citadel as soon as you can. Percival-”

“Sire.”

“- You are to go with Guinevere. Together you two need to get as many people as you can out of the citadel and into the forest. We need to evacuate.”

Gwen’s eyes widened. “Arthur-”

“I need to know you’re safe,” Arthur said, gripping her hand tightly. “Get as many people out as you can, but get out. Promise me, Guinevere.”

Gwen’s eyes flicked between Arthur’s, before she bit her bottom lip and nodded. “Okay.”

Their eyes met for a moment longer, before Arthur leaned in and placed his lips to Gwen’s.

Gwen’s eyes were wide in fear when they leaned back, and she took in a shaky breath as she squeezed his hand.

“Come back to me. Please.”

“I will.”

Their eyes met for a moment longer, a million things running through both their minds, but unable to be said.

Go!” Arthur exclaimed, turning away and withdrawing his sword as he began to head down the hallways. “I’ll come find you! Take Percival, get as many people out as you can, and go!”

“Arthur-”

Go! Please, Guinevere!

A moment later, Arthur heard her footsteps running down the hallway, overlaid by that of Percival’s.

He glanced back once, just before she managed to round the corner. Their eyes met once, before she was out of sight.

Arthur began running through the hallways, making his way down to the lower levels. Gradually the sounds of fighting began to echo through the hallway to him, and all he could do was clench his jaw and tighten his grip on his sword.

Arthur!”

Arthur turned at the sound of his name, and let out a relieved breath. “Uncle,” he breathed as Agravaine approached him. “I’m glad to see you safe.”

“As am I, nephew,” Agravaine said. “What are you plans?”

“The army has already breached the lower passages- I’m having the knights evacuate the civilians and getting them into the forest.”

Agravaine nodded. “Protecting your people, I see.”

“They are what matters, Agravaine. Without her people, Camelot is lost.”

Arthur turned to move once more, but Agravaine grabbed his shoulder. “I’ve received word that the intruders have not yet reached the western wing. We may be able to use the servants’ hallway and still reach the armory before they do. Secure more weapons.”

Arthur nodded. “Good plan. Lead the way.”

Agravaine did, weaving his way through the passages with Arthur following close behind. The sounds of fighting reached them from every turn off, but Arthur had to grit his teeth and continue to follow his uncle as they made their way to the western wing.

But then Arthur rounded a corner, and froze.

A dozen enemy soldiers were at the end, their swords at the ready.

Arthur lifted his blade. “I’ll take the right, you go left,” he said to his uncle.

But Agravaine didn’t respond.

Arthur turned to Agravaine, his brow furled. “Uncle?”

Agravaine looked calm as ever, his sword held laxly in his hand as he stared impassively at the soldiers at the other end of the corridor.

“He is all yours,” Agravaine said, sheathing his sword. “I’m sure the Lady Morgana will be pleased.”

The world shifted to just Arthur and Agravaine, his pulse pounding in his ears. Did Agravaine just-?

“What-?” Arthur breathed, his eyes widening. “Agravaine-”

Arthur had been too shocked- too betrayed- that he hadn’t noticed the soldiers approaching- the enemy solderis who immediately grabbed his arms and wrenched his sword from his grip.

Their sudden appearance jolted him from his stupor, and Arthur jerked back against the guards, but he was vastly outnumbered, each grabbing where they could and holding him tight, stopping him from moving in any direction.

Arthur looked up, and met Agravaine’s cool look with a hurt and angry and furious one of his own. “Why, uncle?” he demanded.

“It’s because of you my precious sister is dead,” Agravaine sneered at him. “Finally I will get to see your head upon a pike.”

Before Arthur could respond, the two soldiers jerked on his arms and began to drag him away. The sudden jerk jolted him from his stupor, and he scowled at his uncle. “Agravaine!”

“Good-bye, Arthur,” Agravaine responded from where he stood, impassively watching as Arthur was forced away. “I can’t say it’s been a pleasure.”

Arthur was forced through the hallways of the castle, the soldiers’ grips on him relentless even as he fought back every single step. He kept an eye out, but his heart continued to sink as each hallway he passed was overrun with the unknown soldiers, and barely any glimpse of the Camelot red within.

Arthur soon found himself outside the throne room, two of the invading soldiers waiting right outside. They opened the doors, and Arthur was dragged in.

Arthur was shoved to his knees in the middle of the room, before he looked up and his face twisted in anger.

There was someone sitting on the throne. Someone who should never have been on the throne.

Morgana,” Arthur growled.

Morgana smiled at him. “Hello, dear brother,” she responded smoothly.

It was then that one of the doors to the side of the room opened, and another figure entered. “Morgana.”

Arthur jolted in shock, believing he recognized the figure, though it couldn’t have been her. There was no way- But then he realized that it was not who he had thought, but instead a boy that could not have been more than nineteen summers.

“Who are you?” Arthur sneered.

The blond boy calmly turned to Arthur, his expression cold. “I am Soredamor Cenredson, Arthur Pendragon. King of Essetir,” he responded shortly, as Morgana stood and moved to stand next to him.

“Soredamor Cenredson?” Arthur echoed, confusion bleeding through the mix of emotions running through him. He had certainly heard of the young king’s coronation barely a month before, but had not met him until this very moment.

“What is the meaning of this?” Arthur demanded angrily. He tried to force his way to a stand, but the guards to either side of him once more pushed him down to his knees. They hit the marble floor with a crack, the jolt causing Arthur’s teeth to collide. “Why attack us? What has Camelot done to Essetir to warrant this?”

At this, Soredamor’s calm demeanor vanished. He advanced forward with a vicious scowl. “You know what you’ve done, Arthur Pendragon,” he spat. “This is only retribution for all the pain you have caused my people.”

“Soredamor,” Morgana said calmly, placing a hand to Soredamor’s shoulder to placate him.

Soredamor glanced at Morgana, before letting out a breath. He took a couple moments to ground himself, before turning fully to Morgana, ignoring Arthur once more. “I have found the serving girl you were looking for. She is right outside- she and a knight were trying to get the servants out through the lower passages.”

Morgana smiled. “Excellent, Soredamor,” and with that she turned to the guards at the doors. “Let her in.”

Arthur heard the sound of the doors opening, followed by another sound- a voice- that froze Arthur’s veins.

He turned his head, and his heart skipped a beat.

Guinevere.”

Gwen’s eyes widened as they met Arthur’s. Arthur?”

“Long time no see, Guinevere,” Morgana greeted with a scowl. “So glad you could come.”

Arthur once more fought against the guards holding him, but they held him down as Gwen was forced across the room, before she too was forced to her knees next to him.

“Look at you two,” Morgana said as she took several steps forward, smiling coldly at them. “On your knees in front of me.”

Let Gwen go, Morgana,” Arthur said. “It’s me you want, not her.”

Morgana laughed then, a harsh, cold sound. “You think I would willingly let her go? When she is the one who would have taken my crown?”

Arthur and Gwen both froze at this. “What?”

Morgana rounded the throne, tracing a hand along the back. “I’ve seen it in my dreams, brother dear: you on the throne and Gwen by your side as your queen.

“I thought perhaps the whole incident with Merlin would have swayed you away, Gwen,” Morgana said, smiling sardonically before it fell to a scowl. “But it seems that I was wrong.”

“… you know about Merlin?” Arthur asked, unable to hide the shock from his voice.

Morgana smirked. “Indeed, brother dear. Agravaine told me everything. About his magic, about you banishing him instead of sentencing him to the pyre like your father would have done.” At this, Morgana’s face turned to false pity, “But even then, you couldn’t have just accepted him, could you? Couldn’t bear to think that another person close to you had magic?” But then she waved a hand dismissively. “But no matter. Him having magic doesn’t change how much I despise him. So, Arthur I have a question for you.

“Where is Merlin?”

“Why do you want to know?” Arthur challenged.

Morgana laughed coldly. “Oh, I have something special in mind for Merlin. To make him pay for what he’s done to me. Now, where is he?”

“… I don’t know.”

Morgana laughed then, taking Arthur aback. “Do you really expect me to believe that? Do you really expect me to believe that you haven’t kept track of him? I can’t imagine you letting him go, or him letting you go so easily, not after all he’s done for you. Where is he, Arthur?”

“Morgana, you might as well ask me why the sky is blue, or why wood floats, because I don’t know. I haven’t for months. As far as I know he could be in… Rome. Or the Western Isles. I don’t know where he is.

Morgana looked him over once more, before scowling. “Much as I am loathe to admit it, I believe you are telling the truth, Arthur. And if you truly do not know where Merlin is, then I have no further need of you.

“Take him to the cart,” Morgana ordered suddenly. She turned to Soredamor, who had been watching this whole interaction with a coldly impassive expression. “As per our agreement, you get to take him back to Essetir for public execution.”

Arthur straightened, and Gwen gasped in shock next to him. Soredamor smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Morgana. You are truly generous.”

“What-?!” Arthur started, as he felt the guards by him begin to hoist him to his feet, before dragging him across the throne room floor to the doors. “What-? No! Get your hands-! Guinevere!”

“Arthur!”

 

~

 

Gwaine awoke suddenly to the sound of Merlin gasping and the feeling of Merlin jerking awake next to him. He opened his eyes, and found Merlin sitting up in the dark, his breathing ragged and his eyes wide.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked, voice husky from sleep, while pushing himself up. “Everything alright, love?”

“I… I don’t know,” Merlin responded as he ran a hand through his hair.

Gwaine was still for a moment. But then he moved to a seated position. He took one hand and intertwined his fingers with Merlin’s, before taking the other and beginning to rub it along Merlin’s back, trying to comfort him. “What happened? Did you have a nightmare? A vision?” he asked.

“I…” Merlin started. “I don’t remember. There’s… there’s just this sense that something’s wrong. I don’t get visions like a Seer- like Morgana does.”

“But it wasn’t just a normal dream?”

Merlin shook his head. “I know it wasn’t. I just can’t remember what I saw.”

Neither of them spoke for a minute, Gwaine only keeping his touch constant as Merlin’s heart slowed from whatever it was that had woken him. Slowly, the hand Gwaine was holding stopped shaking, and Gwaine gave it a squeeze. “Is there anyway for you to… check?” Gwaine asked after some time of them sitting in silence.

Merlin slowly lifted his head, but then he turned to Gwaine, his eyes wide. “I need my scrying bowl.”

Barely a minute later found Merlin sitting cross legged on the dirt floor, surrounded by candles, and staring intently into his black bowl which had been filled with water from Gwaine’s waterskin. Gwaine sat across and watched Merlin, his stomach twisting in anxiety.

Merlin was always eerily still during his scrying sessions, his focus entirely on the water in front of him, and his eyes glowing an ever faint gold. Gwaine knew from experience that Merlin was hard to rouse from this, and his best course of action would be to simply wait, much as he didn’t like it.

Gwaine wished he could share a peek- to look in and see whatever it was that Merlin was at that moment, to learn what is was that the water was showing him.

Gwaine’s own mind had begun to wander when Merlin suddenly recoiled from the bowl with a gasp. The flames of the candles flared for a moment, before dying and plunging them into darkness.

“Merlin? Merlin, love,” Gwaine said, moving and putting one arm around Merlin’s shoulders and taking Merlin’s hand as Merlin breathed rapidly. “Just breathe. Breathe.”

Merlin did, taking in deep, shaking breaths and squeezing Gwaine’s hand. After several moments Merlin said, voice laced with shock, “It’s Arthur. He’s… he’s been abducted, Gwaine.”

Gwaine’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

Merlin bit his lip. “I don’t know. But what else could it be? He was in some cart, tied up, being taken through the forest. I… I think they were just passing the border between Camelot and Essetir. Close to where we did.”

Gwaine thought through these implications for a moment, before asking, “Anything else?”

Merlin shook his head. “That’s all I saw.”

Gwaine nodded. He was silent for another moment, before he asked, “Do you know when this is supposed to happen?”

Merlin looked at Gwaine, his eyes flashing with certainty.

“Tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Arthur’s captors were silent as the group headed west through the forest, gradually nearing the border between Camelot and Essetir. Everyone was on horseback save for Arthur, who was being jostled about in the bottom of a cart. This aggravated his sore spots- which had been made from both the battle the day before (had it really only been that long?) and the fact that his captors had forced him to sleep on the ground, not even with a bedroll between him and the dirt.

Arthur was quiet as well- not even taking into account the gag in his mouth, which prevented him from even goading his captors, much to his displeasure- but this silence was important, and he couldn’t risk noise.

One nail near the edge of the cart had been bent (which he had discovered after the cart had gone over a rock and Arthur had been painfully thrown right into it), and Arthur was currently trying to cut the ropes binding his hands on it. The less sound he made, the less likely they were to investigate and see what he was up to.

Almost there- he could feel the fraying edges. Almost-

And the ropes snapped with a final jerk upward.

Arthur froze immediately, but when his captors gave no indication they had noticed, he let out a low breath.

Now to get his feet.

Arthur twisted himself in the cart, attempting to make as little noise as possible as he moved to get his feet to where his hands had been moments before.

Either his captors were unobservant, or perhaps they truly did not care about whatever it was Arthur was doing, because he managed to get his feet to the nail and once more began to rub the ropes along it.

Nearly there.

Just a matter of time.

But then one of his captors suddenly cried out, and Arthur snapped his head to see the man falling off his horse-

-with an arrow in his shoulder.

But before Arthur could contemplate that any more, another arrow flew from the trees and hit another one of the captors, and he too fell with a cry.

Arthur was shocked for only a moment, before he bent and snapped the last strands of the ropes with a yank, and only sparing a moment to rip the gag from his mouth. His captors were much too occupied now to notice, and it wasn’t until Arthur had leapt out of the cart that any had realized he was free from his bonds.

The captor who noticed sneered at Arthur, before lunging forward, his sword at the ready.

But he never hit Arthur.

Just before slicing, the guard was suddenly thrown to the side, hitting his head on the cart and falling to the ground in a heap.

It was then that Arthur turned towards where the arrows had come from, and his eyes widened.

Two figures erupted out of the trees- both cloaked: one in green, one in blue- but with their hoods pulled up and obscuring their faces.

Another enemy soldier advanced towards Arthur then, but before Arthur could react, the figure in green moved forward with a yell of a word Arthur didn’t recognize, before shoving the guard away with his gold colored shield.

Had that shield been there a moment before?

But now was not the time to ponder that, so Arthur bent and grabbed the sword from where his first assailant had dropped it, straightening just in time to block a blow from another soldier.

He advanced, forcing the other guard back, before sliding his sword out from beneath the guard’s, and running the guard through before he had a chance to regain his stance.

Arthur heard a cry from behind him, and turned to see another one of the guards running towards him.

Arthur swung his sword in an arc, and readied his stance.

But the guard never reached him.

Just like the first, he suddenly flew to the side, before hitting his head on a tree and once more falling to the ground in a heap.

Arthur turned.

The blue figure was to the side, a staff in his hand pointed towards where the captor had been thrown. His hood still covered his face, so Arthur was unable to tell if he knew who this mysterious benefactor was.

But there was something familiar about the way he stood…

The blue cloaked figure looked towards Arthur, and his head jolted back.

Arthur! Look out!”

But before Arthur could say anything else, he suddenly felt a crack against the back of his skull.

Everything went black.

 

~

 

Arthur was rocking. He could feel that. He could hear what sounded like the rustling of leaves, and footsteps of someone… no… two people on a dirt road. He strained open his eyes, and found that it was much brighter than he had thought. He screwed his eyes shut for a moment, before opening them slowly once more. Blurs of color met his gaze, most notably one that was vaguely in the shape of a person. A person who was carrying him, he realized.

The blurs sharpened, forming a face that Arthur hadn’t seen in a year and a half.

“… Gwaine?” he breathed, not believing what he was seeing.

Gwaine suddenly stopped and snapped his head to look down at Arthur. The world blurred once more as Gwaine lifted his head back up. Gwaine said something, but Arthur didn’t hear what, the edges of his vision already going black.

“… thur? Arthur!” There was suddenly a hand to his face, lightly slapping him. Arthur weakly turned his head, and found a second man-shaped blur staring intently at him. It too sharpened slightly, and for a moment Arthur thought it looked like Merlin. “C’mon… thur, you need… wake!”

But then everything faded, and Arthur was in nothingness once more.

 

~

 

Arthur returned to awareness slowly. Turning his head with a slight groan, he found that he was lying on something soft that smelled faintly of fresh hay, the scent tickling his nose. It was quiet, low white noise barely at the edges of his hearing. It was… comforting, almost.

Arthur blinked his eyes open, and that was when the confusion set in. He glanced around rapidly: he was in a tent of some sort, but the sounds outside… He was not in a forest, much too quiet for that. Then where-?

Arthur sat up, involuntarily groaning as he did so, before staring through the flap in the tent to see what he could discern. Through the part, rock met his eyes, and he heard sounds that were echoing much too much to be in an open space. Arthur realized that he must be in a cave.

A cave with people in it?

Just as he was thinking through this, he heard commotion out in the cave, and then saw figures running to one side.

They’re back!” he heard a voice cry.

Arthur stood, slowly crossed the tent, before pulling the flap back and looking out.

He was halfway surprised to find the tent was unguarded, but didn’t spare that another thought as he turned to look where the figures were running. And his eyes widened.

There they were, both of them: Merlin and Gwaine. They were both wearing cloaks- Gwaine’s a deep green, and Merlin’s a dark blue.

The same colors that the figures in the forest who’d attacked his captors had been wearing.

But that wasn’t what shocked Arthur the most.

In Merlin’s hand was a staff, engraved with runes and with a crystal on top. He was walking tall, his shoulders back, absolutely no trace of the subservience Arthur had been used to seeing within him.

Merlin looked, dare Arthur say it, imposing.

A woman ran up to them. “Did you find anything?” she asked quickly.

“We followed them as far as we could,” Merlin responded. “But they entered a river and turned, either following it upstream or downstream. We lost them there.”

The people spoke with Merlin and Gwaine some more, asking them questions and them answering immediately and without hesitation, and Arthur could only watched, transfixed.

Merlin was exuding so much… authority. Based on the way the people were speaking to him, it was clear that they held him in a position of honor, or, at the very least, some form of leadership. And clearly some of that extended to Gwaine as well, based on the way the people were asking

“My lord,” another said, getting Merlin’s (Merlin’s?) attention, before nodding over at Arthur.

Merlin turned, and his eyes widened when they met Arthur’s. Gwaine did too, blinking briefly at seeing Arthur awake, before pursing him lips and staring at Arthur with an unreadable look.

“Arthur,” Merlin said after a moment.

Arthur was quiet for a moment, but then he said, in much the same tone, “Merlin.”

Merlin stared at him for a moment longer, before he said simply, “You’re awake.”

“Figured that much out for yourself, did you?”

Merlin didn’t respond to that.

Arthur glanced around, his brow furling. “Where are we?”

“A Druid camp,” Merlin answered, walking forward and towards Arthur. “The same one where we found the Cup of Life, actually.”

Arthur looked around once more- and sure enough, he recognized the cave, if only vaguely.

“Were you the ones who attacked the transport?” Arthur asked, turning back to the two men who had left-… who he had banished from Camelot.

“Gwaine and I, yeah.”

“Oh. Alright.”

There was silence for a moment, almost an expectant kind, where no one spoke. Then-

“Is that all you’re going to say?” Gwaine then sneered at Arthur, the first thing Arthur had heard Gwaine say since that day in the throne room.

“What are you talking about?”

“We saved your life, Arthur. The least you could give him is a bloody thank you.”

Arthur met Gwaine’s cold stare for a moment longer, before Gwaine scoffed slightly and moved away. Merlin watched him go for a moment, his lips pressed into a line, but then he turned back to Arthur.

“… I suppose I should,” Arthur conceded.

Merlin blinked, confused.

“… say thank you.”

Merlin looked him over once, before nodding. “You’re welcome, Arthur.”

They didn’t speak for a moment longer, neither knowing what to say, what could be said.

Merlin’s eyes flicked between Arthur’s, obviously trying to keep from biting him lip.

And Arthur found his words were stuck in his throat. He opened his mouth to speak-

But then Merlin let out a sigh, before turning. “I suppose we’d better get you back to Camelot then-”

Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. “Wait, Merlin-” Arthur said, grabbing Merlin’s shoulder and pulling Merlin to look at him. Merlin’s expression was mostly blank, if a little confused. “Do you not know?” Arthur asked imploringly, searching Merlin’s eyes.

Merlin looked at him blankly, no recognition being shown in them. “Know what, Arthur?”

“Camelot, Merlin. Camelot’s been invaded.” Out of the corner of Arthur’s eye, he saw Gwaine stop and turn back towards them, his eyes wide.

Merlin’s eyes widened. “What?” he breathed in horror.

“Morgana. She’s- she’s taken the throne, Merlin. She’s taken Guinevere, Percival-”

“Gaius?” Merlin asked, his eyes widening further.

“I would assume so.”

Merlin stared at him for a moment longer, before he swayed, leaning on his staff for support. “Morgana’s taken Camelot…”

“Please, I need your help, Merlin.”

Merlin jerked back to Arthur, his eyes owlish, and his mouth opened and closed as he tried to formulate a response.

But then Gwaine scoffed, loudly. “You banish him, and then you come to us and you ask for our help?” Gwaine stepped forward, looking over Arthur with a glare. “You turned your back on Merlin when he needed you most, and now you come to us and ask us to help you. Why should we help you, Arthur? What have you ever done for us?”

And with that, Gwaine roughly turned and began to storm away.

“Gwaine-” Merlin started, reaching out a hand to his friend, but Gwaine didn’t even turn back.

Merlin let out a breath and rubbed the hand over his face. “He’s angry with you.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

Merlin lowered his hand and gave Arthur a look, before turning back and looking the way Gwaine had gone. He then let out a breath then and took a step. “I’ll go speak with him-”

“No,” Arthur said, grabbing Merlin’s shoulder and stopping him from taking a step. “I’m the one he’s angry with. And I don’t blame him. I’ll speak with him.”

Merlin looked over Arthur, eyes slightly surprised, but then he nodded. “Okay.”

And with that, Arthur left the cave to go find Gwaine.

 

~

 

“So. You want our help.”

Arthur glanced up. Gwaine was standing above on a ridge, leaning with his shoulder against a tree, his arms folded over his chest, and his brow furled in irritation.

Arthur nodded. “I do.”

Gwaine didn’t respond at that. Arthur placed a foot on a root and climbed up the ledge, letting out slight pained grunts as he did so. Soon he was standing next to Gwaine.

Gwaine still didn’t turn to face him, irritation plain on his face.

“You’re still angry with me,” Arthur stated.

Of course I bloody am!” Gwaine exclaimed, snapping his head to fix Arthur with his glare. He stood straight and pointed an accusing finger at Arthur as he growled through his teeth, “Merlin’s been miserable since you banished us.

“He looked just fine to me,” Arthur retorted sharply.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t see him the first few months, Arthur. You didn’t see him the first night after we left, where he spent hours crying over what you did, and I could only hold him because what was I supposed so say? You didn’t see him, that night in the dungeons, where he only wanted someone to be with him because he was terrified of what you would do. Did you even know that it took nearly two months after you banished us before he even laughed again?”

Gwaine angrily shoved his way past Arthur before even allowing Arthur to respond. Arthur turned, his mouth opening and closing as he tried to say something, anything, but he knew only two words would get Gwaine to stop and look at him.

“I’m sorry, Gwaine!”

Gwaine stopped. He turned and looked over his shoulder at Arthur.

Arthur took in a breath. “I should never have banished Merlin. Or you. I regret it. I’ve regretted it since the moment I saw you and Merlin leave the city. And I’m sorry for it.”

Gwaine turned back, so he was no longer facing Arthur. “‘Sorry’ doesn’t change what you did.”

“I know it doesn’t,” Arthur responded. “But… Guinevere, Elyan, Percival, Leon, Gaius, they don’t deserve what’s happening right now. No one in Camelot does. And I need your help.”

Gwaine didn’t respond for a moment, and Arthur feared he was going to refuse. But then Gwaine gave a low, “Fine.” He turned around and started walking back, but stopped next to Arthur, his eyes still narrowed. “But know that I am doing this for them, not for you.”

Arthur met Gwaine’s gaze, and nodded once. “I understand.”

Gwaine looked Arthur over once. “Glad we’ve reached an understanding,” he said, before shoving his way past Arthur once more and heading back towards the camp.

Arthur stayed out there for a few more minutes, simply taking a moment to breathe, and wrangle the strange mix of emotions rising in him into check- his concern for Guinevere and the others, the shock at seeing Merlin and Gwaine again, the relief at being rescued from the transport but still barely any closer to regaining his kingdom- before he let out a sigh and turned back towards the camp as well.

Gwaine may have agreed to help him, but it would do no good if they didn’t come up with a plan first.

He asked the first Druid he saw where he could find either Merlin or Gwaine, and the Druid pointed to a section in the back, mentioning that they were behind a long stalagmite. So Arthur walked back there.

He eventually heard the low murmur of voices that he recognized, and turned the corner.

And stopped.

There was Merlin and Gwaine, standing and talking to each other, which, in of itself wasn’t unusual.

But how they were standing was.

They were close to each other- much closer than Arthur would have felt they would have been if this were a casual conversation. Gwaine’s hands were on Merlin’s hips, and Merlin had both his arms over Gwaine’s shoulders as he crossed his wrists behind Gwaine’s head.

Arthur didn’t hear what Gwaine said, but he could tell by their expressions that it wasn’t a light conversation.

He saw Merlin sigh, before Merlin leaned forward and pressed his forehead to Gwaine’s shoulder.

Gwaine moved his arms higher and pulled Merlin into a hug while lightly kissing Merlin’s hair, before he rested the lower half of his face there instead, his eyes soft and saddened.

The motion was so intimate, so at ease, that Arthur found himself staring even though he didn’t even mean to.

But then something else happened.

Merlin lifted his head back up, their eyes met for a moment-

-and then they kissed. A kiss meant to comfort and reassure. A kiss meant to ease worries and remind the other that they weren’t alone. One that was obviously familiar to the both of them.

Arthur must have made a noise, because Merlin moved back with a slight gasp, before letting out a sigh and turning his head towards Arthur, Gwaine doing the same but with a much colder expression.

“W-what?” Arthur stuttered, his brain stuck on the sight he had just interrupted.

Merlin stuttered a bit himself, before Gwaine stepped forward and boldly took Merlin’s hand. “We’re married, Arthur.”

“Married?” Arthur stuttered in disbelief. “To each other?”

Merlin glanced at Gwaine, but then he nodded. “Two months next week.”

“Oh,” Arthur’s eyebrows were still high up his head, but then he schooled his expression to something more calm. “I suppose I should congratulate you, then.”

Merlin blinked in surprise, before tilting his head slightly in a very slight nod. “… thank you.”

Merlin was quiet for another moment, before he said, “Gwaine told me he agreed to help you.”

Arthur nodded. “He did.”

Merlin was silent for a moment too, before he let out a sigh and met Arthur’s eyes fiercely. “What about me, do you want my help, Arthur?”

“Yes, of course-”

No, Arthur,” Merlin interrupted shortly. “Do you want my help?”

And Merlin’s eyes flashed gold on the final word, bold and brilliant, and suddenly Arthur was hit by what he meant.

And Arthur found he couldn’t speak.

Merlin met Arthur’s eyes for another moment, before he let out a sigh and turned to Gwaine. “I was supposed to speak with Iseldir after we returned. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Gwaine nodded, and lifted Merlin’s hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss there. “Until then.”

Merlin gave Gwaine a small smile, before stepping away. He looked over Arthur for a moment, biting his lip, but then turned away without saying anything further and leaving Arthur and Gwaine alone once more.

Arthur watched him cross the cave for a moment, before turning back to Gwaine, who was looking over Arthur with a cool expression.

“… how have you and Merlin been?” Arthur asked, the words feeling awkward in his mouth.

“We’ve been well, all things considered,” Gwaine answered at length. “The Druids have been very kind, letting us stay here.”

“… you said Merlin had been miserable.”

“Those first few months, yeah,” Gwaine answered, his eyes getting a far off and saddened look about them as he remembered. Arthur’s chest clenched. How bad had it been? “But… at some point he realized that he couldn’t base his whole existence around you, and he began to take time for himself. To do things he never had the chance to while in Camelot. He’s… he’s happy now, Arthur. He truly is.”

Arthur gave his head a slight nod. “I’m… I’m glad to hear it.”

Gwaine didn’t respond at that.

Arthur let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. “I… I know you have no reason to be loyal to me anymore-”

Gwaine snorted. “I’ll say.”

“-but… I thought about the two of you. A lot.” Arthur said, feeling out of place as he put his emotions out. “I wasn’t lying when I said I regretted your banishment, Gwaine. Guinevere, she- she actually sent out messengers with the patrols every month, in the hopes that one would find you and ask you to come home.”

Gwaine blinked in surprise. “… would you have allowed us to?”

“… I would have,” Arthur said, his voice firm and truthful. “I would have let you come home.”

Gwaine was still for a moment, before nodding slightly, almost to himself. “… and how do you feel about Merlin’s magic?” he asked, looking at Arthur very pointedly.

And there it was, the question Arthur had been avoiding, laid out bare in front of him for him to answer. Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but found no words came out.

“… I don’t know,” he answered eventually. “But I do know that Camelot hasn’t been the same since you and he le- were forced to leave.”

Gwaine looked him over for a moment, before letting out a sigh. “He still cares about you, Arthur,” Gwaine said as he ran a hand through his hair. “Thinks of you like a brother, I imagine. Yes, you banished him, but he doesn’t blame you. In fact, I’m pretty sure he blames everything except you.”

“… do you blame me?”

“Certainly. But that’s just because I’m willing to admit you’re a pompous arse.”

Arthur scoffed at that, half an amused smile creeping onto his face.

Even Gwaine smiled slightly- the warmest expression Arthur had seen from him since they had reunited.

But before Arthur could make a retort, a Druid child suddenly ran up to Gwaine and tugged at the edge of Gwaine’s cloak.

And to Arthur’s shock, Gwaine glanced down and asked calmly, “Yes, what it is, Tadg?”

The child waved at Gwaine for him to bend down, and Gwaine bent so Tadg could whisper in Gwaine’s ear. Gwaine nodded after a moment and stood up. “Alright, I’m coming.”

And Arthur could only watch, dumbfounded, as the boy calmly took Gwaine’s hand (Gwaine not protesting like Arthur would have expected) and began to guide him to wherever it was that the child believed Gwaine was so urgently needed.

And Arthur let out a sigh before sitting, resigning himself to wait.

Gwaine returned a couple minutes later, the boy with him, but a younger girl with the two of them as well. The girl said something, and Gwaine laughed, before doing a gentle shooing motion (saying something about Now I still need to talk to Prince Prat”), and the two children ran off.

Gwaine watched them leave, before coming over to Arthur and sitting by him.

“They seem very fond of you,” Arthur observed.

Gwaine smiled, clearly fond of them as well. “Tadg and Dornoll- they’re siblings. A couple months after Merlin and I joined, bandits had taken Dornoll. Kidnapped her. I chased after the bandits and rescued her single-handedly.” Gwaine then flicked his hair from his face. “Ever since then, they’ve taken a liking to me.”

“You don’t seem too upset about that.”

“Why would I be? They’re sweet kids. Am I glad they’re not mine? Yes, I won’t deny that. But why would I be upset?”

Arthur found he didn’t have a response to that. “… what did they need?”

Gwaine waved a hand. “Wanted to show me a pile of rocks they made outside the cave. It’s their latest obsession- seeing how many they can get stacked on each other.”

“How many was this one?”

“Thirty-seven. Counted them myself.”

Arthur laughed slightly, and even Gwaine did too. “What’s their record?”

“Fifty-six, but that’s only cause they had Merlin helping them. They were proud of this one cause they did it all themselves.”

Arthur couldn’t help but let a small smile cross his face at that.

Merlin found them again a few minutes later, but he was still being uncharacteristically distant, not meeting Arthur’s gaze for long periods of time. That wasn’t to say he was lowering his eyes, no, but instead he kept his head high, and simply just avoided meeting Arthur’s eyes.

Arthur knew why- Merlin must have still been hurt by what had transpired a year and a half ago- but he still couldn’t help the tightening in his chest. Especially when Merlin easily spoke to Gwaine, but still had to take a moment before speaking with Arthur.

And Arthur knew it was all his fault.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day passed slowly for Arthur. The Druids’ reaction to him there was… strange. They treated him with respect, undoubtedly, but there was still a sense of… other. Of Arthur being not a part of their group.

He couldn’t help but notice that this sense didn’t apply to Merlin and Gwaine- they themselves fitting just as well within the camp as those who had been born to it.

It only seemed to add to the sense of not belonging.

Despite this, he shared the evening meal with the Druids around the fire- it being late in the day when he had awoken, after all, and his stomach clenching at the realization that he hadn’t eaten anything since at least two days before.

He remembered the last time food had been laid out in front of him, and had to take a moment to breathe as thoughts of Gwen crossed through his mind.

He was not going to fall apart in front of strangers.

They ate, mostly in silence, Arthur noticing that the Druids were strangely quiet- only quiet murmurs out of his earshot.

And Merlin and Gwaine’s too, he supposed, since the two of them remained close-by to him.

At first, Arthur supposed that this sense of “other” was due to him being an outsider- it made sense, after all. But as he glanced up once more, he found that that many of the Druids weren’t looking at him with a look of scrutiny.

If anything, they looked… awed.

“Merlin?”

Merlin looked up. “Yes, Arthur?”

Arthur’s mouth opened for a moment, soundless, his jaw working as he tried to phrase what he was thinking. “The Druids… why are they looking at me… like that?”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Like…” he turned and tried to describe it while glancing around. “Like I’m… something to be revered. If anything I would have expected the opposite.”

Gwaine snorted at this. “You have that right,” he muttered.

Merlin met Arthur’s eyes for a moment, before Merlin let out a sigh and put his bowl to the side.

Oh no. This was going to be long.

Merlin wrung his hands together for a moment, still not meeting Arthur’s eyes, before he took in a breath. “I’m not going to lie to you, Arthur. I have nothing to hide from you now, anyway. The Druids, Arthur. They have a prophecy. A prophecy, that, according to some, is as old as magic itself. In this prophecy, there is a powerful warlock, whom they call Emrys, who works with the Once and Future King to unite the Land of Albion into a Golden Age.

“Emrys is supposed to be their savior- the one who will return magic to the land and stop the oppression of their people.

“And, well, to put it bluntly, they believe you are the Once and Future King, Arthur.”

Arthur guffawed at this. “Me? They think I’m supposed to be this- legendary king?”

Merlin nodded, but then he had a smirk. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard it, either.”

Arthur laughed slightly at this, unsurprised, but then there was something about the way Merlin had said it- “… do you believe it now?”

And, to Arthur’s shock, Merlin hesitated before answering. “… I do. I said I wasn’t going to lie to you- and that’s the truth. I believe the prophecy, Arthur,” he said softly, looking up and meeting Arthur’s eyes with a gaze so resolved and determined that Arthur was sure he felt his heart palpitate. "Even after all that's happened, I can't bring myself to not."

Could Merlin truly believe that Arthur was…?

Arthur glanced at Gwaine, whose mouth was pressed into a line, but then Gwaine sighed. “I believe it too, Arthur,” he said, meeting Arthur’s eyes as well. Then he quirked his lip. “Kind of hard to not once you’ve seen the things I have. And besides, the prophecy doesn’t say anything about the Once and Future King not being a pompous arse.”

Arthur flicked his gaze between the two of them, before he leaned forward and rubbed his eyes with a groan. “And what of this… Emrys?”  he asked. “Do they think they know who he is?”

Merlin was silent for another moment. “… they do,” he said eventually. Arthur then felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Merlin had reached forward. “And, well, Emrys is here, in this camp.”

Arthur blinked in surprise.

Merlin met Arthur’s eyes for a moment, before he looked away. “Emrys, he… he wants to see you become a great king, Arthur. And he wants to help you regain Camelot. He truly does, but… he feels he’s not ready to… to speak to you as Emrys quite yet. He’s unsure how you’d react to working with a magic user.”

“… and you know this? Has you spoken to this Emrys?”

A knowing smirk came over Merlin’s face then as he looked back up. “I was your manservant, Arthur. What better way to learn about the man he’s supposed to fulfill this great destiny with?”

Arthur was quiet for a moment, before he turned a scrutinizing eye to Gwaine. “And what about you? What do you think of Emrys?”

Gwaine leaned back with a smirk and shrugged. “I like him. Quite a bit, actually.”

“You’ve spoken with him, too?”

“Oh, yeah. Many times.”

Arthur groaned and rubbed his face. “Does everyone in this camp know who he is?”

“Yes.”

“So I could just ask any one of the people here, and they’ll tell me?”

“’Fraid not, Arthur,” Gwaine responded. “They’re waiting for Emrys to tell you himself. They’ll probably say something like ‘he’ll reveal himself when he’s ready.’”

Arthur huffed, somehow knowing that that was exactly what’d they say.

“But… I don’t understand, Merlin. My father, he-… he did terrible things to the Druids. I’ve done terrible things to the Druids. Even without this prophecy, why would they want to help me?”

Merlin frowned. “The Druids are a peaceful people, Arthur. They don’t want war, they don’t want violence- they want to help. That’s all. And, well, they also want to go home, Arthur. Their families had lived in the same spot for generations, but it is only recently that they’ve lived here in this cave. In Essetir.”

Arthur nodded slightly. “… Where is their home?”

Merlin pressed his lips into a grim line. “Camelot.”

Oh. “My father drove them out.”

Merlin nodded once more, solemn.

And once more Arthur found himself at a loss for what to say.

 

~

 

Eager as Arthur was to begin the plan for their retaking of Camelot, he suddenly found himself overwhelmed with this new information- Arthur? A prophesied king?- swaying on his feet and putting a hand to the cave wall to steady himself moments after he stood.

Merlin noticed, and he stood as well. “Arthur?” he asked in concern.

“Nothing, Merlin,” Arthur lied. “We have more important things to worry about.”

Merlin looked him over with pursed lips. Before huffing. “We can’t effectively plan how to retake Camelot if you’re falling asleep on your feet, sire,” Merlin chastised. “We can do it tomorrow.”

And as much as Arthur wanted to protest, Merlin’s expression brooked no argument.

So it was with that that he, Merlin, and Gwaine headed to the back of the cave, where Merlin and Gwaine’s tent was located.

But when they reached it, he stopped.

Arthur glanced at Merlin and Gwaine in confusion. “Why is your tent… big?” And it was- nearly double the size of most of the other tents in the cave.

Merlin paused, and then flushed. “W-well-”

“They were just so charmed by him that they let us have a larger tent,” Gwaine explained with a teasing grin at Merlin. He held the flap open. “Come on in, home sweet home.”

Arthur stepped into the tent. Over to one side, taking up about a quarter of the floor space, was a mattress that was sitting on the dirt. Around the edges were some books and various candles, and dried flowers decorated the interior supports, giving the air a faint, sweet scent.

“Well, you just make yourself comfortable, I’ll go see if I can find you some sleepwear and a bedroll,” Merlin said, ducking back out of the tent and leaving Gwaine and Arthur alone.

Arthur glanced around the tent and examined the books, and noticed that most, if not all, were books on magic- and the fact that they were sitting so openly about…

Arthur shifted, and tried to look elsewhere.

Near the head of the tent was a small table, various supplies laid across it- candles, crystals, a bowl. It looked all too similar to the set up he had seen that day: that day so long ago when he’d found Merlin doing magic in the woods. Arthur pulled his gaze away, trying to ignore the feeling that it had elicited in his stomach.

Above the center of the mattress, there had been draped some ribbons: braided together, and about as long as he was tall, with charms hanging off of it intermittently.

“What’s this?” Arthur said, grabbing the braided ribbons and examining them.

That-” Gwaine said sharply, though without heat, as he moved over and snatched it back from Arthur’s hands- “Is our handfasting cords. And I’d appreciate you not touching them.”

“They look like someone put a lot of care into making them.”

At this, a fond smile graced Gwaine’s face. “Hunith made them for us.”

“Hunith?” Arthur asked in surprise as Gwaine began to put the ribbons back where they had been. “You’ve met Merlin’s mother?”

Gwaine turned to Arthur, giving him an incredulous smirk. “Of course; I am married to her son, Arthur.”

The tent flap opened then, and Merlin stepped in, a bundle of clothes and a bedroll in his arms. “These won’t be very comfortable-” Merlin said, going to Arthur and handing him the clothes, before unceremoniously dropping the bedroll to the ground.

(Arthur elected to not say anything about the flash of gold in Merlin’s eyes that had caused the bedroll to unroll itself.)

“- but it’s the best you’re going to get.”

Arthur looked the clothes over- rough linens that wouldn’t be very pleasant to wear, but at least they were clean. Arthur gave Merlin a small nod. “Thank you.”

Merlin gave Arthur a half smile, before turning to Gwaine and tipping his head to indicate beyond the tent. “Gwaine, can I talk to you for a moment?”

“Course, love,” Gwaine responded, already heading out of the tent.

Arthur watched them go, his lips pressed into a line, before he softly shook his head and began to change into the clothes Merlin had given him.

Merlin and Gwaine returned a few minutes later, but Arthur was already in his bedroll and turned away from them, appearing to already be trying to sleep.

But he already knew that even despite his exhaustion, he wasn’t going to get any sleep that night.

 

~

 

Several hours into the night confirmed Arthur’s suspicions- him still lying awake and staring at the canvas ceiling of the tent. While the arrangements were significantly more comfortable than the ones he had found himself in the night before, there was simply too much on his mind to allow him to rest.

Arthur sat up and glanced at his tentmates, both of whom were somehow sleeping comfortably. Gwaine was closest to him, sleeping on his back with his head turned away from Arthur; Merlin was on Gwaine’s other side, one of Gwaine’s arms cradling him to Gwaine’s side and with one of his own arms draped over Gwaine’s chest as his head rested on Gwaine’s shoulder.

Neither of them stirred when Arthur moved to stand, or when he silently changed into his regular clothes and made his way out into the main cave.

He wove his way through the camp until he reached the entrance, and stepped out into the cool night air. The sky was mostly clear, and the starlight was enough to guide Arthur a small distance away from the cave, until he found a log that was the perfect height for sitting.

He sat, and thought.

What was happening, back in Camelot? Last time Morgana had taken the throne, dozens of innocent people died- Leon had told Arthur the horrifying story himself, how he could only watch as she had slaughtered bystanders after he and the other knights refused to give Morgana their fealty.

And Guinevere. Dear, sweet Guinevere. Morgana hated her, that much was certain. Arthur slumped forward and rubbed his hands over his face. If Morgana decided that she had no use for keeping Gwen alive…

And what of Soredamor? The King of Essetir was something Arthur had not yet been able to make heads or tails of- the Essetirian court keeping to themselves after what had happened with Cenred three years before. What did Soredamor have to gain from this?

“You know what you’ve done, Arthur Pendragon. This is only retribution for all the pain you have caused my people.”

… what had Arthur done?

Was this revenge for the eradication of Cenred’s army all those years before?

But that had been an invasion, Camelot had only been defending themselves. Could Soredamor really see that as Arthur’s fault?

And Morgana…

“Arthur?”

Arthur started slightly, but then turned to see Merlin standing and staring at him in the dark, his brow furled in concern.

“Merlin,” Arthur greeted quietly. When had Merlin learned to move so silently? “Didn’t realize I’d woken you.”

Merlin shook his head, coming forward and sitting by Arthur on the log. “You didn’t; I woke up and you were gone, so I thought I’d come find you.”

Arthur hummed at that, but said nothing.

“… you’re worried about Camelot, aren’t you?” Merlin asked quietly, his tone revealing that was on his mind as well.

Arthur scoffed. “Of course I’m worried, Merlin,” he said. “Last time Morgana took the throne… so many innocent people died. And Guinevere… I dread to think what she could be doing to her.” Arthur was quiet for another moment, before he asked softly, “You’ve lived in Essetir for the last year; what do you know of Soredamor?”

“The new king?” Merlin asked, clearly not knowing where this was going. “… not much, I must say. From what I’ve heard, both his parents were killed with Cenred’s attack on Camelot, but he remained Prince Regent until he became of age. He… doesn’t really do much from what I’ve heard, but from the bits I have he, well,” at this, a small smile graced Merlin’s face. “He sounds a lot like you- concerned for his people, wanting to do what’s best for them.”

Arthur scoffed at this. “I would think allying himself with Morgana would be a far cry from that, though.”

Merlin jerked in surprise. “He’s allied himself with Morgana?” he asked in horror.

Arthur nodded at this. “It’s the reason I was being taken to Essetir- I was to be taken to the capitol and publicly executed. But what for, I cannot say.”

“… Must have been strange to have the threat of execution over your head for once,” Merlin muttered, probably not even realizing he’d spoken aloud.

Arthur didn’t miss the subtext. “You’re referring to having magic while in Camelot, aren’t you?”

Merlin’s lips pressed together, but he didn’t say anything. Arthur took is as confirmation enough.

“What I don’t understand, Merlin,” Arthur began, “Is that after everything you’ve seen, after everything we’ve been through, how you could turn to sorcery. I thought you of all people would understand why that was a- bad idea. Sorcery corrupts.”

“… it really doesn’t, Arthur.”

“Not based on what I’ve seen.”

“Arthur, look around you!” Merlin said, exasperated. “We’re right outside a Druid camp! A Druid camp that Gwaine and I have been living with for over a year! They have never treated me badly. They have never threatened Gwaine- and he was a knight of Camelot! There are just as many good magic users as there are bad.”

“Well then, if there are as many as you so claim, where are they?”

“They fled the kingdom, Arthur. They fled as soon as Uther began the purge. It’s that simple.” Merlin let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. “Magic, Arthur, it’s like… it’s like metal. Metal can be used for a lot of things. It can make armor, shields, swords, weapons- things used to harm. But it can also make jewelry, plows, spades, keys- things that help others. But if you’ve lived in a place that banned metal, and the only metal you’ve ever seen is at the end of a dagger when someone tried to kill you because your father banned metal, wouldn’t that make it seem like all metal is evil? If you’ve only seen it used in ways that are meant to cause harm?”

Arthur thought over this for a moment, considering. Merlin had a point. But…

“But you lived in Camelot, too, Merlin,” Arthur said. “I know you weren’t born there, but I didn’t think Ealdor had much magic either. How could you still see the same things I did, yet still turn to it?”

“I didn’t turn to it, Arthur,” Merlin answered, looking at his hands. “I… I was born with it. I had magic before I even came to Camelot.”

Arthur jerked to Merlin in surprise. “You… you had magic before we even met?”

Merlin simply nodded.

“… and you went to Camelot?”

Merlin chuckled at that. “Believe me, I didn’t think it was the wisest idea either.” But then he let out a sigh and leaned back. “My mother is friends with Gaius. She knew that he used to be a sorcerer, so she sent me to him, to learn how to control my magic. Yes, it was dangerous, but so was having unrestrained magic.

“I wanted to tell you for so long, Arthur,” Merlin said, rubbing his eyes. “But then there was Nimueh, then Morgause, then Morgana, and then what happened with your father…” Merlin sighed, lowering his hand and looking ahead with a downcast expression and a far-off look in his eyes. “It just never seemed like the right time.”

“… but when you say ‘born with it-?’”

“According to my mother, I was using magic before I could even walk.”

“Is that even possible?”

Merlin shrugged. “All I know is that I’ve had magic for as long as I can remember, and Gaius says that he’s never seen someone with as much raw ability as I do. I didn’t choose it, Arthur,” Merlin said, turning and staring right into his eyes. “It chose me.

“The truth is that… I am the one the Druids call Emrys, Arthur.”

Arthur blinked in surprise. “You?”

Merlin smirked, but then it fell and he let out a sigh. “Do you want to know what I was doing in the woods that day? When you found me?”

“I imagine you’ll tell me whether or not I say yes or no.”

Merlin’s smirk returned for a moment. “You’d be right about that.” He let out a breath, and then said, “I was performing a protection spell. The most powerful one I have ever found. I was trying to protect Camelot.”

Arthur frowned. “Lot of good it did,” he muttered.

“Arthur, spells aren’t permanent, they need to be… refreshed after some time. I just…” he laughed wryly, “I didn’t think I wouldn’t be there to do it the next year.”

They fell into a silence then, each lost in their own thoughts.

“… you said Emrys was willing to help me regain Camelot,” Arthur said at length. “And you’re Emrys, apparently. So you’re willing to help me to regain Camelot?”

“I am,” Merlin said. “But, like I said, I… I still don’t know how you’ll react to help from a magic user.”

“But you’re not just any old magic user, Merlin,” Arthur protested. “You’re… Merlin. Merlin, who hates hunts because you think hunting for sport is disrespectful to the animals. Merlin- who stays awake caring for patients when Gaius can’t. Merlin- who always smiles at the other servants, and goes out of your way for them if you hear they’re having a hard time. You’re one of the kindest souls I know, Merlin. And, despite everything that’s happened, I trust you. I know that you would never use your magic to hurt Camelot or her people, and I would be grateful if you used your knowledge to help me save my people from Morgana.”

Merlin looked confused and amused, and he looked up to give Arthur a look. “Is that really how you think of me?”

“It is.”

Merlin looked… touched. He blinked in surprise, before smiling. A real, genuine smile. “Thank you,” he said softly. And with that he let out a breath before smirking. “Well, I guess I have to help you now. I have no choice in the matter after you said all that.”

Arthur smiled, but then let out a breath and rubbed his hands across his face. “Well, I’ve got you and Gwaine, but the three of us isn’t nearly enough to retake Camelot from Morgana. I know many of the soldiers had fled into the woods, but there’s no way we could possibly find them in a short time.” Arthur looked up then, a fist pressed to his mouth and his brow furled. But then he noticed Merlin didn’t seem nearly as upset at the news as he would have expected. If anything, Merlin looked amused. “What’s that expression for?” Arthur said indignantly, “Do you have an idea for how to find them?”

And Merlin turned to him with a smirk. “I think I know someone who can help with that.”

Chapter Text

Gwaine was already awake and dressed when Merlin and Arthur went to fetch him, and Merlin didn’t seem nearly as surprised at that fact as Arthur would have expected him to be. (Had he somehow warned Gwaine to get ready? Through, perhaps, oh, some sort of telepathy? No, that’s not possible.)

Merlin and Gwaine headed out of the camp once more and led Arthur through the forest, holding each other’s hand as Arthur followed them along the dark path. The only light coming from the stars and small flame Merlin magically carried in his palm.

The two of them clearly knew where they were going, easily finding their way along the dimpled road calmly and without trouble.

But despite Merlin and Gwaine’s relative calmness, Arthur was unable to shake the sense that something was following them; that something was watching them-

Arthur heard sudden rustling, and snapped to the noise, a hand reaching for his sword. It stopped immediately, as if aware that he had done that.

“What was that?” Arthur whispered.

Merlin and Gwaine stopped, before turning to look at him.

After a moment, Merlin answered, quite simply, “Pheasant.”

Arthur gave Merlin an incredulous look, Gwaine snorted, and Arthur then noticed Gwaine trying not to laugh. “Pheasant,” Arthur repeated, dubious.

To this, Gwaine turned to Arthur, unsuccessfully trying to hide his smile. “A really big one.”

“… is there something I should know about?”

“There usually is,” Merlin responded easily, but he turned and continued walking without elaborating further and without giving a serious answer as to what could be following them.

They continued walking for some time- the feeling that they were being watched still having not left Arthur- until they finally reached the edge of the forest and found a large field out in front of them. Merlin continued to walk for a little bit, putting distance between the edge of the forest and them, but soon stopped.

Merlin turned to Arthur, simultaneously putting out the flame and plunging them into darkness. “Okay, Arthur, just… don’t get mad.”

Arthur scoffed. “Merlin, what could you possibly show me that would make me mad at you that I haven’t already seen?”

Merlin smirked. “You have no idea, Arthur.” But before he elaborated further, Merlin turned and took a couple strides further into the clearing.

Merlin took in a deep breath, and spoke.

Dovah! Bo ko het us zu’u uth hi to bo kotin krein. Bo nu, Kilgharrah!” Arthur stumbled backwards, his eyes wide. Did Merlin really just-? The voice Merlin had used had barely sounded human; his voice had deepened, and Arthur could tell that there was a raw, ancient power behind the words Merlin spoke. But Arthur was confused, it didn’t sound like the incantations Merlin usually spoke- this language was different. More grounded, more deep. It sounded primordial, as if the language itself were a relic of an era long since past.

Arthur glanced at Gwaine, who smirked at Arthur’s expression before he said, “Just wait, it gets better.” Arthur turned back to Merlin, and noticed that Merlin’s gaze was turned upward, searching the sky.

“Merlin, what-” Arthur began to ask, but then stopped as he heard a sound he recognized with a jolt of horror. Arthur turned towards it, his eyes searching the sky, and his hand already instinctively reaching for his sword.

There, in the distance, he saw a shadow cross in front of the stars.

The sound got louder, and Arthur watched, wide-eyed, as the shadow began to grow larger, larger than he would have thought possible had he not already seen it himself.

It dropped out of the sky, and Arthur covered his face as the resulting gust of wind and dust rushed over him. He lowered his arm nervously, and was met with a sight that a week ago he thought he’d never see again: a dragon.

Arthur moved to unsheathe his sword, but Gwaine stopped him with a hand to Arthur’s arm. “Wait,” he said, much too calmly for the situation.

The dragon had been crouching low, having just landed, but then it straightened upward to its full height, staring down at the three of them with gold, unreadable eyes.

But then it looked at Merlin.

And Merlin spoke. “Kilgharrah. I welcome you.”

The Dragon, the honest to goodness dragon, looked Merlin over for a moment, seemingly indifferent.

But then it spoke.

“Greetings, Young Warlock.”

Arthur’s eyes widened. It could talk? The dragon’s voice sounded similar to how Merlin’s had mere moments ago- ancient and powerful, but with the added sense that this was a creature to be respected as much as it was feared.

It was then that Kilgharrah looked at Gwaine. “Dragonconsort.”

Gwaine smirked, completely at ease. “Kilgharrah.”

Arthur felt confused. Dragonconsort? But before he could ask what was going on or even what that meant, he suddenly felt the dragon’s stare on him. Arthur looked up and found himself staring into golden eyes, and, involuntarily, he took a step back.

Kilgharrah looked him over for a moment. “King Arthur Pendragon. It has been many years since I have seen you.”

“You remember me?” Arthur asked, barely noticing that his voice had shook.

Kilgharrah nodded his head once. “Indeed. How could one forget son of the man who had me imprisoned for over twenty years-”

Arthur felt a hot flash of shame run over him at that.

“- or the Once and Future King?”

Oh, so he knew about the prophecy too?  But before he even explained that further, Kilgharrah pulled his gaze away from only Arthur and looked over the whole group. “I’m relieved to see you all together once more.”

Merlin smirked. “Feared it wouldn’t happen, did you?” But then his smirk fell to a look of seriousness, and Merlin said, “We have something we wish to ask of you, Kilgharrah.”

“Very well, what is it?”

“Camelot has been invaded,” Merlin said, stepping forward. “I’m sure you know this.”

Kilgharrah nodded. “Indeed. I have seen the flames even from beyond the limits of where where you have given me rein.”

Arthur stiffened. Flames?

Merlin seemingly didn’t react to the news. “We need your help. Camelot’s people have fled and scattered into the woods- we need to gather them in order to retake the city.”

“I can cover many leagues in the blink of an eye,” he responded. “It should not be too hard to find them. Where shall I guide them to meet you?”

Merlin thought for a moment, and his eyes widened. “Excalibur,” he breathed. He looked up, eyes glinting in determination. “Take them to the clearing with Excalibur.”

Kilgharrah seemed surprised. He glanced at Arthur for only a heartbeat, before looking back at Merlin. “You believe it is time?”

“I do.”

Kilgharrah bowed his head. “Very well. And what of Aithusa, Young Warlock? Do you wish for her to join you during the assault?”

And to Arthur’s surprise, Gwaine stiffened at his side.

“Aithusa stays out of this,” Merlin said firmly, and Gwaine let out a relieved breath. “She’s too young to risk getting involved. I don’t want her hurt.”

Kilgharrah looked over Merlin for a moment longer, before bowing his head. “Very well. I shall keep her far from the battle when the time comes.”

“Thank you.” Merlin then paused, and when he spoke next, his brow was furled. “She’s still listening to this conversation, isn’t she? Aithusa,” Merlin called, turning to the woods. “You can come out now; Arthur isn’t going to harm you.”

There was a sudden growl, and Arthur turned with a start.

There, just at the tree line, was a white dragon. It was smaller than Kilgharrah- much smaller, maybe the size of a large hunting hound- but it was undeniably a dragon.

Gwaine looked over too, and, to Arthur’s complete and utter shock, a wide smile crossed Gwaine’s face and he turned fully towards it, arms out. “Aithusa!”

“Ga-waine!” The dragon (Aithusa?) exclaimed happily, before barreling across the field to Gwaine and tackling him to the ground. Arthur moved to defend Gwaine, but stopped when he realized Gwaine was laughing.

Gwaine lifted his head from where he lay sprawled on the ground beneath the dragon. He looked happy, but when he spoke, his voice sounded slightly strained, “Yes, it’s good to see you too, 'Thusa. But I thought we talked about how you’re getting too big to do that.”

Aithusa paused, but then staggered back off of him, embarrassed. “Sorry.”

Gwaine sat up with a chuckle. “It’s fine.” He reached out a hand and scratched her horns. “Better to do it now while you’re still small enough not to cause any damage, right?”

Arthur glanced between Gwaine, the dragon, and Merlin- who was watching the whole thing with a fond smile- before saying, “Merlin, what the fu-”

Arthur!” Merlin exclaimed. He fixed Arthur with a glare, silencing him. “Aithusa’s a baby! Watch your language!”

If Arthur hadn’t been so shocked by the outburst, he might have felt offended. “A-a baby?!” he stuttered out. Merlin, it’s a dragon!”

“A baby dragon,” Merlin admonished, still glaring at Arthur. “And I’ll not have you use such vile language in front of her!”

With that, Merlin turned away from Arthur and began walking towards the smaller dragon.

The sound of movement caught Aithusa’s attention, and she turned to look towards Merlin. A bigger smile came over her face. “Brod!”

Aithusa leapt off of Gwaine and rushed over to Merlin, before rubbing her head against Merlin’s torso affectionately.

Merlin rubbed her scales. “How are you?” he asked fondly, smiling widely. “Has Kilgharrah been showing you around the kingdoms?”

Aithusa nodded rapidly, and Merlin’s smile widened, before he looked up and saw Arthur’s expression. Merlin’s smile faltered, but he didn’t say anything.

“I think I need the truth, Merlin,” Arthur said coldly.

Merlin flinched slightly at that. Aithusa moved her head and gave Merlin a soft look, before lightly bumping him with her snout. Merlin gave her a soft, sad smile, but then let out a sigh. “… I told you once that I never met my father,” Merlin turned to Arthur, giving him a sincere look. “It was true at the time I said it. But I never told you once I did meet him. I didn’t even know it was him until we set out to find him.”

“Merlin, what are you talking about?”

Merlin was quiet for a moment, and Gwaine groaned. “Think, Arthur,” he said, standing up from where Aithusa had knocked him to the ground. “Do you know how a Dragonlord gains his powers?”

“Of course: the power passes from father to son, as soon as the father dies-”

It hit him.

But before he could say anything, Kilgharrah spoke.

“Merlin is the son of Balinor- who, in his time, was the Last Dragonlord. When Merlin inherited his powers from his father, so too did he inherit that title. And, with his union to Sir Gwaine, imparted the title of Last Dragonconsort to Sir Gwaine as well.”

Arthur groaned, burying his face in his hand. “Balinor was your father.”

Merlin grimaced. “He was.”

Arthur let out a sigh, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “So when he died-”

“I inherited his powers. It’s as simple as that.”

“So you’re the one who defeated the Great Dragon then.”

Kilgharrah chuckled, and Arthur would never admit to the startled noise he made. “Merlin could defeat me if he so wished, Arthur Pendragon, but he showed me mercy by merely ordering me to stay beyond the borders of Camelot.”

Arthur let out a breath, still pinching the bridge of his nose. “Well that answers what happened to you, then, but, tell me, Merlin. I thought there was only one dragon left. Where did you get that?” he said with a dramatic gesture at Aithusa.

Merlin had the tact to grimace. “… remember the Tomb of Ashkanar? How it had a Dragon egg?”

“You told me the egg got destroyed.”

“I may have lied about that.”

Was that a headache coming on? “Merlin!”

“Arthur, I am the Last Dragonlord, it is my job to take care of dragons, however few that may remain.”

Arthur turned to Gwaine- surely he must see the lunacy here?- but Gwaine lifted his hands in a nope. “Arthur, I vowed to Kilgharrah when I married Merlin that I too would protect the dragons. That’s what being a Dragonconsort means. You’re not finding an ally in me here.”

With that, Aithusa walked over to Gwaine and nudged him fondly with her snout. Gwaine smiled down at her, clearly fond of her. “Well, that’s not the only reason.”

Yep, that was definitely a headache.

But then Merlin let out a sigh, and stepped towards Aithusa and Gwaine, standing next to Gwaine with his eyes saddened. Aithusa noticed, and her gaze became concerned. “Brod?” she asked.

Merlin crouched down by Aithusa, Gwaine following half a beat later, and Merlin let out a breath. “I need you to stay with Kilgharrah, alright? Gwaine and I are going somewhere, and you can’t come with us.”

Aithusa looked up at them, her eyes glinting in concern. “Brod-” she began to protest.

But then Merlin shook his head. “I need to know you’re safe.”

Arthur turned his gaze away, the too familiar words causing a catch in his throat.

“Stay with Kilgharrah, alright? Please?”

Aithusa stared at Merlin for a moment, before nodding, though her expression was still full of concern and the want to disobey.

Merlin smiled softly and ruefully. “That’s my girl,” Merlin praised, before placing a kiss to Aithusa’s brow. “Stay safe. I’ll call for you as soon as I can. Okay?”

Aithusa chirped an (albeit begrudgingly) affirmation, before turning to Gwaine.

Gwaine smiled, before rubbing Aithusa’s head in a way akin to ruffling someone’s hair. “Keep Kilgharrah on his claws for me, will you?”

Kilgharrah scoffed. “I assure you, Sir Gwaine, she does that enough without you needing to tell her.”

Gwaine glanced up with a mischievous grin. “Looks like I’ve done my job then.” But then he turned back to Aithusa, his eyes softening as she looked the two of them over in concern. “Don’t worry about us, ‘Thusa, we’ll be back before you know it.”

Aithusa looked between the two of them for a moment longer, before she took a step forward and rested her head on Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin wrapped his arms around her neck, and Gwaine wrapped his own around both Aithusa and Merlin and holding them both.

They stayed like that for a moment, before Aithusa took a step back. She walked over to Kilgharrah, and the Great Dragon stood at the same time as Merlin and Gwaine did, looking down at her.

“Are you ready, mal gein?” Kilgharrah asked.

Aithusa nodded. “Yes, fahdon.”

And with that, Kilgharrah turned and spread his wings, before flapping and sending himself into the sky.

Aithusa glanced at Merlin and Gwaine once more, slowly spreading her own wings, but without saying anything, she turned her head and took off, following Kilgharrah as they faded into the distance.

Arthur watched them fly away for several moments, unable to deny the sense of awe that was filling him. But then he turned to Merlin, who was watching with an uncertain expression.

“She’ll be fine,” Gwaine said, putting a hand to Merlin’s shoulder. “Killy can look after her.”

Merlin nodded. “I know, but… I’m worried. I don’t want to leave her alone.”

But without another word, Merlin turned and began to head back into the forest.

 

~

 

Somehow, Arthur managed to actually fall asleep after he, Merlin, and Gwaine had returned to the Druid camp. Perhaps it was simply exhaustion from the previous days’ events, or too much information loading him down at once and his brain deciding it had to take a much needed break.

Merlin? Both Emrys and a Dragonlord?

And Gwaine? A Dragonconsort?

Merlin woke him just after the dawn with a rub to Arthur’s shoulder and a whisper of Arthur’s name. Arthur fixed Merlin with a glare, groggy and annoyed.

“Glad to see nothing’s changed,” Merlin said, deadpan.

“Shut up, Merlin.”

Gwaine had already left the camp, much to Arthur’s surprise, and Merlin didn’t tell Arthur where Gwaine had gone, instead asking Arthur to follow him beyond into the forest once more.

Merlin walked ahead of him, the same staff that he had been using when he and Gwaine had ambushed the transport in his hand. They didn’t speak much, just that Merlin needed to show Arthur something, and that he should simply trust him.

They walked for some time, but suddenly Merlin stopped.

“Merlin?”

Merlin took in a breath. “This… this is the border,” he said. “The border between Camelot and Essetir.”

Arthur looked. It was unremarkable, really, no special marker showing that that’s what it was.

“… so?”

“I haven’t crossed it for a year and a half.”

Ah.

Merlin took in a breath, before taking a step, crossing the border between the two kingdoms. He glanced at Arthur, as if waiting for him to say something, but then Arthur strode forward as if uncaring. “Come on, Merlin, we don’t have all day. What is it you want to show me?”

To which Merlin smiled, before taking a couple hurried steps to get in front of Arthur and once more guiding him to wherever it was he wanted to go.

“I learned many things while with the Druids, Arthur.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Arthur responded, still eyeing Merlin’s staff warily. “But I fail to see what you could have possibly learned that requires you to drag me out here.”

“You know the tale of the founding of Camelot?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Of course, Merlin. Every child in Camelot knows it.”

Merlin turned and smirked over his shoulder, his eyes glinting mischievously. “Ah, but there is a part you don’t know.” He turned his head and continued walking forward, forcing Arthur to follow. “Many years ago, before the birth of the five kingdoms, this land was in an endless cycle of bloodshed and war, but one man was determined to end all that. Your ancestor, Bruta. Camelot’s first king. He gathered together the elders of each tribe and drew up plans for the lands to be divided. Each would respect the others' boundaries, and drew it over the land as they saw fit.

“When Bruta was on his deathbed, he ordered to be taken deep into the woods. And there, with his own Court Sorcerer, he took his sword and plunged it deep into a stone, and the ancient king declared that one day it would be freed again at a time where Camelot needed it most, and that the one who freed it would unite the land of Albion and rule over the greatest kingdom the world has ever known.” Merlin stopped and turned to Arthur with a smile.

Arthur scoffed. “Merlin, you’re making this up.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Oh?” He then tipped his head, indicating towards the bottom of the hill that they were on. “What’s that then?”

Arthur turned to look, and was physically taken aback by what he saw.

There, at the bottom of a large dell, was a stone with a sword sticking out of it, just as Merlin had described. And, as if out of a minstrel’s song, a single sun-ray was falling onto it through the trees, leaving it shining in the light.

Arthur turned to Merlin with a disbelieving look, and Merlin only smiled at him, before tipping his head to indicate that Arthur should head down into the dell. “I already told you about the prophecy of the Once and Future King. Whose to say that the king your ancestor predicted and he are not one and the same?”

Slowly, still not quite believing, Arthur descended the hill, never taking his eyes off the sword that lay trapped in front of him.

It was beautiful- there was no denying that. A golden pommel lay on top, just above a leather handle, all set with a blade that had a gold insert engraved with runes. Even though Merlin claimed that this sword had been here for decades, nay, centuries, it seemed that time had in no way diminished it’s splendor.

As Arthur was examining the blade in wide-eyed awe, he heard rustling across the clearing, and looked up.

Gwaine was coming down, face in a grin, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world; which, honestly, was unsurprising to Arthur. But what was surprising was that next to him was-

Leon!” Arthur exclaimed in relief, immediately rushing forward to his head knight.

Leon looked just as surprised. “Arthur!” he exclaimed as he clasped Arthur’s arm in greeting, and relief shining in his eyes. “I had received word that you had been captured!”

“I had been,” Arthur said, giving Leon’s arm a squeeze before releasing it. “Merlin and Gwaine rescued me.”

Leon blinked in surprise. A confused smile graced his face. “I’m glad. But… how?”

“I was being taken to Essetir,” Arthur explained. “They ambushed the transport.” Arthur then glanced around. He asked, desperately, “Is anyone else with you? Guinevere?”

At this, Leon’s face fell. “No, sire. I’ve managed to locate several other knights, guardsmen, and civilians, but as far as I am aware, she remains in the citadel.”

Arthur’s eyes widened, before they screwed shut. He nodded shortly, then opened them, determination shining through. “Then we better rescue her then, shouldn’t we?”

Leon blinked briefly, before he nodded, his eyes reflecting the same determination. “I’m with you, Arthur. Till the end.”

Arthur met Leon’s eyes for a moment, humbled by the conviction contained within them.

But then behind Leon, Arthur spotted movement, and he glanced over.

And was taken aback.

Beyond the dell, just around the ridges, were his people. Civilians, guards, even the occasional knight, all descending down into the dell.

Arthur gaped for a moment, before glancing at Merlin, who shrugged. “Kilgharrah found them- Gwaine went out to gather them this morning.”

Arthur turned to Gwaine, who only smirked. “Yep.”

Arthur was momentarily surprised, before he nodded. “Thank you.”

Gwaine’s smirk softened for a moment, and he nodded in return, but said nothing.

And with that, Arthur turned his gaze back to the sword in the stone.

It was still there, gleaming in the sunlight.

And, though Arthur didn’t know how, he got the sense that it was waiting. Waiting for something.

But what?

Before Arthur had even realized he had moved forward, he found himself by the sword, his hand slowly raising from his side to grip the leather wrapped handle.

He hesitated for a moment, before closing the gap between his palm and the sword.

Slowly, Arthur wrapped his fingers around the handle, the leather of his gloves creaking as he did so.

It seemed the entire clearing was holding its breath- all who were there simply waiting to see what would happen.

Arthur began to pull on the sword, but it was stuck fast, not moving in the slightest when Arthur tried to remove it from the stone.

“You are the Once and Future King, Arthur,” Merlin said, the only voice in the clearing. “You just need to trust that you are.”

Arthur let out a breath, almost a wry laugh. Trust that he was some prophesied king of legend? Trust that he was the one meant to unite the five kingdoms of Albion into a Golden Age?

… or perhaps he should focus on something simpler- something much more pressing.

Gwen’s eyes flashed in his mind.

And his grip tightened on Excalibur.

The sword then shifted, and Arthur held his breath as it slid free from the stone- now moving as easily as it could through the air despite being stuck fast in the same position mere moments ago.

In his grip, the sword thrummed with energy, with assurance.

With the sense that it belonged to Arthur, in a way unlike any weapon Arthur had ever wielded before.

Come back to me. Please.”

Arthur raised Excalibur, and declared with as much strength as he could muster, “For the love of Camelot!”

Merlin raised his staff, and Gwaine raised his sword. “For the love of Camelot!”

And then the cry was echoed by everyone there.

“For the love of Camelot!”

Chapter Text

Arthur, Leon, Merlin, Gwaine, and all the other knights who had managed to escape the initial invasion spent the rest of that day planning how to retake the citadel. They’d set up a makeshift camp in the middle of the clearing where the stone was, and together they were surrounding a table, discussing what to do.

“We could attack straight on, sire,” Leon was saying, looking over a parchment with a very crudely drawn map of the lands surrounding the citadel. “But I doubt Morgana would leave herself open to such an attack- she probably will have archers, possibly even sorcerers at the ready waiting for our return. Merlin might be able to help with the m-magic-” he said (his voice wavering uncertainly on the last word) as he glanced at Merlin, who was standing off to the side, worrying at his bottom lip as he was lost in thought. “But he may be vastly outnumbered.”

Arthur nodded with his lips in a grim line. “And we can’t use the siege tunnels; Agravaine would undoubtedly be expecting such a thing.”

Merlin then looked up, his eyes alight. “What about the caves?” he asked.

Arthur turned to him. “What caves?” he asked, confused.

“The caves where Kilgharrah was kept,” Merlin responded, rushing forward to the map. He scrutinized it for a moment, before pointing at a place just beyond where the sentries would be able to see. “There’s an entrance here- and the caves lead straight to the dungeons. We can catch Morgana completely unaware. And if we use them, we might be able to get any prisoners to safety before the fighting really begins.”

Arthur had to admit Merlin had a point- a secret entrance into the very heart of the castle? However…

“While that is a good idea, Merlin, once the guards figure out we’re there, they’ll have no trouble cutting us off and trapping us down there.”

“Then we’ll split into two teams,” Merlin said, dragging his finger across the map as he explained. “One to go from the front, like Leon said, and another smaller team to go into the dungeons. The dungeons team will wait till the warning bells have sounded for the frontward assault before fully heading in. That way, any guards will be called away from the dungeon to defend the rest of the citadel. They won’t know we’re there until it’s too late.”

“That’s… actually quite brilliant, Merlin, well done.”

Merlin beamed as Arthur glanced to Leon. “What do you think?”

Leon pursed his lips. “It may work, sire. Would you be going with this team through the caves?”

“I would. I want to get to Morgana as soon as I am capable. The cave route would take me straight to the heart of the castle.”

Leon nodded. “Understood. Who else?”

“Merlin would have to go,” Gwaine said. “He’s the only one who knows his way down there. And I refuse to leave his side, so that makes the three of us.”

Leon nodded. “I’ll lead the frontward assault team. Anyone who you do not choose to go with you will come with me.”

Arthur nodded. “Gather the knights, and the guards, I’ll choose seven to go with me. That will make ten of us for the team through the caves.”

“How will we be getting there? We may not have a way to carry extra supplies on such short notice.”

Merlin and Gwaine glanced at each other, before Merlin turned forward. “We have a horse. And possibly a cart.”

And Arthur was taken aback. “You have a horse?”

 

~

 

You stole Gringolet!” Arthur exclaimed when Gwaine returned to the clearing with the brown mare that had gone missing from the stables nearly a year and a half ago, a cart behind her.

Gwaine scoffed as he dismounted. “If I remember correctly, you said I was allowed to choose a horse for myself, and I did. I can’t help it that you never told me I couldn’t take her with me after you banished us.”

“That should have been a given!”

“Arthur, she’s getting old,” Gwaine said calmly. “She wouldn’t have done you any good in the castle. Think of this as just me making sure you don’t have to worry about her,” Gwaine said with a cocky grin and a surreptitious scratch of her nose.

Arthur turned to Merlin. “Surely you’re on my side here!”

Merlin didn’t respond, just walking forward and joining Gwaine in stroking her nose. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said with a smirk, meaning he clearly did know what Arthur was talking about.

Arthur huffed. “And where did you get that cart?”

At this, Merlin hesitated. “We may be borrowing it… from some smugglers.”

“Smugglers?!”

“They’re nice smugglers, Arthur,” Merlin responded calmly. “And as long as we simply return it to them before Beltane and remind you that you owe them a favor, they were perfectly willing to let us use it.”

Arthur glanced to Leon, looking for support, but the head knight only shrugged. “I have no other ideas, Arthur. It seems that this is truly our only option.”

Arthur blinked for a moment, before letting out a sigh and lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Fine. We’ll use the cart.”

There was silence for a moment, before Leon spoke up. “When shall we head out?”

Arthur stopped, before he slowly looked up and met Leon’s eyes, his own glinting in determination. “Tomorrow.”

 

~

 

Morning arrived both too soon and not early enough.

For today was the day that Arthur was going to reclaim his kingdom.

Or die trying.

With Excalibur sheathed at his waist, Arthur watched as all who were in the camp- knights, soldiers who had escaped, townspeople who had avoided the slaughter- prepared to make the return journey to help him regain the city.

Arthur couldn’t help but feel proud of his people: watching as the smallest boy to the oldest woman helped in whatever way they could.

Many would be staying behind- Arthur understood why. Those who were too young, too old, or simply unable to fight were to remain, and to wait for the message that it was safe to return after they had regained the city.

Arthur tried not to think about what it would mean if the message was never sent.

His fist involuntarily tightened around the pommel of Excalibur as he took in a breath, but then he let out a second one. It would do no good to get anxious before the fighting even began.

He glanced down at the weapon in his side, still somewhat stupefied by what it apparently meant.

Was Merlin’s story true? Had it truly been placed there by his ancestor with the promise that the one to release it would bring peace to Albion?

But before he could ponder that any further, he heard Leon calling his name.

He glanced up, and his head knight headed to him, his expression grim. “Arthur, it’s time.”

And Arthur nodded. “Let’s go reclaim our city.”

 

~

 

The group traveled silently through the woods, slowly approaching the citadel while the sky was still blue-gray with the coming dawn.

Everyone was silent- both with the need for stealth, and with the apprehension of what was coming before them.

It was always like this before a battle.

When the city came into view, Arthur inhaled sharply- the scent of smoke burning his nostrils as he saw the thin tendrils above the city.

Kilgharrah had mentioned flames, after all.

Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine, and the seven soldiers Arthur had chosen left Leon and the rest there, Arthur sparing a moment to clasp Leon tight on the shoulder and try to impart his gratitude and his hope that they would meet again, before they headed towards where Merlin claimed the entrance to this cave was.

They left the cart and Gringolet within the trees, Gwaine taking a moment to stroke her nose and murmur soothingly to her, before letting out a breath and joining Arthur and their small brigade.

Merlin led them along a game trail in the forest for a short while, before he stopped them by a large boulder next to a ridge.

This is it,” Merlin whispered, lifting his staff and magically rolling the rock away from where it had been, revealing a dark cavern. He whispered, “Heofonléoht,” and the crystal at the end of his staff lit with a piercing white light. Merlin descended first into the cave followed by Arthur, then Gwaine, then the rest of the small group that they had designated join them.

Arthur had to duck low- the ceiling reaching to what would have been his shoulder had he been standing straight- only Merlin’s blue cloak visible in front of him.

“You sure this is the right way, Merlin?” he asked.

“Yes,” Merlin answered. “I know these tunnels like the back of my hand, Arthur.”

“Just out of curiosity, how well do you know the back of your hands?” Gwaine called forward, his tone teasing.

“Gwaine,” Arthur admonished. “We don’t have time for your games.”

“What do you mean we don’t have time? How is my talking going to slow us down?”

“Gwaine, shut up.”

“Oi, only Merlin can tell me what to do.”

“Gwaine, I am your king.”

“I thought you banished me?”

“Fine. Merlin, could you kindly tell your husband to shut up?”

Merlin hummed for a moment as if considering, before saying, “Nah. Don’t really fancy it.”

When Gwaine spoke next, Arthur could hear him grinning. “Thanks, love.”

“Anytime, Gwaine.”

And Arthur could only groan over the snickers he heard from the soldiers following behind them. “Honestly, you two were absolutely made for each other.”

They continued their descent, and slowly, Arthur realized the ceiling was getting higher, and soon he was no longer crouching as they walked. It continued to grow, but then-

“Here we are,” Merlin said, stepping out into the cavern.

Arthur’s eyes widened as he took in the whole expansive space. Merlin’s light seemed petty in comparison, only able to illuminate the walls nearby and doing nothing to show the far ends or even the ceiling of the cavern.

Gwaine emerged behind him and let out a low whistle, the sound echoing all around them off the unseen walls. “I know you told me it was big, love, but this-”

Merlin shrugged, completely unfazed. “Uther kept a dragon in here, didn’t he?” but then without another word, Merlin began to navigate down a slope, continuing to lead them into the cave.

They walked for several minutes longer, along ridges that followed the edge of the cave, Merlin the only one who knew the way.

Arthur kept glancing around, almost half wary that something would leap out and attack them.

But it was then that there was a glint, and he glanced down.

And stiffened.

“Are those-?” he breathed, staring at the chains- larger than any chains he had ever seen before- that were attached to the floor of the cavern.

Merlin glanced over. “… yes,” he said tightly and at length. “Those are the chains that held the Great Dragon.”

It was then that Merlin began to lead them up, no longer down towards the floor of the cave. He said, voice hushed. “We’re almost there. Just this last ridge, then we’ll be at the staircase that leads to the dungeons.”

Sure enough, they reached a small ledge with a doorway at one end. Merlin doused the light from his staff with a single word, before striding forward towards the door.

Arthur and the others followed. The cave itself only extended for a little further, before Arthur found himself at a staircase, just as Merlin said, Merlin himself a few steps ahead.

“Merlin!” he hissed. “Where are you going?!”

“No one comes down this far,” Merlin responded. “We can get closer and still catch them by surprise.”

Arthur didn’t quite think that was right, and he opened his mouth to say so.

But whatever he was going to say became obsolete.

For that was the moment the warning bells began to ring.

 

~

 

Merlin waited half a heartbeat before he rushed forward into the dungeons first, his staff at the ready.

As he had said, most of the guards were running away from the cave entrance, towards the front of the citadel to answer the call of the bell.

One guard spotted him. His eyes widened, and he turned to call to his companions, but they were gone.

The guard groaned, did a double take, before rushing forward to Merlin with a yell and his sword at the ready.

To which Merlin just waved a hand and smacked him into the wall, where the guard fell to the ground, unmoving. Gwaine rushed in behind. “Made quick work of him, did you?”

Merlin smirked, but it fell a moment later as he rushed past the cells, his eyes flicking between them as he tried to see if any had people within.

Occasionally, he would put a hand to a lock, his eyes flashing gold and the door swinging open a moment later to release the occupant within. Many of them looked at him with wide eyes, which immediately turned to shock when they saw that Arthur was right behind him.

Behind him, Merlin could hear Arthur speaking to the former prisoners- asking them to help, and if they were willing to join the fight if needed. Merlin only half paid attention, still scanning the cells.

But then Merlin stiffened, his eyes going wide as he spotted a figure within one. “Gaius!”

Gaius looked up and his eyes widened. “Merlin?”

Merlin moved to put his hand to the lock, but then jolted back with a pained gasp.

Merlin?” Gwaine asked in worry, rushing over to Merlin’s side.

Merlin shook out his hand as he swore under his breath. “Anti-magic cell. I can’t touch it.”

Gwaine immediately moved away, his eyes flicking around. But then he nodded towards one end of the hallway. “There.”

With a flash of gold in Merlin’s eyes, the keys were flicked from the hook they were on, and Gwaine caught them easily, before trying the lock. With the third key tested, Gwaine swung the door open and Merlin stepped in.

Gaius had stood up, and Merlin immediately rushed to him and embraced him in a hug.

“Oh, my boy,” Gaius said tearfully, holding Merlin tight to him.

Merlin let out a watery laugh. “It’s good to see you again, Gaius. I’ve missed you.”

“And I you, my boy,” Gaius said once more, before leaning back and looking over Merlin. “You look very well. And I could almost swear you’ve gotten taller.”

Merlin laughed. “I wouldn’t know about that.”

Gaius glanced to the door then, and spotted Gwaine. “Gwaine,” he greeted. “I trust you’re treating my charge well?”

Gwaine chuckled. “As well as I can.”

“Well, just know that if you break his heart, I know how to make seven poisons with things grown right outside the castle gates.”

Gwaine paled slightly, before stepping away with the keys in his hand, while Merlin could only roll his eyes. Until Gaius cuffed Merlin on the back of the head. “Why didn’t you invite me to your handfasting?! What is this about you telling me after it happened?”

Merlin rubbed the new lump, frowning slightly. “I didn’t think you could come-”

“It would have been nice to have been invited anyway!”

“Well, I couldn’t exactly put the position of the camp in a letter, could I now, Gaius?”

Gaius opened his mouth to retort, but then he sighed. “No, I suppose not. But it would have been nice to have been invited anyway, my boy.”

Merlin smiled wryly. “I’m sorry, Gaius, truly I am.”

Gaius looked him over for a moment, before letting out a sigh and putting his hand to Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s alright. We can discuss this later. When we’re no longer in the dungeons.”

Merlin smiled, before stepping out beyond the cell.

To his surprise, he found Elyan standing next to Gwaine, Gwen’s brother looking over Merlin in blinking disbelief. “Merlin?”

“He was down a little ways,” Gwaine said to Merlin by way of explanation. “I used the keys to get him out.”

Merlin stepped forward and put a hand to Elyan’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Elyan,” he said with a smile.

Elyan blinked, but then he smiled slightly. “You too, Merlin. Hasn’t been the same around here with you and Gwaine gone.”

Merlin smiled for another moment, but then heard someone approach them and he turned.

Arthur smiled in relief upon seeing Elyan and Gaius, but then he looked around at the rest of the freed prisoners. His eyes widened. “Guinevere?” he asked, his voice laced with fear he would never admit to.

Elyan shook his head. “She’s not down here- I don’t- I don’t know where she is!”

Arthur’s eyes widened, before he screwed them shut for a moment and let out a breath. He turned to Gaius. “Do you know, Gaius?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, Arthur.”

Arthur’s grip tightened on his sword, but then he nodding shortly. “Okay. We’ll just have to keep looking.” Then he lifted his head, and addressed everyone there. “Anyone who can stay and fight with me is welcome to do so. The rest of you, head out the way we came in, have one of my men lead you- it leads to a cave and to the forest beyond. There you can be safe.”

“I can help, too, Arthur,” Gaius said over the clamor as many prisoners began to move. “Many of the prisoners were injured- if I can get my supplies, I can treat them.”

Arthur nodded. “Understood. But still go to the caves; I’ll send a couple guards to retrieve your supplies- I don’t want to risk you going up there.”

Gaius nodded. “Very well, sire.” But then he turned to Merlin.

Merlin hugged Gaius before Gaius said anything. “Be careful, Gaius,” he said softly.

“Same to you,” he said, before stepping away and following the dungeons towards the caves.

Merlin watched him go, before turning back to Arthur, whose face was in a determined expression.

“We need to find Guinevere.”

“And Percival!” Elyan interjected. “He was injured- I thought I heard a guard say they took him to the barracks, but I don’t know if they even meant him. I don’t even know if he’s still alive!”

“We can’t do both!” Arthur argued back. “There’s no time!”

“Then you go get Gwen, I’ll get Percival,” Elyan said. “There’s no one I trust with my sister more than you.”

Arthur was silent for a moment, before he nodded shortly. “Fine. Merlin, you’re with me. Gwaine, you’re with Elyan- go find Percival.”

Merlin’s eyes widened, his stomach flipping. If they got separated- “We need to split up,” Merlin breathed, turning to Gwaine and his eyes showing his worry. “Gwaine-”

Gwaine immediately placed a hand to the back of Merlin’s neck and pulled him in for a kiss. They separated a moment later, eyes desperately flicking between the other’s.

(Neither of them noticed the wide-eyed look Elyan was giving them.)

“Take this-” Merlin said, reaching into his pocket and holding out a communication crystal and placing it in Gwaine’s hand, but holding Gwaine’s hand around it for a moment.

Arthur did a double take. “Where did you get that?”

Merlin ignored him, still meeting Gwaine’s eyes. “I’ll light it as soon as we find Gwen.”

Gwaine nodded. “I’ll come find you.”

“I love you,” Merlin said, stepping away from Gwaine, but not letting go of his hand yet.

“As do I, my love,” Gwaine said, squeezing Merlin’s fingers.

Merlin took in a sharp breath, before he let go and started running, Arthur only a step ahead.

They wove their way up through the dungeons and through the castle, Merlin knocking aside any foes they encountered as they ran, and Arthur watching their back for anyone who tried to come from behind.

“Where do you think she is?” Arthur asked.

“I don’t know-”

Arthur groaned. “Someone in this bloody castle ought to know where she is!”

“Need I remind you that it’s your bloody castle, Arthur?”

“Shut up, Merlin.”

They reached a fork, and both stopped, each turning and looking down each hallway.

“Which way do we go?” Merlin breathed, spinning and looking down the other. “We’ve no idea where she could be.”

But it was then that Arthur heard a clatter from one hallway, and turned to see a soldier had rounded a corner. The soldier turned, spotted the two of them, and began to run forward.

Merlin lifted his staff to simply knock him back again, but Arthur held out a hand. “Wait,” he commanded.

Merlin did.

The soldier reached the two of them, and with practiced moves, Arthur easily disarmed the soldier from his sword, before twisting and pinning the soldier to the wall with his forearm to the soldier’s chest.

Merlin let out a low whistle. “Impressive,” he said. “Nice to not be on the other end of that for once.”

Arthur ignored him, instead turning his attention to the soldier.

Where is Guinevere?” he demanded.

“The serving girl?” the soldier squeaked, looking at Excalibur with wide eyes.

“What has Morgana done with her?” Arthur demanded angrily, forcing his forearm closer to the soldier’s throat.

“Nothing-!”

Arthur argued with a shove. “Tell me where she is, or where I can find someone who can. Or you will regret it.”

The solider’s eyes widened further, and he began rambling. “King Soredamor didn’t want the serving girl hurt! She’s in one of the noble’s rooms- in the east wing!”

Arthur looked the soldier over once more, before he nodded. “I believe you,” he said.

The soldier visibly slumped in relief.

“And for your cooperation, I won’t kill you. I’ll just knock you out.”

The soldier’s face twisted in confusion. “What-?”

But without another word, Arthur punched the soldier in the nose, sending the back of his head into the wall, before he slumped to the ground, unconscious.

“He’s gonna have a nasty headache when he wakes up,” Merlin muttered as Arthur stepped back.

“We can worry about that later,” Arthur said, turning. “You heard him: Guinevere’s in the east wing, let’s go.”

They took up their rush through the hallways once more, weaving their way along the passages and through enemies.

It was when they were rounding a corner that-

Merlin, look out !”

Merlin ducked immediately, just missing a sudden blade that had been level with his neck.

Arthur rammed his shoulder into the swordsman that had been hiding behind a tapestry, sending him into the wall where his head his with a crack before he slumped to the floor.

Merlin looked at his attacker, wide-eyed, then up at Arthur. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Arthur said, grabbing Merlin’s bicep and hauling him once more into a run. “We can’t afford to stop.”

Eventually they reached the hallway with the chambers where the man had said Gwen was being held. And, sure enough, three guards were blocking the door.

Arthur advanced forward into the hallway, meeting Morgana’s men head on with a fierce battle cry. The guards jerked in surprise, and readied to fight. But Arthur felled one within moment, Merlin another, and the third was certainly no match for the two of them together.

Arthur tried the door, and swore. “Merlin, do any of them have keys?”

Merlin spotted a set, quickly yanked them from the belt, and tossed them to Arthur. Arthur shoved one in, before forcing the door open. Guinevere?”

And from inside, Merlin heard a shocked yet relieved cry of, “Arthur?”

Arthur rushed in, and Merlin followed a step behind to see him and Gwen standing in the middle of the room, each embracing the other tightly.

Gwen leaned back from Arthur, looking him over in wide-eyed disbelief. “Oh thank the gods. When I saw them drag you out, I thought-”

It was then Merlin stepped inside, and Gwen’s gaze flicked from Arthur to him, and her eyes widened further. “Merlin?”

Merlin smiled. “Hi, Gwen.”

Gwen blinked, before rushing over to Merlin and embracing him tight in a hug. “Hello, Merlin,” she said. “It’s so good to see you.”

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Gwen,” Merlin said back, giving Gwen a squeeze before stepping back.

Gwen smiled at him for a moment longer, before looking back at Arthur, her expression becoming confused. “I don’t understand, how are you both-”

“Merlin ambushed the transport taking me to Essetir,” Arthur explained, coming by Merlin’s side. “He saved my life. Again. What does that make it… three times?”

Merlin scoffed. “If only you knew- oh wait!” Merlin’s eyes widened, and he smiled broadly. “You know about my magic now! I can tell you about the times I saved you without you knowing!”

To which Arthur scoffed as well, but with a smile. “That would make, what, six?”

“Try fifty-seven.”

At this Arthur’s smile faltered. “Fifty-seven? That can’t be right.”

“Well, I’m not quite sure of the exact number. I stopped counting somewhere in the thirties.”

Arthur stuttered for a moment, before glancing at Gwen, who just looked amused. “It’s okay, Arthur,” she said, conspiratorially. “You can admit there are things you don’t know about.”

Arthur was silent for a moment, before he snorted. “Yeah, Gwaine probably knows everything-” but then Arthur stopped, and snapped to Merlin. “Merlin, your crystal!”

Merlin looked confused for a moment, but then he realized. “Oh, right!” he exclaimed, before scrambling to his pouch and withdrawing a white crystal.

And with a flash of gold in his eyes, it began to glow.

Gwen gasped slightly, but more in surprise of seeing something she was unused to.

Merlin stared at it for a moment, before he looked up and nodded. “Let’s go find Gwaine.”

Chapter Text

The hallways leading to the barracks were surprisingly uncrowded- yet from beyond the walls Gwaine could hear the sounds of fighting outside. And he found himself wishing that the tension could break and they could simply fight openly, yet being grateful for the chance at stealth while it was still offered.

Most of the Essetirian soldiers must not have realized that there were some of Camelot’s own within the castle yet.

One guard was posted outside, and he started upon seeing them, but with a well-placed blow to his jaw with the hilt of Gwaine’s sword, the soldier fell to the guard without any further complaint.

Gwaine rammed his shoulder into the door, forcing it open, before he stepped in and inhaled sharply: there was Percival, lying unconscious on one of the cots. Gwaine rushed over to his friend’s side, and grimaced upon seeing that there was a shackle around one wrist, and leading to the bedpost.

None of the other beds appeared to be occupied, but to Gwaine’s surprise, they appeared all set to receive patients- much how Gaius’s patient cot appeared when not in use.

What was going on down here?

“I’ll find the keys,” Elyan said, immediately scattering the contents of the table in an effort to find them.

“Hey. Hey, Percival,” Gwaine said, lightly tapping Percival’s cheek.

Percival’s eyes fluttered open, and he slowly turned his head to settle his gaze on Gwaine. It took a moment, but then his vision focused and his brow furled. “… Gwaine?” he asked, plainly confused.

Gwaine smirked. “Hey, big man,” he greeted. “Glad to see you again.”

Percival tried for his own smirk, but then hissed in pain as he moved a hand to clutch at his thigh.

“He’s injured,” Elyan explained, holding up the keys that he’d just found. “I think he got stabbed in the leg.”

Gwaine nodded, almost smirking. He could relate to that. “Well, much as I would like to let you rest, we gotta go,” he said, catching the keys as Elyan tossed them to him. He unlocked the shackle- it falling to the ground with a clatter- before slinging an arm under Percival. Elyan did the same on the other side, and together the two of them lifted Percival to a stand.

Percival mostly stood on his own once he was up, so Gwaine ducked out from under his arm- being the only one with a sword, after all- and together the three of them began to head out, to make it back to Merlin and Arthur.

But then they rounded another corner, and they stopped, all of them spotting a black-clad figure at the other end.

“Agravaine,” Gwaine growled.

Arthur’s uncle smirked. “Sir Gwaine, I never thought I would see you in Camelot again. Not after what you said to Arthur that day.”

“Take care of Percival,” Gwaine instructed to Elyan, rolling his shoulders back and lifting his sword. “I can handle him.”

Agravaine laughed. “Bold words for someone who has no concept of honor.”

“Honor?” Gwaine scoffed. “What are you talking about, Agravaine?”

“I’m referring to you leaving Arthur,” he responded coolly. “He told everyone that he had banished you- he never told anyone else what happened in the throne room. How he gave you a choice to stay, to honor your oath, and you rejected it.”

“Seemed to me like I didn’t have one.”

Agravaine scoffed once more. “‘Take one more step and you too are banished from Camelot’? Sounds to me like he offered you a choice, Sir Gwaine.”

“At least I had the nerve to reject him to his face. Unlike you, you backstabbing slimeball.”

“You abandoned your king!”

“I protected a friend. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Agravaine scoffed. “Why protect a lowly servant like him? Like, Merlin? He has magic, yes, but betraying his own kind and serving the Pendragon family? Merlin is worth nothing.”

Gwaine’s jaw clenched as he inhaled sharply, and his grip tightened on his sword. But he held himself back- movements controlled by raw anger would not bode well against another experienced swordfighter.

But then Agravaine said something else.

“Arthur should have burned Merlin as soon as he found out. Sentenced him to the pyre. I would have enjoyed watching that meddling servant scream.”

Gwaine’s face twisted in rage, and he let out a yell as he advanced on Agravaine once more.

Agravaine stumbled back at the assault, blocking Gwaine’s blows with his own sword. And for a moment, it seemed Agravaine had the upper hand.

But then he twisted, shifting on his foot to get to Gwaine’s side.

Agravaine swung wide to Gwaine’s left.

And Gwaine lifted the arm without his sword as he turned.

Bordrand!”

Agravaine’s eyes widened as the sound of hissing metal filled the hallway. Agravaine’s sword hit the sudden shield, and he didn’t have any time to recover as Gwaine lunged forward.

And the sword hit its mark, the red stained blade coming out of Agravaine’s cloak where it fell across his back.

Agravaine choked, once, before looking up at Gwaine with wide eyes.

Gwaine sneered at him for only a moment, before saying coldly, This is for you wanting to burn my husband.”

Gwaine withdrew his sword, and Agravaine collapsed to his knees, and then finally slumped to the floor.

Gwaine took a couple deep breaths, before turning and looking at Percival and Elyan, who were looking at him with slightly shocked expressions. Gwaine tilted his head, while simultaneously commanding his shield to rescind. “We better get moving.”

The two knights quickly nodded, and the three of them headed off, skirting Agravaine and barely giving his body a glance as they passed. Though Elyan did bend and pry Agravaine’s sword from his fingers.

“I gotta get me one of those,” Elyan said, looking at the shield brace on Gwaine’s arm.

“Maybe you could make one,” Gwaine said lightly. “You’re a blacksmith.”

“A blacksmith without magic.”

“Ehh, ask Merlin, maybe he’ll enchant it for you.”

“… is what he said true?” Percival asked quietly after a few moments.

“Is what true?”

“That Arthur offered you a choice. That you willingly broke your oath.”

Gwaine stopped. “Depends who you ask,” he responded, before turning to them. “My oath was to protect the people of Camelot. You heard that yourself. Not Camelot, her people. The way I see it, I did that by protecting Merlin. I joined Camelot for Merlin. Not for Arthur- Merlin. And even then, I didn’t think I had a choice. Perhaps Arthur thought differently. And even if I felt had, I wouldn’t have changed what happened. But what’s done is done. Can’t go back and change it now.”

Elyan was silent for a moment, before he tipped his head. “I can understand that, Gwaine.”

Percival nodded. “And me.”

Gwaine looked them over for a moment, before he gave them a small smirk as he turned back forward and continued their heading.

Gwaine suddenly stopped then, and reached into his pocket.

Before pulling out a crystal that was glowing.

Elyan made a choked noise. “What is that?”

Gwaine turned to them with a grin. “Merlin and Arthur found Gwen.”

Elyan’s eyes widened. “They did?” He let out a relieved breath and slumped slightly against Percival. “Oh thank the gods.”

“I would, but we need to hurry,” Gwaine said, rushing forward once more, crystal out in front of him. “As much as I trust Merlin to take care of himself, there’s still strength in numbers.”

They followed Gwaine and the crystal through the palace, making their way as quickly as they could (given distractions such as enemy soldiers and Percival’s injury) before finding their way into one hallway.

Elyan stopped.

Gwen!”

Gwen snapped to him- as did Arthur and Merlin- and her eyes widened. “Elyan?” Gwen gasped, before rushing forward and embracing her brother in a hug.

Gwaine didn’t pay much attention, running forward and embracing Merlin himself.

It’d only been a few minutes, but gods if it hadn’t felt like hours to Gwaine.

Merlin returned the hug tightly, and Gwaine could feel him shaking rapidly, from something more than just adrenaline.

“Merlin?” he asked in concern.

“Just… a close call,” Merlin responded, breathless. “If Arthur hadn’t spotted the guard and warned me…”

And Gwaine’s stomach flipped at the unstated, subconsciously tightening his grip on Merlin.

Merlin let out a shaky breath, burying his face in Gwaine’s shoulder for a moment. He inhaled deeply, before stepping back. “I’m fine. We still have things to deal with.”

Arthur nodded. “Like Agravaine-”

“No, we don’t,” Gwaine interrupted, turning to Arthur. “He’s dead.”

Arthur blinked, shocked. “He is?”

Gwaine nodded. “Killed him myself.”

Arthur looked surprised for another moment. He glanced at Percival and Elyan for confirmation- the expressions on their faces answer enough- before nodding as if to himself. “That’s one less thing to deal with then.”

“We need to get Percival to Gaius,” Elyan spoke up. “He needs his wound treated.”

“I’ll go with you,” Gwen said. “We’ll pass the armory on the way- I can grab a sword there.”

Arthur appeared surprised. “Gwen-”

“I can handle a blade myself, Arthur, you know this,” she said. “I can help Gaius as well- since I took over as apprentice after Merlin left.”

(Merlin jolted at this. “You did?” he exclaimed.)

Gwen and Arthur looked over each other for another moment, before Arthur stepped forward and hugged Gwen.

“Be safe,” Arthur said, holding Gwen close. “I can’t bear to lose you again.”

Gwen buried her face in Arthur’s neck and let out a breath. “Only if you promise to do the same.”

“I do.”

They leaned back, met the other’s eyes for a moment, before leaning in and kissing the other.

“Good luck,” Arthur whispered when they leaned back.

“You too, Arthur,” Gwen said, before stepping past him and immediately joining Elyan and Percival as they headed to the lower passages.

Just as they began to head out, Merlin stopped them.  "Wait."

They stopped, and Merlin went forward to Percival, before putting his hand on Percival's wound.

Percival hissed, but didn't say anything while Merlin shut his eyes, before opening them as they flashed gold.

"That should help," he said, stepping back.  "Gaius can do more."

Percival blinked at his leg, surprised, but then up at Merlin before he nodded nodded.  "Thank you, Merlin."  And with that, Elyan, Gwen, and he all began to head down the hallway.

Merlin, Gwaine, and Arthur watched for a moment, before Arthur suddenly took off down one hallway, his steps sure and determined.

Merlin caught up with him, Gwaine at his side. “What now, Arthur?” he asked.

And Arthur lifted his head, his eyes alight. Now, we go deal with my sister. Let’s go find her and put an end to this invasion.”

 

~

 

It didn’t take long for them to find Morgana and Soredamor- Gwaine glancing out a window to the courtyard and stopping. “I found them,” he said simply. Or at least he assumed: Gwaine having not seen the young Essetrian king before, but based on Arthur’s description, Gwaine figured it was the boy standing next to Morgana in the middle of the courtyard, the two of them surrounded by a handful of black-clad soldiers.

Could someone so young already be king and leading an invasion against a neighboring kingdom?

Arthur stopped, turned to him, before looking out a window himself. “Yes you did,” he confirmed, before he turned away from the window and began rushing through the hallways once more with renewed vigor in his steps.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, following quickly behind. “Arthur, where are you going?”

Gwaine wondered that as well, but then he realized when Arthur turned left at the bottom of the stairs exactly where he was going.

“Arthur, we need to find the others first, you can’t face them-”

But Arthur didn’t stop.

“Arthur, what are you-?” Merlin demanded, reaching out a hand to stop him.

But it was too late.

Morgana!” Arthur shouted while shoving the doors to the castle open, and stepping out onto the highest stair of the courtyard.

Morgana turned, and her eyes widened, before she scowled at him. “Arthur,” she greeted coldly. “I thought you would have been dead by now.”

“Stop this, Morgana,” Arthur ordered. He glanced to Soredamor then. “King Soredamor, I do not know what I have done to anger you thus, but no more people need to die. Call off this invasion.”

Soredamor sneered at him. “Never.”

And before anyone could say anything, Soredamor turned to the soldiers and gave a single word shout. Now!”

Gwaine barely had a moment to register the volley of arrows, before Merlin was suddenly in front of Arthur, his arms flung out in front of him and his eyes flashing a brilliant gold. All the arrows stopped in their tracks, before falling, harmless, to the ground.

Morgana scowled then. “Merlin,” she sneered, with even less warmth than she had to Arthur.

Merlin inhaled deeply, before lowering his hands. “Morgana.”

“I suppose you’re the reason Arthur’s blood isn’t decorating the courtyard of the castle in Essetir right now.”

“You’d be right about that,” Gwaine said, coming forward to Merlin’s side. “He may not have your skills as a seer, but he still has some abilities to see the future, it would seem.”

Morgana’s scowl deepened. “And Sir Gwaine. What a surprise.”

No one moved for a moment, before Arthur strode forward down the stairs, Merlin and Gwaine following a couple steps behind, warily eyeing the soldiers waiting for an order to attack and weapons at the ready.

“What happened, Morgana?” he asked. “What happened to you?”

“I was lied to, Arthur. For my entire life. And then I became magic- what people only saw as a monster against my will. And I embraced it. Why should I act any different when that’s all people see me as?”

“Your magic doesn’t make you a monster, Morgana.”

“Tell that to your father.”

Uther is dead. You are the one who decided I was going to be just like him, Morgana. You never even asked what I would do once I was king.”

“You still don’t accept magic.”

Arthur scoffed. “Morgana, Merlin has magic- I didn’t execute him!”

No, but you rejected him! Was that what you would have done to me, Arthur? Would you have banished me from my home for something I couldn’t control?!”

But before Arthur could even respond, Morgana held out a hand and spat something rapidly.

Arthur lifted his sword-

- but Merlin leapt in front, his staff out and his eyes glowing a furious gold. Arthur didn’t know what happened, but Merlin stumbled back with a grunt, taking the blow from Morgana’s spell, but didn’t lose his footing.

Merlin then countered, rapidly chanting something, before his eyes flashed gold again.

Morgana wasn’t as quick, being thrown across the courtyard before rolling across the stones for several feet. She stopped, face up, gasping as her lungs tried to recover the wind that had been knocked out of them.

Morgana!” Soredamor exclaimed. But then he turned to Arthur and Merlin, eyes ablaze. “Attack them!”

The soldiers advanced forward as one, towards their three targets.

“What’s the plan?” Gwaine asked, eyeing the people surrounding them, daring them to approach.

Merlin tightened his grip on his staff. “Don’t die.”

Gwaine snorted. “Don’t get too complicated on me now, love.”

Merlin smirked, but then a soldier advanced towards him. He waved his staff, and the soldier went flying as well.

Gwaine met one to his left, blocking the soldier’s sword with his own. He twisted his blade, disarming the soldier, before kicking him solidly in the abdomen, sending him sprawling backwards.

Gwaine, duck!”

He did, Merlin jerking a hand forward and stopping the arrow in the air, before clenching his fist and breaking it where stopped. It fell to the ground in two pieces as Merlin waved his staff and sent the archer flying.

But then Gwaine heard a yell, and turned to see a soldier approaching. He swung, and blocked the sword, before Merlin came on the side.

He put a hand to the soldier’s neck, and before the soldier could react, Merlin said, “Awefecung nú.”

And the soldier slumped to the ground unconscious.

Across the courtyard, he could hear Arthur.

“You told me that this was retribution, Soredamor!” Arthur yelled, blocking a blow from Soredamor’s sword. “Retribution for what?! What have I done?!”

You killed my parents!” Soredamor screamed at him, tears of rage spilling over. “You released the Dorocha- killing hundreds of my people while I could do nothing!”

“The Dorocha?” Arthur breathed in shock. “I had nothing to do with that!”

“Didn’t you?” Soredamor sneered. “I would never expect you to admit to it, even after all this time. King Arthur, son of King Uther the Magic Hater, never stooping to admit that he used magic to forge an attack.”

Because I didn’t!” Arthur exclaimed. “Camelot was attacked by the Dorocha, too, that night! We lost hundreds as well! I lost the greatest knight I ever knew!”

Morgana had pushed herself up, but was only watching, saying and doing nothing.

Soredamor stopped at this, the note of Arthur’s grief in that last statement hitting even him.

He looked uncertain for only a moment, before he sneered once more. “You’re lying.”

“Why would I?” Arthur responded desperately. “Ask anyone here and they’ll tell you the same thing; that Camelot lost some of her own that night. I had nothing to do with that attack.”

“Then who did?!”

“Morgause and Morgana are the ones who opened the veil. Not I!”

At this Morgana let out a laugh, and Soredamor froze, his eyes widening. “Mor-Morgause?” he breathed. “You believe Morgause did this?” At this, his face twisted once, and Gwaine stiffened- the anger within Soredamor’s eyes becoming cold and solid. Now I know you’re lying.”

“I’m not! And as for your parents? Cenred never arrived in Camelot! Morgause had killed him long before the army arrived here. And I don’t know what happened to your mother.”

How dare you!” Soredamor yelled, infuriated. “How dare you slander her like that!”

“It is the truth!”

Only my parents know the truth! And they can’t tell me because you killed them!”

Arthur started, but before he could say anything, Soredamor advanced with a fierce yell.

Arthur stumbled back at the assault, immediately moving to a defensive.

Gwaine watched, unsure what to do, but then Merlin lifted his head, his eyes wide.

Merlin turned to Gwaine and urgently grabbed his bicep. “I need you to buy me some time.”

“How much?”

“As much as you can get me.”

Gwaine looked over Merlin once, before nodding his head. “Got it,” he responded, swinging his sword in a circle and looking at the enemies surrounding them. None of whom seemed to have noticed- too enthralled with the interaction between the two kings.

Merlin turned his staff in an arc, before planting it solidly on the ground in front of him as a shockwave traveled through the courtyard in response.

The shockwave attracted the attention of everyone in the courtyard, all turning and looking at Merlin as he began to chant.

Gwaine watched as an archer took his bow, and readied a shot straight for Merlin.

Bordrand!” Gwaine cried as me moved to Merlin’s front.

Gwaine felt the arrow hit his shield, and saw it fall to the ground below, broken. “Hurry up, Merlin,” he growled, anxious.

But it was then that Gwaine started listening to what Merlin was saying, and he stiffened in recognition, his eyes growing wider. He turned to Merlin, his expression shocked.

Merlin, is that-?”

Merlin didn’t respond, not slowing in his chanting at all. “-geopenian sé dor of gastgedal, ond besendan drút ic gewill besprecan. Besendan mec bearncennicge of Soredamor.”

Gwaine heard a yell from behind, and turned to see another soldier approaching, his gaze set on Gwaine. Gwaine blocked the enemy swing with his sword, before turning and ramming the soldier with his shield.

The assailant stumbled back, and Gwaine took the chance to glance at Merlin.

He was shaking, and his breathing was rapid.

The very same signs Gwaine had been told to look for when Merlin had tried summoning Balinor that previous Samhain.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked in worry, glancing to just in front of Merlin. And sure enough, Gwaine could see it: the glass door between this realm and the next.

“She- she’s fighting me!” Merlin exclaimed.

“What? Who is-?”

There was a bright flash from the door, yielding a sudden shockwave traveling through the courtyard. Gwaine fell backwards and slid several feet, and most everyone else had been thrown to the side, including Merlin, who was now hunched quite a distance from where he had been.

“Merlin!” Gwaine exclaimed, rushing over and crouching next to him as Merlin shakily pushed himself to his hands and knees. Merlin lifted his head; he was sickly pale, and a narrow stream of blood was trickling out of the corner of his mouth,

“You’re bleeding, love,” Gwaine said, holding Merlin tightly.

Merlin rubbed a thumb at the side of his mouth, before examining the blood. “I’m fine,” he murmured, lowering his hand and still shaking.

“No, clearly you’re not,” Gwaine protested.

Merlin glanced at him, before he looked forward and stiffened.

Gwaine followed his line of sight, and his eyes widened too.

Arthur and Soredamor had been thrown apart, and they too were now staring wide-eyed at the appearance before them.

Morgana's eyes were wide as well, staring at Merlin in shock.  "That spell!  You- how did you-?"

 Merlin lifted his head.  "I am Emrys, Morgana."

Morgana's eyes widened further, before she too turned to the appearance with wide eyes.  "No…"

Two figures had come out of the doorway, and were now crouched on the ground with their backs to Merlin and Gwaine. Both were translucent and tinted slightly blue, but that was as far as the similarities went. One was a woman, dressed in a black dress and with blonde hair falling over her shoulders.

The other… the other they both recognized immediately.

The second figure stood straight, the red cape of the knights of Camelot on his shoulders, and his black hair coming off his head in a slight curl.

It was impossible for either of them to forget Camelot’s best knight.

Lancelot,” Merlin breathed.

Lancelot didn’t look at them, instead turning and looking at the woman who he’d come with.

Stand up,” he ordered, his voice shaking in anger.

Merlin stopped- he had never seen Lancelot give any indication that he was angry. He had never seen Lancelot lose his temper.

Why was he so upset? How was he here?

Despite clearly being the recipient of Lancelot’s rage, the woman didn’t move.

Stand. Up.”

The woman then let out a bitter laugh, and Merlin stiffened in recognition.

No. No it couldn’t be. The spell was supposed to summon Soredamor’s mother. It shouldn’t be her, unless-

Across the courtyard, Soredamor’s eyes widened further in shock, and he pushed himself to a stand. “Mother?” he breathed.

And Morgause lifted her head. “Hello, my son,” she greeted bitterly with a malicious smile.

Soredamor stuttered, “Wha-what?” He looked over at Merlin, his eyes wide. “Why did you do this?”

Merlin lifted his head, his breathing still labored. “I called her here to tell you the truth of what happened on Samhain three years ago. To tell you that it wasn’t Arthur who opened the veil. You said only your parents knew the truth.” Merlin took in a deep breath then, slumping against Gwaine. “I thought your mother would be able to tell you the truth.”

“The truth?”

To which Merlin turned to Morgause and glared at her, three years of grief and rage in that one expression. “The truth of what happened that night. Of who really released the Dorocha.”

No one spoke for a moment.

Tell him what you did!” Lancelot snapped. “No more people need to die today.”

Morgause let out a wry laugh, before looking up at Lancelot. “Do you truly hate me so much?”

Lancelot glanced at her for only a moment, before turning his gaze back forward. “You took everything from me. Is it really a surprise?”

“Mother? What is this knight of Camelot talking about?”

No one spoke for a moment, waiting with bated breath, before Lancelot turned forward and met Soredamor’s eyes. “What Arthur said is true, King Soredamor. Morgause was the one who released the Dorocha that night three years ago.”

Soredamor’s eyes widened, before he sneered once more. This is a trick.

Morgause let out another laugh. “It is not, my son,” she said coolly, and Soredamor stiffened. “It’s true- my sister and I are the ones who opened the veil.”

You are the one who released the Dorocha?” Soredamor breathed, his eyes wide in horror, but then it twisted to rage. “Many people died!

“Camelot was weakened!”

Soredamor let out an incredulous laugh. “You think I care about Camelot? I was talking about Essetir! We lost hundreds of lives that night! You killed hundreds of my people, Mother!

“And you!” he said, rounding on Morgana. “You lied to me! You told me that my mother died with the attack on Camelot! You mean to tell me that she was alive for months afterward, and you never told me? You let me believe for months that she was dead, when she was still alive?”

Morgana was taken aback. “It was too great an opportunity to waste! Morgause knew we could release the Dorocha-”

You didn’t even let me say good-bye!”

Soredamor stood in the clearing, staring at Morgana and his breathing heavy, before he ran a hand through his hair and stumbled backwards, his wide unseeing eyes searching the ground. There was silence for a moment, before he glanced at the sword in his hand, at Arthur, Morgause, then up at Morgana.

He straightened, staring at Morgana with his expression defiant.

When he spoke, his voice was shaking, but it was loud and sure. “I’m calling off the attack. Stop the men, Morgana. It’s over. I surrender.” And with that, he cast his sword to the ground, staring at Morgana- his aunt.

Morgana stared at him in disbelief, before glancing around at all the other people in the clearing.

The Essetirian soldiers stared at their king, weapons lowered and the acceptance of defeat plain on their faces.

And Morgana’s face twisted in rage.

“I’ve spent too long waiting for my throne- I will not let it be taken away by some boy!”

She turned to Soredamor with a glare, and he stumbled back with wide eyes as Morgana lunged towards him- a flash of metal in her hand. Morgana!” he exclaimed in shock.

But then Arthur lurched between the two of them, Excalibur hitting it’s mark.

Morgause lunged forward, hand out. No!”

But it was too late.

Morgana stopped, before glancing down at her chest with wide eyes, where Excalibur was protruding, the hilt still in Arthur’s hand.

Morgause tried to move forward, but Lancelot stopped her, his sword by her throat and his arm around her torso.

“I know this won’t harm you,” he said calmly. “But I will not let you interfere with my king.”

Morgause simply sneered at him. “Fine. Then I’ll simply go somewhere where you can’t stop me.”

And then she was gone, returned to the other side once more.

Lancelot started slightly, before lowering his arms from where they had been.

Morgana’s eyes widened. “Sister?” she breathed, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“Gone,” Lancelot answered simply, sheathing his blade. “She left.”

Shock passed briefly over Morgana’s face, before she looked down at the blade between her ribs once more. She left…”

“Keep it in,” Arthur started. “Maybe Merlin can-”

Morgana interrupted him with a cold laugh. “So you can burn me on the pyre later? No, thank you.”

“I would never have burned you, Morgana,” Arthur said, more sincerely than Gwaine had ever heard him speak. “I would never have wanted to see you dead.”

Morgana’s expression turned surprised, but then she coughed, flecks of blood coming out and staining the stones below. Her knees gave out then, but Arthur caught her, before gently lowering her to the ground, and cradling her in his arms.

“I’m sorry- I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you, Morgana,” Arthur whispered, his voice breaking. “I wish things could have been different between us.”

Morgana looked him over for a moment, before smirking. “Perhaps in another life,” she said. But then she grabbed the hilt of Excalibur and pulled it out, before dropping the sword to her side.  

She laughed wryly, weakly.  "It seems Emrys was my doom after all."

Morgana’s gaze became distant, and her breathing became shallower and shallower.

Until her chest settled, never to take in a breath again.

There was silence, everyone in the courtyard staring at the two siblings in stunned silence.

Arthur let out a shaky breath, before lifting a trembling hand and shutting Morgana’s eyes. He hung his head for a moment, before raising it back up with a sharp breath.

“Take my sister inside,” Arthur instructed to a couple guards who had been nearby, Morgana’s body still in his arms. “She is to be given a proper burial, understood?”

The guards came forward then, and took Morgana from Arthur’s arms, before they began to move inside- much more carefully after they glanced back and found Arthur glaring at them.

Lancelot turned, before walking slowly over to Merlin and Gwaine. He crouched down in front of the two, holding out a hand to Merlin. “Are you alright, my friend?”

Merlin was still looking at Lancelot in stupefied disbelief, and he reached his hand out to take Lancelot’s. “Y-yeah.”

But when he moved to take Lancelot’s hand, it just went through, a slight chill of the air the only indication that Lancelot was even there.

Lancelot’s eyes saddened, and he glanced at Gwaine. “Do you have him?”

Gwaine nodded. “Always,” he said, before putting his arms more tightly around Merlin. “Come on, Merlin. Let’s get you up.”

Merlin shakily stood, putting most of his weight on Gwaine and his breathing growing ragged.

“Merlin?” Gwaine asked warily.

“I’m fine,” Merlin responded, breathless. “Just… give me a minute.” It was then he looked up at Lancelot, chest still heaving, but he asked between breaths, “How are you here?”

“Morgause was refusing to go through the gateway,” Lancelot explained simply. “I simply… gave her a push.”

Merlin blinked, before he let out an incredulous laugh. “You pushed her out of the afterlife?”

Lancelot smirked. “Indeed, my friend.”

“Lancelot?”

The three of them turned to see Arthur, staring at the group with wide eyes. He didn’t move for a moment, before he shakily took a step forward, approaching Lancelot and looking him over with wide eyes. “Is that… are you really here?”

Lancelot gave Arthur a rueful smile, before lifting his hand as if to clap it to Arthur’s shoulder. But then he stopped partway and jerkily lowered it. “I had always known you’d make a great king one day, Arthur.” His smile faltered, and he sighed. “I just wish I had been there to see it.”

Arthur smiled ruefully for a moment longer, before it fell, and he opened his mouth to speak. “Lancelot, I-”

“Arthur!”

Arthur and Lancelot turned, to see Gwen running over before reaching Arthur and embracing him tightly.

“I saw- I saw Morgana-” she said, recovering her breath. “I saw you kill her.”

Arthur’s eyes softened, and he turned his head to Gwen’s hair. “… I did.”

Gwen’s breath caught, and she let out a sigh, but said nothing.

They only held each other for a moment, before Gwen stepped back and met Arthur’s eyes for a moment.

But then Gwen turned, and her eyes widened in recognition. “… Lancelot?” she breathed.

Lancelot smiled ruefully. “Hello, Gwen.”

Gwen blinked for a moment, before reaching a hand forward to Lancelot’s face and trying to place her fingers to his cheek.

But her fingers simply went through, and her eyes widened momentarily before softening.

Gwen hitched a sob. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s all my fault-”

“No,” Lancelot said gently. “Do not blame yourself, Gwen. It was my decision, and mine alone. There was nothing you could have done- or will ever do- that will make me blame you, Gwen.”

Gwen met his eyes for a moment longer, before dropping her head. “You always were so kind, Lancelot,” she said softly.

Lancelot smiled sadly at her, before looking at Arthur again, tears brimming.

“We might have been happy, the three of us,” Lancelot said, his smile trembling. “If only we’d had more time.”

Lancelot leaned forward and kissed the place where Gwen’s forehead was, Gwen’s shoulders shaking as she held back her tears. Lancelot leaned back a moment later, looking her over with soft eyes, but then he glanced up at Arthur briefly.

“Take care of each other. My lady, my king,” Lancelot said wistfully as he smiled at the two of them. “Until we meet again.”

And then he was gone.

Gwen let out a shocked gasp, before she screwed her eyes shut. A sob rose up, and she moved and embraced Arthur tightly.

Arthur wrapped his own arms around her, burying his face into her hair.

No one spoke.

Merlin watched for a moment, before he slumped against Gwaine once more. Gwaine hadn’t been expecting it, based on the way he started when Merlin fell against him, but he caught Merlin and held him securely.

“You alright?” Gwaine murmured gently.

And Merlin only nodded, not trusting his own voice. Before he turned and buried his own face into Gwaine’s neck.

Arthur leaned away from Gwen a moment later, before walking over to Soredamor.

He’d collapsed to the ground at some point, on his knees and staring with a blank expression across the courtyard.

Arthur’s hand entered his field of view, and Soredamor started, before following the arm up to Arthur’s face.

Arthur didn’t say anything, only holding out his hand.

Soredamor shakily took it, before he moved to a stand, letting out a breath. He looked up and met Arthur’s eyes.

“It’s over. I surrender.”

Chapter Text

Word had quickly spread throughout the castle that the attack had been called off with the surrender of Soredamor, much to the confusion and shock of the Essetirian soldiers who remained.

Arthur and Soredamor were both standing at the edge of the training field, looking out over the lower towns, and the destruction that had been caused.

Merlin was nearby, Arthur wanting to keep him near in case Soredamor- Morgause’s son, after all- had something in mind to pull as just he and Arthur met alone.

But Arthur was coming to believe that the precaution had been in vain, for Soredamor’s face was pained as he saw the damage across the city, his eyes wide in shock. It was far from the look of someone who would betray the one he just made peace with.

“I did this,” he breathed, looking out at the flames that had yet been doused and the towers of smoke coming from the lower city.

“Yes, you did,” Arthur said levelly, turning to him. “All battles have casualties, all wars lead to destruction. It is your duty as a leader to remember this, Soredamor. And to decide whether taking action is worth whatever you are going to lose.”

Soredamor closed his eyes, pained, before letting out a wry laugh. “It was all for naught- this invasion was based on lies. Lies that I believed.” He opened his eyes once more, and they were shining with unshed tears. “I’m such a fool.”

“… you were looking for something to blame. And you took your pain out on what you decided was at fault,” Arthur said, his eyes darkening as he remembered someone else who had done the same. “You are not the first, and you certainly won’t be the last to do that.”

“… I sentenced you to death, Arthur,” Soredamor said at length. “Do you wish to do the same to me?”

“Your people need you, Soredamor,” Arthur said calmly. “To take you from them would only send Essetir further into chaos. It is the last thing they need right now.”

Soredamor smirked wryly. “And who would even be the next king? My father had no other living heirs- my mother made sure of that.”

“Speaking of,” Arthur started, turning to Soredamor with genuine confusion. “Morgause and Cenred? I never-”

Soredamor let out a breath. “It was a political move. The union of a crown prince and a high priestess?” He then smirked wryly. “But the differences between them were too great, so they called it off, but not before…” Soredamor let out a sigh. “Not before I had to bear the consequences.”

Soredamor fell into a silence then, staring out at the world with pressed lips. But then he let out a breath. “Do not be deceived, Arthur. My parents did care for me, truly. But my mother only visited occasionally, and my father was ruling the kingdom more oft than not. I was left to myself most of my childhood- left to explore the lower towns and speak to the people freely, but…

“But I can’t help but wonder what might have been, had they actually cared for the other. Perhaps we wouldn’t even be in this mess we are now.”

“It’s impossible to tell,” Arthur responded. “We can only move forward and hope we don’t make the same mistakes they did.”

To which Soredamor nodded. “I understand. And, speaking of moving forward, I wish to make amends,” Soredamor said, turning to Arthur. “As such, I am offering you some land.”

Arthur was taken aback. “I don’t understand.”

“Essetir is not the kingdom it once was,” Soredamor responded, letting out a sigh. “We can barely sustain what land we currently have. And I’m afraid my actions only weakened us further. I hope that, perhaps, we can count on an alliance with Camelot. I wish for this land to be a way to seal this alliance, and to act as an apology for what my actions have done this day. You are much more honorable than I have been lead to believe, Arthur Pendragon,” Soredamor said with a soft laugh. “I’m sure that this will be to your satisfaction.”

Arthur thought for a bit. Camelot’s lands were generally considered greater to Essetir’s in nearly every aspect- wealth, fertility of the soil, wood- but there was one part…

“There’s a small town, on the border, called Ealdor,” Arthur said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin jerk in surprise. “It’s where Merlin grew up. I wish to bring it under Camelot’s protection.”

Soredamor looked surprised. “Is that all you ask for?”

“It is.”

Soredamor considered this for a moment, before he nodded with a faint smile. “Very well. Consider it done.”

Arthur returned the faint smile and nodded. “I suppose that’s it then.”

“It is,” Soredamor said, reaching out his arm. Arthur reached out his own in response, and the two of them grabbed forearms in the knights’ hold. “Thank you, Arthur,” Soredamor said. “I hope this marks a new beginning for our kingdoms.”

Arthur smiled and nodded. “I believe it does.”

Soredamor gave Arthur one last smile, before withdrawing his arm.

He walked away then, crossing the field to get to his own men. Arthur stared after him for a moment, before finding a man of his own at his side.

“So, Ealdor, huh?” Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded. “I don’t think they’ll mind, do you?”

“After what happened with Kanen? I doubt anyone will complain; you defended them when their own king wouldn’t. If anyone has an issue with you taking over their lands from Essetir, they’re more of a cabbage head than you are.”

Arthur laughed. “And here I thought you believed that was impossible.”

“Oh, it is. Like I said, no one in Ealdor is going to complain about you becoming the new sovereign. I think there was even a campaign a few years before the Purge for your father to annex them.”

Arthur turned to Merlin. “Really?”

Merlin shrugged. “I’d have to ask my mother, but yeah I think so.”

Arthur huffed half a laugh, before he turned and started to head across the clearing, his hand resting on Excalibur where it rested at his side.

Then Merlin spoke once more.

“Arthur, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Arthur turned, and looked over Merlin, before nodding. “Very well, what is it?”

“I lied to you.”

“About what? You’re going to have to be more specific, Merlin.”

Merlin nodded to Excalibur. “You were right. I made up the story about the sword. The one about Bruta.”

Arthur was taken aback. He looked at the blade at his side in confusion, before once more looking up at Merlin. “Then how did it get in the stone?”

“Oh, I put it there,” Merlin responded with a dismissive wave. “Kilgharrah made me promise to put it somewhere where no one could use it until you were ready to have it. And I think you are.”

“But why does Kilgharrah care about it?”

“It’s a blade forged in Dragon’s Breath,” Merlin said, awe clear in his undertones, “With the ability to kill that which is already dead. It’s what I used to kill Cenred’s army… and what Uther used during his duel with Tristan du Bois, though he didn’t know it was magic.”

Arthur blinked. That… explained a lot, actually.

“Did you make up the ‘Once and Future King’ business too?”

“No, that one’s genuine,” Merlin said, walking past Arthur and continuing to the castle undeterred. “I was being called Emrys long before I heard the phrase ‘Once and Future King.’ And there are other prophecies to go with it too. You should hear the one about Courage, Strength, and Magic. Gwaine’s particularly fond of that one.”

Arthur thought over this, his brow furling and an unflattering expression coming over his face. “‘Courage, Strength, and Magic, what-? Wait, Merlin!”

 

~

 

“How does your leg feel?”

Percival shrugged from where he was sitting on the patient’s cot in Gaius’s tower, finally able to get the proper treatment for his injury. At his side sat Elyan and Leon, both of them eager to meet him and see his progress. “Better. Still hurts to walk, though.”

Elyan let out a sigh. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Gaius says I should be fine in a few weeks.”

“Sounds about right,” a voice said from the door. They looked over to see Gwaine leaning in the doorway, a smirk on his face. “I was stabbed in the leg, then went on to win a tournament a few days later. You should be fine.”

“Hello, Gwaine,” Percival said with a smile.

Gwaine smirked, before stepping in. “Glad to see you all survived the battle.”

Percival smiled, and opened his arms as Gwaine walked over to him. Gwaine bent and gave him a hug. “I’ve missed you, little man,” Percival said.

“I missed you too, big man,” Gwaine said, slapping his friend’s back a couple times before standing back up.

“So where have you been?” Elyan asked, coming forward and giving Gwaine another hug.

“Oh, around,” Gwaine answered cryptically with a smile.

Elyan scoffed. “Oh, c’mon, you can’t leave it at that.” He turned to Leon. “Where was he?”

Leon shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“He found me, and then Merlin was with the king when we reunited. And none of them have told me what happened.”

Elyan made a noise of disbelief, before turning back to Gwaine. “It’s been a year and a half, Gwaine. Where did you go?”

Gwaine smirked. “Ah, but where’s the fun in just telling you when I can have you guess?”

“… do I have to?”

“Yes.”

“Will you tell me if I guess a few?”

“Only if you get it right.”

It was then that Gaius returned from his rounds. He looked over to see the gathering of knights and shook his head. “While I appreciate your concern for Percival, I can’t have you all gathering in here- especially in the aftermath of an invasion. I need my space!”

“Sorry, Gaius,” Elyan said.

Gaius hummed, but then said with a raised eyebrow. “Well since you’re here, I might as well use you.”

“What do you need?”

“Percival needs to walk,” Gaius said. “He can’t stay sitting around like this all day- creates bedsores and blood clots.”

Gwaine appeared thoughtful, before turning to Gaius. “How far can he walk?”

“Not too far. I don’t want him pulling those stitches.”

“How about the training field?”

“The training field?” Gaius echoed, looking slightly puzzled. “That may be a bit far, but I suppose if he rests there before returning he should be fine.”

And Gwaine smirked, before turning to the rest of the knights. “What do you say? Want to come to the training field with me? It’ll be worth your while. Promise.”

Percival shared a glance with Elyan, before he shrugged. “Fine with me,” he said, reaching to the side and grabbing his crutches.

Leon and Gwaine helped him to a stand, before the four of them headed out of the tower and made their way to the training field.

It was a nice day out- a bit cloudy, but otherwise warm and with a slight breeze through the air.

Percival made his way to a bench, before sitting down heavily, Elyan then taking the spot next to him and Leon sitting on his other side.

Elyan raised an eyebrow and looked over Gwaine. “Well? What are you going to do that will make this worth our while?”

But instead of answering, Gwaine smirked at them, before turning away and putting two fingers in his mouth and let out a loud whistle, holding the piercing note for several seconds.

But then he lowered his hand and stared expectantly at the sky.

“Wow, Gwaine,” Elyan began sarcastically. “That was really great. So glad you brought us out here.”

Percival snickered.

To which Gwaine turned to them and only grinned. “Oh, just wait for a bit.”

So they did, no one speaking for a moment.

Then there was a growling towards the castle.

A large white blur suddenly launched itself from the roof, before flying through the air and landing next to Gwaine, and trotting up to him.

And Gwaine crouched down, before scratching the dragon’s head.

“I knew you’d be nearby,” Gwaine said fondly. “Killy couldn’t keep you away, could he?”

The dragon looked up with bright eyes, before shaking her head.

Gwaine’s smile widened for a moment, before he turned to the rest of the knights. “Aithusa, I want you to meet Leon, Elyan, and Percival. My fellow knights of Camelot.”

They only blinked in surprise.

And Gwaine scoffed. “Come now, don’t tell me you’ve never seen a dragon before.”

“That’s because we haven’t!” Elyan exclaimed, Percival nodding rapidly in agreement.

(None heard Leon’s petulant mutter of, “I have.”)

Gwaine smirked. “I know that. I’m making a joke.” But then he turned to Aithusa and let out a relieved breath. “Glad to see you’re okay, too. I’d worried that perhaps you’d follow us and try to help. I’m glad you didn’t, ‘Thusa,” he said as he gave Aithusa’s horn a scratch.

She made a pleased noise, and Gwaine grinned.

“Are you a… a Dragonlord?” Leon breathed in disbelief.

“Oh, I’m not a Dragonlord,” Gwaine said lightly, rubbing Aithusa’s cheeks. “I’m just married to one.”

“Wait, married?” Elyan squeaked. “To whom?”

Gwaine looked up with a devilish grin. “To Merlin, I’ll have you know.”

Merlin?” Elyan squeaked again. “He said yes? To you?”

“He asked me, actually.”

Leon then looked up, his brow furled. “So does that make you a… a, uh, a Dragonlady?”

Percival snorted, before muttering his own title for Gwaine that Merlin would not have approved of Aithusa overhearing. Elyan burst out laughing.

Gwaine raised an eyebrow at Percival. “Better hope Aithusa doesn’t repeat that, otherwise Merlin will have your head. And that’s ‘Dragonconsort’ to you.”

“It sounds like you made that up.”

“I’ll have you know that I, in fact, did not make it up, and that I take my duties very seriously.”

“Duties? What-?”

But before Gwaine could get a chance to respond, Aithusa suddenly growled playfully and tackled Gwaine.

Gwaine made a startled noise, but then laughed as the two of them rolled around, completely undignified, in the dirt.

But within moments, Aithusa had wrestled Gwaine to the ground, her eyes shining in mischief and pride.

“She’s a feisty one,” Gwaine said from where Aithusa had him pinned, trying to jerk himself free. But then he let out a laugh and his head dropped back. “And a heavy one.”

 

~

 

A couple days passed. Arthur had initially been surprised to see Aithusa at the castle, but with a brief explanation to everyone and Merlin and Gwaine’s promise that she wouldn’t hurt anyone, she was given her own mattress in the corner of the room that Arthur had assigned to Merlin and Gwaine while they were in Camelot and allowed free reign to wander and explore the halls.

That was what she was doing now- staring out windows and scratching at the stones beneath her feet. The only building she’d ever been in was Hunith’s house- to see one made entirely of stone and glass was completely fascinating to her.

“Psst.”

Aithusa stopped where she was wandering around Camelot’s halls, cocking her head and listening. Was that a voice she heard?

It came again, a whisper. “Hey, Aithusa.”

Aithusa turned her head, and found one of the knights waving her over to a hallway.

She walked over, cocking her head. “You… Elyan?” she asked.

Elyan looked surprised, but then he grinned. “Yes, yes that’s right.

“Want to help me pull a prank on Gwaine?”

 

~

 

“Where are Merlin and Gwaine?” Arthur asked after returning from training one morning- the grueling exercise still weighing heavily on him. “I haven’t seen either of them all morning.”

While Arthur had gotten used to Merlin not being behind him every moment of the day, it was still strange to think that he was back at the castle, yet not at Arthur’s every beck and call anymore.

“They’re in their room, last I heard,” Gwen responded, not looking up from her book. “They’re probably preparing to leave.”

At this, Arthur froze, before turning to Gwen with a shocked look. “What do you mean leave?”

Gwen glanced up, her eyes wide. “Did they not tell you?” she asked, appalled shock on her face.

“Did they not tell me what?”

At this, Gwen let out an exasperated sigh and lowered the book to her lap. “They were planning to head back to the Druid camp tomorrow. They told me they planned to set out first thing in the morning-”

She barely managed to finish the sentence before Arthur had stormed out of the room.

 

~

 

“What do you mean you’re leaving!?” Arthur demanded while shoving his way into Gwaine and Merlin’s room.

Both the offending parties looked up at Arthur’s intrusion, bemused looks on their faces. They were both standing by their bed, looking like they were packing bags.

Aithusa, who was lounging on some piled up blankets in the corner of the room, lifted her head and cocked it at Arthur.

“Of course we’re leaving,” Merlin said, shoving what looked like a shirt in his bag. “We have lives back at the camp. We have friends there, duties to perform. We can’t just abandon that, Arthur.”

“B-but-” Arthur began eloquently. “You just got back.”

Merlin and Gwaine glanced at each other, before Merlin let out a sigh and walked over to Arthur. He put a hand to Arthur’s shoulder as he said, “I never said we’d be leaving forever. We just have some things we need to sort out first.”

“So you’ll be coming back then.”

Merlin hesitated at this, and Arthur blanched.

“Do you not know?”

“Nothing is set,” Merlin responded calmly. “But… it’d be hard to divide our lives between the camp and Camelot all the time. Yes, Camelot is… Camelot, but the camp is closer to my mother than here. And… well…” he trailed off.

“What is it, Merlin?”

Merlin looked up, his eyes betraying how he felt. “You haven’t said whether you’ll repeal the magic ban. Or… anything about it, really. I have magic- I am magic, Arthur. And if you’re not ready to accept it…” Merlin let out a sigh and rubbed his eyes. “You may accept me, Arthur, but what about the rest of my kind? What about the Druids? I can’t keep turning my back on them for you. Not after all that’s happened. I can’t, Arthur.”

Arthur’s eyes flicked between Merlin’s for a moment longer, before he glanced at Gwaine.

“Where he goes, I go,” Gwaine said simply, giving his whole stance in that one statement.

Arthur looked between the two of them before letting out a sigh and rubbing his eyes. “Just… give me a couple days,” Arthur asked. “Give me some time to think through things, then I’ll talk to you. Alright?”

Merlin blinked at Arthur, glanced at Gwaine, Aithusa, then turned back. He nodded. “Okay.”

 

~

 

The next day, Merlin followed Arthur through the hallways, half listening to Arthur’s rambling as he went on and on about things that had happened over the last year and a half while Merlin had been at the camp.

(Merlin guessed Arthur felt that he needed to inform Merlin of everything to make up for his banishment. Though Merlin was pretty sure there were better ways to go about doing that.)

Arthur hadn’t spoken with Merlin about what he was thinking- Merlin had no idea what Arthur’s plans were about what to do about the magic ban.

What do to about Merlin.

He was almost listening to Arthur talk about how a feast had gone terribly awry due to an incident with a goat, when Merlin heard a much more pleasant voice speak to him.

“Well, fancy meeting you here.”

Merlin stopped and turned with a smile already on his face.

(Arthur didn’t notice, still rambling as he headed down the hall.)

Gwaine was standing in one of the alcoves, leaning against the wall with his “roguish grin” on his face as he looked over Merlin.

(Gwaine’s words, not Merlin’s- though Merlin wasn’t exactly disinclined to agree.)

Merlin smirked, his expression matching Gwaine’s. “Gwaine. What brings you here?”

Gwaine shrugged, completely at ease. “Elyan wants to show me something on the training field, I’m heading there now, but I thought I’d see how an incredibly gorgeous man was doing first.”

“I don’t know- you’d have to tell me how you’re doing.”

“I’m glad you think so, Merlin, but I was referring to someone even more attractive than I,” before he leaned into to Merlin’s ear and whispered, voice low, “You.”

Merlin snorted suddenly, before burying his face in Gwaine’s shoulder as he laughed. He was terrible at keeping this flirting up for long. “You flatterer.”

“One of my best charms,” Gwaine responded lightly and Merlin leaned back with a soft smile. “Though, perhaps… we could do something tonight? Just you and I?” he asked, an eyebrow raised suggestively.

“I think that sounds wonderful, Gwaine,” he leaned in and whispered, “I’ll get Aithusa to stay with Gaius for the night.”

And Gwaine grinned. “Excellent.”

But then they heard a voice from down the hallway. Merlin! Stop flirting with Gwaine and get over here!”

Merlin rolled his eyes and let out a huff. “His pratiness calls,” he said to Gwaine. “I’ll see you tonight?”

Gwaine smirked. “I look forward to it.”

“Okay.” Merlin paused. “Should we kiss just to annoy Arthur?”

Gwaine’s smirk widened. “Absolutely.”

And with that, Merlin dipped Gwaine down, dramatically kissing him in the middle of the hallway.

He heard Arthur roll his eyes. “Oh, for the love of-”

They two of them straightened back to a stand, Merlin giggling slightly, and Gwaine’s eyes twinkling in amusement. Then Gwaine patted the side of Merlin’s neck. “See you tonight, love. Have fun with the prat,” he said, before heading off to go find Elyan.

 

~

 

“So why did you want me out here?” Gwaine asked, following Elyan across the training grounds and glancing around, confusion (or was that suspicion?) written on his face. They were currently by the stacked hay bales, all of which were acting as backdrops for the archery targets.

And also as cover for an ambush.

Not that Gwaine knew that.

“Do you remember what you did, just before you got banished?” Elyan asked, turning to Gwaine with a smile.

Gwaine’s brow furled. “… yelled at Arthur?”

“No,” Elyan scoffed. “I meant before that. What you did in my room.”

Gwaine looked at Elyan for a moment longer, still very confused, but then his eyes widened in realization. “Oh shi-”

Elyan grinned devilishly, before giving a single word shout. “Now!”

And with that, Leon and Percival leapt from behind the hay bale targets, each with a large bucket of water in their hands, and they both dumped all of the contents on Gwaine.

Gwaine spluttered for a moment, before laughing as he pushed his now soaking wet hair from his eyes. “Alright, can’t be mad at you for that one.”

“Oh you thought we were done?” Elyan asked lightly, still grinning.

Gwaine gave him another confused look, but before he could say anything, he was suddenly drenched with another bucket from the sky.

Elyan burst out laughing as Gwaine looked up. “Aithusa, you traitor,” Gwaine said, though without any heat.

Aithusa chirped in amusement from where she was flying above the four knights, her eyes glinting mischievously.

“Oh sure, laugh,” Gwaine said, but still smirking all the same. “I’ll just dry out my clothes on your bed then, how about that?”

Aithusa’s eyes widened in horror, before she suddenly turned in the sky and zoomed off towards the castle, presumably to protect her bed from an assault of wet clothing.

Gwaine laughed. “I don’t think she liked that idea much.” He then glanced at Percival and raised an eyebrow. “Should you really be walking, big man?”

Percival shrugged, before leaning against the hay bale. “Leon helped me get out here. I couldn’t refuse the chance to help Elyan.”

“Alright, fair. Now one of you better help him back as well because I don’t think you want to risk him slipping if he comes with me.”

Chapter Text

So a couple days did pass from when Merlin agreed to stay to allow Arthur time to think. Merlin and Gwaine stayed in Camelot, catching up with their old friends. Gwaine still stubbornly hadn’t told the rest of the knights where he had been (Merlin agreeing with exasperated amusement not to tell them either), and was endlessly entertained by Elyan’s guesses- which only got further and further from the mark with each one.

Were you in Olaf’s lands?”

“Pfft, no. Too cold.”

Arthur had spent a lot of time reading, and even more thinking over how best to deal with the situation at hand.

A sorcerer. Living openly in Camelot.

The ban would have to be repealed, of course. But completely and totally, or just a partial one?

What would be Merlin’s role? Advisor? Back to his manservant (mixed emotions running through him at the thought of having Merlin back at his side, but needing to demote George after a year and a half of impeccable service)?

And there was the issue of Ealdor needing a new lord…

It was with these thoughts in mind that Arthur went to go find Merlin, thinking it was finally time they discuss this.

It was also time for a bit of revenge.

“Rise and shine, you two!” Arthur began cheerily, pulling back the curtains in Merlin and Gwaine’s room and flooding the room with almost-noon sunlight.

Apparently neither of them had a penchant for getting up early if given the chance to sleep in.

He heard groaning from the bed, followed by a drowsy and irritated voice saying, “Gwaine, I thought you said you locked the door.”

“I did, love,” an equally tired and annoyed voice responded. “He must have a key.”

“I do have a key, as a matter of fact,” Arthur said lightly. “This is my castle, after all.”

The two of them groaned once more, but made no move to get up.

“Come on, you two,” Arthur huffed. “Merlin, I have things I need to talk to you about.”

Merlin groaned in annoyance, and lifted a hand-

- only to wave it and shut the window curtain, plunging the room into darkness once more.

Arthur heard Gwaine snort. “Good job, love.”

“Thanks.”

Arthur huffed, before lifting and arm and simply opening the curtain again.

To which Merlin just closed it once more.

The third time, Arthur held it open.

He felt Merlin’s magic trying to close it once more, and Arthur stubbornly held it open- only sparing a moment to think about how strange it was that he was seeing such obvious use of magic (and for such a petty purpose as to sleep in) without it fazing him- but eventually Merlin just gave up and the magical pull on the curtain disappeared.

From the bed, Arthur heard Merlin sigh. “Fine, I’ll get up, you prat.”

Merlin sat up suddenly then, staring groggily at Arthur in clear annoyance.

But then Arthur was taken aback.

He’d seen Merlin shirtless before, certainly, but there was something new. Something he never expected to see.

A triskele tattoo on the right side of Merlin’s chest, just over his heart.

Arthur must have been staring, because Merlin’s brow furled in- admittedly tired- confusion. “Arthur? Everything alright?”

“I, uh, fine, Merlin. I’ll just, umm, leave you to get dressed.”

Merlin blinked at him, before nodding. “Yeah, alright,” and moving to get up.

But Arthur was out of the room before Merlin’s feet had even touched the floor.

 

~

 

Merlin blinked at the door, hearing Arthur’s footsteps retreating down the hallway. “He left.”

“Then come back to bed,” Gwaine said, not opening his eyes and still not having moved to get up. “If he complains you can say it’s his fault for leaving after saying he needed to talk to you.”

Merlin thought for a moment, but the shrugged. “Yeah, alright.” And with a soft laugh, rejoined his husband under the covers.

“You’re a bad influence on me, Gwaine.”

“Perhaps, but you love me.”

“Mmm, I do,” Merlin murmured, moving closer and curling into Gwaine’s side. He smiled. “I really do.”

 

~

 

“I knew he’d spent time there, Guinevere, but I didn’t actually think he’d joined them,” Arthur said to her.

They were alone in his chambers, Gwen sitting and listening in a chair while Arthur paced the floor in front of her. He had immediately found her after stopping by Merlin, desperate and asking her to come speak with him.

“… why does this bother you?” she asked.

“Well,” Arthur sighed. “I’d been planning to offer him a position- give him Ealdor and make him a lord. But now…”

“Yes?”

Arthur gestured vaguely. “I can’t ask him that, Guinevere. If he’d only been staying at the camp, things would be different. But I just found out that he’s a part of it. I can’t ask him to abandon that. Abandon them.” Arthur let out a sigh. “I guess that’s what he meant by having lives there.”

“Arthur, dear, they’d been living there for over a year, of course they couldn’t just drop it for you.”

I know that. I just-” Arthur stopped then before leaning against his desk as he rubbed his eyes. “The situation is just… more complicated than I had naively hoped it was.”

He let out a sigh then and lowered his hand.

Gwen was silent for a moment, before she stood and crossed the room.

She took Arthur’s hand in hers. And Arthur smiled softly, glad that this was the woman he’d soon be marrying. “What are you thinking now?”

“That… I can’t ask him to stay like I thought. That it’d be unfair of me to ask him to leave the community he’d made his home.”

“Sometimes there are more options than you think,” Gwen said, pulling Arthur’s attention to her. “You always jump to the extremes, Arthur. Druids have always been nomadic, haven’t they? Perhaps they’ll travel near here, and Merlin can stay for that while. While not permanently, you won’t be separated forever.”

Arthur shook his head. “This group isn’t been nomadic though- they prefer to stay in a single place.  Merlin told me the only time they've moved was when-” and then Arthur’s eyes widened in realization. His face lit up. “That’s it!”

He suddenly rounded his table, pulled out a piece of paper, and began to write furiously.

“Arthur?”

Arthur looked up at Gwen. He smiled. “There are more options.”

With that, he glanced at what he had written, grimaced slightly- “Gonna have to rewrite that”- before standing and rounding the table to Gwen once more.

He leaned in and kissed her quickly, his gratefulness shining through. “Thank you, Gwen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a warlock I need to talk to.”

 

~

 

Merlin made his way to Arthur’s study that afternoon, wondering why Arthur hadn’t come to find him after he’d so obviously gotten up late that morning.

He nodded to the guards there, who didn’t even try to stop him when Merlin simply barged into Arthur’s room without even bothering to knock.

Some things never change.

“So, you come to my room, wake Gwaine and I up, and then you don’t stay to talk about whatever it was you wanted to talk about?”

Arthur let out a sigh from where he was sitting behind his desk. “I thought I had a solution, but then I was presented with new information, and had to take more time to think.”

Merlin blinked. “More information? What could you have possibly learned?”

Arthur indicated at Merlin with his head. “About that tattoo on your chest.”

Merlin looked confused for a moment, but then his eyes widened. “Oh,” he murmured in realization. “You didn’t know about that.”

“I did not.” Arthur let out a sigh. “Can I ask what it means?”

“It means… that I’m a member of their group. That I belong. It essentially means that I’m a Druid, Arthur.”

“So you consider yourself one of them, then.”

“Well, I don’t make a big deal of it, but yeah, I do.”

Arthur let out a sigh. “I thought so.” And with that, he looked up, expression resolved. “You’re right, Merlin, I cannot ask you to turn your back on the people who have sheltered you, people you are loyal to, and who have supported you when I did not. So I’m not going to.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that I am not going to ask you to return after you leave. I want you to decide for yourself if you return or not.”

Merlin blinked in surprise, and opened his mouth to speak.

But Arthur held up a hand, silencing him.

“But, I do ask that you do something for me.”

When Arthur didn’t continue immediately, Merlin prompted him. “Which is?”

Arthur grabbed a piece of parchment that had been written on from his desk on and held it out to Merlin.

Merlin took it, brows furled in confusion, and he began to read.

“I thought about what you said, back at the camp,” Arthur said, pulling Merlin’s attention back up to him. “How the Druids used to live in Camelot, before my father forced them to leave.”

Merlin nodded. “Yes.”

“I want you to ask them to return.”

Merlin jolted in surprise, but Arthur continued before Merlin could say anything. “It was unfair for my father to persecute them like he did, and I want to make reparations with them. They trust you, Merlin. And I want you to let them know that they are welcome to return if they so wish. I’ll even send people- carpenters, farmers, whatever they need- to help them rebuild if needed.”

Merlin blinked at Arthur in stunned surprise, slowly lowering himself to a chair as he continued to stare in disbelief. He glanced down at the paper to skim it over once more, eyes still wide, but then back up at Arthur. “I-I don’t know what they’ll say.”

Arthur sighed, and nodded in understanding. “I will not force them to accept. But I want them to know that the offer is there, if they so wish to take it.”

Merlin leaned back in the chair, running a hand through his hair. “This is a big deal, Arthur. You do realize that this is a huge step?”

“I do. But I believe it is one that must be taken.”

“What if they say no?”

“Then I will leave them alone, and I will leave the decision to you if you and Gwaine will return to Camelot or not. It’s as simple as that.”

Arthur paused once more, before asking, “When do you plan to leave?”

Merlin let out a breath between his lips. “We’re ready whenever. I didn’t tell you before because… I thought you’d try to stop us from leaving.”

“I probably would have,” Arthur conceded, “Selfish as it would have been.” He sighed then. “I already asked you to stay longer. So I will not keep you any more.”

“Then we’ll probably set out tomorrow.”

Arthur nodded. “Alright. Tomorrow then.”

 

~

 

So tomorrow did come, Arthur finding himself in the courtyard with Gwen, Gaius, and his most trusted knights, all readying themselves to say farewell to Merlin and Gwaine.

For none of them knew how long it would be until they would see them again.

Merlin was by the bottom of the stairs, where a small crowd had gathered, and Gwaine was by the borrowed cart, making sure Gringolet was securely strapped in, and that Aithusa was comfortable in the back.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Gaius said, embracing his charge. “Make sure you do come back to visit.”

Merlin laughed as he leaned back. “Now that I won’t be arrested on sight, I’ll be sure to, Gaius.”

Gaius smiled. “I’m glad.” He ruffled Merlin’s hair with a fond smile, before stepping back.

Gwen immediately stepped in to fill the empty space, she too embracing Merlin in a hug. “I’ll miss you.”

“You too, Gwen,” Merlin said. “At least this time I got to say good-bye.”

Much to Arthur’s relief, Merlin didn’t notice his flinch.

Or maybe he did, because he glanced over at Arthur a moment later. He gave Gwen a last smile, patted her arm, before taking a step and standing in front of Arthur.

Merlin smiled, though it seemed a bit forced. “I suppose this is good-bye for now.”

Arthur nodded. “I guess so.”

Merlin’s smile widened for a bit, before he chewed his lip for a moment. But then he laughed slightly. “So similar and so different. I’m still leaving- with Gringolet and Gwaine, but…” then he looked up with a wry smile. “You don’t want me to leave.”

“No, I don’t. But I don’t want to force you to stay if you truly do not wish it.”

Merlin nodded, before he met Arthur’s eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “You don’t know how much that means to me.”

Arthur nodded, tightly, his fingers twitching.

Merlin noticed, and cocked his head. “Arthur? Everything alright?”

And Arthur huffed. Oh for the love of-” Before Arthur lunged forward and hugged Merlin.

Merlin didn’t move for a moment, plainly surprised, before he returned the hug with a pat to Arthur’s back. “So now you hug me, huh? When you don’t know if you’ll see me again?”

“Merlin?”

“Shut up?”

“Shut up.”

Merlin laughed, before leaning back, his eyes shining.

Arthur clapped a hand to his shoulder once more, before pointing an accusing finger at him. “You better visit, Merlin. And you better be here for my wedding.”

Merlin smiled and nodded. “I will.”

It was that moment that Gwaine walked up to the group.

“You ready, Merlin? Tristan and Isolde probably want their cart back, after all.”

Merlin nodded, before he turned to the cart. Gwaine climbed in first, before holding out a hand and pulling Merlin up next to him.

The two of them glanced at their supplies, and satisfied that they had everything, Gwaine flicked Gringolet’s reins, and the cart began to rumble across the courtyard.

It was then that Percival leaned over to Elyan and asked, “Did he ever tell you where they went?”

Elyan then stiffened, glanced at Percival with wide-eyes, before suddenly running forward towards the cart.

“Gwaine! Where did you go?!”

Gwaine looked over his shoulder, and yelled back three words. “A Druid camp!”

“… did he just say a Druid camp?”

But a moment later, the two figures had left the clearing, and the rumble of the cart faded into the ambient noise of the lower market, until Arthur couldn’t hear it anymore.

“They’ll come back,” Gwen said, coming up by Arthur and lightly rubbing his arm. “Even if not permanently, they’ll visit.”

Arthur glanced at Gwen, and gave her a small smile, before turning back forward.  "I hope so, Gwen.

"I hope so."

 

~

 

“My lord!”

Arthur turned from where he had been watching Percival and Elyan bout- the two of them finally recovered enough from their imprisonment to resume training with Leon and the other knights after several long days of rest and recuperation- to see a messenger running up to him.

Arthur turned upon the messenger’s approach. “Yes?”

The messenger held out a letter. “For you. Sent by a ‘Merlin Emrys.’”

Arthur’s eyes widened for a split moment, but he took the note with a nod and without the slightest bit of hesitation. “Thank you.”

And with that, the messenger bowed, before turning and running off, presumably to continue delivering letters.

Arthur glanced down, and immediately laughed. On the front, scrawled in a familiar handwriting, the words To the Prat of Camelot were written.

But with a fond shake of his head, Arthur turned over the letter and broke the seal (a green wax seal that had been emblazoned with a triskele, he noted in the back of his mind) and unfolded it.

The note only had two short sentences, but they brought a wide smile to Arthur’s face all the same.

 

They said yes, Arthur.

We’re coming home.

Chapter Text

A couple weeks passed since Merlin had sent Arthur the note saying that the Druids were returning to Camelot. In the time between, he and Merlin had been corresponding, making plans on how best for the Druids to adjust for life back in Camelot and just giving each other general updates.

(The first time Aithusa had arrived carrying a letter, it had taken Percival, Elyan, and Leon to assure the guards that she didn’t mean any harm. Since then, they gave her a small red band to wear around her wing, Camelot red with gold embroidery, the standard mark of a messenger. Aithusa seemed very happy with this addition.)

And after a year and a half of hearing nothing, Arthur didn’t mind how wordy Merlin could be when he sent his letters.

The Druids had politely turned down the offer for Arthur to send tradespeople to help them rebuild, but Merlin (and Gwaine, apparently, in the brief paragraphs that had notably lesser quality of writing) had assured him that the Druids were doing just fine with their own efforts, and soon they would no longer be living in a camp, but a small village.

According to Merlin’s letters, the Druids had elected to call this new settlement Edstaðelung, an old word signifying new beginnings. A fresh start.

Arthur couldn’t think of any more fitting.

While there was still a ways to go to repair the relationship between the Druids and Camelot’s nobility, it was a significant step forward and Arthur was glad for it.

In two weeks time, Arthur, Gwen, and any one else he so chose would be allowed to come and attend a ceremony: a ceremony to establish the alliance between the Druids and Camelot.

And, finally, after weeks fraught with impatience, the time had come.

So with that, Arthur, Gwen, Leon, Percival, Elyan, and Gaius all set out for Edstaðelung. They found it deep in the forest just outside the city, the location still fairly unknown to everyone else, and the Druids wishing to keep it that way until they were set up.

There was a young Druid woman waiting at the entrance to the village, standing calmly and shrouded in blue robes.

“Welcome to Edstaðelung. I am Fidelma,” she said with a slight bow when they were close enough. “I am to be your guide this evening.”

“Where are Merlin and Gwaine? Shouldn’t they be here?” Arthur asked, glancing around for any sign of the two of them and wondering why they weren’t at the entrance to greet them themselves.

“They are preparing for the ritual,” Fidelma responded simply. “But Lord Emrys asked me specifically if it helps put you more at ease.”

“Why you?” Arthur asked.

Fidelma smiled. “I am training to be the next archdruid after Iseldir passes from this world to the next. And I was the one who found him that first night after he and Sir Gwaine left Camelot.” But without saying anything further, she turned. “If you will follow me, please.”

They began to walk through the small village. There were a handful of buildings, along with what looked like a meeting house in the center.

But, eerily, the town seemed to be completely empty.

“Where is everyone?” Elyan asked, glancing around.

“Ahead,” Fidelma answered. “They are already at the clearing for the ceremony, along with your friends.”

“And how is everything coming?” Gwen asked. “Are you having any problems?”

“We’re mostly set up,” Fidelma responded. “There are a couple things we still need to do- like a garden and other more permanent things- but otherwise we’re almost finished. It shouldn’t be too long before we’re all set.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

Fidelma turned and smiled over her shoulder. “I am too. I’ve never… had a house before. I was born after the Terrible Purge, so it will take some time to adjust, I imagine. But we’re all very excited. The little ones seem a little confused about no longer needing to live in tents, but otherwise everyone seems to be adjusting well.”

She led them out the other end of the village and they continued walking through untouched forest for a little bit, but gradually Arthur could hear voices coming from up ahead- from a clearing that was spilling light into the surrounding forest.

When they reached it, in the middle of the clearing Arthur could see a pile of kindling, appearing to be set up for a fire, but it was not lit- instead small floating lights drifting around the clearing providing light in the darkness. There was a table in front of the pile of wood and on it Arthur could see a quill and a bottle of ink.

But what Arthur found the most shocking, was the number of Druids found in the clearing. Edstaðelung had been a small town, designed for a small population, but Arthur could see about three times his highest estimate in the clearing.

(Less surprising was the white dragon lounging at the other end of the clearing.)

He must have been gaping, because Gwen nudged him with her elbow. “If you have a question, ask it,” she hissed while tilting her head at Fidelma when Arthur had given her a questioning look.

“Ah, yes.” Arthur cleared his throat. “Fidelma?”

She turned. “Yes?”

“Why are there-” he gestured around- “So many of you? Your town didn’t look like it could hold this many people.”

Fidelma laughed. “Our fellow camps are in attendance too. We had two sibling camps who we invited to attend as well.”

Arthur’s eyebrows went up, but then he nodded. “I see.”

Fidelma turned and led them part way along the edge, until she stopped. “Please sit,” Fidelma said, gesturing to a grouping of pillows.

Gwen and Arthur sat in front, Percival, Elyan, and Leon occupying the pillows directly behind them.

“May I have a chair?” Gaius asked respectfully. “I’m afraid I can’t sit on the ground like that.”

Fidelma nodded, a warm smile on her face. “I’ll go grab that,” she said, before heading off.

She returned a minute or so later, holding a stool over her head as she wove through the other Druids, before setting it down behind the rest of the group. Gaius sat with a grateful nod, letting out a breath as he did so.

Fidelma then sat next to Arthur, and she looked around at the group. “If you have any questions during the ceremony, I will be here to answer them.”

“What exactly is going to happen?” Arthur asked

“There will be a dance first,” Fidelma answered, “Then Iseldir will speak for a little bit, and then I believe Emrys will arrive with the necessary supplies for the signing.”

Arthur nodded. As Percival asked a question about the floating lights, Arthur glanced around the clearing, looking around at all the Druids who were all sitting around the edge of the clearing as well, their conversations blending into low white noise that mixed with the sounds of the forest. Many of them were draped in robes- others had green wreathes in their hair. What was more shocking that that, Arthur thought, was that many more had blue markings painted on them- spirals and swirls heading up and down their arms, standing out stark against their skin.

“It should be about to begin,” Fidelma said suddenly, and Arthur glanced over to see her squinting at the stars through the trees. “It’s nearly time.”

As if on cue, a sudden hush fell across the clearing, all conversation between the Druids coming to a stop. Nothing moved for a moment, and Arthur glanced around, wondering what was happening.

But then, without another spoken word, about a dozen Druids (the ones Arthur had noticed had the painted swirls on their arms) stood silently and walked towards the center of the clearing, before circling the pile of wood and taking up positions- bowing slightly, with one arm out to the side.

There will be a dance first.”

A moment of quiet, and no one moved, but then one of the Druids began to sing, and the Druids around the fire began to move.

The dance started slow: only moving arms with an occasional step. But then more Druids joined with singing, drums were added, and the song picked up in speed. And with it, so did the Druids’ movements, their weaving becoming more complicated and elaborate.

It was mesmerizing: the Druids appeared to be in perfect sync, the robes around them flowing in the air as they spun and danced and wove their way around each other and the pile in the middle.

(In the back of his mind, Arthur thought that it would make a brilliant team work exercise for the knights.)

The song built, and Arthur could tell that it was soon reaching its climax. Sure enough, the Druids all went to the edges, and looked like they were all preparing to bow- perhaps to end the song.

But then they all turned and rushed towards the wood, and raising their arms

And the wood lit, a bright and tall tower of flame erupting from the pile just as the song reached its final note.

Arthur leaned back in surprise, and next to him he felt Gwen start. But then the tower lessened, now only having a small fire in the middle.

The Druids who hadn’t been dancing began to cheer, and Arthur heard Gwen let out a relieved laugh next to him. He turned to her, gave her a small smile before squeezing her hand.

Arthur turned back as the cheering died down, to see the archdruid, Iseldir, standing off to the side.

Iseldir made his way to the center with a smile on his face. “We are gathered here today to celebrate a momentous and joyous occasion. Today, after many long years, we have returned to our home, and with our return we bring hope of a bright future- of a peaceful existence once more with the kingdom of Camelot and with her king,” he said with a nod at Arthur, who nodded once in return.

Iseldir gave a small smile, before turning back to the crowd. “Then, for the love of all who gather, let the ritual begin.”

At this, Iseldir took in a breath, before raising his arms and turning his head to the sky. “Gods, Spirits, Ancestors, I call upon you this night to bless this place, to purify it and make it whole, in honor of the ceremony we perform here this night. So say I.”

A murmur of “So say I,” followed through the clearing from the Druids. Iseldir lowered his hands, and stepped back. “Lord Emrys?” he asked.

And from a gap in the trees to the side, stepped Merlin.

He was wearing deep blue robes, his sleeves reaching to his wrists and opening wide. A green wreath was in his hair, and in his hand was still the same staff that he had been using when he rescued Arthur that day, and during the retaking of Camelot. He took another step, and Arthur saw that he was barefoot as well, his pale skin stark against the dark grass of the clearing.

Another man followed Merlin into the clearing, and it wasn’t until after Gwen let in a small gasp of surprise that Arthur recognized who it was: Gwaine.

Gwaine was shirtless, and all across his exposed skin were spirals and swirls that had been painted on with woad dye, including some on his face. In his hair was a green wreath, much like Merlin’s own, and in his hands was a small bowl that he was delicately holding.

On Gwaine’s chest, just over his heart, was a handprint in the same blue dye. Arthur stared at it, trying to figure out how Gwaine could have possibly gotten that mark on himself- it was too flat to have been made without a considerable amount of twisting on the part of Gwaine’s arm, and he couldn’t think of how Gwaine could have gotten it there.

But, something Arthur didn’t expect to see at all, was a black triskele tattoo located on Gwaine’s right hip. He knew for certain that that tattoo hadn’t been there when Merlin and Gwaine had left Camelot a year and a half ago.

“It means… that I’m a member of their group. That I belong. It essentially means that I’m a Druid, Arthur.”

Did that mean Gwaine was now a Druid as well?

Image description: a watercolor painting of Gwaine.  He is shirtless, but with brown trousers and blue patterns painted across his skin, with a blue handprint on the left side of his chest.  He is wearing a necklace with a charm, carrying a gray bowl, and has a crown of leaves in his hair.  He is smiling.  End description.

Two more Druids followed Merlin in, each holding bowls as well and with the swirls drawn onto their skin.

Merlin headed to the table, and Gwaine and the other two Druids stood behind, their silhouettes dark against the fire behind them.

Without a word, Merlin turned to one of the Druids and grabbed the bowl from their hand, before moving back to the table. He dipped his fingers into the bowl- Arthur realizing it was filled with water- before flicking the water over the table.

Arthur leaned over to Fidelma and asked softly, “What is he doing?”

“He’s sanctifying the tools,” Fidelma whispered in response. “Giving them a little magical purity, if you will.”

Merlin set the bowl aside, and put his hands over the tools before shutting his eyes for a moment. They opened, and Arthur saw a flash of gold in them.

But then Merlin picked the bowl up, turned back to the Druids behind him, and returned the bowl to the Druid he had originally taking it from, before turning to Gwaine.

Arthur finally got the answer to how Gwaine got the handprint on his chest when Merlin put a palm to Gwaine’s chest and covered the handprint mark perfectly. The two of them shared a quick smile- barely noticeable to those who didn’t know Merlin and Gwaine- as Merlin took the bowl from Gwaine’s hands.

Merlin walked back to the table- Gwaine taking a step back and rejoining the rest of the Druids at the side- placed the bowl he had at the side, and repeated the process he had done before, except this time with a bowl filled with earth.

He returned the bowl to Gwaine, and grabbed the third bowl- this one filled with incense- before instead waving the quill through the smoke coming from inside.

And with that, Merlin returned the bowl once more, before stepping back to the table and picking up the quill.

He looked over to them.

“Arthur, Gwen, if you will come up here, please.”

Arthur gave Gwen a small glance, before he stood and held out his hands to pull Gwen to her feet. Together the two of them walked forward to the table, Merlin standing behind with his hands clasped in front of him.

“Are you ready, my lord and lady?”

“We are,” they answered together.

Merlin gave them a small smile, before nodding. He asked as he began to lay out the scroll. “With this agreement, do you promise to protect all those within your borders?”

“We do.”

“Do you promise to uphold this to the best of your ability?”

“We do.”

“And, finally, do you promise that this will extend to those with magic as well? To the Druids who now dwell within your land? That you will revoke the magic ban and allow those who have magic to live their lives peacefully, no longer with fear of persecution from the crown?” Merlin asked, lifting his gaze and giving Arthur a very pointed and meaningful look.

Arthur took in a deep breath, before lifting his head and looking around at every single Druid in attendance. “As I sit on the throne of Camelot, you will get the protection, the status, and the respect, that you deserve. No more shall you be persecuted, and you will be free to live as you are.” He turned back to Merlin, meeting his eyes intently. “This, as King of Camelot, I swear.”

Merlin smiled briefly at Arthur, but then he looked to Gwen, and Gwen nodded with a smile. “And as the future Queen of Camelot, I swear as well.”

Merlin didn’t move for a moment, but then he smiled. “Then sign, and seal that promise,” he said, holding out the quill to Arthur.

Arthur took it from Merlin’s hand with a slight quirk of the lips, before bending to the parchment. His eyes flicked over the words once more, out of habit more than anything, but he trusted Merlin enough to know he would find nothing changed (Merlin having sent a copy of the finalized agreement a few days before), and once he did, he signed the bottom with a flourish.

He handed the quill to Guinevere, and she too took it and signed the bottom, before smiling at Merlin and handing the quill back to him.

Merlin took it, his eyes shining, before placing it to the side. He picked up the parchment, flicked it to straighten it, and took in a breath while shutting his eyes.

They flashed gold as he opened them, before nodding in satisfaction.

“Did you enchant it?” Arthur asked, surprised. No one had said anything-

Merlin laughed. “No, you clotpole- I was drying the ink.”

And Arthur laughed too as Merlin began to roll up the parchment. “I should keep you around more often, Merlin.”

Merlin smirked, before grabbing a ribbon from the table and tying it around the parchment. And with that, he handed it to Arthur, smiling. “The alliance is sealed.”

Arthur took it with a nod, and intertwined his fingers with Gwen’s. “Thank you, Merlin.”

Merlin smiled, before lifting his head and addressing the gathered crowd.

“By the power of Land, Sea, and Sky, this rite is done, so say I!”

A sudden cry of “So say I!” reverberated loudly through the clearing from the rest of the Druids, and Arthur started slightly, and noticed Gwen jump next to him, but then she laughed again, but it was soon overlaid by the sound of cheering Druids and the roar of a dragon.

Merlin smiled widely- unable to contain himself, it would seem- but then a moment later he had turned backwards, and had embraced Gwaine with a joyous laugh. Before leaning back and rapidly pressing his smile to Gwaine’s in a kiss.

Gwaine laughed and smiled widely as well, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s torso and spinning with Merlin in his arms. But then he stopped and held Merlin to him, pressing his face to Merlin’s neck.

Merlin let out another noise then- maybe a sob or a laugh, and he smiled, eyes filled with tears of joy.

I’m free, Gwaine. I’m free.”

 

~

 

The Druids who had been involved in the ceremony quickly filed out after that- Merlin and Gwaine with them with a promise that they would return soon. And with that, Arthur nodded, before going and rejoining the others at their pillows.  Fidelma had left, wanting to join her camp for the celebration, leaving only those who Arthur had traveled with in their small group.

Gaius leaned forward and put a hand to Arthur’s shoulder, after the king had sat down. Arthur glanced back, and Gaius gave him a watery smile. “Thank you, Arthur,” he said, voice laced with more gratitude than he had ever heard.

And Arthur’s throat caught. “You’re welcome,” he said once he found his voice again.

“There’s Gwaine,” Percival said, drawing Arthur’s attention.

Gwaine had walked back into the clearing, Aithusa perking up and walking next to him. His skin still bore the woad swirls, Gwaine evidently not having made any effort to clean them off. He said a couple things to another Druid for a moment, before stepping away and making his way over to Arthur and the others.

“So, what’d you think?” Gwaine asked cheerily as he sat next to the group and flicked his hair from his face, Aithusa sitting behind and curling herself up with her snout under her tail, her eyes shut.

It was a bit too late for her to be up, apparently.

“It was lovely,” Gwen said honestly with a smile. “Very well done.”

Gwaine smiled, before leaning back on his hands. “Merlin planned the whole thing himself, actually. He spent a lot of time trying to make sure it was perfect. I think he succeeded, don’t you?”

“What I want to know,” Elyan began, “Is what is with those blue markings.”

“Do you like them?” Gwaine responded with a grin. “I’m quite fond of them myself.”

“How do they not get over everything?” Leon asked, warily eyeing where Gwaine was sitting.

“Merlin enchanted it so it wouldn’t stain,” Gwaine responded. “We learned that the hard way.”

“Where is Merlin, anyway?” Arthur asked, glancing at the spot Gwaine had entered.

“He’ll be a little longer,” Gwaine responded. “Those robes he was wearing are some of the nicer ones the Druids have; he’s probably changing into something else.”

Arthur nodded in understanding. “Understandable- blue dye is expensive.”

Gwaine tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Not wrong there.”

“Where’d you get that crown, Gwaine?” Leon asked.

Gwaine smiled, before turning and looking across the clearing. He nodded his head to indicate across. “Do you see those two kids?” Arthur glanced, and saw Tadg and Dornoll sitting by a tree, playing with a loop of string that was woven through Tadg’s fingers. “The girl made it for me.”

Gwen smiled warmly, glancing over. “How sweet.”

Gwaine smiled. “Almost makes the scar worth it.”

At this, Gwen’s face fell. “Scar?”

“Yep,” Gwaine said, sitting, up and pulling his skin to show the scar- ragged and across his lower right stomach.

Gwen inhaled sharply, and Leon winced in sympathy.

“Is that the stab wound that you nearly died from, Gwaine?” Gaius asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Ah,” Gwaine said with a smirk. “I see Merlin told you about that.”

“‘Nearly died?’” Arthur guffawed.

“Yep,” Gwaine said again. “If it weren’t for Merlin’s magic, well,” he shrugged, completely nonchalant, “I wouldn’t be here anymore.”

“Merlin’s magic saved you?” Percival breathed, his eyes wide.

Gwaine’s smile became more sober, and he nodded softly. “It did.”

“Well, what’s going on here?”

The group all turned to see Merlin walking over, dressed in much more modest robes than he had been during the ceremony- now a light brown instead of a royal blue, but still with the leaf crown in his hair.

“Just discussing how wonderful you were, love,” Gwaine answered happily while Merlin sat- patting Aithusa's head and the dragon rumbling slightly. They shared a quick kiss, before turning back to the group, Merlin leaning against Gwaine’s shoulder and looking completely at peace.

Gwaine took one arm and wrapped it around Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin grabbed Gwaine’s hand, intertwining his fingers with Gwaine’s.

“How long do you plan to keep wearing those?” Arthur asked, looking over Gwaine’s markings.

“I dunno. Maybe a week?”

“Gwaine,” Merlin responded, “If you’re not going to bathe for a week, I’m going to make you sleep outside.”

Gwaine frowned playfully at this, before smirking. “Maybe I want to sleep outside.”

“Then we won’t have an issue, will we?”

The group continued speaking long into the night, laughing and sharing stories, much how they would have done had this been just a night at the castle after a feast.

And with his hand in Gwen’s, and the group all finally reunited, Arthur found himself smiling without even meaning to.

The clearing slowly emptied of people, until it was just their group- the people closest to Arthur, who he could be himself around.

He didn’t know how long it had been since he had felt that at peace.

But, at some point, each of them began to feel the lateness of the hour, and Merlin let out a sigh, before glancing to Arthur. “Should we retire for the night?”

Arthur nodded. “We should.” And he stood, holding out his hands to help Gwen to her feet.

And with that, the group slowly made their way back to Edstaðelung (Aithusa begrudgingly waking up and trailing behind the group, her tail dragging through the dirt as she tried not to fall asleep on her feet, and Merlin needing to coax her along with small murmurs), before heading to Merlin and Gwaine’s house (the two of them having their own in the town) and entered.

It was small, but cozy, with two rooms- a main room, and a smaller one in the back to act as Merlin and Gwaine (and Aithusa’s) bedchambers.

Some mattresses had been set up in the main room, scattered across the floor with woolen blankets folded on the end of each.

While slightly primitive, none could deny that they’d had worse sleeping arrangements.

“Take your pick,” Merlin said, waving vaguely. “There should be enough that you don’t have to share-” but then he glanced at Arthur and Gwen with an amused eyebrow raised- “unless you want to.”

Arthur gave Merlin a retaliatory shove. And Merlin only laughed.

“You’re one to talk,” Arthur said. “Blatantly sharing a bed with Gwaine.”

“We’re married, Arthur,” Merlin retorted. “I assure you we’ve done worse things together.”

And Arthur guffawed while everyone else laughed, Gwaine’s by far the loudest.

 

~

 

Arthur was woken the next morning by the sound of someone snoring.

For a terrible, fearful moment, Arthur thought it was Gwen he was hearing, but then he realized that the voice was too deep to be her.

He pried his eyes open and lifted his head, staring over Gwen’s sleeping form to see Leon on his back, mouth ajar, and his chest moving in time with each snore.

Ah.

Arthur simply huffed, before shaking his head with a roll of his eyes.

Electing instead to simply get an early start on his day, Arthur stood up, quietly, and stretched his hands above his head, before glancing to the side to the door to Merlin and Gwaine’s room.

Their door was ajar, and Arthur couldn’t help but glance in.

Merlin and Gwaine weren’t there. Huh.

Neither was Aithusa- the pile of blankets in the corner missing their scaled occupant.

He blinked, before silently making his way through the house and into the town.

Edstaðelung was silent with the morning, no one out with the early hour, and Arthur walked through the small town without encountering anyone, before crossing the threshold into the woods and following the terrain upward.

He had a fairly good idea where Merlin might be.

Arthur wound his way through the forest, finding his way to a ridge he knew was nearby- a ridge that could overlook the trees, and provided a perfect view of the sunrise.

And, sure enough, when he reached it, he could see two figures- a black haired one and a brown haired one sitting and watching the sky lighten, and their low voices carrying out through the air.

“I thought I might find you out here.”

Merlin and Gwaine both turned from where they had been sitting to see Arthur approaching. Gwaine’s markings had been cleaned, Arthur noticed, both of them now just wearing simple linen clothes. Merlin raised an amused eyebrow. “You’re up early.”

“Leon started snoring,” Arthur responded, sitting down next to his friend. “Decided to just get an early start on the day.”

“How’d you know we’d be here?”

“Merlin, we spent five years practically glued to each other’s side. Like it or not, I have a way of predicting what you’ll do. And I figured Gwaine would simply be wherever you are.”

Gwaine snorted, and Merlin raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t know I was an evil sorcerer for all those years,” Merlin said in amusement.

“Oversight on my part. I assure you it will never happen again.”

Merlin laughed at that, completely at ease, and Arthur smiled as well. He glanced around. “I would have thought Aithusa was with you too.”

“Oh, she is,” Gwaine said, nodding his head to one side of the forest they were sitting above. Arthur turned, and, as if on cue, he saw the white dragon suddenly erupt from the trees, before flying off to another part of the forest and suddenly diving down, shaking the branches as she went. “She was restless- wanted to go out and fly and insisted that Merlin and I needed to come along. That’s why we’re up so early.”

The three of them fell into a comfortable silence then, simply watching the sunrise together for the first time in over a year and a half.

Arthur hadn’t realized how much he’d missed just- this.

But, as loathe as Arthur was to break the companionable silence, there was something he wanted to talk about with Merlin.

“I’m thinking of having a Court Sorcerer, now,” Arthur said, staring out at the tree tops.

“Oh?” Merlin responded lightly. “Why’s that?”

“Well, if magic is truly to return to Camelot, I’ll need someone I can consult about it,” Arthur answered matter-of-factly. “I’ll need someone who knows what they’re talking about, someone whom the Druids trust. But, most importantly, I need someone that I trust. I’m not going to have just any old hedge-witch be my Court Sorcerer. Whoever they are, this person needs to have my complete confidence that they’ll do whatever they can to protect Camelot and her people. Even at the risk of his own life.”

Arthur could hear the smile in Merlin’s voice as Merlin spoke, and one crept onto his own face as well. “Do you have someone in mind?”

“Perhaps,” Arthur turned to him. “If he’s willing to accept.”

With that, Merlin turned to Arthur, his eyes shining.

He smiled widely. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

And the sun finally broke over the mountains in the distance, and dawn flooded the land, covering everything in a golden light.