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Path

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Path (Divides Crossed 18)
DJ Dubois
February 2019

Notes: Merlin and his cohorts (this version at least) belong to the BBC. All other characters belong to their respective copyright holders. Please send comments to dante0220@yahoo.com .

 

Preface [Somewhere Else]

The triple goddess observes…..

Britannia’s ancient conflicts smolder. In Conflict’s forge, they glow brighter orange. Smoke puffs forth from them. Meleagant’s schemes to conquer Britannia provoke a global conflict. Allies flock to his banner. Opponents and refugees gravitate toward those who wish for restoration and peace. And then there are those who have been caught in their own hate for one reason or another. As the fighting seeks to start anew, some leaders have to decide which side they will take in this larger standoff. Inexperienced monarchs stumble down the political path. They must find their way quickly. Emrys and Morgana must affirm their roles as leaders for the sorcerous community. Ninane’s sacrifice has proven costly. Nimue and Freya scramble to recruit fresh recruits to bolster my priesthood’s numbers. There is also the mysterious contender for Cawdor’s throne. And then there’s Arthur Pendragon.

Arthur…to say a disappointment is a grotesque understatement. When I allowed him to live, it would be for the promise of something greater. Much as Emrys was a child of magic, so too was the Younger Pendragon. I had hoped the mother’s love and self-sacrifice would inspire the son. Alas the father’s hate, loathing and vengeance influenced the boy instead. Free will pushed him to follow Uther’s example. While he tried to govern all fairly, Prejudice blinded him toward my followers be they human or otherwise. Despite half-hearted apologies when compelled to give them, he shows little interest in accepting my world or even co-existing with it. He seeks adventure and looks to battle rather than the community of his realm. His most loyal core of knights, the Round Table, has moved on. The landed lords show little of their mettle or mindset. Instead they follow as long as booty and glory await them. With the Troll running Camelot in his place, the citadel sinks into Despair. The kingdom follows. Is there hope for Camelot and Arthur Pendragon I wonder?

The answer to that question may determine the fate of all. Even if the High Kingship remains uncertain and Emrys wields Excalibur, the Pendragon would be a useful ally…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 [Dark Place]

Despair’s cloak smothered all light. Chill’s stiff gale stripped leaves from trees and blooms from flowers. Rain beat down in icy deluge onto the browned grass underfoot. Vines and Weeds choked the landscape. Canker and Thorn scratched and cut. Wolves protested loudly.

Not a place for the faint of heart…..

 

****

Arthur scowled at the pitiless sky. Despite the overhead hedge, sleet dripped onto his head. Ice crackled through his hair. Crimson marred his skin. He set his jaw. He wouldn’t show weakness. He shook his head. They say magic is a force for good? He rubbed his arms to try and ease the pin pricks stabbing at them.

The obsidian and salmon sky never seemed to change. Consequently Time never seemed to move.

He wondered about that very fact. The last clear memory came in Morgana’s cell. He recalled sitting beside Gwen in that place. His fingers had brushed her hair back into place. He fought back Drowsiness’ first wave. He leaned close to her slumbering face. Through increasingly blurred vision, he gazed upon her trying to carve her visage into his consciousness. Then everything went dark…

…dark until he found himself in this place….

He’d hiked fair distances through that barren wasteland. His stomach growled. His head pounded. Still Loyalty and Desire pushed him onward. He wouldn’t abandon his subjects or knights to whatever Meleagant, Morgana or the Sorceress had planned. He worried about his allies as well. Perhaps Morgana and Helios have conquered the southern part of Britannia by now? Will Rodor and Mithian be able to hold off their hordes? He shook his head. Regret stabbed at his heart. Mithian wanted to be treated fairly. Why did she have to be dragged into the middle between Gwen, the Kingdom and me? He frowned. She even defended Merlin at his trial. Imagine! A Princess would almost never defend a servant.

Merlin….

He sighed. Conscience nagged at him. He could kick himself over listening to Agravaine. Granted the charges of theft, defying royal orders and trespassing in Nemeth’s guest area all carried some weight to them. He didn’t question Merlin’s loyalty or work ethic. Frankly he’d seen the latter charge headlong into danger at his side. He owed Merlin his life. At times, Merlin could even be counted on for sage advice…

…that is before he tripped over the chamber pot or blurted out some inane comment or worse….

Is he really wise? He did dress me like a girl! I know I should have him put in the stocks. Anyone else I would. Still he was trying to keep us safe. He curled his lip. How did he get me to do that? He scratched his head. Everything at that point seemed fuzzy to him. Did he drug me? He wouldn’t try to poison me. He is thick headed but loyal. Gwen insisted he was only looking out for me. If only he’d follow orders! I’m the King. He’s the servant. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! He stood slowly. Keep moving. Stay warm. Find a way back to Gwen.

Poor, poor boy. Do you really feel you’re capable of ruling? a seething female voice baited. The Sorceress stepped out from behind a tree. “Arthur Pendragon.” Sparks flew from her fingertips.

Instinct guided his hand toward his left hip. Instead of the metal handle, his finger grasped at bare air. His eyes flicked toward that spot. Then they returned toward her.

“So unprepared.” Crimson glowed in her eyes. She swiped at him with her hand.

He flew backward through the air. He skidded through the sludge. Mud caked over the coarse robes. Briars snapped scratching at his arms and legs. He finally smacked up against a tree. He tried to place her voice. He knew she wasn’t Morgana or Morgause. Still he wondered who she was.

“If Emrys or Morgana couldn’t deal with me, what makes you think you can, Boy?” She slinked over toward him. “What makes you think that?”

He narrowed his eyes. Defiance blazed in his eyes. “I’ll deal with magic and your evil, Woman.”

She cackled. “You can’t cope with your own court. You blamed Emrys for your sire’s death. It was your own desperation and blindness that cost you. You stab your own in the back to suit yourself! Camelot falls apart.”

“Never!” he spat indignantly.

“Learn respect!” She grabbed his arm. Her eyes glowed once again. From her hand, ebon fire chilled and burned his psyche and soul. For several heartbeats, she dug her fingers into that spot. Then she shoved him away from her. “Pathetic!” She disappeared into the gloom.

He struggled to his knees. He shivered. “No wonder Father didn’t trust magic.” He grimaced. His mind grasped at strands. He needed help. His heart ached for its center. “Gwen…Gwen, help me.” With that, he collapsed toward the ground. His palms and knees squished into the wet mud stopping his fall. Isolation pushed on him. Still Resolve kept him going. “Can’t…give up…She would want me to keep going.” A deep grunt escaped his lips. He ground his teeth. Pain’s white hot needles stabbed at his knees and legs as they extended back out to their full length.

He wouldn’t give up. Too much depended on him to do so….

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Gwen rolled over. She moved her arms slowly. Pain jabbed at her shoulder. Mud soaked at her clothes. Her eyes adjusted albeit slowly to the dim lighting. She shivered in the strong breeze. She made herself look around. “Where?” She edged her elbow into a supportive position. With effort, she pushed herself up onto her knees. Then she yanked herself to her feet. “This definitely isn’t Whitgate. So where am I?” She rubbed her arms desperately trying to generate warmth. Her gown wasn’t proving much of a match for the conditions.

Somewhere dark. Somewhere Duty brings you. Where Arthur is, a male voice advised.

She narrowed her eyes. She recognized the voice. It had guided her through childhood and into adulthood. It had served as Stability’s agent in her life. It would know which way to guide her. The person in question, however, was dead. Suspicion made her reconsider every possibility. “Nay! You can’t be!”

And yet I am. Tom the Blacksmith stepped into view from behind an oak tree. “Hello, Gwen.”

“Father? FATHER?” She gaped at him. Disbelief numbed her. Despite Lancelot’s and Morgana’s recent revivals, she couldn’t believe it was really him. She immediately thought of Morgana using Lancelot as a shade to deceive her. Consequently she hung back.

He sighed. “Gwen, given what’s happened, I don’t blame you for being cautious. Morgana used Lancelot to hurt you. The Sorceress used her magic against King Rodor. Still we must work together to set things right. I am here to guide you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes pleaded with her to believe him.

“So you just came back from the dead to guide me to Arthur?” Skepticism jabbed from her eyes into his psyche.

“I was sent to guide you. Besides I wanted to see you again,” he clarified. He started collecting sticks from the ground. He broke off a few dead twigs from the briar bushes around them. Then he found a sheltered spot behind the tree. “A little warmth would help.”

“You’ll never start a fire in this wind,” she doubted.

“You know better than that,” he rebutted. He leaned over the kindling. Several times he struck a flint against a hard rock. Sparks flew. Some smoldered against the wood but smoked themselves out. Finally, after a couple of dozen heartbeats, a flame emerged. “Here we go.” He coaxed it into a bigger fire. “Come and warm yourself.”

She nodded. Just as in life, he’d shown the knack for starting a fire even under the most adverse conditions. Caution slowed her steps. Even so, her brain pushed her onward. If nothing else, she needed warmth. She shivered her way across the clearing. She peered around the tree not sure what she’d find there. Would there be a griffin, harpy, troll or worse?

He glanced up at her. “I won’t bite. I promise.” He patted the space by the fire.

“You’ll forgive me. I’ve had a few bad experiences lately,” she apologized.

“Of course.” His eyes twinkled at her. His smile spread widely across his face. “It will help if you warm yourself. We don’t have much time.”

She settled onto the dirt patch on the opposite side of the fire from him. She rubbed her hands and warmed them by the flames. “Do you know where this is? I was in Nemeth.”

“This is an adjacent spiritual place. The Sorceress trapped Arthur here. He drew you here,” he told her. “Your body is still back in Whitgate. Your spirit is here. This place creates a solid reflection of it. That’s why we both have our bodies here.”

“You know where Arthur is?” Desire overrode Caution at that point. Her hands and arms didn’t shiver as much. She didn’t clench her teeth as hard.

“Aye. We will go after him shortly.” He slid a bigger stick onto the flames. “Queenship and matrimony do you justice, Gwen. You already head down the right path. If you can guide Arthur as well, you will do more than you know.”

She frowned. “I left him because he wouldn’t see reason. I hated to do it. Now I realize that the Arthur on Camelot’s throne isn’t my Arthur. That man is held captive by Meleagant’s sorceress. If we can free him, he would help the others.”

“But will he accept them?” He glanced deeply into her eyes. “Gwen, the hate has to stop. Whether he agrees or not with the old religion, the bloodshed and repression must end. Was it right that Uther killed me?”

“Of course not! That was insane!” she argued. “Merlin still blames himself for what happened.”

“He was trying to help. While he should have been more careful, he only tried to do the right thing. The Pendragon’s taste for revenge sours the political climate. It only provokes the rage you’ve seen in Morgana, Morgause and now this latest threat. Take care with this one. She is far more than just a mere witch,” he advised.

“She evades Merlin’s and the priestesses’ detection. She seeks to undo your alliance. She will turn on her supposed allies. She would subvert the priestesses to her will. She cares little about the harm she would cause. You would do well to press Arthur and his followers to co-exist for everyone’s sake. There are problems enough for everyone to cope with,” he explained.

“What would be worse than the challenges? The witch and her allies are trying to destroy us,” she doubted.

“You all have to grow in your roles. Some will have to ascend to their places soon. Arthur has to rule for all. Merlin has to truly embrace both of his roles as royal and sorcerer. They have to accept each other. Several of your allies have their own roles. All of you must move forward,” he continued.

“We’re trying. If we can get Arthur back, I’ll keep working on him,” she promised.

“And your brother as well. Elyan needs to accept his new state of affairs,” he added.

“Morgana gave him that chance. I’m sure he will especially since our family’s involved,” she pointed out. She stood up feeling warmed by the fire. “Sorry. Can we keep going?”

“We should. Forgive me. It’s great to be with you again.” He scooped up armful after armful of dirt. He smothered the flames making sure they were completely put out.

“And it is for me.” While she wasn’t sure about his intentions, he seemed to have her best interests at heart. While she determined to watch him, she decided to follow his lead. At least as far as Arthur’s rescue was concerned.

With that, they headed deeper into the woods….

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 [Some Distance Away]

Arthur stumbled through the bare trees. His burned skin stung from the Sorceress’ previous assault. His knees clattered under the threadbare pants. He clenched his teeth against the conditions. Determination urged him forward. He wouldn’t quit for anything.

Gwen, his subjects and his allies depended on him. They suffered under the Sorceress’ scheme. More than likely, the witch had collaborators of her own. His knights would fight for Camelot. Still they needed his leadership against this threat.

Magic. Curse the day whoever introduced it to Britannia! He spat on the ground. His eyes narrowed. His ears rang with Uther’s rants against sorcery. He’d seen Morgana’s spite. He recalled the undead army’s assault against Camelot. He remembered the unicorn curse a few years previous. Even if the Cup of Life had saved Leon and Will’s magic had driven the barbarians away from Ealdor, he didn’t trust magic.

It had killed his mother after all…..

How can anyone trust something so vile? Even when it’s used for good, it’s still….

“Still what, Sire?”

Arthur’s ears perked up. He pressed ahead in the voice’s direction. His steps quickened. He leaned against a particularly spindly tree. His nose discerned smoke. His ears heard a campfire’s crackling. He moved around the tree. There he found two men dressed in gray robes sitting on opposite sides of the fire. He recognized both immediately. “Gaius? William?”

“Surprised you recognized us, *Your Highness*,” Will retorted; Sarcasm saturating every syllable. He practically flung a stick into the fire.

“Will, that is quite enough. King Arthur deserves our respect.” Gaius stood with great effort. He bowed to his King. “Would you join us?”

Arthur chafed at Will’s attitude. “I thanked you for your aid. Didn’t I? Despite your use of magic, you did save us. Some respect was warranted.”

Will coughed. “Some respect? You nobles are all alike! You play at being a man of the people. You are NOTHING like that!” He shook his head. “You can’t even treat Merlin decently. Why he thinks so much of you, I’ll never know.” His eyes shot daggers into Arthur’s.

“Magic is evil. Perhaps if you had known that before you cast that spell?” Arthur rebutted. “It destroys everything it touches.” He sucked in a pained breath. “It took both of my parents. It has been the tool of those who would overrun my kingdom.”

“Much as a sword or battering ram might be?” Gaius supposed. “Magic is a tool in the hands of the initiated, Arthur. The user’s intention shapes it for good or ill.”

“Intention?” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Gaius, of all people, you’re the last person I’d expect to defend magic! Father relied on your support during the Purge. You always understood when the rest of us didn’t.”

Gaius nodded. He averted his eyes. “Sometimes it is easier to deny one’s own existence rather than face the truth.” He clenched his fist. “Flora.” His eyes glinted yellow. Then he opened his hand again to reveal a rose there. “I was a coward, Arthur.”

Arthur stared. Incredulity slackened his jaw. “You…you have magic?”

“Aye.” Gaius frowned. He set the rose on the brown grass. “I was a sorcerer. I chose not to say anything. It was easier to allow the Purge to go forward rather than stand in its path. I thought I could do more good by remaining in the shadows. I helped those that I could. Sadly I made mistakes.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Will scoffed. “You even held Merlin back. You’re both thinking of your own agendas first!”

Gaius flushed. “If you ever grew older, you’d come to understand that the world isn’t just black and white. If Uther had known that I still had my magic, I’d have been burned at the stake without the slightest hesitation. I did as much as I could. As for Merlin, I guided him as much as I could. He’s made his decisions. Fortunately he has done very well.”

“That Princess respects him,” Will rebutted. “At least she and her father have given him a place.”

“Princess?” Arthur coughed. “Merlin’s left Camelot? I can’t believe that! Granted we’ve had our issues. Still he knows that Morgana manipulated everything. He wouldn’t leave Camelot during a crisis.”

“That, Sire, is exactly what has happened,” Gaius informed him. “Merlin has left Camelot for Nemeth. He proved himself by the Culpability Laws. In addition we discovered that his father was a knight.”

Arthur shook his head. He laughed. “Merlin the son of a knight? How has he proven himself? Gaius, Merlin can barely keep from tripping over the chamber pot! As for his father, are you speaking of the old hermit? He couldn’t have been much.”

“Balinor helped to save your life. I realize that you put Merlin down to others. Still, Arthur, you know he has stood beside you when most would not. He has saved your life numerous times. He served your faithfully. It was not an easy decision for him,” Gaius pointed out. “We all take him for granted. Merlin is not perfect by any means. Still his destiny is greater than being a mere servant.”

“He benefited from being my personal servant, Gaius. I’ve treated him very well. And who is this Princess who frankly has little common sense? Merlin’s no royal. He can’t even use a sword.” Arthur snorted again.

“It shows how little you know. Just what I expected,” Will groused. “Can’t even recognize talent under your own fat nose. Who do you think defeated Morgana and Morgause when you all were fighting the immortal army?”

“Lancelot. Merlin probably stood in the corner,” Arthur insisted.

“Sire, he was the one who drained the cup,” Gaius corrected him. “Lancelot was wounded. I saw the whole thing.”

“Really, Gaius? What did he do? Trip over Morgause and swat the cup down while he fell?” Arthur supposed. “Merlin’s no knight.”

“He survived the quest, Arthur. You knighted Elyan, Gawain, Percival and Lancelot. Yet you did not do the same for Merlin. Perhaps you might ask Lancelot about that? Or Gawain?” Gaius reminded the King.

“Lancelot’s dead unless Morgana might resurrect him again,” Arthur denied. “And how can I knight Merlin? He’d cut himself with the sword if I let him.”

“Lancelot’s alive and in Nemeth. So is Gawain for that matter. Much has changed since you were taken. Camelot is falling apart, I fear. The Round Table has dispersed. Many have left for other lands. Meantime Cawdor allies itself with other despots from around the middle sea.” Gaius explained. “Princess Mithian….”

“Wait.” Arthur put his hand up. “Princess Mithian? You mean she and Rodor…?” He shook his head. “Mithian’s smarter than that. She has a great deal to offer any suitor. She….”

“You did humiliate her, Sire,” Will interjected. Venom burned through the air. “And what’s wrong with Merlin? He certainly propped you up enough.”

“You know little of such things, William. Perhaps if you weren’t such an angry boy, I’d….” Arthur disputed.

“Merlin learned from his time at court. Granted he struggles with his new role. Still he has learned to listen and be discreet….” Gaius started.

“Merlin? Discreet? Gaius, we are talking about the same idiot. Correct? He is loyal. He cares. Still Merlin’s no Prince. Gwen would never agree to emancipate him,” Arthur denied.

“She has, Sire. I didn’t want Merlin to leave. Frankly I thought the same thing you are right now. Merlin however works with Mithian to learn what’s expected of a Prince. Rodor is proud of him. He is now your peer, Arthur. And there is more,” Gaius continued. He reached behind the hedge. In his hand, he raised a wooden cup. “Some water?” He handed it to Arthur.

“I appreciate it.” Arthur gulped from the cup. Thirst drove him to gulp for a dozen heartbeats or more from it. Then he stared at the cup. He saw that it remained full. “You’ve enchanted me!”

“Just the cup, Sire,” Gaius insisted. “The water will never run out. You needed a long drink. Thus you have it. As I said, magic for a good intention.”

“As I said, Gaius, magic never has a good intention. Granted you are trying to help me. Still I don’t need this. I am disappointed, Gaius. Father would be beside himself,” Arthur denied.

“Uther would rather play politics than help my village. What does that say about him? Merlin at least tried to put our village above your high and mighty kingdom. He saved us,” Will disagreed.

“You saved us. You used….” Arthur started. He stopped cold. “Wait.” He shook his head. Denial numbed his brain. “Nay. Merlin couldn’t. He’s…he’s too…too…”

“Too what, Arthur? Too stupid? Too simple? You ungrateful prat! Merlin’s much smarter than you ever gave him credit for! Aye! Merlin saved us! HE HAS MAGIC, YOU ARSE!!!” Will snapped.

Arthur’s face paled. His eyes went wide. “Merlin can’t…he…” He thought on the man who’d been more than a servant…more like friend, brother and closest companion. He’d allowed Merlin into his inner chambers and plans. He’d traveled with the other. He’d drank with the other as he would’ve no other servant. With each heartbeat, Realization pulled layer after layer of Deception’s well laid blinders from his eyes. He realized that the strange and fortunate accidents during their battles and crises were anything but.

Merlin had magic. He really had magic.

“Unbelievable.” Arthur exhaled sharply. “And he was using it right in front of us all along. I can’t believe it. He lied to me. HE LIED!”

“He had little choice.” Gaius shrugged. He sipped from the enchanted cup at that point. “The attitudes and laws made that essential for his survival.”

“Gaius, I would’ve banished him not killed him! Certainly you know that?” Arthur disagreed.

Gaius shook his head. “As much as I want to believe that, Arthur, Merlin had to proceed as he did. He protected you from the shadows. He saved Princess Mithian’s life. Camelot certainly owes him a great deal. He is a powerful sorcerer. He even tried to save your father.”

“Gaius, that was an old man not Merlin. He….” Arthur raised an eyebrow. “He cast a spell to make himself look older. Didn’t he? He was the old man? Then he killed Father!”

“And here we go,” Will derided. “He tried to save your father. It wasn’t his fault what happened! Blame Morgana for that! You let that traitor run things at court!”

“Agravaine put an enchanted totem on Uther. It reversed the intent of any spell and magnified it a hundredfold. Merlin did try to heal your father, Arthur. You are right that black magic killed Uther. Still it was Morgana’s spell not Merlin’s. Merlin tried to heal him. As always, he tried to serve. Perhaps you might wish to consider that?” Gaius argued.

“Father’s still dead. Merlin was there…old or not. I can’t believe I trusted him. Just like what happened with Mother. I….” Arthur blinked. Drowsiness elicited a yawn from him. “What have you done to me?”

“Me? I have done nothing. It seems your ordeal has caught up to you. You need to rest,” Gaius presumed.

“You…enchanted…me.” Arthur slumped to the ground. His eyes closed. He lapsed into a deep slumber.

“About time something shut him up. I was getting ill from his ranting,” Will declared. He rubbed his forehead while trying to deal with the headache building therein.

Gaius inspected the sleeping Arthur. “He needs to understand the whole truth, Will. He’s been taught one perspective. Now he has to deal with the whole truth. He has to cope with sorcery and the emerging order. We’ve done as much as we can.” He rubbed the younger man’s shoulder.

With that, Will and Gaius disappeared into the foggy backdrop leaving Arthur to sleep….

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 [Sometime Later]

Arthur slowly opened his eyes. “Gaius? William?” He sat up with effort. “They left me. Tremendous! It’s not like Gaius to do that.” He stirred up the smoldering embers while trying to get the fire started once again. He blew gently on the embers. He fed a few twigs to the glowing crimson center.

With effort, smoke and then small flames burned. A few more sticks increased their heat and warmth.

He noticed a wrapped bundle immediately to his left. Caution urged him to edge toward it. Slowly he opened it to find a few pieces of bread and a water skin. Somebody looks out for me. Perhaps Gaius didn’t just abandon me after all.

“He never has, Arthur. You lost your own way.” Uther pushed his way through the woods’ undergrowth and into view. His eyes seemed sullen. A frown cut wrinkles and lines through his face. “At least Gaius understood his duty.”

“He was a sorcerer! You knew, Father?” Arthur stared at his predecessor. His jaw dropped.

“Of course I knew! He made the right choice! Sorcery is evil, Arthur. How many times have I told you that?” Uther snapped. “I showed you how to be a good king and a strong one. You squandered that.”

“Squandered that? How, Father?” Arthur challenged. “I have tried to be fair to our people. I have protected them from danger. I made sure the taxes were fair and equally borne.”

“Aye you tried. Still you haven’t followed tradition. You listen to the wrong people. Lord Agravaine, traitor that he was, did succeed in negotiating a good marriage. You let it slip through your fingers! And why? Because of that maid! And, as for Merlin, he is the biggest traitor of them all. Now he has everything you should have! How I wish I had been able to burn Balinor at the stake. I could’ve kept his son from infecting your mind with your misplaced sympathies!” Uther scolded. He flung a stick across the clearing. “Even Morgana knows better. At least she’s bringing together a proper kingdom with a suitable marriage.”

“Don’t start about Gwen! I love her!” Arthur snapped. “And aye, I know about Merlin. I know about his magic. What do you mean he has what I should have? And what about Balinor? Surely you can’t mean that old hermit? He was harmless!”

Uther coughed. Indignation reddened his face. “Hardly. That hermit was a dragon lord a generation ago. While he served Nemeth well, Balinor was no hero. Much like Merlin does, he ingratiated himself within the court. Pity he escaped into the forests. As for what you should have, Merlin has done the exact same thing. He has twisted the Culpability Laws. Rodor ennobled him. He married Princess Mithian and is now the Crown Prince of Nemeth. He has the perfect place from which to spew those lies about the old religion. Disgust twisted his mouth into a scowl.

Arthur shook his head. “Merlin? Crown Prince of…?” He laughed.

“Whatever are you laughing at? I am deadly serious! Arthur, you’re not paying attention!” Uther pressed.

“Merlin isn’t capable of being a Prince. True he has learned skills as a servant. He is loyal to a fault. Still he could barely keep from tripping over the chamber pot much less scheme against me. That’s almost as bad as Gaius saying Merlin is a sorcerer…” Arthur started.

“The boy is a sorcerer. I should have seen it! That witch finder was a fool! If only he’d done his work properly, none of this would’ve come about. Even Morgana might have been saved from that stupidity,” Uther ranted on. He bowed his head. “Now everything I have worked for falls apart.”

Arthur leaned back against a tree. He shook his head. Bad enough Morgana was a witch. Now Merlin was as well? Moreover his mind struggled with Uther’s account. “I have faith that Gwen can manage the kingdom.”

“She allows our enemies to nip at our heels, Arthur! I want peace too. However one has to rule with strength. One has to understand the balance between governance and war. You cannot rule from the saddle and delegate the kingdom to others. Did I not teach you that?” Uther rolled his eyes. “Your precious Round Table has fallen apart. The knights have deserted Camelot. Magic returns to the land. Guinevere rules with a troll claiming to be you. A powerful witch has replaced your sister. It is she who trapped you here. It is she who put her monster on the throne!”

“A troll? Surely Gwen knows the difference?” Arthur supposed. “She’s smarter than you give her credit for, Father. She cared for you while you were sick. You might show some respect for her.”

“I’ll show you respect!” Uther backhanded his son across the face. “WAKE UP! Quit allowing yourself to be so deluded by friendship! Show some strength!” He grabbed onto Arthur by both arms and shook him hard.

“Let me go!” Arthur pushed Uther away. “Father, I don’t want to fight with you. You don’t understand….”

“Understand what? You rule for a brief time and think you’ve seen more than me?” Uther dismissed. “I know far more! I worked to build a great kingdom. You would undo EVERYTHING!”

Or return everything to where it should be.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. He didn’t recognize the female voice or see a source anywhere nearby. “Who’s that?” He saw Uther look about the clearing. “Father?”

“Impossible!” Dismay and Incredulity paled his face. “Igraine can’t be speaking! She’s dead!”

“And so are you, Uther.” A slender blonde woman stepped into view from behind a tree. She wore a white dress with a rope cinched at her waist. Her long blonde hair flowed freely down her back. “Please stop this.” Sorrow weighed her eyes down.

“Igraine?” Arthur jumped to his feet. “You’re my mother.”

“Aye, Arthur.” She smiled for his benefit. “I am. I’m so glad to see you.” She eased her way into the clearing and toward him.

Arthur met her a few steps later. He embraced her. “I’ve wished you were there over the years.”

“I wished the same thing, my Dear Boy. Still I watched you always,” she assured him. “I’ve always been there. You just didn’t know it.”

“Rubbish. Igraine, while this is very heartwarming, the fact is you died. I had to rule. Arthur had to grow up without a mother,” Uther broke in.

“Arthur and Morgana, Uther,” Igraine corrected him. “We were warned not to try it. Because I cared for you and followed Duty’s call, I allowed Nimue to cast the fertility spells. Still the Calliech demanded her price. I chose my life over Arthur’s.” She turned back to Arthur. “I wanted to see the man you’d grow into.”

“I’ve done my best, Mother. But magic took you from us. It took Father from us….” Arthur started to reply.

“The misuse of magic took us from you, Arthur. Magic is a force in the universe. It is like your sword or a lance. The user determines whether it’s used for good or ill. Fear breeds Fear and Distrust. Repression brings about Vengeance. Much blood has been spilled in my name. It must stop. A new age has dawned. You need to be a part of it,” she explained.

“An age of anarchy, you mean,” Uther scoffed.

“You can’t control everything, Uther. All you do is cause pain and discord. Haven’t you seen this since your transition? The Purge’s violence and torture still echo through the Other Side. And you want Arthur to do more?” She frowned. “It has to end.”

“Camelot must be strong!” Uther asserted.

“Aye. It does. As a fair and just kingdom, aye. As one where everyone takes care of their neighbor? Aye. As one where the monarch listens to counsel and takes care of those under his or her care? Aye again. Intolerance bears a bitter harvest, Uther. Look at Morgana. Your laws made her that way. Your repression of her order and nature drove her to anger. Both Arthur and Morgana are children of magic, Uther. We can’t deny that. Face it,” she argued.

“Preposterous! You gave birth to them, Igraine. Nimue didn’t just create them with a spell,” Uther denied. “Her spell did something!”

“Aye. It forced my womb to give birth against the natural order. It was my choice to allow it. Magic enabled our son to enter the world. It claimed my life as the fare for his journey through this life. It didn’t bless or curse us in itself. It only acted as it will. No more, no less. We must stop punishing the people for good use of it,” she countered.

“Arthur, are you going to listen to this?” Uther spat.

Arthur jerked himself out of his reverie. For the previous few heartbeats, he’d listened to the debate. His mind weighed his mother’s words against his father’s bile. From her words, Understanding sprouted in his mind. “So you’re saying that magic can be a force for good as well?”

“Aye! Look at Merlin! How many times has he saved your life, Arthur?” she pointed out. “He used his magic to save Camelot more times than you can remember. He did it in service to both of you and our people. He made mistakes but sought to remedy them. He repents as well.”

“I still can’t believe Merlin has magic.” Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. “He really isn’t the simpleton?”

“He acted as much. He couldn’t reveal who he really was. Now could he?” She shot Uther a glare. “He was, is and always wants to be your friend, Arthur. Now he can be in all senses. He is your brother in arms as always. Now he is your peer.”

“My…peer.” Arthur puzzled.

“Rubbish. A bastard claim twisting the law,” Uther denied. “Arthur, have I not told you to follow the law? Merlin uses it to his advantage. He can’t be trusted.”

“Much as you slept with Morgana's mother, Father? As King, it was your right to do so. You twisted that law to your advantage. You gambled with magic to give birth to me. If Mother’s right, your hate drove Balinor to that cave and away from Merlin. He should have been at the Nemeth court perhaps as a knight?” Arthur sucked in a deep breath. “I’ll admit I still don’t trust magic. I don’t like it to be frank. Still Mother has made a compelling argument. I want change where it’s merited. I love Gwen but you tried to take her from me. You denied Lancelot and Gawain their places at court despite how they proved themselves. I owe them all a hearing at least.”

“They will twist your ear with lies, Arthur. Trust me. Nemeth has always lusted for our land. I could deal with Rodor. Still I had to bear that in mind. Now he props up a servant to be with his daughter much as you would do the same.” Uther shook his head.

“Father, the Culpability Laws are there for a reason. Nobility isn’t something you’re born into. It’s a quality in here!” Arthur pointed to his chest. “You can prove yourself in battle or through loyalty.” He shook his head. “I let my need for Merlin’s support and service blind me to that.”

“Just accept him. Everything else, Arthur, is underway. Merlin wants you as an ally,” she assured him. “Accept magic. Lift the repression of the old religion. Heal the land. Co-exist.”

Arthur conceded a sigh. Both sides of the argument compelled him with their points. He’d seen witches and warlocks cursing and attacking Camelot. He recalled Kilgarrah’s retribution before something stopped the Great Dragon. “And we can have peace?”

“If both sides are willing to listen and cooperate, aye. Arthur, if there is an Albion, it has to be for everyone. Deny one, deny all,” she pressed. “Everyone wants a place. Give it to them.”

“Let the chaos reign! Igraine, honestly!” Uther disagreed.

“Father, Mother has a point. I respect all that you taught me about jurisprudence and kingship. Still we are their stewards not oppressors.” Arthur shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this. Maybe Will and Gaius just had a point.” He narrowed his eyes and arched his eyebrow. “And Merlin actually is wise?” He shook his head. “That might be pushing it too far.”

“He does have a lot to learn himself, Arthur. Still he wants to do so. Just consider that,” she insisted. She looked to the sky and focused as if listening to something. “Our time is almost up.”

“I wish you could stay, Mother. Gwen would love to meet you. Then again if I can get back there,” Arthur lamented.

“I wish I could be there with you. Still I made my choice. I’d make the same one again for you.” She caressed his cheek. “Make peace with Morgana as well. That would make me very happy.”

“I’ll try.” Arthur squirmed at that particular thought. “Father, I do respect what you taught me. Still I do have to go my own way. I…”

Uther shook his head. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I cannot give my blessings to where you’d go. You’ll lead Camelot to ruin. I wish you’d understand and reconsider.” He turned and plodded back through the bushes and into the woods.

“Father? FATHER!” Arthur called.

“Arthur, your father doesn’t want to hear it. That is on him. Pray for him. Meantime learn from his mistakes and his greatest accomplishments alike. Be a great king. Work with others for the common good. If you can do that, you’ll be well on your way.” Her lips whispered across his forehead. “I am proud of you. Always.” She took a step back and waved to him. “Just consider what I’ve said.” With that, she vanished into the fog and dark mist.

Arthur bowed his head. The debate made his head hurt to be honest. His mother’s words ran contrary to his mindset and everything he knew. Still he understood the conflicts within Camelot. During the progresses with the knights, he’d seen Pain and Rage fuel attacks on their ranks. He’d seen Hopelessness in the people’s eyes. He wondered for the briefest heartbeat if his father had been closer to tyrants like Meleagant, Odin and Cedric than he cared to admit.

Seemed everything wasn’t so black and white after all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [Not Far Away]

Gwen leaned up against a tree. The air burned through her lungs and throat. Exhaustion weighed on her eyelids and limbs. Sweat beaded across her forehead despite the conditions. She wished for some more light…any light really. “How much farther?”

Tom shrugged. “Not far. In fact there’s someone we’re meeting just beyond this next tree. It will be all right, Gwen.”

She narrowed her eyes. Suspicion chilled her mind. “Who would that be, Father? I thought we were going to find Arthur?”

“We are. Gwen, I promise you. I am not leading you to an ambush. The triple goddess herself wishes you to find Arthur. There is someone you need to meet first,” he assured her.

“Does this person have any information about Arthur?” she pressed.

“Nay…not directly. She wishes to speak with you. She is grateful,” he replied. He pointed toward the next hedge. “She’s waiting.”

A flickering light lit that spot where none had a heartbeat earlier.

She frowned. “Where did that come from? Who’s there? Is it someone we know?”

“Nay. You both have people that are important to you in common. Beyond that you need to ask her.” He walked around the hedge. “She will not harm you, Gwen.”

The aroma of cooking meat enticed her on.

“And now a meal?” Hunger growled in her stomach. “How can this person create a fire and now a meal out of thin air?”

“We all have our roles,” he supposed. “Please follow me. You should eat.”

She nodded. Despite her inhibitions, she took him at his word. She followed him around the hedge. There she stopped short.

A slender woman glanced up from her campfire. Her blonde hair flowed from underneath a jeweled crown halfway down her back. She’d rolled the sleeves of her white gown up to the elbows. She minded two skewers of venison cooking over the fire. She smiled. “Queen Guinevere, at last! Please join me.”

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” Gwen looked toward her father again. “You know my name. We’ve never met. I do appreciate the invitation. I’d like to know….”

“What you’ve done to merit it?” The other woman considered Gwen’s response. “You’re a better person than most give you credit for. You could have denied my husband and daughter their happiness. Because of your sacrifice, they’re happy. So is your friend…Merlin, right?” She stirred up the coals with a third stick. “My name is Taene.”

“Taene?” Gwen asked. Then the woman’s name registered. Her eyes went wide. “You’re King Rodor’s wife and Princess Mithian’s mother!”

“Aye. I wish I could have been there for them. Rodor did his best after Kay and I both passed on. Mithian and her father are so close. I am so proud of her,” Taene lamented. She held up a water skin. “Water?”

“Thank you.” Gwen opened the top on the container. She sniffed at it determining that there was nothing out of the ordinary. Then she drank a mouthful from it. The water proved a balm for her burning throat. “I admit that at first my motivations were selfish. I…wanted Arthur for myself.”

“You love him. Still, Guinevere, you didn’t deny Mithian her happiness. On the contrary, you stood as one of her staunchest allies. You helped Merlin to prove himself and be elevated to nobility. I wanted to meet someone so extraordinary to assist in that process.” Taene took the skin back. She set it to her right. Then she offered Gwen one of the skewers. “This will help your appetite.”

“It will.” Gwen’s mouth watered at the offered meal. She sat down by the fire. She rubbed her hands over it. “That warmth feels great.” She smiled at her hostess. “Mithian accepted me first, Queen Taene. She could’ve had me sent from Whitgate. King Rodor could’ve done the same. I’m glad we could help each other. As for Merlin, he is one of my dearest friends. He and Mithian can make each other happy. I hope Arthur can accept him as a peer.” She took the offered skewer.

“We share that hope. That actually is the other reason I wanted to speak with you. Queen Guinevere…” Taene revealed.

“Please call me Gwen. There’s no need for the titles between us,” Gwen pointed out. She bit into the venison. Her stomach eased its growling. “What is the other reason?”

“Gwen, please call me Taene. I’m not asking for any obligation endangering Camelot. I’m asking for your help where Arthur is concerned.” Taene bit into a piece of her own meat. After chasing that with a gulp of water, she continued, “Everything has worked out the way it needs to. Merlin has proven himself legally. Still Arthur was trapped here while most of that happened. I fear he may not respect the state of affairs.”

Gwen sighed. “It wouldn’t be the first time he’s held a double standard where Merlin’s concerned. “ She frowned. Given Camelot’s current state of disrepair, she could see where Arthur would demand Merlin’s return there. “I hope to do something about that.”

“I hope you can make sure Arthur respects the law. Merlin, as you know, was freed by his interloper. Arthur may try to turn a blind eye to that. He may try to use Merlin’s former tie to himself to justify ruling over Nemeth as well as Gedref and Camelot. Given how he treated Mithian during their engagement, I hope you understand,” Taene requested.

Gwen frowned. And that’s the quandary. Isn’t it? Arthur wants Merlin at his side. Still Destiny has put Merlin in another kingdom. Her mind went back to the old castle once again. She could see Arthur knighting everyone else except for Merlin. Despite all of the talk of equality, it was anything but for the servant. “Arthur would never try to claim Nemeth as Camelot’s. He gave Gedref to Mithian for that reason. I’ll do my best where Merlin’s noble status is concerned.”

“Arthur did give his word to Mithian before his kidnapping,” Taene reminded her.

“As did I. Merlin and Mithian are happy. Arthur and I are happy. The rest will work itself out,” Gwen noted. “I’ll just remind Arthur of that. We can’t afford a war between Camelot and Nemeth.”

“Not with the bigger threats out there,” Taene agreed. “Forgive me, Gwen. I don’t want to bind you with obligations. I just want Mithian’s happiness. If Arthur can accept the status quo, that will help matters.”

“And that doesn’t include the magic issue,” Gwen added.

“And that’s a big matter. How will Arthur deal with the fact that Merlin’s a sorcerer? Will he be willing to accept co-existence with other sorcerers and kingdoms sheltering them? We must have peace,” Taene declared.

“I can’t see Arthur killing sorcerers. Still he hates magic. I will do my best but….” Gwen sighed. Doubt accented her tone.

“He has to come to terms with that for himself. Aye, Gwen. We agree on that.” Taene took a draught from the water skin. “Merlin values the bond between Arthur and himself. Mithian doesn’t want to discourage that. Still it is up to Arthur whether it will continue or not.”

“I know Merlin would be there if Camelot had need,” Gwen told her. “Arthur needs to see that Merlin as a neighboring royal could do much more than as a servant for us.”

“The balance will rely on that. Merlin still will protect Arthur. That hasn’t changed. Only their social placements and locations have. The new order is emerging. I just ask that you help Arthur come to terms with the changes coming in short order.” Taene stood. “Thank you, Gwen, for listening. I realize that it isn’t easy to deal with someone making demands.”

“You’re stating the obvious. I’m happy to share your concerns with Arthur. Where he goes with that, I can’t control. I hope he can accept Merlin’s elevation as well,” Gwen assured her. “I will stand firm where that’s concerned. After that, well….”

“That’s all I can ask. Thank you.” Taene smiled. “Enjoy the rest of the food and the fire before you start on the path once again.” With that she turned and walked into the brush disappearing from view.

“Wait! Come back! I....” Gwen jumped to her feet. She tried to look for Taene but found no trace of her hostess.

“She’s returned to her place on the Other Side, Gwen,” Tom indicated. “I know you want more answers. Unfortunately she provided what she could.”

“I suppose. She was very kind to provide the fire and food,” she relented. Disappointment sullied her mood. Still she took heart in the deceased Queen’s kindness. She could see a loving wife and mother in her counterpart. She understood that Taene cared about Nemeth’s fortunes as well as those of its neighbors. “I wish I could guarantee Arthur’s answers.”

“Those are for him to decide. You can sway him though,” he urged.

“Sway Arthur where Merlin’s concerned?” Skepticism raised her eyebrow. “I hope we can do that without coming to war.” She held up a piece of meat. “Would you like some?”

“I’d love that. You make sure you eat the rest however,” he accepted. He bit into the piece of venison.

She smiled for his benefit. Still her mind remained firmly with Arthur and the bigger questions. How will he accept the new reality? Can he?

Those seemed to be the million pound questions….

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Arthur put another stick on the fire. He mulled over Igraine’s revelations. His mind spun over her words. Merlin’s a Prince and a sorcerer? People actually want to legitimize sorcery? And what does she mean by this new order? He shook his head. It isn’t that hard. We should all be able to get along. Merlin can just see to everything and….

Merlin….

He sighed. But Merlin won’t any more. Will he? He rolled his eyes. How did that idiot do it? He must have cast a spell over Mithian. Maybe it was something in that meal he brought to her? Maybe he put some sort of condition on the necklace? He snorted. Merlin wouldn’t do that. He cares too much about the state between Camelot and Nemeth. So…could it have been Mithian? He curled his lip as if he’d eaten a sour apple or worse. She knows how important her place is. She….

No more than yours is, Arthur Pendragon, a familiar voice advised telepathically.

Arthur jumped to his feet. He wished that Excalibur was by his side. “Morgana? Come out!”

“Morgana is nowhere near here.” Balinor walked into view. “Once again, we’re forced to speak. I pray you’re as noble as Merlin believes you to be.”

“Balinor? Now you?” Arthur considered the deceased dragon lord. “You look as you did at the cave.”

“I am as I was when you last saw me. I have better places to be than with a Pendragon. I am here for a purpose.” Balinor looked him in the eye.

“You’re going to tell me to deal with Merlin’s situation? I am still his liege lord.” Arthur frowned. “Wish I knew when Merlin learned magic.”

“He was born with it, Arthur. He’s used it in your service. As he used his other gift,” Balinor told him bluntly.

“Other gift? You aren’t talking sense!” Arthur disputed.

“Poor Arthur. You’ve been deceived because of Uther’s foolishness. Merlin, besides being a sorcerer and a Prince, is a dragon lord. He drove the Great Dragon away from Camelot,” Balinor revealed. “Before you ask, he received that gift from me upon my death.”

“Upon your….?” Arthur mulled over that point. Following their encounter in Cedric’s kingdom, he’d studied from Sir Geoffrey’s book on the dragon lords. Given that such people passed their gift from father to son according to the text, he’d thought the dragon lords to be no more. Apparently he was wrong. “If he received your gift, Merlin…” He frowned. “That’s rubbish! Merlin…Merlin can’t…”

“There are many things you can’t accept about Merlin today. Aren’t there?” Balinor supposed with Sarcasm’s air. He rolled his eyes. “Aye, Pendragon! Merlin is my son. Uther’s knights hunted me even to Ealdor and beyond. I was in that cave to keep Hunith safe. Camelot’s laws drove me to that point.”

Merlin drove that creature away? Merlin? Really? How could he be a dragon lord? Then again how can he be a Prince and sorcerer? Arthur shook his head.

“Perhaps when you accept people on their terms, it isn’t so difficult. Is it?” Balinor proposed. He sat down at the fire. “Believe it or not, I’m not here to berate you.”

“It sounds like it,” Arthur complained. “You want to convince me of Merlin’s new status too?”

“If I’d known about Merlin, I’d have sent word to Rodor.” Balinor glared at Arthur. “I was a knight of Nemeth. Merlin should never have had to endure a peasant’s life or that of a servant. He is a noble born, Pendragon. As such, his marriage to Mithian of Nemeth is valid.”

“Merlin’s no noble,” Arthur denied. “And again this marriage to Mithian? They can’t…”

“And yet he charges into battle at your side with no hesitation. You yourself have said that all men are equals. Don’t you believe that?” Balinor pointed out.

Arthur ground his teeth. “Aye.”

“Then why didn’t you make him a knight last year? He certainly fought hard enough. He’s your most loyal castelan besides Guinevere. It would have saved him from proving himself as he has,” Balinor put to him.

“Merlin? Proved himself?” Arthur guffawed. Incredulity clouded his thinking.

“By his own deeds and the law. That is if his birthright didn’t make him a fit match. His time in Ealdor and in your service did prepare him well. For that, I thank you. Now it is time for you both to stand together as fellow royals,” Balinor asserted. “It is time for Merlin to bring the dragon lords back into being once again. It is for you to stand beside him and support him.”

“Support Merlin? Me? Balinor, wait a minute. I’m his King not the other way around,” Arthur disagreed.

“You both are fellow rulers. You have your destiny. Merlin has his. It is for you to accept that. Allow Merlin the support to emerge from the shadows and into his own light. Be a bigger man than Uther ever could be. Merlin has regard for you. Show why,” Balinor continued.

Arthur shook his head. “I still can’t see Merlin as a fellow ruler. And I suppose Morgana’s a ruler too?”

“She is. She rules in Tintagel along with Accolon of Gaul. She is reforming herself and doing well at that,” Balinor assessed.

“And you want me to accept sorcery and magical creatures?” Arthur inquired.

“Can you accept yourself?” Balinor eyed him with Skepticism’s light.

“Accept…myself? I’m not a sorcerer, Balinor,” Arthur insisted.

“Nay you aren’t. You are a creature of magic however.” Balinor saw Denial steaming forth from Arthur’s expression.

“You’re deluded, Balinor,” Arthur groused. “I wasn’t just wished up.”

“Actually…Igraine wasn’t capable of becoming pregnant without assistance. Uther pressed the Priestess Nimue to cast a fertility spell on Igraine. The spell made her able to conceive. You were born within the year following. She died so that you might live.” Balinor exhaled sharply. “I know that’s hard to hear. I….”

“Father never would’ve….!” Arthur denied.

“Uther does many things that suit his ends. Even if they fly in the face of his laws, he doesn’t care. He wanted an heir. Nimue warned him about the consequences. He didn’t understand the balance. Your life meant Igraine’s death. The Calliech demanded as much. Certainly you’ve learned that much from Lancelot ‘s sacrifice?” Balinor continued on.

Arthur felt numb. He certainly remembered the gatekeeper’s words to that effect on the Isle of the Blessed. Still for Uther to use magic to bring him into being before turning on it. “Then the Purge was from his hate?”

“Aye. Again I know it isn’t easy to hear. Uther’s malice has corrupted a great deal. It is for you to undo that damage. Merlin will stand beside you as he can. The wounds must be healed for Albion to flourish,” Balinor noted. “Merlin asked me to keep this from you before. He feared Uther’s retaliation and his own fate should you know about him.”

“Merlin feared….my…?” Arthur narrowed his eyes once more. “I’d never!”

“Wouldn’t you? You certainly showed enough times where you stood against my kind, Pendragon. I should say our kind. Ironic isn’t it? You and he are brothers in more senses than one. Perhaps then you might just do the right thing? Affirm what’s already in place. Stand with the others against the coming threat. Co-exist.” Balinor gulped from a water skin.

Arthur shook his head. His mind, already spinning from the earlier revelations, now threatened to shut down altogether. Questions overwhelmed him.

To say he needed to think was an understatement….

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Tom pushed through some overhanging brush. He could feel the weather quality improving slightly. The air dried a little. Warmth could be felt ever so little. While still overcast, the stars shone through gaps in its coverage. A lark sang from a branch above. The breeze lessened a bit. “How are you doing?”

“I’m all right. Thank you,” Gwen assured him. Her mind ruminated over Taene’s observations. Not she disagreed with the deceased Queen. On the contrary, she agreed for the most part. She knew that everyone had a right to be happy. Merlin deserved his new place. Mithian had achieved her dreams. Percival, Blancheflor and Lancelot had their places. Amor and Family gladdened Gawain’s heart. Their new friends wanted to make things better overall. Morgana reformed herself and served Tintagel’s interests.

All everyone wanted was to be included….

Question was would Arthur be able to put his issues aside? Could he accept the emerging order?

That is the question. Arthur, you’re so loving and earnest. You want to serve Camelot’s interests. Why can’t you let go of the old hate? You aren’t Uther. She frowned.

“Are you sure? Your mind and heart seem burdened.” He motioned her down the path while holding the overhanging flora back.

“I’m concerned about Arthur. I…just want him to change his outlook. I love him for his warmth and loyalty. He’s a great King. I’d like him to be more accepting toward certain others. He can’t judge magic because of a few bad cases,” she conceded.

He sighed. “Uther’s hate ran deep, Gwen. His rage poisons Britannia even now. You saw how the imposter-Arthur struggled with Camelot’s nobles and their agendas. Even if the real Arthur returns, how will he fare any better? Will he be able to break from the past himself? If so can he bring Camelot together as a kingdom for all? How will he look to Merlin for help? Can he work with Morgana? Can he be an example to his present and former knights? Can he be all of these things?”

“I can’t believe Arthur will deny Merlin. He has to see that Merlin’s earned his place.” She eased past him and the hedges in question.

“Arthur has much to consider for everyone’s sake.” He noticed the fog thickening across the path once again. “The way lies straight ahead.”

“Straight ahead? Through the fog?” She batted her hand in front of her face.

“Aye. The way to Arthur lies there,” he concurred.

She shivered and bit her lip. She wondered where the next turn in this particular road would take her. Still Loyalty and Amor drove her onward. “Are you certain?”

“Listen to your heart, Gwen. That will tell you what you need to know,” he urged.

She nodded. She closed her eyes. She could feel her heart beating faster. She eased her breathing calming herself. Despite Chill’s dimples, Warmth blossomed inside of herself. Placing one foot in front of the other, she walked briskly into the fog.

He glanced around to make sure they hadn’t been followed. Then he vanished into the mists in her wake.

 

****

[Other Side of the Mists]

Gwen emerged from the mists. Much as with Freya’s portals, she’d felt that same disembodied sensation. She noticed that the forest was different. Granted the oak trees, grass and brush were the same types. Still they were different plants. The air felt even warmer. “Where are we?”

“Your goal, Gwen.” Tom followed her into that place. “We’re still in the forest and on the path. Arthur is straight ahead. Smell the air.”

She sniffed all around herself. “Smoke? I don’t see a fire.”

“Follow your nose, Gwen.” He pointed down the trail.

She nodded and rushed ahead. Her nose guided her toward the smoke’s source. Her feet pressed faster and faster against the dirt under them. Her mind remained fixed in its purpose. Her heart’s internal compass guided her toward her King. “Come on!!”

“I’m right behind you. Just keep going!” he urged.

She lowered her shoulder. She bulled her way through Resistance’s last overgrowth. As she cleared the leaves and vines, she stopped in her tracks. Relief flooded through her. “ARTHUR!”

Arthur jumped to his feet. His eyes went wide. “Gwen?” He forgot about Balinor and everything else around himself. His heart beat faster. Hope filled him. He turned to see her standing there. “GWEN!!” He ran toward her. Within three steps, he embraced her tightly. For once he didn’t care about the tears streaking his face. His lips mashed down on hers.

For her part, Gwen grabbed onto Arthur as hard as she could manage. She kissed him just as fervently. No questions remained in her mind. Unlike her experiences with the troll back in Camelot, she knew this man…this person…was the real Arthur….her Arthur. She savored this exchange.

Finally Arthur pulled back to come up for air. Still he held her close. “It feels so good to hold you again, Gwen. I’m so sorry for doubting you. I…”

“I know, Arthur. I forgive you.” Her eyes sparkled into his. “Camelot needs you. I can’t live without you.”

“And I you.” He smiled. “Gwen, how did you get here? Did that witch put you here?”

“Nay, Arthur. I heard you in my thoughts. Then I felt sleepy. When I woke up, I was in this place. My father guided me here.” She noticed Balinor sitting by the fire. “Who’s he?”

“Him?” Arthur shrugged. “He’s Balinor. We met a few years back in Cedric’s kingdom.”

“Balinor?” She studied the older man’s weather-beaten face and features. “Balinor the Dragon Lord? Arthur, he’s Merlin’s father!”

“Aye.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Another of Merlin’s lies.” He shook his head.

“Arthur, he had his reasons for not telling you more about Balinor. How would Uther and you have reacted? You knew he was a dragon lord.”

“Gwen, I would’ve protected Merlin. You know I’d never….” Arthur denied.

“The way that you exiled Gwen for her affair with Lancelot? The way you stood by and let Uther execute me?” Tom challenged. He stalked ahead. “I don’t care if you’re the King, Arthur. You will treat my daughter with respect.”

Arthur stared wide-eyed. “Tom? You’re here as well? Does that mean we’re dead?” Panic threatened to seize his heart. He immediately looked to her. “You can’t be dead, Gwen. Whatever happens to me, I don’t care. I just want you to live.”

“Nay, Pendragon. You both are very much alive.” Balinor rose to his feet. His knees creaked. Gradually he stood at his full height. “Guinevere, I am pleased to meet you.” He bowed to her.

“As am I, Sir Balinor. You should be so proud of Merlin,” she replied. Reverence moved her to bow as well.

“I am every day. He’s accomplished a great deal. I appreciate your friendship with him. Perhaps it might rub off on a certain clot pole?” Balinor complimented and jabbed equal handedly.

“Now wait a minute!” Arthur huffed.

“Arthur, stop.” She looked her King in the eye. “Balinor has a point. Merlin feared for his life. Imagine how’d you feel in his place? He had the courage to use his sorcery. He helped us so many times. He did so in spite of the risk? You would have exiled him if you knew!”

Arthur bowed his head. “At least I wouldn’t have executed him as Father would have.”

“And you would outlaw someone because of magic? Arthur, this is getting so tiresome.” She sighed. “Magic is like any other weapon.”

“I’ve heard this.” Arthur rubbed his forehead. “I met my mother. She told me the same thing.”

“Perhaps you might wish to consider the point?” Balinor slowly edged his way toward Arthur. “Your father betrayed my kind and me. He didn’t respect others. In many ways, he was as hurtful a tyrant as Meleagant of Cawdor. It is up to you to decide where you go from here. Will you use your place fairly? Will you be willing to work with others? Even those you’d persecute are trying to help you now. Prayers and their assistance have enabled Guinevere to find you. They could free you from this place.”

“And then what? They’d force me to undo everything Father did?” Arthur stiffened.

“Not everything, Arthur.” She shook her head. “Please! Didn’t you say you’d want a kingdom for everyone? I know you do. It should be for everyone. When we return, we can work with our friends to get Camelot back. We can rule fairly. There’s a lot of work to be done. We can do it together.”

“Get Camelot back? Who’s on the throne if you aren’t, Gwen?” Arthur studied her face. He knew when she held details back.

Gwen frowned. “A lot’s happened since you disappeared. It’s best we fill you in when we get back.” She hugged him again. “Please, Arthur. I need you. Just agree to work with everyone for a better Britannia.”

“Work with…? You want me to convert? Gwen, I won’t…” Arthur started to argue.

“Nobody expects you to convert, Pendragon. You will need to co-exist with the rest of us.” Balinor shook his head at Arthur. “Merlin still looks to you as a brother in arms. As I told you before, prove him right. Promise to co-exist and mean it.”

“Excuse me? When I swear an oath….” Arthur started.

“Perhaps you might ask the druid boy’s ghost from the shrine? You begged his forgiveness to save Elyan. Then you backtracked almost immediately,” Tom reminded him. “Sir Balinor has a point. Perhaps you might want to think of the Greater Good, Arthur? Your hate nearly cost Elyan and Sir Leon their lives earlier. The hate pushed your sister to do what she did. Just listen to Gwen. Stop the hate. Show leniency and compassion. Those are the hallmarks of a strong ruler.”

“We can do that, Arthur. The others want that too.” She smirked. “You’ll be surprised.”

“Surprised?” He frowned. “Do I really want to know?” His mind struggled to grasp the implications of a compromise such as that. “Gwen, what are you up to?”

Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. “Arthur, I’m not up to anything except trying to co-exist as Sir Balinor just said! It’s all right to disagree with others. Still, as King and Queen, we have to respect their rights. The priestesses and magical creatures want to help us. Perhaps you might respect them?”

“Much as that dragon tried to destroy Camelot?” Arthur pressed.

“After Uther imprisoned him for 20 years, Pendragon. Remember that,” Balinor interjected. “Kilgarrah reacted out of pain. That is yet another example of your sire’s stupidity. You call my son an idiot. Who is being one now?”

“We can turn the page, Arthur. Please.” She begged him. “Just listen to everyone.”

Arthur bowed his head. He wanted to deny the sentiment there. Stubbornness fixed him in place. Still Igraine’s words along with Gaius’ wormed into his psyche. Will’s anger along with Balinor’s indignation slapped him in the face. He might’ve turned his back on all of it….

…except that Gwen now begged him to reconsider….

Gwen….

“I can’t deny you, Gwen.” Arthur squeezed her hands in his own. “Whatever it takes to bring justice back to the land.”

“That’s the man I love talking.” Her lips painted Amor’s brush strokes across his cheek. “Just believe.”

“Believe.” Arthur exhaled. His eyes twinkled into hers.

And in that heartbeat, a bright light swept them from that place…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 [Whitgate—Physician’s Chambers]

Gwen stirred. Softness cradled her in a cocoon of sorts. Her fingertips felt a delicate yet cool fabric underneath them. “Mmm? What?” She slowly opened her eyes. “Arthur?”

“Gwen?” Merlin looked up from the adjacent table. He and Britomart stopped their research through the aged tomes stacked in front of them. Relief warmed his heart. He rushed to the bedside. “You’re awake! We didn’t know who spelled you.”

“Freya and the priestesses have been looking for answers. Meantime we’ve tried here as well, Milady,” Britomart added. “Everyone will be so relieved. My Prince, can I let Princess Mithian know?”

“If we don’t, she’ll never let me hear the end of it.” Merlin shook his head. Gwen’s awake.

Goddess be praised. I’ll be right there. And, Merlin, I might nag you a bit. Part of being that…what did you say before…bossy royal? Mithian teased over the Link.

Merlin shook his head. He knew better than to try and argue that point. He turned his attention back to Gwen. “Are you feeling ill?”

“I’m fine, Merlin. I was in my chamber. How…?” Gwen started to ask.

“Freya felt a disturbance coming from your chamber. We found you in a trance. I had you brought here. Figured it’s best to keep you safe.” Merlin shrugged. “We’ve had enough happen.”

“Has there been any improvement for Rodor?” Gwen queried. Even as she asked, she looked about the chamber once more. Her heart ached. After the exchange in the other place, Hope pressed her to seek Arthur out.

“Nay. He’s still in a coma. I wish I could do something for him, Gwen.” Merlin frowned. “Mithian’s beside herself. I’m not ready to help her rule. We need her father’s guidance.”

“You’re ready, Merlin. Mithian knows that. The knights know. I do too. We believe in you. I told Arthur as much,” Gwen affirmed.

“Arthur?” Merlin stiffened. “You talked with him? Are you sure?”

“Aye. I am.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I heard his voice. That’s what drew me into that dream place. I found him! He and I were together when this bright light glowed over us. Next thing I know, I’m back here.”

“So he’s all right?” Merlin studied her expression. Despite the fear that his former liege would try to undo everything, he wanted Arthur to be all right. He still desired to be Arthur’s staunchest ally and fellow ruler one day. He wanted Arthur’s acceptance.

“He seemed so. Merlin, you haven’t seen him. Have you?” she reported.

“Nope. Not a sign. Other than that troll impersonating him in Camelot, there’s been no word.” Merlin felt her forehead. “Morgana’s been in and out checking on you as well. She’s really surprising everyone.”

“As I told Arthur, stop the hate and watch what happens. Morgana just wanted acceptance for you all and herself,” she surmised.

“Aye.” Merlin embraced her. “Good to see you back…and that the Prat didn’t whine too much.” He felt Mithian right outside the door.

“Merlin, you’re incorrigible!” Gwen chided. Still she knew he was teasing.

“He is that,” Mithian concurred. She hustled with Britomart following closely behind. “You gave us a fright.”

“Arthur needed me. We found each other, Mithian.” Gwen hugged Mithian. “Any word from the priestesses about him, Morgana?”

“None yet. You saw him, Gwen?” Mithian asked. She glanced at Merlin. “What’s this?”

“She saw him wherever she was,” Merlin indicated. “Gwen, you seem all right. I wish you’d rest.”

“I have to find him, Merlin. Don’t get in my way,” Gwen insisted. She sat up and threw aside the comforter and sheet. Her legs supported her albeit grudgingly as she stood.

“I’d never dream of it. We’ll find him, Gwen,” Merlin assured her. He backed up a couple of steps to his wife’s side.

“We won’t rest until we do,” Mithian vowed.

Just then Gawain barged in. “Hey, Merlin! Mith! Guess what?” He grinned at Gwen. “Someone’s going to be glad to see you awake!”

“Someone? He’s here? He made it! Gawain, don’t lie to me!” Gwen pressed.

“I might have to fight the Princess if I stood between him and you, Gwen. Come on!” Gawain assured her. “Brit, that work for you?”

“I won’t stop her. My Prince?” Britomart looked to Merlin.

“You can’t stop her from finding the Clot Pole. Nope. Uh uh,” Merlin sassed. Seeing Mithian shake her head at him, he rolled his eyes. I’m teasing. All right?

You two. Honestly. At least we’re not in official business. Come on, Mithian rebutted before they followed Gawain from the chamber.

Some good news would be a good thing….

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 [Avalon]

Arthur opened his eyes. The transporting light left his eyes dazed. Spots floated in the air. He rubbed his forehead trying to stop the pounding in his forehead. Where’s Gaius when I need him? He frowned and sat up. By now everything had started to coalesce.

Instead of pure white, now everything was a giant blur.

Where am I? Can this be any worse? He ground his teeth.

“You’re alive, Arthur Pendragon. Be grateful for small favors,” a familiar voice hissed.

“That voice! I know it!” He looked this way and that. He made out several shapes resembling human forms moving around himself.

“You should. Now hold still!” the voice commanded.

He grimaced as something—a person’s fingers most likely—smeared a cold and slimy substance across his forehead. “Can that be any colder?”

“Now who’s whining like the girl, Pendragon? Give it a few heartbeats.”

True to the Voice’s word, the headache stopped. His eyes blurred into focus. He noted the thatch roof overhead and mud daub walls around himself. He sat on a rudimentary wooden cot. Then he saw his benefactor. “You! You’re the witch, Nimue!”

Nimue rolled her eyes. “Priestess to you, Arthur. You certainly owe me enough. Without me, you wouldn’t exist much less be alive! “

“Gaius said you were dead. You died…” he presumed.

“The triple goddess brought her back. As she did me,” Freya interjected from the doorway. “You do remember me as well?”

He stared at the High Priestess. His eyes narrowed. “You’re the cursed druid girl! Merlin mourned you for months. We had no choice!”

“Because of my curse, you’re right. Still it was for Merlin to give me peace. He showed warmth where none had. He released my soul in the lake outside. I do my duty for the old religion much as you do for Camelot,” Freya clarified. “Merlin and I saved you from Morgana in the throne room. Nimue and I risked a great deal to retrieve your body from Cawdor.”

“Magic is never good in its own right. You want something,” he accused.

Freya shook off Nimue’s brewing barb. “I want you to follow the Greater Good with as much care as you enforce Uther’s repressive laws against magic and my kind. I want you to make Guinevere happy. I want you to learn statecraft and handle your nobles. I want you to look after your subjects…all of them…with equal love and consideration. And to recognize Merlin as your equal without argument. Magic is responsible for you being here. It has saved your life hundreds of times without you knowing it. Your father blinded himself to magic’s benefits through his hate. Be the statesman to match the warrior and commander.”

“I promised Balinor. Did I not?” he insisted. He rolled his eyes. Once again, the split between his parents’ positions ate at him.

“You have your body back. You do realize what we risked to steal it from Cawdor?” Freya fired back. “I don’t understand why Merlin has such regard for you. Honestly!”

He is important, my High Priestess. The goddess appeared in front of them. Greetings, Arthur Pendragon. I do have your promise. It is not worth much given our history however.

He coughed. “I had a kingdom to govern. My father fought to bring Camelot from the darkness.”

You mean bring about anarchy for the sake of his own ego? He might as well had tried to grasp a handful of slop with how he handled matters of state. He made a bigger mess of things. He engendered the hatred of Morgause and Morgana. He brought about the current state of affairs. It is for you to correct Uther’s oversights. End the suffering. Be a just King. I do not ask your conversion. I just want you to allow my people to co-exist within your borders. That would be a start, the goddess disagreed.

“The nobles would never allow it. You don’t order me when it comes to Camelot.” He looked about the hut.

“But another you rules there now. Guinevere and you have no army. If you fight alone, you cannot win. However if you work with the rest of Britannia, your friends and allies will assist you,” Nimue pointed out. “Quite a quandary. Is it not?” She sniggered.

It seems we need each other, Arthur Pendragon. If you choose to resume your previous course, you will isolate yourself. Moreover you will find yourself in a war with Nemeth and Tintagel to the south as well as Cawdor to the north. Not even at its peak could Camelot have won a two front conflict. Your kingdom is at its nadir rather than its peak. Nimue’s proposal is the only one you can honestly consider if you care for your people as you claim to. The goddess made Arthur float in front of herself. I could crush you like a spoiled grape if I wished to. Be grateful my servants value you as a King and friend. I will be watching. The triple goddess rubbed her chin.

“You brought my kingdom to ruin?” Arthur accused.

It was your own mismanagement that led to Camelot’s ruin. You delegated far too much. You prefer your military role to the political. You must balance yourself. Learn that for everyone’s sake. The goddess looked to the sky. It is time for you to return. Remember if you wish to remain on Camelot’s throne, work with my people. End the repression and bloodshed. Ally with your neighbors against the Red Knight. The goddess’ eyes glowed emerald.

He felt himself being swept away once again….

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 [Whitgate—Guest Chamber]

For the second time in under an hourglass’ turn, Arthur blinked his eyes open. Indignation burned in his craw over the goddess’ dismissal. He wasn’t as inclined to work with the Priestesses after such a lecture. “Rubbish.” His vision came into focus. The guest bedchamber wasn’t like any in Camelot. “What am I doing here?”

“You were brought here, Dear Brother. It is the safest place at the moment,” Morgana pointed out. She sat beside him in a rather nondescript chair. She sipped from a small cup of wine. “You never understand. Do you?”

“I suppose you’re the witch holding me captive,” he presumed.

She shook her head. “Arthur, you were being held captive in Cawdor. The High Priestess Freya, Nimue and I freed you. Gwen risked her life to free you from the Sorceress’ nightmare realm. A little gratitude would be nice. And nay, I am not seeking to harm you. I don’t want Camelot’s throne. I am willing to leave that to you. You can thank Merlin and Mithian for their hospitality. This is Whitgate not Tintagel. I am not your enemy any longer.”

“Then you gave up magic?” he supposed.

“I was stripped of my magic and received it back. I am earning the goddess’ respect and trust once again, Arthur. In the meantime, I work on the other parts of my rule and life. Accolon and I rule together. I cooperate with my neighbors. You might try to do the same,” Morgana suggested.

“The world changes, Arthur. We work together. Some of us were brought back in the right way,” Lancelot concurred.

“Lancelot? Are you a shade again?” Arthur stiffened. He recalled the previous incarnation of Lancelot’s revived self.

“Nay. I am myself again. I have my life and duty once again. Here in Whitgate, I serve Nemeth. I am married and have lands. I am able to see Merlin live his dreams at least once we get past Meleagant’s schemes. Not long ago, I would’ve been the last to say ‘trust Morgana’. Now I am saying it. Think on that,” Lancelot explained.

“You got that, Lance.” Gawain confirmed. He rubbed Josiane’s arm. “Want me to get Merlin and Mith?”

“That’d be a good idea, Gawain. Thank you,” Lancelot accepted.

“Just find them quickly. You can do that?” Morgana supposed.

“I’m full of surprises.” Gawain sniffed before leaving the chamber. “Just keep Arthur out of trouble.” With that, he headed for the passage.

Arthur watched his former knight leave. “Lancelot, how can this be possible? How can Gawain be wearing Nemeth’s colors?”

“A great deal has changed since you were taken, Arthur. Many of your former knights have gone their own ways. Percival rules in Mercia. Leon and Elyan serve as Morgana’s knights in Tintagel. Tristan and Isolde serve with Gawain and me,” Lancelot explained.

“He looks like the other one,” Josiane noted. “How can we be sure of his intent?” She looked him over.

“And you are?” Arthur regarded her in turn.

“I am Princess Josiane of Egypt. My father ruled there until the rebels overthrew him. Now I am an exile. My mother is from this island. Until the time I can regain my throne, I will serve alongside my friends and family,” Josiane informed him.

“She is a Princess from the other side of the Roman Sea, Arthur. As Lancelot told you, a great deal has changed since you were taken from Camelot,” Morgana noted.

“And you’re behind this, Morgana,” Arthur presumed.

She sighed heavily. “If you mean by being behind this that I brought Mithian to Camelot then aye. I had a role. I never thought she and Merlin would forge their bond. I never foresaw any of this. Open your eyes and ears, Arthur. Change can be a good thing.” Sarcasm lit her eyes and her smirk.

“Especially if your King keeps you in check,” Arthur presumed.

“Accolon and I are partners. He doesn’t rule me nor I him,” Morgana sniped back. Outrage burned in her glare. Her mouth twisted into a dark frown. “Not long ago, I’d have made you suffer for that.” She shook her head.

“Queen Morgana, he isn’t worth it.” Josiane shook her head. “Don’t give into hate.”

“Well said,” Lancelot complimented. “Arthur, while Nemeth has a great deal in common with Camelot, we tolerate a great deal here. We don’t share Uther’s views or yours of magic. Frankly Merlin did a great deal for you. Because of your views, he had to do it from the shadows.”

“And you knew?” Arthur rubbed his forehead.

“Aye. I knew from the very beginning and kept his secret. Merlin has always been a great friend and brother. He has done nothing but open a world of possibilities for those of us around him. And what happens when Princess Mithian opened this door?” Lancelot sighed.

“I’m surprised he didn’t trip himself up first.” Arthur shook his head.

Josiane cursed in her native tongue. “How can you be so demeaning to the man who served you so loyally? HOW? It is said that you reap what you sow in this life. You are here because of this Purge I’ve heard so much about. Merlin is here because of his kindness and reverence toward others. Perhaps you might take something from our Prince!”

“She has a point, Arthur. Your principles are without equal. The problem is you bend them to suit your means. I’ve seen as much. Just consider these things,” Lancelot implored. “I’m glad Elaine stayed back.”

“Elaine?” Arthur queried.

“Aye. Lady Elaine of Astolat is my wife. Her mother was a tremendous healer. Uther had her burned at the stake because of her healing magic. She apparently never hurt anyone or anything. I help her to deal with that now. You are so tremendously fortunate, Arthur. You have your loyal subjects. You will have your throne back if we have anything to say about it. You have the love of a special woman. Your sister wants to forgive you.” Lancelot glanced at Morgana. “I in turn have forgiven her.” He extended his hand toward Morgana.

“I appreciate that, Lancelot. Thank you,” Morgana expressed. “You see what understanding can accomplish? Your way leads to pain. We are trying to build something better here.”

Arthur averted his eyes from the group. “Better? With Merlin as a Prince? Morgana….”

“You might be surprised what Merlin can accomplish, Arthur. Lancelot put it well enough,” Morgana insisted. “Besides he and Mithian are only following your own example.” Snark pushed a chuckle from her mouth. “What Gwen and you did, they are doing as well. Seems you are guilty of that double standard after all. Aren’t you?”

Before anyone else could respond, Gawain marched back in. “ Found them in the Physician’s Chambers! And….”

Gwen pushed past Gawain. She rushed into the chamber. “ARTHUR!” She all but jumped into the bed. She embraced him. “You made it!”

Arthur said no words. He pulled Gwen close to him. His lips pressed firmly against hers. He wanted little else except her. His subjects needed him. Still in that heartbeat, all he needed was that wonderful woman in his arms. He desired Gwen. “This is what got me through that ordeal. I knew you’d find me.”

“I’ll never give up on you, Arthur. Never,” Gwen vowed. “Neither did our friends.” She smiled back at the gathering watching from across the chamber. “My apologies, Princess Mithian. I didn’t mean….”

Mithian smiled. “Fate has moved us to where we should be, Gwen. Why apologize?” She put her arm around Merlin’s waist. She set her head on his shoulder.

Merlin simply kissed the top of her head. Affection flowed between them buoying their spirits.

“I still can’t believe it. Merlin, I just can’t…” Arthur denied.

“Lot of things you don’t know,” Gawain insisted. “Maybe you might want to listen, Princess? Those of us who know ol’ Merlin aren’t surprised. Just great that he found someone who appreciates him and treats him well. He and I both have our claims. When we deal with Big Red, I’ll see to mine.”

“Yours? Gawain, you’re not noble. You…” Arthur stared.

“We learned as much back in Ealdor,” Mithian revealed. “Arthur, there are many things we all need to learn. As much as our courtship was embarrassing and hurtful to me at the end, I received a great many things from it. Best of all, I have my Prince at last.” She grinned at him.

“Who has who?” Merlin kissed his Princess on the cheek.

Just remember your rough edges, Merlin. Mithian grinned back at him.

“Now he’s acting like a girl. Just stop, Merlin, already.” Arthur rolled his eyes.

“Arthur, stop with the insults,” Gwen admonished. She snuggled against him. “We’re fortunate Merlin’s here. Mithian and he are building something special. We should celebrate that. We need them to regain Camelot.”

“Gwen, what would Father say?” Arthur protested.

“Arthur, did you or did you not say Camelot had to be for everyone? You promised when you became King, you’d change rules and customs. Well it’s time to keep your word. I’ll make sure you do,” Gwen argued.

“Besides you know George is waiting to polish that silver,” Merlin jabbed in spite of himself.

“So not helping, Merlin.” Arthur glared daggers at the resident Prince. “Still I did make those promises. For now though, can Gwen and I spend some time by ourselves? I appreciate you all being here but….”

“We get it.” Gawain coughed. “Just can’t wait. Can you?” Devilry sparkled in his eyes. “Just do what I’d do and…” He saw Britomart shaking her head at him. “Whatever.” He shook his head before departing.

“Just rest, Arthur. We can speak later,” Merlin told him. He took Mithian’s hand and led the others from that place.

“Unreal. Merlin’s a Prince. Gawain is a secret noble. Lancelot’s back again,” Arthur marveled. Disbelief numbed him for several heartbeats.

“All part of that new world we dreamed about. Now can we deal with it?” Gwen supposed. She smirked. “Gawain had the right idea.”

“Oh? He did have one not involving a cask?” Arthur teased.

“Aye. He did.” She leaned close to him. Once more her lips touched his.

And in that heartbeat, despite all of the problems, all seemed right with the world…..

Chapter Text

Conclusion [Next Day]

After allowing him to get his bearings, Merlin and Mithian led Gwen and Arthur on a tour of the palace and surrounding grounds. They reveled in a horseback ride outside of the city. They enjoyed the tapestries and art contained in the palace. (Well Arthur acted like he did anyhow.)

Still Arthur couldn’t believe the garden or its enclosing glass dome. Despite Chill still dampening early growth outside, he simply stared at the tropical plants and beautiful blooms. He shook his head.

“It’s something else. Isn’t it?” Merlin admired.

“You did this?” Arthur assumed.

“I played my part. Aye.” Merlin squeezed Mithian’s hand. “It was her wedding present. I had help from our friends, Arthur.” He stopped in front of the lilacs. “This suit you?”

“It does. Thank you.” Mithian set a picnic basket down beside them. “Perfect place for a picnic. Michael promised a feast. Sorry there’s no blanket or anything.”

“It’s lovely as is. Thank you, Mithian. This is a beautiful spot,” Gwen admired. “Wouldn’t you say, Arthur?” She patted the ground next to herself.

“Hmm? It’s nice I suppose.” Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. “Even if magic maintains it.”

Mithian rubbed Merlin’s arm supportively. “Magic may maintain it. Love created it. That’s what we want to share. Not all magic is evil. It’s just like every other weapon or force. Some are good. Some are evil.”

“This is what is possible, Arthur. This is my paradise.” Merlin declared. He leaned close to Mithian.

Nice way to put it, my Prince, Mithian complimented him.

Arthur shook his head. “So what has your cook made for us? I am famished and await his feast.”

“Capon and vegetable skewers. Josiane has showed Michael some of her region’s cooking, it is quite enjoyable,” Mithian indicated. She handed one to their guests and then to her Prince.

“I’ll second that. Too bad we didn’t have anything like this back in Camelot,” Merlin lamented.

“I didn’t exactly see you starve, Merlin.” Arthur bit into the skewer. To his surprise, he enjoyed the spices and taste. “It is different. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I actually like this.”

“You see, Arthur? New things can be good,” Gwen supposed.

“Umm…yeah. I like some of the old as well. I might even have Merlin move the basket to another spot…” Arthur started.

Three sets of eyes conveyed Disapproval’s message clearly.

“Relax. I’m kidding.” Arthur put his hands up defensively. He took another bite.

“Even the Prat can learn. Who would’ve guessed?” Merlin jabbed back. He grinned at his former liege before biting into his own lunch.

In the face of the brewing storm, such an oasis proved welcome…..

 

THE END (for now)