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Just A Handful Of Stardust

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A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?” A pointless inquiry, really. The better question is, do the stars gaze back?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Our story really begins two hundred and fifty years ago, with a young man, a baby, and a town called Wall. So named because of the wall that ran alongside it. A wall, that, according to local folklore, hid an extraordinary secret.

***

“Uther, please. You must go,” a young woman pleaded. She was tall, and as regal as royalty ought to be. “They’ll kill you, if you don’t.”

Her lover, Uther, stood stubbornly at her side. “Come with me, Ygraine. I won’t leave you at their mercy.” He reached out, stroking her long, golden hair in a comforting gesture. Not long ago, it would have left her weak in the knees. “I won’t cross the wall without you.”

A wailing sound interrupted her reply, and she started, having nearly forgotten the bundle in her arms. She made a soft shushing sound, rocking the bundle until the crying had eased. Turning back to the man, Ygraine tried to smile. “I cannot. As awful as they can be, Uther, they’re my brothers. My family. I cannot abandon them.”

Uther huffed. “Your father, Ygraine, he’ll have you killed if—”

“If he discovers Arthur. I know, my love, which is why you must take him away. Cross the wall. Protect our son, Uther.” Uther tried once more to object, but was silenced by the brush of her lips against his own. The bundle was pushed gently into his arms, and Ygraine pulled away. “Please, my love.”

Uther grunted in anger, but was careful not to jostle the baby now secured safely in his arms. “You want me to cross the wall— which no one does— and raise our child in the mortal realm without you? And leave you to be killed by your brothers.

“He’ll be safer with you, as far away from Camelot as possible. They won’t kill me, I’m sure of it.”

“I cannot do this without you, Ygraine. I don’t know how.”

Ygraine let her tears fall freely, now. She leaned in, focused entirely on the contents of his arms, now. Delicate hands moved aside the blankets and revealed the chubby, pink cheeks of their son. Leaning in, she pressed a hasty kiss on the sleeping child’s forehead. When her gaze returned to her lover, she was relieved to find his expression resigned. “You can, Uther. For him, you can.”

***

For hundreds of years, the wall had successfully done it’s job of hiding the magical kingdom of Camelot.

The young Uther learned, the night he crossed the wall, that Camelot was as much a legend in the mortal realm as the mortal realm was in Camelot. And so, heartbroken at the thought of losing his beloved Ygraine, Uther did his best to forget his life before Wall. Twenty-three years past, and the baby Arthur grew up, knowing nothing of his unconventional heritage.

But never mind how the infant became a boy. This is the story of how Arthur Pendragon becomes a man: a much greater challenge altogether. For to achieve it, he must win the heart of his one true love.

***

Arthur Pendragon had never been remarkable at anything. He was no great politician, though he always thought he’d be decent if presented the opportunity to try. He couldn’t draw or paint or sculpt, and writing beyond the realistic was never his forte. He’d done alright in school, gotten okay scores in mathematics and the sciences, and he could read as well as anyone else. Perhaps he could have improved on his studies, his father scolded, were he not daydreaming about knights and swords and great battles and rescuing damsels in distress. His imagination was nothing to be worried about, the villagers would say. After all, what shop boy didn’t dream of adventure?

Anything he did show proficiency in, well, Uther was adamant on shutting it down quickly. It wasn't that Arthur wasn't allowed to be good at things, per say, just that his father seemed hard-set on making sure no one except the two of them was aware of it. The boy had learned long ago not to question the man's overprotectiveness, lest he be met with nothing more than a cold glare and a weeks extra chores. So Arthur lived his life as average as he possibly could, avoiding any and all things that peaked his interest. All things except, of course, his soon-to-be lady love.

Arthur pondered his unremarkableness as he adjusted his collar, pacing nervously outside the Sidhe household. It was well after dark, but he knew the maiden of the house was often awake long after the rest of the village had gone to sleep. Taking a deep breath, the young man picked up a pebble and tossed it towards the second floor, grinning in satisfaction as it hit the window. He heard giggling, and quickly leaned down to grab the bouquet of wild flowers he’s collected earlier that day. As he stood back up, he was delighted to see Sophia open the window, her friends still giggling behind her.

“Valiant?” She called, leaning out.

Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly. “It’s Arthur, actually.”

“Oh,” she gave him a polite smile as the giggling died down. Arthur perked up a bit at the gesture, however small. Sophia Sidhe was the most beautiful girl in the village, by anyone’s standards. He'd known since he was thirteen and she complimented the brand-new jacket his father had gotten him for his birthday that she would someday be his bride.

“Did I leave something at the shop?” She tucked her long, copper hair behind her ear and glanced back into the room, shushing her friends.

“No,” he assured her, “I just thought I could bring—” He was cut off by a sharp whipping sound of the wildflowers being slashed out of his hand. He turned, only to find a foil pressed sharply against his chest.

“Arthur Pendragon. Shop boy by day, peeping tom by night. Is there no end to your charms?” The sickeningly confident voice sent shivers down Arthur's spine. Valiant, the towns own resident Gaston. Of course he’d be here. Why not?

“Valiant, there’s no need to be like that,” Sophia’s angelic voice called down to them, as if from the heavens. “Be nice to the poor boy.”

Valiant glanced towards the ground, smirking at the sight of the crushed wildflowers that Arthur had previously bee holding. “Ah, were those for Sophia?”

Arthur followed his gaze before looking back at Valiant. His foil was still pointed at Arthur, and in his other hand he held a bouquet of a dozen red roses. The blonde knew he could easily disarm the larger man, had he been allowed to nurture his natural skills. Still, as unpracticed at he was, he would not be made a fool of in front of Sophia. Arthur lunged, grabbing a large stick from the ground and swiping at Valiant with it. Valiant was quick to block the pathetic attempt, knocking the stick out of Arthurs hands and jabbing him with the foil. Arthur fell to the ground, landing on his back.

“You always were useless at fencing in school, Arthur,” Valiant snickered, moving away from where the blond still lay on the ground. Arthur groaned internally. “In fact, I’m having trouble remembering if there was anything you were good at.”

“Valiant, that’s enough,” Sophia called, her friends once more returning to their giggling. Arthur wondered if any of them had actual personalities. Valiant smiled at her, swaggering around the side of the house towards the front door without sparing another look at the young man on the ground.

“Are you alright?” Sophia asked him.

Arthur grinned at the attention. “Yeah, yeah. Fine.”

Sophia snorted, falling back into a fit of giggling as she closed the window once more.

As Arthur trudged home that night, he resolved not to tell his father.

***

Arthur ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He avoided eye contact with his father, who was sitting at their kitchen table looking as stern as ever. Throwing on his coat, he brushed off his father’s offer of breakfast.

“I’m really late for work,” he explained, running out the front door and slamming it behind him without another glance. Uther stared in amusement at the place where his son had just been standing.

Arthur smiled at the customer in front of the counter, counting out her change exactly and waving her out the door. It was a Friday, and the shop was packed with customers. He stared at the growing line forlornly, but continued to politely assist the customers as best he was able. He’d not been lying about being late this morning, and his boss was already in a foul mood. He found it was best to just do as he was told so as to avoid any more trouble.

“Hello, Arthur,” a sharp voice cut him off as he greeted the next customer. He looked to the right of the line, to find a familiar young lady who’d walked up to the counter.

“Sophia! Wha—”

“Pound of sugar, please.”

Arthur froze, his mouth opening and closing for a moment as he looked between Sophia and his current customer. The people in line looked at him expectantly, as were it anyone else they’d have been sent to wait their turns. He turned back to Sophia to do so, but one look had him quickly obeying her request.

“Let’s see, um, a bag of flour, a dozen eggs,” she continued to list groceries as he scrambled around the counter to retrieve her items. “Oh, look, I’m sorry about last night. Valiant was really rude.” She smiled innocently at the customers in line. “I also need a sack of potatoes and some chocolate, please.”

“Right.” Arthur stacked the items on the counter in front of her. “May I, perhaps, see you tonight?”

“No. But you may walk me home.”

“Wha— now?” Arthur asked, turning to see his boss still glaring at him.

“Yes, now.” Sophia turned, exiting the shop. Bad idea, Arthur. Terrible idea. You'll be sacked this time. Arthur hesitated a moment before lifting her groceries into his arms and following her out.

***

“Father, I lost my job.”

Arthur shook his head and rolled his shoulders, looking back into the mirror to attempt a more humble approach. “Father, I lost my job, I’m sorry.”

He groaned, running a nervous hand through his hair. “Father—”

“You lost your job.” A deep voice spoke from behind him. “Yes, so I heard.”

Arthur turned around slowly, doing his best to look his father in the eye. “Father,” he greeted. “I’m sorry. I— it was just, Sophia was there and I. . .”

Uther’s ever-present frown deepened. “Sophia? What does this have to do with the Sidhe girl?”

Arthur slumped his shoulders, gesturing for his father to sit as he explained the situation. He recounted the tale of the night before, leaving out their almost swordfight to preserve what was left of his dignity.  “Maybe Valiant is right,” Arthur concluded. “I mean, I’m not good enough for Sophia.”

“I take it it didn’t go so well last night, then,” Uther stated. It wasn’t a question.

“No. No, not really.” Arthur hated admitting to it. No matter their station, Uther was a man of pride. He believed soundly that admitting defeat was admitting weakness. “I mean, come on, I’m not like Valiant.”

Uther sighed heavily, reaching out to place a hand on his sons shoulder. “No, you’re not like Valiant. I take that as a very good omen. The people in this town, they'll never see outside it's borders, no matter how far they travel. You have a destiny far beyond what lies in this village.”

Arthur tried not to show his surprise at his fathers, well, fatherly behavior. His father had always been a strict man, regal beyond his station, and distant. Despite the harshness of his manner, though, Arthur knew his father only wanted the best for him. He gave the man an appreciative smile before standing. He had an idea.

***

That night, Arthur found himself once more outside Sophia’s window. Much to his relief there was no giggling as the pebble hit the glass. Sophia opened it and leaned out, groaning at the sight of the blond. “Arthur, I clearly said—”

“I know, you told me not to come. But I have something for you. A surprise,” Arthur looked up at her hopefully. Sophia rolled her eyes. He noticed she did that quite a lot.

She closed the window without another word, and Arthur felt the slightest bit of disappointment. He waited a moment, just in case she returned, before sighing and turning slowly to begin the walk home. Much to his surprise, Sophia appeared from around the side of the hour, taking his arm with a bemused expression. “It’s not my birthday for another week, you know.”

An hour later, he found himself in the meadow near the wall, Sophia at his side, as they feasted on fresh bread and fruit and champagne that he’d spent all of his savings on earlier that day. Candles surrounded them as they lay on a blanket, laughing at one of Arthurs earlier plights.

“So, how does a shop boy afford a moonlight picnic?” She asked, slightly tipsy from the champagne.

“I’m not a shop boy,” Arthur defended quickly.

Sophia seemed to realize her mistake. “Right, I heard, I’m sorry. What are you going to do now?”

Arthur sat up. “No, I mean, I’m not a shop boy. I was just working in a shop.” He popped a grape into his mouth before continuing. “And now I’m not, now I’m free to live my life as I wish. I’ve never intended to stay in Wall, I’m going to go off into the world and make my fortune.”

Sophia laughed. “You sound just like Valiant. He’s quite the traveler, you know. He’s gone all the way to Ealdor just to buy me a ring.”

“Ealdor?” Arthur laughed. “Sophia, I’m talking about Mercia! Or the Vale, or— wait, a ring? Why is he. . . what kind of a ring?” He felt something pool in his stomach, but he wasn’t sure exactly what to call it.

Sophia smiled. “Rumor is he’s going to propose to me on my birthday.”

Arthur frowned, feeling much like his father in that moment. “And you’re going to say yes.”

“Well, I can’t exactly say no after he’s gone all the way to Ealdor.”

“All the way to Ealdor?” Arthur asked her incredulously. “Sophia, for your hand in marriage I’d cross oceans. For your hand in marriage I would go to the golden fields of west Mercia and bring you back your weight in gold!”

Sophia giggled, blushing a bit. “Really?”

“Yes! Sophia, for your hand in marriage, I’d go to Africa and bring you back a diamond as big as your fist.” As he spoke, she began to lean closer to him, her champagne long forgotten. “Or I’d go to the Arctic and slaughter a polar bear and. . .” he swallowed as she got ever closer, “bring you back it’s head."

Sophia pulled back. “A polar bears head?” she exclaimed in disgust. He closed his eyes, realizing his mistake. She giggled more, reaching out to poke him. “You’re funny, Arthur. But people like you and people like me, we’re just not. . .”

He nodded in understanding and shifted away. He knew she didn't truly believe that, she mustn't, but he admired her loyalty to her family and station. Now, how to change her mind. . .

Had Arthur known then how the stars watched Earth, he’d have shuddered at the very thought of having an audience to his humiliation. Fortunately for him, nearly every star in the sky was looking in earnest at the land at the other side of the wall, where the King of all of Camelot lay in his deathbed. This was quite the coincidence, because it was the king’s final act that would change the course of Arthur’s destiny forever.

***

King Odin lay in his bed, looking, to his sons’ annoyance, as unimpressed with his children as ever. “Where is Agravaine?”

“He’s on his way, Father,” Mordred reassured the man, while sharing a look of understanding with his brother Sigan. Their eldest brother, Cenred, watched them silently.

“Then we shall wait,” Odin spoke harshly.

The doors to their fathers chambers opened loudly, and Agravaine swaggered in dressed in the red and gold of a king. The other three brothers rolled their eyes. “Sorry I’m late, Father,” he spoke loudly. He bowed low to the bedridden king before turning to his brothers. “Cenred. Sigan. Mordred,” he greeted each with disdain.

“So,” Odin began, bored already with the formalities, “to the matter of succession. Of my seven sons, there are four of you still here today. This is quite a break in tradition. I had twelve brothers, and-”

“And you killed them all for your throne before your father the king even felt poorly.” Cenred replied. “We know, Father. You’re strong and courageous.”

The king nodded. “And cunning. Most importantly cunning." He studied the four men before him for a moment, his gaze landing on the least inconspicuous of the bunch. "Agravaine. Look out the window, tell me what you see.”

Agravaine gave his brothers a cocky smirk, walking to the window. He stared out of it for a moment, admiring the view from the tower. Beyond the mountain where their castle was built, he could see Camelot, stretching out all the way to the east ocean. “I see the kingdom, father.” He grinned, turning back to the others. “The whole of Camelot.”

“And?” Odin pressed.

Agravaine puffed his chest. “My kingdom?”

Odin pretended to ponder. “Perhaps. Look up.”

Agravaine did as he was told, leaning out to get a better look at the stars. Odin turned away from his sons, exhausted with this conversation. Cenred grinned at his brothers distraction and leaned over to Agravaine, shoving him as hard as he could. Agravaine gave a sharp yelp as he lost his footing, falling out the window. The king and princes listened for a few moments as their falling relation screamed for his life, then silence.

Odin began to laugh. Mordred and Sigan looked at each other uneasily.

One moment, Agravaine was falling, and the next he found himself standing back in his fathers chambers, his face half-flattened by the impact. He looked down at himself to see the transparency of his hands, and heard the familiar laughter of three voices he thought he’d never have to hear again. Looking up, he was shocked to see three other transparent figures. One with an axe in his skull, one with his flesh half-burned, and one with a sword wound through his abdomen.

“Myror, Kanen, Helios!” Agravaine laughed. “You’re alive!” The three figures shook their heads, staring at him pointedly. “Oh, then I’m, uh—”

“Stuck like this till a new king is crowned,” Helios spoke, scratching at his sword wound.

Agravaine groaned. “I was that close!”

The half-burned man let out a chuckle. “Yes, well, at least you haven’t lost your looks.”

Agravaine rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, you’re not still upset over that whole murder thing, are you, Myror? I mean that was ten years ago!”

The third man laughed, throwing his head back. Agravaine ducked, narrowly avoiding the hilt of the axe in the mans head. “Lot of good it did you, huh? After all, you’re now king of all Camelot. Oh, wait, no you’re not, you’re dead.”

“Shut up, Kanen.”

The four living men in the room, oblivious to the exchanges of the dead, continued their debate about the rightful successor to the throne. Odin’s eyes had glossed over, and he turned to look at Sigan. “Ygraine? Ygraine?”

Sigan heaved a sigh. “No, Father, it’s me. Your son. Cornelius.”

“Where is your sister Ygraine?” Odin turned to look at his living sons.

Mordred rubbed his arm nervously. “No one has seen her in nearly fifteen years, Father. After her child was a stillborn and Uther ran off, she got weird for years. Then she just disappeared. We assumed the worst, don’t you remember?”

Odin frowned. Sons were born to fight and die, and the survivor would become king. But he’d always cherished his daughter. She had no claim to the throne and no male heirs, so he and his sons had allowed themselves to get attached to her, satisfied that she posed no threat. “Very well. We shall have to resolve this situation in a non-traditional manner.” He sat up weakly, removing an amulet from his neck. The ruby was about the size of a child’s fist, and as he lifted it from it’s place, the stone turned to a clear white crystal.

“Only he of royal blood can restore the ruby, and take his rightful place on the throne of Camelot.” Odin let go of the amulet, his arm falling limply to his side as he exhaled his final breath. The amulet, now glowing, floated above the kings body for a moment, as if examining the three remaining heirs in turn.

Mordred, Cenred, and Sigan all looked at each other, before simultaneously lunging for the stone. The amulet was having none of their antics, shooting out of their reach and out the window of the chambers. It soured into the sky, towards the stars, and blinked out of sight.

The three princes stood at the window, watching silently as a shooting star fell towards the Earth in the distance.

***

"Oh, Arthur, a shooting star!” Sophia exclaimed excitedly.

Arthur looked up, surprised to see that there was, in fact, a ball of light falling in the distance, clearly on the other side of the wall. He felt his heart constrict in his chest as if trying to pull him towards it.

“How beautiful,” Sophia continued.

Arthur turned to look at her, an idea forming in his mind. “More beautiful than a fancy ring from Ealdor?”

Sophia stared at the boy, confused as he took another sip of his champagne before placing it in the grass. “Sophia, for your hand in marriage, I’d cross the wall and I’d bring you back that flying star.”

Sophia blinked at him, no longer amused. “You can’t cross the wall. No one crosses the wall, now you’re just being silly.”

“I’m not being silly.” He wasn’t. For the first time in his life, Arthur was sure of something. He was sure that he was meant to cross that wall and retrieve that fallen star. For Sophia, if not for himself. Something told him it was meant to be. “For you, I’d do anything.”

Sophia thought hard for a moment, her eyebrows furrowing as she stared into her glass. “Hmm. My very own star.” She looked back at Arthur, as if seeing him in a new light. “It seems we have ourselves an agreement. You bring me that star, and you can have my hand.” She leaned in, clinking her glass against his. “You have exactly one week, Arthur Pendragon, or I’m marrying Valiant.”

***

Three hundred miles away, a young man with skin as pale as moonlight groaned and blinked open his eyes. He sat up slowly, taking note of the ache in his back. As he moved to stand, a sharp pain shot through his leg and he fell back to the ground with a cry.

The ground? Oh, this was not good.

He sat up once more, taking in his surroundings. Yes, he was definitely on the ground alright, and his ankle was twisted at an odd angle. Looking around once more, his gaze landed on a golden amulet a few feet away, inset a beautiful stone of clear crystal.

***

“Morgana! Morgause! Sisters, wake up!” And old voice croaked. The voice belonged to a woman, seemingly old enough that her age was undeterminable. Her skin was wrinkled and leathery, and what was left of her hair was in nearly transparent grey whisps around her ears.

 Two other woman groaned from the bed. Each equally as decrepid, and neither in any hurry to rise from their sleeping positions. “What is it, Nimueh?” Morgause asked irritably.

 “A star has fallen!” Nimueh shrieked, waiting for the words to sink it.

All three women stared at each other for a moment before erupting into excited shrieks. Morgana and Morgause tumbled out of the bed and chased Nimueh out of the bedroom to a storage closet down the hall. Nimueh opened the door and ran to a cabinet, throwing open the doors. “Where are the Babylon candles?”

“You used the last one, Nimueh. Two hundred years ago, do you not recall?” Morgause snapped, still half asleep.

“Perhaps we can obtain another,” piped Morgana.

Nimueh spun to face her sisters. “Has your mind become as decrepit as your face, Morgana? You speak as if such things are freely available! You’d have us hunting for a Babylon candle while some other witch finds our star. Fools. There’s no time to waste, we’ll retrieve it on foot.”

Morgana shrank back, turning to Morgause. Morgause rolled her eyes and wandered over to a wall of cages, each filled with creatures both common and exotic. She reached in to a smaller cage, murmuring comfortingly as she pulled out a ferret. Morgana looked away as her sister drew a knife and slashed the ferret across the belly. The cages erupted in shrieks and snarls, all ignored as the three sisters leaned over the small animals remains.

“The fallen star lies one hundred miles away,” Morgana spoke, reading the remains. “Four centuries we’ve waited for this. What hardship a few more days?”

“Which of us shall go, then, to seek it out?” Morgause replied.

The three sisters eyed each other, before closing their eyes and reaching towards the remains. Each grabbed an organ delicately before opening their eyes once more.

“I’ve his kidney.”

“I’ve his liver.”

Nimueh smiled cruelly. “And I’ve his heart.”

Morgana and Morgause rolled their eyes at her arrogant smirk. Morgause relented first. “You’ll be needing what’s left of the last star.”

Morgana sulked back to the cabinet, pulling out an ornate silver box and opening it, presenting the remains to Nimueh. “There’s not much left,” she spoke softly.

Nimueh grinned. “Oh, soon there’ll be plenty for us all.” She reached into the box, grabbing the silver, glowing contents in her palm. The raised her glowing fist to her lips, swallowing the remains of the heart. The three scurried towards full-sized mirror and Nimueh watched in satisfaction as the wrinkles on her hands began to smooth out. From her head grew long, rich dark hair and her lips darkened to a ruby red. Her sisters huffed as she dropped her robe, observing her newly rejuvenated body with pride.

***

“Cross the wall?” Uther repeated again, still frozen in shock at his son’s plan.

Arthur moaned. “Yes, Father. I’m going to cross the wall and bring back a gift for Sophia by her birthday.”

Uther rubbed his eyes, knowing already that he’d lost this fight. He’d always known the day would come that his son would want to travel beyond the walls borders. He’d tried his best to raise the boy with a sensible head on his shoulders, but Arthur had his mothers spirit. Still, Uther had to try. “Why can’t you get her a gift here in town? Or from somewhere nearby? There’s no need to cross the wall just for a silly girls birthday.”

Arthur closed in on himself, and Uther knew for certain the boy was hiding something from him. “There’s something specific I have to get. Something that can’t be found on this side of the wall.”

Uther wanted to press, but he’d seen that expression dozens of times before. Just never on his son. “You’re just like your mother, you know.”

The boy started, nearly jumping out of his skin at his fathers words. In the twenty-three years he’d lived with his father, the man had never once spoken of the woman who bore him. He’d asked loads of times as a kid, but given up after Uther had pointedly avoided every question. “Really?”

Uther nodded. “She was just as stubborn, knew what she wanted and didn’t stop until she got it. She loved to break the rules— though, admittedly, there were very few rules that actually applied to her.”

Arthur shifted closer to his father, latching on to every word. “What do you mean?”

Uther began to say something, then seemed to think better of it. “Her family was. . . different than others. She was quite spoiled, I suppose. But they were harsh, too. Dangerous. That’s why she asked me to run here, and take you with me.”

Arthur’s eyes widened. “What, you mean she’s still alive?”

Uther cracked a smile. “I hope so. I certainly like to think so. She wouldn’t be, not if her family found out about you. But she’s quick, likely thought up some elaborate story to cover our tracks.”

Arthur shook his head. “Father, you’re not making any sense. Her family?”

Uther stood from his seat at the table, looking down at the blond and laying a heavy hand on his shoulder. “I think it’s best I let her explain that for herself.” He moved over to the cabinet above the kitchen counter, searching for something.

“Wha— herself?” Arthur stood, pacing. This was too much to take in at once.

Uther walked back to the table. In his hand was a black box that Arthur had never seen before. “If you’ve made your mind up about crossing the wall, then this is as good a time as any for you to meet her.”

Arthur sunk back down in his chair. “My mother. . . lives on the other side of the wall?”

“Yes.”

“Did you live there?”

“Yes.”

Arthur stood, adrenaline fueling his anger as he began to pace once more. “This is too much. Why did you never tell me?”

“My first priority is to keep you safe, Arthur. As much as I’d have liked you to know your mother, she knew you’d be in danger there. I can’t explain the rest, she wants to tell you herself.” Uther lifted the box, opening it to reveal a thick black candle and a white glass flower, no bigger than his pinky. “You’ll never get past the guard at the wall. Kilgharrah takes his job very seriously. You’d end up back here with a black eye before the night was out.”

Arthur frowned. “I have to go, Father. To meet mother." And for Sophia. . .

Uther nodded. “I know.” He lifted the candle from the box, handing it to his son. “This is a Babylon candle. It was a gift from your mother. She wanted me to give it to you, when you were old enough to understand, so you could meet her.”

Arthur took the candle, examining it. “How is this supposed to help me get across the wall?”

Uther smiled, a rare sight even in the eyes if his own flesh and blood. “Light the candle, and think of your mother. Only of her, do you understand? The candle will do the rest. And here,” he took the flower, carefully placing it in Arthur's coat pocket, "for luck. It was hers."

The young man stared down at the candle, then looked back up at his father. He put his hand to his coat pocket, feeling the flower there. It was nearly weightless, but its presence gave him a form of comfort he wasn't familiar with. As skeptical as he was, Arthur knew his father was first and foremost a logical man. If he believed it to be true, who was Arthur to argue?

Arthur reached across the table, giving his father an awkward half-hug. It was most affection than either of them were used to bestowing upon each other, but he supposed it was needed in the moment. After pulling back, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a box of matches. A quick strike of the match and the candle was ablaze. Arthur barely had time to think before he felt himself disappear.

***

It was a strange feeling, travelling by candlelight. As if he were both here and there at the same time. He concentrated hard on the thought of his mother, at first. What she might be like, look like. Why she lived on the other side of the wall. At the thought of the wall, Arthur’s mind drifted to the star he’d seen fall and how excited Sophia would be when he returned with it. He felt himself be pulled, roughly, off his initial path and hours, minutes, seconds later he was crashing to the ground, landing on top of a warm body.

“Mother? Mother, I’m so sorry, I—” Arthur lifted himself up to find that he was, in fact, straddling a young man. “You’re not my mother.”

The man glared at him, and Arthur was caught for a moment in the startling blue of his eyes. He thought he could have stayed there for eternity, in that moment, before an annoyed voice replied “Do I look like your mother?”

Arthur let out a breathy laugh, moving off of the other boy quickly. “No. No, you don’t.” He stood, looking down at the boy in awe.

The young man gave a bitter laugh, shifting into a sitting position. Arthur took a moment to observe him. His skin was pale, almost worryingly so, and unblemished, as if he’d never seen the sun. His eyes, as the blond had noticed earlier, were a clear cobalt blue, making Arthur feel as if he could stare forever into them as he might the ocean. His hair was black, smooth and curled where it grew around his abnormally large ears. He was dressed in a silver silk tunic and close-fitting trousers, and there was a crystal amulet fastened around his neck. In the moonlight, he looked almost ethereal.

The boy cleared his throat, and Arthur realized he was staring. He tried to think of something to say. “Are you alright, then, do you need some help?”

“You can help by leaving me alone,” the boy spat, standing slowly and limping a few feet.

Arthur raised his hands in surrender. “Okay.” He turned, trying to figure out where he was. The ground was sloped up on all sides, and looked recently disturbed, almost as if he were in a crater.

A crater.

Realization dawned. “Light the candle and think of Mom. I was, I was thinking of my— but then Sophia and the star just popped into my head.” He whipped back around to where the strange boy was still limping. “Excuse me, this may seem strange but have you seen a fallen star anywhere?”

The boy stared at him for a moment. “Very funny.”

Arthur understood the boys disbelief, but pressed on excitedly. He spun around, his gaze landing on every lump and stone and root in the crater as he desperately searched for anything that might resemble a meteor of some kind. “No, really! We’re in a crater. This must be where it fell.”

The boy’s eyes hardened, and he gave Arthur a wide, false smile. “Actually, yeah, this is where it fell! Or, if you want to be really specific,” he pointed towards the sky behind Arthur, “up there is where this weird bloody necklace knocked it out of the heavens while it was minding its own business.” He gestured to the amulet.

Arthur blinked, not quite sure what the boy was trying to tell him. “What?”

The boy continued, ignoring him. “And over there is where it landed and injured it’s leg. And right here, well.” He looked Arthur dead in the eye. “This is where it got hit by a Magical Flying Clotpole.

          

Chapter Text

Arthur hated the word ‘gape’, he really did, but there wasn’t really another word that could be used to describe his reaction. He stared at the man in front of him, mouth slightly open in awe, for far longer than he’d like to admit. When he finally managed to kick himself into gear, the only thing he could manage to say was—

“You’re the star. . . You’re the star? Really?” He mentally scolded himself for acting like such a fool in front of a literal celestial being.

The raven-haired man rolled his eyes and tried to turn away, crying out in pain as he put too much weight on his injured leg. Arthur reached out to help him, but his hands were quickly swatted away by the annoyed boy. “Yeah, no kidding.”

The blonde shook his head, backing away slightly to give the star some room. “I didn’t expect you to be a. . . well, you know.”

The young man— star— raised an eyebrow. “A man?”

“Yeah. That does complicate things a bit.” Arthur looked the man up and down, contemplating. It was one thing to bring Sophia a lump of celestial rock to prove his love. But a man may be a bit more difficult.

The other man eyed him suspiciously. “Complicates what?”

Arthur was quiet for a moment, not quite sure what to say. He looked down at his hand where what was left of the candle was still clutched in his palm. Well, the truth couldn’t hurt. “I came to get a fallen star as a gift for Sophia, my true love. Her birthday is coming up, you see, so you’re going to have to come with me.” He looked back at the man, offering him what he hoped was a kind smile.

The young man frowned, and Arthur felt the need to pout just a bit. A creature that beautiful should never be unhappy. “Yes, because nothing says romance like the gift of a lost, injured man. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

***

Mordred sat on his knees in the throne room, staring at the podium in front of him. Upon it sat his father’s crown— a crown that would soon belong to he or one of his brothers. He wasn’t sure how he felt about this whole quest thing, exactly. But he knew he wanted the throne, if only to keep his brothers off of it. They were both the cruelest of men, much like their late father. He only hoped to be better than his predecessors.

“Hurry!” He heard a voice call. He looked up to see the Bishop scurrying towards him. “You should be on your way now, Mordred. You must find the royal necklace with the ruby before your brothers.”

The youngest prince rose from his knees at the Bishops entrance, but still couldn’t draw himself away from where the crown sits upon the pedestal. The Bishop continued, “I should like to see you take the throne. The first benevolent king. I don’t doubt Camelot would be a better place under your rule.”

“Really?” He heard Cenred’s voice call from the entrance. Mordred turned to see his eldest brother stalking towards them, followed closely by Sigan. “Well that is fascinating, don’t you think, Cornelius?”

“Yes, indeed,” Sigan replied, giving Mordred a hungry look that made the younger prince’s skin crawl.

The Bishop cleared his throat, looking nervous. “Prince Cenred, Prince Cornelius,” he greeted the two, “Well. . . well, well, um, since you’re all here, why don’t you join me in a toast?” He gestured for a servant in the corner.

A young boy, no more than thirteen, brought them a tray with four goblets. Each of the men took one wearily, looking at each other with untrusting eyes. The Bishop pretended not to notice, raising his own glass. “To the new King of Camelot, whichever of you fine gentlemen it may be,” he toasted, bringing the goblet to his lips.

“To the King of Camelot,” the three princes repeated, each drinking their own wine in turn. There was silence for a moment as the princes set their wine back on the tray and the servant boy returned to his post. Then, a loud choking sound startled Mordred. He turned to see the Bishop hacking loudly, his own hand clutched around his neck. The three princes watched in horror as he collapsed, falling next to the podium. Poison.

For a moment, Mordred could only stare in shock at his oldest friend lying dead on the floor. When he returned his gaze to his siblings, he caught them both looking at him and each other in suspicion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. After a long minute, each breathed a sigh of relief when nothing else happened. Sigan began to laugh, then stopped to clutch his own throat. Within moments, he too was dead on the floor.

Cenred whipped around to stare at Mordred, pointing an accusing finger at his younger brother. “You t—” he began to choke, and Mordred took a step back, watching in horror as his eldest and final brother collapsed backwards, black coat sprawled around him as he lies dead on the floor.

Then there was silence.

Mordred looked at the three bodies around him, then back at the podium. He wasn’t sure how the poison got in their wine, but if he was the last surviving brother, then. . .

He tentatively took the crown in his hands, staring at it in awe. Just as he was about to lift it to his head, however, he heard harsh laughter. He looked up to see Cenred, still lying on the floor, pointing at him and laughing as if he were the royal fool. Mordred rolled his eyes and dropped the crown back to its resting place.

“You really thought you were king!” Cenred wiped tears from his eyes and stood back up.

“You killed the Bishop,” Mordred accused, looking away from where his brother was still laughing.

Cenred’s laughter died down, but the satisfied grin was still plain on his face. “No, Mordred, I think you’ll find that you killed the Bishop. By drinking out of the wrong cup.”

Mordred sagged in defeat, still staring at his friends’ body sadly. Cenred rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, when you’re done wrestling with your conscience may I suggest you return to your chamber? Leave the quest for the stone to me, little brother.”

***

Morgana hummed to herself a bit as she laced up Nimueh’s corset, ignoring her sisters as the bickered over the state of the castle in which they lived. It happened every time Nimueh got to rejuvenate herself. She would lose eighty years or so and suddenly decide that she deserved to live in a shiny, clean palace and have all of the best clothing. The other two sisters were used to her greed by now, but it still irritated them to no end.

“Ugh. How have we lived this way all these years?” She stepped away from her sisters, looking over the room. It was dark and cold and covered in cobwebs. She sniffed, turning up her nose and snapping her fingers. Her blue eyes flashed gold, and the chandeliers that lined the room all lit up at once, revealed a large throne room.

She turned back to her sisters, and the three shared bitter smiles. Morgana picked up a ruby red ring, rubbing it a bit before sliding it on to Nimueh’s finger. Morgause picked up a knife that looked suspiciously like a large shard of glass and handed it to the brunette. Nimueh tucked the weapon into her waistband and looked back over the room.

“In my absence, I expect you to make it fit for the queens we are,” she reached out, tracing Morgana’s cheek with fondness. “Worry not, sisters. When I return with our prize, all of us shall be young again.”

***

Arthur groaned as the star man let out yet another sharp cry, indicating he was once again attempting to walk. The blonde looked up from where he had curled up on the ground in an attempt to sleep, huffing in annoyance. “Don’t you ever sleep?”

The boy looked at him as if Arthur had just asked the sum of two and two. “Not at night. It may have escaped your notice, dollophead, but that’s when stars have rather better things to do. You know, like coming out. Shining. That sort of thing.”

Arthur grumbled and laid back down. “Well, it may have escaped yours, but you’re not in the sky anymore. Coming out is off the agenda. Shining has been suspended until further notice,” he closed his eyes. “And sleeping during the day is out, too, unless you have some magical ability to sleep while you’re walking.”

The young man rolled his eyes. “Have you not got it into your thick head yet? I’m not walking anywhere. I’m injured, and no part of being presented as a prize to some woman sounds appealing in any way.”

Arthur huffed. He stood, grabbing the coat he’s been using as a pillow and shrugging it back on his shoulders. It appeared he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. “Fine. Sit in a crater. I’ve had enough of you, anyway.”

The boy seemed satisfied with this answer. He seemed to have given up on attempting to move, choosing instead to sit on the ground and examine his necklace.

Arthur made to leave, shoving his hands into his pockets. His hand hit something waxy and small, and he suddenly remembered the candle. “You know, I was going to put you back into the sky after I brought you to Sophia, but clearly you’d rather sit on your own in the middle of nowhere.”

“Oh, and how exactly were you planning on getting me back to the sky?” The boy asked sarcastically.

Arthur smirked, pulling the now much-shorter candle out of his pocket. “I always find that the best way to travel is by candlelight.”

The young man eyes widened and he leaned towards Arthur. “You’ve got a Babylon candle?”

Arthur nodded, “Yeah, I’ve got a bubbling candle.”

“Babylon.”

“That’s what I said.”

“You said bubbling.”

Arthur ignored him, continuing with his previous topic. “Anyway, I was going to give what’s left of it to you.”

To the blonde’s satisfaction, the other man seemed intrigued by the idea. He stared at the candle longingly before glancing back at Arthur. “That barely has one use left,” he spoke slowly, as if Arthur were about to change his mind.

“Well then you should be grateful I’m not using it right now to get us back to the wall. Unless you’ve got a better way of getting yourself home.” The two young men looked at each other for a moment, both already knowing Arthur had won.

“Fine. Help me up.”

Arthur did as he was asked, wrapping the boy’s arm around his shoulders and moved them both into something that could be considered a standing position. “You are gonna have to move quicker than that, otherwise I’ll never get you back to Sophia in time.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

***

“And don’t take less than a florin for him, Jonas, you understand?” a ratchety voice called from inside the hovel. There were buckets and half-finished plates of rotten fruit scattered about the grass, and next to what could barely constitute a front yard was a large, circular piece of wood leaning against the wall that was clearly meant to serve as a door. The “house” was actually no more than a cave, and the owners clearly hadn’t tried very hard to hide the fact.

Nimueh strolled up to the hovel, watching in amusement as a young man with a hunched back struggled to keep his goat on a rope. “Yes, Lady Catrina!” he called back, placing a name to the haggard voice. He hadn’t noticed the witch on the lawn.

“And don’t you dare even think about stopping at the tavern, Jonas, or you’ll be sorry! No dilly-dallying!”

Jonas replied with another “Yes, Lady Catrina!” before turning towards the road, stopping at the sight of the newly-young witch. “Oh, um, hello.” His eyes scanned her figure with a look she hadn’t received in nearly fifty years, and she offered him a smile in return.

“A florin for your goat, boy,” she offered, maintaining eye contact. She flicked her wrist at her side, and a single-person sized black carriage appeared behind her.

He looked behind her, noticing the cart with a nervous gulp. “Oh! Um,” he glanced between the goat and the carriage. “He’s a little small to pull your cart, don’t you think?”

She hummed, glancing down at the goat. “You’re quite right.” She gave him another arsenic-laced smile and took a step forward, reaching out to stroke his cheek. His eyes widened and he shifted nervously, beginning to panic as her eyes glowed gold. The next moment, the boy was gone, and in his place was a goat only slightly larger than the other. Nimueh sniffed and grabbed both goats by the horns, pulling them over to her carriage and hooking them to the ropes.

“That’s much better,” she murmured to herself before glancing down at her hand. The skin on her arm had begun to spot with age, and she could see where the skin was loosened. “Ugh.”

***

And so the ageless priestess rode, seeking the prize of eternal youth.

Clear on the other side of Camelot, two princes— one armed with his best men, the other in a lone carriage— set off in separate directions in search of a red ruby necklace.

(Well, perhaps the younger prince was not so alone, as within his carriage sat the arguing ghosts of five slain brothers, all impatient to get this quest business over and done with.)

In the mountains near the west forest, an irritated shop boy and his limping celestial companion bickered as they made their way down the road to destiny.

***

Nimueh had been riding for nearly four hours before she finally made the decision to stop and rest. She slowed her goats and stepped off of her cart, climbing over the hilltop to where she sensed she may find what she was looking for.

As she had predicted, on the other side of the hill was nestled a gypsy’s caravan. The caravan itself was a horrendous yellow color, and from the windows hung charms of rodent bones and maidens hair. Nimueh fought the urge to roll her eyes at the practically amateur protection charms. On the ledge of one of the windows was perched a small falcon, who spared barely a glance at the witch before turning away in an almost human-like manner. Outside the caravan sat a single women, a plump old thing with warts and spikes all over and a hairstyle from hell. Still, Nimueh approached, knowing full well the woman could do her no harm.

“Who goes there?” the woman called weakly with a false tremble in her voice. “What do you want with me, a poor old—”

“Oh, do shut up,” Nimueh couldn’t resist rolling her eyes this time. The woman, who had previously been looking down at the firepit where she was roasting a spring rabbit, met Nimueh’s eyes in a cold sneer. “I know what you are. And I swear by the ordinances of the sisterhood to which we both belong that I mean you no harm. I wish to share your meal.”

The woman’s sneer turned into a hellish grin, and Nimueh relaxed a bit. “Hmm. Well, one can never be too careful. I’ll get you a seat.” The woman raised her hand and snapped dramatically. In a swish of golden smoke, the falcon on the window was transformed into a beautiful young woman. Her hair, though clearly a royal gold, was ratty and pulled back in a messy bun, and she wore a torn dress that had at one point been of the finest design.

The woman huffed and opened the caravan, grabbing a stool from inside. She dropped it at Nimueh’s feet, and the witch smiled at the young woman’s spirit. The blonde woman turned back to the hag. “Anything else?”

“Nope.” The hag waved her hand again and the woman was once again a small, winged thing perched on the windowsill. Nimueh sat on the stool and looked at the old woman expectantly. “Don’t mind her. She was a princess once, so she tells me. I tricked the little whore into being my slave.” She cackled maniacally and Nimueh cracked a smile at the tale.

After a few silent minutes, the older woman removed the rabbit from where it had been cooking over the fire and chopped it in half, offering Nimueh a generous portion. Nimueh thanked her and took a few bites.

“So, stranger,” the old woman began through a mouthful of meat, “where are you headed off to on this fine day?”

Nimueh grinned down at her plate, ruby red lips stretching thinly over pale teeth. “I seek a fallen star,” she confessed. “He fell not far from here. When I find him, I shall take my great knife and cut out his heart while he still lives and the glory of our youth. . .” Nimueh’s smile faded, “. . . shall be restored.” The witch lifted the plate, sniffing its contents.

“Fallen star?” The woman chortled, “that’s the best news I’ve had in ages. I could do with losing a few years myself.” She leaned in, intrigued. “So whereabouts did you—”

Nimueh cut her off by throwing the plate to the ground. “Limbus grass? You dare steal truth from my lips by feeding me limbus grass?”

The older witch had the nerve to look smug, rolling her eyes slightly.

Nimueh continued, her anger only fueled by the woman’s indifference. “Do you have any idea what a big mistake you’ve made, Grunhilda?” Thunder rattled through the formerly clear sky as Nimueh rose from her seat, and the grove began to grow dark and cold. The fire blew out as if no more than a match.

“How do you know my. . .?” Grunhilda’s self-righteous expression faded into confusion. “Who are you?"

Nimueh laughed bitterly. “Look again.” Her voice seemed to echo, as if she had not one voice, but a dozen, all speaking the words at once.. Her eyes glowed gold, causing the woman to drop to her knees in recognition— and terror.

“I shall not seek the star, your dark majesty!” Grunhilda pleaded, bowing her head as the wind began to whip through her cloak. “I swear!”

“Seek all you wish,” Nimueh replied, pointing a finger at the pathetic woman at her feet. “You shall not see the star, touch it, smell, or hear it.” The wind that swirled around them seemed to turn an eerie green. “You will not perceive him even if he stands before you.” Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the storm was gone.

Nimueh gathered her skirts and turned away from the woman who still knelt before her. She glanced down at the arm she’d used to cast the spell, huffing in annoyance as aged spots appeared on the skin. “Pray you do not meet me again, Grunhilda.”

***

“Right, let me get this straight. You think we’re going the right way because, and I quote,” His voice dropped a few octaves as he attempted to imitate the blonde’s previous statement, “’I just do.’”

The raven-haired boy was limping no less than three meters behind his unfortunate companion, the pain in his leg doing nothing to help his irritation. It was just past noon according to the placement of the sun, and they’d been walking since well before first light. They’d found a road hours ago, following it from the barren fields where they’d begun their journey to the lovely forest through which they were trudging now.

“I do, though, I don’t know why,” Arthur called back, not bothering to turn around. “Maybe it’s my love for Sophia guiding me home.”

The boy scoffed, “Oh, please.”

“Look, Marvin, whether you like it or not—”

Merlin. My name is Merlin,” the star interrupted. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you.” He stumbled a bit. “Ow, would you,” he tripped, landing on his bad leg and screaming in pain. “Fuck! Could we please slow down?”

Arthur stopped, waiting for Merlin to stand and get his bearings. “Yes, yes. Fine.” He looked around, still hung up on their previous topic of conversation. “Look, we’re going North. The wall is North. And if you look up in the sky, even during the day, you can see the. . .” he frowned, raising a hand to block the sun from his eyes as he stared at where his guide should be. “The evening star. That’s so weird, where. . .?”

Merlin huffed, shuffling slowly towards a large tree just off the path and gently lowing himself down to the ground. He leaned against the trunk with a groan. “That’s hilarious. Really, my sides are splitting.”

“No, I’m being. . .” Arthur looked at the other man, realization dawning. “Wait, was that you?”

Merlin closed his eyes, letting himself relax against the tree. Arthur scowled at the sight, north star forgotten. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Merlin retorted. “I’m sitting down. I’m tired.”

Arthur let out an exasperated groan, throwing his hands up in the air. “Please don’t do this again. We agreed we’d stop off at the next village to eat and rest.”

“Come on, Arthur. It’s midday!” Arthur took a step back at the stars sudden outburst. Merlin dropped his head, exhaustion and annoyance bringing him close to tears. His voice trembled as he added, “I never stay up this late. Please,” he looked up at Arthur, more vulnerable than the blonde had ever seen him. “Please, just let me sleep.”

Arthur felt a pang in his chest at the star’s expression. He gave in, looking around to memorize where they were on the path. “Okay. You sleep, I’ll go and find something to eat.”

Merlin’s eyes widened in panic. “You’re just going to leave me here? Alone?” As much as he rued the blonde’s company, he was still unfamiliar with being on the ground and terrified of what dangers may befall him.

“Oh, don’t be such a girl. You’ll be fine,” Arthur assured him poorly.

***

Cenred’s black cloak whipped around him as he stared dramatically out at the ocean. Large chunks of ice surrounded him on the shore, and he could see dozens more floating out on the rough water. He glared at them as if they alone were at fault for his predicament.

He heard his knights approaching from behind and turned around to face them. Between two of the guards was a frail man dressed in simple brown robes. Cenred sneered at him.

“You’re highness, the soothsayer, as you requested.”

Cenred took a few swaggering steps towards the small man, pursing his lips. “South, you said,” Cenred’s sharp voice pierced through the sound of the waves, “south we went. Still no stone. Do you now suggest we start swimming?”

The man shuddered from the cold, lifting his palm to reveal a handful of what looked like dark pebbles in the shape of dominos. “Sire, I’ve merely relayed to you what the runes have told me. I can do no more.”

“Consult them again.” Cenred began to move away, but paused, causing the men to still. “Wait,” he held up a finger, his eyes amused. “Before we seek the stone, I have another question.”

The soothsayer shuffled towards a large block of ice that stood between them. He gestured for the prince to continue.

Cenred leaned against the ice block. “Am I the eldest son?”

The soothsayer shook the runes in his hand, tossing them onto the block. They landed face up, revealing symbols that the prince didn’t understand. “Yes,” the soothsayer replied confidently.

“Another question,” Cenred continued, “is my favorite color blue?”

The smaller man shook the runes again, watching as they landed face-up once more. “Yes.”

“Has excessive begging or pleading ever persuaded me to spare the life of a traitor?”

The soothsayer paled as he tossed the runes once more, sinking into himself as the runes landed face down. Cenred grinned cruelly, revealing unnaturally sharp teeth. “What does that mean?”

“It means. . . no.”

Cenred nodded, pleased. “Throw them again. This time, throw them high.”

The man hesitated another moment, but gathered the runes nonetheless. He shook them in his hands, whispering a few words of prayer, and threw them high into the air. Cenred watched them rise and asked in a clear, monotone voice, “Do you work for my brother?”

The runes fell back towards the Earth as if in slow motion. They hit the block of ice with loud taps, bouncing a moment before settling face-up. Cenred stared at them a moment before turning away from the frightened man. “Kill him,” he ordered with a bored tone.

He picked up the runes that still lay on the ice. “So,” he asked them, “do we continue west?”

He tossed the runes into the air.

***

Merlin was awoken by the sharp sound of a twig snapping close by. He sat up sharply, his stomach twisting in fear. He whipped his head back and forth, searching for the source of the sound. It was dark now, and he couldn’t tell exactly how long he’d been lying against the tree. Long enough to make his back ache, for sure.

“Arthur?” he called cautiously, hoping his companion had simply returned.

The sound of leaves rustling made him rise slowly to his feet, weight still resting entirely on his good leg. “Arthur, is that you?” His voice cracked in fear. “This isn’t funny.”

A flash of white moved through the black trees, and from the bushes stepped a large, hooved creature with a spiraling horn atop it’s head. The unicorns mane was silver and glowed ever-so-slightly in the darkness. Merlin heaved a sigh of relief. He reached out his hand in offering. The creature snorted at him, bumping it’s head against his hand.

Merlin took the hint and, with the help of a few raised tree roots, was able to climb aboard the unicorns back despite minimal use of his injured leg. “Come on,” he urged the unicorn, relieved to be off his feet. The animal turned and they began to make their way down the road.

***

Nimueh frowned at the runes in her hand. She looked around, annoyed to find herself in a large clearing at the edge of a forest. She rubbed the ring her sister had placed on her hand. Before her, the slightly misted image of her sisters appeared.

“Be careful how much magic you use, sister,” Morgana spoke, not bothering with a greeting. “It’s beginning to show.”

Nimueh rolled her eyes, looking down at her arms. “One goat and a small enchantment. Hardly extravagant.”

Morgause raised a hand to her hip. “Even using the ring will take it’s toll! Better you call on us only in dire need. Use your runes to locate the star yourself!”

Nimueh growled. “I did, and he should be here! But now they’re just telling me gibberish.”

Morgana huffed, giving Morgause a look. They stomped out of sight, clearly going to slice open another of their little pets. Nimueh impatiently examined her fingernails, frowning at how they’d already begun to yellow with age. Morgana walked back into view of the mist. “It is because you must stay where you are, my sister, he is coming to you. But be warned, Nimueh. Delicacy is needed with this one. Misery has consumed his thoughts. He is barely shining.”

Morgause’s voice pierced from where she stood out of sight, “Set a trap to ensure his heart is glowing before you cut it out.”

***

Arthur dropped the sack of bread he’s been carrying at the sight of the tree where he’d left Merlin. The tree was still there, of course, and exactly as he’d left it. The star, however, was nowhere in sight.

“Merlin?” he called, running towards the tree. “Merlin!” When it was clear that the other man was long gone, Arthur dropped to the ground beside the tree, mentally scolding himself. He never should have trusted the star on his own. Or at all.

Arthur leaned against the tree stump and stared up at the stars. He pondered his current predicament. How would Sophia react to his returning without her star? More importantly, was Merlin alright? He didn’t care for the man, of course, but he’d hate to see him in any sort of danger. There was something about him, something Arthur couldn’t quite place his finger on.

He closed his eyes, drifting off into a dreamless sleep.

***

Nimueh unhooked the goats from her cart, removing the roped from their necks and taking a step back. She hummed, thinking for a moment, before raising her hands towards them. Her eyes glowed gold, and green mist began to swirl around the two goats.

When the mist cleared, two men stood in place of where the goats had been. Jonas, now returned to his original form, cowered away from the witch’s stare. He looked to his left, noticing in confusion that his goat was now a rather plump older man of average-height. Jonas looked back at the witch, who’d been looking between the two men in deep thought. She waved her hands towards Jonas again.

He felt his gut twist, the same as it had when he’d been transformed into a goat. Except this time, there was something missing. He looked down, shocked to notice that his trousers had been transformed into a long, rather ratty skirt, and upon his chest grew two large. . . oh.

Nimueh paid no heed to the men’s confusion. Instead, she focused her attentions on the clearing behind them. She pointed her finger. From the clearing, as if it had grown from the ground itself, sprung slowly a large wooden building. It was at least three stories, with ivy growing along it’s sides and windows glowing with warm light. Stones rolled from the hills, creating a path towards the main gate. With a satisfied hum, Nimueh turned back to the she-Jonas and his goat-man companion.

“You,” she pointed at the goat-man, “are Billy the innkeeper. I’m your wife, and you’re our daughter.” She spoke the last words towards Jonas, who was at this point poking at his chest in wonder.

“Now, make everything ready. Our special guest will be here soon.”

***

“Arthur.”

Arthur shifted in his sleep, head turning at the urgent whispers. He didn’t awaken, the voices seeping into his subconscious as he slept.

“Please protect our brother, Arthur.”

Imaged flashed behind his eyes. Silver hair and hooves and light shining through the dark trees. The blonde turned his head restlessly, still asleep.

“Merlin is in grave danger. The unicorn tried to help him, but now they’re heading into a trap.”

More images. A flash of light from the sky, a young woman with gorgeous brown curls falling to the earth.

“No star is safe in Camelot. Our sister, Guinevere, fell four hundred years ago. She was captured by the same witches who seek Merlin now.”

The gorgeous woman in a silver dress, smiling at three women as they helped her up from the ground. The woman glowing brightly as one of the women pressed a kiss to her palm.

“They tricked her. Cared for her. Even made her fall in love.”

The chocolate-skinned woman laughing melodically as she danced with another young brunette.

“And when her heart was once more aglow. . .

The star lying down on a table, completely trusting as the three woman around her laughed pleasantly.

“They cut it from her chest. . .”

A piercing scream.

“And ate it.”

Arthur woke with a start, the images of the young woman still fresh in his eyes. He looked towards the sky, the stars seeming all dimmer now that he knew their pain.

“There is no time to waste. A coach is coming. By any means possible, you must get on it. Run.”

Arthur rose to his feet, turning to look towards the road. He took off in it’s direction, running as fast as he could towards the sound of trampling hooves. The trees whipped past him as he ran, a few branches narrowly missing his face. He shoved through the briars and bushes. Arthur could see a black carriage riding down the road he was heading towards, and he picked up speed. They met at the same time, and he jumped towards the coach, desperate to grab on to the back of it.

He failed dramatically, hitting the side and crashing back towards the ground with a groan. So much for this hero stuff.

The coach stopped, and a man adorned in fine blue robes jumped down from the coachmen’s seat. He pulled out a sword and stalked towards Arthur, pointing the blade at the blonde’s neck.

“Woah, wait!” Arthur put his hands up to show he was unarmed, still lying on the ground.

The man, no older than Arthur, ignored his plea. “If Cenred insists on sending a peasant to—”

“No no no, wait,” Arthur cut him off. “I don’t know any Cenred, I swear. Look at me, I’m unarmed. I just need a lift.”

The man narrowed his eyes, drawing the blade slowly away and returning it to it’s sheath. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I’m on a quest of enormous importance.”

The man began to stomp back towards the carriage. Arthur jumped to his feet, chasing after him. “Well, that’s all the more reason to take me with you! There may come a time where you need a second pair of hands.” He placed a hand on the side of the coach, watching as the noble man climbed back up and took the reins. “Sir, maybe providence sent me to you just as it did you to me.”

The young man eyed him for a moment, pondering. After a long, awkward silence, he relented. “Get on.”

Arthur grinned in relief, climbing into the passenger’s and thanking the man. “I’m Arthur, by the way.”

“Prince Mordred, Seventh Son of King Odin of Camelot.”

***

“I mean, who’s to say he would have even kept his promise about the candle?” Merlin ranted to the unicorn. In the past few hours, he’d found that the creature was an excellent listener. Certainly the best company he’d found this side of the atmosphere. “I just refuse to believe he’s the only person in Camelot who can help me.”

It was well into the night, now, and thunder cracked above them. The rain had started nearly a half hour ago and showed no signs of slowing. He was soaked to the bone, his silver silk shirt clinging uncomfortably to his skin.

He continued to rant as they moved closer to the edge of the forest. “Going on and on and on with Sophia this and Sophia that.”

His words drifted off as they cleared the tree line, his eyes resting immediately on the large building just beyond the forest. A lovely stone path led to the front gate, and he could see a warm hearth burning through the window. Thank the heavens, he was saved.

The unicorn brought him to the front entrance. He slid off her back slowly and thanked the creature for her kindness before limping towards the door, knocking and praying silently that there was someone on the other end.

The door swung open, and a kind-looking woman with sleek brown hair gasped at the sight of him. “Goodness me, my dear! Come in out of this wretched rain!” She reached out a hand, guiding him in through the front door. “We have fresh food, drink, and plenty of hot water for a bath.”

Merlin grimaced, hesitantly stepping in and looking around. It was a pleasant sort of place, warm and homey as an Inn ought to be. A young woman stood next to an older man, both staring at him from across the counter at the bar.

Not long later, he found himself sitting on a chair near the hearth, relishing in the heat of the flame. The innkeeper lady stirred the stew in the pot that hung above it before turning to him. “How do you like your bath? Warm, hot, or boil-a-lobster?”

Merlin flushed, “I honestly don’t know.”

The woman smiled as if understanding completely. “Then let me choose for you, and I’ll have my husband take your horse to the stable. Billy!”

Merlin watched in fascination as the odd man at the bar, who’d previously been chewing on a washcloth, jumped up and over the counter. He trotted towards the door, opened the latch with his teeth, and marched out into the rain. Merlin found himself frowning. What a strange sort of man.

The innkeeper lady must not have found it all that strange, as her smile had not wavered. “Let’s get you out of your wet things, shall we?” She nodded towards her daughter before turning back to the hearth.

He wasn’t sure what it was about the daughter’s hungry gaze that made his skin crawl, but he was quick to accept the towel from her as soon as he was out of his trousers. He followed the innkeepers wife to the bathtub, glad when the daughter had disappeared out of sight.

The bath was nice.

He hadn’t expected it to be. He’s never seen the appeal of sitting submerged in a large bowl water as if attempting to melt into a human stew. But the warm water relaxed his muscled, and Nimueh had patiently shown him what the sponge was for. He’d been overwhelmed by fear and pain and irritation for the past day and had forgotten what it felt like to be clean and safe and warm.

Merlin was so relaxed, in fact, that he didn’t even notice when the innkeeper lady’s eyes glowed gold and the pain in his leg disappeared completely.

“Feeling better?” She asked kindly, sitting next to the tub.

Merlin hummed gratefully. “Much, thank you. The warm water has actually done a world of good.”

The woman laughed in understanding, “Ah, you see? The powers of a nice, hot bath. And your leg? Any improvement?”

Merlin shifted the limb a bit, eyes widening when the movement wasn’t followed by a sharp pain. “That is extraordinary!” He exclaimed, lifting the leg up to observe.

Nimueh smirked, satisfied as the star began to quite literally shine. It was a faint glow, just a faint silver around his head, but it was an excellent start. “It’s the very least I could do,” she told him, “I’m just glad you’re feeling better. You seem happier.”

Merlin let his leg down and leaned back in the tub, letting the water soak through him. “I do feel happier. Less troubled.”

The witch reached out to push his hair back as one might a young child, and was rewarded with a small smile. She gestured for him to stand, passing him a white robe and turning away for his privacy. When he was tightly wrapped in it, she led him upstairs to his room.

“Now, I’m only a simple innkeepers wife,” the woman began, pulling back the covers of the bed as he stepped into the room behind her, “but I have been told I have a healers hands. I’d be glad to give you a massage.”

Merlin tilted his head in confusion. “What’s a massage?”

The woman dropped the blankets she’d been fussing with. “Never had a—? Well, bless my soul. Nothing like a massage to send you off into the deepest night’s sleep.”

“I do have trouble sleeping at night,” the star confessed, shuffling awkwardly from one foot to the other.

Nimueh gestured to the mattress. “Lie down on the bed, dear. Why not close your eyes? You’ll drift off better that way.” Merlin did as she asked, only tensing a little as he felt her pull apart the robe slightly to reveal his chest.

Nimueh smirked at the helpless star before her, kneeling down to reach under the bed for her weapon. She grabbed the knife of glass, gripping it tightly in her hand and rising back to his side. She raised the knife above her, ready to strike, when a loud pounding was heard.

“Service!” A loud voice called.

Nimueh huffed, looking down at the young man beneath her. “Relax here, my love. I’ll return as soon as I’ve taken care of this customer.”

Outside the inn, Mordred continued to knock loudly on the front door. “Service!” He demanded again, shivering as he looked back towards the coach. Arthur was holding the horses by the reins. Both men were soaked to the skin.

“Perhaps we should continue on and try the next inn!” Arthur yelled to as to be heard over the storm. “Especially if the stone is as close as your runes say!” At that moment, the door swung open to reveal an older gentleman, rounder around the middle, who may or may not have been chewing on a piece of straw.

Mordred pulled his cloak tighter against the wind. “At last! We require accommodation. Please help my friend bring the horses to the stables.”

The strange man leaned out, taking a long look at Arthur, before nodded and letting out a loud bleet. Arthur blinked in surprise, but Mordred simply stalked inside, so he supposed he must have imagined it.

“Hello?” Mordred called once he’d closed the door behind him. He looked around the room, his eyes stopping on a bathtub already filled with steaming water. With a pleased sigh, he made his way to the tub. Quickly shedding himself of his clothes, he relaxed into the water.

At a nearby table, five ghosts watched on, making faces at the sight of their dumbass little brother in the bath.

Merlin hadn’t been able to stay in bed. If confronted by the innkeeper lady, he’d probably say he was just excited to be back on two working legs, or that he was restless, or blame it on his inability to sleep at night. The truth, though, was that the moment she had left his room, he’d been overtaken with the overwhelming feeling that something wasn’t right.

So there he was, slinking as quietly as he could down the stairs in search of his clothes. He had no idea where the innkeepers daughter had taken them, but he couldn’t very well go walking around in just a robe and an amulet, now could he?

As he reached the bottom of the staircase, he noticed another guest in the bathtub by the fire. He had no plans to engage in any sort of social interaction, but before he could turn, the man spotted him.

“Ah,” the man spoke, “I am accustomed to better service. But you’re awake now and that’s what counts.”

Hearing his words, the ghosts turned to follow his line of vision, looking curiously at the slender boy in the bathrobe. Their eyes went directly to the chain around his neck. They erupted into harsh whispers, always forgetting that they couldn’t be heard by the living. “The stone!” Myror cried in excitement.

Nimueh stepped into the room. “I thank you not to bother my guests, sir. I am the lady of this inn.” She held out a tray to the man in the tub, offering him the goblet of wine which sat upon it.

Mordred went to reach for it before he seemed to think better of himself. “No. Until my brother is dead, I have vowed to drink only my own wine.” He leaned back, looking past the woman to catch another glimpse of the beautiful man near the staircase. Nimueh stepped to the side, blocking his view once again. “Though my friend in the stables might be glad of a drop.”

He gave the woman a close-lipped smile and spoke again, irritated. “Your best room, perhaps?”

Nimueh returned the expression, turning to hand the tray to her ‘daughter’. “Of course, sir.” She left the room as quickly as she’d come.

The ghosts were having none of their formalities. “The stone! He has the stone!” Agravaine cried, wishing he could punch the living brother for his foolishness.

Mordred smiled flirtatiously at Merlin, who was still standing awkwardly near the corner. “I’m sorry I presumed that. . . Well, no matter. Travelling alone, are you?”

Merlin had a feeling he wasn’t meant to answer.

Mordred raised a leg out of the tub for no particular reason, still talking. “I just stabled my four black stallions and my carriage. Well, I say mine. It belonged to my late father. . .”

She-Jonas pushed through the doors to the stables, goblet of wine in hand. She stalked towards Arthur, who turned and smiled gratefully as he was handed the refreshment. “That’s so kind, thank you— um, what’s your name?”

“Jonas,” she spoke in a deep, masculine voice. Arthur blinked a few times, certain the exhaustion must finally have gotten to him. She exited the stable, and he turned his attention back to the wine.

As he brought it to his lips, the door to one of the stables was knocked down and a loud whinny caused him to whip around in surprise. A unicorn burst in, charging just past him and knocking the goblet out of his hand. He let out a cry, falling to the ground and watching in horror as the hay the wine had spilled on began to steam and burst into green flame. “Mordred!” He cried.

“. . . there was not a horse nor beast he could not master.” The man was still talking, and Merlin was beginning to feel the need to gauge his own eyes out. “So much so that in his youth he took to riding a camel, which was comical. When he passed, the carriage came to me. . .”

The ghosts, now fed up, were literally climbing over each other to yell at their idiot younger brother. “He’s got the stone, you dimwit!”

“. . . and it’s the largest in all of Camelot,” he flicked the water in the tub, making a not so subtle gesture towards the bits of himself still submerged in water, “or so they say.”

Merlin, now incredibly uncomfortable, did his best to exit in a polite manner. “How nice for you. If you’ll just excuse me—”

“Wait,” the prince ordered. His eyes had gone directly to the stars' semi-exposed chest, and Merlin looked down at the necklace. “That stone you’re wearing. It can’t be.”

The ghosts all collectively groaned. A chorus of “Oh, yes, good,” and “Well done, sir” and more than a few expletives fell on deaf ears.

Mordred began to rise out of the tub. “Come here, let me see it.”

Merlin made no move, now frozen in fear at the look in the other man’s eye.

“You have no idea who you’re dealing with, boy. I am Mordred, seventh born of Camelot, and I demand that you bring me that stone. Bring it to me!”

The door to the inn burst open, and Arthur ran in, panting. “Prince Mordred!” He exclaimed, “Don’t touch anything they try to give you, they tried to poison—”

All three of the men were cut off by Nimueh exploding into the room in a swirl of green flame, glass knife in hand. With an infuriated scream, she slashed Mordred’s neck and he collapsed back into the tub in a pool of dark blue blood.

The ghosts flinched back, turning to look at where the spirit of their soaking, naked brother had now appeared next to them. “Gross, You couldn’t have died with some clothes on?” Helios muttered to himself.

The living were not so fortunate as to have time to complain. Arthur took a step back in shock at the crazy woman with the knife raised by her head. He felt a hand tug at his arm, and was possibly even more surprised to see Merlin at his side. “Merlin!” He couldn’t help the relief that had seeped into his voice, “Are you alright?”

As they young men gripped each other’s arms, the blonde noticed how badly Merlin was shaking. A screech interrupted their reunion, and Arthur shoved the star behind him with a protective arm as they backed away towards the door. The inn was now entirely on fire, green flamed licked at their heels and they realized there was nowhere to run.

“Arthur,” Merlin clutched tightly to his shoulder, terrified, as Nimueh stepped through the flames and strode slowly towards them, knife still in hand.

“The burning golden heart of a star at peace is so much better than your frightened little heart,” she told them, confident that they had nowhere to run. “Even so, better than no heart at all.”

Arthur stared at the witch in terror, knowing he was about to die. He’d never get to meet his mother, never kick Valiant’s arse, never say goodbye to his father. What was he dying for? What was the point? All for some—

A tug on his arm brought him back to reality, and he turned to meet the swirling, terrified blue eyes of his companion. An idea hit him, suddenly, and he entwined Merlin’s fingers with his. “Merlin, hold me tight and think of home.”

Just as Nimueh raised her knife to deliver the final blow, Arthur grabbed the candle from his coat pocket and thrust his arm into the flames surrounding them. He felt Merlin’s arms around him, an anchor, and heard Nimueh’s cry of rage as the shop boy and the star disappeared in a flash of light.

Chapter Text

The first thing Arthur registered after the burning of the green flames around his arm disappeared was the weight of Merlin’s arms wrapped around his abdomen. They tightened momentarily, in relief or fear Arthur didn’t know, then released him with a sharp cry as thunder cracked loudly. Too loudly.

The second thing Arthur registered was that, while he was standing perfectly well, the support beneath him wasn’t the ground. Good gods, I’m in the sky.

Thunder cracked again, this time from directly beneath them, near a cloud below their feet. It was dark, too dark to see beyond the shadow of a man in front of him, and Arthur squinted against the rain that whipped around him, trying to get a better look at his companion so as to properly scold him. “What did you do?!” Arthur screamed against the wind.

“What did I do?” Merlin shouted back, fear fueling the fury in his voice. “What did you do? Think of home?! Well that was a bloody genius plan! You thought of your home and I thought of mine and now we’re halfway between the two!” Wind whipped at his hair, the black mop sticking to his forehead. Lightening flashed behind him, illuminating his figure so Arthur could better see where to aim his words.

“You stupid idiot! What did you think of your home for?”

“You just said ‘home’! If you wanted me to think of your home, you should have said!”

Arthur scoffed, catching the star as another burst of thunder knocked him off his balance. “Some crazy lady was trying to cut your heart out and you wanted more specific instructions? Perhaps next time you’d like it in writing? Or a diagram maybe!”

Merlin opened his mouth to retort, pushing against Arthurs arms, but all he could manage was a yell of surprise when a heavy weight took them both off their feet. Merlin yelped as his body was crushed against the blonde’s. He pushed out his arms to detect where the weight came from, only to have his hands meet a net of rope. He heard his companion’s matching cry of confusion as they were both hauled down.

They landed with a hard crash on something made of wood. Arthur scrambled to sit up against the net, looking around at their apparent captors.

They were on the deck of a ship of some sort, with sails facing all directions to catch the harsh winds of the storm. Surrounding them were a group of men, all holding weapons and wrapped in thick coats to protect from the weather. They laughed, prodding at the confused travelers. Arthur shifted protectively in front of Merlin, who seemed to have finally gone silent from the shock.

The men stepped back all at once, and a shorter man stepped through. His hood was pulled up against the wind, but Arthur could detect a single raised eyebrow that seemed the center of his expression. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he made a mental note to finish his chores as soon as possible when he returned back home. “Look, Captain Shakespeare!” One of the men yelled gruffly, “Caught us a couple of Lightening Marshals!”

Captain Shakespeare leaned in closer, giving both young men a quick once-over. “They don’t look like Lightening Marshals to me.”

The man frowned, running a hand through his hair— which had somehow remained perfect despite being uncovered against the wind. “Why else would anyone be up here in the middle of a storm?”

“’Why else would anyone be up here in the middle of a storm?’” The Captain rolled his eyes, smacking the man on the head. “I don’t know, Gwaine, maybe for the same gods forsaken reason we are!” He turned back to the men under the net. “Now, who are you?”

Merlin let out a whimper, shivering where he lie on the hard deck. Arthur reached a hand back, gripping the star’s wrist tightly in reassurance. He opened his mouth to respond to the man, but decided against it at the last minute. They hadn’t come up with a cover story, and the truth seemed too true to tell a bunch of strangers.

A dark skinned man stepped forward. “Maybe a night in our lovely brig will help loosen their lips, Captain?”

The Captain nodded, “Get them in the brig!” With the final order, he turned and stalked off, leaving the crew to deal with the captors. Gwaine got right to work yelling orders. “You heard the Captain, to the brig! And the rest of you dirty dogs, back to work! This lightening ain’t gonna catch itself!”

***

When Merlin finally managed to speak, Arthur was surprised at his relief. It hadn’t quite sunk in, yet, that the star was back with him. The knowledge that they were together, that the other man was near enough to protect, sparked something in Arthurs chest that he chose to ignore. They’d been tied together, back-to-back, for nearly an hour now. The “brig” was more of a storage compartment, with boxes of food and barrels of water and gunpowder all strewn around them just out of reach. Arthur wanted to grumble at the disorganization. His father would have a field day if someone left his kitchen in this state.

“They’re going to kill us, aren’t they?” The words were soft, nearly broken, and the blonde was hit suddenly with the realization of just how lost his companion was. He was young, perhaps a year or two younger than Arthur himself, and he’d only been on the ground for a day. In that short time, he’d already witnessed half the cruelties of the world, with none of the wonder or kindness to balance it out. Arthur felt a surge of protectiveness hit him.

Still, he couldn’t think of a lie. “I don’t know,” he responded honestly. He wished he could see the raven haired boy behind him, to offer him more than just empty words as comfort.

Merlin let out a bitter chuckle. “You know, it’s funny. I used to watch, from up there. I used to watch people having adventures. I actually envied them.”

Arthur frowned. “You ever heard the expression ‘be careful what you wish for’?”

Merlin’s back shook with a sob, “What, so ending up with my heart cut out, that would serve me right?” His voice cracked more on the last word, and he seemed to be struggling to breath, choking on his tears.

The blond shook his head frantically, wrapping his tied hand around the other man’s as best he could from their positions. “Hey, no, I didn’t mean it like that.” There was a long pause as he rubbed a thumb across his companions knuckles. “I admire you dreaming,” he admitted, “A shop boy like me could never have imagined an adventure this big in order to have wished for it. I just thought I’d find some lump of celestial rock and bring it home and that would be it.”

Merlin chuckled, turning his hand awkwardly to squeeze Arthur’s in return. “And you got me.”

Arthur let out a snort, and the two of them fell into a sort of pitiful, sopping lump of broken giggles. He felt a weight on his chest lift ever so slightly, glad that the pathetic laughter had at least replaced the tears.

Merlin took a few breaths, turning his head in an attempt to look at the blonde behind him. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years of watching Earth, it’s that people aren’t always what they seem. There are shop boys, and then there are boys who just happen to work in shops for the time being. You are no shop boy.”

Arthur smiled fondly at the ground, letting Merlin’s words settle.

Merlin continued, entwining their fingers together. “You saved my life. Thank you.”

***

Cenred stared down at the lone bathtub sitting in the empty field. Dark blue blood sloshed over the side when the wind blew, and the prince bared his teeth in a cold grin when he recognized the corpse in the water.

“Well, well, well,” he mused, “the last brother dead.” He looked up in though. “Which means I’m king. . .

Cenred spun on his heel, his dark cloak lagging behind him. “I’m King!” he proclaimed to his men, most of whom immediately dropped to their knees in recognition.

The translucent form of Mordred threw an arm around his eldest brother, throat still bared open in an eternal mark of his final moments. “Not yet, brother,” he teased, the other ghosts laughing behind him.

Cenred stopped in his tracks, cursing. Though he could clearly not see nor hear his deceased siblings, the message seemed to reach him. “Damn it all! I still need that stone.”

The man closest to him rose. “Does your brother not have it, sire?”

Cenred glared at the man. “Well, why don’t you find out?”

The man ducked his head and scurried over to the bathtub, oblivious to the princes laughing and pointing at the water-logged corpse as the youngest protested in embarrassment.

Cenred rolled his eyes at his cowering men. He jumped when a pair of hands wrapped around his ankle, and reached down to yank up a man who had crawled out of the underbrush. “Who are you? Where’s my stone?”

“I-I’m Jonas. I don’t—I. . .oh. Oh, yeah. The man, you see, that man, your brother, I heard him speak of a stone! The boy had it! The boy had it. . .” Jonas mumbled, half to himself.

“What boy?” Cenred demanded, shaking the frail man harshly.

“I don’t know! Just a boy. He got away because, well, this was a trap set up for him but your brother, see, he just walked right into it, and—”

“A trap? A trap set by who?”

Jonas shivered with fear, curling in on himself. “A woman you should pray you’ll never meet. She’s gone. She took your brothers carriage.”

Cenred growled at the knowledge. He released his hold on the man’s collar, having deemed him little threat. “This woman wanted my stone?”

“No. She wanted the boy’s heart. She said the boy was a star and she was going to cut out his heart and. . .and. . .” Jonas sobbed, unable to complete the thought. There was no need.

Cenred’s grin returned and he gestured to his men, who quickly hoisted Jonas up onto a horse. “Eat it.” A plan began to form itself in the cruel prince’s mind. The heart of a star meant only one thing. Everlasting life. King. Forever.

***

“Ask again,” Nimueh demanded, running a hand through her hair in irritation. She let out an enraged cry when a clump of hair fell freely out of her scalp, leaving smooth skin in it’s wake. She glared at her sisters through the ring on her finger, as if they were somehow at fault for her plight.

“We have asked again,” Morgana protested, “and the answer is still the same. She is airborne.”

Nimueh huffed. “Well, she can’t remain so forever. Inform me as soon as she touches the ground. Immediately, can you fools understand that?”

Morgause scoffed. “Watch your tone, sister. It is you who have lost her, not we!”

And broken the knife!” Morgana muttered.

“Perhaps you should return now, and one of use should set out in your place,” Morgause nodded toward the youngest sister at her side, and they both glared pointedly at where Nimueh stood reflected in the mirror.

Nimueh cackled, “Don’t be absurd! And let Morgana get attached to this one as well?” Morgana’s eyed dropped to the ground, her fists curling at her side. She said nothing to contradict her sister’s words. “No. I’ll bring her home and we can deal with her there. Be sure everything is ready for our arrival.”

***

Somehow, despite their unfortunate lodgings and the binds restricting their movements, Arthur found himself laughing lightly at Merlin’s seemingly endless ramblings. They’d been talking softly all night, unwilling to sleep without knowing or trusting their captors, but it seemed after a few initial awkward silences they just kept finding more to talk about.

Merlin hummed. “Tell me about Sophia, then,” he requested, curious at this woman who’d sparked their adventure.

Arthur’s smile drooped. “Well, she. . .I. . .I suppose there’s really nothing more to tell you.”

Merlin pursued his lips, glancing up at the ceiling. “The little I know about love is that it’s unconditional. It’s not something you can buy.”

Arthur felt his shoulders tense once more, and he released his hand from where it still gripped the star’s. “Hang on, this isn’t about me buying her love! This was a way for me to prove how I felt!” Neither of them took notice of the past-tense.

Merlin took a breath, speaking in satirical understanding. “Oh! Right. And what is she doing to prove how she feels about you?”

“Well. . .” he sighed, not sure how to explain the situation. “Look, Merlin, you’ll understand when you meet her. Provided we don’t get murdered by pirates first.”

Merlin hummed again, tilting his head to the side as he pondered his options. “Hmm. Murdered by pirates. Heart torn out and eaten. Meet Sophia. I can’t quite decide which sounds more fun.”

The blonde snorted, unable to prevent a fond shake of his head.

***

“We’ve located the sky vessel!” shrieked Morgause as she turned away from the table filled with various animal bits to face her sister’s reflection, “It’s headed north, for the port town in Mercia.”

 Morgana didn’t bother to turn, still leaning over the table. The brunette witch delicately picked through what probably used to be a frog, frowning before she, too, spoke. “You are no longer the only one to seek the star, sister. There’s someone following your tracks.”

At the news, Morgause spun, returning to her sister’s side and leaning over the mess. Nimueh raised her eyebrows, interest piqued. “Who? Another witch? A warlock?”

“A prince,” Morgause snapped, impatient with the eldest sister’s flippancy, “and he’s catching you up. Get a move on.”

Nimueh scowled and leaned back in her carriage, magically urging the horses to ride faster.

***

Back in the brig of The Dragon, Arthur and Merlin sat in silence as Captain Shakespeare paced around them. They could hear the scuffling of the crew listening in through the door, shushing each other to no avail.

“So,” the captain boomed loudly, knowing as well as his captors that his crew could hear their every word, “this is the part where you tell me who you are and why you’re up here.” He walked slowly around Arthur, giving Merlin a once over. Arthur grit his teeth. The captain leaned in to observe the star more closely, not lowering his voice. “Or I’ll snap your pretty little fingers one by one like dry twigs.”

“My name is Arthur Pendragon,” the blonde spoke slowly, controlling his tone as best he could. “This is my husband, Merlin.”

The captain chuckled. “Your husband? Far too young and radiant to belong to just one man.” He turned towards the door, continuing his show for his men. “It’s share and share alike aboard my vessel, sonny boy!” The crew cheered loudly outside the door, having given up on false claims of subtlety,

Arthur growled lowly. “If you dare even touch him—”

“You may think you’re showing a little spirit in front of your boyfriend, but if you talk back to me again I’ll feed your tongue to the dogs you impertinent little pup!” More cheering was heard. Merlin cast a worried look at the door, still unable to see Arthur from where he was tied.

The blonde took a breath, keeping his eyes trained steadily on the captain’s. “Sir?”

“Better,” the captain admitted, “but still interrupting. Let’s see. A hanging’s always good for morale. . .maybe we’ll watch you dance a gallows jig!”

The cheering continued, and Arthur fought the urge to roll his eyes. Merlin gripped Arthur's hands like a lifeline, squeezing so tightly he swore his fingers would turn white.

“Or perhaps I’ll just tip you over the side and have done with it!”

The cheering turned to what sounded like booing, if the captors had ever heard it before.

“It’s a very long way down,” the captain mused. In this lighting, Arthur could see the man more clearly. He was older than he’d seemed at first, average height and slightly round around the middle. His grey hair hung past his shoulders and was tied back at the nape of his neck. The only physically intimidating thing about the man seemed to be that damned eyebrow. The eyebrow was enough. “Plenty of time to reminisce about your pitifully short lives.”

“Please,” Merlin’s voice was strained as he turned to look over his shoulder as best he could. He cast a frightened glance at Arthur. “Sir, we’re just trying to make our way home.”

“Yes,” Arthur agreed, “back to a place called Wall where I come from.”

The captain stopped his pacing, that eyebrow raising impossibly higher. “What did you say?” Arthur tried to repeat his statement, but the captain didn’t give him a chance, grabbing him by the collar. “That’s one lie too many, my son.” He whipped out a dagger, slicing through the binds around their wrists.

Outside, the crew’s eyes all went comically wide as they gave each other understanding looks. All at once, they began to scramble back towards the upper deck, spurred on by the captains shouting of “THOUGHT YOU COULD JUST WANDER ONTO MY PATCH, DID YOU? AND LIVE TO TELL THE TALE?” The men tripped over each other, pushing and shoving in desperation as they threw themselves up the stairs and towards the railing of the deck. They made it just in time to hear the second captor scream, “ARTHUR!” before they saw a body being shoved out the port of the brig, followed quickly by the back of the captains head as he leaned out to inspect his work.

The body fell out of sight, too far down for any man to survive, and the captain laughed in satisfaction before disappearing back into the underbelly of the ship. Shortly afterwards, he tugged the young, dark-haired man up the stairs towards his quarters. “No, no, you murderer, you’ve ruined everything!” the boy was yelling in anguish, tears streaming down his face.

“I’m taking the boy to my cabin,” the captain spoke with finality. “We’re not to be disturbed under any circumstances.” He shoved the boy into his cabin, slamming the door behind him. Gwaine leaned back against it, turning back to the crew.

The young pirate waved his hand at the rest of his mates. “Captain’s busy, so should you be.”

The crew crumbled, but returned to their posts.

Captain Shakespeare shoved the still sobbing boy into his rooms. “Get in there, boy!” He turned to lock the door behind him before pausing. After a moment, his shoulders relaxed and he stood taller, turning to give his captives a bright smile. “So, that went well I thought.”

Merlin drew his hands away from his face, tears of laughter breaking through as he doubled over, reaching out a hand for support. Strong arms wrapped around him, keeping him from collapsing in his fit, and he turned to press his nose into Arthur’s chest.

The blonde was smiling, despite being half-naked in only his undergarments, as he held the giggling star in his arms. He looked up to stare incredulously at the Captain.

The Captain clapped his hands together, gesturing for them to take a seat at the table in the center of the room. He reached out to take Merlin’s hand, guiding him gently into a seat. Arthur followed suit, and soon the three were seated at the table, still jittery from their earlier ploy. “Now,” the eldest man said, “tell me news of my beloved England! I want to hear absolutely everything.”

Merlin spared a glance at Arthur before turning back to the captain. “Hang on, I can’t believe your crew fell for that!” Arthur felt his earlier fear melt into awe as he witnessed, perhaps for the first time, a genuine smile from the star, unlaced with fear. “And where in the gods’ name did you get that mannequin from, Captain Shakespeare?”

The captain waved his hand. “Oh, it works every time. An ounce of bargaining, a pinch of trickery, a soupcon of intimidation et voila! A perfect recipe for a towering reputation without ever having to spill one drop of blood. Ever tried getting bloodstains out of a silk shirt? Absolute nightmare!” He reached out to a pitcher on the table, pouring himself a glass of water. “Oh, and please, call me Gaius.”

The young men exchanged elated glances, hearts racing still, as they clung to Gaius’s words. “Right,” Arthur nodded, “Um. . .I still don’t understand how they won’t recognize me?”

Gaius waved him off. “Arthur, dear boy, when I’m through with you, your own mother won’t recognize you. Now, we have no time to waste. We have only two hours before we make port. First and foremost!” He rose from his seat, walking over to a door at the far end of the room and swinging it open to reveal an entire other room, filled wall to wall with clothing of all shapes, sizes, and colors. “It will be so good to see you out of those dreary clothes.”

Arthur stood, following Gaius into the room as Merlin trailed close behind them. Gaius ruffled through a few drawers, pulling out a stack of clothing to shove towards Arthur. “Here. I wore it as a younger man.” He turned towards Merlin, looking him slowly up and down. “Now you, Darling. . . well, I have plenty to choose from, take your pick.”

Merlin shook his head, putting his palms up in refusal. “Oh, no, really. I’m fine.”

Gaius quirked that eyebrow, and Merlin felt immediately scolded. “Honey, you’re wearing a bathrobe.”

The star looked down at himself, blushing at the realization that he hadn’t changed since his bath at the Inn from hell. He took a few bashful steps towards the racks on the wall, running his hands over the fabric in awe.

While the star browsed, Arthur was drawn to the mirror by Gaius, who got immediately to work on his hair. “Now, England. I want to hear everything.”

Arthur frowned at his reflection. “You’re not from England.”

Gaius chuckled. “Sadly, no. But as a child I lapped up the stories. People always told me they were nothing but folklore, but in my heart I knew them to be true. As a boy I’d sneak away from my father at the market while he made his deals just to peak over the wall. I dreamt of perhaps crossing one day, seeing England for myself.”

“Really?” Arthur inquired, shrugging on the trousers Gaius had provided for him. “So you were here looking over there?”

Gaius nodded, gesturing for Arthur to sit so he could better reach his scalp. “Mind you, I did my best to fit in. Tried to make my father, Captain Ghostmaker, proud. Forged a decent reputation as a ruthless marauder and cold blooded killer,” he made a face, and Merlin couldn’t help but giggle from where he was standing. “But my father died. I always promised him I’d take over the family business and keep the ol’ girl flying. You have no idea how it lightens my heart to be able to confide in you young people. The pressures of having to continue the Captain Shakespeare persona for the sake of the crew? Oh, but I did go on my own once. Studied medicine and became a physician, even serving in the castle for the royal family! But then the princess disappeared, her husband taking off after the death of their child, and I knew there was nothing there for me anymore. I came back to my ship, collected a new crew of runaways, rapscallions, and thieves, and pledged to keep my father’s legacy alive.”

Arthur frowned, reaching out to touch his hair as Gaius snipped and brushed. It was softer to the touch than it had been in years. “I don’t understand that,” he mused, “Surely it would make you happier just to be yourself? Why fight to be accepted by people you don’t actually want to be like?”

Merlin hummed, a thoughtful look on his face. He came over to stand next to Arthur in the mirror. He was newly dressed in a pair of comfortable dark brown trousers that hugged his legs, tucked neatly into black boots. He wore a simple deep blue tunic with a red scarf wrapped loosely around his neck, completed with a leather belt hanging loosely around his middle to give him some shape. The ensemble was simple, but the fabrics were rich in color and soft to the touch. He felt better than he had in ages. The star gave a pointed look at the blonde. “Yeah, why would anyone want to do that to themselves?”

Arthur looked away, slumping back in his chair. “Exactly,” he mumbled to himself.

***

“Port ahoy!” Leon called from his perch, waving down to catch the attention of his crewmates. Elyan waved back in understanding, repeating the message loudly to verify everyone could hear it. “Ready the lightening barrels!”

Gaius exited his quarters, calling out orders to the crew without a second glance at the boy trailing hesitantly behind him. Some of the men paused, giving the boy approving looks. “You clean up nicely!” Gwaine called with a wink, causing the young man to blush brightly, a stark contrast to his pale skin and dark hair.

Leon dropped to the deck, nodding towards the boy in greeting before giving Gwaine a playful cuff to the back of the head. “Back to work,” he ordered, “leave the boy be.” It wasn’t the first time their captain had taken a liking to a captive. Hell, Gwaine himself had made his introductions from the brig. While some of the rougher men on deck gave the boy weary looks, most simply smiled kindly before moving on to their duties. The boy seemed to relax a bit at this, though he still chased the captain around like a lost pup.

They got to work pulling the ship into port. The winds from the storm the previous night had died down into a gentle breeze, and the crew had no problems twisting the sails to glide them safely to the edge of the cliff. A rope bridge was unfurled smoothly, and the captain gestured for a select few of his men to follow him to land, the young man along with them.

“Merlin,” Gaius spoke kindly, “these are my most trusted men. Leon, Gwaine, Percival, Lancelot, and Elyan. They’ll keep an eye out for you if the rest of the crew gets a little. . . coarse. Men, this is Merlin. He’ll be staying with us for a while.”

The men gave their greetings, easily accepting the young boy into their protection. They couldn’t help it. He was just so. . . protectable.

After introductions were made, Percival and Leon hoisted a large, sealed metal container between themselves and set off, Elyan at their head to guide the way. Gaius walked behind them, standing tall even as the group began to expertly blend into the crowd as they reached the market. Merlin’s eyes widened at the sight. People roaming around everywhere, all in a rush and with nowhere to go. The colors were unlike anything he’d seen before, save from within Gaius’s closet, and he could smell fruitcakes and animal stink alike in the air.

Gwaine and Lancelot marched on either side of him, keeping him in line with the others so he didn’t get lost in the overwhelmingness of it all. Gwaine chatted away about this and that, while Lancelot had placed a comforting hand on Merlin’s shoulder, occasionally rolling his eyes or making a comment about plot holes in Gwaine’s tales. Merlin found himself quite enjoying their company, though he wished Arthur could be there to witness it all with him.

Soon enough, they came to a halt in front of a small shop. Merlin ducked inside with the Captain, Leon, and Gwaine, while the others all seemed to dissipate into the crowd— no doubt keeping careful watch from afar.

Merlin watched in fascination as Gaius chatted with the man behind the counter. He didn’t understand much of what was being said, but it seemed to him to be a business deal of some sort. After a few tense moments, the shopkeep came around the counter to stand in front of the container. He slid open a panel, taking a glance inside. Merlin was startled by a flash of light before the man closed the panel once more.

“Yes, well, doesn’t seem very fresh to be honest,” the shopkeeper shrugged, glancing up at Gaius.

Gaius nodded in understanding, reaching to take yet another small container from Leon, who stood guard close behind him. “Shall I give you a taste, then?”

The shopkeeper shook his head fervently, barely letting out a “No, no, that wont be necessary” before Gaius had opened the container and a shock of electricity, bright and fast and sharp, came crackling out and burned a hole right through the wall behind the man’s head. “Brilliant,” the man muttered grimly, “like that’s cheap.”

“I think it’s still crackling,” the captain mused. “Still very much alive. Name your best price.”

The shopkeeper looked over the container. “For ten thousand bolts? I’d say, um, one hundred and fifty guineas.”

Gaius waved to Gwaine. “Gentlemen, pack up the merchandise.”

The small, weasel-like man’s eyes went wide and he jumped up quickly, placing a hand over the container to prevent the pirates from taking it away. “Wait, wait, not hold on. Just a moment. One sixty, yeah?”

Gaius pretended to ponder. “Seeing as I’m feeling particularly generous today, I’ll settle for two hundred.”

“Two hundred? Okay, you’re having a laugh,” the shopkeeper giggled, nodding down at the lightening filled container. “Have you had your head in that? One eighty.”

“Two hundred.”

“That’s not negotiation. I’m changing my number, see? One eight five!”

“Did I hear two hundred?"


“From you, you did, sure. Okay, one nine five, final offer!”

“One nine five it is,” Gaius conceded, reaching out to shake the weasel-man’s hand. “So with sales tax that’s, let’s see, ah! Two hundred.”

The shopkeeper rolled his eyes. “Brilliant. Put it in the back.”

Gwaine and Leon lifted the container (with some trouble, without Percival’s enormous muscles there to assist) and the shopkeeper gestured for the captain to speak to him privately. Gaius bade Merlin browse the shop in his absence before following the shopkeeper into the corner.

“Right. Have you heard any of these rumors going around about a fallen star?” The shopkeeper inquired, jumping right to the point. “Everyone’s talking about it. You get your hands on one of them, we can shut up shop. Retire.”

Gaius frowned, raising his eyebrow. “Fallen star?”

“Yeah.”

The captain had just begun to reply when a glint in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned to see Merlin tentatively handling a dagger he’d found on a shelf. The young man pondered it a moment, turning it over in his hands, before seeming to decide against it and placing it back on the shelf. He turned to see Gaius staring at him and gave a bright smile in return. Gaius nodded in acknowledgement, noting the unusual shine in the man’s smile. He turned back to the shopkeeper and shook his head.

The man seemed to deflate. “Nothing? Not on your travels?”

“No,” Gaius spoke with finality.

“Everyone’s talking about it down at the market!”

“Which market? The market near the wall? You’re wasting your time listening to gossip from the kind of pond scum trading down there.”

***

They returned to the ship in high spirits, Gwaine babbling on about a night he’d supposedly had with some tree nymphs while casting suggestive looks in Percival’s direction (which the taller man blatantly ignored). When they had finally made it back on deck, Merlin jumped at the sound of a sword being drawn. He looked up, his heart twisting at the sight of a handsome young man sitting casually on a water barrel on the deck, legs crossed as he leaned back on his hands.

The young man smirked. “Captain Shakespeare,” he greeted, sparing a glance in Merlin’s direction and winking.

The man who’d drawn his sword shifted forward, halted only by the captain himself bursting into booming laughter. “Weapons down!” he ordered. “I’d like you all to meet my nephew, the fearsome buccaneer Arthur Pendragon!”

Arthur stood as Gaius came to stand by him, throwing an arm over the captain’s shoulders. Merlin bit back a smile at the sight. Arthur had cleaned up well, far better than Merlin had originally noticed. His blonde hair was combed back, the gentle breeze blowing a few stray strands into his bright blue eyes. He was clothed in a deep red tunic which hung down to his thighs, and around his waist was an expensive looking leather belt. His trousers and boots were much the same as Merlin’s, only of richer color and showing off the clear muscles in his calves. He also wore a long, brown leather coat that reached nearly to his ankles, making him seem somehow taller and more confident than he already stood. The star looked over the blonde slowly and with much appreciation.

Arthur didn’t seem to notice his looks, too occupied with not making a fool of himself in front of a band of pirates. “He’ll be joining us on his journey home!” Gaius announced, patting Arthur fondly on the back. “And I have the perfect gift to keep you amused on the way.”

He gestured towards Merlin, and Gwaine was quick to shove the raven-haired man forward. Arthur grinned, and they both stood awkwardly next to each other for a moment.

The crew stared expectantly.

After a long moment, the blonde let out a small “Oh!” before grabbing Merlin by the arm and pulling him towards his chest. He held up a fist and made a (hopefully manly-sounding) “Arrgh!”, which the crew returned with earnest.

And if Leon stood in the back of the group, head buried in his hands in clear exasperation? Well, hey, it was no one’s business but his own.

“Alright, you dogs, lets get young Arthur on his way home!”

***

For the first time since leaving Wall— and perhaps, since long before then— Arthur felt happy. Elated, even. The few days he spent on The Dragon were exhilerating.

His days were spent above deck, learning everything he possibly could. Gaius told him stories of the great kings that had once ruled Camelot, and the devolution of the bloodline since then. How the expansion of the empire in times of peace and prosperity had fallen into times of war and bloodlust, especially among the noble families themselves. Arthur felt something pang in his chest at the thought, but was given little time to dwell. Leon welcomed him easily into the crew, teaching him the basics of how to sail and steer and man the ship alongside the other men. After his first drunken dinner with his newfound companions in which he recounted (a rather summed up version of) his humiliating duel with Valiant, Lancelot seemed suddenly determined to teach Arthur the “art of the blade”.

It was a grueling process, as he had only a few days aboard the ship to learn what many men had lifetimes to practice. Leon and Percival joined in the teaching, showing the young blonde how to properly hold a blade. The entire first day was spent working on foot placement, before he was even given a chance to swing the sword.

Arthur wasn’t the only one enjoying his time with the pirates. He had little time to speak to Merlin during the day, what with the crew’s determination to teach him all they could, but at night, after the rest of the crew had settled in for their watches or in their cots, the two young men would lie awake beside each other and discuss all they could about their days. Arthur learned, in the quiet of the night, that Merlin’s days had been spent mostly trailing Gaius. In the privacy of the captains quarters, he’d been studying the man’s books on medicine and herbs and treatments, along with techniques of diplomacy and compromise; something he claimed he’d need to know well what with Arthur’s “proclivity for making an absolute arse of himself”. The blonde had given him a swat on the head for that comment.

Merlin still couldn’t sleep well during the night, so he’d nap in the daylight whenever he could. The crew made no mention of it, luckily, and Gaius took it upon himself to awaken before daybreak and teach Merlin all he could in the dark of the night. Merlin wasn’t sure why he’d need to study art or music, but he’d gladly sit beside the man at the piano stool and let his long fingers grace the keys for hours, until the random notes seemed to flow into what could almost be considered music.

One night, during a particularly terrible storm, Arthur and Merlin suited up in hoods and goggles and gloves with the rest of the crew, and set out to man the lightening rods. It was terrifying, being that close to something that could easily have killed them, but the fear made their success in capturing the bolts even more elating. When Merlin and Gwaine had successfully closed the contraption that contained the captured electricity, the young star let out a squeal of glee and threw himself into Arthur’s arms. Arthur had laughed then, holding the other man close to his chest and swinging them around the deck.

The next day Arthur managed to disarm Lancelot for the first time, shocking the man onto his back. Arthur told himself his new confidence had nothing to do with the fact that Merlin was perched on barrel behind him, cheering him on.

Yes, the days spent aboard the ship with his crew— yes, his crew— were possibly the best of his life. But of all the experiences he had on The Dragon, the best was most definitely their last night before making port.

There was no storm that night, and so the crew all gathered around the deck to drink wine and make merry, telling tales of their past adventures and reminiscing on the lives they had before and after joining Captain Shakespeare. Gaius revealed that he had once been very close to the late kings only daughter, being named her brother in all but blood and standing beside her at her wedding to her husband. They all laughed till their sides hurt when he shared the story of the first time she’d tried to teach him to waltz. It was then that Merlin had revealed he’d never danced before, and Gwaine had jumped to his feet, declaring this fact unjust and unlawful.

The brunette pulled Merlin close to his chest, showing him where to place his hands and adjusting his feet, before nodding to Elyan, who began to play a soft tune on the captain’s piano. The two stumbled around the deck a bit before Gwaine twirled him away and into the arms of Percival. Merlin continued his dance— if one could call it that— for a few songs, being passed back and forth between crewmen and stepping on nearly every toe on the ship, before he was finally passed into the arms of the Captain, who held him fondly as a parent might their bumbling child. Arthur watched with a soft smile, his mind focused intently on Merlin’s wide grin.

His smile slipped, just a bit, when Merlin began to glow.

It was faint, just a bit of white light highlighting the edges of his adorably abnormally large ears where his black hair curled, and his eyes began to spark with just a touch of gold. Arthur looked around with worry, but it didn’t seem that any of the others noticed the change. Still, he moved a bit closer to where the star and the captain danced, straining his ears to better hear their conversation.

“Merlin,” Gaius spoke casually, “I know what you are.”

The change was immediate, the glow dimming back as Merlin tensed. Arthur stood a bit straighter, hand resting on the sword at his hip.

There was no need for the gesture, however, as Gaius’s voice then took on a comforting, almost parental tone. “Have no fear, boy, no one on the vessel will harm you.” Merlin’s posture relaxed, as did Arthur’s. The blonde wondered if the still-dancing pair knew he could hear their conversation.

“But there are plenty who would,” the captain was still speaking, “Your emotions give you away, Merlin. You must learn to control them. You’ve been glowing more brightly every day, and I think you know why. . .”

Merlin chuckled a bit. “Of course I know why I’m glowing, I’m a star! And what do stars do best?”

“Well,” Gaius muttered as the boy stepped once more on his toes, “it’s certainly not the waltz.”

Their conversation was cut short as Arthur stood and placed a hand on Gaius’ back. “May I cut in?” he joked, taking Merlin’s hand in his as Gaius stepped away. He pulled the star closer to him and rested a hand comfortably around his waist. Merlin’s arm came up to rest on Arthur’s shoulder, and they began to move.

Well, they would have, if Merlin hadn’t immediately crushed Arthur’s foot with his own. Arthur let out a short laugh as the star apologized profusely. The blonde adjusted their positions, standing straighter. “Now try,” he encouraged.

This time, when they took a step back, the movements flowed naturally between them. Gwaine whistled loudly, earning a few more giggles from the raven haired boy, and Arthur found himself lost once more in the golden blue of Merlin’s eyes. An impossible color, and yet somehow perfectly fitting. Merlin returned the gaze unabashed, his hand tightening subtly around Arthur’s. Neither of the young men took notice when the crew began to trickle out, turning in for the night, the glow of Merlin’s smile seeming too bright for their tired eyes.

***

The coin hung in place in the air, spinning in rapid motion and making a soft ringing sound in front of the shopkeeper’s nose. He stared at it, hand itching at his side from the urge to grab it from its place.

“Due west, you say?” spoke the woman pacing behind him, “And you’re certain he had a girl with him?”

“Yes!” the weasel man exclaimed, licking his lips.

“You’re sure you’re not lying?”

The man didn’t look away from the coin once, not even when a spark of green flame seemed to glow in the woman’s eyes. “I’d cross my heart if I had one. Ha!”

Nimueh rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers. The coin fell into the shopkeepers hands. “You’d better be telling the truth, you two-faced dog.”

The man kissed the coin proudly before shoving it in the pocket of his waistcoat. “I can get you one of them! Very good guard dogs. They can watch the back door and the front door at the same time! Ha!” He giggled at the thought. “I can get you anything you want.”

Nimueh paused her pacing, turning towards him. “What are the chances of getting a Babylon candle?”

The man grimaced, reaching up to pick at his ear. “That one’s slim, actually. Although, I did know a girl once— if you know what I mean, I’m a ladies man— who, uh, who had a sister? I think. I think it was a women. Ha! Oh, she was terrible. Face like a bag of frogs. Ugly frogs. Anyway—”

Nimueh let out an exasperated groan, pointing her finger towards the weasel man’s mouth. “Enough,” she ordered, a stream of bright green light travelling from her pointer finger down his throat. He coughed, opening his mouth to demand what the hell, lady? but all that came out was a series of clucks, quite similar to those a chicken might make.

He frowned, sitting down at the table and opening his mouth to try again. The shopkeeper was still clucking as Nimueh wrapped her shawl tightly around her head and disappeared out the door.

***

“HOLD ON TIGHT! GWAINE’S ON THE HELM!” A shout of panic was heard from the crow’s nest, and everyone grabbed on to anything they could as the ship took a sharp right, swinging quickly and dangerously above the ocean as the cackling pirate pulled them into port at the seaside. The ship dipped suddenly, crashing into a wave and spraying the entire crew with salt water.

Arthur coughed and sputtered from where he and Merlin clung to the ropes, laughing and choking all together. Merlin was clutching a rope with one hand and his stomach with the other, trying his best not to fall over from his laughing fit. The blonde was knocked to the ground when the ship tilted right and the two hundred and seventy five pounds of muscle came crashing into him. The men glared playfully at the insane helmsman when he finally pulled them into port.

After the crew had pulled themselves together, taking a few calming breaths and swigs of ale from their respective waterskins, they all lined up on the deck to say their goodbyes.

Gaius handed Arthur a travel-sized container of the “sky’s best” from their recent storm, which he slung across his chest proudly. At his hip rested a golden sword— a gift from Leon, to mark the completion of his swordplay crash course. He’d dubbed it Excalibur, ignoring the way Merlin had rolled his eyes and muttered something along the lines of “overdramatic prat” when he’d christened it such.

Gaius pat Arthur on the shoulder, gesturing to the landscape ahead. “So there’s the road you’ll need for Wall.” He called down to Merlin, who’d already shared his tearful goodbyes and was waiting patiently on shore. “Good luck to you on your journey home, Merlin, wherever that may be!” He winked at the star, who gave a thankful nod in return, before turning back to the blond. “And good luck to you, Arthur, with your Sophia.”

“How can we ever thank you for your kindness?” Arthur looked over the crew, feeling like he was losing something important by saying goodbye.

Gaius waved him off. “I’m sure our paths will cross again someday. Until then, don’t mention it.” He paused, giving Arthur that damn eyebrow. “Really, do not mention it. Reputations are fickle things. Lifetime to build, seconds to destroy.”

Arthur nodded in understanding, climbing out onto the rope bridge. He took two steps forward before he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he was surprised to see Elyan with a hard look on his face. The shorter man leaned in to whisper in his ear. Arthur felt his stomach twist at the words, looking past Elyan to see the rest of his men giving him the same knowing look. “Just think about it,” Elyan told him. He nodded slowly before thanking them once more and finishing his descent to land.

“Give my regards to England,” Gaius called down. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you both!”

Arthur and Merlin turned to him, giving weary glances to the grumbling crew. Leon cleared his throat and Gaius’s eyes widened a fraction. He raised a fist, and, in a booming voice they hadn’t heard since their initial capture, finished with, “Mind you don’t wear that wench out, Captain Arthur!”

The crew cheered, shoving each other around playfully before they moved along to their posts, gearing the ship up for its next journey. Arthur laughed, turning and bumping a sputtering Merlin affectionately with his shoulder.

“Did he just call me a wench?” Merlin looked like he wasn’t sure whether to be amused or scandalized.

Arthur laughed heartily and started making his way down the road, knowing Merlin would keep close behind him. “Don’t be such a girl about it, Merlin!”

They heard a loud crashing sound and whipped around in sharp synchronization, turning to watch the ship pull out and into the air. It was a beautiful sight, albeit sad. Neither had ever felt more at home than they did aboard The Dragon.

Merlin was the first to pull his eyes away, raising an eyebrow at Arthur in perfect imitation of Gaius. “What did Elyan say to you?”

“What did he say when?” Arthur feigned innocence as they both continued on down the road.

“Just then, when he whispered something into your ear. What did he say?”

“Oh, em. . . he was just saying we should use the lightening to get you a Babylon candle,” Arthur avoided the star’s gaze, keeping his eyes on the path ahead. “Barter for it, you know.”

Merlin frowned, but said nothing. It wasn’t his business. Still, he couldn’t help feeling something crawl in the pit of his stomach at the thought.

***

“For the last time! Where. Is. The. Boy?” Cenred growled lowly. Two guards held the shopkeeper between them, forcing him to look up at the prince in desperation.

He opened his mouth to reply, once more finding his words transformed into clucks.

“The boy with the stone! Where did he go?” Cenred reached out to grasp the man around his neck. “Are you mocking me?”

The shopkeeper shook his head vigorously, trying again. The clucks were louder this time, frantic, though the sickly smile still never left his face. Even now, in this helpless situation, he was attempting at a laugh.

“Because if you are, believe me, you have seconds to live!” The prince was out of patience, sweat dripping from his brow from his journey. When the man continued clucking, showing no sign of answering his words, Cenred drew his sword without a second thought, slashing the shopkeeper through the belly.

The guards dropped the weasel man to the floor, leaving him as he bled out. Cenred mumbled “freak” under his breath and handed his sword to Jonas to be cleaned. Thoroughly.

***

Nimueh’s ever present frown deepened as she glanced at her reflection, glowering at the pale, wrinkled skin and thin hair. She pointed a finger to her neck, a stream of green tightening the skin beneath her chin. She was satisfied momentarily before feeling a sudden shift of weight on her chest. She looked down and huffed as her breasts sagged.

She heard familiar, taunting laughter and looked down at her ring, rolling her eyes at the image of her sisters pointing at her in amusement.

“If you’ve quite finished squandering your magic on your rather counterproductive beauty routine,” Morgause scolded, “you might like to know that the star has returned.”

“He’s back on land.” Morgana confirmed.

“I know, damn it!” Nimueh snapped. “I couldn’t reach the port on time.”

“No matter,” Morgause shrugged, “We have found him. He is on the road to the village of Wall. If you take the shortcut across the marshes you should arrive on time to intercept him!”

Morgause and Nimueh squealed in excitement, drawing up a new plan. Neither paid any mind to Morgana sinking in on herself in the background, eyes downcast and exhausted.

***

Arthur and Merlin had been walking in comfortable silence for nearly half a day. Neither felt particularly inclined to speak, having too much on their minds to piece together useless small talk. Every step drew them closer to Wall. Closer to destiny.

Arthur was ripped from his thoughts at the sight of a cart coming down the road. He jumped in panic, shoving Merlin into the bushes along the side of the path and jumping in after him, effectively hiding their presence from the traveler heading their way.

Arthur lie on top of Merlin, noses nearly touching, and tilted his head to listen for signs of the traveler. Merlin seemed unimpressed. “Are you trying to break my leg again?”

The blonde shushed him gently. “No, I’m sorry,” he whispered softly into the star’s ear. “I’m sorry. I just can’t risk people seeing you. I don’t trust anyone.”

Merlin laughed as quietly as he could, staring up in fond vexation at the man lying on top of him. “But at this rate, if we keep stopping—”

“Shh, Merlin.” Arthur put a finger to Merlin’s lips, leaning in a bit closer. Merlin felt his heart speed up at the proximity. “We’re making good time. Just leave it a minute.” Arthur was still whispering, and something about the entire situation seemed too intimate. Merlin hoped, for the first time in his life, that his glow wasn’t noticeable in the light.

Arthur could hear the wagon passing them, and he pulled his hand away, allowed Merlin back his speech. Merlin stayed silent a moment longer, gazing at Arthur with a sad smile. “Aren’t you tempted?” he asked suddenly.

Arthur looked back down, as if only just noticing his position. He looked down at the young man beneath him, raking his gaze slowly over pale pink lips and wide, crystal eyes. Those eyes, he thought, were far more beautiful than any jewel or amulet the star could ever wear. “Tempted?” he leaned in closer, “by what?”

Merlin frowned as if the answer were obvious. “Immortality.”

Arthur’s chest tightened, the thought of his star being sliced open for the cost of such a wish making his blood run cold.

The dark haired boy was still talking. “I mean, say it wasn’t my heart. Not me. Just some star you didn’t know.”

Arthur’s thoughts drifted to his dream that night at the Inn. Of the dark girl with the curls, the one the witches had killed in the past. He compared her light to the light beneath him, and thought that no one should ever be able to harm such beautiful creatures. “Do you seriously think I could kill anyone?” he joked, trying to lighten the mood. He relaxed a bit at Merlin’s answering laugh. Shushing him again, he focused his attention on the glow surrounding the star. “I mean, even if I could. Everlasting life? I imagine it would be kind of. . .” he looked down at Merlin’s eyes, “. . .lonely.”

The glow began to dim as Merlin took in the words. If Arthur noticed, he didn’t mention it, continuing on. “Well, maybe if you had someone to share it with. Someone you loved. Maybe then it might be different.”

Merlin was silent. He looked away from the blonde as if the sight of him was physically painful. They lie there a few more moments before Arthur declared the roads safe and stood, helping the star back to his feet. Merlin made a comment about the dirt on his jacket, to which Arthur replied by calling him some name or another. They fell easily back into their banter.

***

Anyways the author could not give two shits about writing the scene where the prince fights the pirates. Basically the pirates win and all the guards are dead. Cenred jumps off the ship and steals Jonas’s horse, riding off after Merlin and Arthur alone. Watch the movie if you want more detail. Moving on.

***

“I, uh, I noticed you sort of. . .glitter sometimes,” Arthur said later that afternoon, “Is that normal?”

Merlin gave him a look. “Let’s see if you can work it out for yourself. What do stars do?”

Arthur hummed, thinking for a moment. The star momentarily worried he’d hurt himself, making a move like that. “Attract trouble?” The blonde guessed, earning a swat at his arm. “Right, do I get another guess? Is it. . . they know exactly how to annoy a man called Arthur Pendragon?”

Merlin didn’t respond, stopping in front of a rock on the side of the road. Etched into it were the words “THE WALL: 60 MILES” followed by an arrow pointing them forwards. “How long do you think that will take?”

The blonde shrugged. He squinted against the sunlight and raised a hand to cover his eyes as he gazed down then path. “Maybe two days?”

“But we don’t have two days!” He gave Arthur a worried look and gestured at nothing in particular. “Sophia’s birthday is tomorrow!” Arthur didn’t look away from Merlin, but his smile dropped. He had completely forgotten about Sophia. How could he forget about Sophia?

The breeze blew softly over curls blacker than the night sky, causing long, nimble fingers to reach up in irritation and brush them out of deep blue pools. Oh, that’s how. The realization hit Arthur suddenly. He wanted to stumble back. To run through a field and scream into the air and break down in crisis of just how he’d managed to let his life get so far off track.

Instead, he gave a noncommittal hum and a, “Yes, it is. Well remembered,” before trudging mechanically on.