Arthur sighed and gestured for the chair beside him. “Then why didn’t you go to her? You’ve suspected for a while, I saw the way you reacted to her dreams of Ealdor.”
Merlin sighed as he sunk down into the soft cushions of the chair. “I thought it might be better, if she didn’t know. If she never figured it out.” He shuffled slightly, not looking at Arthur. “And Gaius thought so too.”
Arthur didn’t understand. “How could she not find out? It must have been obvious, after a while, that her dreams were of the future. That they came true.”
“I don’t know.” Merlin shrugged helplessly. “But you know what it’s like, living with a secret that could get you killed. I- I wanted to spare her that, for as long as I could.”
That, Arthur did understand. He nodded, and wondered to himself what on earth they were going to do now. Merlin looked deep in thought, and Arthur loathed to interrupt him. It wasn’t a good idea, and anyway, Arthur had his own thoughts to dwell on.
Merlin’s – or rather, Gaius’s – theory on magic made sense. Arthur could only imagine how much magic had been released into the world because of the purge, and even then he didn’t think he could fully grasp it. He looked to Merlin again, studying him silently. How powerful was he, truly, if all that magic had gone to him? If even just most of it had? Arthur had already seen him do incredible things, impossible things, and he didn’t think that was even close to the full extent of his powers.
Morgana, too, was powerful. She had to be. For all his power, Merlin had never once mentioned dreaming of the future. Arthur hardly thought that was something an ordinary magic user could do.
It was easy to get caught up in it all, in imagining all that they could do, good and bad. Arthur, for the sake of his own sanity, chose not to dwell on it. It was something for the future, if it would ever be something he needed to dwell on at all, and he had other matters that he needed to be thinking about.
Mainly, the reason for his early wake up call.
“He was right.” Arthur said, suddenly feeling the world pressing down on his shoulders.
Merlin startled and eyed him like he’d lost his mind. “What?”
Arthur grimaced. “The villager that came to my father this morning. He was right.”
Merlin’s lips thinned. “Damn.”
Damn indeed. “We’ve been ordered to patrol the lower town tonight, and to watch Tom the blacksmith.”
Merlin jolted, surprised. “But that’s Gwen’s father. What would Tauren want with him?”
Arthur sighed and dropped his head into his hand. “I don’t know, but we saw Tom consorting with a shadowed figure that we followed and confirmed was Tauren. They agreed to meet later tonight, at Tom’s forge.”
“And that’s why you’re watching him.”
Arthur peeked through his fingers. “Yes.”
Merlin groaned and sunk further into the chair. “What are we going to do?”
The ‘we’ shouldn’t surprise him the way it does, nor should it make his heart warm so much. Of course Merlin would want to help him, want to be by his side in this. Still, after so long doing things alone, it was hard sometimes to remember that he had someone now. Multiple someone’s, actually, now that Morgana knew. He wasn’t alone, and the reminder made his heart quicken.
“I don’t know.” He said simply, because he didn’t. “Tauren is a known threat – we can’t risk letting him run free. But if Tom is caught helping him..”
“He’ll be executed.” Merlin stated, blunt.
Arthur groaned again and let his head fall onto the table. Tauren had long plagued Camelot. His leadership of a band of renegade sorcerers sworn to bring down the King was well known. He had caused many skirmishes over the past few years, and a number of those skirmishes had led to the death of some of his knights. Some had even killed innocent people. Arthur couldn’t stand letting a chance to stop him go.
“Arthur.” Merlin said, choked. “We can’t let Gwen’s father die. We can’t.”
“I know.” Arthur growled. He launched to his feet and started pacing. “I know that Merlin, but Tauren is dangerous. We can’t let an opportunity like this fall through our fingers.”
“So we need a way to capture Tauren and keep Tom alive.” Merlin said, considering. “And preferably not banished.”
Arthur nodded. “Ideally.”
“I could find him.” Merlin suggested. “Find where he’s hiding, capture him for you.”
Arthur considered it, then almost immediately dismissed the idea. “No.”
Merlin frowned. “Arthur, I could do it-“
“I know that.” Arthur waved a hand. “But Tom has already been seen consorting with him. He’d still be arrested.”
“Damn it.” Merlin hissed.
Arthur agreed. This would have all worked out far easier if they hadn’t spotted Tom talking with Tauren, or if the blacksmith had known better than to consort with known, hostile sorcerers in the first place. And that, that brought him to a thought that had been nagging at the back of his mind ever since he had seen Tom and Tauren whispering together in the alleyway behind the blacksmiths house. Something he’d refrained from mentioning, because he knew exactly what Merlin would say if he were to voice it.
Still, it had to be said.
“Merlin.” He said softly as he stopped pacing. Merlin looked at him curiously. “What if Tom is knowingly working with Tauren to kill my father?”
Merlin stared at him for a moment, then shook his head slightly. “No.”
Arthur folded his arms over his chest. “It’s a possibility.”
“No, it isn’t.” Merlin insisted, standing from his chair. “I can’t believe you’d even think that.”
“Why else would he be consorting with him?” Arthur asked.
“Maybe he doesn’t know it’s Tauren.”
“Everyone knows who he is Merlin - he’s been a known threat for years.” Arthur dismissed.
Merlin huffed. “He could be hiding his identity with magic-“
“I saw him myself, there’s no mistaking him-“
“Then he could be enchanting him to do his bidding-“
“If that were the case, then why would they need to meet and discuss anything? Tauren could just order him to do whatever he wants-“
“Damn it Arthur!” Merlin yelled, launching himself to his feet and shoving his chair away. “We are not talking about this! Tom is Gwen’s father. You can’t seriously think him a traitor!”
“I can’t rule out the possibility! Not when the King’s life is at stake.” Arthur yelled right back.
“So you’d condemn him to death?” Merlin sneered.
Arthur flinched back. “I didn’t say that-“
Merlin threw his hands up. “Well that’s what’s going to happen! You know he’s a dead man as soon as Uther gets his hands on him, even if he is innocent.”
“But what if he’s not?” Arthur asked, because Merlin still hadn’t answered that particular question, no matter how unlikely Arthur thought it was.
Merlin glared at him, then turned and stormed out the door. Arthur stared after him, shocked into silent stillness. He blinked slowly at the door.
“What the hell just happened?” He muttered to himself.
He shook himself from his stupor and turned back to his desk. Their half eaten breakfast sat growing cold, and Arthur wondered idly how the day could go from incredible to terrible so fast. How he could be so happy and relieved one moment and the so angry and lost the next.
And he was angry, he realised suddenly, like it hadn’t been simmering quietly behind his confusion the whole time he and Merlin had been arguing. Arthur didn’t really think Tom was a traitor. He’d heard Gwen talk about having to ration her wages the past few weeks – a side effect of Tom getting little work at the forge, and a problem they faced occasionally. Morgana had given her extra pay, and Arthur had thought that would be the end of it.
Apparently, Tom was more desperate for money that Arthur had thought.
Still, he was sure the man wouldn’t turn against the crown. Known traitor he may be, Tauren wasn’t stupid. The people of Camelot were loyal, and though coin could buy services Arthur was confident it could not buy away that loyalty. Tom may have agreed to help Tauren, but he undoubtedly did so under the impression that no one would be harmed.
Still, the possibility was still there, and Merlin hadn’t been able to answer him. What were they supposed to do if, as unlikely as it was, Tom was a traitor? If he was working with Tauren and his band of rebel sorcerers to kill the king? Arthur was a knight before most everything else in life, and as a knight he had to be prepared for every possibility. Merlin had refused to even entertain the idea, and Arthur growled in frustration, angrily tugging open his wardrobe.
Really, was it that hard to just consider and make a plan in the off chance that they were wrong? It could get them all killed, simply assuming Tom was innocent and refusing to think of any other possibilities. Arthur would rather not get them all killed. Clearly Merlin was too much of a naïve idiot to understand that.
He slammed his wardrobe door shut and tugged his sleep clothes off, slipping into a simple tunic and pants.
He didn’t see Merlin again that day. He threw himself into his work, attending the morning council meeting, training with his knights, and eventually planning with Sir Leon and Sir Geraint on how they were going to catch Tauren. It took them long into the evening to come up with a suitable plan, and to gather the guards necessary for the plan to work.
The idea had been Geraint’s, and it was simple.
They were to completely surround Tom’s blacksmith, ensuring neither man had any hope of an easy escape. The fact that Tauren had magic complicated things, and several times during the planning Arthur found himself turning to look at Merlin, to ask without asking if he could use his magic to help, only to remember Merlin wasn’t there. It sent a shock through him each time, along with a pang of sadness. Merlin hadn’t even been avoiding him for a day and he already missed him fiercely.
Arthur shook his head. He had to concentrate on the plan right now. Resolutely he shoved his feelings down and focused.
After making sure the blacksmith was surrounded, they would lie in wait until the perfect moment. When Tauren was most distracted, Arthur would lead a few knights forward and storm the building, hopefully capturing Tauren and Tom without much – if any – resistance. Then would come their trials, and probable executions.
Arthur was still trying to work out a way to convince his father that Tom was innocent – if that was what he was. He would have to talk to Tom, figure out what exactly he was doing with Tauren, and then… improvise.
It was not one of Arthur’s best plans, but for now it was all he had.
An hour before Arthur was expected to join his men in the lower town, he started looking for Merlin. He still hadn’t managed to come up with a plan to save Tom from his father’s prejudices, and for all he teased the man, Merlin was one of the smartest people he’d ever met. Together they could figure something out, he was sure of it.
Unfortunately, Merlin was impossible to find when he didn’t want to be found. Arthur searched all over the castle, from his rooms to the empty knights training grounds. He was no where to be seen. None of the servants had seen him, nor had the few lords he asked, and Arthur felt his frustration grow with every minute he couldn’t find his lover.
Finally, when he was almost out of time and his men were surely starting to wonder where he was, Arthur admitted defeat.
Leon greeted him with a stiff nod, and together they turned towards the gates to the lower town. This, at least, no one would suspect. Arthur took strolls around the lower town often enough, to keep the peace and show the people he cared, so no one raised an eyebrow at seeing the Crown Prince and his First Knight walking through the market.
They patrolled the lower town slowly, stopping at market stalls and talking to random citizens that had the courage to approach them. At one point Arthur spotted a pair of guards on the other side of the market. He nodded to them, and they inclined their heads back.
Two hours later the moon shone down on them, an alluring crescent that Arthur could just barely hear whispering to him. He shivered slightly, and sent a quick glare up at the moon. He hated it and the control it had over him, the way it whispered in his mind even when it wasn’t shining or full. Leon sent him an unreadable look, and Arthur had to force himself not to visibly flinch.
He’d forgotten, after the chaos of the past few days, that his father and Morgana were not the only ones present when the witch had revealed what he was. He’d be watched now, by everyone, and he knew eventually someone would see something they could use as proof against him. Little hints and tells, like his heightened hearing and reaction to the moon, would be obvious now, where before they were simply little quirks of the prince.
Leon, thankfully, stayed quiet. Arthur had no doubt that he was suspicious, but he was a good enough knight that he wouldn’t question his prince. He also wouldn’t want to force Arthur to say anything he didn’t want to, no matter his curiosity. It was a part of the reason why Arthur considered him such a good friend.
They snuck through the dark alleyways silently, making their way closer and closer to the blacksmith. A pair of guards joined them at one point, and then they were in front of the blacksmith’s door, Sir Geraint already there with another three guards. He nodded to them, and Arthur nodded back as they took up their positions around the doors.
“Stay quiet, and wait for my signal.” Arthur whispered, pressing against the side of the forge.
Geraint leaned close to him and whispered. “It’s impossible to hear anything sire. I think we should go in as soon as everyone is in position.”
Arthur shook his head slightly and closed his eyes. “You wait for my signal, Sir Geraint.”
Geraint looked taken aback for a second. Then he nodded and moved back, silently signalling to a new pair of knights to get into position. Arthur turned away from the lot of them. He breathed deeply once, and then listened. Nothing, at first, and Arthur almost wondered what use his advanced hearing was when it never seemed to want to work when he needed it, when the sky lightened and something clicked into place as he suddenly was able to just make out a voice.
“-is that?” He heard Tom ask.
“I'm not paying you to ask questions.” A low voice hissed, and Arthur tensed. “The lead, please.”
There was silence, and the clink of metal. Arthur shifted and pressed slightly closer. He needed to be patient, especially if he wanted to find out if Tom was innocent or not.
There was muttering, the muttering of spells, and Arthur almost growled aloud. He half raised a hand, ready to burst in and arrest the traitors.
“You didn't say anything about magic!” Tom hissed, and Arthur paused. “I don't want any trouble!”
Arthur swallowed. There it was. Tom hadn’t wanted anything to do with magic – he was simply doing his job. There was no maliciousness to his actions, he was simply hoping to earn some extra money.
There was more muttering, and then Tom’s voice came again, quiet and disbelieving. “Gold?”
“Pure, priceless gold.” Tauren said, sounding overly satisfied. There was a loud hiss, and then quiet. “Yours, blacksmith. If you keep your mouth shut.”
“Sire?” Sir Geraint murmured.
Arthur shook his head. He needed to hear this.
“I didn’t agree to anything magical.” Tom said quietly. “And I didn’t agree to anything that would bring my family or Camelot trouble.”
“What does it matter?” Tauren dismissed. “The experiment was a success. With this, I can make you rich. Rich enough that you and your daughter would never want for anything again. “
Silence, as Arthur guessed Tom was considering it. He waited, breath caught in his throat, and then-
Arthur grinned, and if it was a little dark and a little triumphant, no one would be able to tell in the dark. He clenched his hand in a fist and brought it down towards the door. He burst into the forge with a pair of guards close on his heels, sword drawn and ready to fight.
“Seize him!” Arthur yelled and pointed to Tauren.
Tom startled and dropped what looked to be a lump of gold. Arthur fancied he could almost feel the magic leaking from it. Tom stares at him with wide eyes, realisation and terror setting in in an instant. Two guards rushed forward, swords drawn, and Tom didn’t even struggle as they grabbed him.
In the same second Tauren yelled and bolted for the back door, only to jerk to a stop as two more guards and Sir Leon blocked him. He dropped something into the pot of water nearby, and with a quick word the room was completely filled with steam. Arthur squinted, trying to see through the magically thick steam. Sir Geraint yelled, and Arthur heard a table fall, along with something heavy.
“Stop!” A guard yelled, and Arthur honed in on the noise.
He saw a cloaked shadow slip out a window and growled lowly. “He must be caught!”
He heard a guard startle outside, then the pounding of boots as he gave chase. “Stop that man!”
Arthur gestured for the guards to follow. Sir Geraint led them out, shouting orders as he went. Leon hesitated, glancing between Arthur and the guards restraining Tom, sword drawn.
“Sire, please…” Tom pleaded, not bothering to struggle in the guards’ grip.
Arthur leaned down and picked up the lump of gold. It was warm in his palm. He looked up into Tom’s terrified eyes and made his decision.
“Release him.” He commanded, and the guards looked at him quizzically before letting him go. “Go help Sir Geraint. Sir Leon and I can handle this.”
“Sire.” They murmured with a bow.
Arthur waited until the sound of their footsteps had faded before he turned to Leon, ignoring the shaking blacksmith between them completely.
“Leon.” He said, as seriously as he could. “I need you to trust me.”
Leon blinked and lowered his sword slightly. “Of course sire.”
Arthur smiled tightly. “Guard the front door. Make sure no one disturbs us, not under any circumstances.”
“Yes sire.” Leon said, sending one more glance Tom’s way before he left.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Arthur breathed out a long sigh. Tom made no move to run, though Arthur caught him glancing at the back door, and for that he was grateful. This would be hard enough, with what little time and evidence he had. Tom bolting would only end up in him getting killed.
Arthur sighed and sheathed his sword.
Tom stared at him in surprise, and visibly swallowed hard. “Sire…”
“What were you doing with Tauren?” Arthur cut him off, voice sharp.
Tom dropped down onto his knees. “Nothing harmful sire, I swear!”
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “You weren’t making weapons?”
“No sire.” Tom swore. There was a commotion at the door that briefly drew their attention, and Arthur thought he heard Gwen’s voice before Leon must have quietened her. Tom paled slightly. “Tauren wanted help with some experiment of sorts, said he would pay me a fortune if I kept quiet and did as he said. But he mentioned nothing of magic sire, I swear! I would never have agreed to help him if I knew-“
Arthur held up his hand, cutting him off again. “What kind of experiment?”
Tom shook his head hopelessly. “I don’t know sire. He never said.”
Arthur sighed and raised a hand to rub his forehead. “Of course he didn’t.”
“I meant no harm sire, I swear.” Tom repeated, desperate. “I just wanted to make a better life for my daughter. To make her happy.”
Arthur thought of Guinevere, of her selflessness and her kindness, and then he thought of Merlin, the things he would do for him, and thought he understood. He reached forward and rested a hand on Tom’s shoulder, ignoring the man’s flinch.
“I believe you.” Arthur said softly, and Tom seemed to deflate, relief slumping his shoulders. Arthur hated to take it away. “But my father will not. He will believe you a traitor.”
Tom tensed again, and dropped his head into his hands. “Then I’m a dead man.”
“No.” Arthur said, firm. “You’re not dead yet.”
Tom peeked up at him, a frown on his face. “But…”
Arthur reached down and pulled Tom to his feet. The blacksmith stood willingly, confusion marring his face. Arthur thought quickly, building up and discarding ideas on how to get Tom out of this mess alive. He’d gone through several ideas, Tom staring at him the whole time, before a satisfactory plan started to form.
He eyed Tom and nodded. “When did Tauren first come to you?”
Toms brows furrowed. “Three days ago, sire.”
“Three days ago.” Arthur nodded again and started pacing. “And three days ago, you came to me and told me of Tauren’s plans.”
If possible, Tom looked even more confused. “Sire?”
“And when I found out, I commanded you go along with those plans and tell no one, in the hopes of catching Tauren off guard.” Arthur continued. “Unfortunately, he managed to escape us at the last moment, but you did all you could to stop him.”
Understanding finally dawned, and Tom trembled in his relief. “Sire- thank you.”
Arthur smiled, tight lipped. “You can thank me by not agreeing to any evil sorcerer’s plans in the future.”
“I won’t.” Tom swore quietly.
Arthur nodded, satisfied. “Good. Now, in keeping with the ruse, I’m going to need you to follow my guards to the dungeon. I want to draw Tauren out. Will he risk coming to you again?”
“If I’m in the dungeons?” Tom shook his head. “I can’t imagine why. Any blacksmith could do what I did.”
That was not what he had been hoping he’d say.
“Damnit.” He swore.
Several minutes passed as Arthur struggled to come up with a plan when something odd caught his eye. He crouched down and reached for it, holding it up to the light to examine it. It was a small leather pouch, the cord frayed like it had broken off something – a belt maybe. Arthur pulled it open and almost gasped aloud at what he saw.
A stone, clear at first and then glowing a fiery red-gold, with strange marks carved into its surface.
“That’s the stone he used.” Tom said, looking down at it over his shoulder. Arthur hadn’t noticed him get so close. “To do his magic.”
Arthur pulled the bag shut and tucked it away, out of sight. “Then he’ll be wanting it back.”
“Sire.” Tom said, a little hesitant, a little determined.
“I know it’s dangerous.” Arthur said. “But Tauren needs to be captured. He’s killed too many people, and threatened the King’s life on multiple occasions. We cannot let him go free.”
“I understand sire.” Tom said. “All I ask is that you keep my daughter safe.”
Arthur nodded. “Of course. You have my word, no harm will come to Guinevere because of this.”
Tom smiled, the first one Arthur had seen him give. “Thank you sire.”
Arthur gestured towards the door and Tom nodded. He grabbed Tom’s arm and marched them out. Leon was still guarding the door, and he nodded at Arthur when he finally emerged. Gwen was stood beside him, and at the sight of her father she went pale.
“Dad.” She choked out, reaching for him but pulling back when Leon gently grabbed her shoulder.
“I’m sorry Gwen.” Tom said, heavy, and Gwen looked like she was about to burst into tears. “I’m sorry.”
Gwen stifled a sob as three guards ran up to Arthur. They informed him Tauren had gotten away. Arthur nodded and handed Tom to them with an order to take him to the dungeons. Tom caught his eye as he went and inclined his head to Gwen, a movement so small no one else would see it. Arthur clenched his jaw. He didn’t need to be reminded of his promise.
“Guinevere.” He stopped, hesitated, then continued. “I’m sorry.”
She was crying now, tears rolling down her cheeks silently. “Is there nothing you can do?”
Leon must have told her everything. “I’m sorry. It’s out of my hands.” She closed her eyes, anguished, and Arthur suddenly hated his plan. “If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to come to me.”
Gwen nodded weakly and stumbled away. Arthur watched her go, hating he couldn’t reassure her. Leon turned to him, and together they turned back towards the castle. They made their way through the halls quickly, the stone burning in his hands, until they reached the council chambers.