Chapter 1: Born of Magic
This is where Arthur belonged.
Not on bed rest with his arm in a sling.
Not sitting at the council, struggling not to sleep.
Not substituting for his father on the throne, taking care of the common people's problems that they could settle themselves.
Out here, in the open, with a sword in his hand, that is where Arthur belonged.
He was a warrior, a knight at heart.
His sword masters always commented to Uther that Arthur must've been born with a sword in his hand, because he was never without one growing up.
Arthur didn't believe much in destiny, but if there was one, the only destiny Arthur believed he had was to live and die by the sword.
He retreated a step back as Sir Leon delivered a quarter-cut with his blunt sword.
A dull pain shot from his left shoulder across his chest. Arthur gritted his teeth, trying to ignore it. Three weeks was too soon to be back out on the practice field. Uther advised against it, as well as Gaius, and his pesky manservant. It didn't matter. They didn't understand. Arthur needed to be out here.
The pain grew as Arthur parried another of Leon's attack and went in with a low thrust.
Behind Leon, among those watching, Arthur caught glimpse of a red scarf.
"I'm happy to be your servant till the day I die."
His mind snapped back to that moment three weeks ago. The goodbye that wasn't one. When Arthur was in that coma, he never told anyone, but he had a terrible nightmare where Merlin was in danger and died.
Hearing Merlin talk to him like he was to say goodbye brought that dream back. Merlin's screams and cries. And Arthur helpless to help him.
"Learn to listen as well as you fight."
Arthur's mind whirled back to the present as Leon's sword slammed down against his left shoulder. A scream of pain bubbled up but Arthur forced it down. His arms trembled as he struggled to hold onto his own sword.
Leon immediately knew Arthur was in pain. His eyes widened and he dropped his sword to rush to his prince's side. "Sire!"
Arthur forced a weak smile. White caved around his vision, but he would not give in. He was a prince, they must not show weakness. "Why so worried, Leon? Morgana can hit harder than you."
Leon shook his head, his curly hair plastered against his forehead by the sweat.
Suck up the pain, Arthur told himself. He didn't want to add guilt onto his best and loyal knight. He was the one who forced Leon to spar with him.
Funny thing about being a prince, eventually, everyone obeys.
Not everyone, his inner voice said. Arthur ignored it.
Leon chuckled, though the concern brimmed in his eyes. "You just broke your first rule."
Arthur glared. He knew his owns rules of his sword training. Number one: don't get hit. Number two: hit the other guy. Ever since that idiotic, clumsy fool became his manservant, his knights started to be more open-mouth around him. Less restrained. He wondered who he had to blame for that: himself or Merlin?
Deep inside, Arthur liked it.
Merlin was starting to make him hate bootlickers.
"You just got in a lucky shot," Arthur retorted.
Leon helped straighten Arthur up, geez, when did I start hunching over, and gave him a look. Arthur knew that look. He'd seen Leon use it on the other knights. Arthur was done for the day, but Leon was giving Arthur the chance to maintain his dignity.
"Alright," Arthur bellowed to his other knights. "Good to see you guys haven't been slacking off. Spar off again until Sir Leon here decides when you lousy girls are done for the day."
There were chorus of "Yes, Sire" and groans.
He strolled over to the armory, careful to maintain his proper princely stance as Merlin likes to call it. His manservant immediately rushed over and followed him inside.
Merlin...that idiot has yet to leave his side the last three weeks. It was driving Arthur crazy. Merlin had turned into a mother hen. Arthur kept throwing chores to keep Merlin away from him: muck out the stables, walk his dogs, mend his armor, clean all the knights' boots, heck, he even ordered Merlin to attend to Sir Leon and he still somehow managed to make it back to serve Arthur. He couldn't stand Merlin's overprotectiveness.
Though...that wasn't the real reason why he kept pushing Merlin away.
He tossed his sword onto the long wooden table and took his gloves off.
"I thought you said nobody ever hits you?" Merlin said.
Arthur upside Merlin on the head with his glove. "Sometimes I let my knights get in a hit, it boosts morale."
Merlin snorted. "And what about calling them girls?"
Arthur grinned, despite the pain. "It builds character." He gestured to his armor. "Now, are you going to get me out of this or continue to question my teaching methods?"
"You won't ever admit you're not perfect, will you?" Merlin said, his hands fumbling around the pauldron on Arthur's right shoulder.
Arthur reeled his head back, feigning he was offended. "I am, Merlin."
He smiled as he heard Merlin mutter "prat" under his breath. He would never ever admit it, but he grew to like that endearing nickname.
Arthur rolled the muscles in his shoulders as Merlin took the pauldron off. He raised his arms and bit back a hiss of pain as his left shoulder flared. He could see his left arm shaking as Merlin helped him out of his chainmail.
He breathed deeply, trying to steady himself and his growing white vision. He would not and could not pass out here.
He blinked as he noticed a vial before him, held up by Merlin.
"I figured you might need this."
Arthur huffed. "What is this?"
"Gaius' pain remedy," Merlin said. He sighed and Arthur refused to look at him. He hadn't look back at his manservant since they entered the armory. He could already see the disappointment on Merlin's features without having to look.
"I don't need it," Arthur said.
"Arthur!" Merlin groaned as if he didn't know why he bothered. "I saw Sir Leon hit you right where the Questing Beast bit you. Take it."
Arthur was tired of everyone treating him like he was a fragile vase about to break. He was fine! The pain was nothing compared to three weeks ago.
Arthur scoffed and this time turned to face Merlin. "You just want an excuse to say 'I told you so'."
"I have that chance every day."
Arthur narrowed his eyes, not amused.
Merlin jerked the vial toward Arthur. "Take it."
"I'm fine, Merlin," Arthur stressed through clenched teeth.
Merlin rolled his eyes and grabbed Arthur's hand to shove the vial in. A sharp tingle spread through Arthur, a warm feeling, a strong sense of security and protectiveness overcame him. His shoulder pain eased to a dull throb.
Arthur jerked his hand back and the pain returned. The vial dropped to the floor. "No. Damn it, Merlin. I'm fine. Stop treating me like a child."
"You're acting like a royal one," Merlin argued.
Arthur released a biting laugh. "Oh? Is that how you talk to your future king?" He strolled up and leaned his face in toward Merlin's. "Mend my armor, and when they're done, all the knights."
Merlin's jaw dropped, aghast. "I won't."
Arthur leaned back and smacked the side of Merlin's shoulder. "Either that or suffer the stocks, Merlin." He brushed past his manservant and out of the doorway. He added over his shoulder. "Vegetables are quite ripe this time of the year."
Merlin's lips scrunched up in anger instead of a retort.
Arthur has seen it enough times to know Merlin was royally pissed and rightfully so. But he couldn't deal with it. He didn't want to feel that tingle, that warmth in his chest...
Arthur had no idea what it was.
And it scared him.
Arthur was almost to his chambers when he heard someone shout out his name.
He stiffened to a halt. Not her. Not only had he been pushing Merlin away, he'd be avoiding Morgana. He swallowed and turned, watching her frantically rush toward him in her emerald gown.
"Please, you must talk to Uther," she said.
Arthur bit back a groan. Why did everyone think that Uther listened to him? Arthur learned a long time ago not to question his father's motives, a lesson he never wanted to repeat. But this was his sister, though they may not be bound by blood, he viewed her as such. He was glad when the terrifying notion of them marrying dispersed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, ignoring the pain. "Why must I speak with him?"
"Did you not hear? He arrested a sorcerer!"
And why did Morgana find this surprising? That was all Uther ever did. He remembered after Gwen's father had...he swallowed back that painful memory...Uther was less strict against magic for a time being after that.
The pain in his chest flared in response.
"And you think my father listens to me when it comes to matter of sorcery?" Arthur said.
Instead of a rebuff like he was expecting, her eyes grew more wild. Ever since the Questing Beast incident, the look in her eyes scared him. She gripped his hand, at the contact of skin, Arthur felt an overwhelming sense of fear spread within him. Confusion and darkness swirled in his mind. "Arthur, please. You have to stop it. If you don't..."
He immediately jerked his hand away, and the fear disappeared. He panted. "Morgana." He placed his hands on her shoulders, on the fabric. "I'll talk to him. What happened? What was this man caught doing?"
I can't reason with him if there's strong evidence, but he decided not to tell her that.
"He was caught by his neighbors, using magic on his crops. His kids, Arthur...their father is all they have."
Okay, he could argue that the neighbors' words weren't to be trusted, they weren't noble. That always seemed to work on his father. Until Morgana said,
"And the knights caught him in the act when they arrested him."
Damn it. Why did people think he could sway his father's mind?
He bit his lips. "I'll talk to him."
Morgana's shoulder sagged forward in relief.
He moved past her and down the hallway.
"Arthur." He turned his head back to her. Her eyes darted back and forth, uncertain. "Just...don't say yes."
He burrowed his eyebrows and nodded. He set out to find his father. Don't say yes? He never really believed much in Morgana's nightmares, and part of him didn't want to put much thought into it. He never forgot how she tried to stop him from going after the Questing Beast, certain he would die.
He did a lot of thinking after he woke up.
Especially of Morgana's nightmares.
She was certain he was going to die. When Arthur was in the coma, he knew he was going to die. What happened?
"I'm happy to be your servant till the day I die."
"I've see the man inside you, Arthur."
Arthur pushed those away. What did Merlin and Guinevere see in him?
"You're a better man than your father."
He winced at Morgana's words when he freed her from the prison Uther condemned her to after Tom's death.
He found Uther in the council chambers, signing some papers.
Uther sat up in his chair. "Arthur." He motioned for the guards to leave them. They closed the doors behind Arthur.
"How did training fared?"
"Ah, I was a little stiff, though, it went well." The pain in his chest was excruciating now. He needed to go back to his chambers and relax. His vision wasn't getting any better. How is it that Morgana can rope him easily into doing these things?
"Better," Arthur lied. Before Uther could question him on it, he pressed forward. "I heard you arrested a man."
A grim nod and dark eyes. "For sorcery."
"You're going to condemn him to death for using magic on his crops? It's been a dry summer, Father, surely..."
"The law is the law, Arthur. No form of magic will be accepted." He waved his finger. "You are crowned prince, you must learn that you have to always uphold the law."
Even if the law is wrong? He knew his father wouldn't react well to those words. He rested his hand against the edge of the table. "I understand, Father. You also told me that I must put myself in the shoes of my people. His family was starving. Can't you understand the lengths a desperate man may go for his family?"
Uther leaned back in his chair and folded his fingers together. "And this right here proves to me you're not ready to be king. You're naïve."
Arthur narrowed his eyes at that.
"First he uses magic on his crops. If I let him get away with that, then he'll use it on something else. Magic is evil, twisted. You are lucky you were born today instead of my days. There's always a price for magic."
"And what's the price for using for his children?" Arthur snapped.
Uther slammed his fist on the table. "The price of his soul. You may think there are certain forms where magic is of innocent use. Magic will always twist and darkened the souls of any man. Have you forgotten all the attempts on the crown, on your life?"
Am I naïve to believe it was because of grief, of revenge for what you bestowed upon them? Arthur gripped the edge of the chair in front of him. "I have not forgotten, Father...I..."
"I won't hear of it anymore."
Arthur scoffed. Typical. "Father," he tried once more.
"Or perhaps you should learn your place again."
Arthur's breath caught in his throat.
Uther's eyes glared. "You're the crowned prince. You must serve an example. Tomorrow morning, you will light the pyre and pass the sentence onto this sorcerer," he spat the word out.
Arthur shook his head. "I will not. Why can't you just swallow your pride and pardon him?"
His father's features darkened.
Arthur took a step back as Uther rose from the chair. He stormed over to him, nose in his face. "You dare think to disobey me? That is treason."
"I'm your son," Arthur said.
"Exactly, start acting like it!" He grabbed a bunch of Arthur's shirt. "You are to obey and follow my orders, or have you forgotten I'm king? If these magic users were to see a strife between us, if they believe you're not entirely loyal to the crown, they will use you against me." He leaned in and whispered harshly. "Do you want that?"
Arthur swallowed. "No..."
"Then follow out my orders."
"Damn it, Arthur. You will." An idea sparked within his father's eyes. Arthur reeled his head back as Uther leaned in more closely. "Magic is likely to be passed down by blood. That sorcerer has two children."
Arthur's heart pattered. No. He wouldn't dare.
"Use the torch and execute the man's sentence. Or tomorrow his children will be added to the pyre."
Arthur wanted to argue against it, say that Uther wouldn't kill children. But he knew. Arthur had struck down Druid children on Uther's orders before. He'd seen them on the pyre.
"Arthur...just...don't say yes..."
And condemn innocent children. Burn them alive?
Arthur closed his eyes, defeated. "I'll do it, sire."
"Good. See that you do. And, Arthur, put on a damned convincing performance that you believe what I do. Or those children..." he let the threat hang in the air.
My people will always be my weakness. And Uther will always use it against him as the final straw.
Uther stepped away and patted Arthur's back. "Good. The man will be executed at dawn."
Arthur slowly opened his eyes and watched his father return to his seat. "Why?" he found himself saying. "Why do you hate magic so much?"
A brief sadness crossed Uther's features. "Nothing good ever comes from magic."
"I'm here to see the prisoner," Arthur said. "By orders of King Uther."
The guards nodded and stepped aside to allow him to enter the narrow hallway where the damp cells resided.
Peter Cushing was the man's name. He lived on the outskirts of Camelot. His village were raided by bandits, then their crops failed to grow because of the lack of rain. He had two children, a boy and girl, both younger than ten. If he killed their father...they would be orphans and alone in the world.
Where was the justice in this?
At the fourth cell, Arthur found the sorcerer sitting at the far corner of the cell, his clothes ragged and torn. Dirt covered his arms and face. A simple, scrawny peasant.
Arthur felt ashamed standing before him in his fine tunic, well-fed, and clean.
The strange tingle in his chest, it wasn't warmth, but close to it, bubbled. Why in this man's presence? Because he was a sorcerer?
The brown hair man glanced up and Arthur tried to ignore how he had the same big ears as Merlin. "M'lord," the man cried as he stumbled to his feet. "Please. Spare me. I won't do it again. My children... they were hungry, they kept getting sick..."
Arthur's heart tore. Show no weakness. Be the man your father wants you to be. Save this man's children. "You were caught using magic and under law, the punishment is death." God, he even sounded like his father.
Peter scrambled forward, wrapped his slender fingers around the bars. He was younger than thirty. "They need me. Their mother passed only recently..."
"You should have thought of the consequences before you used magic." Easy words to say. When have I ever thought of my own consequences for the things I did?
Peter blinked. He seemed to realize that his words would have no effect on Arthur. If only Peter knew that they were. A strange look crossed Peter's face. "How?"
Arthur forced his words from the lump in his throat. "Dawn. On the pyre."
His eyes widened. "Burned alive?"
The worst way to die, Arthur thought. He nodded. And the words escaped his lips before he could catch them, "I'm sorry."
"I don't want your pity, Prince Arthur." Peter said his name like a cursed word. "You may take my life, but I promise you I will haunt your every living moment until you die." In that moment, Peter stood like a king and Arthur felt like the lowly scum of the Earth.
Arthur bobbed his head and turned to leave.
"Wait." Arthur hovered by the cells. "Are you truly the Prince of Camelot everyone says you are? Are you a man of honor? Are you a man who truly cares for his people? Are you a man worthy of our loyalty?"
Arthur didn't dare look back, for fear he would crack and break down if he did. The pain in his chest thumped to the pounding of his heart. "No...I am not."
Peter chuckled behind him, though he was surprised it was one of relief. "A modest man...I'd thought there were none left." He cleared his throat. "Do I have to beg you, then, to look after my children?"
This time, Arthur looked back. No insults? No curses? No threats? Only the thought of his children? Peter used magic to save his children, it was never about him. Once again, Arthur's seen proof that his father's laws must be changed.
Peter caught Arthur's eyes and waited.
"I will see that they are placed in a good home, together. They won't be living out in the streets," Arthur promised. And by the gods, he will see to it.
Peter gave a small, sad smile. "Seems like we're both desperate men."
Arthur slumped into his chair back in his chambers after finding a new home for the children. A family he knew from Gaius that were having trouble conceiving were more than happy to take them in. He rubbed his left shoulder as he glanced about his room. He was surprised to find his candles lit, his clean armor on the bed, and a vial of Gaius' pain remedy on the table.
Merlin knew him too well.
A rise of guilt hit him as he remembered his attitude toward his manservant.
"I'm happy to be your servant till the day I die."
Why say those words? After all Arthur treated him? He knew Merlin meant it, was sincere about it. Why did it bother Arthur so much?
The doors of his chamber opened and Merlin slipped inside, dinner on a tray.
"Leave," Arthur said at once, in no mood for company. His stomach churned at the food, it seemed to mock him. If he were in Peter's position, would he resort to the same methods? "I'm not hungry."
Merlin kicked the door shut with his foot. "You want to waste this?" He gestured to the tray.
Angry flared up within Arthur. He knew what Merlin meant by that statement. That there were people hungry, that Arthur shouldn't waste food when others couldn't get it. But how could Arthur eat when he was about to kill the man who only used magic to save his starving children?
"Take it," Arthur snapped. "Do you forget who you're speaking to?" Great, he was his father's son. He's always been his father's son.
"A prat?" Merlin bit back. "Do you know the lengths your people went through to get crops this year, to waste it..."
Arthur slammed his fist down on the table. "I understand the lengths! Do you think I'm so blind to my own people's sufferings?"
Merlin's features softened. "No." He quirked a smile. "You're blind to many things...but not your people."
There it was again. That proud look. The proof that Merlin was wiser than he often showed.
Arthur stood and took the tray from Merlin. "Besides, if you don't want me to waste the food," he set the tray on the table. "Then you can eat it for me."
"What?" Merlin said as Arthur pushed him down onto his chair. His shoulder flared at the movement and he hid a grimace.
"Oh, yes. You're lanky and skinny enough as it is. People must think I starve you." He held up a fork. "Eat, that's an order."
Merlin glared, but didn't argue. He stabbed the chicken and shoved it into his mouth.
Arthur grabbed the goblet of wine from the tray and took a sip, hiding a smile.
Merlin fidgeted in his seat and tossed a piece of ripped bread into his mouth. "I ran into Morgana earlier."
I just want to forget it, Merlin. At least until morning, I don't want to think what I have to do.
"Oh?" Arthur forced a tease. "Were you bringing her more flowers?"
"What?" Merlin was gob-smacked. "No...Arthur, I don't have a crush on Morgana."
"You're awfully quick to deny it."
"Because you obviously don't believe me."
"With good reasons."
Merlin raised a brow. "Hold on, are you jealous?"
This is why he loved to banter with Merlin. He was quick and always easily turned it around back onto Arthur. Quick and smart.
Arthur scoffed. "Jealous? Please."
Then Merlin turned serious again.
Arthur almost groaned. No, keep playing, keep playing.
"What did your father say?" Merlin asked.
He wanted to toss the goblet at Merlin's head. Instead, he took a long swig of his wine. "He declared his love for unicorns and rainbows." He rolled his eyes. "What do you think he said?"
Merlin seemed to sink into the chair. "I'd thought..."
"What? That my father would listen to me? Change his mind about magic?"
Merlin opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. "What do you believe?" He cleared his throat, looking thoroughly uncomfortable. "About magic?"
His father's words echoed in his head: "And, Arthur, put on a damned convincing performance that you believe what I do. Or those children..."
He stared at Merlin. He trusted Merlin, with his life. Could he trust Merlin with his secrets, thoughts that he truly didn't believe in father's way? Arthur found that he did.
But he didn't trust his father.
"Magic is evil, Merlin," Arthur said. "People who use it only wish to cause harm."
"Is that what you really believe?" Merlin asked.
Why was Merlin asking him of this?
He remembered a couple years ago, raiding a Druid camp, he killed so many people that day, even the women and children. All for what? To gain his father's favor?
He seen sorcerers attack Camelot over and over again. Attack his father. Attack his people.
But then he'd seen people like Peter. Who used it for crops, to heal.
He remembered that glowing blue ball of light in the cave.
No. Arthur never believed it. He tried to convince himself. He spent hours trying to convince himself. He would repeat his father's words, there were days where Arthur almost believed he did, but his heart always betrayed him.
He found that Merlin was waiting with batted breath for his answer. Like what Arthur said would determine everything.
Ever since he met Merlin, that idiot forced Arthur to confront his own truths, his own self.
He grew to think of Merlin of his best friend, though he could never admit that out loud. If his father found out...
Arthur remembered once a peasant boy he had befriended when he was a child. Uther had been outraged when he found out Arthur had been shirking from his duties to hang out with a peasant. Since that day, Arthur never saw that boy around the kingdom.
Arthur vowed never to make a friend again. To hold people away at arm's length.
If Arthur told Merlin the truth now, would their strange friendship grow? Would they become close? What would happened if Uther would to discover the truth of how Arthur felt of Merlin? He remembered the consequences when he returned back from Ealdor after he helped saved Merlin's town from bandits. His father was livid. Arthur never told Merlin or anyone that his father had given him lashings for disobeying his orders. Lashings he never told Gaius about. Lashings that he made Sir Leon dress and bandaged.
Arthur would rather take the punishment than have Merlin face it. And he'll accept it. Because it was Merlin.
So he must protect Merlin, no matter the cost.
"Yes," Arthur found himself saying and he almost believed himself. "Magic is evil. Those who use it deserve nothing but death."
For a moment, it looked like Arthur had killed Merlin's mother, but it was replaced quickly as it came. "I see."
"I am to pass the sentence tomorrow." Arthur trailed off as he realized how much Merlin hated those executions. After the second one when Merlin started as his manservant, he noticed how Merlin was always dejected and sad. Heck, Merlin cried when Arthur killed that unicorn. He hated anything to do with injustice. Arthur would often give his manservant the day or morning off when there were executions held. Arthur held back his bitterness at that when he himself still had to attend.
He remembered on several occasion Father asking where Merlin was. He would lie, saying he had Merlin off doing some type of chore.
If he let Merlin have tomorrow off...
I can't let my father hurt you. I can't seem to rid of you...
"You should join me. You'll be at my side tomorrow and you'll see just how evil magic."
"That's an order, Merlin. I'm tired of you always asking these questions and being so sympathetic toward magic users. It's time you realized the truth."
"Sire," Arthur quickly corrected.
Merlin pushed his chair back and stood. "If there's nothing else, sire."
Arthur dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
He tried to ignore the betrayed look in his manservant's eyes. He tried to ignore the door slamming behind Merlin as he left.
His chest ached in pain and Arthur grabbed the vial from his table. He stared at it.
"Seems like we're both desperate men."
With a cry, Arthur hurled the vial at the wall and it splattered. He dropped to his knees and hugged himself.
He deserved this pain. For being so weak.
For being unable to overcome his own father.
Arthur went through the motions with a dull, numb feeling. Like he was watching himself do all this from a distance.
He didn't feel anything when his father greeted him before he went down to retrieve Peter. He was emotionless to the praise from his father's lips, the twinkle of pride in his eyes.
When the guards stood Peter up from the cells, he only asked one thing as he was being escorted out, "My children?"
"Safe," was all Arthur said.
Merlin met Arthur at the pyre. There were heavy bags under his eyes, his skin pale, but he said nothing. He didn't merit a glance at Arthur.
Arthur watched, not really feeling anything, as they tied Peter to the wooden pike.
Uther gave him a nod to signal the start of the execution.
Play the part. Convince him. For those children.
Arthur bellowed out to the gathered crowd around them, ignoring Morgana who watched from her windows. "Let this serve as a lesson to all of us within Camelot. This man, Peter Cushing, is adjudged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic. And, pursuant to the laws of Camelot, by the decree of my father, Uther Pendragon, these practices are banned on penalty of death."
Merlin stared at him with wide-eyes.
Arthur wondered how much he sounded like Uther.
"There will be no room for magic in Camelot, and when I become king, these laws will continue to be uphold."
He gestured to the executioner to hand him the torch. He hesitated a moment as he stared at Peter. He mouthed the words "I'm sorry" to the man before he let the flames lick at the logs under Peter's feet.
He stepped back and addressed the crowd, "Sorcery has been driven from Camelot, and we will continue to be free from the evil of magic."
Merlin winced and turned away from the flames.
Arthur gripped his shoulders. "Look at him," he ordered.
He handed the torch back over to the executioner and stood still, arms crossed as the flames danced around Peter's body.
They reached up at his legs.
Peter kept his stance, held his head high until the flames nearly consumed him. Then the screams began.
Arthur's heart stirred.
If magic was evil, why hadn't Peter fought and used magic to harm us to free himself?
The strange tingle in his chest sharpened. Arthur's heart reached out to the man. He didn't deserve this death. I do, for condemning him to this fate. He found himself pleading inwardly, If there are gods, take away this man's pain. Give him peace even in death.
The screams all at once stopped so suddenly that Merlin next to him jerked.
Peter's head sagged forward and Arthur watched as the flames consumed him, turning his body into ash.
He didn't know how long he stood, but most of the crowd had left. The fire continued and Arthur gestured for it to be put out.
He was surprised to find Merlin still standing there.
There was no emotion in his manservant's face. Arthur felt like Merlin's innocence and happiness burned in that fire.
His gaze finally turned to Arthur and he winced at how empty they were. "Sire?" he asked, his voice monotone.
"You're dismissed," Arthur said.
Merlin walked away, without purpose.
Arthur was worse than his father.
One of Uther's knights approached him, "Sire, your father..."
He brushed the man's words away as he stormed off. He didn't want to see his father. He noticed Morgana coming down the stairs from the main castle entryway. He immediately changed course and leaped down to another passageway.
He needed to get away, he needed to get out, away from everyone. He was so close to breaking, he didn't know how he was still together. He stole a cape from behind a cart and draped it over to hide himself.
He stopped as he saw one of Peter's children, Cian, standing in his path. There was so much hatred and hurt as he glared at Arthur.
"You killed my father," the boy said, his lips trembling.
Arthur said nothing. Bile reached his mouth.
"I'm going to kill you," the boy said with utter conviction.
The boy ran off and Arthur watched his fleeing form.
"I hope so," Arthur whispered after him.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, Arthur was far outside of Camelot, the castle small in the distance. He rubbed his hands across his face and groaned as he smelt the smoke.
He ripped off the peasant's cape and knelt near the water, scrubbing the smoke and ashes off. Peter's screams continued to echo in his ears.
No. Those nightmares stay in Camelot.
Out here, in the wild, he was free.
He was simply Arthur.
Out here, there were no obligations, no masks to wear, no fears. He could be as he was.
His arms shook, yet he forced himself to wash his face, to rid the grime on it.
He breathed again. Steady breaths.
He cupped his hands and drank water from the creek.
The tingle in his chest pricked and a warmth grew within him in warning. He scanned his surroundings. Something was coming.
His breath caught in his throat as the creature leaped into the clearing.
The sun sparkled off its white coat, the silver hair matted around the horn on its head. What was it doing back here?
Arthur rose from the creek, staring at it in awe.
The unicorn nickered and stomped its feet before it moved closer to him.
Arthur stood, rigid.
As it neared him, the unicorn bowed its head in greeting.
Arthur reached out his hand and touched its neck. That feeling like with Merlin and Morgana blossomed within. He felt a wave of innocence and a desire to run filled him.
Why was the unicorn letting Arthur touch it? Merlin had almost touched one once before Arthur killed...he pushed the harsh memories from his mind.
"I'm sorry..." he whispered to the unicorn through the lump in his throat.
He didn't know why, but he knew, he knew this was the one he had killed a couple months ago.
He blinked in surprise as the unicorn lowered itself to the ground. The creature wanted him to get on? It trusted him? His father's words of how dangerous magic was played in his mind.
Eirian, a voice purred inside Arthur's head, heightening the feeling of innocence within Arthur, the feeling of freedom.
"I'd be honored to ride with you, Eirian," Arthur said.
He lifted his legs over and settled into a seating position. He never road without a saddle before. He knew he would be safe on Eirian, a strange gut feeling told him.
Besides, Arthur wanted nothing in that moment than to be free, to escape, to no longer be a prince, no longer be the warrior and protector of Camelot. To just be Arthur.
Eirian straightened his legs. Arthur steadied himself as Eirian rose. The unicorn nickered once before it took off for the woods.
He was one of the fastest horse Arthur had ever rode on. The world blurred by him, and somehow the sky above always seemed so still. The wind whipped in his hair and against his clothes.
Arthur found himself spreading his arms, with no fear of falling off, and released a laugh of glee.
His whole life was consisted of restraining himself. He never really knew a childhood, he never got the chance to run around and explore like the others did. "Everyone always watching", his father told him, "You must always act like the prince."
This was so freeing.
He never laughed like this.
Never took caution to the wind.
His doubts and fears blew away behind him the further the unicorn ran.
At Arthur's laugh, Eirian ran faster, leaping over logs and down hills, galloping so quickly. Not once did Arthur drop his arms to catch himself.
If he closed his eyes, he could pretend that he was flying.
He didn't know how long Eirian ran, but soon, he slowed to a brisk walk, and Arthur found that they were at the ocean, where he nearly sacrificed himself for Merlin by drinking poison. Or at least, he thought it was poison. The lengths he was willing to go for Merlin...it scared him sometimes.
At the shores, Eirian lowered himself and Arthur stroked the side of his neck before he jumped down.
He scratched under Eirian's snout. "Thank you..."
Arthur found himself once again enraptured by the unicorn's beauty. He couldn't believe he was so proud of himself when he killed Eirian, he was so eager to reveal his kill to his father, so eager for Uther to declare how proud he was. Funny, how it took killing things to win his father's favor.
Arthur was beginning to learn he no longer had the heart for it...or perhaps he never did.
He sat into the sand next to Eirian, watching the water smack against the shores.
Why did the unicorn offer him a ride? And why he, Arthur Pendragon, easily accepted it?
"So, it has begun."
Arthur placed his hand where his sword was to be and mentally berated himself for venturing off into the wild without one. Was he such a fool? He got to his knees and whirled around.
The Keeper of Unicorns. What was his name? Aurora? Adora?
The dirty, moth-eaten cloak draped over the older man, the hood rested on his shoulder. He leaned against his long staff with two angled tips. The man smiled. "We meet again, Arthur Pendragon."
Did Eirian ride him out here for this? To be attacked again by this sorcerer? This man made his people suffer.
Arthur swallowed back his pride, berating himself. He'd done it, not the old sorcerer. Arthur had done it by killing the very creature next to him. What type of man was Arthur? Then the man's words, Anhora, that's his name, dawned on him. "What's begun?"
"The effects of the Old Religion has stirred the dormant powers within you. It is starting to awaken."
"Powers?" Arthur scoffed. "I have no powers." Plus, why would Arthur want it? Nothing good ever came out of magic.
"Don't deny what you've felt in your heart." He gestured to Eirian. "What you felt from your unicorn."
The strange tingle of warmth? He can't have magic. He can't be a sorcerer. If his father ever found out...he didn't dare complete that thought. Wait, did Anhora say, "My unicorn?"
Anhora didn't answer that. "You must seek out the man who lays at the heart of the Old Religion, the one who brought you back."
The bite ached in reminder. Arthur realized that he wasn't in pain. It was gone.
When Arthur had woken from that coma, he knew, he knew he should be dead. He had a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, one that didn't quite leave until Merlin and Gaius returned from their trip.
"Why are you here?" Arthur pressed. "Is this another trail?"
Anhora shook his head. "It is not I who sought you out. It was Eirian."
Arthur glanced at the unicorn laying in the sand next to him, content.
"He can sense the magic within you, you who were born of magic."
"Sorcerers are liars, manipulators, you must never trust them", he heard his father's voice in his head, "they'll say anything to ensnare you into their trap."
Arthur snarled. "My mother died giving birth to me. Don't dishonor her memory with lies of magic."
Anhora sighed. "Don't tell me you've already forgotten your lesson with the unicorn. Your ignorance destroyed the creature," his voice turned soft, "and your pure heart brought it back."
Arthur averted his gaze, ashamed.
"The unicorn came to remind you of that lesson, to urge you to stop hiding behind your veil of ignorance. He showed the beauty of magic, did he not?"
How could Arthur forget that freeing, exhilarating ride? That was magic? If he broke free from the veil of ignorance he hid behind, his entire life would've been a lie. His father would be wrong, it would mean that his father, his king, was a tyrant. If that were true, what did that make Arthur? He obeyed his father, even when his heart questioned it. He didn't want to break the veil because how he could he face the horrors of what he'd done, the blood that he'd spilt, the judgement that he threw at others?
His ignorance brought suffering to others. It was easier for Arthur to live in ignorance rather than face what he'd done.
He didn't want to face the monster he'd become.
Arthur glanced back at Anhora.
Anhora smiled sadly at him. "Don't forget, Arthur, you are pure-hearted, like the unicorn. Accept that part of yourself, accept what you've done, and accept the man you will be."
"You're a better man than your father. Always were."
"You are going to live to be the man I've seen inside you, Arthur. I can see a Camelot that is fair and just."
"Well, I know you. And you're a great warrior. One day, you'll be a great king."
Morgana, Guinevere, and Merlin. They all saw and believed in a man that Arthur had yet to see.
"Accept the magic that is inside of you, Arthur," Anhora said.
Magic? He can't have it. He'd just burned a man for using it. He'd be a hypocrite to accept that part of him.
"Ask yourself, Arthur, before you return back to Camelot, before anything, ask: what type of king do you want to be?"
I want to be a king that's fair and just. I want Camelot to flourish in peace, not fear. I want a land where people treat others with respect regardless of status. I want a land where everyone is equal and people can be as they are, even magic.
But those were childish dreams and as son of Uther, he couldn't preach that.
Arthur felt Eirian rubbing his head against his hand.
"Do you believe in destiny, Arthur?" Anhora asked.
"I believe a man makes his own destiny," Arthur answered.
Anhora smiled. "Then create one worthy of remembrance."
Arthur stroked Eirian's mane. "You said I was born of magic," Lies, lies his mind screamed, yet his heart was still, "what does that mean?"
"You're of magic, Arthur. You may not be able to create spells or chant enhancements, but like the unicorn, you are a creature of magic and therefore, you have a magical link to all those with magic. Though, there is one that you have the strongest link with."
Suddenly, Arthur knew. He didn't want to admit it. He wanted to hide, pretend it wasn't there, but how could he ignore it?
How could he ignore the rope tightening or the bucket moving of their own accord?
How could he ignore the snakes appearing out of the knight's shield by his words?
How could he ignore the whispers of the wind behind him that used the torch he wielded to defeat the afanc?
How could he ignore the wind storm that saved Ealdor?
How could he ignore the strange goodbye right after he was saved from a bite that should've killed him?
"There's something about you, Merlin, I can't quite put my finger on it."
"Merlin," Arthur whispered. His mind finally agreeing to what his heart had been trying to tell him all along. For a second, he felt betrayed, angered. How could Merlin not trust him?
Then he remembered in Ealdor. Merlin was going to tell him something... "You know how dangerous magic is," Arthur had chided.
And yesterday, he told Merlin that magic was evil, that he believed in that laws of his father.
No wonder Merlin didn't tell him. No wonder Merlin didn't trust him.
"Yes," Anhora confirmed.
"And what do you want me to do? Join forces with Merlin and overthrow my father?" Arthur shook his head. "I can't do that. It'll create a civil war within Camelot. I won't do that to my people."
"Merlin knows that. Trust him, Arthur. I don't think you've realized how much he's done for you."
Arthur tried to swallow.
Merlin, a sorcerer?
Arthur knew. He'd always known.
What the hell was Merlin doing in Camelot?
"I'm happy to be your servant till the day I die."
Why was Merlin going out of the way to protect him? Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon, the man who wants to destroy magic?
No. Magic is evil. Merlin is evil. Merlin was using him.
"Don't forget your lesson, Arthur," Anhora said. "Your ignorance will bring the suffering upon your people." He tapped his staff against the sand. "Only your pure heart will save them. Remember that. It is time for you to let it shine forth, let it break your veil."
Eirian still rested nearby him.
"Wait," Arthur cried out. "You can't leave Eirian..."
"He is bound to you. If you deny your magic," Anhora's voice boomed around him, "if you deny your true self, you will grow to become worse than Uther. And all of Albion, all of Camelot will never achieve peace. Seek Merlin out."
Arthur...born of magic?
It couldn't be possible. Yet it explained that feeling in his chest since he woke. The connection he had with the unicorn and Merlin.
He stroked Eirian's neck once more. "Could you ride me to the end of the world, away from all of this?"
Eirian rubbed his snout against Arthur's chest.
Arthur knew he himself would never do it. He loved Camelot, the people, the land. He made an oath, to serve the people of Camelot. He may have servants and was always waited upon, but the truth was he was their servant.
He followed and obeyed Camelot before anyone else.
He couldn't run away.
A land of magic? Could he truly create that?
When has anything good ever come from magic?
Would Merlin be able to answer that for him?
Or would Merlin only prove Uther right?
Chapter 2: Two Sides of the Same Coin
"Please, Merlin, you must beware. This is only the beginning."
Morgana's warning had been haunting Merlin since that day he saved Arthur from the poisonous bite. He always assumed she meant the bargain...but what if it was a warning, about Arthur?
Merlin winced as he remembered how Arthur gripped his shoulders earlier this morning, forced him to look at the flames consuming the sorcerer. When Merlin looked, he saw himself burning at the pyre, and Arthur standing there, passing on the judgement without care. Was that his future?
Was this what Morgana was warning him about?
"Magic is evil, Merlin. People who use it only wish to cause harm." Was that truly what Arthur believed?
He'd believed Arthur was a good man. Sure, he might be a prat and a constant annoyance, but this was the man who helped saved his hometown, who ran off to get the Mortaeus flower to cure him when he was poisoned.
"You are but two sides of the same coin."
Was the Great Dragon only lying to him? Manipulating Merlin so that he could be free? Was Arthur even destined to be the Once and Future King? There was a time Merlin strongly believed it, where he saw glimpses of it within the Crowed Prince of Camelot.
Now he wasn't so sure.
Kilgharrah had told Merlin to save the prince at all costs. He wondered what the dragon would think if he saw Arthur now? Was this his punishment for killing Nimueh?
Merlin stared at his hands again. Like Arthur with his laws, Merlin, with his magic, now wielded the powers of life and death, the Old Religion flowed through him.
Would he abused it?
Was magic truly evil?
Was he evil?
Kilgharrah said perhaps it was Merlin's destiny to change Arthur. He didn't know if that were true anymore.
He jerked as Gaius entered their chambers. His mentor took in the sight of him.
"Merlin! Are you alright?" Gaius hustled over, dropping off his satchel of medicine onto the table as he approached Merlin who sat on the bench.
"I'm fine," Merlin said. He put Gaius through so much. He could sense that the older man constantly worried about him.
Gaius cocked a disbelieving brow and sighed. He lowered himself onto the bench next to Merlin. "Does it have anything to do with the execution this morning?"
Merlin blinked and stared at the wall ahead. "Arthur forced me to go."
Gaius stiffened next to him.
"He usually doesn't...he..." Merlin's voice cracked. "He made me watch."
"Oh...oh, Merlin," Gaius said, his voice lined with sympathy. He raised a hand and rubbed Merlin's upper back. "You must remember..."
"I know," Merlin spat angrily. "He's the prince, he's under a lot of pressure." He turned to Gaius. "So am I! I have to restrain my magic, my true self, every day with a constant fear of being caught. I have to work for a prat who treats me like...like a slave. If only..." Merlin shook his head and chuckle scornfully. "If only he knew the lengths I went for him."
"Someday he will."
Merlin scoffed. "When he's on his deathbed and has no choice what to do with me? Yes, someday, he will."
Merlin ran his fingers through his hair. "I can't do it anymore, Gaius. I nearly sacrificed my mother, I nearly sacrificed you for Arthur! I can't keep hiding who I am from him." He exhaled deeply. "Kilgharrah...what if he was lying? What if Arthur isn't meant to bring magic back? What if Arthur and I aren't meant to have a great destiny together?"
"Where are these doubts coming from, Merlin?" Gaius probed.
Merlin sighed, remembering his and Arthur's conversation last night. "Arthur told me he believed magic was evil."
Gaius huffed a chuckle. "And what did you expect?"
Merlin shrugged. "I thought maybe he'd changed his mind."
"Do you forget who his father is? Arthur grew up with Uther teaching him the very ways of magic was evil."
"How can I change his mind if I can't show him the good of magic? I want to show him...Gaius, I need proof. I need to see that Arthur won't grow up to become like Uther. I can't keep doing this."
Gaius patted his back again. "Perhaps you need to take some time off. I can convince Arthur that I had you sent out on an errand. Would gathering some herbs help ease your mind?"
"Seeing proof of the king Arthur would become will help ease my mind," Merlin muttered. At Gaius' stern raised brow, Merlin nodded. "Yes. Maybe that's what I need."
Arthur can't be lost.
Ever since the Questing Beast incident, Arthur started to act more and more like Uther. Merlin was used to doing many of Arthur's mundane chores, but lately, the prat was overdoing it.
Did Arthur even appreciate Merlin?
He remembered the conversation he had with his mother back with they were battling against Kanen. Hunith had tried to convince Merlin that Arthur was at Ealdor for Merlin, not because Merlin was his servant, but because he cared. He'd almost believed it. The past few days have only proven to Merlin that if Arthur truly knew who Merlin was, Merlin would be dead. No question.
Why was he still here? Because of destiny? Because he wanted his magic to mean something, to matter? There were other kingdoms out there that didn't prosecute magic. Could he really leave Gaius behind and go to a place where he would feel free?
I don't know what to do anymore. I'm lost.
All Merlin ever wanted was a place where he fit in, a place where he belonged.
"Had any luck?" Arthur's old words ran through his head.
Merlin stared back down at his hands.
I'm still not sure yet.
It was near nightfall when Arthur returned. He stopped a good mile from the castle and dismounted from Eirian before he sent the creature off. The magical horse took a while to leave. In his heart, Arthur could sense that the unicorn didn't exactly venture that far off.
"Don't get caught by the patrol guards," Arthur warned Eirian.
Who would have thought? Arthur Pendragon, riding a unicorn? Maybe he really had changed. But more than that; he wanted to change.
He wasn't ready to be king, gods, no.
Today, he was ready to change.
The guards were surprised to see him when he entered, and he wished he didn't discard that cloak he used to conceal himself earlier. When he reached the upper town of Camelot, Leon found him.
"Sire, your father wishes for you to dine with him...as of an hour ago."
He nodded. "Thank you..."
Leon blinked in surprise at those words and gave a quick smile before walking off to his station on patrol duty.
Arthur was in no mood to see his father. He rubbed a hand across his face and paused at the pyre where he killed Peter that morning.
His gaze trailed over the remnants of the wood. He wondered if they gathered the man's ashes and returned it to his children.
Probably not. Arthur knew what Uther did to those ashes.
He needed to find Merlin after his dinner with Uther.
Uther was dining with Morgana, with Guinevere serving them.
She flicked a glare at him as she poured wine into Uther's goblet.
Arthur winced. Merlin wasn't much of a tattler, but he wore his emotions on a sleeve and no doubt Gwen forced Merlin to tell her. However she treated Arthur, he deserved it. That much he knew. He strolled in. "Father. Morgana." He gave a nod to Gwen. "Guinevere." He sat into his chair.
Uther beckoned Gwen to gather Arthur his plate.
"How nice of you to finally join us," Uther said.
Arthur noticed his father's plate was nearly empty.
Morgana's was still full.
He glanced up at her and she refused to meet his gaze. Purple bags hung from under her eyes. When did she last have a peaceful night of sleep? Her nightmares were growing worse. It hit him. He felt the same connection with her that he felt from Merlin and Eirian. Did that mean Morgana also had magic?
No wonder she was always so afraid. Living with Uther and having nightmares didn't help. He felt like a terrible brother, how could he not see it before?
He berated himself. He saw it. He just refused to see it.
Was Morgana ready for Arthur to know the truth?
Did she trust him?
Arthur knew she didn't. And what he did this morning probably didn't help.
I thought was protecting Peter's children...at least I hoped I was.
Did her nightmares show Arthur burning Peter? Did her nightmares show Arthur as a king worse than his father? Did her nightmares always come true?
"I went out on a hunt, I simply forgot to inform you. I apologize."
"A hunt, without a horse?" Uther raised a brow as he teased. His features softened. "It's not easy. Executing a man. It's a different type of killing than out on the battlefield."
Arthur took a sip of his water, suddenly wishing it were wine.
"I'm sure you're proud of him," Morgana sneered.
Arthur tried not to wince.
Uther either didn't catch it or ignored the biting tone in Morgana's voice. He answered her truthfully, "I am." He raised a goblet in acknowledgement to Arthur. "You didn't flinch or hesitated. You looked like a true king out there."
Fear flashed through Morgana's eyes. And this time, Arthur knew why.
Gwen returned and set a plate of chicken, cheese, and bread before him.
He nodded his thanks.
She ignored him.
Uther said, "The reason I wanted you here tonight, Arthur, was to let you know that I'm planning to leave for my rounds before my intended schedule."
Arthur shot his gaze over to Uther. Right. His rounds. Every so often, Uther would visit the other lords and households in Camelot. He stated that it was in his duty to check on the other households and ensure their wellbeing. Arthur had strong suspicions Uther only did it to remind the others who was king.
"Have you decided whether I'm to accompany you?" Arthur asked, taking a bite of his cheese.
"Not this time, there must always be a Pendragon here at Camelot. The attacks on Camelot has risen the last several months, I need you to stay behind to watch over the kingdom."
Arthur nodded, inwardly relieved.
"Morgana will be joining me."
She perked up at this. "Excuse me?"
Uther folded his fingers together. "It is time to find you a suitable lord and match."
Morgana's lips curled in disdain. "I will not be courted around like I'm some short of prize and I will not marry for your political gains."
"You will marry and give loyal sons to follow Arthur upon his reign," Uther said.
Morgana scouted her chair back. "Is that all you see me as, a breeding cattle?" She rose to her feet. "Gwen," she barked before she stormed out of the room with Gwen skittering after her.
Arthur pushed his plate, appetite lost. "Father, Morgana isn't like most noble ladies, you can't expect her to marry for..."
"She will," Uther snarled. "I've been putting it off for far too long. Yours as well. When I return, we will set upon finding a suitable match outside the kingdom of Camelot."
Arthur gritted his teeth. And I'm just tools to be used as well. And what will my marriage gain? Land? Trade?
"I understand, Father."
Uther grinned. "I'm glad you see reason. If only Morgana had your sense..."
Morgana has more courage than I ever will have.
Uther continued with his meal and Arthur pushed aside his food on the plate, pretending to eat. He recalled his meeting with Anhora earlier that day.
"Father..." Arthur's mouth dried and he licked his lips. He needed to know...he had to see how his father would react.
"Hmm?" Uther ripped a piece of chicken apart and placed a strip in his mouth, chewing loudly.
"Was I born of magic?"
Uther's face grew red, the vein on his forehead stuck out. He slammed his fists down, rattling the cups. "Where did you hear such blasphemy?"
Arthur swore he deducted a hint of fear laced his father's voice.
"Tell me." He squeezed the edge of the table, his eyes narrowed. "Was it Gaius?"
"No," Arthur immediately said. Gaius knew? "I, erm, I heard a rumor when I was a child, something made me remember it today." He tried to swallow the heavy lump in his throat. What happened? Uther and Gaius were hiding something from him, and Arthur had a sinking feeling it involved his mother.
Uther bared his teeth. "Don't ever ask me that again."
"I deserve to know."
"No," Uther snapped. "There's nothing to know. It's a lie. Dismiss it."
Dismiss it? That's what Uther always said when Arthur asked about his mother. Arthur knew well enough not to press. Uther would never tell him.
Arthur wondered briefly if he was the reason why Uther decided to wage war on magic.
And the warmth within his chest tingled as if to say yes.
Arthur returned to his chambers to find his bed turned down for the night, a warm bath was waiting for him.
Guilt probed at him. It seemed the only time Merlin was a decent manservant was when he was angry at Arthur. He needed to speak with him. He couldn't hold it back any longer.
He immediately headed down to Gaius' chambers. At the door, Arthur hesitated. He raised a hand and knocked. He nearly groaned at himself. Usually, he would just barged in. Why was he being polite now? He was prince.
"Enter," came Gaius' voice.
Arthur opened the door to find the older man bent over a table of vials, herbs, and whatnot, mixing a new batch of medicine.
Gaius blinked in surprise at Arthur's arrival. "Sire..." then a flash of disappointment molded his features.
"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asked, suddenly wanting to escape Gaius' stare.
"I have him out running errands for me. He shall return to you in a couple days."
Arthur crossed his arms. "You do realize he's my manservant."
Gaius stood straighter. "And as Prince of Camelot, you would want your people to have access to all options of my potions and medicines, wouldn't you?"
Arthur didn't know why he bothered. He never won any argument with Gaius. While Uther resorted to threats, Gaius resorted to reason. He always looked up to the physician as an older uncle.
Arthur chuckled. He stared around them room at the various objects and books. As a child, he would hide from his father and tutors at the bookshelves near the top of the room. He loved climbing those ladders. When people stopped by and asked Gaius if they've seen the prince, the physician would send a knowing look at Arthur's hiding spot before sending them off on a wild goose chase. Arthur never thanked him for that. Gaius treated me like a child when no one else did, and he treated me like an adult more often than most.
Arthur's gaze snapped back to Gaius. He opened his mouth, ready to ask the question he asked Uther. He closed it. Was he really going to gamble with Gaius' life for mere curiosity? Was he really that selfish? How could've he have forgotten the wild look in his father's eyes moments ago? No. He had to find another way to answer the question of him being born of magic.
He cleared his throat. "Send Merlin to me first thing when he gets back."
"Of course," Gaius said, his tone a bit clipped.
He gave a slight nod before he departed, wondering if Merlin was out right now, fantasizing various ways to kill him.
The next morning after he broke his fast, Arthur sought out Morgana. When he discovered she was browsing the markets in the lower town, he decided to head down to the Royal Library. The high arc corridor of the library always amazed him when he entered.
Geoffrey of Monmouth rose both brows at the sight of Arthur approaching him.
Arthur smiled weakly and gave a half-wave.
"Last time I saw you down here, you ruined several of my books," he said, placing his quill down on top of a records book.
Arthur scratched the side of his neck. "And you banished me." He held up his hands in a placating manner. "I promise, I outgrew my climbing phase."
Geoffrey used to tutor Arthur down here as a child. Until one session, the older man fell asleep, and a bored Arthur took to climbing up the very old and fragile shelves. He ruined a whole row of bookshelves and destroyed half of the books. It was the first time in his life he'd saw a grown man cry.
"How can I assist you?" Geoffrey lips were thin, his eyebrows set in one line.
"Erm, I'm curious." Arthur wiped a blanket of dust from the edge of Geoffrey's desk with his forefinger and brushed his finger with his thumb. "Do you have any books on magic?"
No response. The man gave him a blank stare.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably. "Erm, my father declared war on magic, and I've decided it's time to research it on my own, so I can truly know what we're up against." There, perfect valid excuse. Better than the lame girly statement: I just want to find out who I am.
Arthur glanced around the room. He always got that unnerving feeling that Geoffrey didn't like him or maybe that was everybody.
"Your father destroyed many books on magic during the Great Purge," Geoffrey said.
Arthur grind his jaw back and forth. Of course he did.
"There are a few that I have on shelves..." Geoffrey trailed off and narrowed his eyes, reading him. "You've never shown interest in magic before. You've seemed to always take your father's word on it, or have Gaius research it."
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. Valid question. What type of king do you want to be? Anhora's words echoed in his mind. "If I'm to be king someday, I should be well-versed on all subjects and matter that may be brought up during my reign. A wise king shouldn't be ignorant when it comes to his people and the land he rules."
Geoffrey's mouth twitched a bit into a slight smile. He snapped his fingers. "I've been waiting for this day." He unhooked a key from a necklace underneath his tunic and used it to unlock a drawer from his desk. He lifted a false bottom and pulled out an old brown leather book before he handed it over to Arthur: Annals of Magic.
Arthur gripped it from both sides as he took it.
"This used to be Ygraine's..." Geoffrey said softly.
"She had no magic of her own, no, she was an educated woman, always had her nose in a book." He chuckled and Arthur smiled of hearing a real memory of the mother he never knew. It was like finally gathering the true piece of the puzzle he spend years collecting of her. Geoffrey continued, "I don't recall what her thoughts were on the subject of magic, I do know she believed in gathering knowledge on all aspect before generating a decision."
Arthur trailed his fingers along the texture of the book's cover. "Why?" he asked. "Why hide this?"
"Because she would've wanted you to have that, and so I waited for the day for you to come and prove you are your mother's son, the day when you decided to seek out knowledge."
Arthur smiled. "Thank you..."
It felt strange and filled Arthur's heart to have somebody do something so meaningful without Arthur asking or demanding for it. And to have something that his mother used to read...it was like finding her.
Geoffrey returned the smile. "I hope to see you down here more often."
And Arthur made an inward promise that he would.
Back up in his chambers, Arthur skimmed through the book Geoffrey gave him. The pages were in fragile shape, brown and crinkled. Arthur's heart swelled when he noticed a few scribble of writing in the margins from Ygraine.
He decided to read the first chapter and it explained to him more about magic in finer details. Magic was believed to be an ancient energy field from the Earth that humans and other beings tapped into and wielded it through them. They talked about sorcerers and sorceress, high priests and priestesses. Arthur's eyes glaze over at some sentences that he forced himself to read again, for shame in not thoroughly reading something that was once his mother's.
Halfway through, he found what he was looking for. Creatures of Magic. Born of magic and part of the Old Religion. Arthur raised a brow. Old Religion? He's heard of it briefly, and Anhora mentioned that it was what stirred the power within Arthur. His gaze jumped down a few sentences, Old Religion is the magic of Earth itself. They believed in the sacred balance of all living things.
He went back up to read more on creatures of magic. Some were mythical creatures and others were powerful warlocks, yet they were rare. Those born of magic each tended to have their own ability. What did that make Arthur? Somehow, he got the sense that he wasn't a warlock or sorcerer. They mentioned how magic was the very act of breathing to most creatures of magic.
He rubbed his eyes. Nothing. He read through the Old Religion once again. It was a very interesting concept. As a hunter, he's heard of the balance of nature. Yet to expand that concept to all people, creatures, and elements was mind-boggling.
He come upon a section that his mother marked in the book. She didn't add any notes in the margin, just bracketed the section.
At the heart of the Old Religion lies the balance of life and death itself, Arthur read, to save a life, to create a life, another life must be taken in exchange. His heart skipped a beat. The balance of life and death.
"You were born of magic."
"The effects of the Old Religion has stirred the dormant powers within you."
And how strange that Uther has been at war against magic for as long as Arthur has been alive?
He dropped the book onto the floor and rose to his feet, staggering back to press himself against the wall. His breathing quickened. No. It's not possible.
To create a life, another life must be taken in exchange.
Arthur ran his hands through his hair.
"You were born of magic."
And when Arthur was born...his mother died.
Did...did his parents resort to the Old Religion to conceive him? It's not true. It can't be true.
He slumped down onto his bottom and drew his knees to his chest.
To create a life, another life must be taken in exchange.
Tears welled in his eyes.
It all made so much sickening sense now.
"Why do you hate magic?"
"Nothing good ever comes from magic."
A sob racked in his chest.
It was all his fault. His mother died so that he could exist. He wasn't supposed to be here.
I took my mother's life. Arthur rested his forehead against his knees. It's my fault she's dead. She died for him. And look what he's become. If she saw him now, would she be ashamed? Would she wished she never gave up her life for his?
Tears spilt from his eyes and he slammed his fist against the stoned floor as he wished for a way to reverse time and give Ygraine her life back.
"Anhora!" Arthur screamed once again into the ocean's wind. "Show yourself, you coward!"
He scanned the beach, waiting for the old Keeper of Unicorn to reveal himself.
Eirian rested near the Labyrinth of Gedref, staring at Arthur with a sad look. It was like he could read Arthur's emotions.
So much was raging within him. He went from shock and despair to fury. How could his father have kept this hidden from him? Why did they resort to magic to bring Arthur to this life? Then he started to wonder if he was getting ahead of himself, jumping to wrong conclusions. But he couldn't ignore the certainty in his own heart. He knew. Ygraine created a life for Arthur in exchange's for her. Why would she do that? Unless she didn't know. But then why would she mark that section in the book?
"Anhora!" Arthur screamed again.
He left his room, told Leon to give his father some excuse if Uther came searching for him, and snuck out of the castle. With a whistle, Eirian came for him, and Arthur asked the unicorn to bring him here to speak to the one man who could tell him the truth.
"Anhora!" Arthur yelled. His voice cracked at the end and he coughed. His throat was hoarse. How long had he been screaming out here for?
He dropped to his knees again, panting.
Eirian came over and dipped his head into Arthur's lap.
He stroked the unicorn's mane and rubbed his head against it.
"It can't be true." Arthur snuffled. "I can't live knowing that she...I'm not worth it."
"Your mother loved you, very much."
Arthur lifted his gaze toward the ocean. "Anhora." He shook his head. "You're wrong. My mother doesn't know me."
The hood of Anhora's cape was over his head. He used his staff to walk closer to Arthur and Eirian. "You say that because you cannot feel your mother's presence here with you, even now."
Tears welled in Arthur's eyes. "Tell me the truth. Why did she give up her life for me to come into this world?"
Anhora sighed. "It's a truth I don't believe you're quite fully ready for."
"I deserve to know!"
"Deserve? Yes. Prepared? No."
"She's my mother," Arthur whispered.
"And what will you do when you learn of details of what transpired?"
Arthur blinked the tears away. "What?"
"Armed with this knowledge, what will you do with it?"
Arthur gapped, his mouth worked. No answer came to him.
"Knowledge is a dangerous thing," Anhora said.
"Wait. Let me get this straight. First you're telling me to stop being ignorant, and now you're saying I can't know too much because it's dangerous? You're a walking contradiction!"
Anhora released a short chuckle. "You'll come to learn, young Pendragon, that there must be a balance for everything in this world, even between knowledge and ignorance."
Arthur glanced down at Eirian, the unicorn snuggled its snout in comfort against Arthur's chest. "And a balance between life and death? There's no balance between my mother's life and my own. She's worth a thousand of mine."
Anhora smiled sadly.
Arthur took in a few more shaky breaths. Why was everyone always keeping secrets from him? What was wrong with him?
Anhora said, "In time, you will learn the truth. However, it will not be today."
"What am I then? If I'm born of magic?" Arthur asked suddenly. "I'm not a warlock, what type of creature am I?"
"You will find out in time. No books, no common knowledge will tell you, for your magic is the rarest of all. Again...seek Merlin out."
Then the man disappeared.
It's hard to seek out a man who doesn't want to be found. Anhora was right. He did need to find Merlin. They needed to have this conversation now.
Arthur took a deep breath. He'd do it after he controlled himself. His emotions were erratic, and he didn't trust himself to react truly to Merlin's explanations.
He desperately wished to hide behind his ignorance once again. Believe his father's words, pretend that he couldn't see what was right before him. He knew that not only would it not be fair to himself, it would be worse for his people.
And he couldn't allow Merlin to believe he was alone.
Brave-hearted, idiotic, clumsy, entertaining Merlin.
When Arthur took off for Ealdor to help Merlin and Hunith fight off Kanen's bandits, he made a sacred vow to himself that he would always protect Merlin, because there was something about him that attracted Arthur to him.
"Come on," Arthur said, trying not to turn it into a whine as he shoved his feet in Merlin's face, "stop pretending to be interesting. Tell me."
A moment later, Merlin responded, "I just didn't fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere that I did."
"Had any luck?"
"I'm not sure yet."
Arthur never realized it, but he had hoped that Merlin felt like he fit in alongside with Arthur. He knew it couldn't be. Not while he was prince and Merlin was his manservant.
Seeing Merlin's hometown, experiencing where Merlin grew up, it helped Arthur grow to respect Merlin a bit more, helped him see his manservant as more of Arthur's equal.
Arthur rubbed Eirian's snout. "Enough of being girly. Let's go find Merlin."
The unicorn harrumphed in approval.
Merlin cut off a piece of the gray-green leaf from the bundle with his short knife and sniffed it. Whew. Definitely Mugwort. He cut some more and placed them in a small leather pouch. He placed the pouch and knife back into his larger bag and brushed his hands against his pants.
He inhaled deeply and looked up at the afternoon sky. He had perhaps a couple hours of daylight left. He should probably set up camp soon. He had a few pieces of bread and apples left from Gaius. He should gather some wood for a fire. Gathering herbs for Gaius was a good break. The tension he's felt since killing Nimueh was starting to uncoil. The doubt in his heart about Arthur lingered.
"I just want someone to see me for who I am."
"One day, Merlin. One day," Gaius assured.
When would that day come? How long would Merlin have to play the idiot? How long would he have to hide his magic? And did he want Arthur to find out?
At least one good thing came from gathering herbs for Gaius. He got to practice his magic.
"Now why can't you have that same kind of dedication when it comes to being my manservant?"
Merlin stiffened. He spun around to face Arthur, dressed in his hunting tunic and leaning against a tree trunk with his arms crossed. What was Arthur doing here? Merlin was at least a day and half out from Camelot. He knew he had a bad sense of direction, but was it that bad?
"What does Gaius have on you that I don't?"
Merlin snorted. "Have you ever tried to disobey Gaius?"
Arthur pursed his lips in agreement.
"What are you doing out here?" Merlin asked.
Arthur pushed himself from the tree and shrugged.
Merlin couldn't resist. "You can't last a day without me, can you?"
"Ah," Arthur raised his brows, "look who's growing a big ego of their own."
Merlin grinned. How easy was it to fall into their usual everyday banter? Merlin shifted uncomfortably when he noticed Arthur giving him a strange meaningful look. He had dubbed it Arthur's "there's something about you" look. Why had Arthur tracked him down?
Arthur bobbed with his head. "Follow me. There's something I want to show you."
Merlin creased his brows, Arthur almost sounded uncertain, yet determined. He lifted the strap of his bag over his shoulder and followed Arthur. They walked in silence, Merlin's curiosity growing with each step. Shadows of leaves danced down upon them. He writhed his hands.
Arthur slowed his walk as they approached a babbling creek. He came to a complete stop that Merlin nearly crashed into him. His bag dropped from the shoulder from the sudden stop.
Arthur pointed into the distance. "Remember him?"
By the creek, the beautiful white unicorn Merlin saw a couple months ago was drinking the flowing water. The sun glittered off its fur. Merlin gapped.
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. "I..." He curled his lips inwardly, thinking for a moment before he stared hard at Merlin. "I...I lied. Magic...is not evil. At least...I don't believe it entirely is. And...you're not evil."
Merlin was about to poke some fun in Arthur's awkward stammering until his mind registered the last part. Arthur doesn't know. He's a blind clotpole. He took a cautious step back, one that didn't go unnoticed by Arthur. "What do you mean?"
Arthur watched him, expression twisted in sadness. "Merlin, I know."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat. Arthur can't know. Just play the idiot. "Know what?" Merlin pointed at the magical creature. "That's a unicorn? It's not mine."
What is the unicorn doing here? Did it follow him? Did Arthur run into it before he found Merlin?
Arthur straightened his back, his shoulders raised. His mind seemed made up. "I know you're a sorcerer."
No. Arthur can't know. His fear was going to come true. Arthur was going to reject him. Banish him. Or...Arthur wouldn't kill him, would he? Is that why he met Merlin all the way out here?
"Have you been drinking in the tavern?" Merlin forced a weak chuckle.
Arthur sighed. "Merlin, you can trust me."
That ignited the spark within Merlin. "Trust you? You burned a sorcerer and forced me to watch!"
Arthur's face grew red. "I had no choice!"
Merlin released a scornful laugh. "Oh, you always have a choice."
"And allow my father to kill that man's children?"
Merlin shook his head. Wait...what did Arthur say?
Arthur widened his eyes for a second as if catching his mistake. He turned his back to Merlin, running his hand through his hair.
Merlin knew Uther pressured Arthur into it. It was just hearing Arthur sound so much like King Uther, so much of a tyrant, that it scared him. What did Uther threaten this time?
Arthur's words were so quiet Merlin nearly missed it. "I think I understand why you didn't trust me, I didn't exactly give you a reason to. But...I thought we were friends at least. I mean, if I wasn't a prince...yet..." Arthur turned back to him, his eyes glimmering. "What are we? What type of acquaintances are so willing to die for each other?"
Merlin bit back the statement that it was in his destiny to protect Arthur. Maybe that's how it started out. Were they friends? Yes. Truehearted friends? Merlin wasn't sure. Arthur did have a point. They barely knew each other for a year and yet they've nearly died for each other so many times.
Merlin blinked in surprise as he noticed that the unicorn had moved and nudged its snout at Arthur's elbow.
Arthur sighed and gently moved the unicorn's head from him. "I'm okay, Eirian."
Hope bloomed within Merlin's heart. Arthur was on a first-name basis with a unicorn? The son of Uther Pendragon, the son of a king who hates magic more than anybody, was friendly with a magical creature?
Merlin swallowed. "How long have you known?"
"I've always known...I think I just pretended that I didn't see it." Arthur folded his arms. "One thing I'm curious about is why did you learn magic in the heart of Camelot? I knew you were an idiot, I didn't know you were that big of one."
Rage stirred within Merlin's chest. "I didn't learn magic. I was born with it. It's very much a part of me as the very air I breathe."
"You're a warlock?"
Arthur knew that term?
"Yes," Merlin said proudly. He wasn't going to be ashamed of who he was. He was going to show Arthur everything now. It was all out in the open.
Arthur whispered out, "How powerful are you?"
Merlin winced. He had the power of life and death. He's always been strong, but since he's been to Camelot, his powers were growing, and still. "Very," Merlin whispered in response.
Arthur's right hand went to the hilt of his sword.
Every instinct of Merlin's flared in alarm.
"Then why be my manservant?" Arthur demanded. "Or were you only pretending at that too, lying to me, laughing about what a fool I am?" Arthur's hand shook, turning white. "You said you were happy to be my servant till the die you died. Was that a lie as well?"
Merlin meant every word. "No, Arthur. I..."
"I mean, were you plotting against me this whole time?"
"Arthur. No. I've been protecting you."
"Yes! You prat of an ass. If I wanted to kill you, I would've done so long ago."
Arthur lifted his sword an inch from the scabbard. "There are fates worse than death."
"Arthur..." Merlin swallowed. He released his hold on his magic. If Arthur attacked him, Merlin wouldn't use his powers against on the prince.
"Speak! Why did you come to Camelot?"
"My mother sent me to Gaius. She was afraid for me, and wanted Gaius to help me control my powers."
"And she thought you would be safe in Camelot? Do you take me for an idiot?"
"She trusted Gaius. She thought he would keep me safe. I don't know her reasoning. But coming to Camelot was the best thing I ever did, because I found a purpose to use my magic." Merlin held his chin up. "I use it for you, always for you."
Arthur seemed to realize his sword hand trembling and dropped the weapon back into the scabbard. He freed his hand and took a few steps back.
Merlin waited for Arthur to recollect himself. He had to make Arthur understand.
The unicorn slowly approached Merlin and he nearly jerked as he heard the creature telecommunicate to him, its voice loud in his head. "You are Emrys? I've heard murmurs about you from the Druids. I can feel your magic radiating from you, stronger than the last time we've met."
There was that name again, Emrys. How big was his destiny? Did he have to go through with it alone?
Eirian whined. "Forgive my master, he's not yet come to grips with magic. I fear Uther's hold on him is too great."
Merlin tilted his head. "Master?" Arthur? What was the world coming to?
Eirian nodded his head. "I am bound to him, as long as he remains purehearted."
"Can you not sense it? It's weak compared to yours, but it is there. Arthur is of magic."
Merlin snapped his head to the prince. "You have magic?" he exclaimed, aghast.
Arthur spun to him, shocked. "Wh—how?"
"How can you get angry with me when you've been hiding you're of magic all along as well?"
"I just found out," Arthur snarled. He raised a forefinger. "You don't get to turn this around on me. You've been hiding this far longer than I."
Merlin was growing fed up with this. "What would've you have done if I told you earlier? You weren't ready."
"Ready?" Realization dawned on Arthur's features. "You were going to tell me, in Ealdor. Your friend, Will..."
Merlin's chest ached at the reminder. "Will took my secret to the grave."
"And I told you magic was dangerous." Arthur rolled his head back and groaned. "No wonder you didn't tell me." He locked eyes with Merlin. "I'm sorry, Merlin. I'm sorry you couldn't trust me."
There were many scenarios Merlin envisioned or had nightmares of Arthur discovering his secret. Anger. Betrayal. Death. Burning on the pyre. Not once, did Merlin ever imagine or expect was Arthur expressing guilt over it.
Was this truly the man Merlin saw underneath all those layers of masks Arthur wore? The man Merlin called his equal? The man that was the Once and Future King? The man that was the other side of the coin?
Merlin sighed. "It wasn't that I didn't exactly trust you, Arthur. I may have doubted you, may have been afraid...I didn't tell you because I didn't want to make you choose between me and your father."
"My father?" Arthur scoffed. "He's..." he trailed off, not really saying anything.
Merlin narrowed his eyes at Arthur's reaction. Something happened. Arthur loved and admired Uther, saw good in the man that most missed, Merlin could see that clear as day. Gaius mentioned once, how Arthur was the one good thing Uther ever done.
There were many times where Merlin saw Uther in Arthur. Now, the true Arthur was shining in front of Merlin, revealing everything.
"He's your father, Arthur. I couldn't make you choose. And..." He didn't want to say it, but knew he had to, "I was certain that I'd be dead if I did."
Hurt flashed across Arthur's eyes. He swallowed a lump and gave a slight nod. He pressed his lips together in thought, debating. After a while, he said, "Show me. Show your magic."
Merlin's throat went dry. Was Arthur truly going to accept him? Thoughts whirled through his mind, wondering how he should formally reveal it to Arthur. An idea formed. He patted Eirian and walked to Arthur, stopping just before him.
"Give me your hands," he said.
Arthur raised a brow, and gave him a quick appraised look up and down before he held up both hands.
Merlin took them and cupped Arthur's palms together. Merlin placed his own hands against Arthur's. For the first time Merlin felt a slight tremor of the magic inside Arthur. He poked at it and tried to get a read of it. A warm protectiveness shot through Merlin, and a wave of...was it love? Merlin wasn't sure. He wondered what Arthur felt from him. He glanced up and nearly shrank back from the steady gaze Arthur gave him.
"You're not going to set my hands on fire, are you, Merlin?"
"Don't be a dollophead."
"Oh, pardon me, Prince Dollophead."
Arthur laughed, and Merlin nearly forgotten how wonderful his laughter was. The laugh faded out as Arthur waited patiently for the show of magic.
Softly, Merlin said, "Gewyrc an lif." He opened Arthur's hands to reveal a glowing blue butterfly that opened its wings against Arthur's palms.
A small gasp of awe escaped Arthur's lips. His gaze followed the butterfly as it flapped its wings to fly up into the sky. "That's..." A smile graced Arthur's features. He glanced at Merlin, mischief sparkling in his eyes. "A butterfly? Is that the best you can do, Merlin?"
Merlin forced an exaggerated sigh. "Nothing pleases you."
Arthur chuckled and returned his attention to the butterfly. "I never knew magic could be so..." he seemed to struggle to find the right word.
Merlin knew what Arthur meant. The prince never truly got the chance to see the beautiful side of magic.
"Gaius once told me that he didn't believe magic was good or evil. It just is. It all depends on how it's wielded," Merlin said.
Arthur was still staring at the butterfly. "Is there always a cost in using it?"
"Is there always a cost in using your sword?"
Understanding filtered through Arthur. "Sometimes, depending on how it's wielded."
Merlin knew that Arthur wouldn't trust magic completely, especially not overnight. It would take time. Would Arthur allow Merlin a chance to show him what magic can be? He swallowed, his words hard in getting out. "What...what do you wish to do with me?"
Arthur flicked his gaze to Merlin. "If I banished you to protect you from my father, you will still find your way back to Camelot somehow, wouldn't you?"
Merlin grinned. "You can't easily get rid of me."
There was that look again. "Sometimes I can't tell if you're just stupid or brave."
Eirian was right. Purehearted Arthur only thinking what was best for Merlin, what was the safest course. "Arthur, I belong by your side. I meant what I said, magic or not, I want to be your servant till the day I die."
Arthur creased his brows.
"I believe in you, Arthur, and the kingdom you'll build."
"Do you truly? Why do you believe in me so much? What have I ever done to warrant that belief in you? I mean," he scoffed, "I tried to hit you with a mace when we first met."
"You were an ass, and still are." Merlin sighed. "I'm your servant, Arthur, which means I see sides of you most people don't. I've seen you with your people when you think no one is watching you, I've seen you with the peasants, treating them with respect. I've seen you willing to die over and over again for Camelot. I've seen how much you love Camelot and how much you're willing to sacrifice for her."
Merlin was surprised to see Arthur listening. He remembered one of his last advice to Arthur was to listen as well as he fought. And here was proof that Arthur was taken heed of his advice.
"You're wrong on one thing. There's a part of Camelot I have yet to sacrifice for, to understand. My whole life, my father taught me that magic was evil, and I've always seen the evil of magic by the attacks on Camelot by sorcerers." Arthur took a deep breath. "Looking at Eirian, and seeing what you just did...Can you show me the good of magic? The other half of it that I've never seen?"
"He likes you." Hunith had told Merlin once about Arthur.
Merlin immediately disagreed. "That's because he doesn't know me. If he did, I'd probably be dead by now."
Merlin smiled. He didn't know if Arthur had completely accepted him, but he was willing to give Merlin a chance, he was willing to listen.
Merlin held out his hand. "I'll show you."
Arthur smiled and shook Merlin's hand.
And finally the two sides of the same coin acknowledged one another.
Chapter 3: Type of King
Arthur entered Morgana's chambers to find her folding a purple dress into her long trunk. She lifted her head at his arrival and scowled.
"Have you come to express your jealousy in your father finally passing me off to another suitor?" she said, her voice like a whip.
Arthur noticed Gwen, placing together Morgana's jewelry. "Guinevere, could you give us some privacy?"
Morgana held her chin up and folded her arms. "There are no secrets between me and Gwen."
A lie, Arthur knew, but he didn't say it.
Gwen gave a slight bow as if to apologize before returning her attention to the jewelries.
"I'm sorry about all this," Arthur said, deciding that was the best place to start.
Morgana scoffed. "Why? Because my marriage is supposed to benefit you and not me?"
Why did she always attack him and think he was her enemy? It seemed whenever she was mad at Uther, Arthur always got the brunt of her fury.
"I'm not the one pressuring him into this, and..."
"Maybe not, but I appreciate you defending my honor."
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, biting back his childish retort of I did defend your honor. There was no talking to her when she was in her fiery mood, especially when it was directed upon him. He lowered his hand, getting to where he came here for. "I wanted to wish you safe travels. As well as you, Guinevere."
Gwen smiled sweetly and nodded her head. She tucked a stray of her curly black hair behind her ear. "Good luck ruling the kingdom in your father's stead while he's away."
Arthur mirrored her expression. "Thank you. I need it." He turned back to Morgana. "I wish I could overruled Father's laws, but if you do find a suitor, I hope he's worthy of you."
There was a slight tug at the right corner of Morgana's lips that it could almost be a smile.
He walked over and pressed her into a hug, his hand gripped her neck as she buried her face into his chest. He immediately felt the magical link, the connection. The fear had grown. "I hope you don't have any more nightmares," he whispered. "I hope your dreams are light." Her skin shocked his hand, and he forced himself not to jerk away. What was that?
They pulled apart.
"I hope Merlin keeps your ego in check while we're gone."
Arthur laughed. "I think he's ready for that." He gave a slight wave to Guinevere before he headed back to the door.
"Arthur..." Morgana called out at the doorway.
He glanced back at her.
"Don't ever forget who you are...you're not your father..." she said.
Arthur narrowed his eyes in confusion. It felt like she knew more than she was letting on, like it was a warning. What type of magic did Morgana have? Did she know she had magic? Or was she like him, uncertain and confused? Was she born with it? She must've, because he knew with Uther around, there was no way she would learn sorcery to spite him. He struggled to remember her dreams. There were only two he recalled specifically, the one that stood out the most was her panic state before he left with his knights to kill the Questing Beast. Did she dream that? He vowed when she returned, he would confess that he knew of her magic and support her. He wouldn't let her down again.
"I won't. I'll see you both out tomorrow morning." He smacked his hand against the doorframe before he left.
"I expect that my kingdom shall remain standing when I return," Uther said from his horse.
Arthur knew his father was teasing, but somehow that remark still stun. "You can rest easy, Father. Camelot is in good hands."
"I shall return in a couple months' time." Uther leaned a bit forward, his words meant only for Arthur. "Make me proud." And he clapped his hand on Arthur's shoulder.
Even the most fatherly statement sounded like an order in Arthur's ears. His lips thinned. "I will, Father."
Uther jerked his horse's rein and rode up to the front of the party. No goodbye. No advice or concern. Only his usual Make me Proud remark. Sometimes Arthur felt like something held his father back from loving Arthur with all he had, like most fathers. The only time he seemed to show concern was when Arthur's life was in danger. Or did he only show concern because if Arthur's mother really did die for Arthur to be born, Arthur's death would make hers pointless? Does Father blame me for Mother's death? Was it my fault?
Arthur waited for the other knights, servants, and members of the council walk or ride by, many bearing the red mark of Camelot. He caught Morgana and Gwen on their respective horses in the distance, they chattered among themselves. He caught Morgana's eyes and she gave him a slight gesture with her head, as if saying farewell.
It felt strange. For the first time in his life, Camelot was solely in his hands, his responsibility. Every decision will be decided by him.
What type of king do you want to be? Arthur knew this was his moment of truth, his test. Whatever actions he decided or performed now could possibly decide his future. He wasn't naïve, he knew his father could rule, possibly for another twenty years. Heck, Arthur could die before he ever got the chance to be king. It didn't hurt to prepare, to be ready. In case that time ever comes.
Arthur never told anyone the truth: that he doesn't want to be king.
Everyone always talk about it like it's a great honor, how they could change the kingdom, the world even, as they see fit. He always wondered who would ever want to be king. His father conquered this kingdom with spilt blood. Blood he continued to spill to keep Camelot. Arthur doesn't want to have that type of power over people. With one word, and people would do his bidding. He'd trade that power in a heartbeat.
He sat on his horse and watched Uther and his company disappear on the road within the vastness of the forest.
Arthur turned his head slightly to see Merlin sitting on his own horse, alongside him. They had a long conversation ahead. After the reveal the day before, Arthur had to return to aid his father and have Uther prepare him for the coming months.
"Shall we?" Arthur called out.
"After you, sire," Merlin sang the last part out.
Arthur cast him a glare.
"For...Forbanian," Arthur stuttered out. He stared at the palm of his hand, expectantly.
"No," Merlin chuckled. He held out his own palm. "Forbearnan." A fireball sparked to life and hovered in Merlin's hands.
Arthur was more fascinated by the way Merlin's eyes turned gold whenever he said a spell. Usually, when he saw golden eyes, something dangerous was coming his way. The golden eyes seemed to fit Merlin more than anything, like it was a part of the mystery that always surrounded him.
The fire disappeared and Merlin gestured at Arthur to try again.
They were in Arthur's chambers, the doors bolted shut. Merlin showed off a few of his skills and then randomly decided to teach Arthur.
"Fobearnan," Arthur said. Nothing.
Merlin almost looked disappointed.
Arthur sighed. "I'm not like you, Merlin. I was told I can't do spells or enchantments."
Merlin scrunched his eyebrows. "But you're of magic, how can you not?"
Arthur flashed his teeth. "Apparently, I'm a rare kind."
Merlin frowned, thinking.
Arthur waved it away. "Enough, Merlin. Don't worry about it." He was somehow both relieved and disappointed he couldn't make anything happened. "Tell me. What magic have you done in Camelot?"
"Besides saving your royal hide?"
Arthur's lips twitched to the side, unamused.
Merlin slumped into the chair across from Arthur's table, looking years older. He stared at Arthur for the longest time that Arthur started to feel that Merlin wasn't going to tell him anything. Finally, he took a deep breath and began, with their initial meeting.
"I knew those hooks and buckets moved of their own accord!" Arthur shook his head in mock disapproval. "You cheated."
"You told me you've been trained to kill since birth, I was just leveling the playing field," Merlin snapped playfully.
Arthur chuckled and then he listened. He listened how Merlin used magic to save Arthur's life that resulted in him becoming Arthur's manservant. He listened to how Merlin tried to use magic to convince Arthur about the magical snakes on Valiant's shield. Then the afanc and how he was the one that saved Gwen's father and Arthur hid the fact that when Merlin confessed he was a sorcerer to save Gwen, Arthur had already known. He's been acting like a true clotpole for so long. Then Merlin told Arthur of Lancelot and the Griffin.
"Wait, Lancelot knows you have magic?" Arthur cried. You trusted Lancelot over me? A stranger over me?
"I didn't tell him, Arthur," Merlin's voice was soft. "He found out, like you, on his own."
Arthur decided to leave it alone, but the bitterness and jealously still remained inside of him.
He listened about Edwin Muirden, about Sophia and the Sidhe ("I knew you weren't strong enough to knock me out!" "That's what you're most concerned about, not that you let a girl enchant you?"), about Mordred yet Arthur knew Merlin was hiding something when he failed to disclose why he was late in opening the gate, about Ealdor. Then Merlin started to fidget.
Arthur wondered what happened the past couple months after Ealdor that stood out. Uther and Morgana were attacked by Tauren's men after Gwen's father died. He pushed aside the memory of his agreement with his father in freeing Morgana from the prison, forgetting the deal he made with Uther that he told no one of. Arthur winced at the memory.
What happened after...oh. "How did you save me from the Questing Beast? That bite was supposed to kill me, yet it didn't."
Merlin averted his gaze. "I...I can't talk about that."
You still don't trust me?
Merlin glanced down at his hands. "It's just...I haven't come to terms yet with what happened, and I'm not ready to talk about it." He looked back up at Arthur and his face fell more as he seemed to realize Arthur's expression. "Arthur...it's not you."
"There's something else you're hiding from me," Arthur pressed.
Merlin opened his mouth to protest.
"It sounds like you've been going to someone else besides Gaius for magical advice. Who?" Morgana? Though, Arthur knew that was unlikely. Was there another sorcerer living here in Camelot, protecting them?
Merlin winced. "I vowed I would never see him again. He deceived me and I'm afraid whether or not I can trust him."
So, I'm not the only one you have trust issues with. Arthur sighed. "It sounded like he helped you a lot in the past."
"Only for his own interest," Merlin replied, scornfully.
Sounds like my father. Arthur leaned back in his chair. "Regardless of his intentions, he did still help you."
"Only at the cost of the people I care about."
Are we talking about my father? Arthur wanted to quip, instead he said, "Certain people can become blind to what their actions are doing to those around them. I don't think they intentionally set out to hurt to others, but they become so focused on their goal, nothing else matters."
What he said made him think of Uther. Was his father an evil man? No. Ignorant, misguided, and blind, yes. And how Uther passed on those traits to Arthur. He didn't want to become like his father. That was his biggest fear.
Merlin reeled his head back, surprised at Arthur's words. "Wow...uh..."
Arthur pursed his lips up. "What?"
"You're smarter than you look," Merlin quipped.
Arthur glared, not pleased to have his own words thrown back at him. He knew Merlin thought he was dumb, maybe that's what they were both good at, pretending to be idiots.
Merlin shifted in his seat. "Maybe you should meet him."
Arthur pointed at himself. "Me? The Crowned Prince of Camelot meeting another sorcerer?"
"He's not exactly a sorcerer..."
Arthur furrowed his brows.
Merlin chuckled darkly, lost in his thoughts. "In a way, his fate is in your hands."
After a few minutes, Arthur hesitantly agreed. He was free for the remaining of the morning anyway. So, Merlin took him down toward the crypts, then snuck past Camelot's guards to head down an unused corridor.
He decided he would come up with another training regimen in his head to always keep the guards on alert. He knew most of the time it was boredom and confident that made the guards slack off in their duties. Maybe he needed to have someone always trying to slip through the guards and reveal the weaknesses of Camelot's defense.
Arthur blinked back to the present. Merlin was holding a torch, standing in front of him with a concerned look.
"Stay here, I'll call for you," Merlin said before he headed down the hallway and through the dark entryway.
Arthur's heart pounded in his chest. What kind of sorcerer hides in the darkest basement of Camelot? His gut churned and Arthur knew he wouldn't like the answer. Arthur strained his ears as he heard a silky, yet rough voice slipped down the passageway.
"What is this, young warlock? I thought you vowed you would never see me again?"
For some reason, Arthur felt like he's heard that voice before, like from a distant dream.
"I didn't come here for me," Merlin replied. Arthur was surprised at how Merlin sounded, confident and unwilling, like a leader. Is this what was hiding beneath the clumsy idiot persona? "I came here because it's time to decide your fate."
The other person...no, it sounded too great to be a human, snorted. "My fate lies in accordance with you and Arthur."
Arthur stiffened at the mention of his name. What?
"Exactly," Merlin said.
It took several seconds to realize that was his cue. Arthur took a deep breath of courage before he walked through the entryway to a dark cave and blanched at the sight before him.
A huge, golden-scale reptile creature sat perched on the cave rocks.
"Your—you're a...dragon," Arthur stuttered, blinking. Fear and awe rose in his chest. He's seen many magical creatures, fought against them, yet he'd never seen a dragon.
The dragon tilted its head at Arthur. "Ah, the young Pendragon," Arthur caught traces of shock in the dragon's voice.
"And...you can talk."
"You expected me to yodel?"
Arthur felt his cheeks grow red, then he wanted to smack himself for acting like a bumbling fool before a dragon.
"Arthur, this is Kilgharrah," Merlin introduced, struggling hard not to break out in to a huge grin. It made Arthur want to smack him, though it would be a bad idea to do that in front of a dragon who possible liked Merlin.
Arthur settled to giving a very awkward wave to the towering dragon. "Kilgharrah, it's an honor...I thought there were no more dragons."
Given Merlin's quick "Did you seriously just say that" expression, he knew that was the wrong thing to say.
"You have your father to thank for eradicating most of my kind. I'm chained here as example to all magical beings," Kilgharrah said. "I've been down here for nearly twenty years, I'm beginning to think Uther forgotten about me."
Arthur knew better than that. Uther remembered, he's done it to prisoners, leave them rotting in their cells without contact in order to drive them mad. Arthur lowered his head, ashamed, but then forced himself to look back at Kilgharrah. For the first time, he noticed the chains. "I am sorry..."
Kilgharrah immediately chimed in, "Those were your father's actions, not yours."
Arthur had once stood by Uther's side with blind loyalty in his father's war against magic, against sorcerers. How many innocent did he stand by and watch get condemned? How many times did he let his pride, let his need for his father's approval, shield him from the very truth that was right before him? How many suffer Kilgharrah's fate?
Kilgharrah peered his head a bit closer to them. "I take your presence here means you are aware of Merlin's secret."
Arthur stole a glance over at Merlin who glanced down at his feet and shifted. "Yes," he said.
"And what will you do with this newfound knowledge?" the Great Dragon inquired.
Arthur locked his gaze with Merlin, eyes blaze with curiosity and respect. No matter what Arthur decided, Merlin would accept it. What type of acquaintances are so willing to die for each other? Arthur had asked himself that question every day since Merlin drank poison for him. What were they? Friends? Possibly. Arthur had a feeling that he trusted Merlin more than Merlin trusted him. Suddenly, it hit Arthur. Merlin bringing him here to meet this dragon was a test of trust.
He turned back to Kilgharrah. "I hoped to seek understanding." Of magic...and of Merlin. And what is Merlin to me?
Kilgharrah reeled his head back and gave a ruffle of his wings in approval.
In that moment, Arthur knew what he had to do. It was only right. What type of king do you wish to be? Arthur knew his answer: I don't want to be my father. I want to be me. Arthur straightened his back, standing proud. "You're a prisoner, and as Prince of Camelot, I've declared you've suffered enough, too much, I will free you."
"Arthur!" Merlin took a step forth. "You can't trust him."
Kilgharrah gave a strange short of growl, like he wanted to attack Merlin, yet his idiot servant held his ground. He knew Merlin well enough by now to finally understand his reaction. At least he hoped he did.
"He threatened your mother...or Gaius?" Arthur probed.
"Both..." Merlin said.
Anger roared in Arthur's chest. Who dared hurt Merlin? Especially Hunith, despite the short time Arthur's come to know her, he valued her life well before his. She was Merlin's mother. And Gaius? Why harm the physician?
He glared at Kilgharrah, ready to verbally lash at him or demand an answer, until he remembered what the dragon said. Kilgharrah was the last of his kind. His father destroyed all the dragons. Arthur tried to imagine sitting in a prison in a place where a king killed everyone he loved. What if he was a creature of magic and watched helpless as magic faded away?
Twenty years sitting in rage and sorrow.
"Your destiny..." Kilgharrah began.
"You are selfish and only care about your own revenge," Merlin snapped. Arthur read his manservant right away. He was feeling betrayed. "You don't believe in our destiny, you just want it to happen so you can be free."
Arthur held up a hand and Merlin took a small step back. He lowered his hand to his side and walked up toward the edge of the cliff, keeping his gaze steady and true.
"Kilgharrah, I will free you."
"Arthur..." Merlin whispered out in disagreement.
Kilgharrah met Arthur's gaze, uncertain. "I know the nature of humans. What do you wish for in exchange?"
"Do not harm Camelot or any of its people." He took a deep breath. "If you do seek revenge, then I will offer you my life to do as you wish."
Kilgharrah's nostril flared. "What would I gain with your life?"
"You'll destroy Camelot. I'm not saying this out of blatant pride, but I've seen how much I mean to the people and to my father," Arthur swallowed. "And I'm just as guilty as my father in regards to what happened to magic over the years."
Kilgharrah tilted his head. "How will you ensure that I keep my word?"
Arthur graced a small smile and shrugged. "It may be naïve and foolish, but over the years, I've come to learn that if you want to know whether or not you can trust someone...trust them anyway."
Kilgharrah gazed at Arthur for the longest time. Finally, in a whisper, he said, "You are truly indeed the Once and Future King."
What? He's sworn he's heard that title before. But him? There was nothing special about him. Once and Future King? The name sounded...terrifying. Arthur pushed those thoughts aside. He held out his hand. "Agreed?"
Kilgharrah leaned his snout forward and pressed it against Arthur's palm. Gods, Arthur never felt so tiny in his life. His miniature hand pressed against the Great Dragon's snout. A wave of magic flowed through Arthur's arm at the connection. He felt sadness, anger, loneliness, and yet somehow amidst all of that, trust.
Kilgharrah pulled his head back and released a slight chuckle. "How the fates have changed. I never realized you, Arthur, were a creature of magic like me."
Arthur joined in with him. "I never realized either. But Merlin's the one who is magic," he turned to his friend, who stood, beaming with pride. "Not me."
"Indeed, he is, young Pendragon. Perhaps now that you know his secret can your destiny together truly begin."
"Destiny?" Arthur cocked his head at Kilgharrah.
"Yours and Merlin's destiny lies together. And for what, only time will reveal."
Him and Merlin? Together? It made sense, and it felt right. He never really thought much about what type of king he wanted to be until Merlin came along. Now that Merlin was here...Arthur found it hard to imagine his life without the man on his side.
He had a feeling that Kilgharrah knew more of Arthur's destiny than he was willing to share. As much as Arthur craved to know, he found that he didn't want to know the details, for fear that he'll let Kilgharrah and Merlin down.
Arthur clasped his hands together. "So, how do we free you? I'm assuming those are no ordinary chains on you..."
Kilgharrah growled. "Chains that can only be broken by magic forged by the Old Religion."
Arthur's heart skipped a beat. He was forged by the Old Religion...
Merlin narrowed his eyes in thought. "What of that sword you forged?"
The dragon tilted his snout upward in thought. "Hmmmm. It's dangerous, last time you allowed the sword to fall into the wrong hands."
Merlin glared, he opened his mouth, glanced over at Arthur, and then swallowed his protests.
Even now, he still hides things from me. What would it take for him to trust me?
Kilgharrah regarded Arthur. "You have indeed proved your heart, young Pendragon, yet the strength of your spirit has yet to be determined. I will bide my time and wait. Only when I deem you're ready, can you take up the sword and free me."
For some reason, Arthur felt like a huge honor had been bestowed upon him. "Are you certain you can wait?"
"I've been trapped here for nearly twenty-years. What's a few more?"
Arthur rose his brows. It was going to take that long to prove himself? Were his own people uncertain about him like Kilgharrah and Merlin were? His doubts began to grow. Heck, Arthur had thought he had saved certain people when really it was Merlin behind the scene. Had anything Arthur done been of value since Merlin came?
"I swear I will free you," Arthur vowed, pushing his doubts aside.
Kilgharrah smiled. "I'm pleased that you are aware of my existence, and that you accepted Merlin. Perhaps you are indeed the man destiny has foretold."
"You don't have to join me," Arthur said once more as he and Merlin headed down the outdoor corridor that overlooked the courtyard.
"I've seen you fall asleep during these meetings," Merlin said, struggling to keep up with Arthur's quick gait. It was easy for Arthur to move in his own castle, people simply parted for him. Merlin kept crashing into everybody. "I've never seen you take control of them."
Arthur spared a glance over his shoulder. "You just want to see me make a fool of myself."
"You do that every day," Merlin was quick to retort.
Arthur held back a smile and shook his head. They turned and headed down the North Wing of Camelot's Keep, nearing their destination.
Arthur noticed Sir Leon approaching from the other end.
"Sire," Leon greeted.
"Sir Leon," he beckoned the knight to enter the room before him. The three of them slipped into the council room.
Gaius and Geoffrey were already there and seated. Near the King's chair was...Arthur bit back a groan: Fynbar Hans.
Silky brown hair, perfect nose, straight smile, he was dubbed one of the most handsome man in Camelot by the ladies of the court. Arthur despised him. Merlin always poked fun as he tried to guess the reasons why Arthur hated Fyn. Arthur enjoyed hearing the ridiculous reasons from Merlin that he never told Merlin the truth of why.
Arthur considered Fyn a rival and enemy. Fyn was some twice-removed cousin on Uther's side of the family and a couple years older than Arthur. At fifteen, Arthur was already head of Camelot's Knights. Fyn had been one, and Arthur stripped him of his knighthood within a month in his new position.
Fyn was furious. He had been a knight for three years and wasn't going to be easily cast aside by a "spoiled kid who had everything handed to him". He demanded his right to return by combat, where Arthur easily defeated him. It wasn't lack of skills that made Arthur dismiss him. It was Fyn's attitude.
Why couldn't Uther have taken Fyn with him?
Fyn's father, Alec Hans was a good man, a great member of the council. He died a couple months ago, and Fyn got the job, simply because he was a noble. A man's worth shouldn't be weighed by blood alone.
"Prince Arthur," Fyn greeted with a forced smile, his pesky servant, Lee stood behind him. He always addressed Arthur like that.
It irked Arthur. He gave a nod of greeting in return as he settled into the chair across from his father's. He hated how his father's chair was higher than the rest of the table. Uther always had to be placed higher than the others. Arthur would never sit in that chair.
"Gaius. Geoffrey," Arthur greeted and Sir Leon took a seat next to him.
Merlin, thank the gods for him, stood directly behind Arthur. He instantly felt relieved knowing Merlin was by his side. He could do anything with Merlin on his side. Why was that?
"Before we get into it, are there any issues that needs to immediately address?" Arthur asked. Not like Uther who only opened the council to the rest of his members after he covered what he wanted.
Sir Leon leaned forward onto his elbows. "Sire, I received reports of bandits, rooting several of the outlying villages."
Take a group of knights and find these bandits was what Uther would've said. "What do you suggest to do about them?" Arthur asked.
Leon blinked at the question. He leaned back and regained his composure. "I will send a group of knights out to hunt down these bandits. However, these bandit reports have heightened the past several months, I would like to suggest stationing certain knights at these outlying villages."
Arthur struggled not to smile too much from pride. There's a reason why Sir Leon was his favorite. The man knew what was to be done. See, Father, what happens when allow the people to think for themselves? "Any you trust?"
"Send them, and I have no doubt crops were the main thing taken, gather a couple of supplies from our storage and order these knights to supply them to the villages," Arthur said.
"Is that wise?" Fyn rolled his fingers on the table.
"You disagree?" Arthur said.
"We barely have enough supplies to feed the people within this city. Are you aware because of our dry spring that crops are low this year?"
Arthur remembered Peter's body and his children. He gritted his teeth. Of course, Arthur was aware.
"We barely have enough supplies to trade with Mercia and meet the conditions of the agreement."
King Bayard was a reasonable man. He thought back to after he saved Merlin from the poison. Arthur was still locked in the dungeon when an illness spread and ended up sharing his cell with King Bayard. The King had told Arthur that the future of Camelot was in good hands because Arthur was a much better man than his father. Arthur still wasn't sure about that.
"King Bayard will understand if we explain our conditions to him, perhaps he would be willing to loan Camelot some provisions."
"Sire," Gaius spoke up. "I must stress that your father would not allow that to happen."
It still stung that Gaius was still ever loyal to Uther. What did his father hold over him? He wondered why Uther kept him around, he barely listened to Gaius' wise counsel.
You must learn to listen as well as you fight.
"Also," Fyn jumped in once again, "the crown is low on money. We do not have enough funds to support Camelot's army."
Arthur didn't like how Fyn said Camelot's army instead of our army.
"Fynbar is correct," Geoffrey said. "I must add Camelot is not the only one to suffer in trade this year. King Alrik and the kingdom of Svealand suffered an attack on their ships and lost most of their amber trade, as well as their fish trade and weaponry. We received most of our profits through those trades."
And this would be the part when Arthur would begin zoning out.
"They are foolish barbarians," Fyn snapped. "Choosing their king line through war."
They are a country of warlords, Arthur realized. Why wasn't he born there? He'd rather talk with his sword than with words. "King Alrik is our friend and ally. My father hopes to make peace with him and the four other kingdoms in the near future. Continue whatever trade you have with them, however little."
"How do you propose I retrieve the money to support Camelot? Magic it out of thin air?"
"Magic is forbidden," Geoffrey chided.
"A mere joke," Fyn said, condescendingly.
Uther had a lot of money when he took over Camelot, mostly from the villages he pillaged on the way. The Great Purge also increased his wealth, but the twenty-year war against magic had cost Uther a lot. Especially maintaining an army that was always in use.
Fyn pursed his lips up. "I could suggest raising the taxes, especially on our lords."
And who would suffer most? The people. "And cause the people to revolt?"
An evil grin crossed Fyn's face but was quickly contained. "I did do some calculations, Prince Arthur." The way he said Prince Arthur sounded like he was calling Arthur a bastard. Fyn glanced down at his notes. "I've come to realize that you've won nearly all the tournaments hosted by Camelot since you were thirteen of age."
"What of it?"
"And all together, the prize money you've earned is roughly a hundred thousand in coins, is that correct?"
Arthur flicked his gaze up at Lee. No doubt whatever his answer was Lee would be quick to fuel the castle's gossip tonight. Fyn was always out to ruin Arthur's reputation with his people, yet mostly to Uther. Arthur had Geoffrey check years ago. While Fyn did have a claim to the throne, it was far-fetch, and he would need to win all the lords and nobles favor.
Arthur was no fool. If Fyn won Uther's favor, that was all that mattered.
"Yes, that's correct," Arthur said. If Fyn managed to count the winnings Arthur won from other kingdoms' tournaments, when he disguised himself as a commoner, who allowed all to join and not just nobles, Arthur's total winnings would be close to six million. Wasn't his alias once Wart?
"Perhaps as your duty as Prince of Camelot, you should donate your winnings to ensure Camelot will continue to flourish."
I would never trust my winnings to a spineless coward like you. Arthur was saving his money...to ensure an old childhood dream for when he became king. Arthur cleared his throat and tugged at his shirt collar. If there's one thing he's good at, it's playing the idiot. He added a cough. "Ahem, I'm afraid I don't have it."
"I blew it all, at the tavern." He turned to Sir Leon. "I always lose my money to the knights."
Sir Leon narrowed his eyes, knowing it was a lie, yet picked up on it. He turned to Fyn. "It's true. I've had to ban Arthur from gambling with his men, for his sake."
"Pity..." Fyn said, in a tone that was filled with glee.
Enjoy sharing that little gossip. And I'm sure my father will hear about it somehow.
Gaius and Geoffrey stared at Arthur in shock.
And the council meeting went only downhill from that. Arthur had to end up cutting a trade with two kingdoms to ensure Uther still had money during his reign. A poor king didn't stay in power for long. Gaius brought up the fact that a sickness was spreading in the lower towns, and Arthur begrudgingly agreed to ward them from the rest of the castle. Geoffrey added how Cenred was itching for war, especially since he found out that Arthur helped protect Ealdor, and demand to pay his price for trespassing. After figuring out how to deal with that with Leon's help, Leon mentioned how a group of knights were closing in on several Druid camps. Arthur told him to rein in the men, hold off on attacking and be cautious.
Arthur finally dismissed the council and stayed in his chair as the others left. I don't want to be King. If this is what it's like...
Arthur paused in rubbing his temple and glanced up at Merlin, who had remained standing there this whole time. He glanced behind his manservant to ensure the doors were closed. "What would you do?"
Merlin's brows creased.
"If you were me," Arthur explained. "How would you make Camelot flourish?"
Merlin thought about it for a moment. He bit his lips, uncertain whether to say it.
"With magic?" Arthur said, stroking his upper lip.
"Arthur, you've got to realize, our land was built on magic, Albion is magic. I think we've stopped understanding what we're supposed to use magic for. Not for religion or power. If I could, I would use magic to bring rain or strengthen our crops. I would use it to heighten the defense of Camelot's walls..."
"And what of the outlying villages? How could you protect them?"
Merlin seemed taken aback. "With wards? I'll have to look into that."
"When..." Arthur swallowed. "When does magic ask for a price?"
This time, Merlin stared at him. He took a seat next to him. "What is it?"
"I was born of magic, Merlin..." Arthur sighed. "I don't know the details, I don't know if it's true, but...are you aware of the balance of the Old Religion?"
Merlin's brows furrowed deeper, than they rose in realization. "To create a life, one must be taken." He covered his mouth. "Your mother?"
"If it's true...can you believe what a hypocrite that would make my father? All those lives..." Arthur pushed himself up and strolled over to the windows. "All of them dead...so I can live. Where's the balance in that? What's one worthless life against ten thousands?"
"How can I trust magic, Merlin? How can I trust people won't abuse it?"
"How is it any different than the nobles who abuse their power?" Merlin snapped.
Arthur slowly turned back to Merlin who stood, fists on his side.
"You abused your power sometimes. How can I trust those in power when I see them abuse it every day?"
Is that why you didn't trust me? Did I always abuse my powers? Arthur knew he used to bully servants, but it was for show, to prove to Uther that Arthur was like the other nobles, that Arthur was a Prince.
"There are days when I think about using my powers to turn you into a frog...or to put warts on some of your knights, or even trip Fyn. I don't. Because I chose long ago to stop using my powers for pranks and to use it for the greater good." He sighed and stared hard into Arthur's eyes. "For you."
How is it that Merlin was so loyal to him, yet didn't trust him?
"Magic doesn't always come with a price. It can be a gift, Arthur. It can heal, grow things, save lives...there is beauty to it. Stronger magic, sometimes require a balance. I'm still learning about it."
Arthur stared out the stained-glass window, out into the courtyard. The details of the meeting running through his head.
"Did you really gamble away your tournament money?"
Arthur hid his smile behind his hand. "What do you think?"
"You don't trust Fyn. I understand that, but don't you think you should give it to your people?"
What would it take for Merlin to trust me? Should I tell him my childhood dream? "I'm sure you remember Ealdor, how my father wouldn't send men to help your village."
He sensed Merlin's confusion. "Erm, I understand that, his treaty with Cenred..." He sighed. "Are you trying to change the subject?"
Arthur rested his forehead against the cool glass. "There was a similar situation when I was a kid. Have you ever heard of the village, Manau?"
"It was an outlying village in Olaf's kingdom. We had several refuges seek safety within Camelot's walls and they begged my father to save their village." Arthur closed his eyes, remembering that day. "This village was twice the size of Ealdor, soldiers that had been dismissed from Olaf's army was pillaging the village, raping both men and women, torturing everyone, even the children. Yet my father declared that Manau was not within Camelot's borders and not of our concern."
Merlin didn't say anything. Arthur could hear his breathing, knowing that his manservant was listening.
"It was the first time I ever outright disagreed with my father. I was...ten? Eleven? I told him that there was an injustice being done and that it was our duty, and the knights' duties, to fight against it." Arthur gave a wry chuckle. "My father told me I'd understand when I become king."
"I was old enough to know that it took money to run a kingdom, so since then I've been saving my winnings so that when I became king, I would conquer all of Albion and protect all of its people from injustice."
There was a sharp inhale.
Arthur lifted his head from the glass and glanced over at Merlin who looked white as snow.
"You want to conquer all of Albion?" Merlin's voice was strained.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "I was a kid, Merlin. I don't want to conquer much of anything." I don't want to be my father. He tapped his chin. "Though, to unite Albion, to unite all the kingdoms under one peaceful banner so that there will be no more Manau, or Ealdor."
Merlin gave him that look like he believed Arthur could do all of that. The look of utmost faith.
Arthur cleared his throat. "It's a childish dream."
"No!" Merlin quickly said.
Arthur raised a brow.
"Erm, no, it's not. I believe you can do it."
Arthur creased his brows. This time, he voiced his question out loud. "Why do you believe in me so much?"
Merlin just grinned.
Damn it, Arthur wanted a straight-out answer. He tried to recall exactly when Merlin started to give him that I believe in you look. He blinked when he remembered. When Merlin told him of Valiant's snakes and the shield, Arthur told him that he believed him and Merlin gave him that same exact grin he's giving now.
"Come on," Arthur said. "Show me more of your magic."
Arthur found himself waking before the crack of dawn. It wasn't like he was getting any decent sleep anyway. He knew Merlin would be up in a couple hours to rouse him.
Thoughts whirled in his mind.
Everything changed, yet it was a change that Arthur welcomed. A change that was for the good. A change Arthur wanted.
He threw the covers off him and stared out of his window into the dark morning sky. He stroked his upper lip.
What type of king do you wish to be?
Why did that question keep haunting him? Tormenting him?
The next couple months will test Arthur, he knew that.
I need to prove to myself I'm ready to be king...and to my people. Arthur had hoped it would be many years before he was king, yet talking with Merlin about his magic, having Merlin reveal more of his powers...how many more years can Arthur just watch those with magic get persecuted and murdered by his father, for just simply being as they are?
How could Merlin watch all that and still maintain his good heart, still maintain faith in Arthur?
Could Arthur easily watch his father continue to rule when in his heart he wanted a fair and just kingdom for all? A place where everyone, regardless of status, were treated equally.
Arthur knew that he needed to set the example first. He started with Merlin without even realizing it. It was time to expand on that.
He dressed himself in his simple red tunic and brown trousers. Merlin would be shocked to discover Arthur had begun the day without his help.
He knew right now Sir Leon would be setting up for training on the field. Arthur had his morning free for he had to be well prepared to address the common people in the throne room at noon.
He grabbed an apple from his bowl on the way out of his chambers.
The first light streaked across the sky when Arthur sought out the couple who took in Peter's children, Donna and Ben.
Ben was out front of his small cottage, shirtless and chopping wood.
"Morning, Ben," Arthur greeted.
Ben startled. "My lord?" He lowered his axe.
"Call me Arthur," Arthur said. They shook hands in greeting, and Arthur forced himself not to wipe off the grime on that transferred onto his palm. "How are the children?" he asked.
"Anna is adjusting better than Cian. The boy disappears for hours at a time. My poor wife worries for him."
"He's grieving, and angry...rightfully so." Arthur pulled out a small pouch from his pocket. "This should help cover means for a couple months."
Ben's mouth parted. "Sire..."
"Arthur," he stressed.
"Arthur...I cannot take this."
"Take? Psh, you're a shoemaker, correct? I'm buying as many shoes and boots as that'll cover."
"This is enough for an army..."
"Consider it an early payment. My knights are in need of new boots, the whole lot of them."
Ben's eyes twinkled and he motioned the pouch at Arthur. "You'll give a man his pride, will you not? You're a good lad."
Arthur winced. He hated compliments, it always made him uncomfortable. He shifted and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's nothing, truly. Especially since I..." I'm the reason why you have to foster those two children.
Ben sighed and gripped Arthur's shoulders. "We all must do our duty. Yours just happens to be a whole lot bigger."
Arthur checked in on the progress of his knights' training. He caught Leon's gaze and gave him a nod, pleased with their progress.
There was to be a feast today, as there always was with the nobles and knights once a week. He decided to stop by the kitchen. When he reached the doorway, a servant stumbled out, George or was it Gaylord?
George's eyes were wide with panic and he nearly plowed Arthur down. "Ah, sire...Lord Sully..."
A ladle flew out and George barely ducked it. He skittered away.
What in hell? He knew Audrey, their head cook, had a bit of a short temper. She smacked his hands a few times when he tried to steal extra honeycakes. She terrified Arthur to no end.
Arthur ducked his head into the kitchen. There were wisps of smoke and she was fanning them out with a cloth. Sweat glistened her skin and she was frantic.
Arthur swallowed his fear and stepped in. "Audrey, is everything..."
"Stay out, George. Tell precious Lord Sully to pour down wine with his extra-dry chicken!"
Arthur ducked a brick of cheese.
Her eyes widened as she noticed him. "Sire! Oh! My dear apologizes...I'd thought..."
A reprimand was on his tongue and he was ready to toss her into the stocks for the day. That was Uther's reaction instilled in him. What type of king do you wish to be?
He truly looked at her. Her face was red and she seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"What happened?" came out of his mouth instead.
"My helpers are at home. There's a sickness spreading in the lower towns, my boys..." she trailed off as she realized whom she was speaking to. "The feast will be ready by nightfall, my lord."
Arthur waved that away. "Do you need extra hands?"
"Perhaps if you could loan me a couple of servants..."
Arthur rolled up his sleeves. "Put me to work."
Audrey blanched. "Sire..."
"You're in charge, come on."
Her mouth worked. She glanced about the room, as if this was all a joke. The round cook set her lips in a thin line. "Very well."
So, she put him to work. Audrey chided at him when he did something wrong, smacked his hands when he folded the yeast of bread wrong, mocked him when he cried chopping the onions.
For the first time in his life, Arthur reveled in being ordered around, not being in charge. It was different than with Uther. When Audrey told him to do something, Arthur didn't feel compelled to do it. He did it, because he wanted to.
As time passed, Arthur found Audrey chatting his ear off. She had ten boys, two were off in the army, two training to be knights, another that's a carpenter, and the other five were still young.
One thing Arthur noticed, she was passionate about her job.
"Here, taste this."
Arthur leaned in and slurped the broth from the spoon she held up to him.
"Oh, that's good. Venison stew broth?" Arthur said, recognizing the taste.
"My secret recipe is the mulled wine," Audrey said, stirring the pot.
"I won't tell," Arthur teased.
She smacked his arm. "Anyway, to get my boys to stop stealing my honeycakes, I told them I chopped up rat's feet and mixed it into the yeast." She placed her hand on her hip, the other still stirring the pot, "One day, I come home to a pile of dead rats. My boys were anxious to help." She held up a spoon to Arthur. "That'll teach you for lying to your kids."
Arthur laughed. How could his father believe that nobles and his own life were above that of a servant, of commoners? They all had their own nobility in spirit. Audrey, hot tempered she was, cared. She made an offhand comment earlier about how Uther made her and the others tossed the leftovers to the hounds, so much food that could be given to the people, to the orphanages, so much wasted. She calmed up after that, afraid she spoke too much, but it didn't get much to get her going again.
Arthur came to learn that if he only just listened, everyone had their own ideas to create a better kingdom. Why surround himself with nobles? Why surround himself with people so he would only feel superior? Arthur would rather that he was surround by people smarter than him, people more compassionate than him, because how else would he find the inspiration and ideas to create something better? Who would know better than the common people?
Arthur snapped his head to the doorway to see Merlin. From the way Merlin stood, it was obvious he'd been there for quite some time.
Arthur realized how ridiculous he must've looked, covered in flour, smoke streaked in his hair, cheeks stained with onion tears. He blushed, as if Merlin had caught him in an intimate moment, doing what no prince should be doing, conversing with a servant, taking orders from one in a position lower than he.
He set the knife down, unsure of how to save face.
Merlin coughed into his hand, and Arthur wondered if he was hiding a laugh. "They're...they're waiting for you in the throne room."
"Right..." Arthur needed to clean himself off. He turned to Audrey, somehow feeling that it would be rude to leave without her permission.
She smacked his backside and he jumped in alarm. "Go boy, I've got things settled here."
He brushed his hands on his tunic, smearing flour on the red. "Audrey, if it's not too much, could you find someone that you trust to distribute the leftovers from the feast to those who truly need it? I trust you know where they should go."
She smiled. "I can find the perfect person, sire."
"Arthur," he corrected.
Her smile grew. "Arthur."
Arthur cleared his throat and clapped his hands together before he joined with Merlin. They headed down the corridor, up to Arthur's chambers. There was no way he was going to greet the people like this.
He gave a sideways glance at Merlin. "Get that ridiculous grin off your face, Merlin."
"What a rare sight, the Crowned Prince of Camelot slaving away in the kitchen." Merlin checked Arthur up and down. "You're not enchanted, are you?"
"I'm a knight," Arthur said. "I swore an oath to protect and help the weak."
"Ooooh, was that what that was?"
There was silence.
"You've got flour in your hair."
"Shut up, Merlin."
Chapter 4: Rain of Trust
"Sir Leon!" Arthur called out.
From the end of the corridor, Sir Leon glanced up from his conversation with two other knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedevere. He gave them a nod of dismissal. The other two departed when Arthur approached Leon.
"What it is, sire?"
As much as Arthur pressed it, Leon was still insistent on calling Arthur formally.
"Have you dispatched your selected men to the outlying villages yet?" Arthur asked.
Leon straightened himself. "Not for two days' time." He narrowed his eyes. "Have you changed your mind?"
"No, of course not. I've gathered an idea. I've talked to Jordan, our new blacksmith, he has old weapons he's willing to part with. I want you to issue new orders to these knights. They are to arm and train these civilians in how to defend themselves."
Leon's eyebrows rose. "Is that wise, sire?"
Arthur was glad Leon called him out on it. It was risky. But he'd seen the men and women of Ealdor rise up and defend their homes. He also knew the risk that he might encourage others to use their newfound skills to take up arms against the crown or even against themselves.
"How else can we expect the people to defend themselves? Let's teach them. Let's give them a fighting chance."
"What if they decide to take that chance against our knights, our men?" He lowered his voice. "What if we end up creating an army against Camelot?"
"Then we'll have to ensure we don't give them a reason to," Arthur said as he crossed his arms. He needed Leon to push this, to fight this. Arthur wasn't sure if he was being idiotic.
All his life, he'd been instilled that only knights fought, only nobles fought. Commoners who fought were barbarians.
Ealdor proved him wrong.
Leon's mouth opened, but no protests came out. It hung out for a moment before he closed it. "Are you issuing this decree?"
Arthur's heart pattered. His father would kill him if he ever found out. It'd only been two weeks. All logic, all that he'd been taught told him not to do this. Yet it felt right. "Yes," Arthur found himself saying "Dispatch any additional men you can spare to aid in the training of the civilians. Any weapons that you can depart with, tell the knights to take with them."
A slight tug pulled on the corner of Leon's mouth.
Arthur needed to know. "Do you disagree?"
Leon seemed hesitant to respond. He cleared his throat and answered, "My lord father would agree with you. If this had been issued a year ago, perhaps my brother would still be alive."
Arthur blinked, not expecting anything so personal. He remembered once Leon telling him in a drunk passage that his younger brother had been disowned from the family, Arthur never knew the fine details, but apparently Leon's brother was killed in a raid. He offered Leon a month off to grieve.
Yet Leon responded with, "No man is worth my tears."
Arthur regretted telling his knights that. It's easier to say surrounded by carnage and the massacre of battle. It's harder to agree when it's personal.
"I'll write up a decree and give it to you by the evening," Arthur said. He was doing this. He was rewriting his father's laws. Was he suicidal? Uther would probably revoke it the moment he returned. Arthur hid a smirk. By then, the damage would've already been done.
"By your leave," Leon bowed his head.
"Hold on," Arthur said. "Have you seen Merlin?"
The knight shrugged. "The tavern?"
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled as he slammed opened Merlin's bedroom door.
Boots, shirts, and armored plate collapsed to the ground around Merlin's bed. Merlin sat up on his bed and pressed an open book against his chest. He bit his upper lip in innocence.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "What were you doing?"
"Nothing," Merlin answered quickly.
Arthur placed a hand on his hip. "Were you using magic?"
Merlin tilted his head to the side. "No?"
"No?" Arthur glanced at the floor to see his boots and a brush, a hammer and his armor, with a needle and thread next to his festive blue shirt. He quickly inspected the book against Merlin's chest. He cocked a brow. "Is that the magic book?"
"It's a cookbook..."
"How have you managed to survive for so long?" Arthur cried. "You're openly using magic and you don't even have the common sense to lock the door!"
"You should have the common sense to lower your voice," Merlin said in a hushed whisper. "You don't know who could be listening."
Arthur huffed. "That's it. You're going to the stocks."
Merlin's eyes bulged. "What? Why?"
"Do you forget where you are? Just because you're friends with the prince doesn't mean it gives you a pardon." He rushed over and yanked the magic book from Merlin's hands.
"Hey! But..." Merlin's words stuttered and he stumbled out of his bed.
Merlin's shoulders slumped.
"It's for your own good. Hopefully a couple of tomatoes will knock some sense into you."
"When you're done, come see me, there's something I need to ask you."
Merlin perked up. "You could ask me now?"
"Nice try, Merlin. You're not getting out of this."
Merlin pouted (seriously, he was nearly the same age as Arthur and he still pouted like a child!) and headed for the door.
"Wait." An evil smirk formed on Arthur's features. "Now that I know you're cheating on your chores, I think I'll double your workload."
"You can't call me that."
Arthur shook his head and smiled.
Later that afternoon, Arthur was in his chambers drawing up the official work order for Sir Leon when Merlin entered, head covered with tomato grime.
Arthur twirled the quill in his fingers. "You've got a piece of tomato in your ears."
Merlin's hand immediately shot up and dug the chunk out from his inner ear lobe. He flopped it on the ground. "You called for me, sire?"
Bitter sarcasm, he loved Merlin like that. Arthur sat up in his seat. "Bolt the doors."
Merlin did just that and hobbled over to Arthur's desk. "Shall I press some chairs against the doors as well, as extra precaution?"
Arthur shook his head in amusement. "Just sit, Merlin."
Arthur thought he heard something squished when Merlin sat in the chair before Arthur's desk. He scrunched his nose up.
Merlin rose his brows, waiting.
Arthur grabbed Merlin's magic book from his stack and waved it in the air. "You need to be more careful with this."
"You need to stop barging into people's rooms, what if I were doing something more personal?" Merlin snapped back.
Arthur clamped his mouth shut at the implications. "I don't need to know what you do in your spare time, Merlin."
"What? No. Not that..."
Arthur waved that away. "Anyway..." He curled his lips inward. Should he ask this of Merlin? He knew Merlin would be more than happy to do it in a heartbeat. It's one thing to do magic in secrecy on your own. It's another thing entirely to be ordered to do it. He set the book down on his desk. "What I'm about to ask you...involves treason."
Merlin's shoulders tensed, and Arthur couldn't tell if it was anticipation or nervousness.
Arthur was still haunted by the sorcerer, Peter, consumed by the flames. He felt like a hypocrite for asking, like he was the lowest of men. He felt like he was betraying Cian and Anna.
He rubbed the top of his knuckles with his thumb and swallowed the lump in his throat. "Can you make it rain?"
Merlin's features dropped in shock. "Wh-what?"
"Could you bring rain to water Camelot's crops?" Arthur scratched the back of his neck. "I don't know how powerful you are, or the limits of your powers but..." he trailed off, not knowing where to go.
He can't believe he was here asking Merlin to use his magic. A year ago, Arthur wouldn't have done this.
"You're...asking me to use magic?" Merlin said.
"I don't know how much more clear I can get," Arthur said.
Merlin grinned. It was one of the biggest grins Arthur had seen. He wondered how Merlin must be feeling. To hide his magic his whole life and told not to use it, and here was the Crowned Prince of Camelot, asking Merlin to use his magic. It was like Arthur being told never to wield his sword and finally be given permission to.
"I don't know how, but I'll find a way, Arthur. Believe me."
Arthur tapped his knuckles against Merlin's magic book. "I'm assuming it involves this?"
Merlin had the grace to wince. "Yes?"
"I'd lock it in here, but I know, somehow, it'll end up back in your room," Arthur said. He knew Merlin well enough that he was too independent, and Arthur couldn't take that away from him. He couldn't control Merlin and force him to hide his powers and his books, and his secrets.
No. He had to trust Merlin to take care of himself.
"There's something else," Arthur pulled a drawer opened and handed Merlin his mother's book: Annals of Magic. "I read most of it, there's some spells, a passage on the elements of nature in there." Arthur traced his middle finger down along the spine. "There's also some notes in there," he graced a soft smile, "it was my mother's, and I want you to have it." He held out the book to Merlin and it felt like he was handing over a part of his heart.
Merlin's eyes widened. He shook his head. "Arthur, I can't take this..."
"Take it," Arthur said. "It'll be more of use to you than to me."
Merlin gently took it from Arthur's hands and stared at the old leather book. He placed a hand on top. "I'll take care of this, you have my word." I'll protect this piece of your heart, Merlin's eyes seemed to say.
Arthur leaned back in his chair and averted his gaze. "Uh, yeah, thank you. Let me know what you find."
Merlin stood and Arthur handed back his magic book.
"Cloak those, don't want anybody seeing them," Arthur warned.
"You're worse than Gaius." Merlin stared at him, almost as if he wanted to say something else. He headed for the door.
Arthur swallowed the lump again. "Merlin."
His manservant turned back.
"If you have any other ideas or find anything, you're more than welcome to come to me about it."
Merlin grinned once again. "I will."
Arthur watched Merlin's eyes lit up in gold as he muttered a spell and the books in his hands changed into different bindings before he left.
Arthur groaned and rubbed his face into his palms. What was he doing? He wasn't king yet, he was acting regent while his father was away. Why was he suddenly starting to change things around here? Issuing new orders and decree?
If his father knew what Arthur had just asked Merlin to do...he couldn't complete that thought. He never realized how much power and control Uther had over him.
There was a sharp twist in his gut. When Uther came back, he would undo all the little work that Arthur had done.
And Arthur knew in his heart that he wouldn't be able to sit on the sidelines and watch it all unravel. He couldn't take a step back especially from all that he's learned. He wouldn't be able to watch Uther rule with an iron-fist.
Knowing that terrified him.
Merlin loved Arthur's book on magic. It was so informative and had more details than his own magic book. Granted, the Annals of Magic wasn't exactly a spell book, but Merlin found more of the Old Religion than anywhere else.
He was shocked that Arthur had given it to him. And honored. There was so much trust and faith that Arthur held in him. He didn't know what Arthur saw, but it made Merlin want to uphold whatever belief Arthur had in him.
He flipped a page, reading a section on the elements of the earth: Water, Fire, Air, and Metal. There were no specific spells on any main subject, but it stated that those who invoke the powers of the Old Religion can invoke the powers of the Earth.
"How?" Merlin cried. He ran his fingers through his hair and then slumped his elbows on the table. He didn't want to let Arthur down.
Never in a million years did he ever expect Arthur to request for Merlin to use magic for Camelot. Sure, he's been using it to save Camelot from evil sorcerers, but using it to make Camelot stronger, this was the first he'd even done it.
He almost wanted to thank Arthur for giving him the book. Even since the incident with Nimueh, Merlin had been frightened by how easily he'd killed her, how the balance of life and death was at the tip of his fingers. The fear heightened when Arthur told him how he was born. Was that what set Uther against magic? Using the Old Religion to conceive Arthur and losing his wife in the process?
Merlin wanted to ask Gaius. Yet his throat clamped every time he tried to summon the urge to ask his mentor. He didn't want to know.
He closed the book shut and rubbed his eyes. It was past nightfall and Gaius still had not return from his rounds.
Merlin bit his lips. There was someone else he could ask.
He was still bitter. Kilgharrah was willing to sacrifice Gaius and Merlin's mother for Arthur.
"It may be naïve and foolish, but over the years, I've come to learn that if you want to know whether or not you can trust someone...trust them anyway."
Merlin sighed. Purehearted Arthur. Merlin had no idea how Arthur could have grown under Uther's wings and still maintain that pure heart.
When Merlin first met Arthur, he'd thought the prat didn't have a speck of good in him. It was only when he unpeeled the layers of masks that Arthur wore that Merlin was able to see Arthur had more good in his heart than most people.
He smiled. And it was Merlin's destiny to serve by his side.
A few minutes later, Merlin snuck down and met with Kilgharrah.
The dragon was half-asleep when Merlin approached. Kilgharrah blinked his eyes and then tilted his head mockingly. "What's this? The great warlock has come to see me once again?"
Merlin decided to just get to the point. "Arthur wants me to make it rain," he blurted out.
Kilgharrah reeled his head back, probably as surprised as Merlin was when Arthur asked that of him. "Already does Arthur wishes to work alongside his other half. Tell me, Merlin, did you ever expect this day to come so soon?"
Merlin chuckled. "I keep pinching myself expecting that it's all a dream. You should see him as regent, with his people..." He trailed off as a dark thought hit him. "And what happens to all of Arthur's progress when Uther returns?"
"Even I cannot foretell that. We must pray that Arthur will have the courage to remain true to himself."
"And if he doesn't?"
Kilgharrah didn't answer.
Merlin exhaled. "I have faith that he will. He has to."
It took all of Arthur's courage to break free from all of the masks, if Uther slammed Arthur back under them, it would take much more for Arthur to break free once again. Merlin couldn't allow that to happen. It wasn't fair for Arthur.
He wondered if anyone else ever realized that Arthur was a prisoner of Camelot, trapped by the iron bindings of Uther. Merlin felt so blind to have never seen it before.
"Is there a reason why you came to see me?" the dragon asked, snapping Merlin out of his thoughts.
"Yes...how do I make it rain? By invoking the Old Religion?"
Kilgharrah laughed. "Merlin, your magic is that of the Old Religion, you don't need a spell to make it rain. For you, all you simply need to do is ask."
Kilgharrah bowed his head. "That's correct."
"For it to rain? Is it that simple?"
"Why is it that humans always want a simple answer, and when they get one, they don't believe it? I'll never figure it out."
Merlin glared. "Right. Fine. I'll try that."
Kilgharrah narrowed his eyes. "There's something else bothering you, young warlock."
Merlin creased his brows. Just trust him, like Arthur did. "Arthur is born of magic. I can sense the magic in him, more and more with each passing day, yet what is Arthur's power?"
"Look at me. I was born of magic, and what do you know of my powers?"
"You can breathe fire?" Merlin guessed.
The dragon chuckled. "Close, Merlin. I can wield magic through the flames within me, but I cannot do what you do. Remember, Merlin, within you lies the magic of a powerful warlock. Within Arthur lies the magic of a king, only when Arthur truly steps into his role as the Once and Future King will he be able to wield the magic inside him."
Merlin shook his head. "He's already rising up into that role."
"He has to accept it in his heart. Arthur has proved he has the character to become a great king, but he'll never become the man we need him to be until he accepts that's what he wants."
Sweat dripped down Arthur's neck and down the spine of his back. His muscles burned with exertion and his heart pounded. The old wound in his shoulder ached, but it was a numb ache. It was finally healing.
He twirled his blunt sword in his hand as he beckoned Sir Kay to come forward with his other.
Arthur blocked the sword and immediately counterattacked.
Kay retreated and stumbled over his own feet to crash onto his back.
Arthur held the tip of his sword against Sir Kay's throat who held in his breath.
Arthur panted. "You have terrible footwork for such a skilled swordsmen, I thought Merlin was clumsy." He pulled back his sword and held out his hand for Kay.
Kay grabbed it and Arthur hoisted him back to his feet. Kay grumbled at himself. "I'm working on it, I promise."
Arthur knew that truth of that statement. He'd seen the testimony of Kay's conviction when the young knight was the first on the practice field and used every spare moment he had practicing his sword and footwork.
"You're thinking too much on it, Kay. You need to have more faith in yourself. You wouldn't be here if you didn't deserve it." He slapped Kay on the back shoulder and squeezed it. "I trust you with my life."
Kay blinked in surprise, he lowered his gaze and rubbed the back of his neck, his shaggy brown hair in his eyes. He knew Arthur didn't toss praise around too often.
Arthur slapped him again. He'd went through it when he first started training, there was a difference between practice and too much practice. "You're to cut your training by half, you hear me?"
"Trust me, you're an able fighter. Better than the lot over there," Arthur gestured over his shoulder to the new recruits that Sir Leon was training.
Kay chuckled then he sobered. He chewed his upper lip and Arthur wiped the sweat from his forehead, waiting for Kay to gather up his courage. The younger knight scratched the side of his cheek. "I...I want to be one of the best, sire. I want to be as well as you are. How were you able to achieve that?"
Arthur was surprised Kay was asking him this. Most knights downplayed it, asked for a certain training regimen, how to swing a sword a certain way, a certain move or footwork. It's been a while since he had a knight ask him for advice. Most of them were just scared shitless of Arthur or in awe of him, or the smaller population that hated him.
How did Arthur become such a great knight? He thought of all the training, practices, drills, sacrifices, bruises, wounds, and heartache he went through to become one of the elite knights by fifteen. He recollected his teacher, Caliburn, and remembered his advices and teachings.
Arthur smacked Kay's shoulder. "My old sword master, Caliburn, once told me, until you know yourself, you will never win any of your battles. Know your strengths, know your weakness, but most importantly," Arthur emphasized his next words so that they could sink in, "you have to have faith in yourself. A sword wields no strength unless that hand that holds it has courage."*
Kay seemed to absorb the words.
Arthur's heart panged in memory of his old teacher. Died of heat stroke of all things. He glanced up at the blue clear sky. His teacher died on a day like this, humid and hot.
He went to the armory and dropped off his sword. He was yanking his gloves off when Merlin poked his head in.
"Hmm?" Arthur began to unstrap his spaulder armor over his left shoulder.
"I figured it out."
Arthur snapped his head to the doorway to see Merlin grinning. It'd been four days since he asked Merlin to do this task and he'd rarely seen his manservant around since then. He got the sense Merlin was avoiding him and Arthur was beginning to feel guilty what he asked of Merlin. He opened his mouth to speak.
Merlin stopped him by gesturing with his head, as if telling Arthur to follow him. Which he did. To the stables.
He reeled in shock as he saw Eirian, his unicorn.
"Merlin," Arthur hissed, "what's he..."
"Don't worry, I enchanted him. Only you and I can see him for who he really is. To everyone else, he's just a horse," Merlin said, waving it away, so matter-of-factly. "Now, come on, let's go."
Arthur cocked a brow. "Did you just give me an order?"
"What? I thought you liked taking orders from lowly servants?"
"Come on," Merlin said. He snapped his fingers. "Chop chop."
Arthur climbed onto Eirian and felt the magical connection with the unicorn the moment he touched his mane. Eirian had missed him. Arthur vowed to take him out more often.
"Alright, Eirian, I don't know where the court idiot is taking us," Arthur said. "But prepare yourself."
They rode an hour out from the castle. Arthur took the time to enjoy the ride, he had a council meeting later, yet he found he didn't care if he missed it. Whimsical thoughts of escaping, riding out and seeing where the world would take him took over his mind. Maybe he'd buy some land and become a farmer.
He stared at Merlin's back. Would Merlin escape with him?
Sometimes he felt that Merlin had a great destiny. His manservant cared so much about people, no matter what. Merlin was smart, quick to read others and see past the bullshit in most situation. Sometimes Arthur found himself wondering why Merlin stayed in Camelot. He felt like Merlin was meant for greater things. He scoffed inwardly. Merlin should've been born into royalty, not Arthur.
Merlin decided to stop his horse in the thickest of the forest, the leaves and branches blocking out most of the afternoon's sun.
Merlin led his horse and Arthur guided Eirian to a small stream before them.
Merlin rubbed his hands together anxiously. His gaze flickered up to Arthur. "Are you sure about this?"
Why lead us all the way out here only to have the doubts stop you now? "Should I be asking you that question?" Arthur pressed. "You don't have to do this, Merlin."
"I want to!" Merlin quickly said. He lowered his gaze and shifted on his feet. "The last time I did magic and caused it to rain..." He trailed off and pressed his lips together, uncertain. Merlin turned to the side. "I can't stop replaying that scene."
Arthur exhaled. "Merlin, I can't help you if you don't let me. You've listened to me and shouldered my burdens as crowned prince. Let me do the same for you and help shouldered your burdens as a warlock. I mean..." Arthur lowered his voice to a whisper, "aren't we equals?"
Merlin's head whipped toward him. "You believe that?"
Arthur's heart panged. "Just...trust me, Merlin. Give me that chance, at least."
Merlin's eyes welled. He turned his back on Arthur and stared at the horse and unicorn, drinking from the stream.
So, that's it, then? If Merlin couldn't trust Arthur... was Arthur not worthy in Merlin's eyes? Was he only viewed as a pathetic prince who constantly needed help?
"You know of Nimueh, correct?" Merlin asked, softly.
Arthur steadied himself. Was this it? Was Merlin finally going to trust him with everything? "Father mentioned her in passing once. I think she was the one that tried to prevent me from getting the Mortaeus flower... was she a sorcerer?"
"She was a high priestess of the Old Religion, I went to her when you were bit by the Questing Beast."
Arthur swallowed, his suspicions were to be proven right.
"You were bitten by a creature of the Old Religion, and only the Old Religion could save you. So, I bargained my life for yours."
"What? Merlin? Your life is worth more than mine!"
"Everything worked out, Arthur..." Merlin said, he fidgeted with the handkerchief around his neck. "She tricked me and tried to take my mother's life instead, and then Gaius'." He turned to Arthur, face stricken. "I invoked the power of the Old Religion and her life was the price to save yours."
How many people died so that I could live? Arthur wondered. Was it worth my mother's? This Nimueh? Is my life so easily bargained for Hunith's, Gaius', or even Merlin's.
Arthur knew the answer to that.
No. Their lives were worth much more than his existence.
Merlin rubbed his arms. "The things I'm willing to do for you, Arthur, it scares me sometimes."
It scares me too, Merlin.
"Anyway, I pulled lightning from the sky and killed Nimueh with such ease, and I didn't even care. I was glad," Merlin shook his head at himself, "and just after I told her I didn't want to join with cruel forces of magic. I'm just like them, Arthur. I'm no different than the sorcerers you and your father hunt. I killed Nimueh out of revenge for killing Gaius."
Merlin's curled his fingers into fists and his arms trembled.
"I have the power to bargain with people's lives. I can chose who lives and who dies."
The power of a king, Arthur realized. They weren't really that much different from one another, were they?
"I can't speak for all sorcerers," Arthur said, "but you're not like the revenge-seeking ones who storm into Camelot. You're Merlin, idiotic, clumsy Merlin."
Merlin's brows creased and he seemed to shrink back into himself.
Arthur gripped the edge of both Merlin's shoulders and felt the spark of their magical connection ignite. "You saved my life, over and over. You are willing to throw yourself in the crossfire for anybody. Gods, Merlin, you're human. Nobody's perfect." Arthur swallowed. "I've done things, unspeakable things, I've abused my own power over life and death. You won't. You're much stronger than I, Merlin. And you have a big heart. You won't succumb to revenge again."
He smiled at Merlin. "You believe that I'll be a great king. Well, I believe you'll be the greatest sorcerer this world has ever seen. An idiotic, clumsy, big-hearted sorcerer."
Merlin's body trembled.
"And I'm willing to aid you from your side until the day you die."
"You stole that line from me," Merlin complained.
Merlin seemed to sober up, and he gave Arthur a strong, intense stare. "There's something about you, Arthur."
"Still haven't quite fathomed me out?" Arthur teased.
"Still haven't quite put my finger on it," Merlin agreed.
The connection between them grew, and Arthur felt a strong emotion rolling off Merlin. Trust...Arthur's knees nearly buckled. Merlin finally trusted him.
"I have to invoke the powers of the Old Religion to make it rain," Merlin said.
Arthur dropped his hands from Merlin's shoulders, the connection dispersed. "You don't need to."
"I want to. You don't need to worry, there's no need for a balance or price. We simply just need to ask."
"Ask?" That's it?
Merlin gave a nod and stepped away from Arthur. He glanced up to the sky and held out his palm, determined. He yelled out an incantation that Arthur couldn't quite decipher, yet it sounded like a plea one would make before a god or goddess.
Gold shimmered across Merlin's eyes.
Clouds rolled in.
Arthur gaped. "Merlin?"
Merlin lowered his arm and smiled at Arthur. "I've also fertilized the soil of the land. It will ensure that the crops grow."
Sprinkles of rain dripped upon them.
Arthur touched the wet drops on his face. Rain. It was rain. Just how powerful was Merlin?
Suddenly, the rain increased and poured down, drenching the both of them.
"You did it!" Arthur cheered.
Arthur gripped Merlin's shoulders and spun him around like a mad fool. "You did it!"
Merlin joined in with Arthur's laughter.
The rain pattered loudly above the two figures hovered in the dark corner of Camelot's castle.
The servant, Lee, cast a quick glance around. "It was a success. I managed to send three ravens out to Uther."
"Good," Fyn Hans said, clasping his hands together.
"Sire, I don't understand, all the messages you've sent, you've praised Arthur. How will that turn Uther against him?"
A part of Fyn's upper lip twitched upward. "Think, Lee, what terrifies you more? A successor lined with faults? Or a successor lined with more caliber than you possess?" He waited a beat for Lee to comprehend his words. "Which messages did you send?"
"Arthur ordering his knights to train civilians' swordsmanship and other weaponry."
"Arthur winning the admiration and love of the people, how he allows them to address him as an equal."
Fyn snorted at that, not understanding why Arthur would scoop so low, especially a man of his high nobility.
Lee continued, "I also added a message of Arthur gambling with his knights. I'm sorry, sire, I understand you wanted to praise..."
"No, that's fine. Too much commendation is suspicious. You did well, Lee. Unfortunately, we need more. This isn't enough."
"I've noticed that Arthur has been spending more time with Merlin, and they've been sneaking off."
"Lover's affair?" Fyn wondered. "Or are they up to something?"
"Should I follow them?"
Fyn smirked. "I knew I picked you for a reason. Stay on them, we're going to need something more concrete, something much bigger that will turn Uther over."
"I've noticed Uther lacks all reason whenever it involves magic," Lee said.
Fyn grabbed Lee's cheeks and squished them together. "You're brilliant. But it has to tie back to Arthur. And we have to make certain it proves Arthur is not under any enchantment, dumb fool's been under a few of those in the past."
Fyn despised Arthur. He didn't understand how a man so weak, who thought himself equal to the people, deserved to be the future king. He was so close to manipulating Arthur by convincing him to bully servants. It'd worked. For a time.
If Arthur became king, Fyn knew he had to treat all those below him with respect. He was better than that. He was of noble and pure blood, he would not be on equal grounds with a commoner.
It was a long shot, but if he became king...oh the things he would do. He would be better than Uther. He would be worthy of the crown.
"I'll find concrete evidence, sire," Lee promised. The man was so devoted to him. All because Fyn saved his measly little life back then. If only Lee knew Fyn was responsible for Lee's near death experience. People were so easily manipulated when they believed they owned you something.
"Good man, Lee." Fyn smirked cruelly.
He would be responsible for Arthur's downfall. And Fyn will rise to the top to create a better Camelot.
It rained for a week.
This morning when Arthur woke, he swore he'd never seen Camelot look so green. It was like magic was sparkling off every nature-like thing, the leaves, the grass, the sky, the dirt, the flowers, everything.
It was one of the most beautiful sights Arthur's ever seen.
There were reports of crops beginning to grow, and that there was a chance for food storage for winter.
He smiled as he continued to gaze out the window, embracing the comfort of the sun's warmth. It was going to be a good day.
That thought immediately plummeted the second he heard banging on the door.
"Sire?" It was Sir Leon. "Are you awake?"
Despite being half-dressed, Arthur barged to the door and yanked it opened.
Ash smeared the side of Leon's face. "There's a fire in the east wing. We've managed to control it yet..."
"Show me the way," Arthur ordered.
A crowd had huddled around the site that the knights had warded off.
"What happened here?" Arthur asked as Leon led him through. He inspected the damage inside the turret. Not too bad. There was no structural damage, the stones in the walls were smeared with ash and smoke. He noticed two of his guards looked pale and stricken.
"Fred and William were on duty. A fire broke out. Luckily, a breath of wind took it out."
Merlin. Arthur searched around for him. "What started it?"
Leon paused before he answered. "The guards posted here on duty were a bit hesitant to say, sire."
Arthur approached Fred and William. He forced his knights to push the crowd at a further distance. "What happened?"
Fred and William shared a terrified look.
"Look, honesty goes a long way. If this was an accident, I assure you, there will be no punishment."
"It's just...we're not sure what we saw," Fred began.
William shivered and crossed his arms.
"What is it?" Arthur pressed. Nervousness pricked his insides.
"A shadow..." William muttered.
Fred's eyes were wide with fear. "A walking shadow, covered in flames."
"It was moaning out a name..." William added. His teeth chattered.
"Yours, sire," Fred said, forehead creased.
That's not good. Arthur pressed his knuckle against his chin. "And where did this flame-covered shadow go?"
"Disappeared with the wind, sire," Fred answered.
"No," William shook his head. "No...the wind took out the flames, but the shadow still walked. It still cried for you. It's coming for you, sire,"
It took time and lots of reassurance that Arthur would be okay before he left William and Fred to find Merlin.
He burst through Gaius' doors to find Merlin and Gaius at the bench, flipping through books.
Gaius stiffened at Arthur's arrival. He turned to him. "Sire?"
"Sorcery?" Arthur asked as he strolled over.
"Most likely, yet I've never seen the likes of this," Gaius said.
Arthur held his chin up high. "What can I do to help?"
Gaius sputtered, "Well, ahem, there's really not much you can do..."
Merlin glanced up from the books as if finally realizing Arthur was in the room. "Did the guards say anything about the shadow?"
"Just that it moaned my name," Arthur answered. He crossed his arms. "Did you use the same type of windstorm you used back in Ealdor to get rid of the flames?"
"Don't worry, they didn't see me."
"I was going to say, quick thinking."
Merlin scoffed. "I nearly caused it to rain inside the castle."
It was then Arthur realized that Gaius had gone very pale and glanced back and forth between the two of them.
"Merlin?" Arthur said, slowly. "Did you tell Gaius I know of your magic?"
Merlin winced and forced a smile at Gaius. "Arthur knows about my magic?"
"You didn't tell him?" Arthur cried.
"He was busy, I didn't want to add any extra burden on him."
"Me knowing is a burden?" Arthur stuck his finger in Merlin's face, "I take offense to that."
"Oh, don't be a dollophead."
Gaius slumped onto the bench seat, clutching his chest.
Arthur steadied him. "Whoa. Gaius..."
Gaius took a deep breath and stared at Arthur, uncertain.
"Gaius, I won't tell my father. Merlin's secret, your secret, is safe with me."
Gaius' brows lifted. "Easy to say when he's not here, what upon his return? Who will you chose then? I know you, Arthur, you're a very loyal man."
You don't know how lucky you are, Merlin, to have someone who cares so much for you like this. I know my own father loves me, but I don't even know the depths of his loyalty to me.
"Gaius," Merlin started.
Arthur held up a hand to stop Merlin. He gave Gaius a soft smile. "I chose Merlin over my father long before I truly knew Merlin had magic."
The day Arthur went against his father's orders to retrieve the antidote for Merlin, that was the day Arthur found out where his true loyalty laid. He covered it up by his constant defense of his father...but he could no longer deny his heart.
Gaius' breathing returned to normal and he smiled, pleased, proud, a look Arthur always yearned from Uther. He'd take it from Gaius, the man he viewed as an uncle. "You'd protect Merlin?"
"With my life," Arthur said.
Gaius shuddered in relief. He grasped one of Arthur's hands. "Did you know that you were a very sensitive child growing up?"
Arthur blinked in surprise.
"You were four at the time, you found a dead bird and you carried its body to your father in tears, asking if you could give it a proper burial." Gaius' eyes grew sad. "I watched as Uther snuffed out every bit of innocence and compassion from you. By the time you were six, you had no childlike innocence left." Tears welled in the man's eyes. "I thought I'd failed you. I was afraid for the day when your protective arrogant facade would turn your heart into steel." A soft smile graced Gaius' features. "I'm glad to see your compassion won over Uther's hardship against you."
A lump formed in Arthur's throat. How do you respond to that?
"Er, he's still a prat," Merlin said.
Thank the gods for Merlin. "I take it back," Arthur said to him. "I don't care what happens to you."
"You need me, Arthur. Who else would help you dress in the morning?"
"I can dress myself..." then he glanced down at his trousers, noticed he was only wearing his socks, and lack of shirt. He glanced at the heavens and sighed. "Gaius, please be the adult here and tell me what's happening."
"You're not wearing a shirt, sire," Gaius said. "Nor boots."
Arthur glared down at Gaius. He took it back. Screw this whole equality thing. No respect was what he got.
A slight smirk tugged the corner of Gaius's lips before he smacked his hand against a page of a book on the table. "I suspected it to be a Wraith of some short, but Merlin expressed heavily that it had no physical body."
Merlin gave a grim nod. "It looked like someone took a shadow and gave it free will," he placed his elbow on the table, "are you sure there are no spells that can that?"
"The shadow had a will," Gaius said as he directed his gaze upon the Crowned Prince, "Arthur."
"My knights stated this shadow was covered in flames, is there a specific reason for that?" Arthur asked.
"Sorcerers are burned on the pyre, could be an act of symbolism," Gaius said.
"Fred and William almost died because this thing was looking for me," Arthur said as he folded his arms. "I'm willing to be bait to lure this creature out."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Of course you are."
Arthur glared at his manservant before he took a seat next to Gaius.
"Could be a spiritual entity," Gaius suggested as he stroked his chin.
Arthur glanced over the pages and read a couple sentences that Gaius' book was opened at. "There was something in my mother's book." Arthur rubbed his lip. What was it? He just read over it recently. "Shadow is the absence of light..." he muttered out.
"And you call me the idiot?" Merlin quipped.
Arthur snapped his fingers. "It's the effect of an illumination being blocked."
Gaius perked up. "A spiritual summoning gone wrong."
Arthur and Merlin both leaned back as Gaius lunged forward and rummaged through his stockade of books. He pulled a smaller one out with black bindings. "A Shade is a soul that is resurrected and pulled from its resting place, they are usually under the necromancer's powers. A Shadow is an attempt to pull a soul from its resting place, but it's blocked by the Spirit World, so you're left with the shadow of the necromancer's intentions, still a terrible creature..." his eyes went over to Merlin, "that are resistance from any attacks by magic."
"Any?" Merlin pursed his lips.
Gaius' brows furrowed as he found the page he was seeking. "Shadows are only stopped if they achieve their objective, or when the caster is killed."
Perfect. The Shadow is only stopped if I'm or the sorcerer is dead. There must be another way.
"Any thoughts on who the caster may be?" Gaius asked.
Merlin sighed heavily. "One of the many sorcerers dying to seek revenge on Camelot?"
Gaius set his lips in a thin line, unamused. He cocked a brow at Arthur. "Have you received any death threats recently?"
Arthur went to say no, but it caught in his throat.
"I will kill you."
"The boy disappears for hours at a time."
His heart twisted tightly. No. It's not Cian. It can't be. Not that little boy.
Though, how could Arthur deny the desperation of revenge in the kid's eyes that day? Who was the one that set the flames to consume Peter's body? His throat went dry. How could he blame the boy? Arthur deserved to die.
"Arthur?" Merlin pressed.
Arthur slowly rose to his feet. "I know who it is."
Merlin scoffed like it was the simplest thing in the world. "Then let's go stop them."
"We can't." He locked eyes with Merlin. "I won't let you."
Merlin's features molded in confusion.
He turned his back to them, about to leave the room when Merlin stopped him.
"We're in this together, Arthur," he cried out. "You asked me to trust you, let me ask the same from you."
Arthur closed his eyes in defeat. Merlin was right. He faced Merlin. "Cian. Peter's son. The sorcerer I..." his voice cracked.
Gaius winced. "Oh dear."
"Are you sure there's no other way to stop this creature?" Arthur demanded.
"The caster may be able to call off the spell," he said.
A commotion stirred outside of Gaius' chambers. There were shouts and screams.
Arthur nearly slipped on the floor as he rushed out with Merlin, who crashed into him as Arthur slammed to a halt in the center of the corridor.
At the end was a faceless shadow figure, flames licking the outline of its person. It turned its head toward Arthur, and even though it didn't have a mouth, it moaned out: "Ar-thur."
Merlin flicked his wrist up and Arthur grabbed his arm.
Too many witnesses. Knights hesitantly poked theirs swords at the shadow, yet kept their distance. Servants and members of the court pressed themselves against the walls, in fear.
"If you want me," Arthur dared as he raised up his hand and beckoned the creature, "come and claim me."
Arthur half-expected the creature to walk over to him, so it was a shock when in a blink, the Shadow was right in front of him.
"Arthur!" Merlin pushed him against the wall.
The flames barely missed him.
Arthur's heart pounded. No!
Sir Kay bounded protectively in front of Arthur, the light from the flames glinted off his armor and blade.
A whirl of wind spun around them.
Merlin! Arthur wanted to chide. Don't reveal yourself.
The shadow flickered in and out of existence.
Kay swung his sword against the shadow. The blade swished across the creature's mid-torso. The shadow shot its hand out and touched Kay's chest.
Kay went stiff and fell back.
Arthur caught him. "Kay!" he cried. He glared up at the figure who reached out for them. Arthur turned and used his body to shield Kay.
A flash of lightning zapped down and the shadow flickered in and out once more before it faded. Arthur's gut told him the creature would be back.
Merlin was suddenly at Arthur's side, helping him adjust with Kay's weight.
"Merlin..." he gritted through his teeth.
"Saved your hide," Merlin whispered harshly. "Besides, no one saw me."
Arthur returned his attention to Kay. The younger knight's expression was twisted in fear. His heart still beat in his chest. Oh, thank the gods. "Gaius!" he called.
He and Merlin lifted Kay's body up and carried him into Gaius' chambers. They laid him on a cot.
Gaius hovered over the knight, cream hair against in his eyes.
"He'll be okay, won't he?" Arthur asked.
"As long as that shadow walks, his life force will drain," Gaius said, laying a hand on Kay's forehead. "Merlin, cloth and a bucket of warm water."
Merlin set out to do said tasks. A few of the knights gathered outside the door, each with their own expression of concern.
Arthur straightened himself. "I'm going to find that sorcerer," he said in snarl.
"Arthur..." Merlin said. He kept his voice low, so the others wouldn't hear. "That shadow is still out there, you're not going alone."
When could he ever? He was Prince of Camelot. His band of knights followed him everywhere, into battle, during investigations, training, everywhere.
Arthur didn't need his knights.
He needed his sorcerer and friend.
Arthur waited and Merlin rushed to his side after he gave what Gaius needed. He brushed his hands and glanced up in anticipation at Arthur.
Merlin didn't even blink, he was ready to dive in, head first with Arthur. He had to be one of the bravest man Arthur ever knew.
"Are you going to confront the sorcerer like that?" Merlin pointed down at Arthur's attire.
"I look less intimidating this way," Arthur shot back.
"Hmmmm...I don't know. Your bulging muscles says otherwise."
Arthur cocked a brow. "You impressed with what you see?"
"Whoa," Merlin held up his hands, "don't need that ego of yours to get any bigger."
Arthur chuckled. His nervousness faded. Merlin had that effect on him before Arthur charged out into the unknown. He jerked his head to the door. "Come on," Arthur said.
Merlin followed him out of the physician's chambers and out into the corridor to find Cian.
A kid sorcerer...
Arthur hoped they found some other alternative to defeating the Shadow, because if it came down to the two choices Gaius told them of, well, there was only one choice.
Arthur would give his life.
Chapter 5: Take Me Up
The dream was the same every night.
Morgana would find herself walking through the courtyards of Camelot, except that it wasn't. Instead of an open and empty courtyard, she walked through a lush, vibrant garden.
It sparkled with life, not where sunlight would glint off it, it literally shined and glistened with more than the sun's rays itself. She felt safe and comfort here, which was strange because Camelot only brought her fear.
She ducked under an apple blossom tree, the petals danced down around her, some landed in her lush, black hair.
She beamed as she found the man she was looking for: Arthur.
He looked nothing like the Arthur she was used to. A wreath crown decorated with gold leaves adored his hair. A white cape draped over his chainmail, his usual red gambeson underneath. His skin was luminous, like the garden around him, the very magic radiating from his core. He was rubbing the top of his knuckles, muttering to himself.
Morgana hid a smile. "You can easily face down men in combat, yet your stomach is in knots over this?"
Arthur dropped his hands, a wave of relief flooded his features. "Morgana." He gestured over her. "You look radiant."
"Today isn't about me," she quipped. She flattened the creases in her long-sleeve black dress. "Are you certain you want me to be performing this ceremony?"
"Morgana," he grabbed both of her hands and pressed them against his chest, "you're the High Priestess, and we wouldn't have anyone else."
"That's what Merlin said."
Arthur perked. "You saw Merlin? How is he?"
Morgana laughed. "Handling this better than you."
He cast her a playful glare. It dropped as he averted his gaze, biting his lower lip.
She squeezed his hands. "Arthur...you're high ruler of Albion, you've united the lands. It's time for you to unite your heart."
Red tinted his cheeks. "Look at you, Morgana, your love has turned you into a sappy fool like me."
She gently smacked his shoulder. "I can still turn you into a toad."
He chuckled and then took a deep breath. "I'm glad you're here with me, Morgana."
"I couldn't miss this. You two had a long, difficult road to get here."
Arthur exhaled, trying to calm his nervousness.
Morgana yanked at his hand. "Let's get you married."
She jerked awake to find herself back in her tent, with Gwen hovering over her.
"I'm sorry to wake you, my lady," she said in a whisper.
Morgana shook her head as she slowly raised herself to a sitting position. Ever since she left Camelot, she hadn't had a single nightmare. Instead, every night, she had that dream. The dream of magical Arthur, a great King and a flourishing Camelot.
"I hope your dreams are light."
She remembered the hug Arthur gave her before she left, the strong and warm protectiveness pouring into her. She thought she felt something, yet she wasn't sure.
Was Arthur magic like her?
Regardless whether he was or not, her dream proved that Arthur accepted her and that Camelot was no longer a place to fear.
Was that the future?
She could only hope so.
Morgana cleared her throat. "What is it, Gwen?"
"I noticed more ravens came into the night, I managed to sneak in and get this." Her maidservant held up a tiny scroll of paper.
Morgana took it. Uther had been acting rather strange during this tour. At first, she just decided it was because Uther was far from home and out of his comfort zone. Then she astutely became aware that Uther's shifted whether Arthur was mentioned.
Many of the lords they visited had nothing but praise to sing of Arthur. Most of their sons had trained under Arthur and mentioned to Uther how they would happily follow Arthur when he became king.
The first couple weeks, Uther accepted the compliment of his son with a smile and proud look. Somehow it morphed into one of disdain and fear. Morgana lived with fear for so long, she could easily spot it.
A few of the suitors Uther lined up for her were the ones who had nothing to say about Arthur, or held a grudge against him.
Morgana threatened every one of them to refuse her hand, and mostly to ensure the safety of Arthur. They may not be bound by blood, but Arthur was her brother by heart. She would do everything it took to protect him.
She unrolled the scroll and Gwen held the candlestick closer so Morgana could decipher the words clearly.
It read: "Arthur has distributed leftover food to those in need. He has ensure this rule to be followed in the future."
Morgana blinked. Arthur was distributing food?
"Arthur's already issued a decree for knights to train civilians in the arts of swordsmanship. There's a few others, but I didn't quite catch them."
Morgana read the words again. "This handwriting is familiar."
"Lee, Fyn's manservant," Gwen answered.
"Fyn," Morgana growled. "He's always had it out for Arthur. I've always deduced him to a jealous sniveling little worm. You saying he actually has bite?"
"He could be responsible for Uther's moods."
"Uther's growing afraid of Arthur," Morgana said. If that fear only matched the fear Uther had for magic...she couldn't complete that thought. "Where is he?"
"On a hunting trip," Gwen said.
Hunting? Things were bad.
"We're near Kernahall. Lord Balish will greet us in a day's time."
Balish. Morgana resisted the urge to groan. That man would marry Arthur if he could. He'd been boasting about her brother since he was a kid. It didn't help that he used to be a childhood friend of Ygraine.
"Something's not right, Gwen. We need to change Uther's mood, and we need to do it now," Morgana said, clutching the scroll in her hands.
A strange feeling stirred in her chest. Magic.
She will not allow anything to happen to Arthur, not from Uther.
Under Uther's reign, she was a cowered dog that snapped back.
Under Arthur's reign, she was free and happy.
She believed in that future.
She believed in Arthur.
It was nearing nightfall.
Arthur and Merlin had been attacked at least four more times during the course of the search. Well, mainly Arthur.
Apparently, Merlin's lightning set the Shadow away for the time being. They went to Ben and Donna's home, and only found Anna. They told Arthur that Cian did come home that night, but disappeared early that morning. Ben couldn't find him anywhere.
Arthur reassured them everything was okay, because really, how was reassuring was it to tell them that their new kid summoned a magical creature set to murder Arthur?
They searched Peter's old home and the deceased man's crop field, tall and overgrown. No trace of the boy. Arthur tugged at the chainmail he changed into, the weight of it now beginning to get to him.
They ventured off into the woods nearby the home.
"This is ridiculous. It shouldn't be this hard to find him!" Arthur yelled, kicking a scruff of dirt.
"We'll find him, Arthur," Merlin said.
Arthur wondered how it was possible that his manservant hadn't lost it yet. "Every second we waste brings Kay closer to death. I can't let him down."
Merlin sharply inhaled next to him. "Arthur."
Arthur snapped his head in Merlin's direction.
Cian stood up on a slight hill, the leaves of the trees hovered over him. Arthur's stomach lurched. Cian was flanked by five Shadows, the one on his right lined in flames.
I created this, Arthur realized.
A cold wind brushed against Arthur's back and he glanced over his shoulder to see five more Shadows.
He immediately regretted bringing Merlin along.
Yet next to him didn't stand his clumsy manservant. It was a warlock, fierce determination in his eyes as he stared Cian down. Arthur knew in that moment, Merlin's top priority was to keep Arthur safe.
"Stand down for a second, okay, Merlin? Let me try and reason with him," Arthur said.
Merlin gave no inclination that he heard him, he continued to stare Cian down.
Arthur stepped in front of Merlin, holding his hands up in a placating manner. "Cian, call off your spell."
Cian's fists shook at his side. "Why? You didn't call off the pyre."
Arthur swallowed. Fair enough. "And what do you hope to accomplish with this?" he asked as he waved his finger at the shadows around them. "My death? Then what?"
Cian's brows furrowed.
"After you kill me, what will you do next?"
"I'll kill the king, and every last person in Camelot!"
"Even your sister, Anna?" Arthur said softly.
There was a slight crack in Cian's angry features.
Arthur knew he had to keep pressing. "Your sister loves you, she's worried about you. She's confused why you're not with her."
"I have to do this," Cian said.
"For what? Whatever you do, it won't bring your father back. These shadows, especially that one right there," Arthur pointed to the flame-covered one, "are they your father?"
"You don't understand, he died for me. I have to avenge him!"
Arthur reeled his head back. "For you?"
"Are you blind? He wasn't the sorcerer, I was! I wanted to help him out, it was only our oats, they sell better...and he lied for me!" His lips quivered. "Keep it a secret, don't let anybody find out...and I didn't. Until..." Tears welled in Cian's eyes.
Arthur's eyes mirrored Cian's. How many families have my father and I broken? How many Cians did we create? Is this how Merlin would've felt if Hunith died to protect his secret?
A quick glance to the sorcerer behind to him proved that. Merlin's demeanor had changed, to one of understanding and hurt.
Arthur took a few cautious steps forward. "Your father loved you, even in the end, he wanted to ensure you and Anna were safe."
Tears spilled from Cian's eyes. "You killed him."
"I know," Arthur said, his voice wavering, "and I can't bring him back." He lowered himself onto his knees. "I thought I had no choice, but I did and I chose wrong. For that, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."
Cian's nose scrunched and he shook his head. "No, you're not. You're lying."
There's nothing I can do to make this right. I'm sorry, Merlin.
"If it gives you sense of peace, then I offer you my life," Arthur said.
"I will take it!" Cian growled. "Kill Arthur!"
The Shadows zipped toward him. Lightning zapped down all around them, and they momentarily disappeared. Thunder clapped so loud that Arthur could feel it in his chest.
He turned to Merlin, his friend's eyes gold. How powerful was Merlin? "You clotpole," Merlin growled at Arthur.
Cian gapped. "You...you're..."
"I'm a sorcerer, and I was just like you, Cian. I had to keep my magic a secret, my mother always pressured me to." Merlin walked up and stood by Arthur's side, pulling him to his feet. "And Arthur accepted me. He accepts you. You won't have to hide for much longer."
Cian blinked, confused. "I..."
A movement caught Arthur's attention and he yanked Merlin back by the scruff of his shirt.
The Shadow covered in flames roared at them.
Merlin held up his hand and lightning zapped the Shadow away, only for the other nine to suddenly appear.
"We can't ward them off like this forever," Arthur snapped.
He could sense that Merlin's strength was draining.
"Cian!" Merlin yelled. "Call them off!"
Rain began to pour down around them.
Cian stood on the hill, hyperventilating.
Lightning flashed and Arthur tried to shake the blurred light from his vision.
Merlin dropped to his knees with a pant.
"Merlin!" Arthur dragged him up.
Cian screamed, he was scrambling down the hill, chased by the flame-shadow, its hand reaching out for the kid. Cian tripped and fell, face-first.
"Cian," Arthur scrambled and pulled the kid against his chest as the Shadow reached out for Cian. Flames burned through his chainmail and a hot scorching pain filled Arthur's left shoulder. He screamed and rolled away, locking Cian in with his arms.
The rain immediately cooled the wound.
Lightning flashed again.
Cian's eyes stared up at Arthur. "You...you're not..."
"You're lucky you're born of magic," Merlin chided Arthur. "It shielded you from that Shadow. For now."
Arthur winced at the pain. "Luckily."
Merlin knelt down toward them. "Cian, you must call off the spell."
"I don't know how..." Unaltered fear brimmed his eyes.
Merlin growled in frustration. "What was your intention when you set the spell?"
Cian had the grace to look ashamed. "For Prince Arthur to suffer as my father did."
Perfect, that meant Arthur had to burn to death.
One by one, the Shadows returned, surrounding them.
"They're turning against you, Cian," Merlin said. "They sense your heart, you're no longer committed to your intention."
"No..." Cian whined.
"You're not going to die," Arthur said through gritted teeth. He hissed as he tried to move.
Merlin pressed a hand against Arthur's wound and muttered an incantation. A cleansing coolness spread and Arthur's shoulder felt good as new.
Merlin sagged forward.
Arthur caught him. Merlin couldn't keep this up. At this rate, all three of them were going to die. "Take Cian," Arthur ordered. "Get him out of here!"
Merlin's eyes blazed in anger. "It's my destiny to protect you, Arthur." He straightened himself and held out a hand.
"You can't stop them!" Arthur yelled.
Wind whipped and tightened in around Arthur and Cian.
When Arthur blinked next, he was up on the hill with Cian as the Shadows charged for Merlin. All ten, the flamed-one missing its fire.
"NO!" Arthur yelled.
Merlin graced Arthur a soft smile before the Shadows reached him. He stiffened at the impact and his eyes locked in endless stare as he collapsed onto his back.
Knives of grief stabbed throughout Arthur's chest as it constricted and he couldn't draw in a breath. "No," he whispered.
"Run, you clotpole!" he heard Merlin's voice in his head.
He picked up Cian and ran, his heart squeezing with each step he took away from Merlin. That idiotic, lovable...he can't be dead. He can't be.
Branches reached out for him and a few caught in his chainmail and snapped. His sword hung uselessly by his side. What good was it if it couldn't protect Merlin?
The rain came harder and Arthur could barely make out where he was going. He stepped on a log and slipped.
He landed on his back, the air whooshed from his lungs. He groaned as Cian scrambled off him, and Arthur rose onto his elbows.
In a blink, all ten Shadows advanced on them.
"Run, Cian!" Arthur barked. "Go!"
"GO!" Arthur yelled.
Cian took off.
This is it. Looks like I'll be joining you, Merlin. I'm sorry.
A heavy object poked at the palm of Arthur's hands. He quickly glanced down to see a gold pommel and hilt sticking out of a puddle. Was that a sword?
"Draw it, Arthur," he heard Merlin cry.
A blue orb of light hovered in front of Arthur. That light...
"Ar-thur..." the Shadows moaned.
"Pull it free!"
In one fluid motion, Arthur yanked the golden-hilt sword from the ground, the blade slipping out of the rain puddle with ease, as he rose to his feet. Blue light glinted off the gold embedded in the blade as the magical connection from the sword sparked up Arthur's arm.
Arthur swung it against the first Shadow. It exploded in a puff of flames. He dodged the other and slammed the blade against another's torso.
This sword, it felt like it was a missing piece of Arthur that finally rejoined with him. It was perfect in his hands, perfect balance, agility, it was a part of him. It sung sweetly as the blade whistled through the air onto his oncoming enemies. One and by one, he struck them down.
He panted as he stared down the last Shadow, the rain smoldering the flames that outlined its body. It held out its hand and a flamed-blade sword formed in its palm.
"Ar-thur," it called out.
"Shut. Up," Arthur snarled. He drew his sword back and the blade lit up in flames. Arthur held it out in surprise.
"Fight with me," the sword called out.
The Shadow charged for him and Arthur swung his sword.
Both swords clanged against one another, sparks flew and the flames withered against the rain and wind.
The Shadow snarled in Arthur's face.
Arthur's lips curled up in disgust. He leapt back and whipped his sword against the Shadow. They danced and parried throughout the forest, nearly tripping and stumbling over rocks and bushes.
The blue ball of light continued to hover nearby Arthur, giving him light in the growing darkness. Not that the Shadow and swords didn't.
Arthur stumbled over a rock and the Shadow immediately went in for the opening. Arthur spun to his side and thrust the blade of the sword through the Shadow's chest, the flames flickered near Arthur's face.
The Shadow threw its head back with a roar before it dissolved and crumbled into the blue-glowing spirit of Peter.
Arthur immediately pulled his sword free, the blade no longer in flames.
"Peter," Arthur gasped.
A smile graced Peter's features. "Thank you for choosing to protect him," Peter said. "Tell them I love them with all my heart."
His spirit dissolved with the rain.
Arthur heaved and panted. He glanced down at his sword. One edge of the blade read: Take Me Up, and the other: Cast Me Away. How did he get this sword? He jolted. Merlin!
The blue orb of light guided him back to where he left his manservant, panic and fear lining his heart. At the bottom of the hill, Merlin still laid there, frozen, eyes locked to the heavens.
The orb next to him faded.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried. He stormed to Merlin's side and dropped his new sword on the ground next to them. He grabbed Merlin and pulled his body onto his lap.
Merlin's eyes stared at him, unmoving.
"No..." Arthur dropped his head onto Merlin's chest, a sob caught in his throat. "No..." Tears spilled from his eyes and he gripped Merlin's shirt. "You can't...I need you. I can't do anything without you..."
A harsh inhale startled Arthur. He shot his head up and gazed into Merlin's blinking eyes.
His manservant hacked and coughed. His teeth chattered. "You can't get rid of me that easily..."
"Merlin!" Arthur pulled Merlin into a bone-crushing hug, relief flooding him. He dared not let go, for fear he would lose Merlin again. "Don't ever do that again."
"Save your worthless hide? Never again, I promise," Merlin said between coughs. He waited a beat before he realized Arthur wasn't going to let him go. "Arthur?"
Arthur held Merlin tighter. He swore he felt Merlin smile before his manservant raised his unsteady arms and returned the hug.
"I'm right here, Arthur," he said. "I'm right here."
Arthur closed his eyes and issued a small thanks to whatever gods existed for deeming that it was not Merlin's time to go.
Arthur carried Merlin to Gaius' chambers. His manservant was unconscious by the time he arrived back at the castle. He helped Gaius settle Merlin into his own bed and hovered over his manservant like a mother hen.
"He'll be okay, will he, Gaius?"
"From what you told me, he must've have truly overexerted himself. Not to mention being attacked by ten Shadows..." Gaius said, wiping Merlin's head with a cloth.
Arthur wished it was him that was doing it.
"He seems to be in a deep sleep, sire. There's nothing more we can do for him, but wait." Gaius gave him a strong glare. "I suggest you rest up as well."
Arthur stopped by the cot outside Merlin's room and was relieved to find that Kay was awake.
"How you're feeling?" he asked his knight.
"Exhausted, like I trained for five days straight," Kay said, eyes fumbling to stay opened.
Arthur pulled a chair forward and sat next to him. He squeezed his knight's shoulder. "I'm glad to see you're okay, Kay. Just...don't ever do that again?"
Kay looked at Arthur and laughed.
"I don't think you realize how easy you make it for us to like you," Kay said. "You are so willing to lay your life down for anybody and everyone, yet you don't want any to do the same for you."
Arthur's ears heated up. He scratched the side of his neck.
Kay's features fell and he stared past Arthur, far away. "It's a good thing, sire...Arthur. I never wanted to be a knight. Yet King Uther's laws state that all first born must be sent to Camelot and train as knights. It was a dishonor if any failed. I heard rumors of you, Arthur Pendragon, the Crowned Prince, head of the Knights at fifteen, and you were strict. Many of us were afraid of you and hated you, because your acceptance of knights were low."
Arthur shifted in his seat. He did that because he didn't want anybody to become a knight on name alone, he wanted the best to join his ranks, and he wanted someone who wore the knight's code at heart. He didn't realized how that would look from someone in Kay's position. How much dishonor and shame has Arthur brought those he turned away?
"I couldn't shame my father. Even though he was a lord, Uther humiliated him, and most of the people didn't trust him. I had to rebuild that trust. It was so easy to hate you and Uther. Until I came here and found out the kind of man you are." Kay turned to Arthur. "You're the future king, the future of Camelot. I'm willing to lay down my life to protect you and that future. I will gladly do it again."
Arthur smiled, touched by Kay's words. "I'm glad you're my knight. I wish more of my men had your strong conviction and heart."
Kay's eyes sparkled. "They do, sire. Action reflects leadership, and you'll see most of your men follow your example."
After his talk with Kay, Arthur returned to Ben and Donna's home and was relieved to find Cian hugging Anna, tears in his eyes. He was terrified when he saw Arthur. Arthur reassured him that all was forgiven and reminded Cian of Peter's love for them.
"Take care of your sister, Cian," Arthur said. "She needs you now more than ever."
"Why don't you hate me?" Cian suddenly asked when Arthur was at the door. "I tried to kill you."
"I know why you did," Arthur said.
"But I'm a monster," Cian cried out.
Arthur knelt on his knees and gripped Cian's shoulders. "You're not a monster. You are only what you chose to be. Having magic doesn't define you, Cian. It's only defined by what you do with it."
Cian's lips quivered and he bobbed his head.
Arthur headed for the door once again. He paused and turned back to the kid. "Do you still hate me?"
Cian bit his lips. "Yes...but I'm not angry anymore."
Arthur settled for that.
When he finally returned to his chambers, he laid his new sword on the table and hung up his old one. The candlelight reflected of the edge and the gold of the blade.
He wrapped his knuckles around the edge of the table. Arthur thought of Cian's confession, of how Peter died to protect his son's secret. The kid's fear in being a monster. Did Merlin feel like that? Did he ever felt like a monster growing up? Ashamed for who he was? Arthur tried to picture what it would be like hiding a part of yourself that yearned to pour out.
I probably would end up going bitter and crazy.
A new profound respect grew for Merlin. He had no idea how his sorcerer kept his noble intentions and heart.
Arthur chuckled. His sorcerer. It had a fitting ring to it.
He returned his attention to the sword and trailed his fingers along the edge of the blade. The magic in it connected to Arthur's. Most connections, Arthur felt a wave of emotion associated to whoever he connected with. Here, all Arthur felt was a sense of himself, a belonging, a piece of his warrior heart.
Arthur's princely dreams and his heart dreams swirled within him:
I want to be a king that's fair and just. I want Camelot to flourish in peace, not fear. I want a land where people treat others with respect regardless of status. I want a land where everyone is equal and people can be as they are, even magic.
I don't want to be King. If this is what it's like...
"I want to unite Albion, unite all the kingdoms under one peaceful banner so that there will be no more Manau, or Ealdor."
And Arthur wanted nothing in that moment than to be free, to escape, to no longer be a prince, no longer be the warrior and protector of Camelot. To just be Arthur.
Who was Arthur kidding?
He was a warrior.
He had a mission, a drive, a focus.
And he had Merlin, a powerful sorcerer and friend at his side.
By gods, he was the Once and Future King.
He gripped his sword and exit his chambers. He slipped past his guards and down the dark corridor that led him to Kilgharrah.
The dragon was sleeping yet he immediately woke when Arthur leapt across the gap and scrambled up the rocks next to him.
"Young Pendragon?" Kilgharrah asked, confusion lined his voice.
"You may not believe I'm ready. But I can't just rest knowing you're rotting down here. I can't allow anybody else to suffer," Arthur said. He found the chains around Kilgharrah's hind leg.
"And how will you free me?" Kilgharrah said with a sigh. He nestled his head back on his lap.
Arthur slammed his new sword down across the chains. The blade clanged against them. Nothing happened.
Arthur glared at his sword. Why wasn't this working? It killed creatures immune to attacks of magic and couldn't break some measly chains forged by the Old Religion.
Arthur stared at the inscription once again: Take Me Up.
I am born of magic, Arthur told himself. Kilgharrah deserves to be free. A jolt jerked up his arm.
"Take me up," the sword whispered to him.
Arthur noticed that his hands glistened in a luminous glow. He took a deep breath. "Excalibur," he called out to his sword. He didn't know where the name came from, it just felt right.
Kilgharrah jerked his head up.
"Free Kilgharrah from his chains," he said.
The luminous glow spilled from his hands and extended all across his body. A tightness Arthur didn't know he had in his chest loosened and a warmth spilled.
Arthur brought Excalibur down and the chains snapped off Kilgharrah. A piece of it still attached to the dragon's leg, but the chains no longer bounded Kilgharrah to Camelot.
"How..." The Great Dragon's eyes were wide with shock.
"You are free," Arthur said, his voice ringing in the air. There was some silky sing-like quality in it. "I pray you uphold your end of the bargain."
Kilgharrah chuckled and bowed his head. "You've accepted your role. I'm in your debt, Once and Future King."
"What would it take to get people to call me Arthur around here?" he grumbled.
Kilgharrah smiled. "Arthur. I don't know how I can repay you."
"Be free," Arthur said. "And uphold your bargain."
"Indeed I will, young Pendragon." He inclined his head before he flapped his wings.
Arthur grinned as he watched the dragon take flight down the cave's corridor and out into the open night.
He glanced down at his hands to see that his skin returned to normal. He knew what he did.
He used magic.
It took Merlin some time before he finally opened his heavy eyes. He stared at the ceiling of his room, trying to recollect what happened.
The Shadows. He'd never felt so cold and stiff in his life. He had stared up into the night sky, feeling his life drain away.
Then Arthur...he had cried over him. Did he think Merlin was dead? Merlin touched his chest. He wasn't. He was very much alive. Sore and exhausted, but alive.
He struggled to sit upright in his bed and froze.
Arthur's upper body was sprawled upon the lower half of Merlin's bed. The prince's lower body was dangerously close to tipping out of the chair.
"You can't...I need you. I can't do anything without you..."
Arthur's confession replayed in Merlin's head. Heat flooded his cheeks. He reached down and gripped Arthur's fingers. "I can't do anything without you either," Merlin whispered.
Arthur believed in him.
Not only as a friend and close advisor.
As a sorcerer.
He trusted Merlin with his life and his kingdom.
Merlin felt like he could take on everything with Arthur at his side. Funny, he always thought the destiny he had was a burden he had to carry alone. He never realized that it was a destiny he was supposed to share with Arthur.
Arthur grumbled in his sleep and lazily lifted his head. He smacked his mouth as he tried to blink himself awake. His gaze settled on Merlin. It took a beat before Arthur sat up. "Merlin! You're awake!" He gripped Merlin's arms.
Merlin reached out and felt Arthur's magic inside him. It was different now. Regal and confident. Something happened.
"How long was I out for?" Merlin said, shifting in his bed. He felt like he didn't get any rest yet he knew he'd been here a while.
"A couple days."
"The Shadows drained a lot out of you," Arthur glared, "as well as your overuse of your magic. Gaius said it may be a little over a week before you're one hundred percent."
Merlin lifted his arm, it felt like lifting Arthur's armor with his pinky, and whispered "Forbearnan." A spark flickered over his palm, but nothing.
Arthur grabbed it and lowered Merlin's arm back to the bed. "Easy."
Merlin turned his gaze at Arthur and smiled. Arthur was alive. That was all that mattered. "How did you stop the Shadows?"
Arthur narrowed his gaze, suspicious. "I was going to ask you. Apparently, I got a little help." He released Merlin's hand and Merlin urged for that connection back. Arthur set something wrapped in cloth on Merlin's bed. He lifted the cloth and Merlin immediately recognized the sword.
"I pulled it out of a rain puddle. Where did you find it?"
Merlin blushed. He scratched the side of his cheek. "I made it, for you and you only. It was forged in dragon's breath and can defeat anything magical."
"And you didn't think to use this while we fought the Shadows?" Arthur cocked a brow.
"It was buried on the bottom of the lake at the time. I'm surprised you drew it out...of a rain puddle?"
"I assume you don't recall making a blue orb of light, do you?"
Merlin furrowed his brows.
Arthur chuckled. "I saw it once when I was in that cave, getting the antidote to save you and was chased by giant spiders." He pursed his lips in thought. "I guess you only do it when you're down for the count?"
Merlin racked his brains to remember. He couldn't exactly recall it, yet his magic tingled within him in response. "I suppose so." He wanted to ask more, but he sagged down in his bed.
"You should get some more rest," Arthur said.
"No, I slept for two days, I can stay up a bit longer."
Arthur stared at him for the longest time. The corner of his mouth tugged upward. He reached inside the vest he was wearing and pulled out a roll of paper. He handed it out to Merlin. "I couldn't sleep, I drafted this up."
Merlin unrolled it and skimmed over the contents. He snapped his head up to Arthur. "This...a law to legalize magic?"
"The only time people will be punished is if they use it for ill, just like a sword."
Merlin's heart swelled. It'd been a bit over a year when Merlin walked into Camelot and watched an execution of a sorcerer. He met Arthur and hated everything about him.
Now, he was close friends with Arthur...or were they more than that? And here Arthur was drafting a law to legalize magic, to free sorcerers from fear of themselves.
"I want to pass this," Arthur said, gaze locked on the scroll. "How many more years will it be before all of my people are free, before there's no more Cian, before my people are judged on their character and not their nobility or lack of." He swallowed and locked eyes with Merlin. "I'm ready, Merlin. I want to be King. Not tomorrow, or years later. Right now, in this moment."
Merlin reached out and squeezed Arthur's hand. "You can be."
"How? How can I force my father to abdicate the throne? What if I start a civil war within Camelot? I don't want blood to be spilled so I can ascend to the throne."
"I don't know," Merlin whispered. "We'll find a way. I promise."
"I supposed the three of you are wondering why you're here," Arthur said.
Here being in Peter's old home with the windows and doors boarded up.
Sir Leon nervously glanced at Gaius and Geoffrey seated at the table next to him. "You're going to teach us some poetry?"
Arthur creased his brows. "What?" What lies had Merlin been spreading about Arthur behind his back? "No." Great, now he lost his train of thought.
"I must ask, sire," Gaius said, "what is up with all this secrecy?"
"We're not plotting to murder someone, are we?" Geoffrey asked, aghast. "Not Lady Caitlin."
"What?" Arthur was flabbergast. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "My fault. I shouldn't have led with that question."
Gaius rose both his brows in agreement.
Arthur held out his hands. "Okay. I summoned you all here for a simple request. It may go against your loyalty, but I'm asking you all to trust me and know that I will not do anything rashly."
"My lo-lord," Leon stuttered out, "now you've got us concerned. What is it?"
Arthur inhaled a deep breath. He was really going to ask it of them. "You can say no and nothing will change. I'm wondering if I may have your support in the council to force my father to abdicate the throne."
Both of the older men's eyes bulged.
"Sire?" Gaius exclaimed.
"That is madness," Geoffrey cried.
Sir Leon remained neutral. Arthur could tell Leon was struggling with some emotion under the surface. He wished he knew what exactly.
Leon said, "Perhaps you should explain yourself, sire."
Right then and there, Arthur knew he had Leon's full support. He wished Merlin were here, but he wanted his sorcerer to rest.
"I believe it's time for a change in Camelot, a good change. While I love my father, it's become clear that King Uther has allowed his emotions to blind himself while ruling from the throne." He stared at Gaius and Geoffrey. "You both know what I'm speaking of. How many more sorcerers will die, how many more families will be torn apart because of magic? How much more blood stained upon Camelot?"
Geoffrey's face was pale. "Sire, your father has brought peace..."
"He has brought victory to Camelot," Arthur said. "Not peace."
Geoffrey's mouth hung opened. He turned to Gaius for help.
Gaius' lips were set in a thin line. He regarded Arthur for the longest time. "What it is that you seek that sets you apart from Uther?"
"It is not victory I seek, it is peace," Arthur said. "I wish to build a land of equality of all things." He stared at Geoffrey. "I remember you taught me the stories of the ancient kings, of how long ago there was a castle where they all gathered together and sat at a round table to build a stronger kingdom. I want to build a land of united kingdoms under peace." He looked at Gaius. "I seek a world where no one should cower in fear for who they are, where they are free." He faced Leon. "I want to have knights protect their kingdom who wish to, not because they are forced to due to their nobility, I want to offer the chance of knighthood to everyone."
He paused for a moment, thinking of his next words.
"I'm asking for your support. If you say no, I'll only appreciate your loyalty to my father and I will not think of you differently. I'm not planning a civil war within Camelot."
"Why now?" Geoffrey asked. "Why not wait a few years? Your father grows old."
Arthur smiled. "I'm a knight first and foremost, Geoffrey. Which means I have to treat each day like it's my last. Today may be my only chance to start a better future for Camelot." And I can no longer sit idly by. My father cares about the people of Camelot, I've seen it. He just choses who to care for instead of everyone.
"What makes you think you'll do better than your father?" Gaius asked.
"Because I won't be alone. I'm learning to listen. You know, better than I, how well my father listens to his counsel."
Gaius' lips tugged a bit, yet he forced the smile down.
"I must stress this isn't an order. You are free to choose what you wish."
Leon stood, hand on the pommel of his sword. "You know as well as I do. There's no other man I wish to fight and die for. You have my allegiance."
Arthur gave him a proud smile. "Thank you, Leon."
"I love your father, Arthur," Gaius said. "He's a dear friend. For once, however, before my time is up, I like to serve a king with pride, to stand next to someone I believe in." He rose to his feet. "I believe you are that man, Arthur."
Arthur forced down his many emotions at Gaius' statement. Gaius' words meant more to him than he would ever know.
Geoffrey threw his hands up. "Ah, what the hell." He rose to his feet. "As much as I like detailing the history and facts of your father's reign." He blew out an exasperated sigh. "I'm ready for a new tale."
Geoffrey crossed his arms. "I pray you remembered your mathematical lessons. You need more than half of the council's support. You'll need to gain the favor of two more."
Arthur hid a grin. One was Audrey's husband who was a head Steward and Castellan, why Uther took Daimon with him, Arthur didn't know. Fyn was out of the question.
He realized he hadn't seen much Fyn lately. Which strange in itself.
He could sway Edmund, but he was a quiet one. He never said much at the council meetings. Owaine, always had something to say and Arthur swore that nobody listened to the man.
He could do it.
His father would return within a few weeks. He and Merlin could figure something out by then.
Today, it was well enough knowing that Arthur had the full support of Gaius, Geoffrey, and Sir Leon.
Meanwhile, Lee entered Fyn's chambers.
Fyn glanced up from the table where he was eating his chicken and cheese.
Lee simpered and held up a paper in his hands.
Fyn took it, glanced over it, and grinned evilly.
"You cheated," Arthur said as Merlin captured his king on the board.
Merlin grinned and leaned back in his bed, tossing Arthur's king piece up and catching it with his magic.
Arthur rolled his eyes at the display. "Show off."
"You're just a sore loser," Merlin said as he reset the chess board. "Again?"
Arthur shook his head. "I have to greet the people in the throne room. I swear if I have to settle one more dispute over whose chicken whose, I'll eat the bloody animal myself."
"Ah, the woes of being regent," Merlin teased. He poked Arthur's side. "Admit it, you're growing to like it."
He was, but he wasn't going to tell Merlin that.
"How's your strength?" Arthur asked.
Merlin held out his hand. "It's slowly returning. Don't expect me to create rain anytime soon."
"I think you're okay. Our storage is filling up. The common people are eating fit. You did well, Merlin. You saved Camelot from a starving winter."
Merlin folded his hands together and shrugged.
Arthur shoved him gently. "Don't be so modest."
Merlin chuckled, he stared down at the sword at Arthur's hip. "I can't believe you freed Kilgharrah."
Arthur curled his lips inward. Merlin was shocked when Arthur told him. He was more surprised that Arthur used magic. Arthur hadn't summon it again yet, but he could feel his powers within his chest. He was nowhere as powerful as Merlin, and Arthur was okay with that. Gods know he has enough power as future King.
"I keep expecting this all to be a dream..." Merlin confessed.
"Too good to be true," Arthur said. "I know. I'm sorry it took me so long to get here."
Merlin huffed. "Arthur...you got here. I have to admit. I like this side of you. Promise me, don't ever change, Arthur. Always be you. Don't ever hide yourself again."
I'm glad you came to Camelot, Merlin. I wouldn't have gathered the courage to do this without you. "I'm growing on you, aren't I? Does this mean you'll stop calling me prat?" Arthur teased.
"You're always be a prat."
"Go, you clotpole. Your people are waiting on you," Merlin said.
Arthur rose and pointed a finger at Merlin. "I demand a rematch when I return." He paused at the door. "Same goes for you, too, Merlin." He locked his gaze on his friend. "I don't want you to change either. All my progress...I couldn't have done it without you."
Merlin smiled. "You'd have done it without me."
Arthur tapped the doorframe. "Maybe. Get some rest. I'll see you afterwards." He bounded down the corridor, on his heels. His hand rested on Excalibur's pommel.
Sir Leon approached from the other end. "Ah, you're on time today."
"I'm always on time," Arthur shot back playfully. "Looks like you're late to the training grounds."
"I'm not late, sire," Leon said as he passed Arthur. "They're just early."
Arthur laughed and added over his shoulder. "Post me on their progress afterwards."
"Of course, my lord," Leon said back.
Arthur skipped up the steps. Merlin's words replaying in his head, it sent a warm feeling in his heart and a burst of confidence. He was walking on the clouds.
He passed the people lined up outside the door and gave them a half-wave. "Good day."
Some of them turned around and responded with "Good day" in kind. Others beamed at him. There was only a few unhappy faces.
What's in store for me today?
Arthur turned the corner and waited for the guards to open the doors into the throne room. He walked in and staggered to a stop.
Uther stood by the throne, hand gripping one of the pikes on top. His back was to Arthur.
Arthur's breath caught in his throat. His father returned? Why hadn't anyone notified him? Unless, if Uther returned without fanfare, that was not a good sign.
He caught sight of Fyn at the front of the room, alongside with Lee and the other members of the council.
Arthur found his voice. "Father. You've returned." Good, at least his voice didn't betray his pattering heart.
"Leave us," Uther ordered.
Fyn and the others headed down around Arthur and exited.
Arthur heard the doors close behind. He did a quick glance over his shoulder. There were still four guards in the room. He didn't miss the fact that they were Uther's guards.
Arthur took a couple steps forward. "How fared your trip?"
"Are you loyal to me, Arthur?" Uther asked so suddenly.
Arthur swallowed. That wasn't his father up there. It was the King. "Sir, my loyalty has always laid with Camelot."
"That's not what I asked," Uther said. He slowly turned his head toward Arthur. "I asked if you were loyal to me."
Say yes, why am I hesitating? Arthur opened his mouth to speak, yet said nothing. When had Uther lost Arthur's loyalty? Arthur knew the answer. When Arthur defied him and retrieved the antidote for Merlin.
"I see," Uther said when the silence lingered too long.
Arthur averted his gaze. "Last we communicated, you were not to return for a couple of weeks."
Uther sneered at him. "You would've liked that, so you would've had time to pass this!" He turned fully to Arthur now and shook a scroll of paper in his hand.
Arthur squinted. What was...his draft to legalize magic...where did...Arthur growled. Fyn. Arthur was a fool to write it up. He took a step forward. "Father, you must understand..."
"You have no right to call me that. I thought you were my son."
"Are you?" Uther stepped forward from the throne. "No son of mine would turn against me for magic! I gave you a chance to prove you were under an enchantment, I can see you're clear as day. You dared plot treason against me?"
Excuses and defense rose up, ready to be used. No. Arthur straightened his back. This will not be a confrontation between a king and prince, this is a one between two kings. "Everything I did, I did in the name of Camelot."
"I sacrificed everything to prepare you to become king. This is how you repay me?"
"I'm not you, father. I can't rule the way you did."
"Magic is evil. Have you learned nothing growing up? Have I not driven the lesson to your heart?"
"How can you be so blind to see the world you're creating? You know as well as I do that magic is not evil. You've only hunted those with magic to ease your guilt."
"Guilt? I've done what is necessary to protect this kingdom."
"What would my mother say to that?" Arthur snapped. He needed to know the truth. And by gods, Uther was going to tell him.
Uther stuttered. "Your...your mother. Don't you dare bring your mother into this."
"To create a life, another life must be taken in exchange," Arthur recited from Ygraine's magic book.
"Tell me. Why were you so eager to give up my mother's life?"
Uther crushed the paper in his hand as he held up a finger. "I never would've sacrificed her. That witch, Nimueh, was going to help me create an heir, she didn't tell me Ygraine was going to be the price."
"You liar," Arthur yelled. "My mother knew very well what the price would be."
"We knew there would be a price. I just didn't know it would be hers! Nimueh tricked us, lied to us!"
"Don't blame this on her! You knew full well the price." Arthur chuckled scornfully. So it was true. Uther and Ygraine used magic to give Arthur life. And this was the outcome of his birth. He should have never been born. "This is what fuels your hatred against magic. Rather than blame yourself, you blame them."
"Those who practice magic will stop at nothing to destroy us!" Uther tossed the crushed paper at Arthur's feet. "And you seek to help them."
"I seek to end all the suffering and pain you have caused."
"You dare go against your king, your father?" Uther challenged, the vein bulging on his forehead.
Arthur held his chin up. "You've always taught me to be true to my heart. You wanted to know what type of king I'll be, well, here's your answer."
Uther stared sadly at him. The way he looked at Arthur reminded him of what his father told him when he took Arthur's place to fight against Sir Tristan de Bois: You are too precious to me. You mean more to me than anything I know, more than this entire kingdom, and certainly more than my own life.
Was that even true?
"You would dare support magic that took your mother's life?" Uther asked, his voice strained.
"Don't you realize that it was magic that gave me life?" Arthur said. He stared hard at Uther. "Don't you realize that I am magic?"
Uther shook his head. "No. No." His lips curled back. "I won't lose you to magic like I lost your mother."
Arthur felt something in his heart break. "I have magic, father. The very thing that gave me life runs through my veins."
Fear flashed across Uther's eyes before anger dominated his features. "I paid a terrible, heavy price for you to be born," Uther said.
Arthur winced, a prick at his heart.
"Magic stole your mother from me. I will not watch the evil of magic consume you like the others."
Arthur's breath caught in his throat. "Father..."
"Guards," Uther beckoned to them and Arthur felt strong hands grasped all around him. Did it really take four guards to drag him to the dungeons?
"Take him out to the courtyard," Uther ordered. "He's to be executed immediately."
Arthur widened his eyes. What? "Father!" He struggled against the guards' hold on him. "Don't do this! I'm your son!"
Uther approached him and cupped his cheek. "I'm sorry. Camelot comes before all else. The magic inside you has already turned you against me and the kingdom. I will free you from its wicked binds. This is the only way."
"I thought I came before all else?" Arthur said, the very world crumbling underneath him, his very view on his father.
Tears welled in Uther's eyes and suddenly Arthur knew. You love me, but your fear and hatred for magic is far greater.
"I fear you're already lost..." Uther gave a brisk nod to his guards. "Take him away."
"Father!" Arthur was lurched back and dragged out of the throne room to be taken to the courtyard and executed before the very people he vowed to serve and protect.
Chapter 6: Cast Me Away
Morgana ran, her hair whipping in her face as she rushed down the lower streets of Camelot.
Guinevere was a couple feet behind, frantically trying to keep up with her pace.
Morgana shoved two peasants out of her way, the rocks crunched under her boots. She needed to find Arthur.
Three days ago, she woke in Karrenhall to the news that Uther had left during the night, with no word or apologies. During the feast, he'd been silent, brooding and simpering in rage.
A bad feeling sank into her, one that twisted her gut with each passing day. She knew she had to leave right away. She didn't need any nightmares to tell her that Arthur was in danger.
She stormed up the stairs that led them into the heart of Camelot's stronghold.
A bustling servant came down her way. George. She grabbed his arms which caused the tray to spill over. His wide eyes took in her disarray appearance. "My la-lady..."
"Where's Arthur?" she demanded.
Gwen caught up to her and panted, sweat beads covered her head and arms.
"I-in Gaius' chambers," she took off, "last I heard," he muttered after her.
Gwen didn't slow and hurried after.
Morgana burst through the doors which caused Gaius and Merlin to turn to her in alarm from their workbench. Merlin had a blanket draped around him.
He stood, worry flooded him. "Morgana?"
Gwen came in behind her.
"Gwen?" Merlin glanced between the two of them
"Where's Arthur?" Morgana asked.
Merlin's face fell. He dropped his blanket and stumbled over.
"Merlin! You're in no shape..." Gaius started.
"Arthur needs me!" Merlin yelled back. He braced himself against a chair. "He's in the throne room. What's going on?"
"Uther fled back to Camelot without warning."
Merlin's face grew white. "We have..."
They were cut off by shouts and the sounds of bustling feet outside the door. The four of them rushed out into the corridor to see the knights of Camelot charging down like an army was marching onto Camelot's wall.
Morgana caught a familiar sight. "Leon!" she barked.
Sir Leon halted and spun back to them, face stricken. "Uther...he's called for Arthur to be executed."
"Uther would not resort to such rash actions," Gaius said. He began to bustle ahead. "We must talk reason into him."
Morgana took off with the rest of them before she realized Merlin lingered behind.
"Uther can't be reasoned with..."
"He can," she said. Unless it involved magic. Did it?
Merlin glanced down at his palms. "I can't use it...I don't have enough."
She creased her brows. What was he talking about? Use what?
He flicked his gaze up to hers. "Thoughts...I can..."
With strength, Morgana didn't know he possessed, Merlin ran the opposite end, away from the courtyard. She watched after him for a second, wondering if she should follow him.
No. If anyone could talk sense into Uther, only she and Gaius may be able to reach him.
No one was going to be killing her brother today.
The walk to the execution platform was the longest walk Arthur ever took in his life. He had struggled at the throne doors where an additional two guards restrained him.
If he couldn't go down swinging, then by gods, he would go down with some dignity. They paraded him in front of the line of people waiting to be heard in the throne room.
One by one, fear and shock lined their features. He noticed how a couple servants rushed off, leaving behind dropped piles of clothing or trays.
He prayed none of them would find Merlin. He didn't want Merlin to see his death. He didn't want to wish that upon his closest friend, advisor, and gods, the best servant and protector he'd ever had. He knew Merlin would regret himself for this. Let him get over me, Arthur prayed.
He was shoved and manhandled down the stairs. He caught sight of Fyn and Lee, hovering down at the bottom. The noble had a big smirk on his face.
"Dead man walking," he called out as Arthur was pushed past him.
Anger bubbled up within Arthur. What had he done to make Fyn hate him so much? All this trouble just because Arthur dismissed Fyn from his duty as a knight?
Drums rolled and Arthur knew his father must've had this planned all along. Uther never forgave treason, especially in the form of magic.
Regret flooded through him. He wouldn't be able to accomplish his dreams of a better future for Camelot, and for Albion.
He'd failed Merlin.
Arthur found that the executioner waited for him at the raised platform with an axe in his gloved hands. A tree stump was next to the man's feet.
Beheading. At least Arthur wouldn't be burned alive. His father was giving him mercy. A crowd had already gathered and they gasped when they saw who was being brought out.
Uther's knights had stationed themselves around the wooden platform, helms on and swords ready.
Uther himself stood up in the balcony, overlooking the scene below them. Arthur wondered if his impending death would add extra weight to the copper-gold crown that rested upon Uther's head.
Arthur stumbled up the platform steps and the guards twirled him around to face the crowd, Arthur's people.
Arthur stared up at King Uther and held his head high.
Uther looked back, with no love in his eyes, eyebrows set in a line of disapproval.
Arthur grunted as a guard forced him onto his knees before the tree stump. A hand pushed Arthur's head down, however, he still glared up from under his eyebrows in defiance. Uther may beat him, cast him aside, stare down at him like he was the enemy, but his father will never defeat his spirit. Arthur vowed to himself he would last long before that happened. Death would come first.
Uther held up a hand to silence the drums and the mutterings from the crowd. He flicked one last glance at Arthur before he addressed them, "Citizens of Camelot, let this once serve as a reminder that no one, not even blood, are above the law. I am sad to express that Prince Arthur has been found guilty of treason and such punishment for his act is death."
Sticks rolled on the drums and Arthur scoffed at the theatrics.
"For the love of Arthur!" a huge cry bellowed over the sounds of drums.
Arthur stiffened as a wave of his knights led by Sir Leon and Sir Kay charged out. Guinevere was with them, in trousers and a sword in hand. When did she get back? Even Audrey was part of the fray, a frying pan in her hand, ready to use.
Uther's knights braced themselves.
The crowd joined in on the cheer. "For the love of Arthur. For the love of Arthur."
Red flooded Uther's face.
The drums abruptly ceased.
Gaius and Morgana stormed onto the balcony. Uther's guards immediately seized them.
Terror gripped Arthur. No. Camelot was at the brink of an uprising. He struggled to raise to his feet, but the other guards held him down. A warmth bubbled in his chest.
Arthur's knights neared Uther's.
Morgana held a finger at his father and then pointed at Arthur, her arguments muffled by the crowd. He noticed her hand reached for the guard's sheathed sword.
It is not victory I seek.
The warmth in his chest spilled throughout him.
"STAND DOWN!" Arthur's voice thundered out over the crowd.
Everyone halted like a child being reprimanded. They slowly turned to him and gapped in shock. He wondered if his skin was radiant with light.
He forced a reassuring smile on his face as he scanned every one of them. "I appreciate and honor your loyalty. But I can't stand by and watch my people slaughter themselves over me." He took a deep breath and his next words were lined with a sing-like quality, "For the love of Camelot, lower your swords."
Sir Leon squeezed his lips together trying to contain his emotions. He was the first to lower his weapon and the rest followed suit.
Arthur struggled to maintain his composure. He wished he could see Merlin one last time, tell him he was sorry, tell him that he was Arthur's other half. The lump in his throat grew. "Hold your head up high." His gaze trailed over his knights, and lingered on Sir Kay's, "No man is worth your tears, not even me."
He would live on in his people. He could see it now.
He glanced up at Morgana. She would carry on the kingdom. He had to believe in her.
Morgana shook her head back and forth. "No," she mouthed.
"Take him out before he uses his magic on us," Uther yelled.
"No!" Morgana cried.
The guard yanked her back.
Arthur's head was pushed and shoved down against the tree stump. They held him down by his shoulders to ensure he didn't try to escape. He closed his eyes to await the death stroke.
Forgive me, Merlin. I wish we had more time.
An unearthly roar sounded in Arthur's ears, a heavy object crashed next to Arthur and he felt the weight of the guards' hands gone.
Arthur snapped his eyes open and straightened up on his knees.
Kilgharrah released another roar and snarled in Uther's direction. "Uther Pendragon, you have allowed your fear and hatred to blind you into killing your own son!"
Arthur's jaw slacked.
On Kilgharrah's back was Merlin.
"Arthur!" Merlin cried and held out a hand for him.
"Seize him!" Uther yelled. "Kill them!"
Uther's guards scrambled forward.
Arthur rushed to Kilgharrah's side and grabbed Merlin's hand. Merlin grunted and helped pull Arthur onto the Great Dragon's back.
A few of the guards jabbed their swords at Kilgharrah's side. The dragon shot a ball of fire into the air as a warning.
"Kilgharrah, protect yourself!" Merlin said.
"I will not break my bargain with my future king," Kilgharrah said. He roared and frightened the other soldiers back. With one flap of his wings, Kilgharrah shot for the sky.
Arthur released a shout and wrapped his arms around Merlin's waist for safety. He watched as the view of Camelot grew smaller as they drew closer to the clouds.
He began to shiver and tremble. He was so close. Just a few more seconds and...
"Arthur?" Merlin twisted his neck to get a better view of him. "Are you okay?"
Arthur ignored how close he was to death and focused on his other main problem. "You idiot, now my father will hunt you down."
Merlin cocked a grin. "You still don't get it do you? It's my destiny to protect you. Everything we do, we do together." He gripped Arthur's hands that were pressed against Merlin's chest.
Arthur tried not to realize how far from the ground they were and focused on the castle of Camelot, the view of it smaller than his thumbnail now. "Kilgharrah," Arthur demanded, the luminous glow on his skin rose, "take me back to Camelot. My people..."
Kilgharrah groaned and dropped a few feet in his flight. He growled. "Do not use your powers on me, young Pendragon. Not while I'm trying to protect you."
"Powers?" Merlin questioned.
"Merlin, make him take me back. I have to protect my people!" Arthur begged.
Merlin gripped his chest. He panted. "My magic...it's telling me that I should obey you..."
"When his orders are from the heart," Kilgharrah said, "our magic will wish to do everything to obey him. You're lucky you're short in supply, young warlock."
"Arthur, you can't ask that of us," Merlin said.
"There will be an uprising in Camelot. My father will punished the people because I'm not there! I demand to be returned!"
"And sacrifice you?!" Merlin gasped and lurched forward. "No...Arthur! No! I will not do it. Don't make me!"
Arthur released his hold on Merlin. His magic...it was hurting them. He reached through his connection to both Kilgharrah and Merlin. He felt a huge overwhelming need to protect. He swallowed. They wanted to protect him. How could Arthur ask them to betray their heart?
"I'm sorry..." Arthur mumbled. "But I must go back."
"We will," Merlin promised. "Not today."
Kilgharrah released a heavy groan and rapidly descended to the ground. His wings spread opened and they slowed in their descent before Kilgharrah's legs slammed to the ground.
Arthur spun off and collapsed onto the forest grass.
Merlin crashed on top of him. His hands pressed against Arthur's face as he struggled to get up.
"What are you..." Arthur groaned as Merlin's palm dug at his chin. "Merlin!" He shoved his manservant off him. He sat up and noticed Kilgharrah's poor shape.
The Great Dragon was wheezing, the gold of his scales were now an ugly yellow.
Merlin was at the dragon's side, a hand on Kilgharrah's side. "Kilgharrah..." he whispered in concern. He pulled back his hand and blood was stained upon it.
Arthur rose and inspected the wound. Blood seeped through a gap in Kilgharrah's scales.
"I'll heal you," Merlin laid his palm over the wound and his eyes flashed gold as he muttered an incantation. His knees buckled but he held himself upright. "I can't...No..." Merlin tried again.
A tingle of magic prickled under Arthur's feet, the ground underneath glowed in the same light as his skin. What?
"Let me use you, Once and Future King," a soft warble uttered from around him. Arthur sensed a connection deeper than him, regal and strong.
Merlin leaned against the dragon, panting. "My magic...no...Kilgharrah..."
Arthur gently gripped Merlin's shoulder and moved him back. He closed his eyes and felt the connection to the magic of the Earth. "Albion, please help him."
A wave of warm energy surged up from the ground and lurched through Arthur's legs up to his arms then to his hands onto Kilgharrah. Arthur released a gasp at the strange sensation.
The blood around Kilgharrah's wound clotted and a tint of gold returned to the color of his scales.
Arthur dropped to his knees, bracing himself against Kilgharrah.
The Great Dragon gaped at him. "The magic of Albion? It obeyed you?" He inclined his head. "I am in your debt once again."
"No...you saved my life. We're even. Thank you, Kilgharrah."
"Are you alright?" Merlin asked.
Arthur went to state that he was fine when Kilgharrah answered before him. His ears burned. Merlin was asking the dragon, not him.
"I'm afraid I cannot fly you any further," Kilgharrah said. "It's been too long since I've last used my magic. I must recuperate."
Merlin gave a brisk nod. "I understand. We'll be okay. Thank you, Kilgharrah, for answering my call."
"Thank you for placing your trust in me," Kilgharrah said. "I wish you safe journey, young warlock," he turned to Arthur, "and my future king for I'm afraid Uther will not cease in his relentless hunt for you two."
A magical whisper sounded in Arthur's ears, "Cast me away."
Arthur glanced down at Excalibur at his belt. He winced. Merlin had told him the sword would do great damage and evil if in the wrong hands. "Wait, if I get captured..." He unbuckled Excalibur from his belt and held it out to the dragon, "take this."
"You cannot give it to me, but I will ensure it is kept safe." He searched about and blew out a gold puff of breath onto a slab of rock. "Thrust your blade into the stone."
Arthur glanced down at the weapon before he walked over to the stone. He didn't want to part with his new sword, the new piece of him that fitted so well. He bit his lips and drew in a sharp breath before he plunged the tip of the blade into the stone.
A spark of molten wrapped around the blade as it impacted the rock and solidified Excalibur in place.
Arthur stared longingly at it.
"Remember, only you, as the Once and Future King can pull it free," Kilgharrah said. "And only when it's time for your reign to begin."
Arthur turned back to the dragon and lowered his head.
With that Kilgharrah took off, leaving Arthur and Merlin behind with no protection or safety as Uther's men hunted them down as prey.
Arthur didn't know how long they'd been walking for.
Only that they were half a day west of Camelot and that they needed to keep moving west.
That scene kept replaying over and over in Arthur's head. The cries of "For the Love of Arthur". Morgana screaming as he was forced to kneel. Gaius' stricken face. Audrey smacking a guard with her frying pan. Sir Leon and Sir Kay struggling to obey Arthur's orders. His execution sparked an uprising.
What was happening now?
"We have to go back," he said.
Merlin sighed. "Arthur, we've been over this."
Arthur spun on his heels to face his sorcerer. "I can't leave my people behind to face my father's wrath, especially when it's directed upon me!"
Merlin placed a hand on his hips. "And how will you save your people by sacrificing yourself?"
Arthur growled. He had no perfect response for that.
"We need a plan, Arthur. We need to figure out what we're going to do if we're truly to save Camelot."
"A plan?" Arthur chortled bitterly. "A plan?! Damn it, Merlin, did you even have a plan when you dived in to rescue me? No! You dragged me from my kingdom into the middle of nowhere where you have no magic and I have no sword. We're helpless sitting ducks for bandits and my father's men. And you tell me we need a plan?"
"I'm sorry," Merlin shot back. "Next time, I'll let them lop off your bloody head!"
"You should've," Arthur yelled.
"You ungrateful prat!" Merlin threw his hands up and stormed ahead of Arthur. "This'll be the last time I save your royal arse."
Arthur ran his fingers through his hair as he watched Merlin's retreating form.
What else was Arthur supposed to do? Run? Abandon his duties as protector of Camelot? Give up on his kingdom and his dreams? Leave his knights and people behind to Uther's fury?
His knights and men...would Uther execute them for their association with Arthur, for their display at the execution?
Morgana...Arthur's heart seized. He'd left her in Uther's hands.
Gaius and Geoffrey. They swore their allegiance to Arthur. What would they do with Uther's demands to hunt him down?
Everything was a mess.
Merlin was right. They needed a plan.
Yet what plan would fix all this?
How could Arthur become king without victory and bloodshed?
"What are we doing, Merlin?" Arthur asked in a soft voice.
Merlin halted and flicked his gaze to his feet.
"We need each other right now and we're at each other throat."
"That's because someone's being a stubborn dollophead."
Merlin turned back to Arthur, looking so tired and weary. Bags were under his eyes, hair disheveled. When did Merlin get old so quickly?
"I have to rescue my people, Merlin, or die trying. You know that. I can't sit idly by."
"I know," Merlin whispered. He stared hard at Arthur. "Then you must know that I'll be right by your side, protecting you."
"And who'll protect you?" Arthur said.
Merlin cocked a grin. "You've always had my back, Arthur."
Arthur smiled, one of relief. "I'm glad you're here with me, Merlin."
"There's no place I'd rather be."
Arthur never felt so lucky and blessed to have Merlin in his life. Even in the darkest of times, Merlin was there, his shining light.
"One thing we should probably fix is get you out of that chainmail. You look like a knight of Camelot. We can't afford to draw attention to ourselves."
Arthur glanced down over himself. He needed to change and become a simple peasant. "You're right."
Merlin rose his brows. "Excuse me? Could you say that again?"
Arthur glared. "Shut up, Merlin."
He surveyed his surroundings. He could see the top peaks of the White Mountains. If they headed northwest, they would reach the kingdom of Caerleon. King Caerleon was a difficult man, he started war against Camelot after his father died. He lost when Uther's forces caused him to retreat to the Castle of Fyrien and there was when he finally surrendered. He was forced into a treaty and hated Uther with every fiber of his being. Last time Arthur met with him, he noticed the man had mellowed a bit since he married.
His wife, Queen Annis, was the voice of reason and had a strong head. Arthur and Merlin could seek safety in their kingdom. But would Arthur dare risk open war?
If they turned a bit south, they could hide out in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Druids had sought refuge there and Uther feared that land due to a strong magical presence. That could be their safest passage for now.
Arthur glanced at the sun. Just after mid-day. They had a couple more hours of walk before they reached the Valley of the Fallen Kings. He measured Merlin. Would Merlin be able to make it? They could, if they had Eirian.
Arthur brought his fingers to his lips and released a loud whistle. "Eirian!"
Why hadn't he thought to call out the unicorn earlier? He had stopped glowing a bit after Kilgharrah left but the Eirian still came to him before Arthur tapped into his magic. A couple minutes passed.
"Where is that bloody unicorn?" Arthur muttered.
"In Camelot," Merlin said. "Remember? He's enchanted. Uther must've demanded a lockdown."
Nothing was going his way today!
Merlin suddenly widened his eyes and shoved Arthur to the side. An arrow thudded into the tree trunk where they last stood.
"Hello, boys," a woman's voice greeted.
Arthur and Merlin spun behind them to spot a blonde, her hair braided in a ponytail that draped around the left of her neck. She was dressed in a tight black shirt and trousers. She smirked at them as she pointed the tip of her sword against Arthur's chest. "Knew I spotted something lurking in the woods."
"You have quick reflexes," a man said behind them, though Arthur dare not take his eyes off the threat in front of him. "Tell me," the man stood next to the woman, taller and his eyes less trusting, "what's a knight and his servant doing so far from the main convoy?"
The man nocked his bow and pointed it at Merlin's head.
Merlin answered before Arthur, with a forced laugh. "A knight?" He jerked a thumb at Arthur. "You think he's a knight. Oh!" He grabbed his side and his laughter rose. "Oh...oh..." he wiped a fake tear.
Arthur resisted the temptation to glare at his manservant.
"My friend here is a simpleton..." Merlin said.
What? Arthur opened his mouth to protest yet Merlin continue on, his eyes begging Arthur to go with it,
"I don't know how but he stole that from a camp a couple days ago. I haven't gotten him to get it off since."
The man brought the tip of the arrow closer to Merlin's face. "You think I'm a fool, boy?"
Merlin swallowed. "No! I mean, what kind of knight walks around without a sword? Look!"
Both the man and woman glanced down at Arthur's empty belt.
Arthur wanted to applaud Merlin's quick thinking. He was glad that Merlin wasn't a complete idiot that he tried to pretend that he was.
The woman leaned her head in toward the man's. "We searched the area, they have no horses, no supplies."
The man raised a brow at them. "Like to travel light, don't you?"
Merlin cleared his throat. "That. Or we may have gotten lost."
"Lost? Where're you heading?"
Both the man and woman shared a look.
The man spoke very slowly. "Ealdor? Its further east than where you're heading, near Cenred's kingdom. You're on the opposite side of Camelot."
"Oh..." Merlin said. He rubbed his neck and leaned in at Arthur. "Guess I didn't know where I was going."
"I don't trust you, nor him," he glared at Arthur. "You, boy, speak!"
Arthur forced a ridiculous smile. "Aye."
Merlin shot him a bemused look that seemed to say: That's the best you can come up with?
Arthur leaned his head in a bit and stifled a giggle. "We're lost."
The man's eyes were hard.
"Ah, Tristan, lighten up," a man's voice teased behind Arthur and Merlin. "A noble doesn't have the capacity in his ego to pretend to be a simpleton."
Tristan eyed Arthur a bit closer and Arthur struggled with every ounce of his being to keep the stupid smile on his face. If only I had my sword, or if Merlin had his magic, we would've easily gotten away. Arthur swallowed his pride and kept playing along.
Tristan finally lowered his arrow from Merlin. "Isolde."
Isolde struggled not to smile as she lifted her sword from Arthur's chest. "Honestly, look at him, a knight of Camelot?"
Arthur bit his tongue and forced himself not to bristle.
A man with shoulder-length brown hair smacked Tristan aside and flashed a boyish grin. "Gwaine's the name. You guys?"
"Merlin." Merlin held out his hand.
Arthur stared at the handshake between the two. Play the character. Play the character. I hate myself right now. Arthur bounced on his heels and stuck out his hand, "Wart."
Merlin hid his laugh behind a cough.
Gwaine tilted his head to the side. "Wart? That's familiar. Were you the commoner who won at King Odin's Melee last year?"
Arthur hadn't expected Gwaine to be so well-versed on the tournaments.
"Don't encourage his delusions of being a knight," Merlin said, adding a forceful chuckle. "Well, now that the confusion has been cleared up, Wart and I will be heading east."
Merlin grabbed Arthur by the shoulder who gave the trio a half-wave. They started to head off.
Tristan cleared his throat.
Merlin paused and pointed the other direction. "That way's east?"
"You're not going anywhere," Tristan said.
Gwaine blew raspberries with his lips. "Paranoid much?"
"They're both too clean to have been lost in the woods for a while, especially the simpleton." He leaned in toward Arthur's face. "I don't like your cheekbones."
I don't like you. Arthur forced a pout and turned to Merlin in fake hurt.
He could see the wheels turning in Merlin's head.
Isolde rubbed her hand against Tristan's lower back. "Take an easy, love. I don't think they mean any harm."
"I've been tricked too much, and lost too many," Tristan said.
Her face dropped as if she were mourning what they'd lost. "I know, but do you trust me?"
"Always," he said.
"I have a good feeling about the two of them."
He turned to her. "Fine. But they stay the night and we'll take them to Ealdor ourselves."
Merlin's eyes bulged. "What?"
"Do you have anything to hide?" he asked as he crossed his arms.
That means they would have to walk right past Camelot. Even if they slipped through, their presence will put Merlin's mother, Hunith in danger, and the rest of the town.
And Arthur didn't know if he could play the part of a simpleton for that long. Even he had his limits.
Arthur caught sight of an old sigil patch wrapped on Gwaine's wrist. He narrowed his eyes to inspect it further.
Gwaine noticed. "You like this?" He lifted it up to show it to Arthur and immediately, Arthur recognized the sigil: two swords crossed together to form an X. His stomach dropped. "I don't know if you heard about the stronghold of Manau? Used to rest between the borders of Camelot and Caerleon?"
Arthur curled his lips inward and tilted his head. How could Arthur forget?
Lines formed on Merlin's forehead.
"Destroyed, years ago. We're all that's left, mate." Gwaine stared at it and brushed a thumb over the sigil. He clapped a hand against Arthur's shoulder. "Come, we'll fix up a batch of fresh stew for you two. You must be starving."
He turned to head off and Isolde followed him.
Tristan lingered to survey Arthur and Merlin once again.
"It's a pity," he said. "If Manau was saved, he would be their lord. Instead, he's vagabond like the rest of us."
Back at their camp, Arthur and Merlin met Percival.
The man's sleeveless shirt showed off his bulging biceps as he stirred the pot set up over the fire.
"If you two try anything, especially the simpleton," Tristan warned once more as he jerked a finger at Percival, "that man can crush your skull with one hand."
Arthur almost believed it until Percival flashed them a goofy smile.
"Refugees?" Percival asked, dumping a ladle of stew into a clay bowl. He held it out to Isolde who slumped down on the log next to him.
"Captives," Tristan snapped, seating himself next to Isolde.
Percival didn't press, obviously used to Tristan's antics.
Gwaine approached him. "Make sure you give the lanky one," he raised a brow, "Merlin is it?" Merlin nodded. "Give him extra, he needs it."
The tall man did and Merlin's eyes widened at the sight of the bowl's contents. He'd probably never eaten so much in his life.
Arthur sat on the log next to Merlin and Gwaine.
"Besides them," Percival said, "how fared patrol?"
Gwaine ripped a piece of bark with his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
Percival handed Arthur a bowl of stew.
"Thank you," Arthur said.
Gwaine sighed. "Found a couple of druid bodies, they've been dead for weeks. I buried them as best as I could remember of their tradition."
Merlin nearly choked on his stew. "Yo-you help magic users?"
Gwaine shrugged. "I like fighting for the underdogs. Odds less in my favor that way, that's how you're supposed to live," he teased. Yet Arthur noticed his eyes didn't match his fake mirth.
This was the type of knight Arthur would want in his kingdom.
Tristan swallowed his stew. "I keep telling these druids that they have more than enough men to rise up against that good-for-nothing King of Camelot."
Arthur forced his chewed contents down.
"They are peaceful people," Isolde reminded him. "They've already lost so much, just like us, love." She squeezed his hand and Arthur noticed Tristan drew comfort from that.
Gwaine said, "How can the druids, how can we hope to fight against King Uther when we don't have anything worth fighting for?"
"We do," Tristan started, "We fight..."
Gwaine stood and tossed his bark down. "I don't want to get into this again." And he stormed off into the forest.
Arthur and Merlin exchanged awkward looks.
"I've heard rumors," Percival muttered quietly, "that this Prince Arthur is worth fighting for."
Tristan growled. "That prince is no better than his father. He'd raided druid villages, didn't you hear of that one where he butchered innocent children?"
The screams echoed in Arthur's head. Arthur winced and nearly threw up his stew. The scattered and lifeless bodies. Arthur standing frozen, unable to command his men. While he allowed Fyn and Uther's knights to butcher the entire village.
He'd failed that day.
The bowl in Merlin's hands almost tipped but Merlin caught himself.
Arthur never told Merlin what he'd did, never told him how much innocent people he'd killed when he first became a knight. All to impress his father, all to prove himself to his men, all to be somebody that he wasn't. All because he was so ignorant.
"He hadn't since then. I heard he saved Ealdor from bandits," Percival said.
"Hold onto your fool's hope," Tristan sneered. "I will no longer place mine in the hands of kings and future kings again. All they yearn is greed and power."
Every time Arthur thought he was moving forward, his past had to come back and entrapped him once more. It was a reminder that Arthur couldn't wipe his past clean, couldn't start over again.
Here was proof that the people didn't truly believe in him.
He didn't want to eat his stew but he forced himself to eat every bite, despite the constant restraint of his stomach.
After the meal, Isolde dragged Arthur to one of their tents. "Come, let's us change you out of that. It wouldn't do anybody good for you to run around looking like that."
The Prince of Camelot was right under their very nose, acting like a simpleton. How far the mighty have fallen.
She helped him out of his chainmail. "You really want to be a knight, don't you?"
I thought I was one worthy of honor. "I...I want to help," Arthur said, trying his best to sound like a small child.
That's all Arthur ever wanted was to help his kingdom and his people. He never should have led that raid when he was fifteen. It was his first, before he dismissed Fyn. He was used to blood and carnage and battle.
He wasn't used to being a commander.
His father whipped him for freezing on the battlefield.
Arthur sought out Gaius, asking for advice on what made a good commander. Gaius told him: "A good commander has confident in himself to lead his men, a great commander has confident in his men, the best commander is a leader with a vision who inspires instead of forcing others to obey him."
Since then, Arthur walked around with arrogant pride, with his ever-growing ego to ensure what happened that day would never happen again.
Isolde's eyebrows folded together into a V. "You seemed angry by what they were saying out there, about Prince Arthur. You look up to him?"
Arthur averted his gaze and shrugged. He placed on the green tunic that she loaned him.
Isolde stared behind Arthur, as if lost in another time. "Tristan didn't always use to be this bitter. He had hope once. He was the one who went to Camelot for help when Manau was under attack. King Uther refused him, but Tristan had overheard young Prince Arthur fight his father against the injustice being done."
Arthur inhaled a shaky breath.
"A pure heart, Tristan said. He believed young Arthur will grow to become the king who will create us a better future." She fixed Arthur's hair. "I think we've all lost hope."
How could Arthur rule in a land where his own people had no faith, no belief in him?
Arthur had left the city of Camelot and her people to the fury of his father. He was on the run, hiding. He needed to return.
Arthur scoffed at himself. Who was he kidding?
He wasn't worthy to be king.
Merlin had offered to clean up the dishes after their meal. Tristan had slipped away and Percival mentioned that he was on first watch tonight.
The sun was making its way below the horizon when Merlin carried the pots and bowls to the stream to wash.
He stared at his hands and willed his magic to return. All he got was a slight tingle. He groaned. It'd been nearly a week and his magic hadn't recuperated at all!
He'd barely arrived in time to save Arthur after he screamed his voice hoarse and telecommunicated with his mind for Kilgharrah.
He'd never forget the terror in his heart as he saw Arthur pushed to his knees before the city of Camelot, his head shoved against the stump. The executioner's axe was seconds away from being brought down onto Arthur's neck.
And now here they were. Merlin still hadn't figured out if they were captives or refugees taken in by this vagabond group of bandits.
He used his hand to rinse out one of the bowls.
What they said about Arthur, about him raiding that village. He heard that story when he first came to Camelot, a couple servants told him when he was assigned as Arthur's manservant. At first, it only deepened Merlin's hatred of Arthur.
Until he truly saw Arthur's heart.
He didn't fail to notice how Arthur cringed at what the others said about him, how green his face got when he tried to force himself to eat. Merlin knew Arthur well enough to know that the guilt still gnawed at the prince.
He'd known Arthur had done terrible things.
But he'd forgiven Arthur for that.
He wondered if Arthur had forgiven himself.
"Ah, mate, you don't have to clean those."
Merlin glanced up to see Gwaine return, a leather canteen in his hands. Merlin shrugged. "You gave us a meal, it's a small way to repay the favor."
Gwaine slumped down next to him and tossed a rock into the river. "You really look out for him, the simpleton, don't you?"
"More than he knows," Merlin said.
Merlin forgot when he went from protecting Arthur because of destiny to protecting Arthur because he loved him. Everything he did, he did for Arthur. He loved Camelot because of Arthur, he loved the fields, the people, the castle, everything within it because of Arthur.
Gwaine stared at him. "You seem like a good guy, Merlin."
Merlin rose his shoulders. "Nah. I like to think so, but I'm not so sure." He dropped them. Merlin noticed Gwaine's faraway stare. "Is everything alright? You and Tristan..." he trailed off, knowing it wasn't his place.
Gwaine released a scornful chuckle. "It's the same fight we've been having for years." He took a swing of his canteen. "You know why I'm still alive? My lord father sent me to King Caerleon to beg him to save our town from bandits. You know what the King told me? "We don't have the manpower." Yet a year later, he has enough when he decides to go to war against Camelot."
"I'm sorry about Manau," Merlin said.
"It's in the past. Nothing can be done about that now. All I ever learned from it was the fact that people in power can't be trusted. There's no king or noble worthy dying for. But...I desperately want to find one. I'm a lord, Merlin. I may have no land, but it's in my blood to follow a king."
Gwaine took another swing and rose to his feet. "There's not one king who is worthy, not in all the land of Albion."
Arthur is, Merlin thought and he believed it with all his heart.
Arthur was right. They couldn't afford to run. He needed to help Arthur retake Camelot. Uther's reign cannot go on for much longer.
Kilgharrah was right all those months ago.
It's time for Arthur's reign to begin.
First, Merlin needed to find out a way to get his magic back.
The following morning, the bandits packed up their camp and headed east with Arthur and Merlin in tow.
They gave Merlin a sword yet they didn't trust Arthur enough to give him any weapon to defend himself. Great. How was he going to protect Merlin?
With your magic, a voice in the back of Arthur's mind said. Right. Arthur didn't even know how to tap into his magic, much less use it.
Gwaine and Percival walked ahead of the party.
Isolde and Tristan rode on the bench on top of the wagon, Isolde using the reins. They whispered to each other, smiles and giggles.
It warmed Arthur's heart to see that. They may have lost hope in the world, but they didn't lose hope in their love. There was nothing more special than that: Love.
It sparked hope even in the darkest of times.
Growing up, Arthur never expected that he would ever find love, one where someone could walk along his side as an equal, one where Arthur could give his whole heart to and the other person would give their whole heart back. Was it possible for Arthur to achieve that?
Arthur glanced over at Merlin who walked alongside him.
Or had Arthur already achieved that and he just didn't know it?
Merlin's head whipped. "What was that?"
Arthur chuckled and said in a low voice, "A bird, would you relax? You're making me nervous."
Merlin smiled sheepishly.
Arthur recollected all the thoughts he had moments before he thought he was going to die, all the regrets. He stared deeply into Merlin's eyes and swallowed.
Merlin must've sensed Arthur's mood shift. "Arthur?" he whispered.
The wagon rolled to a stop and the horse nickered.
Arthur widened his eyes as five knights of Camelot approached them, each on their respective horses. Oh, shit.
Merlin tugged at Arthur's sleeve and the two of them drew close to the shadows of the wagon. Arthur noticed Merlin's red scarf and yanked it off.
"Come to collet your taxes from weary travelers?" Tristan asked.
Arthur saw Gwaine and Percival heading back, both hands on their pommels of their swords.
Nobody is going to die.
"We'd like to search your wagon," one of the knights declared. Arthur narrowed his gaze. Sir Ian, a veteran.
"May I ask why?" Tristan growled.
"There's a fugitive on the run, he's committed treason and must be brought to Camelot to answer for his crimes," Sir Ian declared.
"Ah!" Tristan leaned back. "So, death? Well, I assure you, I'm harboring no fugitive in my wagon, but I'm assuming you're going to look anyway."
One of the other knights jumped off his horse and approached the back of the wagon.
Arthur and Merlin turned their heads, shielding their faces.
Arthur's heart pounded against his chest and he could feel Merlin's erratic breathing against his neck.
There was some ruffles and a clatter, then a crash from inside the wagon.
Gwaine's face went dark. "That'd better not been my mead."
After several moments, the knight jumped back out and gave a shake of his head.
Tristan glared at Sir Ian. "Now that you've destroyed my possessions, may I continue?"
Sir Ian flicked a gaze over Merlin and Arthur.
Sir Ian shifted in his seat in annoyance and glared at Tristan. "Move along."
Isolde flicked the reins and the horse stomped his feet before continuing.
"Wait!" The knight cried out from behind them.
The wagon stopped.
"Oh, for bloody hell," Tristan grumbled, "what?"
Merlin gripped on the sleeves of Arthur's shirt.
The knight inhaled a sharp breath. "It's him! It's..."
Merlin held out a hand and sent a sputter of sparks into the air, spooking the horses around them.
Merlin and Arthur took off for the woods.
There were shouts behind them.
They didn't run very far when four of Camelot's knights stormed toward them, a few acres ahead.
Arthur whirled to a stop. Damn.
Merlin gasped and brought up his sword.
Arthur ducked as Sir Ian slammed his blade against Merlin's right near where his head was at.
More knights swarmed in around them.
A fist crashed into Sir Ian's temple and Percival stood where the veteran collapsed unconscious.
"Whoo!" Gwaine exclaimed as he twirled his sword. "I like these odds."
"Told you they were on the run," Percival barked at Gwaine as he pulled back his fist.
"Stand down," Arthur yelled. "No one is dying over us!"
Gwaine's brows burrowed in confusion at Arthur. He ducked a swing and parried with a knight.
Percival pummeled a charging knight.
Merlin awkwardly sword-fought with another.
Arthur panicked. He felt the familiar tingle of the Earth's magic under his feet. Yes. "Stop those knights!"
Vines exploded from the ground and wrapped around the hands and feet of Camelot's knights, pulling them up into the air.
Gwaine and Percival reeled their heads back and glanced at each in other shock.
Tristan and Isolde joined their side, panting.
"There's more knights approaching from the east," Isolde said.
"I knew you two were trouble." Tristan pointed a finger at them.
"Get to safety," Arthur said. "It's us they're after, we can draw them away. Go."
Tristan blinked at him, surprised by Arthur's change in demeanor. He finally noticed the vines holding the knights up, sparkling with magic in the sun.
"Go!" Arthur cried.
"Screw that, mate," Gwaine said. "Like I said, I like fighting for the underdogs."
Arthur shot Merlin a desperate look where Merlin helplessly shrugged, as if to say: what do you want me to do?
"By gods," Percival gasped. "It's the King."
Arthur twirled on his feet to see his father marching down the hill, slipping between the trees, his eyes locked hard on Arthur.
Arthur's face twisted in determination. He walked forward and stood protectively in front of the odd group behind him. A horde of knights decorated the hill behind Uther.
"You're outmatched. Give it up," Uther said.
"Let those behind me go free. They are not to be harmed," Arthur said.
Uther chortled. "They were found harboring a fugitive. Their actions will not go unpunished."
Arthur took the sword from Merlin. "Merlin, take the others and run. I'll distract them by attacking..."
"You clotpole. We're in this together. I'm not leaving you," Merlin said, ever-so-loyal.
"I won't have you die on my account, Merlin. My fate is sealed, don't let it be yours," Arthur snapped.
"This isn't your fate."
"Gwaine," Arthur barked. "Take him. Go."
The vagabond stared at Arthur, lines crinkled around his eyes. "Who are you?"
"Please..." Arthur begged.
Uther lost his patience and waved to his men. The knights charged for them.
Arthur held up his sword. "Go!"
Gwaine bit his lips and uttered a groan. He grabbed Merlin and yanked him back, hoisting Arthur's manservant over his shoulder.
Tristan, Isolde, and Percival hesitated.
"Go!" Arthur yelled.
"No!" Merlin cried as the bandits made a run for it.
Arthur turned back to the knights and locked eyes with his father. He charged forth with a yell, rushing toward Uther.
One of the knights approached him. Arthur ducked a swing and punched the man with his left hand, before he forced the knight to roll of the back of his shoulders.
He smacked another knight down with the flat of his blade.
He neared Uther and Clash! Their swords clanged together.
The lines around Uther's face deepened. "You dare attack your father?"
"You dare execute your son?" Arthur snarled back.
Guilt flashed through Uther's eyes before it was replaced with rage. With a yell, Uther pulled his blade back and swung for Arthur.
Arthur blocked it, and immediately counterattack.
The knights all gathered around, watching the fight between father and son.
Blades clashed and the steel rang in the air.
Uther gritted his teeth and struggled to keep pace with Arthur. Arthur soon found that he was holding back. There were so many openings where Arthur could have easily slipped his blade through to kill his father.
But he couldn't do it.
He couldn't kill his own father.
He still held onto the rare good memories he had of Uther. The precious moments where his father declared how proud he was of Arthur.
"Albion," Arthur pleaded, his magic tingled inside of him. "help me, help me escape from my father and Camelot's knights."
The ground rumbled and shook.
Arthur threw a punch with his left hand and caught his father in the jaw.
Uther staggered back.
Vines wrapped around his father's torso and pulled him back, locking him in place against a tree trunk. The rest of the knights suffered the same fate.
"Thank you," Arthur whispered, his skin sparkled under the sun. He stared sadly at his father. "I'm sorry," he said.
He turned and ran through the forest, rushing to catch up with Merlin and the others.
After several minutes, he found Merlin rushing toward him.
"Arthur!" he exclaimed. He crashed into him and wrapped Arthur in a tight hug. "You arse. I'm supposed to protect you."
"I'm always going to have your back," Arthur said. "Get used to it."
Gwaine ran and staggered to a halt as he noticed them. He blew out a sigh of relief. "You're suicidal and crazy, mate."
Merlin broke apart from Arthur.
"We need to keep moving. I don't know how long the others will be occupied," Arthur said. He clapped Gwaine's shoulders. "I'm sorry we got you involved. It wasn't our intention."
Gwaine shrugged. "Eh, I was looking to gather a bit more excitement into my life."
Percival approached from behind Gwaine, as well as Tristan and Isolde.
"You're lucky you're alive," Percival said. "You have more courage than anybody I ever know."
"A simpleton, eh?" Tristan scoffed.
"Love," Isolde started.
"No. I understand. A man's got to do what he can to survive," Tristan pulled his sword free and placed the tip against Arthur's throat, "isn't that right, Arthur Pendragon?"
Chapter 7: Knights of the Round Table
"I knew I recognized those cheekbones," Tristan snarled.
Arthur held up his hands. "That's slightly creepy."
Gwaine took a step back, hurt brimming in his eyes. "You're...the Prince of Camelot?"
"And you yearn power," Tristan said to Arthur. "Why else would the King be hunting you down for treason?"
Arthur huffed. There was no reason to explain himself. Nothing he said would change their opinions of him. They judged him without knowing him. Maybe Arthur deserved that judgement, but he was not in the mood for it now.
"Stop," Merlin said.
Apparently, neither was Merlin.
"We don't have time for this, we need to keep moving and find a safe hideout. You guys can kill him later," Merlin said.
Arthur snapped his head toward his manservant. "Thanks, Merlin, don't be too quick to defend me," he dripped sarcastically.
Merlin rolled his eyes.
"He's right," Isolde said. "We can't afford to linger. We must seek refuge."
Percival studied their surroundings. "Follow me," he said. "I know of a place."
Tristan growled as he took his sword from Arthur's neck and sheathed it. They held a stare down before Arthur followed after Percival and the others.
He couldn't blame them for being angry with him. It was his fault they were in this mess and were being hunted down. No matter what Arthur did, his life brought trouble and death onto others.
The six of them ran throughout the forest. They stopped for water at a small stream, filled their canteens, and kept moving.
Shadows of leaves flickered upon them as they rushed through the woods.
Arthur kept a close eye on Merlin, who had yet to fully recover from his near-death sacrifice against the Shadows.
Merlin panted heavily and his jog was sluggish. Yet the sorcerer kept pushing, kept on pace.
Sweat covered Arthur and his tunic stuck to his skin. He poured water over his head, dampening his hair to cool himself.
It was well past mid-afternoon by the time Percival lead them down a narrow valley. They rounded a corner and Arthur gapped at the sight before him.
At the entrance to the Valley of the Fallen Kings were two giant ancient statues, chips in their design and vines hugged around them. Both statues held a scroll to its chest, their cape billowed against their legs.
Arthur and Merlin stared up in awe as they walked by.
Percival caught noticed. In a low voice, he said, "This used to be called the Gates of Camelot. It used to mark the southwest border of Camelot back then. It was renamed because legends state that here was where the ancient kings fell."
Arthur read of a similar story growing up. Uther was responsible for Camelot's expansion. Years ago, Camelot was smaller, the center of the five kingdoms, the peacemaker.
"Careful, kid," Tristan whispered behind him. "This may be where you'll meet your demise."
Arthur turned and glared at the older man who returned it in kind before he walked past him.
"We're almost there," Percival said.
In half an hour's time, they reached a river that cut through the valley, it was being fed by a waterfall, pouring from a crack in the valley wall. Ferns and rocks aligned the fall as the water crashed onto moss-covered rocks.
They carefully walked upon each stone as they headed up the slight hill.
Arthur and the others followed Percival through the pouring waterfall. They walked through a short cave, leading them to the other side. They entered a clearing, surrounded by thick ferns, trees, and purple flowers. A portion of the valley hovered over them like a protective mother.
"We can settle here for the night. That waterfall is the only entrance into this place. If you continue to walk, you'll fall off a steep cliff," Percival said.
Tristan and Isolde ventured further across the clearing, surveying the hideout.
Gwaine shook the water from his hair like a dog. "How did you find this place, mate?"
"During your smuggling days, eh?" Gwaine smacked his friend's chest playfully.
Arthur found himself chuckling. "Good thinking, we'd never thought to look here."
"That's because the knights lack creative thinking," Gwaine teased.
"Oh, actually it's because we're afraid of water," Arthur teased back. "Think about it, all that armor we're wearing, we'd sink straight to the bottom."
Gwaine threw his head back and laughed. Then he suddenly stopped as if he realized who he was laughing at. "I'll find us dinner," he said before he quickly departed.
Percival clasped Arthur's shoulder. "Give him time. He'll come around."
Arthur raised a brow. "You don't have a problem with nobles?"
"I don't have trust issues like them," Percival said. "Besides, it reveals a lot about a man's character when he's so willing to give up his life for a friend and group of strangers."
Arthur's ears burned. "Uh, anybody would've done that." He cleared his throat. "I'm going to find some firewood. Merlin!"
Merlin spun from staring at the small narrow cave they entered through. He rushed over to Arthur.
Arthur came to discover that Percival was not kidding. After a two minute walk, he found the edge of the cliff, and it was a long drop. He stared out into the vast forest beneath the cliff, feeling like he was standing at the edge of his world.
Arthur turned to Merlin who held a bundle of broken branches in his arms.
"What is it?"
"They're right, Merlin. Why should they place hope in me?" He turned back to the beautiful view, the sunlight grazing along the edge of the leaves.
Merlin sighed. "Arthur...they don't know you."
"It doesn't matter. I did those things. I...hunted down the druids. I'm no different than any of those in power. I was foolish to think I would be a wise king, fair and just. How can my people follow a king who once killed innocents?" Arthur scoffed. "I'm not even a king, just a prince with delusions of grandeur."
Merlin dropped the broken branches that he'd collected. "If you believe that, how can you expect your people to follow you?"
"No, Arthur. I can have all the belief and faith of the world in you, but it doesn't matter if you don't have it in yourself." He sighed. "Someone once told me, that the past is the past, nothing can be changed about it."
Arthur knew the truth of that. Nothing he did would ever bring back the lives that he'd destroyed.
"You can change the future, Arthur. Who you were back then doesn't matter. All it did was shape you to be the worthy king Camelot deserves. What you do now, who you are now, that's more important."
Arthur shook his head. "No...it's not. Look what my life has brought upon Camelot. My birth resulted in the death of thousands. My sword resulted in the death of a few more. I'm stained with the blood of my people. I won't be responsible for more." Arthur walked away from Merlin. "The people need to find a new king."
"Arthur..." Merlin called out, but Arthur kept walking.
He couldn't bear to hear more of Merlin's words. He nearly got Tristan and the others killed by simply meeting with them. Every life he touched he destroyed.
Tristan was right.
Arthur was no better than his father.
He was worse.
After the tense dinner eating burnt rabbits and the debate on what they should do next (to which Tristan pointed out they wouldn't be in this mess if weren't for Arthur which only sent the prince down a deeper spiral of depression), Merlin decided that he would take first watch.
He was exhausted and wiped out.
Most of all, he was frustrated on why he couldn't summon forth his magic. Only sparks and sputters.
He spent most of his watch drawing up plans in his head on how to return Arthur to Camelot to begin his reign as the Once and Future King. Everything he came up with was half-baked and ridiculous.
Just as Arthur lost faith in himself as the Once and Future King, Merlin was beginning to lose faith that he was Emrys, destined to be one of the most powerful sorcerer in Albion who would help unite the land and bring back the Old Religion.
How could he be the most powerful sorcerer when he couldn't even tap into the full potential of his magic? He hated feeling like this, so weak and helpless. Without his magic, Merlin was nothing. He was worthless.
Merlin groaned and leaned back, staring at the sparkling diamonds in the dark sky.
He had been right. Arthur was Uther's life-long prisoner, and now Arthur was on death row. Merlin should've never came to Camelot. He should've stayed in Ealdor.
That voice again. He heard it when he first entered the valley, then again when he came through the waterfall.
"Emrys, seek me out..."
"Who are you?" Merlin asked. He jerked his head, trying to locate the echoing garbled voice.
"Seek me out..."
If it'll shut you up, Merlin thought bitterly as he rose to his feet. If this was another druid telling him of his great destiny, he was going to tell that person off.
Merlin suddenly locked in a trance and an invisible force guided Merlin forward. He walked back through the waterfall, down the stones sticking out of the river, and back into the valley.
He walked for several minutes before he felt compelled to walk through the valley wall. He pressed his hand against the rocky slope and the wall glowed white. Merlin took a step back in surprise as an entrance to a cave was revealed.
"What..." Merlin gasped.
Merlin took a deep breath and walked through the entrance. He bounded up the hardened-mud stairs when he entered the heart of the cave. His jaw dropped.
The cave was lined and decorated with crystals of all size and shape. Moonlight glinted off the edge of all crystals, giving the cave a dim glow.
"It's been a long time, Emrys."
Merlin snapped his head to see a glowing spirit-like figure walking down a slope behind an array of crystals.
"Who are you?" Merlin asked.
The figure drew close. He wore an eight-point crown and had a red cape draped over his leather armor. He was probably in his early fifties, with shoulder-length hair and slender figure.
Merlin took a step back. It wasn't exactly a striking resemblance but the glint in the man's eyes, the smile, and the posture, it was so much like Arthur.
"Arthur?" Merlin gasped. "It can't be..." The attire didn't fit.
"I am Bruta, I'm sure you are familiar with the stories of me?" Bruta said, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword. It was a strange sword, there was no cross-guard.
"Bruta?" Merlin racked his memories. "Camelot's founder and first king. You stopped a never-ending civil war, you founded the Five Kingdoms. You..."
"United the land of Albion. Yes, but I couldn't have done it without my close friend and warlock, Horus, also known as Emrys."
Merlin's heart skipped a beat. "What? What are you talking about? Emrys' destiny was to..."
"Protect and aid the Once and Future King of Albion," Bruta said with a smile that was so much like Arthur's. "He did, and he's doing it again."
Merlin tried to organize his thoughts, the new revelation. "Wait...that means..."
"Why do you think Arthur already has the makings of a great king? He's the Once and Future King."
Merlin stuttered a gasp. "He's...your reincarnation?" He pointed at Bruta's spirit, "but how are you..."
"I'm not truly here. My spirit is in the past and I'm able to communicate to you now with the help of these crystals."
"My soul decided to rest here in the Crystal Cave after my demise in the valley, so that I would have the chance to communicate with you, Emrys."
Merlin surveyed the beautiful crystals hanging from the ceiling, protruding from the cave's rocks and floor. "Where are we?"
"This was where the Old Religion began, the heart of magic exists in this very room. Only few can use these crystals to gaze into the past, into the future, to gaze upon things that were or can never be," Bruta said, gesturing to the cave around them. He lowered his arm. "You are one of the few that can use it."
"I can't look into the future, it's too dangerous...No man..."
"No matter how great," Bruta recited, "can know his destiny. He cannot glimpse his part on the great story that is unfolding. Like everyone, he must live and learn. Why else do you think both you and Arthur have been kept in the dark from your true destiny most of your lives? You had to shape and grow to become that very man of destiny."
Merlin scoffed. "What destiny? I can't tap into my magic, and Arthur wasn't supposed to have magic...at least..."
Bruta released a patient smile. "Sometimes a man makes his own destiny, other times, destiny choses the man. Albion chose Arthur as her king, and she chose you, Merlin, to wield all the magic of the earth, the sea, the sky. Magic is the fabric of this world, and that magic runs through your very veins. You haven't lost it, and it can never be drained from you. You must realize that you are magic."
Merlin glanced down at his palms and closed his eyes. He struggled to tap into the magic within him.
Bruta laughed. "I can't believe I'm giving you advice on magic of all people. Think, you idiot, you don't tap into your magic like a farmer would water from a well. You are the sea of magic, there's nothing to tap into. You just have to let it spill out."
Merlin inhaled a deep breath and relaxed. Okay. Don't reach inward. Let it pour out. There was a sharp tingle in his chest and then the warmth spilled out over him and Merlin could feel his very magic pulsed all throughout him, through his veins, his skin, his heart, his arms, his legs, his head, and every tiny speck of him flared with magic.
He slowly opened his eyes and held out his palm. "Forbearnan." A huge swirling fireball formed in his hand.
Merlin laughed with glee and relief.
Bruta pressed his knuckles against his chin and chuckled.
"Thank you," Merlin exclaimed. He felt different. Stronger. Powerful. Top of the world. The magic roared and sang under his skin.
"Don't lose faith in yourself, Emrys. Whenever you feel like you've lost the way, you will find yourself again inside these very caves."
"How do I make Arthur find himself again?" Merlin said, making the fireball to disperse.
Bruta stroked his thumb over the pommel of his sword. "Remind him of his heart. Doubt has always been a deadly poison for the Pendragons." He gestured to one of the crystals and it turned a dark crimson color. "There's another reason why I called you here. Gaze into that crystal. Don't be frightened."
Yet Merlin's heart pattered faster and faster as he drew near the crystal. He reached out his hand and wrapped his fingers around it. A jolt pierced up his arm and crimson flooded his vision.
Camelot was under siege. Men in black rags stormed the city. Fyn sat on the throne with Uther restrained by men in black. His fallen crown rested on the bodies of Camelot's knights by his feet.
A flash of red and suddenly Merlin was looking at the gate where he helped Arthur escape with the child, Mordred. He saw Sir Leon motion over his shoulder to those in the tunnel and one by one several of Camelot's commoners slipped out of the gate, he caught sight of Gwen and Sir Kay. He tried to search for others but the vision flashed again.
The fields of Camelot were burning, it was an ashland, yellow and gray. The skies were black, concealing the sun. The very essence of magic in this world gone.
Another flash and Merlin saw a vision of himself, pale and sick, doubled over on his knees. Behind him was Morgana, dressed in black rags and her hair wild. She shot him a venomous glare. "You and Arthur abandoned me and Camelot. Why should I grant you any mercy?"
Crimson spiraled that vision away. Arthur materialized before Merlin's eyes wearing a black cape and a thorny crown. He slowly rose his head and seemed to glower directly at Merlin. His skin was a sickly gray and Merlin never seen such evil in Arthur's eyes before. A group of men in black robes appeared behind Arthur, their eyes a dark gold. "What's wrong, Merlin?" Arthur sneered. "I'm bringing magic back to the kingdom and we're going to slaughter all the non-magic users."
Fear clutched in Merlin's heart. No! That wasn't Arthur!
An evil smirk graced Arthur's lips. "I'm going to unite Albion with blood."
"NO!" Merlin screamed. He shot back from the crystal and fell onto his back. He panted and wheezed. He raised a trembling hand over his face. "It's not Arthur. It can't be."
"The crystals are dangerous, Emrys. Remember they show what is and what shall never be," Bruta warned.
Merlin lowered his hands and struggled to recollect himself. "That's not Arthur."
"You have strong faith in him," Bruta said. "Good. He needs it. Only you can restore Arthur's faith."
"Remind him of his heart."
Merlin groaned and sat up. "That's so cryptic. It doesn't help me at all." He jerked his head up. "Wait. Fyn. Is that happening in Camelot right now?"
"They are storming the castle this very minute," Bruta said.
Merlin scrambled to feet. "I have to warn Arthur, the others. There's no way we'll get to Camelot in time."
"No. But it can still be saved."
Merlin nodded. "It can."
Bruta smiled. "History will forget about Bruta and Horus, but it is you and Arthur who will be remembered for years to come."
With his last words, Bruta faded away leaving Merlin in the cave with fresh and real nightmares replaying in his head.
Arthur stared at the full moon, casting a blue glow onto the forest below him. His legs dangled off the edge of the cliff as he listened to the crickets and watched the fireflies danced.
The beauty of Camelot never ceased to amaze him.
Maybe he really should just run away.
Arthur snapped his head to look behind him.
Merlin burst through the trees and doubled over, grabbing his knees. "Oh! There you are!"
Arthur scrambled to his feet. "Merlin? What is it?"
Merlin gripped both of Arthur's upper arms. "We have to go back to Camelot. Fyn's taken over. I think...the Southrons? A siege."
Arthur burrowed his brows. "How do you know that?" If Merlin was making this up... But he wouldn't. He knew Arthur loved Camelot too much.
"I saw it. Your father's been dethroned. Possibly dead."
It was the perfect plan. Take over the city in the middle of an uprising.
Gwaine appeared behind Merlin with Percival. "What's all this racket?" He rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
Merlin ignored him. "Arthur, we have to go."
How did Merlin expect Arthur to save the kingdom with just the two of them? It was done, Camelot had fallen.
"What's this I hear?" Tristan approached them with Isolde on his heels. "You're ditching us, leaving us as bait for the hunting party?"
Were any of Arthur's men alive? What of Morgana and Gwen? Geoffrey and Gaius? Audrey? Cian and Anna? Arthur hated himself in that moment. He'd left them to their death. His people were dead because Arthur fell into Fyn's trap. Because Arthur decided he was ready to be king. What an idiot he was!
"Merlin...there's nothing I can do about that now. It's done."
Merlin dropped his arms and widened his eyes. "You give up?"
Arthur's heart broke. In the end, he did fail Merlin.
Merlin shook his head in dismay. "No. Don't tell me that."
"Eh, mates...could one of you..." Gwaine started before he was interrupted.
Merlin jabbed a finger at Arthur's chest. "Did you give up when you traveled to the Forest of Balor to get the very flower that saved my life?"
Arthur blinked at that. No. Giving up wasn't an option. It was Merlin's life, for crying out loud.
"Did you give up when you rescued that druid child from your father?" Merlin continued.
It was a child! Arthur wasn't going to make that mistake again.
Merlin jabbed Arthur's chest again. "Did you give up when you rallied the people of Ealdor to fight back against Kanen?"
Arthur swallowed, uncomfortable.
"Did you give up when the unicorn's curse caused a food shortage in Camelot and your people nearly starved?"
"No! You went out and you offered your life to protect them, to protect me! You didn't give up when the darkest of magic threatened to grow within Cian, you went out and you promised him a land where he could live without fear of being who he is! Do you give up on your dreams of a better Camelot? A land of equality, a land that is fair and just, a land where magic can roam freely once again? Do you give up on that?" Merlin smacked his hand against Arthur's chest. "Do you give up on me?"
Arthur's heart seized. "No, Merlin. Never... I couldn't..."
"Then get your head out of your arse and be the king you're destined to be, Arthur."
Arthur swallowed a thick lump. A king destined for failure, to let his people down?
Merlin stared at him, a realization dawning upon his features. "Gods, nothing I say is going to get through to you, is it?"
Merlin shook his head and grabbed Arthur's hands. He pressed two fingers against Arthur's palm. Their magic connection sparked and Arthur gasped at the strong tingle of magic in his chest that reacted.
"You feel that, Arthur? The magic inside of you?"
A luminous glow spilled out and covered Arthur's skin.
Gwaine, Percival, Tristan, and Isolde all took a step back as the light from Arthur shined down upon them.
Fireflies swiveled round Arthur. An owl flew down and landed on Arthur's shoulder.
He glanced at it in shock.
The leaves of the trees reached out for him and the squirrels chittered as they rushed toward him.
Merlin smiled. "Albion chose you to be her king. She knows your heart better than anyone, better than you. You were chosen to be the Once and Future King who will unite the land of Albion. The land of Albion believes it, but it means nothing if you don't believe it."
Arthur sighed and closed his eyes.
Why was it so hard to believe in himself? Every time he instilled himself with confidence, his self-doubt would return tenfold. Why was he so determined to fail? He didn't want to.
All those dreams Merlin spoke of, Arthur still wanted that. He never gave up on those dreams...but he gave up on himself.
What was it that he recently told Sir Kay? Oh, right. He told the younger knight: "Know your strengths, know your weakness, but most importantly, you must have faith in yourself. A sword wields no strength unless that hand that holds it has courage."
What kind of example did Arthur set if he didn't live up to his own words?
Arthur took a deep breath.
I believe in myself.
The negative voice in his head scoffed, ready to provide all examples of why Arthur shouldn't.
"You have to believe, Arthur," Merlin reminded him.
Arthur tried again.
I'm a warrior, a knight and protector of Camelot. I strive to create a better land for my people. I'm worthy of them and will be a great king.
I am the Once and Future King.
I believe in myself.
Nothing will stand in my way.
I will unite Albion and I will bring peace, I solemnly swear so to do.
A couple birds chattered and chirped above.
Suddenly, an object dropped on top of Arthur's head.
Arthur snapped his eyes opened to catch Merlin stifling a laugh.
Arthur slowly raised his gaze to inspect the edge of a wreath-like crown resting near his brow, decorated with gold-leaves which sparkled in magic.
The owl on his shoulder hooted.
The leaves rustled their approval.
The fireflies zipped up and down.
Merlin chuckled, his eyes bright with mirth. "Long live the King."
No matter how many times Arthur tried to toss it away, somehow, the wreath crown ended back up on his head. He yanked it off again and threw it into the river.
Arthur grumbled as the birds tossed a fresh crown back on him. He glared up at it.
Gwaine laughed. "Better get used to it, Princess."
"It's such a good look on him, isn't it?" Merlin teased.
"The crown or the pout?" Isolde said.
Their laughter grew.
"I'm going to kill every last one of them," Arthur muttered.
"Ah, don't be harsh," Percival slapped Arthur's upper back which almost caused him to stumble forward, "you're enjoying it on the inside."
Arthur's ears burned.
When Merlin finally told the others that he stumbled into a Crystal Cave and saw Camelot swarmed by Southrons, Gwaine and Percival were quick to offer their services. Arthur gathered the sense that Gwaine didn't quite trust him, but he was honored that Gwaine was willing to go so far to help Camelot.
Isolde managed to convince Tristan to join the fray.
The older man lingered behind the group and each time Arthur caught Tristan's eyes, he would catch the glint of uncertainty and...hope.
They were heading up the river, nearing a fork where one would lead them through the White Mountains back to Camelot. Yet if they continued to press on north? Arthur thought on it.
"Merlin? Did you happen to see if Morgana escaped?" Arthur called up.
Merlin stiffened. He forced a swallow and turned back to Arthur. "It was just a flash, I couldn't see specifically all who escaped."
He's hiding something, he saw something else that he's not telling me. "But you saw Gwen."
"That's for certain." Merlin furrowed his brows. "Why?"
"She served years as Morgana's handmaiden. Morgana is bound to have told her some secrets." He tapped his chin. "I wondered if she would convince Sir Leon and the others to hide out there."
"An abandoned castle," Arthur said. "The Castle of the Ancient Kings."
"Wouldn't Fyn know about it?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Nobody's set foot in it for years. Morgana and I used to ride out there when we were younger."
"And how do you plan to take back Camelot?" Tristan snorted behind him. "You're outnumbered."
Arthur stopped walking and turned to him. "Have you ever heard the story of the Black Lord?"
Tristan shook his head.
"Famous story among the knights. Lord Eddard and his men had recently ended a battle against the Mercians. They were battered and weary, too exhausted to move. The King's division lined up on the ridge, fresh and mounted, ready to slaughter what little remained of Eddard's men. Eddard didn't lose heart, he rallied the few men he had, mounted on a horse before he could collapse, and charged for King Mercia and his army."
Arthur noticed that Tristan listened intently yet crossed his arms as if to feign disinterest.
"Eddard and his men cut through Mercia's army until there was no one left before them and took the King of Mercia prisoner. They defeated Mercia's army by hard slogging and sheer guts. In war, it's not the numbers that tips the odds in your favor, sometimes its sheer guts with a bit of genius."
Gwaine chuckled sadly next to Arthur. "The Lord of Manau. You know that story?"
Arthur smiled softly. He loved that story when he was a kid. Growing up, he daydreamed of leading his own men against such odds, being the hero of his people, and having his father beam with pride. "A leader has to model himself after someone," he said before he joined Merlin at the front.
The two walked alongside each other.
"Funny, you never told that story at Ealdor," Merlin said.
Arthur glanced over him. "That's because I believed it was just a story, until I saw proof at Ealdor." Arthur noticed Merlin's gait had a purpose, he seemed robust and hearty. "You can summon your magic again."
"Better than that," Merlin said. "I know how to wield it."
"You mind using that magic when you help me retake Camelot?" Arthur asked.
Merlin pursed his lips in thought. "Nope, don't fancy it."
Arthur lightly shoved Merlin to the side. "Too bad. You don't have a choice."
"And you wanted a just kingdom..." Merlin scoffed playfully.
Merlin's eyes widened and flashed to gold.
An arrow that shot for Arthur suddenly slowed to a halt before his chest and it fell.
Battle cries sounded in the air and the small band around Arthur, apart from Merlin, drew their swords.
Bandits. Why were there always bandits in the Valley of the Fallen Kings?
A rabble of men charged for them, armed with axes, maces, and swords.
Arthur ducked one with a mace and brought his sword down.
Merlin held up his hands and six of the bandits went flying back to crash into the boulders.
"We best move it!" Percival yelled. "They're closing in!"
Arthur noticed a band of men coming in from both narrow paths of the valley. They would have no way out.
"Merlin!" he barked.
"Way ahead of you!" his sorcerer snapped back. He raised his palm, eyes flashed gold, and a wave of boulders came smashing down to block the oncoming bandits behind them.
Isolde punched a bandit and flipped her ponytail to the other side of her neck. "Trouble follows you around, doesn't it?" she said with a wink.
The swarming bandit from the front neared them.
Merlin raised his palms and then paused.
Two figures leaped down from the walls onto the men. All ten of the bandits were tackled to the ground. The two figures bounded up, swords in hand, both panting.
"Whew, never asked me to do that again."
"Wait. That wasn't your idea?" The figure turned and Arthur released a gasp of relief.
"Lancelot!" The other guy faced Arthur. "Elyan!"
Merlin rushed forward and hugged Lancelot. Arthur swallowed back the tinge of jealousy. I still can't believe Lancelot knew of your secret before I did.
"Glad to see you took Gwen's advice and partnered up with Elyan's blacksmith business in Haldor," he said.
Arthur approached them and smacked both of the newcomers' shoulders. "What are you guys doing here?"
"Looking for you," Elyan answered. He poked an unconscious bandit with the tip of his sword to double check his work. "Gwen sent me a message. Said you were in trouble. Wanted for treason?"
Merlin and Arthur shared a concerned look.
Lancelot peered over their shoulders. "Seems like you already found help."
"Ah, well, we need an extra hand carrying the Princess' ego," Gwaine said.
Elyan read Arthur's body language. "What is it?"
"Camelot was stormed by enemy troops."
Elyan's features dropped. "Guinevere?"
"We think she made it out," Arthur said. "We're on our way to reconvene with those who escaped." He clasped Elyan's shoulder. "I appreciate you coming out for me."
"You watched over Gwen when our father was killed. I had to return the favor and watch out for you."
I should've stopped that from happening, Arthur thought with regret.
"We'll come with you," Lancelot said. "There are more bandits along this road. The whole of Camelot has been in a turmoil when word spread of your wanted arrest."
Perfect. Funny how everything changes in the span of just two days.
Elyan held up a finger at Arthur. "Why are you wearing leaves around your head?"
"Come on," Merlin said. "Time's not on our side."
Arthur finally remembered why the primeval castle was abandoned. Most of the roads to it was impassable.
It was nearing nightfall when Arthur finally hacked a thick root free from his path. He stepped out into the clearing before the grand stoned castle, the early stars twinkling behind it. Vines clutched the side of one of the turrets, and another turret had a wall that had crumbled away, with a young tree protruding from the center.
A breath caught in Arthur's throat. He always felt like he had been here before, like something out of a dream.
The others tottered out after him, scratches upon their faces, thorns and leaves stuck in their hair.
Gwaine gestured over Arthur. "You didn't even get a scratch, what the hell?" he gripped.
"Because he had the good sense not to plow ahead into the thorns," Percival said.
"King of Albion," Merlin said as if that explained everything. "Best get used to it."
Everyone aligned next to him to gaze up at the towering castle.
"It's magnificent," Isolde said. She grasped Tristan's hand and gave him a tight-lipped smile.
Tristan returned it and squeezed her hand.
Arthur watched the starlight reflect within Merlin's eyes, his jaw slacked as he took in the sight of the castle.
"Just when I thought I'd seen all of Camelot," Merlin muttered.
Arthur smiled. "It used to be a neutral place where the kings of old used to meet." He beckoned them with his jerk of his head. "Come on, let's find if the others are here."
Arthur took the lead and rushed through the bundle of trees in front of the castle. He jogged down the hill and came upon the main entrance. The drawbridge was up, smashed in and broken, with a bashed-in hole big enough for a man to squeeze through. The ditch before it filled up over the years, blanketed by moss.
"Who goes there?"
Arthur stumbled to a stop as did the others behind him. He knew that voice.
Sir Leon stepped from the shadows, smeared blood on his features. "Arthur?" He charged forward and grasped the man into a hug. "Arthur!"
Arthur squirmed uncomfortably. "Glad to see you're alright."
Leon pulled back and held up a stern finger. "If you order me to stand down again when I'm trying to save your life, by love of Camelot, I'll run you through myself."
Arthur held up a hand. "Fair enough."
Sir Leon turned to Merlin and pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug. "Merlin! Arthur didn't get you killed!"
I resent that statement.
And another person rushed for him. Arthur recognize the blur as he was crushed for a second hug.
"Sir Kay," Arthur greeted.
"You're alive." Sir Kay pulled free and stepped back. "You came back for us."
"I didn't come alone," Arthur said. He turned to the group behind him and introduced them to each other. When names were exchanged and awkward greetings made, Arthur stepped forth to Leon. "What happened?"
"It was crazy after that dragon rescued you. Uther had most of us knights locked in the dungeons. Hell, he even locked up Morgana and Gaius. The people protested against your near-execution. Uther left Fyn in charge when he led the man-hunt for you."
"Yeah, I ran into him," Arthur said, bitterly.
Leon winced at that before he cleared his throat. "In the middle of the night, Fyn allowed the Southrons access into Camelot and that's when everything..."
"Arthur! Merlin!" a familiar voice cried.
"Guinevere," Arthur exclaimed.
She rushed past him to give Merlin a tight hug. Arthur pursed his lips and dropped his arms. She found Elyan, and brother hugged sister.
"You found him," she sighed with relief.
"And he found you," Elyan said.
"I'm glad Morgana told you about this place," Arthur said. "Where is she?"
Guinevere's face fell. "Still in Camelot."
Arthur gripped the sides of Gwen's arms, hard. "What?"
Gwen smiled sadly at him. "You know her. She distracted the guards so that we could all get away. She's safe for now. She, Gaius, and Geoffrey have locked themselves in a hideout in the library. No way out though. We communicated by raven." She pulled a small scroll from her dress pocket. "Fyn's taken complete control. He's dethroned Uther."
Gwen sighed and turned to Leon.
Sir Leon lowered his head. "We got out as most as we could, but I feared the Southrons were too much. I'm sorry, sire. Many of the people remain."
"You got out with your lives and you helped those that you could. There's nothing to be sorry for. Where are the rest?"
Gwen motioned with her head. "This way," she said.
She and Arthur squeezed through the tight opening in the drawbridge. A torch was lit behind the drawbridge giving them a bit of light as they traveled over the uneven stoned-passageway, with bundles of fern-like leaves that have grown through the cracks.
They entered the Great Hall, candles were aligned on every windowsill, and campfires were set up in the center of the hall, contained by boulders. Commoners and knights, peasants and nobles, all gathered as equals. Some handed out bread, others shared stories, and a few were comforting one another.
One by one, they glanced up at Arthur's arrival.
The room silenced.
"Arthur!" a kid's voice exclaimed. Cian suddenly came bounding up the stairs. "You came for us!"
"Always," Arthur said. He scooped Cian up and cradled him against his hip. "I'm glad to see you're okay."
"Donna was right. You do care about Camelot."
"Yes, she was," Arthur said.
Cian touched the crown on Arthur's head. "A wreath crown?"
Arthur was suddenly overwhelmed with embarrassment. He should probably take this off.
Cian giggled. "Did you go and become king of the forest of something?"
Arthur blushed. "Something like that."
"For the Love of Arthur!" the kid screamed on top of his lungs.
Arthur whirled his head back at the display of loyalty. What... He'd thought this kid hated him.
In a huge chorus, the survivors in the Great Hall bellowed out a cheer, "For the love of Arthur! For the love of Arthur!"
Tears welled in Arthur's eyes. His people never gave up on him. Arthur was the one who had given up on himself.
He set Cian down.
"I used my magic to light the campfires...that's good, right?" he asked.
Arthur took the kid's hands. "You saved their lives, Cian."
Arthur, along with Cian, walked down the stairs to greet and acknowledge every single person in the Great Hall. He reunited with Audrey, with Ben and Donna, as well as Anna and a few of his knights. He offered words of encouragement to those who needed it, silence gestures of support to others, and received upliftment in return.
For each and every one of them, Arthur thanked them for their loyalty. Because without them, Arthur wouldn't be king.
It was late into the night by the time Arthur found the council room. It took a lot of doing, but eventually, Arthur pried open the door. Dust flew into the air and consumed the room. A huge cloth draped over the table in the center.
The Round Table.
The stories were true.
The room was bigger than the council room in Camelot, decorated with spider webs. A chandelier hung over the table and a few half-pillars held candles. A fireplace was in the center of the back wall, with two armored knights stationed at both ends of the fireplace.
Arthur walked toward the table, reached his hands over the chairs and yanked the cloth back. More dust swiveled in the air and Arthur coughed.
When the air cleared, he inspected the table before him. A stoned table hardened by the layers of dust over the years. He trailed his fingers over the interweaven-knotted designs to indicate each seat that set at the table. He counted eleven. At the edge of the table for each seated person was a carved ancient word Arthur didn't recognize.
Arthur touched the one before him and felt a spark of magical connection as his fingers traced the carved word. He gathered the sense of respect and pride. He smiled. He needed to create a round table for Camelot when the city was saved.
And it will be saved.
"The legendary round table."
Arthur spun on his heels to face Merlin who had already entered.
Merlin rested against the doorframe. He ruffled his nose. "Needs some tidying up." He whipped his palm out. The fireplace and candles flared to life, the spider webs spiraled and vanished in a puff of gold light. Dust collapsed onto the floor and seeped through the cracks.
Arthur cocked a brow. "You like to flaunt your magic every time you get a chance, don't you?"
"Well, when you've been hiding it for so many years..." Merlin said, clasping his hands behind his back. He measured Arthur up. "You're planning to overtake Camelot tomorrow, aren't you?"
"I must strike now before Fyn expects me. Right now, he assumes I'm heading west and intent on escaping."
Merlin wiped a finger on the table as if to ensure there was no more dust upon it. "I'm surprised Fyn moved in as fast as he did."
"My father always told me to watch out for lords and nobles for they yearn the king's power more than commoners. Fyn used me to blindside my father." Arthur sighed. "Maybe all Fyn wanted was to be heard and we created this."
"You can't be at fault for the actions of others, Arthur."
"No," Arthur said. "But I can understand him." He stared into the flames of the fire.
"You've got a good heart, Arthur. Don't ever lose it," Merlin said.
Arthur turned to him. "You idiot, how can I lose it when it's right in front of me?"
Merlin's cheeks turned red. He studied his feet.
"You're the one with the big heart, Merlin. You're one of the bravest and selfless man I know. You're the one who taught me that it was okay to be me," Arthur said. He walked forward and grasped the back of Merlin's neck. "Thank you."
Merlin slowly flicked his gaze up and locked eyes with Arthur, his deep blue eyes. Merlin cleared his throat and stepped back.
Arthur added a bit of distance and scratched the side of his neck. "Um, yeah..."
"What's your plan?" Merlin asked.
Arthur stared at the round table. "I'm not sure. Yet I know where to start."
He knew who he would have by his side.
It took time but he and Merlin gathered the other nine people to the room.
Arthur waited behind a chair at the table, his back to the fireplace. He watched as the ten people he chosen collected into the room: Merlin, Sir Leon, Sir Kay, Guinevere, Gwaine, Percival, Tristan, Isolde, Lancelot, and Elyan.
"Come and join me," Arthur beckoned.
They all stood behind their own respective chairs, Merlin was to Arthur's left and Guinevere to his right.
"This table belonged to the ancient kings of Camelot. A round table afforded no one man more importance than any other. A place where everyone had say that was of equal value, a place where their voices mattered regardless of rank and title. I vowed to create a land of equality, and today will mark the start of that."
Arthur took the time to look at each person at his table and measured them in as if taking in their value. "Without each of you, I would not be here." All of them had taught him and influenced Arthur's dreams of building a better future. "We would not be here. Camelot has been taken over by Southrons. Tomorrow, I make my bid to rescue the kingdom from the hands of a man driven by greed and spite. No longer will Camelot be run by those traits. It's the dawn of a new day. Are there any around this table who will join me?"
The logs cracked and sizzled from the fireplace behind him.
Sir Leon was the first to answer. He raised his shoulders tall. "I have fought alongside you many times. There is no one that I would rather die for."
Arthur smiled softly at that.
Sir Kay was next, "When I first came to Camelot, you treated me as an equal, you had faith of the man in me I had yet to see. Let me repay that with my overwhelming faith in you."
Lancelot glanced between Arthur and Merlin. "For the brief time I was there, you two taught me the values of a knight and a code that a man should live his life. To fight with honor, for justice, freedom, and all that's good. I believe in the world that you two will build."
Elyan inclined his head. "Even though she was a servant, you ensured Gwen was taken care of. My father, Tom, believed in you, as do I."
Percival crossed his arms. "Your enemies are my enemies," he said, simple as that.
Isolde twisted her braid. "You returned to me the spark of hope I'd thought I had lost. You bet I'm joining you."
Tristan turned to her and grabbed her hand. "Partners for life, love." He brought it up and kissed her knuckles. He turned to Arthur. "Arthur, most of my life I've shied away from other people's wars, and despised the power and wealth that kings buy with the lives of men, but you've shown yourself to be different."
Tears welled in Arthur's eyes.
Gwaine chuckled. "He's right. I mean, you guys don't stand a chance, but I wouldn't miss it for the world." He winked. "Maybe you are worthy dying for."
Arthur released a soft laugh.
Gwen caught his eye. "I see a Camelot that is fair and just. I see a king that the people will love and be proud to call their sovereign. You know my answer."
Finally, Arthur glanced at Merlin, who stood with tears bubbling up in his own eyes. "You prat, I believe in you. I always have."
Arthur tightened his lips, struggling to contain his emotions. He was touched by each and every one of their words.
"Thank you," he said, his voice cracked a bit. "There's no one else I'd rather have by my side. You've proved to me the strength of your character, and of your convictions. Tonight, I'm going to do something that my father will greatly frown upon."
He gestured to the fireplace behind him.
"Line up, on your knees," Arthur said.
"You're not going to execute us, are you?" Gwaine quipped.
The ten of them lined up, knees touching the floor.
Arthur unsheathed his sword and started with the one on the far left. He tapped the flat of the blade on Lancelot's right shoulder. "Arise, Sir Lancelot," he said, before he proceeded to tap the blade on the man's left shoulder, "Knight of Albion."
Then he went to the next person and repeated.
"Arise, Sir Elyan, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Leon, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Kay, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Percival, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Gwaine, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Tristan, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Isolde, Knight of Albion."
"Arise, Sir Guinevere, Knight of Albion."
And finally, the bravest of them all,
"Arise, Sir Merlin, Knight and Sorcerer of Albion."
Merlin grinned and rose to his feet.
Arthur mirrored Merlin's expression and looked upon his new knights with pride. "Tomorrow, when you fight, you can stand proud knowing you are members of the most noble army the world has ever known, the Knights of the Round Table."
Chapter 8: Demand of Sacrifice
"He'll be expecting you," Sir Leon said.
Arthur rested his hands on the mantle above the fireplace. The heat of the flames warmed through his chainmail.
The Knights of the Round Table sat behind him, drawing up plans on how to retake Camelot from Fyn's hands.
"Perhaps your early arrival may throw him off," Leon continued, "but he's no fool. He'll be prepared."
Arthur knew that. Prepared or not, Arthur couldn't allow Camelot to fester under Fyn's hands any longer. Not while Arthur still drew breath.
"My father?" he asked instead.
Leon sighed. "He returned just before Fyn made his move."
"Caught him off guard," Arthur said, turning to glance over his shoulder.
Leon inclined his head. "Sire, if I may ask...what propelled Uther to order your execution?"
Arthur didn't miss the lack of "King" when Leon addressed his father. The room drew silent. Everyone's that curious, eh? His gaze flickered past Merlin. "Fyn's manipulation," he answered.
Leon glowered. He knew there was more.
Gwen crossed her arms. "Morgana and I were there. Your father grew worried, distrustful of you, but something made him charge home for Camelot. I know Fyn was behind it, but he never lied about your actions."
I may have lied about some of them, Arthur realized. Arthur turned back to the flames and tightened his grip around the edge of the mantle. He cleared his throat. "I may or may have not drafted up a law to legalize magic, which he may or may not have seen."
A few startled gasps filled the room and Arthur didn't dare look back.
"I know my father and I know his weaknesses. I exposed them." I played my deceased mother and my own magic against my father. What did Arthur expect to happen?
"You're...of magic?" Kay muttered. "I saw what you did at your execution. I saw your skin."
Arthur closed his eyes and sighed. I'm the very price that cost all the magic users, all the sorcerers and sorceresses, their lives. "Merlin accidently woke it...back when he saved my life from the Questing Beast." He turned and faced his knights. "But that is not why I drafted up that law."
"You did it for Merlin," Guinevere said, matter-of-factly. Nothing ever gets past her, does it? She turned to Merlin and graced him a soft smile. "You really were in disguise, weren't you?" she teased. Her face fell. "Your confession back then, it was true."
Unshed tears build in Merlin's eyes. "Yes. Your father..."
"It's okay, Merlin. You didn't have a hand in killing him."
Arthur did, somewhat. He arrested her father, and brought him to his death. How can Guinevere look past that?
She glanced up at Arthur. "When did you find out about Merlin's magic?"
Officially? A few weeks ago. Truly? Since their second meeting. Arthur always knew there was something about Merlin. Knew that something strange happened. Arthur never got clumsy. He was a skilled and trained warrior. His sharp eyes caught Merlin's magic. Why he never said anything...
He caught Merlin's gaze. He knew why. Merlin treated Arthur like Arthur deserved to be treated, not because of his name, not because of his father, because Arthur at the time was, well, an ass.
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck.
It was Sir Leon who barked a laugh. "You've always known!"
Gwaine grinned. "You hid a sorcerer from your father?"
"Looks like you're the nobler one," Lancelot added with a wink.
"We're getting off point..." Arthur began, trying to steer it back to their plans on retaking Camelot.
"How long have you had magic?" Guinevere asked Merlin.
Arthur held his breath. That was a personal question. Was it right to ask Merlin that in front of everyone? Then he noticed what Guinevere was trying to do.
Sir Kay shifted in his seat. He was obviously still uncomfortable about magic.
Arthur knew Leon well enough to know he harbored some hatred for it, but he was willing to understand it.
Tristan, Gwaine, Percival, and Isolde, well, they had handlings with magic users and probably smuggled some out of Camelot. They were close with the druids.
Lancelot knew Merlin's secret, and kept it.
Elyan traveled across Camelot, and knew the land better than Arthur, knew the truth of magic.
Guinevere was trying to bring everyone together by using Merlin, their powerful magic user.
Merlin's voice was soft. "I've always had it. My whole life. I've always struggled with it. I never truly found a purpose to use my magic..." His blue eyes landed on Arthur. "Until Arthur."
That statement warmed Arthur's heart, and he quickly realized what Merlin did. He was uniting the bonds of the knights with their purpose in Arthur. Why did Merlin always make it about Arthur?
Kay sighed. "Arthur...if we do take back Camelot...what then?"
He noticed creases formed and brows raised among the others. Kay raised a good point.
"Your execution order still stands. If we retake Camelot, Uther will take the throne once again and I...I cannot follow a man who is so easily manipulated."
Arthur wondered if it was truly his mother's death that destroyed his father, or was his father always a bit mad, controlled by his emotions and need for power? He saw the good in his father, and he still did. He no longer saw Uther as a worthy king, though.
Leon hid a smile behind his gloved hand.
Arthur cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. "What did you do?"
"As you requested," Leon asked. He tucked his hand inside his undershirt and pulled out a small scroll. He handed it to Arthur. "We managed to accomplish this while your father was out on the hunt for you," Leon said. "I wanted to wait, but this is a good time for you to know."
Arthur un-scrolled the small paper and stared in shock at the signed names. He shot his head up to Leon.
"The full support of the council is behind you, Arthur. When we take Camelot back, the throne is yours, if you still wish it."
"Gaius and Geoffrey were very persuasive." Leon's features turned serious. "But it's all you, Arthur."
It suddenly became all too real for Arthur. When Arthur dealt with Fyn, after Arthur saved his kingdom...
He now had the means to force Uther to abdicate the throne.
Arthur...King of Camelot.
He curled his left hand into a fist, to calm his trembling nerves. He could do this. He may be destined to be King, but this time, he actually wanted it.
"My knights, I can promise you a better future. But I can't get there without you," Arthur said. He laid the scroll down and pressed his knuckles against the table. "We need a plan, a good one to retake Camelot without much bloodshed."
Gwaine's grin grew. "Well, as knights then, I'm sure you've heard of the fool's guard?"
One of Arthur's favorite sword move. You appear to be open for attack by your opponent, yet you able to commit quick defensive strikes when they move in. A perfect way to lure your opponent and get a read of him.
Arthur mirrored Gwaine's expression. "And by what means, do you hope to draw Fyn to attack?"
"It all depends on if you're willing..."
"Willing for what?"
"To be the bait."
Five hours to sunrise, and a half hour before they moved out. The plan they came up with was a good one, with rooms for improvisation. Arthur never liked a fixed plan, as a warrior, it was always best to be ready for a surprise, to expect the unexpected. He liked Gwaine, for someone who was so laidback and carefree, Gwaine had a sharp head, one Arthur liked.
A loose plan, "in case all hell breaks loose" as Gwaine put it.
By gods, he had to ensure he would be king. Camelot needed men like Gwaine who understood the truth of battle, like Percival who closely held kindness behind strength, like Tristan and Isolde who were partners through love, like Lancelot, noble and brave at heart, like Elyan and Guinevere, who looked past the faults and forgave, like Kay who listened and grew with wisdom, and like Merlin who was loyal because he wanted to be, not because he was forced, who showed Arthur true loyalty, and most importantly, what it truly means to be equal to someone.
Arthur grunted and tried to pull the strap of his spaulder underneath his shoulder. His knuckles banged against the metal plate and he hissed.
Calm and steady fingers overtook Arthur's and set the strap correctly.
Arthur stared down at Merlin, dressed in red gambeson and chainmail. "Merlin, you don't have to do this...after all we've been through..." You're more than my servant.
"I like doing this. Getting your armor ready on you was making sure you were well protected when you went into battle, in case I couldn't," Merlin said.
"You protected me well enough," Arthur said.
"Take an easy when you confront Fyn. Don't force the battle."
Arthur creased his brows. "Yes, sire."
Merlin glanced up at him. "I'm serious." He sighed, his fingers still on the strap. He tightened it.
Arthur glanced at his feet. "Merlin...chances are...ahem, whatever happens." He blew out a heavy sigh and stared hard at Merlin, his equal. "One thing I always tell my knights, no man is worth your tears."
Merlin swallowed, he pointed a trembling finger at Arthur. "You're certainly not." He forced a weak laugh and walked behind Arthur to the round table.
Arthur turned to Merlin.
"Nothing is going to happen to you, Arthur. It's my destiny to protect you."
"Oh?" Arthur mocked.
"And, because..." Merlin cleared his throat. "Well, I don't expect you to understand..."
"Warmed up to me, didn't you?"
"Still a prat," Merlin snapped back, teasingly.
The tension in the room lightened. Merlin's words of his destiny echoed in Arthur's mind. "Well, if it's your destiny to protect me. I supposed it's my destiny to protect you."
Merlin's eyes widened. "Arthur..."
"Merlin, you're a brave man, and the most loyal man I've ever met...sometimes I wonder if I deserve that loyalty."
"You do," Merlin was quick to say. "It took time, but you do."
The guilt of when Arthur was on the executioner's stand returned. His old thoughts of the things he'd left unsaid to Merlin. Gods, why was it so hard to do it? What was he afraid of?
The sound of fabric tearing brought Arthur back.
Merlin ripped a strip from his red scarf.
He pursed his lips. What was Merlin doing?
Merlin stepped forward to Arthur's left shoulder, and tied the strip of his scarf around the chainmail of Arthur's upper arm.
Arthur blushed. Merlin was giving him a favor, like women do to knights before tournaments.
Merlin opened his mouth to say something then closed it instead and smiled.
It was that wonderful smile that eased Arthur's worries. That made him feel like he could take on the world, he always looked for it before and during the tournaments his father hosted, before and during battle, before and during a boring council meeting. What was it about Merlin that eased Arthur's worries? What was it about that smile?
Damn, Arthur had it bad, didn't he?
He grabbed Merlin's wrist and pulled an object from his pocket, one that he always carried around and never told anybody.
He placed a copper engraved coin on Merlin's opened palm, one that was engraved with the sigil of his mother's: a falcon.
Ha. Merlin meant falcon. He wondered if somehow Ygraine sent Merlin Arthur's way. Sometimes he would sit back and pretend she watched over him. Other times he'd believed it.
Merlin gazed at the sigil.
"It was my mother's," Arthur said.
"I can't take this," Merlin objected.
"Just...take it." So that my mother can watch over you for me. Arthur grew up among warriors and knights, he wasn't afraid of death. He was afraid of leaving Merlin behind, though.
Why couldn't Arthur bring himself to say this? Why was expressing his true voice so hard?
Merlin smiled again as if he heard Arthur's inner thoughts. "Thank you."
Just like with his mother's book, if there was anyone Arthur trusted with his heart, by gods, it was Merlin.
I love you, he thought. God damn it, I'm in love with you.
"I'm glad you're here with me, Merlin," Arthur said instead, his throat tight.
Merlin's smile lopsided. "Always, until the end of all things."
Arthur gave a friendly smack on Merlin's chest and let his hand linger for a moment. They exit and headed for the remaining Knights of the Round Table and the other knights that managed to escape from Camelot.
Watch yourself, Fyn. You may have an army, but I have one better.
I have Merlin.
Streaks of red stained across Arthur's back as he touched the stoned walls of Camelot, his Camelot.
Behind him were his line of knights, both men and women. Just like at Ealdor, Arthur somehow managed to spark equality. He was ingrained to protect women and treat them as if they were fragile and beautiful beings meant to be protected. They weren't fragile, and damn, they could fight as well as men, perhaps better. When did he start limiting them?
Morgana always kicked his butt growing up. If she were able to train like he did, she probably still would.
Morgana, I'm coming for you. You're not alone.
This wasn't about reclaiming Camelot from Fyn. This was about retaking Camelot and building a better future.
"Leon?" Arthur whispered.
"I will lead Kay and the others through the siege tunnels and free the prisoners. You'll have more knights joining you soon," he said in a hushed tone.
"I know where Morgana and the rest are," she said. She would be joined with Lancelot and Elyan.
Arthur drew in a breath of courage. Whatever happens...
He held out his hands to Gwaine. "Make it damn believable," he said.
Merlin held out a hand and chanted an incantation.
Gwaine reeled his head back and whistled. "Nice one, Merlin. Limp a little, will you, Princess? You look like you took a round of beatings."
Arthur grinned at Merlin. "Good thinking."
"Let's do this," Arthur said. "For the love of Camelot."
The main entrance into Camelot was closed, guarded by five men, dressed in black rags of the Southrons army.
Arthur allowed himself to be dragged forward by Percival, his hands bound in front of him by rope (very loosely of course).
Merlin stumbled forth behind him, guided roughly by Isolde.
Tristan and Gwaine approached the guards.
"May we permit entrance into your city?" Tristan asked, voice tough.
"Camelot is closed. Move along," the one in center with a thick beard said.
Gwaine rose his brows. "Move along?" He forced a fake laugh. "We're here to collect the bounty on him!" He jerked a thumb Arthur's way. "From one mercenary to another, do us a favor and grant us entrance, mate," Gwaine said, his voice smooth.
"King Fyn has no interest in rogue knights," the man said, not in the least bit moved by Gwaine. "Move. Along."
Gwaine leaned forward. "A change in management, eh? I suppose this new King should take notice of this. We're here to collect the bounty on former Prince Arthur."
The men instantly stiffened in alert.
Yet Percival was quick. He placed the tip of a knife against Arthur's throat.
"Sorry, folks, we're planning to collect the bounty, one wrong movement and my friend here will not hesitate to kill Arthur. And I'm sure your precious new King wants him alive. Yay? Nay?"
Tristan twirled two daggers in his hands. "I wouldn't mind taking out a couple men in black either."
The bearded men growled. He motioned to the men stationed at the battlefronts above. They moved and the gates opened.
Gwaine smiled. "Good choice."
Tristan tossed a couple small pouches of coins and a few of the men caught it against their chest. "Rounds of drinks, on us."
They grumbled but easily compiled.
Percival shoved Arthur forward, tip still at the neck.
Arthur was grateful they were on his side. Arthur had always hated mercenaries, yet they were a few that he respected. When Arthur grew up, he often wondered the difference between a mercenary and a knight. Technically, they were both hired by the sword. Knights by good names, land, and gold. Mercenaries by whatever they would take. Who was Arthur to say was more honorable when he met honorable men of many. Names held power, yes, but names and labels don't define a man.
Arthur took this time to gauge the well-being of his people as he and Merlin were manhandled through the streets of the lower town.
He noticed many homes had been ransacked, there were a stack of bodies between alleys of some homes and businesses. A woman hugged a younger one, covered in bruises.
Arthur's blood boiled. Fyn allowed his men to rape the women of Camelot. Fyn allowed his men to butcher Arthur's people. There was nothing more Arthur wanted in that moment than to slam the edge of his blade deep into Fyn's skull. He glanced down at the dagger at his throat, plans already forming on how to barge through.
Merlin caught Arthur's gaze and gave a slight shook of his head. He knew what Arthur was thinking.
Arthur struggled to control his erratic breathing, his blood pounding in his ears.
"Dead man walking," Gwaine bellowed out.
Arthur wondered why Gwaine was directing attention unto them.
A few people glanced their way and released startled gasps. Fingers were pointed, mutters spread like a wildfire, and hope rekindled in his people's eyes.
Arthur had returned.
Instead of playing the part of the captured man, Arthur gave them all a reassuring smile. I'll get our home back. He vowed to slaughter any and every Southron who remained in Camelot after this.
The group made their way to the Citadel. A few times Southrons would come up and demand the meaning of their presence.
Gwaine and Tristan easily conned their way through.
A crowd of Southrons and Camelot's people began to gather near the main tower. Arthur hoped they provided enough distraction for Leon's group and Guinevere's group to achieve success.
As they drew near the throne room, Arthur's battering heart started to calm. Strange. How he always felt calm the second before the blood of battle.
The Southrons opened the throne doors and allowed them entrance.
Heat flooded Arthur's face at the sight of Fyn sitting on the throne, his knees over the armrest. He was smacking on a grape.
"Ah! Arthur! You've returned. Just in time for my coronation," Fyn said as he clapped his hands in glee.
The throne doors shut behind them with a heavy thud.
Arthur's lips curled back. "I'd rather see my sword embedded upon your head than my crown."
Fyn swiveled his feet to the floor. "Your crown?" He caught sight of the wreath-crown upon Arthur's head. "Did you snap and make your own crown? The threat of death broke you, didn't it?"
"Enough chitchat," Tristan grumbled. "We want our money."
Fyn's grin was wide. "Money? Crown's in debt. Consider this a service out of the goodness of your heart."
"Percival," Gwaine barked.
Arthur tried not to wince as Percival pressed the tip of the dagger deeper against his neck. Blood trickled down. Why did he agree to this plan again?
Fyn cackled. "Oh, please. I've wanted Arthur dead for years. I preferably rather torture him until he forgot his own name, but the endgame is always the same, rotting in the dirt with maggots crawling out of his eye sockets."
Gwaine shot Arthur a look as if to say 'is this guy insane?'
"Funny. After your escapade, I was expecting to be attacked by a fire-breathing dragon."
If only Kilgharrah didn't get injured, Arthur would've had the chance to grant that wish. He would love to see Kilgharrah chomping on Fyn's head.
"Calm your emotions, Arthur," a soft feminine voice filled his ears.
Arthur immediately knew it to be Albion...the land talking to him like it did back in the forest.
"You do not wish for blood. There is a reason why I chose you, Arthur. You, and not your previous incarnations."
"...dragons alive," Gwaine said.
"Beside the point," Fyn said, drumming his fingers together. "Are you going to kill him or we're just going to stand around here all day?"
Arthur's instincts rose.
His gaze flicked to Merlin who was surveying the room. They locked eyes. Merlin was worried, there was a tightness around his friend's eyes.
"I'm no fool. Arthur is of magic. He could've escaped your grips if he wanted. Instead he allowed to be paraded in."
Arthur felt Percival tensed behind him. Be on alert, but don't be surprised. Expect the unexpected.
He motioned to Percival to lower the dagger, which the man complied. He stepped forward toward Fyn, adjusting the cuffs of his gambeson underneath his chainmail. "No. You're no fool. You took over Camelot in less than a day. Impressive."
Fyn didn't accept the compliment. His eyelids narrowed in suspicion.
Arthur continued, "Yet I wouldn't get too comfortable in that seat. Your reign will end by midday."
Anger flashed in Fyn's eyes. "I'm glad this was a ruse. I'll enjoy torturing you." He made a motion.
"Arthur!" Merlin shouted.
He glanced over his shoulder in time to see Merlin stop a fireball spiraling toward the group.
The five Southrons by the throne doors were sorcerers. And they were flanked by ten other Southrons.
Fifteen and an unpredictable wannabe-King vs six.
The odds were not good.
"Arthur!" Percival tossed a sword toward Arthur who caught the hilt with his hand.
He twirled it and beckoned the Southrons forth with cocky smirk.
Swords clashed against swords. Fireballs and lightning zapped against Merlin's invisible shield.
Merlin threw his palm out and the five sorcerers slammed against the doors. He muttered another incantation and the door bar lit up in gold.
Good. Arthur could ensure there would be no further company through those doors. For the time being at least.
The sorcerers were quick to get back onto their feet, yet Arthur immediately got distracted by a man with a heavy club.
He ducked and feigned right, causing the man to swing his club down and missed. Arthur smirked. It was easier to bring down a heavy weapon than it was to bring it up. Arthur's sword sliced across the man's chest before he had the chance to lift his weapon back up.
He spun around another charging man and somehow, found himself back to back with Merlin.
"How are the sorcerers coming along?" Arthur yelled over his shoulder.
Merlin shouted an incantation and the ceiling crumbled, raining debris upon the sorcerers. Merlin sighed. "Persistent. The soldiers?"
Arthur punched a man across the jaw with his left hand, knocking the Southron out. "Not earning their gold's worth." He flashed a grin. "Need a hand?"
"Leave the magic to me," Merlin said.
Arthur caught movement behind Merlin and pulled his friend out of harm's way as lightning zapped where he once was.
"Arthur!" Merlin shoved his palm out, eyes flashed gold, sending a charging Southron with a sword hard onto his back.
Sharp cries of pain pierced the air.
Arthur and Merlin turned toward the throne.
Arthur's stomach dropped.
The cream pillars of the room took a life of their own, wrapping around Gwaine, Tristan, Isolde, and Percival's necks.
Fyn stood at the foot of the throne, eyes flared in gold. A dangerous smirk graced his features. He was a sorcerer?
Arthur growled. "Let them go."
The other sorcerers lined up behind Arthur and Merlin.
The few remaining Southrons stayed off to the sidelines.
Fyn cracked his neck. "I'm surprised. You're not of magic, Arthur. It's your lanky manservant."
Arthur didn't rise to the bait.
"Release them," he threatened once more.
"I must say, possessing this worthless body had its perks," Fyn said. "To be able to witness the downfall of Bruta in person."
Bruta? Arthur racked his brain. He was the first King of Camelot, and his ancestor. Hence, one of Uther's reasons for taking control of Camelot twenty years ago.
"Who are you?" Merlin asked in a near a whisper. It wasn't fear, Arthur realized. Something else.
Fyn smirked. "You have many enemies, Arthur. Fyn, especially, he planned all of this, all I had to do was wait in his measly little body for this moment to reveal myself."
"Cornelius Sigan," the voice sounded around Arthur.
The name, it sounded familiar, like from a childhood nightmare.
"I should've known the man constantly attached to your side was Horus," Fyn, or should Arthur call him Sigan now, said. His eyes flashed red as they glared at Merlin.
Merlin glowered back, not the least bit fazed. The corner of his right lip tugged. "Your plan won't succeed." He held up a hand and shouted an incantation.
The pillars turned to dust and the vagabond knights collapsed to the ground. They quickly bounded to their feet.
Sigan only chuckled. "Please, boy. I created Camelot. I can change night into day with the snap of my fingers." He snapped them and suddenly the room darkened, torches aligned on the wall burst into flames, and moonlight spilled in through the open windows above.
Arthur tried to push his growing fear underneath the surface. He will not let this man, whoever he was, to rattle him.
Merlin's lips tightened.
"You don't know my plan," Sigan said. "But it does involve you."
Arthur's hand gripped tighter around the hilt of his sword yet the profuse sweat made his grip weaken.
Sigan chuckled and made a quick gesture that Arthur missed.
Hot scorching pain sliced Arthur's back. The sword clattered from his hands and he dropped to his knees with a cry.
The others were hit as well.
Merlin screamed a chant and the building shook. Dust rained above them.
Sigan cackled and yelled out his own chant. The dust swiveled and wrapped around Merlin, around his ankles, knees, stomach, arms and elbows, and mouth.
"Merlin!" Arthur jumped to his feet. Magic flooded his skin, before he could think to get a pled out to the magic of Albion, lightning zapped through him once again.
He stiffened and dropped to the ground.
Arthur could only watch helplessly as Sigan strolled over to Merlin who struggled to get out of his binds. He groaned and raised out a hand as if that would stop Sigan.
Blue mist slipped out of Sigan's ears and mouth.
Fyn blinked dazedly before he fell onto his back, unconscious. The mist spun in the air before they were suddenly sucked into Merlin's body.
"Merlin!" Arthur groaned and pushed himself up. He caught Merlin as the man dropped toward the floor. "Merlin. Fight it, whatever he's doing..."
Merlin's eyes widened and a dark gold filled them. The dust of rope dropped to the ground and onto Arthur. "All his powers are now, mine."
Arthur grabbed his blade and pressed it against Merlin's neck. "Let him go!"
"I told you once, that tactic will not fool me."
Sigan jerked his head and Arthur went flying back across the room, slamming against the pillar and smacking against the hard floor.
"Merlin!" he heard Gwaine cry.
Sounds of scuffles and fights managed to get through the massive ringing in Arthur's ears. He coughed and blood clotted into his mouth.
He slowly lifted his head toward Merlin, his clumsy, loyal, lovable idiotic Merlin now twisted into a cruel, evil Sigan.
It's my destiny to protect you, Arthur.
And who will protect you, Merlin?
One by one, Sigan flung the others back. The sorcerers and Southrons joined together up by the throne, watching impassively.
Sigan walked slowly to Arthur, laughing all the while at him. "Ah, how the mighty have fallen. You and Horus may have stopped me years ago, but I found a way to be immortal, I sealed my soul, I may have had to wait years, but, oh, it was worth the wait."
Sigan snapped his fingers.
Every single fiber of Arthur's being flared in agonizing pain. In that moment, he forgot everything. It was like being whipped, stabbed, mutilated, burned, every injury all at once. He would cry if he was able.
The pain stopped, but it lingered and Arthur curled himself into a fetal position with a moan. "Merlin," he cried.
Sigan blinked and coughed.
"Arthur..." Merlin whispered. He dropped to his knees. "Get out of here, I can't...I can't..." He screamed and covered his ears.
The scream turned into a maniacal laugh. "Oh, he's powerful, much, much powerful than I thought. If only he gave into it." Sigan glowered at Arthur. "You held him back."
An old training lesson from his sword master, Caliburn, played out in his head: "When you're in the neck of battle, always think of nothing, for a scattered mind sees two targets when there are only one. That was what I trained to do. However, for me, and as you shall do as your duty as Prince, in the neck of battle, think of someone you love and you'll know no fear, for your sword will strike where it needs to be."
Arthur raised his unsteady head toward Merlin, his body taken over by Sigan. How could Arthur hope to beat him? He didn't have magic, well, he did, but it was an ant compared to a giant next to Sigan and Merlin's.
Sigan was still speaking, "...everything I stand for. Now, I will take the kingdom of Camelot and destroyed everything you've built and your future for peace." He scoffed at that.
That was all Arthur ever wanted. A place to settle down, where he could be at peace with himself, content, where he could create a land free of violence and bloodshed, a place where he could be with Merlin where they could banter, tease, and live without a care.
It hit Arthur what he must do.
"You're possessing the wrong person to do that," Arthur said.
"Am I?" Sigan asked in a condescending tone.
"I do have magic," Arthur said. "It's the magic of Albion. Look closely at my crown, the land crowned me herself, it's still intact, hasn't fell off. Merlin may be magic, but I'm the crowned ruler of Albion. Now that's a power you'll never have."
Take the bait, Arthur pleaded. Please, take the bait.
"If he does," the voice of Albion whispered around him like a breath of wind, "than I shall ensnare his soul and banish it...but it will not be easy."
Sigan snorted. "Do you take me for some short of fool?"
Please, Arthur begged, help me convince him.
He tapped into the warm tingling within him. Underneath Arthur's skin, a gold light flared, making it sparkle. Petals of flowers formed around Arthur's body.
Sigan stepped back, watching. "If I possess you, Merlin will stop me, I will not allow that." He lurched forward and gasped. Blood dripped from his nose. He wiped it.
"Merlin's stronger than me. You know that. And I know that."
"Stop trying to convince him. He won't bite. Use your powers," Albion demanded.
And suddenly Arthur knew. He was just as powerful as Merlin.
He held onto the magic within him and rose to his unsteady feet. The glow underneath his skin heightened. Arthur stared Sigan, hard.
"I demand you to possess me," Arthur ordered.
Sigan huffed, about to break out into a laugh when he coughed. His eyes widened. Blue mist slipped out of Merlin's ears and mouth, shooting for Arthur.
Merlin blinked and grabbed his chest, racking in coughs. "Ar...Arthur!"
The blue mist slammed into him.
For a moment, all Arthur could see was blue then it turned to a dark gold.
The room shifted and Arthur found himself standing in the center of a dark gold room, with two windows that revealed the sight of Merlin coughing.
Merlin straightened up. "Arthur?"
Sigan growled and it echoed throughout Arthur's head. "Your pathetic little king is a fool!"
Merlin held up his hands and his eyes flashed a soft gold.
That color gold spilled into the room, filling Arthur with warmth before he was wrapped back in the cold evil.
Sigan raised Arthur's hands and shot Merlin back away from him.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted, yet it never sounded through his voice box. "I demand you to leave him alone."
Sigan froze in spot. Arthur's outward hand trembled.
Gwaine, Percival, Tristan and Isolde helped Merlin to his feet. They all pointed their weapons at Arthur, eyes uncertain in what they should do.
Arthur felt Sigan smirk.
"I demand you all, save Merlin, to drop over and die," Sigan said through Arthur's body.
Arthur's heart lurched as he watched his knights and Fyn's hired mercenaries collapse to the ground without a breath of life.
"No!" Arthur cried, dropping to his knees as he watched the horror through the two circular windows.
Merlin stared in shock at the fallen bodies before him. He glanced up at Arthur, like a prey afraid of a predator.
"And you little kingly brat, I demand you to shut your trap," Sigan ordered.
Arthur felt a tightness around his throat. He grasped it. No. No. No!
Merlin held out his hands.
Fireballs, lightning, rain, and wind all whipped around the throne room.
Albion! Stop this! Arthur thought out in a pled.
"Sigan...too strong, he's using our magic against us," the soft voice told him, apologetic.
Then I only have two request...
Arthur stared out at Merlin, tears welling.
Kill me. That's an order.
As for the other request...
Merlin's voice was hoarse, his energy draining as he chanted spell after spell to keep up with Sigan.
He couldn't believe that dollophead ordered Sigan to do that! Why would Arthur allow such a powerful sorcerer to possess his body? What was he thinking?
He had to get Sigan out of Arthur. He didn't have time to think of a concise plan when all he could concentrate on was matching Sigan's spell for spell.
Sigan, in Arthur's body, suddenly went rigid. The light that sparkled over Arthur's skin vanished. His eyes twitched and he dropped onto his back, unmoving.
"Arthur!" Merlin charged for him.
He cradled the prince...no, the king's head onto his knees. Blue mist escaped from Arthur's pores and zapped into a clear crystal by Fyn's unconscious body.
Gold light shimmered over the fallen knights.
Mutters and groans echoed in the room as Gwaine, Percival, Tristan and Isolde rose into a sitting position, confused.
Merlin glanced down at Arthur's eyes, gazing straight at Merlin, lifeless and unmoving.
"No..." Merlin rested his forehead against Arthur with a choked sob. "No...I can't lose you."
Not like this. Not after all they've been through. They never got to accomplish their destiny. They never got to have...
"Arthur..." he sobbed. "You self-sacrificing idiot...why..."
There was a groan from the throne doors as they opened, yet Merlin kept his eyes closed, his forehead on Arthur's.
"Camelot is ours!" Kay cried.
"The Southrons ran like the cowards they are," Morgana said.
The cheers and excitement died as Merlin sniffled.
"Arthur!" Leon exclaimed.
Footsteps stormed toward Merlin and Arthur.
Merlin didn't let go and he didn't look up. Arthur wasn't dead. There must be a spell or something...Merlin had all the magic in the world.
Ah-ha! He had the power of life and death. He tapped into it, asking the Gods to take his life for Arthur.
He was still alive.
And Arthur was still dead.
This wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
"Arthur..." Tears slipped from Merlin and dripped onto Arthur. "Please...You can't be...You can't leave me..."
A hand touched his upper shoulder. "Merlin..."
It was Gaius.
"Let me see him," the old physician said, his voice soft and understanding.
"I was supposed to protect him..." Merlin cried. "He wasn't supposed to give his life for me... his life is worth a hundred of mine!"
"Merlin..." Gaius said and nothing more. What more could there be said?
Everything Merlin lived for was gone.
A nicker sounded across the room and a horse galloped toward them.
This time, Merlin opened his eyes and glanced up in confusion.
A beautiful white unicorn came strolling through.
A couple of the knights tried to subdue it.
"No!" Merlin released the spell on the unicorn to reveal Eirian's true nature to the others.
The knights, of the round table and of Camelot stepped back with various expressions of surprise.
The unicorn stomped its hooves and lowered itself to the ground before Merlin and Arthur.
"Take my horn, Emrys," the unicorn's voice boomed in Merlin's head.
"What?" Merlin blinked, his world spinning around him. He clutched onto Arthur tighter.
Eirian nuzzled his snout at Arthur's shoulder. "Use my horn. As I am pure of heart, so is Arthur. As he brought me back, so shall I. We are forever connected."
Merlin stared at Eirian, unsure if he understood the unicorn correctly.
"He died to save you, he died with a pure heart. Quickly." This time, Eirian pressed his snout against Merlin's left shoulder.
Merlin raised a shaking hand and gripped the unicorn's horn. It came off with ease.
"Stab it into his heart," Eirian said.
What? No. He could never stab Arthur. What if Merlin killed him for good?
"Trust in me," Eirian said.
What more did Merlin have to lose? He already lost everything.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and thrust the tip of the unicorn's horn into Arthur's heart.
White light blinded him and the horn in Merlin's hand melted into a warm glow.
In a blink, Merlin and Arthur were alone in a pure white endless room.
Arthur heaved in a long breath and his chest rattled.
Merlin blinked and gapped. "Arthur...you're..."
Arthur groaned and moved his head on Merlin's lap to lock his gaze onto Merlin's. A soft smile graced his features.
"If this is the afterlife, it's not so bad," Arthur said.
"You prat, why did you do that? Why would you sacrifice your life like that?" Merlin's body shook with relief. "I almost..."
Arthur weakly raised a hand and caressed Merlin's cheek. "You're the idiot...it's my destiny to protect you."
Hot tears spilled once more from Merlin's eyes.
Arthur blinked, his eyes rolled back and his hand dropped as he fell into unconsciousness.
Merlin rested his forehead against Arthur's chest, thanking whatever gods for Eirian, for their second chance.
It wasn't long before the darkness took him too.
Arthur woke to the sight of the waves crashing against the shores. He groaned as he sat up a bit taller against the hard rock he was propped against. He was at the same ocean where he thought he'd drank poison to save Merlin's life, only for it to turn out to be a sleeping draught.
What was he doing here? The last he remembered was Sigan...
He jolted awake. Where was Merlin? The others? Were they okay?
He felt a heaviness on his lap and glanced down to see Eirian's head resting upon it. The unicorn slept peacefully. Arthur narrowed his gaze. The horn was missing.
"You are not really here, just your spirit," Anhora announced from behind Arthur.
Arthur didn't bother straining his neck to get a view of the Keeper of Unicorn. He kept his eyes on the blue of the ocean.
"I'm officially dead, aren't I?" Arthur said.
He had a vague memory of Merlin, the sight of him hovering over his body with tears and relief. Was that a dream?
"You died, yes. But Eirian brought you back to life."
Arthur glanced down and rubbed the part of the unicorn's head where the horn used to be. "Let me guess. His life was the cost."
How many lives had to be sacrificed to ensure Arthur's life? He was tired of it.
"There was no cost. He returned the favor you bestowed upon him. Your pure heart brought Eirian back to life, thus his pure heart brought yours. The balance is complete."
Arthur ran his fingers through Eirian's mane.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, scared of the answer.
"He's alive, resting by your bedside."
Good. Now Arthur can get this out of his system.
He turned his head.
Anhora stood in his field of vision, gaze out on the ocean as he leaned against his staff.
"You knew of my powers...the powers of a king," Arthur spat out. "I literally demand people of things and they have to obey me no matter what."
He discovered his true magic during his execution and escape, when the others struggled to disobey him. He just had no idea it was that strong. When Sigan was in him, using his powers. Gods, just one demand from his lips and his friends collapsed to the ground, dead. He didn't want that power.
"When they are orders from the heart, they have no choice but to obey."
"Heart?" Arthur shook his head. "No. My heart wouldn't want my friends dead."
"I didn't say it was from yours. Sigan possessed your body. Your hearts clashed. You eventually won. Your heart of love beat Sigan's heart of evil."
"I don't want these powers..."
Anhora finally turned to Arthur, his features sad. "That is why the land of Albion chose you."
"You don't seek to rule," the soft voice of Albion whispered. "You seek peace."
Arthur sighed. The burden grew heavy, making him feel like he was being suffocated. "Peace...it's not going to be that easy to achieve."
"No," Anhora said. "No, it will not be. It will be easier to carry with Merlin on your side."
"I can't allow Merlin to carry the weight of my burdens. I've already put him through so much."
Anhora chuckled. "You are but two sides of the same coin. It is Merlin's destiny to protect you. However, like you recently discovered for yourself, it is your destiny to protect him. As long as you two strive to hold that balance, your true destiny will take off. Merlin will bring peace to the land with magic. You will bring peace to the land with your heart.
Now that is a sight I've been waiting to see. You already know the truth. You and Merlin are equals."
Arthur smiled at that, yet his heart twisted. Merlin deserved to have peace. He wouldn't achieve that around Arthur, would he?
Anhora exhaled deeply. "Young Pendragon, I've told you once before that there always must be a balance for everything in this world. You and Merlin have found your balance. Don't let your fear tip that over. Merlin is stronger than you give him credit for."
"I know. I know he's strong. That's what I'm afraid of. What if it becomes too much?"
"You're learning to listen. Don't stop. You'll hear it when Merlin needs you, you'll hear it when he's overworking himself, and you'll hear it when he loves you in return."
Arthur swallowed. Merlin didn't view Arthur that way. Did he?
Anhora stared at Arthur for the longest time. He seemed to be debating something. Finally, he took a seat on the sand next to Arthur and stroked Eirian's back. "Your mother, Ygraine..."
"She was nearly six months pregnant with you when she learned what the price of your life would be. She was barren, and Uther was desperate for an heir. Uther turned to a family friend, Nimueh, in secret for help. But your mother was not a woman easily fooled. She knew what they'd done. Your father wasn't expecting her life to be the price, but he knew a life was demanded in return for yours."
Arthur's heart squeezed and he hugged himself, trying to keep the tears at bay.
"She was angry at your father, but she never once regretted your life."
Arthur chuckled mirthlessly. "My birth resulted in the bloodshed of so many."
Anhora smacked the upside of Arthur's head.
Arthur grabbed it and stared at him, appalled.
"Your birth was years ago. What will your life result in? Hmmm? The peace of many."
Arthur hid a smile. Merlin was right. Arthur couldn't change the past, he couldn't change the outcome of what happened with his mother, with Uther's hatred against magic.
He could change the future. Isn't that what was more important?
The second he woke up back in Camelot, the throne was his. That is, if his father backed down easily.
Yet Anhora was right.
With Merlin on his side, he was capable of anything.
The age of Uther brought victory to Camelot, brought fear and bloodshed to magic users, and it brought up Arthur.
What will the age of Arthur bring?
Only time would tell.
Chapter 9: Walk of Atonement
Sunlight poured through the glass window and stretched upon the covers of Arthur's bed. He dimly blinked the brightness away and rubbed his left eye. His body was stiff and he emitted a soft groan as he tried to move into a sitting position.
Arthur's hand froze. He slowly lowered it to gauge a good look at the man sitting next to his bed.
His heart started pattering. This was not how he wanted to wake up. Where was Merlin?
Arthur's gaze immediately shot to the doors of his chambers. No guards. Then again, there may be some posted outside. He swallowed and returned his attention back to his father.
Dark bags hung under Uther's eyes, extra lines marked his forehead, and his hair was disheveled, unkempt. When did his father get so old?
How long have I been asleep for?
Tears welled. "You're awake..." Uther reached out to grip Arthur's hand.
Arthur, despite his nervousness, allowed his father to do so. He continued to stare at Uther, unsure of what to say. What do you say to the man who nearly got you executed? To the father who hunted you down?
"I'd thought we'd lost you," Uther finally said.
"I thought you wanted me dead," Arthur couldn't help but darkly quip.
Uther pulled his hand back and averted his gaze. "I..."
Arthur used his arms and pushed himself up into a sitting position. He adjusted his pillows and debated whether or not to call for the guards or Gaius.
This time, when Arthur looked back at his father, tears had spilled down Uther's cheeks.
"I...allowed my emotions to get the better of me, allowed my fear to cloud my judgement." He stared into Arthur's eyes. "I am so sorry..."
You nearly got me killed, you caused an uprising, you allowed yourself to get manipulated by Fyn, and allowed Camelot to be taken, Arthur bit all those words back. He was just tired of this. Tired of being at odds with his father. Tired of Uther hurting him and then always apologizing for it.
Most of all, he was tired of always forgiving his father each and every time. Arthur hated himself in this moment for that he could find no hatred toward his father. Only pity, and only a heavy sense of tiredness.
"When I saw you, lying dead in the throne room..." Uther cut himself off and buried his face into his hands.
Arthur sighed and reached out a hand. "Magic saved me...once again, Father. It's always been my guardian angel."
Uther only trembled.
Arthur squeezed his father's shoulder. There would never be a good time to have this conversation, but it must be done. "Did Gaius or any of the council members talked to you?"
Uther lowered his hands and gathered his composure. "I've decided in a fortnight to step down and relinquished the throne to you, Arthur."
Arthur hid his surprise. This must be Gaius' doing. "You think I'm ready to be king?"
Creases formed around Uther's eyes. "I think it's time for me to step down."
Arthur knew that was Uther's polite way of telling him that he didn't deem Arthur ready. However, his father stepping down without a fight...that was something.
In Arthur's heart, he knew their relationship would never be the same again.
Arthur was no longer the son who sought for his father's approval.
And Uther had crossed a line he could never come back from.
For some strange reason, in that moment, Arthur felt older than Uther.
There was a knock on the door and it creaked opened. Gaius poked his head in through the doorway.
"Arthur. Glad to see you're awake."
Uther stood and pressed his lips together in a thin line. "I'll leave Gaius to tend to you. Get some rest, Arthur." He opened his mouth and then shut it with a tight smile. He bobbed his head and left the room.
Well, that was certainly not awkward.
Gaius tapped his thigh and then grabbed his medical pouch from around his shoulder.
"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asked.
Gaius chuckled. "He's well. He's off on an errand."
Arthur raised a brow.
Gaius' smile deepened. "One of the magical kind. He told me you would understand. It was something he must do. He'll be back in a week's time."
A week? What was so important that Merlin had to up and leave?
Gaius seemed to read Arthur's expression. "He never once left your bedside, sire. He went to deal with Cornelius Sigan's soul."
Arthur sat up straighter, the ordeal fresh in his mind. "Do you know who he was?"
"One of the most powerful sorcerers known to Albion. He was rumored to have helped build Camelot. He was one of the sorcerers your ancestor Bruta kept on the council."
"Let me guess," Arthur said, "he yearned for power and Bruta had to deal with him?"
"It appears history has a way of repeating itself."
"Or people will never change," Arthur grumbled. His eyes shot to the doorway where Uther had left.
Gaius followed his gaze and then chuckled. He sat at the edge of Arthur's bed. "Your father and I had a very long chat."
"I'm surprised he's stepping down without a fight, it's not in his nature."
"No," Gaius said. "However, I believe seeing you dead on Merlin's lap was enough to smack sense into him. I believed the reality of what he was trying to accomplish hit him. You know what he said to me?"
Arthur shook his head.
"He said that seeing you dead was like killing Ygraine all over again."
His chest grew heavy with emotions. Arthur bit his lower lip.
"Arthur, your father loves you very much. His biggest flaw is that he holds onto the past and cannot let it go. He continues to allow it to haunt him and..." Gaius trailed off.
Arthur wondered how many times Gaius had to explain Uther's behavior, he wondered if Gaius tried to convince himself of the good he'd once saw in Uther. Did he still see it?
"I won't be haunted by it," Arthur said.
"And that is why you'll make a better king...and a better man than your father would ever be."
When Arthur woke again, this time, Morgana sat in the chair next to his bedside.
"Morgana!" he exclaimed. "You're okay."
"Please, I can hold my own, better than you, apparently. You always find yourself in these situations where Merlin has to revive you, don't you?" Morgana said with mirth, though there was a slight twinkle in her eyes.
"I like cutting things close," Arthur said.
Morgana shook her head and rolled her eyes with amusement. She turned serious as she studied him. "You've had me worried, you've been cutting it close too often lately."
"I know," Arthur said. There was no point in trying to make excuses. It was the life of a warrior, the life of a prince, and it'll be his life as king. "But I'll have you watching over me as well, won't I?"
"Maybe, or I'll just let your stupidity take its course."
Arthur smiled. Then he heaved a sigh. He needed to tell her. "Morgana..." He reached out for her. "I know. You have magic."
Morgana pulled her hand away before Arthur could reach her. "I don't have magic. I have intense dreams and nightmares..."
Arthur stared at her sadly. "I've felt it. I'm sorry, I should've told you sooner."
Morgana scoffed. "Like it mattered. You were hiding secrets from me as well. You and Merlin both."
"I didn't have to hide it as long from Uther..." Arthur said. "You're brave and..."
Morgana stood and faced the window. "I don't want to be brave!" She gazed out to the courtyard. "I just want to be myself," she said, softly.
Arthur wondered what would've happened if Morgana, and even Merlin, had to continue to hide their magic in secret. Would it have eventually destroyed them?
Morgana hugged her arms, her gaze faraway. "You're to be king in two weeks' time."
Arthur didn't say anything.
Morgana turned to him and Arthur could tell she struggled to keep her tears at bay. Tough Morgana. Always hiding her true emotions under the surface. "And what do you wish for me?"
That Arthur knew. "Did you ever find a lord to offer you a hand in marriage?"
Morgana's face twisted in disgust. "Thankfully, no." Her eyes flashed dangerously.
"Good," Arthur said. "I would hate to break up a betrothal."
Morgana's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"As for you, it'll be nice to have sharp heads on my council. If you wish it."
A smirk tugged on the corner. "Council?"
"I've seen you with Uther. Like you said, someone has to do what's right and damn the consequences. I need that type of advisement."
"I can easily do that," Morgana said.
She crossed her arms. "I have a feeling the position of your advisor will go to Merlin."
Arthur couldn't stop the smile on his face at Merlin's name. "I was thinking of appointing him as my Court Sorcerer."
"And is that all?"
Arthur creased his brows. Her knowing tone suggested something else.
She laughed. "You're both pigheaded, aren't you?" She strolled toward the bed. "When you two figure it out, just know, I'll be performing the ceremony."
"Ceremony?" Now Arthur was just confused. "When I swear him into court?"
"Into something else."
Cryptic. And vague. Somehow, he had a feeling that many answers he'll receive from Morgana in the future would be cryptic and all-knowing.
"Anyway...Merlin can help you with your magic. I know he would he like that."
She smiled. "I would too." Morgana sat down once again. "As for my position..." Her features deepened in thought. "Have you ever heard of the High Priestess of the Old Religion?"
All the nightmares he had as a kid surfaced. "Vaguely..." he said, unsure.
Morgana glared. "Not those horror stories our wet nurse used to tell us."
Oh, thank the gods. "Then no."
Morgana smirked. "I'll look into it, but I think that's my path..."
Arthur pursed his lips. "High Priestess Morgana. Has a nice ring to it."
She smiled. "You've really accepted magic, haven't you?"
"Thanks to Merlin," Arthur said.
"I've seen yours..." She tapped her fingers against his wreath-crown...oh gods, that was still on him? "I'm not familiar with it."
"I can't wield magic like most sorcerers...mine is something else," Arthur said. His fingers curled into a fist. If he had his way, he'll never use his powers again. He didn't want that ability over people. If they found out, they would fear him even more. Hell, they may not even trust him.
Morgana chuckled. "Looks like I'm not the only one being brave." She rose to her feet. "I'll leave you to get your rest." As she headed for the door, she paused and faced him once more. "Arthur...I think the fear will disappear if you just be yourself."
A couple days later, Arthur was out, walking through the streets of the lower town.
He argued that he didn't need to be babysat by Leon and Kay, they refused to let him visit the people alone. Given that Arthur did die, he allowed it to go just this once.
He didn't know why they were overprotective. The knights weren't so persistent in guarding Uther. Then Arthur realized, Uther never really left the sanctuary of the Citadel.
Arthur found himself aiding several townspeople in rebuilding the homes that were destroyed by the Southrons. Even Leon and Kay pitched in. His body was still recuperating from his ordeal and he immediately was washed over with fatigue, but he refused to return to his chambers and rest.
His people needed him.
He struggled to hammer a nail into place when a familiar person joined his side.
"Cian!" Arthur exclaimed.
The kid grinned, waved his hand over the nail, muttering something, eyes flashed gold, and the nail embedded deeper into the wood.
"You're getting better," Arthur said.
"I want to help more..." the kid said, dejected. "Donna said I still have to keep my magic a secret."
Arthur squeezed the kid's shoulder. "Only for a little while longer. I promise, you won't grow up in fear."
Cian touched the leaves of Arthur's crown. "That's what Father used to say."
And I will ensure that your father keeps his promise to you.
"If you want to help, stick by my side, and you can use your magic to help me," Arthur suggested.
Cian beamed and rocked on his heels. "Yeah!"
The kid trailed after Arthur and helped him with a few more houses.
Arthur grew to realize, magic really did help speed things up, and the homes were sturdier. He asked Cian if the kid knew any spells on how to strengthen the homes. He didn't, but was excited to figure it out for him.
Cian reminded Arthur of a young Merlin.
Gods, he missed having Merlin by his side.
It was near nightfall when Arthur headed back for the Citadel. He found Audrey, preparing for supper.
"Arthur!" she exclaimed. "I'm so glad to see you are all right."
He bit back a groan at the tight hug and returned it.
They pulled apart, and Audrey cupped Arthur's cheeks with her hands. "I've heard a rumor that I'm to prepare a big feast in less than a fortnight."
"You heard right."
She grinned. "I'm glad."
Arthur glanced around. "Need any help?"
"Carrots and potatoes need some chopping if you want to jump in. My helpers are out on loan in the lower towns for the time being."
Arthur jumped right in. He listened to Audrey chatter away about her boys, about the knights and Southrons she beat up with her frying pan. She suggested that perhaps the knight should train how to fight with kitchen utensils.
Arthur couldn't figure out if she was joking or not.
His worries eased away and Arthur was able to think clearly on what he must prepare for and do.
First thing first, he had to find the vagabond knights he befriended when he was on the run.
Leon mentioned how he offered them a couple of the knight's rooms. Knights sat out in the hallway of their rooms, playing cards on small tables or drinking.
He found Percival and Gwaine's table and picked up a snippet of their conversation:
"Whatever happened to that bottle of rum I brought last night?" Percival asked.
"Eh, I finished it off," Gwaine mumbled.
"You finished it off? Why?"
"It's rum, it goes bad once it's opened."
Gwaine and Percival looked up from their table.
"Ah! Good to see you walking around, Princess," Gwaine said, raising a pint.
Percival shook Arthur's hand. "Last we heard you were still unconscious."
"I'm on the mend." He pulled a chair and joined them. They were playing with dice. He grabbed the cubes and scooped them into the playing cup. "How are you settling in?"
"Eh, we've got some warm welcome and we've got some not so warm," Gwaine said.
"That'll change once I get back out there and start training them," Arthur said. "You proved your worth."
Gwaine grinned. "We don't trouble ourselves with the opinions of sheep, mate."
Percival grabbed the cup from Arthur's hands and rolled the dices on the table. "Woo! Double."
Gwaine groaned and handed Percival a pouch of coins.
Percival turned to Arthur. "Rumors are spreading that the throne will be yours soon."
"In ten days' time," Arthur said. "I'm not sure I'm ready for it."
"Trust me, mate," Gwaine said, pouring his pitcher of mead into an extra pint. He handed it to Arthur. "You're more than ready."
Arthur took a sip. "How you two feeling after the...ahem..." After my powers killed you, "after what happened in the throne room?"
"Bit sore," Percival said. "We always are after the rush of battle wears off."
Arthur sighed. "My magic..."
"Wasn't you," Percival said. "You were being controlled."
"Doesn't mean it wasn't my powers."
Gwaine raised his pint. "If anything, mate, it only makes us want to follow you more. You've proved you don't abuse your powers, kind of like Merlin."
Arthur raised his own pint, as did Percival. "Cheers then, to the future," Arthur said.
"To the next battle," Gwaine added.
"To the Round Table," Percival said.
They tapped their pints together before they chugged down the rest of their contents.
Strange, how Arthur grew up with nobles and found a deeper friendship among those his father would've disproved of.
His thoughts began to stray, he thought of how to build his own Round Table in Camelot. Maybe he should expand his council.
Arthur scoffed at himself. He'll think about that in two weeks. He gathered the dices up once again and shook them in the playing cup. Tonight, he would just be Arthur and steal money from his friends.
Moonlight shimmered off the edge of the crystals when Merlin entered the Crystal Cave.
He'd left Eirian outside, now that the unicorn no longer had a horn, he could pass for a regular horse. Merlin could understand why Arthur loved to ride him, Eirian ran so fast it was almost as if you were flying.
Merlin forced Eirian to slow during their travels. He needed to organize his thoughts. He needed to figure out what to do next. Arthur had yet to wake when Merlin left, yet he had a strong feeling that Arthur would be okay. He knew he had to do this.
When Arthur woke, he would start the process to become king. Merlin overheard the conversation between Gaius and Uther.
For some reason, Merlin could find no room in his heart to forgive Uther, nor could he emphasize with the man.
He listened to the confessions pour from Uther. The beatings and whippings Arthur took, Merlin never knew Uther issued his son to be flogged when Arthur returned from Ealdor. Five lashings. Merlin had shivered at that. He'd received one once, and he never wanted to again.
He listened to how Uther would punished Arthur to the dungeons as a young child for disobeying his orders, even if there were other cells occupied by prisoners.
How he forced Arthur to hunt down the sorcerers and magic users by manipulating Arthur's care for his people.
No wonder Arthur had been such a prat.
An arrogant mask was easy to wear when you had so much pain to hide. It made Merlin understand Arthur a bit better.
Merlin had grown angry when he'd learned that Uther only regained his sanity when he saw Arthur's dead body.
It seemed Arthur's death or near death always snapped Uther out of his madness, yet Uther would never learn from it.
A crystal jabbed at Merlin's ankle and he jerked back in surprise. He bobbed and then cradle the heart-shaped crystal close to his chest. Wouldn't be good to drop Sigan's soul now.
"You have returned," Bruta's voice boomed through the cave.
Merlin held up the crystal which glowed blue. "I brought an old friend."
Bruta's spirit materialized between the rows of crystal. "Cornelius Sigan." He gazed sadly at the soul in Merlin's hands. "His own powers of magic consumed him."
"I thought it was best to return him here." Memories slammed into Merlin, the wave of relief and grief still fresh. "Arthur gave up his life to stop Sigan. He's lucky to be alive..."
It felt like Merlin was always close to losing Arthur. For a man who was chosen by Albion to rule, the land wasn't doing a very good job of protecting him. Merlin knew there would be a day when Arthur would die for good, and it felt like it was drawing closer.
"I keep losing him," Merlin said.
Bruta smiled reassuringly. "You'll never lose him. Even if his life ends in the physical sense, you two will always be tied together."
Merlin stared at Bruta, not really believing him.
"Horus never truly left me," Bruta said.
Merlin only dipped his head, half-listening. All this madness lately, Merlin felt that Arthur's death broke him. Yes, Eirian brought him back...
He barely heard as Bruta addressed him to place Sigan's soul within the bundle of crystals. Merlin dimly watched as the blue heart-shaped crystal dissolved into the earth.
All he could see was Arthur's lifeless body.
All he could remember were the close times Merlin thought he'd lost Arthur, the near-deaths.
Deep in his heart, Merlin knew he would outlive Arthur. By how long...that was what scared him because he couldn't live a second without Arthur. A world without Arthur. That was Merlin's hell.
Bruta watched him in understanding. "Arthur feels the same of you." He beckoned Merlin forward. "Come."
Merlin approached and Bruta stepped back to reveal a large crystal protruding from the ground, basked in gold light.
"All men have their own destiny," Bruta said. "The truth everyone forgets is that it's always changing..."
Merlin stared hard at the crystal, remembering the red one he touched last time that revealed things Merlin wished he'd never seen. His gaze transfixed as he was mesmerized by the gold. He reached out his fingers for it.
"Shape your own destiny, Emrys," Bruta said.
Merlin's fingers touched the crystal. An electric tingle shot through his arm as gold spilled into his vision:
A vibrant and lush garden decorated Camelot's courtyard, light sparkled off the bright green of the leaves. The yellow, pink, and red flowers glistened with their own glow. A hearty laughter filled Merlin's ears...It was Arthur. The vision led Merlin through the garden maze to the sight of him and Arthur.
Arthur's head was back as he laughed. Despite the trajectory, the crown managed to stay on his temple. A white cape draped from his shoulders. Arthur wrapped an arm around the vision-Merlin's neck and smacked his chest.
The vision of Merlin was dressed in noble clothes, a fine red tunic over his brown trousers. A white scarf wrapped around his neck, the sigil of House Pendragon stitched at the side...alongside with a falcon.
Merlin watched himself smile back at Arthur, a blush growing on his cheeks.
For the first time, Merlin noticed that Arthur's skin glowed like the garden around them, that the squirrels and birds tended to gather up in the trees near Arthur.
Arthur dropped his arm and his features turned serious.
A blue butterfly fluttered around from behind the finely-dressed Merlin, it dropped into Arthur's palm a ring that was similar to the one Arthur wore on his forefinger, an infinity-knot was embedded into the silver.
Merlin watched as his gaze shot up to Arthur in surprise, before Arthur could say anything, the vision-Merlin bobbed his head with a huge smile, "Yes, you prat. Yes!"
Gold splashed into the vision, erasing the moment.
Merlin saw Camelot, its kingdom had grown. Lines and lines of Camelot's knights were stationed and ready for training. He witnessed a few knight sorcerers, practicing spells.
A flash and he saw Morgana, in her purple dress, laughing as she created a yellow ball of light in her hands, with noble-dressed Merlin sitting beside her.
Another flash and Merlin saw Kilgharrah, sleeping on the hill before Camelot. Next to him, Eirian slept peacefully.
Merlin and Arthur laid together at the bottom of the hill, pointing up at the stars.
They looked so peaceful. Did he and Arthur truly achieve peace? Not just for Albion, but for themselves?
"As long as you hold onto hope, as long as you believe, you can create the destiny that you want," Bruta's voice echoed in his head.
Merlin blinked and he was back in the Crystal Cave, alone.
He smiled softly.
Bruta was right. If Merlin held onto the fear of Arthur dying, if he held onto the fear of losing Arthur before they could create the heart of their destiny, then their destiny will never come to pass. He'd rather believe in hope.
He rather believe in his bright future with Arthur. The ring...what did that mean? His heart thumped against his sternum.
As he exited the cave, Merlin found Kilgharrah waiting outside for him, instead of Eirian.
"I sent the unicorn back to Camelot," Kilgharrah said.
"How's your wound?" Merlin asked.
"Healed, and my strength has returned. The more I fly, the younger I feel, like myself again," Kilgharrah said. "Freedom. I never thought I'd see the day."
Merlin smiled. "I'm glad for you."
"I've heard whispers from Albion, Arthur is to be crowned King of Camelot. His reign is about to begin."
"Albion crowned him," Merlin said. "It's more than you've dreamed."
"Don't get ahead of yourself, young warlock. Arthur has yet to have his coronation."
Merlin froze. Albion crowned Arthur, yes, but he never held a coronation to officially announce himself as Ruler of Albion. Merlin knew Arthur couldn't go around announcing himself as such. But he knew that it was a coronation with greater need than the one for Camelot. One needed of magic... He thought of the visions he had, both dark and light.
"Kilgharrah..." An idea slowly forming. "Could you take me to the Druids?"
Kilgharrah tilted his head, curious. "The Druids? Merlin, as much as I hope to bring magic back to the land, they are distrustful of Arthur. His malicious acts upon them, even though under his father's orders, are still fresh in their minds. He was lucky he met with the main chieftain when he turned over Mordred."
Merlin nodded. "I know. It'll take time to rebuild that trust. But..." he stared hard at Kilgharrah, his gut not liking this already, "Arthur has to be the first to make amends."
"Before Arthur becomes king, he must face his own demons. That must be his final test," Kilgharrah agreed.
"I don't want to force him into this..." Merlin said.
"I understand. You and I both know of his true nature. Not everyone sees it, it'll take time for all of the magic users to view Arthur as an ally, to separate him from his father," Kilgharrah said. "Even though he may be of magic, they may be wary if they learn of it. The druids are peaceful people, Merlin, but they are humans who sometimes allow their emotions to cloud their reasoning."
Merlin remembered the dark look in Arthur's eyes when Tristan and company recalled of Arthur leading men to raid a druid village. How much guilt and sorrow had Arthur been building from all the lives he'd taken? He remembered the regret Arthur held in killing Peter, Cian's father.
Peaceful people the druids may be, how could you forgive a man who wielded a hand in killing your people? How could you follow a ruler who hunted you down once? Excuses wouldn't save Arthur. Merlin knew if the druids found out Arthur had magic, if they came to discover the truth of Arthur's magic, they wouldn't believe Arthur rose to power on his own. They'd see it as Arthur abusing it.
What was he supposed to do?
"Young warlock," Kilgharrah said. "Take heed on those spiraling thoughts. You once claimed you'll give a hand in killing Arthur..."
Merlin blushed at that memory. He hated Arthur for a good month before he warmed up to him.
"How did the young Pendragon change your perspective of him?" Kilgharrah pressed.
"I know I'm just a servant and my word doesn't count for anything. But I wouldn't lie to you."
"I want you to swear to me what you're telling me is true."
"I swear it's true."
"Then I believe you."
"When he first treated me as an equal," Merlin said. "That's how Arthur will win them over. Kilgharrah, take me to them."
Kilgharrah gestured with his head. "Hop on back, young warlock. But don't get used to this arrangement, I won't always be used as your transportation."
Somehow, when Merlin settled in between the scales on the dragon's back, he knew Kilgharrah was lying.
Kilgharrah dropped Merlin off a few acres away from one of the Druid settlements. He told Merlin that the main chieftain, Iseldir, of the Druids resided within this certain clan.
Merlin rubbed his hands together and blew into them. It wasn't cold, it was just a gesture he did to calm down his nerves. Apparently, he was known to the druids by his magic name, Emrys. They've longed awaited for his return.
Merlin lowered his hands and wiped them on his trousers. Why was he so nervous? He could face down bandits and sorcerers without batting an eye, yet this... he wasn't good with words. Right now, he couldn't be Merlin.
He had to be Emrys, sorcerer...
King Arthur's sorcerer.
Somehow, that thought eased his nerves. This was for Arthur and for the future they would build together.
He walked forward, following the directions that Kilgharrah had left him. He headed deep into the woods, the mass of leaves growing on the tree branches above. Shadows danced upon him. He heard the soft sound of a babbling creek when a familiar child-like voice boomed in his mind:
Merlin stumbled back as the familiar blue-eyed, black-hair boy charged forth between the bundles of tree trunks. Instead of slamming into Merlin for a hug like he expected, Mordred skid to a halt a foot before Merlin. He smiled a soft smile.
"You've returned," Mordred said.
Merlin tried not to wince. He still wasn't used to telepathic communications, and Mordred's voice was so loud in his head. He smiled, still uncertain of whether or not he was talking to Arthur's future killer.
"It's good to see you," Merlin said. "Morgana misses you."
"I miss her as well," Mordred said.
A figure approached from behind Merlin, a tall man with shoulder-length silver hair. He wore a blue-green cape, the hood over his head. Years and ages of wisdom shimmered in the man's eyes. "Emrys. I've long awaited the day for when you would seek me out. It's nice to finally meet you in person."
Merlin, uncertain of formality, held out a hand. "Call me Merlin...I'm still not used to this Emrys..."
The man smiled knowingly. "You will in due time, Merlin." He shook Merlin's head. "I am Iseldir, but I'm sure you already knew that." He straightened himself and placed both hands on Mordred's shoulder. "Tell me, for why have you come?"
"Arthur Pendragon. He will be crowned King of Camelot in a fortnight."
Iseldir's brows creased. "He's to be King already? It's earlier than the prophecies have foreseen."
Merlin recalled Bruta's words. "All men shape their own destinies, and it's always changing."
Iseldir chuckled. "You are wise. Why are you sharing this news with me?"
"I've come to seek your support and ask for your loyalty to Arthur," Merlin said. "And to come out of your hiding." He held his shoulders back when he said this and stood tall.
Murmurs scattered among the trees.
"We will not trust a Pendragon."
Six druids, three men and three women, older than fifty, stepped forward.
A woman, face lined with heavy wrinkles, barked, "My daughter was among those Arthur and his knights butchered that day. He slaughtered innocents, he's slayed many of our people, hunted and executed magic users."
Merlin shook his head. "That was Uther's doing, not Arthur. Arthur is not Uther."
"No," a man with a salt and pepper beard said. "He's worse. Uther is evil, but there's nothing worse than a man who follows a madman's orders, who obeys without question and without morals. Uther issued the order, but Arthur was the one who performed."
Merlin shook his head. "No. Trust me. Arthur didn't obey without question. I once thought of him the same as you did. I lived in the heart of Camelot for the past year, I've lived with the threat of getting caught as sorcerer, and I've seen Arthur's true nature..."
"He's manipulated you, he's made you his puppet," an old crone snarled.
Iseldir sighed, yet his features remained stoic. Merlin could see the heavy tiredness in the man's eyes. This obviously was a conversation held many times with the same conclusion: Arthur was not to be trusted. Merlin knew he was talking to the council of the druid clan.
"I've told you, Arthur Pendragon must not be king," another man said. "We should have taken him out years ago."
"That is not our way. We strive for peace, we will not solve our predicament with violence and hatred," the youngest of the women said.
"Peace? We hide like cowards to preserve the remnants of our people while we're hunted down like animals," the bearded man said.
"Enough!" Iseldir shouted. "Let us listen to what Emrys needs to say." He gestured for Merlin to continue.
What would convince them? Merlin could waste all day and night with words to try and sway them. "Arthur is the Once and Future King..."
"Ha!" one of the council members barked.
Iseldir sent a glare to his left.
Merlin tried a different tactic. "Arthur strives for the same goal as you and your people. He seeks peace."
Hope sparked in Iseldir's eyes, but the rest were not easily convinced.
Mordred beamed at that statement.
"He dreams to unite the land under a banner of peace. He dreams to rebuild Camelot into a flourishing kingdom. He's tired of all the bloodshed as you are." Merlin took a deep breath. "He knows I'm a sorcerer since our second meeting and he protected my secret."
"For his own gain," the bearded man mumbled.
Iseldir rubbed his temple.
Merlin's words weren't reaching them. "Let Arthur show you who he really is. Let him prove my words are right."
Merlin suddenly got the feeling he was now gambling with Arthur's life. Was he making the right choice? Did Arthur truly need the druids' support now? He could regain their trust during his reign. Why was Merlin pushing this?
The incident with Sigan scared him more than he thought. A rogue sorcerer bent on revenge. Granted, it was a thousand years' worth of revenge, but all it served was to remind Merlin of the many sorcerers out for Arthur.
Arthur was lucky to be alive.
Despite all the powers Merlin had, he couldn't protect Arthur forever.
And he was sick of everyone seeing Arthur for who he was not.
"Let him answer for his crimes," the bearded man said.
There were murmurs of agreement.
For some reason, a small smile grew on Iseldir's features. "The Walk of Atonement," he declared.
Merlin didn't like the sound of that. What had he gotten Arthur into?
"I'll bring him," Merlin said. "By midnight."
Iseldir's brows creased. "We are three days out of Camelot."
Merlin grinned. "I have means of fast travel."
A dragon and a unicorn.
It was a couple hours past nightfall when Arthur stumbled back into his chambers. He wasn't drunk, but he drank enough to begin to feel the loose effect of alcohol. His cheeks were beginning to warm, and he knew he should take an easy. If Arthur kept drinking now, he wouldn't stop.
He slumped down at the foot of his bed and rubbed his shoulder where the Questing Beast bit him. The wound had fully healed, yet it still ached every once in a while. The incident felt like it was years ago.
Had it only been two months since then?
Arthur felt like he'd grown years. He felt like an old man, at the end of his years, not the young prince at the start of his life. What changed?
I have. Arthur no longer hid behind his veil of ignorance.
Arthur glanced up from the bed to stare at Merlin who waited in the doorway.
"Merlin..." He rose to his feet and stared at him. His mind froze and words died on his lips. There was so much he wanted to say...and yet Arthur had no idea what he wanted to speak.
"You're awake," Merlin said, voice full of emotions. "I..."
Arthur walked forward and pulled Merlin into a hug. "You're you... You're not..."
"No," Merlin said, his arms wrapped around Arthur. "You saved me from that, you clotpole."
"Idiot. What did you expect I'd do?" Arthur said as they pulled apart.
Relief flooded Arthur's veins. Merlin really was okay.
Merlin smacked Arthur in the arm.
Arthur widened his eyes and playfully grabbed his shoulder. "What was that for?"
"You keep gambling with death."
Arthur's features fell. He wondered how many close encounters Merlin had saved him from. He thought of when he thought he'd lost Merlin to the Shadows. He remembered what his worst fear was: leaving Merlin behind.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "All I could think about was..." getting you safe was the number one priority. Nothing else mattered.
Merlin sighed. "I never knew you would go to the same lengths for me. I think that scares me more."
Right after they met, they were so willing to trade each other's life for the other. They never even hesitated. There was never any question about it.
Merlin writhed his hands and turned his back to Arthur.
Arthur's brows furrowed. Merlin was hiding something. "What is it, Merlin? Where did you go?"
"I took Sigan's soul to a safe place where he can no longer do anymore harm..."
"Thank you for dealing with that, Merlin."
Merlin's body was rigid.
"Merlin," Arthur drawled out. "Spit it out."
"I found the Druids."
This time, Arthur tensed.
Merlin slowly turned around. "You're going to need their support, Arthur, if you're planning to legalize magic. Not all magic users are druids, but they represent the magic community on a whole."
Arthur swallowed a thick lump. "How can I ask for their support when I..." slaughtered their people?
Merlin grimaced. "They'll offer their support if you can prove your worth to them, by performing a test."
Arthur shook his head. "Did they truly promise that?"
Merlin writhed his hands even more. "Not exactly..."
Arthur scoffed. "I have nothing to prove." He waved a forefinger in Merlin's face. "They can't deem my worth." Arthur turned and strode over to his window. He rested his palms against the frame overhead as he gazed down onto the courtyard.
Why did he have to keep proving himself over and over?
"No," Merlin said. "You don't have anything to prove." His voice was stern, and Arthur stole a glance back at him.
Merlin's posture changed. His back was straight and there was a strange spark in his eyes. "You once told me that you wanted to unite Albion and all the kingdoms under a banner of peace. You can't just expect to sit in your castle and magic it to happen."
Arthur blinked at this side of Merlin.
"The Druids are your people. I know of your past actions against them, and I know you regret it and I know you want to forget about it, but you can't run from the past like this. If you want peace, you must confront it. You'll be a stronger King because of it."
In that moment, Arthur caught the first glimpse of a moment between a King and Advisor.
Merlin hadn't changed. He finally revealed to Arthur the wisdom he held inside him all along.
Merlin reached out a hand and pressed it against Arthur's shoulder, his features sympathetic. "I wish I could find another way..."
Advisor...and friend. No, not friend. More than that.
Arthur heaved a deep breath. "You're right, Merlin. As always."
"I'm starting to enjoy hearing that."
"Don't push it," Arthur stressed.
A lopsided grin graced Merlin's features.
Arthur laid a hand on top of Merlin's which still rested on his shoulder. "What must I do?" he asked.
Walk of Atonement.
The whole ride over on Eirian didn't erase the dread pushing down on Arthur's stomach.
Merlin flew overhead on Kilgharrah and Arthur was thankful for the solitude and silent companion of his unicorn.
Merlin's blabbering in this case would only increase Arthur's nerves. He knew Merlin had a point. It was just...why did he have to do it now? Arthur was nowhere ready to face his past. He was nowhere close prepared in being king.
He, along the ride, tossed out his wreath crown into the wind. He pleaded with Albion not to crown him again. He couldn't face these druids revealing he had magic, revealing that Albion chose him as ruler. He got the sense it would be almost disrespectful at this point.
Thankfully, the crown never returned.
His head felt bared without it, even with the wind whipping in his hair.
Eirian ran fast, he kept pace with the Great Dragon overhead, perhaps a bit faster.
Arthur closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. He thought of his mother and prayed to her. I ask to loan me your strength, Mother, for I fear whatever the Druids ask of me, will break me.
There was a reason why Arthur wanted to delay this as long as possible. He didn't even want to admit that he'd been that person. The good solider of his father's, and the evil prince to the Druids. He just wanted to look to the future, look at the good that he could do, see the blind and unyielding faith in Merlin's grin and stares, he wanted to be the strong and good type of king.
Yet Merlin was right.
How can Arthur move forward when he was still chained to the past? He had to face it. He had to make amends.
Eirian slowed upon a clearing. A few moments later, Kilgharrah circled down and landed next to them softly.
Merlin hopped off Kilgharrah's back.
It was time.
Arthur rubbed the side of Eirian's mane and patted him. "Thank you for giving me my life back," Arthur whispered. "But I'm afraid it may be all for nothing."
Eirian snorted and Arthur got the sense he was laughing at him. Well, glad to know someone still held a sense of humor.
He slid of Eirian and jumped to the ground.
Merlin approached, hesitant, nervous. "Ready?"
"No, but I'll never be," Arthur confessed.
"Your crown..." Merlin started.
"I can't face them as a ruler...I..." Arthur didn't know what else to say.
Merlin nodded. He offered a smile of reassurance and slipped his fingers into Arthur's.
A strong sense of protectiveness and faith swelled within Arthur. The spark of their magical connection. "You're not alone, Arthur."
Arthur smiled in return.
Merlin guided Arthur through the thick woods, the full moon high above in the skies, a swirl of green and purple spiraled among the stars.
A man approached them, the hood of his cape over his head. Arthur immediately recognized the man he handed Mordred over to.
"Iseldir," Arthur greeted. He inclined his head in a gesture of respect.
A flash of surprise flooded up Arthur from Merlin.
Iseldir's gaze flicked down to their intertwined hands, yet he said nothing. "You're right on time. One of my lookouts stated you rode on a dragon and unicorn?"
"Friends of ours," Arthur said. "If your men touch a hair..."
Merlin widened his eyes, aghast that Arthur would already start threatening.
Iseldir, however, smiled in amusement. "A Pendragon concerned of the wellbeing of magical creatures. Perhaps Merlin was correct. You have changed."
"But you want me to prove it," Arthur snapped.
Damn it, his fear was showing. He always seemed to grow angry when he was afraid. He inhaled a deep breath and squeezed Merlin's hand.
Merlin squeezed back. It'll be okay, Arthur, he heard.
"Sadly. We've prepared the spell, unfortunately..." he gestured to Merlin. "You can't come forth with him."
"I'm not leaving Arthur," Merlin said.
"You won't," Iseldir assured. "You'll be watching on the sidelines along with the others."
Oh, great. His misery a grand show for the others. Perfect.
"Mordred," Iseldir said as he stepped to the side.
Arthur bobbed a nod of greeting to the child he helped saved.
Mordred beamed up at Arthur, reminding him of Cian. "Come Emrys, I'll show you where you'll be."
Merlin squeezed Arthur's hand once more. "I'll watch over you," he said.
I know. The magical connection disappeared as Merlin's fingers slipped from his grasp.
Arthur's heart began to patter fast. His mouth grew dry. "What must I do?"
Iseldir lowered his head so that the hood blocked the moon's rays from illuminating his features. "In our culture, we don't believe in harsh punishment, such as an eye for an eye like the rest of Camelot. We conducted a spell, the perpetrator must atone for his crimes."
I'm not that person...Arthur wanted to argue. Instead he nodded, showing Iseldir that he was listening.
"Follow me," Iseldir said.
They walked between the arrays of thick tree trunks, the moonlight scattered upon the forest floor. They approached the edge of a clearing.
A small clan of druids lined up by the edge, a few holding torches. Merlin stood at the front with Mordred, alongside some grim looking older druid members. They had to be members of the council. Those that spared Arthur the barest glance was full of loathing, hurt, and anger. Arthur knew he deserved that. The druids may be peaceful people but it didn't mean they were easy to forgive others.
On the other side of the clearing was a tall tree, its trunk the thickest Arthur had ever seen.
Iseldir leaned in toward him. "All you must do is walk to that tree trunk and back."
Arthur's forehead creased. "That's it?"
"The Walk of Atonement. Once you step forth, the spell will reveal the spirits of your victims."
Ah, hells. Arthur tried not to let his features betray his inner emotions. He was trembling. "I...I understand."
He caught Merlin's gaze, and there it was, the look that Merlin gave Arthur that told him that he believed in him.
Arthur inhaled deeply. He will do this. He will face his past.
"The test will begin when you are ready. Remember, to the tree and back," Iseldir reminded. He stepped back and joined Merlin at the front of the line.
The bundle of druids stared ahead now, not even looking at Arthur. They took this spell, this test, seriously.
Gain me your strength, Mother. And land of Albion watch over Merlin. He knew if anything went wrong, Merlin would start to intervene on his behalf.
He curled his fingers into fists. Now or never.
He stepped forth. A ripple spread forth across the air like water. One by one, those that he killed or had a hand in their deaths showed up. The clearing was packed, save for a single path before Arthur which led him to the tree.
Just there and back.
Arthur walked forth. He tried not to look at his victims, he stared at the tree. One foot in front of the other. He can do it. It'll be over soon.
Children raced to the front of the path and stared at Arthur, blood dripping down their face from a sword wound on top of their heads.
He waited. Why didn't they say anything?
Then he saw his most recent victim: Peter.
He stopped in his walk. He was halfway to the tree.
Arthur stared at Peter, the man he killed so that Uther wouldn't kill his children. Peter had forgiven him.
Arthur then looked at each of his victim's face, one at a time. So many he remembered, so many still haunted his dreams. Yet there were many he didn't remember.
The Walk of Atonement. How could Arthur atone for his crimes just for walking there and back? He may no longer be that person...but once he had done this.
Arthur held up his hands outward in a sign of surrender. He then lowered himself to his knees. He thought he heard a few gasps from behind. He couldn't walk away from this. He needed to make his own atonements. He couldn't do what Iseldir said.
"I am responsible for what happened to you. And for the violence that occurred in the manners of your deaths. Your blood..." Arthur shuddered, his buried emotions pushing to the surface. "Your blood is on my hands."
He glanced around, surrounded by his victims who only stared at him.
"There's no excuse for what I did. I had so many to help me sleep better at night. I was young, inexperienced, and desperate to prove myself to my father. I thought I was saving others." Arthur's voice cracked. "Nothing can justify what I did. I can still hear many of your screams..." His body racked. "I'm haunted by what I did. Nothing I ever do will right the wrongs I've done." Tears slipped from Arthur's eyes and a couple sobs escaped his lips. He straightened himself. There was one thing he learned from this experience.
"I promise you, when I become king, I will do everything I can to prevent any of the horrors from happening again. The druids, all magic users, will be treated with the respect they deserve. I give you my word. I...am terribly sorry for what happened to you all...I..."
His words left him and he stayed there, on his knees, arms still out, shaking.
The spirits drew in closer, hands out. Arthur wanted to close his eyes, but he wasn't going give into his weakness. He will take his punishment. His breathing quickened as he awaited for his death.
Hands pressed all around him, his head, neck, shoulders.
All their voices boomed into one loud whisper, "I forgive you."
A burden lifted from Arthur's heart. A blue-white light blinded him and he felt hands lifting him to his feet. Arms wrapped around him. As the blue-white faded, the spirits were gone, save one.
The woman pulled away from her hug, her blonde hair pulled up into a loose bun. She appeared to be a couple years older than him. He stared back at blue eyes full of love. He instantly knew who this woman was.
"Mother..." Arthur said in a choke.
She cupped her hands around his cheeks. "My son."
"I'm so sorry..."
"Oh, you have nothing to be sorry for," Ygraine said. She lowered her hands to his shoulders.
"You died so that I could have a life..."
"I may not have had a choice in your birth, but watching you, seeing you grow into the man you are, I would've given my life to you willingly."
Arthur's throat constricted. How could she say that?
Her eyes sparkled. "You'll find there are many people willing to give their life for yours, Arthur."
He thought of Merlin. "I know."
"Love makes us do crazy things. Don't ever forget that. Your father..."
Arthur stiffened at the mention of Uther.
"He loved me, as much as he loves you. Not all of us can be so strong to change like you, Arthur. Be gentle, be understanding. It may be years before he'll accept what you wish to do in your reign."
Tears welled in his years. His emotions tipped over the surface.
"As for your guardian angel," she said in a teasing voice. "I approve. He is most definitely your equal. You are two sides of the same coin."
Arthur chuckled. "You're not the first to have said that."
She hugged him once more. "I love you, Arthur. Always have. Stop blaming yourself...you're to create a better world."
His mother dissolved into a white light and disappeared from his grasp. He lowered himself and dropped to his knees.
His chest racked with sobs.
Familiar hands gripped his shoulders and Arthur peered into Merlin's eyes, wet with tears.
"Merlin..." Arthur said. And it came out, wrecking sobs, years and years of pushing his emotions under the surface, years of trying to forget, years of being haunted, of blame, retching out into his sobs.
Merlin said nothing. He only wrapped his arms around Arthur and held him as Arthur released the heavy burdens of his past.
The night grew dark as Arthur tried to recollect himself in Merlin's embrace. His sobs had ceased ten minutes ago and he was reduced to a sniffling mess. Gods, a prince, hell, a future king, was not supposed to break down like this, especially when they had an audience.
His reputation as a tough warrior was diminished to this.
Merlin started to rub circles on Arthur's back once again. Arthur took comfort in that. Merlin knew Arthur better than anyone, and he still believed in him. Screwed what everyone else thought. If Arthur's true self didn't sent Merlin running for the hills, that was all that mattered, wasn't it?
He squeezed Merlin, a signal that he was ready and done with his breakdown.
Merlin released himself and smiled reassuringly at Arthur. There was no judgement, no pity. Just understanding. Is this what it's liked to be loved, flaws and everything? He could get used to this.
"I'm sorry I got snot all over..." Arthur gestured to Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin shrugged. "I'll convince my employer to give me a new shirt."
Arthur glared. He slowly rose to his feet and stretched out the stiff muscles. He felt better, lighter. His chest wasn't so heavy anymore, so constricted. They forgave him. Arthur wouldn't abuse that. He would cherish and honor that.
Arthur sniffled and wiped his nose. So much for saving face, might as well approach the druids and get this over with.
He turned and noticed most of the druid clan had gone into their huts. Only the council and Iseldir remained.
Arthur and Merlin strode over.
"I completed your test," Arthur said.
"So you did," the bearded man said with indifference.
Anger flashed across Merlin's features.
"I still don't trust you," the heavily wrinkled woman said.
Arthur should've known. No matter what happened, they weren't going to change their opinion of him. He found himself chuckling, he didn't know why.
Merlin took a step forward. "Arthur proved his heart to you. The spirits forgave him, why don't you?"
"I've witnessed nobles con their way into the hearts of men, I won't be fooled again," the younger woman said.
"He passed your test!" Merlin growled. "He went through all of that, you put him through torture, and now you're saying it's not enough?"
I don't need their approval, Arthur realized. He thought of his father. Sometimes, no matter what you said or did, some people were unwilling to change, unwilling to part from their perspective. His mother was right. Not everybody had the strength to change. Arthur knew it firsthand. It was easier to stay the same.
He thought of where he was two months ago. He went through so much to become the man he was in this moment. He stared at Merlin. It was worth it. To be standing here, next to someone and witnessed their full strength.
He half-listened to their continued argument. He watched Iseldir, passive, arms folded over his chest. Not once did he spare a glance at Arthur and Merlin, his attention was set on the council.
"How much more does he need to bare?" Merlin snapped.
"Merlin..." Arthur tried.
"Do you need to break him to..."
"Emrys!" Arthur barked. A flare of magic rose within him.
Merlin heaved a sigh and spun to Arthur, still fuming.
"You can't force people's hearts." Arthur tilted his head, a gesture to leave. "Come on. We did what we set out to do." He turned to the druids. "Thank you. I understand your lack of trust."
"Arthur..." Merlin whispered, dejected.
Arthur lightly smacked him on the arm. "Come, Merlin. You allowed me to face my past. I wouldn't have done that without your push. I'm a better man for it."
Merlin stared at him for the longest time. Finally, he allowed a grin to spread. "Don't let it get to your head. Wouldn't want your oversize ego to blow."
"Ha. Funny." Arthur said. They turned from the druids and walked away. "Are you going to help carry my oversize ego back to Camelot?"
Merlin blew raspberries. "Kilgharrah can carry that heavy load and we'll still arrive in Camelot before you."
"Eirian is faster." Arthur smirked. "I wagered he'll beat your dragon."
Merlin raised a playful brow. "I'll take it, and you'll regret it."
Arthur shoved Merlin with a laugh before they charged off through the woods for their rides home.
Iseldir watched as the Once and Future King and Emrys disappear into the night. No sooner had they left, the council already began to bicker.
He continued to stare where the two left.
The council believed Arthur failed because he never completed the walk. They've forgotten the truth. The Walk of Atonement was a misleading name. If a perpetrator walked there and back, it only revealed they were unable to face what they'd done.
Arthur had surrendered himself to the spirits' judgement and actually atoned for what he did. The spirits forgave him. They disappeared of their own accord. They were put at peace.
Besides, he'd seen that spark of magic flare underneath Arthur's skin when he called Merlin by his magic name.
The legends and prophecies were true. The Once and Future King will arise when Albion's need is greatest. Camelot had descended into a darkness, yet there was a deep pit of night that had yet to reveal itself.
He had the gift of foresight. He'd seen many things, many turns of events.
Only Arthur, with Merlin, can save Albion from the Dark Times that would soon be upon them.
For the magic of Albion flooded through both their veins; the most powerful warlock and the most powerful king.
Arthur needed the druids.
Iseldir stroked his chin.
"Have you heard the story of the Sword in Stone?" he suddenly asked.
The chatters died away as the members of the council turned to him.
"Legends tell of a magical sword, where only the one true King of Albion can pull free."
They were listening intently.
Arthur was wise, you can't force people's heart.
But, sometimes, you could string them along.
"He has to be cheating," Gwaine grumbled.
"I knew he was good, but that good?" Elyan mumbled.
"He's as tired as the rest of us," Percival said. "How is it that no one has beaten him yet?"
"You guys go easy on him, right?" Gwaine said, turning to Leon and Kay. "Crowned Prince and all."
Leon chuckled. "Not after that incident."
Kay winced. "We did once, when Leon accidently injured him. He quickly figured it out and rained his anger upon his."
"That's how Bedevere got that limp," Leon said.
"I beat him once," Lancelot said.
All heads snapped to him.
Lancelot shrugged. "How else do you become a knight?"
"Naïve and noble," Kay scoffed with a shake of his head.
"Arthur lets us win if he deems us worthy to join," Leon said.
Gwaine watched the fight more intently. "I still think he's cheating somehow."
Arthur ducked a swing from Tristan and parried a block.
Tristan leaned in. "Don't they realize we can hear them?" he whispered.
Arthur laughed. "I think that's the point."
They stepped back and gaged each other.
"It's true then? You've never lost a fight?" Tristan said.
Their swords clashed and Arthur leaned in. "Oh, I've lost plenty, believe me."
Tristan narrowed his eyes at him, not really believing him.
"Want to know my secret?" Arthur pressed.
Before Tristan could answer, Arthur immediately loosened his pressure on the sword, causing Tristan to tip forward. Arthur used his flat of his blade to smack Tristan's hand.
Tristan dropped his sword and Arthur set the tip of his blade against Tristan's chest, over his heart.
He grinned and Tristan glowered.
"You'll just have to figure it out for yourself," Arthur teased.
Tristan scoffed, but didn't stop the smile that spread. Arthur decided he liked this side of Tristan better. While the man did have his bitter and resentful moments, he was beginning to grow more relaxed and carefree around Arthur.
Arthur never told them how he always won. He'd noticed they always trained and practiced harder after Arthur handed their butts to them.
Caliburn once told Arthur that as a prince, his knights would always go easy on him, even if they weren't aware of it. It would always be an unconscious thought in the back of their minds. Which is why Arthur had to train more than his men. Which was why Arthur loved tournaments and the heat of battle, because in the thick of that, no one ever held back. No wonder princes died young.
He's heard many stories of princes who die in battle, kings who had to bury their sons.
He stole a glance at Merlin who stood at the sidelines, chatting with one of the servants, George—Arthur believed his name was.
Merlin caught his gaze and graced him a smile.
The secret was: Arthur wasn't better than his knights.
It angered him for the longest time. He was okay with that. A true warrior loved the sword, honed his skills, and always prepared himself.
Arthur vowed when he became king, he would make the time to train and dance with his sword. Everything made sense, all his great ideas were born here when it was just him and his sword.
He was at peace here.
Arthur realized he was still staring at Merlin. And maybe when he was with a certain someone, they brought him at peace.
Tristan had joined the other knights, who were still trying to fathom Arthur and his skills out.
He caught sight of Isolde lurking in the background, near the armory. Arthur made a beeline for her. He had an idea, and wanted to run it by her. He couldn't think of anybody else that would be perfect for the job.
"Isolde," Arthur said as he approached her.
She twisted the edge of her ponytail with her fingers. "Arthur."
"You're itching to get out there and fight, aren't you?" he said.
She sighed. "If I don't kick someone's ass right now, I may end up accidently killing someone." Her tone was light, playful.
"I wanted to ask you something," Arthur said. He gestured with his head and they moved a bit away from the others. "Tristan told me you two were planning to stay in Camelot for the time being. The first day after my coronation, I want to begin a female knight squad and have them start training."
Her brows rose in surprise.
"I want them to train with the men, but Morgana suggested training separately for now, ease the idea of female fighting into Camelot."
"Men and their egos," Isolde said.
Arthur chuckled. "That's what Morgana said." He cleared his throat. "I would be honored to have you as my Head Female Knight, if you would like."
Isolde's jaw dropped. She closed it then glanced at Tristan. Tears welled up in her eyes. "You know, I was the one who taught Tristan and Gwaine how to fight. My father and brothers trained me. They said females should learn how to defend themselves. They didn't want me to rely on any Prince Charming to save me."
"You can hold your own," Arthur said, and he meant it. She kept her composure and enjoyed the brawl of the fight just like he did. "You'll be Princess Charming," he teased.
Guinevere was right. Females had a right to fight just like men. It would be a hard transition, but Arthur was willing to work toward equality.
"Guinevere is quite the blacksmith, she can create the swords for your knights." Arthur coughed. "If you accept."
"I'll get back to you on that, by tomorrow," she said.
Arthur nodded. "I'll support your decision either way." He tapped his fist against his palm and pressed his lips together. He jerked a thumb. "I'll be going..."
"You want to know why you always win?" Isolde called out.
Arthur halted, waiting.
"You always take the first initiative. You're aggressive. The others, they don't realize it, but when they fight you, they just dance around and stay on the defensive."
"You've got a good eye," Arthur said.
He grabbed a sword from the rack and tossed it at her.
She caught the hilt and blinked.
Arthur stepped out onto the field and beckoned with his hand. "Show me what you got."
She charged forward and didn't hold back.
Arthur barely managed to defeat her, but damn, she gave him a good fight.
He grinned. "I think I found my new sparring partner."
She wiped the sweat from her brows. "You're stronger than you look. I'll beat you one day."
"I'm sure you will." Arthur smacked the side of her shoulder.
He ran a couple more drills before he called it a day. Arthur decided to change up in his chambers instead of in the armory. Sometimes, he just liked to be alone.
He wasn't surprised to find Merlin in his room, pacing.
"You're going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep that up," Arthur said as he closed the door behind him.
"You sound like my mother," Merlin quipped.
"Your mother is a sharp woman, I'll take that as a compliment," Arthur said as he tossed his gauntlets onto his desk. "What's got you all riled up?"
"I...I got you a new manservant," he blurted out.
Arthur froze. He slowly turned to Merlin.
Merlin grimaced, sheepishly. "I knew you would never have the heart to do it, so I'm doing it for you."
No more of Merlin rising him up in the early mornings with his annoying cheer of 'Rise and Shine'. No more of Merlin bringing him up a regular portion of his meal that was always still warm. No more perfect temperature for his baths. No more of his gentle hands as he dressed Arthur, or placed his armor upon him.
As much as it hurt his heart, Arthur knew he had to let Merlin go. He was to earn a bigger and better position.
"When did you get to know me so well?" Arthur teased.
"Your new manservant...it's George."
Arthur winced. "George? No. He's such a...bootlicker," he whined.
Merlin chuckled. "He's not...Arthur, George serves Lord Sully for crying out loud."
Ah, Lord Sully. Arthur used to be friends with him, or at least, he pretended to. Uther wanted Arthur to be fast friends with him. Sully was arrogant, uptight, and spoiled.
"I think a couple weeks under your service and he'll lighten up a bit," Merlin said.
Arthur sighed. "So, you have three days left as my manservant."
"So it would seem," Merlin said.
Arthur glanced down and shifted on his feet.
"Arthur...trust me, I'll always be by your side."
Arthur felt his cheeks warm. He scratched the left side of his neck. "I recalled you once saying that you'll be my servant until the day you die," he teased.
Merlin's ears grew red. "Yeah, well, I thought I was going to die."
"Oh, so you didn't mean it?" Arthur drew in closer to him.
Merlin stared at Arthur's lips. "Prat...of course I meant it. I may no longer be your manservant, but I'll still be serving you."
Arthur leaned in. "In what ways?"
Merlin's breathing became erratic. He licked his own lips. "Uh...well..."
A knock on the door caused them both to jump backwards.
Arthur blinked and cleared his throat. "Uh...enter."
Sir Leon barged in. "Arthur. Your father wishes to see you."
"Right. Thank you, Leon," Arthur said.
Leon nodded and left.
Merlin took this moment to head for the door. "You do that. I'll go...finish my last duties as your personal manservant."
Arthur watched him leave. He groaned and slumped down into his chair. What was wrong with him? How could he think of Merlin in that manner? Yet how could he go against his heart? It felt so right, so natural.
He charged out the door. He found Merlin heading down the corridor for Gaius' chambers.
"Merlin!" Arthur barked.
Merlin stopped and spun around, confused. "Arthur...what..."
Arthur grabbed Merlin by the scruff of his scarf and yanked him in.
Their lips crashed together, messy and painful. They both panted as their lips drew apart.
Merlin grinned like he never grinned before.
Arthur laughed and tapped his forehead against Merlin's.
"Have you had any luck?"
Merlin's brows creased and then they relaxed when he realized what Arthur meant.
"I just didn't fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere that I did."
"Had any luck?"
"Yeah..." Merlin closed his eyes. "Yeah. Right by your side."
Arthur released a quiet laugh.
This time, Merlin roughly pulled Arthur in for another kiss.
A gleeful shout of "Rise and Shine!" woke Arthur from his deep slumber. He emitted a soft groan and burrowed his face further into the pillow.
Sunlight had yet to peer through the window, it was too early.
"Up and at them!" Merlin exclaimed as he yanked the covers off.
Arthur grabbed his pillow and chucked it at Merlin. It smacked into his manservant's head.
Arthur blinked dazedly. Light had pierced the darkness outside, yet the sun hadn't even began its way over the horizon.
"Merlin, I don't have anything until noon. What is it?" Arthur snapped.
"You're going to be crowned king tomorrow, best get used to these early mornings," Merlin said.
"Merlin. Stop being so chipper. And give me my covers back," Arthur ordered.
Merlin's features turned serious. "We need to have your other coronation first."
Arthur pursed his lips. Other? Oh...he ran his fingers through his hair. He'd yet to receive the crown back from the land of Albion.
Since the druids rejected him, Arthur wasn't sure how to feel. Sparring yesterday helped. It cleared his mind. He had to keep moving forward. He smiled at the memory of his mother, Ygraine. She was wise, calm. He wished she was alive, and here with him today. At least he now knew that she watched over him.
"There's no need. I have to earn it," Arthur said.
Merlin smiled. "Clotpole, you've already earned it."
Arthur felt the hum and warmth of his magic underneath his skin like it agreed to Merlin's words. He stared at his hands. The magic of a king.
His eyes finally adjusted to the room and he realized what Merlin was wearing.
"Is that...are you wearing a knight's chainmail?" Arthur asked as he got out of his bed.
Merlin even had the red cape hung from his shoulders. "You did knight me, sire. I cast a spell to make it a bit lighter, how do you fight in this thing?"
"Practice," Arthur said. "I told you I was fighting fit."
Merlin only grinned. "Get dressed. We're already running late."
"Late? Merlin, the king arrives whenever he means to," Arthur said. "Best get used to it."
Merlin rolled his eyes to the heavens. "Royal Prat."
They said nothing as Merlin helped Arthur dress, slipped into his red gambeson, into his silver chainmail. He stopped Merlin as he help up a white cape.
"Whoa, uh... Merlin, no king wears a white cape in any kingdom. It's the way it's always been."
"No king, but the High Ruler of Albion," Merlin said.
Arthur studied him. "Merlin, what's going on? I was only humoring you, are you actually..."
"I thought you said you were learning to listen. I'm taking you to your coronation, for you to swear an oath as the Ruler of Albion."
"It's time, Arthur. You've accepted that role...do you take it back?"
Arthur stared at the cape. Did he? His chest felt light, there were no tension or burden weighing him down. He was calm, ready. "No..." He swallowed. He rubbed a knuckle over his lips. "I guess I have to officially ask you a question then."
"Yes, you have to wear the cape," Merlin said with an over-exaggerated sigh.
Arthur shook his head. "No..." He stared hard into Merlin's blue eyes. "Will you swear to be my right hand man, the Warlock of Albion?"
Merlin's mouth dropped a bit. "You mean..."
"Why am I even asking? You told me you're happy to be my servant until the day you die, so that's an automatic yes," Arthur said.
Merlin smacked him. He smiled. "Yes. I swear."
Arthur's smile grew wide. "Good."
Merlin tapped his chin. "Warlock of Albion. Has a nice ring to it."
"Thought you might like it. It was that or Clumsy Idiot."
"I like your first choice better."
"I thought you would."
Silence drew into the room. They stared at each other, at their lips, then at the floor or ceiling, then back. It wasn't awkwardness...it was just, Arthur had no clue where to go from here. They just shared a bloody kiss the other day. Heck, more than one. There was something there.
Merlin adjusted the cape onto Arthur's shoulders.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Merlin..."
"I know," he said. "Me too."
Arthur's heart swelled. "Did you say we were on a schedule, Emrys?"
"Let's go, Once and Future King."
The first streaks of the sun stretched across the sky. A few servants were out, and people were setting up for the market when Arthur rode Eirian out of Camelot, with Merlin riding behind them.
No one even looked up at them.
Arthur wondered if Merlin cast a spell.
"Where exactly are we going?" Arthur called out over his shoulder.
"Have you ever heard the legend of the Sword in Stone?" Merlin yelled against the wind.
Arthur rose a brow. "Yes, considering I was the one who thrust it into the stone."
He could sense Merlin grinning. "Legends state that when Albion's need is great, the one and true king of the land will pull the sword free and with it, bring back the light of peace."
"Is that the bedtime story they're telling kids these days?" Arthur joked.
He may act arrogant, but the truth was, Arthur hated it when people made a bigger deal of him than he really was. Bring back the light of peace? A dream Arthur wanted to accomplish, but it wasn't one that he could state he'll do with such certainty.
Only Merlin would believe so whole-heartedly in him.
"It's not a lie, just a slightly embellished truth," Merlin said.
Eirian slowed to a slight walk and Arthur shifted on his saddle to get a view of Merlin. "Don't put too much faith in me, Merlin. I may not be able to live up to that dream of yours."
Merlin tilted his head. "You really don't get it, do you? I believe..."
Eirian stopped and Merlin gestured for Arthur to get off.
Rocks and debris crunched under Arthur's boots as he followed Merlin through the forest, with Eirian following behind them like a protective dog.
Merlin stopped and faced Arthur. "I believe in you because you've already lived up to my dream. You're not the man I once thought you were."
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck. "Don't you ever think that maybe you're the one who gives me courage? You inspire me to be a better person."
Merlin flushed at that. "Maybe so. But you're the one who made that change yourself."
He led Arthur out into the small clearing, where the morning rays cast a golden light among Excalibur. The gold in the hilt and fuller of the sword glimmered.
Scattered of noises pierced the silence as people filled into the clearing. Arthur gapped as the Knights of the Round Table, all dressed like Merlin, flanked the right: Lancelot, Elyan, Percival, Gwaine, Tristan, Isolde, Guinevere, Kay and Leon.
Gaius and Geoffrey joined their side, with Audrey and her family, and with Ben and Donna with their new kids: Cian and Anna.
Morgana slipped out from the left, dressed in a sparkling black dress.
In front of her, she guided Mordred forward.
Arthur stifled a gasp as the small druid council joined them, dressed in their forest green capes. They looked uncertain, cautious.
"Are you ready to swear your oath, Once and Future King?" a loud voice boomed behind Arthur.
He glanced back at Kilgharrah.
"A dragon!" he heard Cian exclaim then a quick shush from Donna.
Arthur inclined his head.
"Iseldir will perform the ceremony."
Arthur turned back to see the chieftain positioned by the stone, hands clasped together in front of him.
Arthur inhaled a deep breath and took this moment to savor the people who were with him.
Merlin walked up and joined Iseldir on the other side of the rock. Pride twinkled in his eyes.
The birds chirped a loud song and everyone stood at attention as Arthur walked up to the sword in stone. He stopped a foot before it.
Iseldir gestured for Arthur to kneel before the stone, which he did.
"Will you solemnly swear to govern the people of Albion according to their respective laws and customs?"
Not just the kingdom of Camelot, but Albion as a whole. Mercia, Caerlon, Essetir, Nemeth, Gawant, Amata, Svealand, Daobeth...so many kingdoms.
It only took a beat for Arthur to respond what rang so right in his being: "I solemnly swear so to do."
He winced as the sunlight flared a brighter. Was it Arthur or was the forest around him starting to sparkle with light?
"Will you to your power and magic rebuild this world and bring the days of peace?"
Strange choice of wording.
Arthur lifted his chin high and caught Merlin's gaze. "I will."
His magic sparked inside of him and swelled with his chest. A comforting warmth spilled across his body and Arthur blinked as he noticed that his skin glimmered with a soft glow of light.
A tug pulled at Iseldir's lips. "Then by the sacred magic vested in me, I now pronounced you, Arthur, Ruler of Albion. Draw free the blade."
Arthur rose to his feet and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of Excalibur. The blade rung sweetly as Arthur pulled Excalibur free from the stone.
Wings fluttered behind him and a wreath crown sat upon Arthur's head. Birds of all kind, owls, robins, hawks, eagles, ravens, crows, and more lined the trees and chirped loudly.
Merlin was the first to cry out: "Long live Arthur!"
Everyone joined in the choruses.
He caught Morgana wiping a quick tear.
All his knights, his friends, his people, even the druids, all beamed with pride, with relief, with happiness.
"Long live Arthur!"
Kilgharrah released a roar and Eirian stomped his hooves.
Arthur's cape fluttered as a swirl of wind whipped around him. Leaves and flower petals swiveled up.
And the land of Camelot brightened with the light of magic once more.
I hope you all enjoyed the journey, I hope this story hit you all in the right feels. I hope you walk away from it a bit different than when you first started it. I hope you got something from this. That's every writer's intention. As much as I love to entertain, I hoped the story was more than that. I hoped you enjoyed my version of Arthur, his touch of magic. I hoped you enjoyed Merlin and his ever-growing support in our favorite Once and Future King. I hoped you enjoyed the slight twist in the legends. I hope you read this over and over again.
Thank you for reading :)