“Is that it?”
The little boy’s voice was hushed, grief mingling with the newfound awe as he stared up at the spires that rose elegantly into the horizon. He brought his pony to a halt and his companion stilled his own old hackney as well.
“It is.” The boy glanced at the old man, offering a faint hint of a smile. His deep blue eyes were still steeped in sadness, though, dark with a grief stronger than a boy so young should ever have to bear. There was something almost ancient in his gaze and the man looked away from the boy, focusing instead on the castle that had come into view over the hill. “You’ll like it, I think. Always something to do and I’m sure you’ll be able to charm treats from the baker’s wife with little effort. She has a weakness for charming young men with big blue eyes.”
The boy’s huff of amusement was a bit bashful and he went back to staring at the castle himself. “I knew it would be big, but… How will I keep from getting lost?”
The man smiled, nudging his horse forward again. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll know all its ins and outs in no time.”
Though the boy looked doubtful, he simply dipped his head and let his own pony follow.
There was an abandoned husk of a cottage sitting just on the outskirts of Camelot. The townspeople avoided it whenever possible, often taking longer routes to accomplish their tasks rather than risk the shorter one straight past the decrepit building. When it couldn’t be avoided, they scurried by as quickly as possible, their eyes studiously turned elsewhere.
Arthur Pendragon, prince of Camelot, understood their wariness even if he didn’t share their superstitions.
Any other cottage in its state would have been torn down years before. It was a hazard for any adventurous child willing to brave the ghosts said to haunt it.
“Sire…” He didn't have to look to know that Leon's concerned gaze was fixed on him. Everyone in Camelot knew the pain and bitterness that this particular husk held for him. It was typical of his friend to wish to spare him, but the security of his city, of his people, was his responsibility. He wouldn't shirk it to make life easier on himself.
“No.” Arthur’s chest felt tight as he stared at the rotting door and the symbols scrawled across it. The elements had worn away all other direct signs of what had happened in the cottage almost ten years before, but those symbols… They still seemed as fresh as they’d been the very first time he’d ever seen them. They seeped from the wood itself like a bleeding wound that refused to be healed.
Gaius, the court physician, had determined that it wasn’t actually blood, but he’d never been able to give answer to a suitable alternative, either.
There were times when Arthur was sure that both Gaius and the king knew far more than they would say, but he was unwilling to press Gaius and questioning Uther would have been more interaction than he cared to share with his father.
He took a deep breath and forced those thoughts from his head. They weren’t there to dwell on the past, after all.
“What did the boy say he’d seen?”
Leon’s mouth tightened for a moment, then he turned to face the cottage. “He swears there were lights. He says ‘ghost lights’, but…”
“But if ghosts haunted this cottage, we’d know it by now,” Arthur filled in, his voice flat. Whispers of ghosts had been reaching the ears of the Guard almost from the very beginning.
The only ghosts that had ever been found there had been in Arthur’s own memories.
Leon simply dipped his head in agreement.
Arthur took a deep breath and leaned into the open scar of an old window. The inside was even worse to see than the outside. No one had ever scavenged it for belongings once the original occupants had died. No one wanted to invite hidden monsters or ghosts into their own homes.
The table still stood on rickety, rotting legs, but one of the two chairs had finally collapsed. Over the years, most of the thatched roof had ended up littering the floor. A small part of the back wall had caved in, crushing the bed that had once been lined against it. He could see one torn edge of the time-stained mattress sticking out from under the mess.
The dark stains that dotted everything inside the cottage had lost the russet color that they’d once had. It would be easy to mistake them for water stains or something else equally innocuous now.
A vision flashed through his mind, a memory almost a decade old.
Blood covered the walls, covered everything. More blood than it seemed possible for a few human bodies to hold. Sightless eyes stared up at nothing, their faces locked in terror.
He’d been more child than adult then, just barely turned seventeen. It should have given him nightmares, the sights he’d seen within the cottage that day.
Instead, he’d been glad. Every fiber in his being had been so fiercely glad that someone had done what he hadn’t been able to do. His only regret had been that they hadn’t meted out the same punishment on the king.
Arthur shook away the dark thoughts and glanced at his second in command, one of only a handful of people he considered friend, and shook his head. “I don’t see any signs of disturbance, but it rained last night. Take someone to check around back, yeah? There’s a part of the wall collapsed, so someone could have come in through there.”
The other man nodded and turned to bark a sharp order at one of the lesser guards hovering behind him.
Pushing himself away from the window, careful not to disrupt the unstable frame, he sighed. “Likely, it’s just the product of an overactive imagination. Where is the boy now?”
“Somewhere about the blacksmith’s, I imagine. Elyan and Guinevere are both there today.”
They shared a grin. Elyan and Guinevere had shared the tasks at the blacksmith’s for years after the siblings’ father had died and his black sheep son had finally returned home to care for his sister. The two were always a source of great entertainment to everyone. They bickered the way only long-suffering siblings who loved one another could. They were also two of the kindest people Arthur had ever known. The children who gathered around the smithy to watch the pair work were often gifted with flower wreaths or other small tokens of amusement.
Arthur had never quite understood where they found the time to make anything extra at all, considering they both pulled double duty - Elyan as a knight and Guinevere as a maidservant - but he’d never seen a child go away from the smithy empty-handed.
“Well, let’s go see what he has to say.”
His eagerness to leave the cottage had little to do with the reasons others avoided it. He didn’t believe in ghosts and he’d never been horrified by what had happened there.
The cottage brought back other memories, memories that he tried to avoid during the day when there were others around to see his weakness.
“The boy’s name is Gerard.” Leon nodded to his prince and raised a hand, gesturing for Arthur to lead on. “His mother says he’s not given to flights of fancy, which is why I brought the matter to your attention.”
“That’s fine.” They cut through a back passage and came out a few houses down from the blacksmith’s. “If we’ve got someone taking advantage of local superstition, I want to know about it.”
There weren’t very many good, honest reasons for anyone to hide behind tales of ghosts.
A smile tugged at Arthur’s lips at the call. Guinevere’s honest cheer and goodwill was always difficult to resist. There was just something about her that helped ease even his darkest moods, something beyond her pretty face and sweet smile. In another life, in other circumstances, he rather thought he could have loved her.
“Guinevere,” he greeted her with a bow and a kiss to her hand, ignoring the grime of a hard day’s labor with the ease of familiarity.
Beside him, Leon bowed his own head in respectful acknowledgement. “My Lady.”
“What brings Camelot’s finest knights to our part of town today?” she asked, turning to set her hammer down.
Arthur leaned closer to see the delicate lattice pattern she’d been shaping into a sword hilt before they’d arrived. It would be a fine weapon when she was done, he knew, as deadly as it was decorative. The siblings’ skills were second only to their deceased father and he’d always been pleased that they’d chosen to stay despite the man’s sticky end.
The king didn’t like it, of course. He disapproved of a woman doing a man’s work and disliked Elyan on some obscure bit of reasoning that only made sense to Uther Pendragon. Arthur knew that Uther had one of his own men double check every piece of smith-work that the knights and soldiers of Camelot used.
An unnecessary aggravation, but as long as it didn’t offend Elyan and Guinevere enough that they decided to leave, Arthur was content to pretend he didn’t notice.
“We’re looking for a boy,” Arthur said, glancing around. “Gerard, I believe he’s called.”
There were a handful of children perched on a crude bench just outside the boundary of the smithy, watching Elyan shape a piece of steel.
He pursed his lips and considered them before looking at another trio hanging over a railing nearby. If pressed, the prince would have been forced to admit that he couldn’t even tell if they were male or female. True, all but one were wearing pants, but he’d grown up with a hoyden for a sister.
Girls in pants were not the strangest thing he’d ever seen.
Guinevere smiled and nodded towards one of the little tow-headed things sitting on the bench. “Over there, your highness.”
With a half-bow and a murmur of thanks, Arthur took a moment to size up the boy. Serious blue eyes regarded him in turn and the boy frowned for a moment before whispering something to his friends. Then he hopped up and approached the prince with a slightly wary look.
“My lord.” There was a short pause, then Gerard offered an awkward bow.
Arthur spent more time walking through Camelot proper than he did in the castle and most of his people had gotten used to seeing him. Children always seemed torn between giving him the royal courtesy that their parents had drilled into their heads and treating him like they would any other adult.
Arthur preferred if they didn’t bow or curtsy, but he never protested. There was no sense in confusing them and he could only imagine what Uther would do if word reached him that the commoners of Camelot weren’t giving the royal family ‘proper’ courtesy.
“You are Gerard?”
The boy nodded solemnly.
“Sir Leon tells me that you saw something last night. What were you doing outside so late?” There wasn’t an official curfew, but most of the townsfolk tended to stay indoors once darkness fell. Camelot had fought too many enemies who preferred the cover of the night for its peoples comfort.
“I work at the tavern, sire. I was walking home.”
The prince glanced towards Leon for confirmation, somewhat surprised when his second in command nodded. He was sure he didn’t want to know what such a young child was doing working in the tavern. At least the one in Camelot was moderately reputable, not like some of the places he’d seen in other towns.
Some of his best knights practically lived there, or so it seemed to Arthur at any rate, and he was sure Gwaine would have said something if anything untoward was happening to children. For all that he sometimes wondered at the almost savage distrust of all things noble, Arthur trusted Gwaine’s own innate nobility and personal sense of honor.
“And does your path always take you that way?”
Another nod. “Yes, Sire. Ever’ night. ‘Less I have to pick something up for my mum.”
“All right.” Arthur rubbed his chin, considering. “Have you ever seen something out of the ordinary there before?”
“No, sir.” Gerard glowered at his friends and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I mean… some people have hid there and tried to scare me before, but it was stupid. Not like this at all.”
“There was this… pale blue light, sire. Round and about…” He held his hands up to demonstrate the size and shape of it. “About yay big. It just kind of floated past the window. It weren’t fire or nothing like that.”
Arthur had seen pale blue orbs before. It was a common trick used by sorcerers to light their way. His mouth tightened for a moment. Uther’s purge had left Camelot with a lot of enemies in that quarter.
On the other hand, the continued ban on magic in Camelot meant that a passing sorcerer may have simply needed temporary shelter in a place where they wouldn’t be likely to draw attention.
“All right, thank you, Gerard.” He nodded to Leon, who fished a coin out of his pocket and handed it over.
Gerard’s eyes got wide and he dipped another awkward, but more heartfelt bow. “Oh, thank you, m’lord!”
He ran back to his friends to show off his new treasure and Arthur waited until he was out of earshot before turning to his second. He kept his voice low, not wanting to be overheard. “Sorcery.”
It wasn’t a question, but Leon nodded regardless. “Shall we post a guard, Sire?”
“No, if it’s someone just passing through, we don’t want to draw undue attention to them.”
“If it is an enemy?”
“If it’s someone with hostile intent, I’d rather they didn’t know that we were onto them.” Sighing, he considered his options. “After they’ve searched the area, make sure the guards leave it be. We’ll have the knights keep a more unobtrusive eye out.”
Arthur had long since made sure that one of his own knights kept patrol each evening. Too many of the guards were leftovers from Uther’s own men and their loyalty was to the king first and the prince second.
And he just couldn’t bring himself to trust them. They were the men who’d stood by when his life had shattered and watched with stoicism or disinterest.
He’d spent the last decade surrounding himself with men that were his. Men that he’d trained, men who would be his eyes and ears and would do their best to uphold their prince’s ideals.
He would not declare open war on the king. It would be too detrimental to Camelot, invite too many of her enemies to take advantage of the instability. But if push came to shove, he knew that his knights would have his back and that they would win.
“Gwaine has patrol tonight. It won’t look odd if he lingers nearby.”
Nodding, Arthur grinned and clapped a hand on Leon’s shoulder. “Just make sure he knows this isn’t an excuse to spend his patrol in the tavern.”
With Gwaine, one had to be very specific about these sorts of things.
”Look,” the soft voice whispered.
Arthur could feel the warm presence pressed against his side, the shift and pull as an arm stretched out above them, something bursting out of the hand.
He made a soft noise of amusement as the pair of brightly colored butterflies danced above them. They looked like they were made from fairy lights and pixie dust, as fanciful and pretty as anything Merlin thought up with his magic.
“You’re such a girl.”
His companion took no offense. The arm came back down and wrapped around his waist as Merlin snuggled closer. “You like them.”
“Which doesn’t make you any less of a girl.”
Merlin laughed softly and pinched his side. “You like me.”
Arthur twisted to the side so that he could see Merlin properly. Deep blue eyes met his and he leaned in to steal a kiss. “No, I love you.”
The smile that answered was soft and sweet. “And I love you.”
He looked back to the butterflies, reaching out so that they could land on his fingers. The young warlock held the hand close to Arthur’s nose. “The red and white one, that’s you. The green and gold one is me.”
The butterflies flitted from Merlin’s hand to Arthur’s nose and his eyes crossed as he tried to watch them. Then he wrinkled his nose and shook his head, dislodging them. “Only you would use infinite power to make butterflies. You should make them go away before someone sees.”
“I can’t,” Merlin said, voice content as he settled his head on Arthur’s chest. “They’re made of my love as much as my magic. They’ll exist as long as I love you.”
Though Arthur rolled his eyes, he pulled Merlin in closer and held on tightly as he watched the dancing butterflies.
Arthur huffed slightly as the warm summer day of long ago dissipated into the chilly morning of the here and now. He twisted under his blankets, trying to ignore the voice that was tugging at him, pulling him towards wakefulness.
He clung to the memory of a warm presence against his chest and the soft feeling of butterfly wings brushing his cheek.
Just for another moment…
A soft knock dispelled the last vestiges of the dream and he sighed, blinking wearily up at the canopy of his bed.
“Sire…” There was a soft creaking noise and he knew that George was peeking through the opened door. His manservant had learned the hard way not to actually enter without Arthur’s express permission, but the sunlight streaming in from the window said that George had waited as long as he could without letting his master start the morning late.
For a long minute, Arthur stayed in the bed, contemplating what might happen if he just… didn’t get up. Perhaps Gaius had a potion hiding in his stores that would let a person fall into an eternal dreamland.
A patch of color caught his eye and Arthur eyed it for a moment before sighing. “I’m up, George.”
“Do you require any assistance in getting prepared, my lord?” Every morning George asked the question with a hopeful tone of voice.
Once, he’d taken it for granted that there was someone to heed his every whim. Someone to dress him, to prepare his bath and make his bed and fetch his food and saddle his pony.
He’d never have given it a second thought if Merlin hadn’t opened his eyes to the realities beyond the royal attendance. The young warlock, only six years old at the time, had laughed himself nearly sick when he’d realized that Arthur couldn’t even get dressed without help.
Arthur had learned to do most basic things for himself out of sheer self-defense in the face of Merlin’s good-natured ridicule and eventually, it had just seemed like the natural way to do things.
In life after Merlin, there’d been the added pleasure of knowing how much the king hated the idea of his son doing ‘menial’ tasks like making his own bed and caring for his own horse.
He still left certain tasks to others. The maid came in to clean once a week and the head cook would have had an apoplexy if the crown prince had popped up in her kitchens. He’d never dare to assume that he had the skills to darn his own clothes and there were plenty of other tasks he disliked enough to ignore the taunting voice in his head.
Besides, he knew some of the servants worried about their positions if he did too much and aggravating the king wasn’t quite worth putting innocent bystanders through that kind of stress.
The relish with which George performed the few day-to-day tasks that Arthur left to him, and the way he was always pushed for more, was downright disturbing though. The man was scarily efficient and the picture perfect image of a proper manservant, as declared by Uther Pendragon.
Perhaps that was why Arthur disliked him.
“No, thank you,” Arthur replied, rolling up to sit on the edge of his bed. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Has Lady Morgana had breakfast yet?”
There was a shifting at the door, but George respected the lack of invitation and stayed just outside. “I believe she’s just eating now, Sire. Guinevere brought a tray up to her room only a bit ago.”
“I’ll join her, then. You can bring a tray there for me and leave it.”
“Oh, and George, have a bath waiting for me tonight. I’ll be running the knights through drills today. And I have a few hopefuls trying out.”
“Of course, Sire,” George replied with obvious glee at having been given the task. Often, Arthur just asked the first servant he ran across when he wanted a bath, something that Guinevere said left George pouting for days afterwards.
Arthur shook his head. Disturbing. “Thank you.”
Then his manservant was gone and the door was closed again.
Blue eyes drifted to the canopy. “There. Another day begun. Happy?”
Green and gold wings twitched.
Steel flashed in the late afternoon sunlight as swords met in a loud clang and clatter.
The combatants whirled apart only to spring close again, swords locked together between them.
For a long moment, the tableau held, a stalemate of superior strength versus superior leverage, then the smaller of the two figures kicked out with one booted foot, catching the larger on the side of the knee.
A deft whirl of movement later and Arthur found himself disarmed, down on one knee with a sword at his neck.
He sighed and shoved his helm off his head. “Bloody hell, Morgana. That’s cheating.”
She laughed and pushed up her own visor. “You don’t spar with me for a fair fight, Arthur. You spar with me because your own knights are too soft on you and you know that I’ll do anything to beat you.”
Pushing the sword away from him with a disgusted look, Arthur climbed back to his feet. “Still. How am I to protect Camelot if you maim me?”
“Well, I suppose I could always take your place. I’d get those knights of yours properly straightened out. And the guards. Pathetic.”
The sad thing was that she probably could. She was a better fighter than all but his own elite and she wasn’t afraid to use dirty tactics if it ensured her victory.
“Love you too, brother dear,” she replied with a sweet smile that was belied by the dancing glee in her eyes. She enjoyed beating him far too much.
Arthur tossed his sword from hand to hand. “I think my blade may be off. The balance isn’t what it should be.”
Morgana snorted and pulled her helm off entirely, shaking her hair out. “You’ll use any excuse to avoid admitting that I’m a better swordsman than you’ll ever be, won’t you?”
Before he could answer, a royal page scurried across the field calling for Arthur. The boy was panting slightly as he stopped before them and bowed deeply. "The king requests that you dine with him tonight, m’lord.”
“I have patrol,” Arthur bit out, peering at the flat of his sword. Morgana could say what she wanted about excuses. The balance was just a bit off for some reason…
“But Sire- that is… the king specifically asked-”
Arthur’s lip curled in displeasure, a flash of rage and pain twisting up in his chest like an old wound that would never properly heal. His hand tightened around the hilt and he had to quash the urge to use the weapon against someone who was nothing more than a messenger. “Tell the king that he can take his request and -”
“Really, Arthur. Don’t be so rude.” The smile Morgana aimed at the hapless page didn’t seem to reassure him as much as make him squirm with fear. Or it could have been the sword still held easily in her hand. “Simply inform the king that a matter of grave importance regarding Camelot’s security has come up and that I’ll explain further later because I would be delighted to dine with him this evening.”
“Y-yes, m’lady.” The boy scurried off, looking miserable.
Morgana sighed once they were alone again and cast a measuring look at Arthur. “One of these days, you’ll run out of excuses.”
“My responsibility to Camelot may require me to attend feasts and banquets, but he’s a fool if he believes I’ll ever willing dine at his table again.”
“Arthur….” She sighed again, sadness in her eyes. “It’s been so long… He wouldn’t have wanted this for you, you know. This life of hatred and duty. He’d want you to be happy. Or to find peace, at least.”
Arthur knew that the ‘he’ in question had changed. He swung his sword in a graceful arc and decided to take it by Elyan’s. His friend could check it over instead of attending the scheduled patrol Arthur had just claimed for himself. He slid it easily into his scabbard and frowned at his sister. “I’ll have peace. The moment the old bastard finally has the good grace to die.”
She sighed, sheathing her sword. “Have care, Arthur. Something….”
He arched a brow at her as her voice trailed off. She tilted her head to the side, eyes hazy with remembered vision. He waited, knowing better than to rush her thoughts when it came to the gifts she wielded.
Finally she shook her head. Her eyes were clear again, though still worried. “I don’t know. Something is coming. Something is… changing. I don’t know yet if it’s to the good or the ill.”
“Well. If you see peace looming in my near future, do be sure to let me know. Until then, I’ll just muddle through ignoring him as well as possible.”
Arthur blinked as Leon fell into step beside him. “Leon…”
The other man simply gave him a bland look. It was enough to warn the prince not to make issue of his first knight sharing the nightly patrol with him. Leon had very set ideas of what was proper and what wasn’t. His prince patrolling alone was one of the things that he found unacceptable. “Gwaine saw nothing last night. I’m even reasonably sure that he managed to resist the urge to visit the tavern until Percival relieved him.”
Lips twitching, Arthur dipped his head in acknowledgement of both the company and the good-natured tease at Gwaine. His response was properly sedate, though. “He is a knight of Camelot. I trust his ability to stay out of a tavern for one night.”
Never more than one, though. Gwaine was a skilled knight and Arthur was happy to have the man at his back in any fight. However, Arthur wasn’t blind to his faults. His weakness for women and mead was going to be his downfall one day.
Leon grinned. “Well, most of a night, at any rate. No guards reported anything unusual today, either.”
“Good. Hopefully that means that whoever was using the spot has moved on.” The longer a sorcerer lingered in Camelot, the less likely he’d make it out alive. Arthur wouldn’t persecute anyone who wasn’t doing harm to his kingdom, but he wasn’t king yet and Uther’s definition of ‘harm to Camelot’ was a great deal more… encompassing.
Though Arthur had done his best over the years to help his people escape from Uther’s fanatical purging, it wasn’t an easy task and he simply didn’t have enough of his own men to do a proper job of it. Fewer and fewer innocents were falling under the executioner’s axe, but Arthur wouldn’t be content until he could ensure that the pyres stayed unlit and the axe went unbloodied. Permanently.
Perhaps it was an unrealistic dream, one he couldn’t fulfill even once Uther died and he finally took on the duties of the crown. Every kingdom had enemies and every crown had to be defended if a king wanted to hold onto it.
Arthur didn’t care how unrealistic it was. It was his dream and he felt no need to justify it to anyone.
“Bedeivere wants to coordinate for security when Lady Elena arrives. It’s less than two weeks away now.” Leon’s voice was mild, his expression placid, despite knowing it was a touchy subject.
Arthur made a face. “I wish the king would stop trying to dangle me as bait for treaties. You’d think that debacle with Lady Vivianne would have been enough to make him see reason.”
Although his first knight made a choked sound, he managed to keep a straight face. “Even you’ve said that Lady Elena is nothing like Lady Vivianne.”
“She’s a nice enough girl, but we’ve neither of us have any interest in each other.” Indeed, he’d be willing to say that Elena was a friend but anything else was just... Ludicrous. Elena knew his heart lay elsewhere and even if he’d been willing, she wasn’t the sort of girl who was going to settle for whatever scraps of affection had been left over. “I’d sooner marry Guinevere.”
Leon did laugh at that. “I would give a great deal of gold to see that proposition, Sire. May I suggest that should you decide to pursue it, that you make sure that you are wearing a full set of armor.”
“Git,” Arthur replied, rolling his eyes and pushing at Leon’s shoulder. He was more amused than annoyed though. “I’m not saying that I would, only that it’s more feasible of a match than Elena and I. And I’m not foolish enough not to realize that both Lancelot and Elyan would separate my head from my shoulders. Provided Guinevere hadn’t already separated me from all of my more important bits.”
Their feet slowed automatically as they approached the dark cottage, but Arthur could already see that there were no lights.
“Lancelot would challenge you to honorable combat, Sire, but…”
“Oi! Are you saying I couldn’t beat Lancelot?”
“Well, he’d be far more motivated than you.”
It was simple enough to steer their path closer to the cottage than they’d usually patrol. It probably wasn’t necessary but in the interest of being thorough…
There was nothing but shadows and darkness as far as Arthur could see and he relaxed slightly. He’d leave the patrols for a week just to be sure, but if no one had been seen in two days, then hopefully whomever it had been had moved on. He turned his head to respond to Leon’s assertion when something caught his eye and he turned back, staring intently.
“What..” Arthur’s eyes narrowed as the shadows seemed to move. He had only a moment to shout a warning at Leon and then the shadows leaped out at them, revealing fierce claws spread before a mouthful of snapping, razor sharp teeth.
Should’ve brought more men, Arthur thought, wincing in sympathy as Leon dodged the claws only to be caught across the chest by a whipping tail that sent him flying into the cabin wall. Weak with age and neglect, the wall gave way under his weight and Arthur lost sight of his friend completely.
He didn’t have time to worry about it too much, though. With Leon out of the way, the beast turned its attention on the prince.
Reflexes honed by years of training and battle, Arthur ducked and weaved, avoiding the claws and the tail and the teeth, looking for an opening. Rabid as the beast seemed to be, its only defense seemed to be offense and a fierce joy rose in Arthur when he found a clear path to the thing’s neck.
Another duck and weave and he brought his sword down with as much force as he could muster.
Joy turned to despair as his sword - made with the finest damascus steel and easily the best crafted in the kingdom - shattered as if it were made of delicate glass. For a moment, all he could do was stare dumbfounded at the jagged remains jutting out of the hilt.
That moment of inattention cost him as the beast whirled in a fury and pounced. He hit the ground hard and went sliding with its weight atop him.
Instinctively, he raised his hands, broken sword still clutched in one, and grabbed at the beast’s neck before it could could get its jaws any closer to his head.
It wasn’t as big as he’d thought, only slightly larger than the mastiffs that one of the older nobles kept, but it was heavy, all dense muscle underneath the fur and teeth that made it seem so much larger.
I could let go… His grip slackened at the thought. If he let go, it would be over. If he let go, he could have his peace. He could see -
“Sire!” Leon was scrambling out of the building, blood covering the side of his head, and Arthur’s grip tightened again at the sight.
If he let go, his wouldn’t be the only death that Camelot saw this night.
“Don’t!” he yelled as he saw Leon prepare to stab at the creature. “You’ll only shatter your sword!”
“bregdan anweald gefeluec!”
In his hand, his shattered sword began to glow with blue fire. “What the-”
“Thrust it into his chest!” A woman’s voice called, melodious and pretty and very much out of place in lower quarter of Camelot in the middle of the night. Not, he was sure, the same as the first voice which had been rough and very male.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Leon’s sword also shining with the blue fire.
It made his chest ache to think of, but he wasn’t Uther Pendragon and he’d been trusting in magic since he was seven years old. He twisted his grip, holding the beast off with one forearm so that he could slam his broken sword straight up into the thing’s chest.
It wailed furiously and twisted, falling to the side.
Leon moved, then, swinging his own sword at the beast’s head. It didn’t shatter as Arthur’s had done. Instead, it slid through sinew and bone as if sliding through butter.
There was a last guttural cry and the body collapsed, tail twitching.
Two cloaked figures stepped out of the shadows.
The slighter of the pair sheathed a glowing shortsword and moved to kneel beside Arthur. “Are you injured, princeling?”
“Um.. No. Thank you for your assistance.”
“And your knight?”
Leon grimaced. “A bit of stone and wood caught me in the head, but I’m fine.”
“Leon…” Arthur frowned, seeing that the blood was still oozing just below his friend’s ear. “You should go see Gaius. Head wounds are nothing to mess about with.”
“No need to disturb your physician.” The woman raised one gloved hand in Leon’s direction, waving the knight closer. “Assuming you’ve no issue with magic being performed on your person?”
There was a minute hesitation, but Arthur doubted it had anything to do with magic being practiced on him. Suspicious magical activity followed by an attack by a magical creature and then these two sorcerers just happened to show up just in time to give them the edge needed to survive it?
He didn’t think it was paranoia to wonder at the convenience of it all.
They shared a look before Leon turned back to the woman and inclined his head. “I have no issue with it.”
With a huff of amusement, she lay her hand over his temple and ear. A faint green glow pulsed from her hand as she chanted softly in a language that Arthur recognized, though he did not understand it. Over the years, he’d lost what little he’d learned when Merlin had used it.
The ache in his chest spread a bit further and he looked away.
The man had crouched over the fallen beast, muttering his own spells.
Arthur started sharply as a smoky form rose from the ground. Before he could react further, though, the woman’s free hand settled on his arm to hold him still. A moment later, she finished with Leon and turned fully to him. “Don’t worry, princeling. Emrys is merely releasing the spirit from the binding that had been placed on it. The body is still quite dead and can cause no more harm.”
The one called Emrys seemed to commune silently with the beast for a space of time, then it reared and vanished in a bright swirl of color.
“Was it she?”
The cloaked form ignored her question, taking a moment to hold out a hand and whisper something that Arthur couldn’t quite catch. The body at his feet sparked with blue fire.
Arthur wasn’t even aware that he was swaying in place, dizzy and unsteady, until Leon’s concerned voice cut through the rushing that had settled in his ears. “I’m fine.”
He’d be more fine when they were away from magical beasts and burning bodies.
“Emrys?” The woman sounded much like Guinevere dealing with Elyan, endlessly patient with a hint of frustration and aggravation underneath.
“It was.” Emrys pointed towards the woods behind the cottage. His voice was soft and just this side of husky. Not all of the guttural rough sound had been the magical language, then. There was something faintly familiar about it, something Arthur couldn’t quite put his finger on. “He accepted the binding rather than risk Nimueh finding his nesting mate and their eggs. I’ve promised to see to their safety.”
Though he couldn’t see the man’s face, Arthur had the oddest feeling of eyes on him, unravelling every secret thought and wish hidden in his mind. Weren’t there sorcerers who could reach in and pluck a man’s thoughts from his head?
The prince shivered and toed the shattered pieces of his sword that littered the ground before sighing. He knelt down and scooped up the shards, carefully wrapping them in the kerchief that Leon offered. There was no sense in leaving them lying about for an errant child to discover.
Hopefully Elyan had repaired his spare or had a replacement tucked away just for him. He hadn’t actually broken a sword since he was a child who’d thought that swinging blades at boulders was a good idea. Merlin had refused to lie for him and the king’s wrath about his carelessness had been nothing compared to the disappointment in Leon’s eyes. Arthur had been much more careful with his weapons ever since.
“He wished to convey his apologies for the attack on your person, your highness.”
Sighing, Arthur scratched his head. “Sure, why not? Nothing strange about that. Magical creatures attack me and then apologize for it all the time. Please tell me his nest isn’t close to Camelot.”
The cloaked head tilted to one side for a moment before the man shrugged. “As you estimate distance, it isn’t close.”
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but then shut it and shook his head. He didn’t want to know. He just… didn’t.
To his relief, the magical fire had burned quickly and thoroughly. Only ash remained when he looked back down at the place where the body had been and even that was being carried off by the breeze. A sound in the distance caught his attention and he cast a quick glance at Leon before turning back to the sorcerers.
“Look, I appreciate your amazingly convenient timing, no matter how suspicious it is, but this is no place for sorcerers. Saving my life won’t keep you out of the pyre if the guards inform the king that you’re here.” He took a deep breath and nodded, decisive. “Return when I am king and you will be rewarded for your actions this night. But for now I must ask you to put Camelot behind you and please, for your own sakes, do not look back.”
He got the distinct impression that the woman was laughing at him as she patted his hand. “Do not fear, princeling. We are very difficult to burn. And Uther Pendragon is not so foolish as to incur the wrath of the Guild by making the attempt. Your caution is wise, however. It will make our job easier if you are already on guard.“
She muttered a spell and two bags floated out of the shadows, one drifting neatly into her outstretched hand, the other bumping insistently against her companion’s head.
Arthur thought he heard Emrys call the woman a mad cow as he grabbed the bag, but he wasn’t sure. It was a low mutter, obviously not meant to be heard at all. And her next words completely stole his attention.
“Now. Do be a good little prince and take us to the castle. We require an audience with Uther Pendragon, the false king of Camelot.”
Arthur gave up trying to talk the sorcerers out of their path of lunacy as soon as he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere in the attempt. He was old enough and experienced enough to realize when he was beating his head against an immovable brick wall.
Gwaine and Percival had appeared from the tavern and joined them just as soon as they’d noticed that Arthur and Leon weren’t alone.
They’d taken up the rear guard and Gwaine was doing enough flirting that no one else could really get a word in edgewise.
Emrys seemed to find him amusing, if the tiny huffs of almost-laughter were anything to go by. At the very least, he hadn’t threatened to turn the knight into a frog or anything else suitably horrifying. The one who’d finally introduced herself as Morgause seemed to be pretending that he didn’t exist. Arthur sincerely hoped that neither of them were taking any of it seriously. Gwaine had a tendency to flirt with everyone with no regard for gender, station, age, or inclination.
There were times when he flirted with Uther, something that still horrified Arthur a little if he ever really let himself think about it, however amusing it had been at the time to see the king sputter and gape in reaction.
As they neared the smithy, he did insist on stopping, no matter how anxious they were to rush straight into the dragon’s mouth. If he was going to take a pair of sorcerers to an audience with the king, he wasn’t going to do it without a serviceable sword. He wasn’t sure Camelot was ready to deal with an open battle between its feared king and its favored prince, but he would defend the people who’d saved his friend’s life if it came to it.
Though the blade he’d brought in that afternoon wasn’t ready, Elyan found him a sword while Guinevere ran off to fetch Lancelot.
Morgause and Emrys stood to the side, waiting with a quiet stillness that Arthur thought should be unsettling but somehow wasn’t. Sorcerers or not, suspicious appearance or not, something inside him said that these people weren’t a threat to him.
Lethal, very probably.
And yet, somehow, not to him.
A smile quirked his lips and he wondered if Morgana would tell him that he was being arrogant or ignorant. She did so enjoy pointing out the flaws of his personality in as lovingly detailed a manner as possible. He’d never admit it to her, but that was one of the things he most appreciated about his sister. She kept him grounded in reality.
When they finally made it to the throne room, they were properly equipped and as ready for the possible confrontation as Arthur thought they possibly could be in such a short period of time.
Despite the late hour, Uther looked as put together and regal as ever. Arthur’s mouth tightened as he fell into a ready stance beside the sorcerers. His knights assumed similar positions, loosely forming a circle of protection, bodies relaxed but ready.
The king would find a fight if he thought to enforce the anti-sorcery laws tonight.
The frown on Uther’s face said he understood exactly what Arthur was doing, but that was his only visible reaction. His wary attention was captured, instead, by their visitors.
There was a great deal of resigned trepidation in Uther’s expression as he eyed them, but none of the murderous hostility that Arthur had expected.
“What business does the Guild have in Camelot?”
With a wave of one gloved hand, a scroll appeared before the king.
Uther’s mouth tightened, distaste and aggravation flitting across his expression before it smoothed back out into the polite blankness that was reserved for foreign royalty that had to be humored for the good of the kingdom. Someone who didn’t know the king might have thought he was calm as he reached for the glowing scroll.
Arthur knew better. There were too many emotions running through Uther’s eyes for him to even begin sorting them all out, but ‘calm’ was definitely not one of them.
There was a long moment of tense silence as Uther scanned the message.
The politeness of his expression and all the tangled emotions it covered vanished, confusion and worry replacing them. He looked back up, his gaze lingering on Arthur before switching back to the pair of sorcerers. “Why is the Guild taking an interest in this matter? Nimueh is my problem. Not yours. The name of Pendragon has been burned from the Book. I am no longer entitled to its protection.”
“And we are not here to protect you, Uther Pendragon.” There was a snide distaste in Morgause’s voice as she responded. It was the most emotion she’d shown thus far. “Your children remain in the Book for other reasons.”
“And yet factual.”
Uther was quiet, twisting the scroll in his hands as he considered whatever it said. Finally, he shook his head. Despite his obvious suspicion, his voice was almost reasonable. “I will have no man or woman in this kingdom who isn’t willing to show their face and give their names openly. I will see who the Guild has entrusted with my children’s safety, without illusions. Show yourselves or else do your protecting while skulking in the shadows that you prefer.”
Morgause’s hood was removed without comment or complaint, before Uther had even finished his demand.
She was pretty enough, though Arthur’s idea of feminine beauty had long since been formed somewhere between his sister’s unearthly loveliness and Gwen’s more simple elegance. Her long blonde hair fell around her face in waves, emphasizing her high cheekbones and dark eyes. She arched an elegant brow at Uther. Nothing in her countenance said that she was impressed by Uther’s demands. “I am Morgause.”
Her companion was more hesitant. His gloved hands lingered on the edges of his hood for a long moment before he finally pulled it back. “I am Emrys.”
Arthur missed Uther’s response.
The world seemed to blur out of existence, bringing a tangle of short dark hair and pale skin into stark focus. Sharp cheekbones and eyes of the deepest blue… and those ears. Those ridiculous, beautiful ears that he’d thought never to see again.
It was no wonder that the voice had seemed so familiar. It was only the impossibility of it all that had kept him from realizing sooner.
A light hand at his elbow brought reality crashing back and Arthur shook his head, trying to clear the fog away. The room had quieted and everyone was looking at him.
“Sire? Are you all right?”
Arthur forced himself to continue breathing, to remain calm. He managed a nod at Leon’s soft question and waved away the concern. “I’m fine.”
He couldn’t let on, couldn’t risk exposing Emrys… Not in front of the king.
“I’m fine,” Arthur interrupted his father with a sharp look that matched his tone. “It’s late. If I may suggest everyone retire for the evening. We can discuss this further in the morning?”
Morgause looked amused. “There will be no discussion. We will remain until the threat had been discharged. This is our duty and none on the earth have a right to gainsay it. Not a king, not a prince.”
“There will be a discussion,” Arthur replied, rolling his eyes. “Because my knights need to know what threat to be watching for.”
“A threat that your knights will be no match for.”
Arthur couldn’t help but bristle at the implication even if his feet had been rather knocked out from under him. “My knights are the finest in the land. They’ve proven to be nothing but capable in the face of magical threats before.”
“You’ve been very lucky, Arthur Pendragon,” Morgause replied. It should have sounded condescending, but somehow, it didn’t. She was simply stating a fact as she believed it to be. There was none of the distaste or dislike that she treated the king with. “And you’ve had a few guardian angels sent to help you on your path.”
Her companion very carefully continued staring somewhere around Uther’s feet at the throne, silent, but Arthur could see a faint hint of color in his cheeks.
Morgause shrugged. “Nimueh is a priestess of the old religion. She isn’t a fortune teller or a hedge witch. She is very powerful. Had we not arrived, the Alphyn that she’d bound would have killed you. And your knight and anyone else who’d tried to interfere. Likely, it would have then turned its attention on finding your sister.” She paused. “How many people would have died after that?”
“It’s no shame on your knights, your highness,” Emrys added, finally looking up, the weight of his gaze pinning Arthur still and the soft timbre of his voice sending a shiver up Arthur’s spine. “Magical creatures of a certain calibre can only be defeated with magic. These will be the sorts of things Nimueh will send for you, not giant serpents and golems.”
Arthur grimaced at the reminder. The golem army that had attacked Camelot had been ungainly and stupid, but they’d been untiring and relentless in their attempts to pull the castle down around everyone’s ears. They’d spent a week under siege, attempting to destroy the soulless brutes before Gaius had found a passing reference that water could unmake the magic that held them together.
Then another month had been spent trying to clean up all the mud.
He nodded at Uther. “I’ll see to it that they’re given quarters. If you’ll follow me…”
It wasn’t technically his task, but he didn’t trust Uther not to have a servant show them to the dungeons instead of actual rooms the moment his back was turned. It was best for everyone that he got them out of Uther’s sight as quickly as possible.
His knights followed, dropping back to cover their rear.
Arthur twitched as George scurried up, eyes wide and curious as he took in the newcomers. It was appropriate for a servant to always be just out of sight, ready to serve his master’s every whim. There was no need to assign sinister or depraved motives whenever George excelled at it.
Besides, it gave Arthur the means that he needed.
“George, I need you to prepare a room near my sister’s for Lady Morgause,” he ignored the snort that caused. “If Morgana is awake, introduce them.”
The servant’s chest puffed up and he beamed at Arthur. “Right away, Sire! If you’ll follow me, m’lady?”
Smirking at him, the woman dipped her head. “Until tomorrow, little princeling. Sweet dreams.”
As they left, he nodded to his knights. “Keep your patrols in the castle for now. I don’t trust the king not to attempt to throw them in the dungeons or attempt to have them meet with an ‘accident’ before morning. Keep an ear out for the Guard. If it sounds like they’re planning something, I want to know about it immediately, no matter the time.”
“What of this Nimueh?” Leon asked, his glance sliding over Emrys before returning to Arthur. There didn’t seem to be any recognition in his eyes, though it was hard to know for sure. Leon was a master at remaining calm and placid in the face of possible chaos. As best as Arthur could tell, though, there was only a vague curiosity that was largely overshadowed by his concern. Arthur was his prince, which was was cause enough for concern with the threat looming over their heads, but Morgana had always been more than that in his heart.
The sorcerer shook his head. “Morgause and I set warning spells outside the castle. If any strong magic attempts to enter Camelot, we’ll both know immediately.”
“We should be safe enough in the castle,” Arthur added. “We’ll work out new strategies once I’ve got a better idea of what we’re facing.”
“Yes, Sire.” With tight nods, the knights dispersed.
Gwaine seemed intent on lingering, but Percival dragged him off easily enough.
That left Arthur alone with the sorcerer at last.
He swallowed tightly before gesturing down the dimly lit hallway. “Shall we?”
“Are there any empty rooms near your quarters?” Emrys asked quietly as they moved on.
“I’m sure there are. When George returns, I’ll have him prepare one.” It was hard to focus, hard to bear the uncomfortable silence. It was even harder to put one foot in front of the other until they’d finally arrived at his door.
The things he needed to say, the questions he needed to ask… They couldn’t be given voice in the hallway where any passing servant could hear them.
Keeping his distance was almost more than he could manage.
Still, he hesitated at the door, his stomach tied up in knots.
“Your highness? You’re certain you weren’t injured?”
Arthur’s eyes clenched shut for a moment before he forced himself to take a deep breath and open the door. “I’m fine. A bit dented, but the beast’s claws didn’t penetrate my armor.”
He waited until the other man had followed him in. Then he shut the door and leaned back against it, watching the dark head move from side to side slowly, taking in the room curiously.
It was as it had always been. His bed, only haphazardly made this morning after he’d gotten up. His table, a single covered tray perched on it waiting for his return. His wardrobe, open and organized. The wooden tub, half-filled with tepid water.
“It really hasn’t changed all that much, Merlin.”
It was only because he was watching so closely that he saw the instant of absolute stillness at his words and the way the other man seemed to brace himself before turning to face Arthur head on. “Sire? I’m not sure what you-”
Arthur pushed away from the door, stalking right up into the sorcerer’s space. No, Merlin had always cried foul at the term ‘sorcerer’, hadn’t he? Warlock, then. Arthur had never really understood what the difference was specifically, only that there was one and that it apparently mattered a great deal. “Don’t lie to me, Merlin. Do not…”
He swayed forward, leaning his head against Merlin’s shoulder. There was a faint scent of something not unlike lightning, but underneath that… underneath that was the smell of earth and fire and pure Merlin. He could never forget that, not when it had haunted his dreams for years.
“I…” After a moment of hesitation, the other man’s hands came up to brush against his arms. “I am not Merlin. I am Emrys.”
“No!” Arthur exploded, head jerking up as he pushed further into Merlin’s space, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him hard. “You are! You’re Merlin! You’re my Merlin!”
“Do not play this game with me, Merlin. I would know you anywhere. The very first time we met, you saved my life. I was seven years old and you were just turned six. Your mother had died and you’d come to live with Gaius, but no one had told me about it and you startled me while I was nosing around his shelves.” He hadn’t realized until he was much older just how bad that fall would have been if Merlin hadn’t reacted as quickly as he had. “You slowed time and caught me. Gaius was absolutely furious with both of us.” It had taken even longer for him to realize that the physician’s anger had been more fear than anything else.
Arthur couldn’t help the way his hands tightened and the sense of desperation grasping at him. This wasn’t happening. Fate could not be cruel enough to give Merlin back only to hold him just out of reach. Merlin couldn’t be that cruel. “I broke my arm when I was ten and you decided that having some kind of fluffy animal around would make me feel better. The raggedy old feline you brought home got into my wardrobe and destroyed most of it, but you looked so miserable that even my fa-” he broke off, mouth twisting at that particular memory. That was part of what had made Merlin’s arrest so hard, before the fire, before what had come later. Uther had genuinely liked Merlin. His reaction to Merlin’s magic had underscored just how unreasonable the king truly could be. Morgana’s terror at being caught had only grown after. “Even my father couldn’t bear to punish you.”
Merlin was silent under his hands.
“You taught Morgana what you knew about magic. I was always mad with jealousy about it. It was years before I realized it wasn’t that the two of you shared magic that bothered me. It was that she was taking up so much of your time and I was afraid that you wouldn’t have any left over for me.” His voice dropped and he slumped forward again, unable to do anything but wrap his arms around Merlin and hold him close. The warlock didn’t fight him, but he didn’t particularly participate either. That hurt, but Arthur had gotten used to being in pain. “I tried to reach you that day but my fa- my father held me back.”
“I could hear you screaming.” His eyes clenched shut and he could feel the prickle of tears as those screams echoed through his mind. “I still hear it, sometimes. It haunts my nightmares. The pain and terror in your voice as you… as you burned. As you called to me. Screaming for my help. And I could do nothing except let it happen.”
Finally, hands crept up to rest in his hair. “It wasn’t your fault, Arthur.”
Merlin sighed and tugged on Arthur’s hair until the prince lifted his head. “Arthur Pendragon… What happened that day was not your fault.”
Ten years of remembering and reliving it said differently, but Arthur didn’t want to argue. “Merlin-”
“No.” The dark hair fell over Merlin’s ears. It was so much shorter than Arthur remembered it, but just as unkempt. There’d never been a comb made that could tame that wild mop. “Your Merlin died in that fire, Arthur. I’m not him. Not anymore. I am Emrys.”
All Arthur could do was shake his head, a feeling of helplessness welling up. “You are my Merlin. You’re different, older, harder… But you’re still the same silly Merlin that made butterflies out of love and brought me flowers to cheer me up no matter how many times I called you a girl for it. You’re still the boy who was hopeless with a sword but still always managed to save me from my own pride.”
“I can’t be that boy for you, Arthur. He hasn’t existed in a very long time.” There was pained sympathy on Merlin’s face, but it was underlaid with a resolution and confidence that the boy he’d been had never had. “I am sorry.”
Arthur let go, crossing his arms over his chest to ward off the sudden cold as Merlin stepped away.
He watched silently as Merlin.. No… as Emrys moved to hold one gloved hand over the open window. “Do you always leave it open or does your servant open it in the morning to air out the room while you’re out?”
“George isn’t usually allowed in my room and the maids are only to come in to clean once a week.”
That garnered an odd look, but the warlock didn’t question it. “Then you leave it open?”
“Yes. I-” He cut himself off and looked away. “I can’t breath if it’s closed.”
“Hmm….ic i ámundae Arthur Pendragon” There was flash of golden light, tiny threads of bright color that raced along the open space before chasing themselves over the walls all the way to the door. “It’s a protection spell. None who mean you harm will be able to enter this room. Lady Morgana’s room will have a similar spell, attuned to her. Do not leave this room without me by your side. Nimueh is not someone to be trifled with.”
Swallowing hard, Arthur nodded. “Why does she want us dead? Morgana and I have no quarrel with magic. I’d think that’d be rather obvious to anyone who bothered looking at all.”
The other man hesitated for a moment before lifting his hands in helpless resignation. “Her goal is to see Uther Pendragon suffer, regardless of who else she has to destroy to attain it. She’s powerful and cunning, but in this… she is beyond reason.”
“Of course,” Arthur pulled off his own gloves and rubbed his tired eyes with one hand. “Of course it’s about Uther. When isn’t it?”
“You didn’t make my father a raving madman, Merlin.”
Arthur made a face. “That’s a ridiculous name.”
“And yet. It remains my name.”
“It may be what you are called now,” Arthur said, glowering at Merlin. “But it will never be your name. Merlin.”
Before Merlin could retort, there was a knock at the door and George peeked inside looking hopeful. “Sire?”
“Please find Emrys here a place nearby to bed down for the evening.” The look on the warlock’s face was calm in the face of Arthur’s sarcasm. “Then return and help me out of this blasted armor.”
Usually he had one of the squires help him with the more complicated pieces before he came in for the night. With everything that had happened and his need to confront Merlin, there simply hadn’t been time or opportunity.
“Oh, yes, Sire!” The servant was positively gleeful at having actual tasks to perform for the evening. Helping the prince with his armor was a rare enough treat, after all.
“Disturbing,” Arthur muttered under his breath as he watched George lead Merlin away. Just as the dark haired warlock was about to shut the door, Arthur spoke his name, softly… the new one he seemed intent on, not the one Arthur wanted to use. Merlin paused in the doorway, but didn’t look back. “My Merlin wasn’t the only one that died that day, you know… His Arthur died, as well.”
A sharp inhalation, and then he was alone again.
Laughter surrounded him and Arthur wasn’t feeling particularly inclined to move any time soon.
“Arthur, you big baby. You have to get up.”
“I’m the prince. I don’t have to do anything,” he declared, flopping his arm in Merlin’s direction.
A toe prodded his side. “Come on, Arthur. It’s already getting too hot to breathe out here. Let’s go inside.”
“No.” With a devilish grin, Arthur wrapped a hand around Merlin’s leg and pulled him down.
Yelping, Merlin sprawled across the prince. “Prat! Why’d you have to go and do that. Ow… you’re wearing chainmail, you giant arse. It hurt.”
“At least I’m not wearing the rest of my armor?” Still smiling, Arthur shifted the other boy around to settle properly and couldn’t resist nuzzling his nose gently. “I promise to kiss every single bruise better.”
“You’re still a prat,” Merlin mumbled, tilting his face up.
Arthur huffed in amusement as he brushed a soft kiss against Merlin’s lips. “Admit it, you wouldn’t have me any other way.”
Merlin pushed up far enough that he could prop his head on his hand and smile down at Arthur. “Well, I suppose as long as you’re my prat.”
The sound of voices, low but strident, pulled Arthur out of his dreams.
At first he tried to bury his face back into his pillow and pretend that it was still the middle of the night and that he didn’t have anywhere else to be. The sun hadn’t quite reached his bed so he knew that it would be another hour before George forced him to remember that he had a duty to attend to.
Outside his room, the noise got sharper and he sighed, raising his head to glare towards it.
His gaze was caught, though, by the butterfly sitting on his shoulder. It was glowing more brightly than it ever had, the green and gold luminescent even in the early morning light as it flapped its wings lazily. “What-”
Memory crashed back over him and Arthur twisted around and sat straight up.
The butterfly took flight for a moment, disturbed by his movement, before drifting back to settle back onto his shoulder. Arthur couldn’t help but laugh a little.
It was the first time in almost ten years that the prince of Camelot had greeted the morning with a smile.
The voices had gotten loud enough that he could make out that one clearly belonged to George while the other… He scrambled out of bed and almost tripped into the door in his haste.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to open it calmly.
Please tell me it wasn’t just another dream….
Both Merlin and George paused in their argument to blink at him.
“I’m so sorry, Sire. I was trying to get him to leave. You’re not to be disturbed, I said, not this early, but he just won’t listen.”
“It’s all right, George.” Arthur was proud of how calm and collected he sounded, despite the early hour and the ghost staring at him. “Mer- I mean… Emrys is here to act as personal protection. He can be in my chambers. Would you mind bringing up breakfast for two?”
George’s mouth drew up and he looked like he’d tasted something particularly sour as he gave Merlin a long look from top to bottom. Then he made a sharp ‘hmph’ of sound before flouncing off.
It was the first time Arthur had ever seen anything less than a pleased response to any request.
He grinned. “I don’t think George likes you, Merlin.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he flapped a hand in dismissal and opened the door wider so that Merlin could come in. “Emrys. Right.”
The warlock paused halfway in the door and gave him a hard look. “I’m serious, your highness.”
“If you insist on calling me Merlin, then I will ask Morgause to take over your protection and I will watch your sister instead.”
Some of Arthur’s happiness slid away and he pouted. “That’s not a very nice threat.”
“It’s not meant to be,” Mer- no Emrys said as he continued inside. “If it were nice, it wouldn’t be much of... a…threat...”
Emrys paused again, staring at something just over Arthur’s shoulder.
Glancing back, Arthur didn’t see anything for a moment. Then he remembered the butterfly on his shoulder. He’d kept it hidden by the door while George was still there out of sheer instinct. “Oh, him…”
Arthur sighed and shrugged before moving to sit at his table and gesturing for Emrys to take the other seat. “You did say the butterflies would exist for as long as you loved me.”
He held up a finger and smiled again as the brightly colored butterfly settled onto the digit. “After… I couldn’t bear to be up here. I hid away in your old room for weeks. Gaius…”
Biting the words off, he shook his head and looked away. He didn’t want to admit how bad it had really been even once they’d finally gotten him to get out of bed again, how many dangerous situations he’d thrown himself into just hoping that he’d finally find the one that would set him free of a life and a pain that had threatened to destroy him.
Everyone had said they were too young to truly know love, that it was familiarity and lack of other people their age that had driven them into each other’s arms. That had been put to rest after the fire. Arthur’s heartbreak had been as all-encompassing as Uther’s had been when his beloved Ygraine had been taken and, like his father, he’d never loved another.
He hadn’t even had revenge to sustain him.
“Gaius finally insisted. The first time I walked back in the door, this fellow was sitting on my pillow like he’d been waiting for me the entire time.” He shrugged. “I scooped him up and ran straight back to Gaius, insisting that it was proof that you were still alive.” The physician, aged worse than ever after the loss of the boy he’d loved like a son, had let him down gently. “He said… It just meant that your love for me was so great that even death couldn’t extinguish it.”
“It’s why no one is allowed in my room. Not without me here to make sure he’s hidden. If the king knew he was still around, he might…” Arthur bit off his words and shook his head, refusing to give voice to the worries he’d held. That Uther might try and destroy this, the last link he’d had to Merlin, had been his reasoning to Gaius, but deep down, he’d had another secret fear.
He’d feared that maybe Merlin really was alive somewhere and that Uther would use the butterfly to hunt him down. He’d feared that he’d have to live through Merlin’s death all over again.
Arthur Pendragon was many things, not all of them good, but he wasn’t self-deluded. He knew that he couldn’t watch Merlin die again.
It would shatter whatever was left of him.
A knock on the door announced George’s arrival and Arthur waved his hand in the direction of his bed. The butterfly refused to budge and he sighed, ducking his hand behind his back. They held their silence as George entered the room with the breakfast tray.
Apparently, he’d recovered his good humor somewhere between Arthur’s room and the kitchens. He was all smiles as he cheerfully served them both and hovered close by Arthur’s elbow for a moment. “Anything else this morning, sire? A bath?”
“No, George, that’s all.”
“I could help you dress?”
“No, thank you, George.”
“Well, then, I’ll just make the bed, shall I?”
Arthur sighed and rubbed his temple. “If you must.”
There was a faint hint of a smirk on Emrys’ lips as the warlock bent over his plate and Arthur couldn’t resist the urge to kick him lightly.
They ate in companionable silence while George made the bed and straightened up the room.
“Anything else, sire?”
“Are you certain?”
“Well, if you do need anything-”
“You’ll be the first to know, I promise.”
“Excellent. Have a lovely day, your highness!”
As soon as he was out the door, a faint laugh escaped Emrys. “Is he always like that?”
“You really have no idea. It’s disturbing how much he enjoys his job.” Arthur rubbed one hand through his hair and grinned back. “Honestly, I can usually get rid of him more quickly. I suppose he’s decided to press his advantage now that you’re here to distract me.”
But Arthur wasn’t interested in hearing anymore denials or excuses and he waved away whatever Emrys intended to say. “Tell me more about this Guild of yours. And why they’ve decided we need protection from Nimueh. There have been hundreds of sorcerers after Uther’s blood over my lifetime. This is the first time anyone has been sent to intervene.”
The warlock sighed and shook his head, tearing his breakfast roll into tiny pieces. “Morgause spoke the truth last night. If Nimueh attacks Uther, we won’t stop her. We’re here to protect you and Morgana, not your father.”
“Could you really do that, though?” Arthur asked, peering closely at the other man’s expression. “Mer- Sorry, Emrys… You tried to save the chickens down in the commons once.”
A small smile flicked over Emrys’ lips. “No, I tried to save one of the mama chickens so that the chicks would be okay. Completely different.”
“You cried, Emrys. Great, whopping tears that made you all splotchy for two days when the butcher explained it had to be done.” Arthur goaded, warmth unfurling in his chest at the memories. For so long, the mere thought of them had hurt so badly. It was a relief to be able to bask in them again, to be able to tease Merlin. Even if he had to let a false name hang between them.
“Hey, it was because of the chicks.”
Arthur grinned. “It was because you’re a giant girl. Which still doesn’t answer my question. If you saw a man’s life being threatened, could you stand aside?”
“If it became a choice between saving Uther and saving you or Morgana?” Emrys began, his smile fading. “Yes. I know that I could.”
“It wouldn’t just be Uther.” Sighing, Arthur shook his head and took a bite of his own roll. Even feeling as he had, there’d been times he’d had to step in to protect his father because Uther would never go down alone. “His personal guards are very loyal. Most of the Guard is. She’d have to go through the lot of them to get to him.”
They were Uther’s men to be sure, but most of them were decent men. They didn’t deserve to be sacrificed to someone else’s revenge.
Emrys shrugged. “Nimueh has passed the point of simple vengeance. She’ll tear down Camelot if she can. She doesn’t just want your father dead. She wants to him to suffer as much as she’s suffered. Our Guildmaster sent out scouts to find her, deal with her if possible. That would be the ideal solution.”
Before Arthur could reply, there was a knock on the door. It wasn’t George’s carefully inquiring knock or Leon’s more firm, but shorter raps.
For a moment, Arthur hesitated, then he tried to shoo the lingering butterfly back up to its usual hiding place in his canopy again. He didn’t think it was Uther or a guard, but he wasn’t certain.
It took several tries before it finally settled just out of sight.
“You know, I could just-” he looked over to see Emrys wiggle his fingers in the general direction of the butterfly, but Arthur shook his head almost vehemently. “It won’t go away permanently, but it’d be less visible.”
He’d gotten attached and he didn’t want to risk the chance that anything the warlock did might be irreversible.
Out of habit, he only opened the door a crack so that he could see his visitor.
Gaius peered back at him, face pale with red-rimmed eyes and an underlying air of desperate hope that Arthur doubted most people would have recognized. “Sire… Sir Leon said… Is it?”
Arthur blinked in surprise before opening the door further and stepping aside so that the old physician could come inside. He glanced down the hall before closing the door behind them.
He really should have expected this visit. The old man had raised Merlin as his own for over ten years. Arthur just hadn’t realized that anyone would think to inform him.
“Hello, Gaius.” The warlock had stood, shifting slightly and looking truly uncertain for the first time since he’d lowered his hood the evening before.
“…” Gaius was quiet, his throat working as he seemed to battle with his emotions. Then he stepped forward and wrapped Emrys in a hug. “You’ve gotten taller, I see.”
For a long moment, the warlock just held onto the older man, clinging like he had as a child. It was hard to see ‘Emrys’ in him, then. The sniffled sounds and the whispered ‘Gaius’ were all Merlin.
Arthur retook his seat and concentrated on his breakfast, giving them the illusion of privacy.
When they were both under control again, and had settled at the table, the prince gave Gaius a questioning look. “I didn’t realize Leon had recognized him.”
“Well,” Gaius smiled. “Leon spent the better part of his early years keeping the two of you out of as much mischief as one mere mortal could manage. And he knows you better than almost anyone else ever has. Even if he hadn’t recognized Merlin, your reaction would have given you away.”
Eyes widening, Arthur leaned back. “Do you think Uther realized?”
“I doubt it, but it’s a moot point, Arthur,” Gaius reassured him with a calming gesture. “Uther wouldn’t attack a Guild initiate, never mind a full-fledged member.”
Another knock interrupted his attempt to question them about this Guild that he’d never heard of before, yet everyone else seemed to know about.
It was a familiar knock, though, so he just sighed and got up to let Leon in.
His first knight was followed by Morgana and Morgause.
Arthur sighed and rolled his eyes. “Suddenly my room is feeling a great deal smaller.”
Leon dipped his head. “All was quiet last night, Sire. The king mobilized a group of the guard to search for this Nimueh and increased the guards at the walls, but otherwise there was nothing unusual.”
Nodding, Arthur turned to watch Morgana rush across the room. She clasped Emrys’ arms tightly to look at him, then she went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Oh, Merlin… You have no idea how happy it makes me to see you alive.”
His sister wasn’t the overemotional sort, but Merlin had been an important part of their lives and they’d all mourned his death.
Where Gaius would have preferred to pass her dreams off as products of a an overactive imagination, as night terrors, Merlin had helped Morgana learn to cope with the magic and visions. He’d essentially blackmailed Gaius into training the girl alongside him despite the delicate balance required to hide it from the king.
Without that, Arthur didn’t want to imagine where the path that the fear and stress would have taken his sister.
“He’s called Emrys these days, apparently,” Arthur offered with a sardonic roll of his eyes.
Morgana just nodded and smiled, her hands slipping down to hold Emrys’ own. “Of course. Morgause told me that, I just… Forgot for a moment.”
The warlock returned her smile and lifted her hands to his lips for a kiss. “I’m glad to see that you’re all right, Lady Morgana.”
“Better now that you are here.” The smile she gave Arthur was full of understanding and gladness. She knew better than anyone just how badly Arthur had taken Merlin’s loss.
Usually it would have made him uncomfortable and he’d have made a flippant remark and tried to hurry his sister on her way. For once, he just smiled back at her.
For five days, Camelot was completely quiet. There were no more magical lights seen in haunted cottages, no more magical beasties jumping out to attack people.
Merlin - no, Emrys, he kept having to remind himself because the warlock got an irritated gleam in his eye whenever Arthur messed up that said he would make good on the threat to set Morgause on him - disappeared for a few hours when Arthur and Morgana were trapped in the council room with Uther and a handful of other nobles. Morgause watched the proceedings with a disdainful eye, her mistrust and dislike palpable even to the lowliest noble.
Neither assassins would say where Emrys had been or what he’d been doing.
The city guards reported seeing him go into the northern woods, but Leon had been unable to track him afterwards. It was vexing, but as he’d returned safely and there’d been no reports of strange things happening, Arthur was inclined to ignore it. He wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to know what business Emrys could have had in the northern woods or how he could have disappeared so thoroughly that Camelot’s best tracker, someone who’d once known all of Merlin and Arthur’s tricks for ditching guards, was baffled.
Uther seemed willing to ignore the magic in their midsts as long as they stayed unobtrusive and out of his way. He alternated between keeping a wary eye on them and ignoring them entirely. Elyan reported that Uther’s guards had been given orders to keep out of their way so long as they didn’t appear to be threatening the lives of Arthur and Morgana.
His behavior was more confusing than Merlin’s, if less vexing.
Between the pair of them, Arthur could almost forget that his life and his city were under threat.
For five days, he dealt with his father’s redoubled attempts at reconciliation, Emrys’ attempts at cool detachment, the knowing looks of worry passed between Leon and Morgana, and a resurgence of memory filled dreams that made it almost impossible to get anything resembling rest each night.
It was on the sixth day that Camelot’s citizens began falling ill.
“Is it her?” Arthur asked as he hovered in the doorway watching Gaius and Emrys as they tinkered with some complicated potions set up. It had been a long time since he’d been interested in this part of Gaius’ work.
As a boy, he’d spent hours watching Gaius teach Merlin. Merlin had been fascinated with the things Gaius could do with a little science and a little medicine. They’d dabbled in alchemy together, though Gaius had always been careful to keep as much sorcery out of it as possible just in case the king or any of the guards were to drop by unexpectedly.
Merlin, of course, had dabbled further when Gaius was away. He’d been far too reckless with the idea that he could be caught. Uther liked him, after all, and he was Arthur’s closest companion.
They’d both overestimated the king’s affections.
“Most likely,” Emrys replied, frowning as he shook a tube of foggy water. “I’m not sure how, though. Our wards were never triggered. She’s powerful, but she shouldn’t have been able to effect Camelot so thoroughly without one of us being alerted.”
He and Gaius shared a muttered conversation over the tube that made no sense to Arthur and he sighed, rubbing tired eyes. Two days of searching interspersed with helping to quarantine the sick and burning the dead were more wearing than ten of hard training. “What kind of magic could so randomly sicken my people? Do you have any ideas at all?”
“The problem isn’t that we don’t have any ideas, your highness.” The look on the warlock’s face was grim. “Rather, it’s that we have far too many. There are a dozen poisons that are meant to mimic deathly illnesses. To say nothing of a dozen illnesses that can be spread by a malicious soul. Without knowing for certain how Camelot has been affected, it’s difficult to narrow it down to anything specific.”
Beside him, the physician peered at Arthur with one arched brow. “And it’s almost impossible to remedy without knowing precisely what poison or illness has befallen Camelot. Really, Arthur. I know it’s been quite a while since you sat in on Merlin’s lessons in the healing arts, but I would expect you to remember that much.”
Arthur made a face. “I spent more time paying attention to Merlin than your lessons, Gaius.”
“So I suspected at the time.” Snorting, Gaius rolled his eyes while Emrys studiously ignored them both.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Emrys finally said, stepping back. “We need to find the source.” With a careless wave of his hand, glowing lines of white began to etch themselves through the air. “All right… so this is the castle proper and this is the town.”
Small dots began to appear. “This is where each patient or corpse was found and… this….” He said a few soft words and new red lines flared into existence, stretching out from the original dots. “Is the path each victim took in the hour before the illness took them.”
“How on Earth could you possibly know that?”
Emrys smirked and wiggled his fingers. “Magic.”
“Hmph…” Gaius peered at the lines. He trailed a finger along them and made another soft noise. Then he looked at Emrys. “Can you take the paths further back?”
“I should… Hold on…” Gold burned in his eyes as Emrys spoke again in the language of his magic. The lines stretched further, some vanishing off the map entirely.
“Could these have brought something in from the forest, then?”
If the wards were only set to warn Emrys and Morgause about Nimueh…
But the warlock was shaking his head. “No, look.” He pointed to a spot in the middle of the map. “Here, and here… If you want to affect both the peasants and nobility of a city such as Camelot, what’s the one thing they have in common?”
Battling the Afanc turned out to be a simple business once they finally cornered it in the water caverns under Camelot.
Arthur would have liked to have said that he’d been more helpful in its slaying, but honestly, he’d been distracted by Emrys.
As children, it had been common enough for Merlin to use his magic in Arthur’s presence. It’s golden tingle was a feeling that meant safety and love, home and heart. For all that he’d practically been born doing the kinds of spells that sorcerers just dreamed of being able to do, he’d been more likely to make butterflies and fire that took the form of the Pendragon crest and danced for their amusement.
The magic that Emrys used… Arthur could see how someone who didn’t know any better could have been frightened.
It was the kind of magic that made enemies quake in fear and surrender without protest. The Afanc had burned to nothing but ash to be spread in the wind that had been conjured.
Then Emrys had cleansed the creature’s foul poison from Camelot’s water supply with a few words and a flash of golden eyes.
Morgana could smirk at Arthur all she wanted. He felt that anyone would have been suitably impressed and distracted by the display.
The gryffin that attacked two days later managed to kill a handful of guards, but was ultimately felled rather easily by a magically enchanted lance and Lancelot’s excellent aim.
Emrys dealt with the wveryns that were sent the night after with sharp commands in a guttural language that Arhtur had never heard before.
The next morning, Arthur dispatched a pair of strange, scaly creatures that rushed from the forest to attack his training field.
“Why can’t she just come out and fight like-” Leon’s discreet elbow cut Arthur’s words off sharply and a nod towards their companions reminded him to be more careful.
“Like a man?” Morgause asked, one eyebrow arched in calm query that was belied by the look in her eyes. It practically begged him to finish the statement as he’d originally intended to.
Arthur wasn’t that stupid, even if the witch’s apparently endless supply of magical creatures was starting to fray his temper. “No. Like a person of honor. Why all this skulking in shadows and sending others to do her dirty work?”
“At the risk of sounding like the king,” Emrys replied, his voice laced with irony. “She’s a sorceress. As a rule, magic is a weapon best used out of sight. If you can see it coming, you have a chance to outmaneuver it in one way or another. A smart opponent will never give you that chance.”
Nodding, Morgause ran a finger in a circle over the surface of a pitcher of water. The hazy form of a hooded figure in a tattered wine-red dress appeared with an egg.
Arthur cast a nervous glance around. He wasn’t willing to trust his father’s sudden laxity on the magic these two visitors brought with them just yet. The fanatical gleam had still burned brightly in Uther’s eyes when the Afanc’s plague had hit the city. If Nimueh hadn’t been the obvious culprit, Arthur knew that Uther would have given his best efforts to executions.
“I can see nothing before or after this moment.” The blonde sorceress finally said with a frustrated sigh. “I suspect I can only see this because she wanted us to see it.”
“Well, she wants Uther to know she’s the one stalking Camelot. She isn’t hiding that. At the same time, she certainly doesn’t want us to find her and make her face us on any terms but her own.”
Morgause made a face at Emrys. “If her madness makes her careless, I intend take advantage of it.”
“She hasn’t survived this long as Uther Pendragon’s most hated and searched for target by being careless.”
“Hm?” Arthur glanced at where Leon was making a discreet gesture towards the far wall. His gaze followed Leon’s motion and he took a step back. “Emrys? Are you doing that?”
A message appeared like fire on the wall, burning its way along the stone one scratched line at a time.
Both Emrys and Morgause looked up, tensed for attack, but they relaxed as the symbols began to take shape. “No. It’s a message from the Guild. I know you’ve been peeking at my correspondence, Sire. I’d think you’d recognize it.”
Of course, once it was pointed out to him, Arthur did recognize it. Which didn’t mean that he could make heads or tails out of the accursed symbology and hieroglyphic style characters that the Brotherhood used for communication and Emrys only waved away his demands to know what sorcerer thought it was a good idea to write burning, glowing messages on the walls of Camelot’s court.
Uther may have proved surprisingly lenient, but Uther wasn’t the only person in Camelot willing to stamp out any threat of magic. He’d have expected Emrys to remember that.
The warlock frowned as the last lines flared bright before the whole thing settled into burn scars.
“What is it? Emrys-”
The frown was more perplexed than anything else. “Kilgarrah demands that I return to the mountain.”
“And I’m to bring you with me.” His frown grew more troubled.
Arthur didn’t know much about the Guild. Both Morgause and Emrys were annoyingly good at deflection. What little he had learned had come from observation and a very awkward family dinner with Uther. Hating the man with every fiber of his being didn’t make it any easier for Arthur to use an old man’s desperation against him.
“The king said that only initiates and members were ever allowed there.”
The warlock shrugged, waving a hand that made the message vanish as if it had never been. The glance he shared with Morgause was full of secrets and a carefully masked confusion that Arthur doubted anyone else could see. “If Kilgarrah wants to make an exception, it’s probably best not to argue with him. We’ll go in the morning. Get plenty of sleep, Sire. I suspect you’re going to need it.”
“Where are we?” Arthur asked, swaying slightly. The portal was only a hazy wave of air behind them, ripples that were only barely visible. He wondered if there was another way back home or if he’d be forced to step through that haze of nothingness again.
Though he hoped for the former, he suspected the latter. A secretive guild of assassins weren’t going to be making their base of operations easily accessible, after all.
Emrys shrugged, looking unruffled by the mode of transport. Undoubtedly, he was used to it. “Far from Camelot, your highness. In a mountain range in a land far beyond the boundaries of any map you’ve ever seen.”
Though it could have been dismissed as a fanciful answer, Arthur believed it.
The portal had deposited them on the edge of a small meadow filled with bright blue and gold flowers, the likes of which Arthur had never seen. It was surrounded on three sides by trees of such towering height that he couldn’t see their tops, great behemoths that were as wide as two good-sized warhorses standing tail to nose. He was sure a dozen knights couldn’t have stretched around the smallest and been able to touch gloves with each other.
Smaller clumps of flowering trees, gnarled and squat compared to their neighboring giants, were still lovely, their delicate pink and white blossoms swaying in the breeze.
The air was chilly and damp, but Arthur suspected that it was as much due to being in the mountains as it was to being ‘far from Camelot’.
“Come,” his companion said, nodding towards the open side of the meadow. “The path to the manor is dangerous enough at night for those trained here. It’s best we get there well before dark falls.”
Arthur was used to long hikes through inhospitable lands. He was used to war conditions and hunts for fierce predators and prey that lasted for days.
The twisting path through the mountain side forest wasn’t one he’d have hiked again given the choice. In several places it traversed actual cliff sides and narrowed to the point that Arthur would have felt safer walking across fallen trees trunks.
It was easy enough to understand why Emrys wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting Arthur attempt to walk it in darkness.
Arthur wasn’t comfortable walking it in full light.
Finally, though, Emrys slowed their pace and shaded his eyes. “We’re almost there, Sire. See?”
Arthur looked up from where he’d been watching each step he took. In the distance, he could see a manor house sunk back into the side of a cliff face.
He blinked before turning to his companion. “Why is it black?”
Emrys chuckled. “Someone in our past had an odd sense of humor.”
“Right….” Because that explained so much. Instead of asking again, Arthur cracked his back and sighed. “What do you think this Kilgarrah wants?”
“With that old bat, it could be anything. He likes to speak in riddles that don’t make any sense until the advice isn’t useful any longer.” Lips quirking, Emrys nudged him on again. “He’s not a bad sort. Just old and cantankerous.”
“Is he the Guildmaster you spoke of?”
That got an outright laugh. “Hardly. He has no patience for the politics of it. The current guildmaster is Catrina.”
“A woman? Yes. I’d think a lifetime with Lady Morgana would have prepared you for the idea that a woman can be in charge.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Morgana just likes to think she’s in charge.”
“Of course, Sire. I should like to be there when you explain that one to her. Regardless, I expect Catrina will be pleased to meet you. She’s the only person outside of Camelot that I’ve ever heard speak of Uther Pendragon with fondness.”
The remainder of the trek was simple enough without the natural obstacles that had made getting there so difficult. Emrys abandoned him at the door of the manor into the hands of a woman who was not entirely human.
He introduced them, then was pulled away by a horde of young boys.
The woman had simply looked at him for a long minute before smiling softly. “You are a reflection of your mother. I can see Ygraine easily in you… Uther… less so.”
“You knew them both?” Arthur asked, swallowing against the tight feeling of longing in his throat.
“I did,” she dipped her head and gestured towards the door. “Will you walk with me, Arthur Pendragon?”
He offered her his arm as he would any noblewoman in Camelot. Her smile grew more indulgent as she took it. They were quiet as she led him around the grounds and he took the opportunity to study her.
There was nothing pretty about Catrina, but there was an elegance and economy of motion in the way she moved, a grace in the way she held herself.
It was easy to see that she was a warrior in her own right.
She’d be a good ally, Arthur decided as he trailed along beside her.
More than that, though, she’d be a formidable opponent. He doubted that the people who got on her bad side lived to regret it.
The prince hoped that he never had to find out.
“I’m sure you’ve sussed out that your father once stood among our ranks?” Her voice was accented by the rumble of troll in her heritage, but soft in the early morning sunshine.
He hadn’t so much sussed it out as been told, but for some reason he wasn’t keen to get Uther into any further trouble with the Guild. “Yes, Lady Catrina.”
Her lips quirked at honorific. “The Pendragon was as fierce a warrior as the Guild had ever known and not having magic of his own never seemed to burden him. It was a surprise when he returned from a quest with Nimeuh in tow.”
Feet slowing, she nodded towards the training yard where the same young boys who’d stolen Emrys away were diligently attempting to master a spell that the warlock was showing them. “She was no Emrys, but she was still one of the most brilliant spell casters to ever grace the estate. They made a truly fearsome pair, Nimueh and Uther, though she was never officially an initiate. The Old Religion clasps most jealously at its few remaining priestesses.” She shrugged and began leading him on towards one of the aft buildings. “And no one was willing to test the patience and tolerance of the old gods.”
“Were they- That is….” Arthur broke off, his mouth twisting slightly as he tried to decide how best to phrase his question.
Catrina shrugged. “I do not know. There were times when it seemed like they surely shared everything, including a bed. Other times… They seemed almost as I imagine siblings to be. It was not my business and truly, there were things I did not wish to know.”
He didn’t know this woman except the very little that Emrys had shared. He knew nothing about her past or her view.
In that moment, though, he knew one thing about her as surely as he knew his own name. It was there in her voice and on her face, as easy to read as a mirror reflecting an emotion he knew well.
“You loved him.”
It was always difficult to truly grasp the concept that his father had once been someone that was easily loved.
“I did, though I knew that it could never be.” Her smile was soft and sad. “Uther never treated my lineage as anything abnormal or shameful as many do, and we were friends, but he was a man drawn to beauty. I was never going to be the woman that he would look at and see his future with. Besides, no one would have held him for long once he met Ygraine.”
Swallowing, Arthur looked down at his feet as they entered the small building. “Do you know how they met?”
No one spoke of his mother or the man that his father had been before she died. He’d seen the painting that his father kept of her in his rooms once, but that was it. Except for the pall that her death had left over Camelot in the form of Uther’s grief, she may as well as have never existed.
“I was not there, but I heard the tale often.” The shadows in her eyes lifted a bit and she laughed. “Uther had gone to Camulodunum to oversee peace talks between the kings of Albion. Late, he’d pushed his horse farther and faster for far longer than he should have and when he arrived ther, it was in a sorry state. Ygraine Dubois was there with her father, the Duke of Tintegel. As Uther told it, she descended on him like a mad harridan, upbraiding him for the maltreatment of his steed. He, of course, was instantly smitten.”
Arthur cocked an eyebrow at that, but she just laughed again and shook her head. “Few people would have ever dared to approach a man in a Guild cloak to scold them for anything, and certainly not a woman. I daresay that no one had ever given Uther anything besides the greatest of respect. When he first attempted to court her, I’m told that she laughed in his face, but he didn’t let that discourage him. He pursued her to the point of madness, really, but eventually he wore down her defenses.”
“Madness is in our blood, I’m afraid.” Voice soft, Arthur looked curiously at the dim room that she’d led him to.
“All creatures, be they two legged or four, can be driven to madness, your highness. We have, all of us, our weaknesses and those things that our souls cannot bear to lose.”
Few embraced it a deeply as a Pendragon, Arthur thought but did not say. Instead, he drifted over to the tall wooden stand that sat heavily in the center forefront of the room. There was no other decoration or piece of furniture. The floor at the back half of the room was covered in thin grass mats. “What is this place?”
“The final initiation rites are performed here. A child enters the room, but an adult leaves. Pasts are cast off and futures are embraced. This is where your Merlin became our Emrys.”
Arthur’s mouth tightened and his fingers curled into fists. “Merlin or Emrys, he will always be mine.”
Even if the warlock himself didn’t necessarily agree.
Catrina just smiled. “Good.” She nodded towards the book displayed on the stand. “In this book, rests the name of every man and woman that has ever completed the initiation rites. Their names are not alone, however.”
At her urging, Arthur reached out to open the book. The symbols that he’d come to recognize as the Guild’s unique form of writing formed a center column down each page. To either side were names. Some were written in letters and languages that he didn’t recognize. Most were familiar, though.
His companion said a simple spell and the pages turned themselves, flickering through until they came to a rest.
Merlin’s name was on the left and the symbol beside it was the one that Arthur had seen him affix to his letters. Emrys.
Breath catching, the prince reached out to trace a finger along his own name spelled out to the right. Gaius’ name appeared along with his.
“The spells on this book reach into our very hearts, past all the lies that we tell ourselves to find those who truly mean the most to us. Those we love are held here in honor and protection. As long as the Guild exists, as long as a single one of us lives, then the names held for us in this book are sacred.”
Below Merlin’s name there was another familiar symbol. Morgause. The name to the left was Anna LaFey. A simple, unassuming name. His lips quirked slightly. Morgause fit her better. Morgana’s name was to the right.
“To cause harm to anyone Named is the most grievous crime a guild brother or sister could commit. They would be cast out, their own Names struck from the Book.”
“That’s what happened to my father.” It wasn’t a question. Given what had been said, what he knew had happened after, it made the most sense.
Catrina hesitated. “Uther’s case was… unique.”
The spell was cast again and the pages passed in a flurry before coming to rest.
Despite the glowing lines that slashed across the page, obliterating the Guild symbol in the center, the name Uthyr was clearly visible on the left. On the right, Ygraine Dubois and Nimueh.
“Do you know the story of your birth, Arthur?”
He hesitated, then nodded. He knew a story of his birth, though he’d long suspected it was heavily slanted by his father’s grief and madness. “My mother died in childbirth, a victim of malicious magics. My father slew the attending healers and declared war on all magic. What followed was the bloodiest Purge ever seen in Albion.”
“Your mother’s death was the result of inexperience, not malice.” Her fingers traced over the page, lingering on Uther’s name. “Though your parents greatly desired a child, Ygraine was barren. A widowed noblewoman became a surrogate to produce a child for them, and thus there was your half-sister Morgana. But they wanted one that was entirely their own, a son to be heir to Uther’s new throne. Uther asked his very good friend Nimueh to help them. It was not a kind of magic that she was familiar with, but it was not in her to deny Uther anything.”
Arthur swallowed and crossed his arms over his chest, not sure he wanted to hear anymore. Conversely, he knew he couldn’t walk away. Not without knowing.
“Magic is balance. To grant life, life must be taken. It was decided that one of the prisoners in Camelot’s dungeons would pay this price for them. I believe the man was a kinslayer who was facing execution regardless.”
“Magic doesn’t work like that.” Even Arthur knew that much.
She nodded. “Indeed. It is not impossible, but I have only ever known one who wielded the kind of magical strength it would take and even Emrys lacks the kind of precision and control to ensure success. Magic will take balance itself as it sees fit and with that sort of spell, the results should have been obvious.”
“The spell took my mother’s life.”
“An infant’s life is so entwined with it’s mother’s before it is born that no other life would have compared.” Catrina sighed, the green tint of her skin darkening with the sad expression on her face. “Though he did not kill Ygraine with his own hands, Uther’s wish for a son and his cavalier treatment of the rules of magic caused her death. Which he made worse by blaming Nimueh and attacking her. In that moment, the magic of the Book cast Uther Pendragon out.”
Shuddering slightly, Arthur looked away from the book. He’d already had more than enough reason to hate his father, but this…
“As a child, I knew he blamed me for my mother’s death.” His voice was thick and he had to take a moment to regain control of himself. “I could see it in his eyes, that given the choice, he’d have saved her at the cost of my life.”
It had been a terrible guilt that he’d borne, knowing that his birth had caused her death.
He’d spent more than one birthday wrapped up in Merlin’s arms, trying not to wail about the unfairness of it all.
“Uther’s love for his son is known throughout all of Albion. Any blame he holds is his own. Come, I suspect Kilgarrah is getting restless.” She led him back outside where she waved Emrys away from the boys. “After you’ve finished with that obnoxious reptile, Emrys, there will be dinner waiting and I suspect you could both do with an evening of rest.”
“Do you know what he wants, Catrina?”
She shook her head. “I have a suspicion, but you know that he never shares his council with me. I could be entirely wrong. Go on, now. These initiates have used you to put off their training long enough.”
Far too disciplined to actually whine, the boys still looked slightly miserable as they all lined up to follow her as she led the way back through the gardens.
“They weren’t training with you?” Arthur asked, arching a brow at Emrys.
The warlock shook his head as he gestured towards a well worn path that seemed to lead off towards the woods. “No. That wasn’t training. That was playing. Training is much, much more brutal and mind-numbing. Especially the levels they’re at.”
They walked in companionable silence for a bit before Arthur finally gave in and nudged the other man. “Did you like it here? Were you.. Happy?”
“It was hard and it was dangerous,” Emrys shrugged his shoulders. “But my father was right. It was the safest place for me once everyone knew what I was.”
“Wait- what?” Arthur stopped and reached out to snag the other man’s arm. “Your father?”
Emrys sighed and tugged his arm away to clasp his hands behind back and peer at Arthur. “Yes. My father. Balinor.”
“He gave you to the Guild?”
“He was of the Guild, Sire.”
Not knowing what to do with that piece of information, Arthur ran a hand through his hair and looked away. He hesitated for a moment before facing Emrys again. “Did you know?”
“As far as I knew, Gaius was the closest thing I had to family left, Arthur. You knew that.”
It had been something that had bonded two children together, the crushing feeling of loss for something they’d never had.
“So he… he saved you?”
That gave Arthur some comfort, the idea that Merlin’s father had swept in and saved his son at the last moment, but the dark head shook. “No. He arrived too late to save me from the fire.”
“But then, how…” Arthur didn’t want to look too closely at it. Merlin had survived, somehow, and that was enough. Curiosity and fear were powerful motivators, though, and he couldn’t help but ask. “How did you survive?”
“I don’t know.” Those deep blue eyes seemed old and weary as they watched Arthur with a compassion that seemed wrong, somehow. “I burned that day, Arthur. I remember it. I remember… knowing that I was going to die.”
Arthur didn’t even resist the urge to reach out again, to hold some part of the warlock in front of him and reassure himself that this was real and not some madness that he’d finally succumbed to. “Then how are you here?”
“I suppose I just didn’t stay dead.” Lips quirking faintly, Emrys made no move to shake off Arthur’s hand. “Honestly, you can try to ask Kilgarrah if you like. I can’t say that I actually understand how it all worked out.”
“This Kilgarrah never explained it to you?”
“He has never asked.” The voice startled Arthur, a rumble of sulfur and brimstone.
He couldn’t help but stare at the dragon that was sprawled out in a lazy display before them. Behind the beast, a cave mouth gaped wide.
“Do close your mouth, young Pendragon. The gaping fish impression is most unbecoming.”
Whirling around, Arthur stabbed a finger in Emrys’ direction. “You said nothing about dragons!”
The dark haired warlock arched a brow. “His name is Kilgarrah and Catrina called him an obnoxious reptile. What did you think he was?”
“Assumptions are the death knell of intelligence.” The dragon leaned closer, peering at him with an amused look. “So small for such a mighty destiny…”
Arthur blinked, leaning back but forcing himself not to hide behind his companion. Then he took a deep breath and straightened. He was a prince. One day, he would be a king.
He would not cower before any creature, not even a dragon. “I’m not any smaller than Merlin.”
Beside him, the warlock grumbled in annoyance. “Emrys.”
Kilgarrah snorted and shook his head. “Merlin, Emrys. A difference in a name does not make a difference in a destiny.”
Those words made Arthur more inclined to forgive the dragon for calling him small. Still, he would make sure he used the new name. There was no point in aggravating anyone if he could avoid it. “Does his destiny lie with mine?”
“You are two sides of the same coin. The once and future king and the warlock that will stand at his side and help him unite all of Albion.” Kilgarrah’s head moved closer, almost close enough to knock Arthur over, as the dragon examined him. “As I said… small men with mighty destinies.”
Finally the dragon shifted away, sitting back on his haunches.
One wing tip spread out to gesture towards the cave. “Follow the cave and find your test. If you are ready, it will know.”
“What will know?”
“If you cannot figure it out on your own, then you are not ready.”
Arthur glanced at Emrys to see the warlock rolling his eyes. “I did say that he liked his riddles, yes?”
He hesitated another moment, turning to peer at the cave again, before Kilgarrah sighed noisily and stretched out a wing to nudge him hard in the right direction. “Well, do get on with it. Nimueh will not idly wait for you to prepare yourself.”
The same wing snapped further to stop Emrys when the dark haired man tried to follow Arthur. “No, warlock. This is not your test.”
“He can’t see in the dark, you old bat,” Emrys groused before a muttered spell sent a branch flying into his hand. He pulled an old kerchief from one of his pockets and wrapped it around the end before lighting it with another spell.
Though Kilgarrah peered at it suspiciously, he made no move to prevent Emrys from passing it over to Arthur.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur plunged into the half-light of the cave before either could say anything else. A dozen paces in and the walls opened up into a cavern. He glanced around, but there was nothing particularly interesting about it, nothing more than the bones of a few ill-fated dragon-meals.
He ignored them as best he could and continued across the space to the only opening he could see.
The cave went deeper, the ground uneven and treacherous as it angled downwards into the earth. Twice the cave branched off into multiple sections, forcing Arthur to guess which direction he needed to go. He did his best to commit the details of each passage to memory as he moved forward.
If Emrys had to fetch him out, Arthur was sure that the warlock would never let him hear the end of it.
A faint smile tugged on his lips as he considered the dragon’s words. The idea that he and Emrys were bound by destiny, that the other man would stand by his side for the foreseeable future… It sent a rush of warmth and pleased happiness through his chest.
He couldn’t say that he’d choose for Emrys to be a half-removed sentinel standing by his side, but it was better than the last decade of absence.
Even if they never recaptured what they’d had before, Arthur would be happy to have Emrys in whatever way he was allowed.
“Emrys..” Arthur let the name roll off his tongue. It had gotten easier, but sometimes he still slipped up. Despite the obvious changes, sometimes the warlock would do something that was just so very Merlin.
Most of the time, he moved with a deadly grace that bespoke the years of training he’d had but in the early hours of the morning when he stumbled blearily through the connecting doors from the servant’s room to the prince’s own to wake Arthur up, he had a tendency to trip over his own feet. His expression stayed shaded and severe, his thoughts hidden from view, but every now and again Arthur would turn and catch something soft and proud aimed in his direction. His green and gold butterfly was nearly blinding, it glowed so brightly.
It all made it difficult to believe that his Merlin was entirely lost to him.
Arthur paused as a faint hum reached his ears. He cocked his head to one side and listened, but there was nothing particularly threatening about it. Still, it was the only thing he’d come across that wasn’t as ordinary as any other dragon claimed cave might be.
Perhaps it was his ‘test’.
The cave seemed to close in on itself and Arthur had to drop to his knees to crawl through the final few feet before it opened into a cavern bigger than any he’d ever seen before.
A bright glow bounced off the water that lapped the rocks at his feet. The entire cavern seemed filled with water except for the small bit of rocky beach where he stood and an island at the center. Both the glow and the humming seemed to originate from the island.
A sword jutted out from a massive block of granite. Even as Arthur stood, considering, the tone of the humming changed.
It seemed to beckon him closer.
Come, the sound seemed to whisper. It’s been waiting for you.
It sounded like Merlin as he had been a decade ago, soft and sweet and loving.
Arthur looked down at the water again, but the light didn’t penetrate its darkness. He drew his sword to test the depth. The water only came halfway up the blade.
Was this a test of his courage or his will? Was he meant to plunge into the unknown?
Or was it a test of his intelligence?
Was he meant to find some other way to get across?
Sighing, Arthur cast another look along the short span of land. He disliked tests that were so unclear. There was no rope, no boat, nothing that he could see that would be particularly helpful if the water got any deeper as he crossed.
He hesitated for a moment before reaching down and grabbing one of the smaller rocks. He tossed it into the water halfway between his position and the island.
After the ripples settled and nothing jumped out to eat him, Arthur took a cautious step into the water.
A hiss escaped.
“Bloody freezing,” he muttered as he stuck his sword into the water for the next step. Nothing reached out to grab or bite at him so he continued on in the same manner.
Halfway across the water reached up to his chest and he was moving much more slowly. He wasn’t sure if the chill was natural or magical, but his entire body was shaking with the force of it.
“S-should’ve st-stripped.” His teeth chattered and his body shook hard enough that he actually dropped his sword, but he pressed onward without retrieving it. He knew the dangers that such a severe cold could present a man in chainmail. If he stopped, he might never get started again.
The halfway point seemed to be the deepest. The ground under his feet began angling upwards after that, and after what seemed like an eternity, he managed to drag himself onto the small island.
He lay there panting for a moment before forcing himself back up to his knees.
The cave looked different from the island. The water seemed to stretch all the way to the walls and the light cast shadows that seemed more like silent sentries, watching him, judging him.
The sword stood in its own silent judgement. It was a fine weapon, the finest he’d ever seen. A kingsword, if there ever was one.
That it could have been waiting for him, in this distant land all this time… Arthur couldn’t help but look around again, waiting for someone or something to chase him away.
You must believe, Arthur, Merlin’s voice whispered in his ear. You are the once and future king of Albion and this sword will always be waiting for you.
Arthur pushed himself up to his feet, swaying slightly.
His steps were slow and careful, but his eyes never left the sword as he made his way to the stone.
One hand wrapped around the hilt.
For a moment, the humming went completely silent, as if the sword itself was waiting to see if he would take it up.
He took a deep breath and pulled the sword from its granite scabbard. It slipped free with a soft sigh and the rasp of steel on stone. The glow intensified, almost blinding for a moment, then faded down again.
The sword felt right in his hand, the perfect weight and balance.
A new light began to shine and Arthur couldn’t help but smile at the small blue orb. It weaved around him for a moment before drifting away on the opposite side of the island.
Arthur glanced back at the direction he’d come, but simply shrugged before following the orb.
It led him over a path that was only barely covered by the water at all. It was still freezing cold, but it stayed a manageable depth, merely covering his boots.
The orb paused by the far wall the cave before bouncing slightly and beginning to move upwards along the rocky surface. Arthur sighed and looked up. He didn’t remember seeing any way out of the cave from the other side, but then, he’d been more concerned about the island and its sword.
When it realized he wasn’t following it, the orb floated back down to hover near his head.
Then it began going up again, slower this time.
“All right, all right,” Arthur said with another sigh. He sheathed the sword in his scabbard and glanced back at the orb. “Up it is.”
The light guided his way, a handhold at a time, until he could finally see stars above him.
When Arthur finally pulled himself up over the edge, the dragon peering at him nearly made him stumble and fall back down.
Kilgarrah merely chuckled at his glower. “I see you were successful, young Pendragon.”
Arthur’s hand went to the hilt of his new sword even as he glanced around for Emrys. “Apparently.”
“He’s gone back to the manor to help that troll with something.” The dragon settled back down into a comfortable position. “You have questions.”
It was a statement of fact.
“And I suppose you have all the answers?”
The rumbling chuckle was more amused than Arthur thought was called for.
“I am not omniscient, little king. I am simply very, very old. I have seen the rise and fall of many ages of men. I will see the rise and fall of many more. Such is the life of a dragon.”
Arthur caressed the end of the sword. “You know of the threat of Nimueh.”
“Oh yes. I know that witch very well. When she was young, she believed that she and Uther were the ones with the great destiny. She spent much time convincing him to leave the Guild and take his rightful place as a king of men.” The dragon’s expression was sardonic. “I suspect that is a youthful mistake that she would dearly like to rectify now.”
“How do we defeat her?”
Grinding his teeth, Arthur suppressed the urge to snap at the overgrown lizard. He could see exactly why Emrys and Catrina had called it names. “Obviously. I don’t suppose you’d care to give any more specific advice?”
Kilgarrah simply laughed. “Where is the fun in that?”
“Right. Of course.” Arthur sighed and looked away. He was hesitant to ask, but the need to know was overwhelming and Emrys had given him permission, after all. He looked back at the dragon. “How did he survive the fire?”
“Your Merlin is not an ordinary warlock. The magic of the very elements themselves runs through his veins. Fire may burn him, but fire also burns the earth. Does the earth whither and die under its onslaught?”
It was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue to say that fire destroyed everything it touched, but the words died away as a memory surfaced. He remembered a long ago lesson from Gaius on the cycles of nature. “No. The fire burns away parts, but what’s left is renewed.”
The dragon dipped his head with approval. “Indeed. And as the earth is renewed, so was Merlin. Balinor brought him here where he could heal in safety and peace.”
“Why did he never…” The question trailed off as Arthur reconsidered it. He knew why Emrys had not returned to Camelot. As long as Uther lived and the laws remained unchanged, it was no place for magic. It was only Morgana’s stubborn belief that she could make things better for the poor souls that found themselves caught that kept his sister from leaving it behind. He hesitated for a moment. “All these years, I’ve thought him dead. I don’t understand why he couldn’t let me know that he wasn’t.”
It was a child’s desperate plea for comfort, but Arthur couldn’t help himself.
Losing Merlin had devastated him. Without even revenge to grasp at, he’d grown quiet and faded, refusing to leave Merlin’s room for weeks.
They’d all grieved, but it had taken Gaius’ soft reproach and Morgana’s fierce scoldings to get him up and moving again. Moving hadn’t improved his will any. His heart had felt frozen in his chest and only Leon’s steady presence had kept him from meeting his death on the training fields through sheer carelessness.
It hadn’t been until he’d discovered Merlin’s butterfly and had his hopes dashed by Gaius that he’d finally been shaken out of the mind and soul numbing shock that had gripped him in the weeks after the fire. His grief had been as sharp as a blade stuck in his gut.
There hadn’t been a single morning when he hadn’t contemplated simply letting go. And while he hadn’t necessarily been seeking death, he’d certainly not really been trying to avoid it either.
“That is a question better put to him,” Kilgarrah replied, not without sympathy.
Arthur hadn’t really expected an answer, but he was disappointed anyway.
Dinner was a quiet affair, the food simple but hardy. He was thankful that the guild master was more human than troll in her tastes.
Emrys and Catrina talked, but Arthur found his own thoughts drifting. He hoped that Nimueh wasn’t attacking Camelot.
He hoped that Morgana and Leon and everyone else was safe.
He blinked at the sound of his name and stared at Emrys for a long moment before shaking his head. “I’m sorry. What?”
“I don’t think you’ve heard a word we’ve said… You’re a million miles away, Sire.”
Arthur shrugged and swirled the wine in his cup. “I realize that my knights and Morgause are as able as any in protecting Camelot, but it doesn’t feel right. Not being there when she’s under such a dire threat, I mean.”
Nodding, Catrina smiled at him. “I understand. Our scouts have found little, thus far. It seems as if Nimueh has made some attempts at getting the druids involved, but they have little taste for warfare, even against Uther.”
“We’ll head out for Camelot in the morning,” Emrys said, eyes intent as he considered Arthur carefully. “Going tonight would serve no purpose except to possibly get you killed.”
“I’ve been training since birth, Emrys. I’m sure I could handle it.”
Emrys chuckled. “I’m sure, Sire. Perhaps some day, you’ll get a chance to test that theory. For now, I don’t want to have to explain to Lady Morgana that I let you break your neck crawling along cliffside footpaths in the dark.”
“She wouldn’t yell at you,” Arthur replied, grinning faintly. “She’d demand to be taken to my body so that she could yell at me. Harpy.”
“You love her.” The look on Emrys’ face was achingly familiar as his eyes crinkled under the force of the grin that stretched his cheeks. “Do you remember when you thought she was a vampyr?”
Shuddering, the prince pointed his fork at the man. “That was a perfectly legitimate concern, thank you very much.”
When Catrina arched a questioning brow, Emrys elaborated. “Lady Morgana has always been very pale and when we were children she went through a period when she refused to step into sunlight. I can’t actually remember why, now. Someone told the prince stories about the vampyr plagues in the dark country. He became convinced that his sister had been struck by this plague.”
“Oh yes. He was terrified. And when she realized it, she went out of her way to make it even worse. Gaius had to create a special ‘vampyr blocker’ to pour around his room so that he could actually get any sleep. And I had to charm the door to wake him up if anyone came through.”
“She was pale, avoided the sunlight, and was absolutely vicious with extremely sharp teeth. It was a logical conclusion.” Arthur stood by his childhood conviction. “And frankly, I’ve seen her eye Leon like he’s a particularly juicy steak. I suspect now that she’s simply the kind of vampyr that chooses a single victim to sustain her for life.”
He couldn’t maintain a straight face for long as they both burst out laughing and he shook his head as he laughed along. It was perhaps a little ridiculous, but he’d honestly believed it as a child. For weeks, he’d slept poorly, jumping at shadows and terrified of his sister in a way that was embarrassing to look back on.
When Uther had realized what was wrong, he’d made Morgana apologize for frightening him. It was the first time Arthur had ever seen his father genuinely furious with his sister. He wasn’t sure what her punishment had been, but Morgana had never gone out of her way to lie to him in such a fashion again.
He smiled at Emrys. “Despite being terrorized by a vampyr harpy, they were good times, weren’t they?”
The warlock grew serious before sighing and dipping his head in acknowledgement. “They were. Certainly, they were never boring.” He stood and scooped up his plate. “Are you done?”
Nodding, Arthur pushed his own empty plate towards the other man. “Are we leaving at first light?”
“Yes. I know you’re anxious to get back and I don’t like leaving Morgause alone to handle any attack from Nimueh any longer than I have to.”
“She has my knights.”
“We’ve had that discussion already,” Emrys replied, rolling his eyes as he finished clearing the table. Then he said a quiet good night to Catrina and nodded at Arthur. “Come on. Morning will come sooner than you’ll like.”
“Good night, Lady Catrina.”
She smiled at him. “I won’t be in to see you off, Prince Arthur. Have a safe journey and try not to fret too much. Emrys and Morgause are not a force easily trifled with. I suspect Nimueh will regret not keeping her focus on Uther.”
Unsure what to say to that, Arthur just dipped his head and followed Merlin through the quiet manor. Upstairs, they paused outside a door and Arthur couldn’t help but stare at the symbols that were drawn on it.
His hand reached out, unsteadily. “I know this mark. What is it?”
“It is my father’s Guild mark.” Voice quiet, Emrys pushed open the door. “Balinor.”
“So he’s the one…” He swallowed, hesitating before finally following the other man inside. “He’s the one who killed them?”
It was Emrys’ turn to hesitate. He shrugged before grabbing a neatly folded stack of blankets and gesturing towards a small bed pushed against one wall. “Yes. It was a warning. That’s why the marks will never fade from the door no matter how the elements wear at them. If the Guild can’t protect their own, they will avenge them. Swiftly and brutally. If he hadn’t been close enough to do it, someone else would have.”
The bloody memory flashed through Arthur’s mind again and he had to take a deep breath. He was still glad they were dead, but it had been a messy death. He closed the door and leaned against it. “As an adult, I can understand what she was thinking, you know. My father has allowed the people to grow so superstitious and fearful of magic that they can’t make logical judgements regarding it any longer. I can see where she might have thought blaming you for her family’s misfortune made sense, where burning y-” he cut himself off, unable to really say it around the heavy feeling in his throat. “Burning the supposed source of it all made sense.”
His mouth tightened and he shook his head. Then his lips twisted in a parody of a smile. “Half the guards lost their breakfast that morning when they found the cottage and investigated. Some people blamed me, you know? I’d ordered the family confined to their home and black-marked as soon as I was coherent enough from… from listening to you die. I wasn’t sorry. And I didn’t feel sorry for them, no matter how horrible their deaths obviously were.” His eyes felt damp, but he refused to let any tears fall. “All I felt sorry about was that someone else had killed them. And that whoever it was… they’d forgotten my father.”
“Uther had me arrested and outed as a warlock. He didn’t actually kill me,” Emrys said softly as he made the bed and sat on it. His eyes were dark as he looked up at Arthur. “And he would have recognized the warning for what it was.”
“You were trapped in that dungeon because of him.”
Emrys sighed and patted the bed beside him. “Sit, Arthur. Please?”
Though he rolled his eyes, Arthur finally gave in and settled on the bed next to the other man. “I lost you because of him.”
“You said he held you back that day.”
It wasn’t a question, but Arthur found himself answering it. “Yes. He just… he held me and wouldn’t let go. No matter how hard I fought him.”
It was easy to forget that Uther was a strong warrior in his own right until that strength was turned against him.
“He saved your life, then.”
Arthur hesitated before admitting his weakness. “I was just as angry about that. If you had to die, it wasn’t fair that you had to die alone.” He swallowed hard and shrugged. “And a life without you didn’t seem like much of a life at all.”
“If he’d let you go, you’d have been the only one who died,” Emrys’ voice was soft and sad.
“But I didn’t know that.” Glaring, Arthur shifted around so that he could look at the other man properly. “You could have let me know at some point in the last decade.”
He hadn’t meant to bring it up, but if Emrys was going to insist on talking about these things…
“It’s not like I could have waltzed back into Camelot and said ‘surprise! Look who survived being burned alive!’”
“You could have sent word. Bloody hell, you could have put a glowing message on my bedroom wall! Anything would have been better than thinking you were dead all these years!”
Emrys looked away. “I put the past behind me. Merlin was dead. I couldn’t be who you needed me to be any longer and there was no point in torturing either of us with the might have been’s.”
“All I needed was for you to be alive.” Rubbing his eyes, Arthur slumped forward. His voice was hoarse and defeated. “Just… knowing that. It would have been enough.”
“Would it have been? Really?”
Arthur took a deep breath and shrugged. “I guess you’ll never know, will you?”
”Come on, Arthur… I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
The prince swore viciously and swung his sword at another hapless flower stalk. “He meant it, Merlin.”
“He was angry at the counsel. He shouldn’t have taken it out on you.” Merlin darted alongside, hovering without touching as he watched the destruction. “He’d never have dressed you down like that in front of the guards if he’d been thinking properly.”
“Maybe he was just angry enough to be honest.” He swung the sword at one of the small trees with a frustrated growl. “Maybe- maybe… dammit… Merlin, help me-”
The warlock sighed and waved his hand. The sword slipped free from the trunk suddenly enough to send Arthur stumbling back. “He regretted it the moment he said it, Arthur. You could see it on his face. He didn’t mean it. Stop this before you hurt yourself or someone else. Look, your scaring our butterflies.”
Huffing, Arthur threw his sword on the ground and stared at the brightly colored shapes. The anger that had been keeping him moving was fading and underneath it, the familiar ache of knowing he could never live up to his father’s expectations was welling up. “Why can’t I ever please him?”
He sat down hard, curling his legs up against his chest and pressing his forehead against his knees.
Merlin hovered for another moment before settling down beside him. Skinny arms came up around him and he let Merlin hold him close. “I don’t know, love. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll never be good enough for him.”
“You’ll always be good enough for me,” Merlin offered. His embrace tightened for a moment, then he nudged Arthur. “Look, they’re dancing for you.”
With a sigh, Arthur looked up to see. The butterflies were indeed dancing and he knew that if he looked at Merlin the other boy’s eyes would be glowing. “Such a girl.”
“You say that and yet you’re smiling, so I count it as a win.”
Arthur couldn’t help but huff with soft amusement.
It only encouraged Merlin to sillier antics, of course. With a flick of his wrist, a dragon made of the massacred bits of flower petals rose up to dance with the butterflies. It was ridiculous, not to mention a completely rubbish use of Merlin’s magic, but it did make Arthur feel better.
It couldn’t last forever, however. They’d done this too often over the years and they’d grown careless.
Their peace was shattered by a single horrified word when the inevitable happened and Uther came searching for Arthur and found far more than he was ever meant to.
When Arthur woke, it took a moment for the world to make sense.
He blinked uncertainly at the chaos that greeted his eyes.
The warlock glowered at him before stabbing a finger in his direction. “Do not say a word.”
Arthur held up his hands in surrender and tried to school his expression, though the murderous look on Emrys’ face said he wasn’t as successful as he’d have hoped.
Still, it wasn’t every day he woke up to a room full of red and white magical butterflies.
Funny how much brighter it made things look suddenly.