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Of Faith and Hope and Love

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"For the present we see things as if in a mirror, and are puzzled; but then we shall see them face to face. For the present the knowledge I gain is imperfect; but then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
- Weymouth New Testament

§

"We should split up," Merlin says, scanning the dark tunnels for any sign of Gaius. The fear that has been growing in him ever since Gaius disappeared is almost overwhelming now. He knows Agravaine is behind this, knows Gaius is at the mercy of Morgana and she has little mercy left in her these days. He's trying hard not to imagine the worst, because he doesn't think his heart could take it.

"Yeah," Gwaine agrees, holding his torch out as if to light all the tunnels with it. Neither direction looks particularly fruitful, but the iron ore brought them here, and the dead guard confirmed that they're close to something.

"Gwaine, if you find him, don't wait for me," Merlin says, and hurries into the dark tunnels. There's just enough light to keep him from walking into the walls. He's startled by the orange flicker of a torch ahead, and ducks out of sight. Another guard walks past, pausing long enough that Merlin worries he's been seen, but then he's gone. Merlin wastes no time in hurrying on his way.

He reaches a large room with fresh signs of mining, and it's a dead end. He turns around and barely has a chance to realize that Morgana is blocking the way before she has sent him flying. He gasps on the ground, all the air knocked out of him. If he was disguised as Dragoon, he could defend himself, throw her across the room and hear her body thud against the ragged stone. But he's not Dragoon, he's Merlin, and unless he wants to kill her he can't let her know he has magic.

He knows he should kill her. Morgana has killed so many people already. She has a traitor in Arthur's court, and who knows what evil she plots next. But he can no more kill her than he could kill Uther, or Agravaine himself. For Arthur, he will let them live, and take the blood onto his own hands. What's a few more dead, at this point?

He can never tell Arthur the truth about himself. Not after his foolish attempt to save Uther only allowed Morgana her final revenge against him. If Arthur ever found out, Merlin would lose him. He has carried Arthur this far, to the crown and the throne and the kingship Arthur was meant for, but that's all the more reason why he can't give up now. Arthur still has Albion to build, and Merlin has to be there for him. No matter what the cost.

"You really are a thorn in my side, aren't you?" Morgana says, walking slowly towards him as he struggles for breath. "When will you learn not to meddle with things you couldn't possibly understand?"

A knife flings from her hand and for a moment Merlin thinks this is it, this is it, but instead of plunging into his throat it hovers before him. He crawls backwards to escape it and it chases after him, its point sharp and menacing in the dim light. He hits the wall and stops, and the knife waits patiently for the command to strike.

"It's difficult, isn't it? When there are so many different and painful ways for me to be finally rid of you."

"I don't care what you do to me," Merlin spits, angrily. "I want to know what you've done to Gaius."

"Well, Gaius had some information I needed. The whereabouts of the sorcerer Emrys." Morgana smirks, and Merlin can just barely see the ghost of her old self there, in her smug smile. "If he gave it to me willingly, his suffering would not be prolonged. But if he did not..."

"If you've harmed him," Merlin warns. He aches to wipe that smug smile away, to send her flying and see the shock and horror in her eyes as she realizes the truth. Whatever she has done to Gaius, he wants her to suffer doubly, triply over.

Morgana continues gloating, delighting in Merlin's glares. "Why are we discussing his fate when it's time to decide yours? Not whether you're going to die alone here in this godforsaken place. That's gonna happen anyway."

A man enters, and Merlin realizes it's the one that passed him in the tunnels. He's holding some kind of staff, and Merlin realizes with a start that he must be a Druid. The Druids... have they turned against him? They had seemed so fervent in their belief that he is their Emrys. Not that he knows what that even means, really, or has done anything to embrace it. He's not entirely surprised, because he's been at least half-convinced that the Druids are mistaken, but his heart sinks because it seems now they've finally realized that for themselves. He's no one's savior.

Still, it was nice while it lasted. It was nice to have someone know what he is, even if they thought he was someone else. Someone better. He's certain that Morgana makes wonderful promises, even if she has no intention of fulfilling them. Even if their Emrys has been a disappointment, the Druids don't deserve to take a viper to their own necks.

"But how," Morgana continues, deciding how best to carve the flesh from Merlin's bones. "Or more precisely, how painfully." She nods to the Druid. "Alator. This is Merlin."

Alator stares at Merlin. Merlin realizes with surprise that as the the whole reason for kidnapping Gaius was to find out what he knew about Emrys, and Morgana is working with Druids, the Druids have... not betrayed him? It's not a huge relief when there's a knife hovering inches from his face, but maybe there's still hope. Maybe he can appeal to Alator and promise to do better, to try harder for them if they'll help him save Gaius.

"He's just a serving boy," Morgana continues, "but he's the most troublesome serving boy I've ever known. I take it your time with Gaius was fruitful?"

"Gaius told me everything," Alator says, and Merlin braces himself for what's to come. Once his secret is out, he'll have to fight, may even have to kill. He doesn't want to but he doesn't have a choice. If Morgana finds out and escapes, she will use the knowledge against him and he won't be able to keep Arthur safe anymore. And then Morgana will win. Merlin can't let that happen.

"So you know who Emrys is?"

"Indeed I do," says Alator solemnly. He walks towards Merlin and crouches before him, and Merlin glares to convey all the anger he feels at being forced into this position. If he wasn't good enough for them, they could have just left him alone. They could have let him stay in the shadows, protecting Arthur, as he always has. That should have been enough. Arthur is the one with the real destiny, anyway; Merlin knows that now. He's is only here to protect Arthur along the way.

"Not only do I know who Emrys is," Alator continues, looking Merlin right in the eyes, "I know exactly where he is."

"Then tell me," Morgana says, and Merlin hates Emrys, hates the man he'll never be, and because he's not enough Emrys is going to destroy everything that Merlin loves.

And then Alator turns to Morgana and says, "Never," and Merlin is so stunned with relief that he barely has time to react as Alator turns his staff on Morgana and sends her hurtling into stone with a painful thud. Her knife drops to the earth and Merlin scrambles to his feet, reeling.

"Merlin, I am Alator of the Catha. I am honoured to be of service."

Catha? Merlin wonders. Not a Druid then, or not the Druids that Merlin is familiar with. "You have magic," he accuses, trying to make sense of what's happened.

"I understand the burden you carry," Alator explains. "I have lived with it all my life. I have been shunned, persecuted, and sometimes even hunted in every corner of the five kingdoms. I understand what that feels like. You're not alone. From what Gaius told me, I do not have your great powers, Merlin, but I share your hopes. For I, and others like me, have dreamt of the world you seek to build. And we would gladly give our lives to help you do it."

Alator kneels, but for once Merlin doesn't feel like he's being talked down to for his ignorance, or praised only because that is what prophecy says he deserves. It feels like someone actually understands him, knows that he's trying and actually wants to help him. It's so unexpected that Merlin has no idea how to react, but he feels a rush of gratitude that nearly overwhelms him.

Maybe he doesn't have to do this alone.

"Thank you," he says at last, voice choked with emotion. "Please, stand up, I don't... you don't have to do that." He takes a shuddering breath, dizzied from how quickly his life nearly fell apart and then came back together again. "Gaius," he says, alarm rushing back to him as he realizes that even if Alator has decided to ally himself with Emrys now, he must have done something awful to Gaius to get him to admit Emrys' identity.

"He is--" Alator says, and then stops.

"Alator?" Merlin says, and then steps back in alarm as Alator falls forward, Morgana's knife sticking out of his back. Morgana is grinning as she lowers her hand, and she laughs and laughs as she wobbles to her feet.

"We meet again, Emrys," Morgana purrs.

There's not much point in denying it now. Merlin scrambles for Alator's staff and aims it at Morgana, recalling the words Alator spoke when he fired it at her. But Morgana is expecting it this time and ducks out of the way of the blast. Before he can fire again, she sends him hurtling into the wall behind him, and the pain is sharp and staggering.

He has to stop her before it's too late. Has to save Gaius, save Gwaine, save Arthur. He has to get up, but the world is narrowing, narrowing, and he can't breathe. The last thing he sees is Morgana's smiling face above him, and her hand reaching out, fingers bent like claws.

§

"It seems I misjudged Gaius," Agravaine says, with what ought to sound like sincere regret. "Merlin was right all along."

It doesn't sound very sincere to Arthur.

"We were lucky he found him," he says, tersely.

"Indeed," Agravaine agrees, easily. "If it hadn't been for the tenacity of your boy, Gaius would be dead. We both owe Gaius and Merlin an apology, my lord."

The touch of inflection is almost subtle, trying to guide Arthur to forget that it was Agravaine who came to him with his suspicions, Agravaine who insisted on questioning Gaius. Agravaine who searched the physician's chambers and found the incriminating book, which seems paltry evidence of treason in light of Gaius' condition. Arthur has not forgotten the last time Gaius was accused of sorcery, and the discovery that Aredian had planted evidence in order to justify his suspicions.

Even though his uncle is his mother's brother, sometimes Arthur could swear Agravaine speaks with his father's voice. The constant warnings about betrayal and sorcery come from him as if from the grave, as if his father haunts him through Agravaine's tongue.

If Gaius had not disappeared, Arthur would have put an end to Agravaine's witch hunt. He knows that Gaius would never betray him. He knows that. But it was so easy to forget when he was stung by Gaius' abandonment. Merlin had been in tears over Gaius leaving without a word, and Arthur had been angrier more on his behalf than on his own. He had been furious with Gaius for leaving Merlin without a word, furious with Gaius for betraying the both of them, and at a loss to explain any of it.

The explanation had been simple all along. Gaius is innocent. And of the people who had known about both the treaty and the secret route they'd planned through the Valley of the Fallen Kings -- Arthur, Gaius, and Agravaine -- only one possible traitor is left.

Arthur spares one last glance for Gaius, still unconscious as Guinevere gently mops his brow, and walks out of the room. He needs to be alone with his thoughts, needs to consider his course of action.

"Merlin!" he calls, his voice resounding through the hallway. Gwaine had said that Merlin was right behind them when they rode out. Arthur would have expected him to be hovering around Gaius along with Guinevere by now, yet he's nowhere to be seen. "Merlin!" he calls, and wonders why it is that even as king he's constantly having to chase after his own manservant.

"Ah, Gwaine, good," Arthur says, catching him on the stairs. "Have you seen Merlin?"

"I thought he was with you," Gwaine frowns. "He should be back by now."

"Maybe he's down at tavern again," Arthur says, feeling a headache coming on. Lately Merlin always seems to be there, especially when Arthur needs him most.

"The tavern?" Gwaine asks, as if baffled that Arthur would even suggest it.

"Yes, the tavern," Arthur says, impatiently. He mimes a mug of ale and quaffing it.

Gwaine looks at him as if he's gone a bit mad, and Arthur feels the possibility is not out of the question right now. Then Gwaine shakes his head. "I don't like this. I'm going back to Kemeray." He turns and heads down the stairs, but Arthur puts a hand on his arm to stop him.

"Wait. It's too late to ride all the way there tonight. If Merlin is delayed he'll probably have the sense to camp out rather than risk riding in the dark."

"It's a full moon," Gwaine points out. "And Merlin had no trouble riding through the night to rescue Gaius."

"And you're both lucky you didn't break your necks," Arthur says. "Look, saving Gaius was an emergency. Merlin's probably fine."

"We don't know that," Gwaine says, frowning again. Arthur sees the dark circles under his eyes, the fine tremors of exhaustion.

"He's probably as tired as you are and had the sense to sleep it off. Neither of you have slept in two days," Arthur reminds him. "You've been riding for hours. You're no good to Merlin if you're asleep on your feet. Get some rest and we'll ride out at first light."

"Mother hen," Gwaine grumbles, but throws up his hands. "Fine, fine. First light, and not a minute later. And don't even think of leaving without me."

Arthur watches him stumble off to his quarters, and tells himself that there's no reason for the dread that's tightening up his insides. No reason at all.

§

Merlin gasps awake to a splash of cold water and a painful pulling in his arms. For a moment he thinks he's dreaming, that this is just another nightmare of being trapped in Morgana's hovel, the Fomorroh hissing and writhing and drawing closer and closer so it can burrow into him and--

But no. No, this is worse than a nightmare.

"Good morning, Emrys," Morgana smiles, delighting in the name.

Merlin tries to reply and realizes that he's been gagged, no doubt to prevent him from performing any spells. Morgana doesn't know that Merlin doesn't need to speak to do quite a lot of magic, but he decides to play along for the moment. He's learned that it's best to see what he's up against before he makes his move.

At least he doesn't have to worry about the Fomorroh anymore.

"So you're my doom," she says. She laughs with a sort of tinkling madness that ends in a vicious snarl, and Merlin only has a moment to see her eyes glow before pain whites out his world again. When he comes back to himself, he's limp and trembling, his chest heaving for air, and Morgana is almost languid with pleasure.

"And to think, all this time," she says, the words dripping off her tongue, "you were right under my nose. The mighty Emrys, a snivelling serving boy."

Merlin glares at her, wishing he could speak.

Morgana walks slowly around him, dragging a nail along his body. "Alator said you have great powers. I should have known you were hiding something. How else could you have stopped me?" When she comes around again, she stops and grabs him by the chin. "Such a good little liar. I wonder what Arthur would think? Would you still like me to tell him all of your grand accomplishments? Do you think he would be proud if he knew you did them with magic?"

Merlin tries to pull free of her grip, but she only tightens it painfully, her nails digging into his skin.

"All this time," she says, wondrously. "And Arthur has no idea."

Merlin has had enough. He has to end this now, has to kill Morgana and get back to Camelot. He looks past Morgana and scans the room for something to use. The hovel hasn't changed since he was last held here, shabby and cluttered with pots and jars. He doesn't see any weapons, but Morgana would hardly have need of any. He could fling the heavy iron pot across the room and-- his stomach roils at the thought. He can't bring himself to do it. He can't kill her. Not as long as he can still see the friend she used to be.

What happened to you, Morgana? he thinks, desperately. You used to have so much heart.

But Merlin knows what happened to her. He happened to her. He looked her in the eye and fed her poison and held her as she died. And even though Morgause saved her life, the old Morgana might never return. But Merlin can't be responsible for destroying what's left of her. He still has hope, still believes there's something there that can be saved.

He only has to disable her, knock her out long enough so that he can free himself. He doesn't know which sounds less promising: the idea of trying to talk Morgana into keeping his secret, or the idea of telling Arthur the truth, that he's the sorcerer who killed his father. Who poisoned his sister and freed the Great Dragon. If Morgana doesn't kill him, Arthur surely will.

Sometimes Merlin wishes he'd never met the Pendragons. It would have made his life so much easier.

"Have you turned him into your puppet?" Morgana coos, eyes glittering in the dimness. "How long have you been whispering into his ear?"

There's a pile of folded cloths on one of the shelves. Merlin pulls at them with his magic and they fly towards Morgana, gagging her and covering her head. She stumbles back in shock, pulling at the cloth, but Merlin's magic holds it firm and she can't speak any spells to counteract him. Merlin turns his attention to his own bindings, and magics open the knot of his gag. He pushes the fabric out with his tongue and looks up at the bindings on his wrist.

"Fæstnunga onlucan me!," he commands, and his magic surges but the bindings do not release. "Min strengest miht hate þe tospringan!" A familiar pain flares in his wrists and shoots down his arms. He curses under his breath, reeling. She must have used the same spell that Morgause did when they bound him and left him in the forest for the Serkets.

"Hierste þæt íecen sóna!" Morgana shouts -- his distraction must have allowed her to break free -- and Merlin screams in agony as the pain intensifies.

"I don't know how you did that," she says, catching her breath, "But I'm going to have to keep you on a shorter leash from now on." She presses her hand to Merlin's forehead and starts to speak, and it feels like he's being pushed back and down, down into darkness. At least it's away from the pain.

He lets himself fall.

§

"You must stop making a habit of this," Guinevere says. She looks worried and lovely in the pale morning light, her hands knotting together and her brow drawn.

"Tell that to Merlin," Arthur says, and swings up onto his horse. Gwaine is already mounted, and he looks tired but he must have managed some sleep. Gwaine is worried, Guinevere is worried, everyone is worried. Even Gaius is worried, or so Guinevere tells him; he's finally awake but still weak, and Arthur will talk to him when he gets back, preferably with Merlin slung over his horse.

If Merlin decided to spend the day picking berries, Arthur is going to haul him back to Camelot, shout at him, and then put him in the stocks for days. Or shout at him, and then haul him back to Camelot. Or--

"You could send a patrol. You don't have to go yourself," Guinevere says, though it's a weak protest because she already knows what he'll say to it.

He says it anyway. "Yes, I do. Merlin is my responsibility. It's my fault he went out there in the first place." And he doesn't trust the patrols. They searched for a whole day and couldn't find Merlin the last time he went missing, and it only took Arthur a couple of hours. Arthur has the most experience rescuing Merlin, it only makes sense for him to go.

"You couldn't have known," Guinevere says, offering absolution.

"I should have," Arthur says. He woke up even more angry with himself than he had been when he went to sleep. Seeing George's polite, subservient face only made everything worse.

Arthur is supposed to be the king. He prepared his entire life for this, and now that it's here, now that he's actually doing it, he feels completely lost. Morgana is still trying to kill him, he has a traitor in his court, and he no longer knows who he can trust or who he should listen to or what the right thing to do is. If Merlin was here, Arthur could rant and ramble at him until things began to make sense. But without him...

Merlin's absence gnaws at him like something worse than hunger.

It shouldn't have been Gwaine that Merlin turned to when he needed help. It should have been Arthur. That's how it always used to be between them, and that didn't change because Gwaine joined them. It seems that Arthur has finally found something that makes Merlin behave respectfully towards him, that makes him keep his distance like the others, and it turned out to be his crown. He never knew it would be so lonely to be the king.

"Don't worry, darling," Gwaine assures her. "I'll bring his highness back safe and sound."

"Thank you, Sir Gwaine," Guinevere, with a little bow and a smile. "I'm certain that Merlin is all right."

"Yeah," Gwaine says, but he doesn't sound like he believes it either.

They set off.

It's midday by the time they near Kemeray, and all Arthur can think about is how familiar all of this is, riding out with Gwaine in pursuit of his wayward manservant. Despite Gwaine's incessant nattering, the fresh air is just what Arthur needed -- though perhaps it's more the chance to escape the castle and the unpleasantries that still await his return.

Even though Arthur is glad of the excuse to get away, right now he would trade his finest horse if Merlin would just stumble out of the woods again, filthy and grinning. He had hoped that they would meet Merlin halfway and discover that he had merely been delayed for a while, perhaps lost in the network of tunnels that forms the iron mine. Arthur has been there several times before, the first time as a child, and his initial impression of it as an giant maze has always stuck with him. He could easily imagine Merlin becoming disoriented and taking hours to stumble back out again, and then staying the night because it was too dark to ride.

Merlin is probably fine. Agravaine said that the kidnappers had already left by the time the three of them arrived. It's not like the last time, when Merlin had been badly wounded and surrounded by vicious mercenaries and Arthur had been forced to abandon him. There's nothing that should compel him to urge on his horse more than he should.

But then, Agravaine may have lied.

They reach the caves and Merlin's horse is gone. Arthur remembers the report of the missing horse that Gaius had supposedly escaped with, and won't be fooled a second time with the same trick. They light their torches and enter the caves, following the path that Gwaine last saw Merlin follow. Even in the flickering torchlight, Arthur can make out footprints in the sandy earth, and Merlin's familiar prints lead in but they do not lead out again.

It could mean nothing. The mine is a rabbit's warren of crossed paths, and Merlin probably went out a different way than he came in. But they follow on regardless.

The torchlight catches the shape of a body ahead, and a cold spike of fear steals Arthur's breath. It's a race between him and Gwaine to get there first, but they both realize before they even reach it that it is far too large a shape to belong to Merlin. They slow down, cautious as they approach.

They pull the knife from his back and turn him over. He's a rough-looking man, bald and tattooed. He wears robes and even dead he has an air of ritual about him. His body is cold.

"Do you recognize him?" Arthur asks.

Gwaine shakes his head. "Looks like there was a fight." He casts his torch around the room, and Arthur does the same. The only exit is the way they came in, and the footprints tell the story of a scuffle between three people: Merlin, the dead man, and... a woman.

"Merlin came in first," Arthur says, peering at the ground. "Then the other two. Merlin retreated here, then..." He frowns.

"It wasn't Merlin that killed him," Gwaine realizes. "The other one did." He holds the knife up to the light, then tosses it to Arthur to inspect. Neither of them recognize it; it's just a simple knife. It must have struck hard and precisely to kill so large a man. A knife thrower would need great skill to achieve it, but it would be easy enough with magic.

Merlin's footsteps continue on past the body, and for a moment Arthur has hope that maybe Merlin found another way out after all. But then the footprints stop abruptly, as if he had been thrown from his feet into the air. More magic, and Arthur can no longer deny the evidence before him.

"Morgana," he mutters.

Gwaine curses. "She took him, didn't she? I knew I should have gone back for him."

"Why didn't you?" Arthur asks, because it is odd that Gwaine would leave Merlin behind.

Gwaine hesitates, and his expression is in turns guilty and furious. "I knew he was up to no good. I knew it. Checking his breath my arse." He rubs at his face and turns to Arthur, and when he speaks his voice is full of regret. "When I found Agravaine with Gaius, he had a knife to his throat. He claimed that he was trying to help, that he saw us leave and followed after us. He insisted we leave Merlin behind. I shouldn't have listened, but Gaius--"

"I know," Arthur said. But it seems that instead of a rescue, all they've done is exchange one captive for another. If Gaius is a source of tactical information about Camelot, Merlin is doubly so, for all that Arthur gripes and moans to him every day. Merlin would never willingly talk, but with magic involved Arthur fears he may not have a choice. And that's a small matter in comparison to what Morgana might do to him, knowing it will hurt Arthur.

The only footprints leading out are Morgana's, dug deep into the sandy soil from Merlin's weight as she carried him out. The trail turns away at the first fork, and through twists and turns they end up in another large chamber.

"This is where I found them," Gwaine says. "She must have come to see if he'd finished the job."

Arthur nods, not trusting himself to speak. They follow Morgana's heavy footprints out to where they'd come in. It's apparent that Morgana rode off with Merlin in tow, but from there the trail goes cold.

They ride as quickly as they can, barely speaking the whole way back, the both of them weighed down by fear and revelations.

§

When they reach Camelot, Arthur immediately sends out patrols to scour the forest. Again he's struck by the familiarity of the act. He feels trapped in some kind of recurring nightmare, losing Merlin and finding him and losing him again. If Agravaine betrayed them in the Valley of the Fallen Kings, it's likely that the mercenaries who took Merlin were Morgana's men. But that only opens up more questions, and not all of them directed at Agravaine. If Merlin saw Morgana, why didn't he say anything? And more importantly, how on earth did he escape?

What if he didn't escape? What if-- No. Impossible. It was absolutely impossible that Merlin could betray him. But Arthur is having a hard time trusting his own instincts anymore. He hadn't thought it possible for his uncle to betray him, and he had believed, if only for a while, that Gaius had.

Yet Merlin had behaved rather strangely when he'd first returned. And then he'd spent two whole days down at the tavern! Merlin has always been a bit odd, and so Arthur had thought little of it, assuming it was Merlin's way of dealing with what had happened. Thought what exactly had happened... Arthur had just been so relieved to have him back, he hadn't cared to press Merlin for details beyond his easy shrug and 'I got away'. He had assumed that the injury hadn't been as bad as it looked, and if there had been anything wrong Gaius would have told him.

Which brings him back to Gaius again. But Gaius isn't the traitor, can't be the traitor. Even as a way to dispel suspicion, having himself kidnapped and tortured almost to death is too much. And Merlin hadn't been taken willingly either, both times. An almost manic elation runs through Arthur at the idea that all three of them are traitors, that his whole court is made of traitors, and he has to slap it down hard. That way madness lies.

It's evening when he finally makes his way to the physician's tower. Gaius is sitting by the fire, a blanket over his legs and a book open on his lap, though he doesn't seem to be reading it. Arthur knocks on the open door and startles Gaius from his thoughts.

"Oh, sire! Do come in."

"Shouldn't someone be here with you?" Arthur asks, looking around.

"I sent Guinevere home for the night," Gaius says, closing the book and setting it aside. His hand trembles as he moves it, and he tucks it back under the blanket on his lap.

"Are you all right?" Arthur asks. He pulls over a chair and sits down, and rests a hand on Gaius' arm. Gaius still looks pale and out of sorts, and it can't help to have him worrying about Merlin on top of everything else.

Gaius nods. "Is there any word?"

"No," Arthur admits. "They'll keep looking. We will find him."

Gaius nods again, and he looks so worried that it gives everything away. Arthur knows at once how impossible it is that Gaius could betray him. There's nothing false about such fear.

"I made a mistake," Arthur apologizes.

Gaius blinks at him, and musters a sad smile. "I've looked after you since you were a nurseling, Arthur. You should've known I love you far too much ever to betray you."

Arthur ducks his head in shame. Only Gaius could make a king feel like a child again. There was a time when Arthur spent much of his time playing in Gaius' quarters, fascinated by the strange colors and smells and textures of the healer's art. It was the brief idyll of childhood before his life of duty began, and since then the two of them have grown apart. But Gaius still loves him. Arthur had failed him by forgetting that.

"What did Morgana want from you?" Arthur asks, gently.

"Information," Gaius says. "About you, Camelot. To help bring down the kingdom."

The vagueness of his answer bothers Arthur, but Gaius is always that way. He chooses his words more carefully than anyone Arthur knows. "Did they get it?"

Gaius shakes his head. "Morgana got nothing from me."

"I'm grateful," Arthur says, and means it. It's clear that Gaius held out almost to the bitter end. "But there's a matter that still concerns me. When you were asked about the sorcerer who killed my father... you lied."

"I did, sire."

Arthur tries to hide his surprise. "You admit it?"

"I chose to protect him," Gaius explains. "I feared you would seek him out and execute him. That would've been a grave mistake. The sorcerer did not kill your father. Uther was dying. He tried everything in his power to save him."

Arthur looks at him doubtfully. He had seen it with his own eyes. Dragoon had used his magic, and moments later his father was dead. Arthur could see no other way to interpret what had happened.

"Sire," Gaius says, and there's a light in his eyes that makes Arthur pay attention. "Contained within this great kingdom is a rich variety of people with a range of different beliefs. I'm not the only one seeking to protect you. There are many more who believe in the world you are trying to create. One day you will learn, Arthur. One day you will understand just how much they've done for you."

Arthur stares at Gaius, trying to take this in. It's clear that Gaius is trying to tell him something important, something he can't fully speak of. Perhaps in a way, Agravaine is right. Gaius does consort with sorcerers like Dragoon. But could it be true that they are allies and not enemies?

Sorcerers helping Camelot? It seems incredibly farfetched. After decades of death and persecution, how can there be any good will left in those with magic? Arthur has only ever known the bitterness of sorcerers, their desire for revenge and for suffering to equal their own. The Druids are the exception to this, silent and hidden in the margins of the kingdom, fearful of the regular campaigns sent by his father. No matter how much they have suffered, the Druids have never struck back. Arthur quietly ended such campaigns once he was crowned.

But Dragoon is no Druid. And when Arthur had asked him for help, all he wanted in return was to live in peace. To be accepted rather than hunted. Why would anyone petition for such noble goals only to destroy them by killing a man who was already dying?

"I hope you're right," Arthur says at last. "It's been a long day. Get some rest. The moment I have any news about Merlin, I'll send word."

"Thank you, sire," Gaius says, and Arthur bids him goodnight.

§

Arthur gets little rest himself. His mind runs in circles all night, thinking of Agravaine and Gaius, of his father and Dragoon, and most of all of Merlin. He keeps thinking of things he wants to say to Merlin and opens his mouth to call for him. And stops, because Merlin isn't there.

Every time he finally starts to drift off, he thinks of Merlin and starts awake again. He is haunted by his absence, by the ghost of him: by his fond impatience when Arthur is lazy in the mornings; by the deft touch of his hands as he dresses Arthur for training; by the profile of his shy smile, face half-turned, his dark lashes smudged against his cheek.

His sleep is plagued by dreams of betrayal, of Morgana and Agravaine and his father attacking him with knives, and Merlin throwing himself in front of Arthur as a shield. He dreams of Merlin dying in his arms, bleeding out and out, his last words a whisper on his lips. Arthur can't hear them, and he leans closer and closer, begging Merlin to hold on a little longer, to say it one more time so Arthur can hear. That he'll hear it this time, he promises, please.

He wakes at the cusp of dawn, cold from having kicked off his blankets in the night. He dresses quickly and hurries out, determined that today they will find Merlin, today they will bring him home.

By the end of the day there is still no word, and Arthur feels weary and weighted down. He rubs his eyes and pushes aside the papers before him. The duties of a king are endless, and moreso without Merlin there to make arrangements and write speeches and generally do far more work than Arthur likes to admit. How does he even have the time? Merlin seems to do the work of three men: a manservant, an apprentice, and a king.

"I'm afraid it might be time to give up," Agravaine says. He speaks as if it wounds him to even suggest such a thing, but Arthur can see the falseness of it easily now. Agravaine barely knows Merlin, and in trying to cover his guilt he goes too far. It would be more believable if he was indifferent.

When Arthur says nothing, Agravaine presses on. "I know how important he is to you, but the boy is certainly dead by now. It's a waste of resources--"

Arthur holds up his hand, silencing him. "They'll look until he is found. I will hear no more about it."

"Very well," Agravaine says, his displeasure evident.

Arthur folds his hands and considers the man before him. His uncle. When he'd doubted Agravaine before, his uncle had said that he would never betray him because Arthur was all that was left of Ygraine. Yet if there is any truth to that, it's clear that blood alone is not enough for loyalty. Why ally himself with Morgana, of all people? It baffles Arthur and he knows he needs something more than doubt. He needs proof that Agravaine is the traitor.

There's no time like the present. It's just the two of them in the room. "Uncle," Arthur says, adopting a conciliatory tone. "I would like to ask your advice on something."

Agravaine leans forward. "Of course. I will help however I can."

"You are aware of the many magical objects that my father amassed over the years." Agravaine nods. Arthur leans closer, lowers his voice. "My father sought only to keep them from the hands of sorcerers. But there are certain to be weapons within that may be used without any magic. It has occurred to me that they may be of use against Morgana."

"That is a very risky gambit, Arthur," Agravaine warns, but there's a keen interest in his eyes.

"But a necessary one," Arthur says. "Camelot has no defense against magic. Tomorrow I intend to take my most trusted knights down to the vaults, and we will begin an inventory to see what may be of use to us."

"If you think it best," Agravaine says, warily. "Your father always said that it only took one spell for magic to begin its corruption."

"Then I will find things that do not require spells. I will not see Morgana take the city again." Arthur sneers as he says her name, and sees the resulting anger that Agravaine fails to hide.

There is a knock on the door, and Guinevere arrives with a simple dinner. "As you requested, sire," she says, bowing her head politely as she serves them. She looks askance at Agravaine, and Arthur knows her well enough to see that she does not like his uncle. Guinevere has always been a good judge of character.

They eat together, and Arthur lets his exhaustion show more and more. He drinks an extra cup of wine, and though it's watered down enough not to intoxicate him, he affects a woozy air. He yawns widely several times until Agravaine finally takes the bait.

"You must rest, sire," Agravaine says, with an obsequious smile. "You have not slept well for days."

"I know," Arthur admits, rubbing at his face. "I've had Gaius give me one of his sleeping draughts. If that doesn't work, nothing will."

"A good night's rest will make everything better," Agravaine assures him.

"Mm." Arthur stands and stretches, stiff from so much sitting. He'd rather ride and fight than sit in a chair all day long. When he gets Merlin back, he'll have Merlin find a better way to manage his schedule. When, he thinks, rather fiercely.

He takes his leave and heads back towards his chambers, but as soon as he's safely away from Agravaine, he takes a sharp turn. He finds his knights slouched together over their own dinners and nursing their ales. They would have been out searching all day, and they look dispirited.

As soon as they see him, they all straighten up, instantly alert.

"Is there news?" asks Leon.

Arthur presses a finger to his lips and closes the door behind him. "I need your help," he says, and they lean in to listen.

§

Pretending to sleep is, at least, easier than actually sleeping. Arthur lies quite still, keeping his breathing slow and even, his mind focused on his plan. It's the most relaxed he's been all week.

The door cracks open, silent on oiled hinges, and dim light spills into the room from the hall. Arthur keeps his eyes closed, listens to the rustle of cloth and Agravaine's breathing as the man creeps inside. Arthur stirs in his false sleep, and Agravaine pauses and waits for him to settle.

Arthur hears the soft tinkle of metal as Agravaine finds the key to the vaults. He waits as Agravaine creeps out again, and then slips on a shirt and follows after him. He trails as Agravaine makes his way down to the vaults, neatly avoiding a pair of guards on patrol. Arthur does the same.

Arthur wants there to be no doubt. He wants Agravaine completely incriminated. He waits as Agravaine opens the vault and steps inside, waits as he rustles around in the darkness for whatever he thinks will help Morgana to victory. And then Arthur steps inside and blocks the exit.

"Uncle," Arthur says, loudly.

Agravaine nearly jumps out of his skin. He turns to Arthur, and his expression flickers between loathing and appeasing, like he can't decide if he can still talk his way out of this. And then the knights step out of the shadows of the vault, swords drawn, and loathing wins.

"You're under arrest for treason to the crown," Arthur says, calmly.

Agravaine glares at them all in disgust. "You can't stop her," he growls.

"That is no longer your concern," Arthur tells him. "The only thing I want from you now is an answer. Why? Why did you betray me?"

Agravaine laughs, and it's an ugly sound. "Why would a DuBois want revenge against a Pendragon? Do you know what your father did to my family? He killed them. My sister, my brother, slaughtered at his hand."

"Your family?" Arthur asks, ignoring the accusation for now. "What am I to you?"

"You are Uther's son," Agravaine spits. "That's all you are."

Arthur shakes his head. "So you deny me only to ally yourself with Uther's daughter?"

Agravaine blanches, but whatever he feels he pushes down behind a smile. "She is no more Uther's daughter than you are Igraine's son. You have both rejected your blood."

"How have I rejected you?" Arthur shouts, furious now. "I welcomed you with open arms. I trusted you!"

"You were given the choice between your mother and Uther. And you chose Uther."

"What are you talking about?"

Agravaine laughs. "Have you denied her so entirely? Do you not even remember the gift Morgause gave you?"

"Morgause?" Arthur gapes. "What does that... She was lying. It was all a trick to..." What had Merlin said? "To turn me against my father. To destroy the kingdom."

"You delude yourself. I gave up the chance to see my beloved sister one last time in the hopes that it was not too late for you. That you had not been entirely corrupted by Uther's lies. But my sacrifice was in vain, and so you stole her from me a second time."

Arthur gapes at him, stunned.

"You are your father's son," Agravaine declares with finality. "You are corrupted by his hatred. Morgana will bring magic back to Camelot, and no one will ever remember your name."

It's all too much to bear. Arthur wants nothing more than to cut Agravaine down, to wipe the smug smile from his face once and for all. But he can't.

"Throw him in the cells," he orders hoarsely, and walks away.

§

When Merlin wakes, everything hurts. He's slung over a horse and each trot brings a fresh jolt of pain. He's been bound tightly all over, and sees his tied wrists swaying before him over the moving ground.

They're travelling. That can't be good.

He should never have held back. He should have stopped Morgana with any means available to him. He could have broken the restraining spell if he'd only had more time. He reaches for his magic but it feels far away, obscured by the pain. She's done something to him.

He needs help and he needs it now. She hasn't bothered to gag him, trusting that whatever she's done to him is enough to hold back his magic, both spoke and silent. But he has one more trick up his sleeve.

"O drakon," he rasps, the deep undertones of dragonspeak strengthening his voice. "E male so ftengometta tesd'hup'anankes!"

"What? Impossible!" Morgana gasps, and pulls them to a stop so sudden it nearly throws him from the horse. Then she laughs. "You are full of surprises, Dragonlord. But call all you like. There are no more dragons."

Merlin laughs weakly. "That's what you think. Just wait. Kilgharrah never liked you," he taunts, and only regrets it a little when she sends another round of searing pain through his nerves.

"I have plans for you, Emrys," she warns him. "And nothing, not even your pet dragon, is going to stop me."

Her hand presses against him and he feels her pushing him down again, back into the darkness. He struggles to stay awake but it's no use. He hopes Kilgharrah will arrive quickly, will find them in time. He hears her chanting, louder and louder, and then hears nothing at all.