Chapter 1: Notes And Acknowledgements
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS (because thanks should be plastered everywhere XD):
Author's notes: A great big thank you to the_muppet who has run a stellar last round of Paper Legends! Love and thanks to zerda_vulpes who not only put up a hand to be my artist but also spared some time to act as my beta as well (amazing! \o/). And my undying gratitude to pyrefly_fayth and blissbubbles for diving in at the last hour with some much appreciated editing!
Artist's notes: This was such a fun experience! flakedice, thanks for creating such a captivating story and allowing me to become your artist ^^ a piece of my heart goes to you ♥ And of course, many thanks to the_muppet for running this whole thing!
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FIC POST - Livejournal Masterpost
Chapter 2: Chapter One
"What would you do? In my place."
The question caught Merlin by surprise. That Arthur would ask. Ask for his advice after he had just mocked his explanation moments before. "Me?" He couldn't help the traces of mockery and irony that leaked into his voice. "I'm just a lackey, maker of beds."
"Lackeys can be wise."
Merlin let his gaze fall to the fire. The fire that he had built. Arthur was asking but he didn't want to hear. He wouldn't want to hear what Merlin really wanted to say.
Arthur stirred across the fire. "It's not like you to be silent." It was the prodding tone he used when he wasn't going to let a subject go.
Merlin swallowed, fighting against the emotions that threatened to close his throat. "The future of the kingdom is at stake." He kept his gaze on the fire. He couldn't meet Arthur's gaze. Couldn't let Arthur see the battle waging inside him that threatened to fight free.
"And a man's life." Arthur was unyielding.
He had to say something. Merlin said what he could. What was the truth that he had always clung to? He finally met Arthur’s gaze. "You must protect Camelot. You must protect the world you've spent your life building. A just and fair kingdom for all."
For all. He knew that it meant something different for Arthur. That it didn't include Emrys, the magic user. The Merlin who had magic. But that was what he fought for. For Arthur.
Arthur was silent for a moment, gazing into the fire in turn. "You'd have me sacrifice a friend."
A just and fair kingdom. Where those who used magic were slain for being who they were.
It was a decision that tore Arthur to make. Because he believed that magic was an evil to be fought at all costs.
Arthur wanted to save Mordred. Merlin had been waiting in hope, hiding and killing those who would harm Arthur. Waiting for the time that magic would be accepted.
But he was keeping silent. Just as he always had.
A silence that had always cost him dear in the past.
And Arthur was asking him, a magic user, to decide whether magic should be accepted once more. Something he would never have asked if he knew that Merlin was a warlock.
He couldn't deny Arthur, but he couldn't advance his own hopes over Arthur's life and the good of the kingdom. "I would have you become the king you are destined to be."
Arthur sat up, pinning Merlin with his gaze. Like a hound scenting his hesitation. "If I do save Mordred. All my father's work would be for nothing. Sorcery will reign once more in Camelot. Is that what you'd want?"
Yes. Merlin could feel himself shaking under Arthur's gaze, wanting to tell him everything-
"Perhaps my father was wrong." The words hammered at Merlin's resolve as Arthur said things he had wished to hear for years. "Perhaps the Old Ways aren't as evil as we thought."
Merlin pressed his lips together, holding back the tide of words, the reassurances of good intentions that battled to escape.
"So what should we do?"
We. Merlin's vision blurred, his breath catching short.
"Accept magic." Arthur's voice was almost soft. "Or let Mordred die.” The fire snapped. “What should I do, Merlin?" Arthur was fixing him with the quiet earnest stare he used when he was truly asking Merlin for advice.
Merlin stared out into the woods, this sacred place that Arthur had little respect for and no knowledge of. Arthur, who had once saved him when he was accused as a sorcerer. Who still upheld his father's laws, laws which persecuted those who used magic.
Arthur, who was now asking for his guidance.
Who was giving him the chance to live openly and without fear. To lie no longer.
But at what cost? The life of Mordred who would later kill him?
"The future has many paths. That is only one."
He had seen the path where Mordred lived. Mordred who he liked, who he had seen with Arthur's blood on his sword.
"Seeing is not the same as knowing. And we must know for certain before we act."
Did he know for certain? Gaius wasn't convinced. And should Merlin give up this chance, this second chance to redeem his earlier failure to make a stand for magic. Could he risk Arthur's life by taking it?
Could he risk Arthur's life by not heeding the Disir's warnings?
He was caught either way.
"Arthur's bane," the Diamair had whispered in its dry hushed voice, "is himself."
Mordred hadn't harmed Arthur yet, even with many opportunities.
Morgana had loved Arthur in the beginning. It wasn't until Merlin had betrayed her that her love had turned to hate.
Merlin swallowed, eyes burning. Could it be the same with Mordred? That the young knight would turn against Arthur due to some event that had occurred.
Something Arthur would do?
Something that Merlin had led him to do?
Merlin drew in a breath, aware of Arthur's gaze fixed on his face.
In his hopes and dreams for Arthur, one thing held true.
A just and fair kingdom for all.
"Would it be so bad to accept magic?" The question fell from his lips, more challenging than Merlin had intended. With a trace of pleading that he had never wanted to voice.
And had for so long.
Arthur was staring at him, eyes wide with surprise.
But now that he'd spoken, the words Merlin had held back for so long spilled free. "Not everyone with magic uses their power for evil. For all the sorcerers we have faced over the years, what of the people who have died simply because they have made charms to protect their loved ones? Because they have lit a fire with what little magic they have?"
Who had made charms like the one which had been the death of Hyath, the charwoman.
From the small frown Arthur was wearing, he recalled the same trial.
"The Druids practise magic but they are a peaceful people who bring no harm to anyone." And Arthur had recognized that, no longer persecuting them as his father had done. "They have helped Camelot in the past, even saved Leon's life. Balinor-" he paused with the familiar painful catch at his father's name, "agreed to help us even though he had been banished from Camelot. The Diamair healed Gwaine even while being hunted by Morgana's men."
"Even those who have been Camelot's enemy have had cause in their mind. Many of those who have attacked Camelot have done so in retaliation for perceived injustices." Arthur stirred at that and Merlin hastily continued. "Magic was once a force for good in this kingdom. Before Nimueh's betrayal, those with magic, people like Gaius, were welcome in your father's court." Merlin kept his gaze on Arthur. "Magic is only a tool. Neither good nor evil in itself. A man might kill a man with a sword or protect him. Magic is the same."
He took a breath. He had come this far. "You, who have consulted magical texts and sorcerers, cannot deny this. If Camelot's king can use magic, then how can his subjects be killed to do the same?"
Arthur was silent, eyes wide and dark as he stared at Merlin across the fire.
"You spoke of the misery unfettered sorcery brings. But what if it was not?" Merlin leaned forward locking his gaze with Arthur’s. "You are king, Arthur. You make the laws that keep Camelot and her people safe." He wasn't sure whether his words were making the impact he hoped but Arthur was still listening. "Even decades after magic has been outlawed, it still remains a part of Camelot." More than Arthur knew. "Part of the traditions and beliefs of your people. By denying it, you deny your people."
Arthur was still unnervingly silent. The fire crackled between them.
Merlin drew in a shaky breath. "If I were in your place, I would accept magic. But only under a rule of law."
There was a long silence, Arthur staring at Merlin over the flames, his expression unrevealing.
Finally he stirred. "Do you really believe that?"
Merlin met Arthur's gaze, holding it easily for the first time all night. "I do."
He knew that Arthur could make it work if he wanted to. That eventually Arthur would turn the tide of those who stood against him and bring peace for all of Camelot's people.
Arthur remained silent, thinking.
Merlin lay back with a curious sense of lightness. Relief and not a little fear. He had told Arthur the truth. Not all of it, but as much as he was able at this point.
He had spoken for magic. For those of his kin. Gilli. Gaius. Alator.
Arthur might still decide against magic, following in his father’s footsteps. But Arthur was not Uther. If he chose to accede to the Disir’s demands, there was a chance for magic. A new start for the kingdom Kilgharrah had promised.
And if Mordred still lived, then Merlin would still be able to deal with him if or when he made a move against Arthur.
Arthur lay, half propped by his saddlebags, staring up at the branches shifting softly against the sky.
A sacred place. Merlin had known it the moment they had caught sight of the cave. Because everything had 'felt more alive'.
Arthur couldn't feel anything. Not even now when he was lying still, eyes half closed in an appearance of sleep. There was only the heat radiating from the fire, the faint shuffling of the horses and Merlin lying on the far side of the fire.
Merlin who had been struggling with tears as he tried to answer. Who had given him an answer he hadn't expected, not even when his clumsy, idiotic manservant had a habit of surprising him with his strange wisdom.
Though Arthur was having a hard time reconciling what Merlin had said with advice he had given in the past.
Merlin who had agreed with him on the evil of magic and said that it had no place in Camelot.
Merlin who had no trouble in seeking out crazy old sorcerers or charging forth to save old women who were about to be burned as witches.
His idiotic, brave manservant who had been shaken by the question of magic when he had joked and laughed off riding into battle unarmed.
An owl hooted. The low call was distant, the sound soft in the silence.
It was quiet. Quieter than any wooded area should be.
Arthur wondered if that was another sign of the sacred nature of the place. He didn't know and for the first time he had to question whether that was a dangerous lack in himself.
In the past, magic hadn't been something he had to know about outside having to stamp it out. If it was magic, it was evil, a blight on the kingdom. If Camelot was to survive, it must be wiped out. All he needed to know was the weaknesses of magical creatures and sorcerers in order to defeat them and counter their actions.
His father had been firm to point zealotry in that regard. It wasn't enough to passively wait for sorcerers to attack, they had to be hunted down, eliminated.
Arthur shifted uneasily against his saddle. There had been raids on Druid camps, attacks he had been part of in his youth. He had killed. Not just men but women and children.
It was not the act of a knight. Nor a prince, even couched as a brutal necessity as it had been.
But he had thought little of it before he met Merlin.
There had been a lot of things he hadn't thought about before Merlin had come into his life with his insolent grin and his mocking moral chastisement.
Merlin knew more about magic than he did. Gaius' influence and the study he had carried out in the preparation of hunting countless magical creatures, defeating yet another of Morgana's bids for the throne.
Merlin had been at Arthur's side through more encounters with magic than any of Arthur's knights. He knew the truth about Arthur's mother, had seen how magic had twisted Morgana from loving sister to a vengeful traitor.
He had always been there when Arthur faltered, reminding him of all the harm that magic had done.
Now, having seen Merlin battle to keep his composure when answering, Arthur had to ask how much of that steadfastness had been true. For all his annoying cheer, Merlin was remarkably good at avoiding saying anything of his troubles. But Arthur knew when Merlin was struggling with something personal. And to be upset to the point where he was struggling with tears-
Was it Will? Arthur had almost forgotten Merlin's childhood friend, the sorcerer who had saved them. Merlin had known what he was and had still remained his friend, hadn't told Arthur what he was.
Merlin hadn't been afraid of the old sorcerer, either. Simply thought he was old and odd.
Arthur frowned. He had used magic for his own ends in the past. He had been desperate enough to seek out the crazy old sorcerer in the woods-
His jaw clenched and he blinked to force back the sting.
Even if the old man hadn't been malicious, there was no arguing what the result had been.
Arthur's fingers curled, his father's ring cutting into flesh as they fisted.
"One law for the king, another for his people!"
He had been young at the time, but Arthur still remembered the words spat at his father before the pyre. He had thought them the bitter ravings of a condemned man but-
Magic was once a force for good in this kingdom.
It would seem impossible if not for Gaius. Gaius who had been his father's friend and never anything but loyal.
His father had always trusted Gaius, even when he had practiced magic in his youth.
Had his father been wrong? His single-minded crusade had become a source of paranoid condemnation, even madness towards the end. His father had begun to see sorcery everywhere: Gwen, Merlin, even Gaius who had given up magic in accordance to the law. His hatred had consumed him.
But it had been Morgana's betrayal, Morgana's magic that had broken him in the end.
If there was any good in magic, he hadn't seen it.
There was silence from across the fire. But Arthur waited. He knew Merlin wasn't asleep.
"If there are those who used magic for good, why haven't they stood against those who wish Camelot harm, against Morgana?"
There was silence for a moment. The fire emitted a low crack before there was a small shifting sound. "Maybe they have." Merlin's voice was strange, almost cracking it was so thin. "Maybe Morgana has been quiet recently for a reason."
Arthur raised himself on an elbow. "Merlin." He couldn't see much of his manservant but his brown jacket and the thinnest slice of his red neckerchief. "Do you really expect me to believe that a sorcerer - any sorcerer - would risk their lives to help us? They'd have to be an idiot."
There was a long pause. Unbroken but for a strange hitch in Merlin's breathing.
Arthur suddenly recalled Will. Collapsing with an arrow in his chest after saving them all.
"If they were saving such an ungrateful prat, they'd have to be." It was a poor imitation of Merlin's usual jabs.
Arthur sank back, having lost all taste for needling Merlin. Hurt disapproval filled the air. It was annoying - just when he thought he'd reached some semblance of a conclusion, Merlin threw him off balance again. But that had always (not that he'd ever admit it aloud) been one of the benefits of Merlin's company. He forced Arthur to think about how his actions would affect his subjects.
Even if they were sorcerers in this case.
Arthur scowled. It was a choice they made, wasn't it? To practise magic against the law. Most people were content to live their lives. Magic always seemed to be used to further sorcerers' ambitions.
Unless it was used for protection.
After Gaius had been rescued, he had spoken of people who wanted the same future for Camelot. People unknown to him who worked to protect him. If the circumstances hadn't been so grave, Gaius so solemn, he would have scoffed. But Arthur had believed Gaius, even if he wasn't sure to whom the physician had been referring.
Could this be what Gaius was talking about? Sorcerers who were not against him but aiding Camelot unremarked? The thought was enough to cast doubts on his long held beliefs on magic.
He didn't know enough about magic or those who used it to be certain either way. And without that knowledge how could he make the right choice? Dare he take that chance? Mordred's life hung in the balance. And the fate of the kingdom rested on his shoulders.
Arthur stared up at the branch-crossed sky, all too aware of Merlin lying too silent across the fire. He would be getting little sleep tonight.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
It was with trepidation that Merlin followed Arthur into the Disir's cave the next morning. His king had been quiet as Merlin made breakfast and packed their belongings. Whatever his decision was, Merlin hadn't been able to tell one way or the other.
He suspected his spur of the moment plea for magic had been for nothing, though. Arthur's final question for the night had only reinforced his impression of Arthur's dislike of magic. And an awkward silence had sat heavy between them until they had fallen asleep.
What little they had. Merlin wasn't sure whether Arthur had slept anymore than he did.
But he had come to a decision. It was clear from the firm determined strides that carried Arthur further into the Disir's domain. Whatever Arthur had determined was the best for Camelot would be seen through to the end, despite Merlin's advice or the threat to Mordred's life.
Merlin hunched his shoulders. It hurt more than he thought it would. He had finally spoken for magic, spoken for himself, and it was hard to deal with the rejection, even if he had expected it.
Arthur ducked, pushing aside a charm, careful not to dislodge it as he passed.
Merlin stared after him, surprised at the respect where there had been blatant disregard. At least some of what he had said had gotten through.
A small hope bubbled at the thought but he forced it down, concentrating on following Arthur. The Disir thought nothing of killing. This was dangerous no matter what Arthur had decided.
The cave opened, the coin Arthur had thrown still glinting from the ground. The Disir stood in a huddle within the far side, perched up on their platform of rock.
The hooded figures turned to face them as they made their way into the cave.
"Arthur Pendragon." The one on the left pronounced in rolling tones.
"King of Camelot." Continued the crone on the right.
The centremost leaned forward on her staff. "Have you made your decision?"
"Yes." Arthur stepped forward, shoulders straightening under the polished shine of his chain mail. He was the very picture of determined resolve.
There was an expectant pause. "And what have you decided?"
Merlin's eyes were fixed on Arthur, as anxious to hear his decision as the Disir.
Arthur drew in a breath. "I have journeyed here in order to understand the judgement you have laid on me. I have listened to your words, considered what you have asked. But answer me this." He met their stares with a challenging gaze.
"You demand that I accept magic and the Goddess into my heart." Arthur stood firm several paces away, head held high, proud in bearing. "But by what right do you make such a demand?"
Merlin's chest was hollow. An awful frozen mess crawling wide through his chest.
"Magic has been no friend of mine. It has killed my father, driven my sister to madness. Not a year has passed where magic has not been used to attack Camelot. To threaten my death and all I hold dear."
Merlin had expected this. But there had been a small flicker of hope. A tiny spark that had been buried under the cold betrayal, now snuffed out under the light-headed horror that filled him.
He had been right to lie before. To keep his secret.
Arthur would never accept magic.
And no one who had magic.
Arthur took an aggressive step forward. "To convince me to your side, you threaten me and my kingdom. When I come to seek you out, you kill my knights and hold another to ransom."
The chill in the cave deepened. Not much could be seen of the Disir under their hooded robes but Merlin could sense their deepening hostility. He slowly edged closer to Arthur.
His king might have rejected him unknowing but that didn't change anything. Merlin would do as he had always done. Protect Arthur against all threats.
"You are followers of the goddess, guardians of magic. Yet you do nothing to act against those who use magic for their own twisted purposes." Arthur gestured to the coin where it still lay gleaming on the dark cave floor. "Where is your judgement against thieves and murderers who use magic as their weapon, against those with and without magic?"
Arthur shone like the coin marking his fate. Fierce and unyielding. Merlin's hand hovered at his side, ready to rise in defence if the Disir made a move.
"I am king by the will of my people. But I uphold the law. Why should I bow to your wishes when you do not govern your own kind?"
Silence rang out in the cave. Only to break like a smashed plate.
"We do not kill those without magic indiscriminately." Scorn vied with cold fury.
"Show scorn where respect is merited." Bony hands clasped tight to a dark staff.
"We hold the authority of the Mother Goddess." The answer was spat out. "A charge bestowed, not stolen."
Arthur was unmoved. "I will not bow to your will because of a threat you hold over me."
"Arthur." It was like the knell of doom.
The Disir's voice was terrible. "Pendragon."
"King of Camelot." The third pronounced, full of disdain. "Is this your answer?"
"Will you doom your Kingdom to a fate of your own making?"
"No." Arthur stood firm, arms crossed over his chest. "You have made a demand of me. Now I will make one of you."
Merlin found himself staring at Arthur in shock. He jerked his attention back to the Disir, trying to read their reaction.
"Prove to me that magic is worthy of my acceptance. That it can be reasonable, not a tool to force the capitulation of those it is used against." Arthur was fearless, strong in the belief of his words. His tone demanding and reasonable at once. "Earn my acceptance."
One of the Disir’s hooded heads tilted, making Merlin tense. But her tightly held staff remained grounded.
The Disir regarded Arthur, the silence reigning strained and tense. Finally the centremost spoke. "By what right do you think you can make demands of us?" The words were cold.
"Arthur Pendragon." His name was a denouncement.
Merlin kept his gaze fixed on the robed figures, alert watch for any sudden moments.
"You may speak for the Goddess." Arthur stumbled slightly on the appellation but gamely continued. His voice grew in confidence, ringing out proudly in the cave. "But I am King of Camelot. I speak for my people."
"It is for the sake of your people we have judged you." The third Disir spoke up.
Deep anger filled the second soothsayer’s voice. "Your reign was born in a river of blood."
"If you continue so, it will end in ruin and death." The words rang out with chill finality.
"And you believe accepting magic will prevent this?" Arthur sounded more curious than sceptical.
"If you do not." A note of warning entered the words.
"You sow the seeds of your own destruction."
Arthur spread his hands. "Then help convince me. Prove the worth of magic."
A thin wrinkled mouth flattened into a line of disdain. "Magic has proven itself time and time again."
"Even now magic protects you." Merlin could feel the Disir's cold disapproval, directed at him now.
"Open your eyes, King of Camelot!"
Arthur made a frustrated noise. "I ask you for proof of magic's good will but you show me tactics I have seen before. Magic has always been used as force, a threat. Is this truly how you attempt to sway me to your cause?"
The question rang out, a similar tone to the one he used when asking why Merlin hadn't already finished cleaning his quarters. Like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Merlin doubted that the Disir would appreciate it, either.
The centremost crone took a step forward, staff held tightly in a wrinkled hand. "You demand that magic earn your acceptance."
"And by that very request you reveal your ignorance." Very little surprise was evident in the observation.
"The depth of your blindness." The third dug in the point.
Arthur started to protest but one of the Disir raised a sharp hand. "The Goddess demands sacrifice."
"But she also nurtures and loves her children."
"Prove your willingness to accept magic."
"Learn the ways of the Mother Goddess."
"And you shall have magic prove itself to you and your people."
They would not yield, Merlin knew with a sinking dread. And neither would Arthur.
"You have until winter's depth."
Merlin blinked, not sure that he had heard right. A glance at Arthur revealed a look of startled surprise that betrayed exactly how much he had thought the Disir would listen to his demands. And how very little he had though they would accede to them.
"When the sun begins to reign again, your fate will be decided."
"Your half measures will be met with your own.” The Disir’s face was covered but Merlin could feel the hard stare she bent on Arthur. “We hold your knight hostage on your word, Arthur Pendragon."
One of the Disir gestured and the gold coin leapt up from the ground, arcing to land in Arthur's hand. "You have until solstice to make true your word." Warning rang loud in her words. "Use your time wisely."
"The Mother Goddess gives you another chance.” Another added. “Prove yourself as the great king you are meant to be."
Merlin stumbled out of the cave, feeling like the very earth was giving way beneath his feet. "I can't believe you just did that." He scrambled to keep up with Arthur who was striding determinedly ahead. "Making a demand like that and actually getting them to agree." He couldn't believe it.
Arthur was silent, walking swiftly. He batted a low hanging branch out his way. He didn't look like he was happy about the situation.
But maybe he hadn't really wanted to give magic a chance.
"At least you've gained some more time." Merlin tried to sound cheerful. "It should-"
Arthur stopped. He turned one hand resting easily on Excalibur, every inch the confident warrior and king. "You were right."
Merlin gaped at him.
"Even those who have magic are my subjects." He grimaced. "If there is any chance that the law is condemning innocents, then I must review it."
He caught the look of shock on Merlin's face and grimaced. "Don't let it get to your head, Merlin." Arthur started walking again. "We only have until winter’s depth. And Mordred it still under their curse."
He stared down at the coin in his hand. "One way or the other, magic will be proven for good or ill."
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
There was, Gaius reflected, a distinct advantage to the respect for the position for royal physician and close confident of the king. At the moment it meant a good vantage point to view Merlin and Arthur's return.
Gaius stood next to Guinevere and Leon on the steps overlooking the courtyard. The queen rushed down to greet Arthur as he and Merlin trotted into the courtyard. From the expression on Merlin's face, that alarming mixture of clenched jaw and wild eyes, their meeting with the Disir hadn't gone to plan.
Considering Mordred's return to consciousness but not full health, Gaius was not surprised.
Arthur dismounted. The greeting he gave Gwen was uncharacteristically sombre. There were none of the usual smiles Arthur bestowed on his queen.
A glance revealed Merlin, head bent as he held his horse' reins. He was barely noticeable, lurking in the horse's shadow like he did.
Trouble. Gaius squashed the urge to descend the steps and ask what had happened. He would find out soon enough.
And he wouldn't have to traverse the steps twice to do so.
Arthur slipped free of Gwen's embrace, shoulder's squaring as he started up the steps. His expression was grave as he stopped a few steps below Gaius. "How is Mordred?"
No, the Disir had not been placated. Gaius suppressed a sigh. With Arthur and Merlin, why had he ever expected otherwise? "No longer at death's door." Arthur's expression lightened slightly, some of the tension leaving his squared shoulders. Gaius regretted he didn't have better news. "But there has been little other improvement." Merlin had followed Arthur, almost slinking up the stairs. Gaius allowed himself the barest glances before continuing. "He is weak, drifting in and out of consciousness."
Arthur's lips pressed thin, expression growing grim. "Is he likely to worsen?"
Gaius hesitated. "If you had asked me that a day ago, I would have said yes. He should have already died of his wounds."
Arthur waited, gaze intent.
"But his condition hasn't deteriorated. Mordred is stable, though very weak." And likely to remain so, if what he feared was true. The wound was a fearsome one and magical in nature. If the Disir had wanted to heal Mordred, they would have already done so.
Gwen stood beside Arthur. With a look of concern on her face, she slipped her hand into Arthur's, receiving a faint smile.
Arthur glanced at Merlin, before turning back to Gaius. "I want to see him."
Mordred lay still on the cot Gaius had arranged, his face pale and with the waxy sheen of the very ill. He was unconscious, not unexpected with the wound that continued to sap his strength.
Arthur sat on the low stool beside his bed. For a long moment he simply watched the slow breathing of his youngest knight.
Gaius busied himself with grinding some herbs to give him time.
Merlin, had followed Arthur, saddlebags slung over his shoulders before he deposited them silently by the door. The absence of groans and more vocal complaints was disturbing. Even more so the quiet in which he set to sorting the mass of herbs on the table unasked.
Gaius shot him an enquiring glance only to receive a faint attempt at a smile in response.
It was more than Mordred's continued illness. The only thing that could cut through Merlin's habitual cheer to this extent was Arthur and magic. The Disir had involved both.
Gaius started to worry in earnest.
A faint creak drew his attention back to Arthur. The king had leant forward, resting a hand lightly on Mordred's shoulder.
Threat to Arthur or not, there was no mistaking the affection Arthur held for the young knight.
Arthur stood, face averted, acting as if the small gesture of affection had never happened. His manner now one of decisiveness, rather than quiet concern.
Gaius ceased grinding his mortar, waiting for Arthur to speak.
"The Disir would not release Mordred unless I accepted magic into Camelot." Arthur sounded tired.
It was much of what he expected. The Disir were the embodiment of the Triple Goddess' will. Magic's persecution and the imbalance of power between Camelot's rule and the Old Religion had long been of concern to them. Uther had cursed their temerity to judge and condemned the soothsayers, not even riding out to meet them. Arthur had been open-minded enough to see them but Mordred's wounding had been a testament to their offence. For all he loved Arthur, Gaius knew he had little respect for what he did not understand. It would not have endeared him to the Disir. "They are not known for their subtlety," Gaius observed carefully.
Arthur's mouth twisted. "They demanded the acceptance of magic as their price." He sat down on the bench on the other side of the table, mail grating against the wood.
Gaius very carefully refrained from glancing at Merlin, still and quiet at his side. "A difficult decision, sire."
Arthur's shoulders slumped slightly, losing their rigid cast. "One I could not undertake lightly. The kingdom cannot be traded for the life of one man. No matter how loyal a knight."
Nor a manservant. Gaius could suddenly see the source of Merlin's distress. Merlin had denied magic once before to stop Arthur from killing Uther. It wasn't hard to see that Merlin had done so again, to steer Arthur towards a better path for the kingdom.
A surge of pride and sadness rose in Gaius' breast. If only Arthur knew the depth of Merlin's loyalty.
Arthur took a deep breath. "And it is for the sake of the kingdom that I made my own demand of the Disir."
A demand. Gaius stared. Only Arthur could make a demand of someone he was making a petition for a man's life. It was a miracle Mordred wasn't dead already.
"I am king. I cannot simply bow to the wishes of those would force me to do their bidding." Arthur's gaze was earnest, his voice firm as he laid out his argument. "But neither can I ignore the possibility that I have made a mistake that is to the detriment of my people."
He drew in a breath. "It's possible that I have misjudged magic. That it is not the evil I have been led to believe. And if that is true, then I cannot simply ignore the possibility."
It wasn't an acceptance of magic, but it was a willingness to do so. Which was more than he had expected to hear from Arthur's lips.
Gaius cleared his throat, wishing it would also dislodge the surprise that had him frozen, one hand still grasping his pestle. He let it go and slowly sat down. "And what demand did you make?"
Arthur straightened, every inch of the king even sitting on a worn bench amidst vials of tinctures and bundles of fresh cut herbs. "That magic must earn my acceptance."
The ridiculous urge to laugh clawed its way up Gaius' throat. Arthur of all people, had been shown magic's loyalty and capacity for good. He coughed, glancing aside to regain his composure before meeting Arthur's gaze. "And the Disir agreed to this?" Gaius raised a sceptical eyebrow.
Arthur had picked up a sprig of fennel and it twisted between his fingers. "We have until winter solstice." His mouth twisted. "With Mordred held as hostage."
So it was not so much a matter of a compromise as two warring demands. The Disir's will still held, though Arthur had managed to gain time. Gaius frowned. Arthur was sincere in his determination. Once he gave his word, he kept it. And by making such a demand, he had declared himself open to being persuaded. "What do you intend to do?"
"What I have said, I will do. I will learn everything I can about magic and those who use it. I've heard magic been referred to as a tool, like a sword or an axe, a weapon only the hands of those would use it thus. We need to discover if there is any truth in that."
He'd heard those words before. Gaius gave Merlin a sidelong glance.
Merlin met his gaze in a flash of what was almost shame, before looking quickly away.
A stab of pain ran through him at the sight. At Merlin feeling guilty of all things for speaking out for magic. For speaking on his own behalf.
It was, Gaius feared, something Merlin had learnt from him.
Gaius clasped his hands together, deliberately meeting Arthur's gaze. He could feel Merlin's eyes on him. "I'd hoped that one day I would hear you say that, Arthur."
Arthur blinked, staring at him in shock. There was a chink beside him as Merlin's grip slipped on a vial.
"I won't-" Arthur was obviously blindsided. "You have?"
Gaius nodded. "As you know I supported your father when he banned magic from Camelot." Had stood with Uther over countless trials and pyres. "There were good reasons for his actions. But he was also consumed by grief."
Arthur swallowed. "My mother."
Gaius sighed. "Yes. Your mother's death turned your father against magic for good. And in his grief, he would not listen to anyone who said otherwise." All his efforts had been in vain. Not that Gaius had defended Nimueh as much as he ought. He had been grieving as well. With Ygraine dead, magic had turned into something dark and costly that was better banished.
It had taken Merlin's bumbling cheer to remind him of all that magic could be. Merlin who was magic. And Gaius could never see Merlin consigned to the flames.
"I-" Arthur's eyes were suspiciously shiny. He took a deep breath. "My mother's death was the result of magic. A sorceress who tricked my father."
Gaius gave him a compassionate glance. "Your mother's death is as much the fault of magic as your father's."
Arthur's mouth opened. Then shut abruptly as he gave Gaius a sharp glance.
"Magic has been used to commit great wrongs against Camelot. But in the past it was an integral part of the kingdom." Gaius kept his voice level, allowing Arthur time to compose himself. "As it is now, though those who practise it have diminished and gone underground. For all your father's laws, magic still remained within the kingdom." He was aware of Merlin, sitting still beside him.
Arthur looked slightly troubled by that but didn't protest.
"Magic is capable of great harm but also of great good, Arthur. It is time you discovered it for yourself. Whatever you decide, at least you will be making a decision on first hand knowledge."
Arthur frowned, glancing at Merlin. "You think I've made the right decision."
"You are king, Arthur." Gaius sat back, stretching out his back as subtly as he could. "It's only right that you make your own decisions."
Arthur's fingers tapped the table. He glanced back at Mordred for a moment before meeting Gaius' gaze. His shoulders straightened. "How would you advise me on the best way to learn about magic?"
Gaius glanced at Merlin who met his gaze with a look that he had seen all-too many times before. A mixture of shuttered blankness and pain.
Suddenly he knew exactly what must be done.
"If you want to learn about magic, you will have to talk to those who have used it." Gaius was matter of fact. Treating the situation as if it was yet another problem to be solved.
He didn't seem angry at all. Or disturbed by how far things had gotten out of control.
Arthur looked hesitant. "I know you were more than court physician to my father." He started awkwardly, one hand making a broken off gesture. "I thought you-"
"You will need someone with more knowledge of magic than I, Arthur." Gaius continued in a tone Merlin had come to dread. "Someone who is respected among all magic users."
The expression on Arthur's face said how much he liked the situation. "I need someone I can trust, Gaius." He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on the table. "You're the only magic user I've known."
Gaius raised his eyebrows. "That's not quite true, Arthur."
It took a moment for it to sink in.
"No," Arthur was incredulous. "You can't mean that old man!"
Merlin tried to catch Gaius' gaze but the older man refused to meet his gaze.
"He is the only one, Your Majesty." Gaius was inexorable. "No one has more standing in the magical community than he."
"That old sorcerer?!" Arthur was incredulous. "Gaius you must be mistaken-"
"There is no doubt," Gaius cut in firmly, speaking briskly in the manner he used to take control of a situation. "He is far more capable than you can imagine." Gaius ignored the message Merlin was trying to communicate silently in a stare. "His deeds are legend among sorcerers and the druids hold him in high esteem."
Merlin closed his eyes. He had an idea of what Gaius was planning now.
Arthur's dubious expression crumpled into a sceptical frown. "If he's so well known, so powerful, then why haven't I heard of him before?" Though still somewhat doubtful, there was a tone in his voice that showed he was starting to be convinced despite his doubts.
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "You rarely hear of sorcerers unless they are attacking Camelot or fermenting trouble. And the sorcerer who you approached to help your father has no interest in either." He glanced at Merlin briefly. "He mostly keeps to himself, acting only when he must."
Merlin looked away from Gaius' gaze, throat tight. Knowing it for the praise it was.
"When he must?" Arthur's frown deepened.
"I've told you that you are not alone in your hopes for this kingdom, Arthur. That there were others who have worked towards the same goal."
Merlin looked up again. Surprised at that revelation. Even more by the thoughtful look on Arthur's face.
"Dragoon has done much over the years to help those who have sought his aid." Gaius started slowly. "Many being unaware of what he has done for them."
Arthur shifted in his chair. "If that were so, then why would he help people - Camelot - without asking anything - payment, recognition - in return?"
Gaius' lips pursed. "Perhaps he has seen much suffering and wishes to act to prevent more." His tone was slightly foreboding.
Arthur's expression faltered, fading in an almost shamefaced look. He gave a small nod of concession at the rebuke, acknowledging the point. "If that's the case," Arthur leaned forward, clasped hands resting on the table before him. "Surely his name would become known to many."
Gaius' shoulders lifted slightly. "He is known by other names among those who know magic. But he's cautious, living in Camelot as he does."
It was rather strange to hear Gaius talking about him as if he was someone else. Even more so that Arthur was actually listening seriously to everything he had done and wasn't outright deriding his actions.
Arthur's frown deepened. "What would you have me do? Ask him for help?"
"Talk to him. Learn what you can of magic from someone who has only used it to help others." Gaius leaned back to give Arthur a steady look. "And in time, you will start to understand magic enough to decide whether Camelot can accept it again."
"What are you doing?" Merlin hissed the words, cutting off to smile gormlessly as they passed a maid.
"What has to be done." Gaius was unmoved by Merlin's distress. He pushed open the door to their quarters, leaving Merlin no choice but to follow or loiter suspiciously in the corridor.
Merlin stepped inside, closing the door firmly behind him. "We're trying to convince Arthur that magic isn't evil. Not remind him-"
"Merlin." Gaius cut Merlin short, fixing him with a level stare. "Who else would you trust to teach Arthur about magic? Arthur has only known sorcerers who have sought to use or kill him, despite the many times magic has saved his life."
Gaius' quiet firm words pushed aside the panic that had been rising steadily once he had realized what he had done. Merlin thought of all the sorcerers they had encountered. That Merlin had encountered. Arthur hadn't met Gilli, Alator or the Dolma. Even those he had met like Anhora and Grettir, Arthur had seemed to dismiss from his mind soon after meeting them.
Whatever aid given in those instances, Arthur’s view of sorcerers had been shaped by the sorcerers who had attacked Camelot.
Gaius nodded at his silence. "If Arthur is to accept magic, he must see that magic can be used for good. That not all sorcerers are his enemy."
"What about you?" Merlin waved a hand up at the heavy tomes lining the walls. "You know more about magic than I do."
A small fond smile crossed Gaius' thin lips. "Book learning, yes. Though you have come a long way, my boy." The smile faded. "But using magic means much more than reading books and casting spells. Arthur must learn of the life someone using magic in Camelot lives. What it means for someone of magic to live in hiding, in fear of his life."
Merlin's mouth worked, no sound escaping his lips. He sat down. "How am I meant to do that?" The words were quiet.
The task before him was looming large in Merlin's mind. How could he convince Arthur of his good intentions when all he knew of magic was betrayal and trickery? He couldn't even reveal himself without proving that to be true.
A touch to his wrist pulled Merlin from his thoughts.
"By showing Arthur." Gaius settled down on the bench on the other side of the table. "This is an opportunity, Merlin. To show Arthur the good magic can do, that Camelot is not alone when it stands against magical threats to the kingdom. Against Morgana."
Merlin frowned. "Do you think that would convince Arthur?" He was doubtful.
"I think you will convince Arthur." Gaius's mouth twitched in amusement. "Arthur hasn't been in the company of a magic user for any extended period of time. Aside from you and Morgana, his encounters have tended to be battles and trials. If he is forced to spend extended periods of time in your company - as Dragoon - Arthur will soon begin to see there are people, good people behind magic."
"Or become convinced he should chop my head off." Merlin pointed out wryly.
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "All the more reason for you to be convincing."
Merlin decided to take that as a show of faith in his abilities rather than the admonition it sounded like. "Right. That shouldn't be so difficult."
Gaius' eyebrow rose further but didn't comment. "In time it would be wise to introduce Arthur to the wider magical community." His voice was thoughtful. "As king he cannot change a law for the sake of one man. He will need to see how the laws affect a wide portion of Camelot's people."
Merlin grimaced. "If he can be convinced by Dragoon." He wasn't sure of that. But at least their meeting could be controlled. "I'm not sure Arthur will be pleased to know just how many sorcerers live within Camelot's borders."
"Arthur has already accepted the druids are no threat." Gaius pointed out. "Once he accepts that magic is not necessarily a danger, Arthur will be more likely to consider changing the law.”
There was that unquestioning confidence again. But Merlin wasn't so sure. "Who else aside from the druids could I introduce to Arthur? Most sorcerers keep to themselves. Of those I might trust, Alator and Gilli have left Camelot - I have no idea where they are."
"Alator has sworn himself to you." Gaius leaned forward earnestly. "If you were to call him, he would come. As would those who follow him."
People Merlin didn't know well enough to introduce to Arthur, even if he did trust Alator. Gilli would come if Merlin could contact him. Though revealing him to Arthur wouldn't go well once the king put together what must have happened at the tournament. "Even I haven't come across many sorcerers "
Gaius pursed his lips. "More will come. When they know what Arthur is trying to do."
Merlin let out a sigh. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"Once you gain Arthur's trust," Gaius continued as if Merlin hadn't spoken. "You will be able to help him decide his approach to changing the current laws." He paused for a moment, expression growing grim. "There will be those who will seek to take advantage of the return of magic to further their own ends."
For all the attacks against Camelot, Merlin knew there were many more who wished to see the kingdom fall. And there would be more of a magical nature once magic was lawful once more. In one respect he could agree with Uther. Sorcerers were as powerful as an army and much more easily hidden. "Spies." Merlin acknowledged grimly. "And Morgana won't be our only problem." He paused as another thought occurred to him. "I doubt the nobles will welcome the change, either."
Not that the kingdom's security was their only motivation. Merlin suppressed a shudder. Some of the older lords held a hatred of magic even deeper than Uther had.
The nobles were not the only ones who saw magic as a threat. Or even some of the knights, he thought, recalling how they had surrounded him. Leon and the others viewed magic as one of the greatest threats to the kingdom.
And he could see why. They had fought magic with steel for so long, they knew the depth of its dangers.
Whether they would accept that magic could be used to combat magic, only time would tell.
Gaius looked sour. "Just as there will be those who oppose magic's return, some will welcome the opportunity." The disapproving expression on his face deepened. "Before Uther's ban, many of the nobles had their own court sorcerers. It usually meant they would be bolder in their defiance."
Merlin suppressed the urge to groan. "How did Uther counter it?"
Gaius's eyebrows rose then lowered. "By having the strongest court sorcerer."
And Arthur had him, though he didn't know it.
"All of which must be considered at a later date." Gaius stood, somewhat slowly after the extended period of sitting down. "But for now, your priority should be Arthur."
Merlin slumped over the table, ignoring the vial precariously close to his elbow. "How am I meant to teach Arthur about magic? He barely takes any notice of me when I've had years to earn his trust not as a sorcerer."
Gaius clasped a hand on his shoulder. "I have faith in you, my boy."
Merlin suppressed a groan.
Chapter 5: Chapter Four
Arthur examined his sword, checking the edge for any imperfections. After a moment he resheathed it, sliding Excalibur back home before wrapping the sword belt around his waist. He was still doubtful as to Gaius' claims to the extent of the old sorcerer's powers - all he had seen was a disturbing propensity to flying objects - but he wasn't taking any chances. And cold steel had worked against sorcery in the past.
If Gaius was right, then he wouldn't need it.
Arthur suspected the old man, hostile and trying at the best of times, would be less than pleased to see him. Whether that would result in conflict, though, he would find out soon enough.
There was a knock and suddenly the door to the infirmary opened. Merlin, a bag slung over one shoulder, swept into the room. He gave Arthur a quick glance then quickly walked over to the table. "I see you're expecting a warm welcome."
Arthur grimaced at the slightly mocking tone. "He's a sorcerer, Merlin. Sorcerers don't tend to welcome me with open arms."
Merlin was busily collecting bottles and bags from the chaotic mess on the table. "I can't imagine why."
Shooting his feckless manservant an unamused stare, Arthur crossed his arms. "You know Merlin, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were enjoying this."
Merlin looked up, expression far too bland to be innocent. "I'm simply glad you're taking the time to learn more about your subjects."
"Don't look so smug." Arthur gave Merlin a smile that was far from pleasant. "You're going to have to listen to the old man's drivel as well."
Merlin raised an eyebrow, adding one last vial and then swung the bag back onto his shoulder. "Didn't Gaius tell you? I'm needed out in the village. And Gaius needs some more herbs for his latest batch of tonics."
Wait a moment- "You're not coming with me?" It was not plaintive. It was not.
Merlin gave him that half disbelieving smile he always wore when he'd backed Arthur into a corner. He lifted the satchel hanging from his shoulder. "I have errands to run for Gaius."
Arthur's arms unfolded. "Merlin, I'm not going to go see that old sorcerer by myself-"
"You know the way now." Merlin was unconcerned, even sadistically cheerful. "Besides he doesn't believe in servants."
Just when he thought Merlin couldn't say anything more ridiculous. "He doesn't believe in servants."
"No." Merlin was definitely cheerful. Arthur could see the edge of his grin just seeing the visible slice of his cheek as he plucked something from one of Gaius' shelves. "He said something about puffed up toads who work their servants like slaves and he wanted nothing to do with it."
If the old man hadn't shouted something like that at him already, Arthur would have thought Merlin was making it all up.
He caught the expression on Arthur's face. "He lives alone in the woods, Arthur. You don't get more self-sufficient than that." Merlin tucked a vial in his bag and adjusted the strap on his shoulder. "Humour him and he'll be more likely to help you."
He left the room before Arthur could make an appropriate stinging reply.
The hut looked much like it had before. Herbs and a dead crow hanging from the rafters. Pots on the table. Remembering the result of the broken pot on his last visit, Arthur kept his distance.
The hut door slammed open, hitting the wall hard. A familiar hunched figure in red strode inside only to stop dead. "You!" The old man literally spat out the words, a fleck of saliva flying through the air and making Arthur grimace.
Arthur schooled his face to blankness, keeping his hand from Excalibur. Trying to remember the startlingly earnest look on the old man's face when they had made their agreement, rather than his father's dead face.
It wasn't easy but Gaius' warning was still firmly in his thoughts. His kingdom's future depended on this meeting and he would not fail Camelot.
The sorcerer drew himself up, a look of disgust on his wrinkled face. "Arthur Pendragon himself." He sneered. "Come to chop off my head?"
"No." Arthur took a deep breath. "I need your help." Asking was worse than admitting that Merlin was right. Arthur reminded himself to set Merlin to cleaning the stables for leaving him to deal with the old man.
"Bah!" The sorcerer wasn't impressed. He stepped inside, slamming the door behind him. "Why should I help you?" He stumped his way past Arthur, ignoring the threat of Excalibur. "Blind and ungrateful!" He slammed the bundle of herbs - was that all the old man did? - on the table and glared. "Placing a price on my head!"
"My father died!" Excalibur's grip creaked. Arthur loosened his fingers, strangling back the grief and fury that were just as sharp as the first time. "I might not have kept my end of the bargain, but neither did you."
The old man stared at him, fingers stilled on the herbs. "No." He suddenly sounded old and tired. He stared down at his hands, before meeting Arthur's gaze. "And for that, I am sorry."
Arthur shifted uncomfortably under the sorcerer's frank stare. After a long moment's silence he cleared his throat. "Gaius says that you are knowledgeable in magic."
The sorcerer’s eyes narrowed, suddenly the cantankerous old man once more. "Yes." It was suspicious, almost a question.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Knowledge that makes you respected among those with magic." He tried not to sound as disbelieving as he felt.
The old man grinned, displaying aged teeth as he straightened, almost preening. "I am known for my powers."
Arthur cast a dubious glance around the rough hut.
"Tch!" The sorcerer glared at him in offence, head lowering and shoulders hunching belligerently. "What do you know of magic?" He span around, turning his attention back to the bunch of herbs bundled on his table.
Arthur could feel the conversation slipping from his control much as it had the last time he had come to seek the sorcerer's aid. The old man clearly thought his herbs more important than Arthur's troubles.
And Arthur needed him, crazy and uncooperative as he was. If his agreement with the Disir was to hold, he needed someone who used magic and was the slightest bit more inclined to help him than try to kill him.
Which left him here in this old sorcerer's hut.
He frantically searched his mind for something that would convince the old man. "I need to learn."
The sorcerer paused at his blurted words. He looked up from his herbs - Merlin would know them, whatever they were. He spent enough time fetching them for Gaius - to fix Arthur with a stare that was surprisingly devoid of his earlier irritated contempt.
"Magic is a part of Camelot whether I like it or not." It was more difficult to say than he had thought. Arthur had a split second to wish Merlin was present to say something that would set the old man at ease then fumbled on. "If I am going to accept that," or continue to oppose it, "I need to know more about magic. More about the ways it can be governed."
"And you come to me." The old man straightened, narrowed eyes fixed on Arthur's face. His shoulders had lowered, losing most of their defensive hunch of rejection.
"You said that all you wanted was to live in peace without the threat of harm because of what you are." The sorcerer was listening intently, a mix of hope and wariness in his eyes. Arthur let honesty convince him. "Help me. Help me understand so I can make laws that no longer condemn those whose magic means no harm." Convince him that was the case.
The old man slowly stepped around his table, coming close to gaze deeply into his eyes.
Arthur held still, returning the stare and forcing his hand away from Excalibur's hilt. There was nothing in the man's stance that suggested any sort of threat.
The sorcerer gave him a doubtful look, mouth twisting and eyes narrowing. "You want me teach you."
"Become my tutor." Arthur added an extra inducement. "You will be an honoured guest with your own rooms-"
The old man's eyebrows shot up. "You want me to come to Camelot?" Shock softened his face, smoothing away his scowl.
"I see little choice." Arthur was just as enthusiastic.
The sorcerer scowled, setting his jaw. "And what if I don't want to go?"
Arthur glanced around the small hut dubiously. "I can't see why you'd want to stay here."
The sorcerer let out a hiss, drawing up his bent frame. "Of course you wouldn't." The nasty mocking tone was back in his voice.
"Your hut is very-" Arthur searched for a word that was honest but not insulting. "-cosy," he finished lamely under the old man's glare. "But surely you would be more comfortable at Camelot-"
"No." It was snapped out nastily. "I like it here." He gave Arthur a sneering scowl. "Your hospitality was rather lacking last time."
Arthur held onto his temper with difficulty. He had expected resistance but there was something about the elderly sorcerer that pushed him beyond his patience. It didn't help that the old man clearly knew what he could get away with and pushed the limits every time they met.
"You would be my guest. Treated with the upmost respect." The knights wouldn't like it but they would obey orders. As would the servants.
"I have no wish to be a Pendragon puppet." The sorcerer jabbed an accusing finger at Arthur, eyes narrow. "If you want my help-" he bared his horrid teeth in an expression that was far from a smile, "-you can come to me." It was said with a sense of finality.
Arthur ground his teeth. "You would have my word to your safety." A glance revealed that the old man wasn't going to change his mind and Arthur forced a fake smile. "But of course, I am happy to come to you, if that's what you want."
The sorcerer regarded him narrowly for a moment, as if trying to discern the truth of his words but subsided. The look turned into a sharp stare of interrogation. "You have a price on my head. Why have you come to me?"
Because he was the only sorcerer Arthur knew. And according to Gaius his best hope in coming to any true understanding. Though Arthur was starting to think that Merlin was right in his observation of the oddness of sorcerers. The old man sounded crazy half of the time, an ordinary - though extremely unpleasant - old man the rest.
But Gaius had said that not all was as it seemed.
Arthur met the old man's gaze sincerely. "I know that you acted according to your word." Arthur reached into the neck of his surcoat and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle that he placed on the table.
The sorcerer blinked, his hostility faltering. He glanced at the bundle and then back at Arthur, making a small motion of one hand that was almost hesitant.
It was strangely touching. One of the few hints of what genuinely seemed to be the man in front of him. Arthur gave him an encouraging wave of a hand.
Warily, approaching the table with a strange sideways walk, the sorcerer carefully unfolded the cloth. Revealing the pendant that had been retrieved from his father's dead body.
"Gaius found it." Arthur watched the old man closely, trying to see beyond the wrinkles and long white hair. Quiet as he was now, he was close to unreadable. "He says it was Morgana's. An enchantment to reverse your healing spell."
"Morgana is adept at dark magic." It was said softly, nearly a mutter, but the dislike was clear. His hand hovered over the pendant, only to shrink away before touching it.
There was personal knowledge in that statement. Arthur took care not to jump too obviously on the information. "You've had dealings with my sister."
The old man's mouth twisted. "Dealings?" He let out a disgusted noise. "I have little contact with the witch. There is no love lost between us."
A possible ally against his sister. While magic was still an unknown quantity, as a strategist, the use of it against Morgana was almost appealing. Gaius' plan, though dubious at first, was looking more promising.
But he would have to gain the sorcerer's trust before he could expect any aid.
Just the old man would have to gain his, before Arthur trusted him for more than information.
"I would have thought her goals would be yours," Arthur commented mildly, "returning magic to Camelot."
The sorcerer jerked as if he had been slapped. "Do you think so badly of those who use magic?" His voice rose, growing strong with anger until it was nothing like an old man's. "That we would use it to take what we want, no matter the cost?"
He had thought so. But Arthur was beginning to think, hoping, there was the chance he was wrong.
"Not all of us are power hungry or seeking riches." His eyes narrowed and he leaned toward Arthur, close enough that Arthur could see the startling blue of his eyes. "There are those who believe in a kingdom for all. And they have fought Morgana for that."
The realization struck Arthur like a mace to the side. "You know other magic users in Camelot."
The sorcerer suddenly drew himself back with a ferocious scowl. "I'll give you no names." He took a step back, distancing himself from Arthur. "They haven't harmed anyone. And there are more than enough reasons for someone to hide their magic in Camelot."
The practise of magic was still outlawed on pain of death in Camelot, Arthur reminded himself. The old sorcerer was protecting lives.
In that light, it was more understandable. And earned him the smallest amount of respect.
"I'm not going to ask you for any names." Arthur was surprised to find that he meant it, as unsettling as the thought of unknown sorcerers living in Camelot was. "That's not what I'm here for."
And the situation would resolve itself. If they used their magic for ill in Camelot, the sorcerers would be sought out and held on trial. If they kept to themselves, Arthur wouldn't go out of his way to find them. He had looked aside before in the past.
But magic wasn't something he could afford not to look closely at anymore.
"I have come to you because Gaius has led me to believe that you have dealt with me in good will.” Arthur continued. “That you not only mean no harm to Camelot, you might be willing to help the kingdom."
He had the old man's attention. The sorcerer was listening, even if he looked like he wished he wasn't.
Arthur pressed his point. "That you will help me as you were willing to once before."
The sorcerer was quiet for a long moment. Finally he spoke. "I helped you because it was an opportunity to stop the persecution on my kind. So that those with magic can live in peace." He stared at Arthur, looking weary rather than with the heartfelt excitement he had show during their last meeting. "That is all I have ever wanted." He spread his hands. "If helping you understand magic will help convince you, then you have my aid."
Arthur let out the breath he had been holding. Relief but also a sense that he had misstepped somewhere. Honesty compelled him to caution the old man. "I'm not promising I will overturn the law. Only that I am seeking to review it."
The sorcerer let out a sigh that was as expressive as one of his angry outbursts. "I understand. If you are to change the law, you must have good reason." He gave Arthur a long stare before giving him a firm nod. "If you're willing," he pointed one thin finger at Arthur, "I'll show you magic. Not as you have seen it," his finger stabbed the air in front of Arthur, accompanied by a forceful stare, "but as it is."
Arthur gave him an acknowledging nod in return.
"Well then!" The old man suddenly clapped his hands together, making Arthur jump, a grin brightening his face. "Let's start." The sorcerer sat. He grinned, throwing both arms up before slapping them down on the table. "Well? What do you want to know?"
Arthur's eyebrows rose. That was easier than he had expected. He wasn't nearly as bad at talking with sorcerers as Merlin thought he was.
Not that he had made a habit of talking to sorcerers without a blade between them.
Arthur made to sit on the rickety chair the sorcerer had left him, pausing to remove what looked to be an abandoned plate, complete with half-eaten meal, to place it on the table. "Tell me about yourself." It came out more order than question and, Gaius' cautions ringing in his ears, Arthur scrambled for something more conversational. "What -er- why did you start using magic?"
The sorcerer let out a harsh breathy cough of a laugh. "Arthur Pendragon wants to know about me." He reigned in his amusement, shaking his head. "Surely you don't want to known about my daily herbal picking excursion." He cackled at Arthur expression. "As for magic, I never started. I was born with it."
"Born with it?" Arthur's lips twisted in disbelief, eyebrows rising.
The old man grinned. "My mother used to tell stories of how I would rock my crib and summon birds to its rails." He let out a low laugh. "She used to complain that she had to start feeding all of them. That I was like a bird myself with my golden eyes."
Arthur could hardly believe what he was hearing. He had always been taught that magic was something sorcerers studied and pursued for their own ends. That in choosing it, sorcerers walked a dark path in order to gain their own desires. It had been a lynch pin of his decrees. A man who chose to do magic, was a man who chose to break the law.
It had never occurred to him that for some, it might not be a choice.
"You simply-" Arthur searched for the right words. "-did magic?" How was that possible?
"For me magic was never a choice." A smile lingered on the sorcerer's lips. "It just was. I would lift a finger." The old man lifted a finger. "And it would happen." The old man's eyes flashed gold-
Like a bird's
-and the bowl on the table began to lift, spinning slowly. It hovered for a moment, rotating in the air and then slowly descended, following the direction of the sorcerer's thin wrinkled finger.
"Just like that," the sorcerer grinned at him across the table.
A cold sweat broke out across Arthur's shoulders. He could almost feel the hair on his arms rise. It was the power to move something without spells. It had only been a plate but Arthur could see it applied to other things. Spears, arrows, even a boulder that could bring down a wall.
He had forgotten the power of sorcery, lulled by the vessel of an old man without considering the power within. It wasn't something he would forget.
The old man was staring at him narrowly. His mouth twisted. "Thinking of chopping off my head already?"
"I said that I needed your help to understand magic." Arthur shifted uneasily in his chair. "Though I am not comfortable with sorcery-," a vast understatement, "-I understand you will have to use it in order to teach me." He met the old man's gaze. "I am not about to condemn you for doing as I have asked."
For a long moment the old man searched his face. And then the sorcerer surprised him by letting out a bark of laughter. "I can hardly be more guilty of sorcery, can I?"
Arthur found himself smiling, a small involuntary tic. "No, I suppose not."
The old man flashed him a grin. "Then you'll want to see what else magic can do." But instead of performing more magic, he simply started to talk about magic, what he had used it for as a child.
And as Arthur listened to stories of straw dolls brought to life, pranks involving floating leaves and rounding up chickens with invisible nudges he had to wonder. Whether all magic started like this.
And how and why it went wrong.
Chapter 6: Chapter Five
Wrinkled, age-spotted skin smoothed and faded to a pale unblemished tone. Bone and sinew cracked, loosening and unwinding. Merlin drew in a breath, straightening to allow his lungs to expand fully for the first time in hours.
Wearily he tugged at the red robe, bending awkwardly to pull the garment back over his head with heavy arms. Arthur had stayed longer than he had expected and Merlin had paid the price. Extended use of the aging spell was exhausting and he hadn't used it continuously for as nearly as long before.
He winced as his neck crackled, the robe catching on his head. For a moment he simply regarded the discarded garment, puddled messily on the grass, before balling it up and gingerly straightening again.
His horse, tethered safely in the dappled sunlight under a birch, regarded him solemnly as she chewed her latest mouthful. His bag was still attached firmly onto the saddle and Merlin groaned aloud as he remembered the story he had told Arthur.
He had to collect some herbs for Gaius before he could return to Camelot.
Moving stiffly on aching joints, Merlin crossed the small clearing. After giving the mare a quick pat, he clumsily stuffed the bundled robe into his saddlebags before lifting his loaded satchel from where it hung. The move made his arms burn and he lowered the bag much more quickly than he had intended, jostling its contents with a tink of glass vials.
It was summer, luckily, and there would be no scarcity of growth. Summer yielded a good many of the herbs that stocked the infirmary. Gaius hadn't commented when Merlin had told him of the excuse he had come up with - Merlin wasn't risking another tavern incident - but the quirk of his eyebrow had reminded Merlin that some of the infirmary's stocks were in need of replenishing.
Merlin scanned the clearing, searching the dappled shade for familiar growth. It didn't take long to spot the familiar white flowers and feathery leaves. Chervil. The herb was a diuretic (always useful in Camelot) and good for cleansing the blood. In the summer to come it would be useful with its ability to cool the body, both for fevers and the sun sickness.
With aching caution, Merlin walked over to kneel by the bushy plant. Careful to gather leaf and stem, he slowly tied several bunches with the string from his bag before tucking them within the mostly empty pack. It filled some of the space but it was hardly the bulging bag to be expected from an afternoon of gathering herbs.
There was a small spread of violets further in the shade and Merlin added both flowers and leaves. Their supply was good but there were always boils, coughs and headaches to be treated.
Merlin slowly got back to his feet, turning slightly to get his bearings. With the knights training in full armour in the summer heat there were numerous cases of heat exhaustion and their supplies of bergamot had dwindled.
He had spotted the distinctive small red flowers not far from the clearing. More than enough for their needs. It was one of the easiest remedies to prepare (much more fragrant that Gaius' usual horrible concoctions) and Merlin much preferred it to grinding dried toad legs. Gathering a large amount would give him the excuse to avoid it.
Merlin retracted his steps, leaving his horse to graze. A few minutes later and he had found a profusion of borage. By the time he had harvested half of it, the contents of his bag were starting to get close to respectable.
Not that Arthur would be able to tell the difference between one herb and another. But Merlin intended to make the most of his outing. In this at least, he could be sure to be making progress.
He wasn't sure if he had over the last few hours. It was hard to tell whether Dragoon had made much of an impression on Arthur.
Or at least one that counted. Merlin grinned to himself. Arthur had certainly taken in some of Dragoon's harsher monologues if the sour expression on his face was anything to gauge by.
It was refreshing to be able to say exactly what he wanted to with Arthur having no choice but to listen to him. Especially when it was information that he had refused to hear in the past.
In some ways Arthur's willingness to sit down and listen to "a crazy old sorcerer" had been a surprise. Even more so how intently he listened to what Dragoon had to say.
But when it came to Camelot, Arthur was always willing to make sacrifices - his own pride chief among them - for the good of the kingdom.
Merlin stopped walking. It was only when he looked down at the leafy growth around his boots that he realized why. He'd almost walked into a clump of large spear-shaped leaves and hanging clusters of pale purple bell-like flowers.
"An aid in healing broken bones, sprains, bruises, aching joints, chest and eye conditions." Merlin recited as he knelt down. And prone to vigorous growth in summer. It would bulk out his harvest nicely.
And Arthur had listened. Merlin had seen Arthur's bland expression of hidden boredom enough times in council sessions to tell when he was only giving the appearance of serious attention. It hadn't appeared once in the hut.
Though a certain uneasiness had. More than once Merlin had seen Arthur's aborted reaches for Excalibur.
It would take some time for Merlin to win acceptance, let alone Arthur's trust.
"Not even with my innate charm." Merlin adjusted the bag on his shoulder and continued walking, eyes scanning the ground, pausing on tree trunks and amid roots.
The scent of honey lead him to a flowering elder tree and Merlin paused to harvest some of the flowers, filling several glass jars. Gaius enjoyed elder tea and they were useful as a sedative and for sunburn. After running out of their supply last year and treating what seemed to be yards of red burnt skin, Merlin was happy to gather what he could.
His next find was more by chance than design. Stumbling over a root and catching himself on a handy nearby trunk, he might have overlooked the small spread of nasturtium. Given its power to treat infections, it was more than worth the jarred shoulder he had suffered.
After harvesting what he could, the sound of running water caught his attention and Merlin rose stiffly to his feet. Following the slope of the land, he soon came across a small fast running stream.
Merlin took the chance to unsling the bag from his shoulder and drink his fill.
For all his new found patience for magic, Merlin wasn't sure whether Arthur could trust a sorcerer.
A bright gloss of green in the water caught his gaze. Merlin carefully retrieved some of the long green strands, secreting it away in long damp coils. It would aid with the ache of joints and Merlin was hoping that it would help with the lingering pain from the transformation spell.
With the watercress carefully packed away, Merlin stood and stretched. His bulging bag was now a weight across his shoulder, a weighty alibi. If he started back for Camelot, he would be in time for the evening meal.
He started back for the clearing where he had left his horse. The day hadn't gone badly. And Arthur had already made arrangements for a second visit. Their plan could work.
A profusion of spiked leaves and bright yellow flowers caught his eyes and Merlin grinned. He had a use for dandelions as well.
Arthur's meeting with the sorcerer had been both more and less than he had hoped. He had learned more about the irrascible sorcerer than the magic he wielded. And even with that being the case, Arthur was still far from understanding the man.
The childhood stories had been told with the aim of making magic a harmless act, he knew. And he couldn't argue that most of the deeds the sorcerer had carried out as a child were harmless for the most part.
But boys grew into men who could maim, kill and destroy. A harmless prank could later become the trap to kill an insufficiently wary knight.
Arthur's frown deepened. It had always been an aspect of his father's laws that had bothered him. The slaughter of children, even though the blood of magic users flowed in their veins.
There had been no trials. Not like there were now.
He'd thought things were different. That he had made the kingdom a better, fairer place for his people.
It was disquieting to think that he might have been wrong.
Arthur lifted his hand to his mouth. This was the problem with magic. It turned a person's life upside down. The truth, one's perceptions of the world.
The first time Arthur had listened to a sorcerer, he had allowed his good judgement to be thrown by illusions and lies. If it hadn't been for Merlin, he would have killed his father.
Merlin who had urged him to accept magic and had been the one to take him to Dragoon in the first place.
A clank drew him out of his thoughts. Arthur fixed his annoyance on a new target. "How was your herb gathering today, Merlin?"
Ignoring the needling tone, like usual, Merlin gave him a gormless grin. "Great! I managed to find some elder flowers for Gaius and-"
Peeved, Arthur cut him off. "I don't need the details, Merlin. I've had more than enough chatter for today."
Merlin glanced at him as he bent over to retrieve a jacket. Serious and intent. "How did it go?"
"You've met him before." Arthur leaned back in his chair. "What do you think of him?"
"Dragoon?" Merlin paused in sorting a pile of discarded clothing, wearing a disbelieving smile. "He's a doddery old man, Arthur. What am I meant to think of him?"
Arthur shot him an annoyed look. "Gaius has suggested he has power to rival Morgana." Though there had been no confirmation of that in evidence.
Evidence. Arthur frowned.
Merlin shrugged, hanging Arthur's jacket in the cupboard. "If he does, he isn't known for harming others." The light tone of his voice sank to a disapproving solemnity. "Unlike Morgana."
Arthur glanced at him, catching the sight of Merlin's still turned back. Familiar as it was, it told him little of what his manservant was thinking.
"Even so." Arthur set down his goblet.
Merlin made a noise that Arthur decided to interpret as encouraging.
He considered the mess strewn across his desk. "I judge him to be honest." Arthur prodded doubtfully at the pile of papers. "But I'm not so sure he's in his right mind."
"He lives alone in the woods, Arthur. He's bound to be a bit strange." Merlin reached for the discarded tunic thrown over the screen, finally meeting Arthur's gaze, even if it was just for a moment. "It doesn't mean he's crazy though."
Recalling all the strange people they had met living alone in the woods, Arthur wasn't too sure of that.
Most of the sorcerers he'd met had been less than sane, now that he thought of it.
"It would be hard to tell the difference." Arthur groused.
Merlin's head popped around the edge of the screen. "Are you going to find someone else, then?"
Arthur flung up his hands, pushing back from the table. "Who else is there?" He stood up, turning to look out the window down into the courtyard.
"No one." Merlin sounded inappropriately cheerful.
Arthur turned to fix him with an incredulous look. "Sometimes, Merlin, I wonder at your everlasting cheer in face of your inability to grasp the situation."
"What can I say?" Merlin gave him a grin. "I see the good in everything."
There was a woman walking across the cobbled expanse, a basket full of laundry tucked in against her side. A simple maid? Or a sorceress hiding under their noses?
Arthur shook the thought away.
"Then you'll have no objection to going through the armoury and taking an inventory." Arthur turned, fixing a cheerful smile on his face. "Seeing the good in everything as you do."
Merlin's smile faded, becoming more fixed than genuine.
Arthur picked up his dagger and thrust it at Merlin's chest. "You can start with this.”
Chapter 7: Chapter Six
Arthur surveyed the spread of clothing thrown haphazardly on the bed for a moment before sweeping up the lot. He wasn't really going on a hunting expedition - it didn't matter what he took with him.
"Have you picked a gift yet?"
Arthur looked up from the saddlebags he was stuffing - saddlebags Merlin should have been packing, now that he thought about it - to see Merlin slipping into the room. He held a tray covered with what Arthur suspected was meant to be a meal, wearing the cheerful village idiot smile that never failed to annoy Arthur.
"I'm seeing a sorcerer, Merlin." He flung himself down into his chair, leaving the packing to his manservant and giving the simple implication that Merlin should start serving. "Not some simpering girl."
Wonder of wonders, Merlin actually took the hint and placed the tray before him before moving down the table to survey the bulging saddlebags that had vomited crumpled clothes onto the table.
"You're asking a sorcerer to act as your tutor in magic. To introduce you to other magic users." Merlin started pulling a crumpled tunic free, studying it intently. "It's protocol."
Arthur abandoned his appalled study of the mound of green weeds Merlin had arranged messily under a scrawny chicken leg. "Since when did you get so knowledgeable about protocols among sorcerers?" He hadn't even thought sorcerers had any sort of formal protocols governing their interactions. He poked at one of the scraggly green leaves. "What is this?"
Merlin ignored him. "Since Gaius had me read up on it." The tunic was tossed aside, another pulled out from the saddlebags spilling out a dagger and a spare belt. Merlin shook his head.
Sometimes Arthur wondered if Merlin was even aware he was a servant, let alone meant to act like one.
"Gaius never mentioned anything." Not that Gaius had been particularly helpful, come to it.
Merlin gave him a level look, giving him a disturbing resemblance to Gaius for a moment. "Arthur, he may be a doddery old sorcerer but you're asking him to be your tutor, your ambassador to magic." He set aside the dagger and belt, starting to fold the second tunic into a neat bundle. "How would you treat an ally from another court if you were asking them a favour? Or someone you were asking to act as your messenger to a foreign kingdom?"
Merlin was an idiot. But sometimes - only sometimes - he could make some valid points.
A gift. A token of appreciation from a king to a new ally. Arthur didn't think the usual trinkets would appease the cranky old sorcerer in the woods. "What would you suggest?"
Merlin ducked his head to regard the saddlebags for a moment, mouth twisting strangely. Finally he looked up. "Something personal. But reflecting the value of your agreement."
That didn't help at all. "What is an old sorcerer going to want?"
"I'm sure you'll think of something." Merlin folded and packed the last of the tunics, tucking the scatter of utensils back in a much less lumpy-looking bag. He set it towards the end of the bed in a move that almost looked competent.
Arthur gestured at the boots on the floor. "Don't forget to polish those."
Merlin shot him an annoyed look but scooped up the boots, grimacing as a clod of dirt fell to the floor. "I live but to serve, sire"
"Of course you do, Merlin." Arthur turned his attention to his dinner. Prodding at the chicken and eyeing the bed of green beneath doubtfully.
"Don't forget to eat your dandelions." Merlin grinned, before ducking through the door. "They'll stop you getting fat."
They were weeds! Arthur spluttered and grabbed the nearest heavy object. The goblet made a thud against the hastily shut door, clanging to the ground in a disappointing miss.
Merlin was an idiot.
He had brought a gift but from the sour expression on the old sorcerer's face, it had done more harm than good.
"What's this?" It might have been a bucket of pig slops from the way the old sorcerer was looking at the small chest on the table.
"A gesture of goodwill." Arthur announced grandly. He gestured at the box only to let his hand sink to the table in an aborted gesture at the old man's unimpressed stare. "A gift for my tutor in magic."
The sorcerer grunted, eyeing the chest narrowly. He looked more suspicious than pleased.
A sudden suspicion surfaced. "That's the way it's done among sorcerers, isn't it?" If Merlin-
The old man's eyebrows flew up before lowering fiercely. "Of course it is," he snapped. "A long and honoured tradition." He sniffed, nose wrinkling fiercely. "Not one I'd expect you to know."
Arthur resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "I'm not completely lacking in manners. I know that new allies should be given gift suited to their stature."
He suddenly glared at Arthur. "I don't want gold. No. Don't want it."
"For-" Arthur reigned in his temper. "It's not gold." He reached out and flipped back the chest's lid, shoving it towards the old man.
With one last narrow stare, the sorcerer peered into the chest. Only for his face to smooth in shocked surprise.
"It must get cold in winter." Arthur found himself talking to fill the silence, not sure whether it was offence or something else that held the sorcerer silent. "Even with-" he stumbled on "-your magic."
It had been Gwen's idea, even though she didn't know it. Guinevere knew more about what the elderly were inclined to appreciate and the sorcerer was certainly old.
The sorcerer had pulled the fingerless gloves from the chest, turning them over silently in his bony hands. They were made of soft wool, dyed a dark red.
"You can use them while you gather herbs in winter." Arthur wasn't sure about how many herbs were available in the colder seasons but Merlin had vanished occasionally out into the snow for Gaius. Returning half frozen but still grinning.
The sorcerer's gaze shifted to the chest again and his hands stilled as he spotted the last of its contents. The gloves were carefully set aside and then he was pulling the matching soft woollen scarf and red felt hat that Arthur had liberated. The old man's lips twitched, trembling spasmodically before thinning.
Arthur braced himself for another stream of scorn.
"A kingly gift." The old man met his gaze, eyes bright. "Well chosen." He nodded folding the scarf and hat before placing them in the chest again. "I thank you."
Arthur shifted under the sudden earnest gaze. He seized on a distraction as he caught sight of the saddlebags slumped against the table leg. "I also brought dinner." Arthur lifted his saddlebags to the table, pulling out the chicken, wine and cheese he'd liberated from the kitchen. "The finest Camelot has to offer."
"Heh." The old sorcerer suddenly grinned, eyes lighting in genuine enthusiasm. "Why didn't you say so?" He surged up from his chair, glancing around before his eyes rested on a pile of plates stacked on a shelf.
Moving faster than Arthur would have thought possible, the sorcerer retrieved them, laying the plates out on the table. The gloves were tucked safely away in the chest and then the old man was off again, searching out utensils.
Stunned at the sudden action, it took Arthur a moment or two to start laying out his contribution.
Two carved cups were placed on the table and a handful of herbs was placed on one of the empty plates between them.
First Merlin and now this old sorcerer.
The old man caught his gaze. "It's watercress. Good for cleansing the blood." He grasped a handful and dumped it on Arthur's plate, ignoring the way he recoiled, and then added a handful to his own.
Arthur stared down at it doubtfully, filled with the sinking realization that he was going to have to eat it or risk upsetting the old sorcerer.
The sorcerer cackled to himself as he helped himself to cheese and chicken. He was tearing into a chicken leg as he met Arthur's gaze across the table. "Are you going to eat that or stare at it?"
Arthur picked up a leaf. It looked even worse than the weeds Merlin had left for him to choke down.
"Go on." The sorcerer grinned at him, plucking several leaves from his own plate and chewing them obnoxiously.
It had to be a test. Arthur straightened his shoulders and shoved the leaf into his mouth, chewing determinedly.
The old man let out a laugh at the expression on his face. "Not what you expected, was it?"
"No." Arthur stared down at his plate in surprise.
"Heh." The sorcerer grinned happily as he cut a wedge of cheese.
Arthur watched him as he eagerly dug into cheese and chicken. The old man practically fell on the offerings as if he hadn't eaten for days. Arthur took in his thin fingers, the bony frame ill concealed under his voluminous robes. It might be the case.
"So." The sorcerer stared at him expectantly, stuffing a wedge of cheese in his mouth.
Arthur waited but as the silence - interrupted by loud chewing and the sorcerer's soft noises of approval for the meal - lengthened, he realized that the old man wasn't going to say anything. "I spoke hastily before." Arthur began haltingly. "Without the respect you deserve."
The old man grinned, revealing old teeth and half-chewed cheese.
Arthur just stopped from recoiling in revulsion. He cleared his throat, shifting under the sorcerer's gaze. "I apologise."
The old man nodded, almost graciously. He reached for another hunk of cheese. "Accepted." He eyed Arthur shrewdly. "You've changed."
Arthur blinked. "Changed?"
"You could kill me with one thrust of your sword. I could kill you with one spell. But we're both sitting here. Sharing a meal." He regarded Arthur with a searching stare. "I didn't expect you would."
It rankled a bit, the assumption that he couldn't rein in his own dislike to deal with a potential ally. He had supped with worse than the sorcerer. "I'm accustomed to sharing meals with others who may not share my views. I am king of Camelot." It was something he found himself continually reminding the old man.
Not that he seemed to take much notice or even care.
The sorcerer laughed, a rough snigger. But he said nothing, reaching for more of the green weeds.
Somewhat affronted, Arthur concentrated on his own dinner.
It was some time before the sorcerer, sat back, pushing his plate away and letting out a satisfied noise. With a nod, he stood, piling plates together and setting them on the side of the table.
Arthur glanced at the dirtied plates and reached for his own. Merlin managed to do this all the time. How hard could it be?
The old man shook his head. "Leave it." He grinned. "I don't expect my kingly guest to do the dishes." The grin widened, baring crooked teeth. "No kings I've met know how to do it properly."
Arthur set aside the plates, eyes narrowing at the mockery he knew it was. "And how many kings have you met?"
"You'd be surprised." A small smile bent his lips. His eyes were amused within their nest of wrinkles. He didn't say anything else, simply made his way to the fireplace, flames flaring to life with a single glance. He settled down into a nearby chair, dragging another close with a flick of his hand.
Arthur found himself clutching Excalibur's hilt. With effort, he unwrapped his fingers. The sorcerer could have already attacked him if that was his intention.
As if hearing his thoughts, the old man turned to regard him over his shoulder. “Well? Are you just going to stand there all night?" The contentment from the meal was starting to give away to irritation.
Arthur crossed his arms, looking at the chair that had dragged itself across the floor.
"I'm an old man. Did you expect me to move furniture without magic?" His eyes fixed on Arthur in a narrow stare. "My house, my rules. If you don't like it, you can leave."
Arthur resisted the urge roll his eyes. He made his way to sit down in the offered chair. And if he hesitated before sitting, then at least the old man didn't comment on it.
"So." There was a basket filled with weeds set by the old man's chair. He picked up a bunch and scrutinized it for a moment before nodding and setting it aside. "I've told you what I want of the future. What do you want?"
The question caught Arthur by surprise. It wasn’t what he had expected the sorcerer to ask. And he hesitated before answering. "Peace." It wasn't what he'd thought to say but he realized it was true. "Camelot secure, her people free to live their lives in safety."
He half expected the sorcerer to mock him but the old man simply nodded, a new bundle of herbs clasped in one hand. "A worthy goal." He met Arthur's gaze. "One I agree with."
His doubt might have shown on his face because the sorcerer scowled. "Do you think I have no concern for those without magic? Why do you think you're here?" The herbs were discarded for another bundle. "Bah. And you wonder why Camelot is attacked so often." The meal must still have some soothing effect for there was less force in the words than Arthur had expected.
"By sorcerers." Arthur retorted sharply.
"By Morgana." The sorcerer snapped back. "The witch aside, there have been less attacks of magic on Camelot than those made by greedy men." He glared at Arthur. "As for sorcery, many of the so called attacks have been the results of your own actions." He made a disgusted noise. "Killing a unicorn. Seizing relics from their rightful owners. Desecrating burial sites." The knot on the bundle of herbs was tightened in a sharp jerk. "Anyone can see your ignorance."
Arthur bit back a scathing comment. Knowing there was enough truth in the old man's words to make it unjust. "Which is why I've come to you." It was gritted out.
"Hmph." The sorcerer cast him a narrow stare, ire receding. "There is that."
They sat in silence for a long moment, only the crackle of flames and the noises of the sorcerer bundling his herbs.
If anyone had predicted he would be sharing a sorcerer's hearth, Arthur would have laughed at them. Let alone anyone suggesting it would be this sorcerer's hearth.
But for all his irritation and disdain, he seemed genuine. As did all his recent actions...
"You said you've aided Camelot before." Arthur finally observed.
"I have." It was acknowledgement and dismissal in one. Dragoon was muttering under his breath as he sorted through the bundle of herbs and shifted closer to the fire.
Arthur watched him for a few moments before leaning forward to set his forearms on his thighs. "Why did you plant that charm in my room?"
Dragoon fell silent. The look he turned on Arthur was momentarily considering. "What would have happened if I hadn't?"
Arthur's brow furrowed, mouth twisting. He was about to retort that Gwen wouldn't have been under suspicion or sorcery and sentenced to death. If he hadn't caught Dragoon in his room-
He sat back, startled, as an idea occurred to him. "You didn't plant the first charm."
The old man slowly smiled, eyes lighting with genuine warmth.
"Why? Why would you risk execution to help Gwen?" It was unfathomable. The sorcerer had no ties to Camelot, why would he risk himself for a servant girl?
Dragoon's smile faded, a hint remaining in the line of his mouth. "Do you think I would simply let her be executed for a crime she did not commit?" The sorcerer sounded more incredulous than offended.
"I can't think of many sorcerers who would." None. And for the old man to do so, he had to have something in mind. Not when it would cost his own life and there would be no reward for his efforts.
The old man's eyes narrowed. "But you don't know many sorcerers, do you?"
Arthur inclined his head to acknowledge the hit. "No. But all-" he scrambled to correct himself at the old sorcerer's scowl "-most of the sorcerers I've encountered have been trying to kill me."
"But not doing a good job of it."
Arthur stared at the old man in dawning outrage. "You sound like you approve."
The sorcerer scoffed, leaning forward almost aggressively. "Your knights are brave but not even swords can prevail against magic all the time." He gave Arthur a narrow stare. "Haven't you wondered at your good fortune again and again? That for all the power of magic, it has been not nearly as bad as it could have been."
"The entire kingdom has suffered greatly at the hands of sorcerers, at Morgana's hands alone." Arthur spoke softly and with cold warning. "You would do well not to make mockery of my people's suffering."
"You think I mock you?" It was practically growled out. "I know all too well the damage done to this kingdom." The old man let out a disgusted noise, unimpressed. "You do not know the half of the witch's deeds. The trail of death is long in her wake, drawing close to that of her father's. Hate and bitterness have curdled her heart and magic alike."
"That's hardly an endorsement for my acceptance of magic." Arthur pointed out tightly.
The sorcerer turned on him with a scowl. "Not all sorcerers are like Morgana, hungry for vengeance."
Arthur leaned forward, forearms resting on his thighs. "If there are magic users like you say, then why haven't they stood against Morgana?"
"Sorcerers are not soldiers or knights, to be called upon to fight openly in battle." The old man's eyes were distant in their hollowed sockets and web of wrinkles. "Magic is hated and feared. Were a sorcerer to fight openly, they'd risk death whether they offered aid or not."
"But that is not the only reason." Dragoon's shoulders sagged and he let out a slow sigh. "To some, you are a Pendragon and that is all that matters." The old sorcerer gazed into the flames. "Your death and the fall of Camelot is seen as rightful vengeance for the hundreds committed to the flames."
Arthur clenched his jaw, pressing his lips together. "You sound like you understand them."
The old man glanced at him, studying him seriously for a long moment. "I can understand them without being like them." There was a rebuke in the sorcerer's sharp tone. "After the treatment they have endured, they can't see a future in which they are free."
"But you can?" Arthur found it hard to believe.
Dragoon met his gaze. "I've seen the kingdom you have made, the changes to reflect respect for your people, noble and common." He nodded firmly. "And I hope for a day when that promise is extended to all."
Arthur just stared at him. Trying to see why the sorcerer had such faith when Arthur hadn't even decided to repeal the ban on magic.
"And there are others who believe in the new world you are trying to build." The old man's gaze went distant. "A new age is coming. Camelot flourishes. I hope to see it a kingdom for all." He fell silent.
Arthur was quiet for a long moment, watching the flames. "The Disir judged me wanting. In order to save Camelot, they demanded I accept magic and learn the old ways." He glanced up at the sorcerer, checking his reaction.
The old man was silent, eyes glittering with reflected flames.
"To accept magic would mean overturning my father's decrees," Arthur continued. "Letting chaos envelope the kingdom."
The sorcerer shifted in his chair, leaning forward to fix Arthur with a sharp stare. "Have you heard of Helva?"
Arthur frowned, turning further in his chair to face the old man. "It's a city in Odin's kingdom. Why do you ask?"
"Helva is a city where magic can be practiced freely. Yet has Odin's kingdom fallen?"
Arthur's mouth twisted. "Odin is a different kind of king. Ruthless and swift to punish his people."
"But not willing to kill those with magic simply for existing." The sorcerer's voice was sharp. He held up a wrinkled hand when Arthur made to protest. "Odin is ruthless, yes, but there are less magical attacks on his kingdom than Camelot."
Arthur opened his mouth to point out that was due to Odin's tendency to crush any threat to his rule, only to shut it. What could crush a threat more quickly than a law of execution?
The sorcerer was staring at him, waiting for a response.
"Odin has not had to deal with a threat like Morgana."
The old man scowled. "Odin doesn't tolerate Morgana's interference. And he has a kingdom full of sorcerers who have no interest in joining her cause." He gave Arthur a meaningful glance. "They do not face persecution. Morgana's move against Camelot is a simple matter of ambition in their view."
"And you? What do you think?"
"Morgana fights for her own ends rather than the acceptance of magic." Scathing disapproval dripped from the sorcerer's words. "The persecution she faced may have turned her against Camelot but it is bitterness and greed that sustains her now. Users of magic are drawn to her by the prospect of recognition, only to be discarded when they are no longer of use to her cause."
He stared into the fire, suddenly looking every year of his age. "Perhaps the fault lies in the lack of support she had. Perhaps if she had been accepted with her magic before Morgause found her..." He slowly shook his head and let out a sound of disgust. "This is what comes of making criminals of those who use magic. They will live up to their reputation."
Had that been why Morgana had turned on Camelot? Had she been consumed with hate and bitterness until she was almost unrecognizable as the girl who was once his sister?
The old man fixed him with an intense stare. "Surely you can see that the laws are why Camelot is in danger."
Arthur shook his head. "Until magic can be proven as a benefit more than a threat to the kingdom, I cannot."
He ignored the look of disappointment on the man's face. "I need to return."
The sorcerer nodded listlessly.
"I'll send word when I next wish to meet with you." He left, leaving the old man staring into the flames.
Chapter 8: Chapter Seven
"-grain harvest. Tithes from Somersford and Lintown will be arriving before the new moon."
It had been a good harvest. Patrols had returned without any mishap. There was no news of Morgana. Camelot was in one of her rare peaceful periods where the everyday workings of the kingdom were on the Round Table's agenda.
Which made it all the more obvious that Arthur was struggling with the idea of accepting magic, let alone changing the laws banning it from Camelot.
It had been days since Arthur's last meeting with Dragoon and Merlin was beginning to fear that Arthur might not ask for another.
"Sir Donard. What news of the east?" Arthur's voice rang out strong and clear, the hallmark of a king.
Merlin, stood in his customary position, several feet back and to the side, could only see him from behind. But he could imagine the serious, almost studious expression on Arthur's face.
The knight stood, giving a small bow before straightening. "The early harvest-"
Merlin let the latest report wash over him in a wave, listening with only one ear. If he hadn't known about Arthur's bargain with the Disir and his meetings with Dragoon, Merlin would never have suspected Arthur was contemplating magic's role in Camelot. But even then, he would have known something was troubling Arthur. Merlin had caught him gazing sightlessly into the fire too many times over the last few days to think otherwise.
But while Merlin knew Arthur was thinking about the choice before him, Merlin had no idea what conclusion he would reach. Arthur had been surprisingly open-minded in his meetings with Dragoon.
Or not so surprisingly. When Camelot's future hung in the balance, Arthur tended to bend all his efforts to a problem, discarding former prejudices and beliefs for the greater good.
It simply hinged on whether Arthur saw the acceptance of magic as the common good.
For a heady few days, Merlin had thought Arthur was seriously considering a new role for magic in Camelot. Arthur had become almost comfortable with him - apart from a deep uneasiness whenever Dragoon used magic - asking questions more freely and listening in turn to the answers he received. It had looked like he was becoming convinced, at least of the injustices the ban of magic was perpetuating.
But the actual discussion of repealing or changing the law, the mention of those who could oppose Morgana had made Arthur retreat. Even more, the implication that Uther's law had been responsible for much of the ill feeling and attacks on the kingdom by those with magic. Arthur had never responded well to criticism of his father, even if he had agreed with it. And Arthur had never been inclined to trust magic.
It had been a mistake to mention the magical threats against Camelot, even if it was an attempt to honestly inform Arthur of the full situation. The mention of sorcerers allied with Camelot had done little to counter the confirmation of magic's destructive potential.
With the door of the hut closing behind Arthur, Merlin had been left asking if he had pushed too far, moved too fast. The weight of magic’s ill deeds still held too much of a hold to enable a shift in Arthur's opinion at this stage. The frail trust between one sorcerer and a king was not enough.
At least that was what Arthur's abrupt withdrawal seemed to suggest. And Merlin wasn't sure how he could draw Arthur back.
"-a child was killed outside a village near the ford at Wenworth." Sir Donard's grave tone pulled Merlin's attention back to the council. "All signs point to a tragic incident involving an auroch in rut."
A murmur arose at that, knights exchanging glances.
"An auroch?" Arthur was all attention, shoulders straightening under his red cloak. Concern laced his words. "Has it been found?"
Sir Donard nodded. "A hunt was mounted soon after, the auroch slain."
One of Arthur's hand rose to his mouth for a moment, thoughtfully lingering on his chin before lowering. "Issue a warning. That all the villages are reminded to be wary of the rutting season. One life lost is one too many."
Merlin barely contained a wince. How many sorcerers, how many innocent people convicted of sorcery, had been in killed in the name of the law? And how many more would die if Merlin couldn't convince Arthur of the good that lay in magic?
The Disir would not provide another chance, Merlin knew. And he would not have a better opportunity to tell Arthur what he truly felt. Even if it was under the guise of another face, another falsehood.
Merlin stood in the hall, quiet and ignored as he listened to the knights give Arthur their reports. Mood sinking even further as he contemplated the depth of his failure.
The cup wavered, trembling dangerously in an unsteady clasp. But its contents remained unspilt and it settled on the small table to the side of the bed with only a small hesitating clatter. Considering his last few attempts, it was a vast improvement.
He would do better tomorrow.
"You're improving." Arthur stood in the door to his chambers, a smile on his face.
"Sire." Mordred pulled himself up further in the mount of pillows, the book resting on his lap sliding at the movement. He hastily reached to grab it-
-only for the king to catch it easily before it could fall to the floor. He glanced at the title written in gold on the cover and smiled. "How are you finding it?"
"Instructive." Aware of how bland that must had sounded, Mordred expanded his praise. "I'm learning much from it." The etiquette of court, the code of knighthood. Arthur had brought him the small volume when he had awoken and Mordred was reading through it closely.
"Good." Arthur handed back the book, glancing awkwardly around the room before taking a seat in the chair beside Mordred's bed.
Mordred accepted the book back, holding it loosely in his hands. The leather cover was as warm as Arthur’s concern.
For a moment they just sat, the silence stretching as Arthur sorted through his thoughts. He ducked his head, studying his hands. "I’ve been thinking lately," he started quietly. “About Camelot’s past and its future.”
Mordred remained silent, knowing Arthur would say more. Pleased that he knew Arthur well enough to known his moods and proud to be the one to whom Arthur was revealing his thoughts.
A slight frown creased Arthur’s brow. He glanced up at Mordred before his gaze returned to his hands. “About Camelot’s role in the five kingdoms.”
"Is there anything I can help you with?" Mordred straightened further, trying to present an impression of strength.
Arthur's gaze turned back to him. His frown faded into a suddenly intent look that made Mordred want to shift against the pillows at his back.
"You were a druid." Arthur began slowly.
Mordred stilled. "Yes." Apprehension flooded him in a cold tide. He kept his expression blank to hide the jolt of fear that flashed through him.
Arthur fixed him with a frank stare. "You heard what the Disir were asking."
"They had no right to speak to their king in such a manner." Mordred still felt the indignation he had felt at the Disir's demands. Representatives of the Triple Goddess or not, they still owed their king respect.
A small crooked smile bent Arthur's lips, an acknowledgement of the defence. "But they still had a point. I know little about the 'Old Ways'."
A strange mixture of pride and shame warmed Mordred's cheeks. Happiness at being of use when he had been bedridden for days, yet *wary* at it being because of the very heritage that would see him executed if anyone knew he used magic. "And you want to know more."
Arthur nodded, leaning forward. "If you can tell me."
Mordred chose his words carefully. "It has been a long time since I was among the druids."
"Even so, I would hear anything you remember," the king spoke like he would when teasing details out of a report, "your impressions, what it was like to follow the Old Religion." The serious manner in which he asked was very different from their previous conversations.
Mordred had to wonder what had happened. His last memory of the Disir had been the spear they had thrown at Arthur, the spear that Mordred had flung himself in front of to save his king. When he had woken it was in the infirmary, to Gaius' weary aged face.
Arthur had gone back. With Merlin.
And now Arthur wished to hear more about the Old Ways.
"It won't always be liked this. One day we will live in freedom again."
“You really believe that?” Mordred was surprised. To hear such words from Merlin, who had hid his entire life. Who still hid who he was.
Merlin still held his gaze, solemn but assured. “I do.”
Mordred was not convinced. But a small sliver of hope he’d thought extinguished was fanned back into tenuous existence.
Arthur was still waiting on a reply.
"I am happy to aid my king in any way possible." Mordred met Arthur's gaze. "Where do you wish me to start?"
Arthur's expression lightened, shoulders relaxing from their tense angles.
Mordred suddenly realized that his king had been uneasy in asking. Something Mordred wished to erase, uneasiness and hesitation both. Arthur should know to come to him if in need, to know his knowledge and advice was of worth.
This was something only he could do, that only he could give Arthur. Emrys was magic, powerful beyond the ken of men. But he was not a druid. Merlin had lived apart from those who lived according to the Old Ways and still remained apart from those who practised magic. He was alone, and for all his magic, unable to understand what magic was when it was used in balance with the world, practised openly and freely.
Emrys was a shadow. Ever hiding and deflecting. Apart and hidden.
Even if he stood before them and Arthur had asked, Emrys would be unable to convey the plight of magic users in the way Mordred could. This was something only Mordred could do for Arthur. To help magic return to Camelot so that they could be free once more.
"The Triple Goddess." A slight grimace crossed Arthur's face.
"The Triple Goddess is the deity closest to the druids," Mordred began slowly, old lessons returning. "All druids are marked with her symbol: the triskele, the triple spiral. She is the embodiment of the earth, the people and the seasons, life and death."
"And judgement," Arthur added.
Mordred nodded. "She is the balance, the corrective force."
That made Arthur frown but he gestured Mordred to continue.
"She has three faces: the maiden, the maid and the crone. The maiden represents new life, beginnings and the new season. The maid is the embodiment of fertility and power, her influence most apparent at harvest. The crone is the bearer of wisdom, fate-" Arthur's gaze intensified "-and judgement. She represents the end, death and the turning of the season."
Arthur's frown had deepened. He sat an elbow on the arm of his chair, hand resting in front of his mouth in a pose of deep thought. "And how would one follow her ways?"
Mordred barely managed to hide his surprise. It had been what the Disir had asked. Surely Arthur had not given into their demands?
Arthur was looking at him now, expectant.
Mordred chose his words carefully. "By working closely with the seasons, the cycles of the land. Respecting the contributions of all." There were echoes of it in the round table, in the kingdom that Arthur was building. It had been part of what had drawn him to Arthur in the first place, the quiet confidence and refusal to relinquish dignity or honour.
"And- magic?" Arthur looked uncomfortable, just asking.
Mordred could feel his expression blanking. "Practiced by most. It was a skill like any other. Using magic was a part of the balance like using plants to eat."
A strange expression crossed Arthur's face. "You don't see magic as a threat?"
His hands were beginning to tremble from sitting up so long. Mordred tucked them under the book in his lap and forced himself to remain upright. "Magic is a threat. I would not be here-" he lifted the book slightly to indicate his chambers, "-if it wasn't."
If anything Arthur was looking conflicted between acceptance and disappointment.
"But I don't believe it always is." Mordred could see the exact moment Arthur heard his words, surprise widening his eyes.
Some day we will be free.
"I wandered for years, through the five kingdoms and beyond. During those travels, I have seen magic used for ill. But I have also seen it used to heal, grow crops and protect entire villages."
Arthur was silent, eyes fixed on Mordred. He was listening. It was almost unsettling to have the king's gaze fixed on him so intently.
The book was a series of hard lines cutting into Mordred's fingers. "And where magic is reviled and those who use it vilified...I have seen children burn for little more than practical jokes. Women beaten and abandoned for small hearth magics. And I have seen men die for no magic at all." Mordred met his king's gaze.
Arthur's eyes fell shut briefly. He shifted in his chair before he met Mordred's gaze again. "In Camelot."
Mordred was the one to break his stare. He glanced down at the book in his lap. He wanted to reassure Arthur. But he had a duty as a knight to be truthful and a duty to his king not to withhold information.
Arthur read his silence for the admission it was, expression falling.
Mordred tightened his grip on the book, pained at his failure to avoid disappointing his king.
But surprisingly, after a moment Arthur's grimace faded. An awkward silence had Mordred sitting anxiously, the book Arthur had given him grasped in whitening fingers.
Arthur cleared his throat. "The druids." He made an awkward gesture with one hand. "They accept magic."
Mordred gave him a small smile that had little humour. "As I have said," he was careful to speak without much inflection. Confirmation without passion.
Passion would reveal a man's inner soul and Mordred had begun hiding his long ago.
Arthur nodded, an almost irritated acknowledgement. "But surely it would mean chaos. When a man can bend the elements to his wishes, what will stop him from taking what he wants with magic?"
Mordred didn't answer right away. He reminded himself that Arthur, king though he was, knew little of magic except for when it had been used as a weapon against him. He knew nothing of what Emrys had done for him.
"What stops a man from killing his neighbour to take his harvest?" Mordred kept his voice calm, watching Arthur's face for his reaction. Surprised but not angered. "There are laws. Consequences for those who would turn their face from others." How would he be judged for his actions of the last few years? He had been a child when he left but not when he had roamed the five kingdoms.
His kin knew the necessity for survival. The ugliness of the world that turned against them. There would be no blame for what he had done to live. But there was little of the honour or glory that he had found in Arthur's court.
As a knight he could walk head held high, respected by all.
As a druid, there was a hunted existence, feared and despised where they were not shunned.
Magic had seemed a small price to pay.
Until Emrys' words had sparked a small flare of hope he had tended without realizing its birth.
"Respect is the code by which the druids live. For the world around them and all beings."
Arthur wore a slight frown. It was an expression he often wore during meetings of the round table or the hasty councils of war. His head rose from his fist. "A people must have a purpose. A vision for their children." He paused, mouth pursing in thought. "Men only follow laws if they see it as their duty to the world they wish to live in."
Camelot had her king. A vision that Arthur strove to create.
"There are those among the druids known as vates." Mordred had heard of them but never met one. Morgana...if they had lived in another time, Morgana might have been one. Mordred's lips pursed. "They are seers. Prophets. Their visions are held in high regard and used to guide the people."
For a moment a strange expression lit Arthur's eyes. A look of recognition that vanished as soon as it had appeared. His king's frown deepened. "And what would be the druids' vision for the future?"
Mordred hesitated. Not sure how much to tell. But Arthur was still listening, still asking questions despite his aversion to magic.
"There are prophecies." Mordred chose his words carefully. "Of a time when the druids will no longer have to hide their magic. A future in which those with magic and those without live together in peace." A future Emrys and Arthur were meant to bring about.
A future Mordred had all but given up on after learning Emrys' identity and his betrayal. But one he could almost see now he had come to Camelot.
Surprisingly, Arthur looked thoughtful rather than disturbed. "Are the druids the only ones who believe in these prophecies?"
Mordred considered his answer for a moment. "I have heard that other magic users believe the same," he finally admitted. Merlin was certainly one of them.
There was something hesitant in Arthur's expression, as if he wasn't quite sure of the conclusion he'd come to.
"I've heard Gaius talk of crop magic." Arthur sounded a bit distracted. "Do you know if the druids use anything like it?"
As Mordred sifted through his memories of the spell used in his childhood, teaching his king about magic, he could feel his faint hope flare into a steady flame.
Someday they would be free.
Chapter 9: Chapter Eight
Arthur stared unseeing across the room, elbow braced on the table, one hand curling before his mouth.
I have seen children burn for little more than practical jokes. Women beaten and abandoned for small hearth magics. And I have seen men die for no magic at all.
There had been hundreds who had seen the pyre. The noose. The chopping block. Most of them had been condemned by his father's hand.
Some of them had been at his own.
A soft hand on his shoulder made Arthur start.
He looked up. Gwen stared down at him, a small smile on her lips, shaded by the concern in her lovely dark eyes.
"Your dinner will be cold."
Arthur blinked. There was a plate on the table. He hadn't even noticed. He wasn't even sure whether it had been Merlin or Gwen who had brought it for him.
He hadn't felt hungry. But now that he saw the plate before him, he was ravenous.
Guinevere watched him with a small smile as he picked up a slice of cured ham. "What have you been thinking about? You've been distracted all day."
Arthur chewed and swallowed. "Just-" He searched for words. "Camelot. The people." He smiled and shoved a chunk of carrot into his mouth to stop the awkward flow of words.
Guinevere sank into the chair at his right. She fixed him with a warm attentive gaze. "Anything I can help you with?"
Arthur stared at her for a moment. His lovely queen. Sometimes it was hard to believe, that he would wake up and his father would be alive. He would be a prince and Guinevere a servant...
Arthur leaned back in his chair slightly, turning a grape between his fingers. "I was thinking about something Gaius said." He glanced at Guinevere who gave him an encouraging smile. "He was talking about the people of the kingdom, how they vary with different beliefs."
"That's one of Camelot's great strengths." Guinevere smiled, head lifting with a cheerful tilt. "That people from all five kingdoms can live together in peace." Her gaze became earnest. "You have accepted all your people, no matter their rank."
Arthur hid a wince as he slid the grape into his mouth. His talk with Mordred had told him how little he knew of the druids. A people who lived in his kingdom and yet they did not feel welcome. Not when they were persecuted because they used magic.
He had thought to build a kingdom for all. A kingdom that no longer held rank as an indicator of the respect a person had but merit, his subjects defined by what they had done and what they aspired to do. A kingdom where a servant could become a queen, a farmer a knight.
A spoiled prince a fair and just king.
Camelot. A shining example among the five kingdoms.
"You have sown the seeds of your own destruction."
His former sense of achievement was now soured. The very safety he had built for his kingdom now threatening its survival. If the Disir were to believed, his rejection of magic and those who used it would ultimately cause Camelot to fall.
"Such a frown." Gwen teased gently as she perched on the arm of his chair. "Surely it can't be that bad?"
Arthur looked up at her and managed a smile. "Not with you at my side."
Gwen's smile widened. She leaned forward to give him a kiss and Arthur tilted up into the soft press of lips.
Gwen drew back, her brown eyes warm. Waiting.
Arthur hesitated, chosing his words. "I've been thinking about magic."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Magic?"
"The laws." Arthur tried another tack, not wanting to remind Gwen of how she had lost her father. "What could make a person break them, to practise magic against Camelot." Gwen's expression had grown uncharacteristically solemn and Arthur scrambled to redirect his words. "When they know what breaking the law will cost them."
"Like Sefa." Gwen frowned. "Sefa's father had a prayer in his belongings. A prayer for victory over his people enemies."
Arthur's head rose. He frowned. "He was a druid."
Gwen was pensive. "Gaius said they were a peaceful people. But for some your father's Great Purge changed that."
Raids on druid camps. The deaths of men, women and children. He could see how easy it would be for a man to nurse hatred in his heart, for a peaceful man to become driven by vengeance.
"The druids have been given safe passage in Camelot." He had made a promise and he had stood by that. "They are free to live unmolested."
"But sorcery is still outlawed," Gwen pointed out gently. "As Gaius said, little has changed for them. They cannot live as they once did."
"It's the law, Guinevere." A law that his father had created.
You've always done what you thought was right even if you knew your father would disapprove.
Merlin was right. Which, annoyingly, he could be sometimes.
And Merlin thought that magic should be treated within the law much as any other weapon or skill. Despite seeing everything that Arthur had seen.
"And you are king, Arthur," Gwen pressed his shoulder and sat down in the empty chair beside him. She stared up at Arthur earnestly, belief and love in her dark eyes.
"You think I should change the law?" Arthur couldn't help the surprise in his voice. Gwen had never shown any indication of sympathy for sorcerers.
Gwen smiled, the small quirk of one side of her mouth. Arthur had seen it many times before. An encouraging, self-depreciating gesture that always warmed and charmed him at the same time. "That’s not for me to say. But if you are having second thoughts, then you should find out why." Her hand reached out to clasp his. "You are a good and just king, Arthur. And I know you have the best interests of your people in heart." Her hand squeezed his.
Arthur returned her smile, somewhat distractedly. The best of interests of his people was getting harder to discern.
When he had faced his father from beyond the grave, it had become clear how differently they both ruled.
It had been reaffirmation of what he wanted for Camelot. A fair and just kingdom, where everyone was respected irrespective of rank.
And if he wanted to say that with any conviction, he had to consider those of his subjects who used magic in that ideal as well.
He found Merlin in the armoury the next morning. His glum manservant was frowning over an array of small daggers, sharpening one with vicious intent.
Arthur waited until he had finished and reaching for another dagger before speaking. "If you sharpen that much more, there won't be a blade left."
Merlin's hands froze. But only for a moment. He reached for the dagger once more. "Only because you keep blunting them." The humour was somewhat stilted.
Arthur's smile faltered. Merlin had been quiet for days. And avoiding him as much as it was possible while being the king's manservant. It had been picking herbs for Gaius yesterday. Laundry the day before. And now the armoury. All legitimate tasks but Merlin was rarely so invested in his duties.
Arthur took a seat on the bench next to him, watching as Merlin efficiently worked the blade back to sharpness. He let the silence stretch for several long moments but Merlin said nothing more, concentrating on the dagger as if Arthur wasn't even there.
"Do you think I should change the law?"
Merlin's hands stilled. He set aside the dagger and whetstone, meeting Arthur's gaze. "Do you really want to know what I think?"
For all Merlin's inclination to speak his mind, he had to be coaxed into revealing his serious opinions. Arthur nodded. "You know I do."
Merlin stared at him for a moment, as if weighing the veracity of his statement. When he did speak, it was bluntly. "Do I think you should change the law?" He held Arthur's gaze. "Yes. At the moment a person is condemned to death for using magic. It doesn't matter why they used magic, only that they did."
He spoke flatly and unflinchingly. "A man lights his hearth fire with magic and he is put to death. Because fire is dangerous? No. Because a small fire could become a large fire and cause damage to property or death." Merlin's voice was harsh. "And it’s this fear of what someone might do that is why sorcerers are reviled." His stare bored into Arthur with the strange intensity he sometimes had. "It's killing people for something they haven't yet done and might never do."
Arthur sat shocked. He stared at Merlin, who had taken up the dagger once more. The long slide and scrape rang out in the silence between them.
"You really believe that..." He had listened to what Merlin had said as they camped outside the cave of the Disir. Had seen how much it meant to him to tell Arthur what he thought. But now...there was bitterness in Merlin's words. A grim anger that there hadn't been before.
"I do." Merlin's expression softened a fraction, his grim anger fading slightly. "Arthur. In these last few years, how many people have you sentenced to death for sorcery?"
Arthur opened his mouth to reply, only to shut it as he searched his memory for the answer. There had been so many rulings over the last few years, numerous trials he had overseen. "Two?"
"Eight." Merlin spoke with such certainty there was no doubt that he had been keeping track of each and every trial.
Arthur frowned, recalling Merlin standing sombre and half hidden beside a pillar in the throne room. Apart and out of the way but always watching. Arthur tended to forget he was there half of the time. Only to be reminded when Merlin made some comment that revealed exactly how closely his manservant observed the court. He even occasionally managed to raise a point that Arthur had missed.
Merlin, his unofficial advisor. Who was now implying- "Are you saying that I've been killing innocent people?" Disbelief rang through the words, making the question louder than he had intended. Thankfully none of the hurt he was feeling leaked through.
Merlin's mouth twisted. "Those you have sentenced to death acted against Camelot. There is no question of their treason or the harm they would have caused had they gone free."
"But..." Arthur waited, somewhat reassured but also dreading what Merlin hadn't said yet.
"It was their treason for which they were sentenced. Sorcery was merely the method they used to carry it out." Merlin's gaze was unflinching.
"They were sorcerers." The words felt weak even as they left Arthur's lips.
"And you don't hunt down sorcerers unless they've become a threat to Camelot." Merlin pointed out. "Seem to be a threat," he added under his breath.
Arthur scowled, catching the addition easily. "Isn't that what you wanted?" He tried to hold onto his temper. "For only those who use their magic for ill to be punished?"
Merlin's hands were held still on the table. "You don't oversee every trial. Magic is still a crime on pain of death in Camelot. If you hadn't intervened at the village that old woman would have been burned to death. Because it is the law, people are being executed and even their king cannot say if they were guilty."
Merlin's words hit Arthur like a blow from a mace. For a long moment he simply sat, turning Merlin's words over in his mind.
Merlin's grip tightened on the whetstone. Soon the sound of scraping metal filled the armoury.
Arthur sat and sightlessly watched Merlin work, one hand fisted against his mouth. Could sorcery and treason be separated? The old man didn't seem to be corrupted, or even mean Camelot harm. His bare hut and touchy manner were the inclinations of a man who had no thought for wealth or recognition.
But Arthur wasn't sure whether he could see magic as benign. Had he been making a distinction like Merlin said? It was true that he didn't seek sorcerers out like his father had. Not unless the damage they had done had come to his attention. Even that leniency had upset some of the older lords of court.
Repealing the ban on magic would be seen as weakness.
If you are not strong the kingdom will fall.
His father would never have even considered changing the law.
But Arthur was not his father.
And it wouldn't be weakness if he had a powerful sorcerer at his court. The thought slipped into his mind before he could stop it. One who was respected among magic users.
Arthur grimaced. The old man hadn't been pleased when they parted. And would be even less so now that Arthur had ignored him for several days.
It was a stupid idea.
But he was going to have to see the old sorcerer again. There was more he needed to know-
A bell sounded. Deep and tolling.
Arthur thrust his chair back, standing even as Merlin scooped up Excalibur and tossed the sword to him. In seconds he was out the door, Merlin following close behind, a sword in hand.
Gwaine's stomach growled, the anguished cry of a languishing fallen warrior. It was a battle cry Gwaine was long familiar with from his many years on the road. The dearth of food and good ale wasn't a problem anymore but as a knight of Camelot, he had to be more careful about requiring it.
Usually he would have enlisted Merlin, who could avoid the foul tempered cook. Gwaine had given the kitchens a wide berth after his attempts to charm the woman into giving him some fresh buns had resulted with a knife imbedded in the table next to his fingers.
But Merlin was otherwise occupied, sulking in the armoury.
Which left him where he was now, leaning against the wall and waiting for the right moment.
A familiar rounded figure swept through the doorway and Gwaine pushed off from the wall. "Saryn!" He grinned.
Saryn spun eyes wide, clasping the tray in her hands. "Gwaine! I told you not to sneak up like that!"
Gwaine raised his hands defensively. "I wouldn't have, if there was a choice." He cupped her elbow and steered her down the corridor away from the kitchens and their dreadful guardian. "Dear Saryn, you have to save me from starvation."
Saryn looked torn between sympathy and exasperation. After a quick look over her shoulder and then down the corridor, she glanced down at the tray she held. It held a platter of fruit and cheese.
"You can have the apple." She pushed the edge of the tray into his chest as he reached forward. "Only the apple. This is meant for Lord Borden."
Gwaine plucked the apple from the plate before Saryn could change her mind. "Just the apple," he agreed. "You've save me Saryn."
She rolled her eyes, slipping past him. "Nothing will save you if Cook catches you."
Gwaine tossed the apple into the air, catching it as it fell. Only to look over his shoulder as a clatter of iron on stone and female curses rang out from the kitchens.
Best not to push his luck.
Taking a bite from his new prize, Gwaine started down the corridor. Percival might be in the mood to go visit The Rising Sun. Maybe together they could cajole Merlin into coming out with them. A few drinks and a night off might jolt him out of his glum mood.
He had just reached Percival's room when the bell sounded. Loud and ominous.
Percival's door burst out, his large form bristling. His gaze met Gwaine's who tossed the apple aside, the fruit hitting the wall and rolling away.
As one they turned and ran down the corridor, taking the fastest route to the courtyard.
Gwaine felt a grin that had nothing to do with humour stretch his lips. Their drinks would have to wait.
Smoke rose in a twisting black line, dark and malignant. Ash was thick in the air and harsh on the tongue. Arthur cupped a handful of the crumpled remnants of a charred beam before letting the hot flakes fall free between his fingers. "Any casualties?"
Leon shook his head. "Master Camlyn and his wife were visiting his mother. The house was empty."
Thank small mercies. Arthur rose out of his crouch, turning to address the town patrol. "Cadreyr. Your report."
The knight drew himself upright. "The smoke was spotted soon after the change of the watch. The hue and cry was called but by the time we arrived there was nothing to be done to save the house. We concentrated on keeping the flames from the other buildings."
Arthur rose from his crouch, gaze falling on the neighbouring homes still standing, untouched except by dark stains of ash. "Do we know how it started?" An entire home destroyed. Even he knew such a quick fire was unlikely to grow from a careless open flame.
He could see his suspicions mirrored in the eyes of his knights.
Cadreyr shook his head.
Arthur frowned, surveying the burnt out house. If the fire had spread, the results could have been disastrous. Most of the buildings in town were made of wood. A large fire could have destroyed much more than one house. "I want the neighbours questioned, information from anyone in the town who might have seen what happened. We need to know how this fire started."
Cadreyr nodded and set off, taking three of the other knights with him.
Arthur's gaze fell back on the ruin of the house. They were fortunate. In that the fire was stopped so quickly and the owners were not still inside.
If they had been, there would have been no way to save them.
A sudden movement in the corner of his eye, caught Arthur's attention.
Merlin was crouched down in the ashes, behind two fallen beams. He had something in his hand, a piece of jewellery-
Merlin glanced up, started. At Arthur's impatient becoming gesture, he stood and trotted over. As he drew close he placed the piece into Arthur's outstretched hand. "I found it just outside the house." It was said almost reluctantly.
Arthur gave him a curious glance before turning his attention to the object in his hand. He had been right. It was a bracelet. A series of leather strands woven together, a flat metal disc tied into the centre.
Arthur frowned as he stretched out the length of the piece. It was unnaturally short, too short to wrap around the slender wrist of a woman, let alone that of a man. His stomach sank in realization. It could only have been worn around a child's wrist.
He met Merlin's gaze, seeing the same grim realization mirrored in his manservant's eyes.
"Search the remains," he ordered the knights poking through the burnt out remains of the house. "Ensure we haven't missed anything." A child could have all too easily crawled into a small space and gotten trapped.
Leon had drawn close, peering down at the bracelet in Arthur's palm. "There are no signs of damage from the fire. It may have been lost afterwards."
The patrols had kept everyone away from the fire and the ashes once the fire had been put out. The child must have been at the house before the patrol had arrived. Whether they had gotten caught in the fire...
Arthur's hand closed around the trinket. They would find out.
Chapter 10: Chapter Nine
Fires. They were the bane of any city, the horror of any siege. And with a second inferno the night before, fire was Camelot's latest threat.
And last night it had almost claimed lives.
Just like the first, no one had witnessed any suspicious behaviour and the fire had started quickly. It had been impossible to extinguish before it consumed the entire building.
There had been mutterings of sorcery among the patrols. Which led Arthur here now.
Arthur reigned in. "You can stay here."
Merlin looked around them. The land was open, devoid of anything but a handful of trees and a stream. "You want me to stay here."
His manservant had a gift for the obvious. "Yes, Merlin." Arthur spoke slowly so that Merlin would understand. "For some reason the old sorcerer doesn't like servants. Most likely he doesn't want to subject himself to your company." He turned in the saddle. "It's the first sign of sense I've seen in him."
Merlin gave him an irritated look. "Then why am I here?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "So you can make dinner for when I get back." He kicked Llamrei into motion, riding off before Merlin could make anymore complaints.
"I'll just wait here then, shall I?" Merlin shouted out after him.
Arthur waved a hand carelessly over one shoulder. "Pick some herbs or something if you get bored."
Arthur swung out of the saddle, quickly scanning the clearing. It was quiet, empty. There was no slam of the hut's door accompanied by grumblings and an irritated wave of a bony hand.
It would be just like Dragoon not to bother greeting him if he was in the middle of brewing some noxious paste. (Gaius might have appreciated the sorcerer's latest offering but Arthur was starting to lose patience at being a walking apothecary)
Dropping Llamrei's reigns, Arthur retrieved the cloth wrapped bundle he had tucked in the saddlebags and strode towards the hut. He didn't bother to knock, flinging open the door. "How many vials of elder tincture do you need-"
The hut was empty, the space behind the cutting board unoccupied. Arthur turned around, surveying the abandoned table and chairs, the empty hearth. The old sorcerer was nowhere in evidence. He could be anywhere.
The chance was slim but Arthur pushed aside the threadbare hanging drape that curtained off a small sleeping chamber.
The threadbare, listing bed was empty with no sign of the sorcerer's red robed skinny hide.
Arthur turned back to the main room, batting the curtain out of the way in frustration.
All their meetings had been made by prior arrangement. It was the first time he had come unannounced and of course it was the one time he really needed to talk to the old sorcerer.
There was a snort. A high whiney.
Arthur's head snapped toward the door, still hanging open, to see his horse standing head up and ears pricked in anticipation. Someone she knew was approaching.
Arthur stepped out of the hut, hand cautiously near the hilt of Excalibur.
There was a flash of red and white through the trees. And shortly afterwards, the familiar figure of Dragoon stumping into the clearing, one bony hand gripped tightly around a twisted staff.
His eyes shot to Llamrei and then Arthur, his expression barely lightening from its habitual scowl. "You're not meant to be here."
Arthur resisted the urge to snap back at the old man. "I need your opinion."
The old man's eyebrows rose then snapped back down. "I thought you'd heard enough of my opinions." He sent Arthur a ferocious scowl and strode past him toward the hut.
Arthur grasped him, hand closing around his arm to stop him.
The old man hissed and twisted free, one clawed hand rising in threat.
Arthur raised his hands, taking a step back.
A shocked, almost ashamed look crossed the sorcerer's face. But the expression quickly turned into a scowl. "What do you want?"
"Your advice." Arthur slowly lowered his hands, being sure to keep them far away from Excalibur.
The old man's lips pressed together, his mouth becoming a thin line. For a moment Arthur thought the sorcerer would refuse him, but then he gave a curt nod and stomped towards the cottage.
Arthur simply stood for a moment, eyes closing in relief, before following.
The sorcerer was already inside, fiddling with the pot hanging over the fire. He glanced up as Arthur looked up and then ignored him.
Left standing awkwardly just inside the door, Arthur straightened his shoulders and walked further into the hut, idly scanning the sparse room.
It hadn't changed much. If Arthur didn't know better, he would have thought no one lived there at all.
"I think you know why I'm here."
The sorcerer grunted, but didn't turn around.
"Two houses outside the castle walls have burnt down." Arthur continued. "The townspeople suspect sorcery."
The old man's hands stilled. He was listening.
"I want to hear what you think could have caused it."
"Why?" The sorcerer scowled at Arthur over his shoulder. "So you can start a hunt for sorcerers?"
Arthur kept his expression neutral. "If a sorcerer was burning people's houses, shouldn't he be hunted?"
The old man's scowl became less fierce. "If a sorcerer was guilty of that, then they would have to face the punishment of the law." He met Arthur's gaze with a narrow stare. "For their actions, not simply their use of magic."
Arthur held his gaze. "Then we both agree whoever set the fire should be caught."
The sorcerer let out a sigh, slowly getting to his feet with a series of cracking joints. He made a beeline to the nearest chair and sat down, gesturing with an irritated flick of a hand for Arthur to do the same. "Well?" He fixed Arthur with a sharp stare. "What do you know?"
Arthur told him. From Cadryr's report to the charred remains and the bracelet Merlin found in the ashes.
The old man listened intently, bright eyes fixed on Arthur's face as he talked. He was silent for a moment when Arthur had finished. "It could be sorcery. But it might not be."
"A fire burning that fast?" Arthur was sceptical.
"I've seen it so." The sorcerer's gaze was distant, his voice rough. "When men wish a house to burn, the flames will engulf it swiftly." His gaze refocused on Arthur. "Surely you've seen the same in battle."
Less than honourable men had set villages on fire. Arthur had seen it firsthand. A brand thrown on a druidic settlement, the canvas and wood engulfed in roaring flames like a dragon's breath. With enough torches and fuel it could consume lives quickly.
They had been fortunate that the fire hadn't spread beyond the one house. On both occasions.
"But it could have been sorcery?"
The old man's eyes narrowed. But he nodded. "It could have been. Though the fire could have been much faster if that was the case."
"Would many sorcerers be able to do it?" Arthur wasn't sure about what magic could be used.
"Fire is a basic spell," the sorcerer confirmed. "But a fast fire of that size-" he let out an annoyed sound, shaking his head. "Not many could control it." He scowled. "Not keeping it to one building."
"Could you?" Arthur tried to keep his voice casually curious.
The narrow stare he received suggested he'd failed utterly. "Of course I could," the old man snapped. "But that doesn't meant I would."
"It wasn't an accusation." Arthur set the bundle Gaius had given him on the table, contents clinking on contact.
The old man let out an unconvinced grunt. He turned back to the fire.
Arthur picked at the bundle, releasing the ties that held the cloth shut. The wrapping fell back to reveal several vials. Salves and foul-smelling tonics. Arthur grimaced. He hadn't thought it possible that anyone could match Gaius' interest in tonics and compresses.
But collecting herbs and obscure remedies was a relatively harmless pursuit for a sorcerer. The very thought of using magic to engulf all of a family's possessions in flames- "Why would he do it?"
Dragoon turned, one eyebrow raised in disgruntled interrogation.
"Burn the houses of townspeople," Arthur expanded. "Is it some attack on Camelot? Some opening gambit in an act of revenge?"
The sorcerer's brow furrowed. "You think that's the reason?" He sounded genuinely curious.
Arthur stilled, suddenly realizing that he'd been pacing. "It seems a common motivation among sorcerers attacking Camelot." He couldn't help the bitter edge to his words.
"The servant girl. Sefa." Dragoon spoke suddenly, causing Arthur to start. "The one who served your Queen."
Arthur's head rose warily. "What of her?"
"She betrayed you for the sake of her father. A sorcerer embittered by his treatment." The old man held his gaze. "I ask that you consider that when you find whoever set those flames. Not all is as it appears."
"I'll consider it," Arthur conceded with a nod. Once they had found the culprit, they would find out the full story. Magic might still be banned by law, but Arthur had always insisted on trials before any executions.
The sorcerer nodded, not looking entirely happy but accepting his answer. "If you have need I shall come to assess whether they had the magic to light those fires. And if-" his expression grew grim, "it proves the case, I won't stand in the way of your judgement."
It was as surprising as it was unexpected. With his protective stance to other magic users, it was a huge concession.
And one that deserved acknowledgement. "I appreciate your offer."
The old man let out a noise that was probably meant to be disgusted but sounded more resigned. "You know how to send me word. Only when you've caught them, though." He headed towards the back of the hut, clearly dismissive. "I'm not going to waste my time sneaking into Camelot when I don't have to. I have better things to do with my time!"
Arthur got to his feet, mind already working on the task of locating the arsonist loose in the city. The patrols would need to be increased, the people questioned and warned. They would need all the help from the people they could get-
Arthur paused. "You've said that not all sorcerers seek Camelot's ruin."
"I have." The old man scowled defensively.
Arthur turned, meeting the old man's gaze more directly. "If they're willing, I would meet with them under amnesty."
Dragoon's eyes widened and he stared speechlessly. He scowled to cover it, but Arthur had seen. "Meet with you?" The old man sounded incredulous. He scowled at Arthur fiercely. "If anyone is willing," he spoke as if he highly doubted it. "I'll be sure to tell them."
"I'll expect word in the next few days." Arthur ignored the sorcerer's offended glare. Dragoon might snap and snarl but Arthur didn't doubt he'd find somebody. He hid a grin.
The old sorcerer gave him a narrow stare. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
Arthur blinked and frowned, considering for a moment. "No."
The stare became a glare. "What about your manservant, left to slave away for his ungrateful master?"
"Merlin?" Arthur was incredulous. And shortly after suspicious. "How did you know-"
"I have my ways," the old man snapped. "Hurry up and go. Don't keep that young man waiting." He waved Arthur out the door. "Shoo! Go!"
Arthur found himself outside the hut, staring at the door the sorcerer had shut on him. Since when did sorcerers champion Merlin?
Chapter 11: Chapter Ten
Merlin's head thumped down on the table. "Arthur wants to meet other sorcerers."
Gaius ignored Merlin's dramatics and set a bowl at his elbow before sitting down, setting down his own. Rabbit stew. Not from the kitchens and flavoured from their own supply of herbs.
Once again, Gaius congratulated himself on choosing his profession.
"Surely that can only be good news, Merlin." Gaius picked up his spoon, pausing briefly to polish it on his sleeve, before dipping it into his bowl. "Just a week ago, Arthur had trouble contemplating the thought of visiting just one sorcerer."
Merlin mumbled something into the table. Gaius pretended not to hear his king's name or the unflattering adjectives that accompanied it.
"If Arthur is willing to meet other sorcerers, it suggests he is seriously considering the possibility that magic is not as evil as he once thought." Gaius raised his spoon, having caught a piece of rabbit.
It tasted even better than he had expected.
Merlin's head rose enough that he could gaze at Gaius with a look of despair. "Alator will not arrive for several more days. And I haven't heard back from Gilli."
Gaius lowered his next mouthful with regret. "Then Arthur will have to meet with someone else."
"Who?" Merlin's hands ran though his hair, elbows perched on the table. "The druids are camped several days away. Too far to cover our absence as a hunting trip."
And not leave much time for actual hunting. Gaius pursed his lips. "Then we'll have to find someone else. Someone who can't be mistaken as Dragoon."
A faint frown creased Merlin's forehead, comprehension slowly widening his eyes.
Gaius fished for another piece of rabbit. "A woman."
Merlin laughed. Only to stop, incredulous grin slipping as he realized Gaius wasn't joking. Merlin stared at him.
"Come now, Merlin. Arthur will never suspect. And this way you will ensure Arthur meets a sorcerer who means him no harm." Gaius ignored Merlin's almost accusing stare. "Now eat up, before it gets cold."
Merlin's head thumped back on the table.
Patrols had been increased and there had been no fire. Arthur had ordered the knights to remain vigilant. But with no more fires and no deaths, Arthur had begun to hope that the sorcerer had lost interest.
Dragoon had simply given him a sharp stare and asked him if he was certain it had been a sorcerer.
Arthur had been caught with his mouth open, unable to answer. So he had changed the subject. Dragoon had been, if not entirely diverted, willing to speak more on the use of magic in harvesting.
It was when they were both sitting by the fire that the old man suddenly changed the subject. "You wanted to meet another sorcerer." It was said abruptly, almost snapped out.
"I did." Arthur shifted in his seat, surprised that the old man had been the one to bring up the topic.
The sorcerer caught his surprised look and hunched defensively. His nose wrinkled. "Bah." He scowled. "Not many sorcerers are willing to meet a king who wants them dead. But I've found someone who will." He fixed Arthur with an almost resentful stare. "It was difficult."
"And I thank you for the effort." He was, Arthur realized with a sense of disbelief, getting the hang of placating the old sorcerer. He ignored the scowl on the old man's face. "I take it you know him well."
"She-" the sorcerer's scowl deepened as he glared, "-is known as the Dolma. A kind and gracious lady." He fixed Arthur with a stern, suspicious stare. "I'm giving you her name in the understanding that you will treat her more graciously than you have me."
Well, that was unexpected. He hadn't seen the old man quite so defensive. This Dolma must be a friend, if Dragoon even had friends. Arthur spread his hands to show his lack of hostile intent. "I will treat her as I would a lady of my court." He had learnt that sorcerers got testy when they didn’t receive what they thought was proper respect. Politeness and ignoring insults was the only way to deal with them.
Arthur grimaced. He only hoped that he wasn't being sent to an old hag with a worse disposition than Dragoon's.
Dragoon regarded him suspiciously, as if he knew some of Arthur's less than respectful thoughts. But he simply harrumphed and settled back into his chair. "The Dolma can be found at the Lake of Oaks. She said she would be willing to receive you in the next few days."
"The Lake of Oaks. It should only take a morning's ride." Arthur leaned forward, brightening at the prospect of getting out of the castle and not having to find some obscure cave for another eccentric sorcerer. "I'll lend you a horse. You can introduce us-"
"No!" The old sorcerer almost looked alarmed.
A nasty suspicion rose in Arthur's mind. "It's a short ride even for your aged bones." That earned him a glare. "Unless there's some other reason?"
"The Dolma-" The old man looked hunted. "The Dolma is very fond of me," it was suddenly blurted out.
Arthur leaned back in his chair. "I don't see the problem."
The old man glared, "Very fond."
Arthur laughed. "Don't tell me you're afraid of a sorceress because she likes you." He only laughed harder when the old man scowled at him.
The sorcerer drew himself up with a scowl. "You can find her at the lake's edge near the ancient twisted oak." He turned away, busying himself with a plate that didn't need cleaning. "I'm sure you can find it yourself."
Arthur coughed to try and cover his laughter. He was almost starting to look forward to meeting the sorceress who could unnerve the irascible old man.
Arthur couldn't believe that he'd ever thought this was something to look forward to. Or why he'd thought bringing Merlin along with him was a good idea.
"-you'll have to treat her with the utmost respect. Gaius says she's very powerful and it would be dangerous to anger her." Merlin grinned at Arthur over his shoulder. "I know it will be hard for a prat like you, but try not to insult her."
"You know I was beginning to get worried about how quiet you'd been lately." Arthur steered his horse around a pile of fallen boulders spilling out onto the trail. "But now I'm starting to wish I'd never said anything."
Merlin cast him a sideways glance. "I'm surprised you noticed, actually. Usually it takes you a lot longer."
Arthur gave him an incredulous stare. Merlin's impudence really had no bounds. "Are you trying to suggest I'm thick?"
"No." Merlin replied shortly as he flicked his reins, urging his horse up the rise before them. "I'm telling you."
Half outraged, half shocked Arthur urged his own horse after his infuriating insult of a manservant. The reprimand he had formulated, though, was forgotten when he drew up to Merlin who had stopped on the ridge.
A glistening body of water shone a deep blue in the valley below. The Lake of Oaks.
Arthur nudged his horse forward, passing Merlin who was staring at the lake like an idiot. "Well, come on Merlin. You're so eager to pay the sorceress our respects, you can't make me late."
"It isn't your tardiness that you need to be worrying about." It was a low mutter.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "You really are the worst servant I've ever seen."
"The only servant who can put up with you, you mean."
That had Arthur turning in the saddle. "Merlin. I know it's hard for you to understand-" Arthur broke off, staring behind his manservant.
Merlin's dopey grin faded into a dawning look of realization. He turned in the saddle.
Mist was rising from the ground. Like a curtain of thick white, forming with suspicious speed to obscure their surroundings.
Arthur turned forward. A white mist hazed the lush grass and the dark trees roots, a thick winding current that made the trees disembodied torsos and reaching hands. Arthur reined in, surveying the mist warily; even as he watched, it thickened and billowed up, a thick white wall.
"Merlin." Arthur drew his sword, eyes fixed on the swirling mist before them. It took him a few moments to realize that he hadn't heard Merlin. And hadn't for a while.
Arthur dragged at the reins, wheeling his horse around in a tight turn.
There was nothing behind him. Nothing but a thick swirling wall of white.
"Merlin!" Arthur strained his hearing, hoping to hear an answer. The idiot. He should have been following closer.
There was nothing. Nothing at all.
Not even the deadened birdsong to be heard on fog heavy mornings.
This was no natural mist, Arthur thought grimly. They had walked right into a trap.
And he had a good idea whose trap it was.
"Dolma!" His shout rang out, only to be swallowed up by the thickening air. Arthur turned his horse around again, but the mist was all around him, blocking him from the world. "Show yourself."
"I've been waiting for you, Great King." The voice was high and breathy, undeniably female.
Arthur twisted in the saddle. The mist had thinned slightly, revealing the thick trunk of an ancient oak. And standing in one of the most hideous costumes he had ever seen, was an old woman, her pale hair escaping in thin wisps from under her shawl.
"Where is my manservant?" Arthur clenched Excalibur tightly in his hand, the blade glinting in the dim light.
"Oh, the gangly boy?" The sorceress spoke almost offhandedly. "Safe."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. "What proof do I have of that?"
The sorceress let out a heavy sigh. " 'Dollophead'. He said you would know what it meant."
That couldn't have come from anyone but Merlin. Arthur's grip on Excalibur loosened slightly. "Where is he? Why have you taken him?"
"I am an old woman." The sorceress gave him a small, almost coy, smile. "Surely you can't blame me for taking precautions."
Arthur scowled. He could concede the point. But he didn't have to like it. "What of this mist? I came to you openly and you hide behind your magic."
The sorceress let out another sigh. She made a cutting gesture at the mist, eyes glowing golden, and the mist recoiled, shrinking back to the ground. "A precaution only."
Arthur stared at her. Excalibur was still in his hand. Feeling somewhat ridiculous, he left the sword fall back into its sheathe with a metallic slide. "I was told you would talk to me about magic." Arthur remained in the saddle, hand still near Excalibur's hilt. "Dragoon said you were willing."
"Dragoon." It was a fond coo. "Dragoon is one of the most powerful of our brethren." The sorceress wore an alarmingly fond smile.
"Dragoon?" Arthur turned his scoff into a cough at the sorceress' glare.
"Yes, Dragoon." An edge of annoyance had crept into the sorceress' soft voice. "Clearly you are no judge of magical prowess or beauty in spirit."
Arthur coughed, half choking on amusement and indignation.
"I feel sorry for you." The sorceress continued. "It is sad to think a young king knows so little of the beauty of magic. You are fortunate Dragoon has taken you under his wing, young Wart."
"Did you just call me 'Wart'?" Arthur was afraid he was hearing things. And all too certain he wasn't.
The sorceress raised innocent eyebrows. "Isn't that how you like to be called? Dragoon said you liked nicknames. That he had given you one that you liked to be called." She vaguely waved a hand. "I think it had something to do with toads?"
A toad. Suddenly it was all too easy to remember the string of insults the sorcerer had flung at his father and the rather lame one he had given to Arthur.
He really shouldn't have been surprised.
Arthur coughed, and cleared his throat. "You know why I've come."
The sorcerer inclined her head, almost regally. "I do." She fixed Arthur with a searching stare. "You seek to know the truth of magic. When you have seen it all along without seeing."
Arthur blinked, taken aback but the sudden force in the sorceress' voice.
"You have had many chances, Great King." Her pale eyes fixed on him with a startling intensity. "Seen many things not even the High Priestesses of the Old Religion have witnessed. You have slain a unicorn and lived, fought a griffin, survived the Questing Beast and the wrath of the Great Dragon." The list was almost an honour roll. "You have even used the Horn of Cathbhadh."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. "How do you know about that? Have you been watching me?"
Her thin lips curved in a smile. "How can I not know? Your deeds are whispered throughout the land." Her smile suddenly vanished. "As have your sins."
"My sins?" Arthur straightened in his saddle, reminded of the Disir, their judgement and the disdainful punishment they meted out.
"You have a reputation, Great King." The sorceress tucked a stray wisp of hair back under her shawl. "Kind and just, accepting those of honour despite their status."
Her voice rang out crisp as it could in its soft cadences. "But that applies not to those with magic." Her mouth pursed. "Dragoon says you are willing to learn." Her pale eyes fixed on his in a measuring stare. "To listen."
Arthur swallowed back a sharp retort. Dragoon was bad enough, he didn't want to needlessly anger the woman who had the old sorcerer frightened. "I asked Dragoon to introduce me to other sor-" Arthur hastily corrected himself "-magic users."
The sorceress inclined her head and gestured to herself with a graceful hand wave. "And here we are. What do you wish to know, Great King?"
Arthur considered dismounting, eyed the mist flowing across the grass and reconsidered. "I'm trying to understand what magic means to Camelot."
"And those who use it?" The sorceress lifted a brow.
Arthur regarded her in surprise.
The sorceress smiled, a knowing look in her eye. "No king, no strategist, considers change without considering all the players."
"What does magic mean to Camelot?" The sorceress tilted her head in consideration. "Magic made Camelot even as it now protects it. The Old Religion may have used magic but it is not magic itself. Magic is in the land, in the beasts that walk the earth." Her soft voice strengthened with conviction. "While it has faded from the minds of men, magic still remains. It is a force that can be harnessed for good or ill."
"You aren't a follower of the Old Religion?" The sorcerer was a priestess, wasn't she?
"No." The glance the sorceress gave him was something like approval. "Like Dragoon," she almost crooned the name, "I am not shackled by the dictates of the Old Religion." Her voice grew contemplative. "Perhaps if I had been sought out when I was young, raised by the Old Ways, I would have. But I was saved from that fate."
Arthur frowned. It was disturbingly similar to Dragoon's past. An escape from those who would use their magic for their own purposes. Though in this case, the Dolma had been threatened by those with magic. He had thought magic users stood together. But it was clear that even they preyed upon each other.
And few managed to break free of the forces arrayed against them. Disturbed by his thoughts, Arthur asked. "You were saved?"
The Dolma's pale lashes momentary veiled her eyes. "I was taught another way. An old woman took me in, gave me shelter and taught me all she knew." Her voice was fond, the breathy tones full of affection. "She did not have the power I had. She had foresworn magic but took it up again in order to protect me." The sorceress shot Arthur a proud look. "It was she who taught me my magic was a gift to be used for others."
"You had no family?"
The warmth faded from the Dolma's expression. "I was sent away. It was not safe to remain in my village."
Camelot seemed little better, Arthur reflected. Even now the Dolma and Dragoon were under threat of execution.
The old and the isolated. Arthur considered the sorcerers he had encountered. Most of those who had faced Camelot were young, or at least not in the twilight of their years. Was it youthful folly? Had - he shied from the thought but had to consider it - his father's laws destroyed any hope for those who wished sanctuary from the Old Ways? Had that played a role in how many had stood against Camelot? He couldn't deny that it might have been the case.
If he was to change the law, there would have to be others. Laws protecting those inexperienced with magic. To guide them on a path that would have them use their abilities to protect Camelot, rather than attack it.
If he was to rescind the law. He was far from swayed. "What of the sorcerers you have come in contact with since? Even isolated as you are, I cannot believe there have been none."
The sorceress' expression became guarded. "I have helped those who have crossed my path. They have since taken the road far from Camelot."
Arthur wasn't entirely convinced of that - Dragoon had taken pains to state he would not surrender the names of any sorcerers and Arthur doubted the Dolma would either.
"And those who have not come for your help?" If what Dragoon had told him was true, there were many who would want a sorcerer's powers for their own.
The Dolma gave him a thin smile. "They were convinced to go elsewhere."
"You admit there are sorcerers who would mean others harm."
"Sorcerers?" Her face grew grave. "There is no evil in sorcery, only in the hearts of men."
It was much what Dragoon had said.
Llamrei shifted uneasily and Arthur unthinkingly adjusted his grip on the reins. The horse had been uncommonly calm, Arthur suddenly realized. Neither the mist nor the appearance of the sorceress had startled her. As if they were known.
Arthur's eyes narrowed as he stared at the old sorceress. Now that he thought about it, she almost looked...familiar. "Have we met before?"
"Oh." The Dolma let out a little sighing laugh. "I don't think so."
Arthur stared at her, the nagging sense of familiarity growing stronger. "Have you ever come to Camelot before?"
"The lake is my home, Great King. I have little reason to leave it."
It wasn't quite a denial, Arthur noted. But he left the subject drop, knowing he wouldn't get any further. Elderly sorcerers were tenacious.
But there was one question that he couldn't refrain from asking. "Why haven't you secured your freedom by force?"
The sorceress was quiet for a long moment. "You, Great King, have the power over the lives of your subjects. But you use that power to protect them." Her eyes were fierce. "I have seen what has become of men and women who use magic to further their goals. Even the best intentions can go astray. A lesson hard learned." She met Arthur's gaze firmly. "I mean no harm to Camelot or your people, Great King. My magic remains for my protection and the protection of those under my care."
"Of those who stand against you-" She lifted a pale hand. "There are many who have given up on waiting for you to change your mind, Great King. The prophecies give hope but the loss of hope can only turn to ruin and resentment."
"You would do well to consult the druids on the matter of prophecies. Their people have trained for centuries in seeing through the veil of the future."
Arthur shifted in his saddle, uneasy by the allusion to his fate. A fate the Disir now held in their hands. "And what do the prophecies say of me?"
Perhaps he shouldn't have asked. But Arthur wasn't going to remain ignorant of something that affected how the magical world viewed him.
"Of your rule." A soft smile warmed her eyes. "And the golden age it will birth. I have waited long for its coming. And I will wait until the day comes that heralds freedom for all."
Arthur stared down at her. Shocked at the unexpectedness of her answer. The faith in her words.
Only Merlin showed that unwavering conviction in his rule.
He suddenly felt the great weight of responsibility of an old sorceress' hopes. Hopes that she had held for years, perhaps decades. "I have not yet decided to repeal the laws against sorcery," he pointed out as gently as he could.
"Not yet." The sorceress agreed. "The prophecies are not specific. And they are not certain. But the possibility is there." She held his gaze, faith burning bright in her eyes. "More than Camelot's fate rests in your hands. A heavy burden, but you are strong enough to bear it." Her voice softened. "Perhaps the only one who can."
Arthur frowned, opened his mouth to ask what she meant.
But the sorceress raised a hand. "Our time is coming to an end. Go, Great King." Her soft, almost frail voice strengthened. "May the blessings of this place go with you. Rule with the compassion you have shown to your subjects. And remember those who have aided you in the past." Her eyes flared golden.
The mist rose up, swirling up from the ground in a thick white wall. The sorceress was suddenly hidden behind the thickening curls of air, her dark form hazing into a dark shadow.
"Wait!" Llamrei was unsettled, turning anxiously as the air cooled suddenly around her. Arthur twisted in the saddle to look at the fading shadow of the sorceress and was confronted with a wall of white. "My servant!"
"Returned to you, unharmed." Her voice echoed, seemingly coming from all directions. "He has done much for you. More than you can know."
Arthur pulled a face in confusion. What was she talking about?
He turned, his horse wheeling around and Arthur scoured the mist. It curled and twisted. Once again he was surrounded by the thickened air and unable to see where he was. Or what was coming at him from the mist.
It would be the perfect trap to slay a king-
A shadow loomed and Arthur drew his sword-
The mist swirled away to reveal Merlin, seated on his horse as if nothing had happened. His eyes widened as he saw Excalibur unsheathed.
"Why didn't you call out?" Relief turned to anger. If the mist hadn't shifted, he could have struck Merlin down. Why hadn't the idiot make some of his habitual noise to warn him?
"She said you knew I was coming." Merlin answered guilessly.
Arthur slid Excalibur back into its sheath. "And since when did you trust the word of a sorceress you've never met before?" Arthur snapped.
Merlin stared at him, eyes wide. His mouth thinned into an unhappy line.
Arthur looked away, running a gloved hand through his hair. "For such a clumsy servant, you made little noise. Next time, make some noise or I'll run you through." It was disturbing to think about how close he had come to that. If the fog hadn't thinned so quickly- He picked up the reins.
Merlin eyed him warily. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Arthur considered the sorceress' words as he urged his horse forward. "I don't know."
Chapter 12: Chapter Eleven
Arthur had been quiet since their journey to the lake and his meeting with the Dolma. Merlin had caught him gazing out windows on more than one occasion and there had been at least one night he had found Arthur staring into the fire, dinner untouched.
Merlin wasn't sure if it was a good sign or not. But he took it as one. Arthur was at least thinking about what the Dolma had said, not simply disregarding her words out of hand.
Merlin had become slightly concerned that the sorcerers Arthur had met were one and the same. Arthur's words plagued him. Arthur could not change the law simply because of one man. And despite meeting three sorcerers, it had only been one that he had talked to.
Which was why Merlin had suggested the druids. Until Alator sent back word, they were the only magic users Merlin could trust not to harm Arthur and to speak with him truthfully.
And do more to convince Arthur. They were regarded as a peaceful people by all - one of the best examples of peaceful magic users that Merlin could think of.
They could also tell him more about the Old Ways than Merlin could.
Merlin balanced his tray on one hand and reached out to knock on Arthur's door.
"Come in." Arthur's voice was muffled. A light female laugh soon followed.
Merlin grinned and pushed open the door.
Gwen smiled up at him as she rose from her chair. "Merlin. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."
Merlin ignored Arthur's narrow stare as he set the tray down on the table. "That might be an impossible task even for me, your majesty."
Gwen laughed. She bent and kissed Arthur on her way out of the room.
Merlin glanced at Arthur who was wearing the pleased but slightly stunned look he usually wore when Gwen demonstrated her affection. It soon cleared into a look of annoyance when he noticed Merlin was staring at him.
"Make yourself useful, Merlin." Arthur got up and made for his desk. "I need a drink."
Merlin grinned and reached for the pitcher. "And what else can I help you with?" With Gwen involved, it was going to be good.
Arthur shot him a flat look. "Merlin. Do you-"
A bell rang out, loud and deep.
The watch bell for the town.
Merlin thrust the pitcher back onto the table and Arthur lunged for Excalibur.
They exchanged a glance and then ran for the door.
The guards held a girl in their grasp, swords bared and pressed to her shoulders, heavy shackles encircling her thin wrists.
A group of knights stood close by, a solid grouping in red and the silver of steel. Their swords were sheathed but they were still wary.
Arthur's heart seized at the sight. "What's going on here?" He strode forward, Merlin following closely at his heels.
The guards snapped to attention. One saluting, the other keeping his eyes on the girl.
"Sire. We caught her red-handed." The man shot the girl a look of revolted triumph.
The girl shrunk back, eyes wide and terrified, jumping when the sword tip of the other guard dug into her shoulder.
Arthur fixed his gaze on her, only for the girl to fold up on herself in fear. He frowned. She didn't look like a sorcerer, let alone one who would set people's homes on fire. He fixed his gaze on the town guard. "And what did you see?"
"The fire. She put it out once she saw us, but there was no doubt, she started it!" He hissed. "I saw her eyes glow gold! The fire moving at her command!"
The other guard nodded in confirmation.
The girl remained silent, eyes lowered.
Arthur glanced at Sir Heylan, captain of the knights who had joined the patrols.
The knight nodded, though he didn't look pleased to corroborate the guards' claim. "What he says is true, sire. The girl used magic." He glanced at the guards, a somewhat grim look. "The guardsmen insisted on binding her in the old way," he added impassively.
Arthur's frown deepened. He glanced at the girl, frightened and not defending herself. Hands weighted by heavy iron.
Wrists thin enough for the bracelet they had found.
At the burnt out corner of the house that had been saved this night.
He was aware of Merlin's gaze on him, silent but heavy.
Arthur firmed his jaw. "Escort her to the dungeons. The shackles remain until we know who we're dealing with."
Sir Heylan and the other knights saluted, accepting the order. They closed ranks around the girl, separating her from the guardsmen and their swords, and started walking her towards the castle.
Arthur lingered, gaze on the guards. "Gwaine." His most roguish knight had been grimly observing the situation with Percival, both of them a brooding presence in the background. "Question them on what they saw."
Gwaine cast a look after the girl surrounded by towering knights and nodded before moving towards the guards. Glancing at Arthur for permission, Percival followed him.
They would quickly have the full account from the guards.
Satisfied, Arthur made for the castle, walking slower so that Merlin fell in at his side, grim and disapproving.
Arthur gave him a stern commanding glance. "Merlin."
Merlin glanced at him. His expression lightened somewhat and he nodded grimly.
Arthur lengthened his strides, the image of the small girl's pale face foremost in his mind.
The cell was quiet. It took Merlin a moment to see the small figure couched on the corner of the small hard bed.
Merlin walked up to the iron bars, purposefully making enough noise to disturb the girl. "I brought you dinner." He tried to keep his voice light and cheerful. The dungeons were a bleak place and would appear even worse to a child.
Thin arms tightened around bent knees, a faint clank of iron rising at the movement.
Merlin's gaze caught on the heavy black links, smile fading. "The cook's not so good," he continued. "So I put together some fruit." There was no response, so Merlin used his greatest tactic. "There's also a honey cake."
A small pale head rose, dark eyes glinting in the light. The girl looked at him and then the plate before turning away and curling up tighter, chained shackles pulling and clanking.
For a moment Merlin simply stood there, frozen by the hopeless gaze he had witnessed. The plate was a cold line in his hands.
Merlin looked down at its contents, the berries and the apple he had lifted from the kitchens. The honey cake was nestled between them, pale and still slightly steaming.
He glanced at the guards, still chatting and rolling dice across the low table at which they sat. He wouldn't put it past then to steal a prisoner's untouched meal.
There was a slot in the bars to deliver meals. Merlin knelt and carefully slipped the plate through the space, setting it on the floor and pushing it out of arms reach of either of the guards. "I'll leave it here." A glance revealed pale hair and a still-turned back. "You can eat when you're hungry." He got back to his feet.
The girl remained silent, ignoring him. She looked very small in the dark expanse of the cell.
Merlin glanced back over his shoulder. The guards were intent on their game, paying no attention to the prisoner they were guarding or their prisoner's visitor.
He drew closer to the cell bars, hands closing on the cold metal. "Do you need another blanket?"
The girl was silent, back flexing as her arms tightened around her knees.
"The cells can be cold - I've been in them a few times." From the tilt of girl's head, she was listening. Not willing to hear him but listening.
"Arthur is a good king," Merlin added, unable leave the girl alone in the dark, chained and without hope. "He will listen to what you say. Don't give up hope."
Arthur wouldn't condemn a child.
His mind flashed back to that awful night when Arthur had confessed to leading raids on Druid camps, killing women and children.
Arthur had changed since then. Had changed in the last few weeks. He was more open to the idea of magic not being evil itself. With his sense of justice and love of his people, Merlin hoped there would be no more executions, no persecution of magic users because of their magic.
That a small girl would not have to face death simply because she used magic.
She wouldn't, Merlin promised silently. He wouldn't let it happen.
One of the guards let out a cheer, the other groaning into his hands. A glance at the pile of coins revealed he didn't have much time until their game of chance drew to an end.
"I have to go." The girl had hunched at the sudden noise, holding her crouched pose against the wall. "I'll have another blanket brought to you. If you need anything, simply ask for Merlin."
That finally got him another glance, dark eyes peering at him from under a pale fringe of hair.
"Anything you need, I'll be here as soon as I can." Merlin gave a smile. "I'll see you later."
Feeling the girl's gaze on him, Merlin turned and made his way out of the dungeons. He had to talk to Arthur.
Arthur was sitting by the fire, chin resting on his fist as he stared into the flames. But he looked up as Merlin slipped quietly into the room.
"How is she?"
Merlin didn't ask who he was referring to. Arthur had gotten used to his venture down into the dungeons for information.
"Scared." Merlin set down the tray with the pitcher it bore. "Afraid of everything and everyone." Merlin gave him a sharp stare. "What else would you expect from a small girl taken from her family and locked in a cage expecting to die?"
Arthur flinched. His gaze turned back to the fire.
Merlin took one of the goblets and filled it before taking it to Arthur.
Arthur took it without looking at him. "You don't think she should be there."
"Neither do you." Merlin stood beside his chair. "Even if she does have magic, it doesn't mean that girl was the one to start the fires."
Arthur cast him a troubled look before turning back to the fire. "But you can't prove it. None of us are able to say what she is capable of."
"But another sorcerer could," Merlin pointed out.
Arthur turned towards him with a frown. "You mean Dragoon?"
Merlin shrugged, affecting nonchalance. "He's a sorcerer. He'd be more likely to know if she was responsible."
Arthur's frown deepened. "If he will come." He sat in thought for a moment, shifting in his chair. Finally he gave Merlin a sidelong glance. "You know where he lives-"
Merlin grinned. "I'll set off after dinner."
Chapter 13: Chapter Twelve
Merlin leaned under the bed, one arm braced on the mattress. A jumble of fabric met his fingers and he seized the bundle, dragging it out. He scrambled to his feet and after a quick shake, he rolled the robe into a tidier ball, stuffing it into his satchel. After a moment's hesitation, he added the small doll he had picked up from the hall.
Swinging the pack to his shoulder, Merlin hastily descended the stairs into the main room. Gaius was waiting for him, a disapproving expression on his face.
"Don't try to stop me." Merlin took the vial waiting on the table, lifting it to eye to check its contents.
"Merlin." Gaius' hands were folded over each other, his expression grave. "Have you considered what it would mean if you were seen here? You're still wanted within Camelot and Arthur will have no choice but to arrest you."
"Then I won't let anyone see me." Merlin tucked the vial carefully into his bag. He met Gaius' perturbed stare, hands resting on the bulging satchel. "Gaius. Do you really want me to leave that girl to die because she used magic?" He drew in a shaky breath. "She's like me, Gaius. I can't just let her die."
Gaius slowly walked over and drew him into a hug. "There's the young boy who came into my chambers several years ago." Gaius' arms tightened and he patted Merlin's back before releasing him. "Go quickly. You don't have much time."
Merlin drew back and nodded. He darted out the door, leaving Gaius staring out after him.
Arthur was taking his time.
Merlin wrapped his arms around himself, bracing himself against the cold. The robe he wore as Dragoon was long sleeved but his aged body felt the cold keenly. Waiting in the cool evening outside the castle walls, exposed to the wind he had to keep pacing not to freeze.
It was enough to make him grateful for the gifts Arthur had given Dragoon. The gloves and scarf helped to cut out the cold wind. Enough that he was wishing that Arthur would give him some warmer clothes. Even the ridiculous hat was keeping his head warmer that it would have been, loathe as he was to admit it.
Though that, at least, was something he was glad to not to have been given. Given the chance, Arthur would have gleefully ordered him to wear the hat around the castle.
Maybe gifts from Arthur weren't such a good idea.
Not that he expected Arthur to be giving him any more gifts.
There was a scrape and a quiet squeal. Merlin looked up to see Arthur pushing open the iron grate door that guarded the entrance into the dungeons.
He saw Merlin and did a second take as he saw the hat and gloves Merlin was wearing. The start of a smirk bent his lips.
"You're late," Merlin snapped. Dragoon wouldn't approve of the cold and neither did he.
Arthur's smile faltered into irritation. But he took a breath, forcibly remained calm. "I had to wait until the castle had quieted."
Merlin let out an unconvinced huff, secretly enjoying the way Arthur bit back a retort. "Well then? Lead the way! I'm not waiting in the cold until you get your wits in order."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. His eyes fell on Merlin's horse tied nearby, half concealed by bushes. "Where is my servant?"
"Sorting the herbs he was so kind to gift me." Merlin replied tartly. "He will have his horse back when I return it. He will be back by morning." When he would have to have Arthur's breakfast ready and start his laundry.
He allowed an annoyed breath escape his lips. If Arthur knew half the things Merlin did for him... He still probably wouldn't be appropriately grateful.
Arthur looked annoyed but he nodded. "Follow me." He turned and shot over his shoulder, "And try not to be seen."
Merlin pulled a face at his back and made sure to mutter loud enough for Arthur to hear about arrogant toadish kings.
He could tell when Arthur's shoulders stiffened in offense that he'd hit his mark.
"We're here to see the prisoner."
The jailer looked at Arthur uncertainly.
Dragoon ignored the exchange. "Well? We haven't got all day!" He gestured at the door. "The key."
Arthur gave the guard a nod, all-too aware that the sorcerer would probably break the lock open with his impatience.
With a still-doubtful look, the man retrieved the keys from his belt and fit it to the cell's lock.
Dragoon bared his teeth. "Thank you." It was hard to tell whether it was gratitude or scathing sarcasm.
The sorcerer didn't wait for the guard to open the door, pushing it open himself. He stopped, standing in the middle of the cell to regard the girl sitting warily on her cot.
Her gaze fixed on him uncertainly before turning to Arthur, still standing outside the cell. The guard, realizing he was not wanted, had already escaped.
"Tch!" The old man made a flicking gesture, sending the cell door slamming back into its frame, lock clicking shut. "If you're so afraid of a young girl, then you can stay out there."
Afraid? Arthur tore his gaze from the cell door - which hadn't made him jump, at all - to send the old man an unimpressed look as he crossed his arms.
This hadn't been what they had agreed on. Dragoon wasn't meant to be taking control like this.
"You're a sorcerer!" It was a soft whisper. The girl stared at the old man disbelievingly.
"Warlock." A smile nested his eyes in wrinkles. "Or so I have been called."
Arthur regarded the old man curiously. He hadn't realized there was a difference.
From the nonplussed look on the girl's face, she wasn't aware of one either. She looked at the old man for a doubtful moment before glancing outside the cell. She spotted Arthur and suddenly blanched.
Arthur wasn't used to people looking at him in such fear. Enemies of Camelot, defeated enemies. But not young girls.
"Ignore him." Dragoon flapped a hand towards Arthur in a manner that would have had him protesting in outrage if it hadn't been for the way some of the fear faded from the girl's eyes.
The sorcerer strode over to the cot - a little slower than his fierce strides into the cell - and sat down beside the girl. "I am known as Dragoon."
A bit of wariness was returning as the shock faded. The girl glanced at Arthur anxiously before turning back to the old sorcerer. "Freya."
Dragoon was sitting with a strange stillness. He coughed and when he finally did speak, his voice was rough. "Freya. A beautiful name." He gave Freya a small, almost wavering smile. "A strong name."
Arthur's eyes narrowed. He took a step closer to the grate of the cell, boots scrapping the cold stone beneath his feet.
The sound made Freya's eyes dart towards him.
"And that is the king." A bony hand flicked in his direction. "Also known as Wart." Dragoon ignored Arthur's glare. The sorcerer leaned forward, grimacing as his back cracked. "Freya." He pulled the bracelet from his sleeve, revealing it with a flourish. "Is this yours?"
Her eyes widened. She reached for the bracelet before snatching her hand back to lie limply in her lap.
Dragoon's face gentled. Carefully, he reached out and placed the bracelet in her palm, slowly so she didn't startle. "You lost it several days ago. At the fire."
Her eyes shot up to his, then turned, terrified, to Arthur.
That terrible stare was one of the worst things Arthur had seen. No one should be that frightened of him, let alone a small girl.
Dragoon gave him a quelling glance. He turned his attention back to Freya. "Can you tell me how you lost it?" Somehow he made it a simple enquiry, as if the bracelt had never been recovered from a burnt out shell.
Freya's gaze shot to Dragoon, wide and frozen like a startled hare. Then to Arthur, the terror in her dark eyes only increasing.
Dragoon let out a weary sigh. He scowled at Arthur. But when his gaze fell on the small girl beside him, the expression faded into determination.
"Freya." The sorcerer's eyes lidded. Slowly he raised his hand, palm upward and fingers spread in the manner of an offering, before his chest.
Light glowed in the gentle cradle of his hand. A pale blue white that swirled slowly, expanding and turning to form a perfect sphere.
A sphere Arthur had seen before.
Dragoon turned to Freya, an encouraging smile on his face.
The girl's eyes were wide. She glanced at Arthur fearfully but her eyes were drawn back inexorably to the glowing ball of light in Dragoon's hand.
Arthur found himself in similar straits. For entirely different reasons.
He had seen that light before.
Dragoon, unaware of Arthur's thoughts, smiled at Freya, face lit by a silver blue glow.
Enchanted, Freya hesitantly held up her own hand. A small spark trembled, spinning and growing into a small unsteady orb the size of a large berry. A smile appeared for the first time on Freya's face.
"Excellent." Dragoon's voice was soft, deepened and strengthened from its usual querulous tone. "Bring it in tighter, steadier."
Freya seemed to have forgotten Arthur was there. She frowned in concentration and the small sphere steadied into a tiny golden sun.
Arthur probably should have said something. Protested against the sorcery being used in the heart of Camelot, but he didn't. His gaze was fixed on the blue silver globe resting effortlessly in Dragoon's palm.
Dragoon's gaze lifted to meet his, staring at Arthur for a moment, before returning to Freya. "Very good." He held up his other hand, palm up and closed. "And this?" His fingers unfurled, a golden flame dancing on his palm.
Freya's reaction was instantaneous. The small gold light vanished and with a small cry of fear. Freya shot back on the cot, even as the flame in Dragoon's palm extinguished.
The blue silver globe floated into the air, illuminating Freya's terrified face.
"Freya." Dragoon's voice was gentle and terribly knowing. "You've been putting out the fires, haven't you?"
Arthur stared at him in shock. Freya-
A soft sob broke out. Freya huddled into a ball, thin arms wrapping around her knees. "Fire hurt Papa." Her shoulders shook.
An almost sad look of understanding lit Dragoon's eyes. He wrapped a long arm around Freya's shoulders, drawing her to his side. As her fingers clutched at his red robes, his eyes met Arthur's across the cell.
A cell that Arthur had condemned her to for an act she had tried to prevent.
Arthur didn't speak until they were once again outside the castle walls. "She has magic."
"Of course she has magic!" The old man was disgusted. "Many people have magic. A number of them hide. Even fewer would use it to save those who would kill them for having it!" He glared at Arthur fiercely.
It was hard to meet his gaze but Arthur refused to flinch. "If that's what she was doing."
"Do you really believe that child responsible for setting those people's houses alight?" The old man let out a disgusted noise. "After having her own home burned?"
Arthur met his glare for a long moment. "No," he finally conceded.
"No. That girl used her magic to save people's houses. Those who live in Camelot." The sorcerer gestured up at the castle behind them. "Not for gain or any reward, but at risk for herself." Arthur hadn't seen the old man so furious before. "Because Camelot is a place where everyone will one day be free and the Once and Future King will see the return of magic."
The words were harsh, but strangely Arthur felt that they were directed at Dragoon himself as much as at him. Still they riled and Arthur held onto his temper with effort. "I don't know about that." He held the old man's gaze when his angry eyes fixed on him. "What people believe will happen, what they expect, I cannot always meet." His voice sharpened, cutting off what angry words lurked still on the sorcerer's tongue. "But what I will give them is justice, protection under laws which I believe keep the kingdom safe."
Dragoon stared at him for a long moment then let out a breath. He scowled. "And what justice is there for Freya?"
Arthur met his gaze evenly. "I will not see her condemned for something she did not do." He held the old man's gaze. "I will see she is released."
"And what? Be looked at sideways for the rest of her life, with those around her suspicious and waiting for a sign of any magic? Leave Camelot for fear that she be discovered and be thrown once more into the dungeons?" The old sorcerer's voice was fierce. "You will need to do more than that to protect her from your own laws!"
"They are not my laws!" Arthur found himself shouting it. "Do you think I want to condemn women and children?!"
The old man was unmoved. "Your father may have made the laws but it is you who keep them." He turned to Merlin's horse, using a listing stump to clamber into the saddle. "You are king now." He straightened, a strained look on his face. "Your kingdom will be what you want it to be."
Arthur stared up at him, caught in a mix of frustration and anger.
Dragoon's expression softened. He gave Arthur a small smile. "You are king, Arthur Pendragon. A good king." He regained some of his customary gruffness. "If Freya is released, the real culprit will strike again. If you capture them, there will be no questioning of your decision regarding Freya."
The old man favoured Arthur with a small smile. "The Dolma was impressed. And even though you lack certain qualities, I suspect others will talk to you. I can guide you to the druids if you wish." He took hold of the reins in shaking hands and kicked the horse into motion. "I will send your servant back. Send word if you need me."
Arthur watched him ride off, feeling something close to shame.
The release (and subsequent disappearance) of the tiny sorceress hadn't been received well by the townspeople. Two men were muttering loudly about it as they walked the streets, extolling how sorcerers were tricky traitors and needed constant guarding against.
Arthur grimaced where he stood with Leon in the shadows of the building they were standing. And then wondered at himself for seeing the prejudice against sorcerers in Camelot as a bad development.
Dragoon, irritable and cantankerous as he was, was rubbing off on him.
The thought made him grimace harder.
Arthur felt Leon's gaze on him but brushed it off, focusing on the narrow cobble alleys they were watching.
They were in one of the quieter parts of the castle town and the most likely place the fire starter would next strike. All they had to do was catch him in the act.
They didn't have to wait long.
In the shadows across the street Gwaine suddenly stiffened, the centre of a ripple of alertness that travelled through the rest of the knights.
A soft sound of footprints sounded through the empty streets. Within a few moments, a tall figure appeared, gangly and stretched in the shadows. The man walked slowly, casting about until he reached a building further down the lane. He then paused for a long moment close to the wall. Soon after a flicker of light weakly lit the alley.
Arthur waited until the man had started to lift the flame towards the thatched roof before signalling.
The knights rushed out from their places of concealment and swarmed the man. Percival chasing the flames still burning on the end of their bundle of straw and stamping them out. In a matter of moments, the man was caught, held between Elyan and Gwaine.
Arthur stared at him in the light of the lanterns, now uncovered and lighting the alley. He looked normal, like any number of men who lived and worked around the castle.
Arthur met the man's gaze in the low light. "Why?"
The man simply stared at him for a moment. Then he grinned. "Because I can!" He started to laugh.
Arthur stared at him until he fell silent and his grin faltered. "Take him away." He didn't watch as the knights dragged the now-struggling man away.
Instead he stared at the new patch of burnt wood that could have been part of a burnt out shell.
The work of a man, not magic.
Arthur's lips thinned. He would have to send word to Dragoon.
Chapter 14: Chapter Thirteen
Gaius set a vial on the table before him. "Valerian, John's Wart and elder flowers. Down that and you will be unable to tend your duties." He sounded almost cheerful.
Merlin looked at the tincture doubtfully, squinting at the label. "A sleeping potion?" He doubted that would be enough to convince Arthur he was ill.
"And horse-radish tonic." Gaius pulled another vial from his sleeve, setting it on the table with a cheerful flourish.
"Horse-radish tonic." Merlin repeated flatly. "The diuretic."
"Exactly." Gaius beamed guiltlessly. "Arthur isn't going to make you work when so clearly ill."
Which he would be if he took the horse-radish tonic. There was nothing so sure to clear stomach and bowels. Merlin grimaced, picking up the second vial gingerly. "Isn't there something else? Less...radical." He finished, weakly.
Gaius fixed him with a stern look. "Merlin, my boy. We cannot leave room for doubt in this. There must be no suggestion that your disappearance and the presence of Dragoon are linked."
Merlin regarded the vial with trepidation. He knew Gaius was right, but the prospect was daunting.
He grimaced and unscrewed the vial's lid. The sacrifices he made. Arthur had better give him the day off.
Warmth was spilling over his cheek in a slanting line. A soft noise of protest escaped Arthur's lips and he rolled over, burying his face in a pillow.
It took a few moments for the fact to filter in that it wasn't his pillow. And that he wasn't tangled up in a cloud of sweet smelling curls.
Arthur grunted and slipped a hand across the other side of the bed. It was cold. Gwen was already gone.
Merlin would have woken him if it was time to get up. Arthur pulled up the covers to block out the sun, setting in for some more sleep.
Only to freeze, eyes opening.
Lifting a corner of the sheet, Arthur peered out into the room.
George bowed from where he waited beside the bed. "Good Morning, Your Majesty."
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. But it was no use. George was still there.
"I took the liberty of selecting your breakfast." George gestured with a hand to the table.
Arthur peered suspiciously at the table but there were only two serving plates, a jug and goblet. Not, thankfully the banquet spread he had prepared the last time he had replaced Merlin.
He turned his bleary gaze back to George. "Why are you here?"
George gave a small bow, inclining his head in a short almost preening gesture. "I'm here to serve you in the absence of your manservant."
Arthur threw back the blankets sitting up. "Where is Merlin?"
George blinked. "I believe the Royal Physician has ordered he take bed rest. I am to fulfil his duties until he is well again."
Bed rest? Since when did Merlin need bed rest?
George had glided over to the table and was now pouring the contents of the jug into the goblet. "Should I prepare a plate? Or would you like to break your fast in bed?"
Arthur scrambled for the side of the bed, unable to bear the thought of George subserviently selecting his breakfast. Just imagining the endless fawning enquiries and pompous suggestions made him shudder.
He was going to get dressed and eat with as little help from George he could manage.
And after he had eaten, he would find out what Merlin had gotten himself into that was so debilitating that Merlin had abandoned him to George.
Arthur's entrance to the infirmary, full of irritated vengefulness that had only grown on his walk through the castle as he contemplated suffering through George's service for the next few days, was brought to a quick halt by Gaius. The physician planted himself firmly in front of Arthur, blocking his intention to rouse Merlin from bed by force if he had to.
Gaius clasped his hands in front of him, one eyebrow angling upwards. "I'm afraid Merlin is ill, sire."
"Ill?" Arthur stood irritable in the middle of the infirmary, arms crossed over his chest. Having suffered through George's over-zealous attentions, he had little sympathy for the results of Merlin's over indulgences in the tavern.
Gaius' eyebrows lowered in a beetle browed frown. "Yes. It was surprising how suddenly he was inflicted. I fear exhaustion and overwork are to blame."
Arthur scoffed. "Overwork? We are talking about Merlin." He'd hardly seen Merlin over the last few weeks - he'd seen the old sorcerer more than he had his manservant - and his workload had become lighter, if anything. Arthur wouldn't put it past Merlin to take advantage of his lack of supervision and be sneaking off to the tavern.
"Merlin has had double the workload for weeks. Aside from his duties to you, sire-" Gaius' voice had gained the slightly cool tone that was disapproval and reprimand in one. "-he has been carrying out invaluable work as my apprentice."
"Invaluable." Arthur was slightly chastened but not entirely convinced.
"Merlin has become an able physician." Gaius was still disapproving but the sharp edge of his words had softened. "I would not be able to serve the kingdom as I have without his aid."
Arthur opened his mouth and shut it again, caught off balance.
"Something you should remember in future." Gaius continued. "Merlin won't tell you when he has too much work."
Merlin always complained. Though he had been looking rather drawn recently. And quiet. For Merlin.
Arthur frowned and glanced towards Merlin's room. "I'll keep that in mind." He made for the door.
"I wouldn't, sire." Gaius gave him a warning stare. "He couldn't keep breakfast down." Gaius grimaced. "Or the broth."
Arthur grimaced in turn. "When will he recover?"
Gaius shrugged. "It may be a day. It may be longer." He folded his hands. "Rest is the only thing that will help."
Arthur's frown deepened. He had been planning on taking Merlin with him to meet the druids with Dragoon. He was going to have to make other arrangements.
"Inform me if anything changes." Gaius inclined his head and Arthur glanced once more at Merlin's room before turning and striding from the room.
This was going to change things.
Merlin stared at Gaius accusingly as he opened the door, peering up at him from under the arm flung across his eyes. "He didn't even check." His voice was still rough. But that wasn't surprising with how many times he'd been expelling the contents of his stomach.
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "Best to be prepared. This way the servants can attest to your illness." Several chamber pots had already been removed.
Merlin grimaced and struggled upright. He paused halfway, swallowing heavily and looking somewhat green.
Gaius nudged the bucket on the floor closer with a foot.
Thankfully, after a few moments, Merlin managed to straighten without needing it.
"Drink this." Gaius held out a vial for Merlin to take.
Merlin, suspicious boy that he was, eyed it warily before he took it. He tilted the vial in his hand. "What is it?"
"A restorative tonic." Gaius decided not to mention what it was made of. Merlin tended not to be enthused by the more unusual ingredients he used.
But not many tended to appreciate Gaius' tonics.
Merlin must have been feeling ill, for he simply nodded, screwing off the lid and swallowing down the contents. Only to immediately grimace and start coughing.
Gaius poured some water from the small jug sitting on the small table crammed next to Merlin's bed. "You don't have long. Arthur's organising the knights."
Merlin grimaced and accepted the cup Gaius held out. "I'll have to slip out through the tunnels." His voice was still rough. He set aside the cup and stood, wavering slightly.
"I have every confidence you can manage, Merlin." Gaius folded his hands complacently.
Merlin regarded Gaius sourly as he reached for the bag he had packed the night before. "If only Arthur and the knights were so easily taken care of." He wobbled towards the door.
Merlin was always so acerbic when he was in a rush.
Arthur settled Excalibur at his side and glanced out over the courtyard. His knights were adjusting armour and checking saddlebags. Merlin's usual horse stood saddled and unattended.
A warm presence at his side made Arthur turn.
Gwen was looking down at the courtyard, a small smile on her face as she watched Elyan jostle with Percival as they crossed paths. "It will be good for them to get out of the castle." She turned her warm gaze on Arthur. "Good for you."
He didn't have much chance to hunt since he had become king. Even less opportunity to drag Merlin out to accompany him on a quest.
As king he had to let his knights act for him more than he liked.
But seeing the druids was necessary. No one else could make his decision about magic for him. And to do that, he needed to speak with the druids himself.
Guinevere smiled at him indulgently, unaware of his thoughts. "Send word if you're delayed."
"A week," Arthur promised, taking her hands in his. He leant forward to give her a chaste kiss. "No longer."
Guinevere's smile turned impish for a moment before settling into indulgence again. "A week."
"I leave Camelot in your hands." He said it loud enough for the guards and his knights to hear.
Gwen smiled at him. "We await for your return." She squeezed his hands and then released them.
With a nod and a glance at Gaius where he stood several steps away, Arthur turned and made his way down the steps. He accepted Llamrei's reins from Leon and mounted.
Around him, the knights followed his example.
"You're being secretive." Gwaine grinned, as he swung up into his own saddle. "I can only hope this time it involves taverns rather than wyverns." His grin widened when Arthur shot him a glare.
"We're on a diplomatic mission, Gwaine." Arthur rebutted tersely. "There won't be any taverns."
He caught the glance Elyan and Percival exchanged.
Gwaine cast a look at the empty saddle, frowning when it became clear that Merlin wasn't about to rush down the stairs at the last minute. "Merlin isn't coming?"
Arthur stood in his stirrups, shifting in his saddle. "He's ill." He spoke shortly. "We have another companion."
He ignored the surprised expression, the looks exchanged between the knights. He nudged Llamrei into motion. They'd see soon enough.
Leon looked at Arthur askance as they rode into the clearing with the rough hut. "Sire?"
Arthur reined in. "We're here to meet our guide."
As if the words were a signal, the hut's door swung open. A tall, bent figure emerged from the doorway wearing a distinctive red robe and holding a staff.
"You!" Gwaine shot upright in his saddle, reaching for his sword.
"Yes, me." The old sorcerer sneered, as he shut the hut's door, staff in hand. "I see the knights of Camelot are as observant as always."
Steel was showing and now Percival was reaching for his own sword. "I know a sorcerer when I see one-"
"Enough." Arthur raised a hand, cutting off Gwaine's angry words. "This is Dragoon. He has agreed to guide us through the Forest of Ascetir."
"Sire." Leon hadn't taken his eyes off the old man since he appeared. "This man is a known sorcerer. He has admitted to-"
"I know." His knights were on the edge of attacking, holding back only because of his word. The mocking grin the old man was wearing didn't help the situation. "I know well his past deeds." He gave the sorcerer a warning look. "And knowing his reasons for them. I trust him to guide us honestly. He has given his word."
Gwaine looked unconvinced but let his sword slide back into his sheath. Percival gave the sorcerer an uncertain stare but followed his example.
"So I have." The sorcerer had taken the reins of Merlin's horse somehow. Percival was staring at his saddle where they should be tied in bewilderment. "I will see you safely to Iseldir, leader of the druids, and back to Camelot." He bared crooked teeth. "Whether you like it or not."
Arthur, not for the first time, was reconsidering his choice for magic's 'ambassador'. Tact was not one of the old man's strong suits.
The sorcerer had led the horse over to a fallen log and now swung himself into the saddle with a groan. With a hiss of breath, he straightened, settling in. He eyed Arthur and the knights. "Well?" He snapped. "I'm not getting any younger." He nudged the mare into movement.
Arthur urged Llamrei into motion, drawing up level with the sorcerer so he was no longer in the lead. Reluctantly the others fell into line.
It hadn't been the most light-hearted of journeys. When Dragoon wasn't being surprisingly helpful in pointing out signs of the Old Religion, he was his usual snappy self. The knights were wary and the need to keep an eye on their companion kept them from the usual ribbing banter that marked past quests.
Not that seeking out the druids was much of a quest, Arthur reflected.
"There." The old man gestured to the village they were passing by a suitable distance. "What do you see?"
Arthur glanced over with little interest. "A village."
The sorcerer let out an exasperated noise that spoke as much disbelief as irritation. "And what is that?" He pointed to one of the rough cottage they could see set back from the dusty trail.
Arthur squinted, eyes tracing the wall and eaves, crossing over the twisted bundle of straw handing from the crooked roof. He decided to humour the old man. "Straw."
"Yes, straw." Dragoon agreed, his tone mock congratulatory for Arthur's gift of observation. "Why do you suppose they've hung it up?"
Arthur was starting to get annoyed. "Perhaps they liked the look of it. What does a twist of straw have to do with anything?"
The old man's narrowed. "This is why you continuously misunderstand." He let out a disgusted noise. "How often has Gaius attempted to hammer the customs of your kingdom in your head?" The old man glared. "Have you even listened to a word he's said?"
Even Leon riled at that, hand falling to his sword in offense.
Arthur signalled for him to stand down, wrestling back his own anger.
Dragoon ignored the dangerous tension. "A good harvest, the blessing of the goddess." He gave Arthur a stern stare. "Superstitions that you have mocked protect the land and the food your kingdom eats." He scowled.
Arthur scoffed. "A good harvest is the result of the hard work of the people."
The old man turned in his saddle to fix Arthur with a disdainful look. "And the sun, the rain and the wind. No amount of labour can change that."
Arthur caught Percival staring at the straw bundle. Silent even for him.
Arthur suppressed the urge to make a sharp retort. "And what else have I missed?" He couldn't help the sarcastic edge but the question was genuine.
Dragoon seemed to recognize his sincerity - old man's eyes widened in surprise for a moment. But thus encouraged, he refrained from more insults and pointed out a bent piece of iron nailed to a fence post.
Arthur listened, raising questions and ignoring the looks his knights exchanged.
As they left the roads to travel cross country, Dragoon fell mostly silent. He occasionally pointed out shrines (causing Elyan to nod solemnly) or ancient gnarled trees but for the most part, he had become watchful.
The knights, picking up the mood, had lessened their suspicious stares at the sorcerer and started paying more attention to their surroundings.
As they started on a thin path, little more than a game trail leading into the forest, Arthur sent Elyan forward to check the trail ahead while they slowed their pace.
It wasn't long until encounted a problem. A blockage on the path.
"Sire," Elyan reined in. "The way ahead is blocked."
Arthur glanced at the trail ahead and turned in the saddle to survey the way they'd come. Backtracking would cost them the best of a day they didn't have.
Dragoon let out a wordless noise of irritation. He dismounted awkwardly, one thin red-robed leg swinging over his horse's rump.
He stumped forward, pushing past Gwaine and Percival. "Stand aside." He flung out a hand to push them back, arm whacking Percival's chest.
Percival and Gwaine exchanged glances before looking back at Arthur, still mounted, behind them.
With a look of long suffering exasperation, Arthur waved a hand to endorse the order. If the old man wanted to examine the fallen tree for mushrooms, it wouldn't hurt. They weren't going anywhere.
Dragoon flung up a hand. A sharp word fell from his lips.
The fallen tree exploded, breaking in half and thrown apart, clearing the trail in a shower of splinters.
Arthur reined in Llamrei and the knights fought to keep their seats. Merlin's horse, strangely enough, remained mostly still, only shifting uneasily.
The sorcerer turned, smiling in satisfaction, only to scowl when he saw that everyone was staring at him. "Well?" When no one answered, he stumped back to his horse, took a hold on the saddle and began to struggle back onto his horse's back.
"Magic has some uses after all." Gwaine observed, staring at the cleared trail. He glanced at Dragoon who was still trying to claw his way back onto Merlin's horse and bumped shoulders with Percival.
"Some uses?!" Dragoon was slightly out of breath but the indignation was clear. "Without-" He was cut off with a squawk as Percival set two large hands on his sides and lifted.
It almost made the entire trip worth it, Arthur reflected, recalling when he'd had to carry the sorcerer through the dungeons.
With some thrashing of red robed legs, the sorcerer was secure enough in the saddle to bat at Percival's shoulders. "You! Show some respect for your elders! How would you like it if I picked you up and threw you around?" He stretched his fingers towards the knight menacingly.
Not that Percival seemed to find the gesture threatening. He leaned back but otherwise didn't retreat.
Dragoon scowled, fixing his gaze on Arthur who was trying to repress a laugh. He let out a disgusted noise. "Well? We're going to be late."
Chapter 15: Chapter Fourteen
After having made camp for the night and waking up unharmed in the morning, some of the suspicion directed at Dragoon had faded. The old man's manner - disgruntled and insulting - left no room for subtly and Arthur could see how the sorcerer's blunt honesty was having an effect. His aid to light the campfire and additions to their dinner hadn't allayed the knights concerns entirely but Arthur was no longer receiving as many looks questioning his choice to bring the sorcerer along.
When they set out the next morning, the mood of group had shifted somewhat. Most of the day was spent pleasantly, if watchfully, the knights relaxing a fraction in regards to the sorcerer in their midst. Elyan even ventured to ask about the rags tied into the branches of a hazel, to the old man's pleased surprise.
It was Dragoon who finally called for a halt, one thin hand upraised in caution.
Arthur reined in beside him and the knights automatically fanned out defensively.
The old man was staring out at the forest, an expression of concentration on his face. But then he suddenly spoke. "Iseldir!" His voice ringing out surprisingly loud and clear for his age. "I've brought you visitors."
"Arthur Pendragon." A druid stepped out from the trees.
Arthur knew him, recognised him as the man who had given up the Grail.
The druid's gaze fell on Leon, who had straightened in his saddle, and the other knights. "And his knights of the Round Table." His voice was calm, unconcerned by the force that could potentially deliver harm on his people. Instead his gaze was intent on Dragoon.
The sorcerer was returning his stare with one just as intense. He nodded as if he had been asked a question. "We have come to seek out your knowledge." Compared to his usual manner, the old man was almost conciliary.
The knights stirred at that announcement, exchanging looks. Arthur ignored them, focused on the druids. He could see them now, tall shadows among the trees, their patchwork clothes of grey and green letting them blend in with the forest.
Iseldir glanced at Arthur.
Arthur held his gaze, resisting the urge to look away. He had asked Dragoon to bring them here and he would see it through. Whatever the druids were willing to tell him, he would listen. For Camelot's sake. For Mordred.
The druid inclined his head. "You are welcome, Arthur Pendragon. We have been waiting."
As if his words were a signal, a number of druids left the cover of the forest. Men and women came forward, a number of children half-hidden among them.
A tall hulking man, sized to rival Percival, moved to stand beside Iseldir. His face was impassive but the staff in his hand was thicker than his wrist, a length of polished oak.
He was not the only warrior among them. Arthur could see an archer in tree line, bow across her back but close to hand. She regarded them coolly, her eyes like faded slivers of glass.
Peaceful people the druids may be, but it was clear they were not defenseless.
Arthur ignored the show of threat, focusing on the welcome that had been offered. "We thank you for your hospitality." He hadn't expected a warm welcome. But a welcome at all was progress.
The cool air cooled his heated skin and Merlin let his shoulders slump, eyes falling shut. For a long moment he simply stood, soaking up the quiet, the feeling of green living things.
It made the headache that had plagued him all day lessen its ferocity, easing into a dull aching throb.
Letting out a sigh, Merlin squinted his eyes open.
There. A fallen log, resting against the trunk of an oak and edged with ferns beckoned.
Rubbing ancient hands across his temples, Merlin moved his protesting joints into a slow walk. Back aching, he eased himself down until he was sitting on the log, his spine braced against the oak.
It had only been two days and he was feeling the strain of the spell.
His eyes had shut again. Merlin pried them open to find Iseldir standing only a few steps away.
The druid's expression was grave. "You cannot continue to hold that spell."
"I have no choice." Merlin admitted wearily. He couldn't risk Arthur seeing him now. No matter how much he wanted to, Merlin couldn't discard Dragoon. He wasn't ready to reveal to Arthur how much he had lied. How much he had hidden.
Iseldir was silent for a moment. "You will have to remove that guise eventually."
"Eventually." Merlin agreed. "I'll have to tell Arthur."
The druid watched him for a moment, considering his words. Finally he nodded slowly. "You may rest among us tonight, Emrys. We will not let Arthur see you until you have rested."
It was chance to release the spell. Merlin knew that it would be difficult, maybe impossible to hold it during their stay and the days it took for the long journey.
But if he released the spell and then used it only when he had to...
Merlin took the offered hand, levering himself to his feet, bones and joints protesting. He gave Iseldir a smile and even that was painful. "Thank you."
The druid inclined his head in acknowledgement. He slowly led Merlin way to a small tent set aside from the others within the druids' encampment.
The fierce druid woman who had been at Iseldir's side earlier, now stood guard at its entrance. As they approached, she drew back one of the tent's panels, revealing the pile of dark furs that had been piled on a mound of soft bracken to form a bed.
Whatever doubts Merlin might have had about taking up Iseldir's offer fell away at the sight. He could hardly wait until he was inside where he could lie down and release the spell from its crippling grip on his body.
"Kefrew will ensure you remain undisturbed." Iseldir continued.
The woman met his gaze with a piercing stare and gave Merlin a firm nod. "No one will pass me, Emrys."
Merlin did not doubt her.
"Anything you need will be brought to you. I will inform Arthur Pendragon that you have retired." Iseldir met his gave gravely. "I bid you good rest."
Merlin paused in the tents opening. "You have my thanks." He paused. "Arthur will want to know where I am." Because his first response to a missing member of his party, even an old sorcerer, would be foul play.
Iseldir understood the unspoken implication. He gave no sign of offense at the implication his own word would be doubted. Are there words of yours I can give him?
Merlin grinned and replied silently.
The druid's eyebrows rose. But he nodded and set off, back towards the noise of the fires and feasting.
Merlin slipped inside the tent, Kefrew releasing the panel so he was enclosed within. Merlin headed for the bed of furs and slowly sank down, groaning as he relinquished the weight of his aged body. With a few whispered words, the spell slowly started to dissipate.
Joints cracked. Skin tightened and stretched. Merlin grit his teeth as age wound back and he was restored to his own body. Another set of aches, the remnants of age overlain with the exertion of transformation.
He lay back, eyes falling shut.
Arthur and the others would be all right without him. Iseldir would make sure that they came to no harm.
It was, Arthur reflected, a warmer welcome than he had expected. Especially for the son of a man who had hunted their people, forced them from their homes and into the current precarious existence they held within their forest.
A son who had once done the same under his father's watchful eyes.
They had been given pride of place sitting close to the fire, offered low stools, their horses cared for within their sight. Druids, men and woman, now approached offering bowls filled with slices of roasted meat and the spiced broth of tubers that had been cooking in the communal pot suspended over the fire. Yet another round of offerings in a night of feasting and entertainment.
Arthur took the bowl a young woman offered to him and encouraged his knights to do the same with a meaningful stare.
After a glance at the contents, Gwaine gave a shrug. "If we're to go without Merlin's cooking, then at least their hospitality isn't lacking." He tucked into his bowl.
Percival made a noise of agreement, already eating.
"The druids are a generous people." Leon held his bowl almost solemnly.
Arthur had to admit that it was the case. A meal and warm fires had only been the start of the druid's hospitality. There had been songs and dance, storytelling over the fire. And more often than not, Dragoon had been at the centre of it.
Several times that night, Arthur had caught himself wondering if some of the performances were for Dragoon's entertainment rather than his own party.
It was clear that the druids held the old sorcerer in high esteem, almost awe. It had been almost startling how much the old man had relaxed in their presence. Most of the sharp retorts and scoffing had fallen silent to be replaced by small smile. If Arthur hadn't known better, he would have thought Dragoon was harmless old man rather than the irritable old sorcerer he was.
Which raised the question, where was Dragoon? The old man had risen stiffly and shuffled off into the forest with a muttering scowl when questioned. Arthur had thought it was to relieve himself but even Merlin would have been back by now.
He was about to ask one of the druids with the bowls of stew if they had seen the sorcerer, when their leader slipped from the trees and made his way towards them.
"I hope you enjoyed your meal." Iseldir stopped by the fire, not close enough to be threatening.
Arthur inclined his head, one leader to another. "Your hospitality is appreciated." He hesitated. "Our companion-"
"Emrys is resting." Iseldir's voice was calm but Arthur thought he could hear an edge of rebuke in the words.
Gwaine slowly sat up from where he reclined. "Is he ill?"
The question, Arthur knew, was not concern for the old man's health. He could see the mirror of his own suspicions.
"Tired." Iseldir was grave and calm. "It is a long journey for him in his state."
"His state?" A shock of alarm had Arthur sitting upright.
Iseldir inclined his head slightly. "Age presses heavily upon him." His words were grave. "I have suggested quiet and rest. Both of which he has accepted. He asked that I tell you he would see you in the morning."
Arthur thought back to how snappish the old man had been, the lengthening silences that had occurred throughout the day. There had been no complaints - surprising when the old man had no trouble speaking his mind.
He had put it down to ill temper but now Arthur wondered if he might not have pushed the sorcerer too far. He was an old man.
But suspicion raised its ugly head. The druids were known to be peaceful people. But there were exception. And with their sorcerer absent and sitting outnumbered in a druid settlement-
Iseldir saw the wariness written on his face. "Emrys asked for a message to be passed on but I ask that you hear it as his words alone."
Arthur's eyebrows rose before he could control them. "I know Dragoon, I will take no offense."
" 'Only a toad would disturb an old man's rest.' " Iseldir's face was expressionless.
There was no doubt that they were the old sorcerer's words. Arthur grimaced. Not with the nick name of which he seemed so fond
Gwaine snorted, from his place close to the fire. "It certainly sounds like something he would say."
"Tiredness rarely lends the old and infirm patience or tact." The druid commented mildly. It was hard to tell whether he found the entire incident amusing or was taking it entirely too seriously. "Rest should mend that though."
Arthur doubted it. Though he had no doubts as to the foul mood the sorcerer would bring to bear if he was roused from his rest. The sorcerer was best left alone, Arthur decided. And he would take the opportunity the situation presented. "I would be honoured if you would join us."
With the druid speaking in Dragoon's absence, there was the chance Arthur would learn something he might not otherwise.
Chapter 16: Chapter Fifteen
Arthur woke up with a start. His body bowed up from the ground, hand reaching for Excalibur's hilt even as his gaze sought out any sign of threat.
Dragoon snorted across the fire, customary red robes shrouded by a blanket made from thick dark fur. "You'll find no threats here." He clutched the steaming cup he held in one hand tighter, shifting the furs around his shoulders. "If the druids had wished you harm, you wouldn't have woken."
Arthur sat up slowly, surveying his surroundings as he pulled Excalibur onto his lap. "You seem well." More energetic than his knights lying around the remains of the fire.
The sorcerer cast him a look that was almost content. "At this point in my life, a good night's rest is worth a great deal." He let out a breath in a smug little puff. "I do not choose to refuse good hospitality when it is offered."
Which the druids seemed to extend to the old sorcerer whole-heartedly, Arthur reflected, seeing that someone had brought him a heated stone for his feet as well. Arthur forbore to remind the old man that none of his knights were comfortable being separated in what was essentially unknown company.
Which made it all the more unusual that they still slept. Gwaine lay half draped over Percival and Elyan was leaning heavily on Leon. They hadn't even stirred. Even though Dragoon had been making no efforts to lower his voice.
His knights would not sleep so soundly in an enemy camp-
Dragoon rolled his eyes, as if he had heard Arthur's thoughts. "Good food and even better drink. No sorcery. Even your knights feel the safety of this place, if they know it or not." He suddenly grinned, wide and mischievous. "A loud noise should wake them, though."
Arthur glanced at his knights and then the ring of tall ancient trees sheltering them above. In the quiet, he could almost sense what the old man was talking about-
"If you wish to speak to Iseldir in peace, I suggest you make the most of the opportunity." Dragoon took a sip from his cup with the air of one who had just imparted great wisdom. His other hand emerged from the furs to gesture over his shoulder. "You'll find him in the first shelter."
Arthur glanced at his knight and then the shelter he could just make out through the barrier of trees. It looked empty. "How do you know?"
Dragoon gave him a long stare, pale eyes suddenly opaque. "I can hear him."
Arthur couldn't hear anything. Just as he couldn't sense the sacredness of their admittedly quiet clearing-
"You're not concerned about me wandering about by myself?" He had thought the sorcerer would have accompanied him to ensure he didn't offend the druids.
But Dragoon seemed unconcerned. "I'm not your nursemaid." The old man was, surprisingly, amused. "And you are under my protection." The old man eyed the dying coals, coaxing them to life with merely a look. "None here will dare harm you."
Arthur almost started to laugh. Only to realize that the old man was deadly serious. He glanced over the resting knights, their belongings untouched and undisturbed at their sides.
Dragoon had cleared a fallen tree with a wave of his hand. Could summon fire with a thought. The druids clearly held him in esteem. And this old man had demanded his safe passage.
He slowly got to his feet and headed in the direction the sorcerer had indicated.
There was an open tent just beyond the stand of oaks obscuring the clearing. Arthur glanced back to where he had left Dragoon but not even the white haired sorcerer was visible behind him. Unnerved, Arthur glanced back to the tent.
A hulking shadow stood to one side. Iseldir's guard.
Arthur stopped, one hand resting on Excalibur's hilt.
The man made no move to intercept him. He stared at Arthur for a moment, waiting for their gazes to meet, then left, melting back into the surrounding forest. Permission and warning at once.
Gwaine was obviously not the only one concerned at the contact between Camelot and the druids. And not all the Druids trusted Arthur's assurances of peace.
As he drew closer to the tent, Arthur realized that Iseldir was not alone. A soft voice chanted inside, faltering occasionally to be corrected by the Druid leader. A child.
"-during Imbolic of the fourth year of reign. A-" The child stopped. "A hart marked with..." The recitation faltered.
"A hart marked with the blessing of the goddess."
"A hart marked with the blessing of the goddess was sighted." The recitation picked up speed, the child gaining in confidence. "It was the beginning of the Season of Plenty."
"Very good, Druyar." Iseldir's quiet voice was full of approval. "No doubt our guest is most impressed."
Caught, Arthur had no choice to but to make his presence known. He ducked under the drawn back side panel of cloth that formed part of the shelter and entered the space beyond.
Iseldir glanced up from where he sat on a low chair, showing a complete lack of surprise at Arthur's sudden appearance.
Across from him sat a child, staring up at Arthur with wide, startled eyes.
The child - wearing the same layering of shapeless brown green that all druids wore - nodded and ducked out of the tent. Arthur got a glimpse of braids and a flash of pale skin below a sleeve and then the child was gone.
"I didn't mean to interrupt." Arthur slowly made his way into the shelter. Noting the stacked bowls beside the fire, the steaming cup that matched the one Dragoon had been drinking from.
"Druyar is learning the history of our people." The druid leader gestured to the empty chair near the fire. "His training will not end for several years."
Arthur took his seat, eyes falling on the weave of knotted threads that hung from one of the fallen branches holding up the roof of the shelter. "So long?"
"Our minds and voices hold all our history." Iseldir watched him, eyes quiet and calm. "For it to be spoken properly both words and memory must be strong."
The druid's confidence was disconcerting. But Arthur was used to dealing with unsettling opponents. "How far does your history stretch?" He asked, genuinely curious.
"Through your father's reign." There was no censure in Iseldir's voice, no reference to the purges. "His father's and his father's before him. Through the arrival of the Romans and the ages before they set foot on these shores."
Arthur was silent for a long moment, digesting that. "To a time where magic was a governing force throughout Albion."
The druid inclined his head in acknowledgement. He leaned down from his stool, reaching for the jug sitting near his side.
"A better time?" Arthur asked just as his fingers brushed the jug's handle.
Iseldir glanced up at him. "Some would say that. But those who know the history of this land, know that all ages have their troubles."
A surprising answer. Not the one Arthur had been expecting.
The druid straightened, lifting the jug in question.
Arthur shook his head and Iseldir simply topped up his own cup, showing no sign of offense.
"I asked Dragoon to teach me more about magic." Arthur spoke bluntly, knowing the man before him would take no offence and it would be he who would steer the course of their conversation. "He has told me many things. Chief among them that while magic may be used for harm, evil rests within its wielder rather than magic itself."
That got him a look of consideration. "Emrys is known for his wisdom."
Again that name. "Emrys?"
"It is who he is." Iseldir watched him, cautiously and gauging. "What he is known as among us."
Arthur thought for a moment, choosing his next words carefully. "From what I have heard you follow the Triple Goddess."
He had Iseldir's full attention. The druid inclined his head.
"And what of the Old Religion?" It hadn't been something that Mordred was willing to talk about at any length. "I have heard of what its followers are capable. And I have seen the results of their beliefs." And not just the results of Morgana's ruthless ambition, her endless hate.
Arthur could still recall the blood covered stones his father had shown him. The mutilated bodies that hung suspended in gruesome displays that his father had told him once adorned every stronghold of the Old Religion.
"Is every knight faithful to the code which Camelot holds so highly?" Iseldir questioned mildly. "The goddess demands sacrifice but not of flesh and blood." His face darkened. "It is a darkness of mind that interprets her will in such a way."
Bow to the goddess.
That part of the Disir's demands had disturbed him when he heard it. But if was for the good of his people, did not conflict with what he saw as good and true, Arthur was willing to accede to the demand.
"What sacrifice does the goddess demand?"
"Balance." Iseldir answered simply. "The harvest of the fields cannot be taken without return. The animals of the forest slain without recompense. Freedom cannot be taken from one person and given to another."
"Gratitude and acknowledgement. Proper management of the lands in your stewardship as king. Justice delivered to your people."
Could it be so simple?
"The goddess is not inflexible." Iseldir continued. "She is followed in different ways by different people. Like you we celebrate the four festivals: Imbolc, to herald the wakening of the land; Beltane, to ask for the fertility of land and people; Lughnasadh, the gathering of the bounty given to us; and Samhain, when the barriers between the words thin. We celebrate the bounty we have been given and give thanks."
They were celebrations in Camelot's court. An excuse for festivities, feasting, song and dance. But was there not also appreciation for what good fortune the kingdom possessed? "But you also make offerings to the Triple Goddess."
"Libations and gifts to her shrine." Iseldir confirmed. "The gesture is where the importance lies, the offering itself simply its manifestation. As are shrines. We build shrines where her guidance is needed, inviting her presence."
"And magic? What is magic to the Triple Goddess?" It was a question he had long wanted answered never quite gotten the answer to.
"Magic is a natural force that cannot be separated from living beings." Iseldir paused to drink from his cup. "It is in the land, the people. As such it also is in balance in the world. To break that balance would be an insult to the goddess."
As repairing the balance would be to make amends. Arthur turned the idea over in his mind. "I would like to hear more, if you can tell me." And hopefully what he heard would help him to make his decision.
Iseldir inclined his head and began to speak.
Shouts and excited exclamations drew them from their conversation.
Iseldir calmly raised his head from where he was drawing diagrams into the earth with a stick. He caught Arthur's questioning glance as he rose to his feet, hand instinctively falling to Excalibur.
"Cernidor." Iseldir bore a faint hint of a smile on his face. "Nothing can cause such a disturbance in one of our encampments except the return of one of our bards." He stood, smooth rising to his feet. "There will be many songs tonight."
He headed out of the shelter and Arthur followed, only slightly surprised to find Elyan waiting outside. Iseldir's hulking companion had returned and they were a strange contrast: a knight in scarlet and silvered mail; towering druid in muted shades bearing nothing but a staff.
Elyan caught his gaze. "Leon sent me. Dragoon told us where you were."
Which meant Leon didn't quite trust Gwaine and Percival to not to cause trouble with their hosts unattended. And that Dragoon had volunteered the location of his whereabouts.
His mellow mood must be lingering.
Arthur approved of Leon's choice. Elyan was familiar with the druids and the only one beside Arthur comfortable enough to call Dragoon by his name. Leon, kindly disposed to the druids since his healing at their hands, would keep Gawine and Percival in line.
Arthur nodded and Elyan fell in with him as he followed Iseldir.
Their path took them in sight of their camp. Leon, Gwaine and Percival were on their feet, hands resting on their swords. Even Dragoon had roused himself from his cocoon of furs, standing leaning against his staff.
Arthur gestured for them to come with him as he followed Iseldir.
Druids were materialising from the surrounding forest, gathering in numbers Arthur hadn't seen before. The knights drew in close around him, Dragoon stumping over to stand at his side as the druids' numbers grew. A stoic, solemn people was what he had always thought of them. But now they smiling, faces bright with welcome.
It put their own arrival into perspective. A welcome they had received but not a glad one.
Arthur stopped at a distance and watched as Iseldir greeted the man at the centre of the disturbance.
Three druid children were hanging off the man's arms and legs but they let go, falling back as Iseldir approached.
For a moment the two regarded each other. But then the druid leader pulled the younger man into his embrace. Pleased and excited chatter broke out among the druids.
"If I didn't know better, I would have thought we'd interrupted a hero's welcome." It was Gwaine, of course. The comparison between greetings wasn't going to be ignored.
"He's a bard." Now that he was close enough, he could see the case strapped over the man's back, the travelling case for a harp.
"He's kin," Dragoon corrected. The words were blunt, almost flat. The look in his eyes as he watched the two men was a strange cross between wistfulness and, fleetingly, grief. But just as suddenly, the expression was gone. "You cannot begrudge them the safe return of one of their own." The snap had returned to his voice.
Gwaine shot him a look but remained silent.
Leon caught Arthur's eye and raised an eyebrow.
Athur shook his head a fraction. He didn't know why the old man's bad temper had returned.
Iseldir had stepped back and, after a moment of quiet words, he led the newcomer over towards them.
"Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot. Emrys." Both titles were given equal weight by the druids' leader. "This is Cernidor, Bard of our people." A small smile softened the lines of his face. "The son of my sister."
A smile lingered in the entertainer's eyes as his gaze fell upon them. "Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot in the flesh." He bowed. "And Emrys," the bow was deeper this time, "the legend among us."
If anything, the old sorcerer looked disconcerted. His face fell into a disgruntled expression, lips pursing in annoyance. "You speak like I'm already dead."
The bard laughed, undaunted. "Oh no, Emrys." His eyes glinted. "We all know you have many years left to you yet."
That earned him a sharp look but the old man held his tongue. A first.
The bard didn't seem to realise anything was wrong. "I would be honoured to entertain you both tonight." He glanced at the rest of their party, a small group of armour and arms. "And your knights, of course."
"We look forward to it," Arthur replied. Both for the entertainment and the information the evening would provide. The druids were suddenly a different people and one he wanted to know more about.
There was a celebration. Additional shelters were raised and more fires built. Another larger clearing was chosen and the druids filled it. A laughing, talking stream of new faces bearing blankets and offerings for the feast that was being pieced together.
Laughing, Cernidor accepted a seat - a fallen log adorned by a peculiarly patterned woven cushion - situated close to where Arthur's party had been given pride of place near the largest fire. The harp was released from his case, as fine an instrument as any Arthur had seen played at court.
The songs began soon after. As Arthur had expected, many told of obscure druidic heroes he had never heard of before. But to his surprise many of them also spoke of Camelot. A lively retelling of the attack of the gryphon on several villages before being slain at Camelot. The slaying of the Questing Beast and the retrieval of the Fisher King's trident.
There was even a bawdy drinking song that featured a man that had more than a passing resemblance to Gwaine.
But most surprising of all were the songs that spoke of Emrys. They were as varied as the songs of earlier heroes. In one, a fairy lured a knight into a deep river, the current dragging at his armour. Cheers erupted from the audience of druids as Emrys appeared to pull him free with little more than a spoken word of power. Another told of the old sorcerer's daring escape from a patrol of enemy warriors, using magic to conceal his trail and divert them away; a tense tale that had the young druids in the audience alternately gasping and crying out in warning.
Arthur, noting the pinched cast to the old man's face and the tight grip on his staff, suspected the song did have some basis in fact.
The druids hushed at a particular ballad where Emrys attended the side of a gravely injured druid. A man who had been set upon by armed men and left for dead. The druid died but the sorcerer opened the ground and buried him, leaving a marker on his grave.
Leon had cast the old man a gauging look at this point but the sorcerer ignored him, pulling at the hem of his robes.
Cernidor then lightened the mood with an upbeat song about a chandler who tried to cheat the sorcerer. Even Dragoon let out a short barking laugh as the bard sang of the chandler's confusion as his candles disappeared and reappeared in different places.
It had put the old man in such a good mood that he was now surrounded by a group of small druid children, conjuring small birds to flit down around their shoulders and perch on their fingers.
"The legends speak not of his kindness."
Arthur barely retrained himself from drawing Exaclibur.
He looked up to find Cernidor had managed to make his way to Arthur's side without drawing attention.
Leon had half risen but settled back at Arthur's small negating gesture.
But the bard's gaze was on Dragoon, not Arthur. "Of his power, yes, but not the kindness he shows despite his burden."
Arthur looked at Dragoon, frowning, before turning back to Cernidor. "You seem to know more of him than most." Or so the bard's songs implied.
Cernidor turned to look at him. "Of his deeds, perhaps. But they are widely spoken of among the people. All know of Emrys and what he was done to force the Black Witch back to the wastes."
He was talking about Morgana, Arthur realized.
Leon had come to the same conclusion if the sudden glance towards the old sorcerer was any indication.
"Of the man, though." Cernidor shook his head. "Few know what lies beneath the power he wields." He studied Arthur intently for a moment. "Except, perhaps, for Camelot's king."
Arthur blinked, taken aback. Both at the implication and the bard's frankness.
"You seem..." Arthur trailed off.
"-more approachable than my kin?" Cernidor's open expression tightened. "As a bard, my arrival is welcomed by all in need of song and entertainment. My uncle and cousins are not looked on with nearly as much favour." His expression turned rueful. "Even when they have more to offer than I do."
He caught Arthur's frown. "Knowledge, Arthur Pendragon. Only a fool casts away the wisdom of centuries. You wouldn't cast out your learned physician, when his knowledge guards Camelot's safety."
Arthur tried not to flinch as his remembered the sight of Gaius lying weakly in the infirmary. The times he had doubted Gaius in the past. Each and every time proven to wrong when the truth came to light.
Cernidor wasn't finished. "I hope you consider that when you give your answer to the Disir." The bard's next words had Arthur's attention snapping back.
"What do you know of the Disir?" The question was clipped, cold challenge in every word.
Cernidor didn't flinch. "As a bard, I hear whispers. As a druid, I listen to the silence. The Disir's judgement remains suspended and cannot be ignored."
Did all the druids know? Arthur swept a glance over the camp, the happy faces around them.
"The stories speak among my people speak of your feats of arms, your strength in battle. The faith you hold with your people." Cernidor eyed him speculatively. "Whether they will also speak of your just rule remains to be seen." He walked away before Arthur could say anything.
"Sire." Leon was frowning in anger, staring after the departing bard.
"Leave it." Arthur folded a hand across his mouth, thinking about what the bard had said and what he had left unspoken.
After a time Elyan, Gwaine and Percival returned settling down with more food for their makeshift table.
Dragoon, moving somewhat slowly but with a trace of a smile and a spark in his eye, returned to his seat next to Arthur. Still wearing his red robes but draped in the black furs the druids had gifted him. For a moment he was silent, surveying the scene before them. The bustling druids and the knights almost easy among them. His gaze suddenly turned to Arthur, bright and knowing. "So? Have you found the information you seek?"
Arthur glanced at him and then the knights, mingling with the druids. A scenario that would have been unheard of a few days ago. "I'm not sure." He had learnt more about the druids, about magic and the Triple Goddess.
He had learnt more about Dragoon.
But he wasn't any closer to making a decision.
Chapter 17: Chapter Sixteen
As it turned out, Iseldir hadn't finished his lessons.
"Arthur Pendragon." His name was spoken gravely.
The knights fell silent, the strings of Cernidor's harp fading away into the soft crackle of flames.
Arthur looked up to see Iseldir standing close by, unattended by his large warrior or the unsettling woman with her bow.
The druid regarded him calmly. "There is something I would show you, if you are willing to see it." His gaze fell on Dragoon who was watching him from Arthur's side, staff lying across his lap.
As the night had wore on, the sorcerer had become irritable and grouchy once more. Arthur had noticed the stiffness of his movements and the way he had stretched his back several times in the course of the evening. It was worse than yesterday. The long ride had managed to dim the almost frenetic energy the old man seemed to possess, making him seem more his age.
Which must be ancient.
Iseldir regarded the old sorcerer solemnly. "And you Emrys."
The druid's regard had made the old man frown pensively but at that he levered himself to his feet, joints crackling in a painful sounding chorus, with the aid of his staff. "I am willing." His voice was firm, the response to a challenge rather than the gentle enquiry he had received.
The sorcerer sent Arthur a significant look. A strong suggestion if there ever was one.
Arthur smoothly got his feet, the move welcome after sitting so long.
Leon was frowning. But Gwaine drained his tankard and set it aside, getting to his feet with unmistakable intent.
"Your companions are also welcome." It was impossible to tell if Iseldir was amused or not.
Gwaine stretched, his grin carefree even though his eyes were watchful. "That's settled, then."
Arthur shot him a look and then glanced down at Leon who had settled back in front of the fire. He gave a short nod and Percival set aside his bowl, rising like a living giant to accompany them as well.
Unconcerned, Iseldir turned and started to lead them away from the fire. "This way."
As they left Leon and Elyan, there was a strum of a harp and a slow instrumental piece started up as conversations slowly resumed. The druids, who had been watching the exchange continued what they had been doing as if there had been no interruption.
Refusing to look back at the knights he was leaving, Arthur fell in next to Dragoon, raising an eyebrow in enquiry.
The old man's expression tightened in an expression of annoyance, but there was guarded anticipation beneath it. Dragoon wasn't certain what Iseldir was going to show them.
They walked further away from the camp, the music and voices falling away. There was no path that Arthur could see but Iseldir walked confidently, with no sign of hesitation.
As did Dragoon, Arthur didn't fail to notice. While he was moving more slowly than usual, the old man didn't stumble and curse like Gwaine did.
At the third of fifth such outburst, the old man made a noise of exasperation and flicked out a hand. Immediately their surroundings were lit with a soft silvery glow, Dragoon's ball of silver and blue light slowly swirling above them like a small moon.
Gwaine glanced at the sorcerer in surprise but Dragoon ignored him, the light floating along with them.
Iseldir hadn't even paused, ignoring the whole incident.
As they walked the forest closed in around them. Their path became the spaces between trunks, the hollows beneath low hanging branches. Dragoon's light might have exposed the uneven terrain but it also cast shadows, long and threatening, the forest around them becoming malevolent territory. The fact that they were following a druid chieftan, a sorcerer at his side, didn't help to alleviate the impression.
Judging from the way Gwaine and Percival had closed ranks, almost close enough to become Arthur's shadows, Arthur suspected that they shared his thoughts.
Dragoon, wary but not visibly disturbed, nonetheless periodically glanced at Arthur and the knights as if making sure they keeping up.
Or wanting to be certain they were still following.
Just as Arthur was going to ask Iseldir how much further they had to walk, the druid stopped. Even with Dragoon's luminous orb, it took Arthur a moment to spot the hooded figure standing among the trees ahead of them.
A reach for weapons marked Gwaine and Percival catching sight of him, though Dragoon didn't seem surprised.
Iseldir didn't speak or give any signal that Arthur could see but other druid suddenly bowed and melted back into the trees.
Iseldir began walking again, leading them through an archway of two entwined trees and into the grove beyond.
Arthur ducked through after him, only to falter when he saw what stood in the grove's centre.
"What is this place?" Percival sounded half awed, half shocked.
An oak stood in the centre of the grove. Branches bent nearly to the ground, not from the weight of its leaves but ornaments that adorned it, hanging from lengths of knotted twine and rope. Dark shapes, bright colours and the shine of metal were visible among the oak's leaves: wooden carvings, stones with holes bored through, a silver thimble, a copper spoon, acorns on strings, a candle stub. Everywhere he looked, Arthur could see yet more objects, mundane and precious; one branch he could see bore a snapped arrow shaft, a twist of plaited wheat (much like those Dragoon had pointed out during their journey), a small jewelled dagger tied sheathed, several bracelets made of wood beads and a line of copper brooches. There was even a small silver tankard, its handle tied fast to the branch. All this and more hung on the mighty oak's branches. The entire tree was bent, bowed down under the burdens it bore.
"A shrine of remembrance." Iseldir regarded them watchfully. "We do not have the homes we once held, many of our sacred places are lost. But of our people, we remember them all." His gaze turned to the oak, fixing on one of the lower branches. "They are no longer with us but something of them is left here." His voice had finally faltered from its customary calm delivery.
Arthur followed his gaze, staring at the oak again. At the hundreds of items, each marking the life of a druid, constellations of death.
Dragoon tore his gaze away from a cluster of small spinning tops and fluttering remnants of scarves. A small object that glinted among them but Arthur couldn't make out. "The people you have lost?" There was some dark undercurrent in his voice that Arthur couldn't place.
Iseldir nodded, fixing him with a dark gaze. "To the Purge, our flight. And the persecution of those who have failed to find refuge." His voice softened. "Kin."
A shattered look crossed the old man's face. The look of desolation only grew when his eyes fell on the tattered scarves hanging from their knotted braids.
Percival took a cautious step forward, staring at the belongings hanging on their ropes. "Each belonged to a person?" There was a hushed, almost hesitant quality to the question.
It reminded Arthur that Percival had been the son of woodcutter before he had joined Lancelot. A profession that would have taken him into the forest and close to the traditions that the druids followed, whether or not he himself did.
Iseldir nodded. "Where they exist." His gaze was on Dragoon who had slowly walked towards the oak. "For others, they are symbols of their lives."
The sorcerer lifted a bony hand to the scarves at which he had been staring. He ran a hand through them gently before cupping the small metal object Arthur had glimpsed in his hand.
It was a figurine of some sort. Arthur could see what looked to be wings and a number of legs. Dragoon's hand obscured the rest.
The old man's hand trembled and he stroked a bony thumb over the figurine. His eyes were bright as he stared down at it.
Arthur turned to Iseldir, giving the old man at least the illusion of privacy. "This is a sacred place for your people." Otherwise the druids would not be guarding it. "And yet you allow us to see it."
Iseldir fixed him with a disturbingly direct stare. "You wished to learn, Arthur Pendragon. The story of magic is not complete without seeing what the attempt to eradicate it entails." He ignored Gwaine and Percival's looks of consternation, focusing on Arthur. "Camelot was built on the suppression of the Old Religion and the bones of my people." He gestured to the oak. "This is your father's legacy. I wish you to think of what you would have of your own."
Arthur's hand clenched on air, deliberately held from Excalibur's hilt. Even though he had been king for years, he still found himself instinctively defending his father's actions. But there was only truth in what Iseldir said. Camelot would not have been what it was if sorcery had not been outlawed and the druids free of persecution. Without a common threat to pull the lords into his father's control.
He might love his father and honour his memory, but Arthur was too well versed in strategy not to see what his father had done. There had been a strategic purpose to the Purge, even if it had been fuelled by grief and rage.
Gwaine and Percival had drawn close at what they saw an attack but Arthur settled them with a lifted hand. Gaze on the oak now, flicking from one object to the next. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Dragoon relinquished the figurine, letting it fall back among the tattered scarves. "All things are born of blood. A son does not live the life of his father." Grief remained in the lines of his face but his eyes were fierce. "Each man has his own fate."
Iseldir inclined his head. "As you say, Emrys."
The old man scowled, gripping his staff tightly.
Arthur, sensing one of the old man's outbursts was imminent, spoke before he could. "You have shared much with us. More than I expected." From a man he had threatened in the past and fled from his father's laws. From whom he had forcibly taken the Grail.
And yet the druid chieftain had shown them unreserved hospitality. And shared the secrets of his people.
"That you remember what you have learned this day is all I ask." After a long lingering glance at the oak, Iseldir turned away. He led them out from the clearing and the grief it held.
Arthur fell in beside Dragoon as they walked back to the fire where Leon and Elyan waited. The sorcerer was moving slowly, using his staff to support each step. He was lagging and had fallen behind Percival and Gwaine, allowing his light to float ahead.
Gwaine cast him a sharp glance at the move but forced a half grin when Arthur waved him off. He glanced at Percival and suddenly the space between them and the knights had widened enough for privacy.
Arthur didn't speak for a long moment. He opened his mouth, then shut it, not sure whether to ask.
The old man glanced at him. His face was pulled tight, eyes wary. "Yes?"
"The figurine-" The one that the old man had handled with such care.
The old man's gaze sharpened, suddenly boring into Arthur's face. Whatever he found there made him look away. "One among many." His gaze was rough, worn with old grief. "I have seen many die as men seek to stamp out any hint of sorcery. Too many." His shoulders were bowed, much like the oak's burdened branches.
They walked in silence. Dragoon hunched in miserable silence and Arthur thinking of blood and the weight of death.
Chapter 18: Chapter Seventeen
Merlin stumbled, catching himself on his staff as he lost his balance. For a long moment he simply clung at the strong length of wood as he caught his breath.
Perhaps he shouldn't have sent his horse back to Camelot so early.
His joints ached, his bones twinging with phantom pains. His breath caught and held, a breathlessness he couldn't dispel. Merlin would have thought it was a fever but he knew the cause for what it was. He had never held the aging spell for this long before.
The respite Iseldir had provided had helped but there had been two more days after leaving the druid camp. Days where Merlin had no choice but to maintain the spell.
The pain and aches, his growing headache, hadn't been helped by Arthur and the knight's sudden interest in his life, the adventures Cernidor's songs had been implied.
Merlin had enough trouble keeping his breakfast down without the added need to keep his answers straight. His replies had gotten shorter and shorter as the ride progressed until Arthur had given up in disgust.
He might have felt a little guilty about that if he hadn't been so relieved. He had survived the visit to the druids and managed to accompany Arthur and knights without letting his identity slip.
And now all he had to do was sneak back into the castle and seek out his bed.
Which wouldn't be too difficult if the forest hadn't taken on such a dizzying aspect.
Merlin grimly continued, making for the secret entrance to the tunnels under the castle. He didn't need to pretend to be ill anymore. At least Arthur would have to give him some time off.
Arthur frowned at Gaius, hardly believing what he was hearing. "What do you mean he hasn't recovered yet?"
Gaius fixed him with a grave look. "Exactly as I have said, sire." A hint of worry entered the physician's expression. "If anything, his condition has worsened."
A flash of fear shot through Arthur as he was reminded of the last time Gaius had made such a pronouncement. "Is it serious?"
Gaius lips pressed tightly together. "If his condition deteriorates further, it could be," he finally admitted. "But Merlin is strong, Arthur. Give him time and he will recover." The words were encouraging but Arthur could tell Gaius was worried.
His gaze fell on Merlin, lying on the low cot in the infirmary. He would usually be in his own room but apparently idiotic manservant had tried to get up for his duties one morning and just collapsed. Gaius wanted Merlin where he could keep an eye on him.
"How long?" At any other time Arthur would be filled with dread at the long line of days filled with George's subservient face. But seeing Merlin lying too still in the infirmary, recalling all the other times his manservant had been in Gaius' care, usually dying, it didn't seem so important.
Gaius' eyes were resting on Merlin, fond and worried. "I do not know, sire. But by morning I should have a better idea."
Eyes still on Merlin, Arthur nodded.
Gaius straightened and moved behind his bench, a small tink ringing out as he searched through his vials. "I will send word when he awakens. But I suggest light duties while Merlin recovers his strength." Gaius was now talking briskly, as if it was a foregone conclusion.
He should leave Gaius to his work. Return to his chambers and begin untangling the knotted thoughts and emotions his days with the druids and the journey with Dragoon had caused. To clear the image of the weighted oak branches from his mind.
He had wanted to talk to Merlin to get his opinion. To have him speak some of those calming perceptive words he sometimes managed that would cut to the heart of the matter.
He should talk to Gwen or even Mordred.
Arthur pulled out a chair, causing Gaius to look up, eyebrows raising in surprise. "I'll stay for a while." He set the chair next to Merlin's pallet, taking in the unnatural stillness, the sweat making his skin glaze like an unhealthly mushroom.
Just for a moment to get his thoughts in order. He had duties to attend to, he told himself, and there was nowhere else so quiet.
"-from Iseldir's words, it would be a matter of intent." The voice was familiar, the tone equally so. Merlin could clearly visualize the thoughtful frown Arthur would be wearing. "The celebrations for Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhaim and Imbolic at court would remain the same. But I would have to make personal offerings of thanks."
"For such offerings to have meaning, private gratitude would have to be reflected in your rule of Camelot." Gaius sounded grave and serious, in the way he did when he was laying out the dangers of whatever task Merlin was tackling.
It made Merlin smile, lips twitching weakly.
He was lying down on a firm mattress, the familiar press of one of the infirmary cots. It was enough to make Merlin force his eyes open, the left sticking slightly, as he stared blearily upwards. Gradually the vague fuzzy shapes above resolved into beams and the bundles of dried herbs he had hung only weeks ago.
"-not suddenly. The council will suspect sorcery and I can't blame them for it." Arthur sounded frustrated.
That didn't sound good. He'd missed something important.
Merlin blinked, concentrating on Arthur's words, trying to work out what had put the stressed tone into his voice.
"I'm sure they will." Gaius' voice was dry. "You'll simply have to convince them otherwise."
The council. Merlin wrinkled his nose - it was no wonder Arthur had shifted more and more to meetings of the Round Table. But he couldn't be rid of the council entirely; Uther's band of old lords wouldn't be removed until they died. And their usual response to anything they didn't like was accusations of sorcery-
"Lady Maris." His eyes had fallen shut and Merlin pried them open again.
Arthur and Gaius had fallen silent. There was a creak, the familiar protest of the low chair from the wall. Gaius and Merlin avoided using it.
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was exasperated and suddenly very close. "What are you blathering about?"
Merlin pried his eyes open again to glare at him. "The council." He had to swallow to try and clear his throat. He suspected coughing wouldn't be a good idea. "Convince them like you did with Lady Maris." A widowed lady who had managed to generate from her estates the highest crop yield in decades. For the council, sorcery had been the only explanation.
Until Arthur had firmly laid out the facts of the matter, precisely, leaving no room for argument and the old lords chastened and embarrassed.
Which they richly deserved.
Arthur was staring at him. His eyes were very blue, pale, like the sky at early morning. It was strange he hadn't noticed before-
"Merlin-" Arthur was frowning again.
Gaius appeared. Frowning at him and peering down at Merlin like he was a potion that had turned out the wrong colour. "Merlin. How are you feeling?"
Merlin tried to pull himself up, only to fall back wearily on the cot, pain shooting through his arms and chest. His body felt wrong, like bones and muscles had been tossed around and not quite placed back in the right order. "Exhausted."
Arthur and Gaius exchanged a glance.
"Anything else?" Gaius had picked up his wrist and was pressing cold fingers to his pulse, even as he studied Merlin's face, peering down into his eyes.
"Sore," Merlin admitted. All too aware of Arthur watching the exchange. He didn't want to say more.
Gaius' frown deepened. "Any dizziness?" He lifted his fingers from Merlin's wrist, setting Merlin's arm back at his side. "Loss of sensation?"
Merlin found the last of the haze pulling at his thoughts suddenly dispersing in sudden realization. Gaius was trying to determine whether he had sustained any lasting damage from the aging spell.
"No." He met Gaius' gaze firmly. He hurt and he was exhausted, but Merlin could feel his magic: a steady warmth in the centre of his chest, coiled loose and settled like it usually was.
Gaius nodded, expression lightening. "I suspect you should fully recover in a few days." While he spoke to his patient, Merlin had a feeling the words were directed at Arthur more than himself.
Arthur nodded, getting to his feet, chair creaking. "George will continue with your duties. You can help Gaius with light duties until he says you're fit to return to work." He grimaced. "But if it takes longer than a few days, I'll send George down so you can help him polish buttons."
Merlin shot Gaius an alarmed look but the physician was busying himself looking at a series of vials, ignoring the exchange.
Arthur had already crossed the room and was now at the door.
Merlin was suddenly seized by a sense of panic. He didn't know what Arthur was thinking, whether what he had seen and heard among the druids had helped at all. "Arthur!" And he needed to know.
Arthur stopped in the doorway, turning back with a questioning glance and a frown.
"Your meeting with the druids." Merlin swallowed, suddenly nervous when he hadn't been at the druid camp.
It took Arthur a moment to realize Merlin wasn't going to say anything else. "I learnt many things." Arthur was silent for a moment, a silent struggle in his eyes. "But not enough to make a decision." And he was out the door, closing it softly behind him before Merlin could say anything.
Merlin stared at the door. Not certain whether he was disappointed or merely resigned.
Gaius made his way to the fire and ladled something from the pot hanging over it into a bowl. He walked over and handed it to Merlin, quietly closing his fingers over bowl and spoon, after helping him sit up against a mound of pillows.
Merlin wasn't hungry but he started to eat. He had to recover and quickly. Dragoon would still be needed.
Chapter 19: Chapter Eighteen
It had been several days since Merlin had been ill with Gaius' assistance, three since he had fallen ill from overuse of the aging spell. Arthur had surprised him by giving lighter duties, many of which involved helping Gaius.
Which was why he was now seeing Mordred, still confined to his room by his magical illness.
Bottles chinked as Merlin slipped through the door and shut it behind him. He made his way over to the table and set down his bag. "Gaius sent me to bring you your evening dose."
He glanced at Mordred from the corner of his eye. The young knight looked pale, but he usually did. He looked well even though he was under the Disir's curse.
Merlin pulled out the vials Gaius had prepared: a tonic for strengthening health and one of Gaius' new syrups he had created to deal with Mordred's weakened limbs. He set them on the table, aware that Mordred had set aside his book and was watching him intently.
Merlin studied the vials, calculating the dosage before reaching for the waiting glass-
"I know you can heal me."
Merlin stilled, hand resting on the glass.
"It would not be easy but you of all people could overcome The Disir's poison."
He could. But he wouldn't.
"But I don't want you to."
Merlin turned. Mordred's expression was calm. That smooth blankness that was so hard to read.
"Arthur sits with me. I think he feels guilty." A small smile bent Mordred's lips. "But recently he's been asking me about my past. About the druids." He met Merlin's gaze. "About magic."
Arthur was asking Mordred? Merlin smothered the flash of jealously that rose at the idea Mordred was the one Arthur was seeking out. "Arthur can be surprisingly open to topics he dislikes." He had surprised Merlin in his encounters as Dragoon. Though his consulting with Mordred was perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
Mordred ran his fingers over the bound book in his lap. "He is a good king. More kind than others who sit on their thrones."
Merlin shot him a sidelong look and forced the wariness from his face. "Not every king would sit by the bedside of a fallen knight," he acknowledged.
But Arthur would. Because his knights were closer than brothers to him. A bond that Merlin was apart from, servant as he was.
But Mordred, who also hid his magic, was able to enjoy that closeness.
Merlin picked up the first vial, pouring the amount Gaius had proscribed and then reached for the other.
Mordred had a small smile on his lips. "I didn't believe you when you told me we would be free one day. I have seen what happens to our kind. It doesn't matter where in the five kingdoms, whether magic is illegal or not. There was no place for us, no place where I could belong."
Merlin knew what that felt like. "Until Camelot." He handed Mordred the glass.
"Until Camelot." Mordred gave Merlin a small smile of agreement, taking the mixture from Merlin's hand. "Strange isn't it? Where you and I should be most unwelcome is the only place where we feel like we belong."
He glanced at Merlin. "I always thought that to keep my place here, I would have to hide what I am." He shook his head. "I don't want you to heal me. If my illness means that Arthur is reconsidering his view on magic, this is worth that." Mordred smiled down the book in his lap, his open expression recalling his young age. "Perhaps the Disir knew this would happen. That this needed to happen."
He looked up at Merlin. "If that's the case, I am glad."
He wanted to prove himself.
And he has.
He hadn't lied when he told Gaius he liked Mordred. But Merlin couldn't dismiss the wariness, the threat to Arthur he posed, either.
Merlin let his eyes fall, finding it hard to meet the young knight's gaze. "You've been improving." Slowly. "It may be you recover by your own efforts."
Mordred stared at him for a long moment, expression opaque. "Maybe."
Merlin stoppered the vials, packing them swiftly and surely into his bag before lifting it to his shoulder. "Gaius will see you in the morning. If you have any problems send a servant to the infirmary." Task discharged, he made his way to the door.
Merlin stopped, one hand on the door, looking back reluctantly.
Mordred gazed at him with his pale solemn eyes. "Thank you for coming."
Merlin forced a smile. "I am Gaius' assistant." He gave a small nod and fled the room before Mordred could say anything else.
Tithes, settling land disputes, accusations of thievery and keeping the peace of the townsfolk. Arthur threw himself into his duties and all the while at the back of his mind he could see the Mourning Tree, the great weight that bowed the once mighty oak.
Enough grief to break a people. And yet they hadn't. The druids continued in hope of a better life.
It was that which he thought most of all.
The monotony of kingly duty and internal debate, was marked by George's unwelcome attendance and occasional sightings of Merlin in the corridors, long and seemingly unending. And when it finally broke, it was with a trail of blood and agonized screams.
The day was warmer than usual, Beltane long passed and the summer heat upon them. Arthur had ordered Merlin to draw him a bath to rid himself of the sweat of morning practise with the knights, then dismissed him to help Gaius.
It had been several days since his recovery but Arthur had made sure Merlin wasn't going to relapse. Arthur didn't think he could survive another week of George.
Dressed in his lightest tunic and the window looking out onto the courtyard opened to catch the faint stirring breeze, Arthur had started tackling the latest trade treaty with Annis. Reception on both sides was amicable but merchants from both kingdoms were insisting on certain concessions. A trade treaty was the only way to settled it once and for all.
He was perhaps halfway through, scrawling notes on a scrap of paper for Merlin to tidy (and read through, having no respect for royal correspondence).
If he had any useful suggestions, then Arthur would get some amusement out of some of Merlin's ridiculously naive ideas.
A scream rang out, echoing up from the courtyard below. Arthur found himself at the window, quill cast aside on the table, treaty fallen to the floor. He gripped the ledge peering down at the yard far before. Red wool fluttered, knights running across the court to converge on a point near the gate.
A wagon. A man with one hand resting on the vehicle, the other waving frantically.
"Physician!" The cry rang up from below. Sir Gaun, Arthur recognized, no one else had that strength of voice. There was a reason he had been made head of the castle guard.
Servants were already running out into the courtyard. Two men had picked up the stretcher that was stored in a small room by the hall and were running it out to the wagon.
More knights had arrived and a runner was set off towards the south tower.
It was the response to the possibility of attack, not an accident.
Arthur turned from the window and crossed the room in three large steps. By the time he reached the infirmary, the man wounded man should already be there.
Arthur could hear the screams as he descended the last of the stairs. A particularly high-pitched cry sounded out, causing a laundress to drop the sheets she was carrying in startlement. Upon seeing Arthur, she hurriedly scooped them up and darted away, eyes wide.
There was a choked off cry and then suddenly silence. Arthur hurried his pace.
The crowd that had gathered in the corridor scattered as he passed, heads pulling back in doorways and servants retreating down side corridors. Only those bearing fresh sheets, buckets of water and other urgent errands were left and they darted quickly out of Arthur's way, too intent on their business to pay him the respects they usually did.
Arthur's thoughts grew grim at that sign of urgency. It was the behaviour he associated with battlefields not a kingdom at peace.
Sir Gaun was outside the infirmary door, talking in a sharp low voice with one of the younger knights, Sir Aidan. The younger man saluted and ran off, not even noticing his king approaching. Sir Gaun however, ever perceptive, caught his gaze and gave a short salute. "A forest gather from Tanisdun." He reported as Arthur drew close. "They were attacked by some beast they didn't recognise. One of them suffered a gut wound." He opened the infirmary door without asking.
Arthur winced at the news - stomach wounds were difficult, usually killing slowly and painfully - but ducked into the infirmary with an acknowledging nod.
Gaius was bent over his patient, bloodied cloths stained deep cast to one side, his wrinkled hands pressing a new cloth over the injured man's stomach. The red of blood had already stained half of it dark. The man - more boy now Arthur could see him - was limp on the cot, one arm half hanging off. His blood splashed boots were stark against the wrinkled bedding
For a disorienting moment, Arthur saw Merlin in his place.
But Merlin was on the other side of the room, searching shelves of vials with harried intent.
"Merlin." Gaius didn't look up from the injured man but his voice was terse.
"Got it!" Merlin snatched a small bottle from the shelf and flung himself down from the ladder. Moments later he had poured half the contents into a bowl of herbs and was already mixing them together as he brought them to Gaius.
Gaius glanced over, expression pinched, and nodded. "Over here." His voice was terse. "We must apply it immediately to stanch the bleeding."
Merlin nodded grimly and folded a clean towel into a thick pad. He upended the contents of the bowl, pouring them onto the towel in a sickly green pile. Merlin then picked up the knife lying close by and started smoothing the soggy pile into a paste to coat the cloth.
They exchanged a glance, Merlin lifting the poultice he had prepared from the table.
Gaius suddenly lifted the cloth from the wounded boy's stomach.
Arthur only got a glimpse of torn flesh, the startling paleness of fat and the glisten of gut before Merlin had flipped the poultice, placing it firmly against the wound. He held it there, fingers pale as he pressed firmly down.
Gaius glanced up, catching sight of Arthur. "Sire." An acknowledgment but not an invitation. He turned back to his patient, watching Merlin apply the pressure to the wound. The cloth had changed colour slightly but hadn't soaked entirely through.
The physician watched for a long moment then nodded, moving to peer down at his patient's face. "Keep the pressure Merlin. The poultice should help stem the bleeding."
There would be no answers here. Not now. Gaius had his hands full and no time for questions. "I will need to speak to him, if he wakes."
Gaius looked grim as he glanced up. "I will send word if he does."
Arthur glanced back at the unconscious boy, at Merlin still pressing the poultice firmly to his stomach. He nodded and turned to leave. Gaun might have learnt something.
No word came. The boy was dead by morning.
Gaun had taken Arthur to talk with the other arrival, the boy's father. Anxious and fearful for his son's survival, his tale had been halting and at points meandering. But Arthur had been able to grasp the main facts. They had been attacked without warning. The creature had been swift and almost silent. Large. It had come at them ferociously and the woodcutter had only been able to drag his son to safety after warding it off with his axe. He hadn't lingered, carrying his son to their cart and making for Camelot as swiftly as he could.
He had left the man to his vigil outside the infirmary, with orders that the servants bring him whatever he needed.
The man would be grieving now.
Arthur pushed open the door to the infirmary with more force than he intended, banging it against the wall.
Gaius and Merlin were standing over their patient exchanging grim looks but they looked up at his entry in surprise.
"Sire." Gaius looked weary, worn from the night fighting for his patient's life.
Merlin didn't look any better. His hands shook slightly as he returned to pulling the sheets up over the still body lying on the cot.
Arthur got to the point. "Can you tell me what sort of animal attacked him?"
Gaius met his gaze gravely. "Sire, these wounds aren't natural." He glanced down at the covered body. "I suspect magic is involved."
Magic still lives in Camelot's heart.
And it appeared every moment his back was turned. Usually to the harm of his people. Arthur thrust back a wave of anger. "Is the beast magical in nature, or the creation some sorcerer has set upon us?" He wasn't sure what was worse. Though a beast would be easier to hunt down and slay.
"I do not know, sire." Gaius shook his head. "Not yet. I will have to consult my books."
"After you rest." Gaius didn't look well. And Arthur had remembered that he had another resource close at hand.
He had Dragoon.
The clearing was quiet as Arthur crossed it, with no noise coming from the hut. There was a line of smoke rising from the crooked chimney, though. Arthur strode up to the door and knocked sharply.
"Go away!" The old man's voice rang out, annoyed. "I'm not receiving visitors today."
Arthur wasn't in the mood for the old man's . "It's Arthur," he spoke sharply.
There was a long silence.
Arthur grit his teeth. "Arthur Pendragon."
The silence was shorter this time. And suddenly the hut's door was wrenched open. "Why are you here?" The sorcerer peered out at him suspiciously.
Arthur forced his way in, shouldering past the old man. "I need your help." He ducked past a dead crow hanging from the rafters and made his way to the fire. His chair was there but he ignored it. He didn't feel like sitting.
"Hmph." The old man closed the door and followed him in, craning his head forward to fix Arthur with a narrow stare. "My help?" He sneered. "I don't believe I heard please."
Arthur glared at him. "A boy is dead because some magical creature attacked him in the woods outside Camelot. I wouldn't think you needed my urging to help."
The old man's eyes narrowed. "Manners always matter!" He snapped. "Especially in such cases!" The sorcerer didn't ask him again though. Instead he speared Arthur with an intent stare. "Gaius tended the boy?" He didn't wait for an answer, nodding to himself. "What was his opinion?"
"He couldn't say where it was a simply magic beast or one created by a sorcerer." Or at least he hadn't been able to yet.
"And you want me to tell you which it was," the old man continued shrewdly. His lips pursed as he stared off to the side. "I would have to see the body to be sure."
Arthur's shoulders lost some of their tension. He hadn't expected Dragoon to refuse him, but it was good to have confirmation of the old man's aid. "You can come and see for yourself."
The old man froze. He turned slowly to regard Arthur, expression incredulous. "You want me to come to Camelot."
"Of course," Arthur confirmed impatiently. How else could they arrange it? "If you can manage not to be seen by the rest of the castle, that is." After his last appearance, most of the castle staff would be inclined to raise the alarm.
"Manage?" The old man puffed up. "Not even one of your knights would be able to spot me." He let out a strange halting cough of a laugh. "Not that your knights are a match for Dragoon."
Arthur tried hard to remember that the old man before him was a sorcerer and one that apparently had some standing among magic users. It was hard to reconcile. The man was as much an idiot as Merlin.
"I'll expect you tonight." He had to trust that the old man would manage it. And that he would have answers as well.
Chapter 20: Chapter Nineteen
It was disgustingly easy to distract the guards in the dungeons. For the sake of variety, Merlin set the candle at their table toppling, a spill of hot wax and rolling candle. He snuck past them as they were lunging after it, blowing at it to douse the dangerous flame.
There was a patrol passing through the corridors but Merlin avoided them by ducking into an alcove. He was nearly at the infirmary when there was the long metal scrape of a sword being drawn from a scabbard.
Merlin spun, expression of surprise falling into a scowl when he saw that Gwaine and Percival now stood blocking the corridor behind him.
"I knew it was too good to be true. You should have stayed away, sorcerer." Gwaine's smile had nothing to do with humour. "You may have gotten away last time, but now there's no escape."
"Gwaine, Percival." Merlin let out a short tsking noise. "You're always lurking about where you shouldn't be."
"You shouldn't be here, sorcerer." Percival took a threatening step forward.
Merlin's eyes narrowed. "I'm not here to-"
A thrust of Gwaine's blade towards his throat had Merlin taking a step back. "Surrender and no one will get hurt."
"Well." Merlin's smile bared his teeth. "If you want it that way." Merlin raised a hand, about to fling them out of the way-
Arthur's shout stopped the knights and Merlin in their tracks.
In several short strides, Arthur had pushed past Merlin and was now standing between him and the knights.
"Arthur!" Percival shot Arthur a look before fixing his gaze back on Merlin.
"Stand down!" Arthur thrust their swords down with his bare hands. "Dragoon is here by my invitation."
Gwaine and Percival shot him incredulous looks, but they didn't raise their swords. Slowly, with wary looks at Merlin, Percival and then Gwaine sheathed their weapons.
Arthur turned to Merlin. "I thought I told you to meet me in the infirmary."
Merlin scowled. "I would have if you hadn't left guards all through the southern corridors." He waved an irritated hand at Gwaine and Percival, gripping his staff tight with the other. "They're all eager to stab an old man."
A strange expression crossed Arthur's face. "One would think a sorcerer like yourself would be able to pass by unnoticed."
"I could," Merlin snapped crankily. "If you hadn't asked me not use magic when in your castle."
A brief look of surprise flashed across Arthur's face.
Merlin let out a disgusted sound. "Yes, I keep my word." In truth he wasn't surprised. Hurt, but not surprised. "Now are we just going to stand around here until someone else comes to skewer me?" He glared at Arthur who looked a little shamefaced. Which he should. "No? I didn't think so."
And with that, he set off for the infirmary, leaving Arthur and knights to fall in behind him.
The old man was not acting the way he had expected.
Gwaine sat back on his stool, letting his shoulders thud against the wall behind him.
The sorcerer ignored him, peering ferociously down at the book he was reading. He looked more like a disgruntled scholar than a powerful sorcerer.
But Gwaine had felt the old man's power first hand. And he remembered.
"Two pairs of horns," the old man muttered. His head suddenly snapped up. "The tracks," he snapped. "Were there signs of cloven hooves?"
Gwaine's eyes narrowed. He shifted on his stool, hands resting folded over his stomach. "There might have been."
Gaius looked up from over his book, strange disk of glass held over the page in one hand. He raised an eyebrow.
Gwaine reconsidered his answer. "Those who came across the body mentioned some deer had been in the area."
"Hmm." The old man ignored the hostile tone. "The punctures." The sorcerer stroked his beard, voice contemplative. "Could they have been caused by something like a deer or even a bull?"
Gaius frowned, lowering his disk of glass. "No. The wounds were too deep. And they were not from the right angle of penetration for a pair of horns." He was thoughtful now, mouth pursing in a stretch of wrinkles. "Yet they were matched wounds."
The sorcerer's hand stilled in his beard. "Perhaps repeated strikes from one horn?" It was half muttered.
Gaius' eyebrow rose. "A unicorn perhaps, but I can't believe that you're suggesting a unicorn killed the man."
The sorcerer made a scoffing noise. "Of course not! Unicorns are gentle creatures. They don't go roaming around the countryside killing people. Besides," he had turned back to the book and scowled down at the pages as he flipped them. "I doubt the dead man would have stayed still long enough to gain parallel punctures. No," he frowned and stopped on a page, frowning down at it. "It had to be a creature with two-"
He suddenly stopped talking, mouth half open. With a suddenness that made Gwaine start, the old man stood up and strode quickly the staircase, scanning books as he climbed the stairs.
"No, not that one." He muttered to himself as he scanned the books. "Where was- Hah!" He pulled a heavy tome from the shelf, already flipping through its pages as he descended the stairs.
"There!" With a voice of triumph, the sorcerer set the heavy tome onto the table.
Gaius shot him a stern look but abandoned his own search in favour of inspecting the other man's find. Both his eyes brows rose when he saw the page.
It looked like some strange malformed deer in Gwaine's opinion.
“A yale.” The sorcerer laid a thin bony finger on the page beneath the illustration of the creature. “Their horns rotate which would explain the angle of the punctures.”
Gaius was nodding. “It would.” His lips pursed. “As would the ferocity of the attack – yale are viciously territorial.”
“And even more so when they’re finding new territory.” The sorcerer added grimly.
It took Gwaine a moment to realize what the old man was referring to. “The auroch attack in Sir Donard's report?”
Gaius leaned back. “It’s possible.” He glanced back down at the illustration. “Yale are relatively rare, but more inclined to attack a man than an auroch would be.”
“A yale will be easier to find,” the sorcerer commented absently as he read the text opposite the illustration. “According to this, they prefer deep woods with rocky outcrops.”
Gwaine could think of several places that fit that description. One close to where the woodcutter and his son had been attacked. “Glower Dell.” Gwaine crossed his arms as Gaius and the sorcerer turned to stare at him. “It’s closest to where the tracks were found. We should start hunting it there.”
“Unless you have a basilisk at hand, you’ll find that rather difficult.” The sorcerer snapped. “Yale are more dangerous than anything you might have hunted before.”
"Which is why we won't be going alone." Arthur spoke from the doorway.
Gwaine almost fell from his stool, he startled so badly.
Arthur shot him an unimpressed look as he walked further into the room. But his attention soon turned to the sorcerer. "Dragoon. Are you willing to ride with us?"
The old man blinked, looking as surprised as Gwaine felt at that announcement. He glanced at Gaius and then his gaze settled on Gwaine. His eyes narrowed. "I offered my aid, did I not?" Irritation snapped through the words.
"That's settled then." Arthur didn't seem to realize the old man had reservations. "We'll ride at light."
And Gwaine would be there to keep an eye on him.
It was dark, not even the hint of predawn lightening the sky. His eyes long adjusted to the dark, Merlin found his way with ease, the satchel with Dragoon's robe inside slung over his shoulder. He had passed through the woods from the castle to Dragoon's hut so many times now he could do it in his sleep.
Not that he wanted to. It would have been easier if Arthur had decided that hunting the yale needed full sunlight. But hunting had that effect on Arthur. If there were meetings or kingly duties, he could sleep until Merlin forced him from his bed. But if hunting was involved...
Merlin grimaced. It was usually the other way around-
A twig snapped. A hooded figure stepped out onto the path and Merlin halted, hand raised to strike-
"Peace Emrys." The hood was lowered, revealing the face of a woman. "My name is Flynna. Alator of the Catha has sent me to give you word."
Merlin slowly lowered his hand, still wary. "What word does Alator send?"
"As Emrys asks, Alator will come to see Arthur Pendragon. To talk to the Once and Future King of magic and its role in the world. As Emrys asks, Alator will help to turn Camelot's king from his dark fate." She fell to one knee before Merlin could stop her. "Until he comes, I am here in his stead. I am at your command, Emrys."
Merlin stepped forward to take her arm and pull Flynna gently to her feet. "Merlin." He held her stare as she stood, not quite reaching his shoulder. She still had to look up but it was better than when she was kneeling. "My name is Merlin."
She searched his gaze for a moment then nodded.
Merlin hesitated. "Have you somewhere to stay?" If there was one thing he had learnt from Arthur it was that a king should protect his people. Merlin wasn't a king but he'd found that he had more and more people he was responsible for. He couldn't leave Flynna, who had come to Camelot at risk of her life for his sake, to fend for herself.
Flynna gave him a small smile, more felt that seen. "There are ruins by the river. I will take shelter there."
Merlin shook his head. "Patrols regularly follow the river. It isn't safe. But I know of a place they avoid." He wouldn't give her Dragoon's hut, not when Arthur had the habit of riding out to see Dragoon alone. But the entire village had been abandoned. There were several dwellings that remained vacant, thought cursed after the Dorocha had claimed their owners. Both the villagers and knights avoided them. The huts weren't the most comfortable of lodgings but they were ideal. Close to Camelot but not too close.
Which was safer for Flynna and for Camelot.
They descended into Glower Dell shortly before the sun climbed the treeline. Long shadows were cast across the mossy ground, deep pockets of darkness.
Enough cover for a magical beast to ambush them.
Arthur glanced at his knights. Leon and Elyan were right behind him, quiet and watchful. Elyan holding the packhorse loaded with lengthened boar spears. Gwaine's grin had fallen away long ago; he and Percival were riding next to each other, automatically dividing the watch of their surroundings.
Finally his gaze fell on Dragoon. The old man was uncharacteristically silent, scanning the forest around them with a narrow gaze. Arthur could see that his hand had tightened on his staff, bony fingers wrapping it in a sure firm grip.
The old man hadn't flinched as they went over the clearing where the woodsman and his son had been attacked. Simply walked the area silently, eyes scanning the ground and trees. Alert and ready to face the yale if it attacked.
There had been the tracks of cloven hooves. Large but not so large that they couldn't have belonged to a stag. Not that any of them believed that.
"There." There was a jingle of tack. Dragoon was suddenly breaking away, urging Merlin's horse to a swift trot.
Arthur bit down on the urge to call him back, drawing to a halt. Whatever had caught the old man's eye, it was likely to be important.
The old man had stopped by a tree, running a hand over the bark. Deep scoring lines exposed pale wood, the bark cut in deep slanting lines.
It was similar to the territorial marks cut into tree trunks by territorial rutting males.
Except they were much larger and deeper. Much like the tracks they had found.
Arthur urged Llamrei forward to have a closer look, only to have the mare rear, letting out a scream of alarm.
Dragoon looked up in startlement and dawning realization. And then something large and dappled burst out of the shadows. The sorcerer slid sideways in a blur of red and white, his horse screaming beneath him.
Merlin rolled, letting the flailing kicks of his horse ward off the enraged yale as he scrambled to his feet. A hastily flung out hand sent a wave of force to push the beast back before it could gore the fallen mare.
It fell back with a trumpeting bellow that made Merlin want to slap his hands over his ears. Instead he thrust the yale back further, gritting his teeth as the beast struggled against him, horns rotating and head tossing as it attempted to impale him, eyes filled with murderous rage.
Merlin's horse scrambled to her feet and sensibly bolted.
Arthur, however, was suddenly thundering past, hurling a spear at the yale's side.
It spun quickly, faster than predicted, knocking the spear from the air with one of its curved horns, lunging after Arthur with a following strike.
Only to be knocked to the side as Percival entered the fray, slamming a spear into its side. Managing a jagged gash before the yale's horns twisted and engaged, thrusting the spear aside and slamming bodily into Percival's horse.
The heavily built gelding toppled with a cry of surprise, kicking out as Percival left the saddle in a controlled fall.
A spear slamming into the ground stopped the yale from following. It twisted aside, lips turned back to bare blunt teeth, dark eyes showing white at the rims. The beast moved with the lethal grace of a hunting cat as it turned sharply towards Gwaine.
"Keep the beast moving!" Arthur had retrieved another spear, Leon taking a position nearby even as Elyan thrust the unloaded spears upright into the ground. "Strike when it's distracted."
Good advice. Merlin, having taken refuge at some distance, conjured a fireball in his palm and threw it at the yale as it twisted in an attempt to impale Gwaine.
The ball of flames exploded on impact, cascading over the yale in wave of molten ashes and sparks.
The yale squealed in rage, flinging Gwaine aside as it turned. Its rage-filled eyes fell on Merlin but before it could lunge forward, Percival swung his spear like a club, hitting it on the side of its head.
It staggered where the fireball had only annoyed it and almost fell to one knee. But somehow the yale recovered, twisting and charging, raking its horns around in a large arc.
The knights had scored a few hits but even the jagged wound Percival had inflicted was no longer bleeding. With the yale showing no signs of tiring nor weakness from its wounds, they were running out of options. They had no basilisk venom and had no way of getting it even if they knew where some was.
Or something similar.
Merlin desperately searched his memory. What would be equal to a basilisk, though? Something venomous and deadly-
Like a serket.
Kilgarrah's words rang through his mind once more.
Serket venom can never be removed once it is in the blood. That is beyond even my powers. All I have done is healed the damage it has done and ensured the venom will no longer harm you. But it will still be there young warlock. Potent but harmless against you.
He did have a source of serket venom. Which might be potent enough to rival basilisk poison.
It could work and that was good enough to try it.
Merlin glanced down at his hand. Bleeding freely and as red as it had ever been. He cast around until his gaze fell on a fallen branch, stripped of leaves and smaller twigs. What remained from time's passage was a mostly straight length with a jagged end.
It would do.
Merlin smeared his blood over the jagged point of the branch, invoking the spell to bring the venom lying quiescent in his blood to toxic life.
The exposed wood darkened, blackening under the influence of the poison. Merlin hastily finished the spell before the poison could spread to where he held the branch.
His makeshift spear ready, Merlin watched the yale leap and turn to avoid the knights' attacks. Twisting and wielding its horns like twin sabres, a challenge even for the knights who trained against opponents with two swords.
But no man had the speed of a yale. Nor the agility. Even now the sure-footed beast had clambered onto a slide of dislodged boulders and was fending off its attackers with vicious slashes and jabs.
The uneven ground had the knights at a disadvantage. Gwaine already had a nasty cut along his cheek and Leon a darkening stain on his mail. The yale was moments from breaking through theire circle.
Which left it up to Merlin. As usual.
Merlin hefted his makeshift spear in hand, readying the right spell in his mind. All he needed was a clear target.
It took only a few seconds to realise the yale was too fast; he'd have to make it stay still long enough.
Merlin drew in a deep breath. When he called out, his voice thundered. "Over here, you ugly toad!"
Arthur turned to look at him - Merlin would have to laugh at that later - but so did the yale, drawing up with a startled snort. As its eyes fixed on Merlin, its head flew up with a challenging trumpet.
Exposing its chest.
Merlin flung the spear, shouting a spell to speed its process.
It landed with a sickening thud, slicing through tough spotted hide and layers of muscle to cut deeply into the yale's heart.
The yale's bugle cut off in a high pitched gurgle. It fell sideways, horns twisting and legs thrashing as it slipped from the boulders. Barely missing Gwaine. If he hadn't moved fast enough, he would have been speared by one of the yale's horns or crushed beneath its weight.
The knights stared at the fallen beast, stunned. Even Arthur's gaze was fixed incredulously on the fallen yale.
Elyan, took a hesitant step forward but Merlin was there, pushing him back with the butt of his out-thrust staff.
"Out of the way!" Merlin pushed past Percival and Gwaine, coming to stand between them and the yale.
The beast looked even larger, still. One leg frozen drawn up in a useless fight for its feet, another twisted beneath it. The spotted pelt was already losing its shine, dulling with death and the spread of the poison. The wound around the branch was hissing and bubbling.
"What did you do?" Arthur was eyeing him warily and with some annoyance.
Probably over his own reaction to the toad remark. Despite the situation, Merlin had to hide a sudden grin.
"Killed it." Merlin poked it with his staff just to be sure. Not even jumping like Elyan as a moan escaped the yale's mouth as air left its lungs.
It was definitely dead. Very dead.
Merlin lifted his staff before the poison could spread from the semi-dissolving corpse. The spell might have been a bit strong, though.
He could almost see Gaius' raised eyebrow.
Arthur looked at the yale with a look of almost comical disgust. "How?"
Dragoon had some explaining to do. Why he'd waited so long to dispatch the yale. Arthur gave the bubbling corpse a wary stare. And why the yale's corpse was bubbling. "How?"
The sorcerer retrieved the broken branch, tearing it free from the Yale's chest. "Serket venom. Once it enters the bloodstream it can never entirely leave it."
Gwaine gave him an incredulous look over the Yale's carcass. "You survived a Serket's sting?"
The old man let out vexed noise, sucking air in through his teeth. "Magic has its uses." He glanced at the branch and it was immediately engulfed in flame, the Yale's blood hissing and spitting malevolently. "Don't touch the beast. The poison is deadly."
Gwaine gave the spitting stick a wary glance before glancing down at his bloody sword. He changed his grip and held it away from his body.
Percival dropped the spear he was holding, wiping his hands on his mail.
The old man grinned, burning branch still in hand. "Yale blood, however is quite harmless."
Arthur ignored the byplay, somewhat startled to realize that magical fire was something that he had gotten used to. "What of the body? We can't leave it here."
The old man raised his eyebrow as if he was surprised by the question. "I'll burn it." As if it had never been a question.
Arthur looked at the yale's carcass. He had a spare flickering thought for keeping the massive horns as a trophy but a glimpse at the now-open wound made him reconsider.
Dragoon took his silence for agreement. With a flick of a wrist, the yale was engulfed in flame. Causing Leon and Gwaine, who had drawn closer to look at the yale's carcass, to leap backwards.
"A little warning wouldn't go amiss when you do that." Gwaine brushed himself off as he clambered back to his feet with Percival's aid.
Leon, accepting Elyan's hand, shot Arthur a telling look but said nothing.
Dragoon sniffed. With a careless gesture, he threw the darkened branch he'd removed from the yale's chest into the fire. The flames, a suspiciously blue-tinged colour, flared green for a moment as they ate at the serket venom.
Serket venom. It was hard to believe the old man had survived it.
He watched the sorcerer fuss at his robes, peering at the sleeves. The old man was making a habit of surprising him.
Or maybe that was the result of his own prejudices. It was still hard to fathom what sorcerers were capable of for good. And the hardships they had endured.
Leon glanced from Dragoon to the yale and back. "How did you get stung by a serket?"
Dragoon paused in the act of brushing off his sleeves. His eyes narrowed. "I was chained in one of their nests."
Arthur would have laughed off that answer if it hadn't been for the tense way the old man held himself, an almost hunched stance.
The knights could see it, too. Elyan bit off a low whistle and Leon stared at the sorcerer in shock. Gwaine and Percival exchanged surprised glances, the large knight frowning.
"Luckily," Dragoon pulled himself upright, a sharp smile on his lips. "I am a great sorcerer. I managed to free myself."
"But not before getting stung." Arthur finished, frowning hard. Who would be able to capture a sorcerer?
A sudden thought made him go cold. Was it because Dragoon was a sorcerer? Some sort of impromptu execution?
"How did you survive?" Gwaine looked suspicious.
"I have the great good fortune to be friends with a dragon." Dragoon snapped back.
Friends with a dragon. Arthur could see Leon mouthing the words.
But Dragoon was no longer paying attention. He glanced at the flames, eyes turning gold, and the yale finally disintegrated, falling apart into chunks of charred ash.
The knights shifted uneasily. Arthur broke in with a small wave of one hand. With reluctant glances, the knights scattered to retrieve discarded weapons. Arthur waited until they had dispersed before approaching the sorcerer.
"Thank you for your help." Even if it had involved one of the most unsettling methods of aid he'd ever encountered.
Dragoon stared at him narrowly, as if expecting mockery. But then he grinned, wide and childish. "You're welcome." It would have been almost pleasant if the sorcerer hadn't sounded so smug.
"Is there anything you need?" He asked awkwardly. If the old man was a knight, his services would have warranted a reward. If he was a subject of the crown, some concession in tithes or land rights.
Dragoon was more likely to be offended or request some sort of rare herb from Gaius.
"I didn't help you for a reward." The old man's eyes had narrowed slightly but the words were almost gentle. "But..." he trailed off deliberately, stroking his beard.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Yes?" He reined in his impatience. He had asked.
The old man smiled, teeth splitting his beard. "I have someone who'd like to speak to you."
Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty
Arthur dismounted and gathered up the reins in hand, leading his horse under a tree where he wrapped them around a low branch.
It was quiet but a thin line of smoke rose from the hut's chimney. Dragoon was here, even if he hadn't noticed Arthur was. As was, apparently, the new sorcerer he would meet.
Arthur laid a hand on Excalibur for a moment, checking the sword's placement. The touch of the hilt was reassuring and Arthur straightened as he released it, squaring his shoulders. He crossed the clearing, making his way to the hut. As he approached, he could hear the muffled sounds of conversation inside. Arthur paused at the door and after a moment's hesitation, recalling the old man's reaction when he flung open the door without announcing himself, he knocked.
The voices stopped. There were a series of footsteps and then the door was flung open.
Dragoon stared out at him, eyes narrowed as he looked Arthur up and down. "You're late," he snapped out. Not giving Arthur a chance to reply he turned around, vanishing into the hut.
Rolling his eyes, Arthur stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him.
Dragoon was waiting, standing impatiently by the fire where a woman in pale blue robes was rising from her seat.
Arthur paused, taken aback. This was the sorcerer he was here to meet? Arthur was expecting...well, someone like Dragoon or the Dolma. Old and odd. This woman looked almost normal in comparison.
Dragoon scowled as if he'd guessed what Arthur had been thinking. "Flynna. This is Arthur Pendragon. Once and Future King." He paused. "As hard as that is to believe sometimes."
Arthur shot the old man a glare.
The old man returned it before turning to the woman with an almost charming smile. "And this Flynna. A priestess of the Catha."
Who has deigned to see you. Arthur could almost hear the silent addition.
The woman smiled as their eyes met. "It is an honour to meet you, Arthur Pendragon. Emrys has told me much about your exploits."
Dragoon avoided his gaze. "Has he?" Arthur was immediately suspicious.
Flynna shook her head with a small smile. "Emrys has been most eloquent on your behalf."
Eloquent? Arthur glanced back at Dragoon in disbelief.
"I said only the truth." The sorcerer scowled and waved him to a chair. "Sit down." It was said gruffly.
Arthur sat, feeling like the earth had become unsteady. Had the old man been actively recruiting sorcerers to come to his aid? He turned to Flynna, trying to regain his balance. "And what is your opinion?"
The priestess met his gaze calmly. "You could have placed rewards, commanded hunts for sorcerers and worse throughout your kingdom. But you didn't. You refused to follow your father's footsteps."
Arthur wasn't so sure about that. "The law still remains."
Flynna leaned forward, meeting his gaze earnestly. "Emrys came here. He came here and put his trust in you, Arthur Pendragon, to be a just ruler. A king who cares for all his people." She spread her hands. "I could have gone anywhere in the five kingdoms, but I have come here. To see why Emrys has placed his faith in you."
"And Emrys' faith counts for a great deal." He still found that hard to believe, even after the druids' respect for the old man.
Her face was grave. "Among the Catha, it counts a great deal."
Even Dragoon looked up at that, frowning at her words.
But Flynna was still speaking. "And so I will tell you what I know of magic. And what magic means to the Catha."
Arthur settled in and listened intently. And it didn't escape his notice that Dragoon, who had faltered in his sorting of herbs by the table, was doing the same.
Flynna had left, going wherever it was that sorcerers went. Arthur knew it must be some hiding place safe from his patrols but carefully did not question it. If he didn't know, he didn't have to act on the knowledge.
Instead he stayed by the fire, thinking on what he had just heard. What he had seen in the last few weeks.
Dragoon had taken one look at him and, to Arthur's surprise, left him alone. The old man had simply taken up an old book and sat down in the other chair, keeping companionable silence.
It was yet another act that surprised him. And reminded Arthur that he knew very little about the sorcerer despite their conversations and the time they had spent together.
Though there were a few things he knew for certain.
Arthur rested his hand against his mouth briefly before shifting it to his cheek. "You've been in Camelot for years."
Dragoon cast him a sidelong look, wary but mostly curious. "As I've said." The snap of his words was softened by curiosity. He turned back to the book in his lap.
"Before my rule."
The sorcerer looked up from the book with a sour expression on his face. "I did." Suspicion was starting to bloom in his narrowing eyes.
"Then you knew of Nimueh, the High Priestess who tried to kill me." Arthur remained motionless, as relaxed as he could appear.
"Anyone with any knowledge of the Old Ways knows of Nimueh." The book was forgotten on the old man's lap, his full prickly attention fixed on Arthur. His lips pursed. "High Priestesses are not easily ignored."
Arthur ignored the back handed jab implied in that statement in favour of his objective. "There was a time when she left me to die. If it wasn't for the light that appeared I would not have been able to find my way free."
New wrinkles creased Dragoon's face. "Appeared?"
Arthur leaned back. "A light," he confirmed. "Exactly like the one you summoned in Freya's cell."
The old man's frown deepened. "It is not a magic unique to me alone."
It wasn't an answer. And suddenly Arthur had the feeling that Dragoon was lying.
Exactly how long had the sorcerer been watching him, interfering in his life? And how had Arthur not noticed his presence in Camelot before? How had no one noticed him? A sorcerer might escape his father's notice for days, even weeks. But years?
Arthur stared at the old man. He looked like a good blow would knock him over but he had blasted aside a fallen oak with one word. He had slain the yale with a single spell. He snapped and insulted those around him but risked his life to save them from injury.
Appearances are deceiving, dear brother.
A chill ran down Arthur's spine.
Morgana had taken on the appearance of an old woman. Who could say that Dragoon was not doing the same? He could be anyone.
"For years you have lived in Camelot. Intervened in the affairs of the kingdom." Arthur spoke the words evenly. "By your own admittance. And yet no one has ever seen you until your intervention at Guinevere's trial." The reminder made the suspicion burn with an edge of anger. "You managed to evade my father and the law for years. Even my own knights."
He had the sorcerer's full attention now.
Arthur fixed him with a sharp stare. "Morgana once took on the guise of an old woman so she could walk among us unsuspected." His voice rose, ringing out in the silence of the hut. "Tell me that you haven't done the same!"
Dragoon said nothing. Made no denials.
Anger flared through Arthur, the familiar bite of betrayal. What else should he have expected of sorcerers? "This is a lie, isn't it?" He gestured to the old man, his face, his appearance. "How am I to know everything else you have said and done is not also a lie?!"
Fury narrowed the sorcerer's eyes. "And what of you, King Arthur, when you hide your identity when you leave your kingdom? Even when you are within your kingdom!" Anger snapped through the words. "Are you not Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot even when you do not appear so?"
"It's not the same!" Arthur was infuriated by the comparison. "I hide my identity to travel through enemy lines, to save lives!"
"As do I!" The stern fury in the shout shocked Arthur into silence.
"Do you think I can travel wherever I please?" The sorcerer continued more quietly but not with any less anger. "That I do not have to hide who I am to protect not only myself but those I care for?" His expression twisted, a grimace of pain and anguish. "Everyone who knows me is either dead or under the sentence of death themselves."
His voice was quieter still, rough with emotion. "I bring danger to those around me. If Morgana knew those I cared for, she would not hesitate to strike." He shook his head, a slow sad negation. "Hidden, I am able to work against her."
Just as Arthur managed to travel through enemy kingdoms andhostile lands. But he was still not convinced. "And of those you care for? Do you lie to them?"
The old man's shoulders slumped. He suddenly looked very old. "I have been hiding for so long." He let out a breath. "It would be seen as a betrayal." He met Arthur's gaze, his own pained. "Even if it was for their protection."
Arthur frowned. He couldn't deny he wouldn't do the same. Had done the same for the kingdom.
But it wasn't the same. He was a king not a sorcerer. "And what else do you hide?"
The sorcerer's fingers flexed on the book in his lap. "What I must to keep them safe."
"Dragoon isn't your name then?" Anger flooded Arthur's chest once more.
The sorcerer said nothing, but simply stared at him.
"And Emrys? Is that another false name?"
"No," the sorcerer replied quietly. "It is the name the druids gave me. A true title. A name given to me even before my mother named me."
Anger burned like bile. "You came to me once and said that all you wanted was to be free from the persecution of magic. Since I have come to you for aid, you have told me that magic is simply a tool." And now he saw how the man before him had used it. "And in your hands I find that magic is trickery and lies. You have lied to Gaius, who has vouched for you, believing you to be what you appear. You have lied to me when I came to you in good faith."
The sorcerer stared at him, eyes devastated. But if his face was a mask, who was to say the emotions were not as well?
Arthur stood, suddenly unable to stay in his presence any longer. The man who he had come to respect despite his magic and bad temper. Who he had trusted with his life. Come to for advice that would affect the entire kingdom. "How can I believe anything you have said?!"
"If you cannot believe me, then remember what others have said. What you have seen for yourself." The sorcerer stood, with a grace that didn't belong to an old man. "I may have made mistakes. But magic is not one man alone." His words took on a desperate tone. "You are king, Arthur. Let this be on my shoulders, not those who are innocent of any deception."
Arthur shook his head. Thoughts a jumbled tangle of conflicting urges. He left the hut in three long strides before he could do something he would regret.
Not certain if he would return again. Not certain he was glad or regretting not striking Emrys down.
The door slammed shut. Shortly after there was the sound of hooves cutting deeply into the earth. Arthur leaving swiftly as if he could no longer stand to near him any longer.
Merlin sank down into his chair burying his face into his hands. It was as he feared. Arthur had been betrayed by magic so many times, that it was inevitable he wouldn't react well to Merlin's deception.
But Merlin hadn't expected him to be so angry. So hurt.
Arthur had trusted Dragoon.
And he had just thrown all of that away.
All the arguments for magic, the hours he had spent explaining spells and magic as a natural force. The meetings with the druids and Flynna. None of it mattered now.
He had failed.
There was a knock.
Merlin raised his head from his hands. Was it Arthur, come back?
The knights, sent to capture him and bring him to trial?
Merlin couldn't bring himself to care.
He slowly got up and opened the door.
Flynna stood in the doorway her face pale in the light from the fire. "Emrys! I have received word." Flynna stepped forward and grasped his hand in a hard grip. "Alastor follows behind me. Morgana is hunting for him and he seeks to hide his destination."
Morgana. Merlin's blood ran cold.
Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-One
"What do you mean, he's gone?" Morgana glared down at the fool standing in front of her.
There were screams in the distance, the pale light of flames and dark smoke trailing into the sky. She hadn't attacked Helva, engaging Odin's wrath for nothing.
"The house was empty." The man was nervous, tongue slipping out of his mouth to wet his lips. His dull eyes kept darting over her face, avoiding meeting her eyes.
Morgana could almost smell his fear.
Worthless bug. He did well to fear her. She could snuff out his miserable life with barely a thought.
"Then where is he?" Morgana let an edge enter her voice.
The man's head jerked up. He turned, gesturing to the cluster of warriors lingering several steps back.
Two of them dragged forward a third man, a thin gawky balding man who almost jittered out of their grasp. Blood dripped from under his nose and down over his chin. The skin around one of his eyes was already darkening.
The warrior dragged him forward. "Tell Lady Morgana what you told me." He emphasised the command with a kick.
"South!" The shout rose in a desperate note. "South!" His eyes rose to Morgana's face and skittered away again. "My Lady Morgana. When the sorcerer left the city he headed south."
South to Camelot.
To Emrys' protection.
"We leave at once!" A shiver of fear and anticipation made her voice sharp. "Gather supplies. Scour the city. Kill those who resist. Burn what remains."
"But my children!" The man surged up against the arms holding him upright. His eyes darted from the chief warrior to Morgana, gaze wild. "He gave his word."
Morgana lifted her chin in a sharp gesture.
The chief took a step forward and embedded his sword in the man with one smooth move.
He stiffened, a choked noise bubbling from his throat, then fell to the ground.
Morgana ignored him, fixing her gaze on his executioner. "Find his trail. If you can't, I have no further use for you."
She turned her mount aside to watch Helva burn. A smile creeping across her face.
Alator may have fled. But he would lead her right to Emrys.
Metal flashed as Gwaine stepped forward, engaging with an upswinging blow.
Arthur twisted, angling his blade to intercept even as he stepped quickly forward. A sharp bodily shove and his greater weight (muscle!) tipped Gwaine over, tumbling to the ground.
Arthur stood over him, sword point resting at his throat. "Yield!"
Gwaine raise his hands in surrender, customary grin somewhat pained. "Easy, princess. I yield."
Arthur stepped back, anger and frustration burning through him. He didn't miss the stares his behaviour was attracting and it only made him angrier.
As did Merlin's silent disappointment from the sidelines. Why did he always-
One of the younger knights was staring and caught his eye before hastily averting his gaze.
"Arthur." Elyan stepped forward, blocking Arthur's view of him. He drew closer, pacing forward in his customary loose and relaxed stride. "I've been wanting to try a new parry I've learnt."
For a moment Arthur stared at him, breathing harder than he would like. He gave a curt nod.
Elyan didn't attack, simply circled, steps slow and measured. "I was in the town yesterday." Elyan continued, as if it were a casual conversation, not a sparring match. "There were traders from Odin's kingdom." He flicked out his sword, an almost lazy appearing strike.
Arthur knocked it aside and blocked the lightening quick follow up. He said nothing, keeping his attention on Elyan, watching for the signs that would indicate another feint.
"There's talk from Helva." Elyan casually initiated a strike. For a moment there was only the scrape of metal as they forced each other across the training ground. Elyan stepped close, locking their blades together. His next words were spoken softly, not to carry to the watching knights. "Word that Morgana has attacked the city."
Rage filled Arthur. Sorcery. He didn't want to hear about magic. Arthur twisted his blade, forcing Elyan to side step and twist, right into Arthur's follow up blow.
Elyan barely managed to block. He thrust forward, momentarily forcing Arthur to step back and took a several fast steps back, starting to circle once more. Elyan's eyes and movements were wary as he continued. "The rumours say she is searching for someone. A man-"
Arthur lunged forward, landing a flurry of blows that forced Elyan on the defense. Feeling a savage sense of satisfaction that Elyan had fallen silent, that Arthur had forced him to stop talking.
But Elyan hadn't finished. "A man who has been a thorn in her side for years." He was slightly breathless, but determined. "One of her greatest enemies." A parry, another strike. "Emrys. Who has thwarted her plans time and time again."
He didn't want to hear it. Arthur lashed out, a ringing blow that sent up a murmur among the watching knights. "What proof do you have of that?" The next blow jolted up his arms, rattling the bones of his chest. "Why-"
"Because I have seen it." Elyan's voice was even despite his exertion. "I have been in the villages and listened to what they have witnessed." His voice lowered. "I have seen it for myself."
Elyan pressed his advantage. "She knows he's in Camelot."
There was a clang and Arthur's sword bounced, jumping back in such a way that Arthur had to take a quick step back, disengaging, leaving his guard open.
But Elyan let his sword fall.
Arthur swallowed, letting his own sword fall. "That's enough for today." He glanced at the gathered knights, staring and talking quietly among themselves. Suddenly aware of how he must look, wild eyed and stunned. "Training will resume tomorrow morning."
He looked over to the side, where Merlin had been sitting but his despondent manservant had vanished.
Arthur sheathed his sword, feeling unsettled and not liking it. He strode off the field, heading for the infirmary.
He needed to talk to Gaius.
Gaius' face was grave as Arthur finished relating what Elyan had told him. "Emrys has long been a thorn Morgana's side. Elyan is right. She will come if she believes he is in Camelot."
Arthur remained silent, resting his hand against his mouth. It was confirmation of what he knew but-
Gaius' brow furrowed. "Arthur?"
"Did you know?" He looked up at Gaius, searching his face. "Did you know Dragoon was only a guise?"
Gaius regarded him for a long moment. Finally the physician finally let out a sigh. "I knew," he admitted.
"He lied to me." Arthur flung out a hand. "He lied to all of us!"
"Arthur." Gaius was irritatingly calm. "Has he actually lied? Emrys might have hidden his identity, but has anything else he has said or done given you any indication of falsehood?"
Arthur thought back to the hours of conversation, information that had been confirmed by Iseldir and the other sorcerers he had met. The gaps in the sorcerer's conversations about himself that Arthur had ignored. "He's lied about who he is."
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "In a kingdom where sorcerers are hunted, Arthur. Surely you can see why."
Dragoon - Emrys - had admitted that his actions threatened those he cared for. Had said outright that he lied to keep them safe.
And could that not apply to him?
Emrys, whoever he was, had offered Arthur aid, help that he had provided. And he had risked his life in defence of Camelot. Could Arthur do any less?
Arthur thrust back his chair and got his feet. "If Morgana has attacked Helva without fear of Odin, our borders will not stop her. She will be heading for Camelot, hunting for Emrys."
A pensive look crossed Gaius' face before it smoothed into blandness. "Emrys is a capable sorcerer, Arthur. I doubt Morgana will capture him unawares."
Arthur stopped pacing. "Yet she has in the past." He caught Gaius' surprised look. "I'm not stupid, Gaius. He might not have spoken of it outright but he said enough to reveal he had been in her power before."
He had escaped. But he was still one man standing up to Morgana's strong venomous hate. "He is one of my subjects, even if he is a sorcerer. What sort of king would I be if I allowed him to walk into a trap set by Morgana?"
Gaius regarded him mildly from over the vials scattered over the table, a hint of a smile on his lips. "I would not have thought to see the day where you would ride out to aid a sorcerer."
Arthur paused on his way to the door. "A sorcerer has never been my ally before."
The silence of the room finally registered. "Where's Merlin?" Whether disappointed at Arthur or simply unwell, it was the infirmary and Gaius where Merlin sought refuge. He should have arrived before Arthur.
Gaius' mouth pinched shut in an expression Arthur was all too familiar with.
"Gaius." What had his idiotic manservant done now?
Gaius's expression was pinched. "I fear, sire, he overheard you. He left to warn Emrys."
The scatter on the table. Merlin's missing satchel. It was suddenly, horribly clear. Of course Merlin, naively optimistic and trusting Merlin, would go to warn the sorcerer, even if he was still not entirely well.
Merlin who'd had a sorcerer as a friend and wouldn't leave even an enemy to face Morgana alone.
Merlin, who damn him, was right.
Of course he'd gone to warn Dragoon.
Arthur grit his teeth. "We'll ride at once." And hope that they weren't too late.
A rough hut. More suited to a charcoal burner than a great sorcerer. This was where Emrys had been hiding.
Morgana laughed, a short sharp bark.
"Emrys!" Her voice rang out in the quiet clearing. "Aren't you going to welcome your guests?" Morgana revelled in the mockery. "Or are you going to make us wait?"
For a moment there was only silence. But then the hut's door opened.
"Neither." A decidedly stocky figure stood blocking the doorway. A very familiar figure.
"Alator!" Morgana smiled sweetly. "It's so good to see you." Her smile widened. "After all, I was so sorry to miss you at Helva."
"You have come here for nothing, Morgana. Emrys is not here."
Morgana's smile widened. "Perhaps not now. But he has a weakness for allies in trouble. How long will it take him to come to your rescue?"
Alator straightened, eyes narrowing as he grasped his staff. "I would die before I let that happen." He thrust out his staff, eyes flaring golden.
Morgana snapped out a hand, diverting the fireball flaring through the air. It swerved, ploughing into the earth with a spray of dirt. Morgana thrust out her hand and Alator fell backward, disappearing into the hut.
Morgana laughed. "Set it on fire! Burn him out!" She urged her horse towards the hut as two men ran forward with burning torches.
A force hit Morgana from the side. The hut tilted and then tumbled wildly before disappearing in a haze of brown and green as pain hit her with stunning force.
Morgana gasped, wheezing for breath, fingers clutching at the earth.
Hooves struck the ground inches away. Morgana's horse let out a squeal and fled in a fast drum of hooves.
Morgana pushed herself up from the ground, raking her hair back from her face.
A tall figure in red stood at the side of the clearing, hand still upraised.
Morgana smiled as she lurched to her feet. "Emrys."
Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Two
Merlin staggered, arm tightening across Flynna's shoulders, the other pressing hard against his side.
Flynna cast him a worried look, tightening her arm around his waist.
Merlin gave her a crooked smile, attempting reassurance. "I've had worse."
Flynna shook her head, "That's not the point, Emrys." She helped him over a sprawl of roots, taking Merlin's weight as he stumbled. "You-"
A bark cut through the air.
Alator, who had been ranging ahead, stopped, turning, staff grasped tightly in his hand.
A second bark sounded. Followed by another.
"They've got the scent." Alator sounded worried, as they started moving again, much faster. "We can delay them but they won't be off our trail for long."
"Water." Merlin spoke between breaths. The pain wasn't helped by the ache in his bones, which had gotten worse over the course of the day. "There's a stream not far from here." It would cost them time but the dogs would be on them if they didn't lose the pack Morgana had loosed after them. They weren't in any shape to outrun them.
Merlin drew in an unsteady breath. "If they catch up, you should leave me-"
"Do not even think it." Flynna cut him off, hurrying him under a low branch. "We will not leave you, Emrys."
Merlin didn't argue. He didn't have the breath.
There was a steep slope ahead, a fold of land half hidden by the trees. Alator slowed, pausing halfway down. His hand was warm as he reached up to steady Merlin as Flynna helped him down. "Nor shall we." He met Merlin's gaze. "We are with you to the end."
Merlin held his stare, wanting to argue. But Alator's gaze was unwavering.
Merlin gave him a nod. He would make sure that end wouldn't be this day. He accepted Flynna's support as they reached level ground.
"We'll follow the creek line." Merlin tried not to lean too much of his weight on Flynna. "If we're lucky, Morgana's dogs will lose the scent."
"And if we are not?" Alator cast him a grim look.
"Then we'll make our stand," Merlin replied somewhat breathlessly as he struggled against the flare of pain that shot through his ribs. "There's an abandoned watch tower not far from here." Arthur had shown it to him during one of his hunting trips. It had been a recent discovery and one which Morgana was hopefully unaware.
"Why not return to the castle?" Alator had a hand to the ground. His eyes glowed as he hissed out a word and then he was hurrying on ahead of them once more. "Your king has forces enough to hold the witch back."
An icy hand clutched at Merlin's chest at the thought of Morgana attacking Camelot. "No," it came out rough and Merlin coughed, ribs flaring and throat still aching from the smoke. "I won't put Arthur in danger. Or Camelot." He coughed again, arm pressing against his side as the pain from the burns flared.
Alator and Flynna exchanged glances over his head.
"Then we will ensure Camelot is safe." Alator's expression was grim. "And that Morgana will not be a threat any longer."
The earth was scorched, the hut a gutted ruin. Arthur sat in his saddle in shock, staring in disbelief at the carnage.
"You believe that Camelot has been able to hold against magic purely with steel and good men?" The sorcerer had shaken his head, uttering a sound of disbelief, gaze never leaving Arthur's. "You haven't seen the full power of a sorcerer's magic unleashed."
He was seeing it now.
The silence at his back jolted Arthur into action. "Percival! Gwaine!" Both knights jumped to attention, horrified awe and disbelief remaining in the whites of their eyes and tight grips on weapons.
Arthur lifted a hand and motioned forward and to the side.
With sharp nods, the knights peeled away, riding forward to search the clearing.
Arthur sat on Llamrei, hand resting on Excalibur's hilt even as his eyes scanned the clearing. Little remained. The hut was a spray of burnt timbers, flung about as if a great hand had plucked them from the earth. The small copse to the side of the hut had been completely obliterated, only burn stumps and clumps of ash to suggest they had ever existed. What had once been gently sloping grass was now raked up furrows of dirt and deep craters edged by burnt grass.
It was complete and utter carnage.
"I have not seen such a battlefield before." Leon had ridden up beside Arthur, face pale and shocked beneath his beard.
"No," Arthur's lips compressed into a frown. It was a battlefield. A clash of sorcerers. Morgana had obviously found Emrys. But from what he could see, there was no clear victory.
"Morgana?" Leon was obviously thinking along similar lines.
"I fear so." Arthur's eyes lingered on the remains of the hut. He could see a shattered plate amidst the wreckage. It might have been one from which he had eaten. "Morgana doesn't care for the destruction she wreaks." And by all accounts Emrys had avoided her for a long time.
"There are no bodies," Leon observed.
A shout erupted from across the clearing, Percival dismounted and waiting with one hand raised.
Arthur flicked the reins, urging his horse forward. The acrid scent of smoke was heavy in his nostrils as he rode past the hut.
Percival was kneeling, one hand resting on the ground if he examined a thick layer of ash. He looked up as Arthur reined in.
"Three sets of footprints. A woman and two men." He pointed to the smudged indents. "The second man is moving slowly, supported by the woman."
Arthur's jaw clenched. Dragoon or Merlin?
"And I found this." Gwaine rode up, a scrap of red cloth held high in one hand. "And more." His tone darkened. "Dogs and men, following them northeast, away from Camelot. Less than an hour past."
Arthur glanced in the same in the same direction then turned in his saddle. Morgana had found Emrys and was now hunting him down, perhaps injured.
And the sorcerer was leading her away from Camelot.
At the cost of his home and possibly injury to himself.
"They can't outrun the dogs long. They'll have to make a stand." Arthur wheeled his horse around. "There's a ruined watch tower to the northeast."
He urged his horse to turn, even as Percival clambered back into the saddle. "We'll make for the ruins. If we ride fast, there's a chance we'll get there first."
Or meet her there.
They had kept ahead of the dogs. The stream had bought them precious time and Alator's tricks had gained them more. But now the sounds of the dogs were louder, as they made up the distance between them once more.
Merlin picked up his pace, stumbling along with Flynna's support. "It's not far." They had already passed the fallen oak he remembered Arthur using to secure his reins. Next would be the large sweet chestnut. The abandoned watch tower would be shortly after that.
"Good." Flynna's reply was as breathless as his.
A series of triumphant barks broke up behind them and Alator's head lifted. They exchanged a glance and broke into a shambling sprint. The sweet chestnut loomed in the gloom. Next would be the small clearing where they had stopped and their first glimpse of the watch tower. There was only a short lingering stretch of trees after that and then they were-
It was only when they had burst from the trees that Merlin realized what had happened.
Torches stood in the earth and glinting among them, a line of arrows, bows drawn tight in readiness.
Morgana met his gaze across the field and smiled. Her raised hand lowered.
Arrows flew through the air, a lethal hail.
Merlin threw up his hand, casting out his will. There was no time for spells and he fell back on instinct, his magic ready to protect him and those at his side.
A wave of force crashed through the airborne missiles, casting them aside in a faltering arc.
Flynna's spell ended, a number of archers flung back in the air, bows snapping and sharp cracks erupting as men collided with trees.
Alator, likewise trusting Merlin's protection, gestured sharply and flares erupted amidst the men at Morgana's side. Her horse reared with a scream and Merlin caught a glimpse of her pale face under a tumble of dark hair, when he was suddenly pulled away.
"We must hurry!" Flynna had his arm in a tight grip and was pulling him aside to shelter in a nearby stand of trees. She flung up a hand to send a man flying and Merlin threw aside an archer aiming at her back.
Another burst of flames erupted with an accompanying high pitched howl. Alator flashed past them, staff in hand, his face a mask of determination. Flynna's hand tightened on Merlin's arm as she wordlessly followed, falling into what looked a well-practised retreat.
Smoke coiled thick and dark, screams rising. One of Morgana's men raced towards them and Merlin automatically flung him back with a heated stare.
Alator planted his staff, chanting, standing to face behind them as they passed him. Merlin would have protested if he had the breath.
"Alator cannot hold them for long." Even as Flynna spoke the air shook with a roar, an explosion cracking open the sky behind them, momentarily another sun casting the clearing and them alike in an orange light.
Merlin twisted in Flynna's grip to look back to see Alator, safe, running towards them.
Something hard hit them from the side. Merlin toppled over, Flynna sprawling beneath his weight.
For a moment Merlin lay stunned, screams and shouts a muffled haze of noise. Then Flynna moved beneath him and he started to move, crawling awkwardly to get to his feet.
He managed it with Flynna's aid.
Only to be knocked back to his knees by a gust of wind.
Morgana sat backlit by the flames, astride her horse leading a group of men on foot. Archers. Even as Merlin watched, they spread out at her order, lining up and drawing their bows.
Alator cast another fireball, only to have it batted away by a casual swipe of Morgana's hand.
"You're running out of tricks Alator." A smile twisted her face. "You disappoint me." Her eyes flicked to Merlin who was getting up with Flynna's aid. "Emrys even more so."
The archers had lifted their bows. Merlin stood gathering his scattered will, preparing to take out as many as he could-
Morgana's head suddenly turned.
Merlin's attention snapped to the side of the clearing.
Mounted men, knights in red. And at their head, the familiar figure of Arthur.
Arthur who shouldn't be here. From whom Merlin had been trying to lead Morgana away.
The archers drew, aiming toward them even as Morgana's face twisted in a triumphant snarl as her hand rose towards Arthur.
He couldn't stop the arrows and Morgana as well.
It was no choice at all.
As they burst through the trees, they arrived into chaos. Fire lit bright bonfires among the trees, human offerings dancing as their clothes flamed, living torches. Black thick smoke smeared through trees and grass, cover and threat both as men moved unseen, revealed only by the glint of steel.
And amidst it all, perched on her horse like some primeval dark goddess, sat Morgana. Pale and wearing black, a dark streak across one cheekbone.
As if she had sensed his arrival, her head snapped around, face twisting with hatred as she spotted him. Her hand rose and Arthur braced himself-
A loud crack whited out his vision as a line of light stabbed down from out of the sky.
Arthur blinked his vision furiously, grasping tight to Llamrei's sides as she reared, hands automatically guiding her safely back down.
Orange flames and wavering figures staggered across his vision. Fire and men. No sign of Morgana or her horse.
An army now in disarray. Without a leader.
Arthur drew his sword, "For Camelot!" and kicked his horse into a charge.
The knights were a bloody roar at his back.
There was a roaring in his ears, a rumble of bees tumbling through his head and catching his breath razor edged.
A flare of pain that bodily spun him around and nearly slammed him into the ground.
"-rys! Emrys!" The roar slowly filtered into individual sounds.
There was something tight around his wrist, warmth along his side. His legs were bent but not properly, splayed not kneeling. Straightening them was like trying to move Arthur's wet laundry.
He just wanted to lie down and rest. Just for a bit.
But there was an arm around him. And even now another from his other side. Blurred faces slowly took on familiar forms. Flynna. And Alator.
Flames still licked at fallen trees, lighting the battle between armoured knights and Morgana's men. Morgana herself was nowhere to be seen.
Merlin lifted a hand. It shook, pale and bony in the firelight. But more worryingly, it didn't look as wrinkled as it should.
The spell held. But where it had once been effortless, he could now feel the magic holding it together, the strain on his bones and lungs.
They had to leave. Injured and worn as he was, the spell holding Dragoon's appearance was draining him.
He had to get back to the infirmary where he could relinquish the spell and rest.
Arthur found Emrys staggering in the tree line, supported by a man and a woman. Flynna he recognised, still clad in her blue robes. But the bald man holding a staff he didn't know.
But the man recognized him, if his frosty expression was any indication.
The old man's head turned. With help from his companions, he turned. His usually immaculate hair was matted, marred with dirt and blood. A quick glance revealed his robe was burnt through in patches to reveal red skin beneath. Blood made the robe even darker and his eyes, when they met Arthur's, were glassy.
Arthur frowned in concern. "We have spare horses if you would return to Camelot with us." Where else did he have to go, injured and now his house had been destroyed?
"And what welcome would we find there?" The unknown sorcerer asked with a thick lyrical accent. "A sorcerer's strength might be welcome on the battlefield but rarely after the battle is won."
Arthur glared at him, affronted. "Allies are honoured in Camelot."
"Aye and sorcerers are not allies." The man's anger built until his words were seething with rage, accent thickened. "Even when one such as Emrys has saved you over and over again, unnoticed-"
"Alator." It took Arthur a moment to recognize Emrys' voice, deepened and tight as it was.
The other man cast a look at the old sorcerer and immediately subsided, though the anger remained writ large on his face.
Emrys' gaze fixed on Arthur's face, eyes returning to their usual sharpness. "Gaius will be busy enough tonight without my presence." He gave Arthur a grim smile. "Flynna and Alator will see to me."
Arthur glanced at the sorcerer. Flynna, worry drawing her expression tight, nodded as their gazes met. The other sorcerer - Alator - simply met his gaze, little respect in evidence.
"Where will you go?" Gwaine was approaching, grim and battle splattered but whole and walking with little sign of injury. "Morgana escaped." There was concern in his voice and an edge of challenge. "You would be safer in Camelot."
Emrys' eyes narrowed slightly. The old man shook his head. "Magic is outlawed in Camelot. And I am a known sorcerer."
He glanced at Arthur. "The offer is generous. But I cannot accept." He glanced back at Gwaine. "I have those who will care for me. As for Morgana," he looked weary. "The witch is long gone."
"Emrys." Alator's voice was sharp.
The sorcerer nodded. "Send word if you need to contact me. Gaius will know how to reach me." He started to turn away.
"Wait." Arthur took a step forward. "Where's Merlin?"
The old man's eyebrows bounced in surprise. "Back at the castle by now. He warned me of Morgana and I sent him back." His eyebrows drew together in a scowl. "You should give him a few days off. He looked dreadful." With that pronouncement, he left, leaning on Flynna and Alator's shoulders. The other sorcerer fixing Arthur with a grim look before they turned away.
"Sire?" Leon stood ready to carry out any order.
"Let him go," Arthur ordered. "We have wounded to attend to." The sorcerer was right. But it didn't sit well with him.
And he didn't need to see the grimace on Gwaine's face as they watched the departing sorcerer, to know that his knights felt the same way.
Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Three
Sir Alsen lay unmoving on one of the low cots, face pale beneath the bloody bandages. Sir Weylan sat on the stool by his bed, arm in a sling.
Cador. Lohot. Owen. The infirmary was filled with knights.
And Gaius was attending them alone.
Gwaine glanced toward the shut door up the short flight of steps. "Merlin?"
Gaius' mouth thinned. "Unable to rise from his sick bed to convince you to sit still, Sir Gwaine." Gaius raised his eyebrow. "Or do you need something for the pain?"
Gwaine's mouth shut, stomach lurching at the memory of the last potion Gaius had forced on him. "No! I think I'll take my chances. Leave Merlin to his rest." He grinned, hoping to distract Gaius from the potion. "Arthur works him too hard - he needs the rest."
Gaius simply made a humming noise as he reached for a bandage. But to Gwaine, it sounded like agreement.
Gwaine was thankful that Merlin was still too sick to be with them.
Merlin had no place in that hellish field of battling sorcerers.
Arthur sat by the fire, staring down at his hand. Dried blood, a smear that covered most of his palm and unevenly discoloured his fingers.
There had been a lot of blood darkening the old man's robes, turning red to a darker, more sinister hue. He had been more than unsteady; the sorcerer would have fallen if Flynna and Alator hadn't been supporting him on either side.
He should have insisted that Emrys return with them for treatment. It wouldn't have been hard to slip him into the castle unseen. At worst, Arthur's word was enough to see him remain unmolested if he was discovered.
But the sorcerer had been adamant. It was almost as if he was avoiding the castle for a reason-
Dragoon's contacts had all been from outside Camelot or at the edges of the kingdom. When the old man admitted that he had been to Camelot, Arthur had thought it was only on a temporary basis. A trader or craftsman who had the excuse of the markets to explain his comings and goings.
He had never considered the sorcerer might have been one of Camelot's permanent fixtures. Not until he had confronted Dragoon over his real identity.
Morgana had taken on another appearance with magic and Dragoon had all but admitted the same.
He had thought the sorcerer familiar when he first saw him. Something he had accepted as a mistake at the time.
But he had become almost comfortable with the old man over the last few months. And since his revelation, Arthur's sense of familiarity had returned.
He had met the man before, possibly in his own flesh. And more than just the once.
There had been things he shouldn't have known, the familiarity he had with all the knights. Arthur was now convinced that Emrys lived not only within the kingdom but Camelot itself. A sorcerer in the walls.
And one who had been fighting against Morgana for years. Who had not sought to bring Camelot down from the inside when he had every opportunity to do so.
A man who could be anyone from one of the knights to a lowly servant.
Arthur covered his face with his hands.
If Merlin was well, Arthur would ask him. Merlin seemed to know everyone in the castle. Idiot, though he was, he helped Arthur think.
Arthur slumped in his chair. It wasn't the same since Merlin had gotten sick. Arthur had seen more of Dragoon than Merlin lately. It was one or the other-
Merlin, the bravest person Arthur knew, had left to warn Emrys even though he was unwell. And obeyed the same sorcerer to return to his bed, where he would be safe and away from the conflict.
Emrys had said Merlin had his word that nothing could be done.
But the Merlin he knew would stand up and fight, even if he was dying.
Much like Dragoon.
Merlin who was the only man who dared to insult Arthur to his face.
Exactly like Dragoon had done.
Arthur froze in the act of dragging his hands down his face, one hand caught in front of his mouth.
"I have many talents. You've failed to notice them, that's all."
Merlin had said it countless times.
Merlin, who was remarkably brave and confident even when his knights had lost heart.
Arthur shook his head. No. Merlin couldn't be Emrys. Merlin had been with him for years. One of the few who hadn't betrayed him.
Dragoon's shoulders slumped. He suddenly looked very old. "I have been hiding for so long." He let out a breath. "It would be seen as a betrayal." He met Arthur's gaze, his own pained. "Even if it was for their protection."
Merlin. Bumbling, fumbling, lucky Merlin. Recklessly brave and senselessly confident without foundation. Arthur scowled. Who might not frequent the tavern as much as he appeared to.
His friend, who knew Arthur almost better than himself sometimes. And who on occasion, Arthur felt he didn't know at all.
Excalibur lay on the table, still sheathed.
Arthur hesitated and then stood and reached for the sword, buckling its belt around his waist.
His steps were firm as he strode from his chambers and to the infirmary.
Chapter 25: Chapter Twenty-Four
Gaius looked up from the bandages he was rolling as Arthur entered the room. "There was no need for you to visit, sire. I was just about to come and see you." He tied off a bandage and set it aside. "Few permanent injuries and none life threatening-" He broke off as he realized Arthur wasn't listening. And that he was staring at Merlin's closed door, Excalibur at his hip.
"How is he?" Arthur's gaze didn't leave Merlin's door.
Gaius tried to squash a sudden wave of unease. "As well as can be expected. He hasn't gotten much rest the last few days." If for reasons other than fever and illness.
There was disturbing stillness in Arthur's stance. Excalibur on his hip was suddenly threatening.
Gaius left the bandages, moving out from behind the table so that he half blocked the stairs leading up to Merlin's room. "If you wish sire-"
"Gaius." The look on Arthur's face stopped Gaius' words. It was that of a king and the young boy he had known, command and entreaty.
Gaius' lips pursed. "Be gentle with him, Arthur." He reluctantly stepped aside. "Today was wearying for him. He needs his rest."
Arthur paused, and then slowly ascended the steps. He slipped into Merlin's room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Merlin's room was as he remembered it. Sparsely furnished; a cupboard in the corner, a simple low bed. It was a servant's room and Merlin had lived in it for years.
Merlin currently lay on his bed, pale and still. But as Arthur stood there watching him, his eyes slit open.
"Arthur?" He sounded confused.
He could be wrong. Merlin might have been sick, sick enough to return upon Emrys' urging.
But Merlin never took his health into account when he was determined to do something. He was more stubborn than an old mule.
Arthur moved closer, hesitating for a fraction of a moment before sitting on the edge of Merlin's bed.
Merlin obligingly shuffled sideways under the blankets, pulling himself up on bony elbows. Only to let out a low pained hiss.
His tunic lay unevenly across his stomach, bunched over his stomach and chest. Arthur had seen too many wounded knights not to recognize it. Bandages.
Emrys would have needed them with the wounds he'd suffered.
"Only you Merlin, could leave your sickbed to warn a sorcerer." Arthur pretended to ignore the source of Merlin's much slower movements. Even as he searched for more signs of confirmation.
Merlin drew himself up onto the pile of pillows. He fixed Arthur with a sharp look. "Would you have sent anyone if I hadn't?"
Would he? Arthur would have liked to think he would. Eventually.
But if it hadn't been for Merlin's disappearance, would he had ridden out with aid?
"I'm starting to wonder if you actually enjoy George's company." Arthur continued as if he hadn't spoken.
Merlin paused in his shifting, disapproval freezing in a look of wary disbelief.
"If you keep shirking your duties, I'll have to asking him to teach you how to polish the feasting platters." He could almost see it, if he looked closely. The placement of wound, the height and gangly length of limbs.
He had met Dragoon before. He was almost certain of it.
The sour expression Merlin was now giving him was almost as perfect match.
And only Merlin would have temerity to insult Arthur to his face.
"Why Dragoon?" Arthur asked abruptly, sick of all the evasion. The question had Merlin off balance and he pressed his advantage.
Merlin's gaze flickered. "What do you mean-"
Arthur held his gaze squarely. "Why the charade? Why not simply admit that you are a sorcerer?"
Merlin considered denying the accusation.
But he didn't. He'd known this day would come.
And he was sick of lying. Tired of hiding who he was.
"You didn't believe me last time." Excalibur was on Arthur's hip. Merlin was careful to rest his hands limply on his blanket, unthreatening.
Arthur's face twisted.
He'd expected Merlin to deny the accusation, Merlin realized. But now...
The lies, the deceptions that he had spun throughout the years. Arthur saw it all now.
Merlin could see it in the sudden realization in his eyes, the growing outrage.
"All this time." Arthur's voice was tight, filled with barely-held restraint. "Since you came to Camelot?"
He hadn't drawn Excalibur, at least. "Since I was born."
Arthur looked at him sharply at that.
"I didn't lie to you." As Dragoon he had been finally been able to speak freely.
"About that." Arthur looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. "But everything else?"
Merlin forgot about Excalibur. "Truth. Everything I've told you these last few weeks has been true." He had given Arthur everything he knew, anything he thought would be able to teach to Arthur about magic. Merlin might not be able to tell him about his magic, but Dragoon could.
There was silence for a long moment.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur finally asked. He stared at Merlin, his expression guarded, gaze intent.
Merlin shrugged, wincing as the movement pulled at the burns splashed across his ribs. "As you said, you cannot change the law for the sake of one man."
Arthur had gone still. He sat so quietly, if not for the weight pulling on his blankets and tilting his lumpy mattress, he might not be there.
This was the point, Merlin knew. In the next few moments Excalibur would be drawn or remained sheathed.
It might be death, or if he was lucky exile. Merlin suspected that it would be the latter. Arthur did not forgive betrayal, especially that made by magic. He had grown fond enough of Dragoon to ride out and face Morgana when he saw the sorcerer was threatened.
But Merlin had been with him for years, one of the few in whose his loyalty he trusted.
The betrayal was that much greater.
And forgiveness might be beyond even Arthur.
"I can't believe it."
The suddenness of it made Merlin jump.
Arthur scowled at him. "You fed me weeds. Twice."
Merlin blinked. But no, Arthur really had just said that.
Relief was a wave of lightheadedness. A ridiculous surge of giddiness.
Merlin ventured a cocky grin. "They’re good for you." His grin widened at Arthur's sceptical look. "How do you think I keep up with your demands and still manage to take care of Morgana's latest plot?"
Arthur’s outraged expression shifted at the reminder. Becoming grim. He fixed Merlin with a narrow look. "And here I thought magic had something to do with it."
"Perhaps a little." Merlin admitted lightly, keeping watch for Arthur's expression.
Arthur fixed him with a considering stare. It was the same guarded gaze he wore when he was surveying a battlefield or listening to the testimonies preceding a particularly challenging judgement. "You're going to tell me exactly how little magic has been involved over the last few years, Merlin." It wasn't a question. "Starting with these sorcerers you've been bringing into Camelot."
Merlin could hardly believe it. But he knew Arthur. He was thinking now. He hadn't quite come to grips with the situation but he'd already decided on how he would approach it.
Unbelievable as it seemed, Arthur was trying to accept the situation the fact that Merlin was a sorcerer.
He suppressed the urge to smile like an idiot. "It's a long story."
Arthur's lips actually twitched before he forced them into a stern expression. "You're not going anywhere. And I have the time."
No. He wasn't going anywhere. Merlin grinned. Then tried to smother the expression when he caught Arthur actually roll his eyes. "It all started when my mother sent a letter to Gaius."
Chapter 26: Chapter Twenty-Five
They had ridden in mostly silence. Not the companionable quiet that accompanied them on a hunt or Merlin's grousing when they were embarking on a journey he didn't approve of. Now there was nothing except an awkward and loud void. Filled with Merlin's unnatural silence and echoed in the almost guarded way he rode, the hesitant sidelong glances.
As if he was waiting for Arthur to suddenly change his mind.
Suddenly Arthur wished with painful suddenness that they could go back. To prince and manservant once more, without the duties of King and Sorcerer.
He could hardly believe that Merlin was a sorcerer.
The bumbling, irritable persona of Dragoon was easy to see in retrospect, but the magic?
Merlin was still somewhat unsteady in the saddle. Arthur could see it in the minute losses of balance and the way he caught himself in the saddle.
Which wasn't at all why Arthur was riding slower than usual or glancing over at Merlin so often.
Merlin. A powerful sorcerer.
His manservant looked up, catching his gaze.
Arthur fell back on old habits. "Tell me Merlin, how can you be a powerful sorcerer and still ride like a girl?"
Merlin's lips twitched and then pulled tight in a prim little line. "The same way a King can be such a prat, I suppose."
"Really, Mer-lin," Arthur turned around to hide his grin at the familiar taunt. "Is that the best you can do?"
"Well, I could mention certain thankless toads who can't see what's in front of them-"
"Toads!" Arthur turned sharply in his saddle. "What exactly links me with toads in your mind?" Sorcerer or not, Merlin's answer would be affecting exactly how much work he would be facing over the next few days.
A grin flashed across Merlin's face. But then he was reining in, thrusting out a hand. "This is the place." He urged his horse forward, leaving the trail.
Arthur followed, vowing to continue their conversation later.
Their destination was a hut. One surprisingly close to the one Merlin had used to meet him as Dragoon. "Here?" It was hard to believe that sorcerers, even those so bold to enter Camelot at Merlin's request - and that was still somewhat mind boggling - would hide so close to the site of Morgana's attack.
Merlin caught his look. "The entire village is abandoned. No one comes here since the Dorocha's attack." Merlin slowly slid from his saddle and Arthur pretended not to see how he held onto the leather. "They think it's haunted."
Arthur glanced at the hut, apparently derelict, and then back at Merlin now safely on the ground. "And it wouldn't have anything to do with a certain sorcerer." He swung out of the saddle, taking up Llamrei's reins.
Merlin actually grinned, insolent as he was. "It might." He took the reins and tied both their horses to a low post before knocking on the door in an oddly patterned beat.
After a moment, it slowly opened, the bald priest standing firmly in the doorway. "Emrys." The lilting tone of his voice was filled with relief. "I am glad to see you well."
Merlin smiled, a steadfast acknowledgement miles from the lazy grin he had just worn. "Alator."
The priest's gaze fell on Arthur. "Arthur Pendragon." He gaze lost its warmth.
"Arthur would know the sorcerers who stand on Camelot's soil." Merlin's voice suddenly had a hint of command that had Arthur regarding him with shocked surprise. "I wish it also."
Alator's mouth pursed but he nodded. He stepped back and let them into the hut.
It was nowhere near derelict, Arthur observed as they stepped inside. There was clear indication that someone had been cleaning it recently and that it was a comfortable enough shelter if one ignored the lack of furnishings.
"King Arthur." Flynna stood to the side of the room.
Out of the door's line of sight, Arthur realized. Where she could ambush any intruder who managed to get past Alator.
Arthur gave her a nod of acknowledgement, somewhat warily. "Flynna."
The priestess smiled at him before approaching Merlin, taking his shoulders in gentle hands as she surveyed him. "Emrys." Her smile widened. "You are looking much improved since I saw you last."
Merlin gave a quick grin. "Gaius says thank you for the herbs." He allowed himself to be drawn to one of the chairs set close to the fire.
Herbs. Arthur rolled his eyes as he followed. What was it with sorcerers and weeds?
Flynna pulled up a stool and Arthur sat somewhat gingerly, noticing that Alator had made no move to sit with them.
Merlin glanced at him and gave a small shake of his head.
Flynna had settled on a low bench. "Emrys sent word that you wished to speak to us." Her calm expectant gaze was a stark contrast to Alator's hostile suspicious stare.
Arthur cleared his throat. "You know my reasons for seeking you out. To learn of magic and now how to deal with its presence in my kingdom," he grimaced. Merlin was staring at him, smile slipping slightly, but Arthur forged on. "But I also seek answers. Answers that Merlin has seen to leave out."
Alator straightened, clenching at his staff. "Hear me, Arthur Pendragon. Many times has Emrys stood between you and Morgana, risking life and more than you can imagine." His accented voice deepened, becoming rough and sharp. "You would do well to remember that."
"I am well aware of what Merlin has done," Arthur retorted sharply, anger bleeding through the words.
Merlin's faltering smile had vanished entirely.
Arthur took a slow breath. "But I'm still uncertain of your motives."
Flynna glanced at Merlin before exchanging glances with Alator. She nodded slowly. "Ask and we shall do our best to answer."
Arthur sensed it was as good an agreement as he was going to get. "You stood against Morgana." When she had been hunting Merlin down. Emrys. "But as I understand," from what answers Gaius had managed to cram in the small time they'd had to consult before he left the castle, "the Catha follow the Old Religion. Morgana is a priestess. Why stand against her?"
"Morgana may be a Priestess of the Old Religion." It was Alator, surprisingly, who answered. "But she has twisted those teachings to her own ends." He clenched his hands on his staff. "She stands against Emrys and thus we oppose her."
Merlin. Because he was Emrys. "Merlin has told me that you have sworn yourselves to his service." He couldn't help the doubt in his voice. Merlin was naive at the best of times. And despite his years of service he still didn't see the difference between loyalty to a title and the man who bore it.
That blind trust was one of Merlin's most frustrating qualities.
And what would get him killed one day, if he wasn't careful. "For Emrys or what you believe Emrys to be?"
Alator wasn't impressed. Neither did Merlin if his narrow stare was any indication.
"We stand with Emrys." The sorcerer met Arthur's gaze with quiet conviction. "If he calls on us to fight against Morgana, we will come. If he wants us to educate others in the ways of magic, then we will teach."
"You pledge your lives to him?" Arthur didn't try to hide his incredulity.
"Aye." The heavy tone of Alator's voice forbade contradiction. "And more than our lives. Emrys is our hope, the embodiment of all magic."
"He commands such loyalty?" Arthur couldn't help needing the clarification. Merlin? It was hard enough to believe he was a sorcerer, let alone one who commanded others. Merlin still had trouble with his horse, sometimes. It laughable that he could command sorcerers to do his bidding.
"We have waited centuries for his coming. He who will bring a golden age to the five kingdoms, for all Albion." Alator was firm, his eyes lit with the fervent belief of a fanatic.
Merlin. Merlin who should be squirming in embarrassment but simply met his gaze with a frightening calm acceptance.
"We and all those who accept the prophecies wait ready to stand with Emrys." Her words were quiet but Flynna said it proudly.
Arthur glanced at Alator sharply. "There are more of you?"
Alator snorted. "Camelot may have done its best to stamp magic from the land but magic survives, even if it must in shadow!"
Merlin gave him a frowning stare and the priest softened his tone, a startling show of obedience. "Aye, there are others. And they will come to stand with us against Morgana. If Emrys calls, few of those with magic will dare stand against him. And few but Morgana could hope to come close to meeting his power."
Against Merlin. It was still hard to believe. But Merlin nodded confidently, a small grim smile on his lips that was rueful but steady.
Merlin, if all he had heard - what the druids, what Gaius believed was true - was the most powerful sorcerer of the age.
A sorcerer that other sorcerers would follow. Would defend Camelot if he asked.
Magic against magic.
Arthur took a breath. Aware of Flynna regarding him patiently and calmly, Alator somewhat sceptically.
And Merlin. Trying to be impassive but Arthur could see the hope, the way his thin shoulders braced against disappointment.
I cannot change the law for the sake of one man.
He had said that. And he had meant it at the time.
But this was Merlin. For whom he had risked his own life and had done the same in turn.
Who had saved his life more times that Arthur had ever suspected.
Merlin, who was not just one man but the leader of many. Sorcerers who, while they lived in Camelot. were also his people.
"Since the Disir called upon me, I have questioned the presence of magic in Camelot. The threat it possesses and the possibility that it might be more than that. For a long time, I thought it was only capable of evil." He met and held Merlin's gaze. "But I have come to see that magic is more than that. Magic is a skill. What people use that skill for, their deeds, define whether magic is good or ill."
Merlin's eyes glinted suspiciously. He swallowed hard.
Arthur looked away, pretending not to see.
"Believing this to be true, I can no longer in good conscience uphold my father's laws." He saw Alator's shocked surprise, Flynna's sudden smile. "Criminals will be punished but the use of magic only if it has been used to commit a crime."
He met Alator then Flynna's gaze. "I will need to meet with your people. To discuss the ways in which magic should be governed and how to protect against those who would use it for their own ends." Their opinions would be useful, even if Arthur was planning to give Merlin and Gaius' ideas priority.
It would take time. Winning over sorcerers, convincing them of his sincerity. Some like Flynna would follow Merlin but Arthur doubted others would be so wholly obedient.
Accepting magic back into Camelot would take time after the persecution of his father's reign. Perhaps Arthur's entire rule.
But he would have Merlin's help.
Arthur glanced at Merlin, sitting tall and straight, grinning widely in delight and holding a spindly hand over his lips in an attempt at composure.
As if he hadn't just signed up to battle against dissidents at court and made himself the target to every sorcerer hostile to Camelot.
Looking so damned happy about it. Even more like a village idiot than usual.
But Merlin's help, despite appearances, meant a great deal.
Chapter 27: Epilogue
The cavern was chill, like a cold pond with icy waters in the midst of summer's warmth. The relief from the heat was the only consolation in the situation. Even with Merlin at his side, Arthur didn't look forward to seeing the Disir again. Even with his answer.
Despite Merlin and Gaius' reassurances, it was impossible to know what the soothsayers' response would be.
Or that of the goddess. Arthur grimaced.
They had reached the curtain of charms, sticks tied into patterns of warning. A caution for the unwary and subtle blessing.
Arthur carefully reached up and parted them, turning sideways so that his armour wouldn't catch the fragile charms and rip them free.
Merlin caught his gaze, making his own way through, and grinned at him.
Arthur turned away so Merlin couldn't see how the approval warmed him. Sometimes he did listen to what Merlin said. He was learning.
The tunnel ended too soon. The Disir were waiting for them, standing on their rocky perch.
"Arthur Pendragon." His name rolled through the cavern.
The seer on the left tilted her head. "Have you made your decision?"
Arthur stepped forward, head held high. The Disir might have held his fate, Mordred and his kingdom hostage, but he was a king. The king Merlin believed in so faithfully and served for years with magic. "I have."
"And what is your decision?" There was genuine curiosity in the cold voice.
Arthur glanced at Merlin. Merlin who smiled at him with clear eyes.
He turned back to the Disir. "Magic will no longer be outlawed. Sorcerers will no longer be condemned for practising magic." Or being born with it. "A man will be judged by his actions alone."
There was silence. The Disir stood motionless.
"And the goddess?" They finally questioned.
"Will you bow to her rule?"
"I believe that respect should be given when due. Thanks for what has been given." Arthur inclined his head. "I will celebrate in the goddess' honour. My rule shall be in accordance with the balance she bestows."
It had been even more difficult to grasp than Merlin's magic. But Iseldir and Gaius had pointed out that the Triple Goddess' way was that of the land and the people. And Camelot had always come first.
"So be it." The centremost soothsayer proclaimed.
"The goddess has seen into your soul, Arthur Pendragon," continued another.
The third inclined her head. "Seen the possibilities that spanned before you."
"And opened the paths before your eyes."
Arthur could feel the Disir's eyes bore into him, judging and impassionate.
"You have chosen wisely."
Arthur could hear Merlin's breath escape in a rush of relief beside him.
"Few would have been able to humble themselves." The Disir's voice was full of regret.
"Few would have been able to see beyond their fear and hatred."
"But you have proven yourself to the goddess." One pale hand rose as if in benediction. "Proven yourself the Once and Future King."
Arthur stood shock-still. "This was a test. All of this-" the wave of his hand encompassed the entirety of the last few months, the whole of Camelot. "-all of this was a test."
"True character is only revealed when tested," the words rolled out through the cave.
"All life is a test, Arthur Pendragon." The second Disir intoned.
"Had you not chosen to reconsider, your fate would have been sealed," the third added.
"But you asked for another chance."
Arthur grit his teeth. "A test for what?"
The centremost Disir lifted her head. Meeting his gaze in the shadow of her hood. "A test of your kingship."
"Magic has come close to being driven from the land." A vein of anger ran through the words.
"Hated and reviled." Disgust.
"Its people persecuted and scattered through the land." Resentment.
"But you, Arthur Pendragon." The soothsayer's tone lost some of its chill.
"You who were once the hand against magic." Added another.
"Have embraced our people." The declaration rang out with unprecedented warmth.
They all inclined their heads, hands clasping their staves. Their voices rang out in unison, the tolling of three deep bells. "The Triple Goddess thanks you."
"Hail Arthur Pendragon." It was said solemnly.
"Once and Future King." With joy.
"Rule and rule wisely." And caution.
"Respect for all your subjects."
Arthur stood somewhat stunned. Blindsided by their acceptance. The comparative warmth.
"We release your knight." The Disir continued.
"Fate has changed." It was spoken gravely.
"His and yours."
Their gazes fell on him, a palpable weight. "Rule wisely."
"Heed Emrys' council." Added the Disir on the right.
"And know that the Disir judge you worthy." The centremost seer inclined her head.
"Go with the Goddess' blessing."
"Go with the Goddess' blessing."
Arthur had done it. They had done it.
Arthur gave him a glance that looked as stunned and relieved as he felt and bowed to the Disir. They all inclined their heads in return, acknowledgement and dismissal.
Arthur turned and started out of the cave, Merlin on his heels. Even thought they had succeeded, there was something unsettling about the Disir's cave.
The name stopped Merlin in his tracks. He half turned, wary.
The Disir stood still, waiting.
Arthur glanced at the Disir and then at Merlin. A strange expression crossed his face before it smoothed over. "I'll wait outside." He cast the Disir one more glance then made his way out of the cave.
Merlin stared after him, shocked by the trust and acceptance of that simple act. It was all the more powerful for how unexpected it was.
A fall of small stones had his attention turning back to the Disir.
"You have questions," the words echoed through the cave.
"Ask," added the second.
"We shall answer."
"You healed Mordred." Even though Arthur had passed their test, they had let him back into the world. His fate might have changed, but that didn't meant he wouldn't cause Arthur's death.
"A new fate has been forged." The woman's voice was almost gentle.
Another inclined her head. "By his own actions, Arthur Pendragon has redeemed himself."
"Has freed himself from the dark fate of his own making." The Disir's voice grew strong with conviction. "Mordred, knight and druid, is no longer fated to be Arthur Pendragon's doom."
An overwhelming wave of relief swamped Merlin. He had been fighting to keep Arthur safe for so long. Holding himself apart and against Mordred, who he liked but couldn't trust because of Arthur. It had become an ever-present weight, and now it was no longer a threat, everything seemed possible.
He closed his eyes. "Thank you."
"Go Emrys." The Disir spoke in unison. "Go with the goddess and help the Once and Future King to build his kingdom. A kingdom for all."
Arthur sheathed his sword, looking up as Merlin left the cave. "What did they want?"
Merlin blinked, struck suddenly by the last conversation they'd had here.
How much had changed since then.
"Magical concerns. How to make sure I'm not taken advantage of by a prat of a king." Merlin grinned.
Arthur stared at him for a long moment. When he finally spoke, it wasn't what Merlin expected. "You need a new hat."
Merlin's grin faltered. "What?"
"You lost the last one. And the Court Sorcerer needs some sort of badge of office." The glint of amusement in Arthur's eyes was now matched by a self-satisfied smile.
"A badge of office." Merlin repeated, voice painfully flat.
"Really Merlin. What did you expect?" Arthur started back towards the horses, leaving Merlin to trail after him. "If I'm to have a sorcerer advising me, I want the best." He grinned obnoxiously over his shoulder. "Lacking that, I suppose you'll have to do."
"Just for that, I'll make sure you have plenty of supplements with your meals." Dandelions. Lots of dandelions.
"I'm your king, Merlin." Arthur drawled. "Try it and I'll put you in the stocks, hat and all."
Merlin found he couldn't stop grinning. The future before him suddenly full of hope.
They had done it. Arthur's dark destiny had lifted.
What happened now was up to them.