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A Bird of Paradise

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Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin was a sorcerer.

Arthur dropped Merlin's limp body and stumbled back, mind whited out with horror and shock. He stared at the wild mess of his chambers, the papers fluttering to the floor, the wine a dark blotch across the pale stone, like spilled blood.

Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin lay limp on the floor, unconscious. Arthur wanted to prod Merlin with his boot to make sure he wasn't going to leap up and speak in that guttural language again, with those glowing eyes. He wanted to wail and grab Merlin and hold him close and sob apologies. What had he done? He'd only been trying to stop the magic. To stop it from coming out of him. To stop him from corrupting himself further.

Merlin was a sorcerer.

All Arthur had been able to see were those golden eyes, the light in them turning Merlin's open, familiar features into something sinister and threatening. Making them into the face of a stranger, a monster, speaking words that he had only ever heard when his life was in immediate and extreme peril. And all that nonsense before that. Had Merlin... had Merlin been using him? Had it all been a ruse, a seduction to trick Arthur into removing the ban on magic when he became king? Is that what Merlin had wanted, all this time?

He felt sick. His heart felt sick.

He had never understood what Merlin wanted. Merlin had never made any kind of sense. But he was making sense now, and it was a loathsome, dreadful sort of sense. It was every warning his father had ever given him about sorcerers, that they would lie and seduce and entrap. That magic would make any man, however good, rot away from within, so you wouldn't know of their corruption until it was too late. Arthur had not wanted to believe any of that. It had all seemed overdramatic, feverish with paranoia. But here was the proof of it.

All this time, Arthur had held Merlin like a viper to his breast. Merlin had been filled with poison, and tonight he had struck out, trying to infect Arthur in turn. And what a victory it would have been, what a revenge to corrupt the Crown Prince of Camelot, the one kingdom that stood strong against all sorcery.

And it would all make sense, except that it was Merlin. Merlin, who at some points seemed to want nothing more than to die for him. Who had cried in his arms like a child. Whose every emotion shone from his eyes, without pretense or deceit. He couldn't even keep a secret, because the moment there was an idea in his head it would be written all over his face.

Except he had kept one secret. One, but even with that, Arthur had known there was something. He couldn't have missed it, when it so obviously made Merlin unhappy not to share it. But magic?

He had not guessed it because Merlin was an innocent. Merlin was all heart and determination and exactly zero sense or forethought. Merlin was nothing like the sorcerers that had threatened his father and then himself, that sought mindless vengeance again and again. Magic was evil, and Merlin was not. Merlin could not have magic. He could not be a sorcerer.

It suddenly came to him that he had said those words before. How blind he had been, for Merlin to actually stand in front of him and his father and the whole council and announce himself to be a sorcerer, and all Arthur had thought at the time was that Merlin was being, as usual, a noble idiot, and that he needed to be saved from himself before something awful happened.

Something awful had happened.

There was a knock on the door, tentative, familiar, startling Arthur so badly that he reached for the sword that wasn't at his hip. "Arthur?" came Guinevere's voice, sounding concerned. "Merlin? Are you all right? I heard shouting. Is something wrong?"

The door was locked, thankfully. Arthur had locked it because he'd intended to have sex with Merlin to celebrate being home, to celebrate all of Merlin's secrets being out in the open. But Merlin wasn't in his bed, smiling and blushing and naked. Because Arthur had been wrong about those secrets.

"Everything's fine," Arthur said, his voice cracking.

There was a pause. "Sorry, I know sometimes you two can be, um. Right. Sorry to, um, interrupt. Um. Goodnight." Her light footsteps faded away down the hall.

Arthur breathed out with a shudder. He had to think. He had to get some kind of control over this situation, before it spun even further into madness.

He had fought sorcerers many times. He knew what magic was capable of, how destructive it could be. The sorcerers that his father arrested barely put up a fight, as their crimes rarely amounted to more than minor enchantments. But all use of magic, even the smallest of spells, was given the same punishment: death by execution, by fire or by beheading. Hanging was not enough. The body had to be violated in order to release the magic. Even a dead sorcerer was a danger until it was beheaded or burned.

Then there were the other sorcerers. The ones who weren't arrested because they were too powerful. The ones that were killed outright, without even the pretense of a trial, because they were so obviously guilty. Because they were an active threat to the kingdom, and threats had to be eliminated. Like Cedric. Like Palaemon.

What Merlin had done was far more than petty enchantments. He had manipulated fire. He had summoned some kind of wind. He had moved things without even speaking. With such crimes, Merlin had earned immediate execution. Arthur should not have strangled him, but snapped his neck and then chopped off his head. But even the thought of doing that to Merlin made him want to retch.

If he called the guards, Merlin would be dead. By morning at the very latest, because to have such sorcery at the heart of Camelot was an atrocity that his father would not tolerate.

No, what he had to do was get control over Merlin. He didn't know how bad the corruption was, how much of Merlin's soul was left to save. But there had to be something. There had to be a chance. Despite the obvious power he had wielded, despite his panicked struggles to free himself, Merlin had never so much as scratched him. That had to be important, a sign that the corruption had not yet consumed him. That enough of Merlin was left that there was a chance that Arthur could still save him. If only he'd acted sooner, instead of blindly trusting that Gaius had been teaching Merlin how to destroy magic safely.

Gaius. Arthur was going to have to deal with him, once he'd dealt with Merlin.

Arthur scooped Merlin up from the floor and carried him into the side room. He blinked as he saw that his sword, his apparently enchanted sword, was sticking out of the far wall, the end of its blade embedded into the stone. He dismissed it for now and lay Merlin down, struggling against an upswell of grief that threatened to swamp him.

Merlin looked the same as he always did. There was no malevolence in his soft features, no external sign that he was anything but himself. Arthur pulled back one eyelid and Merlin's unseeing eye was its normal blue, with no trace of gold. But he would wake up soon, and when he did, his eyes might change again.

If Merlin was too far gone, then Arthur would have to kill him. He would rather be the one to do it than let Merlin be arrested and burned. At least that way he could make it clean and quick, and whatever was left of Merlin would not suffer. But if Merlin could hold back the corruption long enough to give Arthur time to find a cure, then there was still hope.

The only way to know would be to let Merlin wake up, and Arthur could not let him wake up without taking precautions. Merlin had to be contained.

Short of time, Arthur would have to use what was at hand. He grabbed one of Merlin's ever-present kerchiefs and gagged him with it, trying not to think of how only a week ago he had performed this same action. He shied away from using his belt again, and instead grabbed the ropes from the curtains. He bound Merlin's wrists, and then his ankles and his knees, and then after further consideration he tied Merlin to the bed. He made the ropes tight, the knots solid. If Merlin could somehow still use his magic to free himself despite the gag, at least this would slow him down.

Finally, Arthur went to get his sword. It took a few hard pulls to yank it free, but then he had it. The blade was not even scratched despite being embedded in the stone. Clearly Merlin had been telling the truth about it being enchanted. But Merlin had also given him the very weapon that he needed most right now: a sword that could kill a powerful sorcerer. He had killed Palaemon with it, and if need be he would use it again. Later, he would have Guinevere fire up her forge and he would burn the magic out of it, as he had the Deorham armor.

Arthur pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down, and lay the blade of his sword across Merlin's neck, and waited.

He had been so pleased when he'd found Palaemon's ring in the pocket of Merlin's trousers, discarded as usual on the floor. It had been the one bit of proof he'd needed to finally coax Merlin into telling him the truth. It had been like pulling teeth to get Merlin to talk about what had upset him in the castle, and Arthur had been certain that the ring would provide just the short, sharp shock that Merlin needed to open up and get it all out of his system.

It was all out, now. But Arthur still had to figure out how much of that crazed mess of words was real and how much was the corruption talking.

It was not long before Merlin stirred. He coughed weakly through the gag, gave a reedy whimper, and then opened his eyes wide with horror. Though he'd barely had time to struggle, he visibly stilled as he felt the press of the blade across his neck. In the candlelight, the polished blade glinted brightly, steel and gold stark against the freshly blossoming bruises. Merlin's fingers twitched, curled into fists. Arthur waited, and when Merlin did nothing, when he did not make himself a threat, Arthur allowed himself some fraction of relief.

"Merlin," Arthur said, looking into Merlin's wide, frightened eyes. "I'm going to remove the gag so we can talk. But if you so much as think about using a spell, I will have to kill you. Do you understand?"

Merlin swallowed, the bob of his throat a slight pressure against the blade. He gave a short, shallow nod.

This was it. If Merlin was corrupted beyond all hope, he would not leave his bed alive. If not... if not, then Arthur would do whatever it took to find a cure. He had never let magic defeat him, and it would not defeat him now. If there was even the slimmest chance of victory, he would fight for it. He had defied his father and braved sorcery for Merlin before. He had no hesitation in doing it again.

Arthur leaned forward and pulled the knot open with one hand, keeping the blade firmly in place. It was the sharpest sword Arthur had ever seen, and one push by either of them would sink the blade into Merlin's throat. Merlin didn't move as the gag was pulled free. He didn't say any spells, but he didn't say anything else, either.

"Can you still speak?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," Merlin said, with barely a whisper. His voice was pained, and injured from the strangling, but there was no way to know if the anguish in his eyes was genuine or if it was a ploy.

And that was the problem. Because Arthur had no way to know what was Merlin and what was the magic. It would be difficult to separate the two without having some way of being certain that Merlin was in there at all. If he had ever been there. But Arthur couldn't believe that the Merlin he knew was just a shell, a false front behind which some monster schemed to manipulate him. Arthur knew when people were lying. He dealt with smooth-tongued liars all the time in court.

Perhaps he could arrange to have Hunith come to Camelot. If anyone would know what Merlin was like before he had been corrupted by Gaius, it was his mother. Or would she? Merlin's friend Will had been a sorcerer. Had Will corrupted Merlin when he was young? Had it started that far back?

"Arthur?" Merlin rasped, warily.

"The things I thought were your secret," Arthur began, thoughtful. "Were they true? Have you been destroying magic to protect Camelot? To save my life?"

Merlin hesitated, then said, "Yes."

"It's been you and Gaius together? He's been teaching you?"

Another hesitation. "Yes," Merlin said, but sounded less certain this time.

"Explain."

"I came to Camelot for help. To control my magic. Gaius was supposed to teach me. But he was... he lied to me. He used me. Him and... the dragon."

Arthur leaned closer, curious. "There's only one dragon left. My father kept him as an example. Are you actually telling me that you've been conspiring against me with the Great Dragon?"

"No!" Merlin said, clearly upset by the suggestion. "He, um, called to me, when I first arrived. He said that it was my destiny to protect you. I didn't believe him, but... then Gaius brought me to the feast, and... I saved your life. And then your father gave me to you, and... I don't know. I think... I think maybe he knew?"

Arthur blinked at him, trying to follow Merlin's leap of logic. "You think my father, Gaius, and a dragon all conspired to set you up as what, my magical bodyguard?"

Merlin looked entirely confused about the matter himself. "Maybe? All I know is that they've been lying to me about the prophecy, and--"

"Prophecy?" Arthur interrupted. He moved the blade away from Merlin's neck, because he didn't need Merlin accidentally slicing himself open. Merlin didn't seem to be trying anything, unless his baffling nonsense was supposed to be some kind of distraction tactic. But Arthur had been watching Merlin's eyes since they had opened, and there was no sign of gold.

"Yes," Merlin said, sounding slightly more certain now. "The dragon told me some of it, but I didn't know if any of what he said was true until we got to Gedref. It was written on the wall in the temple, in that room I slept in."

Arthur frowned. When they'd been hiding in wait for the army to arrive, Merlin had been going on about the cavern being some kind of old temple, about it having magic, but nothing had seemed amiss. It had been a temple, certainly, but it was long abandoned. He'd considered it safe enough when weighed against the risk of trying to find somewhere else to hide from the Deorham's patrols. Apparently he had been wrong, if some lingering magic there had worsened Merlin's condition.

"Tell it to me."

"Well, there's the first part is about fire, which I think is the Great Purge, but then it says, 'The time of magic will return. The Emrys and the once and future king will rise. And all of Albion will bow to them.' And that's us."

"What's us?"

"I'm the Emrys and you're the, um, the once and future king?" Merlin scrunched up his face. "I don't actually know what either of those things mean, so it's not exactly helpful. The dragon said you were the once and future king when I first met him, and then the Druid boy, he's the one who called me Emrys."

"The Druid boy who didn't talk?" Arthur said, skeptically.

"He did talk," Merlin protested, seeming to forget for the moment that he was tied up and at risk of execution. "In my head. That's how I met him. He called to me."

"Like the dragon called to you?"

"Yes," Merlin said, eager now that he thought Arthur understood. Arthur did not. "I haven't learned how to do that on my own yet. I think it might be a Druid thing."

"A Druid thing."

"A dragon and Druid thing?" Merlin shook his head. "Anyway, that's not the point. The point is, we have a destiny together. To bring back magic and unite Albion. To bring about a new golden age." He looked so painfully hopeful as he said it, as if he was practically begging Arthur to believe him.

"Merlin," Arthur sighed. A picture was starting to form in his head, and as relieved as he was about it, it wasn't pretty. "Here's what I think happened. Whatever magic you already had in you when you came to Camelot, it made you vulnerable. You've admitted that the dragon and Gaius have been lying to you, manipulating you. I don't know what my father has to do with any of this, but he wouldn't harbor a sorcerer, and he certainly wouldn't give you to me to protect me."

"But I have protected you!" Merlin protested. "I've saved your life so many times I've lost count!"

"All right," Arthur said, holding up a hand. "Leaving that aside. Has anyone besides this Druid boy ever said you were the Emrys? Has anyone other than the dragon said I was this once and future king?"

"Well, no, but--"

Arthur silenced him again. "So you have no confirmation about any of this. No evidence."

Merlin stared at him. "But it was on the wall."

"Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is a prophecy. What proof do you have that the dragon and Gaius haven't simply been using it to manipulate you? What if it was never about us in the first place?"

Merlin stared at him as if he'd never even considered the idea, which wasn't surprising. Merlin was far too trusting. No wonder it had been so easy for the dragon and Gaius to fool him into this subterfuge. To take advantage of him and try to use him to undermine the laws against magic. Obviously his father would never change the law, but they clearly thought change was possible during Arthur's reign. He almost admired their cunning, because he had effectively done the same thing himself in using Merlin to undermine the First Code. But unlike them, he wasn't willing to destroy Merlin for his own ends. Merlin had insisted on being trained, and Arthur had eventually recognized Merlin's determination for the asset that it was. Whatever asset Gaius had made of Merlin's magic, it was not worth the cost of his soul.

"It has to be," Merlin said, with such blind faith. "It's what my magic is for. It's what I'm for."

"That's not what you told me," Arthur reminded him. "Before I knighted you, you said you were nothing. It was the magic that made you feel that way. That's the emptiness you felt. But as my knight, you proved the magic wrong."

Merlin was already shaking his head. "No, I said that because I was denying my magic. I didn't want to have it, because I had to lie to you about it. My magic is all I have."

There was a pitiful look in his eyes as he said it, and Arthur had seen it before. That was the pain that Merlin had been trying in vain to hide from him, over and over. The pain of his magic. He had probably been suffering this way for a long time. It was up to Arthur to show him that he was worth fighting for, no matter what the magic made him believe.

"Merlin, you have so much more than that," Arthur said, earnestly. "Look at everything we accomplished together in Gedref."

"But I did that with my magic," Merlin protested.

Arthur plowed on, sensing that he'd found the crux of it. "You said you were denying your magic. Did you use it when I trained you?"

Merlin shook his head. "I couldn't let you find out. So I stopped."

The news that Merlin had already proved able to resist his magic was a tremendous relief. Arthur knew that Merlin was something special, but this truly was the mark of it, that he could use that determination to fight against his corruption. That combined with his natural innocence had proved a powerful defense. "But you started again?"

"After Geraint died," Merlin said, sadly. "I had to use it. If I was just a knight, I couldn't give you what you needed. I couldn't protect you."

"Tell me everything you used it for in Gedref."

Merlin furrowed his brow in thought. "I tried to open the siege gate, and then when the patrol found me, I fought them with magic. Then I was captured, but I used magic to knock out the men who brought me inside. After that... I made the chandelier fall so I could earn Idriys' trust, so I could get to his papers for you. And then I unlocked a bunch of things and tripped some guards so I could escape with the papers and Palaemon's globe. That was it for a while, until I went in with the knights. I cooled the boiling water so it wouldn't hurt us, and then I unlocked the doors and cells to free the prisoners, and then I opened the gates!" He finished the list with a proud smile. "Arthur, I know all the magic you've ever seen has been used against you, but that's just because of the Purge. But I've been using my magic to protect you from the beginning, not just in Gedref. My magic is meant for you. It's my destiny."

"Meant for me?" Arthur asked, not sure if he was more worried or impressed by Merlin's long list. He had known some of it, of course, because Merlin had told it to him, excluding the magical parts. But he wondered if he would have been able to free Gedref before the harvest if Merlin had not done what he did. He had known that Merlin had practically handed him much of his victory by destroying Palaemon's enchantments, but this put it all into a new and uncomfortable light.

Magic could not be defeated without magic, Merlin had said. Arthur had known for months that Merlin and Gaius had been destroying magic, but he had not known that they had been using Merlin's magic to do it. Could his father truly not know all this? It was hard to believe. Perhaps there was some arrangement after all. One between his father and Gaius, to harness young, powerful sorcerers and use them to defend the kingdom in secret. Arthur had wondered about Lord Wichard's physician when he heard that he had been an apprentice to Gaius, just as Merlin had been.

The physician had seemed fine, but then so had Merlin, until tonight. Perhaps Gaius did know of a way to preserve his apprentices from corruption, and Merlin was being protected by it. It would be easy for the old man to slip it into one of his potions. It might even be in the relaxant, as Merlin had been taking it regularly during training, and then again since he had returned from his adventure in the castle. But then why not use it to help others? Why not give it to people like Linette, who had acted with good intentions? Surely if it could protect someone with as much magic in him as Merlin, a petty sorcerer like Linette could have been helped rather than executed. But his father was rarely rational when it came to magic. At times he would prefer to burn down an entire village if it destroyed even a single enchantment. That was not how Arthur intended to rule, when his time came. Camelot's worth was in its people, and saving them was better done through other methods than punishment.

"Yes," Merlin said, earnestly. "Because you're my King. That means you're meant to have it, so we can unite Albion."

Arthur frowned. They were back to that prophecy again. It was evident that Merlin had based much of his self-worth on the idea that he was this Emrys, despite admitting that he didn't even know what the name signified. But Merlin had been equally dedicated to being his knight. It was clear that what Merlin truly needed was a sense of purpose, of belonging. Merlin needed to serve him, in one way or another, out of love or some deeper urge. Arthur simply had to make him see that there were healthy ways of service, and there were unhealthy ways. It was no wonder that Merlin had been so obsessed with dying when he believed that he needed that corruption inside of him in order to be useful.

"Merlin, as grateful as I am for all that you've done on my behalf, I need you to stop. You have to deny your magic again, as you did for me during your training."

"I can't," Merlin protested. "What if Camelot's in danger? I have to use my magic more, I have to get better, stronger. I have to be as ready to use it as I am a sword."

"Is it?" Arthur asked, concerned. They had only just dealt with one threat. Could there be another coming so soon?

"I'm not sure," Merlin said, glancing away. He always did that when he knew something he didn't want to tell. Arthur had always considered it to be part of Merlin's odd charm, but some of that charm had worn off now that he knew the kinds of secrets that glance might be hiding.

"Does Gaius know something?" Arthur pressed.

"It's nothing to do with Gaius," Merlin said, and that was the truth at least. "I want to tell you, Arthur, I swear. But I can't until... until I get permission. It's not my secret to tell." He gave Arthur a painfully earnest look.

Arthur gave him a disapproving one back. "How many other secrets are you keeping that aren't yours?"

Merlin glanced away.

"All right," Arthur said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I won't try to force them out of you, as long as you can honestly tell me that whoever it is means Camelot no harm, and that you will seek permission as soon as possible and then tell them to me immediately."

"I will," Merlin said, and he had that determined look about him that meant that Arthur would likely soon be served a whole feast of secrets. He wasn't sure if he was glad about that.

Merlin shifted against the tight bonds of the ropes. "Will you untie me now?" he asked, hopeful. "I'm sorry I scared you before. I sort of panicked."

"No," Arthur said, stern despite his regret.

Merlin looked puzzled. "What do you mean, no?"

"Merlin, I realize you sometimes have trouble with subtle details, but I have arrested you. Because what you have done is a crime."

Merlin stared, uncomprehending.

"If you refuse to stop using your magic and I let you go, I will be responsible for any further crimes you commit," Arthur explained. "Crimes which are classed as treason. The punishment of which is execution."

"Your father isn't going to execute you for treason," Merlin said, actually amused by this.

"It's not my father that I'm worried about!" Arthur said, growing frustrated. "It's you! And I am the Crown Prince. After everything you've learned, do you still have no idea what that means? What kind of damage it would do if I was seen to be publicly defying my father?"

"But we just did that," Merlin said. "With the First Code. And it was fine."

Arthur rubbed at his temple, feeling a headache coming on. "What we did was a tremendous risk, and it only worked because of my careful planning and your newfound ability to actually follow my orders."

"And my magic," Merlin insisted.

"Yes," Arthur admitted, his teeth gritted. "And I am extremely unhappy about that fact, because the entire point of the exercise was to use a common man, and it turns out that my carefully chosen common man is a sorcerer."

"Oh."

"Yes, oh," Arthur said, trying his best not to lose his temper. He had done enough damage to Merlin for one night. "If you are caught, not only will you be executed, not only will it cause a massive crisis of leadership, but everything we did in Gedref will be undone. So yes, Merlin, I need you to stop using your magic, right now, and I need you to promise me that you will never use it again."

Merlin was crestfallen. "But I tried that and it didn't work. Arthur, I don't just have magic, I am magic."

"And who told you that, then?"

Merlin bit his lip. "They weren't lying about everything. And if I can't use my magic, I can't protect you. I can't do anything."

"You can be my knight," Arthur insisted. "I know much of what you did in Gedref required magic, but not everything. I saw you fight as a knight, and nothing in that list you rattled off had anything to do with that. There are plenty of ways to open doors that don't require the corruption of your soul. I need you alive so you can be with me, so you can be my advisor, my grain of sand. I need you to stop using your magic so I don't have to watch you die." The last came out with a waver of emotion, despite Arthur's best attempts to stay calm.

But it was the last that finally seemed to get through to Merlin. "You'd let me burn?" he asked, quietly.

"If my father found out, I would have no choice," Arthur admitted, hating the truth of it.

"Is it because I have magic?" Merlin asked, his own voice wavering now. "Because you can't love a sorcerer?"

"I love you, Merlin," Arthur said, though the admission was hard to make, now that he knew. "But you cannot have magic. I need you to accept that. I'm going to do everything I can to find a way to get it out of you, but if you refuse to cooperate, if your loyalty lies with magic and not me, then I'll have no choice."

Arthur returned the sword to rest against Merlin's neck, and watched as Merlin struggled with his ultimatum. After a wait, he seemed no closer to a decision, and Arthur sighed.

"Do I have to decide now?" Merlin asked, looking devastated. "What if it's not possible? What if I really am magic? What if taking it away will kill me? What about Camelot?"

"Camelot will be fine," Arthur assured him. "Perhaps some threats might not be solved as easily as they would be with your help, but they will be solved. As for the rest, that will require investigation. Until I can find something that will remove your magic, you can take the time to make your decision."

"Between my magic and my life," Merlin said, bitterly.

"Between a future at my side and the destruction of Camelot," Arthur corrected. "But as I won't see Camelot destroyed, then yes. You pledged your life to me, Merlin. I promise you that I won't let you burn. But I can only keep that promise if we make the decision together, and soon."

Arthur knew that the choice was a cruel one, far crueler than it had been to ask Merlin to give up his victories and his armor. But Merlin would understand once he was free of the influence of the corruption. Once he saw that he would still have a place and a purpose without his magic. Arthur hoped he would make the right choice, because the grief inside him still threatened to swallow him up, and if he had to execute Merlin, he wasn't certain he would survive the task himself. Perhaps his father had been right about that, too. To love was to court destruction, and to lose Merlin now, to be responsible for his death, would surely break him, as it nearly had in Gedref.

"Do I have to stay tied up until then?" Merlin asked, and Arthur could see him trying to be brave, pushing back his fear.

"If you swear to me that you will not use any magic, that you'll do as I say and trust me as you have before, I'll untie you. I know that you have the power to free yourself, and I appreciate the fact that you haven't. If you had acted against me at any point tonight, it would have... forced the issue."

Merlin took this knowledge in. "I swear," he said at last, quiet but genuine.

Arthur could not suppress his shudder of relief. There was a chance, a real chance, that Merlin could be saved. It wasn't too late, not yet. There would be no time to waste, because it was clear that the magic had a deep hold on Merlin despite his obedience. It would be a war for Merlin's soul, between Arthur's will and the strength of the corruption. But Arthur had not lost a war yet.

He put his sword aside and untied Merlin slowly, still cautious in case Merlin's cooperation was a ruse after all. But Merlin's eyes remained blue, and he was pliant and subdued. Merlin loved him and would obey his King. In return, Arthur would take care of him, and ensure that if he suffered, it would be for a greater purpose.

Arthur rubbed at the rope marks on Merlin's wrists and ankles as he freed them, and brushed a gentle hand through Merlin's riled hair. He could see that Merlin was trying hard not to cry, and Merlin did not reach out for him as normally would. Arthur regretted that he had hurt Merlin tonight, that he might have to hurt Merlin again, but as with Merlin's suffering as his knight, he would not regret the purpose of that pain.

He saw Merlin looking towards the door, and knew this last thing would be the hardest.

"Merlin, until I know I can stop your magic, I have to keep you here," Arthur told him.

"I'm your prisoner," Merlin said, realization dulling his voice.

"For now," Arthur said, trying to soften the blow. "I'm going to do everything I can to find something we can try, maybe even as soon as tomorrow. My father has vaults full of enchanted objects. I believe there might be something there that can help us. Try and think of it as a day off." He mustered a smile, and Merlin tried to smile back, but his chin was already quivering.

"Do you need anything before you go to bed?" Arthur asked, the need to escape becoming overwhelming. He collected up the ropes and his sword. "I'll bring in breakfast tomorrow."

Merlin shook his head. Arthur could tell that if Merlin spoke, he would fall apart, and felt the same. His heart was tight with pain that the one thing he couldn't bear to do was hold Merlin close. It was what they both needed, but neither of them could stand it. Not tonight.

Tomorrow. Arthur would fix everything tomorrow, and then he would be able to let Merlin out again. Everything could go back to normal. There had to be something in those vaults, even if its contents were largely uncataloged and covered in dust and cobwebs.

Magic could not be defeated without magic. If it was true, then that was what Arthur would do. He would use the enchantments of the Old Religion against the magic that was within Merlin. He would defeat magic with magic. Whatever it took.

He left Merlin's room and closed the door behind him, retrieved his keys and locked it. He rested his forehead against the wood and listened to Merlin's quiet, tight sobbing, his own grief slicing into his heart like shards of steel.

Chapter Text

In the past, when Arthur had come home from war, it always took weeks to stop bolting up at first light, heart pounding in his chest as he scanned his surroundings for whatever slight noise disturbed his shallow rest. But it was not habit that woke him now, not leftover strain from weeks of travel and battle that brought him fully alert in an instant.

In the moment, he couldn't tell what was stronger: his fear for Merlin or his fear of him. Of the sorcerer locked in his side room. Imprisoned, when by rights he should be down in the dungeons, awaiting the judgement of the King. When he should be ashes in the courtyard. When Merlin should be lying here beside him, the corners of his lips tugging into a smile as he burrows against the soft pillows after a week of hard ground, his dark lashes fluttering as his eyes open to a clear and unguarded blue.

Arthur didn't linger. He couldn't. But leaving the bed didn't help, because everything in his room was full of Merlin. Ghosts of him sat at his desk, at his table, in his chairs. There was the hanging on the wall that Merlin always knocked down when he tried to dust it. Arthur was still dressed from last night, because Merlin was the one who undressed him. Merlin was all over his clothes, in the shine of his boots, in the papers that his magic had sent into disarray.

Arthur wanted to be rid of it all, to take his sword and chop everything in the room to bits and leave the mess for someone else to clean up. To walk away from the ruins of his life, from what was left of Merlin. If there was anything at all.

He had not wanted to believe that last night. He had clung hard to denial, to the hope that Merlin could be saved. But now in the stark light of day, with his head clear of shock and panic, he had to face the truth. The Merlin he had known and loved was gone. He might never have been there at all. The thing in the side room was just a sorcerer, not even a person anymore. Just magic in the shape of the man it had consumed. Lying with a stolen tongue, crying tears from stolen eyes. The fact that it had not attacked last night meant nothing. It was more manipulation, more trickery. It was the corruption pleading for survival so that it could cause even more damage.

He picked up his sword, feeling distant from himself. He either ended this now or he called the guards and let his father do the dirty work. But that was exactly what he had done for too long already. Yesterday, after he had told his father about Palaemon, when he had still believed that he would rule as King with Merlin by his side, he had felt that he was ready. If Merlin was not afraid of magic, if Merlin could destroy enchantments and sorcerers without hesitation, then there was no excuse for his own doubts. It was his responsibility to destroy sorcery before Camelot was overtaken by it. It was his duty as Prince and it would be his duty as King, and he would no longer shy away from that knowledge. Not even now.

It would be best to do it quickly, while the thing was still asleep or at least feigning it. Before it opened its eyes and showed gold or false blue, and Arthur wasn't sure which would be worse. He unlocked the door and opened it, braced himself and walked inside. He would make it quick and it would be done.

But the thing, the sorcerer... but Merlin was awake. He was sitting at the window, and when he turned towards Arthur, the bruises under his eyes were almost as bad as the ones across his throat. His sad, weary gaze fixed on the sword, and then up to meet Arthur's.

"You don't need that. I'm not going to run," Merlin said, voice strained from damage and deeper pain. "This is all my fault." He mustered a sad smile which only lasted a moment before it fell. "I have to be here so I can fix it."

"Fix it?" Arthur asked, warily. He didn't like the sound of that.

Merlin turned away, as if it hurt too much to even look at him. Arthur wanted to reach for him, to make him turn back and make him smile for real. But the Merlin he wanted was dead and gone, corrupted and destroyed as Arthur had stupidly bided his time. This Merlin was an apparition, an illusion. It was a ghost, with no substance that could be gripped.

"I waited too long," Merlin said, in eerie echo of Arthur's own thoughts. "I should have told you before. In Ealdor, maybe."

Ealdor. Arthur recalled the shock he had felt when he had seen the whirlwind, the dread when he had realized that he had walked unprotected into a kingdom where magic was legal, despite his father's best attempts to force Cenred to ban it as part of the peace treaty. Many kingdoms had succumbed to Camelot's terms, their obedience won through threats and bribery as much as through the wars that had been fought after the Purge. Those bans were not enforced with his father's zeal, but the fact of them was sufficient. Before them, many kingdoms had kept court sorcerers, had legitimized the Old Religion. Now sorcery was forced to the margins, lessened even in the kingdoms where it was still legal. Those that clung stubbornly on, like the Druids, would be eliminated in time.

Arthur had often objected to such actions in private, disturbed that once again his father had gone to extremes in his campaign against sorcery. He had told that to Merlin. He had told a lot of things to Merlin. His grip tightened on his sword as he realized what power Merlin held over him now, the strength of whispered secrets even greater than magic. Was it his own loneliness that had blinded him to the truth?

"So you could escape?" Arthur asked, unable to keep the betrayal from his voice. "Or because I was vulnerable?" A paranoid thought flashed through him, that the whole matter of the bandits had been a sham to lure him out, so Merlin and Will could-- but no, that was too much to believe. He could not believe that the whole village would have conspired, would have faked their suffering, killed their own. Even if his father would believe it. His father would believe anything if he liked the sound of it.

Merlin turned back to him, and he had no right to look as upset as he did. "How can you still think I would hurt you?"

"Then why Ealdor?" Arthur said, unable to hold himself back. Unable to resist the urge to engage with Merlin the way he always had.

"Will wanted me to tell you," Merlin said, with the sadness that he always had when he spoke of Will. "If I hadn't been such a coward, I could have stopped the bandits myself. Everyone would have been safe."

"Because you're more powerful than Will? He couldn't do it on his own?"

"Will isn't a sorcerer," Merlin said, shaking his head with something like amusement. "He took the blame to protect me."

"Then the whirlwind?"

Merlin raised his hand and wiggled his fingers, and Arthur tensed, ready to defend himself. But Merlin's eyes remained blue.

It was still hard to believe, despite everything he had seen, despite spending the night reconsidering the past year and a half of his life. All this time, Merlin had been using magic right under his nose. When he had believed that Merlin was using some secret but mundane methods to destroy magic, he had been proud of Merlin's courage, had seen it as just as much a sign of his determination as his insistence on protecting Arthur with his life. But now it was all tainted, all suspect. At best, Merlin was a puppet, manipulated by some combination of malign forces. At best, the magic could be taken out, and there would still be something of him left. At worst...

Wait a moment. "If Will doesn't have magic, then how do you have it?" Arthur asked, confused.

Merlin blinked at him, equally confused. "I told you. I've always been magic. I was born with it."

"From your mother?" Arthur asked, thinking of Linette and her unborn child.

"Mum doesn't have anything either," Merlin said. "And I don't know anything about my father. My magic might have come from him, but if he was so powerful, why did he have to leave? Why didn't he bring us with him?"

Arthur began to feel as he had last night, that this had to be Merlin speaking and not the magic. That for whatever reason, the use of sorcery had not destroyed him. Was it because he had been born with magic? Had that made him immune to the madness it caused in others? Arthur felt his previous conviction slip away from him again, and in its place was the return of his revulsion and horror at himself, at his intention to kill the man he loved. Was Merlin having some kind of effect on him? Influencing him without actively enchanting him?

It was worse than he'd thought. He already struggled to differentiate Merlin from his magic. But now he realized that he couldn't even tell if his own thoughts were being influenced. Until he could get rid of Merlin's magic, there would be no way to be certain of anything.

"I have to get ready for court. Will I be able to trust you to stay here and not to unlock the door?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Why even bother to lock it, if you know I can open it whenever I want?"

It was an annoyingly good question. "You swore to me that you wouldn't use it," Arthur reminded him.

"If you trust me that far, then let me come with you," Merlin said, brightening up for the first time since his confession. "Please? I was looking forward to the ceremony."

"I'm not bringing a prisoner to court," Arthur said, sternly enough to make Merlin look disappointed again.

"People will wonder where I am," Merlin said, stubbornly. "The knights and the servants. Gwen and Morgana. Even your father. They'll be expecting me to be by your side."

There was one person that Merlin had obviously left off that list. "I take it that Gaius will not be surprised by your absence?"

Merlin's mouth twisted up. "He'll just take it as confirmation that he was right. He wasn't. Nothing changes the fact that he's been lying to me, just like the dragon. If I hadn't lied to you, you'd know that you can trust me. That you don't have to be afraid, no matter what your father told you."

"Merlin," Arthur began.

Merlin got up from his chair, but before Arthur could brace himself to defend, Merlin had dropped to his knees before him, as he had more than once before.

"My fealty is yours," Merlin said, that determination back in his eyes, unbowed despite everything. "It can't be un-sworn. That's what you said. I don't care if everything they told me was lies, I don't care if they used me or if the prophecy is real or not. I'm your servant and your knight, and I'm your sorcerer. I was that before I was anything else, before I even knew you could be more than a bullying prat. None of that has changed and it never will."

And there it was. That was Merlin summed up: boundless faithfulness and determination wrapped up in a stubborn innocence, with just enough insolence to keep things interesting. And if Merlin made no sense before, he made even less now. It was odd enough for a servant to show such traits, but they were unheard of in a sorcerer.

"Magic is evil," Arthur reminded him. "It corrupts the soul and it threatens the kingdom, and you're telling me that you want to serve me as a sorcerer?"

"Yes," Merlin said, bravely. "That's what I did wrong. I thought it would be safe to tell you if you weren't afraid of magic. But you weren't afraid because you knew I was protecting you. I did too good a job. The only way you'll ever trust magic is if you can get close enough to understand it. I want you to use me so you can learn."

Arthur took a moment to consider this, to consider the sorcerer kneeling in fealty before him. If Merlin had truly been born with magic, it was unlikely that letting him use that magic in a limited fashion could make his condition any worse. Merlin wanted to be used and he wanted to teach Arthur everything about magic. Very well then, Arthur would allow that. But not for the reason Merlin expected. In order to remove magic, Arthur needed to better understand its nature, and right now he knew practically nothing.

Learning about magic from a sorcerer. It was madness to even consider the idea. No matter how curious he might have been before, no matter what doubts niggled at him, the fact remained that magic was an insidious threat and it was his duty to stop it. But despite being unaware of it until recently, he had been relying on Merlin to stop magical threats even before they'd disenchanted Terit. There were no books to teach him. There was no one else he could ask for help. His father would overreact and Gaius was plainly untrustworthy. Every other sorcerer he had ever met was dead or mad. Even the thought of asking the dragon was absurd. And he could hardly go to the Druids for help, when he'd led raid after raid against them. They probably feared him even more than they feared his father.

If Arthur could find a way to be certain that Merlin was not affecting his thoughts, that Merlin was genuinely as loyal and honest as he seemed to be, then this arrangement could work. And even if Merlin might balk at teaching Arthur how to destroy magic, Merlin had already presented a way around that. All Arthur had to do was play along and let Merlin think that he only wanted to understand. Merlin's magic might provide the key to its own undoing. If magic was needed to defeat magic, it would be valuable indeed to have a powerful sorcerer in hand. But first that power had to be controlled, for Merlin's own sake as well as his own.

A new plan was laying itself out before him, one more beneficial than simply trying to destroy Merlin's magic outright. First, he would find something in the vaults that could control Merlin's magic, restrain it. It would be more likely that such a thing would exist than anything that destroyed magic, for why would the Old Religion want to destroy magic? Once Merlin was secured, Arthur would allow him to resume his duties, and in their spare time, Merlin would teach him how magic worked. Once Arthur knew enough, once he'd mastered magic as he had so many other things, Merlin would be his test case again, even more valuable in this than he had been in undermining the First Code.

Merlin was right, in his naive way, that some kinds of treason were acceptable. If they were done with forethought, if there was a worthy goal, if everything that could be managed was managed correctly. If Merlin remained obedient despite his magic, then Arthur could take care of the rest. If he could get the magic out of Merlin without killing him, then others could also be saved. Camelot could finally be made free of magic without the suffering that resulted from his father's methods. He was not blind to the fact that the executions did much to aggravate the situation. That if his father did not kill so eagerly, they would have fewer enemies, and fewer citizens would feel the need to turn to magic out of a misguided attempt to protect themselves. When Arthur was King, he would put an end to this vicious cycle, but until then, he needed to learn as much as he could about magic and how to defeat it. For Merlin's sake, and with his help, they would defeat magic as surely as they had the Deorham and the First Code, quickly and efficiently. They would make their Camelot safe and fair and just. Together, they could do anything.

Perhaps all of Albion would one day bow to them, for once their success was seen, other rulers would want magic purged from their lands as well. It amused him that they might fulfil some part of Merlin's ridiculous prophecy after all.

"All right," he agreed.

"Really?" Merlin said, his surprise betraying the doubt that must have been hiding beneath his determination.

"Really," Arthur said, more at ease now that he had a plan. He always felt better with a plan, sometimes several per problem. There were enough redundancies that he could manage almost anything that might occur. He was even looking forward to the fresh challenge of it, since things would be quieter now that Gedref was safe and harvest season had come. And best of all, he would be able to keep Merlin where he belonged, by his side.

"I don't have to choose?" Merlin asked, cautiously hopeful. "Between my magic and my life?"

"Not if they're both mine," Arthur said, and that made Merlin give a shaky grin. Arthur was pleased to note that he was still on his knees, just as he had been when he'd formally sworn his fealty as a knight. The more confident he was in Merlin's obedience, the more confident he was that this could all be worked out. He rested a hand on Merlin's shoulder, and that was all it took to make Merlin almost painfully relieved.

"Then I can come with you?"

"No," Arthur said, and as expected, Merlin's smile wilted. "From the look of you, you've been up all night. You didn't sleep at all, did you?"

"No," Merlin admitted, his unhappiness creeping back.

Arthur weighed his options, the risks and the benefits. The preservation of Merlin's loyalty was paramount, even more now than it had been during their foray into Gedref. Ropes or locks or even the threat of death would not keep Merlin put if he was motivated to move. But Gedref had proved that magic or no magic, Merlin could be managed, and that he responded far better to rewards than to any sort of punishment.

"Come on," Arthur said, urging Merlin to stand. Merlin did so warily, uncertain as to what Arthur intended. But he followed Arthur out of the side room despite his uncertainty, and he was again visibly relieved as he did so.

"Obviously I've spoiled you so badly that you can't even manage to sleep one night in your own bed," Arthur said, keeping his voice light. He patted his bed in invitation for Merlin to climb in.

"Really?" Merlin said, even more surprised by this than he had been by Arthur's agreement.

"I have a busy day ahead of me, and I can't have you nodding off all over the castle, and certainly not in the middle of the ceremony. And don't tell me that you won't when I've seen you nearly fall off your horse after a night without sleep."

"I suppose," Merlin admitted, and the reminder of the morning after Geraint's death seemed to both reassure and quiet him.

"I'll check in on you at noon, but I want to find you sleeping," Arthur told him. "I'm expected for dinner with my father, but I'll bring you something from the kitchen when I come back. All I need you to do is stay here."

He could see how tempted Merlin was by it all. By the familiarity and comfort of being cared for, and the obedience it made him want to give in return.

"I won't even lock the door," Arthur said, giving him one last, gentle push. "You can go out if you want, but I'd be happier if you wouldn't." It wasn't much of a sacrifice, since obviously there wasn't a lock in the castle that could stop Merlin if he truly wanted to leave. But it was the meaning of the gesture that mattered. Merlin would not trust him, especially not with his magic, if Arthur didn't trust him first.

"All right," Merlin agreed, and in his relief he made an aborted move to reach for Arthur, to hold him and be held. But he pulled it back before it could be completed. Arthur didn't show his relief, keeping it hidden with the practice of a lifetime of being constantly observed.

Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed and touched the soft sheets as if he had not expected to ever feel them again. Arthur wondered what Merlin would have chosen, if he had been forced to choose between his life and his magic. Merlin had been unable to decide even with a sword at his throat. When the time came, Arthur might have to make the decision for him, and hope that Merlin would be both willing and able to forgive him.

There was a short rap on the door as a servant delivered their breakfast from the kitchens. Arthur had placed the order last night, expecting that Merlin would not be in any condition to be running about the castle. He wished now that he had been wrong.

He brought the tray inside and took a small amount for himself, then placed the still-laden tray on the table by the bed. Merlin gave a teary blink, and rubbed his eyes dry with the back of his hand. For someone so slim, Merlin loved food nearly as much as he loved a soft bed. But when he reached for a grape, he hesitated and then pulled his hand away. Despite his brave exterior, his obvious desire to believe that things had not changed, Merlin was not unscathed. Arthur would have to manage him carefully, even after his magic was under control.

Arthur went to change into the appropriate finery for the day ahead. Even with Merlin in his bed, Merlin's ghost was still all over his clothes and in the crown that he placed on his own head. In the absence of his hands, which dressed Arthur with such attentiveness and care when they weren't eager and exploring. But Arthur could not bear to let his thoughts go as far as that.

It was only now that he realized why Merlin was wearing the outfit from the banquet, only now that he realized that the fire he had summoned had been in the shape of the Pendragon crest. It had not been an attack, or at least not a conscious one. Merlin had wanted to show him that he still belonged to him, even with his magic. And the damage that Merlin's wild magic had wreaked, which had frightened Arthur out of his wits, hadn't even been that bad. Just a bit of wind and some tall candle flames. The curtains were slightly singed, and that was the worst of it. It hardly seemed like anything, now. Could Merlin's fealty extend even into his magic? It seemed unlikely, but that did not mean it was impossible.

Soon, Arthur would divide Merlin from his magic, and he would know the truth of both their natures. When Merlin was his and his alone, it would be safe to love him again. But until then, Arthur had to be strong enough for the both of them.

"I'm sorry about Geraint," Merlin said, when Arthur returned to the bed. "I should have used my magic to protect him, or tried to heal him. I should have done a lot of things. But that's why you need to understand. Even if you can find a way to remove my magic, you can't. You need it."

"We'll talk about it later," Arthur said, guiding Merlin to lie down. Merlin resisted and reached for him. Arthur stilled, breath half-caught in his throat, but all Merlin did was straighten the clasp of his cloak.

"You always buckle it crooked," Merlin said, and then lowered his hands, shy and uncertain.

Arthur's fear receded again, and he rewarded Merlin with a mustered smile in appreciation of the gesture. Merlin and his ridiculous, bottomless loyalty. He was a sorcerer and he knew enough to blackmail the entire council several times over, yet he still wanted to be his manservant. He wanted to be whatever Arthur wanted him to be. If that willingness held...

Once Merlin was under the blankets, he pulled them close against himself with an air of desperation. But even as he did, the pleasant associations of the bed lulled him, and he went from anxious and tense to sleepy in no time at all.

"If you need me..." Merlin began, not quite ready to let go yet.

"I'll know where you are," Arthur finished for him. He forced himself to reach out and brush Merlin's hair back behind his ear, just once before he pulled his hand away.

But that was all it took. He stood and watched as Merlin dropped to sleep, and felt, as he had so many times before, that Merlin was a perplexing creature, contradictory and impossible to oust. A sorcerer should not rest so naturally in the Crown Prince's bed, and the Crown Prince should not have invited him into it. But there were already so many things that Merlin should not be. What was one more, when at least this was a problem that had a chance of being solved?

Arthur left his chambers and closed the door quietly behind him, resisting the urge to lock it, to bar the way with heavy planks, to nail his whole chambers shut as he once had the side room. At the end of the hall, a pair of guards stood vigilant, oblivious to the danger so close at hand. Arthur merely nodded to them as he passed.

§

The castle was only just starting to hum to life as Arthur walked through the halls. He seized on the normality of it all, of bustling servants and the fresh smell of bread drifting up from the kitchens. This was home. This was where everything made sense, where everything and everyone had a place and a purpose and was bent to it. From the dungeons to the towers, from the curtained nooks where he had hidden as a small boy to the throne that would one day be his.

If that no longer felt true, it was battle that was to blame. It had changed him as others had before, and it was only natural that things would feel wrong for a time. That he would not fit neatly into the space he had left behind. He would make himself fit, as he had before, and he would make Merlin fit, and the fractures that threatened his foundations would heal.

It wasn't until he was already halfway across the courtyard that he realized that when he'd dressed in full ceremonial wear, the sword he'd automatically sheathed in his belt had been the enchanted one. His steps faltered as he thought of turning away from his current path and to the armory, so he could exchange it for another. But even the hilt of the sword Merlin had given him was unique, with finely worked gold engravings. This was the sword that had defeated Palaemon, that had won the battle against the Deorham. To discard it now, to hide it away when it was expected to be seen, when his father had already seen him wearing it, would only raise questions. And he would have enough of those to deal with already.

He discarded his plan to have Guinevere fire up her forge after the ceremony so he could burn the magic out of it. He could not afford to destroy whatever enchantments lay within the blade until he was certain that Merlin was safe. Until every last bit of magic was out of him once and for all. Until then, he would have to keep the sword close at hand, in case the worst happened. At least Merlin had shown some fraction of sense in this, as his father had indeed already used it without any apparent concern.

Or had he? Arthur had been just as guilty as everyone else in dealing with the Black Knight. He had thought that steel and sinew would prove sufficient against any enemy, even if that enemy had already taken deadly blows and not been felled. When his father had triumphed against the knight, he had taken it as simply another example of his father succeeding where others had failed.

But his father had held him back with the paltry excuse that the knights had needed a chance to prove themselves now that they were at peace with Mercia. And then when he had challenged the Black Knight himself, sick of standing aside as others fought and died in his place, his father had been furious, had forbid him to fight. Had been so absolutely certain that for Arthur to face the knight would mean his death. Arthur had taken it as yet another example of his father's lack of faith in him. He had believed that even more when he had woken late, muzzy from the strong sleeping draught that Gaius had tricked him into taking, and found himself locked into his own chambers.

And when it was over, like everyone else, Arthur had simply been relieved that yet another threat had been vanquished. He had not raised questions because the threat was passed, and it was better to put his energies into preparing for the next threat, into fulfilling his new role as Crown Prince and all the responsibilities that came with it, than to worry over a foe that had been utterly destroyed.

And yet. And yet now, looking back, the entire matter felt only half-known. It had been another instance of Gaius and his father whispering together behind closed doors. He still did not know the origin of the crest that the knight bore on his shield or the purpose of his challenge, and he had been taught all the crests of Albion during his time spent in Geoffrey's tutelage. If Merlin's sword was responsible for destroying the knight, then it did explain why his father had survived, but it did not reveal what his father knew. Merlin had taken the sword and hidden it, and his father had been surprised by its absence, desired that it be found. Yet he had not been urgent about it.

As Arthur entered the tower, he found himself returned yet again to the questions that had been raised in his discussion with Merlin. Had his father known about the sword's properties and gone to face the knight with it because only magic could defeat magic? Did his father know about Gaius and Merlin and their use of magic to defend the kingdom? He must know, and yet it seemed impossible that he did. His father had always stood so absolute against all sorcery, no matter how useful or how minor the enchantment. Because it corrupted the user and eventually consumed them with madness and rage. The only way the situation could even begin to make sense was if his father and Gaius had some way to control it, to bind the magic as to make it as safe to use as any other tool.

Or there was another, less pleasant possibility, which was that Merlin was not the first young sorcerer they had used. And when the corruption began to progress too far, the sorcerer was executed and a replacement was found, so the defense of the kingdom could be maintained. As for the physician in Gedref, surely most of Gaius' apprentices had actually learned the healing arts from him rather than sorcery. It would make far more sense to have a sorcerer placed as a knight, but that would require a sorcerer born of a noble house. Yet a secret sorcerer would have to have a plausible reason for his presence, and therefore Merlin's position as his manservant seemed far too canny to be a coincidence.

Which brought him back to Gaius.

Arthur opened the door slowly, cautiously scanning the room. Gaius' cot was empty, but one step into the room revealed that he had fallen asleep in his chair by the hearth. If a fire had burned there last night, it had long since gone out, and Gaius had a blanket across his lap. There was a deep frown on his face, even in sleep.

Gaius knew the answers for all his questions. Arthur was certain of that, just as he was certain that actually achieving those answers would not be a simple matter. Even in minor matters, Gaius only ever said as much as he wanted to say. His father did not trust Gaius with his secrets without knowing they would be safe with him. It had always stung Arthur that his father trusted Gaius more than him, even now that he was Crown Prince, and ostensibly should be involved in all matters of importance. He could not grow into his kingship if he was kept in ignorance. Yet for all that his father now offered approval and smiled proudly upon him, nothing had changed.

It was going to change now. He would not be kept in ignorance anymore.

Arthur pushed a chair over to the hearth, placing it so that he could sit facing Gaius directly. He sat down and crossed his arms and waited for Gaius to wake up. It didn't take long, for even the scrape of the chair across the floor was enough to rouse him. Gaius opened his eyes slowly, and he betrayed no great surprise at finding Arthur in his chambers at such an early hour.

"Sire?" Gaius asked, slow from sleep as he straightened his posture.

"Gaius," Arthur replied, keeping his expression as stony as he would in any delicate negotiation.

"Merlin is not with you," Gaius said. It was impressive how he could say so little, when asking so much.

"He's sleeping."

Gaius' relief was obvious and palpable. "Then he's still alive."

"I'd like to keep it that way," Arthur said. "That depends on you."

"Sire?" Gaius asked, caution dominating his expression again.

"I'm going to ask you questions," Arthur said, watching Gaius carefully. "If the answers you give me are lies, if you attempt to manipulate me for any reason, this conversation is over and I can make no guarantees for Merlin's life or your own."

Gaius nodded once. "I understand. As you must understand that there are certain questions which I am sworn not to answer."

"Even to me?" Arthur challenged.

"As I said."

It took gall to defy the Crown Prince on a matter of such blatant treason. But it was already clear that Gaius had an overabundance of gall. Very well, then. Arthur would establish the facts and proceed from there.

"Merlin is a sorcerer," Arthur said, barely managing not to trip over the word as he struggled against the emotions it provoked. "And you have been using him and his magic to fight sorcery in defense of the kingdom. Is all of this true?"

"It is," Gaius said, and for what it was worth he did not seem to be lying. "Is that what Merlin told you?"

"I've known since Terit." When Gaius raised his eyebrow at this, Arthur continued. "I knew that you were teaching him, that you were destroying magic together. I didn't know how."

"Ah," Gaius said, in a tone that Arthur was familiar with from his childhood. It was the 'I said it was a bad idea and you went ahead and did it anyway' tone. If Merlin had been present, it would surely have been directed at him.

"Merlin said that magic cannot be defeated without magic," Arthur continued. "Is this true?"

"Largely," Gaius admitted. "The more powerful the magical attack, the more necessary it is to have a magical defense. I assume you are aware that the Griffin and the Questing Beast were not defeated without help."

Arthur nodded. "And Cedric?"

"Cornelius Sigan possessed him," Gaius said, with such utter certainty that Arthur was finally starting to believe that he was right. "Merlin used a powerful spell to stop Sigan, but the possession itself killed Cedric."

"How much does my father know?"

"Nothing."

Arthur scoffed. "Do you seriously expect me to believe that?"

"Believe what you will," Gaius said, evenly. "But if you tell the King any of this, both Merlin and I will be arrested and executed. And I do not believe that is something you wish to happen."

"You just told me that magic can only be fought with magic, and yet my father has no idea of the magic being used to defend his kingdom?"

Gaius pressed his lips together. "Sorcery is a delicate matter. And the laws against magic are absolute."

Arthur stared at Gaius, trying to translate his diplomatic phrasing into something solid. "You mean he can't afford to know," he realized.

Gaius said nothing, which was an answer in itself. It was a question he couldn't answer, but perhaps Arthur wouldn't need him to. He just had to keep talking.

"My father trusts you with a great many things," Arthur said, leaning forward with interest. "Things he doesn't even trust me with. Every time we face a magical threat, you and Merlin whisper to each other. But you also whisper with my father. You advise him when a threat is too dangerous to be defeated by normal means. And he ignores you. But then you turn around and take care of the situation yourself. And when it's all over, he raises no concerns."

Gaius' frown deepened, and it was obvious that Arthur had hit the target. But the victory he felt was a sour one. It was one thing to suspect that his father was using magic, and it was another to have it confirmed, even if it was all tacit. It was rank hypocrisy, no matter how noble the intent.

Except he was guilty of that as well, if only in hindsight. He had approved of Merlin's actions, had encouraged them in Gedref, had been ready to celebrate them now that they were home, even make them public. And now he was forced to disavow them, lest his knowledge result in Merlin's execution.

It appeared that Merlin was indeed serving under his father's command, however indirectly. But his father would provide no acknowledgement of this, and no protection in return. Merlin was expected to forfeit his life, just as the knights were, just as all the people of Camelot were. Because they were all disposable in his father's eyes. Arthur refused to accept that.

"Have there been others, before Merlin?" Arthur pressed, sobering. "Sorcerers who gave protection to the kingdom? What happened to them?"

Gaius visibly struggled before he spoke. "None like Merlin. He is... unique."

"Because he was born with magic?"

"That is part of it, yes," Gaius admitted. "He is more powerful than he realizes, and this has enabled him to succeed despite his inexperience. Others with far more training were not so fortunate."

Arthur had heard enough. "I want the magic out of him. Now."

"Impossible."

"With all that you have lied to me and to my father, I have no reason to trust a single word you say," Arthur said, tersely.

"Then believe me when I tell you that there is no way to remove Merlin's magic. It cannot be done, not even with the darkest magics."

"If magic can be put into a thing, it can be taken out again," Arthur insisted. "The same must go for sorcerers."

"Even if it were possible, which it is not, it is because of Merlin's magic that the kingdom still stands. Without it, you will not live to become King."

"Is that a threat?" Arthur asked, disbelieving.

"It is a fact," Gaius said, sternly. "If you are aware of what he has done, then you know that he has already saved your life many times over."

"Because you and my father are determined to keep me ignorant of the true nature of the threats I face, and refuse to tell me how to defeat them," Arthur shot back. "I am Crown Prince and you treat me as if I am still a child. When my father can no longer rule, this will be my kingdom, and I cannot rule as I must when I am lied to at every turn." It was humiliating to realize that they had set Merlin to watch over him like some sort of magical nanny because they did not believe him capable of making his own decisions. "If the magic cannot be removed, then it must be contained," he continued, brooking no argument. "Is there a way?"

"It may be possible," Gaius said, though he didn't look happy about it.

"Is there a potion we can give him? Or something in the vaults?" Arthur pressed. "Something we can find and use today?" When Gaius hesitated, Arthur gave him a less than gentle push. "Merlin is alive, but he is my prisoner, and he will remain as my prisoner until we find a way to control his magic. Otherwise, I will have no choice but to proceed with the punishment for his treason according to the law."

"Foolish boy," muttered Gaius, as defeat washed across his face. "You have no comprehension of the forces at work."

"Then explain them to me," Arthur said, anger leaking into his voice despite his best attempts to restrain it. "Tell me everything that my father will not. Unless your promises to him mean more to you than Merlin."

Gaius' unhappy silence was answer enough.

"I will not see Merlin's life thrown away on my father's orders," Arthur said, making himself absolutely clear. "We find something that will enable me to suppress Merlin's magic, and we will make use of it tonight. Does this contradict what my father has bound you with?"

"No."

Arthur stood. "Then I will see you at the ceremony. Merlin will not be there as he is under orders to remain in my chambers until I allow otherwise. Do not attempt to see or communicate with him without my approval. If you conspire, I will have no choice but to tell all of this to my father. Is that clear?"

"As a crystal, sire," Gaius said, coldly. "And understand that if Merlin is in danger, I will do everything in my power to protect him, no matter what the cost to myself."

They stared at each other, sizing each other up, and Arthur sensed that despite all their differences, they were well-matched. As they both shared the same goal, that of protecting Merlin, Arthur was content with this, even if their definitions of protection were not the same. Gaius would help him gain control over Merlin's magic, and then Merlin himself would help Arthur destroy it. That was the only way that Merlin would truly be safe. And like Gaius, Arthur would do whatever it took to protect Merlin, no matter what the cost.

Chapter Text

Magic. His father used magic.

Arthur crossed back through the courtyard, the knowledge a heavy weight on top of the burdens he already carried. In his father's zealous quest to destroy magic, he had come to rely on the very use of it. With all that he was learning, Arthur had little argument with his father's overall goal. He had no doubt that the removal of magic was necessary for the good of the kingdom, for the health of his future reign. But if he had questioned his father's methods before, argued against the extremities of them, this new discovery was the most extreme of them all.

It did not matter whether or not his father had any direct hand in the finding and use of sorcerers. Command at a distance was still command, and a king was responsible for the actions of those below him. If a knight was rash and heedless in his actions, it was his commander who was held to task. The orders his father had given Gaius regarding sorcery were no different than the orders his father gave him when he assigned the task of freeing Gedref from the Deorham. His father trusted them both to carry out their orders, and to do so as representatives of both the King and the kingdom.

But while Arthur reported back to his father, Gaius did not. His father had been eager to hear about his victory in Gedref, but it seemed that he wanted no knowledge of Gaius' victories, because those victories were won with the breaking of his father's own laws. The laws that said that any use of sorcery, however small, was treason, and therefore punishable only by death. A law that was absolute, with no exceptions ever made, no consideration for circumstances ever given. It was one thing to kill a dangerous sorcerer like Palaemon, who had already forfeited his life by participating in an invasion. But Linette had died merely because she sought to protect her husband and the future of her unborn child. Guinevere's father had died because he had allowed a sorcerer to use his forge, and then tried to escape in fear of his life.

He had always felt that such minor crimes did not deserve the punishment attached to them. And now knowing that his father tacitly encouraged sorcery on a large scale, the hypocrisy of it all made him almost physically ill. It strengthened his resolve to extract Merlin from this untenable situation before it spiralled entirely out of control. Despite what Merlin and Gaius both believed, there had to be a better way. And even if they were right, if magic was necessary to fight magic, this was not the way to do it. It was dishonorable. It was ignoble and it was against everything that Camelot stood for.

When Arthur had been crowned, he had taken an oath. He had sworn to exercise mercy and justice in his deeds and judgments, and to govern in accordance with the law. His father had taken that same oath when he had been crowned, and yet he had broken it, continued to break it. Where was the justice and mercy in his deeds and judgements? How could he govern according to the law when he broke it daily? When he broke even the Knights' Code, the very foundation of Camelot, created by Bruta, its first king? It was a pledge that had held strong for centuries: to conduct oneself with nobility, honour, and respect. A knight's word was a sacred bond. A knight fought for justice, freedom, and all that was good. His father had been a knight, was still a knight, because such an oath could not be unsworn.

A kingdom lived or died by the strength of its laws. And making exceptions to any law, no matter how well-intentioned, only caused problems as those exceptions piled up. It had always frustrated Arthur that his father was only too eager to make exceptions in areas other than magic, applying one set of laws to the noble and another to the common. The First Code was emblematic of this, providing the sons of the nobility with opportunities, training, and support that were denied to everyone else, no matter how deserving or needed they were.

When he was King, he intended to throw out the old laws, the ones riddled with exceptions, and write new ones. Ones that were fair and just and merciful. It was not enough to respect the statutes, customs, and laws of his forbearers, not when conditions changed, when people changed. Laws and kings must change and adapt to suit the needs of the people, not the other way around. The alternative only led to tyranny and suffering. That Camelot thrived despite his father's failures was a testament to the strength of its foundations, to the justice and mercy of Bruta's laws, laid down centuries ago.

But now. Now he saw that even his father's own laws had been riddled with those same exceptions. One set of laws for his father and those he favored, and another for everyone else. Once the situation with Merlin was resolved, once Merlin himself was no longer a part of his father's machinations, Arthur would set himself to the deconstruction of them. If magic was to be fought, it would be fought openly, and those who risked their souls and lives for the good of the kingdom would be rewarded for their sacrifice, just as any knight would be. His original plan to have a court-appointed defender against sorcery was still as valid as before. It was simply not acceptable that Merlin be the one that he appoint.

His father was always trying to convince him that the sacrifices of others were necessary. That their lives were not worth his tears or the endangerment of his own life. And perhaps there was some truth to that. But such sacrifices would not be obtained through deceit and trickery, and hidden away in the shadows. If the situation with Merlin had taught him anything, it was of the poisonous nature of secrets long-kept.

"Ah, Arthur, excellent."

"Father," Arthur greeted, slipping on the familiar mask. He had become quite expert at it in recent months, and achieved the fine balance of dutiful, obedient, and rebellious that made his father most amenable to him. After all, it would not do for a Crown Prince to be too agreeable, but neither could he be as plainly defiant as he had been when he'd spent weeks in the woods training Merlin. The lessons he had learned from that experience, and from Linette's execution, had guided him in his careful planning when he decided to use Merlin against the First Code.

"I was hoping we'd have a moment to talk this morning, before the ceremony," his father continued, and he waved a hand to Sir Leon, who had been standing at attention, watching as their audience trickled in to the great hall. "I'm appointing Sir Leon as your new second-in-command."

"Sir Leon," Arthur greeted, not letting his annoyance show. He had nothing against Leon, who was a good man and one of the better candidates on his own personal list of knights to promote. But it grated on him that yet again his father had decided what was best without even bothering to ask if he had an opinion on the matter.

"It will be an honor to serve as your second, sire," Leon said, eagerly.

"It will be an honor to have you," Arthur replied. In truth, there were others he would have chosen, largely because they had been to war and Leon had not. When he had been taken on as a knight, Leon's father had pressed upon Uther that he would not see his only son sent off to war, and to preserve his fealty, Uther had obliged. And so Leon had never been tested as the others had been tested, as Geraint had been tested.

Arthur remembered quite clearly when he had returned that autumn, sobered and weary from war with Cenred, and found that Leon had been installed as one of the castle knights. After the strains and losses that even a victorious season provided, Leon had seemed impossibly fresh-faced, despite being several years older than Arthur himself. A part of Arthur had hated him for that, for being unscathed, and that winter Arthur and the other seasoned knights had not been kind to him. Even at the time, Arthur had regretted his actions. Yet he had not been able to quash the urge to push Leon until he broke, so he would know some semblance of the pain that they had suffered. Leon did not break; he he taken it all and kept smiling, his good nature allowing him to persist until at last he was accepted.

If his father had chosen someone entirely unfit, Arthur would have argued the matter. But since that time they had all done a great deal of growing up, and Leon had bravely defended the castle against many threats, both magical and mundane. Leon was loyal to the crown, and performed his duties with both sobriety and enthusiasm. He would do.

Besides, Arthur had much larger issues to deal with.

"Father, if you have a moment, I'd like to speak with you in private. Perhaps this afternoon?" That should give him enough time to take care of all the things that he needed to.

"Of course," his father said, smiling. "We'll talk over dinner." He patted Arthur on the arm, but when he looked past him, his smile shifted into shallow annoyance. "Where is that boy of yours?"

"Resting," Arthur said, calmly. "He was exhausted."

"I know you've developed a fondness for the boy, but you indulge him too much. It sets a poor example."

"Merlin was of great help to me in Gedref," Arthur said, unable to stop himself from pointedly using Merlin's name. His father never used it, only referring to him as 'that boy' when he wasn't outright insulting him. But Arthur couldn't tell if it was because Merlin was a servant, and therefore beneath notice, or a sorcerer, and therefore beneath contempt. "He was worn out from both battle and journey, and I would rather give him a day to recover than have him be unable to perform his duties due to exhaustion. It would hardly set a good example if he yawned his way through the ceremony."

"I suppose the boy was busy helping the wounded," his father said, and despite its reluctance it was probably the most praise he had ever directed towards Merlin. "From your description, it was quite a battle. I wish I'd seen it. It's been too long." The last he said with an air of longing. He missed the battlefield. He'd missed it ever since he'd ceded it to Arthur halfway through the war against Cenred. His father had not fought at all against Bayard, and at least part of his eagerness to crush Bayard diplomatically had been an attempt to make up for his absence in the war itself.

His father shook the longing away. "You should consider a replacement."

"Replacement?" Arthur asked, confused by the sudden change of topic.

"For the boy. First he broke his arm, and now this. I know he's loyal to you, but if he's unable to perform his duties..."

Arthur paused before he spoke. "You think he's unfit."

His father softened again. "I think that my son is growing into a fine man. And when the time comes, you'll need servants you can rely on. Who have the bearing and experience suitable for their position."

It was an innocent statement, but nothing was innocent anymore. If his father knew about Merlin's magic, if he was expecting Merlin's corruption to have advanced far enough that he would have to be quietly destroyed, that would be reason enough to discourage Arthur from having any attachment towards him. Perhaps that was why his father had gone to such an extreme in preventing him from saving Merlin's life after the incident with the poisoned wine. But his statement could just as easily be taken at face value. The uncertainty was making Arthur feel uncomfortably paranoid. He needed to resolve it, and now was as good a time as any.

"If he was never suitable for the job, then why did you assign him as my manservant?"

"Gaius recommended him for the position before he arrived," his father said, without any hint of discomfort or guilt. "And you had run through just about everyone else." He smiled, amused. "It was something of a desperate effort. I'm as surprised as anyone that he's lasted this long."

Arthur allowed himself a moment of relief. Gaius had been telling the truth, then, and his father didn't know that Merlin was a sorcerer. It didn't make the situation any better, but it did mean it wasn't likely to become dramatically worse. As long as his father didn't know, the situation could be contained and managed. If his father didn't want to know about the magic being done right under his nose, then Arthur would oblige him.

"If you have some suitable candidates, I'm willing to review them," he said, generously but with a hint of reluctance. It wouldn't do to be eager. And the truth was, if he couldn't save Merlin, he might indeed need a new manservant, assuming he was still in any condition to make use of one.

"I'll draw up a list," his father said, pleased. "Take your time with the decision. Find the right man and you'll have a servant for life."

Arthur thought bitterly that he had already found the right man. The problem lay in keeping him.

§

There were two worlds that Arthur had been born to, that were in his bones and in his blood: the worlds of Court and of War. Both had their own kinds of battle, and in each there were rules, allies and enemies, risks and rewards. Despite their similarities, in truth they rarely overlapped. When they did, it was almost always in the aftermath, when all the blood that was required had been spilled, when king and king would at last face each other across a table, rather than a field full of injured and dead. Arthur had often felt that quite a lot of trouble would be saved for everyone if they simply skipped to the end and locked the kings in a room together until it was all settled.

Gedref had been different. Yes, there had been losses, and the scars of battle would not fade quickly for most. But as they had ridden home, Arthur had felt proud of what they had accomplished, in a way that he never had when he'd returned from battles in the past. He had headed out to Gedref expecting the worst: a weeks or months-long siege followed by a hungry winter as the battle diverted resources from an already slim harvest. Instead, he had found fertile fields and a battle that was won in the course of a morning. He did not know why his father and Lord Wichard continued to have such a strained relationship when his innovative techniques meant a healthy harvest and full bellies until the spring, but it was obvious that Gedref was even more valuable than its harbor and its swordsmiths had already made it. He would have to encourage a wider use of Wichard's seaweed compost at the next meeting of the Lords.

If only the victory they had won could still feel as honorable as a good harvest. The fact that it had been partly won through the use of magic, and worse, hidden magic, had hollowed their triumph. It had hollowed most of what Arthur had thought were the other successes of the past year and a half, whether his own or Merlin's. In every case, what he had thought was a defeat of sorcery had in fact been achieved through sorcery itself. He did not see how he could be glad of that, or of the cost Merlin was paying as a result. And what victories had been won before that, before Merlin's arrival, only Gaius knew.

But at least in Gedref, Merlin's magic had largely only been used against Palaemon's, or to open the way for the rest of the army to succeed. This ceremony was to be a celebration of the achievements of steel and sinew, and those achievements held true. He could still feel proud as he stood tall before his people and his men, as his father gave his speech congratulating them on all that they had done for the kingdom.

Arthur barely listened to the speech itself. It was only the latest variation of one he'd heard many times before, and if he paid attention to the praising of honor and nobility it would only make him angrier at his father's hypocrisy. Now was not the time for him to drive himself into a temper. Instead he focused on the audience before him, filling the great hall to capacity. It had been some time since such an unalloyed good had been celebrated. The wars against Bayard and Cenred had been long and bloody, and the peaces won still felt tenuous. At the ceremonies that followed each war, the overwhelming atmosphere had been one of relief. But looking out upon the people now, what Arthur saw most of all was pride. Pride that the kingdom had held strong, that an unjust attack had been so utterly defeated, and that almost all that had left had come home again, or would soon. And there was pride in him, that the Crown Prince had grown into as mighty a warrior as his father had been, that he had left behind his childhood and accepted his role as a leader of men. And more, that men sought to follow him. The victory at Gedref would only strengthen their willingness. The successes of his army all combined to shine upon him. Even Merlin's.

Arthur could not avoid the fact that Merlin's absence was both of note and a disappointment. All through the start of the ceremony, people would look at him, smiling, and then look to his side and frown. Just as his father had, in fact. Arthur often felt that Merlin had become as naturally a part of him as his shadow, or as the sword at his side, and now he could see that everyone else had come to feel the same. Even before Gedref, Arthur had made it clear that Merlin was his. Not merely as a servant, or as his knight, or even as his lover, but in a more fundamental way. Merlin was his because that was the way Merlin wanted to be, and because Arthur liked him that way, and because it felt natural, as right as the joining of two broken pieces into a whole. Without him now, even knowing about the corruption that lurked inside him, Merlin's absence was an ache he could not ignore.

He had to save Merlin from his magic. The grief he had felt in Gedref, which had nearly driven him to madness, would be nothing in comparison to what would attack if he could not save him now. Arthur could feel it waiting like some monstrous beast inside him, claws and fangs as full of poison as the Questing Beast's. It was hope that kept the beast caged, but that hope was as tenuous as the treaty with Cenred.

Merlin was essential. Not only to himself, to his heart, but to the kingdom's future. Arthur had seen the fact of it with the knights and in Gedref, seen that Merlin's inherent goodness and determination inspired those around him, united them in purpose. It had even managed the impossible and brought him closer to Morgana, the two of them sparring companionably as they had not since before Arthur had first gone off to war. Those first battles had changed him, and when he had returned, Morgana had treated him as she always had. She had treated their sparring like a game, when he had learned the hard way that it was not. When Arthur had refused to fight her with swords, Morgana chose words as her weapon, and her cuts had been deep and unkind. Their relationship had never recovered from the blazing rows of that autumn.

He was glad to see her now, but he was shocked at how much she had changed in the weeks they had been gone. Their regular sparring had brought a flush to her cheeks and a sparkle to her eyes that had been missing for years, and now both were gone again, drained away by her nightmares and the powerful sleeping draughts she took to overcome them. Morgana's nightmares came and went, but they always seemed to bother her worst in times of stress. Her worry over the battle must have set off this latest round, and now she stood unsteadily, leaning against Guinevere despite her proud efforts to stand tall and on her own. For her part, Guinevere's brow was deeply furrowed with concern, and she looked exhausted herself, no doubt from having sat up all night with Morgana yet again.

Gaius stood a short distance from Morgana, and if Arthur did not know better, he would think that nothing was amiss with him at all. But then, Gaius' outward appearance had always been a disguise, in one way or another. Merlin's magic and Arthur's knowledge of it were only two secrets added to the countless already within him. It took a great deal of deceit and courage to be simultaneously treasonous and obedient.

Arthur did not know much of Gaius' involvement with sorcery from before the Purge. He knew that Gaius had used magic, but whenever he advised his father on the matter, it was more about what was in this book or that book, rather than any personal experience. Of course, part of that was probably a matter of appearances, but it was distinctly different from Arthur's conversations with Merlin so far, fraught as they had been. He suspected that Gaius had been more like Linette: he had dabbled in sorcery, used spells perhaps as part of his work as a healer, but seemed unlikely that he had had been anything like Merlin. But then Gaius had said that Merlin was different than other sorcerers, whatever that meant.

Arthur felt his lack of knowledge keenly. When he was faced with a problem, the first step was always to understand it. It was only then that he could break it down to its essentials and the connections between them, and then rebuild them into solution after solution until he found the right one. But his father had always been unwilling to discuss magic beyond its destruction, and his own discomfort with his father's irrationality and rage had led him to focus his efforts elsewhere. He had always had the unsettling feeling that if he pushed too hard on the matter, he would not like what he found, like overturning a long-settled rock to find the insects that crawled beneath. And now that he had had a peek beneath the rock, he knew that he had been right to be wary. His first discoveries had been so monstrous that, if exposed to the light, they could bring the kingdom to its knees. But his dread at what else he might uncover was no longer a sufficient excuse for his ignorance. He was sworn to defend the kingdom, and if magic was a tool that was required for such defense, he would have to master it as he had many before it. It was his duty as Crown Prince and as King. Even if he was only yet King in Merlin's eyes.

His father was unwilling to say more, and it was evident that he had sworn Gaius to that same silence. But Merlin was not sworn to anyone but Arthur himself. It did not matter that Merlin had been kept in ignorance by Gaius, that he had been fed lies. Together, they would be able to find the truth, the essentials and the connections that would lead them to the solution to removing magic completely from Merlin and from Camelot.

Arthur joined in the applause as his father finished his speech and stepped aside so that Geoffrey could intone the details of their victory. Again, Arthur did not care to listen, as he himself had written the list for Geoffrey during his long report the day before. But the frequent mentions of Geraint caught at him, reminding him of the knight and friend that he had not yet had time to truly grieve for. And he saw how the mentions caught at those attending. For those who had not been there, it sorrowed them to be reminded of Geraint's death, for as Arthur's second he had been prominent and well-considered. In them, he saw a mixture of pride and melancholy. In those who had been in Gedref, he saw pride and melancholy as well, but it was of a different nature. The sadness they felt for Geraint was overcome by a greater sorrow for Merlin, as they glanced towards the space of his absence at each mention. The pride that they felt was for Merlin, for how he had proved himself, for all that he had done for them, for his humility in surrendering so much bravely and without complaint. And in a few, those who had been closest to him, there was a mutinous gleam. They did not think it was fair for Merlin to have to surrender his victories to Geraint. They did not think it was fair that Merlin was not even at the ceremony to hear his victories lauded, even if they could not be attributed to him.

Arthur was certain that they would not say anything, because despite the unfairness of the situation, they knew that to praise Merlin publicly would only hurt him, at least until the First Code was removed. But it was a powerful thing to see the loyalty that Merlin had earned in so short a time, and from those that had every reason not to have loyalty to a servant. That was what Merlin did, the true magic of him, and Arthur had sought to take full advantage of that. He had been eager to make Merlin into his grain of sand, and he had done so before he had understood the full nature of him. He had used a tool without comprehension of it, without true mastery, and now he was paying the price. He would not make that mistake a second time.

He had not understood Merlin when they had left for Gedref, and he still did not understand him. But he would. He would learn Merlin as he learned his magic, know the essentials and connections within him. And then once the magic was gone, he would rebuild Merlin and keep him.

It was a good plan, and he wasn't only telling himself that because it was the only plan he had. It was a good plan because it benefitted everyone. Yes, there were risks. And it seemed that Merlin had been right to raise the danger that the loss of his magic would leave Camelot vulnerable to magical attacks. But that was only because Arthur did not know enough about what he was fighting in the first place. Once he understood sorcery, he was certain he would find ways to overcome any magical threat, no matter how powerful. It would be the same as it had been with the enchanted armor, which had shielded the Deorham from piercing weapons but not blunt force. Just because an enchantment protected against one kind of attack, that did not mean it was invulnerable to others. There were always weaknesses that could be exploited. Once he had his own resources and knowledge to draw upon, rather than depending upon the vague warnings that his father and Gaius reluctantly doled out, the risks would be minimized if not eliminated.

Geoffrey finished and stepped aside, and once again his father spoke, commanding all the knights to step forward from their positions at the front of the audience and to kneel. Arthur knelt as well, turning to his father and lowering himself onto one knee, his head bowed in submission. He could not help but think of Merlin's own display of fealty, and how the depth of it made of mockery of the fealty he showed to his father now, when Arthur neither desired to submit nor thought his father worthy of his submission. But the oath that Arthur had sworn, that his father and the knights had sworn, was not to any one king but to Camelot itself. It did not matter that when Arthur had sworn it, he had still been unable to imagine that his father and the kingdom could ever be divided from each other.

"You have all shown great courage and defended our kingdom and its people with honor and nobility," his father said, glowing with unfettered pride. Pride that mere months ago, Arthur would have given anything to see. But now it was a sour thing, bitter on his tongue, and he ached to spit it out. To turn to all watching and shout his discoveries to them, to share his pain so he could be unburdened from it. But he was not a child anymore, and it was his duty to protect and sustain the kingdom, not to tear it apart. If there was a burden to be carried, he would carry it.

"In two days, we shall have a feast to celebrate your victories. You shall be the guests of honor. Know that your names will be carried down through the ages, written in the pages of our histories. Rise now, and stand proud as knights of Camelot."

Arthur stood as the others did, all of them standing straight and tall.

His father had once been the model of what any great king should be. Whatever his flaws, whatever the weaknesses of age, in his prime his father had been everything that Arthur wanted to be: a powerful warrior, a strong leader who ruled with wisdom and justice. A king who was greater than the flesh and bone that made a man, who was unbowed and unbeaten even in the face of impossible odds. A man who inspired others to follow him, and deserved the loyalty given to him. His father had been great, and as Arthur had grown from a child to a man, he had watched that greatness fade. It had made him angry that his father could be weak, and it had made him afraid. And now to see how far he had fallen, that he was resorting to magic itself... Despite his outward strength, it was clear that his father was indeed no longer the man he had once been.

There was a time that Arthur had thought that his father would be King forever. But that time was passed. His father was as mortal as any man, with all the failings of a man. Soon, perhaps sooner than Arthur truly felt prepared for, the crown would be too heavy for his head, and it would be Arthur's duty to carry it until it was too heavy for his own head. For the first time, he truly began to feel a part of the line of kings that stretched back through the past, all the way to Bruta and the native and Roman lines that bore him. Camelot itself was only centuries old, but the Pendragon line was far older, and had centuries, perhaps millennia of leaders, of kings and warlords and commanders and sovereigns. His own life was a single point on a line that stretched into a forgotten past, and hopefully would stretch equally forward. His time, like his father's time, would only be a short one when compared to such a history, but that made them no less vital.

Other kings rose and fell, but the Pendragon line held true. That was what his father had told him, when Arthur was still small enough to sit on his knee. Not even the Romans and their long conquest had cowed them. There had been Pendragons before the Romans, and with Bruta's birth the Romans who ruled Albion had been subsumed into the Pendragon line, strengthening it with fresh blood but never overpowering it. And now he was the endpoint of that line, and all of history weighed upon him with expectation. If he failed to protect the kingdom, if he could not sire children to succeed him, that line would break, when time itself had left it unbroken.

As a young child, Arthur had often wondered if the dragon on their crest was related to the dragon imprisoned below the castle. But Geoffrey had informed him that the Pendragon crest was older than the oldest records, so much so that the dragon it bore had lost whatever meaning it once had. Therefore it could have nothing to do with the imprisoned dragon, or any dragon for that matter. Childhood curiosity had compelled Arthur to sneak down to see the dragon for himself, but even after he had snuck past the guards and made his way down, he had found the way blocked, sealed up with rubble far too heavy to shift on his own.

Now that both Merlin and Gaius were at least somewhat under control, Arthur at last turned his thoughts to what Merlin had said about the dragon. Obviously Gaius had not been the one to fill Merlin's head with talk of the unbanning of sorcery. The dragon had been the one to tell Merlin of the prophecy, who had convinced him that it was their destiny to fulfil it. As much as Arthur longed to seal the lying creature back up again, he knew that he would have to confront it in order to truly settle things with Merlin. But despite his own curiosity, it was obvious that even imprisoned, the monster was dangerous, and he was in no hurry to face it. Not until he was ready.

His father had bound the dragon well. Despite whatever hold it had on Merlin, it had not escaped in twenty years, and it would wait a while longer. Merlin was certainly not going to go anywhere near the dragon again without Arthur there to protect him.

"Sir Leon," his father called.

Leon stepped out of the audience. He went down on one knee as the others had before him, and bowed his head. "Your majesty."

"With Sir Geraint's passing, a knight must step forward to accept the duties and responsibilities that he has left behind. Such a knight must be fully devoted to the defense and care of both the kingdom and the knights under his command. Are you willing and able to accept this burden?"

"I am, your majesty," Leon said, somberly.

"Then rise and stand with them."

Leon obeyed, and though he was facing the audience, Arthur could see the determination in the straightness of Leon's spine, in the jut of his jaw. Arthur relaxed another notch, knowing that Leon was taking his position seriously, and not looking upon the promotion as some kind of reward. He was not Geraint, would never be Geraint, who Arthur had bled with, had lain with, had been through hell and back with. But he was a good knight, and perhaps with time and pressure he would become a great one.

The room filled with applause as the ceremony ended, and then the formal atmosphere was broken as the knights broke their stances. His father stepped out to speak with some of the nobility directly.

Arthur tucked away his ruminations and stepped out into the crowd himself, intending to speak with some of the knights about their next postings. He also needed to speak with them about Leon, because he saw the doubt in their eyes when they looked to their new second. They might not have the difficult history that Arthur had with Leon, but they all knew that Leon had not gone to battle, had never gone to war, and so it was only natural that they would doubt him. Arthur owed it to Leon to back him up, to give him the chance to prove himself to them. But Guinevere and Morgana caught him first.

"Arthur," Morgana greeted. "Did you pay attention to any of that, or was it as boring for you as it was for us?" Despite the glaze in her eyes, her tongue was as sharp as ever. And for all that she yearned to fight, Morgana had never thought much of knights or the glories of battle. The contradiction of it had always baffled him, especially in his younger years.

"I wrote most of it, Morgana," Arthur said, tartly. "Geoffrey wasn't likely to change it just to surprise me."

Morgana quirked a smile at that, and then to his surprise she pulled him into a hug. But this was the first time he had spoken with her since his return, and so he softened and hugged her back.

"I'm glad you're home," she whispered. When she pulled back, she was shy from the vulnerability of the gesture, and quickly reverted to her usual stubborn posture. But Arthur wondered just what had compelled her, and guessed it was her nightmares. They must be worse than usual to have upset her to the point of needing comfort from him, something she usually treated as beneath her.

He didn't press her about the nightmares. Morgana hated weakness, especially her own, and wouldn't like them being discussed on anything but her own terms, and certainly not in such a public place. It was something else that he would have to talk to Gaius about, once the situation with Merlin was sorted out. He hated to see her in such a bad way. She was so proud, and had such a fire to her, and to see it slowly doused was a sorrowful thing.

"I barely recognized you at first," Morgana continued, voice sharp again. "I'd forgotten what you looked like without Merlin trailing after you."

"Is he all right?" Guinevere asked, her concern directed away from Morgana and towards Merlin. "He said that he was really looking forward to ceremony."

They both looked to him expectantly, and Arthur mentally sighed. It was bad enough when the knights or his father asked where Merlin was. But Morgana and Guinevere had been privy to their relationship before it had even started. They had been there through it all, good times and bad, and they would not simply accept the idea that Merlin had been too tired to attend.

"We had a talk last night," Arthur said, coming up with a plausible lie, one that was grounded in truth. The best lies alway were. "He was more upset about what happened than he wanted to let on."

"What did happen?" Morgana pressed. "Gwen said that he promised to come by and tell us all the juicy details."

Arthur glanced around them and then leaned in, lowering his voice. "He fought as a knight. Impressed everyone, in fact. But he's upset about having to give it all up again and go back to being just a servant. Attending the ceremony would only have upset him more."

He saw them accept the lie, saw the empathy in Morgana and the sympathy in Guinevere.

"Perhaps we should go visit him now, cheer him up?" Guinevere suggested, brightening.

"No," Arthur said, a little too quickly. "I mean, not yet. He needs some time to get used to being home. Before he's ready to talk about what happened."

"Of course," Morgana said, understandingly. One of the surprises of their group training sessions had been how close Morgana and Merlin had grown. Arthur would not have expected that they would have enough in common, and yet they had connected in some significant way. They had been quite a sight, sparring together, the both of them quick and dark and lithe. Even Guinevere had been transfixed as they sat together and watched.

Despite all their differences, they had seemed almost two of a kind, and Arthur had felt a surge of genuine jealousy at their sudden closeness. He had held Merlin's attention and devotion so entirely in the woods, it had been a shock to see it turned elsewhere, and to Morgana of all people. It was the same way he had felt when he had watched Merlin with the knights in those early days of their training, when Merlin's arm had still been healing. He had felt it again in Gedref, and it had, along with other factors, driven him to mark Merlin even more blatantly as his own. His heart clenched to think about that now, and he pushed the memories aside.

"But don't think that litany that you had Geoffrey read out is any substitute for what you have to tell us," Morgana continued, smirking knowingly. "We want the unpolished version. The one that's actually true, not the one that's been all neatly arranged so it's easily swallowed."

"When Merlin is up to it, you can interrogate us together," Arthur promised. Even as he said it, as he thought about all the things that hadn't been spoken of, an idea came to him.

"Was that what you two were arguing about last night?" Guinevere asked, evidently still concerned.

"Arguing?" Morgana asked, brow furrowing.

Arthur clenched his jaw. "This really isn't the best place to discuss it," he said, putting weight behind the words.

Morgana understood before Guinevere did, but when she did she let out a little gasp. "Oh, of course. Sorry, sire."

"Don't be sorry, Gwen," Morgana soothed. "That just means that Arthur has even more to tell us than we already thought."

Arthur glared at her, but he could not deny that he was privately relieved to see that she had not lost all her spark to nightmares and sleeping draughts. It would take more than that to crush a spirit like Morgana's, and he was proud of her for that.

"Now if you'll excuse me, I have a full schedule ahead of me," Arthur said.

"Will Merlin be with you later?" Guinevere asked, clearly eager to see him. "Even if he's not ready to talk, I'm sure he'd appreciate it if we said hello." She really was amazingly persistent.

"He was up all night so he's sleeping now," Arthur said, hoping that would finally be enough to ward her off. "I gave him the day off to rest. I'm certain he'll be back to normal tomorrow."

"Poor Merlin," Guinevere said, as if Merlin was an undernourished kitten with a sore paw.

Arthur could actually imagine Guinevere picking up Merlin-kitten and wrapping him in a warm blanket. It was disturbingly adorable. He blinked to clear away the vision.

"Tomorrow, then," Morgana said, reigning Guinevere back but also making it clear that she would not tolerate Arthur's delaying tactics for very long. Morgana might have accepted what she had been told, but she was far too experienced with court and all that came with it. If Merlin was still unreachable to her tomorrow, she would barge her way in to see him. Like Merlin, she did not let anything as simple as a locked door stand in her way.

When Arthur at last pried himself away, he found that the time their conversation had taken meant that most of the knights had already left. No matter; it would be better to talk to them in private as well, so he would track them down later. In the meantime, it was his turn to ask the questions again, and he knew just the person to ask them to. After all, there was more than one prisoner beneath the castle. He did not want to risk the dragon, but he realized now that there was in fact someone else to talk to about Merlin and about magic. Someone who had far more motivation to be truthful to him.

It was time he paid a visit to Lord Idriys.

Chapter Text

One of the pieces of information that Arthur had declined to pass on to his father was that Idriys had intended to betray Alined and keep Gedref for himself. As a noble, and as Alined's trusted cousin, Lord Idriys was a valuable asset. If Alined knew of that intended betrayal, it would lessen his worth and perhaps even eliminate it. And if that happened, not only would Camelot lose a significant source of leverage against Alined, but Idriys himself would likely lose his life. He had, after all, attacked Camelot with sorcery. And even if he had not used it himself, he had commanded the use of it, and under the law was as guilty as Palaemon himself. That he had not already been executed was a testament to the fact that his nobility and his worth as a hostage outweighed his guilt.

But Arthur had also spared Idriys for other reasons. He had grown familiar with the man through his papers, reading them over and over in the days in the cavern until he knew the most important passages by heart. And Idriys intrigued him. He appeared to be a good man who had as much concern for his captives as he did towards his own people. He had forethought and skill in planning and in military action, and if not for Merlin, he might have even succeeded in becoming the new Lord of Gedref. And yet he openly used magic, and seemed unafraid of it, if respectful of its power.

In a way, Idriys had inspired him to be fearless himself. Idriys and Merlin both. In Gedref, Arthur had held them up as examples, that here were two men in opposition, with drastically different personalities and backgrounds, and yet both were unafraid of the magic that stood between them. Their calm had made his father's rage and paranoia about sorcery seem absurd and childish. And as Arthur had never felt comfortable in accepting that rage and paranoia as his own, he had at last discarded it so that like them, he could see clearly.

He no longer knew if that decision had been the right one. He knew now why Merlin had been unafraid of magic, and he wondered if perhaps Idriys had been affected as well. If he had been enchanted by Palaemon. If he had been enchanted by Merlin. Because despite all the revelations of the past day, he still did not know how Merlin had swayed Idriys into taking him on as his manservant, much less trusting him within the privacy of his chambers, after mere hours. Merlin's ramblings had included something about a chandelier, but that hardly explained anything. And if Idriys had been enchanted, could Merlin have used that same magic against Arthur himself? It was not a pleasant thought, but it was one he had to consider.

Merlin had not included the enchanting of Idriys in his long list of crimes. But if he had such a skill, he would have reason to hide it.

Perhaps the reason that Merlin felt so essential was because he had used his magic to force that feeling into Arthur's heart. Perhaps what Arthur thought was loyalty and love was merely an illusion, all a part of Merlin's desire to have Arthur remove the laws against magic when he became King. Because even if it had been the dragon who manipulated Merlin into believing the prophecy, Merlin held and acted under that belief, even now that the prophecy itself had been cast into doubt.

But now Palaemon was dead, and any enchantments he had placed upon Idriys should have died with him. And from the way Idriys had glared in mention of Merlin's name upon his capture, it was clear that he had no false affection towards him now. Yet Merlin had gone to Idriys on the journey home, spoken with him in private and intently. The guards had reported of the meeting in detail, concerned by its unusual nature and because Merlin had been agitated by it. Arthur had intended to ask Merlin about it once everything else was out in the open, but as he could no longer trust anything Merlin said, he had to turn to Idriys instead.

Despite his status and his value, Idriys had not been allowed any comforts since his surrender and capture. Rather than speak with him right away, Arthur ordered that Idriys be allowed to bathe and shave, and that he be given fresh clothing to wear.

Once he was clean, Idriys was shackled and brought out of the dungeons and up to a private room. Platters of food were carried in and left upon the table. Arthur waited until the servants left, and then waved away the guards as well. Idriys was not fool enough to try anything, and even if he was Arthur could take care of himself.

Despite having only been fed porridge and bread for weeks, Idriys did not so much as glance at the meats and fruits and cheeses. Instead he kept his focus solely on Arthur as he locked the doors and sat down across from him. Arthur let him stew and took some food for himself. After all, it was lunch time.

"It's not poisoned," Arthur said, sliding one of the platters towards Idriys.

"I didn't think it was," Idriys replied. The man could keep his cool, that was certain. But he did betray himself in one way, when he glanced around and gave a small frown.

"Expecting someone?" Arthur asked, internally sighing. Even Idriys assumed that Merlin would be by his side. He gave up waiting and bit into a piece of cheese.

"Do you normally bring your manservant along for your interrogations?"

"With Merlin, I don't usually have a choice," Arthur replied.

Idriys couldn't entirely suppress his own amusement at that. It gave Arthur an odd feeling of camaraderie. After all, they had both had Merlin as their manservant, even if for Idriys it had been only briefly. He was probably the only other person in the castle who knew what that entailed, in both suffering and delight.

The thought that Merlin had seduced Idriys into trusting him only then occurred to Arthur. It entirely soured his appetite, and he pushed his own plate aside.

"Where is he now?" Idriys asked. If Arthur had not known better, he would have accepted Idriys' amiable tone, that he was merely asking out of some distant curiosity. But Arthur did know better, and he saw the interest and concern in Idriys' eyes.

"Tell me how you met him," Arthur replied, with the same amiable tone.

Idriys finally reached out and took a piece of fruit, chewed it slowly and swallowed. "I assumed he already told you."

"I'd like to hear your version."

Idriys took a sip of wine and settled back in his chair, making himself comfortable. "He appeared to be just another servant. And then he did something quite extraordinary. He risked his life to save my nephew from a falling chandelier."

So that was what the chandelier comment had been about. Merlin had made it fall, and then saved Aeddan's life in order to gain Idriys' trust, or at least his attention. Arthur could not help but be reminded of the first time Merlin had saved his life, when the chandelier had fallen on the disguised Mary Collins and broken her enchantment. Arthur had of course known that Merlin had pulled him out of the way of the knife, but he had not realized that the chandelier had been his doing as well. Had both been false rescues, or only the one?

"And that was enough to make you trust him?"

"Hardly," Idriys scoffed. "It was obviously a ploy. But I was curious. The people of Gedref would have been happy to see me dead, and this was far from their first attempt. I suspected that he had learned of the plan and decided to thwart it. I wanted to know why he went against the others." He took another bite of food, another sip of wine. "I pressed him for the truth, and he told a story about wanting a better life. It was believable enough, so I allowed him to clean my chambers, under supervision of course."

Arthur nodded. "And then?"

"He gave himself away," Idriys said, fondly. "I already suspected he was lying, but no stable boy knows how to polish boots as if they were a prince's. I was prepared to send him down to the cells, but he begged me to let him stay. He claimed his life was in danger, and told me a very sad story about losing his only friend, and being hated and alone. And the odd thing was, I actually believed him." Idriys looked directly into his eyes, as if looking for something. "Perhaps it was true in spirit."

Arthur took a sip of his own wine. "Or he's that good a liar." At least seduction had not been at all involved. He could take some solace in that.

"Perhaps. He swore his loyalty to me, and I believed that as well. But now I know that it was truly sworn, just not to me. Such complete loyalty is a rare thing. I hope you understand its worth."

"Why wouldn't I?" Arthur asked, with a growing suspicion.

Idriys shrugged and ate a few more bites of food.

Arthur considered his opponent. "Why did Merlin go to you on the journey from Gedref? What did you talk about?"

"He apologized for lying to me and abusing my hospitality," Idriys said. He chuckled. "You can imagine my astonishment. But he was genuine, once he no longer needed to lie for his King."

Arthur bit his tongue. It was clear that by King, Idriys meant Arthur and not Uther, and he could only have picked up on that from Merlin. It eased Arthur's fears somewhat that Merlin had held that foolish loyalty even when apologizing to an enemy.

"And that was all you talked about?" Arthur pressed. "He apologized, you accepted, and he left?"

Idriys glanced away, clearly reluctant to say what else had passed between them. "I made him an offer," he said, and met Arthur's eyes again. "One that still stands."

"Which is?"

"To make the lies true and swear himself to me," Idriys said, boldly.

It was Arthur's turn to scoff. "You actually want Merlin as your manservant?"

"If he is willing. If he is genuine. Any master would be fortunate to have such a servant, no matter what his talents."

The last word hung in the air between them. It was subtle, but it confirmed what Arthur already suspected. Idriys knew that Merlin was a sorcerer. Somehow he had found out, and now that he had lost Palaemon, he wanted Merlin to take his place. That must have been what their argument had been about, what had upset Merlin so. It certainly made more sense than the idea that Idriys simply couldn't get enough of Merlin's talents at lying and boot polishing. Obviously Merlin had declined, but Idriys wanted him anyway.

"Tell me about Palaemon."

Idriys' private smirk revealed that not only did Arthur know that Idriys knew about Merlin, but Idriys knew that Arthur knew about Merlin. But neither of them wanted to be the first to admit it plainly, even alone together in a locked room.

"What would the Crown Prince of Camelot care to know about a sorcerer?" Idriys challenged. "Especially one he has already killed."

"I prefer to understand my opponents. It makes them easier to defeat."

"Then I see no reason why I should help you, if it means assisting you in defeating me a second time."

Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Are you actually planning another attack? After being so soundly defeated?"

"I admit I'm considering the possibilities," Idriys said, thoughtful. "It rather depends on you, and what forms of loyalty you find acceptable."

In other words, if Arthur rejected Merlin, Idriys would lay claim to him and make use of him. And as Merlin had been pivotal in Palaemon's defeat, Idriys believed that with his assistance, victory would be possible. Camelot would have no sorcerer to defend it, and Idriys would have one more powerful than he had in his first attempt.

Arthur had considered letting Merlin go. He had considered exile, even though it would be at cost to himself in many ways. But he saw now that if he broke Merlin from himself, he rejected the fealty that had been sworn and let him leave, there was a chance, however slim, that one day he would find himself meeting Merlin on the battlefield. And either outcome of that, his own defeat or Merlin's death, was unacceptable.

He reconsidered telling his father about Idriys' planned betrayal. Idriys' death would at least remove that option from Merlin's path. But there were many lords and kings in Albion who were willing to take advantage of a powerful sorcerer, if one could be found. His father had solved that problem by having most of them killed during the purge or shortly after. Palaemon himself had been found outside of Albion because there were so few truly battle-worthy sorcerers left within it. Certainly the powerful sorcerers Arthur had fought would have been useless, having been driven to wild violence by their corruption.

"What experience do you have of sorcerers?" Arthur asked, genuinely curious. "From what you wrote in your papers, Palaemon seemed quite sane, if poorly-natured."

"Why would he be anything but sane?"

"With so much power, I would expect his corruption to be far more advanced."

Idriys tutted. "Don't tell me you believe that ridiculous propaganda."

Arthur blinked at him. "Propaganda?"

"Alined is no great king, hardly even a good one. But he has always had enough spine to him to reject Uther's lies."

"Are you calling my father a liar?" Arthur asked, astonished at his gall.

"You do not strike me as a man who blindly accepts what he is told. And yet you have never questioned this notion of corruption?"

"I have seen it with my own eyes," Arthur said, firmly. "Time and time again, this kingdom has been attacked by maddened sorcerers. Once the corruption has hold of them, they care nothing for the damage they do to others. They attack indiscriminately, and the only thing that stops them is their own deaths."

"And how many sorcerers have you met outside of Camelot?" Idriys challenged. "Or has your father succeeded in his lies to you only because he has kept you isolated?"

"You should guard your tongue, lest you lose it along with the rest of your head," Arthur warned, angrily. He was not some sheltered child who knew nothing of the world. He had been to many kingdoms, both in war and in diplomatic visits, and never once seen a powerful sorcerer that was free of corruption. But beneath his anger lay his own frustrations, his own doubts. Merlin's presence in his chambers defied everything he had been taught about sorcery, everything he had learned from hard experience. And now this man, this enemy, who had openly stated his desire to attack a second time, was trying to divide him from his father on the matter most vital to Camelot's defense.

"My apologies," Idriys said. "I had hoped, for Merlin's sake, that he was right about you. Should I expect his company in the cells tonight, or is he already dead?"

And there it was. "He is no concern of yours," Arthur said, tersely. "Do not think you can use him as you did Palaemon."

"It is not likely that I could, at least not as long as you live. In his own words, his place is by your side, and no threat or bribery or danger will take him away from you. My concern is that you will take him away from this world, perhaps with your sword."

Arthur breathed in sharply, the weight of the enchanted sword heavy against his hip. He had come so close to doing just that, and had no choice but to keep the blade intact until it was no longer a necessary option. "I will do what I must to keep my kingdom safe," he said, tightly. "Perhaps you do not understand that, as you were willing to abandon your own lands for a claim on Gedref."

"Arrangements had been made," Idriys replied. "You forget that Alined is my cousin. Had I claimed Gedref, I would have given him my old lands as a succor. That is hardly abandonment."

"Yet minutes ago you called him hardly even a good king."

"Hardly a good king is still better than a bad one."

"And now you call my father a bad king?" Arthur asked, outraged.

"What else do you call a tyrant who slaughters his own people?"

Arthur gaped at him, then narrowed his eyes. "I have treated you with hospitality, and you have insulted me and insulted my father. Magic is a blight and it will be purged from this land. When I am King, I will finish what my father began. Do not doubt that I can."

"I do not doubt it," Idriys said, quietly. "That is what worries me. And it is why I worry for Merlin."

"As I told you before, he is no concern of yours," Arthur said, anger cooling but no less potent within him. "He has placed his life in my hands, and I will decide what his fate will be. I assure you that it will never lead him to you."

"As you say."

Arthur stood, ending the conversation. "I will instruct the guards to allow you to finish your meal. After that, you will be taken back to your cell, and you will remain there until Alined has paid the price for your release. Tell anyone what we spoke of today, and I will inform my father and Alined of your intention to keep Gedref for yourself, and you will find yourself dying a traitor's death. Is that clear?"

"Entirely," Idriys said, evenly. He held Arthur's gaze without fear or flinch, until Arthur was forced to break it.

Arthur unlocked the door and gave the guards their instructions, and then marched away. Only once he was alone did he allow himself to feel the depths of his anger and frustration.

The conversation had not gone as he had wanted it to go. It was clear that Idriys would not listen to warnings of corruption or enchantment as he believed both to be false, based on lies instead of hard-earned truth. And because of that, his words could not be trusted. They would either be founded on lies or on the illusions that the magic fed him. More and more he understood his father's attitude towards magic. The slipperiness of it all, the way it made him doubt and gave him no way to confirm or refute those doubts. Perhaps the only way to deal with magic was simply to destroy it, all the way down to the smallest enchantment. Perhaps no sorcerer could be saved, even after the performance of a single spell.

Yet every time he tried to accept that, his thoughts were carried right back to Merlin. Merlin, whose existence and nature defied everything Arthur knew about sorcery. Merlin, who had accepted the sacrifice of his own life if Arthur chose to take it, even when he had more than enough power in him to escape at any moment. Merlin, who knelt in unconditional fealty over and over, who wanted nothing more than to serve and to help Arthur become not only King, but High King of all Albion. How could such power exist in combination with such innocence? How could someone born with magic live so long without corruption consuming his soul with blackness and rage? And why would any sorcerer of such power submit himself?

The only thing that even began to explain it was that Merlin was unlike any other sorcerer. As much as Arthur could trust anything anymore, he believed that Gaius was telling the truth when he said that Merlin was different, special in some remarkable fashion. He found himself trying to recall the exact wording of the prophecy Merlin had rattled off to him. How had it gone? 'The time of magic will return. The Emrys and the once and future king will rise. And all of Albion will bow to them.'

Arthur did not have much experience with prophecies, but upon reflection he realized that this one was actually quite vague. It didn't say that they would bring back magic, it said that magic would already have returned. That must have been the dragon's interpretation. No, it made far more sense -- assuming the prophecy meant anything at all -- if their rise was to defeat magic rather than to aid it. Merlin had often insisted that he had been in some way born for Arthur, to protect him and be used by him. Perhaps that instinct was correct. Perhaps Merlin had been destined for him, and that was why he was so different from all other sorcerers.

Arthur shook his head. It made as much sense as anything did, which wasn't much. It was a slender thread on which to hang his hopes. But it was better than grabbing for empty air. He had never realized how exhausting uncertainty was, how perilous it made everything feel. He was used to making decisions based on experience and knowledge, on numbers and facts. A kingdom could not be ruled by guesswork, not when every cup of grain meant the difference between life and death for someone. It was not that he did not know how to adapt to change, but how could he even begin to know the right course to take when he had no idea of where he was even standing?

It was no wonder that Merlin clung so desperately to the prophecy. It was all he had to explain himself and give him purpose. It was no wonder he had never been happy until those brief days in Gedref, when he had finally felt like he belonged, when the doubt and fear had fallen away from his eyes. The shock of empathy Arthur felt was like a key to finally solving the puzzle that Merlin was. To live his whole life in such confusion, to have no true understanding of himself, to have no set purpose, no guidance... it was so entirely alien to Arthur's own life, which was filled with guidance and purpose and clarity from the very moment of his birth.

Despite what he had said to Idriys, and before him to Gaius and to Merlin, Arthur felt less and less certain that he could go through with Merlin's execution. Perhaps it was an enchantment swaying him, or perhaps he had simply waited too long and his courage was failing. But as his panic ebbed away, the absurdity of such an act became more and more obvious. They had lived together for over a year, and been lovers for months. If Merlin was a danger to him, if he had ever been a threat, Arthur would have been dead a hundred times over by now. In fact, Merlin would not have had to do anything at all, but merely step aside and let some other sorcerer or magical beast succeed. But time and again, Merlin had put his own life at risk for the sake of others. Perhaps the reason Arthur could not reconcile the Merlin he loved with the corrupted sorcerer was that Merlin had never been corrupted at all.

But still. He could not let Merlin walk freely, not when he could use his magic and be discovered using it. Even if Merlin's soul was not at risk, his life certainly was. Merlin's innocence might have disguised him thus far, but it also meant he was a danger to himself. Arthur only had to look at the conversation with Idriys to see that. Or Merlin's many moments of noble idiocy. The consequences of his father finding out were far too terrible to ignore.

Even if he could not face the prospect of executing Merlin, nothing else had changed. If it could not be removed, then Merlin's magic had to be contained. Once it had been stopped, Arthur could finally begin to eliminate his doubts. He would know for certain what was Merlin and what was his magic, and if either of them could be trusted.

When Arthur looked up at last, he realized that his wandering footsteps had carried him back to his chambers. He had promised to check on Merlin around this time, and now here he was. He stared at the door and uncertainty grew in him again. When he opened it, what would he find on the other side?

He braced himself and opened the door. It swung away with a slight creak, revealing the dimly lit chambers within. The curtains were still drawn against the daylight, but enough light filtered through to show that Merlin was in the bed, just as Arthur had left him. He closed the door quietly behind him and walked silently towards the bed. Merlin was indeed asleep, deeply so from the slackness of his features and the even rise and fall of his chest.

Arthur had often found himself watching Merlin sleep. In the mornings, when Merlin would turn away from any disturbance and refuse to rouse. At night, when Merlin would collapse from exhaustion from a hard day's training or a particularly energetic bout of sex, or both. Arthur could not deny that there was a part of him that loved to push Merlin as hard as he could, because it was fascinating to watch as Merlin struggled and strained and then ultimately overcame each challenge. There was almost a rhythm to it, especially when they had been alone together in the woods. A strange, clumsy sort of grace, fuelled by a seemingly endless well of determination. And then at the end of each day, when Merlin would be too tired for his usual insistent push and pull, and he would be easy and pliant and intoxicatingly trusting. Arthur had been afraid of becoming drunk on Merlin's trust, and he had succumbed despite himself. Even when he was asleep, Merlin effortlessly battered at every one of Arthur's walls and rules and certainties about what should and should not be.

He had watched Merlin sleep in Gedref. That first night, when Merlin had returned from what had seemed to be his certain death, bundles in his arms and a weary smile on his face. That smile had been struck away when Arthur hit him, an action that Arthur regretted with the same immediacy as every other time he had hurt Merlin. Even now, with all the complications and perils, Arthur felt a heavy regret at all he had done, at the threats he had made. Every time he hurt Merlin, it felt like a piece of his own soul was being ripped away, no matter which of them was the sorcerer.

That night, he and the knights had gone through Idriys' papers, and Arthur had felt awed and ashamed. Merlin had done so much for them, at such risk, and they had repaid him with mistrust and anger. And as the sun rose, he had sat outside the small, dark room that Merlin was huddled within, and wanted more than anything to see Merlin's weary, hopeful smile. He knew that he would do whatever it took to repair the damage he had done, and swore to himself yet again that that had been the last time.

But as before, he had broken that promise again.

He had watched Merlin sleep after the battle and been absolutely terrified that he would not wake again. Guilt had wracked him then, too. Guilt that he had brought Merlin to this place, that he had put him at risk in so many ways, that he had allowed lies to sit silently between them out of some misguided anger that Merlin did not trust him enough to tell him that he was secretly fighting magic with Gaius. Arthur was the Crown Prince, the one with experience, the one with all the power. That's what he had told Merlin, when Merlin had fretted on Arthur's behalf. If something needed to be aired, he should have taken responsibility and aired it, and not waited for Merlin to gather up whatever mountain of courage he required. If Arthur had said something after Terit, would things have played out differently? At the very least, he would not have wagered his entire reign on Merlin's worth. But perhaps then things would have gone worse for them both, because he had not yet trusted Merlin enough to risk keeping him despite his magic.

Arthur looked away from the dark smudges of Merlin's lashes, the lax pout of his lips. Merlin's hands were still stained from the herbs and poultices he had used when he'd helped Gaius with the wounded. He'd spent hours on end patiently changing bandages and cleaning wounds, all with a friendly, caring smile. How could Arthur doubt Merlin's soul? How could it all be false? If Merlin was false, how could anyone be judged real? How could Arthur live with himself, knowing that he had come so close to killing the man he loved, and more than once?

If Merlin had been asleep that morning, if Merlin had not been awake to persuade him otherwise, Arthur would have gone through with it. Would have cleaved Merlin's head from his shoulders just as he had Palaemon's. As he had other sorcerers before him. That was all Arthur knew to do with sorcerers. Arrest them or execute them. That was all his father had taught him.

How could he accept a sorcerer into his heart? How could a sorcerer love him back?

Idriys could not be right. Sorcery was dangerous and corrupting. Magic had to be defeated and purged from the people and the land. If Merlin contradicted everything he understood about magic and sorcery, then it was because Merlin was an exception. A single exception was not enough to break a law. It did not change anything, certainly not when Merlin himself had fought against and destroyed sorcerers and magical creatures. Merlin's own actions made a lie of any claim that magic was neutral or even good. If magic was good, Merlin would not have spent the past year and a half destroying it in defense of the kingdom.

Arthur silently promised Merlin that he would not fail him again. That he would take full responsibility for him as he should have from the start. He would take care of Merlin and keep him safe, even from himself. Once Merlin was released from the burden of his magic, he would understand and accept that he was better off without it. He would help Arthur in its destruction and then he would be free of it, and with his help the kingdom would be free of it. And then perhaps even all of Albion would be, too, and united in its freedom. He could still give Merlin the future that he longed for, that he believed in so fervently, where he did not have to suffer in fear and silence. He could still give him that.

He removed his crown and stepped away from the bed, to change from his formal clothes to something more suitable for the rest of the day and for dinner with his father. Unlike Merlin, he could not afford to rest.

§

The magical vaults were rarely accessed. The first time Arthur was inside them, it had been a part of his lessons, as his father and Geoffrey had shown him the most dangerous objects. The second time was when he was old enough to be given responsibility for the castle keys, which was a great honor that he still took extremely seriously. He had keys for all the important vaults and rooms, and would be held accountable for any breaches of security. In all the years that he had held those keys, security had not been breached.

Until now.

There was nothing illegal in what he and Gaius were doing. Arthur had every right to enter the vault and access its contents. He had informed the guards that they would be making an inventory and that they were not to be disturbed, and of course the guards had no reason not to believe him. The Crown Prince and the Royal Physician and Councilor could not be targets of suspicion. And there was nothing wrong with doing an inventory, especially as one was currently lacking. But to remove any item from the vault required permission from the King, and Arthur had no intention of asking for such permission.

The vault was covered in dust and cobwebs, a testament to the years that the objects within had lain untouched. Arthur knew that most of the items had been confiscated by his father during the Great Purge. All the items in the vault had been used for sorcery in some manner, even the innocuous goblets and vases, which had probably held some kind of magical potions or enchanted oils. He used to wonder what the point was in keeping it all, if magic was so evil. Having seen the result of the destruction of Palaemon's ring, he understood now why his father had left the items intact. The more powerful the enchantment, the more dangerous it would be to destroy it.

But most of the objects were a mystery to him. He knew the most dangerous, the ones that would be the most tempting targets, such as the Crystal of Neahtid. And then there were the ones that he himself had added recently, such as the Mage Stone that had been taken from the body of the sorcerer Tauren, who had brutally attacked his father and Morgana at her father's grave, and the amber necklace found upon the neck of Mary Collins. He pulled Palaemon's ring from his pocket and examined it against the light of his torch. It was set with a blue gemstone. It seemed that crystals and magic went hand-in-hand.

He saw that Gaius was watching him with curiosity, peering to get a better look at the ring, and Arthur handed it over.

"What do you make of it?"

Gaius frowned thoughtfully. "This was used by Palaemon?"

"It strengthened his magic," Arthur explained. "Is it dangerous?"

Gaius handed it back. "Not anymore. It could be repaired, but only if it was returned to Rome."

"Why?"

"All magic is tied to the land of its origin," Gaius said, with obvious reluctance. "With Palaemon dead, it has no connection to its source."

This was the first time Arthur had ever heard of such a relationship. "Is that why some enchantments are released when the sorcerer dies, and some persist?"

"There are many kinds of spells, and some are lightly bound. Others can persist for hundreds, thousands of years."

"But they can be broken with fire." Arthur knew that much.

"Only as long as it was not created using fire magic." Gaius gave him back the ring.

Arthur blinked. "Fire magic?"

Gaius sighed. "I suggest that this is not the time for an extensive education on magic."

"Then when would be the time?" Arthur asked, annoyed.

Gaius gave him a pitying look. "You wished to find something that will contain Merlin's magic?"

"Yes," Arthur said, deciding to take it as a reminder to stay focused, rather than as a veiled insult. Merlin was the first priority for all of this. His own understanding about magic would follow after.

"Then let us see what might be of use in all of this."

"I don't want anything that requires a spell," Arthur said, after a few minutes of poking around the shelves and feeling utterly lost.

Gaius looked up from the gold cuffs he had been peering at. "You wish to restrain Merlin's magic without the use of any enchantments?"

"Is that a problem?"

"It is an impossibility," Gaius said, eyebrow raised.

"I do not intend to break the law when the entire purpose of this is to prevent it from being broken," Arthur said, testily. "You can't tell me that with all the items here, none of them can be used without a spell."

"Some can," Gaius admitted. "But the majority of these objects were taken from the temples of the High Priestesses themselves. They were used for the focus and amplification of the magic of the user. For those that directly hold an enchantment, only the simplest can be used without being activated in some fashion."

Arthur drew his sword and held it up. "This sword holds an enchantment, and I can use it without a spell. The Deorham armor was enchanted, and it protected those without any magic."

"What you wish to do is far beyond anything as simple as enchanted armor. And as for that sword, the magic that created it is more powerful than any spell. It is not a toy to be waved about."

Arthur sheathed his sword again, feeling his temper rise. "If you already know so much about everything here, then stop wasting my time and give me what I need."

"You would do well to clear your ears and listen for once," Gaius said, unrepentant.

"Listen to what?" Arthur asked, angrily. "To evasions and half-truths? I am lied to from all directions, the same as Merlin. It's listening to you that got us into this mess in the first place."

"If Merlin had listened to me, he would not have been so foolish as to tell you of his magic."

They glared at each other, but neither was willing to back down. Finally, Gaius turned away with a huff and went directly to a dust-covered chest at the far end of the vault. He pulled out two torcs and and handed a silver one to Arthur. Arthur took it warily.

"What is this?"

"The only thing that will even come close to what you are looking for, without resorting to dark magic. And before you ask, such dark magic would absolutely require sorcery, and would likely damage Merlin in terrible ways. I hope you are not so determined in this that you would consider that acceptable."

"No," Arthur said, chastened. "I don't want to hurt him."

"There is no way to avoid hurting him as long as you continue to reject his magic," Gaius said, sternly. "The torc can be used to restrain him. It was used by the Blood Guard, the warrior priests who guarded the Old Religion. Silver torcs were worn by their apprentices, and because of the dangers of their inexperience, each torc is able to act as a restraint." He held up the gold torc. "This is the torc of a full Blood Guard. The wearer can activate the restraint of an apprentice, which prevents the apprentice from accessing their magic."

Arthur took the gold torc. "Do I have to wear this all the time?"

"No. You must wear it in order to give a command, but the command itself will persist until it is stopped."

"But it still requires a spell?"

Gaius nodded. "Because you have no magic, it will be necessary for Merlin to activate both torcs. This means that they cannot be used without his consent. If Merlin refuses, that is the end of the matter."

"But once they're activated, I can give the command and he'll have no way to stop it?"

"The command will persist."

"What if he just takes it off?"

Gaius took back the silver torc. The ends of it were flattened, and with a slight push they pressed together. "These torcs were worn as a symbol of great honor and power. They were meant to be worn constantly. The ends will fuse together as part of the restraint."

"Permanently?"

"Until you release the restraint. Keep in mind that it was never meant to be used as anything but a temporary measure. It will not damage him, but neither is it entirely pleasant."

Arthur started to feel another niggle of suspicion. "How exactly do you know all of this?"

Gaius declined to reply.

"Very well," Arthur sighed. "I'm expected for dinner with my father, and after that Merlin and I will use the torcs. I will allow you be there to assist. Until then, you may go."

"Sire," Gaius nodded, and with one last warning look, he took his leave.

Arthur watched him shuffle out of the vault, absolutely certain that Gaius knew far, far more than he was saying, and equally certain that he was using that knowledge to manipulate Arthur and Merlin both, for reasons he still refused to give. Gaius might be old and frail, but he was not the keeper of his father's secrets without reason. Gaius had already been past his prime when Arthur was a child, but he had a determination not dissimilar to Merlin's, which gave him a strength that sustained him even as great men faded and fell around him. Gaius would outlive his father, might outlive all of them, from the comfort of his chair by the fire, surrounded by his herbs and potions.

Arthur held the torcs up in the torchlight. It seemed that to save Merlin, he would have to use magic, however indirectly, and the prospect was entirely unsettling. And if Gaius did not trust him, Arthur did not trust him back. Merlin would likely accept the torcs with only token resistance, but Arthur needed to know more before he would even consider using them.

He hooked the torcs over the waistband of his trousers and then covered them with his shirt. Burdened now with four objects of magic, none of which he could hide in his chambers because it was occupied by a sorcerer, he locked the vault door and walked calmly past the guards, and headed for the library.

Chapter Text

As usual, Arthur arrived first to the dining room. Second, if he counted Louvel, his father's manservant, but Louvel hardly counted. The man was so utterly committed to his role that he rarely made eye contact, and rarely spoke unless directly questioned. Arthur had never understood how his father could actually enjoy having someone so stoic and impersonal as his constant company. In those first weeks after his father had given him Merlin, who proved to be entirely useless at every single one of his duties, his irrepressible insolence had been his one saving grace. But then his father didn't seem to want companionship, especially not from the lower classes.

Louvel had just finished lighting the candles when Arthur entered, and one by one he brought out the platters of food. As usual, the long table was filled with enough to feed twenty men: a whole ham, a large braided loaf of soft bread, several bowls of apples and pears, assortments of cheeses and grapes, and a variety of baked dishes. The center was set with two huge candlesticks, each with a fat candle that had a braided wick thick enough to make a flame that would brighten half the table. Arthur did not sit, but waited by his chair until his father arrived. His father sat first, and then Arthur, and Louvel bowed and filled his father's goblet.

Having been away for weeks, Arthur found himself considering their dinner with fresh eyes. They had had a feast in Gedref, of course, and there would soon be another as Camelot held its own celebration of the victory. But having spoken at such length about food concerns to Lord Wichard, the bounty set before them was almost comically overdone. Arthur himself rarely took more than a plateful, and his father drank more than he ate these days. But the food would not go to waste. Morgana had long ago instructed the kitchen staff to send what was left to the widows and orphans of the lower town, perhaps out of a sense of solidarity. And before that, the servants would have divided it amongst themselves.

And yet it bothered him now. He put the blame on the strain that soured his mood. It would be a vast understatement to say that the day had been trying, and it was far from over.

"Arthur," his father said, greeting him with a raise of his cup. Arthur returned the gesture as Louvel finished filling his own. He took a sip, and reminded himself to wave off Louvel's inevitable attempts to top him off. His father did not like his wine to be watered down. More than once, Arthur had bit back the urge to chide his father for overindulging, because if he did not drink so much, his health would not be so poor. But Arthur knew better than to say such a thing aloud.

Beyond the drink and the food, there was the table itself. To accommodate his father's preference for sumptuous displays, a long, narrow table had to be used. And of course as King, his father had to sit at the head, and as Prince, Arthur had to sit opposite. The result was a great distance between them, one that Arthur had alternately loathed and embraced, depending on if he and his father had been arguing that day. Morgana, when she joined them, would always be stuck in the middle, trapped with the monstrous candlesticks. It was no wonder that the two of them went out of their way to avoid such dinners now that they were old enough to do so. An intimate dinner with Merlin around the small table in his chambers was far more pleasant on a multitude of levels.

He missed Merlin now. Usually when they were instructed to attend, they would end up in a competition: Merlin doing whatever he could to make Arthur smile, and Arthur doing whatever he could to keep a straight face, lest his father realize that Merlin was goofing about just out of his line of sight.

Merlin was probably awake by now. Even at his laziest, he would not sleep for this long. All Arthur could do was hope that Merlin would obey and stay where he had been put. He felt the weight of his enchanted sword, of the sorcerer's ring in his pocket, of the two torcs hanging from his waist along with his keys. Though the solution Gaius had given him was clearly not sufficient for what Arthur truly wanted to achieve, it was better than nothing. The situation otherwise would be untenable.

"It's unfortunate that Morgana is still too ill to join us," his father said, at last initiating the conversation. "Gaius has been keeping me apprised of her condition. These latest nightmares..." He shook his head.

"She looked better at the ceremony this morning," Arthur said. He had hoped that her appearance meant that she was on the mend, but perhaps not. Unless she was simply using it as an excuse to avoid another uncomfortable dinner.

"She's a brave girl," his father said, with a morose affection. "I only hope that he can find a cure for her soon. Perhaps once he has an assistant again, he will have enough time to dedicate to her treatment."

"You mean Merlin," Arthur realized.

"When you're finished with him, of course," his father said, and took a gulp of wine. "I've prepared the list you asked for." He pulled a folded parchment from his jacket and handed it to Louvel, who carried it solemnly to Arthur and handed it over.

Arthur did not want to look at the list. He left it on the table, still folded. "Gaius says he'll be fit to work tomorrow. Is there any particular reason that I should hurry my decision?"

"No," his father said, dragging out the word in such a way that it meant 'yes, but not so much that I'm going to make it an order. Yet.' "But it's as I said this morning. Your victory in Gedref, the way you've handled yourself since you came home. It's time you began preparing to step into a larger role."

Arthur stared in surprise. "You want to prepare me for a regency."

"I have a few good years left in me," his father said, with a smirk. "But the best thing for the kingdom is a smooth transition. The kingdom is at peace and the situation with Alined will be resolved shortly. Things will be quiet once the harvest is over. It will be the perfect opportunity."

Arthur could hardly believe it. All that he had strained and raged at how his father constantly held him back and kept things from him, all that his father clung to the isolation of his rule. Arthur had only been Crown Prince for a year, and now he was to be groomed into his role as Prince Regent? "Why now?"

"While you were gone, an assassin was caught leaving your chambers."

Arthur straightened, shocked. "What!"

"He arrived shortly after you left," his father continued, his casual tone belied by the anger in his eyes. "He was captured and interrogated. He confessed that he had been sent by Odin, in revenge for the death of his son. I sent my reply to Odin in the form of the assassin's corpse."

Arthur leaned back in his chair. "Prince Aegir." He remembered his meeting with King Odin's son very clearly. It had only been a few years prior, at a spring tournament. Aegir had challenged him outside of the tournament and refused to back down, out of some need to prove himself. Arthur had not meant to kill him, but he had had no choice but to defend himself, and Aegir refused to withdraw until he had already sustained mortal injuries. Gaius had been unable to save him, and his body had been sent back to Magonset, Odin's kingdom. It seemed Odin had not taken the loss kindly.

"If our army had not already been occupied with Alined's incursion, I would have sent them to Odin. He must be made to pay for his actions."

"No," Arthur said, unwilling to become the cause of more war, more bloodshed. "We should send an envoy. We must try and make peace with him."

"He tried to kill you!" his father said, pounding his fist on the table, his anger flaring now. "We must strike back!"

"And if we do so, how many other sons will be killed?" Arthur argued. "How many other fathers will be consumed with pointless revenge? Surely you understand the grief he feels for the loss of his son. It helps no one to compound his loss with the losses of others."

His father stared at him, and at first it seemed that his words had had no effect. But then he sat back, oddly chastened. "Perhaps you are right," he admitted. "And we can afford to be generous, as you were unharmed." He took a deep drink from his cup, and Louvel obediently refilled it.

Arthur breathed out in relief. An assassin. He would never have thought that he would have his life saved by being sent off to an unexpected battle. "How did he get in?"

"Bribery," his father said, with distaste. "The guard responsible has been executed. If we had not already been on high alert, the assassin might have escaped and headed down to Gedref after you. It was Sir Leon who cornered him, after several others had already been killed."

"Ah," Arthur said, allowing himself a sip from his own cup. That explained Leon's sudden promotion. A reward for saving the Prince's life. His father did have a tendency towards that sort of thing. No doubt the matter had been hushed up, which was why it had not been mentioned during Leon's promotion.

They ate in silence for a while, both caught up in their thoughts.

"I've been considering your request."

"My request?" Arthur asked, confused.

"Regarding your knights." His father took another drink. "There may be some merit to the idea of keeping them together. From your report, they were remarkably effective, considering their inexperience."

His father had surprised him again, but this time Arthur had an idea of what was behind the change. "To accompany me on any future excursions?"

"Exactly," his father said, pleased that Arthur understood.

"As my bodyguards," Arthur guessed, unenthused. "I can take care of myself," he said, already bristling from the extent to which Merlin had been set to the same task. How could he prove himself as a worthy leader if he was not allowed to fight his own battles?

"Of course you can," his father soothed. "It is not a matter of your ability."

"Then what is it a matter of?" Arthur asked, annoyed. "How can I expect men to follow me if I cower behind the lives of others?"

"We have been over this before," his father said, his patience wearing thin. "You are my only son and heir. I cannot risk losing you."

"I do not intend to fall," Arthur replied, evenly. "You have always told me that strength must be tested, tempered as any steel. I will accept both your offers but only on my own terms. The knights will be kept as a unit, but they will go where I send them, and will accompany me only when I chose it. And I will prepare to become Regent, because that is what is best for the kingdom."

His father stared at him for a long moment, almost shocked. And then his mouth crooked into a smile. "There are times when I look at you and still expect you to be the boy who sat upon my knee. But you truly have become a man."

Arthur had the feeling that he had passed some unspoken test. "Thank you, Father," he said, stiffly.

His father's smile widened, and he took an enthusiastic bite of his meat. As he gazed upon Arthur, his smile softened into something fonder. "Your mother would have been so proud to see you now."

Surprise after surprise. His father rarely mentioned his mother, much less so openly. "Do you think so?" he asked, sounding small and uncertain to his own ears. He knew so little about her, except that she had died giving him life.

"I do." His father quieted, and the sadness came over him as it always did when his mother was discussed. The one thing that Arthur was certain about was that the pain of her loss had been enormous, and that it had not faded in over twenty years.

But before Arthur could muster the courage to ask even one of the questions that had always plagued him, his father rallied. "But enough of the past. Let us discuss the future. Deorham's future."

Arthur took another sip. "What are you considering?"

"To put an end to our particular gnat," his father said, eyes narrowing with intent. "Alined has overreached himself with this latest maneuver. His messenger arrived this morning, saying that he is already on his way here. We must use this opportunity to stop him for good."

"And how do we do that?" Arthur asked, taking a bite of his food. Strategizing did tend to work up his appetite. "Once he pays the ransom, assuming he can afford it, he'll be back to his old tricks next year. He'll just bide his time until the treaty summit." War was a game for men like Alined, a way to jockey for position and move the border a few feet one way or the other. Men like Alined did not deserve to call themselves kings.

"What do you think of this Idriys fellow? You spoke with him today. Could he be... directed?"

Arthur frowned. He was not surprised that his father knew of the visit. The castle guards were fully employed as his father's spies as well as his protectors. That was why he had spoken to Idriys alone. "You wish to use him against Alined?"

His father leaned back in his chair and finished off another cup of wine. "Tell me my options."

It was a game from his childhood lessons, one they had not played in many years. His father would present a problem and Arthur would have to lay out all the possible solutions, and the benefits and costs and consequences of each. They began with old battles and various examples from the histories, and eventually analyzed the problems that his father himself faced. It was how Arthur learned the strategies and tactics he employed regularly. But the consequences of this discussion would not be confined to the abstract.

"All right," Arthur said, applying himself to the problem of Alined. "Reason, manipulation, intimidation, subterfuge, and war. We can exclude reason and war. Alined is not interested in peace for its own sake, and to invade Deorham now would carry a great cost with no certain benefit."

"And the three options that remain?"

Manipulation, intimidation, subterfuge. They were not the noblest of choices, but being a king was largely a matter of constant compromise. They were certainly better than war, which was a form of honorable combat largely composed of needless death and atrocities.

"Manipulation with bribery," Arthur began. "Bloodless but expensive, and Alined has too much pride to accept. He would rather risk open warfare than hold a position of weakness. And he would see such an offer as a sign of weakness in Camelot, which would only encourage him to strike again, likely using our own gold against us."

"Well-considered." His father was genuinely interested in his opinion. It was quite a novel experience. "Continue."

"As you suggested, use Idriys against Alined, either as a spy or as a saboteur. But I do not think that Idriys is the sort of man who is willing to be directed." That Idriys had shown disloyalty might make him appear to be a good candidate for such a scheme, but he had betrayed Alined in an attempt to escape the rule of others. And Arthur could not see him swearing loyalty to Camelot when he had already shown such disregard.

"Then you do not think he would be amenable to a coup? He might be willing if it elevates him to the crown."

"Even if he was, Deorham is already in a fragile condition. The cost to us would be minimal, but without the support of the people it could result in civil war. Especially if our part in it was made known. The south would be in chaos."

"That is unfortunate," his father said, with some disappointment. "But again, I cannot fault your reasoning. We are left with only one choice."

"Intimidation," Arthur considered. "A show of force. Are you considering something more than a treaty?"

His father smiled, pleased. "He cannot afford to pay the full ransom. He no doubt intends to try and negotiate us to a lower amount. I propose a counteroffer: that we allow him the return of all his men, for a token cost. In exchange, he and his court will swear fealty to the crown of Camelot."

Arthur blew out a breath. It was a bold move. "And Deorham becomes a vassal state." Alined would keep his crown, his gold, and his lands. But the loyalty of the Deorham would be subsumed into a greater loyalty to Camelot. That would make it politically impossible for Alined to act against them.

"His nobles and his army would become ours," his father continued, eagerly. "It will push our border south, and we will collect a portion of the taxes."

"It means that we will have territory vulnerable to the Saxons," Arthur cautioned.

"Then we fortify their southern border. Our men are better trained, better armed. Their people will be better defended, as will ours."

Between the rout at Gedref and Alined's low treasury, there was every chance that they could actually pull it off. It would be bloodless, Alined would be neutered as a threat, and it would be entirely above board. Best of all, it would benefit both Camelot and Deorham.

"Then you agree that this is our course?"

"I agree," Arthur decided. "But Alined will not submit without a significant show of force."

"I made arrangements with Lord Godwyn in case the situation in Gedref deteriorated. Our combined armies should be more than enough to sway Alined into seeing sense."

Lord Godwyn was his father's closest ally. He had a small kingdom to the southeast, but it was well-protected with natural borders, and he had a standing army of high repute. It had been brought to their aid before, when Cenred had laid siege to their castle.

"Most importantly," his father continued, "once we have control of Deorham, it can be cleansed of sorcery. It's been used as a refuge for magic for too long. This latest attack shows how important it is that it be taken under our control."

Magic. Of course. They had come to the true reason behind his father's scheming. This was not the first time that his father had sought to stamp out magic from within a neighboring kingdom. It was one such effort that had sparked the war with Cenred in the first place, though his father had later declared Cenred's attack on Camelot to be an act of unprovoked aggression. His father's purge raids had extended into Cenred's kingdom, but that fact had not been included in the official histories. That had been a time when his father had still led such raids himself, and they had been brutal and unforgiving. Arthur had not been told much directly, and he had been too young to attend council. But rumors and whispers had reached him anyway.

Before Merlin's confession, even before Gedref, Arthur would have balked at his father's vehemence. He would have questioned the necessity of such extreme actions against a foe that was already on the retreat. But now he had a sorcerer in his chambers, full of magic that he was desperate to remove. Now he knew how powerful and dangerous magic could be, how insidious a threat it was.

"Then let us bend ourselves to it," Arthur said, firmly. "Once Alined submits, we will give them until the spring. Let the Lords of Deorham make a pilgrimage to us to swear their fealty and surrender their sons. I will train them into Knights of Camelot." A fresh source of noble sons. It was not the long-term solution that the elimination of the First Code would provide, but in the short-term, it would at last replenish their ranks to something close to full strength.

"Then we are in full agreement?" his father pressed. "You have no further concerns?"

"None." It had been a long time since they had been in complete agreement about anything. But there had been a time when his father had been strong and vital, and Arthur had been his most devoted servant. When Arthur had knelt in faithful submission to his King and been content. He saw that same emotion in Merlin and in his knights, and at times he envied them for it. To have a taste of such contentment now, when he was in the first steps of his elevation to ruling by his father's side, was entirely unexpected.

"I will need someone to lead the raids," his father continued, watching him intently. "I was thinking summer would be a good time. Once the fealty of the Lords is secured and the knights have been trained."

"Then I will lead them," Arthur said. "I will not allow sorcery to flourish in the south. But I will see to its removal in my own way." He would not rid Deorham of its magic with his father's bloody raids.

"The last time we spoke of raids, you were not in favor of them. May I ask what changed your mind?"

"That was against the Druids. They harbor magic, yes, but they are largely peaceful. There is no benefit to mindless slaughter against them, and I will not see such actions taken against the Deorham either."

"Sorcerers cannot be reasoned with," his father cautioned.

"That may be true," Arthur allowed. "But that is why I must increase my understanding of them and of the workings of magic."

His father took another drink. "And that is why you were in the vaults with Gaius today?"

Arthur had expected his father to bring that up. But he was ready for it. "And in the library with Geoffrey. It is also what I spoke with Idriys about. Based on my experiences with Palaemon, I wanted to understand the use of sorcery in battle."

"So that it could be used?" his father asked, clearly thinking of Arthur's interest in the enchanted mail of Uwen and Linette.

"So that it can be fought and destroyed," Arthur said, firmly. "As all magic must be destroyed."

His father blinked rapidly, suddenly quite affected. "My son," he said, proudly. "You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say this. I had feared for the future of our kingdom, but now I see that it will be secure."

Arthur felt rather affected himself. "I am glad that I could make you proud," he said, and meant it. For once he did not have to pretend to engage with his father, and it betrayed how alone their division had made him feel. Yes, he had Merlin, but until Gedref, he had not allowed himself to trust Merlin with such matters of importance, which was just as well. For all that he and his father disagreed, it wasn't until Merlin that Arthur truly began to pull away from him. Even if Merlin had not intended to manipulate, the result had been the same, confirming what his father had always told him: even a single word from a sorcerer could not be trusted. But in a way, he was equally indebted to Merlin for finally ridding him of the confusion that had plagued him for so long. It was clear to him that magic was evil and dangerous, and had to be dealt with accordingly.

Arthur took out the sheaf of folded papers from his jacket, and handed them to Louvel to pass on to his father.

"What are these?" his father asked, unfolding them.

"I mentioned yesterday that the effects of Palaemon were melted in Gedref's forge. It was only after the fact that I realized that it would be useful to know what their purpose had been, in case I ran across other sorcerers using the same types of items. I checked to see if there was anything like them in the vaults, and when that failed, I tried Geoffrey. I made drawings of the items as I remembered them so I could run them by you, as you have the most experience with sorcery."

In truth, Arthur had use the books Geoffrey had provided to make sketches of an assortment of magical items, of varying uses. Among them, he had included a drawing of Palaemon's ring and of a torc, with its details modified from the ones he carried with him. He had also made a guess at what Palaemon's globe had looked like, based on what Merlin had told him in the caverns.

"But the items have already been destroyed?"

"Completely."

His father nodded, and flipped through the papers with a thoughtful air. "You showed these to Gaius?"

"Not yet. I wanted to bring them to you first. I described some of them to Gaius, but without an inventory, it was difficult to determine if the vaults hold anything similar."

His father quirked a smile. "I'm certain that with these, he will be able to provide more information than I can."

"But you must have run across some of these yourself," Arthur pressed.

His father went through them again, and this time identified several of the objects that Arthur had copied from Geoffrey's books. He did not recognize the ring or the globe, but as they were from Rome, that was not surprising. And then they came to the torc.

"I haven't seen one of these in many years. And you say Palaemon had one?"

Arthur nodded. "He did not use it in battle, as far as I can tell. It was among his belongings. He seemed to be something of a collector."

"An eclectic one," his father said, with some amusement. "It's the torc of a Blood Guard. I expect he picked it up somewhere in his travels."

"You're not concerned by it?"

"They're useless on their own, and the Blood Guard were eliminated many years ago. We confiscated many of these torcs from them. Have Gaius check the vaults again, I'm certain he can find you some examples."

It was not as much as he had hoped, but the information was sufficient to confirm what Gaius had told him. At least with his father he finally had someone who had maintained enough distance from magic to be trustworthy.

He did not believe that Gaius was telling him the truth. Yes, Merlin might be different, and that did have to be taken into account. But for all that his father trusted Gaius, Arthur was beginning to truly question his loyalties. That he knew so much of the Old Religion, that he insisted so readily that magic could not be removed from sorcerers, it was possible that he was playing his father for a fool in some way. That was the folly of giving so much power to someone without any oversight. Gaius may have been lying to his father for years. Aiding magic. Perhaps that physician in Gedref was of concern after all. He already knew there was magic in Gedref because of what Merlin had said about the abandoned temple. And it was not far from where Anhora had taken them, for the tests after he had killed the unicorn. So close to the south, to Deorham.

Perhaps he had judged his father too harshly. With all that was against him, with so few to trust, it was no wonder that his father had ended up using sorcerers to destroy magic. Was it any different than allowing Merlin to wear the enchanted Deorham armor? Was he any different from Linette in her attempts to protect Uwen? It was not easy to be responsible for a kingdom's well being, and his father had boxed himself in with his own laws. Faced with his own impending use of a sorcerer against magic, he felt a sympathy that he had not that morning. But he could not tell his father that he knew about Gaius without endangering Merlin. Until Merlin's magic was completely removed, he would have to play along with the subterfuge.

His father handed the papers back to Louvel, who returned them to Arthur. Arthur folded them up, and added his father's list of potential manservants before tucking them back into his jacket.

They finished their meal with companionable silence and idle discussions of the more mundane events that had occurred during Arthur's time away. When they bid each other goodnight, Arthur felt better than he had in a long time. His father was finally giving him the control he needed and the respect he craved, and together they had found the common ground to solve the problems that plagued them. Next spring, he would have a whole host of new knights to train. And in the summer, he and Merlin would travel south with their knights again, this time to rescue the south from its magic, just as they had saved Gedref from Palaemon's sorcery. There was only one obstacle to his goals, and that was the magic that Merlin harbored within himself.

Chapter Text

For the second time that day, Arthur braced himself before opening the door to his own chambers. This time when he walked inside, he found that it was lit by candles and by the evening light, coming in through the uncovered windows. Arthur closed and locked the door behind him.

Merlin was awake and sitting at his desk, and when he heard Arthur come in, he looked up and gave a hopeful smile. As Arthur came closer, he realized that Merlin had been writing something, and that the result of his labors was an array of sealed letters.

"What's all this?" Arthur asked, keeping his tone casual. He set the plate of leftovers on the table for Merlin to eat later.

Merlin looked down at the letters. He scraped his teeth along his bottom lip as he gathered them into a stack. Arthur craned his neck and saw that the top letter had his own name written on the front.

"Something I had to do," Merlin said, quietly. "In case you couldn't find anything to 'help' me." The last was said with distaste, but it was quickly swallowed down beneath an acceptance born of desperation.

"Is that one for me?" Arthur asked, reaching for it.

"Not yet," Merlin said, covering it with his hand. "Hopefully not ever, but..." He met Arthur's eyes again, looking uncertain, hopeful, afraid, resigned. His eyes were blue and wide, his lashes clumped as if he had been crying not long before.

"Then tie them up with one of those ribbons," Arthur said, pointing to the roll of them that he kept for securing official documents together.

"Does that mean you found something?" Merlin asked, with equal parts hope and trepidation. He took a ribbon and tied the letters into a bundle, and knotted it so tightly it nearly bowed the paper.

"It does," Arthur said. He held out his hand. "If you want, I can put those somewhere safe. I promise I won't open them."

Merlin was gripping the bundle tightly, but after a moment of hesitation he handed it over. "I suppose I should make my last request now," he said, with a tremor to his voice. "I ask that you only read the letter that's for you. Give the others to who they're meant for."

"Merlin..."

"There's nothing in them that will harm you. Nothing about you. I just want to be able to say goodbye." Merlin wiped quickly at his eyes. "Please? Promise me that?"

"I promise," Arthur agreed. Given how much Merlin had cooperated thus far, and how much he was willing to sacrifice, it was the least Arthur could do for him. "But I will do everything I can do ensure that they are not needed."

Merlin nodded and swallowed, the bob of his throat rising and falling. "So what is it? What did you find?"

Arthur took the bundle over to the chest where he kept his tournament winnings and important papers and items, and opened it with a key from his belt. He put the bundle inside, and tossed Palaemon's ring in as well before locking it again.

"These," Arthur said, pulling the torcs from his waistband as he stood. He handed them both to Merlin, who took them cautiously and then peered intently at them. "Have you ever seen anything like them before?"

Merlin shook his head. "What are they?"

"Torcs. They're a sort of necklace, but sturdy. Before the Romans, they were worn by chieftains and their warriors. These were worn by the Blood Guard, the warrior priests who guarded the Old Religion," Arthur said, repeating what Gaius had told him, the little he had found in the library, and what his father had confirmed.

Merlin looked intrigued, which was much better than looking resigned to his own execution. "The Old Religion? Like the High Priestesses?"

Arthur nodded. "They were worn as a symbol of great honor and power. The gold one is the torc of a full Blood Guard, and the silver is the torc an apprentice would wear."

Merlin traced the triskelion symbols that were engraved into both torcs. "Do we both wear one? Is that why there's two of them? How do they work?"

"One question at a time," Arthur said smiling despite himself. "Do you feel any spells in them?"

Merlin frowned at the torcs, and ran his fingers along the braided metal. The gold torc was heavier, and the ends terminated in loops, with the triskelion engravings just before each loop. The silver ended with the same engravings, and then flat ends that slightly flared. "Nothing," he said, puzzled. "Should there be something?"

"Gaius said we'd need a spell to use them. I was hoping that wasn't the case."

"A spell?"

"I think perhaps Gaius should explain. He's the one that found them for me. He's waiting in the hall, but I wanted to talk to you alone first."

From the way Merlin's mouth twisted into a frown, it was clear that Merlin was still angry with Gaius for lying to him and manipulating him. Arthur felt a moment of chagrin that what he was about to do was more of the same. He knew that it was wrong, that any lies between them were different from the lies of court. But if he told Merlin the truth, it was unlikely he would cooperate, and then Arthur truly would have no choice but to go through with the execution. And Merlin had been lying to him about so much more, and for so much longer. Arthur could not help but feel that he was justified. This was for Merlin's own good. Wasn't that what Merlin had always said to him? That he defied Arthur and lied to him for his own good, to protect him by destroying magic in secret, and with Gaius' help? There was a bitter satisfaction in returning the favor.

"All right," Merlin said, handing back the torcs and standing up from the desk. He took a deep breath, gathering his courage, and came around to join Arthur, to stand with him in what they were about to do. The determination on his face was a pale shadow of what it had been in Gedref, but it would suffice for now.

They went to the door and let Gaius in.

"Sire," Gaius greeted, as Arthur closed and locked the door again. Gaius softened as he turned to Merlin, and his brow drew with concern when he saw the florid bruises at his throat, more vivid now than they had been that morning. "Let me see," Gaius fretted, peeling back the high collar and gently prodding. "Are you all right?"

Merlin nodded bravely, but it was clear that even if he was mad at Gaius, he was still glad to see him, and relieved by the comfort he offered, however small. "I've had worse."

"That is not reassuring," Gaius said, sternly. "Were you hurt anywhere else?"

"Just that," Merlin said. "The rest is left over from the battle."

Some kind of silent conversation passed between the two then, resulting in Gaius' frown growing progressively deeper, and Merlin's relief at seeing Gaius shifting into stubborn defiance.

"I'm doing this," Merlin said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Don't try and talk me out of it."

"If you must," Gaius said, lowering his hand.

"How can Arthur accept magic if all he ever sees is people being hurt by it?" Merlin said, tensing up. "I have to do this. I have to show him that magic can be good. That people with magic can be trusted. I'm not lying to him anymore. I'm done doing things your way."

Gaius nodded and took a step back to give Merlin some space.

"What do we have to do?" Merlin asked, looking at them both, determination coming to the fore.

"Let's take this one step at a time," Arthur said, shaking his head. Magic or no magic, some things about Merlin never changed. "Gaius, tell him about the restraint. I already explained the rest."

Gaius gave him a warning glance. "Once the torcs are magically active, you will each need to wear one. Arthur will then be able to make your torc go into a special state that will restrain you from using your magic."

Merlin flinched, but shoved away his fear. "And they used to endure it? The Blood Guard apprentices?"

Gaius nodded. "It was an emergency measure, used temporarily, for those who had difficulty controlling their magic."

"I suppose this qualifies as an emergency," Merlin said, with gallows humor. "What's the spell I have to use?"

Arthur had expected to have to convince Merlin to accept the torcs, but with the way Merlin was barrelling ahead, it was Arthur who had to work to keep up.

"Here," Gaius said, and pulled the book from under his arm.

"It's in my book?"

Gaius opened the cover and took out a sheaf of paper, which contained a string of unintelligible words. "No, I've written it down here. But I thought you would find the book useful, since you intend to teach Arthur about magic."

That made Merlin soften towards Gaius again. "Thank you, Gaius. I know this isn't..."

"It's all right, my boy," Gaius said, gently. "You must do what you feel is right. I only hope that this works out for the best."

Merlin hesitated, then opened his arms and stepped towards Gaius. They hugged each other tightly. Arthur wondered at the sight before him, that they could forgive and accept each other so easily. It made him feel ashamed of his own sense of betrayal, at the anger and horror he had struggled with all day. If Merlin could forgive Gaius for using him, surely Arthur could forgive Merlin for protecting him? He believed that he could, if not for the magic, which complicated everything.

"I'll leave you to it," Gaius said, as he pulled away. "I think this is something you need to do yourselves."

Merlin nodded, seemingly fine with been left with only a scrap of a paper and a hug, when his entire life hung in the balance.

"Wait," Arthur said, catching Gaius by the sleeve. "How do I activate the restraint? How do I turn it off again?"

"All you have to do is think it," Gaius said, as if it was blatantly obvious. "If you run into any trouble, you know where to find me." And with that, he turned the key in the lock and left.

Arthur felt somehow confounded, and yet nothing had happened that he had not wanted to happen. Merlin had agreed to the restraint, and Gaius had given them the information they needed. They had the torcs, they had the spell, and Merlin was looking at him expectantly.

"What's this book?" Arthur asked, suspicious that they had somehow conspired against him despite not having spoken to each other all day. Hadn't Merlin said something about people being able to talk without speaking? Had they just done that right in front of him?

"It's my grimoire," Merlin said, with quiet pride. "Gaius gave it to me when I first came to Camelot."

He held it out and Arthur took it. He opened it at random. He couldn't translate the writing, but there were enough drawings to glean some understanding of the text. "You can read this?"

"It's the language of the Old Religion. Mum taught me."

"I thought you said she didn't know magic."

"She doesn't have any herself, but she used to live in Camelot, before the Purge. She doesn't like to talk about the past, but she must have known a lot of sorcerers."

Arthur had always wondered why Merlin was so literate, given how poor he was. No one in Ealdor likely ever had need of quill and ink, and yet Merlin had shown skill in both letters and numbers. "What else did she teach you?" Arthur asked, flipping through the pages. The book was old but well cared for, and had blank pages in the back so that additions could be made. It was clear that the previous owners had taken advantage of this, and Merlin himself had even made some additions, his neat writing in the margins the one thing that Arthur could make full sense of. As he reached the front of the book, the language was no longer the familiar Albion script, but written in runes.

"I've seen these before," Arthur realized. He put the book on the table and pulled out his sword. "You said it was decorative."

"I told you what it said," Merlin said, amused. "That side says 'cast me away,' and the other side says 'take me up.'"

"What does it mean?" Arthur frowned.

Merlin shrugged. "It was like that after the dragon forged it. I didn't have time to ask him to explain because I had to hurry to get the sword to you. And then I had to hide it after your father used it, and by the time I got it back again, I'd stopped talking to the dragon."

"Because you realized he'd been lying to you?" Arthur sheathed the sword and pulled out a chair for Merlin, then sat down himself. This was clearly going to take a while.

Merlin sat down, and finally noticed the plate of leftovers. He stared at it as if suddenly realizing how hungry he actually was, and stuffed a huge piece of chicken into his mouth all at once. He really did have atrocious table manners.

"Sort of," Merlin said, through his mouthful of food. "You wanted to know how me and Gaius saved you from the Questing Beast?"

Arthur nodded. He had figured out that Merlin must have used his magic to slay the beast, but he didn't know what measures were taken to cure him of its poison. He had been lost in fever and delirium for days, with only brief moments of lucidity, and in those moments he had not seen Merlin by his bedside. Merlin's absence had gnawed at him, the way Merlin's absences always gnawed at him. But it had been worse when Merlin later vanished for nearly a week, after coming by and giving him a very odd lecture about not being a prat.

When Merlin finally returned from wherever he had gone to, Arthur had yelled at him for disappearing, thrown several objects at his head, and then worked out his frustration on Merlin on the training fields. It had all been to the benefit of teaching Merlin a lesson, and as a bonus it had been tremendously satisfying. Merlin had given his usual long-suffering sighs and grumbles and eye-rolls, but he had taken everything that Arthur had dished out with unusual acceptance. Thinking back, that had been when Merlin had at last started to make a genuine effort to improve himself as a manservant. Before that, Arthur had always had the sense that Merlin was merely putting up with a load of inconsequential nonsense in serving him, rather than appreciating the importance of his duties as the manservant to the Prince.

"It's a bit complicated," Merlin said, not even bothering to swallow all of what he was chewing before he stuffed more food into his mouth. "It goes back to when Bayard visited. I met one of his handmaidens, Cara. Right after the treaty was signed, she told me that she saw Bayard poison your goblet."

"She was the one who poisoned it?" A mysterious handmaiden had vanished after Merlin's collapse, and later had been blamed for the poisoning. His father had given no explanation why the woman had tried to sabotage the treaty, and Bayard had insisted that she had not been with them when they had left Mercia, and that she was not a member of his household. Arthur had been let out of the dungeons early to see Bayard off, and he had seemed genuinely baffled by the whole affair.

"That's what Gaius told me when I woke up again," Merlin said, with a little frown. "And that was the last I saw of her until you were dying and I went to the Isle of the Blessed. She was there, and she was definitely not a handmaiden anymore."

"The place is a complete ruin. Why did you go there?"

"The dragon told me to," Merlin said, his frown deepening. "He said that the only way to save you was to find someone who still followed the ways of the Old Religion and held the power of life and death. That you had to live, no matter what the cost. So I rode there as fast as I could, and Cara was there. Except her name wasn't Cara, it was Nimueh, and she was a High Priestess."

"She tried to kill me, and you trusted her?"

"What choice did I have? She said that she could save your life, but that there would be a price. A life for a life, to preserve the balance. So I offered her mine."

Arthur leaned back in his chair, stunned. He didn't know why Merlin's sacrifice affected him so much. Merlin had done his best to die for him many times already. But there was something far weightier to the offering of a life with forethought and intention, rather than in the heat of the moment. "But you didn't die," he said, stating the obvious.

No," Merlin said, bitterly. "When I got back, I discovered that it was not my life that was to be taken. It was my mother's. And the dragon knew it. That was why he told me that your life was worth any cost. It was all a trick to take her away from me. That was when I stopped going to the dragon for help. The only reason he'd ever helped me was so he could convince me to free him."

"Hunith is dead?!" Arthur said, aghast. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"No, no! Mum is fine now," Merlin said, mustering a reassuring smile. "I was headed back to the Isle of the Blessed to force Nimueh to take my life instead of hers, but Gaius got there before me. He traded his life to save her. So I tried to make Nimueh take my life to save Gaius. She wanted me to join her, for the both of us to work together to make you King. I refused. She tried to kill me but I stopped her. I killed her and restored Gaius. I mastered the power of life and death."

When Merlin began his story, he had been his usual self, his emotions shifting and open as he winded through the tale. But as he finished, as he described his victory, he changed. His eyes remained blue, but something came into them and into his voice, his expression. Something ancient and alien and powerful.

It was the magic.

And then as quickly as it had come, it was gone, and Merlin was himself again, giving a bashful smile. He picked up a pear and bit into it. The juices dripped down his chin, and he wiped at them with his sleeve. "Oh, sorry," he said, realizing that he was wearing the fine clothes that Arthur had given him in Gedref, and blotted clumsily at the stain with a napkin.

What was Merlin, that he could be this? That he could genuinely be the foolish, awkward, good-hearted man that Arthur knew him to be, and at the same time contain such unbelievable power? How could he destroy a High Priestess, restore life to the dead, and then come back to toil and kneel and allow himself to be pushed around and abused and insulted and take it all with a sigh and a tolerant smile? Because he believed in a prophecy that he didn't even understand?

"You won't be able to get it out that way," Arthur chided, and went to get the wash basin. He set it on the table with a thump and took Merlin's arm and cleaned his sleeve for him, because the idiot could apparently give life to the dead but he couldn't clean a stain.

Merlin gave a soft laugh as Arthur dabbed away the pear juice, and Arthur looked up to see his answer. Merlin tried to die for Arthur because he loved him. He served and suffered for him because he loved him. Arthur had known that Merlin loved him, had known it even before Merlin had himself. He had seen it in the devotion Merlin had shown him even as far back as the tournament with Valiant. But he did not know why Merlin had so chosen him, especially when he had done little to deserve it.

But the love he saw in Merlin now, that he saw clearly because he was at last seeing Merlin clearly, was deeper and greater than he had realized. It was that enormous love that fuelled Merlin's determination, that carried him through all his suffering. Perhaps it was even that love that helped protect him from the corruption, though it could not have done so before Merlin came to Camelot. But then that must be why the dragon and Nimueh had conspired to kill Hunith. Merlin was as devoted to her as he was to Arthur himself. Merlin loved, and that love was what drew others to him, Arthur included. It was so strong that it had conquered even the huge amount of magic that he had been burdened with since his birth.

"I think it's clean now," Merlin said, softly.

Arthur broke their shared gaze with a start. "Yes," he said, and went to put the basin back on its stand. That gave him a moment to collect himself.

He wished that Merlin's love could be enough. He wished that he could trust that it would hold against the magic, that Merlin would obey him as unquestioningly as he had in Gedref. But it was not enough, not against dangers from both within and without. Whatever his intentions now, Merlin had disobeyed him too many times before. The possibility of his magic being discovered was of great concern, greater than it had been before Gedref. Merlin mattered to others now in a way he had not before. People would be watching him even though he had returned to being only a manservant. They would be seeking him out and would not allow him to remain hidden in the shadows. From his father to Morgana to the knights and servants from the army, they would all be watching Merlin to see what he would do next. And it terrified Arthur that the next thing they would see would be his eyes glowing with golden light.

"Thank you," Merlin said, as Arthur sat down again. "For listening. There's so much I've wanted to tell you for so long. You don't know how much this means to me. To share my magic with you."

"I want to know everything," Arthur said, genuinely. "I need to understand."

"We can start now." Merlin pulled over the grimoire. "I can teach you about the four elements. About how spells work. I can teach you to read the old tongue, and we can practice magic together." He glanced at the torcs, lying quiescent on the table, and his smile faded again. "Maybe not the last part. But we can still do the rest?"

"We can," Arthur assured him. "But you're right. We need to give these a try." He picked up the torcs and placed them on the table between them. "Let me see the spell."

Merlin handed it over. It wasn't written in those runes, but the best he could do was sound it out. Arthur was fluent in several languages, including Latin and Greek, and had been taught enough of the Frank, Danish and Germanic tongues to get by for diplomatic meetings. But he had not learned the old tongue, the language of Albion from before Roman rule. Arthur had asked Geoffrey if he would teach it to him, but he had been firmly refused. It was too closely associated with the Old Religion, with sorcery. Any books that contained the old tongue had been removed from the library after that, and locked away somewhere that even Arthur didn't have keys to. It was no wonder that he hadn't recognized the runes on his sword for what they were.

"Can you tell me what it means without using your magic?" Arthur asked.

"Of course. It's an invocation to the Triple Goddess, to bless the wearer with protection and strength so that they may serve her and Albion."

"Hold on. The Triple Goddess?"

Merlin gave an exasperated look. "I guess your father didn't teach you about the gods of the Old Religion?"

"He refused to let me near anything remotely to do with magic." Arthur's education, for all its breadth and depth, had at times been an exercise in frustration. Any time his curiosity about magic had compelled him to seek out information, it would be taken out of his reach because his father feared that any proximity to magic would lead to his corruption. Arthur had hated being so coddled, as if a Prince had anything to fear from a book. And yet now he found himself eying Merlin's grimoire warily.

"Right," Merlin said. "Well, the Triple Goddess is Modron, the mother goddess of birth, life, and death. She's the highest of all the gods."

"And sorcerers are what, her slaves?"

"No!" Merlin said, managing to sound both amused and indignant. "Well, probably not. I don't feel like a slave."

Arthur moved from eyeing the grimoire warily to eyeing the torcs warily. It was bad enough that they had to use a spell to make them work, but he would have to then wear one of them himself. It was one thing to use a sword that had been enchanted. It was quite another to use a magical object that might somehow enslave him to an evil god. Confirmation aside, using the torcs meant trusting Gaius, and even though both his father and Merlin trusted Gaius, Arthur did not. A servant could not have two opposing masters and be loyal to them both.

But his options were few. If he refused to use the torcs, he had no other way of controlling Merlin's magic. But he could not keep Merlin imprisoned without raising suspicion. And the longer he waited to decide, the less he felt able to carry out the remaining options, exile or execution. If he was going to keep Merlin alive and by his side, he was going to have to do the one thing he had been taught never to do. He was going to have to trust magic. It would be temporary, only until he could find a way to destroy Merlin's magic for good, but that made it no less dangerous, no less a risk to his own soul as well as Merlin's. And without any real guidance or information, he was going to have to do what Merlin did, put his head down and barrel through until he achieved his goal.

"All right," he said, handing back the spell. "Do we need to do anything to prepare? Do you need any herbs or potions?"

Merlin looked at him curiously. "Are you really all right with this?"

"Are you?"

Merlin picked up the silver torc and turned it in his hands. "I know you believe that magic is evil. I don't know what this will do to me, but if I refuse to wear it, I know that you would have no other choice but to execute me."

"Yes," Arthur admitted, though he had lost the certainty that he had felt when he had given Merlin the ultimatum. No matter what he felt, it came down to two choices: either Merlin's magic was stopped, or Merlin himself was stopped. If Arthur failed in either task, it would only be a matter of time before his father succeeded in both. And Arthur would not see Merlin burn.

"I have to prove to you that your father is wrong," Merlin said, stubbornly. "I can't do that if I'm dead. So I will do whatever you need me to do to so that you can feel safe with me, so that you can trust me. Everything that I am is for you. My magic is yours, and nothing will ever change that."

"Even if I tell you right now that I will never repeal the ban on magic?" Arthur pressed.

Merlin swallowed, breathed in deeply. "I believe that you will make the right decision once you aren't blinded by your father's lies. You are my King."

Few men had ever shown the depth of faith and devotion that Merlin had to Arthur. Fewer still would hold on to that faith when imprisoned and at risk of death. It had always been more than Arthur deserved, but he had never been more grateful to have it.

"Thank you," Arthur said, reaching out to rest his hand over Merlin's. "I only want to keep you safe."

Merlin nodded, accepting. Arthur picked up the gold torc with his free hand and gave it to Merlin, then let him go and leaned back. They were going to do this. Merlin was going to do magic at his command. Arthur had gone against his father many times before, in ways small and large. But never had he done something so utterly treasonous. Never had he defied his father to engage in sorcery.

Merlin placed the spell on the table and moved his lips as he read the spell over and over to himself in his head. When he was ready, he gripped the torcs in both hands and braced himself with long, even breaths. And then he spoke, shifting into the strange, guttural tongue of the Old Religion.

"O Modron, ábiddee þú blétsest dryhtenweardas þætte ámundodedon ond áfæstnedon ond cwémedon hwít æga!"

With the last word, Merlin's eyes swirled with golden light. His eyes flashed bright and then faded back to blue, and the torcs glimmered with a strange brightness which also faded away. When it was done, both Merlin and the torcs looked the same as they had been before the spell. And yet magic had passed between them. Merlin's magic had entered the torcs.

"We can use them now," Merlin said, staring at the torcs with fascination, as if seeing something in them that Arthur could not. Arthur wondered if he could see the magic, or feel it somehow. For all that Merlin had apparently been using magic around him all the time, for all the sorcery that Arthur had fought, he had never been able to tell when it was present but for the results of the spells that were cast with it.

The spell Merlin cast had been nothing like the frightening magic that Arthur had witnessed the night before, or in the vicious attacks that Camelot had suffered in the past, but that did not mean it was harmless. He could not let his guard down until Merlin's magic was restrained.

"Should I put mine on first?" Merlin offered.

Arthur took the gold torc from him. "No, let me." If the torcs did give the wearer some kind of boost in magical strength, it was better if Arthur was ready to activate the restraint before Merlin put his on. Gaius had said that all he would have to do was think the command.

The torc was too stiff to bend, so he pressed the looped end against the soft flesh of his throat and rolled the torc around his neck. It was a tight squeeze to get through the narrow opening, but the band settled loosely around the base of his neck, and he found that it fit comfortably as it warmed against his skin.

Once Merlin had done the same with the silver torc, Arthur felt something come to life within his own. He quashed down the panic that tried to rise up. This was no time for cowardice. He would not be frightened by a piece of jewelry and some sparkling light. A Pendragon did not run from a challenge, but stood and faced it.

"How does it feel?"

Merlin seemed more affected by it than he had been, but in a very different way. "It's like the temple," he said, distant and soft. "Full of old magic, layers of it. It won't hurt us."

It seemed that the magic was speaking in Merlin again. But it was less alien this time, and gentler, as if it was being soothed by the presence of the torcs. Arthur decided to take that as a good sign. The torcs must have been used to tame sorcerers so they could be controlled and directed without their corruption driving them mad.

Merlin's eyes half-closed, and he slipped into a kind of stupor, presumably as the torc tamed his magic. Arthur hoped that the apprentice torc would be strong enough to contain a sorcerer as powerful as Merlin. He took away the paper with the spell and placed it back into the grimoire, and waited for Merlin to rouse. Aside from the initial sensation of connection, Arthur felt nothing at all within his own. He realized that it must mean that no magic had entered him in all of this, which was a great relief indeed.

Minutes passed, and Arthur was starting to grow concerned. But at last Merlin's eyes cleared and he straightened from his slump.

"Are you all right?" Arthur asked.

"Mm." Merlin still seemed somewhat affected, docile in a way he had only ever been after a strenuous bout of training or sex. As useful as that would be in the short term, Arthur hoped that it would wear off. As much as he enjoyed indulging in Merlin's submission, he loved Merlin for his passion and courage. Merlin would not be himself if he lost either.

"I'm going to activate the restraint now," Arthur warned him. "Tell me if you feel any differently."

"All right."

Arthur reached up to grip the looped ends of his torc, and focused all his thoughts into the metal. Gaius had said that the silver torc would close when the restraint became active, so Arthur stared at the flared ends of Merlin's torc and tried to force them to close.

The ends snapped together, and Merlin immediately broke from his docile state. His eyes widened and then rolled back as he slumped bonelessly to the floor.

"Merlin!" Arthur cried, alarmed, and hurried to Merlin's side. He patted Merlin's face to rouse him, and when that didn't work he hauled him up and quickly carried him to the bed, where he tried to wake him again. "Merlin? Can you hear me? Merlin?"

Arthur nearly commanded the ends of the torc to separate again, for the restraint to stop. But he stopped himself before his panic got the best of him again. Gaius had said that it would be unpleasant but that it wouldn't damage Merlin. And Merlin himself had said that the torcs did not feel like a threat. If Arthur gave up on them at the first sign of trouble, he had nothing else to fall back on.

Just as before, Merlin roused on his own. This time he was disoriented rather than docile, and it took Arthur a few tries before he could get Merlin to stop his clumsy flailing and focus on him. As Merlin's eyes cleared, he looked down at himself, at Arthur's bodily restraint of his arms and legs. Arthur released him and sat beside him on the edge of the bed.

"You passed out," Arthur told him, resting one hand lightly against Merlin's chest, both to soothe him and to keep him still. "Can you still feel your magic?"

"My magic," Merlin echoed, and he raised his hand towards the bedside table, to the unlit candle there. "Forbærne," he said, quietly, and then louder when the wick failed to light. He let his arm fall and closed his eyes. "It's there, but I can't reach it. Something's in the way."

"That's the restraint," Arthur said, wanting to smile, to laugh with relief, but holding it all back.

Merlin reached up and touched the torc, felt that the gap of it had sealed shut. There was no break in the metal now, as the two flared ends had joined into a seamless whole. Merlin tugged weakly at it to pull it off, but it was too solid to break and too small to be pulled over his head, though it was still wide enough not to be uncomfortable in itself.

The torc would stay on now, and the magic would be held in check.

"Can you sit up?" Arthur asked, and when Merlin nodded, Arthur helped him upright. With every passing minute, Merlin was more himself, without even the docility that he had displayed before the restraint. Arthur held back his excitement, not wanting to risk upsetting Merlin at such a delicate moment. "How do you feel without it?"

"Tired," Merlin said, with a weak smile.

"No pain? No discomfort?"

Merlin's smile faded as his eyes cleared further. "I don't like it. It feels like I'm... empty." He wrapped his arms around himself, pulled at the torc again. He was starting to panic. "Stop the restraint. Please, Arthur. Just for a minute. I can't..."

"You can," Arthur assured him, taking his wrists and pulling his hands away from the torc. "You can do this, Merlin. I know you can. My brave knight."

Merlin bit back a whimper, but rallied against his fear. After living with magic for so long, it was not surprising that it would be a shock to lose it, even only in part. It was good that they had figured that out now, before Arthur found a way to remove the magic entirely. Now he would be better prepared.

"That's it," Arthur soothed, as Merlin calmed.

"Gaius said it was temporary," Merlin said, hopefully.

"I want you to keep it on for as long as you can, so you can get used to it," Arthur explained. "If it's really too much for you, I'll stop the restraint. But whenever it's off, you have to stay here. I can't let you leave my chambers if you can use your magic."

"Then I'm still your prisoner," Merlin said, sadly.

"Not as long as you wear the torc. With it on, you're my knight again," Arthur told him. "These were worn by chieftains and warriors, remember? That's just like kings and knights. You keep yours on, and I'll wear mine whenever I can."

Merlin mustered a smile at that. "I'd like that."

Arthur would wear his torc as much as he could if it helped Merlin feel better about his own. He could not wear it in public, as it could not be hidden beneath his clothes, and he did not wear scarves as Merlin did. But he could keep it on in his chambers, especially if it encouraged Merlin to remain restrained even here. Perhaps once he adjusted to the change, he would allow the restraint to be made permanent, at least until a better solution could be found.

"We'll see how long you can go before you need a break," Arthur said, rewarding Merlin with a warm smile. "Everything can go back to normal now. You'll be by my side again, like you always are. Did I tell you that everyone was asking after you at the ceremony today?"

"They were?" Merlin asked, perking up.

"Morgana and Gwen were especially persistent," Arthur admitted. "They said you promised to visit them and tell them all about your adventures as a knight. I thought we could go see them together."

This cheered Merlin further, perhaps helping to make up for his missing out on the ceremony in the first place. "Can we tell them everything?"

"More than we could tell the knights," Arthur said, and Merlin nodded, understanding that if he could not use his magic, he could not speak of it either. "Morgana will be pleased to know that you put her lessons to good use."

"She will," Merlin said, smiling at the thought. "And Gwen. You should have heard her yesterday. If Gaius hadn't been there, we would have spent the whole afternoon gossiping."

A great weight lifted from Arthur's shoulders as he saw that Merlin was still himself. The magic was stopped and Merlin was still himself. He pulled Merlin close and held him tightly, eyes suddenly damp with gratitude. He had been so afraid that the worst would happen, that Merlin would refuse the torcs and turn on him, or that he would accept them only to become a stranger once the restraint was on. But there was hope now. The magic was stopped and Merlin was all right. Arthur had not lost him.

"Arthur," Merlin sighed. He held Arthur back, equal with relief if not strength, and this bolstered Arthur further. Merlin still loved him, even after Arthur had demanded that he surrender the thing that he saw as most essential to himself. Merlin had been truthful: Arthur was his King, and Merlin would give him absolutely anything, even his magic. Merlin was his obedient knight, his loyal and faithful servant. His fealty was true and unbroken.

Arthur kissed his cheek once, brushed his fingers through Merlin's riled hair. All his fear began to fall away as he gentled Merlin, and Merlin grew soft and docile again as he surrendered himself. Perhaps with time, Arthur would not have to lie to Merlin with half-truths and omissions, but would be able to share his plans with him again, as he had in the caverns. He would be able to tell Merlin how he planned to remove the magic fully from Camelot, and Merlin would accept it and agree to help him achieve all of his goals.

But for now, it was not Camelot that Arthur was concerned with, but Merlin. It was Merlin that mattered more than anything else. Merlin had surrendered so much to him, and it was Arthur's responsibility to take care of him and protect him. Not merely out of duty or obligation, but because it was necessary for his own heart. Merlin was precious to him, and nearly losing him again had only driven that fact home.

He wanted to reward Merlin for his obedience, for his strength in Arthur's service, as he had many times before. He had rewarded Merlin after they had destroyed the enchanted mail together, and he had rewarded Merlin in a long, glorious night after the feast in Gedref. That Arthur himself took no small pleasure in Merlin's rewards did not make them any less for Merlin's sake. After all, Arthur had asked him so many times if there was anything at all that would please him, and all that Merlin ever wanted was Arthur himself.

But where Merlin's boundless need usually drove Arthur to extremes, tonight Merlin required a gentler hand. He needed to feel safe and secure, to know that without his magic, he still mattered, he still belonged, and most of all that he was still loved and worthy of that love. Arthur would not let Merlin believe that without his magic, he was nothing.

"Everything will be all right," Arthur murmured, pulling back enough to see Merlin's face. "You'll teach me about magic, and we'll protect Camelot together. As we were meant to."

The look that that earned him was so painfully hopeful that it broke Arthur's heart. "That's all I want," Merlin said, fervent despite his subdued state. "I would never to do anything to harm you or Camelot." He rested his hand over Arthur's upper arm, where Merlin had cut him during their training in the woods. Arthur would never forget how upset Merlin had been about that cut, how frantic and distraught he had become. "I only want to keep you safe."

"And I want us both to be safe," Arthur said, gently.

He knew that Merlin would destroy himself if it meant Arthur and Camelot would be protected as a result, but Arthur had been trying in various ways to curtail that tendency ever since Merlin had drunk poison for him. He had initially hoped that training Merlin to fight would both teach him to defend himself and knock some sense into him, but that was before Merlin had admitted that he felt that he was nothing. They had made some headway with that in Gedref, as Merlin had finally learned to take orders and accept help, but now Arthur knew how deep it all ran. Arthur understood now just how central it was to Merlin's identity that he be of use to Arthur, that he be able to protect him. He hoped that once the magic was fully out of Merlin, once he was free of it, he truly would want to live for their future. He had trained Merlin into a knight, against all the odds. He could train him out of being a sorcerer.

"I know," Merlin said. "And I know you think my magic is bad for me. But it isn't. What would it take to prove that to you?"

"I don't know," Arthur admitted. "But I do know that we wouldn't be here now if you'd used your magic against me. And you didn't because you're a good man, and because you love me."

"How can you trust me but not trust my magic?"

"How can I trust your magic when I don't understand it?" Arthur countered, using Merlin's argument against him. "When all I have ever known is the threat that magic has posed to myself and to the kingdom? When you yourself have been defending me from that magic?"

"But if I use my magic to help people, isn't that proof enough?"

"According to Gaius, you're not like other sorcerers. You yourself admitted that. Your uniqueness somehow enables you to resist the corruption that affects all other sorcerers."

Merlin opened his mouth to rebut the argument, but shut his mouth with a groan of frustration. "What about Gaius?"

"What about him?" Arthur asked. "Did he use magic when he was teaching you?"

"No, actually," Merlin frowned.

"Have you ever seen him use magic?"

Merlin's frown deepened. "But he used to. He was a sorcerer when he was younger. And there are other sorcerers who help people..." He trailed off and looked away.

"You know other sorcerers?" Arthur asked, wondering about what other magic could be rooted out of Camelot. "Is that who the letters are to?"

"No!" Merlin protested. "And I can't tell you who they are. Not if you're going to do to them what you're doing to me."

"What, helping you?" Arthur challenged.

Merlin got a mulish look about him, but it faded into sadness. "I just want you to understand."

"I want that too," Arthur said. "But I don't, not yet. And I can't rely on hearsay, not for such an important decision. I need you to be patient with me, to give me time and help me learn. Will you do that for me?"

Merlin sighed and rallied. "You know I will. I'll tell you everything I know, show you everything I can about magic and how it works. And I'll try to be patient. But if Camelot is in danger--"

"Merlin, Camelot is always in danger. Camelot is under constant threat from one thing or another. I know that better than anyone, and I also know that you can't let that knowledge consume you. At some point, you have to trust that other people will do their best to keep you safe, and let them do it. That's why we have knights and an army, why we have castles and fortresses. Why we have treaties with other kingdoms. You are not solely responsible for the good of the entire kingdom. You are not even solely responsible for me. I am the Crown Prince and the best fighter in Albion, and I am actually capable of taking care of myself. Even against magic, once I understand it, and that's what I need you for most of all right now. I need you to be my advisor on magic and teach me. But I do not need you to put your life at risk."

Arthur could not deny the irony in his words. His father had said much the same to him many times, when he had been young and impulsive. He had received a similar lecture as recently as his journey to the Forests of Balor. But he had not intended to ride alone that day. His father had forced him into that by denying him his knights. Merlin's situation was different. He had been encouraged to fight alone no matter what the danger. Arthur could tell that he was going to have to work harder to sway Merlin's thinking in that than he was in stopping Merlin from using magic.

Merlin was looking mulish again, so Arthur did the one thing that he knew rarely failed to improve Merlin's mood: he leaned in and gave him a kiss.

It worked. When he pulled back again, Merlin was fighting a smile. Arthur kissed him again, and the smile broke free. The third time, Merlin kissed back, and that kiss went on for a while.

When they stopped, Merlin's eyes were closed, and he looked overcome by the emotions that had welled up within him. It was a familiar sight despite its new context, and Arthur knew what to do to remedy it. He gentled Merlin as he had before, brushing his cheek and arm and kissing him softly along his jaw. He watched as Merlin half-opened his eyes, and how each time the emotions in them were both clearer and easier.

Merlin did not resist as Arthur untied the lace of his shirt and opened his collar, and bared his neck so Arthur could kiss it. He stiffened as Arthur touched the torc, then eased again, more pliant than before. He allowed Arthur to strip off his shirt and push him to lie back against the pillows.

Arthur looked at the shirt before he put it aside. Merlin had put on these clothes to show his loyalty and his love, and there was no reason to discard that gesture now.

"Merlin," Arthur began, then paused to find the right words. He wanted to be honest in this. Merlin looked at him curiously, but waited for him to continue.

"I want to thank you for last night," he said at last. "For giving me the rest of you, as you promised. I know how hard it was, and I'm sorry that I... that I got scared and hurt you again."

"Arthur," Merlin said, and there was such forgiveness in his eyes, in his soft smile. Forgiveness that Arthur didn't deserve, that he had never deserved, for all the times that he had hurt Merlin and somehow still kept him.

Arthur touched lightly at the bruises beneath the torc. "I'm not as good a man as you think I am," he admitted, was forced to admit by the knot of guilt in his chest. "But I want to be. I want to be the King you see."

"You will be," Merlin said, with such belief. "I'll help you, for as long as you'll let me."

"I told you before, you are to remain at my side until you are released from my service," Arthur said, the ache in his heart finally easing. "And I will not let you go."

Merlin swallowed hard, and blinked at the wetness in his eyes. Arthur leaned down and kissed him again, covering him and keeping him safe in the most essential way he knew. Part of him wanted to never let Merlin leave his bed ever again. It was only when he let Merlin go that things went wrong.

And then Merlin was the one holding him, arms wrapped around him as Arthur was swamped by the emotions he had struggled against all day, that had finally caught him in a moment of weakness. Arthur buried his face against Merlin's shoulder, breathing in tight gasps, his eyes shut tight against the tears.

He had almost lost Merlin. He had almost lost him to magic and to his father's laws and to his own fear. And now he needed nothing less than to feel how alive Merlin was, to feel the heat and pulse of him, the stubborn life of him that persisted against all sense.

Arthur pulled off his own shirt, catching briefly against the torc before he tugged the fabric free and tossed it aside. He kissed Merlin deeply and pressed against him, chest to chest, running his hands over every inch of skin within reach. In his desperate state, he worked the both of them free of their trousers, and then it was just the two of them with nothing in between, bare but for the torcs.

As Arthur's frenzy subsided, he realized that Merlin had not responded with his usual fervor. He had not lain limp, but neither had he pushed back or tried to turn the tables as he usually did. Yet Merlin had shown interest.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, concerned.

"It's all right," Merlin said, and Arthur could see that he wanted this, but also that he had yet to recover from losing his magic. Of course it would take time for him to adjust, and Arthur was not exactly helping by pushing him so quickly.

"Maybe we shouldn't," Arthur began. If Merlin was weakened from his service, then that was not in itself a barrier, as long as Merlin was willing. But if he was not...

"No," Merlin said, pulling him back when he tried to move away. "It's fine."

They stared at each other, silently negotiating as they sometimes did. Arthur stared deeply into Merlin's eyes, seeking every last scrap of truth, because he knew the power he held over Merlin, power that didn't require torcs or threats of death to enforce.

For all that Merlin was his own man, he had given Arthur his heart and his life willingly and unconditionally. More than once Arthur had failed in some way to care for both, or taken advantage of Merlin's unjustified belief in him. But every failure spurred him on, because he truly did want to live up to that belief, and to the oaths of honor and nobility he had sworn. His failure to properly care for Merlin had brought them to this point, and he swore that he would not make that mistake again. When Merlin was weak, it was up to Arthur to be strong for him.

And yet Arthur realized that he was also weak, worn out from fear and desperation. Such emotions did not sit well with him, and now that things were at least temporarily settled, now that he could at last stop and catch his breath, the only thing he wanted was Merlin. Merlin was the only thing that he had ever wanted, as a man. Not as a Prince or a knight, not because of what was expected of him or out of his own sense of duty and position. Wanting Merlin went against all of those. It was selfish and foolish and potentially disastrous even from the start. It was taking advantage of someone with no ability to refuse him, no matter how stubborn Merlin had proved himself capable of being, because Merlin did not want to refuse him. Merlin wanted to give him everything, and had proven many times that he would do so eagerly and without constraint, no matter what the cost. And Arthur had never been more grateful for that, because while it had been the cause of so much worry, at this most vital hour, it had saved them.

It had saved them.

Again Arthur found himself caught up in a wave of emotion, this time driving him to pull Merlin back into his arms and hold him. Just to hold him, at first too tightly and then easing back to something comfortable and solid. Merlin tensed and then relaxed, tensed and relaxed, caught up in an internal struggle that Arthur could only guess at. He simply waited it out, wanted until Merlin finally calmed and stayed calm.

"My sweet bird," Arthur whispered, voice catching as his throat tightened. He soothed Merlin to soothe himself, easing his grip further so that he could caress and pet Merlin's neck and back, and kiss him softly here and there.

Merlin raised his eyes to him, and Arthur saw his own need reflected back at him, and more.

"Shall I take care of you?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," Merlin breathed, barely a whisper. He swallowed, and his eyes were wet again.

Arthur wiped them dry. "Tell me what you want. What would make you feel good."

Merlin hesitated before replying, and visibly struggled with his answer. Arthur knew that what would truly make Merlin feel better was the removal of the restraint, but he had challenged Merlin to accept it, and Merlin would not back down from that challenge. To compromise now would only make things harder in the long run. He had to build up his endurance to a life without magic as he had for wearing armor and using a sword, and for such things there was no shortcut.

But getting Merlin to admit his needs was as difficult as getting him to talk about anything else personal. Clearly what he required was some assistance. It was fortunate, then, that Arthur knew his needs so well.

"Would you like this?" Arthur asked, reaching down to grasp Merlin's soft cock. He didn't stroke it, but simply held it and rubbed his thumb just under the head, a spot that never failed to make Merlin squirm. Merlin took a sharp breath in and a long one out, but still said nothing.

"Maybe this?" Arthur asked, tilting his head so that he could gently nip and suck at the soft skin of Merlin's throat, and this earned him a swallowed whimper and the shifting of Merlin's hips, both good signs. And he thought about the reward he had given Merlin in Gedref, the way Merlin had surrendered so deeply. How it was only when Arthur mastered Merlin completely that he could begin to sate that bottomless need. He reached out with his free hand and drew Merlin's arms up, then pinned his wrists against the pillows, holding him with his weight. "Or this?"

Merlin's reply was a breathy moan and a flush of heat against the palm of Arthur's right hand, and that was answer enough. For all that Merlin had given, what he needed was to give more. For Arthur to take all of him and make him feel safe and right in his arms. That was something Arthur was certain he could do.

Arthur kissed him, and Merlin parted his lips so that Arthur could press his tongue inside. He used force, even though Merlin did not want to resist and was hardly even capable of it. But he knew that Merlin needed to be pressed and pushed, needed to feel himself being held down and kept. If he was denied, he would only struggle and fight until he provoked Arthur into giving what he wanted anyway.

"Should I get my belt again?" Arthur asked, nipping at Merlin's lip. "Or the curtain ropes? Should I bind you up like a wild beast?"

"Just your hands," Merlin said, the spark returning to his eyes as his cock heated in Arthur's grip. "Your body. Just you."

"I'll hold you down," Arthur promised, rubbing his thumb against the slit of Merlin's cock, watching the way it made Merlin shift restlessly. "Keep you right where I want you. Where you belong. I'll never let you go."

Merlin cried out, and strained against Arthur's hold just to make him strengthen his grip. Arthur let go of Merlin's cock and rose up over him, sat on his wriggling hips and let Merlin feel his weight. Merlin curled up his legs and kicked at the bed, and Arthur moved again, this time bringing Merlin with him. The result was Merlin completely trapped, arms and legs pinned as Arthur wrapped bodily around him. Merlin tensed and strained against him, forcing Arthur to pull himself tighter and tighter around him.

"I have you," Arthur said, low into Merlin's ear. "I've caught you. Tell me what you are."

"Yours," Merlin gasped, and Arthur could feel the race of his pulse, could see Merlin's cock arching out full from his body. "Your knight."

"My knight," Arthur said, approvingly. He lay a kiss where the torc lay against Merlin's neck, feeling skin and body-warm metal against his lips, and Merlin breathed in sharply. "Wearing my armor," Arthur continued. "Serving me as you were meant to serve me."

"Yes," Merlin moaned, and Arthur could see him falling now, sliding into that state where he no longer struggled, where he did not have to strain towards submission but could let it swallow him. It was those moments when Arthur felt able to see Merlin most clearly, when the essence of him shone out past his peasant manners and stubborn foolishness. When the fears and tensions fell away, and what was left was something beautiful and rare and unguarded. Arthur had seen flashes of that essence here and there, but never as strongly as he had in Gedref, and he found himself chasing it now.

"Tell me what is mine," he prompted.

"All of me. Everything."

"Tell me."

"My life," Merlin said, voice trembling now. "My heart. My body. My magic."

The last word hung in the air, and if ignored it had the potential to destroy what they had worked so hard to regain. But Arthur saw the significance and seized it. "Yes," he said, shifting to strengthen his grip on Merlin even further. "All of you. Mine to use, and mine to care for. Mine to command, and mine to refuse. I have all of you now. There is nothing in you that is not mine. Is that understood?"

"Sire," Merlin cried, half pain and half joy.

Arthur released him, then, and lay Merlin on his back and covered him. There were fresh tears on Merlin's cheeks, and Arthur kissed them away, tasting the salt of them. He stroked Merlin's hair, his forehead. Merlin's eyes were glassy, yet beneath the fading tears there was a kind of peace.

"Do you want me inside you?" Arthur asked. "Tell me what you want."

"Fill me," Merlin breathed. "Open me up and fill me."

It was an order that Arthur was only too happy to obey. He kissed Merlin deeply and rutted his aching cock against him, letting Merlin feel how much he was wanted. "Don't move," Arthur told him, and pulled away. Thankfully there was still plenty of oil in the bedside chest.

Arthur took the opportunity to clear his head, even as he slicked his cock with oil. He let his gaze fall across the length of Merlin's body, taking in the full expanse of him. The fading bruises of battle, the gleaming silver torc, the florid marks that he had left across Merlin's throat. As much as he regretted the last, it was good that he looked at them. They reminded him that for all the parts of Merlin that were his, for all that Merlin surrendered to him, he had an equal obligation to protect and care for him. For the sorcerer as well as the knight, the servant, the man. Even if that protection meant standing between Merlin and the magic inside him. Merlin would give everything for Arthur. Arthur could not accept such fealty without returning it in kind.

It would be easier for Merlin, given his weakened condition, to lie on his front as Arthur fucked him, but Arthur needed to see his face through all of this. He needed to see his eyes and all the unspoken things within them. He knew better than to trust that Merlin would defend himself, especially when he was in a state of surrender.

He crawled back into the middle of the bed and coaxed Merlin to spread and bend his legs, baring himself. Arthur caressed Merlin's inner thighs, the join of his leg, avoiding Merlin's reddened cock and swollen balls. He was so beautiful like this, aroused and open and waiting to be taken. It had only been a week since Arthur last fucked him, but the journey back home had been a long one, and full of sacrifice. In a way, they were still on that journey, but at least they were nearing its end, and the last of Merlin's sacrifices. When it was done, Arthur would at last be able to build Merlin up into the man he truly was meant to be.

Arthur grabbed one of the sturdier pillows and tucked it under Merlin's hips, raising him up. He bent and took Merlin's cock into his mouth, sucking gently on the head, laving at the now-wet slit of it, drawing out the taste of him, bitter and good. Merlin thrust up against him until Arthur pinned him down again, and then all Merlin could do was writhe and moan as Arthur pressed slick fingers inside of him, rubbing to give him wave after wave of pleasure.

He didn't think Merlin would have enough stamina to come more than once tonight, so he stopped when Merlin was getting too close. He went back to stroking Merlin's thighs as he waited for him to ease back from the edge of his arousal.

Despite his need, Merlin was relaxed enough that when Arthur covered him again and pressed inside, Merlin's body parted easily for him. Yet he was still tight enough that Arthur had to take his time, fucking shallowly and working his way deep little by little. His patience made it all the better once he was fully sheathed in the slick heat of Merlin's body, which clenched and clung at him with a strength that Merlin's limbs lacked. Arthur thrust a few times to make himself comfortable, and then held himself deep for a time, letting Merlin savor the fullness he'd asked for. Arthur passed the time on Merlin's belly and chest, then took each nipple into his mouth in turn, and not leaving them until they were tight and swollen and wet with spit. Merlin clung weakly to him, reduced to a wordless string of soft gasps and moans and whines as Arthur had his way with him.

"So sweet for me," Arthur purred, pleased as ever by Merlin's descent into incoherence. He finally began to fuck Merlin, then, short strokes that only brought him halfway out and then fully in again, so deep that his balls were pressed taut between their bodies. And Merlin's cock was caught between them, too, and dripping more wetness against their bellies.

"Do you feel open now, Merlin?" Arthur teased. "Do you feel full?"

"Not full enough," Merlin slurred, unable to resist a challenge even now. He mustered some reserve of strength and his grip on Arthur increased, both within him and without, the tight squeeze of him making Arthur groan and fuck him harder, longer.

"I'll give you full," Arthur promised, and strengthened his thrusts until they were enough to drive Merlin into the pillows and off the one that had been under him. But now Merlin was with him, and his thighs clutched hard as Merlin rode his hips. When Merlin was recovered, Arthur was definitely going to have to give him his hand again.

But for now, Arthur knew that they were almost done. His own arousal was climbing high, and Merlin had been near the edge for a good while now. Arthur stopped holding back, stopped delaying the inevitable, and surrendered himself to the moment, to the feel of Merlin's body against him and around him, full of heat and life and devotion, and all of it was his. Merlin was his, all of him his, and Arthur allowed himself a glorious celebration of his victory as he came and came, pouring himself into the core of Merlin, taking base pleasure in marking him anew, in claiming him whole. No part of Merlin would be denied him ever again, and in that he took the deepest satisfaction.

They came down together, Arthur holding himself deep as he slowly softened. But Merlin's strength gave out, and he slumped down onto the bed, separating them. Arthur fell onto him and rested as he caught his breath, before dragging himself from the bed to grab a washcloth.

In the aftermath, Merlin was boneless and pliant, unresisting as Arthur wiped him clean and maneuvered him under the blankets. He was defenseless in a way he never truly had been before, now that he was weak and without his magic. Arthur could do anything to him and Merlin would be unable to stop him, unable to open locks or untie ropes or even fight as he had as a knight. But where such knowledge might have once intoxicated him, now it cautioned him. Arthur would not harm him again. As long as Merlin was his, he would be safe.

"My Merlin," Arthur murmured, resting his hand over Merlin's throat, over the bruises and the torc. He gave Merlin a doting smile, and Merlin smiled drowsily back. Arthur kissed him, still holding his neck, a claim without any force because it needed none. Merlin had wanted to give him his magic, and the transfer had been achieved. It was not for Merlin to decide what happened to it next, and that was something he would come to accept with time.

Merlin's mouth stilled below his own, and Arthur pulled back to see that exhaustion had claimed him despite his recent sleep. Arthur watched for a while as Merlin's sleep deepened, as his breathing slowed and evened and his features smoothed, and then went to clean himself up.

Arthur felt the gold torc around his own neck, and considered the strange turn that his life had taken over the past day. He was too worn out to analyze any of it further. He hoped that tomorrow Merlin would feel better, that he would begin to regain his strength and spark. He hoped that with time they would find a way to rid Merlin of his magic entirely and not have to depend upon the torcs. As effective as they had turned out to be, he looked forward to the day when Merlin was entirely free of sorcery of all kinds.

He closed the curtains and made his way back to bed by the light of the last candle. He slid in alongside Merlin and touched where the ends of his torc had sealed whole. It was as if they had never been separated at all, as if the torc had been forged by the magic into one solid piece, never to be broken. He tested the metal and found that it was strong, and satisfied, let it rest against Merlin's neck. Despite the magic, it was a beautiful piece of smithing, probably only rivalled in modern times by royal crowns. It was a shame that such skill had been bent to evil, but at least it had found a good purpose in the end. When Merlin's magic was gone, he would melt the torcs down along with his sword, and that would be the end of it all.

Everything was going according to plan. He blew out the last candle, pulled Merlin against him and into his arms, his certainty of their future easing the way to sleep.

Chapter Text

Gwen was not raised to be a worrier.

For her mother, it had been a practical matter. Her mother was a mender: of things, of problems, of people. It had always been that way, from Gwen when was small and wide-eyed at the world from behind her mother's skirts, all the way to the very end, when her mother was too weak from her illness to stand. Better to work than to worry, to fix than to fret, no matter how dark the day.

Her father also mended, re-forging broken tools and weapons until they were strong and whole. But he was a dreamer at heart, not a mender. Whenever there was spare time and spare steel, he would spend both in the forge, creating beautiful objects, shields and swords, weapons and tools of the highest art. Her father did not believe in worrying, because there was no room for worry between his anvil and his hammer, or in his dreams.

So Gwen did her best to do as she was taught. To mend and to dream, and not to fret about tomorrow or the day after. But it was hard not to worry. It was hard not to be afraid of what was to come, when she knew that her world might well be about to end.

"Pass the butter, please?" Gwen asked, and smiled politely as Ciara passed it to her.

"I'm so glad you were able to join us tonight, Gwen," Ciara said, smiling back. "It seems like we never see you anymore."

"She was starting to worry they'd locked you up again," joked Peithan.

"Peth!" Ciara chided, giving her husband a glare.

"It's all right," Gwen assured them. "Things have just been so busy lately. The Lady Morgana insisted I take the evening off, now that I'm not doing the work of three servants anymore."

"How is she doing these days?" Ciara asked.

"Not well, I'm afraid," Gwen sighed, looking down at the bread in her hand, preferring to look at the butter rather than the knowledge in Ciara's eyes. It was kind of her to ask, even though she certainly already knew the answer, as Morgana's health had long been the topic of town gossip. But Gwen had accepted her friend's offer of dinner in order to have a distraction, not a reminder. "It's good to have everyone home again," she said, changing the topic.

"I was so worried," Ciara said, looking to her husband. "I kept telling you, you didn't have to go. There are plenty of carpenters about."

"The Prince asked for me by name!" Peithan protested, his pride evident. "My name! I could hardly refuse."

"At least you're back now," Ciara said, clearly torn between relief and the lingering effects of weeks of anxiety. "But I don't care if the King himself asks for you. Lynwen is not growing up without a father."

Peithan rolled his eyes. "My own wife has no confidence in me," he said to Gwen, with exaggerated disappointment.

"I married a carpenter, not a soldier," Ciara said, loudly, and cursed under her breath as Lynwen woke and began to cry.

"I'll get her," Peithan said, glad for the excuse. He left the table and went to the other side of the house, where the baby had been sleeping.

Gwen reached over and rested her hand on Ciara's arm. "He's home now. He's fine. Everything's fine." She hoped that it wasn't a lie.

"I know," Ciara said. She mustered a smile and placed her other hand over Gwen's. "While he was gone, I was too worried about him to be angry. Now that he's home..."

"Just be glad that he is," Gwen said, because it was the sort of thing her mother would have said.

"I think she wants you," Peithan said, returning with an unhappy Lynwen. When she saw her mother, she reached for her and her cries tapered off. Ciara took her into her arms.

"She's growing so fast," Gwen marvelled. The last time she had seen Lynwen was almost two months ago, and in that time she had begun transforming from a baby into a little person. Lynwen peered shyly at Gwen and then ducked her head, giggled, and grabbed at Ciara's breast through her shirt.

"Hungry thing," Ciara tutted, and opened her shirt enough for Lynwen to nurse. She took to it eagerly, and settled against her mother, calmed. Peithan had sat down again, and was looking at his wife and daughter with a soft expression, full of fondness and love. Ciara met his gaze, and her own expression softened.

"I'll tell you a secret, Gwen," Ciara said, though she held Peithan's gaze. "We've been trying for our second. A son this time."

That explained why Ciara had given her food an extra dash of salt. "That's wonderful," she congratulated. It seemed that all of Gwen's friends in town were pairing off and having children. Gwen was starting to feel like the lone holdout.

"It is," Ciara said, but sobered again. "And with another mouth to feed, there'll be no running off to war."

"All right, all right," Peithan surrendered, holding up his hands. He looked to Gwen for support. "She hasn't even let me tell her a word since I got home, if you can believe it."

Gwen had known both Peithan and Ciara since they were all young enough to be running around town scraping up their knees and causing mischief. Peithan had always liked Ciara, but had tended to show his affection by pulling her hair and scaring her with bugs and toads. Gwen had never been scared of such things, but Ciara would scream and cry. It had taken years for Peithan to realize that what his attempts to woo Ciara were counterproductive, and years more before Ciara forgave him and accepted his posys of wildflowers. For all that they had grown and fallen deeply in love, some things about them had never truly changed.

"I don't want to hear about people dying," Ciara said, lowering her voice and placing a hand over Lynwen ear.

"You know we didn't close enough to the fighting for that," Peithan protested. "And anyway, barely anyone died at all, once they stopped going up the wall."

"Oh?" Gwen asked, curious. With Merlin unable to tell her what had really happened, all she knew was the list of deeds that Geoffrey had rattled off, and that had mostly been an account of how many of the enemy had been killed or driven off by each knight. It was the typical sort of thing that was celebrated at the end of a victory, and as usual it said very little about the actual battle itself. But as most battles were actually quite unpleasant, Gwen had never minded not knowing the details. This time was different.

"Yes," Peithan said, eager to tell Gwen even if Ciara still didn't want to hear any of it. "We all thought it was going to go badly at first. Poor fellows were barely making it up to the top of the ladder. And then, well..." He trailed off, as if uncertain he should continue, then rallied again. "I hardly believed it myself. But the knights actually volunteered to go on the wall themselves."

Ciara was shocked. "They never!"

"I know!" Peithan said, sharing her amazement. "They took the men right off the ladders and went up themselves. Nearly ended up boiled alive for it, too, but the fool Deorham hadn't made the water hot enough." He chuckled. "You should have seen them, shouting at each other and running around in a panic. And they toppled right over when the knights got at them. It was spectacular."

"It must have been amazing," Gwen said, with some envy. Even though she had no love for war, there was always a part of her that longed to go with the carpenters and smithies when they marched away. The same part of her that couldn't let go of her father's dreams, of her own dreams, even as she strove to follow her mother's practicality.

"Did they fight their way down?" Ciara asked, curious now despite her reluctance.

"They didn't leave the wall, and we thought they were stuck," Peithan explained. "But the Prince took everyone over to the gate anyway. And then not half an hour had passed before they opened right up, just like that."

"That was Sir Geraint, wasn't it?" Gwen asked, remembering that he had been singled out during the ceremony. It was one of the few things mentioned that hadn't been about killing. Geraint had died fighting the Deorham's sorcerer.

Peithan hesitated again, and some of the joy went out of him. "Yes. Sir Geraint. And Sir Merek."

"Such a shame," Ciara said. Lynwen had finished nursing, and Ciara closed her shirt back up, placed a napkin over her shoulder, and patted Lynwen to burp her.

"Sir Leon's to be Arthur's new second," Gwen said, changing the topic to something cheerier. Leon was a few years older than her, and of course they had never been close. But she had spent a great deal of time around him and his family when she had been younger, helping her mother and learning her duties. At one point, Gwen had been expected to become a servant in Leon's household, and nearly had. Over the years, Leon had grown into a fine man, a good knight, and though they had always been separated by class and formality, she was proud of him.

"He could end up as the Prince's first one day, when he's King himself," Ciara said. "That would put you in fine favor with the royal household."

"Oh, I couldn't impose," Gwen protested. She didn't even like to take advantage of her position as Morgana's maidservant. It didn't feel right, putting herself above other people. She didn't want to be like the servants who pretended they were just as important as their masters, lording over everyone else when they were in the market.

"You've always been far too sweet for your own good, Gwen," Ciara said. Lynwen, fed and happy, was now much more interested in their guest than her parents. She tried to climb across the table to get to Gwen, and struggled when she was held back.

"Give her here. I'm done eating anyway." Gwen took Lynwen and smiled dotingly at her, teasing her and making faces at her.

"That's just what I mean," Ciara said, fondly. "You're always too busy looking out for everyone else to take care of yourself. You should find a good man and let him take care of you for a change. Start a family and fill up that house of yours again."

"I know," Gwen sighed. "I want to, I do. It's just..."

"Your father's been gone for a year now," Ciara said, with sympathetic concern. "You have to move on."

"I'm not alone out of mourning," Gwen said, prickled by the assumption.

"Isell was asking after you the other day," Peithan said. "He's been keen on you for a while."

Isell was a baker's son. He'd had an unfortunate adolescence, but was maturing into a fine man, attractive if not quite handsome. He would inherit his father's business and was, on the face of him, a fine prospect. But he was so ordinary, and had no ambition beyond what had already been laid out for him. There was nothing in him that drew her.

Gwen wanted someone who wasn't ordinary. Who had dreams of their own, who didn't simply accept the life they were given. She had been drawn to Merlin for his bravery, and she had been drawn to Lancelot for his courage. But Merlin's heart was plainly taken, and Lancelot had only been a flirtation, a spark that never had the chance to catch into flame. And... well. Some dreams were not meant to be attained.

"Isell will find someone else to be keen on," Gwen said. "How about Sanan? She's had a crush on him ever since his skin cleared up."

That set Ciara and Peithan off on a round of matchmaking, and Gwen left them to it, focusing her attention on Lynwen instead. So many babies being born, or planned, and none of them might live to see the next season. Gwen ached to warn them all, to go to each house and insist they pack their belongings and run away from Camelot as fast as they could. But she could not. She knew from bitter experience that she could not. Either they would not believe her, or they would, and either way it would only lead to disaster.

Best to keep busy. To keep focused on what was in front of her, and not to worry about a tomorrow that might never come.

There was always a curfew in times of war, and the current curfew would not end until Alined formally surrendered. So as soon as dinner was finished, Gwen bid them goodnight. Ciara gave her a bag of herbs that the town healer swore up and down would help guard against bad dreams, and Gwen took it gratefully, even though she knew it was unlikely to help. Gwen had already tried all the little bags of herbs that there were to try, and none of them had ever stopped Morgana's dreams.

On her way back to the castle, Gwen stopped by her house. It needed airing and dusting after standing empty for weeks. Morgana had tried to persuade her to sleep at home for a change, but Gwen still couldn't bear being alone all night in an empty house. Better to stay with Morgana and watch over her, and be there for her to settle her from her nightmares. Better to be there to hear what was coming, than to wonder and be caught unawares with everyone else.

Gwen opened up the windows and wiped down the tables, changed the straw and freshened her bedding. Most of her clothes and personal belongings were in Morgana's chambers, but she checked everything over to make sure there were no moths and that nothing was missing. She did not leave anything valuable in the house now that it stood empty much of the time, but neither could she stand to see it bare, as if it was no longer her house at all.

In the end, her mother could not mend herself. Her father's dreams and artful weapons could not shield him. In the end, she had lost her mother to illness, lost her brother to his grief, and lost her father to harsh reality. The house was all she had left of them, the house and the cold forge beside it, and she could not let go of either.

At least now she could afford to pay the rent on both. She had sold all but the most prized of her father's creations, and then had sold the spare furniture and possessions, in order to make ends meet, since her mother's illness and her father's grief had drained away the family savings and her salary was not enough on its own. She was down to the one bed, the simple table settings, and had been near the end of her resources when Arthur and Merlin had suddenly given her a ridiculous amount of gold in payment for her father's sword. She could buy it all back now if she wanted, but there was hardly any point when she was never home anyway. She had saved what was important.

There were some things that Gwen had left in the house, things that she could not safely bring to the castle. Thing that had been her parents', from the old days, and had been carefully hidden and handed down. Gwen went to the back of the house and pulled away the sacks that she kept stored there. She rolled away the mat and exposed the hidden compartment beneath. Her father had built it during the Purge, and made it of iron so heavy that it would take a dozen men to lift it, and a giant to break it. Yet she had been taught the way to make it open, with the right pressure to the right spot.

She took out the few, precious items it contained. The small statues of Modron, the triple goddess, and Gofannon, god of smithing. The gold cup with its fine engraving, the small ceramic crucible, and the ritual knife.

This was the other reason she could not lose the house. She could not let anyone discover the hidden compartment, and without it, she could not keep these relics of the Old Religion. She had come too close to execution herself, and she would not suffer the same fate as her father, as Linette and Uwen, as so many others. It did not matter that she had no magic herself, that none of her family ever had. Worship of the Old Gods was treason enough, but like the house and the forge, it was all Gwen had left of her family, and she would not give it up.

She set the items up away from any possibility of prying eyes. First the two statues, and then the gold cup with a little ale poured into it. She carved her name into the wax of a small candle and placed it in the crucible, and lit it. She prayed for Elyan to be safe and to come home. She prayed for Morgana and Merlin to be well, for Camelot and all her children to be protected. She prayed until the candle burned down, then cleaned out the crucible and the cup and put everything safely away.

§

It was dusk when she left the house, and the pale light was fading fast. Thankfully the guards knew her and always let her pass when she came home late during curfew. She cut across the courtyard, having one more errand to run before she could settle down for the night.

She found that the door to Gaius' chambers was closed and locked, and was about to give up on knocking when Gaius arrived from up the stairs behind her.

"Oh, Gaius, there you are," Gwen greeted. It was odd for Gaius to be out so late. Usually he did all his deliveries and errands at midday, so that he had time for council duties in the morning and everything else in the afternoon. But Gaius was kept on his feet for far longer these days, ever since Merlin moved into Arthur's chambers. He really ought to take on a new apprentice, or at least a page.

Gaius had looked distracted and serious when he was climbing the stairs, but he shook off whatever was bothering him and greeted her back with a warm smile. "Gwen, my dear. I believe I owe you a draught."

"Afraid so," Gwen said. She waited as he slowly unlocked the door and then followed him inside. Even though Merlin had only lived with Gaius for a year, she felt his absence from the room. She saw him more often now that he was living with Arthur, of course, and she with Morgana, all four of them so close together. But when he had lived with Gaius, in a way Merlin had been hers as much as he had been Arthur's. Merlin had always turned to her for help, and while he still did on occasion, it was far less often now that he could more freely impose on Arthur. After all, it was one thing for Arthur to turn down a request from his manservant, and another entirely to turn down a request from his lover.

She expected that once things settled down again, they would all resume their regular sword practice. She had not yet worked up the courage to ask to join them, though she wanted to. She knew how to use a sword, of course, and had sparred freely in her youth with her father and brother, and even with Morgana, in their early days together. But when Morgana had stopped sparring, Gwen had stopped too. And now that Morgana was sparring again, Gwen was tempted to ask, and knew that if she did, Morgana would agree. But it was one thing for the King's ward to have such an indulgence now that she was grown. It was one thing for her to drag the Prince's manservant into her games with the Prince. But for her own maidservant to spar on the training fields was a step too far, no matter that she was the blacksmith's daughter. Especially as the blacksmith had been executed for consorting with sorcerers. Morgana had already done so much for her after her father's death, protecting her against accusation of complicity in her father's treason, against revived suspicions about her father's recovery during the plague. Gwen could not impose upon her further.

"How was her sleep last night?" Gaius asked, as he gathered the ingredients he needed for the draught. With the new formula he was using, he needed to make each dose fresh every night, or it would quickly lose its potency.

"The usual disturbances, but she hasn't woken up screaming." Those nights were the worst, but thankfully the new draughts seemed to be putting an end to them. Morgana still tossed and turned in her sleep, still spoke of things she should not know, but she did not wake in terror, and she did not remember the things that she dreamed. It was a small mercy, but Gwen was grateful for it. Too many times Morgana had run from her chambers upon waking, too wild with fear to be aware of the danger she was putting herself in when she screamed out her nightmares to all and sundry. If Morgana was not the King's ward, she would surely have been executed years ago. Instead, she was dismissed as a madwoman, which was hardly better. No one would want to marry a madwoman, even if she was a King's ward.

Morgana was not mad, but her nightmares seemed bent on driving her into madness. Gaius' potions were the only thing that stood in their way, and for that reason Gwen always made sure that Morgana took her medicine. If only the medicine itself was not becoming a problem.

"It's how she is in the daytime that worries me," Gwen continued. With each strengthening of her draughts, Morgana herself was fading further away.

"Perhaps we can hold the same dose, as she slept through the night," Gaius said, with kind reassurance.

"Yes," Gwen agreed, relieved. Hopefully this round of awful nightmares would end soon, as the others had before them, and they could go back to the old draughts. Perhaps they had not been enough to stop Morgana from waking in terror, but at least they had not taken her days along with her nights.

Gwen did not know if Gaius was aware of the truth about Morgana's nightmares. It was not something that could be spoken of in the castle, even behind locked doors. But he had surely heard enough of her desperate cries, and observed the timing of her nightmares, to at least suspect the obvious. That Morgana's dreams were the dreams of a seer, and therefore granted to her through some magical means. That did not necessarily mean it was her own magic, as there were stories of people being cursed with foresight rather than born with it. But in Camelot, such a distinction would not matter.

Gwen had never asked Gaius, just as she had never raised the question to Morgana herself, for Morgana could hardly ignore the obvious any more than she or Gaius could. And yet it was better for them all to pretend that her nightmares were only nightmares. It was better to play the game of denial than to confront the truth, when the truth brought with it such dire consequences. Gwen had lost so many people already, she would not lose Morgana as well.

She waited patiently as Gaius prepared the draught, then took it from him. But before she left, she remembered something that Merlin had said to her yesterday.

"Gaius," she began, "Merlin said that there's a physician in Gedref who might be able to help Morgana. Do you think perhaps we could arrange a visit, once the treaty is signed?"

"Perhaps," Gaius said, though he did not seem eager for the idea. "But it's a long way to travel, and I would not recommend such a journey as long as Morgana is so unwell."

"Then maybe we could have the physician come to us?" Gwen suggested. "I'm sure the King would be happy to cover his expenses." The King did dote on Morgana, at least when he wasn't threatening her for defying him. Thankfully none of Morgana's outbursts of prophecy had reached the King's ears. Even denial had its limits.

"His skill is dearly needed in Gedref, especially after a siege and a battle," Gaius said. "But I will write him a letter, if it will ease your mind. He may have some recommendations for her treatment."

"That would be wonderful, thank you," Gwen said, grateful. "I'd better get this up to Morgana. Good night, Gaius."

"Good night, my dear. I'll see you tomorrow evening."

Gwen hoped that she would not, but knew that she would. Because the one person she knew who could help, the one person she needed to pass Morgana's warnings to, was the one person she couldn't reach. It was Merlin.

§

Just as the timing and outbursts of Morgana's nightmares made it obvious that her dreams were more than dreams, Merlin's oddities and warnings had given away his own nature. If anything, he had been quite plain about it, as he had confessed to curing her father right in front of the King himself. As with Morgana, Merlin's life had been saved by the dismissing of his words as the result of a temporary madness, in his case caused by love. Even Morgana believed Arthur's claim. But Gwen knew all too well that Merlin did not love her, not as anything more than a good friend. He had never once looked at her the way he looked at Arthur, even then.

If his confession had not been borne of the madness of love, then like Morgana he must have spoken the truth, even if it was a truth that no one wanted to hear. And it explained so much. It explained her father's sudden and unique recovery, it explained Merlin's guilt at seeing her imprisoned and condemned. And it explained why Merlin had asked Morgana to persuade Arthur to help them hunt down the creature that had caused the plague in the first place, ultimately saving her life as well as the lives of everyone in Camelot.

Even though Merlin had not returned her affections, she had fallen quite in love with him for all of that. For saving her father, and then saving her, with such foolhardy bravery. When he had nearly died from drinking poison to protect Arthur, and he had survived against the odds, she had not been able to stop herself from kissing him. But it was a stolen kiss, and one she never should have taken.

Knowing the truth, that Merlin not only had magic but was using it to protect others, was a tremendous relief, even if she could no more speak of it than she could speak of Morgana's prophecies. Every time Morgana's nightmares riled up and an attack came, Merlin would somehow be at the center of it. Usually it was because he had tried to stop it, even going so far as to warn Arthur, but Arthur generally dismissed Merlin's warnings just as he had Merlin's confession. Gwen sometimes hid in the shadows and followed him, keeping at a safe distance, and watched as he did what she could not, despite the fact that he rarely received the warnings that seemed somehow meant for him.

She did not like being a coward. She had tried to take advantage of Morgana's warnings herself, tried to alert those in danger, to prevent whatever crisis was foreseen. But when she had intervened, it had raised too many questions. She then tried entrusting her knowledge to those who would keep it safe, but as a result they themselves were suspected of sorcery. It only took the execution of one of her friends for Gwen to silence herself completely, to accept that she could only wait and let the inevitable happen. The alternative was even worse than Morgana's dreams.

But Merlin could act, and was somehow able to do so without being accused of sorcery, even when he confessed to it or was blatantly implicated. She could only assume it was because of Arthur. No one could even imagine that the Prince would keep a sorcerer for a manservant, or that the King would condone and even endorse such treason. And Arthur was always protecting Merlin from one thing or another, shielding him from the reality of castle politics, from situations that might imperil him, from the ambitions of others. Merlin seemed as unaware of those protections as Arthur was unaware of all that Merlin was doing to keep Camelot safe. And that was before they had become lovers. That this state of mutual ignorance had persisted since then was a mystery to Gwen, but perhaps it was because they were men, as men could be rather oblivious about things.

As she reached the hallway to both Arthur and Morgana's chambers, Gwen hesitated. She wanted to knock on the door and check to see that Merlin was all right. She wanted to pass on Morgana's muttered warnings. But she was afraid. She was afraid that what she had heard last night was not the throes of passion. Merlin never left Arthur's side, and even after his tumble down the steps, when he had barely been able to hobble about, with his ankle and head bandaged and his arm in a sling, he had been desperate to follow after Arthur to Mercia. When Merlin had been ill and feverish after being poisoned, he had still managed to mumble spells of protection for Arthur, obvious to Gwen even though Gaius did his best to blame his words on the fever. Gwen knew enough prayers in the old tongue to recognize a spell when she heard it.

If injury and illness could not keep Merlin from Arthur's side, if even Arthur's various moments of rejection had not been enough to dissuade him, how could anything make Merlin hide away all day, unwilling to see even his closest friends?

And that was not all. For all the intensity of their passion, which Gwen had blushed to overhear many times, she knew that Merlin was putting himself in great danger by falling in love with Arthur. As soon as he had been old enough to fight, Arthur had become the King's hand in the enforcement of his laws, especially when it came to magic. Arthur had led many attacks on the Druids, who had never harmed anyone. He led the searches that were regularly done through every room in the castle and every building in the lower town. Over the last two years, Arthur had arrested every single one of his friends: Morgana for helping the Druid boy, Gwen for her father's recovery, and Merlin for his attempts to stop Cedric. He had arrested her father for allowing a sorcerer to use his forge, even though he had not known the man was a sorcerer until it was too late. Gwen had hope that Arthur had learned something from her father's undeserved execution, his outright murder, but when she had brought Linette to him, all that had happened was the death of three instead of one. He had failed her, failed Camelot, and now... now she was afraid that he had failed Merlin. Not just because Merlin was so unlikely to hide away, not just because she had heard raised voices and loud noises, but because she had seen something cold in Arthur's eyes that morning, and it reminded her of of the coldness in Uther's when he had condemned her to death.

She was afraid. She could admit that to herself, at least. She was afraid for Merlin and afraid for all of them. She was afraid that she should have warned Merlin yesterday, before it was too late, because among Morgana's fragmented words was Merlin's name, and that meant he was in danger himself.

But hard experience paralyzed her, muted her. She could do nothing and hated herself for it. Hated that she was boxed in from all sides, unable to warn or to act without causing further harm. So she tried not to worry. She tried with all that she had.

She took a deep breath and let it out, and walked towards Morgana's door.

She was surprised to find Morgana out of bed, standing with her face towards the moonlight as it streamed in through the open window. Even though it was a full day since her last dose of the new draught, she was still under its influence. Her brief rally that morning had cost her dearly, and now she was glassy-eyed and unnaturally quiet, and every trace of pink was drained from her cheeks. It broke Gwen's heart to see her this way, and made her want to take the draught in her hands and cast it out the window. But if she did that, nothing would stop the dreams. And she had to stop the dreams, or she would lose Morgana.

"My lady," Gwen said, leaving the draught on the bedside table and hurrying over to Morgana. The night was chilly, and when she touched Morgana, her skin felt even colder than the air. "Come, you need to warm yourself." She guided Morgana back to her bed, disturbed by her pliancy. Morgana was never meant to be pliant. If only her nightmares would ease their grip, and things could go back to the way they had been.

"The cold... I was trying to clear my head," Morgana said, her speech slurred at the edges.

"Rest will help with that. The last thing you need now is to catch a chill." Gwen helped Morgana into the center of her bed and pulled the blankets up around her.

"You always take such good care of me," Morgana said, mustering a tired smile.

"I just want you to be well," Gwen said, gently. She rested her hand against Morgana's cheek, wishing that she could somehow will Morgana better. She wished that she did have magic, that there was a bag of herbs she could place under Morgana's pillow that would make her wake up fully recovered. She remembered the herbs that Ciara had given her, then, and pulled them out of her pocket. "I had dinner with Ciara today. She and Peithan asked after you. They wanted me to give you this." She pressed the small bag into Morgana's hand, and Morgana gripped it loosely before bringing it up to her nose and breathing in.

"Rosemary," she breathed, and sniffed again. "Thyme and... is that anise? Anise and chervil."

They were all good herbs, healing herbs. They would do absolutely nothing to help, but sometimes it was the thought that counted more than anything else. And right now Gwen was in no position to be choosy. "Shall I put it under your pillow?"

"Mmm. Then tell me about your day. I want to know everything."

"I will, as soon as you take your sleeping draught," Gwen insisted, picking up the bottle and opening it.

Morgana gave an unhappy look at the innocuous little bottle, but sighed and took it despite her unhappiness. Gwen sometimes wished that Morgana would resist the draughts, because at least then it would give Gwen an excuse not to give them to her. But Morgana didn't want her dreams, and deep down was probably even more frightened by them than Gwen was. Gwen could not imagine how she must feel, as the King's ward, to be burdened with magic that could cost her her life. Or perhaps she did know, having faced execution herself. Perhaps she knew exactly why Morgana would choose drugged oblivion over the truth.

Gwen wanted to laugh at all of them. They were all so trapped in this place, divided by their fears, by the fears of everyone around them. They had not started out in such a desperate state. There had been a time before the nightmares, before Merlin, when she and Morgana had been innocent and unaware of the trials that lay before them. When Morgana had been a newly orphaned girl, using her bold confidence to hide her grief and loneliness, and Gwen had still had a family. She could still see that girl in Morgana now, despite all the dreams and draughts had done to obscure her.

Gwen took the empty bottle and closed it, and put it back into her pocket. She sat with Morgana and talked to her until the draught pulled her down into a deep, unnatural sleep. She did not leave for her own bed in the side room, but stayed with her, smoothing her hair and stroking her forehead.

It was not until the night of Morgana's 18th birthday that the nightmares began. At first they were small and seemed little more than bad dreams brought on by too much indulgence at her birthday feast. But no matter what she ate, the nightmares kept coming back, a little stronger each time. It was Gaius' draught that made Morgana begin to talk in her sleep, and with her unconscious mutterings came Gwen's realization that the dreams were more than just dreams.

And as if Morgana's suffering was not enough, soon after those first nightmares, Gwen's mother fell ill. Gaius took it upon himself to care for her, even refusing payment for his treatments, but in the end there was nothing to be done. Grief crushed her father's spirit for a long time, and it drove Elyan away. And just when her father seemed to be rallying at last, regaining his strength and passion for the forge, perhaps inspired by the sight of the King himself victorious in combat bearing his finest sword, he was gone.

Five years of suffering, of pain and grief and loss, and Gwen wondered when it would be enough. When the gods would finally answer her desperate prayers and have some kind of mercy on them all. If they would all be orphans before their trials were ended. Of the four of them, they only had two parents left, and even though she knew how much it would hurt Arthur, Gwen would not be sorry to see Uther die. But then, if Morgana's latest nightmare came true, and Merlin could not stop it, there would be no more orphans in Camelot because there would be no more Camelot at all.

Gwen picked up Morgana's lax hand and held it between her own. She kissed it and pressed it against her cheek. And though she had already prayed that night, though she had no statue, no cup, no crucible at hand, she prayed again, and did not stop until she slumped asleep.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke slowly and without alarm, calm in a way that he had not been in weeks. Merlin was warm against his back, limbs wrapped around him, holding him yet lax from sleep. Merlin's breath fell against his neck, soft puffs of air that tickled the hair on his nape. When they had gone to sleep, Arthur had been holding Merlin. At some point, they both must have turned in their sleep. Arthur turned again, careful not to disturb Merlin or lose his embrace.

Merlin did stir then, but only until he had resettled comfortably against Arthur. His limbs tightened their grip as he reassured himself that Arthur was still there, and then he was out again. Arthur smiled indulgently and lightly stroked Merlin's hair, smoothing out the disarray that sleep had left behind. The fear and panic of the day before seemed distant and irrelevant.

His Merlin. His brave, foolish Merlin. Relief flooded anew through Arthur's chest, knowing that Merlin was safe now, that he had not been lost. His own grip on Merlin tightened and held, and he pressed soft kisses to the bridge of Merlin's nose, to his forehead. But his grip eased again as the remnants of his fear fell away again, unable to regain the hold they had claimed on him.

As if in response to Arthur's thoughts, Merlin stirred again. Arthur watched fondly as he went through the slow stages of his awakening: the restless shifting, the way he clung harder and then eased, the twist of his mouth and the furrow of his brow, and then finally the way his eyes scrunched up and then relaxed and opened, lashes fluttering as he blinked in confusion. His eyes slowly focused on Arthur, and then he smiled.

"Arthur," Merlin sighed, and closed his eyes again.

"Morning," Arthur murmured, and kissed him on the nose again. It made Merlin's scrunch up his face, which was always adorable.

"How do you feel?" Arthur asked, keeping his voice gentle and quiet. "The same as yesterday?"

Merlin took a moment to respond. "Better, I think," he said, slowly. "Not so empty."

Arthur kissed him again, rested a hand on the back of his neck, the base of his palm against the silver torc. "Good," he said, not hiding his relief. He had meant it when he told Gaius that he did not want Merlin to suffer. He knew that Merlin could brave through a great deal of pain if he had to, but he was glad that they had found a way to stop the magic without needing to resort to such measures. And really, it should not have been a surprise that Merlin would defy the odds yet again. If anyone could recover from having magic, it was Merlin.

"I love you," Arthur murmured.

The novelty of the words had yet to wear off, and it eased something in his heart to say them aloud. Each time, it sewed another stitch in his wound, the one he had thought could never close, never heal. It eased the loneliness and guilt that he had felt his entire life, because his birth had meant his mother's death, his father's grief. And if his father was weak because of that grief, if the kingdom was weak because of his father, it followed that the kingdom was weak because his birth had weakened it.

When he was younger, Arthur had believed that he could prove worthy of his mother's sacrifice, that he could undo the damage his birth had caused. That he could earn forgiveness. And so he pushed himself even harder than his father pushed him. He fulfilled every expectation, shouldered every burden. It did not matter if the task was unpleasant or perilous or one he personally agreed with. He had been born to this life and all its duties, and his life was pledged to the kingdom and to his king. The cost of his birth had been high, but Arthur was determined to repay it.

As Arthur matured, he realized that he had been wrong. How could he ever earn forgiveness for killing his mother, for destroying his father's heart? Such damage could not be undone, and so he could never be forgiven, and the realization had embittered him. Certainly he had found joy in victory, pride in his father's approval, satisfaction in knowing that he could not be beaten in tourney or in battle. But that was not love. That was not happiness. Those were things he could never have, things he did not deserve. And so he took what he could from those who would give it, but never let them close. If they tried, he would push them away, for their own good as well as his own.

Until Merlin. If Arthur pushed Merlin away, Merlin pushed himself right back in. If Arthur was cold to freeze him out, Merlin was hot, melting away his defenses. If Arthur was sensible, logical in his arguments, Merlin defied both sense and logic. His battles against Merlin were the only ones he had ever truly lost, and they were over and done before Arthur could even raise his sword.

Merlin's answering smile sewed another stitch inside him. "I love you," Merlin said, and snuggled closer, pressed their foreheads together and closed his eyes.

"Not afraid of jinxing us?" Arthur asked, remembering Merlin's outburst in the cavern.

Merlin gave a soft laugh, took a deep breath in and out. "I think we're past the worst now."

Arthur's father, Morgana, the council, the knights, all the way down to the lowest servant, they all knew what Arthur was, what he had been, what he could never make up for. But Merlin looked at him and saw what he could be, saw an Arthur that didn't even exist, and yet gave his love freely to the Arthur that was. And instead of chasing the ghosts of the past, Arthur found himself eager for their future.

Arthur brought a hand up to rest it against Merlin's cheek, and Merlin turned against it, kissed his palm before turning back again.

"Thank you," Merlin said, opening his eyes again. They were so close together that it made Merlin's eyes cross a little, which was so adorable that Arthur had to kiss him again or he'd end up laughing. This time it was a proper kiss, and Merlin kissed back, all soft from sleep.

"For?" Arthur prompted, finally, when they stopped.

"Mm?" Merlin blinked at him.

"You were thanking me," Arthur reminded him, a doting smile tugging at his lips.

"Right," Merlin said. "I was thanking you."

"For anything in particular?"

"Yes," Merlin said, visibly gathering his wits, after Arthur's kisses had so thoroughly driven them away. "For giving me a chance. For being willing to listen. I realize... I know how hard it was for you. How afraid you were. You don't have to be afraid, Arthur. Not of me. I never want you to be afraid of me."

"I'm not," Arthur said. He had never been afraid of Merlin, only of the magic inside him. Now that the magic was stopped, tamed by the torcs, there was nothing in Merlin that he could ever fear. He could not fear what was his, what loved him. "Not anymore."

"Whatever it takes to prove myself to you. Whatever you need. It's already yours."

"I know," Arthur said. He petted Merlin, and Merlin melted against him, content. He was reminded of how Merlin had been in Gedref, both before the battle, when he had been so eager to be of use, and after, when he had been so calm and trusting. Merlin had only wanted to prove himself then, as a knight. Arthur let his hand rest on the torc again, feeling the warm metal against his palm. "You're already proving yourself to me."

"I'll keep it on," Merlin promised. "As long as you need me to wear it. It's not so bad, now."

Arthur kissed him for that. Even though he felt better knowing that the torcs meant Merlin's magic was completely under his control, he was glad to not have to force the matter. He did not want Merlin to be unhappy, or to have to restrain him against his will. "My brave knight."

Merlin gave a happy squirm at that, and a restless twitch of his hip. Arthur reached down between them and felt Merlin's morning arousal. It seemed Merlin truly was feeling better. He gripped it loosely and gave it a few testing strokes.

"Mm, sire," Merlin murmured, heat sparking in his eyes, rousing him in more ways than one. "My King."

"Shall your King reward his brave knight?" Arthur teased.

"If my King wishes," Merlin said, mouth curved in a knowing smirk. Arthur couldn't resist smothering it with kisses as he pushed Merlin onto his back and covered him, as their bodies rubbed languidly and lazily together.

Unlike the night before, Merlin had the strength to hold him back, to caress and grip at his back and arse as Arthur settled between his thighs. The blankets were pushed down and kicked away as they both grew heated, as their kisses became more eager and passionate. Merlin began to grasp at him with urgency, scratching at him with blunted nails, nipping at his lips, and then at last pushing his shoulders down to urge him on to the promised reward.

Arthur wasted no time in gripping Merlin's erection, giving his first teasing licks to the already-swollen flesh. On another day, he might have drawn out Merlin's pleasure with a long tease, but right now he wanted to feel how alive Merlin was, wanted to feel the pulse of him against his tongue. Merlin spread his thighs wide and spread his arms out across the bed as Arthur slipped a finger into Merlin's still-slick arse and took his cock deeper into his mouth, sucking and laving at it as if it was some long-denied treat.

He kept up his assault as Merlin groaned and writhed beneath him, flushing prettily as he tossed his head back and forth against the pillows. He knew Merlin's body so well that it was easy to play him to a perfect tune, giving Merlin spike after spike of pleasure without letting it rise too far.
Merlin eventually stopped grabbing at the bed and grabbed at Arthur's hair instead, guiding Arthur to take him deeper. Arthur released his grip on Merlin's cock and took it all into his mouth, his throat, and used both hands to drive Merlin wild, two fingers crooked inside him while his thumbs pressed behind his balls. Merlin's groans grew louder and more desperate until his whole body went taut, and he keened as his cock pulsed against Arthur's tongue and into his throat.

Arthur swallowed neatly and then drew himself from Merlin's cock with a slurp. Merlin was laid out and panting, cheeks and mouth and body flushed and eyes sparkling beneath lowered lashes. He looked beautiful and alive and Arthur climbed over him and kissed him again, grateful beyond words. He couldn't break the kiss, couldn't let go, but when Merlin's hand wrapped around his aching cock, he covered it with his own and used Merlin's hand to bring himself off. He came quickly and in long stripes over Merlin's front, and sighed in contentment.

"You've made a mess of me," Merlin murmured, smiling against his mouth.

"Leave it," Arthur said, pinning Merlin's wrists above his head. He dragged in a chestful of air and finally broke away, soaking in the sight of Merlin and the torc and his come. Merlin was his, all of him his, and nothing would ever change that now. Nothing would ever take Merlin away from him, not magic and not his father's laws.

When the possessive urge calmed in him, sated for the moment, he released Merlin's wrists and sat up beside him. He couldn't resist trailing his fingers through the drying come, marking Merlin that much further before feeding him his finger to suck clean. Merlin gave a soft hum as Arthur dragged his spit-clean finger against his swollen lips, and then stilled as Arthur's hand covered the torc. There was a brief flare of discomfort in Merlin's face, but it quickly eased.

Even though his larger plans had not changed overnight, Arthur felt a greater affinity towards the torcs now. It was obvious that Gaius' worries had been exaggerated, and Merlin would be able to wear the restraint for as long as was necessary. And it was a beautiful piece, and suited Merlin in a strange way. The gold torc he wore himself was surprisingly comfortable, barely noticeable despite its solid weight. It was certainly something he could have worn proudly if it did not have such negative associations with sorcery. He had always had some interest in Albion culture from before the Romans because of his ancestry, because of the Pendragon line that went back more than a thousand years. Few records survived, mainly due to the Roman purges, but there was evidence that the old chieftains would indeed have worn such torcs as a symbol of their status.

The morning light was growing too bright and high to ignore. Arthur reluctantly slid out of bed and stretched, working out the last of the sleep from his bones. Merlin sat up in the bed but was slower to get going, and Arthur had already finished his morning ablutions by the time Merlin dragged himself to his feet.

Arthur couldn't help himself, and grabbed the washcloth again before Merlin could take it. He wiped Merlin's front down, cleaning away his marks before rinsing off the cloth and allowing Merlin to finish on his own.

"With all the knights staying in Camelot, it will be a full morning of training," Arthur said, as he pulled out some suitable clothes from his wardrobe. "I want you to stay by my side today. Will you be up for the usual fetch and carry?"

"I think so," Merlin said, as he dried himself off. "But I'm probably not up to running around the field in full armor."

Arthur turned to see Merlin's self-effacing smile, and saw the longing there. Merlin wanted to be out there with the knights, training with them, not stuck on the sidelines. Arthur wanted Merlin out there, too, but they could not afford to indulge that way. They needed to remind the knights that Merlin was now only a servant again, that his secrets had to be kept. It would simply be too dangerous to muddy the waters by allowing Merlin to join in, even if he was feeling up to it.

"Let's take things easy today," Arthur said, keeping his tone free of any hint of pity. Merlin did have pride even if he wasn't one to show it off, and it had already been dented enough in the past week. "Broken arm rules."

Merlin laughed at that. "Maybe not that bad. But yes, you're probably right. I'm surprised at how much better I feel, actually."

"That's because you're stronger than you think you are," Arthur said, confidently. "You've just been relying on magic for so long, you don't know your own strength."

"Maybe," Merlin said, not entirely convinced.

As Merlin went into the side room for something to wear, Arthur picked up the clothes he had discarded the night before. He took the papers out of his jacket pocket and flipped through the drawings of the torcs and other magical objects. He found the list of servants his father had given him and shook his head. He put the drawings into his desk drawer, then lit a candle and burned the list up.

Merlin came back out again as the last of the small paper curled into ashes. "Is something burning?" he asked, frowning and sniffing the air.

"Just getting rid of something I didn't need," Arthur said. He blew out the candle and dumped the ash into the fireplace. Arthur often disposed of unneeded paper scrap that way, since there was plenty of sensitive information that he could not afford to leave lying around, even in his chambers.

Merlin merely nodded and knotted the lacing of his shirt. He had a fresh kerchief draped over his arm, but left it on the table and went over to help Arthur dress. Their shared relief at the familiar routine was palpable, and once Arthur was dressed he pulled Merlin into his arms and simply held him.

"Should I go get breakfast for us?" Merlin asked, half-muffled by Arthur's shoulder.

Arthur was reluctant to let Merlin leave his sight, even just for a trip down to the kitchens, but he nodded. They needed to find their old routine again, after all that they had been through.

"Wait," Arthur said, before Merlin could turn to go. He grabbed the kerchief from the table and wrapped it around Merlin's neck, bringing the ends around to knot them before hiding the knot and the torc beneath the bulk of the cloth. Merlin's hair was still a mess, so Arthur brushed it down until he was presentable. "There," he said, satisfied. "Now you can go."

Merlin gave a half-jestful bow and went out, looking remarkably cheered. Once he was gone, Arthur leaned back against a bedpost, an intense wave of relief rushing through him, making his knees weak. Everything was going to be all right. It really was. Merlin was going to be all right. He could hardly believe it, and he had never been more grateful.

When his knees were working again, Arthur put on his belt and sword and sat down at his desk to quickly review a few documents. Even a short battle was expensive, and payments would have to be made to those who had been badly injured, and to the families of those who had died. Arthur had long taken charge of such payments himself, as his father did not consider them a priority and would delay them if he felt the money was better spent elsewhere. But it was a relatively small amount of gold, and many times Arthur had been deeply thanked for the payments and told how important they were to those who received them. He had sometimes resorted to paying with his own gold, if his father was being particularly stubborn. Fortunately, his father had given him full responsibility for the battle of Gedref, including matters of the treasury, so he could ensure that all the payments were made quickly.

He had just finished the list of payments due when Merlin returned with breakfast. Arthur dusted the ink dry and folded the paper, putting it into his pocket so he could hand it off to the royal treasurer at the first opportunity. Merlin brought the tray over to the desk and pulled a chair up so they could eat together. Arthur was glad to see that Merlin's appetite was also restored, as he had clearly been nibbling at the grapes and cheese on his way back.

"Gwen says hello," Merlin said, as he grabbed a handful of grapes and went at them. "She was getting breakfast for Morgana. We'll have time to go see them today, right?"

Arthur hadn't had a chance to catch Merlin up on his conversation with Guinevere and Morgana, but clearly nothing Guinevere had said had raised questions or bothered Merlin.

"I told them you weren't feeling well yesterday, when they asked after you," Arthur said, figuring it best to prevent any possible misunderstandings. "That you needed time to adjust to being a servant again."

"Ah," Merlin said, as if that explained something. "Well, it's true enough. It's going to be difficult when we're with the knights, isn't it?"

It wasn't really a question, but Merlin seemed to need an answer anyway. "It will be hard for them to treat you as a servant again, after treating you as a knight. But they'll follow our lead," he assured Merlin. "And if they are more accommodating to you than they ought to be, then that only suits our needs, since my father believes that you were driven to exhaustion."

Merlin gave an outraged noise. "I was not!"

Arthur chuckled. "I know that, you know that, the knights know that. But it's better that my father thinks you useless than that he discovers the truth. Either truth."

Merlin gave him a sideways look. "Then he doesn't know about my magic?"

"No," Arthur said, confidently. "My father seems to have handed off responsibility for the kingdom's defenses to Gaius, of all people, and Gaius is the one who arranged for you to become my manservant so you could protect me."

Merlin blinked at him. "Gaius arranged it?"

Arthur nodded. "He recommended you for the position even before you arrived."

Merlin looked stunned. He sat back, breakfast forgotten. "Then the dragon was right. Gaius really was using me."

As loathe as Arthur was to defend Gaius, he felt the need to do so now. "He got you to where you needed to be," Arthur said. "He's in a difficult position, forced to betray my father in order to serve him. My father should not have put him in that position in the first place, but he has made the best of it. Without Gaius, we would never have met. And he's helped us with your magic. That counts for a lot, to me."

"I suppose," Merlin said, looking plainly conflicted.

"You don't have to talk to him again if you don't want to," Arthur said, reassuring him. "I won't let him hurt you."

Merlin mustered a smile at that. "I'm not going to hide," he said, visibly bracing himself. "He'll be at council and we'll need his help for all sorts of things when we're facing whatever comes next."

Arthur rewarded him for his courage by feeding him a piece of chicken. "Good," he said, and was glad to see Merlin's mood improve again. "Now, I don't want you to push yourself too hard today. You're still getting used to being without your magic. If you need to rest, just tell me, and don't brave your way through. I mean it."

Merlin rolled his eyes, but agreed, and let Arthur feed him another piece of food. He returned the favor by holding out a cube of cheese, and Arthur took it from his fingertips and kissed them before leaning back to chew.

Finally they could delay no longer. Merlin added the plate of leftovers from last night to the breakfast tray and handed the tray off to a passing servant, and then returned to Arthur for the last, necessary step before Arthur himself could safely leave the room. Arthur found himself to be quite reluctant to remove the gold torc, but it had to be done. He gripped the band and slowly eased it from his neck, and the moment it was fully off, he felt a sense of loss that he could not explain. Merlin also seemed affected, gripping the silver torc and losing some of the flush from his cheeks.

"Are you all right?" Arthur asked, concerned.

Merlin nodded. "Just felt... something. I don't know."

"Like you've lost something?" Arthur dared.

Merlin's answer was clear in his eyes. "Exactly like that," he said, quietly.

Arthur considered the gold torc. He should be afraid of it. It held an enchantment that he did not understand. It was clearly affecting them both in some way. But it did not feel wrong or evil or corrupting. His father always said that that was what magic did, it made you think it was safe until it was too late. But even if he doubted Gaius, he could not believe that Gaius would deliberately try to corrupt him, not when Gaius himself was serving in defense of the kingdom against magic and at his father's command. And it made no sense if Merlin felt the same loss. If magic was trying to infect them through the torcs, it should make Merlin feel better, not worse.

He shook his head. Now was not the time to lose himself to questions he could not answer. He wanted to bring the gold torc with him so it would be close at hand, but with Merlin bearing the restraint so well, there was no need to risk its discovery, especially as it would have to be set aside during training. He put the torc into the heavy chest where he had put Palaemon's ring, and then, realizing it had been lying open on the table all night, grabbed Merlin's grimoire and added it to the chest as well. Then he locked them all safely away.

§

By the time they arrived at the armory, delayed further by a quick detour to the royal treasurer, most of the knights had already armored up and taken their training swords and shields out to the adjacent field. But among those still lingering was Leon, who seemed to be at a loss.

"Sir Leon," Arthur greeted. "Is there a problem?"

"Oh, sire," Leon said. He gave a startled bow. "I'm afraid I'm unable to find my armor and sword."

Arthur frowned, annoyed. "Leon, if you're going to be my second, you'll be responsible for a great deal more than a set of armor. If you can't even keep track of that..."

"I swear, sire, it was right here last night," Leon said, adamant. "I was up late making sure all the equipment was in order. But now it's just... it's gone, sire, I can't explain it."

Arthur had a sinking suspicion. "Very well," he said. "You can use one of the spare sets. Merlin, if you would?"

Merlin retrieved a set of spare mail, of the type Arthur had made him wear during his own training. It had some broken links and was a bit shabby, but it would still do the job. Yet for a knight to wear it, for Arthur's second to wear it, was somewhat shameful. And it was exactly the sort of thing Arthur would have wanted to see if he was a knight that didn't care for his new commander and wanted to show his disdain.

Merlin helped Leon into his mail and armor, and then retrieved Arthur's mail, which was perfect and gleaming. Again, Merlin assisted, and took Arthur's enchanted sword and gave him his favorite blunted sword in its place. Merlin seemed a little breathless after all the exertion, but otherwise he was holding up fine.

They made their way out to the training field, the last to arrive. The knights were in rough formation, each warming up in their own way, and when they saw Leon they smirked and snickered under their breath, only barely hiding their satisfaction and contempt.

When his father had told him that he was assigning Leon as his second, Arthur had been afraid of just this sort of reaction. The knights were fresh from the glory of battle, and Leon had yet again remained at home. It did not matter that it was not Leon's choice to do so. The men were in high spirits, and they saw Leon as a coward who hid behind his father's shield. They were extremely displeased by the idea of having to take orders from him.

Arthur could simply bawl his knights out for their poor behavior, but that would not solve the problem. He needed the knights to respect Leon and want to obey him. If he did not allow Leon the chance to prove himself at the start, a proper bond would never be formed. And a strong bond was vital, especially now that Leon would be going to battle, should the opportunity arise again. A second could not be hidden away behind the castle walls like a castle guard. Lord Heward would have to accept that his son could only rise in the ranks if he risked his life with all the other knights.

But Merlin had been in a similar situation just weeks ago, and he had risen to the challenge. It was a shame that Leon could not be told the truth about Merlin, because if he knew, Arthur was certain that it would inspire Leon to rise as well. And perhaps Leon could be brought fully into the fold with time. But Leon had not yet proved himself to Arthur either, certainly not enough for the sharing of secrets. They had all been forced into this arrangement by the King, and they would have to make the best of it.

"Sir Leon," Arthur said, turning to Leon but making his voice loud and clear enough for everyone else to hear. "As my second, you will lead the men through the standard exercises."

"Yes, sire," Leon said, clearly intimidated by having to face all the knights at once. But he rallied and took the battered spare training sword with him to begin shouting out the familiar orders.

Arthur turned his back and left him to it, showing the knights that at least in this, Arthur was not going to coddle Leon, that he had confidence in him. He walked through the ranks, correcting any sloppy or incorrect behavior as he went, with Merlin tagging along at his heels. And just as the routine of their morning had been a balm, so was the sight of so many knights all together, hale and hearty and focused at their task. Their insubordination towards Leon was not so great that they would shirk in their duties.

When the exercises were over, Arthur had Leon lead the men in a run around the field with shields and swords, and Arthur himself took up the rear, so he could motivate the slowest of the group to quicken their pace. He left Merlin to rest on the grass with the water skins, since he seemed to be wearing out rather more quickly than expected.

While the knights had been cooperative during the exercises, they were in a bolder mood during the run. They ran harder than they should in order to outpace Leon, forcing him to go faster and faster to stay ahead. Finally Arthur took pity on him, and ran up to the front of the line himself to force everyone back to a normal pace. Leon gave him a grateful but embarrassed look, and if he had not yet figured out what was going on in the armory, he clearly realized it now.

When they were all sufficiently worn out from running, Arthur sent the men back to Merlin for a drink and a rest, and took Leon aside.

"You don't need to say anything, sire," Leon said, humiliated.

"It seems I do," Arthur said, keeping his voice quiet but firm. "I know the conditions of your promotion were not ideal, but you cannot let that hold you back. If the men feel you are weak, they will never respect you."

"I want nothing more than to prove myself to them and to you," Leon replied, fervently. "But I fear they have already judged me."

"Then it is up to you to change that judgement," Arthur said. "You must set the terms. That is what makes a leader. If you allow them to override you, they will not follow you in a crisis, much less on a run."

Arthur had restrained from intervening because he needed to see how bad the situation was. It was not awful, but it was not good, either. Leon was a solid fighter, and had proven his worth in defense of the castle. He was not so low in their esteem that they would refuse to follow him at all. But Arthur was almost certain that the knights had been discussing who would make a better second should Leon fail to prove himself able. If they were able to cow him sufficiently, Leon might surrender his promotion and return to his old position, where he had already proven himself and could retain some status. And then the knights could offer up their own candidates, and the King would be likely to accept whichever one Arthur chose.

It was tempting to go along with the knights' plan and be able to choose his second himself. It was tempting in spite of the shameful behavior it would require. But Arthur had to give Leon the opportunity to succeed. Arthur had always had an eye for potential, and there was potential in Leon. In the right conditions, he could become a great knight and not merely a good one. And Arthur needed great knights.

"You must call out their doubts and defeat them," Arthur said. "If they think you are weak, you must prove you are strong. If they think you a coward, you must prove your courage. If they think you a fool, you must prove your wisdom."

"Then I must prove my courage," Leon said, gathering himself despite the bitterness in his voice. "But how?"

It was a difficult question to answer. Leon had been a knight for years, and in that time no enemy kingdom had breached their borders and reached the castle keep. The last time that had happened had been when Cenred lay siege to Camelot. The siege ended in Cenred's retreat, when allying kingdoms had sent troops to aid Camelot, and had led to the long war with Escetir. But Leon had only become a knight after that siege, as the deaths of so many had opened a surfeit of positions. But of the domestic threats he had faced, there had been creatures like the Griffin, various sorcerers, and the occasional mundane threat like assassins...

The assassin.

"The assassin you captured. The one that Odin sent to kill me. Tell me about him."

"The King commanded me never to speak of that," Leon protested.

"If you are to be my second, you will follow my command, not my father's," Arthur said, sternly. "Tell me about that night."

"I was taking extra patrols at night," Leon began. "The King ordered me to make an additional pass by the Lady Morgana's chambers due to her importance and the vulnerability of her ill health. If I saw light from under the door, I would knock and check that everything was all right. There was a light that night, and I believe the Lady Morgana was having one of her nightmares. But Guinevere sent me away. That was when I saw that the door to your room was ajar."

"And the assassin was inside?"

Leon nodded. "I drew my sword and he attacked. He went for my neck with his knife, but I was able to block him. We fought and he proved himself to be no simple intruder. I shouted for assistance, and by the time it arrived, I had disarmed the assassin and knocked him unconscious. We later discovered that he had killed two guards and hidden their bodies so that they would not immediately be discovered."

"And the assassin's identity?"

"His name was Myror, my lord."

Arthur stilled. Myror was a skilled assassin feared throughout Albion. Leon had described their meeting as if it was a mere scrap, and yet it must have been a fierce fight, and one where the odds were not in Leon's favor. That he had won handily against such an opponent, and done so on his own, was a great testament to his courage and his strength. But because his father had kept the matter quiet, Leon was not recognized for his deeds. It explained why the King had thought him worthy of such a promotion.

But then, his father had always had a keen eye for potential himself. Perhaps Arthur had also allowed the past to cloud his judgement of Leon.

"Is there a man among the knights you trust? One who holds you in esteem?"

Leon looked past Arthur to the resting knights. They were all nobles, of course, and as a result had largely been acquainted with each other before they were knighted. Service changed men, changed their relationships, but some bonds persisted.

"Sir Alynor," Leon said. "We've jousted against each other since we were old enough to ride. We had both intended to enter the tournament before it was cancelled."

"Does he know of Myror's capture?"

Leon shook his head. "Only myself, your father, and a few of the castle guards. Oh, and Gaius."

Arthur restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Of course Gaius was to be found in the middle of this as well. But Alynor would be useful, since he had fought with them in Gedref. "Tonight, take the men out for drinks, and once you are both in your cups, tell Alynor privately of your defeat of Myror. By the end of the week, every single knight will know what you have accomplished. They will hold you in a new light, and give you the chance to prove yourself."

Leon looked rather bewildered by the idea, but he nodded in acceptance. "I will do as you say."

"Excellent," Arthur said, confident that the situation was on its way to resolving itself. "And in the meantime, you should show off your impressive skills against the men. If you were able to defeat Myror on your own in a darkened room, you should be able to hold your own against any knight who steps forward."

Leon looked less certain about that, but Arthur merely punched him on the arm before heading back to the others. It would do the men good to work out their frustrations in a formal setting, and once Leon had both proved his general mettle and been knocked on his arse a few times, it would make them more amenable. The best of them would have a change of heart once they had been plied with free ale and heard about Myror's defeat through whispers and rumors, and the rest would follow suit.

"Right," Arthur said clapping his hands together and rubbing them with anticipation. "Time to see if the lot of you have gone soft."

"I'll show you soft, my lord!" someone shouted, and laughter rippled through the group.

"You're not going to show me, you're going to show Sir Leon. I can't expect him to defend the kingdom with a bunch of layabouts. So one at a time, let's see some volunteers."

As expected, there were many who were eager to test themselves against Leon, or rather to test Leon. Some of them were probably the ones who were most keen to take his position for themselves. If Leon could at least prove to be their equal, it would make their acceptance of him easier still.

Arthur left Leon to face his opposition and sat down beside Merlin. The color was gone from his cheeks despite his rest, and Arthur frowned with concern.

"How are you feeling?" Arthur asked.

"Worse," Merlin admitted. "I don't understand it. I felt so much better this morning. And now... I'm starting to feel empty again, like I did last night."

"Do you think you're going to pass out?"

Merlin shrugged. "I don't feel faint, just... exhausted. Run down."

"Maybe you need another rest," Arthur suggested. "Go over there and take a nap, and I'll wake you when we're done." He pointed to the spot where Merlin usually ended up napping when he was bored during training, out of the way of any activity and half-shaded by a tree.

Merlin didn't even protest, simply dragged himself to his feet and obeyed. He laid himself down and was out in moments.

It was worrisome, Arthur had to admit it. He may have been too optimistic about Merlin's recovery, and Gaius correct in his cautions. But Merlin had seemed so much better that morning, and he was so much worse now. They would see how Merlin was feeling after his nap. Perhaps he would bounce back again as he usually did.

"Is Merlin all right, sire?" asked Sir Ronald. He and the other, newest knights did not have anything against Leon as the older knights did, and so were less interested in the drama playing itself out on the field. "We were concerned when he wasn't at the ceremony yesterday, and he seems to be unwell."

"He picked up a cold on the journey back," Arthur lied. "I gave him the day off to rest and recover, but it seems he needs more time." He gave Ronald a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Gaius has already treated him."

Ronald nodded in understanding. "The battle and the long journey must have taken a great deal from his reserves. He pushed himself very hard in Gedref. We must watch over him." He mustered a smile, but it was aimed at Merlin and not Arthur.

"We will," Arthur assured him. "The best thing for now is to let him rest when he needs to. We'll ease him back into his normal routine."

"Of course," Ronald said, and went back to the other knights to tell them about Merlin's health. Borin, Althalos, and Jarin each turned to look at Merlin with fondness and gentle concern. It was obvious how much they had come to care for Merlin, that they still considered him to be one of their own.

Arthur took one last look at Merlin himself, and then turned his attention to the knights who weren't eager to duel with Leon. "All right, the rest of you pair up," he called, and put an end to their idleness.

§

By the time the sun was high, Leon was not the only knight who had a sore arm and a bruised arse. Arthur had driven them all hard, himself included, because it was too easy for them to let their guards down after a victory. Even if the battle had been won, the war would not be over until Alined formally surrendered. And as Merlin had himself pointed out, there would always be another threat on the horizon. They had to keep sharp and at the top of their game if Camelot was to be well-defended.

Arthur ended practice but did not rouse Merlin, wanting to let him sleep as much as possible. He removed his own armor and put it away himself, and if any of the knights thought it odd they said nothing. Only Leon and the others who had stayed in Camelot betrayed any surprise, and they only gave sideways glances.

Before they all left, Leon invited the men out to The Rising Sun, and even the most set against him could not resist unlimited ale at Leon's expense. They would have a rousing night at the tavern tonight, and Arthur regretted that he wouldn't be able to join them. But he had other matters to attend to, and Leon needed to do this on his own, without Arthur's presence muddying the waters.

Once there were no more excuses to delay, Arthur went back to the tree that Merlin was sleeping under. He sat down beside him and stroked his fingers through his hair, which was growing long and curling up at the ends as a result. He was reminded that neither of them had had a proper bath since leaving Gedref, and made a mental note to arrange for hot water to be brought to his chambers tonight. It would do them both good to have a soak.

He gave Merlin a light shake on the arm, and then another. Merlin stirred and lifted his head, blinking in confusion before he focused on Arthur and remembered where he was. He sat up and rubbed blearily at his face, stretched and yawned.

"Feeling better?" Arthur asked.

"Think so," Merlin said, as he straightened his clothes. Arthur saw a gleam of silver before the kerchief was pulled back into position.

Despite his grogginess, Merlin did look better for having slept. Arthur was reminded about what Ronald had said about reserves. If Merlin had been reliant on magic, then it would make sense if he did not have his own reserves of energy. But as sleep went some way towards restoring him, then the solution was equally apparent. When Merlin tired, Arthur would send him off for a nap. With time, Merlin's reserves would increase, and he would need less and less sleep to make it through the day, until only the normal nighttime amount was necessary. It was somewhat inconvenient, but it was manageable.

"Are you up for visiting Gwen and Morgana now?" Arthur asked. "We can have lunch with them."

Merlin brightened at the suggestion. "I'd like that," he said. He rested his hand over Arthur's and gave it a squeeze, and if they had been truly alone they would have kissed. But now that they were home, such things were only for behind locked doors.

"Good," Arthur said, warmly. "After that, I have some paperwork to do in my chambers, and you can take another nap if you need it. And then you can give me my first lesson."

Merlin brightened even further, and broke into a wide grin. "Have I ever told you that you're very good at planning?"

"Yes, I am," Arthur said, smugly, and Merlin batted him playfully on the arm.

Chapter Text

It was still dark when Gwen woke, chilled and with a crick in her neck. She chided herself for falling asleep in her chair again, and saw that the candle she had left lit had burned itself down. But it was not discomfort that had roused her. Morgana was in distress, tossing and mumbling incoherently as her visions overwhelmed her. The new draught would keep her from waking up and remembering what she had dreamed, but it did not prevent the dreams from happening in the first place. If Gwen woke Morgana now, it would interrupt the vision, but to wake her would undermine the effects of the draught. The last thing Morgana needed was to remember the awful things she was dreaming of, and to run out of her chambers shouting prophecies.

As her visions intensified, Morgana's words grew clearer, though under the effects of the draughts they never became more than a confused jumble. But a confused jumble was more than enough. Whatever was coming, it was bad. Very, very bad.

There was a part of Gwen that wanted to run out into the courtyard and shout the warnings herself. A part that didn't care about the consequences. That didn't care if the morning she acted would be the last morning she would ever see. At least then she would know that she had done what she could. But she did not want to die, to burn as so many others had burned. Perhaps that was selfish and cowardly. But she was not Merlin. She did not have the protections he had, the powers he had. All she would be able to do was warn, and in Camelot such a warning would be no guarantee of anything but her own death.

Morgana began to settle, her muttering trailing into soft whimpers. Merlin's name again, the same as before. Whatever his fate was, it had not yet befallen him, and for that she was grateful. If she could just get him alone, away from Morgana and Arthur, she could tell him about the fate that was upon them, and he could find a way to change that fate, as he had changed so many fates before.

When Morgana was sleeping calmly again, her visions finished for another night, Gwen smoothed the blankets around her and brushed her hair back from where it had fallen across her face. There were so many things that Gwen wanted and could not have. There were so many things that she had no choice but to live without. She sometimes thought about following in Elyan's footsteps, leaving Camelot behind and making a new life for herself in another land, one where she would not have to live in fear. But she could not leave Morgana. She could not let her go and leave her alone with her suffering.

Gwen stood and went to her room, lit a single candle and changed her clothes. She sighed as she lay flat and settled beneath the warm blankets. As the chill seeped from her bones, her thoughts drifted drowsily, and wandered into dreams. Not of the future, but of the past, to Morgana as she was, as they had all been.

In those first days, Gwen had only really seen Morgana from afar. Sometimes her mother accompanied Lady Asceline, Sir Leon's mother, to the castle, and as Gwen was officially her apprentice, she was allowed to come along. The castle had seemed impossibly large to her back then, and despite her familiarity with the ways of nobles from Lady Asceline and Lord Heward, she was dazzled by the luxuries and fineries of court. All the colors were brighter there, the candles more numerous, the displays of food and wealth more extravagant. Morgana, dressed in mourning black with a sword on her hip, had stood out starkly among the knights with their vivid red cloaks and gleaming mail, the men in their silk and velvet suits, and the women with their grand dresses. Brash and outspoken and precocious, she had immediately made herself the star of the court, and the King had doted on her as if she was his own.

But Morgana had to share the stage with Arthur, who had quickly and fervently resented her presence. Everything Morgana did, he saw as intentionally against him. At eleven, she was a year older than him and an inch taller. She was a full orphan while he was only half of one. She was poised and confident and he was serious and subdued. The King doted on her, indulging her every whim, while Arthur was expected to work and study and practice from sunup to sundown, and barely earned a smile from the King for all that he labored. She insulted him, called him a bore, acted like she was a Princess even though her father had only been a Lord and she would not even inherit his lands, and Arthur was the Prince and would one day be King of all of Camelot.

Everyone could see the changes she wrought in Arthur. He began to seethe with jealousy, and her provocations drove him to public outbursts and private revenges, revealing that he had in fact inherited his father's temper after all. These set Morgana off in turn, and when the two of them actually came to blows one day in the town market, the King had no choice but to intervene. He punished both of them with equal harshness, forcing them to spend their days together in study and labor, and to share everything but their chambers, so that they would learn to work together and respect each other.

It worked. By the time their punishment ended, the two of them were better behaved and genuinely endeared to each other. Morgana drew Arthur from the somberness of his childhood, and they regularly rode and sparred together, which gave Morgana focus and settled her from her wilder tendencies. By spring, there was talk that the two were courting, and that the King would marry them together when they were older. The town was full of excitement at the prospect of a happy match for the Prince, after so much loss and such dark times.

But it was not to be. The King had already began to look for a husband for Morgana among the noble houses of the kingdom. But each suitor that the King found for her, Morgana rejected. No one knew if the rejections were because of her affections for Arthur, or if Morgana truly disliked all the noble sons of Camelot, or if she was simply too proud to accept an arranged marriage.

All of this Gwen had heard through gossip. Her mother was an absolute font of knowledge about the goings-on of the court, because she was Lady Asceline's trusted maidservant, and Lady Asceline was the biggest gossip in all of Camelot, or so it seemed to Gwen. She and Lord Heward had extensive lands to the east, but preferred to live in the upper town, within the defensive walls. Both of them spent much of their time in court, as they were very important people, almost as important as the royal family itself, or so Lady Asceline said. Gwen thought that Lady Asceline was an awful snob and a show-off, but had the sense not to say so. Especially as at the time, it seemed that her life was destined to be spent in the service of her and her house.

But her destiny changed the day Morgana was brought to Lord Heward for the possible match of his son, Leon. After hearing so much about her, after catching glimpses of her in the town market, Gwen could not help but neglect all her chores so she could spy on the two of them together. Unsurprisingly, Morgana had been utterly uninterested in poor Leon, to the point where the boy was quite upset by her scathing dismissals.

And then, even though Gwen had been careful to be absolutely quiet, Morgana had turned directly to the cracked-open door that Gwen was peering out from, and winked at her. At her! Gwen had blushed and squeaked and run to the kitchen to hide; it was generally off-limits to the nobles as they did not want to dirty their fine clothes with flour and grease.

But Morgana had not cared about dirtying her mourning black. She had marched right into the kitchen and ordered Gwen to come out from where she was hiding.

"I'm the Lady Morgana, and if you come out right now, I might not tell anyone you're a spy."

"I am not a spy!" Gwen had said, alarmed at the accusation. Everyone knew that the King would have you executed if you were a spy. A month before, a mapmaker's apprentice had been arrested for making copies of the royal maps and and selling them to Cenred. The King had left the head on a spike for a week as a warning, right where everyone could see it, and ravens had eaten out its eyes. Gwen still got the chills when she thought about it. "You'd better not tell anyone such lies," she said, sternly, standing up from where she had been crouching.

"It's not a lie," Morgana defended, undeterred. "You were absolutely spying on me. You have been since I arrived."

Gwen felt her cheeks flush. "I'm a servant. I'm supposed to watch so I know if someone needs me."

"You're very young for a servant," Morgana said, stepping closer. "What's your name?"

"Guinevere," Gwen said, using her full name because it sounded grander. "And I know all about being a servant. My mother has served Lady Asceline for years, and I've been helping her since I was eight. And I'll be eleven in a month."

"This summer, I'll be twelve," Morgana replied, proudly. "You must be an expert at being a servant if you've been doing it for so long. I'm an expert at swords. My father started teaching me to fight when I was five."

"My father's a blacksmith," Gwen retorted, unwilling to be cowed by Morgana's boasting. "He makes swords, and I know how to make swords, too! And I can fight!"

"Prove it," Morgana said, drawing the sword from her hip.

Gwen gaped at her. It wasn't a proper longsword, like her father usually made; it was smaller and lighter. But it was still a real sword, and it was extremely rude to draw swords in the house.

"But I don't--" Gwen began, but before she could protest that she hadn't brought a sword of her own, the door to the hallway opened, and in came Morgana's maidservant. She was an older woman with a stern air, and when she saw Morgana, she went all aghast.

"Lady Morgana! Put that sword down at once!"

Morgana glowered but quickly sheathed her sword, and kept a protective hand over the hilt, as if worried it would be taken from her.

"Drawing a sword on a servant," huffed the maidservant. "Wait until the King hears about this."

Morgana looked truly alarmed, and she stepped backwards, away from the maidservant, and nearly backed right into Gwen. Morgana gave Gwen a quick but obviously pleading look, and for some reason, Gwen felt obligated to rescue her. Even if she was rather rude.

"She wasn't threatening me," Gwen said. "My father's a blacksmith. I asked if I could see her sword."

The maidservant now gave the both of them the same dubious look. But she seemed to accept the explanation. "You should not be in here in the first place," she told Morgana, and took hold of her arm. "You are not here to talk to servants. You're here to meet young Leon."

"I don't want to marry him," Morgana said, stubbornly. "I don't want to marry any of them. You can tell the King that, I don't care."

The maidservant began to drag Morgana towards the door. "You will have to marry someone, young lady, and you're lucky that the King has allowed you to have a say in the matter thus far. Now come, you must apologize to Leon for your rude behavior."

That was the last Gwen saw of Morgana that day. She did not dare go back to her spying ways. Later, she found out that Morgana and Leon had been taken to sit with Lord Heward to discuss their shared future, and that Lord Heward was very keen indeed on the match. Lady Asceline was even more excited by the prospect of marriage bringing them closer to the royal family, even if not by blood, and Gwen's mother told her that the two were pressing the King to accept the match despite Morgana's refusal.

Gwen was dusting one day when she found Leon sitting in his father's study and staring disconsolately at the book in front of him, quite obviously not reading it. He had been in a quiet mood since Morgana's visit. Despite the excitement of his parents, Leon did not seem happy about the idea of being married to Morgana.

Gwen was not supposed to speak to Leon, or to any of the nobles, not without being spoken to first. It was the first lesson her mother had taught her about being a servant, before she had learned how to properly fold a sheet or pour a jug. A servant was meant to be unheard and unseen unless she was called upon. But Leon's elder brother Lewin was away in their lands to the east, and it seemed that without him, Leon had no one he could turn to.

Before she could stop herself, she stepped towards him and said, bravely, "Maybe it won't be so bad. To marry the Lady Morgana, I mean."

Leon looked towards her, startled by her sudden outburst, then looked down again. "She hates me."

"I'm sure she doesn't, really," Gwen soothed. "She doesn't want to get married to anyone."

"Father is set on the match," Leon said, with a sigh. "If the King allows it..."

"I'm sure she'll stop being mad about it, once it's done," Gwen offered, though she wasn't sure if she believed it herself. Even though their meeting had been brief, it was clear to Gwen that Morgana was extremely certain about not marrying anyone. "And she is... she is quite lovely." The thought made her blush, though she wasn't sure why. Everyone said that Morgana was a beautiful young lady, that she would be stunning when she was grown.

Gwen had thought about Morgana a great deal since that day. She had been quite unable to stop thinking about her. She had never met anyone like Morgana before, any girl so proud and beautiful and bold and extraordinarily rude. Somehow even her rudeness was appealing.

"Everyone will be jealous of you, if you have her as your wife."

"Do you think so?" Leon said, perking up.

"Oh yes," Gwen said, nodding. "You'll be the most envied man in all of Camelot, to have the Lady Morgana's favor. Well, after Prince Arthur, of course."

Leon rallied further. He had always lived in Lewin's shadow, and the idea of such success, even through an arranged marriage, was clearly appealing to him. "Once the King agrees, we'll probably be married right away. Maybe even before I leave to squire for Sir Kay."

Sir Kay was one of Camelot's bravest knights, and the son of Sir Ector, who trained all the knights and who even trained Prince Arthur. Leon was meant to squire for Sir Kay until he was old enough to be trained by Sir Ector and join all the knights. There was a lot of talk around the town that there might be a war between Camelot and Escetir, and the sabotage by the mapmaker's apprentice made such a war almost certain. It was both exciting and terrifying to Gwen, and her father and Elyan had been busier than ever making swords and shields and armor in preparation for the inevitable.

Lewin would inherit Lord Heward's lands and title, Leon was destined to gain glory for the family through acts of valor and bravery in defense of the kingdom. Lord Heward had always been supportive in that, and had arranged for the squiring with Sir Kay in order to position Leon so that he might one day lead the knights himself, perhaps even becoming King Arthur's first knight. Gwen knew that Leon was eager to join the knights and fight against Cenred when the time came. He was ready to march into battle as a squire and prove himself, even at his young age.

"I must go speak to my father at once," Leon said, closing the book he had not been reading and marching out of the room.

Gwen had intended to cheer Leon from his sadness, and she was glad to see him restored. But she felt oddly sad herself now. Even if their marriage would be good for Leon, it was not what Lady Morgana herself wanted. Gwen did not want to see her sad. But then she realized: if they married, there was a chance that she could become Lady Morgana's maidservant. And even if Morgana was very rude, Gwen already liked her much better than she liked Lady Asceline, or even Blitha, Lewin's wife. Blitha was nice enough, but for all her sweetness she was rather dull.

Gwen tried to put the matter out of her thoughts. A few days later, she was helping her brother in their stall on market day, while their father worked back at the forge. Gwen had a talent for talking to people, one she had inherited from her mother, and was often able to persuade passers-by into considering a fine new knife or an overdue sharpening of one they already owned. Elyan took care of those who were interested in having custom or larger items made, and they took turns with the sharpening.

Elyan was busy talking to a man about mending an old shield, and Gwen was giving the knives a quick polish to clean off the settled dust, when someone suddenly held a sword out over the table. She recognized the sword before she recognized the girl holding it. It was the Lady Morgana!

"It needs to be sharpened," Lady Morgana told her. "Can you do it properly? This sword is very important."

"I won't help you at all if you're going to be so rude," Gwen huffed, not caring to be treated that in such a brusque manner, even if Lady Morgana was a noble. Maybe she had to be quiet and good when she was helping her mother, but her father always wanted her to stand up for herself and not let anyone treat her like she didn't matter.

"You have to help me, you're a servant," Lady Morgana said, as if this was all quite obvious.

"I'm not a servant when I'm here," Gwen said, proudly. "I'm a blacksmith. That means I don't have to help you unless I want to."

"Is that so?" Morgana said, narrowing her eyes.

"It is," Gwen said, firmly.

They stared at each other for a long moment, Gwen resolute and Morgana considering. To Gwen's surprise, Morgana was the one to back down.

"Very well, blacksmith," Morgana said, eyes sparkling with interest and amusement. "I would like my sword sharpened, if you please." She held the sword out again.

Gwen took it and carried it over to the wheel to be sharpened. Morgana stood where she was and watched closely, and Gwen made sure to do an excellent job. Everyone knew that the sword Morgana carried had been given to her by her father, Lord Gorlois, and that Morgana rarely took it off and never let it out of her sight.

Once it was properly sharp, Gwen gave it a thorough polishing. She handed it back to Morgana and gave the price, and Morgana reached into the money bag at her waist and pulled out a whole gold coin.

"This is too much, my lady," Gwen protested, and reached into her own money bag to find enough coins to give back the difference.

"Keep it," Morgana insisted. "Consider it a retainer for the next time I need you to sharpen my sword."

The pleased smile that Morgana gave her made Gwen blush, but she fought the urge to duck away. "I told you I was a proper blacksmith."

"I've never met anyone who was a servant and a smithy," Morgana said, as she sheathed her sword. "Much less someone who was good at both."

"Well, I am," Gwen said proudly. She'd worked hard to be good at both, to help her mother and her father. It felt good to be useful, to prove herself skilled enough to have such important responsibilities.

"I'm sorry I said you were a spy," Morgana said, and she did seem genuinely apologetic. "But you have been watching me, haven't you? I've seen you before, here in the market and in court."

"Everyone stares at you," Gwen defended. "You're the King's ward. And you're, well..." She trailed off, too embarrassed to admit everything that she thought Morgana was.

"I'm what?" Morgana asked, leaning forward over the table.

Gwen was certain her whole face was going to turn red, even though her skin was dark enough to hide most of her blushes. "Are you going to marry Leon?" she blurted out, desperate to change the subject.

Morgana leaned back again, frowning. "Not if I have anything to say about it," she said, crossing her arms defiantly. "I don't want to marry any of those stuffy boys."

"Even though they're going to be lords and knights?"

Morgana huffed. "That just means they're either too dull or too boorish," she declared. "All they care about is having the King's favor or dying in glorious battle. It's so tedious, you can't imagine."

"But you want to fight, too," Gwen said, pointing at Morgana's precious sword.

"That's different," Morgana defended. "I want to be like my father. He was a proper Lord. He always did what was right. He even argued with the King all the time, and everyone respected him. He didn't brown his nose just to get something he wanted."

Lord Gorlois had died an untimely death on the Northern Plains, fighting in battle against King Caerleon's men. Gwen did not know about the death of Morgana's mother, except that it happened when Morgana was still very young. People didn't like to gossip about things that happened during the Purge.

"He was a good man," Gwen said, softening.

"He was," Morgana said, softening as well. For a moment she seemed as if she might cry, but it was only a moment, and then her grief was hidden again.

"I might be your servant, someday," Gwen said, suddenly.

"Will you?" Morgana asked, her curiosity rallying her.

Gwen nodded. "If you marry Leon, I could be your maidservant."

"Would you like that?"

Gwen shrugged. "If you were nice to me, I would. I wouldn't like it if you were rude all the time." She bit her lip. "Would you like me to be your maidservant?"

"I thought you were a blacksmith," Morgana said, evading the question.

"I won't be when I'm older," Gwen said, regretful of that fact as ever. That was what she really wanted to be. She wanted to make beautiful things, strong things that would protect people and save lives. She wanted to do things that really mattered, and not just spend her life cleaning up after others. But a woman could not be a blacksmith, and so that honor fell to Elyan, even though Elyan and their father sometimes fought because Elyan wasn't sure that he wanted to be a blacksmith. Elyan was more interested in joining up to fight.

"Then yes," Morgana said, smiling again. "I would rather like having you as my maidservant. But only if you really can do more with a sword than sharpen it."

"I can fight," Gwen said, her pulse quickening with excitement.

"Name the place and time," Morgana dared.

Gwen bit her lip again. She couldn't do it now, because she had to stay and help Elyan. And she couldn't do it when she was busy helping her mother. But Lord Heward and Lady Asceline were going to visit their lands in a week, and Gwen would not be going with them. "Next Tuesday at first light, by the edge of the woods," she said, pointing to a spot that would be away from any morning activities.

Morgana held out her arm, as the men did, and after a moment's hesitation, Gwen took it and they shook. It gave her a thrill to do something so forbidden, so dangerous. She was already thinking about which sword she would take with her to the duel.

On Monday night, after a sweaty day helping her father and Elyan in the forge, Gwen took her favorite sword and a set of mail and hid them in a piece of burlap. She could barely sleep in her excitement, and as soon as it was close enough to dawn, she snuck out of the house with the burlap under her arm. She made it to the woods as the sky was lightening, and shivered in the cool air as she pulled on the mail over her clothes. She warmed up with some practice swings and lunges and parries, and it wasn't long before she saw Morgana striding towards her.

"You don't have any mail," Gwen said, when she saw that Morgana had only brought her sword, fixed to her hip as usual.

Morgana turned up her nose. "I hardly think I'll need any."

"My father says you should always fight with mail, even when you're using blunted swords. And I know yours is sharp."

"Let me see yours, then," Morgana said, holding out her hand. Gwen reluctantly handed hers over, and Morgana frowned as she examined it. It wasn't a fancy sword like Morgana's, just one of the smaller ones they kept around the forge so their customers could try different sizes and weights to see what fit their arms. Gwen had at least given it the same sharpening and polishing that she had given Morgana's sword, so they were equal in that. And besides, a sword didn't need to look pretty, it just needed to be well-made, and her father's swords were the best in the land.

"I suppose it will do," Morgana said, handing it back. "I'll make a deal with you. If you can get one hit, then next time I'll wear mail."

Gwen hadn't expected there to be a next time, but now she wanted one very badly. "Deal," she said, and held out her arm to seal it. Morgana shook, and as they stepped close, she could see the flush in her cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes. Gwen swallowed hard.

They separated and moved into starting positions. Morgana circled around her, sizing her up, but Gwen was ready. Her father had taught her and Elyan to fight because he said that it wasn't possible to make a tool properly unless you knew how to use it yourself. The only way to know the strengths and weaknesses of the metal, of the design, was to push until you found them.

Gwen wanted to know Morgana. And so she didn't wait for Morgana to make the first blow, but dealt it herself. Morgana blocked it deftly, and at once they were at it, swords clashing loudly against each other in the still dawn.

"Ow!" Gwen cried, as Morgana slipped past her defenses and caught her on the arm. They lowered swords and Gwen rubbed at the sore spot, which would certainly bruise. She didn't practice as often now that she was spending so much time helping her mother, and it frustrated her that she wasn't as good as she used to be.

"Not bad," Morgana said, impressed even though Gwen had lost. "Not bad at all, blacksmith."

"My name is Guinevere," Gwen reminded her. "But everyone calls me Gwen."

"Gwen's a pretty name," Morgana said, shy beneath her brash exterior. "We can try again, if you want."

Gwen's answer was to raise her sword again and move into a fighting stance. Morgana did the same, and this time she struck first. Their second fight went on for longer that their first, as Gwen was determined not to lose, and didn't care how much her arm ached. She blinked against the sweat that stung her eyes, and then she saw it: an opening in Morgana's defenses. She struck out and grazed her blade along Morgana's shoulder, cutting through her sleeve and drawing blood. Morgana hissed and lowered her sword, and pawed at the tear to see how bad it was.

"I'm sorry," Gwen said, feeling bad for hurting her. "But I told you you should have worn mail." She put down her sword and went over to Morgana. In the dim light, the blood looked black, but Gwen simply tore a piece from her linen underskirt and pressed it to the wound as a makeshift bandage.

"It's just a scratch," Morgana said, reaching over to hold the bandage herself. "But I suppose you were right. I'll bring my mail next time. I have my own, you know. My father had it made for me."

"I'm sorry he died," Gwen said. "It sounds like he was nice."

"He was wonderful," Morgana said, and again Gwen saw a glimpse of the grief and longing that Morgana hid so well.

"You used to spar a lot together?" Gwen guessed.

Morgana nodded. "He never had any sons, and my mother died a long time ago, so it was just the two of us. We did everything together. But he wouldn't let me come with him to battle. If I'd been there, I would have saved him." The last she said with certainty.

"I believe you would have," Gwen said, and rather believed it herself. Morgana smiled at her, then, a warm and proper smile, and Gwen smiled back.

"I have to get back home," Gwen said, reluctantly. It was getting lighter, and if they stayed much longer they might be found out.

"And I must return to my chambers, before my awful maidservant comes in with my breakfast," Morgana said, and sighed. "I don't want to marry Leon, but I suppose if I have to, at least I'll have you there to keep things interesting."

"We could spar all the time," Gwen said, imagining how it would be, the two of them together all the time. Leon would probably be away fighting as a knight, and there wouldn't be anyone around to tell them what to do.

Morgana smiled even wider at that. "And you can sew up my clothes after you slice holes in them."

"If you wear mail, I won't have to," Gwen replied, reluctant to leave.

"Then I shall wear mail, starting tomorrow. Meet me here at dawn," Morgana said, and suddenly turned and ran away. Gwen blinked in surprise, but hurried away herself, grabbing her sword and the burlap as she went, not wanting her father or brother to wake up to find her gone.

They met the next morning, and the next after that. All through the spring they met in secret, duelling in borrowed mail until their arms ached and the sun was above the trees. Leon's parents continued to petition the King for marriage, and when Morgana continued to reject all other potential suitors, he finally gave his blessing, even though Morgana still refused the match. Their futures seemed set.

And then summer came and everything changed. But before Gwen could recall all that happened, she slipped into a sleep too deep for dreams to follow.

§

Gwen always liked the morning. It was a fresh start to a new day, after all the past day's worries had been carried away by the night. She drew back the curtains and let in the light, smiling at the bright, cheery dawn. Morgana groaned against the light and turned away, pulling the blankets up over her head.

Gwen took pity on her and drew the curtains against the rays of light pouring in through one window and directly onto the bed. Morgana gave a limp wave of gratitude.

"How are you feeling?" Gwen asked, going over to Morgana to take care of her, now that she was awake.

"Awful, as usual," Morgana complained. She allowed Gwen to help her sit up against the pillows. She rubbed at her temples. She might not be able to remember her nightmares thanks to the draught, but they still resulted in pounding headaches that could barely be alleviated with another of Gaius' potions. Fortunately, Morgana's bedside table drawer was kept stocked with a supply, since it did not lose efficacy the way the new draught did. Gwen quickly took out a phial and help Morgana drink it, and then gave her water to help wash it down.

"Thank you, Gwen," Morgana said, as she settled back against the pillows.

"Do you feel up for some breakfast?" Gwen asked.

"I probably should be, by the time you get back with it. Maybe some fruit and a little bread?"

"Of course," Gwen said, giving her a warm smile. "You just rest. I'll take care of everything."

"You're so good to me, Gwen," Morgana said, returning her smile with a weak one of her own. "Did you spend the night again? You know you can go home if you want to."

"As you well know, I'd rather stay here," Gwen said, firmly enough to put an end to the matter, at least for now. Morgana felt guilty about how her bouts of poor health imposed so much on Gwen, and tried to make up for it in various ways. It was all quite unnecessary. She patted Morgana's hand where it rested over the blanket and headed briskly out to and down to the kitchens.

She gave the cook her requests for both her own and Morgana's breakfasts, and settled in to wait. A few more servants trickled in, and she nodded good mornings to them as they passed.

"Good mo-- Merlin!" To Gwen's surprise, there he was. He waved to her while he gave his order, then came over to wait with her as he usually did. He wasn't as bouncy as he usually was, but he seemed otherwise fine, and in remarkably good cheer. Perhaps all her fears had been unfounded after all.

"Sorry about yesterday," Merlin said.

"Oh, it's all right," Gwen assured him. "I'm just glad you're feeling better."

Merlin reached up to tug at his kerchief, but quickly pulled his hand away. "So am I," he said, quieting. "Yesterday was, um, a bit difficult."

Gwen lowered her voice. "I know it must be hard for you to give all that up for Arthur."

Merlin blinked in surprise, then shook himself as if remembering that of course Gwen knew that he had fought as a knight. "Yes," he said. "But it's important. It's what I have to do for everyone to be safe."

"Of course it is," Gwen said, understandingly. She didn't know what Merlin had done in Gedref, but it was clear he had proved himself somehow. She wondered if he had used his magic to help Camelot to victory, or if he had done it all just as a knight. Either way, it wasn't fair that it all had to be hushed up so Uther wouldn't find out. "Will you have time to see us today? We'd love to hear all about it."

"I think so," Merlin said. "I just have to check with Arthur. He's dealing with a lot right now and I think he'll want me to stay close, but if he's not too busy we can stop by. Maybe during lunch?"

"That would be perfect," Gwen said. She couldn't help but to give him a hug, and didn't care what anyone thought about it. Merlin was surprised, but quickly returned the hug with surprising force.

"I'm glad you're all right," she whispered.

Merlin just gave a soft assent, and breathed against her hair. When she drew back, she saw that he was visibly gathering himself back together. She felt so bad for all that he had to go through, but at the same time, she knew that it was his choice. He was the one who wanted to learn to be a knight, who convinced Arthur to teach him. And he had always been quick to put himself in danger if it meant he could help others. She was deeply grateful to him for that, for all that he had done for her personally and for Camelot in general. She hoped that one day she could tell him that.

Her tray of food was ready too soon. She reluctantly fetched it, but stopped by Merlin before leaving the kitchen.

"Tell Arthur I said hello," she told him. "And don't forget about lunch."

"I won't forget," Merlin promised, and smiled in a way that he only did when everything really was all right. "Go on," he said, waving her away.

Gwen left feeling greatly cheered. She decided to tuck away her worries, founded or otherwise. Merlin was all right, Morgana had made it through another night, and it looked like a beautiful day was ahead of them. It was better to welcome the sun than to make her own rainclouds.

By the time she returned to Morgana's chambers, the draught was starting to take away the worst of Morgana's headache, and Morgana nibbled at her breakfast while Gwen ate hers. They had always taken meals together when they could, preferring a more companionable relationship in private than the one they maintained in public. But they had never had a typical mistress-servant relationship. Morgana had not wanted a proper servant, and Gwen had not wanted a proper mistress, and so they had made their own way between them.

"I'll pick up some fresh flowers in the market today," Gwen said, seeing that the bouquet in the vase by Morgana's bedside was looking a little wilted. "Do you feel well enough to join me?"

"Perhaps," Morgana said, putting on a brave face as usual. But as usual, Gwen doubted her bravery would be enough. These days, Morgana became exhausted just walking around the room.

After breakfast, as expected, Morgana was not up for a visit to the market. But she pressed a bag of coins into Gwen's hand and told her to do the rounds without her.

Usually when Morgana was feeling better, they would go out to the market together. Along with flowers and fabric for new dresses, they would buy basketfulls of food and bring them to the lower town. When Morgana married she would gain access to the money her father had left for her. But Morgana did not want to marry, and so the King gave her a generous stipend to make up for the lack. Morgana had always taken it as something of an insult, since if she were a man she would have simply inherited the money directly and she would not have to depend on anyone's generosity. But as the King insisted on giving her so much, she spent it freely on those that the King most neglected. It was Gwen who had introduced Morgana to the lower town and the widows and orphans of Camelot's wars, but it was Morgana who had taken them on as a personal passion.

Gwen went on her own to the stalls, and collected the usual baskets from the baker, butcher, and greengrocers, and carried her heavy load down to the lower town. Everyone asked after Morgana and gave good wishes for her health, and some even whispered that they had prayed for her recovery. Gwen knew many people who still worshipped the Old Religion just as she did, though most only had their own memories and thoughts to draw upon, as any relics would have been discovered and destroyed in one raid or another. And most of those who admitted their worship were older, and had been adults before the Purge. There were fewer her own age who would admit to worshipping, and she suspected that there were fewer who worshipped at all. Many believed that the gods had abandoned them, or been driven away by the Purge never to return. Gwen hoped that they were wrong.

On her way back, Gwen bought a huge, bright bouquet of flowers that was certain to bring a smile to Morgana's face. She picked up meat and fruit pies from the baker for the four of them to share at lunch. It was nearly noon, so she swung past the training fields before heading up to the castle keep, just to see if Arthur and Merlin had finished. She saw the two of them sitting together beneath a tree, and remarked to herself how obvious it was that they were in love, even seeing them from a distance, with the two of them barely touching. She felt a pang of jealousy, of regret and longing, and sighed to herself. She could not have what she could not have, and there was nothing to be done about any of it.

She returned to Morgana's chambers and found that Morgana was feeling well enough to read. Gwen left her to her book and changed the flowers, tidied up the room so it would be fit for company, set up chairs at the table, and put out plates and forks along with the pies. It was not long before there was a knock on the door.

Morgana put aside her book and eased herself out of bed, pulling on her day robe. She nodded that she was ready, and Gwen went to the door to let Merlin and Arthur inside.

The first thing that Gwen noticed was that Merlin no longer looked as well as he had that morning. He looked tired, strangely washed out, as if he was not entirely there at all. But he was still smiling and clearly making an effort to be alert and engaged, and Gwen knew from experience with Morgana how important it was to be supportive of such efforts. Arthur was still wearing his training clothes, and it was obvious that they had come directly from the field.

"Ugh, couldn't you have had a bath before you came?" Morgana said, holding her nose with theatrical distaste.

"Merlin likes how I smell," Arthur returned, and gently elbowed Merlin. "Don't you, Merlin?"

"Oh yes," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. But he gave Arthur a fond smile anyway.

"Adorable," Morgana drolled, unimpressed. "You can sit together on the far side of the table."

"We were going to do that anyway," Arthur replied, equally unimpressed. The two of them tended to engage in volleys of unimpressed statements if no one interrupted them.

"Then let's sit down and eat, and we can catch each other up," Gwen said, ushering them towards the table. She was both surprised and unsurprised when Arthur actually pulled out a chair for Merlin, waited for him to sit down, and then pushed it back in for him. Morgana merely arched an eyebrow and sat down across from Arthur, despite his smelliness, and Gwen sat opposite Merlin.

When they were together like this, all four of them in private, the usual rules tended to break down. Gwen herself still felt unable to relax around Arthur -- he was the Prince, after all -- but Merlin cheerfully disregarded convention most of the time anyway, and Morgana enjoyed keeping things casual between them. It was a refreshing change from their shared dinners with the King, which were painfully formal and convention-bound. Here and now, they felt almost like four equals, and not two masters and two servants, two men and two women, two nobles and two commoners.

Gwen cut slices for herself and Morgana, but Arthur insisted on doing the same for himself and Merlin. But Morgana poured the wine, and Merlin proposed a toast.

"To the future," he said, looking at each of them in turn.

"Here, here," said Gwen, and she clinked their goblets.

"To the future," Arthur echoed, and so did Morgana, and they brought all four goblets together as one, then broke apart and drank.

"So come now, Gwen and I have been dying of curiosity," Morgana said, as she broke her slice with her fork. "We want to hear all about Merlin's great adventure. How was his swordwork?"

"He was in fine form," Arthur said, looking towards Merlin with obvious pride. "How many Deorham did you kill?"

"Um, a few," Merlin said, modestly, but it was obvious that he was proud of his accomplishments himself. He gave Arthur a meaningful look, and Arthur returned it with a short nod. "You know how Sir Geraint did all those great deeds?"

"Scaling the wall to open the gates?" Gwen said, remembering what Peithan had said.

"Single-handedly killing an entire patrol?" Morgana recalled, suspicion narrowing her eyes. "Sneaking into the castle to steal the enemy's papers and destroy their magical barrier?"

"Not to mention helping defeat the Deorham's sorcerer," Arthur added, smiling at Merlin as he did. "Sir Geraint was awfully busy. Especially as he never made it to Gedref."

Gwen and Morgana looked at each other, then at Merlin, who was ducking his head and grinning adorably.

"Sir Geraint died in an ambush just past the Mountains of Isgard," Merlin admitted. "Everything they said he did, that was me. But I had to give up the credit, because, well..."

Morgana cried out in delight and clapped her hands. "I should have known! Stuffy Sir Geraint would never have done even half of all that."

Gwen was extremely impressed, even knowing of what Merlin had accomplished with his magic in Camelot. "That's absolutely fantastic! Merlin, you were amazing!"

Merlin was blushing, but he was also looking quite restored, puffed up by finally being able to tell someone. Arthur clapped him heartily on the back, and then patted him more softly, apparently trying to be gentle with him.

"Were you badly hurt?" Gwen asked, concerned.

"Just a bit banged up," Merlin said. "Arthur and the knights made sure I was all right." He had a distant, fond look as he relived his memories. "It was all rather mad and terrifying, but it was wonderful, too."

Gwen reached across the table and took Merlin's hand, squeezing it to show her gratitude. Morgana did the same, and Merlin squeezed them back, looking quite touched. When he leaned back, he wiped at his eyes, and took a gulp from his goblet.

"It's not fair," Morgana said, quietly. "Uther and his precious First Code. Merlin earned the right to be up there with the knights yesterday."

"He will be, one day," Arthur said, confidently. "When I'm regent, I'm going to revoke the First Code. The knights have already pledged the support of their houses."

"When you're regent?" Morgana asked, furrowing her brow.

"My father wants to start preparing me for a regency," Arthur said, and took in a sharp breath, as if he scarcely believed it himself. "I won't be able to change any laws right away, obviously, but once things are far enough along..." He shrugged.

Morgana leaned forward, and it was obvious how keen she was. "I want a seat at your council."

"Morgana," Arthur warned, looking uncertain.

"Uther might treat me like a prized nightingale, but I've stood by and watched the injustices of his reign for long enough. I have no intention of being hidden away for the rest of my life."

"You don't have any land," Arthur began, but Morgana didn't let him finish.

"I should have inherited my father's wealth and my father's lands when I came of age. But because I am a woman, both are withheld from me. Is that right? Is that fair? I refuse to marry simply to be given what is already mine."

"It's not fair," Merlin said, quiet but certain. "Arthur wants to put me on his council, and I don't have land or money or anything."

Gwen was astonished. Did Arthur intend to somehow give Merlin the status necessary for a royal councilor, or was he actually going to put a commoner, a servant in such an important position? She knew that Arthur wanted to open up the knights, but it was another matter entirely to open up the council as well. If he wasn't careful, such actions might cause the lords to withdraw their support.

Morgana stared at Merlin in surprise, and then narrowed her eyes at Arthur. "Is this true? You want to put your manservant on the royal council, but you won't even consider letting me have a seat?"

Arthur gave Merlin an annoyed look, but Merlin jutted his chin stubbornly. Arthur glared at the both of them and then held up his hands in surrender. "All right. I can't imagine what a nightmare it will be with the two of you going at me all day, but fine. You can have a seat."

"Good," Morgana said, satisfied. "Then I'll only have to blackmail you into giving me my father's lands."

"Lord Gylis does a fine job running things in Powys on your behalf--"

"I don't want things run on my behalf," Morgana spat.

"Arthur," Merlin interrupted.

"Not now, Merlin," Arthur said, locked in a staring match with Morgana. "You're not in any condition to be running a large property with your health the way it is."

"My health is absolutely fine," Morgana said, though it was obvious how much the argument was taking out of her meager reserves.

"Arthur," Merlin said again, more urgently this time.

"Merlin, not now," Arthur said, and everyone turned to Merlin just in time to see him pass out completely. Arthur's eyes widened in alarm and he caught Merlin before he hit the floor.

"Merlin!" Gwen cried, hurrying over to help. Between the two of them they eased Merlin back up into his chair, but he wouldn't rouse, and his head lolled unless Arthur held it up. She looked to Arthur and saw that despite his obvious concern, he wasn't surprised. "What's wrong with him?" she asked.

"Nothing," Arthur said, and Gwen knew he was lying.

"He needs some air," Gwen said, and lifted the front of his kerchief to untie the knot. And stopped. "What is this?" she breathed, shocked.

Arthur pulled the kerchief back down, tearing it from her grip. "Nothing," he lied, looking even more evasive.

"What's going on? Merlin?" Morgana said. She had gone pale, and her eyes were glazed from exhaustion. Whatever fire had kept her going had banked itself again, and Gwen was worried that she might pass out as well.

Unable to rouse Merlin, Arthur settled for hauling him up into his arms. "Guinevere, open the door," he ordered.

"We need to take him to Gaius," Gwen said, deeply worried now. What she had seen around his neck... it didn't make any sense.

"Open the door," Arthur ordered, and from the stern tone of his voice, it was clear that if she didn't open it, he would force it open, key or no key.

Gwen hurried to obey, torn between staying to help Morgana and following after Arthur to help Merlin, assuming Arthur would let her help at all. She didn't think he would. She didn't think he was going to take Merlin to Gaius, either. She opened the door and Arthur strode out, and she watched as he carried Merlin into his chambers. The door stood open for a long moment, and then shut, and she heard the turn of a key in the lock.

Gwen shut the door behind her and locked it, and hurried back to Morgana, who was barely sitting up now. "Let's get you back to bed," Gwen said, and pulled Morgana's arm over her shoulders to take her weight. It was even more worrying when Morgana didn't argue, when she simply let herself be guided to bed and laid down.

"I'll get you some water," Gwen said, and stood to get the pitcher to fill Morgana's goblet.

She had been right to worry about Merlin and Arthur. She had been right. Something was very wrong, and she didn't understand what she had seen beneath the kerchief. The necklace Merlin was wearing was just like the ones on her statues of Modron and Gofannon. The symbol on them, the triskelion, was the symbol of the Old Religion. And Arthur knew about it, was hiding it.

"Gwen?" Morgana called, weakly.

"I'm here," Gwen said, hurrying back to her with the jug. She filled the goblet, brought it to Morgana's lips, and tilted it so she could sip.

Arthur knew about Merlin's magic. He had to know. He had done something to Merlin, something that was hurting him, that had made him as weak as the draughts made Morgana. If he was that weak, he wouldn't be able to save them from what was coming. No one would be able to save them. And all Gwen could do was tuck Morgana into her bed and clear the table of their abandoned meal. She felt sick herself, sick with grief at everything she had never been able to change.

And now Camelot was doomed. And there was nothing she could do to save it.

She set aside the goblet and soothed Morgana's brow. Gwen had thought that draughts, old and new, were a good thing. That they would save Morgana from a worse fate by holding back the nightmares. But seeing her now, exhausted to the point of sleep by a simple argument, her condition mirrored in Merlin's sudden illness, Gwen realized that she had been wrong. That Morgana's visions were being sent to them for a purpose greater than torment. That the gods had been helping them all along, but they had been deafening themselves out of fear.

Gwen's whole life had been shaped by what others thought was best, by the limitations of her gender, her class, her position, her faith. As a woman, she had few choices of her own. As a commoner, she had no say in the laws of the land. As a servant, she had to obey. Under the King's laws, she could not speak of prophecies and magic, of gods and prayers. Gwen had always tried her best to work within those limits while still keeping true to her own heart.

But Merlin was a commoner, a servant, a sorcerer, and yet he did not let himself be ruled. He loved the Prince even though he should not, and so the Prince loved him back. He wanted to be more than a servant, and so became a knight. He was a sorcerer, yet while he hid his magic, he was not afraid to use it. He was not afraid to act, to demand, to force the world to bend under his will. He kept true to his heart and defied all limitations.

She couldn't stop what was coming. but Merlin could. And if Merlin needed help, she would help him, just as he had helped her father, just as he had helped her. She would save Merlin from whatever Arthur had done to him, she would pass on Morgana's warnings, and together they would defy their fate. Whatever the consequences, whatever the costs, she could no longer be a coward. She could not stand by and let Camelot fall.

Chapter Text

As soon as he had locked the door, Arthur hurried back to the bed and tried to rouse Merlin again, but he did not respond with so much as a twitch. Arthur tried not to panic. Merlin had fainted after the restraint had first been triggered, and he had woken up after a few minutes. Surely this sudden faint would be the same.

Guinevere had seen the torc. She couldn't know what it was, and he didn't think she would tell anyone. What would she say? That she saw the Prince's manservant wearing an unusual necklace? A servant's word had no standing without evidence, and even if she told Morgana and Morgana made it an issue, it would be simple enough to temporarily remove the torc and hide it.

But Arthur did not want to remove the torc or even release the restraint. He did not want to give an inch in his battle against the magic inside of Merlin. He wanted to break whatever hold the magic had on Merlin and keep it fully at bay, so Merlin's natural strength could be restored, so he would not be so dependent on the corrupting, deceitful power. Merlin had been better that morning, Arthur was certain that he had been better. He had been certain that with enough care, enough rest, enough patience, Merlin would be able to bear the restraint indefinitely.

Yet whatever strength had been restored to him, it was gone again. It had faded with frightening speed despite the long nap on the field. The nap had not even bought them a full hour. Arthur cursed Gaius for giving him a solution that came with such a cost.

Minutes passed and Merlin did not wake up; he looked as pale as the bedsheets. Arthur knew that he was going to have to release the restraint, if only for a while. Sometimes a tactical retreat was necessary in order to win the greater war. But for the greater war to be won, he would have to accept that they could not simply pretend that everything could be the way it had been. He was going to have to keep Merlin somewhere safe, somewhere he could rest and recuperate without the exertions of his position. Arthur regretted burning the list of servants now, for he would need to pick one of them to take Merlin's place until he was recovered. And he would need a good excuse for Merlin's absence.

Hunith. Surely after his first experience in battle, it would make sense that Merlin would want to go home to see his mother. Could Arthur rely on Gaius to help him? Or would it be better to keep Merlin in the side room? But that meant the risk that the replacement manservant would discover him. Yet to keep Merlin anywhere else would bring its own problems, and just the thought of leaving Merlin alone and helpless was upsetting enough. Perhaps he could bring Merlin to Ealdor and leave him there with Hunith, with the restraint active. But that did not sit well with him either. He would have to sleep on the problem, see if he could find a clear path through the maze.

Arthur pulled out his keys and unlocked the chest, drew out the gold torc. He returned to the bed and sat beside Merlin and waited for a few minutes longer, just in case Merlin would wake on his own after all. But Merlin did not wake, and so Arthur took up the gold torc and slipped it back around his own neck.

He felt... something. He didn't know what. But the feeling of loss that had accompanied the gold torc's removal was matched by a feeling of restoration now. He stared at the silver torc and thought about the restraint lifting, the metal un-fusing, and the torc obeyed. It was strange, surreal, for his thoughts to be transformed into action, for his will to shape even this small part of the world. Was this what it felt like to perform a spell? Was he becoming contaminated after all? Had the seed of corruption already taken root in his soul?

He had no time to begin to answer any of his questions, because mere moments after the restraint released, life surged back into Merlin's body. His cheeks flushed and his eyes opened, and he gasped for air as he twisted on the bed, disoriented.

Arthur held him down to stop him from hurting himself, and hushed him to calm him. "It's all right. Everything's all right. I'm here. Look at me, Merlin, I'm right here."

"Arthur," Merlin croaked. He slumped limp as he recognized Arthur and their familiar surroundings. "My magic," he said, smiling as he felt it restored, letting out a laugh of delight.

It broke Arthur's heart to see it. The magic had such a hold on Merlin, and Arthur was afraid he might never be able to break it. What then? What if Merlin could be saved from his magic only to be trapped in some kind of half-life? What if his father was right, and in trying to save Merlin he had only doomed them both? Doomed Camelot to a future without a rightful king, where it would be torn apart from all sides as stronger kingdoms invaded?

"Don't cry," Merlin said, his words soft as he reached up to wipe the tears from Arthur's cheeks, the tears he had not even been aware of shedding.

Arthur swallowed against the painful clench of his throat, squeezed tight with emotion. "I can't lose you," he choked. "But I..." He shook his head, unable to say more. Unable to dare say more.

"You'll never lose me," Merlin said, and he pushed himself up and pulled Arthur into his arms, the evidence of his restored strength in the firmness of his grip. Arthur let himself be held, let himself be weak, if only for a moment. He buried his face against Merlin's shoulder and waited for his eyes to stop insistently leaking.

"You are a bit smelly," Merlin admitted.

Arthur laughed despite himself. "So I am," he said, rubbing his eyes dry on Merlin's shirt. "How do you feel?"

"Like myself again," Merlin sighed, happily. "What happened?"

Arthur's eyes had dried, so it was safe to ease himself from Merlin's arms. "You passed out in Morgana's chambers, and I couldn't wake you."

"The last thing I remember is the two of you arguing. Everything started to go all fuzzy and then I just... couldn't keep going." He sobered, blue eyes looking soulfully into Arthur's. "I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger for you."

Of course. Of course Merlin would be the one to endure, even in this. Even if he was physically weakened, Merlin was the one who would have faith, who would never give up. "We can stay here for the rest of the day," Arthur said, as all his external obligations had been fulfilled that morning. He still had paperwork to do, but he'd planned on doing that at his desk anyway. "So I don't have to put the restraint back on for a while."

"Thank you," Merlin said, smiling warmly. "We'll try again tomorrow. Maybe I'll be able to go longer once I've had some practice."

Arthur mustered a smile back. "I hope so. But let's just take this one day at a time." Seeing Merlin exhausted and suffering, seeing him pass out like that, had scared him. He could admit that now. He couldn't lose Merlin, couldn't let him go, couldn't hide him away, not without great cost to himself. Not without breaking his own heart. But Merlin was right. He could not give up at the first setback. He could not let the magic win. They would survive this as they had survived everything else, as long as they had each other.

Merlin kissed him, sweet and solid and traced with salt from Arthur's tears. Arthur surrender to him, let himself be held, let Merlin be the one in control and himself be comforted, even though by all rights it should be the other way around. Merlin had been the one to suffer all morning, to faint and fall like a stone. But Merlin was fine, and Arthur was the one who was all in pieces.

He was in love with a sorcerer. Merlin was a sorcerer, and Arthur should be afraid of him, should see him as the enemy, should be set on his destruction. But he wasn't. He couldn't. Because Merlin was Merlin, and it still make no sense in Arthur's heart that Merlin could be someone to fear, someone to hate, even now that his magic was free again. Merlin was unrestrained and Arthur still could not find it in himself to be afraid.

Perhaps it was because the corruption was inside him, too, and taking him over piece by piece. Perhaps he was not afraid because sorcerers were not afraid of other sorcerers. Perhaps he would soon be able to cast spells, and his own eyes would glow golden. Would he go mad all at once, or would it be slow? Would it take weeks, months, years? Would his father live to see his only son consumed by the very magic he had tried so hard to extinguish?

There was no way to know. There was no test to give that would detect if someone held magic within them. There was no way to measure corruption. Magic could not be known in itself, only through the consequences of its use. One day he would wake up and he would no longer be himself, because whatever had saved Merlin's soul from corruption, Arthur could not imagine having anything so pure within himself, not when his very birth had been tainted, destructive, murderous.

"Arthur?" Merlin said, concerned.

Arthur swallowed back his fear, forcibly pulled himself together. There was still every chance that he had not been infected. There was still every chance that Merlin could be saved. He could not falter. And more importantly, he could not continue to live in ignorance of the world around him. The only way he would be able to truly resist and destroy magic was if he understood it.

"Change of plans," he said, drawing reluctantly from Merlin's embrace. "Everything else can wait. This afternoon, I want you to teach me everything you know about magic."

Merlin's answer was a brilliant smile. "Ready when you are. We just need my book."

Arthur slipped from the bed and went back to the chest. It was the safest place to keep something as incredibly illegal as a grimoire. Knowing Merlin's habit of leaving his belongings strewn all over the place, he could only imagine that it was sheer luck that he had not been caught with it when he'd been living in Gaius' back room. Especially as Arthur had conducted searches of that room himself more than once.

"We'll do it at the table," Merlin said, standing and walking over to it. But when he got there, he stopped and frowned.

"What's wrong?" Arthur asked, concerned that Merlin wasn't fully recovered after all.

"When I fainted, I must have given Gwen and Morgana a scare," Merlin said, looking at the door. "Maybe I should go pop my head in, show them I'm all right?"

"No," Arthur blurted out. "I mean, I can't let you leave my chambers without the restraint. And you'll probably pass out again, like the first time."

"True," Merlin admitted. "But you can go. Just so they don't worry?" He gave Arthur a hopeful look.

Arthur knew that if he resisted, it would only make Merlin fret. "All right. Just for a moment. I'll be right back. Don't do anything..." He waved his hand to represent magic.

Merlin sat down and tucked his hands under his thighs. "I won't budge an inch," he promised.

Ridiculous man, Arthur thought, and unlocked the door and went out into the hall. Only then did he remember that he was wearing his own torc, and he quickly pulled it off and tucked it into his waistband, hiding it under his shirt as he had before. He chided himself for his carelessness and shook off the odd sense of disconnection that it seemed would always accompany the torc's removal. He approached Morgana's door with trepidation, but braced himself and knocked. After a long pause, Guinevere opened the door.

"Shh," she said, pressing her finger to her lips. "Morgana's resting." She slipped out into the hall and closed the door behind her. "Where's Merlin?"

"In my chambers," Arthur said. "He wanted me to come over and tell you and Morgana that he's feeling better."

"I'll believe that when I see it," she muttered, and stalked right past Arthur and headed for his chambers.

"Guinevere!" Arthur hissed, but for some reason she completely ignored him. He hurried after her, and reached the door just as she walked in and saw Merlin. Merlin looked up and smiled, and Guinevere hurried over to him.

"You're all right?" she said, as if barely believing her eyes. Arthur had to admit that the transformation in Merlin was dramatic. When he'd fainted he'd looked almost ghostly, and now he was flush with life. The magic inside him must be powerful indeed.

"Sorry I scared you," Merlin said, lowering his head in apology.

"Don't be sorry," Guinevere said, and stepped forward to hug him tightly against herself. Arthur couldn't quite tell, but it looked like she was feeling beneath Merlin's kerchief. When he stepped around to get a better look, she had moved her hand away from his neck. She looked up at Arthur, and Arthur stared back, startled by what he saw.

He had never paid Guinevere much mind. She was Morgana's, not his, and she was just another servant in a castle full of servants. The first time that he had ever really talked to her had been during his recovery from the Questing Beast's poison. He knew that she had used some kind of healing charm to save her father's life, and by all rights she should still have burned even after the creature in the water supply had been vanquished. But his father had waved off the matter and Arthur had not wanted to see her executed for such a minor crime.

But she knew something of magic. He could no longer ignore that inconvenient fact. Her father had been arrested and executed for consorting with a sorcerer. Morgana had been adamant that Guinevere and Tom were both innocent, and Arthur had not felt it worth the battle to contradict her, especially as he had held no great fondness for his father's methods at the time. But things were different now. Guinevere was no longer a misguided girl who had been led astray by her father's dabblings. She had seen the torc and was brazenly trying to find out more about it. And she did not keep her gaze downcast, but stared back at him with accusation in her eyes.

"Gwen?" Merlin said, drawing back in confusion. He looked back and forth at the two of them. "Um, is something wrong?"

"Nothing," Guinevere insisted, plastering on a smile. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked awful before, but you're so much better now!"

Merlin looked to her with evident longing. Arthur was certain that Merlin wanted to tell her about his magic, and gave Merlin a warning glance. Merlin gave a slight nod in understanding. "Yeah, I just... haven't been feeling quite myself. Maybe my head isn't as healed as I thought it was." He rubbed at the back of his head as if to demonstrate. "I've been having these bad turns, and they come and go." It was a decent lie, as Merlin's lies went, but anyone who knew him well would see that he wasn't being truthful.

"You should go see Gaius," Guinevere insisted.

"Gaius already knows," Arthur said, stepping closer. "You don't have to worry about Merlin. I'm taking care of him. You should go look after Morgana."

"How is she?" Merlin asked Guinevere.

Guinevere saddened. "She's resting now." She glanced at Arthur and stepped back. "You're right. I hate to leave her alone for long. I'll let her know how you're doing."

Merlin gave her a little wave as she hurried out, and Arthur closed the door firmly and locked it again. When he turned back to Merlin, it was clear that Merlin had no idea that Guinevere was something of a sorcerer herself, if only the very minor sort, like Linette. The kind that Arthur used to believe were essentially harmless, that did not deserve his father's paranoia-fuelled judgements. Now he was not so certain. But if Guinevere was guilty, Arthur was even more so. It would do neither of them good to pursue the matter right now. He would deal with her as he would deal with all the sorcerers in Camelot, once he and Merlin learned how to safely destroy their magic.

And speaking of learning... "Feeling better now?" Arthur asked, as he sat down next to Merlin at the table.

"Much, thank you," Merlin said, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek as a reward. "Right. Magic!" He pulled the grimoire closer and opened the cover, and began flipping through pages at random. "Um, not really sure where to start, to be honest."

"Start with the basics," Arthur said. "Both you and Gaius mentioned the elements. And I don't know anything about the Old Religion, or how to read that writing."

"We'll start with the elements and the gods, then, and how spells work," Merlin said, gnawing at his lower lip in thought. "It'd be easier if I could show you some of it rather than tell you, but if you don't want me to do any spells..."

Arthur pulled the gold torc from his waistband and eased it back on, and braced himself for the good feeling that shimmered through him. "I want you to show me. If you lose control, I can always trigger the restraint."

Merlin gave him a patient look. "You don't have to worry about that. But if it makes you feel better, you can use it."

Arthur had the distinct impression he was being humored. Usually such insolence merited a good headscruffing, or at the very least a tart insult. But Arthur wasn't in the mood for roughhousing or teasing words. "Let me get something to write with," he said, and moved to stand. But Merlin stopped him with one hand to his shoulder, and then stretched his other hand towards the desk. He turned his face towards the desk and Arthur could just see the flare of gold in his eyes, and then the quill, inkwell, and several sheets of paper floated towards them, following Merlin's guiding hand. They settled neatly on the table before Arthur, and the quill dipped itself into the inkwell.

Arthur forced himself to breathe again. He warily reached for the quill and gripped it, and it felt perfectly normal. He wrote 'Spells made without speaking - floating' and set the quill back into the well.

"All right," he said, his calm tone more for himself than for Merlin, who was watching him with barely hidden amusement. "How on earth did you do that?"

"Magic," Merlin said cheekily, and grinned, showing his dimples. Arthur was not amused, and gave him a pointed glare. "Sorry, couldn't resist," Merlin admitted. "It's something I've always been able to do. According to my mum, I could make things float before I could speak or even crawl. If I saw something I wanted, I would just--" He waved his hand. "--float it over. And it doesn't need a spell. Well, I could use a spell if I wanted to, but I don't have to."

"Right," Arthur said, though as explanations went it was clear as mud. He crossed out the word 'Spells' and wrote 'Magic' above it. "What other magic can you do without spells?"

"Well, I can do loads of things, but the problem is that it's a lot harder to do it on purpose that way. A lot of the magic I used to do was by accident. Like a reflex or a sneeze. When I first came to Camelot, Gaius tested me by knocking over a bucket of water, and my magic accidentally stopped it before it fell. That's why I had to leave Ealdor. Mum was terrified I would be found out, and it really was a close thing."

"So you can do any kind of magic without spells, but spells make them easier to control?"

"Spells are... structured," Merlin said, chewing over the words as if he wasn't quite sure of them himself. "When I brought over the quill, I sort of... reached into it? And then I could make it do what I wanted. But apparently that's not how it is for other sorcerers. They don't have the strength, so they have to use spells. And a spell is more like... asking, rather than telling. And they're better for complicated things. Sorry, I've never explained this to anyone before, and Gaius isn't really generous with details."

Arthur raised his eyebrows in agreement. He scratched out his first line and wrote down 'Silent magic - rare ability, forcing action through will and brute strength' and then 'Spoken magic - spells are structured magic, advanced magic, asking rather than telling'.

Merlin peered at the paper and said, "Oh, that's not quite right. You can use a spell without saying it aloud. It takes a lot of practice to get it right, though. You have to say it in your head. But that's still not the same as doing magic without any words at all."

Arthur adjusted his notes accordingly. "What about the elements?"

"Ah," Merlin said, more confidently. "That's easy. Fire, air, earth, and water. Watch this." He held out his hand towards the fireplace, moved a fresh log onto the hearth, and said "Forbærne!" The log burst into flame. "Færblæd wawe!" he said, and a gust of wind made the fire roar high. He directed his hand at the water basin and said, "Wæter, acwence þa bælblyse!" and the water lifted from the bowl and floated over the fire and doused it in a hiss of steam.

Arthur forcibly unclenched his hand from the hilt of his sword. It wasn't easy to fight every deeply ingrained instinct he had and sit calmly as Merlin performed spell after spell, but he had to make the effort. He had always performed his duty to Camelot, always defended it with everything he had. But he had been acting in ignorance and fear. He needed to understand, and he couldn't do that if his only reaction to magic was to immediately destroy it.

"Fire, air, and water," Arthur said, with deliberate slowness. "You didn't do earth."

"I don't want to shake the castle down," Merlin said, with an easy shrug. "Fire's the most dangerous, but earth is always big. Like, rockfalls and earthquakes big."

Merlin didn't want to shake the castle down. Arthur's gut twisted as he began to understand just how powerful Merlin truly was. It was no wonder that it was proving difficult to extricate Merlin from the magic, if it was that strong. He had his work cut out for him.

Arthur settled his nerves by making more notes, and then switched to a clean sheet of paper. "Let's take a break from magic. Tell me about the Old Religion."

"Well, first there's the gods. The most important god is Modron. She's the triple goddess of birth, life, and death. She's basically the high queen of all the gods, so when you pray, you always have to pray to her as well as whatever specific god you want the favor from."

Arthur dipped his quill and noted everything down. "Specific god?"

"Everything has a god. Or rather, every god is like a king with their own territory, but it's not about land like it is for us. Like, there's Cernunnos, and he's the god of nature and fertility. So if you're trying to have children, you'd want to make an offering to Cernunnos as well as Modron. But praying isn't like magic. It's like... if my instinctive magic makes things obey, and spells ask things to obey, then prayer is a way of showing the gods that you are open to them and their will. And if your will and their will align, then the gods might help you. But if you aren't open to them, or they don't want to do what you're asking, then they won't."

"Strange system," Arthur said, hurrying to keep up. But it did make a sort of sense. And it was not dissimilar to the way things worked when commoners petitioned the King. His father would consider their requests, and if he agreed with them and it was beneficial for the kingdom, he would give them some or all of what they wanted, depending on his judgement. It was an important part of Arthur's own education in learning when a request ought to be fulfilled or denied. "What are the other gods?"

"After Modron, there are a bunch of king-level gods, the really important ones that have a lot of territory. There's Silus, goddess of the waters. Brighid, goddess of healing and wisdom. Lleu, god of the sun and the sky. And Rhiannon, goddess of beasts and the hunt. After that there's loads of smaller gods -- they're like lords, I guess -- but mum and I never bothered much with them."

"Is there a god of war?"

"War would be Modron's, because that's death," Merlin answered. "But you'd also want to pray to Rhiannon if you're fighting with horses. Or to Silus if you're fighting at sea. If you make an offering with your prayer, it increases the chances that the gods will show their favor. Like bringing a gift when you petition a lord or a king for help."

Arthur was halfway through his last sheet of paper when Merlin waved over some fresh pages for him. Arthur accepted them with a nod. So far it was all surprisingly sensible for a system based on evil and madness. Perhaps magic hadn't always been evil, and had itself become corrupted at some point.

"What about dark magic?" Arthur asked. "Gaius mentioned it."

"I'm not exactly sure," Merlin admitted. "Sigan and Nimueh used dark magic. Gaius said it's often used for selfish ends. All I really know is that it feels... off, somehow. But not the way Palaemon's magic did."

"Maybe Palaemon's magic felt the way it did because it wasn't from the Old Religion?" Arthur guessed. "The Romans have their own gods."

"That makes sense," Merlin said, and then grinned. "See, I knew we'd make a great team."

Arthur smiled back, but couldn't help but puzzle over something. For all that his father had raged against the Old Religion, he'd never said anything about the Roman gods, even though the Romans had magic, too. And he knew from his diplomatic meetings that the peoples of other, distant lands all had different gods of their own, and presumably their own sorts of magic. It lent credence to the idea that the Old Religion used to be good, but somewhere along the line it had become corrupted, and that was why his father had to purge it out.

Did that mean that Merlin's magic was somehow itself uncorrupted? It was a stretch, but he could not dissuade himself of the possibility.

"What do you know about magic from before the Great Purge?" Arthur asked.

Merlin bit at his lip, thinking. "Gaius said that before the Purge, people used magic for the wrong ends. He said it was causing chaos. Oh, I forgot about Edwin Muirden. Gaius said that his parents used dark magic, and that his beetles were made from it."

"Beetles?"

"Edwin had these magical beetles, Elanthia beetles, and they would crawl into your brain through your ear and eat your soul." Merlin grimaced. "That's what caused Morgana and your father to become ill. I might not know exactly what dark magic is, but I know it's bad."

"But if regular magic is used to hurt people, isn't that dark magic?"

"Of course not," Merlin said. "A knife doesn't change what it is if you use it to stab someone instead of cutting bread. It's just a knife. Magic can be misused, but that doesn't make it evil. Regular magic wouldn't eat your soul."

"How do you know that?" Arthur challenged. "I don't even know what the equivalent of a 'dark knife' would be."

"Yeah, but a knife isn't magic."

Arthur gave him a skeptical look. "That's not much of an explanation."

"I can't help it if everyone's been lying to me or refusing to tell me anything," Merlin said, exasperated. "My mum never wanted to talk about her old life, or even who my father was, and all she and Gaius ever did was tell me to stop using my magic all the time so I wouldn't get caught. I don't even know if anyone's been telling me the truth about anything anymore. All I really have is my book."

"What's in the book, then?"

Merlin slid the open book between them. "It's not a history book or anything, but there's all sorts of spells."

Arthur turned to the early pages, the ones written in runes. "These are the oldest?"

"Yeah, I think so. They're different than the later ones, too. I think they were written by a High Priestess or a Druid, because the spells are more like prayers, and it's all really formal and you need special cups and blessed wine and a ritual knife. I can't use any of them because of that. And see, these pages are made from a different parchment, like they were from another book and they were rebound into this one."

Arthur examined the pages closely and saw that Merlin was right. "Makes sense. And the rest?"

"They're more useful, and they're grouped by type. I think what happened was, someone saved what they could from a really old spell book, and then they compiled a catalog of all the spells they could find. It's like a collection of recipes, but instead of breakfast and dinner and dessert, it's healing spells, or manipulating the elements, or ways to defeat magical creatures. And whoever did it must have wanted to keep adding things, because they left a lot of blank pages at the back, and someone else used those to add the last group of spells." Merlin flipped to the last filled pages. "See, the handwriting changes."

According to Merlin's marginalia, on that particular page was the spell he'd used to defeat the griffin, and in the writing he'd sounded out the pronunciation very specifically. Breg-dan ann-we-eld ga-fel-uec. Arthur marvelled. It was only three words, and somehow that was enough to enable Lancelot to do what Arthur and a dozen knights could not. "What exactly does this spell do?"

Merlin smiled when he recognized the page. "This was one of the first powerful spells I ever cast. Took me ages to figure out what I was doing. It strengthens mortal weapons so they can be used against magical creatures. It's also how I killed the Questing Beast and the giant boar that turned out to be King Terit."

Three words. Merlin had uttered three words, and that was all it took to stop monstrous creatures that had destroyed whole villages, killed dozens of people, and defeated the strongest knights. Arthur had always thought of magic as a kind of trickery, a way to cheat the hard rules of the world. But if Merlin was right... Arthur felt like a child who had been taught only the simplest things, and had suddenly been handed a lengthy treatise. Perhaps that was what he was. The idea did not sit well with him, and he wondered if perhaps he should not have written off Idriys' words so quickly.

"Have you read this entire book?" Arthur asked.

"Pretty much," Merlin said. "But I haven't used it in months, and even before that Gaius was always yelling at me if I was using my magic when it wasn't some life-threatening emergency. And I was always chasing after you to keep you safe, or doing ridiculous amounts of chores. So I never had time to practice properly." He gave Arthur a hopeful look. "I want us to work together so you can teach me to wield my magic like a knight. And I want to learn how to heal. There's so much I want to do. All my life people have been holding me back, telling me to hide what I am, and I'm... I don't want to be that way anymore." He reached up to touch his silver torc, and looked away, clearly realizing that now Arthur was one of the people holding him back.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

"Look," Arthur said, struggling with what to say. "This is all... it's a lot to take in. And we don't know everything we need to. I'd be more comfortable if I could read this book myself."

"I can teach you," Merlin said, brightening again. "Now, if you want."

"Now is perfect," Arthur said, smiling. "I'm good with languages. And once I know how to read the old tongues, maybe I can find some books in the library that can fill in the gaps for us."

"Whenever I'm in there, Geoffrey watches me like a hawk," Merlin said. "He acts like I'm going to ruin his dusty books just by standing near them. But if you're there, he might actually let us poke around the stacks."

"Better than that," Arthur said. "I have the keys. We can go into the library when Geoffrey isn't around." He felt a bit like he had when he was younger, when the stacks had towered with knowledge and he'd wanted it all. Even if Geoffrey had squirrelled away all the books that were written in the old tongue, he was far too protective of his collection to destroy any of it. They still had to be somewhere. The prospect of finally getting his hands on all of that forbidden knowledge was temptation enough to overcome any qualms he might have. If there was any dangerous magic to be found, he would have Merlin to protect him.

He had Merlin.

Arthur had to remind himself that even if Merlin was the exception of all exceptions, magic itself was still a dangerous thing, still corrupting, and he couldn't afford to let down his guard. He was doing all of this so he could learn to destroy the threat, not be seduced into accepting it, no matter how innocuous or tempting it seemed. He could not forget that this was all utter treason, that there was no other interpretation. That he was risking his soul and Merlin's soul and the safety of the kingdom. That Merlin might believe that magic and dark magic were distinct in nature, but Merlin had been lied to about many things. He had to proceed with caution, with great care. Assumptions could be deadly for them all.

§

Arthur had a lot to learn. They worked together all through the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. Merlin showed him the basics of the two writing systems and how to read and pronounce them, along with a beginner's set of vocabulary. Arthur worried that to speak anything of the old tongue would mean speaking a spell, but Merlin assured him that even if Arthur had magic, which he didn't, he wouldn't be able to read just anything aloud and have it be a spell, because spells didn't work that way.

Not that Arthur understood how spells actually worked. Merlin's descriptions of "reaching into things" and "asking" were vague and frankly incomprehensible. Reached into what, and how? Did that mean everything had magic, even things that weren't alive? And how did magic relate to the gods? But Merlin was unable to answer any of those questions to Arthur's satisfaction.

Still, by the end of it, Arthur had some solid ground under his feet, even if it was only a small patch overlooking a steep chasm. And after hours of instruction, they had both had enough.

"No more questions. My head hurts." Merlin lay sideways on the bed, his arm over his eyes.

Arthur snorted. "This is nothing compared to my old lessons with Geoffrey." But he had to admit that he was worn out himself. His head felt utterly stuffed to the point where everything he had put into it was jumbling into nonsense. He hadn't pushed himself this hard with anything but fighting in years.

"I need some ice," Merlin said.

"Ice? Where are you going to get..." Arthur trailed off as he saw a clean washcloth float across the room, dip into the water jug, and then float over to Merlin. It folded itself, the dripping water solidifying into ice, and then lay itself gently across Merlin's eyes and forehead. Merlin sighed in relief.

Arthur was starting to see why Gaius and Hunith had spent so much time yelling at Merlin not to use his magic. "Did you at any point do your chores yourself, or was it all done with magic?"

"Only if someone was looking," Merlin admitted.

Arthur rested his forehead against his palm. "That explains so much."

"You always gave me too many chores anyway. How could anyone get them all done without magic?"

"My other manservants managed it."

"You worked your other manservants into the ground. That's why they hated you."

"They didn't hate me," Arthur protested.

"Arthur, I love you, but you can be a tremendous clotpole."

Arthur turned to Merlin and glared at him, but Merlin didn't tremble in fear because his eyes were covered. That was absolutely the reason.

Arthur stood with a groan and stretched himself loose. He plucked at his sweat-stiff clothes and realized that he well and truly did need a bath. But it was late, and it was one thing to request a bath for the morning, or sufficiently ahead of time. At this hour, the servants would have to start boiling now, and it would take ages until it was all ready.

"That thing you did with the water, to make ice. Can you do the opposite? Make the water hot?"

Merlin lifted a corner of the frozen washcloth. "Oh yes," he said, breaking into a grin. "I can make a fantastic bath."

"But you still need someone to bring up the tub and the water? You can't just make it all appear?"

Merlin let the washcloth back down over his eyes. "There's a huge difference between manipulating something that's already there and making something out of thin air. I'm too tired for all that. But I can make a bath the perfect temperature and keep it there. You have no idea how long I've wanted to tell you that."

"A bath that never gets cold," Arthur murmured. No wonder his father was always warning people about the seductive nature of magic. There were few things as seductive as a properly hot bath that never got cold.

Merlin didn't look likely to budge, so Arthur gathered the remains of their dinner from the table onto the tray and remarked that somehow he had ended up servant to a sorcerer. His life had taken very strange turns indeed. Rather than remove his torc, he did his best to tuck it under his shirt. He couldn't totally cover it, thanks to his preference for open collars, but he managed to mostly hide it. It wouldn't pass muster for a substantial length of time, but it would do for now.

He took the tray to the door and called for a servant. One arrived shortly and took the tray and the order for a cold bath. Arthur closed the door and went over to the bed.

"Two choices. Either you go into the side room and I leave the restraint off, or it goes back on."

Merlin gave a long-suffering sigh, but dragged himself to his feet and over to the side room. He went inside and collapsed onto the bed there, and Arthur shook his head in amusement and closed the door. There was a knock, and he went to let in the servants with the tub.

Cold water could be brought up without delay, so it didn't take long for the tub to be filled. Arthur locked the outer door and opened up the side room to let Merlin out. Merlin peeked his head out, and Arthur saw that he was already naked but for the silver torc and the red favor around his upper arm.

"In a hurry, are we?"

"You're not the only one who stinks," Merlin said. He hurried over to the tub and splayed his hand over it. "Onhǽte þá wæter," he said, hurriedly, his eyes flashing gold. Arthur was almost getting used to the sight by now.

The water roiled with bubbles and then settled, and even at a distance Arthur could feel the steam. Merlin dipped a finger in, and his eyes glowed again as he silently tweaked the water until it was just right. Then he climbed right in, not waiting for Arthur at all.

"Ohh, that's so good." Merlin moaned as if he was experiencing some kind of sexual bliss.

"There's no way it's that good," Arthur chided, but he quickly stripped down himself. When he stepped in and sat down, he had to admit that Merlin had a point.

"See?" Merlin said, smugly.

Arthur gave an incoherent groan and slumped deeper into the tub. He felt like his bones were being gently melted. It was glorious. They silently soaked for a while, utterly content, and every time the water cooled even a little, Merlin's eyes glowed and there was a rush of delicious heat.

"You've spoiled me," Arthur groaned. "I'm ruined for life." Every hot bath he'd ever had now seemed little more than lukewarm.

"I should have done this first," Merlin said, as the soap and washcloth floated into his hand. "Seduced you with hot water and then told you I had magic."

"It would have a more relaxing approach," Arthur admitted, and then sighed as Merlin began to wash his hair. Merlin's fingers kneaded at his scalp, but Arthur had to open one eye to make sure it was actually Merlin doing it and not more of his magic. Merlin smiled fondly down at him, flushed nearly red from the heat.

Arthur closed his eye again, and rested contentedly as Merlin finished with his hair and began to wash the rest of him, slow and thorough with a hint of teasing. Arthur wondered when he had stopped pretending not to be afraid of Merlin's magic and actually stopped being afraid. He knew he was being foolish, he knew he was indulging in something incredibly dangerous. But it made Merlin happy to do this for him, it made Merlin happy to show that magic was about more than killing and destruction. And Arthur had to admit that there was some truth to his arguments. It was clear that magic could be used to protect, and on some level he had accepted that ever since the discovery of Uwen's enchanted mail. And magic could also be used for simple things, for pleasant things that made life better.

But his father had never said that magic couldn't be used for all of that. The problem with magic was not what it could do. It was what it was. It was its inherent nature, the contamination it brought. Putting together what he knew with what Merlin had told him, it seemed that magic used to be separated into two types: regular magic, which might actually be safe, and dark magic, which destroyed the souls of those who used it. But at some point, the dark magic had taken over the Old Religion, and that was why it had to be destroyed. He couldn't be certain, of course, not without some kind of evidence to confirm it. But it was the only way he could make sense out of the contradictions.

He thought about the magic he had experienced, the sorcerers he had met who had not been attacking out of madness and vengeance. There was the blue light that had helped him in the Forest of Balor, of course, and there was the unicorn. He was not sure about Anhora, as the man had been quite suspicious despite his claims that he had not caused the crop failures and the drought. But if Arthur had ever felt magic, he had felt it when the unicorn had returned. And it had felt... good. It had felt pure.

Did Merlin feel pure? Could he rely on such a judgement if he could make it? He didn't know what dark magic felt like, so it would be difficult to even make a comparison. Merlin thought dark magic felt different, but Arthur could not feel magic at all, had never felt magic except for the unicorn. He had only ever felt its effects.

But perhaps he was wrong again. What about the way the torcs made him feel? They were still wearing them. Perhaps now was a good time to experiment. Merlin was cleaning his feet, and Arthur was loathe to interrupt him, but his curiosity was too strong to deny. He sat up in the tub and guided Merlin to face him.

"I want to ask you something," he said. "About the torcs."

"I only know what you've told me. You're the one who found them."

"Yes, but the first time you put yours on, it affected you somehow. Before the restraint."

A guilty look flashed across Merlin's face. "I'll tell you, but I don't want to you to get upset."

"Is there a reason I should be?" Arthur asked, giving him a look. And this time, Merlin could definitely see it.

"I know I promised to be completely honest, but everything happened so fast, and afterwards I wasn't sure if I should say anything. And the torcs were your idea."

Arthur sighed. "Spit it out."

"It felt really good. Like... it's hard to explain--"

"I'm getting used to that," Arthur drawled.

Merlin gave him a look for that. "You try explaining sight to someone who's blind. Or what sounds are to a deaf person. It's not easy."

"All right," Arthur said, showing his hands in surrender. "Do your best."

Merlin huffed and shifted in the water. "I've never had anyone I could do magic with. Not really. But when I put on the torc for the first time, it felt like... connecting. Like I finally wasn't alone." He bit his lip. "You're not going to make us take them off, are you?"

"You actually want to wear the torc?" Arthur asked, surprised.

"Well, the restraint is awful," Merlin admitted. "But when the restraint is gone, it's... comforting. It's nice." He ducked his head, then looked up at Arthur, regretful yet pleading.

Arthur wasn't sure what to say. He needed the torcs to keep Merlin safe, to keep them both safe. He'd been wary enough about them at the start. He could not question the effectiveness of the restraint -- in that, Gaius had been truthful -- but Gaius had conveniently neglected to mention anything else about how the torcs work, and now he was finding out the hard way, as usual.

"I want to try something," Arthur said, keeping his voice level so as not to upset Merlin. "I'm going to take my torc off, and I want you to tell me what you feel."

Merlin nodded. "Go ahead."

Arthur gripped his torc and eased it from his neck. The moment he did so, he felt the same sense of loss that he had in the morning, and again in the hall. Merlin did not go pale as he had before, but he visibly flinched.

"It's like... going from a hot bath right into a cold one," Merlin said. "This morning, I thought it was because of the restraint, but it happened again when you went to talk to Gwen."

"You said it felt like losing something," Arthur recalled.

Merlin nodded. "The connection. The feeling of being part of something greater. Something wonderful. It's sort of like... when I do really huge magic, it comes from somewhere deep inside me, like a well that reaches down into an ocean. I felt it when I opened the gates in Gedref, and when I called down lightning and killed Nimueh. But afterwards, it always goes away again, and I can't reach it. When we're both wearing the torcs, it's not as strong as that, but it feels the same."

Arthur considered this. "Does it feel like the unicorn?"

Merlin blinked at him, surprised. "Maybe. It was sort of similar, I guess. I didn't feel connected to the unicorn, but its magic was really strong." He tilted his head. "Did you feel it? The unicorn's magic?"

"I think I might have," Arthur admitted. "It felt good."

Merlin smiled. "Then you're not afraid? You're not afraid of magic?"

Arthur made a face. "I wouldn't quite go that far. But... I'm working on it."

Merlin sloshed across the tub and hugged Arthur tightly. "I knew it. I knew you'd understand if you just had the chance." When he pulled back again, he was blinking away tears of joy. "Arthur," he said, deeply affected, his chin trembling. Arthur pulled him close again, and held Merlin as he cried and laughed and squeezed him tightly.

"Will you put it back on?" Merlin sniffed, easing back again. His eyes were red, but he was smiling tremulously. "Please?"

Arthur handed him the gold torc, and held himself still as Merlin eased it around his neck. Arthur breathed in sharply as he felt the connection return; the rush of restoration seemed stronger now that he wasn't fighting it as much. The effect on Merlin was obvious as he sighed in contentment.

"I wish you could wear yours all the time, too," Merlin said. "I think that's why I felt better in the morning. It was so much worse after you took yours off."

"Do you think you could bear the restraint all day if I kept it on?" Arthur asked. Perhaps this was the solution to his earlier dilemma. He would have to change his wardrobe to high, closed collars, but then the weather was getting cooler, and it was about time to have his warmer clothes brought out. There should be a few shirts and jackets he could wear that would hide the torc effectively, despite its bulk.

Merlin nodded. "It's like... it gives me just enough so that I don't feel exhausted. Not right away, because everything's gone when you trigger the restraint. But after we've had them on for a while, it gets better. We'll have to test it."

Arthur made a thoughtful noise. That could either be a problem or a solution, depending on his goal. If Merlin's magic was somehow free of the contamination that was in dark magic, then perhaps there was no urgent need to break him of it. It would be sufficient for now to simply keep Merlin's magic controlled, and if he always wore his own torc, Merlin would not suffer the way he had today. And Arthur would not have to hide him away as he had feared.

Yet if there was still danger, then the torcs were more than an imperfect tool. They would restrain Merlin's magic but not cut it off completely, and thus leave an open path for the corruption. And now he realized that it would affect both of them, not just Merlin, as the magic was clearly not confined within the torcs. His own soul was more at risk than he had feared. Wearing the gold torc constantly might be the worst possible thing to do. He would have to accelerate his search for a permanent cure for Merlin's magic, especially if he could not find a way to confirm whether or not Merlin's magic was contaminated. Every day, every hour he was gambling his soul, his life, his future and the future of the entire kingdom. He could not justify such a massive risk with so little chance of success, and yet neither could he give Merlin up. It was incredibly selfish, but his heart would not let him make any other choice.

"We'll see how tomorrow goes," Arthur said. "You might be able to go longer without depending on your magic or whatever boost you get when I'm wearing my torc."

Merlin twisted his mouth in annoyance. "I shouldn't have said anything," he sulked.

"No, I'm glad you did," Arthur said. "I can't make the right decision if I don't know all the facts. I'm trying to do what's best for us, for both of us. I don't want to hurt you, but I need to know you're safe."

Merlin's eyes flashed gold, and there was a rush of heat. "But you don't mind me making the water hot."

"Locked door," Arthur reminded him. "Do you need me to remind you what will happen if someone sees you doing magic? You're a knight now, not just a servant. You can't get away with ducking behind a tree or some drapery, assuming you even bothered to do that much to hide yourself."

Merlin pouted at him. "I was doing just fine on my own," he insisted.

"You were lucky," Arthur said. "More lucky than I realized. But no one's luck lasts forever. The torcs are a temporary measure. I need you to be patient with me until we can find a better solution. Please?"

Merlin made a reluctant sound, but nodded. "Only because you asked nicely. I like it when you ask nicely. It's much better than when you're all bossy and supercilious."

"That's a big word," Arthur teased, grabbing the soap and washcloth from where they were floating.

"I have all sorts of big words to describe you."

"Do tell," Arthur said, and gave him a gentle push backwards. He began to wash Merlin, starting with the sensitive nape of his neck.

"Maybe later," Merlin muttered, and began to relax again. "Keep doing that."

"Now who's being bossy?" Arthur said, without heat. But he obeyed.

Chapter Text

"Gwen, my dear," Gaius said, giving her his usual welcoming smile. "I didn't expect you so early. Is everything all right?"

"As well as could be expected," Gwen replied, regret in her voice. "It seems last night's draught wasn't quite strong enough after all. Morgana's quite worn out and wants to make an early night of it."

"Of course," Gaius said, understandingly. "I'll get her draught ready. A bit stronger this time, and I'm certain she'll have a good night's rest."

Gwen gave a grateful nod. She watched as Gaius gathered up the herbs and bottles necessary for his task, then said, casually, "Arthur and Merlin visited for lunch today, but they had to leave early because Merlin wasn't feeling well."

Gaius stilled, then picked up a sprig of an herb and began plucking its leaves and placing them into a mortar. "He's still recovering from his injuries, I'm afraid."

"Really?" Gwen pressed. "But he seemed fine when we were treating everyone together. And it's been over a week since the battle. Perhaps it's something else? Something new?"

Gaius picked up a pestle and began to slowly grind the dried leaves into powder. "I don't believe so, no. Head injuries can be tricky. Symptoms can take time to appear."

"Then you saw Merlin after he fainted today?"

Gaius stilled again, but Gwen couldn't see his face, as he was turned away from her. "Yes, I examined him myself. I understand how alarming it must have been, but there's really no reason to worry."

Arthur and Merlin had not left their chambers after lunch, and while Gwen had eventually gone out herself, they were still there when she returned. She was almost certain that Gaius was lying, because she was equally certain that he had not known about Merlin's faint until now. And that could only mean that he was covering for Arthur.

"I've been thinking about what Merlin said," Gwen began. "About finding some other way to treat Morgana's nightmares. She's suffering so badly. What if the draughts are doing more harm than good?"

Gaius took two pinches of the ground herb and sprinkled them into his mixture. "You've never had a problem with them before. Is there a reason for your change of heart?"

"That was with the old draught," Gwen said, unwilling to give ground. "At least we could go back to it..."

"The old draught no longer worked," Gaius said, as he stirred in the last ingredient. "After so many years, her body had become quite resistant to its effects. It took me more than a year to find this new formula. She is sleeping through the night now, is she not? Like she used to?"

"Yes," Gwen admitted.

Gaius handed her the bottle and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I only want what's best for her, just as you do. My hope is that with time that she will adapt to the new treatment. In the meantime, we must be patient."

"Of course."

"I know it's hard," Gaius said, sympathetically. "It's not easy to stand by and watch those close to us... to watch them suffer. But sometimes that is all we can do."

Gwen met Gaius' eyes, and saw the pain in them, the regret. She looked away. "I have to go. I'll bring this to Morgana."

"Good girl," Gaius said, and patted her shoulder before he let her go. "I'll come by tomorrow and see how she's doing. Perhaps some adjustments can be made."

"Thank you," Gwen said, with a sad smile.

She slipped the little bottle into the pocket of her dress and went down the steps to the courtyard. But instead of heading towards Morgana's chambers, instead of bringing her the draught right away as she was meant to, she walked across the courtyard and out of the castle, and headed down to the lower town.

She had lied to Gaius. She had never lied to Gaius before, to the man she had known and trusted like a grandfather all her life. The man who had done so much for her family, for her mother, for Morgana. She had not wanted to lie. Part of her had hoped that Gaius would be an ally in rescuing Merlin from Arthur, because Gaius and Merlin had always been so close, because Gaius was once a sorcerer and of the faith himself.

And yet she knew where Gaius' allegiances lay, where he stood now when it came to magic. She had always known, but she had not wanted to believe it, just as everyone else did not want to believe that Morgana's nightmares were prophetic. For all that Gaius helped Merlin, for all that the two of them had shared conspiring glances and whispers, Gaius was first and foremost the King's man. The Royal Physician and Advisor, more faithful and trusted and true than any of the noble lords and knights.

Had Gaius now brought that loyalty to Arthur? Had he had helped the Prince do whatever he had done to Merlin, the way that he had used his draughts to suppress Morgana's magic and her dreams? The answer seemed terribly clear. Gaius might be a friend, might even be a help, with his long memory, his knowledge, his books. But he had not defied the crown in decades and was unlikely to do so now. What Gwen was about to do, she would have to do without help. This was a task that was meant for her alone, to make up for all the times when she had done nothing at all. It was better for everyone that way, in case she was caught. When she was caught.

She had seen the look in the Prince's eyes when she had barged into his chambers and hugged Merlin. When Arthur returned to his chambers and found Merlin gone, his suspicion would immediately fall upon her. But she had to free him, just as she had had to lie to Gaius.

Morgana had not said anything at all about going to bed early. By the time she drank the draught -- if she drank it at all -- its potency would be greatly reduced. Whatever was left would not be enough to stop the dreams, to stop Morgana from waking. And once Gwen knew the full extent of the prophecy, she could bring it to Merlin, and together they would find a way to stop it.

But to do that, to free Merlin from whatever had been done to him, she was going to need some tools.

She unlocked the door to the forge and walked inside. The low evening light spilled into the room, and she went directly to the storage closet. Several times a year she gave all the tools a polishing to keep the rust away, and so she knew exactly where to find what she needed: a small but strong hacksaw and an iron rod cutter. She didn't know what the torc around Merlin's neck was made of, but metal was metal, and she knew how to break gold or iron or even steel. She'd judged the thickness when she felt under Merlin's kerchief, so she was able to pick out the right strength of tool for even the strongest alloy. She put them into a basket and covered them with a cloth, then covered that with the bundle of flowers she'd picked up on the way down. Satisfied that nothing would appear suspicious, she locked the forge again and headed back to the castle.

Morgana was reading by the window when Gwen returned, and looked better for having slept most of the afternoon away. Gwen left her be and brought the basket into the side room. She quickly hid the tools in her dresser and then brought the flowers out to freshen the vase by Morgana's bed.

"New flowers already?" Morgana asked, setting aside her book. "You just bought some this morning."

"I wanted to buy some more," Gwen said, as she slipped in the humbler wildflowers in among the showy flowers from the morning market.

Morgana stood and walked over, then leant down to take a deep sniff of the flowers. "Mmm, lovely, as always." She looked at Gwen as she straightened, and gave her a smile that put a knot into Gwen's belly.

"You're in a good mood."

"I am," Morgana said. She took one of the loose wildflowers from the table and carried it with her back to her chair. "For the first time in years, I really am."

For a moment Gwen was confused, and then she realized. In the stress of Merlin's faint and everything that had followed, she had quite forgotten. She broke into a grin. "You're going to be on Arthur's council."

"Do you have any idea what this means?" Morgana asked. She looked excited, joyful in a way Gwen had truly not seen in years. Not since the nightmares started. "I'll finally inherit my father's property. The money he put in trust for me. I'll be free." She looked out the window, at the horizon, pinking at the corners as the sun set behind them. "Free, Gwen. The both of us."

"Then you'll still want me with you, when you're the lady of your own lands?" Gwen said it in jest, but could not help the real worry that leaked into her words.

Morgana turned back to look at her. "Even if I became Queen of all of Camelot, I would want you with me. You know I would never leave you behind." She held out her hand. "It's the two of us against the world, isn't it? Still?"

Gwen stepped forward and took her hand, squeezed it. "It is, my lady."

"Then it's settled," Morgana said, squeezing back. "Once I have my lands, we will never be at a man's mercy ever again."

"Except Arthur's," Gwen said. "I mean, he will still be the King."

Morgana let go and waved at the air. "Pfah. Perhaps I shall become Queen. Then Arthur will have to be satisfied with having a seat on my council."

"Somehow I don't think he'd go along with that," Gwen said, amused.

"Powys would make a rather good name for a kingdom," Morgana said, with a too-sweet smile.

Gwen just laughed and shook her head. It was not that she doubted Morgana's ability or her willingness to fight. But the idea of her starting a civil war was rather much. "But truly, my lady, this is wonderful."

"It's one of the few things I've ever truly wanted," Morgana said, looking out at the window again. "That and to be rid of these blasted nightmares. I am owed a good night's sleep and my inheritance. Perhaps both will come once I am free of this gilded prison."

"I hope so," Gwen said. She worked to hold her smile, but inside her heart sank. She had hoped that Morgana might be willing to give up her denial for Merlin's sake, but it seemed Merlin himself had hardened her against such a path. Morgana would not want to face the truth of her nightmares when she finally had a real future before her, one where she had all the power and control over her own life that she could desire, without dependence on the whims of others. To have magic would mean the death of that dream. A woman might struggle for power and achieve it, but a seer, a sorcerer...

Letting the draught wear itself out had been her backup plan, but it was the only plan she could rely on now. Morgana could not know the truth.

When it was finally time for bed, and Morgana had quite worn herself out talking about all the things she would do once Arthur was regent and fulfilled all his promises to her, Gwen left under the pretense of fetching the draught. She waited at the bottom of the steps until enough time had passed, then went back up, stale draught in hand. Morgana took it with unusual gratitude and eagerly swallowed it all, and when she lay down to sleep, she looked more peaceful than she had in years. Gwen gave her a soft smile as she tucked her in, then blew out the candles and bid her goodnight.

Gwen did not sit at Morgana's bedside, but went to the side room to lie in her bed there. She left the separating door open. When Morgana woke screaming from her nightmare, Gwen knew that she would hear it, no matter how deep her own dreams carried her. When the time came, she would wake, and she would learn what terrifying force could be strong enough to bring down the walls of Camelot. Walls that had held for centuries against every foe, against the months-long siege that had begun the war with Escetir, all those years ago. The siege that had brought her to the life she lived now, to this very room, this bed. To Morgana.

§

It was a week after the Beltane festival, and a week since Gwen had last seen Morgana. They had continued their woodland duels all through the spring, but after the festival, Gwen had snuck out as usual, only to wait alone at their secret spot until she trudged home again. It was not the first time that had happened, since it was harder for Morgana to sneak away than it was for Gwen, most of the time, and they could not exchange letters. They had to be careful; if they were discovered they would both be in trouble.

As Gwen approached the woods, she was relieved to see that Morgana had at last arrived. But as she drew closer, she saw that not all was well. Morgana's sword was stuck in the trunk of a tree, and the girl herself was sitting on an old log. Gwen sat down beside her and saw that despite the angry flush of her cheeks and her furrowed brow, Morgana had been crying.

"Morgana?" Gwen asked, gently. "Are you hurt?"

Morgana shook her head once, but Gwen saw that Morgana's knuckles were scraped raw, as if she had been punching something. Perhaps the tree. Gwen ripped off a piece of her underskirt and damped it with her waterskin, then took Morgana's hand and wiped away the drying blood. Morgana let out a soft hiss, but didn't pull her hand away.

Despite the relative shortness of their meetings, Gwen had learned something of Morgana's temperament. She knew that it was generally better to let Morgana speak in her own time, rather than try and drag answers out of her. Morgana did not like to be dragged.

Soon enough, Morgana broke her silence. "It seems you're to be my maid after all," she said, with a brittle smile. "The King and Lord Heward have decided my fate."

"Then you're to marry Leon? But I thought the King said--" Gwen began.

"He lied," Morgana spat, fury flaring in her. She pulled her hand away and curled it into a fist. "He promised that I would marry no man against my will. But because I chose none of them, he has broken that promise. I hate him! I hate him!"

Morgana sprung to her feet and grabbed the hilt of her sword, but it was stuck fast. The side of the blade had embedded deeply into the tree, no doubt propelled there by a furious swing before Gwen's arrival. Morgana pulled and pulled, tears in her eyes, until there was a sudden snap.

"No," Morgana gasped, horrified, fresh tears instantly welling in her eyes. "No, no!" She fell to her knees, sobbing, clutching the broken sword to her breast.

Gwen knelt before her, helpless to comfort her. "Let me see," she said, reaching out. "My father can fix it. He can fix anything."

Morgana sniffed and allowed Gwen to take the hilt. It was a clean break, right across the blade's fuller; no doubt some weakness had been put into the metal as it struck the tree, and Morgana's rough pulls had forced the split. The blade would need to be reforged, but the hilt and crossguard were undamaged. They just needed to get the other half of the blade free.

"It's not bad at all," Gwen assured her. "My father fixes this sort of thing all the time. He'll make it good as new again."

That coaxed a smile out of Morgana, even it was tearful and small. "Promise?"

"I promise," Gwen said, confidently. "And if he's busy, I'll fix it myself. I can do that, you know."

Morgana suddenly hugged Gwen tightly, so tight she could barely breathe. "You're the only good thing about any of this, Gwen. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have you. I'd go completely mad."

Gwen was glad that Morgana couldn't see her face, because her cheeks flushed quite hot. "I suppose as the lady of the house, you're my mistress now."

Morgana gave a soggy laugh. "I haven't married Leon yet. But... I don't want us to stop being friends. I don't care what anything thinks. You're the only one who's made my life here at all bearable."

"What about the Prince?" Gwen asked, unable to suppress her curiosity about the rumors.

"Arthur's nearly as much of a bore as the rest of them," Morgana sniffed, but Gwen suspected it wasn't the whole truth. When Morgana finally pulled away, eyes averted, that was confirmation enough.

"Is it..." Gwen began, and bit her lip. "I mean... Do you not want to marry Leon because of the Prince?"

Morgana's cheeks reddened again. "I'm hardly going to marry Arthur. Besides, he has to marry a princess, and I'm not a princess."

"You're almost a princess," Gwen countered.

"Almost isn't good enough," Morgana said, with a hint of anger. "I'm not good enough for Arthur so the King wants to marry me off. To get rid of me."

There was a part of Gwen that felt disappointed, that selfishly wanted Morgana all to herself, instead of only these snatches of stolen time together. But of course Morgana would have to marry one day, as would Gwen herself. And then their private meetings would have to stop, because there would be husbands and then babies and no time for secret games.

"I wouldn't want to marry Arthur anyway, even if I was a princess," Morgana insisted. "He's not as awful I thought he was at first, but all he cares about is pleasing the King. He barely has a mind of his own."

From what Gwen's mother had told her, Arthur had not been quite so amenable to the King of late. Morgana was, according to her, a strong influence on the Prince, and had sowed a good deal of discord into a previously harmonious relationship. Perhaps that was the real reason the King wanted Morgana and Arthur to be apart.

They were both startled by the sudden ringing of the castle's warning bell. They looked to each other, wide-eyed.

"What do you think it is?" Gwen asked. "Another spy?"

"Or another sorcerer," Morgana suggested. "I'd better get back. Help me get the blade free?"

Gwen and Morgana each took an end, wrapped the sharp edges with whatever cloth or leather they had at hand, and with a few mighty heaves yanked the blade from the trunk.

"Here," Morgana said, handing Gwen the broken halves.

Gwen knew how important the sword was to Morgana, and how much it meant that she was entrusting it to Gwen. "I'll bring it back to you, good as new."

Morgana gave a crooked smile. "I know you will." She looked like she wanted to say more, but she turned towards the castle, and the bell was still ringing. "I'll see you tomorrow? I suppose I can borrow a sword from the armory."

"Tomorrow," Gwen said. And then she had to hurry away herself.

By the time Gwen reached her house, she was surprised to find that not only was everyone awake, but they were packing.

"Gwen! There you are," said her mother. She looked worried, and her mother never looked worried. "I don't know where you've been sneaking off to every morning, but we'll talk about that later. Go and pack all your things."

"All my things?" Gwen asked, confused.

"As much as you can carry," her mother said, pushing her along. "We have to go live in the castle for a while."

"Live in the castle?" Gwen echoed. "Is this something for Lady Asceline?"

"It's Cenred, Gwen," Elyan said, as he hurried past. "His army's been spotted crossing the border. They're headed right for us."

Gwen's jaw dropped. "They're going to attack us?"

"Don't frighten your sister," her father said to Elyan. He came over and crouched down in front of Gwen. "Everything will be all right. Camelot has the strongest walls in all of Albion. You and your mother will be safe."

"What about you and Elyan?" Gwen asked.

"We'll be helping to protect the castle," her father said, and pulled her into a tight hug. He pulled her back again and stood. "Now go on. I've put some bags on your bed."

Gwen went over to her bed and began to pack. An army invading Camelot! She had known that war was possible. Everyone knew that. But to have it actually happening, right now... It was hard to believe it was real.

She filled her bags to bursting, fitting in everything she might need. Apparently they didn't know how long the attack would go on, or when they would be able to go home again. There was a chance, however slim, that they would never be able to go home again, that Cenred's army would win. But Gwen did not like to consider such things. She did, however, make sure to pack two sets of mail and two swords, along with Morgana's broken one. If the worst happened, she and Morgana would not go down without a fight.

Her parents locked the house and forge, and the four of them joined the streams of people already heading to the gate to the upper town. The warning bell had stopped ringing, but town criers were running through the streets and banging on doors and windows as they shouted the alarm. The streets of the upper town were already packed with people. Gwen had never seen so many gathered in one place, not even at executions, where attendance was unofficially mandatory.

As they made their way up to the drawbridge, Gwen craned her neck to see ahead. There was a kind of sorting process going on, with some people directed to wait and others allowed inside. Gwen's mother saw her anxiety and gave her a reassuring pat on the head.

When they reached the drawbridge, her mother spoke to the guards and they were waved on through. They were to be guests of Lord Heward's family. That meant Gwen and her mother would be living right there with them in the servant's quarters of their suite. Elyan and her father would also be able to stay with them as well, but most of the time they would be busy helping with the castle defenses. Elyan was too young to fight, and anyway their blacksmith skills made them too valuable to put in danger.

"I want to help with the smithing, too," Gwen insisted.

"And I want to fight," Elyan said.

"You're not even fourteen yet," her father countered. "You're staying with me and that's final."

Elyan gave a mulish glare, but held his tongue. No doubt he would return to the argument again later, but for now he simply tugged at the straps of his bags and stomped ahead a few paces.

"I want to help," Gwen repeated, preferring to press her case. "Lady Asceline doesn't need two servants when all she's going to do all day is sit around. I can do more if I help with the forge."

"No," her mother said, with stern finality.

"But I can--"

"Do as your mother says, Gwen," her father said, tersely.

Gwen gave a mulish glare of her own, and copied her brother in tugging at her bags and stomping ahead. They glanced at each other with an unusual sense of camaraderie and continued on together, united against the common foe of parental denial.

The first few days in the castle were tense, as everyone settled in knowing that soon Cenred's army would be cresting over the hills. Both Gwen and Elyan were stuck in their assigned roles, no matter how much they pleaded and argued and complained to their parents. Gwen saw little of her father and brother as they were both kept busy assisting the royal blacksmiths and arming and armoring the men. Sometimes they were pulled away to help shore up one defense or other, or to assist the carpenters with their work. By the time they returned to Lord Heward's suite at night, they were too tired to do anything but sleep. Meanwhile, Gwen and her mother were lent to Gaius to help prepare for the inevitable wounded. They readied bandages, dried and mashed herbs, and did whatever else Gaius instructed. Soon the royal physician's chambers were stuffed full, so much that there was barely room to work.

"Will we really need all of this?" Gwen asked, on the afternoon of the third day.

"And more," Gaius said, gravely. Gaius was friends with her mother, and that was how they had ended up where they were. He had visited her mother, and often made rounds of the lower town, treating anyone who had been injured or taken ill. It was odd that the royal physician should do his work in the lower town, but there weren't many healers left in Camelot after the Purge. Gaius was one of the few left who knew the healing arts, even if he healed using his "science" instead of the old ways.

"I've lived through many a war, Gwen, and I fear I'll live through many more. We must be prepared, otherwise..." He pressed his lips together. "But such things are not meant for young ears."

"I'm not young, I'm eleven," Gwen said, drawing herself up. "I'm not a child anymore."

Gaius gave her a doting smile. "You're growing too fast for this old man," he said. "I still remember when you were in swaddling clothes. You were a terribly fussy baby."

"And very little has changed," her mother said, from across the room.

"Mum!" Gwen whined, embarrassed. Her mother was always embarrassing her lately. It was utterly intolerable.

There was a knock on the door, and to Gwen's delight and surprise, there was Morgana. "I was wondering if you needed another pair of hands," she said.

"Of course, my dear," said Gaius. "Why don't you and Gwen start taking all of this down to the main hall? I'm afraid of poking out my elbows in case I send everything toppling to the floor."

Morgana laughed, and Gwen giggled. They smiled at each other, and wasted no time in loading up their arms and heading down the steps.

"I've been looking all over for you," Morgana said. "Well, as much as I was allowed, anyway. I thought you would be in the upper town or maybe in the servants quarters. Getting to stay in the keep was a stroke of luck."

"My mother arranged it with Lady Asceline," Gwen explained. Apparently her mother had been concerned about a possible invasion for quite some time, since the spy was found at the start of the spring.

"Do you know what that means?" Morgana said, an eager look in her eyes. "It means we'll get to spend the whole summer together."

"The whole summer?" Gwen asked, surprised. "I thought if Cenred's army couldn't get in, they'd just leave."

Morgana shook her head. "My father led sieges, and sometimes he would be gone for months. He'd try to starve them out, or burn them."

Gwen's eyes widened. "They're going to burn Camelot?"

Morgana shrugged, surprisingly relaxed about the whole affair. "You can't burn stone, so they wouldn't be able to do that even if they wanted to."

They reached the main hall and put down their burdens. The castle was full of busy people, hurrying to and fro, carrying things from one place to another.

"You know," Gwen said, as they headed back. "They say Camelot was built by magic. By a powerful sorcerer. They say nothing could make the walls of Camelot fall."

"Do they?" Morgana asked, intrigued. "But magic is banned. Why would the King be living in a magic castle?"

Gwen shrugged. "Maybe it's just a story after all." She looked away, wondering if she should have risked saying anything. Her parents had always made it very clear how important it was not to mention the Old Religion. She wondered if Morgana hated magic the way the other nobles did.

"What wars did your father fight in?" Gwen asked. Before Morgana's arrival, she had been vaguely aware of Lord Gorlois. She knew that he was an important lord and knight, but that was all, really.

"He was the King's best friend and his most important ally," Morgana said, proudly. "He fought in all the wars Uther did, until this one. He was at Uther's side all through the Purge."

Gwen tried not to flinch. "Oh?"

"Oh yes," Morgana nodded, eagerly. "He took on the Blood Guard and won!" She made a gesture as if slicing into an enemy with a sword. "He was a hero. No sorcerer could stand against him and survive."

"You must be proud of him," Gwen said, swallowing down her disappointment. She hadn't realized it until now, but part of her had hoped that because Morgana was from outside the city, maybe she wouldn't be against magic and the Old Religion the way so many here were. Maybe she even worshipped in secret, the way Gwen and her family did. But it was clear that Morgana was the same as the other nobles.

"He was everything to me," Morgana said, softer now. "My mother, she... I don't really remember her, but she died during the Purge. I think she was killed by a sorcerer, but nobody ever wanted to talk about it, not even my father. At least I have a painting of her. She was a beautiful woman. And sometimes my father would talk about her, would say how much he missed her." She swallowed. "I hope they're together now. Before he went off to his last battle, he talked about her more often. I think maybe he knew that he would be with her again soon." She wiped at her eyes. "Sorry, I don't... I've never really told anyone all of that."

They had stopped in a hallway when the conversation had turned serious. Gwen pulled Morgana into a hug and squeezed. "Thank you for telling me," she said. Even if she was disappointed that Morgana hated magic, that didn't change the fact that Morgana was her friend. That she was Morgana's friend. It didn't stop everything else from mattering.

On the fourth day, a patrol came back to Camelot bloodied and wide-eyed. They reported that the lands to the east, between the castle and the border, had been overrun by Cendred's army. They said it was over 10,000 men strong, mighty and terrifying. They said that they had almost been killed when they had been caught spying, and that the enemy would arrive in a day.

If Gwen thought things had been tense and frantic before, the first few days seemed languid in comparison to what followed. Every bit of food and firewood, every piece of clothing and livestock, every tool and weapon was brought into the keep from the upper and lower town and even the outer farms, leaving the majority of Camelot utterly empty. Every spare bucket and tub was filled with water. Fire breaks were set up in the upper town because most of the buildings there were wood and thatch. At the end of the day, the gate into the lower town was walled up with heavy stone, sealing them in. A family arrived belatedly from the outer villages and a rope ladder was sent over the wall for them. But that was the last time anyone would enter or leave the fortifications until the siege was over.

That night, after finishing up with Gaius, Gwen went directly to Morgana's chambers. She was too wound-up to sleep and didn't want to deal with Elyan's moodiness. She knocked cautiously on the door, and a forbidding maidservant answered the door. It was the same woman who had pulled Morgana from the kitchen on their first meeting.

The woman blinked at her. "May I help you?" she asked, in a tone that said she was very much not interested in helping.

"Um. I'm here to see the Lady Morgana," Gwen said, keeping her chin high.

"The Lady Morgana is not seeing anyone tonight, much less a serving girl," the woman said, sternly. "She has had some most distressing news and wishes to be left alone."

Distressing? "Morgana?" Gwen called, worried. "It's Gwen. Are you all right?"

"Gwen?" Morgana called back. "Gwen, my dear, you must come in."

Gwen looked expectantly to the maidservant, who frowned at her but stepped aside. Morgana was sitting by the window, dabbing her eyes. Her eyes were red, as if she had been crying.

"Please leave us. I wish to be alone with my future maidservant," Morgana said.

The woman raised an eyebrow at that, but obeyed, closing the door behind her as she left. There was the sound of her footsteps going down the hall, and the moment they faded, Morgana suddenly broke into a joyous smile.

"Gwen, I've had the most wonderful news!"

Gwen was baffled by the sudden transformation. She pulled over a chair and sat down across from Morgana. "Well?" she prompted.

"The wedding's been called off," Morgana said, almost bouncing with delight. "Wait, wait. Let me tell you the whole thing from the start. You know that Lord Heward's lands are to the east, between here and Escetir."

Gwen nodded. "Lady Asceline has been worried about Lewin." Apparently he had insisted on staying to defend their property, though according to the last messenger, he had sent his wife Blitha away to safety. "Is there news?"

Morgana nodded. "A scout arrived just before they sealed the doors. They were overrun and Lewin has been taken as a hostage."

"Oh no!" Gwen gasped. She didn't know Lewin very well, but this was awful. "That's your good news?"

"Of course not, let me finish," Morgana said. "When Lord Heward found out, he went right to the King, but the King said there was nothing he could do until the siege was over. So Lord Heward demanded that Leon be released from his obligation as a future knight, so he could inherit in case Lewin doesn't survive."

That wasn't good. Gwen knew how much Leon wanted to be a knight, how important that was to him. "And?"

"And he agreed, but only if Leon agreed. And Lord Heward went to Leon and told him to agree, but he wouldn't! He stood up to his father and insisted on staying a knight. And do you know what happened next?"

Gwen shook her head.

"Lord Heward told Leon that if he insisted on being a knight, then he would never marry the King's ward. And Leon still refused. And now the marriage is off!" She clapped her hands together and gave a great sigh of relief. "Can you believe it? I've been pretending to be upset because there's no way I'm going to let the King marry me off a second time, and I know how much he hates it when I cry. But I'm so glad you're here."

Gwen struggled to take it all in. She felt bad for Lewin, who was now stuck as a hostage for who knew how many months, and she felt bad for his parents, who were no doubt already worried sick for him. She felt bad for Leon, because he had been so happy about the idea of marrying Morgana. Yet Leon had made the choice for himself, had sacrificed the arranged marriage in pursuit of a greater goal, of something he truly wanted, rather than something that would simply gain him status. She was impressed by anyone who did that, who went for what they wanted and didn't let anything or anyone stand in their way. And she was glad for Morgana, who was freed from a marriage she'd wanted no part of.

"But that means... I won't be your future maidservant after all," Gwen said, realizing the effect this would have on her directly.

"That's the best part," Morgana said, in a conspiratorial tone. "Just before this all happened, Arthur stood up to the King and said he didn't like his manservant and wanted to be rid of him. It was all quite shocking. I think it was the first time Arthur's ever really stood up to him. And that gave me the idea. I'm going to tell the King that after everything that's happened, I want to choose my own maidservant. I'm tired of that awful woman he's assigned to me. I'm going to tell him I want you."

"Me? Really?" Gwen said, astonished at the idea. Maidservant to the King's ward! And she was only eleven.

"You're a bit young, but you already know everything about being a maidservant," Morgana reasoned. "And you were already going to be the maidservant to a noblewoman. He'll have no reason to reject my request, I'm certain of it." She gave Gwen an expectant, hopeful look. "Tell me you'll say yes? Please, Gwen? Please?"

Gwen held her breath, dizzied by the suddenness of it all. "Yes," she blurted out, all in a rush. She grinned, laughed. "Yes, I'll be your maidservant."

"Oh, Gwen!" Morgana said, and slipped from her chair to pull her into a tight hug. "This is going to be absolutely wonderful." She pulled back again, still holding onto Gwen's arms. "We'll get to spend all our time together, and we can sneak around and do whatever we want, with no one to stop us."

Gwen had the feeling she was going to be doing a lot more swordfighting from now on, and didn't mind at all. The thought of spending every day with Morgana made her feel warm and excited all at once. She was going to be Morgana's maidservant, and it was going to be wonderful.

They had a bright future together. But to reach it, they had to survive the war. And the next morning, war was upon them.

§

Gwen woke to darkness and plaintive whimpering. The threads of her dream dissipated as she hurried out of bed and rushed to Morgana's side. Morgana was in the grip of her nightmare, and without the draught to protect her, she was in great distress. Gwen felt another pang of guilt for causing Morgana such suffering, but she knew it had to be done. She needed to know as much as she could about what was coming. Just as Merlin was their only real defense, Morgana was their only advance warning. Morgana would suffer far worse later if she slept peacefully now.

Morgana began to writhe and shudder, to grasp and tear at the bedclothes, to keen and moan in her sleep. It had been five years since Morgana had dreamt unprotected. Even when a spell of nightmares passed, she took a lighter draught before bed to help her sleep undisturbed, and in case a new round of nightmares came upon her. But Gwen's sabotage had ruined the night's draught and left her exposed and vulnerable.

Gwen wanted to shake Morgana awake, to rouse her and soothe her, but she forced herself to wait. To let the visions run their full course. It seemed to take forever, but at last the moment came: Morgana's eyes shot open, wide and terrified, and she gave a mournful scream and began to cry.

"It's all right," Gwen said, finally able to take Morgana into her arms. "I'm here. I'm here."

"Gwen," Morgana cried, sobbing. "Gwen, it was awful. It hurt so much. Why did it hurt so much?"

Gwen hushed her and stroked her hair. "It's over now. Tell me what you saw. Let it out. You'll feel better once it's out."

"Camelot was burning," Morgana moaned. She was trembling in Gwen's arms. "The stones were burning. Everyone was dead. You were dead, I saw... There were these monstrous creatures, winged monsters ridden by people, strange people with glowing red eyes, murderous... And Merlin!" She pulled back and grabbed at Gwen. "Merlin was screaming! He was calling out for help, for Arthur, over and over again, but it was too late. They dragged him away into the darkness. We have to warn Arthur, we have to!"

"It was only a dream, Morgana. Merlin's fine, I'm fine. It was just a nightmare, nothing more." Gwen's throat was tight as she lied, over and over again.

"A dream?" Morgana echoed, looking to Gwen with wide, tearful eyes. "Only a dream?"

"Only a dream," Gwen said, trying her best to smile. She dabbed at Morgana's tears with the corner of the bedsheet.

"It felt so real," Morgana said, calming now. "More real than any of them. Like I was there. Like I could touch them. Feel the fire, the heat..." She shivered. "I have to tell Arthur, I have to warn him, before it's too late. I have to..."

"You have to rest," Gwen insisted, gently pressing Morgana back against the pillows. Quite often after one of the nightmares broke through the draught, Morgana would go running to Arthur, shouting out her warnings. Gwen didn't know why the compulsion came along with the visions, but those times were more terrifying to her than any nightmare. No matter how mad people thought Morgana was, one day someone would realize the truth and drag Morgana away in chains, even as she continued to shout and plead for Arthur to listen. Such thoughts chilled Gwen to her very marrow.

"Rest," Morgana echoed, exhausted as the shock of the nightmare faded, leaving her drained. "Not strong enough. Tell Gaius it wasn't strong enough. He has to make it stronger."

"I'll tell him in the morning," Gwen said, stroking Morgana's brow. She wiped away the fresh tears with her thumb. "Everything's all right. It was just a dream."

Morgana began to settle, and to Gwen's alarm, she saw a trace of gold flash in Morgana's eyes. It wouldn't have been visible in the daylight, but it was unmistakable.

Morgana was not only a seer. She had magic.

It should not have been such a shock to Gwen. But it was. All this time, she had held on to the hope that the dreams were something imposed upon Morgana, something external, because that meant they could be stopped. But if Morgana had magic, that meant the dreams were her own. They came from within her. The draughts had been doing more than deepening Morgana's sleep. They had been suppressing her natural magic. Without them, Morgana would begin to use that magic, and without anyone to help her, she would not be able to control it.

Perhaps Merlin could help Morgana once this magical invasion was stopped. But until then, there was only one thing to do, and that was to make sure Morgana took her draught as she should. If her magic broke free, it would only be a matter of time before she was put onto the pyre. Gwen would not save Camelot from burning only to watch Morgana burn in its stead.

"It felt so real," Morgana said, softly. "I don't want it to be real."

"Shh, just rest," Gwen hushed, and soothed Morgana until she fell asleep again.

Gwen left the bed and walked over to the window. She looked out over the courtyard. So many had burned there. So many innocent people had died for no good reason. On the worst days, she wanted every injustice visited upon Uther tenfold. She wanted him to know what it was to be afraid and to burn. But she did not want Camelot to burn. She did not want thousands of people to suffer and die. There had to be a way to stop what was coming. Merlin would know what to do. She only had to get him away from Arthur and cut him free. Then the nightmares would leave Morgana alone again.

She only had to get Merlin away from Arthur. Perhaps at the banquet tonight. Arthur would have to let Merlin serve him, and that meant she and Merlin would have the opportunity to slip away together.

She went back to bed, and fell asleep thinking of the cutting tools waiting in her basket.

Chapter Text

For the second day in a row, Arthur woke from a calm, restful sleep and found himself trapped in Merlin's bodily embrace. While Arthur was usually the more tactile of the two of them, after all that they'd been through, it wasn't a surprise that Merlin was clingier than ever. Merlin had always dogged his footsteps and nosed into his business, no matter how inappropriate it was for him to do so. But like so many things about Merlin, such behavior had grown on him like a particularly insistent mold. And he could not deny that he needed this closeness as much as Merlin did. Perhaps even more.

Despite how restful his sleep had been, he was still waking at the first sign of light and probably would for weeks. Once triggered, the habit was too ingrained in him to fade easily. But there were benefits to having an extra hour or so before the day's schedule took him over. It allowed him indulgences he could not always afford. He took one now, allowing himself to feel safe, even if it was the safety of a sorcerer's arms. Merlin's magic was restrained, and Merlin had allowed it to be restrained, calmly and willingly. The trust he showed eased Arthur's heart, and made him all the more determined to keep Merlin safe, whatever it took.

Last night, Merlin had kept the water hot for so long that the both of them had ended up water-pruned and boneless. But before they finally left the tub, Merlin reheated the water one last time and then trapped him with kisses. Too lazy for anything more, they had simply rutted together and stroked each other until they spilled into the water's heat. After, they barely managed to dry off as they stumbled to bed, utterly relaxed. Merlin had nearly fallen asleep the moment he rested his damp head on a pillow, but he forced his eyes open and gave Arthur permission to activate the restraint. As before, Merlin passed out the moment the ends of his torc snapped together. Arthur stroked the damp curls of his hair and waited for him to rouse again, and when he did, Arthur simply hushed him until he closed his eyes again and rested naturally. They had decided that it would be best that way, so that Merlin would have sufficient time to restore himself before the morning.

For the same reason, Arthur let Merlin sleep once he'd finally extricated himself from Merlin's grip and the warm bed. There was a nip in the air, and the stone floor was cool under his bare feet. He dressed quickly into something comfortable and warm, completed his morning ablutions, and went over to his desk to work.

While Merlin's lessons yesterday had been important, they had caused Arthur to neglect his other duties, and those still needed to be done. Without distractions, he estimated that he would have enough time to finish them before he woke Merlin so they could head out to the training field for the morning. Hopefully Leon's night out would prove to be a success.

He checked and found that he had plenty of ink but barely enough paper left for the morning's tasks. With Merlin otherwise occupied, even his lighter duties were being completely neglected. In truth, Merlin was only a manservant in name at this point, and when it was necessary for appearances. If it wouldn't result in Merlin passing out on halfway down the stairs, Arthur would leave him with a list of chores to complete rather than take him out to the field. But instead he would have to pull aside one of the general servants again and give them the tasks. That was how he had always done things before he had a regular manservant, so it wasn't unmanageable, but it was inconvenient. And it meant letting random servants into his chambers to clean and restock and manage his wardrobe and laundry. A regular servant in addition to Merlin might not be a terrible idea, assuming Arthur could find one that was trustworthy enough, but to have two manservants would require some kind of explanation to his father.

It would be a challenge to find anyone as unwaveringly loyal as Merlin. At least he wasn't likely to end up with another sorcerer for a manservant. It was mystifying enough that Merlin had managed to live in the heart of Camelot for so long without discovery, though that was at least partly his own fault. He remembered Merlin's confession back during the plague and shook his head at himself. The truth had been right in front of him all along, and he simply hadn't wanted to see it. And of course once the Prince says something is so, everyone else does their best to believe it as well. It would not do to contradict, after all. Merlin had implied that there were other secret sorcerers in Camelot, but Arthur could not imagine who they were, especially as it didn't seem that Merlin knew about Gwen. Perhaps they lived in the lower town rather than the castle, or he had some contact with the Druids.

Arthur sighed and set aside the mystery for now. He rubbed his ring against his chin and thought about the letter he had to write, the formal death notice that would be sent to Geraint's father. Arthur had written too many such letters already in his life, but they never got any easier. It never got easier to have to watch good men die, to know he had sent them to their deaths. He had written the other letters for the dead in Gedref, to keep busy while Merlin healed, but he had not been able to face Geraint's letter, not then. Not when he had feared he would lose Merlin as well.

He braced himself now and wrote in careful hand. He commended Geraint for his bravery, his sacrifice, his devotion to Camelot and its people, to his King and his Prince. He did not write about how Geraint had loved him more than he should, how it had felt to hold him in the darkness, the way his lips had tasted, or the salt of his skin after a day's sweat. Arthur was not sure if he had loved Geraint. He had not believed himself able to love, until Merlin. But Geraint had loved him, and Arthur had returned that affection as much as he was able.

When it was done, he leaned back in his chair and stared at Merlin's sleeping form, curled under the blankets. Merlin made everything both impossibly simple and impossibly difficult. It was simple how Arthur loved him, how Merlin loved him back. It was simple when they were naked against each other, trying to fit together so wholly that they could never separate again. It was simple when all he had to do was look into Merlin's eyes to see his soul, as bright and clear as sunlight. But everything else was a challenge. Every expectation, every contradiction, every treason. Everything that didn't fit into the world the way everything was supposed to. He had been raised to understand his kingdom in all its complexity, to know each piece and how it fit. There should not be pieces left over, pieces that didn't fit anywhere, that made lie of his knowledge of the whole.

It had only been two days since Merlin confessed of his magic, and while those two days felt like a lifetime, they were not. For all that Merlin had told him so far, for all that he had discovered for himself, he still barely knew anything about magic. He needed to break through the wall of silence that had always blocked his way. He wanted his father to help him, to treat him as the grown man he was and teach him the full truth about magic. About how it had become corrupted and what the nature of that corruption was. But he knew with a deep certainty that he could not ask that of his father. He knew what reaction it would bring, the same it had always brought. It would fill his father with a rage that blinded him to reason. After the disaster with Uwen and Linette, he knew it would do no good to even try. Far better to find those hidden books and master the old tongue enough to read them himself.

One task done, he turned to the next: more accounting and records for the battle. Some of this he would have done before they left, if they had not been in such a hurry. It was not the most engaging work, and so his mind was only half-occupied, allowing the other half to drift in thought. He had rarely been so glad to have a war season end for another year. Not that he had ever sought war -- he had not needed to, when so much war came of its own accord -- but he had spent half his life in combat in some form or another, and he was tired of it, of the deaths, the costs, the petty reasonings of kings. If he and his father could indeed force Alined to swear fealty, then that at least would mean one less enemy battering at their borders. They would have the Saxons to deal with, true, but together Deorham and Camelot would be stronger than they were on their own.

MAP: The Kingdoms of Albion

Sometimes Arthur wished that his father had not been quite so zealous in his desire to rebuild Camelot to the fullness of her past glory. When his father had become King, Camelot had been a shadow of its former self, as much of its territory had been stolen over the centuries by its neighbors. His father had been determined to take back what was rightfully his, and had won a series of short, intense wars that swelled Camelot all the way to her current borders.

But the cost of such ambition was dear: every territory won back became territory that was contested. Cenred wanted to reclaim the eastern lands and the Forest of Ascetir. Mercia wanted the northeast corner all the way through the Vale of Denaria. Even though Deorham had made a grab for Gedref, it was Nemeth that had a claim. King Caerleon of Gwynned had promised to retake Powys, and Dyfed was testing the border near Daobeth, even though the land there had been scarred by dragonflame. Aside from the one shared with Gawant, the only border that wasn't threatened was shared with the Perilous Lands to the north, and that was hardly a comfort.

Yet for all the trouble at their borders, it was a distant neighbor that troubled Arthur most. Odin's land was to the southwest, and so should not be any immediate threat. But the fact that he had gone so far as to send an assassin -- an expensive assassin -- was not a good sign. The man was driven mad by his grief, that was obvious, and mad men could be reckless and desperate in their actions.

Arthur suspected that once Alined was subdued, Odin would be the next to challenge them, as he would be able to attack Camelot more easily once their kingdoms shared a border. If not, it was likely he would attempt assassination again. Either way, his desire for revenge made him a dangerous enemy. Camelot would have great need of its allies, and because of that Arthur was glad his father had called upon Lord Godwin. Gawant was a faithful ally and had come to their aid before, during the Purge and again when Cenred brought a siege against Camelot. While these times were not as desperate, it seemed they were ever-balanced on a knifepoint, ready to tip over into disaster should the wind be against them.

That was why the Five Kingdoms treaty was so important. Even though Camelot was the strongest and largest kingdom in Albion, they needed more allies if they were to survive their enemies and the Saxon raiders. His father meant it to be an alliance with the most powerful rulers in the region: with Olaf, King of Norway; with Brian Bóruma, High King of Éire; and with Alan the Second, King of Breton. The treaty had first begun as a peace treaty between Breton and Norway, after Alan successfully expelled Olaf's occupation. Uther had agreed to manage the negotiations as an impartial party, but soon talk had turned to uniting their kingdoms as allies against the greater threat of the Saxon tribes. They had invited King Brian to join Éire, Norway, Camelot, and Breton together.

The inclusion of Deorham had been odd, but his father had been motivated by another past glory: the Union of the Five Kingdoms by Bruta. That was the peace treaty that had finally stopped the widespread warring that followed the end of Roman rule, and a Four Kingdoms treaty did not have the same ring to it. If it meant peace with Deorham, then all the better. Of course, there had been more than five kingdoms in Bruta's treaty, because there were dozens of kings at the time, but it was named after the five most powerful, Camelot included. If Deorham was successfully subsumed, then his father would need to find another kingdom to make up the fifth spot.

Perhaps it would be Gawant, even though Lord Godwyn was already a strong ally. It was unlikely to be any of their other neighbors, with tension as they were. Or it could be one of the northern kingdoms. They were isolated from the south by the Perilous Lands, a cursed kingdom that was extremely dangerous and difficult to cross, so as a result his father had not managed to impose himself upon them. It was madness enough to walk into the Perilous Lands, much less to try and move an army through it.

At least this was one problem that Arthur didn't have to worry about himself. The Five Kingdoms treaty was his father's personal passion, and while Arthur was glad to help him with it, he was equally glad not to have one more set of duties on top of everything else. Especially with all he had yet to learn about magic.

He finished his work just as he filled the last sheet of paper, then bundled it all up and set it aside. He leaned back and stretched; he was looking forward to another morning of exercise with the knights, to the simplicity of muscle and steel and a good spar. His head was full of too many things, too many complicated and troubling problems, and he needed the break.

When he handed one of the servants his list of tasks, he went ahead and placed the order for their breakfast as well. He was beginning to realize that trying to re-establish their old routine was a fool's errand. If Merlin was only a manservant in name, if he had become too valuable and too dangerous to be what he had been, then they would have to start over and figure out the best way to proceed. As usual, the difficulty was not in Merlin so much as in everyone else, in the expectations of position and court, and in the fact that Merlin's current status was what enabled them to be together as they were. If Merlin was no longer his manservant, it would be very difficult to find a believable excuse for them to share their chambers. And yet change felt inevitable.

Arthur gathered up Merlin's grimoire and the notes from last night, and glanced at them briefly before opening up his heavy wooden chest and placing them inside. He added in the drawings of magical objects he had made for his father. His collection of contraband was mounting quickly. He left the chest open and his gold torc on for the moment, wanting to give Merlin as long as possible to gather his energy. But the day was upon them, and he could dally no longer. As soon as breakfast arrived, he left the tray on the table and went over to the bed. As always, Merlin never quite seemed to settle after waking until he had focused on Arthur's face.

"Morning," Arthur smiled. He rested his hand on Merlin's shoulder. "How are you feeling?

"Not too bad," Merlin said, rubbing at his eyes. "Like yesterday morning. Maybe a little better."

"Good," Arthur said, warmly. "I had breakfast brought up for us, so you could save your strength for the training field."

That earned him a proper Merlin look, one that made Arthur want to curl his toes in contentment. Merlin took his hand and gave a sleep-soft kiss to his palm, and then rested his cheek against it. Such simple gestures, and that was all it took to make everything feel easy again. To make it feel that all the complexities, all the complications and perils ahead could simply be brushed aside. That if he trusted Merlin the way Merlin trusted him, every barrier would fall from their path.

It was nonsense, like so much of Merlin was nonsense. But there it was.

When Arthur had finally drawn Merlin out from under the covers, Merlin almost ran into the side room to dress, shivering in the early chill. Arthur chuckled and sat down at the table to eat, and after a few minutes Merlin joined him. His hair was all in disarray but he had a good appetite, which was generally a reliable measure of his health and mood. After the scare Merlin gave him yesterday, Arthur was very glad to see such improvement.

"You know, I was thinking," Merlin said, cheeks full of food. "If you can keep your torc on all day, hide it under your clothes, I should be well enough to work again. I could help more on the field and I could clean up the chambers, take care of the horses. And your armor needs work after the way you banged it up yesterday."

"You're actually volunteering to do your job?" Arthur asked, raising his eyebrows.

"I don't enjoy lying around all day," Merlin said, dryly, before he stuffed his mouth again. "I like being useful. And someone has to take care of you."

It was tempting. It had been tempting last night. But he was still reluctant to wear the gold torc constantly, even if he could hide it. "Let's see how you do this morning," Arthur said. "If you end up exhausted again before lunchtime, I'll consider it."

"But then I'll need time to recover again," Merlin countered. "If you just kept it on, I probably wouldn't get exhausted in the first place."

"If you need to recover, then you'll take the time," Arthur said, unwilling to budge on the matter. "I'd rather not jump to that option until we're sure that it's absolutely necessary."

Merlin gave an annoyed frown, but shrugged in acceptance. "I just hate being so weak," he said, with less cheer than before. "It's bad enough not having my magic, it's so much worse without you."

"You still have me," Arthur said, tilting his head to meet Merlin's gaze.

Merlin's frown slipped into a crooked smile. "Right," he said, and shook his head. "You know what I meant."

"We'll discuss it later," Arthur said, putting an end to it for now. "Finish your breakfast."

"Yes, sire," Merlin said, tolerantly, and obeyed.

Just as the morning before, when they were ready to leave, Arthur removed his gold torc and locked it in the chest. Merlin flinched when the connection broke and wobbled before steadying himself. He nodded that he was all right, and they left for the armory.

§

Arthur was not surprised to find that the men were not as sprightly this morning as they had been yesterday. He supposed he could take pity on them and have Gaius prepare a batch of his hangover cure, but some suffering would humble them, which was necessary after their poor behavior towards Leon. Leon himself was looking rough, but his mood was vastly improved despite whatever headache he was nursing. And it was obvious why, as his armor had mysteriously turned up again.

"It was just where I'd left it," Leon said, still somewhat awed by its sudden return. "Thank you, sire, for your help with the men."

Arthur was impressed himself, as he had expected it to take at least a few days for the story of Leon's capture of the assassin to properly circulate. But it seemed that Sir Alynor was a true friend indeed, and had realized the impact such a story would have on the other knights. Arthur would have to keep an eye on Alynor and confirm that he had such insight and loyalty in more than just his friendship with Leon. Just as Camelot always needed new knights, it also needed experienced knights to lead them. Alynor might be a good candidate for such a position.

"They'll give you a chance now," Arthur assured him. "In fact, I want you to take the lead today. Take the men through all the usual exercises, and write me a report on everyone's strengths and weaknesses." The exercise would be good for Leon, so he could better know all the men under his command, and it would give Arthur a fresh perspective. It was hard to keep up with each of the knights when he had so many other things on his plate. "If you need help, have Alynor assist you. He seems to be a good man."

"He is, sire," Leon said, proud on his friend's behalf. "He will be honored to hear that you think so highly of him."

"Excellent," Arthur said, clapping Leon on the arm. "Go ahead and get the men warmed up. I think they'll be slow to start this morning." He grinned and winked, and Leon smiled back, then winced and rubbed at his head.

Leon headed out of the armory, and through the doorway Arthur saw him head over to Alynor to tell him the good news. That was one problem solved, and in the process another problem was headed off before it could begin. Alynor would keep Leon from becoming isolated by his position above the others, as it seemed he had a better relationship with the other knights. Perhaps as the planned tourney had been cancelled, after the treaty was signed, a smaller jousting tournament could be arranged, and Leon and Alynor could display their skills. Arthur could use a good joust himself. There was nothing like bashing an opponent with a giant lance to work out his stress.

The only disappointment to the morning was that Merlin once again wilted quickly. He lasted slightly longer this time, but not by much, and soon enough Arthur had to send him off to nap in his usual spot. This time the knights that were close to Merlin went to him directly, asked him how he was and expressed their concern. Merlin gave them the same story he had given Gwen and Morgana, that he was not entirely recovered from his injuries after all and that Gaius had told him to rest whenever he started having a bad turn. Arthur could see that it did cheer Merlin to finally speak to the knights himself, to see their friendly smiles and receive their back-pats and hair-ruffles. But his good mood was not enough to overcome the tax that the torc restraint put on his body.

Even after his rest, Merlin was dragging as they made their way back to his chambers for lunch. Merlin barely ate a few mouthfuls before he had to lie down again, and that was even after Arthur had put back on his torc, though without releasing the restraint. If Arthur was going to be stuck wearing a magical object, he needed to test its capabilities. And he had plenty to do while Merlin slept. After he'd cleaned himself up, he examined the warm clothes that had been brought out in their absence. He found enough high-collared shirts that could hide the bulky ends of the torc, and also found that his long brown coat was a perfect addition, as its high collar helped disguise the bulk as well. The feast was this evening, and he needed Merlin to be there to serve him, to ease his father's concerns and lessen his attention on Merlin. If that meant wearing the torc, then so be it.

Arthur took out his notes and the grimoire and sat down at his desk with the rest of his lunch, and picked his way through it as he practiced with the old tongue. He was starting to grasp it, and he could pick out words that matched the ones on the vocabulary list Merlin had given him. It would take time to become fluent, of course, and there were many words he did not recognize and could not yet parse without help. But it was a good start.

The comfort of his warmer clothes made Arthur think about Merlin's wardrobe. The first winter Merlin had been in Camelot, he had shivered through the cold months yet resisted any pointed remarks Arthur had made about getting a warmer coat. He suspected that Merlin simply wasn't used to thinking that way. In Ealdor, he had no doubt been barely able to afford the clothes he already had. The extravagance of buying a heavy, fur-lined cloak and thick mittens was probably beyond him, in conception if not in gold -- though as he sent most of his money to his mother, he might not have been able to afford them, and probably still couldn't.

If Arthur didn't intervene, Merlin would wear the exact same outfits over and over until they became so threadbare that they could not even be mended, and they simply dropped from his body as rags. Even for a manservant, such a slovenly appearance was quite inappropriate, and it would be even less appropriate when Merlin became... whatever he was going to become. Better clothes would make a better impression, and it would make his gradual elevation in status more palatable for those who objected on principle to a servant being made into, say, a royal advisor. Appearance wasn't everything, but it mattered a tremendous amount.

It was long past time that Arthur took matters into his own hands. He would have Merlin's measurements sent to the royal tailor and a new wardrobe commissioned, for both warm and cold weather. Not anything as fancy as what he had given Merlin to wear in Gedref. He would allow Merlin to keep the style his clothes had now, if he so chose. But the quality of the cloth would be finer, and he would have properly warm shirts and jackets, a good travelling cloak, and whatever else was needed. Which was basically everything, as Merlin's entire wardrobe could be easily fit into his bag with room left over, as half of it was nothing but kerchiefs.

Merlin woke on his own after an hour or so, and despite the relative shortness of the nap, it was already obvious that the torcs were having a beneficial effect on him. Arthur was going to have to give Gaius a piece of his mind for putting him into this position. He had slyly forced Arthur to accept the torcs' magic in order to control Merlin's. Even if Merlin's magic was somehow not harmful, or was simply unable to harm Arthur through the torcs alone, it was all playing with fire as far as Arthur was concerned. Gaius of all people should know better than that. Gaius might be deeply loyal to his father, but it was clear that the King was not the only target of his loyalty. The question was if Gaius was loyal to the Old Religion in an abstract way, or if he was actually reporting to other sorcerers. If he was shielding Camelot with one hand and endangering it with the other.

"Feeling better?" Arthur asked, setting aside the grimoire.

Merlin nodded. "Does that mean you'll keep wearing your torc from now on? Until we can find a better solution, I mean, like you said."

Arthur pulled back his collar so Merlin could see the gold beneath. "For now, yes."

Merlin fell back against the bed, his arms spread, and sighed in relief. "Thank the gods," he said. "I could hardly stand feeling so awful."

Arthur decided that it was best not to comment. "Then you'll be up for serving me at the feast tonight?"

Merlin brought his head up, surprised. "I completely forgot! Yeah, I don't want to miss it. When do we go?"

Arthur couldn't help but smile. "It's early yet. We should have the rest of the afternoon to ourselves--"

But of course, no sooner had he said that, then there was a knock on the door. Arthur tilted his head, and Merlin picked himself up and went to answer it. It was a page, sent from his father, passing on the message that Arthur's presence was required in the throne room.

"Do you think it's about the feast?" Merlin asked, once the page had gone.

"Unlikely," Arthur said. He checked to make sure that the gold torc was entirely hidden under his clothes, and then straightened Merlin's scarf to hide the silver one. "Seems we'll find out together. Ready?"

"Ready," Merlin said, and they left the chambers together, walking in step.

§

Arthur braced himself as they approached the throne room. The fact that the message the page had relayed had been so sparse meant that his father was trying to surprise him about something, and he hated his father's surprises. There was always some kind of pointed lesson behind them. He had hoped that his father's newfound appreciation for his maturity meant the end of such lessons, but it seemed not.

He squeezed the handle of his sword, took a deep breath, and strode through the doors, back straight and head high. His father was on his throne, and among the various attendees scattered before him were three visitors to the court. As he approached, he noted their luxurious red and blue robes and delicate gold jewelry -- whoever they were, they were clearly nobility -- and their wooden walking staffs. Recognition tickled at the back of his mind.

He heard Merlin's strangled gasp of surprise just as he turned and saw their faces.

It was Sophia of Tír-Mòr. Sophia and her father, Aulfric. Sophia, who he'd nearly eloped with in some fit of passion before Merlin knocked the sense back into his head with a lump of wood. And they were accompanied by a third man, one Arthur didn't recognize.

"Ah, and here he is now," said Uther, turning to Arthur with a smile that always meant trouble. "Arthur, you remember Prince Aulfric and Lady Sophia of Tír-Mòr. They were just telling me of their stay with King Caerleon."

"He was a most generous host to us in our time of need," Aulfric said. "But it is time we reclaimed our former home. We are travelling east back to Tír-Mòr, where we will battle to force the Saxon raiders from our land and our shores."

Arthur tore his eyes away from Sophia, who was watching him intently and smiling demurely, and looked to Aulfric. "A noble goal. But the Saxons are a dangerous enemy. They encroach deeper into Albion by the day."

"That is why we have returned to your court," Aulfric said, turning back to Uther with a respectful nod. "We wish first to thank you for your generosity and patience towards us during our last visit. We must apologize for taking such a hasty leave of you, but we were met by an urgent messenger and had no time to delay. A family matter, you understand."

"Of course," Uther said. "And second?"

"That we wish to discuss in private, your Highness," said Aulfric. "But we believe it will be of benefit to yourself and Camelot as well as to us."

"Then you must stay as our guests," Uther declared. "Arthur will arrange for your rooms, and you must join us at the feast this evening." He turned to Arthur. "I suggest a set of rooms in the north wing. Let us keep temptation at more than arm's length this time."

Uther and Aulfric chuckled, which was an odd enough sight on its own, but Sophia simply continued to stare at Arthur. Her intense gaze had drawn him in from their first meeting, and he struggled not to betray his reaction as he recalled the passion she had drawn from him. He had been so captivated by her, so certain that she was the one, that nothing short of death could ever part them. And yet when he had woken up with a sore head and Gaius and Merlin by his bedside, his ardor had been completely cooled. His father had eventually dismissed the matter as a bout of foolish young passion, and Arthur had done the same. But now that she was back, he only had to look at Sophia to feel the same stirrings as before. There was just something about her that made it hard to look away.

Arthur lifted his foot to step towards Sophia, but before he could put it down again, Merlin had shoved himself into his way.

"Merlin!" Arthur hissed, annoyed.

"Is there a problem?" said the unnamed man that stood with Sophia and Aulfric.

Arthur shoved Merlin aside and stepped in front of him. "Not at all. You must excuse my manservant. He was recently hit on the head."

"Let me introduce myself," said the man, as he bowed his head. "I am Sir Drudwas, champion of Tír-Mòr, Knight of the Sparrowhawk."

"An unusual title," Arthur observed.

Drudwas gave a knowing smile. "It is a great honor to meet the famed Prince Arthur, champion of Camelot. I will share the chambers of my Prince and Lady, as they are in my care throughout this dangerous journey. I hope that does not offend?"

"Not at all," Arthur said, grabbing Merlin's arm as he started forward again. What was wrong with him? Was he having a fit of jealousy over Sophia?

Drudwas smirked. "You seem to have your hands full. If you will show us to our chambers, we will take a respite before the feast."

"Of course," Arthur said, giving Merlin's arm a very pointed squeeze. What was he doing, drawing attention to himself like that, acting up in front of noble guests? Did he want to be executed?

Uther gestured Arthur over, and Aulfric, Sophia, and Drudwas left to rejoin their personal servants, who were waiting for them in the hall with their belongings. It seemed that this time, Aulfric and Sophia had brought a retinue.

"Is there a problem?" Uther asked, glancing towards Merlin, who was glaring after Sophia as if to kill her with his thoughts alone. "I will not have you or your affliction of a manservant embarrassing this kingdom, is that understood?"

"Of course, sire," Arthur said, humiliation washing away any revived feelings towards Sophia. He had made a fool of himself once already with her, he would not do so a second time.

His father stared at him, then eased. "I expect to see you at your best behavior at the feast tonight. We want to make a good impression."

"We do?" Arthur asked. As far as he knew, Sophia and Aulfric were little more than refugees, and it was unusual for his father to have such a strong desire to impress a noble without any land, even one of high rank. Rank meant nothing if there was no land to base it on.

"We'll discuss it later," Uther said. "Ensure that our guests are made comfortable and that all their needs are attended to."

"Sire," Arthur said, with a short bow. He turned on his heel and strode out, grabbing Merlin by the arm as he went. "Shut up, Merlin," he hissed, before Merlin could get a word out. "Whatever it is, it will wait."

Merlin glared at him. "Yes, sire," he hissed back, the honorific once again an insult.

"Let me show you to your chambers," Arthur said, warmly, as they reached the group. "It's just this way."

Arthur ushered the whole lot of them to the north tower. He remembered when Sophia had last visited, how he had intended to put her and her father there, but that Merlin had talked him into installing her right next door. Merlin had been ridiculously eager for he and Sophia to spend time together, ending up in the stocks three times so Arthur wouldn't get in trouble for his dalliances. And yet now he was fumingly furious and looked ready to attack her should she make any sudden movements. It was baffling, even for Merlin.

They reached their chambers, which was a suite large enough for all of them, servants included. They filed wordlessly inside, and before Arthur could ask them if they needed anything, or dare to strike up a conversation with the woman he had nearly eloped with, Drudwas closed the door in his face.

Arthur blinked at the door, feeling quite thoroughly dismissed. "Rude," he muttered. Before he could turn to Merlin and ask him what he was so upset about, Merlin grabbed him by the arm and hauled him away. "Merlin!" Arthur protested, surprised by the strength of Merlin's grip and the insistence of his pull. He yanked himself free and dragged Merlin into a private nook. "What is going on?"

"That's not Sophia," Merlin said, in a hurried whisper. "It can't be her, or Aulfric. I know it's not them."

"What are you blathering about? Of course it's them," Arthur chided.

"It can't be," Merlin insisted. "You don't remember what happened last time, but she nearly killed you."

"Killed me?" Arthur echoed, baffled. He certainly didn't remember his life being at risk. Perhaps his sanity, but arguably that was at greater peril now. "Merlin, what on earth are you talking about?"

"You were never in love with her," Merlin insisted, eyes wide. "She enchanted you and you nearly died! I had to do it!"

"Do what?" Arthur said, slowly.

Merlin swallowed. "I killed Sophia and Aulfric. They're dead, I swear it. That's why it can't be them."

Arthur took a step back, away from Merlin. Merlin stared at him, pleading and demanding and afraid and angry all at once.

"All right," Arthur said, with a calmness he didn't feel. "You killed them to save me. I understand. But why did they want to kill me in the first place?"

"To get back to Avalon," Merlin said. "They look human but they're not. They're magic. They're Sidhe."

"Sidhe?"

"We need to talk to Gaius," Merlin said, all insistence again. He grabbed Arthur by the arms. "He can show you. Please, Arthur, I need you to believe me. I swear, I'm telling you the absolute truth."

Arthur looked into Merlin's eyes and saw no trace of deception, no hint of deceit. Merlin was genuinely afraid of Sophia and Aulfric, and genuinely meant what he was saying, no matter that it sounded like the ravings of a madman. Merlin could not have murdered Sophia and Aulfric because they were hale and hearty mere feet away from them. And yet Arthur knew better than to simply disregard Merlin's word at this point, even though none of what he said made sense or matched what Arthur knew, and as usual lacked even the slightest scrap of supporting evidence.

If he had indeed been enchanted, that would explain his inexplicably sudden and brief passion for Sophia. It would explain why he felt drawn to her even now, when he knew full well that he did not love her, when he had not thought of her even once since her disappearance a year ago. The threat of elopement might be the least of their worries.

"We'll talk to Gaius," Arthur agreed.

Merlin gave him the look that said that Arthur had hung the moon and the stars. "Thank you," he said, and kissed Arthur quickly but firmly on the lips. And then he was gone, hurrying down the hall, and Arthur was hurrying after him.

Chapter Text

For someone who had spent most of the past few days either unconscious or exhausted, Merlin could really move when he wanted to. Arthur waved aside the concerned looks of passers-by and castle guards as they ran to Gaius' chambers.

"Gaius!" Merlin called, as he shoved through the door, a few long strides ahead of Arthur. Arthur followed and closed the door behind them, glancing around to make sure they hadn't been followed, after making such a show of themselves.

"Merlin, my boy," Gaius said, looking up from his reading. "Whatever's the matter?"

"Gaius, they're back," Merlin blurted out. "Sophia and Aulfric. I don't know how, but they're alive, they're right here in the castle. We have to stop them."

If Arthur had held some small hope that Gaius would prove to be the voice of reason, that he would explain to Merlin that he was talking nonsense, that hope was quickly snuffed.

"What?" Gaius gasped, visibly alarmed. He set aside his book and pushed himself to his feet. "If they somehow survived--"

"--then Arthur's in danger," Merlin finished. "Camelot's in danger."

They stared at each other for a long moment, some silent conversation passing between them, and then they turned as one to look at Arthur.

"What?" Arthur asked, unnerved.

"Sire, you may want to sit down," Gaius said, gentling his tone as he would for a patient.

"And why exactly would I want to do that?" Arthur asked, crossing his arms. When the two of them shared an identically guilty look, he glared at them sternly.

"Arthur," Merlin began, cautiously. "Do you remember anything unusual about the last time Sophia was here? Anything at all?"

"You mean besides the fact that you somehow managed to hit me on the head with a lump of wood?" Arthur asked, raising his eyebrows.

"You don't remember the lake?" Merlin pressed. "Or Aulfric attacking me?"

"I think perhaps we should start from the beginning," Gaius intervened. "When Sophia and Aulfric first arrived in Camelot, I grew suspicious about your sudden attraction to the girl. Upon investigation, I discovered that Aulfric's staff bore unusual markings. The writing was in Ogham, the ancient script of the Sidhe. When confronted, Aulfric's eyes literally flashed with anger."

Arthur couldn't help but look at Merlin. "They flashed gold? Like you?"

Merlin shook his head. "Red."

"The Sidhe have magic, but they are not sorcerers," Gaius explained. "Not as we know them. They're creatures of magic. They live in Avalon, a land of eternal youth."

"Then why come here?" Arthur asked.

"To get back home," Merlin said. "I followed Aulfric to the lake and saw him open the gates to Avalon. He asked the other Sidhe for passage back to Avalon. The other Sidhe said that Aulfric had killed another Sidhe and his punishment was to live a mortal life. But if he offered up the soul of a mortal prince, Sophia would be allowed in. When you announced your engagement to Sophia, I tried to warn you, but it was too late. She'd already enchanted you. Then Aulfric blasted me with his staff, and the next thing I knew, Gaius was there and you were gone."

Merlin was growing visibly upset, so Gaius rested a hand on his shoulder before taking over the tale. "Sophia and Aulfric took you out to the lake, intending to sacrifice you to the Sidhe. Merlin pursued them and killed them using Sophia's staff. The gates to Avalon closed and Merlin was able to save you from drowning. Unfortunately, your near death left you in a weakened state. I followed after Merlin on horseback and we used the horse to carry you home. When you woke the next morning, it was clear that you remembered nothing of the previous night, and that the enchantment upon you had broken. The story of the lump of wood was a necessary explanation."

Arthur sat down on the nearest bench. "I see," he said. Not for the first time, he felt that his life had been lived in parallel to reality. At least with this he could lay the blame on the enchantment, rather than self-imposed denial. "Then how do you explain the fact that the two of them are quite clearly alive?"

"I'm afraid I can't, sire," Gaius said. "But we do have evidence to support what we've told you."

"We do?" Merlin asked, turning to Gaius in surprise.

"The staff, Merlin," Gaius prodded, with mild exasperation.

"Oh! Right!" Merlin said, and hurried off to his old room. He returned a moment later with a familiar staff in hand. He held it out to Arthur, who took it.

It was definitely the same as he remembered, and even the same as the staves that he had just seen in the hands of Sophia, Aulfric, and Drudwas. Arthur turned it in his hands and peered at odd symbols engraved into the wood. "This is the writing you mentioned?"

"Ogham, sire," Gaius said. "The writing means 'To hold life and death in your hands.'"

"And this is a weapon?" Arthur asked. He touched the large blue crystal at the head of the staff. Crystals and magic yet again.

"A deadly one," Gaius said, soberly. "Merlin was lucky to survive."

"What did you do with their bodies?" Arthur asked. "Did you bury them somewhere?"

"There was nothing to bury," Merlin said, giving him a soulful look again. "When I blasted them, they just exploded."

Arthur handed the staff back to Gaius. "If Merlin survived, there's every chance that they did as well. But if that's the case..."

"Indeed," Gaius said, with a deepening frown. "It's possible they've returned for another try. If so, then it's vital that we keep you safe."

Merlin took the staff and gripped it in both hands. "I know what to do." He clenched his jaw and started towards the door. Arthur jumped up and hauled him back.

"Let me go!" Merlin tried to wriggle free, but Arthur kept a hold of him. "I have to stop them!"

"No, you don't," Arthur said, firmly. "Will that staff even work without your magic?"

Merlin stilled, as if he hadn't thought of that. The idiot probably would have marched all the way to the enemy before he realized that he had no way to stop them. "I don't know. Maybe. If you remove the restraint, then I know it'll work."

"No," Arthur repeated.

"You have to let me do this!"

"I have to what? Let you go alone to face an enemy we barely understand with a weapon that we can't trust? Absolutely not. In case you forgot, they have the same weapon and they actually know how to use it, and there are three of them."

Merlin made an annoyed face. "Fine," he grumbled. "You might, might have a point. But we still have to stop them. And can you please let go?"

Arthur let go, and Merlin stumbled a few steps away before tugging his clothes from their disarray. He had the air of a cat that had misjudged its leap. He gave a protesting squeak when Arthur grabbed the staff and pulled it away. Merlin pouted at him, so Arthur replied with a stern look, and then Merlin replied back with an incredibly long-suffering sigh.

Gaius cleared his throat. "If I might, sire, Merlin and I have been quite successful in defending Camelot in the past. Unless you have a better plan..."

Arthur wondered how Merlin and Gaius had managed to survive this long without him. "Of course I have a better plan. It's what you should have done back then. Human or not, they're guilty of using magic. I'm going to take this evidence to my father and have them all arrested as traitors."

Merlin gaped at him, and Gaius gave a deep frown, his eyebrows furrowing to match. "That may not be wise, sire. The Sidhe are an old and powerful enemy. We underestimate them at our peril."

"Just a moment ago, you were fine with letting Merlin run off to stop them single-handed," Arthur replied, holding back his frustration. "I have a whole army at my disposal. Are you seriously telling me that Camelot is defenseless against three people with walking sticks?"

"No, sire," Gaius said, with tart deference. "I believe any direct action would be rash. We must first discover the reason for their presence here." The last he said towards Merlin, and pointedly.

"That reason is clear enough," Arthur replied. "Merlin, come with me."

"But--"

"Now," Arthur ordered, and strode out of the room, staff in hand. After a moment, he heard Merlin scurrying to catch up.

"We can't tell the King," Merlin said, in a rushed whisper. "It's too dangerous!"

"The fact that it's dangerous is exactly why he must be told," Arthur replied, under his breath. "You know how he is about magical threats. As long as he has one solid piece of evidence of magic, that's all it takes. The Sidhe will be dead by sundown, and we won't have to worry about them coming back a third time."

"But what if fire isn't enough?"

"Fire is always enough. And if it isn't, I have my enchanted sword."

Merlin finally cracked a smile. "Yeah, you do." Then he tilted his head. "Then why don't we just go up and kill them with the sword? We know that works."

"Because I'm the Crown Prince of Camelot, and that's not how we deal with our enemies," Arthur said. He still regretted his panicked attack on Merlin, and he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. He would deal with magic the right way, through the right channels, and with a clear head. "They must be openly accused and then arrested for trial. If they resist arrest and show their guilt, then that is evidence enough for their execution."

"And then we can kill them?"

"Yes, and then we can kill them."

Merlin narrowed his eyes. "Good. Right. Let's do this."

Arthur couldn't help but smile. Merlin was oddly adorable when he was bloodthirsty.

When they reached the throne room, the doors were closed, and the guards indicated that the King was in conference. Arthur took advantage of the moment and pulled Merlin aside.

"I want you to wait here," he said, keeping his voice low so the guards wouldn't overhear.

"Arthur, no," Merlin began.

Arthur raised his hand, holding off Merlin's inevitable argument. "It's best if I speak to my father alone."

"But you don't know the Sidhe like I do."

"And that's exactly why I need you and my father to be as far away from each other as possible," Arthur explained. "You incriminated yourself already this morning. The last thing we need is for him to make the connection between you and them." Not to mention that his father was probably looking for any excuse to dislike Merlin further. If he knew that Merlin had brought this to him, they might end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The doors opened and Leon walked out. Arthur waved for him to wait, and Leon saw and nodded a bow. Arthur turned back to Merlin. "Wait here," he said, pointing his finger in Merlin's face to make his point perfectly clear. Then he walked over to Leon to greet him.

"Sir Leon. You were reporting to my father?"

"Yes, sire," Leon said, with a hesitant expression. "He asked me to provide him with an accounting of our current assets, in case of further trouble from Alined. I didn't want to bother you with it as you've been busy since your return. I hope my actions were not an imposition."

"No, perfectly all right," Arthur lied. It wasn't so much a sign of his father's lack of faith in him as it was his general paranoia. This business with Alined had stirred up his blood. "I need to speak with my father, but after that I may need your assistance. If you could remain here until I return?"

"Of course, sire," Leon said.

Arthur glance at Merlin, who was already looking restless and slightly mutinous, then stepped closer to lean to speak privately to Leon. "And in the meantime, keep an eye on Merlin for me. He's been rather... agitated, today."

Leon looked to Merlin, who stared back at him. Leon stiffened. Arthur rested a hand on the hilt of Leon's sword. "Restrain him if you must, but do not harm him. Not so much as a bruise, is that understood?"

"Yes, sire," Leon said. Curiosity was evident in his eyes, but he held it back like a good soldier.

Arthur left the two of them in a low-level standoff and went to speak to his father. He closed the doors behind him as he entered. His father was reading over some documents, presumably those given to him by Leon, and when he looked up and saw Arthur he smiled.

"Ah, Arthur, good. I wanted to speak with you in private."

"As do I, Father. About an urgent matter."

His father set aside the documents and stood. "Certainly. But first we must discuss something of the utmost importance. The Five Kingdoms treaty."

Arthur internally sighed. Not this again. "What about it?" he asked, politely.

"Once Alined has been subdued, there will only be four kingdoms left in the treaty. We are in need of a fifth. And I believe we now have it."

Arthur blinked at him, confused. "We do?"

"We will, if we play this right," his father said, looking pleased. "After all, our common enemy is the Saxons. Who better to be the fifth kingdom in our alliance than the Tír-Mòr? Aulfric has already expressed interest in a relationship with Camelot."

It was such an absurd idea that it took Arthur a moment to make sense of it. "You can't be serious. Tír-Mòr isn't even a kingdom anymore. The Saxons burned them to the ground."

"Tír-Mòr was once one of the richest kingdoms in Albion," his father said. "Before you arrived, Aulfric informed me that the noble houses and their assets were all safely assembled in Gwynedd. Caerleon is hosting them, but he's unwilling to lend them the men to help them reclaim their lands."

"Because if he did, Gwynedd would be defenseless. Do you have any idea how big an army they'd need to fight off the Saxons?"

"I do," his father said, and held out the documents.

Arthur refused to take them. "Absolutely not. There is no way I'm leading our army to fight another kingdom's battle. Camelot barely has enough defenses as it is."

His father's smile flattened into a thin line. "We would not be fighting alone. We would have the support of the other kingdoms in the treaty."

"And how many men will they lend to the fight?" Arthur asked, angrily. "The treaty is not even signed yet, and you want to commit them to saving a kingdom that is already lost. If they discover what you intend, they might refuse to sign at all."

"Their kingdoms are equally under threat from the Saxons," his father replied. "As is Camelot, in case you've forgotten. They will help because they must, just as we must, for the sake of all Albion."

It was a laudable goal, and Arthur might have welcomed it. But he knew the real reason for all of this. "And I expect you would arrange with Aulfric for a share of Tír-Mòr's riches."

"A large payment would be appropriate," his father replied, unmoved.

"And what if that gold is an illusion?" Arthur challenged. "What if Aulfric is not who he says he is?"

"Of course he is," his father scoffed. "The last time they were here, I had Geoffrey check the records. Aulfric is the rightful heir to Tír-Mòr and Sophia is his daughter."

Arthur was surprised by that, but continued on. "Were there portraits of them in the records? Had anyone here ever met them before their sudden appearance last year?"

His father frowned at him, annoyed. "I take it you have a purpose behind these ramblings?"

"I have reason to believe that Aulfric and Sophia are imposters," Arthur declared, holding his back as straight as his sword.

His father sighed and reached for his wine. "Arthur," he began.

"Not only are they imposters, but they have broken the law by using magic."

His father stared, his cup halfway to his lips. "What?"

Arthur braced himself and held out the staff. "This is one of their staves. The crystal it bears is a magical weapon, and there is magical writing there on the staff."

His father put down the cup and took the staff, and peered at it closely. Arthur nearly held his breath, waiting for his father to angrily throw down the staff and shout for the guards to arrest Aulfric and Sophia and the lot of them. But to his shock, his father simply handed it back.

"I see what this is," his father said. "I suggest you return this to Sophia. I assume she gave it to you, though I doubt the poor girl knew what you intended. I'm going to assume that this absurd display is the result of your heightened state from the battle, rather than a transparent attempt to frame an innocent man and his daughter."

"What?" Arthur said, baffled. "I'm not making this up! They have magic, I swear it."

"Do you have any idea what would happen if the rightful King and Princess of Tír-Mòr were killed while under my protection? It would be just the excuse Caerleon needs to attack us. And all because of a broken heart."

"A broken heart?" Arthur echoed, dumbfounded.

"As if I'd believe that ridiculous excuse about being called away. Aulfric was obviously trying to be diplomatic. Last year, you tried to run away with her and she refused you. Don't bother lying to me, you were seen leaving the castle together. When she was gone the next day, I decided it was best to leave things alone. But I saw the way you looked at her today. You still have feelings for her." His father stepped forward and took him by the arms. "Son, I understand the pain of a broken heart. There's nothing I wouldn't do to spare you that suffering. But what's done is done, and I cannot let you destroy this kingdom's future for the sake of some petty revenge."

Arthur had not been slapped in a very long time, but it felt as if he was a child again and his father had just sent his ears ringing. How could his father not believe him? How could he ignore the evidence right under his nose? Usually all it took was the slightest whiff of magic and his father would rush to condemn the accused. And now when presented with a blatantly magical object and the word of his own son, his father came up with this absurd story about Arthur seeking revenge for his wounded heart. Was his father truly that blind? Or did he care more about the wealth of the Tír-Mòr than he did their magic?

"I swear to you, I'm telling you the truth," Arthur said, willing his father to open his ears and listen to him.

But his father shook his head. "Return the staff to the girl and we will pretend this never happened. But if you ever make such a false accusation again, you will be sent to the dungeons until you come to your senses. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sire," Arthur said, forcing the words out through clenched teeth.

"You're dismissed. I expect you to be on your best behavior at the feast tonight. Especially towards Sophia and Aulfric. If you upset them in any way..."

"I understand." Arthur didn't dare try to say anything more for fear of what might slip out.

His father picked up his wine and drank, and that was generally the signal for Arthur to go away. Arthur went, stunned and silently furious.

Out in the hall, Leon and Merlin were still giving each other the gimlet eye. They broke their stand-off and turned to Arthur expectantly.

"Sire?"

"Arthur?"

Arthur held up a hand. He needed to collect himself, to revise his plan of attack. If his father would not help, he would have to deal with the Sidhe himself, with the resources at hand. Fortunately, he was not entirely out of options.

"Sir Leon," he said, taking Leon aside. "I have a task for you. One of the utmost importance. Can I trust you with it?"

"Of course, sire," Leon said, earnestly.

"This is a delicate matter," Arthur continued. "I need you to only report directly to me. Not to the King. If that is a problem for you..."

"Not at all, sire," Leon said, looking to him with a loyal expression. "I shall report to you and you alone."

"Good man," Arthur said, slapping him on the arm. "I need you to make a discreet watch on our new guests. Take no action. Simply observe and make note of anything suspicious."

"Of course, sire. Shall I watch the guests or the suite?"

"Both. Can your friend Sir Alynor be equally circumspect?"

"Absolutely, sire," Leon said, confidently.

"Then split the task between you. Report back to me tonight after the feast. I may have new orders for the two of you then."

"As you command, sire," Leon nodded, and marched off to carry out his orders.

Arthur went over to Merlin, who was nearly bouncing with unasked questions. "Well? What did he say? Did you send Leon to arrest them?"

"Not exactly," Arthur grimaced. "He didn't believe me."

"What? Leon?"

"No, my father," Arthur said, irritated. "My father didn't believe me. He thought I'd made the whole thing up to get back at Sophia for breaking up with me."

Merlin gaped at him -- which wasn't a very good look for him, frankly -- and then started laughing. He tried to stop, but only ended up laughing even harder, until he had to lean against the wall to keep himself from falling down. The guards by the door looked on with mild astonishment.

"He--" Merlin gasped, between cackles. He pointed wobbly in Arthur's general direction. "You--"

Arthur's face burned with humiliation. "Yes, it's all extremely funny."

Merlin's laughter finally tapered off. "Sorry," he mumbled, wiping his eyes. "You have no idea how much I needed that."

"So glad I could help," Arthur muttered. He grabbed Merlin's arm and hauled him away from the snickering guards.

"Shouldn't we be going back to Gaius?" Merlin asked, when he realized which way they were going.

"I think Gaius has done enough damage for one day."

"Hey," Merlin said, tugging his arm free. "Gaius told you not to tell your father. It's not his fault if you didn't listen."

Arthur huffed out a breath. "I know. I just... I need some time to think. Figure out what to do."

That earned him a rather more sympathetic look from Merlin. "Arthur, you don't have to solve everything by yourself."

Arthur raised his eyebrows at him. "Pot, kettle."

Merlin shrugged. "Yeah, but you were right. I was being stupid. I don't want to do this on my own. I'm just... used to it, you know? A few days of teamwork with the other knights wasn't enough to break all my old habits."

"That's... surprisingly mature of you."

Merlin gave an easy smile. "I'm full of hidden depths."

"Speaking of depths," Arthur said, suddenly reminded. "That lake you mentioned. That wouldn't happen to be our lake, would it?"

"Ah," Merlin said, pink coloring his cheeks. "Um, it might be."

"So if you're right about all this, we've been swimming in bits of dead Sidhe this whole time?"

"Oh, that's disgusting," Merlin said, scrunching up his nose. He shuddered and wiped at himself, as if to brush away the invisible remnants. His eyes opened wide in horror. "We had sex in that water!" he hissed.

Merlin was so aghast that Arthur couldn't help but laugh. At first that only made Merlin turn affronted, but then he relaxed and laughed with him.

"There wasn't much left after they blew up," Merlin shrugged. "And then the fish probably ate what was left."

Arthur imagined Sophia trapped inside the belly of a fish, and it made him feel oddly better. "That's all right, then."

"We are still never having sex in that lake ever again," Merlin quietly declared.

§

They agreed to take a break from the problem at hand. They would have the opportunity to observe the Sidhe up close during the feast, and in the meantime they needed to regain their bearings and consider ways to stop the Sidhe without one or both of them ending up in the dungeons. Arthur had a good long stare at the courtyard through his favorite window, and Merlin pondered which of Arthur's clothes would be best suited for the feast and any food fights that might ensue.

When Arthur finally tore himself away from his thoughts, Merlin was lying on his bed and staring at the staff, peering into the crystal and tracing the strange writing with his fingernail.

"Can you read it?" Arthur asked, curious.

"No," Merlin said, still staring into the crystal. "I'd never even heard of the Sidhe before Sophia. Gaius made the translation and told me about them. He said they were a vicious people and masters of enchantment. I did see their true form, though."

"True form?"

Merlin looked up. "When Aulfric went to the lake to petition the other Sidhe. At first they were just blurs of light. But when I really looked, I saw these tiny blue people, only inches tall. They had these beautiful, shimmery wings, like dragonflies."

The fact that Arthur had nearly eloped with some kind of magical human dragonfly was somehow not the weirdest part of his day so far. "Then how do they manage to look like us?"

"Enchantments." He looked down at the staff, then back up. "Arthur, I know you don't want to break the law, but the only way to stop them is with magic. My magic."

"My father will listen to reason once we have enough evidence. With luck, Leon and Alynor will catch them in the act of some kind of sorcery."

"Or they'll end up enchanted themselves," Merlin said, unimpressed with his plan. "And then what? Even if you arrest them, they could just enchant your father, or anyone else for that matter. They might kill whoever tries to stop them."

Arthur picked up the staff and hefted it. "What if they can't do magic without these? All we'd need to do is take their staves and they'd be defenseless."

Merlin gave him a dubious look. "Maybe, but that's a big if. And without my magic, the only weapon we have is your sword."

"Need I remind you that I'm the best swordsman in Albion?"

"And if they fly out of reach?" Merlin challenged. "Then what? Throw your sword at them?"

"If I have to," Arthur replied. "I have a very good arm."

Merlin gave an exasperated huff. "Look, I'm not asking you to let me run off and face them alone. We can do it together. Your sword and my magic."

"No."

Merlin pushed himself up to sit. "What do you mean, no? I can stop them. I have the power to stop them. Let me help." When Arthur didn't reply, Merlin got to his feet and continued. "If you're afraid I'm going to lose control of my magic again, I won't. But you're wearing your torc. You know that means you can stop my magic whenever you want."

"It's too dangerous."

"Too dangerous?" Merlin said, disbelieving. "I infiltrated the Deorham twice in Gedref and both times I came back to you. I defended you and this castle for over a year before you trained me to be a knight, and I'm good at it. I know what I'm doing, Arthur."

"I will not allow you to break the law," Arthur said, and knew he was running out of excuses.

"We broke the law a hundred times yesterday," Merlin argued, growing louder and more agitated. "We broke the law for weeks before that. It's probably against one of Uther's laws for a servant to fuck a Prince, and we did that!"

"Merlin!" Arthur said, sternly. "That's enough."

"No, it's not," Merlin said, and Arthur could see him making up his mind, the determination in him becoming focused and sharp. "The only purpose I have for my magic is protecting you and Camelot. I was born for this, Arthur. Let me do this. Otherwise what's the point?"

"The point?"

"Yes, the bloody point!" Merlin said, spreading his arms in frustration. He reached up and tugged at his torc. "Do you have any idea how much I hate this restraint? What it feels like? Imagine having both your arms cut off so you can't fight, and your tongue so you can't speak."

Arthur hesitated. "You said it was better when I wore mine."

Merlin quieted. "It is better. It is. But it still hurts. I'm still being cut off from everything I am, and I hate it. I'm doing it for you. For us. For everyone I need to protect, because I can't protect them if I'm dead. And if you don't let me kill the Sidhe, none of it's going to matter because nothing you or the knights or your father could ever do will be enough to stop them."

Arthur couldn't help the burn of humiliation he felt, that he still felt about having been secretly guarded by Merlin for so long. "I am a Prince and a knight and it is my sacred duty to defend this kingdom. I do not need you to do it for me as if I'm some sort of helpless child."

"I don't want to do it for you," Merlin spat back. "I want us to face the Sidhe together. I want us to be a team, the way it was before. Why is that so hard to understand?"

"Because you're a sorcerer!"

Merlin shut his jaw with a click. He stared at Arthur, looking deeply disappointed. "How can you say that? I thought--"

"What? You thought what, Merlin? That I would change my mind if I saw all the tricks you can do?"

Merlin's expression shifted from disappointment to anger. "I thought you would change your mind if you saw that you could trust me."

"I do trust you," Arthur said, quieting again. "But I will never trust the magic that is inside you. I can't trust it."

"I am my magic! It's not some separate thing that's infected me. Why do you think it hurts so much to have this restraint?"

"Gaius said it wouldn't hurt you," Arthur defended.

"Gaius was wrong," Merlin said, his voice wavering with pain. "Or he lied. He does that, you know. Lies to people. Was it a lie when you told me you understood? That you'd stopped being afraid?"

Arthur didn't know what to say. "I'm... It's not that simple."

"It is," Merlin insisted. "It's exactly that simple. I am my magic, Arthur. You either trust me or you don't. You can't break me into pieces and decide which parts of me you can love. You can't pick and choose."

"No," Arthur said, shaking his head in denial. "I can't accept that. Magic is evil, it destroys people's lives, it's a danger to the kingdom."

"Magic is good," Merlin said, stepping forward so that they were almost nose-to-nose. "It saves people. It's saved this kingdom more times than I can count. Your father is wrong. No, he's more than that."

"Merlin," Arthur warned.

"Your father is a liar. He's a monster. A murdering tyrant! And he wants to make you just like him!"

"Shut up," Arthur said, clenching his fists tightly in order to hold himself back from doing something he knew he'd regret.

"You're so happy to throw out the rules you think are wrong. You're already planning to change your father's laws. Why is magic different? Why is that the one thing that he has to be right about?"

"Because I've seen it with my own eyes and so have you. You're so proud about all you've done to defend Camelot. What do you think you were defending it from? Magic, Merlin. You were destroying magic because that's what it means to protect this kingdom."

Merlin took a step back. "I thought I was doing the right thing. But it doesn't have to be this way. And just because some people abuse magic, that doesn't make it evil. That doesn't mean that hundreds of innocent people deserve to die."

Arthur faltered. "My father has never executed anyone without proof," he said, defensively.

"Proof?" Merlin laughed, bitterly. "He arrests people for just thinking about magic. Do you know how many executions I've seen since I came here? The moment I set foot in your castle, a man had his head chopped off. Gwen's father was murdered for letting a man use his forge. Everyone here is terrified, but they've lived with it for so long that no one sees it anymore. Do you see it? Do you even want to see?"

"That's enough," Arthur said, pained by Merlin's accusations. By the position Merlin was putting him in, in having to choose between his father and Merlin. "My father brought this kingdom up from its knees. He cares about it more than anything else. He would die for it, as would I."

"As I would die for it," Merlin challenged. "Does that make all of us right?"

"I don't want you to die for it," Arthur said, on firmer footing there. "I'm trying to save your life!"

"What kind of life would I have with this?" Merlin asked, grabbing at the torc again.

"That's only temporary. Until..."

"Until what?"

Arthur took a sharp breath. "Until I can find a way to remove your magic for good."

That was finally enough to silence Merlin, but it was a sour victory. Merlin stepped back from him again, looking utterly betrayed. "No."

Arthur took a step forward. "I have to do it. You'll understand once it's done. Once it's out of you."

"Arthur, listen to what you're saying. You can't... I won't understand once it's out of me because I'll be dead. There won't be anything left. I am magic. Will you get that through your unbelievably thick skull?"

"You're only saying that because that's what the magic wants you to believe! That's what it does. It gets into you and it takes you over."

Merlin's betrayed expression was rapidly giving way to despair. "The dragon was right. I should never have trusted you. You're just like Uther. The two of you would rather let Camelot be destroyed than admit you might actually be wrong."

"Merlin, listen to me," Arthur said, trying to salvage this. "All my life I have been threatened by sorcery. I know magic is evil because I have faced that evil time and time again."

"What about the unicorn?" Merlin challenged. "You said you felt its magic, that it felt good."

"And look what happened! The kingdom nearly starved to death."

"Because you killed it! Because you ignored me like you always ignore me. I have warned you over and over, and all you ever do is tell me to shut up because I'm an idiot. And every single time, I've had come in and save you at the last minute." Merlin gave a bitter laugh. "I thought things had changed. I thought you trusted me. Respected me. I thought I meant something to you. I thought you loved me."

"I do," Arthur said, emotion tightening his throat. "I do love you, Merlin. I love you so much it hurts. That's why I have to do this." And before Merlin could even open his mouth to reply, Arthur pulled off his gold torc.

Merlin flinched, physically pained by the broken connection. "No. Put it back on, Arthur. Right now."

Arthur ignored him and walked over to his chest. He unlocked it, put the torc inside, and then locked it again. When he turned back to Merlin, Merlin looked absolutely furious.

"Magic is poison, Merlin. It doesn't matter what you can do with it if using it destroys you. I can't stand by and let that happen. Not to you and not to Camelot."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm going to find a way to remove your magic," Arthur told him, glad to finally have the whole truth out now. "There has to be a way to do it without killing you. And then I'm going to use that method to remove all the magic from Camelot. There will be no more executions because there will be no more sorcerers. Ever."

Merlin's eyes went wide. It was obvious that he was about to bolt, but when he did, Arthur easily caught him. Merlin struggled fiercely, but without the sustaining connection to counteract the restraint, it only served to exhaust him.

But when Merlin realized he couldn't get away on his own, he changed tactics. "Gwen! Morgana! Help! Help!" he shouted, as loudly as he could.

Arthur covered Merlin's mouth with his hand, but Merlin was done playing nice. He bit Arthur hard on the hand, hard enough to draw blood. Arthur clenched his jaw against the pain and held on. He knew from the past two days how small of a reserve Merlin had without his magic. He just had to wait him out.

As soon as Merlin's struggles tapered off, Arthur dragged Merlin into the side room. He released Merlin's mouth long enough to grab one of the kerchiefs from the dresser and shoved it into Merlin's mouth just as he opened it to shout again. Merlin tried to spit out the kerchief, but Arthur pushed it back in and held it there. He could end this quickly by strangling Merlin unconscious, but he didn't want to do that again. He was trying to save Merlin, not hurt him, even though it was proving impossible to do one without the other.

He loosened his grip enough so that Merlin could struggle again, and waited for Merlin to wear himself out. Soon enough, Merlin didn't even have the strength to stand, and he was having trouble keeping his eyes open.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said, genuinely. "This is for your own good."

Merlin gave one last, muffled denial, and then he went limp. He'd passed out at last. Arthur lay him gently down on the bed and took a step back, and cursed under his breath at his bloodied hand. He grabbed another kerchief and quickly wrapped it, then went out to grab the curtain ties again. Without his magic, Merlin wouldn't have much strength, but that didn't mean he was completely helpless. Arthur tied him to the bed, though not as thoroughly as he had before, and gagged him properly.

Thankfully, it seemed that Merlin's shouts were in vain. Neither Gwen nor Morgana came and knocked on the door; they had probably already gone downstairs. And ever since Morgana told him that she'd been keeping the guards from overhearing, Arthur had put a standing order for their hallway to be undisturbed except in emergencies.

Arthur sat down on the chair and watched Merlin sleep. He didn't know how long it would take for Merlin to wake up again, or if he even would until Arthur put back on the gold torc. This whole situation was completely out of hand. This was not remotely how he wanted it to go. But he had no other choice. He couldn't give in, couldn't let the magic win. He had to hope that when it was all over, Merlin would understand.

Arthur left the side room and used the assortment of bandages and salves to wrap his hand properly. He checked on Merlin and saw that he was still unconscious, and so he went over to the clothes that Merlin had laid out for him and changed into them. After one last look, he closed up the side room and locked it. It was time to attend the feast.

But before he could do that, he had something else to take care of. He took the staff and wrapped it in a spare sheet. He would take it down to the vaults and put it with the other magical objects, as he should have done from the moment he'd seen it. In fact, all the magical objects needed to be down there. He opened his chest again and pulled out Palaemon's ring, Merlin's grimoire, the drawings and notes, and the gold torc.

Merlin was wrong. Gaius was wrong. Magic was not needed to fight magic. If anything, that only perpetuated the corruption. Arthur could never win if he fought on magic's terms. He needed to trust his own instincts, to trust steel and sinew as he always had. Otherwise he would end up just as dependent on magic as Merlin was.

He locked his chamber door and went down to the vaults. He found an empty spot and put everything there: the grimoire, the papers, the ring, and his gold torc. He drew the enchanted sword from his belt and put it and the staff into a tall vase.

A clean break. That was the best way, for himself and for Merlin.

He walked out of the vault and locked the gate behind him, and went up to attend the feast.

Chapter Text

It was nearly time for the feast when Gwen returned to Morgana's chambers. She'd helped out in the kitchens to keep busy while Morgana rested, and was pleasantly surprised to see that she was already up and dressed.

"Feeling better?" Gwen asked.

"Almost like myself again," Morgana said, smiling. "Gaius said I'd get used to the new draught eventually. And not a moment too soon. I was starting to forget what it was like to not walk around in an utter fog."

Gwen didn't let her smile slip. "That's wonderful news. Is this what you're going to wear tonight? Let me see."

Morgana stood and slowly turned, showing off her outfit. It was a beautiful purple dress, the silk shimmering and delicate, with a sheer shawl to cut the chill. "I'm still deciding what to wear with it. Help me choose?"

Morgana's one vice was for fashion. It was partly from necessity, as the King's ward could hardly go around in rags, and partly for the power her beauty gave her. But mostly it was because she loved beautiful things, loved expensive fabrics and dyes and ornate jewelry. She had enough precious metal and gems in her jewelry boxes to buy a whole castle, though in fairness most of it had been gifted to her from the King or from courting noblemen. It would be an insult not to wear them, and worse to sell them.

"I've narrowed it down to these four," Morgana said, and held up each necklace in turn. There was gold with emeralds, silver with sapphires, a favored string of pearls, and a slim gold choker with a drop of amethyst.

"The last one," Gwen decided. It was understated yet striking, and it went well with the clean lines of the dress.

"Help me put it on?"

Gwen took the choker and carefully fastened the small clasp at the nape of Morgana's neck. Morgana considered her reflection from various angles, and then smiled. "It's perfect."

Gwen brushed and styled Morgana's hair and applied her makeup, then went to change into a nicer dress herself. Knowing what was to come, she found herself drawn to the last gift her father ever gave her: the dress with its starfish buttons. She had never worn it, partly out of grief and partly because she could not bear to risk staining it. But it felt right to wear it today, and it might well be the last chance she would ever have. If she failed, Camelot was doomed, and if she succeeded, she would likely share her father's fate. As she put on the dress, she felt that her father was still with her. It gave her strength.

They left for the feast. As they walked towards the stairs, Gwen spared a glance at Arthur's chambers. She could not bring her cutting tools with her, so she had to trust that they would have enough time to reach Morgana's chambers before Arthur became suspicious about Merlin's absence. It was risky, but it a risk they would have to take.

It was Morgana that Gwen felt bad about. She had promised never to leave her, but now she was about to break that promise in the worst way. Morgana had done so much for her, had gone to such lengths to protect her and clear her name, and it would all be for nothing. Gwen could only hope that her execution would not harm Morgana's reputation. Her worst fear was that if she was not there to protect her, Morgana would end up facing the pyre herself. She would have to trust in Gaius to be there for Morgana, and that the King's denial and love were stronger than his rage.

They reached the grand hall. Gwen had helped with the preparations, but it was still a sight: bright red hangings on the walls, long tables laden with sumptuous foods, all the lords and ladies of the court in their finery. They had brought in extra tables for the knights, who wore armor that had been polished until it gleamed, reflecting the light of dozens of candles. As they walked in, heads turned. The men stared at Morgana with open lust, the women stared in envy, and Morgana welcomed it all with a satisfied smile. She was in her element.

The crowd parted and the King arrived. "Morgana, you look absolutely stunning," he said, looking at her with affection and pride.

"Thank you, my lord," Morgana said, with a short curtsey.

"I'm so glad to see you're feeling better. I was quite concerned you wouldn't be able to attend. Gaius has been taking good care of you?"

"As always."

"He tells me you've been sleeping through the night. No more of those awful nightmares."

Gwen stilled, immediately worried, but Morgana obviously had no desire to share the truth with the King. "Like a baby," she lied, smoothly. "Gaius is a wonder with his potions."

The King surveyed the room, then looked towards the open doors. "Arthur should be here by now. If that boy of his is causing trouble again..."

"Who, Merlin?" Morgana asked. "You know, I'm quite worried about him. He actually passed out earlier today."

"Did he now?" The King turned thoughtful at this news. "Excuse me for a moment." He waded back through the crowd and Gwen saw him speaking to his manservant. Louvel nodded and left. Perhaps the King was sending him to check on Arthur.

"Perhaps I should talk to Gaius about Merlin," Morgana said. "What do you think, Gwen?"

"Arthur said he'd already taken Merlin to Gaius himself," Gwen said, which was true enough.

"Hmm. Still. Arthur isn't exactly known for being gentle with his toys."

"Merlin's not a toy," Gwen said, defensively.

"You know what I mean," Morgana said. "Arthur's always been hard on his servants and his knights. And on everyone else for that matter. He expects everyone to live up to the same ridiculous standards that Uther holds him to."

"True," Gwen admitted. It was part of the reason she found the Prince so intimidating. Sometimes he could be quite sweet and gentle, especially with Merlin. But other times, she was as afraid of him as she was the King. And she never knew quite which version of him to expect: the man who doted on his lover, who was bound by honor and chivalry, or the man who did not hesitate to arrest even those closest to him.

Morgana passed the time chatting with various members of the nobility, and then it was time for the feast to begin. Gwen had just finished helping Morgana into her seat when Arthur arrived. His fine clothes were noticeably crooked, something Merlin always complained about when Arthur insisted on dressing himself, there was a bandage on his hand, and he looked to be in a foul mood.

There was no sign of Merlin.

"You're late," the King said, when Arthur sat down.

"I was detained," Arthur said, tersely.

"And your boy? I've been informed that he's ill again."

Arthur looked surprised, then looked at Morgana and made the connection. "Yes. I left him to rest."

"Have you considered my list?"

Arthur hesitated. "I may need a new copy. I'm afraid I misplaced it."

The King sighed. "Arthur, this is absurd. You cannot fulfill your duties if you don't have an able manservant."

"I know, Father, but if you'll just--"

"No," the King said, firmly. "You show up late and unpresentable and without a manservant. This cannot go on any longer." He nodded to Louvel, who signalled towards the servant's entrance. A young man walked over, and Gwen recognized him as Louvel's son, George.

"I'm assigning George as your temporary manservant," the King said. "No, don't argue with me. You had the opportunity to resolve this yourself, and you didn't. Until you choose a permanent replacement, George will attend you."

Arthur looked extremely tempted to argue, but instead he gave a muttered 'fine' and resigned himself to glowering in George's general direction.

Arthur and Morgana were in their usual positions on either side of the King. But there was an empty seat to Morgana's left and one to Arthur's right. Gwen had been told they would be filled by the guests of honor, but they had not yet arrived themselves. As if in answer to her thoughts, she saw three figures approaching the servants entrance, which Uther sometimes used for dramatic effect when presenting guests. The entrance was cast in shadows by the bright light of the hall, so Gwen could only make out that it was a woman and two men.

Uther stood, and everyone stood with him. "Tonight we celebrate Camelot's proud victory. We honor the proud men who risked their lives in defense of the kingdom and saved the city of Gedref. We commend them for their bravery and their service. But as we celebrate our past success, we must also turn our thoughts to the future. Please welcome our guests, King Aulfric and Princess Sophia of Tír-Mòr."

Gwen and Morgana both gasped in surprise as Aulfric and Sophia entered, dressed in lush fabrics and delicate gold. They bowed to the King and were directed to their seats: Aulfric next to Arthur, and Sophia next to Morgana. The applause of the hall tapered off as the King lifted his goblet.

"To Camelot, to Tír-Mòr, and to the strength of both our kingdoms," he said, and drank.

Everyone sat down, and the feast began.

"Well. I never expected to see you here again," Morgana said, dripping with disdain.

"And here I am," Sophia said, sweetly. "I do hope we can be friends."

"I think you'd have more luck persuading Arthur to try to marry you again," Morgana sneered.

"Morgana," the King warned.

Morgana turned to him, eyes blazing. "How can you welcome this woman back, after what she did?"

"It's my understanding that Arthur is the guilty party in that particular debacle," Uther replied, quietly. "Usually you're the first to defend a woman's honor."

Morgana turned back to Sophia. "I wasn't aware you had any honor to defend."

"Morgana," the King warned again, this time with more force. "I expect you to behave respectfully towards our guests." He took a gulp of wine and muttered, "I thought I was done raising teenagers."

Arthur and Morgana both glared at the King, then made annoyed faces at each other before plastering on matching, grudging smiles. It really was like they were teenagers again. Gwen was only too glad to abandon the both of them to retrieve a platter of food. To her surprise, the other man was gone from the doorway, and instead two unfamiliar servants came out and took their places behind Aulfric and Sophia. It seemed they'd brought their own this time.

Gwen listened to the terse conversations between the five of them with one ear and waited for the right opportunity to slip away. There would be a lull between the main course and dessert, and that would be the best chance she had.

Finally the time came. Gwen excused herself from Morgana and went to the kitchen, then slipped out into the hall. She hurried as fast as she could, and reached Arthur's chambers in record time. She pressed her ear to the door, but didn't hear anything inside.

"Merlin?" she called, as loudly as she dared. "Merlin, are you in there? Can you hear me? Merlin?"

Gwen strained to listen. She thought perhaps she heard something, but it was too faint to make out. She hurried to Morgana's chambers and retrieved the basket of cutting tools. Before she left, she rummaged through Morgana's drawers, looking for what she knew had to still be there. "Yes!" she breathed, and hurried back to Arthur's door. It was a skeleton key, and it would open all the doors in the keep. Morgana had stolen it years ago during one of her rebellious phases, determined never to be locked out of anything. The locks had not been changed since, so Gwen was certain it would still work.

The lock turned and clicked open. Gwen removed the key and closed the door behind her, not wanting any passing guards to have their suspicions aroused. There was still no sign of Merlin, but the side door was locked. She called again, and heard a muffled response from behind the door.

"Merlin? It's Gwen. I'm opening the door." She held her breath as she put the skeleton key into the side door lock, and let it out when the lock opened. She removed the key and tucked it into her basket.

"Merlin!" Gwen cried in alarm, when she stepped inside. Merlin had been gagged and bound, and there was dried blood on his chin. She quickly began to free him, opening the knots in the curtain ties that Arthur had used to secure him to the bed.

"What are you doing here?" Merlin asked, once she removed the gag.

"Saving you," Gwen said, unable to stop her smile. She was really doing it. After all this time, she was helping Merlin, and they would save Camelot together. She felt giddy with daring.

"I don't understand," Merlin said, as she helped him sit up and brushed the dried blood from his chin.

"I brought these," Gwen said, showing him the basket of tools. "I know, Merlin. I know you have magic. I know you've been using it to save us."

Merlin had already looked pale, but at her words he went terribly white. For a moment she thought he might pass out again, as he had at lunch, but he rallied. "How?" he asked, shocked.

"You confessed to save my life," Gwen said, meeting his eyes. "I've wanted to thank you for that for a long time."

Merlin was overwhelmed. "It was my fault you were arrested. The poultice under your father's pillow, I put it there."

"You saved his life," Gwen said, gratefully. "You gave us time together that I cherish more than anything." She hugged him tightly, and when she pulled back, there were tears in Merlin's eyes.

"Sorry," he said, wiping at them with his sleeve.

"It's all right. But we don't have much time." Gwen pulled out the strongest tool, a heavy pair of cutters that her father used on thick rods of iron. She didn't have his strength, but she removed Merlin's kerchief and found that the torc was somewhat delicate looking. Her own strength ought to be enough.

"Lie down and hold the torc out as far as you can," Gwen said, readying the cutters. Merlin obeyed, and she positioned the cutters on the weakest part of the torc, the join between the end of the braiding and the fused buffer. She wondered how on earth Arthur got it onto Merlin in the first place, because it was far too small to pull over his head and a glance confirmed that there was indeed no natural break in the metal.

But there was no time to waste on such questions. Gwen pulled the cutters closed with all her might. She was not weak of arms. She had been a hard worker ever since she was old enough to help her parents, and even though she no longer worked at the forge, she had the callouses and muscles of a servant's life. And yet when she stopped and inspected the narrow band of metal, she found that the cutters had not made so much as a dent.

"I don't understand, it should have cut right through."

"Magic," Merlin said, regretfully. He sat up. "I told Arthur the truth about my magic, and he didn't... it went badly. I let him restrain my magic because I thought if I trusted him, if I showed him that magic isn't evil..." He shook his head. "I was wrong. But it doesn't matter now."

"But we need your magic," Gwen said. "Camelot is in danger."

Merlin's eyes widened. He opened his mouth to say something, then hesitated.

"Merlin, do you... do you know about Morgana?" Gwen dared.

"About her nightmares?" Merlin asked, cautiously.

"They're not just nightmares," Gwen said, braver now. "You know they're real."

Merlin looked disbelieving and relieved all at once. "I can't believe you know everything. Then Morgana knows?"

"Morgana doesn't want to know," Gwen said, realizing now how much she regretted that fact. "But she tells me about her nightmares, when she remembers them. She told me about the one she had last night."

"Is it about Sophia?"

"I don't think so," Gwen said. She knew that Morgana had had awful nightmares about Sophia before, about Arthur drowning. But she hadn't mentioned Sophia last night. "She said that Camelot was burning, even the stones. That everyone was dead. She saw some kind of winged monster, ridden by people with glowing red eyes--"

"That's them! The Sidhe!" Merlin exclaimed. "Sophia and Aulfric, they're not human. They're Sidhe. They're going to destroy Camelot, we have to stop them!"

"But we can't do that without your magic."

"I know, but... oh! The chest! Can you open Arthur's chest?"

"I don't have the key to it," Gwen said, biting her lip. "But maybe I can do something with these."

"If he left his torc inside, you can use it to open mine."

They hurried out to the main room and over to Arthur's chest. They worked together and managed to break the lock on the chest, but when they opened it, Merlin gave a cry of dismay.

"It's gone," he groaned, grasping at the rim of the trunk. "Everything's gone. He must have moved it somewhere."

"We don't have time to search the castle," Gwen said, knowing that she didn't have long before her absence would be noticed.

"There's still a way to stop them," Merlin said, rallying. "Even without my magic. All we need is proof, and I know just where to get it. But I'll need your help."

"You have it."

"Wait a moment. Let me just..." Merlin grabbed a small knife from his pack and tucked it into his boot.

They hurried from Arthur's chambers, and Merlin led them to the other side of the castle.

"This is their suite," Merlin whispered, as they crept closer. "You're certain the key will work?"

Gwen nodded. "Well, mostly sure. Unless the lock's been changed. But I don't think it has."

Merlin gave her a look, and Gwen shrugged. "Right," he said, gripping the key in his hand.

"Wait," Gwen said, putting a hand on Merlin's arm to stop him. "Someone's in the hall. A knight."

"Sir Leon?"

"No, he was at the feast. It's Sir Alynor."

Merlin cursed under his breath. "Arthur must have them watching the Sidhe and the suite."

"I'll take care of Sir Alynor. Will you be all right to go into the suite on your own?"

Merlin wasn't looking entirely healthy, and Gwen was worried that he might be ill the way he had been earlier. But Merlin was resolute, and they really only had this one chance.

"I'll be fine. I'm good at being sneaky." Merlin gave her a cheeky smile, one that made his dimples show. Gwen suddenly remembered why she'd fallen in love with him.

She straightened her dress and walked casually out into the hall. When Sir Alynor saw her, she smiled warmly at him. She knew him well from their childhood, when he was Leon's closest and sometimes only friend.

"Gwen," Alynor said, happy to see her. "I thought you'd be down at the feast."

"Oh, I just needed to slip away for a moment, take a break from all the noise. Morgana insisted I get some fresh air."

She kept Alynor busy with small talk, drawing his attention away from the door. She glanced over his shoulder and saw Merlin creep silently to the suite and disappear inside. She didn't know how long Merlin would need to find his evidence, so she dragged out the conversation by flirting with Alynor. As a knight, he was too far above her for marriage, but many knights enjoyed dalliances with the servants, and Alynor appeared to be no exception. Not that Gwen was that sort of girl.

But before she found herself in a compromising position, something worse happened. A man walked down the hall and pulled out a key as he approached the suite, and to Gwen's horror he walked inside. She realized that he must be the man she saw in the shadows with Sophia and Aulfric. He was definitely not a servant.

"Gwen?" Alynor asked, when she didn't respond to whatever he'd said.

Gwen looked to him, speechless, then back to the door. There was nothing she could do. If she told Alynor that Merlin was inside the suite, they would both end up arrested. Merlin was trapped in the suite, and she was already late in returning to Morgana.

"I'm sorry, I have to get back," Gwen said, excusing herself. She could only hope that Merlin was as good at hiding as he was at sneaking about. She would come back after the feast and try to find some excuse to get inside the suite. If she could make enough of a distraction, Merlin should be able to sneak out again. She hoped.

§

Gwen returned to the kitchens just as dessert was being brought out. She hurried back to Morgana.

"Where have you been?" Morgana whispered.

"Sorry, so sorry," Gwen said, as the King glared at her. After her arrest and her father's execution, she did her best to stay on his good side. So much for that.

George sniffed at her, unimpressed. He was as big a snob as his father, possibly even bigger. She knew that he had been eager to fill his father's shoes, and hoped one day to become Arthur's manservant. She also knew that he had an extremely low opinion of Merlin, who had taken what he considered to be his rightful position. Though she doubted that George would be keen to take up all of Merlin's responsibilities, as he was not the type to resort to bedwarming.

"Is it difficult to find good servants in Camelot?" Sophia asked.

"Easier than finding them in Tír-Mòr," Morgana replied, with the same acid sweetness. In Gwen's absence, it seemed she had been rather liberal with the wine.

The King merely sighed and raised his goblet, and Louvel filled it again. At the other side of the table, Arthur and Aulfric had little to say to each other. Aulfric did try to strike up conversation, but Arthur mostly responded with suspicious glares and one-word replies. He had been glaring at Sophia for much of the feast as well, though whenever their eyes met, his eyes glazed over and he softened into longing. Then he would look away from her and shake himself, as if trying to rid himself of whatever feelings remained from their brief passion.

Gwen's impatience to rescue Merlin made the minutes drag past. Finally it was late enough for Morgana to excuse herself for the night. Arthur watched them with envy, but he was trapped there for a while longer, as it was less acceptable for him to leave at an early hour.

"Well, that was awful," Morgana said, once they were safely back in her chambers. "I can't believe Uther actually let that vile woman come back here. She's nothing but trouble."

"Yes, my lady," Gwen said, as she fiddled with the clasp of Morgana's necklace. It opened and she set the necklace aside, then started on the buttons of Morgana's dress.

"Where did you wander off to, by the way? I didn't mind, but it would have been nice to have some warning. Uther was on a rampage about bad servants tonight. Poor Merlin, he's not going to be happy about George."

"I don't think Arthur's happy about George, either," Gwen said. "I needed to help a friend. Another servant. I didn't realize it would take so long."

"You're always looking out for everyone," Morgana said, giving her a warm smile. "Help me with my dress?"

Gwen helped Morgana out of her dress and into her night clothes. "I should get your draught from Gaius."

Morgana picked up her book, and Gwen lit the candle by her bed for her. "He left just after dessert, so he should be in his chambers by now."

"I'll be back soon," Gwen said. She slipped one of Morgana's least favorite perfumes into her pocket on the way out.

As soon as she was far enough down the hall, she broke into a run. She needed to make it back to the suite before Sophia and Aulfric returned. If she was really lucky, the man would have left by now, but she thought that was probably hoping for too much.

Sir Alynor was still lurking in the hall, but she only nodded to him before going directly to the suite and knocking on the door. It opened, and there was the man.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"Are you a servant of King Aulfric and Princess Sophia?" Gwen asked. "My name is Gwen. I'm Lady Morgana's maidservant."

"I am no servant," the man said, sounding somewhat insulted. "My name is Sir Drudwas."

"My apologies, Sir Drudwas. I meant no offense, not at all. I merely seek to carry out my lady's orders."

"And those orders are?"

"She asked me to present a gift to Princess Sophia. An apology for her rude behavior at the feast tonight."

"I'll take it," Drudwas said, holding out his hand.

Gwen bit her lip, looking as conflicted as she could. "I'm afraid that my lady's orders were quite specific. She wanted there to be no possibility of her gift being misplaced or misconstrued. She asked me to give it to Princess Sophia herself. And if she was still down at the feast, and her maidservant was not available, I was ordered to place the gift directly in her chambers. I apologize for my insistence, but I must obey my lady's commands, or she will be quite upset with me." Gwen mustered her best, most pitiful look.

Drudwas looked annoyed, but to her relief he was like most men, and unable to bear the sight of a woman's tears. "Make it quick," he said. "And touch nothing."

"Of course," Gwen said, and stepped inside. She walked as slowly as she could, glancing around for any sign of where Merlin might be hiding. There were several rooms and the doors to all of them were open. Merlin could be hiding in a corner of one of them, or in a wardrobe. All she could do was make enough of a distraction of herself so he could slip away. Gwen began to talk loudly about Morgana, about how sorry she was, and how beautiful Sophia was, and how Morgana hoped that her gift would go some way in improving relations between their two kingdoms. It was all a lot of nonsense, but if Merlin was in any condition to listen, he would hear her.

Finally she could delay no longer. She placed the bottle of perfume on Sophia's table and thanked Sir Drudwas for his patience and understanding. He ushered her out and closed the door quite firmly behind her. Gwen nodded to Alynor again and headed back the way she'd come.

"Merlin?" she whispered, hoping he'd got away. But there was no answer.

§

"Are you all right, my dear?" Gaius asked, as he crushed the herbs for Morgana's draught. "You seem rather preoccupied."

"Just worried about someone," Gwen said, mustering as much of a smile as she could.

"Oh? Is it anyone I know?"

Could she tell Gaius the truth? She knew how much he cared about Merlin. And yet he was helping Arthur stop Merlin's magic, just as he made his draughts to stop Morgana's. She wanted to trust him, but she couldn't risk it. Not yet. Surely Merlin had got away before she arrived. He must be hiding somewhere, or even left the castle entirely. They hadn't planned for such a result, but if he had got away, he couldn't return to Arthur or Gaius. He would need somewhere to go. She couldn't leave the castle herself tonight, not with the curfew, but tomorrow she would look for him. Perhaps Merlin was taking refuge in her house in the lower town.

"No. Just a friend," she said.

Gaius finished the potion and Gwen thanked him for it, and she headed back to Morgana. As she climbed the steps, she heard voices above her. She slowed her pace and listened.

"Go away." It was Arthur, and he sounded extremely annoyed.

"I'm afraid I can't, sire," replied George. "I'm under explicit orders from the King. There are duties I must perform--"

"If you are to be my manservant, you will answer to me, not to my father," Arthur said, testily. "And I'm telling you that there is nothing you need to do in my chambers tonight."

"I must obey the King's command," George insisted, stiffly. "You are only the Prince, sire. We are both bound to obey. If it's a matter of my ability, I assure you that I was trained to the strictest standards."

"I don't need another manservant. I already have one. Now go away."

There was the sound of a key turning, a brief altercation, presumably as George tried to force his way into the room, and then the slamming of a door. Gwen heard footsteps heading her way, and she quickly composed herself and continued her climb. She passed an extremely disgruntled George, who went down the stairs without even acknowledging her.

Gwen had greater concerns, and she hurried to Morgana's room. She knew what Arthur was about to find. She and Merlin had closed the chest and locked the doors, removed any incriminating evidence, but Merlin's absence would be enough to--

"Merlin!"

Gwen heard Arthur's furious shout just as she closed the door behind her. She leaned against it as if to keep him out, then scrambled for her key to lock the door, which would do a far better job of it.

"Gwen?" Morgana called. "Was that Arthur?"

"I think so," Gwen said, pressing her hand to her chest to calm her frantic heart. "I have your draught. Just... I need a moment." She hurried to the side room where she'd left her basket. She hadn't had time to hide it properly, so she did it now. She didn't know if he would give the room more than a cursory search, but Arthur had his own skeleton key. He had whole rings full of keys. That was why nowhere in the castle was truly safe.

She hoped that wherever he was, Merlin was safe. She prayed for that.

There was a hard knock on the door. "Morgana!" Arthur called, angrily.

"What on earth?" Morgana said, and slipped out of bed. "Arthur, go away. You're drunk."

"I know he's in there," Arthur shouted back. There was the tinkling sound of keys, and then a crash and a curse as they dropped onto the stone floor. That was not a good sign. Arthur never got drunk. Gwen backed away from the door and stood behind Morgana.

The lock turned and the door swung open. Arthur stomped inside, barging his way past the both of them. "Merlin! I know you're in here!" he called, as he checked behind the curtains and the changing screen.

"How dare you force your way into my private chambers!" Morgana said, outraged.

"I know you're hiding him," Arthur replied. "Don't think I'll fall for the same trick a second time."

"Why would I be hiding Merlin?" Morgana asked. "You said he was resting in your chambers."

"He's gone," Arthur said, as he walked into the side room. To Gwen's relief, he quickly walked out again.

"The poor boy's unwell. Maybe he went to see Gaius. Gwen was just down there. Was Merlin there, Gwen?"

"No, my lady," Gwen said, and swallowed nervously. "I didn't see him."

Morgana turned back to Arthur. "What is all this about? What's wrong with Merlin? I'm quite worried about him, you know. What if he's come down with a fever and is wandering about the castle in a daze? You really ought to take better care of him." She gave a short laugh, the kind she made when she was anxious about something. "I swear, the poor boy's giving me nightmares. Last night, I dreamed that something awful had happened to him. He was screaming your name. Obviously that was because you've been so terribly neglectful of his health of late--"

"I don't have time to hear about your bad dreams, Morgana," Arthur interrupted. He checked under her bed, then gave a resigned huff. "I'm going to check with Gaius. But if I find out that either one of you had anything to do with this..." He glared at Gwen and Morgana in turn, and left his warning unfinished. Somehow that was worse than if he'd actually threatened to arrest them.

Once Arthur was gone, Gwen quickly locked the door again. Even if Arthur could barge in anytime he wanted, it made her feel a little better.

"What was all that about?" Morgana asked, baffled. "Gwen, was it Merlin you went to help? Is that why you were gone so long?"

Gwen looked at Morgana, and couldn't bring herself to lie, to pretend that everything was all right. She nodded. "I'd heard them fighting earlier and I was worried when he wasn't there. Arthur, he... he'd locked Merlin in the side room. It was awful. I had to help him."

"Arthur can be such a beast," Morgana said, angrily. "Where is he now? Is he with Gaius?"

"I don't know," Gwen said, covering her mouth to keep her chin from trembling. "I didn't want to leave him, but I had to get back."

Morgana saw her distress and softened, and drew her into a hug. "Poor Merlin. I would have helped, you know."

"I didn't want you to get in trouble," Gwen whispered. She drew back. "But Merlin's ill. And now he could be anywhere."

"We'll look for him together," Morgana said, resolute. "If he's ill, he can't have gone far. We just have to find him before Arthur does." She grabbed a robe and pulled it on over her nightclothes.

Before they left, Gwen put a hand on Morgana's arm. "Morgana. Thank you. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I just..."

Morgana put her hand over Gwen's. "It's all right. Now come on, Arthur has a head start on us. But there's two of us and one of him, so we can cover twice the ground. He won't stand a chance."

Gwen couldn't help but smile, and Morgana smiled back. They could do this. They could find Merlin and rescue him. Together, they might even find a way to break the torc and free Merlin's magic. There was still hope. Camelot hadn't fallen yet.

Chapter Text

Arthur was beginning to deeply regret having drunk so much wine. It had seemed a good idea at the time. There was no reason to restrain himself. His life was a shambles. Merlin hated him and would probably never forgive him. It didn't matter that Arthur was trying to save him, to save his life and his very soul. Arthur knew that it was his own fault, that he had made the mistake of believing that any sorcerer could be reasoned with, could be made to realize that they were enchanted themselves by the very power they thought they wielded, that it was the magic that wielded them. It fooled them into believing that they needed it, that without it they were incomplete and weak. That was what magic did. That was why it was so insidious.

His mistake had been in allowing the battle to be fought on the enemy's terms. Such an approach always meant certain failure. His love for Merlin had clouded his thoughts, made him vulnerable. That was what love did. His father had been right about that, too. Not for Sophia, never for Sophia, no matter how his heart strangely ached every time their eyes locked. The ache always dissipated when he forced himself to break away, when his true and painful heartbreak flared hot, burning away the enchantment like it was a paltry mist. No enchantment, no deep draught of wine could soothe him, not for more than a brief moment before it all came crashing back again.

He didn't know what to do. He had absolutely no idea what to do. He had nothing: no plans, no options, nothing to fall back on. No one to turn to, no one who would accept what he was trying to achieve. Those who feared magic would follow his father's laws to destroy it, and in doing so, destroy Merlin. Those who welcomed it would resist any attempt to destroy his magic. In trying to save a sorcerer, Arthur had made himself the enemy of both sides.

And Merlin himself was only the start of his troubles. Arthur's political victory, the undermining of the First Code, was undermined itself. Without Merlin by his side, Arthur knew that the knights that had pledged their support would find themselves wavering, doubting the wisdom of that pledge. Worse, they would begin to doubt Arthur himself, his abilities as a leader of men, as a judge of character. If they found out the truth, that Merlin was a sorcerer, they would all turn against him. They would have no loyalty to a King who might himself be enchanted and corrupted, who had fallen in love with a sorcerer. His reign would be over before it had even begun.

And so he drank, each cup a toast to the wreckage of his future. Not that his present was anything to be sober for, either. His father had saddled him with Louvel's son, who was even stuffier than Louvel himself. Arthur hadn't even known that the man had a son. It was hard to believe that Louvel had ever lowered himself to something as base and messy as sex. Perhaps George had been born like one of the Roman gods, asexually and out of Louvel's bathwater.

Drunk, he had returned to his chambers, with George yipping at his heels like a small and uptight dog. He could not let George in, not with Merlin imprisoned in the side room. He'd had to physically force the man out and slam the door in his face. But he hadn't had time to celebrate that small victory, because as soon as he opened the door to check on Merlin, he discovered that the worst had happened: Merlin had escaped.

How was it even possible? True, Arthur had not been as thorough about the ropes as before. But with the restraint on, Merlin should have been too weak to break free of them. And even if he'd managed that much, he would not have his magic to unlock the door. No, someone must have helped him, and the list of possible suspects was very short indeed. Fortunately, two of the three were just down the hall.

His first instinct was that Guinevere had freed Merlin and brought him to Morgana's chambers. No wonder she had been gone for so long during the feast. Morgana had harbored the Druid boy, she would certainly harbor Merlin. Arthur had wasted no time in barging into her chambers and checking every nook and cranny. But if she was harboring Merlin, he was not hidden in her chambers. He had left them with a warning and went to confront the last of the three: Gaius.

And that was where Arthur was now, making his way through the castle and up the stairs to Gaius's chambers, and regretting the way the wine made it hard to focus, hard to think about what to do next. He hated the way it sapped away his self-control, made everything feel dull and sharp all at once. He'd kept drinking anyway, because he didn't want to think, didn't want to focus. He'd wanted to be numb. He'd wanted to forget, to make it all go away, just for a while. He suspected that that was why his father drank. To forget the mistakes he'd made, the people he'd lost. To let the stain of wine obscure the stain of blood.

That was the other reason he hated being drunk. It made him maudlin.

Maybe it wasn't Guinevere. Gaius had left the feast early. He would have had the opportunity to free Merlin as well. When Arthur reached Gaius' door, he didn't knock, but instead fumbled with his keys. He dropped them again, the heavy ring slipping through his fumbling fingers. But when he straightened up, the door was open.

"Sire? Is something wrong?" Gaius asked.

Arthur barged in, and Gaius stepped back just in time to avoid being shoved out of the way. "Is he in here? Are you hiding him? Merlin!"

"I haven't seen Merlin since your visit," Gaius said, as he closed the chamber door. "He wasn't at the feast. Sire, may I ask if something is wrong?"

"Don't you 'sire' me," Arthur grumbled, as he found that the back room lacked Merlin as well. "You know exactly what's wrong."

"I'm afraid I don't," Gaius said, evenly. "From your argument earlier, it appeared that the torcs were working exactly as you specified. Merlin's magic was restrained without any harm to Merlin himself."

"Without any harm?" Arthur said, too astonished to hold his tongue -- though perhaps he could lay most of the blame on the wine. "What do you call him passing out all over the castle?"

Gaius' brow furrowed. "It's happened repeatedly? How long does he remain unconscious?"

Arthur opened his mouth to reply, then shut it. "You're the one who gave me the torcs. Are you telling me you don't know how they work?"

Gaius stiffened. "I am quite aware of how they work. However, Merlin tends to make himself an exception to a great many rules."

Arthur narrowed his eyes. "How are they meant to work, then?"

Gaius stepped closer and lowered his voice, cautious as ever. "As I told you, they prevent a sorcerer from using his magic. For those with a great deal of magic, such a block is quite unpleasant, and for that reason the restraint was only ever meant for temporary use, measured in minutes or hours."

"When you say unpleasant..."

Gaius raised his eyebrow. "It should not cause him to fall unconscious. But as I said, Merlin is an exception."

"What about exhaustion? He barely has any energy with the restraint on. He can only manage an hour, two at most before he's out again. Unless I'm wearing mine..."

"And I see you are not."

Arthur ran his hand back through his hair. "Things escalated. I had to stop him. For his own good, before he did something stupid."

Gaius' expression was shifting from wary to alarmed. "And that something would be more foolish than leaving Merlin on his own in such a condition?"

"Don't blame me. This is all your fault," Arthur accused. "And now he's gone!"

"Gone?"

"Wandering about the castle, for all I know," Arthur said, waving his hands in frustration. "There's no way he escaped on his own. Someone helped him, you or Guinevere or, or--"

"Escaped?" Gaius asked, his eyebrow raising even higher.

"Don't look at me that way," Arthur glared. "He was about to break the law. I had to do something."

"You should have have brought him here," Gaius said, sternly. "Gwen told me last night that Merlin had been ill, but I had no idea of the extent of it. You say he's better when you wear your torc?"

Arthur nodded.

"Then quickly, put it back on," Gaius urged.

"I can't," Arthur said, feeling mildly ashamed. "After I took it off, I... I brought it down to the vaults."

"Foolish boy," Gaius said, and somehow it was enough to make Arthur feel like a small child, caught with broken glass all around him on the floor because he'd been playing with Gaius' colorful bottles again. "If you weren't so drunk you'd know exactly where he's gone."

It only took a moment. "The Sidhe," Arthur sighed. Of course Merlin would have gone there, no matter who had broken him out. Merlin was too single-minded to do anything as sensible as running away.

"There's no time to waste. Give me the key to the vault and I'll retrieve your torc. If we're lucky, you'll be able to extract him from whatever trouble he's got himself into. At least you still have your sword..." Gaius trailed off as he looked down at Arthur's side, and when he looked up again, he looked genuinely angry. Arthur couldn't remember Gaius ever looking truly angry before. "I expect that is also down in the vaults."

"I don't need an enchanted sword to protect this kingdom," Arthur hissed. His normal sword was quite sufficient. Simple, reliable steel. Arthur didn't need to be able to cut through stone, just flesh and bone.

"At this rate, soon you will no longer have a kingdom to protect," Gaius said, sharply. "Go. And hope it's not too late for all of us."

Arthur reluctantly handed over the key to the vaults, then stomped out of the room. Gaius was on his heels for only a few moments before their paths diverged in opposite directions. Arthur quickened his pace and then broke into a run.

When he reached the hallway to the Sidhe's guest chambers, he was relieved to find Leon and Alynor.

"Sire," Leon said, alarmed by Arthur's near-frantic state. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes," Arthur began, then faltered. Leon could not know the truth about Merlin, or all of this would be for naught. "No. That is, possibly. I need your report, immediately."

"Of course, sire," Leon said, glanced at Alynor in confusion. "Sir Alynor just finished giving me his. As you saw, neither Aulfric nor Sophia acted suspiciously during the feast."

"What about Sir Drudwas?" Arthur asked, turning to Alynor. "He wasn't at the feast. Did he remain here?"

"No, sire," Alynor said. "Sir Drudwas left with the others. I assumed he'd be at the feast all evening as well, but he returned early. Just after Gwen stopped by."

Arthur stilled. "Guinevere was here?"

"Twice, sire," Alynor explained. "Once towards the end of the feast, and then again quite recently."

"Was she alone?" Arthur pressed. "Was anyone with her? Was Merlin with her?"

"No, sire."

Arthur was certain now. Guinevere had freed Merlin, and she had likely helped him distract Alynor so Merlin could gain access to the Sidhe's chambers. "The first time she was here. You say Sir Drudwas arrived soon after?"

"Gwen was actually still here when he arrived," Alynor said, remembering. "But she left almost immediately after. She seemed in quite a hurry."

Arthur wanted to hit his forehead against the wall. "Come with me," he said instead, and took on the most officious posture and expression as he could. He knocked loudly on the door to the Sidhe's suite.

There was a long pause, and Arthur knocked a second time before the door opened, revealing Sophia. Arthur steeled himself, but when he met her eyes, the strange heartache mysteriously failed to grip him.

"Arthur," Sophia said, her voice as soft and sweet as ever. "What a pleasant surprise."

Even though he knew she was a Sidhe, and therefore some sort of inhuman, magical being, Arthur couldn't help but see her as the noble lady that she appeared to be. "You must excuse my manners," he said, softening. "But I must insist that you allow us in to search your chambers. An intruder was seen entering it earlier tonight, and it's likely that he's hiding inside."

"An intruder?" Sophia said, breathily alarmed. "How awful! Of course, please enter."

"Search everywhere," Arthur ordered, as he and the knights walked in. Arthur searched along with them. The two servants from the feast were there, but Aulfric and Sir Drudwas were not. Which was odd, since Leon and Alynor surely would have mentioned their leaving.

"Nothing, sire," Leon reported, and Alynor said the same.

"Go wait in the hall," Arthur told them. He wanted to speak to Sophia privately.

"It seems you will have to search for your intruder elsewhere," Sophia said.

"Sophia, where are your father and Sir Drudwas?" Arthur was certain they must have caught Merlin and taken him somewhere.

"They had to go home," Sophia said, still smiling. Her grip was firm on her staff. Arthur eyed it warily, suddenly feeling extremely unprotected despite his trusted, un-magical sword.

"Home? You mean they're headed back to Caerleon?"

Sophia gave a tinkling laugh. "I believe we're past the need for such pretense. Though I have enjoyed it. I see why she chose you, Arthur Pendragon. Your soul would buy many things."

There was a quiet menace in her tone, one that Arthur had never heard in Sophia before. The fog of alcohol was at last clearing from his head, and he suddenly knew that Merlin was right. That Sophia and Aulfric were dead, and whoever these people were, their appearance was a lie, an enchantment.

"Where is he?" Arthur said, matching her menace with his own. "Where's Merlin?"

"Such a sweet name, Merlin," Sophia said. "We were rather curious, you know, when someone used magic to save your life. It takes a great deal of magic to kill a Sidhe. Why should Camelot suddenly hold such strength, when it had made itself so conveniently weak?" She shifted her grip on her staff, a subtle warning to match the grip that Arthur held on his sword hilt. "Some of us wondered if Uther had at last come to his senses, but of course it was you. You and your pet sorcerer. It was so kind of you to geld him for us. It made things so much easier."

The knot of dread that had formed in Arthur's gut swelled into a monstrous tangle. "Where. Is. Merlin?" he demanded, low and quiet and deadly.

Sophia -- or whoever she was -- turned and walked to a table, and opened a small, ornamental box. She took something from it and brought it to him. "As a warrior, his soul belongs to Avalon. But I'm certain he would have wanted you to have this. He called so desperately for you, before the end."

It took Arthur a moment to understand what he was looking at, and when he did, he staggered back in horror. It was Merlin's favor, the red cloth torn and bloodied.

"No," he gasped, suddenly numb with shock. The cloth seemed so small and fragile in his hand. He gripped it tightly. "No!"

She smiled sweetly at him.

The blood was freshly dry, still slightly tacky to the touch. Merlin was gone, was dead, and Arthur had only missed him by a matter of minutes. "His body. Where...?"

"It's quite gone," she said. "Now if you please, it's improper for you to intrude upon a lady's chambers." She tilted her staff ever so slightly towards him, and her eyes flashed red.

The next thing Arthur knew, he was standing out in the hall, and the door to the suite was shut. He could not remember leaving it, and the thought of returning made something in him rebel.

"Sire?" Leon said. He and Alynor were standing in front of Arthur and looking at him with concern. "Sire, are you all right?"

"I'm..." Arthur began, and stopped. He couldn't... He couldn't. "You're dismissed," he said, his voice suddenly tight, so tight he could barely speak.

Merlin was...

Merlin...

Arthur walked away in a daze, gripping the scrap of cloth in his fist. His heart, his very being rebelled against its meaning. It should be whole and knotted around Merlin's arm, where it belonged. Where it meant that Merlin was his, his knight, and sworn to return to his King whole and hale. Once Arthur had tied it around his arm, Merlin never took it off, not for anything.

Somehow Arthur ended up back at Gaius' door. He stood in front of it, staring blankly at the wood, but didn't open it. If he didn't open it, Merlin might still be inside. He would be pouting and angry and shout at Arthur for being a clotpole, or some other absurd word he'd made up for the express purpose of insulting Arthur with it. He would still have his magic. But he would be alive.

Voices startled him. Instinctively, he stepped away and into the shadows. The voices grew louder and clearer as they floated up the stairs. It was Morgana and Guinevere.

"...that if he was here, I would have seen him," Guinevere was saying. She sounded reluctant, wary.

"Gaius knows Merlin better than anyone," Morgana said, with her usual certainty. "I don't know why you didn't ask him for help in the first place."

Guinevere had no answer to that. The part of Arthur's mind that was still functioning, that was always working over problems and alert for danger, supplied it for her: she didn't turn to Gaius because she'd somehow discovered that he was helping to stop Merlin's magic. That part of Arthur's mind also realized that Morgana didn't know the truth. She couldn't know. She mustn't.

"Arthur!" Morgana said, startled by Arthur's sudden presence as he stepped out of the shadows. She pressed her hand to her chest. "You shouldn't lurk in the shadows like that. You'll frighten some poor chambermaid to death."

"You shouldn't be here," Arthur said, his voice a rasp of grief.

"I have every right to be wherever I want to be," Morgana insisted. "Besides, I need to talk to Gaius about my sleeping draughts."

"Gaius isn't here."

"Gwen and I can wait until he returns. Isn't that right, Gwen?"

Guinevere kept her distance from Arthur, standing so that Morgana was just barely between the two of them. "Yes, my lady," she said, looking nervously at the door and the stairs.

Morgana gave a toss of her hair and opened the door. She strode inside, and Guinevere was fast at her heels. Arthur followed them, his motions automatic.

Morgana continued her nattering. "I felt so much better today, I can't begin to tell you. I must finally be adjusting to the new draughts. But I woke up with such an awful dream last night, so obviously there's a problem with the new draught like there was with the old one. That's the one you were so rude about, by the way. Poor Merlin. It was so awful. I don't think I'll ever be able to forget the way he screamed your name. The last thing I want to is to have to go through-- Arthur! You're hurting me!"

Arthur looked down and saw that he had grabbed Morgana's wrist, and that he was holding it with bruising force. She tried to pull away but his hand wouldn't let go.

"What's got into you tonight?" Morgana scowled. "You've gone completely mad. I'll have to tell George to keep you away from the wine."

"Your nightmare," Arthur's mouth said, as the rest of him watched on with dawning horror. "Tell me."

"What, now?" Morgana gave a nervous laugh. "You've never wanted to hear them before. All you ever do is mock me and tell me to go back to bed."

"Sophia. You knew about Sophia." She'd warned him, hadn't she? She'd had a dream, a nightmare that Sophia wasn't what she seemed. All the things he had done his best to ignore were now making themselves painfully evident. "And the Questing Beast. You knew what it would do to me." Another nightmare screamed to him in a blind panic. And she had dreamed about Merlin.

"Arthur, let go," Morgana said, and he could see the sudden fear in her eyes.

"Tell me," Arthur ordered.

"I... It was nothing," Morgana said, her cockiness gone. "Just a bad dream. That's what Gwen said it was, didn't you, Gwen?"

"A bad dream, yes," Guinevere said. But Arthur could see the fear in her, could see her tensing like a cornered beast.

With his free hand, Arthur drew out his sword. Guinevere and Morgana stiffened, with identical gasps of shock.

"You have magic," Arthur said, the words coming involuntarily to his tongue. He spat them out, rejecting them, even as he knew they could not be denied.

Morgana paled. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them painfully wide. "No, Arthur, no--!"

"Sire!" Guinevere cried, reaching out.

"No!" A sudden yell shocked them, and they turned to see Gaius rushing towards them. Despite the weakness of his age and the bundle in his arms, he managed to fling himself between Arthur and Morgana and break Arthur's hold. "That is enough! That is quite enough! Gwen, close the door. Now."

Guinevere gaped at him, then hurried to obey.

"Was he there?" Gaius asked, staring Arthur directly in the eye. "Merlin. Was he there?"

Arthur shook his head. "Sophia... Sophia said he was..." He looked at his empty hand, and then down at the floor, to where the red cloth had fallen. Where he'd dropped it when he grabbed Morgana.

Gaius picked it up and held it out. "What is this?"

"Merlin's," Arthur said, emotion surging up, breaking through the numbness that protected him. "He's..." He couldn't finish the sentence, couldn't say it aloud. His eyes stung, and when he blinked, tears weighed on his lashes.

"No," Guinevere gasped, covering her hands with her mouth. "It's too late."

"Gwen?" Morgana said, confused. "It was just a dream. You said it was just a dream."

"You knew," Arthur accused, turning on Guinevere, on Morgana. "You both knew. You knew he was going to die!"

Guinevere sobbed and stepped backwards until she was pressed against a worktable.

"It was just a dream," Morgana whispered. "Gaius, tell them it was just a dream."

Gaius turned to her, his face lined with sorrow. "Morgana, my child..."

He reached for her, but she flinched away, stepped back from all of them. She stared at Gaius and Guinevere, eyes filled with betrayal and denial and panic. "You told me they were just dreams!"

To Arthur's horror, her eyes flashed with golden light, and the candles suddenly flared high. It was just like Sophia, just like Merlin all over again.

Guinevere acted first. She grabbed the nearest bucket and wrenched the candles from their holders, plunging them into the water, where they extinguished with a hiss. Arthur stared at her, and then flinched as Gaius took hold of the sword, grabbing it by the cross-guard. They stared at each other until Arthur's hand opened, allowing Gaius to take the sword. What little was left of Arthur beneath the shock and horror was relieved to let it go.

"Morgana," Gaius said, turning to her with a gentle tone. "It's all right. I won't let him hurt you."

"You lied to me," Morgana said, her voice small and hurt, like a child.

"I'm sorry," Gaius said. "But it was to protect you."

The room went dim, and then dark as Guinevere dropped the last flaring candle into the bucket. There was silence, broken only by Guinevere's rushed breathing and the thump and slosh of the bucket as it hit the ground.

"That's enough," Guinevere said, her voice ragged and pained. "All of you. It doesn't matter anymore. If Merlin's gone, nothing matters." She stood in profile against the moonlight, her eyes closed, her cheeks wet with tears.

"Merlin?" Morgana asked, her voice trembling. "Why...?"

"Because he had magic," Guinevere said. "He used it to save us. To save all of us, over and over again." She opened her eyes, and when they turned to Arthur, even in the dark they blazed with accusation. "You can arrest me now. Arrest all of us. Burn us. It won't matter. You'll burn too, when they come. Everyone will. Even the stones." Her voice broke, and she turned away, sat on a bench and began to softly cry.

There was the quiet strike of a flint, and then a small light flared. Gaius had lit a candle, but its flame remained calm.

"Merlin has magic?" Morgana said, and to everyone's surprise she began to smile, and then laughed. "Merlin?" She laughed again, a bark tapering into giggles, and then she sat down heavily on a bench, her back to Guinevere. But her giggles quickly faded, as did her smile. "He's dead? He's really... he's really dead?"

"You should know," Arthur said, bitterly. "You saw it in your dreams. You knew what would happen. You should have told me!"

"I did tell you," Morgana snarled. "And you did what you always do. You ignore whatever you don't want to hear."

"It was too late!" Arthur growled back. "He would be safe in my chambers right now if Guinevere hadn't broken him out!"

"Safe? From what Gwen said, you were treating him like a prisoner!"

"That's what he was!"

There was a long silence.

"And now what?" Morgana asked. "Are you going to arrest us? Will you light the pyres yourself?" An awful realization came over her, and she turned to Gaius. "The monsters. Does this mean the monsters I saw are real?"

"I'm afraid so," Gaius said, solemnly. He walked slowly over to a cupboard and pulled out fresh candles. "Without Merlin, it may indeed be too late for all of us."

"There has to be something we can do!"

"I'll stop them," Arthur said, forcing resolve into his voice. "Camelot's army will stop them."

"Then you will make widows of their wives," Morgana said, with an eerie tone, as if something else was speaking with her, through her. Her magic, sharing her voice as Merlin's magic had shared his. "Orphans of their children. Until they burn as well. I saw it, Arthur. I saw them die. I saw you die." She shuddered and looked as if she might be sick. "What chance will they stand against an army of flying monsters? Against magic?"

Arthur saw the enchanted sword, resting on the table with Merlin's grimoire, the Sidhe staff, the gold torc. Gaius had brought it all back from the vaults. He stood and took the sword. "I can stop them with this," he said, holding it up in defiance.

"One man against an army?" Morgana replied, dubious. "One sword won't be enough."

"You have magic," Arthur said, and knew that he was far gone if he was actually asking Morgana to use her magic to save them.

"I have nightmares. What good can they do us now?"

"You lit the candles!"

"I don't know how!" Morgana said, a quiver of fear in her voice. "I don't. It just happened." She shook her head. "I don't want this. I never wanted any of this!"

Arthur couldn't help but think of Merlin, of him saying that he'd been born with his magic. "How long?"

"I don't know," Morgana said, looking away. "Maybe... five years. I don't..."

Arthur sat down. Morgana had had magic for five years. Was it too late for her as well? Merlin, Morgana, Guinevere, Gaius. Magic ran through the kingdom like a plague, and it seemed no one was safe from it. Would he wake one day and be able to light candles with his thoughts?

"Guinevere? Gaius? What about you?"

"I no longer practice magic, sire," Gaius said. "And when I did, I had very little. As for Gwen, she has none at all. Why would you think otherwise?"

"Her father," Arthur protested. "She saved his life."

"Merlin saved him," Guinevere said, quietly. "I was innocent, just as my father was."

"You don't have magic?" Arthur said, surprised. "But... then how did you recognize Merlin's torc?"

Guinevere drew herself up. "Because I worship the Old Religion," she said, boldly but with a tremble she could not suppress. "I know that will earn me the same punishment as any sorcerer. If you are determined to arrest us, then I will not let Morgana die alone." She walked around the table and stood between Morgana and Arthur, her hands clenched into fists.

"Gwen," Morgana said, softly.

"I'm sorry, my lady," Guinevere said. "I'm sorry I lied to you."

"The King cannot find out," Gaius insisted.

"Arthur won't say anything," Morgana said, her strength coming back to her. "Will you, Arthur? You're as guilty as the rest of us. And even if you're fool enough to try, who do you think Uther will believe? It will be your word against mine."

"Fine," Arthur said, and sheathed the enchanted sword back into his belt. He knew he should be afraid, he knew he should treat Morgana the same way he had treated Merlin. He should arrest her and force her to give up her magic, for her own sake. But his attempts to save Merlin had been worse than a failure. And if Morgana's nightmares were truly prophetic, Camelot would be cleansed of all its magic soon enough.

Guinevere was right. Without Merlin, they were helpless. Without Merlin, nothing mattered. All his plans, all his hopes, everything he wanted their future to become. Whether or not the monsters came, none of it mattered now.

"Gwen, do you have the draught that Gaius made for me?" Morgana asked.

Guinevere took it from her pocket and handed it to her. Morgana held up the little bottle and stared at the liquid within.

"Five years," she said. "For five years, I've taken your draughts. What happens if I stop?"

"You'll remember your nightmares," Gaius said, with quiet reluctance. "There may be other manifestations of your powers. The candles, for example. Waking visions. Without the draughts, your magic will begin to manifest itself fully."

Morgana held out the draught, offering it to him. "Then I no longer have need of them."

"Morgana," Gaius said, worriedly, "I must caution you. You have no training, no ability to control your magic--"

"And whose fault is that?" Morgana said, her anger returning. "You lied to me. All of you. Gwen, even Merlin. I thought I was alone. I thought I was going mad." When Gaius still refused to take the draught, she threw it into the cold hearth, the glass smashing against the stone. "If we die tomorrow, at least I will die a free woman."

With that as her final flourish, Morgana turned on her heels and left. Gwen started to go after her, but faltered, stopped. She turned to Gaius with tearful eyes.

"Go," Gaius said.

It was enough. Gwen ran from the room, her calls for Morgana echoing as she hurried down the stairs.

"Now what?" Arthur asked, turning to Gaius because he had no other options.

"Do you have any evidence of the Sidhe's true nature?" Gaius asked. There was little sympathy in him, but little was better than none at all.

Arthur shook his head. He'd tried to show his father the truth and failed. If he tried again without anything new to support his claim, it would only make his father dig his heels in deeper.

"Then there's nothing we can do," Gaius said.

"I can't accept that. There has to be a way. There has to be something..."

"Anything?"

Arthur nodded. He could not let Camelot fall. Such a thing was beyond his comprehension. He would give his life for Camelot gladly, if the sacrifice was necessary. He had done so before, to end the famine of the unicorn.

"Anything?" Gaius prompted again. "Even magic?"

"I..." Arthur trailed off. He had admitted as much, when he'd asked Morgana to help them. "If it would save the kingdom. Yes, even magic."

"You stupid boy," Gaius said, turning his back on him. "You stupid, foolish boy."

The insult rankled. "This is not my fault," Arthur protested.

"It is very much your fault, sire," Gaius spat. "I warned Merlin not to tell you of his magic because I feared you would be the very spit of your father. You have proven my worst fears correct, and now this kingdom is doomed."

"Everything I have ever done has been to protect Camelot!" Arthur said, angrily. "The only exception to that has been Merlin. I was trying to save him!"

"He did not need to be saved," Gaius said. "As I am certain he told you repeatedly. You chose not to listen."

"You gave me the torcs!"

"What was the alternative? I knew I could not reach you. My hope was that Merlin could, as you claimed to love him. But love without understanding is no love at all."

Arthur stepped forward, towering over Gaius in his fury. "Don't you dare tell me what I feel."

Gaius glared right back at him, without even a flinch. "I would have given my life for that boy. I loved him like a son. I have done everything I could to protect him, and especially to protect him from you."

Arthur hissed in frustration and turned away. But Gaius went after him, and picked up the sheaf of notes from the table.

"He told you all of this, and you wrote it down as if you believed it. Did you even try to understand it?"

"Of course I did."

"And?"

"And what?" Arthur asked, rounding on Gaius with a bitter laugh. "He's a sorcerer. Was. A sorcerer. How could I know what was him and what was the magic? How could I be certain that any of it was true?"

"Because Merlin was magic," Gaius said, with utter belief. "That was what he was. I regret that he was kept in ignorance, but we believed that it was necessary. Everything here, everything he knew by instinct, that is the truth." Grief gripped him, and he sat down, his anger damped. "There are things that I am sworn never to speak of. I cannot break those oaths, not even now."

"We might all die tomorrow."

"And we may not," Gaius said. "But as Merlin has already broached one particular topic, I will answer your question."

"My question?"

"If magic was always evil. It was not. You were correct in your assumption. However, there came a time when there were too many who used magic for selfish purposes and dark ends. Such actions threatened all of Albion. There were those who believed that a purge was necessary. That it would cleanse the Old Religion. I was one of them."

"Then my father was right?" Somehow it was a shock to hear it confirmed, after Merlin's fervent protests.

"In a way," Gaius said. "But once kindled, Uther's rage burned too bright. The deaths of those who abused magic were not enough to quench it."

Arthur stared at him. "Are you telling me... Are you saying..." He could not bring himself to say the words, could barely even stand to think them. "If that's true, then why? Why would you stay here? Why help him?"

"I made a promise to your mother," Gaius said. "That is all I can say."

"I need more than that," Arthur demanded.

"It is enough for one night. If we survive another day, you may learn more. Now if you'll excuse me, I prefer to mourn alone."

Gaius gathered up the magical objects from the table and handed them to Arthur. Arthur took them, and saw that Gaius was trembling. With anger, yes, but also with grief that was barely contained. It was the mirror of the grief in Arthur's own heart, that burned and blackened it from within, like the worst corruption.

Arthur didn't want to be alone with his grief, because he knew it would destroy him. Perhaps not all at once, but with enough time. With enough time -- if he had any time at all -- he truly would become the very spit and image of his father.

But alone was what he was, now. And perhaps that was what he deserved to be. It Camelot was destroyed tonight, for himself it would be a mercy. But the innocents that would die...

The innocents. The blood on his hands. It was too much to accept. Too much for one night.

He took what he was given, and he left.

Chapter Text

Arthur was accustomed to death. As much as he hated it and fought against it with all his will, he had learned to inure himself to it, to use his grief to drive him on. Geraint had died on the way to Gedref, and Arthur had not let his death be in vain. Owain and Pellinore had been killed by the Black Knight, and their sacrifices had driven Arthur to lay down his own challenge. His mother had died to give him life, and Arthur had devoted his life to Camelot to repay that debt.

Yet he could not accept that Merlin was gone. How could he accept it when he been denied the chance to see the truth with his own eyes, to touch Merlin's still chest, to kiss his cold lips goodbye? And yet the bloodied favor in his hand, the false Sophia's cruel smile: alone either would not have been enough to convince him, but together they were cruelly definitive.

Terrible grief swelled in him again, and his shame at his own tears finally forced him to stop, lest he stumble on the stairs. He leaned against the wall, his throat strangled tight as he struggled not to sob. He remembered crying in Merlin's arms, salved by Merlin's love and his forgiveness, and knew that nothing could salve this grief. A blade of sorrow had struck deep into his chest, like his sword into solid stone, and it would drag its way through his heart unimpeded.

He dragged in a painful breath and it caught into a sob. He pressed his hand over his mouth to silence himself and squeezed his eyes tight against his tears. He couldn't lose control like this. He'd been taught his whole life to not let his emotions rule him, to be strong against the weaknesses of his heart. A prince, a knight, a king: none of these could afford to be weak. None of them could afford to love, because this was the cost of love. Merlin had been wrong. Love did not save; it destroyed. It had destroyed him, just as it had destroyed his father. That he was still breathing, that his blood still moved in his veins: these were inconsequential.

But destroyed or not, he could not afford to give up. His father had lost his mother, and he had not given up. Pendragons did not give up. Pendragons did what was necessary to survive, and to ensure that those under their protection survived. They stopped their tears and put one foot in front of the other until they were walking again.

When he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped, listened. Someone was crying. He stepped into the hall and saw that it was Guinevere. She was sitting on the floor, her back against Morgana's door, and when she saw him she turned away.

It would be less trouble for Arthur if he turned away as well, locked himself in his chambers and wallowed in his grief in private. He doubted Guinevere wanted anything to do with him, and he wanted little to do with her right now. Merlin's death was her fault as much as it was Arthur's. If she had not freed him, Merlin would be safe in Arthur's chambers. He would be furious and maybe he would hate Arthur too much to ever forgive him, but he would be alive.

But the revelations of the evening plagued him. He had misjudged Guinevere, accusing her of sorcery when she was innocent of it. If Arthur had voiced that accusation to anyone else, Guinevere's death would have been on his hands. And if she was innocent, if her father was innocent... If Gaius had been truthful about his father and magic...

He walked towards Guinevere, and she quickly stood, wiping the tears from her face with her sleeve. Her back was stiff with defiance, and in her eyes were wariness and anger. She stepped away as he approached, but when he reached where she had been, instead of pursuing, he knocked on the door.

"Morgana?" he called. When there was no answer, he tried the door. It was locked, of course, and on instinct, he reached for his keys.

"Don't," Guinevere said.

Arthur turned to her, ready to argue that Morgana shouldn't be alone, that with her magic so wild, she was a danger to herself and to everyone else in the castle. But in Guinevere's eyes, he saw the same defiance that he had seen in Merlin, when they had argued about how to deal with the Sidhe.

"She doesn't need us," Guinevere said, sad but certain. "Not now. It has to be her decision, and we've decided too much for her already."

Arthur could not argue against the wisdom of that. He nodded, and she relaxed slightly, seeing that he was not an immediate threat. She looked at the magical contraband that he was holding under his arm, then up and down the hall.

"If the guards see all of that, they may not arrest you, but it will still be reported to the King."

Arthur nodded again, but all he could think of was how he should be the one warning Merlin about being careful, about the dangers of being seen. When he continued to stand there, frozen by grief and guilt, Guinevere took action instead, giving him a respectful but firm push towards his chambers. When they reached his door, she looked at him expectantly until he opened the door and walked inside.

His chambers were just as he had left them. His previous outfit was still draped over the back of a chair, because Merlin was not there to throw them into the pile in the corner. The curtains were already closed because the ties were still abandoned on the floor of the side room, next to Merlin's empty bed.

Guinevere closed the door while he lay the magical objects on the table. "We need somewhere to hide it."

"Use the chest," Arthur said, waving his hand in its direction.

Guinevere gave an apologetic look. "Somewhere besides that. Merlin, um, he insisted we open it, and we didn't have a key."

Arthur looked at the chest and realized that it had been forced, the wood by the lock cracked and splintered. Merlin must have been looking for the gold torc, or even his grimoire. Arthur almost regretted that he had taken them down to the vaults. If he had left them there, Merlin and Guinevere might have been able to release the restraint, and Merlin might have been able to fight back against the Sidhe.

"You knew," Arthur said, staring at the broken lock. "What you said before. Did he tell you?"

"No," Guinevere said. "He confessed to saving my father from the plague. I had no reason to believe your excuse."

Of course. It had been a desperate lie, weaved in the face of Merlin's arrest and execution. He had not had time to consider consequences beyond the saving of Merlin's life. But it meant that she had known the truth for over a year. She had known and said nothing, even after Merlin had become Arthur's lover. Even when she had brought Linette to him, desperate to save her husband from the pyre.

"Are there many like you?" Arthur asked, turning to her at last. "Worshippers of the Old Religion?" How many times had he led raids against the Old Religion, at his father's command? How many books and scrolls and wooden carvings had he burned? How many had been arrested and executed for their beliefs? "Why do you worship?"

Guinevere paused before she spoke. "When my mother was dying, I was so angry. I cursed the gods for making her ill. But she said that to turn my back on the gods was the same as refusing to eat or sleep. That they are part of us, and we of them."

"But you have no magic."

"I don't pray for magic," Guinevere said, seemingly offended by the idea. "I pray for my friends and for what is left of my family. I pray for Camelot. I pray that the gods will be merciful to us even though so many have turned away." The last was obviously aimed at Arthur, though she had the tact not to say it directly.

"What happens if they aren't merciful?" Arthur asked. He wasn't even certain he accepted that the gods of the Old Religion were real, but their favor certainly seemed important to both Merlin and Guinevere. Were they a dangerous force to be appeased, like Kanen's raiders? And if they were so powerful, why had they done nothing to protect their followers from persecution?

"I don't know," Guinevere admitted. "But I fear we are about to find out. Without Merlin..." She turned away, leaving the rest unsaid.

There was an uncomfortable silence. Arthur felt keenly the distances between them, even greater than those between himself and Merlin. How could he begin to close them? She had noticeably avoided answering his question about others in Camelot who shared her faith. But just as Merlin knew of other sorcerers, surely Guinevere knew of other worshippers. Those who had avoided Arthur's own grasp, when he had been put on the hunt. He riled at the thought. Was he no better than a dog, seeking blindly after a scent because his master commanded it?

"My father says the Old Religion is corrupted beyond hope," Arthur began, keeping any hint of accusation from his voice. "That all who even dare to pray are in danger of losing their souls and becoming evil. Merlin gave up his magic in order to convince me that my father is wrong."

"And if he is?" Guinevere asked, turning back to him. "If the King is wrong?"

It was Idriys all over again. If his father was wrong, then either he had been deceived himself, or he was lying intentionally. Neither option sat well with Arthur, but he could no longer deny them. Was the entire idea of corruption mere propaganda? No, Gaius had contradicted that himself. He claimed that the Purge had been necessary to cleanse some kind of corruption from the Old Religion, but that it had all gone too far. That his father had gone too far.

Arthur tried one last time to deny it all, to dismiss Gaius as corrupted himself, or lying to protect Merlin. But the thread was too fragile and it broke the moment it was touched. Gaius' grief was too genuine for lies. And while one might be an exception, four was not. He was surrounded by sorcerers and believers, had unknowingly lived with them all his life, and they were not evil.

They were not evil. It was a relief and a heartbreak all at once.

"What do I do?" he asked.

Guinevere did not jump in delight, or even smile at his conversion. "I don't know, my lord. If we live to see the morning, ask me again."

Guinevere looked as weary as he felt, and they were both grieving. It was too late to send her out of the castle, and he could not send her back to Morgana. "Stay with me tonight," he said, and held up a hand when her eyes widened. "I mean nothing improper, I swear. But it's late, and... that is..."

Thankfully, Guinevere understood. "Thank you, sire. Arthur. I don't want to leave her alone."

Arthur nodded. It was the least he could do, so she would not have to sit on the cold stone floor all night.

At last he turned to the magical objects on the table. Lacking the chest, he would have to resort to carrying what he could. His sword was easy enough, and he slipped the ring back into his pocket. He picked up the gold torc and stared at it. It had been bane and boon to him over the past few days, but now it was useless again. Without Merlin, it was nothing but a decoration. And yet now it might be all of Merlin that he had left. That and a lifetime's worth of kerchiefs.

The thought made him crack the smallest of smiles, but that only brought him close to tears again. What would he do without Merlin to make him smile? To tease him out of his moods? What would he do with a cold bed and an empty chair beside him? He turned away, discreetly wiping at his eyes. He covered the motion by tucking the torc into his waistband.

When he turned back again, Guinevere was stealing a glance at the grimoire and Arthur's notes on magic. She quickly looked away again, fixing her eyes on far wall.

Arthur considered the book and papers between them. He wanted to believe that, had Merlin not been lost, he still would have been merciful to Guinevere and Morgana. He had not wanted to arrest Guinevere for using magic to save her father's life, or Morgana for helping the Druid boy, but each time it was all too public to do otherwise. Instead, he had tried to talk sense into his father and failed, just as he had with Linette. How many of those that he had arrested over the years had been contaminated by dark magic? Any of them? What about those he had fought and killed? Palaemon and the Sidhe were magical and a clear threat, and yet neither Gaius nor Merlin had accused them of using dark magic.

A picture was forming for Arthur, and it was resolving into something unspeakable. If Gaius was right and dark magic was all but gone from the land, Arthur had questions that needed answers. Why had his father turned against the Old Religion? Why had he begun the Great Purge? Why did he refuse to end it? But just as Gaius had said, such questions would have to wait until morning to be asked, and they might not be answered easily. But there were other questions, too.

"Guinevere," Arthur began, carefully. "Would you be willing... I know it's a lot to ask, but... would you consider teaching me about the Old Religion? Merlin tried, before, but I wasn't... I wasn't ready, then."

Guinevere looked at him, really looked at him. She was understandably wary. But he asked in genuine supplication, and she saw that truth in his eyes. "I'd like that," she said with a small smile.

Arthur gave a small smile back, but he sobered again. "I'm sorry. For your father. For what you've suffered. I know that I can't..."

Guinevere stepped forward and rested a hand on his arm; it was a daring action for a servant to take, but right now he could only be grateful for the small comfort. "It's what Merlin would have wanted. And if we survive, you'll still have the chance to be the king Camelot needs. You can make this a fair and just kingdom. For Merlin."

Arthur swallowed, his throat suddenly tight. "For Merlin."

§

Guinevere retired to the side room to sleep, but Arthur could not rest. He ended up at his window, staring down the courtyard while he tried to make sense of his life. It had begun to rain and the weather suited his mood. When that failed, he wandered around his chambers, and ended up kneeling on the floor in front of his broken chest, a bundle of letters in his hands.

The letters had been Merlin's last request, written while he waited for Arthur to return and execute him for the crime of sorcery. Merlin had wanted only to say goodbye, and had begged Arthur to promise not to open them. To only read the letter intended for him, and only if the worst happened.

The worst had happened.

Arthur swallowed as he carefully pulled apart the tight knot in the ribbon. He lay out the sealed letters on the floor and read the names on them: Arthur, Gaius, Gwen, Hunith, Merek, and Morgana.

Six letters. Six people that Merlin needed to say goodbye to. Who knew what secrets were held within these letters? What could Merlin have to say to Merek? The temptation to open them all himself was great. No one else knew the letters even existed. But he had made a promise to Merlin, and he would not break it. Even though he had already broken the most important promise: to keep Merlin safe, to protect him, no matter what.

He picked up the letter with his name on it and turned it over. He traced along the wax seal, remembering the curl of Merlin's slim fingers around the wooden stamp. As long as he didn't break that seal, he could pretend that Merlin was alive. That he had just stepped out on some chore or errand, and that at any moment he would blithely walk in and roll his eyes at Arthur for worrying himself into a state.

But Arthur had never been very good at pretending.

He broke the seal.

It was too dim to read by the chest, so he brought all the letters to his desk, where he'd left a few candles burning. He sat down, put the other letters aside, and opened his.

'Arthur,' the letter began. Merlin's handwriting was neat and careful, as if each letter was written individually and with great care. Arthur had always imagined that paper and ink were rare resources in Ealdor, and that Hunith had taught Merlin not to be wasteful with it. Arthur was going to have to deliver Hunith's letter himself, and he dreaded seeing her kind face crumple with grief. But he could not be a coward and have it brought to her by some anonymous messenger. He owed Merlin more than that. Far more.

'If you are reading this, then I have failed you and failed our destiny. You must not blame yourself. Whatever my fate, I believe that you did what you thought was right.

One day you will be a great king. Be kind to your people. All of them. Please don't grieve for me.

It was an honor to be your servant.

I love you. I'm sorry.

Merlin'

Tears dropped onto the paper, and Arthur quickly moved it away before any could fall upon the ink. He tried to wipe away his tears with his sleeve, but he couldn't keep his eyes dry, and soon both his sleeves were damp.

He didn't deserve forgiveness. He hadn't deserved it when Merlin wrote the letter, and he didn't deserve it now. He hadn't deserved it since he drew his first breath and his mother drew her last. But Merlin had given it anyway. Of course he had.

Selfless magical bastard.

Arthur covered his mouth and swallowed back his sobs. He didn't want Guinevere to hear him, didn't want her pity. How could he do as Merlin asked and not grieve for him? It was an impossible request. His chest felt full of knives, cutting him apart from the inside.

Merlin was gone. Merlin was... he was really gone. His blue and golden eyes and his foolishness and the soft nape of his neck, and the way his hair curled after he'd been caught in the rain. Merlin would never kiss him again, never be kissed, never blush or laugh or smile knowingly at him. He would never trip clumsily or swing a sword with strange grace, would never have fingers stained green from grinding herbs, or come back from the stables with hay in his hair and up his sleeves.

In the forests of Gedref, when he had found Merlin's sword, Arthur had gone mad with grief. But this was worse, far worse. He was sober with grief. He could see all his mistakes with painful clarity and knew that they could not be undone. That what was lost was lost forever, and all his plans, all the futures he'd imagined and dreamed for them, they were all dust, like ashes swept into the courtyard gutters.

He wanted Merlin to blame him. He wanted Merlin to be furious, to yell at him to not be such a prat and a clotpole and a cabbagehead. But Merlin had forgiven him, and he could not bear it.

A blood-curdling scream rang out, followed by the crash of breaking glass. Arthur had never been so glad for an emergency. He hurried across the room, wiping away his tears as he went, and ran to Morgana's chambers. Guinevere had woken immediately and was already at his heels.

"Morgana?" he called, pounding on her door. When there was no answer, he fumbled for his keys, but Guinevere was quicker with hers. They rushed inside and found Morgana sitting up in bed, looking panicked and terrified, her own cheeks streaked with tears.

"Morgana!" Guinevere immediately went to her side and stroked her arm to soothe her. "Was it another nightmare? What did you see?"

"Never mind that, she blew out the windows!" Arthur hissed. Broken glass littered the floor, and rain was blowing in with the wind. He heard the sound of running footsteps, and cursed under his breath. This was just what they needed.

"Sire!" said the first of the two guards. "We heard a scream."

"Everything's all right," Arthur said, scrambling to come up with a believable explanation that didn't involve Morgana's magic bursting out of her after she'd had a prophetic vision. "Lightning struck the tower and shattered the windows. The Lady Morgana is unharmed. Get someone to clean up the glass and cover the open windows."

"Yes, sire," said the second guard, and they left.

Arthur breathed out in relief. If it wasn't for the storm, he would have been hard pressed to find a reason for why the glass would have broken. But that was the smallest of their problems. He had thought Morgana's tendency to light candles was dangerous, but that was nothing compared to this. He understood now why Gaius had suppressed her magic all these years. The peril wasn't so much her nightmares as the fact that she might be capable of destroying half the castle in a panic.

He tried to find a flint and candle to give the room some light, and realized that there were none. All the candles had been removed from the room. He looked out the broken windows and just made out a half-dozen candles scattered among the broken glass. Morgana must have thrown them from the room before she went to sleep.

"I saw everything again," Morgana said, her voice wavering with fear. "Everything but Merlin. It was so real, Gwen. And it hurt..." She clutched at Guinevere's arm. "I'm so cold. Why..." Only then did she finally look around and realize what had happened around her. She stared in horror at the broken windows, then at Guinevere, and then at Arthur.

She heard the sound of the guards returning, and she shot Arthur a venomous glare. "How dare you--"

Arthur gestured frantically for her to be quiet, and then resumed his normal poise as the guards returned with oilcloth and servants. Guinevere gave Morgana a reassuring squeeze and Morgana frowned in confusion as the broken glass was removed and the windows were covered.

"What on earth is going on?"

Everyone turned, and there was the King, a lit candle in hand. He'd pulled on a robe over his nightclothes and was frowning at the damage.

"Lightning, Father," Arthur said, hurrying to explain before his father's paranoia gave him any ideas. "It struck the tower and blew out the glass. Morgana's fine."

Guinevere nearly jumped from the bed, taking the candle and stepping aside as Uther moved in to sit. He took Morgana's hands in his. "Are you all right, my dear?" he asked, gently.

Morgana nodded, giving him a fragile smile. "It nearly frightened me to death. But the glass didn't reach me."

"Thank goodness for that," Uther said, visibly relieved. He reached up and stroked her hair. "My poor child. I'll have Gaius prepare you a fresh sleeping draught."

Morgana seemed ready to protest, then gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you. You're so good to me."

Uther gave her a doting smile and kissed her forehead. Then he stood and gave the cleanup a critical eye. "There must not be a single shard of glass left on the floor. And seal the windows tightly. If the Lady Morgana takes ill, I will be extremely unhappy, is that understood?"

There was a murmur of obedient 'yes, sire's, and everyone picked up the pace. Uther gave an approving nod and turned back to Morgana.

"Let me move you to another room," Uther said. "At least until the windows are repaired. That must have given you a terrible shock."

"That's very kind of you, my lord, but I'm certain I'll sleep better in my own bed." She gave him another sweet, reassuring smile, and Arthur was impressed. He knew Morgana could be as false and manipulative as any in court, but it was something else entirely to see her flatter his father mere hours after admitting to herself that she had magic. Perhaps she would make a powerful ally on his council after all, if they managed to survive long enough for him to become regent.

Except she couldn't be on the council, because she was a sorcerer. Even if he waited until his father died, the Lords would never go along with it. Yet he'd made that promise to Merlin as much as to Morgana, and he couldn't go back on it now.

Morgana finally convinced Uther that he could leave once she'd sent Guinevere off to get a sleeping draught from Gaius. It took a while longer for the glass and the windows to be sorted out, but then the two of them were alone.

With the oilcloths and the lone candle, the room was dark. They stared at each other in silence. If Morgana needed proof that Arthur wasn't going to arrest Morgana for having magic, she had it now. But Morgana's inability to control her magic had also been proved. It was obvious they were going to have to do something to repair the situation, but neither of them had anything to offer.

They were both relieved when Guinevere returned, draught in hand. "Gaius says this one's just a plain sleeping draught," she said, when Morgana glared at the bottle. "Nothing else."

"I don't want anything from him," Morgana said, angrily.

Guinevere put the bottle on her bedside table, then stepped back to stand next to Arthur.

Morgana narrowed her eyes at them. "Since when did you two get along?"

"Since you threw her out," Arthur said, unable to miss the opportunity to get a barb in. "And... since I apologized. I was wrong. What I did to Merlin, what I said to you... I'm sorry."

Morgana treated his apology with the expected skepticism. She crossed her arms. "Don't think this makes up for anything," she said, stiffly.

"I know it doesn't," Arthur said. "But I have to try. For Merlin." He had to steady himself with a deep breath. "I have something to give you both."

It took some effort on both Arthur and Guinevere's parts to persuade Morgana to come with them, but eventually they were all together in Arthur's chambers. He picked up two of the letters and handed one to each of them.

Guinevere looked at her letter and gave Arthur a quizzical look. "This is Merlin's handwriting."

"He wrote them to you," Arthur explained, and felt fresh shame at what he was about to tell them. "The night we returned, Merlin told me he had magic. It was my duty to arrest him."

Morgana stared at him, her eyes sharp even in the candlelight. As he so often did, he felt as if she was judging him and finding him wanting.

"I'm not proud of it, all right? I told Merlin he had to choose between his life and his magic. He thought that I was going to..." He trailed off, turning away. "So he wrote these, in case he couldn't say goodbye."

He couldn't bear the condemnation that was certain to be in their eyes, so Arthur listened as they broke the wax seals and unfolded their letters. Guinevere gave a soft sob, but Morgana was silent as she read hers. When Arthur finally turned back, they had both folded their letters again. Guinevere was wiping her eyes and Morgana... She had pulled herself straight, and held an air of renewed purpose.

"Things are going to change," she told him.

"I know."

"They have to change. And not just so we can survive what's coming." Morgana lifted her chin, as she always did right before she made a demand. "Merlin has a book. He wrote that he wanted me to have it. Where is it?"

"It's--" Guinever began, turning towards the table where Arthur had left it. She looked to Arthur, uncertain and half-apologetic. Arthur gave her a short nod, and she continued. "It's right here." She picked up the book and handed it to Morgana.

"What are you going to do with it?" Arthur asked.

"What do you think?" Morgana said. "I'm going to find a way to save our lives. Gwen, bring some candles. We have reading to do."

Guinevere gave Arthur another apologetic look, but did as Morgana commanded.

"Wait," Arthur said, as they headed for the door.

"Don't even think about talking me out of this," Morgana warned.

"I'm not," Arthur said, holding up his hands. "It's just... you won't be able to read most of it. Unless either of you can read the old tongue?"

"Not really," Guinevere admitted. "It wasn't safe to write anything down. I only know how to speak it, for prayers."

Morgana shook her head.

"Then you'll need these," Arthur said. He handed them the notes he'd written when Merlin was teaching him how to read the grimoire. It was hard to give away another piece of Merlin, with so little of him left, but he knew it was what Merlin would have wanted. And hopefully Morgana would forgive him, and agree to help him understand, just as Guinevere had.

Morgana took the papers, and when she glanced them over, she softened, if only a fraction. She gave him a short nod, and then Arthur was alone again.

Arthur gave a tired sigh and lay down on his bed. With all his distractions gone, his throat tightened again, and his eyes wet with fresh tears. Merlin's absence gaped inside him, impossibly large. His bed and his chambers felt too big, too empty. And in Merlin's wake, his whole world was transformed.

He had always known that his father's treatment of sorcerers was too extreme. He had always feared that such extremities would result in innocent people being arrested and possibly even executed. But he had always done his best to ensure that the letter of the law was followed. That only those who were genuinely guilty of using magic were punished. He had not always succeeded. Out of dozens, hundreds of executions every year, a few innocents were bound to be unfairly accused. But for each failure, he had sworn that he would not make such mistakes when he ruled. That he would not continue his father's overzealous ways.

He had not considered that the law itself could be wrong.

Merlin had challenged him on it in their last conversation, their last argument. Why was he willing to reconsider every other rule but this? Why was magic the one thing his father had to be right about? Arthur had no easy answer. He thought back to before he'd discovered Merlin's secrets, before Uwen and his enchanted armor, before the unicorn and poisoned wine. And back again, past bloody battles and Druid raids and bodies burning in the courtyard day after day, to the half-remembered flashes of his father's fury, and slaps that made him taste blood.

He had questioned it. A long time ago, he had questioned it, because he had hated the executions, hated the searches and the raids, hated how afraid it made everyone feel. But he had been taught to stop. To accept without argument, without discussion. For every other law, his father would encourage him to understand the purpose of it, the reasoning behind the words. How the law fit into the kingdom and helped it thrive. But the laws against magic were sacrosanct, absolute. Arthur had not wanted to question them because the desire to question them had been beaten out of him, long before he was old enough for true defiance.

Merlin was right. Everyone was afraid, and Arthur had been too blind, too stubborn to allow himself to see it. Because if he did, if he faced the truth, it meant facing his own fear, his own weakness and cowardice. Because deep down in his heart, he was terrified of defying his father about magic, and he always had been.

There must have been a purpose to it, at the beginning. When dark magic abounded, as Gaius said. His father had seen the corruption and understood it to be poison in Camelot's blood. He had purged it out. But if Merlin had been born with magic, if Morgana had been born with it... Merlin's magic had not seemed to be corrupted, and Merlin had recoiled against the dark magic he had confronted. Morgana's must be the same. There was nothing evil in her warnings, which seemed meant to help, not hinder. Her magic was uncontrolled, but Merlin had been insistent that misuse of magic was not the same as dark magic. And Gaius had said that Merlin's instincts were correct.

If Merlin had been born with pure magic, magic without corruption. If Morgana had been born the same. Then how many other sorcerers had been pure? How many had Arthur judged guilty of corruption when they were innocent? What monstrous acts had he helped his father achieve? And what about the Old Religion itself? The worshippers like Guinevere, who did not even have magic, who had not been corrupted by a lifetime of prayers?

He knew nothing. He had been so certain, his father's absolutism a bedrock for him despite his own, private doubts. And now that bedrock was gone, and he did not know where to stand or where to go. He cursed his own stubbornness, and Merlin's stubbornness. If they'd had more time, Arthur would have understood. Merlin did not have to die for Arthur to understand. It was just too much, too soon, too fast. He'd needed more time, more evidence, more than what Merlin alone had been able to give him. And now... now he had nothing. Just an enchanted sword, a burnt-out magical ring, and a gold torc that would bind him to no one.

He sat up and pulled the torc from his waistband, turned it in his hands. He traced the fine filigree with his thumb. Part of him wanted to throw it out the window, as Morgana had done with her candles. The torc was a symbol of his failures, of his ignorance and his fear, of the loss of Merlin's love and then his life. But he couldn't. Through the torcs, he and Merlin had shared something, even if Arthur had not understood it and and still could not.

Merlin had understood. Merlin had held him, smiling and grateful. Despite all that the restraint had made him suffer, the good had outweighed the bad.

That was what Merlin did, after all. He'd accepted Arthur the same way, seeing the good in him and prizing it. Merlin had believed in him even when Arthur had been executing sorcerers left and right. Merlin had seen the King within him, a King that would love his people and be kind to them. To all of them, even those with magic, even those who worshipped the Old Religion.

Arthur had failed Merlin. He had failed to be the King that Merlin believed him to be. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Arthur was not King yet, only Prince. But even his father knew that the time had come for that to change. He would be Regent soon, and one day he would wear his father's crown. But he did not have to wait for his father, and he should not.

He had failed Merlin in life, but he would not fail him in death. He would be Merlin's King, and he needed no crown to do that. He needed only his heart, and Merlin had given him that. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how deeply grief sliced, he would not give up that most precious gift.

The ancient chieftains had worn torcs like these. That's what he'd told Merlin, what he'd read in the history books in Geoffrey's library. And even though Merlin was no longer alive to be his warrior and his knight and his sorcerer, Arthur had promised to wear it for him. It would be a symbol of everything he had promised Merlin, of his failures and of the faith that Merlin had held for him. He would feel the metal, heavy at the base of his neck, bereft of magic, and he would never forget.

He closed his eyes. With great care, he eased the gold torc around his neck. He let it settle into place, and he breathed out.

He opened his eyes wide.

He grabbed at the torc in shock. He pulled it off, then slid it back on again. Off, then on.

The connection was still there. The connection to Merlin's torc was still there. How could it be? Could someone else be wearing it? One of the Sidhe?

No. The connection felt exactly the same. He wasn't imagining it. It felt like Merlin.

"Please," Arthur whispered, hope a fresh ache in his chest, pushing back the sharper pains of grief. "Please, please."

He grabbed the Sidhe staff and ran from his chambers, down the stairs and through the halls. He needed answers, and Gaius was the only one who could give them. And this time he would listen, even to the things his father had taught him not to hear. Whatever he uncovered, whatever crawled out from the rocks he overturned, he would not turn away.

Chapter Text

"Gaius!" Arthur called, in a loud whisper. Even the thump of his fist on the door resounded in the quiet halls. Morgana's disturbance aside, at this hour only a handful of guards and servants were awake, and he wanted to keep it that way. He suspected that very soon he was going to have to break a few laws, and he didn't want any witnesses.

Arthur gave up on propriety and opened the door himself, and found that Gaius had fallen asleep over a pile of books. As Arthur approached, he stirred and rubbed at his eyes.

"Arthur?"

"I can feel him," Arthur blurted out, unable to contain himself. He sat down across from Gaius and grabbed at his torc. "Merlin. I can... I think I can feel him. Through this. I think he's alive."

Gaius was fully awake in an instant. He sat up straight, his eyes wide. "You're certain?"

"As certain as I can be about any of this," Arthur said, allowing some of his bewilderment to show. "It feels like him, but... could it be someone else? One of the Sidhe?"

"The torcs wouldn't work for the Sidhe," Gaius said. "And it's my understanding that it's impossible to remove the torc while the restraint is active. Not without... well."

Not without separating Merlin's head from his neck, Arthur guessed. "Could it just be some remnant of his magic?" He pressed. He needed to be certain. If Merlin was really alive...

"As I explained before, the restraint is merely a safeguard for apprentices. For the Blood Guard, the torcs were a communal tool. Their primary purpose was the focus and sharing of magic, particularly for large spells. For a lone wearer, they would be of little use."

Something in Gaius' voice made Arthur pause. "A lone wearer? Not a lone sorcerer?"

Gaius blinked at him. "As I said, sire."

Arthur stared back at him. It was obvious that he'd stumbled over another of Gaius' secrets, but he would have to deal with it later. Merlin was the first priority.

"When you spoke to Sophia," Gaius said, dropping his eyes to his books. "What exactly did she say?"

Arthur thought back. "That his body was gone. That as a warrior, his soul belongs to Avalon."

"Could she have been lying?"

"I don't think so. I had knights watching the Sidhe and their chambers. Merlin went in, but they didn't see him leave." If there was a chance that Merlin might have been able to sneak out without being seen, the bloodied favor eliminated it. But now that Arthur had a clear head, he remembered that Merlin was not the only one who had mysteriously disappeared. "Drudwas and Aulfric," he said. "They were seen going into their chambers, but when I searched it, they weren't there. And there was no other way out, unless they left out of the windows..." Even as he said it, he remembered, and smacked himself on the forehead. "Merlin said they could fly." Merlin was right, he was a terrible listener.

"His soul belongs to Avalon," Gaius said, mulling over the words.

"You think they took him there?"

"It seems the most likely option," Gaius said, but he wasn't very happy about it. "Which means the situation is even worse than I feared."

"Worse? Merlin's alive. How is that worse? All I have to do is go to Avalon and get him back."

"Avalon is not merely a place," Gaius said, his deliberate speech betraying his frustration. "It is the land of eternal youth. The Otherworld. Mortals are only supposed to glimpse it the moment before death."

Arthur huffed in confusion. "But Merlin saw it."

"And he would not have survived had his magic not protected him."

Arthur stared at him. "What are you saying? That there's nothing we can do? That Merlin is trapped there, forever?"

Gaius doleful expression was answer enough.

"No," Arthur said, standing up again. He paced away and then back. "I refuse to accept that. If they brought Merlin there, then they can bring him back."

"They may not be able to. Sophia said his body was gone. Merlin may no longer be as we knew him."

Arthur had no idea what to do with that. "I don't care what they've done to him. Once we get him back, they can undo it."

"Then what do you suggest? I take it your plan is to force Sophia into cooperating?"

Arthur handed Gaius the staff. "Can you use this?"

Gaius hesitated before he took it. "It would require a spell. You understand that you are asking me to use magic."

"As you and Merlin did countless times right under my nose," Arthur replied. "I'll make it an order if that makes you feel better. Can you use it?"

"I'm not certain," Gaius admitted. "But the appearance of it may be enough, as you have the sword."

The sword. At this rate, it was going to need a name, at the very least to prevent confusion. The history books and bards' songs were full of swords with names. Even in the recent past, there was a king of the Franks who called his sword 'joyful', of all things. Maybe Merlin could come up with something, once they got him back. Merlin liked making up words for things. Though knowing Merlin, Arthur would end up with a sword named cabbagepole.

The thought was almost enough to make him smile.

"I've been researching the Sidhe," Gaius said, gesturing to the pile of books he'd fallen asleep on. "Trying to find any possible weaknesses we can use. According to legend, the Sidhe are masters of enchantment. Even their appearance is an illusion. In their native land, they have extraordinary powers, and some can even bend nature to their will. However--"

"I like a good 'however'," Arthur said, as he strained to stay positive.

"However," Gaius continued, "in our world, they are much more limited. They can enchant, but only if they make eye contact with their victim. And their staves appear to be necessary for their defense."

"So if we can disarm her, blindfold her..."

Gaius nodded. "But we must be careful. Their enchantments are extremely powerful. As we saw the last time Sophia was here."

Arthur considered this. "Do you think they've enchanted my father?" Perhaps that was why he had refused to listen to Arthur's warnings. Arthur preferred that his father be enchanted against him, because then it might actually be possible to change his mind.

"Perhaps," Gaius said. "But we cannot rely on that assumption. We must not let the King discover any of what is happening. If we do, there will be no chance of rescuing Merlin. And if Aulfric and Drudwas should return..."

Arthur flexed his sword hand. He was more than ready for a fight. "Then we can't waste any more time. What else do I need to know?"

§

Arthur was not unaware of the irony of what he was doing. Working with Gaius in secret to defend the kingdom against magic by using magic. Sneaking around the castle in the dead of night, hiding around corners to avoid the guards on patrol, because they couldn't risk their movements being reported. Arthur knew all of those men, knew their patrols because he'd had a hand in scheduling them. He felt as if he was invading his own castle, and he didn't much like it.

If Arthur had his way, he would call the patrols to him and they would help him capture and arrest the false Sophia. But it seemed that when it came to magic, Arthur was never going to get his way. Instead, he was having to bend and contort himself so that magic could get its way. No doubt if Merlin was here, he would complain that magic had been bent and contorted enough already, and a turnabout was only fair.

But Merlin was not here, and that was the crux of it. Merlin had to be saved, and Arthur would do anything to save him. That had been true for a long time. But even if he accepted that magic was not necessarily corrupted, that sorcerers were not necessarily evil, that did not mean he trusted magic. Even if magic had to be fought with magic, even if it was the only way to save Merlin and protect Camelot, even if it seemed that everyone in the castle was secretly involved with magic in some form, Arthur didn't have to like any of it.

But he was used to doing things he didn't personally like. Most of his life had been spent doing things that were necessary but not pleasant, and it would be the same when he was King. As these acts of subterfuge and treason were necessary, he would do them. Finer considerations would have to wait.

Right now, he needed to concentrate on not falling off the wall.

Arthur glanced down at the ground, which was very far beneath his feet. He'd never really appreciated how tall the castle was until he was hanging off it. If his father had given the Sidhe a suite on the ground floor, this would all be a lot easier. But faint heart never rescued fair manservant. Or something like that.

Arthur paused just beneath the windowsill. The window to Sophia's chambers was still open, just as he'd remembered. Presumably she was leaving it that way so Drudwas and Aulfric could return the same way they'd left. From inside the room, he heard an insistent knocking on the door, and then Gaius' voice.

"At this hour?" Sophia complained, her muttering drifting out above Arthur's head. The door opened. "Yes?"

"My lady," Gaius said, with politeness borne of decades of court life. "I must speak with you on an urgent matter."

"Urgent?"

"Yes, it concerns my apprentice. I believe you met him earlier tonight. His name is Merlin."

Arthur was halfway through the window when Sophia went still and silent. She brought her staff to bear on Gaius, but Gaius had already brought his staff to bear on her.

"I know exactly what you are, and I have no intention of letting you leave this room," Gaius warned.

Arthur silently lowered himself to the floor. Another half-minute was all he needed. He carefully shut the window, took the piece of wire from between his teeth, and secured the glass so it wouldn't easily open. Sophia might be able to cast illusions, but whatever she was underneath, she was solid as any human.

"You don't have the power to use that, old man," she sneered.

"Perhaps not, but what if I do? Are you willing to take that chance? Return Merlin to me, unharmed, and I'll decline to tell the King about you until you've already left. That is my only offer."

Sophia laughed, and it was an ugly laugh. "You won't be able to tell anyone anything. Dioddef--!"

She stopped abruptly as Arthur pressed the edge of his sword along the front of her neck. "Not another word," he warned. "Gaius."

Gaius quickly yanked the staff from her hands, then turned and shut the door.

"You will pay for this, Arthur Pendragon," Sophia snarled, and Arthur pressed the sword a fraction closer. Any more pressure and the sword would slice into her neck, and they needed her alive.

"Gaius!" Arthur warned, sensing Sophia was about to act.

Gaius quickly began to close all the open doors to the other chambers. He was halfway around the room when Sophia made her move.

"Tynnwch y guddio gas!" she cried, and there was a dazzling burst of light. She vanished from Arthur's grip, and suddenly there was a glowing light darting around the room like a demented firefly. Arthur could just hear Merlin saying 'I told you so' as he swung his sword frantically in an attempt to swat her down.

"Arthur!" Gaius called, as Sophia flew into the last open door. Arthur ran in after her and Gaius shut the door and guarded it, staff at the ready. Fortunately, the windows in this room were all closed against the night's chill. But Sophia's light suddenly blinked out.

"Where?" Gaius whispered.

Arthur held up his hand to silence him. He retraced the crazed path he had seen her follow and knew where she had gone. He sheathed his sword, crept towards the bed, and in a single action, grabbed the brocaded blanket and dragged it under the bed, capturing Sophia within the thick, heavy fabric.

She fought like the monster she was, writhing and flailing wildly in his grip. Arthur had barely managed to maneuver her out into the open when he heard a ripping sound. His eyes widened in alarm as he saw a blue, clawed hand rip its way through the blanket, and then there she was. Sophia's true face was blue and ugly, a fierce mask with protrusion, vicious little teeth, and glowing red eyes. A sudden heaviness came over him, and he couldn't look away.

"Barus, yr wyf yn poe--"

"Oferswing!"

The next thing Arthur knew, Sophia was flying across the room, but not under her own power. She slammed into the stone wall with an audible thump, which was impressive given how small she was. Arthur looked up just in time to see the last of the golden glow fade from Gaius' eyes.

"Sire! Are you all right?"

"I think so," Arthur said, shaking his head to clear it. Gaius offered a hand, but Arthur waved it away and pushed himself to his feet. Gaius looked rather stunned himself. A silent understanding passed between them that whatever happened next, they would never speak of this again.

They looked down at the unconscious Sophia, then looked at each other.

"Right," Arthur said. He went back to the window, unwound the wire and brought it back to the bedchamber. He picked Sophia up and between the two of them they were able to bind her tiny arms and legs. Gaius tore a narrow piece of cloth and was able to fashion a blindfold, to keep her from trying to enchant them again.

It was possibly the strangest moment of Arthur's life. It was certainly the strangest arrest he'd ever made.

"Now what?" Arthur asked.

§

"That is surprisingly sturdy for a candle holder," Arthur said.

They'd found a prison for Sophia hanging in Gaius' chambers. It was a candle cage in the shape of a globe. The little candle seat was the perfect size for Sophia to sit on, but the gaps between the bars were too narrow for her to squeeze between, even if she was able to get free of the wire bindings. Just to be sure, Gaius looped another bit of wire to tie her to the candle seat.

It was hard to believe that this was really Sophia. With her glamour gone, she was utterly unrecognizable, with blue skin, antennae, elongated hands and feet, pointed ears, and glittering insect wings. Her fine clothing was gone as well, replaced by a green, shimmering shift that looked like it was made from an enchanted leaf.

They put the cage on the table between them and waited for her to wake up. It didn't take long.

"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asked.

Sophia bared her teeth at him. "As I told you before, Arthur Pendragon. His soul belongs to Avalon."

"Bring him back. Now."

Sophia laughed. "Or what? No mortal blade can kill me."

Arthur slipped the end of his sword between the bars, and when she bumped against the sharp point, she immediately stilled. "This blade is dragon-forged. It's my understanding that it can kill anything, even a little bug like you."

That finally shut her up.

"You know what I want," Arthur prompted.

"Very well," she said. "Let me free, and I will get him for you."

Arthur gave her a look, and it was a shame she couldn't see it through the blindfold. "I don't want you to get him." The moment they let her go, they would be back where they'd started. "I want you to open the Gates of Avalon for me."

Sophia laughed. "Well, of course I can do that. You only had to ask."

"Let me free, and I will open them for you now," Sophia said, sweetly.

"Sire," Gaius said, concerned. He gestured for Arthur to follow him, and they walked to the other side of the room to speak privately.

"You're certain she won't be able to break free?" Arthur asked.

"Not without her staff," Gaius said. "Though I would not risk leaving her unguarded. My greater concern is for you. Sire, you cannot go to Avalon. You cannot pass through the Gates alive."

"And I need her to think that so she'll open the Gates," Arthur explained, keeping his voice quiet. "Let her believe she's sending me to my death. I know there has to be a way. If Merlin's magic could protect him, there must be a spell that can do the same for me."

"It would have to be extremely powerful. And I do not have the strength to perform such a spell, if one could even be found."

"You stopped Sophia."

"That small spell was as much as I could manage."

"All right," Arthur said. "What about Morgana? I've seen what she can do."

"She's far too untrained," Gaius countered. "It will take time for her to learn how to perform even basic spells. If she's unable to successfully complete the protection spell, we may not know until it's too late."

"There has to be someone else," Arthur said, frustrated. "Merlin can't be the only powerful sorcerer in the whole kingdom."

Gaius gave him the eyebrow for that.

"Right," Arthur sighed. There weren't any others, because Arthur had helped arrest or kill them all. And those who were left would hardly be eager to expose themselves to aid the Crown Prince who had hunted them for so long. They would fear it was a trap, and if Arthur was in their place, he would think the same.

Gaius was giving one of those thoughtful frowns that meant he had an idea.

"Gaius?"

"There is someone," Gaius said, slowly. "With both the power and experience necessary."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"I doubt he would be willing to help," Gaius said. "Especially after recent events."

"We have to try. Who is it? One of the Druids?"

"Not a Druid, sire."

§

Arthur didn't like any of this. It was bad enough that he had to leave Gaius guarding Sophia with a magical staff he wasn't actually able to wield. It was bad enough that Arthur once again had to sneak past his own guards, and was beginning to seriously doubt the overall competence of the castle's security. But that their last resort had turned out to be the Great Dragon...

The half-collapsed hallway was ominous in the torchlight. Over his many visits, Merlin had cleared a comfortable path through the rubble. The path wound down until he was deep beneath the dungeons, and finally led to a ledge that had been carved out of a rocky wall. Arthur stood at the edge and held out his torch, but it was the moonlight that showed him the scale of the place.

It was an enormous cavern, so huge it was amazing that the distant walls could hold up the massive weight of the castle above. He heard the rush of flowing water; looking down, he could just make out a wide, smooth river, running for miles into the distance. Squeaking startled him, and he turned and saw a flock of bats flying down through a column of moonlight and vanishing into some dark crevice to nest.

The dragon's prison was nothing like he'd expected. What was this place? Why was it connected to the castle? And where was the dragon?

A low growl made the hairs on Arthur's neck stand on end. It was an inhuman sound, and it seemed to come from all directions at once. He drew his sword and held it ready as he stared into the gloom.

"Show yourself!"

The growl strengthened, and then grew into a mighty roar. Arthur skittered back as a monstrous shape flew at him from the darkness. There was the clank of heavy chain pulled taut, and the creature pulled back with an angry snarl as its claws dug into its rocky perch.

It was the dragon. The creature breathed in, and Arthur barely managed to leap to safety before the ledge was consumed with fire.

"Murderer!" growled the dragon, voice thick with fury and pain. There was another gust of fire, and flames licked up the passageway.

"Wait!" Arthur called, as the dragon drew its next breath. "Please, I need your help!"

The dragon gave a bitter laugh. "Help? The only help I would give you, Pendragon, is the help your father gave to my kind."

The third gust of fire was even stronger, and Arthur had to retreat again. "Not for me," he shouted. "For Merlin!"

"Merlin is dead," growled the dragon.

"He's alive!"

"Do not lie to me! He is my kin. If he was alive, I would know."

"Not if he was in Avalon!" Arthur braced himself, but the passageway remained blessedly free of fire. He decided to take that as permission to continue. "He was taken by the Sidhe." He inched his way back down to the ledge. "I need your help to save him. Please."

Arthur peered out, and saw that the dragon had settled back on his haunches. He was staring at Arthur with narrowed eyes. "I'm listening," he said, and gave a smoky snort.

"I have a way to open the Gates of Avalon, but I cannot pass through alive. I need a spell to protect me. Gaius said--" He was interrupted by another angry snarl.

"Do not speak to me of that traitor," the dragon sneered.

Traitor. It was another piece of information to tuck into the back of his mind. Arthur stepped fully out onto the ledge. "He said you could help me."

The dragon gave him a considering look, then turned his head away dismissively. "Why should I help you? I felt what you did to Merlin. I felt his suffering. I warned him that this would be his fate, and now Camelot is doomed. I will take great satisfaction in seeing it burn." He finished the last with a wide, malicious smile that showed far too many teeth.

Arthur had already gained enough experience with Morgana -- though most of it was in hindsight -- to know a seer when he met one. "You can see the future?"

"The future takes many paths. Some destinies cannot be escaped. But not all."

Was the dragon always this maddeningly vague? "What's that supposed to mean?"

The dragon gave an annoyed flap of his wings. "Without Merlin, you will never succeed. Without Merlin, Albion cannot be united. You have failed in your destiny, as your kind have failed before."

"No. It's not too late," Arthur said, forcibly sheathing his sword. "And this isn't about my father, or me, or Gaius. It's about Merlin."

"Only the Sidhe can open the Gates, and they have no love for humans."

"I've taken a Sidhe prisoner. She will open the Gates to lead me to my death, but Merlin saw Avalon and survived. I need you to help me do the same."

The dragon finally seemed to waver. "How can you be certain that he is alive?"

"Because of this," Arthur said, and pulled away his high collar to reveal the torc.

The dragon's eyes widened, then narrowed. "I have not seen one of those in many years. Their power died with the Blood Guard."

"Merlin put his magic into two of them. He wears the other. I can feel him through mine. I know he's alive."

The dragon's claws curled into the stone mound, sending shards of rock skittering down. "Avalon is no place for mortals. Even with my protection, it is unlikely that you will survive. Free me, and I will save Merlin."

"Free you?" Arthur asked, warily.

"Use the sword. If you wield it, its power will be great enough to cut these chains." The dragon rattled them for illustration.

"Why? So you can help the Sidhe destroy Camelot? What assurance would I have that you would leave Camelot unharmed?"

"None," the dragon said, and at least it was being honest. "But the Sidhe have done great wrongs to my people. I am willing to delay one revenge for another."

Arthur felt his resolve waver. Could he trust the dragon to rescue Merlin? Could he trust the dragon not to destroy Camelot after he saved it?

No. Common enemies or not, the dragon had made his intentions far too clear. Arthur could not trade one doom for another. Merlin would not want Camelot to be the cost of his rescue, not when he had all but given his life to prevent such an outcome. Especially after he had turned against the dragon himself. But it was clear that whatever had happened between them, some bond persisted.

"The prophecy you told Merlin. Is it true?"

"It was, once. Perhaps it may be again."

"Then my destiny is to unite Albion? To restore magic?"

"Your destiny cannot be fulfilled alone. You are but one side of a coin. Merlin is the other."

Arthur didn't understand destiny, didn't know why he had been chosen for such a path. There was still so much he needed to learn. But it seemed that whatever lay before him, he would only reach it if he had Merlin beside him.

"Can you give me the protection I need to enter Avalon? Yes or no?"

"Yes," the dragon said, with obvious reluctance.

"Then do it," Arthur said, with all the certainty he could muster.

"And my freedom?" the dragon asked, pressing forward as far as his chains would allow. "I will not spend the rest of my life a prisoner."

"And I cannot risk Camelot's destruction. When Merlin is safe, if Camelot's protection can be guaranteed, I will give you your freedom. But only then."

The dragon gave a threatening rumble, but saw that Arthur was resolute. "Very well."

"The spell. What do I have to do?"

The dragon pushed itself up, flexing its wings as it stood. "Close your eyes, and open your mind."

The dragon looked at him expectantly. Arthur took a deep breath in and out, and braced himself. It might all be a trick, and the dragon might be about to fry him to a cinder. But he had to do this. He had to trust the dragon, to trust his magic, for Merlin's sake.

The dragon exhaled, and Arthur found himself suffused with heat. But it was nothing like fire. It rushed through his veins and into his lungs, filling him to the brim, making every inch of his skin prickle and flush.

Magic. He recognized it now. It was not quite the same as the unicorn, not quite the same as what he felt through the torc. But they were all of a kind. Even from a creature as fierce and dangerous as the dragon, a creature bent on revenge against Camelot and the Pendragon line, even to Arthur's untrained senses, this was pure, uncorrupted magic.

The dragon stopped, and the spell settled under Arthur's skin, sinking into his muscles, his bones, into the very core of him. He could feel how powerful the spell was, the way it filled him as a few drops of dye could fill a basin of water.

As he opened his eyes, he felt them tingle, and he wondered if they had flared golden.

"Few men have ever been gifted such power," the dragon declared. "Use it wisely."

"I will," Arthur breathed. He wobbled, unsteady, but already his body was adjusting to the change it had undergone. He did not have any way to describe what was different. There was no test he could perform to be certain that he could cross into Avalon alive. He was making a tremendous act of faith. But no matter what the danger, he had to. He had to.

§

It was fortunate that the Lady Sophia was small enough to fit inside a candle cage, because otherwise it would have been rather difficult to smuggle her past the castle guards. Arthur had dressed himself for battle, in mail and armor, and disguised himself under a large blue cloak. He hid the cage beneath the fabric, confident that he could quickly have his sword at hand should Sophia try anything. Gaius was similarly disguised, and carried one staff while he used the other as a walking stick.

It was not a short walk to the lake, but it was a familiar one. Arthur could not help but reflect on the many times he and Merlin had been this way. He remembered Merlin's strange hesitation on their first visit, how he had seemed oddly wary about entering the water. How even after Arthur had teased away that hesitance, Merlin would sometimes go still and look worried or sad.

Merlin often had such moments. No matter where they were, no matter what they were doing, there were always times when Arthur would call for Merlin and turn to find his manservant lost to some memory or daydream that was quite irrelevant to what was happening around him. After Arthur had realized that Merlin was working with Gaius on more than bandages and draughts, some of that absent-mindedness had made sense. But not all of it. That had not explained all of Merlin's inexplicable moods, his sadnesses, his silences. Why he withdrew into himself, and would not open up no matter how Arthur teased or pushed or pleaded.

The more Arthur learned, the more he realized that he himself had been the one who was trapped in his own little world. His own bubble of normality in a sea of strangeness and danger. Idriys had been right about him, that he was sheltered and ignorant. Arthur had known so little, and had been so very certain. No matter what his doubts, he had been certain enough to stake lives on what he thought he knew. And not just Merlin's life. What would he have done a week ago if he'd discovered Morgana's magic? Would she have shared the same fate as Linette, as Palaemon, as so many before them? He wanted to believe he would have tried to save her, as he had helped save the Druid boy. He wanted to believe that.

He had so many questions, but there was no time to ask them.

They walked in silence until they reached the lake, not wanting to risk drawing attention to themselves. Arthur shed his cloak and folded it, and gave it to Gaius.

He held up Sophia's cage and slipped the point of sword between the bars. "Open them. Now."

"I shall need my staff," Sophia said, bold despite the indignities of her situation.

"It's a bit big for you," Arthur pointed out.

"Bring it to the cage. It will fit."

Arthur nodded, and Gaius held out the staff. Sophia reached out for it, and the moment her hand touched it, it instantly shrunk to fit her size. Or perhaps it had always been her size, and it was an illusion that it had been human-sized. Trying to make sense of it made Arthur's eyes start to cross.

Arthur suddenly wondered if he was making a mistake. If letting Merlin stay in Avalon would be the kindest thing. Maybe he would be better off in a land made entirely of magic, populated with his own kind, safe from whatever disaster was about to befall the city. The moment he finished the thought, he discarded it. Merlin did not belong there, any more than Arthur did. Merlin's home was in Camelot, and by his side. If Arthur was certain of anything anymore, it was that.

"Careful," he warned, giving Sophia a nudge with the sword tip.

"Fear not, Prince Arthur. I would not keep you. Your delivery is long overdue." Sophia laughed, clearly amused, then bared her teeth at him. "Shall I open the Gates for you now?"

Arthur waited while Gaius blindfolded himself. "Do it."

"Gatiau," Sophia began chanting, "eich hunain agored."

A wind began to rise from the water, rustling the trees and sending red and golden leaves to swirl and fall around them. The blue crystal on Sophia's staff lit with power.

"Gatiau, eich hunain agored. Agorwch llydan i'r tir tragwyddoldeb!"

A glow began at the center of the water and swelled until the whole lake was alight. As he watched, the murky water became clear as glass, revealing an upside-down world of huge, gnarled trees and floating lanterns.

"Is that it?" Arthur breathed. "Avalon?" It was beautiful.

Sophia had stopped smiling. "How can you look upon my home and live?" she said, furious. "How have you done this?"

"Shut up," Arthur said, glad to no longer have to play along. He'd already had enough of subterfuge, but he had a feeling that there was more waiting in his future. "Drop the staff. Now."

He had to nudge her with the sword to get her to let it go. Even with the blindfold obscuring most of her face, he could tell that she was absolutely livid. He handed her cage to Gaius, who took it blindly. Only the thick blindfold protected him from instant death.

"When the Gates close, take her back to the castle and wait for me. I'll be back as soon as I can." It was too risky to bring Sophia with him to Avalon, where she would have access to the full strength of her powers. Better to keep her as a hostage in case they had further need of her. Gaius should be able to keep her in line with the staff, as long as she didn't realize he couldn't wield it. Arthur had bluffed his way to victory with less.

"And your father?" Gaius asked.

"Tell him I've gone hunting." It was as good an excuse as any. And most importantly, it was believable.

"Be safe, Arthur. Bring him back."

"I will," Arthur promised. He waded out into the water, and looked up at the forest around them. At Camelot, at Albion. He swore to himself that he would see it all again, and that Merlin would be beside him.

He took a deep breath, and he dove.

Chapter Text

Arthur swam towards Avalon, the weight of his armor carrying him down into the water's depths. His lungs already ached in his chest, but he kept going. Merlin was somewhere on the other side, and Arthur had never let himself be stopped by the weaknesses of the flesh.

Suddenly a golden haze began to pervade the crystal-clear water. Were the Gates of Avalon closing? Arthur kicked faster, pushing into the golden water. As he passed through it, something strange happened. Some force began to push at him, slowing his progress even as the water cleared again. He realized that he had stopped swimming down and started swimming up, and pushed himself harder, muscles burning. He could feel that he was running out of time. Shapes appeared before him in the water, long lines running like ropes up to dark shapes, and he grabbed at them to haul himself forward. He reached the shapes, but had to push away from them when he nearly impaled himself on the large, menacing spikes along their underside.

He breached the surface and gasped in air. As the ache faded from his lungs, he realized that he had made it through. He pushed back his wet hair and blinked the water from his eyes.

The ropes he had dragged himself up with were not ropes at all but stems, each as thick as his arm. The dark shapes with their dangerous spikes were not some kind of fortification, but were gigantic lilypads, each at least thirty feet across, interspersed with huge white and pink flowers that were just starting to open for the day. The pads' upturned rims were a foot high, and covered with the same deadly thorns that were on the underside. But there was a v-shaped notch that nearly came down to the water, and Arthur was able to reach through it to haul himself up onto the dry surface. The leaf sagged but held his weight, and it gave him a chance to catch his breath and orient himself.

Avalon. The Otherworld. He had not known what to expect, exactly, but this was a surprise nevertheless. He found himself at the center of an endless lake that stretched on past every horizon. In a loose circle around him, there were islands of varying sizes, all of them covered with thick forests. There were no buildings, no signs of habitation, but he could hear the buzz of insects and the chatter of wildlife echoing across the calm waters.

The sun was about to rise, and in the lightening sky Arthur could still see the moon; at least that was the same as always. And then he realized that it wasn't. It was backwards, the gibbous moon lit on the wrong side. Arthur had a strong sense of direction, and could find his reckoning even if he was blindfolded. Once he saw the moon, he realized that the sun was rising not in the east, as it had always risen, but in the west.

Strange indeed.

Arthur did not have much to go on from this point. He knew that Drudwas and Aulfric had taken Merlin here, so they must be on one of the islands, but which? There were dozens of them, and the larger islands went on for miles. If he could find their king or queen -- assuming they had such a thing, for Gaius' books had said little -- there was a slim chance he could petition them for Merlin's release. Yet he knew that diplomacy was not likely to be the solution here. Merlin had been taken by force, and if Morgana's visions were as true as they had always been, then some kind of attack or invasion was already being planned. He was in enemy territory, and Merlin would be rescued best by stealth. But first he had to be found, and if Sir Drudwas was the Sidhe equivalent of a knight, he would have taken his captive home.

What Arthur needed right now was some local assistance. Someone to point him in the right direction and give him the lay of the land. In the world he had left behind, Arthur had maps to rely on, scouts with advance information, or even local farmers and townspeople who were willing to trade for information. There were no maps here, and he was alone, but there had to be the equivalent of peasantry.

He decided to start with the closest island. He could leap from lilypad to lilypad to get close and swim the last part of the way, but he would have to jump over the gaps between each leaf. He gave himself a running start, and leapt from his leaf to the next. As he landed, his feet tore through and he nearly ended up plunging down into the water again. He managed to drag himself back up onto the leaf, and gave the pad a testing push. It was strong enough to hold him, but clearly still somewhat delicate. He tried again, leaping onto the third pad with a rolling land to soften his fall, and this time the material held.

He was making good progress when he heard the distant sound of a woman's voice. Whoever it was, she was humming and half-singing. Arthur paused and scanned the water, but saw nothing. He heard a splash from behind him, and turned to see the source of the noise, almost a dozen leaves away. A woman had been swimming nearby, and she had pulled herself out of the water to sit in the notch of one of the lilypads. He saw her from the back, and as she hummed she began to comb her long, draping hair. Could she be a Sidhe? Would she help him or alert the others? He had to take a chance.

"Hello?" Arthur called, but there was no response. Perhaps she was too far away to hear him, or too preoccupied. He had to get closer. But as he readied to leap to the next pad, he saw something in the water. At first he thought it was only a ripple from a fish, but with alarm he realized that it was some kind of monstrous creature, sneaking up on the oblivious woman. He called to her again, and this time she turned to him, but instead of responding to his alarm, she smiled demurely and continued to comb her hair.

He saw the yellow-furred back of the creature surface again, then slip deeper into the water. It was headed right for the woman. He had to reach her before it was too late. Arthur quickened his pace, leaping and rolling from pad to pad almost as quickly as the lurking creature swam. But he wasn't fast enough. With a burst of speed, the creature leapt from the water and tackled the woman. She shrieked in alarm as she was grabbed from her perch and dragged into the water.

Arthur pulled out his sword and dove after them. He saw them easily in the clear water, and as he sank towards them, he realized with shock that the woman was not a woman, but another monster herself. She and the yellow creature were wound together in a pitched battle; her sweet smile had filled itself with vicious teeth, and her hands were clawed and finned. He had thought her legs were simply dangling in the water, but now he saw that they were scaled and finned like that of a fish.

He began to swim away in alarm, but the monstrous woman had seen him, and she lashed out at the yellow monster hard enough to tear herself from its grip. She swam right for Arthur, her teeth bared and claws reaching out to grab him. Arthur couldn't swim very fast with his armor weighing him down, so he kicked to keep himself from falling deeper and raised his sword.

She was fast, faster than him, and when she reached him, she knocked the air from his lungs. Arthur struck her on one scaled thigh, and she tore at his armor. Angry at his survival, she opened her jaws wide to rip open his throat, but she was yanked back. To Arthur's further surprise, it was the yellow monster again. It was restraining the woman with some effort, and Arthur realized that it was helping him, saving him. Though his vision was fading from lack of air, he used the last of his strength to swim forward and thrust his sword into her chest. She went wild, kicking out with her legs, and caught Arthur a second blow.

He pulled his sword free, ready to stab her again, but it was a mistake; without the support, without air, under the weight of his heavy armor, he began to sink, and he didn't have the strength to swim upwards. Numbly, he fumbled for the buckles of his plating, but it was too late. His chest felt like it was about to burst, and he couldn't stop himself from breathing in.

There was something familiar about drowning.

Merlin, he thought, as the darkness swallowed him.

§

Arthur could breathe again, but there was something wrong with the air. It felt heavy and slow, and his lungs rebelled against it, sending him into a coughing fit. His lungs ached, and his mouth tasted of lake silt. Someone was holding him down, but even that felt strange, like if they let go he would float away. And their hands were...

He opened his eyes, and the shock temporarily silenced him. There was another creature on top of him: a woman on top, like the monster woman, but her lower half was like that of an octopus. The tentacles were what was holding him down, rubbery suckered and gripping him with surprising strength. The tentacles were an orange-red with brightly colored rings that seemed to flash in warning. She was lean and severe, and her upper half was naked but for a heavy draping of silver and pearls.

He was lying on the bottom of the lake. He was on the bottom of the lake, and he'd just escaped two magical creatures only to be captured by another. No, not just one. To either side, he saw more of the tentacle creatures, some smaller creatures that were best described as human-like seals, and yellow monsters like the one that had fought against the woman.

"You are awake?" asked a voice, but no one seemed to be speaking with their mouths. Instead, the sound somehow happened inside his head. Speaking without talking; it was what Merlin had described.

"The Mari-Morgen was an undying spirit. How did you kill her? How?" asked the voice, and Arthur realized it was coming from the octopus woman who was restraining him. She was staring down at him, and her eyes were red. "Speak, human, or I will crack your shell."

Arthur tried to speak, but with the water it just came out as a muffled gurgle. The tentacles tightened painfully around his ribs, and in desperation, Arthur silently shouted 'Wait!' in his head.

The tentacles eased their grip. Arthur was fairly certain he could wrench himself free of them, but he was on the bottom of the lake and somehow not dead, and he had a feeling that to stay that way, he had to cooperate. At least these monsters weren't actively trying to eat him.

Yet.

'My sword,' Arthur thought aloud. His hand flexed to reach for it, but he remembered that he'd dropped it when he drowned.

"Where is it?" she demanded, turning away from him.

"We had to leave it behind, Kyría Cirrina," said one of the seal creatures. The creatures were androgynous, and wore diaphanous white shirts and red hats with feathers sticking out. It was an odd touch for an undersea creature. "It was stuck, and there was no time to take it if we were to save both Vough and the human."

"Then send someone to get it. We are already delayed. We will deal with the human once we are at the palace."

The seal creature gave an obedient flick of its tail and sent another of its kind swimming away.

'Vough?' Arthur thought, and then, 'Stuck?'

"Vough is my Fuath," explained the seal creature, evidently also able to hear Arthur's thoughts. "The Mari-Morgen hurt him, but she might have killed him if it wasn't for you. Please do not fight, I do not wish to hurt you."

Arthur was gradually released from the grip of Kyría Cirrina, only to be trussed up in ropes made of extraordinarily tough kelp. They were probably magic, like everything else around here seemed to be. As the rope was brought around him, the seal creature pressed down on Arthur's head, and he realized that he was wearing one of the red hats himself. Somewhere, Merlin was laughing at him.

"Do not take it off," said the seal creature. "Without it, you will drown again."

When they finished with him, he could barely so much as wriggle. Though he might be able to get out of them if he had some time and privacy, he was given neither. Instead, he was grabbed by one of the Fuaths and hauled onto its back as the group resumed their journey.

The seal creature swam alongside him and gave him a friendly smile. "My name is Síofra. What's yours?"

Arthur had been trained on how to respond in the unlikely event that he was captured in battle. Normally his status was the one thing that it was valuable to share, because knowledge of it made him valuable to others. But right now Arthur was reluctant to share any information at all. 'Arthur,' he thought in response, leaving out any matters of title.

"Ar-thur," said Síofra, mulling it over. "That is a kind name. It was a kind thing you did, risking your life for my Fuath."

Síofra was looking at him with such gratitude that it made Arthur want to squirm. It was pure chance that he'd ended up killing the Mari-Morgen, which had initially looked human, rather than the monstrous Fuath. If he been had faced any of these creatures in Camelot, it was likely that he would have killed them without hesitation.

'I have to get back to the surface,' Arthur thought. 'Will you let me go?'

Síofra's black eyes went wide; the creature was strangely innocent, though it was clearly acting as some kind of guard or servant. "Oh, no. You are the property of Kyría Cirrina now. I could not steal from her."

'Property?' Arthur thought, raising his eyebrows in astonishment. He was not property.

"When we reach the Finfolkaheem, you will be presented before the Court. You will make a valuable trade. That is why Kyría Cirrina saved your life."

Arthur didn't like the sound of that. It was one thing to be captured as a hostage, and quite another to be scavenged and sold.

"You are unhappy," Síofra observed. "You would rather be dead? Was that why you came here?"

'Of course not,' Arthur thought. But he was here on a mission to rescue Merlin, and he hadn't put up with Sidhe and dragons and spells just to end up captured himself by some other magical creatures. 'What's the Finfolkaheem? Is it far?'

"It is the palace of the Finfolk. Unseelie travel from distant waters for its market. But we are near at last."

'Unseelie? Is that what you are?' It seemed that Arthur had found a helpful local after all.

"I am a Merrow," explained Síofra. "Kyría Cirrina is of the Finfolk. You will meet many races in the Court, and all are Unseelie."

'I'm looking for the Sidhe,' Arthur thought, deciding that it was worth the risk to ask. 'Will they be there?'

Síofra gave a thoughtful hum. "Sidhe are Seelie, not Unseelie. They pretend they are like you. Like humans. They are not welcome here."

Síofra flicked its tail, and moved ahead to keep pace with the Fuath. Arthur wondered if he'd managed to insult the only friendly face he'd yet met. His rescue plan was not going very well. Perhaps once they reached this Finfolkheem, he would have a chance to get away. At least he had a destination now: the Court of the Seelie. It was a start.

As Arthur was carried along, he observed his surroundings. He was near the head of the procession, which meant that most of it was before him. The other Finfolk were similarly decorated in lavish silver and pearls, and did not carry any of the kelp-woven nets that most of the Merrow did. The nets were filled with glowing orbs, each gently swirling with light. They were neutrally buoyant, so they did not seem to be much of a burden for the Merrow. Something about them looked familiar, but they were too obscured by the nets for Arthur to be certain. He guessed that whatever the orbs were, that was what the Finfolk had brought to trade.

Other Merrow were clearly acting as guards, in conjunction with the Fuath. Without the obscuring chaos of the fight, Arthur could study the monsters in full. The Fuath were huge beasts, each bigger than a horse and covered with shaggy yellow fur. They had massive, spiked tails, and limbs that ended with clawed fins. One of the Fuath was injured, and Arthur realized that that must be Vough.

He looked out past the procession. Here was the forest of old, gnarled trees and floating lanterns that he had seen from Camelot. At some time, maybe a very long time ago, Avalon was not a vast lake with a series of islands. It was a forested valley within a circle of mountains. It was impossible to guess what had caused its transformation, and Arthur did not try. But he saw the way these water creatures had taken advantage of what that old world had left behind. Even the path they took now, one swum above the sand, traced along what was clearly the remains of a gallery. Huge stone blocks stuck out of the sand at odd angles, and broken columns had overgrown with algae. Where once there had been a forest of trees, or perhaps even gardens, now there was a forest of tall, colorful kelp that swayed in the gentle current. Morning light rippled far above, casting down streaks of light as if through clouds.

As they passed the lanterns, Arthur saw that they did not hold anything as mundane as candles. Instead they seemed to be full of tiny creatures that themselves glowed, the largest no bigger than a pea. Each lantern contained hundreds of the little creatures, and together they cast a strange, diffuse light, brightening the depths that the sunlight could not reach.

§

It was over an hour before they reached the Finfolkaheem. At the rate the procession had swum, it was impossible that they had remained within the water between the islands, and yet distance, like everything else in Avalon, proved to be a deceptive thing. They had not left the lake, and yet it seemed that they had travelled beyond it. Arthur only hoped that he would be able to get back to where he had started.

But what concerned him now was not what lay behind him, but before and above him. The Finfolkaheem was a palace beyond any he had ever seen. Camelot's glory lay in the height of her towers, the thickness of her walls, the brilliance of her white stone, but Finfolkaheem was its opposite and its better. Instead of heavy stone, she was made of clear crystal, delicate and shimmering. She had not towers but spires that reached almost to the water's surface. Instead of fierce gargoyles, living creatures rested and played at those heights, rippling shoals of fish and smaller things too distant to name. As they drew closer, he saw that there were decorations in the crystal, impossibly fine patterns that seemed not to have been carved but grown.

They entered through a high arch. There were many other creatures here, and Arthur caught glimpses of them as he was carried along. Though many had human attributes, like faces and hands, they were obviously all creatures, though not only of fresh water. Some had fins, some wings; some scales and some fur. Some had the horns of great stags, and some floated in bubbles of air. Many carried similar nets of glowing orbs, but others held chests of unknown treasure, or mysterious sacks. But as Arthur was carried past, all eyes were upon him, curious, vengeful, hungry. His hand itched for his sword.

They arrived at a room. Some privacy was lent by the kelp that had been woven into living, multi-colored curtains. Despite the height of the palace, there were no floors above them, only crystal and water, and below was only soft, pale sand. Rocks were arranged like furniture.

Just as Síofra left on some errand, a male Finfolk swum into the room, looking slightly harried. "You're late. The market's about to open. What took you so long?" He saw Arthur and frowned. "A human? A living human? How is this possible?"

"Oh, Keuppedros, he is more than that," Kyría Cirrina said, swimming over to Arthur and resting a webbed hand over his chest. "I found him near the moment of death. Come, feel him."

Keuppedros joined her, and rested his hand next to hers. His harried expression transformed into one of delight. "We should crack his shell. There is a worthy pearl within."

"We have enough pearls," said Kyría Cirrina. "He will fetch a far higher price intact. That he is still alive adds an air of mystery which will make him worth even more."

Crack his shell? Pearl? 'I am not yours to sell,' Arthur thought at them, disturbed and angry. 'I demand you release me.'

They ignored him. "He seems to be damaged," said Keuppedros. He moved his hand over the damage that the Mari-Morgen had done to Arthur's armor. "Epoulothoún," he said, and his red eyes flared with magic. When he dropped his hand, the metal was pristine, as if Merlin had just spent the afternoon mending and polishing it.

"He shines like silver now," said Kyría Cirrina, as she stared in desire. "Perhaps we should keep him."

"He will buy us all the silver the Merrows can carry," promised Keuppedros. "If we enter him at the start of the Council, we will have our pick of treasure, before it can be spent at the market."

While the Merrows and Finfolk busied themselves unpacking the glowing orbs -- and perhaps those were the pearls? How could he have one of those inside him? -- Arthur finished working himself free of the kelp that bound his wrists. He had been slowly making progress all through the journey here, and it was long past time that he escaped this nightmare. All he needed was the right moment, and he could swim into the busy halls. He could use the tall spires of the castle to quickly reach the surface, and then figure where to go from there. He'd been waiting for the Merrow to return with his sword, because once he had it again, he would make quick work of any Unseelie that tried to stop him. But the Merrow had yet to return. It seemed the sword would just have to wait.

One of the floating nets slipped from a Merrow's grasp, and the orbs spilled out and up. It was just the distraction Arthur needed. As soon as everyone turned away, he pulled his wrists from behind his back and freed himself from the rest of the rope. He half-ran, half-swam for the door, and heard the cry of alarm just as he turned into the hall. It was just as crowded as before, perhaps even more, and he used that to his advantage, ducking behind flowing robes and blending in next to creatures whose skin gleamed like armor.

He didn't head back the way they'd come in, because that was where they would be expecting him to go. Instead he travelled with the crowd towards the center of the palace. The crowd slowed almost to a stop before suddenly releasing into a huge chamber, and Arthur realized that this must be the market. Despite the alienness of these creatures, he recognized that they were setting up just as a human market, with laying out their wares for display. A quick glance around revealed a dizzying assortment of wares, foods, bottled potions, plants, even other creatures. There were also more of the glowing orbs, as well as items that seemed to have been taken from the human world.

But he had no time for sightseeing. There was no ceiling to the chamber, just as with the rooms, and he swam upwards as fast as he could. He considered discarding his armor, but if he met up with another creature like the Mari-Morgen, it could be the difference between life and death. He suddenly remembered that the red Merrow hat was also the only thing keeping him from drowning, and he gave it a firm tug to secure it.

The chamber's walls did not lead to a spire, but a wide opening only a few stories up. He pushed himself over the lip, slid along the smooth crystal walls and then pushed off, propelling himself away from the palace. He was free!

"Arthur!" called a voice, faint in his head, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Síofra swimming after him. Arthur was a strong swimmer, but he was tiring, and Síofra was faster. Arthur pushed himself harder, kept his eyes locked on the surface. If he could only get to solid ground, he would have the advantage over these water creatures, sword or no sword.

Síofra called again, louder as it drew closer. When its voice suddenly became alarmed, and Arthur glanced back to see Síofra waving its furry arms, as if to warn him. A movement caught the corner of Arthur's eye, and he turned to see what Síofra was warning him about.

It was a huge creature, over a hundred feet long, with two massive bull-like horns and a mane that ran down the length of its back, and it was headed right for Arthur, its huge mouth opening in anticipation. Arthur briefly froze in shock, then swam for the surface with everything he had.

He could hear the deep rumble of the creature as it closed in on him. He wasn't going to make it in time. He turned to face the monster as it barrelled towards him, rows of sharp teeth encircling its maw. He braced himself, ready to go down fighting, but just as he was about to be swallowed, Síofra crashed into him and sent them both tumbling away.

The monster bit down on nothing, and gave a bellow of anger that shook Arthur's bones. Síofra recovered first, dragging Arthur along by the arm back towards the castle. Arthur tried to pull free, but the small creature was surprisingly strong. And then there were other Merrows with them, and their Fuaths, and the next thing Arthur knew he was trapped in one of the nets that had been used to hold the glowing orbs. He struggled against it, but a Fuath grabbed him and held him tight.

Through the netting, Arthur saw that the huge creature was finally completing its turn, and coming back for a second try. He was hustled back into the market chamber, where Síofra rounded on him.

"That was very foolish, Arthur," it chided.

'Let me go! I am Prince Arthur of Camelot, and you have no right to hold me!' Arthur kicked at the Fuath, but the monster just grunted at him.

"You are the property of Kyría Cirrina, by right of salvage," said Síofra. "Your life was forfeit, and it has been claimed. Do not try to escape again. Not every being is as easy to deter as a Water Bull."

Arthur was not taken back to the chamber he had escaped from, but to a new room just off the market chamber. Kyría Cirrina and Keuppedros were waiting there, and they looked angry and relieved to see Arthur returned to them.

"The sooner we are rid of him the better," muttered Keuppedros. "A living human is far more trouble than a pearl."

"It is a shame," sighed Kyría Cirrina. She stroked Arthur's armor through the netting. "He is so wonderfully shiny."

It was a shame it was impossible to spit on someone underwater. Arthur would have taken some satisfaction in seeing her indignation.

Besides Arthur's group, there were dozens of different creatures gathered in a circle around a wide, shallow depression. Another Finman swam into the center of it. He was decorated with even more silver than Kyría Cirrina. "I welcome you all to Finfolkheem, and to this season's meeting of the Unseelie Court. I must remind everyone that for the duration of the market, Finfolkheem is neutral territory. All wars, fights, feuds, and blood battles are suspended until all parties return to their own lands. There will be no stealing, no killing, and no eating of other participants."

There was a murmur of assent from around the circle.

The Finman curled his tentacles in satisfaction. "Excellent. To begin our festivities, a special treat will be presented for auction. A unique piece, never before seen in Avalon." He gestured towards Arthur, and the Fuath carried Arthur into the center, flanked by two Merrows. The net was cut and pulled away.

"A living human!" declared the Finman, with evident pride. "The real thing. No glamour, no illusion. Remove the cohuleen druith, and he will drown." The Finman removed the red hat from Arthur's head just long enough for Arthur to start to struggle in alarm. It was replaced, and the water that had been drowning him suddenly became breathable again.

Several creatures swam over to inspect Arthur. They poked and prodded him, tugged at his clothes and his armor and his hair, pinched his skin and licked it. There was a palpable excitement in the room as everyone realized that Arthur really was an actual, living human.

"What about his soul?" asked something that looked like a giant, painted slug. "How do we know he has one?"

"Because I have seen it," said Kyría Cirrina, stepping forward and shooing away the last of the creatures that lingered around Arthur. "I found him at the moment of death, and restored him before the pearl could fully leave its shell. His soul is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I promise you, you will not be disappointed."

"Bidding begins at a hundred silvers," said the Finman. Immediately fins, tentacles, and paws were raised, and the price was quickly driven up. Though it was a strange sort of compliment, Arthur could only fume and hope that whatever bought him, it would be easier to escape from than the Finfolk and their servants.

Bidding slowed as the price grew too high for all but a few. Arthur hardly cared which of them won him, but in the end it was, of all things, a horse. Not a normal horse, obviously, but a magical aquatic horse, white and sky-blue in color, with a mane that seemed to be made of sea foam. The horse was also accompanied by servants, who carried over a huge chest full of silver. When Arthur was delivered to them, they bound him in silver chain and lay him over the back of the horse. The skin of the creature was smooth and cold and oddly sticky. The horse and its servants excused themselves to take away their prize, and the last sight he had of Kyría Cirrina was of her slathering her body and tentacles with silver in utter ecstasy.

To his surprise, Síofra accompanied them out.

Arthur immediately began to work on freeing his hands, but the more he strained, the tighter the chains became.

"Do not struggle, Arthur," warned Síofra. "You must not injure yourself."

'Why?' Arthur thought back, with surly anger. 'Because you don't want me to damage my new owner's property? What does it matter if you're just going to kill me and take my soul?'

Síofra said nothing. They left the market and made their way to a garden outside the palace. It was an underwater garden, with strange, bony plants and shoals of small, glimmering fish.

"I also saw your soul," Síofra said, at last. "The pearls we bring to market are the souls of humans who lost their way before they died. Their souls belong to no one. If we did not take them, they would go to waste. But your soul does have a claim upon it. Not the claim of a god, or Kyría Cirrina would not have taken you. But it is a claim."

'Then why go through all this?' Arthur asked. He had not been bought cheaply. 'Why not just let me go?'

Síofra and the others brought Arthur down from the horse and put him on a flat rock that served as garden seating.

"I could not let you go when you belonged to Kyría Cirrina," said Síofra. "If she believed you could not be sold, she would have taken your pearl for herself. Your soul would have been consumed. But I knew there was another who would be willing to help."

Arthur turned to the horse.

"Not all Unseelie are as mindlessly greedy as the Finfolk," said the horse. "And we are not all hostile to humans. I myself once lived among your kind. There, my name was Morvarc'h."

'In Albion?' Arthur thought, surprised.

"If you are from Camelot, then you must know of the kingdom of Cornwall," said Morvarc'h. "I rescued Gradlon, King of Cornwall, and Malgven, the Queen of the North, from drowning at sea. I became quite fond of them, and remained in their land with their daughter, Dahut, until her passing. I have not returned to the human world since."

'Cornwall?' The names were familiar, but it took Arthur a moment to recall from where. His mother's line, the DuBois, were from Cornwall, and he remembered the names of Gradlon, Malgven, and Dahut from distant lessons on genealogy. 'Those are my mother's ancestors. To have lived with them, you would have to be centuries old.'

"I am a kelpie," said Morvarc'h. "Unlike the Finfolk, we live long lives. That affords us a perspective that they cannot achieve, and the wisdom not to lose ourselves to greed." He turned to Síofra. "You may remove his chains. He will not endanger himself now."

Síofra removed them. Arthur was tempted to take advantage of his sudden freedom, but he recognized that Morvarc'h was right. Having found an actual ally, the best thing to do now was cooperate with him.

'If I want to leave, you will let me?' Arthur asked.

"I will return you to the gates of Avalon, if that is your wish."

'It is,' Arthur replied. 'But not alone. I came to Avalon because the Sidhe took someone from me. Someone very important. I have to get him back. Will you help me?'

"The Sidhe," said Morvarc'h, thoughtfully. "They are not like us. For all their long lives, they are trapped by their envy of the human world. If they have taken your friend, they will not be willing to part with him. Not for any price."

'They have no claim to him,' Arthur insisted. 'He was stolen from me. I will not leave Avalon without him.'

Morvarc'h seemed amused by this. "You have the spirit of your ancestors. And if I am not mistaken, you bear their aspect."

'Then you will help me?'

"I can take you to the island of the Sidhe. There they hold their own court, the Seelie Court, where their kind congregate before Titania and Oberon. All Sidhe are as greedy and vain as the Finfolk. The ones who took your friend will not be able to resist displaying their treasures to her. Sit upon my back and I will carry you."

'Thank you,' Arthur thought, grateful. It was more than he'd hoped for. He pushed himself up off the silt and swum into position on Morvarc'h's back. When he tried to grab at his mane, his hands went right through it; it really was sea froth, or the magical equivalent. The sticky fur would have to suffice to help Arthur keep his grip.

Síofra swam up to him. "The Mari-Morgen has long preyed on my kind. Even the Finfolk did not have the power to destroy her, but you did. For that, all Merrows owe you a debt. If it is within my power to assist you, I will."

'There is something. My sword.'

"Ah. When it fell from your hand, it plunged into the bottom of the lake. We tried to pull it free, but it was fixed solidly within the rock. I will try to free it, but it may take time."

Time Arthur didn't have. He couldn't wait for the sword and then go to Merlin. He had to save Merlin first, and then deal with the sword. 'Keep trying."

"I wish you blessings, Arthur of Camelot. And blessings to your friend." Síofra gave him a sympathetic look, and it was clear that Síofra believed that Merlin's shell had already been cracked, and his pearl, his soul removed. That Merlin was dead. Arthur couldn't let himself consider that as an option. Whatever had happened to Merlin, Arthur was going to get him back.

"Hold on," said Morvarc'h, and then they were flying, away from the garden and the palace. Morvarc'h galloped through the water as if upon an invisible road, and water rushed past them like wind. Arthur gripped the horse's neck with one hand and his hat with the other; the last thing he needed was another round of drowning. The rush of water threatened to dismount him, and he curled himself against Morvarc'h's neck, burying his head beneath the foamy mane.

His mother's ancestors had been friends with an enchanted horse. It was hard to grasp, even though he had heard legends of such creatures. He had thought of them only like the unicorn, prey to make made into trophies, or as threats to be destroyed. And yet here he was, being rescued by one that had lived with his own ancestors. From the sound of it, he would not even exist if not for Morvarc'h.

The last thing he expected to find in this strange, surreal place was a link to his family's past. It made him wonder about the DuBois. The only one of his mother's relatives still alive was his Uncle Agravaine, and Arthur had not seen him in a very long time. His mother's death had devastated the family, and driven a wedge between his father's side and his mother's side, one that had not healed after more than twenty years. The current feud with King Odin only exacerbated the situation. Perhaps when he returned to Camelot, he would reach out to Agravaine and arrange a visit. Even if Arthur could not safely travel to Cornwall, Agravaine could come to Camelot. He tucked the thought away to deal with once this crisis was over.

They broke the surface, and suddenly they were galloping on the water instead of under it. Arthur straightened up and saw that they were headed directly for a large island. As they approached the beach, Morvarc'h slowed, and he stopped at the edge of the water. Arthur hopped off, his boots splashing in the water as he struggled to regain his land legs.

"Be careful when you remove--" Morvarc'h began, but Arthur had already pull off the red hat. He had expected to simply resume breathing air, but the water still in his lungs had other ideas. He ended up on all fours on the muddy beach, vomiting up water and coughing violently.

It probably shouldn't be possible for a water horse to look dryly amused, but Morvarc'h achieved it.

Arthur straightened and looked at the island. Just as he had seen on his arrival in Avalon, there was no sign of habitation, no markings or structures. "Where do we go next?" he asked, his voice roughened from the water. Arthur took off the hat and wrung it out. He shook it out, folded it, and tucked it into his shirt for safekeeping. If the sun could be trusted, it was already noon.

"I can go not further," said Morvarc'h. "I cannot trespass upon Sidhe soil. But I will advise you if I can. What do you know of the Sidhe who took your friend?"

"The only name I am certain of is Sir Drudwas."

"Ah, Drudwas ap Tryffin," said Morvarc'h, knowingly. "He is a knight of the Tylwyth Teg and the brother of Erdudwyl. She is the wife of Edern ap Nudd, who is brother to Gwynn, the king of the Tylwyth Teg. You have a made powerful enemies."

"Whoever they are, they have trespassed upon my kingdom. They have threatened me and my people. I will stop them, however powerful they may be."

Morvarc'h nickered. "Then you walk in the footsteps of Beli the Great. When you are ready to return, call my name into the water, and I will hear you." Morvarc'h turned and leapt into the water. As he did, he dissolved completely into mist, so that the surface did not even ripple.

Arthur could not even begin to process everything that had just happened. Now was not the time. But he needed to rest for a moment, for the sake of his sanity. There was a log on the narrow beach, so he sat on it and sunned himself to chase the chill from his bones. The hat may have allowed him to survive underwater, but the bottom of a lake was still an inhospitable place for a human.

Síofra and Morvarc'h, for all their inhumanity, reminded Arthur very much of Merlin. Of the faith that Merlin put in him, despite the fact that Merlin was a sorcerer and Arthur's duty was to kill sorcerers. They had saved his life, just as Merlin had, time and again. Arthur had to get Merlin back, had to make things right between them.

With Morvarc'h gone, the island looked perfectly normal. Insects buzzed at the water's edge here, just as they did in Camelot. There were even dragonflies, and they looked like perfectly normal dragonflies. Arthur had always liked them. They were strange and curious, but still comfortably within the bounds of normality.

Perhaps things would be less baffling from here on. Perhaps the oddest parts of Avalon were behind him, left behind in Finfolkaheem. Perhaps he would stride into the woods, find Sir Drudwas and Aulfric with a captive Merlin, and all it would take to rescue him would be one good sneak attack and they would be on their way home.

A giant frog with bat wings instead of limbs suddenly flew down from an overhanging tree and leapt into the shallows, lunging at the dragonflies. The dragonflies breathed fire, singeing the bat-frog before they scattered to escape it. The bat-frog gave a massive croak and lashed its long, lizard-tail at the water in frustration, and then jumped back into the tree.

So much for normality.

He had rested for long enough. He pushed himself to his feet and saw that there was a narrow path that led into the deep forest. A path that might very well lead him to the Seelie Court. He had no weapons, no allies, no idea of what he was about to face.

He stepped onto the path, and he walked.

Chapter Text

Morgana's chambers were quiet and dark when they returned, with only a few slivers of moonlight slipping in through the unbroken windows now that the storm had passed. Gwen carefully made her way to the table, her one lit candle casting a small but warm circle of light around her. She set it down and used it to light the rest, then stood at the end of the table in wait, uncertain if she was truly welcome or if she had merely been taken back by Morgana to spite Arthur.

Morgana wrapped herself in a blanket and sat down. She placed the grimoire and the notes on the table, put on a resolute expression and opened the book. "There has to be something in this we can use," she said, flipping through the pages. "I refuse to sit around, waiting to be slaughtered."

Gwen peered over the candles at the grimoire and the stack of notes. She had been eager to get at look at them herself since she'd spotted them in Arthur's chambers, but Merlin had gifted them to Morgana in his letter to her. It made sense, since Morgana was the one who needed it most, and at the time he'd written the letters, Merlin had not known of Gwen's faith. To be so close to a book of the Old Religion, to the very words of the gods... She had not felt such awe since she was little, and worshipped in unquestioning devotion with her family.

At first the pages were filled with the writing of the Old Religion, which Gwen could recognize but not read with any fluency. Then the writing changed; Gwen sounded out some words in her head, and recognized the words, understood at least some of them. There was a pause and she realized that Morgana had stopped flipping the pages and was staring at her.

"You can read this?" Morgana asked. "You understand it?"

"The old tongue," Gwen said, and took a cautious step closer. "Yes, my lady. My parents taught me."

Morgana stiffened and looked down at the open pages. She traced a finger lightly against the ornate painting on the page. "You never told me," she said, the hurt and betrayal clear in her voice. She looked up, and Gwen nearly flinched at the anger directed at her. "I wonder if I ever knew you at all."

Gwen forced herself not to step back. Despite Merlin's death, despite all the revelations, their fate had not changed. This could still be their last night alive, and she wanted no more regrets. "You know why I couldn't."

Morgana gave her an incredulous look. "Did you really think I would have told Uther?"

"Not now," Gwen said. "But when we met. When I came to the castle. You were the King's Ward."

"I thought I was more than that to you. I thought we were friends."

"We were," Gwen insisted.

"The two of us against the world. Or was that a lie as well?"

"I couldn't put my family at risk. And you said..."

"What?" Morgana prompted, angrily. "What could I have possibly said that would make it impossible for you to trust me? That made it right for you to lie to me for years?"

"Nothing, my lady," Gwen said, biting back the truth, because it would do little good to remind Morgana that there was a time when she was as prejudiced against sorcerers and worshippers as any in Camelot. That it was not only Uther that taught her that magic was evil and corrupting, but also her beloved father Gorlois. "But I lied only to protect you, just as I lied to protect my family. As you lied to the King tonight."

That seemed to soften Morgana. "Yes," she said. "And I know that after the loss of your father... you had reason to be afraid. But you shouldn't have lied about my dreams. You should have told me the truth."

There was an awkward silence, and they both looked away. What more was there to say? What was done was done, and there was nothing either of them could do to change the past. The future looked little better. Yet Morgana's bleak prophecies had compelled Gwen to action thus far, and even with Merlin's death, she could not accept their fate, could not surrender to it. She straightened her back, sat down beside Morgana despite the lack of invitation, and started pointedly reading Arthur's notes.

Morgana stared at her, perhaps stunned by her defiance. But instead of throwing Gwen out as she had before, she turned back to the grimoire and resumed her attempts to make sense of it. Then with a huff she slid the grimoire over to Gwen and took the notes for herself. "Here. It's all nonsense to me," she said, with feigned indifference.

Gwen bit back a smile. Morgana had always been proud, and no matter how difficult her pride could be, Gwen was glad that it had not changed. She bent over the grimoire and got to work.

§

By the time the sun rose, they had made it through the grimoire, but they had little to show for it. They could not translate the first section of the book but for a few words that Gwen had learned from her mother. The rest of it was somewhat understandable, but there were so many gaps in Gwen's vocabulary -- which consisted only of the words needed for prayers -- that it was difficult to discern the purpose of any given spell. Guessing seemed like a particularly dangerous thing to do, even as a last resort.

The other problem was that while Gwen knew about prayers and spells, and had known sorcerers and seen their magic, she had no magic of her own. It was difficult if not impossible for her to teach Morgana how a spell worked as she had never performed any herself. Even where she could translate a spell clearly, Morgana could say the words all morning and nothing would happen. As a result, they had both grown weary and frustrated.

As the world had not yet ended, they agreed that the best thing to do was to take a break.

Gwen went down to the kitchens to get their breakfast, but doing so was a sharp reminder of Merlin's absence. There was so much going on that it wasn't easy to take the time to grieve, but she couldn't ignore the pain of his absence. Gwen had mourned too many already in her life, and the sudden, cruel death of her father was still fresh even after a year. Sometimes she woke up and forgot, only to be reminded all over again. And so she did not break down in tears and was not overcome by the loss. She maintained the same polite, calm facade that had always protected her, while in her heart she mourned.

She should have told Merlin the truth a year ago, when she had first found out about his magic. She should have told Morgana the truth when her nightmares started. Gwen had been so afraid that she had stopped trusting even her closest friends. But that was life in Camelot. Uther's long campaign against magic turned neighbor against neighbor. Even the mildest accusation of sorcery would earn the King's favor and even his gold.

Before her mother died, there were days when people would just disappear from Gwen's life, and only later would she find out that they had been executed. Some of them had been secretly of the faith, and a few had even been sorcerers, but many were neither. As Gwen grew older, she learned how easy it was for a landlord to be rid of a difficult tenant, or for jealousy and rejection to result in accusations of love spells and witchcraft. To survive as a citizen of Camelot meant keeping your mouth shut and your head down. It meant being as careful of your friends as you were of your enemies. Gwen had always tried to fight against that fear, to remain open to the world, yet now she saw that she had succumbed.

She returned to Morgana's chambers feeling angry at herself, angry at the injustice that was so commonplace and mundane. She was angry at her own powerlessness, and at her acceptance of it. She put down the tray with a thump and set out the food with equal violence.

Morgana peeked out from behind the screen where she was changing. "Gwen? What's happened?"

"Nothing, my lady," Gwen said, and sat down. She stared at her plate and felt entirely absent of hunger. Her stomach was already full of anger and had no room for food.

There was a pause as Morgana finished changing and stepped out. She was wearing a simple black gown, loose and flowing. "I thought we were done with little white lies," she said, and there was heat in her voice despite her calm expression.

"I was thinking about Merlin," Gwen admitted, her chest knotting up again. "I miss him."

Morgana didn't reply. She turned and frowned at the oilcloth-covered windows.

"Morgana?"

"I miss him too," Morgana said, "but he lied to me. He knew about my magic and he said nothing. I thought we were friends."

Gwen couldn't help but feel that it was as directed at her as much as Merlin. "He gave you his book."

"And what use is it to me when I can't even read it?" Morgana said, her temper flaring. "I needed help, not kindling paper. I needed to know I wasn't alone. And instead he and you and Gaius lied to my face and drugged me!"

As her anger reached its peak, her eyes went wide and golden light flared in them. Gwen shrieked as the vase of flowers on the table suddenly exploded, sending water and ceramic shards flying. Morgana stumbled back, horrified, and shut her eyes tightly.

Gwen uncurled from her protective hunch and was relieved to find that they were both unharmed. She looked at the mess on the table and the floor, and at Morgana, who was frozen stiff and squeezing her eyes tightly shut. Gwen stood up from the table and small fragments from the vase fell from her hair and clothes. Their breakfast was ruined, the whole table soaked and covered in bits of vase and flowers.

"Gwen?" called Morgana, trembling and frightened.

"I'm all right," Gwen said, though she felt quite shaken herself. It was one thing to come in after the fact and see the blown-out windows, but Morgana had just looked at the vase and it had exploded. For all the years Gwen had known Morgana, she had only ever been afraid for her, never of her. Yet here they were. The only solace was that Morgana seemed even more scared of herself than Gwen was.

"Morgana," Gwen said, keeping her voice calm and even. "I know you're angry, and you have every right to be. None of us wanted to accept the truth. But you have to let us help you now."

Morgana slowly opened her eyes, as if ready to close them again if her magic flared. But her eyes remained their natural pale green. She breathed in sharply. "You're bleeding," she said, and reached out to touch Gwen's forehead. When she drew her hand back, there was blood on her fingers.

Gwen reached up to feel the wound, and hissed when she found it: a grazing cut near her hairline. One of the pieces of the vase must have sliced her as it shot past. A few inches down and it could have blinded her, and the thought was sobering.

Morgana had already sprung into action, grabbing the nearest clean cloth and wetting a corner of it in the washbasin. She returned and gently dabbed away the blood, then bundled the cloth and pressed it against the shallow wound.

"There," Morgana said, and Gwen took hold of the cloth and stepped back.

They looked at each other. Regret and anxiety warred on Morgana's face.

"In the letter," Gwen said. "What did he write to you?"

Morgana hesitated, as if reluctant to share whatever small piece of Merlin she had been gifted. "And yours?"

With her free hand, Gwen drew her letter from her pocket and held it out, a sort of challenge. Morgana hesitated again, then offered hers in exchange. They each turned away to read.

Gwen had already memorized what was in her letter. In it, Merlin had thanked her for being so kind to him when he first arrived in Camelot, for being his first and closest friend in a strange new place. He'd remorsefully confessed to being the source of the poultice that both saved her father's life and nearly doomed her, just as he had when Gwen had freed him. It was a solace to her that she had been able to thank Merlin for that poultice, and to grant him forgiveness for it. He did not deserve to carry that burden, either in life or in death.

He had ended his letter with pleading not on his own behalf, but for Arthur and Morgana and Gaius. He asked Gwen to look after them as best she could, to help Gaius and Morgana, though of course he made no mention of their magic. His last request to her, the most important, was that she watch over Arthur and keep him from being alone, because he would be a great king one day, but he couldn't do it if he was alone. And he knew that Gwen would be kind, and love him.

Morgana's letter was not dissimilar, but it was far more direct.

'My Lady,

If you are reading this, then I am dead. I am sorry for this, not for myself, but because it means I cannot give you the help you deserve. You are a brave and wonderful friend. You risked your life for me and my mother, and your teachings kept me safe in Gedref.

Yet in return I was a coward. I was afraid to tell you the truth about myself and about your dreams. I am a sorcerer, a warlock, as I have been since birth. If I was executed, you already know this. No matter what was said about me, know that I sought only to protect Camelot. Know that magic is not evil, that it does not corrupt, and that there are others like us who need help.

Your dreams are prophetic. You are a seer. I bequeath to you my book of spells and hope that it will aid you. Gaius may be able to help you control your magic, if he is still alive. If he is dead, journey to the woods and seek the Druids, or south to Gedref.

Be well. Be safe.

Merlin'

Gwen had just finished reading when she was startled by Morgana thrusting Gwen's letter back into her hands.

"Unbelievable," Morgana muttered, eyes narrowed.

"Sorry?"

"As if he had any right to assign you to Arthur," Morgana seethed. "Arthur deserves to be alone for what he did. I can't believe Merlin was just going to let Arthur kill him."

"But he didn't."

"And how close was it, do you think?" Morgana challenged. "How bad did things have to be for Merlin to write these? And what he did do wasn't much better. He turned Merlin into his own personal prisoner, all so he wouldn't be alone." She said the last with a sneer. "He's no better than Uther."

"That's not fair," Gwen protested. Morgana's temper often made her take things too far, made her quick to judge. "Arthur's trying to understand. He's trying to be better."

"Now that it's too late."

"It's not too late for everyone else," Gwen said, Merlin's words giving her strength. He had been brave in the face of death, and she could be, too.

"Arthur plays the hero when it suits him," Morgana said, unmoved. "But he goes to his knees the moment Uther crooks his finger."

"You know that's not true," Gwen said. Arthur might not go against Uther the way Morgana did, in blatant defiance, but that didn't mean he never stood up to him when it mattered. Morgana didn't have the weight of expectation on her shoulders. Gwen knew all too well that it was easier to be openly defiant when you had nothing to lose.

"Arthur does as he's told. Or have you forgotten what happened to Linette?"

Gwen stepped back, the words like a blow. "How could you ask me that?" As if Gwen had not taken the full weight of guilt for bringing Linette to Arthur in the first place. As if she had not had nightmares of her own about the execution, as if those images had not merged in her mind with her father's death. She would never forget Linette.

Morgana finally seemed to realize that she'd gone too far, but the words could not be taken back. "Gwen," she said, softly, regretful.

"No," Gwen said, turning away. She gathered up the notes and the grimoire and took them. "If you have no use for this kindling, I'm bringing it down to Gaius. Merlin said he could help and I believe him. I'm not going to let people die just for some... some petty revenge!"

"Gwen, wait," Morgana said, as Gwen reached the door.

But Gwen ignored her. She opened the door and marched out and hurried down the steps, blinking back her tears. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs, but Morgana hadn't run after her. She dried her eyes on a clean corner of the bloodied cloth, then gently prodded the cut. It seemed to have stopped bleeding, but she would have Gaius take a look at it anyway. And then he would teach her how to read the grimoire, and they would work together to find a spell to save Camelot, whether he liked it or not.

Gwen spared a thought for Morgana and the wreckage of the broken vase and their breakfast, but she refused to turn back. Let Morgana clean up her own mess for a change. Gwen had a kingdom to save.

§

"Gaius? You're out early." Gwen had not expected to find Gaius at the foot of the stairs to his tower. Had he been out on his rounds?

"Gwen, my dear," Gaius said, but as Gwen approached him on the stairs, she realized that he had not woken early but been out all night. And out of the castle, from the look of him. He was wearing his travelling cloak and was leaning tiredly on a Sidhe's staff. He had something hidden under his cloak.

Before she could ask what he had been up to, he fumbled under his cloak and handed her his key ring. "Open my door? I've grown far too old for midnight jaunts."

Gwen gave him a curious look, but accepted his keys. Once they were inside his chambers, he told her to lock the door. Her curiosity was growing by the second. She noted the dirt on his shoes, and the fragments of dried leaves clinging to the hem of his long cloak. She had expected Gaius to be secluding himself in mourning, not traipsing around the forest.

"Gaius? Has something happened?"

"A great deal."

He handed her the staff, and at last revealed what he had been hiding. Gwen gaped in astonishment: it was a tiny blue woman, with gossamer wings, bound up with wire and fixed to the center of a candle cage! The woman had been gagged and blindfolded with scraps of cloth, and despite the coverings her seething fury was evident. She struggled, testing her bonds, but they held firm.

"The Lady Sophia," Gaius explained, setting the cage down on the table. "In her true form." He held up a hand. "I'll explain everything, but first..." He sat down with a groan, and rubbed his lower back. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Oh," Gwen said, suddenly remembering the grimoire. She put it down onto the table, a safe distance from Sophia. "I need... that is, Morgana and I need your help with this. To translate it."

"I thought your mother taught you the old tongue."

It startled her to hear Gaius speak so openly of the Old Religion. Even though Gaius had maintained a quiet relationship with those who held on to their faith, Gwen's family included, even in private he always avoided saying anything that could be incriminating if overheard. Gaius was protected by his relationship with Uther, and by his frequent visits to the lower town in his capacity as physician, but he was still incredibly cautious.

"Of course," Gwen said. "But nothing this, well, advanced, I suppose. And I can't read the first part at all. I'm trying to teach Morgana, but..."

Gaius frowned, then sighed. "Another generation and it will all be forgotten, I expect." But he patted her hand and mustered a smile. "Let's see if we can keep it alive a while longer."

The door rattled as someone tried to open it, and Gwen and Gaius turned to each other in alarm. The possession of either the grimoire or Sophia would be enough for a death sentence. Gwen's blood ran cold, and she frantically scanned the room for hiding places.

Gaius reached for the cage. "Quickly, we must--"

There was a knock. "Gwen? Are you in there?"

"It's Morgana," Gwen said, relief overwhelming her. She pressed a hand to her chest, to calm her beating heart.

Gaius leaned back, as affected by the close call as she was. Gwen went to the door and let Morgana in, then locked it behind her.

"Gwen, I--" Morgana glanced towards Gaius, then looked again and stared at Sophia. She tilted her head, quite taken aback. "What on earth is that?"

"It's Sophia."

"What do you mean it's Sophia?"

Gaius cleared his throat. "I suggest that I explain everything over breakfast. Unless you've already eaten?"

§

Gaius was in no condition to be crouched over a fire, so Gwen took over the cooking duties. Fortunately Gaius' chambers were well-stocked with water and firewood, so it was short work to heat up a porridge for them. Morgana grated in some cinnamon, and Gwen added a dollop of honey, as they all needed something to calm their nerves.

After their scare with Morgana, they decided that while they could keep the grimoire at hand, for it was easy enough to hide amongst Gaius' library, Sophia needed to be secured from prying eyes. They considered a few hiding places, including a loose floorboard under Merlin's old bed, but eventually settled on the grain barrel Gaius kept along the wall. They wrapped Sophia's cage in burlap, then worked the bundle down into the center of the grain. As a magical creature, she would not suffocate, and the grain would prevent her from raising an alarm -- and from overhearing their conversation.

They were settled around a table, halfway through their bowls, when Morgana could bear to wait no more. "All right," she said, turning to Gaius. "Start explaining."

Gaius finished his mouthful, set down his spoon, and looked at them each in turn. "There is a chance -- a very slim chance -- that Merlin might be alive. Arthur has gone to Avalon to find him."

"What do you mean, he's gone?" Morgana said, taken aback. "How could he leave without us? Did he think we wouldn't have helped?"

"Time was of the essence," Gaius said, with a placating hand.

"How could he have gone to Avalon?" Gwen asked, confused. Avalon wasn't somewhere you could just visit, like a village down the road. "He's not... Gaius, tell me he hasn't..."

Gaius' eyes widened. "Oh! No, absolutely not. He's alive. Or at least he was, the last time I saw him."

Morgana looked between them, clearly at a loss. Gwen realized that of course Morgana didn't know about Avalon, having been raised without the Old Religion. When they had been trying to read the grimoire, Gwen had been solely focused on the practicalities of spells and magic, but without knowing the old ways, it was like... like trying to make a fine sword by sticking a lump of iron ore into a campfire.

"Avalon is the Otherworld," she explained. "The land of eternal youth. It's where your soul goes when you die. It's where the gods live."

But that just made Morgana more confused. "What does any of this have to do with Merlin still being alive?"

"The last time the Sidhe were here, Merlin saw them open the Gates of Avalon," Gaius said, stepping in. "He should not have survived, and yet he did. We surmised that rather than killing Merlin, the other Sidhe, Aulfric and Drudwas, took Merlin with them and returned to Avalon, perhaps in revenge."

Realization dawned on Morgana's face, followed swiftly by a fresh wave of anger. "When Sophia was here. I came to you about my dreams. I warned you about her. And you drugged me and sent me off to bed!" She stabbed the remains of her porridge with her spoon to punctuate her words. "I can't believe I ever trusted you."

But Gaius refused to turn repentant. "The fact that you did meant that Merlin was able to save Arthur's life."

"And that would have been impossible if you'd admitted the truth?"

"I have taken care of you since you were a child. It was for your own protection. If Uther found out--"

"This has nothing to do with Uther."

"You are the King's Ward," Gaius said, sharply. "While I regret that you have suffered, my first priority has been to keep you alive. The draughts were the only thing that protected you."

Morgana didn't reply, and the two of them were caught in a stare-down. Gwen decided to get back to the business at hand. "So Merlin's in Avalon?"

Gaius dropped his gaze. "It appears so. We were able to locate a spell that allowed Arthur to enter Avalon unharmed. Sophia opened the Gates. Arthur will return when he has found Merlin."

Morgana held out her hand, palm up. "Give me the spell."

"I'm afraid that's not possible."

Morgana snorted and crossed her arms. "If this is about protecting me, I'm not going to be very protected when Camelot is a pile of smoldering ash. Arthur's not the only one around here who can fight, and I know what's coming better than anyone. We have to stop them before it's too late."

"I cannot give you what I do not have," Gaius said. "The spell was given to Arthur by the dragon."

"The Great Dragon?" Gwen said, surprised. She and Morgana had once snuck down into the dungeons to look for it, but the way had been blocked. "Then it's still alive?"

"Yes, but--"

Morgana pushed away her bowl. "If it gave Arthur the spell, it can give it to me."

Gaius gave her the eyebrow for that. "Even if he was willing, which I very much doubt, you would still have no way to enter Avalon. Only the Sidhe have the power to open the Gates."

Morgana looked towards the grain barrel, then back to Gaius. "If she doesn't want to do it, we'll just have to convince her." There was a substantial threat implicit in her words, but then Morgana had been experiencing the Sidhe's invasion of Camelot over and over again every night in her dreams. Her anger and her urgency were understandable.

But Gaius wasn't ready to give in. "The Sidhe are magical beings, and must be fought with magic in return. Mortal weapons are of little use against them. If and when Arthur returns from Avalon, we will have his sword."

"And what's so special about that?" Morgana said, then gave Gwen an apologetic glance. "Not that it isn't a fine sword."

Gwen couldn't help but think of the strange engravings she had seen on the sword -- the ones that had definitely not been put there by her father. "Did Merlin do something to it?"

"Yes," Gaius said, though he didn't sound very happy about it. "The sword was forged in dragonfire. It was imbued with great power. Even the Sidhe cannot defend against it."

A speculative light came into Morgana's eyes. "Could he do it again?"

Gaius finally seemed to relent, after seeing that Morgana wasn't going to back down. "You'll have to ask him that yourself. But we cannot risk going down to the dungeons until tonight."

"Very well," Morgana said. "But I'm not going to sit idle until then. Tell me what else we have." When Gaius didn't immediately reply, she stared him down, undaunted. "Merlin told me you would help me. Unless there's a reason why you can't?"

Gaius pushed aside his own bowl and looked down at his clasped hands. He seemed to be gathering his strength, or perhaps his thoughts. "Your magic is a rare gift. There are few who can see what is to come. But no prophecy is absolute, no matter how clear the vision. We cannot rush to action, or we risk becoming the very cause of its fulfillment."

"But the Sidhe are already here," Gwen said. "We know they're here for revenge."

"Yes," Gaius said. "Revenge against Merlin for killing Aulfric and Sophia. But it seems in that they have already succeeded."

"But Aulfric and Sophia are alive," Gwen said, confused.

"And that mystery is exactly why we must proceed with great care," said Gaius. "Arthur has taken a tremendous risk in going to Avalon. Even if he is able to locate Merlin, he may no longer be as we knew him. If they cannot find a way to open the Gates from the other side, they may be unable to return at all."

"Then why let him go?" Gwen asked. "How did he even know that Merlin is still alive?"

"The torcs," Gaius explained. "Arthur was able to feel Merlin through the connection they share. Once he believed that Merlin could be saved, he could not be dissuaded, despite the dangers. We must wait and pray that he succeeds. Yet it may be that in saving Merlin, we are bringing upon ourselves a worse fate."

"My vision," Morgana said, realizing. "You think Arthur is going to start a war with the Sidhe."

"It's possible. But he may not, and it may be our actions here that cause our doom. Prophecies are never as simple as they first seem. We must consider the consequences of our actions."

"Then you have experience with them?" Gwen asked. "You've worked with seers before?"

Gaius hesitated. "Only a few are gifted with such power. Great Dragons are able to sense the threads of fate, but such threads can be pulled in many directions."

"What about the Druids?" Morgana asked. "Merlin said they could help."

Gaius frowned. "And when, exactly, did Merlin tell you all of this?"

Morgana didn't miss a beat. "He wrote me a letter while he was waiting for Arthur to execute him for being a sorcerer. He said that if you couldn't help me, I should go to the Druids or to Gedref."

Gwen was startled by the anger that flashed across Gaius' face. Gaius rarely got angry, and he almost never got angry at Merlin. Yet his reaction was unmistakable.

"Gaius?" Gwen asked, worried.

"I cannot stop you from going. But know that the consequences would be dire," Gaius said, with absolute certainty. "Either would cause the deaths of dozens, perhaps hundreds. If you go to Gedref, you risk sparking a civil war."

"You're making this up," Morgana said, taken aback. "Trying to scare me off. It won't work."

"I promise you that I am not."

Gwen looked at Morgana and then at Gaius, and decided to intervene before things escalated further. "But we won't have to leave, because you're going to help us. You're going to teach us how to read the grimoire, and you're going to teach Morgana to control her magic. And when Arthur and Merlin get back, we're all going to work together to stop the Sidhe. Is that clear?"

Gaius and Morgana both stared at her in surprise, but Gwen held firm. It was not her father that she felt was with her now, but her mother, who handled squabbling siblings and fighting noblemen with the same aplomb. The situation might be dire, but arguing with each other wasn't going to help.

Gaius backed down first. "Very well. But I must take care of my patients first, so we aren't interrupted." He stood and walked over to his medicine basket, and began selecting bottles from the cabinet to fill it. His back was stiff, and it was obvious that he wasn't happy about any of this. But as much as Gwen cared about Gaius, as much as she understood the dangers of what they were doing, she was certain that he was wrong. Morgana didn't deserve to be treated so poorly, to have no support from Gaius when he was so clearly willing to help Merlin. Gwen was also certain that Gaius knew more than he was saying, but they would have to try to pry those secrets from him at another time.

Gaius tucked the medicine basket under his arm, but stopped and walked back to them. He grabbed the Sidhe staff from where it was leaning and handed it to Morgana. "You may need this."

Morgana took the staff and turned it, inspecting it. "What do I do with it?"

"It's a weapon," Gaius explained. "If Sophia tries to escape, threaten her with it."

"But how do I use it?"

"You don't," Gaius said. "Not until you can control your magic. When the firing spell is cast, it causes a bolt of deadly energy to shoot forth, rather like a crossbow bolt."

"You're expecting me to bluff," Morgana realized.

Gaius' eyebrow arched. "Will that be a problem?"

Morgana jutted out her chin. "Not after what she did to Merlin. If she doesn't believe me, I'll use it as a magical flyswatter."

Gwen smiled at that, and Morgana quirked a smile back.

"I do believe you could," Gaius said, as a conciliatory gesture, and left for his rounds.

Gaius left the key with them, and Gwen got up to lock the door behind him. Nowhere was truly safe when it came to practicing magic in Camelot, but at least the lock would give them time to hide anything incriminating. She had new respect for how long Merlin had managed to survive as a sorcerer, living so intimately with the Prince. It had been hard enough for her to keep Morgana's secret, and it must have been many times harder for Merlin, especially once he and Arthur became lovers. It was no wonder he had finally given in and confessed, despite the danger.

"If he's not back by lunch, I'll drag him back here myself," Morgana declared.

"I'm sure he'll return soon." Gwen felt awkward defending Gaius, after everything, but he deserved the chance to make up for his mistakes. They all did.

She turned to Morgana and their eyes met. She could see that Morgana wasn't sure what to say to her, and Gwen felt the same. They had known each other for so long, and yet now there was such a distance between them. Just like Gaius, Gwen had thought that she was doing the right thing in protecting Morgana from herself, and maybe it had been right -- but it had also been wrong. If they had made a better choice, if they had helped Morgana accept and control her magic from the start, they would not be in this position now. Morgana would not have suffered in fear of herself, and none of them would have felt so alone. Gwen hoped that it was not too late to set them all on a brighter path, that the threads of fate could still be woven into something strong and good.

Morgana stepped forward, and stopped at arm's length. She reached up and gently touched the dried cut on Gwen's forehead. "It needs to be cleaned," she said, and turned to the cabinets. "Sit down."

Gwen sat. She kept silent as Morgana found bandages and cleansing ointment. Morgana cleaned the cut with a practiced hand; they had both spent so much time helping Gaius in one emergency or another than they were probably more skilled than Merlin in the role of physician's assistant.

When Morgana finished, she looked down at the stained cloth in her hand. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have lost my temper at you."

Gwen nodded, accepting her apology. "You know I'd never leave you. Not for Arthur. Not for anyone."

Morgana looked up, and their eyes met, held. For a moment, a sharp, brief moment, something passed between them, and then they both looked away. Gwen rubbed her palms on her dress, and Morgana busied herself in putting back the supplies.

"It's good news about Merlin," Gwen said, moving on to a safer topic. "At least he's still alive."

Morgana made an unimpressed sound. "We'll see how long that lasts. Arthur might be bringing him back just so he can have him properly executed."

Gwen didn't reply; she didn't want to argue about it again.

But Morgana continued on. "Once they're back, we'll make sure Merlin is safe. I think we should go to the Druids first. They're closer."

"You still want to go? To leave Camelot?"

"I have magic," Morgana said, and there was a waver in her voice as she said it, aloud and definitive. "If Uther finds out, he'll have me killed. He'll have us all killed."

"But what about the Sidhe? What about what Gaius said?"

Morgana gave a pace away and then back. "All right. We save Camelot, then we leave. You, me, and Merlin. As for Gaius, it's obvious that he can't be trusted. He's just lying to keep us in line, like he's lied to me over and over again."

"What about Arthur?"

"What about him? He's not going to leave. He has everything he wants. In a few years, this whole kingdom will be his. I'm sure Uther will have found him a princess by then."

Gwen wondered if Merlin would be willing to leave Arthur behind. A few days ago, such a thought would have been absurd, but she could not deny Merlin's quiet bitterness and disappointment when she had rescued him from his imprisonment. Whatever had happened between them, Arthur may have pushed Merlin too far. Whatever sacrifices Arthur was making to get him back, it may be too little, too late.

And yet despite everything, despite her own fears, despite the appeal of living where they could be accepted, Gwen hated the idea of running away. Camelot was her home and she didn't want to leave it. It would be like abandoning a part of herself. And yet could she let Morgana leave on her own, or with Merlin? If she had to make the choice between Camelot and Morgana, either would break her heart. But it seemed she would have to make it, and soon.

"Gwen?" Morgana said, stepping closer in concern. "You said you wouldn't leave me." For all her strength and determination, there was a fragility to her, one that softened Gwen's resistance.

"Of course," Gwen said, reaching out to take her hand. She held it between her own and met Morgana's eyes. "I swear, wherever you go, I will be with you."

Morgana smiled and hugged her, and Gwen held her back. Morgana was warm and soft in her arms, and Gwen was loathe to release her. She could not recall the last time they had held each other so closely, and for so long. Perhaps Morgana needed the comfort as much as Gwen did herself.

But comfort did not explain why, when they broke apart, Gwen felt at once awkward and bereft. And it did not explain why Morgana blushed and looked away.

Chapter Text

The forest path initially kept to the island's edge, where sunlight reflected off the water and played on the trees as if it was alive -- and for all Arthur knew, it was. But then the path turned, and he found himself missing the cheerful light. The Sidhe's forest was old and dense, with only a dappling of sunlight breaking through the thick canopy overhead. There was an atmosphere of overall gloom, not dissimilar to the depths of the lake, but here there were no floating lanterns to brighten the way. The only sign that anyone or anything had ever lived here was the path, and it was narrow and overgrown.

He felt unwelcome in a way he could not describe. The only comparison he could make was to the way he felt when he rode through the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Growing up, Arthur had heard many stories about the evils that had happened there, the dark magics that had brought down the great kings of Albion and left behind only overgrown ruins and mute statues. Soldiers and knights had gossipped around campfires, spreading rumors and myths that Arthur had soaked up with wide eyes. Looking back, he wondered about those stories. How much of them was true, and how much was the result of his father's lies? What had really happened all those centuries ago, after the Romans left Albion? The more he thought about magic, the more answers he sought, the more questions he found.

He wasn't alone in this place. He kept catching glimpses of movement in the corners of his eyes, but every time he turned, whatever it was would vanish from sight. He kept on high alert, ready for whatever weirdness Avalon threw at him next. But whatever creatures were out there, they were playing with him. If he looked away from the path he was on, even for a moment, there would suddenly be a fallen branch across it in the perfect position to trip on, or a foot-sized hole presumably made by a half-rabbit, half-gopher or whatever strange hybrids lived in this forest. Unseen hands threw acorns at him from above, and Arthur feverishly imagined an army of squirrels, each with little outfits of mail and a shield.

"I'm ignoring you," Arthur muttered under his breath. His patience was wearing thin, but he had already learned the hard way that any assumptions on his part could get him killed extremely quickly. In the world of the Unseelie, the appearance of humanity held no meaning, and his instincts were all but useless. It was likely to be the same here. Any rash action might be his last. No matter how annoying these creatures were, no matter how insistently they taunted him, he was not going to lose his temper. He was not going to lose his temper. He was not--

An acorn smacked him right between the eyes, and he almost screamed in frustration. A flash of red caught his eye, and he rounded on it. "That's it! I've had enough of your immature, idiotic--"

He stepped forward, and a length of ivy pulled taut across his ankle, sending him sprawling into a puddle that had definitely not been there a second ago. Arthur sputtered furiously and wiped the mud from his eyes. "Right," he seethed.

He heard more giggling, and a rustling in the undergrowth just feet from the path. He had it this time, he was certain of it. He saw a glimpse of red and he lunged for it. The creature, whatever it was, was quick. Arthur lunged again, and nearly had it, but then its friends joined in, throwing nuts and twigs at him from the high branches. Arthur took refuge beneath a half-fallen tree, and in that moment, wished more for a crossbow than for his sword.

The barrage finally ceased. Arthur cautiously looked out, and when no attack came, he decided the wisest thing would be to return to the path. He didn't have time for distractions, not when he was on a rescue mission. He turned back the way he'd come, looking around warily for his attackers, and then stopped short.

The path was gone.

At first he thought that he was looking in the wrong direction, confused by Avalon's topsy-turvy nature. Then he thought that he wasn't seeing it because it was so narrow and overgrown. But no, there were the trees he had passed, the rotted stump, the copse of hazels. Everything was exactly the same, except that the path was no longer there, as if it had never existed at all.

There was more giggling, and Arthur knew at once that he had been tricked. The creature had lured him from the path, and now he was even more lost than before.

"You got me into this," Arthur muttered at the creature. "You're going to get me out of it." He stood perfectly still, listening for the sound of his tormentor, for the tell-tale rustle of old leaves. He saw another glimpse of red, but this time he didn't move towards it. He let the creature sneak up on him, no doubt intending another round of mischief. As soon as it was upon him, Arthur snatched it up, his reflexes at least one thing he could still rely on.

At first glance the creature looked like a small, squat man, only inches high, with a white beard, a red jacket, and a wrinkled face. But on closer inspection, the tiny man was not a man at all: its white hair was a ruff of downy feathers, its feet were those of a squirrel; it had pointed ears and all-black eyes.

"I've got you now," Arthur said, holding it tight as it squirmed. "Tell me what happened to the path. How do I get it back?"

The creature squinted at him, as if it was sizing him up. Arthur squinted back at it. The creature turned up its nose at him, somehow finding him wanting.

"I know you can speak," Arthur told it. "I've talked with stranger things than you. Now tell me how to find the path again, or you're going to regret it." He didn't have his sword, but that didn't mean he was defenseless. There were countless ways to kill a creature this small, and he could do it with his bare hands alone. He didn't want to kill it, nuisance though it was, but threats were the only weapon he had left.

"Why should I waste my voice on one so rude?" said the creature. Its voice was high and reedy, with an undertone like that of a cooing pigeon.

"You're calling me rude?" Arthur said, astonished. "You tormented me!"

"That was a test," said the creature, offended. "How do I know you're worth helping if I don't test you?"

Arthur tilted his head. "You want to help me?"

"I already did," insisted the creature, puffing its feathered ruff. "I did you a favor, getting you off that path."

"What do you mean?"

"No one enters the Seelie Court uninvited, especially not some wandering mortal. If not for me, you would have ended up walking that path for all eternity."

"Oh." Arthur looked around. "Which way should I go, then?"

"I'm not going to tell you that," smirked the creature. "If you wanted my help, you shouldn't have been so rude."

Arthur had no idea what to make of this creature. But it was the only source of information he had found on this island, and he wasn't going to give it up just because it was mildly insane. Sometimes Merlin made less sense than this creature did, and Arthur wasn't letting him go even if it meant being stuffed with magic and crossing into the Otherworld.

If this creature wanted him to be polite, then fine. He could be polite with the best of them. He could out-polite any preening courtier.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said, with all the earnestness he could muster. He put the creature down on a branch of a small tree. "I didn't mean to be so rude. I apologize."

The creature didn't run off or start pelting him with acorns, so that was a good sign. It didn't look at him with sudden trust, either, but at least it had moved from sneering to skeptical.

"I'm a stranger to this place," Arthur continued, laying it on thick. "Someone very dear to me was taken by the Sidhe, and my fear for him has made my temper short. That is no excuse for my rough treatment of you."

"No, it is not," said the creature, but the flattery appeared to be working.

"Thank you for what you have already done," Arthur continued, stepping back. "For saving me from the Sidhe's trap. I will make my own way from here, and not impose upon you any further." He turned and walked away, but he only made it a few steps before the creature called for him.

"Wait," it said, reaching out a hand. "You will never find it."

"I have no choice," Arthur said. "I have to save him. It's my fault that... that he was taken." His pretense of humility had become real, and the sudden swell of emotion made his chest tight.

The creature hopped down from the branch, and looked up at him. "Pick me up, mortal," it instructed, and Arthur bent down to let it sit on his hand. "You are far too rude to be worth my time, despite your posturing. But this friend of yours, he is kind? Patient? Generous in nature?"

"He is," Arthur said, honestly.

"Then I will help you for his sake, and his alone. Put me on your shoulder, and I will guide you."

§

Arthur felt somewhat absurd, traipsing through the woods with a tiny man sitting on his pauldron. He wasn't entirely certain that the creature wasn't simply playing him for a fool again, using him as its own personal horse on an aimless wander. He had been walking for miles and there was still no sign of the Sidhe. But he bit his tongue and followed the creature's occasional, brusque directions. At least the squirrels had stopped throwing acorns at him.

They seemed to be headed in the general direction of the center of the island, though Arthur was certain they were taking the long way around. It was also the way that forced Arthur to slog through patches of forest so muddy they were nearly swamps, and up and down hills that brought him no higher or lower than the rest of the island, a fact which hurt his head if he tried to make sense of it. Every time he asked if the creature was absolutely certain this was the right way, it would give him a baleful eye and threaten to leave him on his own if he continued to ask such rude questions.

After he'd stepped in a puddle and ended up waist-deep in a sinkhole, Arthur had had enough. It was obvious that this creature was only pretending to help him while it continued its campaign of torment.

"That's it," he grumbled, as he hauled himself out. He'd just finished drying off from the lake, and now he was sodden again. He plucked the creature off his shoulder and snarled at it. "I've had enough."

"You'll never find the Sidhe without me," sniffed the creature.

"I'll never find it with you!" Arthur said. He was sorely tempted to pull back his arm and fling the creature as far as humanly possible, but it would probably only be counterproductive. He wanted to be rid of this creature once and for all, and not have it taunting him further out of spite. He clenched his jaw tightly and deposited the creature on the ground with only a modicum of force. "I'm fine on my own. Now go away."

"You are refusing my help?" asked the creature. It really shouldn't have sounded so surprised.

"Help?" Arthur gave a bitter laugh. "I'd hardly call it 'help.'"

The creature glared at him. "Rude as ever. I should have known better than to assist such an ungrateful mortal. You will not last long without my protection."

"Your protection?" Arthur sputtered. The gall of the creature!

The creature hopped up onto a log. "If you are eaten, it is no less than you deserve," it declared, and then with a hop it vanished from sight.

Arthur waited for a few minutes, just to be certain that the creature was really gone. The forest was blissfully peaceful, with only the wind in the canopy and the regular chittering of wildlife. He sighed in relief and started directly for the center of the island.

Protection. Ha! He had been tromping around these woods for miles now, and the only nuisance had been that creature. He didn't have his sword, but what of it? He'd been trained to kill since birth. He could take care of himself in any situation, weapon or no weapon. He didn't need some absurd, obnoxious magical creature mocking him and insulting him while it dragged him through every mud patch in the whole forest. If he just kept heading for the center, he was bound to find this Seelie Court eventually.

As if to prove his point, it was not long before he found his first sign of civilization. Faint music lilted through the air, and Arthur stilled, listening to determine the direction of its source. Some kind of flute or pipe was being played. As he drew closer to the music, he heard the sound of children laughing. He slowed his pace, not wanting to startle whoever he was about to meet. In his filthy state, he did not look very civilized himself right now. There was a mound of earth, and he hid behind it so he could safely spy ahead.

The first thing he noticed was that the dancing, laughing children were naked. The second thing he noticed was that their bottom halves were those of goats, with brown and white fur, short fluffy tails, and hooves for feet. There were little goat horns peeking out from their hair, and they were moving in a circle around an adult of their kind who was playing on a flute.

Arthur's attention was so focused on the strange scene before him that he was caught entirely by surprise as he was attacked from behind. A dozen creatures descended upon him; they were larger than the red-jacketed creature, but more inhuman. They had twig-like limbs and hands and puffy, striped tails. They were also incredibly ugly, and they clambered all over Arthur, tugging at his armor and trying to pin him to the ground.

"Get off!" Arthur hissed, flailing at them. A few of them teamed up to grab him by the hair, and Arthur's eyes watered as they pulled. He tried to smack them away, only to yelp as one of them suddenly swelled to several times its size. He tried to push himself up to escape them, but the other creatures copied the first, and collectively they pinned Arthur flat with their suddenly-impressive weight. To his alarm, they began to drag him towards a large hole in the mound, which he was now realizing was their burrow.

"Oh no you don't!" Arthur exclaimed, but in the battle of inches, he was slowly losing. Just before he found himself going head-first into a hole, someone cleared their throat very loudly, and the ugly creatures instantly shrank back down and fled into their burrow. Arthur looked up to see that the adult goat-man was standing over him, holding out his hand.

"Spriggans believe any shine to be wise," the goat-man said. "To trespass their barrow only fools would advise."

Arthur took his hand and the goat-man pulled him back to his feet. Arthur wasn't feeling very shiny anymore; he was even more of a mess thanks to the Spriggans, though he did his best to dust himself off and straighten his clothes. "I'll remember that next time." He didn't appreciate the implication that he was a fool, but he wasn't in any position to be picky about his rescuer. The red-jacketed creature's warning echoed in his ears, and the accompanying humiliation burned.

"But here are my manners lost. We'll share names, as our paths crossed. Those who fear will call me Hob, those who seek my favor Rob. But to merry wanderers, the name of Puck will do the job."

"Uh. Puck it is, then," Arthur said, bewildered.

"And thy name, good mortal?"

"Arthur," Arthur said, keeping the rest of his identity a secret. After the experiences he'd had in Avalon so far, he was wary about trusting this Puck, who seemed even less sane than the other creatures he'd met. This one couldn't even decide what his name was. But if this had been a tournament, he would have been at the bottom of the rankings. The red-jacketed creature had been right; he needed help, and he couldn't afford to be particular. "I seek the Seelie Court."

"The Seelie Court?" Puck said. "Why good mortal, I know it well. It lies here within this forest wild, a grave and grove where I have passed many happy hours."

"Then you can take me there?" Arthur asked, cautiously hopeful.

"Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier. Over park, over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire. No mortal hale can there retire. And yet..." Puck paused in his rhyming and studied Arthur intently. "Thy heart doth beat, and breath expire."

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. "Is that a yes?" he asked, confused.

"I jest to Oberon and make him smile when I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, neighing in likeness of a filly foal," answered Puck, and he gave a trill on his flute. "But fairy favor requires fair favor. What have thee?"

Had Puck just called him a fat horse? Arthur had been humiliated at every turn in Avalon, and it was probably for the best, otherwise he would have been more insulted. As it was, his bruised pride was the least of his worries. "You seek... a trade?" he guessed.

Perhaps Puck was like the Unseelie creatures in the marketplace. But what did Arthur have to offer? Only his armor, which he could not afford to part with in this dangerous place. His sword was beyond his reach even he was willing to part with it, and he certainly wasn't going to offer his 'pearl'... A sudden thought struck him, and he reached into his pocket. Yes! Palaemon's ring was still there. It was broken, but maybe it would be just enough to get Puck to take him to the Sidhe. He gave it a rub on his leg to give it a bit of shine, then held it out.

Puck's eyes lit up. "A fair favor indeed," he said, with open admiration. "From Portunes to his priest, king of doors, north-west, south-east."

Portunes. The name was familiar, and Arthur's thoughts were drawn to Gedref. What was it that Idriys had written in his papers? Palemon's globe had been from the temple of Portunes, the Roman's two-faced god of doors and gates. It made sense that the ring would be as well.

Puck reached for the ring, then stopped. "Ah, but I am servant to my lord. To what dark deed might I be lured? To risk the making of such treason, from thou I require a reason."

Apparently this Puck wasn't as blindly greedy as the Finfolk. But Arthur had right on his side, if nothing else. And Oberon... that was one of the names that Morvarc'h had rattled off. Oberon and Titania. "My servant was stolen from me by the Tylwyth Teg. I seek his rightful return."

Puck was amused by this. "He must be a fine servant, for his master to pursue him to such a distance."

"He's a terrible servant," Arthur admitted, unable to keep the fondness from his voice. "His clothes are shabby, he has appalling manners, and he never does as he's told. But he's mine."

"Then good mortal, good Arthur, take my coin." Puck extended his empty hand, and with a flick of his fingers, a gold coin appeared upon his palm. "But spend it not til thee and thine stand to this isle's shore."

"What will it do?" Arthur asked, warily.

"While thou holds my gold, thou shalt seem a Pixie bold. As my servant play a role, lest Titania claim thy soul." Puck took a step forward, urging Arthur to take the coin. "No mortal leaves the fairy court. Let this disguise thy dark fate thwart."

More magic. It was hardly a surprise, as this was a world entirely made of magic, but he couldn't help but feel compromised. He didn't trust magic, but neither could he refuse its help. He could not refuse the dragon's spell that brought him here, and he could not refuse Puck's coin. Just as he should not have refused Merlin.

He took the coin and put it into his pocket, in place of Palaemon's ring. At first nothing happened, but then Puck bowed and played upon his flute, and a sudden flash of magic sizzled through Arthur like fire. He bent double and clutched at himself as the coin's spell took effect. His skin began to itch and pulse, and his very bones began to ache. The weight of his armor lifted as his clothing transformed. Everything around him suddenly grew taller, and he realized with a jolt that he was shrinking.

When the spell finished its work, he staggered back with a gasp and stared at his hands. He recoiled at his transformed flesh. His hands were not his hands, calloused yet finely-formed. These were ugly, club-fingered things, with red veins and black warts worsening the sickly pink skin. His nails were black and pointed. He reached up to touch his face, and felt a huge nose, giant, pointed ears, and bumps all over, some so large they actually wiggled of their own accord. His soft hair had turned black and become as heavy and coarse as wire.

"What have you done to me?" His tongue felt clumsy and oversized, but at least his voice was still the same. Arthur was repulsed, recoiling from himself. Had he accepted one spell too many? Had his flesh been twisted by magic as corruption twisted the soul?

"Fear not, mortal," Puck said, smirking. "Thy true nature is unchanged. Only thy appearance has exchanged. My masters of humanity are enamoured, but for thee, as Pixie thou hast been glamoured."

A glamour. Just as Sophia's glamour had made her seem a beautiful young woman, this glamour disguised him as an ugly creature. A Pixie, and not a Sidhe or a half-goat like Puck. It seemed that to be Puck's servant, he had to be of some other race, just as the Merrows were the servants of the Finfolk.

He forced himself to inspect the rest of his changed appearance. His armor, gloves, and boots were gone. He still wore a shirt and trousers, but they were made of a strange, leaf-like material which seemed to have been grown instead of woven. His bare feet were as ugly as the rest of him, with three splayed, clawed, hairy toes. He clung to the knowledge that all of this was merely an illusion, that underneath he was still himself. He was not a monster, no more than Sophia had ever been human.

"Now what?" he asked. He wanted to get this over quickly, so he could throw away Puck's coin and return to himself. "How do we get to the Court?" He suddenly realized that the dancing children had vanished. Where had they gone?

"We'll follow my Fenodyree-- but ah, of course, thou cannot see." Puck stepped back, spreading his arms dramatically. "Into the Court I doth invite, and free the shackles from thy sight!"

As the words left Puck's tongue, a change came upon the forest around them. The trees grew lusher, their trunks wider. Bright flowers blossomed on winding vines, and the tips of their anthers were as bright as candles. Dew formed upon the leaves and glistened like diamonds, and giant mushrooms bloomed from the soil, their stems glowing like lanterns and their caps iridescent. The undergrowth retreated, revealing a winding path that led down to a gentle stream, where fountains arched from silver bowls. And beyond the stream was a broad clearing like Arthur had never seen. Giant trees, so tall they seemed to scrape the clouds, encircled a huge dome of crystal and wood, formed in branches and swirls.

And where Arthur had thought the forest empty, now he saw that it was full. There were the goat children, the Fenodyree, gathered round a giant cricket as it played its legs like a fiddler. Blue Sidhe flitted through the air, dancing with butterflies as large as eagles, while others with their human glamours walked below, or sat upon the mushrooms as they brushed their hair. A ladybird the size of a hog carried a teacup on its shell, and delivered it to a seated Sidhe, who took it and gracefully sipped. In the distance, he saw a trio of Sidhe riding what appeared to be harvest mice the size of horses.

All this time he had thought himself wandering alone, and in truth he had been blind to the bustling life around him. This island was mad and absurd. It was beautiful and fantastic.

It was magic.

He stepped towards the path, but Puck stopped him.

"Before thou steps into the Court, to thee these things I must exhort. First, of nothing thou must eat, not richest meat nor sweetest treat. Only water, pure and clear, can thee partake without a fear; all else will serve to bind thee here. Second, likewise, any favor, turn from it without a waver. Else thou wilt be made to pay, and upon thy soul they'll prey."

"And you?" Arthur asked, though it was too late for such questions. "How do I know you won't prey upon my soul?"

"I am an honest Puck," said Puck, pressing a hand to his chest. "A shrewd and knavish sprite, a merry wanderer of the night. While in misfortune I delight, for thy trade I'll do thee right. And to that end we must deceive, if thy passage be achieved. As thy name doth mean a bear, Ursa shall thy name be there. Lose thy pride upon this day, for to survive, thou must obey. No longer knight, nor human kind, yet what is lost, thou here shall find."

"Right," Arthur said, readying himself. "Will I have to speak in rhyme?" He hoped not. He had never been very good at poetry.

Puck gave a hearty laugh. "A Pixie speaks only when told. 'My Lord,' 'My Lady' -- else withhold. Work, and for thy friend do spy. I'll too, but say what he goes by."

"Merlin. His name is Merlin." Arthur didn't know what condition Merlin would be in when he found him. The only solace he had was the fact that he could still feel Merlin through the gold torc, even now that the torc itself was hidden by the glamour.

Puck stepped towards the path and gestured for Arthur to follow him. "Then come, my servant, well-comport, abide and enter the Seelie Court."

§

A crystal bridge, sparkling with sapphires and silver etchings, carried them over the placid stream. As they crossed, Arthur looked down at his reflection, and it took everything he had not to cry out in horror. It was even worse than he'd imagined. What looked back at him was utterly unrecognizable, and while that was the point, it made Arthur want to tear at his skin to rid himself of it, to cut away the foreign flesh and escape it. While he had always taken care with his appearance, taken pride in his fitness and strength, he did not consider himself to be a vain man. But to be reduced to this, to be so inverted from everything he was... it was all his worst fears about magic made real, that it transformed and corrupted until all humanity was lost. He gripped the coin in his pocket and it took all his will not to cast it into the stream. He felt physically ill.

Yet he could not deny that the Pixie disguise was perfect. As they continued into the clearing, though Puck's arrival generated some attention, neither Sidhe nor any other creature gave Arthur more than a passing glance.

He would not let himself be overcome by an illusion, no matter how convincing and complete, no matter how real it was to himself as well as to others. He knew what he was, what he had always been, what he always would be: a man, a knight, a ruler, a warrior. Just because he played a thing, that did not mean he became it. His essence was inviolate.

He instinctively straightened his spine, lengthened his stride, only to be given a warning look by Puck. A Pixie did not stand or march like a knight or a prince, of course. This body he wore wanted to slouch and waddle, and reluctantly he let it, despite how it grated, how it went against a lifetime of training.

When they reached the dome, Arthur saw that beneath it was some kind of underground room, which appeared to grow larger with each step they took down. The wood that made up the structure of the dome was not lumber but living roots from the towering trees, and around the perimeter of the dome they formed a downward-spiralling staircase, which was braced by silver columns shaped like trees. Even the metals here seemed not to have been made but grown into their shapes. He followed Puck down and down, passing balconies that led away to unknown rooms, until they reached the bottom.

It was a palace. Though it was underground and shaded by the forest above, the great hall was airy and full of light, gleaming with gold and silver, pearls and gems. A harpist played, and her music delicately filled the hall. Three fruit trees lined each side, each bearing a different, ripe fruit. There were long tables bearing an abundance of food and drink, pitchers of wine, of milk, and entire bowls of honey. Arthur had not eaten since last night's feast, and even there he'd had more wine than food, but Puck's warning braced him against temptation. He did not want to end up trapped in this place, no matter how splendid it appeared to be.

There were dozens of Sidhe scattered through the hall, in various states of repose, and every single one of them was breathtakingly beautiful. All the women were gorgeous and all the men were handsome. Their clothes were fine and rich, layers of gauzy material that seemed almost to be made from spider silk, and their hair was long and woven with gold thread. It was strange to know that beneath such refined beauty they were all small, ugly, and blue.

At the head of the hall was a raised dais with a great stone throne, and upon it lounged a frowning man with red hair and a golden circlet upon his head; he was somehow even more beautiful and radiant than all the other beautiful and radiant Sidhe. Even if Arthur had been fully himself, in all his finest robes and jewels, he would have felt a muddy pauper in such company.

Puck took a roaming path through the hall, pausing here and there to sour a cup of milk as it met the lips of a Sidhe, or to make a roast pig on the table spring to life as another Sidhe reached to slice it. Arthur was astonished that no one sought revenge for Puck's mischief, but they all seemed enured to it, even bored. Puck rolled his eyes at their passivity and skipped up to the throne. Arthur stood back, assuming that being a servant here was much like being a servant in Camelot, and the most important thing was to be out of the way, unobtrusive yet still close enough so that nobody had to shout to get your attention. Arthur had long despaired of Merlin ever learning that particular skill.

"Lord Oberon," Puck greeted as he bowed his head.

"Good Robin, attend," Oberon said, straightening up. "For hours I have waited, yet my queen doth not appear. For thine own sake, thy jests forbear, find and guide her swiftly here."

Puck put a hand to his chest, offended. "My lord, doth thou say my hand is cause of her delay? I must protest and say thee nay. Crook thy finger, Titania will move, not to thy side but some far remove."

"No idle habit this, but spite," Oberon insisted, leaning forward. "Mark, I'll have thee put her right. Gleaming dew-drops, silver gossamer, these delights bring them unto her. Plied with sweetness she'll be swayed, from her wanderings be bade."

Puck glanced briefly towards Arthur, then back to Oberon. "Whate'er the reason she is late, I'll ease thy mind from painful wait. A flute's sweet song or gentle jest will draw the anger from thy breast." He brought his pipe to his lips and played a lilting trill.

Oberon was not amused. "Gentle Puck," he began, tersely, "fetch me her. And be thou here again ere the leviathan can swim a league."

Puck replied with a wide-eyed bow and turned on his hoof. He motioned and Arthur followed him back to the foot of the stairs. There was an archway there, half-concealed by a heavily laden fruit tree. The air was sweet with fragrance, and Arthur realized that the tree was simultaneously in fruit and in bloom.

"Though promise made to help and stay, his order I'll at once obey," Puck said, reluctantly.

"You can't just leave me here!" Arthur whispered, urgently. Without Puck's help, he didn't know how long his disguise would hold. And he hadn't even begun to search this underground palace for Merlin.

Puck gave a thoughtful hum, and rubbed at the tuft of hair on his chin. "Ah! But here thy fine disguise will ward off thy early demise. With the Pixies serve as planned, and while thou cleans, seek, find thy man. Hold thy tongue, downcast thy vision, endure each and all derision. Be a fool and safety earn; patience, wait, and I'll return." He gripped Arthur by the arms and pushed him through the archway. "Quick I'll girdle 'round this earth. Til my return, go prove thy worth."

"You-- But--" Arthur sputtered, but as soon as he spoke, Puck was gone. Vanished, leaving only the slightest huff of wind in his wake.

Now what? Arthur looked one way and then the other. If he went back to the main hall, his presence would be questioned. No, he would have to do as Puck said and find the other Pixies. If he blended in with them, he would be safe enough until Puck could return with Titania. But to play a fool? An idiot? Perhaps Puck was right and such a feint would protect him, but it chafed against his honor and against his pride. Despite Merlin's insults to the contrary, he did not consider himself to be haughty or conceited. If he was proud or imposing, it was because he knew his worth and knew that he had earned it, and saw no reason why that worth should not be recognized. He was a natural leader, but he had always believed in earning the respect of those he led. He could hardly achieve that by debasing himself.

And yet no one would look upon him and see a leader now, and certainly not a prince. They would see nothing but a servant, ugly and misshapen. Puck had chosen this shape for him, and if Arthur tried to fight against its expectations, he knew he would only lose. The goat-man was clearly fond of mischief, and in helping Arthur he'd managed to play a great prank on him as well as on the Sidhe.

At least if he was with the Pixies, he wouldn't have to deal with anyone rhyming at him for a while. He chose the lesser of two evils and stepped into the passage away from the hall, wary of where it would taking him. Did this lead to the servants' quarters? The kitchens? Or was this the way to the Sidhe's chambers? He tried each door, but none would open for him. Was this more of Puck's mischief, pointing him in the wrong direction?

"Ow!" Something thumped against the back of his head, and he whirled around, ready to defend himself. An empty ewer was floating in mid-air. Arthur stared at it, and it gave an impatient bob. He stepped aside, and the ewer continued down the hall.

Arthur rubbed the back of his head and stared, mystified. Then he did the only thing that seemed logical in this place, which was to follow after the ewer. It turned a corner, and as he turned after it, he smacked face-first into a second ewer -- one that wasn't empty.

"Who's mucking about out there?" called an irritated, gruff voice. Another Pixie, slightly larger than Arthur was in this form, stomped out and glared at him. It appeared to be a woman, if such a thing had any meaning to these creatures.

Arthur held out the now-empty ewer apologetically, feeling rather like a child caught trying to nick a tart from the cooling tray in the kitchens. Except that instead of getting a warm treat, he was soaked in some kind of honeyed ale. "Sorry?" he offered.

The Pixie took the ewer, saw that it was empty, and whacked him on the head with it. "Idiot!"

Arthur was outraged, and opened his mouth to give the creature a tongue-lashing she wouldn't soon forget. But before he could start, he realized that talking back was not a good idea. "Puck sent me," he said, doing his best not to grind out the words.

"Oh he did, did he?" The Pixie gave him a scornful look. "Since when has that ass had a servant?

Arthur thought of the Unseelie marketplace, of the exchange he had made for Puck's aid, of the sort of mischief Puck probably got himself into. "I was... won. In a bet." Be a fool, Puck had said. "A fool for a fool."

The Pixie gave a loud laugh. "Someone beat him at his own game. So you're a fool, are you? What's wrong with you?"

Arthur looked at the floor and tried to make himself as small as he could, which wasn't easy given his monstrous body. He couldn't claim he was mute or blind or deaf, for obvious reasons. She'd already accused him of being an idiot, and he seized on that. "My master said that I was simple."

She gave him an inspecting look, and her antennae bent towards him. "How simple?"

Arthur kept his mouth shut. He tried to look lost and confused, which wasn't that difficult when it came down to it.

She straightened up and harumphed. "Can't be that simple if you can work. Start by cleaning yourself up, and the floor."

Arthur looked around for a cloth or clean water to clean himself with. He tried to waddle past her, but she stopped him.

"Where do you think you're going? I said clean yourself up."

Arthur was at a loss. What was he supposed to use? He looked at her and shrugged.

She narrowed her eyes at him, then seemed to realize something. "Oh, Puck's really won himself a treasure with you. You can't do magic, can you, fool?"

Arthur shook his head.

She thumped him with the ewer again. "That's for your master. What am I supposed to with such a useless little worm?" She huffed. "No wonder you were given to that ass."

She grabbed him by one of his huge ears and dragged him along. Arthur winced and restrained the rising urge to just kill this monster and be done with her. Things were so much easier in Camelot.

The room they entered was clearly a kitchen, but it was like no kitchen Arthur had ever seen. Instead of a bustle of servants each performing a single task, there was only a handful of Pixies, and each orchestrated a variety of tasks by magic. The spits turned on their own, the soup stirred itself, knives chopped vegetables and meats without the guidance of hands. Serving platters floated patiently in the air, waiting for the food to finish itself.

"Oi! Gunnulf!" she called.

There was a clattering sound, and another Pixie appeared from around a corner. "What is it, Grimhild? I'm busy."

"Do you think I'm lazing around?" Grimhild huffed. She released Arthur's ear, and he stumbled to a halt between the Pixies. "Take this one to Gydur. See if he can find some use for him."

Gunnulf waddled over to Arthur and gave him a critical eye. "You're new. What's your name, then? Who do you belong to?"

"My name is Ursa," Arthur said, keeping his posture submissive. "I'm Puck's."

"That ass won him in bet," said Grimhild, with some glee. "And he's utterly useless. Not a drop of magic in him."

"What good is he, then?" Gunnulf asked. "Waste of time bringing him anywhere. Should just feed him to the Spriggans."

To Arthur's alarm, the Pixies seemed to genuinely consider that as an option. It seemed that the Pixies held no love for Puck, and so his 'ownership' of Arthur lent no protection. Once again, Arthur was on his own. But he had no leverage to use against the Pixies, and he could not manipulate them or they would realize he was not simple after all. The situation was desperate.

He bent his ungainly body to its knees and looked up at them pleadingly. "Please," he begged, shoving down his battered pride. "I have no magic, but I will work hard. Very hard. I will prove myself. Please, take me to Gydur."

The Pixies looked at him skeptically, but Gunnulf relented with a sigh. He grabbed Arthur by the ear and hauled him up. Arthur winced but let himself be pulled. He was dragged by his ear through a maze of hallways. He did his best to memorize their route, but this was a palace of illusions. They walked through walls that weren't there, and sometimes the floor led in one direction while they walked in another. He glanced through every open door and archway for Merlin, but saw no sign of him.

When he was finally released -- with a very sore ear -- it seemed that he had been taken out of the palace proper. But as he looked around, he realized that what seemed to be a grove was instead some kind of grand hall. Silver trees with gold and copper leaves branched and curved into a half-open bower, and the perimeter was ringed with mushroom seating. There were more Pixies here, using their magic to prepare the room for some kind of event. There were even some Sidhe, flitting high above in their natural forms as they placed dewdrops on the leaves.

Gunnulf took Arthur to the Pixie who was overseeing the preparations. Presumably this was Gydur. Gydur gave a nasty laugh when he was told that Puck had won a useless servant in a bet, but was less amused when Gunnulf foisted Arthur off to him.

"Useless idiot," Gydur sneered, and smacked Arthur with the back of his warty hand. "Until Puck returns, I have been tasked to be thy master. But first thou must thank me for my generosity."

Arthur inwardly seethed, but had no choice but to endure. "Thank you, master," he ground out.

Gydur gave an unimpressed harumph. "And what use is this magicless fool to me? Art thou as lazy as thou art stupid? As incompetent as thou art ugly?"

Arthur could not stand to be so insulted, so demeaned. Every fiber of his being screamed for justice, for recompense. He barely restrained himself from pulling off a glove and throwing it down between them, and might have done so if his gloves were not blocked from him by Puck's enchantment.

Gydur took his lack of response as an answer. "Then there's just one use for thee," he said, taking Arthur by the ear again. "I'll give thee work," he smirked. "Most odious and foul work."

Arthur gritted his teeth and let himself be dragged along, silently cursing Puck all the way. He had no choice but to play along until Puck returned. If this was another test, like the red-jacketed creature had put him through, then he would do whatever it took to pass it. He might be at the bottom of the rankings, he might be a toy for every creature in Avalon to kick around. But this tournament of a day wasn't over, and he had never lost a tourney yet.

Chapter Text

"Gwen, my dear," Gaius said, as he eased himself down into his seat at the table. "Now that my obligations for the day have been fulfilled, I believe you were commanding me to help you."

Despite the urge to blush and duck her head, Gwen kept her shoulder squared and her chin up. "Yes," she said, and she tightened her grip on the heavy grimoire before holding it out for Gaius to take. "And Morgana. Please."

Morgana stiffened beside her, straightening her back in defiance, ready to argue if Gaius refused to fulfill his promise.

But Gaius did not argue; he accepted the grimoire and opened it, and reverently turned the pages. "This book was given to me when I was about your age. It had been preserved by my family for generations, passed down from father to son for centuries. I never had any children of my own, and thought I would be unable to continue the tradition... until the day Merlin walked into my chambers. I hope you will allow me to return it to him should Arthur be successful."

"He gave it to me," Morgana said, firmly. "It's not yours to give to anyone anymore." But then she softened, perhaps at the hope of Merlin's survival. "But if he returns to us, I will share it with him."

"Thank you," Gaius said, with a small, grateful smile. He looked down at the pages and flipped through them consideringly. "Ah, I think this will be a good place for you to start."

He turned the book around so that they could look at the pages. There was an illustration of a lit candle, and the words 'Leohtbora oandelweoce' and 'Acwence oandelweoce' written in ornate letters around it.

"A candle lighting spell?" Gwen said.

"I can already do that," Morgana said, anger creeping into her voice. "And I don't see what use it is anyway. I need a spell that I can use to protect Camelot."

"You need to learn control," Gaius corrected. "If you cannot control your magic, defending this kingdom will be the least of our worries. It's only through sheer luck that no one has been hurt. The next time we may not be so lucky. Not to mention the danger if the King should learn of any of this."

Morgana glanced at the cut on Gwen's forehead, and her anger faded, chastened by her guilt over the exploding vase. But she wasn't going to be humbled by Gaius' lecture, no matter how correct he was. "Then teach me a spell that's useful. What good is a candle going to do against the Sidhe?"

Gaius gave a patient sigh. "This pair of spells was among the first magic my father taught me. While they are small, any spell using fire is by nature dangerous and powerful. Once it is mastered."

Morgana gave him her best 'unconvinced' expression, but relented. "Very well," she said, leaning forward. "Teach me, and I'll master it."

Gaius raised an eyebrow, but turned to Gwen and asked her to bring over an unlit candle. Gwen obliged, and brought over a candlestick with a half-used candle in it.

"Right," Morgana said, staring at the candlestick. "Now what?"

Gaius took a flint from his pocket and with a few practiced strikes lit the wick. The flame grew and then steadied. "As you said yourself, you have already proved able to light a flame. Now try and use your magic to extinguish one. Focus your thoughts, concentrate, and say 'Acwence oandelweoce.'"

"Acwence oandelweoce." Morgana repeated, staring at the flame. It continued to burn. She spoke the words again and again, then leaned back with a groan of frustration. "Nothing's happening," she complained. "I can't even feel my magic. Is this how you taught Merlin?"

"When Merlin came to me, he had been using his magic instinctively all his life, yet like you he could not always stop his magic from lashing out. While his situation was not as dire as yours, it is quite similar. And I will tell you the same thing I told him: the most important skill you must learn is patience. If you act before you think, with or without magic, you will put yourself and those around you in danger."

"I know how to control myself," Morgana said. "And no matter what Arthur says, I have more skill with my sword in one little finger than he does in both hands."

"Then use that skill here," Gaius said. "Reach for your magic and unsheath it as your would your sword. Strike at the flame."

They went silent, and Gwen watched as Morgana closed her eyes and concentrated. After a few long minutes, she began to move her lips, speaking the spell without sound. At last she opened her eyes, breathed in and out, making the flame waver, and then, as quick as her sword, she spoke aloud. Her eyes glowed, and the flame snuffed out, leaving only a wisp of smoke trailing up from the wick.

Gwen clapped her hands together, delighted. "You did it!"

Morgana breathed out and smiled; the spell, small as it was, had been a visible effort. "I did," she said, proudly.

"A fine start," Gaius said, approvingly. "Now use your magic to restore the flame -- without burning down the castle -- and extinguish it again. The more you practice, the stronger your control will become."

Morgana gave him a grateful look, but then remembered herself. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?" she said, and gave the both of them a pointed look. Then with equal pointedness, she turned her attention back to the candle, ignoring them as she focused on her lesson.

Gwen and Gaius turned at each other in shared sympathy. Morgana was not one to let go of a grudge, and it might be a long time before either of them was completely forgiven, no matter their reasons for letting Morgana suffer in ignorance. In truth, Gwen was no longer certain that it had ever been the right decision to lie to Morgana about her magic, despite how she had felt before. But what was done was done. Morgana might not forget or forgive, but whatever the consequences, they would bear them after Camelot was safe from the Sidhe. For now, they had to work together.

Gwen brought over parchment and ink, then sat next to Gaius so they could work on her vocabulary. They skipped the first section of the book, with its runic letters, and started with the spells that were at least in a familiar alphabet. As Gaius guided her through page after page, Gwen became acutely aware of how little of the old tongue she knew, and how much she had forgotten through disuse. She wished that she could have spoken the old tongue more often, become natural and fluel, but of course it hadn't been safe. Perhaps her parents had thought it a fair trade to preserve their lives at the cost of their history. Gwen could not argue with that, and yet she felt a profound sense of loss -- greater than just the loss of so many lives. The Great Purge had been more than executions, more than burned books and wrecked temples. It had been the death of a whole culture, one that had survived and thrived since time immemorial -- until the King had turned against it. Even if they survived all of this, even if Arthur and Merlin came back home safe and sound, what could the five of them do in the face of so much loss? Perhaps Gaius was right, and in a generation the Old Religion would be forgotten completely -- whether Camelot stood or fell.

"Gwen?"

Gwen was startled by Morgana's voice, and realized that she had stopped paying attention to Gaius' lesson, and that she was on the verge of tears. She wiped her eyes dry. Morgana was looking at her with gentle concern, and Gwen did her best to smile for her. To her relief, Morgana didn't press her to explain her tears, no doubt because there were so many obvious reasons for them. It would be hard to explain to Morgana just what she was grieving for, when Morgana, for all her magic, hadn't even the smallest tie to the Old Religion.

Gaius slipped a blank sheet of paper into the grimoire before closing it, marking their place. He looked up at the window and judged the light. "It's nearly noon. Let's stop for lunch."

Morgana didn't argue, and as Gwen shook free of her own melancholy, she saw that Morgana looked tired, drained from performing the simple spells over and over. And of course none of them had slept well or long last night. Perhaps a nap after lunch would restore them.

Gwen went down to the kitchens, and when she returned, tray laden with food, the tension in the room had noticeably increased. Morgana and Gaius caught in a standoff, with Morgana attempting to stare a hole through the back of Gaius' head.

"Did I miss anything?" Gwen asked lightly, as she set down the tray.

"Nothing much," Morgana said, still staring at Gaius. "I asked Gaius how he managed to keep his head all these years. After all, if it's too dangerous for the King's ward to have magic, how did the King's physician avoid being burned alive?"

Gwen exchanged a glance with Gaius, then started laying out their meal. "By being very careful," she said, choosing diplomacy over confrontation.

Morgana didn't look convinced, but she relented from her interrogation. They sat down together and ate in silence, if only because their mouths were too full for arguing. Gaius gave Gwen a brief but thankful nod.

Though the peace was not destined to last, when it broke, at least the mood was more amicable. It was harder to be in a bad mood with a full belly.

"It seems you're quite the expert on all things magic," Morgana said, turning to Gaius again -- this time keeping her poise. "Have you taught many others?"

"A few," Gaius said.

"You taught Merlin," Morgana said, pressing on despite his obvious reluctance. "You gave him the grimoire. Who did you take it from?"

"It was given to me by my father," Gaius reminded her, obviously resenting the implication. "As it was given to him by his father before him."

"Then you're from a magical family?"

"I am. But I regret to say that I do not have the talents of my forefathers."

"Is that why you turned your back on them?" Morgana asked, her voice even despite the sharpness of her words. "Because you were a disappointment?"

Gaius gave her a warning look. "Some are born with the potential for more magic than others. Just as the son of a blacksmith might not become one in turn. We all must find our own paths with the gifts we are given. I chose the arts of healing and science."

"What about those without magic?" Morgana asked, turning curious. "They can have children born with magic?"

"No. One or both of the parents must have magic themselves, even if only weakly."

"Then it's inherited?"

"Those born without magic can make use of magical objects. They can perform simple spells to control magic that has already been created. But magical power cannot be taught. It comes from within."

"And my magic?" Morgana asked, leaning forward. "Where did it come from?"

"You were born with it," Gaius said, with obvious reluctance.

"My father had magic?" Morgana asked, disbelieving.

Gaius leaned back. "Not your father."

Morgana was struck speechless. She looked to Gwen, who shrugged; both of Morgana's parents had been dead by the time time Morgana came to Camelot, and Gwen knew little about them that she had not learned from Morgana herself. Just like Arthur, Morgana had lost her mother at too young an age for memory. That shared loss was one of the things that had brought them together -- and perhaps helped to drive them apart as they grew up.

Despite Gwen's mother's love of gossip, she had never said much at all about Lord Gorlois and Lady Vivienne. Gorlois had always been close to Uther, and during the Great Purge had become one of his closest allies -- especially after Vivienne's death, which happened mere months after Ygraine's passing. There was much about that time that was a mystery, forever unspoken of out of guilt and grief. Gwen had long ago learned not to ask about the Great Purge, because she didn't want to make her parents cry for the past; there were already tears enough for the present.

Morgana turned back to Gaius. "If my mother had magic, why on earth would my father have taken Uther's side? Why would he teach me that magic was something to be afraid of? He had to know that I would inherit."

"Some lines remain strong, or strengthen through the generations. But in others, the magic dies out. Most children do not manifest their magic until they come of age, and the earliest is puberty. Your father could not have been certain about your powers until that time."

But Morgana was not assuaged. "He asked Uther to take me in as his ward in the event of his death. He had to know that could mean sending me to mine."

"Perhaps he would have decided differently, had he lived long enough. But at the time, he felt that this was the best place for you."

Of course Gaius must have known Gorlois well. They would have sat together on Uther's council. Gaius likely patched Gorlois' wounds after their battles against the Old Religion. Gwen saw that Morgana had made the same realization: that Gaius had stood at the center of history. Who knew how many secrets he kept?

"If you know so much," Morgana said, "then where does all this magic come from in the first place? If it's inherited, it had to start somewhere."

"That's a question Gwen can answer," Gaius said, turning to her. "Gwen?"

"Oh! Well, um." Gwen scrambled to remember her childhood lessons. "All magic comes from the gods. A long time ago, there was a tribe in Albion that made a pact with the Triple Goddess. They pledged their souls and the souls of their descendents, and in return she shared with them her power. When Albion was first united, members of the tribe were sent to live with all the other tribes of Albion, and that was how magic spread throughout the land."

"But your family doesn't have magic," Morgana said, and it was half a question.

"No, none of us do," Gwen admitted. "My family came over with the Romans, and we converted to the Old Religion after they left. None of my ancestors married anyone of magical descent. But there's more to the Old Religion than magic." Her mother had told her stories about how things used to be before the Great Purge, about how the Old Religion and the gods were a part of every aspect of life: the seasons, the harvest, birth and death, family and community. Though she had grown numb to its absence in recent years, Gwen had always yearned for that sense of wholeness, of belonging. To worship in secret as she did, with only her lone voice and candle, was hardly worship at all.

But Morgana did not seem enthused by the Old Religion. "I don't see the point of worshipping some dead gods."

"They're not dead," Gwen said, prickling at the thought. Uther claimed, in his propaganda, that the gods had become corrupted and evil, and that was why the Great Purge was necessary. After the Purge, he claimed that the gods had been defeated, and would wither away into death. It had been twenty-one years since that proclamation, and there were many who said that that time had at last come. That Uther had starved the Triple Goddess and the other deities of Albion into oblivion, through the annihilation of the faithful. Gwen refused to believe it. As long as there was even one believer left sending their prayers to the gods, the gods would still be there to hear them.

Morgana was startled by Gwen's insistence. "Maybe not," she hedged. "But I don't see why I should worship the gods who gave me my nightmares. I certainly never asked for them."

Though Morgana's anger was not directed at her, Gwen couldn't help but take it personally. After all these years, she was finally able to share this part of her life with Morgana. Gwen had always been afraid that if Morgana found out about her faith, she would reject her. Morgana having magic herself changed that, stirred up memories and feelings that Gwen had kept long-buried -- because now she could share all of herself with Morgana, not just the parts that were safe and acceptable. She could be open with Morgana the way Morgana always had been with her.

Perhaps Morgana just needed time. It must be difficult for her to accept something that she had denied about herself for so long. Though Morgana was proud to stand against Uther when it came to defending the magical people of Camelot, the ones who were rounded up and executed, it was something else entirely to accept that she was one of those people herself, that she could end up sharing their fate. Gwen had been born into the Old Religion just as Morgana had been born into magic, but Morgana had been taught to hate the very thing she was to become. Even though she had rejected those lessons, Gwen knew that such hate could be insidious and hard to shake. There had been times when she railed against the gods herself: when her mother died, when her brother left, when her father's body was carted out of the dungeons. She could not deny Morgana her feelings.

"We are given much in life that we do not ask for," Gaius said, with a weariness that betrayed how much he had struggled himself. "It is up to us to decide what to do with our gifts, good and bad."

"What I need is a way to save my life now that it's been endangered by your precious gods," Morgana said, angrily. "Camelot's guards are hardly going be scared off by candle flame. What I need is power, real power. Otherwise we're going to end up saving Camelot from fire only to burn ourselves."

"That situation is exactly what I'm trying to avoid," Gaius said. "For a long time, the best way to keep you safe was to stop your magic from manifesting at all. That is no longer an option."

"Then teach me," Morgana pressed.

"You must be patient," Gaius said, firmly. "You must build up your strength or any large spells will quickly run out of control. Your attempts at protection may well have the opposite effect. That is not a burden you wish to carry."

"Is this how you taught Merlin? Give him an inch of rope and then yank him back?" Morgana tutted in disgust. "No wonder he was afraid to tell me the truth. All you did was scare the poor boy into paralysis."

"I kept him alive," Gaius said, his own anger riled. "A condition he would still be in if he had not been so foolish."

"You said he's alive," Gwen interrupted. "You said Arthur went to get him."

Gaius sighed. "The best we can hope for is that the Sidhe merely captured Merlin and left him otherwise untouched. But they are cruel creatures, vicious and unforgiving, and he killed two of their kind. We have no guarantees."

"All the more reason to give me a weapon," Morgana said. "What about the staff? Will it work against humans as well as Sidhe?"

"With deadly effect," Gaius warned.

"Perfect," Morgana said, and stood up to get it. She hefted the staff in her hands and seemed as pleased with it as she was with a sword.

"If you must do that, point it into the fireplace, please," Gaius said, looking rather alarmed.

Morgana raised her eyebrows at him, but obliged. "You mentioned something about a firing spell?"

Gaius looked to Gwen, and then visibly relented. "Think of the staff as a vastly powerful candle flame. Just as you were able to command the wick to light, you must command the staff to fire. It will draw from your own reserves of magic, which can have a tiring effect. The candle spells did as well, but it was too small an effect to be noticeable. The same principle applies to all spells: the more energy it takes to perform the spell, the more it will drain you. There are ways to manage this, such as sharing magic with other sorcerers, but that we must leave for later lessons."

"Right," Morgana said. "What are the words?"

Gaius pressed his lips together, disapproving of her apparent disregard for the mechanics. "As you saw with the candle spells, the performance of a spell is the combination of words and will. There is a formality to the more advanced spells, with specific phrasing that must be followed. But while the Sidhe staff itself is advanced, it is simple in use. You must speak in the old tongue to command, and use the force of your will to push your power into it. The crystal will focus and transform your magic, and send a deadly blast into your opponent."

Morgana nodded, taking this in, and then said, "And the words?"

"'Acwele' is the simplest. It means 'destroy.' And while I'm certain that you'll ignore it, I must warn you again that this is not the same as lighting a candle flame. If you lose control of your magic when using the staff, it will have dangerous consequences."

"More dangerous than being run through with a sword?" Morgana asked. "Than being executed? I'll take my chances."

"Very well," Gaius said.

Gwen watched as Morgana began to practice with the staff. Just as with the candle, she said the simple spell over and over again, but despite being only one word long, it proved to be more of a challenge. Gwen knew that Gaius was right, that Morgana needed to hone her basic skills before using such a powerful weapon -- just as how Arthur had built Merlin up before he began to teach him any real fighting skills. But Morgana had too many reasons to skip ahead. They were in danger from both sides: from the Sidhe and from Camelot, from magic and from steel. It was not a pleasant position to be in, and for Morgana it was new and raw. But Gwen had lived with it all her life, just as Gaius had.

Gwen knew the answer to Morgana's earlier question: how Gaius had survived this long. All the survivors of the Purge knew. He had turned his back on the Old Religion and swore himself to the King. When Gwen was young, she would overhear arguments between her parents and others of the faith. Many saw Gaius as a traitor, but her mother knew that Gaius had chosen to stay by the King's side not simply to survive himself, but so that he could help others where he could. Her mother told stories about how Gaius helped smuggle out people and books during the worst of the Purge, saving irreplaceable lives and knowledge. And yet to achieve those heroics, he had helped commit atrocities in the King's name. The Great Dragons might never have been slaughtered if Gaius had not been at Uther's side. How different might Camelot be if even one magical assassin had succeeded? Gwen did not want the anarchy that would follow, the wars of territory as every neighboring kingdom fought for their own scrap of Camelot. And yet it was vile that innocent people continued to pay the price for Camelot's stability.

All of this she had always known. She had grown up knowing it, and she had hoped and prayed that something would stop Uther without throwing the kingdom into chaos: an early, natural death, or a sudden change of heart. But still Uther held the throne, and still he hated. She had come to accept it as simply the way things were, and the way they would be until Arthur took the throne -- and always there was the blind hope that Arthur would be a better, kinder king. That things would change under his reign. And perhaps they might, but there were no certainties, and she had to acknowledge that Arthur had always been his father's right hand. His recent change of heart could prove to be temporary.

Perhaps Morgana was right. After the Sidhe had been stopped, they should leave Camelot behind, make a new life somewhere safe, somewhere they could be accepted. While the Great Purge had never been restricted to Camelot's borders, and many of the surrounding kingdoms had turned away from the Old Religion, there were still places they could go. Gwen had often wondered why her parents had chosen to remain in Camelot, to live in such constant peril, when they could have left. Even burdened with a toddler and an infant, even leaving everything they owned behind, they could have walked north to a better life. But like so many others, they had stayed, and paid a steep price. Now that all of her family was gone, what did she truly have to keep her here? An empty house and a cold forge were not enough. Perhaps it was time to do what her parents would not.

Chapter Text

Gwen eventually convinced Morgana that they needed a rest from their lessons -- though Morgana only agreed out of frustration. After she was unable to get the Sidhe staff to fire, Gaius switched her back to beginner spells, and it was obvious that Morgana was unhappy with the setback. There was no shame in being new at something, in learning one step at a time instead of leaps and bounds, but Morgana's pride did not take well to dents.

Still, as far as Gwen was concerned, they had both learned a great deal. Gwen's head was so full of words that she feared it might burst, her eyes were sore from reading, and her hand was cramped from writing. When they returned to Morgana's chambers, Gwen barely fumbled through the familiar tasks for Morgana before slipping between the cool sheets of her own bed and closing her eyes.

They were roused at sunset by the knock at the door. Gwen shook off the wisps of sleep and answered; it was a page telling them that Morgana had been invited to dinner with the King. As usual, Gwen was expected to be there to serve and attend to Morgana's needs. She passed the news to Morgana, then went to change and clean herself up.

After she pulled off her dress, she stopped to look at it. She had expected to die in this dress, and yet it seemed that life went on after all. Tomorrow held no less danger than today or yesterday, and she was still afraid. But the fear was not as sharp and suffocating as it had been. Whatever happened next, for the first time since her father's death, she would not have to face it alone. And there was a kind of peace in that.

She emerged from her room, skin and clothes clean, and feeling worlds better for it. Morgana had already washed herself and selected a dress for the evening, one she had not worn since last spring. It was velvet, a flowing, luxuriant purple with silver and pearl vines along the neckline. It was one of Uther's favorites, and for that reason she rarely wore it. But just as Gwen had worn her own father's gift as a shield, now Morgana used the king's gift as a small but vital protection. Uther had always been the sort of man who appreciated symbolism and marks of allegiance. Without saying a word, Morgana could give the impression of loyalty and love, and use that to keep Uther blind to the truth.

By the time they left, Morgana looked stunning: her makeup perfect, her hair falling in waves around her face, pearl earrings and an amber necklace sparkling bright against her hair and dress. She walked through the halls with utter poise, as confident as the King himself. No one could guess that she was a sorceress and a seer, or that she had anything in common with the poor souls that were regularly arrested and executed. There was no trace of the hazy, drugged state she had been in for weeks, or her frustration and temper. She was in absolute control and wanted everyone to know it.

And yet as they entered the King's dining hall, she shifted in her expression and her stance, revealing a softness, a gentle humility that was meant for the King alone. Uther had been wearing a tense frown, but when he saw her, his shoulders eased and he smiled.

"My Lady," he said, as he stood. He gestured for her to sit at the opposite end of the table, as was customary when it was just the two of them.

"My King," Morgana said, with a short curtsy. She smiled back as she took her seat.

"It's wonderful to see you so restored," Uther said. He gave her a long, fond look, then shook his head. "After that lightning strike, I was afraid your nightmares might start up all over again. But I see I was entirely mistaken."

"Gaius' treatments have worked wonders," Morgana lied, her voice warm and content. "I feel better than I have in years."

"And no more nightmares?"

"I also slept better than I have in years," Morgana said, with a gentle laugh. She raised her cup, which Gwen had only just filled. "To Gaius."

Uther raised his own goblet. "To Gaius."

They drank, and both settled back into their chairs. Uther let out a long sigh and let his shoulder slump, letting out whatever tensions he had been holding onto all day.

"Is something troubling you, my lord?"

"What else?" Uther said, then took another sip from his cup before setting it down.

"Arthur?" Morgana asked, innocently. "I haven't seen him all day. I thought you'd sent him out."

"He hasn't been seen since the feast. I should have had George lock him into his chambers," Uther grumbled.

Morgana gave a small laugh. "He'd only climb out of the window."

"The dungeons, then," Uther said, but beneath his annoyance there was a glimmer of amusement.

"No one's seen him at all?"

"Under normal circumstances I wouldn't worry. But these are not normal circumstances. Our visitors from Tír-Mòr have also disappeared."

Despite knowing that Sophia was currently small, blue, and trapped in a candle cage in Gaius' chambers, Morgana reacted with completely believable surprise. "All three of them? Not just Sophia?"

"Then you understand my concern." Uther frowned. "I had hoped his infatuation had passed. But now I fear that it has."

"My lord, you know Arthur would never... He's far too honorable for revenge."

Uther raised his cup again and drank. "He loved her enough to abandon his duty. The loss of such a love could be equally motivating."

"The pain of a broken heart," Morgana said, sympathetically, then shook her head. "No, I don't believe it. Arthur could never love anymore more than he loves his duty. He's always been more prince than man."

"Which is exactly what he should be," Uther insisted. "But I can see no other reason for this... shared disappearance. If there is still no sign of them by morning, the four of them will be hunted down and brought back in chains. Assuming they're all still alive."

As Uther stared into his cup, Gwen and Morgana shared a glance of concern. There was no telling how long it would take for Arthur to rescue Merlin from the Sidhe and return from Avalon -- assuming he was able to return at all. Uther was already assuming the worst. If Arthur was lost, the consequences for Camelot would be dire, even if they were saved from the horrors of Morgana's visions.

"Children can be so troublesome," Morgana said, with soothing sympathy. "Arthur's probably just off on one of his snits, stomping through the forest. Give him a few days to calm down. You did just fire Merlin, and you know how fond he is of the boy. I haven't seen Merlin either today. Perhaps Arthur's taking him back to Ealdor."

The wrinkles eased from Uther's brow. "It wouldn't be the first time he's snuck off for that boy. I've never understood what Arthur sees in him."

"Adoration," Morgana said, leaning back as she gained control over the conversation. "Merlin worships the ground Arthur walks on. He'll do anything for him. Who wouldn't enjoy having such a servant?"

Uther leaned back, mirroring Morgana's posture. "I've never questioned the boy's devotion."

"Then why get rid of him?"

Uther stared at a candle flame and twisted his mouth in thought. "It's natural for a servant to worship his master. But such devotion shouldn't be returned. Arthur has always cared too much for the boy. If he's going to be King, he has to learn."

Morgana frowned. "A king must care for his people."

"A king must care for his kingdom," Uther corrected. "After the Five Kingdoms are united, Arthur will become regent. He needs to be ready."

Morgana feigned surprise. "So soon?" The Five Kingdoms treaty was to be signed next spring.

"It's time," Uther said, simply. He gestured to Louvel to bring their dinner.

Gwen followed Louvel out of the room and down to the kitchens. She was loathe to miss any of the conversation, and so hurried for her waiting tray. By the time she came back, the topic had moved away from Arthur and onto Morgana.

"...the glaziers should have the new windows ready tomorrow," Uther said, sounding pleased by the fact. No doubt he had gone to the glaziers himself and commanded them to stop all work until Morgana's new windows were fritted, worked, and installed.

"That's wonderful," Morgana said, smiling. "I've missed the moonlight."

Gwen and Louvel served dinner, topped off their masters' cups, and stood back to wait for further command. There was an amicable silence as Morgana and Uther ate.

"My lord," Morgana began, as she finished eating and set aside her fork. "As my health as improved, and as Arthur is coming into his inheritance, I have been thinking of my own."

Uther frowned. "Morgana, we have been over this many times."

"And there is still no man in all of Camelot that I would deign to take as a husband," Morgana said, with fire behind her words. She quickly composed herself again. "Lord Gylis may continue to manage my father's lands. But that does not mean I cannot live upon them. I wish to move to Powys next summer.

Uther set aside his own fork. "You are my ward. Your place is here."

"I am of age, my lord," Morgana said, politely insistent. "I have lived more than half my life in your castle. But for ten years I lived in my father's. I wish to do so again, now that I am able."

Uther did not disguise his hurt, nor the anger that came with it. But he quickly composed himself, just as Morgana had. "I will allow a visit, but no more than a month."

Anger flashed in Morgana's eyes, and for a moment Gwen feared the candles might flare high, or a vase explode. But with a blink the anger was gone. "A month," Morgana agreed.

"And no more."

"A month, and then we will discuss it further," Morgana replied. "Unless you have a better reason why I must remain here?"

"You are under Gaius' care, and I cannot spare him."

"Gaius can teach another physician how to make my medicine. Surely there are skilled physicians in Powys."

"Gaius is the best in the kingdom, and I would trust your care to no other," Uther insisted. "I will not see you leave his care until you have been fully cured."

"Even if I marry?" Morgana challenged. "Even if my new husband commanded me to travel far away with him?"

"In which case, I would have words with your 'new husband', and unless he was a king, he would do well to listen."

They stared at each other in mutual defiance, and then both broke into resigned smiles. This was an old argument, one Gwen had seen many times in many variations. Morgana tested the bounds of her cage, and Uther fortified them. And yet it was clear that the King kept Morgana close out of a true and deep affection, and that losing her for any reason, even a husband, would be a great and painful loss to him. It did not matter that she was only his Ward; to him, she was the daughter he had never had. And as much as that fact restrained Morgana, it also gave her power she would never have merely as the daughter of Lord Gorlois.

"Besides," Uther said, in a conciliatory tone, "I'll need you here to keep an eye on Arthur. You're the only one I can trust to be as fearless with him as you are with me."

This gave Morgana pause. "You wish me to counsel him?"

Uther nodded. "As you already do for me."

Morgana smiled. "I would be honored, my lord." Gwen knew that at least some of that smile was for the fact that Morgana had already secured herself an official seat on Arthur's council -- and not merely as a captive conscience. With or without Uther's permission, she would one day claim her full inheritance -- assuming they weren't forced to flee Camelot entirely in order to stay alive.

"If I am to follow in my father's footsteps, you must tell me how he challenged you," Morgana continued. "About his courage and honor, and the friendship you share. I was too young when he was taken from me."

"He was the greatest man I've ever known," Uther said, fondly.

"Tell me a story," Morgana said, with a warm smile. "Anything. Tell me... tell me how he met my mother."

Uther's smile froze and faded. "Your mother," he said, and took up his wine again.

"He always said the two of you had been friends since you were boys," Morgana said, continuing on in the same warm tone, as if oblivious to Uther's darkening mood. "Surely he told you how they met. I know so little about her. How she lived. How she died."

Uther drained his cup and Louvel quickly refilled it. "Surely your father told you.

"Only that she took ill."

"There is little more to say," Uther said, tersely. "The disease took her quickly. I sent Gaius to Powys, but it was too late."

"Perhaps I'll speak to Gaius, then," Morgana said.

Uther gave an assenting grunt and drank again. Gwen and Morgana exchanged another glance; Morgana would pry no more from him tonight, but his reaction was revealing in itself. Once again it was clear that Gaius was the vault of the secrets of their past. The trick lay in learning how to unlock him.

§

Dinner finished soon after, and Morgana and Uther parted for the night. Instead of returning to her chambers for the night, Gwen and Morgana headed back to Gaius. Morgana's long strides and clenched jaw meant that Gaius would have questions to answer before they could resume their lessons.

When they arrived, they found the door was locked, but on their previous visit Gaius had given Gwen one of his spare keys. Gwen opened the door, and found that Gaius was asleep in his cot.

"Should we wake him up?" Gwen whispered.

"Oh, I'll wake him up," Morgana said, with promise, but as she walked towards him, she stopped and cocked her head. "Do you hear something?"

Gwen listened. It sounded like something was scratching against wood. She looked to Morgana, and realization came over both of them just in time. They turned towards the barrel just as it burst apart in a shower of grain and wood. Everything happened at once: Sophia flew out from the ruined barrel, Gaius startled awake with a yelp, Gwen slammed the door shut, and Morgana leapt for the Sidhe staff.

"Stop her!" Gaius cried, as he struggled to his feet. "Don't let her get away!"

Gwen turned the key in the lock and grabbed the nearest blanket. Gaius had told them how he and Arthur had captured Sophia before. If they could just pin her down and threaten her with the staff...

"I'll stop her," Morgana said. She whirled around with the staff and pointed it at the crazed ball of blue light that was streaking around the room. "Acwele!" she cried. "Acwele! Acwele! Acwele!"

There was a crackle of energy in the air, and Gwen's eyes widened as she remembered it from the explosion of the vase that morning. She yanked Gaius down to the floor and pulled the blanket over their heads just as an explosion rocked the room. There was a cacophony of shattering glass, and then a sudden silence. Gwen lifted the corner of the blanket and peeked out.

"Morgana?" Gwen called, alarmed.

"I'm all right," Morgana said. She stood up with a groan and brushed herself off. She looked around and gave a triumphant cry. "Got her!"

Gwen helped Gaius up, and they surveyed the scene. Morgana was all right, but her dress had been ruined, sliced up by shattered glass. The Sidhe staff was also destroyed, as the crystal that powered it had exploded, overloaded by Morgana's magic -- as had nearly all of Gaius' glass vials and bottles.

In the middle of the room, lying among the glittering shards, was Sophia.

"Is she dead?" Gwen asked, walking carefully over.

Morgana picked up Sophia with some distaste and handed her to Gaius. Gaius peered and prodded at her, and concluded that she was still alive, but had been knocked unconscious by the blast of magic that Morgana had channelled -- or rather, forced -- through the staff's crystal.

"The larger problem," Gaius continued, "is what do with her now. She must be imprisoned somewhere more secure before she awakes."

"Steel isn't enough," Gwen said, looking at the wreckage of the barrel. Sophia had managed to free herself from the wire, and then bent apart the candle cage before breaking out of the barrel itself. "We need something stronger."

"I know where we can get something stronger than steel," Morgana said, with a knowing smirk.

Gaius sighed. "It would probably be best if the two of you went alone. Take her with you, and go before the guards get here. I'll tell them an experiment went wrong. It wouldn't be the first time." He shook his head at the broken glass and spilled potions. "They might even help me clean up this mess."

"Thanks, Gaius," Gwen said, giving him an apologetic look. She wrapped the unconscious Sophia up in a cloth, and she and Morgana hurried out the door. They heard the guards coming up the stairs and ducked into a shadowed corridor until they had passed, then quickly went down the steps themselves.

§

Gwen's stomach knotted as they crept to the top of the dungeon stairs, barely disguised by their heavy cloaks. But the sensation was not solely from fear of being caught. Down below, where the guards passed the time with dice, was where her father died.

But this was not the night for distractions. She and Morgana peered down and found that the dungeons were well-lit with torches tonight. Gwen looked to Morgana, who appeared both intimidated and determined in what she was about to do. There was only one way they would get past the guards, and that was under cover of darkness.

Gwen reached out and held Morgana's hand with her own. Morgana squeezed back, grateful, and took a shaky breath, then another.

"Close your eyes," Morgana whispered, and Gwen obeyed. She held them tightly closed as Morgana gathered her strength. Though it was not as strong as during Morgana's explosions of power, Gwen recognized the tickle of magic against her palm. Despite the danger, despite the dire consequences if they were discovered, she could not deny the thrill that ran through her. She was feeling Morgana's magic. The intimacy of it almost made her blush, but she sternly told herself to stay focused.

"Acwence oandelweoce," Morgana whispered under her breath, and despite their near-silence, there was strength in her words. There was a disturbance below as the torches were quenched, one by one, until the dungeons were plunged into darkness.

"Now!" Morgana whispered, and Gwen opened her eyes. They would have a good minute before everyone else's eyes adjusted to what little moonlight there was, and that was all the advantage they needed. Gwen pulled Morgana along as they slipped down the stairs and past the guards, Morgana trusting her to lead them safely to their destination.

They reached the gate, which was at the end of a corridor of cells. But when Gwen tried to open it, she found to her horror that it was locked. Morgana looked at her, and they realized at the same time that when they had last done this, they had used Morgana's skeleton key. The same key that had vanished along with Merlin in the chambers of the Tír-Mòr.

At the other end of the corridor, the orange glow of the torches flared up again as they were re-lit by the guards. At any moment, a guard would come down this way to re-light the rest. They had to get past the gate.

"The unlocking spell," Gwen whispered urgently. "Can you use it to open the gate?"

Morgana was wide-eyed in the darkness. "I don't remember the words."

Gwen frantically thought through everything she had read and learned over the past two days, and almost gasped in relief as she recalled the spell. "'Tospringe'. It's 'tospringe.'"

Morgana glanced back over her shoulder at the flickering light, and then rounded on the gate lock as she would any opponent. She stared at the lock, gathering her strength and will anew, and with one word the lock clicked open.

"You did it!" Gwen whispered, proud and amazed.

Morgana grinned back at her, and pushed open the door. They hurried through and closed the door behind them, letting the lock click shut again. They didn't need skeleton keys anymore.

There was no light at all once they reached the bottom of the first flight of steps. Gwen had grabbed one of the torches from the wall, but they didn't dare use it until there was no chance that the light would be seen.

"Leohtbora oandelweoce," Morgana cast, and the torch flared to life.

Gwen blinked as her eyes adjusted, but it was not the light that startled her. Morgana stared at the torch with delight and joy, her face flushed with excitement and life as it had not been for years. This was her Morgana, not the pale, suffering girl that Gwen had watched over in sorrow. This was the Morgana that she...

"Come on," Morgana said, grabbing Gwen's hand and pulling her along, breaking her from her thoughts.

When they had been this way before, years ago, they had been stopped by a blockade of rubble; now, they found a cleared path had been made through it. Merlin's work, no doubt. The path led at last to a broad ledge, and beyond it they found a vast, dark cavern, lit only by shafts of moonlight. The cavern was enormous, and big enough hide a whole army of dragons. But there was only one dragon left.

Gwen hesitated, but Morgana was emboldened by her successes. She called out into the darkness. "Great Dragon! Show yourself!"

The dragon did not reply, but the clink of chains and a low rumble betrayed his presence.

"Please," Gwen added; this was, after all, one of the holiest creatures of the Old Religion. A little politeness couldn't hurt. "Please, we need your help."

From the shadows came a low, menacing laugh. "The witch asks me for help."

Morgana stiffened at this -- if not because of his words, than because of his sneering tone. It was clear that the dragon held her in disdain, and yet they had never met. "Show yourself. Or are you such a coward that you can only shout insults from the shadows?"

The dragon growled, and then abruptly lunged forward into the light. He was a monstrous beast, with huge wings and sharp teeth and claws. Both women jumped back, and were relieved when the dragon's chains kept it from reaching the ledge. The dragon settled back on a large outcropping and glared at them. It snorted smoke.

"I will never help you, Morgana Pendragon," snarled the dragon.

"Why?" Morgana challenged, stepping forward to show that she was not afraid, even though anyone with sense would be terrified. "What right do you have to cast such judgement?"

The dragon said nothing.

"Then will you help me?" Gwen dared. "You forged my father's sword. Can you forge a prison that will hold a Sidhe?"

The dragon turned and looked directly at her, and Gwen had to force herself not to flinch. His yellow eyes seemed to stare into her soul. He flicked his tail against the rock, sending stone clattering down. It was clear that he was judging her, and all she could do was hope not to be found wanting. It was a mystery to her why the dragon would hold any animus towards Morgana. As they were all parts of the Old Religion, they should have every reason to work together.

"Your father's sword," the dragon rumbled. "Then you are the blacksmith's daughter. Serving girl to the witch."

"I'm right here," Morgana said, offended.

"It is not your destiny to be here," continued the dragon, ignoring the interruption.

"Yet here I am." Gwen dropped to one knee and bowed her head. "Please, in the name of Modron, for the sake of all who hold her in our hearts--"

"Silence," the dragon growled.

Gwen stood up, confused. The words of the Old Religion should be a consolation to such a creature of magic. But then she heard the rattle of his chain, and saw the bitterness in his ancient eyes. There was, after all, only one dragon left, and he had spent the last twenty years imprisoned. It did not surprise her that he should turn against the Old Religion in his anger and grief, but it saddened her.

"So you hate magic?" Morgana braved, undaunted. "You hate me because I'm a witch, you hate Gwen because she worships the gods you've turned from."

"I hate those who have imprisoned me," the dragon said, turning on her with fresh enmity.

"You helped Merlin," Morgana replied. "He has magic. He worships the Old Gods. Why help him and not us?"

"Merlin is no longer of interest to me."

"You're lying," Gwen realized. "If you didn't care about Merlin anymore, you wouldn't have helped Arthur get to Avalon."

The dragon gave an irritated rumble. "The only thing Arthur Pendragon will find in Avalon is his own death. I merely helped him to it."

"You're like me. You know what's coming," Morgana said. "You know we'll all be dead soon if we don't stop the Sidhe. Thousands of innocent people will die. Is that what you want?"

"I am the last of my kind," the dragon growled. "By Uther Pendragon's hand. I will see his line end before mine."

"This isn't about Uther or Camelot," Gwen said, her own anger growing. "The Sidhe are our common enemy. For thousands of years, dragons were sworn to protect Albion against them. Will you turn your back on that legacy and let the Sidhe win all for the sake of revenge?"

Morgana's hand came to rest on Gwen's shoulder, and only then did she realize that she was shaking with anger and fear, and that she had stepped to the very brink of the ledge in her passion. She let Morgana guide her back to safety.

There was a tense silence as the dragon considered their words. "It is true that the Sidhe deserve my fire," he said, slowly. "But the Triskelion broke when my kind were slaughtered. Uther destroyed that legacy. I owe Albion nothing."

Gwen's heart sank. For all Morgana's newfound strength, she could not stop what was coming, not without help. If the dragon refused them, then their only hope was that Arthur and Merlin would return alive and whole. If not, they would have to run, to warn those who would listen and to abandon Camelot to its fate.

"Coward," Morgana called, defiant as ever. "Liar!"

The dragon gave a warning snort.

"You heard me," Morgana continued, taking a step forward. "Gwen seems to think you're someone important. But all I see is a selfish, lying coward who'd rather wallow in his own bitterness than see the truth. And that makes you just the same as Uther."

The dragon reared up, furious. "How dare you?"

"It's the truth," Morgana said, undaunted. "If you ever cared about anyone but yourself, you'll help us stop the Sidhe."

"And how, exactly, do you expect me to do anything?" He rattled his chains noisily. Then his eyes narrowed. "If you want my help, first you must free me."

Morgana hesitated and glanced at Gwen, who shared her concern. The dragon seemed just as likely to burn down Camelot himself if he had the chance. If they let him go, even if he did help them against the Sidhe, they would have no way to stop him if and when he turned on them. But it might just be a risk they would have to take.

Morgana turned back to the dragon. "How?"

At last the dragon seemed genuinely interested in them. "My chains must be broken. It will require powerful magic and a sword blessed by the Old Religion."

"And in return, you'll help us against the Sidhe?" Morgana pressed. "You'll help save Camelot?"

"That is the bargain," the dragon agreed.

"Prove it," Morgana said. She turned to Gwen. "Show him."

Gwen reached into her pocket and pulled out the still-unconscious Sophia. She held her out for the dragon to see, and was relieved to see the hatred that flared in his eyes.

"Shall I kill her for you?" the dragon asked, eagerness dripping from his voice.

"We need a prison she can't escape," Morgana said. Gwen gave her the fresh candle cage that she'd had tucked under her cloak. "Can you forge this as you forged the sword?"

"I can," said the dragon. His eyes glowed, and the cage lifted from Morgana's hand to float in the air above them. "But what assurance do I have that you will keep your side of the bargain? I have been betrayed before."

"You're not the only one for whom Camelot is a prison," Morgana said, honestly. "When all this is over and Camelot is safe, I will free you, as I free myself. Is that enough, or do you not trust the word of a 'witch'?"

Morgana and the dragon stared at each other, and it was the dragon that broke first. He nodded his head and flapped his wings once. "Very well. Step back, and I will give you what you have asked for."

Morgana and Gwen quickly moved back to the entrance, where they could shield themselves from the dragonflame. With a mighty heave, the dragon breathed out a gust of intense, white-hot flame that seared the air around them. When the flame stopped and the air cooled, they stepped out from their safety and looked up. There, gleaming in the dim light with the same extraordinary sheen as Arthur's sword, was the candle cage, transformed. The dragon's eyes glowed again as the cage sank down into Morgana's open hands. But she did not flinch from the forge's heat.

"It's cool," Morgana said, amazed. "Quickly, put her inside."

Gwen placed the bound Sidhe into the candle cage and quickly closed it, securing the door with the burnished latch.

"You're certain this will hold?" Morgana asked the dragon.

"It would hold against a hundred Sidhe."

"Thank you," Gwen said, genuinely grateful. She tucked the cage back under her cloak.

"Let's go," Morgana whispered, and Gwen gave a quick nod of agreement. They had what they had come for, and the promise of additional help should they need it. It was more than Gwen could have hoped for, yet the cost might prove high.

Morgana turned back to the dragon. "Thank you," she said, with all the formality of the court.

"Remember your promise," warned Kilgharrah. "Or I will keep you to it."

§

At the halfway point between the dragon and the dungeons, Gwen and Morgana stopped and hugged each other tightly. They were both shaking, exhilarated, overwhelmed by what they had faced, what they had done.

"You were amazing," Morgana said, grinning.

"I was so afraid," Gwen admitted. "The way you stood up to him, it was the bravest thing I've ever seen."

"You were more than brave," Morgana said, pulling back enough to meet her eyes, but not letting her go. "I thought you were going to march right off the cliff!"

"I couldn't believe it," Gwen said, gripping Morgana's arms. "That a Great Dragon would turn his back on us. I knew we had to reach him, to make him listen, to--" Her words and thoughts were stopped abruptly as Morgana closed the narrow space between them and kissed her.

Gwen gave a soft gasp as Morgana suddenly broke the kiss, obviously as surprised by the action as Gwen had been. But when Morgana tried to pull away, Gwen held her. They stood embraced, breathing raggedly in the quiet of the tunnel, cast in half-light by the abandoned torch.

Slowly, Gwen leaned forward and pressed her lips to Morgana's. For an infinite second, Morgana didn't respond, and Gwen's mind raced with fearful, dizzying possibilities. And then she kissed back, and the world righted itself.

This time when the kiss broke, they moved closer, resting their foreheads together as their hearts raced, beating faster now than they had when facing against a monstrous, angry dragon. And surely this was more terrifying, more wonderful than any magical creature.

This was the Morgana that she... that she loved. That she had loved since they were too young to understand it, too young to know what love meant. Gwen had loved Morgana for more than half her life, but until now she had only ever been able to give Morgana half of herself. It was only now that the truth was out, now that they had both broken free from the fears that imprisoned them...

Morgana drew back again, but this time it was to look at Gwen and to touch her cheek, wiping away the tears that Gwen had not known she was shedding. "All this time?" Morgana asked, her voice trembling as it never had against kings and dragons.

Gwen took Morgana's hand and kissed her palm, tasting the salt of her own tears. "I'm sorry."

"Don't," Morgana said, and hugged her again. "Don't ever be sorry. Gwen..."

They held each other for a while, Gwen burying her face against Morgana's cloak and the crook of her neck. And then: "What are we going to do?"

"Exactly what we were going to do before," Morgana said, resolute. "We're going to save Camelot, and then we're going to leave this awful place behind and make a new life for ourselves. And if anyone tries to stop us, I'll cut them down where they stand."

She smiled at the end to soften her words, but Gwen saw how much she meant them. And Gwen saw, even in the dim light, the fear in Morgana's eyes. Not of Gwen, but for her, for the both of them: that they might lose what they had only just found, what they had wasted years in denying. Love, magic, hope... only now had they grasped it, just when everything was against them, ready to rip it all away.

With a burst of nervous courage, Gwen kissed Morgana again -- and dwelled upon the softness of her lips, the warmth of her in her arms. They might die tomorrow, or they might live. They might save Camelot only to leave it behind. But whatever fate awaited them, they would face it together.

§

As they reached the last flight of steps, Gwen extinguished their torch against the stone ground. Though Morgana was bearing it well, Gwen could see that the use of so much magic had once again taken its toll on her. With time and practice she would build up her endurance for spellcasting, but for now they would have to depend on her sheer stubborn determination to get them to safety.

They crept up to the gate and peered out. All the torches had been re-lit, and from the lack of idle chatter and rolling dice, it seemed the guards were still on alert. The one thing Gwen and Morgana had on their side was the general paranoia that Camelot's guards had about magic. It was said that in the early years after the Purge, there were so many false alarms that even Uther grew weary of them. He wanted to hear no more about the supposed ghosts and spirits that haunted the dungeons, especially as the ghosts were of the hundreds of executed sorcerers and conspirators that the King was eager to forget. Even though the guards continued to whisper of strange noises in the night, of objects moving on their own and wine souring in the cup, few of those whispers ever reached the King's ear, for fear of his wrath.

Morgana quietly unlocked the gate, and pushed it open just far enough so that they could peer down the hall. There were only a few torches down this way, but one of them was right next to the gate. If a guard came down this way, they would have to duck back down the steps and wait. But thankfully they were too busy guarding the dungeon's entrance to worry about the securely locked cells behind them.

"Same as before," Morgana whispered, and Gwen nodded. But as Morgana gathered her strength to quench the torches again, Gwen gave one last look up and down the hall -- and then something caught her eye, and she looked straight ahead at the dark, empty cell across from them.

It wasn't empty.

A man was there, sitting on the straw-covered floor. He was staring at them, and when their eyes met, he gave a wry, knowing smile. Gwen's heart squeezed in her chest, and she swallowed a whimper as she grabbed tightly to Morgana's arm.

"Ow! Gwen, what?" Morgana whispered, turning back to her, annoyed. And then she followed Gwen's eyes, and froze.

The man, the prisoner -- he had seen them. He had seen Morgana doing magic, and it only took one witness for a trial and execution. It would be his word against theirs, and he was just a prisoner, but that might not be enough to save them. Gwen's mind raced, frantic -- yet even through the haze of panic, she saw the moment that Morgana made her decision.

"No, don't!" Gwen whispered, grabbing Morgana to stop her.

"I have to," Morgana hissed, trembling with desperation. Gold flared in her eyes, more from emotion than magic, and she tried to pull free even as Gwen tried to cover her mouth.

"Ladies," whispered the man, raising his palms in surrender. "Please. Your secrets are safe."

Gwen and Morgana froze, and both turned to the man.

"And why should we believe you?" Morgana hissed urgently.

The man opened his mouth to reply, but then came the sound of boots against stone as a guard approached. Gwen and Morgana both held their breath; they were far enough back not to be in sight unless the guard came all the way down the hall, and the guard seemed to be lazy enough not to bother with the walk. But the gate was open a few inches, and if the guard noticed...

Long seconds passed. The guard moved on.

Gwen released Morgana, slumping against the opposite wall. Morgana turned to her, both relieved and angry. Morgana never took kindly to anyone trying to control her, and it was clear that friends or lovers, the resulting argument would be the same.

"As I was saying," said the man, quite unruffled by the close call. He was an older man, and unlike the other prisoners, it was clear that someone had allowed him to clean up recently, as he was wearing clean clothes and had only a couple of days' worth of stubble. "You have my word that I will tell no one."

"What good is your word?" asked Morgana, unimpressed.

"Better than most," he replied, and gave a courtly bow -- or a passable one, for someone chained to the floor. "I am Lord Idriys of Deorham. I apologize for the mess. I wasn't expecting visitors."

Gwen stared in surprise. At least that explained why he was here on his own, away from the other prisoners. And it gave some credence to his promise, as he had no need of bargaining chips to regain his freedom -- or save his neck.

Gwen looked to Morgana, and saw that her anger had faded, replaced by curiosity. Yet she was never one to make things easy. She lifted her chin at him. "You're the fool who tried to invade Camelot. I see you got what you deserved."

Though Gwen and Morgana had never had a chance to get the full story from Merlin himself, they had been able to piece together most of his adventures in Gedref. It had been said that Sir Geraint had infiltrated the Deorham and breached the very chambers of Lord Idriys himself in order to steal the enemy's plans and defeat their sorcerer. In truth, that meant that Merlin must have met Lord Idriys, and somehow gained his confidence enough to access his chambers.

"That I did," Idriys agreed. "But I am not so much a fool that I would seek the death of a lady of such potential."

It was such an unexpected thing for him to say that it stopped Morgana cold. Gwen could hardly believe it herself. Of course, magic was not banned in Deorham, and Lord Idriys had taken a sorcerer into battle.

Gwen looked to Morgana again, and that they were thinking the same thing. When they left Camelot, they would need somewhere to go, and they had no illusions about Uther's reaction to Morgana's departure. King Alined might be disreputable, but if they had an ally in Lord Idriys, perhaps Deorham would be willing to harbor them against Camelot.

Morgana composed herself as she would against any courtly enemy, no matter that the longer they stayed here, the greater the chance they would be discovered by the guards. "Tell me, my lord. What intentions would you have towards such a lady?"

Idriys did not bother to disguise his interest. "If I were to meet one, I would have much to offer her. Lands, money... safety."

"Tempting," Morgana said, and then faded her sly smile to a frown. "And yet I would not think it wise for a lady to ally with a defeated man."

"The mark of a man is not whether he is defeated. It is if he remains defeated."

If their conversation had been a test, it was clear from Morgana's pleased expression that he had just passed it. "Then perhaps we will meet again," she said, with a demure smile.

"Soon, I hope," said Idriys, with another formal bow. "Before you go, may I have your name?"

Morgana opened her mouth, paused, then said: "Vivienne. Lady Vivienne."

"A pleasure and an honor, my lady."

Morgana bowed in return, then peered out into the hall to see if the way was clear. She nodded to Gwen to shut her eyes, and then torch by torch, she whispered the dungeons into darkness.

Chapter Text

Arthur was not afraid of work, whether physical or mental. While he was most proud of his abilities as a warrior, he had been taught a wide range of skills. He could not judge the skill of a smithy without understanding forge and ore, nor the farmer without understanding crops and soil. Arthur had been taught everything from animal husbandry to land management to the movements of the stars -- not enough to be an expert, but equal to that of any apprentice. With that knowledge and his physical and mental strength, there was little in Camelot that he would not be able to achieve if he set himself to it.

But he wasn't in Camelot. Here in Avalon, a land where everything was made of magic, where everything was achieved by magic, all his strength and knowledge and abilities were worthless. As a human, he was less than a person here: food to most, or an object to trade like a handful of coins. And while his disguise as a Pixie restored that basic personhood to him, nothing could hide his lack of magic.

In Camelot, there were tasks that could be delegated to a servant who had no particular skills. They could be put to work carrying firewood or scrubbing floors. Repetitive, mindless work, often backbreaking, but it kept them busy and out of trouble. But in the Seelie Court, mindless tasks were done by magic, with one Pixie casting multiple spells at a time. So what tasks were left for the lowly, useless servant?

It seemed that there was one task that even the Pixies didn't care to lower themselves to. Most odious and foul work indeed.

The Sidhe did not ride on horses as humans did, but on all manner of beasts: birds and small mammals magnified to great size so that they could be ridden; wild beasts tamed without whip or tack, including enormous deer-like creatures with huge, heavy antlers; and some creatures that he could not recognize at all, and did not know what size they ought to be. All through the afternoon the Sidhe arrived, streaming in from the woods and beyond, and when they dismounted, their beasts were left in the care of the Pixies. Each would be magically groomed and fed, and then the natural result of that feeding would... result.

Gydur had made it clear that if 'Ursa' shirked his duties, if he was too lazy to do one task where every other Pixie could do a dozen, then Puck would return and find himself short one servant. Gydur had handed Arthur a shovel and a bucket and left him under the watchful eyes of the Pixies who cared for the beasts.

The filth and stink was beyond description. But Arthur took his tools and got to work. He wasn't going to give Gydur any excuse to be rid of him, no matter how many disgusting piles he had to shovel and haul away. He found himself thinking longingly of the relatively sweet smell of the Camelot stables. At least there weren't any carnivores there.

The one benefit of being in the stables was that Arthur could see everyone who arrived, and keep his own watchful eyes out for Merlin, Aulfric, and Drudwas. He could also look over to the grove of the grand hall, where the Sidhe were gathering. Oberon and the other Sidhe from the palace were already there, but along with those he had come to Avalon to find, there was no sign of Titania or Puck.

It was the last that had him concerned. Several hours had passed since Puck's departure, and Arthur was starting to worry that he had been abandoned. It did not seem farfetched that the mischievous creature had set him up, that he was hiding behind a tree and snickering to himself at how far the Crown Prince of Camelot had been reduced. But Arthur had little choice but to wait and endure, and he doubted that Puck would push things so far with his own master. Even from a distance, Oberon looked as impatient as Arthur felt.

By the time Gydur returned, the stream of arrivals had trickled off. Arthur's arms and back ached and he was filthy, but he couldn't help the spark of pride he felt at having met Gydur's challenge. He considered it a mark in his tourney column at last.

"Passable," Gydur grunted, unimpressed. He turned to Arthur and wrinkled his huge, pink, warty nose. "Hmph. Thou canst carry a bucket. Thou art not so simple after all, I think," he said, narrowing his eyes.

Arthur froze. He had been at least partially found-out. What would happen next? Could he still fight in this Pixie body? Was there anything he could use as a weapon? If he had to fight his way out, how would he save Merlin?

Gydur laughed and slapped him on the arm -- and the Pixie must not know his own strength, because the force of the blow nearly knocked Arthur over. "If thou plays a jest on Puck, it's just revenge for that knave's tricks."

"A jest, yes," Arthur said, hiding his relief.

"I blame thee not," Gydur said, with some sympathy. "Even for a weakling, it is a pity to serve anything other than a Sidhe." He gave an adoring sigh. "We are blessed to stand in their exquisite presence, to kneel and serve their sublime resplendence."

Arthur saw the glassy reverence in Gydur's eyes, and realized that the Pixie was enchanted, just as he himself had been enchanted by Sophia. That all the Pixies must have been enchanted to love and serve their masters. It explained their fierce devotion, their protective jealousy. He felt a pang of sympathy towards the creatures and was surprised by it. The Finfolk might have been greedy and vicious, but at least the Merrows had served them of their own volition. Gydur would never turn from his masters the way Síofra had, because he had no true will of his own. Arthur had chafed at the physical qualities of his Pixie glamour, at the ugliness and the deformities; he had strained against his human frailty in this magical place. But the weakness of the Pixies was not in their form.

And with that understanding came a bitter revelation about his own treatment of Merlin. Arthur had so feared that Merlin had enchanted him, that a servant would control his master, and here the reverse was true. He had be willing to use the torcs to dominate Merlin and control him, all in the name of saving him from his magic. At the time, he had clung desperately to that control because he was afraid of Merlin, of what he was capable of, of the damage his magic might do, but did that fear justify his actions? Was he any better than the Sidhe? Than Sophia? He saw himself reflected, and as when he had looked into the stream and seen a Pixie's face, he recoiled to see himself with a Sidhe's mind.

Arthur knelt in the grassy hay and gave a mournful sigh. "If only I could serve a Sidhe, just for an hour. Truly, I would be blessed."

Sympathy poured from Gydur's eyes. "Then be still." He waved his hand, and it was the work of a moment of magic for all the filth to vanish from Arthur's clothes and body. "Now thou art fit to serve in the presence of the beauteous Sidhe. If thou canst pour wine without spilling, then go to the feast and serve. Thy master Puck will return anon. He would not miss this evening's festive delights. Until then, be the Sidhe's slave, and know their love."

Arthur was given a hefty slap towards the palace, and he wasted no time in waddling there. Once he was inside, he decided to skip the party for now and take the opportunity to search for Merlin. Now that he had been accepted into the Pixie's ranks, if he was caught he could simply give the excuse of being lost. He began poking through any room with a door he could open. If Merlin truly was a prisoner here, they could be holding him anywhere.

If only the layout of this mad palace made the slightest bit of sense! It didn't take long before Arthur actually was lost, and his attempts to retrace his steps only led him further astray. He felt as he had when he'd followed the path from the shore and been led in circles by it. He was becoming quite tired of the Sidhe's illusions, of constantly being wrong-footed the moment he tried to act on his own. He missed being in a world where things actually made sense.

He came to the end of a hallway and opened a door, and it turned out to be a linen closet. He closed it again, but as he turned to go, he heard a knocking sound. It was coming from inside the linen closet. Puzzled and wary, he carefully opened the door.

"Ursa!" Puck called, leaping out from the linen closet. He bounded into the hall and bounced in delight.

"Puck?" Arthur gaped. "But how...?" He looked into the closet again, but the only thing inside it was shelves and linens. There was no hidden entrance, not even room to stand with the door closed. Was even the closet an illusion?

"My shining bear," Puck said, grabbing Arthur in a hug and swinging him around before setting him down with a jolt.

As relieved as Arthur was to see Puck, he remembered how angry he was at being abandoned for hours, and all his suppressed frustration burst out of him. "Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea what I've had to put up with? How dare you--"

Puck silenced him with a finger pressed to Arthur's lips. "Cease thy temper, cruel words forbear, for I've a tale that I must share. To every holy place I flew to bring Titania to her due, and found her quick, and did exhort to leave her rest and fly to fairy court. Upon her Oberon's gifts I plied but my petition was denied. Imprisoned I could only wait until her votaries abate their jingling prayer and jangling knell; I watched them from within my cell. But mark!" He jumped back and held up his hand, which bore Palaemon's ring. The blue gemstone was no longer dull, but shimmered with potent magic.

"You fixed it?"

"With a prayer to Portunalis. Then I fled fair acropolis and to thee, obedient, swift, came to thank thee for thy gift. Thy servant I'll be longer yet and one more favor will be met."

One more favor. Arthur already knew what he wanted. "Then fetch me Mer--" But he was stopped by Puck's finger once again.

Puck cocked his head, as if listening to something. "Patience, wait, for I am bade, from my master I have strayed. To his side I must return, lest his umbrage I do earn. Yet mark the hour, the sun's retire saves us from a fate most dire. Swift we'll fly to Oberon's side and welcome home his fickle bride."

Puck grabbed Arthur's hand and pulled, and the world blurred around them. Arthur's oversized feet barely touched the floor as they sped impossibly fast through the winding hallway, and then just as suddenly they stopped. Arthur gripped his dizzied head until he could see straight again, and realized that they were just outside the dome where all the Sidhe had gathered.

"Attend and mark," Puck whispered, then stood straight, checked the air, and waited for a beat before striding confidently into the hall. Arthur started after him, then hesitated. As soon as Puck was seen, all revelries halted and the pipers lowered their instruments. All eyes turned to Puck and then to Oberon, who looked up with a thunderous glare. That thunder was matched by a sudden swift , chill wind and a rumbling from above the forest canopy. The attending Sidhe, in their gossamer silks, retreated and huddled behind the mushrooms, and some even abandoned their glamours to retreat into the silver branches above.

"Long hours hath made my patience slim," Oberon warned.

But Puck stood firm, his only deference a slight bow. "Let my words be thy sweetest hymn. For I have found thy fairy queen, gave thy gifts and bade her glean thy love, thy patience and thy will. Swift I bring her to thy feet; she comes, as sun and earth do meet."

Puck spread his arms to the sky, and as the sun set, the moon appeared through a gap in the canopy above. The half-moon grew and swayed and sank down through the trees, and Arthur realized that it was but a fairy throne in the likeness of a moon. The stars that shimmered around it were Titania's fairies, and the queen herself reclined upon her throne in breathless splendor. She wore a sheer gown that sparkled with what must be diamonds. But as the throne carried her down into the hall, Arthur saw that the diamonds were dew-drops, and the sheer fabric was silver gossamer. She had fashioned her dress from Oberon's gifts.

And then Arthur had to avert his eyes, for he saw how little of her womanly figure was obscured. His face flushed with sudden heat. He had never seen such stunning beauty, not even among the dazzling Sidhe, who were themselves emerging from their retreat with applause and murmurs of awed delight. Oberon's stormy mood eased, and with it went the wind and thunderous clouds.

"My lady," Oberon said, with a reluctant nod. Instead of celebrating Titania's arrival, he put on a contrary air, as if he did not care if she stayed or left.

"My lord," Titania said, with a knowing smile. She gestured and her throne was set beside Oberon's; her luminous, smooth moonstone was a contrast and a pair to his rough-hewn obsidian. "I shall not be fetched like a dog's bone." She said it sweetly, but there was menace in it.

Oberon leaned forward, matching her menace with his own. "Thou wast brought to kneel before my throne."

"Hence I came when ready, not when bade," Titania replied, then looked to Puck, who was putting on a disaffected air of his own. "Tell, Puck, how from prison have you strayed?"

Oberon turned his gaze to Puck, who smiled. "A mere delay, a brief suspension, while she finished her convention. Nothing even worth a mention."

"With Rome, a delegation?" Oberon asked, turning back to Titania.

"My Lord, a convocation," Titania corrected, resting her hand on Oberon's arm in gentle appeasement. "Rome's feast was for Consus and Ops, their gods of harvest, grain, and crops. My votaresses to me yearned, and to my order I returned to join with them and to kneel down. We lay green cloth upon earth brown, made offerings and then did dine on garden fruits and blessed wine. From their sweet lips they sent up prayer, and with their souls did soak the air. Then from those lips of love I drank. Down to the cloth our bodies sank."

Oberon riled with jealousy, but Titania continued on, smiling as she relived the delights of Rome.

"In breaths of faith my body soaked as to their goddess they evoked prosperity: the full storehouse, grain free from mold or trace of mouse; the fattened herd; the hearty child; the autumn harvest's weather mild; let their households each survive; let their health and wealth all thrive. To Ops Consiva, hopes expressed, each swore the soul within their breast. In return they will be blessed, and share with me their god's bequest."

Titania leaned in and kissed Oberon. As she did, Arthur felt a stirring of magic in the hall. Oberon stiffened, and Titania gripped him as power shimmered in the air around them. When she pulled away, Oberon was flushed, and his eyes had grown bright with life and spirit. In contrast, his previous state now seemed faded. Oberon had been in some way ailing, and Titania had restored him.

"Salve Ops Consivia," Oberon murmured.

Titania smiled back. "A gift for thee, my husband-lord. And now that thou hast been restored, let us celebrate this night, as is custom and our rite." She stood and raised her arms to the sky. "Let wine flow free and honey drip, praise stars and moon, let's dance and skip and dawn the revels of the night! For flesh and spirit: sweet delight!"

A rousing cheer came from the Sidhe; they were all quite recovered from their fright. The musicians resumed their play with a new, jaunting tune, and everyone joined in to dance and drink, often both at once. The Pixie servants stayed to the shadows, using their magic to attend to their masters and keep their cups full.

Puck was initially drawn into the celebrations, but after a few rounds of dancing managed to make his way over to Arthur. He held out his empty cup and Arthur grabbed a nearby pitcher to refill it.

"What's wrong with Oberon?" Arthur asked. Not that he cared if the Sidhe lived or died, but he couldn't help his curiosity.

"Tis Albion that ails my lord," Puck explained. "Its magic fails, its gods ignored. We spirits live twixt god and land, where animal and man doth stand. Cut one end, the end's at hand."

Despite Puck's perpetually jovial air, there was a sobriety in his eyes, and Arthur found himself reconsidering Titania's story. The way her magic had restored Oberon, so alike to how Merlin could be restored by his own magic. Human souls, gods, magic, even the land itself -- it all seemed to be connected in some essential way. Was Oberon's illness the direct result of the Great Purge? Did it have anything to do with Camelot's ailing crops? Was their failure the gods' revenge against his father, or was there something greater at work?

Before Arthur could ask any of them, Puck had rejoined the revelers and was very welcome among them. It seemed that even if the Sidhe found Puck to be a nuisance at times, they bore no true ill will towards him. He was not of their kind, but he was one of them. Arthur was glad now that he had kept his full identity from Puck; if he knew that Arthur was the son of the man who had cut the connection between the gods and men of Albion, it was possible he might not have given such aide. As it was, Arthur wasn't sure what would happen once he had used up the last of Puck's favors. But once that favor was fulfilled, Arthur had no intention of sticking around to find out.

The festivities grew rowdier as the Sidhe drank greedily from their cups, which were kept perpetually full by the attentive, adoring Pixies. Despite the cooler evening air, the hall grew warmer from the heat of so many dancing bodies, and more and more skin was on display. The Sidhe seemed to have no personal boundaries, and touched each other freely as they danced, sometime with a single Sidhe at the center of attention. Arthur tried to avert his eyes but he couldn't help but look, and he was certain that he had turned red beneath the glamour of his pink Pixie skin. It was not entire dissimilar to a fire festival, which always had an atmosphere of fertility about them, but this was wilder -- both more animalistic and more refined, which was true to the nature of the Sidhe themselves.

The arrival of some latecomers was announced, interrupted the merry-making. Titania and Oberon returned to their thrones, restoring their condition and attire with a gesture of magic. The crowd parted to let them through, and Arthur looked up in shock as he recognized one of the two Sidhe: it was Drudwas!

Arthur stepped in for a closer look, only to be forced back against the wall by a glaring Sidhe. Arthur moved around until he was behind Puck, who was standing next to Oberon's throne. It gave him a clear view, but he was disappointed to find that he didn't recognize the other Sidhe, and that there was no sign of Merlin. The other Sidhe carried some large, covered object, but it was far too small to contain a person.

While Drudwas had cut a striking figure in Camelot, here in the Seelie Court he was twice as handsome. His clothes were different, both more formal and more militaristic, with the same sword at his hip. The other man was definitely a regal sort, perhaps a lord or a king, though he was about the same age as Drudwas -- assuming age meant anything to the Sidhe, when their human appearance was false to begin with.

Puck cleared his throat and gave their introduction. "Prince Edern ap Nudd of the Tylwyth Teg, and Drudwas ap Tryffin, Knight of the Sparrowhawk."

"Most gracious and highest Queen Titania," replied Edern, as they bowed to her. "Most noble and generous King Oberon," he continued, and they bowed to him.

"You are late," said Oberon, annoyed at the interruption.

"We beg forgiveness; stay our fate and let us join your glorious fete. We greetings bring from our high blood: thanks and praise from Gwynn ap Nudd."

"Accepted from thy noble king," Titania said, warmly. "Did he command a gift to bring?" She gestured to the covered object.

"A treasure of great value, yea, and tis the cause of our delay," said Edern. He handed the object to Drudwas and stepped towards Titania, then knelt on one knee. "With this gift your blessing's sought. We seek the fate of Camelot."

Arthur stiffened. Perhaps at last he would find out why Drudwas and his other Sidhe were in Camelot, and what foul purpose they intended.

"Arise, fair Prince, this comes to naught. For as you know, that fate is bought. The Aos Sí have claim yet spent. Until they're done, I'll not relent."

Edern didn't seem happy with her answer. "Their claim is weak and poorly bought. For one Sidhe's death, revenge is sought. King Gwynn doth fight for all the Sidhe, o'er Queen Mab give him priority."

Titania gave him a warning look, a hint of storm in her eyes. "Here my judgement thou affronts. Pray thy gift my anger blunts."

Edern backed down, bowing deeply and then returning to his feet. "As thy judgement's fair yet stern, let this gift thy favor earn. Gwynn's orders did we three fulfill, with wife and sister Erdudwyl, and into Camelot did brave to find Sophia's murderous knave. Their sorcerous defense we quell and bring to you as tiercel."

Drudwas pulled the covering away, and revealed a large birdcage. Within it was a falcon, small and hooded. Arthur was confused. If they'd "quelled" the "sorcerous defense," and Merlin was that sorcerer, then where...

Titania reached out her hands. "Give to me my falcon tame. Does my new pet have a name?"

"His kind and human name are kin. Thy pet was once the mage Merlin."

Merlin. Arthur's eyes widened in horror and disbelief. The falcon was Merlin! he lunged forward, unthinking, and found himself immobilized by Puck's magic. Puck gave him a warning glance before releasing him, and Arthur took the hint and stayed back.

"Merlin, that's a name most sweet," cooed Titania, as she reached into the cage. "I'll hold the jesses of thy feet..."

But Merlin wasn't having any of it. When he felt Titania grab at the leather straps on his legs, he screeched in anger and attacked her hand. It was bleeding when she pulled it from the cage and closed the door. The sky thundered ominously as Titania hissed in pain; Merlin's sharp claws had left vicious gouges. But Oberon took her hand in his and healed it, stroking the now-whole skin to soothe his queen.

"There, my love, now all is mended," Oberon said, then turned to Edern. "But thy gift has most offended. This pet has not at all been tamed!"

"For that, my king, I must be blamed," said Drudwas, stepping forward. "This sorcerer's magic -- though withheld -- my enchantments has expelled. When bound his nature should be meek, yet proves itself to be unique."

"And that, my queen, doth prove his worth," added Edern, following Drudwas' lead. "For there are few like him on earth who can resist a fairy's might. Thy potent strength will set him right."

Titania held up the cage and looked at Merlin consideringly. "Tell me, shall I make thee grand? Shall I train thee to my hand? From a fledgeling, weak of flight, brought to pitch, to stoop then smite? Will to me thy prey divest, then rest gentle at my breast? Be warned, Merlin, answer well: I'll make thy heaven or thy hell."

Merlin fluffed his feathers in anger and let out a furious squawk, defiant against Titania. But even as he did so, he seemed to lose his spirit as the reality of his situation sank in. As far as Merlin knew, he had been captured and changed and imprisoned, and now he was to live forever as a pet of the Sidhe in the land of eternal youth. Arthur's heart broke for him, seeing him in such a dejected huddle.

Yet he knew that Puck was right to stop him before. He would rescue Merlin, but he had to be careful or they would end up in a cage together. And Arthur was not going to spend eternity as a bird.

"Though he is a raw submission," Titania said to Edern, "I accept. And thy ambition is considered. Yet tradition holds. If the Aos Sí fail their mission, I will give to thee permission. Return to Albion and wait. Do not try to conquer fate. For the evening, as my guest, drink and dance and join our jest."

Titania held out Merlin's cage, and one of her maidens took it. Another brought over a small table, and the caged was placed upon it. The Sidhe gathered around it, blocking Arthur's view, but when he heard Merlin's agitated squawking, he couldn't help but head over to put a stop to whatever torment the Sidhe were putting Merlin through. But once again, Puck's magic pulled him back.

"They're hurting him!" Arthur hissed.

"Hush, sweet Ursa, halt thy cries. They'll not harm Titania's prize. Taunts and teases provoke rage, but he'll stay safe within his cage. A little torment, that is all, so he'll take Titania's thrall."

"They've already turned him into a bird," Arthur grumbled, not liking any of this one bit. "I'm supposed to stand here and let them torture him?"

"Hold thy temper for his sake or else be found out as a fake," Puck warned. "Merlin's found, and he'll be freed, if thy favor to this cede."

"Yes," Arthur said, without hesitation. "Help me save him from Titania and get him out of here."

"That Puck will do. But first we wait until fate's crooked path runs straight. Hold thy tongue and brace thy heart, for first with Merlin she must part. Then once he's off the common floor, go steal him back, then 'scape to shore."

Arthur had no other option but to accept, and trust that Puck would keep his word. For now, he would wait, and suffer every plaintive cry as a punishment of his own.

§

It was fortunate that the Sidhe were so easily bored. Once Merlin stopped responding to their torments, the crowd lost interest in him and returned to their regular merriments. Yet Titania did not order him taken away, but rather kept him near and seemed to be considering how best to train him into the perfect, obedient pet. Arthur shuddered at the thought, at how wrong it was, even as his conscience jabbed at him. He could not help but see the human Merlin of the past few days, weak from his restraint, as Arthur himself had looked at Merlin and planned how best to train him out of being a sorcerer.

Arthur had truly held only the best of intentions. He had been afraid for Merlin, and wanted to save him so that they could spend the rest of their lives together. So Merlin could stay by his side, just as he was meant to. He had trained Merlin into a knight and Merlin had thrived, and it had seemed at the time that training him out of his magic was just another step on the same path. And yet had Merlin truly thrived as a knight? Even in Gedref, Merlin had been suffering in silence as he held back the pressure of his secrets. He had used his magic to save Camelot even as every man and knight spoke of destroying all magic, killing all sorcerers. And Arthur had never truly treated Merlin as just another knight. Merlin was unique, in Camelot as in Avalon, and that had always been plain to see. If Merlin had thrived, it had been for reasons other than conformity.

That Merlin had fought for so long for Camelot and in such danger, with so little chance for reward or recognition. That Merlin had loved Arthur so deeply even knowing that Arthur fought against magic every day. It all said far more about Merlin's strength and heart than it did the worth of the kingdom he protected or the man he loved. It was past time that Merlin had some repayment for all that he had given. And if Camelot did not deserve him, if Arthur did not deserve him, then the plain fact was that both Arthur and Camelot needed to change.

Arthur could change himself, yes. He could become a better man, and wanted to. In private, there was much that he was prepared to do. Yet he knew that any public steps would be fraught with peril. When the next sorcerer was arrested, how could he stand by and allow an innocent to be executed? Yet how could he defy his father? Not because he was afraid to defy him, but because such an action, especially over magic, would have damning consequences for the entire kingdom. He could not step into such a situation without great care. And then there was Camelot itself. Twenty years of his father's rage had sunk into the bones of the kingdom. It would be no easy task to purge that hatred out, and perhaps even as impossible as his father's quest to purge all magic from the land.

Arthur had been wrong about magic. He had been lied to his entire life. That was the plain fact of it, and he had seen too much over the past four days to pretend otherwise. He still didn't understand why his father had lied or why he had begun the Great Purge in the first place, but that was secondary to his other concerns. He had tried to force Merlin to choose between his magic and his life, and Arthur saw now that that truly was an impossible choice. They were one and the same, just as Merlin had insisted. Given the choice between Camelot and magic, Arthur suspected that the situation was similar. He had so much yet to understand, but at least now he was no longer shutting his eyes to the truths before him.

He wished he felt better about any of it, but along with some small relief he gained only a host of troubles.

The one thing his whirling thoughts did provide was a distraction to keep him busy while he waited for Titania to have Merlin sent from the party. Poor Merlin certainly wasn't enjoying any of it. Arthur's heart had nearly seized when a Sidhe tried to coax Merlin into taking some food, but thankfully Merlin was far too miserable to want their succulent berries. To eat even a single berry would have trapped him in Avalon forever, even after Arthur was able to free him from the Seelie Court. Puck played his part in protecting Merlin, at least, using his wits and games to distract any Sidhe who took a renewed interest in Merlin now that the crowd had moved on. So even though Merlin was miserable, he was at least largely left alone.

Arthur had no interest in the magic of the Sidhe, or in their beauty, or their world. He had eyes only for Merlin. His heart ached as he watched Merlin from the shadows, the short distance between them seeming greater than all the miles he had already crossed. The worst of it was that he could do nothing to tell Merlin that he was there. He couldn't comfort him or reassure him. He could only stand and wait and watch as Merlin suffered. Even the feathered hood, which reminded him so much of Merlin's official servant's hat, could not lift a fraction of his spirits. Nothing would be right until Merlin was safe again.

The Sidhe's carousing carried on well into the night, and it seemed an eternity until Titania had finally had enough.

"Come, my husband, let's retire, and thy replenished health admire," she said, coaxing Oberon towards the exit. Was she just going to leave Merlin there in the middle of the party? If so, Arthur was going to have to revise Puck's plan. But she hadn't forgotten. She drew the attention of one of her maidens and gestured for her to bring the cage. "To my chambers have him brought, tend to him but give him nought." She looked at Merlin through the bars. "From thirst and hunger you'll be pliant, and in training less defiant. Forget thy past and human shape. Abandon hope of some escape. Thy life is mine and here shall stay, to soften it thou must obey."

When Merlin didn't respond, she waved her maiden on ahead, and as a group they left. As soon as they had gone, Arthur and Puck looked to each other and followed after them. They waited around a corner until the maiden left Titania's chambers, leaving Titania, Oberon, and Merlin inside.

"Now what?" Arthur whispered. If the plan was to wait until Merlin was unguarded, they were going to have a long wait. It seemed that Titania had taken quite a liking to Merlin despite his defiance, or perhaps even because of it.

Puck cupped a hand to his pointed ear and smiled. "Their time apart has made them amorous and with excitement are most clamorous." He reached out and snapped his fingers, and suddenly there was a feather in his hand. "A cruel hand breached his cage and plucked; now rescued, with this I instruct. With this feather creep inside, silent, lest thy shape be spied. Pluck thy Merlin from his cage and rest his feather on his stage. With magic shall his form appear, and they'll be fooled by that veneer."

Arthur took the feather. It was one of Merlin's tailfeathers, brown and striped. "How much time will this buy us?"

"At least until the morning's break. When Titania doth awake, she'll try to coax him from his pique. Be gone or else thy future's bleak."

Arthur nodded. The message was clear. If they were caught, Puck couldn't help them, not when it meant publicly siding against his master. Arthur understood all too well. They had to be out of Avalon before dawn. It was a good thing that Arthur had always found deadlines to be very motivating.

He crept up to the door, feather in hand. Puck's ring glowed as the door silently opened, breaking any wards or locks present. Arthur had no doubt that by giving Puck Palaemon's ring, he had unleashed mischief on the world, but what was done was done. Puck had lived up to his side of the bargain, and for that Arthur was grateful. He might never have been able to save Merlin without him.

Titania's chambers were a grand affair, and as impossible as everything else in Avalon. Instead of the expected bedroom and outer chamber, she lived in a forest garden, lit by stars and moonlight. Flowering vines twined up the trees and shrubs, and their white blooms gave off a rich, almost intoxicating perfume. Intimate sounds drifted down from above, where a huge nest rested improbably on the low branches. Oberon and Titania's clothes lay abandoned, waywardly draped or fallen to the forest floor, which was carpeted with soft, dense grass.

The King and Queen of the Sidhe did indeed seem fully occupied with each other, and Arthur took advantage of their distraction to find Merlin. Thankfully he didn't have to climb any trees to get him, as his cage had been left on a wide stump. The cage was covered with a dark cloth, and Arthur carefully lifted it up.

Despite the hood over his eyes and the dimness of the night, Merlin sensed that someone was near, and he shifted restlessly on his perch. He moved one way and then the other, then huddled himself as tightly as he could, presumably to put as much distance as possible between himself and any reaching fingers. He already looked bedraggled from his earlier abuse, his feathers askew and unpreened.

"Merlin," Arthur whispered, incredibly glad that Puck's glamour had not altered his voice. "It's me. It's Arthur."

Merlin turned towards him, as shocked as it was possible for a small, hooded falcon to look. He let out a soft, sad, wary squeak.

"Shh, it's all right. I'm here to rescue you." Despite the danger of their situation, Arthur couldn't help but smile. With great care, he coaxed open the cage and reached inside. Merlin skittered back, then held still as Arthur's hand wrapped around him. Merlin was little more than a handful, his body slim even as a falcon. Arthur placed the feather onto the perch and closed the door, and as soon as the latch shut, a false Merlin appeared, identical to the one in his hand and seemingly alive. Arthur pulled the cloth down over the cage and crept out the door.

Puck smiled at Merlin and gave a little wave, though with the hood Merlin couldn't see him. He handed Arthur a canvas bag, similar to the sort Arthur himself used to bring back small game from a hunt. "Put him in and keep him covered; he'll be calm and not discovered."

They eased Merlin into the bag and then wrapped the loose end around to swaddle him. Arthur had some experience with hunting birds in the royal falconry, and knew that this was probably the safest way to transport Merlin, given his poor condition and the danger of recapture if he was seen. So covered, Arthur was able to tuck him under his shirt without fear of Merlin's sharp beak and claws.

The rest of their escape was almost anticlimactic. Arthur merely followed Puck out of the palace and over the crystal bridge. On the other side, Puck stopped and turned to him.

"Thank you," Arthur said, more grateful than he could express. But there was still one very large problem. "How do we change him back? Is it a glamour?"

"No, a transformation has been made. And now thy trade to me is played and I shall cease to give thee aide. Unless you'll swear thy soul as trade?"

Arthur definitely wasn't going to give Puck his soul, not even to turn Merlin back into a human. There would be other solutions. "Thank you, but no."

"Then thou must leave and not return. Make haste to go and do not turn. When morning breaks my mask's unmade, and no one here will give thee aid against Titania. I implore, get thee hence and out to the shore."

"But which way--" Arthur began, and Puck pointed. Arthur turned to look, and there, not a half-mile away, was the very shore he'd arrived at. He blinked in surprise, then shook his head. Of course it was so close, now that the Sidhe's magic wasn't leading him in circles. At last things finally seemed to be going his way.

Arthur ran to the shore, knowing that every step he took carried him away from the Seelie Court and towards Camelot. When he stopped at the water's edge, he looked back, and the palace and all its splendor were gone, once again hidden from his sight. He didn't miss any of it.

What was it Morvarc'h had said? Call his name into the water and he'd come? Arthur was game for anything at this point, and knelt down at the edge of the water, disturbing a few resting dragonflies. He took a breath, plunged his head down, and yelled Morvarc'h's name. He knelt, water dripping down into his clothes, but nothing happened. Perhaps Morvarc'h was not in the immediate vicinity and needed time to reach the island.

Arthur sat down on the log on which he'd rested on his arrival, and pulled Merlin out of his shirt. He unwrapped the bag and carefully eased Merlin out, leaving only his sharp claws covered by the canvas. The leather jesses were still attached to Merlin's legs, and by habit of Arthur's falconry training, he took hold of them.

"Merlin?" Arthur said, worried because Merlin was so unmoving. "I'm going to take off your hood," he warned, then gripped the leather cap by the tuft of feathers at its top and gently lifted it.

Merlin flicked his head back and forth, blinking as his eyes adjusted. He went suddenly still, and then just as suddenly bolted, flapping frantically to get away. Arthur just managed to grab Merlin by his feet with the canvas, then took hold of the leather jesses. Looking down at his pink, warty hands, Arthur realized his mistake. He cursed under his breath, grabbed Puck's coin from his pocket and threw it away.

Arthur cried out as the pain of the transformation hit him. This time, he burned as the magic was ripped out of him. He clenched his teeth and held his grip on Merlin as his bones ached and his skin itched, and the world grew suddenly shorter. The weight of his armor returned, but it felt light after hours of waddling around in a squat, heavy body. He gave a cry of relief as he was restored. He stepped towards the water and saw his reflection, and knew that he truly was himself again.

"Sorry," he said, feeling rather giddy. "Merlin, it's me. I swear, it's me. That was just a glamour, a disguise so I could rescue you. I'm bringing you back to Camelot and everything's going to be all right."

Merlin stared at him. He gave a cautious squeak, then another, puffed his feathers and then settled again. Arthur untangled his claws from the canvas and let Merlin grip his gloved hand. There was a moment of calm, but then Merlin bolted again, flapping wildly to get away. Arthur just managed to hold on to the jesses, and when Merlin failed to achieve flight, he fell, his wings outstretched, and dangled from his ankle straps in a splay.

"Merlin, it's me," Arthur said, and only belatedly remembered that he wasn't at the top of Merlin's list of favorite people right now. The last time they'd seen each other, they'd had a screaming argument that ended with Arthur strangling Merlin unconscious and imprisoning him. That wasn't the sort of thing that was easily forgotten or forgiven, no matter what else had happened since.

Merlin's tail lifted, and a stream of white birdshit sprayed onto Arthur's front. Arthur recoiled in disgust, letting go of the jesses, and Merlin dropped awkwardly to the ground. He squawked angrily and beat his wings, but he couldn't seem to actually achieve flight. Arthur realized, as he wiped white spatter from his face, that Merlin had never flown, and hadn't magically attained the required skill when his body had been transformed.

Confident that Merlin couldn't go far, Arthur let Merlin be and knelt down to clean himself off. "I can't believe you did that," he muttered at Merlin, who was running in circles around the small clearing with his wings stretched wide, flapping hard but not making any real progress. It only took a few minutes before he gave up, beak open as he panted in exhaustion.

"Finished?" Arthur asked, and Merlin gave a tired squeak. It was hard to read emotion in a bird's face, but in Merlin's he saw anger, fear, and resignation. He had thought that Merlin would be glad to see him and happy to have been saved. But Arthur hadn't finished saving him yet. Not by a long shot.

Merlin walked over to Arthur and waded into the shallow water. He stared at his wavering reflection for a long time, then gave a very un-birdlike sigh. He looked to Arthur and stared at him, but whatever he was trying to express, Arthur couldn't understand it.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said, knowing the apology was long overdue and of little worth given how disastrously everything had turned out. "I should have listened to you. I was wrong."

Merlin gave a few squawks, clearly trying to reply, then flapped his wings in frustration. The dragonflies were back, swarming at the shore, and Merlin had the misfortune to end up in a cloud of them. He flapped his wings to shoo them away and snapped at them, and Arthur first worried that Merlin was going to eat one and wasn't sure if it would be sufficiently food-like to trap Merlin in Avalon. Then he worried because he remembered that these were fire-breathing dragonflies, and reached for Merlin just in time as several of the more annoyed insects flamed at where he had been standing.

"Bad idea," Arthur told him, and Merlin squawked chattily. Fortunately, before the dragonflies could continue their revenge, the surface of the water shimmered and Morvarc'h emerged with a splash, scattering the insects away.

Morvarc'h whinnied and shook his sea-foam mane. "I heard your call. Have you found your friend?"

"Er, yes," Arthur said, glad to have someone to talk to who neither rhymed nor squawked. "This is Merlin. He's not normally a bird. Merlin, this is Morvarc'h. He's a kelpie."

Merlin, to his credit, was largely unfazed by Morvarc'h. He gave what was presumably a greeting squawk, and wriggled in Arthur's grip.

"I believe he wants you to let him down," Morvarc'h said.

"You can understand what he says?" Arthur asked, hoping he'd stumbled upon a translator as well as a rescuer. "Can he speak to you like you do to me?"

"My kind are not as dependent on words as yours," Morvarc'h said. "There are many creatures in Avalon that cannot speak at all, but we must still understand each other."

"Of course," Arthur said, trying not to feel insulted on behalf of parochial humanity. He set Merlin down. Merlin paced around the shore, then shook out his feathers, which had been quite disturbed by now. He tried to preen them. He wasn't very good at it. He wasn't very good at being a bird, period, but hopefully that wouldn't be an issue much longer.

Arthur turned back to Morvarc'h. "We need your help. We have to get back to Camelot before dawn."

"I can carry you to the Gates of Avalon, but you will have to open them yourself. I do not have that power."

"I didn't open them the first time," Arthur admitted, running a hand down his face in frustration. "In Camelot, we took one of the Sidhe captive. She opened them for me." The false Sophia. Her true name must be Lady Erdudwyl. And that meant Aulfric must be Edern. Arthur thought with dry amusement that his father was right after all. Their visitors truly were royalty.

"Did you not make an arrangement for your return?"

Arthur shook his head. "She wouldn't open them a second time. The first time she only did it because she thought it would kill me."

"Then you will have to wait for another Sidhe to open them."

Arthur relaxed again. "The two who brought Merlin here. Drudwas and Edern. Titania told them to return to Camelot. When they open the Gates, we can follow them through."

"Before dawn?"

Drudwas and Edern had been gone for a day, just as Arthur had -- and from what they'd said in the Seelie Court, none of them had intended to be gone from Camelot for so long. To be away for a day could be excused as an overlong hunting trip or some other day visit, but more than that would raise suspicion. Arthur was fairly certain that the two Sidhe would want to sneak back before dawn as well. "I believe so."

"Then I will take you to the Gates to wait. And while we are there, you can try to retrieve your sword, though it has proven itself quite stubborn."

"Then I'll have something to do to pass the time." Arthur looked over at Merlin, who had managed, through sheer persistence, to sort his feathers out. "Merlin can't breathe underwater. Will the Merrow hat protect both of us if I carry him?"

"Síofra provided a second cohuleen druith in case you succeeded." Morvarc'h lifted his leg and there, tied to his foreleg, was a red, feathered hat.

Arthur took it gladly. He looked at the hat, then at Merlin, then at Morvarc'h. "I don't suppose there's any chance you can turn him back into a human?"

"I do not have the power of bodily transformation. It will take powerful magic to restore your friend to his natural form. But no Sidhe magic binds him."

"And that means?"

"Most Sidhe magic is based on illusions. If the spell is broken or removed, the truth will be bared."

"Like a glamour?"

Morvarc'h knickered. "But the more powerful are also capable of true transformation. In such cases, there is no spell to release. Instead, a new spell must be cast, one of equal strength. He was turned into a bird. Now he must be turned into a human."

Arthur looked to Merlin, and found that Merlin was staring at him again. But as before, he couldn't understand what Merlin wanted. He sighed and pulled out his own cohuleen druith and put it on. "Come on, you need to wear one, too," he said, stepping towards Merlin to put it on him.

Merlin took one look at the red, feathered hat and went off on a long, loud rant of squawks. Arthur was almost certain that Merlin was making some angry comparisons to his official servant's hat, and throwing in a few creative insults as well. Arthur gave him a patient look and waited for him to get it out of his system.

Once Merlin settled into a general sulk, Arthur picked him up and put the hat on him -- or rather, put him in the hat, because the hat was bigger than Merlin. "This will let you breathe underwater," Arthur told him, ignoring Merlin's indignant glare. "When we go down, just breathe normally and you'll be fine. All right?"

Merlin gave an assenting bob and pulled his claws in, letting Arthur bundle him up. Arthur used the canvas sack to swaddle Merlin up again, so he wouldn't accidentally slip out of the hat and drown. It left only Merlin's face exposed, and Arthur once again tucked him into his shirt; the water was cool enough that he didn't want Merlin losing all the heat from his small body.

With Merlin secured, Arthur mounted Morvarc'h and got a grip on the kelpie's sticky fur. Morvarc'h turned, and Arthur braced himself, and with a leap they plunged down into the lake.

§

In the moonlight, the underwater world of Avalon looked even more magical and mysterious. The sunken forests teemed with creatures that pulsed like fireflies, and those that perched on the tall kelp lit up the green with strings of light. More of the floating lamps were visible now, forming a map of the Unseelie's paths and guiding their way. Arthur held tight to Morvarc'h as the water horse carried them swiftly along the ruined gallery. He felt Merlin squirm with discomfort and then settle as he adjusted to breathing underwater, and Arthur looked down to see Merlin's face just peeking out from his surcoat and mail. Arthur smiled at him, but Merlin had eyes only for their surroundings. It seemed he had not experienced anything like this when he had been brought here by the Sidhe. Arthur was glad that he could give him this. That for all that Merlin had suffered, there was some reward in Avalon's ethereal beauty.

Even at speed, it took time for them to reach the Gates. From this side, they were a wide circle of standing stones embedded in the silt and sand. Arthur wondered if similar rocks were on the other side, and if they could be removed to stop the Sidhe from their invasion. He had not noticed anything, but he had not been able to see beyond the golden light of the open Gates.

Morvarc'h trotted along the lakebed to a rocky outcrop. Arthur looked up, and high above were the giant lilypads from his arrival. And down below, embedded solidly into the rock, was his sword. Arthur dismounted and swam up to it. Despite being immersed in water for a full day, it was as gleaming and perfect as ever.

Merlin moved restlessly again, and gave a muffled yet audibly insistent squawk.

'Yes, yes,' Arthur thought at him, rolling his eyes, though he wasn't certain if Merlin could hear him. Merlin was so finicky about that sword. 'I'm getting it back, don't worry.'

"The Merrows were unable to dislodge it," said Morvarc'h.

Arthur gripped the the hilt with both hands, braced himself firmly against the rock, and heaved with all his might. The sword popped free from the rock immediately, and Arthur fell back and landed on his arse. 'Ow,' he thought, annoyed.

Morvarc'h gave a thoughtful knicker. "Interesting."

Arthur opened his mouth to say that he must be that much stronger than a Merrow, but then he remembered how strong Síofra had been when he rescued Arthur from the Water Bull. Arthur stood and dusted himself off, then sheathed the sword. It felt good to have it back at his side, and with Merlin also largely restored, he felt oddly complete.

Merlin gave another muffled squeak, then wiggled until his head was tucked back down under Arthur's surcoat. Arthur tucked him in with the end of his cohuleen druith; he was probably already taking on a chill.

They found a decent hiding spot behind the cover of some kelp-ridden ruins. Morvarc'h stayed with them, acting as guard and lookout while they waited for the Sidhe to arrive. Merlin dozed, huddled against the warmth of Arthur's chest, and Arthur felt his own tiredness pulling at him. But he couldn't rest until they were safe in Camelot again. Once they were home, Arthur was going to eat a small feast and then collapse into his bed. He only hoped that he would be holding a human Merlin as he fell asleep.

It was Morvarc'h who raised the alarm, his sudden movement rousing Arthur from a half-doze. Edern and Drudwas had arrived, staves in hand. They had abandoned their glamours and reverted to their small, flying forms, and they came to a stop just outside the stone circle. Arthur silently roused Merlin and they readied themselves to follow. Arthur looped his arms around Morvarc'h's neck, as the kelpie could carry them faster than Arthur could swim.

Drudwas chanted, and there was a burst of golden light. Edern and Drudwas spoke briefly and then dove through, and as soon as they were gone, Morvarc'h sprung out like an arrow.

"Good luck, Prince of Camelot."

Arthur thought a quick 'thanks,' and as soon as they were over the Gates, he pushed himself off of Morvarc'h and swam down as fast as he could. The weight of his armor was at last a help and not a hindrance, and in moments he was through to the other side and swimming upwards again. This time, Arthur didn't have to hurry to the surface thanks to the cohuleen druith, and as soon as he was into the lake proper, he hung back beneath the water. Once the Gates closed, he looked down, and could just make out a mirror image of the same circle of standings stones. They must be the same stones, one half in Avalon and the other in Camelot.

As soon as the Sidhe had vanished, flying up over the trees, Arthur swam up to the edge of the lake, waiting until the last moment to bring his head above the surface. He had learned his lesson on the beach of the Seelie Court, and bent over in the sand and coughed the water from his lungs before removing his hat. He pulled the sopping bundle from beneath his shirt and coaxed Merlin to cough his lungs clear, and then unwrapped him.

Merlin was a sorry sight, utterly bedraggled and soaked to the skin. He spread his wings and flapped furiously, trying to shake the water from his feathers. Arthur took the moment to wring out his surcoat and trousers as well, but there was little he could do for his mail; he could almost hear it rusting. He checked the sky and judged that he would have enough time to reach the castle by dawn. Yet he had wanted to get back to the castle before Drudwas and Edern, and that was no longer an option. He had left Gaius alone and unarmed against a dangerous hostage, and Arthur's sword was still their best and only defense against the Sidhe.

Merlin had made some progress in drying himself off, but Arthur couldn't wait any longer. Their only hope was that it would take time for the Sidhe to realize what had happened to Erdudwyl. He apologized as he plucked a protesting Merlin up and wrapped him in the canvas again, then tucked him back into his surcoat. A flash of blue caught his eye, and he saw that Gaius had left his blue travelling cloak tucked in the fork of two low branches. He grabbed the rolled-up bundle and tucked it under his arm.

He ran into the forest, heading straight for Camelot.

Chapter Text

They reached the castle at dawn. Arthur stopped at the edge of the woods, taking a moment to rest from the long run, and looked up. Camelot was a welcome sight, cast in pale grey against a yellow dawn, her flags flying high. At her feet, the lower town was waking, with the first puffs of smoke floating up from the morning woodfires.

Home. They had made it home.

Merlin stirred beneath his surcoat, disturbed by the sudden absence of movement. He wriggled and peeked his head up, and gave an impatient squawk.

"We're almost there," Arthur told him. "I'll take you right to Gaius. He'll know how to fix this."

Merlin ignored him and began trying to work himself free, but Arthur easy pushed him back down. This, of course, earned him more complaining.

Arthur shushed him. "Do you want to stay a bird for the rest of your life? The Sidhe who did this to you are in there. The last thing we need is for them to see you."

His answer was a disgruntled silence. It was remarkable that as a bird, Merlin could be just as stubborn and sullen as he was as a human.

Arthur didn't want to be seen either, as it would only result in delays in bringing Merlin safely to Gaius. He shook out his cloak and drew it around himself, pulling up the hood to hide his face. He took a slower pace as he made his way through the lower town, so as not to draw attention to himself. It soothed something in him to see his people going about their completely mundane, normal day. There were no magical creatures, no illusions here. Just solid wood and stone, thatched roofs and packed earth. Here, everything made sense, everything was in its proper place. This was where he belonged.

Yet having been away from Camelot, it did feel strange to be back. Despite the fact that it had not even been a week since their return from Gedref, and despite the fact that he had only been in Avalon for a day, something was different to him. There was both a presence and an absence that he had never felt before, and with a start he realized that it was magic. The constant thrum that had pervaded Avalon was not present here, leaving the world oddly lessened; and yet in its place there was a different kind of magic. It grew stronger as he reached the outer gate, and on instinct he veered away from the entrance and toward the high walls. He pulled off his glove and touched the stone, and his breath caught.

Magic. The castle was magic.

How had he never felt this before? It was like birdsong from a high window, gentle and muted, yet undeniably present. Did his father know of this? Had he tried and failed to purge the magic from the stones? A memory tickled at him, and he recalled stories he had heard as a young boy: that a powerful sorcerer had built Camelot with magic. Only now did he connect those stories with the incident with Cedric last spring, and the unearthing of Cornelius Sigan's tomb. It seemed that the stories were true after all.

Arthur stepped back from the wall and shook his head. He pulled back on his glove and tugged at his hood, bringing it as low as he could. He headed back towards the gate, trying to look as unassuming as possible, and held his breath as he walked past the two guards that flanked the gate. The guards didn't so much as blink at him.

Once all this was over, he was going to have to do something about the lax security around here.

But he wasn't safe yet. He made his way through the upper town, past the familiar stables, and slowed as he approached the guarded drawbridge that led into the central courtyard.

"Halt!" said a guard, and Arthur stilled. "Show yourself!"

Perhaps castle security wasn't a total loss. Arthur reluctantly drew back his hook, and both guards' eyes widened.

"Sire!" said the first guard, with a bow of respect. And then he looked to his fellow with chagrin.

Arthur decided to put them out of their misery. "I expect my father has orders to have me brought to him."

"Yes, sire," admitted the guard.

From the look on their faces, Uther must have been in a particularly bad mood when he gave the order. Arthur made things easy for them. "Shall we?" he said, gesturing towards the courtyard. He walked calmly forward, and the guards fell into place behind him. It was oddly appropriate, when facing his father felt so much like heading into battle.

§

Despite the early hour, it was not a surprise to find that his father was already at work in the council room. He sat in his usual place at the head of the long table, an array of papers and maps spread before him. Louvel stood by the wall, waiting for his next command. Arthur stopped and stood at the other end of the table, and waited for his father's reprimand.

At first, Uther said nothing. He barely glanced at Arthur before turning his attention back to whatever document he was pretending to read. They had played this game before, and Arthur knew that his only choice was to wait. If he broke the silence first, by his father's rules, he would lose before the conversation even began.

He only hoped that Merlin would have the sense to do the same.

After several long minutes, his father set aside his work and leaned back in his chair. He knitted his fingers together and pressed his forefingers against his lips, as if in contemplation. He stared down the long table at Arthur and radiated disappointment.

Arthur did not so much as twitch. He could do this all day if necessary.

"I will ask you one time," Uther began, reluctantly breaking the silence, "and I expect an answer. Where is the girl?"

Arthur frowned, surprised by the line of questioning. "Girl?"

Uther slammed his hand down on the table, making his goblet wobble. "Lady Sophia. Or must I now refer to her as your wife." He spat the word.

Arthur had to stop himself from laughing. All at once he realized what his father was actually fuming about. It wasn't just that Arthur had vanished for a day, it was that Sophia had vanished with him. And the last time that had happened, it was after Arthur had threatened to elope.

Arthur had intended on excusing his absence as a day off hunting, perhaps as part of his adjustment in returning from Gedref. But with Sophia -- or rather Lady Erdudwyl -- hopefully still a prisoner under Gaius' care, Arthur could not simply have her called down to corroborate their lack of marital bliss. And with her as a hostage, he had to find a way to deal with the other Sidhe without rousing his father's paranoia even further. It was a delicate situation. He needed a reason for her absence, something that would play into his father's expectations. Something that the Sidhe could not deny under the guise of the Tír-Mòr...

Aha! That was the answer.

Arther relaxed his posture and adopted a conciliatory pose. "Father, I must apologize. I take it that you did not receive our message."

Uther lifted his chin. "Your message?"

"Yes, father," Arthur said. "After the feast, I took a walk to clear my head, and I happened upon Prince Aulfric. He had taken your advice to heart, and asked for my assistance."

Uther leaned back in his chair. It was a good sign. "Go on."

"He was concerned about the Lady Sophia's safety, given the dangers of their quest. It was decided that she should be sent back to stay with her family in Gwynned until the retaking of the kingdom of Tír-Mòr is complete and the Saxons have been purged from the land. As an apology for my poor behavior, I volunteered to escort them and the Lady Sophia to the northern border. Due to the distance, we left without delay."

Uther pondered this. "I see. And the message?"

Arthur's first thought was to lay the blame with George, in the hope that it would get him fired so that Merlin could be restored to his position once he had been... de-birded. But George was too scrupulous, and might say something that contradicted Arthur's story. He didn't want to get some innocent servant fired, and so there was really only one choice for his scapegoat. Or rather, scapefalcon. At least he wasn't going to end up in the stocks for it this time.

"Ah, I gave it to Merlin, father. As one last task. I'm certain he--"

Merlin squawked in surprised protest. Arthur coughed loudly to cover it, then patted his chestplate with a firm thump. Merlin went silent, though if he hadn't been bundled up in thick burlap, Arthur would probably have earned a painful scratch to the chest for that.

His father gave him a curious look, then shook his head. "I will remind you again that you're to have nothing to do with that boy."

"Of course, father."

"George is your servant now, and the appointment is final. If that boy is seen in the castle, he will pay the price, not you."

"Yes, father."

His father gave a curt nod, then settled back in his chair, calmer now. "You have a responsibility to this kingdom not to vanish without a word. You cannot be a suitable Regent if you persist in such childish behavior."

"Yes, father," Arthur said. He gave an expectant look, hoping to be excused now that he had received the necessary tongue-lashing.

But his father wasn't done yet. He turned to Louvel and beckoned him over with a twitch of his finger. "Have Prince Aulfric and Sir Drudwas brought to me at once." As Louvel left the room, Uther turned back to Arthur. "I assume that their story will agree with yours?"

Arthur gave him an innocent look. "Of course, father."

It took a while for Aulfric and Drudwas to arrive. As the minutes passed, Arthur patiently held his bluff, while internally he was scrambling for a backup plan. He had hoped to speak with the Sidhe before they had a chance to speak with his father, but that option was gone. He would have to take charge of the situation without being too obvious about it. He also had to hope that the Sidhe had already realized that Sophia was missing. Fear was one of the strongest motivators, and that applied to Sidhe as well as men.

Louvel returned, and stepped aside. "Prince Aulfric and Sir Drudwas," he announced.

Neither of the two Sidhe looked pleased at being summoned. It was still hard to believe that their true form was just a few inches tall. If Arthur hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he might not believe it. It was little wonder that his father was so dismissive of his earlier claims.

"Prince Aulfric," Uther greeted, with sudden warmth. "I was hoping you could explain your absence yesterday. My son has told me that you asked him to escort Lady Sophia back to Gwynedd. Is this true?"

As if as one, Aulfric and Drudwas turned to Arthur, and Arthur saw the moment when they realized that he was somehow the one responsible for Sophia's disappearance. Arthur responded with a small bow, and a subtle adjustment of the sword at his hip. Both Sidhe replied with a subtle fury, but when they turned back to Uther, they were smiling to match his warmth.

"Of course, Your Majesty," said Aulfric. "He was most... helpful."

"As I told my father," Arthur explained, "I agreed with your concerns about Lady Sophia's safety. Far better that she wait safely in Gwynedd until Tír-Mòr has been secured from the Saxon invaders."

"Yes. Far better," agreed Aulfric. "I must extend my great thanks to you, King Uther, for your generosity and understanding. We will remember your kindness."

There was a long pause while Uther processed this. He had a strange expression on his face, a mixture of relief and disbelief. It was clear that he had not expected the Sidhe to agree with Arthur's story, but now that they had, he had no choice but to accept it as true.

"Is there anything else, father?" Arthur prompted.

Uther shook his head. "You may go."

Arthur and the Sidhe all turned to leave, with Drudwas casting Arthur a particularly meaningful look. One that promised bloodshed, if he had his way. But before Arthur could follow them out into the hall, he was called back again.

"Yes, father?" Arthur asked, trying not to sound impatient.

"Lord Godwyn is due to arrive soon. I need you present and alert. No distractions."

"Yes, father."

Uther lapsed into silence, and Arthur waited to be dismissed. But it seemed that there was one last concern on his father's mind.

"As to your activities prior to your sudden disappearance," he began, and then met Arthur's eyes with unusual focus. "Is there a reason why you and Gaius have been accessing the vaults with such frequency?"

It was not a surprise that his father should be aware of their repeated visits to the magical vaults, and yet Arthur was startled by the question all the same. "Research, father. Regarding the sorcerer Palaemon's magical weapons."

"No other reason?"

Arthur shook his head. "I merely sought a better understanding of the enemy."

Uther frowned at this. "There is nothing to understand. I will not have you risking yourself for the sake of an enemy that has already been defeated. You said that nothing of the sorcerer's magic has survived? It was all destroyed in Gedref?"

"I burned it myself," Arthur said, honestly.

"Then let that be an end to it," Uther said, and this time there was no mistaking the dismissal in his voice.

There were many things that Arthur wanted to say to his father on the matter of magic, and most of them were likely to result in him being hauled down to the dungeons for a week for his own good. But now was not the time; he could not confront his father until the time was right, and until he had undeniable proof to back up his claims. Instead, he bowed and left the room, and walked straight into the Sidhe waiting out in the hall.

"Gentlemen," Arthur said, cordially, and gestured down the hall. This was not a conversation they wanted to have in hearing range of his father. Arthur led them to the end of the hall, and into a room away from prying eyes.

As he turned to face them, Drudwas' eyes glowed red, and the doors slammed shut.

"Where is she?" snarled Aulfric, and he rounded on Arthur, the gem in his staff glowing blue.

But Arthur had already drawn his sword -- the dragon-forged sword that Sophia had feared, that had killed the unkillable in Avalon. One look at it and Aulfric stopped in his tracks, his mouth open in shock.

"Kill me, and you'll never see her again," Arthur promised, putting every ounce of certainty into his words.

The red glow left Drudwas' eyes as he stared at the sword. He and Aulfric looked to each other, then back to Arthur. They stepped back, signalling their withdrawal.

"That's better," Arthur said, but he didn't lower his sword.

"What do you want?" Aulfric ground out, his temper barely contained.

"You know what I want," Arthur replied. "Merlin. Give him back. Now."

"Impossible," Aulfric scoffed.

"Why should we?" said Drudwas. "Without your pet sorcerer, Camelot is helpless."

"I killed Sophia once before," Arthur told them. "I can kill her again."

There was a long silence as the three men stared each other down.

"He's bluffing," declared Drudwas. "We should kill him and find her ourselves."

"Do I look like I'm bluffing?" Arthur asked, his expression fixed for battle. "Return Merlin to me," he continued, making every word clear. "Return him safe and whole and Sophia will be returned to you in kind. But if you act against Camelot, if you dare threaten my kingdom or my people in any way, her life is forfeit." He turned his sword so they could get a good, long look at it.

He knew that his demand was impossible for them to fulfill. Not just because their supposed hostage was currently right under their noses, but because they knew Queen Titania would never let them take back their gift to her. They would not dare such an insult. But that suited Arthur just fine. He had no intention of releasing Sophia until the Sidhe threat had been completely neutralized. He was forcing them into a stalemate, and that was enough for now.

But it was evident that the Sidhe needed one more push. In the blink of an eye, Arthur brought the tip of his sword to Aulfric's throat, then as the Sidhe froze in shock, Arthur finished the move, so that he was behind Aulfric and facing a stunned and furious Drudwas. But it was not Drudwas that Arthur wanted to make an impression on.

"Dragon-forged," Arthur said, quietly into Aulfric's ear. "There's more where this came from. Threaten me again, and you will find yourself facing an army of these swords."

He felt Aulfric tense in fear, and Arthur realized something about the Sidhe. These were creatures who were effectively immortal. It was likely that they had not faced true peril in centuries. Mortal men had a healthy respect for death, and as a knight and soldier Arthur even accepted it. But such creatures as the Sidhe would be paralyzed by such a threat, just as Sophia was. Because they never thought to lose their lives, life was all the more precious to them.

Arthur released Aulfric and stepped away, keeping his sword raised and ready. Aulfric grasped at his neck, rubbing at the shallow cut the sword had left behind. He looked at the traces of blood on his palm and was ill with horror. Drudwas was even more furious than before, but he did not attack. 'Sophia' was their wife and sister. They would not risk her loss.

Arthur stared at them, playing the same game with them that he had played with his father. And again it was not Arthur who broke first. Aulfric nodded once in acceptance of Arthur's terms, and then the two turned and hurried from the room, their long robes wafting out behind them as they strode out into the hall.

Arthur waited for their footsteps to fade away, then slumped in relief. He sheathed his sword and leaned back against the nearby pillar, waiting for his heart to stop racing.

Hearing that they were finally alone, Merlin squirmed until he was able to peek out from under Arthur's surcoat, and he gave a cautious chirp.

Arthur looked down at Merlin, and sighed. "Let's get you to Gaius."

Merlin squawked in agreement.

§

Arthur made his way carefully to Gaius' chambers. He had to double back and take a wandering path in order to make sure he wasn't being followed -- either by the castle guards, at his father's orders, or by the Sidhe, who were no doubt scouring the castle in search of Sophia. Once he was certain it was safe, he made his way to Gaius' door and found it locked.

"Gaius," he whispered into the door, knocking quietly. "Gaius!"

To his relief, he soon heard noises on the other side of the door, and then it cracked open. To his surprise, it was not Gaius who was on the other side, but Guinevere.

"Arthur!" she said, visibly surprised. She let him in, then closed and locked the door again.

Inside, Arthur found not only Gaius, but also Morgana. The three of them had been having breakfast, based on the three half-eaten bowls of porridge, but their half-guilty, half-defiant expressions betrayed them. They had been up to something, and likely it was something magical.

As the three of them overcame their surprise at seeing Arthur alive and whole, he saw their expressions fall at Merlin's apparent absence. Guinevere turned away and wiped at her eyes, and Morgana took on a sober expression, as if bracing herself for something. Gaius walked sadly over to Arthur and hugged him.

"Welcome back, my boy," he said, holding back his sorrow. "I thought we'd lost both of you."

"Gaius," Arthur began.

"I'm sure you did everything you could," Gaius continued, releasing him and turning away. He was too caught up in his disappointment and grief to listen.

"Gaius, wait," Arthur insisted, walking after him. "Merlin isn't dead. I saved him."

Everyone rounded on him, stunned. "You got him back?" Morgana asked. "He's all right?"

Merlin began trying to wriggle free again, squawking noisily, and this caused further consternation.

"Arthur," Guinevere began, warily. "Why do you have a bird in your shirt?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you," Arthur said, exasperated, as he struggled to get hold of Merlin and pull him out. Merlin's struggles were making it difficult. "Will you hold still?"

Merlin gave an extremely angry squawk, but complied. Arthur huffed and extracted Merlin, and gently unwrapped him from the sackcloth, which took some doing as Merlin had managed to get his claws all tangled up in the fabric. As soon as Merlin was free, he leapt from Arthur's grasp, flapping his wings frantically, and crashed to the floor. He lay there for a moment, stunned, and then started running in circles around the floor, flapping his wings in a desperate effort to get airborne. He was acting just as madly as he had on the Sidhe beach.

"Merlin, will you stop that!" Arthur chided him.

"That's Merlin?!" Guinevere gasped, and she looked like she was about to break out laughing and crying at the same time. Morgana had her hand over her mouth because she was already laughing and trying to hide it, and Gaius looked like he was about to pass out from the shock.

Morgana recovered first. She intercepted Merlin, picking him up and stroking his ruffled feathers. "You poor thing," she cooed, trying to soothe him. Merlin was quite bedragged, his feathers all in disarray from being soaked and squished. He squawked in distress, giving Arthur a furious glare before turning his head away and settling into a huddle in Morgana's arms. Guinevere helped Gaius over and the three of them huddled around Merlin so that Arthur couldn't even see him.

"How did this happen?" Gaius asked, nearly as distressed as Merlin.

"The Sidhe transformed him," Arthur explained, passing on the little he knew. "It's not a glamour. I was told that he can be turned back into a human, if we can manage a powerful enough spell. Can you do it?"

"Not on my own," Gaius admitted. He gently extracted Merlin from Morgana's care, and Merlin remained pliant as Gaius checked him over. When he reached Merlin's neck, he felt under his feathers and then turned to Arthur, as angry as Arthur had ever seen him. "Arthur! The restraint is still active!"

Guinevere and Morgana looked to Arthur with equal anger. "You left it on all this time?" Morgana asked. "Take it off at once!"

"You know how much it hurts him," Guinevere added.

Arthur opened his mouth to reply, and was forced to confront the fact that he hadn't removed the torc restraint at the first opportunity. He knew how much it hurt Merlin to be cut off from his magic. He knew how weak and miserable it made him even when he wasn't trapped in the body of a bird. And yet Arthur had not once allowed himself to consider it. His first priority had been to get Merlin back to Camelot and to Gaius, and to keep him safe along the way. And it was true that keeping Merlin safe was much easier when he was small and could not fight back.

But he knew that was no excuse, and it was not even the true reason. It was not why he hesitated even now to release Merlin from the torc that bound him. The moment Merlin had his magic back, the moment he was fully restored, Arthur knew he would lose him. That he had already lost him, and the only thing delaying that loss was the restraint. And Merlin would surely only hate him all the more for the fact that Arthur preferred to let him suffer if it meant holding on to him for one more minute.

Merlin had loved and trusted him, and Arthur had betrayed that trust. Every second that passed was another betrayal. If Merlin was already lost to him, the only thing he could do was let him go.

He gripped the gold torc at his neck and sent the command, and in the next moment the magic rushed back into Merlin. His small body stiffened, and he gave a long, weak cry, and he seemed to fall unconscious. Gaius eased the silver torc out from under his feathers and off his neck and set it on the table. Arthur felt the connection between them break, and flinched.

"Merlin?" Gaius asked, gently. "Can you hear me?"

Merlin roused, blinking slowly, and gave a grateful chirp.

"My poor boy," Gaius said, petting him. "Do you want to rest?"

Merlin shook his head and turned towards one of the abandoned porridge bowls. He squawked meaningfully.

"Food? Water?" Gaius asked, and Merlin nodded. "Has he had anything to eat?" Gaius asked, turning to Arthur.

"If he had, he would have been trapped in Avalon," Arthur said, and realized that he had also had nothing for a full day, not counting whatever lake water he managed to swallow. Everything caught up with him at once, and he sat down heavily on an empty bench.

"We need something suitable to his form," Gaius said, looking to Guinevere. "Can you get some meat from the kitchen? Small pieces. Raw."

"Of course," Guinevere said, already hurrying for the door.

Morgana was up as well, pouring water into a small bowl. "Here," she said, bringing it to Merlin's beak. It took him a few tries, but he managed to drink his fill before turning away, his face dripping wet. Gaius used the corner of his sleeve to wipe him dry.

Arthur was unlikely to get such attentive service, and forced himself back to his feet. Fortunately there was some porridge left in the cooking pot, and he was too hungry to care that it had congealed. From the first sticky spoonful, he had never tasted any porridge as delicious, and he finished the bowl in under a minute before drinking half a pitcher of water in one go. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, then collapsed back on the bench again. Morgana and Gaius stared at him, but he was too exhausted to care about their disapproval. He suddenly ached for his bed, and wanted to sleep until dinner and then stuff himself with a whole platter of food, then sleep some more.

He wondered if the magic that had sustained Merlin had also sustained himself. Its absence already gnawed at him, and he pulled off the gold torc in frustration. It was useless to him now. Merlin would never consent to wearing the silver torc again, would never consent to sharing that connection. It hardly mattered now, as his father had banned Merlin from even setting foot in the castle, much less being Arthur's servant. Arthur would fight that ban, would fight to get Merlin restored to his job, but it was too late for that. Things had gone too far, and he had hurt Merlin too badly and too deeply. He knew that, and he knew he could do nothing but bear the blame.

Arthur remained in a disheartened, exhausted stupor until Guinevere returned with a bowl of chopped meat. She joined Gaius and Morgana in fussing over Merlin. Arthur watched them, then forced himself to his feet again, even more tired now than he had been before.

"I'll just..." he said, and gestured to the door. But Guinevere saw and stopped him.

"Wait," she said, taking him by the arm. "I don't think you'll even make it down the stairs."

Arthur had to admit she was right. He let her lead him into the back room, Merlin's old room. To Merlin's old bed, which was little better than a plank of wood and few handfuls of straw. Yet as she helped him onto it, it might as well have been the softest down.

"Thank you, Guinevere," he said, grateful for the small kindness.

"Gwen," she said. "Please, call me Gwen."

"Gwen."

As his head hit the pillow, his eyes closed, and the world went blissfully away.

§

Muffled voices woke Arthur, and he immediately regretted it. He groaned as he sat up, feeling sore, stiff, and filthy. Something appeared to have crawled into his mouth and died, and his eyes were all glued up from sleep. He rubbed the sand away and scraped his tongue against his teeth.

He squinted up at the high window; judging by the light, he'd been out for a few hours. He felt sluggish and dulled, and his head ached. He needed a bath, clean clothes, water, and food, not necessarily in that order. As the cobwebs of sleep fell away, he realized that someone had anticipated at least some of those needs. There was a wash basin and a clean cloth, and a fresh set of clothes folded and stacked next to it.

Arthur moved slowly, dragging off his armor and filthy clothes, then scrubbing himself clean as best as he could -- though not as well as a long, hot bath would do. But as he finished dressing himself, he felt at least somewhat human again. He stretched his aching muscles with a short warmup, then went out to face what was left of the day.

It was evident that much had happened during his nap. The tables were now covered in opened books, and Gaius, Morgana, and Guinevere -- no, Gwen -- were sitting in various states of repose as they flipped through even more heavy books. Merlin looked much restored himself, and was half-hopping, half-flying from table to table so that he could look at any page that was open, with Gwen, Morgana, and Gaius flipping pages for him.

"Ah, good," Gaius said, peering up at him. "Another pair of eyes."

"And hands," Gwen said, flipping another set of pages for Merlin.

Arthur nodded, but continued past them and headed directly for Gaius' array of pre-prepared draughts. He found one for headaches and one for body aches and downed them both, followed by two cups of water. He leaned back against the cabinet and waited for the draughts to kick in. He felt like he'd been kicked by an ornery mule.

"Feeling better?" Gwen asked, which earned her a glare from Morgana. Gwen looked abashed, but still waited politely for Arthur's reply.

Arthur nodded, then realized that Gwen was likely the source of his bath and fresh clothes. "Thank you," he said, genuinely.

Gwen gave a half-smile in response, then an apologetic one to Morgana, who replied with resigned annoyance. There was something going on there, but Arthur didn't have the capacity to deal with it yet. He stared at the opposite wall as something niggled at him. There was something important he needed to tell them. What was it?

"Sophia!" Arthur said, suddenly, as he remembered his confrontation with the Sidhe. He rounded on Gaius. "Where is she?"

"Quite secure," Gaius assured him. "Gwen?"

Gwen went over to the grain barrel -- was that a new barrel? -- and reached down into the grain. She pulled out a bundle of cloth, then pulled away the cloth to reveal a candle cage. But it wasn't the same candle cage that Sophia had been trapped in when he left. It gleamed and glittered like... like his sword.

"Dragon-forged," Morgana said, proudly. "There's no way she's getting out of that." She gave Sophia a smug smile, and Sophia replied with muffled cursing. Gwen wrapped the cage up again and returned it to the grain barrel.

Arthur turned to Morgana, not sure if he was more impressed or horrified. "You went to the dragon."

"I did," Morgana said, smiling.

"The dragon under the castle. Thirty feet high, breathes fire."

"I do believe there's just the one," Morgana said, tolerantly.

Arthur considered this. "He didn't say anything about destiny, by any chance?"

"Not especially. He was too busy insulting everyone." Morgana set aside her book, which earned her an annoyed flap from Merlin, who clearly did not care for all this time-wasting when they could be finding the spell to change him back. "What did he say to you?"

Arthur looked to Merlin, and Merlin glared at him before quite pointedly turning away. "Nothing helpful," Arthur said, not wanting to dredge up talk of destiny and prophecy now, when it was clear that both had been foiled by his own hand. Yet if the dragon cooperated with Morgana, she must have made the same promise that Arthur had. "Did he make you promise to free him, too?"

Morgana and Gwen both started at this, and clearly had not intended to share that particular information.

Gaius frowned at all of them. "I hope that none of you are so foolish that you actually intend to hold your end of the bargain."

Arthur's honor panged him. "Eventually," he admitted.

"If he helps save Camelot, surely he deserves freedom," argued Morgana.

"The moment that dragon is free of his chains, Camelot will be reduced to a smoking ruin," Gaius said, with utter certainty. "There is little point in saving the kingdom if your own actions bring its doom."

"That's a bit dramatic," Morgana said, rolling her eyes.

Gaius gave them all his sternest eyebrow. "Three hundred years ago, the kingdom of Daobeth was the most powerful of the Five Kingdoms, greater than Camelot at its peak. Dragonfire left the land barren to this very day."

There was a pointed silence. Gaius settled back in his chair, having made his point.

"That doesn't change the fact that we made a promise," Gwen said, quietly. "We all did."

Arthur had to admit that she was right. And yet they could not doom Camelot foolheartedly. "Then we'll have to find a way. Gaius, the Old Religion must have had ways of controlling dragons."

Gaius pressed his lips together. "They did," he admitted, slowly. "But such resources were destroyed during the Great Purge."

"What did they use?" Morgana asked. "Spells?"

"What about swords like mine?" Arthur offered. Surely a dragon-forged blade was powerful enough to kill a dragon.

"Unless your intent is to kill him, that sword will be of little use to you," Gaius said, tersely. He looked to Merlin, and Arthur saw that Merlin had stopped his frantic hopping and reading and gone quite still. Gaius seemed to regret his words, and reached out to Merlin to comfort him. But Merlin hop-flapped to the next table and pointedly resumed reading. It seemed that Arthur was not the only one that Merlin was still angry with.

"Magic such as your own would be useless against the dragon," Gaius told Morgana. "I suggest we focus on finding solutions to the problems at hand, rather than on how to make new ones."

"Perhaps you could tell us what happened in Avalon," Gwen prompted, obviously hoping for a less controversial topic.

"There's a lot to tell," Arthur said, sitting down. "Before I start, did I miss anything else while I was away?"

Gwen and Morgana immediately looked to each other, then looked away.

Arthur decided to take that as a 'yes, but nothing we're going to admit', and pressed on. He gave them a compressed recounting of his adventures, from the portal in the lake to the underwater world to the Sidhe palace. As he recounted, even Merlin softened long enough to take an interest, as his experience in Avalon had been far more constrained. He finished up with his confrontation with Aulfric and Drudwas, and their true identities.

"So Merlin really did kill Sophia and Aulfric?" Morgana asked. "And the Sidhe want to destroy Camelot in revenge?"

Arthur nodded. "King Gwynn's tribe does. But Queen Titania denied them. She said Queen Mab's tribe already has a claim on Camelot."

"I don't like the sound of that," Gaius said. "But it may be to our benefit if we can play one side against the other."

"We have to find them first," Arthur said. At this point they had no idea where Queen Mab was, or what she was planning. "If they're already in Camelot, they've been keeping a very low profile." Which reminded him... "And speaking of low profile, we need to talk about Merlin. If Edern or Drudwas see him, they'll stop at nothing to capture him again. And on top of that they're searching the castle for Erdudwyl. It's only a matter of time before they find one or the other, and we lose our only protection."

"Surely we can keep them both hidden," Morgana said.

"It will be rather more difficult once Merlin is himself again," Gaius said. "I agree, it will be too dangerous for him to remain here. Even if we can keep him hidden from the Sidhe, if the guards catch sight of him he'll be dragged before Uther. We need a safe house."

"He can use mine," Gwen offered. She turned to Merlin. "If that's all right."

Merlin clearly appreciated her consideration, especially when everyone else was busy making decisions on his behalf. He hopped up onto her shoulder, making his opinion clear.

"There's a place I can hide, um, Erdudwyl as well," Gwen offered.

"Perfect," Arthur said, relieved to have at least those worries off his shoulders.

"If I'm using the house again regularly, it'll be less suspicious. And Merlin shouldn't have to stay there all alone."

Morgana was not pleased at this development. "We can use my chambers. There's no way they'd dare invade a lady's chambers."

"The glaziers are due to be in soon to install the windows," Gwen said, apologetically. "It won't be safe."

"Your chambers aren't safe from the guards, Morgana," Arthur said, remembering the many times that he had personally brought guards in to search her quarters -- including the time she bluffed him out of finding the Druid boy.

"By that measure, the lower town isn't safe either," Morgana said, not giving up.

Merlin gave an angry squawk and puffed his feathers. He hopped back onto the table, flapped his wings pointedly and squawked again.

"I believe Merlin is pointing out that we have a more pressing issue at hand," Gaius interpreted. "If we are to have any chance of survival against the Sidhe, it is vital that Merlin be restored. Everything else can wait."

Morgana and Gwen relented and returned to their books, each turning the pages of the open books on the table so Merlin could read them. Gaius followed suit, and Arthur sat down with him to do the same. But when he reached out to turn to a fresh page, Merlin hopped over and nipped him sharply on the hand.

Arthur hissed, pulled his hand away and pressed against the small wound to stop the bleeding. It wasn't a bad cut, but it was enough to get the message across, along with Merlin's angry glare.

"Fine," Arthur said, standing up, and feeling rather put out. Yes, he had made mistakes. He accepted that, and he accepted the consequences of them. But he had gone a long way to get Merlin back and start making up for them, and apparently that counted for nothing. "If you don't want my help, fine. This is me going."

"Arthur," Gaius began.

"I'm sorry, all right?" Arthur said, angrily. "I'm sorry I'm not magic like the rest of you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a kingdom to take care of." He strode out of the room in a suitably dramatic fashion, closing the door behind him with more force than was necessary.

It wasn't until he was halfway up the stairs to his chambers that he remembered that he'd left his armor behind in Merlin's old room. It would wait. He had his sword, and apparently that was the only thing that mattered anymore. He had been reduced to being nothing more than the wielder of a magic sword that could kill magical creatures. If that was all he was to them, fine. He was used to being disrespected by his father, it was hardly worse to be disrespected by his friends. But then, a Prince wasn't supposed to have friends. Or sorcerer lovers.

He slammed open the door to his chambers, and badly startled George, who had been polishing his dress boots.

"Sire!" George said, almost stammering. He shot to his feet, only to bow deeply. "If I had known of your return, I would have prepared the room. I most humbly apologize for the mess."

Arthur looked around the room. He'd never seen it so clean. Even the stone floor looked like it had been polished within an inch of its life. He hoped he wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night, slip on it, and break something.

"Please, sire, if there's anything I can do for you, anything at all..."

"Lunch," Arthur said, all-too-aware of the empty pit in his stomach. It was no wonder he was in a bad mood. "Lots of it. And a hot bath. And some wine."

"At once, sire." And with that, George was out of the room like a sprung arrow.

Arthur went over to the window and looked out at the courtyard. Things would look better once he had a full belly and a good night's sleep. The last thing he needed to deal with now was more magic anyway. He'd had his fill in Avalon. His father was right about one thing: he needed to focus on what was important. No more distractions.

And yet as he turned and looked at his room, all that mattered was that Merlin wasn't there. No matter how deeply George scrubbed and polished, nothing could change the fact that this was where Arthur had failed Merlin most. This was where destiny had failed, broken on the rocks of Arthur's faith in his father's lies.

His father wanted him to be Regent. He wanted Arthur to rule as an extension of himself. Arthur no longer knew what to make of magic and dragons and the Old Religion. For everything that had happened, all he had truly learned was that he knew nothing. But knowing nothing was a far better than knowing the wrong things, when the wrong things meant he had the blood of hundreds of innocent people on his hands.

It was no wonder that Merlin no longer loved him. It was only strange that he ever had.

Chapter Text

"Don't worry, Merlin," Gwen said, trying to sound as reassuring as she could. "I'm sure we'll find something soon."

"We've been through every book three times," Morgana said. She pushed aside a heavy tome and sighed. "There's spells to cast illusions. There's spells to transform objects. There are even spells on how to change yourself into a bird. But there's nothing that will tell us how to change someone else who has been turned into a bird by the Sidhe back into being a human." She folded her arms and rested her head on them.

Both Gaius and Morgana had tried to perform any spell that seemed like it could restore Merlin to his natural form. But even the ones that either of them had both the strength and ability to perform would fizzle out on impact. Merlin himself even tried to perform the more powerful spells, including one from his grimoire that seemed perfect. But though his magic was restored, his voice was not, and he could only chirp and squawk in frustration.

"Maybe we should go to the Druids," Gwen offered. Surely they would have both the power and knowledge to help them. And unlike the dragon, they were unlikely to demand the destruction of Camelot as a payment. "Gaius? Do you know how to find them?"

Gaius blinked, startled from his thoughts, and twisted his mouth into a frown. "Until the treaty with the Deorham has been signed, Camelot is on full guard. The army is patrolling the forests. To approach them now would put both the Druids and us at great risk."

Merlin flap-hopped over to Gaius and spread his wings wide. He hopped in place and flapped his wings, then gestured towards the high window with his head.

"Absolutely not," Gaius said, sternly. "It's even more dangerous for you to go alone."

Merlin gave a frustrated cry and hopped to the end of the table. He spread his wings to their fullest, then started running to the other end of the table, flapping his wings hard. When he reached the end, he leapt into the air and coasted... right into the opposite wall, before crashing to the ground.

"Merlin!" Gwen gasped, and hurried over to him This was not the first time that Merlin had tried to fly, but so far the results had been mixed, as he hadn't yet worked out how to turn. She picked Merlin up from the floor and gently checked him over. He was dazed and his right wing was tender from the impact. She gave him to Gaius, who was quite resigned to Merlin's antics by now.

"Do you want to end up with your arm in a sling again?" Gaius tutted.

Merlin glared defiantly. It seemed he would gladly risk injury or worse rather than remain stuck as a falcon for a minute longer. He and Gaius stared at each other, each silently making their respective points, and it was Gaius who gave in first.

"Very well," Gaius said. "I was hoping to avoid this, but it seems we have no other choice." He stood and handed Merlin back to Gwen, and Merlin climbed up onto her shoulder -- a spot that was quickly becoming his favorite perch.

"Where are you going?" Morgana asked.

"We are going to pay a visit to the library," Gaius said, as he opened the grain barrel and pulled out Sophia's cage. "All of us."

§

There were times when being a servant could be both a blessing and a curse. Gwen hitched the heavy laundry basket against her hip and followed Gaius and Morgana up the stairs to the library. Beneath the spare -- and clean -- shirts and blankets was Merlin, who kept trying to surreptitiously peek his head out, and the well-wrapped cage that held their hostage. The basket was, of course, the perfect way to transport them through the castle. No guard would bother to stop and search through a basket of laundry carried by a trusted servant. At least, as long as neither Merlin nor Sophia gave them a reason to. Gwen gave Merlin a gentle but pointed tap on the beak, and he retreated.

When they had nearly reached the library, Gaius told them to wait as he went on ahead. Gwen and Morgana peered around the corner and watched as Gaius entered the library. A few minutes passed, and then Gaius and Geoffrey entered the hall. Geoffrey stopped and locked the door behind them before they left. As soon as they were out of sight, Morgana and Gwen hurried to the door. Gaius had given them his key to the library, and Morgana quickly opened it so they could slip inside.

Gaius had bought them time by distracting Geoffrey with the excuse of an overdue medical checkup, but they could not afford to dawdle. He had also given them instructions on how to find the secret room in the east wing, and even before Gwen could put down the laundry basket, Morgana was running her hands along the shelves, trying to find the trigger.

"Was it the third bookcase from the left or from the right?" Morgana muttered, as she thumped at the shelving. "It has to be around here somewhere." She yelped in surprise as a section of the shelf, books and all, tilted under her hand. She leapt back as the whole bookcase pivoted in place. There was the sound of stone scraping against stone, and for a few seconds the secret room was revealed. But the wall didn't stop turning, and before it shut completely, Morgana hopped through the gap to the other side.

The door stopped, and where had been a tall, dusty bookcase, there was now only a stone wall. Gwen stared at it, then at Merlin, who looked just as stunned as she felt. Gwen grabbed the basket as Merlin hopped onto her shoulder, and she went over to the wall, searching it for another trigger. But there was nothing. It was as if the bookcase had never been there.

"Morgana?" Gwen whispered into the wall. "Morgana, can you hear me? Morgana!"

There was a soft thump, and then the wall began to turn again. This time Gwen was ready for it, and she jumped through to the other side, where Morgana was waiting -- only for Morgana to jump back out again as the door swung shut. Thankfully, before Gwen could ask what on earth Morgana was doing, there was another thump and the door swung around again.

"There," Morgana said, satisfied. "That should do it. Now we'll be able to get out again."

"Quick thinking," Gwen said, smiling, and Morgana smiled back. Gwen couldn't help but remember their kiss under the dungeons, and wanted to kiss Morgana again. But they weren't alone, and Merlin reminded her of that by jumping off her shoulder and hop-flapping around the room in amazement.

Gwen turned, and finally took in their surroundings. Gaius had told them that there was a secret room where many books of the Old Religion had been hidden, to save them from the fires of the Great Purge. But this was was so much more than she could have hoped for, or even imagined. This was a whole library of books and scrolls, statues of the gods and goddesses, objects of ritual and magic. It didn't matter that they were covered in cobwebs and dust. This room held irreplaceable treasures. That it had survived this long without discovery and destruction, at the very heart of Camelot...

"Gwen," Morgana said, softly. "You're crying."

Gwen quickly wiped at her eyes. "We have to start looking," she said, and walked away from Morgana and over to the shelves. She picked a book at random and opened it, and spared a glance back. Morgana looked confused and hurt by the dismissal, and Gwen felt badly about that. But Morgana wouldn't understand how she felt, and Gwen didn't want to hear Morgana dismiss the Old Religion again. She was glad that Merlin was too busy clinging to the shelves and reading the book spines to notice anything else.

They fell into a similar pattern to their previous research. Gwen would look for anything that could be relevant and give it to Morgana, who would show it to Merlin to verify if it was. Gwen wanted to take the whole library, but knew from hard experience that such precious books would be in great danger anywhere outside these walls. She could not be responsible for their destruction. They would have to narrow down their selection to only one or two, which was as much as they could safely hide.

Merlin gave an excited squawk.

"I think we've found it," Morgana said, hopeful. She brought the book back to Gwen, who inspected it more carefully this time. It was a book of advanced transformation spells, and specifically a page that showed a human being turned into an animal and then back again. It was accompanied by a lengthy description about the dangers of such spells, stories of those who had used it, and various recipes for potions that were required. There was also discussion of involuntary transformation and how to counteract it.

"Thank the gods," Gwen breathed, closing the book and hugging it to her chest. "We'll get this to Gaius right away," she told Merlin, and she tucked it into the laundry basket. "Let's go."

"Wait," Morgana said, and pressed a finger to her lips. "I hear someone."

Gwen and Merlin stilled and listened. Had Gaius and Geoffrey already returned? There was a faint voice, but it wasn't coming from the other side of the wall. It was in the room with them. A chill ran down Gwen's spine, from both excitement and fear.

They soon found the source of the noise. It was a box that had been abandoned on the floor, not large but heavily and firmly secured. Merlin considered it warily from higher ground.

"Should we open it?" Morgana asked, wide-eyed.

"I don't know." Gwen knocked on the box, and started when whatever was inside the box knocked back and growled.

"I don't like the sound of that," Morgana said, equally alarmed.

"What if it's a magical creature?" Gwen asked, thinking of the dragon's imprisonment. Of Sophia locked up in the dragon-forged cage. Of Arthur's description of Merlin, held captive by the Sidhe.

"Obviously it's magic," Morgana said. "Anything normal wouldn't survive locked up in a box for twenty years."

Gwen bristled at the implication that anything magic wasn't 'normal'. "Maybe it's innocent."

More muffled sounds came from the box. It did sound almost like a person was trapped inside. She wrapped her arms around the box and dragged it upright. The iron band that secured the top had been riveted in place, and there was a keyhole at the center. Gwen knew a prison when she saw one, and whatever was inside it, it had to be powerful.

"I could try to open it?" Morgana offered, despite her reluctance.

"No," Gwen said, reacting instinctively. Whoever had brought the box here was someone who had respect for the Old Ways. They would not lock up a creature of magic without good cause.

"We could take it with us," Morgana offered.

"It's safer here," Gwen said, standing up. "We'll come back for it later. Maybe Gaius knows what it is."

Morgana nodded in agreement, but Merlin wasn't convinced. He landed on the box and bit at the metal band, as if to pull it open.

"You'll hurt yourself if you do that," Morgana chided, and picked him up. Merlin didn't care for that and wriggled from her grip, landing awkwardly on the floor. He picked himself up and stared at the box, and his eyes glowed as he cast a silent spell. To Gwen's alarm, there was a click as the lock popped open.

"Loc fæst!" Morgana spelled, and the lock clicked shut again.

Merlin rounded on Morgana, furious. He began to squawk and chatter and hop, and while none of it was translatable, Gwen understood the general meaning. Merlin related to the creature's plight and didn't want it to suffer as he had suffered. And yet that didn't make his actions right.

"Merlin, stop it," Gwen said, in a firm enough tone to stop Merlin's ranting. "Whatever is in there, it could be dangerous. We're in enough trouble already."

Merlin turned away, dismissive, but Morgana moved to face him. "Going off half-cocked against magical creatures is what got you into trouble in the first place," she reminded him. Merlin visibly bristled, his feathers puffing up.

"Once you're human again, we'll come back," Gwen said, trying to calm him down. "When you can use your magic fully, and when Gaius can tell us what it might be. All right?"

Merlin gave grudging nod, but his feathers remained ruffled.

§

Part of Gwen wanted to stay in the library and continue researching. Maybe they could find some information about the Sidhe and Avalon. But they couldn't risk it when Gaius and Geoffrey would be back at any minute. They would have to return to the secret room later, for both the books and the mysterious box.

With the laundry basket now loaded down with the heavy book, Sophia, and Merlin, Gwen and Morgana snuck back into the hall and locked the library behind them. They headed back to Morgana's chambers, where they could safely read. But as they approached, they found the door to Morgana's chambers open. They cautiously stepped inside, and found that the glaziers were at work replacing the broken windows.

"Ah, you're just in time," said the King, as he stepped towards them.

Gwen nearly jumped out of her skin. She tightened her grip on the basket and gave a short bow, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

"My Lord," Morgana greeted, smoothly. She gazed up at the first of the new windows. "It's beautiful."

"As promised," Uther said, proudly. "They'll be done by sundown."

"I'm certain it will be," Morgana said, knowingly. "Then I shall leave you to it. Unless you need help cracking your whip?"

Uther smiled, amused. "I do believe I can manage a few unruly glaziers." Then he sobered, and spoke quietly. "I know you said you were all right, but you've barely been in your chambers since the lightning strike."

Morgana ducked her head, then looked up, showing a hint of vulnerability. "Perhaps it shook me more than I cared to admit."

Uther touched a gloved hand to her cheek in fatherly affection. "If there's anything else I can do..."

Morgana touched his hand, then smiled. She turned to the new window and the bright sky visible on the other side. "You already have."

Uther smiled back, his worry eased.

"Shall we be dining together tonight?" Morgana asked.

"I'm afraid not," Uther said, regretful. "Our guests are due to arrive any day now. I'm far too busy with preparations." He hesitated. "But perhaps you could do something for me."

"Of course, my Lord."

"Arthur returned this morning. I want you to keep an eye him."

"Of course, my Lord," Morgana said. "Is this about Sophia?"

"Perhaps. Apparently they disappeared because Arthur was escorting her back to Gwynedd." He didn't look like he entirely believed that to be the truth. "Regardless, the girl is gone."

"I'm sure that's for the best," Morgana said.

"That it is," Uther agreed.

"Then I shall go and do as my Lord commands," Morgana said, with a smile. Without looking at Gwen, she turned and walked calmly from the room. As soon as Uther had turned away, Gwen hurried after her. There were few places they could go with a laundry basket full of magic, and as neither of them wanted to deal with Arthur's bad mood, the only other immediate option was to return to Gaius' chambers. By now he was likely back in the library with Geoffrey.

Yet when they reached his chambers, the door was ajar. After the close call with Uther, they were inclined to be cautious. They peered inside, and nearly gasped in shock as they saw Drudwas and Aulfric searching the room.

"I know she was here," grumbled Drudwas. "I can taste our magic."

"Old and faded. She's not here now," said Aulfric, grumpily. "How are these humans hiding her? Is Camelot harboring an army of sorcerers?"

"One or a hundred, they'll die all the same," Drudwas said, with dark promise. "Come on. We have to keep looking."

Morgana and Gwen slipped back from the door, ducking into the shadows. They held their breath as the Sidhe walked out. As he closed the door behind him, Drudwas paused and sniffed the air, and for a long moment Gwen feared that he could smell the magic in her basket, dragon or Sidhe or Old Religion. But he shook his head and walked on.

Once their footsteps had faded, Gwen and Morgana hurried inside. Morgana locked the door -- for all the good it would do in a castle full of sorcerers and magical creatures -- while Gwen set down the basket. Poor Merlin was probably stiff with fear after all the close calls. She pulled back the blanket and found that his feathers were so fluffed up he looked twice his size.

"It's all right. We're safe now," she soothed, stroked his head and back with a finger.

"We won't be safe until we leave Camelot for good," Morgana muttered.

"And I'm not leaving until Camelot is safe," Gwen said, unable to stop herself.

Morgana looked ready to argue, but then she changed her mind. "One crisis at a time," she said, digging out the transformations book. She flipped