Author: Ardent rose_mina
Pairings/characters: Arthur/Merlin, Gwen/Lancelot, one-sided Merlin/Viviane
Word Count: ~31k
Warnings: Brief battle violence, moral ambiguity
Summary: [Canon AU] Three prominent rebellion factions plague Albion, the strongest of which are the Dragonlords. When Merlin is made royal manservant to the Prince's household for (accidentally) saving his life, he is more than happy to play spy on the oppressive Pendragons per his father's, the leader of the Dragonlords, request. Little did he know that he would grow to care about those he meets on the other side.
Author's notes: I am ridiculously lucky to receive aeternitasbeach's attention, art magic, and mad beta skills. She beta'd this fic like you wouldn't believe. Not only did she talk me through some of my more epic meltdowns but her constant praise and insights were what made this fic possible. Seriously, if it wasn't for her, I would have never finished. I couldn't do this without her! Someone else I need to thank with all my heart is hitokiri_neko, who beta'd this fic and stepped in as a cheerleader when I most needed it. All remaining mistakes are so mine, you'd need a court order to seize them.
Additional author's notes regarding citation, credits, and fic facts can be found on the master post.
Art link: Epic fanvid made by aeternitasbeach. If you haven't seen it yet, omg, go go go! Watch it now! <3 It is amazing and epic doesn't even describe it. Seriously. This fic can wait.
Disclaimer: Merlin (BBC) belongs to BBC One, NBC, and Syfy. This fanfiction is for entertainment purposes only and no infringement is intended.
THE FIFTH COLUMN
a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group such as a nation from within, to help an external enemy.
Below them, Camelot was burning.
They were a sorry sight taking temporary refuge on top of a green hill. Just a small group of six and Merlin with a fist clenched desperately to his mouth, silent with wide eyes and a singed cloak, staring fixedly at the castle being ravaged by fire and soldiers within. The sun peeked through the horizon, splashing colours onto the clouds on his right. Merlin could hear the screams even from this distance, and he felt more than heard the first fractured sound escape from him since the invasion started. His mother, too wrapped up in her own quiet grief from the consequences of the day, couldn’t bear to look at him from where she knelt on the ground.
“Those bastards!” Will yelled from his left, turning to kick uselessly at the beech tree that they’d climbed not even yesterday. At ten years old, the power behind such a kick was negligible and only a few wood chips flaked off. Merlin couldn’t hide his flinch, jolting at the realization that Will’s father, Sir William the Senior who was lying prone near the sentry post of the west entrance, would no longer be around to look both amused and disapproving of Will’s inappropriate language. “We’ll…we’ll, Merlin. We’ll make them pay. I promise. I promise. They won’t get away with this,” Will continued, impassioned and angry and everything else that Merlin couldn’t express. “We’ll come back and…”
“Merlin,” a deep voice interrupted Will’s tirade as a strong hand, a very much alive and treasured hand gripped onto Merlin’s shoulder and pulled him back a step- just that much further away from the castle and all its inherent danger.
“You did well, my son. You did…” Merlin shook his head, the wetness clinging to his eyes finally breaking free, the only acknowledgement he could give to the hitch in his father’s words. “You did what you had to do. You cannot be blamed for your actions. No one could have asked better of you. Let it go, my son.”
“I can’t,” Merlin barely managed to sound. “Look what I’ve done.”
Merlin didn’t want to leave, not until the last of the flames had become little more than embers. Balinor didn’t allow that. There was no use in feeding the guilt he knew his son was feeling, and although Merlin didn’t believe it yet, what had happened in the King’s Hall was not his fault. He allowed his son to grieve, briefly, before forcing Merlin along, one hand held firmly to his shoulder. One of the other men in their party moved towards Hunith with the intention of helping her, but was waved away before he’d made it partway. His wife gained her feet with some trouble, hands fisted in the torn and dirty front of her skirt, her eyes steeling as she stood. She wiped the last traces of grief from her face before she turned. He only allowed himself to feel light-headed relief when she fixed concerned eyes upon their son and called him and Will softly, providing them with the quiet reassurance and strength they both needed but wouldn’t ask for.
She was always far stronger than any of them.
Even with one of the two small children they were travelling with magically connected to the very land, it still took Balinor’s men and family two weeks to make it to the border of King Cendred’s territory, to an outlying village of no consequence called Ealdor.
Uther and his court, wholly occupied with rebuilding Camelot from the ground up, spared minimal attention to the town’s fleeing sorcerers beyond ensuring that they were far from Camelot’s borders. Even as cautiously as news travelled, Dragonlords were slowly trickling into Ealdor, following whatever trail they could trace. Balinor knew from the cryptic visions his dragon had received before Merlin’s birth that this was only a temporary reprieve, that within a year, Uther would start what would be known as The Great Purge.
Many would die. Some would need to be sacrificed. And his son…
Balinor watched his son’s exhausted sleep, limbs tucked tightly underneath a thread bare coverlet with Balinor’s calloused hand incongruously large on Merlin’s thin back. His barely ten years old son would bear the brunt of it; he would be the one to set the course of the future.
Balinor still didn’t know if he had made the right choice.
As with most things embarrassing to Merlin up to that point in his life, it started with some fateful words uttered from Will’s mouth.
“Well. That’s it then, I suppose. Guess it’s time to steal us a prince,” Will announced to the room at large. Hunith, Merlin’s mother, managed to toss the two of them a worried look as she took her seat at the scuffed table they ate their meals. His father, Merlin was slightly alarmed to notice, had taken on a considering look from where he was already seated on the wooden bench.
This, of course, led to Merlin sensibly objecting to the plan.
“Will, even for you, that’s insane. A prince? A prince? We can’t just go steal a prince! I’m pretty sure whatever kingdom we take one from will notice that they’re missing a member of their sovereignty. Besides, why a prince? Why not a bishop or a lord or…”
Will wrinkled his nose. “Oh, like it’d be any fun if they didn’t notice their prince missing. I’m not talking about any prince here, Merlin. I’m talking about the youngest Pendragon.”
“…Yes, Will. That’s so much better,” Merlin supplied dryly, after a sufficient amount of time passed to allow the shock to be absorbed. Merlin could understand the need for revenge and retribution but Will was going about this all wrong. “Let’s just go steal the prince of the most powerful nation in existence right now. I’m sure they’ll send us a nice goat with a note around its bell collar politely asking us to return their next king.”
“Yeah, well, at least we could milk it,” Will unhelpfully quipped. Whether he meant the goat or the situation, Merlin really didn’t want to know.
“I’m not saying we should borrow the prince but we have to do something. We can’t keep going like this,” Hunith spoke up. She grasped Merlin’s hand in her own, glancing at Balinor next to ensure that he, of all present, took her words to heart. “Hiding here, not knowing how the others are faring in Camelot. We can’t remain here forever, Merlin. There are people who need our help. And we can’t let Uther stay in power. You know that.”
“So stealing the prince is so much better?” Merlin gripped Hunith’s hand, his tone gentler towards her and holding none of the sarcasm that had coloured his words to Will. “Mum, Uther won’t stop at anything to get Arthur Pendragon back. That’s his only son. He’ll send the whole army of Camelot on our heads. We can’t risk that, not right now.”
“Neither can we afford waiting here. My darling boy, you’ve told me that the magic in the land is ebbing.” Merlin nodded as Hunith palmed his face. They both ignored Will as he demanded why Merlin hadn’t told him as much.
“That could be attributed to the purge,” Balinor reasoned.
Merlin shook his head, fingers tugging at the hem of his shirt. “Maybe. I dunno.” And then, “I don’t think so, Father. It’s been fourteen years. A little late for it to be kicking in right now.” He couldn’t explain exactly how he knew this wasn’t just a result of the Purge. There was something shifting, some imbalance that Merlin couldn’t explain. He could feel the flow of power every time he connected with the earth, restless and wild like it had been slotted into the wrong place. It was eerily similar to how he felt at times, as if there was somewhere else he was supposed to be, somewhere he was supposed to belong.
Or perhaps it was something in him, some vital part that had gone missing.
He sympathized with Albion, really, he did.
“Then we cannot wait,” Hunith declared. “This is our chance, to begin restoring the balance.”
“Your mother’s right,” Balinor interjected before Merlin could lodge another protest. “We need to know what Uther’s doing in Camelot, and whether Arthur Pendragon will turn out to be a threat to our goals. It will be best if both of you go to Camelot. Find out what Uther’s doing. Find out about the prince, but be careful. Uther’s hate of all magic is deep and he will not show mercy should you be discovered.”
“And the prince?” Will doggedly asked. Merlin shook his head at his father.
Balinor held his eyes for a few moments more before compromising. “…We will see. For now, just gather the information.”
Finding a suitable enough road in order to travel to Camelot hadn’t been a problem. Uther was adamant in keeping the roads to his land free from most thieves; the few lingering that were good enough to escape Uther’s knights and guards were easily avoided by Merlin and Will’s stealth.
Merlin had to admit that at least Uther Pendragon knew how to take care of the lot of his people who were not inclined towards magic.
Merlin and Will made their way up to a small town just outside Camelot’s keep. It was innocuous enough, not too developed and visited mostly by those trading small wares and wools. More importantly, it was largely devoid of knights and guards.
It wasn’t necessary for them to travel with an entourage, especially when secrecy was more important than personal safety. Regardless of how brassy and reckless Will’s words were, they weren’t ready yet to just snatch a prince. That would have taken time, planning, supplies and a whole lot of dumb luck.
Canvassing the area took up the majority of their days. Merlin wanted to see for himself how hard it would be and what it would require to carry out Will’s plan. For another, he didn’t think it would be a good idea to do anything without his father’s approval. The last they spoke of it, Balinor had been suitably cautious about the idea.
It was only because of Will’s whining that they now found themselves inside of a tavern.
As far as taverns and inns went, the one they were currently in-- well. It wasn’t that bad. The service was passable enough, the wooden building clean and the food warm. And the fact that the mead hadn’t been watered down too much was an automatic plus in Will’s book. Coarse, heavy curtains hung at the two wide windows present in the main room, just enough to keep the service area cool through the heat stroke or two that plagued this land during the summer harvests. Worn wooden benches and tables filled the area, spaced far enough apart for each guest party to afford a modicum of privacy, but not enough that a voice carrying wouldn’t be overheard. Merlin was more concerned about the clientele, consisting of men and women looking for a quick stop on their journey, people who kept to themselves and people who made their passes into the security of Camelot.
It was very reserved, very bland, and absolutely the last place on earth that he expected to run into the biggest prat of Albion.
“You have such… beautiful eyes,” a feminine voice simpered. Merlin couldn’t see the fluttering eyes but it was nearly palpable in the tone aimed at the man next to her.
Merlin tried very hard not to roll his eyes as he looked at the figure planted beside him, seeing nothing but blond hair, a stout neck, and a well-worn jacket of undeterminable make. Merlin could tell from the clothes that the man wasn’t rich by any means, but he was clean enough. And in Merlin’s book, that recommended him above the majority of the males present in the bar.
“Of course they are,” the neighbour replied to the woman, sounding very self-assured and as if he expected such compliments as part of his due.
Merlin definitely couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes then, half-scoffing into his drink as he ducked his shoulders down. Will elbowed him in the ribs. Merlin ignored him. The man next to him carried on, informing Merlin that his momentary slip went unnoticed.
“It’s a natural consequence of my birth, if you must know,” the man extrapolated. “I have often heard it referred to as a true blue of the Albion Sea. But clearly, they’re not as beautiful as yours. …I knew from the first, that you were special. That we would spend eternity together. There was this undeniable quality about you. Your beauty and…I love you. You must know that. Our beauties were clearly meant to be together.”
A full scoff escaped Merlin this time along with a chuckle at the man’s audacity at complimenting himself. Who even does that? He wasn’t even touching on the embarrassingly sappy way the man was going on. The man he was laughing at swivelled partway on his seat, his head turning the rest of the way to chastise Merlin at his audacity for interrupting such an important conversation. Will latched onto Merlin’s arm and pulled him off the stool, forcing Merlin to grip onto his drink if he wanted to save it and bring it with him. His companion’s hand came up and tugged his green hood down even lower around his face, covering his identity and cutting off his vision, but not before he had a second to glance into the man’s reprimanding eyes.
He supposed fawning, love-struck girls had to be right some of the time. Yes, well, it was probably only to make up for the utter lack of depth in the man’s personality.
“Do you have a death wish?” Will asked, once they made it out the door, fingers finally releasing Merlin’s elbow before he half-shoved, half-pushed Merlin further down the lane. “Or do you not understand that we’re trying to preserve your neck here? Calling attention to yourself like that. Are you absolutely mad?”
“I couldn’t help myself!” said Merlin, half-laughing. “I mean, did you even hear him in there? Going on about his stamina and prowess for over half a candle mark. It’s ridiculous! And you can’t deny it, Will, that girl in there,” Merlin jabbed his thumb back towards the building, “she can’t honestly be hung on him. It’s obvious she’s going to fleece him.”
“Wait,” Merlin blinked at Will in surprise. “You actually know her?”
Will glanced back over his shoulder to the bar, looking half-amused himself and slightly worried. Of course Merlin understood that they couldn’t be seen. Those were the orders, especially with this outpost being so close to Camelot’s borders. Being ousted now would have ramifications that neither of them could afford to entertain. “Maybe. Not our problem, mate. That bloke looks like he can handle himself. Besides, he’s not our concern. He’s not my concern.”
“I know, Will,” Merlin cut in, before Will could finish with ‘only you are’. His friend’s overprotective nature was amusing at times and endearing always. But the last thing Merlin needed was someone else to get hurt or die because of him. “Look, I’ll behave, all right? Let’s just go back in, finish our food and then leave. We still need to make it to Landing’s End if we’re to clear the gate before dark.”
When they entered the inn this time, Merlin realised how Will knew Sophia. An older man, clearly another travelling companion with Sophia by virtue of holding her staff, was so clearly Sidhe from the aura he was radiating that Merlin was surprised with himself for not noticing it before. Balinor had always taken Will when he’d gone to deal with the Sidhe. He couldn’t believe he’d been that distracted by the blond man’s obnoxious presence.
Well. There goes that bloke.
It was when he took another seat across the room that the enchanted man fully turned, a glint of familiar red finally catching Merlin’s eye.
The forest was quiet, unnaturally still and devoid of any of the usual animal noises. This told Merlin more than he needed to know about the creatures skulking along in front of him. Merlin followed on as silently as he could behind the group of three travelling ahead. The father led the way with the Sidhe girl trailing her enchanted man behind her with a delicately held-out hand. They hadn’t gone too far from the inn, where Merlin had left a still snoring Will in their cramped, rented room.
Of course, if Will knew where Merlin currently was and what he planned to do, he’d be having nightmares instead.
It wasn’t too long before they reached a lake, far enough from actual civilization that Merlin was certain Sophia and her father had no intentions of leaving the man alive.
“Hullo!” Merlin called out, stepping from behind some foliage once Sophia and the enchanted man had both submerged themselves waist deep in the water. The father pivoted on his feet, eyes flashing red with anger even as Merlin pointed towards Sophia’s supposed lover.
“I know this is an awfully inconvenient time for you, but do you mind giving me that?”
“Arthur?” Sophia asked, tilting her face and looking at Merlin as if she couldn’t believe his audacity. “Absolutely not! Find your own sacrifice. This one’s claimed.”
“Er. Not quite, no. The necklace? I know who it belongs to, so it’d be nice if I could get it back to them. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Do not dare to interrupt us! Who are you?” the father demanded.
“No one particularly important. Can I have it, please?”
Thin, pale fingers grasped at the dragon-red stone, Sophia probably becoming aware of the properties in the necklace for the first time. “It’s--”
“Yeah, I know.” Merlin was fully aware of what she’d planned to say. There was no need to state the obvious.
“…and very beautiful, too,” she continued, ignoring Arthur’s half dazed stare that was aimed above her right shoulder. “I can feel it. What I can do with this necklace,” Sophia mumbled, low enough that Merlin would have missed it if he had been a bit further up the bank. Her hand tightened around the stone, the other pushing at Arthur’s chest and letting him sink, the waters enveloping him as he fell back gracefully.
Which was about as far as Sophia went before she burst in a sudden, violent magical flare.
“Oh, sorry!” Merlin called out, more from surprise than any real sense of remorse.
“What have you done?” her father yelled, pointing his staff end at Merlin.
“Onstyrian, onbregdan!” Merlin yelled in return, because honestly, he was coming at Merlin with a magical staff. The spell he cast yielded just about the same results.
“Odd,” Merlin mused once the forest had fallen quiet again, staring with some puzzlement at his hand after the father had likewise gone the way of his daughter. “Definitely not supposed to do that.” He was positive he’d shouted a moving spell, nothing lethal and certainly nothing that should warrant instant death. His magic hadn’t acted up like that since he’d been a teenager, outgrowing him faster than he outgrew his clothes. Maybe the necklace…
Merlin eyed the lake, contemplating the success of actually magically lifting Arthur from it, but judging from how deep and wide the water went, and the fact that he had to keep a low profile…Right. No more magic. Nothing for it then, Merlin decided as he dove right in with his jacket still on.
Hauling a water-logged Arthur out of the lake wasn’t the hard part, nor was using a location spell (an extremely and surprisingly augmented location spell, to Merlin’s dismay) to pinpoint him towards the man in the potential watery grave that hard either. Oh no, the hard part came after, when Merlin was good and tired after hauling a man weighing at least a healthy two stones more than him past unhelpful currents.
Good thing Arthur wasn’t wearing any armour.
Merlin collapsed on top of Arthur on the bank, the stench of wet leather heavy while wet hair poked into his eyes. He smacked lightly at Arthur’s cheek, then quite a bit harder on his chest. In the confusion between Arthur coughing up a lung or two and the bandits showing up at the edge of the trees, demanding monetary homage- of which Merlin had very little, Merlin managed to slip the necklace that started all this off of Arthur’s neck and into his own pocket.
“You can thank me now. I saved your life.”
Merlin slowly pivoted, disbelief dominant in widened eyes as they fixed on the no longer enchanted, bedraggled figure standing across the grassy area from him. A stolen sword dangled from one large hand while a dagger was held in an under handed grip in the other. Scattered between them- taken down by a sword, a mysteriously falling branch, and a small dagger normally fastened to Arthur’s side- lay a contingent of five men, all bandits and all neutralized. Merlin was somewhat impressed himself, given that he’d barely had to use any magic at all to bail them out.
Of course, he’d never admit that. Arthur, across from him, was still standing soggy and with the proud arrogance that made it seem he believed that Merlin owed him thanks.
“However, it is my duty to protect people, so. I suppose there’s no need for abject gratitude. Just remember to be more vigilant next time. The forest is no place for a person alone,” Arthur warned.
Merlin wasn’t sure whether to be flattered that his well-being factored on Arthur’s scale, or offended at the allusion that he couldn’t take care of himself.
“Right. And how do you suppose you got wet in the first place? I saved you. Long before you saved me!” And you didn’t save me, not really, Merlin silently fumed.
“That’s utterly absurd! You saved me? From what? Small fish?”
“From drowning, you numb wit!” Merlin threw both hands up, turning in frustration as they came down. “Although now I’m wondering why I did it.”
“I’ll have you know, I am a great swimmer, and have never, nor will I ever need anyone to save me from drowning. Wait a minute, why was I in the water in the first place?” Arthur caught up to Merlin, squelching sounds announcing their steps as they trudged along.
“You don’t remember?” Merlin didn’t think it was all that wise to tell the man that he’d been that close to becoming a Sidhe’s leftovers. Not that he wanted to explain about the magic. “Oh well. Um. I was taking a walk. A very long walk, actually. Because it’s a nice day and all. And I found you here. I mean, there! Flailing around like a hen in heat. So I decided, well, can’t let the man die now, right? So I jumped in and pulled you out.”
Arthur gave him a suspicious look. “You? Pulled me out? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Merlin confirmed rather cheerfully.
“Let’s say I believe you for a moment,” Arthur pointed out after they’ve walked along in silence for some time, “which, by the way, I don’t. But let’s say, for the sake of miracles, that you did save me from a drowning I do not recall, from a river I do not remember entering. I’d say we’re more than even, and that in fact, you owe me, considering I saved you from five men ready to do God knows what to you. Am I right?”
“No,” Merlin immediately disagreed.
“No! I can defend myself.” Which Merlin proved by pushing a thin branch out of the way, then letting it snap back to hit Arthur in the face. Quick reflexes saved Arthur from acquiring a new scratch. He continued on as if Merlin’s action hadn’t been intentional.
“And does this infuriating person who believes he can defend himself have a name?”
“Merlin. And I suppose I already know the pompous arse’s name, so no need for any other introductions.”
“…Right. Insolent and useless. A pretty powerful combination. I have to say,” Arthur continued right over Merlin’s muttered ‘oh, shut up’ and assorted grumblings, “I was very impressed by your skills back there, Merlin. You know, laying on the ground and wriggling about every time one of the bandits came near.”
“You were in the way! Or else I would have fought back.”
“Really? Prove it then.”
“What, right now?”
“Sure, why not? Unless you have any other pressing matters to see to, besides finishing your walk?” The words were polite, but the tone of Arthur’s voice and the way his eyebrows rose with a trace of mockery said otherwise. Both clearly declared that if Merlin wasn’t going to take up his challenge, Arthur would lose all respect and belief in his ability to take care of himself.
“I hope you brought some pain salve,” Merlin accepted. “‘Cause you’ll definitely need it.”
Merlin didn’t exactly wipe the floor with Arthur, but neither did he spectacularly lose. Arthur was good, really good, probably the best Merlin had ever seen. During their first sparring session, he only had enough breath between blows to be thankful once to his father for making sure he knew his way around a sword. He was sure, deep down, that if he hadn’t been drilled endlessly by Balinor and by some of his more trusted guards, he’d be nothing more than a glorified punching doll for Arthur right now.
The first session ended up in a messy, squelchy draw as they were wet and exhausted, barely able to last three minutes before they both collapsed in a pile of elbows and knees, and Merlin’s nose pressed against places he did not want to be pressed against ever again; the second ended in Merlin’s favour. Admittedly, Merlin may have tipped the battle on his side with a sparing use of magic. The third, fourth, and fifth were indisputably Arthur’s, and Merlin’s stubborn streak reared its head to win him the sixth and arguably, the seventh.
(It wasn’t Merlin’s fault if Arthur couldn’t concentrate on the path of Merlin’s sword and not on the pure white unicorn that just happened to be prancing by. Arthur should be thanking Merlin on his knees for deflecting that blow in the nick of time, or else his family would have been in great peril. Plagues and water droughts and food shortages were nothing to shake a stick at, or so Merlin had been told. Besides, Arthur should have been positively embarrassed that the unicorn wanted more than just a scratching.)
And it went on with no clearly defined winner, until before Merlin realised, a month had gone by between the first spar and the seventh. He had been evading Will to see Arthur in secret and was no closer to tracking down the Prince of Camelot.
“Hullo?” Merlin poked his head into the room, entering fully when he noticed it was vacant. Organized chaos dominated the chamber. Numerous books sat snug on the shelves, with some haphazardly placed on every available surface. The ceiling in the room was high and the medicine shelves full of labelled glass bottles. Round glass vials were bubbling merrily on a side table armed with burners, but there was no one around to supervise them. He walked into the room, turning in a half circle as he made his way to the middle. The room obviously belonged to a scholar.
The unmistakable sound of a book being shelved caused Merlin to look up.
“Hullo?” he called, this time spotting an elder man on the second level, reading a book. The man wore brown robes and had white hair just long enough to brush against his shoulders.
The man barely glanced down from his high perch before saying impatiently, “Yes? Yes, boy, speak up. I haven’t the time.”
“Are you Gaius?” Merlin inquired.
“I am. How can I help you, my boy?”
“I’ve been looking for you.”
“Well, you’ve found me. Now are you going to continue wasting my time with pointless chit chat, or are you going to tell me what you need?”
“I don’t need anything, actually.”
Gaius snapped his book shut, mild irritation present when focused on Merlin. “Then why are you here?”
“Because my mother told me to be. Hullo, Gaius. I’m Merlin.”
“Merlin?” Gaius gasped. “Hunith’s boy?”
Merlin laughed, eyes crinkling as he gave a little wave. “Yeah.”
Gaius quickly made his way down the stairs, abandoning his book and taking off his reading glasses. He tossed both onto the table he passed, only slowing his pace once he reached Merlin.
Merlin found himself warmly wrapped in a pair of arms, the familiar smell of herbs and paste surrounding him. He inhaled deeply, his arms automatically wrapping around Gaius in return.
“I can’t believe…Merlin!”
“I can’t believe it either.”
“You’ve grown so tall! What are you doing here?”
Gaius pulled back, hands on Merlin’s shoulders and holding him at arm’s length.
“She’s all right?”
“She’s all right,” Merlin confirmed.
He peered into Merlin’s eyes. “And with Balinor?”
“Yeah. He’s still alive.”
“Oh, thank the gods for small miracles.” Gaius exhaled sharply, chuckling as he did. His smile faded, however, once he realised who was standing there. “If you’re Balinor’s son, then you should not be here.”
“It’s sort of a long story. But my mother wanted me to tell you,” Merlin reached out and gripped Gaius’ forearm. Gaius stared blankly back at Merlin. “She wanted me to tell you ‘thank you for the warning’. My father wouldn’t have made it out of Camelot alive if it wasn’t for you.”
Gaius shook his head, a gnarled hand patting Merlin’s shoulder. “I had to. It was the right thing to do. Uther can be blind in his grief, forget reason for the sake of his broken heart. I could not, in good conscience, allow Hunith to fall victim to that. Hunith is…”
Merlin nodded, acknowledging the unspoken word. Hunith never faulted Gaius for following Uther, had only felt sorrow when her brother was forced to choose between the man he loyally served and his family. When it came down to the wire, Gaius had still warned them, given them the time required to escape.
For Hunith, that was all that mattered.
“It’s dangerous here, Merlin,” Gaius said, pouring a steaming drink into a cup for Merlin. He nudged the cup towards Merlin once it was mostly full, silently urging him to take a sip.
“Herb tea,” Gaius supplied. “The best in my stores. Strengthens the heart and flushes the digestive tract. It’s very good for your health.”
Merlin took a sip and grimaced at the bitter taste. “Yeah. You can certainly taste it, too.”
Gaius swatted the back of his head. “Cheeky as ever, I see. How long will you be staying?”
“Depends, really. You wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?”
“Here, in Camelot? Are you mad? This is Uther’s territory.”
“I know! But we’re here for a reason, me and Will.”
“Will. The saints preserve us, you’ve dragged Will into this?”
“Him? He dragged me! He has changed though. Won’t you help us?”
“This is madness, Merlin. You cannot hope to hide under Uther’s nose, at least not for long.”
“I can certainly try. Father wants me to do something here, and as much as it pains me, I agree with him. I just need a place to stay for a few weeks. And possibly a job, for appearance’s sake.”
Fiddling with his cup of tea, Gaius sighed. “I suppose if I don’t offer you something, you’ll simply commit some idiotic mistake, possibly applying for a position much more dangerous than the one with me. Very well, I am in need of an assistant. But no slacking, and I expect you to make your deliveries on time.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you, Gaius.”
“Good.” Gaius took another sip of tea, hiding a smile behind the cup.
Merlin braved another sip. Nope, still tasted the same. “I noticed something on my way in here.”
“Yes, my boy?”
“Where are all the soldiers? I only ran into a few on my way here.”
“The scarcity of soldiers is not your concern, Merlin, as much as you believe otherwise. But I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. A majority of the soldiers have been dispatched across Camelot, to look for something. Rumour has it there’s a weapon of unparalleled power out there, with strength enough to bring down Camelot.”
“A weapon?” Merlin bit at this thumb. “How come I’ve never heard of it?”
“No one’s seen this weapon, or even knows where it’s hidden. Uther’s hoping to find it before someone else does. He’s concerned about the death of his people at the hands of sorcerers. What the weapon does, nobody knows. But if such a weapon does exist, it would be best kept out of the hands of those who would abuse it. Can you imagine the damage such a weapon would cause?” Merlin shook his head. “No. It’s better to leave such things alone.”
Merlin’s days took on a pattern: delivering medicine for Gaius in the mornings, exploring Camelot in the evenings and every few days, meeting with Arthur in secret to spar. Will returned to Ealdor a week ago, taking Merlin’s latest missive to Balinor. It was forgivable then that Merlin started in surprise when he ran into Will in the courtyard.
“Will!” Merlin exclaimed, completely surprised to see him in Pendragon soldier attire. “What are you doing here?”
“You told your father there was a scarcity of soldiers in Camelot, didn’t you?”
“Well, yes. Still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”
“I’m a soldier now. Of Camelot, if you can believe it. I have to wear this stinking uniform with its obnoxious colour. It’s horrible.”
“You’re a soldier?” Merlin asked, laughing.
“Yeah. Insult me now, will you? Anyway, we’ve got a few men in Valiant’s group, and some in training to be in Uther’s. The prince, on the other hand, seems to have a higher standard on what his soldiers should be like. We haven’t managed to get one man in. They're being rejected in the preliminary round, so no one's caught a glimpse of him yet.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea though? What if Uther finds out?”
“He won’t. The others are under strict orders not to use magic. And a few of us can’t, so it’s not really an issue. The real issue though, is that we can’t get anyone into his contingent of knights. It’s a pity. Soldiers hardly know what’s going on. We really need someone on the inside, Merlin.”
“It’s too dangerous, Will.”
“What about your uncle, Gaius? Isn’t he the personal physician to the king? Surely he’ll know what’s going on.”
“Can’t ask that of him. He’s already risking enough by letting me stay there.”
“I don’t understand your family,” Will lowered his voice, casting wary looks at the people passing by. “He was traitor to you, following that bloodthirsty king. And now you just forgive him?”
“It wasn’t like that. You don’t understand.” Gaius had risked enough. Merlin’s family understood that, why couldn’t Will?
“You’re right I don’t understand.” Will shifted impatiently, shrugging his shoulders to readjust the fit of his shirt. “Look, let’s not talk about that right now. We still have to find the Pendragon Prince.”
Relieved at the subject change, Merlin quickly offered, “Gaius says he’s disappeared for a few hours each day, and no one knows where he’s gone off to.”
“You think he’s up to something?”
“Guess it’s our job to find out then.”
“Do you not have a home?” Arthur asked between panting breaths, both he and Merlin lying side by side in the clearing they’d come to claim as theirs. The tree canopy above filtered most of the sun rays, letting a gentle sprinkling of light through. It was quiet, peaceful, with only their sounds disturbing the serenity of their place. It was so peaceful there that Merlin sometimes forgot why exactly he stayed in Camelot.
“What? Of course I do. Why do you ask?”
“You’ve never invited me over.” Arthur shuffled his feet at that, looking as uncomfortable as Merlin felt by the question.
“There was just never any chance to.” He bit the corner of his bottom lip, pretty sure that telling Arthur where he lived was a stupid thing to do. “Besides, I doubt you’d like staying at my house anyway. You’d have to milk goats and tend the fields if you’re going to be staying. Maybe even muck out the chicken stall.”
Arthur took a moment to consider that, before replying flatly, “Sounds like fun.”
“Liar,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur cleared his throat. “Yes, well. I’m not exactly built for those types of chores. Give me a sword and a shield any day, and I’ll show you how it’s conquered.”
“I’m sure you would,” Merlin laughed softly, bending his elbow and shoving his arm into Arthur’s. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Where do you live?”
Arthur quickly sat up, resting his forearm on a bent knee. He didn’t respond for some time and Merlin felt it appropriate to dig a finger or two into Arthur’s side. Arthur swatted his hand away. “It’s not too far from here. It’s a beautiful c- …home, and I wouldn’t trade it for another.”
With his eyes downcast and tearing at blades of grass with his fingers, Merlin asked, “Then why do you sound so unhappy?”
“I don’t know.” Merlin turned on his side, the better to watch Arthur’s profile as he spoke. “It’s lonely, I suppose. I have a…step-brother of sorts. And someone like a sister. We haven’t been as close as we used to be. And Father’s busy with his duties. I don’t blame him. If I were in his position, I’d work just as hard. That’s what it all comes down to. Duty.”
Merlin felt his heart tug then, watching the bright sunlight frame Arthur’s head, listening to him speak of what was undoubtedly his childhood. Merlin wasn’t very popular with the other kids but at least he’d had Will. It sounded like Arthur had had no one.
“What about your mother?”
Abruptly, Arthur stood, dusting off the seat of his pants before offering a hand to pull Merlin up. “And why would I be discussing that with you? I hardly know you, Merlin. Besides, it’s almost dusk. We should head back. Shall we meet again? Say, mid-day after tomorrow?”
Merlin knew a misdirecting tactic when he saw it. But all he did was nod, and promise, “All right. I’ll be here in two days.”
“Great. Let’s head off then.” Arthur gathered his swords, vambrace and black gloves from where he’d toss them into a pile, steps hurrying to catch up with Merlin where he’d set off down the road already. “I meant to ask,” he said as he tugged on one of his gloves, drawing level with Merlin, “you wouldn’t happen to see a necklace on the day I first rescued you, did you, Merlin?”
Merlin’s steps faltered slightly at the inquiry. “Did you lose one?” Both of Merlin’s hands slipped into his pockets, fingers brushing against the hard surface of the stone.
Arthur’s gloved hand rose to his own collar, only to fall back to his side even before it reached halfway. “I’ve been back to the lake a few times, but I haven’t found it. I fear it’s lost to me.”
“Was it important then?” Merlin asked, side glancing at Arthur.
“I…yes,” Arthur admitted after awhile. His voice dropped in volume, a hint of longing slipping into his words. “It was my mother’s.”
“Your mother’s?” Merlin was aware that a note of hysteria was creeping into his voice. “Are you sure? Did she buy it from someone else? A peddler, maybe?”
“My mother did not buy her jewellery from peddlers,” Arthur announced pompously, only to immediately deflate. “It was a gift. One she treasured. When she…left,” died, Merlin provided mentally, “father had it sealed away in her chambers. I broke in.” Arthur lifted his chin, as if daring Merlin to berate him for a boy’s wish to be closer to his mother. “And took it, along with this ring.”
Merlin wasn’t sure why Arthur was telling him this, since they’d never shared such personal stories before. And judging from Arthur’s look, he didn’t know why he was telling Merlin about this either.
Arthur glanced down at the silver piece wrapped around his forefinger. “Matron from the kitchens told me that mother wore it on the same finger of her other hand.”
“She did,” Merlin whispered, feeling his alarm build and all kinds of stupid for not recognizing it earlier. Arthur, this man beside him was Arthur bloody Pendragon and he’d been canoodling with the enemy all this time. He had been hunting Uther's son down and failing, when all along, the man had been right beside him.
Beyond the sudden rush of panic, Merlin wasn’t sure how to feel about this.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Merlin swallowed. “I have to go. I have to…” He took off, heart racing and ignoring Arthur’s calls.