“The Prince, Will! The Prince!” Merlin moaned, collapsing dramatically on the hard and lumpy mattress the inn provided.
“Could be worse. He could be Uther.” The humour fled Will’s eyes. He threw the shirt he was mending onto the table. “You could have told me, Merlin, that you were having secret meetings with him.”
“I know! I’m sorry, all right? I didn’t know he was a Pendragon.”
“Would that have made a difference?”
“Of course it would! You know it would!” Merlin dug the heels of his palms against closed eyes, feeling the frustration and regret rise all over again. He thought he’d found another friend in Arthur, a different kind of friend. Being with Arthur was unlike being with anyone else. It was exasperating listening to Arthur go on at times but their time together was always charged but easy, and Merlin already missed it. For once in his life, he'd almost felt like he'd belonged.
Now it was over.
Merlin sighed. “The necklace. All this over a necklace.”
“I take it he doesn’t know how important it is.”
“He knows it belonged to his mother.” If Merlin learned anything from the time he spent with Arthur, that fact alone made the necklace priceless to the prince. Merlin dropped his arms onto the bed. “This is ridiculous,” he told the ceiling and indirectly, Will. “We’ve found the prince and determined the underground passageways into Camelot are still serviceable. Let’s just go home.”
“Sorry. Can’t. We still need to investigate the state of Uther’s army. Why don’t you just ask your new friend?”
“Right. Perfect. Just ask him if he’ll tell me secrets about his dad’s army, not that I should know he has an army.”
“Guess that does put a damper on things. Sounds like what you need, my friend, is an ‘in’. Lucky for you, I’ve got just the plan,” Will announced with unholy relish.
Merlin could do nothing but groan.
Merlin tilted his head and peered through the doorway. He looked around to make sure that no one else was in the counsel room. Uther had been in there earlier, drafting acquisition plans and Merlin wanted to see what was written on those documents.
Following previous patterns, Merlin knew the break Uther called would be short. He didn’t have much time.
“What are you doing here?” Came a voice from behind him.
Merlin twirled quickly, flattening against the door and inadvertently forcing it open.
“Nothing!” He blurted. “Well, not nothing,” he amended once he saw the dusky-skinned woman, eyeing him with suspicion. “I was just looking for,” he glanced down at the sheets she was carrying in her arms. “Arthur!” He supplied, eyes coming back up. “I was looking for Prince Arthur.”
“Arthur?” She repeated, when her eyes lit with sympathy and understanding. “I recognise you. You’re looking for Prince Arthur? Then you must be the new manservant, Merlin.”
“Yeah,” Merlin nodded tightly, scratching at his jaw line. “That’s definitely me. How’d you know?”
“Oh! Well, I was there. I saw what you did. It was amazing, how you stood up to those bandits and saved the prince from being kidnapped.”
“It was nothing, really.” Considering the ‘bandits’ had been paid to make Merlin look good, he didn’t feel very comfortable accepting praise from this woman. Merlin swore in his mind that he would never follow another one of Will’s plans again.
“No, you shouldn’t be so modest! Everyone saw, even the King! When Prince Arthur fell over that bucket, I thought he was done for. It was odd. I didn’t even see it there before he tripped over it. It’s a good thing you were around. Funny. You don’t seem like the burly, manly type.”
“I mean, you are very strong, obviously,” the woman backtracked, ducking her head. “And you did manage to save the prince. You’re just not very,” she paused, searching for the right word, “big.”
“I have big ears, does that count?”
Gwen laughed, nodding that yes, it did count.
“I’m Guinevere but you can call me Gwen.” She shifted her burden to one arm, offering a hand for Merlin to shake. “I’m the Lady Morgana’s maid.”
“Yes, I know,” she laughed. “A pleasure to meet you. If you’re looking for Prince Arthur, he’s on the training field. Come, I’ll show you how to get there.”
Gwen turned, leading the way. Merlin had no choice but to follow, casting a last look at the counsel room.
Will returned from visiting Ealdor five days later bearing food stores, newly mended clothes, and Merlin’s father.
“I hear you’ve done well for yourself, son,” Balinor said, the moment he caught sight of Merlin, “the prince’s personal manservant.”
Merlin wanted to sink into the floor when his cheeks heated, his father’s smile and genuine pride making him more embarrassed than when he’d received praise from Gwen. “Father, you know it was a set up.”
“Yes, Will told me. But had they been real, I know you would have still made me proud.”
“Will informs me that you’re close to the prince.” They’d retreated to the inn outside of Camelot, Balinor’s face too memorable to be seen inside the castle walls.
“Will’s got a big mouth.” With a sheepish look on his face, Merlin ducked his head. “I didn’t know he was the prince.”
“That’s probably to your benefit. I imagine he enjoyed the novelty of being free of expectations. Now that you’ve saved his life, he’ll trust you even more.”
Making a non-committal sound, Merlin didn’t tell his father that he’d saved Arthur’s life before.
“Merlin. This is a difficult situation and I wouldn’t ask this of you if it wasn’t important.”
“You want me to spy on the Pendragons.”
“Yes.” Balinor leaned back in his chair, hands spread wide on the table. “I would not ask you to endanger yourself more than necessary, but my feelings tell me that you should be by Arthur’s side.” Balinor watched Merlin shift. “You don’t agree?”
“It’s not that. There’s something wrong with my magic.” Balinor nodded, a silent bid for Merlin to continue. “It’s almost uncontrollable when I’m around Ar- the Pendragon Prince.”
Balinor rubbed at his chin, watching Merlin with an odd, knowing expression. “You shouldn’t fear it. Perhaps your core is growing again. Start small and work your way up to complex spells. Your magic will balance itself soon enough. Is that the only problem?”
“Yes.” Merlin was tired of seeing his brethren executed for committing minor offences like healing spells and laying irrigation paths, spells normally cast to improve the way of life. Someone had to stop Uther and if it required him spying on Arthur Pendragon, he would do it. “Yes. All right.”
“Good. Now fetch Gaius for me, son. I have things to discuss with him.”
Merlin was immediately introduced at court as the Prince’s personal manservant. No mention was made that Merlin, in fact, had saved the prince’s life.
It wasn’t until Merlin asked around for help with his daily chores that he realised he was the only one assigned to Arthur at all, an honour and a privilege if the way the others went about explaining it was anything to go by.
Arthur wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t trust anyone.
He explored Arthur’s chambers, making note to check the view of the window from the outside. The last thing he needed was for someone to see him casting magic as they passed below. Finding out where the rest of Arthur’s necessities were stored was more of a trial and error hunt.
Finding out where Arthur stored his map and state documents was definitely much easier.
It turned out that Gwen was free the next day. She offered to give Merlin a tour of the castle, to acquaint him with the service passageways. He quickly accepted.
They were nearing the end of the tour with Uther’s throne room the last to be explored. Gwen cautioned Merlin from ever sitting on Uther’s throne, and pointed out the seats belonging to Arthur and Morgana. The most interesting piece, however, was the well-crafted sword curiously embedded into the floor.
Merlin’s smile held admiration as he bent down to read the inscription on the sword. “Take me up.” He tilted his head, viewing the other side. “Cast me away.”
“It’s odd, isn’t it?” Gwen bent down, running her finger along the blade. “It’s been here for as long as I can remember.”
“No one’s ever tried to move it?” Merlin inquired, expression serene as his hand wrapped naturally around the hilt.
“No one’s been able to move that sword for years,” Gwen stated. Then hesitantly, “did it just move?”
Merlin snatched his hand back, rubbing it against his thigh as he gave the sword an apprehensive look.
“I dunno. I didn’t feel it move.”
Gwen hummed. “I’m sure it was just my imagination. Are you ready? We only have one more stop.”
“And this is my Lady Morgana,” Gwen concluded as she introduced Merlin to Morgana. She stood between them in the hallway, the flowers they’d just picked still clutched in her hands.
“So you’re Arthur’s new whip boy.” The beautiful woman in front of him lifted her chin, fixing him with a stern look.
“No matter. Just be careful about--”
“Morgana.” Arthur drew out the vowels in her name, approaching their group with long strides. “What exactly are you telling Merlin?”
“Only the truth, Arthur. What’s the matter? Afraid he won’t worship the ground you walk on anymore if he knew the real you?”
Arthur approached them, eyes moving from Merlin to Morgana. His fingers flicked in a move clearly meant as a dismissal for his manservant. Merlin, appearing relieved by the dismissal, waved haphazardly and left.
When Morgana only lifted her chin higher at his upraised eyebrows, Arthur crossed his arms. “If you’d be so kind, please refrain from scaring away my manservant. I haven’t broken him in yet.”
“Clearly you haven’t,” Morgana replied. “He’s not picked up the etiquettes of court.” Though her words were a criticism, the sudden warmth in her voice claimed otherwise.
It was a close call, but Arthur managed to keep from rolling his eyes. “I’m well aware. I lament the shame my household will suffer the more Merlin’s about.”
“He didn’t even bow to you. That must be a first.”
“It certainly won’t be the last,” Arthur muttered. Then louder, “He hasn’t the benefit of living at court all his life. Like you. Give him time. He’ll learn.”
“Yes, well, don’t you dare torture him like you did the last one, Arthur Pendragon. If I hear even the smallest hint of the words ‘moving target’, you’ll regret it.” Gwen shifted behind her mistress, though her expression was nowhere near as distressed as the first time she’d heard them bicker.
“Oh? And just what exactly will you do?”
“Don’t forget, Arthur. You aren’t the only one skilled at knife work. Torture him, and you’ll require a hat to keep your hairless head warm during the winter.” And in a swirl of skirts, Morgana left.
After leaving Arthur and Morgana to hash it out, Merlin made it down the first corridor before he literally ran into a person strolling from the opposite direction. They collided- or more accurately, Merlin felt as if he’d run into a brick wall.
“Watch your step, boy.”
He peered at the stranger, hand rubbing at his chest where his bruised lungs were still gasping for air. A crooked nose was the most prominent feature on the man’s face. “I’ve a name, you know. Merlin.”
“Ah,” the irritating man drawled, voice slick with amusement. “So you’re the prince’s new toy. Not much of one from the look of you.”
“Why’s everyone saying that today?” Merlin asked with exasperation.
The man cocked his head, eyebrows tilted as he studied Merlin. “I see you’re different from the last one. Feisty. Let’s hope you last longer than he did.”
He walked away, only to run into Arthur, who stared first at Merlin and then him.
“Knight Valiant,” Arthur acknowledged, with hidden distaste. Merlin wasn’t sure how he knew it was there, since Arthur wasn’t visibly betraying it on his face.
“Prince Arthur. Fancy seeing you here. I hope your day’s been fruitful.”
“It will be,” Arthur answered tightly.
“Then I should be off, to make sure mine is just as useful. I trust I’ll see you at dinner tonight? It would be a shame not to have your company at your father’s table. I’m sure he has much to say on your methods in running his kingdom.”
“Wouldn’t dream of missing it,” Arthur delivered flatly.
Valiant chuckled and left. Arthur made his way over to Merlin.
“Creep,” Merlin muttered.
The corner of Arthur’s lips twitched at that, eyes taking on a satisfied look though he was quick to hide it. “I’ll thank you not to criticize your superiors, Merlin. How would you like to spend a day in the stocks just for that?”
“I’ll pass, thanks. Who’s that then?”
“Knight Valiant.” Arthur waved curled fingers at where Valiant disappeared. “He’s one of father’s more…vigorous knights.” His look darkened. “Perhaps too vigorous. Keep your head down and steer clear of him. First Morgana and now Valiant. Clearly, I’m not keeping you busy enough.”
“What? No! You’ve kept me plenty busy!”
“You’ll start by polishing my sword, mending my clothes, getting rid of the dust bunnies congregating and procreating beneath my bed, for Christ’s sakes, have you looked underneath my bed lately?”
“When I shoved your soiled sheets under there, yeah. Get rid of your own dust bunnies!”
“Excuse me but who’s the prince here? Wait, my sheets? Are you saying my soiled sheets have been under there this whole time? Merlin!”
Only two nights later found Merlin in the very depths of the castle, standing on the ledge with a torch in his hand.
“Um. Excuse me? Do you think you could keep it down a little? I’m trying to sleep up there and Arthur isn’t all that understanding if I show up hours late for my shift. So do you mind keeping it down, at least until the sun’s been up for a bit? And could you please call someone else’s name? You’re sort of wearing mine out. Thanks. ‘ppreciate it,” was what Merlin originally planned to say. Upon entering the cave, however, he realised what kind of creature was calling his name. It was, most definitely, the last thing he expected to see in Camelot.
“A dragon? What’s a dragon doing in Camelot?”
“Ah,” the dragon said, nodding his head in amusement as his giant claws clacked against the stone. “That is the question of the hour, is it not? However you may look at it, it has no concise answer. What is more important is that the young warlock has found his way onto the right path. Good, good. I had begun to despair of you completing your task in this lifetime.”
“What do you mean, this lifetime? This is the only lifetime I have!”
“If that is what you choose to believe.” The dragon shifted on the rock, a few stones crumbling to fall into the darkness below. “None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin, and it becomes impatient when it is thwarted time and again. It is time to let it resume its course.”
“Oh no. You’re that kind of dragon, aren’t you?”
“Destiny awaits, young warlock. Shall we begin?”
Merlin glanced up from the herbs he was crushing when Gwen came through the door.
“Gwen!” He dropped the bar-shaped pestle next to the mortar and swiped his hands on his pants as he made his way over to Gwen.
“Is Gaius here?”
“He went to deliver some medicine. Did you need something?” Merlin grew concerned. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s not for me. It’s Morgana. She’s having nightmares again.”
“Morgana? Are they bad?”
“They went away for awhile but now they’ve started up again. Gaius says they’re a manifestation of her subconscious fears. I don’t know, Merlin. I can’t see anything in her life she would fear this much.”
“No kidding. Living in the lap of luxury, having someone competent wait on you hand and foot.”
“Morgana’s not like that, you should know.”
“Yes. Not everyone has a prat like me,” Merlin joked.
“It’s an honour, remember?” Gwen teased lightly.
“So what’s this medicine called, maybe Gaius has some on his shelves.” He made his way over to the medicine cabinets, hands already riffling through the bottles.
“Something to suppress her dreams. I think it’s called Passing Flower.”
Merlin froze, fingers resting on a random bottle and carefully not looking at Gwen when he asked again. “Passiflora? That’s what he’s giving her, Passiflora?”
“Yes! Do you know if he has any left? She’s run out and I don’t think she could sleep without it.”
Merlin withdrew a glass bottle from the back of the shelf.
“That’s it!” Gwen exclaimed, accepting the green bottle. “Thank you, Merlin. Morgana’s retiring early tonight. All the excitement from today, you know.”
“I hope she feels better soon.”
“Thank you, Merlin. I’ll tell Morgana you asked after her.” She gave him a smile before heading out the door.
That night, Merlin waited until dinner was almost over before bringing up Morgana. They sat across from each other, bowls of soup in front of them.
“You never told me Morgana was a seer.” Merlin swirled his soup about and watched Gaius closely for his reaction.
Gaius stilled and sighed before laying his spoon on the table. “Who told you that, Merlin?”
“Gwen. Not in those words, of course. She was in here earlier, asking for medicine for Morgana. But you never told Morgana she’s a seer, did you? Why not?”
“You don’t understand, Merlin. Morgana is Uther’s ward and by default, is in a far more dangerous situation than even you can comprehend. To tell her such a thing would only make it more difficult.”
“She’s probably scared out of her mind, not knowing what’s happening to her. Dreaming about chaos, growing more dependent on your medicine as time passes. Gaius, you need to stop giving her Passiflora.”
“Morgana is my patient and I will treat her to the best of my abilities. Do not nose in where you’re not needed.”
“Maybe on a weaker seer the Passiflora would work. If it’s not working by now then she’s too strong for it. It could be making her dreams worse.”
“And you know this for sure?”
Merlin’s eyes fell, scooping a spoonful of soup and letting it splash back down. “No. But I know what it feels like to fear your magic, to not know what you’re capable of. You’ve got to tell her, Gaius. She can’t go on like this forever.”
“No, she can’t. But now is not the time, Merlin. You leave it alone, do you hear me? There’s no need to stir up a hornet’s nest. Do I have your word?”
Merlin couldn’t afford Morgana stumbling onto his secrets, no matter how indirectly she did it. “I won't tell say anything but you should know that this is wrong.”
“That’s all I can ask for, I suppose. And please pass the salt. Obviously your cooking isn’t any better than mine.”
A chuckle broke out of Merlin as he passed the seasoning.
Arthur’s half eaten dinner sat at the edge of the table, forgotten in favour of the briefing he was receiving from Leon, one of his father’s more trusted knights. The tall, hirsute man was normally quiet, efficient, and very loyal. Sometimes, too loyal, Arthur thought. When he became king, hopefully a very long way off, he wanted his knights to question him when he danced over that line drawn for justice.
“Activities to the north have been increasing, sire.” Leon laid a few scrolls down on the table, next to the map already spread there.
“Yes, I can see that.” Arthur glanced down at the map, the hills and valleys of Camelot caught on it with marks and notations of where skirmishes had occurred, or where sightings of possible magical factions had last been noticed. They were up to something. He didn’t know what exactly but the sudden influx in activity was becoming much more prominent. If it continued at this rate…
“And these are all the known locations?” Arthur traced the pad of his fingers along the slanted boxes sketched onto the map.
“Yes, sire. Those of the Dragonlords and those of Alvarr’s men. The Druids have been quiet as of late. But there’s been a surge of activity in the last few days. I’m uncertain if it’s due to their political activities of the past… Their actions suggest they are looking for something, sire.” Leon paused. “Rumour has it that they’ve lost one of their own, someone vital to their group. My men weren’t able to find out anymore than that.”
“I see.” Arthur absentmindedly took the offered water goblet from Merlin, registering Merlin’s presence at his shoulder but well used to his proximity by now not to be bothered by it. “Post sentries here and here,” Arthur ordered, pointing at two perpendicular spots on the map. From the pattern of sweeps that the Druids were doing, it would only be a matter of time before they began searching there. Perhaps if one of his men could apprehend one of the Druids, they could interrogate him for information.
He’d been aware that Ealdor was a favoured base for the Dragonlords for some time, though without proof of the lair’s occupation by Balinor, Arthur had never seen any reason to stir up a hornet’s nest. However, as any commander well knew, the best defence was always to strike first. Maybe it was time he took his campaign to Ealdor.
“Inform the men to be vigilant, and to make the preparations necessary for transport. At my word, they should be ready to move at a moment’s notice. We cannot allow the situation to escalate beyond our control. Understood?” Arthur tapped his curled knuckles onto the table, leaning back into his seat and taking a deep swallow from the goblet in his hand. Merlin quickly topped off the goblet with more water when Arthur set it on the arm of his chair, fingers still curled around the stem. “And if you can, quietly and discreetly find out what the Druids are after. Maybe we can find it first.”
“Understood, sire,” the knight said, gathering the paperwork and leaving the map and relevant papers for Arthur before taking his leave.
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, mostly tuning out the work that Merlin had engaged himself with in the background, until hands settled on his shoulders. Thumbs dug into the smooth skin between his neck and shoulders, ruthlessly assaulting the tension there and causing Arthur’s head to drop back onto the chair back, eyes sliding closed as an embarrassing groan slipped through his parted lips.
“Do you want me to look into it?” Merlin asked, thumb digging in, right there, oh God just right, compelling Arthur to let out another groan. If only Merlin was half as competent at cleaning his rooms as he was in slaying his tension spots.
“Quite possibly, although not yet. Let my knights do their jobs, Merlin. That’s what they’re there for. Just as you’re here to polish my sword and muck out my stables.”
“Yeah, such a coveted job, to be sure. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else, sire.”
“Yes. You keep to that. And maybe one day, I’ll even allow you solstice leave.”
Arthur caught Merlin’s wrist, thumb stroking lightly at the skin there before releasing it. He dropped his head sideways until a series of satisfying cracks sounded in the room, the last of which was twice as loud as the first.
“All right!” Arthur got up, shuffling his hair and then stretching his fingers towards the ceiling. “Put those maps away, will you Merlin? I’ve some training to do,” Arthur ordered as he walked out of his chambers.
Merlin’s hand landed on the map, his thumb brushing against the territory known as the habitat of the giant scorpion-like Serkets. “Yes, Arthur.”
Druids. Aglain’s camp. Missing?
Be careful. P. sent reinforcements.
It was written on a tiny slip of paper that Will had removed from the potion bottle Merlin passed him, along with a thrice folded miniature map of what Will could make out as the borders of Camelot near Ealdor. On it, there were several distinct marks of what Will can only deduce were possible sentry soldier points.
“From Gaius,” Merlin had said. “For your bruises during training. Douse it, but be sure you read the label thoroughly before applying. You might mistake it for some other medicine.”
Will thanked him, took the bottle with practiced absentmindedness.
And now it looked like he had a trip to make to Ealdor .
“Have you heard?” Morgana said, one day while they were strolling through the fields just beyond Camelot’s walls. Gaius had needed some plants and herbs, and when Gwen had mentioned that Morgana was going for a walk and said, “I’m coming too, so would you like to come along? For the company I mean, not that Morgana isn’t good company,” Merlin had snatched a basket and jumped at the chance.
It was good to be with nature again.
He just needed to remember that leaves didn’t belong in his pocket, the unlucky green fated to be sat on and mashed into a tattered, mushy existence by his carelessness.
“Heard what, Morgana?” Gwen asked. Merlin tossed another leafy branch into his basket, listening with half an ear.
“It’s amusing, to say the least. All of Valiant’s efforts in locating the Druid camps have failed. Every time his men arrive at the camps, everyone’s already evacuated. They even left fruit baskets behind for the soldiers! It’s as if someone warned them he was coming. The man’s furious. And Uther’s not happy with him at all, if you can believe that. No one ever thought that the treasured knight of Uther’s, his champion in the fight against magic, would fail so spectacularly.”
Yes. Merlin had heard enough in the past week of how Valiant was a favourite of Uther’s due to his brutal hunting and execution of sorcerers and witches, and of the speculation that Valiant may even replace Arthur as the favoured heir. He still wasn’t sure what Uther saw in Valiant.
From what Balinor implied at their last meeting, it wouldn’t surprise Merlin at all if Valiant was only accusing those who were standing in his way to the top with practicing magic.
Thank the gods he hadn’t fingered Arthur or Morgana with the accusation yet. Merlin didn’t want to contemplate what Uther would do.
“Really? That’s interesting.” Merlin’s eyes shifted. “Maybe they got tired of the scenery. Or maybe they’re looking for better hunting grounds. Animals can become scarce this time of year.”
“Change of scenery? They’re Druids, Merlin,” Gwen reminded him, shaking her head. “They’re nomadic, but no one moves six times in one year. It’s not logical. No, there has to be something else.”
Merlin crouched on the ground, hiding his face from them and perfecting the nonchalance in his appearance as he sifted through some herbs. “I don’t think so.”
Morgana turned to Gwen. “What do you think, Gwen?”
“I think, milady, it sounds like they had prior warning.”
Morgana fixed her with a proud look. “That’s also what I believe.”
In his hand, the herbs were crushed after all.
“People have been talking about a weapon,” Merlin told the dragon during one of his visits. “Do you know anything about it?”
“I see they are already looking for it. It appears that destiny waits for no man. This weapon. Has Uther sent men to look for it?”
“Yes. But they’re not having much luck. What does it do?”
“This weapon, in the wrong hands, would have the power to destroy Camelot.”
“Yeah, Gaius mentioned something like that. I didn’t think it was that serious though.”
The dragon folded his wings along his back. “Gaius may be old but he still knows very little.”
“He’s certainly more straightforward than you are.”
“Then shall I be more straightforward? It is your responsibility to neutralise it. But of course, you cannot do this alone.”
Merlin was afraid of that. “Right. Arthur.”
“Like two sides of a coin, you two share a single destiny. You and Arthur are one, and though you may not see it now, the irrefutable truth is,” the dragon shifted on his perch, pointing a claw at Merlin, “without you, Arthur cannot survive.”
The dragon received a sceptical look. “I highly doubt that. Arthur’s lived this long without me, what makes you think he can’t survive after I leave?”
The dragon chuckled ominously. “Why indeed, young warlock. Why indeed.”
Merlin grumbled, frustrated as always by the dragons cryptic nature. “Everything these days can destroy Camelot.”
“The fault lies, young warlock, in your king.”
“Uther isn’t my king,” Merlin was quick to correct.
“Ah, yes. Only Arthur is. In that, we are the same.”
The former soldier had barely been back a day when Arthur tried to recruit him.
“Surely you’ll be joining my men again, won’t you, Lancelot? I could use a few good men with your skills.”
Lancelot didn’t bother to point out that last time, he hadn’t been a part of Arthur’s men but Uther’s. “I would be honoured, sire, to stay for as long as you’ll have me.” Arthur grinned brightly at him, proud and benevolent, and Lancelot felt as if he’d come home again.
“Excellent.” Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulders, leading him with it. They turned towards the direction Arthur came from, Lancelot catching sight of a man sitting in the middle of the training field, busy wrapping a red strip of cloth around his upper arm. Lancelot glanced back at the torn shirt Arthur was wearing, curiously of the same shade as the strip, and smiled. “Come. I want you to meet someone.”
Arthur was in a good mood, had been since last night. This, according to Merlin, only made his job that much easier. He didn’t know what set Arthur off but he hoped it lasted through the week.
His father had been right. The more he practiced his magic, the more he gained back the control he’d lost. He also discovered that practicing magic when Arthur was nearby tended to augment the spell, sometimes exponentially.
He wasn’t sure what to make of that.
If close proximity yielded such results, Merlin was scared to think what casting while touching Arthur would do.
“Merlin? I want you to meet someone,” Arthur called, as Merlin tended his wound. Gaius wasn’t there, which meant that his expertise wasn’t either, so Merlin made do. Of course, making do involved Arthur tearing up strips of his shirt, Merlin’s initial objections falling on deaf ears.
Unfair at the very least, as Merlin would be the one to sew it back up.
Then again, Merlin wouldn’t need to sew anything if Arthur would just restrain himself during their weekly spars.
“Can they hold a moment? I’ve still got another strip to go.”
“No, Merlin, this cannot wait. You do realise that you can’t tell the Prince of Camelot to wait on you, hm?” The eyebrows raised in condescension at Merlin didn’t prompt him to move any faster, though the hand tugging his elbow up did. “There’s a hierarchy in place for a reason. Now, come on. Buck up and meet this person. I’m sure you won’t regret it.”
Merlin followed obediently for once, not bothering to mention that his wrist was still being held captive in Arthur’s hand.
“He’s a brilliant soldier. He would make a fine knight, if he were of noble blood. Loyal to a fault. He’s the one who taught me how to handle a sword when I was very little. He’s a good sort. I’m sure you’ll get on. And when I’m on border patrol, he’ll be the one to look after you. Do you understand?”
Merlin hummed his assent, fond eyes fixed on the back of Arthur’s head. “Won’t I be coming with you on patrols?”
“Only sometimes. It depends on how dangerous the territory is. You certainly won’t be coming with me when we patrol near Cendred’s land.”
Merlin couldn’t help but grin at the irony in that.
The fondness disappeared once he found himself face to face with someone he never thought he’d meet again.
“Lancelot, come. I want you to meet Merlin.” Arthur grinned at them both, waving Lancelot closer.
“Hullo,” Merlin greeted after the initial shock, trying to hide his growing alarm. It’s possible, he tried to remind himself, that time and distance would erase his face from Lancelot’s memories. He hoped that this man, one of Arthur’s most trusted soldiers, would not remember him.
Lancelot’s lips closed and parted, surprise evident on his face. “Your high-”
“I’m Merlin,” he interrupted.
Lancelot continued to stare, eyes penetrating for such a long time that Merlin began to fear the game was up.
Arthur glanced between them, hands on his hips. “Do you two know each other?”
Lancelot slowly shook his head, and the white haze around Merlin’s vision started to fade. A smile teased at Lancelot’s lips when he returned Merlin’s greeting. “It’s an honour to meet you, Merlin. Are you one of Arthur’s soldiers?”
Arthur patted Merlin’s back, too hard to be a friendly gesture.
“Of course not. Merlin’s the worst manservant you could be inflicted with. But also the most loyal.” The hand travelled back towards his shoulder, firmly squeezing it. “He saved my life more times than I can count. We’ll need to toughen him up. Can I count on your help for this?”
“Of course, sire,” Lancelot acquiesced. “I would be honoured,” Lancelot paused after a moment, a strange look crossing his features, “to be trusted with this task.”
“Good,” Arthur grinned, satisfied.
Tears and ash hindered Lancelot’s vision, clinging stubbornly to his face. Quick swipes from his sleeve did nothing but smear them even more. He fought his way towards the King’s Hall and tried not to look at the assorted ravages of battle that lay on the floor around him. Pieces of corpses. Parts belonging to young boys, some barely older than sixteen, forced to fight a war nobody wanted.
The tears running down his face weren’t only from the compassion he felt for the fate of the dead and anger at the waste of life, but from the ash escaping the raging fires along the hallway. There were only soldiers now. Most of the servants had been evacuated hours before when the castle had first been breached. Only soldiers remained now, ones Lancelot struck down until he reached the doorway, Gawain close on his heels.
He turned and nodded to Gawain, not saying a word as his gauntlet fist shot out to slam on the door.
“Surrender!” Gawain called out, “Surrender in the name of Lord Uther!” Lancelot followed suit, sweeping the room left to right and slowing to a stop near the front of the chambers. A hooded boy stood there, no less than eight but no more than ten, and certainly not old enough to be here.
Against his training, Lancelot lowered his sword and approached the boy. When he was halfway there he saw another row of children, huddled together along the walls. To Lancelot’s eye, the way the children sat had nothing to do with fear, and everything with remaining close to the first child.
The children glanced between Lancelot and the boy. He had his back towards Lancelot and Gawain, green cloak fastened over his shoulders, though the material made it clear that this child was no peasant.
“You need to leave,” Lancelot said in a commanding voice. He hoped that fear would drive the children to flee. He couldn’t be seen leading the children out, not when he was a soldier for the opposing side, but nor could he take their deaths upon his conscience.
A hiss came from his right, from Gawain. For a moment, he wasn’t sure if the noise stemmed from Gawain’s disapproval of Lancelot or towards the children’s inactivity. It didn’t matter. Lancelot would not allow anyone to slaughter these kids.
“The commander’s right behind us,” Gawain warned, eyes pinpointing potential threats in the room. “He’ll execute them all.” Some of the tension left Lancelot. Gawain agreed with him.
“You need to leave now,” he repeated. The boy turned slowly, revealing the exquisitely etched sword in his right hand. Five foot long, the blade was taller than the boy. Prominent ears were the next thing he noticed about him, followed by the golden eyes.
“Sorcerer!” Gawain accused, making no move to approach him. Lancelot took a step back, having seen first hand the destruction sorcerers had caused on his fellow soldier. This was no ordinary boy.
At that moment, soldiers poured through the chamber door, a unit of guards and some knights. They surrounded the room as the commanding knight approached Lancelot.
“Soldier, are these the prisoners?”
Lancelot glanced back at the knight. This man was born to take orders, to carry out the wishes of his sire. If Uther decided to imprison the children, he would not hesitate to comply. “No, they’re not. They’re children of the servants who fled. We should let them go.”
“Surrender your weapon, boy!”
The thin child shook, backing up as the other children showed the first signs of fear. A tiny hand reached out and latched onto the back of the boy’s robe.
“Myrrdin?” the little girl whispered, tugging harder on his cloak.
The Sorcerer Prince! The words seared through Lancelot’s mind, his hand reaching for him before he could escape. They were searching for this boy, tearing the castle apart to find one of the two people Uther wanted executed. He couldn’t believe such a small boy was the feared sorcerer prince.
Still, Lancelot would not allow the boy to be murdered.
Myrrdin took another step back. The children cried out in alarm as he shook his head, eyes stubbornly fixed on Lancelot in a reprimanding expression. He raised his sword as the knights called out warnings. Lancelot ran towards him, watched him flip the sword around and with both hands tight on the hilt, spear the floor with the sword as if it were made of butter.
Complete silence descended in the room, seconds of misleading peace before a terrible groan shook the castle, penetrating past its foundation. Lancelot wasn’t sure how it was possible, but the air around the impaled ground shivered, the sword seeming to sing as Myrrdin released it. In horror, Lancelot watched as the children were shredded to pieces, material and hair whipping about as if being peeled like an orange. The remains floated up, disappearing altogether into thin air.
The Sorcerer Prince was gone.
When Lancelot finally looked around, he found the sword permanently embedded in stone and Gawain dazed by his side.
Everyone else had inexplicably disintegrated.