Merlin was beginning to enjoy these short visits. He was able to question the dragon about magical artefacts and in return, keep the dragon entertained with stories of the outside world.
He still refused to bring live sheep into the cave. Regardless of how considerate the dragon tried to be, hearing the terrified bleating right before bones began to crunch was not Merlin’s idea of a good time.
“How were you caught, anyway? I doubt any Dragonlord would command you to return, not after father left.”
“Do you truly believe that Uther has the power to hold me down here against my will?” The dragon asked, neck extended to see Merlin better. The look he gave Merlin was amused, as if he couldn’t see how Merlin’s little brain could be so constrained.
“What do you mean?”
“How do you think it came to be that I remained down here all these years?”
“Uther captured you, chained you down here with magically enforced chains.”
“If that is what you wish to believe.” The dragon chuckled. “Uther likes to think he has the power to hold me against my will. We have worked hard to cultivate that belief. It would be a shame to disabuse him of that notion now.”
“Why, me. And your father, of course. It was your father who asked me to remain here. He knew that one day you would require my help and that the young Pendragon would require protection. You are the only weapon he has strong enough to fight the coming tides. You are the only one strong enough to strike back at the heart of the young Pendragon’s foes. ”
“You’re lying! My father wouldn’t manipulate me like that!”
The dragon bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “You could always ask him.”
Merlin couldn’t respond, so he fell silent.
“You should not blame your father. It is always wise to put the needs of the many above the needs of the one, something you do not yet comprehend. But you are young. One day, you will understand.”
“The needs of the many? Above the needs of the one? Really?” Merlin was still shocked by the revelation that his father had been manipulating him possibly all his life. “Has anyone ever told you that you sound like Uther? Because really, you do. Same idea, you know.”
“I am nothing like Uther!” The dragon bellowed, and Merlin realised he had found the one subject guaranteed to annoy the creature. Hot air wafted past his face as the dragon huffed. “The fate of all Albion lies in your hands. Your actions will determine the lives of many. Choose your path wisely. Or. Do nothing. And don’t choose at all.”
“Come back here!” Merlin yelled when the dragon flew off. “I’m not finished with you yet!”
“Quite the opposite, young warlock.” The dragon’s voice reverberated in the cave. “Our paths are just beginning.”
Merlin tuned out Will, aware that he was talking about some woman he’d met in the market but not much else.
Merlin glanced up. “Oh yeah. Sorry, Will,” Merlin answered distractedly, slowly twirling the papers in his hand. They were meeting in Gaius’ rooms this time, Will using the excuse of a sprained muscle to see the physician.
“What’s wrong with you today? Don’t tell me you’ve lost your favourite neckerchief again. I’ve told you, Merlin. Women aren’t attracted to those kinds of things. I never understood where you got the idea of reverse tokens from. They won’t like it if you give them a ratty piece of cloth from around your neck.”
“No. No, that’s not it. It’s just.” Merlin sighed, putting the papers down. “Arthur knows something, Will.”
“About the Dragonlords?”
“No, just about me, I think. The way he talks, says things…do you think he knows I’m a spy?”
“Do you see any soldiers? No, right? If he knew, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Will pointed out. “If he knew, you’d either be scrambling to Ealdor for your very life, with me scrambling along as the very much put-upon friend, or sitting in a jail cell, waiting to be executed.”
“Maybe,” Merlin conceded, though his expression clearly said he didn’t believe it. “Could be he’s testing me.”
“I hope not, Merlin. Or all our work will have been for nothing. Are you coming back with me to see Balinor? It’s been awhile.”
He gathered the papers up, slipping them into a book as he shook his head. He wasn’t ready to see his father yet. “I’ll have to pass this time, Will. Tell mum I love her for me, yeah? And no news for Balinor.”
“All right,” Will agreed with some hesitation, eyes following Merlin as he fled out the door.
It immediately manifested after their return from Alvarr’s captivity, and at first, Merlin attributed it to Arthur needing to regain his equilibrium again. He knew from experience.
He also knew, having experienced it from the various boys in his village, that men took being emasculated very hard.
From the very first, Merlin knew that Arthur was the type to take duty and strength very seriously. But it dragged out, one week becoming two, then three, and finally Merlin couldn’t handle anymore.
Arthur was vexing Merlin enough that it drove him to seek out Gwen’s advice, Merlin willing to help her clean Morgana’s room if it would shed some insight into Arthur’s recent attitude.
“Have you noticed anything different about Arthur?”
“Different? Not really. Why?”
“I dunno.” Merlin flipped the edge of the sheet over, pulling it taut between them until she flipped it a few times to get rid of the wrinkles. She pressed her end of the sheets to his, fingers wrapping over the edges to take the sheet from him. Once she was done folding it, she placed the sheet in the cupboard.
What Merlin would give to hear Arthur berating him about cupboards right about now.
“He’s just been very quiet lately. Hasn’t talked to me as much. I just thought, since you’re so close to Morgana, that you might know something. Something with Uther, the courts or…” Merlin trailed off, leaving it open-ended and hoping Gwen would fill it with an answer.
“Do you think he’s coming down with something? He could be feeling unwell.”
“So you think he’s sick?”
“You spend the most time with him, you should know.”
“Yeah,” Merlin sighed. “I think that’s the problem.”
For the first time, Arthur’s room was nearly spotless.
Arthur was distant, had been so ever since they escaped from Alvarr’s captivity. That more than anything told Merlin that something was wrong.
Merlin was so distracted by Arthur’s distance that he actually performed his chores as originally intended; for the first time, things were put into their proper places. Clothes in cupboards and books on shelves. But the oddest thing about the situation was that Arthur barely even noticed.
Merlin removed the dirty plates sitting at Arthur’s elbow to the side table, to be taken down once he left Arthur’s chambers. Arthur didn’t even glance at him, the customary quip about his being a horrible manservant completely missing. It made Merlin even more jumpy.
“Arthur?” Merlin ventured, as he straightened the sheets on Arthur’s bed.
Then, evenly, “Merlin.” It wasn't an invitation to speak. The tone clearly conveyed that Merlin was interrupting Arthur’s reading.
Merlin forged ahead anyway. “Is everything all right? Are you still feeling pain from what Alvarr’s men did? Should I fetch Gaius?”
Arthur flipped a page. “Does it look like anything’s wrong, Merlin?”
“No, but.” He fluffed a pillow, and then fluffed the other one for good measure. He’d never seen anyone be more of a pillow person than Arthur, hugging onto one while he slept like he was hugging onto a long forgotten doll. “You’ve been quiet lately. Has Mercia been giving you trouble again?”
Arthur slapped his open book face down onto the table. “Pray tell, Merlin, what would you know about Mercia?” He stared at Merlin with a neutral look, one that Merlin could tell wasn’t neutral at all.
He tried to remember what he could have done to make Arthur this angry. “Nothing. Just rumours here and there. I’m just a servant, you know, what would I know about warfare.”
“Yes. Just a servant.” Arthur picked up his book again, flipping another page when Merlin knew he hadn’t even read it yet. It was a clear dismissal. “Are you done here?”
Merlin tried to keep the injured look from surfacing on his face. He’d never been dismissed by Arthur like that before and it hurt. A lot.
“I was just concerned.”
“Yes, well, perhaps a little less concern and a lot more competence should be in order.” When Arthur muttered the phrase in the past, his voice had been playful, fond, exasperated. This time, his tone was serious, a trace of malice present as he aimed the insult at Merlin. “I’ve no idea why I still keep you around, Merlin. You’re a liability at best.”
The anger came on so swift, he nearly shook with it, though in the back of his mind, he was aware his anger was covering his fear. The way Arthur was looking at him scared him on a level he didn’t want to admit.
“Fine! I hope you choke on your dirty clothes. Find someone else to put up with your pratliness, though good luck with that. I doubt anyone will.” Merlin stormed out, not bothering to gather the dirty plates. Let Arthur deal with his own leftovers!
Being hungry was a feeling Arthur was used to. Camelot wasn’t going through a food shortage, which would adequately explain Arthur’s constant state of hunger, but Merlin was so often late with his food that Arthur had learned to tolerate that feeling of emptiness for Merlin’s sake. He wasn’t about to fetch his own meal, and he wouldn’t undermine Merlin’s position by requesting someone else fetch it for him.
So he went hungry for two hours on the training field before remembering that after last night, he was most likely short one manservant.
The kitchens were on the way from the training fields to his chambers so Arthur dropped in and prepared to order about a few maids if it would get him some food. What he saw instead was a girl, no older than seventeen, bent over the royal plates.
“What are you doing? Step back from those plates!” His sword was already out, pointed at the girl even as she squeaked in fright and scrambled away.
“I’m sorry, sire! I didn’t mean any harm!”
Arthur advanced on her, enraged that a servant would be the culprit behind the poisoning. He’d expected a hardened soldier, or more likely one of the Druids or Dragonlords, not someone from his own household. “Who bribed you to do this?”
“No one bribed me, sire! Merlin—”
“Merlin?” Arthur felt like he couldn’t breathe, his chest hurting with the effort. He wasn’t sure why the idea of a traitorous Merlin shocked him, but it did. “Merlin asked you to do this?”
She nodded, eyes wide with fright though the mention of Merlin seemed to steel her. “Everyday, and to not let anyone know.”
“Everyday?” Arthur stared at her in disbelief. “And has he asked you to do the same for my father’s plates?”
The maid looked visually distressed. “I’m sorry, sire! Should we have?”
Arthur felt his world flip, growing disheartened that his people’s loyalty could be bought so easily.
He swung his sword point at the chair. “You will remain there. Gaius will be fetched, and he will test this plate for poison.”
“Oh, no,” she interrupted, shaking her head. “There’s no need for that. I’m almost done. I just need to taste the piece of chicken and if I don’t get sick, I’m pretty sure you could eat it, sire.”
Arthur’s world shifted again, this time, the pieces fitting right where they’re supposed to. He let out a sharp breath, sword lowering to the ground as he pointed again at the chair. “I believe you’ve got some explaining to do.”
It was quiet in the armoury, and Merlin liked it that way. Though it was more dangerous to work magic in a public building instead of in the privacy of Arthur’s room, Merlin wasn’t about to go back with Arthur acting like an obnoxious arse.
Part of him also feared facing Arthur.
The armour unnaturally gleamed, but Merlin knew it would fade once the magic settled. He did this often, strengthening Arthur’s armour by placing an imperceptible magical shield underneath, laying it into the groves and arcs of Arthur’s mail plate and hauberk, and praying that even if he wasn’t there, this extra measure would mean the difference between life and death in Arthur’s last defence.
He placed the armour down and retrieved Arthur’s vambrace, beginning to polish it.
Shuffling feet sounded in the doorway and Merlin glanced up, then immediately down to polish the vambrace more vigorously.
Arthur sat down on the floor beside him, moving some armour in the process.
Merlin’s lips twitched at the apology, relief flooding through him. He wouldn’t look at Arthur, focusing instead on the piece of metal in his hands. “For what?”
“For ignoring you.”
“That’s not all you were doing.”
“I know.” Arthur picked up the other vambrace, trading it for the extremely shiny one in Merlin’s hands. “But that’s all you’re getting.”
“You’re a prat.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes.”
“Well, I don’t understand you either. I guess that makes us even.”
Merlin didn’t say anything to that but when Arthur’s shoulder pressed against his, he leaned right into it, smile imperceptible as he savoured Arthur’s warmth.
“Merlin?” He nodded, showing he was listening.
“Would you trust me with your family?” Arthur asked, apropos to nothing.
His hands stilled a moment before starting up the brushing rhythm again. He was careful not to look at Arthur.
“My family? Something you’re not telling me?” Merlin stilled again, this time looking at Arthur with vague alarm. “Is there going to be a war?”
“Not one I’d want. I’m not fond of wars, Merlin. But sometimes they’re a necessary evil to achieve peace. Surely you know that by now.”
Merlin shrugged a shoulder, not saying one way or the other.
“Your family,” Arthur tried again, “they’re still alive, aren’t they? Would you trust me with them?”
“My family aren’t in Camelot, so it doesn’t matter.” Merlin got up, gathering Arthur’s various pieces of armour into his arms. “Sorry, Arthur, I have to go. ” Merlin raced out of the stables, the sound of his heart pounding so hard in his ears that he swore he would go deaf.
Arthur couldn’t tell the truth from lies anymore, couldn’t determine whether Merlin’s smiles to him were genuine, or if they were a part of some elaborate trap he was setting for Arthur. Every time Merlin showed concern for him, or offered him information he would have gladly incorporated into his plans, he couldn’t help wondering if this is the one thing that would lead to his fall.
Merlin was the last person Arthur thought would betray him.
It was the uncertainty that ate at his patience, that made his anger grow each time his men came back failing to complete what should have been an easy capture of Dragonlords. The only common denominator in all of them, the only one present in every single debriefing and planning session that failed was Merlin.
Merlin, who betrayed him by breaking his trust and stealing his information. Merlin, who smiled at him while telling his own father how to infiltrate Arthur’s men.
And yet, he couldn’t tell his father.
This was the same Merlin who filled his wine goblet, found him food tasters, and saved his life.
He didn’t know which Merlin was his, or which one was real and that, more than anything else, hurt.
Perhaps it was time to find out.
Merlin hadn’t thought anything of it when Arthur asked for his armour to be polished and hammered. When he asked Merlin to summon the knights, that’s when he started to get concerned.
“I believe it could be taken by forty, maybe fifty men tops. The land is flat, easy to travel should you wish to bring artillery.”
“Thank you, Leon. And what of their defences.”
Merlin fetched another goblet from the sideboard, pouring watered wine for Arthur. Merlin knew Arthur hated to be impaired when he was planning campaigns. He placed the goblet at Arthur’s elbow, eyes glancing down at the map. His hand jerked and knocked the goblet off the table when he recognized Ealdor’s landscape.
“You’re attacking Cendred’s land?” Merlin asked Arthur, grabbing a cloth to dab gingerly at the puddle on the table. Arthur lifted his arm and checked underneath for stains before answering Merlin.
“At dawn, yes. We’ve allowed the Dragonlords to run amok for too long. Now is the time to stop them. If we arrive at dawn, most of the village will be asleep.”
Merlin’s hand shook as the cloth sopped up the liquid from the floor. He feared for his parents’ lives, feared for Will and the innocent village people there. He couldn’t warn them in person; Arthur would expect him to ride in front with him. But maybe there was another way.
“May I be excused, sire?”
“Of course, Merlin,” Arthur replied, unblinking eyes fixed on him. “I’m sure you’ve plenty to do. Sharpening my sword and polishing my armour. Try not to forget my shield,” Arthur called after him as he rushed out the door.
The village was already in a defensive position by the time Arthur’s men cleared the trees. He could see where trap pits had been dug and where men were situated in strategic positions.
“They’re expecting us.” It was obvious that the village had been warned. “Where’s Lancelot, Merlin? He was supposed to be here with you for your protection.”
Merlin started, biting on his lip before answering. “I don’t know.”
“I see.” Arthur watched for Merlin’s reaction and wasn’t disappointed when Merlin spotted Balinor and his wife at the front lines and briefly smiled.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Merlin turned pleading eyes on him, hands fiddling with his reins. “They’re villagers, Arthur, not fighters. They won’t last if you send your men out there.”
“Then Balinor should have thought of that before settling here.”
Leon pulled up beside Arthur, adding his reasoning to Merlin’s. ”Sire. Cendred may see this as an act of war, bringing Camelot soldiers into his territory. Perhaps it would be best if we withdrew and then negotiated with Cendred to allow us access--”
“Enough.” Did they think he hadn’t considered any of this? Regardless of what Merlin believed, Arthur’s purpose today wasn’t to crush Balinor, the Dragonlords, or the little village of Ealdor. This was a test of strength, and the only person under scrutiny was Merlin.
Arthur left his men at the tree line, taking only Merlin, Leon and a handful of knights with him to meet Balinor. They met in the middle of the field, Balinor not wasting any time by speaking first.
“Why are you here, Pendragon?” he asked, eyes drawn naturally to Merlin.
“For the same reason you’ve sent men to Camelot.”
At the very least, Balinor didn’t bother to feign ignorance by denying it.
“You’re outnumbered, Balinor. The majority of people in your village don’t know how to fight.”
“I’m aware of that. Only a tyrant strikes at helpless people. And if I know anything about you, Pendragon, you aren’t a tyrant. Single-combat. Whether I win or lose, you withdraw your army and leave the village alone. If I lose, you can have me.”
Beside him, Merlin made to jump off the saddle, stilling when Balinor stared at him. For some reason, that made Arthur rather cross.
“And if I lose?”
“Your life is forfeit to me. And your men promise never to attack this village again.”
“I accept. Merlin, my sword.” He dismounted, hand held out waiting for the sword Merlin wouldn’t pass to him. “Merlin?”
“Don’t do this. This is insane. Your life, Arthur?”
“Worried I’ll win?”
“Worried you’ll lose, you stupid prat!”
Arthur’s expression softened, “Then in fifteen minutes, you won’t need to worry either way.”
Within minutes into the fight, Balinor was on the defence, Arthur striking hard and fast with his sword, not giving him a chance to regroup. He didn’t know who he needed to win, but it didn’t matter. No matter who ended up on the sword at the end of this battle, there would be an all-out war.
Balinor feinted, his blade slipping under and striking at Arthur’s left side. Merlin knew from watching Arthur fight hundreds of time that he didn’t favour either side. But Balinor knew that because Merlin had told him.
Merlin hissed sharply.
Arthur’s back hit the ground hard, Balinor sweeping his feet out from under him while he’d been busy defending his left side. The blade struck hard where Arthur’s neck had been, then immediately swiped sideways, leaving a nick on Arthur’s arm. Blood ran crimson down his arm, staining his shirt. The wound, however, wasn’t deep enough to slow Arthur down.
Even with his wound setting him back, it was quickly evident that Arthur was the stronger fighter, quicker and more skilled.
He swung his blade around, forcing Balinor to back up. Merlin knew his father’s footwork was weak, saw the protruding trunk he would trip over before he even went down.
Arthur stood over Balinor and flipped his sword, a horrible parody of the same act Merlin had performed fifteen years ago. And Merlin felt like his world was coming apart.
If Arthur killed Balinor, Merlin could never look at him again.
Time suddenly froze, the men on both sides stuck mid-pose with Arthur standing over Balinor, sword raised and caught mid-strike. He stood there, shocked at what he’d done and completely unnerved by how silent the world had gone. He’d stopped time before, this was nothing new, but he’d only managed it in small pockets of space. He knew, deep in his core, that this time the whole world had gone undeniably still.
Merlin scrambled over to where Arthur stood, fingers prying desperately at Arthur’s grip. He could feel the vice he had on time slipping, like trying to hold fine sand in his fist. It was trickling from him, and any second, Arthur would get control of his sword back and Merlin would have to watch his father die, bleed out onto the ground while Merlin stood uselessly by.
“Arthur, please!” Merlin begged at Arthur’s stilted expression, nearing tears when he couldn’t move the blade.
Time lurched to a start again.
Merlin clapped both hands onto the blade, ignoring the sharp edge slicing into his skin. He grasped it like he would a hilt and wrenched his hands apart, his magic completely disintegrating the blade in the act.
Arthur leapt back, a look of intense rage on his face. He stared at the remains of the hilt before tossing it aside. He remained still, watching Merlin help his father stand, as Merlin checked Balinor for more fatal wounds.
“You’ve made your choice.”
Merlin blanched. “Arthur, no.” Arthur knew. All this time, when Merlin thought he was doing well, when he thought he’d had everything in balance, Arthur had known about his magic, about the Dragonlords. His lips parted, ready to reason with Arthur when a wall of flame separated them.
The Druids had arrived.
The Druids were far enough back that Merlin was having a hard time picking Morgana’s cloaked figure from their group. He’d been worried that she’d been attacked by bandits or serkets on her way to the Druid camp, or that she wouldn’t be able to convince the Druids to come in time.
He should never have doubted her.
Aglain stood near the Dragonlords, waving two men forward to flank Balinor. He politely demanded that Arthur step down and withdraw his men, telling him that while he wasn’t out-numbered, he was certainly out-forced with the number of magic user set against him.
Arthur didn’t look too happy about that.
“We are a peaceful people, Prince Arthur. Once your men have withdrawn, we will grant you your freedom. If you refuse, we will start by executing your manservant.”
Shocked at this turn of event and unsure of what the Druid leader was doing, Merlin stared at Aglain. He knew Merlin was Balinor’s son. What purpose could there be in threatening to execute him?
“Aglain.” Balinor called out. Merlin was sure that he didn’t appreciate Algain’s threat either.
“Balinor. You’ve been compromised in this situation. Allow me to handle it. I promise you won’t regret it.”
Merlin couldn’t decipher Arthur’s stare, fixed on him and so intense that he couldn’t help but fidget. Arthur’s eyes flickered back to his men before he nodded and threw his long dagger down.
“Arthur, what are you doing?” Merlin protested. “You can’t let them take you!”
“You don’t have a choice, servant of Camelot,” Aglain said, waving at another Druid to retrieve Arthur’s dagger. “That is the bargain your master entered, that is the bargain he will keep.”
“No! I won’t let you do this!”
“Shut up, Merlin!” Arthur shouted at him as he pulled him back by his shoulders. “Haven’t you done enough? Now be quiet and let me handle this.”
“Fine, then handle it! But you’re not going with the Druids.”
“Would you like to deal with them then?” Arthur gestured palm up at the clump of Dragonlords and Druids. “Be my guest.”
“Or maybe you could let me deal with them instead, Merlin.” Both of them turned towards the voice, Arthur gaping in surprise while Merlin laughed. The Druids turned to face the new threat and Merlin snatched Arthur’s dagger back.
There Gwen was, outfitted in armour and sitting at the front of King Olaf’s men. They were flanking Arthur’s unit, at least half of Olaf’s travelling force. The king himself was nowhere in sight, not surprising since this was Cendred’s territory. Merlin could only be glad that Viviane hadn’t managed to tag along, something he’d worried about when he sent Gwen to Viviane. If she’d been here and gotten hurt, Olaf would declare war on them all.
Both sides were evenly balanced now, and Merlin was quick to press his advantage. “You can’t win this, not with so many soldiers standing against you. At least, not without heavy loss,” Merlin told Aglain. He waited until he saw Aglain nod, before turning to Arthur.
With Arthur, Merlin took a quieter approach. “Arthur, look at the number of people involved. If you attack them, there’s no saying where the battle will spill to. Innocent bystanders could get hurt. The neighbouring villages. Cendred will believe you’ve ravaged them for your own needs. It’s too dangerous.”
Arthur’s response was quiet, eyes searching Merlin’s face. “Is that what you believe, Merlin?”
“Yes, Arthur, please. This isn’t the time to strike. Call them back.”
And he stood there, watching Arthur stroke his ring over his lips and think. Arthur took so long to respond that Merlin began to believe he’d failed.
“You’re manipulating me right now, just like you have in the past.” Arthur continued over Merlin’s protests. “You’re using my love and care for innocent people against me, so that I will withdraw against Balinor.”
“That’s not it! I just don’t want this to become a war. I don’t want anybody to get hurt and I just think it’s pointless, all this murder and fighting. I want peace, for Camelot and for you.” Merlin trailed off, not sure what else to say to convince Arthur.
“I’ve learned all I need. Thank you, Merlin. For opening my eyes to the truth.” Arthur grabbed his dagger from Merlin, slipping it into its sheath.
“Balinor!” Arthur bellowed, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Don’t do this!” He seized Arthur’s wrist, the cut on his hand leaving bloody hand prints on Arthur’s shirt. Arthur shook him off.
“I will agree to withdraw my men if you will do the same. There’s no need for shed blood today. But you will withdraw all your men, including those hiding in my army.”
“You know about them?”
“I know more than you think.” Arthur carefully did not look at Merlin.
“Then I agree. Allow me a few days to recall them.”
“Be warned, Balinor.” Arthur’s hand settled on the hilt of his dagger, lending more threat to his words. “Should I find that you broke our agreement, the person you send will dearly regret it.”
Balinor shrugged off Hunith’s help as he made his way to where Arthur and Merlin stood. His eyes held Merlin’s, sympathetic and regretful, before turning the full force of his intensity towards Arthur. “And you will find, young Pendragon, that if you hurt one of mine, I will not hesitate to tear all of Camelot down around your ears.”
Merlin stood there, Balinor making his way to Hunith behind him and Arthur walking back to his army at his front. The two most important men in his life, both having seen something in Merlin worth keeping.
Both walking away from him.
And he had no idea who to follow.
Hunith squeezed her husband’s hands, placed a quick kiss at the side of his face before abandoning him. She walked to where Merlin was, her heart breaking at the broken expression on his face.
“Merlin.” Her son looked down at her, then at his father and Arthur. He opened his mouth and gasped, “Mum.”
“Oh, my dear boy.” She grasped his face in her hands, letting him lean on her emotionally until he could make his decision. “You’ve been through so much.”
His eyes caught on Arthur and she knew he didn’t mean only her. “You have, too.”
She smiled sadly. “I’ve just seen how much he needs you. How much you need him.”
“He doesn’t need me, mum. You heard him. He wants father to withdraw all his spies.”
“I did hear him, Merlin. He said he wanted Balinor to withdraw all his spies from his army.” She peered up at him. “You’re not part of his army, are you?”
Merlin inhaled sharply, hope budding on his face as his eyes caught on Arthur again. Hunith looked and noticed that both Balinor and Arthur were turned towards them now, both watching Hunith console Merlin.
She never understood why men had to make everything so difficult.
“He cares about you, Merlin. I can see it. And I know you care about him. You belong at his side.”
“But what about father?”
“Your father understands. He sees what I do. You’re like two sides of the same coin.” At that moment, a pretty woman in armour ran up to the field, stopping a good length away from Merlin and Hunith and shifted nervously on her feet. Hunith smiled at her. “Will tells me that you have good friends in Camelot?”
Merlin laughed, strained though it was. “Yeah. Gaius, of course. Gwen and Morgana.”
Hunith nodded. “Then just as the coin will always have two sides, you will always have two homes.”
“Oh, mum.” Merlin tightly hugged her, hiding a sniff into the side of her neck. Then she let him go, watching him run to Arthur's side.
“What you did was reckless! Endangering political relations, involving another kingdom in our disputes. Did you believe that no consequences would come of this? That Cendred might not find this a declaration, an act of war?” Uther paced the length of his dais, eyes unmoving from Arthur’s still form. He had yet to reach for his goblet, always an indicator to Arthur of how furious he was.
“I am sorry for worrying you, father, but I had the situation under control. I informed Cendred of our intended actions earlier, and in exchange for gold, he agreed to allow me and my men the right of entry for that village. There was no breach of treaty.”
“Did you now? And when were you going to tell me about this mission?”
“When Balinor had been apprehended.”
“And if you didn’t catch him?”
Arthur raised his chin, expression carefully blank as Uther continued to stare at him.
Uther scoffed. “I see. For too long have I allowed you freedom to affect Camelot’s direction without check. I see now that I was wrong. Perhaps Valiant was right and I have allowed my blindness as a father to mislead me.”
“This ends here,” Uther pointed to the ground. “Your boy, Merlin. I heard he practiced magic at this village.”
“Father, he’s been a loy- he’s saved my life many times. Surely that counts for something.”
“He’s a sorcerer, and that counts for everything. You will execute him for the crimes of practicing magic, and for treason against the throne. Is that understood?”
Arthur felt his composure slip. He shouldn’t have brought Merlin back with him, no matter how stubborn Merlin had been about it. “I cannot agree with this. Punish him with life imprisonment, banish him from the kingdom if you must, but do not punish loyalty with death.”
“You would defy me for a mere boy?”
“Of course not, father. But Merlin is not just a mere boy.”
“No, he is not. Do not force my hand, Arthur. You will regret it.”
Arthur didn’t need Leon to tell him that Morgana was on a warpath. He could see it with his own eyes. And even if Leon hadn’t approached Arthur about the riot incitement Morgana was trying to pull off on Merlin’s behalf, the increasing number of courtiers begging to see him regarding a ‘delicate matter’ was enough to inform him.
He waited until his father left the dining hall.
“Morgana. Stop turning my courtiers against me,” Arthur commented between bites of food.
“Then stop being an arse and start doing your job.”
What was it about Morgana that always killed his appetite? Arthur dropped the spoon next to his plate.
“I am doing my job, or have you not noticed? Merlin is a traitor and the law says he must be executed.”
“You’re out of your mind! Merlin is no more a traitor than I am. In fact, I’ve helped him in the past. Are you going to execute me, too?”
Arthur threw his hands up. “I’m not hearing this. You’re confused Morgana. You’ve been taken in by his false charm.”
“The only one confused here is you! Believing in Uther’s fanaticism against magic, consigning a friend to the role of foe. You’re blinded by Uther’s hate and you don’t even know it.”
“And I suppose Merlin being connected to the Dragonlords has nothing to do with it?” Arthur asked, rubbing at his forehead.
Morgana shook her head. “It has everything to do with it. Just talk to him, Arthur. Maybe you’ll discover that not everything’s black and white.”
“I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
Arthur turned swiftly, sword point aimed with deadly accuracy towards Balinor’s throat. They stared at each other over the sheen of metal, waiting for the other to yield first. Alone in his chambers before the sudden appearance of Balinor, Arthur doubted the immediacy of aid from his soldiers should he call for it.
He idly wondered in that moment if Merlin would ever forgive him for executing his father then and there.
“You heard correct,” Arthur confirmed. “How did you get in here?”
“He told you how to infiltrate these chambers?” Arthur didn’t think he could hurt any more than he already was, but knowing that Merlin was willing to betray him to his enemies while he was at his most vulnerable caused something in Arthur to crack.
“No. He would not tell us such things, even when pressed.” Balinor’s hand gestured to the walls, then the door, towards the linchpins of protection spells only he could detect. “I followed to where his magical signature was strongest. He must care for you a great deal, Arthur Pendragon.”
“If he truly did, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Why are you here?”
“Because you wished it.”
“I highly doubt that. I believe it was your intention to always stay one step ahead. I can’t see that changing. So what do you really want?”
“What every father wants for his son,” Balinor said, seemingly unruffled by the steel threatening his life. His arms hung prone at his side, his demeanour not so much proud as curious, determined. Arthur did not trust him for a second.
“State your purpose now, or I shall run you through.”
“I have already stated my purpose. I want what’s best for Merlin.”
“And what’s best for Merlin is to have him spy on me, on my family, for him to be released after his crimes have come to light. Is that it? Do you think me a fool? Did you think I would not notice?” Arthur’s grip tightened on the sword hilt. “Time and again, our attacks against the Dragonlords failed, was intercepted. I knew it was strange at first. I knew we had a mole. But I had no idea it would be--”
Arthur clamped his mouth shut, not willing to say another word. He knew that if he continued, some emotion beside anger would leak into his voice, something he would not allow anyone else to witness.
Balinor nodded. “I understand what you’re going through.”
“Don’t patronise me,” Arthur interrupted, extending his shoulder and moving the sword point a couple of inches closer to Balinor’s vulnerable throat. He was careful not to overextend himself. If Balinor did decide to strike back with a spell, he needed to be able to defend himself.
“I am sorry that things have come to this. Things happen for a reason, Prince Pendragon. Your father killed people for a reason, even if it was driven by mindless grief. He seized this kingdom. He made you his heir, all for a reason. Do you think this all came about through a series of unconnected circumstances? That your birth had nothing to do with this?”
“My birth? What does my birth have to do with anything?”
“It has everything to do with this. Your birth was a necessary catalyst for our future.”
“I don’t understand,” Arthur growled, growing even more frustrated with each half answer.
“Don’t speak about my mother!”
The silence between them was punctuated by Arthur’s breathless pants, broken only by the rustle of Balinor’s robe when he stepped back.
“Your mother was a good woman.”
Arthur, completely thrown by those words, just stared at Balinor.
“You knew my mother?”
“I did,” Balinor confirmed. “Very well. She was a brave one. A fine one, the only one of her kind.”
“But you know about my mother.” Arthur’s sword point lowered, not enough to abandon his guard, but it was obvious that his interest was caught.
“She was good to Merlin.”
“Merlin? Merlin knew my mother?”
“She was kind to him. Merlin was rather fond of her.”
“I don’t understand,” Arthur said with some confusion. “I don’t understand!” Arthur repeated with a growl in his voice. “How can Merlin know my mother? He would have been…six, seven!”
“Five, in fact.”
“Do not take me for a fool, Balinor. Tell me what you know, and tell me what my mother has to do with all of this!”
“Your mother,” Balinor began, “understood the risks of what was to come. We all understood the risk. The dragon had portended…”
“Dragon? You mean the one residing underneath the castle?”
“Ah, so you know about Kilgharrah.”
“So the dragon has a name. Why am I not surprised?”
“Did you ever wonder why your father chained a dragon there?”
Arthur pursed his lips, not willing to say more on the subject but feeling obligated to defend his remaining parent. “Everyone knew that my father had captured him, imprisoned him underneath Camelot as a warning against all magical beings.”
“Yes, and you’ve never wondered why a king with no earthly ties to magic was able to entrap the Great Dragon, one of the most magical beasts ever to walk upon this Earth?”
“Your father is a strong man, but he is not that strong. And he may be cunning and manipulative, and ruthless even when the need does not call for it, but he is not that talented. And I assure you, no knight would be strong enough to take Kilgharrah down.”
Arthur closed his eyes, thinking of all the things he’s heard, all the things he’s known, of Merlin, and the nonsensical actions he’d taken all this time. They made so much sense now that Balinor had shed some light on the issue. He thought of his father and his unyielding principles, of the execution of children associated with magic.
He lowered his sword, eyes opening to glare at Balinor. “Tell me everything, Balinor. And leave nothing out. If you wish to see your son ever again…”
“I will tell you but only if you can handle it, Pendragon boy.”
“That’s not true.”
Arthur stood at the window, tense, eyes fixed out into the distance. His hands were by his side, clenched into fists. Balinor sat at the table, fingers running over the stem of the wine goblet that Arthur provided. His green, embroidered cloak sat discarded on the back of another chair. Arthur’s own goblet sat abandoned across from Balinor’s, though neither of them had touched the wine beyond the initial decanting and pouring.
“It’s the truth,” Balinor repeated, “one which you cannot deny. You are one half of Merlin, two halves of a whole, if you will. Without him, you will not survive. He knows this. The dragon has informed him of this. That is your destiny, something you must accept.”
“Do you realise how insane you sound? It’s ridiculous! I’ve lived perfectly fine without Merlin for years. There’s no reason now that I would have to…”
“You’ve lived well because your destiny has not been called before. Uther Pendragon has caused many upheavals in this land, nothing we didn’t expected. But it is time now for you to seize that power and restore the balance.”
“You’re mad! I will not commit patricide or treason! I will not betray my father. Unlike your son, loyalty still beats in my heart. I will remain true to those who love me, depend on me. And to those I love.”
Balinor sighed. “You judge my son too harshly, Pendragon. You don’t understand what he’s been through.”
“Your mother desired your existence, would have given anything to conceive you. It was Merlin, whom she often expressed this wish to. Your father was a courtier in Camelot’s courts at the time. A warlord in his own right. A knight. One of the strongest. He brought your mother, Ygraine du Bois, in order to curry favour in the courts. He wanted to secure land and wealth for any future offspring he may be granted. That was something he had difficulty with. Your mother miscarried many times. Uther feared that she would not survive another.”
Balinor fell quiet. “It is my belief that Uther Pendragon was never meant to have a son.”
“That is not for you to say,” Arthur interrupted.
“No, it is not. But it was for Merlin to say.”
“Stop being cryptic.”
“Merlin did not know the consequences of his actions.”
Arthur faced Balinor, a look of horror in his eyes at the implication Balinor was putting forth. “That’s not possible.”
“You do not know my son as I do. You do not know the power he possesses.”
“Merlin desired to grant Ygraine’s wish,” Balinor continued. “He was five years old. He did not know what he was doing. You cannot blame a child for doing what he believed was right. He meant well and his intentions were good.”
“Half of his magic rests in you, Arthur Pendragon. You are made of magic. Merlin’s magic.”
“Don’t!” Arthur shouted. Everything he’d believed in his life… Arthur’s mouth opened and closed in wordless distress. He was half of Merlin? Merlin? He was the one who killed his mother? But no, that wasn’t right. Arthur had killed his own mother, just by being born, just by being willed into existence. It reflected what he’d always believed. Perhaps they were all culpable in his mother’s death. Perhaps he was just as much to blame as Merlin.
Perhaps this was his punishment.
“I’ll be dead before the month is out.” Balinor stated the non-sequitor, calm expression at odds with his statement.
Arthur only managed to blink, unsure of where Balinor was going with this. “What? I highly doubt that. You’ve managed to evade my men thus far. I can’t see why you won’t simply continue to do so.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Balinor corrected. “They want to start a war between the Dragonlords and the Pendragons. You have been too fixated on the internal struggles of Camelot. Knight Valiant desires to seize control of your kingdom, this you are already aware of. What you don’t know, is that he’s allied himself with King Bayard of Mercia.”
“That can’t be true. We have a standing treaty with Mercia.”
“Bayard is a fool. He wants peace but he covets your land more. I’ve had reports of Valiant secretly meeting with him. You would do well to be wary of any peacemaking efforts on Bayard’s part. You are young; untried. You cannot do this alone. They will try to start a war by assassinating me and blaming it on the Pendragon knights. At least, that is the rumour they will spread. Whether those tactics will work depends on you.”
“Have you told Merlin all this?”
“I have not. You’ll find there are many things I have not told Merlin.”
“You can’t do this to him.” Arthur angrily protested, feeling offence on Merlin’s behalf. “You’re not dead yet, and this is event can still be prevented. You can’t do this to him. You’re his father! He obviously cares for you or he wouldn’t disobey me quite so much.” The last was said bitterly, Arthur aware of just how much Merlin loved his father. Enough even to betray Arthur, to break his trust.
“Did you think it was easy to watch my son struggle, to teach him to control his magic, knowing what the culmination of that training would lead to? That this thing he must do for you, for Camelot and Albion, might very well break him? This is Uther’s fault! And if you think for one second that I made any of my decisions in blithe carelessness.” Visibly trying to regain control, Balinor ran his hand over his face. “My family, Pendragon. I am sacrificing my family to restore the balance. That is something I would not wish on my enemies. Do not lecture to me about reckless choices.”
Arthur didn’t know how to respond. All he could think was that no one deserved this. Especially Merlin. “You have to tell him. Balinor, you must tell him the truth.”
“Whether I tell Merlin or not, he cannot stop this. Only one person can. And that is you, Arthur Pendragon.”
Two days until execution, if the markings on the wall in Merlin’s cell were to be believed. It had taken Arthur two months to arrange Merlin’s execution, no doubt pressured by Uther and the courts. Of course, he had never heard of an execution in Camelot taking this long to prepare for. It was never his intention to force Arthur’s hand, to make him choose between Uther and him, knew that putting Arthur into that position was only courting for something to break between them.
And some part of Merlin, the part that was still standing on the top of the hill watching Camelot burn understood- Arthur would not choose him.
It looked like Arthur finally made his choice.
Merlin felt bitterness uncurl. During his captivity, Arthur had not visited him once. Merlin didn’t expect him to, not really, but hope was hard to kill and when the only news he heard was through Gwen…
Dear Gwen, who came to visit him regularly, angrily shoving baskets of food and clothes at him at first and then slowly, coming to her own conclusions about his loyalty. She had forgiven him after some time, and he was grateful for that.
Morgana, he had seen only once.
Gaius visited often, urging him to leave, to flee while he could.
The dragon, on the other hand, sang annoyingly and wouldn’t shut up in his head about Arthur’s destiny crumbling the moment Merlin died.
A rustling sound was the only warning Merlin got before a vice grip around his neck woke him. A hand covered his mouth, muffling any sounds he would make. Merlin made a sound of protest even as his magic gathered in his core, aware that this was not a guard. He blinked in surprise at the cloaked figure above him, eyes shadowed with face and hair covered. The cloak was green, Merlin noticed immediately, embroidered leaves trimming the hem of the material and he recognized the cloak as the one all Dragonlords wore proudly.
His eyes widened in disbelief. How his father managed to get someone into Camelot, this deep underground into the cell holding a known traitor without any alarm was a mystery to him.
The grip on his neck harshly cut off his breath, his mouth falling open to gasp desperately for air. He was about to strike before he was suddenly released. The man nodded at the open cell door, and Merlin didn’t need to be told twice. He quickly grabbed his meagre belongings and ran out the door, following the other man down the darkened stone way.
It was easy work getting out from the underground cells, the trail of unconscious guards leading the way up. Not dead, Merlin determined when he had the chance to check. He wasn’t about to make his escape any more detrimental by killing the men loyal to Arthur.
The courtyard was conspicuously clear.
Merlin nearly ran into his rescuer near the gates, one hand grasping onto the other man’s back for balance. A firm hand shoved Merlin into a corner alcove and Merlin found himself pressed against the wall, back flush against stone and chest heaving as silently as he could. His heart pounded as he finally heard footsteps approach.
“Who is it?” Merlin whispered, only to be pushed back into the wall even harder. He parted his lips at that, trying to keep his breathing even. His rescuer’s caution wasn’t wrong- two sets of footsteps were approaching.
Merlin couldn’t help but smile when Gwen’s familiar curls came into view, followed closely by a cloaked figure he recognized as Morgana. Gwen, carrying a much larger basket than the last visit, was nervously glancing around, steps sure and quick as she made her way past. Morgana had problems keeping pace, her eyes down cast the whole way.
The only place this pathway led to was his cell, and it looked like the two had been on their way to visit him. Would they sound the alarm if they discovered the fallen guards?
“We have to move,” Merlin warned his companion, grabbing the man’s hand to lead him out. He shot a perplexed look at the man when the hand was stiffly wrenched back. He shrugged and pointed towards the exit he knew to be clear.
Luck held with them, as Merlin showed his rescuer the pathway he’d explored once with Will. The man followed, keeping silent even after they’d escaped Camelot’s walls.
He led Merlin to a clearing not too far from Camelot, where two horses were tethered to a branch. A rucksack of what Merlin could only assume to be supplies was leaning against the tree. Obviously, Merlin thought, this break out had been planned. Merlin sighed as he turned, grinning wryly at the man standing across from him.
“Thanks. Really, thanks for getting me out of there. Arthur wouldn’t... I mean. I wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to help, and the King…” Merlin paused there, something dropping low and hot in his belly at the thought of Arthur watching him burn alive; betrayed, accusing eyes not moving away even if Merlin were to scream as the flames flayed his skin off. It was this thought, more than anything that finally made Merlin realise that everything between them was now broken.
Merlin fought hard to speak past the sudden roughness in his throat. “A-anyway, thanks again. Would you let me know your name? I have to know who to thank. Are you one of Will’s men then? Or did my father--”
A cry of surprise escaped as he fell the floor, fingers digging into the soft dirt, disoriented and unsure of what happened. It wasn’t until he recognized the dark drops colouring the grass as his blood that his split lip and cheek flooded with pain.
“Even now,” the man sneered through clenched teeth as Merlin paled, “even after all we’ve been through, you’d believe that I’d let you die?” Even muffled through cloth, the pain in his voice was palpable. Merlin rushed towards him, ignoring the twigs and pebbled rocks digging into his knees as he made his way towards Arthur, his Arthur. His hands fisted into the cloak hanging off Arthur’s shoulder, the cloak of the Dragonlords, the one he refused to let go of now that he knew who was wearing it.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathed, knuckles going white.
“You no longer have a right to use that name, Traitor.” Arthur’s tone was implacable, unwilling to give.
“Sire. Please!” Merlin knelt there, every line of his body pleading with Arthur to understand, to not make the final move that would make their relationship irreparable. “I never betrayed you completely. I know, it was my fault, I shouldn't have lied to you about my father, a-about the Dragonlords, but please. Everything I’ve done, it’s been for--”
“There’s nothing left to say. You’ve already proven your loyalty.” Arthur stepped back, tugged at the cloak to free it. Merlin shook his head. Arthur unlatched the clasp on his cloak and Merlin released a cry of dismay as the cloth spilled onto the forest floor. Arthur, hair and face now visible, took another step back, weight held on his back leg as if preparing to turn.
“Leave. Never return. If I see your face in Camelot again, your life will be forfeit.” Arthur pivoted, only managing a few steps before Merlin called out to him.
“Arthur, wait! You asked me once, whether I trusted you with my family’s life.”
Arthur didn’t move. “If I recall, you never answered. I took that for a resounding ‘no’.”
“It’s still a no. But,” Merlin hurriedly continued when Arthur took another step away, “I trust you with my life. I would trust you with my everything. Just not my family, Arthur.”
“You insolent idiot! What kind of a trust is that?”
“A kind where I know you would do the right thing.”
“The right thing, is it? All right. A choice then.” Arthur walked back to him, hand resting pointedly on the hilt of his sword. “If you’re so eager to return to my side, come back.”
Merlin felt hope stir, fragile but still there. He still gave Arthur a wary look. “You truly mean that? You’re forgiving me?”
“Under one condition,” Arthur stipulated. “Your family. Effective immediately, you will cut all ties with them and with the Dragonlords. I never want to hear about you contacting them again. I forbid it. You can’t serve two masters, Merlin, so this ends now. If you’re to return to my side, you’ll be loyal only to me.”
“Do you accept?”
Merlin was wrong. Apparently, Arthur didn’t need to die for Merlin to break.
“I can’t. Arthur, I’m sorry.”
He couldn’t do this; he couldn’t do what Arthur asked. He couldn’t cut ties with his family or the Dragonlords. He loved his family, needed them. And if he was going to track down this weapon before Alvarr or Valiant did, he would need all the resources at his disposal. He wanted to be at Arthur’s side, to protect him and watch him grow into the king Merlin knew he would be, but he couldn’t do that if he didn’t eliminate the external threats first.
Lying to Arthur wasn’t even an option anymore. Arthur had said that he never wanted to hear Merlin contact his family again, and that was something Merlin could work around. But with all the deception shadowing their relationship, Merlin found he couldn’t do that to Arthur again.
At least, not with this.
Arthur’s face was already closing off, expression going blank. “Arthur, please, listen to me. I can’t do what you ask. And I won’t lie to you anymore.”
“Then we have nothing left to discuss.”
“No!” Merlin regained his feet, his knees shaking as they refused to hold his weight. “Would you give up your mother, if you were given the choice?”
Arthur inhaled sharply, drawing back and looking like Merlin had struck him. Merlin realised in a way that he had. Arthur swiftly regained his composure, jaw flexing in anger.
“I’ve accepted you for who you really are,” Merlin’s voice trembled. “Can you do the same for me?”
“Are you done?”
“No, I’m not.” Merlin plunged in, pressing his lips against Arthur’s, hands clutching desperately at his shoulders. He poured everything he felt into the kiss, the regret he had for betraying Arthur, the hope that Arthur would one day forgive him, and the sorrow that pierced him for leaving Arthur behind. He gave a sob of relief when Arthur let out something of a frustrated growl, and gave in to the kiss, hand on Merlin's neck mirroring his earlier grip. His thumb tilted Merlin’s chin as he deepened the kiss.
Merlin pulled back reluctantly, lips brushing lightly against Arthur’s as he spoke under his breath. “Give me some time,” Merlin whispered. “Please. I promise I’ll return to you when you need me.”
“I can’t believe a single word you say, Merlin,” Arthur said quietly. “You’ve lied to me.”
“I know and I’m sorry. But this is the truth. I know the man you will be become, Arthur, I can see it. You’ll be a great king, a just one. And that’s the man I want to serve. How can I not return to that?” Merlin also loved the man Arthur was now, prat and all, but he couldn’t say that. He wasn’t ready yet to hand Arthur the power to hurt him. “Just trust me. You’ve done it before.”
“And that’s the problem, Merlin,” Arthur said, fingers stroking along the line of Merlin’s ear before he pulled back. “I no longer trust you.”
Arthur walked away, and this time, Merlin didn’t stop him.
Merlin had only been travelling along for a few hours when the sound of horse hooves bearing down on him made him scramble off the road.
Merlin ran back and slid to a stop on the road, grinning so hard at the sight coming towards him that he could cry.
“Gwen!” And when the second rider came into view, “Morgana! I can’t believe…!”
Both pulled hard on their reins once they reached him, Gwen quicker in leaping off her horse and engulfing him in a hug. “Stupid, stupid Merlin. You couldn’t have waited for us? We were worried sick!”
Merlin laughed weakly, pulling Gwen into another hug. “’m sorry. I didn’t really have a choice in leaving.”
“We heard,” Morgana said, having already dismounted. “That’s how we managed to find you so quickly.”
“Arthur told you?” Merlin was baffled.
“We’re coming with you, Merlin. You can’t go about this alone,” Gwen told him, hands clasped beneath her elbows, a determined look set on her face.
“Arthur knows what I’m looking for?” Merlin was beginning to realise that Arthur may have known quite a bit more than he let on.
“Arthur’s an idiot. Besides, we’ve helped you for this long. We aren’t about to let you take care of the rest without us.”
“But…what about Lancelot? Gwen you just met him.”
Gwen smiled proudly, her eyes shining as she said, “He’s staying behind, to guard Arthur the best he can. Someone has to protect Arthur from himself and it won’t be long. Whatever we’re doing, we’re coming home after to Camelot, right?”
Merlin smiled, touched and overwhelmed. “That’s right. It’ll be rough going, though. No luxuries, dangerous territories. There might even be bad tea.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Morgana cut in. “I’ve tasted Arthur’s attempt at tea. Acid would be a blessing after the swill he blends. I’m sure I can handle anything else the road throws at us.” Morgana nodded back at her horse with a playful smile. “Shall we leave? The sooner we find this weapon, the sooner we can come home.”
“Yeah.” Merlin could feel the optimism replace his earlier despair. Maybe this would work out after all. “All right. Let’s finish this so we can go home. Together.”
arc 1, complete
to be continued in the sequel
If you've managed to read this far, thank you so much for sticking with me through this fic! <3 I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. You can find additional author's notes and credits in the master post.