Merlin raised his sword as they approached a seemingly abandoned camp. It was definitely an ambush -- It was always an ambush! -- so he carefully looked around as he followed close to Arthur’s back.
The prince was checking the campfire when one of the knights collapsed, an arrow in his back. “On me!” he called, raising his own sword as men poured out of the trees and tents.
Merlin locked swords with a man that ran at him and scowled as Arthur moved away from him to face his own opponents. He quickly defeated the bandit, then another with an ax when he sprung out of a nearby tent, before placing himself at Arthur’s back as a third snuck up on the prince.
Arthur glanced back with a smirk. “Don’t worry, Merlin. You just stay behind me and I’ll protect you.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and took down his opponent. “Dollophead.”
Arthur defeated the last bandit and they looked around to see the fight was over.
Then the crackle of branches snapping echoed through the trees. They turned towards it to see a figure approaching through the mist. All of them readied their weapons as it grew closer until it finally emerged to reveal…
“Morgana?” Arthur breathed.
The lady’s dress was rags and her hair was a tangled mess. She was caked with mud and shivering as she looked over the group. Her eyes locked onto Arthur and she ran forward.
His sword, which had dropped in his surprise jerked up, but never made it all the way before she threw herself at him.
“Arthur,” she sobbed, burying her face into his neck.
Slowly, he held her back. “I-I’ve got you.”
He turned and met Merlin’s eyes, then looked at the knights.
He squeezed her and pulled back. “Are you okay? Are you injured?”
She shook her head and pressed close to him again.
“Alright, let’s get you back to Camelot. Sir Galeschin, find a horse for the Lady Morgana.”
“She’s back,” Gwen whispered.
“She is,” Merlin said.
“Has she said anything?” Mordred asked.
“No,” Gwen answered.
“What is the prince going to do?” Leon asked.
“What can he do? The king has declared she’s innocent,” Freya growled.
“We’ll just have to keep an eye on her until we can figure out where her loyalties lie,” Merlin said.
“What are you all doing? Guinevere, Gaius is wondering where you are. He needs your help with Morgana. Leon, aren’t you supposed to be putting the squires through their paces? Get back to work, all of you.”
“I took my chance. When I saw you, I couldn't believe it.”
Morgana leaned towards Arthur and he pulled her into a hug. They stayed like that until Arthur awkwardly pulled back. “Everything's gonna be alright. You're safe now. You should get some rest.”
She grabbed his hand when he stood. She stared at it for a moment before whispering, “I know what you did. You tried to poison me.”
“Morgana, I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
“It's alright, Arthur. I understand. You were just trying to protect Camelot, I would have done the same.”
“Really?” he said, holding her hand and searching her face for lies.
“I was so naive, Arthur. I don't think I really understood what I was doing. I was just so afraid of your father. But believe me, I have seen the evils in this world. I should have trusted you more. You don't know how much I regret everything that I've done. I just… hope that you can forgive me.”
Arthur studied her for a moment more, then sat down to pull her into another hug. “I am so sorry for everything you've been through. It's good to have you back.”
She gave a tearful laugh. They shared a few more moments before he left her to rest.
He came out of the room to find a herd of busybodies.
“Well?” Merlin asked.
“She regrets what happens and doesn’t blame me. Morgause must have mistreated her harshly for her failure.”
“You believe her?” Leon asked and Arthur could see he was unconvinced while Merlin and Gwen were hopeful. Freya and Mordred seemed caught in the middle like himself.
“I-I do, but maybe I’m just letting my hopes blind me.”
“We could just stick to the original plan, just in case?” Mordred offered.
“To keep an eye on her,” Freya said.
He really shouldn’t be surprised to find the lot of them plotting behind his back. “Fine, just be discreet. I won’t help any of you if you get caught disturbing Morgana’s recovery.”
They all nodded and left, though Arthur caught Merlin’s arm before he could get far. “I need someone to spar with, and I noticed a few mistakes in your form.”
The warlock pouted, but let himself be led off.
“Since when have you been dragging Leon into our activities?” he asked once they reached the empty armory.
Merlin shrugged. “He’s just been getting involved more, and it's useful having a knight on our side. Remember when he helped us with the Water Leaper. Or when he covered for us when we went to face the pwca.”
“Just be careful not to get him too involved. He’s still a knight of Camelot. We can’t risk that he’d take my father’s side if he were to find out about you three.”
“Sire, your father’s illness…”
“Is just that. He shall recover soon.”
Leon nodded. “It is… timely, however.”
Arthur’s lips tightened. “There is nothing to suggest it is anything more than exhaustion mixed with a drunken fit.”
“If you are certain.”
He glared at the knight. “I liked you better when you followed orders without question.”
“Of course, sire.”
“Just keep to the plan until we have proof.”
“I know, Leon. The dead guard is one coincidence too many. I’ve got someone looking into it.”
“I can help.”
“Not this time. A knight is too conspicuous. I’ll let you know as soon as we’ve found something.”
“Alright. Tell Merlin to be careful.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word.”
Are you getting Arthur’s breakfast, or should I? Mordred waited for an answer, but nothing came. Merlin?
Freya, have you heard from Merlin?
I was just about to ask you the same. Gaius told Gwen he didn’t come home last night.
Mordred went pale and threw open the door between his and Arthur’s rooms. “Arthur!”
The prince groaned and rolled over.
“Wake up, Merlin’s missing.” He ran over to the curtains and pulled them open.
“Merlin!” Arthur hissed, pulling a pillow over his head.
He peeked out. “What?”
“Gaius said he didn’t come home last night.”
Arthur sat up. “Merlin was looking into Morgana last night.”
“I know. Freya and I -”
“No,” Arthur said, rubbing his eyes. “She’ll notice if you two slip away and know we’re onto her.”
“Well you or Gwen would be even more obvious.”
“I know.” He stood up. He grabbed a blank piece of paper and wrote something on it before rolling it up and sealing it. “Go to the kitchens and grab my breakfast. Pass this to someone who can get it to Leon. He’ll know what to do.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Mordred asked, taking it.
“No, but it’s the best one.”
Leon frowned as he brushed a pile of leaves aside. He’d done as Arthur had said. He had followed a set of tracks that had two going, but only one returning. He’d even gone out the eastern gate as he’d suggested, but now he was at the end of the trail. The returning tracks had reached a clearing and turned back while the others had gone a short way into the forest before disappearing. He’d found another set of tracks in the clearing, horse tracks, and had tried following those. Which had led him here, kneeling deep in the Forest of Ascetir.
He’d lost the trail, and Merlin with it.
He climbed atop Cameliard and turned him back towards Camelot. However, they only made it a short way before the horse began to snort and shuffle nervously.
“What is it?” he asked, rubbing the dark neck as he glanced around.
He spotted it almost immediately. Large as a horse, a scorpion scuttled through the trees just ahead. He drew his sword in surprise. A serket? During the day? But they never came out unless there was prey near the nest.
Leon turned Cameliard in the direction the serket had been going and urged him on as fast as he could safely go. They overtook not one, but three serkets before he heard a familiar grunt.
He came to a hollow to see Merlin at the bottom, wrapped in chains and muttering to himself. He hopped down and led his horse carefully down the slope, calling, “Merlin!”
“Leon? What are you doing here?”
The knight ran up to his side and knelt, looking over the chains. “Arthur sent me out to look for you when you didn’t come home last night. What happened?”
“You were right, Morgana’s still working with Morgause. Morgana caught me following her -- it might actually be a first, really -- and neither of them took it well. Don’t bother with the chain, it’s enchanted. It won’t come undone. It needs to be cut.”
Leon clicked his tongue so Cameliard would come closer. “This is going to be uncomfortable. We need to ride fast. Serkets are coming this way.”
Merlin groaned, but nodded. As Leon picked him up and draped him over his saddle, he muttered, “Well at least I’m special enough to warrant death by serket. Though considering Morgause’s huffing about Arthur, it might have been just to tick him off.”
“Considering your fondness for annoying people, it might be a mix of the two,” Leon joked, swinging himself onto the saddle. He shifted Merlin so he was leaning against his chest in hopes it would be a bit more comfortable, then set off. Thankfully the giant scorpions were still separate enough and Cameliard was fast enough that they could slip past without a problem.
When they grew close to the city, Leon slowed, considering. “I don’t have anything to hide your chains,” he said, cursing himself for not wearing his cloak. “If I bring you into the city like this…”
Merlin tilted his head. “You know where Gwen’s is right?” At Leon’s nod, he continued, “Gwen should be home at this time, either her or Freya. Leave me here and go there. Gwen should have something that can cut through these.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, so Leon helped him down to sit against a tree, hidden behind some bushes.
“Leon,” Merlin called once he was back on the horse. “Under Uther’s bed, there’s a plant. It’s what’s causing his illness. You need to burn it.”
“On it,” he said before hurrying off.
Freya was opening the door to the house she shared with Gwen practically before he’d even knocked. “Is he okay?”
“He’s alright, but there are these chains. Merlin said they’re enchanted. He thought Gwen might have something to cut them. He’s waiting right outside the city.”
She sighed with relief and hugged him. “I know what he needs. You should head back to the citadel before you’re missed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’ll take it from here. You said he’s outside the city,” she asked, grabbing a cloak from next to the door.
“Out the eastern gate. Follow the path until you hit the trees. He should be just inside and to the left, hidden behind a large oak.”
“Thank you,” she said before darting out the door. By the time he followed, she was gone.
He wanted to go with her -- Arthur had asked him to retrieve Merlin and the job felt only half done -- but Freya said she could handle it and his king needed him.
He raced up to the citadel and handed Cameliard off to a stablehand. He quickly made his way to the king’s chambers, and he thanked his status that the guards didn’t even blink in his direction as he pushed through the doors. As Merlin had described, there was a plant hanging from the bottom of Uther’s bed. It was a twisted root that dripped a horrid black tar that sent a shiver down Leon’s spine. He ripped it out and tossed it into the fireplace where it burned near instantly.
Uther jerked upwards with a gasp and Leon came to his side. “You’re alright, Sire. You were under an enchantment, but it’s been destroyed. You need to rest. I will call for Gaius.”
The king stared past him for a moment, then blinked and focused on his face. He gave a slow nod and let himself be laid back down.
“Merlin is holed up at our place,” Freya said.
“Good, Morgana hopefully won’t realize we know anything if she doesn’t know he’s back. What did he say Morgana and Morgause spoke of?”
“He said Cenred’s army is riding for Camelot at Morgause’s command.”
“We knew he was amassing an army,” Leon said.
“But now we know Morgause is involved,” Arthur growled. “They enchanted my father to weaken Camelot so it would be easier for Cenred to launch an attack. Gaius was right, I need to step up as regent, just until my father is back on his feet.”
Gwen set her hand on his arm. “No one believes you’d do it out of malice.”
“My father might, with all our arguments.”
“You two have been getting along better these past months.”
“And I’m about to ruin it.”
“The king will understand,” Leon said. “Anything to protect Camelot.”
Arthur stared down at his lap then stood up. When he looked at them, he was determined. “We need a battle plan.”
“A patrol just left that’s headed in that direction. I was supposed to be on it, but traded favors so I could help Merlin. They should return with numbers,” Leon said. “I fear his army will be too much for us, though.”
“We must prepare the city for siege then.”
“Are you sure that is wise?”
“The castle is our strongest weapon. No army has ever taken Camelot.”
“But what about the people in the outlying villages?”
“Give them refuge within the city walls.”
“And what of their houses, their livelihoods?” Leon asked, worried. “Cenred will destroy everything in his path.”
“But they will have their lives. What other choice do we have if we can not raise enough of an army to combat them.”
“We might find a way to appease him.”
“What concessions will Cenred insist on? What territories will he demand? And that is just him. What might Morgause and Morgana whisper in his ear? We need to stay strong.”
“If the castle is so defensible,” Mordred said, gaining everyone’s attention. “Then Morgana would know it, right?”
“As would Cenred,” Leon agreed.
“Then they might have a plan for Morgana to sneak in some of his forces or give him an edge from the inside.”
Arthur nodded. “Cenred’s not a fool. He wouldn’t attack if he didn’t know he’d win. If he’s banking on Morgana’s help and we intercept her, he might call the attack off altogether.
“Leon,” he said, sitting down as a battle plan formed in front of his eyes. As he began to write on a few scraps of paper, he instructed, “Ready the army. Tell them we’ve received word of an oncoming attack and need to prepare for a siege. Gwen, return to Morgana. Stick as close to her side as possible. Use your fear of the approaching army, Merlin’s disappearance, my father’s illness, and her recent recovery as an excuse. Mordred,” he sealed the two letters and handed them to the boy one at a time, “This is for the council. It’s a notice that I’m stepping forward as regent due to the upcoming battle. This is for the messengers. They need to ride out to the villages and warn the people. Everything between us and Essetir. Go.”
All three bowed or curtsied and left.
Arthur turned to Freya. “You’ve been keeping Merlin updated.”
“Mordred and I, yes.”
“Is there anything he can do to help?”
“Not on the grand scale. Unless you’re willing to call in you-know-who.”
He scowled. “That is the last resort. What about on a small scale?”
“He can place protective runes on the walls of the citadel to strengthen them against catapults and the like and slow invaders that try to pass over. They can’t be too strong, not without attracting attention, but…”
“Something is better than nothing. Will they interfere with my men?”
She looked to the side for a few moments. “No, they’ll only affect attackers. If any of your men get affected, then they deserve it.”
Arthur nodded and pulled the record of the guards’ patrol paths out. “Have him place them tonight.”
She took the paper and looked it over. “He said to tell you there’s also the gargoyles, whatever that means?”
Arthur gaped at her. “He knows how to raise the gargoyles?”
She shrugged. “He said, I borrowed a book while the tomb was open. You did give me the night off.”
He rubbed his face. “That’s not as much of a last resort as the monster, but it’s up there.”
“There’s one more thing.”
“Of course there is.”
She hesitated. “Morgause referred to Morgana as her sister.”
Well, that's just fantastic! “That explains why Morgause was willing to give up to save her. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about that. My father would just say Morgause is lying if I tried to tell him.”
“If he even let you get that far into the conversation in the first place.”
The castle is under attack. Enemy armsmen attack Camelot’s barricades. Catapults reign flaming boulders on the city. A still injured king fights alongside his son at the frontlines. A witch floats through the infirmary under the gaze of a druid and maid.
All the while, no one spots how the walls are unharmed as glittering light mistaken for fire intercepts the boulders that should hit them. No one notices how the men crossing into Camelot slow as if they’re moving through water. No one realizes the catapults’ ammunition that makes it over the walls does far less damage than it should. No one catches the flash of gold in the eyes of a man atop the walls as he puts out fires. No one sees the winged lioness perched in the shadows of a roof, watching over her love’s king.
“Pull back! RETREAT!”
Merlin glanced over to see Arthur leading his men back through the gates. He spotted Cenred’s men moving to follow and whispered, “Forbearnan.”
A fence of fire rolls out to block the path.
Morgana’s making her move.
On our way, Merlin said, watching the gates close before running for the stairs.
Sending Cavall to Arthur, Freya added just before he spotted a shadow peel away from a nearby roof and fly off.
Where is she headed?
Her room, it looks like.
Merlin slid around a corner and up a different set of stairs. Almost there.
Mordred was waiting when he reached the top and they entered Morgana’s chambers together. Merlin drew his sword and stepped ahead of the younger boy when the room seemed to be abandoned.
Merlin turned in time to block Morgana’s sword.
“Morgana, please. I beg you. Women and children could die. The city will fall.”
“Good,” she spat, stepping back.
“No, you don't mean that,” he said, looking her over and spotting the staff she was holding. The staff, it must be her plan. Go around, I’ll keep her distracted.
“I have magic, Merlin. Uther hates me and everyone like me. Why should I feel any differently about him?”
“You of all people could change Uther's mind, but doing this?” he gestured around them and her eyes focused on his sword. He spotted Mordred slinking around the column she had been hidden behind. “Using magic like this will only harden his heart.”
“You don't have magic, Merlin. How could you hope to understand?”
“I do understand, believe me. If I had your gifts, I would harness them for good. That's what magic should be for. That's why you were born with these powers.”
“You don't know what it's like to be an outsider. To be ashamed of how you were born, to have to hide who you are. Do you think I deserve to be executed because of who I am?”
“No. It doesn't have to be like this. We can find another way.”
“There is no other way.”
Merlin nods and looks down. Now.
Mordred jumped forward and grabbed the staff from her. She turned to attack him and Merlin caught her sword with his own.
Run, take it to Freya. I’ll hold her off, Merlin said, swiping at her to keep her on the defensive as Modred fled.
“No!” she shrieked, laying into Merlin.
“What are you going to do? Kill me?”
“You don't think I can?” she scoffed.
Merlin smirked and twisted his sword to knock hers aside and elbow her in the stomach.
She staggered back, looking shocked before coming at him with even more fury.
“Enough of your games, Morgause. What has happened to your traitor?” Cenred demanded.
“For such a great king, you have very little patience,” Morgause said, frowning. Morgana should have used the staff by now.
“The time for patience is over!”
Something fell between them and they looked down to see two pieces of rowan at their horses’ feet. They looked up, but only saw darkness.
“No,” Morgause hissed, slipping down to look over the pieces. “How?”
“Your traitor has failed us just as I knew they would. I'm calling off the siege.”
“I cannot take the city unaided. That was not our bargain!”
“You have failed me, Cenred.”
“I would rather fail you, Morgause, then watch thousands of men die.”
“No!” Morgana snarled as Merlin blocked her at every turn. “How?”
“Arthur’s been training me for years. You used to know that, Morgana.”
“He plays with you. He’d never bother to teach a servant.”
“You once believed in him. What happened?”
“He poisoned me!”
“Because you attacked Camelot!”
Their swords locked together and she snarled in his face, “I was going to make Arthur king!”
“By killing his father! Do you think he would have ever forgiven you for that? He barely forgave you for Tauren and you didn’t even go through with it!”
She looked shocked before she shrieked, “I don’t want his forgiveness! I want his death!”
Merlin sidestepped her swing and brought the hilt of his sword to her forehead.
He stared at her unconscious form for a moment before sheathing his sword and kneeling to pick her up. Did you guys do it?
Yes. Cenred’s army is falling back.
What happened with Morgana?
Merlin set her on her bed and left the room. I took care of her.
Arthur stepped into the council chambers to meet his father before his speech and felt anger rise when he found Morgana waiting there instead. In a steady voice, he said, “Morgana.”
“Don’t bother. I know your little pets were acting on your orders last night.”
He scowled. “They used to be your friends.”
“That was before you turned them against me. Before you all turned against me.”
“You turned against us first.”
She snorted and shook her head, then looked up at him with sad eyes. “Oh Arthur, you can’t even hear how you sound, can you?”
“It’s so sad, how they’ve enchanted you.”
“What are you talking about?”
She smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m sure once Uther has burned those two for their magic, their spell will be broken and you’ll be free.”
Arthur staggered back. Did she… No. “You know Merlin and Mordred don’t have magic.”
“Do I?” She stepped up close. “If you want to drag your pets into our squabbles, I’ll be happy to do the same. Who do you think Uther would believe has magic? A pair of servants or his treasured ward?”
Arthur’s fists clenched at his side.
The door at the back of the room opened and they both took a step back.
“Morgana?” Uther said, smiling at her. His smile faded when they turned to him. “What happened to your head?”
Arthur glanced over at the bruise covering her temple and smiled with pride on the inside. On the outside, he matched his father’s frown. “A piece of rubble caught her when she tried to help in the battle. Thankfully it looks worse than it is.”
“You need to be more careful,” Uther lightly scolded, coming over to pull her into a hug.
Morgana sent Arthur a smirk over the king’s shoulder and he took his leave.