Arthur had woken up too late, and now he was sprinting through the forest completely unarmed. Why? Because Aulfric and Sophia had disappeared, and so had Merlin. He knew that this was likely a trap, and he didn't care. He didn't know what Sophia wanted from him, but he wasn't going to let them have Merlin. Arthur should have stopped to grab a sword, or to tell a knight whom he could trust, such as Sir Lancelot or Sir Leon. He didn't. All he was concerned with was finding Merlin.
He didn't know where he was going, but his feet carried him down a path, the same path he had followed in his dreams. There were flashes of trees in his peripheral vision like a broken branch being carried by a patch of leaves or a small bird setting flight. He remembered these images, as small as they were. Arthur knew that his dreams were to blame for his paranoia, and they were the closest thing he had to a way to find Merlin.
With the silent grace of a born hunter, Arthur slowed down as the trees started to thin out. He knew that this wasn't the edge of the forest. He had grown up hunting in these woods, though he had never happened upon this clearing before, and there were no maps that included this lake. The White Mountains loomed in the distance, and the trees were close enough to be reflected in the water. It was beautiful, untouched by man. The prince stopped at the shore and touched the water, which was cool to his touch.
This was wrong. He shouldn't be able to see this, though he had in his dream. Maybe that was why he could see it now. Arthur knew that it was there, though he shouldn't have known. Why had he stopped in this place? The invisible guide in him had told him to stop, and now that voice was silent. Arthur was alone…
No, that was a lie. Arthur was being watched. He could feel the hairs prickling on the back of his neck. "Hello?" he called out foolishly. There was no answer, just the water lapping at his hand, gently pushing him away. He didn't expect a response, and he stood up again, though he kept his feet planted in the water.
It felt like something had grabbed him because then Arthur couldn't move. He tried to leave the lake, and instead there were three people emerging from the forest. Lady Sophia no longer played the part of a frightened damsel in distress. Her light brown hair was askew from running all night, though she smiled with sickening delight as she looked at her prey.
"Look, father, he decided to show up after all. I knew that he would come after his Merlin."
Merlin. "Merlin!" Arthur looked at his friend, though there was no recognition in his eyes. The servant's gaze was glazed over. He was clearly still under the enchantment, and, unfortunately, Arthur was unable to break it on his own. He still knew nothing when it came to his magic because it never really worked for him unless he wanted to blow his room up. If he tried to save Merlin, he would probably accidentally kill him, instead. "Let him go, Sophia."
Sophia pretended to consider the offer, but then she reached for Merlin's hand and squeezed it, relishing Arthur's sharp intake of breath because for a moment there, he thought that she would harm his servant. Perhaps Sophia still would, but until Merlin was out of line of fire, Arthur couldn't even attempt to kill the sorceress with his bare hands (as he would certainly try if he was allowed to move).
"Tell me, why would I do that?" Sophia then asked, and to anyone else it would appear that her smile was sweet and innocent like the same act she played when he unwittingly rescued her in the forest. "I will admit, Merlin wasn't my first choice when I was brought to the city, but you rebuffed my advances. You treated me as though I was nothing."
Arthur wasn't falling for it. He knew who she was. "I know who you are," Arthur argued. Even if he hadn't known, Arthur wouldn't have pursued her. His heart belonged to another, no matter how much he pushed those feelings away whenever he was close to Guinevere. He was lucky that Sophia hadn't taken notice of either her or Morgana, so he only needed to take care of Merlin.
"Do you?" Sophia gave him a scrutinizing look with the faintest amount of amusement in her eyes. "I don't think that you do, Arthur Pendragon, even if you think that you do."
What in the hell was that supposed to mean? Arthur was frustrated with her cryptic answer. "I know that you are going to kill me. Merlin's not the one you want, is he?" Arthur challenged, and it seemed that he was correct. It was something that only he could give to her, not his servant. If it was gold, why would Sophia go through the trouble of bringing Arthur here of all places? Where even was this place? The nearest large body of water to Camelot was leagues away, and yet here was a virtually undiscovered lake at the edge of the Darkling Woods.
Sophia's cat-like gaze held him for several moments as she regarded him with disgust. "No, he is not. Merlin is many things, but a prince is not one of them." She dropped Merlin's hand, which didn't even faze the boy. "I need a prince."
"What do you want from me?" Arthur would have taken a defensive stance then, but his feet were locked in the water and the mud, and he was unable to free himself from whichever spell Sophia had placed onto him.
Sophia took a step closer. "Immortality," she purred, and it filled Arthur with a sickening sense of dread. No one was immortal, which was one of the many lessons that he drilled into his knights day after day, battle after battle. Every day could be your last. No one could live forever.
"And you think that I can give that to you?" Arthur asked her, narrowing his eyes at her with the deadliest glare he had ever used. If he could, he would kill Sophia right now, but her magic had quite literally stopped him in his tracks.
"Well, you can't, but the sidhe can't deny me what is rightfully mine and my father's if I give you to them."
"I'm not going with you." Both sets of eyes turned to Aulfric who was holding his staff. Of course the staff was magic. Arthur should have never let Merlin near the two visitors to Camelot. Only Merlin remained oblivious to Aulfric's announcement, and he remained unfazed as Sophia wrenched her small hand from his at once.
"I don't understand," Sophia told her father, and she sounded near to tears, and yet Arthur couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for the girl who would be his killer. "You're coming too."
Aulfric looked regretful and had eyes only for his daughter. If Arthur could get free, he could just take Merlin and run… "This was never meant for me. Only one of us can pass through."
"But… I only wanted this so we could both return to Avalon."
Avalon? What was Avalon? It was nowhere on his maps, and Arthur had never heard of it. Anything related to the Old Religion had been forgotten after the Great Purge. Few remained who remembered its lore and days of glory, and of course Arthur had never been taught. Well, if he were to die this day, he would never find out what Avalon was. He could deduce that it was a place…
The lake. The cool water's waves were more forceful now, and yet they were gentle as they pushed past him. He could not move, but the lake's waves were lapping at the three sorcerers' feet who were on dry land. It was as though the lake was trying to tell him something. It dawned on him then, but it was too late for him to do anything about this. He couldn't escape on his own, and now Sophia was standing in front of him, looking upset but determined.
"Goodbye, Arthur Pendragon," she hissed, and she pulled him further into the water. He tried to struggle, but he couldn't move. He couldn't fight back against her. He tried, but all he could muster were small squirms that were not enough to force Sophia to let go of him. She stared him in the eyes, and then she pushed him down, sending Arthur into the watery depths of the Lake of Avalon.
Arthur could just see Sophia's face as it became distorted from the water. Of course he knew how to swim, but his body was not obeying him. What was the spell Merlin had taught him, the one spell Merlin insisted on teaching Arthur in case of an emergency? Water flooded his mouth as he opened it. He tried one last time to get free, but his vision grew darker… darker…
The voice was quiet, and if Merlin took time to understand it, he would realize that it was a female's. Who was Emrys? Who was he hearing? None of this made any sense, what…
Emrys. It's time to wake up, Emrys.
Merlin was awake, and his name was Merlin, always has been. Terribly confused, he tried to open his eyes, but when he looked out, it was as though a piece of red film were covering everything in his line of vision. Merlin couldn't focus, and it was too much to look out through those red eyes, so he closed them again.
Emrys, you must wake up. You must save him.
Save him? Save who? Who needed saving? Merlin looked out again, and it was less red now, closer to a faded pink. He still couldn't see clearly, and he scrunched up his face as he tried to figure this world out. No one seemed to notice that he was there, or, if they did, they simply didn't care.
Emrys, you have to save Arthur. Save Arthur, Emrys, or Albion would be lost.
Arthur. Albion. Arthur! His vision grew clearer, and Merlin could see the man standing beside him. Aulfric paid him no mind. The old man was chanting to the heavens with his staff powerful and blue, great and terrible. In the water, he could see Sophia, but what... Why… No, where was Arthur? Where was his destiny?
Save him, Emrys. For the sake of all that is good, save him.
Merlin could move. He could curl his fingers and move his legs, which were like stiff logs beneath him. He backed away unnoticed, and that's when Merlin saw Sophia's staff lying beside the tree. He picked it up and looked at Aulfric. Something in Merlin's gut told him to use the staff, and he did. A power like none other than he had felt before rushed through him, disintegrating Aulfric to ash. Merlin heard a scream, and without blinking he did the same to Sophia. This rush of power ended, and he dropped the staff.
Where was Arthur?
Merlin waded into the lake. "Arthur!" he called out despite knowing that the prince wouldn't hear him from the watery depths. Merlin panicked and tried to go where he had seen Sophia standing. "Arthur!" He submerged his head, but the water was too dark to see through clearly. However, he could see a shape not far away, and Merlin swam with the strength of a thousand men. How long had Arthur been underwater for? What if he was too late? He took Arthur under the arms and forced him to the surface, coughing. Both men were drenched, but Merlin didn't care as he held Arthur's body close to him.
Thank you, Emrys. Now my debt has been repaid.
The presence in the back of Merlin's mind faded away, and he pulled Arthur ashore. Only there could he check to see if Arthur was breathing. At first, Merlin was too frantic to tell for sure, but there it was, a gentle pulse that told Merlin once and for all that Arthur was still alive.
When Arthur awoke, he was nestled up comfortably in his own bed. Beside him, sitting on the same stool he often found his manservant slumbering in, was Merlin. Merlin was giving Arthur the same goofy smile he had grown used to in the last six months. Had it really been that long? Arthur returned the smile, but it was more tired, more subdued. He had, after all, almost drowned in that lake.
"What happened?" Arthur asked. His throat was hoarse, and he coughed to clear his voice. He couldn't have been unconscious for more than a day, and Merlin didn't seem too awfully worried. Merlin's idiotic cheer was back, perhaps mixed with some relief that Arthur had woken up. The prince sat up in bed and was surprised to find Gaius in his chambers as well. All right, it made sense to have the Court Physician to be in the room to look after Arthur, but the older man would make talking to Merlin more difficult. Gaius knew about Merlin, but not about Arthur. No one else but Merlin knew.
Merlin laughed and slouched forward. "You behaved like a prat, that's what happened." Merlin cast a sideways glance at Gaius, and Arthur understood.
"Gaius, could I have a moment alone with Merlin?" Great job, Arthur Pendragon. Judging by Gaius's raised eyebrow of doom, Arthur had no doubts that Gaius was suspicious of his request.
"Of course, sire. I'll be in the hall." Gaius extended his look to Merlin, who was sheepishly trying to melt into the floor but being largely unsuccessful. The physician left all of the vials he had been fouling on the table, but Arthur hoped that he wouldn't come back into the room prematurely. Arthur needed to demand the truth from Merlin in peace.
"What happened, Merlin?" Arthur repeated his question, but this time his voice was softer and more serious.
Merlin looked away uncomfortably. "Well, I followed Aulfric like I said that I would." Merlin was looking towards the window, and Arthur was looking there too because his servant was looking there. "I was looking at Aulfric's staff, and he caught me. Sophia joined us, and her eyes - she wasn't human. They can't have been! Her eyes flashed red, and after that…" Merlin's eyes widened. "What was I thinking?!"
Arthur snorted at Merlin's foolishness, and since Merlin was clearly okay now, he was allowed to partake in his mirth. "Believe me, that was what I was wondering about myself. You declared your love for her in front of the entire court."
Merlin's face grew more horrified at that, and he buried his face in his hands. "Well, I certainly don't feel that way anymore. The rest of it feels like a blur. I remember…" Merlin hesitated and dared another glance at Arthur. "She said that you rebuffed her feelings, that your heart belonged to another…" Arthur's breath stilled, but Merlin continued like he hadn't said anything jarring. "Obviously the only person you care about is yourself, but she did not know that. Anyway, she went to me for comfort. Sophia suggested that we elope, and I agreed."
Arthur nodded along, a frown growing on his face as Merlin recounted his part of the story. "She told me that she wanted to use me to gain immortality. There is this place, they talked about this place called Avalon. That was where she wanted to go." Arthur paused and tried to remember what had happened before he blacked out. "I think that Avalon was the lake."
Merlin rubbed some dust from his eyes before looking at Arthur. "That's where Sophia was drowning you, and I was just standing there and letting it happen." Merlin looked guilty as he said this, but Arthur weakly touched his arm. His servant was not to blame for the sorceress's actions. He was going to express this, but then Merlin continued, "There was a woman's voice in my head. She was the one who woke me from my enchantment."
Arthur had been too busy drowning to hear any woman nearby. "Was it Sophia?" Arthur guessed, though that answer wouldn't make sense because Sophia wasn't going to end her enchantment on Merlin so that he could save the day - again.
Merlin shook his head. "No, I… I didn't recognize her. She said something about a debt being repaid, and she called me Emrys."
"What does that mean?"
Merlin shrugged. "I have no idea. I can ask Gaius to look into it. He'd probably know more than I do."
Gaius probably knew everything there was to know, so Arthur had no doubts that the physician would have this answer as well. "Be careful. He is already suspicious enough as it is."
Arthur didn't know why neither of them had told Gaius that he had magic yet. Merlin trusted his uncle dearly, and Arthur had known the man for all of his life. He wasn't sure how Gaius would take his magic, though. Arthur doubted that he would turn him in to his father, but that didn't mean that Gaius would not lie to him about his magic as he "lied" to Morgana. All of Morgana's "symptoms" should have pointed to some bigger picture. Arthur could only see it because the nightmares were his, though Gaius often waved off Merlin's shared concerns and claimed that there was no magic at work at all.
All right, Morgana didn't have magic, but Arthur did. He knew that Merlin had been discreetly asking Gaius for advice when it came to nightmares that foresaw the future, but Gaius would get a worried expression on his face that told Merlin a different answer than what the physician said aloud. Arthur and Merlin both agreed that he was hiding something, though Gaius thought that he was hiding it, whatever it was, from Morgana. There would come a day when they would have to tell Gaius the truth, and Arthur honestly did not know what to expect.
"He still thinks that you don't know about me. I'm sure that I can think of something, Arthur." Arthur didn't know how Merlin planned to ask Gaius what Emrys meant, but he nodded anyway as he sank back into his pillow.
"Remind me to send you to the stocks when I get out of bed," Arthur mumbled as he looked at the bright red canopy above his bed. It was day time, so he couldn't go to sleep. He didn't even want to after the last few nights and their nightmares that foretold his "death" - thank the gods those were over with now.
Merlin spluttered. "Why? It's not my fault that I got enchanted!" The seriousness of the moment was forgotten, and the two returned to their good-natured banter. Gaius could even walk back in, and they wouldn't have to freeze up and pretend that they weren't discussing something treasonous like magic.
"You still behaved like an idiot in front of my father," Arthur said with glee. He'd have to see about being the one to throw the first tomato - he had great aim.
"Still not my fault!" Merlin argued indignantly, and he stood up so quickly that the stool toppled over.
"He'll expect me to punish you. Would you prefer being beheaded?" Arthur wouldn't do that, and he knew that Merlin knew that he wouldn't, either.
Merlin glared at him. "You prat! I should have left you to drown!"
Arthur laughed heartily and folded his arms beneath his head. "You wouldn't have done that," he singsonged, and he was ready to spout destiny nonsense at his friend.
Merlin's glare disappeared, and he was back to smiling. "No," Merlin relented, and there was a proud gleam in his eye. "I wouldn't have."