"I imagined a dragon inside myself... We all have one, in one form or another. To me, this dragon is both the wild nature of ourselves and our conscience... At the same time, he's our unconscious, the place from which our dreams arise." ~ Dennis Quaid on Dragonheart
Although Merlin felt as much relief as anyone at the end of the dragon’s attacks, he didn’t feel particularly triumphant as he made his way back to Camelot. Arthur too, after the initial moments of joyful laughter, was subdued. The men who had followed him into battle, the men he had led, were laying dead or wounded in the clearing. They were burned, bloodied and broken, moaning in pain, and there was little Merlin or Arthur could do to ease their suffering. Their horses, although battle trained, were sensible creatures and had fled from the dragon. Arthur would not leave his men, so Merlin shuffled back along the road to the city alone. He knew time was of the essence for some of the injured men, but he felt a heaviness inside him that could not be prodded to greater speed.
Approaching the gates of the lower town, he heard the shouts and knew his return would be announced long before he crossed the gates himself. He pushed his pace a little, not wanting to cause alarm by his solitary return. A few guardsmen left their positions at the gate and met him partway down short hill leading up to the gate. As soon as they were close enough to speak without shouting he was beset with questions.
“Where is the prince?”
“Is the dragon gone?”
“Why are you alone?”
Merlin lifted a hand to stall their questions and spoke tiredly. “The dragon was defeated. Prince Arthur is fine, but many of the knights were badly injured. I’ve come to get Gaius and horses or a wagon, or something to bring everyone back to the castle; our horses unseated their riders and bolted.”
The guards didn’t seem to take in his words about the many injured. One of the men hurried back up to the gate shouting, “Prince Arthur has killed the dragon! The city is saved! Prince Arthur is victorious!”
The others left Merlin’s side and hurried after the first, talking excitedly and seeming to forget all the tragedy and sorrow of the past nights. By the time Merlin reached the castle, the courtyard was filled with the hum of excited people celebrating the end of the dragon’s reign of terror. The crowd was thick enough that he wasn’t noticed until he pushed his way through to the steps where the king stood, awaiting his son’s return.
When Uther noticed him, his gaze was piercing. “Where is Prince Arthur?”
Merlin dipped his head and said wearily, “He would not leave his men, Your Majesty. There are many injured and our horses fled. The prince sent me to bring back aid.”
“He was not injured himself?” Uther demanded.
“No, not seriously. Many of the knights were. They need a physician... Sire,” Merlin said, nearly forgetting the sire at the end. He didn’t think the king would be bothered by forms of address at the moment, but did his best to tread lightly around him. Uther was one of the few people Merlin feared, not because of his power or the threat of being discovered, but because of his unpredictability.
Uther snapped an order for someone to fetch Gaius and turned his attention back to Merlin. “You have shown great bravery to follow the prince into such a battle. Tell Arthur that he may take his rest when he returns. I will hear his report in the morning.”
Merlin carefully followed Gaius down the steps of the castle, trying not to drop the multiple items precariously balanced in his arms. He had a bag filled with bandages and splints slung over his right shoulder, several water skins over his left, and half a dozen blankets piled in his arms topped with a box filled with medicines tucked under his chin. He would have complained that Gaius was only carrying his personal medicine bag, but the slow, slightly limping gait of his mentor revealed just how exhausted he was. Gaius had seen about as much of his bed as Merlin had this past week, possibly less. Merlin had at least had a proper night’s rest in the inn while they searched for Balinor...
He bit his lip to hold back the sob that wanted to escape and felt tears stinging his eyes again. Now was not the time to grieve. When he was back in his room and alone, he could let the pain out, but right now there was a task to be done.
The stable hands had been roused and had hitched a sturdy, old gelding to a fair sized wagon and had put several spare horse blankets in the back. They helped Merlin with his awkward load as one of the page boys came hurrying along behind them with the stretcher from the infirmary; he thrust it into Merlin’s hands before scurrying back up to the castle. Merlin was a bit startled by the boy’s haste, but the anxious glances of the stable hands made him realize they were afraid they would be asked to come along. By now everyone had been told that the dragon was gone, but he could understand their reluctance to leave the relative safety of the city walls. Even though buildings still smouldered, the danger of fire would seem less to them than that of encountering a dragon out in the open.
Gaius pulled himself up onto the bench at the front and took the reins in hand. Merlin settled the last few items into the bed of the wagon and hopped up beside him. The lads moved away and disappeared back into the stable, expressions of relief on their tired faces. The guards at the city gate let them pass with a nod of their heads.
Once out of the city, Gaius asked gently, “Are you alright, Merlin?”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t hurt.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Gaius pressed.
“Will you tell me what really happened?”
Merlin looked up into the night sky and tried not to feel anything as he spoke. “Kilgharrah landed in the clearing and the knights tried to circle him, but the horses were spooked by the fire. It was all really chaotic, and then everyone was on the ground. Some were burnt, some fell when their horses bolted, and some were hit by wings and tail... Arthur got up and tried to stab him with a spear. Kilgharrah sent him flying. I... I was able to speak to Kilgharrah. He stopped attacking and went still. I could tell he’d do anything I told him to do, anything I ordered, and I...”
Gaius put a hand on his knee and gave a small squeeze. “You did what you had to.”
Merlin brought his eyes down from the sky and looked at Gaius, whose face was compassionate and eyes were understanding. Merlin shook his head and stared down at his hands. “I couldn’t do it, Gaius. I couldn’t kill him. Even after everything, the lies, the revenge, the destruction... I couldn’t kill the last dragon, Gaius. I told him to leave, commanded him never to attack Camelot ever again. He said... he said that he was in my debt and he flew away.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Gaius said gently and moved his hand to Merlin’s shoulder and pulled him into a comforting half embrace. “Kindness and compassion are never wasted, my boy. I’m proud of you.”
“I told Arthur that his spear had mortally wounded Kilgharrah and that he flew off to die. I don’t know what to do if the king wants us to bring back the head or something as a trophy... I’m so tired Gaius. I’m so tired of hiding myself all the time, and sneaking around. I’m just so tired.”
“Someday you won’t have to hide anymore, Merlin.”
They didn’t speak as the wagon jostled them further along the bumpy path. The clearing wasn’t very far from the castle, but the journey seemed to take hours. As they neared the field, Merlin wrinkled his nose. The smell of smoke and charred flesh clung to the back of his throat so thickly he could nearly taste it.
The men were no longer scattered, but instead gathered around Arthur away from the smouldering trees. A few were sitting up and helping Arthur tend to the others, but several lay unmoving. Merlin couldn’t help the shudder that ran through his body, but he fought against another round of tears. He had shed far too many already and there would be time for more later.
When Gaius halted the wagon, Merlin jumped down to steady the horse. It was a sturdy animal, docile and trained to draw, but the smoke lingering in the air made it nervous. It whickered and shifted uneasily, but calmed when Merlin held the reins and stroked its velvety nose. Gaius climbed stiffly down from his seat, but moved in his usual brisk manner towards the knights on the ground.
Merlin tried breathing deeply to calm himself, but the strong odours were overpowering and only added to his agitation. He glanced towards the men on the ground, two already laid separate, and saw Gaius lean in close then sit back shaking his head. Arthur’s face was carefully blank. It was his prince face, calm and imperturbable, but even in the dark Merlin could see the glint of sorrow and unshed tears in his eyes. Arthur might have said that no man was worth his tears, but he clearly believed it as much as Merlin had.
Merlin turned away, biting hard on his lip, and jumped when a hand came to rest on his shoulders. Turning around, he saw Sir Leon clutching his left arm to his side and attempted a weak smile.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I’m not much good to them, but I can stand and hold a horse.”
Merlin stared at him blankly for a moment, and then took in what the knight was saying. Merlin was unhurt and better able to move people around than an injured knight. He forced a smile and handed over the reins. “Thanks. Did Gaius look at your arm?”
Leon shrugged and winced. “It can wait.”
Merlin tried to school his features into a professional mask, the one he often saw on Gaius’ face when dealing with some of the less pleasant tasks as physician, in an attempt to control the roiling in his stomach. He was certain it fell well short of the mark, but he clung to the small pretence of detachment.
Gaius didn’t look up from the man he was tending when Merlin approached. “He won’t be able to sit properly for the journey back, but he shouldn’t lay flat either. Once he is on the wagon, have Sir Bors help prop him up.”
“Alright,” Merlin replied.
There was a moment of silence, then Gaius glanced up at him. “Well? He’s not going to get up and walk there himself. We brought a stretcher for a reason.”
Merlin looked at him blankly for a moment, then started and hurried to the wagon to retrieve the stretcher.
The process of moving those unable to walk was a painful one. The men moaned and cried out in pain as they were shifted onto the stretcher and each footfall made their features contort in pain. Arthur and Sir Bedivere moved quickly and efficiently with very few words. Merlin climbed up onto the wagon and settled each of them into place, wrapping them in blankets and doing his best to make them more comfortable. Once the fifth was lifted on, so far gone that his shallow, raspy breaths were the only gauge of his discomfort, Gaius moved onto the wagon to tend his most injured patients. That left two who were still mobile enough to get up on their own, but the remaining two...
Bedivere and Arthur wrapped the fallen men in their cloaks and brought them to the wagon as well. Merlin left Gaius to his patients and went to retrieve the forgotten pile of swords. The sharp, metallic clanking seemed unnaturally harsh in the quiet of the dark clearing, a stark contrast to the low moans and hushed words. Everything seemed much louder in the dark, even the creak and jangle of the harness on the cart horse. The horse stamped its feet and whinnied.
Merlin’s head snapped up when he heard an answering whinny. Clutching his armful of swords, he hurried over to Arthur.
“I think I heard our horses.”
Arthur gave him an incredulous look. “They must be scattered throughout the forest by now, Merlin.”
“Just now, the cart horse whickered at them and they called back. Perhaps they didn’t run far. I’ll go see if I can find any of them,” said Merlin.
“Gaius needs to get the men back to the castle quickly.”
Merlin shook his head. “Don’t wait for me. I can ride back on my own.”
“You get lost in the lower town,” Arthur said, not unkindly but a far cry from his usual teasing manner. “Bedivere can drive the wagon back. If you’re certain you heard them, I’ll help you look.”
“You should go back with them. The king is expecting you.”
Arthur ignored his words. “I’ll help you look.”
The moon was nearly full and still high in the sky but once in the shelter of the trees very little light filtered in. Arthur was fairly certain they were not going to find any horses and get completely lost searching, but Merlin had seemed just as certain they would, and so he followed along behind his manservant. This was becoming an increasingly common occurrence. At first it had been Merlin tripping along behind him, but now stumbling along in the dark behind Merlin didn’t seem that unusual.
The narrow path they were following split and Merlin paused looking between the two. It was too dark to read the trail. Arthur put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s too dark. We could come back in the morning. We’ve more chance of finding them in daylight, even if they have wandered farther.”
Merlin cocked his head suddenly, and pointed down the right hand path. “That way.”
“You think so?” Arthur asked, feeling sarcasm creeping into his voice.
Even in the dim light, he could tell Merlin was giving him one of his ‘and you call me an idiot’ looks.
“I know you’re the brilliant tracker here, but I hear a horse making a huge fuss in that general direction. It can’t be far.”
Arthur stilled and listened, but all he could hear was the sound of Merlin breathing. He shrugged. “We’ll look a short ways up here, but I don’t hear this huge fuss.”
Shaking his head, Merlin turned away and took the right hand path. Arthur’s eyes strained to seek the path clearly ahead of him and avoid tripping on the uneven ground. Despite his usual clumsiness, Merlin didn’t appear to be having the same difficulties navigating around roots and stones in their path. He was just about to comment on this, when he heard the sound of a horse whickering in distress. Arthur stopped to listen as he heard another, different from the first.
“There’s two,” he said under his breath.
Merlin glanced back over his shoulder. “I told you.”
They hurried their pace and soon came upon a bay charger stamping and tossing its head. The lines were snagged on a branch and it was frantic to pull itself free. Arthur stepped forward first, speaking calming nonsense to the animal. The reins had not become too tightly knotted and came free easily enough. Once the horse had calmed down, he tried to identify it.
“It’s hard to tell in the dark. It could be Leon’s mount,” he said to Merlin, only to glance around and find Merlin gone.
He could hear branches snapping and the horse he was holding snorted and whickered in response to another horse. The path here was very narrow, and after a few minutes of waiting Arthur moved back up to the wider path. The horse he was leading had calmed considerably and followed him without complaint. Arthur waited a few minutes longer at the split, but when Merlin didn’t return, he resigned himself to going back in search of him.
Arthur didn’t have to go far before he found Merlin heading towards him leading his white mare.
“So you didn’t get lost and fall in a ditch,” he tried to tease, but he knew the joke fell flat.
“Some gratitude. Your cantankerous horse tries to bite my hand off and this is the thanks I get,” Merlin grumbled thrusting the reins at Arthur and turning back.
“Where are you going?”
“There wasn’t room for two abreast and the other one is really spooked. I didn’t think he’d come just tied to Lamrei’s saddle.”
“You found another one?”
“And I think there’s a fourth nearby, but the path disappears and I can’t be sure which way it went.”
“Don’t worry about it, Merlin. Finding three is more than I had hoped for.”
Merlin disappeared back into the dark without a reply, leaving Arthur to guide his horse back towards the first. Her white coat seemed unnaturally bright in the dim and unlike that of the bay charger he nearly ran into when he arrived back at the main path. He attached the reins of the bay to the saddle of his mare and checked his horse over as best he could while he waited for Merlin to return. Running his hands down her legs and over her sides, he found nothing more troubling than a scrape on her foreleg. Then he checked the straps on the saddle to make sure they hadn’t been damaged or come free during her flight through the forest. Just as he was beginning to get restless waiting for Merlin, he heard footsteps coming towards him.
The chestnut horse Merlin was leading was still snorting and tossing its head in agitation, but he seemed to have control of it. After a few minutes of soft words and reassuring touches, it calmed enough for Merlin to check over for injury.
“There’s a bit of a scrape on his hindquarters, but other than that he seems fine,” said Merlin.
Arthur nodded. “If that’s the worst of it, we’ve been fortunate.”
“I can still hear another. I could look around some more,” Merlin offered, but he wasn’t able to hide the exhaustion in his voice.
“It’s been an incredibly long night and we were up at dawn. We’ll leave some signs along the trail and send someone out in the morning to search.”
Merlin acknowledged his words with a small nod, but cast another glance back over his shoulder. Arthur looped Llamrei’s reins back over a branch and walked over to Merlin. Taking him by the shoulders, Arthur gave him a light shake.
“It’s enough, Merlin. You’ve done more than enough. You rode out to certain death tonight and showed as much bravery as any of my knights. You brought back aid from the castle and helped get the men back. I’m glad you were at my side tonight,” Arthur said with sincerity.
Merlin met his eyes and took a shaky breath. “Alright. Let’s go home.”
The sun seemed unnaturally bright to Merlin when he woke. He squinted and rubbed his eyes groggily, feeling out of sorts. His muscles were stiff and his head hurt. He felt much like he did after drinking too much, though thankfully his stomach didn’t seem to be affected. It took a few moments for him to remember the events of the previous evening, but then he noticed the small wooden dragon on his table and everything came rushing back to him.
Tears stung at his eyes as he remembered everything from holding his father as he died to returning with Gaius to the clearing and the smell of smoke clinging sickeningly to the back of his throat. The memory was so vivid, he felt his stomach respond in ways it hadn’t last night. Merlin bolted off his bed and retched into a small basin, but only a bit of bile came up. His water jug was empty, so he staggered out of his small room in search of something to rinse the foul taste from his mouth.
Gaius looked up at Merlin’s abrupt entrance. “I was beginning to think you would sleep the entire day away.”
Merlin shakily poured himself a cup of water and slumped down on the stool across the table from Gaius. The water was cool and washed away the harsh bile at the back of his throat, though he rubbed his tongue on the top of his mouth at the lingering mineral taste.
Looking at him frowning at his cup, Gaius asked, “Is something wrong with the water?”
“No. I’m certain it’s just me,” he said, and looked up, furrowing his brow. “Sleep all day? What time is it?”
Gaius gestured to the meal on the table. “It’s not long past the midday bell.”
Merlin swore and got unsteadily to his feet. “Arthur will be livid.”
“Sit down, Merlin. I doubt very much that Arthur is awake right now. He stayed in the infirmary until nearly dawn and looked completely spent when he left.”
“Dinaden?” Merlin asked, knowing the answer already.
Gaius nodded. “Arthur wanted to be there in case he awoke, but he never did.”
The horrible feeling of his throat closing and bile rising threatened again, but Merlin swallowed it down. “I’m such a fool.”
“What? Why do you say that?”
“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t set Kilgharrah free. So many people are hurt or died or lost their homes. It’s my fault.”
“You need to stop thinking that. Kilgharrah’s wrath was not of your making and if it weren’t for you all the knights would have been lost and the city as well. You’ve saved us all and you did so with mercy and compassion. I’m proud of you.”
“So much has been lost and destroyed. I’m glad Kilgharrah’s gone, but I still feel terrible.”
“It was a terrible thing, but the city will rebuild and things will get better.”
Gaius ladled a bowl of soup for Merlin and set it down in front of him. Merlin looked at it mournfully, but began to eat all the same. After a few spoonfuls, he looked down at the bowl and frowned.
“Are you alright, Merlin? I know you told me last night that you were uninjured, but you seem unwell.”
“Does the soup taste strange to you?”
“No. I believe Gwen had it brought up from the kitchens. It doesn’t taste any differently than it normally does to me.”
“And the water?”
“Brought up from the well by one of the page boys this morning. Are you certain you didn’t hit your head at all? Sometimes a blow to the head can affect your sense of taste and smell.”
“And hearing? Everything last night was so loud; I heard the horses way off in the forest but they didn’t sound very far away. I don’t remember hitting my head, but I do have a headache.”
Gaius thoroughly examined Merlin’s head, feeling for abnormalities and checking for tenderness. He also used a lens to look closely into Merlin’s eyes and ears before shaking his head and returning to his chair.
“I don’t see or feel anything unusual. Your headache is just as likely to be caused by the long days and unusual hours you’ve been keeping lately. As for the rest of it, I can’t say. Perhaps it is something temporary.”
"Perhaps," Merlin quietly agreed, but without conviction. He wasn't injured, but he felt a lingering sense of unease. He felt like something wasn't quite right, but he had no idea what it was. Unable to make sense of it, he turned back to his soup and tried to focus his attention on the various tasks that would require his attention, both with Gaius and with Arthur.
Waking up with various aches and pains was something Arthur was well acquainted with. He had trained in the art of swordplay since he was a boy and the heavy feeling of stiffness in his limbs was familiar. The heavier feeling in his heart that quickly followed with the memory of why he was so sore was one that had not always accompanied the aches, but had become no less familiar in recent years. The reality of life as a knight was going into dangerous situations with good men, good friends, but not always coming out with them. At times he worried for himself, for what his loss would mean to his father and the line of succession, but since becoming first knight his chief concern had become almost exclusively for his men. The loss of one was hard to face. The loss of three at once with another four who might not recover enough to fight again was a painful blow.
Dragging himself out of bed, Arthur had a fleeting feeling of annoyance that Merlin was not there to assist him, but the thought vanished from his mind as quickly as it had entered it. Merlin had looked ready to collapse when he had left the infirmary last night and he would most likely be assisting Gaius now, if he were even awake. By the angle of the light streaming through his window he could tell it was at least midday. His father would be expecting a report and Arthur was not eager to relive the night before. Not only would he have to report the loss of men, but he would also have to tell Uther that he did not have the body of the dragon to display. The beast had flown off to die somewhere in peace, and Arthur was all the happier for it, but his father would want a trophy, something tangible to hold up to the world to say that he was mightier than the fiercest of magical creatures.
Arthur was loath to criticize his father. He admired him and the strength with which he ruled, but Arthur felt Uther’s greatest failing as a king was letting his pride rule him in the face of adversity. It was somewhat ironic, Arthur admitted to himself, that he was the one to make this observation, but the more he was allowed leadership under his father, the more he realized that his own approach to leadership was very different. He wanted people to follow him out of respect, not duty or honour. He wanted his own merits to be enough, not the privileges afforded him by his birthright. He didn’t want to be a servant to his faults... faults which his manservant didn’t hesitate to point out. It was Merlin who had prodded him the most into seeing his father as a man with feet of clay.
Before Merlin had stumbled into his life, it was Morgana who had tried to make him see that Uther was merely a man, capable of making mistakes and poor judgements as much as any other. It was difficult for him to take her seriously, she was only a girl after all, but he remembered her words and her fierceness. It had only been a week, but her absence was palpable even in the middle of the dragon’s attacks. Her voice had been missing in the discussions and arguments they’d had over what to do. He hadn’t had much time to wonder why Morgause had taken her, but he hoped that Morgana was strong enough to defend herself.
Shaking off his thoughts of Morgana, Arthur readied himself to report to the king.
Uther blinked a few times, nodded, then turned back to face the window. “Arthur.”
“My apologies for being so late with my report. I was awake until the early hours of the morning. Gaius instructed me to get some rest. He told me he would inform you.”
“He did,” Uther said distractedly and continued to stare out the window.
Arthur was startled by his father’s lack of attention or concern, but cleared his throat and continued. “As you were told last night, my men and I were successful in defeating the dragon. It sustained a mortal blow to the chest and flew off. I cannot be certain where its body may be found, but it was sufficiently wounded that I am in no doubt that it perished.”
Mentally wincing in anticipation of his father’s reaction, Arthur wondered if he shouldn’t have sought out Merlin to get a more complete account of the dragon’s wounds and departure. He had very few details and his father was likely to be highly disapproving of receiving a servant’s account of the battle, even if Merlin was an unfailingly loyal servant and proven in his reliability. The silence stretched between them for long moments, but when his statement received no reply, he asked tentatively, “Father?”
“Mmm? What was that you were saying?”
“I said that I am uncertain of the location of the dragon’s body. It was mortally wounded, but flew off before it died.”
Uther frowned. “I suppose that saves us the trouble of disposing of it.”
“True,” Arthur said cautiously, but when Uther did not react further, he continued his report. “Sir Girflet and Sir Sagremor were killed in the attack. Caradoc, Lucan, Kay, Cador and Dinaden were seriously injured. Sir Dinaden died of his injuries before dawn, but Gaius said he is hopeful that the others will recover. He was most concerned about Cador as his face was badly burnt. The others were less seriously injured, though none of us is unscathed. I took a blow to the head myself. Gaius assures me it isn’t serious, though he did stitch the wound closed as a precaution.”
Once again, when Arthur finished speaking there was a long silence. He wondered if Uther was even listening. His father’s eyes were unfocussed and sad. In that moment, Arthur didn’t see the strong king he had admired for so long. Uther seemed to have aged a dozen years overnight and with that aging did not come the wisdom evident in Gaius’ eyes, nor the quiet contemplation that filled Geoffrey’s. Uther looked weary and worn, lost in his thoughts.
Arthur didn’t want to think too much on what that look might mean. He ignored the silence and continued, “I have yet to check on the men since waking. With your permission, Sire, I ask your leave to attend to them before seeing to my other duties today.”
Uther seemed to register the ‘Sire’ and appeared to regain his focus. “I’m sorry, Arthur. What were you saying?”
“I wish to check on the condition of the men in Gaius’ care before attending to my duties. Is there anything of particular importance you wish for me to attend to in the city?”
“The council is currently cataloguing the damage done to the castle and our supplies. They should be ready to report by morning. See to your men and care for your own injuries.”
“What of the lower town?”
“Patrols have been increased with what men are available. They should be able to keep the peace.”
Arthur bit back a sharp comment that tried to surface at the apparent lack of concern for the damages to the lower town, and tried to be pleased that his father’s distraction appeared to have passed. Inclining his head in a half bow, he turned and left the room feeling unsettled and concerned by his father’s demeanor.
The acrid smell of smoke lingered and when he had looked down at the town from above the air was hazy. The brilliant blue of a late summer afternoon was dulled in the narrow streets. Here the day was dreary and filled with quiet grief. He sidestepped a growing pile of half burnt timbers and turned down the next street. The worst of the damage was confined to the higher end of the street closest to the castle. Three buildings were completely destroyed with a fourth that appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Arthur stepped closer to the precarious building to ensure no one was inside.
Through a gap in the wall, he saw a young girl, perhaps eight years old, on her knees in the ruined house clutching a filthy bit of cloth to her chest. She seems oblivious to the world around her, even though what remained of the roof and walls creaked ominously. He was reluctant to disturb her, but was concerned for her safety. Carefully stepping into the building, he crouched beside her and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Are you hurt?”
The girl started. When she turned to look at him, her eyes grew wide and she stuttered, “S-s-sire.”
“I don’t mean to disturb you, but this building doesn’t look very safe. I don’t think you should stay in here,” Arthur said gently.
Her surprise turned back into sadness and she dropped her head, clutching more tightly to the filthy bit of cloth. “I have nowhere else to go.”
“Where is your family?”
She sniffled and shook her head. “My father brought me to the tunnels. He told me to hide there, with the other children. He said he was going to help put out the fires. That was three nights ago. I don’t know what happened to him.”
“What about your mother?”
“She was very sick and she died,” the girl said, her voice trembling. Thin shoulders shook beneath his hand and the sniffling became hiccupping sobs. Arthur had no idea how to comfort a distraught child. He awkwardly patted her shoulder and stayed close while she cried, but felt rather helpless.
When the worst of her grief was spent, she looked up and him, knuckling tears out of her eyes. “I-I’m sorry.”
“You’re allowed to be sad. Everyone is sad right now.”
“Are you sad?”
He nodded. “I’m sad that I didn’t stop the dragon sooner, and I’m sad that so many people were hurt and lost their homes.”
“Is the dragon really gone?” she asked.
“Yes, he’s really gone.”
“Did... Did the dragon kill my father?”
“I don’t know. There are many people in the infirmary in the castle and there are many people who died. We don’t know who everyone is yet. I will try to find out for you,” Arthur promised.
Arthur stood and extended a hand to the girl. “Will you come with me? It really isn’t safe here.”
“Where can I go?”
“I’ll find someone you can stay with.”
The girl slowly got to her feet and looked mournfully around the remains of her home. She clutched the dirty brown fabric in one hand and placed her other tiny soot smeared hand in his.
“What’s your name?”
“I have a friend I’d like you to meet, Iola.”
Despite his misgivings, he knew she would help. Iola’s grip on his hand was surprisingly tight and the look on her face was sad and frightened. Gwen had been assisting Gaius in the infirmary for days and even if she had no news of the girl’s father, she would have a better idea of how to help. Arthur had seen Gaius send Gwen away for rest when he had been up in the infirmary to check on his injured men. Arthur didn’t want to disturb her rest, but he didn’t want to make the young girl wait either.
Before he could change his mind, Arthur knocked on the door. He resisted shifting impatiently from foot to foot and tried to think of what exactly he was going to say to her. A few moments later the door opened and a weary Guinevere looked out at him in surprise. “Arthur? What are you doing here? Um... I mean, you’re welcome to stop by anytime you like of course, it’s just I’m very tired and Gaius said he’d need some help again tonight and...”
Before she could work herself into a full babble, Gwen noticed the young girl attempting to hide herself behind him. She crouched down and smiled warmly. “Hello there. What’s your name?”
The girl buried her face against Arthur’s side and didn’t speak. Gwen looked up at him inquiringly and he said, “I was looking to see how bad the damage was and I found her in one of the burned out houses. It looked about ready to collapse. Her name is Iola. She said her father was helping put out fires a few nights ago. She hasn’t seen him since.”
Gwen stood and opened the door for them. “You had best come in.”
Arthur stepped inside, Iola’s grip almost painful, and shut the door. He turned and knelt facing her. “This is my friend, Gwen. She’s a very nice person.”
Iola peered over his shoulder and looked at Gwen warily.
“Does she know where my father is?” she whispered.
“I don’t know, but I do know she will do her best to help you. Will you let her help you?”
The little girl bit her lip and looked back and forth between Arthur and Gwen before nodding.
Gwen smiled down at them and extended a hand. “How about we get you cleaned up a little?”
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know. She’s alone; her mother died, her father is probably dead, and no one is going to care for her. You’re the only person I could think of who could help.”
“I don’t mind giving her some food and a place to sleep for a few days, but if she is orphaned what am I supposed to do?”
“She might have other family, perhaps, or you could keep her...”
“Keep her?!” Gwen hissed, “She’s a young girl, not a stray cat! Besides, I can barely keep myself at the moment.”
Arthur’s brows furrowed. “Are you alright?”
“I... Well, I expect the steward will find me a position somewhere in the castle, since I’ve been part of the royal household for so long, but everything has been hectic with the attacks, and Gaius needed help, so I helped out there, but I don’t know what is going to happen now, and Morgana is still missing, and...”
Arthur put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed them. “You will always have a place within the castle. I promised you this after your father’s death and I hold to that. You’re right; things in the castle have been chaotic since Morgana was taken. I’ll take it upon myself to bring your situation to the attention of the steward. Given recent events, there is no lack of work to be done. Perhaps it would be best for all concerned that you continue to work with Gaius for the time being. He will be in need of extra hands for some time yet. Does that suit you?”
“Of course. I’m happy to help Gaius. He’s been run off his feet. What about the girl, though?”
“I don’t know anything about children. I don’t know what should happen if it turns out she has no other family. She’s probably not the only one to have lost parents, and I haven’t the first clue what to do about it. I’ll try to figure something out, but at the moment I just don’t know.”
Gwen drew a breath to say something, then hesitated and glanced back at the closed door. Her irritation with him drained from her face and she said, “Maybe the king will...”
Arthur turned away, not wanting to see the hopeful expression on her face. “I think he’s more concerned about rebuilding and making sure there are enough provisions for the winter. I can bring it forward at the next council meeting, but I wouldn’t pin too much hope on that.”
“I know, Arthur. I know. Of course repairing the city comes first. I don’t mean to sound like that isn’t important.”
“I should let you rest. You’ve had as little sleep these past days as the rest of us. I’m sorry for dropping the girl on your doorstep.”
“She needs someone. Could you tell Gaius I might be a bit later than I had planned tonight?”
Arthur nodded, and left through the smithy door.
Merlin wished he could do more to help. His body ached all over from trying to keep up with Arthur, lifting, carrying, sawing and building. He was certain there must be some magical shortcuts that would make the task easier, but he acknowledged that it would be an exceptionally unwise thing to even attempt. He wasn’t above making the odd item he was carrying a little lighter or stopping a beam not yet fixed in place from falling on someone. Those things had been habit for so long he did so almost without thinking, though not without caution. The long days of work in the sun left him sweaty, exhausted and sore, but it was satisfying to see progress day by day.
There were still a number of displaced village folk living in one of the lower halls adjacent to the infirmary that had become much less temporary than could be hoped. After a full day performing duties within the castle and manual labour with Arthur, Merlin dragged himself to the infirmary to help Gaius. The physician spent long hours attending to those who were either too injured to return to their homes or had no homes left to return to. The numbers in the infirmary were slowly decreasing, however.
Many had recovered from their injuries and it had been several days since anyone had succumbed to them. There were still several people with broken limbs and rasping coughs from breathing in smoke, but Gaius was most concerned for those with extensive burns. Merlin spent much of his time in the infirmary ensuring burns were cleaned and properly dressed to prevent infection. His hands smelled overpoweringly of garlic and tansy from the infusions used to clean the wounds. When Merlin left the infirmary, he scrubbed his hands vigorously with soap and had even searched for a spell that might strip the pungent odour from his skin, but nothing had worked. He also found the infirmary an increasingly unpleasant place to be. He could smell the scent of burnt flesh and in a few cases the foul smell of pus and rotting flesh.
Although being near these people made his senses recoil, he did his best to help them. Gaius made the odd comment about how astute Merlin was becoming at recognizing the early stages of infection, but had not broached the subject of Merlin’s improved senses directly. It was a fact Merlin himself was finding impossible to ignore. He was no longer in doubt that his vision, hearing and sense of smell had improved significantly. It was overwhelming and unpleasant at times, though he supposed that no longer requiring a candle to avoid tripping over things in the dark was a positive thing.
Merlin sat wearily on the edge of his bed after another seemingly endless day. It was late. The sun had long since set and the waning moon was high in the sky. His entire body ached. He plucked at his dirty tunic and groaned aloud as his muscles protested at its removal. His back was incredibly stiff and though he couldn’t remember anything falling on him, he felt like there was a swollen lump across his back, between his shoulder blades. It was an aching burn, like knotted muscles, but he couldn’t reach his arms around to feel it. He thought briefly about having Gaius check his back and perhaps get something for the pain, but he could already hear the old man’s snores and didn’t want to wake him for something so trivial.
Merlin balled up the dirty tunic and tossed it across the room, ignoring the twinge in his back as he did so. The smells of the day clung to the shirt, dust and wax from polishing a wardrobe before moving it into one of the newly finished rooms, sawdust and straw from helping prepare a house in the lower town for thatching, and the cloying scent of burn salves and dried blood from his time in the infirmary. Though the distance wasn’t enough for the smell to disappear, his own scent and the wool and linen of his bed were strong enough for him not to care about the dirty shirt. He wanted to wash, to put on clean clothes, to somehow escape the smells that followed him everywhere, but sleep called to him.
He flopped down on his stomach, one arm dangling off the side of the bed and the other tucked under the pillow his cheek rested on, and tried to ignore the creaking of boards shifting and settling, the rustle and clink of the guardsmen on their patrols and the countless noises he had never noticed filled the night hours. All he wanted to do was sleep until his body didn’t feel sore anymore. He wanted to sleep until he could forget the sadness in his heart. He wanted to sleep until he could pretend that things were back to normal again.
Unfortunately, he knew that dawn was closer than it should be and that tomorrow would be another long and exhausting day.
When he opened his eyes again, he looked around the room and shook his head. It wasn’t a complete disaster; the bed was made and the dishes from earlier in the day were cleared, but there was still a shirt hanging over the top of the changing screen and a pair of trousers and boots on the floor beside it. His desk was littered with various parchments and various items were out of place. There was also no fire lit, but Arthur wasn’t concerned about that. By morning he would feel the chill fingers of fall creeping into the room, but the days were still hot and the cool night air was a relief. Still, his rooms felt unsettled, which didn’t help when he had spent the entire day feeling unsettled, and Merlin was noticeably absent. He wanted to be annoyed with his manservant’s absence and neglect of his duties, but even the thought of chastisement felt wrong. Merlin was as run off his feet as the rest of them.
Walking over to the table, he noticed a jug of wine and a small covered tray. He lifted the cover to find some bread and cheese and a sizeable slice of currant cake. The corners of his mouth quirked up. Only Merlin was able to charm his way into the good graces of the kitchen staff enough to take liberties with the sweets, even if it was for the royal household. He sat down at the table and poured himself some wine which he downed quickly. Arthur poured another, though he sipped at it this time. The wine was watered; another sign that Merlin had brought it. Merlin could be a real mother hen sometimes, but just now Arthur was content with the fussing, even if Merlin wasn’t actually there while he did it.
His sword was laid out on the end of the table, sharpened and polished as well as he would have done himself. At least Merlin had his priorities straight. He could tolerate untidy rooms a while longer, but he was glad his weapons and armour were tended to. Arthur turned his attention back to the food and picked at the currants at the edges of the cake while letting his mind turn over the day’s events.
Council this morning had been... odd. Arthur had sat in on council meetings regularly for years now. He was familiar with the way his father spoke to his councillors. He was aware of the petty squabbles and power struggles amongst those who sought to improve their standing at court. Arthur knew which men his father trusted implicitly, which men he was hesitant about, and which men he only pretended to trust so that he could keep them close enough to know what they were up to. It was a battle, as skilled as any on a tourney field, and Uther was very good at it. There were times when his father would lose his temper or reveal more of his mind than intended, but he was always sharp and focussed.
Today, however, that sharpness of thought had been disturbingly absent. Three times during reports Arthur had noticed his father staring out the window with the same unfocussed expression he had seen when he reported on the battle against the dragon. Uther called the councillors by the wrong names and positions and even asked why the north tower was in need of repairs. Every man at the meeting had turned to Arthur at some point with eyebrows raised in silent question, but he had resolutely ignored them and refused to let his concern show.
But he was concerned.
When council had adjourned, Arthur had joined his father for the midday meal, as was their habit on council days. Merlin was serving them, which he hadn’t done since his duties had tripled after the dragon’s attacks. He wore a blank expression, which would be normal on any servant other than Merlin while serving the royal table, but there was knowledge in his eyes. Someone had said something. It was likely just talk overheard between councillors, Merlin was notorious for eavesdropping, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. The castle walls had big ears. In a matter of hours, the castle would be buzzing with gossip about his father.
He had drunk more than he should have during the meal, but it seemed every time his father spoke his grasp on reality showed more signs of slipping. At first they discussed the upcoming harvest. Arthur had ridden out only the day before to see how the crops were faring and to ensure that none had been lost or damaged by the dragon.
“The fields look nearly ready to reap and the nearby villages were undamaged. It should be a good crop this year, if the weather holds.”
“That is good to hear.”
“It was nice getting out of the city for the afternoon. I’ve been so busy taking care of matters here. Having a proper ride felt good.”
“You should take it easy on that horse of yours, Arthur. Lug is getting long in the tooth. You shouldn’t ride him so hard or so far.”
Arthur covered up how much the comment unsettled him with his goblet. Lug had been his childhood horse, and had died three winters past. It had been years since anyone had even mentioned the animal.
“I took a younger mount, father,” Arthur mumbled.
That wasn’t the last slip, however. Although he knew that Merlin didn’t actively try to be clumsy, his servant was prone to knocking over goblets and dropping cutlery. When Merlin had spilled wine on Uther’s sleeve, Arthur had expected the standard angry shouting, but Uther’s light admonishment at Merlin to be careful was shocking. This was followed by Uther inquiring about his Latin studies and a few comments about how well Morgana seemed to be settling into life at court. The conversation jumped by years at a time, but Uther seemed completely unaware of it.
When the king rose and announced he had a number of missives he needed to have ready to be sent by the following morning, Arthur had met Merlin’s eyes for the first time during the meal and saw the perfect reflection of his own worry. Once Uther had left the room, Merlin’s passive servant act had vanished.
“Would you like me to intercept those letters for you?” Merlin asked with false nonchalance as he began to gather the dishes.
“Merlin...” he growled.
“It was Geoffrey. He came to see Gaius after council and said your father seemed a bit out of sorts.”
“Did Gaius send you?”
“Geoffrey was very vague about the details, but I could tell he was concerned. I know how gossip gets around. I thought it would be better if I served.”
“There were a dozen people at council, Merlin. The whole castle will have heard by nightfall.”
“Was it this bad at council?”
Arthur shook his head. “He only seemed distracted and slipped with a few names.”
“That’s something, at least. I think Gaius was planning on checking on him later. Would you... should I tell him?”
He didn’t want anyone to hear of what had just happened, but if he couldn’t trust Gaius, then he could trust no one. Arthur nodded reluctantly. “Yes. Gaius should know if he is to help.”
Merlin stopped bustling about the table and put a hand tentatively on Arthur’s arm. “We’ll figure this out.”
Arthur looked up at Merlin, but he didn’t see the endless optimism he usually saw when things looked bleak. “I stopped using Lug when I was fifteen because he was too old for the hard riding I did while I was training. My father gave me Llamrei when I completed training to be a knight. I haven’t had a Latin tutor since I was twelve and Morgana came to court when I was nine. You saw him, Merlin. He wasn’t talking to me here and now. How is it possible to just figure it out?”
“I don’t know. I guess we just try to do our best.”
He had spent the afternoon helping to finish the frame for a roof on one of the houses in the lower town. Reconstruction was coming along well, and his knights had taken to the task with little comment, though they all knew the orders to assist had come from him and not the king. Arthur had refused to allow himself to dwell on the state of his father’s mind. There was plenty of work to be doing, and the promise of the harvest also meant fresh thatch for the roofs. The work was as demanding as any of their usual training, but in some ways more satisfying. Hours of drills had their reward, but it was difficult to measure. It could take weeks or months to master a maneuver or notice an improvement in strength. Watching a building take shape was more immediately gratifying. He wouldn’t want to do it permanently, but it was satisfying work.
The candle on the table sputtered and flickered as it burned low and Arthur drank the last of his wine. Sitting here worrying wasn’t helping anything and it was growing late. He had spoken with Gaius after supper, but the physician had only just returned from tending to the many wounded still in the infirmary. They took immediate priority, as they should, Arthur acknowledged. Gaius had said he needed some time to research the affliction and in the meantime was providing a tonic that helped aid memory and mental focus. Though Gaius had also admitted that he hadn’t told Uther of its exact purpose, which Arthur knew was wise even though he resented it.
Arthur snuffed the candles and went to bed, but even though he told himself worrying would do him no good he found it difficult to fall asleep. His mind turned over thoughts and concerns long into the night. He wondered if this is what Morgana felt like when she couldn’t sleep or when she had troubled dreams. For all they had constantly quarrelled with each other, he missed her greatly. She had always been there for him after he had argued with his father or when the strain of being the heir to the throne became too great. She would tease him or goad him or even agree with him when he needed it. He wondered where she was and if she was alright and more than ever before he wished for her company.
Merlin snuck a drink from the skin of water he was holding and looked across the practice field at Arthur and the knights. Today was the first day they had returned to formal drills and training. As he watched, he could see that despite the familiar tone of command, Arthur was easing his men back into the routines. Leon was still obviously favouring his left arm. Kay's footwork had small hitches in the movements. All the men who had faced Kilgharrah and were on their feet again still bore signs of their injuries. Even Arthur, commanding them all, was not moving with as much fluid grace as he normally did.
The usual lighthearted teasing that would have accompanied such failings was absent, however. There were no recriminations towards the men who had not ridden out against Kilgharrah. Arthur had been sincere in his speech to his men, but none of those men were making the sorts of jibes they would have made on any other day, or after any other battle for that matter. It was comforting to watch them train, though. The usual routines were gradually resuming. Even though they still spent time helping build and repair the town, the pace had slowed to something more sustainable. There were no longer dozens of people living in the lower hall with no place to go. Not all the homes had been rebuilt, but enough were habitable again that the temporary accommodations were no longer necessary.
When the men paired off to spar, Merlin usually found the match ups entertaining enough to keep his attention, but today he was restless and uncomfortable. As it had been for days, the spot between his shoulder blades was sore. The swelling seemed even larger today and it throbbed when he reached with his arms or accidentally leaned back against the wall. He had been meaning to talk to Gaius about it for several days now. The pain seemed to be more than could be accounted for by a simple muscle strain and it was becoming distracting not just when he tried to sleep at night, but during his daily duties as well.
Merlin gave up on standing properly at attention on the side of the field and sat down on the bench beside the weapon rack. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and let the waterskin sway back and forth, feeling the water sloshing against the sides. He rolled his shoulders again and winced, trying to alleviate the discomfort and let out a quiet sigh that might have sounded a bit like a whine if anyone had been close enough to hear him. Merlin ignored the sparring and focussed his attention on the rocking motion of the waterskin, tuning out the world around him.
He startled when someone flopped down on the bench beside him. It was nearly impossible for anyone to sneak up on him since his hearing had so drastically improved, but the discomfort in his back and the nearly hypnotic motion of the waterskin had caused his mind to drift. Merlin looked up to see Arthur's sweaty, exasperated face looking back at him.
"Are we boring you, Merlin? I'll have to tell the lads they’re failing to keep my manservant entertained. Obviously they aren't working hard enough," Arthur joked.
Merlin handed over the waterskin and squinted his eyes against the bright sun as he looked across the field at the pairs. He knew enough about swordplay now to know they weren't moving as swiftly and gracefully as usual, but they were working hard. Their faces were ruddy and sweat slid down their cheeks and dripped off their chins. Swords clanged together regularly. Blows were blocked and dodged. If the pain in his back hadn't been throbbing again, he would have enjoyed watching them.
"I'm not bored, I'm just hot," Merlin offered weakly.
Arthur passed the skin back. "Drink if you need it. You'll be no use to me or Gaius if you collapse in the heat."
Merlin took a small sip from the waterskin and returned to dangling it between his knees. Arthur quirked a half smile and slapped Merlin's back companionably.
Stabbing pain exploded between his shoulder blades and Merlin cried out, dropping to his knees on the ground, his back arching in a futile attempt to lessen it. Through the buzzing in his ears he thought he heard Arthur ask if he was alright but he found that despite thinking it quite clearly, he couldn’t make his voice answer. It should be rather obvious he was not. A moment later hands under his arms were pulling him to his feet and Arthur's face swam into view.
"Your back is bleeding. We need to get you to Gaius," said Arthur, dragging one of Merlin's arms across his shoulders for support.
"Alright," Merlin said weakly, and stumbled along beside Arthur, gasping as the position of his arm caused the agony in his back to burst white hot behind his eyes with each step.
The trip was a fog of pain that seemed unending and Merlin paid no attention to his surroundings until Arthur directed him onto a chair with a clipped, "Sit."
The room swam into focus, and Merlin realized that he wasn't in the main infirmary, but in Gaius' workroom. He blinked slowly in confusion as Arthur disappeared out of the door. He leaned forward and rested his head against the table, breathing slowly and trying not to think about the hot, angry throbbing that seemed equally determined not to let him forget.
A few minutes or a few hours later, he couldn't tell, he heard the sound of footsteps in outside the door and looked up to see Arthur return with Gaius.
"What have you done to yourself now, Merlin?" Gaius asked with concern and affection.
Merlin gave Gaius a miserable, pained look and returned his head to the table. "My back hurts."
"Your back is bleeding, Merlin," Arthur said, displaying a hand with unmistakable blood smears on it. "Your shirt is soaked through."
Gaius traced a finger around what must be the stain on his clothes and said, "If you can manage it, you need to take off your shirt. Otherwise I'll have to cut it."
Acutely aware that Arthur was still there watching, Merlin tried to hold back the whimper that wanted to escape as his muscles pulled and the fabric dragged against his swollen skin. He sucked in a sharp breath as the cool air of the room hit his exposed flesh at the same time as Arthur sucked in a breath at the sight of it.
"That looks rather painful. What happened?" Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged, and grunted in pain at the movement. "Dunno. It's been sore for days. I figured it was just from building houses and moving furniture."
Gaius took a cloth soaked in tansy water and gently wiped at his back. The astringent made his skin sting as well as throb and ache. "How many days, Merlin?"
"Maybe ten? Less than a fortnight."
"Ten days, Merlin?! If you've been hurt for ten days, why didn't you tell me?" Arthur asked, his voice equal parts exasperation and concern.
Merlin craned his neck around to glare at Arthur, but the motion sent another stab of pain searing into his back and he dropped his head down on the table. "Well it was only a bit sore at first, like a knot in the muscles back there. Not a big deal. Everyone's got aches and pains these days."
"And I've been dispensing tonics and liniments for them, as you well know," Gaius observed.
Merlin could almost hear the eyebrow of disapproval rising as his mentor spoke, and groaned. "It's just been busy whenever I thought to ask you, or it was late and you were sleeping..."
"Merlin," Gaius said, infusing his name with disapproval and empathy in equal measure, then turned to Arthur. "I will tend to his back, Sire, but he may not be fit to resume his duties for a few days."
"Of course. Tell that idiot not to show up without a clean bill of health-"
"-I can hear you just fine, prat."
"There are plenty of competent people to help repair houses, and his other duties will keep," Arthur said, and left the room.
Gaius walked across the room, peered out into the corridor, then closed the door securely before returning to Merlin's side. "He's gone. Now, do you have anything else to share with me?"
"What do you mean? I've told you everything. My back started hurting about ten days ago and I meant to get something for it, but it's been so busy that I never think to ask until I'm in bed. It's been sore and it felt like there was some swelling even before today, but I can't remember anything specific that might have caused it."
Gaius traced a finger around the swollen area, about the size of two fists, then dabbed the damp cloth at a spot to one side of his spine that made his vision go white and an involuntary shout of pain to escape his lips.
"What was that?"
"Hmm. I'm not sure. There's another spot just like it, though," Gaius said, bringing the cloth back to Merlin's back.
He had been expecting the pain this time, but wasn't able to hold in the shout completely.
"You said you could feel that it was swollen before today?"
"Yeah, for a few days."
"And there was no blood before today?"
"No. It hurt more this morning than before, but it wasn’t bleeding until Arthur slapped me on the back."
"Hmm," Gaius said, his frown evident.
Merlin sat up and turned to look at Gaius. "What is it?"
Gaius sat down on a chair beside him and shook his head. "I don't know. It appears as if you have some sort of growths coming out of your back, one on either side of your spine. I've never seen anything like it before, but I wonder..."
"Are you still finding things taste and smell differently?"
Merlin nodded. "Everything smells and tastes stronger. I can hear better. I can even read without a candle at night."
"That's odd, but I can't see a direct connection. I'll have to do some research."
Merlin groaned at the prospect.
"Not you. I'm going to put some salve on your back and give you a tonic for the pain. Then you are going to rest. Regardless of what is wrong with you, sleep is the best medicine and we've all had little enough of it lately."
Gaius coated the swollen area of his back with a pungent but pleasantly numbing salve. Merlin drank a truly revolting pain tonic that very quickly made him feel heavy lidded and stumbled up the steps to his bed. He collapsed on his front, burying his face in the pillow and, soothed by the familiar the sound of Gaius flicking through pages, he fell asleep.
Merlin still felt groggy and tired, but he could smell food and his stomach growled loudly. Pushing himself up off the mattress, the pain in his back made him wince, but it wasn’t the blinding agony it had been earlier. He didn’t bother with a shirt, though he did listen carefully at the door to make sure there weren’t any unexpected visitors in the room beyond. He could hear Gaius fussing with the kettle, but nothing else, so he opened the door and shuffled over to his usual spot at the table.
“How are you feeling?” Gaius asked.
“Still sore, but much better than earlier.”
“Yes, well I suspect what happened this afternoon would naturally be more than a little painful.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think I may have found some answers about the growths on your back, Merlin.”
“What are they?”
Gaius picked up a bowl of steaming water infused with herbs and came around the table to tend to Merlin’s back. Merlin bit his lip in anticipation of the pain, but found it hurt much less than when Gaius had cleaned it earlier. It stung a bit when Gaius carefully dabbed around the swollen edges of the growths he had described earlier, but nothing near the blinding agony it had been earlier.
When his back was thoroughly cleaned, Gaius set the bowl down and picked up an unfamiliar jar of salve. The physician carefully coated the area muttering, “Remarkable. Simply remarkable.”
“Gaius? What is it?”
“I had thought it nothing more than a legend, but then I suppose I should have known better as it’s you.”
“I believe that these growths are due to your recent magical inheritance. They’re wings.”
“What?” Merlin half laughed, “You must be joking.”
“I’m afraid not. There are stories, legends, that long ago the Dragonlords were more than men, more than sorcerers. It is said that they once grew wings and could fly with their kin.”
“You think I’m growing wings?”
“I was not able to find much information about it, but yes. It seems to be a not unreasonable explanation of what is happening to you.”
“Not unreasonable?!? What am I supposed to do with wings?! How big will they get?” Merlin said, feeling panic rising.
Gaius put the lid back on the salve and wiped his hands off with a damp cloth. “I can’t say. I would expect they would need to be fairly sizable to be capable of flight. Several feet at the least.”
“How am I supposed to hide massive wings from Arthur? From the king? From everyone?” Merlin asked, feeling utterly stricken. “I have to leave.”
“Not just yet, I shouldn’t think. What has broken through the skin is about the size of a radish and the skin is already well on its way to being healed. The salve I applied is one I use to prevent scars from becoming hard and inflexible. This may be all that develops. There is very little recorded history about the Dragonlords. Even before the Great Purge, they tended to be reclusive and insular.”
“Balinor... my father... he couldn’t have had enormous wings Gaius. I’m sure I would have noticed.”
“Which is part of the reason I think it would be premature go into hiding. Though they have always been reclusive, Dragonlords have also concealed themselves amongst ordinary folk easily enough through the years.”
“I suspect we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Merlin didn’t find this especially comforting, but he also couldn’t think of anything else he could do. Despite sleeping the afternoon away, he still felt very tired. He accepted the soup and bread from Gaius without further comment.
“Sire, the king has sent for you,” Leon said.
Bedivere nodded. “The page who found us was very agitated. He said the king told him it was a matter of greatest urgency.”
“What on earth could be so urgent?” Arthur wondered aloud. “If it’s Cenred or perhaps Bayard...”
“Do you think there is an army on the move?” Bedivere asked.
Arthur shrugged and tried not to leap to conclusions. “We’ve kept regular patrols along the border, even during the attacks. Perhaps the latest patrol saw something. I’ll go find out what it is right away.”
“Is Merlin alright?” Leon asked as Arthur turned to head towards the council room.
Arthur gave a rueful expression and shook his head. “He’s managed to do some kind of damage to his back. Gaius said he’ll need a few days to recover.”
The man on the left shook his head. “Only four today, Sire. The king sent them away after the latest patrol brought its report.”
Arthur nodded his thanks and tried to keep his features neutral as he entered the room with a sense of foreboding.
The scene before him was strikingly similar to the one he had found when he delivered his account of the battle with the dragon. His father was once again staring out the window looking lost in thought, though he did notice Arthur’s presence more quickly.
Uther turned away from the window and looked gravely at him. “Arthur. The latest patrol from the western border has returned.”
“Is something amiss?”
“The villagers near the border reported a group of a half dozen or so travellers, including several women. They would not say where they were from nor where they were going,” Uther said, as if this detail were of great significance.
Arthur frowned in confusion. “That’s... a bit odd, but not overly suspicious.”
“They have Morgana!” Uther thundered, his voice echoing loudly in the empty room.
In the silence that followed, Arthur watched his father carefully. He had seen his father angry, irritated, disapproving, even murderous, but he didn’t see any of those things now. He saw a man teetering on the edge of madness. Very calmly, Arthur asked, “What are your orders, Sire?”
“You must ride out at once! She must be rescued.”
“I will ride out as soon as a group of men can be readied,” Arthur said, and with a small bow turned to leave the room.
Uther called out after him, “You must find her.”
Arthur didn’t look back.
When they reached his rooms, Arthur shut the door securely behind them and let out a heavy sigh.
“Sire? What is it?” Bedivere asked.
Arthur shook his head and walked towards the table, pulling off his gloves and tossing them down. “He thinks the patrol has sighted Morgana.”
Leon noticed him fumbling with the buckles on his armour and began helping him remove the plate. “Really?”
“I can’t say, but I doubt it. The patrol said there was a group of travellers. Probably the only reason they were noteworthy was the number of women in their party. I need to speak with the head of the patrol, but if they had seen Morgana, they would have just said so. My father is... has he seemed not himself to either of you?”
Freeing the pauldron, Leon set it down on the table and met Arthur’s eyes. “It has seemed to me that, in matters concerning the Lady Morgana, he has not always been the most level headed.”
“And even more so since her disappearance?” Arthur asked, already knowing the answer.
Bedivere cleared his throat. “To be perfectly honest, since then he has been less than entirely level headed on most matters.”
Arthur closed his eyes and nodded. “I have orders to ride out immediately with a group of men to ensure her return. It will have to be a small group. Bedivere, if you could find three other men to join us?”
“Of course,” Bedivere nodded, already heading towards the door.
“Leon, I... The king holds you in high esteem, and you are welcomed into council when I cannot be there. I would have you ride with us, but...” Arthur trailed off.
Leon nodded his understanding. “I will stay close to the king and aid him as best I can.”
“Be cautious. I... I am a terrible son to say this, but he has not been predictable or entirely reasonable these past weeks. If he feels he has been undermined, I fear he will lash out.”
“You are not a terrible son, Arthur. You have been charged to protect the kingdom and all her people and it is your duty to serve the king. Sometimes, in doing your duty, in doing what is right, the tasks seem to conflict with each other, but they do not. I have no words to make this easier, but I see the necessity as clearly as you do.”
Arthur shook his head, thinking back to the conversations with his father that spanned decades. “You don’t. It’s worse than you know, but I can’t do anything about it now. I don’t know what I can do about it.”
“Whatever you choose to do, you have my support. I trust your judgement,” Leon said, and the confidence in his voice was nearly a physical blow to Arthur.
“Thank you, Leon. I have great faith in you as well,” Arthur said, setting down the last of his armour. “Would you see if there are any pages about? I seem to be without a manservant and this rescue party is going to need provisions.”
“Of course. I’ll send one down to the stables to ready the horses as well, shall I?”
Arthur nodded and Leon took his leave.
His mind wandered, gently taking hold of an idea, perusing it lazily then letting it go again without letting it register too deeply. He thought about the times he and Will had gone off into the trees to play when they should have been feeding the geese. He thought about the goose down pillows on Arthur’s bed and a glorious afternoon spent napping on the bed while Arthur was off on patrol. He thought about the first time Arthur had dragged him along on a patrol and the way Arthur’s eyes had crinkled with mirth at how difficult he had found it to get into the saddle. He thought about urging the horse he was riding into a gallop and the feel of wind rushing past his face as the ground flew by beneath him. He wondered what it would be like to fly and feel the wind buffeting him as he soared up into the sky and then swooped low along the tops of the grain fields. He imagined the tops of the barley tickling his toes... and then his blanket twitched... which was odd. Blankets didn’t normally twitch of their own accord. They generally just stayed there, warm and soft and leathery...
Merlin pried an eye open a crack, coming more fully awake than he had been. He rubbed his chin against his blanket and instead of the scratchy wool he expected, his blanket felt leathery. It was warm though. He couldn’t remember feeling cozier under the covers than he felt right now. It was so nice, he wanted to drift off again, but a niggling thought at the edge of his mind wouldn’t let go. Perhaps Gaius had seen that he was cold and brought up another blanket while he was sleeping. Except that all the blankets they had were woolen. There was no goose down and linen for them and certainly not leather. He peered down at the blanket and the wrongness increased. The blanket covering him was a dull grey brown and seemed to catch the light from the window almost like scales. He brought a hand up to the edge of it near his chin and ran a finger along it to feel the texture.
Merlin squirmed and flailed and struggled to his feet at the ticklish sensation of fingers on his skin. He stumbled and knocked his hip against the edge of the table, batting wildly with his arms trying to get free of the not-blanket that enveloped him. He hopped about and struggled and then suddenly there was a sound like a tapestry falling to the ground from a great height, a loud crash, and he was free. Sort of.
Warily, he glanced over his shoulder, the suspicion of what he would see growing in his mind, but what he saw was difficult to make sense of. He could see more of the grey brown he had noticed earlier, but he knew it wasn’t a blanket. He reached up to touch it, and startled again at the feeling of fingers on skin but didn’t withdraw his hand. His fingers felt warm, heavy leather beneath the pads, but he could also feel the sensation of them stroking his... Craning his neck to get a better look, Merlin ended up turning in a circle and the large, grey brown wings attached to him moved as well sweeping books off the small shelf above his bed, knocking over candles, spilling a jug of water on the floor and generally making a lot of noise.
The commotion must have been loud enough to hear beyond the walls of his room, because a moment later Gaius called up to him, “Merlin, are you alright?”
He looked back and forth to the wings on either side and could only manage a weak, “I think you should come here.”
A moment later, his door opened and Gaius stared in at him in shock. “You have wings.”
Merlin felt panic rising in him and nodded shakily. “Looks like it.”
Gaius’ stared at him with wide eyes a moment longer before stepping completely into the room and shutting the door firmly behind him. “My goodness. I’ve never seen anything so remarkable.”
“That’s not the word I was thinking of. What do I do now, Gaius? They’re massive!”
Gaius hummed in thoughtful agreement that was in no way comforting or reassuring to Merlin and reached a hand out to touch the tip of the wing closest to him. His wing twitched in reaction. Merlin could feel the hand as well as he might feel a touch to his arm, but the movement the wing made was beyond his conscious control. He wanted to hold still and let Gaius have a closer look, but he didn’t want to hurt Gaius with uncontrolled flapping.
“You can feel my hand then?”
“Yes. It feels very strange, like it’s me, but not at the same time. I don’t know how to not move them either.”
Gaius nodded. “The skin is thick and a bit rough, but it isn’t scaly. I must say they’re rather large to have grown overnight.”
“I can’t hide these, Gaius! How am I going to get out of Camelot without someone seeing them?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Merlin. We know very little about them just yet.”
“I don’t want to know anything about them. I want to get rid of them, Gaius!”
“Be calm, Merlin. Let me first see what we are dealing with and then we can find some way to work with it. I’d like to check your sensation first, then get a sense of your range of motion.”
Gaius took hold of the tip and nudged it away from the wall so he could stand at Merlin’s back. It was crowded and awkward with all the things Merlin had knocked over, but Gaius started at the spot on his back where the bumps had been last night and slowly ran his hands along the leading edge of the left wing. Initially the brush of fingers was light and made him squirm, but Gaius seemed to realize this and felt along the line of bone and muscle more firmly.
“How well can you feel that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m certain you’ve noticed your fingertips can feel things far better than your elbow. Can you feel as well as you would with your hands or is it more like an arm or a leg?”
“Oh. Well aside from being really strange to feel anything at all, I guess it’s more like an arm than a hand.”
As Gaius felt his way down from the bone along the broad leathery expanse of wing, the sensation decreased to a feeling of weight and pressure. Gaius thoroughly looked over both wings before he began to test the movement of the joints. The outermost joints were the easiest to manipulate.
“The ridges here,” Gaius said in a hushed voice, tracing a finger down the width of the wing, “are strong, but I don’t think they’re bone. They seem flexible. Is it uncomfortable when they bend?”
Gaius pressed down with one hand and pulled up with the hand holding the trailing edge.
Merlin let out an exasperated breath through his nose and tried not to snap at Gaius. He hoped the poking and prodding was actually accomplishing something more than satisfying the physician’s curiosity. “It doesn’t feel amazing, but it doesn’t hurt, I suppose.”
“And when I pull them together?” Gaius asked awkwardly attempting to collapse part of the broad expanse.
“It’s fine. When you let go, it feels a bit like stretching the muscles in my arm or something.”
“Hmm,” Gaius acknowledged and moved on to the larger, elbow like joint where the heavy skin that formed the wing narrowed.
He could feel the muscles bunching as they resisted Gaius’ manipulation and tried to relax. It took a few tries, but eventually Gaius was able to prod the joint into bending and the rest of his wing folded up against his body without any further encouragement. He felt a brief moment of triumph, though Gaius’ next observation quashed the feeling.
“It doesn’t tuck away quite as nicely as a bird’s does. The top is above your shoulder and the tip is past your knee, but we might get a cloak over them with a bit of effort.”
“That doesn’t really help me much.”
“Perhaps not,” Gaius agreed, coming around to face Merlin again, “but I’m afraid there is very little I can do to help you myself. I could spend years researching, but I doubt there will be more than the smallest passing mention of your situation if it has anything to do with the powers of a Dragonlord, as I strongly suspect it does. I can think of only one place you would be able to find any amount of information to assist you.”
“Where is that?”
“From the dragon’s mouth itself.”
“No. I don’t want to see him again.”
“I fear he is the only one who has much knowledge about the Dragonlords. I was a friend to Balinor, but he was always reserved about sharing anything about his people and their powers. They were little more than legends, even before the Great Purge.”
“He lied to me and manipulated me, Gaius. I only let him leave because I don’t like killing things.”
“He owes you his life and he is yours to command.”
Merlin screwed his eyes shut and fought against the tears that wanted to flow. He whispered, “No.”
A moment later, he felt himself drawn into an awkward hug. “I can’t imagine how unsettling this is for you. There isn’t much I can do to help you, but I don’t believe that there is nothing to be done. If I knew of another option, I’d suggest it.”
Merlin pulled away, not particularly wanting comfort just now. “Can’t you just... cut them off or something? Like you do with an infected limb?”
Gaius held Merlin at arm’s length gripping his shoulders tightly. “Such a thing is a very last resort to save a person’s life from infection. It is extremely painful and has only limited success, as you know. No, Merlin. I would not do such a thing to you, even if I did not already suspect that your magic would resist an attempt.”
“I don’t have any other choices, do I?” Merlin said in resignation.
“None that I can think of, but I do truly believe that the dragon will have answers.”
“I highly doubt I’ll like them.”
“But knowledge is better than ignorance.”
“I guess. I’ll have to wait for nightfall, though. There’s no way I could sneak out like this in broad daylight.”
“I’ll see about finding you a suitable cloak.”
Once he reached the treeline and was out of sight of the castle, Merlin broke into a jog, easily navigating the rocks and roots in the dark. The moon had waned to the thinnest of slivers and for a moment he was grateful for the improved senses. If they were a part of this nightmare he had woken up in this morning, at least they were to his advantage.
The clearing he had chosen was several miles from the castle, beyond the rise of the forest behind Camelot. When he arrived, Merlin took a moment to listen and check to be certain he was alone. He heard the sounds of mice scurrying in the grass and something a bit larger, perhaps a fox hunting further in forest, but nothing that sounded like a person. He unclasped the heavy cloak and felt his wings flick open as it dropped to the ground, then walked out into the clearing. Taking a deep breath, Merlin threw his head back and the strange draconic roar he had used for the first time to send Kilgharrah away echoed in the sky calling him to return.
The sound seemed to resonate in the trees for long moments before it faded away and it was quiet again. The mice had fled to their holes and the animals he had heard rustling in the forest were still. Merlin wondered where the dragon was and how fast he could travel, or if he had even heard the call. After decades of imprisonment, he wouldn’t be surprised if the dragon were thousands of miles away across the waters.
For long moments Merlin stood there in the still night and waited.
The sound of wings beating against the air came sooner than he would have imagined possible. He looked up beyond the tops of the trees and saw Kilgharrah approach. The dragon’s massive wings made the air in the clearing swirl and shake the trees at the edges as he landed on the grass heavily, but with surprising grace for a creature so large. Kilgharrah cocked his head and peered down at Merlin intently, before throwing his head back and laughing so loud the ground beneath Merlin’s feet shook.
Merlin scowled and shouted, “I’m sure this is very amusing to you. What am I supposed to do? How do I get rid of them?”
“Get rid of them?” Kilgharrah said, looking askance at Merlin. “Why on earth would you want to get rid of such a marvellous thing?”
“If you can’t help me get rid of them, then I will have to leave Camelot. I’ll have to leave Arthur. How am I supposed to protect him then? And where can I go with these things sticking out of my back?” Merlin yelled, feeling his chest constrict and the hot sting of tears burning at the corner of his eyes.
Kilgharrah laid down on the ground in front of Merlin and rested his head on his front paws like an enormous dog settling down to watch the world go by. Kilgharrah gave a small shake of his head saying, “If you do not wish your wings to be seen, retract them.”
“I tried holding them close to my back, and I can’t do it. Not for very long, anyway, and they’ll still show under my clothes. They’re too big.”
“I didn’t say fold them in, I said retract them. Your wings are not meant to fold in as mine do,” Kilgharrah said, stretching out his wings and then tucking them against his back easily.
“What do you mean by retract them?”
“Have you not seen a cat’s paw?”
“That is what I mean by retract them. If you wish to conceal your wings, then pull them inside of yourself.”
“But how? A cat’s claw fits in its toe just fine, but these wings are too big!”
“I cannot imagine what it is like to live so ignorant of one’s nature and abilities.”
“How could I possibly know anything about this? I woke up this morning with wings. Until yesterday, I had no notion that was even possible and even Gaius wasn’t sure because there are no written records!”
“That is because the knowledge has always been passed down father to son.”
“Something that has worked out so very well for me,” Merlin snarled bitterly, turning his back on Kilgharrah. “I can see it was foolish of me to think you would help.”
“You could simply command me, as you did when you called me here.” Kilgharrah observed.
Merlin shook his head, refusing to turn around. “I called you because I didn’t know where you were or how to find you. If I had known, I would have travelled there myself.”
“What is the point of having a power that you do not use?”
Merlin spun around angrily. “When did I ask for this?”
“None of us chooses to be what we are. Our only choice is how we are.”
“And I choose not to take that choice from anyone.”
Merlin stood in front of Kilgharrah’s massive paws and head, glaring at the dragon, while Kilgharrah observed him in silence for a long while. The anger that had sustained him slipped away, and Merlin felt tired. The wings at his back were beginning to feel very heavy and his back was stiff from adjusting to the shift in balance. Certain Kilgharrah would say nothing more, or at least nothing useful, Merlin walked over to where he had dropped the cloak and tried to figure out how he was going to get his wings covered again. If he had to leave Camelot, he would prefer to have more than his trousers, boots and a cloak.
Merlin was startled when Kilgharrah spoke. “I must apologize, my Lord. It has been a great many years since I have been allowed the freedom to choose for myself and I have chosen poorly. The liberty you have granted me deserves my respect, which I have failed to give you.”
“I’m not anyone’s lord and I’m not looking for an apology. If you don’t wish to help me, then leave me alone. You have my word that I will not trouble you again.”
“Whether you wish it or not, I am yours to command. I will admit it chafes to have found the illusion of freedom so briefly before being reminded that there are still bonds to which I must be held accountable. The balance and order of Albion has been upset for a great many years, longer than your lifetime and that of your father and a dozen fathers before him. I cannot say if Balinor had ever heard the stories of how things once were, but I remember them. There was a time when we flew together, as close as kin. I have not known a Dragonlord with manifest wings for nearly two centuries, even when there was still more than one line of descent. It takes powerful magic for them to manifest because they are in large part made of magic. They look and feel and react as flesh, but they are, to a certain extent, as transitory as any spell. While released, they will behave as any of your limbs, but they can also be pulled within your magical core.”
“It is difficult for me to say, as it is not an ability I have. Focus on the place where your magic comes from.”
Merlin closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on how he did enchantments. He had always found them more challenging than the instinctual magic he had done accidentally since before he could talk. Finding the magic when he had to think about what it was doing was the hardest thing about all of the spells in his magic book. While he was trying to concentrate, Kilgharrah huffed out a long sigh and Merlin flicked a hand up to block the cloud of smoke blowing in his direction.
“Yes. Exactly. Where did it come from?”
Merlin opened his eyes and looked up at Kilgharrah. “What?”
“Do not think about the spells and enchantments you have been taught. When you blocked the smoke your shield was as an extension of yourself. That is what your wings are. Pull down your shield and feel it return to your body.”
Merlin let the barrier drop and felt a small tendril of magic coil back inside of him. “Oh. It’s like a thread coiling up again. I’ve never noticed that before.”
“No one taught you to look. Now do the same with your wings.”
He tried to imagine the wings on his back as nothing more than a very solid shield he might raise against wind or rain. The night was calm and there was no need for that kind of protection and...
Merlin stumbled forward half a step at the sudden change in balance. The weight of the wings was gone and he rolled his shoulders, feeling almost normal again. He looked up to see Kilgharrah watching him with an odd expression on his reptilian face.
“I cannot tell you how to work this new ability you have, I can only point you in a direction that might help. I do not know what it is like to have a human body.”
“The direction was enough. I know how to hide them now.”
“I expect extending them will work in a similar manner.”
Merlin furrowed his brow and thought about uncoiling the thread of magic within him and his wings flapped open like snapping a sheet out on a bed. He tugged the thread in and the wings retracted again. He grinned.
“I think I’ve got it.”
“I would caution you against attempting any strenuous tests of your ability to fly. It takes nearly a full turning of the moon for a hatchling to become skillful at flight. You will need to practice before it comes as naturally to you as walking.”
“That’s fine. It’s not like I intend to actually use them.”
“Says one who has always had his feet firmly on the ground. The lure of the sky is great for all dragons. My confinement beneath the castle was most unbearable for the lack of space to properly stretch my wings. You may find the sky beckons to you more than you yet realize.”
“I can’t say I foresee many opportunities to attempt it, even if I feel the urge.”
“If you have need of guidance again, I will come. You have the power to command me, but you deserve my willing assistance.”
“And that is the reason why you deserve better. The night grows late, however, and there is no place closer to the castle I could bring you without being seen.”
“Goodbye, Kilgharrah. Enjoy stretching your wings.”
“Be safe, my Lord. Do not keep your wings forever confined.”
With two powerful flaps of his wings, Kilgharrah kicked off the ground and took to the air. Merlin watched the dragon disappear into the distance before gathering up his cloak and hurrying back along the path towards the castle.
In the end, Arthur and his ‘rescue party’ had escorted the group to a larger town at the hub of several roads that merchants travelled frequently. The town had been less wary of the outsiders and by the time Arthur and his knights had left the following morning, they had already found work helping with the harvest. He didn’t know if they would find a place there in the end, but they at least had a chance now.
The ride back to Camelot was uneventful. The weather had been fair for many days, but clouds were beginning to gather on the horizon. The fields they passed were either filled with peasants of all ages working to bring in as much harvest as possible before the rain or were already cleared. Arthur had not been happy to drop everything and leave the city to search for Morgana on such flimsy evidence, but it was good to see the people productive and prosperous. The success of the harvest was a concern every year and it was always a relief to see the kingdom’s grain supply secured for another winter. It also put his mind at ease that the taxes collected would not be an excessive burden on the people.
It was late afternoon when they passed through the city gates and Arthur was pleased to see that the mood in the lower town was upbeat. People smiled at their return, and a few he had worked beside rebuilding homes nodded or raised a hand in greeting. The thatching on two of the homes was complete and a third was nearly finished. The fresh straw nearly shone despite the gathering clouds, and Arthur had to smile. He was glad to be back.
Entering the courtyard, he was greeted by another sight that kept the smile on his face. Merlin jumped down the last few steps and strode across to him in long, easy strides with no hint of discomfort in his movement. The last time he had seen Merlin there had been a disconcerting amount of blood and considerable obvious pain, but it was a greater relief than he had thought it would be to see Merlin well again. Since Merlin had become his manservant, Arthur had rarely travelled anywhere without dragging Merlin along with him. It had felt a bit odd to be without his second shadow, even if it had been quieter.
Arthur tossed his reins to Merlin and swung down from his mount. “I’m glad to see you’re not lazing around in bed. Gaius has given you a clean bill of health, I trust.”
Merlin’s answering grin was broad. “When you were sighted on the road, he said something about being glad I won’t be underfoot. I can’t imagine what he meant by that. I’ve been helping him the way I was meant to before I got saddled with you.”
“I’m quite certain you have that backwards,” Arthur said, giving Merlin’s shoulder a bit of a shove. “All better then?”
Merlin nodded. “Mostly. It’s still a bit tender, so if you could try not punching me for a while, that would help.”
“A pat on the back is not a punch, Merlin.”
“Prat,” Merlin said without heat.
Arthur grinned wider and returned a fond, “Idiot.”
One of the stable hands approached them and offered to bring Llamrei to the stables. Merlin nodded his thanks and admonished the boy to take particular care in tending her hooves after several days of constant riding. Arthur added sharp nod to the boy’s instructions and he stammered a hasty promise before leading the mare away.
The other knights turned to Arthur for instruction and he said, “I will make our report to the king personally. I will see you for regular drill tomorrow.”
Bedivere lingered a moment longer, raising an eyebrow meaningfully, but Arthur shook his head. “If you see Leon, tell him I’d like for him to meet with him in my rooms after supper.”
“Of course,” Bedivere agreed, and tiredly ascended the stairs.
Arthur turned back to Merlin and said, “I want food and a bath when I’m done with my report. Get someone else to haul the water. I’d rather it was in the bath than on the floor and I doubt Gaius wants you as a patient again so soon after ridding himself of you.”
The mutter that answered these orders was undoubtedly rude, but Arthur didn’t bother trying to decipher it. Leaving behind the friendly levity, he entered the castle and went to make his report.
Arthur gave a short rap on the door, and was beckoned to enter almost immediately. When he entered, he saw his father sitting down at his table with a goblet of wine, looking back at him in surprise.
“Arthur. To what do I owe your presence?” Uther asked politely.
Arthur fought against the frown that pulled at his lips and said, “My party has returned. I had thought you would want my report right away.”
Uther looked at him with mild confusion. “Where was it again you were?”
“The western borderlands. You sent me to investigate a group of travellers the patrol heard about last week,” Arthur said.
“And?” Uther prompted with little interest.
“And they were a group of people fleeing from a the bandits that had attacked their village.”
“That’s in Cenred’s kingdom.”
“And we’ve seen how well he cares for his people in the borderlands. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
“They are not our responsibility. I trust you sent them on their way.”
This was not the discussion he had thought to have with his father upon his return, but it was better than angry shouting about Morgana. Choosing his words carefully, Arthur said, “We provided an escort for them. They won’t be a further concern.”
Uther gave a sharp nod. “Good. Did you encounter anything else of note?”
“No. The harvest appears to be going well and the people seem content. There have been no reports of bandits east of the Teif. All is well to the west.”
Uther inclined his glass towards Arthur and took a sip. “I told Sir Ector you were ready for command. I am pleased to see my faith was well founded.”
Arthur did his best not to react and inclined his head with a quiet, “Thank you, Sire.”
“Oh and Arthur, her damnable pride will never allow her to admit it, but Morgana worries about you while you are away. It might be a nice gesture to let her know you have arrived home safely.”
“Of course,” said Arthur.
Arthur gave a small bow and left the room, quietly closing the door behind him. Arthur was a bit surprised by how little Uther’s odd behaviour surprised him anymore.
On his way back to his rooms, he tried to think only of the bath waiting for him. He was certain he would hear more than he wanted to from Leon, but that could wait.
After five days of travel, it was satisfying to have a large meal prepared by a skilled cook and wash in steaming water heated by the large fires in the kitchens. Merlin puttered around in the room, putting away items from his pack and examining his clothes for wear and tear. For once, his manservant wasn’t chattering away incessantly, but his presence was oddly reassuring. Arthur had to admit, to himself and only himself, that he quite liked having Merlin around.
Before Merlin, he had been accustomed to the deferential detachment most servants strived for. He had never really noticed the way most of the other knights were hesitant to tease and jibe him as they did each other. It had taken Merlin’s complete ignorance of rank and station to make Arthur notice just how set apart he was. Since childhood, he had been taught to be above and apart from those around him, but he was increasingly aware that it wasn’t necessarily something he wanted. He had tried to change this with a few of the knights he trusted most, but even Leon and Bedivere were still more reserved than Merlin had ever been.
Arthur’s contemplation was disturbed by a knock on the door.
“Expecting someone?” Merlin asked.
“I asked Sir Leon to keep an eye on things at court while I was gone,” Arthur said, quietly wondering to himself when he had stopped berating Merlin for his nosiness.
Merlin’s expression cleared. “Oh. I had wondered why he hadn’t gone with you.”
“The door, Merlin.”
“Right, right. Keep your shirt on.”
As expected, Sir Leon was at the door and Bedivere with him. Arthur gestured for them to sit down and looked over to where Merlin was closing the door.
“Bolt it shut, Merlin,” he ordered.
Merlin did so, then pointedly didn’t go back to his puttering. Instead, he leaned against the fireplace, not even pretending to add wood or make himself useful. Arthur might have been irritated by Merlin’s assumption that he was to be a part of the discussion, but in truth Merlin was as aware of the matter troubling him as any of the others present.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Quit hovering and sit down. You might as well.”
Bedivere’s eyebrows rose a bit at the invitation, but Leon only glanced briefly at Merlin as he sat, then turned his attention back to Arthur. “Bedivere tells me your travels were uneventful.”
Arthur nodded. “The travellers had fled their home after it was raided by bandits.”
“Bandits?” Merlin asked. “I thought things had been quiet on the western border.”
“Our western borderlands are well patrolled and relatively safe. They were from Dolau, Merlin.”
Merlin was obviously trying to contain his concern, and failing, so Arthur added, “I did send a message. If there is trouble, I’ll get word of it, but I can’t go crossing the border to chase bandits that haven’t been causing problems for Camelot. The peace with Cenred is strained at best.”
“I know,” Merlin said, but was unable to erase the worry from his features.
Arthur turned back to Leon and asked, “What happened at court while I was gone?”
Leon opened his mouth to speak, but Bedivere cut in. “Arthur, are you certain it’s wise to discuss this here?”
Arthur frowned. “In my personal chambers with a locked door?”
Bedivere’s eyes darted across to Merlin and back again. Before Arthur could think of something cutting to say, Leon gave a derisive snort. “If you think for a moment that the biggest secrets at court aren’t kept by servants, you’re a fool, Bedivere. Merlin watches our training, serves at banquets, assists the physician and is in regular attendance at council. If his loyalty and discretion were in question, he wouldn’t be here.”
Arthur nodded. “Merlin also has the advantage of hearing all the gossip amongst the servants, which we are not privy to. Go on, Leon.”
“It was quiet for the most part. There were short council meetings in the morning, but only the most trivial of matters were brought forward. It seems all the councillors have recognized that something is amiss with the king and do not wish to bring forward weighty matters in your absence.”
“Was his judgement sound?” Arthur asked.
Leon shrugged. “For what little matters he dealt with, I’d say yes. Though he did at times call people by the wrong names or forget their titles. Twice he asked me where you were.”
“When I went to give my report, he had no memory of the travellers or his belief that Morgana was with them. He spoke to me as if it were years ago and I had only just taken command.”
Merlin nodded. “Gaius is concerned. He’s been making medicines to enhance the mind and calm the emotions, but there are limits to how much they can help. He has been trying to get to council when he can to observe. I think he already has a diagnosis in mind, but doesn’t want to make it.”
“The king is unwell, Arthur. You may... It’s possible...” Leon sighed heavily and looked at Arthur with earnest eyes. “I don’t wish to say this, but there may come a time, sooner rather than later, when Uther will not be capable of ruling.”
“What do you suggest I do? Take the throne for myself?” Arthur asked, knowing he sounded more resigned than furious as he should have been.
“Perhaps it won’t have to come to that,” Bedivere offered hopefully. “Uther has long respected Gaius’ skill and wisdom. Perhaps if the physician were to suggest...”
“Have you forgotten that Gaius was tortured and nearly killed this spring at the king’s command? Regardless of what was said afterwards, Gaius hasn’t forgotten what happened. It isn’t the same between them anymore. Perhaps the king’s mind is far enough gone that he doesn’t remember, but don’t put Gaius in that position,” Merlin snapped at Bedivere.
Arthur put a calming hand on Merlin’s shoulder and said, “No. I would not put that responsibility on Gaius, not exclusively. This is a difficult situation the kingdom is in and we must look at all the options.”
“If Uther is unfit to rule, yet continues to, Camelot will appear weak to her neighbours,” Bedivere observed.
“And if we attempt to circumvent his unwise decisions, we will all be seen as traitors,” said Leon.
“The greatest problem, as I see it, is that my father is unaware of his mind’s failings. I have had conversations with him that have jumped nearly a decade, yet to him it was a conversation as any other. He would speak to me as if I were a boy of ten not noticing that the person he was speaking to was clearly grown. If he does not see that there is a problem, then convincing him to relinquish even some aspects of his rule is destined to failure,” Arthur said.
“Perhaps there is a precedent for this situation. Geoffrey of Monmouth may have records in the archives,” Bedivere suggested.
Merlin groaned and Arthur chuckled. “You know, Merlin, when you have permission to go poking through the records, Geoffrey is eager to go through dusty tomes with you. You should try it sometime.”
“I have and he still glares at me like I’m something foul on the bottom of his boot,” griped Merlin.
“You needn’t bother him just yet. Before we make any decisions on how to proceed, I need to speak to Gaius. Thank you, Leon, for watching over things while I was gone, and Bedivere, I appreciate your advice. It’s been a long day. Get some rest.”
Leon and Bedivere left, leaving Arthur slumped exhausted at the table. When the door was shut behind them, he put his head in his hands and rubbed at his eyes. Merlin added a log to the fire, and began clearing away the dishes.
Arthur looked up at him and asked, “What’s the right thing to do, Merlin?”
“You’re asking me?”
“You always seem to have an opinion and it usually surprises me.”
“I think Leon is right in thinking that your father is quickly becoming too unpredictable to rule and I think that a lot of people have noticed. I really don’t know what the answer is, but you don’t have much time to make a decision before something happens that takes the decision out of your hands.”
“I’m sorry, Arthur.”
“So am I. Tell Gaius I’d like to speak with him before council in the morning. The rest of the night is yours.”
Merlin nodded and gave him a half hearted quirk of the lips that didn’t quite make it to a smile. After Merlin left, Arthur dragged himself into bed and let the overwhelming exhaustion in his limbs pull him into sleep.
When it became obvious that sleep would continue to elude him, Merlin slipped on his boots and snuck out of his room. Gaius was deeply asleep, as he always seemed to be the moment his head touched the pillow these days, and Merlin extinguished the candle that had been left burning before quietly crossing the room. The recent changes his body had undergone had seemed to help curb some of his more extreme clumsiness, which on the whole made sneaking about the castle at night a good deal simpler. Not needing a light and being able to hear people coming a long way off also helped.
Before, on nights like this, he would have gone down to the cavern below the castle to talk to Kilgharrah. Now, the same activity involved a lot more walking, but it was a good feeling to leave the castle behind. For a little while, he wanted to pretend that all was well back at the city. He wanted to pretend that Arthur was already king and that Uther was not slowly going mad. He wanted to imagine that Arthur knew his secret and as king had repealed the ban on magic. He wanted to be free of the confining rules of court etiquette and rigid social order as well as the constant gossip. He wanted open space.
The sky was a mass of roiling clouds bringing the threat of rain to cool the last of the lingering summer heat and a breeze blowing chill through the long grass rattled the promise of fall. The irritating rasp of his shirt against his skin had Merlin tossing it to the ground and letting the cool currents of air soothe the itch. It felt good to have the breeze on his bare skin and, without really intending to, his wings unfurled, giving a few experimental flaps against the resistance in the air.
Merlin had kept his wings tightly contained since he had figured out how to retract them. His plan was to ignore them with the hope that if they wouldn’t go away they would at least remain hidden. He had no plans to use them, but perhaps that message hadn’t actually reached the appendages in question. It was a curious thing, feeling a limb as plainly as his arm or leg that hadn’t been there a week ago. Once he knew the trick of it, unfurling and retracting them was simple enough. Moving them with conscious intent was a different thing entirely. He tried to make them stretch to their full width, but one wing would give a twitchy half flap before returning to the semi-folded position that came without thinking. He tried pulling them tighter against himself, with similar results. He harrumphed in frustration and lay down on his front in the grass instead. With his head pillowed on his arms, he closed his eyes and let the breeze dance along his wings and just enjoyed the sensation.
Merlin jerked his head up when he felt the ground beneath him vibrate with an impact and saw Kilgharrah landing near the centre of the clearing. He shook his head to clear it and knew he must have dozed off. Merlin should have heard the dragon’s approach long before he was in sight. He also realized that he hadn’t actually summoned Kilgharrah.
Rising to his feet, Merlin said, “I didn’t call you. Why are you here?”
“You left the castle this evening with the intention to speak with me, did you not?” Kilgharrah said.
Merlin frowned, “Well, yes...”
“And I am here. I have long sensed your movements, even while chained beneath Uther’s castle. Both dragons and Dragonlords are rare these days, but there has always been a greater sense of awareness between our kind. If you spend some time training that sense, you will find my movements are no more a secret to you than yours are to me.”
“How do I even begin training? And to what end? If you’re the last dragon in Albion, I don’t see the point.”
“That is exactly the point. It is possible that there are other dragons in hiding. Developing your awareness will help draw you to them.”
“One is enough. Besides, I have plenty to deal with in Camelot without trying to figure out a bunch of powers I don’t want.”
“And yet you are here, with your wings reaching out to feel the wind.”
“No, I just... I couldn’t sleep. Everything felt scratchy and I couldn’t get comfortable and before... It was nights like this I would come to see you, even if I didn’t care for what you had to say.”
“Are you seeking advice then?”
“No? Yes? I don’t know. Camelot has changed so much. The king... I know you hate Uther, and I don’t blame you. I have no love for him either, but he’s not been well. He seems to be losing his mind. He forgets people’s names and his conversations drift out of the here and now. Uther talks to people as if it were years ago, jumping from time to time in the same conversation without noticing. It isn’t all the time, though. Sometimes he seems fine. It’s been difficult to predict.”
“This madness, it will get worse. It may happen slowly or suddenly, but there is no cure. This would not be a problem if you had not interfered in the past.”
“No. I don’t regret saving him. I find no joy in contemplating his death.”
“It is long past time for Arthur to take the throne. It is more complicated this way, perhaps, but there is no need for Uther to die now, since you find that so objectionable. It is Arthur’s right and duty to act as regent.”
“It’s not exactly an easy thing to do, though.”
“It is not, but it is his path all the same.”
“But what should I do?”
Kilgharrah fixed him with a determined stare. “Nothing. Stand at his side, protect him as you have been, but do not interfere.”
Merlin shook his head and felt his wings flap his frustration. He paced back and forth a few times, letting the flapping help relieve some of his tension. When he looked back at the dragon, Kilgharrah was looking at him with amusement.
“Am I that entertaining to you?” Merlin snapped.
“For all you reject your manifestation, it will not lie dormant again. Your wings wish to be used. It is a deep compulsion for all creatures with the capability of flight.”
“You say that, but I’m not exactly able to make them do what I want either.”
Merlin concentrated and tried to extend his wings the same way he had tried earlier. Once again, one twitched and the movement threw him off balance. Merlin stumbled and glared over his shoulder at the offending appendage.
“You see? I’ve seen birds, insects, bats, even you, fly, but I can’t figure out the simplest of motions.”
“That is because you are trying to move them with your muscles. As I told you before, they are more magic than flesh. It is with your magic that you control them.”
Merlin frowned and closed his eyes, trying to feel the thread of his magic again. He retracted his wings and released them again, chasing the sensation uncoiling magic across the entire span of each wing. He tried to hold it in his mind like he did when halting the fall of a cup of water, then pushed his magic into motion again. The force of the movement lifted him a foot off the ground. His centre of balance was thrown off and he promptly fell on his arse.
Kilgharrah looked amused, but refrained from laughing. “Just so. Try again.”
Merlin huffed and got back to his feet. “Will you find it as amusing when I fall from tree height?”
“All fledglings must practice. You will not achieve much height without finesse. When you have the skill you need to get that high, you will not fall.”
Merlin grumbled under his breath, but tried again all the same.
Without the movement of the moon and stars to measure time by, Merlin lost track of how long he spent struggling to use his wings properly. For all his smug amusement, Kilgharrah was also surprisingly patient. The dragon had always seemed irritated by Merlin’s slow reasoning and endless questions before, but now he appeared content to watch and wait for results.
Eventually, Merlin managed to extend and fold his wings against his body without falling over. He also was able to gain enough control to lift off the ground a few feet and maintain his balance enough to hover briefly before returning to the ground. Kilgharrah assured him that maintaining a steady hover was challenging, even when experienced, and that forward motion would come easier.
When the first drops of rain landed cold against his bare chest, Merlin noticed the passage of time. The clouds had grown heavy with rain and he could hear the rumble of thunder far off in the distance. Retracting his wings, he dashed across the clearing to his discarded shirt and struggled into it.
Kilgharrah turned his face into the wind and looked back at Merlin. “If you are quick you should avoid the worst of it. Unfortunately, I shall have to fly into the storm.”
“Um, sorry. I shouldn’t have stayed out so long.”
“You must take the time to adapt to your new powers. If you do not take the time when you have the opportunity, you will never have the control you are so eager to attain. Now go on, before the wind picks up.”
Merlin hurried towards the trees, but stopped to call over his shoulder. “Goodbye, Kilgharrah.”
“Goodbye, my Lord,” the dragon said, as he launched himself into the rainy sky.
Giving up on falling asleep again, Arthur got up and stared out the window into the rainy gloom. There was no one moving about in the courtyard, not even castle guards. The night guard were likely tucked into the gatehouse and other sheltered places and the castle gates wouldn’t open for some time yet. The wind buffeted the window and the rain left long streaks across the pane. It didn’t look to be a particularly fierce storm, but the weather matched the turmoil of his mind. He stood for a long time, watching the rain and trying not to think.
The door opened a moment later and Gaius looked up at him in surprise. “Prince Arthur? Has Merlin not arrived for work this morning?”
“He hasn’t, though I’m not here to drag him out of bed if he’s still sleeping,” Arthur replied. “I came to speak with you.”
Gaius stepped back from the door and gestured Arthur inside. “Come in. Has something happened?”
“Shall I assume then, that Merlin didn’t mention I wished to meet with you this morning?”
“He did,” Gaius said with a frown, “though I hadn’t thought you meant quite so early in the morning.”
Arthur felt his cheeks warm and looked away towards the window. “My apologies. I woke some time ago from the storm and was unable to sleep any longer.”
“It’s not a problem. Please have a seat,” Gaius said kindly.
Arthur sat at the one table in the room that did not have various scientific devices and medical preparations on it and leaned forward, clasping his hands together in front of him. Gaius sat down across from him and waited patiently for him to voice his concerns. Arthur found it difficult to actually say the words aloud.
After a long moment, he said, “I am concerned about my father.”
Gaius took a long breath through his nose, released it heavily and nodded. “As am I.”
“There are times when he is completely himself, but at other times...” Arthur took a breath and forced the words into existence, “Last night he spoke to me as if I had newly taken command of the knights. He had no memory of the mission he had sent me and my men on. He said that Morgana was worried about me. It was as if he was living in a different time. Last night wasn’t the first time it’s happened.”
“I’m afraid I’ve had similar conversations with the king in recent days,” Gaius said, nodding sadly.
“Is there anything more that can be done?” Arthur asked, though he was already fairly certain of the answer.
“I have searched through my medical books and tried several elixirs to promote memory and aid mental focus, to little effect. I have also found him much quicker to anger at times when his mind is most focussed on the present. It seems as if he might have some idea that something is amiss, but he does not believe it is with himself. Even if he were more aware of what is happening, I have my doubts that he would be more cooperative about treatment. It saddens me to say, but there is very little I can do.”
Arthur knew Gaius was trying to be tactful, but what he really wanted was a straightforward answer. “Is there a cure?”
“No. The mind is too complex. There is no pill or potion that can restore the mind completely. The medicines at my disposal can only mitigate the symptoms.”
“Is there any hope he might recover on his own?”
“Once a person’s mental acuity begins to deteriorate, it gets progressively worse, not better.”
Arthur nodded his understanding. He looked down at his hands on the table and braced himself for the question he least wanted to ask. It hung in the air between them, almost suffocating.
Squaring his jaw, Arthur met Gaius’ eye and asked, “Is he fit to rule?”
Gaius held his gaze and said, “Possibly, but I doubt that will be the case for much longer.”
“The councillors have seen it too. They are losing confidence in his judgement.”
“Not only them. There are whispers of it in every corner of the castle.”
“What do you think should be done?”
“This is a difficult situation, Sire. One that I fear has no good solution.”
“As a physician, if he were an ordinary patient, what would you recommend?”
“If Uther were any other noble at court, I would suggest he retire to his estate with trusted servants to attend him as his mind fails.”
“There is no alternative to a regency, is there?”
“I cannot see one.”
“He will not accept it. He will think us all traitors.”
“That is almost guaranteed.”
“If I stand by and wait, the kingdom will be vulnerable. The situation is not a secret. Even without the potential for my father making disastrous commands, there are those at court who would undermine the kingdom for their own gain. I know what needs to be done, and yet I cannot bear to do it.”
“You have my support, when you do decide the time has come. I cannot make the decision for you, but the luxury of delaying the inevitable will likely not last long.”
“I know. Thank you, Gaius, for being forthright with me. I value your judgement and advice.”
“I greatly wish there was more I could do.”
“You have been doing more than enough for a long time, Gaius.”
Arthur stood to leave. It was still early, and he wanted some time to compose himself before council. He wanted to see his father in council for himself before he made any final decisions. He needed to observe the behaviour of others at court and see who might seek to take advantage of the situation. There would be those who could be counted on to act for the good of the kingdom, and those who could be counted on to act for the good of themselves. There were also those he was not sure of. He had played the game of politics at court for a long time and he knew that information was the most valuable thing to have.
At the door, Arthur turned back to Gaius and said, “You could wake my lazy manservant. I am not looking forward to council this morning. The thought of enduring it on an empty stomach is even less appealing.”
“I’ll roust him for you, Sire,” Gaius said, shaking his head with an indulgent smile.
After his discussion with Sir Leon and Sir Bedivere, Arthur became unwilling to discuss the matter further and brusquely dismissed anyone who tried. While Merlin understood that there was no clear path to follow, he worried about the inevitable conflict. It made him anxious and irritable.
Or perhaps that was just his wings.
Merlin was only able to restrain himself from sneaking out to practice flying for three nights after his first attempt, and the next time only two. Soon he was slipping past the guards every night, nearly running down the path that wound through the trees until it opened up into the quiet clearing. Sometimes he was alone when he arrived and sometimes Kilgharrah was already there waiting for him as he scrambled out of his shirt to let his wings free. The nights grew colder, but the chill didn’t bother him as much now. The night air on his bare chest was refreshing rather than a deterrent.
Kilgharrah had been fairly accurate in his estimate of how long it would take for Merlin to become confident in his newfound power of flight. At first he found it difficult to keep his wings extended and his balance forward for more than a few tentative flaps, but near the end of the second week he was able to take off, fly a dozen yards or so, and land without falling over. He remained nervous at heights greater than those he was used to from riding all over the countryside on horseback. He couldn’t quite shake the fear of falling. Kilgharrah would chuckle and tease him in an almost friendly manner, which was odd, but nice.
When he was tired from his exertions, Merlin found himself lingering in the clearing, unwilling to return to the castle. He asked the ancient dragon to tell him about the history of the Dragonlords, and to his surprise, Kilgharrah did. He spoke at length about times when men and dragons lived together. He shared the stories about the first Dragonlords and how the warlocks who had revered them eventually came to protect and command them. Kilgharrah spoke sadly about the days of decline and angrily of the purges, not just Uther’s, but other rulers who had feared and reviled the dragons and sought to destroy them.
There were so many stories to hear, so much to learn, and each night Merlin found himself more and more reluctant to leave the quiet peace of the clearing and the deep rumble of Kilgharrah’s voice as he spoke. Life in the castle was tense and complicated. Arthur had grown sombre and remote. He worked twice as hard on the training field as any of the other knights, attended nearly all council meetings, and public audiences besides. He went on as many local patrols as possible and still scraped together the time to continue assisting the rebuilding in the lower town. Merlin trailed Arthur through his day, and was ready to fall down flat at the end of it, at least until the draw of the clearing became too great to resist. He was perpetually exhausted, sneaking short naps when he could, but the truth was he couldn’t continue this way much longer. There were days when he even contemplated walking away from it all and following Kilgharrah to wherever he went during his days. He never thought about it too seriously, but once the idea occurred to him, Merlin couldn’t quite let it go.
The moon waxed to full and waned back to a thumbnail again. The cool nights began to have frost and lounging about on the icy grass was not as pleasant. Merlin didn’t feel the cold as much as before, but the frost prickled on his skin, forcing him to sit up. He drew his wings around him for a bit more warmth, but made no move to put his shirt and jacket back on. He was still flushed with exhilaration from his first flight above the treetops. It had thrilled and terrified him in equal measure. The fear had faded once his feet were firmly back on the ground, but the excitement remained. The exhaustion he had felt at the end of his duties earlier was gone. He felt so very alert and alive now.
Looking up at Kilgharrah, Merlin said, “Perhaps we should find a different place. It’s a bit exposed here. It might be nice to have a sheltered place to talk when it gets colder.”
“You have little need for my instruction now. All that remains for you to do is build your strength and endurance. You don’t need my presence for that,” Kilgharrah said.
“Well, I suppose not, but that isn’t why I keep coming out here.”
“Then why do you return to this place, night after night, when doing so has clearly taxed your newfound strength so greatly?”
“I come to see you, to learn all the things I’m supposed to know but was never taught about who I am. I keep coming here because I finally feel like I belong somewhere.”
Kilgharrah frowned and lowered his head to his forepaws. Looking intently at Merlin, he said, “You belong somewhere, but it is not here.”
“Of course it is. I was born to live with dragons.”
“No,” Kilgharrah said quietly, but firmly. “You were born to be at the side of the Once and Future King.”
Merlin shook his head. “I can’t. Camelot is stifling, restrictive. I hate it there.”
“Listen to yourself. Those are not your words. Those are the words of a bitter old dragon who spent far too long chained beneath the city. Your destiny lies with Arthur. You’ve learned all you need to from me. It’s past time for you to fly on your own. Tonight was your last lesson.”
“You would abandon me?”
“You would abandon Arthur?”
Merlin hesitated. “No. I’m not abandoning him. It’s just...”
“It has been a terribly long time since I have had a receptive ear to listen to my memories of times past, but they are past. Even if they weren’t it would not change your destiny. You belong at Arthur’s side. Without you, he cannot be the great king he is meant to become.”
Merlin felt rage welling up inside him. He launched himself to his feet, wings snapping wide aggressively and hands flailing as he snarled, “Is that all I am? Some pawn that fate pushes around to keep the precious prat safe? Can I have nothing for myself?”
“Your choices are your own, but if you look at what is truly in your heart this destiny will lead you down a path far greater and far happier than if you gave it up to live as a recluse with what few dragons may be left in this world. It may seem the more difficult and less enjoyable path now, but difficult times always pass.”
“You forget that I can command you, Kilgharrah,” Merlin threatened.
Kilgharrah drew himself up to his full height, wings flaring, tail twitching and eyes flashing. “And you forget that you are not the first Dragonlord I have met. I may have no choice but to heel at your command, but I do not have to obey willingly or easily.”
Staring up at the angry dragon he had begun to consider his friend, Merlin felt his fury vanish and was consumed by sadness at the loss. Dropping to the ground, he pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his wings around his body like a cocoon. There were tears stinging at his eyes, but he refused to cry. He had shed enough tears on Kilgharrah’s account. Buried in the shelter of his wings, he could hear the dragon moving about, but refused to look up and see Kilgharrah leave. Kilgharrah’s footsteps made the ground beneath him vibrate, but for all the stomping and angry noises, he did not leave.
After a long while, Merlin looked up and said, “If you want to leave so badly, go.”
“Young warlock, I have not kept coming because of any sense of duty to you as a Dragonlord, nor for the purposes of manipulating you as a tool of destiny. It may have been foolish on my part, but I have continued to come for my own selfish enjoyment. Watching you take to the sky has been immensely gratifying as has having a receptive ear to my reminiscences. My selfishness cannot continue. Very soon, Arthur will be in great need of you, and if you continue to divide your energies, you will be of little good to either of us.”
“I’m tired of being alone, Kilgharrah. I’m sick to death of hiding all the time.”
“It will not be this way much longer.”
“It wouldn’t be if you stayed.”
“Wouldn’t it? If you had to command my presence, would you be satisfied?”
Merlin scrunched his eyes shut against the burn of unshed tears. “No.”
“Then let this end for now. There will come a time when we may share the sky, but it is not now.”
“Go,” Merlin whispered.
“Be well, my Lord,” Kilgharrah said formally.
The air around him swirled as the massive dragon beat his wings and leapt off the ground. Merlin was too wretched to look up. He remained hunched in on himself, wrapped in his wings, stubbornly refusing to shed a tear, until the grey light of predawn crept into the sky.
Throughout all this, Merlin had been his shadow, and for the most part, he had been an amiable shadow. Unlike some of his knights and councillors, Merlin hadn’t spent weeks giving him meaningful glances or thinly veiled conversational gambits in the hopes of hurrying him into action. There had been some complaining, which was usual and token at best, but even though the dark circles beneath Merlin’s eyes had not faded for weeks, his spirits hadn’t faltered. Until now.
The manservant who trailed along behind him the past two days was like a black cloud instead of a shadow. Merlin had looked very tired yesterday morning, but that wasn’t unusual as of late. However, Merlin’s entire demeanor was different. His eyes were downcast. His expression was blankly miserable. His shoulders were slumped. His movements were almost painfully slow. Merlin’s spark was gone.
Arthur did his best to ignore the abject misery Merlin radiated, but only lasted until drill the second day. After the knights had cleared the field, Arthur gave in and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
Merlin didn’t react with his usual indignant squawk, which troubled Arthur even more. Instead he gave a barely perceptible shake of his head and said, “Nothing. Would you like a bath drawn before supper tonight?”
Arthur stepped in close and lifted Merlin’s face with a finger under his chin until he had to meet Arthur’s eyes. “You’ve hardly spoken since yesterday morning, which in itself is cause for concern, while moping along behind me with a face as long as a wet week. Is the injury to your back causing you grief again?”
Merlin scowled and stepped back out of Arthur’s reach. “No.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“I’m tired, alright. I’m tired. You’re tired. Everyone is tired.”
“That may be true, but when you’re tired you complain more, not less, so that can’t be it.”
“Yes, it can, and it is. Now, do you want a full bath, or will a basin of water suit your highness’ needs?”
Arthur frowned and continued to watch Merlin intently, but when nothing else was forthcoming, he said, “A basin will suffice. The mail will keep for another day, but my sword needs tending. When you’re finished in the armoury, you can take the evening for yourself.”
Merlin’s scowl deepened and he snatched the sword from the rack where Arthur had placed it at the end of drill. “I wasn’t angling for the night off. I will be there to serve.”
Arthur was about to insist, but Merlin spun on his heel and stalked off the field. Watching him go, Arthur wondered what on earth was bothering Merlin and why he refused to speak his mind as he nearly always did. Arthur didn’t like this mournful, distant Merlin. It was too much like a mirror for comfort.
Despite his foul mood, Merlin had felt the urgent need to be at Arthur’s side tugging at him. He wanted to resist it, to hide himself away and rail against dragons and destiny and bizarre magical inheritances, but the pull was strong. Also, several parts of him didn’t want to resist. The part of him that had slowly grown to like Arthur after over a year in his service wanted to stay close. The part of him that had faced down bandits and monsters and sorceresses needed to be at Arthur’s side. The part of him which had become ridiculously fond of the Arthur that used his own hands to rebuild a broken city and to prop up a broken king was restless with anxiety whenever they were parted. His growing connection with Kilgharrah had masked these feelings considerably. Odd as it might seem for such a cryptic being, his relationship with the dragon was relatively simple. With Arthur, however, things had always been complicated.
When Merlin arrived before dinner, Arthur was already scrubbed and mostly dressed. He appeared to be debating the merits of two jackets when Merlin quietly closed the door and coughed.
Arthur’s expression and voice were tight. “You have the night off. There are others who can serve.”
It felt like a stinging slap in the face, although Merlin knew it shouldn’t. He should feel grateful. Instead he felt rejected. He had no place now, except at Arthur’s side, and even though his wing nubs itched for the freedom of the sky after less than two days confinement, Merlin knew he needed to be here. Be it destiny, or sentimentality, or even spite, he needed to be here infinitely more than he needed to be holed up in his room alone and utterly miserable.
Ignoring Arthur’s words, Merlin said, “The one with the brass buttons is tight across your shoulders and you always spend the entire time fidgeting when you wear it. The one with silver buttons is more comfortable to sit in for a long meal.”
“It’s not a long, formal banquet tonight, Merlin.”
Merlin stepped forward and took the two jackets from Arthur. He tossed one over the back of a chair and held the other up for Arthur to put on. Arthur paused, looking at him intently for a long moment, before slipping it on. Merlin fussed with it for a minute, making sure it sat on his shoulders properly and fastened the buttons and ties.
When he deemed Arthur presentable, Merlin stepped back and nodded. Arthur pressed his lips together firmly, the corners of his mouth tugging down in a frown and said, “I would do whatever I could to fix whatever is troubling you if only I knew what it was.”
Merlin shook his head ruefully. “There’s nothing to fix.”
“Don’t,” Arthur said sharply. “Don’t keep telling me that nothing is wrong. I may not be the most astute observer of those around me, but I think I’ve spent quite enough time in your company to notice when something is gravely amiss.”
“You can’t fix this, Arthur.”
“You can’t fix my father, and yet I’m grateful to you for listening to my troubles and offering what assistance you can, even though it is all a futile attempt to hold off the inevitable.”
“Please, just let it go. It will be fine. I will be fine. Just please...” Merlin said, feeling a lump in his throat and desperately wanting to turn away from the earnest blue eyes that observed him far too closely.
Arthur held him in his gaze for a seemingly unending moment, then broke the moment by looking away. Turning to head for the door, Arthur said, “Let’s go and see if we can mitigate the damage of tonight’s public spectacle.”
Still feeling wretched, but purpose driven, Merlin followed Arthur without a word.
Close behind him, he heard Merlin whisper, “Why’s everyone here?”
“No idea,” Arthur said under his breath, then straightened his shoulders and walked purposefully towards the high table.
His father was not there yet, though that wasn’t unusual. Uther preferred to make an entrance rather than watch the court assemble. Arthur often thought he missed out a great deal of the significant interactions on the occasions when he entered with his father. People were less guarded before formal speeches and after imbibing too much wine. He preferred coming early rather than staying late when he could.
Sitting at the raised table at the front, Arthur scanned the room, comforted by the increasingly alert presence of Merlin behind him. Upset or not, Merlin could be counted on to be attentive to the goings on in the room. Hopefully, he would have the opportunity to pick up some gossip from the other serving staff when the wine was poured for speeches and toasts. Glancing around as casually as he could, Arthur saw several councillors seated together deep in conversation, various noblemen gathered in small groups chatting casually, and a few ladies hovering about a table where nearly all his knights were seated. Near the front of the knight’s table, Leon and Bedivere sat looking far less relaxed than men sitting down to an evening meal should be, even if it was a formal meal. Leon caught his eye and scanned across the room meaningfully. Arthur had the unnerving feeling that something was about to happen, and Leon felt it too.
After a few minutes of anxious waiting, the noise in the hall died down and the king was announced. Everyone in the hall stood, and Uther strode into the room practically radiating displeasure. When he reached the head table and sat, the court took their seats as well and servants began scurrying about the tables pouring wine for the opening toasts.
Arthur turned his head slightly towards his father and gave a half nod. “Good evening.”
Uther’s serious face turned to a frown as he handed Arthur a letter. “Read it.”
Unfolding the parchment, Arthur quickly scanned the contents.
Arthur looked up from the letter to see Merlin carefully pouring wine into their goblets. Their eyes met briefly, speaking volumes without a single word. Bare seconds of communication with the other servants had confirmed their concerns. This night would not end well.
To my King and Dearest Friend Uther,
Summer has passed far too quickly for my liking this year and it is with both pleasure and sorrow that I prepare to send my Most Treasured and Only Daughter, Elena, to your Court for the winter months, as we discussed earlier this year. She is clever, but also headstrong, much as I am myself. It is my greatest hope that your Beautiful and Charming Ward, Lady Morgana, may instill in her some of the Courtly Graces which she has not had opportunity to learn on my humble estate. I am loathe to be parted from her, and this winter will feel like a lifetime without her company, but I can think of None Better to entrust with her Safety and Virtue. May she be a Ray of Sunshine in your Court as she is in My Heart. Expect her retinue’s arrival in advance of the Harvest Feast.
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,
Arthur glanced over at his father’s darkening countenance. He wondered if it was the mention of Morgana that had Uther in such a foul mood, but surely he’d be more sad than angry if that were the case. Lord Godwin clearly didn’t know that Morgana was missing. If he did, he would have sent condolences, not an announcement of his daughter’s travel plans. Lord Godwin loved his daughter deeply and would likely have cancelled her visit if he felt Camelot were in any way unsafe for her. He couldn’t remember much about Elena herself. She had been ten or eleven and he fifteen the last time they had met. All he could recall of her was a gawky child more interested in riding horses and playing with the hunting dogs than in fussing with hair and dresses. Actually, if she were anything like that still, it might have been rather amusing to see how she and Morgana got on. The thought made him feel another pang of sadness at the empty chair to the left of Uther. Even without calling attention to it, Morgana’s absence was as palpable as her presence had been.
Refolding the parchment, Arthur set the letter on the table beside his father’s place setting. Uther looked at it in distaste and said, “Our enemies ever seek ways into our stronghold. We must stop reacting to their moves and anticipate them instead.”
Arthur’s brow furrowed and he felt the unforgettable sensation of dread settle cold and heavy in the pit of his stomach. “Sire?”
Uther ignored him and rose to speak.
“For years Camelot has faced many foes. Countless enemies who, in their jealousy and avarice, have sought to destroy the goodness she radiates and take for themselves her bountiful riches. Ever have I been vigilant against attacks both from outsiders as well as traitors from within. Once again, Camelot is faced with a traitor who would use one hand to steal the greatest treasure of our kingdom and with the other seek to replace it with his own.”
Arthur’s eyes flicked to the letter and felt his mouth fall open in shock and horror at the words that fell from Uther’s lips.
“A man who was once a trusted member of this court has betrayed me. Godwin has kidnapped Lady Morgana and holds her captive while sending his own child as a spy to infiltrate our court. He has proven himself a traitor and must be captured and brought to face judgement. I call upon the knights of Camelot to fulfill your oaths and march on his estate. Bring him and his household to me and rescue the Lady Morgana.”
There was a long moment of utter silence when the king had finished speaking. Everyone stared at Uther completely agog, unable to believe what had just been said.
Without any conscious thought, Arthur got to his feet and drew himself to his full height. Looking his father directly in the eyes, he did not see a rational man or even the absent minded man that had become all too familiar to him over the past weeks. He saw a mad man. The time had come.
“No,” Arthur said quietly, but firmly enough to be heard throughout the room.
Uther’s eyes flashed with rage. “You would defy me? You are no better than a traitor yourself.”
“You are not yourself. Lord Godwin has always been your greatest friend and ally. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”
“He has Morgana!” Uther screeched.
“Morgana was kidnapped by the sorceress Morgause.”
“He paid her to do so. He used witchcraft to steal Morgana away from me, so he could place his daughter on the throne of Camelot.”
“Can’t you hear your words? They are not words of wisdom and rationality. I miss Morgana too, and I want nothing more than to find her and bring her home. But making groundless accusations does nothing to help her and acting on them will only garner Camelot more enemies.”
“Traitor! You are in league with him too. I see it clearly now. Sir Hector, Sir Leon, arrest him!”
Everyone in the hall stared as the two knights stood and walked calmly up to the head table. Neither man drew his sword, though some of the knights still seated were reaching for their weapons. Bedivere, although he had not been called, was halfway out of his seat, ready to throw himself forward.
Sir Hector stood directly in front of Uther, held his gaze for a brief moment, then turned to address Arthur. “What would you have us do, your Highness?”
A howl of rage erupted from Uther, and Arthur nearly fell over his chair when Merlin yanked him back as Uther lunged at him. Uther landed hard on the ground and Leon and Hector were able to restrain him quickly, while the table of knights sprang up from their seats and formed a barrier between the assembled court and the high table. Merlin stood at Arthur’s side with a steadying hand, but had the gall to position himself slightly in front of him.
As Uther screamed and struggled against the restraining arms of Hector and Leon, now aided by Bedivere, Arthur spoke as calmly and clearly as he could over the noise. “Confine him to his chambers and aid the physician should he need to be restrained for treatment.”
“Yes, Sire,” said Hector, with Leon and Bedivere nodding their acknowledgment.
Uther continued to scream, “Traitors! Conspirators! Usurpers!” as he was lead from the room.
When the door closed, every face in the hall turned towards Arthur expectantly.
Arthur swallowed hard and said, “The king is unwell. He has been unwell for many weeks now. It was my hope that the care he was receiving from our court physician would have allowed him to continue leading Camelot with the great care and diligence he has shown for so many years. Sadly, it now seems apparent that is not the case. In my father’s indisposition, I claim the right as crown prince to act as regent, until he is well again. Lords and ladies of the court, councillors, knights and servants of Camelot, we are a strong people. We have faced the trials of misfortune and we have overcome them. The great dragon himself has assaulted our battlements, yet we have emerged the stronger. Today, I once again call upon you, the people of Camelot, to be the strong and loyal people I care for and respect.”
Arthur paused, struggling to think of what else he might say to mitigate the damage done to Camelot’s political position by Uther’s ravings, when a voice at the back of the room shouted, “Hail, Prince Arthur!”
A moment later, several more voices joined in. “Hail, Prince Arthur!”
The knights who had formed a barrier between him and the room parted and those seated at their tables lifted their untouched wine goblets and chorused, “Hail, Prince Arthur!”
Arthur was startled by their fervour. He held up a hand and the room fell into silence. “Your support will be much appreciated in the days to come. Tonight I ask that you enjoy your meal and take your rest.”
The room burst into noisy chatter as Arthur walked away from the head table, through the centre aisle and out the large doors at the end of the hall. Merlin followed him, not half a step behind, his long legs matching Arthur’s stride. As they took to the first staircase, Arthur said, “Gaius?”
“Already sent for. He’s probably there already,” Merlin replied.
At the top of the stairs, Arthur paused and put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Merlin asked.
“For being at my side, even when things go horribly wrong.”
“Where else would I be?” Merlin said with a half shrug that belied the seriousness in his eyes.
Arthur squeezed Merlin’s shoulder, noticing the way Merlin was nearly vibrating with tension and let go. “I don’t know, but I’m glad you’re here.”
Arthur turned down the corridor that lead to the royal chambers, feeling marginally better knowing whatever he would face he would do so with Merlin’s support.
Once his door was closed, Merlin tugged himself free of his shirt and jacket, dropping them to the ground as his wings unfurled more noisily than usual. He had to be careful in this small space not to knock things over as he had the first day, but with a bit of bending and stretching the tension in his back dissipated. It felt so good, he decided to sleep with his wings out, hoping that it might make the long hours of the day more comfortable tomorrow. As long as no one else tried to physically attack Arthur.
He had just gotten comfortable and closed his eyes when there was a knock on his door. Bolting upright, he yanked hard on the thread of magic that pulled his wings in and fumbled around of the floor for his shirt to cover the nubs. He was struggling with the shirt that seemed entirely without sleeves when he heard Gaius’ voice.
“Are you alright, Merlin?”
Merlin let out a heavy sigh of relief. “Yes. I’m fine.”
Gaius opened the door and sat down on the single low stool in the room. “You seemed to be in discomfort while we tended to Uther.”
Dragging the shirt off once more, he extended his wings and let out a small hum. “When he kept lunging at people, before he was sedated, it made me very... twitchy.”
“Your wings reacted to his anger?” Gaius asked in surprise.
Merlin shook his head. “It was more the overwhelming urge to use them as a shield.”
“Hmmm. If they are, as you say, more closely related to your magic than your body, it isn’t unreasonable that you would think to use them in the same way. You are very adept at creating barriers of nothing but magic.”
Merlin was suddenly drawn back to the first night in the clearing with Kilgharrah when the dragon had blown smoke at him and he had blocked it without thinking. His wings had been so foreign to him then that they hadn’t so much as twitched, but now he could feel them moving automatically at the memory.
He was about to say something about Kilgharrah, but the words caught in his throat. Merlin hadn’t discussed his nocturnal wanderings with Gaius any more than he had while the dragon was chained beneath the castle. He figured Gaius knew there had been more than one trip to the clearing, but Merlin was reluctant to share them and Gaius hadn’t asked. The time he had spent with Kilgharrah, the stories he had been told, they were history of a people who kept to themselves. He felt badly for not telling his mentor, but even though Gaius was like a father to him, more of a father than Balinor could ever have been, it felt wrong to let the words escape.
Merlin said nothing of Kilgharrah and made a show of flexing his wings. “I’ve been working to keep the wings retracted for longer lately. That probably added to the twitchiness. Letting them stretch made me feel better right away.”
“It has been a trying evening for all of us.”
“I miss Morgana,” Merlin blurted as his mind landed on the hair trigger that had set Uther off. “I felt so terrible for her, watching her dreams get worse, seeing her scared, and doing nothing.”
Gaius nodded. “I regret that I could not do more for her.”
“If I had told her, maybe...”
“It was too great a risk, for both of you.”
“Would her ignorance have protected her from Uther?” Merlin asked, and wondered if discovering that Morgana had magic would have caused the same downward spiral in Uther that her absence had.
“Her ignorance allowed Uther’s suspicions to be deflected many times. Your closeness with her was always a greater risk to you than it was to her,” said Gaius.
“I only ever wanted to help her, but I ended up poisoning her instead. I should have been able to find a way to stop the magic she was using.”
“She chose her path, Merlin.”
“Did she?” Merlin stared off into space and shook his head. “I know there were many times when she was angry to the point of wanting Uther dead, but more recently she was different. Perhaps it was the Crystal... I saw things in it and everything I did seemed to push me towards them playing out. If she tried using it, maybe she saw something that changed her.”
“She stole the Crystal of Neahtid with the knowledge it would be used to overthrow not just Uther but the whole of Camelot,” Gaius observed.
“That’s what doesn’t make sense. She knew they intended to kill Arthur as well. I know they always bickered, but she was always protective of him, too.”
“Clearly that has changed.”
“I never wanted to hurt her, but I gave her the poison to save everyone else. Nothing else could have made me do it,” Merlin said and looked directly at Gaius, willing him to understand. “It had to have been something big for her to accept everyone’s death, including Arthur’s and Gwen’s, as necessary.”
“You are motivated by the love you feel for others. I fear that Morgana’s motivations have always been a good deal less pure. She carries a great deal of anger in her heart. It is the emotion that comes easiest to her,” Gaius said sadly.
“If I’d been able to command Kilgharrah then, perhaps I could have done things differently. I could have stopped Morgause without bargaining with Morgana’s life.”
Gaius sighed heavily and leaned forward, resting his folded hands between his knees. “It may be little comfort, but I have no doubt that Morgause is highly skilled in the brewing of poisons and their antidotes.”
“Do you think she’s still alive?” Merlin asked.
“There is no way to know for certain, but if Morgause was able to stop the poison, Morgana would be long recovered by now.”
“Do you suppose they’re hiding away at that old castle where Arthur and I met her before? The path we used to get there had vanished, so they would be well hidden there.”
Gaius shrugged. “I’m afraid I know little of Morgause’s motivations other than her desire to overthrow Uther. She was trained by the High Priestesses of the Old Religion but they did not all share the same vision of the future.”
“Did she learn from Nimueh?”
“I expect she studied with her for a time.”
“It’s odd, but I can’t picture her at the Isle of the Blessed,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “Even at the abandoned castle, she didn’t seem to belong there. She’s too good with a sword to have spent a long time in solitude. She must have trained with someone somewhere.”
“There are many enemies of Camelot who would be eager to aid her. I’ve heard plenty of rumours in recent years of a sorcerer at Cenred’s court,” said Gaius
Merlin frowned at him. “But I had to hide back in Ealdor. Cenred had a ban on magic too.”
“Banning the use of magic by the general population and banning magic from the kingdom are two very different things. Many kings find the talents of a court sorcerer valuable, though they do not want the peasants having such power.”
“Cenred doesn’t want the peasants having much of anything,” Merlin muttered, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and staring at the rough wood of the floorboards. “If Morgause is supporting Cenred, and word of Uther’s health reaches him, he could have an army ready to march in under a week.”
“If he thinks he can take Camelot without a prolonged battle, he might,” Gaius said, pursing his lips in thought. “I doubt that Morgause would have fled directly to him, however. The magic needed to transport someone as she did requires a tremendous amount of power and is difficult over great distances. The abandoned castle is much closer and would allow them both the chance to recover.”
“So they might still be there.”
“They might. Though I suspect you’re right to think they won’t remain there too long. If nothing else, they would not spend a winter there,” Gaius said, then yawned widely and got to his feet. “However, I will save my pondering on the matter for the morning.”
“Goodnight Gaius,” Merlin said, stretching out on his front and letting his wings tuck in against his back.
“Goodnight,” Gaius said, and shuffled out of the room, shutting the door as he left.
He had plenty of other things to worry about, however. His father continued to go through violent mood swings which were increasingly upsetting to witness. He never knew when the distant man lost in the past would become aware of the present and once more scream venomous words of traitor and usurper at him. Arthur knew it had needed to be done. He had known for weeks. That didn’t make the reality of it any easier. His father had always been stern and a bit cold, but there was usually an accord between them. He missed friendly conversation with someone he trusted implicitly.
And so he talked to Merlin instead.
He supposed travelling so much with Merlin was what had started it. Long hours of riding were dull without someone to talk to, and Merlin had never had the restraint of other servants. He would fill their days in the saddle with idle chatter about everything and nothing. At first Arthur had been annoyed and even angry at the lack of propriety, but it did make his days more interesting. Now, in the absence of both Morgana and his father, he fell into conversation with Merlin more readily than ever. Merlin was always there.
Sitting down to the first private supper since the night Uther had lost all sense in front of the entire assembled court, Arthur looked at Merlin puttering around the room and frowned.
“Sit down, Merlin.”
Merlin turned and looked at him in confusion. “What?”
Arthur gestured to a chair. “Stop working and come have a seat.”
“Is something wrong, Arthur?”
Merlin dropped the shirt he had been picking up off the floor and hurried over to the table. “What is it?”
“I would like have a conversation with someone who doesn’t have a hidden agenda,” Arthur explained. “As you’ve brought more than enough food for three people, you are welcome to join me.”
“Are you certain you haven’t taken leave of your senses too?”
“Not funny, Merlin.”
“Alright, alright,” Merlin said, dropping down into a chair and surveying the food on the table seriously.
Arthur shook his head. “Eat whatever you’d like. Seriously.”
Merlin took a roll and began stuffing it with meat, still eyeing Arthur dubiously. “So what makes you so certain I don’t have a hidden agenda?”
“It’s the hidden part. If you want something, you say it outright. You have no idea how rare that is,” Arthur observed, and was a bit startled by his own sincerity.
Merlin just shrugged. “How is anyone supposed to know what you want if you don’t tell them?”
“Subtlety and tact are completely lost on you.”
“Not completely. I just don’t have much patience for beating around the bush. I can be tactful when I want to be.”
“When exactly has that ever happened?”
“Did I say anything about regency after that meeting with Leon and Bedivere?”
Arthur’s smirk disappeared. “No. You were the only one who didn’t try to push me.”
“I knew you would deal with it when you needed to.”
“I made your life hell for weeks.”
Merlin let out a small burst of laughter. “No, hell was the first month I worked for you. This past month doesn’t even compare.”
“The dark circles under your eyes tell me you’re lying,” Arthur said, gesturing with his eating knife.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were worried about me,” Merlin teased.
Arthur snorted. “As if I would worry about a servant.”
Merlin’s grin softened into a fond smile. “I know you do.”
There was an awkward silence, and Arthur busied himself with his food. The wind picked up outside and rattled at the windows. Merlin got up and put more wood on the fire, though the wind only made it sound colder than it was. When he sat down at the table again, his eyes drifted to the window.
“I think winter will come early this year.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “What makes you say that?”
“The winds have come up earlier and the air is already heavy.”
“The harvest was very good this year. Even if the winter is harsh, the people should do well.”
“So long as Morgause decides to lay low,” Merlin said under his breath.
“Morgause? What has you thinking about her?”
Merlin startled and looked flustered, as if he hadn’t meant to say those words aloud. “It’s nothing. I was just wondering about Morgana.”
“I wish we could find her too.”
“I think they might still be hiding at that old castle, but if they are they won’t stay there much longer,” Merlin said with a frown and a shake of the head.
“We looked for that place and couldn’t find it.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Of course we couldn’t. Morgause didn’t want us to.”
Arthur hadn’t considered just how much Morgause was capable of, beyond the obvious, but the idea that she could keep something as big as a castle hidden was unsettling. He frowned. “So there isn’t anything we can do.”
“Not while they stay in one place. We might be able to track them when they move though.”
“If, by ‘we,’ you mean I would be able to track them, then yes. Getting Morgana away would still be problematic. Morgause proved herself a skilled sorceress with the enchanted knights.”
“And that’s stopped you before?”
“There’s more at stake now. I want to rescue Morgana and I want to stop Morgause, but I can’t leave Camelot without a ruler,” Arthur pointed out. “It pains me to say it, but I do need to be more careful now. When do you think Morgause is most likely to move?”
“The entire kingdom will be busy with celebrations in a week, won’t they? It seems like that’d be a good time to travel unnoticed,” Merlin said with a shrug.
“There’s only one problem, Merlin.”
“I need to be here, hosting those celebrations.”
A sly smile spread across Merlin’s lips and he said, “No you don’t. You need to be travelling through the kingdom showing the people that they’re safe under your rule.”
Arthur shook his head. “That will mean an entourage. Not exactly stealthy, Merlin.”
“But for your safety your movements should be kept quiet, shouldn’t they? The people know you from patrols, not fancy processions with dozens of attendants. A big group might make people nervous,” Merlin said with a very fake smile.
“A standard patrol usually has four to six knights. The council won’t like it, but we could travel fairly discreetly with that few. I’ll talk to Leon. He’s rather talented at presenting an idea to councillors and making them believe it was theirs.”
“Then all we have to do is figure out the route Morgause is most likely to travel,” Merlin teased.
“Nothing impossible then,” Arthur teased back. It wasn’t much of a plan, and it didn’t have much chance of success, but it felt good to be trying it all the same.
The three days they had spent travelling had been pleasant enough until now. The fall weather had a bite to it, but they hadn’t been caught in howling winds or downpours as they moved from town to town. The Council had been reluctant for Arthur to spend his first formal celebrations as regent away from the city, but had been swayed by Leon’s argument that Arthur was the people’s prince. He was well regarded by the peasants because he was regularly seen in the towns and villages throughout Camelot. Showing the kingdom that his concern for them would not change now that he was regent was a strategic move to quell the insecurities of a nervous people, or so Leon had suggested. It had taken a good deal more convincing to keep the travelling party small and unheralded, but in the end Leon, Bedivere, Hector and Geraint accompanied Arthur with no squires or servants apart from Merlin. Their saddlebags were filled to bursting with small tokens for the villages, though thankfully no wagon of supplies. Merlin was inclined to think their group was too large and conspicuous already, but they seemed to be moving quietly enough.
Actually, it was unnaturally quiet. Merlin jerked his head up and glanced around suspiciously. Even in the very early morning, the rustle of small creatures in the trees and the underbrush followed them as they rode. Straining his ears to hear, there was nothing, only the soft footfalls of the horses. Merlin frowned as he glanced up the foggy path and shivered at the penetrating chill. Something wasn’t right. Prodding his horse with his heels, Merlin drew up alongside Arthur and caught his eye.
Arthur gave him a curious look. “Something wrong, Merlin?”
He nodded and softly said, “Listen.”
Arthur cocked his head and frowned after a long moment. “I don’t hear anything.”
“No birds, no squirrels, no breeze. Nothing,” Merlin added, glancing around the trees that surrounded them.
“And the fog?” Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged. “Doesn’t it feel a lot colder than it did yesterday?”
Arthur held up his hand and the knights halted their horses. He gave the men a few hand gestures that still held next to no meaning to Merlin, but the others must have understood clearly based on their nods of comprehension. A moment later, they rearranged themselves on the path so that everyone was riding two abreast. Merlin found himself in the middle of the group beside Arthur with Leon and Bedivere a short ways ahead of them. Hector and Geraint rode behind, slowing their pace. Soon they fell far enough back that the thump of hooves and shifting of harness became muffled. He glanced back to see how far away they were, and was startled to see how short a distance was needed to obscure the sound of their movements.
Noticing his expression of surprise, Arthur’s lips pulled down into a deeper frown and he nodded. There wasn’t much question now. The quiet of the forest was unnatural.
The road rose with a curve at the top that obscured Leon and Bedivere from Merlin’s view even though they were no more than a half dozen horse lengths behind. Then, suddenly, the silence of the morning was shattered by the panicked squealing of horses and the splintering sound of falling trees. Arthur drew his sword and gave his mount a sharp kick. Merlin dug in his own heels and his horse surged up the road beside Arthur. As they turned the corner, their way was blocked by two large uprooted trees. On the other side, Leon and Bedivere’s horses reared and kicked, struggling to pull their reins free of the branches, their saddles empty.
Arthur leapt from his horse and dashed around the trees, heedless of the danger. Merlin nearly fell on his face as he dismounted, but scrambled to his feet. The ground beneath him was soft and crumbly from the violent uprooting of the trees, but it didn’t seem to hinder Arthur. Already clear of the roots, he was striding forward shouting, “Morgana!”
Pushing himself forward, Merlin didn’t take the time to look at his surroundings. He could feel a powerful surge of magic gathering in the air, and he launched himself forward. His clothes ripped apart as his wings unfurled and wrapped themselves around Arthur. A moment later, a burning stab of white hot pain shot through him.
Merlin’s awareness condensed to nothing more than the man in his arms and the pain in his body. The initial stab became rippling waves of agony as the spell, whatever it had been, flowed over him. He was dimly aware of Arthur’s astounded expression, but there was little room in his mind to make sense of it alongside the pain. When the seemingly endless moment of agony passed, Merlin became aware that he was screaming. He gulped at the air and clung tightly to Arthur, even as the prince struggled to free himself.
Slowly his other senses returned to him and Arthur’s voice shouting, “Merlin! Merlin let go!” over and over again finally registered. He parted his wings enough to see across the clearing and gaped. There was a crumpled heap on the ground in front of a tree that looked like it had been struck by lightning and beside that was Morgana, shrieking and crying, her forehead bleeding.
Merlin released his grip on Arthur and stumbled shakily towards Morgana and the crumpled form. The air was thick with the acrid smell of burnt flesh and ozone. His hand shook as he reached forward and pushed aside the tattered cloth to reveal the singed blonde hair and shocked face of Morgause. The centre of her chest was burnt black. She was very dead. Beside him, Morgana wailed.
Merlin turned to look at Morgana, blinked, and saw Arthur kneeling at her side, clutching her shoulders as she sobbed. Feeling dazed, he watched the trickle of blood from the cut on her forehead gather at her eyebrow and fall in a perfect crimson drop onto her dark green cloak.
And then he saw Morgause.
He saw the cruel expression darken her features. He saw her eyes flash golden. He saw a bright burst of magic surging towards him. And then he felt a body collide with him and grasp him so tightly it hurt. The world darkened and then there was agonized screaming filling his ears. It had taken a moment to realize that both the fingers digging painfully into his shoulders and the screaming voice were Merlin. His body was jerking and shuddering and he had wrapped something around them that Arthur couldn’t make sense of. The screaming was deafening and Arthur tried to push himself away, but Merlin seemed insensible to the world around him.
When the screaming stopped, Merlin had staggered away towards Morgana and Morgause, or where Morgause had been. Arthur stared in horrified amazement at the sight of the charred tree and the immobile form of Morgause on the ground. It wasn’t until he began to move forward himself that Merlin’s appearance finally registered.
Two massive, leathery brown wings protruded from Merlin’s back. They were spread wide, like a bat’s wing in flight, and the right side had a sizeable black mark on it. The spot, Arthur realized, was where Morgause’s burst of magic had struck him. Arthur lurched towards Merlin, determined to see how hurt he was, when he heard Morgana’s shrieking sobs. He dropped to his knees beside her and held her tightly as Merlin exposed the charred remains of Morgause. Arthur blinked at the size and severity of the burn on Morgause’s chest, eyes darting up to the charred remnants of the tree behind her. Clearly Merlin had been hurt, but his injury had been small in comparison.
Morgana struggled in his grip and he turned his attention back to her. Arthur could see that her clothes were singed, but the only injury he could find was a large cut on her forehead. It was bleeding steadily, but not as profusely as some head wounds did.
Speaking softly, Arthur said, “You’re alright. We’ve found you. You’re safe.”
Merlin turned away from Morgause’s dead body and he moved to take a closer look at Morgana’s cut. As he reached a hand out to touch her forehead, Morgana screamed, “Don’t touch me! Noooo!”
“He’s going to help you. You’re bleeding. Let him help you,” Arthur soothed.
“He’s going to kill me!” Morgana cried, and began kicking her feet at Merlin.
Swift as a striking snake, Merlin grabbed Morgana’s flailing left wrist, snatched the bracelet on it and threw it into the trees. Morgana’s struggles lessened and her screams became wrenching sobs with garbled words of pleading. Merlin ignored her and brought his hand to the bloody wound. Merlin said something guttural and incomprehensible, then his eyes flared with magic and Morgana’s cut closed over and stopped bleeding. Morgana’s struggling stopped and she stared wide eyed at Merlin.
Arthur’s brain finally caught up with all he was seeing and he stared at Merlin too. Merlin was a sorcerer. A sorcerer with massive wings. Arthur gaped, at a complete loss for words.
Merlin looked at him imploringly. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I’ve always wanted to use my powers to help people.”
Merlin turned to Morgana. “Morgause was controlling you. She used you to put a spell on Camelot and I didn’t know how to stop it. I couldn’t find another way. I knew she could save you, though. I didn’t know exactly what she wanted with you, but I knew she would save you. I’m sorry, Morgana. I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you. I wanted to help you. People kept telling me not to, and I listened to them. I’m so sorry.”
Arthur watched as Merlin collapsed to the ground at Morgana’s feet, weeping and babbling for forgiveness. He felt like he had missed something important, or more likely many things. Morgana continued to stare at the man weeping at her feet, seemingly at an equal loss for words. Arthur wondered if she had a better idea what Merlin was raving about, but didn’t think she was in a state to answer him.
Shouting from farther off caught his attention. Arthur looked up to see Hector and Geraint walking cautiously out onto the road. It looked like they had circled around through the trees and approached from the other direction, which, now that Arthur was thinking more clearly, was what he ought to have done when he saw Bedivere and Leon’s horses. Arthur raised an arm to indicate all was relatively safe and beckoned them closer.
“Sire,” said Hector as he approached, “are you hurt?”
“No,” Arthur said with a shake of his head. “I think I have Merlin to thank for that.”
“Merlin!?” said Geraint in surprise. “What did he... Merlin??”
The young knight took in the huddled figure sobbing on the ground, the massive wings still outstretched with the blackened spot clearly visible, and took a few shuffling steps backward. Hector looked at Merlin as well, his eyebrows climbing high towards his receding hairline.
“Your manservant... has wings?”
Arthur shrugged, still stunned by the whole situation, and blurted, “And it seems he’s a sorcerer.”
Hector raised his sword instinctively, and at the same moment both Arthur and Morgana shouted, “Don’t!”
Morgana shifted out of Arthur’s arms and leaned forward to touch Merlin’s shoulder. His tear streaked face jerked up and she reached out to wipe away a smear of dirt from his face. Merlin’s tears seemed to flow harder, but both he and Morgana seemed calmer.
Arthur struggled to his feet and looked towards the frantic horses tangled in the fallen trees. “Leon and Bedivere. Where are they?”
Geraint went to calm the horses while Arthur and Hector walked along the edge of the road. Hearing a pained groan, Arthur climbed over another fallen tree and found Leon laying on the ground clutching his head.
When he looked up and saw Arthur, he said, “I’m going to kill that horse.”
“Are you injured?”
Leon shifted onto his side and winced. “Bruised, but not broken I don’t think.”
“Need a hand?” Arthur asked, reaching down to help Leon to his feet.
Grunting and wincing, Leon managed to stay upright, but needed support to walk. Coming back out onto the road, Leon looked at the damage in surprise. “What happened?”
“We’ll try to put that together once everyone is accounted for,” said Arthur.
Geraint had managed to untangle one of the horses and moved it a good distance up the road. He had found a proper tether in the packs and the beast had settled. The other still stamped and huffed anxiously, but also seemed to have more of its head now that the two weren’t tangled together. The smell that hung in the air was beginning to make his stomach turn and Arthur helped Leon hobble away from the devastation towards where Geraint was moving the horses.
As he passed Geraint heading back for the other horse, he said, “Bring all the horses up the road. We need to regroup and take stock.”
“Of course, Sire,” said Geraint.
When Leon was as comfortable as he could be leaned up against a tree on the side of the road, Arthur hurried back to find Hector waving him over. He cast a glance over at Merlin and Morgana, to find them still sitting only feet away from Morgause’s body, though they had shifted and Merlin was sitting beside Morgana holding her hand and wrapping a wing around her. He shook his head, still not prepared to deal with suddenly magical manservants and loped over to Hector.
Hector’s face was grim. “I’ve found Bedivere, but he’s not doing well.”
Arthur followed Hector around some scraggly bushes and nearly lost his balance as the hillside sloped away from them steeply. Near the bottom, Bedivere lay unmoving with one of his legs sticking out in a very unnatural position. Carefully scrabbling down the slope, Arthur got a better look at the injury and sucked in a breath. He could clearly see the large bone in Bedivere’s thigh protruding from the skin, the jagged edges a mess of dirt and leaves. This was the sort of injury that could easily kill a man, if not from the obvious blood loss, then from infection. The only thing in Bedivere’s favour at the moment was that he was deeply unconscious.
Looking up at Hector, Arthur said, “We’ll have to move him. Even if Gaius has taught Merlin enough to patch him up to ride home, this isn’t the place to do it. Get one of the bedrolls and some rope.”
Hector frowned. “Not to step too closely towards treason, my Lord, but if you intend for Merlin to help him, I think it is very likely that he can move Bedivere more easily and less painfully than we could.”
Right. Merlin was a sorcerer. A sorcerer with wings. Arthur was having a difficult time holding this mind boggling information in his head. Distantly, he knew he should very angry with Merlin. He should be filled with rage and betrayal and clamouring for justice, but such thoughts could find no home in his mind. It was stupid, reckless Merlin, blundering in with outlandish notions that he was there to save the day... which if Arthur thought about it had probably happened before, though never so obviously.
Focussing back on Hector he nodded curtly. “Right. If there is anything to be salvaged in this disaster, we must use the resources we have available to us. Let’s go get Merlin.”
In the haze of his misery, he didn’t remember moving, but when he was jolted into awareness by Arthur shaking his shoulders, he was surprised to find himself sitting up with a wing around Morgana, clutching her hand in his.
“Merlin, I need your help. Bedivere has fallen down a steep slope and his leg is very badly broken,” Arthur said, staring directly into Merlin’s eyes.
Merlin blinked. “Wha?”
Arthur snapped his fingers impatiently in front of Merlin’s eyes and he batted them away.
“Merlin, you need to focus.”
“Why are you doing this Arthur?” Morgana asked, her voice cracking as she spoke.
Arthur glanced away for a moment, mumbled something Merlin couldn’t make sense of, then fixed his gaze back on Merlin. “If I try to move him, I’ll only hurt him more. Can you lift him back up to the road?”
“Bedivere’s huge. ‘M not strong,” Merlin slurred.
“Stay with me, Merlin. Can you use magic to lift him? Can you heal him like you did Morgana?” Arthur asked.
“I healed Morgana?” he asked, swinging his head to look at her. She was reaching up to touch a thin red line on her forehead.
Arthur grabbed his chin and lifted his face. “You did, and I’m glad. I need you to try to help Bedivere.”
“Come on,” Arthur said, offering a hand, “I’ll show you.”
Merlin’s head swam when Arthur pulled him to his feet. His vision grew dark at the edges and he gulped at the air. Arthur dragged one of Merlin’s arms over his shoulder and wrapped one of his own around Merlin’s waist to keep him standing. Unsteadily, they lurched towards the side of the road, past some low bushes. Merlin found himself staring woozily down the steep slope at two men. One was standing and looking down at the other laying on the ground unmoving.
With more effort than it should have taken, Merlin turned his head to look at Arthur. “The one on the ground?”
Arthur sighed in exasperation and for some reason that made Merlin feel a bit better. “Yes, Merlin. Bedivere’s the one on the ground. Can you do it, or are you too unwell?”
Merlin snorted. “Magic’s never a problem. Even when I’m sick, it always wants to get out.”
He didn’t know what to make of Arthur’s expression, so he looked back down the slope.
Arthur asked, “Is Hector in the way, or would it be better for him to stay close?”
“Close is good. Moving someone isn’t hard.”
“Are you certain?”
“Yeah,” Merlin answered, though even he could tell he didn’t sound all that reassuring.
Letting one of the innumerable threads of his magic unwind, Merlin raised a hand and directed the power towards Bedivere. He didn’t need a spell for this. He had been able to move things with his magic as long as he could remember. Merlin could sense that Arthur was watching him closely and heard a sharp intake of breath as the knight lifted off the ground, but he ignored it. The thread of magic running through his hand felt good and helped Merlin steady himself. Hector climbed the slope beside the floating man, occasionally reaching out a hand as if to help, though it was completely unnecessary.
Holding Bedivere’s limp body in the air, Merlin looked for a good place to lay him down. He startled when he saw that Morgana had followed them and was staring at him, wide eyes standing out on her pale face. He wondered what was going through her mind, though she appeared to be in more shock than he was.
Arthur’s voice dragged Merlin’s attention back. “How are you holding up? Can you move him a little farther?”
“I’m fine. Better actually,” Merlin said. The fog that had clouded his mind was beginning to lift and he didn’t need to lean so heavily on Arthur now. “Where should I put him down?”
Arthur gestured to where a horse was tethered on the side of the road. “I brought Leon over there. Is it too far?”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s fine.”
Arthur kept one arm locked tightly around Merlin’s waist, which Merlin appreciated. Using his magic was helping dispel the lingering sting of Morgause’s spell, but the aftershocks continued to ripple over his body without warning, making him stumble. Lowering Bedivere down on a blanket someone had laid out for him, the man didn’t make a sound. Arthur’s grip on Merlin eased and he dropped down to his knees, crawling forward to get a better look at the injury.
It was bad. Dirt and debris clung to the raw end of the bone where it protruded from the skin and the wet blood was seeping steadily from the wound. It wasn’t pumping from Bedivere’s body, though. He’d have long died of blood loss if it had been. Still, there was enough loss to already be a concern. Merlin reached for the knife he had tucked into his belt and began to cut away the trouser leg to have better access to work.
When the fabric fell away, he looked up at Arthur and said, “I don’t know if I can fix this.”
Arthur dropped to one knee beside him and gripped his shoulder tightly. “Do what you can. What do you need?”
“Water. Some to flush the wound and some heated up for an infusion. I have some herbs in my pack.”
Merlin was dimly aware of the others watching him as he tended to Bedivere, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Arthur came and went from his side bringing him skins of water and strips of cloth to clean with. Arthur found Merlin’s small pouch of herbs and medicines and brought him a steaming pot of water for the infusion. He was a solid presence, quiet and confident, which helped Merlin focus.
Even though he was deeply unconscious, Bedivere occasionally jerked and moaned. Merlin was glad the knight wasn’t awake. He had helped Gaius clean a wound like this before. The man had screamed and thrashed in pain and they had needed to tie him down to the table as they worked. Even though they had done their best, the man had lost his leg to infection. He had screamed then too, as Gaius cut through the flesh and sawed through bone.
The infusion was probably still too hot when Merlin flushed the wound with it, but the continued bleeding worried him too much to wait any longer. When he could no longer see any dirt and grit, Merlin took the small flask of distilled spirits from his pouch of medicines and poured it over the wound, silently praying his efforts were enough. He needed both Arthur and Hector’s strength to straighten the leg, though he used his magic to help guide the broken ends back into place. There didn’t seem any point in not using it anymore. Arthur wasn’t just going to forget about it. Merlin looked at the splintered edges nestled back together and hoped he remembered the healing spell correctly as he uncoiled a tendril of magic to fuse the bone. The jagged flesh wound didn’t want close smoothly so he stitched it up instead of trying to spell it closed. Gaius might do better when they got back. Finally, Merlin wrapped a bandage around the leg and stood. He staggered away towards the trees, dropped to his knees, and retched.
When the nausea and dizziness faded, a waterskin swam into focus in front of him. Merlin took the mostly empty skin gratefully, rinsing the foul taste from his mouth and taking a few sips to soothe the back of his throat. He looked up to hand the skin back, and saw Arthur frowning at him in concern.
“I pushed you too hard.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin insisted.
“Stop saying that. You’re pale as a sheet and shaking like a leaf.”
“I’m better now.”
“You were hurt too,” Arthur observed.
Arthur had brought over the pot with the remnants of the infusion in it. He dipped a fresh strip of cloth into the warm water and knelt behind Merlin. Gasping at the contact, Merlin craned his neck around to see what Arthur was doing.
“Quit squirming, Merlin,” Arthur commanded, and firmly held the edge of Merlin’s wing.
It was difficult to see what Arthur was doing, but Merlin felt the wet cloth gently wiping around the spot on his right wing that still stung like blazes.
“There’s no open wound, but the skin looks singed. This must have been where Morgause hit you.”
Merlin clenched his jaw and waited for Arthur to finish. When he was done, Arthur brought the pot over to the small fire someone had made and came back with Merlin’s lumpy bedroll.
“You seem to have lost your shirt. I can’t have you catching cold.”
Merlin shook his head but accepted the bundle anyway. “Generally not a problem, actually.”
“Really?” said Arthur, and sat down with his back against a tree a bit away from where Merlin had been sick.
Merlin shuffled away from the spot too. “Yeah. That’s part of how I knew something wasn’t right. I’m never cold anymore, but this morning I was freezing.”
Arthur made a small grunt of acknowledgement then asked, “So... wings?”
“How on earth have you kept them hidden? I mean, I’ve seen you without a shirt on plenty of times and I can’t say I’ve ever noticed them before.”
“Well, they are a bit new and I can retract them, pull them into my body. Although, I can’t seem to manage that at the moment.”
“And the magic?” Arthur asked dryly.
Merlin let out a heavy sigh and stared at his feet. “That’s not new. I’ve always had that.”
He could feel Arthur’s gaze. “Always?”
Merlin nodded and breathed, “Yes.”
Arthur let out a deep breath and stared up at the sky for a long time. Merlin looked around at the others. Leon was propped up against a tree on the other side of the road, wrapped in a blanket and looking decidedly uncomfortable. Geraint was fussing with the horses, soothing them and checking for injuries, but they all appeared sound. Hector sat watching over Bedivere, occasionally leaning in to check on his breathing. A short way back towards the charred and uprooted trees, Morgana sat hunched inside her cloak, staring out with dazed unseeing eyes. He wanted to go over to her and say something or do something to make her feel better, but he didn’t move.
The damp morning air was lifting and the sun had risen high enough to see through the branches of the trees when Arthur finally spoke. “We need to figure out some way to carry Bedivere and get moving. It’s not yet midday, but it will probably take us until after dark to get back to the castle.”
“What are you going to do with me?” Merlin asked in a small voice.
“Nothing,” said Arthur dismissively.
“-the only reason we’re still alive at the moment.”
“Merlin. I have some rather bigger concerns at the moment. Be assured that we will discuss this later. For the time being, however, I’m going to run on the assumption that if you had wanted any of us dead, you would have done so sometime in the past two years,” Arthur said with his typical drawl, which went a long way to making Merlin believe him.
Arthur stood and offered Merlin a hand up. Gesturing towards Morgana, he said, “I’m going to check on her. I have no idea what you’re capable of, but we should try to clear the road.”
“Right. I’ll see what I can manage,” Merlin said with a nod.
The cart had been hitched to Merlin’s horse. It was a sturdy animal and the only horse with them that would tolerate either cart or travois. Merlin sat hunched over Bedivere for most of the journey, hoping the man would regain consciousness, but he had shown no signs of waking. Geraint had taken Merlin’s reins and was leading his horse, taking care to follow the smoothest path he could find while Hector brought up the rear.
Arthur had taken Bedivere’s mount and given his own horse to Morgana to ride. She hadn’t said a word about where she had been or what had happened to her, and when he mentioned that Uther had missed her greatly she became frantic, insisting she could not return to the city with them. Merlin had whispered something in her ear that managed to soothe her enough to convince her to return, but there was a haunted wariness in her eyes that lingered. Arthur wished he knew what was upsetting her so much and why she didn’t want to come home. He had searched throughout the kingdom for her and spent weeks worrying. He had thought she’d be grateful for her rescue, or at the least be her more usual dismissive self, but not fearful and resistant. During the long ride, his gaze kept returning to her, wondering and worrying.
He had a great many things to worry about and hours of slow riding to do so. Bedivere’s injury and unconsciousness were in some ways the most urgent, but his winged manservant was making a valiant effort to be uppermost in his mind. The wings and the magic weren’t the biggest problems in and of themselves, although Arthur did have a mountain of questions and conflicted feelings from the revelation. The greater problem was that it wasn’t just him who knew. Everyone had seen the wings and watched Merlin performing spells at his behest. Gauging from their reactions, Arthur thought his companions more grateful than condemning, but how far would that extend? Arthur had given Merlin his cloak to hide his wings, though he could still see the lumps they made under the fabric, and no one had said a word in the village as they filled their waterskins and bartered for the cart, but how long would they stay silent? He was blatantly ignoring the laws of the land, laws he had helped his father uphold for years. He was at a loss for what to do now. The simplest solution would be to send Merlin back to Ealdor. If he wasn’t in Camelot, Arthur could be justified in not pursuing him.
The fact was, however, that Arthur didn’t want to send Merlin away. Merlin was a terrible servant, but he was a thoughtful advisor, a trustworthy confidant and a true friend. The thought of losing that was more painful than he cared to admit, even in the privacy of his own mind.
When they had crested the final hill and the shroud of trees had opened up into wide fields that extended all the way to the edge of the city walls, Arthur drew everyone to a halt and spoke aloud for the first time in hours.
“The entirety of what has happened today is a matter for us alone. Aspects of it will be shared with others, but full disclosure would benefit no one. When we set out four days ago, I chose each of you personally because you are the people I trust the most. This remains true. Our priority when we arrive at the castle is to see that those who have been injured are tended to properly. I have no doubt that our arrival will be noticed and commented upon. All anyone need know for the time being is that we had an unexpected encounter on our travels that necessitated an early return.”
Leon was the first to respond. “Yes, Sire.”
In the dim light of the waning moon, Arthur could see the others nod and murmur their agreement. He cast a glance at Merlin and the unconscious Bedivere and urged his horse forward without another word.
The gates to the lower town were closed, which was sure to make the announcement of their arrival travel through the city like wildfire. The guards were quick to open the gates though, and the hour was late enough and the wind cold enough that most people were tucked away in their homes for the evening. The one person Arthur was glad to encounter just outside the castle gate was Gwen. She wore the tired expression they all had these days, but when she looked up and saw Morgana with them her face lit up like the sun. As soon as they had dismounted, Gwen threw her arms around Morgana and Arthur saw real happiness in Morgana’s tremulous smile.
Arthur stepped up to them and said, “I imagine you’d prefer to go to your rooms to rest, and Gaius will be rather occupied tonight. I’ll send him to check on you in the morning.”
Gwen frowned. “Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m fine,” she said reassuringly to Gwen then turned to Arthur, “and I don’t need Gaius to check on me in the morning.”
“Please Morgana, indulge me in this? I’ve been worried sick about you for weeks,” Arthur said, and he knew he sounded less flippant than he would have hoped.
The fight seemed to leave Morgana, and she nodded. “I... I hope Bedivere’s alright.”
Morgana swept away up the stairs without another word, Gwen at her side, as if she had never been gone. Arthur watched them disappear into the castle and turned his attention back to the others and spoke to them each in turn.
“Hector, find Gaius and get a proper stretcher.”
“Leon, track down a couple pages to take care of our gear and make your way to the physician’s rooms yourself.”
“Geraint, go to the stables and help the lads tend to the horses. We don’t need to add lame horses to our list of accomplishments today.”
“Merlin...” Arthur trailed off, unsure of what to say.
Merlin jerked his head up from what was surely his thousandth check on Bedivere’s breathing. He looked so serious, and Arthur found what he wanted most in this moment was for a smile to break across Merlin’s face. As if, somehow, Merlin smiling would mean everything would work out.
“Merlin,” he began again, “Remember when we snuck out to meet Morgause?”
Merlin’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. “Yes.”
“And you were lowering me out of the window on a rope?”
“And you let go of the rope and I landed in a wagon full of horse dung?”
The corners of Merlin’s lips twitched as he struggled not to laugh at the memory. “Yes.”
Arthur took two steps forward to stand right in front of Merlin and said, “My anger about that incident remains far greater than about anything that has happened today.”
“Arthur?” Merlin whispered.
“Merlin, you are to help Gaius to the best of your abilities, all of them. We’ll work out the rest later.”
Merlin let out a shuddering breath. “Yes, Sire.”
“And Bedivere,” Arthur said, glancing down at the motionless man on the cart, “Don’t die.”
Merlin put on what was now his only shirt and the scratchiness of the fabric didn’t irritate him as much as it normally did. It did remind him that he was now short not just a shirt, but also his only jacket. Even though the cold didn’t bother him much anymore, he would need something warmer for the approaching winter. He sincerely hoped that his wings would stay put from now on, or he was going to be forever scrounging for clothes. He tugged on the hem of his shirt and frowned. Given what had happened yesterday, worrying about his torn clothing was shamefully trivial. Despite Arthur’s assurances that he wasn’t angry, Merlin knew things couldn’t go back to the way they were. Others had seen his wings and seen him do magic. He had been too tired and anxious about Bedivere to think much for himself last night, but in the bright light of morning there was no denying what had happened.
Gaius was puttering quietly by the fire when Merlin summoned up the courage to face the day. His mentor looked up and smiled, the creases in his brow softening at the sight of him.
“I can see you’re feeling much improved this morning.”
Merlin nodded. “I feel fine, as if nothing happened. How is Bedivere?”
They both glanced over to the cot where the injured knight lay. He looked pale and unnaturally still, but his chest rose regularly with his breathing.
“He still hasn’t shown any sign of waking, but he also has shown no signs of infection, which is promising. He is remarkably fortunate you were there to treat his injury.”
“He’ll only be fortunate if he lives.”
Gaius shook his head. “If you hadn’t set his leg, the sharp edges of the bone might have severed the large blood vessels in his leg and he would have bled to death. Even if that didn’t happen, the journey back to the castle would have been damaging enough to make the limb untreatable. As it stands, my greatest concern is that he hasn’t regained consciousness, which was certainly a blessing for your journey back. If he doesn’t wake by the end of the day, I might consider attempting to rouse him through other means. The best thing for him, however, is rest. There is nothing more we can do that you haven’t already done.”
“I couldn’t get the wound to close. Perhaps if I tried again...”
“You’ve done your best Merlin, and that is plenty. I’m afraid that medicine is not a field of guarantees. Whether a scientific or magical practitioner, there is still an element of fate. You can do everything possible, and some patients will still succumb and there are times when there is very little that can be done and the patient pulls through. The fault is not in ourselves, Merlin.”
“I thought science didn’t hold with fate.”
“I am a great believer in science, Merlin. I believe it to be the best method to find the answers we seek. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a degree of random chance or fate in the world. Faith in one does not preclude belief in the other.”
“Do you think Bedivere will live? Is fate on his side?”
“Arthur could have chosen to handle the situation yesterday far differently than he did. He could have reviled you and refused to use your skills out of fear and habit. Instead he used his wits and made the choices he did because he felt they would lead him to the best possible outcome. Whether that’s fate or not, I am hopeful for Bedivere.”
“I’m not particularly fond of fate, Gaius. It never seems to be on my side.”
“I can understand why you feel that way. It is difficult to see the good in the challenges we face while we are facing them.”
“I don’t think there’s any good to be found in this mess.”
“You may be surpri-” Gaius started to say, but was interrupted by the morning bell. “You’d better get moving.”
Reluctantly, Merlin headed out the door. He knew hiding away here would only delay the inevitable. Just as he was shutting the door behind him he heard Gaius quietly say, “Take care of yourself.”
Merlin didn’t turn back, but he nodded and strode off down the corridor.
Arthur was already dressed and seated at his table with a number of parchments spread out in front of him. Looking up from the page he was reading, Arthur gave a weak smile and shifted the parchments out of the way so that Merlin could set down the tray of breakfast.
“Any news on Bedivere?”
Merlin shook his head. “No change. He hasn’t shown any sign of waking, but at least there’s no fever. Gaius said if Bedivere doesn’t wake on his own by tonight there are some things he can try to bring him around.”
Arthur frowned. “Is there anything you can do?”
“Um... I don’t know. Possibly,” Merlin said, feeling nervous and uncomfortable.
“If Gaius thinks it would be of benefit, aid him however you can,” said Arthur.
Merlin set down his tray and gaped at Arthur. “How are you alright with this?”
“Would you prefer it if I raged at you and threw you in the dungeons?” Arthur asked casually, buttering a slice of bread.
“Well, good. I told you last night, we will discuss your... situation later.”
“But they all saw. You can’t just pretend they didn’t.”
“My men saw you throw yourself in the way of something that would have killed me. They saw how badly it hurt you. They saw you working to save Bedivere’s life. They saw the way you watched over him the whole trip back. They saw that, and when I asked they all vowed to keep it to themselves. As for Morgana, she seems too shaken up to tell anyone much of anything, but even so she has made no secret of her disapproval of the laws concerning sorcerers. It’s contained, Merlin. I trust you and I need you. I can’t think beyond that right now. If it helps, when I have the time I promise to get incredibly angry with you.”
“But what will-”
“-I don’t know. I just don’t. I know that isn’t what you want to hear. It’s certainly not what I would want to hear if I were in your place, but I have other things to deal with. I need to check on Morgana this morning, and hopefully she will be ready to talk about what happened to her. I also need to tell my father that we found her. Given how poorly he’s been treating everyone who visits him, I have my doubts that even good news will be welcome. That’s not to mention the dozen or so apparently urgent matters council couldn’t deal with themselves while I was gone.”
Merlin still felt unsettled and hesitant, but he only said, “Sounds like a busy day.”
Arthur nodded and pointed to the nearest chair. “So sit and eat. I really don’t need you passing out on me.”
“At no point did I pass out yesterday,” Merlin said, scowling even as he grabbed a piece of the soft, warm bread.
Arthur snorted. “I didn’t say you had. Actually, all things considered, it’s reasonably impressive that you didn’t. Are you feeling well this morning?”
“Just grand,” Merlin said sarcastically.
Arthur gave him an appraising look. “I’m serious you know. You didn’t exactly give me much of an idea of how injured you were. I can see your colour is back and you look well enough, but I’m not going to drag you through the day if you’re going to be sick on my boots.”
“I didn’t-” Merlin started to protest before he noticed Arthur smirking. “Prat. I woke up this morning feeling fine, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Good,” Arthur said with a nod, then focussed on his breakfast.
“Guinevere, I can tell how pleased you are to have Morgana back. However, I think Gaius may require your assistance today, if only for a short while. Would it be possible for you to spend the morning helping him?” Arthur asked.
Gwen flicked her eyes back towards Morgana and said, “Of course, if my Lady agrees.”
Arthur stepped past Gwen into the room and Merlin followed, giving Gwen a small smile as he sidled past her.
“What is it you want, Arthur?” Morgana asked in an impatient tone.
“I’m only asking if Gaius could borrow Gwen for the morning. If that isn’t too much of an imposition on you,” Arthur drawled.
Morgana narrowed her eyes at Arthur, but nodded. “Of course. How is Bedivere?”
Her face lost some of its calm, unconcerned expression for a moment, but it was only a flicker. “Go ahead, Gwen. I don’t mind.”
“Are you certain?” Gwen asked.
The smile Morgana gave her looked a bit forced, but she said, “Of course. I’ll be fine.”
With a reluctant glance back, Gwen nodded and left. When the door closed behind her, Morgana dropped her smiling facade. She looked better than she had on the journey back yesterday, if Merlin could be a judge of such things at all given his own state at the time, but the distrust in her eyes lingered.
Arthur sat across from her at the small table without being invited to and asked, “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Well enough,” she replied.
Arthur let out a small huff, but pressed on. “Are you alright? I’ve been searching for you for over two months and you haven’t said a word about what happened to you.”
Morgana’s eyes grew cold and she shot a nasty glare at Merlin. “Why don’t you ask him? I’m sure Merlin could tell you a lot more about my departure from Camelot that I could.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur said, his brow furrowing as he glanced at Merlin then back to Morgana.
Morgana pretended, badly, to be surprised. “He didn’t tell you about how he poisoned me?”
“And you’re not going to mention that you let Morgause use you to cast a spell on the city. She used to you to cast a spell that would have allowed every man, woman and child in the city to be slaughtered by an army of magical, unkillable knights!” Merlin snapped back at her.
“What are you talking about?!” Morgana and Arthur said together.
Merlin drew out the delicate filigree bracelet he had retrieved from the side of the road where he had thrown it. Morgana gasped, “My bracelet!”
“But it wasn’t yours first. Morgause gave it to you. She probably told you a lovely story about all the wonderful things it would do for you, and then you wore it all the time. You told Gaius you weren’t having bad dreams any longer, and he noticed you playing with the bracelet. It’s not just any bracelet after all,” said Merlin.
“It’s an heirloom of the house of Gorlois, my father’s house,” Morgana said.
Merlin nodded. “You didn’t know that when you got it, though. Morgause must have told you that later.”
Morgana nodded, and Merlin could see the confusion written large on Arthur’s face. Turning to Arthur, he said, “Morgause didn’t come to Camelot just to challenge you in the hopes that she could manipulate you into killing your father. She also came to make contact with Morgana. Gaius wasn’t entirely certain of her motivations, but curiosity was certainly one of them.”
“Curiosity?” Arthur asked.
Merlin shrugged. “Wouldn’t you be curious about a brother or sister you had never met?”
“What? Morgause wasn’t Morgana’s sister,” Arthur protested.
Morgana’s voice quivered slightly and her eyes were glassy with tears, but she did not cry when she said, “Yes, she was. And now she’s dead.”
“But Morgause... She was... No. She kidnapped you,” Arthur stated, as if simply saying it made it true.
“She saved my life after Merlin poisoned me!”
Merlin fought the urge to look down at the floor and held Morgana’s eyes. “I didn’t have many choices. At first, I thought the reason you were awake while everyone else had fallen asleep where they stood was because you have magic, so I covered for you.”
“What do you mean, because she has magic? Morgana isn’t a sorceress,” Arthur interrupted.
Merlin gave a small shake of his head and tried to let Morgana know with his eyes alone how much regret he felt. “All things considered, it’s really quite remarkable that you were able to keep it hidden for so long. I knew. I’ve known for a long time, but Gaius told me not to say anything to you. He said that you were safer not knowing.”
“You knew?” Morgana whispered.
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. “I’m sorry. I wanted tell you. I really did.”
“You sent me to the druids.”
“I hoped that they would tell you. I hadn’t thought it would bring so much danger to them.”
Arthur said angrily, “You sent Morgana to the druids? What were you- No, we’re getting side tracked. You were telling us about how you poisoned Morgana.”
“You see, it was when I started feeling sleepy and unwell that I realized it couldn’t just be magic keeping her awake. I went to the only other in the city who was still awake and he told me you were anchoring a powerful spell, one that I couldn’t counteract on my own. He said the only way to stop the spell and save everyone was to kill you. I didn’t want to. I tried dozens of spells to try to wake people up, but nothing worked. I couldn’t even stop myself from feeling the effects of Morgause’s spell. When we first found you, you were so scared and upset; I couldn’t believe you had meant to harm everyone. You didn’t even remember the spell being cast. I didn’t know what else to do, though. Morgause and the knights were getting closer, and we were trapped, and I couldn’t think of anything else to try. So I put the poison in the water and you drank it. I made a deal with her that if she ended the spell on the knights and stopped the attack then I would show her which poison I had used. I knew there was a reasonable chance she could make an antidote.”
“A reasonable chance?” Morgana said indignantly.
Merlin looked imploringly at her. “Do you wish that I had let Morgause and the knights kill everyone? Do you honestly wish Arthur and Gwen and Gaius and all the kitchen staff and page boys and stable hands and everyone in the town had died? Was that really what you wanted?”
“I didn’t know that would happen!”
Merlin held up the bracelet in his fist and shook it. “This! This was controlling you all along. All she had to do was pique your curiosity enough to put it on. I don’t think all her intentions towards you were bad, but they were self-serving. She was angry and vengeful towards Uther and she knew you were too. She knew you had magic and didn’t know how to use it. She saw that she could use you to get her vengeance and gain power and whatever else it is she wanted. I think she cared about you too; she was distraught when she saw you struggling to breathe, but you were also a tool for her. I’m sorry, Morgana, but you were.”
“No!” Morgana shouted, “You don’t know that!”
“This bracelet proves it. The moment I took it off, you were yourself again.”
“No. She was my sister. She was the only family I had left in the world,” Morgana said, choking on the tears that were flowing freely down her face now.
Arthur threw Merlin a look that was somehow baffled, angry and understanding all at once, then went to pull Morgana into his arms. She wept on his shoulder for a long time.
When the tears finally abated, Arthur said, “You don’t have to tell me what happened while you were with her. My greatest concern is that you were treated well.”
Morgana nodded. “She took such good care me.”
“You are safe here. I think I understand why you didn’t want to return, but I promise you that you are safe,” Arthur said solemnly.
“You can’t promise that. If Uther finds out, it won’t matter.” Morgana whispered.
Arthur let out a long, weary sigh. “If he finds out, nothing will happen. I’m regent now.”
Morgana pushed away from Arthur in shock. “What?”
“When you were gone he... well, he went a bit mad. It wasn’t really noticeable at first, but he began to lose his grip on reality. It all went downhill rather quickly and I became regent little more than a week ago,” Arthur explained.
“Where is he now?”
“Confined to his rooms and hurling abuse at anyone who tries to visit. He hates me now. He couldn’t see what was happening to him. He doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with his mind. It’s... unpleasant,” said Arthur.
“Oh,” she said weakly.
Arthur struggled with a neutral expression and gave a half hearted shrug. “There’s very little anyone can do about it. All we can do is keep moving forward.”
Morgana nodded and went to stare out the window, lost in thought. Arthur met Merlin’s eyes and said again, “All we can do is keep moving forward.”
Merlin felt raw and shaky, but he held Arthur’s gaze and nodded.
He had been met with violent rage most of the times he had tried to speak his father. Arthur knew that the servants had faced the same experience, but the accusations and slurs hurled at him cut deep for being intensely personal. Gaius had accompanied him twice since the evening of the mad accusations against Lord Godwin, and both times his father had been more lucid than during any of Arthur’s other attempts to speak with him. The increased alertness was both a blessing and a curse, but Arthur thought it would be useful now.
Staring unblinking at the door, Arthur said, “I have to tell him.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gaius nod. “The news of Morgana’s safe return may help improve his condition.”
“If he even lets me tell him.”
Gaius patted a hand on his shoulder the same reassuring way he had seen the man do to Merlin on many occasions. It didn’t make him feel particularly reassured, but he appreciated the gesture. Stepping forward, he nodded to the guards to lift the heavy bar over the door and went inside.
His father was pacing the room like a caged animal, every few paces lashing out with a fist at the boarded up windows. During the first day, Uther had put his arm straight through the glass attempting to free himself from confinement and badly cut his right arm from wrist to elbow. Since then, the lower windows had been shuttered and nailed closed, which only seemed to anger him more. It also made Arthur nervous about what other acts of desperation his father might do with the many potentially dangerous things in the room. Arthur wanted his father to have the comforts of his own rooms and his own things in the hopes that the familiarity would help him. It didn’t seem to be helping, but Arthur was at a loss for what else to do.
When Merlin shut the door behind them, his father’s focus snapped towards them.
“Good morning, Sire. How are you feeling this morning?” Gaius asked pleasantly.
Uther grabbed the back of the chair nearest to him, leaned over it and snarled, “I have been held captive in my own chambers by the traitor standing beside you for days. Do not pretend to be concerned for my well being. You have proved once again that you only look see which way the wind is blowing when you hand out your loyalty.”
“Sire, as I have told you before, your mind has been going through periods of delusion and disorientation. Unfortunately, you have difficulty remembering these occasions. You are confined to your rooms for medical reasons only,” said Gaius with more calm than Arthur knew he could manage.
“Do not offer me platitudes. You stand beside the traitorous usurper,” Uthur spat and turned to Arthur. “Does my imprisonment here make you look like a kindly overthrower? How long will you wait before disposing of me? Will you poison me so that everyone believes I died in my sleep? I would rather face the axe and wait for that day in the cells!”
“Father, I have-”
“Do not call me that!” Uther screeched. “You are no son of mine.”
Though he had heard it before, Arthur still flinched inwardly at the words, but he forced himself to remain calm. “I have not claimed your throne as my own. I am only acting as regent to safeguard your kingdom until you are well again.”
“Lies! Pretty lies to tell your treasonous followers. I was foolish to put my trust in men so easily swayed. They will betray you too when a better opportunity comes along,” Uther said, his breathing heavy and his face going red.
Gaius stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “Please calm yourself. We’ve come to bring you good news this morning.”
Uther took the chair he had been leaning over and hurled it at Gaius. Arthur tugged him out of the path of the flying chair and it hit the stone wall, breaking to pieces. “The only news I would welcome is that men who are loyal to me have risen up against your villainy. I will have your head, Arthur, and I shall carry it through all the lands so the whole of Albion knows of your treachery!”
Arthur stared at his father, purple faced and trembling with rage, his eyes bulging and spittle clinging to his lips as his breath heaved in his chest, and could say nothing. All he had ever tried to do was serve his father. All he had wanted for years was to earn his approval. All for naught. Gaius had tried to tell him weeks ago that the chances of recovery were slim to nonexistent, but he hadn’t been prepared to listen. He could see it now, though.
Voices in beyond the door distracted Arthur as Uther launched into another tirade. A moment later, the door pushed open and Morgana strode into the room. She looked fierce and determined at first, but quickly stopped short, gaping at Uther.
From across the room, Uther stared at Morgana in shock. The colour that had suffused his face began to fade and sweat stood out on his brow. His lips twisted into an ugly expression of contempt as he turned his attention back to Arthur.
“It was you! You stole her from me!” Uther snarled and launched himself towards Arthur. “I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”
Uther only managed a few steps before he stumbled and collapsed to the floor. His hands clutched at his chest and he gulped at the air like a fish floundering on the shore. Gaius rushed forward, kneeling on the floor beside Uther, but Arthur stayed rooted to the spot. Merlin hurried to Gaius’ side and the two of them spoke rapidly to each other before taking hold of his father and lifting him up onto the bed.
There was more chatter and frantic movement, but Arthur turned away to find Morgana similarly frozen in place. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open in shock. She looked over at the bed and then up at Arthur and whispered, “He was going to kill you. He’s mad.”
She stared again the frenzied activity at Uther’s bedside, then took three steps towards Arthur and buried her face in his chest for the second time that day. Arthur brought his arms around her and continued to stare at the frantic efforts of Merlin and Gaius in a daze.
Slowly, he realized that Gaius had left his father’s side and was attempting to get his attention.
“Sorry, Gaius. What were you saying?”
The old man’s face was grave and serious. “I believe it was his heart. It couldn’t take the strain.”
Arthur blinked in confusion. “What?”
“He’s dead, Arthur. He’s gone.”
Numbly, Arthur let go of Morgana and walked over to the bed. Merlin hovered at his side, but said nothing, and he was grateful for both of these things. He stood at his father’s side for a long time waiting to feel sad or angry or even relieved, but nothing stirred.
Turning to Merlin, he said, “Come. There are things that must be done.”
Arthur hadn’t reacted to any of the chaos of today the way Merlin might have expected. He had been distant and detached since leaving his rooms that morning. Only once during the charged conversation with Morgana did he raise his voice and he had scarcely reacted at all during Uther’s final tirade. All through the afternoon he had been blandly polite to everyone, completely disengaged emotionally. It was unsettling.
When the heavy door closed behind Geoffrey, Merlin approached the table and began gathering the various parchments that had been littered there. “I don’t know how you put up with them. They’re like a bunch of squabbling children most of the time.”
“They’re just trying to make certain that all the details are attended to,” Arthur said.
“By spending hours arguing over things they agree about? They could have done that without you.”
Arthur’s voice was tight. “It’s my duty to see that everything is done properly. I may have failed my father in a lot of things, but I will not fail him in this.”
“You haven’t failed him at all.”
“He died wanting to kill me.”
“That wasn’t your father talking. That was his illness.”
“I locked him up and took away his throne.”
“Arthur, his mind was sick. He wasn’t himself. Would you rather have let the kingdom fall apart?”
“Your father wouldn’t have wanted that either. He couldn’t see what was happening to him, but if he had been able to recognize it, he would have thought you were doing the right thing.”
Arthur gave him an ugly, hate filled look. “What would you know about it?”
Merlin stood his ground and glared back. “I know that when you went off on dangerous adventures and nearly got yourself killed in the process that he would sit by your bedside and demand Gaius do everything he could to heal you. I know he would have gladly faced any of those dangers to protect you. And I know that you were the only thing he cared about more than the kingdom. If your places had been reversed, he would have done the same thing, Arthur.”
Arthur pressed his knuckles into his eyes took a shuddering breath. “I didn’t want it to end that way. I didn’t want... I had hoped he would get better. I had hoped finding Morgana would be enough. I had hoped that he would realize what was happening. That he would say he understood. I had hoped...”
Tentatively, Merlin put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder and felt his body shaking, the grief finally unable to be contained any longer. Arthur didn’t lash out or try to shake the hand off. He just sat there, trembling as the tears he had tried so hard to contain leaked out around his fingers. Merlin felt the urge to wrap Arthur up in his wings once more, but quashed it. Instead he flicked a hand at the door to lock it against anyone who might disturb them and stood beside Arthur, ready to help put him back together when he was done falling apart.
The vigil was a long standing tradition amongst sons of noble households. He had been told long ago that it was a way of honouring the dead, but now he wondered if it wasn’t meant so that the grief of the sons could be kept private and contained. He had been told by many people today, though not in so many words, that he must not let anyone see his sorrow. Merlin had been the only one to ignore that completely. It had hurt at the time, and he felt embarrassed by his tears, but it had also been a release. Without it, this long night would have been unbearable.
Although it was meant to be a solitary vigil, Arthur suddenly sensed he was not alone and glanced around the room. In the shadowy corners, Arthur saw Morgana standing by one of the servants’ entrances. As she walked towards him, her footsteps were nearly silent, almost as if she were floating. When she reached him, she turned her focus on Uther, not saying a word.
For a long time, they stood side by side in quiet contemplation. Finally, Morgana whispered, “I spent a lot of time hating him, being angry about the things he did. I had thought that if he died the anger would be gone and I would feel better, but I don’t.”
“When does death ever make anyone feel better?” Arthur asked gently.
Morgana’s lip trembled. “Never. It never does.”
They fell silent again, feeling the weight of the quiet.
Much later, Arthur said, “I would have protected you if you had told me.”
“I couldn’t tell anyone. I always trusted you, but I was so scared.”
“I hope you aren’t scared now.”
Morgana hesitated. “I... I don’t know. Not really, or at least not as much as I was.”
“You’re safe,” Arthur assured her.
“But will I have to keep hiding?”
Arthur didn’t know. He hadn’t yet been able to piece together everything he had discovered in the past two days into a coherent picture that would let him see what should be done. The ideas he had about magic and sorcery didn’t fit with what he knew of Merlin and Morgana. They didn’t fit with all the vengeful sorcerers who had tried to kill him over the years either. It was as if there were two very different pictures of magic, and he couldn’t tell which one was real anymore.
“It’s complicated. I don’t want you to be forced to hide, but changing the laws would take time. It’s not as simple as saying magic is no longer banned,” Arthur said, feeling uncomfortable as he said the words aloud in front of the earthly remains of his father.
Morgana shifted uncomfortably beside him and nodded. “Twenty years of bad blood can’t be fixed overnight.”
“I know you’re still angry with him, but he missed you a great deal and worried about you when you were gone.”
“I know. That was why I came earlier. Even though I was still so angry, I wanted to see him too. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. It was me that...”
Arthur shook his head. “No. It would have happened even if you hadn’t come. Gaius said the last few weeks had put his heart under great strain. It would have happened anyway.”
“I’m sorry that he was so awful to you.”
“So am I.”
Arthur was standing at the window looking out onto the courtyard when Merlin arrived. He looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes, but also less burdened by grief than when Merlin left the hall the previous evening.
“Bedivere’s awake,” Merlin said.
Arthur’s expression brightened somewhat. “Good. How is he?”
“Still in a fair bit of pain, but alert. He doesn’t remember the fall, or much of anything about that morning, but Gaius says he isn’t worried. There’s still infection to worry about, but so far the wound seems clean and there are signs of healing. Now that he’s awake, Gaius is pretty hopeful.”
“I’m glad. Thank you, Merlin.”
“How was your night?”
“Did... Did it help?” Merlin asked cautiously.
Arthur nodded. “It did. Of course, Morgana had to flout all tradition and join me.”
“Is she alright?”
“Yes. We talked.”
Arthur pushed away from the window stood in front of Merlin looking at him seriously. “I haven’t yet worked out what I am going to do about the laws regarding magic in Camelot, but they will be changing. I don’t know much about magic beyond the destruction it can cause. I will need to learn more.”
“I, well, I think there are some books and things you could look at,” Merlin offered.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I had planned to start by asking you.”
“But, I don’t actually know a lot,” Merlin protested. “I can do all kinds of things, but I figured most of it out on my own.”
“I intend to consult Gaius as well, but I think you can give me the basics.”
“Whenever there has been a threat attributed to magic, Gaius is always the one with the answers. Clearly he’s studied the subject.”
“Oh, well, yes,” Merlin said a bit weakly.
“And he’s also had you dogging his steps the past couple years. Judging by his complete and utter lack of surprise at the sight of your wings, it isn’t a huge leap to conclude that he’s been trying to keep you from making a nuisance of yourself,” Arthur said with another exaggerated eye roll.
“Right. Well, yes, he’s known about the magic since I first got here. My mother sent me to him because she thought he could help.”
“Your mother sent you to Camelot to learn about magic?” Arthur said shaking his head. “You really do like doing things the hard way.”
“Hey. It’s not like there was much of a choice. Gaius lives here,” Merlin pointed out, feeling a bit annoyed by the comment, even if Arthur had intended it to be teasing. “Besides, it’s actually easier to hide it where there are lots of people. Ealdor is so small and the people there notice every little thing.”
Arthur nodded. “Fair point. You said you’ve always had magic. Is that what it’s like? Is it something you either have or don’t?”
“To a certain extent, yes, but my magic isn’t like other people’s. I have so much of it and it comes so easy to me. Most people need to study and train for years to learn how to use it, but I’ve always been able to just...” Merlin stretched out a hand and sent the pile of dirty clothes on the floor sailing into the basket by the door. Boots haphazardly scattered about the room marched over to the wardrobe and assembled themselves into pairs and the door hanging ajar snapped shut.
Arthur had taken a sharp intake of breath when the first shirt had gone flying, but he was wearing a wry smile now. “So that’s how you manage to get everything done. You cheat.”
“It’s not cheating! I’d never get through the massive list of jobs you set me if I didn’t use magic.”
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck the way he did when he was embarrassed but trying to hide it. “That had been the point.”
“You said the first month you worked for me was hell, and I admit I did it on purpose. I was hoping you’d either give up or fail so miserably that I’d be allowed to sack you.”
“Thanks a lot, Arthur,” Merlin said with a scowl.
“I’m not proud of it, and I stopped. You may have complained endlessly, but you always managed to do the work and the fun went out of it,” Arthur said.
Merlin sighed. “Have I ever told you that you’re a complete and utter prat?”
Arthur smiled. “More times than I can count. Anyway, you’re saying that you’re some kind of bizarre magical anomaly? Is that where the wings come in?”
“Not exactly. I didn’t have them until about six weeks ago.”
“Six weeks... That’s what was wrong with your back.”
Merlin nodded. “They broke through that day on the training field.”
“And they kept growing? How did you keep them hidden?”
“The way it was explained to me is that they’re made more of magic than of actual flesh. Only the nubs are there all the time. The wings themselves can be retracted, like a cat’s claw... only bigger,” Merlin said, gesturing awkwardly with his hands.
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t have a better word for them. I can’t even really see them.”
“Will you show me?”
Merlin swallowed down a sudden spike of nervousness and nodded. He pulled his shirt over his head and draped it over the back of a chair, then turned around, shifting uncomfortably under Arthur’s scrutiny. Arthur hummed with interest and Merlin felt a hand rest large and warm in the middle of his back.
“They’re quite small. I would have expected something much more noticeable given how big the wings were, but all they are is a couple of bumps. If I didn’t know what they were, I’d have thought they were bruises or odd birthmarks,” Arthur observed.
“In a way I suppose they are odd birthmarks,” Merlin said with half a laugh, then gasped as a thumb brushed along one of the nubs. The sensation sent a powerful surge of arousal through him and he took a half step away at the suddenness of it.
“Did I hurt you?” Arthur asked with concern in his voice.
“No,” Merlin squeaked. “No. Just... sensitive. No one’s touched them since they healed up. I wasn’t expecting...”
Merlin could feel Arthur’s eyes watching him and a blush bloomed from his chest up to his ears.
“Sensitive?” Arthur teased.
Merlin said nothing. There was no way he was going to tell Arthur that the smallest touch had felt so arousing Arthur might as well have shoved his hand down Merlin’s trousers for a grope. He also had no intention of letting the small voice at the back of his head that thought a grope might be nice have any chance of making itself heard. Snatching his shirt off the chair, Merlin struggled into it, feeling like he had three too many arms. He tugged the hem low, but he knew it didn’t come close to covering the bulge in his trousers.
Arthur cleared his throat, a small grin still playing at his lips, but there was a tinge of redness to his cheeks as well. “So... Your shirt. You must have ruined your other one. Actually, I don’t know if anyone even picked up.”
“It was shredded beyond repair. My jacket too,” Merlin said, biting the inside of his cheek and willing his erection away.
“I’m sure I have some old shirts you can have,” Arthur said, and walked over to the wardrobe.
He spent a few minutes pulling out various items of clothing and generally making a mess. Merlin so was relieved to have a bit of time to regain his composure that the rumpled pile of clothes didn’t cause the smallest flicker of irritation. He’d gladly tidy them up later.
When Arthur found a few shirts he deemed suitable, he tossed them at Merlin. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said, fingering the soft linen and wool. “I haven’t had a chance to ask Gwen if she would make me something.”
“Actually, I have the sinking feeling the tailor and his seamstresses are going to replace my entire wardrobe whether I want them to or not.”
“How terrible it must be to get new clothes no one has ever worn before,” Merlin quipped, but sobered when he saw the amusement on Arthur’s face had faded. “Sorry. I didn’t mean-”
“No. Don’t even start,” Arthur snapped. “Everyone else is going to spend ages offering me their pity or pretending badly that everything is fine while treating me like I have an infectious disease. The real reason I keep you around is because I do actually enjoy your company. You complain and make disparaging remarks and even with the aid of magic you’re in most ways a poor manservant, but you’re also the only person who treats me like I’m just a person.”
Merlin shook his head. “You’re still a person who’s had a few really terrible days, though.”
“So have you.”
“I know how I felt after my father died. Trust me, getting blasted by Morgause felt worlds better.”
Brow furrowing with a frown, Arthur said, “You told me you never knew your father.”
“I didn’t. Not for more than a day, anyway. It still felt terrible, even though I didn’t really know him. I wish I’d had the chance to.”
“When was this?”
“Back when Kilgharrah was attacking the city. It was... Balinor was my father,” Merlin confessed.
“Balinor? When did you find that out?”
“Gaius told me before we left to search for him. I’d never even heard the name before then.”
“He agreed to come back with us because of you, and then I...” Arthur let out a heavy sigh, “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“You didn’t know. If Gaius hadn’t told me, I would never have known. At least until the wings showed up.”
“What do your wings have to do with it?” asked Arthur.
“Everything. When he died, I inherited my father’s powers and because I have so much magic the wings grew. Apparently a Dragonlord needs to have a lot of magic for wings to manifest.”
“So now you’re a Dragonlord. Hang on. You killed the dragon.”
Merlin dropped his eyes. “No, I didn’t, and, um, neither did you.”
“If you didn’t kill it, and I didn’t kill it, what happened to it?” Arthur asked, suspicion filling his voice.
“I let him go,” Merlin said, voice scarcely more than a whisper.
“You let it go!?” shouted Arthur.
Merlin snapped his head up and glared at Arthur. “I did command Kilgharrah to leave Camelot and never attack people again. I’m not an idiot.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“He’s my kin.”
“It’s a giant, fire-breathing monster, Merlin!”
“Dragons aren’t just senseless creatures. They’re intelligent.”
“I couldn’t kill him, Arthur. He’s the last his kind, and I’m the last of mine.”
Arthur sobered. “So where is it now?”
Merlin shrugged. “I’m not sure. We had an argument while he was teaching me to fly. I didn’t want to talk to him and he didn’t want to talk to me. I haven’t seen him for a few weeks.”
Arthur opened his mouth, closed it, furrowed his brows and opened his mouth to speak again. “I’m not sure where to even begin. You’re saying the great dragon, the same dragon who nearly burnt the city down, has been teaching you to fly up until recently.”
“Who else was going to help me with the wings? They’re huge! And I couldn’t figure out how to pull them inside at first. Then they didn’t want to stay inside. Learning how to use them helped.”
Realization slowly dawned in Arthur’s eyes. “You can fly.”
“Yeah, having wings helps with that. Do you want a demonstration?” Merlin asked sarcastically.
Arthur went quiet and looked at Merlin thoughtfully. He bit at his lower lip in consideration, then nodded. “Yes, actually. I think I do.”
Merlin glanced around the room. “There’s not really enough space in here.”
“Where do you normally go?” Arthur asked.
“There’s a clearing in the forest about four miles north of the city.”
“That’s a bit of a walk.”
“It’s private,” said Merlin.
“I suppose it is,” Arthur said with a nod. “We’ll go tonight.”
“Um... I think you have other commitments,” Merlin pointed out.
“The funeral will begin at sundown and last for a few hours. After that, I’ll need to get out of the castle.”
“Aren’t you supposed to spend the night before your coronation in meditation before the throne?”
“Like I said, by tonight I’ll need to get out of the castle.”
The only part that seemed to hold any sincerity was the large crowd of people from the lower town that had spontaneously gathered in the courtyard holding candles. He had seen the first people arrive before the court had assembled in the great hall, and it pleased him to see so many there. As the night darkened, the glow from their candles could still be seen through the windows.
After he had lead the procession down into the catacombs beneath the castle, after his father had been lowered into his final resting place and sealed inside, after he had bathed and dressed in white robes and mantle, Arthur stood alone inside the throne room. The sound of the heavy doors closing echoed through the empty space and Arthur breathed deeply for the first time in hours. Finally, no one was watching his every move.
Well, almost no one.
“This doesn’t look much like meditating to me,” Merlin quipped, stepping out of the shadows.
“You wouldn’t know quiet contemplation if it bit you, Merlin,” Arthur tossed back, but felt a smile tugging at his lips all the same.
“Are you still serious about sneaking out of the castle on the eve of your coronation?”
“Absolutely. The last thing I want to do is spend another night pacing a room waiting for the sun to rise.”
“I could just help you find someplace to sleep. You look exhausted.”
Arthur shrugged. “I’ll sleep tomorrow night. I believe drinking until you pass out is one of the more sensible traditions associated with a coronation.”
“Well, if we’re going to go, you need to change,” Merlin said, tossing a bundle of clothes at him. “There’s no way we won’t be seen if you’re wearing that.”
Quickly pulling on the clothes and boots Merlin had brought, Arthur wrapped himself in a dark blue cloak and followed Merlin out the servant’s door. The whole castle was subdued, quieter than it would normally be in the upper corridors, though Merlin assured him that the lower floors would be bustling with activity through the night.
“The cook has been in a state for hours and it’s hot enough in there for a person to roast alive just by walking through the kitchens. It’s going to be quite the feast.”
“It’s not exactly something that happens all the time, Merlin, or at least it’s not supposed to.”
“All I can say is I’m glad my official duties prevent me from getting roped in to help.”
“Things will get back to normal soon,” Arthur told Merlin, more in the hopes of convincing himself than placating Merlin.
“Whatever normal is,” Merlin said with a small chuckle, and he darted down a darkened stairwell leading towards the tunnels.
The night was cold, but still. The wind that had howled through the night for weeks was strangely absent and it was unnaturally quiet as they walked down the winding path through the trees.
When the path opened up on a wide, grassy clearing, Merlin looked at him with an anxious expression troubling his features. “This is the place.”
Arthur frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just never thought I’d bring anyone else here.”
“Are you expecting the dragon to show up?”
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know. After the first time, Kilgharrah always seem to know when I was coming. Most of the time he’d be here waiting.”
“What did you argue about with a dragon?” Arthur asked, but Merlin didn’t reply.
Although their breath was visible in the cold night air, Merlin shed his shirt without hesitation. Arthur shivered at the thought, but the chill didn’t even appear to be raising gooseflesh on Merlin’s bare skin. Merlin wadded up the shirt and tossed it on the ground, and then with a sound like a battle standard snapping in the wind Merlin was surrounded by huge wings. It startled Arthur and he stepped back reflexively.
“I had almost begun to think I had imagined them. That is remarkable,” Arthur said.
Merlin stretched his wings, extending them to their full span and made a few half flaps. “The flying part is alright, but they’re a bit of a hassle most of the time. It’s like having arms that sometimes don’t do what you want them to and randomly smack you in the head or knock things off shelves when you aren’t paying attention.”
“Are they difficult to use?”
“They’re confusing. One day I woke up with a part of my body that didn’t feel like it was entirely part of my body. It was a bit like learning to walk all over again. A few things were instinctive, but I had to practice a lot.”
Arthur closed the space between himself and Merlin and reached up a hand before remembering the awkward moment that morning and thinking better of it. As he drew his hand back, Merlin smiled and shook his head. “You can touch them if you like. The wings themselves feel the same as when someone touches my arm.”
Arthur cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment and ran a hand along the leading edge of Merlin’s wing. It felt strong and muscular closest to Merlin’s body and became thinner and more flexible beyond the last joint. Looking to the spot where he remembered Morgause’s spell had left a black scorch mark, Arthur saw the skin was completely healed, leaving only the faintest discolouration. His fingers ran along part of the trailing edge and the skin was leathery but flexible under his fingers, and very warm.
“How is it you’re so warm? It’s freezing tonight,” Arthur griped.
“That was one of the changes. My eyesight and hearing got better. Everything tastes stronger now, and a lot of the time my clothes feel scratchy and uncomfortable, but I don’t feel the cold as much. I could spend most of the night flying and not feel a chill, at least until winter comes on completely. I don’t know how it works, but when I have my wings out my whole body feels warmer. It’s a bit less when they’re pulled inside, but it’s still noticeable,” explained Merlin.
Arthur dropped his hand and took a step back. “Let’s see this then.”
Merlin turned away, took a few steps, crouched, and then with two powerful wingbeats launched himself in the air. Arthur gasped and stared as Merlin rose up nearly to the tops of the trees and began flying in a wide circle around the clearing. Most of the time he thought of Merlin as clumsy and awkward, but now he was completely different. His wings beat powerfully, pausing occasionally to glide on the currents of air, dipping down close to the ground before a few confident strokes lifted him up again. Arthur watched in amazement as Merlin circled the clearing several times before landing gracefully a few paces away.
He walked up to Arthur grinning broadly. “The landing is the trickiest part. I haven’t come out for a couple weeks, but that was pretty good.”
Arthur shook his head in wonder. “That was amazing.”
“Do you want to try?” Merlin asked.
“I could use my magic to hold you in front of me. I think I’m strong enough to get us both up in the air.”
“You think? That does not fill me with confidence.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to try. Come here.”
Arthur didn’t move or make any sign of agreement, but Merlin seemed to take anything short of backing away in horror as assent and tugged his cloak off. “That’ll flap about and get in the way and it won’t be much use.”
Stepping behind him, Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s chest and whispered something guttural and unintelligible next to his ear. His entire body was pulled tightly against Merlin’s and the arms around his chest relaxed slightly. Merlin shifted a bit and Arthur felt himself pulled along with the movements.
“That should do it,” Merlin said, and his muscles tensed in anticipation.
The large wings beat heavily on either side of him several times and a moment later Arthur was lifted into the air. He gaped as the ground appeared to fall away beneath him. Cold air stung his face and his heart raced like it did at the beginning of a tournament. He looked around to see the world moving in a blur around him, only the moon remaining fixed in the sky. Arthur smiled broadly and laughed aloud as Merlin brought them swooping down low to the ground before the powerful beating of his wings lifted them up again.
They circled the clearing twice, and then landed with a slight stumble on the ground beside the discarded shirt and cloak. The spell holding him tightly against Merlin ended and Arthur stepped forward, feeling the ground solid beneath his feet before letting out a joyful whoop.
“Wow! That was... wow,” Arthur said, at a loss to describe the sensation.
Merlin was panting a bit from the exertion, but he smiled back. “I know.”
His entire body tingling with exhilaration, Arthur took Merlin’s face in his hands and kissed him. He felt Merlin gasp against his lips, but a moment later the kiss was returned with great fervour. Arthur hadn’t known that kissing Merlin was something he wanted until that moment, but it felt inexplicably right. Merlin was always at his side; he belonged there. It was clear to Arthur now that Merlin was so much more than a manservant or an advisor or even a good friend. Merlin was everything, and Arthur was incomplete without him. Arthur sunk his fingers into Merlin’s hair and held him close while Merlin’s hands slid around his waist and pulled their hips together. He moaned and nipped at Merlin’s lips while pressing his hips forward. The cold of the night vanished and Arthur pulled back enough to see that Merlin had enfolded them both inside his wings.
Breathing hard, Merlin said, “I have to fight to keep my wings in all day. Sometimes my nubs twitch and it’s all I can do not to wrap my wings around you.”
“That might make council meetings more interesting,” Arthur quipped, feeling a bit out of breath himself.
Merlin laughed breathlessly. “Not a great idea during training, though. That’s when the urge is the strongest.”
“You want to protect me?” Arthur asked, only half teasing.
The arms around his waist tightened and Merlin pressed his forehead against Arthur’s saying, “It’s what I do.”
Arthur felt Merlin’s body begin to shake and he held on tighter. He covered Merlin’s face with light kisses, mapping the familiar face with his lips, before dropping down to capture his mouth again. Merlin clung to him, the fingers digging into his shoulders nearly painful, but Arthur found he didn’t mind in the least.
Whether it was minutes or hours they spent locked in that fierce embrace, Arthur couldn’t say, but eventually they parted enough to catch their breath. When Merlin pulled away, Arthur felt the cold of the night creeping in and shivered. Merlin picked up his cloak and tossed it at him, but it was damp and would take a few minutes to warm to his body. It was a poor substitute to the living warmth he had been wrapped in. Merlin picked up his shirt but made no move to put it on, twisting it anxiously in his hands.
“What is this?” Merlin asked, his voice small and distant.
The words ‘I don’t know’ were at the tip of his tongue, but Arthur didn’t say them. Merlin had asked him too many questions recently to which the only answer he had given was ‘I don’t know.’ Merlin had been patient and accepting in a way he almost never was, but he deserved a proper answer. Arthur floundered for the right words.
“This is... us.”
“Us?” Merlin said with a small frown.
“Yes, us. We’ve always had a connection, haven’t we? You’ve always had the nerve to challenge me and you’re the only person I tolerate it from.”
“Tolerate. Nice, Arthur,” Merlin spat, and began walking away.
Arthur winced at his words and hurried after Merlin. “No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Well what do you mean?”
“I care about you, Merlin, and I like you. I like having you around. Sometimes we do things that irritate each other and sometimes we have big rows, but we always seem to come back to each other. I like that I’m just a person to you, even if I wish you’d use proper forms of address in public, and I like that you always speak your mind,” Arthur said, putting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and giving it what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. “The only other person who does that is Morgana.”
Merlin pushed him away. “Then maybe you should be with her.”
“If I had half the feelings for her as I do for you I would have been a long time ago. I don’t want to be with her and she certainly doesn’t want to be with me.”
“And you think I do?”
A heavy lump settled in Arthur’s stomach. “I hope so, otherwise I’ve just ruined everything.”
Merlin didn’t respond, but he also didn’t walk away. He took the shirt that he had balled up and shook it out. Without warning, his eyes flashed golden and the wings were gone. He yanked his shirt on, then crossed his arms over his chest and stood scowling at Arthur.
Finally he said, “It’s always been enough to serve you. If I get to have more than that for a while I won’t be able to go back. Serving you wouldn’t be enough anymore.”
“Well good, because my affections aren’t that fickle.”
“Would Gwen agree with that?”
“Gwen likes the idea of me, not the reality, and I’m the same. She’s kind and lovely and all the things anyone should want, but we don’t fit together.”
“And we do?”
Arthur took one of Merlin’s hands and laced their fingers together. “In our own strange way, I think we do.”
Merlin glanced down at their hands and chewed at his lower lip. His brow furrowed and smoothed several times, as if fighting some internal struggle, before he gave a small nod. “Yeah, we do, but that doesn’t make it simple.”
“No, but I’d rather be happy than have things easy. Since I turned sixteen, my father had me pretend to court more than a dozen women, none of whom he had any intention of me actually marrying. I sick of my favour being used as a pawn.”
“You have a choice now. You’re the king. You can marry any woman you want.”
“The only problem is I haven’t wanted to marry any woman I’ve ever met. I don’t want to marry a stranger or someone I can’t stand to be around or someone who is pretending just as much as I did so that she can be queen. I want a companion, not a wife.”
“And when you need an heir? I’m afraid you’re putting too much faith in my magical talents if you think I can give you one.”
“I could ask you the same question. You said you’re the last Dragonlord,” Arthur said with a frown as the thought had only just occurred to him.
“The last Dragonlord to the last dragon,” Merlin said sadly. “What need is there for more?”
“There could be others.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin said, and grew quiet again.
Arthur rubbed his thumb across the back of Merlin’s hand and Merlin leaned into his side. He felt Merlin relax against him and eventually turn in towards him, dropping his head against Arthur’s neck. Arthur brought his arms up to rest gently on Merlin’s back and turned his head to drop a light kiss on the top of Merlin’s head.
“Alright,” Merlin mumbled into his neck.
Arthur moved his shoulder and Merlin lifted his head to look at him. “We’ll figure it out.”
Merlin gave Arthur a lopsided smile. “Yeah. Besides, I threw my lot in with yours a long time ago. It’s a bit late to be changing my mind.”
Merlin cupped Arthur’s cheek and pressed a kiss against his mouth that was sweet and tender and full of promise.
Arthur rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Of course.”
The knights surrounding them in their formal livery looked amused, but Merlin couldn’t bring himself to care that they were laughing at his expense. He was in too good a mood.
The castle tailor had clearly spent the past two days working without rest. The sleeves of Arthur’s mail glinted in the morning light, the rest of it covered by a gleaming white tunic with the Pendragon crest emblazoned on a red shield in the centre of his chest. Arthur’s sword rested at his hip and his boots were polished to a perfect shine. Draped across Arthur’s shoulders was a deep red cloak richly embroidered with gold thread that caught the light.
When Geoffrey finally came shuffling towards them, Merlin checked one last time that the cloak was hanging properly, gave Arthur’s shoulder a discrete pat, and slipped into the throne room to stand beside Gaius.
The room fell silent when the large doors swung wide. Geoffrey of Monmouth led the procession of knights who arranged themselves on either side of the dais, protecting the throne. When they had stilled, a trumpet rang out through the room. Arthur walked slowly and purposefully past the people bowing their heads and knelt on the step in front of the throne where Geoffrey stood.
Geoffrey’s voice was clear and echoed through the room. “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the peoples of Camelot according to their respective laws and customs?”
“I do so solemnly swear,” Arthur responded.
“Will you, to your power, enforce law and justice in mercy with wisdom in all your judgements?”
“Then by the sacred law and customs of this land, I crown you, Arthur, King of Camelot,” Geoffrey proclaimed, lowering the crown onto Arthur’s head.
The room seemed to collectively draw a breath as Arthur stood and turned to face his people.
Geoffrey said, “Long live the King!” and the room burst into a chorus of shouting that reverberated around the four walls and deep in Merlin’s chest.
Across the space that separated them, Merlin’s eyes met Arthur’s, and even though he was in a room full of people, the words he said were for Arthur alone.
“Long live the King!”
It was early evening by the time Arthur decided he had spent enough time celebrating and could leave the festivities to continue on without him. When they arrived back in Arthur’s rooms, he only made it as far as the nearest chair before collapsing in exhaustion. Merlin smiled fondly at Arthur as he slumped forward onto the table.
“Why on earth was I not allowed to sleep for two days?” Arthur moaned into the pillow of his arms.
Merlin went to the hearth to build up the fire. As he stoked the coals he said, “I offered to find a place for you to sleep last night. You were the one who insisted on sneaking out of the castle.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
“Are you comfortable there, or would you be interested in making it the ten steps you need to get to bed?”
“Mmmph,” Arthur replied, but shifted into an upright position.
It was a bit of a struggle, but he eventually got Arthur’s fancy clothes and heavy mail shirt off and knelt to remove the boots.
“I don’t like them,” Arthur said.
“What don’t you like?” asked Merlin.
Arthur wiggled his foot. “The boots. They pinched all day.”
“Well, you don’t have to wear them again. At least you won’t if I can get them off,” Merlin said, tugging at the laces.
There was shifting and grunting and a few muttered curses, but eventually Merlin gave up and spelled the boots off. Arthur curled and uncurled his toes and gave Merlin’s shoulder a gentle push with his foot. Merlin looked up to find Arthur smiling sleepily down at him.
“If it’s easier, just use it. I’m not upset about the magic. I shouldn’t have to keep telling you that.”
“It’s a habit, Arthur, and a good one. You may be fine with it, but sorcery is technically still illegal.”
“Pssssh. As soon as I can, I’m going to make you an official advisor for magical concerns and then you can help me change the laws.”
“Does that mean I won’t have to wash your socks anymore?” Merlin quipped.
Arthur snorted. “As if you ever did. It will be different when you aren’t my manservant, though.”
“So you’re finally sacking me.”
“No. You’re just moving up in the world. Not quite yet, but soon,” Arthur said, and yawned widely.
Merlin stood and offered Arthur a hand out of the chair. “Come on, Arthur. You need sleep, and as king I imagine you can sleep off your celebrating for as long as you want tomorrow.”
Accepting the hand, Arthur shuffled sleepily towards the bed and sat down on the edge. He grabbed Merlin’s hand and tugged him down for a kiss.
“I’ve wanted to do that all day,” Arthur said when their lips parted.
“Is there anything else you’d like, your Majesty?” Merlin teased.
Arthur yawned again and nodded. “A great many things, but I’m too tired. In the morning.”
Merlin pulled the covers back and helped Arthur into bed before putting out the candles and heading for the door. “Goodnight, Arthur.”
“Where are you going?”
“It’s right here,” Arthur said, patting the bed beside him.
Merlin was a bit surprised by the suggestion, but couldn’t deny the bed looked as appealing as it had the afternoon of his clandestine nap, perhaps more so now with Arthur there smiling at him in invitation. Before he was aware of his decision, Merlin nodded.
“I like to sleep with my wings out. It’s more comfortable. Is that a problem?”
Arthur shook his head, still smiling contentedly. “Wings are fine. Come to bed.”
He couldn’t help feeling self conscious as he shed his formal tunic and shirt while Arthur watched him, completely unabashed. Merlin stumbled while toeing off his boots and let his wings unfurl to hide his embarrassment. Darting under the covers, he wiggled and shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on his side of the bed and making sure his wings wouldn’t end up smacking Arthur in the face. When he was settled, his head resting on the wonderfully soft feather pillows, Merlin heard Arthur sigh loudly. He felt Arthur moving closer and then there were arms around him, dragging him off the yielding down and onto solid chest. Merlin found Arthur’s chest a pleasant substitute and hummed in contentment.
Arthur ran his fingers along the base of Merlin’s wings and whispered, “I thought you wanted to wrap me up in your wings.”
“Yes,” Merlin breathed, and drew his upper wing around Arthur, holding him close.
“That’s nice. I like your wings. They’re strangely beautiful, like the rest of you.”
“Mostly strange. You’re beautiful, though. Not that you don’t get told that a dozen times a day,” Merlin said, yawning widely.
Arthur dropped a light kiss on the top of his head and tightened his arms. “It only matters coming from you. Goodnight, Merlin.”
“Goodnight,” said Merlin, pressing a kiss to the warm skin in front of him.
Wrapped up together, they fell asleep.