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The Dragon's Mark

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Merlin tore through the halls of Camelot with the reckless abandon of a man in a hurry - because he was a man in a hurry while also trying to protect Arthur's ceremonial jacket freshly back from the tailor's after having popped a stitch. He dodged the maids, wove through pages and barely avoided various collisions with the rest household staff scurrying about like spooked mice as they rushed to prepare for yet another bloody banquet. But it hit Merlin - as hurrying near-recklessly with a piece of Arthur's precious laundry often did - with a sense of deja vu that left him missing Lancelot.

But there were to be no wine stains lifted away with a spell today. Merlin felt a small sense of satisfaction that he was finally getting better at this dodging about business. It had only taken him over five years of practice to accomplish it.

Finally having entered a clear section of castle, Merlin broke into a full run, the momentum of which had him barreling through Arthur's chamber doors, because it was either keep going or leave an imprint of his face on the wood. His reflexes had also sharpened over the years; he ducked right in time to avoid a goblet hurtling toward the barrier Merlin had just passed through, a curse following its wake. It hit the wood with a clang and clattered to the floor.

Merlin glared at a very annoyed and half-dressed Arthur.

“All right,” Merlin huffed. “I got here as fast as I could. It's not my fault the tailor's so blasted far away. No reason to get hostile about it...” Then balked at a sudden thought. “Unless you and, er... Gwen needed a bit of...? Oh, she's not here, never mind.”

Arthur, as he had done and would still do until the end of time whenever Merlin did or said anything to make him question his manservant's intelligence, rolled his eyes and turned away.

“I wasn't aiming at you, Merlin,” he said. “Although if you would like to take it as a lesson in remembering to knock before entering, please feel free.” Arthur went to his table currently buried under sheafs of parchment, and stared at those parchments with the utmost disgust. “I also think that you should take back what I said about you no longer writing my speeches for me.”

Merlin freed himself of the jacket by hanging it on the dressing screen, then did as he would most likely do until the end of time and dig through Arthur's drawers for his dress shirt.

“As well as the part about kings needing to stand on their own two feet and write their own damn speeches?” Merlin said with the faintest of smiles, in case Arthur could see and happened to have another goblet in hand. “I believe those were your exact words, if I'm not mistaken.”

“Merlin, I will throw my ink well at you.”

“Shutting up,” Merlin said. He draped the dress shirt next to the jacket. “Just use an old speech. I doubt the lords will tell the difference after a few goblets of wine.”

Arthur snorted, and Merlin felt another small sense of accomplishment at having lightened his mood, even if it was only a fraction of a difference.

“This isn't some holiday speech, Merlin,” Arthur said more soberly. “These are our neighbors, kings and queens in need of reminding that Camelot still stands strong despite Morgana's attempts to rule, and I'm the one who needs to convince them.”

“Well, then,” Merlin said thoughtfully. “Write something on Camelot's triumphs. Or, better yet, the loyalty and faith of its people. A kingdom is only as strong as its people.”

Arthur gave him the ever-so-slightly surprised look that was often the result of whenever he thought Merlin actually had it in him to be wise. “That's not a bad idea, actually.”

“Good, lovely, glad to be something akin to a muse.” Merlin swept his hands toward the dressing screen. “And you can muse on it further while you get dressed.”

Arthur smirked as he sauntered his kingly way behind the screen. “Why, Merlin, have someplace urgent you need to be other than at the armory giving my sword a good polish?”

“Already polished it. It's by your dresser. And, yes, unfortunately, I do have somewhere I need to be. Gaius is out of certain herbs and, sadly, herbs picked in the forest are a deal more cheaper than the bundles sold in the market.”

“That Gaius, such a miser with a coin,” Arthur said dryly. The shirt and jacket vanished behind the screen.

“Hey, give me an excuse any day to pick herbs over mucking out stables but that means having to hurry if I want to make it back in time to get ready.”

“Oh, poor little Merlin. It must be so difficult for you, switching jackets and neckerchiefs.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Try having a bath and changing clothes. That is, unless you want me smelling like skunk weed while I serve you venison?”

Arthur's head poked out from around the screen, gracing Merlin with an incredibly amusing combination of a scowl and disgust. “Go and pick your blasted herbs. I'm quite capable of dressing myself.”

Merlin's reply was a smile and a jaunty wave as he hurried from the chamber. It was another dash through the castle, avoiding fellow servants and a too-happy Gwaine who looked like a man in the mood for a drink and wanting plenty of company to share it with.

“You'll be getting plenty drink tonight, Gwaine, can you really not wait?” Merlin said laughingly as he passed.

Gwaine spread his arms. “Why wait I say,” he said just as laughingly.

Merlin then passed Queen Gueniv... that is, Gwen, coming the other way.

“Arthur needs a muse,” he said, trotting backwards to face her for as long as his hurrying allowed.

“Is he still struggling with his speech?” Gwen said sympathetically.

“He has an idea, now all he needs is encouragement,” Merlin hollered. He turned back around and trotted on his way.

Merlin hadn't been having Arthur on when he'd told him that he enjoyed picking herbs out in the woods. It was quiet in the forest outside the city, a good place to go when one needed time to reflect, and collecting plants was as good an excuse as any to go out and about even with a chore list that seemed to never shrink. But today, it wasn't about reflection. Today it was about enjoying the sun, the sky, the warm breezes and the wet and woody smells of nature. It was about reminding Merlin to enjoy the peace and quiet of the here and now when there was peace and quiet to enjoy, because besides developing rather impressive dodging skills, Merlin had also developed the rather unsettling habit of dwelling on what might come next. Even months after Morgana's attack, Merlin had been unable to find enjoyment in even the most simplest pleasures of life, always wondering what might be lurking in the dark, always waiting for some monster or sorcerer to come give them another dose of hell.

It was starting to make Merlin dread looking forward to anything good, and he was tired of it. Tired of wondering and waiting and waking up in a cold sweat with a racing heart when the what-ifs bled into his dreams. He was tired of not being happy when he had every reason to be happy.

And he was happy. At least more often than he had been those months after the attack. Agravaine was gone, Morgana had yet to show herself (and that was only if she was still alive) and all further attacks, be they by monsters or human, were minor at best. He had no reason not to be content. It wasn't like he was letting his guard down, simply taking matters as they came and absorbing all the good he could find along the way.

Merlin jogged lightly down the dirt road winding away from the city to the edge of the woods, and from there turned off from the hard-packed earth onto the loamy carpet of moss and leaves. Being spring, the needed herbs were plentiful, and at the rate Merlin was going he would not only have time for a bath but to enjoy it, too. He pulled up handfuls of wolf's bane, belladonna, skunk weed and bundled them together with the bits of twine he had put into his pocket before leaving Gaius' chambers this morning.

He reached for a cluster of poppy flowers growing in a patch of sunlight. A boot stepped down, blocking his way. Merlin pulled back quickly and nearly tripped standing upright. A person in a cloak stood before him, a druid cloak by the make and light color, and Merlin immediately relaxed.

“Oh, sorry. Didn't know anyone else was collecting. Did you want those flowers? Because I can look elsewhere, it's not like they're hard to find this time of year,” Merlin said with a light chuckle.

The cloaked person said nothing. Merlin swallowed, back to feeling uneasy.

“Um... should you even be in these woods, this close to Camelot? I won't report you or anything but it's really not safe and--”

Before Merlin's brain had a chance to register what was happening, the person's hand flew up and a word was hissed in the old language. Merlin had no time to so much as register the need for a counter spell right this second when darkness clapped itself like irons over his eyes.

~oOo~

Merlin woke slowly and groggily but without the usual skull-cracking pain of being put under by a hit to the head. If there was one thing he had to grudgingly give sleeping spells credit for, it was the lack of disorienting pain. His head cleared quickly, his vision with it, and the first thing he saw was the forest loam glowing gold. It was extremely off-putting, and made him wonder if the sleeping spell had been more than a sleeping spell, when he realized the glow was flickering. His eyes traveled upward to a fire crackling several feet away, close enough to give him some light but not some warmth.

His sense of touch demanded his attention next, and he suddenly wished he were still in the darkness of an enchanted sleep.

Merlin was bound with cold iron by his arms and legs. He could feel the manacles chafing the skin of his wrists. But manacles were manacles, obnoxious and uncomfortable but about as affective on a warlock as a bit of twine was in tying Percival down. A word and a flash of magic, and they would be off of Merlin in a heartbeat.

But these manacles were all wrong, cold as ice and vibrating like a snake about to strike. It felt like they were pulling at him. No, that wasn't right. They felt as though they were pulling at his magic, tugging at it like a brute restraining a struggling child.

Merlin's experience with magical chains was few and far between, but the sensation of magic-binding chains was not something easily forgotten over time. They were like eating a piece of bad meat, a discomfort you never wanted to experience again, leaving you nervous around the food that had caused the discomfort in the first place. And that was only if he didn't try to use magic on them. If he did use magic, then mild discomfort escalated to something more akin to a thousand kicks to his body at one time.

He couldn't forget the feel of magical chains if he tried. Whoever these people who had taken him were, they knew he had magic, and he was at their mercy.

Merlin's heart beat faster.

These people also felt confident enough in the magical chains to leave Merlin where he was. The camp, as far as Merlin could see, was empty, but there was a good chance it was misleading. Night was coming, the sky deep cerulean going on violet and the shadows thick as stew beyond the fire. There were also the trappings of people intending to stay the night, bedrolls and packs scattered a safe distance from the flames.

Merlin struggled upright from his sprawled position on his side, wincing when the manacles rubbed the skin of his arm. Once up, he leaned his back against the rough bark of a gnarled tree. All the trees were thick and knotty, in point of fact, nothing remotely resembling the straight-trunked trees of the Camelot woods.

The evidence was adding up to the very real possibility that they were no longer in Camelot. Wonderful just... wonderful.

Merlin grimaced in frustration and concentration, wriggling and worming his wrists in the manacles in an attempt to slip his hands free. The problem with bringing chains along on any journey was that you never knew the size of the wrists they would have to wrap around, and some manacles seemed made only for the big and burly.

These manacles, however, were not, and Merlin succeeded only in rubbing his wrists near raw.

But he kept at it, because he was being subdued by magical chains, and that told him all he needed to know about his current situation. And all he needed to know was that he had to get away, now.

Merlin struggled until he felt the warm wetness of blood slicking his skin. Good. It would lubricate the chains. He could already feel his right hand begin to slip free, and his heart hammered with the anxiety of being so close to freedom.

A boot slammed into Merlin's ribs, knocking him to his side. The air was shoved from him with a grunt, and he was given no time to reorient when he was lifted to his knees by his neckerchief and held in place, the cloth biting into his throat and squeezing his airway.

“Wha?” he gasped, staring wide-eyed at the bodies suddenly around him, bodies wrapped within the pale cloaks of druids, faces hidden in the darkness of their cowls.

“Emrys,” said a female voice, and the middle-most druid stepped forward, pushing back her hood.

She was not young, perhaps the age of his mother, perhaps a little more, but with a beauty that seemed to come more from wisdom than from any physical attributes. Her hair was the color of wheat ready for harvest and her face weathered and tanned from a life lived outdoors. And she was tall, as tall or taller than those around her. She stepped forward, and after brushing Merlin's forehead with a long-fingered hand, she smiled, firelight dancing in her blue-gray eyes.

“Most definitely Emrys,” she said brightly. She grabbed his chin and forced his head up. “But even sensing him it is hard to believe. He is so young. Little more than a child.”

“I hope his youth isn't deterring you,” said the man to her right.

“Oh, not at all. Not at all. I am sorry, Emrys,” she said, turning his face to the right, then the left. “Believe me when I say that meeting you is an honor, and that I take no pleasure in this business.”

Merlin jerked his face free. “What business? What do you want with me?”

The woman smiled in a manner almost contradictory to the situation – not a smile of triumph, but a smile of pride, in Merlin. “You have spirit. I like that. From all I've heard you've been living as little more than the Pendragon's dog's body.” She frowned sadly. “It shames me that we have come to this.”

“Come to what?” Merlin demanded, straightening in an attempt to come off as regal as any lord. And he might have succeeded had he not been breathing so fast.

The woman stepped closer and crouched at eye level. “Our people have waited for you, Emrys, for so very long. We have waited for you to fulfill your destiny and see magic returned to this land, unmolested and unchallenged. Our brothers and sisters have faith in you, even now when nothing has changed. It is said you are to bring about an age of peace and prosperity but when, Emrys? When! When you are old and gray and we in our graves?” Her lips pressed themselves into a thin, pale line, her chin trembled and she shook her head. She said, her voice thick. “We can not wait that long. I am sorry, Emrys. I am so very sorry but we cannot stand by while the world goes on and we are left to wander and hide like animals. You will bring about change, Emrys, but it will be a change of our choosing, not yours. And I'm sorry for this.”

The woman looked up and nodded once. The neckerchief was yanked from his neck, then the opening of his shirt pulled apart, exposing his chest.

“Wha-- what are you doing?” Merlin said, struggling against the strong hands now gripping his arms. “Whatever it is, you don't have to do it. It's not my destiny alone that will bring about this age, it is Arthur Pendragon's as well. It's not just me. It's not just me!”

But the woman wasn't listening. She placed the cool, weathered palm of her hand against his chest, right in the center over his breastbone. The druids surrounding them closed in and began to chant, and the woman smiled sadly.

“Your heart races like the wings of a frightened bird,” she said sadly. “I am sorry, Emrys. Believe me when I say that.”

“Then if you're sorry don't do this! Please!”

“I wish I did not have to.” The woman spoke, her words gutteral and deep like the whispered voice of a dragonlord. Her eyes flashed gold and her palm glowed with the same burnished light.

The light burned, through skin and bone, muscle and organ, beyond the seen to the unseen, all the way to the heart of Merlin's very soul. It burned and raked and devoured him, and he screamed until he had no more breath to scream with. Until the dark took him.

~oOo~

Merlin woke to his entire body throbbing - head, torso, limbs, throat raw as ground meat and dry as a bone. When he swallowed, his throat clicked, sticking briefly together. He was thirsty beyond all comprehension, a thirst more painful than the thirst when the death of the unicorn had resulted in the water turning to sand. And he was sick, nauseas, like he'd eaten bad meat again.

The worst of it, however, was his chest burning and freezing all at once. He lifted a shaking hand to it, pressed his palm to it, and felt wet, puckered skin. Merlin snatched his hand away as though bitten. When he craned his neck down, bile shot into his throat.

The skin over his breastbone was mangled and bloody but it was not the messy work of a knife. It was intricate and impossible, a design like the Druid knots within a circle, so perfect and so precise that even smeared in blood Merlin recognized its shape as that of a dragon.

“What is this?” he said, panting and gulping, fighting back the nausea. “What did you do? Why did you--” he lost the battle with his stomach and emptied its contents all over the forest floor.

“Only what we had to, Emrys,” said the woman.

Merlin lifted his shaking head. “Stop calling me that!” he snarled, or tried to, but what should have been a growl drifted off into a weak rasp.

The woman knelt before him, still in her cloak, her long fingers fiddling with a glass bottle full of a green liquid.

“I'm sorry,” she said again. She meant it. So help Merlin, she meant it and he couldn't deny that she did. And as if to prove it, she helped him sit up against the tree, pulling his bound legs around to make him more comfortable. Merlin, shaking, ill and hurting, glared at her with every ounce of hatred and loathing he could muster.

She refused to look away, yet neither did she seem happy about it.

“Here,” she said, holding up the bottle. “For the pain.” She uncorked it, then grabbing Merlins' chin, forced the bitter fluid into his mouth and covered his mouth with her other hand, giving him no choice but to swallow.

The effect was unnervingly immediate, the pain not only dulling but taking his mind with it. He asked, while he still could, “Who are you?” His words were already starting to slur.

“Anela,” she said, wiping his mouth with her sleeve like a mother will for a child. She eased him gently back to the ground on his side. She then tucked a thin blanket around him.

“Wh-what do you want with me?”

Anela sat back, the empty bottle dancing in her fingers as she studied its flawed surface.

“Once upon a time,” she said. “There was a dragonlord. He protected the land with the gift that was given him. He had his magic, and he had his dragons, and it was enough. But those who wished to take the land knew of his power and his might, and knew that to destroy him would be difficult. So, they began to hunt and destroy his dragons. Enraged and distraught over the death of his soul kin, something stirred deep within him, something waking to the cries of pain all around him as his soul-kind perished. Then it woke, and dragonlord became dragon, and hunted the killers of his kin to the ends of the world.”

Anela set the bottle aside. “It is said that a dragonlord can call upon the dragon part of his soul to waken. Although, I will admit, the story made it sound far more simple a process than it actually is. They are mostly stories written in the moldering texts once kept deep in the heart of the Isle of the Blessed, now passed down on spoken word from druid to druid. The change is rare, difficult, and takes time. You see, it is not a change of choice, but the change that comes only when most needed, when heart and soul are torn and your dragon cannot come when called. If done right it is painless but... Emrys, we do not have time, and we know you will not do this willingly. This is the only way.”

“No...” Merlin said, wanting to say more, to say that they had it wrong, that there was another way and it would come with patience, to have faith in his destiny. But all he could force his numb tongue to say was another, “No.”

Anela brushed his sweat-soaked hair back. Merlin had no strength to pull away.

“I'm sorry Merlin.”

Merlin went under thinking how much he was starting to hate apologies.

TBC...