In a land of myths, in a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.

Merlin stumbled against a tree root and fell, his legs flying out from underneath him. Startled by the sudden noise, Arthur turned to see his manservant face-down in the undergrowth.

"Merlin," Arthur began, his lips set in a impatient frown. "Why must you fall over everything?"

Merlin pushed himself to his knees, coughing out dirt. "Why must everything make me fall over it?" he retorted, pulling himself to his feet. He wiped his sleeve across his face, trying to dislodge the soil that had taken refuge on his face.

Arthur sighed, turning away. "And now you've given us away to the wildlife," he added, not bothering to lower his voice. "Congratulations."

Merlin bit his tongue, trying not to retort. Being Arthur's friend and manservant was like being friends with a cat - sometimes the cat would purr peacefully, at other times it would extend its claws and bare its teeth. Either way, no cat could be as much of a prat as Arthur could.

There was a distant rumble of thunder. Both Merlin and Arthur glanced up at the sky, their faces suddenly anxious.

"Looks like it's going to rain," Arthur commented, slinging his crossbow over his back. "We should be getting back." He began to walk off.

Merlin nodded, glancing around the forest. Then he hesitated. "Umm, Arthur?"

Arthur stopped. "What is it this time, Merlin?"

"I thought Camelot was that way," Merlin pointed in the opposite direction.

"No, it's this way," Arthur gestured to the way he'd been walking.

Merlin shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure it was that way."

"Well, you're wrong, Merlin," Arthur decided. He turned back to the path he'd chosen, flexing his shoulders so that the crossbow was jostled into a more comfortable position. "I am in charge here, and I say we're going this way." He started walking again.

Merlin sighed, shouldering his rucksack. "Whatever you say, sire," he muttered, rolling his eyes as he followed after the prince.

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"See?" Merlin shouted at Arthur, trying to make himself heard over the heavy rain. "If we'd gone my way, we would have been back ages ago."

Water poured off Arthur's soaking hair and down his face. Arthur wiped it off, peering through the wet forest. "I'm sure it's this way," he insisted.

"Arthur, I'm telling you, we're lost!"

"Merlin, we are not lost!" Arthur growled. "We're just not there yet." He turned, peering through the rain. Suddenly he grinned, pointing. "There, see?!" he said in triumph. "That'll be a house of Camelot, I bet."

Merlin stared in the direction Arthur was pointing in. Sure enough, a faint yellow light glowed through the trees.

"C'mon, then." Arthur dashed out from under the tree towards the light. Merlin followed him, nearly slipping on the sodden grass as rainwater pelted them.

As they approached the house the light had came from, Merlin quickly realised that this couldn't be part of Camelot. For starters, it looked more like a mansion than a cottage. Secondly, it was the only such house that they could see.

"That's not Camelot," Merlin said abruptly.

Arthur stopped, glaring at him. "Does it matter?" He snapped. "We can shelter there until this blasted rain stops." He continued towards the house.

Just as they reached the mansion, the door flew open. Merlin wiped water from his face, noticing the figure that stood illuminated in the doorway. It was a tall, slim woman. Her silvery-blond hair was gathered into a plait, and she wore a dress of vivid turquoise.

"Come in, come in, weary travellers," she sang out in a clear voice, beckoning the two men inside. "You've arrived at the right time; a feast is being held tonight."

"Well, lucky us," Arthur smirked briefly at Merlin before turning back to the lady. He stepped closer, out of the rain, before taking her hand and kissing it. The lady giggled while Merlin rolled his eyes.

"Thank you for offering to shelter us during this infernal weather," Arthur continued formally. "I am Prince Arthur Pendragon, and this is my manservant, Merlin."

Merlin raised a hand, smiling. "Hi."

"I am the Lady Eveline," the woman replied, smiling back. "My husband, Sir Damas, will be back shortly. I'm sure he'll want to meet you, Pendragon Prince." She held the door open wider. "But please, do come in!"

Merlin took a few steps towards the mansion before Arthur elbowed his ribs. Grinning as his servant doubled up in pain, the young prince entered the dry dwelling.

"Great, second thud today," Merlin muttered to himself, rubbing his chest while wincing painfully. His shirt was soaked through and clung to his skin.

Lady Eveline turned to Merlin. "Servant boy, are you wounded? We have ointment that can help."

"Oh, no, I'm sure I'll be fine." Merlin instantly lowered his hands to his side, clambered up the steps and into the mansion. Behind him, the Lady Eveline silently closed the door.

The room Merlin and Arthur found themselves in was large, with a heightened ceiling crossed with oak beams. Stag antlers hung on various parts of the stone wall, and an extended table was set out in the middle of the room. Various gold and silver platters held a broad assortment of fruits.

"Sorry for this," Arthur apologised, glancing at the puddle of water forming around himself and Merlin.

"Oh, it can't be helped," the Lady shrugged. "I'll get one of my servants to clean it up later. All that matters is you're nice and dry in here."

Merlin noticed a roaring fire set in the wall behind them. He took a few steps back, allowing the heat from the flames to stop him from shivering.

"Here," their hostess said suddenly, holding up a small pitcher. "This is good quality wine, from the fertile Decoda valleys." She poured dark liquid into a few goblets before her before placing the pitcher back on the table and passing two of the wine-filled goblets to Arthur and Merlin.

Arthur cordially accepted his glass while Merlin mumbled his thanks. Arthur glanced at him sharply. Merlin shrugged.

"So," the Lady Eveline continued, raising her own chalice. "Let us drink to the long life of the Pendragon Prince."

Arthur raised his eyebrows, but kept his voice sincere. "Thank you, milady."

The Lady smiled. "My pleasure," she replied, her eyes shining. "To Prince Arthur!"

"To Arthur," Merlin echoed more quietly.

They drank a mouthful of their wine. Arthur was the first to remove the cup from his lips and place it down on the table, his face struggling to stop an expression of disgust forming. "No offence, Lady Eveline, but I think your wine has gone bad."

Eveline lowered her goblet, still smiling. "I tend to add my own special ingredients to the wine."

Arthur looked slightly taken aback. "Well, it… sure makes it special." He raised his goblet again, wincing slightly as he drank from it.

Merlin held his chalice near his nose and sniffed the wine. It had a slightly bitter aroma, unlike any drink that he had ever had. He glanced at the Lady Eveline and noticed that she hadn't drunken from her own goblet. Instead, she kept her gaze on Arthur, a hungry expression in her eyes.

"Arthur!" Merlin yelped, twirling around. His raven hair, still wet, sent water droplets flying. "Arthur, don't drink it! It's -"

Even as Merlin turned, Arthur suddenly staggered. His blue eyes clouding over, he fell to the floor. The goblet landed with a sharp crack beside him, and maroon wine flowed across the floor, staining Arthur's tunic as he lay motionless.

"What have you done?!" Merlin shouted, instantly kneeling beside the fallen prince. He grabbed Arthur's shoulders, shaking him. "Arthur!"

"Pity," the Lady Eveline said softly. Merlin turned to look at her; she was no longer smiling, her face expressionless. "But he will be the best in our collection, no doubt."

Anger rose in Merlin: with difficulty, he kept his voice steady. "You killed him."

Eveline shook her head. "My dear boy, I did nothing of the sort! I merely sent him into a deep sleep." Her eyes met Merlin's, and she spoke again. "I'm surprised that you are holding out so long. I would have expected a mere servant to succumb to the effects of the wine before his master."

Merlin's eyelids suddenly closed, his whole body aching. He struggled against the darkness, his body shaking. "No, no, I won't…" He stopped shaking. Merlin's head dropped onto Arthur's chest, his hands still clutching Arthur's jerkin protectively.

The Lady Eveline watched both of them, her eyes cold and her lips spread in a thin smile. "Finally," she murmured. "Finally, we may have a chance." She crossed the room, and took hold of a small rope attached to the ceiling. She pulled it, and the silvery chiming of bells sounded.

Almost immediately, footsteps sounded and a man entered the room. It was easy to assume that this man had once been rather handsome, but his good looks had dropped away. His skin was the colour of old snow; he sported a dark moustache and a goatee. Under pointed eyebrows, his eyes were steely grey. He examined the two young men on the floor with interest, one hand curling his goatee.

"A prince," he said in wonder, studying Arthur. "A little young, perhaps, but he should be well trained in combat." He glanced at Merlin. "Who is the dark-haired boy? Another knight, possibly?"

"He is nothing of the sort," Eveline laughed. No joy was in her laugh now, only triumph and a hint of cruelty. "He is the prince's manservant. Very outspoken for a servant, though."

"We shall send him back to Camelot with a letter for Ontzlake," the man decided. He cast a sly smile towards the Lady Eveline, and kissed her cheek briefly. She giggled.

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The gentle chirping of birdsong filled the morning air while the dew-covered grass held the suns first rays. The sound of the village of Camelot, close to the forest clearing, seemed muted on this fine day. In the clearing, however, a young boy lay on the grass. His eyes slowly fluttered open, exposing brilliant blue irises.

Merlin pushed himself up into a sitting position, groaning. He rubbed his head and stared at his surroundings. The back of his jacket and trousers were sodden from the morning dew; he shivered.

"That's odd," he muttered. "What am I doing here?"

Memories softly made themselves remembered, and Merlin sat bolt upright, the pain in his head and body forgotten. "Arthur." His hands curled into fists as he remembered how they had been drugged.

There was a slight rustle as Merlin moved, and he noticed that a piece of parchment had been tied to his arm with a dark ribbon.

The young warlock quickly undid the ribbon and spread out the parchment, reading what was written on it.

My dear brother Ontzlake,

I am finally prepared to meet you in combat. Meet me at midday tomorrow on the field, and we shall engage in mortal combat to see who rightfully claims our father's estate and title.

Sir Damas

PS. You are allowed to bring one spokesperson

Merlin threw the letter down in frustration. "How is this meant to help me?" he shouted angrily. "Does this Damas really think I'm going to deliver this when Arthur's trapped somewhere?"

Merlin forced himself to breath slowly, trying to control his anger. He reached forward and plucked the parchment from the ground. He read though it again.

"Ontzlake," he whispered. "Maybe he can help." The young warlock folded the paper and placed it in the front pocket of his jacket. He stood up shakily, one hand straightening his red neckerchief. Through the trees, he could make out a town, and above the town, the castle of Camelot.

"Well, that was fairly easy."

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Arthur groggily opened his eyes. All he could make out was a very dim light, so he closed them again. It didn't make much difference.

A steady drip, drip of water fell from the ceiling onto his nose. Arthur shuddered, moving out of the way. Something clinked as he shifted, and he felt cold iron rub against his ankle. Soft groans echoed throughout Arthur's ears, and his body ached all over..

"Where am I?" Arthur demanded. His voice sounded strained; he used the tip of his tongue to moisten his dry lips. "Who's there?" he called, slightly louder.

The groans stopped. "Where are you?" A low voice repeated mournfully. "You are in the dungeon of Damas."

"Damas?" Arthur inquired. "Who is he?"

"Damas is an unfair knight," the voice responded. "A few years ago, his father passed away and supposedly left no will. Damas seized his father's estate, but Ontzlake, his brother, believes that it should be his."

"I don't see what this has to do with me," Arthur complained. Strength was slowly returning to his limbs, and he began to struggle against the shackles binding him. They held fast, however, and eventually Arthur slumped back against the cold stone wall.

"Ontzlake keeps challenging Damas to single combat, but Damas always refuses. He knows that he can't win against his brother. Instead, he persuaded his wife, the Lady Eveline, to drug knights. He then imprisons them until they agree to fight for him."

"Have any done so?" Arthur asked curiously.

"No!" His fellow prisoner replied fiercely. "It is against the knights' code of honour to fight on behalf of a coward."

Arthur stopped struggling, trying to think. "So, he wants me to fight?"

"I believe so."

"Then I will do so," Arthur decided. "Providing that he lets the rest of you go free."

The voice was silent. "You - you would go against the knights' code for us?" it said huskily. "What kind of knight are you?"

"Oh, I'm much, much more than just a knight," Arthur responded, with a touch of pride entering his words.

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"Merlin!"

Merlin turned to see Gwen pacing up to him. "Gwen, I can't talk right now."

Gwen stopped, confused. "Where were you last night?" she asked anxiously. "You and Arthur went missing; Uther's been sending out search parties for you."

"What, for me?" Merlin pointed at himself.

"Well, maybe not for you, but for Arthur," Gwen replied. Her cheeks darkened slightly. "Not that we don't care about you missing, we do, but Arthur's just…"

"More important than me," Merlin finished. He took a step towards her. "Gwen, do you know a man named Ontzlake?"

"Ontzlake," Gwen repeated, confused. "You mean Sir Ontzlake?"

"He's a knight?"

"Why, yes, he used to be one of my father's best customers." She paused, averting her eyes. It was painful talking about her father, even now.

"I need to find him," Merlin replied, glancing up at the castle. "It's urgent."

"Urgent?" Gwen repeated, worry crossing her face. "Is it Arthur? Is he in danger?"

"I'm not sure." Merlin self-consciously checked that the parchment was still in his pocket. "But I need to find Ontzlake as quickly as possible."

"Well, he moved to Calaban a few months ago. It's not that far," she added, catching sight of Merlin's expression. "Why, it would only take about an hour by horse."

"Then I'm going to need a horse." Merlin twisted around and walked past Gwen.

Gwen stepped in front of him. "Merlin, if you're going, then I'm coming with you."

Merlin stopped, gawking at her. "What? No! No, Gwen."

"And why not?" Gwen's voice was firm. "Merlin, if it's really as urgent as you say, then I should be allowed to help. Besides, Ontzlake knows me."

The two young adults stared at each other, each with an expression of grim determination. Merlin finally broke the connection, looking away.

"Fine," he muttered. He glanced back. "But what about Morgana?"

"She's sleeping," Gwen said, a small smile on her face as she thought about her friend. "She gets such bad dreams at night; she often has a rest during the day to make up for it. She'll never know I was gone - and even if she does wake up, she'll just think I'm mending or washing."

Merlin nodded. "Fine."

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Morgana lay across the settee, her eyes screwed tightly together. She had been having a fairly ordinary dream for once - something silly, about Arthur and Gwen getting married - but then her dream dissolved into golden haze, and she experienced the sensation of falling that signalled an approaching nightmare.

Images tore through her mind, pictures that scared her. Her breathing grew faster, her hands curled and grasped the light rug covering her. But still the images came, and over the top of them a deep voice called her name.

Morgana…

Her eyes snapped open. And it may have been a trick of the light, but for a second her pale green irises seemed to flash golden.

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"Any sign of them?" Uther asked anxiously, pulling at the reins. His horse came to a halt beside his knight's.

The knight shook his head, sighing. "No, sire, but we will continue to keep looking."

Uther gritted his teeth. "Extend the search area," he commanded. "They must be found."

The knight nodded before digging his heels into his horse and riding into the forest again.

"Gaius," Uther turned to the court physician beside him. "What do you think has happened to them?" He no longer sounded like an urgent king, but a desperate man confiding in his friend.

Gaius patted the neck of his horse. Well, I think Merlin may have gotten into trouble because of his magic, Gaius thought to himself, but he couldn't say that to Uther, so instead he truthfully replied "I don't know. Maybe they are simply lost?"

Uther glanced into the woods. "I hope you're right, Gaius," he admitted softly. His horse began to walk forward; Gaius quickly spurred his own horse into action. "I just hope you're right."

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Merlin climbed off his horse. Grasping the reins, he gently led it over to a nearby tree and tied the reins around a low-hanging branch. Beside him, Gwen did likewise with her horse.

During the journey there, Merlin had told Gwen all about the events of last night. Now, with a slightly awkward silence, they walked up to the door of the cottage. As they reached it, Merlin rapped his hand against the wood.

"Alright, alright!" a voice called; there was a scraping of wood against stone and the door was flung open.

The man standing in the doorway was around Merlin's own height, with dark windswept hair and tanned skin. He wore the simple clothes of a villager, but Merlin noticed a small golden dragon sewn over the man's heart - the Pendragon emblem. His right leg was encased in bandages, and he was leaning heavily against a wooden crutch.

The man grinned at them, his grey eyes bright. "Why, if it isn't little Guinevere!" He swung himself forward on his crutch, and wrapped his free arm around Gwen's shoulders, pulling her into a hug. "It's good to see you again."

"It's good to see you too, Ontzlake," Gwen replied, smiling. Ontzlake let go of her and stood back, his eyes on Merlin.

"And this must be your boyfriend, then?" He held out his hand.

"He's not my boyfriend," Gwen said quickly.

"I'm not her boyfriend," Merlin said at almost the same time. They both glanced at one another, colour rising in their cheeks.

"We're just friends," Merlin added, turning back to the knight and shaking his hand. "My name's Merlin."

Ontzlake laughed. "Sorry 'bout that. I always was too quick to jump to conclusions." He studied them, curiosity in his gaze. "So, what brings you here?"

Merlin reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the scroll of parchment from Damas. Hesitantly, he passed it to Ontzlake.

The smile on the knight's face disappeared almost instantly as he slowly read through the letter. Under his tan, his face grew pale.

"After so long," he murmured under his breath. His eyes narrowed as his fingers crushed the parchment. "And now he chooses to accept my challenge!" Ontzlake tore the letter in half, letting the pieces fall to the ground. Merlin and Gwen glanced at each other.

Ontzlake rounded on Merlin. "How did you come by this letter? Do you work for my brother?!"

"No, no!" Merlin responded instantly, holding his hands up in front of himself. "Your brother, he drugged me and my friend. He's holding my friend captive, but I had to deliver this to you." He indicated the crumpled pieces of parchment.

Ontzlake studied him. "You better come in." He swung the door wide, allowing Merlin and Gwen to slip past him. Merlin stared around the interior of the cottage, feeling a sudden wave of homesickness - this cottage was very similar to the one he'd grown up in.

Gwen started as the door slammed. Ontzlake's crutch scraped against the stone floor as he made his way across the room before sitting down on a pile of various blankets and animal skins. Hesitantly, Merlin and Gwen sat down on nearby chairs.

Onztlake sighed, staring down at his feet. "Damas," he said gruffly, "is the brother I was cursed to have. When our father died, I was away fighting in Camelot's army. Damas seized my father's title and lands, claiming that our father had left it all to him. I disagreed, we argued, and I challenged him to single, to the death combat. Winner gets the estate; loser dies and loses all.

"But Damas kept putting it off - the coward! He is not fit to be a knight. And now, when my leg is broken and I cannot possibly fight, he accepts my challenge!"

Ontzlake fell silent, allowing Merlin to turn to Gwen to see how she was taking this.

"Sir Ontzlake," she said quietly. "We think Damas is holding our… our, err, friend prisoner."

Ontzlake glanced up at her. "Your friend?"

"He's a bit more important than that," Gwen added hurriedly, her cheeks darkening again. "He's… well, he's the prince of Camelot."

Ontzlake's jaw dropped in surprise. "You mean Uther's son? Prince Arthur Pendragon?"

Merlin nodded. "Yes, and I don't know why. The woman there… she mentioned some sort of collection."

"Hmm, that must have been Eveline," Ontzlake figured out, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Beautiful, but completely shallow."

"Yes!" Merlin agreed eagerly. "She said her name was Eveline."

Ontzlake sighed. "Well, I can't fight," he reminded them, gesturing to his bandaged leg.

Gwen spoke up again. "What… what if someone took your place?"

Merlin and Ontzlake stared at her in surprise.

"I think we have a better chance of getting Arthur back if you agree to combat," Gwen explained, averting her eyes slightly.

"That's not a bad idea, Gwen," Ontzlake murmured. "But I don't know of anyone in this village who has the skill for battle." The knight's light grey eyes fell on Merlin. "What about you, Merlin?"

Merlin started, nearly falling off his chair in shock. "Me?"

"Can you use a sword?" Ontzlake asked, a sudden hopeful tone in his voice. "If you can fight in my place, we may have a chance of rescuing the prince and restoring my rightful estate."

Merlin hesitated. He knew how to wield a sword, yes, but he was far from expert at it. He glanced at his companions, preparing to say no, but then he noticed the hopeful expressions on their faces. Looking at them, Merlin realised that he had to try - for their sake and Arthur's.

"Yes," he agreed slowly. "Ontzlake, I'll fight for you."

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"The Pendragon Prince to see you, my dear," the Lady Eveline announced as she half escorted, half dragged Arthur into the room.

Arthur tore his arm away from her, glowering. "I believe I can speak for myself, thanks." He sat down on the chair that faced Damas, inspecting the arm Eveline had grasped. Tiny crescent moons showed where she had dug her fingernails in.

Damas leaned forward as Eveline sat down beside him. "Now, I hear you have offered to fight for me."

"Yes, I have," Arthur confirmed, reclining in his chair. Being a prince had taught him when to exercise his power and status over others - now was one of these times. "But only on one condition."

Damas waved his hand dismissively. "And what is this condition?"

"That you will release the men you have imprisoned," Arthur responded, a slight touch of anger to his voice. "There are good knights down there, good men to deserve not to spend their days chained to a wall."

"If you fight for me," Damas said, locking his eyes on Arthur, "then I will do as you ask."

Arthur nodded, then held out his hand. "Then I will fight."

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Merlin slept badly that night. Ontzlake had kindly offered him his bed, but Merlin had refused - after all, he was used to sleeping rough, and Onztlake had a broken leg. Gwen had also refused the offer of a bed and was sleeping on the opposite side of the room, covered in a thick woollen blanket. Merlin rolled onto his side, watching her sleep. She really was a true friend, and despite his previous misgivings, Merlin was glad that she'd come.

Merlin's stomach churned a little as he thought about tomorrow. It was to be a fight to the death between him and Damas. Merlin wasn't looking forward to trying to kill Damas, though - at least, not before he'd found out what had happened to Arthur. It was Merlin's destiny to look after Arthur; it was his duty as a friend and servant.

Merlin pulled the blankets tighter around him, shivering even though he was warm.

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Damas had led Arthur to his armoury. "You will be wearing my own armour," Damas explained as he gestured to the items in the room.

Arthur frowned, picking up Damas' helmet and examining it. "But - this is all black."

Damas nodded. "I find the darkness of my armour comforting."

Arthur glanced at him. He hated feeling helpless; being led around by someone else. Arthur had always been independent… at least, until he met Merlin. And even then he still liked to be alone, to make his own decisions.

So, Arthur naturally found himself despising Damas even more.

"You will wear my armour," Damas continued, laying out his plan for Arthur, "and you will ride my horse to the field. The Lady Eveline and I will follow you, but I will demount in the woods to watch while Eveline will speak to Ontzlake for you. You will keep your helmet on at all times, understand?"

"Yes," Arthur replied, a touch of sulkiness in his voice.

"Good." Damas turned to Arthur, glaring at him. "I am counting on you, Arthur Pendragon, to kill my do-good brother during combat."

"And I am counting on you to let those knights free," Arthur retaliated, his blue eyes narrowed. "While I am preparing, go and let them free. Only then will I fight for you."

Damas nodded. "I will do so now." He slipped out of the armoury, leaving Arthur to get ready.

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Merlin stood by the window, taking in the blueness of the sky and the chirping of the birds. Ontzlake's armour was relatively light, but it still felt heavy on his shoulders. The whole suit of armour was white, which had surprised Merlin. Gwen however, seemed uninterested by it, and Merlin had remembered that Ontzlake had been a regular customer of her father's.

"Why white?" Merlin had asked Ontzlake. Ontzlake had smiled and told him about his father being a large fan of some game that he'd brought over from Gaul, where the opposing players had either white pieces or black pieces. In his eagerness, he had given Ontzlake a suit of white armour and Damas a suit of black armour so they could match the pieces of the game.

"Echess, I think he called it," Ontzlake had said thoughtfully. "Maybe Damas still has the original somewhere."

"Merlin?"

Merlin spun around. He gave a small smile as he noticed Gwen behind him. "Hi."

Gwen hesitated. "Are you good at fighting?" she asked quickly, her cheeks darkening slightly. "It's just that… I've seen Arthur practising sword fighting with you, and you never seemed to be that good at it."

Merlin tried to think up a reply. "I'm… I'm better than I used to be," he finally said.

Gwen nodded, averting her eyes. "Do you think Morgana's okay?"

"Morgana?" Merlin repeated, taken aback by the sudden subject change. "Why?"

"Well, I only thought I was going to be here for a few hours, but I've been here almost a whole day," Gwen explained, worry etched on her face. "And Morgana wouldn't know where I am, and she probably thinks I've vanished like you and Arthur did…"

"I'm sure she'll understand," Merlin interrupted. Gwen blinked at him gratefully.

"Gwen!" Ontzlake's voice called from outside. "Can you come and help me get these horses ready?"

"Coming!" Gwen called back. She turned back to Merlin and quickly kissed his cheek. "Good luck, Merlin," she murmured before dashing off.

Merlin blinked in surprise, a smile spreading across his face as he watched her leave. He gave his head a quick shake, then made his way over to a table.

Merlin withdrew Ontzlake's sword from its sheath and lay it across the table. "Now, how does that spell go…?"

After Merlin's first lesson in sword fighting, the young warlock had browsed through the magic book Gaius had given him. Merlin found one spell that, when cast on a sword, would grant the wielder with better fighting abilities. Merlin had been sorely tempted to try it out, but he knew that Arthur would want to know why he had suddenly become so good. Instead, Merlin had simply memorised the spell in case it ever came in useful.

This, Merlin mused, appeared to be one of these moments. He just hoped it worked.

He held up the sword in his left hand and lightly rested the fingers of his right hand on the blade. "--------" Merlin muttered. His dark irises flashed golden as the spell began to take effect; a soft, silvery-blue haze enveloped the sword. A few strange symbols appeared near the hilt, and Merlin could feel the power the sword was giving him. Expertly, he threw the sword to his right hand, caught it, and then performed Arthur's usual sword-twirling. His muscles responded perfectly, and the sword swished through the air with ease.

"Yes!" Merlin said triumphantly. He swung the sword again.

There was a loud crack as the sword broke a jar. Flour spilled out across the table, sending a cloud of powder all over a corner of the room.

"Merlin!" Ontzlake called. "What was that?"

Merlin cringed. "Nothing!" Quickly he sheathed his sword, brushed away a few traces of powder on his armour and went outside, more confident than he had been since he had agreed to fight.

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Ontzlake demounted in the forest, wincing as his broken leg touched the ground. "I'll stay here and watch," he decided. "Remember, Merlin, keep your helmet on at all times. Gwen will do the talking for you."

Both Merlin and Gwen nodded.

"We'll return soon, Ontzlake," Gwen promised nervously as their horses took off through the thin layer of trees.

"Good luck," Ontzlake called after them. He tied the reins of Merlin's horse to a nearby tree, then removed the crutch that he had attached to the saddle. Leaning on it, he began to hobble towards the field, hoping for a better look.

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The Lady Eveline rode into the field, her head held high and her silvery hair flowing freely down her back. Besides her, dressed in Damas' black armour and on Damas' black stallion, was Arthur.

Eveline brought her horse to a halt and dismounted. Arthur did the same. He glanced around the field, desperately wanting to remove his helmet, but knowing at the same time he couldn't. He had watched the knights Damas had imprisoned being set free; now it was Arthur's turn to keep the bargain.

A soft pounding of hooves signalled the arrival of Ontzlake. Arthur peered through the slits in his helmet, trying to get a good look at the two people on the horses. One was a knight in peculiar snow-white armour. Arthur noticed the other, and his heart skipped a beat in shock as they dismounted and walked over. There was no mistaking that gentle figure, her head held high and a shy determination in her brown eyes. Guinevere.

Eveline strode in front of Arthur and grasped the white knight's hand. "Good to see you again, Ontzlake."

Ontzlake grunted.

"You must be Damas and Eveline," Gwen said politely, taking a step forward and curtseying. "I've heard so much about you from Ontzlake."

"Sir Damas and Lady Eveline, if you please," Eveline corrected haughtily.

Gwen's smile wavered. "Very well, Lady Eveline."

While this exchange went on, Arthur slowly got over the shock of seeing Gwen accompany Ontzlake. Maybe Merlin had told her about the battle, and she offered to watch. But that wouldn't be like Merlin… Merlin would have demanded to ride with Ontzlake himself.

"So, rules." Eveline turned to the two knights: Arthur in black, Ontzlake in white. "This is single combat to the death. The survivor wins the estate and title of Sir Emberage, Duke of Glabia."

"No weapons other than swords may be used," Gwen interrupted, and Arthur sensed that she'd taken a dislike to Eveline. "Do you, Sir Damas and Sir Ontzlake, agree to these conditions?"

Ontzlake and Arthur nodded, both silent.

"Very well, then," the Lady Eveline smiled cruelly. She opened her mouth.

"Then let the fighting begin!" It was Gwen's voice that rang out; she'd beaten Eveline to it. Behind the visor of his helmet, Arthur grinned.

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Merlin turned to face Damas, his hand resting against the sword hilt. So this was the infamous Damas, who had imprisoned Arthur and sent Merlin to find Ontzlake. The young warlock's eyes narrowed.

In the same fluid movement, Damas and Merlin grasped their swords and twirled them over their heads in preparation. Merlin stared at Damas in astonishment - that was Arthur's signature move, and Merlin had simply been using it to look impressive. Maybe Damas had made Arthur teach him sword-fighting? It was possible.

"Go!" Gwen called as Eveline's red handkerchief fluttered to the grass.

Instantly Damas came forward, swinging his sword. The blade hit Merlin's shield and sent him sprawling across the ground. Luckily, Merlin still held onto his sword. He could feel the power from it coursing into him, and he immediately rolled over to avoid Damas' next blow before Merlin jumped to his feet.

Damas turned, and the two of them circled each other. Damas kept twirling his sword, and Merlin lunged. Damas was ready for him, and there was a clang of metal on metal as the swords met: Merlin attacked, Damas feinted, Damas attacked, Merlin feinted.

Damas swiped at Merlin's head; Merlin ducked the blow. Automatically, his arm reached out and his sword hit the back of Damas' legs. The black knight instantly flipped over, his back hitting the ground heavily. The sword went flying from his hand and, by sheer coincidence, went through the train of Eveline's dress and pinned her to the ground. Her face instantly went deathly pale.

Merlin turned back to Damas, watching as the knight struggled to sit up. Carefully, Merlin rested the sharpened tip of his sword against Damas' chest. Here was his chance. Kill Damas, and Ontzlake would get his lands back. Kill Damas, and Eveline could be forced to tell them where Arthur was, and why they had kidnapped him. Merlin had killed before, but not like this. Nonetheless, he breathed deeply, slowly preparing himself to drive the sword through Damas' heart.

"Hurry up, will you?" The knight sounded breathless, but there was a touch of anger and pride to his voice. "If I'm going to die, I'd like it over and done with quickly."

Merlin felt his heart stop for a second. He was barely aware of dropping the enchanted sword; of staggering back in shock. He'd know that voice anywhere.

Merlin pulled off his helmet and let it fall beside his sword. His dark hair was stuck in untidy clumps, and beads of sweat glistened on his pale forehead. "Arth… Arthur?" he breathed, hardly daring to believe it.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the other knight. "Merlin?!" He struggled to sit up straighter before removing his helmet to expose the face Merlin knew so well.

"Arthur!" Merlin's face broke into a grin as he dropped to his knees beside his friend and threw his arms around Arthur's shoulders. His white armour clanged against Arthur's black armour.

Arthur shoved Merlin off of him. "Merlin, what are you doing here?" he exclaimed. "And what are you doing, pretending to be a knight?"

"It's a long story," Merlin grinned, his dark eyes sparkling. Now that he knew Arthur was fine, it felt like a great weight had been lifted off of his shoulders.

Arthur frowned. "But how did you get to be so good with a sword? You're absolutely rubbish at sword fighting!"

"Errr…" Merlin had no idea what to say.

"Arthur!"

Gwen dropped to the ground on the other side of Merlin, her brown eyes wide with anxiety and shock. "You're okay!"

"Of course I'm…" Arthur started to say, but stopped as Gwen embraced him in a tight hug. Merlin watched, amused. He hadn't forgotten the time when he had finally gaining consciousness after being poisoned - Gwen had kissed him on the lips, showing how relieved she was to see him alive.

Gwen let go of Arthur, with an embarrassment expression. "Sorry, sire," she gasped. "I just thought…"

"It's alright, Guinevere," Arthur interjected, suddenly grinning. "What are you even doing here?"

"It's a long story," Merlin said again. "We can tell you later."

While Gwen, Merlin and Arthur were being reunited, Eveline had managed to pull out the sword that held her dress down. Her eyes cold, she began to walk towards Merlin, the sword clutched in her hands. It had been a mistake to let him go free, she knew it. She'd watched him fight, admiring his skills - skills that he could have used to fight for them instead.

But it was a fight to the death. If that servant boy died, then Damas could claim his father's lands, as the servant had been fighting for Ontzlake. Eveline raised the sword, her eyes glittering.

"Merlin!" Gwen shrieked, suddenly noticing the lady behind him. Without looking, Merlin did a clumsy somersault to one side, and the sword was suddenly lodged in the grass where Merlin had just been kneeling.

Arthur jumped to his feet. He grasped Gwen's hand and pulled her up beside him while Merlin clambered upright, his eyes fixed on the sword that had been about to claim his life.

Eveline let out a strangled cry. "You will not escape me that easily, servant!" She grabbed a sword from the ground, and Merlin realised with horror that it was his sword - the sword that granted power to the bearer. Eveline paused as she grasped the sword, her eyes half-closed. She breathed slowly as the magic in the sword began to enter her, her back straightening, the faint shivers of her skin slowly halting.

Merlin glanced at Arthur and Gwen: Arthur was holding onto Gwen's shoulders, dragging her towards the horses. Arthur's eyes met his.

"Merlin!" Arthur yelled. "Come on, let's go."

Merlin's turned back to Eveline, and suddenly his world went into slow motion.

Eveline had lunged with the enchanted sword, her face alive with triumph. Her hair fluttered behind her. Merlin distantly heard Arthur and Gwen shouting his name, calling for him.

This was it. He was going to die. Killed by his own enchantment.

And then something flung itself between Merlin and Eveline, and the world went back to normal.

Ontzlake staggered backwards as the sword entered his heart. Merlin, shocked into action, grabbed the knight's shoulders, keeping him upright.

"NO!" Eveline screamed as she realised what had happened. "No, no!"

"Oh, yes," Ontzlake said huskily, a tiny smile on his face. "And you may also wish to know that your husband is lying dead right as we speak."

"No!" Eveline repeated fiercely. "You're lying!"

Ontzlake shrugged, the simple movement needing a huge effort. "We had our own combat in the woods, when we realised that we had both chosen to hide. I killed him and made my way here to stop Merlin and Arthur from killing each other."

All the strength suddenly went out of Eveline. Her eyes half-closed and she dropped to the grass in a faint.

"Ontzlake," Merlin gasped, struggling to hold him upright. "You saved my life."

"Well, you were willing to risk yours for me," Ontzlake replied, wincing as pain spread through him. "It was the least I could do."

"But how'd you kill Damas?" Merlin couldn't help asking. "You have a broken leg!"

Ontzlake smiled grimly. "Don't tell anyone this, Merlin, but… I killed him from behind, when he wasn't looking. I'd had enough of him." Ontzlake began to shake, sweat appearing on his forehead. "It took so long to get here, I thought I'd be too late."

There was silence. Merlin noticed the blood pooling from around the wound in Ontzlake's chest. "We need to get you to a physician soon."

"Merlin," Ontzlake sighed. "There's no point."

"There is a point!" Merlin argued, his eyes beginning to prick with tears. "You saved my life, Ontzlake. There's no way you can die now."

Ontzlake's grey eyes flickered. "Do me one favour, Merlin."

Merlin nodded eagerly as tears began to trickle down his cheeks. "Anything."

Ontzlake breathed in sharply. "Bury me beside my parents, Merl..." Ontzlake's head drooped and he stopped shaking.

Ontzlake was dead.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Uther was sitting on his throne, his head in his hands. Where could Arthur be? He'd been missing for about four days, and no one had seen hair nor hide of him.

His only son. Uther should have spent more time with him. More time bonding, rather than arguing.

There was a thump as the door swung open, but Uther didn't bother looking up. It would just be some other knight, reporting to tell him that his son was still missing…

"Father."

Uther glanced up immediately. Arthur was standing in the hall - his clothes were grubby, his skin unwashed, but Uther didn't care. His son was back!

"Arthur!" Uther sprung out of his chair and embraced the young man. Then he stepped back, his eyes narrowed. "Where have you been, Arthur?!" he shouted angrily. "I've been worried sick about you! You go out hunting, tell me you'll be back before sunset, and then you just walk in days later!"

"Father…" Arthur repeated. "I'm sorry."

There was silence as father and son gazed at each other. Then Uther reached forward and hugged him. "Don't ever do that again," he muttered. "Please."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Morgana sat, staring at the window. "So," she finally said. "What happened next?"

Gwen was sitting opposite her. "We took Ontzlake back to his fathers' house," she explained quietly. "Arthur and Merlin dug a grave beside his parents for him. After that, we came back."

Morgana nodded, not looking at Gwen. "And what happened to Eveline?"

Gwen shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. "After we'd pulled Ontzlake onto one of the horses, we turned around and she was gone."

"Hmm."

Gwen slowly stood up, fiddling with her dress. "I'm so, so sorry I left you, Morgana, but I only thought I would be gone for a few hours while you slept, instead of…"

"Did it occur to you, Guinevere," Morgana interrupted, still not looking at her maidservant, "that I might have wanted to go with you and Merlin?"

A look of confusion passed over Gwen's face. "Morgana…"

Morgana turned to face Gwen, her pale eyes narrowed. "I am sick of having to stay in Camelot all the time!" Morgana exclaimed angrily. "I long for adventure outside these walls, adventures like the one you have just had. I could have shared this one with you, but no! I fall asleep, and you instantly forget all about me!"

"Morgana, that's not true!" Gwen responded in shock.

"It is true, and you know it!" Morgana shot back. She turned her head back to the window, fingering the stone around her neck, and when she spoke again her voice was a little calmer, but still without warmth.

"Gwen, go wash and change, then meet me back here before dinner tonight. Apparently Uther is holding a party to celebrate Arthur's return."

Gwen hesitated, wanting to comfort Morgana, to tell her that Gwen had just wanted her to sleep well. Instead, she simply curtseyed and replied "Yes, milady."

Morgana suddenly felt horrible. "Gwen?" She twisted around, but the door had already closed, leaving her alone in the room.

Morgana placed her head in her hands; her hair brushing against her hands gently. The stone around her neck throbbed with a gentle glow as she suddenly started, gazing around her in panic.

Morgana…

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The Story Behind The Story

This was originally written for the Merlin: Season Two project, the goal of which was to get thirteen fanfic writers to write an episode each of what we thought the second season of Merlin would entail under the group name of TheMerlinCrew. Unfortunatly, people dropped out, or forgot to write their episodes, and in the end the project was abandoned.

The story you have just read was orginally intended as Episode Two of Season Two (which, in canon, is 'The Once and Future Queen'). I would like to thank all members of TheMerlinCrew for their support, especially Rixxispooks, DementedViper, BlackFyre94 and Shadows Of A Love-Struck Soul for your support in the writing of this fanfic. You guys are the greatest, and this wouldn't have been finished without you!