Merlin skidded back into Gaius' cluttered laboratory, his lungs burning. 'The dragon says it's literal – the king literally has to drink Arthur's blood to lift the spell.'
Gaius sat up from his research, startled. 'Blood? Then we're dealing with magic of the darkest variety. We must be wary of the queen's actions once she realises our intention.'
'How do we get the king to drink it?' Merlin demanded, focusing on the most immediate of their problems.
'I think our best chance lies in the co-operation of Morgana,' Gaius replied thoughtfully.
30 minutes later...
Merlin, Gaius and Morgana stood in the doorway of the laboratory, talking urgently.
'I don't like it,' Morgana objected, not for the first time. 'It exposes all of us to great danger, including Gwen. And if Arthur is already injured...'
Merlin squirmed uncomfortably. Considerable time had passed since he had left the prince shivering and oblivious in the tunnels beneath the castle. The state of chaos which still reigned throughout Camelot showed that the enchantment had not yet been broken by his death, but nonetheless, he was worried about the condition he would find his friend in upon his return.
'It is the only course of action still open to us. Times such as these call for desperate measures.' Gaius was adamant. Morgana nodded slowly.
'I'll do it.'
Gaius inclined his head in gratitude. 'Then do it quickly.'
Morgana pulled the door open and strode into the hallway. 'Guards!' she called, gathering up the echoes of her usual authority. Two knights appeared almost instantly – they had been stationed on every corner since the prince's escape.
'I have received intelligence of Arthur's whereabouts. You two will accompany me immediately to his hiding place, apprehend him and ring him before the king.'
The guards bowed clumsily. 'But my lady,' one of them interjected, 'if you would tell us his location, you would not need to be endangered.'
Morgana laughed derisively. 'I cannot entrust such a task to you alone. Some knights are still loyal to the traitor, Arthur, opposing the king and queen.'
'I assure you, my lady, my loyalties are not in question,' the guard grovelled. His snivelling voice made Merlin feel sick.
'I insist that you accompany me immediately,' Morgana reiterated, in a tone which would take no further argument.
Merlin and gaius watched her sweep away, the two knights scuttling along after her. Merlin bit his lip. As Morgana had said, the plan was a dangerous one, with a hundred possible ways of failing catastrophically. He felt Gaius squeeze his shoulder.
'Come along Merlin. It's time we went to see the king.'
Five minutes earlier...
Gwen picked her way through the darkness. She heard Arthur draw breath sharply and then his hoarse whisper: 'Guinevere?'
'It's me,' she answered quickly, kneeling beside him. 'Try to drink some water.'
She pulled his shoulders into her lap and lifted his head in the crook of one arm, holding the flask to his pale lips. He drank obediently until the water stuck in his throat and he choked. Hastily, she pulled the flask away and supported him as best she could while he coughed painfully. Finally he subsided and wilted back against her.
'You can't stay here, Guinevere,' he whispered, exhausted.
'I won't leave you, Arthur. Soon Merlin and Gaius will find a way to lift the enchantment on your father and you will recover from this in your own bed,' she promised. He sighed pessimistically. He had made almost no effort to move since she had returned, and she feared that the last of his strength was ebbing away. She tightened her arms around him and listened intently to his careful breathing.
After a few moments she jolted sharply at the sound of approaching footsteps. She felt Arthur tense in her lap and involuntarily seized his hand. Light was now visible, flickering in the next passage.
'Merlin?' she called softly. 'Is that you?'
Arthur squeezed her hand in alarm, and at the same instant she knew why he was agitated – that was more than one set of footsteps. She retreated further into the wall, pulling Arthur with her and quickly extinguishing her torch, while he struggled to sit up and grip his swor handle. He passed Gwen the little belt knife Morgana had handed him in the dungeons. Both of them were holding their breath.
The light reached the corner of the two tunnels and illuminated both of their faces.
'Mor – Morgana?' Arthur croaked. A strange flicker crossed her face – like the shadow of a wink – but he had no time to ask her why. She beckoned to her shadowy companions and pointed right at them, cowering on the floor.
The guards blundered forwards, swords drawn. Gwen leapt to her feet, horrified, while Arthur lurched to his knees, meeting the first guard's attack clumsily with his sword.
'Do not hurt them!' Morgana cried. 'They must be brought alive before the king.'
Gwen slashed a guard's cheek with the tiny knife and he roared in fury, knocking her to the ground. Arther spun round protectively, but his slow, painful movements made it comparatively easy to knock the swords aside and fell him with a cruel kick at his wounded side. Arthur sprawled on his back in the dust, groaning, and found the guard's boot against his throat, preventing him from getting up again.
Gwen sobbed in fury and incomprehension. She glared at Morgana through angry tears, not understanding this betrayal. Morgana herself seemed to be trembling in shock, looking appalled by Arthur's pallor and the bloody bandage, and sickened to see him flailing weakly under the guard's cruel boot.
'D-disarm them. They are not to be harmed before we have seen the king.'
'Yes, my lady.' The guard removed his boots and Arthur gasped raggedly; then hands pulled him roughly to his feet. He moaned involuntarily.
'Take greater care!' Morgana snapped.
Somewhat taken aback, the guards slung Arther's arms round their shoulder and half-supported, half-dragged him along in Morgana's wake, one of them leading Gwen as well with an iron grip around her wrist.
'I don't believe you would do this!' Gwen spat bitterly at her mistress' back.
Morgana trembled but ignored her. The guard glanced at her angrily. 'Watch you tongue – you're in enough trouble for helping the traitor without showing disrespect to the lady.'
She fell silent. Looking sideways, she could barely tell if Arthur was still conscious.
Merlin and Gaius shuffled into the throne room, carefully keeping knights and councillors between themselves and the king's gaze. He sat sternly on his throne, his hand resting in the slender white fingers of the beautiful Emilia. Both of them were looking down at a kneeling knight with expressions of barely contained fury.
'There's been no word of his whereabouts, Sire, since he was reported to be hiding at the apothecary shop during the night. The building was burned, but no body was recovered from the wreckage, so we are forced to conclude that he escaped.'
The knight winced at Uther's roar of frustration. 'I will hear no more excuses. If he is not found before noon, I will have the whole town burned to the ground!'
Emilia nodded slyly in approval. Merlin shuddered. Her eyes were completely empty of warmth and humanity.
The doors burst open. Morgana strode in impressively, followed by two guards supporting Arthur between them and dragging Gwen by the wrist. Silence fell abruptly.
'My lord,' Morgana announced, 'I bring you the traitor, Arthur, and one who was helping him to escape.'
Uther stood, staring at her. For a long moment, nobody spoke.
'Morgana – you have succeeded where all my knights have failed! Dear child – you must be rewarded.' He beamed at her, and she bowed her head in acknowledgement.
Emilia tapped her husband on the shoulder and murmured something in his ear. 'Yes, quite right – you, go and prepare the gallows immediately. I expect you back in ten minutes to tell me we are ready to be rid of this traitor.'
Two or three knights bowed and left the room.
'While we wait, my lord – let us celebrate with a goblet of wine,' Morgana said, gesturing imperiously to a nearby servant.
Merlin stretched out a hand and bewitched the sword of one of the guards holding Arthur to nudge him hard in the ribs. He rounded immediately on his near-inert prisoner, yelling angrily. Arthur only dragged his head up in bewilderment, but Morgana spun round, goblet in hand, and slapped him ringingly across the face. 'Silence!' she hissed.
Even the guards looked a little bemused by her display of fury. One of her fingernails had left a bleeding gouge in his cheek. Disdainfully, she shook a drop of scarlet liquid from her hand and carried the wine to the king, bowing respectfully as he took it from her and drank deeply.
'Shall we proceed to the gallows, my lord?' the queen prompted. Uther blinked, and shook his head like one awaking from a dream.
'What? – I – wait – Arthur...'
Emilia started, astonished, then livid. Ignoring her, Uther stumbled forwards. The guards, now wearing similar looks of confusion and shock, released Arthur, and he dropped to his knees, then toppled forwards into his father's arms.
'My son – what have I done?' the king wept, tenderly cradling his son's exhausted body.
'Stop – he is a traitor – he must die!' cried Emilia desperately, but murmurs of dissent were now filling the hall.
'He's my son,' Uther thundered, standing to face her while Gwen eased Arthur back to his knees. Merlin darted forwards to help her.
Emilia's face registered her realisation of the collapse of her enchantment. She threw caution to the winds. She stood tall and shrieked out her fury in a strange language. Fire crackled from her fingers and she shot the burning death into the knights now rushing to put themselves between the queen and her husband.
Their swords were no match for her sorcery, though, and they fell, burning, or stumbled back in terror.
'We must get them all out!' hissed Merlin to Gaius. 'I may be able to stop her, but I can't in front of the king...'
Gaius glanced around and shook his head at Merlin warningly.
Emilia grasped Uther by the throat and raised him into the air with impossible strength. Knights were repelled from them by an invisible force when they hurried forward to intervene. Merlin released a bolt of blue flame from between his hands, relying on the confusion surrounding him to mask his actions. It singed the back of her dress and she flung the king aside, sensing the magic. She advanced on the gaggle of people surrounding Arthur.
'One of your protectors is a sorcerer, prince!' she shrieked. 'Is it the lady Morgana, perhaps? I applaud your acting, little witch,' she added in a hiss. Morgana stepped back, looking shaken. 'The loyal serving girl? The boy? The old man?' With each question she invoked invisible powers to propel her victims backwards violently, leaving only Arthur, on his knees at her feet.
'Someone close to you is hiding a terrible secret, Arthur Pendragon. That power did not come from you. Even if you were gifted, you are too near death to produce any significant magic.'
She pulled a long bright dagger from the folds of her skirt and pressed its tip to his throat. He tilted his head back, recognising the death which had been stalking him all night in her eyes.
'It seems that the lady Morgana's elaborate plot to save you was all in vain,' she taunted softly.
Merlin stirred, dazed where his head had struck the wall. He rolled over. He could not make his body respond to the moment's urgency.
A hollow, surprised gasp split the air. Merlin's head spun. Arthur was still on his knees at Emilia's feet, but as he watched the dagger fell from her hand and clattered to the floor. With a long moan, Emilia crumpled up and fell to the ground. King Uther, behind her, pulled his sword out of her fallen body and then let that, too, fall to the floor.
The throne room was devastated. The ancient carved wood of the chairs was charred and black; chinks of the floor and pillars had been blasted into rubble. The smoke was thick and the air was full of the survivors' coughing. The was an unbearable beacon of guilt lighting up the faces of the king and his knights as they watched Arthur's head drop and his hand clutch impulsively at the injured side. The other hand was braced against the floor, and he trembled with fever – the tremors clearly visible through his thin shirt. The watchers seemed suddenly fearful to approach him.
Gaius was the first to regain his senses.
'Get a stretcher!' he snapped at the nearest guards. They hurried to obey. He sent others to look for wounded men among the devastation Emilia had wrought, and sent servants to prepare warm water and fresh bandages in his room.
Gwen and Merlin bent over the prince, finding his eyes open, lucid and startled.
'Someone – tell me what happened?' he demanded faintly. Gwen stroked the hair from his forehead and, reassured by her closeness, he promptly passed out.
Of the aftermath of these events there is much to be said. Three days later, after a great deal of sleep and the benefits of Gaius' careful ministrations, Arthur was healthy enough to make Merlin's life a misery again. His father had offered a broken apology and left quickly as though the sight of his son had become a torment to him. Arthur was not sorry that his father was avoiding him. Despite the instant dispelling of the enchantment, forgiveness and acceptance could not have the same immediate effect.
For one who had been at the centre of everybody's world throughout his life, those few hours of persecution and loneliness had been profoundly shocking. The naked guilt he met in every face continued that isolation. Even Morgana flinched away from him, though she had never been affected by the spell. The fading line on his face was a personal affront to her, though, as he impatiently pointed out, she had done it to save his life.
Merlin had filled in the details of the story for Arthur and Gwen the morning after the confrontation. Arthur was indignant to have been made a pawn in a plan nobody had told him about, and Merlin impudently retorted that his acting skills would not have been sufficient to pull off the masquerade without revealing all.
Merlin spent several weeks agonising over the accusations Emilia had made in front of Arthur, but eventually assumed that the prince did not remember the conversation. He was quite wrong, but Arthur had merely added it to his private bank of evidence that Merlin was undoubtedly a sorcerer. The prince had been building this suspicion for months, but since Merlin was so obviously nervous about it and had never yet used magic against Camelot, he had avoided mentioning it. Besides, he valued the company far too much to risk scaring his servant away, though of course, he would certainly never admit it.
Very sorry for the ludicrous delay! Hope the ending was okay :) Thank you very much the person who politely asked me if I was ever going to finish it - this is for you!