It's finally complete! I would like to thank all of you that have stuck by me in this first labour of love and I hope the ending lived up to your expectations. All your lovely comments have encouraged me and given me the confidence to stick with this story when I was ready to give it up as rubbish and it has been massively appreciated!
Love and thanks, Emzaz.
Arthur was released from prison in a week, a sombre and more thoughtful man. Uther had been predictably furious at Arthur's blatant disobedience and had not even appeared to hear his son's explanation, with guards arresting him at the front gates as he rode into Camelot and escorting him directly to the castle dungeons. The guards had been apologetic but Arthur had not resisted; what was the point? He knew what he had done and this time Uther had no-one to punish but his son. Because Arthur had failed.
Riding away from Merlin had been one of the hardest things Arthur had ever done. His friend was weak from starvation and thirst and undoubtedly more than half mad after the torment of the last week and all Arthur's protective instincts had screamed at him as he turned his horse away from the ragged figure. But the cold, logical strategist in him had to acknowledge trying to force Merlin to do anything he did not want to do would undermine all the progress Arthur had established and would likely throw the man back into a trauma loop that would not end well for either of them. Yet Arthur couldn't help but feel he had left a part of him back with his former manservant, and as he rode he was forced to glumly accept the gaping hole in his chest was likely there to stay.
He had had little to do but think in his seven days of incarceration and could not help but second and triple guess all his actions. If he had only been more convincing, more forceful perhaps he could have reached his manservant – but then Merlin would have felt threatened, and then they would have been left in an even worse position. He could hardly believe that only days ago he had seen Merlin only as a liar and traitor, the thought of him eliciting fury and hurt. Now Arthur felt only guilt and sadness and wondered how he had ever contemplated Merlin as an enemy.
Now the tendrils of betrayal had released their hold on his mind he felt more clear-headed then he had in months and the quiet time in his cell gave him unprecedented time to think. People always had demands on him; the knights for training and patrols; his father, for councils, meetings and court; the steward, for castle household matters. Servants knocked on his chambers at all minutes of the day and Arthur never really had any time for himself. In the cells his time was limitless and the prince used it to consider some of the unthinking assumptions he had made in the last few months.
And shame was tightening its hold on his insides. He told himself he'd never really thought of Merlin as evil, but all he had to remember was the feel of a bloody dagger tight in his hand and the sight of leaving Merlin crying on the forest floor to shatter his desperate denial. Arthur had gone over his every interaction with Merlin obsessively and come to one solid decision – he was an idiot. The number of 'coincidences' and monsters defeated easily over the last year bewildered comprehension, as did the fact he had never even questioned these occurrences. He had been so proud, so unwillingly to concede acclaim that he had arrogantly attributed every success to his own abilities, however unlikely. Merlin's presence had never even registered and only now did he recognise the magical hand in so many victories and 'lucky breaks'. The obvious had truly been staring him in the face, and in his own self congratulation he had never even noticed.
In his anger he had wilfully chosen to ignore other obvious things as well. The blinding smiles on Merlin's face in the morning when he got to wake Arthur in the most unpleasant ways possible. The pride shining in his eyes when Arthur was named Crown Prince or defended his people, as if he was Merlin's own prized creation. The twinkle in his eyes as he had mocked and teased the Prince out of his moods at the end of the day. The blind loyalty that had led him to drink poison and follow Arthur into battle, and in the end expose his greatest secret to protect the prince's life.
Was that only Merlin? It seemed ridiculous to assume his bumbling manservant had some kind of special resistance to the evils of magic. But if that were the case, how many of Arthur's lifelong beliefs were untrue? Was there truly such a thing as a good sorcerer?
And the last thought that Arthur desperately tried to suppress but haunted him long after he had been released.
So how many innocents had he killed?
Life went on in the usual fashion once Arthur was freed. The official story was that Arthur had been so incensed about the attack on his person he had disobeyed the King's orders to find and battle a sorceress. He had failed to find her but in the process discovered the body of his servant, whose murder clearly demonstrated the evils of magic. As he had lit of pyre for the boy he had reconsidered his rashness and returned to accept his punishment.
The story was generally accepted, although Arthur noticed hard stares from his father from time to time and his movements had become even more restricted, with the number of knights on his patrols doubled and his hunts accompanied by a veritable legion of soldiers. The prince accepted this quietly, as he did the increased scorn and doubt ladled by the King onto on his every word and action. Others in the castle were more sympathetic. Leon had said nothing, merely gripped Arthur's shoulder tightly when he had emerged from the dungeons before leaving him alone. Morgana and Gwen were far more effusive, with Arthur finding himself in the unprecedented situation of an armful of Morgana upon opening her chambers. She seemed to believe he needed comforting, and he patted her back awkwardly before extracting himself and fleeing.
To Gaius he told the truth, and it was the hardest thing he had ever done. The old man had sat patiently as Arthur had stumbled over his words and the physician's feelings only showed in a slight tightening around his eyes as Arthur faltered over his retelling of Merlin's frenzied attack. When the prince finished he stared determinedly at the table in front of him, his knuckles white from the strength with which he had gripped the edge, and waited for Gaius's condemnation. When he felt a soft touch on his arm his nerves were so tight he half jolted out of his seat in shock, jerking up his head to look into the physician's eyes. They were surprisingly sympathetic.
"Thankyou," the man said simply.
Arthur stared at him dumbly.
"For telling me," Gaius qualified. "And...for doing what you could. You did not have to help him."
Arthur couldn't believe his ears. "Help him? It was all my fault! He shouldn't have even been there!" He gritted his teeth against another wave of self-recriminations as shame grinded in his stomach.
Gaius's heart softened towards the prince for the first time since Merlin disappeared. He looked so young, hunched over the table and eyes opened wide and beseeching for answers, and was so obviously lost in the new waters he found himself in outside the dam walls of Uther's teachings. He was facing the first real test of thinking for himself and it had come in a brutal form. But his mind was the most open it had ever been and Gaius realised just how important this moment was for Camelot's future, for Merlin and others like him, and for Arthur and the prophesised golden future he would bring.
"My lord," he said, and repeated it as Arthur seemed trapped in his own thoughts. "My lord. The fault was not yours. Merlin always valued your life above his own- you were his best friend as well as his prince. You should lay the blame at the feet of the madwoman who attacked you rather than taking it on yourself."
Arthur stared. He couldn't understand Gaius's understanding or the gentleness in his eyes. He had just told him his foster-son had most likely lost his mind while defending Arthur, Arthur who had a few months ago attacked, grievously wounded and banished the man.
"Did you know I used to be a magic-user, sire?" Gaius asked offhandedly. At Arthur's astonished head shake, he shrugged. "I swore to give it up after the Purge, of course. Many of us did. Magic is, of course, merely a tool of the user." Treasonous words, but he prayed Arthur's ears were open to them now.
The Prince's mind was reeling. He didn't know what to make of all the revelations of the last few weeks and pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes tiredly. The strategist in him had only one response to his confusion.
"Tell me about him," he ordered shortly. "Tell me everything."
Gaius smiled slightly and obeyed.
Yet despite these tumultuous revelations nothing much changed in the Prince's day to day life. He was woken by a maid – he had refused another manservant, and instead the castle staff and armourer looked after his needs – took breakfast in his rooms and left to train the knights. He rode on patrol, sat in on Court, argued with Morgana and dined with his Father.
But the nights were different. At night Arthur lay awake for hours and stared at the ceiling, wrestling with thoughts of magic, the law and justice. Thoughts tumbled in his brain; memories of the past and what to make of the future, the many paths he saw now when before there had only been one. And all the while a pair of blue and gold eyes stared at him accusingly from his mind.
This state of affairs might have continued on indefinitely. Except for the girl.
Her family lived on the very outskirts of Camelot. They were poor, working in the lower town to feed their three children at all hours of the day, the same as hundreds of families in the city. Their youngest child was only seven.
And she was caught using magic as she tried to retrieve her doll from a tree where it had been stashed by bullies. From all reports it had appeared entirely instinctual, the girl as surprised as the rest of her playmates when the toy zoomed into her hand. But intent was irrelevant to the law.
Arthur first learned of her on his way back to his chambers from training as he heard Morgana screeching like a harpy. As he turned the corner past the throne room she almost barrelled into him as she marched out and she stopped and turned her fiery glare onto him.
"And I suppose you think this is perfectly alright as well!" she hissed. "Tell me how the murder of children constitutes justice, Arthur Pendragon. Is that what they teach you in your wonderful Knight's Code?"
"Hold on, hold on!" Arthur said, holding his hands up in a peace gesture and taking a step back out of the danger zone. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Morgana's eyes flashed and her mouth formed a thin bitter line. "Uther has just sentenced another child to death, that's what this is about," she snapped. "He thinks she is evil. The girl is only seven years old!"
Arthur stared at her, a cold and empty feeling opening up in his chest. "She was magic?" he asked in a hollow voice.
"Used it by accident," Morgana snarled. "And the poor thing was snatched away from her family and is to burn at dawn. This law is wrong," she cried, stamping her foot like a toddler. "If you and Uther won't acknowledge that I will!"
Arthur grabbed her shoulders and shook her harshly once before letting go. "Don't say things like that," he whispered harshly. "Do you want to join her?"
She shook herself as if ridding her body of his touch and stepped away from him, disappointment and frustration in her eyes. "Is that what you are, Arthur Pendragon?" she asked cruelly. "Take a look at yourself. Are you a child killer?"
And she turned on her heel and left him standing alone in hallway, twisted with indecision and shame.
I don't know who you are anymore, Arthur Pendragon
Oh Arthur, you are the spitting copy of Uther, aren't you.
Is that what you are, Arthur Pendragon?
Are you a child killer?
He must be so proud of you.
Take a look at yourself.
He found himself down in the cells without remembering ever making the journey. He stood before the cell of the dungeon's newest occupant, listening to the muffled sobs coming from within, and stared sightlessly at the wall. It had all come down to this. All the pain, anger and soul-searching of the past few months had come down to this moment, as Arthur stood in front of a cold prison room and decided the fate of a child. He had said to Merlin that he accepted him, but the words came so easily out in the forest; deep in his heart, was he really ready to reject a lifetime's teachings? Commit treason for someone he didn't even know? Defy his father and the laws, and believe Merlin's and Gaius's claims of the neutrality of magic?
He slid back the bolt and opened the heavy cell door, swinging it backwards and letting a thin ray of light into the dim room. He could see the girl's huddled shape in the corner and it reminded him painfully of Merlin's tortured form in the cave, her thin body shaking as his had as she tried to swallow her sobs. He stepped forward slowly and the shadowed form flinched away.
"Hello," he said as gently as he could. "My name is Arthur."
" 'lo," came a tiny voice.
"Can you come out? I would like to talk to you."
The form seemed to think about it then bobbed briefly in assent. The girl crawled out into the light and Arthur stifled a gasp.
He had heard from Morgana how young the child was but his mind had not really accepted reality until he saw her tiny form. She was so small on standing she would barely reach his knees and finger shaped bruises lined her twig thin arms. Her hair was dirty and hung in matted clumps around her elfin head and her face with covered in dirty tear stains and snot, her lower lip sticking out and quivering. But what really made Arthur recoil were the heavy manacles clasped around her tiny wrists and the thick chains tethering her to the dungeon walls. The image was obscene. Arthur had been raised to recognise right and wrong, and this, this was wrong!
His beliefs crumbled around his ears as the child blinked at him with pupils blown wide with terror, her body shaking like a leaf as she poised to run back to her corner. Arthur barely acknowledged the huge shift in his world view as he crouched to bring his face down to her level.
"My name is Arthur," he repeated. "What is yours?"
The girl peeked at him from underneath her lashes. "Mina," she squeaked softly.
"It's nice to meet you Mina," Arthur said, meaning every word, and held out his arms. She stared at him and the comfort he offered, fear and misery warring her in her expression as he continued to hold out his arms. Whatever was in his face must have convinced her, for at last the child hurled herself into his arms and Mina began to sob in earnest, clutching his jerkin and burying her face in his shoulder. He clasped her gently and rocked her back and forth, an unfamiliar warmth growing in his chest.
"It's okay Mina," he whispered. "It's all going to be okay."
Arthur rubbed his eyes tiredly and stared into the fire. It was getting harder and harder to sneak magic-users out of the castle, the breakouts making Uther more paranoid than ever and he doubled and tripled the guard. Madness clearly danced in the King's eyes these days and his hand fell even harder on populace as he saw magic-users under every stone. Arthur wondered how he had never seen it before and in his darkest hours wondered if, pre-Merlin, he would have been out there, executing innocents on the order of a madman.
Fortunately his city ring had grown as sympathisers spread and the news was spread from door-to-door. The Prince is not like his father! they whispered. To Arthur's astonishment even many of the knights had come to him to offer their support. Arthur feared for the day word came to Uther of his son's treason, but more knights joined him by the day and now he could not walk through the city without being besieged by cheers and women giving him flowers and shy smiles. It made him uneasy while his father still ruled but he acknowledged in his heart of hearts that things could not continue as they were for long. Soon the people would have had enough of his father's autocratic rule. And then he would be King.
Mina had been the first he had broken out, smuggling her out of the castle under cover of darkness and returning her to her desperately grateful family, who had showered him with thanks and tears. Resettling them and getting people out of Camelot had been beyond Arthur at first and he had had to trust in them to escape by themselves, until a ring had sprung up in the city governed by someone called Emrys. He never saw the secretive group but he or one of his knights would leave the escapees at safe houses throughout the city and leave messages of those coming under suspicion.
It was hard, and his heart burned within him sometimes as he betrayed his father over and over again. But during the day all he had to do was think of Mina hugging him and laughing as he kissed her cheek for goodbye to remember why he persevered. And at night he still woke panting, haunted by a pair of weeping golden eyes.
His window suddenly slammed, breaking him out of his thoughts, and Arthur looked up in exasperation. It was late fall and the air was already bitingly chilly and it appeared the useless servants had failed to secure his windows properly again. He stomped over and slammed them shut, fastening them tightly before turning back towards the fire.
Merlin stood in front of him.
Arthur gaped, opening and shutting his mouth soundlessly in shock. A dark silhouette against the flames, Merlin smiled slightly at his discomfort and raised his chin in challenge as gold bled out of his irises.
The warlock was nearly unrecognisable from the wreck Arthur had left by the cavemouth all those weeks ago. His stance was confident and relaxed, with whipcord muscle hinted at by his fine black skin-tight tunic and the red and gold cloak falling from his shoulders. His half-smile was on a lightly bearded jaw, making him appear older and hinting at the man he would become. But his face – his face was the real shock. The swollen gash that had so disfigured him had faded into a thin white line across the skin. It was no longer marring; in fact, Arthur thought privately, it gave him a bit of a rakish air, adding character to his bony features. In short, he looked amazing. He looked like the powerful sorcerer that he was.
"You!" Arthur choked out eventually, his brain penetrating the shock of seeing his friend here, the friend he had thought he would never see again. "You're Emrys!"
Merlin looked amused. "How else would I be able to keep tabs on you?" he drawled.
That was something else new, Arthur catalogued semi-hysterically. His-Merlin had never had the confidence to use that kind of tone. Or the overt power behind it.
"I didn't think...I thought you'd left," Arthur said, aiming for accusing but coming out more plaintive.
Merlin's face turned grave. "I wasn't sure," he admitted. "Everything was so...broken between us. But...I wasn't sure. I thought I'd wait, and watch. And then I saw what you were doing and I had to come and help." The smile that spread across his face was soft. "And...I have never loved you so much. My king."
He fell to one knee and held up a hand to Arthur. "Will you accept my oath of fealty, my lord?"
Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly, staring at the warlock in front of him. A bubble of happiness rose up inside him and he fought the urge to burst into a silly grin.
"Don't be ridiculous, Merlin," he said gruffly. A stricken look crossed the other man's face until Arthur stepped forward, grabbed his hand and pulled him up roughly into an embrace.
"You're my friend," he said hoarsely into Merlin's shoulder. "And I don't need anything more than that."
Merlin's arms rose tentatively to Arthur's back. Unnoticed by them both, an ugly green cloud seeped out of the warlock's skin, hovering for a moment as Arthur whispered how much he had missed Merlin into the man's ear. It twisted as if under a great pressure, before exploding soundlessly and dissipating into the air. As it disappeared Merlin gave a great sigh as if a heavy weight had been lifted and buried his face in his king's tunic.
And his arms tightened like they would never let go.
"What's this?" Merlin asked curiously at the box Arthur had pressed into his hand.
The Prince shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. "Open it," he urged.
Merlin gave him a bemused look and obeyed, undoing the string and lifting the lid to find a steel chain and pendant. He lifted out the pendant to find the Pendragon symbol, emblazoned with an 'A.'
"It's a version of my seal," Arthur muttered to the floor.
"This...this is lovely Arthur," Merlin said, lifting the chain over his head. "Is there a reason?"
Arthur looked decided uncomfortable at the question. "Um," he said intelligently. "You remember...when...," he said, gesturing at Merlin's face.
"Yes," the other man said tightly. Their friendship had been rekindled by leaps and bounds but some emotional wounds still lingered, and Arthur generally dealt with it the way he dealt with all feelings – pretending they didn't exist. Merlin wondered why the prince felt the need to dig this up now.
"And you know, as you were in my household, I held onto the dagger?"
"Oh," Merlin said wonderingly, realising, his hand rising to clasp the pendant.
"I just...I had it melted down, and well. For you." Arthur raised his eyes to Merlin's, and the warlock read the pain and the apology there that Arthur would always carry with him. Giving up on speech, the prince clasped Merlin's shoulder and clapped him on the back awkwardly.
Merlin's heart swelled in his chest and as he admired the gift he sent a silent apology to the dragon for his former doubts. Their destiny lay before them, the path clear for the first time.
And it would be great.