Weeks passed. It could have been months; Arthur wasn't really sure. His thoughts were harder to keep coherent, these days, for it was as though something kept directing them away, around, towards the beauty of the gardens or the magnificent hallways. People kept bowing to him and asking him to dance, dance dance dance.
It was really very easy to lose track of time.
Right now, Arthur stood at the edge of the ballroom, sipping something sweet and bubbling from a crystal flute, letting the music carry him along. He couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed himself so much.
Nabbing a piece of fruit from a floating platter, Arthur made his way around the hall, past the arching doorways brightly lit with magic and towards the staircases. Titania turned towards him as he approached, looking resplendent in a gown of red.
「Prince Arthur,」 she said, voice pulling him closer, and Arthur went. He held out one arm.
Titania smiled at him, hand in his, and they were swept away in a flurry of silk and swirling music. People parted for them, but Arthur couldn't see their faces properly; only a haze of bright colours and glittering impressions. It didn't matter.
The song ended and the next one immediately began. Arthur and the Queen danced.
「Enjoying yourself tonight?」 asked Titania, eyes glowing like moonstones.
「In your presence?」 said Arthur, 「Always.」
The Queen laughed, throwing her head back, and Arthur found himself laughing also, unable to help himself. The only other person who had been able to make him laugh like this was Merlin, that time when he had come bursting in and said the King was marrying a troll. That had been-
What had it been, exactly?
Arthur frowned, and Titania's hand tightened on his shoulder, sliding until it was cupping the back of his neck. He could feel the cold metal of her rings against his skin.
Arthur blinked, the music fading a little from his ears.
「Are you thirsty, my love?」 asked the Queen, her face suddenly very close. Arthur stared at her, trying to grasp memories that were just a little too…what had he been thinking about anyway?
「Arthur?」 said Titania again.
She really was very beautiful. Arthur shook his head apologetically.
「Sorry, I lost my train of thought,」 he said, pulling them into the step of the dance again.
Titania smiled, warm and bright.
「Don't worry yourself with such things as thinking,」 she said, 「Just dance with me.」
And Arthur did.
「Why do you call me Emrys?」 asked Merlin, curious and wary.
Puck rolled his eyes.
「Because that's your name, innit? You wouldn't call me Arthur because I'm Puck, and I wouldn't call you Merlin because you're not.」
「Yes I am,」 said Merlin, indignant. 「I'm Merlin.」
「Well,」 said Puck, inspecting his fingernails, 「I suppose you think you are. But let me tell you, don't be so sure.」
「If I'm not Merlin, then who am I?」 asked Merlin.
Puck grinned. His teeth were pointed.
「Ah, see, we're getting somewhere. The first question you ask a stranger should always be that, who am I, not who are you and what am I what you are. See?」
Merlin glared at Puck. He was being decidedly Great Dragon-ish, speaking in riddles and being smug. Merlin began to walk determinedly away into the forest of blue bells. Puck followed.
「Well, you're rude,」 he said, and honestly, not even Arthur had been this annoying. Maybe. A little. It was a close thing, 「I'm here to help you, y'know.」
That made Merlin pause.
「Why would you be here to help me?」 he asked, suspiciously, 「Your kind-「
「Oh, here we go,」 said Puck. Merlin was not deterred.
「Your kind kidnapped Prince Arthur. I'm here to get him back.」
「Why do you mortals always assume that we approve of everything everyone does? And when I say, 『you mortals', I don't mean you specifically of course. Even though you are acting like one. I mean, really, if one of your little kings go and murder some other little king, does the other little king like what is being done? Of course not! If my Queen decides to steal some mortal Princeling, doesn't mean we all have to like it. Well. We do, technically or there are consequences, but then again,」 Puck cast a sly glance at Merlin, 「You have secrets too, Emrys.」
Merlin stopped listening after the word, 『princeling'.
「You know where Arthur is?」 he asked.
Puck stared at him as if he were stupid.
「Everyone knows where sweet Arthur is. He's with the Queen.」
「…There's a Queen?」 asked Merlin, temporarily thrown off course. Didn't Gaius say a council of Elders?
「Yes,」 intoned Puck. 「The fairest Queen in all the land that-「
「And where's the Queen?」 pressed Merlin.
Puck raised his eyebrows.
「In the Great Oak,」 he said, 「throwing parties all day and all night.」
Merlin pointed at the oak which was currently out of view.
「The tree over there?」
「Over where?」 asked Puck.
「There is not where you think,」 he said, bored, 「the bluebells have you trapped. You'll never get out.」
「What?」 exclaimed Merlin. 「But I have magic! There must be a way-「
「Not without my help, there isn't,」 said Puck. His smug expression reminded Merlin of Arthur for a moment. His heart sank, remembering Gaius' warnings. Something must have shown on his face, because Puck raised both hands, his grin disappearing.
「Hey now,」 he said, 「there's no need for that kind of thinking. I'm offering to help, aren't I?」
「What do you want?」 asked Merlin, defeated. He had to get out of this blue bell mess in order to get to Arthur. He had no idea how to start, or where to start, and right now, Puck was his only hope (as suspicious as this might be). Merlin decided he would listen, at least, and try his best not to enter any life-changing oaths by accident.
Puck grinned at him.
「I don't believe you,」 said Merlin flatly. The flower in his breast pocket was burning a hole in the cloth. He didn't have time for this.
Puck stopped grinning.
「Listen here, buddy,」 he said coming a step closer, 「it just so happens that there are people who don't like Queen Titania taking a mortal as Consort. Not everyone is enamored with the idea of your dear Arthur as King, you know. Too blond, for one. My master would like Arthur gone from the palace. By extension, that means I would like Arthur gone from the palace. You would also like Arthur gone from the palace. Hence, we are friends. Oui, oui?」
Merlin's eyes narrowed.
「Who is your master?」
「Do we have time?」 asked Puck, glancing up at the non-existent sky, 「No we don't have time. Less questions, more action. Do you want my help or not?」
Merlin stared at the row upon row of identical blue bell flowers. Pulling out the flower from his pocket once more, his heart raced at the paleness of the petals. How long had he been wandering around, lost in the blue bell forest? Too long. He looked at Puck.
「Alright,」 said Merlin, reluctantly, 「But you must promise that no harm will come to Arthur, by your actions directly or indirectly,」
「And you must also always tell the truth,」 added Merlin quickly.
Puck looked a little put out. Merlin tried to look as menacing as he could, surreptitiously tugging on the corners of his shirt. Maybe he had shrunk it a little too far; it was a little too tight.
「Very well,」 said Puck, holding out a hand. After a moment's hesitation, Merlin shook it.
The dreams bothered Arthur.
He rarely slept, because there was simply so much dancing to be had. But when he did return to his room, giddy from the wine, mouth altogether too sweet from the fruits of the forest – Arthur fell into deep sleep. And the dreams came, as soon as he closed his eyes.
In the dreams, he was always with a boy, a boy with dark hair and blue eyes and ridiculous ears. Arthur wanted to pull them.
「What's your name?」 asked dream-Arthur.
「Merlin,」 said the boy with a wide, dimpling grin. Endearing. Perhaps he danced? He had the legs for it. Shame about the ears.
「Oh,」 said Arthur.
「Why?」 said the boy, still smiling.
「I'm looking for someone. But you're not him.」
「That's alright,」 said the boy, Merlin. 「I'm looking for someone too. Maybe we will find each other, yes?」
「Perhaps,」 said Arthur.
When Arthur woke, he wondered what the boy had meant. By the time breakfast arrived, the dream was all but forgotten.
Puck led Merlin into the thickest part of the blue-bell flower forest, skipping and flitting about whilst Merlin had to push aside thick stems and tendrils of green that curled around his ankles every time he stood still. His feet were beginning to ache, and the air seemed too sweet, too heavy. It was a long while later when Merlin suddenly stopped short.
「Puck,」 he called out, 「hey, why are we going in circles?」
Puck rolled his eyes, ten steps ahead. He almost blended into the stalks, pale green skin only slightly lighter than the flowers'.
「How else are we supposed to get out of a forest that wants you to go in circles, eh?」
Frowning, Merlin kept walking. He supposed the logic made sense, in a way that he had come to associate with the great dragon and everything that involved the old religion. Nothing was ever straightforward, and nothing ever turned out in your favor, either. His magic thrummed beneath his skin.
「Nearly there,」 said Puck. 「The castle's usually impenetrable, you know. One step in-「 he snapped his fingers, 「And the Queen knows. Impossible for Mortals who come knocking, spouting nonsense about Avalon and everlasting life.」
「Well, how are we supposed to get in, then?」 asked Merlin, struggling through a patch of dense flowers. Finally, the two of them stood side by side.
「Why, Emrys, your magic, of course.」
Was it Merlin's imagination, or were there trees dotted throughout the flowers? Puck cast him a sly glance. His eyes glowed, deep pond green. His nose was rather long and pointed, a narrow blade that made his entire face look rather impish. Then again, Merlin supposed that was a fairly accurate impression.
「Do I have to do any spells?」 asked Merlin. He'd been right – the flowers were receding, fading, shrinking until they were submerged in long, long grass. Knarled roots poked through the soft earth, some taller than Merlin and Puck.
「Nope,」 said Puck, happily. 「You're the exception, see. Technically, none of us are immortal.」 He nodded wisely at Merlin's surprised look. 「Well, the Queen would love people to think we were. But the truth is, we just live for a long, long, time. Longer than humans anyway.」
「When do you die?」 asked Merlin, curious. They clambered over a root the size of a small hill.
「When the magic in us has been returned to the earth,」 said Puck, 「but we're very small. And there is a lot of magic. You, on the other hand…」
Puck drew very close to Merlin, his face inches away as he breathed him in. Merlin tried to resist the urge to step back.
「You're so full of magic, I can feel it coming off you in waves and waves,」 said Puck, sounding a little envious. 「All life has magic, you know, and as we grow and live, it sparkles off us like an aura.」
「Everyone has magic? Even mortals?」
「Even stupid mortals,」 affirmed Puck. 「Funny, that, right? But there you go. If you stay still enough, you can feel the magic seeping through the bark of the oaks, through the blue bells, everything, everything! But it's soft, like. Tingles.」
Puck did a back flip, dancing through the leaves, darting in and out of sight. Merlin ran to catch up.
「But you, Emrys,」 said Puck, and he was suddenly at Merlin's shoulder. And then-
Merlin yelped and jumped backwards.
「Did you just kiss me?」 he exclaimed, eyes wide.
Puck ran his tongue over his lips, eyes hooded in half crescents.
Merlin swallowed nervously.
「Your power just…」 he sighed happily. 「One feels drunk in your presence; I could live for thousands and thousands of years just from that kiss alone…」 Spinning on his toes, he ran a finger beneath Merlin's jaw line, then continued spinning away, laughing, 「Won't you give me another?」
Merlin's face felt hot. His lips still tingled where Puck's own had closed over them, and Merlin thought he could taste forest, berries, and magic on his tongue.
「No,」 said Merlin stubbornly, though it had felt quite nice.
「Maybe later,」 said Puck, and then he was pulling Merlin by the elbow and they were running through the undergrowth, leaves and grass in their faces.
「Where-「 Merlin panted, exhilaration hot in his veins, 「where are we going?」
「We run until we have to stop!」 replied Puck, grinning a grin full of teeth and wild possibilities.
And for a moment, Merlin forgot everything.
They stopped in what looked like the same patch of forest as the last. It was perhaps a little darker here than it had been a moment ago, but Puck led them on regardless, underneath what looked like giant mushrooms with poisonous colours and vivid curling fronds that dipped their heads to Merlin as he walked by. Merlin could hardly keep his eyes in front of him, drinking in one sight after another.
He tested the air in front of him tentatively, and it felt…viscous. Like solidifying water, and when Merlin tried stepping forwards, he could move – but it felt too laborious to breathe. He stepped back, looking to Puck.
「What now?」 he asked, the exhilaration of before fading fast. The air was very cold.
「It seems that we've met the first real barrier,」 said Puck, thoughtfully, 「if your magic isn't bending it aside. Hmm.」
He walked around Merlin slowly, tracing a long invisible line where the air started and stopped. Merlin looked upwards. They were in the shade of a particularly large mushroom, its head sagging under its own weight. Wind rustled, but the leaves did not stir. Merlin drew closer to Puck.
「Why haven't we encountered this before now?」 he asked, laying out his hands, feeling the air. He pushed with his magic, and there was give, but the green just returned to its normal state.
「We have,」 said Puck, picking his way through the grass. 「You've pushed them all aside easily enough.」
「Is there a spell or something?」 asked Merlin, trying to push through the air with both magic and body. Each step was like walking against an invisible wall, and he made it about two yards before he had to draw back sharply, gasping for air. Puck patted his shoulder.
「No, I think…I think there should be a Question around here somewhere. We just have to find it.」
「A question?」 Merlin was getting really sick of asking those. 「Aren't we supposed to be looking for answers?」
「If you knew what to ask,」 came a new voice from above their heads.
Both Merlin and Puck jumped in surprise, the fae spinning around so fast he was a momentary green blur, teeth bared silver. Merlin looked about for the source of the voice, couldn't find it, then craned his head backwards.
And then he spotted something, amidst purple-blue smoke. Merlin squinted, walking closer despite himself, curious. Was that a …
「Absolom?」 exclaimed Puck, just as Merlin asked, 「Are you a caterpillar?」
The caterpillar's antennae wobbled atop its head as it bent down to survey them with a strange face. The caterpillar markings made it look rather grumpy. There was another puff of blue smoke, this time sent in Merlin's direction. The sickly sweet scent of it made him cough a little.
「You?」 screeched Puck, outraged. 「You're the gateway for Emrys?」
The Caterpillar continued to puff smoke smugly, edging a little closer. Merlin was rooted to the spot because there was a caterpillar as big as he was. The mushroom top nodded towards earth as the weight of the green caterpillar slid towards the edge. If Merlin had to guess, he would say it was a rather young caterpillar, bright, spring-grass green and a little skinny.
Merlin didn't really like caterpillars all that much.
「Er-「 he said, hesitantly, 「I need to get through this barrier. Will you help?」
「Why should I help you, Emrys?」 asked the caterpillar.
Arthur would have said: or I will chop you in two, thought Merlin, or alternatively he would have snapped, I will set my falcon on you. In fact, Arthur wouldn't be stopped by a green caterpillar the size of a small donkey, because Arthur was already in the palace and would likely to be staying there for the rest of eternity if Merlin couldn't persuade Absolom to lift the enchantment! At least, Merlin assumed he was the one stopping them getting through.
「But you don't even have a brain!」 said Puck, face still scrunched in disbelief. 「You can't challenge us! Let Emrys pass. You know what will happen if he doesn't.」
「I am not interested in politics,」 said Absalom sagely, blowing another ring, 「and how do we know this is Emrys anyway?」
「Erm,」 said Merlin, 「I'm Merlin too, if that helps?」
Puck stomped on his foot. Absolom smiled a strange, caterpillar smile.
「Merlin and Emrys, Emrys Merlin Emrys, you don't even know who you are. Tell me, little bird, are you Merlin or Emrys?」
Was this a riddle? Did he have to answer correctly for them to pass the liquid-air barrier? Merlin stared up at the underbelly of the mushroom, confused, chest restricted with the thrum of panic and haste.
「My mother named me Merlin,」 said Merlin, passing a tired hand over his face.
Absalom nodded his antennae.
「And yet destiny named you Emrys. Who are you?」
「Why does it matter who I am?」 asked Merlin, arms flung wide. There was no time. There was no time.
「I cannot let you pass, if you are not right,」 said Absolom, sliding even closer. The blue smoke unfurled from about him, and Merlin could see where it hit the barrier, climbing upwards and downwards instead of moving forwards. The tendrils seems to twist themselves into shapes, a scene, figures dancing, spinning, evaporating into thin air. Arthur.
「I'm Merlin!」 he shouted, desperate, 「That's who I've always been!」
Absolom inclined his head.
「Then you shall pass as Merlin,」 he said, exhaling on the last syllable. Blue smoke rushed outwards, towards Merlin like a sentient thing, sickly sweet and overwhelming. Instinctively, Merlin struck out with his magic, but he heard Puck cry out:
「Don't you see? Pass as merlin. As a merlin!」
And the magic obeyed, twisting Merlin's body like water and he could feel himself changing. The ground suddenly dropped away, and Merlin was flying, arms – no wings- working and he yelled in surprise. What came out of his mouth was a completely unfamiliar screech. The world seemed disoriented; it felt like seeing two things at once, the spectrum of colours shifting, the green everywhere.
Distantly, he heard Puck laughing, the sound hysterical and joyous, and Merlin screeched again, diving forward into the forest. He felt the barrier tickle at his feathers, catch a little on his clawed feet, but that was all: it tore aside like a silk curtain.
Swooping low, he flew amidst the canopy, Puck running just below him and jumping over tree roots.
It was as though Merlin had always known how to fly.
There was something new inside his brain, a voice that urged him in a certain direction. Home, it said, and after a while, Merlin realized it was Arthur. That way. Arthur, that way, home. He could feel his magic closer than before, as if it were pouring from a dam that had broken somewhere deep in his chest. There was so much power Merlin never wanted to stop.
The forest blurred beneath him, the pull of the moon tugging on Merlin's heart. No time, he thought desperately, and with that thought the land shuddered, air shivering beneath his wings. Closer.
He could still feel the trappings, the barriers that made up the fae magic. He could see it now, criss-crossing lattices and fine silk sheens of green. They formed layers, centered upon the place where the call of ArthurArthurArthur was strongest. Like an onion, thought Merlin absently, dipping downwards then soaring up on a breath of warm air.
Some of the magic chased him as he flew, dark strands attempting to curl about his legs, trap his wings, but Merlin shook them off with ease. Somewhere, there was music. He could feel the old religion like a being, and another voice saying No. Merlin ignored it. The closer he flew, the stronger his magic thrummed. It was impossible to contain, impossible not to just taketaketake.
「Watch out!」 screamed Puck, and Merlin only had time to swerve, wings arching with a shriek before the magic laced arrow pierced his right wing.
And then he was falling, falling, and he was human once again. There was no breath in his lungs to scream as he fell, the canopy of green, then the ground rushing up to meet him-
He stopped, inches from the grass, gasping. Puck skidded to a halt beside him, eyes a burning green. They were so green Merlin could not see his pupils, just the magic. Puck's face was pale with shock, and he let the magic go, letting Merlin drop onto the ground with a thud.
「Quickly. We have to go, they've seen-「 Without warning, he wrenched the arrow from Merlin's shoulder. Merlin screamed with the pain of it, jack-knifing off the forest floor.
「The wards couldn't stop you, Emrys,」 Puck was saying through a haze of pain and shock and something…not quite right. Merlin fought against unconsciousness. 「…but the Queen's Guard must have seen you. We have to get out of here!」
「Can't move,」 Merlin forced out, trying to sit up. The pain in his shoulder pulsed, forcing him back onto the ground. Puck's hand was on his skin, tearing apart his shirt at the collar to expose the wound. Merlin screwed his eyes shut, his magic constricting around his chest, as if trying to suffocate him.
「Poison,」 said Puck. 「It's poison to you, I can't stop it!」
And Merlin suddenly realized that it wasn't his magic that was hurting him. It was something else.
「-Arthur,」 he gasped, the word riding out on a painful breath, 「Need-」
「Your prince can't save you!」 said Puck angrily, hoisting Merlin upright.
「No,」 Merlin tried again, but his words slurred with the effort. 「Arthur.」
「The Fae magic has no place in the mortal realm,」 said Puck, desperate, one hand cupping the nape of Merlin's neck, trying to get him to look up. Merlin felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, unable to control his limbs. The green beckoned. 「You need to leave now, go back- Emrys. Emrys!」
Merlin's eyelids were falling shut against his will, heavy like…like…
「No,」 he managed to say before everything disappeared.
The next moment, the Queen's Guard descended upon the patch of forest like locusts, each of them easily twice as tall as Puck and three times as dumb. Their rapiers and spears, however, were very sharp, so Puck bit his tongue. He cradled the merlin in his arms, having transformed Emrys not a moment too soon. He hoped that, in this form, the poison would not be fatal. Yet.
「You are arrested by order of the Queen,」 announced one of the guards, stalking forwards. His wings fanned out behind him, shimmering azure in the twilight. Eyes darting around quickly, Puck counted…six, perhaps seven other guards.
「Really,」 he said, raising his eyebrows, 「whatever for?」
The guard pointed his sword at the bird in Puck's arms, its feathery chest rising and falling slightly. God, there was no time.
「The aura was not right, it set off the wards,」 said the Guard. 「Now, will you come quietly?」
「Yes,」 he said, then kicked the guard's feet out from under him. Jumping over his legs and dodging the swipe of the blade, he set a blast of magic towards the other guard who had leapt forwards to attack, pushing him over with a giant invisible fist. With Emrys clutched tightly to his chest, Puck somersaulted over another Queen's Guard, then ran for the tree line-he needed to find his Master before-
Something wrapped itself around his ankles, sending him flying forwards, and he only just avoided crushing the bird. Emrys spun from his fingers in a bundle of limp feathers, coming to rest in a heap on the grass. The next moment, Puck had been kicked over, and the point of a sword was in the hollow of his throat.
He grinned up at the Guard, who was sporting a livid bruise on the nose.
「Just joking,」 said Puck, then wheezed as the Guard kicked him viciously in the stomach. His magic rushed outwards, but it was not enough to overpower six other fae. One guard strode over to the merlin on the ground. Without much care, he picked up Emrys, stretching out the wounded wing. Puck could see the dark patch of blood matting the gold-brown feathers. One of Emrys's feet twitched.
Another Guard hauled Puck to his feet, binding his hands tightly behind him.
「Let's see what the Queen does with you,」 he said, wrenching on Puck's shoulder.
Puck resisted the urge to poke him in the eye with his magic, glancing over at the fae who was in charge of carrying Emrys. The bird was still unconscious, eyes closed and wings limp. Oberon had had very strict instructions concerning Emrys. Find Emrys. Find Arthur. Secure vows of loyalty. Leave.
As the Guards began taking them back towards the palace, Puck went. This was, after all, part of the plan: get into the Palace. Get to Arthur. Easy.
It looked like getting out was going to be the problem.
「Do you love your Queen?」 asked Titania one afternoon.
Arthur smiled at her, feeling light in his chest, as though he had swallowed too much sunlight in one go.
「Would you stay with her forever?」
「But of course,」 he said, and bowed to kiss her hand.
The Guards did not bring Emrys and Puck to the holding cells Puck had expected. Instead, they marched straight through the palace, and he had been here often enough with his master that he recognized that they were going to the Queen's war chamber.
Puck had to work hard at keeping a relaxed façade, while his heart beat like a hummingbird's as they were taken up another flight of stairs, past courtiers in gossamer dresses who whispered upon seeing Puck. He winced. The wards prevented him from working an illusion on himself, for all his magic was directed at keeping Emrys alive, keeping Emrys as a falcon. The poison would be too much, too soon.
Emrys stirred, golden eyes blinking open. The Guard tightened his fingers as he noticed the bird waking, and the merlin let out a pitiful sound. Puck gritted his teeth.
The guards at the door stood aside, and their entourage entered the great hall, Puck being marched straight up to the front of the room and forced to his knees in front of the Queen. Beside her, in a throne at her right hand, sat the Pendragon prince, arms splayed lazily over the arms of the chair, eyes a little glassy. He looked over them without much interest, and Puck was horrified to see no spark of recognition in those eyes.
「I see there will be much to discuss with Oberon,」 said the Queen, voice icy with displeasure. Puck leered at her, and she turned away with a disgusted expression. Behind them, the guard carrying Emrys entered the room.
It was as if the very air froze. Puck could see Titania's eyes widen, the emerald-ringed irises flare white, as her eyes landed on the falcon in the Guard's hands.
Several things happened at once.
Queen Titania leapt from her throne, one hand outstretched, shouting:
「Reveal yourself!」 and there was the sound like a whip crack, and Puck jerked as his magic was wrenched away, green wisps snapping back, some breaking and fading, and he choked as it burned, gasping.
The merlin in the Guard's hands vanished, and Emrys was suddenly returned to his human form, crumpling to his knees in front of the dais. As he appeared, Pendragon straightened in his throne and Puck could see the bindings of magic fall away from his face.
Queen Titania looked livid, her face twisted in a parody of its usual beauty. But beneath the anger and magic, Puck could see fear draining her courage. Emrys' power burned bright, even in his weakened state.
「No!」 commanded the Queen, throwing her arm out, and Pendragon, who had made to stand, was slammed back into the throne. 「You are mine! Guards!」
Emrys stood slowly, and Puck surreptitiously tested his bonds. Just a little bit… there… Emrys swayed on the spot, but his gaze was quite steady as he looked towards the thrones, into Queen Titania's furious face. Then his eyes slid to the right, and he said,
The Queen's hand was still stretched towards her consort, and Puck realised what she was doing as Arthur relaxed back into her throne slightly. Then he blinked, looking back at Merlin.
「I'm sorry,」 he said politely. 「You seem familiar. Have we-「
「You will be silent!」 thundered the Queen, and then Arthur had no voice. He panicked, hands flying to his throat, scrabbling at some invisible restraint.
「You won't hurt him,」 said Emrys, voice oddly calm. He waved a hand, and the Queen stumbled backwards. Arthur coughed and said-
「What the hell are you doing here, Merlin?」
「Saving you,」 said Emrys shortly. 「Now come on. Let's go.」
「You have no right!」 said Titania, one hand clenched around her sceptre, eyes flashing dangerously. There was so much magic in the room that Puck could almost drink it down. He slipped one hand out of the loosened spell-knot. No one was paying him any attention, the Guards too focused on the unfolding drama in front of them.
「Arthur is Camelot's prince,」 said Emrys, 「not yours.」
「That's what I've been saying all this time!」 said Pendragon, sounding indignant, 「W-「
「He has eaten the fruit, taken water from our wells; he cannot leave this place without my consent! The Law dictates it so!」
Puck cleared his throat.
「The Law must succumb to the Old Religion, my Lady,」 he said.
「Be silent!」 thundered Titania, and Puck staggered a little under the rage of her magic. He made a face.
「Just thought you should know,」 he said, shrugging. 「Because they are bound by the old magic, destiny gives Emrys the right to claim-「
「Hold on, hold on,」 said Arthur from his throne, still held there by Titania. 「No one has the right to claim any part of me. Alright? I'm the prince, and therefore if there is any claiming to be done, I will be the one doing it.」
「Shut up, you prat,」 said Emrys. 「He's trying to help.」
「It's fate, my Queen-」
「Fates can be changed! I have changed it!」
「You really don't want to get in the way of Destiny,」 continued Puck. 「After all, you know what the sisters are like when you cross them.」
Queen Titania looked as if she might strike him down there and then, but Puck stared her right in the eye and stood straight and tried not to think about what death would feel like. The truth of his words was irrefutable, however – it rang through the very foundations of the realm, which were tied with the magic of the earth: the Old Religion.
When she spoke, her rage was such that the words froze the wooden floor like frost.
「Very well,」 said the Queen. 「You make take your destiny,」
Arthur stood immediately, but before he had taken two steps towards Emrys, the Queen said, 「You may be tied by the old religion, but that will only last so long as both of you are in this life.」
Her words took a moment to make sense. Then, horrified, Puck watched as Emrys struggled to remain upright, the Queen's sceptre pointed lazily towards him. His eyes flickered, bluegoldbluegoldbluegold and the bloody stain on his shoulder grew, deepened, until a drop of wet blood hit the floor.
「Stop!」 shouted Arthur, 「What are you doing?」
「Immortal Emrys,」 said Queen Titania, and the frost spread from beneath her feet, flowing down the dais and towards where Emrys was barely standing. 「I can kill you here.」
「No!」 screamed Puck, and he broke free from the Guards on either side of him just as Arthur broke free of Titania's magic and tackled the Queen for her sceptre. She flung him away with a gesture, and the force of it slammed the prince into the opposite wall. Arthur stumbled but got up again, this time running towards Merlin, who looked as pale as the frost creeping towards him.
The whiteness stopped, however, spreading so that a little circle of brown remained around Merlin's feet. Advancing, Titania's magic swirled about them like a storm, overwhelming green that rushed at Emrys like a wave. The aura around Emrys glowed gold, and the green parted around him like water around a stone. But Titania did not stop; her pride and fury roiled so that even the Guards retreated back to the edges of the room, a bell sounding high in a tower. Puck felt as if he was drowning in the power.
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the magic dissipated until only gold remained. Queen Titania stood, frozen and white with shock.
「You had no right to take him in the first place,」 said Emrys, and Arthur finally reached him, catching the sorcerer just as he collapsed.
「Merlin. Oh gods, Merlin, wake up.」
「Look, can we move it?」 said the little green goblin or fairy or whatever he was. Arthur wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of anything – the last few weeks (years?) were a hazy blur in his memory – and he only knew that right now, Merlin was bleeding from some magically infected wound. Merlin was dying.
「We need to help him!」 snapped Arthur, lowering Merlin's limp form to the ground, cradling his head. They had fled the palace with the fae's help, but Arthur didn't trust him at all.
「We need to get him back to your world so the magic doesn't suck him dry,」 countered the boy, his teeth bared. They were very pointy teeth; feral. Arthur ripped off the bottom of Merlin's shirt, ignoring the fae's protests and tying a makeshift bandage around the wound. Merlin didn't stir.
「Look, fairy-「 Arthur started.
「Puck,」 said the fairy, looking annoyed.
「Difference being?」 snarled Arthur, hoisting Merlin more securely in his arms, 「You need to cure him now. Your magic did this to him, now fix it!」 His manservant's head lolled limply on his shoulder, making something cold and terrible clench in Arthur's heart. This was all his fault. If he hadn't been weak enough to get kidnapped by fairies-
Puck pushed a hand beneath Merlin's thin shirt, reaching into a pocket and drawing out a white flower.
「You see this?」 he asked, shoving the petals into Arthur's face, 「When the colour is all gone, that's it, the mortal spell ends, you're stuck here.」
Arthur stared at the flower, at the petals. It was white, with only a smudge of purple towards its base.
「Alright,」 he said, voice calmer than he felt, 「alright. What do we need to do?」
Puck smiled grimly.
「Find the blue bells.」
They found the field on the edge of the forest.
Arthur's arms were barely aching, Merlin's face pale against his chest. He stumbled out under the open sky, dark with no stars, and followed Puck's hair as the boy darted ahead, shouting for them to follow, hurry, no time no time no time.
He didn't know how long he ran, but at last they stopped. The place looked like every other patch of blue bell forest, the thick stems taller than he was, reaching towards the darkness.
Puck was standing a little way away from a patch of fresh turned earth.
「Before you leave, I must ask something of you, Prince Arthur of Camelot,」 he said, tone flat and without emotion.
Arthur froze, clutching Merlin closer to his chest.
「What do you ask?」
「You owe my master a debt, which must be repaid,」 said Puck, as if reciting prose, 「I ask that you swear to repay that debt when my master calls upon you.」
Tricks. These beings had trapped Arthur once, and it was undoubtedly foolish to enter into any bargains such as these. But then Merlin's breath hitched, as if choking on something in his throat, and Arthur could not- Merlin was dying in front of his eyes.
「What does your master require?」 asked Arthur, unable to keep the desperation from his voice, 「What is this favour?」
「It is not in me to know my master's will,」 he said, with a sly glance at Merlin, 「I can't let you go until you give me your vow. I'm sorry.」
Merlin choked again, eyes rolling behind bruised lids.
「Alright!」 cried Arthur, 「I swear upon my honour. Now please, please-「
「There's a silver cross buried there,」 said Puck, suddenly all animation once more. 「Uncover it quickly and I'll perform the spell.」
Arthur laid Merlin down on the dirt before dropping to his knees. He used his bare hands because there were no tools in sight, not even a branch, digging frantically with fingernails until his fingers hit something cool and smooth beneath the earth. With a pull, Arthur wrenched the silver cross almost as big as his torso from the earth.
Puck flinched backwards from the metal.
「Alright. Take Emrys, make sure you're both touching the silver.」
Arthur did as he was told, hoisting Merlin back into his arms and placing one, limp hand on the surface of the cross, taking hold of its other arm with a free hand. Wind blew through the field, the scent of flowers heavy on the air. Arthur closed his eyes.
Puck began to chant in a strange, silent language, and the very earth seemed to shift beneath Arthur's feet. He thought he heard the word 「Emrys」 in the air rushing past his ears, and he clung to the cross, clung to Merlin and screwed his eyes more tightly shut as the world tilted and changed and-
Merlin woke in a daze. It was dark. Someone was calling his name, over and over. His chest tickled.
「…Arthur?」 he asked, not sure whether he was even speaking out loud.
「Here, drink this,」 someone said, and the rim of a water skin was being pushed to his lips. Merlin drank, gratefully.
「Open your eyes,」 said the same, familiar voice, and Merlin realised why it was so dark. With great strength of will, he opened his eyes.
It was Gaius.
Merlin sat bolt upright. It was the forest around them, in the first light of dawn, and- oh gods, had he failed?
「Arthur?」 he asked, voice panicked, 「Where's-「
「I'm down here, you stupid idiot!」
Merlin looked down. In his lap, sat Arthur, who was looking distinctly rumpled.
「You can't just sit up like that, you fool!」 Arthur raged, kicking and stamping on Merlin's thigh, 「I could have broken my neck! Stupid, lousy, you're useless, you know that?」 little Arthur gave a particularly vicious kick and Merlin winced.
「That's going to leave a bruise,」 he said, a little dazed.
「A bruise? A BRUISE?」 Arthur's face was contorted with emotion, eyes red rimmed, a blush high on his cheeks. 「You're bloody well going to have more than a BRUISE for getting shot! Some rescue mission that was! You nearly died! Just how incompetent ARE YOU?」 Arthur's voice was growing hoarse with all the screaming.
Merlin reached out for him, but his shoulder twinged painfully with the movement and he gasped.
「Careful,」 said Gaius. 「The wound isn't deep, but there was some sort of poison his highness told me about.」
「That Puck character said you should be alright now,」 said Arthur immediately. 「He said-「
「I'm fine,」 Merlin reassured him.
「How long was I out?」 Merlin asked Gaius.
「A few hours,」 Gaius said, 「It's nearly morning.」
「You're useless,」 Arthur repeated.
「You're the one who got kidnapped by fairies,」 said Merlin, voice a little dry.
「Shut up,」 said Arthur, 「They weren't fairies.」
「I'm sure you said-「
「They were evil magical beings. I can hardly be blamed.」
Merlin nodded, then held out his hand for Arthur. Arthur, who was still dressed in the fae-leaf garb, shivering in the early morning breeze. For a moment, Merlin couldn't breathe.
Then the prince clambered onto his palm, and Merlin breathed out. He waited until Arthur was safely in the middle, before bringing him up to eye level. Arthur had one arm around Merlin's thumb, face tilted upwards. He was still as small as before; the curse had not been changed by the trip into a different dimension. But Arthur was back.
Merlin curled his fingers protectively around the figure in his hand.
Arthur was back.
Author's Note: I decided to redo the last two sections so there is only part one and two, like on LJ. Thought it'd be easier for you guys. Sorry for the lag between: RL is smooshing me flat like a pancake. 3 Much love.