Arthur stared up at the sky through dense foliage that hadn't been above him moments ago. Aftershocks from the explosion made the ground tremble. The forest, or wherever he was, was far too quiet. All Arthur could hear was a faint ringing that slowly fell away until he could make out his own breathing, hard and heavy as if he'd just run a mile.
Arthur sat up and realized he was alone. Trees stretched around him in every direction, with no discernable markings to tell him exactly which forest he'd ended up in though he knew he wasn't in the forest surrounding Camelot. Carefully, Arthur picked himself up off of the ground. His muscles ached. His back had obviously taken the brunt of the impact when he'd landed in the forest, and he could already feel a deep bruise forming over his spine from the thick root he'd been laying on. On the bright side, he at least still had his sword, and little else save for the few coins that had been in his pocket and the small knife concealed in his boot.
The sun was still mostly overhead, which told him two things. One, not much time had passed since he'd last been in Merlin's cell in Camelot. Two, he'd have to find moss or wait until the sun went down a little to have any clue which direction he was going.
"Not going to get anywhere standing here," Arthur muttered to himself. Even that small noise sounded too loud in the quiet forest. The explosion had likely startled most of the animals into hiding.
Arthur started through the woods, heading towards where he vaguely thought the aftershocks had been coming from. He was only slightly glad that there was no one around to see how unsteady he was on his feet.
Night had fallen by the time Arthur stumbled onto a road. His stomach was quite loudly and painfully protesting the fact that he'd chosen to skip both breakfast and lunch that morning. There was a faint bit of light off to his left that he desperately hoped was a village. He had enough coinage on him to get a meal and a room for the night. If he was lucky, one of the farmers might even have a horse and some tack they could spare in exchange for a few silver.
Most of the lights had gone out by the time he finally made it to the village. Dark, quiet houses surrounded the road with increasing frequency as he headed towards what he presumed to be the village center. There was faint noise coming from one of the lone remaining lit buildings, growing louder as Arthur approached. The muted shuffling of horses from inside the courtyard next to the building told Arthur he was at an inn, and thus at a large enough of a village that someone may know what had happened to Camelot in his, albeit brief, absence. Assuming he was still close enough to Camelot for news to have been carried this far in so little time.
The light and noise of the inn were jarring after having spent the majority of the day in solitude. He raised a hand to shield his eyes as he shut the door. All of the noise blended together in one loud cacophony, so it took him a few minutes to realize that someone was calling his name.
Arthur stared in surprise as Lancelot approached him from across the room. He pulled Arthur into a tight hug then released him before Arthur had a chance to protest.
"I was starting to wonder when you were going to show up," Lancelot said with a grin.
Lancelot ignored his question to stare past Arthur at the closed door. "Where's the rest of your party?" Arthur continued to stare. "Surely you're not travelling alone..."
Arthur quickly scanned the room, taking mental note of the other patrons in the room. He and Lancelot were starting to draw attention, and he didn't want to advertise the fact that the Prince of Camelot had just walked in without an escort. Grabbing Lancelot by the sleeve, he pulled Lancelot towards one of the tables at the back of the room.
"Over here." Lancelot tugged his arm towards a table that had a half-full tankard sitting on top of it. Arthur co-opted what had likely been Lancelot's seat so that he could sit with his back to the wall.
"Sit," Arthur ordered. He raised a hand to catch the attention of the serving girl. "And tell me what you're doing here."
Lancelot raised an eyebrow. He kept glancing over his shoulder towards the door, obviously expecting more people to join them. "Merlin told me to meet you here. He didn't say when, just that it was important that I be here when you get here. I've been waiting nearly a week." He leaned across the table towards Arthur and dropped his voice slightly. "What's this all about? Merlin wouldn't say. He was being all cryptic."
Arthur opened his mouth to respond but cut himself off as the serving girl arrived. He leaned back slightly and tossed a coin on the table, not caring what the denomination was. "Water, ale, and whatever food you have on hand that's still warm and at least vaguely resembling fresh." He kept his eyes on Lancelot as the girl snatched up the coin and started bowing towards him, rambling all sorts of 'yes, m'lord's and 'right away, m'lord's. Silence filled the space between them until she disappeared into the crowd. "When?" Arthur asked, his tone flat.
"When did you talk to Merlin? Where did you talk to Merlin?"
Lancelot's face twisted slightly with confusion. "He was in the woods, about five days ago. I was on my way to Rhiamaen and there he was, just sitting on a log. He told me to come here, that you'd be arriving and you'd need a horse and supplies. He said that I was supposed to go with you back to Camelot. He was very insistent about that last part. Soon as I agreed he was gone. Like m-" Lancelot paled and snapped his mouth shut quickly.
Arthur tapped his fingers against the table and scowled. "Like magic. I know." Merlin had told him about his part in the defense of Camelot a week ago, though he had conveniently left out the fact that anyone else knew of his crimes. "But that wasn't Merlin. It couldn't have been. Merlin's been imprisoned in Camelot for the last eight days, and sick enough that he couldn't travel for a week before that. He was barely conscious for more than minutes at a time five days ago." He felt his stomach twist as he thought of the past week's events and forcibly shoved those feelings aside. "I was with him every day. He hadn't left the castle."
"It was him!" A few pairs of eyes turned towards them at Lancelot's raised voice. Lancelot looked abashed and leaned closer, dropping his voice to an urgent whisper. "I know it was him. He was..." Lancelot glanced at the nearby tables, obviously concerned about being overheard. Arthur shared his concern. If they were still within Camelot's border, their conversation could have been considered treason. "...he glowed blue. It was the same color as when he did other... things." Arthur itched to know what other things Lancelot had been witness to and kept secret. "Why was he imprisoned?"
The serving girl returned with a large platter of meat and bread and two tankards. He must have given her a larger coin considering the amount and quality of food she brought. Arthur waved her away without a glance and sipped at his water. His appetite had nearly fled but the pain in his stomach hadn't eased.
Arthur sipped at his ale while he considered where to start. He should have realized something was wrong sooner and gotten Merlin away, somewhere he could have been safe. Too late to fix it now, but he doubted the guilt would ever fade. "He was sick. He kept passing out and it kept getting worse until Gaius had him confined to his quarters." He'd thought it was a cold. Merlin had been sick like that before but this time he hadn't gotten better, just kept getting weaker, was awake for shorter and shorter periods of time. "Weird things started happening around the castle. I found out. Merlin told me, just before he stopped responding entirely, but the guards were already searching the castle." He'd missed the guards by minutes. He'd gone to arrange horses while they searched Gaius's chambers. "He was glowing, like you said. The guards found him and Uther found out about him... and his magic. He was imprisoned pending trial but things went... weird."
"And you left him there?" The reproach in Lancelot's voice cut through Arthur. "Why isn't he with you? Do you have any idea how much he's done to help the kingdom? To save you?"
"I know!" A few of the other patrons glanced over at them again. Arthur lowered his voice. "I know, now. Merlin... he told me. Everything. Well, almost. He didn't mention you, or anyone else who already knew about his magic." He took a bite of bread to calm his stomach. It sank like lead. He kept eating anyways. It was automatic – lift food, chew food, swallow. It offered a distraction, if only a minor one. "But I can't help him... not anymore."
Lancelot grabbed Arthur's wrist as he lifted another piece of food. His fingers dug into Arthur's flesh. "We can go back. We can still save him."
The words stuck in his throat on the first try but Arthur forced himself to say them. "No. No, we can't. Merlin's dead."
The rain started early in the morning. He woke up several times during the night, memories turned to nightmares plaguing his brain until he gave up on sleep entirely. Lancelot answered his door on the third knock, looking much like how Arthur felt. He wondered briefly how much Lancelot's nightmares were like his own.
"What?" Lancelot blinked at Arthur for a second and then quickly straightened. "Sorry. Arth- Sire. Sorry. What is it?"
"Time to go."
Lancelot turned to stare out the window in his room. It was still dark out, though the darkness was slowly fading. "Now?"
For a brief second, Arthur was reminded of Merlin and a sharp pang of guilt lanced through him. He spoke more sharply than he intended. "Yes, now. Why else do you think I'm bloody standing here?"
There was a mix of emotions in the look Lancelot shot him, none of which Arthur felt safe in analyzing. His stomach rolled again unpleasantly and he started to tap his foot, channeling the nervous energy building inside of him into a physical form. Lancelot left the door open as he quickly gathered his gear. Grief made his movements slow, sluggish. Arthur felt like he was burning with urgency, while Lancelot was the epitome of sloth. He couldn't get out of the inn soon enough, though he knew that he couldn't escape the thoughts that were plaguing him. Still, it was better to do something, futile as it may be, than to sit and do nothing.
Lancelot pulled his door shut behind him. "Where are we going?"
Arthur turned and stalked towards where he guessed the stables were located. "Camelot."
"But I thought you said..."
Arthur cut Lancelot off with a gesture as they crossed through the common room. They weren't the only ones up at this hour. The innkeeper gave them an odd look as they passed by but nodded politely in Arthur's direction. One of the serving girls tittered at them and winked at Lancelot. There were two very tall men in black cloaks sitting at a table by the window. Arthur ignored them all and pushed out the door into the stable. He heard the front door of the inn open and the faint rise of voices just before Lancelot shut the door, muffling the noise. The horses whinnied nervously as they entered.
Lancelot pointed. Arthur grabbed a saddle off of the wall next to one of the pair, presumably his since Lancelot didn't protest. It had been a while since he'd saddled his own horse. Normally Merlin- No, he'd do it himself this time. Lancelot mirrored him in the neighboring stall.
"How far are we?" Arthur asked.
"Three days, possibly longer if the weather worsens. You're not exactly dressed for rain."
Arthur shot him a glare, its effect ruined by the wooden wall between them. "I didn't exactly have much choice." He'd dressed to confront his father, not to go gallivanting through the woods, but like always, Merlin had a knack for making even the simplest plans go haywire.
"I don't understand. You never said what you were doing all the way out here on foot and on your own. What happened in Camelot?"
The horse shifted in obvious disquiet and Arthur ran his hand along its side to soothe it. He wished it was as easy to soothe his own disquiet. "It exploded. Or something like that. Right when..." His fingers tangled briefly in the horse's main. He forced them to unclench and started to lead the horse out of the stall. "When father... When father killed Merlin, there was this flash, followed by a huge explosion. I landed in the forest not far from here. I'm not sure how. I think Merlin..."
Lancelot was watching him, a sad expression on his face. Arthur slowly closed his mouth.
"It doesn't matter now. I need to find out what happened to Camelot."
They left the inn in silence.
The rain cleared by midday. They were reaching the crest of a hill as the sun reappeared, tingeing the sky a myriad of bright colors. Arthur stilled his horse and looked up, trying to find the source of the rainbow. There was no rainbow. The colors were spread across the clearing sky – reds, pinks, oranges, purples, blues, and greens, all running together in strange swirls and spirals instead of ordered curves.
Lancelot halted his horse next to Arthur, his gaze turned upward as well. "What is that?"
Arthur continued to stare as the clouds slowly cleared away. The swirl of colors stopped almost directly above them, trailing off into clear blue sky.
"It looks like it's spreading," Lancelot commented.
Arthur urged his horse forward until they reached the crest. Spread before them were the forest and fields of Albion, but the terrain had shifted from what Arthur was familiar with. The trees were no longer green but purple and blue and pink as well, twisted into strange shapes discernable even from this distance. They seemed larger as well. In the distance, where Camelot had once stood was the largest tree of all.
"It's on the ground too."
Arthur turned his gaze towards where Lancelot pointed. The strange colors were spreading towards them up the hill, shifting the grass from green to unnatural colors at a slow but steady rate.
"Do you think Merlin did this too?" Lancelot asked.
"I don't know." Arthur nudged his horse forward down the hill. "But, I would wager it's connected."
There were things moving in the woods. At first Arthur thought it was just a mirage, a trick of the eye. Living things didn't come in the colors he saw, but then he noticed Lancelot's eyes following the figures too. Some were short, like wolves or beasts and moving with the same lopping gate but green as the grass once was. He thought he saw flowers growing from one. There were larger creatures too, shaped much like humans but as furred as a beast or stick thin or tall enough that their heads disappeared into the treetops. Whatever the creatures were, they seemed content to pass Arthur and Lancelot passed.
As the day drew on the forest surrounding them grew increasingly dense with figures. Lancelot shifted his horse closer to Arthur's.
"Do you think they're going towards Camelot as well?"
The forest around them was writing with figures. Part of Arthur was hoping that perhaps all of the creatures had some other goal, but something in his gut told him that hope was in vain.
Something buzzed past his ear laughing. Two small glowing points of light hovered in front of him and slowly resolved into two very tiny figures.
"It's him," one said in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
"The king! The king!" The other said. They both laughed again and then disappeared.
"Yes," Arthur said, "I think they're our escort."
Night fell as they approached the giant tree. With dusk came the arrival of more creatures, some carrying lamps to light the way, others glowing on their own with magical light. The road in front of them was clearly illuminated and the forest shimmered with a multitude of colors. Voices drifted through the trees though Arthur only caught a faint word every few minutes and even those barely made sense.
Not long after nightfall, the road broadened and the forest was broken up by small outcroppings covered in grass and moss. They were buildings, he realized, the remnants of the houses that stood at the edge of the city. Arthur squinted. Ahead he could make out the castle walls. They weren't as high as they should be. The stone was covered in growth and the walls themselves looked as if they'd been caved in from a siege. Arthur knew better. They hadn't been caved in but blown out. He doubted any of the inhabitants had survived, unless they too had landed miraculously a safe distance away. He hoped that had been Morgana, Gwen, and Gauis's fate. Merlin wouldn't purposefully do anything to hurt him, but Arthur wasn't entirely sure Merlin had been aware of his actions. Uther had likely not received such kind treatment.
The winding trip through the main road of Camelot was at once familiar and different. Arthur knew the path, had ridden it enough times that he barely had to look to know when the path twisted, but he kept his eyes wide open. It was hard not to stare. The creatures that had been following them through the woods were taking perch, finding seats on destroyed walls and crumbled buildings. There was a lattice of branches overhead, stretching down from the big tree. Its massive trunk loomed in front of them, easily the size of the keep, possibly with room to spare.
"This way, King." Arthur jumped as the booming voice cut through the quiet. He was slightly mollified that Lancelot had done the same. At the base of the trunk stood a tall creature, easily seven foot in height and covered in long green hair. "Your horses will wait. Please. Go up."
Despite the address, Arthur knew that the creature was talking to him. He dismounted. Lancelot followed suit and together they approached the creature. Arthur turned his gaze towards where the creature pointed. There was a stairway carved in the base of the tree trunk, hidden from view until he was scant feet from the base of it.
"Up," the creature repeated.
The stairwell reminded Arthur of the many winding staircases that filled the interior of the towers of the keep. As he stepped inside, he ran his hand over the wooden walls. There were smooth, smoother that they should be for such a massive carving. Tiny lights ran along the ceiling of the stairwell, giving just enough light that Arthur could climb without fear of tripping. The stairs circled around in a long, gradual arc. Their footsteps echoed through the stairwell, loud enough that Arthur occasionally paused to double-check that they were still the only ones in the stairwell.
The stairs opened into a large, flat platform at the base of one of the tree's branches. It was circular, reminding Arthur of an amphitheater with the way the remainder of the branch and surrounding foliage rose above them. There were more creatures up here, the majority looking more human than not, crowding every available surface above them. Two others stood near the center of the platform, one on either side of a large crystalline block with a sword out of it.
Something about the sword struck Arthur's attention and he started forward. "I know that sword."
"Indeed, you do, young King." The figure on the right spoke with a loud, booming voice that matched his thick, stocky frame. The man was dressed in armor, though the make and style were unfamiliar to Arthur and far too decorative to be practical in Arthur's opinion, yet he had a feeling that the armor would protect its wearer from even the staunchest attack despite how flimsy it looked. The man's skin was green and slightly furred, like a carpet of short grass covered him.
Arthur slowed his approach. "Who are you?"
"Bercilak, the Holly King," the green man said.
"Herne, the Oak King," said the other. Herne stood as tall as Bercilak, both of them easily a foot over Arthur if not more, but the large antlers protruding from his head made him seem more massive. His skin was golden brown and striped, seeming almost like the bark of a tree. "And the sword is Excalibur. Your sword."
Questions bubbled in Arthur's head but he kept them to himself for the moment and instead moved closer to the sword. The two kings watched him expectantly as he grasped the pommel. A thought stopped Arthur before he started to pull the sword out. He took a step back.
"Why is the sword here? It disappeared months ago."
The Oak King smiled. "And now it is back, waiting for you."
The sound of footsteps echoed from the stairwell. Arthur turned as another knight, a human knight from Mercia. He looked just as startled as Arthur felt. More knights followed the first, their clothing reflecting a myriad of kingdoms from across Albion.
"Your court gathers." The Holly King sounded amused. "All that remains is for you to pull the sword from the stone, young King."
Arthur turned back towards Excalibur. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the knights file in, forming a circle around the outer edge of the platform. He heard Lancelot move to take a place among them. "Why me?"
"Because only you can."
He could think of no good reply. Arthur stepped forward once more and gripped the pommel. He yanked on the sword, expecting there to be some resistance from the stone it was wedged in. It slid out as easily as if he was pulling it from butter. As soon as the sword was free, the stone started to melt away. A prone figure began to take shape in the center of the stone, one with black hair and too large ears. Arthur felt his stomach clench. Then the stone dissolved completely and Merlin sat up with a loud gasp. Arthur dropped his sword as Merlin's eyes opened and fixed on him. They glowed golden.
"Arthur." The word sounded like a caress from Merlin's lips. "King."
"How... What... you..."
Merlin started to stand and wavered on his feet. Arthur caught him before he could fall. His arms tightened, pulling Merlin into an embrace.
Merlin's hands settled against his waist. It felt right holding Merlin, like he belonged there. "Yeah. And the others are safe, I'm just not sure where they are right now. I'm sure they'll find their way back." Merlin pulled away after a moment though the reluctance was clear on his face. Arthur made a note to try this again when they weren't being stared at but hundreds, possibly thousands of strangers. "And you are King, like you were destined to be." Merlin blushed. "Well, almost. Things may have shifted a bit."
Arthur glanced towards the two kings. "Just a bit." He stepped away but left one hand lingering on the small of Merlin's back. "So, King?"
The Holly King extended a hand. "We welcome you, King Arthur, lord of the human realm of Albion. As you rule those who live above, we rule those who dwell beneath and those born of the land. We have come to accord with your sorcerer, Merlin Emrys, who woke us, and shall hold peace between our peoples as long as our treaty is honored."
"I see." He had no idea what that meant but judging from the look on Merlin's face, he'd be able to explain later. The Holly King's hand was leathery, like a dried leaf. "I am honored and will do my utmost to hold our treaty."
A cheer rose up from the creatures surrounding them. In the midst of the din, Arthur turned slightly towards Merlin. "So this is all your fault?" He whispered.
Merlin had the grace to look sheepish. "I didn't mean to. I swear."
Arthur smile outwardly while resisting the urge to groan. His castle was a giant tree and his citizens thus far seemed composed entirely out of creatures from fairy tales and legends. All in all, it could have been worse.