Arthur knew their plan to rescue Merlin had to be simple and quick. They couldn't afford to wait for Morgause to return; they had to act immediately. With only the three of them they had extremely limited options, and as a result decided to rely on a diversion using Alfred while Arthur snuck in with Margareta's help.
Arthur was putting his complete trust in these people, since without their help he probably would have never found the village, known where Merlin was being kept, or be able to remove the binding collar that blocked his magic. He was also counting on Alfred keeping most of the village distracted long enough for them to get away. Arthur knew it was a tall order, but he was determined to see it through. I owe Merlin that much, Arthur thought as he waited with Margareta at the village border, hidden by a moss covered boulder.
They had all agreed to wait until the sun set; they needed night to be on their side. In that time, Margareta described the camp layout and where to expect watchmen to be posted. Then, once the sun set, they found a place to wait and watch as Alfred made his move.
"I never said thank you," Arthur suddenly whispered as he realized all that Margareta was putting on the line by betraying her father.
Margareta turned to look at the prince, surprise evident on her face. "I'm not doing this for you, you know."
Arthur coughed nervously at the slight rebuke. "Still, you have my thanks."
"Well I guess that's something," Margareta muttered as she peered behind the boulder. "Be quiet though, Alfred will be making his appearance at any moment."
Arthur nodded and remained silent as the watched Alfred approach the village. Margareta and Arthur had scoped out a spot a little ways back where they could look for Alfred's diversion and then make quick progress to Merlin's tent based on Margareta's information. With everything in place, Alfred was now approaching the village without concern for being seen by the one of watchmen.
Arthur watched as Alfred seemed to hesitate, then turned to his left. Another bandit approached and at first it looked like there would be a confrontation, but then the two embraced. He watched as Alfred spoke to the bandit, and though he was unable to hear the words, he knew Alfred was regaling the bandit with a false story of his escape from the Camelot dungeons. The man accepted his story as he nodded and patted Alfred on the back.
Soon enough, the two were walking towards the village. As they had hoped, the bandit was so happy to see his friend that he did not suspect anything was amiss.
"Alright, let's go," Margareta said as she started making her way to the village, and was careful to stay a good twenty paces back from Alfred and the guard.
Once they reached the village's border, the guard announced Alfred's arrival, drawing the villagers' attention with questions of how he had escaped. At that point Margareta tugged at Arthur's leather vest. "This way."
Margareta ducked quickly behind one of the tents, peeked out, and then pulled Arthur over to another one. "See that man over there by the small brown tent?"
Arthur looked where Margareta was pointing and noticed the large man standing a few tents from where they were. He was looking over to where Alfred was engaging the other villagers, but he did not moved. "Yes, is that where they're keeping Merlin?"
"Yes, and the guard won't leave. Not even for Alfred," Margareta said, as she looked around for signs of anyone else in their vicinity.
"Well, guess I'll have to take him out," Arthur said as he reached for the hilt of his sword.
"What are you doing?" Margareta whispered urgently as she grabbed Arthur's arm, preventing him from drawing his sword. "You will be seen."
"Then what do you suggest?"
Margareta rolled her eyes at Arthur and then raised her arm towards the guard. "Swefecung."
The guard seemed to sway on his feet for a few moments before toppling to the ground. A moment later a loud snore erupted from the sleeping man.
"Well," Arthur said, trying to pretend this display of magic did not bother him. "That's another way to do it."
"Not everything has to be brute force," Margareta replied, her tone clearly admonishing. "This way, no one gets hurt and you don't risk alerting everyone. Come on now, we haven't much time."
Arthur swallowed his pride and followed the young girl over to the tent. He had to admit, in this case magic was the better weapon, and it's application was anything but evil. In fact, it saved Arthur from having to kill a man, which was not something he ever enjoyed.
Arthur took a deep breath and pushed his thoughts on magic aside. He had to focus on Merlin and what he was about to find. Margareta had said he was being tortured, he could only imagine what his servant looked like now and none of his mental images were good.
Margareta carefully stepped over the sleeping guard and pushed the tent flap open. Arthur quickly followed.
A terrible wave of guilt fell over Arthur as he looked down at his servant. There was barely any light in the tent, but Arthur could see Merlin was unconscious, curled into a ball with one of his bloody wrists chained to a poll in the center. With a closer look, Arthur could see his face was extremely pale and bruised, as well as other parts of his skin where his bloodstained shirt had been ripped or sliced. He wore no boots or jacket, and appeared to be shivering in his sleep.
"Merlin," Margareta whispered as she touched his shoulder gently.
"No!" Merlin cried as he jolted awake and immediately moved away from her touch.
"Shh, Merlin, it's me, Margareta," she said as she held up both he hands to show she was unarmed and had no intention of harming him.
"Margareta?" Merlin gasped, sounding relieved.
"Yes, we're going to get you out of here."
At the mention of "we" Merlin looked around and his eyes fell on Arthur. Arthur wasn't sure if Merlin didn't recognize him, or didn't even believe he was there, because he simply blinked a few times and said nothing.
"It's me, Merlin," Arthur said, leaning down to allow Merlin to get a better look in the dim light. "We're going to get you out, but we have to be quick. Can you stand?"
"Arthur!" Merlin's voice shook as he finally accepted Arthur was really there and pulled himself up into a sitting position. "Yes...yes I can stand, I think."
"Good, we have to hurry!" Margareta said. "Merlin let me see your wrist."
Merlin lifted his chained hand and Margareta placed her hand on it and whispered, "Unlúcan!" The manacle fell off his wrist and without waiting for Merlin to give her permission, Margareta placed her hands on his collar and whispered more words of magic. The collar came off quickly as well and she tossed it aside as if it burned.
With Merlin's bonds removed, he seemed more lively though he still struggled to stand. Arthur immediately went to his side and let Merlin put all his weight on him. "It's alright, I've got you."
Margareta quickly peered outside the tent flap. She seemed to be satisfied that no one was around and motioned to Arthur and Merlin to follow. Arthur made sure he had a firm hold on his servant before following Margareta out, careful to keep low.
"I never thought you'd come," Merlin whispered to Arthur as they ducked behind one of the tents.
"Well then, I guess you don't know me as well as you thought," Arthur replied, however he kept his attention on Margareta as they continued moving towards the edge of the village.
"Thank you," Merlin said and Arthur could hear the overwhelming gratitude in his voice. It only made Arthur feel more guilty. Not too long ago he would have been content leaving Merlin to these people, luckily Gaius had knocked some sense into him.
"Don't thank me yet, we still have to get away." Arthur adjusted his hold on Merlin, shifting more weight onto his shoulder. The prince was shocked at how light his servant felt. Merlin was very thin to begin with, but no doubt he had been half starved in his captivity and it showed.
"Shh!" Margareta scolded, but her reprimand came too late. Suddenly half a dozen men came out from the trees before them, blocking their way into the woods. William was among them.
"Margareta, I cannot even begin to say how disappointed I am with you," William said as he shook his head with disdain. He seemed at ease and not at all concerned that Arthur had returned to take Merlin back.
"The feeling is mutual, father," Margareta replied, keeping a strong stance. Arthur could only imagine how frightened she must be, but she didn't back down.
"We'll discuss this later," William said before looking over at Arthur and Merlin. "Couldn't stay away long, could you, my brave prince?" William's tone was nothing short of mocking.
"What can I say, you were so accommodating the last time." Arthur could feel Merlin's body shaking in fear, and if this was any other time, Arthur might be annoyed at Merlin's cowardice. However, he knew Merlin had been tortured by this man, which only made Arthur feel more protective.
"Did you really think this plan would work?" William gestured to the men around him. "Obviously you are here alone or you wouldn't have attempted something so idiotic. Did you think we wouldn't see you? Did you think we wouldn't question Alfred's sudden escape from Camelot's dungeons?"
Arthur shrugged. "Worth a try."
"Well, you must admit, you are outnumbered." William then looked to his daughter. "You know Oswald is better at you with combat magic, please don't even try daughter, I do not want to see you hurt."
Margareta said nothing, but continued glaring at her father.
Arthur, however, immediately withdrew his glove and tossed it to the ground at William's feet. William was right, they had always been outnumbered, but if he could level the playing field then there was a slim chance they might actually make it out alive. "Don't hide behind your men, William, and face me like a man."
William looked at the glove by his feet and laughed incredulously. "You cannot be serious, I am not one of your knights."
"But are you a man of honor?" Arthur goaded, hoping to play on William's sense of pride. "You can beat me when you have half a dozen men at your back, that I will not contest, but what about one on one? Do you think you can take me in a duel to the death?"
"Arthur, don't," Merlin whispered, his voice only loud enough for Arthur to hear. Arthur ignored Merlin's words and kept his eyes locked on William.
"I gain nothing by this foolish challenge," William replied.
"I've faced many a man in these challenges, and I have not lost yet. Do you think you can be the one to finally best me? What do you say? Winner gets Merlin."
"Arthur!" Merlin gasped, obviously not happy at being offered up like some prized maiden in a tourney.
"You forget yourself, I already have Merlin."
"But then it's not interesting, is it?"
William laughed before he bent over and picked up the leather glove. "If you so desperately want to die by my hands, Prince Arthur, who am I to deny you? Besides, it will certainly be entertaining for my men." William gestured to the bandits around him. "Take them away, we'll fight tomorrow at midday."
"You're an idiot," Merlin said soberly as he sat chained and collared once again inside the tent that had been his prison for the past week. His back was facing Arthur, as the prince had been chained on the opposite side of the pole so that the two were back to back. "You should never have come back for me."
In truth, Merlin had wished beyond hope during his constant torment that Arthur would come back for him. However, he never thought it would actually happen. What started out as simple joy at seeing the prince coming back for him was now a serious reality with dangerous results. He had given up his freedom, and ultimately suffered through agonizing torture to try and save Arthur and now it seemed it was all for naught. Seeing Arthur, having him come rescue him, only to have it end in disaster felt like some cruel joke. Hope had been dangled in front of him only to be painfully taken away.
Merlin felt Arthur let out a long sigh. "Obviously I didn't mean to get caught."
"You actually thought you could come here by yourself and get me out?" Merlin couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. He was hurt and confused. Arthur had told him he never want to speak to him again, and now here he was putting his life on the line to rescue him. Which, yes, he had wanted, but what did this mean for Arthur's view on magic? Merlin had no clue, and there was a niggling thought that maybe he wanted to save Merlin so he could be executed at Camelot. Yet, nothing in Arthur's tone suggested he was still angry, so the prince had to have come to accept his magic somehow.
"It was the only choice I had," Arthur replied, his voice solemn.
Merlin was silent for a moment, not sure what to say. He had so many questions and so many things he wanted to know now that they were alone and able to talk about what had happened these past two weeks. "What changed your mind...about me?" Merlin eventually asked.
"Gaius?" Hearing his mentor's name felt like a stab to the gut. Merlin had tried to not think too much of the cranky old physician, he didn't want to imagine what Gaius must be going through with his absence.
"Yes." Arthur sighed, and shifted slightly against the pole. "We had an argument, believe it or not, about you. He said some things that made me think, and so I confronted a bandit we had captured and asked him some questions. I knew then that you had been coerced to stay to try and save me, even though I had all but cast you aside. You remained loyal, despite having every reason to not to and in that moment I realize it was I who had betrayed you, not the other way around."
Merlin listened to Arthur's words and felt overcome with emotion. Arthur was rarely ever this honest with him, and to hear him open up and to actually admit he was wrong was nothing short of unbelievable. "You...you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive," Arthur replied, and Merlin heard the sincerity in his words. "It is I who should ask for forgiveness."
Merlin closed his eyes, letting the moment wash over him. "I would forgive you, but your escape plan was terrible, you're going to have to do better." Merlin could feel himself falling into that old camaraderie, and it felt good. He still felt incredibly weak, and every time he moved his body cried out in agony, but it didn't matter. Arthur was here, he didn't hate him, and somehow his pain felt lessened.
"I admit, it wasn't the best of plans, but there's plan B."
"You have a plan B?"
"Weren't you listening, Merlin?" Arthur scolded in that one tone he always used when he thought Merlin was being an idiot. "I'm going to fight William for you."
Merlin raised his eyebrow in confusion, not that Arthur could see it. "You honestly think William's men will let us go if you kill him tomorrow?"
"Of course I do. In battle you want to take out the leader, because then the troops won't know what to do."
"But what if they decide to kill you because you killed their leader?"
"What? It's a valid question! Besides, this isn't a battle, and we don't have any soldiers on our side!"
"No, we don't," Arthur replied, and Merlin could almost feel Arthur's uncertainty in those words.
"Arthur, you shouldn't have come," Merlin whispered, and a feeling of immense guilt washed over him.
"What's done is done, Merlin."
A silence fell between them, and Merlin could hear the villager's bustling about outside. He wondered how many of them approved of what William was doing. When they were torturing him, he could think little else but the pain, but when it was over his voice always felt raw from screaming. They had to hear it. Did it bother them? Where they just as depraved as William and Morgause?
As if he was reading Merlin's thoughts, Arthur broke the silence. "Margareta told me what they did to you."
Merlin didn't respond, he had no idea what to say. He certainly didn't want to talk about what William and Morgause had done to him, least of all with Arthur.
"Why did they do this to?" Arthur asked, pressing the issue. "What could they possibly gain?"
"There's a lot you still don't know about me," Merlin managed to say, though he felt his throat constricting as he spoke.
Merlin took a deep breath. "Remember Balinor?"
Merlin knew he was probably testing the limits of Arthur's tolerance with the whole magic issue, but he had to be honest. It was the only way Arthur would continue to accept him. "He was my father."
Arthur was silent, and Merlin could almost feel him thinking this revelation out. "What does this have to do with William and Morgause?" Arthur eventually asked, though Merlin could hear he was tight lipped and obviously angry at having such a secret kept from him.
"The dragonlord's ability is passed from father to son," Merlin said, knowing that would be enough information for Arthur to fill in the rest.
"Wait...that means...you...you killed the dragon?" Arthur was practically yelling.
"I sent it away," Merlin admitted, keeping his voice calm. "Morgause and William want me to harness the dragon's power in a new assault on Camelot, but they need me. I refused."
"How do you know the dragon won't just come back on it's own?" Arthur asked.
"Because I told it not to."
"And that's it?"
Arthur sighed heavily. "What else have you been keeping from me?"
Merlin immediately thought of Morgana and realized that was the one thing he absolutely could not tell Arthur. "Lot's of things, Arthur. I have to keep a secret from you every time I use magic. And no, I'm not going to tell you about all of them because I was tortured to keep your kingdom safe, so I think I'm a little entitled!"
"Alright," Arthur said, his voice low. "I trust you."
Merlin closed his eyes, letting the words sink in. "You should rest, you don't want to be tired for your fight."
"How am I going to rest like this?" That semi-annoyed tone was back, and Merlin couldn't help but think that if this was it, and death was what awaited either of them tomorrow, that he was glad to hear Arthur's voice one last time.
"You'll manage," Merlin whispered.
The both fell into a comfortable silence. Merlin could feel Arthur shifting against his back, attempting to get comfortable. He thought Arthur might speak again, but he didn't and soon enough Arthur's breath evened out. He was asleep.
Merlin smiled lightly before falling into a restless sleep himself.
It was just before noon when William's men came and removed them from the tent. Arthur had managed to get some sleep, though it wasn't ideal for the fight he was facing. He had actually been awake all morning while Merlin lightly dozed.
Arthur had taken the time to reflect on how utterly screwed they where. He had known it was a bad idea to come, but he never imagine he would be recaptured. Now all he had was this fight, and it was to be done on an empty stomach with a terrible night's rest. He didn't expect William to make sure his opponent was prepared. Arthur suspected he wanted any advantage he could get.
Arthur was a little surprised when the bandits unchained Merlin as well, but then his stomach dropped. Of course William wanted Merlin to watch, because watching Arthur die would only be another form of torture for the young warlock. No doubt, William assumed that with the prince dead, Merlin would be more likely to do as he commanded.
It made Arthur sick to his stomach as he thought of all Merlin had been through. He had to win this, not just for himself, but to save Merlin from any further torment.
Arthur gave little resistance as he was prodded to an open area where every villager was gathered. The bodies formed a ring and in the center stood William with a sword in his hand.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin was pulled to side and held by one of the bandits where he would be able to watch the fight. Arthur glanced around a little more and found Margareta amongst the crowd, and couldn't help but notice the large bruise on her cheek. Alfred was standing next to her, looking similarly disciplined.
"Are you ready, my prince?" William asked once Arthur was shoved into the center of the man-made ring.
"Am I to fight you unarmed?" Arthur lifted his hands in question.
"Of course not, this will be a fair fight between men." William nodded to one of his bandits. He produced a crude sword and handed it to Arthur hilt first.
Arthur grasped the weapon, wishing in that moment that he had specified that he wanted to fight with his own weapon. No doubt William kept it for himself. That was the second weapon he lost to this man, he did not fancy losing a third despite its worn state.
"The rules are simple," William said, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. "We fight to the death, no one interferes. You win, you leave with Merlin. I win, and I get to keep your head on a pike. Agreed?"
Arthur acknowledged William's terms with a slight tilt of his head and readied his sword. He was used to fighting these battles in full armor with his shield and most trusted sword. As it was, he had no armor, no chainmail, no shield, and a blade that had seen better days. At least his opponent was similarly armed.
"Alright then, let's begin." Unlike duels in Camelot, there was no king to signal the begin of battle, only William's say so and the eruption of cheers from the village, all in support of William.
Arthur spun his sword in a wide circle as he moved to his right, waiting to see if William would make the first move. William followed Arthur, and they remained like that, circling each other as the crowd cried in anticipation for the first blow.
William struck first, which Arthur easily deflected with his sword. He let William's weight fall forward from the blow then pushed him aside with the force of his blade. William tumbled backward and Arthur began his offensive, raining blow after blow on the bandit.
William was outmatched in that moment, doing the best he could to block himself from Arthur's attacks. However, just as Arthur was going in for a killing blow, William ducked down and struck out with his foot. Arthur reacted too late and fell flat on his back.
Arthur's head hit the ground hard, and for a moment he saw stars, but he recovered in time to see William's sword aimed at his heart. Arthur rolled to avoid the deadly thrust, and jumped back onto his feet.
William had obviously put a lot of strength into that one thrust, and was now off balance. Arthur exploited the opportunity, though he was only able to nick the older man's soldier.
A collective gasp emanated from the crowd, but William shook it off and lunged forward.
Arthur parried and pushed William back, starting a string of blocked attacks and near misses. Had Arthur been in perfect health, this fight would be easier. As it was, he was barely able to keep William at arm's length. He was growing tired quickly, and William knew it. He kept pressing that advantage until finally Arthur lost his balance in a moment of weakness and fell back. William kicked out with his foot, knocking Arthur's sword from his hand.
For one frantic moment, Arthur thought he had lost the fight, but when William raised his arm a little too far back for the killing blow, Arthur jumped at William, taking him by surprise as they both fell onto the ground. William's sword was lost in the fray, but the fight continue with legs, arms, hands, and teeth fighting each other.
Arthur barely caught the glint of steel as William pulled out a hidden dagger, and his reaction was pure instinct as he grabbed the hand and twisted it. Arthur heard, never mind felt, the bones breaking in William's wrist as he twisted the hand around so that the dagger's sharp edge was point towards William. That's when he pushed with all his remaining energy.
Slowly the dagger sank into William's gut, his body thrashing and convulsing as he tried to fight off the inevitable. It wasn't until the body lay still and the crowd became silent that Arthur knew the fight was over.
Merlin watched William and Arthur fight while he was held in place by one of William's trusted bandits, though the way the Man breathed on his neck made Merlin's skin crawl. Merlin watched the fight in misery, unsure if Arthur could pull off a win. However, he knew with cold certainty that if Arthur died, Merlin would do whatever he could to join him soon after.
Merlin held his breath when Arthur fell, certain in that moment that everything he had worked for was over, when suddenly the tables turned and they were both wrestling on the ground. After an agonizing minute of watching the two fight, a loud blood curdling scream could be heard and both men stilled. In that moment, Merlin had no idea if either of them were alive, and neither did the crowd as they waited in silence to see who would move.
Merlin's fears were assuaged when it was Arthur who stirred and pushed the lifeless William off of him.
"No!" Margareta's scream echoed in Merlin's ears as she rushed over to her father, at first not believing he was dead. Spell after spell was cast from Margareta's lips and it wasn't until her fifth or sixth spell failed that she seemed to realize it was no use and her words of magic turned into incoherent sobs.
Arthur turned to the man that was holding Merlin. "Let him go."
The guard seemed ready to refuse Arthur's request, when another bandit nodded to the guard to comply. "We must abide by the terms William set. Let the boy go." The bandit hesitated, before adding, "This ends now."
The guard released Merlin, and he immediately ran to Margareta's side. He was still incredibly weak from his brutal treatment, but watching the fight had infused him with some sort of strength and all he could think of right now was the young witch before him, morning the loss of her beloved father. "Margareta," Merlin whispered, though he had no idea what to say to her.
"I didn't want any of this to happened," Margareta said as she turned to Merlin, her cheeks red and stained from crying.
"I know," Merlin said, reaching out to hold Margareta's hand reassuringly.
Margareta gasped sharply, as if trying to prevent more tears. However, instead of crying she reached up with her free hand and whispered the words to free Merlin from his collar. "Eac þás ealdspræc ic aheordan ðu."
Merlin remained still as the collar unlocked and fell from his neck. Margareta's hand lingered as she met Merlin's gaze. Merlin thought she was about to speak when suddenly she pulled away and turned back to her father. "Go," she finally said. "We will abide by the terms set by my father."
Merlin nodded, feeling a deep sadness as he realized he would probably never see Margareta again.
Merlin stood and regarded Arthur, who had been silently watching the two of them. "What now, Arthur?"
"Enough blood has been shed, " Arthur replied before turning to the shocked crowd before him. "I will take my servant and leave. I will not send my knights to pursue you, though I do suggest you find a new place to live, and if you can cross the border, that might be for the best."
"How do we know you won't come after us?" One man shouted from the crowd.
"I have learned today that magic is not evil, only those who choose to use it for such purposes." Arthur paused and looked to Merlin. "I cannot change my father's law, but I now no longer believe the law that bans magic to be just. I hope we can look forward to a day when the law can be changed." Arthur paused once more and looked down at Margareta who was still holding her dead father in her arms. "Too much blood has been shed already."
The crowd murmured in agreement, and some stepped forward to talk to Margareta and help her carry her father away from the battlefield. Margareta continued mourning into the arms of one of the villagers as she was taken away from the field with her father carried gently behind her.
"You're a man of your word, Arthur Pendragon." Alfred said from behind them, with two horses saddled and ready to go. He had a black eye, and walked with a slight limp, but otherwise looked fine from the beating he had received at the hand of his own people.
Arthur nodded and offered his hand. "As are you, Alfred." They shook hands firmly before Arthur added, "Thank you for everything, though what will you do about Morgause? Surely she won't be happy with what has happened here."
"You leave that to us, she's only one and we are many. We will be fine, but you best go before she arrives or one of the men changes their mind," Alfred replied and handed the reins to Arthur. "I have to go help Margareta."
"I understand," Arthur said as he took the reins and then turned to Merlin. "Let's get out of here."
Merlin wasted no time in mounting his horse, the smaller brown mare while Arthur pulled himself onto a grey and white stallion and kicked his horse into a fast gallop.
Merlin felt a bit dizzy as he followed Arthur, though he was extremely happy and anxious to get away from the people that imprisoned and tortured him. And yet, he still was uncertain of what lay ahead. It certainly seemed like Arthur's stance on magic had changed, but what did that really mean for them when they finally made it back to Camelot?
After about an hour of hard riding, Arthur slowed his horse down to a trot and waited for Merlin's horse to catch up. "I think we can take it easy from here out."
Merlin nodded, unsure of what to say. His mind had been going over their situation, and the more he thought about it, the more Merlin was terrified of what would happen when they made it home.
"Merlin, what's wrong?" Arthur asked; Merlin's concerns were clearly evident on his face.
"I-" Merlin started, unsure of how to begin voicing his concerns.
"Merlin, after all we have been through together, you can trust me."
Merlin looked at Arthur, reading the expression on his face before nodding in agreement. "I just...what's going to happen...now that you know? What will you tell your father about coming here to get me?"
Arthur regarded Merlin carefully, clearly considering his words carefully before he finally spoke, though he looked forward to the trees as he did. "I know more than ever now that you are my friend, and I will do whatever I can to protect you, even lie to my father. You let me worry about what I'll say to him when we get back. I'll think of something. You on the other hand will go straight to Gaius to get your wounds treated and get some rest!"
"You're going to keep my secret?" Merlin asked, ignoring Arthur's words about Gaius as he was unable to believe what he had just heard Arthur say about protecting him.
"Of course, Merlin; do you think I went through all this trouble just to have you executed at home?" Arthur said with a tone of mock annoyance.
"No," Merlin replied, his voice stammering. "I just, I didn't know what to think. I've been keeping this secret for so long, I can't believe you finally know and that you're okay with it."
"You're my friend," Arthur said, his voice serious once more. "What's more, you're my servant and I've gotten used to your incompetence."
"Oh really?" Merlin said, unable to keep the smile from creeping onto his face.
"Yes, and now that I know you have magic to help, I'm going to have to increase your workload," Arthur said with a grin to match before kicking his horse off into another gallop.
Merlin's smile immediately dropped to a frown as he quickly followed, though he couldn't help but fondly think that some things hadn't changed and that was fine by him.
A/N - Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed this fic, and thanks to Socalrose for beta reading. I do plan to write a sequel to this, though I plan to work on a couple of other projects before I begin, so it will be some time before I post anything. In any case, I wrote a one-shot for a holiday fic exchange, which I finally got around to posting here. Check my profile if you're interested.