A/N – This idea started to nag at me about a week ago and by Friday I couldn't stop myself sitting down and writing it... and I didn't stop until Saturday afternoon. The result was this beast of a story! I posted in three parts on livejournal, but it was intended as a massively long oneshot...
Anyway, as I said in the summary, this story was entirely inspired with the spoilers I've read for the end of the season. Of course it's all speculation on my part, but some of it *might* be close to the mark, so if you want to avoid spoilers don't read this! Please bear in mind that this was written before the latest episode aired, and I haven't actually read *all* the spoilers there are out there (someone on LJ already pointed one out that completely ruins a main part of this story... oh well!).
Anyway, I'll shut up and get to the story – it's long enough as it is! Please let me know what you think if you manage to make it to the end...
The Beginning in the End
Uther was awake, but all it meant was that he could feel the pain radiating through his entire body. He couldn't move, couldn't even open his eyes – he felt that he had no energy whatsoever, except to just lie wherever he was and feel the pain. He couldn't remember where the pain had come from, or how he'd got where he was now. It wasn't his bed – it wasn't nearly comfortable enough and... he was swaying. Yes, swaying, as though he were on a cart.
A few moments more, and Uther gathered the energy to open his eyes.
He was right – it was some sort of cart. He was lying on a makeshift bed on the back of a cart, which was covered with a thin white sheet, allowing the sunlight through. The sunlight was dappled – the cart must be travelling under trees.
Uther's eyes fell on the woman sitting beside his bed, grinding something with a pestle and mortar. He recognised her – it was Morgana's handmaiden.
Memory rushed back to Uther with such intensity that he groaned and shut his eyes again, as though to try and forget again. It didn't help. Morgana – his beloved Morgana - had done this to him. She had poisoned him. She had laughed at the thought that he might die. She had forced him to watch while Geoffrey of Monmouth had crowned her Queen of Camelot, with that witch Morgause looking on. And then... things were hazy, but he had been in Gaius' rooms. Then nothing.
"Sire?" It was the girl – Gwen was her name. Was she still loyal to Morgana? What was this new torture?
"Sire, it's alright – you're safe here," she was saying. "Arthur came and got you."
Arthur. He hadn't been there – probably due to some machination of the witch. Uther had been glad at the time, glad his son was safe.
Uther opened his eyes again and looked at the servant. She was wearing travelling clothes, and had a bandage tied around one arm. Her hair was falling down and there was a streak of mud across her cheek. And she looked at him with nothing but worry.
"Where..." Uther could only manage the one word, but Gwen seemed to understand.
"We're about half a day north of Camelot, Sire, deep in the woods," she said. "Prince Arthur and sixteen knights are here – they returned for you and Gaius, but Morgause and... and Morgana have put an enchantment on the army; they're holding Camelot under a martial law. And Cenred is there, with his men – they're holding the castle," she said. "We had to leave again, once we had you – there are too many of them."
Uther's mind raced, and he could feel himself fast losing energy again. "Gaius..."
Gwen bit her lip. "He's in a bad way, Sire," she said. "It took a lot out of him, to keep Morgause away from you. Merlin's tending to him."
The cart shuddered to a halt, and Uther hissed in pain. Gwen turned away from him and did something with whatever she'd been working on when he'd first seen her. She turned back to him with a beaker in her hands.
"Here, Sire – this will help with the pain," she said. She held it up to his lips and helped him to drink from it – it was bitter, and tasted of herbs, but Uther could feel it working immediately. The pain didn't disappear but it did dim. He lay back and closed his eyes again.
"You think that Morgause had to trick me into killing you? You really think I needed any kind of encouragement? All my life I have watched you destroy lives and tear families apart because of your irrational hatred of magic – countless innocent people have been killed because of you! I did not ask to have magic, it is a part of who I am – but I lived in fear of you finding out about me. And then I found out the truth. You claimed to love me, but you have lied to me my entire life. Well, I know the truth, father, and now I am going to take what is rightfully mine. You do not deserve to be king."
If only there were a draught to erase the pain of memory.
Gwen had to be very careful as she made her way through the castle in search of Arthur. Not only were there servants and knights and guards hurrying in every direction, readying for Arthur's departure, but she had to make sure that Morgana didn't see her.
She found Arthur poring over a map of Ilamar – a town on Camelot's Eastern border – with Sir Leon and Sir Percival. Merlin was hovering behind them, checking Arthur's armour.
Arthur glanced up and spotted her. "Guinevere! I – erm, yes?"
Gwen swallowed down her nervousness. "Sire, I have a message for you from my mistress," she said. "Might I speak to you a moment?"
Arthur followed her to a corner of the room and stood closer than appropriate, looming over her. "What is it, Gwen?"
Gwen tilted her head back and met his eyes, hers flashing in the candlelight. "Don't go," she said.
Arthur frowned. "Wait, Morgana said –"
"No, not Morgana," Gwen said. "This is me. Don't go."
Arthur smiled. "Cenred has to be stopped once and for all," he said. Then he put a hand on her arm. "Guinevere, I'll be fine..."
"I know," Gwen said. "But I... I don't think you should be leaving Camelot right now."
Gwen swallowed. "Because... I –"
"Ah, Gwen, there you are."
Gwen jumped nearly a foot in the air at the sound of her mistress' voice, and scrambled out of the corner, putting some distance between her and Arthur, who was still looking confused. "Gwen –" He started, but she shook her head as Morgana walked over to her.
"Be careful," she said quietly.
"Yes, Arthur, be very careful," Morgana said, putting a hand on his arm and giving him a worried frown.
"I'll be fine – we all will," Arthur said. He gave Gwen another smile, nodded to Morgana, and went back to rejoin Leon and Percival.
Morgana turned to Gwen – the worried frown was gone, replaced by pure steel. "Gwen, my bedclothes need changing," she said.
"Yes my lady," Gwen said. She bobbed a curtsy and practically ran out of the room.
The cart had stopped, and Gwen could hear Arthur giving orders for the knights to set up camp. Gwen stayed where she was, sitting on the hard wooden boards of the cart beside her king. Her dying king. Gwen was surprised at how upset the thought of Uther dying made her. Whatever his crimes, he hadn't deserved to be killed this way – by the woman he had loved unconditionally her entire life. Gwen could see the pain in his eyes, and knew it wasn't just physical. And Arthur would be devastated.
The cover over the cart was lifted to reveal the man himself – Arthur heaved himself up onto the back of the cart and let the sheet fall back down.
"We're stopping here and setting up camp," he said. "We need to regroup and decide what to do next."
"How is he?" Arthur asked, staring at his father.
"He did wake up briefly, but he fell asleep again," Gwen told him. "I gave him something for the pain."
Arthur nodded. "Well that's good, isn't it?" He said. "That he woke up?"
Gaius had been the one to tell Gwen there was no hope for the king, but she couldn't bring herself to pass on that message to Arthur.
"I think so," she said carefully.
Arthur sat silently for a moment, just staring at his father, and Gwen sat staring at her hands, feeling that she was intruding on an intensely private moment.
"You tried to stop me leaving for Ilamar," Arthur said after a moment. He gave Gwen a piercing look. "Did you know this would happen?"
"No, of course not," Gwen said. "I just... I didn't think that it would be safe to leave Morgana alone with your father without the knights for protection."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur demanded. "About what you knew about Morgana?"
"I – I'm sorry."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur repeated.
Gwen twisted her hands together. "I didn't know anything for sure," she said. "All I knew was... was that she and Morgause were working together." She gave Arthur a pleading look. "But I never thought that Morgana would actually... I thought she must have been bluffing. That she actually had a plan to stop Morgause." She looked back down at her hands. "I thought I could help her."
"But I could have helped you help her," Arthur said quietly.
"I know but... I was scared," Gwen said. "I heard Morgause telling Morgana to kill me if I looked like I knew anything." She looked at Arthur again. "You must have noticed how she came looking for me, when I came to warn you."
Arthur leant forward, and placed his hand on Gwen's. "I never would have let them do anything to you," he said. "If you had told me, I would have protected you with my life."
"I know but..."
"But what, Guinevere?" Arthur demanded.
Gwen looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "I didn't think you'd believe me."
Arthur jerked back as if she had slapped him. "What?" Gwen didn't say anything, and Arthur shook his head. "You know, it's not that surprising from Merlin – I expect him to be an idiot. But did you really think that I would just dismiss something this important?"
"Morgana's your sister!"Gwen protested.
"And you're my..." Arthur's voice trailed off and Gwen threw up her hands.
"Exactly, Arthur – I'm nothing!"
Arthur's eyes flashed fire. "You're everything Gwen!" He was almost shouting, and he seemed to realise it, because his next words were a kind of shouted whisper. "I really do not know what else I can do, Guinevere, to prove how I feel about you. I've protected you, I've sacrificed for you, I've told you – but you act like I'm still that selfish princeling who never even looked at you. I don't know what else to do."
"You don't have to do anything Arthur – there's nothing you can do!" Gwen exclaimed. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Morgana, I know I should have, but you have no idea what it's like for me! You have no idea what it's like to be powerless – how could you? You tell me that you love me and talk of the two of us as if everything will work out perfectly – you just can't see that real life doesn't work that way. I can't bring myself to believe you – I can't set myself up for that kind of heartbreak!"
Gwen's eyes were brimming with tears now, but she refused to let them fall – she looked away from Arthur, breathing heavily.
There was a loaded silence, and then Arthur spoke again, his voice quivering with suppressed anger. "You might be right," he said. "Maybe there won't be a happy ending for us. But it won't be from lack of trying on my part."
He leant forward again and put his hand on her arm. "The difference between us, Guinvere, is that I fight for the things I want," he said.
Gwen swallowed and looked back at him. "The difference between us, Arthur," she said, "is that you get what you want. I don't."
Arthur sat back. "I need to see to the camp," he said. And without another word he lifted the sheet and jumped off the cart.
Gwen drew her knees up to her chest and stopped fighting the tears.
Uther opened his eyes, but Gwen was too busy crying to notice.
"Elyan! Gwaine! Come quick!" Gwen yelled for her brother and her friend as she threw open the trunk at the foot of her bed, pulling out her travelling clothes and boots.
Gwen was halfway through pulling on her shirt and getting out of her dress when Elyan came running in from the forge, a red hot poker in one hand. He quickly turned around when he saw Gwen was changing.
"Gwen! Honestly, some warning would be nice!"
"We don't have time to be prudish Elyan, we need to get out here!" Gwen exclaimed, pulling on her leather breeches.
Gwaine came running into the house at that moment and didn't need Elyan shoving him against a wall to know to turn around.
"What's going on?" He demanded.
"It's Morgana," Gwen said, starting to pull on her boots. "She's poisoned Uther."
"What?" Elyan and Gwaine gasped simultaneously, both turning to stare at Gwen.
"He collapsed in front of the whole court, moments after confessing that Morgana is actually his daughter."
Elyan dropped the poker. "She's... what?"
"And the witch Morgause and Cenred broke into the castle – they've declared Morgana queen. And the guards – they're all enchanted. Morgause has done something to them."
Elyan sank back against the wall. "What do we do?"
Gwen stood up, her travelling cloak in hand. "We find Arthur."
Arthur knew something was wrong when they were still five miles outside of Ilamar. The reports had said that Cenred was holding the defenceless farming town with forty of his men – but the people of Ilamar were still out in the fields, tending to their crops. They all looked up in surprise as Arthur went thundering past, twenty of Camelot's knights fanned out behind him.
The town came into view as they crested a hill – all was as it should be. Quick questioning of a few of the peasants revealed it to be so.
"It's a diversion," Merlin said, his face stricken with fear.
"From what?" Arthur said, staring across at the peaceful town.
"To get you out of Camelot," Merlin said. "All of you."
Arthur swore. "I think you're right," he said. "We ride for Camelot!" He yelled to the knights, and in a flash of red and a thunder of hooves, they were gone again.
"Gwen, we need to stop," Elyan said for the fourth time in two minutes. "We need to find a proper bandage for your arm."
Gwaine looked over his shoulder at the siblings, who had been having this argument since leaving Camelot. "He's right, Gwen," he said. "That arrow really got you."
Gwen shook her head. "I'm fine," she said. "It's not bleeding so much now – and we can stop when we find Arthur."
"That won't be for hours, Gwen," Elyan said, pulling the horse up. "Ilamar is miles from here."
"Keep going," Gwen insisted, digging her heels into the horse's flank. The horse, confused by the differing directions of its two riders, reared up, and it was all Gwen could do to keep hold of her brother as he calmed him down.
"I'm serious Gwen, it will only be – "
"Hush, Elyan," Gwen whispered. "Listen!"
The usual noises of the forest were being disturbed by a rumbling sound, steadily getting louder. Within moments Gwen could hear that it was actually the sound of a large group of horses, and few moments later they saw them cantering through the trees to their right – but it was the red cloaks of their riders that had Gwen leaning against her brother's back in relief.
"Arthur! Merlin! Arthur!"
With the three of them shouting, the knights heard and all slowed their horses to a walk – Arthur and Merlin trotted over to them, Sir Leon following close behind.
"Gwen – Elyan – Gwaine – what are you doing here?" Arthur demanded. "We got to Ilamar and realised that – Gwen! Your arm!"
Gwen had dismounted and stumbled a little bit when she hit the ground, feeling a little light-headed. Elyan jumped off the horse too and got to her just before Arthur did.
"It was an arrow," Elyan told him. "It just grazed her, but it was bleeding quite badly." He was tearing a strip off the bottom of his shirt as he spoke, and Gwen meekly held out her arm to him as he wrapped it up.
"An arrow?" Arthur demanded. "Who was shooting at you?"
Elyan and Gwen glanced at each other before Gwen turned to Arthur to answer him. "It was one of Cenred's men," she said. "Arthur: Cenred and Morgause have taken the castle. There are about forty or fifty of his men, and Morgause has put some kind of enchantment on the guards in the city – they're all following her orders."
"What kind of enchantment?" Asked Merlin, jumping down next to Arthur.
"I don't know," Gwen said. "But their eyes have gone black and they barely move, except when Morgause tells them to do something. We barely escaped with our lives."
"How did they get in?" Leon asked, dismounting as well.
Gwen bit her lip. "It was Morgana," she said.
Arthur reeled back. "What? Morgana?"
Gwen nodded. "She's working with Morgause and Cenred," she told him. "She arranged for Cenred's men to be brought in. She helped Morgause with the enchantment. She... Arthur, she poisoned your father."
"Is he dead?" He demanded.
"It was a slow-acting poison – he was still alive when I left," Gwen said. "But... they've declared Morgana Queen."
Arthur shook his head. "But that doesn't make any sense," he said. "Morgana is father's ward, she doesn't have any claims on the throne."
"Before he was poisoned, Morgana made the king admit that she is actually his daughter," Gwen told him miserably. "The entire court heard."
"That's not true," Arthur said at once.
"It is." Everyone turned to look at Merlin in surprise, and he shifted uncomfortably. "It was when she fell down the stairs, and we all thought she would die," he explained. "The king told Gaius that she was actually his daughter. I was in the room too, but the king didn't realise. And we think that Morgana heard him too."
Arthur stared at Merlin for a long moment before shaking himself and turning back to Gwen and the others. "But even if that's the case, it doesn't explain why she would be working with Morgause and Cenred," he said. "Has she been enchanted too?"
Gwen shook her head. "No," she said. "She... she has magic, Arthur. And she and Morgause... I think they've been working together ever since Morgana came back. I saw them together a few weeks ago."
Arthur gaped at her.
"They have been." It was Merlin again. "Morgause... she's Morgana's sister. They have the same mother. And they've been working together for months. Morgana made everything up about her abduction; it was all part of a plan. She was the one who set up the Castle of Fyrien – that's how Cenred knew where to find Elyan."
Arthur looked livid. "Why didn't you say something?"
Merlin looked away for a moment before answering. "The day when she went missing, when we got back to the castle and everyone was asleep... the reason Morgana wasn't was because she was the lynch-pin of the spell; Morgause was using her to make it work," Merlin said. "So I tried to kill her. I poisoned her. Morgause came in and she stopped the spell and they both disappeared, but Morgana knew what I'd done. She's been using it as leverage over me since she got back. If I'd said something she would have told Uther."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin gave him a look. "Would you have believed me? Really?"
Arthur's face grew very red and it looked like he was about to start yelling at Merlin, but instead he swallowed and turned back to Gwen. "Is the enchantment over everyone in Camelot?" He asked her.
"No, it's just the guards," she said.
Arthur nodded. "Right. Come on – we ride for Camelot."
"We can't!" Gwen exclaimed. "There's far too many of them!"
Arthur mounted his horse and shook his head. "I know," he said. "But we need to find out what we're dealing with. We'll sneak in through the sewers into the lower town."
The sewers weren't exactly pleasant, but they got Arthur and everyone else into the lower town easily enough. Arthur and the knights had left their armour and conspicuous red cloaks behind in the forest with the horses, and everyone made their way to Gwen's house to regroup. As Gwen had said, the castle was being held by Cenred's men, and the Camelot guards were under some kind of enchantment. They stood stock-still in all the entrances to the castle, and on the walls of the city. There were no guards patrolling the streets of the lower town – the people of Camelot were clearly terrified, and were huddling in groups and staying low.
"I spoke to a couple of people on my way here," Gwen said when they were all gathered. "Charlotte – she's a servant at the castle – she told me that Geoffrey of Monmouth has crowned Morgana."
There were general cries of dismay from the assembled knights, and Arthur sagged back against the wall. "So my father's dead."
Gwen shook her head. "That's the thing – Charlotte said that he was at the coronation, that Morgana and Morgause made him watch," she said. "Then Morgause was about to kill him but Gaius stopped her – he did some kind of magic, she said, and Gaius managed to get the king out of the hall and into his rooms... she says they're still in there, barricaded in."
Arthur stood up straight as all of the knights exchanged glances. They knew what had to be done – there was no question in anyone's mind.
"We'll need some kind of diversion," Leon said. "To give Arthur time to get to the king."
"And a way into the castle," said Percival.
"Didn't you say the king had been poisoned?" Gwaine asked Gwen.
"Yes – a slow poison. He's probably quite bad by now."
"Well, he's not going to be able to walk through the sewers then, is he?"
"Alright," said Arthur, stepping into the middle of the room. "Percival – you, Gwaine, Howard and Dennis go to the North Gate – it's the smallest one, and there's nothing to the North but forest. It won't be heavily guarded. Take down the guards there, get us an escape route. If you can, try not to kill them."
Percival and the other nodded.
"Leon – we'll go in through the North-West stair. I need you to draw off as many of Cenred's men as possible – attack the South Gate; you won't be ambushed there, and there's a clear run to the North Gate when you need it."
"Guinevere - Elyan – you two know the town, and where to get everything. We're going to need a couple of carts, with horses, ready by the North Gate," Arthur said. "If you can, get some supplies as well."
"Merlin and I will go and get my father and Gaius – it's easiest if it's just the two of us," Arthur said. "Everyone else is with Leon. Let's go."
The plan worked beautifully, right until the moment Merlin and Arthur tried to break into Gaius' rooms and found them sealed shut. No amount of pushing at the door could budge it, and they couldn't call out to Gaius for fear of being heard. Luck was with them when one of Cenred's men appeared around the corner and distracted Arthur – Merlin was able to use a spell on the door. To his surprise, he found that it was not furniture that was keeping the door shut; it was a powerful spell. Merlin checked that Arthur wasn't watching and pushed on the door with all his might – his eyes flashed and the door splintered.
Merlin raced inside. The king was lying on the sickbed in the main room – he was alive, but unconscious, pink and feverish. Lying on the floor next to him was Gaius. He was also alive – barely – and came round as Merlin shouted his name and grabbed him by the shoulders.
"Merlin... had to stop Morgause... had to save the king..." was all he said before he slipped into unconsciousness.
"You take Gaius – I'll take my father," Arthur said, stooping and positioning the king over his shoulders. Merlin did the same with Gaius, bending almost double under his weight, and immediately saw their problem. With both of them carrying someone, they were defenceless against an attack. They had managed to sneak in thanks to Leon's diversion, but they had met a couple of Cenred's men – they were sure to meet more on the way out.
"We'll just have to be quick," said Arthur, his voice strained from the effort of holding up the king.
Merlin nodded and the two (four) of them made their way out of Gaius' rooms as quickly as possible, which wasn't very. They went back the way they'd come, but were still some way away from the North-West stairs when two of Cenred's men appeared around the corner and spotted them. They were running towards them before Arthur or Merlin could move, and to Merlin it seemed like everything had slowed right down, giving him time to weigh his option – his only option. He had to use magic, right now, or he, Arthur, Gaius and Uther would die.
Then, out of nowhere, a sword swung out from one of the rooms leading off the corridor and slashed through the stomach of one of the men. He gasped and fell forward, dead, as the wielder of the sword stepped into the corridor.
"Lancelot!" Gasped Arthur and Merlin at the same time.
Lancelot didn't say anything – he was too busy fighting the other of Cenred's men. He was no match for him – within seconds the man was on the floor, bleeding out beside his comrade.
"What are you doing here?" Arthur demanded.
"I personally don't care – let's get out of here!" Merlin exclaimed.
He and Arthur hurried forward, carefully stepping round the fallen men. Lancelot led the way to the stairs, sword out.
"I happened to be at a tavern a few nights ago and heard some of Cenred's men talking about an upcoming attack on Camelot," Lancelot was saying as they hurried along. "They realised they'd said too much so I pretended to be mercenary who hated Camelot – luckily I knew enough about the city to make it plausible. I joined up with Cenred's men. I've been looking for you two since it all started, but I soon realised you weren't here, nor any of the knights."
"We were fed false information about an attack on Ilamar," Arthur said. "As soon as we realised it was a diversion we turned back, and on the way we met Gwen and –"
"So she's alright?" Lancelot interrupted.
Merlin saw Arthur actually grit his teeth and had to hide a smile, despite their situation. "She's fine," Arthur said shortly. "She and her brother and a man named Gwaine got out of the city and found us, and told us what was happening. We snuck in to rescue the king and to assess the situation."
Lancelot nodded. They were nearly at the bottom of the stairs now. "What is the plan now?" He asked. "I thought that the attack on the South Gate must be a diversion – that's why I came here."
"You're good," Merlin said. "We're all meeting at the North Gate out of the city. Gwen and Elyan are sorting out a couple of carts."
"There are guards on the –"
"Taken care of," said Arthur shortly.
And it was. They had timed it perfectly – the great clock chimed the hour as they approached the North Gate, ducking from doorway to doorway. The chime was the signal for Leon and the others to make their way to the gate. Gwen and Elyan were waiting with two carts – Gwen froze at the sight of Lancelot, but quickly leapt into action, helping Arthur and Merlin place the king and Gaius on the back of the carts amongst the supplies they'd acquired. They placed the covering on the carts over them and when Arthur was distracted by Percival, Gwaine and Dennis running over and explaining that Howard had been killed by two of the guards, Merlin placed a spell over the coverings to make them impervious to arrows. Lancelot smiled.
Leon and the rest of the knights – well, almost all of them – ran to join them and as soon as they were on the carts they were away, Elyan driving one and Arthur the other.
"What if they follow us?" Gwen called out to Arthur.
"I'd prefer it if they did – at least then it would be a fair fight," he replied. "As long as they hold the castle, they have an advantage."
The knights, grim and bloody, nodded their agreement.
They made camp in one of the densest parts of the North forest, about half a day's ride from Camelot. They had circled round to where the knights had left the horses and their armour, and then headed North. The armour of the fallen knights was packed on the carts, besides Gaius, who was still unconscious.
The knights were angry – Arthur could see it, and understand it, because he felt the same way. He felt angry too, and useless, and betrayed. Above all betrayed. Morgana, the woman he had loved like a sister, turned out to actually be his sister, and had turned against them all. She had thrown her lot in with two of the most sinister people Arthur had ever met, and made herself Queen of Camelot. She had stolen his father's throne. His throne.
And Gwen had known. Merlin had known. The knowledge that they had both lied to him was almost as much of a betrayal as Morgana's.
His conversation – no, argument – with Gwen kept replaying itself in his mind, and Arthur couldn't bring himself to regret anything he'd said to her. He was tired of being the only one of them prepared to fight for their love – if that's what it even was. He loved Gwen, but did she love him? She'd never said it. She'd lied to him. She wasn't prepared to take a chance on him.
Arthur kicked a twig into one of the fires they had built and stared glumly at the cart which held his father and Gwen. Merlin sat on the back of the other cart, staring intently at Gaius as if willing him to wake up, but the cover was pulled down over the other cart, hiding Gwen and his father from view.
Lancelot was sitting by one of the other fires, with Elyan, Gwaine and Leon. A lot of the other knights remembered Lancelot from when he'd been, very briefly, one of them, and it was obvious they didn't know what to make of him, or he them. He looked very uncomfortable with the other knights, as if he felt like he didn't belong, that they were judging him. Gwaine, being Gwaine, treated him like his best friend straight away; Elyan had bonded with him over a conversation about axes versus swords; and Leon... well, Arthur had a feeling that as far as Leon was concerned, Lancelot had saved his king, and that was all there was to be said. Arthur sometimes didn't know what to say in the face of Leon's unswerving loyalty.
Gwen hadn't left the cart since they'd left Camelot, so she hadn't said anything to Lancelot yet, and Arthur could see that Lancelot was avoiding the cart – avoiding even looking at it. Arthur kept remembering how upset Gwen had been when Lancelot had left the last time they'd met, and he wondered if that was what had driven him to push her about her feelings for him. It didn't matter – it had all needed to be said.
Arthur sighed and looked around at the other knights. They had made tents out of sheets and tree brances – some were lying under them, some were eating bread and cheese, but none looked at ease. They were all waiting for Arthur to come up with a plan to release Camelot from Morgana's clutches, but he had no idea what to do. Four knights had died in rescuing Uther – one killed by Cenred's men, but the other three killed by the enchanted guards. Ordinarily a guard of Camelot would be no match for a knight, but something in the enchantment had made them ferocious as well as biddable, and until they knew a way to break the enchantment it would be suicide to go back.
Also worrying was the fact that no one had pursued them out of Camelot. They were in two fairly slow-moving carts – they could have been caught up to easily. But they had been allowed to escape. To Arthur this meant three things – one, that they knew they had the advantage in Camelot; two, that they knew Arthur would bring the fight back to them; and three, that Uther was dying, and there was nothing any of them could do to save him.
No sooner had Arthur thought that than did the cover on the cart shift and Gwen climb down, looking grim. Arthur jumped to his feet and the entire camp fell silent, staring at the two of them.
"Arthur, the king's awake," Gwen said. "He wants to speak to you."
Arthur stared at Gwen for a long moment – his father was awake, and that should be good news, but something in her eyes told him that it wasn't. He swallowed down a sudden lump in his throat and nodded, walking over to the cart. Gwen stepped aside but reached out as he brushed past her – her fingertips met the back of his hand in the lightest of touches. Arthur caught her eye and nodded before climbing onto the cart.
Uther was awake, but Arthur could see why Gwen had looked so shaken – he was wheezing through each breath, as if struggling to keep drawing in air, and he was trembling. His face was grey and there were dark purple shadows under his eyes.
Arthur fell to his knees beside him.
"Arthur..." Uther gasped out. "I'm... sorry... about Morgana."
Arthur shook his head. "It's alright, father."
"I should... have told... you..." Uther said. "Should... have... told you... both."
"I understand why you didn't, father," said Arthur, taking and squeezing Uther's hand. It was ice cold. "It doesn't matter."
"I... only...ever... wanted... the best... for you..." Uther gasped out. "I... didn't... tell you... enough... how... proud... you... make me."
Arthur's eyes filled with tears and he choked, shaking his head. "Father..."
"I... know... you'll save... Cam... elot."
Arthur nodded furiously. "I will. I swear I will."
"Try to... save... your... sister."
Arthur blinked, but nodded. "I'll try."
"It's... magic... Arthur..." gasped Uther. "It... ruins... all."
Arthur just nodded.
"Your... mother... was my... heart..." Uther gasped. "But you... need to... know... that... you are... my strength."
Uther's hand suddenly gripped Arthur's, vice-like, and Uther pierced him with a wild look. "I want... you... to have... what... I did. Fight... for... what... you want..."
Arthur's eyes widened. He couldn't be... could he?
Before Arthur could ask, Uther suddenly cried out as if in great pain, and his grip on Arthur's hand tightened further. The cry stopped and Uther's head fell to the side, his eyes wide open but unseeing.
Uther's grip on Arthur's hand was gone, and Arthur pulled his hand free, placing his father's hand on his chest before reaching up to gently close his eyes.
Then Arthur rested his forehead against his father's still chest and wept.
It was at least twenty minutes before Arthur stepped out of the cart again, but not a single person had spoken. Gwen had gone to sit next to Elyan, who was holding her close to his side, stroking her back as she cried into his shoulder.
When Arthur did appear, it didn't take much to understand what had happened. The look on his face was enough. Every single one of the knights got to their feet – so did Gwaine and Lancelot, followed by Elyan and Guinevere. Merlin slid off the other cart, and they all stood staring at Arthur, who faced them with a haggard face and red eyes.
"The king is dead," he said hoarsely.
There was a moment's silence before Sir Leon stepped forward and knelt down before Arthur. "Long live the king," he said.
There was a rustle of leaves and the clink of armour as every other knight followed Leon, and dropped to their knee before Arthur. Cries of "long live the king!" bounced off the trees.
Arthur stood stock-still in front of the cart, staring round as his companions declared their allegiance to him. Lancelot knelt; Gwaine knelt; Elyan knelt, leaving Arthur a clear view of Gwen, who stared at him across the clearing with red-rimmed eyes. Then she, too, genuflected and said in a quiet, but clear voice "long live the king."
"Long live the king." Arthur's head snapped to the left to find Merlin also kneeling before him – he was sombre, but there was no mistaking the pride in his eyes. Looking back at Gwen, Arthur could see the same in her face.
He took a deep breath. "No man is a king without a kingdom," he said. "We will not let Camelot fall without a fight."
Hours later, Arthur sat on one of the fallen logs in the clearing, staring into the flickering flames in front of him. The cart that held the king's body had been cleared of everything else it held, and the king laid out in state in the middle of it, his sword laid on his torso. Nobody had said much while they'd worked and then eaten, but there was something in the air – an impatience, almost. The knights wanted to be off, wanted to avenge their dead king, please their new one. But mixed in with the impatience was an uneasy acceptance – they couldn't do anything without a plan.
"Alright, let's think about this," said Arthur, breaking the silence. Those who were standing further off came and sat closer, everyone sitting around Arthur. He twisted round to see those behind him and shook his head. "No, let's sit in a circle," he said. "I want to be able to see everybody."
They obeyed silently, and soon Arthur found himself part of a large circle around two of the small fires. It included the cart that held Gaius, which Merlin was still sitting on the back of – Gwen was sitting beside him, having turned her nursing skills to the next patient.
Arthur sighed. "The fact is," he said without any preamble, "until we know a way to break that enchantment, we have no hope of taking the city. We're hopelessly outnumbered, they have the stronger ground, and they're... vicious. Besides, I don't like the idea of attacking our own people."
There were some agreeing nods.
"We need Gaius to wake up," Merlin said. "He'll be able to tell us what we're up against."
"How is he?" Asked Arthur.
"Better, I think," said Merlin, looking to Gwen for corroboration.
She nodded. "He has some colour now," she said. "I think he'll wake up soon."
"Let's hope so," said Arthur. "Now, assuming that we know how to break the enchantment, I imagine we'll have to be inside the castle to do so. I don't think Cenred will fall for the same kind of diversion again."
"We need to spread out the attack – attack the castle on more fronts, so they're spread thin," said Sir Percival.
"But even spread thin they outnumber us six to one," said Sir Dennis.
"We need more people," said Sir Olsen.
"Perhaps we could conscript?" Said Sir Percival. "We could find people to fight in the outlying towns and villages."
"That would take a long time," said Gwaine.
"And they'd need to be trained," said Sir Leon.
"More importantly, we would never be able to get a large force into the city," said Arthur. "To have any kind of a chance, we would need to sneak in again."
"Well then what about the people already in the city?" Said Gwen. Everyone turned to look at her, and she looked back calmly. "The ordinary people of Camelot, who live in the lower town – they are not under the enchantment. They are trapped in their homes, terrified. They could help us."
"Gwen's right," said Elyan.
"Would they fight?" Asked Sir Leon.
Gwen looked across the circle at Arthur. "They would die for their king."
"That's exactly what I don't want to happen," said Arthur. Gwen frowned and looked like she was about to retort, but he spoke again before she could. "But you're right. The ordinary people of Camelot have as much right to fight for their lives as we do," he said.
Gwen smiled, and Arthur couldn't help but return it, but the moment was interrupted by Merlin scrambling round on the cart. "Gaius?"
Gwen turned round too, and Arthur jumped up and hurried across the circle. He could barely see because it was so dark and Merlin and Gwen were in the way, but Gaius was moving around, and a moment later he heard his voice.
"Merlin... where am I?"
"You're on a cart in the middle of the North Woods," Merlin said, his voice breaking. "'Bout time you woke up."
"I'll get some water," said Gwen, and she quickly brushed past Arthur, leaving him with a much better view of Gaius.
"It was Morgause," he was saying. "I sealed the door but it took everything I had to keep her out."
Merlin nodded. "Well, you did keep her out," he said. "And then we came and got you. You're safe now."
Merlin hesitated, and glanced at Arthur before answering. "We got him out too, but he died a few hours ago," he said.
Gaius closed his eyes, his face tightening, and when he opened them again he looked straight at Arthur. His face crumpled. "I'm sorry, Sire," he said. "The poison was designed to kill him slowly – I'd never seen anything like it."
Arthur swallowed and nodded. "It's alright, Gaius," he said. He patted the physician's foot. "They poisoned him to slow him down, but I'm sure they had something more sinister planned. You ensured he died with dignity."
Gaius stared at Arthur for a long moment before nodding. "Long live the king," he said, his eyes slipping closed again.
Gwen appeared next to Arthur, and handed a jug of water to Merlin.
"He needs to rest," she said quietly to Arthur. "We can't do anything tonight anyway – let him sleep."
"It all happened so fast," Gaius said. "Not an hour after you left for Ilamar, the king fell ill. It was minor at first, but it caused him great pain. I soon realised it was poison, and when I identified the source Uther told me Morgana had brought him the drink. She was sent for, but she was down in the lower town, letting in Morgause and Cenred, and his men."
It was dawn, and Gaius was a lot better after a night's sleep. He was sitting propped up against some armour, explaining everything he knew to Arthur, Merlin, Gwen and Leon.
"Uther summoned the court and the guard, but it was too late – Morgause had set her enchantment the moment she'd entered Camelot, and the guard would answer to no one else. They came into the court, and there was no one to stop them. The king was in so much pain, and he admitted to the court that Morgana was his daughter. Morgause declared Morgana Queen."
"That was when I left," said Gwen. "Morgana wasn't paying me any attention, so I ran. I ran home and got Elyan and Gwaine, and we escaped to find you."
"Well, they called in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cenred threatened him, and forced him to crown Morgana while Uther watched. Then Morgause started towards Uther – I don't know what she was planning, but I had seen enough. I created a magical barrier and helped Uther out of the throne room and to my rooms – we managed to get inside before Morgause got through my barrier. I sealed the rooms, again, using magic."
He paused, as if waiting for Arthur to comment, but he just nodded.
"They came after us, but could not get through. Morgause, though, is an extremely powerful witch. It took all my strength to keep the door sealed. By the time you found me, I was nearly spent."
"You did well, Gaius," said Gwen, smiling at him.
"Gaius, what do you know about the enchantment Morgause is using over the guards?" Arthur asked him.
Gaius sighed. "It is controlled by a magical staff, Sire," he said. "I saw it when she arrived in the throne room. It stands behind the throne, protected by Cenred's men."
"A staff... like that spell she did to raise the dead," said Arthur. "Well, that staff was broken, which means this one can be too."
"I am sorry Sire, but I am afraid not," said Gaius. "I recognised the staff – it is the staff of Brandorin. It is a thing of immense power; it cannot just be destroyed. I have no idea how Morgause got it, but it will hold that enchantment forever."
Arthur shook his head. "There must be some way," he said.
Gaius sighed again. "There is only one creature I know of with the power to break the Brandorin staff," he said. He looked at Merlin, and Merlin must have understood something Arthur didn't, because his eyes widened.
"Oh you're kidding," he said.
"Gaius?" Arthur demanded.
Gaius looked back at him while Merlin covered his eyes with one hand. "The Great Dragon," he said. "He has the power to break it."
"The dragon?" Arthur repeated incredulously. "As in the thing that almost destroyed Camelot?"
"Perfect," muttered Arthur, closing his eyes. When he opened them he found Gaius and Merlin having another silent exchange – Gaius was giving Merlin a very significant look while Merlin squirmed uncomfortably.
Finally Merlin groaned. "Arthur I need to talk to you," he said, turning towards him.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "About what?"
Merlin got onto his knees and shuffled to the back of the cart, where Arthur was sitting. "Please, it's important," he said. "Follow me." And he dropped out of the cart.
Arthur rolled his eyes at Gwen and Gaius. "I'll be back," he said, before following his servant out of the cart. Merlin was already walking away, towards the stream a little way away, and Arthur hurried after him.
"Well, what is it?" He asked as he caught him up.
Merlin shook his head and kept walking. A minute later he stopped, on the other side of the stream, out of sight of the camp. He turned to look at Arthur, who was surprised to find he looked extremely nervous.
Arthur didn't have a good feeling about this.
"I'm a dragonlord."
Of all the things Arthur was expecting Merlin to say, it certainly wasn't that.
"A dragonlord. I'm a dragonlord."
"We don't have time for this, Merlin –"
"Ugh, just listen, will you?" Merlin said, stepping in front of Arthur as he tried to leave. "I never told you this but Balinor, the dragonlord we went to find last year... he was my father."
"Gaius told me, just before we left to find him," said Merlin. "I confronted him about it, and he never even knew I existed. But the power of the dragonlords passes from father to son – that's me."
Arthur just gaped at Merlin as he ploughed on. "It was me that got rid of the dragon last year," he said. "I told you that you dealt him a mortal blow... but you didn't. He knocked you out, and I ordered him to leave. A dragon can't disobey an order from a dragonlord. He left."
Arthur's hands clenched into fists at his side, and Merlin had the good sense to take a couple of steps backwards. "Why didn't you TELL ME?" Arthur yelled at him.
"Because I was frightened to!" Merlin exclaimed. "Balinor was banished, living in exile – he had to leave my mother because it wasn't safe for us with him there! I think I could be excused for fearing the same fate!"
Arthur had to take several deep breaths before he could speak again, he was so angry. "I suppose you have a plan, since you're telling me this now?"
Merlin nodded. "I can call the dragon to us. I can order him to break the enchantment for us; he has to do what I tell him to."
Arthur shook his head. "What makes you think that you can call the dragon to you?"
Merlin looked away briefly before answering. "I've done it before," he said. "I've spoken to the dragon since he left Camelot."
Arthur could barely speak. "When?"
"You remember when Morgana first came back, and I disappeared for a day – I told you I was sick?" Merlin said. "Well, I was suspicious of Morgana, so I followed her out of the castle one night – she was going to meet Morgause. The two of them caught me, and they tied me up and left me for dead in a nest of giant scorpions. I called for the dragon, and he came and saved me."
Arthur shook his head. He could barely believe what he was hearing.
"He saved me, and then he flew me back to Camelot..."
"Wait, you rode the dragon?"
"Yeah – it's quite fun, actually..." The grin on Merlin's face was quickly wiped off, and he cleared his throat. "Anyway, I'll call him; I'll order him to break the enchantment for us; he'll take us back to Camelot. I can do this."
Arthur shook his head. "Merlin, that dragon hates Camelot. He almost destroyed it last year!"
"He'd been chained underground for twenty years!" Merlin exclaimed. "And he doesn't hate Camelot. He hates... he hated your father. But he doesn't hate you."
Arthur snorted. "There's a scar on my shoulder that begs to differ."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Do you have a better idea?"
Arthur turned away from Merlin, shaking his head again. He couldn't believe he was even considering this, but as Merlin had pointed out, he had no other ideas.
"Fine – dragonlord."
Minutes later, everyone was reassembled in a circle. Gaius was perched on the back of the cart next to Gwen, sitting up by himself, and Merlin stood next to Arthur.
"Alright, here's the plan," said Arthur. "We head back to Camelot and you will all sneak into the lower town. Let the people know that I'm back." He looked at Gwen and nodded. "I have faith in their loyalty to me and to Camelot. Stir up the people and attack the castle – Merlin and I will break the enchantment over the army, so it will only be Cenred's men to deal with."
"How are you going to break the enchantment?" Asked Sir Leon.
"We have a way," said Arthur cagily. "Now, this is important – I don't want the attack to start until Merlin and I are in position; this is going to be dangerous, and I don't want the people of Camelot fighting against each other any longer than needed. We'll be arriving separately to you – when we arrive, start the attack."
"What's the signal?" Asked Gwaine.
"Oh, you'll know when we arrive," said Merlin.
Arthur glared at him before turning back to the circle. "We'll break the enchantment and take down Cenred, Morgana and Morgause," he said. "Get into the castle as quickly as possible and back us up."
"Yes sire," said Sir Leon.
"It will take five or six hours to get back to Camelot from here by horse – leave as soon as you're ready," Arthur said. "Gwen, set up a camp near the outskirts of the forest, and – "
"What?" Gwen interrupted. "Oh no – I am going with Sir Leon."
Arthur closed his eyes. He was not in the mood for this argument. "No, you are not," he said. "It's far too dangerous."
"It was my idea!" Exclaimed Gwen.
"Yes. Your dangerous idea," Arthur replied.
Gwen's face hardened. "Camelot is my home too, and I have no intention of sitting around while others fight for it," she said.
Arthur let out an exasperated sigh. "Someone has to stay with Gaius –"
Gaius frowned at that. "Excuse me, sire, but I also have no intention of staying behind," he said. "I am getting stronger every minute, and don't need looking after."
Gwen gave Arthur a triumphant look and he threw his hands in the air. "Fine!" He exclaimed.
He turned back to Leon. "Enter the city through the sewers again – we weren't detected the last time," he said. "Lay low in the town; if Cenred marks you before the attack there will be a lot of unnecessary bloodshed."
"Right then. Get ready." The knights all sprang into action, reaching for their armour, stamping out fires and saddling their horses. Arthur watched as Gwen helped Gaius down from the cart and closed his eyes. He should have known better than to try to hold her back, but the thought of her in battle...
Arthur opened his eyes and saw the solution to his problem standing nearby.
"Lancelot." Lancelot walked over to where Arthur stood and looked at him expectantly. "You were once made a knight of Camelot," Arthur said. "My father stripped you of the title when... well." Arthur drew his sword, took a step back and pointed it at Lancelot's chest. Lancelot's eyes widened but he didn't move.
"I think that was a mistake."
"Kneel." Lancelot stood shocked for a moment before stepping back and kneeling down in front of Arthur. There was a sudden silence around them as everyone stopped to watch what was happening, but Arthur didn't take his eyes off of Lancelot's face, and kept his sword pointed at his chest.
"Arise, Sir Lancelot," he said, arcing his sword up to touch both his shoulders. "Knight of Camelot."
Arthur lowered his sword and smiled at Sir Lancelot as he stood up. He switched his sword to his left hand and held out his right.
Sir Lancelot grasped his arm, his eyes bright with tears. "I know you'll do me proud, Sir Lancelot," Arthur said.
"My liege," he replied.
Arthur smiled again and turned away from him. "Elyan."
Elyan was grinning at Lancelot, and turned to Arthur still smiling.
"Kneel," said Arthur.
The smile was instantly wiped off Elyan's face as he stared at Arthur, and Arthur heard Gwen gasp behind him. He raised his eyebrows at Elyan, who took the hint and quickly dropped to his knees. Arthur pointed his sword at Elyan's chest and repeated the process. " Arise, Sir Elyan," he said. "Knight of Camelot."
Sir Elyan stood up, still dumbstruck, and Arthur clapped him on the shoulder, smiling. He turned to Gwaine, who was smiling. "Gwaine, I know you don't believe in knighthood..." Arthur said with a question in his tone.
Gwaine's smile widened. "I think there's something to be said for it, if you're serving the right kind of king," he said. Then, without being asked, he knelt before Arthur.
Arthur pointed his sword at his chest. "Arise, Sir Gwaine," he said. "Knight of Camelot."
Sir Gwaine stood up and shook Arthur's hand, and Arthur turned to face his three new knights. The other knights were watching with a mixture of shock and enjoyment on their faces – none more so than Leon and Percival, who were both grinning from ear to ear.
Gwen was crying – she started to walk towards them across the clearing. Arthur turned away from her. "Now, Sir Gwaine, Sir Elyan, Sir Lancelot," he said. "I have an important task for you." He paused for dramatic effect. "You are not to let Guinevere out of your sight."
"Arthur!" Gwen exclaimed, suddenly walking towards them much quicker.
"I mean it," said Arthur grimly. "If she sustains so much as a scratch..."
Gwen had reached Arthur's side now, and he could practically feel the rage emanating from her.
"I will guard her with my life, Sire," said Lancelot.
"So will I," said Elyan.
"All three of us will," said Gwaine, serious for once.
Arthur nodded. "Let's make it an even four – Percival," he called out.
Sir Percival came to stand with them too, and nodded. "With my life, Sire," he said.
Arthur nodded again. "Go and get ready," he said.
"You'll need cloaks," Percival was saying as they walked away. "We'll get the ones from the cart."
"We can't wear those!" Elyan protested.
"Knights of Camelot share everything," Percival said. "They would be honoured to have you wear their cloaks."
Arthur smiled a little and turned to Gwen, who looked absolutely livid. "Arthur..."
"I don't care if you're angry with me," Arthur said flatly. He reached out and cupped her face in his hands, and leant forward so their foreheads were almost touching. "I love you," he said softly, before letting her go and walking away towards his horse.
"Come on Merlin," he called out, not looking back at Gwen until he was on his horse. She was standing where he'd left her, staring at him, and he just smiled at her and looked away. Merlin had also mounted and was just saying goodbye to Gaius. A moment later he was at Arthur's side, and they turned their horses North and rode away.
Merlin had pointed out to Arthur that when he called the dragon it would need somewhere to actually land, and the problem was that they had set up camp in a particularly dense area of forest. Arthur knew of a meadow some hours away, and that's where they rode to – as Merlin has said, they would easily catch up the others once they were flying.
Arthur dreaded the prospect, and very much doubted Merlin's assertion that it would be 'fun'.
It took them almost four hours to reach the meadow – the sun was high in the sky by the time they did, and the others were probably almost to Camelot. They rode out into the meadow and dismounted.
Arthur looked at Merlin. "Well? What now?"
"Now I call him," said Merlin. "Here I go."
Arthur folded his arms expectantly. Merlin was hesitating, and Arthur wondered for a moment whether he'd been lying all along. Then, out of nowhere, Merlin threw his head back and started to shout – but it was like no shout Arthur had ever heard. It was like he was roaring – there were words mixed in there somewhere, but they weren't recognisable to Arthur, and anyway he clamped his hands over his ears to protect them.
Merlin stopped and stood still, breathing deeply, before looking over at Arthur, who was gaping at him. He tried to think of something to say, but he found himself completely lost for words.
A minute later, the beating of wings and the creaking of tree branches announced the arrival of the Great Dragon – it skimmed over the top of the trees and landed in the meadow, directly in front of Merlin. The horses ran for it.
Arthur stared. He had got quite close to the dragon a couple of times when it had been attacking, but it had never really stood still. And it had put on weight in the past year – it was vast.
It shook itself out and folded its wings in, and peered down at them both. When it spoke, its voice seemed to produce its own echo.
"Well, Merlin, I see you have brought someone to meet me," he said. "Arthur Pendragon... so small for so great a destiny..."
Arthur frowned at Merlin. "What?"
Merlin waved a hand. "He says stuff like that – ignore it," he said. He turned back to the dragon. "Camelot's in trouble. Morgana has killed Uther –"
"Uther Pendragon is dead?" The dragon interrupted. Then, suddenly, he tipped his head back and let out an almighty roar – Arthur and Merlin both stumbled back at the sheer force of it. It took a few moments for Arthur to realise that this was the dragon's version of a victory cry, and his hand tightened on his sword hilt.
Merlin noticed. "Twenty years, remember," he hissed to him. Arthur scowled but dropped his hand.
The dragon stopped roaring and looked back down at them, and Arthur was sure he was smiling. "And I suppose there is a reason you are not in Camelot, celebrating this joyous day?"
Merlin grabbed Arthur's arm before he could reach for his sword again. "Morgana killed Uther," he repeated. "And she's been crowned Queen of Camelot. Morgause and Cenred are occupying the city, and Morgause has put an enchantment on the guards in the city. She's using the staff of Brandorin."
The dragon cocked his head to one side. "What do you expect me to do about it?"
Merlin smirked. "You're going to take us to Camelot, and break the enchantment."
The dragon's smile widened. "I can't do that, young dragonlord," he said. "The staff of Brandorin is a powerful, ancient object, forged by human and dragon. It cannot be destroyed by either – only by both."
Merlin frowned. "Wait – do you mean..."
"I told you when it was forged, that the sword would be extremely powerful," said the dragon.
Merlin gaped at the dragon, and nodded. Arthur, meanwhile, was completely lost. "What is he talking about?" He demanded. "What sword?"
Merlin turned to Arthur. "It's a sword that will break the staff," he said. "But we'll have to go and get it."
"Where is it?"
"It's in a lake, about four hours East of Camelot," Merlin said. He turned to the dragon. "Take us there."
The dragon squared its shoulders, but a moment later he lowered his head to the ground, and Merlin started to climb up onto his neck. Arthur hesitated for a moment before following – the dragon's huge yellow eye followed him as he walked past. He climbed up the shoulder onto the dragon's neck, sat behind Merlin. It was hardly comfortable, but the huge scales of the dragon were warm – almost hot – to the touch, and at least he had one of the dragon's neck spikes to hold onto.
The dragon lifted his head – Arthur grabbed hold of the spike for dear life – and without any warning, leapt into the air.
Gwen, Gaius and the knights got to Camelot in good time, and were happy to find the sewer entrance clear. Now that the cat was out of the bag on Gaius' magic, so to speak, he felt no compunction in performing a quick spell to check that the coast was clear at the other end – none of the knights felt the need to stop him. The knights had all removed their red cloaks and armour again, but this time they brought them with them – they had all decided that, once the attack started, it would help the people to know where the knights were among them. No one had said it out loud, but they also felt that if they were going to die, they wanted to die dressed as knights of Camelot.
Gwen walked in between her brother and Gwaine – Sir Elyan and Sir Gwaine. Gwen still couldn't quite believe that Arthur had knighted them and Lancelot. Sir Lancelot was walking in front of them, and Sir Percival was behind. Gwen didn't fail to notice that they had formed a kind of squad around her, but she didn't try to protest – she knew better than to think they would disobey Arthur's orders. She had been so embarrassed when he'd ordered them to keep her safe, but then he'd said what he'd said and... how could she be angry with him? If only she'd been able to send her own handpicked knights with him to keep him safe...
Now that she was apart from Arthur and with nothing to do but walk and think, Gwen couldn't help but dwell on everything he'd said to her yesterday. He was right, of course, but then so was she – Arthur wasn't used to being denied anything, but she knew how the real world worked.
But was she wrong to just give up without a fight? She had thought only of protecting herself, her own heart over the last two years... what had she done to Arthur's heart in the process? All she knew was that Arthur had just gone off to battle without her, once again not knowing how she really felt about him.
They had reached the end of the sewers, and Lancelot had pried open the iron gate at the end. Gwaine scrambled through, and then Elyan. Lancelot held out a hand to help Gwen up.
It was the first time they'd really come face to face since he'd come back, and as she looked at him now she felt affection, respect – yes, even love – but nothing compared to what she felt for Arthur. It was all she could do not to cry.
She took Lancelot's hand. "Thank you," she said.
He nodded. "Milady."
Gwen smiled. "Lancelot, I told you a long time ago that you don't have to call me that," she said.
Lancelot smiled back. "I think you should get used to it."
It took them a couple of hours to get to the lake – it would have taken them about ten to get there on a horse. The thing was, you didn't feel as if you were going that much faster, except for the wind rushing by and the blur of green below. Merlin was right, it was kind of fun, but Arthur wasn't exactly in the mood to enjoy it, or to let Merlin know that he was right.
They landed next to the lake – it was one Arthur hadn't been to before, and it looked to be about a mile across.
"Well, where's this sword?" He asked Merlin.
Merlin gestured to the lake. "In there."
Arthur glared at him. "Are you joking?" He demanded. "How am I supposed to get it out of there?"
Arthur was just wondering how hard to hit Merlin when the dragon stepped forward and blew a jet of hot air towards the water. Where his breath hit it the water receded, held back by an invisible wall that drove further and further into the lake until it stopped about thirty feet in – there, lying amongst the reeds and sands of the riverbank, was a flash of gold. The pummel of a sword.
The dragon sat back on its haunches, but the invisible wall remained, holding the water back. Where the sword was, the water was almost ten feet high.
Arthur swallowed. "How do I know he won't let the water crash on top of me?" He asked Merlin.
"I'll come with you," Merlin said.
Arthur shook his head. "No – stay here and make sure he keeps the water back."
With a deep breath, he walked into the lake.
They were gathered in Gwen's house again, but this time everyone was coiled like a spring, just waiting for the signal to go. The knights were dressed in their armour and their cloaks again, and Elyan, Gwaine and Lancelot were dressed like them, making Gwen's heart contract with pride every time she looked at one of them.
They stood around, discussing points of entry to the castle and shortcut alleys through the lower town, and Gwen didn't notice the knights were asking her opinion on every strategy and deferring to her every decision, but Elyan did. He had a feeling that it would not be just four knights protecting Gwen in the upcoming battle – every single one of them would lay down their life for her at this point. Well; they would die for their king, so it stands to reason they would die for their...
Elyan could hardly bring himself to think it.
As Gwen had predicted, the people of the lower town were only too happy for the chance to fight back against Morgana's oppression. They knew Gwen and Elyan and believed them when they said that Arthur – King Arthur – was returning to Camelot and would break the spell over the guards. Everyone had seen how dangerous the guards were when the knights had attacked before, and no one wanted to go up against them – besides, the guards were still the people of Camelot; husbands, fathers, brothers, sons.
Gwen stood by the window of her house, gazing out and just waiting. The knights stood behind her – none of them sat – and mostly watched Gwen looking out of the window. It occurred to Elyan that they weren't so much waiting for Arthur's signal as they were waiting for Gwen to tell them to go. Which she wouldn't do until Arthur's signal, of course.
They had been waiting an hour when Elyan wandered over to join his sister. "Where do you think they went?" He asked her.
Gwen glanced at him. "I don't know," she said. "Gaius said something about a creature – that there was only one creature strong enough to break the enchantment."
Gaius had stayed with a group of townsfolk in an adjoining street – several of the children there had a fever.
"You think they've gone to find someone?" Asked Sir Leon.
"Or something," answered Gwen.
A moment later their unspoken question was answered when the air was split by a deafening and horribly familiar roar.
"What the –" Cried Gwaine, drawing his sword.
"The dragon!" Yelled Leon – he pulled open Gwen's door and ran into the street, the other knights close on his heels.
It was the indeed the dragon – the dragon that had destroyed half the city the year before.
"But I thought it was dead?" Yelled Sir Percival as the dragon flew directly above them, so low they could see every individual scale on its belly.
Gwen skidded to a halt next to Sir Leon and stared up at the dragon, her eyes wide. As the dragon turned towards the castle she spotted two dark figures on its back, and her hands flew to her mouth.
"Oh my... look! There, on his back!" She yelled.
"Is that the king?" Sir Leon said disbelievingly.
The dragon roared again, wheeling down onto the castle, and Gwen turned to Sir Leon. "I think that's your signal," she said firmly.
Sir Leon nodded. "I think you're right."
The dragon swooped down over the castle, and Arthur clung on to the spike on the dragon's back, hoping that no one could see him too clearly because he was sure he didn't look too dignified. It was fine when the dragon was just flying straight, but when he dived and swooped and turned...
The sword that Arthur had retrieved from the lake was sheathed at his side, and Arthur was trying not to think about it too hard. There was something weird about it – Arthur had felt it the moment he'd picked it up. It had power. Also, it had been lying the bottom of a lake amongst the mud and the reeds for however long, and yet when he'd picked it up it was spotless – almost as though it had just been polished.
And there was something about it that Merlin wasn't telling him. How had he known about the sword? Why did he seem so... almost chummy with the dragon?
Arthur shook his head and concentrated on what was happening – they had flown over the lower town, and Gwen and the knights must have seen the dragon. That meant that, if all was going according to plan, they and the knights would be attacking the castle any moment now. Arthur's first objective was to destroy that staff – according to Gaius, it was under guard in the throne room.
"Land in the courtyard!" Arthur heard Merlin yell to the dragon.
They swooped again, and the dragon landed with a clatter and a thump of his great tail on the stone staircase. Four of Cenred's men were in the courtyard when the dragon landed – he sent a jet of flame at them when he landed, and they screamed and ran, their clothes and hair aflame.
Merlin and Arthur slid down opposite sides of the dragon's neck and dropped to the floor – Arthur immediately unsheathed the sword and held it ready. From here they could hear shouts and the clang of metal on metal, and a moment later the warning bell sounded – the attack had started. Hopefully it would draw most of Cenred's men out of the castle to the walls, giving them a clear run to the throne room.
"Fly around the castle a bit to distract Cenred's men, but be careful!" Merlin yelled to the dragon.
The dragon nodded and sprang back into the air. Merlin looked at Arthur.
"Throne room," they said simultaneously, before running across the courtyard and darting into the castle through one of the servants' entrances. Arthur let Merlin lead the way through the rough-hewn tunnels – he knew them better than he did, and when they burst out of them at the other end they were on the main corridor of the castle, just around the corner from the throne room.
Morgause stood at the end of the hall.
Her eyes flashed at the sight of them and raised her hand towards them – a few words a bolt of bright blue light fired towards them – Merlin and Arthur dove into an alcove and the spell just missed them.
"Go in through the back door," Merlin whispered to Arthur. "You can stay close to the wall from here."
"What about Morgause?"
"I'll draw her fire," said Merlin.
Arthur shook his head. "Merlin –"
Merlin grinned. "Don't worry, I'm good at ducking." And without waiting for an answer, he jumped out of the alcove and raced up the hall towards Morgause.
Arthur jumped out of the alcove and, staying low, he raced in the other direction, keeping close to the wall, to the back-door entrance of the throne room. He could hear Morgause chanting something behind him and tried not to think about what she was about to try to do to Merlin – he needed to get to that staff.
Arthur found the door and tumbled through it, landing on one knee on the dais behind the throne. He pushed himself up using the sword he still held in his right hand, and looked around. The throne room appeared to be empty – and there, directly in front of him, standing up of its own accord and emitting a magical yellow glow, was the staff of Brandorin.
Before Arthur could take so much a step towards it, a voice rang out around the empty room.
"So like you, Arthur Pendragon, to come rushing in head-first."
Arthur froze and turned to where the voice had come from – the throne. A moment later Cenred's face appeared around the back of it, smirking at Arthur from where he was lounging on it. Arthur's insides twisted with rage.
"And so like you, to let your men do the fighting for you while you take what isn't yours," he retorted, taking a step towards him. "Get out of my throne, Cenred."
Cenred's smirk widened and he stood up. "Oh, your throne is it?" He said airily. "Then that must mean your father is dead." He bowed mockingly, in an over-exaggerated way. "Long live the king."
Arthur sneered. "You will pay for what you have done today," he said.
Cenred laughed. "Oh, I've waited for this moment a long time, Arthur," he said. "Please, do your worst."
Arthur nodded. "Very well." He raised the sword above his head, arced it round his body and sliced it with all his might into the side of the staff.
The sword was sharp and the staff was just wood, but it didn't feel like cutting through a branch – Arthur felt a shock that radiated through the sword and right up his arms, and the staff shattered into five separate pieces. The pieces fell to the floor, still glowing, but within seconds they had dimmed and all that was left of the staff were five pieces of splintered wood.
Cenred let out an almighty cry and brought his sword down towards Arthur's head – Arthur got his sword up just in time, but he hadn't been prepared for the attack and it forced him down onto one knee. Moving quickly, he let himself fall back properly and swiped his leg round, knocking Cenred's feet from under him. He thrust his sword down at Cenred's chest but he rolled away, and the two of them struggled back to their feet.
Their swords clashed repeatedly as they danced around, looking for an opening. Cenred looked enraged that Arthur had been able to break the staff – it was obvious he had been told it was invincible. Arthur used the rage, dancing away from him, teasing him, making him take chances to try to reach him. He swiped at Arthur's chest, causing Arthur to jump back and almost land on one of the pieces of the broken staff. Arthur took another step back and kicked the piece of wood up at Cenred's face – he automatically raised his sword arm to protect his eyes, and Arthur jabbed him in the wrist – he dropped the sword, and Arthur caught it in his left hand. Using his momentum from the catch he drew back Cenred's sword and sliced his side open with his own sword. Then Arthur followed through and thrust his own sword under Cenred's ribs and into his heart.
Cenred gasped one last breath and slumped forward onto Arthur's shoulder. Arthur shoved his body back and he dropped to the floor. Arthur crouched down to wipe the blood off his sword.
"Cenred why has the enchantment –"
Arthur stood up again and stared over the top of his father's throne. There by the double doors at the other end of the throne room, his father's crown resting on top of her head, stood Morgana.
Merlin had run straight down the hallway towards Morgause, hoping to get to here before she had time to aim another spell at him – mostly just hoping to distract her from Arthur as he made his way into the throne room. She sent another bolt of blue energy at him, but he flattened himself against the wall again.
"You're behind this – you and Arthur!" She yelled as he peered round at her. She looked half-crazed.
"Maybe you should have killed me when you had the chance!" Merlin retorted.
Morgause gave a shriek of rage and held her hands stiff at her sides, starting to chant under her breath. Merlin didn't have to be a warlock to recognise the beginnings of a powerful spell, and so he ran for it. He darted across the corridor and through an archway, up a short flight of steps and burst out onto the battlements. From here he could see the courtyard and, past that, the castle wall – they were too far away to see who it was, but two of the knights, several of Camelot's guards and about a dozen ordinary people were fighting their way along the wall, taking down half a dozen of Cenred's men. Arthur must have broken the staff.
"There is something about you, Merlin," Morgause said coldly, emerging from the staircase. "You always seem to turn up where you're not wanted."
"Annoying, isn't it?" Said Merlin flippantly.
"Extremely," said Morgause. "And it's time I dealt with you."
She raised her hand but suddenly there was an almighty roar, and the dragon rose up in front of the battlements. The dragon sent a jet of flame straight at Morgause – she threw up her hand and the flames dispersed harmlessly around her. As soon as the flames stopped she threw up her other hand and sent a bolt of bright red energy at the dragon. Merlin threw up his hand and the bolt hit against a golden shield, dissipating against it.
Morgause turned her head to look at Merlin, shock written all over her face, and Merlin raised his chin defiantly.
"Get out of here!" He called to the dragon. "GO!"
The dragon beat his wings and rose up, high into the air. Merlin kept his eyes on Morgause, and dropped the shield he'd made.
"Well well well," said Morgause, starting to smile. "This certainly explains a great deal."
Merlin glared at her. "You're finished," he said. "Arthur's broken the staff. Cenred's men are being overrun. Arthur's the king of Camelot, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Morgause sneered. "And I wonder, what would King Arthur say if he knew that his faithful servant Merlin was actually a sorcerer?"
"It doesn't matter."
"You think he'll accept you, Merlin?" Morgause taunted. "You think he'll let you live in peace? Life father like son, Merlin –"
"I don't care what you say!" Merlin yelled. "I don't care if Arthur hates me because I have magic – he's still going to be a greater king than you or Morgana could ever hope to be! You say you hate Uther for what he did – you're no better than him! In fact you're worse!"
Morgause sneered again and suddenly flung a bolt of red light at Merlin – he flung up a hand and blocked it, and a moment later his other hand deflected another bolt which hit the wall of the battlements, crumbling a chunk of stone.
"Impressive," said Morgause drily. "But I've had enough of you, Merlin."
She started to chant again, like she had in the corridor, and this time Merlin stood his ground, watching as sparks flew from her fingers, connecting her hands together with red lightning. Then, her eyes flashing, she threw the sparks at Merlin. Merlin flung out both hands and the sparks hit a golden wall, but he could feel them hitting it, jabbing at him, pushing at him – Merlin had to throw all his weight into the wall, closed his eyes to concentrate on keeping it whole. He leant back, bent his elbows and, with a cry, pushed the wall away from him. The wall shuddered and the sparks bounced off it, rebounding on Morgause too quickly for her to try to put up a barrier or stop the curse. She screamed as the sparks hit her and she fell to her knees, trembling violently.
She raised her head to look at Merlin, who stood still on the other side of the battlements, glaring at her. She gasped. "You may have defeated me, boy... but my sister is far more powerful than you could imagine... more powerful than even she knows..."
As if on cue, there was a scream from below them, in the castle – a scream that was unmistakably Morgana's. Morgause let out a cry of anguish and struggled to her feet. She cast a hateful look at Merlin and hurried down the staircase into the castle. Merlin ran after her.
Arthur stood stock-still at the sight of Morgana. She was wearing one of her grander dresses, a white and silver one, her black curls half pinned back, and diamonds glittering at her throat. A scabbard was tied around her waist and a sword with a jewelled hilt was sheathed at her hip. She certainly looked the part of a Queen. But as she took in the sight before her and turned her hate-filled eyes to look at Arthur, he saw nothing of the woman he'd loved.
Morgana smiled – a cruel, dark smile. "Brother dearest," she said. "How nice to see you."
Arthur placed a hand on the back of the throne and stepped round it to face her properly. "You are not my sister," he said.
Morgana's smile widened. "In denial, Arthur?" She asked. "I heard it from our father's own lips."
"I know," said Arthur. "Yes, we had the same father. But my sister was a kind, caring woman, who knew her own mind and only ever wanted to help people. You are not her."
Morgana laughed – the laugh was high, and rang around the empty room. "Oh Arthur, how like our father you are," she said. "He didn't believe it either. But this is me, Arthur – this has always been me."
Arthur jumped off the dais and took a few steps towards her. "The Morgana I knew would never have allowed Cenred to take over Camelot," he said. "She would never have treated her people with such callousness."
"A means to an end, Arthur," said Morgana. "To make a change, sacrifices have to be made."
Arthur shook his head. "You've gone mad."
Morgana smiled again. "And you have come to deal with me, have you?" She said.
"I have come to take back what is rightfully mine," Arthur said.
Morgana's smile disappeared. "Not anymore." Her sword was unsheathed and in her hand in a moment – Morgana had always been fast. But so was he.
They leapt forward at the same time and their swords clashed in the middle of the throne room. They were well-matched – Arthur knew all of Morgana's tricks but the problem was she knew his as well.
"It's over, Morgana," Arthur said as he parried a blow. "Even if you kill me, the knights will never swear allegiance to you."
"What makes you think I need the knights?" Morgana demanded.
"You'll need someone to keep order for you – the people won't stand for a dictator."
Morgana laughed. "Are you blind, Arthur?" She exclaimed. "What do you think Uther was?"
"He was a great king!" Arthur retorted. "He made mistakes, but he respected the people."
Morgana just laughed again but stumbled back a bit from a particularly heavy blow.
"And he loved you – unconditionally," Arthur said, landing another blow.
"He lied to me!" Morgana screamed.
"To protect you!" Arthur yelled back. "To protect your mother! And your father... the man you thought was your father. I wonder what he would say if he could see you now."
Morgana leapt at Arthur but he was ready for it – he span around and slashed with his sword – he caught Morgana's arm, gouging a deep cut in her forearm and making her scream and drop her sword. Arthur pressed the advantage – he knocked Morgana's legs from under her and dropped down after her, pinning her under his knee with his sword to her throat. The crown slipped off Morgana's head and rolled away before dropping to the floor with a clunk.
There was a silence as they stared at each other, breathing heavily.
"Go on then," Morgana said.
Arthur shook his head. "I don't want to kill you, Morgana," he said.
Morgana sneered. "No, far too noble to kill a woman, aren't you?" She said.
"No – I don't want to kill you, Morgana, because you're my sister," he said. "You always have been."
Morgana swallowed, but before she could say anything they heard footsteps and Arthur heard Merlin yell his name urgently. Arthur looked up and saw Morgause in the doorway – he raised his sword in reflex, and the bolt of blue light she sent at him hit the blade. The force of it knocked Arthur back several feet, and the sword fell out of his hand and skidded across the floor.
Morgause ran into the throne room and straight to Morgana – Arthur noticed that she was breathing heavily, and doubled over as though in pain. She wrapped her arms around Morgana and started to chant.
Arthur recognised the words and struggled to sit up. "Wait – no!"
But it was too late; her eyes flashed gold and there was a high wind, whipping around her and Morgana. A moment later, they were both gone.
Arthur stared at the spot where they'd been and then punched the floor. "Damnit!" He yelled. He looked up at Merlin, who had just appeared in the doorway. "They're gone," he said.
Merlin nodded. "But Morgause was injured – badly," he said. "A killing curse rebounded onto her – she'll probably be dead within minutes."
"Are you sure?" Arthur asked, getting to his feet. Merlin nodded.
"Well... good." He walked over to where the sword was lying on the floor – the magic it had absorbed didn't seem to have harmed it at all.
"What happed with Morgana?" Merlin asked.
Arthur sheathed the sword and sighed. "I couldn't kill her," he admitted. "I just couldn't do it."
Merlin nodded, not seeming too surprised. "Well, she doesn't have Morgause anymore, or Cenred," he said. "Maybe... maybe she'll come to her senses."
"Do you really think that will happen?" Asked Arthur.
Merlin shrugged, but Arthur could tell he didn't think so. Arthur sighed again.
There were footsteps in the corridor outside and both Merlin and Arthur unsheathed their swords, facing the dooway, but a moment later Sir Dennis and Sir Olsen ran in, with three guards on their heels. They all looked extremely relieved to see Arthur, who sheathed his sword again and strode forward.
"It's over, Sire," said Sir Dennis. "Practically the entire lower town rose up, and once the enchantment was broken and the guards were on our side as well, Cenred's men didn't stand a chance."
"Most of them are dead, but Sir Leon ordered that three of them be kept alive – they're tied up on the training ground," said Sir Olsen.
Arthur nodded. "Good," he said. "Get them to the dungeons. We're going to need to set up a field hospital for the wounded – get Gaius up here. Open up all the gates of the castle but keep guards on them, just in case we've missed any of Cenred's men and they try to escape. And send someone to get rid of Cenred's body."
"Yes, Sire," said all five of the men. They bowed to Arthur and hurried off.
Arthur turned back to Merlin and saw that he had picked up the crown from where it had fallen on the ground. He held it out to Arthur, and Arthur took it, feeling the cold weight of it. He glanced at Merlin before walking over to the throne and placing the crown on the seat. There it would remain until he was officially crowned.
"What now?" Merlin asked.
Arthur turned back round and sighed. "Well, I could murder a hot bath – but for now I'll make do with a clean shirt."
It really was all over. By the time Arthur had taken off his armour and changed his clothes, the castle was already bustling with activity again. Every single person he passed bowed or curtseyed to him, many with tears in their eyes, and Arthur made sure to stop and thank each of them for their loyalty. He made his way through the castle and down into the courtyard, Merlin on his heels, and stopped at the top of the stone steps leading down into it.
Six horse riders rode into the courtyard from the opposite corner – five of them were knights, their armour gleaming and their scarlet cloaks flapping in the breeze – but Arthur stared at the lead rider. It was Gwen.
She was still in her plain travelling clothes, her hair was escaping from where she'd pinned it up, and there was not a single jewel or rich thing about her person. But to Arthur, he'd never seen anyone who looked more regal.
Arthur shook his head and jogged down the steps. He strode across the courtyard as Gwen pulled up her horse and the five knights – Gwaine, Lancelot, Elyan, Percival and Leon – stopped behind her. Arthur knew how to recognise power, and he wondered if Gwen realised the sway she held over the five men behind her. He doubted it.
Arthur stopped next to Gwen's horse and held out his hands to help her down. She swung one leg over and he lifted her down, smiling at her. He opened his mouth to thank her – for helping him, for being safe – but before he could speak she reached up to placed her hand on her neck, pulled him down and kissed him.
Arthur's hands tightened on Gwen's arms and he kissed her back – his mind went blissfully blank and it wasn't until she pulled away that Arthur realised what she'd just done. Gwen had just kissed him in public, in front of everybody. Not only the five knights behind her, but all the other people in the courtyard. But Gwen was smiling at him when he opened his eyes, and she immediately wrapped her arms around her neck and hugged him close.
"I love you, Arthur," she whispered in his ear.
Arthur closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Gwen's waist, pulling her tight against him.
Later, much later, Merlin went to find Arthur in his chambers. He'd been rushed off his feet, helping Gaius tend to the wounded and clearing up after the battle – Arthur had also been flitting about doing whatever it was he did, so Merlin hadn't seen him since his... er... moment with Gwen in the courtyard. The story had spread through the city like wildfire, and funnily enough it turned out that most people in Camelot were hopeless romantics.
Merlin knocked on Arthur's door and then strode in. Arthur was sitting at his table, reading through what looked like reports. Merlin decided not to ask.
"Everything alright?" Merlin asked.
Arthur nodded. "I think so," he said. "I've sent Leon and Dennis to retrieve my father's body – the funeral will be at the end of the week. The coronation will be sometime after that."
Merlin nodded. "And the wedding?"
Arthur glared at him and ignored the question, but Merlin could see that his neck had gone a bit pink. He grinned.
"Well, I just wanted to see if you needed anything before I turned in for the night," he said.
Arthur shook his head and Merlin turned to go, but Arthur stood up. "Merlin – wait," he said. "I have something I want to say to you.
Merlin turned back round and Arthur leant back against the table and folded his arms. "Merlin, there are very few people that I trust completely," he said. "You were one of them."
Merlin started to grin, but stopped when Arthur glared at him. "Were, Merlin," he said. "Not anymore."
Merlin frowned. "I –"
"You lied to me about Morgana," said Arthur flatly. "You lied to me about being a dragonlord."
Merlin opened his mouth to protest but Arthur cut him off. "I know you had reasons for both of those lies, but the fact remains that you didn't trust me enough to trust you."
Merlin stared at Arthur, unable to think of a single thing to say. Arthur was looking right back at him, and Merlin could see, plainly, that he was hurt by the fact he had lied to him. Merlin was surprised by how guilty he felt... was Arthur right? Was it a matter of trust? Did he really think Morgause was right, that Arthur was the same as Uther? That's how he'd treated him.
Arthur sighed. "I'm going to give you a second chance," he said, "but if I ever find that you've lied to me again – even once – that's it. We're done." Arthur stood up properly and walked over to the window.
Merlin's mind raced. He couldn't tell him – he couldn't. Not after everything they'd gone through the past few days. It would be too much. But... what if he did find out later on? And more than that – Merlin was hurt by the fact Arthur didn't trust him anymore. He wanted Arthur to trust him. Needed him to.
Now or never.
Arthur looked over his shoulder. "What?"
The words stuck in Merlin's throat for a moment, but he forced them out. "I... I have magic," he said. "I always have had."
Arthur froze. "You... practise... magic?" He said softly.
"No, I don't practise it – I have it," said Merlin, walking over to where Arthur stood until he was right in front of him. "I was born with it. It's just natural for me, like breathing. That's why my mother sent me to Camelot, because Gaius was the only person who could help me make sense of it all."
Merlin took a deep breath. It felt so good to get this all off his chest.
"I'm sorry – I really am sorry that I didn't tell you this, but you have to understand this one, why I didn't tell you this one," he said. "I've wanted to tell you – so many times. But I always talk myself out of it, and I'm sorry. I do trust you, I really do, and I want you to trust me again – because you can. I spend all my time looking after you – you have no idea how many times I've had to save your life. Like today – I killed Morgause, it was me... or the time when you were bitten by the questing beast – I made a deal to save your life... when Lady Helen tried to kill you – I dropped the chandelier on her, I got to you in time using magic... I was the one that broke the staff that raised the dead; it wasn't Morgana! I –"
"Enough!" Arthur exclaimed, throwing up his hands. He stepped back from Merlin and started to pace, breathing heavily through his nose. "You're – you're a sorcerer?"
Merlin nodded. "I have magic," he repeated.
Arthur stared at him for a long moment before looking away. He looked back at Merlin and shook his head. "Get out," he said quietly.
Merlin swallowed. He didn't look happy, but then he hadn't expected him to think it was good news.
"I – alright," he said. "But I really am sor –"
"Out of Camelot," Arthur said.
Merlin froze. "What?"
Arthur glared at him. "Get out of Camelot," he repeated. "Right now."
Merlin gaped at him. "You're... banishing me? Arthur, I –"
Arthur's hands clenched into fists and he swayed on the spot. "If you are still in the city by dawn, I will personally see to it that you are executed for sorcery," he said.
Morgana landed with a thump on a cold, forest floor – Morgause landed next to her, her arms still around her. The magical wind dropped down.
Morgana let out a shriek of frustration and pounded the floor with her fist. So close – they had been so close.
Morgana realised suddenly that Morgause was breathing very heavily, and when she turned to look at her she found that she had her eyes closed and was very pale.
"Morgause? Morgause! Sister?" Morgana laid Morgause down on the ground and bent over her. Morgause opened her eyes.
"Morgana – I am sorry I failed you," she said faintly.
"No, I failed you," Morgana said. "Morgause – what is wrong?"
Morgause gasped for breath. "It was Merlin," she said. "Sister, he is a sorcerer..."
Morgana gaped at her. "No – he couldn't be..."
"He is – and he is powerful," Morgause said. She reached up and cupped Morgana's cheek. "But so are you. Harness your power, sister."
Morgana's eyes filled with tears. "Morgause... no – don't leave me..."
But it was too late. Morgause's eyes clouded over, and her hand slipped from Morgana's face.
Morgana let out a cry of anguish and collapsed over her sister's body, crying into her hair.
Eventually she had no more tears to cry, and Morgana looked up, her eyes flashing.
It was the middle of the night, and most of Camelot had retired to bed after a gruelling day. But one person made his way out of the castle and through the lower town. He stopped to slip a note under a door in one street, and then kept going, his shoulders slumped.
He turned back at the gate and took one last look at the city, and then shifted the bag on his back, adjusted his grip on the staff he carried, and walked away.