Last chapter of the story, don't worry though, the boys will be back. I may write the main story to go with this, but I do have a few interim ones in mind. So I'll see how I go, I have other stories to get back to!
They set out just before dawn. The knights had tethered their horses out in the woods, in the shelter of a nearby cave, ready for their escape. (Which they originally thought would have been less dramatic, and didn't involve Arthur) The group had settled there for the night, while Merlin and the dragon stole in through the caverns to retrieve the supplies they had left there. Arthur had been very much against it, but somehow Merlin managed to overrule him. They were all still wondering how Merlin had managed when he had returned safely, saw the dragon off and they had bedded down to wait for enough light to ride out by.
The sun hadn't even started to rise as they headed out. Arthur was on the horse they had brought for Merlin, and was wearing a spare set of clothes donated by Jonas, who was of a similar size to the prince. Arthur had come away with nothing but the armour on his back, and if he was going to stay hidden he couldn't wear anything that distinctive.
"We can get more supplies in one of the nearby villages, although Arthur had better stay out of sight. You're too well known in the settlements close to Camelot. Once we get further out we can relax a little," Jonas said.
"We'll still have to be careful," Robert said. "Every patrol in the kingdom will be on the look out for him, as will everyone else when word gets out."
"In which case, we may have to consider moving into the outlying areas of the other kingdoms," Gareth said. "Merlin, will you stop fidgeting!"
He snapped at Merlin, who was, for the moment, sharing the horse with him. Merlin stopped shifting about trying to get comfortable.
"Sorry," he said.
"Someone else can have him in a bit," Gareth announced. When no one volunteered, Merlin looked at them sulkily.
"As soon as we can we'll pick up another horse, there's a breeder a couple of villages over to the west, we can go through the forest and try and keep the tracks to a minimum. I think they will be after us as soon as the sun has risen," Rupert said.
"We have a good enough head start, by the time they even get close to here the tracks would have faded," Arthur said. "We should be able to get clear. We can hopefully hunt something for food. What supplies we have we may need to stretch."
"And we have enough gold to keep us going for a while," Jonas said.
"If it becomes necessary we can always put Merlin out to work," Arthur said, turning to grin at him. Merlin pulled a face back.
"Let's not hire him out as a servant though," Robert said. "Only Arthur can seem to cope with him in that capacity."
"Hey! I don't see why I should have to do all the work!" Merlin snapped.
"You're the servant, and it's your fault we're here!" Jonas said, leaning over to flick Merlin's right ear, making him yelp. Gareth winced. Merlin clamped a hand over his now throbbing ear and glowered.
"Well, if we can't hire him out as a servant, we can put him on the streets, I bet the ladies would just go for those pretty blue eyes," Robert said, fluttering his lashes at Merlin.
"Never mind the ladies, I dare say he'd be popular with the blokes, you remember that Lord what's-his-face who came for the harvest feast last year," Jonas said. Arthur and the rest of them roared with laugher, while Merlin's face went as red as his now throbbing ear. He rubbed his ear and pouted.
"Don't remind me," Arthur said, still laughing. "I had a devil of a time trying to keep Merlin out of harm's way!"
"I'm starting to think that execution might be preferable to this," Merlin announced. Gareth patted his leg.
"If you want to go back to Camelot, just let us know," he said soothingly. Merlin pouted even harder.
"You're not going to let me forget this are you?"
There was a pause as Arthur and the knights looked at each other before announcing in unison. "Nope!"
Merlin rubbed his ear a little harder. "Bloody knights," he said.
Some of the knights at the castle, and even Uther, suspected the way the exiles might have headed. The search set out just before dawn, at almost the same time that Merlin, Arthur and the knights had headed out.
It was slow progress to begin with, as they struggled around in the dark. They had headed out in groups, going all directions, in case Uther's hunch was wrong. There had been little short of chaos around the castle after the dragon had helped the seven fugitives escape.
As they arrived at the cave and dismounted, the knights sent furtive looks of concern in Gaius' direction, unsure why the king had insisted on the physician accompanying the search party. The old man looked tired and shell-shocked as he sat down on a rock, not looking at anyone, least of all Uther. Morgana hurried to his side, offering Gaius a drink of water in a very solicitous manner. Gaius took the care without comment, but when Morgana wasn't looking he sent searching looks in her direction. She was doing the same to Gaius.
Sir Leon and two other knights insisted on investigating ahead of the king while others scanned the area. The horse tracks where the animals had been tethered overnight were still there, it was a strong enough hint that they had been in the area. None of the knights dared voice the opinion that any further tracks would probably be lost. They could guess where they might head, but Arthur would know how they thought, and how they would search. The prince could evade them easily; he was the one that had trained most of them.
Uther stood over Gaius, saying nothing but hovering close to him. Gaius didn't react, he just drank from the water skin Morgana had given him. The knights weren't sure how she had managed to invite herself along, but none of them questioned it. She was the best person, under the circumstances, to deal with Uther, who was not in a very good mood. Uther turned as Leon came out of the cave, looking a little startled.
"Well?" Uther snapped.
"You had better see for yourself, Sire," Leon said tentatively. Uther frowned and pushed Leon aside to enter the cave himself. After a moment the king's voice called out.
Morgana helped him up, taking his arm to lead him into the cave. The two knights who had accompanied Leon shuffled out, and Leon followed Morgana and Gaius back in, to look again at what he found. The four of them stared, awestruck at what could only be Merlin's work.
Arthur had been forced to leave his armour, and so had the knights. They could no longer risk looking that distinctive but Merlin had taken steps to prevent the armour from rusting or the tunics from degrading.
Each set of armour hung in the air, perfectly held as if someone was wearing it. But no one was there. Arthur's took the centre point, a shaft of early morning sun filtering through a crack in the roof of the cave to illuminate it. The metal glowed under the soft light, the ends of the red tunic, embroidered with the Pendragon symbol, waved gently in the light breeze. Uther reached out to touch Arthur's armour, gasping in shock as his fingers passed through it, causing the image to ripple like water. He could feel the cold metal, his fingertips registering the solid material and even feeling the grooves where the designs had been etched in the surface. But his eyes told him he wasn't touching anything. The armour was there, but it was not. Morgana reached out to attempt to touch the suit of armour on the far right, belonging to Robert. Again her fingers passed through, but she could feel the metal. She tried to grasp the fabric of the tunic. It passed through her hand, and yet, she could tug on the hem, feeling it move in her hands. The image of the armour even shifted, as if responding to her pull, but again, her eyes told her she was touching nothing but empty air.
Gaius said nothing. He had no idea how Merlin had done it, but there was no doubt it was him. There was something about the careful preservation of Arthur's armour, and its position in the cave that spoke of Merlin's touch and left the hint of the promise he had given to Uther. That he would return Arthur, when he was needed.
The physician watched the pair of them carefully as they took in the hint of Merlin's awesome power. He could see Morgana's expression of awe, tinged with anger. Gaius knew the information would somehow filter back to Morgause, and they would learn just what sort of a threat Merlin was. He didn't have to hide what he was doing now, especially around Arthur, and the knights that had rescued him. Gaius worried about how Merlin's power would advance under that. Morgana looked quite uncertain as she realised what she might be faced with.
Uther turned and looked at Gaius, eyes wide, face stricken, as if this was the real point when the knowledge became unavoidable that his son had left. Worse than that, his son had left to protect a sorcerer and a servant. That was two strikes against Merlin without him being able to help either.
"What sort of spell is this?" Uther demanded.
Gaius shook his head. "I do not know, My Lord."
"How can you not know? You trained the brat!"
Gaius winced as Uther snapped out the epitaph, and he shook his head. "I did not. Merlin needs no training, he had been able to perform magic since birth. He has not learnt magic, he is a creature of magic."
Uther glowered, so did Morgana. Then she recomposed herself and went to Gaius' side, putting her arm around his shoulders. Gaius really didn't want her too close but it did seem to be one way of keeping Uther at arms length. He knew he was just as much a hostage of hers as he was Uther's. For both of them he was a way to get to Merlin.
"And you protected him," Uther said.
"Yes, I did," Gaius said. Uther tensed, and then he turned and swept back towards Arthur's armour. His back remained rigid as he stared at it, and his hands tensed at his sides. Then he blinked, looking down and seeing something he had not noticed before. On the large round rock which sat under the image of Arthur's armour, was a rolled up piece of paper. Uther frowned, he was certain it had not been there before, when he had reached out to touch the armour. He put out a tentative hand pressing his fingertips against the paper, it crinkled under the touch, as a hint that it was really there. Uther grabbed it, pushing the ribbon from around it and he unrolled the sheet of paper. Morgana and Gaius watched him, not moving, not saying anything.
Father (Uther read)
I am truly sorry for this, but I cannot allow Merlin's fate to be sealed so brutally. I know you think he is only a servant, and a sorcerer, but that does not hold the same significance for me. You will be angry, and hurt. I lied to you, and hid a sorcerer in the very heart of Camelot. To do so was not an easy decision, nor did I make life easy for Merlin when I discovered the truth, yet he bears no malice for how I reacted, or for how anyone perceives him.
If this is what I have to do, then so be it. The last thing I want to do is abandon the kingdom and you. You often tell me that being king means that you have to make hard decisions, but so do I, as the prince, as your son and as who I am.
This is not a decision I am taking lightly, but it is one I have had to make. I just hope that I can return to Camelot, my home, soon, and that you will forgive me, for what I have done to you.
I love you, father.
Uther exhaled heavily, screwing up the piece of paper in his hand, almost tearing it, until he suddenly seemed to realise what he was doing and he stopped, smoothing the paper out in his hands. Gaius watched the conflicting emotions running over Uther's face. Without speaking Uther suddenly stepped forward and held the piece of paper out to Gaius. He took it and started to read. Uther looked up and addressed Leon.
"We'll return to Camelot. I want the search parties to continue, we will find them. If you have to bring the sorcerer back alive to do so, then do it, otherwise, he is to be killed on sight."
"Sire!" Gaius jerked his head up. Uther stared down at him. They locked eyes and neither of them felt particularly surprise that Gaius looked away first. Morgana gently helped him up to help lead him away.
Morgana paused and Gaius turned to look at Uther.
"You're alive because you are the only reason that Merlin may return. And when he does, he will face the judgment of this kingdom, and he will pay for this treason with his life."
Morgana glowered at Uther, before gently leading Gaius away. Uther stood there, alone, trying to compose himself, but one tear managed to free itself, running down his face before he brushed it away, as if it was nothing more than a minor irritation.
They set up camp in a small clearing in the forest, a fire burning in the centre as Merlin cooked, with Robert's help. The knights moved around, setting up the camp, tending to the horses, checking through the supplies and packs. The only one who didn't help was Arthur, who sat on a fallen tree, with his back to them, staring off in the direction they all knew Camelot was. Arthur knew practically every inch of the kingdom, he knew which way the castle stood at all times.
He had grown quieter over the course of the day, as they travelled, sticking to the thick of the forest, and smaller trails rather than any of the major routes. They had not seen any evidence of any patrols. No doubt they were being hunted, but the small group were ahead of them. The trick now was to stay ahead of them. They had all known how single minded Uther had been in his search for Morgana. He would feel the same for Arthur, if not more so. Arthur was the heir to the throne, and what he had done could be considered treason.
"Are you sure the armour will be fine?" Jonas asked. Merlin looked up from the stew, while Robert rummaged around to find the bread.
"Yes, I told you."
"How is it not going to rust?" Gareth asked, dumping down a pile of firewood. Jonas looked at it.
"How long are you planning to stay here?" he asked, looking at the huge pile. Gareth shrugged.
"Merlin said we needed firewood, there's firewood. He never specified an amount."
"Thank you," Merlin said, sticking a few branches into the fire just to keep the peace. They all looked at him, very pointedly. Merlin looked up, eyeing Jonas and Gareth steadily. They looked back, and then Jonas turned his head to look in Arthur's direction. The prince seemed utterly oblivious to them all, sat with utter stillness, resting his elbows on his knees and cupping his chin in his hand. Jonas looked back at Merlin, a hint and question in his eyes. Merlin frowned; Gareth rolled his eyes and jerked his head in Arthur's direction. Robert was a little more direct, he put his foot against Merlin's side and shoved his sideways, off-balancing him and sending him sprawling.
"Go on," he said.
Merlin slowly started to get the hint, "what am I, group confidant?" he muttered.
"You're the one he talks to," Jonas said in a low tone. Merlin blinked, looking confused but he got up and walked up the short incline to where Arthur was sitting. Merlin clambered over the tree, slipping a little on the damp, slimy bark and he dropped heavily onto it, wobbling for a moment before steadying. Arthur watched him, trying not to smirk as Merlin struggled to stay steady.
For a moment neither of them spoke, instead they just looked out at the forest around them.
"Nice view," Merlin said.
"If you like trees."
"I do, they're kind of permanent," Merlin said.
"Not quite," Arthur said, looking at the fallen one they were using as a seat. Merlin nodded at the smaller trees that were growing close by.
"Other ones grow," he said.
"I guess," Arthur said.
They both let the silence fall again until Merlin broke it.
"For what?" Arthur asked, still looking at the view. Merlin kept his eyes fixed in the same direction.
"If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be sat out here. You'd still be the Crown Prince of Camelot."
"I still am the Crown Prince of Camelot. I don't think my father is going to remove me as heir, and it was my own decision to leave. I could have stayed."
"I know but I was the one that persuaded you otherwise."
"It was still my decision, Merlin, just as it was my decision not to reveal what you are, and my decision to allow them to see it," Arthur's head inclined back in the direction of the knights, who were tactfully paying no attention to the conversation. "It just makes me wonder, who was it that betrayed you. It wasn't any of them, nor was it Olwen, and it wouldn't have been Gaius. Who else knew Merlin?"
"I don't know," Merlin said, with enough honesty. Morgana shouldn't have known about him, but she knew he was an enemy, it would have only taken a momentary glimpse at the right time and she would realise. Merlin racked his brains to try and think. Maybe she just thought it was a way to try and rid her and Morgause of him, and in the end, they themselves had revealed the rest by their reactions.
"But that means they are still there, in Camelot, and we're not."
"No, but we have Olwen, we'll find a way to find out what is happening, and we'll find out who it is, and what they are planning to do. At least since they can't find you they can't kill you."
"True, but we don't know what their plan really is."
"No, but Gaius will look after your father."
"So will Gwen, and Morgana," Arthur said. Merlin blinked, his mouth almost opening, almost rushing out the words he knew. Then he paused, it was too soon, it was just too shocking. Arthur would never entirely believe it. He knew Merlin didn't lie to him, he evaded telling Arthur certain things, and for the moment, that knowledge had to remain concealed. He had ripped Arthur's world apart quite enough for one day, and if he could keep Arthur hidden, then he would be safe, until Morgana and Morgause played their hand. Then they would have to be ready.
"Come on, I think this is ready!" Robert said, stirring the stew tentatively. "Although, are you sure it's mean to be this colour, Merlin?"
"Only if it's rat!" Merlin announced; laughing as Arthur pushed him. As he rocked back he bumped his shoulder against Arthur's almost sending the prince off the log. Merlin spun, and threw his legs over the other side, getting up to head down into the clearing. As he stepped forward Arthur lifted a leg over and planted it into Merlin's backside. Merlin yelped, tumbling forward down the incline and sprawling face first onto the floor. The knights around the fire started to laugh, Merlin stuck his tongue at them and Jonas leant over to ruffle his hair.
Laughing as he followed him Arthur lifted Merlin up onto his feet. Merlin looked at him in resignation.
"This is how it's going to be isn't it?"
"Yep," Arthur said, moving round him to get something to eat, one by one the knights said exactly the same thing. After a moment's pause Merlin shook his head, rolled his eyes and smiled moving into the group to join them, taking some bread off Gareth and a bowl off Robert as they shared the food out between them. For a moment Merlin and Arthur shared a long look, both accepting what they had given up for the other.
They'd all have to return one day, but Merlin knew; it was liable to be a lot sooner than any of them thought.