Well, here we are, folks, the end of series 3 and therefore the end of this story. Not bad going considering this started off as a one-shot. Hope that you have all enjoyed, and that you like the final chapter. Until next time then!
"I'll need someone with me that knows the castle." Arthur frowned as Lancelot asked for help, wondering if he was imagining the look in the man's eyes.
Merlin's quick response told him that he was not seeing things that were not there. The two of them were planning something, Arthur was sure of that. If Lancelot was prepared to take Merlin with him, someone that the rest of the men just saw as a clumsy servant, it meant only one thing.
Trying to ignore the stab of hurt, Arthur nodded. Gwaine glanced between the three of them before rolling his eyes. It seemed that he too had realised that he was not the only new knight to know the warlock's secret. Unlike Arthur, he didn't seem to care, but instead stepped forward. He clapped Merlin on the back and muttered something in an undertone. Considering the way Merlin's eyes widened and he glanced around guiltily before nodding, Arthur knew that whatever the whisper had been, it had been about magic. Gwaine chuckled and winked before casually strolling off.
Arthur felt something that almost resembled jealousy shoot through him. Gwaine didn't have to worry about keeping Merlin's secret, he had no duty to. Arthur had known full well when he had knighted the man that his friendship with Merlin was going to come before any ties to Camelot that he might now have. Arthur trusted these men, but he still felt that the fewer people who knew about his servant, the better. He just hadn't realised that Lancelot too had been in on the secret. They hadn't seen Lancelot for years now, there had been no word from him (that Arthur knew of) ever since he had disappeared when they had found Gwen. It meant that Lancelot had known since at least then, and the prince had a feeling it was possibly longer than that.
After all, Gaius had claimed that the griffin could only be killed by magic. Arthur had believed him when his men had barely been able to touch the beast. So how was it that Lancelot had been able to defeat it single handily? Unless, of course, he hadn't been alone and there had been someone with him that held the power to destroy the beast. As he watched Merlin and Lancelot exchange meaningful looks, Arthur sighed and turned away.
Merlin was lucky that he could work his way into so many people's hearts. Lancelot, Gwaine, Gaius…who else knew about the warlock? How many other people were happy to commit treason for the sake of the servant? Looking around the small group, Arthur realised that there was a small smile tugging at his lips. He knew the answer to that question; all of them. The only person who would think twice was Leon because of his loyalty to the king as well as the prince. But Arthur also knew that once the head knight knew that Arthur was protecting Merlin, he would have no more doubts. It seemed ironic that they were going to be fighting together for the first time to claim back a kingdom that would have Merlin executed, yet were also willing to do anything to protect that same person.
"Merlin? A word." As the rest of the men gathered around the weapons, Arthur motioned his head off to one side. He felt bad about tearing Merlin away from Gaius, especially considering they all knew the danger they were about to walk into. But Arthur had to know, he needed to know that Lancelot did know the truth. He needed to know that Merlin would use magic to not only help regain the kingdom, but to keep himself alive as well. He knew his servant better than Merlin realised, knew that Merlin never liked putting someone in a compromising position. If Lancelot didn't know, and Merlin didn't want to put him in an awkward situation, then Arthur wasn't quite sure what the warlock would do.
He was going to make sure that he didn't have to find out.
It took Merlin a few moments before he was able to make his way to his master's side, but for once, Arthur made no comment about it. Who was he to judge that Merlin wanted a few extra moments with his guardian, when Arthur would have done anything to see his father right now. Not that he knew what he was going to say to the man when he did, however. Although he had known for a while that Morgana was his sister, seeing the king look so utterly defeated by the fact his so-called ward had also found out wounded Arthur more than he realised. Why had his father denied her heritage, why had he lied to them both? After everything Merlin had told him, Arthur wasn't sure whether Uther's behaviour was what was solely responsible for Morgana's. After all, if he was feeling betrayed by this, how on earth would she be feeling?
"Arthur? Are you alright?" Blinking, Arthur realised that he had been staring into space, nibbling on his lip as he tried to work out how he was feeling. Merlin's voice cut straight through his musings and Arthur shook his head slightly, trying to give his servant a reassuring smile.
"I'm fine. How are you feeling?"
"Me? Oh I'm fine, I've got the easy…"
"Don't lie to me, Merlin. I know full well that you aren't just going for the warning bell. If you were, then I would be ordering you to do something more useful. Lancelot knows, doesn't he?" Merlin looked torn for a long moment as he glanced over at his friend over his shoulder. Arthur knew that look, he knew that Merlin was trying to decide between telling Arthur the truth or protecting Lancelot. It was enough of an answer for Arthur to decipher and he shook his head.
"One day, you are going to start being completely honest with me." He muttered almost sadly, taking a few steps away from the group as he did so. Merlin's face fell and Arthur instantly felt guilty, but part of him had meant it. He had known about Merlin for months now, he thought that he had proved the servant could trust him to keep both the secret and Merlin safe. Yet it almost seemed second nature for Merlin to simply lie, as if he didn't think that Arthur would ever notice.
He knew that Merlin would come after him, and it meant that he didn't even turn when a hand rested on his arm, preventing him from moving forward.
"I'm sorry, Arthur." Merlin's voice was soft and quiet and Arthur found himself turning. There was the same look on Merlin's face now as there had been the night before, the look that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to work out alright. Arthur wasn't sure how he could be so optimistic considering the odds they were up against, but he just hoped that Merlin was right.
"I thought you would have come to trust me now."
"I do, it's just…" Merlin broke off, sighing as he ran a hand through his hair. Arthur didn't say anything, somehow knowing that Merlin wasn't finished. "It's just I've spent so long lying, to everyone. Maybe if I hadn't lied, none of this would happen? Everyone who has ever known about me has told me that you can't find out, that I would be put to death if you did."
"Nice for you to have so much faith in me." Arthur muttered sarcastically, shrugging off Merlin's hand. The servant reached out for him again before Arthur could turn, and his eyes were pleading.
"I don't mean to lie, Arthur, really I don't. But what would you rather? That I was still cautious and guarded and kept my head attached to my shoulders? Or that I completely relaxed around everyone, and let something slip by accident. It's easier for me if I still protect myself, despite the fact that you already know. Please believe that I never want to hurt you because of it."
Arthur nodded, partly understanding where Merlin was coming from. He couldn't have the servant be as clumsy with his secret as he was everything else, and just couldn't believe that he had gone so long without finding out. He moved away, but Merlin seemed to realise that Arthur simply wasn't at the place he wanted to be yet. The servant fell in next to him, and the two friends climbed over some of the large rocks that helped block the entrance to the castle.
Arthur led the way through what looked like had once been a courtyard, climbing up a particularly large boulder when he reached the centre. Letting his legs dangle over the side, he hauled Merlin up beside him before resting his weight back on his palms. His head fell back and he started at the sky, just beginning to lighten and change colour with the coming dawn.
"I always feel so small when I do something like this," Merlin muttered quietly, mirroring Arthur's position. The prince cast him a sideways look out of the corner of his eye.
"We are all small in the scale of things."
"Not all of us. You're destined for so much more than this, Arthur. And one day, you will see that, and everyone around will see that."
"See it already, do you?" Arthur had made it out to be a mocking comment, as if he was just humouring Merlin. What he wasn't expecting was for his servant to twist around until he was staring Arthur straight in the eye.
"Yes, I do." There was no amusement in Merlin's voice, no hint of irony that suggested that he was mocking Arthur. The prince held the man's gaze for a long moment, suddenly realising quite how much Merlin believed in him.
"What's going to happen?" Arthur wasn't sure that he had ever let himself so vulnerable as he did in that moment. Merlin smiled.
"I can't tell the future, Arthur, I don't know. But I do know that if we fall, we're going to fall taking them with us."
"When did you get to be so wise?" Arthur punched Merlin lightly on the shoulder, trying to relieve the heavy mood that had settled over them. Merlin rubbed it with a grin, and Arthur knew that his efforts had been appreciated.
"It's called living with Gaius for so long. Arthur, you have to tell him that you know. If something happens, I don't want him to think that I didn't try."
"Nothing is going to happen."
"What, so you can tell the future?" Arthur rolled his eyes, knowing that Merlin was grinning at him. If he was honest, Arthur was simply a bit nervous of confronting the physician. He was the only one in Camelot who could still make Arthur feel as if he was nothing more than a boy with nothing more than a look. For him to find out that Arthur had completely changed his views on magic… Arthur wasn't quite sure how he would react. And he wasn't sure he wanted to know either, not if it meant risking losing Gaius.
"He'll be fine with it. He'll be proud of you." Merlin's hand had come to rest on Arthur's shoulder and he gave it a gentle squeeze before dropping it. Arthur didn't even have time to say anything about it, but he was surprised by the comfort that it offered. He found that he was swallowing past a lump in his throat as he studied his hands.
"Your father?" Merlin hazarded a guess at the thoughts that were going through Arthur's mind and the prince nodded.
"What will you do?"
"He's still King. He might have lied to us all, but he doesn't deserve this. No king deserves to be usurped. It's my duty as the Crown Prince and the First Knight to restore him to his throne. But my duty as a son?"
"I only met my father briefly," Merlin muttered, fiddling with his sleeve and avoiding Arthur's gaze. "But I know what it is like to have to follow in someone's footsteps like that."
"Your father didn't lie to you."
"No, he just made me grow up without him. Do you know what that is like?"
"He was trying to protect you."
"I know, I know…" Merlin broke off with a sigh, staring out over nothing. Arthur didn't quite believe that he had just defended a dragonlord. But he knew that it was more than that… Balinor, first and foremost, had been Merlin's father. That was what counted here, not what he could or couldn't do.
"So am I, Merlin."
"I know that whilst my father is king, all I can do is try and protect you. But I swear, here and now, that things will be different when it is my time."
"Do you want to know why I didn't knight you like I did for the others?" Arthur stared stonily ahead, ignoring the way that Merlin was almost shifting in anticipation at where this conversation was going.
"Because I'm your servant?"
"Because no knight can have an official position at Court."
"What are you talking about?" This time, it was Arthur's turn to swivel until he was facing the younger man. Any hesitation he might have felt about what he was about to say beforehand vanished as he looked into Merlin's eyes. Hope was just beginning to shine in the depths, almost as if Merlin was holding it back because he didn't dare believe what Arthur was saying. But it was there nevertheless, and Arthur suddenly felt an irrational surge of pride that he was the one to put it there.
"My father is still King, Merlin, despite the fact that he is locked in a dungeon. If we succeed at this, then the chances are that he'll be king for a long time to come. But I swear to you, when his time comes to an end… You'll be free. I'll lift the ban on magic, Merlin, I promise."
"Arthur…" Merlin's voice was a breathy exclamation and there were tears swimming in his eyes.
"It's not that bad, is it?"
"Oh shut up," Merlin sniffed slightly as Arthur nudged his shoulder. Even out of the corner of his eye, he could see the huge grin spreading over Merlin's face as the truth of what Arthur had just said sunk in.
"And the official position at Court?"
"Well, I'm going to need a Court Sorcerer, aren't I?" Arthur shrugged, acting as if it didn't really matter what he had just said. Merlin froze, and Arthur knew that his mind would be turning cartwheels trying to keep up with what direction this conversation was heading in.
"I'll be recognised?" There was just a hint of alarm in Merlin's voice this time, and it made Arthur realise just how used to living his life in hiding the warlock had become. Unable to stop himself, Arthur felt another surge of anger towards his father shoot through him. His teachings had meant that Merlin had been too afraid to come to Arthur with the truth, despite the fact he had saved the prince's life more than once. Determined to try and force his feelings aside before he did something such as unfairly take them out on his servant, Arthur grinned.
"Well, I guess Court Jester position is also open is that more your style?"
"Oh shut up, you prat." There was no heat in Merlin's words and Arthur could see that the flicker of hope had burst into a roaring flame. If anything was going to get them through the fight, it would be Merlin's optimism that they could get through this.
"You don't have to stay. After all of this, I mean. I don't know how long my father's reign is going to last for. You should leave Camelot, learn how to live a free life."
"We have to survive this first." Merlin muttered, and Arthur found that he was agreeing with his servant before he knew what he was doing.
"Merlin, what you said before? About Morgause and not being able to defeat her?"
"I have a weapon this time," Arthur knew better to ask when Merlin had that tone of voice. He had no idea about the sword that the warlock had kept hidden for all this time, and if anyone were to ask, he would say that he didn't want to know. Merlin's secrets, much as Arthur hated them, had tended to save his life more than once.
"Do you think it will be enough?"
"I don't know."
"You're not really going for the warning bell, are you? You're going after the cup."
"You have to get your father out, Sire." Arthur knew that Merlin had practically seen what was going through the prince's mind. If Merlin was going after the cup, then Arthur wanted to go with him. Merlin, however was shaking his head, cutting through Arthur's protests even before they had crossed the prince's lips.
"We can't be in the same place, Arthur, they can kill us both. You have to make sure that your father is free, leave the cup and Morgause to me."
"That's your call, My Lord." Merlin muttered softly. It was only the title that he added on the end that made Arthur realise that Merlin meant it. Everyone would believe that Arthur had only just found out about his sister, but that was far from the truth. He had tried to make her feel at home, at peace, regardless of how he was personally feeling since knowing. Yet she had still turned around and stabbed him in the back, still wanted him dead. Arthur had had time to think about it rationally, had time to make a decision about what he would do if he ever came to face to face with Morgana in a situation like this.
"I wish I knew what call to make." It didn't matter how long he had had, Arthur still had no idea what to do.
"How did you decide so quickly for me then?"
"I found out by overhearing you talking about saving my life. I found out about her with you unveiling plots she had concocted to kill me. Makes a big difference about how you think about someone."
"Sire? It's time." Leon's voice came from somewhere behind them and Arthur lifted his hand to indicate that he had heard. Jumping off from the rock, he waited until Merlin had landed beside him before offering out his arm. Merlin took it, and the two men grasped each other, destiny being sealed.
"Thank you for everything, Arthur."
"It's not over yet."
"No, but you accepted me. No matter what happens now, that's all that really counts." Arthur dipped his head, gripping Merlin's arm for a moment before turning to walk into the castle. It was time to take back his kingdom, alongside men that had been banished from it and lived under the threat of execution by living in it. Arthur couldn't help but think that his father couldn't have been more wrong about how he viewed the common man.
"Arthur? I'll stay." Turning as Merlin called him back, Arthur frowned. After everything that had just been said, Merlin was going to stay here?
"Afterwards, you idiot." Merlin rolled his eyes, laughing as he moved closer, hearing the confusion in Arthur's voice. "After this is over, and your father is king once more and Morgana no longer a threat. I'll stay. I'll stay in Camelot, by your side like I always am."
"You'd probably cut off your own arm with your own sword if I wasn't there." Merlin caught up with the prince as he spoke, brushing past him so that he could enter the main body of the castle. Arthur suddenly felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him at knowing that.
"Merlin?" Calling back his servant, Arthur attempted a grin. "Good luck?"
It was almost as if he wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say when one was facing certain death. Merlin grinned back, his eyes sparkling with optimism and just a hint of magic.
"You too, Sire, you too."
With that, he disappeared from Arthur's sight. The prince paused for another moment as looked back over the lightening sky.
A new day indeed.