Disclaimer: No money will come out of this.
A/N: This timeline is in vague accordance with recent spoilers for 4x13, none of which I will reveal here.
"...But the scholar ran
Before the master, and so far, that Bleys
Laid magic by, and sat him down, and wrote
All things and whatsoever Merlin did
In one great annal-book,"
-The Coming of Arthur, Tennyson
King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot is holding a competition.
This is not unheard of in Albion- the High King is notoriously competitive, championing in everything from lance to sword to mace to foot-racing. In Camelot, it is custom for such celebrations to follow every birthday, wedding, anniversary, or quest, which frequent the well populated and happy lands. If one is lucky, they can make it to Camelot from one of the outlying villages just in time to see King Arthur fight his knights, which are always the fiercer, faster, bloodier affairs. The people cheer in the stands at the sight of their leaders in combat- in these times a man proves his worth in battle, and the Knights of the Round Table certainly do that.
But no, I return to my original point, which is to say that King Arthur is holding a competition of unusual nature:
A magic competition.
If the King is actually to go through with it, then it will be the first Camelot has seen in over a quarter of a century. Magic was strictly banned, under pain of death, until the spring before last. Rumor had it that Arthur had fallen in love with a young witch, but this is all claptrap to anyone who has seen him with Queen Guinevere. No indeed, for I will confide in the reader that the King was influenced by a connection much deeper than infatuation.
"Arthur," I say, while George helps the King don his long, heavy cape, "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"The thing is, Merlin," Arthur drawls, glancing down occasionally to watch George's progress with the fastenings, "Every time you suggest this thing, you always manage to talk me back out of it. Then, two days later, you feel like it's a terrific idea again."
"Forgive me, Sire, it's just spells and shape shifting and such give me this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach-"
"- That's your tummy telling you to lay off the grapes, Merlin."
"I'm in stitches, Sire. But really, Arthur, what if one of them decides it's the perfect opportunity?"
"To off me? It is the perfect opportunity. But that's why I'm armed, you're armed, George is armed, and all the Knights are close at hand."
I look to George. His face never changes as he replies, "Brass knuckles, Sire."
Arthur shoots me a grin over George's flat hair. "And you Merlin? No swords, I hope?"
"I, er, may have forgotten mine," I say offhandedly.
In truth, my weapon never leaves me, but I can't tell Arthur that. Despite magic being free again in Camelot, there always remain the few odd sorcerers that feel like Arthur is secretly plotting to draw them out and kill them off. I don't think I have to tell you, reader, that Arthur intends nothing of the sort. You see, Arthur is that type of king that bards and scholars will love waxing eloquent about for centuries- tall, blond, fazing blue eyes, a confident stride, and a noble generosity. He's the Once and Future King. He's also a complete prat.
He shakes George's hands off of him, strides across from the bedside to his table, picks up a knife and tosses it my way. It hasn't been so long that I can't leap out of the way before it nicks me. Being Arthur's manservant was no picnic.
"Then again, maybe it's my life I need to worry about!" I mutter, bending to retrieve the utensil. The end is crooked and the blade is dull. Longsufferingly, I tuck it into my belt beneath my robes.
"That's the spirit, Merlin!" Arthur's face is nearly split with his glee. "Just think about it- thousands of sorcerors from all over, just itching to join in the fun."
"You really are suicidal, my Lord." He may have Excalibur strapped to his left hip, but even his magic sword may not be enough to take out that many magic-users.
My face is tight with the stress of calculating how to take out so many without being noticed, and Arthur must notice, because he sets a heavy, gloved hand over my shoulder. I am struck by a memory of standing in front of this same window, about to face a dragon, and Arthur across from me with serious eyes, the first time he had seen me as a sort of knight. The first time I had seen him as a brother- A friend I could look up to, and not always need to guide.
"Don't fret so much, idiot, you look like a complete ninny-knickers."
I think I smile. Two years. Is that long enough? Nine years in his service. Three years since my promotion. Should I make it an even ten? Ten- a decade. It seems like such a long time to know someone.
"-Oh, and Merlin?" Arthur's voice breaks through my thoughts like a warning bell, "I hope you're ready to get those ceremonial robes dirty."
I blink. "Why?"
"I'm going to kill you. Forget them. I will kill you."
"Not nervous, are you, Merlin?" Arthur wonders from his exported throne, hand wrapped up in Gwen's, who is also robed in cardinal reds and white."Don't worry. It's completely normal. Think positive thoughts."
His head is bare, as he likes for these outdoor events, and he sits forward under the shade of the awning, like he's about to witness a good joust. Gwen sends me a knowing and slightly apologetic smile from my spot at his right shoulder. Dressed like a peacock in the purple, blue, and gold finery that Arthur picked out for me, I can see the full arena from here. While I smile cordially and wave to the right people, my voice is not nearly as welcoming;
"May I ask if his Majesty is ill in the head?" I return with venom, "I will not participate, Arthur."
"Do you know what?" Arthur says, like he's just realized, "I think I'm your King and you're my courtier, and I get to tell you what to do."
"As your Royal Advisor I advise you to tell me otherwise."
Gwen intercedes here before I can tell him what, "Merlin, please. You don't have to do much. It will set so many of these sorcerers at ease to know that Arthur is permitting his own advisor to use magic."
Not this sorcerer.
"What if it insults them?"
"Why on earth would it do that?" Arthur asks. "Better you than me."
Before I can reply, he stands with Gwen and raises his voice above the crowds.
"People of Camelot! Travelers! Magic-users! Welcome!"
The mixing shades of browns, greens, and tans shuffle to a low murmur. Thousands of eyes find us on the dais. My stomach jumps. I force a grin that I know looks nowhere as natural as Arthur's or a welcoming as Gwen's.
"On this day, we celebrate the second year of magic in Camelot! It has been many years, with many trials, years of darkness and fear. Today I begin a new tradition- A competition of magic! All able students of magic, those with or without rank, are welcome to compete. The rules are these: Victory goes to the first blood, unconsciousness, or surrender. I bid all who participate to follow a code of honor. Today we set a standard for all who come after!"
They are entranced by him- as if Arthur knows a magic that can forge such loyalty. I almost forget my nerves, but then he turns his eyes on me, and I am startled into fear again. He reaches out, claps me on the shoulder, and looks out to Camelot.
"In the spirit of today's festivities, my counselor and oldest friend, Merlin, has volunteered to join."
Whispers stir up like snakes or scales. I itch to duck behind one of the poles.
"I wish you all the best. May the competition begin!"
The crowd cheers, waving flags and sticks and arms like weaponry. Sir Leon, streaks of grey in his hair from an uneasy first year with magic users in his squadron, steps down from the stands to march before the dais. He holds a large gilded scroll with the list of participants, which looks very impressive indeed when he unrolls it and reads aloud;
"Dein, Son of Coul and Druid Elder, Berre!"
Arthur lets me stay next to him during the first round between a forty-or-so year-old Druid and a boy who looks about ten. (Actually, Arthur is more like bullied by Gwen, who sends him a very stern, somehow entreating look that melts the prat into a gooey puddle.) This leaves me with a place that I can hide a little longer and watch the competition a little better. Immediately, I notice a problem:
The Druid and boy are both using spells. Basic ones. Moving dirt. Gusts of wind. Summoning flies.
I know this is why Arthur volunteered me- Gaius left me all of his spell books after he passed away last fall and Arthur had visited my room more than once to find me buried in them. He thought I was just curious, maybe bored, maybe even believed I was working hard at my job to advise him with every possible angle in mind. This was more a prank than anything. Arthur knows how I'm pants at fighting. He expects this to be a laugh. Like old times. He misses those times desperately.
In the arena, the boy squeals as the Druid (who is going very easy on him) summons a small garden snake. It hisses, but is bascially harmless. The boy rips off his arm band in surrender.
Arthur groans a little, but claps and nods at the boy, who looks a little flushed. A few of the sorcerers are booing the Druid. It was a very odd pairing for a match. I suspect that the names were drawn at random, but they should have at least been sorted by age. I make a mental tally to inform Arthur later.
Sir Leon reenters the field and unrolls his scroll. He looks up at the dais with incredulity and a little humor.
"Master Bleys of Camelot and Counselor Merlin of Ealdor!"
I let go of a tight breath, shakily rising to my feet.
"Good luck!" Arthur calls sweetly.
I barely hear him, I am concentrating on not missing a step in the hazy world that has become mine. The crowds seem quiet, but I can hear a dull hushing crash, like a tide, like the inevitable all around me. Leon stops me at the foot of the stands, presses a circle of black fabric at me.
So suddenly, I am facing across a dirt field from a well-robed magician. I recall his face from the peace talks. He is well versed in magic, with white hair and strong frame. He is powerful. Almost arrogant, because he does have a right, as others say. He smiles at me. I see his mouth moving, promising that he will go easily.
I remember that I have a reputation to keep up- a Counselor. I cannot look the fool. I cannot lose too badly. I'm pants at fighting.
Leon must have stepped away- Bleys is moving. His hands twist around each other, his mouth is forming a beautiful stream of magic words, his eyes glow a steady gold, throwing extra light under the sun, casting double shadows across the ground. Spells.
I look to Arthur. His eyes are wide, excitement, nerves, maybe honest doubt. Should he have put me in an arena with a sorcerer? I read his lips, Move, idiot!
A fireball crackles past my right ear as I hit the ground and roll. The ceremonial robes have lit by a stray flame. Panicked, I shed the outer robes, kick them away from me. Laughter echoes in the stands. Bleys rolls the fire between his fingers, smiling. He has the right.
"First time?" he calls, not unkindly.
"You could say that," I respond, brushing the sleeve of my shirt. The participant band is wrapped twice around my left wrist, unscathed. Possibly spelled.
"I am a first-class magician," Bleys tells me sternly. "I have battled many sorcerers in my lifetime. What would you say your rank is?"
"I really can't say." Because really, I can't.
"Have you been taught how to fight with magic?"
"I have a spell book," I allow. He smiles, trying not to laugh at me. Stepping lightly, circling each other, he makes the fire in his hand change shape. From bear, to hawk, to rabbit. It's so painfully natural.
"Fighting and reading are two separate arts," says Master Bleys. "Show me a spell that you have read."
"A spell I've read?"
He nods, "Something with some sting."
Utterly bemused, I bring my hands together, open them to let out a frog. It croaks and jumps from my hands, hopping off into the stands where the grass grows around. The people roar with laughter. Arthur is cheering. I've just done a Summoning in front of Arthur. It's so surreal, I'm almost tempted to do it again. Arthur is cheering for me to use magic!
"Hardly an attack," Bleys says sympathetically, "Not even a spell."
"Er," I say, laughing,"to be honest, I'm not all that thrilled to be here- You haven't done anything to me." I'm ready to surrender. I've done enough today to make up for a lifetime of secrecy. But Destiny isn't done with me yet. Bleys draws his foot through the dirt and I watch; it can either be idle movement, or the beginning of a conversion spell- dirt to something else.
"Not a competitive bone in your body, is there?" Bleys asks.
"What if I were to do this?"
Fire envelopes me.
I can't hear the screaming crowd. I don't see Arthur jump from his seat on the dais. I do feel the heat of the flame brushing against me, scalding my skin like I've thrust myself into a boiling pot in the kitchens- I smell burning skin and arm hair and I feel sick again. I think I might even scream.
Then I'm lying on the ground, breathing in dust. Arthur's voice is coming from somewhere far from me.
"Enough! Enough! He surrenders; it's enough."
"No blood. No unconsciousness. No surrender," Bleys' deep voice reminds me, "You have potential, Counselor. Show me what you can do."
"Merlin! Get up!"
I raise my head, shake it. It feels like water is swishing back and forth inside my head. I twist to see Arthur standing in his box, eyes wide. His voice comes again, almost like he's standing directly beside me.
"He's getting killed out there, Guinevere!"
Her voice, no less clear, is strained as she pulls on his arm, "Take him out now, and it will be against your own rules. You must let Merlin handle this, Arthur."
Arthur's hand crosses to rub at his chin. An angry line of red marks his jaw.
"What's that?" I murmur. The ground beats below me. Rhythmic. Living.
"What's what?" Bleys wonders.
I try to focus on it; it's a welting strip of fire. A burn across Arthur's jaw, I realize.
"Did you do that?" I ask. My jaw is tight and my eyes are hot. Bleys does not hear me. I roll onto my side and climb back onto my feet. The crowd cheers. I can hear Arthur's heartbeat increase from here.
"All right, Counselor?" Master Bleys of Camelot calls.
My arms ache with the raw skin left behind. My nose burns. My eyes heat up with a rush that fills my very blood, unseen though it may be.
"You should not have hurt my friend," I reply coldly.
Leon steps off of the field. The skin of a tight drum rebounds in the cool air. The round begins again.
Bleys lights his hands with fire. Arthur tenses, joints in his hands creaking as he grips the wooden barrister.
At my side, my fingers twist against each other.
The fire leaps from Bleys' hands, falling to the floor of the arena as he chases it like a dropped vase or book. I pull it towards me, with a look. It's so painfully natural. Ancient. On either side of me, a pillaring leg plants itself. The heat of the growing monster beats at my back, drops excess from the sky onto my head. My eyes are hot and dry. Like the dragon of fire that rears up on its hind legs behind me, they burn a wicked gold.
The arena is roaring- fear, excitement, bloodthirst colliding- but my fire dragon roars louder yet. It sniffs the air, stares down at Bleys, who is trying to summon water, air, crack the earth maybe. His spells all fail. I don't want them to succeed.
He looks up to focus on my dragon instead. He raises a shaking hand, commands it in the Druid tongue, yelling, "Disperse" along with "turn on thine master" and "Suffocate."
"O Dracon," I call, endless magic lashing through me. The language of my forefathers makes the first-class Master blanch and the dragon twists his crackling head so that it rests close to my mine. In plain English, I demand, "Devour him."
Wings made of ash and the whitest fire spread out over the arena. The heat and smoke fills the sky as the fire dragon throws back its head to belch a stream of flames into the clouds above. Then, grinning harshly, it turns to face Bleys-
-Who is in a dead faint on the ground.
The heat leaves my eyes. The monster rearing above me disappears. Two clear footprints mark the ground where he had stood- the ground is melted to glass and slowly cooling. I wave a hand over the bits that are still running downhill, and they freeze in place, crystallizing at supernatural speed into rosy quartz.
It is then that I look up to Arthur. I know not what my face betrays, or how my body feels beyond the magnetic draw I have to my King, who is looking at me as he has never before- As if he is seeing me for the first time. And God what wonder it is to have him see me!
"The- The winner is Counselor Merlin of Ealdor!" comes Sir Leon's stunned voice.
"Actually," my voice rings through the silence of the arena. Between Arthur and I, the weight of the Albion halves. "In here, I'm called Emrys."
The Druids go wild.
And the Once and Future smiles down at me.
A/N: Here's hoping you enjoyed the story! Feel free to drop a line, I look forward to hearing what you all think! Also-"The Precious of Gaia" will be updated soon. Merry Christmas!