In Which King Arthur Pendragon Pays Witness to a Confrontation Between Two Traitors of Differing Kinds, and Ruminates on a Metaphysical Concept Held Dear by Many Men, Himself Included
Don't do anything stupid.
That was what Arthur had said to Merlin.
So of course, Merlin was going to do something stupid.
Arthur knew this. This was Merlin he was talking about, after all. Stupidity ran right alongside brilliance in his bizarre mind.
So when Arthur went back after Merlin, it was no surprise when he heard the sound of running feet.
And it was also no surprise when - through a fissure between the chamber of the cave he was hidden in and another - he saw Merlin run into a dead end.
A mocking cry echoed down the tunnel, and a man Arthur would very much like to punch came into view. No-one but King Pra-Arthur was allowed to use that inflection on Merlin's name. And there was the whole betraying him in favour of his evil half-sister thing, but-
Safely hidden, Arthur watched as his manservant's jaw tightened, and turned around to face Agravaine.
"Where's Arthur?" the traitor uncle demanded.
The once-king was tempted to stand up and shout "I'm right here!" and leap to Merlin's rescue.
But that wasn't what Merlin would want. Merlin would want Arthur to stay hidden and look after his own prattish backside instead of Merlin's bony, insubordinate one. Merlin would want Arthur to live to fight another day, and though not leaping out and rescuing his hapless manser-friend sent pangs of self-loathing through Arthur's already broken heart, he knew that was what Merlin would want, and that in this case, he would be right.
If Merlin performed his duty as a friend and a servant – as Arthur knew he would – he would keep his silence, and Agravaine would kill him. Arthur was wounded, and would not be able to defeat his uncle and however many men he had with him even in peak physical condition – and in his current position, Arthur could only see his uncle and one other, but given the veritable stampede that had reached his ears, there was no telling how many men his uncle had with him.
Arthur had always listened to Merlin – though he rarely followed his advice – and the little part of him that nudged him when his idiotic, wise friend was right now prodded him sharply and glared.
He would respect Merlin's wishes.
He would escape Agravaine and these tunnels.
He would rally what forces loyal to Camelot remained.
He would get on his knees and beg before another king to get an army if he had to.
He would take Camelot back from Morgana.
If nothing else, he would do all this to avenge Merlin's imminent demise.
And because it was what Merlin would have wanted.
He would watch Merlin's noble sacrifice for his king and his friends and remember it. Merlin would be remembered as the hero he was. Arthur would see to it.
The useless, deposed king, who hadn't heeded the warnings when they came, could do that, at least.
All these thoughts were dashed aside as Merlin delivered a chilling warning.
Arthur had heard plenty of people telling him to use caution in his life. Merlin himself had urged its use more than once.
But in just two words that he'd heard many a time before, Merlin had succeeded in sending a chill down the former king's spine that had nothing to do with the freezing air of the tunnels.
Arthur looked to his uncle, wondering if the traitor had felt the same thing.
It looked as though he had.
But then Agravaine remembered that he had a sword and men with similarly deadly implements, that Merlin didn't and was a scrawny farm boy backed into a corner.
"What are you talking about? Where's Arthur?"
Merlin remained silent, shifting from foot to foot, eyes shifting.
His face was half-cast in shadow, white and carved from the palest marble.
Arthur had seen that expression before; on his knights when dealing with over-confident trouble-makers and bandits armed with empty threats. He himself had worn that look.
It was a look that simply said you-don't-know-who-you're-dealing-with-and-I-could-kill-you-so-easily-it-isn't-even-funny-and-that's-exactly-what-I'm-going-to-do-unless-you-piss-off.
No-one could pull of that look convincingly without actually being capable of following through on the implied threat.
Merlin was wearing it, so he must be more dangerous than his ears would suggest.
Though how Merlin was going to make good on his silent promise was a mystery to Arthur.
"Tell me, now! Or I'll have to kill you."
Merlin remained silent for a moment, unreadable and deadly in the dim light. He shook his head.
"I don't think so."
I'm not going to tell you, or you're not going to kill me? Or both? What is it, Merlin?
Agravaine started forwards, and Arthur dearly wished he could do something.
Of course, he didn't have to.
Arthur would have quite liked to believe that Agravaine had tripped. Very hard. On something cylindrical, so he flew backwards.
But there was no mistaking the unnatural, bone-shattering flight that ended with his traitorous uncle on the floor and out of sight.
Or the coruscating flash of gold in Merlin's eyes.
Arthur's mind shut down for a few seconds, brought back to working order by a rushed intake of breath and a gleeful cry.
"You have magic!"
His brave, loyal, traitorous manservant, who had moved forwards while Arthur had been trying to fervently deny that Merlin had used magic! replied in a cool and level tone, drawn up to his full height, the master of the situation.
"I was born with it."
Born with magic?
Agravaine shuffled into Arthur's view, bent over and clutching at his back.
"So it's you… you're Emrys!"
"That is what the Druids call me."
And if the break in Merlin's stony mask was anything to go by, revealing a twinge of regret and resolution in his normally friendly blue eyes – now dark and cold – the identity of Emrys was one secret that Agravaine could not get away with alive.
"And you've been at court, all this time? At Arthur's side? How you've managed to deceive him!"
Yes, rub it in.
"I am impressed, Merlin! Perhaps we're more alike than you think."
One traitor extended a hand towards the other.
Whatever Arthur had been thinking before, it went out of the proverbial window now.
How could Merlin, clearly a powerful sorcerer, resist an offer to join Morgana?
He did, though.
Merlin's hand snapped up, and Agravaine flinched back, nodding in understanding.
Then one traitor lunged at the other.
Merlin's hands both sprung upwards, as though to push away Agravaine, and push he did.
Arthur's treacherous uncle flew back from the deceiving servant, almost going head over heels in his flight.
With a sickening crack, Agravaine landed out of Arthur's sight. His final breath plumed in a white cloud above the rocks that hid his cooling body from Arthur's sight, and then there was silence.
The alabaster mask Merlin's face had hardened into cracked a little around the edges.
Arthur was ready to jump out and scream and shout and demand answers and hurl accusations, until he took one look at Merlin's face.
How could he have ever doubted Merlin?
He hadn't liked this. Not one bit.
He had the look of a man who'd killed before, more than once, and hated it just as much as the first time.
No matter what else he was, Merlin was still Merlin.
He'd just killed for Arthur, something Arthur had no right to ask of him, and he'd hated it. He didn't need Arthur shouting at him. He looked like he needed a hug.
The king was just about to jump out and thank his manser-friend and wax on about honour and loyalty or something, when Merlin turned and walked away.
His footsteps faded into the distance, and the tunnels were silent again.
Merlin was still Merlin, and Merlin was loyal.
Arthur surveyed the scene before him.
Agravaine had taken five men with him.
All of them were dead, their necks and no doubt other bones broken.
Merlin had killed five men without moving a muscle.
Agravaine was the sixth. He had – well, he hadn't been lucky. It was Merlin who had been lucky. If Agravaine hadn't survived the first spell and spoken with Merlin, Arthur would have jumped out and shaken his lying manservant to pieces.
So, Merlin was clearly powerful.
He'd said he was born with his powers; Morgana had only discovered hers in recent years. Was he as powerful as Morgana? Perhaps more?
That brought something else he'd said to mind.
Was Merlin a Druid? He had a Druidic name, which clearly meant something to Agravaine, and undoubtedly Morgana as well. Even if he wasn't a Druid, Arthur believed Merlin meant Camelot no harm. It made no sense to put up with Arthur's admittedly horrible behaviour when he could have simply killed him and avenged his kin.
Perhaps he had been protecting Arthur. Well, of course he had!
"You don't know how many times I've saved your life."
Gaius had said the bite of the Questing Beast was incurable; and yet, still Arthur breathed.
Cornelius Sigan wouldn't have just called off his gargoyles and gone back to napping in a crystal for eternity without putting up a fight.
Immortal armies didn't just explode into piles of ash of their own accord.
And the dragon… what had happened with the dragon?
Arthur didn't remember hitting it before he fell unconscious. Had Merlin killed it? Arthur was willing to believe that Merlin could be a Dragonlord, and had simply ordered the beast to leave. Did that mean he was somehow related to Balinor? It would make sense.
If the king had ventured out of the tunnels, he might have found an answer to that question, and the next that sprang to his mind.
And looking back at the six crumpled forms before him, Arthur couldn't help but think…
What did you do to the rest of them, Merlin?
Agravaine had been leading a force of hundreds; enough to surround Ealdor completely. And yet, he'd taken only five men that Arthur could see into the tunnels.
He listened for a few moments.
Merlin was long gone, and the rest of their little band was far ahead of him.
A group of mercenaries would make a lot of noise, and there was nothing but the faint flickering crackle of the torches on the cavern floor, no longer needed by the dead men beside them.
Arthur was no longer king of Camelot. As such, he could not technically arrest Merlin and haul him back for execution, and nor did he really feel inclined to. Secondly, Merlin seemed to have association with the Druids, and was perhaps a Druid himself. The Druids were peaceful and meant Camelot no harm. This Arthur knew, and it seemed that if Merlin was connected with the Druids then he probably meant no harm.
And thirdly, he'd demonstrated he was still himself; Arthur might have said that he didn't know Merlin anymore, but really, he knew all of Merlin now. Well, there was just the fact that he didn't have the faintest idea of the extent of what Merlin had done for him, but that was for another time.
He'd keep Merlin's secrets, until his future Court Sorcerer was ready to tell.
He would be as loyal to Merlin as Merlin had been to him. He would protect him.
Arthur knew swords. He'd grown up with them.
And so, right from the moment the feeling of soaring pride at having pulled a sword out of a bloody great stone had faded, and he'd taken a look at the perfect blade in his hand, he knew that the legend Merlin had fed him about it being placed there by the Ancient King was a load of tripe.
It wasn't… old enough. It just wasn't.
Back in the days of the first king of Camelot, swords had been sharp bits of metal with a hilt and a guard, and that was it.
They didn't have this gold chasing and fancy runic inscription or the curved guard or rounded, gilt pommel.
It was a fine sword, but there was no way in hell Arthur's distant ancestor had placed it there.
But had Merlin?
He knew where to find it. He'd led Arthur there as though he had walked the path a thousand times before. And of course, it was in a stone. Swords don't normally end up in stones, and Merlin was magic, but Merlin didn't know that Arthur knew that.
And then there was the fact that the blade itself was obviously magical.
As soon as it was free from the stone that it had been sealed point down in, something curled around Arthur's heart and refused to budge; the moment he raised the weapon into the air, he knew that no other sword was good enough, would never be as good as this one. He was connected to the blade forever, and it sang for him.
This blade would be loyal to him forever.
There was a fire hidden in that steel that shone like a still pond, a fire that burned eternally, unquenched and all-conquering. This was a weapon made for dominion, that promised it and lusted for it in equal measure.
Arthur felt that he could do anything with this sword.
The sword was new, but its power was old, older than the trees sheltering the rock, and it tasted – if you could call an indescribable tingling above the roof of his mouth a taste – like fresh, cold air and pleasantly charred meat.
And there was something familiar in there as well – did lightning have a taste?
Because that, Arthur decided, without getting too creepy, was what Merlin tasted like. If Arthur could call a tingling sensation at the back of his head a sound, then it sounded like the Merlin-lightning in the sword was urging him on, but warning him of the dangers of this blade.
He must never let anyone else wield it again. This sword was made for him and him alone, and only evil could come of it being wielded by anyone else.
Something within the blade relented, and Arthur was treated to a hazy snatch of a pair of long-fingered hands and a tumbling view of a familiar room in Camelot, and a golden chalice spinning towards the ground, blood casting a long stain on sandy flagstones. The final image in this quartet was of a man previously beyond the touch of death bursting into ashes – I knew it!
When Merlin finally told him, Arthur was going to honour him to the point that Merlin would either finally gain some weight from all the feasts in his honour or would melt out of embarrassment from the speeches.
But Arthur was getting ahead of himself. There would be plenty of time for feasts and declarations of friendship and whatnot later.
Right now, his magical manservant had given him the only thing he really needed to re-take his throne; the will to do it.
And it was all thanks to Merlin.
"But Morgana… her power is so great, and we've got nothing to answer it with."
Arthur saw the flicker on Merlin's face out of the corner of his eye.
Come on, Merlin. Trust me.
It hurt a little bit, to know that Merlin didn't trust him.
Although, Arthur realised, Merlin did trust him. He trusted him with every part of him except that secret, because it was easier this way, Arthur being the oblivious prat and Merlin scuttling about fixing everything while no-one was looking.
And Arthur hadn't exactly given Merlin a reason to trust him with that.
How many times had Arthur nodded along with his father, spoken words only half-believed to gain approval, said to Merlin's face that he was pure evil?
Merlin had probably been more scared than Arthur could comprehend.
But not once had Merlin betrayed him, or strayed from his path. Arthur felt a little giddy at that thought.
He had the absolute loyalty of a man who could take him to pieces with a glare; Merlin hadn't been lying when they'd first met.
Arthur already knew that Merlin had been talking out of his backside when it came to the sword's origins and its purpose in the stone. But it seemed that this third part of the 'legend' that Merlin had 'neglected' to mention was no fabrication.
Merlin really did believe that Arthur Pendragon would be the greatest king who would ever live.
The question that plagued Arthur was – and he was starting to get annoyed with himself for thinking about Merlin when he should have been focusing entirely on the upcoming battle – what did that make Merlin?
Merlin's motivations were seemingly clear, now; he wanted Arthur to become the greatest king of all time, unite Albion, and if he was lucky, free magic. All in good time. But that left the question of Merlin's own destiny; surely someone as powerful as he would be spoken of in legend, not just his king?
Was Merlin's destiny to be his shadowy power behind the throne for the rest of his life? Or would he stand beside Arthur as an equal, and would they smite their enemies together instead of Merlin subtly disposing of Arthur's in the background?
Was he a guide or a guardian, or both?
Arthur decided that even if destiny tried to tie Merlin down to the role of anonymous protector forever, he would drag his ridiculously loyal manservant to the forefront, and make him both.
Arthur watched Merlin sitting by a campfire in the huge camp that had sprung up in the forest; all the forces loyal to Camelot, who Merlin had brought together, somehow.
He had a thoughtful expression on his face, possibilities flickering through his head as fast as his eyes danced. And then, a small, grim smile crept up on his face, and with that, Merlin sprang up and walked out of the camp, towards Camelot. Arthur followed him as though making a tour of his men.
He watched as Merlin dropped into a crouch, and crept through the forest with a practiced, stealthy gait.
Arthur found a bundle of black leathers wrapped up in a raggedy black cloak beneath a tree on the edge of the camp, while going to do that thing that even kings need to do in the morning.
He got the feeling that Merlin could take back Camelot single-handedly if he wanted to.
"You know, this thing's not bad."
"Thought you might like it."
You should know, Merlin, you defeated an army with it.
"You cannot blame me for my father's sins."
Because that's what they were. Sins. Crimes that, at the end of the day, were the root of this whole problem.
"It's a little late for that. You've made it perfectly clear how you feel about me and my kind."
Arthur said nothing. He'd made it clear how he'd once felt, perhaps. But expressing how he felt now was a different matter. It had only been a few days. Not long enough for the king's change of heart to spread to every part of the realm and beyond.
"I'm going to enjoy killing you, Arthur Pendragon."
She was pale, paler than Merlin.
Her eyes had always been intense and piercing, but now they were brimming with malevolent glee that was almost painful to look at.
She'd lost weight; her black, lacy dress clung tight to her diminished curves, still there despite a diet of whatever happened to be nearby and edible while she hid out in the forest.
She was still beautiful, and still so very dangerous, but even more so now that she didn't need a sword or words to beat him.
What had happened to her?
"Hleap on baec!"
"Hleap on baec!"
The witch tried again, desperately. Arthur glanced over both shoulders; Tristan, Isolde, Guinevere and Merlin were all unaffected.
Merlin was desperately fighting a smile.
Whatever you were up to last night, Merlin, it's worked.
"Not so powerful now, my lady."
Arthur's last coherent thought before the parry-lunge-parry one-note battle mentality kicked in was how it was that Helios had decided to remain behind and protect Morgana.
"Enter." Arthur called out.
It couldn't be Merlin; Merlin never knocked, and was off doing Merlinny things.
It wasn't Guinevere; she had already gone to move her things to the castle.
It was, in fact, Gaius.
The old physician was back in the peak of health courtesy of an enormous meal and a few hours sleep, though he had a sturdy stick that kept getting in the way of his medicine bag. It was a small price to pay for not falling over and lying around in the hallway until someone considerate came along.
"Merlin said you were injured in the siege?"
Arthur knew better than to argue.
So while Gaius clucked over Arthur's ribs, he placed the little singed doll of straw upon the bed where the two men sat.
"I found this under Morgana's bed when I went to retrieve my papers from her chambers."
Gaius tied off the bandages with a flourish, and took the little doll in hand, walking over to a candle and examining closely.
"It is a poppet, sire. It is a crude image of humanity, linked to a specific person. Almost any magic cast upon this doll will have the same effect on the person it is linked to."
Gaius looked at Arthur, eyebrow disappearing into his silver hairline.
"You found this beneath Morgana's bed?"
"Did you notice anything unusual when you confronted her?"
"She seemed unable to use her magic…"
"Ah. That confirms my suspicions." Gaius held out the burnt poppet to Arthur once more. "There is a powerful enchantment upon this poppet; it dissipates any magic gathered to cast a spell once released, causing the spell to fail."
Arthur nodded again, taking the poppet back and turning it over in his hands.
"Then we have a lot to thank Emrys for."
Gaius looked at him, blankly.
Arthur caught his eye.
"Right before she tried to kill us, Morgana said that not even Emrys could save us. But I think he already had, and not for the first time. His handiwork is everywhere, if you look hard enough."
Gaius regarded the young king for a few moments, clasping his hands before him.
"So you understand what I said to you when I was kidnapped, sire?"
"I thought I did. But I should have known that you always have a larger message than your words initially suggest."
Arthur turned to the window, where by chance or by design – destiny – Merlin could be seen walking across the courtyard.
"I will ask you not to tell him about this conversation, Gaius. I want him to come to me, when he knows he has nothing to fear from me. When he, the greatest of them all, no longer fears me, then the rest will know I mean them no harm."
Arthur turned back around, to catch Gaius in the act of wiping a tear away.
"He would be so happy to hear you say that, sire."
"You asked to see us, sire?"
Arthur glanced up from his new sword at his most trusted knights as they filed into the room.
"Yes, I did. When we come under attack by any threats of a magical nature or when we are simply outnumbered, I am implementing a change in tactics. I would like you all to feign unconsciousness at the first possible opportunity."
Many a confused glance was shared by the knights, and Arthur's smile grew a little smugger.
"And when you are pretending to be unconscious, if you hear Merlin shouting in a language you do not understand or see him pointing at things, then do not react and carry on as though he has not saved all of our ungrateful asses with powerful magic, because he has not. Do I make myself clear?"
The wide-eyed knights nodded meekly, and shuffled out.
The king contemplated the pile of clothes resting on his desk; something new and clean for Merlin to wear at his wedding.
Until his sorcerer came clean so they could get on with this destiny business, there wasn't much Arthur could do to reward him for his impeccable service without seeming suspect.
The clothes hadn't come cheap; but Merlin's undying, unwavering, unflinching loyalty and friendship was worth much more, but until then he'd have to settle for some new threads.
Arthur was already thinking of bringing Gwen in to rustle up some embarrassing robes.