Movements of Fire and Shadow
Disclaimer: Arthur, Merlin and the other characters belong to the BBC. I'm just borrowing them to have some fun.
Author's note: This part contains a few lines of original dialogue around the end. Clearly, those lines are not mine - I'm sure you'll all recognize them.
They are losing against the creatures spectacularly, which is not truly surprising – they seem immune against swords and arrows and whatever they are trying to use against the, Arthur has an eerie feeling of déja vu – it is almost the same thing as fighting the gryphon all over again. Except that he had Merlin and Lancelot on his side while fighting the gryphon… and now he has not.
His knights are shockingly helpless against the beasts. Many of them are already dead or gravely wounded. Gaius' infirmary is full to the bursting point, and even Morgana has come down to help. But they simply cannot keep up with the growing numbers of the dead and the wounded. Many of them are left on the streets of the lower town, with no hope to be saved.
King Uther wants to seal off the Citadel, but Arthur refuses to leave the people of Camelot to the nonexistent mercies of these monsters, whatever they were.
"We have no choice!" Uther argues. "We have to protect those who have a chance. If we don't, we will all fall."
Arthur knows that his father is right. Still, he cannot follow that terrible logic.
"There are people trapped on the drawbridge," he says. "I'm not leaving them to die."
"It's suicide!" Uther cries out in distress. Arthur, however, cannot be moved.
"It's my duty to Camelot… and to myself," he says before he turns to leave.
In mid-turn, he believes to have spotted Merlin, watching him from one of the galleries… which should be impossible. He had the sorcerer thrown into the dungeons, only a few hours ago. Of course, the fact that Merlin is a warlock makes the impossible rather… likely.
He shakes his head and hurries off, his remaining knights in tow. He'll deal with Merlin later. Assuming there will be a later.
The courtyards of Camelot are littered with dead bodies, and the winged monsters are everywhere. Soon they have the knights surrounded; they have to retreat and regroup on the central square. It soon becomes obvious that they have no chance against the monsters, so Arthur orders his knights to retreat and seal the palace gates behind them.
At first, Sir Geraint is quite reluctant to do so, but the arrival of another creature makes him reconsider his heroic stance. The knights flee.
Arthur knows he has no chance. The creatures cannot be injured by sword, and they're frighteningly strong. He tries to hold them back, at least long enough for his knights to escape, but soon, a powerful strike knocks him off his feet. He lands on his back with a loud thud… yet as the creature closes up to give him the rest, it suddenly explodes into a thousand little pieces that rain down onto the stone-paved floor like petrified raindrops.
Paralyzed from the hard impact of his fall, Arthur can hear the noise of falling and splintering stone from all over the place, and he's wondering whether the other creatures are being destroyed, too. He has no way to know. He cannot move, he cannot call for help, the breath being knocked off his lungs.
All he can do is to watch in helpless terror a strangely changed Cedric – or rather someone who looks like Cedric but clearly isn't him, not truly – approach through the cloud of dust filling the courtyard. The man is wearing a long, black cloak, and his eyes are glowing in an unholy red-gold light.
Just like the eyes of Merlin, only filled with malevolent glee.
"Who would have believed it?" he says in a singsong voice. "You, a sorcerer. And a powerful one."
At first Arthur believes the man is talking to him and is fairly shocked. But the he spots a thin, grimy figure approaching him from the other side of the courtyard, and now he understands what happened to the creatures.
It's Merlin; dirty and bruised and battered, but obviously very much in control. Arthur doesn't know how he managed to escape the dungeon, but he isn't surprised, either. If Merlin could render the winged beasts to splintered stone, he's probably simply blown the dungeon gates out of his way.
"I won't let you hurt him," Merlin warns Cedric… Sigan… whoever the man truly might be, his voice low but powerful.
"And you're going to stop me?" the sorcerer asks in arrogant amusement. Neither of them has realized that Arthur is conscious and can hear every word.
"I will stop you," Merlin says with a finality that makes Arthur wonder whether there is anything his manservant cannot do. The sorcerer's amusement is turned to dismay, as if he'd expected something different from Merlin.
"He does not deserve your loyalty," he argues. "He treats you like a slave… like his ancestor used to treat me. Before I'd go too powerful for his comfort and he had me executed. Arthur isn't any better. He'd have you slain the moment he discovered who – what – you truly are."
"That's not true!" Merlin protests, and Arthur cannot help but be touched by so much trust.
A trust he wasn't exactly willing to give Merlin from his side.
"He cast you aside without a moment's thought," Cedric knows how to twist the knife, and Arthur can see the pain flickering across Merlin's oh-so-open face. But he's not giving in to Cedric's seduction – not yet.
"It doesn't matter," he says; but his face betrays him. Arthur is not the only one who can see that yes, it does matter to Merlin, to have been treated so badly by his master.
Everything I do is for him, and he just thinks I'm an idiot, the bitter voice echoes in Arthur's memory.
Cedric realises he's hit true and presses his advantage. His voice becomes deeper, more intimate.
"But it must hurt so much. To be so put upon, so overlooked, when all the while you have such power…"
Merlin's face is full of anguish; he's clearly fighting a hard inner battle, and even a blind man can see that yes, it does hurt him a great deal to be ridiculed and unappreciated. He's still not giving in, though.
"That's the way it has to be," he finally says, but Arthur has the terrible feeling that his answer is born more out of defiance than out of true belief.
"Does it?" Cedric's voice is low, intimate, as if he'd be talking to a lover rather than to a warlock boy he wants to seduce to his side. There is something profoundly disgusting in it, especially if one knows of Merlin's innocence.
"You are young, Merlin," he continues, almost in a whisper. "Look inside yourself, you have yet to discover your true power. I can help you. "
"My powers are mine," Merlin sounds a bit steadier now. "I don't need your help."
"Think, Merlin!" Cedric insists, ignoring the defiant answer. "Think what it would be like to have the world appreciate your greatness. To have Arthur know you for what you are…"
"That can never be," Merlin replies promptly, but his voice is shaking, and for the first time, he seems sorely tempted.
I just want Arthur to trust me, his complaint echoes bitterly in the Prince's mind. And to see me for who I really am.
And for a moment Arthur is truly frightened that Merlin would give in, after all. It's hard not to, when one's offered one's greatest wish. And Cedric is still not done with the seduction.
"Oh, but it can," he murmurs in a tone that makes Arthur shiver… and not in a good way. "If you join me. Together we can rule over this land. Arthur will tremble at your voice. He will kneel at your feet."
Somehow Arthur doesn't doubt that the sorcerer can make you do exactly that. And yet it seems to have been the wrong thing to say, because the spell Cedric has woven to trap Marlin almost visibly breaks in this very moment.
"I never wanted that," he protests, sounding downright indignant. In fact, he sounds exactly like in all those times whenever he gave Arthur a piece of his mind, and courtly etiquette be damned.
Cedric feels his prey slipping through his fingers, too, but he makes one last effort to catch him.
"You'd rather be a servant?" he asks incredulously.
Merlin is deathly pale and sweating profusely, but his face has taken on that mulish expression Arthur knows all too well. The one that makes him give up whatever he might have wanted from Merlin at the moment, because he knows it would be hopeless.
"Better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one," Merlin declares stubbornly, and Arthur feels his entire chest fill with unexpected warmth.
I'm happy to be your servant, he remembers that declaration. Till the day I die.
What has he done to deserve such loyalty? How could he have doubted Merlin's faithfulness for a moment? Now he finally understands that nothing could turn Merlin against him – not even his own stupidity.
Cedric… Sigan appears to understand this as well, because his demeanour changes at once.
"So be it," he says, his voice turning harsh. "If you will not join me, I will become you and your power will be harnessed to my will."
Merlin doesn't seem particularly scared by this declaration… but Arthur is. He watches hopelessly as Cedric collapses on the paved stone, and a blue light, serpentine like some sort of giant snake, leaves his body to wrap itself around Merlin's thin frame.
He wonders whether this would be the last thing he's going to see in his life.
When he comes to, he's lying in his own bed, his bruised ribs bandaged, and Morgana is sitting at his bedside.
"What… happened?" he asks. His throat is so dry he can barely speak. She gives him some water.
"Cedric is dead," she says. "The monsters are gone. Gaius tells me they were actually the gargoyles from our own rooftops, awakened to life by some powerful ancient spell."
"Small wonder they couldn't be slain by swords or arrows," Arthur murmurs. "Where's Merlin?"
"He's found the blue jewel, the one stolen by Cedric," Morgana explains. "According to Gaius, that's where Sigan's evil spirit is trapped. Uther ordered it to be put back in its place and the tomb of Sigan to be walled in again."
"Good," Arthur says. "We should have listened to Gaius right from the beginning. I'm glad Father has come to his senses in the end."
"If you call it that," Morgana answers wryly. "Actually, he came to the conclusion that he's grown complacent in his pursuit of magic lately and must renew his efforts to eradicate all sorcerers and their followers from his kingdom."
Arthur's heart grows cold with fear… fear for Merlin. "You cannot be serious!"
"I fear I am," Morgana relies with a sad little smile. "And so is your father. I fear that we'll see a lot more pyres burn on the central square in the times that come."
Arthur knows she's right, and he realises in a sudden moment of clarity that he can never tell Merlin that he knows… or at least not as long as his father is alive. That would make Merlin careless – and that is something they cannot afford. Arthur understands now that he needs Merlin; that he'll always need him, and as wonderful as it would be to share Merlin's secret, the only way to keep him safe is to keep feigning ignorance.
Fortunately, that is something he can do well.
"Where's that useless, incompetent manservant of mine anyway?" he asks, pretending to be annoyed. "Why are you sitting at my bedside?"
"You've thrown him out on his ear, remember?" Morgana returns sharply, clearly displeased with him on Merlin's behalf. "You replaced him with that murderous thief that almost killed us all."
"I did no such thing!" Arthur replies indignantly. "I just… gave him some time to think about whether he truly wants to remain in my service or not."
"Yea, because you've made it so appealing for him to stay," Morgana actually snorts. It's a very un-ladylike sound; one that reminds him of their shared childhood. "Well, I think you'll have to grovel a little if you want to have him back. You were insufferable to him, you know; have been for quite some time."
"I'm the Prince," Arthur says haughtily. "Princes do not grovel."
"No?" Morgana asks tartly. "How do you intend to get him back, then?"
Arthur smiles, knowing what she cannot know. "I have my methods."
When he reaches Gaius' chambers, carrying the largest bag he could find in his chests, filled with all possible and impossible pieces of armour, he finds the door a crack open, as before. There are voices within… voices that he recognises.
"You know you won't get any thanks, Merlin," Gaius is saying a little sadly, and Merlin actually laughs.
"I'm not a complete idiot. But I'm getting used to it: I save Arthur's life, someone else gets the credit. The usual. At least we have saved Camelot again."
"That was well done, my boy," Gaius says with almost fatherly pride, and through the crack, Arthur can see him serve Merlin some food. "There you go. It's not much. But you deserve something."
Merlin practically falls over the food with the healthy appetite of a starving eighteen-year old. Arthur chooses this very moment to knock on the door.
"I've come to see Merlin," he tells Gaius who lets him in. Then he turns to Merlin, who's stopped eating, all but petrified, with the spoon in his hand. "I've not forgotten about your lazy, insolent ways, or the fact that you called me a clotpole," he declares. "But I do have to admit that there was some truth in your accusations against Cedric."
Merlin looks up at him and that slow, mischievous smile starts to spread all over his face. "Does this mean you're admitting that on this occasion I was right?"
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Not exactly, no. It means that I have a knighthood to bestow first thing tomorrow and no-one to clean my armour."
He empties the contents of a bag on the table Merlin is dining at, barely missing the plate… but he does miss it. Gaius was right. Merlin does deserve something. Even if it's only a good meal.
Merlin looks at the random pieces of armour in mild shock. "All that?"
"Yep!" Arthur replies blithely, and adds before leaving. "I expect you to bring everything to my chambers before nightfall."
As he closes the door behind him, he can hear Gaius' amused voice. "Clotpole?"
And then Merlin and Gaius laugh. It's a sound that makes Arthur want to laugh, too.
It's actually late night when Merlin appears in Arthur's chambers, delivering the spotless, shining pieces of armour, most of which he certainly won't need in the morning… and they both know that. They also both know that Merlin has been reinstated as Arthur's personal servant, without much ado.
"Would there be anything else, sire?" Merlin asks, with that strange emphasis on the honorary title that makes it sound like an insult – as always.
"No," Arthur replies quietly. "Just… I'm glad you decided to return, after all."
Merlin just looks at him in clueless innocence (or, at least, a masterful display of it), his elfin ears sticking out from his unruly mop of black hair in their usual ridiculous way, his eyes wide and very, very blue. But the promise of a mischievous smile is already ghosting across is face.
"Where else should I go, sire?" he asks. "This is where I belong."
"You are right, my falcon… it is," Arthur says.
And he has the satisfaction to see those blue eyes turn liquid gold as he steps closer to kiss Merlin.
It is a heady feeling to taste that much power and not being burned by it.