Chapter 19 – A Promise

A/N: I apologize for the delay. I blame Captain Swan. Not only for distracting me from this fanfic but also from life in general. Hope this chapter makes up for it...lots happens...

Last time…

"Merlin," Elaine said as she took hold of his wrist... "You may have a destiny with Arthur but you also have a life of your own, you have things that are beyond Arthur…No, no, you must listen," she said when he shook his head. "You do not walk alone. You never have and you never will. I have chosen to take my stand with you. And so will others. I don't need Sight to tell me some things."

Sometimes, it felt like he could never win. But here was Lancelot, the truest, bravest, noblest of all the knights of Camelot – he now knew everything and he still stood by his side and looked him still as his equal, his friend, his brother… "But all you need to do is follow the path you've been walking because your heart is true and it will lead you right. I believe in you and I stand with you."

When he reached [Mithian], she turned around and looked him in the eye. She was not one to back down, even in the face of a personal loss.

"I would ask you to stay but you will go."

Merlin smiled sadly at her. "If Arthur calls, I will have to go."

"No," her voice was soft but firm and seemed to fill the empty hall. "You will choose to go."

Two days later, a messenger arrived from Camelot. Sirs Leon, Gwaine and Lancelot would be replaced with other knights, the exchange to occur at the border between Camelot and Nemeth. In the postscript, the King called for Merlin's return as well.

The dawn crept up behind Merlin as he stood at the battlements. He usually welcomed its coming, turned his face towards the warm light, to the brand new day. But today, Merlin struggled with a turmoil of feelings that he barely kept at bay by focusing his energy on the clashing sea g-ds before him.

Ursula brought her tentacles up higher and higher to coil around Poseidon's trident while he flipped his tail back into her face. Leucothea rose up behind the sea witch and struck with her spear just as purple lightening streaked across the sky.

Merlin's sea g-ds had been created to intimidate but he found they could continue fighting without much direction from him, his intent and their mission also born during their creation. But could they rise up from the sea in time without him here? Could he get here in time from a kingdom away? Could he save this kingdom when his destiny called him elsewhere?

You're not alone, the wind whispered. Hope lies…

Merlin closed his eyes. Elaine, he thought. The sound of her voice was strong and clear despite the war that waged before him and inside of him.

He answered her by taking a few steps back, then rushing towards the edge of the castle at a dead run and launching himself over the side.

"Why are you wet?" Gwaine asked when Merlin joined them later that morning.

"I was flying."

Gwaine raised an eyebrow. "You looked like you were swimming," he said as he watched a drop of water roll down from Merlin's hair and drip off the tip of his nose.

"I did that too," the warlock said, raising his brow in return.

Gwaine opened his mouth to comment but Mithian and Geraint entered the courtyard just then, a small contingent of guards behind them. The siblings seemed to be arguing quietly while their men stood a respectful distance away. Finally, Geraint broke away from his sister and approached Merlin.

"I spoke to the water sprites today," Merlin said as Geraint approached.

"Oh?" The prince hadn't expected Merlin to say anything to him. Merlin had been keeping his distance from him and Mithian since the missive arrived from Arthur calling him back. It was as though pulling away earlier was easier. Geraint had been disappointed but who was he to demand anything from Emrys? In any case, he was more disappointed in how sour Merlin and Mithian's relationship had become.

"They will inform me when the Saxons get too close. I will not break my vow to Nemeth."

"I didn't expect you to. You have spent many hours these past few days with our knights and on the battlements, helping us prepare." Geraint had never doubted Merlin's loyalty to the cause even while the warlock sought his distance. After all, Merlin always seemed to do the right thing by others, not himself. "I had intended to send a bird if we needed you. But I'm glad to hear you have a plan in place."

Merlin nodded and turned towards his horse but Geraint wasn't done. He hadn't approached Merlin to question how he would continue to protect Nemeth from afar. He came to remind him of their gratitude. "We cannot begin to thank you for all the assistance you provided us. You should take these."

Though Geraint handed Merlin a shapeless bundle of scratchy brown cloth, Merlin knew exactly what was being given to him. The power seeped through the material and into Merlin. Magic always seemed to seek him.

"The spell books," Merlin muttered.

"We gave them to you. They belong to you."

"I can't take something like this into Camelot."

"Who's going to tell your King?" Geraint wanted to roll his eyes at Merlin's stubbornness. Just like his sister. "Make them look like Greek literature. Surely Arthur is not going to be interested in reading them."

Merlin's lips twitched for a second before he pressed them together in a straight line. "I should defend my King against such an attack on his intellect."

Geraint just smiled. "Your king is a great strategist and an even better leader. But we can't be everything to everyone." Geraint tapped the books in Merlin's arms. "Please do not condemn these to a dark corner in the library. They have use for the right person."

Without waiting for a reply, Geraint turned back. Mithian had already mounted her horse and he moved to the same. When he was ready, he turned to Mithian who nodded and addressed the small gathering in the courtyard. "We will escort you to our borders. We thank you for your service. It has been our pleasure and our honor to have you here in Nemeth and we hope to meet you again in fairer circumstances."

Geraint shook his head. His sister never really said what she wanted to say. But perhaps it was because she never really got what she wanted either.

Without any further adieu, Mithian lead off and the rest of the men followed her out of the courtyard.

Lancelot lingered in the back with Merlin as they moved out of the city and into the countryside. He had been trying to engage Merlin in conversation for the past couple of days but much to Lancelot's frustration, Merlin feinted each time. The knight hadn't made any attempts on the ride this morning, hoping Merlin would open up instead, but the warlock seemed rather distracted by inner thoughts. Soon, they would cross the border and Lancelot feared that the all the progress that had been made, that Merlin had made, would disappear as though stepping back onto old soil would magically strip away everything that had happened since they left.

"You have a choice," Lancelot bit out.

Merlin glanced at him. "I know that," he replied slowly.

"Then why are you doing this? You don't have to go back. You can stay with Mithian." Lancelot tightened his grip on his reins. He didn't realize just how angry he was about this situation. About how Merlin kept sacrificing at the expense of himself. "Don't let destiny—" Lancelot came to an abrupt halt at the look on Merlin's face. "Oh. You did chose."

"Why did you give up on Gwen?"

"Pardon?" Lancelot coughed, bewildered about the turn in the conversation. "We were talking about you."

"We are talking about choices and relationships," Merlin replied, looking steadily at his friend. "Why are you returning to Camelot? To Gwen? To serve Arthur?"

"Despite my..." Lancelot sighed for a moment before continuing. "Despite my feelings, the King and Queen are rulers I'm proud to serve." He turned a hard glare towards Merlin before continuing. "I am also returning with you if you haven't forgotten."

"And what if I had chosen to stay instead of returning to Arthur?"

"But you did not."

"Now you're just being obtuse," Merlin huffed.

"And you're talking about things that do not matter because they will never be," Lancelot returned.

"Your feelings matter to me. Your life matters to me. She loved you. Yet, you gave up on her. Why?"

"I had nothing to give her and Arthur loved her."

"Lancelot, it is hardly that simple," Merlin chastised.

"For me, yes, it's that simple," Lancelot replied earnestly. He felt deeply – always had – and though his relationships had become entangled, his feelings were in fact straightforward.

"Then, what about Elaine?"

Lancelot jerked and his horse whined at him.

Gwaine turned around and grinned. "Holding steady there, Lance? Need some riding lessons, perhaps?"

Most days Lancelot would only blink at Gwaine in response. Today he threw a gauntlet. Merlin magicked it back before it could do any damage. Gwaine looked at him with wide surprised eyes before shaking his head and picking up his pace a bit.

"So, you were saying, simple?" Merlin asked a bit too innocently.

"Merlin, what is this about?" he sighed in return.

"You really don't have to come back either, Lancelot. Elaine will return but to Nemeth, not Camelot. Don't make choices because of me or Gwen or Arthur. I know you care about us, but...I want you to have a life of your own."

"And I want the same for you," Lancelot replied, reaching out to clap Merlin on the shoulder before retrieving his gauntlet. "But you will always choose Arthur," he said after a moment. It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," Merlin agreed. "It may not be a choice for myself, it may not make me happiest, but it is the right one, and I am making it."

"It's what makes you Emrys. Not how Emrys is made," Lancelot mused.

A trumpet heralded their arrival and Lancelot looked up to see the colors of Camelot up ahead on the forest line where the two kingdoms met. Arthur stood center, his golden hair catching the sunlight. "I didn't give up on Gwen. I made a choice."

"Gwen is capable of making her own choices," Merlin began. "If you had stayed…"

But before Merlin could say more, Lancelot intervened, "She is capable of choosing for herself. But she can't make my choices for me. I chose to leave just as I choose to now serve her and Arthur. None of this is without pain or sacrifice on my part but like you, I made my choices because I thought they were the right choices." Lancelot reached out to stop Merlin's horse and turned his own so they were facing each other. "This doesn't mean I don't struggle with the consequences of my choices, that sometimes I wish circumstances were different. Some days I am at peace more than others but some days, it still pains me. Not even the best of us can always be so constant, so resolute, every moment. But things are what they are. They are because of the decisions I've made in the life I was given. But at least I know I have good friends, the best of friends, there to carry me through."

"I'm pleased you are making a choice instead of allowing destiny be your call," Lancelot continued. "And certainly, you're allowed to be...moody...I'm sure I've had my fair share of days. But don't forget that you do not walk alone. You may carry a burden but we are here to help carry it too."

"So you will go where I will go?" Merlin asked in slight awe. He knew Lancelot was loyal to him. Of course, he knew. But the knight's words just now brought a new understanding to the depth of his loyalty...and also, of what Merlin's friendship gave to Lancelot.

"Yes. I will go with you. This is my choice. I may not have a destiny but I will stay with my brothers in arms."

Merlin swallowed before reaching out to clap his friend - his brother - on his shoulder, just like he had moments before. "Thank you. I would not have it any other way than for us to go on side-by-side."

Lancelot nodded and was about to pick up his reins when Merlin spoke again. "Moody, huh? You make me sound like a petulant adolescent."

"You were, until late this morning."

Merlin looked at Lancelot for a moment before grinning slyly. "I saw Elaine this morning. She too reminded me today that I do not walk alone."

Lancelot couldn't help but jerk in his seat again. When he looked back at Merlin, he caught the smug look on the warlock's face. "Well, she was right," he said somewhat stiffly.

Merlin grinned but thought Lancelot didn't deserve his teasing - especially after his behavior the past few days. "I am sorry though, for being so disagreeable. I'm just not used to telling people my secrets and having people there to support me. I know I would have made the same decision, destiny or not, but it still..."

"It still hurts. I know. And it will still for awhile yet but if you believe in the path you will take, it will make it easier," Lancelot paused for a second as he looked up at Mithian, now much further ahead. "I am sorry for the way I parted from Gwen though. It was cowardly of me to leave like that without a word. I thought it would be easier for the both of us but really, it was just easier for me."

Merlin sat back as he considered Lancelot's words. Lancelot was right of course. He shouldn't have treated Mithian so distantly after he had made his choice. He too looked up at Mithian. But she had already dismounted and moved beyond his sight into the forest behind. Instead, Arthur was standing there, seemingly haloed in light. He couldn't help but ask. "Do you ever regret it?"

Lancelot turned back once again. They were far from the coast now but because they were on higher ground, he could see a sliver of the ocean on the horizon. He imagined he could smell the sea breeze even from this distance. Or maybe he really could. After all, there was magic where the sea met the sky. "Gwen? No. Not anymore I don't," he said with all the conviction in his heart.

And just before he set his horse at a gallop, he grinned at Merlin. "And a seer once told me I was destined to see her again. She's been right about everything else so far."

"So you finally decided to grace us with your charming presence?" Arthur grumbled in greeting as Merlin approached his King.

"I'm as upset to see you, too," Merlin replied as he and Lancelot finally reached the tree line. Prince Ian, who was standing to Arthur's right, dipped his head to hide a grin before looking up again and nodding at both Lancelot and Merlin, his face unnecessarily solemn.

"I know how delicate you are, Merlin, so we're letting you rest awhile before we start making our journey back," Arthur said as he jerked his head to the small grove behind them. Leon and Gwaine were already there, in the middle of a narrow clearing, their horses tied to some of the wider trees.

"Aren't you going to tie up you horse, Merlin?"

The warlock gave an exaggerated yawn. "But I'm so delicate and tired. I could hardly do it now." Merlin turned to Lancelot and tapped his head.

"I shall do it, sire!" George happily popped out from seemingly nowhere.

"Why do I even need you?" Arthur groused as he pulled Merlin down and knuckled the top of his head.

"You don't – you need someone shorter than you!" Merlin countered, his words somewhat muffled against Arthur's armor.

Lancelot smiled at Merlin and Arthur's antics. Merlin needed lightness, in whatever form he could get.

As he turned, he saw Mithian watching the King and warlock. Her eyes slid towards his and she gave the knight a sad smile. Lancelot knew that Mithian understood it was not simply choosing one relationship over another, perhaps not even, as Merlin admitted, choosing a happier ending. It was about making choices – no matter how difficult – because you believed in them. But as Lancelot himself admitted, it didn't mean those choices didn't hurt you or the ones you cared about.

Lancelot walked over to the Princess and conversed lightly with her and her brothers – none of them able to say the things they wanted to say in this setting. They laughed a little at George following Merlin's horse up and down the slope of the hill - clearly, Merlin was directing his horse to avoid the poor servant. But soon enough, King Ector started gathering his men and Prince Ian joined him in leading a group of Nemeth and Camelot knights back to their seaside stronghold. The rest of the group also prepared to depart – it would be a long enough ride back to Camelot.

Lancelot turned to find George and call him back to the group. He saw the man still engrossed in the chase and Lancelot moved down the hill to wave him down. He was soon joined by Geraint who chuckled beside him. "Maybe I can be of help," the Prince said. "Don't know if I can override Merlin's commands but at least I can talk to the horse."

Lancelot nodded in agreement as they continued down the hill. They were already there when he saw an unnatural glint in the sunlight.

At the same moment, Merlin felt it in the air. Dark magic sweeping towards them, quick and deadly as rolling thunder, in the form of men with even darker intent. "They're coming," he breathed.

"What are you talking about?" Arthur rolled his eyes.

But Merlin wasn't listening to Arthur. He was following his magic through the grove and down the hill where George, Geraint and Lancelot stood like open targets.

It was already too late.

Arthur pulled at Merlin's shoulder so the warlock was turned towards his King. "Merlin, what's the matter with you? You're as grey as –"

"I'm sorry." The words tumbled out of Merlin's mouth before he even realized what he was saying. Merlin had imagined this moment a thousand times in a thousand different ways but in each of his imaginings, he would reveal himself to Arthur by saving his life. But Arthur was standing beside him whereas Lancelot - his brother in everything but blood - and Geraint - his friend and Mithian's brother - and George - an innocent man he had put in harm's way - were about to die. And he could not let that happen. This was his choice.

Black arrows were already heading towards the men at the base of the hill when Merlin turned away from Arthur. Too fast, too accurate, to be avoided by them. Merlin remembered how his magic had been ineffective against the axe. But with Elaine's help and the spell books, he had learned to do countercurses and with one hand, he stripped the dark magic from the arrows, it coming off in ugly trails of smoke, and with his other hand, he stilled the arrows in mid-air. With his eyes burning gold, he flipped his wrists and the arrows turned back one-by-one and took down each archer who had sent them.

There was a moment of silence – the calm before the storm – and then everything exploded into chaos. Saxons were pouring out of the woods and Merlin threw up a fire wall as he forcefully dragged his friends through the air until they were in a heap at his feet.

Some of the Saxons were trying to run through the fire; while some retreated, a few managed to blast their way through with magic. One of them fell as they came out the other side, a bolt courtesy of Princess Mithian buried in his chest.

Merlin threw a dozen back with a sweep of his hand. A large ferocious man in black furs charged over the fallen men, his axe swinging in the air. Mithian struck him with another accurate hit from her crossbow but he kept running. Merlin clenched his fist, forming a fire in his palm, before blasting the flame against the man. But the man seemed to have magic of his own and he kept resisting, pushing forward.

Arrows were starting to come down and Merlin knew he had to finish this man or split his focus. He fell to his knees and slammed both of his palms into the earth and it churned up below him, raising like a wave and crashing down the slope, and into the Saxons, burying the giant axe-wielder while pushing the rest back.

The next instant he was calling for the forest's aid. The branches and leaves of the nearby trees knitted together over them, creating a canopy over the Nemeth and Camelot knights, protecting them from the deadly arrows. But it wasn't fast enough. Two arrows were fast approaching. Lancelot managed to deflect it with a shield and Merlin spun around and caught the other one with his hand, just before it hit Arthur between the eyes.

He stared at the King's bewildered eyes for a second before he turned back to the retreating Saxons. He lit the arrow up in flames, it taking the form of a dragon, of a message, and sent it after them.

Everyone seemed to hold their breath for a beat, to see if the Saxons had all truly left, forced away by the dragon of fire. And when the forest became silent again, Arthur pulled out his sword and pressed it against Merlin's throat. Even without looking, Merlin knew what he would find in Arthur's eyes. Merlin swallowed and looked up. He knew he should've told his friend. He knew that he would be hurt by the fact that Merlin had lied to him for all these years. And he was - Arthur was shaking with anger, betrayal and anger deep in his eyes. " liar. I should have you –"

But Arthur never finished because Merlin was suddenly pulled back and Mithian had pulled a sword from Aneirin's belt and pushed back Arthur's sword back over the King's shoulder.

"Mithian!" Merlin cried as she exchanged quick blows with Arthur before kicking Arthur hard in the stomach.

"Don't you dare look at him like that," she seethed. "He just saved my brother's life. Probably yours. Probably all of ours."

"I can do what I please. He's my manservant, my subject and he is under arrest for treason."

Merlin tried to rush forward again but Mithian pushed him behind her and drew them back to the other side of the grove. Her guards stepped around Merlin, creating a wall around him.

"Mithian," Merlin cried, trying to scramble forward but Aneirin kept blocking him. "You can't start a war for me, you can't give up a kingdom. Your people."

Mithian looked at him over her shoulder. It looked like she wanted to say many things to him but when she spoke, she just said, firmly, resolutely, "No."

"I won't allow it," he replied in the same firm tone she had just used. With a flash of his eyes, he was in front of her and walking towards Arthur and his destiny. This was something he had to face and he would face it. There was no more running and he certainly wasn't going to let Mithian of all people take the fall for him.

He was halfway across the space between the two kingdoms when Mithian cried out his name. She dropped her sword and ran to him, threw her arms around him and pulled him down for a kiss.

"Promise me," she whispered against his lips.

Merlin shook his head – he didn't know what she wanted him to promise but he knew there weren't many promises he could keep. "I can't," he apologized even as he let himself hold her for a moment.

"Please, promise me that you won't let him kill you. Promise me that will come back to me."

"Please, promise me," she pleaded, the fingers on her left hand gripping hard on his neckerchief.

Though Merlin did not have the gift or curse of Sight, he suddenly saw a future where there was no magic to save Arthur, the continued strife between the magical and the non-magical, based on fear and lies, and not the truth, and he saw his brave, beautiful Mithian, in the middle of a war in his name, and he knew, this was a promise he had to make and had to keep.

"Yes, I promise you." And he sealed the pledge with his own kiss.

Mithian nodded in relief and she finally released him but his blue neckerchief came away with her hand. Merlin walked across the grove – towards Arthur, towards destiny, towards one of his most difficult choices – but he looked back at her one last time. His last sight of her was of her head held high and proud, her eyes fixed on him, her hand holding his neckerchief to her heart.

A/N: So that last scene with Mithian was the first scene I wrote for this fic ages ago! I didn't mean for it to take 20+ chapters but I hope it was worth it for you. Thanks for sticking with this. As you can see, Merlin was always meant to choose Arthur as this is about him choosing and coming to terms with being Emrys (with lots of bromance along the way). But we're not quite done yet – and Mithian and Merlin are not quite done with each other either (ugh, Captain Swan reference – see, ruin). Anyway, please review!