The Undiscovered Country
Notes: I wrote this a long while ago and posted it in a few other places (LiveJournal, AO3), but I realized that I never posted it here - a gross oversight. It was originally written for KMM's Spring Fever Fest on LiveJournal.
"My lady! No!"
Merlin heard the shouts behind her as she dashed out of the castle just before the doors were thrown shut, but didn't let them deter her. The knights of Camelot were not her concern, but their prince certainly was. She felt the whoosh of air sweeping down on her and instinctively dove to her right. The shrill screech was enough indication that one of the gargoyles had decided to make her its target.
Keeping one eye on the sky, Merlin also looked searchingly around the courtyard. It was littered with a disturbing number of bodies, soldiers and civilians alike. Ducking low, she raced among the corpses, searching frantically for one in particular.
It took her a few minutes, but she finally found him – Arthur. He was unconscious, and she flinched at the sight of the blood that was seeping through a tear in his chain-mail. "Arthur —"
Another loud shriek caught her attention and Merlin whipped her head up to see that the gargoyle had returned. Its claws were just feet away and were racing right toward her. Before she could even consciously think, the spell slipped past her lips. "Astrice!" Instantly, the stone monstrosity disintegrated into a fine mist of dust that rained down on both her and Arthur.
Paying it no further mind, she looked down at Arthur, steeling herself for the task of dragging the unconscious prince back to the safety of the citadel. However, before she could begin, the sound of quiet footsteps caught her attention. Merlin struggled to see through the mists that had drifted into the area, and froze when she saw a single figure. Lean, dark, shiny. Smirking.
"Who would have believed it?" Cornelius Sigan, within the body of the thief, Cedric, said amusedly. "You, a sorceress, and a powerful one!" He cackled, seemingly finding the entire situation hilarious. "The greatest heiress in all of Camelot, the daughter of the noble closest to the king, the prince's rumored beloved! This is rich!"
Merlin glared at him fiercely and pushed herself to her feet. "I won't let you hurt him!" she growled.
Sigan smirked at her. "And you're going to stop me?"
She clenched her fists. "Oh, I'll stop you." Merlin knew she could do this. The Dragon had given her the spell needed, but she was putting her own strength behind it. She was strong, and she had a reason to fight. She had made it this far for a reason.
Merlin hurried toward Gaius' chambers. She had told Arthur of her plan to return to Ealdor and said her goodbyes to him, but it had taken longer than she'd expected it to. Of course, that had to do with the fact that Arthur just had to be a prat about his own farewells, calling her the worst maidservant he'd ever had, but there had been no malice in his tone. It had even made her laugh.
If anyone thought that the drawn-out conversation was because Merlin had been reluctant to leave his presence, well, she'd deny it to anyone who said it to her face.
The door was ajar when she arrived, and Merlin pushed it open easily. She slipped inside, but stopped just a few steps into the room. Her mother and Gaius were there, of course, just as she'd expected them to be. There was even a pack on the table, partially filled with supplies – no doubt Gaius' work. However, they were not alone. Standing across the room, his back to the rest of them, was a man, clearly a noble, if his fine clothing was any indication.
Merlin frowned. If she knew anything about how things worked with the nobles in Camelot, it was that they expected what they needed to be brought to them. She'd lost count of the times she had accompanied Gaius to visit one ailing noble or another. They none of them would be caught dead in Gaius' chambers. Only Arthur, Morgana, and occasionally the king would visit here, usually to either speak to Gaius privately or, in Arthur's case, complain about the state of his boots or some other imagined grievance. It always struck her as ironic that the nobles turned their nose up at Gaius' humble quarters while the king, his son, and his ward saw no shame in visiting them when they had need. Ironic, or stupid, anyway.
Nonetheless, there was a noble present. He and the others must have heard her arrive, because they all started and turned toward her. It took her a moment, but Merlin was able to identify the noble as Lord Marcus, a close friend of the king's and probably the greatest landholder in the kingdom, after the royal family. Merlin had seen him on occasion during court functions, when she was busy serving Arthur, but had little impression of him other than that he was a stern, solemn man who rigidly adhered to Uther's laws, especially the ones regarding magic.
"Close the door, Merlin," Gaius ordered.
She shot him a questioning look, but he only nodded toward the door behind her. Pursing her lips, she did as asked and leaned against it, eyeing the three of them. Her mother was seated at the table, her hands folded neatly in front of her and her eyes glued to them. Lord Marcus, however, was staring at her intently, a peculiar expression on his face.
For several moments no one said anything, and Merlin's confusion grew. What was going on? She opened her mouth to ask, when, much to her surprise, Lord Marcus spoke. "She has my mother's eyes."
What?! Merlin was beginning to worry for the lord's sanity.
"Yes," her mother agreed quietly, though she looked uncomfortable at the comparison.
Merlin finally burst. "What is going on?!"
None of them responded, all glancing at one another. Finally, her mother stood up and stepped toward her. "Merlin, dearest," she said hesitantly, "I… this is difficult to explain." Merlin watched her, saying nothing and waiting. Finally, Hunith began again, "Lord Marcus… he's your father, Merlin."
Merlin's jaw dropped. "What?"
Merlin didn't have a father. It was something she'd been keenly aware of ever since she was a little girl. Some of her earliest memories involved being teased by the other children of Ealdor for only having one parent. She remembered Will's father, before he left to serve King Cenred and came back as a corpse, and he had been a good man. There had been no such man to inhabit the ramshackle hut that had been Merlin's home until she'd come to Camelot.
Hunith saw Merlin's bewilderment and shock, because she took Merlin's hand and led her over to the table. Once they were seated, Hunith began to explain. "I was born in western Camelot, in a village at the foot of the White Mountains, Albina. Uther's conquest of the kingdom occurred during my childhood, and was completed around my seventeenth year." She paused when Lord Marcus appeared beside her, a tankard of water in hand. Merlin watched her mother offer him a small, tentative smile of thanks as she took it and sipped the liquid. After a moment, she continued. "The fields between Camelot and the White Mountains are probably the most fertile in the kingdom, and Uther gave the area into the keeping of Lord Madoc, Marcus' father, as a reward for their loyalty in bringing Camelot under control. Unfortunately, he did not rule over it long, dying four years later. Marcus took control of his inheritance shortly after."
"What does this have to do with you and me?" Merlin asked, leaning against the table. "Where do you come in?"
Hunith nodded. "I'm getting to that, dearest. My father was the steward of the castle Albina was built around." A faint, happy smile lit across her weathered features. "I spent most of my childhood in that castle; I knew it better than my own home." She glanced at Lord Marcus briefly, who still stood next to her. "Because I was often there, I often came into contact with Lord Marcus. I was being groomed to take the position of housekeeper, and thus saw much of his wife, Lady Luella, too."
"Wife?" Merlin said, her eyes widening.
It was Lord Marcus who responded. "Yes, my wife. It was a marriage arranged by my father before his death."
No one spoke for a few moments, and the silence was an awkward one. Finally, Hunith said, "I don't think I need to explain how you were conceived, Merlin."
Merlin felt her face grow hot. "Please, don't," she croaked. It was more than she ever wanted to know, and she didn't refrain from glaring at her mother when the older woman laughed slightly. However, the moment of levity passed when Merlin asked, "How did you go from living in western Camelot and being the future housekeeper of a castle and the… mistress of a lord… to living in Ealdor?"
Hunith bowed her head. "I think I should explain first how things led up to that," she said. "I had been with Marcus for several years by the time Queen Ygraine became pregnant, and had long known how to prevent pregnancy. Then Prince Arthur was born, and the Purges began…" She trailed off, a pained expression coming over her face.
"You must understand, Merlin," Gaius intervened. "Things were infinitely worse then than they are now, in terms of the king's behavior toward magic." Merlin stared at him incredulously. How could it be any worse than Uther demanding Arthur hunt down a little boy so he could watch the child be executed? "Uther seemed to go mad overnight when Ygraine died. Every known sorcerer was rounded up and killed. Anyone suspected of using magic or sympathizing with it was executed as well. People lived in terror of being condemned for the slightest abnormality."
"The king's rage was felt keenly felt in Albina," Hunith continued, "but we were able to work to hide many of those who used magic – healers, midwives, the ones who were less obvious about it. Everyone learned to keep their head down. I thought things would just continue on as they had before, even with the king demanding the head of every sorcerer we could find. But then I fell pregnant." She shook her head. "The potion I took to prevent a child had failed, though I've never known how. I visited one of the hiding healers because I'd been ill, and she told me of it. She told me something else – she told me that my babe had magic." Hunith shivered. "You can imagine how that news was taken."
Merlin bit her lip and nodded slowly. Hiding adult magic users was one thing, but a baby who would have no control? Being in Camelot would be a death trap. Suddenly, realizing just who was present, her eyes grew huge and she looked at Lord Marcus fearfully.
He noticed her fright, and held up his hands. "Peace, dear girl," he said. "I will tell no one, I promise you."
"He won't, Merlin," Hunith added reassuringly, squeezing her hand. "Marcus will not condemn you for who you are."
Merlin looked between them, taking in their earnest faces, and finally nodded.
"Things got worse," her mother took up her story again. "Somehow, Lady Luella discovered that I was with child. She had never been happy in Albina, and she had no child of her own."
"Luella had been pregnant several times, but none of the babies survived more than a few days," Marcus cut in gruffly, his face grey with sadness.
"She demanded that I hand over her husband's 'bastard,' as she called you," Hunith continued, a flicker of bitterness crossing her features. "If she could have no child of her own, she said, then she was determined that she would still raise Marcus' heir herself." Merlin gasped, and her mother nodded. "I wasn't about to give you up. You may have been unexpected, darling, but you were no less loved. You hadn't even been born, but I still adored you."
Merlin managed a small, grateful smile and Hunith kept going. "I couldn't stay there, not with Lady Luella demanding I hand you over the moment you were born, and with the news that you had magic. I was sure you'd be dead within a month in such a public life." Hunith sighed and glanced at Lord Marcus, who was watching her keenly. "I was able to procure the help of a group of Druids, who were planning on traveling to Cenred's kingdom in the east. With their help, I left Albina. I felt it best that I leave no notice, no way to trace me." She bowed her head.
"You should have come to me, Hunith," Marcus said. "Did you think so little of me that I wouldn't protect you?"
She looked up at him, her expression full of pain. "Do you think Uther would have spared either of us if he thought we'd had a child that had inherited your mother's abilities, Marcus? He would have killed us both back then, and would do so now, if he knew about Merlin's gifts."
Marcus didn't look any happier, but he had no rebuttal. Merlin, however, was confused. "Your mother? Was she a sorceress?"
The nobleman nodded. "Yes, she was. She was one of the many sorcerers who fought for Uther in the conquest of Camelot." He sighed. "She died in the battle for this very citadel, taking the enemy's chief sorcerer with her." He looked at the signet ring on his finger, similar to the one Merlin often saw Arthur wear. "It was one reason why Uther was so generous to my father once he had claimed the throne. My mother's sacrifice put the crown on his head."
A sorceress had provided Uther with Camelot. Now, he killed any sorcerer who dared show their face. Merlin bit her lip and lowered her eyes to the table, trying to hide her anger. She cleared her throat a moment later, "So… what now?" She looked from her mother to Lord Marcus. "The immediate problem is still the same – Ealdor is under attack from raiders." She stood up. "I can't just sit here and do nothing."
Sigan smiled at her sardonically. "Why are you so loyal to him?" he asked her. "He has no respect for you. He sees you as nothing but a foolish, stupid girl."
Merlin glared at him. "That's not true."
"He ignored your warnings, giving them no credence whatsoever!" The sorcerer waved a hand at the unconscious Arthur. "Your word is as nothing to him."
She bit the inside of her cheek, trying not to let him see his words hit home. "That doesn't matter," she said quietly.
"But it must be so frustrating," he replied, his voice as slick and smooth as honey. "To be so put upon, to be treated as Cassandra was by the Trojans. You warn them of danger, and yet are never believed."
She clenched her fists. It had indeed hurt, Arthur dismissing her warnings about Cedric. Why didn't he listen to her? She didn't warn him just to hear herself talk!
Sigan laughed. "Oh, Merlin," he said, "you could be so much more! If you joined me, you'd never need to hide again. You would be Queen! Arthur would kneel at your feet, heed your every word and tremble at them." He held out his hand to her.
Merlin's head jerked up, horror sweeping through her. She wanted Arthur to listen to her, yes, but she didn't want him subjugated!
"I've never wanted anything like that!" she snarled. "Arthur will be a great king one day, and I'll never see him bow to anyone, least of all me." Merlin glared at him. "I'd rather spend the rest of my life being ignored than rule with a monster like you!"
Sigan's smile twisted into a grotesque expression of hatred. "You are a fool, Merlin," he whispered, his breathy voice full of malice. "You could have been the greatest queen Camelot would ever know, but instead you chose death." He paused, considering something, and then smiled. "I was going to just kill you now, but I have a better idea – you can see your precious prince precede you into death."
That was the only warning Merlin got before a dark, sickly light flew from Sigan's hand – right at Arthur's unprotected form.
They'd won. Kanen and his thugs were defeated, and Ealdor was safe. It had not come without cost, though. Merlin was certain she would never forget how the life had drained out of Will's body, how his blood had stained her hands and had still been under her fingernails when she'd stood in front of his pyre. His death would always be on her conscience, especially how he had lied to Arthur about who had set the wind against the bandits. He'd preserved her secret with his final breath.
She'd offered to stay with her mother in Ealdor, worried of what might happen after she and the others had left. Hunith had just smiled at her and said, "I know where to find you. You have to go back, Merlin. You belong at Arthur's side." She glanced in Arthur's direction, who was standing with Morgana and Gwen, all of them waiting. "I've seen how much he needs you, how much you need him." Hunith brushed Merlin's cheek. "You're like two sides of the same coin."
Merlin snorted and shook her head ruefully. "I've heard someone call us that before. I still say I'm the brighter half."
Hunith chuckled, but then sobered. "Arthur isn't the only one who needs you, Merlin. Marcus…" Merlin stiffened, and Hunith stared at her in concern. "Trust him, Merlin. He's your father." She sighed. "Perhaps I did you a disservice, not telling you about him when you first left to Camelot. Maybe I should have gone with you then, taken you to him from the start. But I knew Gaius would look after you, and could help you more readily with your gifts than your father could."
"How do you know you can trust him?" Merlin asked. "You haven't seen him in over twenty years! And I've seen him whenever someone's executed for magic," she added bitterly. "He stands near the king in support of it. He does nothing to stop it."
Hunith gave her a scolding look. "You know why he doesn't, Merlin. Do you think Uther would thank him for questioning or disobeying him?"
Merlin bit her lip and shook her head. She hadn't been conscious at the time, but Gaius had told her of what Uther had done to Arthur when he'd returned from obtaining the Mortaeus flower after Nimueh had poisoned her. If he wasn't above throwing his own child in the rat-ridden dungeons, it didn't bear thinking of what he'd do to one of his nobles for standing against him.
Her mother saw her acknowledgement of her point. Cupping Merlin's cheeks in her hands, she said, "You are his daughter. He'll do everything he possibly can to protect you. Trust him."
There was no gainsaying her mother, not when she was so confident, so Merlin conceded the argument. She'd not ignore the man, but she wasn't about to start trusting him with everything, not like she trusted Gaius. Her trust was something the man would have to earn.
So she left with the others, though she didn't say much on the way back to Camelot. Merlin couldn't get Will's final moments out of her mind, nor was Lord Marcus far from her thoughts. She was grateful, though, that Gwen and Morgana seemed to understand her desire for solitude. They were able to keep Arthur from making a nuisance of himself, stopping him from making excessive demands for her attention. She did feel a bit guilty, though. She had not told them of her connection to Lord Marcus, but then, how did a person go about telling your friends such a thing? Merlin was at a loss.
They made it back to Camelot by the following afternoon, Arthur leading the way with Gwen and Morgana just behind them, and Merlin bringing up the rear. When they arrived in the courtyard, Merlin saw both Uther and Lord Marcus waiting for them on the steps. She tensed, her eyes sweeping the area instinctively. Had she been betrayed? Her mother had assured her that Lord Marcus would never reveal her magic to Uther, but Merlin had seen his support of the king's policies firsthand. Nonetheless, she saw no evidence of a group of guards ready to spring out and drag her to the dungeons or, worse, a waiting pyre. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax.
"Father," Arthur greeted the king, and she could hear the wariness in his voice. Merlin knew the king might not be pleased at the risk his son and ward had taken, chancing open conflict with Cenred by interfering with a village within his borders. It had been his own reasoning for not sending troops to deal with Kanen. The presence of Camelot's Crown Prince and Royal Ward, should it become known to Cenred, would produce the same result as the knights' presence would have – war.
However, as Merlin watched Uther, she could see no indication of anger or irritation. Instead, he finished the trip down the steps and moved toward Morgana's horse. "Arthur," he replied. As he reached up to Morgana, he asked, "I trust your venture was successful?"
Arthur nodded, dismounting his own horse. "Kanen and his rabble won't be harming anyone else in Ealdor," he said. "Nor is he alive to cross the border into Camelot, and his followers have been scattered."
"Excellent," Uther praised as Morgana slipped down to the ground. He pressed a gentle kiss to her cheek, even smiling at her briefly. He did not speak of his pride in them, but for a fleeting moment, it was present for anyone to see.
Then, much to Merlin's shock, he turned to her and bowed, of all things. Merlin's jaw dropped. "Lady Merlin," he said, and she heard Arthur make a small choked sound nearby. "I am glad to hear that your mother's village is now safe again. I only wish I could have been able to do more."
All Merlin could think was that he had called her 'Lady.' "I-I," she stammered, "uh, thank you, Your Majesty."
Fortunately, that seemed a sufficient response. He then informed her, "New chambers have been made ready for you." He glanced at Morgana, whose green eyes were wide in surprise. "The other set of chambers next to yours," he clarified.
"The ones Lady Kaelyn used?" she asked.
He nodded. "Exactly. I hope you will be comfortable there," he added to Merlin. She just gaped at him.
Luckily, Uther didn't notice. Nodding to Lord Marcus, he left, returning inside.
What's going on? Merlin thought, dazed. Why in the world would I have actual chambers, much less the ones right next to Morgana's?
Where's Gaius? she wondered. What's happening?
"Merlin." A hand touched her own, which were still clutching the reins of her horse, and she looked down. Marcus had appeared at her left knee, looking up at her seriously. "Come," he said, gesturing for her to dismount.
At a loss to do anything else, Merlin obeyed, lowering herself down from the horse. Marcus gripped her arm, but it wasn't needed. "Where is Gaius?" she asked once she was steady on her feet.
The nobleman stared down at her for a moment, before responding, "In his chambers, I imagine." He reached up to grasp her pack, but Merlin beat him to it. She pulled it free of her saddle and gripping it tightly in front of her, almost like a shield.
"Thank you, my lord," Merlin said, before slipping past him. She hurried up the stairs, not looking at Gwen, Morgana, or Arthur, though she could feel their eyes on her. She had to get away, had to get to Gaius. He would explain everything.
Luckily, Gaius was right where Marcus said he would be when Merlin burst into his chambers a few minutes later. He looked up from a potion he was stirring, surprise on his face. "Merlin?" he said. "Whatever is the matter, girl?"
"Why do I have chambers next to Morgana's?" she demanded, dropping her pack at her feet.
Gaius didn't seem surprised by the news. "Ah," he said by way of reply. "I should think it obvious. Your father is a high-ranking member of the court. His only child and heir can hardly stay in the humble chambers of the court physician."
"H-heir?" she stuttered. "H-how can I be that? Doesn't he have a family? You said he had a wife."
The physician looked at her strangely, but then nodded. "Of course. I suppose we did forget to mention that. Lady Luella died some years ago, giving birth to their son. The boy did not long outlive her, and Lord Marcus never remarried. You are his only offspring."
Merlin struggled to repress a whimper. She thought she had become accustomed to knowing that her father wasn't dead like she'd supposed for so long, but this? This wasn't what she had in mind! Didn't she have enough to handle being a sorceress and Arthur's secret protector?
Her eyes widened. "My things!" She rushed forward, stumbling over her pack but not falling, and raced toward the door to her bedroom. "Are they still here?"
She threw open the door and looked around frantically. The bed remained, as did the cupboard and chair, but everything else, everything she had brought with her from Ealdor and had accumulated since she'd been in Camelot was gone. "My book! The staff!" she shrieked. If they had been discovered…
"Merlin!" Gaius said admonishingly. "Lower your voice!" When she turned around to face him, he continued. "I took the staff and book and hid them elsewhere. I think it best if they stay here. There is a far greater risk of them being discovered in your chambers than they would be here."
She gaped at him for several moments, and then finally sank down on the stairs. Or what had been her room, anyway. It wasn't hers anymore. Instead she had chambers. Next to Morgana's.
Gaius noticed her despondency. "Merlin," he said, his voice much softer. He came closer and took a seat on the steps next to her. "You look like someone just killed a puppy. Don't fret so."
She turned and looked at him. "I was perfectly happy the way things were," she said. "Arthur's a prat, but I don't mind serving him so much anymore. And I liked learning from you." Merlin bit her lip. "I don't want things to change."
The old man smiled at her. "All life is change, my dear girl. This is how things are now. You're a lady of the court now, possibly the greatest heiress in the entire kingdom." He slowly wrapped an arm around her shoulders and she scooted closer to him, laying her head on his shoulder. "I believe you have it in you to be great one day, Merlin. Just think of this as a stepping stone to that."
Merlin couldn't help but giggle a bit. When she sobered, she asked, feeling like a little girl, "I can still come and visit you here, right?"
Gaius laughed. "Of course. You're Lord Marcus' daughter. I don't think there is anyone who will be willing to tell you no. Lord Marcus certainly won't. You may be his daughter, but you are my niece as well. You're perfectly entitled to visit your family whenever you like."
They sat there together for a few more minutes, and Merlin felt herself beginning to calm down. She still didn't like this whole 'lady' idea, but Gaius was right, as he so often was. For every challenge Camelot had thrown at her in the past several months, Merlin had done her best to rise to the occasion. She'd just have to do her best now too.
Sigan's sinister, twisted magic raced toward Arthur, but Merlin was quicker. Throwing herself in front of him, she held her hands out in front of her. She didn't have time to utter a spell, and could only brace herself for the impact.
Only, when the spell hit her, she wasn't flung backward. Much to Merlin's shock, the spell bounced off her hands, flying back toward its caster. The sorcerer's jaw dropped in surprise, but he still waved his hand in time to prevent the spell from hitting him. It dissipated harmlessly.
"Very good, lady," he said, bowing mockingly. "You're better at this than I anticipated." He cocked his head, considering her. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "perhaps there is a better route to take than simply killing you. Your magic is powerful."
Merlin said nothing, just watched him carefully, waiting for the next attack.
Sigan smirked. "I shall simply claim your body – and power – for my own. I wonder what it will be like to be a woman?"
Eww, she shuddered. She didn't have time to consider the disgusting implications any further, when suddenly Sigan's eyes rolled up in the back of his head. Merlin tensed when an eerie blue mist slipped from the man's nostrils and drifted toward her. Biting her lip, Merlin held her ground, carefully slipping her hand within the small pocket of her dress.
The mist whirled around her, starting at her feet and making its way up. She shivered in revulsion, could practically feel evil that made up Sigan's soul as it drifted over her skin. When it came to her face, it didn't hesitate, immediately making its way into her mouth and up her nose. Merlin closed her eyes, holding her breath. The timing had to be exact…
It was like she was drowning in filth. She could see Sigan's thoughts, his vision of the future – himself, wielding her body as his own, as Queen of Camelot. She could see him killing everyone – Uther, Gaius, her father, the knights. He saved Morgana, Gwen, and Arthur for last, though, prolonging their suffering as they watched the woman who had once been their friend become a monster, not comprehending that it was not Merlin, but Sigan.
She watched him strangle Gwen and Morgana, cutting the air off from their bodies, without even laying a finger on them. Merlin moaned.
She watched him clench her fist just in front of Arthur's chest. He jerked, his face going absolutely white, and he collapsed. Merlin howled and screamed, losing all pretense of detachment.
It was too much! No more! She pushed against Sigan's presence. He didn't budge, and Merlin could hear his mocking laughter.
Merlin had lost control.
The chambers were nice. For all that Merlin hadn't wanted to leave her little room in Gaius' chambers, she was still girl enough to delight in pretty things, and Uther had given her some of the finest chambers in the citadel, only slightly less so than those occupied by the royal family.
Her own dresses were nowhere to be found, which Merlin discovered when she started investigating the place. Several of the little items that she had gathered since she'd come to Camelot were present, as were her basic toiletries – brush, hair ribbons, and the like, but of her clothing there was no sign.
When she opened the wardrobe in the corner, however, she found that it was hardly empty. There were three – no, four – dresses hanging neatly inside, all of different colors. Merlin had caught the occasional glimpse of Morgana's wardrobe when she had helped Gwen with her chores, so what she saw now was nothing compared to what Morgana had in terms of numbers, but they were still finer than anything she'd ever dreamed of owning.
A knock at her door interrupted her thoughts, and Merlin stumbled away, feeling almost guilty for even looking at the dresses. Clearing her throat, she called, "Come in?"
The door swung open so quickly that it hit the wall with a loud bang, causing Merlin to jump. In the doorway, Morgana appeared, Gwen just behind her. Both had clearly washed and changed since they'd arrived back in Camelot – something Merlin herself had yet to do – because both women were no longer wearing their traveling clothes, but were instead in their normal apparel.
"Merlin," Morgana said, striding into the room. She smiled at her. "Good! You're here! Uther told me about Lord Marcus! I had no idea he was your father!"
Merlin smiled weakly. "Neither did I," she answered.
"Your mother never told you?"
"No," she shook her head. "I always assumed he died when I was a baby. Didn't find out differently until after Mother spoke to the king. He was in the crowd and recognized her. Mother told me just before we left for Ealdor."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Gwen asked her.
Merlin shrugged. "I barely believed it myself, and didn't think it would matter much."
"Lord Marcus has no other children," Morgana supplied, a knowing look on her face.
Merlin nodded, a sour look on her face. "No one told me that until we got back today."
There was a moment of silence, and then Morgana grinned. "Well," she said, "until a handmaiden can be found for you, I guess Gwen and I will have to suffice."
Merlin blinked. "What?"
Morgana didn't answer. Instead, she just nodded to Gwen, and then to the door. Gwen apparently needed no further prompting and she scurried out of the room. Morgana then turned back to her, a thoughtful expression on her round face. "Hmm," she hummed, "let me see what the seamstresses have given us to work with on such short notice." She pushed past Merlin and walked over to the wardrobe. Throwing it open, she stared at the dresses for several moments. "Which one do you like, Merlin?" she eventually asked.
"Um…" Merlin peeked over the other woman's shoulder. The four dresses were each a different color – white, a pale blue, bright Pendragon red, and yellow. She glanced at Morgana's attire – a dress of deep purple velvet – and then said hesitantly, "The blue one?"
Morgana cocked her head, and then nodded. "Good choice," she said, pulling the garment out of the wardrobe. She swept across the room and laid it out on the bed. "You can wear this to the feast this evening."
Merlin inhaled sharply. "Feast?"
"Oh yes," she answered. "You know Uther – he takes any excuse to celebrate, and what better excuse than our successful venture in defending a helpless village from marauding bandits?" She glanced at her and winked. "Well, that and to formally welcome Lord Marcus' daughter to the court. Uther wants to show you off."
Merlin gulped. He'd do more than show her off if he knew the truth about her – he'd show off her head the moment it was severed from her body.
Morgana, though, took her sudden change in demeanor as nervousness about the upcoming gathering. "Don't worry, Merlin," she said, "Gwen and I can give you some basic instruction that will get you through the evening. We'll worry about the more complex things later."
Merlin had lost control, but she fought fiercely to take it back. It seemed that Sigan was at something of a disadvantage, being an invading spirit in someone else's body, though she could also sense his surprise. Clearly, no one had ever fought his possession so aggressively before.
In the back of her mind, Merlin could feel her hand clenching the glass heart that had been Sigan's prison. She had to speak, she knew, she had to say the words of power that the Dragon had given her. She had to put Sigan back into it again, or everyone would suffer – more than they already had.
Sigan laughed inside her mind, but she could feel his disquiet. He wasn't as confident as he would have her think. She redoubled her efforts, feeling her body jerk as the battle for control waged.
Stop, child! Sigan snarled.
Why should I?
I will make us great! We will be —
I don't need you to make me great! she declared. Get out!
Sigan was strong, stronger than any other sorcerer she had faced before… save one. Nimueh's power had been stronger than this, full of life, even if it had been fueled by bitterness and grief and hate. Sigan's power was dark and twisted and made her skin crawl.
Merlin gritted her teeth. She could do this.
She had to.
Merlin was fairly certain she had never been so clean in all her life.
Apparently, Morgana's sending Gwen from the room had been for her to order that bath water be drawn and brought to Merlin's chambers. Once the tub and water had been brought, Morgana, with all the demeanor of a general commanding her troops, had ordered Merlin into it.
"Be thorough, Merlin," she'd said.
It had taken time – and assistance from Gwen, much to Merlin's mortification – but eventually she was clean enough to satisfy Morgana. Her hair shone in the late afternoon light, even after it dried. Of course, she hadn't been idle while waiting for her hair to reach that point – the moment Merlin was out of the tub and placed in a white shift, Morgana and Gwen had begun talking. For quite a long time, actually. Instructions, mainly, on how to behave as a lady of the court, what to eat, how to eat, and when to eat.
"Whatever you do," Morgana told her, "do not start eating until the king does. Also, you stop when he does as well."
"And you're expected to eat from every course that's brought out," Gwen added. Merlin looked at her in the mirror, gaping. She knew from experience just how many courses could be offered at a feast. How could anyone eat all of that?!
The other two women saw her expression and laughed. "Don't worry, Merlin," Morgana said. "Just take a spoonful of each offering. You don't even have to eat all of what's on your plate if there's something you don't care for."
Merlin nodded slowly. "That must be the only reason Arthur isn't too heavy for his horse," she muttered under her breath.
Morgana heard the comment and smirked. "You should have seen him when we were younger. There was a time when he was getting rather… plump, from all of the sweets and other food that he ate. When Uther noticed, he ordered that the amount of time spent on Arthur's physical training be doubled." She shrugged. "He lost the weight fairly quick after that, and he kept it off."
The instructing continued, on matters such as how to curtsy properly to those ranked higher than herself – "Which, really, is just your father, the king, Arthur, and, in the strictest terms, me," Morgana said – and how to receive the greetings of those lower ranked – "A nod is sufficient, but, if you have great respect for the person, a small bow at the shoulders is acceptable too."
It was so much! Then, if that wasn't all, Merlin also had to pray that she didn't trip over her dress, which included a rather long train that she hadn't noticed earlier.
Things moved ahead when her hair was finally dry enough for Gwen to work with. Morgana excused herself, slipping out of the room. After telling Merlin not to move, the handmaiden had proceeded to do things to her hair that made Merlin go cross-eyed, as well as feel grateful that she had been spared such duties when she had been the prince's servant. Arthur had been perfectly capable of dealing with his own hair, thank goodness.
"I don't know why Uther didn't have a handmaiden assigned to you," Morgana mentioned when she returned, her arms full of fabric and other accessories. She laid everything on an uncovered area of the bed. "He managed everything else – the chambers, the feast."
"Mistress Alys said that Lord Marcus asked her not to assign someone," Gwen supplied as she struggled with a particularly obstinate strand of Merlin's hair, referring to the citadel's chief housekeeper. "He told her that he'd have Merlin chose someone from Albina when they go there for a visit."
Merlin raised an eyebrow. Visit Albina? When had that been decided? It was becoming a little irritating, all of these decisions being made for her. It wasn't something she was used to.
It turned out that everything Morgana had fetched were her own things, and she disappeared behind a nearby dressing screen to change. When she came out, Gwen was satisfied with Merlin's hair and was helping her into her own dress. Merlin turned around and stared in the mirror. She hardly recognized herself. When they'd arrived back in Camelot earlier in the day, Merlin had been herself, but now? In the mirror was a noblewoman. Merlin didn't know who she was.
"You look wonderful," Morgana praised. Merlin glanced at her in the mirror, and saw her smiling. "No one will say otherwise."
Merlin rolled her eyes. "I'm sure Arthur will," she said. "He always does. Why would that change?"
Morgana snorted. "Then he's an idiot."
The other two women didn't remain long after that. Lord Marcus arrived at Merlin's chambers, and Morgana and Gwen hurriedly slipped out. When they were alone, the nobleman said nothing for several moments, just stared at her. Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "Is something wrong?" she asked, wanting to glance toward the mirror again. Perhaps she'd done something to mess up Gwen's hard work?
Lord Marcus blinked suddenly, and then shook his head. "No," he responded. "I'm sorry, it's just…" he gazed at her again, and Merlin thought she saw a flicker of something akin to amazement in his eyes, "you look very much like my mother."
Merlin raised an eyebrow. It wasn't the first time he had uttered such a sentiment. Was his mother – her grandmother – a skinny girl with scraggly hair and hands too thin for much of the work that had, until recently, been her lot? She asked him as much.
He chuckled. "Well, my mother was tall and lean, like you. She had dark hair, like you, but I remember it being much curlier." Lord Marcus sobered a little. "I remember playing with it as a boy. I must have made quite a tangle of it, but she never complained."
Merlin ducked her head. "I would brush Mother's hair when I lived with her. Sometimes she'd be so tired at the end of the day that she didn't have the energy to do it herself. I loved doing it."
The older man nodded, smiling briefly, but then grew serious again. "I would warn you to be careful about the resemblance," he warned her. "If I see it, then so will others, possibly even the king. It wouldn't do to remind him too much of a sorceress, even one who was a friend to him and died long before the Purges."
Merlin blanched. He made a good point. Merlin had confessed once to sorcery, to save Gwen from the pyre, but Arthur had managed to convince his father that she'd only said it to protect a friend. Uther and Gaius both had scolded her severely. Reminding Uther of another connection that Merlin had to magic was definitely not the best idea. She nodded vigorously. "I'll remember that."
"Good," he replied. Taking a deep breath, Lord Marcus offered her a tentative smile and his arm. "Shall we go then?"
Merlin echoed his behavior, inhaling deeply, and then nodded again. "Right. Yes." She took his arm and he led her out of the chambers.
The next several hours were some of the most surreal of her life. Uther himself had announced their arrival to the feast. It had been all Merlin could do to keep her cheeks from turning bright red as they approached the high table, where they would sit with the royal family, as their honored guests.
Thankfully, Merlin was seated next to Morgana, at the far left end of the table, and thus had the other woman between her and Uther. Lord Marcus took the last available seat, the one at the other end, next to Arthur. Merlin was pretty sure that she acquitted herself pretty well throughout the meal, as Morgana had only to hiss one reminder about some piece of etiquette.
The real test came after the meal, when the tables were moved out of the way by the servants so that there could be dancing. Merlin had no intention of joining in on that, not when she had no clue what do. She knew the peasant dances, but the intricate movements that the nobles partook in? Not a chance. Fortunately, no one seemed to expect her to – or maybe having either Morgana or Lord Marcus, or even both of them, with her at all times was enough deterrent to keep people from asking her to join in.
Instead, she found herself actually talking, making conversation with people who, just days ago, would have sneered down their noses at her. Instead, they were all politeness, speaking of innocuous subjects such as the latest supply of fabrics brought from the west.
"The silks from Caerleon are some of the finest that have come in nearly three years," commented Lady Cerdwynna, her eyes full of vapid excitement.
Merlin just smiled weakly.
Several other ladies were brave enough to ask her about the circumstances that led her to Lord Marcus. Merlin feared that they might be openly skeptical about her parentage, but when Lady Enide said, "It's just like a fairytale!" everyone chimed in, agreeing, and that led to a long discussion about old stories their mothers or nurses had told them as children.
Perhaps the most unusual part of the night had been when Lord Marcus led her to a group of men and women, including Uther and Arthur. These people, she discovered, were much more sensible than the people she had just been with – Morgana excepted, of course. They were actually discussing what had happened in Ealdor.
"… good, valiant people," Arthur was saying. "They acquitted themselves well, for having no previous experience in fighting."
Merlin beamed at the compliment to her neighbors, and she was fairly sure she saw a faint smile cross the prince's lips.
A young man not much older than Arthur whom Merlin recalled as Lord Lucius, one who had campaigned to join the knights but hadn't lasted long under Arthur's ruthless training, snorted. "Mark my words," he said self-importantly, "no good can come of teaching commoners to fight. Give them that ability, and you'll have an armed rebellion within a week. They should leave fighting to those who are suited for it."
Merlin caught the cold expression on Arthur's face, but he didn't contradict Lucius. She had no intention of remaining silent, though, something Marcus figured out just before she opened her mouth. She felt him tighten his grip on her arm, but didn't stifle herself. "Unfortunately, my lord," she said in a tone that sounded to her ears both sweet and testy, "Ealdor is not as privileged as the villages of Camelot. If Kanen had dared to behave so to any of the villages of this kingdom, I have no doubt that His Majesty," she nodded to Uther, "would have reacted appropriately. Cenred does not seem to share His Majesty's care, and thus the people of the village had to fend for themselves."
Lucius glared at her, clearly offended, but Arthur smirked, clearly unsurprised by her speaking up. Uther raised an eyebrow, but his lips twitched, showing his amusement. He nodded to her. "I am honored you think so highly of me, my lady."
Merlin smiled weakly, and tried not to cringe. Not what I was thinking, she thought, but nonetheless, it was true. However cruel Uther could be, he did all he could to defend his people when called on to do so. Such loyalty was one thing he'd passed on to Arthur in abundance.
"Well, I think it's despicable," said another of the lords, an older man by the name of Aldrich, "that Cenred would leave his people to suffer at the hands of bandits."
Uther snorted into his goblet as he sipped on his wine. "The man has a very… lackadaisical method to ruling. He even allows slavers to roam and infest his land with impunity, as long as they do not interfere with him and pay him a hefty bribe to leave them be." His disgust was palpable.
The discussion continued on for some time, and during it, Arthur somehow ended up next to her. While appearing to be attending to the conversation, he leaned close to her ear and murmured, "Not bad, Merlin. It seems that you are good at putting supercilious people in their place. Who would have thought?"
It took all of her control not to snort and reply that she'd had plenty of practice with him. Still, Merlin couldn't help but feel a little thrill at his praise.
The feast went on for some time, but Merlin was glad that she wasn't expected to stay that entire time. Still, it was very late when she was able to leave, and Marcus walked back to her chambers with her. She was yawning every few minutes as they walked.
"You did well tonight," he told her. "The king was pleased with you. He likes people who speak their mind, within reason." Lord Marcus smiled. "It's probably one reason why he is so fond of Lady Morgana." Merlin opened her mouth to reply, but he grew serious again and added, "But you should be careful. You offended Lord Lucius."
Merlin scowled. "He suggested that the people of Ealdor shouldn't have defended themselves from Kanen. Cenred can't be bothered to protect them, so what should they have done? Just sat there and let him rob them blind?" She stared straight ahead. "Besides," she continued, "the man's useless. He didn't last a week with the knights before he broke under the pressure and had to return home for 'health reasons'. Hah. Arthur was thrilled to be rid of the brat."
Marcus sighed. "Perhaps, Merlin, but even when you have the prince's favor, you must still take care. Lucius may be a conceited twit, but he is not without influence of his own. I don't think anything will come of what happened tonight, but you must watch your words."
She nodded, though inwardly rolled her eyes.
Satisfied with her response, he changed the subject just as they reached her chambers, having passed Morgana's silent rooms, indicating that she was already asleep. "We'll travel to Albina in a few days," he said. "You should see your inheritance, become familiar with it and allow the people to become accustomed to you."
Merlin nodded slowly, recalling that Gwen and Morgana had mentioned it earlier that day. "I suppose," she said.
Marcus glanced down at her. "You do not wish to go?"
She sighed. "I don't mind going," she said, "I just wish you'd asked me first." At his raised eyebrow, Merlin elaborated, "I'm not used to anyone making decisions like that for me." Gaius never really had done so, nor had Arthur. They'd issued their orders to her, but they'd never just assumed she'd go somewhere without saying something to her first.
"Ah, I see," the older man replied. "A bargain then – I will do my best to consult you on any plans for you, if you will try to be a little more diplomatic when dealing with the more irritating nobles of Camelot."
Merlin laughed, and then nodded. "All right, all right," she said. "I'll try. It's a deal."
He had smiled at her more than once in the time of their acquaintance, but that moment was the first time he actually grinned. It lit his face up, and Merlin thought she might have caught a glimpse of how he must have appeared to her mother in their youths.
For all that he was quite distinguished now, he must have been a very handsome man back then.
The words of power slipped off her tongue like raindrops off of leaves, one by one, methodical. With every one of them, Merlin could feel her magic rise up within her, like wave about to crash upon the surf. She could sense Sigan's disbelief, could hear his fear as he tried to desperately bargain with her.
No, she said as calmly as she could. You should not have come back in the first place. Your time is done.
We can be invincible!
I don't want to be invincible! she snarled.
Then the last word was out of her mouth, and the world exploded.
The next several weeks of Merlin's life were some of the busiest she'd ever known. Arthur and Uther saw her and Marcus off, though things had inexplicably become awkward between her and Arthur. He had behaved at the feast as if very little had changed, teasing her, but standing out in the courtyard, he had said little more than pleasantries, not even reacting to a dig on her part about him getting up in the morning without her to wake him. It was bewildering, but then, when had Arthur ever not been?
When the time came to depart, Merlin had had some trouble trying to mount her horse in the traveling dress that she was wearing. Marcus had started to move to assist her, but Arthur beat him to it, coming over and lifting her up onto the animal, as though she weighed nothing. He placed the reins in her hand and then quickly stepped back away from her, but not before Merlin caught a good glimpse of his eyes.
They were sad, of all things. Confusion had swept through her then, but she hadn't had time to dwell on it as she was accompanied out of Camelot by Marcus and a large retinue of guards, a few servants, and a mule-drawn cart. Still, she had looked back and saw that while Uther had retreated back into the citadel, Arthur remained standing on the steps, staring almost forlornly after her.
Arthur had been difficult to comprehend when she had been his maidservant. Now, he was impossible.
Visiting Albina turned out to be a better experience than she'd thought it would be. Aside from Marcus, she had no actual family in the area – her mother's family had since either died or left the area – but it meant a lot to Merlin to stroll the places her mother had walked as a girl. It had also felt strangely meaningful to visit the castle where she'd been conceived too.
Just as Gwen had predicted, Merlin was given the pick of the women servants in the castle to be her handmaiden. There were not that many to choose from – it appeared that Marcus only kept a small staff, nothing at all like the legion of servants that Uther had – only three. Merlin made a point to talk to each one of them, and discovered that two of them had family in the area that they were both hesitant to leave. One even had a young man who had just recently proposed marriage. Since Merlin knew that her handmaiden would have to come to Camelot with her, she chose the third and final candidate, a young woman named Seanna. The girl was an orphan, Merlin found out, her parents having perished of illness when she'd been a girl. Seanna had been raised by her grandmother, who had lived long enough to see her granddaughter obtain employment in the castle and settled well enough before she died.
When Merlin broached the subject of her coming to Camelot with her, Seanna had appeared a little nervous at first, but then had nodded. "Of course, my lady, I should be honored to come with you."
Merlin smiled, feeling just as anxious. "I'm rather new at all of this," she said, waving her hand at their luxurious surroundings, "so I hope you'll bear with me."
Seanna's smile, which had a kindness that reminded her very much of Gwen, was reassuring.
Merlin even found herself spending more time in Marcus' company. He seemed quite happy to guide her through every aspect of Albina and every bit of land that was under his purview. They rode often, visiting the isolated farms and other villages, and generally allowing the people to see them, but Merlin was actually enjoying passing the time with him. She wasn't quite comfortable with calling him 'Father' just yet, but she no longer used his title in conversation, unless it was to tease him.
One surprising conversation took place after their evening meal. Just as the servants had cleared away the last of their plates, Marcus said, "Merlin, would you join me in my study for a few minutes?"
Surprised by the sudden shift in conversation – they'd been discussing the harvest, which was due to begin soon – Merlin nodded. As they moved to leave the dining room, Merlin waved Seanna away, telling her to go ahead to Merlin's chambers. The distance to Marcus' study was a short one. She sat down in one of the chairs near the large, ornate desk in the center of the room, while he closed the door behind them.
Once he himself was seated, Marcus gestured to a large stack of parchment. "I've been drawing up new instructions for my will, so that, when I die, the passing of my lands will go smoothly for my heir."
Merlin shifted, a little uncomfortable. Though she was becoming accustomed to all of this business of being a noble, she was still a little put off by some aspects of it, most especially when there was talk of her inheriting Marcus' responsibilities. She had enough to do looking after Arthur! How was she supposed to manage everything here as well? It worried her.
"Since my wife had given me no heir and I chose not to remarry after her death," Marcus continued, unaware of her troublesome thoughts, "I had been left at something of loose ends on who to name as my successor. For the past few years, I'd seriously considered naming Prince Arthur my heir."
Merlin blinked, surprised.
"Most would think that rather redundant, since when a nobleman dies without heirs, his holdings usually revert back to the king anyway, aside from provisions left behind for a widow, if necessary," he said. "But by willing everything directly to Arthur, it would give him some resources of his own that are not directly controlled by his father. I thought it might be good for him, should I predecease his father. It would give him some direct experience in management before he takes up the entire kingdom. The king himself even agreed with my plan."
She nodded. "Sounds logical."
He smiled faintly. "True, but it won't be happening now. Having an heir of my body supersedes any other alternatives." He tapped the parchment with his finger. "I've been working on these since we arrived here, and the arrangements have been made. When I'm gone, this will all be yours."
Merlin gulped, and hoped she didn't look too terrified.
She must have, because Marcus grinned. "Don't worry, I've no intention of dying soon, but I wanted to warn you. Once it gets out that you are to inherit everything that is mine, the other nobles of the kingdom are going to be pounding at our doors, whether we are here or in Camelot."
"Why?" she asked in confusion.
"You're the richest heiress in the entire kingdom, Merlin," he pointed out. "The lands here and around Albina are some of the most fertile in all of Camelot. This area is also very strategic because we watch the paths leading out of the White Mountains. We're usually the first to see any invading army that comes from the west, and thus would be the ones to sound the alarm in the capital. All of these points make this place very important to the king and to the country, which makes whoever controls them quite influential." Marcus sighed. "It's going to be bedlam. The nobles are going to either want to marry you themselves or to one of their sons."
Merlin wrinkled her nose. "I've seen a lot of those sons. Most of them are completely useless. I wouldn't have them if they were the last men in the kingdom."
He chuckled. "I know, and I wouldn't ask you to marry someone you find completely abhorrent. I'm just warning you of what we're likely to face once we return to Camelot."
Neither of them knew how right he would turn out to be. It wouldn't be suitors that would be the cause of so much trouble, though, but an ancient, merciless magic incited by Arthur's arrogance and stupidity.
She opened her eyes, and very nearly wanted to clench them shut again as pain stabbed at them viciously. She cringed and wiped at her eyes, hoping to clear her vision and rub the pain away. Looking up, she saw Arthur kneeling beside her.
He nodded, smirking at her. "Very good, Merlin. You know my name."
She sighed, exasperated. "Clotpole." Looking around, Merlin's gaze landed on the black-cloaked figure of Cedric. "Is he…?"
"Cedric's dead," Arthur confirmed. He stared at him. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Sigan had no reason to keep him alive once he left him."
Merlin stared at him as she sat up, startled. "You saw that?"
"Yes, I did," he sighed. Leaning back, he sat down fully on the cobblestones of the courtyard. He then held up the crystal heart, which was once again glowing an eerie, menacing blue. "I don't know exactly what you did, Merlin, but it worked."
She eyed him carefully. He had not so much as alluded to her magic since she'd told him of it.
"I suppose," he added, his tone grudging, "your… abilities can be… useful at times."
She rolled her eyes and snorted. "They've been dead useful in keeping you alive since the day I met you, prat."
Their trip back to Camelot was a leisurely one. The weather had been particularly fine lately, and their retinue was quite content to go along without any overt haste. Merlin spent most of her time chatting with her fellow travelers. It seemed that the men in Marcus' service were delighted to become acquainted with their lord's daughter, and Seanna had even confided in her that many of them had feared losing their livelihoods once Marcus had passed on, since he'd had no heir to keep a household after he was gone. It was intimidating, to learn that so many people were depending on her for their own survival.
On the final day of their trip, they were in the darkling woods that surrounded most of Camelot. It was mid-afternoon, and the party had stopped near a creek to rest the horses and relax before they entered the citadel, where everyone would be consumed with duties and tasks and wouldn't have time to breathe until late in the night.
Merlin and Seanna had waded into the creek for a bit, enjoying the cool water lapping at their feet. Afterward, Merlin found herself wandering a small distance from the clearing, moving among the trees and eventually coming to another clearing, this one mainly enclosed by large rocks and boulders. The sound of footsteps made her pause, but for some strange reason, she didn't feel threatened. She could sense something magical in front of her, but it didn't seem menacing. Curious, Merlin crept forward.
Peering around one of the rocks, Merlin gasped at what she saw – a beautiful animal that appeared at first to be horse, but was really much, much more. It was whiter than the purest winter snows she'd seen year after year in Ealdor, but with a mane that looked like it was made of true spun silver. Perhaps the animal's most defining and noticeable feature, however, was the thin horn protruding from its head.
For several moments, Merlin could only gape at the unicorn in wonder. It was breathtaking, and Merlin eventually found herself inching forward. The creature turned its head in her direction, and she caught her first glimpse of its eyes.
Gentle. Peaceful. Kind. Pure. Merlin felt all of those emotions wash over her and she smiled. Reaching out tentatively, she stroked the animal's nose. In response, it butted her hand with its head, playful. She giggled, and then opened her mouth to speak —
The arrow whistled through the air and impacted into the unicorn's side before Merlin could even blink. The creature let out an agonized squeal as it collapsed to the ground. "No!" she shrieked, falling down on her knees beside the head of the wounded creature.
The unicorn still drew breath, though it was rapid and uneven. Blood seeped out of its body around the arrow, staining its lovely white coat. Red on white. Merlin shuddered.
Running footsteps caught her attention and she looked up just in time to see Arthur trot into the clearing, a delighted grin on his face. A moment later, before she could say a word, they were joined by Marcus and several of his men, all of them with swords drawn.
Arthur blinked at their sudden appearance, but then said, "Oh, good! Just in time!" He took a few steps forward until he stood over Merlin. "A unicorn!" he exclaimed, clearly thrilled.
In all the time that Merlin had known Arthur, he had exasperated her, frustrated her, and annoyed her on several occasions. Never once had there been an occasion where he had truly angered her. He was an insensitive brat, but she'd never thought of him as being intentionally cruel. Now, though, now she was just angry, she was furious. "Yes," she hissed at him, her eyes narrowed. "It's a unicorn, Arthur. A beautiful, innocent creature that was doing no harm, and you shot it down like a wild, stupid beast!" Her voice had grown progressively louder as she spoke, and by the time she finished, she was shouting.
Arthur sighed impatiently. "We were hunting, Merlin," he said patronizingly, gesturing to the knights that had appeared at his shoulder. "That is what generally people do when they hunt."
She glared at him. "I thought people hunted in order to provide food," she said scathingly. "Or has the court developed a taste for horse flesh in the time that I've been away?"
He stared down at her, clearly irritated, but Merlin couldn't stand to look at him anymore. Returning her gaze to the unicorn, she saw that its breath had grown slow and slight. Its life was almost gone. As she stared down into the eye that was slowly closing, Merlin felt some of her anger leave her, replaced by sorrow. She reached out and laid her hand on its neck. She felt the muscles twitch at her touch, just a little, and she hoped the creature understood the offer of comfort.
When the unicorn's eye shut and the breath left its body, Merlin's own eyes filled with tears, tears that began to fall even as she shut her eyes to try and will them back. It did no good, and Merlin soon gave up. Refusing to wipe them away, Merlin pushed herself to her feet. Glaring one last time at Arthur, though she could only make out his silhouette through the moisture clouding her sight, she snarled, "You must be so proud of yourself." Her tone made plain her disgust.
Not giving him a chance to respond, Merlin turned and stormed away, moving swiftly past Marcus and his men, and leaving the clearing. As she departed, Merlin was fairly certain she felt another magical presence, different from what the unicorn's had been, and yet still somehow similar. She was in no state to think on that, though, and she began to make her way back to where she'd left the others.
She and Arthur probably would have continued to argue over the perceived usefulness of her abilities, if not for the sound of people approaching them. Merlin tensed and Arthur lunged for his sword, but paused when two familiar people stepped out of the mists.
Marcus and Gaius stared down at them in concern. "Merlin? Sire? Are you both well?" Marcus asked. He held out his hand to Merlin, which she took, allowing him to help her to her feet. Once she was steady, Marcus repeated the same movement and assisted Arthur up as well.
"Is Sigan…?" Gaius trailed off.
Arthur again held up the blue heart, and relief spread across the physician's features. "We'll need to put it back in the crypt, Sire," he said. "And close it up permanently."
Arthur nodded. "I'll see that it's done." There was a moment of silence that quickly became awkward. Finally, Arthur turned to Merlin. "You did well, Merlin." He reached out slowly, almost tentatively, and brushed her wrist with his fingers, a tiny caress. Then he quickly stepped back, glancing at Marcus, and started for the doors to the closed keep.
Merlin watched him go, but then looked down at her wrist. The skin was tingling, like she'd just been given a good jolt. She bit her lip and looked up again, a wave of longing sweeping through her.
When Merlin made it to her chambers nearly an hour later, she didn't come out for the rest of the day. She refused the king's invitation to attend the feast that was being held that evening as politely as she could manage. Merlin was not a fool. Very likely the feast was to celebrate his son's killing of a unicorn and bringing its remains back to show off to everyone. She would have no part in it.
She helped Seanna unpack her things, and then made sure that her handmaid's small room was in order for her as well. Shortly after, Gwen arrived and introduced herself to Seanna, offering to give her a tour of the castle and show her all of the places she would need to know while she was here. Merlin urged Seanna to go, reassuring her that she would be fine, and was grateful to finally be alone.
With a weary sigh, Merlin sank down and lay across her bed, closing her eyes wearily. She'd intended to visit Gaius once she had returned to Camelot, but decided to wait. Merlin was certain that if she left her chambers, she'd inevitably meet Arthur somewhere along the way, and right now she couldn't be certain she wouldn't try to scratch his eyes out. No, best wait until she was calmer.
The unicorn had been perhaps the most beautiful creature she'd ever seen. It was magical, certainly, and perhaps that was another reason why Merlin thought it so remarkable. Nearly all of the other magical creatures she'd encountered – the Afanc, the gryphon – had all been vicious, evil beasts. The unicorn had been anything but. It had been the very essence of peace and loveliness.
Then there had been the blood, the agony. Merlin could have believed that she'd felt the animal's pain as surely as if the arrow had struck her in the belly. It was unnatural for so pure a creature to endure such treatment.
The last thing Merlin remembered was a fresh wave of tears falling down her cheeks. When she awoke some time later, it was to the smell of food. Opening her eyes, Merlin found that she was still stretched out across her bed, only a light blanket had been draped over her. Groaning a bit as she forced herself to sit up, she glanced around.
"My lady?" Seanna was a short distance away, laying out what looked like a nightdress. "Would you like some supper?" she asked, smiling as she started toward her.
Merlin managed a smile in return and nodded. "Yes, please." Her stomach apparently agreed with the sentiment, because it let out a faint, low growl. Laughing, Merlin pushed herself up off the bed and moved toward the table, where a tray was waiting.
"You were fast asleep when Guinevere and I returned, my lady," Seanna said as she set about removing lids off of the dishes. Steam rose from the food, indicating it was still warm. "I thought it best to just let you rest, after…" she trailed off, and Merlin saw the pensive expression on her handmaiden's face. Merlin nodded, beginning to eat, and Seanna continued. "There were several people who stopped by. The physician, Gaius, was in here briefly, and agreed that it was best to let you sleep. The Lady Morgana also visited, and asked after you…" she hesitated, but then added, "as did Prince Arthur."
Merlin paused in her eating. "Did he?" she asked, hoping she sounded calm. "And what did he want?"
"He did not say."
A part of her wanted to mutter something about wanting to ask her where his favorite jacket was, if he had not been able to find it in the weeks that she'd been gone, while yet another wondered – hoped? – that he might apologize for killing the unicorn. She snorted inwardly. Arthur had never apologized a day in his life. Even back when he had sacked her during that mess with the knight, Valiant, he had never expressly apologized for it. Admitted he'd been wrong, yes, but apologized, no.
Merlin sighed. "Well, I'm sure I'll hear about it eventually."
Seanna nodded. "There are rumors circulating through the court, my lady," she told her. "Although I am new here, the other servants did not feel the need to guard their tongues around me. They say… it is known that Prince Arthur killed the unicorn when you were barely a foot away from it. There are even those who say that your lord father is angry with the prince for shooting the animal when you were so close."
Merlin took a sip of wine from her goblet. "I wasn't upset that he killed it with me right there," she pointed out. "I'm angry that he killed the unicorn at all. He can hunt for food all he likes. It takes hunting to feed the court, I know, but killing the unicorn served no purpose except to pander to his vanity." She shook her head and slumped back in her chair. "Of course, telling Arthur that is akin to talking to a wall."
Seanna made a sympathetic face, and allowed Merlin to continue eating. When she finished the meal, Merlin changed into the nightgown her handmaiden had laid out to her. Seanna left for a time to return the tray to the kitchens, but returned and, with Merlin's permission, retired to her own room.
Merlin lay down on her bed again, this time nestled up against the fluffy pillows. She smiled and shook her head. A decent bed was probably what she enjoyed the most about her new position in life. She still felt some lingering guilt on asking Seanna – or any of the servants – to do anything, since she knew just how hard they worked from being one of them herself. When she had said as much to Marcus, he had told her that her care for the servants spoke well of her, but she should also remember that they were being paid wages to do the tasks they were given. They were employed to serve them, and while that did not give her or any employer the right to abuse and mistreat the servants, she should remember to let them do their jobs.
She was just about to drift back to sleep, when a strange sensation overcame her, of something invading her mind.
Her eyes shot open.
Gods, how could she have forgotten that voice? The Dragon was hardly someone forgot.
Merlin sighed. Clearly, she wouldn't be going back to sleep. Glancing warily at the door that led to Seanna's room, she quietly threw her legs over the side of the bed and slid the slippers left there onto her feet. She crossed the room as quietly as possible, grabbing the cloak that had been hung by the door just as she slipped out of the room. After closing the door softly, Merlin threw the cloak around her shoulders and pulled the hood over her head before hurrying down the corridor.
It took her a bit longer than it used to for her to make it to the caverns, as her chambers were much further away than Gaius' were. Slipping past the guards was still fairly easy, and Merlin swept down the steep staircase that led to the caverns beneath the citadel, having taken one of the torches that lit the downward passage to light her way.
The Dragon was waiting for her on his usual perch, just a few feet from the entrance to his prison. She stared up at him. "You called?" she asked wryly.
The creature seemed to smirk. "You have not visited me in some time, child."
"Shouldn't that be a good thing?" she pointed out. "That means that nothing apocalyptic is happening and Arthur's life isn't in mortal peril."
"True," the Dragon agreed, "very true, young sorceress. But there have been many changes in your life recently."
Merlin's eyebrows shot up. "You know?"
He nodded. "Your arrival in Camelot was the first step toward fulfilling your destiny, protecting the young Pendragon was the second, but the third required your father's recognition."
She gaped at him. "You knew about him?" she sputtered. "Why didn't you tell me?!"
"Of course I knew, Merlin," the Dragon answered, as if such an admission was perfectly reasonable. "I know your lineage as thoroughly as I know my own. Your father's dam was the greatest sorceress of her generation. Her very blood gave her more authority over the Old Religion than most people ever hope to achieve. Her son did not have these gifts at his disposal, but he carried the seeds of it all, and he passed them on to you."
Merlin pursed her lips. "Well, you still could have told me!" she maintained, even knowing how petulant she sounded.
The Dragon chuckled. "Now, what fun would that be?"
The doors to the citadel were opened when Arthur pounded on them, shouting that the sorcerer and his minions had been defeated. Uther was the first one out, and he practically leapt upon his son, holding him in a fierce hug for several seconds. Merlin could see Arthur stiffen in shock, and tried not to laugh.
The king stepped back then, trying to cover for his outburst of emotion. "Well done, Arthur. Again, Camelot is safe from the perils of sorcery."
Arthur bowed his head. "Thank you, Father, but I cannot take the full credit for our victory today." He turned toward Merlin and motioned for her to step forward. "The Lady Merlin too was instrumental in helping to secure Sigan's defeat."
She watched the king's expression warily as she moved closer. One never knew what to expect from him, and he had shocked her more than once over the past several months.
"You are to be thanked for your assistance, my lady," Uther finally spoke. "Once again, you have shown extraordinary loyalty and braved great danger for the sake of my son. And Camelot," he added.
Merlin could feel her face heating up and she curtsied quickly, ducking her head. "It is my honor, Majesty."
Merlin woke the next morning to find everyone panicking. The city's water supply had turned to sand, and much of the grain stores had rotted. Uther had been drawn out of the city by reports of the destruction in the fields near Camelot, and Arthur had accompanied him. Merlin herself went to Gaius' chambers, and found the physician lost amid his books and experiments.
"What do you think is happening?" she asked him as she handed him a particularly foul-smelling potion from his shelves.
"That is what these tests are designed to find out, Merlin," he said as he poured a drop of the potion into the beaker that was being heated over a small fire. The liquid in the beaker began to bubble and the resulting smell was even worse. Merlin wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Though," Gaius continued after a moment, "I do admit that I find what is happening very suspicious."
He raised an eyebrow. "The water and food supplies vanish less than a day after the prince kills a unicorn? The magic of those creatures is an ancient one, and it is said that grave misfortune will come to anyone who kills them."
Merlin pressed her lips together and her eyes narrowed, a wave of fresh anger coming over her.
Gaius eyed her knowingly. "I know you were upset when he killed the unicorn. It was all over the court that you scolded him severely over it."
She sighed and sat down on the bench. "It was the most beautiful creature I had ever beheld, Gaius," she said quietly. "The air around it was so peaceful, the like of which I've never felt before. And just like that," she snapped her fingers, "it was gone. There was no purpose in killing it."
"The hunt is in Arthur's blood."
"That's no excuse!" she snapped. Gaius stared at her for several moments, and finally she shook her head. "Do you really think there might be a link to that and what's happening now?" she asked.
"It's possible," he allowed, "but it is best to check for a non-magical cause, just to be certain."
"But if it is?" she persisted.
Gaius sighed. "Then we're likely in trouble."
He was right, as he so often was. Uther and Arthur returned from visiting the nearby farms with the news that the crops had been destroyed. Uther ordered that riders be sent out to every corner of the kingdom, to see if other areas were being similarly affected.
Just as several other nobles were making preparations to do as the king had commanded, Marcus stepped forward. "Sire," he said, "with your permission, I will return to Albina personally to discover the state of our food supplies there. It is possible that this pestilence is limited to the immediate area. If it is so, I will bring back what food supplies that can be spared for your relief here."
Uther nodded. "Your assistance in this matter is most welcome, Lord Marcus," he responded.
"It is my honor to serve, Your Majesty," Marcus stated, bowing his head. "In the meantime, I leave my daughter to stand in my stead."
Merlin's eyes grew huge, and she fought the urge to gasp out loud. She was supposed to stand in his place, even on Uther's council?! Was he crazy?
She also saw the shocked expression on Arthur's features from where he was standing next to his father, and abruptly narrowed her eyes. Did he think she couldn't do it? Well, she'd show him.
"It's the right choice," Marcus told her after Uther dismissed the court. "We need reliable information from all parts of the kingdom. Plus, me taking our retinue from Camelot will mean fewer mouths to feed here, which will allow the remaining supplies to last longer."
Merlin nodded as they strode down the corridors. "What would you have me do while you're gone?"
"Stay on the course we're on, and advise the king to do so unless there is a drastic change. If something does change, follow your instincts. I trust you on this," he said. He glanced around and lowered his voice, adding, "And see if you can find out if there is a magical cause for all of this."
Merlin gulped, but nodded again. "Gaius thinks it has something to do with the unicorn," she stated.
"It's possible, but you need to find out for certain."
Marcus was gone within hours, and Merlin rejoined Gaius. He was never able to find any scientific cause for the loss of water and grain, leaving Uther to conclude the only other possible cause – magic. The king ordered that Arthur put a curfew in place, and decreed that all looters would be executed.
No one else had disagreed with the king's decision, so Merlin kept her mouth shut and spent the rest of the day with Gaius, staring at a bucket of sand and using every spell she could find in her magic book to try to turn it back into water, with no success.
She was there so long that by the time she looked up, she saw that it was dark, and the curfew was rapidly approaching. Leaving the bucket and the book with Gaius, Merlin hurried out of his chambers to return to her own.
The courtyard was deserted as she crossed it, or so she thought. She was almost to the doors that marked the final leg of the journey to her chambers, when a voice called out to her from behind. "Merlin!"
She stopped and turned around to face Arthur as he approached her. "You do realize there is a curfew?" he asked.
She nodded. "I just left Gaius. I've been helping him trying to figure out what's happened," she informed him coolly.
Arthur blinked at her tone, as though surprised by it, but then said, "Well, hurry back. The last thing I need is to tell my father that we have to execute you for being out during the forbidden hours." He then glanced up toward the window of his own chambers and scowled. "Oswin had better have found that rat," he muttered.
"My new manservant," Arthur elaborated. He rolled his eyes. "He's even more incompetent than you were."
She snorted. "And he probably doesn't tell you where to get off when you act like a spoiled three-year-old."
"I don't —" Arthur cut himself off as he took notice of something behind her. Merlin turned her head, following his gaze, and caught a glimpse of someone hurrying along the wall of the castle and into a darkened doorway.
"Who —" Merlin started to say, but was interrupted.
"Merlin," Arthur said, pulling his sword and starting in that direction, "get inside. Now." His tone brooked no argument.
But then, when had Merlin ever listened to him? She ran after him.
Merlin was confused when Gaius began to lead her toward one of the tables where the medical supplies lay scattered. "Gaius, what —"
"You're wounded, child," he interjected.
"What?" she asked dumbly. She was fine.
He gestured to her arm and then set about gathering up a wet cloth, some ointment, and bandages. Merlin stared at her arm. There was indeed a deep gash in her arm, and blood had soaked the cloth of her dress. "Oh, I hadn't noticed," she mumbled.
"It doesn't look too deep," the physician told her. "It'll be fine."
Merlin let him dress the wound in silence, but her eyes swept over the large room. There were many wounded still lying about, most of them treated as best as they could be. She spotted Seanna moving among them with Gwen, handing out water and encouraging everyone to drink deeply. In the far corner of the room, Merlin saw Arthur standing with his father and hers, as well as many of the knights.
She hoped he still had the heart that held Sigan's spirit.
She hoped he'd remember to put it back in the tomb.
She hoped —
Merlin didn't remember anything for a while after that.
Gaius was right again. It was the unicorn's death that was the root of all their troubles. When Anhora informed Arthur that it had been his actions that had caused the blight upon Camelot, Merlin had believed him. There was no lie in his voice.
Not that Arthur accepted that. Even the following morning, when Merlin arrived in his chambers to discuss the matter with him, he still denied it.
When Merlin asked him why Anhora would have spouted such a 'lie', he merely waved his hand vaguely. "We had him cornered, Merlin. A cornered man will say anything to get out of the situation he's in."
She stared at him incredulously. "Cornered?! Arthur, the man was dancing rings around us both! He could've escaped at any time. He has no reason to lie." She crossed her arms. "You're going to be tested, and you need to be ready."
Arthur rolled his eyes and picked up his sword. Just before he walked out of the room, he thrust a finger in her face. "A sorcerer's word is hardly trustworthy, Merlin. You'd do well to remember that."
Merlin was left in his wake, arms dropped to her sides and clenched fists shaking.
Stubborn fool, she thought bitterly. Glancing around at Arthur's chambers, she saw that they were rather cluttered, and Oswin was nowhere to be found. She raised an eyebrow, tempted to add to the mess, just to annoy Arthur, but she decided not to, knowing it would only create more work for his new servant.
Of course, even when Arthur denied that he was in any way responsible for what was happening to Camelot, that didn't mean that he was right. The following day, Merlin woke to Seanna's excited voice.
"My lady, my lady!"
She didn't have time to form any further words before Seanna burst out, "The water has been restored!"
Merlin heard the details from Arthur, when they were both enjoying large tankards of cool, soothing water. Apparently, Arthur had caught a man trying to steal grain from the city's meager stores, and had ultimately spared the man's life, having been reluctant to execute a man for being desperate enough to feed his children by resorting to thievery.
"Before he left, he said my kindness would bring about its own rewards."
Merlin's eyes widened. "That must have been the first test!" she exclaimed. "Anhora said you would be tested, and you passed the first one."
"Merlin —" Arthur started to say.
"It makes sense!" she cut him off. "You showed mercy to a man, and then the water comes back." Merlin beamed, feeling rather proud of him. It was certainly a change from the anger and annoyance she'd felt concerning him in the past few days. "Well done! Now you just have to pass the other tests, and we might all live!"
Arthur still looked mildly disbelieving, but he didn't try to argue the point. They sat in silence, enjoying the water more than they ever had before.
Naturally, it couldn't be that easy. Within hours of the water returning, it was gone again, and nearly all that remained of the grain stores had rotted as well.
Merlin stood on the parapet overlooking the courtyard, which was packed with people, many of them strangers to Camelot. According to Seanna, whom Merlin had sent with Gwen and Morgana to do what they could for the new arrivals, they had come in search of food, as theirs had been destroyed as well. It only added to the bad news, as Marcus had sent word to Camelot that nearly all of the food stores in Albina had deteriorated as much as those in the capital.
She glanced at Arthur, who stood to her right. He was hunched over the parapet, his eyes glued on the people below. The guilt that kept his head bowed struck Merlin hard. "I'm sure you did all you could," she said softly.
He didn't move at all, not his eyes, not his hands, nothing. "It's not enough."
"We'll figure something out."
That didn't seem to bring him any comfort. "My father is going to stop distributing food to the people," he told her quietly. "He believes that everything we have left must be left to the army, in case the neighboring kingdoms decide to take advantage of the situation and try to invade."
Merlin didn't bother to disguise a derisive snort. She doubted very much any kingdom would be keen to touch Camelot right now. It was a cursed land, and any kingdom that still had any ties to the Old Religion would not dream of setting foot on land that was looked upon with such disfavor. No, they wouldn't come here. Too bad the king was too caught up in his own prejudices to see that.
Arthur didn't take offense at her scorn. Instead, he bowed his head even further. "My people are starving," he murmured. "And it's my fault."
His grief was profound, and hard for Merlin to see. Tentatively, she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. Arthur didn't react at first, but did allow himself a moment to lean into the mute comfort that she offered him. "It's my fault," he repeated.
Merlin awoke in her chambers, with Morgana, Gwen, and Seanna all sitting around her bed. Gwen was the first to see her open her eyes. "Oh, you're awake!"
"What… happened?" Merlin asked, licking her dry lips.
Seanna held out a tankard of water for her. "You fainted, my lady," she explained. "Gaius thought it might have been from blood loss and all of the excitement from the attack. He said it would be best to just let you rest, and wake up in your own time."
Morgana leaned back in her chair, a peculiar smirk on her face. "Arthur was very concerned," she said. "He even carried you up here." She raised a knowing eyebrow.
Merlin blushed scarlet, but didn't say anything. A moment of silence passed, and then Morgana began to chuckle, followed by Gwen and Seanna. Merlin glared at them and grabbed a pillow from behind her, lobbing it at them. It hit Morgana, who squawked indignantly and threw it back at her.
Merlin glared at Anhora from her spot at the table. How could she have been so stupid as to trust him? He was trying to kill Arthur, just like almost every other magic user she had met! She struggled against the invisible bonds, but couldn't budge them, not even when she pushed her magic at them.
"This is what you wanted, Emrys," Anhora spoke up from his spot near the exit of the labyrinth.
"I didn't want you to attack Arthur from behind!" she snapped, ignoring his use of the strange name that the Druid boy had used to refer to her.
"I have no intention of doing so."
Merlin growled at his calm, nonchalant tone, but could do nothing about it. Some minutes later, Arthur appeared on the beach. When he spotted her, his eyes widened in shock.
"Please," Anhora said, "join her."
Arthur whirled to look at him. "Let her go," he demanded. "She has nothing to do with this."
The Keeper of the Unicorns shook his head. "She is now a part of the test."
Arthur glared at him, probably hoping to silently bully the older man into bowing to his wishes. When Anhora just continued to wait impassively, Arthur muttered a curse under his breath and sat down across from her. "I distinctly remember telling you to stay in Camelot, Merlin," he said irritably.
She smiled weakly. "Yeah, well, since when do I ever listen to you?"
He snorted, but then focused when Anhora explained the test – that one goblet contained water, the other poison. Each one of them could only drink from one goblet, and both liquids had to be consumed.
"What does that prove?!" Arthur asked incredulously.
"That is up to you, young Pendragon."
Merlin's heart raced as she and Arthur stared at the goblets in front of them. The result of this was already obvious to her – she had to be the one to drink the poison. Arthur couldn't die. She told him so.
He shook his head. "Stop trying to be a heroine, Merlin. It doesn't suit you."
Irritated, she kicked his armored shin under the table. "Stop being an ass," she shot back. "It suits you too well and the rest of us have to suffer from it."
Much to her surprise, Arthur didn't get angry. Instead, he just laughed. "Only you, Merlin." He sobered, and then added, "I had no idea you were so keen to die for me."
She raised an eyebrow. "It's self-preservation, really. I'm not going back to Camelot and telling your father that I let you die."
It only took them a few minutes to figure out how to fulfill the terms Anhora had set them. It was a relatively simple solution. However, when Merlin started to grab Arthur's goblet to pour his liquid, he suddenly jerked and pointed behind her, shouting, "Look out!"
She turned automatically, tensing in anticipation for some kind of attack, but there was nothing. A flurry of movement made her whirl back, and saw that Arthur had combined the two liquids in his goblet. "Arthur, no! Give it to me!" she demanded urgently, reaching for it.
He batted her hand away and stared down at the goblet, taking a deep, steadying breath.
"Arthur, this isn't what you're meant to do!"
"I think you're wrong about that," he said quietly. He began to lift the goblet toward his lips.
"No, Arthur," she pleaded, panic setting in. "Listen to me —"
He laughed. "Come, Merlin! You know I don't listen to you, any more than you listen to me!" Before she could utter another word, he toasted her and then drank the liquid in a single gulp.
"No!" Merlin shouted. Her limbs trembled. "What have you done?" she breathed in horror.
Arthur managed a brief, weak smile before his eyes slid shut and he slumped to the side, falling from his chair and onto the rocky surf.
"Arthur!" Merlin jumped up, knocking her own chair over and throwing herself down next to him. She shook him hard, but he didn't stir. "No, no, no, no…" she whispered. Frantic, she looked up to Anhora, who stood some feet away, watching them. "Stop this," she begged him. "He isn't meant to die! I'll take his place!"
"This was Arthur's test," the keeper maintained.
She glared at him, rage beginning to mingle with her grief. She opened her mouth, ready to say something. Perhaps she would have begged further for Arthur's life, or maybe she would have begun issuing threats – swearing that if he didn't give Arthur back, she'd burn all of Albion to the ground. He couldn't take Arthur away, couldn't destroy the future she had slowly come to believe in, the one that Arthur would build. She didn't care about the unicorns anymore, she didn't care about any of it, only Arthur, Arthur, Arthur —
"He has only consumed a mild sleeping draught, Emrys," Anhora interrupted her thoughts. "He will awaken shortly."
Merlin froze. "S-sleeping draught?" she stuttered.
He nodded. "The test was to prove what was truly in Arthur's heart," he explained. "By drinking from the goblet, he proved that he was willing to give his life to save yours." He looked pleased. "He has proven himself pure of heart."
Merlin could feel the anger draining away, leaving her with an overall feeling of exhaustion, and she turned back to the unconscious Arthur. Her lower lip trembled, just a little. Reaching out, she brushed her fingers along his cheek. He didn't react, but Merlin could feel the life within his flesh.
Merlin could have cried with relief. Shaking, she lowered her head to Arthur's chest plate and hugged him tightly, if a bit awkwardly.
Don't ever leave me.
There was a sense of frantic, but organized, chaos for the next several weeks. There was plenty of tasks for everyone. Builders were needed to repair the citadel and the lower town, Sigan's tomb had to be restocked and the heart placed back in it, and a host of other things.
Merlin found herself drafted by Morgana to help take count of who was either missing or dead in both the citadel and the town. Morgana commandeered a small contingent of guards and other available men with all the aplomb of a queen and led them, Merlin, Gwen, and Seanna into the city. They made their way street by street, questioning anyone they could find on who owned a house or building, if it was known if they were still alive and elsewhere. If not, then the digging would begin.
Merlin lost count by midday of how many bodies were pulled from the rubble, though she knew she had spent most of the day helping to keep a written record of the numbers. It was exhausting, disheartening work. Men, women, and children alike were found, their bodies mangled and broken. By the end of the day, they'd made it through half of the city. The other half would wait for the next day.
When they returned, the group was the subject of more than one concerned look, people no doubt taking notice of their ashen faces. Morgana, no doubt calling on the last reserves of strength that she had, walked up to Uther and silently handed him the notes they had taken.
"What's this?" he asked her, also glancing at Merlin and the others.
None of them said anything, just waited in sullen silence for him to see for himself. The king began skimming the notes, and abruptly began to go pale. He looked at both Morgana and Merlin incredulously. "This is what you've both been doing all day?"
"It's what we've all been doing, Uther," Morgana corrected him sharply, but her annoyance didn't last. She sighed wearily. "I think we'll turn in for the night."
Merlin nodded, having no desire to argue. She was certain she could hear her bed calling to her. Barely pausing to curtsy to the king, she began to follow Morgana out of the council chamber, pausing only to grab Seanna's hand and guide her weary handmaiden out as well.
As she left, Merlin thought she might have seen Arthur staring at her, but she was too exhausted and soul-weary to pay him any attention.
Merlin didn't let go of Arthur for a while, only sitting up when she felt him stir. Staring down at him intently, she watched him slowly open his eyes. He blinked them a few times, and then focused on her. "Mer… lin?"
She nodded, even smiling at him a little. "It's me."
His gloved hand reached up to her face, mimicking the same action she had performed just a short time ago. "If I'm dead," he murmured, "then I suppose it isn't so bad."
She laughed lightly. "You're not dead," she assured him. "It was just a sleeping draught."
"Really?" He didn't ask for further details, just kept gazing up at her and stroking her cheek. Merlin couldn't bring herself to speak either, reluctant to break the strange spell that seemed to have fallen over them.
She didn't know how they started making their way back through the labyrinth either. All she really noticed was that Arthur wouldn't let go of her hand until they made it back through and returned to their horses.
They rode in a comfortable silence back toward Camelot, and were delighted to see that the fields had been restored. They passed many farmers and their families, who were out in the fields beginning the harvest, and waved joyfully to them.
Camelot was in a similar situation when they made it back not long before dusk. Food was being brought into the city and citadel by the bushel, smiles were on every face, and anyone who had a moment stopped to drink deeply of the water, savoring it like never before.
Arthur stopped to explain the situation to his father, while Merlin found Gaius and, much to her surprise, Marcus. "You did this, didn't you?" the physician asked.
She shook her head. "Not me," she replied as she started to lower herself down from her horse. She felt Marcus' hand grasp her arm to keep her steady until she was on the ground. Beaming, Merlin added, "It was Arthur. Once he'd proven himself, the curse was lifted."
"Indeed?" Marcus said. "Well, given what's been seen so far, this is the best harvest we've had in years. Quite the miracle our prince has pulled off, bringing us back from the brink of starvation and death."
Merlin turned to look toward Arthur. He was still in deep conversation with Uther, but she saw his eyes shift from the king to meet her own gaze. Something warm and comforting enveloped her, and she smiled faintly. "He is rather good at that," she murmured.
The next weeks were like a dream. Merlin found herself in a position to actually spend time with Arthur again, for the first time since the discovery of her parentage. It actually felt something like it used to be, albeit without her having to clean up after him. She began to visit the practice field, sitting off to the side with Seanna – and sometimes Gwen and Morgana – and watching Arthur train the knights.
There were also occasions when she and Arthur would slip out of Camelot alone and ride in the nearby countryside. Such times were filled with casual conversation and teasing, and it was a wonderful feeling. Of course, when they returned, they were subjected to many raised eyebrows, not to mention a few warnings from Uther and Marcus both, but neither man was particularly harsh about it. If anything, both the king and the noble only seemed amused and speculative.
It wasn't until one evening when Merlin dined privately with Marcus that she found out why.
"The king is quite pleased to see you and Arthur spending so much time together," Marcus informed her.
"Mmm, that's nice," Merlin said, taking a bite of the venison on her plate. She eyed him teasingly. "But you're not?"
Marcus laughed. "I suppose I'm pleased as well. I know you two were friends before everything came to light. Though, I still wish you'd take Seanna with you when the two of you run off alone, if only for the appearance of propriety."
She shrugged noncommittally and kept eating. She enjoyed the time she spent alone with Arthur. They spent so much time with other people around them that it was a relief to be able to relax.
"Still," Marcus continued, "there's a reason the king has taken so much notice of your interactions with Arthur. We spoke of it today, in private."
"Oh?" Merlin took a sip of wine.
"Yes. He's broached the possibility of arranging a marriage between you and the prince."
She was still in the midst of drinking the wine, so gasping was hardly in her best interests, but she still did. Choking on the liquid, Merlin hurriedly sat the goblet down on the table as she struggled to control of her breathing. Seanna appeared at her side, staring down at her worriedly.
After a few moments, Merlin could breathe easily again. Managing a small, reassuring smile to Seanna, she turned her attention back to Marcus. "Marriage?" she repeated incredulously. "Me and Arthur? I thought he'd have to marry some foreign princess and make an alliance."
He nodded. "Yes. The king has always known that his son must marry for the good of the kingdom and his claim to the throne, and marrying him to you would do much to secure the royal family from a potential threat."
She raised her eyebrows. "Potential threat?"
Marcus nodded again. "Yes. Who you marry is of great importance to Uther, considering that you'll one day inherit all of my lands and political standing. Whoever marries you will have at least nominal control over that."
Merlin snorted. "I'd love to see someone try to control me!"
He chuckled. "I know, dear. Still, while I am someone Uther trusts, not all of his nobles have a share in his confidence. He worries that you'll marry someone seeking power, who might become a threat to the Pendragons and their claim to the throne. However, if you were to marry Arthur, then your inheritance would pass to him. Albina and all that comes with it will remain close to the crown, possibly even becoming the inheritance of a second son."
Merlin didn't say anything, trying to take in this sudden twist in her life. Her appetite gone, she turned to Seanna and said, "We'll be fine, Seanna. You can go."
Her handmaiden looked a little reluctant to go, but still curtsied obediently and left the room. Once she was certain they were alone, Merlin turned back to Marcus. "Do you have any idea how insane this idea is? Me marry Arthur? Given what I can do?"
"I know it is an unusual move, and there are risks. But Arthur's stance on magic is hardly the same as Uther's."
"Yes, but that's only because Arthur has a heart. Gods only know why Uther hates magic so much," she said bitterly. "Still, it's one thing for him to not want to kill sorcerers left, right, and center. It's completely different to actually agree to marry one of them!"
Marcus sighed. "I know this, Merlin. Nothing has been decided yet. Uther has only just broached the possibility. Still, do you have any objections, the issue of magic aside?"
Merlin blinked. "I… I suppose I don't," she allowed. She knew she felt something for Arthur, had for some time. But marry him? "Does he know about this yet?" she asked suddenly.
He shook his head. "No, Uther doesn't want to bring it up until he's certain he wants to go that route."
"Well," she said, "I know this much – I won't agree to anything unless Arthur has all the facts – including my magic." She looked down at her food, and found it completely unappealing now. "I won't have him thinking that I ensorcelled him into agreeing to anything after the fact."
The following day, Merlin joined Morgana and the others in repeating the previous day's activities. Uther tried to convince them that they need not do it, that he could assign the task to someone else, but they both refused. They had started this, and they owed it to the people of Camelot who were still missing loved ones to finish it.
The day was filled with much of the same results – a few happy endings, where children had been separated from their parents in the confusion were reunited, but mostly more heartache and distress. The last body discovered was a little girl whose mother, once she saw the child's broken remains, began to wail mournfully. Not even the presence of her husband and two sons seemed to bring her any comfort.
That night, Merlin couldn't sleep. She'd sent Seanna off to bed as soon as she'd been able, since the girl had looked as exhausted as Merlin felt, but sleep was nowhere in sight for her. Admitting defeat, she threw off the blankets and took up her slippers and cloak, leaving her chambers.
She had no destination in mind, just wandered the corridors, nodding to the few people that she passed. Eventually, she ended up on the battlements overlooking the town. Most of the buildings were dark and silent, so unlike how they'd been when she'd first come to Camelot. Suddenly, that night was vivid in her mind, when there had been candles and torches lit in every house, and the people were enjoying the celebrations Uther had provided. Though she had been nervous as to the reasons, the joy that had pervaded city had been infectious. Now, it was hard to believe that this was the same place.
"Merlin?" She turned to see Arthur lean against the parapet next to her. "What are you doing out here?" he asked her.
She sighed. "Couldn't sleep."
Merlin didn't have to look at him to see his raised eyebrow. "You look like death warmed over, Merlin. Rest is the best thing for you."
"I tried," she told him. "I guess I'm too tired to sleep."
Arthur said nothing further, and they stood for several minutes in a companionable silence. Finally, he said, "I hadn't had a chance to thank you."
"For helping catalog the dead," he elaborated. "That's one of the most difficult duties after something like this happens, and you and Morgana took it on without even being asked."
"It was Morgana's idea," she shrugged. "I just helped where I could."
Arthur's hand suddenly appeared on her own, and Merlin blinked in surprise. Turning to look at him, she saw that he was even closer than she'd thought. "Arthur?" she whispered.
He didn't reply at first, just stared at her. "You're a puzzle, Merlin," he murmured, reaching up to brush a stray hair away from her face.
"I —" was all she was able to say before their lips met.
Merlin knew that she'd have to talk to Arthur soon, before Uther broached the subject of marriage. She didn't speak to him about it the day after Marcus told her, though, or the day after. She kept putting it off, not wanting to break the spell of peace that currently hung between them.
Until, suddenly, everything changed.
It began innocuously enough, when a sharp jab of magic tore Merlin out of a dead sleep. She couldn't determine its source, and resolved to speak to Gaius about it in the morning. She did so, but he had no answers for her, though he promised to look into it. The following day, however, Merlin woke up to discover that Gwen's father had been arrested for aiding the sorcerer, Tauren. Before she was even able to think of something to help, Tom was dead, killed after being cornered by the guards during an escape attempt.
After that, telling Arthur that she was a sorceress was the farthest thing from Merlin's mind. All she could think about was Gwen, who sat in a catatonic state on Merlin's bed. Merlin had no idea what to say to her, and just did the only thing she could think of – she crawled onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her. Gwen stiffened at first, but then melted into Merlin's embrace and sobbed.
Merlin did her best to soothe her, stroking her hair like she would a little girl, and then glanced over to Seanna, who was also watching. Their eyes met and they exchanged the same thought – where was Morgana?
They didn't find out until later that Uther had thrown his ward into the dungeons for calling him a murdering tyrant. Merlin didn't know whether to think Morgana stupidly reckless, or incredibly brave.
Arthur visited them briefly, reassuring Gwen that her home wouldn't be confiscated, and that her position as Morgana's handmaiden was in no danger. He didn't stay long, though, unable to bear the agony in her eyes. Gwen eventually fell asleep in Merlin's bed, and stayed there for several hours, leaving Merlin to venture out to find out what else was happening. She did ask Seanna to stay with Gwen, in case she should wake up while she was gone.
What she found outside only made her feel worse. Uther had become paranoid, convinced that others beyond Tom had aided Tauren in his work against Camelot, and thus had decided to execute anyone who had had any contact with the sorcerer. That included tavern owners, innkeepers, and stable managers.
Merlin stood by the gates of the citadel, gaping in horror as she watched the men be marched past. She looked past them, and saw Arthur, who was also watching the spectacle. His eyes met hers for several moments. She looked at the condemned, and then back at him.
Do something, Arthur, she pleaded silently.
Arthur's eyes softened for a moment, and Merlin saw the pain in them. All too quickly, though, it was gone, and the Prince of Camelot was in command again. His gaze hardened and he shook his head in her direction.
Be silent, Merlin, if you value your head, he seemed to say.
This was hardly Merlin's first kiss. She and Will had been each other's first, though they'd done it because they'd seen two of their neighbors doing it and had wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It had been sloppy and uncomfortable, and they'd laughed it off, swearing to never try it again. Then there had been Ban, who worked in the stables here in the Camelot, who had kissed her after a celebration and they'd both been drunk.
None of them, though, compared to what Merlin felt now, as Arthur pulled her closer to him. His lips were soft but determined against hers, coaxing her into reciprocating. Almost of their own volition, Merlin's hands grasped Arthur's shoulders for several moments before sliding up his neck to bury her fingers in his hair. His touch on her back was like fire, even though there were multiple layers of clothing between his hands and her skin.
When they broke away, they were both breathing heavily, their foreheads resting against one another.
"Why… why now?" she asked him slowly, struggling to think straight.
He gazed down at her, his eyes tender. "Because you're a part of me, Merlin," he answered. "My father's laws or not, common sense or not, I can't give you up anymore than I could give up my sword.
"You're mine," he breathed. "And, one day, you'll be my queen."
She didn't have a chance to respond to that outlandish statement before Arthur kissed her again.
Merlin didn't have time to be angry with Arthur again, like she had been with the unicorn. Gwen was mourning and, after being released from the dungeons, Morgana was being less than helpful. It didn't take long for Merlin to find out why, and she spent the next few days trying to decide whether or not to let Morgana succeed in her plot to kill Uther. The Dragon and Gaius had their own polar opinions on the subject, but it was ultimately Gwen's words that swayed Merlin to try and save the king.
Only Morgana ended up being the heroine anyway. She didn't know what had made her decide to keep Uther alive, but Merlin was grateful. Uther would die eventually. Having him die at magic's hand would not make Arthur more accepting of it.
Which reminded her, Arthur still had to be told. It was only a matter of time before Uther brought the subject of marriage up to him, even if he had been silent on it in light of recent events.
However, just as Merlin was planning to go watch Arthur and the knights train, Seanna spoke up hesitantly. "My lady?"
Merlin sighed. She despaired of getting her handmaiden to call her by name. "Yes?"
"I… I do not wish you to think me overly prying, but… you left your chambers a few nights ago, after we had retired for the night…"
Merlin went cold. She had, as that had been when she had gone to the Dragon to ask his advice. She'd thought Seanna was asleep. "Y-Yes, I… couldn't sleep," she stuttered, praying silently that would be the end of Seanna's inquiry.
The other girl stared at her, still distinctly nervous. "Forgive me, my lady, but I followed you. You… spoke with a dragon, down beneath the dungeons." Despite her anxious demeanor, Seanna straightened. "You have magic, my lady."
Merlin gazed back at her, terror coming over her. How much time would she have before Uther sent the guards for her? Would she be better off running now than waiting to warn her father? He could easily plead ignorance, and given that he had known her only for a short time, Uther might very well believe him. Arthur —
"My lady, please, please!" Seanna was suddenly in front of her, grasping her hands. "You have nothing to fear! I won't ever tell the king, I swear!"
Merlin blinked rapidly, struggling to focus on her. "W-What?"
Seanna led her over to the bed, urging her to sit down on it. She then knelt beside the bed, squeezing her hands reassuringly. "I'll never tell anyone about you," she repeated. She looked down for a moment, and then continued, "I wasn't entirely truthful with you, my lady, when I told you about how my parents died."
Merlin tilted her head questioningly. What did she mean?
"I… They were accused of sorcery, my lady," Seanna confessed, "and executed by the king. I might have shared their fate, even though I was just a child, but someone got me out of Camelot and brought me to my grandmother in Albina." She smiled weakly. "So, you see, I could technically be considered a fugitive, though I doubt the king remembers me."
Merlin took a deep, steadying breath, trying to bring her rolling emotions under control. After a few moments, she replied, "Thank you, Seanna, for trusting me. I've always tried to use my gifts for the good of Camelot and the prince. I mean no one but Camelot's enemies any harm."
The handmaiden nodded. "I've never thought otherwise, my lady."
The two of them stayed up on the battlements for the rest of the night. Merlin convinced Arthur to talk about her magic, and they discussed the issue in low tones well into the early hours. Arthur had been raised to despise magic from infancy, but he also knew what he'd seen – magic could be destructive, but he had also seen the great miracles it could perform. Much to her relief, he didn't think Merlin was a monster.
By the time the sun began to creep up over the treetops, Merlin sat on the ground, leaning against Arthur. He had an arm wrapped around her shoulders, keeping her close to his side.
When they began to hear the sounds of the lower town awakening, they shifted slowly, tense and sore from sitting in one position all night. She looked up at him. "What do we do now?" she asked him softly.
Arthur stared back at her. "I have to ask your father for permission to marry you." At her raised eyebrow, he added, "I know I have yours – as if there was ever any doubt – oof!" he paused when she elbowed him the ribs. Rubbing the spot where she'd made contact, he continued, "But it's tradition to ask a lady's father. I'll also need to speak to my father, though I don't think he'll have any objections. As far as he's concerned, this was all his idea."
Merlin raised an eyebrow. "It kind of was, Arthur," she reminded him. "I certainly wasn't thinking about it until it was brought up to me."
Arthur just smirked.
Merlin was actually relieved to have Seanna know about her magic. Before that, all she'd had was Gaius and Marcus, and as nice as they were, it wasn't the same as having someone her own age to confide in. More than once she'd been tempted to confess to Gwen and Morgana, almost as much as she wanted to tell Arthur sometimes, but had kept quiet; having Seanna to talk to made her feel a little less alone.
Still, she had to talk to Arthur. The problem was finding time to do so. Arthur had a fresh group of knights to train, and spent most of his time either on the training field or out hunting with the newcomers. Hunting with them was apparently his way of building a sense of camaraderie, to encourage them all to see themselves as part of the whole. With all of that, he didn't have as much time to spend with her as he had in the recent past.
It took nearly a week, but she was able to convince Arthur to take a ride with her. They went along their usual route, going deep into the darkling woods, away from the road. As they rode, Merlin thought that Arthur was a little quieter than normal.
"Something bothering you?" she asked him.
He glanced at her, and then shook his head. "No," he replied unconvincingly.
"Come on," she said, nudging him. "Something's wrong. Did Oswin not bring your breakfast not exactly warm enough for you, Sire?" she teased.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said reflexively, though with no heat. Shaking his head, he told her, "It's nothing like that. My father and I had a strange discussion last night, that's all."
"Oh? Anything bad?"
"Not bad, just unusual." He stared ahead and they rode along in silence for a few minutes. Then he pulled his horse to a stop, prompting Merlin to do the same a moment later.
He didn't look at her. "My father wanted to speak to me about my marriage."
She froze. Oh no, she thought. She'd delayed too long. "He… did?"
Arthur nodded. "He… he considers you a suitable bride, given your inheritance and station in life," he said in a rush.
Merlin eyed him, wondering if perhaps he was mortified that he was even being asked to consider marrying her. "I see," she said slowly. For a second, she didn't say anything further, but finally she decided to go on with it. It was now or never. "My father mentioned that the king had brought up the subject with him."
Arthur looked at her, surprise flicking across his face. "You knew about this?" he inquired. "Why didn't you say anything?"
She sighed. "I've been trying to, but events lately haven't made it easy."
"Ah. Then do you have any objections? Though," he added, smirking at her, "I don't see why you would object. It's not every day that a girl is asked to be the wife of the future King of Camelot."
Merlin rolled her eyes. "Yes, Arthur, you would only see that part of it." She shook her head. "There's a lot more to it than that."
"What do you mean?" He stiffened. "Is the idea so abhorrent to you?"
She shot him a look. "That's not what I'm saying, Arthur," she snapped. "Stop acting like a kicked puppy!" When he had the grace to look contrite, Merlin continued. "I told Marcus I had no objection, but there was something I had to discuss with you before any agreement was made."
Merlin bit her lip. This was it, the moment of truth. Either Arthur would accept her for who she was, or she would have to flee and pray that those closest to her wouldn't suffer for knowing of her. "Arthur, I —"
She was cut off by a great, deafening roar just beyond their line of sight. They whirled, gripping the reins as their horses reared in terror. Within seconds, a huge creature tore through the foliage, snarling and snapping in their direction. It was enormous, with the head of a snake of all things.
Merlin's scream tore through the forest as she and Arthur turned and bolted away as fast as the animals could run.
When Arthur decided on a course of action, he didn't waste any time. Merlin returned to her chambers to find Seanna already awake and preparing Merlin's dress for the day. "The court has been summoned later today, my lady," she said. "The prince has an announcement to make."
Merlin could feel the heat creeping up her neck as the handmaiden eyed her speculatively. "Ah," she said. "Well, which dress did you pick out?"
Seanna stepped aside and allowed Merlin a better look. She nodded. It was a fairly new one, made of a lovely red material that Merlin had especially come to like for both its comfort and its prettiness. "Perfect," she said, "as always, your taste is better than mine."
The girl smiled, her green eyes sparkling. "Thank you, my lady." She paused, and then asked, "Are you hungry? I can get a tray for you from the kitchens."
Merlin nodded. She was famished. "That'd be lovely. Thank you."
Seanna soon left, but Merlin wasn't alone long. After a knock at the door, Merlin opened it to reveal Morgana. She still looked exhausted from the events of the previous days; the dark circles were prevalent around her eyes. "Merlin?" her voice was soft and wary.
"Morgana, come in," Merlin said instantly, motioning her into her chambers. "Didn't you get any sleep? You look terrible."
Morgana managed a small, wry smile. "Thank you, Merlin." She eyed her. "You don't exactly look at your best yourself."
Merlin took a quick look at herself in her mirror. Her hair was mussed and tangled, and her dress was wrinkled. She certainly looked like she'd spent the night outside. "Can't argue with that," she admitted. Turning back to Morgana, she asked, "Is something wrong?"
Morgana had a nervous look on her face. "I… I had a dream last night."
Everything happened so quickly. Gaius identified the monster as a Questing Beast, and Uther ordered Arthur to take the knights out to kill it, despite Gaius' warnings that only magic could defeat the beast.
"They are going to their deaths, Merlin," Gaius said gravely. "The last time a Questing Beast roamed the land, it foreshadowed Ygraine's death and the beginning of the Purge. If Arthur dies, I can't even begin to imagine the retribution Uther might exact." He pointed to a picture of the beast. "Being bitten is a death sentence to even the strongest man."
When he said something like that, what else could Merlin do but follow Arthur and the others? In addition, Morgana's distressed ramblings as she flung herself into Arthur's embrace in the courtyard, trying to keep him from leaving the citadel, had been convincing as well.
She made a quick trip to her chambers and changed into trousers and tunic. Seanna looked on worriedly. "Are you certain I shouldn't come with you, my lady?" she asked.
Merlin shook her head. "Best I do this myself. If I'm seen, then it'll just be me that the knights go after. If you're with me, they'll know that you knew, and you'd be executed as an accessory." She grabbed her sword – a gift from her father – and started toward the door. "Help Gwen watch over Morgana. Tell them that I'll look after Arthur."
It was difficult getting out of the citadel, and Merlin was stopped at least three times by guards. She managed to lie her way past them, and was able to get out of Camelot. Arthur's party made no effort to disguise their trail, and she pursued them to the cave where the Questing Beast had made its nest. She could hear it hissing and growling as she slipped into the cave.
Merlin spent at least ten minutes searching without success, not finding Arthur or any of the knights. Then, suddenly, she heard a great howl, which was quickly followed by the clang of a sword. Merlin raced toward the commotion, and came upon the beast as it hovered over an unconscious Arthur.
Merlin reacted immediately. Arthur's fallen sword flashed blue and flew up from the ground, embedding itself in the monster's neck. It shrieked in agony and stumbled away from Arthur, collapsing seconds later. Merlin didn't care. She raced across the cavern, tripping over the Beast's tail, and landed painfully at Arthur's side. "It didn't bite you," she murmured frantically, "it didn't!" Merlin grasped his shoulders to shake him awake, not caring that she had no explanation for why she was there and how the Questing Beast had died. She just wanted him to open his eyes.
He didn't, and her hand came into contact with something wet as she touched him. Trembling, Merlin pulled it off of Arthur's shoulder. It was blood. Arthur's blood.
He had been bitten.
Alarm filled Merlin. "A dream?" She knew Gaius thought that Morgana was a seer and that she must never know – something Merlin didn't really agree with – so she knew to pay attention.
Morgana nodded. "I've been dreaming for days, but this one… this one was different," she explained. She slumped down on Merlin's bed.
"Should," she asked hesitantly, "should I get Gaius?"
"No!" Morgana looked up at her wildly. "No. He'll just give me more sleeping potions. I don't want them; they don't help! I want…" she trailed off, and shook her head. "I saw Arthur, standing in the throne room. He was king, and he was crowning a woman, only… I kept seeing different women."
Merlin sat down next to her. "Who did you see?"
"At least four," she replied. "It's hard to remember, and I didn't recognize all of them. I know I saw you, but I also saw that girl, Sophia. I even saw Gwen, of all people! The others were strangers, people I've never met."
Merlin bit her lip. She was hardly an expert at interpreting dream-visions, but she could only suppose that it meant that the future was at a crossroads. Still, as she looked at Morgana's frightened face, she knew she couldn't stay silent. Taking Morgana's hands in her own, she said, "I don't have easy answers for you, Morgana, but I want you to know – you're not crazy, or anything like that."
"Gaius keeps saying they're just fancies, hysterics," Morgana pointed out bitterly.
Merlin sighed. "Gaius… wants to protect you. He doesn't mean you harm, but he doesn't understand what you're going through, and telling you things like that doesn't help." She would have kept going, but the door opened, revealing Seanna, who carried a large tray of food. Merlin felt Morgana stiffen and start to pull away, but she kept her grip. "Trust me, Morgana. You're not mad. I can't go into details now, not with the court having been called, but we'll talk more about this soon, I promise."
Morgana stared at her, her green eyes piercing. They seemed to Merlin both sharp and vulnerable. After several moments, she nodded. "Very well; I'll hold you to your promise, Merlin."
"I know you will," Merlin responded. Then she smiled, and said in a louder, more cheerful tone, "Come, eat with me. Who knows how long the king will keep us in the court?"
Merlin gaped at Nimueh. "You?!"
The sorceress smiled with cool amusement. "Yes, Merlin. You come seeking Arthur's salvation." It was a statement, not a question.
Watching the other woman warily, Merlin nodded. "He's been bitten by a Questing Beast, and nothing I've done to heal him works."
Nimueh nodded. "The magic of such a creature is strong, far stronger than simple healing spells. You need the backing of the Old Religion to heal him. Such things are not called upon lightly."
Merlin took a deep breath. "I know," she said. "I will give up my life, if Arthur is permitted to live."
"How brave, my dear!" Nimueh exclaimed. The sorceress continued to mock her, but eventually gave Merlin what she needed. She didn't even pause to thank her, just raced back to the boat and across the lake.
Her horse seemed to her to have gained a second wind as he bore her back to Camelot. Once in the courtyard, she threw the reins to the nearest stable hand and ran inside, to Gaius' chambers. A few, frantic words got the physician to take the cure to Arthur, though he eyed her warily and demanded to know what price she paid for it. Merlin refused to answer, just told him to see to it that Arthur lived.
Two hours later, Arthur awoke. Uther and Gaius had been the only ones present in his chambers, but once he was certain Arthur was out of danger, Gaius came to Merlin's chambers, where she waited in the darkness, alone.
"The prince lives."
Merlin's sigh of relief was more of a sob.
Morgana left Merlin's chambers after they had both eaten, going to prepare for court and leaving Merlin to do the same. The moment they were alone, Seanna had dragged Merlin over to the dressing table and pushed her down in front of it. The handmaiden then attacked Merlin's hair like a woman possessed. Watching her, Merlin wondered if she had heard rumors while down in the kitchen.
After nearly twenty minutes, Merlin's hair had been tamed into an intricate style that she'd never worn before. Raising an eyebrow, she asked Seanna, "Preparing for something?"
The handmaiden stared at her incredulously before mastering her expression. "I just wished you to look your best, my lady," she answered. That seemed to be all she had to say.
Merlin wanted to laugh. It appeared that word that something was going to happen in the court today had spread among the servants, even if none of them knew what. It was turning into a grand spectacle.
She wondered if Arthur had planned on this.
Merlin stared, stricken, at Gaius' unmoving body, which lay at Nimueh's feet. It was too much. She had barely managed to drag Arthur back from the jaws of death, to accept her own mortality as a price, only to find out that her mother's life had been sacrificed instead. Now Gaius. Who was next, her father?!
She raised her eyes to Nimeuh's arrogant gaze, feeling the fury building up inside of her. Damn Nimueh, damn the Dragon. Damn them both.
"You should not have gone after my family," Merlin snarled.
The battle was a short one. Nimueh was a priestess of the Old Religion, who had lived and breathed the training all her life. It was a given that she would annihilate anyone who was stupid enough to challenge her. Indeed, Merlin was hit with a blow that had knocked her unconscious. When she came to, Nimueh had already dismissed her, turning her back.
Merlin lashed out, angrily calling lightning down from the sky.
Then it was over. Nimueh was gone, and Gaius was alive.
When they arrived back at Camelot, Oswin was waiting for them. "Prince Arthur wants to see you, my lady," he said nervously.
She sighed wearily, but nodded. "Could you help Gaius back to his chambers?" she asked him.
The young man did as she requested, and Merlin made her way to Arthur's chambers, stumbling more than once from sheer exhaustion. He was sitting in the same chair she had left him in. He looked up as she stepped inside, shutting the door behind her. "What happened?" he demanded instantly. "You look like death warmed over!"
Merlin wanted nothing more than to collapse into her bed, to sleep for a week. She was in no shape to match wits with Arthur. "Gaius and I had business to take care of," she said dully, trying to keep her eyes open.
"Business that your father knew nothing of?" Arthur shot back belligerently. "He's been frantic for hours! He had no idea where you were, knew only that your mother was violently ill in Gaius' chambers." He stood up, wincing as it jarred his shoulder, but still moved closer to her. "Where did you go? What did you do, Merlin?"
It was hardly the best way to tell Arthur the truth, she would think later, but she didn't have it in her to control herself. "I had to go kill a sorceress who was killing members of my family in payment for your life, all right?" she snapped. "Nimueh wanted to play games, and she paid for it."
Arthur gaped at her. "You killed a sorceress?" he choked. "How? And what does this have to do with me?"
Merlin leaned tiredly against the closed door. "You were bitten by the Questing Beast, Arthur, a magical creature. This isn't like with the unicorns, where good intentions and purity could win the day. Either magic cured you, or you'd die. So I went and bargained with the Old Religion – my life for yours. That was the agreement, but Nimueh broke it."
"My life for yours," he repeated. "You tried to kill yourself for my sake?! Merlin!"
"There was no choice!" she shouted at him. "It was either that, or you died! And in any case, it didn't happen. Nimueh tried to take my mother's life instead, just to make me suffer. Then she took Gaius'. I'd had enough."
"And you killed her? You killed a woman that my father fears more than anyone?" Arthur stated disbelievingly. "How? You're hardly an expert with a blade."
She snorted bitterly. "No, I'm not. Fortunately, I had other resources."
Merlin didn't say anything, and she had no control over her magic. It flared up, and she knew that her eyes had flashed gold.
Arthur's jaw dropped.
Seanna assisted Merlin into her dress, being careful of her hair. By the time they finished, it was time to join the rest of the court. As they walked through the corridors, Merlin could feel the palpable excitement in everyone they passed, courtiers and servants alike. As they approached the council chamber, Merlin saw her father standing just outside the doors, waiting for her.
She smiled at him as they approached, and he took her hand, placing it on his arm to escort her in. Marcus leaned toward her ear and murmured, "I had a very interesting conversation with the prince this morning. I trust that what I agreed to meets with your approval?"
Merlin grinned and nodded. She honestly had never felt this light, this happy before.
They took their places among the nobles, and waited for the rest of the court. Morgana and Gwen arrived, and took their places to the left of the throne. Morgana threw more than one speculative glance in Merlin's direction, and Merlin reminded herself that she was going to have to talk with Gaius about the other woman's situation. Merlin was determined to tell Morgana the truth about herself, if only for Morgana's peace of mind and to reassure her that she wasn't a monster or insane.
She knew she'd have a fight on her hands. The one time she had spoken of Morgana's gifts, Gaius had been implacable on the subject – for her own safety, Morgana was not to know. Merlin, though, believed that while ignorance might keep her safe, that ignorance was slowly driving her mad. Merlin had always had someone to confide in about her magic – her mother, Will, Gaius, or her father. Morgana had never had a confidant, not even Gwen.
Morgana needed help, and Merlin was determined to give it.
The doors of the council chamber opened, driving the subject from her mind and Merlin looked up. Arthur strode in, wearing his formal mail and red cape, as well as the circlet he wore on ceremonial occasions. Almost instantly, people throughout the chamber straightened, as though sensing the import of the gathering. Merlin's heart began to pound.
Upon reaching the throne where Uther sat, Arthur bowed properly to his father. "Your Majesty," he said, his voice pitched so that everyone in the chamber could hear him, "I would like to formally request your permission to marry."
Gasps tore through the crowds, and Merlin could feel Seanna tense just behind her. She bit her lip.
Uther gazed at his son, his face solemn and unsurprised, unlike he had been the last time Arthur had made such a request – Merlin tried not to think about that day too much. It appeared that Arthur had done as he'd said he would and spoken to both of their fathers before summoning the court together. "Who have you chosen as your bride, my son?"
Arthur didn't speak to her for two weeks, and Merlin spent all that time jumping every time she heard the steady march of the guards. She had managed to tell Seanna, her father, and Gaius what happened, that Arthur now knew of her magic. What was most surprising was how they took it.
Seanna had reacted better than the others. She had paled briefly, but then had straightened and set about stuffing Merlin's pack with supplies, to have it ready should Merlin need to flee on short notice. Gaius had been equal parts horrified and furious, and Marcus had gone grey. Nonetheless, there had been no use in bewailing what had happened; they could only prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Merlin did her best to act like nothing was wrong. She visited the training grounds, albeit not as often as she once did. She didn't try to constantly be in Arthur's company, but nor did she go out of her way to avoid him either.
Arthur, for his part, seemed to have the same plan that she did. His wound precluded him from training himself, but he still oversaw the training of the knights, pointing out flaws in their techniques and, occasionally, granting praise for improvement. He performed his other duties as best he could, though more often than not he had to delegate. He couldn't hunt, and so instead took to walking. A lot. Anything to work off his restless energy. He didn't invite Merlin to walk with him, but he didn't shun her either. More than once, though, she could feel his eyes on her.
She didn't know what he was thinking, and while that made her afraid, there was nothing she could do but wait and hope she hadn't destroyed everything he'd ever felt for her.
In time, much to Merlin's relief, Arthur started speaking to her again. Little things, and at times he would even join her and Morgana in the midst of a walk or task they'd taken on for themselves. If they happened across one another without Morgana or anyone else, they made idle small talk, but in no way did he allude to her magic. It appeared Arthur was trying to pretend that night in his chambers had never occurred.
As much as she wanted some resolution, one way or the other, Merlin let him do it.
Before she knew it, two months had passed, and then a third. Arthur's shoulder had recovered enough that Gaius permitted him to begin limited exercises, to build up his strength again. Merlin felt fairly safe by now, for surely if Arthur was going to turn her in, he would have done it by now.
In the midst of all this, other things were going on. It appeared that Geoffrey had discovered something in his studies amid the oldest areas of the archives – an old layout of Camelot. As expected, the caverns were mapped out, but there was something else too, another cavern beneath the citadel that no one had ever known of.
Curious, Uther decided to hire an army of miners to excavate the cavern, paying them to work day and night in shifts. Of course, that was all very well and good for him, since his chambers were on the opposite side of the citadel from where the miners were working. The rest of those who resided in the castle weren't so fortunate. Merlin and Seanna were lucky to get even a few hours of sleep before giving it up. Sometimes they would clamber together on Merlin's bed and play silly word games to try and drown out the constant noise coming from below. Other times, they would slip into Morgana's room and sit up with her.
Then, about two weeks after the miners began their work, they broke through to their goal, only it wasn't a cavern they had found, but a tomb.
After that, the uneasy lull came to an abrupt and violent end.
It started with the death of one of the miners due to a booby trap laid just inside the entrance to the tomb. Gaius himself had nearly stepped on it, but just missed it due to stumbling over an errant gold plate. While Uther and Arthur had salivated over the massive amounts of treasure, Gaius had set to work identifying just whose tomb it was that they were planning to ransack.
"That tomb was walled off and removed from the records for a reason, Merlin," the physician told her the next morning when he'd filled her in on the situation. He shook his head. "I don't think it's wise to start pilfering through the tomb, not until I've researched everything, but the king does what he will."
"Who do you think it belongs to?" Merlin asked him as she pulled several dusty tomes down from the shelves that lined his chamber.
"I don't know, but given that there was a crystal heart that glowed on top of the sarcophagus, I think it's a fair wager that the person was associated with magic."
As if that wasn't enough to set Merlin's instincts on edge, other things were happening too. Morgana's nightmares had cropped up again, her screams loud enough to wake Merlin up even in the dead of night. She'd heard the other woman's cries and had leapt out of bed, not even bothering to grab a robe or even put on her slippers. Merlin threw the door open and raced quickly down to Morgana's chambers. The door was already open when she went inside – Gwen had beaten her there.
Morgana was shaking with terror, clinging to Gwen like a frightened child, as Merlin slowly approached. Merlin could hear Morgana muttering as Gwen shushed her, and she sat down next to them, rubbing Morgana's back and trying to be as comforting as possible.
It was just one dream, Merlin knew, and likely Gaius would likely try to write it off, but she wouldn't. When Morgana's dreams made her wake up screaming, dark times were approaching.
If that wasn't enough, then there was the fact that Arthur suddenly had a new servant. Oswin had taken Merlin's place, and had managed to do well for himself. So, after that, it had been a shock to see the thin, shifty-looking man trailing after Arthur all of a sudden.
"Seanna," she murmured as she watched Arthur cross the courtyard from the battlements, "who is that with the prince?"
The handmaiden leaned over a little bit, staring down at them. "That would be the young man who recently saved the prince on a hunt, my lady," she answered. "He speared a wild boar just before it could attack him, or so I've heard." Seanna's voice was laced with disapproval. "His name is Cedric."
Merlin glanced at her. "What have you heard?"
Seanna shook her head. "Nothing all that condemning, my lady. He is new to the citadel. Apparently, there was an accident with Prince Arthur's saddle the other day and Cedric helped him up. The prince invited Cedric along for the hunt, and then gave him employment here in the citadel." She hesitated a moment, before adding, "He is not popular among the servants, and not just for pushing Oswin out of his place. He is apparently not very polite, and lords his position over the others. I've heard that he's even alienated the cooks."
Merlin cringed. That was the first lesson she'd learned when she'd come to Camelot – anger the kitchen servants at your own peril. Still, she looked at Seanna seriously. "Has Oswin been dismissed then?"
"Not officially, but the prince has not looked on him with any favor since the hunt," she told her. "Oswin is also certain that someone has been sabotaging him whenever he performs his chores."
Merlin pressed her lips together in irritation. She didn't like this, not one bit.
The pieces all naturally fell together very quickly after that. The tomb was raided that very night, much to Uther's fury. He ordered a search for the thief, though everyone else knew it was likely a useless endeavor. Merlin recalled that Arthur had kept important keys on him at all times, removing the ring that he kept them on only when he retired for the night. A quick questioning with Oswin also confirmed that he and Cedric had been the only other people in Arthur's chambers throughout the day.
As if all of that wasn't damning enough, Gaius also hurriedly informed her of the results of his research. "The tomb belongs to Cornelius Sigan, Merlin," he said urgently. "He was a sorcerer who cursed Camelot, swore that he'd return and destroy the city for its treachery against him."
Merlin shook her head. "How could he possibly do that? I know the rules of the Old Religion enough to know that dead is dead."
The physician shook his head. "Sigan stood outside of the Old Religion. I believe he conquered death, and it is his soul inside of the glowing heart. His body may have died, but his true essence still lives on inside of that jewel, and that's not the worst of it."
"What do you mean?"
The grim look on Gaius' face spoke volumes. "The jewel was one of the items stolen. Very likely the thief is now possessed by Sigan's spirit."
Merlin put everything together quickly. Oswin showed no signs of possession, and neither did Arthur. That left only Cedric.
When she presented this information to Arthur, however, he was hardly cooperative. Instead, he scoffed, "Really, Merlin, you think I didn't check into both Cedric and Oswin's alibis for the time of the time of the thefts?"
"Arthur, listen to me," she said urgently. "Cedric's been possessed by the most powerful sorcerers of all time! Gaius said he conquered death! Camelot is in danger!"
He stared at her, eyebrow raised. "You're paranoid, Merlin," he finally decided. "Now stop all of this, and don't go spreading it around. You'll only make yourself look ridiculous, and you might start a panic." Without another word, Arthur turned on his heel and walked away, leaving her standing alone in the corridor.
Cedric appeared a moment later. He bowed and smiled at her with perfect subservience before bustling after Arthur. Merlin's eyes narrowed, not buying his act for a moment.
It was just as well she didn't. By that evening, the gargoyles which had watched over the citadel for centuries had come alive, along with a terrifying monster. They began wrecking havoc all over Camelot, setting buildings on fire or collapsing them, attacking anyone they saw. Merlin could destroy the gargoyles, she knew, but that was only treating the symptoms. The problem was Sigan.
"As powerful as you are, Merlin," Gaius told her, "you're no match for a sorcerer with centuries of experience. You'll need help."
And, reluctantly, she got it. She had the spell to defeat Sigan, but only after promising the Dragon that she would free him in the near future.
The things I do for these people.
"Who have you chosen for your bride, my son?"
The entire court waited for Arthur's answer. Merlin's blood rushed in her ears.
"Lord Marcus' daughter, Sire," he told Uther, "the Lady Merlin." Arthur then turned in Merlin's direction and held out his hand to her. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and laid her hand in his, keenly aware of the silent crowd all around them. Arthur gently pulled her close to his right side, and she curtsied to the king.
Uther stared at her a moment before asking, "You have the consent of the lady's father?"
"Yes, Father. Lord Marcus has given his blessing, and Merlin gave me the honor of her agreement as well."
There was silence for several moments, and then Uther stood up. Stepping forward, he took Merlin's free hand in his own and bowed over it. "You are a welcome addition to our family, my lady."
The words were simple, but genuine. Merlin smiled, and refused to think about how that sentiment would vanish if he should ever learn of what she was. She curtsied again, saying quietly, "I am honored, Your Majesty."
No one else had a chance to say anything, because Morgana, who had also risen to her feet, began to applaud. The court followed her lead. Merlin saw the large smile on Morgana's lips, and how her eyes were wide with amazement, but she didn't have time to consider it when Arthur squeezed her hand to get her attention.
Meeting his gaze, it felt like everyone else in the chamber just vanished. Arthur's eyes were bright and warm, and his smile made something inside her tremble with joy. "My Merlin," he murmured in her ear. "Always."
Yes, she thought, closing her eyes for a moment as she leaned against him. Always. Merlin was no seer like Morgana, but she knew as surely as she knew herself – this was how it should be.
The Dragon and her mother both had called her and Arthur two sides of the same coin, two halves of a whole. Merlin didn't think so. There was no half, no one side and the other.
They were one. Two bodies, but one being.
Merlin and Arthur.
Let this be how they were remembered.
Merlin opened her eyes to face a new world.
Notes: Thank you for reading! Please, leave a review if you have a spare few moments!