She pulled back her elbow, tightening the string of the bow and repeating everything she'd been taught in her mind. Elbow. Shoulders. Hand. Aim.
She released the arrow, hearing the satisfying thunk! as the tip buried itself in the wooden plate moments later. And when she looked up, it was to see the arrow embedded in the exact centre of the target. Yes! And without magic, too - of course that was forbidden in the tournament.
Dazed, Princess Ygranna of Camelot turned to face the cheering crowd, which had been collectively holding its breath as the reigning champion took her shot - but for the second year running, she would walk away from the archery tournament victorious.
Anna used her free hand to push her braid back over her shoulder and then to shield her eyes from the sun, looking towards the royal box to see the King, the Queen and the Court Sorcerer all cheering for her enthusiastically - the latter so excited about her victory that he'd jumped out of his seat, and Anna grinned, giving him a little wave. Knowing, as she smiled, that her crinkling eyes would mirror Merlin's own.
After shaking what felt like hundreds of outstretched, eager hands and accepting her trophy, she finally entered the tent where the tournament weapons were kept. And although Anna was not surprised to find all three of her parents waiting for her, her cheeks still reddened with embarrassment as Guinevere let out a squeal and threw her arms around her.
"Mum," Anna mumbled, embarrassed, "not in front of the squires!"
The shorter woman snorted into her shoulder, but withdrew with a fond smile. "I'm just so proud of you."
"Thanks mum," Ygranna said, grateful for once again being able to breathe.
That didn't last long though, as moments after her mother had released her, Arthur and Merlin took her place, wrapping Anna in a giant hug that knocked the breath from her lungs.
"Need - breathe - please," she gasped, but to no avail - finally she had to nudge the two men slightly with her magic, and as if they were being pulled by strings, their hold on her loosened.
"We're just so proud of you!" Merlin protested, but he was grinning widely. "Double archery champion at only sixteen!"
Arthur huffed, though the pride in his eyes betrayed him. "I, for one, am not surprised. She's just lucky she got her hand-eye coordination from me."
"And my good looks and charm, so it's a win/win," Merlin quipped, and Anna couldn't help the giggle that escaped her - damn, so much for acting unaffected by their praise.
"Yes, well. Luckily I have my mother's good sense to keep my head out of the clouds, unlike the two of you," she said, eliciting a laugh from Gwen. It might be true that Queen Guinevere wasn't actually related to her, but that did not make her any less family.
Moving to put away her bow, Anna was surprised when Merlin followed her, putting a gentle hand on her elbow.
"Have you given any more thought to what we discussed?" he asked, lowering his voice when one of the young squires - Elyan or Robert, Anna never could tell apart Leon and Leah's twin boys - bustled past, carrying a suit of armour which was clearly far too heavy for him.
Anna shot Merlin a look as she moved to help the squire (Robert, she was pretty sure it was) with his burden.
Anna? Merlin's voice sounded anxious in her mind.
Dad, can we not do this now? Anna asked him silently, but she knew he meant well. She knew she had been putting this conversation off for far too long.
Of course, it's just... there was silence for a moment and Anna took the time to smile down at Robert, who blushed to the roots of his hair and mumbled something unintelligible which might have been 'Thank you' before running off. I've seen you come so far with your training, both fighting and magic, Merlin continued. And I know you, you've been begging me to teach you how to transform yourself into animals for years! You're ready to learn all these things, Anna, why are you holding back?
I do want you to teach me, Anna acknowledged, feeling uneasy. Unable to voice her real concern, even to her father, her eyes instead fell on Arthur and Gwen - who were conversing lightly and pretending like they weren't aware of Merlin and Anna's silent communication. But what about them?
When she looked back at Merlin, he was smiling. That's the best part. Your mother is coming with us.
"To the Druids? Mum?" Anna said, so shocked that she didn't realise she had spoken out loud until Arthur and Gwen's heads turned in their direction.
Guinevere smiled warmly. "Ah Merlin, I see you've broken the news," she said, coming over to stand by Merlin's side. "Yes, I have decided that a few months away from the castle would really do me wonders. Plus, Merlin has been telling us so much about his friends, how could I not be intrigued?"
"But..." Anna's eyes strayed to Arthur. It was embarrassing, really, how attached she still was to her parents, but she really could not see herself leaving any of them behind.
Arthur seemed to understand, and ruffled her hair fondly as he too joined them by the weapons rack. "It's only a few months, sweetheart. And someone has to stay behind and run the kingdom," he shrugged. "Besides," he added, his eyes falling on Merlin. "Don't worry about me feeling left behind. It's not like someone can't transport himself back here whenever he wants to see me." He winked, in what he probably thought was a subtle way.
Anna and Guinevere pointedly looked away as a telling blush stole over Merlin's features. Anna couldn't quite contain her giggle, however. Her fathers were so obvious sometimes.
After all these years, Anna still wasn't sure if she was mortified by her fathers' unsubtle public displays of affection or if she thought it was adorable. Catching her mum's eye, she thought that Guinevere probably felt much the same way.
"Right, er," Merlin cleared his throat. "Anyway, I really think it's high time you learned more about your magic. And your mum and Arthur agree." Arthur and Gwen both nodded. "After all, it took me a long time to come into my full potential, and we both know that you're capable of so much more."
Anna sighed as they all looked at her expectantly.
The truth was that she had been dying to visit the Druids, to discover the true extent of her powers. Sword fighting and archery were great, but she knew that there was something out there - something bigger, and a hell of a lot more important - waiting for her. She could feel it.
"It's just..." she started, her voice small.
"You're worried," Gwen finished her thought for her. "About what you're capable of."
Anna nodded, not able to meet any of their eyes. She had seen first hand what magic could do to a person - despite being so young at the time, she had not forgotten her encounter with Morgana.
"Hey," her mum said, lifting up her chin, and Anna looked up reluctantly. "Don't be. We know you, Anna. We know that whatever comes next, whatever fate has in store for you... you can handle it."
"And we'll be right there by your side, every step of the way," Arthur added.
Anna took a deep breath, looking around at them, at the three people whom she loved more than anything else in the world. And she knew they were right.
She met Merlin's eyes, and nodded. She was ready to face her destiny.
A/N: ...That's it. The end of the story. Can you believe it? I know I can't. I actually have tears in my eyes right now, because I know I have to say goodbye. It will be particularly hard to let go of Ygranna - this character feels as real to me now as the characters I borrowed from the show. I wonder if I can actually let her go, and stop myself from writing that Ygranna sequel which is already half planned out in my head...
I hope you have enjoyed seeing this story through to the end, and that you are satisfied with the ending. Please leave a comment to tell me what you thought. When I have had a bit of a breather, I will probably begin going back over the chapters and cleaning them up; I've noticed annoying mistakes here and there that I'm itching to fix.
I strongly urge you to watch the wonderful trailer for this fic made by Sally Sparrow (which can be found on Vimeo at /56635303). And note that this story can also be read in its entirety or downloaded as an ebook at Archive of Our Own (ID: 605211).
Until next time, whenever that may be,