A young knight was riding in the forest with a glum expression, barely listening to his comrades ahead of him. The knighting had been like a dream come true; the goal he had been aiming for since he was a child was finally within reach. But it had soon turned to nightmare when he listened to the king's first order.
"Come on newbie, are you that scared of a rumor? Besides, sorcerer or not, no one can oppose Camelot. We get it done and we'll be home before our ladies can even miss us."
"What ladies?" The other knight sneered at the first. "The only ones waiting for you are your sister and your mother."
"Are not! I'll let you know that-"
"But if that rumor is true, the son of that man can only be… what? Four or five?" Leon finally asked what was on his mind.
"More than enough time to corrupt a soul, newbie. It's better to get rid of the weeds before they infest your garden." The men sobered up, aware that the topic was already bordering in treason. "Besides if it is true and that snake had a son, what kind of education can the brat have had? We might even be doing him a favor."
Leon kept quiet after that; it had been seven years since the beginning of the Great Purge, so he could not remember the escapee, supposedly a man with the ability to command dragons to his will. A treacherous part of him felt awe at such a feat, but he was mostly skeptical. A human controlling a dragon? Surely those tales had to be embellished somehow.
However, that didn't change the fact that the man must have deeply wronged their ruler since, not only had he been exiled, but when the possibility that he might have had a descendant was pointed to the king he immediately set a three men party to confirm and, if it were to be true, dispose of the child.
It seemed oddly disproportionate to kill a child for the sins of the father. He wondered if he could do it, even for the Greater Good.
Later on, he would often wonder if they could have prevented the tragedy had they been more attentive to their surroundings instead of the ethics of their job; not long after they crossed the Camelot's border, suddenly, without warning, a gang of bandits had surrounded them and they were fighting for their lives.
Still a bit clumsily, Leon dismounted and unsheathed his sword. To his right and left his fellow knights were already battling their opponents with an ease that came from years of experience. Leon fought bravely, moving and dodging despite his armor; he had just slashed an especially burly-looking one when a root appeared treacherously at his feet, making him stumble. He only had time to see a glint of silver coming down, and he tried to roll to the side; he stifled a cry when the short sword pierced through his shoulder, but when his assailant was about to finish his work, a blur or red was by their side, taking him down. "Don't rest here, newbie!" The knight helped him to his feet.
But their numbers never seemed to decrease, and it wasn't long before the older knight got distracted for a second too long and fell to the ground, unmoving. Forgetting all about his training, Leon spun around quickly, trying to approach his fallen comrade; a sharp pain in his head was the last thing he felt before light and sounds faded and he lost consciousness.
"He is waking up! Mom, he is waking up!" An excited voice was saying, and the young knight felt a calloused hand brushing his forehead; with a groan, he managed to open his eyes and found himself staring at a red haired woman, who looked back at him with concern.
As his vision cleared and his thoughts became more coherent, he spotted two young children spying on him from the door of the little house. A dark-haired one was bouncing up and down, eyes never leaving his face, while the other stood protectively between them, scowling at the knight. The woman spoke again, talking to the children.
"Merlin, Will, go fetch Uncle Jeff and Matthew and bring them here." With a nod, both children were out of the house, running. The woman turned back to him. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Wha… what happened?"
"The children found you unconscious in the forest. You have been asleep for almost a day now."
Leon tried to stand up, but a sharp pain on his shoulder sent him back to the couch; he turned his head to find his arm in a modest sling and in that moment the memories came back; the King's orders, the bandits, the fight…
"Where am I?"
"You sire, are in Ealdor, in the Escetia kingdom." This time it was a male voice who answered; he looked to the door to find two new additions. The older one, whose hair was mostly grey already, took the woman's side by the bed and examined the dressing of his wounds; only then did Leon realize that his head was also bandaged and he winced at the pressure.
"Young man, it's best if you try not to move… I met many a knight back in my day who injured themselves by not listening to their physician's orders and rushing things." The man carefully prickled at his head, satisfied by what he saw. "Now, what is a Camelotian doing at this side of the border?"
"I…" Could he tell them? They weren't obligated to help him, and he didn't even know if the family even existed. For now, he concluded, it would be best to keep his mission to himself. "We were chasing a beast to the West, but we went too far… the rest of the knights…?"
The old man sadly shook his head. "The bandits must have thought you were dead too, that is why they fled. If the boys hadn't found you when they did, you wouldn't have survived either. You lost a lot of blood."
"You can stay here until you feel better. We have room." The woman added, not meeting his gaze; by her side the younger man seemed about to argue, but in the end he shook his head and let it go. Leon thanked her and she gave a half smile; with a couple of orders, the old man left, taking the adults with him. The knight considered going back to sleep, but his mind was too restless to let him in peace. He almost welcomed the voice that piped in after a few moments.
"You are a knight?" The oldest of the couple of boys asked. He nodded, and immediately the last signs of distrust seemed to abandon the child. "That's so cool! My dad is a knight too! He doesn't come back all that often, but he is the bestest knight ever!"
"Bestest is not a word, dummy." His companion sniggered, and the former punched him in the arm.
"Shut up, Merlin. If I say it's a word, then it's a word." He said haughtily, and immediately the other pouted.
"No fair! Why?"
"That's 'cause I'm older than you! You are just five!"
"You are six, you… big… umm…" The raven haired boy looked down, trying to find a suitable insult. Leon chuckled at that, and suddenly both boys' eyes were on him once again. "How about 'prat'?" He said, remembering Gaius' muttering to the king after a particular nasty bout of cold; he wouldn't want to teach these kids a real insult, not with their mother around. The younger boy seemed to mull it over, before nodding and smiling brightly. "Yeah! Will is a big prat!"
"Hey! You don't even know what that means!"
"Yeah I do! It's your face!"
The brunet tried to smack him but the younger boy, obviously used to that display, skillfully dodged him and ran away, laughing happily all the while. With a last outraged cry of "Merlin!", Will was out of the door too, both having forgotten the knight during their scuffle.
Leon watched them go with a bemused smile, being suddenly reminded of his own childhood (that had actually been not so long ago) and of similar evenings spent with the children of the blacksmith. Feeling the drowsiness come again, he forced himself to relax, resolving to let matters follow their course.
A week had gone by, and Leon sat in front of the hut, carving a lump of wood with a small hunting knife. He had finally convinced the village's self-appointed physician to remove the sling, though he had not regained full mobility on the limb yet.
During that time, he had found himself enjoying the quiet peace of the village, and the monotony of their actions, so different from his city where there was always something going on. The young knight had also come to learn more about the villagers, especially the small family that had sheltered him during his stay.
Merlin was a curious if a bit shy six year old, who ogled him with a mixture of fear and awe whenever he thought Leon wasn't looking. Almost from the moment he got out of bed in the mornings to when he came back home at dusk, he could be found in the company of his best friend, William, the son of the knight. Neither of them seemed to get along with the other children, preferring to run to the nearby forest whenever they had some time for themselves. Once, soon after the knight had been allowed to leave the bed, he had asked their mothers worried for their safety, but they seemed resigned to their antics; those two are too different, they said.
And sometimes, Leon could see it: Will was brash and brave, and would not think twice to oppose anyone he though was in the wrong, not even adults; Merlin's eyes sometimes shone with something he couldn't quite explain, as if he had a different way to view the world and see the soul of those around him. Each in his own way, both were just a bit more mature, yearned for a bit more that what the village had to offer and so they stuck with each other, for the most part ignoring the other children.
The woman, Hunith, was a kind-hearted person, easy-going, though she too was different from the rest; for one, she could read and write with reasonable skill, though she refused to tell him where she had learned it; she didn't seem to have any qualms against having a man living under her roof, nor did she demand anything of him. But more importantly, there were times when Leon could see a longing in her eyes, some sort of melancholy that possessed her when the lights started to dim outside.
He frowned, snapping out of his thoughts when he noticed some sort of argument taking place near the edge of the forest. Merlin and Will were there, and in front of them were four boys, all older than them. He prepared himself to intervene if it was necessary; children that age (even adults, he thought bitterly) could and would easily gang up against their weaker rivals.
"Say that again!" Will was shouting angrily, a stick in his hands while his friend tried unsuccessfully to get him to stop. Leon stood up, ready to help it he was needed, and listening closely.
"Bas-tard." The leader of the bullies sneered with a half smirk, and the brunet in front of him growled, curling his hands into fists.
"Will, stop! It isn't worth it!" At the moment, the raven haired boy was trying to tug his friend away, pulling his sleeve.
"Don't defend him, Merlin!" Will almost bellowed, throwing an angry look at the offenders and looking ready to pounce at a moment's notice. Merlin's efforts turned more desperate the angrier his friend got.
"Why? Maybe you are one too? Your father is even more worthl-" with an outraged cry, Will brushed his friend off and hit the older boy, making them both fall down where they got tangled in a shrieking mess of kicks and punches, rolling around the dirt. Dumbfounded, the other four children stood gaping for a moment, before the three partners in crime lurched forward, fighting to suppress the son of the knight. Even after they grabbed his arms and practically lifted him off the ground, Will kept squirming angrily, managing to give each of them a set of painful bruises.
Leon began walking towards them, deciding that things had gone far enough, while Merlin stood by the side, fidgeting nervously a couple of feet away from the fighting boys. He gasped as the first bully, limping slowly and with a bleeding ear, raised his fist in a movement that would surely break his friend's nose and, gaining a new determination in his eyes, tackled him.
It was just a moment, and had Leon blinked he might have missed it in the flurry of limbs that followed. But as luck would have it, he was in the perfect position to see the short-lived flash of pure gold that replaced the blue, proceeding the moment the older children slipped and lost his hold on the six year old, trapped by roots or pits of mud that had not been there a moment ago. Leon stopped mid-step, frozen. He knew what that was; he had seen many die for less.
As Will and Merlin ran away into the forest, as the older children freed themselves and turned around towards the village, he stood motionless, barely a few feet away from the place where the child-sorcerer had unknowingly given himself away. All the pieces clicked into place in his mind: the age, the father's absence, the whispers. The magic. It was him.
He had found Balinor's son.
And it was time for judgment to be passed upon the sinless spawn of the one man who defied the king- and lived to tell the tale. And only by his hand could the demon child be slain. Leon turned around from the scene and lost the content of his stomach behind the bushes.
That night, the young knight unsheathed his sword, cringing at the faint glint generated by the moonlight. He got closer, not looking at the boy, not daring to acknowledge him or he wouldn't' be able to fulfill his duty to Camelot…
"Don't." A whisper, and a pressure on his back stopped him; he half turned, as much as he could, and noticed that Hunith was standing there, a kitchen knife in her hands and tears in her eyes. Even when her voice wavered, there was no doubt of her intentions. "Don't take him too."
"It is my duty." Leon repeated once more, not failing to notice the note of doubt in his own voice. He had hoped that, saying that line enough times, he would begin to believe it.
"No." The pressure of the knife increased, but it didn't pierce the skin. Leon felt an overwhelming sadness; he knew he could overpower the woman right there and then; he could knock her out and kill the child, or he could make her a favor and send them both to the next life. But he did neither.
"He has magic."
"He is the son of a criminal."
"He is my son."
Her resolution grew stronger while his grew weaker. In the end, Leon lowered his weapon. She took a step back, but the knife was still raised. Turning around, with deliberately slow movements, he put away his sword; the sound of the blade against the sheath was like a promise, and by the time the hilt had reached the end, Leon knew that there was no turning back for him.
Some part of his mind argued that he should not feel this much relief for his treacherous act.
"Don't make me regret it."
The next day, he left Ealdor. Two days later, the King was informed that the rumor had been baseless; the dragonlord had had no family waiting for him in the village. And so the years passed by; the child grew into a young man but even after he arrived to Camelot, Leon never broke his promise. He simply watched, and waited.
Sir Leon could say, without a shred of doubt, that this was the most pain he had been in his life; he knew that he had never been closer to death before, and felt the despair of knowing that he had failed Camelot, and his King.
Then, through the haze of his mind he heard a deep voice, a command filled with grief and his eyes opened to slits once again. In that moment, he couldn't see the clumsy manservant that was too loyal for his own good, neither did he see the kind child who struggled to fit in a world that didn't want him. He saw someone born from a powerful lineage of noble men and women, the last member of a proud tribe that nonetheless held all the power of his ancestors.
As the dragon flew away, never to be seen again, Leon couldn't find it in him to hate the man for not killing the beast; yes, he understood the great deal of courage that was necessary to grant mercy to others.
And not for the first time, he thanked whatever powers had stilled his hand on that fateful night.