Author's Note: So sorry about the long break! I finally got my laptop fixed! Woot! Let me know what you think of this chapter. I was really, really tired when I wrote it so it might not be amazing, but I hope you all like it. Please REVIEW and let me know so I can continue writing!
Arthur Pendragon was not an emotional man. He never had been. A king simply couldn't afford to be emotional. It was his duty to serve his people, regardless of how he was feeling or what personal tragedies he might be going through. Uther had taught him to swallow his feelings from infancy and Arthur was proud of the ability to separate himself from whatever emotions he might have and concentrate on the problem at hand. It had allowed him to win countless battles and saw him through more than one personal hurdle.
Only, now, when he needed that ability most...it was failing him. He was all but choking on the intensity of the emotions coiled inside his chest, squeezing the strength from his heart and the breath from his lungs. As he sat, watching Merlin shiver beside him in an herb induced slumber, he desperately wanted to close his eyes and dream of better days. He yearned for a reprieve from his worry and the from the strange mixture of anger and pride that besieged him, but sleep eluded him.
It was to be expected, of course. He'd had multiple secrets dropped in his lap over the course of two days. Secrets that would change his life forever. And perhaps not only his life. Perhaps the whole world would be changed by the revelations entrusted to Arthur by a man he thought he knew. A friend. His friend. Merlin, the servant. Merlin, the warlock.
Arthur felt his heart speed up at the title. Warlock. Merlin was a warlock. A rare and powerful creature of the Old Religion. A man who could call upon all the forces of the earth to destroy those in his path with hardly any effort at all. A man who could kill him in an instant and who could bring Camelot tumbling down to her knees with a flash of golden eyes and a whispered word.
It was a strange image for him. He was sure it was close minded and petty of him to have a difficult time picturing Merlin as anyone but the clumsy, scrawny servant he'd known all these years, but he couldn't help it. Merlin had disguised himself too well, immersed himself in his role until there was nothing left of the powerful being inside him. Unless it hadn't been an act. Perhaps Merlin only hid his magic... perhaps Arthur had known the real Merlin all along. After all, Arthur had suspected Merlin of SOMETHING for some time. He had simply refused to see it for what it was. It had been his own stubborn need for stability and his blind devotion to the world his father had created that had kept him in the dark for so long. If he had opened his eyes, had come to Merlin with his suspicions earlier then maybe they wouldn't be in the predicament they were in. Maybe Merlin wouldn't be slipping away in front of him.
The young man was getting worse despite Amara's best efforts. She had given him herbs for the pain and his fever, but the poison coursing through Merlin's veins seemed to burn through it almost as quickly as she could give it to him. Merlin had frequently woken in fits of pain so terrible and with tremors so bad that Arthur had been forced to hold him down while Amara attempted to get him to swallow the herbs that would allow him a few more hours of peace.
The fits scared Arthur, filled him with a terror so powerful it took everything he had not to run, to flee Merlin's side and to never look back. He didn't know how to handle his friend's pain, didn't know how to comfort him in his time of need. He was Arthur, stoic prince and fearless warrior. He was not prepared to handle Merlin's suffering. Nor was he prepared for the pain he felt at his friend's expense. Amara had whispered soothing words into Merlin's ear as he babbled deliriously, had tried to calm him when he begged for release from the pain, from the agony. There was no reason to his words, only madness brought on by his ever rising fever. He was beyond seeing sense, beyond thinking rationally. And what had Arthur done? Nothing. He had done nothing.
He had held Merlin down and listened as his friend cursed and cried. Even as Merlin had called out Arthur's name he had been unable to say a word, unable to do anything but watch in horror as events played out before him. It wasn't until Merlin had finally passed back into sleep that Arthur found his words, but what good would they do anyone at that point? Why couldn't he say what he wanted to when it really mattered? When it counted? It was Merlin, for god's sakes! Arthur spoke to Merlin all the time. The two were rarely apart. So why was this so hard for him? Why couldn't he comfort Merlin the way he knew Merlin would comfort him? He felt disgusted with himself. Another emotion to add to his intense and overwhelming collection.
Arthur looked up from his thoughts, rubbed his eyes wearily, and glanced around him at the paintings smeared across the cavern walls. The bandits had informed him that the paintings were markings and symbols from the Old Religion. Supposedly, these markings were what kept the caves they resided in safe from prying eyes. One had to know the caves location or else one would never get in which seemed silly to Arthur because he didn't believe in old wives tales, but he wasn't going to argue with them. They had granted Merlin and himself sanctuary and had given them food, water and medicine. Arthur would be a fool to argue with hosts under normal circumstances, but with things as dire as they were it would have been practically suicidal for Arthur to say anything other than please and thank you.
The bandits mostly stuck to themselves which suited Arthur just fine. Amara had seemed keen on keeping his identity a secret. So keen in fact that she had introduced him to Aurelius, the leader of the group, as Castor Shufflebottom, a down on his luck bard and poetry enthusiast who was attempting to find a cure for the sickness that ailed his traveling companion. It had taken every ounce of self-control Arthur had to allow Amara's description of him to go unchallenged. A poet enthusiast? What the hell was she playing at? Then the Druid girl at smiled at him sweetly and Arthur knew she was enjoying herself. At his expense.
Still, despite Arthur's chosen "profession" and their less than friendly first meeting, Aurelius seemed to accept Amara's story without much doubt. There had been a moment that Arthur was sure the grizzled leader was going to call Amara's bluff. He had stared at Arthur dubiously and his features were calculating as if trying to figure him out, but after a moment of intense scrutiny he had merely shrugged his shoulders and offered them what little he could. The rest of the bandits had not even blinked an eye at their presence and Arthur was quickly sat before a crackling fire and given warm mead and roasted rabbit to eat while Merlin's wounds were tended to.
Arthur had taken the brief moment of peace to send Lancelot out to look for Gwen and his knights, knowing that he should have been the one looking for them. He simply couldn't bring himself to leave Merlin's side... especially knowing that the young man could blow both their covers if he said something he shouldn't in the midst of his feverish ramblings. Lancelot had not been pleased with his commander's decision and had argued against leaving Merlin alone. He wanted to remain at the warlock's side in case Merlin needed him, but Arthur put his foot down. Mostly because he knew it was what needed to be done, but he couldn't deny that there was a small part of him that got a strange amount of satisfaction at denying the knight. Of course, he couldn't say that to Lancelot. Instead he explained that since Merlin was his servant it was his duty to stay with him. He owed it to the man... which was true. He did owe Merlin that. And much more.
He also explained that somebody needed to intercept Gwen and the knights before they arrived. Their story would begin to look suspicious if their traveling companions continued to grow...especially when those traveling companions happened to be wearing Camelot colors. It was Lancelot's duty to find the knights, escort Gwen home and come up with an explanation for his absence with his father. Arthur would continue on with Merlin and Amara and would be informed of Lancelot's success by Ryker who would meet up with them at the bandit cave. Under no circumstances was Lancelot to mention magic or Merlin's subsequent use of it. Arthur still hadn't decided on a course of action regarding his friend's abilities and he felt that the less people who knew the better. For the time being. Besides, he wasn't even sure if Merlin wanted his secret out for all the world to see. Perhaps his trust only stretched to those who already knew.
"I can't just leave him," Lancelot had whispered to him, making sure he would not be overheard by their bandit companions. "He would never leave me behind, Arthur."
"You aren't leaving him behind," Arthur muttered back. "You are leaving him with me."
"But you-" Lancelot began.
"Look," Arthur said interrupted tiredly. "I know you don't trust me with him, Lancelot. I know you don't like leaving him alone with me, but you have to believe me. I would never hurt him."
"You already have," Lancelot murmured softly, looking up at Arthur with sorrowed eyes.
Arthur's jaw dropped in shock. Yes, it was his fault Merlin was in the situation he was in. Yes, he could have made better decisions, but Arthur hadn't done this to his servant. He hadn't made him scream, hadn't poisoned his blood. He had done everything to get to his friend in time and for Lancelot to act like Arthur had done this on purpose made fury rush through him.
"This is not my doing," Arthur hissed out. "I didn't torture him. I didn't lay a finger on him. How dare you accuse me of-"
"You misunderstand," Lancelot whispered. "I'm not talking about today. I'm talking about all the times before that. All the times you've scoffed at his warnings. All the times you acted like your father, treated him like your father would treat a servant. All the times you disgraced him in front of people that mattered to him. You have no idea what he has sacrificed for you, no idea what he has given so that you could become the king he saw in you."
"He never told me," Arthur said. "How was I supposed to know any of this when he lied to me? Everything he did, Lancelot. None of it was real."
"Don't be ridiculous," Lancelot replied gently. "You know that's not true, Arthur. You know as well as I do that Merlin never lied about who he was. Just what he was."
Arthur was quiet for a long moment. He knew what Lancelot was trying to say to him. The knight wasn't trying to make him feel guilty even though Arthur did. Nor was he trying to be cruel to his ruler. He was simply pointing out that Arthur had treated Merlin like he was useless, like he was nothing to him. There was nothing farther than the truth, but the damage had already been done. It was up to Arthur to fix what he could.
"I will do everything in my power to bring him back safe," Arthur finally said. "But, you have to trust me on this, Lancelot. Please do what I ask."
"I'll do it," Lancelot sighed after a moment's hesitation. "I'm not happy about it, but I think that this is a journey you and Merlin have to make together. I think you need to see his strength, Arthur. And perhaps...when this is all said and done...he can show you his power."
"Aren't they the same thing?" Arthur asked, smiling slightly.
"No," Lancelot replied. "Strength is a measure of the spirit, sire. And Merlin's spirit is brighter and stronger than any I've known. You can't see it...you feel it. When Merlin comes alive you can practically feel your soul humming along with his. It's incredible."
"And his power?"
"Something that would need to be seen to be believed, sire."
"I look forward to experiencing it," Arthur whispered.
"You mean that?"
"Yes," Arthur replied slowly. "I really think I do."
In the end, Lancelot had gone, promising to look after Gwen and to make sure Uther knew nothing of Merlin or his plight. It would only lead to questions that Arthur could not answer...or would not as the case may be. He would lie to his father for Merlin. He would lie to the whole world for Merlin if that is what it took to keep him safe. Gwen would be in good hands and once Ryker returned with news of Lancelot's success the weight in Arthur's chest could ease somewhat. There were two people he needed more than anything in his life. At the moment, he was worrying about both of them. Once Ryker returned he would only have to worry about one.
Of course, the bandits did not make worrying very easy for Arthur. It had not taken long for the bandits, brave and unashamed after copious amounts of mead, to ask Arthur for a song. The request surprised him for than it should have. After all, he was supposed to be a bard. He'd been forced to stand and grate out verses of a tavern song he had heard Gwain sing on more than one occasion. He was more than a little relieved to know that Merlin was still lost in sleep, head resting in Amara's lap while she looked up at him expectantly, mischief dancing in her eyes. Merlin would have never let him hear the end of it. As he sang however he could not stop his cheeks from flushing furiously as he watched Amara giggling out of the corner of his eye, but when he was finished he was met with a roar of drunken approval from the bandit hoard and he bowed theatrically, allowing himself to forget, just for a moment who he was and the situation he was in. It felt good to be someone else; to not have them looking at him with expectations he could not meet.
The bandits were free in a way Arthur never could be. They had nothing to answer for, no one to watch their every move with scrupulous eyes. Arthur yearned for such anonymity. It was a secret yearning. One he could never voice because to voice it out loud would give it meaning, give it truth. He was the prince of Camelot and the only heir. His destiny was already written. He could not change it even if he wanted to. Arthur loved his home and his people with every breath he had, but sometimes the responsibility of it all became too much for him. How was he supposed to make decisions when the wrong one could lead to death and destruction? Merlin's current predicament only proved how unprepared he was for such a task. He had chosen to ignore Merlin, despite the thousand and one reasons he had not to, and look where it had gotten them.
Arthur might have lost himself to self-pity in that moment, but the bandits would not allow him to. Before he had a chance to settle himself into a mood of melancholy and doubt they had pulled him into another round of boisterous singing and for a little while Arthur was swept away into a world with no worries and laughter. At least until Merlin woke for the first time, screaming with such ferocity and agony that Arthur wasn't even sure it had been uttered from human lips. The bandits had gone deathly quiet after the warlock's cry and they stared at the man with a mix of bewilderment, pity and confusion.
The fits had only gotten worse as the night wore on and they had moved them to a cavern away from the rest so that Merlin's screams would not keep them awake. Amara dozed when she could, head resting against the cave wall, arm bent uncomfortably beneath her, but no matter how hard Arthur tried he could not sleep.
Arthur sighed and glanced down at the cause of all his heartache, reaching over to pull the blankets Merlin had shrugged off in his feverish fidgeting back over the warlock's shoulders. It was the hundredth time he'd done it that night, but he doubted it would be his last. It was a small show of affection, but it was all Arthur could offer Merlin in that moment. Perhaps all he had ever been able to offer. A moment here or there to let Merlin know he cared, that Merlin was important to him. It was only now, when Arthur could lose him at any moment, that he realized just how important his servant was to him.
He hated that there were secrets between them. He understood why Merlin had hidden who he was and what he could do, understood why his servant had rarely been honest with him about anything. Arthur understood, but it still hurt him. It hurt to know that, despite everything, Merlin didn't trust him. And still didn't trust him if their previous conversation was anything to go by. Merlin had refused to tell him about Morgana even though the servant knew how much her betrayal had cost him. How many other secrets was he keeping? How many times had Merlin lied to him when the truth could have saved lives?
It was a question Arthur wanted to ask more than anything, but wasn't sure he ever would. What if the answer was something they could never recover from? Arthur needed Merlin. He needed him to guide him, to give him wisdom and strength, to laugh with him when things were at their darkest and, most important of all, to tell him when he was wrong. Without him Arthur could never rule Camelot. He would fail. His worst fears would come true and all of Camelot would pay the price.
"What am I supposed to do with you?" Arthur whispered hoarsely, staring down at his friend.
"If you are expecting an answer from him you might be waiting a while," a gruff voice said from the entry way of the cavern.
Arthur looked up sharply to see Aurelius framed against the cavern wall, his bulky form casting shadows against the smooth rock behind him. He was leaning casually against the stone, an apple in his left hand and a knife in the other. He cast a fleeting smile at Arthur before gesturing towards an empty spot by the fire and saying, "Mind if I sit a spell?"
"No," Arthur said cautiously. "Go ahead."
The big man sat and stared at him appraisingly from the across the flames. A knowing smile curved his lips, but he didn't say anything. He simply carved out a piece of the apple and popped it in his mouth, chewing while he carved out another piece and offered it to Arthur. Arthur took it obligingly, took a bite, and waited patiently for whatever it was the bandit had come to say to him.
"You know," Aurelius finally said. "It's not very often we get royalty in our homely cave of debauchery."
Arthur nearly choked on the apple in his mouth in surprise. He jumped to his feet, even as the meaning of the leader's words dawned on him, and pulled the dagger he'd pilfered from one of the drunk bandits from his pocket. He stepped protectively over Merlin and narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth in challenge, much like a she wolf protected her cubs. He was prepared for a fight and he was prepared to win. Which was why he was so shocked when the bandit leader simply laughed, a giant booming laugh that seemed out of place in the tiny cave.
"Calm yourself, young Pendragon," Aurelius boomed. " I don't mean you or your servant any harm. I came to talk. That's all."
"Talk about what?" Arthur asked carefully.
"Your options," Aurelius said simply. "Believe me when I say you don't have many."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur snapped.
"It means sit down and listen," the bandit sighed. "I allowed you into my home, regardless of the fact that you are the prince of Camelot. If I had wanted to harm you it would have been done already."
Arthur considered the bandit's words before sitting back down beside Merlin. The least he could do was hear Aurelius out, but he wasn't going to put the dagger way just yet. He sat it on his other side where he could reach it easily if he had to.
"How did you know who we were?" Arthur asked finally.
"Your friend called you Arthur in the ruins," Aurelius shrugged. "And the ring on your finger bears the sigil of Camelot. It was not hard to put together."
"Why did you not say anything before now?"
"I hadn't decided on a course of action yet," Aurelius replied honestly.
Aurelius watched Arthur for a long moment over the flames then pulled a small bundle from inside his tunic. He held it in his palm and stared at it as if it were the most precious thing he owned. When he looked back at Arthur there was a gleam of emotion in his eyes that Arthur could not discern.
"Amara said you'll be taking your friend to see the priestess that lives on the mountain," Aurelius said softly. "She said that's the only person who can heal him. Is that correct?"
"I hope so," Arthur answered, unsure of where the bandit was going.
"She hates you, you know."
"So I've heard, " Arthur said dryly.
"She'll kill you if she discovers who you are."
"And you are willing to take that risk?" Aurelius whispered, looking at the prince as if he had never seen him before.
"I'll do what it takes," Arthur said.
"He's just a servant," Aurelius said in confusion.
"He's more than that," Arthur snapped.
"He's your friend," Aurelius said knowingly.
Aurelius sat back against the cave wall and stared at him again. Arthur bit down on his tongue. He was quickly losing patience with whatever game this man was playing with him.
"I've heard many things about you, Arthur Pendragon," Aurelius said quietly. "You are a brave and noble knight, but arrogant. A kind and honest man, but cruel to those beneath you. It seems that you are a regular contradiction." He laughed and shook his head. "You seem to honestly care about the man beside you, but how do I know you aren't using him to carry out your father's wishes? That he isn't a Trojan Horse to draw out the last remaining priestess of the Old Religion besides your sister and kill her?"
"I'm not," Arthur said simply.
"I do not know you," Aurelius replied unapologetically. "I do not trust you."
"Get to the point," Arthur snapped. "Or did you come all this way to let me know you are a member of the increasing number of people that seem to hate me?"
"I have something that may be of use to you," Aurelius said, holding up the bundle he pulled from his shirt. "But I will not entrust it to you until I know the truth of the matter. I wish to speak to him." Aurelius pointed at Merlin who shifted and groaned as if sensing Aurelius's interest in him.
"Absolutely not," Arthur hissed. "Speaking with Merlin is not an option."
"If that is what you wish then so be it," Aurelius said calmly. "But, be prepared Arthur Pendragon. Without what I have in my hands you will fail your quest. Your friend will die in agony and despair. And so will you."
"You don't know that," Arthur spat.
"I know it as surely as I know what ails him," Aurelius replied heatedly. "I know Verbana when I see it. Do not mistake me for a fool, boy. Your servant has magic. Powerful magic if he is reacting so strongly to the Verbana."
"What of it?" Arthur said protectively. "Merlin is my responsibility. Not yours."
"I want to help," Aurelius repeated. "But I will not do so unless I speak to him."
"I said no," Arthur growled. "He needs rest. You heard him earlier...he was out of his mind. I won't subject him to that again sooner than I have to."
"I will not hurt him" Aurelius promised. "He will not feel any pain."
"You can't know that!" Arthur said.
"Trust me," Aurelius said simply, his eyes flashing gold.
Magic. Aurelius had magic and wanted Arthur to trust him. Trust him? Could Arthur do something like that? Trust a man he barely knew? He needed all the help he could get, but what if Aurelius was lying? Magic couldn't be trusted and-Arthur stopped himself. No, that wasn't true, was it? After all, Arthur trusted Merlin with his life. Merlin had magic. Hell, Merlin was magic. If Arthur continued to not trust magic it was like betraying Merlin all over again. He had to trust Merlin regardless of how he felt. If Merlin trusted magic then so would he.
"Alright," Arthur said reluctantly. "Let me wake him up."
Arthur turned and gently shook his friend out whatever restless peace he had been able to find. Merlin looked up at him blearily, still sluggish from the herbs Amara had made him swallow. There seemed to be little pain in his friends eyes, which soothed Arthur's guilt slightly, but he could tell by the way Merlin's eyes were unable to focus on him that the young man was no better off than he had been.
"Arthur?" Merlin slurred.
"It's me, Merlin," Arthur whispered. "I'm sorry I had to wake you."
"Is everything all right?" Merlin asked, panic coloring his voice. "Are you in danger? Do we need to-"
"Everything is fine, Merlin," Arthur soothed, pushing his friend back down as he tried to rise. "Nothing is wrong. There's just someone who needs to speak with you."
"Now?" Merlin asked, attempting to focus his eyes on Arthur's face.
"Yes," Arthur said, looking over at Aurelius and scowling. "He seems to think it is urgent."
"Alright then," Merlin said, finally focusing on Arthur somewhat. He opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped suddenly, his body going rigid on the stone floor. He attempted to suck in a breath and keep himself from crying out, but a choked groan escaped him as he grabbed Arthur's outstretched hand and squeezed as the tremors racked his thin frame.
"Merlin," Arthur breathed, watching in horror as his friend once again succumbed to the effects of the Verbana.
Merlin's breath rattled harshly in his throat and Arthur could all but hear the man's heart pounding an uneven rhythm in his chest. How much more of this could his friend take? They were running out of time.
"You said he wouldn't feel any pain," Arthur said desperately to Aurelius. "Please."
Aurelius crossed the distance between them in two giant strides, knelt at Merlin's side and took the warlock's head between his hands. Merlin cried out at the touch and it took everything Arthur had not to shove the big man away from him. Arthur watched as Aurelius began to mutter beneath his breath and his eyes flashed gold.
"Dim mwy o boen aros. Absenoldeb a byth yn dychwelyd," Aurelius whispered over and over again.
Suddenly, Merlin's tremors stopped. His breathing slowed and his heart beat steadily. The pain left his eyes and all that was left was exhaustion and gratitude.
"Thank you," Merlin whispered, already beginning to fall asleep.
"I only did what I could," Aurelius told him. "It is not permanent, but it will give you some time. I only ask one thing in return."
"Anything," Merlin murmured.
"I need you to answer a question. Do you trust this man?" Aurelius said. "Do you trust in Arthur Pendragon?"
"With my life," Merlin replied without hesitation.
"That is all the answer I need," Aurelius said softly. "Sleep now, Merlin. The end of your ordeal is close at hand."
Merlin murmured something in affirmative before his eyes fluttered shut and he fell back into a peaceful sleep.
"How did you do that?" Arthur asked. "How did you help him?"
"Old magic," Aurelius replied, looking up at him appraisingly. "It is this magic that you will need to save his life, Arthur Pendragon. It is this magic you must convince the priestess on the mountain to use."
"But how?" Arthur asked. "What do I have to give that she would accept?"
"You have this," Aurelius said, holding up the tiny bundle he'd taken out earlier.
"And what's that supposed to be exactly?"
"Let me show you," Aurelius said with a small smile.
Aurelius pulled a tiny object from the bundle and lay it before Arthur's feet. Arthur looked down at it, stunned out of words. This thing, this gift that Aurelius had given him was the very thing he needed to get him and Merlin out of this alive. Now all he needed was a plan...