Chapter 5: Aithusa
The next morning came much too early. It felt like Merlin had just closed his eyes for five minutes when Gaius came rushing into his room.
"Merlin, what have you done?" his mentor asked worried.
Sleepy, Merlin sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Why? What's the matter?"
"Someone has been to the vaults. The part of the Triskelion has been stolen. I take it you know who is responsible for that?" Accusingly, he lifted his eyebrow.
"How do you know someone went down there?" Merlin vainly tried to avert the conversation to a different direction.
"Apparently, the guards have been attacked by magic." After a pause, he added: "Merlin, please tell me, you didn't steal the key to help Borden open the tomb to get the dragon's egg."
"Yes and no. I didn't do it to help Borden. You were right, he is not to be trusted. But it is my sacred duty as a dragonlord to find this egg and to protect the last of the dragons."
"Oh Merlin! Protect? Arthur knows what the Triskelion is for. Now Arthur's riding out intent on finding and destroying it! It lied hidden for hundreds of years and it could have for many more to come. Why couldn't you leave things alone!?"
"I know I can save the egg. Trust me, Gaius. I will save her."
"The egg, I mean."
Gaius looked at him sceptically, but he decided to let it go and turn his attention to more pressing matters: "Arthur has sent for you. You'd better not keep him waiting."
So Merlin hurried down the corridors to Arthur's chambers. As he had expected, Arthur wasn't in a very good mood.
At least, he finally learnt how to dress himself, Merlin thought gleefully, as he bowed before him.
"Merlin! What took you so long? I've sent for you ages ago! Gaius has already filled you in about what happened?"
"Yes, he did."
"Good. I want you to go and prepare seven horses and provisions for a couple of days. We are going after this thief."
"Do you think this is a good idea, Sire?" Merlin asked in an attempt to dissuade Arthur from going, "I mean the thief obviously used magic. We probably won't be able to trace him anyway."
"Merlin, the key leads to a dragon's egg. It can live for a thousand years. Even today, it could still hatch, and another dragon would be born into this world. All my father's work to rid the world of these monsters would be undone. We have no choice. We must hunt down this intruder, destroy the egg."
Merlin knew it was hopeless to argue. How could he have been so vain as to think to have tricked destiny? With another bow, Merlin turned around and hurried to the stables.
Arthur had ordered his Knights of the Round Table, who ever since the retaking of Camelot had been his closest advisors and friends - Lancelot, Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival – to meet him as soon as possible. Gwaine was late as usual and hung-over when he finally arrived. Arthur sighed impatiently: "Hurry up, everybody. We need to catch that thief!" Together with Merlin, they rode out of the court yard with their capes flying behind them as they broke into a fast gallop. Merlin groaned inwardly as he realised Borden had been so careless as to leave a pretty obvious track behind him when he had escaped helter-skelter last night. They soon reached the outskirts of the Darkling Woods. On Arthur's sign, they slowed down and came to a halt.
Sir Leon, who had a very long experience in tracking down people, spotted the pillar of smoke first.
"Over there, Sire" Leon said pointing to east. "He's made camp. He can't have more than a few hours' lead on us."
They continued into the forest trying to keep as straight a line as possible. As the sun began to set and the shadows were growing longer, they finally reached the camp. To their surprise, Borden was there crouching anxiously by the small fire. When he heard someone approaching, he sprang to his feet and tried to flee in panic. But Gwaine and Lancelot spurred their horses and easily caught up with him and barring the way. Fearfully, he turned and made a wide leap in the opposite direction only to find himself facing Arthur's exposed blade pointing at his throat. He froze immediately and fell down to his knees. The knights dismounted their horses and circled Borden while Merlin stood a bit off. Arthur got off his horse as well and slowly walked towards Borden who tried to dodge away from the knights and Arthur in vain.
"Where is it?" Arthur asked coldly.
"Where is what?" Borden returned the question.
"Do you think this is funny?" Arthur said rising his sword to Borden's throat. "I am not a patient man, you know? So I'll give you one more chance: Where is it?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I swear."
"The Triskelion you stole from Camelot's vault. I want it back."
Borden looked at him blankly: "I didn't steal anything."
Arthur increased the pressure of his sword on his throat a little bit which sent Borden squeaking in horror.
"I swear. I don't deny that I wanted when I came to Camelot last night but I didn't do it." Seeing Arthur exchanging an incredulous glance with his knights, he added pleadingly: "Please, you have to believe me! I didn't go anywhere near your vaults."
Nodding to nobody in particular, Arthur commanded: "Search his bags."
Their search was of course fruitless. But Arthur still wasn't inclined to believe him.
"What have you done with it? Where are you hiding it?"
"I swear I didn't take it. There was that old warlock... He threatened me and then took my pieces of me. Please, you have to believe me!"
Arthur's eyebrows shot up at the mention of the word "warlock".
"I am the Prince of Camelot. I can't be seen entering the castle with an infamous sorcerer."
"There's a difference?"
"Of course there is. People who have magic are not all the same. Just as people who use swords are different on to the other. But that has never occurred to you, hasn't it?"
He shook his head to get rid of this memory. His knights looked at him curiously.
"Let him go" he demanded, "He is telling the truth." The knights did as they were told. Borden didn't hesitate: as soon as the knights had stepped back and given way, he rushed away from the clearing and vanished between the trees.
"Do you mean, you know who that warlock is?" Elyan asked surprised.
"Yes, I do. And I also know where to find him."
"It's getting to dark to see, Sire. We should make camp and continue tomorrow" Lancelot proposed.
"Yes, I think that would be best."
So they all sat down while Merlin enlarged the camp fire and started to prepare supper.
He filled six bowls for the knights.
"Whoa. I'm famished" Sir Leon exclaimed smiling innocently.
Merlin, who already knew where this was going, returned the smile and gave him an extra portion.
"Thank you." Well, at least he is polite...
"Ah, I'm hungry as a horse" Gwaine fell into the same pattern.
Smirking inwardly, Merlin filled up Gwaine's bowl as well.
"As a point, Merlin, have you fed them?" Arthur asked in the same playful tone.
"Come on, they must be starving."
Shaking his head disapprovingly, he trotted away to feed the horses. Lancelot followed him quietly.
"What is it Merlin? You don't seem to be yourself today. Has it... Has it something to do with why you were in the lower town yesterday?" he asked calmly.
"Yes, but it's nothing to worry about, seriously."
"You know that I'm you friend and you can trust me, don't you?"
"Yes, I do and I am more grateful than I can ever express in words."
"So why don't you tell me what happened?"
"Don't you know already?" Merlin asked his friend with raised eyebrows. Of course, he had noticed how Lancelot had tried very hard not to glance at Merlin when Borden brought up the warlock.
"I have a theory" Lancelot replied evasively.
"Well, if your theory is that I was that warlock who stole the Triskelion, then you're right."
"But why? Stupid question, you want to find that egg, don't you? Why? Arthur killed the last dragon, why do you want to risk these creatures returning to Camelot?"
"You're not quite right this time. Arthur believes he killed the last one and I'd like him to stay of that opinion as long as possible."
"So the dragon is alive?"
"Very much so."
"And you want to take that egg to him, so that there will be two?"
"It is my duty. My father was the dragonlord Arthur and I went to seek before he supposedly killed the dragon. When he died, his gift passed on to me. I am the last dragonlord and I have to protect the last of the dragons, including this egg."
Lancelot stared at him incredulously. Then he shook his head submissively.
"You know Merlin, you still manage to surprise me every time. Arthur is very lucky to have you, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
Soon, he had finished feeding the horses and together they returned to the others.
"Mm. That was lovely, Merlin. Thanks" Gwaine came to meet them and handed Merlin his empty bowl as did the others.
"Er, I loved it" Percival said though he didn't feel as comfortable as the others.
"Me, too" Leon joined in.
"If you're gonna wash those, wash this, too" Arthur said, handing Merlin the cooking pot.
Merlin found it hard to suppress a laugh. Instead he asked trying to sound slightly offended: "Good, was it?
"Little bit salty, though" Arthur replied and patted him on the arm before he returned to his place. Shaking his head at their childish behaviour, Merlin sulked away to do the dishes.
Sir Leon's chuckle made him turn around: "Merlin."
Producing another bowl from behind his back, Leon laughed: "There's another bowl here."
The knights laughed heartily and Merlin joined in.
Later that night, Arthur walked over to Merlin and sat down next to him. Merlin looked up briefly remaining silent.
"You're very quiet" Arthur said after a while.
"What is it?"
As Merlin didn't respond, he added: "Merlin."
"It was here that I last saw my father."
This answer took him by surprise and he wished he hadn't brought up the topic.
"You never talked about it."
"There's not much that I can say. I didn't really know him that well, but...I was proud of him. I want him to be proud of me."
"I can understand that. You should try being in my shoes. It was hard enough while he was alive, always having to live up to what he expected of me. It's even harder now. I now know what he faced, the decisions he had to make. I tell you Merlin, don't start measuring yourself against a man who's dead. You'll never win."
"I know. He will always be better than me."
Merlin's face lit up at the thought that had occurred to him.
"What?" Arthur asked as he noticed.
"For a moment there, I thought we had something in common."
They both chuckled; then Arthur sobered up again: "It was the warlock who couldn't heal my father. He stole the Triskelion from Camelot and apparently, frightened Borden out of his wits."
"What are you going to do?"
"Well, I have to hunt him down. He cannot be allowed to make it to the tomb of Ashkanar. If he finds this egg... I don't dare to imagine what he could do with it. He said he would only use his magic for good, but I'm not sure if I want to risk trusting him. In my experience, magic is evil and corrupting. Do you remember when the Great Dragon attacked Camelot all those years ago? I can't expose my kingdom to this kind of threat again. We have to beat him to the egg and destroy it for the safety of my people."
"I guess so" Merlin nodded. He had always known that Arthur was prepared to do everything for Camelot and her people.
"You better get some sleep. We'll set off at first light" Arthur said and stood up. Patting him reassuringly on the shoulder, he walked over to the other knights. All of them except for Lancelot had already fallen asleep. They whispered a couple of words, then Arthur lied down as well, while Lancelot took the first watch.
Merlin didn't know for how long he had slumbered, but he jolted from his sleep when he heard a whisper in his mind. Somebody was calling his name telepathically. Cautiously, he scoured the camp finding the knights and Arthur fast asleep. Silently, he got to his feet and followed the calling to another clearing nearby. There, a couple of hooded figures awaited him.
"Emrys, it is an honour to meet you" their leader said solemnly and lowered his hood.
Merlin had to search his memory for his name. Finally, he remembered. "Iseldir" he said and inclined his head slightly in his direction.
"We came here to warn you" Iseldir said softly.
"I already know that the Triskelion of Ashkanar is both a key and a trap" Merlin interrupted him.
"That is not why we have come here, young warlock. Our seers have found something concerning you."
"What is it?" Merlin asked worriedly.
"There is a new prophecy. It speaks of an alliance of evil which will try to bring Camelot to its knees. It may yet succeed; it is in your hands to stop it."
"Do you mean Morgana and Mordred?" Merlin was anxious. He hadn't expected them to join forces so soon.
"The druid boy's fate is not yet decided and shrouded in mystery. He may still choose his path whether it be for the good of Camelot or to bring about its downfall. He is not the concern of our warning" Iseldir replied vaguely.
"Who is it then?" Merlin was growing impatient.
"We do not know for certain, Emrys. Time is out of joint; nothing seems certain anymore. Yet, this prophecy speaks of a great trial for Camelot and its young King. The Witch is soon to find out about your destiny, Emrys. Her destiny and yours are still connected. Whatever she is planning will test both your and Arthur's courage and loyalties."
"Thank you, Iseldir. I will be prepared" Merlin said calmly, though inwardly he felt as if someone had just stabbed him with a dagger into his heart. He left the clearing and returned to his companions.
Early the next morning, he was roused from his light slumber by Arthur.
After they all had eaten their breakfast in almost complete silence, Arthur stood up and said: "Well, time to make plans. Our thief is a powerful warlock. We don't know where he is but I think we all know where he is going: the tomb of Ashkanar."
The knights nodded in agreement.
"The difficulty is that we don't really know where this tomb is exactly. All I could find out, is that it is somewhere to the eastern border of Camelot on the other side of this forest. This is our only clue as to where we can find the thief and prevent him from taking the egg."
"So what is the plan, Sire? We can't just ride east hoping to happen upon him by chance" Leon asked him to consider.
"Leon, you remember the dragon's attack on Camelot, don't you? I won't let another one happen if it is in my power to prevent it."
"So, we're riding east haphazardly hoping to bump into that warlock who could roast us with nothing more than a snapping of his fingers? Great prospect! What are we waiting for?" Gwaine said in his characteristically ironic tone.
"Once we reach the eastern border, we will split up and patrol the area" Arthur explained.
Then they mounted their horses and headed east. Merlin fell back to get some quiet to think properly. What could he do? He needed to get rid of Arthur and his knights to fetch Aithusa's egg in secrecy. Last time, Borden involuntarily aided him which he couldn't count on now. He thought about putting a sleeping spell on them, but he dreaded using magic when it was unnecessary, especially against Arthur. There had to be another way, yet he couldn't imagine it. He was so lost in his musings that he hadn't realised Lancelot falling back as well. He started at his friend's low voice.
"Merlin, I thought about this whole thing. If you want to get the egg, you need my help to distract the others while you're at it" he said so that only Merlin could hear him.
"How do you want to do that?" Merlin asked sceptically though hope flickered up inside him.
"Well, let me worry about that. I'll think of something."
"Thank you, Lancelot. You are a true friend."
They rode most of the day without any longer rest. Arthur's concern that they could be too late, spurred them on, so that they reached the border by dusk.
"We'll make camp and tomorrow, we'll start looking for that warlock" Arthur announced as they dismounted their horses.
Early the next morning, Arthur woke them up. He had drawn a vague map of the border on the soft earth.
"Ok, so Percival and Elyan, you take the area up to here" he said motioning to the northern end of his map."Leon and I will take that bit, and Lancelot and Gwaine, you take the southern one." With a sideways glance at Merlin, he added: "You'll stay here and try to keep out of trouble."
Merlin was incredulous about his luck. He could actually sneak away to fetch Aithusa's egg without anyone noticing! Yet, he didn't allow himself to divulge any of his joy in his expression, but only exchanged a look with Lancelot who winked at him discreetly. So it had been him who had persuaded Arthur to leave Merlin alone.
Soon the knights and Arthur were on their horses again and in pairs rode out to patrol the area. Merlin slowly counted to one hundred before he also mounted his horse and set off to the tomb. He easily found the cave and the waterfall at its end. Down the hill, there it was again: A giant tower in the middle of the valley before him, and in it, there was Aithusa's egg waiting for him to call her into this world. Without any disturbance, Merlin rode through the trees, his heart pounding in eager anticipation. He finally reached the entrance. As a precaution, Merlin covered his mouth and nose with his jacket before putting the Triskellion into the key hole on the wall. The door opened almost silently, but as Merlin entered, smoke poured out from everywhere. He was, however, prepared to that and with a little bit of magic, he dispersed it.
Lightening a torch with another spell, Merlin walked up the stairs to the great hall. He smiled as he saw the dragon egg. It looked exactly like he remembered: shaped like a teardrop and of a milky bluish colour resting majestically on a sunlit pedestal. Carefully, he touched the egg as if to caress it. Then, he quickly put it in his bag and hurried out as the tower was beginning to collapse. He made his way back to the camp as fast as he could, yet Lancelot and Gwaine were already there. Mentally cursing himself, he got off his horse and walked up to them.
"Where the hell have you been? We were worried sick about you!" Gwaine said irritated and relieved at the same time.
Thinking on his feet, Merlin said the first thing that came to his mind: "My horse. Something scared her and she ran away, so I had to go after her." He prayed Gwaine would swallow this answer and drop it. And although Gwaine eyed him sceptically, he decided to let the matter rest. Gradually, the other knights returned as well. None of them had seen anything of their wanted warlock. They sat down around the camp fire and discussed what to do next.
"Well, I don't know what to do" Arthur admitted frustrated. "We don't even know if he is coming and if he is, which road he is taking."
"And he has magic, so he could cover himself. You know, become invisible and sneak past us" Elyan said.
Merlin then suddenly had an idea.
"I don't think we have to worry about the egg anymore. As I went to bring my horse back, I happened upon a collapsed tower. I'm pretty sure that this is the tomb. Anything that was in there is definitely destroyed."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Arthur asked uncomprehendingly.
"I'll show you, it's actually not that far but very well hidden, I only found the entrance because my horse had been through there first."
So the knights, Arthur and Merlin rode to the place where the tomb had been.
"Alright, if we accept that this is – or rather was – the Tomb of Ashkanar, which seems to me very likely, how do we know that the egg is really destroyed?" Arthur asked sceptically.
"Nothing's going to survive under all that" Leon replied.
"I agree. It would be too dangerous to examine the ruin. Collapsed buildings like this can always collapse even further and we could be buried underneath tons of rocks. It's not worth risking that" Lancelot added.
"Yes, you're both right - even if it means that our mission was more or less useless. Let's return home." Arthur said and turned his horse.
"I never dared dream of such a moment, Merlin" Kilgharrah said happily when Merlin met him the night after their return to Camelot.
"So, you are no longer the last of your kind."
"It would seem not" the great dragon chuckled. With a nostalgic expression on his face, he continued: "Young dragons were called into the world by the dragonlords. Only they had the power to summon them from the egg. As the last dragonlord, this solemn duty falls to you, Merlin. You must give the dragon a name."
Feeling the well-known shivers again, Merlin took a deep breath and then he called her: "Aithusa."
The egg cracked and Aithusa hatched. She was as stunning as he remembered and the sight of her in her full beauty made Merlin feel guiltier than ever for neglecting his duty to protect her.
"A white dragon is, indeed, a rare thing...and fitting. For in the dragon tongue, you named her after the light of the sun. No dragon birth is without meaning."
"I know" he smiled and tears of both happiness and remorse started to fall down his cheeks as the little baby dragon continued to break her way out of the shell.
"Sometimes the meaning is hard to see, but this time I believe it is clear. The white dragon bodes well for Albion, for you and Arthur, and for the land that you will build together."
Merlin sobered immediately. He forced his gaze away from the peaceful sight of Aithusa and looked Kilgharrah straight into his golden eyes: "You must give me your word on one thing, Kilgharrah: Don't ever let her out of your sight. As a dragonlord, I order you to stay with her, teach her, and protect her."
"I will, young warlock."
Merlin heaved a sigh of relief. "I will come and see you both as often as possible, I promise." He walked over to Aithusa and caressed her small head. Tenderly, he whispered: "I won't allow any harm coming to you, little one, I swear."
A familiar voice roused him from the peaceful scene: "You learn something new every day, don't you?"
In horror, Merlin turned round to face Gwaine followed by Lancelot.
Sorry that it took so long to update. I had a severe case of writer's block. I had no idea how Merlin should find the egg in the end. I don't know if I'm really content with the version I ended up with, but for now, I think it's ok. And yeah, sorry for the cliff hanger. I actually wanted to put Gwaine's reaction into this chapter as well, but it was too long already, so it had to go in the next one. This time, I promise, you won't have to wait so long for another update.