Arthur held up his hand, and immediately saw Merlin raise his in response, across the other side of the clearing between the tents.
The plan was simple.
Merlin would distract the creatures and deal with the magic users, and Arthur and the others would on the sell-swords.
So Arthur had no doubt it would go wrong. Merlin, meeting his eyes, grinned, obviously thinking the same thing. Arthur sighed, shaking his head, then brought his hand down, the gesture to go.
Merlin burst from the pile of wood he'd been crouched behind, and blasted at Thane.
Immediately, the creatures and the sorcerers focused on him.
Arthur, even knowing Merlin's capabilities, had to blink a few times as he saw him throw up a shield, block all of the magical attacks, chanted in the dragon tongue, sending the wyverns flying away, and draw his sword, engaging the attacking Serkets and cockatrice. All in a matter of seconds.
He shook himself out of it, and gestured to the others, sending them all running forward.
They all immediately had their hands full with the sell-swords that surged forward, and Arthur let his instincts take over, slashing and ducking before he could full focus on the threats.
He caught glimpses of the others, and fought back to back with Gwaine and Leon a couple of times.
He also caught glimpses of Merlin, wresting with creatures and sorcerers alike.
Using his sword in a way Arthur had never seen before. Heck, he realised that Merlin could easily match the knights… probably give him a fair fight too.
He could tell that the others had noticed as well as he went back to back with Leon again, who said, between breaths,
"Merlin's really got… good with that thing…"
"Tell me about it… duck!"
Leon ducked and Arthur slashed at his opponent, whilst Leon stabbed another in the gut.
It was after a few more bows that Arthur realised that their attackers were thinning out. He was just getting hopeful when a group of men, obviously sorcerers from the robes they were wearing, burst into the fray, blasting at them.
It was at that moment that Arthur realised he would never criticise Merlin's training methods again. It was instinctual to duck the blasts whilst fighting the other men, meaning it wasn't long before he found himself standing alone with his knights, the sell-swords either dead or retreating.
He was just sighing in relief when instinct kicked in and he ducked, rolling to the side as a stream of magic was thrown at him.
Arthur glanced to Merlin, and saw that he had his hands full with another group of sorcerers, including Thane, and was in no state to help them anytime soon.
Okay then, it would have to be the hard way…
A few minutes later, having spent the entire time deflecting, ducking and dodging spells and blasts and balls of light, Arthur finally realised that no-one was blasting at him anymore and straightened up, scanning the area and realising that the rest of the knight were okay, even if Gwaine had a huge bruise forming on his jaw. Then he looked for Merlin and cursed as all of the sorcerers turned to focus on him.
Merlin grinned at Arthur, as he raised his hand in acknowledgement, and saw his friend sigh before giving the signal. He reacted immediately, leaping forward and blasting at Thane.
Throwing up a shield, he deflected all the shots aimed back at him and cried out in the dragon tongue. He was rewarded by the wyverns flying off, but had no time to revel in the small victory as he was forced to draw his sword and defend himself from the Serkets and the cockatrice that had reached him.
The next few minutes were spent with him using a mixture of magic and his, now seeming to be an extension of his arm, sword to attack and defend against the sorcerers, creatures and the odd sell-sword that was stupid enough to think it a good idea to attack him. As well as him keeping an eye on the others with both his magical and normal senses.
Eventually, he realised that the others only had the sorcerers to deal with and were having no trouble with it.
He stifled a sigh as he blasted at Thane again. It was not fair…
Still, as much as he was rather enjoying seeing them have a real work-out, he still took the chance to help them out when it arrived.
In a lull between the shots aimed at him, both due to the lack of sorcerers now around to deliver them, and the fact that a lot were taking longer to recover after each attack, he paused to take a breath.
Hence his ability to turn and blast at the other sorcerers that were attacking his friends.
Problem was, they were now focused on him. Merlin sighed as he fought off a renewed wave of magical assaults.
It took a few moments for Merlin to get to the point where he realised he didn't much care for the time that was being wasted, and let out a wave of energy that knocked most of the sorcerers off balance. He followed up with a series of shots that eventually gave him a pile of unconscious magic users in front of him.
Thane, having witnessed the display, seemed rather less inclined to attack, and resorted to throwing up a shield.
Merlin simply sighed, shaking his head slightly.
"Really Thane? No anchor for the shield…? You are making this far too easy…"
"You call this easy?"
"Compared to some things I've been through? Yup. Heck, I was late with Arthur's lunch the other day… I seriously thought he would throw me out the window."
"What? You would have been fine if I had…" Arthur said, defensively, whilst Gwaine shook his head.
"A hungry Arthur? Ouch…"
"Tell me about it…" Merlin said, rolling his eyes, only to be interrupted by Thane, who knocked over a barrel as he attempted to slip away, unnoticed. Merlin stifled a sigh as several of the other sorcerers started stirring, casting his mind out to Arthur.
"I can't summon the bracelet with magic. I'll distract him, you sneak up and grab the damn thing."
"Need I remind you he is a powerful sorcerer?"
"Nope, I got that. Fine, I was just giving you something to do so you didn't seem useless…"
"I'd rather you just dealt with it?"
"Of course Sire…"
Merlin rolled his eyes as he turned back to Thane, who was looking slightly nervous. That is, until he was joined by another familiar face, and one who made Merlin's blood boil.
"Emrys… How nice to see you again."
"Not the vibe I was getting, but okay."
"So, you intend to destroy my plans again?"
"You're plans? You're in charge of this?" Merlin snorted, "This is the worst attempt to take over Camelot I have ever seen. And I've seen some bad ones. Seriously? Huge great army and you thought no-one would notice?"
"Well… I suppose we had hoped to be better prepared, but all's well."
"All's well? Really? What is it with you evil guys and your cryptic 'damn it I've lost but let's pretend I still hold all the cards' thing? It's so unoriginal. Morgana said nothing but that, and see how well that turned out?"
Thane seemed to snap and Merlin grinned. Just like he'd hoped. Now if he could just get him out from behind that shield…
"What's that Thane? Don't like to hear about how Morgana's plans were thwarted so easily? What did she do to deserve your loyalty? I assumed that you were all just following Morgause's orders…"
"No! That witch was undeserving of the friendship Morgana bestowed upon her!"
So… Some people didn't like Morgause, Merlin mused, that was something to think upon.
"So… There was a difference between the two? I just assumed that they were both-"
Merlin threw up a shield against the blast aimed at him, and vanished, reappearing at Thane's, now unshielded, side.
Snatching at his arm, he wrested the bracelet off, and threw it to Arthur just before he ducked a swipe from Thane.
"Arthur! Smash the damn thing!"
As his attention was diverted, Lucas and Thane threw up another shield, blasting him backwards where he hit the side of a cart.
He shook his head to clear it of the ringing, and rolled out of the way from another blast.
Jumping to his feet, he dodged another few blows, from various sorcerers that had gotten to their feet, and had to hold back the magic that was trying to escape him.
Damn it, he thought he had gotten over the control issues… Then Merlin mentally shrugged. Well, whilst he had it…
Pouring most of the excess energy into the crystal around his neck, he sent a wave of magic at his attackers, knocking them all off balance, before blasting at them.
Then he heard a thudding and glanced over at Arthur, who was holding a smouldering bracelet.
The thudding then made sense. Of all the rotten timing… Merlin barely had time to throw up a shield around the others before a herd of creatures burst through the tents and stampeded across the small open space.
"Arthur! Smash the damn thing!"
Arthur caught the band of gold that Merlin threw at him and blinked. How?
The knights simply shrugged, they're main focus on Merlin, who had just been blasted across the clearing. Arthur gave a sigh of relief as the warlock got to his feet again, dodging blasts before turning to the offensive. His focus went back to the crystal.
Then he shrugged, throwing it to the floor. He held up Excalibur and sent the blade down towards the stone with a cry.
The resulting explosion was rather anti-climactic, in Arthur's opinion, but the small golden wave that exploded from it was rather pretty. He picked it up, seeing how the metal had twisted and the crystal had been completely destroyed, when he heard a thundering start, and turned his head, to see that Merlin had heard the same thing.
He saw Merlin's eyes widen, then flash gold.
Arthur felt a warm wave cover him, and saw that the thin blue web with streaks of gold had covered him and the knights, just before the stampede started.
It couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but it seemed like minutes before it passed, the strangled cries of people who weren't shielded echoed over the thundering mass and Arthur spent the whole time hoping that Merlin had got himself shielded in time. Eventually, the last of the creatures vanished from sight and Arthur got to his feet, struggling to see through the dust swirling in the air.
It took a few seconds to settle, and all of the men were straining to see some sign of their resident Warlock. Gwaine was the first to give a huge sigh of relief, and Arthur, looking in the direction he was indicating, was quick to follow suit.
Merlin, looking seriously ticked, was glaring at a patch of ground, and it only took them a few seconds to figure out that it was where Lucas and Thane had been standing.
He stood there for a few seconds before he seemed to shake himself free and turned to the others.
"You guys okay?"
"Good… The sorcerers seemed to have cleared out. Well, those who could. And I tried to direct the creatures away from the others."
Merlin stopped as a groan sounded, and they all turned to see one of the enemy sorcerers stirring.
Arthur gestured and Gwaine and Leon ran over, tying the man up.
Merlin's eyes flashed and the man weren't limp, obviously unconscious.
"Aww, Merlin…" Gwaine whined, "I could have made… friends…"
"No way," Merlin said, rubbing his temples, "I have had enough trouble over the past few days."
And, as Arthur took in the tattered and torn clothes, freshly healed wounds, scars, and obvious fatigue of his best friend, he had to agree.
Two hours later and they were on the march back to Camelot.
Merlin had become engrossed in a conversation with the young druid, Ash, and both they and Taren were laughing and joking about things that many of the others just didn't get.
Something about conjuring bunnies…?
Arthur was more focused on planning to send out groups of men as they neared Camelot, to sense any sign of any creatures that may have made it into the kingdom. And he was also planning to get Merlin cooking that evening.
The others just… couldn't.
Gwaine and the others were also busy. Relating what had happened to anyone within earshot, and causing Merlin to flush a light pink as he attempted to ignore the looks.
Overall, the few hours spent travelling had everyone tired and impatient for evening. When Arthur finally called for a halt, it was met with relieved sighs and hasty dismounting of horses.
Merlin grinned as Gwaine's foot got stuck in the stirrups, and he jumped down to help him out.
Gwaine, clearly slightly tipsy, wrapped an arm around his shoulder and patted him on the back.
"Ya know Merlin…? You're a good friend. A very, very, very patient and impossible friend. Who I intend to get drunk at the first opportunity I get."
"If you say so Gwaine…"
Merlin rolled his eyes as he dumped him in a heap, and head over to Arthur who was calling for him.
"Leon cannot cook."
"Right… And what does that have to do with me?"
"We want something edible… You may have been a useless servant but you could sure as hell cook. What did you put in that stew of yours?"
"It's a family secret…"
"Fine. Whatever, just make something that we can actually eat?"
Merlin laughed at the indignant snort from Leon and nodded.
"Fine, but In future I'll have to teach one of you to do it."
Percival, Bedivere, Leon and Gwaine eagerly bobbed up, volunteering, and Merlin laughed as he head over to the saddlebags. Grabbing what he needed, he enlisted Taren's help and started chopping things up and throwing them into several bowls, hung over the fires.
Ten minutes later, and with delicious aromas floating over the camp, Merlin had had enough of the people sneakily trying to find out his secret and sent them off to hunt a few rabbits.
Once they had left, he head off in the opposite direction and returned a few minutes later with a young buck.
To the bemused looks, he simply shrugged.
"They were annoying me… and we can always have the rabbit in the morning…"
Arthur simply chucked and settled down against a tree trunk, happy to let the camp carry on around him. Merlin skinned and gutted the young animal with magic, wasting as little as possible, and added the meat to the stew.
Twenty minutes later, the others returned with a brace of rabbits, and were rather put out when they found out the real reason for them being sent away. Arthur refused to take part in the resulting vow to find out Merlin's recipe.
A few more minutes and Merlin got to his feet, grinning, and scattering some kind of seasoning mix into the bowls. Then he turned and gave a slight bow.
"Dinner is served…"
It was late when Merlin grabbed a load of the dishes and head down to the nearby stream, Ash accompanying him, likewise weighed down.
The others had already got used to Merlin's weird request to keep his usual jobs, and let him get on with it.
As Ash helped Merlin swill the bows out, he spoke up.
"Why do you do this? You know, the cleaning? Surely there is someone else who can-"
"Arthur said the same thing," Merlin butted in, grinning, "And I'll say the same now as I did then. I want to keep some sense of normality in my life. Some sense of familiarity. So much has changed, it's nice to keep some things the same…"
"But why not use magic?"
"Because if I use magic for everything, it just becomes meaningless. Well, for me anyway. I get more satisfaction from doing things by hand."
"You get satisfaction from washing empty pots?"
"Well… I don't know. But I do get satisfaction from beating Arthur at dice without using magic."
"I thought the others said you cheat?"
"Nah, they know I'm much too innocent for that…"
Merlin kept up the straight face for whole three seconds before the two of them burst out laughing. Ash turned serious again after a few moments.
"Now that my cover with the Brotherhood has been ruined, I can't do anything but head back to my people. But I want to do more than that. Want to be of use in some way. I know you may not want to, but I was wondering, I mean, if you wanted, I could… you know, become your assistant or something? I mean, I know I'm young, and you probably already have people who can… actually, just ignore that. You probably don't want-"
"I'd be honoured."
The young man blinked, then grinned.
"Definitely. But why? Surely you would rather go home?"
Ash's face fell.
"Once, maybe. But my family were among those killed in the attack on the druid settlements by the Brotherhood… I don't have much of a home to go to."
Merlin's eyes widened, sorrow evident in his expression.
"I'm sorry… I didn't know... What were they like?"
The younger man's eyes glazed over lightly as he spoke about them.
"Well… My mother, she was amazing. Ever since I was a kid, he was the one who helped me learn the art of healing. Most of the other kids learned from the teachers, but my mother always had a gift. My father taught me the more offensive kinds of magic… But I never got very far with that. I wasn't powerful enough for very strong attacks, so only learned the basics. Shields and small blasts. But he always knew my aptitude was for healing and rune based magic. He got my uncle to help with that…"
Merlin listened as Ash spoke, telling him of the smallest things, the larger things, the memories and the lessons he had had. He couldn't imagine the pain he was going through, having lost his whole family. He also resolved to do everything in his power to help.
Ash finished taking with a small story about his younger brother and sister. And how they used to have water fights with magic.
"But Chrissie, she used to do this thing where she twisted water around into spiral then blast it at us. Then Tel would levitate water into the air and let it fall in a small mist, getting us all soaked. Mother would always yell at us for making a mess…"
He gave a small smile, but then seemed to remember what had happened, and the smile faded as a tear trailed down his cheek.
"I miss them… And I never even got to say goodbye or to tell them I loved them…"
Merlin pulled the young man into a hug, feeling him shaking, then he pulled back.
"Hey, listen to me. They knew you loved them. Of course they did. And you may not have got to say goodbye, but I know somewhere where you can go. I lost someone once, someone very special to me, and the pain… It hurt more than anything I have ever felt. But there is a lake… Avalon. It's a place of magic, and I always go there when I want to talk with her. True, she's the lady of the lake and all that, but it doesn't change the fact. I can't pretend to know what you're going through, but I know what it feels like to lose someone you love. I know it hurts."
"Does it ever stop?"
"Truly? The pain never really leaves you. But you can't let it eat away at you. You have to let it out. You have to let it out, then remember everything. All the little details. Then you stop blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault..."
"Yes you do. You are telling yourself that you could have done something. That you should have been there. You can't torture yourself with what-ifs, Ash. Because, eventually, they can drive you insane."
"… Aglain was right."
"The fact that you're wiser than a great many of the elders…"
"I'm not so sure about that. Ask Arthur. I'm sure the response will involve the word idiot…"
Ash gave a small, shaky laugh, then sighed.
"Sorry… I shouldn't have-"
"You have nothing to be sorry about. You ever need to talk to anyone, don't hesitate to come to me, okay? God knows why, but everyone else does… Apparently, I'm wise…"
"And I'm guessing we shouldn't let Arthur hear that?"
Merlin gave a dramatic shudder.
"God no, I'd never hear the end of it. So… You really want to be my assistant?"
"Yes. I'd be honoured."
"You're really sure?"
"Then the honour is mine. There is a spare room in the first floor of my quarters. It's not huge, but it should be big enough. It'll take a day or two to furnish out. Unless you want to stay with the rest of the druids?"
"No. Thanks, but I'm actually not too fond of underground spaces. Caves, tunnels, anything like that. And after what happened earlier…"
"Yeah, sorry. Didn't think… I'm actually really impressed. Even a knight of Camelot would take time to recover from something like that... I'd have thought it would take you a couple of days to get back on your feet at least?"
"It's funny. I thought so too…"
Merlin was thoughtful for a moment, then grinned.
"You said you were familiar with rune magic?"
"Well, I have a whole section of books and equipment in my rooms that I have no use for. Might keep you busy for a few hours a day."
"Sure. I don't see why not. Just try not to blow anything up?"
Ash grinned, seemingly unbale to believe his luck.
"You got it."
Half an hour later and they were back at camp. It was obvious to everyone that something had happened, seeing as they were joking away about spouts of water, explosions and runes, but no-one was willing to disrupt their good moods.
Arthur grinned at the obvious friendship everyone had with Merlin.
Even the knights that had next to no contact with him, aside from the odd greeting, seemed strangely loyal to him. Not that he was complaining. He thought it was great.
And he could understand it.
Many of the men in the clearing were already sleeping, and, as Merlin placed wards around the campsite, Taren got to her feet and head over. The two talked for a bit before Merlin laughed and Taren head back, settling down.
Arthur couldn't hear what they were talking about and questioned him as he came over and unrolled his sleeping mat with a flick of his fingers.
"What was that all about?"
"Evil enchanted bunnies…"
"Evil... Actually, I don't want to know."
"First smart thing you have said all evening Sire."
"From you Merlin? That truly is a compliment. Oh, and, so you know? Bedivere won the bet. They considered your sword skills as a surprise, as well as the shield."
"Great. Now I'm the source of a betting society."
"Tell me about it…"
"Oh, and Ash has decided he wants to be my assistant."
"Well, after what happened with his family, and over the last couple of days, I decided that if he wanted to, I wasn't going to complain. I was going to try and do something to help anyway, but if this is what he wants… Is that okay with you?"
"Sure," Arthur shrugged, "When we get back, Ill order that spare room furnished. I'm guessing thats why you were discussing runes and explosions…?"
"Yeah. Or rather, the lack of explosions…"
"And that's disappointing to you?"
"I like creating big flashes and bangs and panic. It's fun."
"You have a weird idea of fun…"
"Coming from the man who enjoys beating up his friends with a sword?"
"Oh, that reminds me, I want to see what you can do when we get back. You've gotten ridiculously good…"
"Freya gave my sword an upgrade…"
"Really? Like what?"
As Merlin explained, night fell across the camp and they eventually settled down to sleep.
They would be back in Camelot in the next few days, and Merlin honestly couldn't wait to get a good night's sleep in his own bed…
Even with the peace treaties coming up in little over a week…
Hmm, Merlin mused as he drifted off. Maybe not such a good night's sleep then…
Okay, I'll admit it. This chapter was a nightmare to write. So sorry for the long delay, and the quite dull ending, but I wanted to get this one over with. The next fanfic, Treaties and Troubles, will come easier to me. *fingers crossed*
Anyway, thanks so much to my reviewers and readers, you are all amazing!
Oh, and I'm considering a couple of one shots before the next one starts, and maybe between other mini fan-fics in the series, so what do you guys think?
(Just training, Day to day life, focusing on the lives of less central characters… That kind of thing. Please PM or review and let me know :D )
Till Next Time, Raven xx