A/N: This story takes place within the three years between series four and five, though there's a possibility that I'll end up with a story that disregards series five. I still haven't decided yet. That will all depend on how successful Arthur is, I suppose. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's just safely say this story is set after The Sword in the Stone: Part Two, shall we? Also, if anyone's wondering, no slash, any spells that show up over the course of the story will be taken from the Merlin wiki page, and the young boy who starts off this tale will disappear back into the woodwork once we get into the meat of the story.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, and I make no money from this work of fiction!
When he first noticed the sound of the approaching footsteps, the boy tugged the hood of his cloak farther over his head and ducked behind a pair of barrels, squeezing into the dark hiding place they offered him. The cloak, though a painful reminder of what he had seen only hours before, was long—almost too long—and gave him warmth in the chill of the night. He was grateful for it. It was familiar, and he welcomed the comfort its familiarity brought. It gave him the strength to do what he needed.
He'd long ago learned to move silently, to keep still for agonizingly long periods of time. It had been necessary to evade the king's persecution. There were times, like now, when his people had to travel within Camelot's borders or venture within the kingdom for supplies. It was always done with caution and they moved as swiftly as they dared, staying in one place for no longer than necessary, but he'd witnessed attacks before. Bandits were a constant threat, but one easier dealt with than the king's men. Still, he had always been too young to fight. He was one of the ones who ran. He was one of the ones who hid. He had grown up knowing that making a sound at the wrong time, that any movement however unintentional, could betray one's hiding place and result in one's death.
He'd seen it happen himself.
Silently cursing the burning tears that sprang to his eyes, the boy curled in upon himself, not willing to raise a hand to wipe at his eyes. His cloak was a dark grey and roughly woven, affording him some cover in the darkness, but he did not dare take any more risks than necessary. This venture itself was risk enough. He did not wish to be conspicuous. He did not wish to be caught.
Men of Camelot's renowned guard marched by, but the light of their torches didn't disturb the shadows in which he'd hidden himself.
By all accounts, he was a fool to come. The dawn would be upon him soon and he had yet to reach the citadel. Uther Pendragon may be dead, but Camelot still did not look favourably upon magic. His people, his kind, were still hunted down for being who they were, albeit not as actively as before. The Once and Future King now sat upon the throne, but the legends and prophesies of old had not all yet come to pass.
Moving cautiously, the boy scrambled to his feet and darted swiftly ahead. He was close. He knew that. He could feel it. And he had learned enough of the old ways, of the Old Religion he had grown up following, to know that he would be able to distract any more guards he came across. He was not sure if he could do so without them recognizing his sorcery, weak though it may be, for what it was. But it would be enough to get him into the castle.
It had to be.
Emrys. He called softly, more unsure of himself than he would like to be. Emrys. You must help me.
He got no reply, but the boy was not disheartened. Emrys would help them. He must.
The boy pressed on. He had to reach Emrys. This was his task and his alone. Even if he did not have time enough to explain the situation in person, he had the note that had been entrusted to him. He needed to ensure that it got into the right hands. He would do so, or he would die trying.
Merlin jerked awake, blinking away sleep and trying to figure out what had woken him. He could see no immediate threat in his room, and he could hear Gaius's soft snores through the door. Whatever had woken him had not been heard by the court physician.
Merlin frowned, feeling uneasy. He quickly dressed and slipped out of his room, past Gaius and out into the corridor. The door closed silently behind him and he stood for a moment, listening. Surely Arthur wasn't in danger. The man was usually fast asleep at this time of night, but Merlin knew of no reason to suspect that the king was in any more danger on this particular night than any other. There was no new person in the king's employ at this time who could be a danger to them. They were not at war. They were three years into Arthur's reign, the second with Guinevere at his side, and the people of Camelot were happy.
Morgana could be planning something, of course, since she had been quiet for an uncharacteristically long time now, with most of the rumours of her turning up just being rumours, but he wasn't—
Merlin stiffened at the name, recognizing it immediately. He knew now what—who—had woken him. A Druid.
He was already walking in the direction of the voice; the person—the boy, from the sounds of it—was near the south wall, possibly in the vicinity of the well. Magical presences were uncommon in Camelot these days, so it was very…quiet. It made him easier to find. Who are you? Merlin asked, picking up his pace. He'd wandered the halls of the castle often enough to know the best hiding places if he came across anyone else.
I need help, came the reply. Merlin's question went unanswered, but the desperation tinged relief that coloured the boy's voice was clear, and Merlin trusted it. Please, you must help me, Emrys. We were attacked—
Not now. The voice belonged to a child, and Merlin wasn't sure how easily the boy could focus on multiple things at once. He could not afford a lapse in judgement now when it could lead to his capture. He may be able to convince Arthur not to execute the poor boy, but sneaking into the citadel in the dead of night would not endear the boy to the king. You need to hide. I'll meet you.
We haven't time. You must come with me!
I can't— Merlin broke off instinctively as he ducked around the corner, avoiding whoever happened to be awake and coming in his direction. I can't right now, he said.
But you must! the boy insisted. They've…they've killed…. We need you. We've no one else.
Merlin had a terrible feeling that he knew what had happened. Arthur had been lamenting the increase of raids in the kingdom as of late. The Druids were a peaceful people, and despite many of them possessing magic, they would not come out of such a raid without losses.
The approaching footsteps began to fade, and Merlin realized their owner had turned down another corridor. Assured that the coast was again clear, he resumed his journey. Where is your camp?
In the Darkling Woods. I'll show you. I—
The clanging of the warning bell must have startled the boy as much as it did Merlin. Run! Merlin hissed. Hide! You've been spotted. Merlin picked up his own pace. It wouldn't do to be spotted himself, but he could come up with a suitable lie—or at least a passable one, since Arthur was aggravatingly more likely to suspect him of sneaking back from the tavern than of intending to help the intruder—if he needed to.
He had mixed feelings about the location of the boy's camp. It was closer to the heart of Camelot than he had suspected the Druids would dare to come. They must have some reason for coming so near. But until he saw them, he doubted he would learn why.
Help me, Emrys!
And then, predictably, even though Arthur's chambers were the floor above the one on which he now stood, "Merlin!"
Arthur rightly suspected that his manservant would be out and about the moment the warning bell rang. He just had no reason to suspect that Merlin had been up and about before someone had seen fit to set it tolling, and he certainly had no reason to suspect that Merlin knew precisely why the bell was set ringing even before the king himself did.
Really, though, did Arthur simply expect that his bellow would be heard all the way to Merlin's room in the tower—above the warning bell, no less?
Merlin sighed, turned, and sprinted for the nearest staircase. More likely than not, Arthur expected him to appear anyway, and appear he would. I can't, he told the boy. Not now. But I'll do my best to help you, I promise.
By the time Merlin reached Arthur, Arthur was, surprisingly, dressed. Merlin vaguely wondered if Gwen had helped him, but he put it out of his mind when he heard one of the guards telling the king that an intruder had been spotted. Arthur made his usual decrees—including an annoyed "What took you so long, Merlin?" once the guard had left—before starting off.
Merlin fell in step beside him. From what he could hear, the boy had yet to be caught. Merlin fervently hoped that he was quick on his feet. Unlike his father, Arthur was not actively pursuing sorcerers to have them condemned to death (though he did ensure that all rumours of Morgana's presence were checked out), but magic—and therefore the Old Religion and all who openly followed it, the Druids included—was as unwelcome in Camelot as it had been since the day of Arthur's birth.
"You're being uncharacteristically quiet," Arthur remarked after a moment. "Are you still half asleep?"
Merlin smirked. "How could anyone in the castle be asleep after your yelling? I'd think you'd caught your fingers in the door if I weren't used to it."
Arthur scowled at him. "It's been a long time since I've seen you in the stocks. Are you hoping to be granted another visit? Because I can arrange that."
Merlin opened his mouth to reply but faltered, in both voice and step, at the desperate cry that rang through his mind. The boy had been caught.
It was his fault, more likely than not. He should've ignored Arthur's calls and gone to help the boy. A stranger to the citadel had little hope of evading its forces without help. Besides, if he hadn't kept talking to the boy in the first place, he might not have even been caught.
"Best get to the throne room," Merlin muttered, quickening his pace.
Arthur gaped at him for a moment. "What are you on about, Merlin? We haven't even—" And then he broke off, hearing as plainly as Merlin did the victorious cries from outside the castle walls. Arthur rolled his eyes and let out a huff as he caught up to Merlin in three long strides. "Just don't be thinking I'll let you off easy because of an early start today."
Merlin snorted. "Of course not," he muttered. Then, feeling Arthur's glare, he added a rather sarcastic, "My lord." And because he'd been half expecting it, he didn't even stumble much when Arthur accidentally-on-purpose knocked into him, for all that he was thinking more about the Druid boy than about the king of Camelot.
There were some aspects of kingship Arthur did not like, for all that he knew they were necessary. Listening to his councilmen droning on about terribly important issues that utterly demanded his utmost attention was, he'd initially thought, among the very worst of his duties. Now he realized he'd been wrong.
This was, by far, worse.
The intruder had turned out not to be someone whose intentions were clear cut and obvious, with the sentence something Arthur would gladly hand out on any given day. He was not, for instance, an assassin sent to murder the king. He was not even a man who had taken various grievances, real and imagined, to heart and sought revenge on the rulers of Camelot by whatever wicked but simple way he could contrive.
Instead, the intruder was a child.
A Druid child, granted, as evidenced by the tattoo the guards had found just above his wrist, but a child nonetheless.
And a terrified one at that.
"What's your name?" Arthur asked, not unkindly.
The boy stared at him with wide eyes and didn't answer. Arthur repeated the question, and the boy blinked rapidly, his shining eyes betraying the fact that he was trying desperately not to cry. Arthur suspected he knew why. If someone not trained to keep the utmost control of his emotions from birth—like, say, Merlin—was in this boy's situation at his age, he would likely find himself in a similar state. Under Uther Pendragon's rule, he would have faced death for simply being who he was. He would have, unquestionably, been executed in a few hours' time.
Those laws, technically, still stood.
"What business," Arthur asked slowly, deciding to get the boy's name later, "could you possibly have here?" The boy was a Druid, yes, but he was a child. A child.
Arthur did not want to be known for executing children.
He had gone out of his way, the last time a Druid boy had been caught within the citadel's walls, to ensure that the child had escaped. He had defied the law, defied his father, defied the king, to save a child.
He had not yet repealed the laws against sorcery—who wished to open the way for the likes of Morgana to attack the kingdom?—but he did not want to be forced to see the laws upheld where a mere child was concerned.
A sob was his only answer.
Arthur closed his eyes, just briefly, to compose himself. If the child had not been found sneaking around in the dead of night, it would be more acceptable for him to pass a much more lenient sentence. Something relatively harmless, like banishment. The Druids were a people who were still known to practice sorcery, true, and sorcery was still banned in Camelot, but children….
"You have to tell me," Arthur said—trying to, but fearing he did not, speak with a gentle tone. Even to his ears, he sounded rather blunt.
He didn't plan on making a habit of middle-of-the-night trials. And this was not a trial, per se, but a…meeting to gather information. Minus, to his regret, the guards who had caught the boy. It would be easy enough to summon them, but he had hoped that he wouldn't need to learn any more from them than he had when they'd turned the boy over to him. But, ideally, he'd get all the information he needed before everyone else knew what had happened.
Assuming he could ever get that information and discover, at the very least, why it had happened.
The child's eyes darted around, taking in everyone in the room—himself, Guinevere, Gaius, Merlin, a few of his most trusted knights—and finally he whispered something Arthur didn't quite catch.
The child locked his eyes on Merlin and Gaius, likely because they were the least threatening people in the room. Gaius was old, and Merlin was Merlin. Gwen, though currently unarmed and looking utterly unthreatening at present, would likely be able to inflict far more damage on someone if she wished to than Merlin could. She was certainly handier with a sword. Merlin…Merlin couldn't do anything, really, being too clumsy to even be able to take someone by surprise.
He was, by all accounts, rather lucky to be alive. And though Arthur wouldn't admit it, he was glad that Merlin was. He was a terrible servant, really, but he occasionally—very occasionally—came out with tidbits of wisdom that Arthur was grateful to hear.
The boy's words, when they finally came, were hardly audible, but this time Arthur heard them: "I was looking for Emrys."
The name sounded vaguely familiar to Arthur, though he had no idea why. Emrys wasn't exactly a common name. It sounded…. Well, it sounded like a name a Druid like the boy himself might have. Or one, Arthur thought less pleasantly, a sorcerer might have. Surely the name didn't ring a bell because this Emrys was an enemy of Camelot? It would make no sense for the boy to seek him here.
And yet it was that particular thought which allowed Arthur to remember where he had heard the name before. Considering the circumstances, he was rather surprised that he'd forgotten it. It was, after all, a name Morgana had mentioned during their last meeting. And he could remember what she'd said to him very clearly, though he wouldn't admit it to anyone else. "I'm going to enjoy killing you, Arthur Pendragon," she'd taunted. "Not even Emrys can save you now."
To make a remark like that, Morgana must think this Emrys had managed to save him before. Morgana would not think anyone without magic—presumably very powerful magic—would be capable of ever saving him from her. And this boy, of all people, evidently thought Emrys was not only in Camelot but here, in the castle.
Logic followed, then, that the Druid boy in front of him believed wholeheartedly that he was unknowingly harbouring a powerful sorcerer in his own castle.
Sometimes he hated logic.
Arthur sighed. "You won't find him here," he informed the boy. "I've never heard of him." He was strongly tempted to ask 'Who's Emrys?' but decided to save that question for a time when there were considerably fewer witnesses to the answer. It wasn't that he didn't trust everyone in the room; he just didn't feel the need to have such information widespread.
The boy stared at his feet now and didn't say a word.
"Why would you think this man was here?" Arthur asked, thinking it was not an unreasonable question.
There was a rather loud sniff.
Gwen placed a hand lightly on his arm. "He's terrified," she said softly. "Show him that he doesn't need to be."
He was trying to. He hadn't yelled out in frustration, had he? He hadn't so much as raised his voice. He'd sent the guards away. He'd made sure that there were fewer people present now than there normally would be for something like this. He hadn't even had the boy bound. True, there were weapons in this room, but it wasn't as if his knights had their swords drawn and pointed at the boy, waiting for him to make one wrong move.
Deciding to change tacks, since the boy clearly didn't want to speak about Emrys, Arthur asked, "How exactly did you get in here?" To his knowledge, the gates had been closed for the night. That was supposed to prevent things such as this from happening. If the boy had simply informed the guard of his problem, like the people in the lower town might if they were desperate for the advice of Gaius, whose skills as a physician far exceeded those of anyone else in the vicinity, then he wouldn't be forced to look for evidence of subterfuge.
The boy's shoulders shook and he let out another sob.
"Take him to the cells," Arthur decided. "We'll see what he can say once he calms down."
"If I may, sire," Gaius began, "I would like to check the boy over. He appears to be in a state of shock."
Arthur nodded. "Very well. You may do as you see fit." Leon and Gwaine had already carefully taken the boy by each arm and begun to walk him out. Gaius followed, but before Merlin could also trail in their wake, Arthur added, "Before Gaius has you fetching herbs, Merlin, I've a few things I'd like you to see to." Merlin gave him a slightly wary look, and Arthur began listing off various chores. It was, after all, best to be prepared so that he could do whatever he needed to once the dawn came.
And until then, he could puzzle over what little information he had gleaned from the boy and see if he could work any of it out.