Excalibur was a mighty sword, meant for a great king and great deeds. Arthur was fairly certain that murdering the hired help — no matter how cheeky, uncoordinated or facetious they may be — was not one of those deeds. Yet, here he was, pointing a blade at the heart of his loyal manservant, whose face was the very image of terror.
Merlin scrambled backward and found himself against a tree. "It's going to be alright."
"No." Arthur's sword swung back and then thrust forward into Merlin's midsection. A laugh cut through the air as the blade found its mark, tearing deep through flesh and bone until it pinned the young servant to the tree behind him. "No!"
Merlin's eyes were wide with pain. "Arthur," he gasped, blood dribbling out the corner of his mouth. He brought his hands to the sword's hilt in a weak attempt to push it away.
"I am so sorry," Arthur said, driving the sword deeper. "I'm sorry."
"Remember your promise," Merlin said. He winced and coughed more blood. His eyelids began to droop.
"So much for the mighty Emrys," Morgana cackled. "Felled by a sword of a foolish king."
"No!" Arthur cried out, bolting upright. Panting, he took stock of his surroundings until he realized that he was in his bedchambers beside a very startled looking Guinevere.
"Arthur, what is it?" she asked. She rested her hand on his shoulder and looked up at him sleepily.
"I..." Arthur took a breath and looked around again. "It was nothing. Just a dream."
"Again? That must be the eighth time in as many nights." She sat up and took his hand in hers. "Are you ever going to tell me what these dreams are about? Something is obviously affecting you deeply. Perhaps talking about it could help. I hate to see you like this, Arthur."
"I don't remember," Arthur lied. "It is probably just stress getting to me. I should ask Gaius for a sleeping draught."
Guinevere did not look convinced. "Are you certain?"
"Yes, I am sorry that I woke you." Arthur threw the bedclothes off of himself and slipped his feet to the floor. "Go back to sleep."
"What are you doing?" she asked while watching him dress.
"The king of Camelot cannot be seen about in nothing but his nightclothes."
"Seen about where?"
"Anywhere. I just need some fresh air."
"Sleep, Guinevere," Arthur insisted with a pointed look. "I won't have you losing sleep to my own restlessness." He leaned over the bed and kissed her gently. "I won't be gone long."
She gave him a small smile and settled back into a laying position. "Alright."
Arthur pulled on a pair of boots before kissing his wife again. "Sleep well."
Once the door closed behind him, Arthur made his way toward the court physician's chambers, not for the first time that week. After his third sleepless night, Arthur had gone in pursuit of a draught while Merlin was busy polishing armor and boots. He had not even intended on telling Gaius about the nightmares, but the old man had only needed a bit of prying to pull the truth out of him.
The content of Arthur's nightly dreams obviously disturbed Gaius, who was both fond of his ward and wary of bad omens. Arthur had visited every morning since then to discuss his recurring nightmares with the man.
This was the first time, however, that Arthur had come in the dead of night, but he could not wait until morning to discuss this dream with Gaius.
Arthur quietly slipped into the physician's chambers and closed the door. "Gaius?" he whispered.
A loud snore came from the bed near the fireplace and Arthur saw that Gaius was still fast asleep. He moved to wake the man but caught sight of the door that was ajar across the room — the door to Merlin's small bedroom.
A sort of foolish worry had been nagging at Arthur's mind, as it had each time he woke from one of his dreams. It was absurd, really, to be made so nervous by a dream, but he couldn't help his thoughts wandering to the safety of his manservant. Normally, he allowed it to fill him with dread until morning came and Merlin showed up, alive and well, to wake him for a day's work.
Arthur ascended the short steps and gently pushed the door open enough for him to peer in. The source of his worry was lying there on his stomach, one arm dangling over the side of the bed. His short hair stuck all over his head and his threadbare blanket was pushed down to his waist.
He was so still that Arthur nearly came closer to check that he was breathing, but his keen eyesight caught the gentle rise and fall of Merlin's back beneath the ratty old nightshirt the servant had probably owned since arriving in Camelot.
His anxiety eased for the moment, Arthur allowed his eyes to wander the rest of the room. He was amused, as always, at the mess that someone with so few belongings could manage to make. It didn't matter how many years passed nor how much wiser and mature Merlin had grown (not that Arthur would admit to that); one fact always remained: Merlin was an absolute slob.
Arthur had not noticed the silence that had filled the chambers when Gaius's snoring had stopped, but the physician was now sitting up in his bed, looking rather perplexed at his unanticipated company. Arthur gave Merlin one last look-over to be sure that he was still sleeping and quietly pulled the door shut. Pushing aside his embarrassment, he cleared his throat and approached Gaius. "I'm sorry to wake you so late at night."
"Is something the matter, my lord?"
"I..." Arthur folded his arms over his chest and looked at the floor. "I came to see you."
"Have you had another vision?" Gaius asked sagely.
Arthur frowned, uncomfortable with the way Gaius termed his dreams. 'Vision' was much more perturbing than 'nightmare.' It implied that there was some truth in what he was seeing night after night, a theory that Gaius seemed to acquiesce in more with each one.
Arthur had been incredulous at the suggestion not even a week earlier that his nightmares had anything to do with magic, but Gaius had been so sure. He had heard rumors of mortal humans who had used magical relics, such as the Horn of Cathbhadh, and were left marked by their magic. As it was, Gaius insisted, the Horn was one of the most powerful items that remained of the Old Religion, and he had suspected that Arthur had been affected after the incident with Uther. It had so happened once before that a young girl had been afflicted with terrible visions of the future after a trip to the Spirit World. Each of them had come true and she was driven mad by them.
The king met the eyes of his physician. "There was something new in this one, Gaius."
The old man's eyebrow shot up and he looked over at his ward's closed door. They had agreed to keep the visions from Merlin, who was rather superstitious in the best of times. There was no need in winding him up just yet without any evidence.
"He's asleep," Arthur assured him.
Gaius stood from his bed. "What did you see?"
"Mostly the same as I have been, but Morgana was there in the end, only for a moment. She was laughing at Merlin and called him Emrys, whatever that is. And somehow, I could sense that she was angry with him. She was surprised to discover something about him."
"That is... disquieting. If Morgana is involved, it can only spell trouble for Merlin."
"And visions of his death don't already?" Arthur asked. "Do you have any idea what this Emrys is or why it would upset Morgana so?"
"I'm afraid that I do not," Gaius said with a shake of his head. "Was there anything else in the dream that might help?"
"Actually, there was. I am sure that I was under Morgana's control, that my actions were not of my own volition. She forced me to kill him."
"I have no doubt you are right."
Arthur nodded pensively. "Gaius, you truly believe that these are visions of the future?"
"Yes, of a future, my lord." Gaius set a hand on his king's arm. "Perhaps not the only future. Not all things are carved in stone."
Arthur nodded and squared his shoulders. "Then there is one thing we can do. The knights and I will ride out tomorrow."
"We have a witch to kill."