AN: Quick note on the prologue, it is in fact the same as what was posted as the epilogue for Loyal 'Til the End. I decided to move it here since I didn't like having such a cliffhanger ending for that story. So if you read it already, just skip down to where it says Chapter 1 which picks up directly where the prologue ends.
Disclaimer: I don't own Merlin.
His hand swiped across his forehead, rubbing away the sweat that glistened on his brow. After weeks of work and research, he finally succeeded, or at least something close to success; still, it was a solution he was desperate to find.
He gave the potion a few turns with the spoon, watching in excitement as it cooked but also in distaste at the prospect of dinking the black tar liquid. The thick substance had ingredients that he would never bring close to his mouth, much less ingest. Still, if it could make it stop…
"Desperate aren't we, Merlin?" Lance- it, it said.
He ignored the figure standing in the middle of the room as he extinguished the flames and poured the potion in a small wooden cup with a wave of his hand. Then, as if it could break at the force of one's breath, Merlin carefully took the cup and placed it on another one of his worktable, in the center. He drew a stool from across the room and sat down, staring at the concoction.
"It won't work," it sang, "not for as long as you want it to."
It had to work, it had to. It was getting worse, and harder to hide from his friend. They have been occurring at a faster rate and Merlin would rather not have a repeat of the last patrol.
It was close, too close.
He could practically feel the questioning gazes of concerned knights all the way back to Camelot.
Merlin lifted the cup from the table, his eyes searching the mixture, eyes demanding it be the solution he had searched for so long. He needed it…
"What's wrong, my love," cooed another voice from next to him. Fingers ghosted through his hair, too light for him to know with confidence that it was there, "aren't you happy to see me again?"
He squeezed his eyes and grabbed at the chain hanging from his neck, gripping the ring that it threaded. There he sat still, cup in one hand and ring in the other.
"Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," it sang, "escape is so simple."
For Arthur then.
With a sharp intake of air, Merlin took a second to prepare before he threw back his head and tipped the cup against his lips. He shuddered as the unnaturally cold goo slid into his mouth and down his throat, bringing a taste that left him gagging. He gripped harder on the ring as he pushed the stool away from the desk and hung his head between his knees, his body still trying to expel the potion.
He sat like that, coughing and gasping, as the potion finally settled and began to take effect. Already the shadows retreated from him, he could feel it even with his eyes closed now, or is that his mind tricking him again? He shook his head and stumbled to his feet.
It's not over. Not until he opened his eyes, not until he checked.
His eyes fluttered open.
He scanned the room.
Then he sighed.
"Not for long, my dear monster," it whispered.
No one dared to move, not when such a destructive force walked into their presence. The months had not been kind to her. Her wild, tangled hair was in more of a disarray and what remained of her black dress was composed of whatever scraps of cloths she could find to mend it. The once beautiful lace tattered and torn, leaving nothing of the original beauty the gown possessed beneath the rough patch jobs and holes. Her ever-pale face was gaunt and her tired green eyes burned with an undistinguishable hatred that struck fear in the hearts of all the druids in the cave.
Only the druid chieftain stood firm against her. While he knew that it would be foolish to attack her, he also knew that she would not chance it as well. Just because she could wipe all of them out, didn't mean she herself could survive such an attack. There were enough druids here to take her down; she knew they couldn't be killed without a fight. Still, he feared what led her to visit their corner of the kingdom though he would not show it.
"Morgana," he called out, neutral.
"Hello Briec," the witch smiled. She lifted her head up with pride and stood at the center of the room. The rest of the druids retreated to the side of the cave walls, many standing in front of the children as a living shield, their eyes showed wariness towards the witch.
"What do you want? You are not welcomed here." A few winced at the blunt and harsh way the chief treated the sorceress, but chose to remain silent.
"Oh don't be rude, I'll hate if anyone got hurt because you have the manners of half-starved mutts fighting for a scrap of meat," Morgana smirked; her eyes took on a glint as she took her time to look around. The druids shivered, none cared much for the way the witch's eyes shined, as if calculating the best way to slaughter them.
"We are followers of Emrys, threaten us, you threaten him."
Her eyes narrowed, "Emrys is nothing but a serving boy."
"And you fear him," Briec said, his voice firm. "Leave us now, witch, there is no need for bloodshed."
"I did not come here to fight, just to extend an offer," she sauntered closer, a predator approaching her prey. Around the chieftain, the druids tensed as she stood face to face with him. Briec took a half step back but otherwise stood his ground before Morgana, his eyes like steel as he met her eyes. "Join me, Briec, you and your people."
"And why should we?"
"Because I can give you something your precious Emrys cannot."
"Peace that of which we have never seen before is growing under the care of the King and Emrys. Even as we speak, there are druids that the Pendragon has accepted into the elites of Camelot with an extension of friendship. That is more than you can ever offer."
"That peace won't last," Morgana laughed, "Arthur is biding his time, for when he can do the most damage."
Briec shook his head, "How blind are you, Morgana? Arthur Pendragon poses us no threat, not anymore."
"But not his people," Morgana snarled; a smirk followed when Briec could not immediately give a retort. "You say I'm blind yet you are deaf to the cries of your own people. While your little friends play nice with my brother in Camelot, his people turn against our kin as one by one they foolishly reveal their magic."
"They will begin to accept us, they just need time."
"How much time? They have been given months and still we are prosecuted."
"And you have done the same when you sat on the throne, we can at least trust King Arthur for eventual peace."
"Under my rule, peace would have been achieved. Once Arthur and Emrys were taken out of the picture, I would have gotten the people of Camelot, of Albion, to accept magic."
"What, by fear?"
"By whatever means necessary!" Morgana snarled, causing a flinch from Briec.
"Then you persecute more people for a new thought they cannot comprehend. Your rule led us all to a second Purge"
Morgana's hand shot out and wrapped around Briec's neck, her eyes were like fire as hatred oozed from her olive eyes. "The people accepted magic; that is more than my dear brother is capable of ever doing."
"Leave now," The Druids voice wavered but his determined eyes left no room to argue, "I don't wish for the death of my people, but I will not stop them if they attack."
Morgana sneered and tightened her hand, causing the chieftain to choke. Then, she felt more than saw the hum of magic in the air as a few Druids began to approach, hand raised and readied to attack the sorceress. One last squeeze followed by a shove, Morgana turned on her heels, leaving the chieftain coughing on the ground as she glared at the people around, warning them to keep their distance. They remained, tense, in case the witch turned and attack them. It wasn't until after she left that they relaxed and convened around Briec, one helping the man back to his feet.
With her back to the group, Morgana did not notice when one man broke from the group and approached her. A cloak hung over his face, hiding his features from onlookers; he wore a sword on his belt and ratty leather armor. The scars that riddled it showed the experience the young man had in swordplay, surprising for coming from relatively peaceful druids. The rest of his clothes remained partially hidden by the dark, forest green cloak. He extended his hand and rested upon her shoulders, causing her to twist and raise her hand in anger, her eyes burning a furious gold as fire erupted in her palm.
"Release me, druid," she snarled.
The druid let go, his hand rose up to placate the witch before he reached for the hood of his cloak and threw it down. As the hood settled around his shoulders and Morgana took in the black curly hair and ice blue set into a pale face. The boyish features and the ease at which he stood, comfortable even as she threatened him, showed Morgana that he had just entered adulthood.
Familiarity radiated from the man in n intense wave; a nostalgia that brought her back reminiscing of her days in Camelot. She still remembered the way her heart beat, like that of a fluttering bird, when she laid eyes on the young druid boy. There was fear in her eyes every time she saw the little body shake with fever as he succumbed to an infection. The hate and anger she held, inconsequential compared to current times, grew as she struggled to protect the child from Uther. Together, she and her supposed friends succeeded in saving the boy, the boy who now stood before her, years later, as a young man.
"Hello Morgana," he said, sounding neither friendly nor threatening.
"Mordred," Morgana whispered in surprise, her lips curled into a smile. "Look at you, you've grown!"
Mordred smiled as well, if a bit forced, as he replied in kind, "It has been a long time since we last met."
"I thought you were dead, especially when you had not turned up during-"
"Your bout as Queen? I was in Mercia with a group of druids dodging King Bayard's patrols when you took over. I decided to stay with them longer than I normally do to make sure they were safe."
"So you have been surviving all these year jumping from group to group then?"
"For the most part, I find it is easier to survive when surrounded by people I can trust. Druids will always welcome one of their own."
"When people would rather tie you to a stake, I can understand seeking the druids."
"After several decades with stringent anti-magic laws, people fear sorcery. Much of the damage done during Uther's rule would take time to fix."
Morgana snorted and continued to make her way out of the cave, "That fear will be the end of us if there is no competent ruler to stop it."
The young druid followed her, shaking his head as he disagreed, "King Arthur has made strides towards peace. There are rumors that he is calling rulers from neighboring kingdoms into peace talks. We can already expect him to be lobbying for pro-magic laws to kingdoms whose treaties to Camelot were created under a mutual hatred of sorcery."
"He is a fool," Morgana laughed though without humor, "our kind are getting killed daily because they believe they have been freed. Camelot serves as a trap for sorcerers; they think that Arthur and his precious Emrys can protect them while all they do is sit back and watch the carnage unfold."
"You cannot force these people to accept magic, not after so long without it," admonished Mordred. "During the past months, both King Arthur and Emrys has amassed a large support for sorcery and even extended an offer amongst the druids and many others for allowing the best warriors into knighthood to bridge the gap between the knights and sorcerers Emrys leads."
"Then people will treat them as mud," the witch scoffed, "no matter what titles they hold."
"It is another step in the right direction. There are more people now than ever before allowing sorcery back into the land."
"But why wait, Mordred!" Morgana turned to the young man, her arms outstretched; her eyes burned with determination and fury. "Magic deserves to be free without care; that is what I want to achieve. You can join me Mordred, join me into finally creating a new world that our kin will be accepted."
"I don't think so," he said, somber. He looked at Morgana, his lips downturned. "I'm sorry Morgana, but I must agree with the route Arthur has chosen. I'm already prepared to leave for Camelot with a few others here to accept the invitation and join those at Camelot. I have faith that both the King and Emrys will succeed."
Her eyes narrowed, "Then you are as foolish as all the others."
"No. You are the foolish one, Morgana. You cannot use fear to stop the prejudice," Mordred said. He turned away from her and retreated to the cave, back to where the other druids were. He stopped before he went too far, and turned back to the witch, "Out of respect for our previous friendship and the debt I owe for my life, I hope you reconsider your stance on Camelot. If you act against the kingdom and her King, I will step in to stop you."
With that, the druid left Morgana, standing stock still at the mouth of the cave. She watched the man's retreating back, wondering if she could ever see anything but the boy she had knew him once as. Mordred was the last person she expected to run into and the last she thought would side with the likes of Arthur. It only saddened her that such a young mind could so easily be led astray.
"Bedyrne ús! Astýre ús þanonweard!" Morgana incanted, bringing a whirlwind around her that carried her far away from the druids. Once the magic settled and the wind died out, she found herself surrounded in the mist of the Isle of the Blessed. From within the ruins, she could make out the small camp; others who joined her cause.
With or without Mordred's help, the witch knew she must not allow anything to stop her plans. Even with the setback of not obtaining another group of druids, she knew it would only be a matter of time before she was ready and her plans could be set into motion. While he and that sect of druids refused to strike down the brutality of Camelot, the trip was not an altogether waste.
Information was a powerful weapon and Mordred had divulged quite a bit to her, unknowing the significance of his words. It seemed that her plans weren't entirely as impossible as she believed them to be, not when her dear brother made it so easy.
The man knelt before Merlin, glaring at the warlock as he waited for his fate. Behind the captive stood Gwaine and Percival who kept the man's arms pinned, ensuring he couldn't attempt to injure another while over the warlock's shoulder waited Leon, his eyes as concerned as his fellow knights as they carefully watched their friend. Merlin, however, focused on the restrained villager, his eyes unblinking as he stared down at the man.
"You killed a man in cold-blood," Merlin said, blunt.
"I killed a monster," the captive, Carac, sneered back, his eyes just as determined as the warlock's. He lifted his head up ever so slightly in pride.
"You confess to murder, then."
"Murder only involves the death of people, humans."
Merlin flinched; Gwaine's eyes narrowed and his grip tightened on the prisoner's arm, but stopped when the warlock lifted his hand towards him. The quick gesture eased the knight's grip but did nothing to lessen the pure hatred that painted his face. If the rogue knight could, the villager would be begging at Merlin's feet.
"So you killed him for being a druid," Merlin continued, "in front of his daughter no less. Do you know the punishment for murder?"
"I know the praises and rewards I deserve for ridding the land of such evils," Carac spat back. He struggled for a few seconds, trying and failing to shrug off the knights; however, it was hopeless, not with the determination the two had in keeping their prisoner in place. When the villager realized he could not break away, he chose a different tactic and twisted his head towards Leon and shouted, "Why the bloody hell am I being questioned by some servant? I demand to be released!"
Merlin restrained the smile from creeping onto his face rather aware of who everyone assumed he was. Since his promotion, the warlock had taken to wearing the finery of court only when propriety demanded him but otherwise stuck to his usual threadbare affair. He was far more comfortable with the garb and found the tendency most people had to underestimate him when he did not look the part of the Court Sorcerer to be as useful as it was during his days as manservant. Granted, he was not as invisible as he was in his days as a servant, especially not in the city, but he couldn't complain at any chances to stay out of the center of attention.
"He," Leon said his arms crossed as he glared down at Carac, "is the Court Sorcerer of Camelot. I suggest you treat him as such."
The effects were instantaneous. Carac flinched back against the knights, his face a mixture of horror and hatred as he processed just who stood in front of him. After a moment, he reined in his emotions and his sneer returned with even more viciousness than before. Whether or not he got over his fear enough to prevent him from attempting an attack on Merlin, both Gwaine and Percival weren't sure; they tightened their grip to ensure the man couldn't try anything.
"Then why am I speaking to such filth," he responded venomously, though he stared Merlin right in the eye.
"All things sorcery falls under my responsibility. Now answer this for me, aside from being a druid, what crime did that man do to warrant his death?"
He pressed his lips firmly together, stubborn against the known sorcerer. If he had his way, Merlin was confident that the blood-covered blade that laid paces away from their interrogation would already be sheathed in his own gut.
"I suggest you give me an answer. Did he do anything to force your hand, perhaps you had to defend yourself?"
'Yes," Carac snorted, "he dabbled in evil like all those other filthy druids. That child of his is no less than a demon in human skin. If Arthur Pendragon was anything like his father but the cowardly-"
"King Arthur is more than his father could ever hope to be and I suggest you refrain from insulting him further in front of me," Merlin said, his patience wearing thin. "You are in no position to argue the choices of others, not when your actions threaten the peace your King has been fighting to keep."
"No, I did the kingdom a favor. Peace will never be achieved, not with the corruption of sorcery tainting the land. If I could, I would kill you for what you are, monster," he snarled before he spat. The spittle landed against the warlock's cheek, though it did not elicit any reaction from him.
Merlin's face remained impassive as he straightened up and walked away, towards the small building that housed the recently orphaned girl. He did not care what happened to the man as he heard the struggle in what he assumed were the knights forcing the man to the village center. While they could bring him before the King, the time and effort to do so would be a waste, especially when Arthur had little time on hand. Better to allow the villagers to deal with one of their own and the knights would ensure the sentence was fair for both the victim and attacker. However, the verdict would be swift; the severity of taking another life only resulted in one sentence.
As he walked past Leon, the knight tried to stop him, his hand falling on his shoulders, already recognizing the mask Merlin wore that hid his roiling emotions below the surface. The warlock merely shrugged the hand off and continued on his way, he would rather put it behind him, just another victim for the struggle. It was not the first merciless killing brought on by prejudice nor would it be the last, yet each time it was more difficult.
Especially those words, those blasted words that threatened to undermine what little confidence he had in himself. Merlin clenched his hand, his skin turning white from the force as he reached the entrance to the house. He glanced to the horses tied to the post outside before looking to the shadows. Nothing yet, but he knew time was running out, he could already feel the panic seep into his veins, fighting to flood his systems. The words were all too familiar and he felt as if he could smell the rot that filled the damned dungeon or the cold blade bite into his skin…
He shook his head, just realizing that his fist rubbed against the scars that marked his chest beneath the thin fabric of his tunic, trying to ease remembered pain. He dropped his hand from his chest and clenched tight. His fingernails dug into the skin of his palm until it broke skin, bringing pain that helped root Merlin to the present so he may focus on the upcoming task. There was always time to deal with his personal problems, but he had to focus on the child the dead druid left behind.
He knocked softly against the door before stepping in at the sound of approval. The house was nearly as simple as his childhood home. It had two separate rooms, providing some privacy for the woman who resided in the home away from her business at the back of the house. Villagers often relied on local healers such as Beth to provide basic remedies and cares they would otherwise had to journey for in bigger cities. A stove sat in the corner with a small table and crude wooden chairs. To the opposite side of the room were a cabinet that held jars of herbs and ingredients the woman gathered and a small workbench with various equipment on top.
At the center there stood a simple wooden pallet for her patients that carried the wrapped body of the druid man as his young daughter sat on a stool beside him. Her hand clung to his cold hand while sobs wracked through her body. From what the warlock gathered, the two had arrived to the village looking for a new life proffered in the wake of magic legalization only to be greeted with senseless violence that followed the magical community as they continued to expose themselves to the people of Albion.
When Beth looked up from where she stood behind the druid, her hand resting gently against the girl's shoulder, she beckoned the sorcerer to go with her away from the mourning girl. Merlin followed the village healer to the back room, far enough away to keep from being overheard by the druidic girl.
"Does she have any family?" Merlin asked, hoping for the affirmative.
"No, just her father. From what I gathered, a bounty hunter captured her mother and took her to Camelot few years ago," Beth answered.
"Does she have anywhere to go?"
Beth nodded, "I can watch after her, I have an extra cot she could use and we still have contact with the druids they left if she wishes to return to them."
"Are there others like Carac that could threaten her? I'll rather not leave her ready for slaughter."
"There are a few disgruntled men still uncomfortable over the changes made," she answered, "but none with enough motivation to be a threat to her, not like Carac." She jerked her head to the direction of the living room. The warlock sighed at her words, wondering if he should ask but knew he would regret it if he didn't at least try to understand the actions of another.
"Years ago, before the Purge, he asked a sorceress to heal his sister. Unfortunately, the sorceress promised him his sister would survive but hadn't realize how far her illness progressed; in the end the child passed away. When Uther decreed that magic was evil, it convinced him that his sister died from sorcery."
"Watch over her then," Merlin said, "if anything happens, feel free to contact me in Camelot."
"Yes, Sir," she nodded.
"Call me Merlin," he responded.
Beth nodded, "Thank you Merlin, you're a good man."
The warlock gave her a small smile before he nodded his goodbye and made his way out the room and towards the exit. He was reaching for the door when a small, wavering voice called out to him.
Merlin looked at the door, tempted to just walk out and leave. The panic that had earlier threatened him was still there, waiting, for a moment of weakness. His restraint over such emotions was already spread thin. All it would take was a little emotional nudge to push him over the edge. Instead, he turned in place and gave her his full attention, waiting just as she had pleaded.
"When will it happen?" she asked, tears still falling from her eyes.
"When will what happen?" Merlin asked gently.
"The Golden Age," the girl murmured. "When will it happen, when can any one of us feel safe again?"
Merlin hung his head, trying and failing to come up with an answer that assured the girl that the world was not as vicious as she was led to believe. How could he assure her if he wasn't sure himself? Especially when her father's body laid stretched before her as the truth on the way of the world.
"I don't know," he said in a low tone, "but that doesn't mean it won't happen. People need time."
The warlock stepped away from the door and crouched before the girl. He met her eyes evenly, searching those large scared browns. After a moment he whispered, "I'm sorry for your loss, I wish I was here earlier to prevent it, but whatever you do, do not lose hope in the future."
With that, Merlin made his way to leave the house again, his fingers itching to riffle through his saddlebag for a certain flask. From the corner of his eyes, he thought he saw some strange movements that only quickened his escape. It was when he had the door open and was about to step out when the girl spoke again.
"He wasn't a sorcerer," she mumbled. "My father couldn't do magic worth a damn. That man just assumed since he was a druid."
It tempted him, to turn around and be that support this girl needed. He knew he should do more than spoken words to help the girl; however, he had nothing left to give, nothing but promises that even he wasn't sure was true. Imagined or not, he could feel the accusation the orphan shot at him as he left the house, unable to stomach the tragedy that befell the child, a tragedy that was no less easy as it repeated itself throughout the kingdom.
He stepped out into the sun and made his way down the side for the horses that were hastily tied to a post. With only four horses around the post, it was easy for Merlin to pick out the brown mare he rode on for the patrol. He walked beside the horse and reached for one of the saddlebags; it was also only when he was trying to unbuckle the strap of his bag did he notice the trembles had already started across his hand. With some difficulties, Merlin unclasped the strap and reached into his bag, pulling out a simple leather flask.
He walked to the side of the house, leaned against the wall, and slid to the ground with his legs folded close to his chest. As calmly as possible, Merlin pulled the flask open and brought it to his lips. With some hesitance, the warlock tilted his head back and drunk the concoction, struggling to keep the bile down. When he believed he drunk enough, he set the flask aside on the ground next to him, Merlin pressed his forehead against his knees, trying to steady his quickening breath.
The stench of dungeon was overwhelming and he could practically hear the scurrying feet of rats that often accompanied him during his stay. Phantom chains wrapped around his wrist and his body went cold. The sun beamed down on him, but he felt none of its warmth, not when his mind remained encaged inside the dark hole from months ago. Shadows pulsed around him, reaching for him yet unable to touch, not since he shielded against it with the repulsive potion at his side. It didn't seem enough, though, to prevent the shadows appearance.
He grimaced again when he took another swig, noting with concern the empty weight of the flask. He could only hope that it would be enough to get him to Camelot before his demons consumed him. Frozen fingers slid across the flesh of his neck, encircling him; ghost like tendril with all the intent but none of the weight to go through with the task. A whimper resounded by his ear, coaxing him to the dark; a mere whisper in the wind compared to the usual delusions that materialized without the potion's protection.
Curled up on the side of the home that housed the dead body of the most recent victim, trembling, was the last position Merlin wanted any of the knights to find him in, especially when that knight was Gwaine . He tensed when he saw the knight approach, ready for the questioning. Surprising enough, the knight didn't speak a word when he found the warlock, taking the moment to take in the pathetic condition Merlin allowed himself to descend before dropping down beside him, stretching back against the wall, face skyward as he watched the clouds.
"You okay, mate?" Gwaine asked his voice soft as his hand gestured to the warlock's trembling form.
"I'm fine," Merlin replied. The wavering of his voice combined with his disintegrated condition did nothing to convince Gwaine that he was anywhere near to this supposed fine. Merlin knew that his response was weak at best and it would only coerce Gwaine to dig further for the truth.
"Sure you are," Gwaine snorted as his eyes rolled, confirming Merlin's fear that the knight wouldn't back down anytime soon. "Don't make me go tell Princess you're lying to us again."
"Look, I'm as fine as I'll ever be," Merlin sighed. He leaned back as well, allowing his hands to fall into his lap, fiddling with the flask. He shivered once but forced his body to relax against the wall. "It's just some… things about all of this is getting to me."
""Enough to cause you to hide away with a flask?"
"It's just water."
"Yeah, sure it is," Gwaine retorted, "and I don't suppose you're willing to share some of this 'water'?"
"None left," Merlin shook the flask with a frown. With Gwaine present, he managed to divert the shadows further away out of pure stubbornness to keep from giving the knight more reason to be concerned. There was too much work to be done and he would rather have everyone focus on Camelot than him. That last sludge was all there was left in the flask; it would just fall unto Merlin to make do.
"Merlin, this is not the first time I've seen you with a flask. Whatever's in there, it isn't water and I've seen you nearly gag every time you drink from it." The knight turned to the ex-manservant, his hand grasping at his shoulder as Gwaine gave him a small shake, "You had that flask on you after the first patrol you went on. As much as you fooled most of those who were on that particular trip, those of us who know you best know better."
"It was nothing, I just-"
"No, that wasn't just nothing. You collapsed screaming, Merlin."
"I wasn't screaming," Merlin scoffed as he clenched his fist; his nails dug painfully into his skin. The shadows were closing in on him again.
"Perhaps not, but you were close to it."
Silence fell on the two, uncomfortable and tense as the knight waited for an explanation from his friend. From the corner of his eyes, Gwaine watched the warlock, waiting and hoping he would provide the answers he sought. The Court Sorcerer's lips remained sealed, not intending to divulge any of the secrets that Gwaine wanted to hear. It was all he could do not to outright yell and shake the man for his stubbornness, infuriated about being left in the dark as usual.
He was about to do just that when he noticed the other two knights returning from the village center, their lips moving in a conversation he assumed was on the villager they left to the mercy of his neighbors. If there was a chance he could get anything out of Merlin, Gwaine knew it would be gone once the others joined. Already he noticed the way the warlock retreated behind his mask, a mask that effectively hid the pain behind those blues. The knight wouldn't give up when it came to Merlin, but knew it was time to back off and give him time to think.
"Look, mate," he said as he pushed off the wall, stretching his arms out, his chainmail clinking, "you need to stop."
"Stop what?" Merlin asked as he too stood and faced Gwaine, his eyes daring the knight.
"Hiding," Gwaine said, blunt. He sighed and hung his head, his hands paced on his hips before continuing, "The time of hiding is over, Merlin. Unlike before, you don't need to hide away and pretend nothing's wrong. There is nothing to keep you in the shadows, nothing hanging over your head to threaten you. If what you're hiding causes you to need that," he nodded his head to the flask still in the warlock's hands, "then it is a problem that concerns not only me, but everyone else."
Gwaine walked to his horse, his hands already working to untying the reins from the post, "I guess we'll have to wait until you are ready to talk, just know that you got even Princess worried."
Leon and Percival arrived, keeping Merlin from spewing more excuses. Instead, the warlock joined the knight by the horses, quickly stashing the flask back into his saddlebags; he didn't need more knights questioning it, though he doubt Gwaine would stay silent on the matter. He ignored the conversation that continued behind him as he adjusted the saddle and untied the reins; he would rather leave this village behind him, push Carac from his mind and his victim. No need to mope over what was done or what would continue to happen, as much as he hated it.
Once readied, they all mounted their horses and nudged them onwards, heading in the direction of Camelot; the long journey left them yearning for the comfort the walls of the city would provide them. They were following reports from the kingdom's outskirt on movements of a group of sorcerers who had been causing trouble to the kingdom since the abolition of the anti-magic laws. Even with the extension of peace, there were still a few sorcerers, even druids, who had long memories and unforgiving hearts. Either they didn't trust Camelot's change in attitude or the damage done was too much for them to accept it. The added rumors that they were in cohorts with Morgana Pendragon did nothing to ease the fears Merlin had of the overall situation.
With the witch very much a threat to the kingdom, Merlin needed to pull himself together. He was the only one capable of dealing with her, the only one strong enough and he didn't need to be cowering in some corner allowing the shadows to consume him. Arthur and Camelot depended on him to keep Morgana at bay, and Merlin didn't want a repeat of last time. Distraction was the last thing he needed.
Those shadows were getting stronger, the victims of his past coming back in full to haunt him, even with the barrier the potion provided him. The longer he drank it, the more he needed to push back the images. It was becoming a less effective means to maintain his delusions; he was on borrowed time before the hallucinations reigned over his mind, something he knew would happen, when he discovered the concoction. Those books provided as much information on the matter.
The sun rose high over him as he mulled over his thoughts, already thinking of the chest that lay hidden in his chambers. No one needed to know of its existence, especially not Gwaine who was more than likely to prattle about it to the other knights. He would need to get to it as soon as they reached the castle; he could almost feel the pulsing from the shadows as their dark tendril tried again and again to form into his loved ones. The restraint he held to not scream out or hide was at its limit, all under the suspicious looks Gwaine shot at him; Merlin wondered if the knight would get a kink his neck for all the times he turned his head back. He hoped so, as petty as it was, since he was sure the knight was what coerced Leon to approach him.
"How are you?" Leon asked as he nudged his horse back to walk alongside Merlin. Ahead of them, the warlock caught yet another look from Gwaine.
"Have you spoken to Gwaine just now?"
"No, but those words weren't easy for you to hear."
"It's nothing new," Merlin sighed.
"True," Leon agreed. "That doesn't make it any easier."
"It never does, years under Uther's influence taught me that," Merlin said, his hand rubbing at the back of his head. "Don't worry."
Leon watched him for a second before he nodded and kicked his horse faster, to the front of the group. From up ahead, Gwaine glanced at his fellow knight, silently asking for answers, but Leon shook his head and shrugged as he passed. Next to him, Percival watched the exchange, as quiet as ever, knowing if Gwaine couldn't get anything from the warlock then he doubt he would be able to do much to help. Still, all the knights noticed how pale Merlin became after the confrontation with Carac and the ever present trembles as he clutched tightly onto the reins.
It brought Gwaine back to the patrol Merlin had first participated; back when the warlock had Gwaine tricked into believing he was okay. At the time, the sorcerer had been trying to convince Gaius he was well enough to help the King rather than forced to sit back surrounded by paperwork as he ordered sorcerers to take their roles under Arthur. When the physician grudgingly agreed, ha also ensured that the knights knew to keep an eye on the ex-manservant.
The patrol had started out normal, if a bit tense since they believed they were to find Morgana attacking a local village. The reports proved wrong, as many would, just people on edge so soon after Morgana's rule over the kingdom. They made sure that the witch was nowhere in sight before they left the small village and ventured back to Camelot. The entirety of the trip was made simple enough when the threat was a delusion born from paranoia; they simply had to return to the city and Merlin's first time out would be successful. If only they hadn't taken a break from their ride to sit by that lake.
The signs were there, signaling the unstable nature of the warlock. Gwaine put it to his recovering injuries when he noted the way Merlin flinched at odd moments or clench his fist when no one saw. No one thought much of any odd habits either, not when he developed them after his imprisonment. Avoidance of the dark, sudden freezes; the man hadn't even gone near let alone set foot in the dungeon since the day he was rescued.
Had Gwaine confronted his friend, would Merlin allowed him in to his secrets? The knight doubt it. That night, Merlin retreated to his chambers with no words of explanation. Not even Arthur could coax him out. He disappeared in those rooms for a day before he reemerged the happy sorcerer, as if nothing changed since his days as the King's servant, though the unusual tendencies he developed from imprisonment remained.
Now the knight watched the sorcerer, wondering when the man would finally admit the obvious and tell his friends what was going on behind those shivers. If he refused to let them in, Gwaine knew he would have to step in and force the matter, He was confident that the Princess would agree when they reached the castle again, especially once he hears that something had shaken Merlin enough to resort to drink. While Gwaine personally loved an excuse for a night on the mead, he couldn't sit back and watch his friend use it as a crutch.
Then to the Princess it was, and by the looks of the warlock, the faster the better.
The small group reached the walls of the city, where the guards nodded their greetings by the gate, while the sun made its slow descent towards the horizon. As they passed through the streets, Gwaine observed the various reactions and opinions of the people towards magic. While outside of Camelot, Merlin's garb showed nothing but a servant, inside the city everyone was familiar to the raven-haired kindhearted man. Most, months later, learned to accept the warlock, either greeting him with kindness and gratitude or turning their back, uneasy around sorcery but understanding the lack of threat Merlin posed against them.
What complicated matters, however, were those few who sneered behind the Court Sorcerer's back as they passed them. Though Merlin gave little notice to them, Gwaine still couldn't stop but glare at anyone who dared to disrespect the one they owed their lives too. Without him, the kingdom would be left in shambles years ago under the merciless whims of vengeful sorcerers. Few of the people noticed the knight's glare, too focused on their hatred to care who was around the sorcerer while other flinched and looked away.
Gwaine broke away from his glare as their horses marched into the courtyard, ready to grab Merlin to drag to Arthur. Before he could speak out, however, Merlin was already dismounting his mare and handing the reins to the nearest stable boy. He charged up the steps and disappeared behind the large oak doors, leaving Gwaine to share uneasy glances with Percival before he approached Leon.
"Leon," Gwaine called, "I'm going to report to Princess."
"You're going to report to Arthur?" Leon asked, his eyebrows rose in surprise. He searched the knight's face, looking for any signs of mischief the drunkard was known for around the King. After a few seconds, his face softened as he continued with a nod, "Report to the King then."
"Will do," Gwaine nodded with a terse smile. He left his friends to deal with his horse and strode into the castle. When he entered, he debated on following the warlock to where he assumed to be his chambers, but shook his head and turned to the direction of Arthur's chambers where he would most likely find the man busy over scrolls. As he traversed the maze of halls, he paid little mind to the servants that moved around him, lost in thoughts, until he reached the doors that led into Arthur's chambers.
As usual, the rogue walked in without bothering to knock, in part in habit as well as to irritate the royal. Upon entering, he found Arthur hunched over a desk perusing scrolls of what he assumed was on the logistics revolving around the upcoming visitors, as he expected to find the King of Camelot. The King looked up for a second before he continued looking over the parchments.
"How difficult is it to understand the concept of knocking," Arthur grumbled as he picked up his quill and scribbled some notes.
"Just keeping you on your toes, Princess."
Arthur sighed, "Seeing as you're here, where's Leon?"
"Not here, I offered to give you the report," Gwaine shrugged.
"Your sister is looking for allies," Gwaine responded, his arm crossed. "Within the boundaries of the kingdom, there has been four confirmed times Morgana approached a druid camp looking for supporters, several more rumored in other kingdoms. We also suspect she's approaching individual sorcerers."
"Anything on what she is attempting to do then?" Arthur asked as he set aside the scrolls to give his full attention on the knight. They needed to be prepared for when the witch made her next move if they wanted to keep her from taking the throne again.
"No," Gwaine said, grim.
"Of course," Arthur sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Good work, you're-"
"Not done with my report," the knight interrupted. When he was sure he got the King' attention, Gwaine continued, "We ran into a problem on the ride home."
"What problem?" Arthur asked, his eyes narrowed.
"Another druid was killed."
The King's reaction was immediate as he closed his eyes and placed a hand on his forehead, his elbow rested against the desk. Another casualty for peace.
"I assume you handled the situation and the one responsible was held accountable?"
"We handled the situation," Gwaine said, carefully choosing his words, "some better than others."
Arthur instantly looked back at Gwaine, unease settled in the pit of his stomach, "What happened out there?"
Gwaine approached closer to the desk, close enough to lean down and plant both of his hands on the surface as he stared down the concerned eyes of the King.
"Something the man said shook Merlin," Gwaine said, his voice low. "I found him huddled by the horses with a flask full of what I can assume is alcohol, maybe mead. Arthur, he's doing it again."
"Damnit," Arthur muttered under his breath to which Gwaine nodded in agreement.
"Last time I stood back and gave him the room both you and Gaius requested of me, and only because he needed to heal. This time, I won't be as distant."
"Fine," Arthur shot back, "but wait until I talk to him."
Gwaine shook his head, "With Samhain so soon and the added royals to cater, I doubt you would have time. Let me handle it."
"No," Arthur differed as he rolled the parchment and placed it neatly on the desk next to the quill. "He needs to deliver his report on the patrol anyways. I'll speak to him." He pushed away from the desk and made for the doors of his chambers where he stood for the knight to make his leave.
Gwaine stood by, observing the tired eyes and stress lines that marked his King's face. He vaguely wondered when the demands of running a kingdom would break down his two closest friends, but immediately shook the thought away. If there was anyone he knew who could handle it, it was Arthur and Merlin. Still, he would do as he said to the King; he wouldn't be the passive observer this time.
"Okay," Gwaine said, "but I'm still going to press him for answers. Whatever he's hiding, whatever's affecting him, I will find out. This is something that shouldn't be contained as long as he had and I'm tired of standing by, watching my friend destroy himself."
"Then we are in agreement," Arthur said quietly. "Merlin needs to realize that he is safe amongst friends."
AN: Well there it is, the continuation of Loyal 'Til the End. With how hectic both my life and this story became/is, sorry for the rather long wait. This will be regularly updated like Loyal in which it would be either every week or biweekly updates (I'll let you know when the next update will take two weeks), so don't worry too much on that.
So, I'm a bit iffy about this chapter, I had to rewrite it twice before I finally settled for this. There is a lot going on in the sequel, it just makes me head spin every time I think of what I have planned! Thank you all for your patience, it took too long to finally get this posted, especially since I wanted it done at latest two weeks after I posted the epilogue/prologue.
Next update will be July 30th, if it changes I'll let you all know on my profile
A side note on my other fic, the next update really has no set date since I can't seem to force myself to write it. I'll mostly update as the chapters get finished, but seeing as I only have 500 words of the next chapter, it won't be quick.
Let me know what you think, especially with Mordred o,O.
Reviews and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated!