Gwaine had thought that, under the cover of night, he and Merlin would have a chance.
A slim one, admittedly. Gwaine had no doubt that Morgana could use some form of magic to find them—from what Merlin had implied, the fact that she didn't know he was Emrys was the only thing that had really kept him safe—and he wasn't so foolish as to think that no one could see them if they looked. He just hoped they wouldn't be immediately reported to Morgana, because every second that they went undetected—or at least unreported to Morgana, because she was their biggest threat at the moment and Gwaine wasn't going to pretend she wasn't—was another second he could use to get Merlin to safety and, hopefully, to get Merlin well again.
But of course he hadn't counted on the dragon.
The great, big, bloody dragon that landed in front of them and practically filled the entire courtyard.
Gwaine stopped mid-step, backing up in a futile attempt to get out of the dragon's sight. But though all the torches had been extinguished on its landing, it had no trouble spotting Gwaine and the limp bundle of flesh he carried.
"Step forward, young man," the dragon said.
Gwaine, who was trying to remember if he'd known dragons could talk—really talk, in words spoken clear as day—found himself complying. He might have warmed up to Aithusa, but this dragon—how come there was another dragon?—was…more intimidating. And Gwaine wasn't easily intimidated.
But this was a dragon, and he didn't even have a sword.
Not that he thought a sword would be particularly useful right now.
The dragon blinked at him, moonlight staining its scales silver. Gwaine hoped that the fact that he was still alive now meant that the dragon wasn't going to eat him (because it was easily large enough to do that without any trouble) or fry him alive.
He was beginning to wonder if he'd be so lucky when the dragon snaked its great head down and its mouth hovered about three feet from Gwaine's.
He tried not to think about the dragon's teeth—particularly about their sharpness and their proximity.
That became a good deal harder when the dragon opened its mouth and Gwaine found himself staring into its great maw. He was beginning to wonder if dragons had some magic in their words, for he remained rooted to the spot, and he'd never been frozen in these sorts of situations before—when succeeding (and remaining alive) had depended upon moving, at least, since he hadn't been in this particular situation before.
Although, at the rate things were progressing, Merlin's life was in far more danger than his, and Gwaine was sick with himself for not shifting when he should.
At the blast of warm air, Gwaine wrinkled his nose and opened his eyes, glad that he had enough sense not to drop Merlin.
That became more difficult when Merlin suddenly moved.
Gwaine stumbled, Merlin squirmed, and they both ended up on the ground next to the dragon's forefeet—and its long, sharp claws.
Merlin groaned but sat up, blinking blearily. When he focused on Gwaine, the colour—recently returned as it was—drained from his face.
Maybe he'd finally realized he was sitting between the legs of a dragon.
Gwaine was grateful that Merlin was on his feet again—so to speak—but although the dragon might have helped them (and Gwaine wasn't going to question why at this point), it was still here, and that was too close for comfort.
"Merlin," Gwaine said, very quietly (even though that was all for nought, since dragons undoubtedly had keener ears than humans), "we need to move."
The words out of Merlin's mouth weren't the ones Gwaine had expected to hear, though he supposed they shouldn't have surprised him in the slightest: "Where's Arthur?"
Gwaine almost rolled his eyes. "Buying us time. Now come on." He moved to a crouching position and held out his hand. He'd drag Merlin behind him if he had to.
"How much do you know?"
"I think all of it, Emrys, but that doesn't matter now. Come on!" He used Merlin's other name—was it really another name?—to prove the point, to prove that he did know and didn't care, but it didn't spur Merlin into action at all. He just sat there, staring at him.
Gwaine heard an odd rumbling above them and realized the dragon was laughing. Then it said, "I highly doubt you know all of it, young man."
Merlin finally scrambled to his feet and Gwaine followed suit, eager to be away. But the dragon didn't seem to spook Merlin. He looked a heck of a lot more comfortable than Gwaine felt.
Merlin walked a few paces away but stopped before Gwaine had even caught up to him. He looked up at the dragon, and the dragon looked down at them—looking amused, Gwaine would imagine, if a dragon could look amused. Merlin swallowed, glanced at Gwaine, looked back at the dragon, and said, "Thank you." He hesitated, then added, "This is Gwaine, Kilgharrah."
The dragon snorted, but before Gwaine had worked out whether or not that had been a normal response for a dragon, it said, "Sir Gwaine. The strong one."
Gwaine, who thought of Percival as the strong one, looked at Merlin and wondered how the heck he knew the dragon.
Merlin looked a bit more uncomfortable than before, but he was putting on a brave face Gwaine could see through only because he knew Merlin so well. "Strength and Magic," Merlin said softly. "That's what Grettir called us." At Gwaine's blank look, Merlin added, "On the bridge at the edge of the Perilous Lands, not long before he changed your sword into a flower for threatening him."
Gwaine definitely hadn't remembered that that was the guardian's name, if he'd even known it, and he couldn't recall any mention of magic, though he had a vague memory of the guardian saying something to him about strength that hadn't made sense. But somehow he wasn't the least bit surprised that Merlin knew so much. "And you were Magic because you can practice it?"
"Because I was born with it." Merlin glanced up at the dragon again as if expecting a contradiction, but the dragon didn't give one. "My magic's…part of me."
"And that's why you're so strong?"
Gwaine and Merlin both looked immediately to the dragon—and Gwaine wished it hadn't noticed that he'd jumped, but he had a horrible feeling it had. "Now's not the time?" Merlin guessed. Before the dragon could even answer, he continued, "I wanted to ask you about Aithusa. How long has she been with Morgana? You told me a white dragon would bode well for Camelot, for the future!"
The dragon didn't seem fazed by Merlin's thinly veiled accusations. "There is time in the world yet, young warlock."
Merlin huffed, as if such responses were usual—how could any responses be usual?—and turned back to Gwaine. "What's Morgana done?"
Gwaine stared at him. "Since she stabbed you, you mean?"
"I'll be all right."
"But she stabbed you."
"Merlin," the dragon said again, clearly not wanting to be ignored. Merlin looked back at it, and it continued, "You once asked me to keep out of sight from the town, yet you called me here."
Merlin cocked his head. "I didn't want Arthur to find out he hadn't actually slain you. You know that. Besides, it took you a while to arrive, didn't it? Longer than usual."
"Merlin," Gwaine hissed, thinking it would not be particularly healthy to anger the dragon.
Merlin ignored him, as did the dragon, who replied, "Your earlier command still weighted my wings, and you did not come to meet me as you usually do."
Gwaine glanced at Merlin and raised his eyebrows—did he usually meet a great, big dragon?—but Merlin wasn't looking at him. "Morgana stabbed me," he said, repeating Gwaine's earlier words as if that explained everything. "And I still need help. Aithusa defended me against Morgana on her own once, but I've no idea if she'll do so again. It's dangerous for us both, and Morgana would have talked to her. I didn't even really want to call you here—Aithusa's done enough damage, and the people around here don't have fond memories of your attack on Camelot—but I could see what Morgana was planning, and I knew I'd need the help, especially if Morgana was going to keep watch on Aithusa. But I couldn't just tell Aithusa to find you when I don't—"
"I understand your situation, young warlock."
Merlin shook his head as if in denial of the dragon's words. "I need to be certain, Kilgharrah. I can't just forbid Aithusa from seeing Morgana again; I know it's not that simple. I've been around you long enough to know it's never that simple, because there are ways around broad commands like that. But I can't just have Aithusa helping Morgana again. She may not, now that she knows more, but she still genuinely cares for her, and I don't even…." He trailed off. "I still don't even know why she's helping, but if they're working together, Morgana might…." He shrugged helplessly.
Gwaine knew how Merlin felt. He didn't want to lose. From what he'd understood, the last time anyone had seen Morgana before she'd turned up again here, she'd been wounded. Mortally wounded, they'd thought, and she'd come back stronger than ever.
They were having enough of a struggle trying to best her this time. If they only narrowly managed to defeat her now and she came back again, just as improved from this time as she had been from the last….
It wasn't a pleasant prospect.
The dragon said nothing for the longest time, merely considering Merlin. "Remember what I've warned you about," it said, as if it knew something they did not. It sounded ominous enough to give Gwaine a bad feeling, at any rate. "I will speak with Aithusa."
The dragon spread its wings, and Merlin began, "Kilgharrah—", but it took off before he could say another word, letting out a great roar that nearly rattled Gwaine's bones and would no doubt be heard far beyond the lower town.
Gwaine looked at Merlin for a moment. "That normal?" he asked, knowing Merlin would know him well enough to know he didn't mean the beast's call but rather their previous conversation and its abrupt departure.
Merlin sighed wearily. "For Kilgharrah? Better than, actually. Maybe he likes you, seeing as he agreed to help so quickly."
From Merlin's tone, Gwaine figured they probably shouldn't press their luck and hope for any more help from the dragon. Not unless they really needed it, since it sounded like Merlin didn't like asking either of the dragons—this one and, from what Gwaine had gathered, Aithusa—for anything unless it was absolutely necessary. He knew there was more to it all; it almost sounded like Merlin's commands couldn't be outright denied, if they could be completed grudgingly and not particularly well, as long as Merlin did not abuse his privilege—however he'd managed to get it—to give those commands. Still, Gwaine was just thankful that Merlin was on his feet, though as far as he was concerned, the dragon had offered them little help beyond that. "You look dead on your feet."
Merlin shrugged and offered a weak smile that told Gwaine in no uncertain terms just how weary his friend really felt. "Guess getting stabbed takes a lot out of you." Then, no doubt reading the concern on Gwaine's face, he added, "I'll be all right. Kilgharrah's helped me through worse."
Gwaine decided not to ask what was worse than getting stabbed and almost dying.
Merlin turned and started back inside the castle, but Gwaine caught his arm. "Where are you going?" he asked. "We need to get out of here."
Merlin shook his head. "I've got to help Arthur."
"I promised Arthur I'd get you out of here," Gwaine reminded him.
Merlin snorted. "You also told me he's being a prat and trying to sacrifice himself to Morgana so we can get away. I'm trying to protect him, Gwaine. It's no good for me if he goes and throws all that away."
Gwaine chuckled. "Should've known you wouldn't give up that easily." He clapped Merlin on the back. Merlin stumbled, and Gwaine's concern returned with full force. Merlin wasn't nearly as well as he pretended—certainly less chipper than Gwaine had been after Aithusa had done the same for him as this other dragon had for Merlin, though Gwaine would admit he'd been putting on a bit of a front himself.
Then again, Gwaine had no idea how long he'd been out before coming to. Aithusa had been close enough that she'd have been breathing on him anyway, whether or not there was still any magic in her breath.
"Are you strong enough to take on Morgana?" Gwaine asked quietly.
Merlin took a deep breath to steady himself and nodded. "Have to be, don't I?" Gwaine frowned, and Merlin added, "You're helping me, you know. Not just in the throne room or getting me out to Kilgharrah. Right now. You know the truth about me, Gwaine, and you're not even looking at me any differently. You have no idea how much that means to me."
If Gwaine had had any doubts about Arthur's behaviour, that statement vanquished them. The prat. "You're still you. All I found out is that there's more to you than I ever saw." Merlin grinned, and Gwaine felt obliged to put in, "Mind you, a few explanations wouldn't go amiss. Like why you didn't tell me earlier. Or how you know the dragon."
"Later," Merlin promised, still smiling broadly. He took a few more steps, and when Gwaine didn't immediately follow him, he looked back. "Coming?"
Gwaine smirked. "I can't very well let you go off on your own, can I?" In a few strides, he'd joined Merlin and they disappeared back inside.
He'd ask Merlin more about the dragon later. Along with a number of other things. Right now, they had more important matters to attend to.
The world around Mordred resolved itself again, and he found himself facing the white stone walls of Camelot's castle.
It had been many years since he'd been in this particular room, but he recognized it: it had once belonged to the lady Morgana.
From the looks of it, she'd claimed it again. He hadn't thought, given how much she was reputed to have changed, that she'd be so sentimental. He wouldn't have been surprised if she'd made remarks about the past choking her, smothering and stifling and holding her back.
He was rather glad she had returned to these particular chambers, however. It gave him hope for her. He had never liked to think of her so changed from the woman he had known.
Mordred was quick to leave Morgana's chambers, although he wasn't certain where to go. To Emrys would be the logical choice, of course, but Mordred wasn't particularly keen on the meeting, for all that he wanted it. Emrys didn't like him. Mordred doubted that had changed since they'd last crossed paths.
Still, if he was intent on answers, better he find Emrys than Morgana.
Mordred honestly didn't know if he was being ignored, but he had little choice but to carry on anyway. And he supposed he ought to remember to call Emrys by his given name at all times, even when their conversation would go unmarked by others. He never had been wholly comfortable with the name Mordred knew him by. And as it was an easy enough thing to ensure that his voice was not overheard by Morgana, he'd not give the warlock further reason to dislike him.
Still Mordred received no response. It meant little, really. Emrys—Merlin—had taken to ignoring him even when he'd been a child. Mordred was quite convinced Merlin had meant to leave him with Arthur to be caught in the tunnels, that he'd only turned up at the last possible moment because Mordred had pleaded with him. He'd been terrified that day.
He had still trusted Merlin after that, however. Perhaps not as much as before, but he hadn't been certain that Merlin meant him ill until he'd tripped Mordred up, used his magic in an attempt to allow Uther's men to capture him and—
But Mordred was not here to help Merlin; he was here to help Arthur, to repay the debt he owed the man who was now a king. And if he had to find Camelot's king without Merlin's help, then he would do so. The greatest difficulty would be avoiding the lady Morgana.
Especially since there was a part of Mordred which didn't want to believe that she was so changed from who she had been.
The Crystal of Neahtid…. He'd learned something from that experience. He did not trust as blindly as he once had. While he had not known Alvarr's full plan at the time, he'd learned of it afterwards. Like Alvarr, Mordred had not wanted to live in fear, to be banned from passing through Camelot. He'd found it unfair, though he'd since learned that that was the way of life. But he thought Alvarr's actions rash.
What Morgana was doing now was little different, however. She also sought to assassinate the king, to destroy Camelot and rebuild it. Yet Mordred knew more than he'd told Guinevere, and he wasn't so sure Morgana was giving the king the credit he was due. Arthur was not blindly following Uther's ways. No doubt under Emrys's—Merlin's—guidance, he was making changes.
Surely Morgana could see that?
A deep, powerful roar reverberated through the castle walls, jarring Mordred from his thoughts. He had no doubt what creature had made it. He'd heard rumours about the survival of a couple of dragons despite the belief in Camelot that they had all been slain. He'd never seen proof of such himself until now, but he had never truly believed they were gone.
Still, that didn't explain why they were here. He'd heard that one had allied itself with Morgana, but the stories he'd heard spoke of a small dragon. A young one, certainly not the creature that had let out such a thunderous bellow.
Mordred picked up his pace, certain that Emrys—Merlin, he had to remember to call him Merlin—was involved somehow. But when he rounded the corner, the person he nearly collided with was Morgana.
Mordred stumbled backwards; Morgana didn't move. She fixed him with a searching look, studying his face. "Mordred," she said at last. Her tone was even, holding only the faintest trace of surprise, but she hadn't been able to completely school her expression.
Something had spooked her, and Mordred knew exactly what it had been. He doubted there was a soul around who could have anticipated the dragon's call—with the possible exception of Merlin. "My lady," he said, dipping his head.
With all he had heard, Mordred had expected Morgana to look different; she didn't. She held herself with the same regal bearing she always had, and she looked scared. Perhaps she would have done a better job of hiding it from others, but she never had with him. He'd always been able to see right through her.
She looked so little changed from the woman he remembered. It was heart-wrenching to think of what she had been driven to do.
"Mordred, you have to help me," Morgana implored. She didn't ask him why he was here. She didn't ask him where he had come from, when he had even arrived. She asked him for what she needed most: his help. "Emrys is going to destroy me," she whispered.
Mordred did not doubt the sincerity in her voice.
Despite himself, he could not doubt her claim, either.
Emrys held no more liking for him than he did for Morgana. Emrys—Merlin—would do anything for King Arthur, and Mordred had little doubt now that that included killing for him, if he deemed it necessary.
And he would see Morgana's death as necessary.
Mordred swallowed the vile taste that rose in his throat. "Emrys will protect Arthur to his last breath."
Morgana stared at him for a moment longer. "And you?" she asked, her tone bitter. "Have you come to betray me as well?"
"Of course not, my lady," Mordred said, the words spilling out of his mouth on their own accord. He hesitated, then admitted, "But I owe Arthur a debt, for he once saved my life as did you."
Morgana's mouth twisted. "You owe him nothing," she spat. "Arthur may have saved you once, but he has hunted you down far more often. Do not think he has changed his ways. He seeks to fool you all."
Mordred shifted on his feet. "Arthur does not appear to be his father. He is making allowances Uther would never permit."
"Mordred," Morgana repeated, "you do not have the connection with this kingdom that I do, but surely you understand what I seek to do? I wish to bring magic back to Camelot. That will never happen under Arthur's reign, however many allowances he makes to appease your people."
Morgana's words were said with such scorn that Mordred was beginning to see how she had changed. "Arthur is the Once and Future King, Morgana," he said. "He is meant to reign, to be a great king. Emrys will make sure of that. I've known the stories since my childhood."
Morgana's eyes narrowed. "Do you also know Emrys, then?" Mordred couldn't find his tongue, and she continued, "And do you have enough faith in your childhood stories to condemn me to my death by keeping your silence? I never thought I would meet my fate after being turned away by you, Mordred. I thought…." Her voice hitched, and Mordred's heart caught because she sounded so broken, and he had never heard her sound that way. "I thought you felt as I did, that we sought the same and would never need to work against each other."
"I do not mean to," Mordred said, for he had no more wish to see Morgana dead than Arthur; both had helped him when he'd needed it, and neither had yet betrayed him. "But what you seek to do, Morgana— Do you not see? Emrys wishes for the same! Magic will be brought back to Camelot."
"Have you already forgotten how Arthur has hunted you down?" Morgana demanded. "Mordred, magic can never flourish under his rule. Perhaps Emrys—" and she said the name with such a sneer that Mordred wondered if she had any respect for him at all, though she must if she'd feared him so "—is trying to guide Arthur, but he cares little for the likes of us. He did not help me when I needed it most, when I was desperately trying to understand my own power, and he did not help you when you needed him."
Mordred said nothing, for Morgana wasn't really wrong; all the help Merlin had given him in the past would have counted for nothing if the warlock had succeeded in seeing Mordred captured by the king's men.
Morgana snorted derisively and added, "And the boy, Merlin. He is nothing next to us, yet he is the one Emrys favours." Morgana saw Mordred's wide eyes and misinterpreted the root of his surprise. "Yes, the fool has a small amount of magic. Imagine, one of Arthur's most loyal servants—a sorcerer!"
Warlock. But Mordred did not correct her now, either.
"He works in vain if he believes Arthur will forgive him so easily," Morgana continued. "Arthur won't look at him the same way once he knows the truth. Past loyalty counts for nothing. You will fair no better, Mordred, now that you have grown into your magic. Arthur will turn you away, refuse any help you might give him, because he sees you as tainted with magic."
"He may have changed, Morgana, under Emrys's watch."
"Arthur will never change," Morgana spat. "You are a fool to believe otherwise. Even Emrys cannot know my brother as well as I. If Arthur were ever willing to accept magic, then we would not stand where we do now."
"But if he were willing?"
"He isn't. And it's a pity we'll never know how things might have been if he were." The words were said with such venom that Mordred doubted Morgana lamented Arthur's stubbornness as much as she pretended. "Choose who you stand with, Mordred, and choose well. You'll not have a chance to change your mind."
Morgana swept past him, confident either that he wouldn't attack or in her own skill if he did.
Mordred opened his mouth before he realized what he was doing and said, "That was a dragon, you know."
Morgana stopped and turned back to him, though she made no move to rejoin him. "Yes," she agreed, her voice drained of its hatred and leaving her again sounding helpless, broken. "And it wasn't Aithusa. I know all her calls. This one…." Morgana hesitated. "It wasn't her."
Mordred wondered if Morgana suspected what he did, if she wondered if the call had come from the last great dragon that Uther had kept imprisoned beneath Camelot. Since its escape, the tale had circulated, reaching even the ears of the Druids.
But not all of the Druids had been convinced Arthur could slay the dragon so easily, even those who had come to believe that he was the Once and Future King.
But even if it were, one thing certainly did not make sense: the dragon would never help Camelot. Dragons rarely allied themselves with anyone. That Morgana had forged an alliance with the one she called Aithusa was surprising enough. But for another dragon to come to Camelot?
Mordred would never have expected it.
And Morgana…. Morgana clearly hadn't expected such a thing, either. Yet Mordred didn't need to ask her to know that she believed Emrys was behind it. He could understand why she felt that way, of course; Merlin was the only one who had the power to oppose her, the only one who had consistently worked against her.
But dragons…. Mordred hadn't thought even Emrys could control dragons. Of all the times he'd met Merlin, Mordred had never sensed that power within him. It was a rare, distinctive power, ancient and misunderstood, even among the Druids. Mordred had always felt Merlin's power. He'd recognized him as Emrys because of it. But he did not think him capable of this.
Dragons were not easily controlled. They were fiercely independent creatures, fickle more often than not—at least in their dealings with humans—and rarely fond of action that did not benefit them. Those who had dared to seek their counsel in the past were met with riddles.
Well, riddles or flames.
But then Uther had sought to slay all the dragons and wipe magic from the land. He'd imprisoned the last dragon as a prize. Mordred's people had withdrawn into the shadows. Sorcerers foolish enough to blatantly stand against Uther had met their deaths. It had been a bleak time.
By the time Mordred had truly begun paying attention, the whispers of Emrys had been plentiful. The thought that the sorcerer had come at last had brought hope, been a light in the darkness. Mordred had been eager to listen to the stories of what Emrys would do. He'd been thrilled when Emrys had helped him.
And he'd been crushed when Emrys had betrayed him, hurt beyond measure that Emrys had turned on him without due reason.
"I shall never forgive this, Emrys," Mordred had vowed, "and I shall never forget."
He wanted to know Merlin's reasoning, if there was any to be had. He wanted to understand. He would never forget. He doubted, at this point, that he could forgive. But he needed to know.
Morgana had told him to choose his side and to choose well, but he could not do so until he spoke with Merlin.
"Emrys has many secrets," Morgana said softly. "I fear my ignorance of them will be my undoing, yet I will fight to my last breath. I do not want to see any harm come to you, Mordred, but if you stand against me, I will not hold back. I cannot afford any weakness." She held his gaze for a moment longer, and then she turned away again.
Mordred watched her go, his thoughts churning.